Our Plant and Animal Elders

It is not only fallacious but imprudent to insist that humans are at the top of a natural hierarchy. In fact we are among the youngest and most fragile of species—and our place in the natural world is comparatively shaky. As a Siletz student of mine recently noted, plant and animal species that have been here so much longer than humans are rightfully due the respect given to our elders.

The non-human elders with which we share our ecosystems carry the ancient memory of life in their bodies, a memory that tunes them to their environment. This is something we sorely need to relearn. Without such knowledge, moderners accept life in places that have replaced and devastated natural systems. Such places smell bad, cause us difficulty in breathing, foster an atmosphere of alienation and violence—and certainly do not enliven us as do natural spaces inside and outside of cities. Such places are numbing–sometimes they are even purposefully engineered to be disorienting (as our shopping malls)–since market research that indicates we buy more if we are off balance.

Sustainable traditions, like the ones that endured for 10,000 years in the Pacific Northwest, treasured such bodily memory—even as they treasured their elders of all species. Chehalis elder Henry Cultee told me his ancestors were fond of saying, “The eyes of the world are looking at you”. The many eyes of the non-human world, that is. In turn, the way those “eyes” saw you and judged your heart would determine your longevity. Here “survival of the fittest” is based on the human fit in natural ecosystems.

This is a striking standard by which to judge human actions: attributing their moral guardianship to our non-human elders. It is both a profound and pragmatic idea. The young upstarts on this planet that we are have much to learn from our non-human elders who have endured here so much longer than ourselves.

This standard protects us from the impulse to clear cut an ancient forest or wipe out another species or its habitat– for it understands that is tantamount to destroying a library before we read the books. To lose our non-human elders is to lose their knowledge of survival. It is also, as the Chehalis words indicate, to lose an essential moral competence.


You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008, by Madronna Holden.
Feel free to contact me if you wish to use it. Thanks.

93 Responses

  1. I believe this passage holds the very key to what is missing from society today. “Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard”. ~Standing Bear~ This quote describes what has happened to our society. We have forgotten how important our forests are and how important it is not to let animals go extinct. We can obtain a variety of knowledge from nature if we just step back from our busy lives and listen to what it is telling us. We need to be in a partnership with nature rather than being in opposition with it.

    Great Post!
    Thank you

  2. Thanks for a heartfelt comment with insight in it as well, Lindsay. The post here, “The Mice in the Sink and Us” concurs with your point.

  3. My first thought after I read this si that will the human elders ever have the history and wisdom that our non-human elders do? It does not seem so to me. It seems like the more ability that you have to reason, the more ability you have to harm. As always, we should listen more to our elders-all types and less to the greed driven human need to conquer the unknown.

  4. We have a village of sparrows who’ve taken up residence in the deep, tall hedges by our driveway. They chatter constantly, until one of us walks to the garage. Then, dead silence. I wonder what they’ve been saying and why they stay so quiet until we cross an invisible line that tells them it is safe. I’ve spoken to the earthworms as I gently cover them with soil while weeding the garden. I think it takes a quieting of spirit to hear, but we’re not so distanced that we can’t reclaim the ability.

  5. Lovely response, Kate. Thanks for sharing it. I heard the opposite from the owners of Wolf Haven (in Washington State). They said that after visitors came through, the wolves would howl back and forth as if trading gossip on them.

  6. Hi Kelly, I agree with you that our intellect gives us the power to harm. I also think (if we look at this in the most hopeful fashion) we might feel that it gives us the responsibility to take care in our actions as we carefully evaluate their consequences.

  7. I really like your metaphor of losing the library before we’ve read the books. I would even take that idea one step further and say that it is also like losing the church before we’ve heard the sermon. For many people, interaction with our non-human ancestors not only gives us wisdom, it provides a sense of peace and understanding about our relationship to God. That’s why the loss of these areas is so devastating to some. I know for the millions of animal lovers out there, the thought of innocent animals suffering for our sins is overwhelming. If we are to take advantage of the lessons of the natural world, we must adapt our spiritual framework to express the ‘moral competence’ reflected in our natural heritage. Hopefully, we will realize the importance of our non-human elders before it’s too late.

  8. It is true that humans are new to the game of life, speaking in form of time on this Earth. We learn from our parents usually, they are the wisdom we usually are taught. Why does it stop there? It should go far beyond and with proper documentation. I am sure there are stories linked to many cultures that respect nature and animals equally that are positive. If an animal goes extinct, it affects many more in the line up also. Missing pieces to the puzzle will eventually lead to our own demise. It is about time to be more considerate and holistic.

  9. The relationship of humans to other species on this planet is like that of a school bully. Through our technology and tools we are capable of imposing our ways on all other life (including some of our own kind) without anything checking our actions. Just because we can do something does not mean that we should. We people, as a whole race, are slowly realizing this and adjusting accordingly. I think we are now at a time of paradigm shift and the last harbors of the old thinking are slowly starting to be chipped away, but it is slow because they run deep within our systems of government and society in general.

