At a recent public hearing in Eugene, Oregon, a developer defended his proposal to build over a hundred houses on a steep slope with a history of landslides even though he knew little about this aspect of the site. He asserted he did not need to know. He would just alter the land to fit his needs as he went along. He opined, for instance, that he could engineer a network of retaining walls to keep the houses he built from sliding off the hill.
To this developer it did not matter how little he knew about the land he sought to develop—since he saw it as a blank slate on which he could carry out whatever designs he had for it. To him the slope of the hill, its slippery clay soil, its earthquake history, were all things he could erase as he went along– as easily as he could bulldoze the Douglas fir forest on this site to get it out of the way.
In practicing his “blank slate” development that rendered irrelevant the natural characteristics and natural life of the land, our developer was only following historical precedent. On certain beaches in southwestern Washington and northwestern Oregon, levies must hold back the sea, since the high priced homes perched on the beach front are prone to falling in at high tide. In southern California areas recently ravaged by fire, houses were built on hills next to the updrafts of chaparrals that maintained their ecology through burning.
We have built our major cities on flood plains in the Pacific Northwest, necessitating huge dams upriver. Native people had a different tact: they too knew that living by the river on fertile river bottom land was a great thing—in season. In high water times you would find them in their permanent villages, on the hills, above the flood line.
But we civilized folks weren’t into moving to respond to nature as if it were a living thing. Whites would rather chew through a mountain than go around, Chehalis elder Henry Cultee remarked in 1975. His son Richard Cultee told me there was a joke among the Skokomish people: “We knew whites had arrived when we woke up one morning and the river was moved.”
In the historical development of the Pacific Northwest, indigenous life—human and otherwise—was treated as if it were only so much chalk dust whose writing didn’t have to be read before it was erased. Some Northwestern pioneers recorded such views for posterity with embarrassing irony. As he relied on Indian labor to help him survive, one pioneer and his family in the Willamette Valley camped under a tree. From his meager shelter, this pioneer decried the savage abodes of his Indian neighbors (they lived in planed wood houses sixty feet in diameter), and asserted that they were soon to be wiped off the land anyway– to be replaced with such civilized fixtures as a tavern.
Perhaps he was imbibing already, but Father Blanchet, missionary in southwestern Washington when Portland was just a “mud hole”, likely wasn’t. Blanchet’s journals related his glowing vision of the bustling commerce that would replace the “lonely huts of the Indians”. He neglected to mention that one of those “huts”, near the present day Rochester, Washington, was over 200 feet in length: horses were raced inside in the winter games.
In Blanchet’s “lonely huts of the Indians”, I am most taken with word, “lonely.” I cannot imagine a more lonely existence than that of the man who finds the world empty of everything but his vision for remaking it.
This loneliness is more wrenching even than the loneliness for the life of a world to share our lives. It is loneliness for a lost part of ourselves.
We have inherited this notion along with the idea of the developing the land from scratch: the notion that we can and should reshape ourselves into socially acceptable forms. Naomi Wolf likens this to being trapped inside the Iron Maiden, an instrument of medieval torture in which the victim was locked inside a misshapen metal body.
One who sees nature as capable of being remade without constraint will see our own bodies (especially women’s bodies) in a similar lens, as illustrated by the harrowing “reality” TV show, “extreme makeover”, in which individuals are physically “made over” with the ample application of plastic surgery. Those who consent to be treated as if their own bodies were blank slates to be carved up, reshaped and thus “improved” are the human version of the nature we also attempt to erase and remake.
We are nature as surely as is the land we remake–no matter whether we see this for good or ill. But if our current environmental crises teach us anything it is that when we attempt erase nature what we really succeed at is erasing ourselves. It is a bald fact that if we destroy the sources of our sustenance, we are going out with them.
I am not saying that we should never change the natural world: we change it with every breath we take. But change is not the same thing as disturbance–and certainly not the same thing as obliteration. We might choose to partner with the life we find on the land, to design our human actions so that, as innovative architect William McDonough has put it, the creatures of nature recognize us as family when they look upon the things we do.
We might give up our impulse to treat our world as if it were only the vision of our own desires– and the terrible loneliness that flows from this.
Another kind of development is possible, one that avoids the blackmail line that we cannot have jobs and a clean environment: great research here on the real effects of development subsidies and alternatives that support working families.
You are welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008, Madronna Holden. Feel free to email me if you wish to use or copy it.
Filed under: Ecofeminism, Environmental ethics, environmental philosophy, Environmental psychology, Land use, Our Earth and Ourselves, worldviews Tagged: | Ecofeminism, environmental philosophy, negative development, violence toward nature