Wolves and the Wild: Expanding the Human Household

By Madronna Holden

“‘We are waiting for the wolves to answer. We want a healing, a cure for             anguish, a remedy that will heal the wound between us and the world that contains our broken histories.”

—  Linda Hogan,  “Deify the Wolf”

Pioneers in the Willamette Valley gathered in the so-called Wolf Meetings” to establish a territorial government.  Why this label?  Given their personal disagreements, the pioneers  failed to create a common government.  But the one thing they did agree on was the extermination of local wolves.

In those days, in the words of PBS’s “The Wolf that Changed America”, wolves “were the very embodiment of America’s vanishing wilderness”.  That wilderness was vanishing according to the rubric of Manifest Destiny, which saw both wild creatures and indigenous peoples fated to fade away before the onslaught of ” civilization”.

The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, reflects this view in children’s terms.  Here the wolf represents the savage wilderness, and Red Riding Hood the naïve girl-child delighted by birdsong and flowers, who puts herself in mortal danger because she has not yet learned to fear the land and its creatures– and must thus be saved by the huntsman. This fairytale dates from Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries —the heyday of the colonial takeover of the Americas.

But there are notable exceptions to the image of the wolf as mythical evil: as the in case of wolf hunter Ernest Seton turned environmentalist explored in the PBS documentary above.  The intelligence of a particular wolf, his communications with the wolf hunter, his self-possession and dignity—and finally, his dying loyalty to his mate—all moved the wolf hunter to see the world entirely differently.  Indeed, we might say this wolf domesticated Seton—if, tragically, at the cost of his own life.

Seton spent the remainder of his life fighting to save habitat where wild creatures might have a natural home.  He helped persuade Theodore Roosevelt to preserve US wilderness and founded the Boy Scouts—in line with his belief that humans needed intimacy with the wild.

Willamette Valley Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman relates how wolf skins brought in for bounty to the trading post at Scottsburg, Oregon, were stacked in shoulder high piles before being pushed into the Umpqua River to dispose of them. We can only imagine what this meant for those whose origin story told how First Woman entrusted her children to the care of Mother Wolf when she went out to discover her land.  First Woman found her children well cared for on her return.

Mother Wolf thus gave human children an experience of the natural world as family. We might well follow this model of learning from the natural world that succors us.  And we might hope to do so in a way that does not require the death of other natural creatures as happened with Seton’s wolf-hunting.

Mary Tallmountain spoke a telling poetic acknowledgement to the “last wolf”who made its way through the  “ruined city” to lay its muzzle on the hospital bed where she battled cancer. “Yes”, she told the wolf, “I know what they have done”.

What they had done was wage a war of extermination on wolves and their wild kin. Shortly after the “Wolf Meetings”, wolves were largely gone from Willamette Valley– though there were a few hold-outs in wilderness areas until the last wolf in Oregon was killed for bounty in 1947.

But the wolf gone from official records was not gone from sight.  There were mysterious wolf sightings long after this, as in the gray wolf sighted in the Opal Creek Wilderness half a century later.  As wolves will do, this creature would stand and look back at a human for a moment before it turned to vanish.

I don’t know anything more about the wolf at Opal Creek. Young wolves generally disperse about 40-80 miles, but they have gone as far as 500 miles to find a new family.  Until they find their family, in turn, they cannot realize their nature as a wolf.  It was a wolf’s fierce loyalty to his  mate that caused Seton to write WHY? in his journal with respect to his own actions —and to turn from wolf killer to wolf protector.

He is not alone in this change.  According to a recent US survey 74 per cent of US citizens now agree that the wolf should have a place in natural ecosystems. The Nez Perce did not need a survey to determine their own opinions on this: they offered their land as a site for wolf reintroduction– and then held a ceremony to welcome the wolves back.

Among the 26 per cent who do not favor the wolf’s comeback are ranchers who see their livestock at risk with that return. Tactics to support both the ranchers and the wolves are being worked out in the wake of Oregon’s “no kill” court ruling. One side effect of this process is that humans are spending more time with the domesticated animals they raise for meat– since the primary method to inhibit wolf killings of this type is human presence.

Now we are also learning more about wolves–and thus how to treat them according to their own nature.  A recent editorial in the Oregonian concurred with the Fish and Wildlife’s decision to kill two yearling lamb-killing wolves that refused to be relocated and were roaming without a pack.  That editorial also argued we should not be killing wolves in the wilderness who are doing what wolves naturally do.

There is much to learn about wolves’ essential roles in ecosystems:  observations of reintroduced wolves in the Yellowstone indicate their presence fosters the return of aspen groves, changing the way elk graze—higher up on the branches, so they can keep a lookout.  Wolf kills also feed at least twelve other species—not counting insects.

Even in the Red Riding Hood story, there is embedded an older memory of wolf as kin—indicated by his dressing in the clothes of the young girl’s beloved grandmother.  Though the moral of this fairy tale is the foolishness of such a guise, there are those who find a different moral—and a different possibility—in our relationship with wolves.

As Chickasaw Linda Hogan sees it, the wolf is “a relative inside our own blood, an animal so equal to us that it reflects back what we hate and love about ourselves.”

Indigenous peoples are not alone in this view.  In a much older European story than that of Red Riding Hood, twins suckled by a wolf founded Rome.

Here we find two contrasting stories of domestication. In the one humans domesticate the wild by setting it under human control—and in the other humans and wild creatures share the common household of earth. In this latter view wild  creatures domesticate us as much as we domesticate them.

Paul Shepard’s thesis is that the latter has been the predominant type of domestication– whether humans realize it or not.   He argues that though humans assume they are domesticating animals and plants, the latter are really domesticating humans, since they have changed our humanity over time so we might accommodate them in our lives.

We are all too familiar with the contrasting idea of  domestication as control, which affects both what industrial societies consider wild and what they consider feminine.  In this framework, both women and wolves according to Clarrisa Estes, “have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious.”

We presume to own what we thus domesticate even as we presume to control it:  thus genetically engineered lives are patented by their designers.

But in the older view of domestication, both the wolf and the feminine are empowered by their wildness: by their intuition, their attention to detail—and most of all, their loyalty to family (a family that extends to all natural lives)—and their protection of their children with a singular fierceness.

In this view, humans are familial partners with the wild world, as illustrated by the case of lions who shared their kill with certain indigenous peoples of South Africa, and the dolphins who fished with the indigenous peoples of Australia– a practice initiated by the dolphins.

This view of domestication is not about taming the wild, but in the apt terms of ethnobotanist M. Kat Anderson, about tending the wild.  Rather than shrinking the lives of other species into an arena controlled by humans, this type of domestication seeks to extend human consciousness to embrace the whole of the natural world as family.

There were the wild hedgerows in indigenous farms in Peru, and peasant farms in England and Eastern Europe—where hedgerows both fed and provided habitat to other species and provided a reservoir of learning for the farmers.  They obtained many seed varieties from them, for instance.