    • I think your analogy about humans being like the “school bully” among other natural creatures is an apt one, Michael. Isn’t that what we learned as young children-the difference between what we SHOULD do and what we could do? I think (and hope) these old attitudes get chipped away asap.

  10. I found this post interesting, however, I don’t entirely agree that humans are at the top of the “natural hierarchy.” I see nature (both human and non-human) as more of a mutually dependent relationship rather than a hierarchy. Without our non-human counter parts we would die, without the respect and care of humans environments can be destroyed. I think this balance is a very important factor in sustainability and I do agree that we have a lot to learn from nature.

    • Hi Karen. Thanks for the comment. You have summed up the major point of this essay! And if there is any “hierarchy” based on age, for instance, humans would be somewhere near the bottom, not the top, according to this view.

  11. Each day as I ride my bike to school it is mortifying to see the surplus amounts of beer bottles, fast food garbage, and other various types of trash strewn everywhere due to the latest party that had taken place the night before. What is so unreal for me is how people can be so insensitive to a part of our world that is absolutely essential to the very idea of life. Humans have put themselves at the top of the food chain because has been a developed sense of superiority that has made humans believe they are invincible. Consequently, if humans don’t face reality and pay attention to their actions then it would not be such a surprise to see our world literally give up on life. In many cultures the teaching of respect toward one’s elders is commonality and the outcome in doing so produces positive benefits; in the case of the natural world one should expect the same. As long as we respect, care, and pay heed to our own actions, then the sustainability of our earth could be far more lasting. Living in the moment is most certainly fun in certain cases, but it is important to remember that we still need to think of how our actions might be affecting the earth and ourselves. In the case of the copious amounts of trash produced by various parties, those people involved need to become aware of the detrimental damage they are inflicting upon the earth. By no means am I saying not to party, but it should be remembered that the trash we produce and scatter is disrespectful to our greater natural world that willingly gives so much to us.

    • Just as the trash by the side of the road offends you– in its statement of the carelessness of those who throw it there, Erin, I think there are some other things to consider here. Not only the thoughtlessness of those who litter, but the way we somehow associate having a good time with not having to care about our effects on the world. And in one way, I’m not so such it wouldn’t be better to keep all our own trash where we constantly see it rather than having it carted off to somewhere else. Some of the most dangerous trash in our world is the least visible– as in chemical wastes.
      Thanks for your comment!

  12. Market research “indicates that we buy more if we are off balance.” Well, that explains a few of my more aberrant purchases, but makes me wonder what we might do if we were in balance. I’ll probably misspell this, but there was a wonderful film some years back called ‘Koyaanisqatsi – Life Out of Balance’ that showed our crazy urban lives, compared and contrasted with not-so-crazy lives and places in the natural world. No dialogue; in fact, I just learned that the entire movie is on YouTube.
    I’d like to achieve some balance. It may require some changes.

    • Thanks for your comment, Patrick. This film is actually one of three–there is a series of them. Warning: after watching this you may find yourself repulsed by walking cement streets.
      And did you mean to post this comment somewhere else? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with this particular post.

  13. This is the second essay with the quote from Henry Cultee, “The eyes of the world are looking at you”, so I think I have to say something about it that I thought the first time I read it in the other essay. I think he is right. Many people say that when they are out “in the woods” they often feel like they have someone looking over their shoulders, and this can be sort of a frightening feeling. The quote above is another way of saying that feeling. Many people, especially those that are not familiar with nature, say the feeling can be eerie and make them feel uncomfortable. Maybe if these people had more of a connection to the natural world, and realized that the eyes of the world are always looking at you, they would just feel connected and at ease. Realizing that everything on earth has a soul and is alive, and should be respected, can take away that eeriness because when you know that those eyes aren’t looking at you in order to frighten or scorn you, but are looking in mutual admiration and respect, your souls can connect and be at ease with eachother.

    • Thoughtful analogy with our own experience, Matt. This was certainly an important saying to Henry Cultee. I very much like your interpretation here; certainly it is time to act in such a way that the multiple eyes of natural life DO see us with mutual respect. It is a good observation that if we feel that those eyes look at us in a way that is frightening it may well be the result of our own alienation from the natural world- and in particular, the ways in which our actions make us misfits within that world.

  14. I liked the students’ perspective about how much longer plants and animals have been around. Humans are infants when compared to some plants and animals. We should be showing them respect the same way we show our grandparents respect however, we don’t because we feel that we are the dominant species but plants and animals are showing us how vulnerable we are. Deforestation has contributed to global warming which could lead to significant problems for us. If we would show old growth forests more respect for their beauty and history instead of trying to cut them all down we would have much more scenic forests. We are at the mercy of mother nature and all of the plants animals, whether we want to accept it or not is either going to lead to our demise or allow us to prosper.

