Early June this year. I’m on the far northern California coast, carefully negotiating a steep, rocky path down to the ocean. To my right is the Klamath River and its delta. As I descend to the beach, my goal is visible—a large sea lion colony on a wide sandbar where the river meets the sea. Scores of huge adults are basking on the sand, while young ones clumsily flop around at the water’s edge. At the seaward end of the sandbar, a continuous parade of the ungainly animals slides in and out of the ocean. Once they start swimming, these creatures become graceful, relentless predators. The salmon are running, and the sea lions are efficiently grabbing them and gulping them down. A huge, sleek male swims parallel to the shore just 10 feet from me, his enormous head periodically popping out of the water as he snuffles and gargles. I’m close enough to see traces of fish blood in his whiskers.
I saw other colonies while I was on my recent trip, including a colony of cliff swallows. Dozens of their jug-shaped, mud nests were jammed together under an overhang, and the agile birds were flitting in and out, feeding their young on the fly. I also admired colonies of lichen on massive boulders in the desert, with the sunny side of the rock sporting bright orange lichen, while the colors on the shady side faded into yellow and green. And in the towering northwestern forests, I witnessed aspen and alder groves springing up to quickly colonize any open space where a big tree had fallen.
What is a colony? Naturally, the first definition in any dictionary is something like this: “a country or area under the political control of another country, typically a distant one, and occupied by settlers from that country.” After a few more definitions involving terms like “possession” and “dominion,” we find that the root word of “colony” goes all the way back to “cultivate, to prepare and use land for crops or gardening.” Then, finally, we arrive at the biological definition: “a community of animals or plants of one kind living close together.”
So it’s no wonder that the legacy of colonialism is so shameful and destructive, when the very word comprises pernicious human-created concepts like control, dominion, and using for human benefit. For thousands of years, colonization anywhere on Earth has typically been devoted to building safe, productive places for the arriving settlers to live and profit, while disregarding the impacts on the wild world and on the land’s original human inhabitants.
But Gaia’s way of colonizing—which she is involved in continuously, everywhere in the natural world—is obviously based on something completely different. This is hinted at by the word “community” in the biological definition. A Gaian community, by its nature, is based on inclusion, diversity, reciprocity and mutual thriving. The ideas of possession, control and dominion have no place here, and, in fact, their presence would quickly make any natural community go awry.
In contrast to the human-centered model, Gaia’s colonization is always based on these underlying questions: What will benefit all the life here? What kind of system can the totality of this place—the rain and wind, soil and rocks, plants and creatures—sustain and be sustained by?
Sometimes I wonder if, instead of virtuously distancing ourselves from anything to do with “colonizing,” we need to turn this whole thing on its head. Let’s re-colonize Gaia, not as human supremacists, but as members of Gaia’s community. Indigenous peoples, including our own ancestors, lived this way their entire lives.
With the lifeweb so torn and weakened, any recolonizing we do must involve strengthening this web in all ways, physical and spiritual—mostly not through our mind’s ideas, but under the tutelage of the beings of the Sacred Land. This strengthening process must consistently incorporate, not inequality and exploitation, but balance, reciprocity, continuity, and inclusion. These principles arise naturally in our generous green hearts, hearts that know that in Gaia’s vibrant, dynamic world, there is always enough of what’s really important, for every species, every watershed, every estuary—and even for us when we become colonizers in Gaia’s name.