Here there is no line drawn between the “weeds” that are not under human control and a single plant chosen by humans. Indeed, research published this month supports Vandana Shiva’s observation that the plants declared “weeds” in agribusiness monocultures constitute essential nutritional, medicinal, and material (e.g. housing and basket making) resources for indigenous farmers.

Instead of attacking biodiversity to bolster the one seed or one animal—or part of an animal as in the case of genetic engineering—humans favor at the moment, the Kalapuya who sustained themselves for at least six thousand years in place, fostered an abundant diversity of local animals and crops–such that their valley was known as the “gourmand’s paradise” by early European explorers for its abundance of available food.

Kalapuya also echoed the practice of the wolf in their hunting:  early pioneers near Albany witnessed native hunters surround a herd and conscientiously let its strongest animals go before their took their own kill.

Wherever humans have lived they have interacted with and thus changed the natural world.  They have taken what they need for survival, as do all natural creatures.  But there is more than one way than one way to do this.  We can attempt to bring other lives under our control, making monocultures of our favorites—and declaring war on all other natural lives as we erase natural habitats.

Or we can embrace other natural lives as our kin—expanding our sense of family to all natural life.  Creatures that share our gardens, our farms, our cities, and our houses—as well as the habitats we dedicate to them—take us, in Hogan’s words, “across the boundaries of ourselves,”  teaching us the language of life which may yet sustain us.

How Prairie Dogs Cry for Rain: Reflections on Shelter, Rain, and Drought

By Madronna Holden

“If you kill off the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for rain.”

Traditional Navajo warming

One former prairie dog town stretched 25,000 square miles with its burrows sheltering 400 million animals.  When 20th century industry encountered such prodigious lives, it exterminated 98 per cent of them. However, the rains disappeared along with the prairie dogs, as both Navajo and Hopi individuals observed, looking out over the startling barrenness of lands from which prairie dogs were gone. Permaculture creator Bill Mollison proposed this explanation:  prairie dog tunnels join those of other earth borers to create “alveoli on the lungs” of the soil that discharge moisture when underground aquifers expand and contract with twice daily earth tides. Thus prairie dog burrows helped conduct water into the air from underground water sources, instigating cycles of rain.

If we view our actions according to the results they solicit, we might well say that the prairie dogs cry for rain. Perhaps we might also see the extermination of the prairie dogs as crying for drought in the results that action solicited—though the exterminators apparently did not think in terms of the relationships perceived by the Hopi and the Navajo. The latter cultures featured sophisticated use of metaphor to expose and elaborate the connections between one thing and another. Notably, like the prairie dog burrows, Navajo and Hopi also built their homes on a sense of interconnection.  Traditional Navajo hogans reflect the relational dimensions of the cosmos. Hopi kivas embrace their dwellers in the umbilical relationship with Mother Earth from which all humans emerge.

Industrialized western society has a very different conception of its houses—expressed in the story of the Three Little Pigs who build houses of straw, sticks, and brick respectively. The moral of this story emerges when the wolf (depicting nature as predator), blows down all the houses but that with the most solid walls—the one made of brick. The worldview exhibited in this tale impels humans to build walls between themselves and the natural world.  Indeed, those who hold this worldview not only build stout walls, but fences and borders and dams—and develop pesticides and antibiotics–  as they also separate individual humans, individual backyards—and individual nations– from one another.  In the division between insider and outsider in this scheme, the outsider is readily devalued—and if inconvenient, can be moved out of the way without a second thought, as was the case of the prairie dogs. Those with this worldview, as indigenous Chehalis elder Henry Cultee from Washington State put it, would rather “chew through a mountain than go around.”

However, walls do not make their builders as secure in safety or privilege as those same builders might think. In fact, a society’s emphasis on building walls has characteristically coincided with its imminent demise, as observed in a recent National Geographic article discussing the walls the Roman Empire built in Britain and Germany. These walls not only stood at the geographical terminus of the empire, but at its historical terminus as disintegration of the Empire took hold within and without.

All told, those who would split the world into insiders and outsiders face an impossible task — since the world is inevitably interdependent. Pesticides placed on lawns enter water tables and from there the amniotic fluid of pregnant women throughout the US.  Thusly underscoring the interdependence of the natural world, poisons used against outside creatures enter the most intimate of chambers in the human body. In fact, walls cannot keep us safe– they only blind us to what is on the other side of them, delaying our knowledge of and responsibility for the effects of our actions beyond those walls.  If a single hungry wolf cannot blow down a brick house, there are stronger winds in climate change-instigated tornados.  It is a deadly irony that self-enclosed climate-controlled cars emit carbon dioxide eroding the stability of the earth’s own climate.

The wall-obsessed ancient Romans are hardly unique in human history. The impulse to control things by segregating them is one of those “instincts of self-destruction”, as Nigerian Nobel Laureate Chinua Achebe put it, that successful human societies must find ways to discourage. In a pointed warning tale from ancient India, the protagonist destroys inconvenient nature spirits by drinking up the water in which these spirits live–which also happens to be all the water in the world, since the waters of life are interconnected. He thus instigates a drought that dries up all of life.

Early fur traders in the Pacific Northwest might have used such a warning story as they instigated their own planned drought.  They set out to trap the beaver to extinction, thereby establishing a “fur desert” to discourage other trappers from moving into the area and creating economic competition.  What resulted was an ecological desert where river courses narrowed and river estuaries dried up with the removal of the beaver from these habitats. Today conservation agencies are making attempts to re-introduce beavers in Eastern Oregon to help restore these lands, but a proactive understanding of interdependence would have saved both humans and beaver considerable woe.

Like the actions of prairie dogs, the actions of the indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest facilitated natural connections. Indigenous actions supported extensive biodiversity. The Willamette Valley was so flush with life that fur traders went there to stock up when their supplies ran low, terming it the “Gourmand’s Paradise” for the ease of their obtaining food there.

Attunement to the larger world is the enduring basis of human security. Such attunement is, after all, how living systems operate– as the lives within them attune themselves to one another over time.  There is no more profound security than assuming essential belonging in such a well-tuned system– as the stability of indigenous Northwestern societies attests. By contrast, the strategy of wall building is a lonely as well as an ineffectual one in its attempt to set humans apart from (and above) other lives. If we wish to establish ourselves in long term security, the lessons of history would have us relinquish the impulse to divide and control the natural world, just as they would discourage choices serving simple convenience and individual rewards for some over others.

Instead, such lessons would have us create stories in which those with whom we share the living world act as our teachers–as might the prairie dogs model the way to build a true home on this earth:

Perhaps you have felt the prairie dogs digging under us, opening the beating heart of the earth, shaping their burrows into the living cells of earth’s bloodstream that urge the rains to come. 