    • Very thoughtful comment, Mitch. I think it is a given that global warming will lead to significant problems for us if we don’t address it and quickly. I like the way you stress not only the importance of respect but that of joy– in the beauty of such “elder” trees and their ecosystems.

  15. I always thought survival of the fittest was a strange concept. It reminds me of a cutthroat kind of mentality, something I never particularly cared for. Survival of the fittest kind of brought to mind a foot race, with everyone trying to trip each other so that then they can be the first and only to cross the finish line. Unfortunately, without others, our joy diminishes it seems. It makes me thing that we should all be working together, encouraging each other to finish that particular race so that then we can gain joy from it and go on to the next.

    • Hi Jennifer, thanks for your comment– it also applies well to the essay here on “Misusing Darwin”. There are so many ways in which we are all in the same race– if we take time to realize it!

    • I like the modern replacement for survival of the fittest with natural selection, where a variety of things such as; survivability, the ability to reproduce and the ability for spawn to survive are important in how long species survive. I think this knowledge of how species survive shows well how living a balanced life is important. This is a balanced life where energy consumption is used in moderation so that species conserve their energy as best as possible while protecting themselves.

  16. Wonderful post, Dr. Holden.

    When we are young we are encouraged to ‘step outside of our own shoes’ so that we can see the other person’s point of view. In essence, this mantra is important because it gets us out of our own head and our own selfish perspective, and enables us to understand where others are coming from and consider ideas other than our own. I am reminded of a passage in Suzuki and Knudtson’s, “Wisdom of the Elders,” which talks about the ‘med mesign’ or ‘different eyes’ of various species. Each specie is equipped with its own individual methods and sensory strategies for navigating life, and various species can be simply viewed as different types of consciousness. No perspective is superior than another, just different. If we can step in other species’ shoes, so to say, an empathy and respect for our non-human elders will be given.

    How beautiful and necessary it is then to apply this way of thinking to our place in the history of the natural world. We should be humbled by our novel appearance on the Earth and respect the longevity with which non-human animals have thrived here. We have much to learn from them, and are only beginning to discover what valuable lessons and medicine different species have to offer. It is tragic that we will be witnessing the largest mass extinction of species ever recorded during this century. Like you say, it’s like burning down a library before the books have been read. Unfortunately, it will be too late to recover the immense store of knowledge that will be lost in the form of entire ecosystems.

    • Perceptive response, Natalie. I like your emphasis on perspective and what it can teach us! We only make ourselves smaller by limiting our perspectives to those of our own species.

  17. “The non-human elders with which we share our ecosystems carry the ancient memory of life in their bodies, a memory that tunes them to their environment”…this statement makes so much sense of events that you read about briefly in the news but pay little attention to. You read about things like animals racing away from an area hours, even days before a natural disaster occurs – for instance, the 2005 tsunami that devastated the Indonesian islands. It is known that animals fled the shore for higher ground hours before the tsunami hit. Common sense would tell you that these animals must have felt something that alerted them to the danger that was imminent, yet rather than exploring this further, we choose to sink millions into predictive tools to alert us mere minutes before the disaster strikes. It’s very interesting that people find it so easy to dismiss something that they do not understand and prefer to “invent” something new when the answer may be lying right in front of them. This is an area in which indigenous cultures are light years ahead of us.

    • I appreciate your responses, Maria. It would obviously take some shift in our worldview to be able to learn from non-human animals. But, as you point out, there is much to be said for this approach.

  18. It really does make you wonder what miracles we may have missed out on by cutting down a forest. It’s plants that supply our medications. So did we miss out on the cure for cancer or many other diseases? Why does the human species have the intelligence that we have? Is it going to destroy us or save us? Maybe both. There is so much to learn from the non-human creatures and plants. Many people do study them, and then write books about it. Many more people need to do this, not so much as to write a book about it, but maybe a journal that we can hand down to our children, so that maybe they will be curious and see what they can learn by observation and do the same thing for their families.

    • Great perspective, Judilyn. We only stint ourselves by wiping out so much potential wisdom-and we do need more learning passed on about more than human life in its natural environs.

  19. This is an awesome essay. I totally agree that respect for the non-human elders should be expected not begged for. Human elders can kick our behinds if we show a lack of respect and like most kids I got my fair share of correction but it is harder for our non human elders to correct us when we do wrong. It’s just wrong for the non human elders to have no one to stand up for them with the strength to make any appreciable difference.

    Not having lived in a rural environment for the bulk of my lifetime, I don’t really have a lot of insight into how to treat the elders other that what I’ve just read in your essay. The only time in my life that I spent in a rural environment was when I was in the south and a friend of mine’s dad had a farm. We would spend summer vacation on the farm throwing the bales of hay onto the back of a flatbed pickup from sun up to sun down to earn our dinner. The animals were all free range before it became a fade to free-range. It was just the most profitable to have nice, fat animals.

