It’s Earth Day, but I’m thinking of it as Thank a Muskrat Day.
I recently was introduced to Muskrat, or rather a muskrat, who lives down the road and swims back and forth in the stream between lakes. I was looking for Mink when I first noticed the trail of water that followed a small face and eyes just above the water surface. Once I figured out what, or rather who, he was I saw him more regularly—swimming under docks, diving underwater with his long tail, carrying up plants to eat on a log.
Shortly after, I started reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which opens with the indigenous origin story of Skywoman Falling and the creation of Turtle Island*. While I was generally aware of this story, I was surprised and delighted to discover in Kimmerer’s telling that little, unassuming Muskrat is its hero (in my opinion).
At the time, the world is covered in water. As Skywoman falls down to it, she is caught by Geese who place her on top of a great Turtle. All the diving and swimming animals—Loon, Beaver, Otter, and more—take turns venturing into the water’s dark depths to try and bring some mud up from the bottom to create (or recreate) the earth for Skywoman. Some never return.
Only Muskrat succeeds at last, mud clenched in his little hand, and loses his life in the process (no!). The mud is placed on Turtle’s back and the world is reborn as Turtle Island, where we in North America live today. (Thank a turtle today too.)
The story is about creation, but also sacrifice, gratitude, reciprocity…and I kept getting stuck on the magnitude of the animals’ sacrifice and a lack of fairness. True, Skywoman brought great abundance to all through the earth, but my cynical side kept considering the status of our earth today, and tallying up its winners and losers. I wanted to cry out to Muskrat and the others “We’re not worthy!”
Gifts require gratitude though, and I realized I had it backwards. Instead of eco-despairing and focusing solely on what animals, nature, and the earth have lost due to us (a lot), I could focus on their sacrifice and gift, and on gratitude and reciprocity.
“What can we who recognize the debt possibly give back?” asks Kimmerer in another essay. It’s not meant to be a rhetorical question, but an active, ongoing questioning of our actions—what we ask for, what we take, what we give. We need to be equal to the gift, and the creation of earth is an immense one.
Muskrat, Turtle, Loon, Beaver—I had pictures of most of these creation characters (dare I say heros?). Earth Day seemed like a good day to share and honor them as we consider how to repay our debts.
*There are various versions of this indigenous origin story, with the central theme being the creation of the earth, or North America, on the back of a great turtle. Check out Kimmerer’s book for her telling. I found The Canadian Encyclopedia informative as well. “Turtle Island” is also the name of the Pulitzer-Prize winning book of poetry by Gary Snyder, whom I was lucky enough to hear do a reading once at my college.