Suppose our homes did the same. Suppose what we built to shelter ourselves quenched the thirst of the grass, swelled water into the vine.  Suppose we too acted as the pulsing cells moving with the tide of the earth, praying for rain that stirs all things to life with our thoughts and our actions.

Suppose the beauty we made in our skin no matter what our age or shape or color was refuge for the swan and the hummingbird.  Beauty enough so his ivory no longer condemned the elephant.

Suppose our houses grew as green and leafy as trees, and memory traveled in our bodies with the echoes of a thousand other ways of being, tuning them to the hot and the cold that belongs to the land along with life-giving water.  

Suppose we sheltered the earth as it has sheltered us, sharing that climate-blanket that kept our ancestors safe for 100,000 years as they became human.

Suppose we sheltered ourselves following the lessons of sweet beauty as we look out upon a living landscape calling to us as the flower calls to the bee, asking for pollination.

Following the model of nature’s honey, we can build refuges of hope and inspiration and motivation–and healing.

Where nature can lead, we can follow.  Where nature has need, we can act out of our belonging to the land; praying for rain with the work of our hands.

We can regale other lives with our stories, gathering all the thirsty lives to the river we have set free.


This post, along with other materials on this site, is copyright Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link to this essay, but it cannot be reproduced in any form in whole or in part without permission.

Are We Humans Smarter than Baboons?

By Madronna Holden

In her book, Almost Human, Shirley Strum explains her career choice of working with baboons, indicating that baboon intelligence brings them closer to humans than many other primates. She also notes the negative connotation of calling someone a “baboon”–  though when all is said and done, it seems that baboons have something going for them that certain humans do not.

In her decade of research with baboons, Strum did things her predecessors had not.  She got out of her jeep and followed the baboons on their daily rounds on foot, and she learned to identify each baboon as an individual and as a member of a multi-generation family—and she recorded baboon behavior accordingly.  In turn, her meticulous observations told her that the male dominance theory of baboon society she inherited from other researchers just wasn’t holding up. In fact, her data indicated that female social alliances rather than male dominance were the stable center of baboon troops.

A young male might use aggression to hold a physical place on the outskirts of a troop he wanted to join—but only in the short term and because he had no other alternatives.  Often such a male would single out a female, making subtle overtures to her for up to a year until she accepted him as a “friend”. At that point, he had an inroad into the troop and dropped his aggressive stance. After all, aggression earned him none of the social goods of baboon society—no grooming, no ability to lead the group to feeding or sleeping places—and absolutely no sex.  Indeed, these new tough guys were subject to complete social isolation until they were able to trade in their aggression for the alliances that gave them connection and belonging.

Though individual males or females might choose to fight or manipulate others in particular situations, it was assuredly not the physically dominant males who ran things.

Strum’s observations are supported by DNA studies that indicate that the males who pass on their genes among baboons are not the aggressive ones—but the ones who gain alliances with the most female “friends”.   Observations of wolves and deer expose parallel differences between fighters and breeders in these groups.  Observations of the red deer of Ireland, for instance, indicate that while certain males are busy locking horns, others are busy breeding. One might find aggression in such groups if one is looking for it—but the winners of physical fights are not to be the ones passing on their genes.  Indeed, locking horns may be nature’s way of taking the most aggressive individuals out of the gene pool of social animals—as in the case of a mild-mannered wolf whom observers christened “Casanova” because he was busy breeding while other males were busy fighting.

So are we in modern industrial societies smarter than such creatures?  Not, I would argue, if we persist in pressing strategies of dominance that separate rich from poor, men from woman and humans from nature—in the face of the historical fact that human empires have barely eked out a few centuries before collapsing whereas societies based on cooperation have survived for thousands of years.  And we are not very smart if we use domination to amass wealth and power to the neglect of other social goods, like knowledge and belonging.

In comparison with flexible baboon behavior, we humans often seem to be stuck in a rut—failing to exercise our adaptable potential.  We even fail to take advantage of the science that exposes alternatives to the dead end strategy of simple dominance. Strum herself was baffled at the way in which her careful research was originally met with virulence—or conspicuously ignored—by other primate researchers. She paired with philosopher Bruno Latour to examine the worldview underlying primate research, and together they postulated a “myth of human origins” that drove much of such research– in which researchers were basically finding what they were programmed to find by their own cultural values.  Their resistance to new perspectives followed the pattern detailed by Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which documents how scientific paradigms in the history of Western science have shifted only after the worldviews that birthed them shifts.  Until that point, scientists reshaped their data to fit their worldviews rather than using their data to expand their worldviews.

The “myth of human origins” in domination-based societies tells us that domination over others is an effective strategy for ensuring survival in the natural world. But in fact—as other species show us—nature is more complicated.  Though domination-based societies might yield power and wealth to the ones on top, the dominator stance stymies long term survival.   Since the human dominator cannot both live within the world and rule it from above, he tends to be ignorant of both the world he separates himself from, and the results of his actions upon it.  One can hardly make decent decisions in the face of such ignorance.

Indeed, those who hold to the domination stance that goes hand in hand with the historical collapse of human empires have something to learn from young male baboons who work persistently and cleverly to replace domination with belonging.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

“The eyes of the world are looking at you”: earthly trancendence

By Madronna Holden

I could swear that this honeybee above looked up from her busy work on the oregano this morning to look back at me.

It might be anthropomorphic to assume that there is something such as curiosity among the bees, but I have seen them investigate a novel situation in their hive with the same level of enthusiastic activity as any mammal might express.

When I lift the lid to peer into the hive out of my own curiosity, a number of the bees look back at me– just watching.

At the same time that I don’t want to pretend that I can read their motives from my human perspective, I also don’t want to mechanize these bees.  Likely they are attracted by my movement, but I would prefer not to see their watching me as nothing but a reflex action.

During our rainy spring I twice saw different bees pause on their trips into the hive to help another bee into an upright position after she had slid on the wet surface and landed struggling and beached on her back.   I don’t know how to explain this in mechanical terms– nor do I want to.

Mythologist James Hillman once remarked that we humans (at least in contemporary Western society) are prone to fear what we can’t control– and since the insects seem the least controllable of all species to us, we declare war on them with pesticides– so obsessed in our self-appointed task of destroying them we overlook the ways we are harming our own children in the process.

Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee had a different view of things in his tradition.  He used to tell me his people emphasized that if we wanted to live long on the earth–as both individuals and cultures, we should live mindfully of the fact that the “eyes of the world are looking at us”– all the eyes of the earth. And it was what they saw of our actions that  led to our long or short survival on this earth.

Many of us in contemporary industrial society don’t look for natural life to be overseeing and judging us– certainly we don’t live accordingly.  But it is not a bad thing to aim for. Those who lived sustainably for ten thousand years on this land  felt the necessity of upholding a standard of behavior of which more than human life approved.

And the way they treated this valley certainly did better for it than we have done in the last 200 years.

