By Madronna Holden
In Crossing the Next Meridian, Land, Water and the Future of the West, Charles Wilkinson notes two ideologies that resulted in the destruction of the salmon runs that once yielded 42 million pounds annually on the Columbia River alone.
The first is the sense of dominance that saw the land only as a resource for human exploitation. But the other is perhaps not so obvious. It is a reverence for that which it destroys.
We don’t have to imagine the destructiveness of the first attitude: we have history to inform us of it. This attitude created a free for all in the Pacific Northwest in which, as Wilkinson puts it, the “fish hardly had a chance”. This was expressed in the waste in the taking of salmon in the late 1800s, as in the case of the trap on Puget Sound that wiped out an entire run of sockeye salmon when tens of thousands of fish wedged themselves into that trap and suffocated before they could be released.
Wilkinson also notes that some pioneers, by contrast, held the salmon in reverence. But it was a strange reverence, an idealization that never really saw the salmon for what they were– or as anything that incited human responsibility. In their awe for the overwhelming abundance of the salmon runs, pioneers never saw their limits. Unlike the indigenous system which set up seasonal harvest limits orchestrated by religious leaders, pioneer harvesters depleted that which they never thought would end.
Partly this was because they had no historical experience with the runs—but the destructiveness of their actions was also mingled with their idealization of Western lands as something larger than life.
I spoke with those who logged the old growth forests they found on arriving in Western Washington in the late 1800s– who had experienced the grace and power of those forests as they took them down with crosscut saws, leaving stumps twenty feet high– since mills couldn’t handle logs over five feet in diameter. As they grappled with those great trees body to body, they did not stop to think that the forest that defined their lives would ever be gone.
In their minds, the hugeness of the land bestowed it with a sense of eternity—a sense that it would endure no matter how humans behaved toward it.
After he had been a logger, one man I interviewed served as a fire lookout, living alone in a cabin on Mt. Rainier. In those days the animals were not afraid of humans–and just watching from his mountaintop as various animals came by, day after day, he felt a reverence for the natural world that was no longer entangled in struggling with something larger than life.
That was when he looked around and saw the old forests were going. He was in a state of shock as a result.
When I interviewed him he was in his nineties and had spent several years tracking the changing weather patterns resulting from those missing trees. He filled his notebooks, day after day, with his record of the lost forest, as if his faithfulness could redeem his former carelessness.
He wanted most of all for our generation to understand the mistakes made by his.
The pioneer west is not alone in expressing the dangers of such a reverence toward an idealized part of nature. The Ganges River in India is both one of the most revered and one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In effect, this river is loved to death, as its idealization licenses some to overlook the fact that it has any limits—any needs of its own which might depend on human responsibility towards it.
The good news is that while political will in India has not taken up the cause of cleaning the sacred Ganges, this project has recently united Muslims and Hindus.
The idealization of women expresses a parallel dynamic of failed or too idealized reverence. At the beginning of an abusive relationship, a man classically expresses intense reverence for the object of his desire. Indeed, in modern Western culture, many relationships are characterized by a “romantic fallacy”—an idealized projection on the other that prevents each from seeing who they really are.
The romantic fallacy is exceedingly dangerous to the object of its projection. For the Ganges, the salmon, the trees, the idealized woman, the object of such reverence loses subjective identity—the right to act on their own and have their needs honored. As Jean Kilbourne points out in her analysis of the idealized woman in modern advertising, that ideal portrays the woman as a kind of corpse. The airbrushed presentations of her face are like mummified parodies of real life. Such an objectification of anything, she observes, is the first step toward licensing violence toward it.
Those who idealize another cast see them in terms of their own needs—and thus are all too liable to exact of them the kind of sacrifice Trask exacts of the indigenous elder who befriends him in Don Berry’s historical novel Trask, situated on the Oregon Coast. In this novel, the pioneer protagonist kills the elder in the midst of his attempt to initiate himself in a spirit quest like that of traditional indigenous peoples. In a profound metaphor for real history, the pioneer is literally out of his mind as he commits this murder, unaware that establishing his own “spiritual” connection to the land costs the life of another. In his trance, he carries the dead body of the elder through the landscape in his personal search for a spiritual home.
The ambivalence of this murderous reverence—in which the land and its people become a sacrifice on the altar of human need– is expressed in this quote from the novel:
“Taking possession of the land is the first and final grasping of a man … toward immortality…As a child clutches blindly at his mother’s breast, so a man will strain to the land without understanding…
The thing that possesses a man to open a land is simple lust…A molding and carving and forging takes place between [man and land].. bitterly, happily, angrily, exultantly… And in time there is no …clear edge of difference where … the land ends and the man begins.”
As this quote expresses, there is a profound human need to belong to something larger than oneself—something that begins before an individual’s birth and continues after death. But such belonging cannot be had by seizing it: “possession” and “land lust” are the contrary to belonging established in the mutual inter-working of the land and its human residents over time.
Moreover, we can never see a land so entwined in our own need for what it really is. Idealization of the land, that is, inhibits true intimacy with it.
By contrast, indigenous reverence for their land rests on intimacy with it—on gratitude and humility for the daily gift of life the land provides. It is characterized by the reciprocity between a people and a land that is not larger than life, that is, but bound up in life itself.
In its link to daily life, such reverence motivates care for the land and for all life that shares it. This reverence is illustrated in the words of native naturalist Linda Hogan in Dwellings: “What does god look like? These fish, this water, this land.”
In such recognition of the divine in creation, there is quietude and fullness, as expressed by Rebecca Adamson, Founder of the First Nations Development Institute: “God is in the space and silence. That is where it is sacred. You look up on a starry night and you feel yourself unfold, and that silence is where God is.”
In her interview in YES magazine (summer 2009), Adamson indicates an essential difference between opening to the silence of the divine in the stance above and the idealization in the pioneer perspective. The indigenous perspective is based on fullness and gratefulness; the pioneer perspective, like that of modern capitalism in general, is based on hunger and need: on a “self-fulfilling scarcity”.
In the indigenous case, humans adapt to the fullness of natural life, in the pioneer case, the land becomes a projection of human need.
Thus the latter sees the land as that which might redeem humans from their hunger for belonging and security–even if they have to destroy it in order to possess it.
Filed under: Contrasting worldviews, Ecofeminism, Environmental ethics, Environmental psychology, Ethics, Indigenous links, Northwest History and Culture, Our Earth and Ourselves, worldviews | Tagged: Ecofeminism, environmental philosophy, idealization, northwest history, violence against women, worldviews |