    As far as our non human elders in their natural environment, I’m afraid I have NO experience and know only what I have been learning in this class. What I feel from what I’ve learned so far is that there is too little power in the hands of those in the know or who care and too much in the hands of those who don’t. How can that change when the ones in power use the easiest ways to continue to make the money that makes the politics go round without care for who or what is damaged along the way?

    • Thank you for the compassionate response: thoughtful point about how we get “corrected” in our misdeeds with respect to animals. Native writer Paula Gunn Allen, in her partnership view, says that who are our partners simply leave this life (go extinct) when we do not fulfill our part of the relationship. Then, of course, we lose all the potential learning we might from these other beings.
      I think you are right, Cendi, about the fact that our society puts too much decision-making power in the hands of those who central value is profit rather than care–and not enough in the hands of those who do care. I have been impressed with the fact that “partnership” ethic societies also tend to link nurturance and power: that is, those who have the most power in the society are the nurturers. Couldn’t hurt us to go back to that ethic if we really want to reward those who give us what we want in terms of health, environment, and personal well being.
      You can do your own part in this by only purchasing meat for your family’s consumption that does NOT come from “factory farms” and purchasing cosmetics that are not tested on animals.

  20. Many of us don’t have the luxury of learning from elders. Sure, we learn to be respectful to others, don’t talk with your mouth full and the like. But we have no way to carry on tradition. I think that was lost long ago, if we even had the luxury of it at all. We take so much for granted, and all the time feel that nature is here for us. Nature was here long before us, and will be here long after we are gone. That is, if we chose to pay it back for our wrongdoings. I would have liked to have an elder tell me of how I could be a steward of the land. In other words, to be able take care of nature the way that I would take care of my own family. That is why this class is important to me. As Henry Cultee states, “the eyes of the world are looking at you”. As a people, we need to make the eyes of the world proud. We need to learn from nature, and not just keep taking from it. We need to be respectful to it, and to cherish our relationship with it.

    • I am touched by your words Scott, in “making the eyes of the world proud”. I think that there is something in each of us (though it may be buried deeper in some than others) that longs for a sense of belonging–and we result from the experience of millions of years of life’s working together. As Linda Hogan put in Dwellings, each of us is the result “of the love of thousands”.

  21. I completely agree with the above comment from Scott; the idea of having elders to learn from is so comforting and brings a sense of possession and community. The idea of non-human elders is such an important one that i believe many more people need to discover. I am currently reading “The Art of Looking Sideways” by Alan Fletcher, which discusses many similar concepts on the true position of man in relation to the rest of life. One statistic from the book states that something like 98% of species that have ever existed on earth have died out. While humans are a very important and imposing part of the world today, it is humbling to look at the earth in perspective and understand that maybe “we are only a twinkle in God’s eye” (Fletcher).

    • Thanks for sharing this bit of perspective on our place in the history of ecological systems, Cheyanne–and of course, we could be an even more short lived “twinkle in God’s eye” if we don’t become a bit smarter about our environmental choices.

  22. This article is a great reminder that we have much to learn from all parts of creation. I think that we don’t realize that all of nature serves a purpose and has lessons for us to point us back to the Creator. A great Biblical teaching about worry is communicated through nature; “Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow, or reap, or gather in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil or spin, yet not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.” Matt 6:28-30. We should remember that teaching comes in many forms, including the examples rendered by non-humans.

  23. I enjoyed the concept that the Chehalis elder proposed to you; all too often people believe that nobody is watching the actions that they take…. because they aren’t factoring in the non-human animals that are around. I believe that non-humans are just as aware of what’s happening around them as humans are, if not more aware and more intuitive.

    • Very nice point in response, Stefani. I think this is an important consequence of this idea– which is discussed a bit more in the more recent essay here, “The Eyes of the World are Looking at You.”
      Somebody IS around no matter how alone we think we are: in fact, in some African languages, there is no word for loneliness, since there is no concept we can be alone in a natural world so filled with life.

  24. I can’t tell you how many times I have driven down to Jedediah Smith State Park in California to gaze at those giant old redwoods. I always wonder aloud to any friends I have with me, “I wish I knew what these trees know.” They have been witnesses to all sorts of life being born in addition to human tragedies, non-human animal tragedies, the deaths of their fellow trees, and will witness much more after I am long below soil. I do think of them as elder statesmen among the forests out here. It is a nice way to think like Chahalis Elder Henry Cultee in believing that our non human elders are watching and even looking after us.

  25. I associated very well with the metaphor of burning the library before reading the books. There is so much knowledge to be held and then to just let it all go is such a shame.