The Chewong of Malaysia traditionally saw it this way:  each species has its own way of seeing the world– its own worldview.  Many human cultures have used their sense of such diversity as they observed it in other species to teach them how to live full human lives.

In the quest for spirit powers in adolescent initiation rites throughout the world, a human youth sought an alliance with a more than human life whose power and insight would guide their adult life.

Such alliances between the human and more than human world are mysterious– since the lives of these others have more to them than we can explain in human terms alone.

Who am I to say why a white bird came to light in the top of the cedar my mother loved during the last year of her life?  That bird followed her movements, sitting by turn in the tree facing her bed and the one looking down at her from the kitchen skylight.

I do know that she cherished and defended those cedars in which that bird alighted. She watched the sun touch their tips each day, signaling the morning she hailed with joy.

She and my father had refused to move into this house unless its builders found a way to construct  it without taking down those trees. The builders resisted, wanting the easiest way.

My parents moved into temporary quarters after they sold their old house, waiting out the developers for months until they found a way way to build  that house and protect those trees at the same time.

There was substantial history behind my mother’s words,”When I’m gone, don’t let them take the trees.”

Though she was often bedridden during the last years of her life, pulling herself into a wheelchair with great effort to move through the house, I don’t– nor do I know anyone who did– think of her as diminished.

Instead, all those who knew her experienced her the uprightness and power.  Her spirit had a comparable rootedness, generosity and wisdom to those ancient trees that she had guarded–and now watched over her.

Our usual idea of transcendence is moving to a world beyond this one.  But there is also transcendence of a different kind– transcendence that my mother achieved through the trees that held her spirit upright as her body folded in on itself with crippling arthritis.

My mother also loved butterflies.  I have a pin that belonged to her of an enameled red butterfly.  I never saw such a butterfly in real life until this past week, when a red butterfly of the same hue appeared at my house twice– once pausing a few inches from me so that I could inspect it at leisure.

I have not seen the like of it in the 35 years I have lived in this house– nor have I so far been able to find anyone who can identify it.  (If anyone out there has any ideas, let me know).

I could say that after 35 years of allowing this small patch of ground defined as “my” yard to  flourish without poisons, some special things have moved in. That is certainly a gift.

But it takes no explanation at all to enjoy the fact that the color of the butterfly– however it arrived in my yard– matches the color of the butterfly on my mother’s pin.

I want the stories that I  know of this world to be , like this one, stories that strengthen our reciprocal place in the circle of life. I want to tell stories of a living world that looks back at me even as I look at it– in which there are lessons to be learned from both kinds of reflection.

This is my kind of science. The science that tenderly observes a world that is also looking back at us:  the science that tells us how to express our human potential through intimacy with the more than human world.

The humblest creatures have essential things to teach us not only about our connections with them, but about ourselves.

I like to think how much we can learn by assuming a comparable humility of our own.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but any part of this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

Night-Mares and Horsepower: Domestic Partners in the More than Human World

march 2013 006

By Madronna Holden

Why should we call our bad dreams nightmares?

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves related an ancient story from the British Isles that tells how– after men captured wild mares and kept them in stalls and bred them at their whim– the Night Mare visited these men’s dreams with her long teeth and punishing hooves.

As a girl, my family once had a mare who was a nightmare for a man who wished to control her, a huge thoroughbred with her ancestral wildness still in her. Since we were moving two thousand miles away, we sold the mare to a man who wanted to train her as a jumper.  But I got a phone call from him complaining she was unrideable.

I went immediately to the stable and the ring—the like of which the mare had never seen—to show just how well she handled.  I let her reins go slack as she read my body, turning on a dime and cantering like a dream.

As I slipped off her back, the trainer drawled, “No offense, but you can make that mare look like an old plug”.

That odd complement was centered in the Western worldview: the idea that I was a good rider because I made that mare look so tame.  I knew this man was wrong.  I didn’t do it. The mare did– as many other examples in the Tao of Equus demonstrate other horses as doing.

Though this mare would do anything you asked her to do if you asked properly, she refused to be manhandled.  She broke my heart with her grace that last time I rode her.  I hope she somehow understood it was out of my hands to let her go—and that she taught her new “owner” something about getting along with the world larger than himself.  In this case, about 2000 pounds larger.

After all, it was the job of mares to socialize others in their wild herds.

There is danger involved in assuming that such creatures are at our service just because we purchase  them– as this man found out.  And as we ourselves find out in our attempt to control the natural world with inappropriate technological development– though we still try.

As illustrated  in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we and our technology inevitably shape one another.  Human life in the machine age has become increasingly mechanistic even as we project our own psyches onto our machines. Advertisers know this as they sell trucks with the not so subtle claim that they will increase the masculinity of their drivers.

But the understanding of our psychological entanglement with our technology is not complete if it stops and starts at the human psyche.  There is something else to consider:  we are not alone in the world.  Domestication does not merely shape our consciousness.  It is about the relationship between human consciousness and other natural life.

Such lives cannot be simply reduced to the energy we measure as the “horsepower” of our machines.  Different cultures have very different ideas of domestication than the contemporary industrial impulse to count “horsepower” as force harnessed on our behalf.

Indigenous peoples in Western Washington very much valued the horses introduced into their territory after the coming of whites to this continent. They loved to race them and sometimes, to travel with them—though canoes made better vehicles of transport on landscapes so crossed with rivers. Horses were more useful for travel in the open areas across the Cascades and along the Columbia River.

Stories from pioneer families I gathered in Western Washington record astonishment at how an Indian might labor for months to obtain a horse he  favored from a white family—but then never keep that animal under fence.  One Indian man explained that if the horse came back after he turned it loose, that was great–and if it didn’t—well, it had a life of its own.

At the Walla Walla treaty proceedings in the mid-nineteenth century, the Nez Perce entered with a display of horsemanship that left the US cavalry in a state of wonder, as reported by a cavalry lieutenant who observed it.  But he also wondered at the fact that those who rode such magnificent mounts let them graze the open prairie without any human restraint.

Local native people on the Oregon coast indicated their attitude toward horses in their lack of bridles and reins.  Coquille elder George Wasson came to speak in my Linfield College class shortly after the film Dances with Wolves was released. He pointed out the glaring cultural misstep in this film in the portrayal of Indian riders as using bridles.

Norman Dick was a pioneer child whom Siuslaw man Andrew Charles sat in front of him on his horse and took for long rides.  The Indian man used his arms to hold the toddler securely, since he rode his horse “Indian style”– without reins.

There is an essential lesson in the attitude toward “horsepower” that does not forget that there is a life behind it —a life that is more than the harnessing of it for human purposes.  It is better to cooperate with such life than fight its rebellion.

To try to  “break” any other life for our use, as the old West terminology has it., is bound to cause  us problems.  We may try to “break” a horse—or a cow that stands unmoving in a milking stall all day given hormones and antibiotics to keep it alive and maximally producing– or a plant that is genetically engineered to rein in its DNA to our use.  But there are results that are not predicted by those whose vision of  natural  life starts and stops in the barn or the laboratory—or the pocketbook.

