Volume 11: Editor’s Note — Gratitude & Greed

by Michael Wojtech, Editor

“There is no calamity like not knowing what is enough.”
—Lao Tsu

On a late winter afternoon I watched the sun set from the shore of a local lake. Everything was basked in the golden hue of horizontal sunlight. The red twigs of a dogwood flamed, and the melting lake ice turned the forest into an impressionistic reflection. As I studied the details around me—white pine, with bundles of five long needles; black cherry, with mature bark that has the look of burned cornflakes—other features of the forest became apparent. I noticed otter tracks heading down the hill. I found husky wood chips from an ironwood tree felled by beavers, and discovered an old chestnut stump that hinted of the history of this land.

I had typically discounted the natural world around me, instead longing to visit seemingly grander, wilder landscapes like Patagonia or Alaska that I had read about in books and magazines. When I did spend time in my local woods it was always with a destination in mind. I would pass by plants without wondering about their identity. I snubbed opportunities to investigate the source of rustling leaves on the forest floor or a deer trail through the mountain laurel and blueberry. That afternoon at Lake Fitzgerald, the wealth of my local landscape was enough to satisfy my longing for wild nature.

Lao Tsu infers that we may avoid calamity through knowledge of sufficiency. As this issue of Whole Terrain explores the meaning and implications of gratitude and greed, the common thread running through the thoughts of our contributors is a consideration of the role of mindfulness. At the heart of this contemplation lies the question “How much is enough?”

Webster’s correlates greed with the desire for wealth, but it was not material goods that I had been searching for. What is greed, and what is its source? Heidi Watts describes the devastation due to over-fishing. However, greed is less easily defined by the preoccupation with simple possessions that Charles Mitchell describes, or by the customer “saved from the cordons of remorse” in Ethan Gilsdorf’s poem.

Greed has been characterized as a type of fear in which we discount what is before us, afraid of missing the opportunity for something more, something better. John Van Ness suggests that a concentration on the journey, rather than the destination, can leave us with “less appetite for everything.” Slowing down and noticing the details helps us see previously hidden layers. Stephanie Kaza advocates “Practicing with Greed” as a way to develop this self-awareness.

By learning to focus our attention we develop our inert capabilities for acknowledging and giving thanks for what we have. Mindfulness can foster gratitude for the unacknowledged, as with artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s appreciation of those that handle our waste; or for the unexpected, such as Robert Michael Pyle’s description of the sudden appearance of an abundance of fritillaries. Many contributors express the value of awareness and appreciation through connections to water and the sea—fishermen, codfish, watersheds, fishing communities, salmon. April Newlin demonstrates the connection to Surplus and Scarcity, the theme for the last issue of Whole Terrain, by expressing her gratitude for a profusion of coquinas on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Sometimes our sense of mindfulness dwells on the negative. Paul Krafel invites us to counter this tendency by instead participating “fully and joyously” in the world around us. Becoming aware also enables us to broaden our perspectives. Peter Temes helps us to consider the aspirations of the poor, and Lewis Hyde prompts us to investigate the gratitude and greed in our communities and in the institutions that govern them.

Answering the question “How much is enough?” can be integral to successful environmental work. Laird Christensen reminds us that mindfulness is needed to help teach “the lessons of restraint.” What limitations are needed to prevent the depletion of fisheries? How can ecological and recreational needs in our forests be balanced against desires for economic growth? At times there are so many questions, and so few answers, that we can be left feeling demoralized. It is here that the strength of gratitude must prevail. It is what primes the pump when the well seems to have all but gone dry; a sense of gratitude restores hope.

On that late winter afternoon, as I sat in relaxed contemplation, a beaver surfaced, slapped its tail on the water, and then disappeared. As I watched ripples move outward in concentric rings from where the beaver had been, they reminded me of my own journey outward in search of sufficiency. When I noticed them rebound off the lakeshore and head back to where they started, I again saw myself following the flow of water. This time I was headed back toward the center, toward a mindfulness that could leave me feeling gratified with what I already had.


Michael Wojtech, a student in the master’s program in environmental studies at Antioch University New England, is concentrating his studies in conservation biology and on the art of communicating about science and nature. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife Kira, and his dogs Sophie and Quinn.