  26. Professor Holdren,

    The term “non-human elders” is one that I have never heard before but like how it is being presented to me. It is a fact that humans have been on this planet for a relatively short period of time compared to other species. This “youth” may be reflected in some of the rash decisions we make concerning the environment. If humans were to look at the ancient parts of nature, such as old growth forests, with this respect then I do agree that we would be more likely to work to protect these areas.

  27. As I was reading I began to wonder if part of our problem in respecting our natural environment comes from the migration of people and cultures. Western economic culture in India, for example, has led to streets filled with plastic bottles and other trash that doesn’t break down, as I saw when I visited India over a year ago. The sickness and materialism that was visited on the U.S. when Europeans came here has actually seemed to prevail, and to spread to other parts of the world as well. Maybe this is short-sighted, however. Maybe, in fact, other cultures have their own issues with respecting life and nature. My thinking is that, when we leave the land of our birth and ancestors for another place, loving and listening to that new place is not so natural for us. Perhaps, though, the leaving of our own place is just a symptom of the sickness since the leaving itself indicates restlessness, dissatisfaction, and unfilled hunger.

    • The examples you cite are precisely the kinds of global development that Vandana Shiva calls “maldevelopment” for the reasons you indicate, Michele.
      I do think that we need to separate colonialism from immigration. After all, humans have been relocating (in thousands of years of time spans) since our ancestors became human in Africa. Also, the dislocation of populations (like immigrants from Mexico) in the current day is often the result of globalization itself. What is the case is that it takes some time in a particular landscape in order to know enough about it to treat it well (if one is motivated to do that, of course: there are worldviews that motivate the “use em up and move on” dynamic–these are intertwined so that one can’t tell which comes first….
      Thoughtful point for consideration.

  28. Although this is quite a condensed article, it contains many important topics to consider! First off, it made me question the connection between how Western/U.S. society generally treats its human elders in comparison to indigenous cultures or other societies that also have deeper connections to the land that they live on than we tend to in the U.S. Many of these populations could and have accused us of practically throwing away the older generations in our lives, or at least ignoring them and denying their value by segregating them to certain social and physical realms as well as engaging in ageism on a systematic level. If we can do this to elder *humans* – when our society values humans over the rest of the natural world and its knowledge base – then it’s no wonder that we so easily and commonly disregard the knowledge and value of of elder ways of knowing, of animals and earth that have been here for ages before us. I wonder; if our society could dismantle the systematic discrimination of the ‘aged,’ what would this do for our relationship with the natural world?

    • Great perspective on the parallels between our mistreatment of the elderly in our culture and our mistreatment of natural elders, not to mention, the disregard of our past in terms of the lessons we might learn from it.
      You have an important question to consider in terms of ageism and our relationship to the natural world, Lauren.

  29. I see that someone else mentioned Ron Fricke’s work already, but your post about the shopping malls throwing off balance is fascinating and reminded me of his movies. One of my favorite films is Baraka and I always think about how we live in this “square” society he portrays in Baraka. That is, the buildings, windows, monitors, etc are all squares, and that is an unusual shape in nature. Sometimes it’s the small things that we don’t even pay attention to that make us feel disconnected.

    When you mention that there are thousands of years of memory of living with the natural world engrained into animals it makes me wonder where we are headed in our technological society. The technological revolution in its current state is headed in a different direction than nature. We are starting to create an artificial and lifeless world for ourselves- I want to stress ourselves because we are not including other species on our journey.

    How will we incorporate modern society into the natural world without destroying the other inhabitants of our planet? Surely looking at ourselves as the king of the jungle is detrimental to all life on this planet including humanity. We cannot expect technology to save us from ourselves.

  30. I love the idea of considering our animal friends as elders. I watched an Akira Kurosawa movie called Dersu Uzala and I remember when Dersu referred to the inhabitants of the forest as people; bear people, lion people and I got excited. I thought then that he had it right and if we could just see animals as living beings with the same status as we see ourselves.

    • Dersu Azala is one of my favorite films: a truly beautiful portrayal of relationships between humans and the natural world as well as humans and one another– and of the grief that exists with the loss of culture.
      Thanks for sharing this comment, Dawn.

  31. This essay reminds me of a thought I shared with a friend as we were both surprised to see a clearcut in a place we thought was immune to such human destruction. We were chatting about it when we began talking about the ring-counting exercise we both experienced in gradeschool. We both shared how one could tell from the width, number, and irregularities in the cut tree’s rings how old it was, how many excellent (and poor) growing seasons it experienced. The cut tree discs and the once living tree had a story to tell. It had a history to share. Then I began to think about the tree’s story. Thought about how valuable the story was; I thought about how a human could learn the history of the tree’s life and the environment around it by cutting it down and reading its rings. Then I thought about how much I didn’t need to know this story. I thought about how cutting down the tree effectively ended the story, leaving no record of the future’s past for anyone else to read.