There is mad cow disease that results from feeding these captured cows rendered brain and spinal cords from other mammals.  There is the spontaneous migration of genes between plants over unforeseeable distances in a process we have no idea how to accurately predict, much less control.

Natural life may shrug us off its back as easily as it slips houses down the hill below a clear cut—as has happened throughout the lower Umpqua River drainage.

The genetics of plants is better observed by those who,  like Barbara McClintock, derive their insight from speaking with the corn. Though her findings eventually won her the Nobel Prize, she could not find funding or professional placement for decades.  As both a woman and a scientist with this novel approach, she struggled to do her work in isolation until her colleagues finally recognized the importance of her finding.

Such scientists have much in common with traditional farmers all over the world– like the Czech farmer (her grandfather)  my student Iveta Habartova eloquently describes:

“My grandpa knew every branch and every tree so intimately; he spoke to the trees. He always told me that he had to talk to the trees to give them love so that they would grow well. Every time I entered my grandpa’s orchard, it was like entering a church. It was where all the wisdom, love and years of experience that my grandpa collected were kept. It was where he shared all those things with me. “

This is a profound expression of Wendell Berry‘s “agrarian mind” and its intimacy with the land–and contrast with industrial farming.

Domestication in its root means to bring something into our home with us:  to make it a part of our family.  As opposed to Monsanto’s battle for secrecy to prevent its agricultural products from being labeled for their consumers, caring for a Palestinian olive tree is a public affair, whose care is inherited by particular family members, and whose harvest is undertaken by a whole community.

During the year I lived and taught under Israeli Occupation, I once had dinner with a Palestinian family who used traditional methods of grafting to turn less than an acre into a garden overflowing with abundance.  As I sat in the shade of the trees this family cared for with such tenderness, I was for the moment sheltered from the winds of violence that blew all about us on this land.

This is certainly a profound lesson of appropriate domestication:  if we tend the land, it will shelter us.

And it will teach us about the vital processes  of natural life.

If we learn to “domesticate” with integrity as we bring other natural life into our homes and hearts, we might also learn to treat other  natural life—including humans—with respect, tenderness and generosity.

It is certainly past time to turn our technological nightmares into these better dreams.

I have received many wonderful comments since this essay was recently published, but I wanted to call reader’s attention to this one in particular from my student Susan Riley:

“Like Iveta’s grandfather, my grandmother treated her plants and livestock as reverently as she did her family. I distinctly remember her talking to her pansies, cupping them in her old weathered hand and telling them how beautiful their ‘faces’ were. Of course we laughed and thought she was being eccentric (heading toward senile) but no one could deny, that woman could charm a stick into growing into a beautiful, productive tree. Grandma’s chickens and her one old cow also got the best of care and attention and gave her eggs and milk long after what might be considered ‘normal’. Mostly I remember her wonderful vegetable garden. She had to share with the deer that wandered freely through her property but always managed a bumper crop of peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini. Nothing has or ever will, I think, tasted as good as grandma’s fresh spring peas creamed with Betsy’s fresh whole milk. While I’m sure Grandma felt she owned her property and animals, I’m also sure she considered that ownership more of a caretaker position than one of domination over the land and livestock. From her we learned to appreciate and respect even the smallest of creatures and we learned to talk to the pansies.”

Lessons from Yellowjackets: Speaking with the Natural World

By Madronna Holden

Some years back, my then three year old daughter and I were sitting in our front yard when a decidedly threatening man appeared and insisted I hire him.

For what, he never said.

In fact, without listening to my answer–which was an instinctive “no”– he let himself through our side gate and went around to the back of the house.

I barely had time to register my alarm at the fact he didn’t leave when I asked him to than he came out of our yard again, shouting that he was being attacked.

He was indeed. He had a swarm of yellowjackets in hot pursuit.

We never saw him again.

We ourselves came into daily contact with the yellowjackets who had a nest in our yard, but they never bothered us. I felt no qualms about sharing our garden with insects that had the capacity to be a nuisance, but also assisted us with pollination in the spring and consumption of other insects to feed their young later in the year.

I liked to imagine they refrained from stinging us since we tended the place where they found their sustenance—and they sensed this in whatever way yellowjackets might sense such things.

I liked to imagine that our daily rounds had become an accepted element of their world like rain and grass.

I know there are less poetic explanations for the yellowjacket attack on the stranger when they were so peaceable with us.  But I am reminded of the response Albert Einstein gave when asked if humans might one day reduce everything in nature to scientific explanation. His answer was yes, but that would be like explaining Beethoven through the measurement of sound waves. We could do it, but it would tell us nothing about the music.

Reportedly the anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski once grew impatient with the Trobriand Islanders as they related the reverent actions that made their yam gardens grow. Attempting to elicit a more pragmatic basis for their methods, he asked them whether they didn’t notice cause and effect.

They told him that was the simple explanation. The one reserved for things that didn’t have any meaning.  And growing the garden that gave them life did not fall into that category.

Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel once observed that it is an ” arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be put into a computer with the hope that, sooner or later, it will spit out a universal solution.”

I agree.  I prefer the story of natural creatures who express themselves in their own ways—and sometimes, if we are lucky, do so on our behalf.

I like to think that such creatures—even those we may be least apt to recognize as brethren—might choose to accept us into their communities and form alliances with us.

If we take a different view of the natural world– that of a “mere puzzle to be solved”, we lose considerable capacity for both wonder and vision.

The following Plains Indians story of a vision quest is illustrative.

A man who is seeking a vision fasts for several days.  He cries for his vision, humbling himself before the spirits of the world.

When he has done this for many long days and still no vision comes to him, he becomes desperate.  He climbs to the top of a great waterfall, determined he will live with a vision or die without one.

He jumps, abandoning himself to the roiling water.  And at that moment a magnificent white buffalo appears and swims him safely to shore.

From that day forward, the white buffalo becomes his spirit guide.

For the Indian audience that is the end of the story.

Still, the storyteller knows non-Indians will have questions:  “Was that really a white buffalo that pulled him out of the water?  What would someone standing on the shore see?”

So the storyteller adds something for their sakes:  “Something pulled him out of that water,” he asserts, “And whatever that was, belongs to him.”

It is only because the observer is a mere watcher on the banks of the river of life that he questions the life-saving vision another has found for himself.  Such an observer, with his self-proclaimed “objectivity”, is all too ready to declare his view of reality superior to that of the one who has chosen to dive in.

When I worked among the Chehalis Indians several decades back, elders were indignant that members of non-Indian culture might deem their traditions as “just stories”.   In such stories, passed down through thousands of years, was the collected wisdom of a people.

