Originally published in 1988, Living by the Word is a collection of Alice Walker’s writings between 1973 and 1987. Described as “passionate, political, personal and poetic” by Los Angeles Times, the essays cover everything from Alice’s experience with filming The Color Purple to her thoughts on pollution and nuclear war.
Below is her essay “The Universe Responds: Or, How I Learned We Can Have Peace on Earth.” Keep reading to discover Alice’s thoughts on how humans interact with animals, plants, and the universe.
To some people who read the following there will seem to be something special or perhaps strange about me. I have sometimes felt this way myself. To others, however, what I am about to write will appear obvious. I think our response to “strangeness” or “specialness” depends on where we are born, where we are raised, how much idle time we have had to watch trees (long enough at least to notice there is not an ugly one among them) swaying in the wind. Or to watch rivers, rainstorms, or the sea.
A few years ago, I wrote an essay called “Everything Is a Human Being,” which explores to some extent the Native American view that all of creation is of one substance and therefore deserving of the same respect. I described the death of a snake that I caused and wrote of my remorse. I wrote the piece to celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I read it first to a large group of college students in California. I also read it other places, so that by summer (I had written it in winter) it had been read three or four times, and because I cannot bear to repeat myself very much, I put it away.
That summer “my” land in the country crawled with snakes. There was always the large resident snake, whom my mother named “Susie,” crawling about in the area that marks the entrance to my studio. But there were also lots of others wherever we looked. A black-and-white king snake appeared underneath the shower stall in the garden. A striped red-and-black one, very pretty, appeared near the pond. It now revealed the little hole in the ground in which it lived by lying half in and half out of it as it basked in the sun. Garden snakes crawled up and down the roads and paths. One day, leaving my house with a box of books in his arms, my companion literally tripped over one of these.
We spoke to all these snakes in friendly voices. They went their way. We went ours. After about a two-week bloom of snakes, we seemed to have our usual number: just Susie and a couple of her children.
A few years later, I wrote an essay about a horse called Blue. It was about how humans treat horses and other animals; how hard it is for us to see them as the suffering, fully conscious, enslaved beings they are. It also marked the beginning of my effort to become non-meat-eating (fairly successful). After reading this essay in public only once, this is what happened. A white horse came and settled herself on the land. (Her owner, a neighbor, soon came to move her.) The two horses on the ranch across the road began to run up to their fence whenever I passed, leaning over it and making what sounded to my ears like joyful noises. They had never done this before (I checked with the human beings I lived with to be sure of this), and after a few more times of greeting me as if I’d done something especially nice for them, they stopped. Now when I pass they look at me with the same reserve they did before. But there is still a spark of recognition.
What to make of this?
What I have noticed in my small world is that if I praise the wild flowers growing on the hill in front of my house, the following year they double in profusion and brilliance. If I admire the squirrel that swings from branch to branch outside my window, pretty soon I have three or four squirrels to admire. If I look into the eyes of a raccoon that has awakened me by noisily rummaging through the garbage at night, and acknowledge that it looks maddeningly like a mischievous person—paws on hips, masked eyes, a certain impudent stance, as it looks back at me—I soon have a family of raccoons living in a tree a few yards off my deck. (From this tree they easily forage in the orchard at night and eat, or at least take bites out of, all the apples. Which is not fun. But that is another story.)
And then, too, there are the deer, who know they need never, ever fear me.
What I have noticed in my small world is that if I praise the wild flowers growing on the hill in front of my house, the following year they double in profusion and brilliance.
In white-directed movies about the Indians of the Old West, you sometimes see the “Indians” doing a rain dance, a means of praying for rain. The message delivered by the moviemaker is that such dancing and praying is ridiculous, that either it will rain or it will not. All white men know this. The Indians are backward and stupid and wasting their time. But there is also that last page or so in the story of Black Elk, in which his anthropologist/friend John Neihardt goes with him on a last visit to the Badlands to pray atop Harney Peak, a place sacred to the Sioux in the Black Hills. It is a cloudless day, but the ancient Black Elk hopes that the Great Spirit, as in the real “old” days, will acknowledge his prayer for the good of his people by sending at least a few drops of rain. As he prays, in his old, tired voice, mostly of his love of the Universe and his failure to be perfect, a small cloud indeed forms. It rains, just enough to say “Yes.” Then the sky clears. Even today there is the belief among many indigenous holy people that when a person of goodness dies, the Universe acknowledges the spirit’s departure by sending storms and rain.
Related: 10 Impactful Books By Diverse Voices
The truth is, in the country, where I live much of the time, I am virtually overrun by birds and animals—raccoons, snakes, deer, horses (occasionally). During a recent court trial at which a neighbor and I both happened to find ourselves, her opening words of greeting included the information that two wild pigs she’d somehow captured had broken out and were, she feared, holed up somewhere on my land.