    We as humans don’t need to control everything, or anything for that matter. Cutting a forest IS destroying our elders and destroying the stories that could have been learned. The stories still exists in a living tree. We can read them after nature decides it is time for the tree to tell (rather than give up) the what it had accumulated from an unmolested existence.

    • Hello Gabe, there are profound insights in your analysis of this tree’s story. I especially like your perspective on the intertwining of the tree’s story and your own knowing. Your own story of counting the tree’s rings strikingly illustrates the difference between the story garnered by a science that must destroy a life (the tree in this case) to garner its (interrupted) story– and the knowledge gleaned from observing the tree throughout its natural life.
      In this case, the stance of humility (perspective on what we do and do not need to know) allows us to witness our world in such a way that we have a chance of getting whole rather than broken stories. There is another important insight here: the distinction between the story that we tear from the world and the story that communicates itself to us. Indigenous botanist Robin Kimmerer once noted that an elder told her one should not take from the earth, but only receive what is offered– that is the stance your story illustrates.

  32. I really liked the point that we should learn from our non-human elders and that humans are not the top of this false hierarchy. I remember being told in my Comparative Anatomy class that less derived species (what we like to fake as less advanced) are less derived because they have been so successful at surviving in our ever changing world. He said that undoubtedly humans will be outlived by the insects of our world.
    I think if humans want to start the process toward manipulating our race into something more adaptable and compatible with the living world we need to learn about some the traits of other species.

  33. it makes perfect sense that we should respect the plants and animals that were here before us because if it wasnt for being able to learn from animals what berries were ok to eat, or how to kill other animals for food, or learning from the trees when the seasons are changing, etc, we would have never survived on this planet as a species in the first place

  34. At the present time, it seems that learning from our plant and animal elders only occurs when the plants and animals are screaming. The pains of animal abuse and wildlife “management”, clear-cut forests and poisoned water are events that propel people to listen and finally to act; it’s time for everyone to start listening to our plant and animal elders before reaching crisis mode. It’s time to start listening before it’s too late.

    • It is indeed time to start listening to the voices of our fellow creatures before it is too late–and before they have to scream in pain, as you put it, to be heard.

  35. What a different world we would live in if people felt they were judged by the eyes of the world. Those eyes of the natural world would have cut many of us down! I have not had the pleasure of seeing the oldest living things on the planet – the giant sequoias in California – but just seeing pictures of them and being in the presence of the large trees of the Pacific Northwest, I have to wonder how anyone could look at such a magnificent piece of history and life and desire to cut it down?! It hurts my heart to think about it. How could you not feel the knowledge surrounding that tree?

    • Those eyes might have “cut many of us down”, Anna, but I would like to phrase it that they might have put many of us in our place, which is surely a good thing.
      I am with you in questioning how some humans could possibly come upon such natural beauty and destroy it.

  36. I really like the quote, “The eyes of the world are watching you.” I feel that is encompasses many topics about this class.

    This relates to the idea that all things on earth are alive and beings in their own right. It also makes me think of reciprocity because it seems that the world is like a parent watching a young child, with eyes in the back their head. Like this article suggests we are a very young species and it seems only natural that all the other beings on this planet should watch us and demand some respect. We need to give back for what we take from the world and the “eyes” are watching to make sure we do so.

    • Great response, Carly. I very much like this perspective as well; it is time we gained some humility and learned how much other creatures have to teach us and thus enrich our lives– but of course we must respect them and protect their habitat in order for that to happen.

  37. This is a really interesting perspective; I never thought about the fact that we were the ‘youngsters’ before; funny how we basically decided we were in charge regardless! We even preach to our children to respect their elders; yet we ignore or dismiss those who have clearly been here eons longer than we have. I think it goes back to the idea, really the arrogance, that we are the best of what there is today. People have this attitude – like why should I care about a tree that’s hundreds of years old, when my chainsaw can reduce it to nothing while it just stands there? There’s no respect for anything…it’s disappointing. On another note, this quote “market research that indicates we buy more if we are off balance” just plain makes me mad. How does anyone think that’s acceptable? Oh right, the mountains of money they make from me while I’m off balance drown out the sounds of the better angel on their shoulder. Frankly, I think each shoulder has a demon these days.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Kim. I am horrified by the attitude of one who thinks that if they can reduce something to sawdust, they are better than it (and it does not count)– this is a dangerous frame of mind in any context.

  38. One thing that I have always wondered as I have hiked up a mountain, swam in a lake, or really gone anywhere in nature is “I wonder what kind of stories these trees or *blank* species could share if only they could talk?” I guess instead of thinking that maybe I should try and listen to them in they way they already do talk. I think it is important to listen and learn from our plant and animals species that have existed for so many more generations. But I think most of us have forgotten how to listen. If we could I’m sure we would hear fascinating, wonderful, and sad stories. We could learn so much about living within our means, and the sadness I’m sure these species have from having lost so many relatives.