For their part, the elders who kept this knowledge on behalf of their people expressed considerable epistemological sophistication.  They understood that their individual views of the world were not reality.  To make such an assumption would be to insult those who shared their world. They honored all their unique voices as they asserted, “No one speaks for anyone else”.

By contrast, “even the best scientists” in Western tradition have made the profound mistake of believing, as Wes Jackson, director of the Land Institute, put it, “that the world operates by the same method they use to study it.”

With parallel arrogance, colonizers regularly deemed the beliefs of those whose lands they usurped as “superstition”.  Anthropologist Ruth Benedict had a response to that:  an analytic response that makes the way modern industrial society uses technology the real superstitious behavior.

According to her, superstitious behavior is based on adhering to simple stimulus and response. (This is the view of cause and effect without deeper understanding that the Trobrianders decried).  We do something—wear a black sock– and something happens—our team wins.  And so we continue to wear that sock every time our team plays in hopes of controlling the outcome.

Superstitious behavior attempts to control the world through magical thinking.  And thus we cast our lot not only with the black sock but with science’s magic bullets.

Incidentally, the story of the yellowjackets with which I began this essay could  also become an instance of such superstitious thinking  if I interpreted it to mean that I might blithely trounce through the natural world without ever worrying about yellowjackets.

Like all stories, this one belongs to a particular time and place.  I have been elsewhere–out in the woods–in the front of a line of other humans on a hike when I inadvertently stepped too close to a yellowjacket nest and was stung.

And I can tell you a yellowjacket sting is no fun.  But the appropriate response seems to me not to try to get them because they got me– but to pay attention.  I have not learned to magically control all yellowjackets but to live with some of them for our mutual benefit.  They still are very much creatures of their own.

By contrast, our characteristic pesticide use is an instance of superstitious behavior by Benedict’s criteria.  We spray pesticides and insects die—until they no longer do because they have grown immune. But our behavior has becomes a reflex action.  So we spray more, still hoping to control the world for our convenience–not noticing the effects on the environment and our own health that a deeper assessment would bring us.

According to Benedict, the contrasting attitude is based on dialogue. It is about reverent communication with the world.  Thomas Berry eloquently expressed the same view when he stated that the world is not a “collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.”

The first kind of behavior—the manipulation of our world—has left us with climate change and cancer epidemics and skyrocketing autism rates. The other one left us with sustainable models by which humans lived in harmony with their natural environments for thousands of years.

Wonder cannot be commanded, but if we view the world with humility and respect, there is just a chance it will respond to us with marvelous rather than deadly surprises—as happened in the modern community of Gaviotas in Colombia.

The consequence of their careful partnership with place was the serendipitous restoration of the rainforest in all its biodiversity on once ravaged aluminum-laced llanos.

We should all be so graced.

Telling the Stories of Consumer Products

updated 2.10.13

“Ag Gag”  laws attempt to stop us from knowing a product’s story:  see below.


“We have to remember our source of nourishment. Or we will starve.”

Elizabeth Woody, Warm Springs Indian Reservation (A Song to the Creator)


In spite of Elizabeth Woody’s warning, modern consumer society is geared to making us forget the natural sources of our nourishment.  Supermarket stacks of saran-wrapped hamburger packages disguise entirely their resemblance to their natural source.

Modern markets also give us the sense that money rather than knowledge is the key to our survival.  And in the capitalist system– in the short term– it is.

But in the long term, it isn’t. There is a limit to the ways in which we can force the land to yield more—even though we are still trying, with such schemes as vertical farming. Without healthy water and soil, food will not grow.  It comes to market from somewhere and the way in which this happens is a story we need to hear and to tell.

If that story is one of abundance and diversity and continuance, it is also a story of grace.  Thus, Wendell Berry once remarked, we should not eat any food we are not willing to pray over.

By contrast, most modern stories of the food we eat are profoundly lonely ones— for humans are the only actors within them.  In these stories we are only consuming, not sharing.  These stories tells us humans made up the cartoon cows that appear on milk cartoon– and humans can make up our food as if we did not need the cooperation of the land to do this.

Thus I applaud Barack Obama’s proposal for a farmer’s market at the White House: for such market’s tell us a different story.

We can never have too much healthy food, too much of the community created by such markets and the urban gardens like that currently at the White House.  Such markets and gardens exude the spontaneous sense of celebration that harvest always engenders.

They illustrate there are human hands and other natural lives involved in producing “the sources of our nourishment”.

At the Eugene Farmer’s Market last year, a booth selling goat cheese and goose eggs displayed a large egg and invited the passing crowd to guess what animal it came from. The farmer was amused at the number of passers-by who blurted out “goats” in answer to this question—evidently since there was a picture of a goat at the booth. Though there was no picture, obviously, of a goat laying an egg!

But perhaps the story of a goat’s egg is better than the story of an egg laid by a corporation with the intersession of a few feathered machines so closely housed that they need antibiotics to survive—and regularly resort to cannibalism.  Or formerly grass-eating machines that never move from their engineered milking stations and are turned into cannibals by the food their human managers give them.

And there is the tragic story that tells how both of these animal-machines in factory farms are slaughtered–under conditions in which humans are maimed and (all too often killed) along with the animals they process.

These stories are documented in books like Fast Food Nation and the film Food, Inc.—and in the lively Story of  Stuff. But they are not told in that supermarket package, where the stories available to consumers consist of things like ingredients and percentage of fat.  These hardly give us the full story.

But this is changing. Grassroots labeling campaigns are a way of telling more of the story of our food.  These stories include “sustainably raised” and “humanely raised” beef and “free range” chickens.

“Organic” itself was not originally a government label, but one created and standardized by farmers’ organizations like Tilth in Oregon.  There was a considerable battle when this label became a federal standard a few years back—since certain corporate interests wanted to water it down so much it would have been a meaningless label that did not distinguish organic from commercial products.  But those who originally instituted it—as well as a vocal percentage of the US public—fought to continue it as a standard that consumers can trust.

The battle continues as Monsanto wants to add genetically engineered foods to the list of those certified as organic.

There is also “fair trade” to combat the “free trade” propagated by the World Trade Organization whose rules specify nations cannot discriminate against products based on the means of production—so that it sued Massachusetts for boycotting products from the terrorist regime in Myanmar.

The label “fair trade” urges us to go more deeply into the stories behind our luxury goods from elsewhere.  How many of use would pick up that Hershey bar at the supermarket checkout lane if it had on it the story of the child’s hands that produced it under slave labor conditions in Africa?

There are other stories that the labeling of sustainably raised lumber, the labeling of buildings with LEED certification, and the proposed LEAF program for labeling of fabrics urge us to think about.  Some of them are gathered on community-based websites under consumer information links here.

The economic effects of such labeling is indicated by the pitched battle Monsanto has waged against labeling genetically engineered foods in the US for the last two decades—since their research tells them US consumers will buy far fewer gmo foods if they know they are buying them.  Monsanto’s dirty tricks included pressure on Fox News to fire two investigative reporters who uncovered the corporation’s unsavory tactics.