But at least, I thought, my house in the city is safe.
One night after dinner, as some friends were leaving my house, I opened my front door, only to have a large black dog walk gratefully inside. It had obviously been waiting quietly on the stoop. It came into the hallway, sniffed my hands, and prepared to make itself at home, exactly as if it had lived in my house all its life. There was no nervousness whatsoever about being an intruder. No, no, I said, out you go! It did not want to go, but my friends and I persuaded it. It settled itself at the door and there it stayed, barking reproachfully until I went to bed. Very late that night I heard its owners calling it. George! they called. George! Here, George! They were cursing and laughing. Drunk. George made no response.
I suddenly realized that George was not lost. He had run away. He had run away from these cursing, laughing drunks who were now trying to find him. This realization meant the end of sleep for me that night as I lay awake considering my responsibility to George. (I felt none toward his owners.) For George obviously “knew” which house was at least to be a stop on the underground railroad, and had come to it; but I, in my city house, had refused to acknowledge my house as such. If I let it in, where would I put it? Then, too, I’m not particularly fond of the restlessness of dogs. The way they groan and fart in their sleep, chase rabbits in their dreams, and flop themselves over, rattling their chains (i.e., collars and dog tags). George had run away from these drunks who “owned” him, people no doubt unfit to own anything at all that breathed. Did they beat him? Did they tie him to trees and lampposts outside pubs (as I’ve so often seen done) while they went inside and had drink after drink? Were all the “lost” dogs one heard about really runaways? It hit me with great force that a dog I had once had, Myshkin, had undoubtedly run away from the small enclosed backyard in which he had been kept and in which he was probably going mad, whereas I had for years indulged in the fantasy that he’d been stolen! No dog in his right mind would voluntarily leave a cushy prison run by loving humans, right?
Or suppose George was a woman, beaten or psychologically abused by her spouse. What then? Would I let her in? I would, wouldn’t I? But where to put George, anyway? If I put him in the cellar, he might bark. I hate the sound of barking. If I put him in the parlor, he might spread fleas. Who was this dog, anyway?
George stayed at my door the whole night. In the morning I heard him bark, but by the time I was up, he was gone.
I think I am telling you that the animals of the planet are in desperate peril, and that they are fully aware of this. No less than human beings are doing in all parts of the world, they are seeking sanctuary. But I am also telling you that we are connected to them at least as intimately as we are connected to trees. Without plant life human beings could not breathe. Plants produce oxygen. Without free animal life I believe we will lose the spiritual equivalent of oxygen. “Magic,” intuition, sheer astonishment at the forms the Universe devises in which to express life—itself—will no longer be able to breathe in us. One day it occurred to me that if all the birds died, as they might well do, eventually, from the poisoning of their air, water, and food, it would be next to impossible to describe to our children the wonder of their flight. To most children, I think, the flight of a bird—if they’d never seen one fly—would be imagined as stiff and unplayful, like the flight of an airplane.
But what I’m also sharing with you is this thought: The Universe responds. What you ask of it, it gives. The military-industrial complex and its leaders and scientists have shown more faith in this reality than have those of us who do not believe in war and who want peace. They have asked the Earth for all its deadlier substances. They have been confident in their faith in hatred and war. The Universe, ever responsive, the Earth, ever giving, has opened itself fully to their desires. Ironically, Black Elk and nuclear scientists can be viewed in much the same way: as men who prayed to the Universe for what they believed they needed and who received from it a sign reflective of their own hearts.
I remember when I used to dismiss the bumper sticker “Pray for Peace.” I realize now that I did not understand it, since I also did not understand prayer; which I know now to be the active affirmation in the physical world of our inseparableness from the divine; and everything, especially the physical world, is divine. War will stop when we no longer praise it, or give it any attention at all. Peace will come wherever it is sincerely invited. Love will overflow every sanctuary given it. Truth will grow where the fertilizer that nourishes it is also truth. Faith will be its own reward.
Believing this, which I learned from my experience with the animals and the wild flowers, I have found that my fear of nuclear destruction has been to a degree lessened. I know perfectly well that we may all die, and relatively soon, in a global holocaust, which was first imprinted, probably against their wishes, on the hearts of the scientist fathers of the atomic bomb, no doubt deeply wounded and frightened human beings; but I also know we have the power, as all the Earth’s people, to conjure up the healing rain imprinted on Black Elk’s heart. Our death is in our hands.
Knock and the door shall be opened. Ask and you shall receive.
Whatsoever you do the least of these, you do also unto me—and to yourself. For we are one.
“God” answers prayers. Which is another way of saying, “the Universe responds.”
We are indeed the world. Only if we have reason to fear what is in our own hearts need we fear for the planet. Teach yourself peace.
Pass it on.