    Modern society doesn’t believe that these species have memories or knowledge, that they are only here to suit our needs and wants. We place value on things and if they don’t fit those values then we don’t need them. I think one billboard I have seen really fit this. It showed a picture of a dog and a cow and asked, “What’s the difference?” Both are alive, both deserve respect, and both have family. The only difference is, is that society has placed a higher value on one. If a dog were to be tortured and killed people would be outraged, but the practices that go on with our livestock don’t matter because a cow is tasty. If a dog were treated to those same conditions people would boycott and protest. Where is the difference? Where is the line drawn?

    I think it is the same way with many species today. Just as a cow is lesser then a dog, most times a frog is ‘lesser’ then a panda just because in our minds a panda is more important. And so the panda gets more funding and more research, while the frog who could be vital to an ecosystem is allowed to slowly perish.

    • Great point about listening to what these other natural lives might say to us if we truly heard their stories, Laura. The listening that you rightly note as so important seems to be something you are already cultivating. It our loss when we fail to think of these species as having “memories or knowledge”– biological memories or knowledge, at least, developed in evolution.
      The hierarchies we make with ourselves on top are responsible for all manner of destruction– perhaps when we learn to celebrate and grieve in compassion with other lives without judging whether they are greater or lesser on the ladder of life, we will treat the whole of the living whole with grace and gratitude rather than destructive.

    • Beautiful thought, Laura, about listening to the land.
      There’s a great documentary called “Maharaja Burger” about Hindu India’s reaction to mad cow disease and the western treatment of cows in general.

  39. I’m also taking a geology course this semester and one of the topics of discussion has been water rights and who has them. We have discussed all the ways in which water can be distributed in the United States based on various riparian laws. We were asked to analyze the hypothetical situation of a stream containing fish, and which supported a fishing industry, agricultural farms and domestic development. The question was who has senior rights to the water.

    It was mind-boggling to see how violent and defensive people can get when you mention that the fish should have first rights to the water since they were obviously there long before humans. That concept seems alien to Americans since an industrial worldview does not give rights to animals or plants. The thought is almost laughable to many people who take it for granted that they can go to the supermarket and buy “meat” without understanding where their food comes from.

    Is it so illogical to give animals and plants the same rights as people in order to protect them from us, and also to learn from them?

    • I especially like your last point here, Dwayne: that we need to protect animals from human abuse–and also set up situations where we might learn from them. There are all kinds of laws–and if our ethical and religious strictures don’t teach us this standard of humanity, it seems to be that legal rights ought to do it.
      It does indeed illustrate the industrial worldview when humans have such violent responses to caring for other lives. Interesting that such thinking honoring the rights of other lives was part and parcel of the thinking of our indigenous ancestors for so very many generations.

    • I have also taken a geology class on water rights, and I find it interesting that people are so blind to what they are doing to others because they are all consumed in what they want. Diverting rivers for personal endeavors create havoc to so many ecosystems, but what those grredy people fail to realize is that changing ecosystems will effect them when it comes full circle.

      • Michael I have noticed that same thing. It seems that people are blinded by what they are trying to get and not thinking about the consequences of the actions they are taking to get what they want. I find this very sad that people are willing to do whatever it takes to somebody of something else in order to get something they want. This is not a good way to live life. People need to think about all the possible negative and positive outcomes of each one of their decisions before they act. I’m sure that concept hardly ever slips the modern consumers mind as they are doing whatever it takes to live the “American Dream”.

  40. I think of the sea anemone, some of the most ancient animals on our planet and also some of the “simplest” in structure. Certainly we could learn something from them about the importance of living simply.
    I’ve heard people claim that this or that system of religious beliefs certainly is the right one because it has survived some 2,000-3,000 years. This claim always amazes me because in the grand scheme of things, 3,000 years is nothing. Even so, it is difficult to fathom 3,000 years and many of the stories told from that time are already ancient and no matter if they were originally based on the truth or not, they have taken on a sense of being nothing but stories. To have a heritage that stretches back over more than 10,000 years to me is completely mind boggling. Of course the histories have to be told in the form of dreamscapes; how else to touch on time unfathomable?

    • Seems like we might well want to establish ourselves as a mature species–but that takes fitting into an ecological niche– thus we might have something to learn from the anemone?

  41. I worry about our elder, the shark. My boy is really into sharks. We’ve read a lot about sharks and how endangered they are and how horrifically they are being slaughtered. These creatures have lived for over 450 million years. Older than dinosaurs. Survived ages and catastrophes that wiped out so many others. It sickens me that we may so many of their bigger species to die. They are keystone species. They don’t get cancer. Amazing. How is it that humans have become such a phenomenal force of death and destruction? Like when I see rounds of giant trees, cut a couple hundred years ago, on display and I always have wondered why anyone would want to cut it down.