Meanwhile, dairy farmers in Oregon collectively agreed to refuse to use the bovine growth hormone—and labeled their products Bgh-free.  Monsanto also fought a losing battle to make it against the law to label milk products in this way.

Such labels signal a move to tell the stories of the products we use—stories that are all too often hidden by the corporate interests that manufacture those products.  Grassroots labels have standards upheld by transparent community groups—as opposed to the decisions deliberated behind the closed doors at the WTO.

Such labels are an important way of telling the story of the products we buy in a global arena in which consumers are often separated from the products they purchase by geographical and social distance.

They remind us all that we are a living part of a living world:  that there are human and natural lives behind all the food we ingest and the clothes we wear—and our houses shelter us with a story that began in the ancient joining of sunlight and trees.


One of the signs of a farm with ethical production practices is its transparency– its willingness to share the story of its production practices with us.  On the opposite end of the spectrum are those factory farms lobbying for “Ag Gag” laws,  in order to hide their practices from the public, levying jail sentences, for instance, for photographing what is done there.


And here is a great comment on this point that sums it all up, written by Valerie Fowler:

Ethically produced food is important on several levels. As mentioned here, fair trade food protects workers. Organic food protects the land and the consumers. Humanely raised food protects the animals from abuse. There are so many reasons to support “real” food and only one reason not to- which is money. Yet eating industrial food is actually cost-prohibitive because of the negative health effects. How much does diabetes, heart disease or cancer cost a person? Or even a simple doctors visit because the food they eat is so devoid of nutrients?

Diplomacy with the Nations of Life

The perception of other natural life as nations with distinct ways of life, values, perceptions, rights, and territories of their own would allow us to see the natural world in a more holistic way. This is not a new idea. This perception inspired indigenous Northwesterners to treat the first salmon taken from a run with ritual care:  for they if did not respect that salmon, they would insult the salmon people.

The treatment of other species as nations went hand in hand with whole-species and inter-generational assessments of the effects of human actions. Thus Yurok Lucy Thompson pointed out in her self-published book in 1916 that the modern laws meant to protect salmon runs lacked effectiveness. They would not  work as long as they were geared only to the actions of individual fisherman– since taken together, the actions of those fisherman created a guantlet of nets that the salmon could not navigate.  Notably, the shamans who oversaw traditional Yurok fishing indicated when to start and stop the taking of salmon from a run, thus gearing the take to the size of particular runs.

In this context, we see modern religious leaders such as Takelma Siletz elder Grandma Aggie as ambassadors between humans and natural domains such as the salmon and the waters in which they swim.  In her self-described role as a “voice for the voiceless”, she reminds us of those we might otherwise neglect in both human and larger-than-human societies.  Today, those are the ones that often the vulnerable ones  most in need our attention.

Such diplomacy entails respect for the homes of other creatures– the kind of respect with which we would like others to treat our homes. One day a Chehalis grandmother (in keeping with her sense of the value of modesty in her tradition, she requested I not use her name, though she urged me to use her words), pointed out the piles of earth on a prairie in front of her house, resulting from the going after camas with shovels.  “They really messed up the prairie”, she told me.  By contrast, one shouldn’t be able to tell that a prairie dug with the slender traditional digging sticks of her people had been dug.

I have heard this same ethic of non-disturbance of the habitat of other natural life  expressed by a number of other elders. In 1927, elder Mary Heck, speaking in Chehalis, testified before the Indian Claims Commission on behalf of her people, citing the villages that were destroyed by whites.  She added that beaver homes were also destroyed by pioneers as they drained land for their farms.

Refraining from disturbing the homes of other natural life is not an automatic response. Knowledge gained over generations of observation told indigenous root diggers how NOT to disturb the lives and habitats of others as they met their own needs. In Mary Heck’s case, she also observed the fertility the beaver’s activity added to the land.

Respect for the habitat of others provides an excellent model for respecting other human communities–a  special concern in the context of growing globalization.  Such respect must be based on the willingness to learn about the needs and views of these others. This is not an altruistic impulse.  In an interdependent world, what we learn of others enlarges our vision and our own choices.

This is a sketch of an idea I am working up into a larger paper.  I invite your response.

There is a story of a traditional African court mediation between a farmer and a hyena along the lines of the diplomacy mentioned in this post, as well as a discussion of the concept of nature having rights in  this article by Cormac Cullinan in Orion Magazine:

There is also an excerpt from his book, Wild Law on the site above.

See also Christopher Stone’s classic, Should Trees Have Standing?

Here is a Northwest independent bookseller sketch of Stone’s work complete with a number of responses and reviews.

The Story Given to Me by Seals

Ancient stories taught our ancestors to hear the voices of the larger than human world.  There are those stories, for instance, in which men find themselves married to seals-who nonetheless still long for the sea.  No matter how much the seal-wife loves her human husband, she will abandon him for her first home if she gets the chance.

And if her husband is not wise enough to give her that chance, she will die. As with the seal-wife in this tale, something of the wild may profoundly touch us–it may even come to live with us for a time.  But if we attempt to keep it under our control, we will kill its vitality. We will also lose something essential in ourselves in the process.  There is the telling origin of the word “nightmare” related by Robert Graves in The White Goddess.  Those who first domesticated horses in Britain believed that for every mare broken to a stall, there was a “nightmare” that haunted the craggy cliffs and bogs where humans dared not go.  And with her long teeth and dangerous hooves, she trampled those who would domesticate her in their dreams.

The sense of the wild as something in need of taming is a relatively new one in human cultures– and as the historical incident above indicates, it carries considerable psychic ambivalence. Pope Benedict recently observed that we need to reclaim an understanding of natural law: of the perception that we might find a guideline for human conscience in the profound spiritual order of the natural world. This idea directly coincides with traditions of indigenous Northwesterners such as those on the Columbia River who understood the “laws of creation” as necessary and ethical human behavior.

Indeed, many cultures understand that natural life has something essential to say to us both about the sacred and about human conscience.  Take the story from the Black Sea, which tells how seals and whales once lived on land and built an empire with their hands whose bones are still very much like those in our own hands. According to this story, they also created a sophisticated technology– but they used it to make war on one another and ravage the earth.

In short, they violated natural law in a way parallel to what many humans are doing today.

The Mother of Life intended to destroy them before they destroyed life itself. But the holy men among them struck a bargain with her. If she would let their people live, they would take to the sea, and exchange their dangerous hands for flippers.  As part of the bargain they would warn others away from the mistake they had made.

Thus it is a seal might follow us along the shore, as if trying to catch our attention, or a whale will beach near a ship as if it has something to tell us– in spite of the dangers to itself in doing this.

It is not so great a distance between listening to the earth in order to understand “natural law” and attributing agency to the wild. Indeed, if we truly believe that the natural world is animated by law that transcends human whims, mysterious things follow.   Folktales from traditions throughout the world reach across species lines to the mythic times when “all the animals and humans spoke the same language”–and animals had much to teach us about being human.

