Saturday, November 12, 2016


As I read in the Times that a "climate contrarian" will now lead the EPA ("contrarian"? he's a "climate change denier"!) I am filled with a new despair. I had thought there was some kind of intelligence at work in DT, however fitful and unmoored, however callously closed to human community. This proves a prideful, vengeful ignorance is in charge. To anger, fear and shame add a deep sadness. Who are these willfully destructive people? How are they possible?

I've been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, a chapter each night before bed. (Sleep is beyond my control.) Tonight's describes the way the Native peoples of the Pacific northwest used to set the fields atop cliffs alight to signal to the salmon returning from their time in the ocean to spawn, part of a ceremony celebrating the relationship of fish and people which continued with four days encouraging the salmon heading upstream, before any are caught for human consumption. Yearly burnings have made a strip of prairie on bluffs which would otherwise be dense forest, prairie which survives the destruction of the Native peoples by smallpox and measles in the 1830s.

Kimmerer describes walking out into that prairie, from the forest.

Before I knew the story, before the fire lit my dreams, I would have hiked here like everyone else, snapping photos at scenic viewpoints. I would have admired the great sickle curve of the yellow sand spit enclosing the bay and the lace-edge waves riding up the beach. I would crane around the knoll to see how the river cuts a sinuous silver line through the salt marsh far below [...] 
Before I knew the story, I would have written some field notes, consulted my field guide about rare plants, and unpacked my lunch. [...]
Instead I just stand there, tears running down my cheeks in nameless emotion that tastes of joy and of grief. Joy for the being of the shimmering world and grief for what we have lost. The grasses remember the nights they were consumed by fire, lighting the way back with a conflagration of love between species. Who today even knows what that means? I drop to my knees in the grass and I can hear the sadness as if the land itself was crying for its people. Come home. Come home.
There are often other walkers here. I suppose that's what it means when they put down the camera and stand on the headland, straining to hear above the wind with that wistful look, the gaze out to sea. They look like they're trying to remember what it would be like to love the world.
Braiding Sweetgrass, 247-48

I'm bawling as I copy these words from her book.

I've stood gazing out to sea that way. And it was, yes, a trying to remember what it would be to part of the world, loving and being loved by it the way Kimmerer shows Native peoples were, attuned to the life cycles of the plants and animals with which they shared the world, ensuring a mutual flourishing she calls the "Honorable Harvest" (175-201) - taking only what is given, and giving back, in mutual care?

I'm taken back to the start of her book:

One otherwise unremarkable morning I gave students in my General Ecology class a survey. Among other things they were asked to rate their understanding of the negative interactions between humans and the environment. Nearly every one of the two hundred students said confidently that humans and nature are a bad mix. These were third-year students who has selected a career in environmental protection, so the response was, in a way, not very surprising. They were well schooled in the mechanics of climate change, toxins in the land and water, and the crisis of habitat loss. Later in the survey they were asked to rate their knowledge of positive interactions between people and land. The median response was "none."
I was stunned. How is it possible that in twenty years of education they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people and the environment? Perhaps the negative examples they see every day - brownfields, factory farms, suburban sprawl - truncated their ability to see some good between humans and the earth. As the land becomes impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision. When we talked about this after class, I realized that they could not even imagine what beneficial relations between their species and others might look like. How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like? (6)

Can we learn to value each other without knowing we are part of a world which values us?

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