    • Thanks for bringing shark as elder to our attention, Amy. This is worrying– I know that the shark is considered a worthless and dangerous species in many quarters– and yet attacks far less than the movie hype would have it. They needed a scary monster, so… I think that even many nature shows on TV are guilty of this kind of hype– playing up the predator drama and/or horror scenes which, I guess, makes them think they are getting more of an audience.

    • It is hard to answer the question as to why some humans have been so destructive. It makes me wonder what positive things could be accomplished it we were to use our human capabilities to promote life.

      • There is a great vision indicated in your question, Josh. We have some outstanding examples of what humans are capable of both in other cultures and outstanding individuals in the modern global community. I can only imagine the energy that might be released were we all to follow these models.

  42. (new)

    I wonder how people would act and if their decisions would be different if each time they went out to harvest a natural resource they thought ” the eyes of the world are watching you”. I wonder if they would understand that this is referring to the others who share this world. I find this statement lovely and I think if more people would think in this way, respect for all of nature, may be restored. I think this statement is another way of saying show compassion and respect and show all of life the same respect and compassion you would like to be shown.

  43. This reminds me how our society, in general, has lost our personal accountability for our actions. People used to have an oral history and this was traditionally considered the required lessons of life. Through this, children learned to be accountable for their action. Even if the parent did not see the transgression, the elders would, even if the elders were not human. For me, it is the ultimate responsibility to be accountable to oneself and surroundings regardless of the humans who may or may not be aware of what is going on.

    • Good perspective, Kristy. Oral tradition was a powerful method of teaching lessons while still fostering the initiative in enacting responsibility on the part of the audience who heard it and passed it on in turn.

  44. Reading this essay, I began thinking how individualistic, self-centered and self-serving modern American culture has become. Kristy identified the lack of personal accountability for one’s own actions. I’ll add to that the ease of which and casual nature of many who file a law suit when things don’t go their way. The want for an easy way out, skating by with the minimal effort, pushing the accountability, the responsibility and the blame just pushes humans further away from the truth. Nature doesn’t lie; you get what is advertised, yet one has to take the time to actually listen. Many indigenous people around the globe recognize(d) that the truth in the natural world could give rise to knowledge which in turn supported a culture of understanding. I believe that the world today desperately needs to return to a culture of understanding before the non-human elders are left to themselves to contemplate the passing of time.

    • The passing of time — and of humans as well?
      If we are no longer here, we will have to leave the contemplating of time to those that both predated us and survived us. Let us hope this is only an ironic statement.

  45. I think of the knowledge that elders within human societies posses and the wisdom that they share. If a human can gain a large amount of knowledge in one life time, then how much more knowledge do living organisms have? We can learn so much more from species that have existed for a longer period of time. I often think nature teaches in subtle ways and reveals it’s secrets to those who seek it’s knowledge. And if we are not careful, we may loose a vast library of knowledge if we do not protect natural resources. Nature seems to constantly teach us through her example of how to live in harmony with the environment and with ourselves. And to loose such ancient species would deprive the world of such great knowledge to heal our planet.

    • Thanks for sharing your observations about the knowledge contain in ecosystem members whose species have lasted for so many human lifetimes. If oral tradition can bridge so many human generations, “ancient species”, as you aptly phrase it, carry the knowledge of thousands, sometimes millions, of years in their bodies and behavior. Something to attend to, indeed-and not a library of natural knowledge we can afford to lose.

  46. I very much like the sentiment of this article. I started to watch the documentary “Earthlings” earlier this evening that establishes the premise of “speciesm.” I had never heard that term before. Essentially this is the historical trend of human dominion over animals based on the false assumption that humans are somehow superior. Though there is much to be troubled about concerning this, the shear fact that these issues are being talked about gives me hope. Yes, indeed, there is much to learn from plant and animal elders.

    http://www.earthlings.com/

  47. This article just further defines how important it is to be appreciative of the natural world. The existence of non-human species has witnessed far more than any person to ever live. Our natural elders are diminishing alarmingly. It’s truly fascinating how many cultural beliefs have been either modified or forgotten, consequently leading to an environment that is so greatly taken advantage of. If more people understood that we must give back to the land what it has given to us, then sustaining our natural elders for future generations would possible. I’m really intrigued by the viewing nature not as an “it” or “that” rather as a form of life with feeling and purpose. After all, if we didn’t have the morsels or our natural elders, our coexistence wouldn’t exist. The “non-human world” isn’t just an idea or opinion, it is reality. All life must be appreciated because all life serves purpose to the world.

    • Thoughtful and obviously caring comment, Leslie. I found it especially interesting that, as you indicate, some in the modern industrial world think of nature as just an “idea” rather than a reality–and thus the human-created world as the “reality”? There is an odd and dangerous reversal here.
      Thanks for reminding us that these living “elders” form not only a vast library of natural knowledge, but the very source of our survival.

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