Such tales are not limited to non-Western societies.  There is an intriguing European folktale from the Middle Ages, in which a young boy outcast by his rich father for failing to be a social climber has one marvelous trait:  he can understand the language of animals. This skill not only helps him foil the plots of those humans who conspire against him. The story ends by his being chosen Pope, since the doves of the Holy Spirit speak not only with him but about him to the faithful.

What folktales tell us in their mythic inspiration, the natural world expresses in its own mysterious ways when wild creatures reach across the species lines to us– as has happened to me–and likely to each of your in various ways.  Such experiences have led me to believe there are no coincidences- -only stories waiting to be told.  Those stories are gifts that life blesses us with: our job is to be alert enough to recognize them.

One such story of depicting my own experience begins at Sunset Bay on the Oregon coast almost twenty years ago. In winter, when I came to Coos Bay to teach, I regularly walked the beach alone, in companionship with sea and sky–and a certain baby seal who would follow me along the edge of the tide line, popping up to eye me with its  wide unblinking stare. In response to its curiosity I began a spontaneous song

“You with your ocean eyes,

I with my feet on earth.

What will say to me?”

As I sang, I happened to look down at the beach where I strolled. And there at my feet was a flat rock, half the size of my palm that was shaped exactly like a seal!

I placed this in the glove compartment of my car as a memento of the mysterious ways in which our world is bound together.

A few months later I was camping at that same beach with my seven year old daughter, who was fascinated by the seal-stone and its story.  As I ran in the sand a short distance away, she took it out to play with. And amidst the uncounted stones on this beach, it slipped away and disappeared. No matter how hard we looked, we could not find it again.

My first response was frustration.  How could she be so careless with my treasure? But then I understood something.  Perhaps she has done just what she should.  What good is a thing with a story to it preserved in the dash compartment of a car? (Or a museum or a zoo?) It should be taken out, admired, played with-and ultimately given back to the elements once again.

After all, my daughter had only given back to the beach what belonged to it. Such a thing we may hold in our hands only long enough to glimpse something luminous from the heart of life. Only long enough, that is, to feel how precious it is-before we release it back to the natural world from which it came.

And if we do give it back, as I did only with my daughter’s help, more wondrous things may happen.

A short time after the stone was lost, I was at Cape Arago beach, a vigorous walk from Sunset Bay.  I like to imagine that this was just time enough later for a stone to be swept up by the tide and travel back to the sea with a story attached to it.  For, as I sat against a driftwood log, half dozing in the sparkling sunlight, a baby seal climbed out of the sea, pulling itself laboriously through the sand, and placed its head on the log on which I leaned my own head less than a foot from my own.

During the time I stayed by the log, the seal dozed beside me.  When I walked up the cliff to my car, I watched her slide back down the beach to the sea and swim away again.

She left me with this story that indicates how much larger the world is than our rational conception of it–the limiting rationality that the Pope decries as constraining us only to analyze and manage our world rather than to feel our full embeddedness in it-and accept the messages it wishes to bring us.

But if we do perceive the way the wild places us in its story, we can hardly fail to honor a world so full of gifts.

Please note that this material is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden.  I welcome you to link to this site, but you need my permission to reproduce the material here.

The Mice in the Sink– and Us

In “Mice in the Sink”, an essay exploring empathy in non-human animals, Jessica Pierce leads off with a provocative incident witnessed by CeAnn Lambert, head of the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center. Lambert found two baby mice, exhausted and terrified, trapped in the sink in her garage. She set a bowl of water in the sink. One mouse drank immediately, but the other was too weak to traverse the short distance to the bowl. The stronger mouse, however, devised an ingenious way to help the weaker one. It moved the piece of meat Lambert had also put in the sink close enough to the second mouse so that the latter could nibble it. When it had done so, the stronger mouse moved it closer to the water until it took another bite. Step by step, it led its weakened partner to the water to drink. By the time Lambert placed a board against the sink wall, both mice were strong enough to scurry up it. In her essay in the latest issue of Environmental Philosophy, Pierce calls this an example of heroism. What would you call it?

Here is an experience related by a woman who made a career of taking in injured bats and rehabilitating them in Eugene, Oregon. She was affectionately termed the “Bat Lady” by the school children whose classrooms she visited. She relates how she was cleaning the wounds of an injured bat-an obviously painful process. As she began to work on a severely injured bat that was struggling in fear and panic, there was another bat in the room who had undergone the same treatment and was now healed. As the new bat began to fight, the veteran bat made a sound. Instantly the newly injured bat become perfectly still and let the human handle it in any way she chose.

If we recognized that there is a place in the animal brain that is linked to empathetic reaction, as Pierce details in her article, perhaps it would change factory farming techniques that radically harm the health of ourselves and our environment together. Caging chickens so close together they practice cannibalism and restraining cows in such crowded conditions and filth they need daily antibiotics not to succumb to disease are two practices I am thinking of.

Indeed, ever since Francis Bacon, the purported father of modern science, stated that the wily scientist ought to “pin nature to the experimental board to torture her secrets from her” (language he got from the witch trials current at the time), experimentation on natural creatures has been licensed by the idea that nothing else in the world feels anything but us. At least other natural life does not feel anything deserving of our consideration, that is. That’s what doctors used to say when they circumcised male babies without anesthetic: their brains weren’t developed enough yet to feel the pain.

If we accepted the fact that animals of all brain sizes not only feel pain, but feel the pain of others, we’d have to revise Herbert Spencer’s misuse of the idea of Darwinism as the struggle in which only the “winners” survive. We’d have to go back to Darwin’s original sense of things, which emphasized cooperation rather than competition in the development of interdependent natural systems over time.

Evidence of this type is all around us– if we give up our sense of privilege in our work with other natural creatures– as do the scientists writing in Linda Hogan’s, Intimate Nature. Jane Goodall had an ongoing struggle with her scientific peers, who argued that her naming the animals she worked with made for “subjective” results they could thereby dismiss. She argued that good science takes all our senses: including empathy. This does not mean that the animals she studied lived an idyllic existence– though they have much to teach us. She found among her chimpanzees individuals who acted on their community mates with compassion and altruism, and others who acted with hostility and violence. The point is that the natural world is a complex affair when we allow it to speak for itself.

I would go so far as to say that anything we think we have learned about natural behavior using caged animals is not about natural behavior at all-but the human-created results of animal behavior under stress.

At the very least, we miss a great deal by telling our scientific story within such cages. For decades, geneticist Barbara McClintock worked without the support of an official research position, her work denigrated by her colleagues-until she won the Nobel Prize for the work that she derived from “listening to the corn”.

This is not a new way of looking at our world, but an old one. Among the Sahaptin-speaking people on the mid-Columbia River who lived at least 10,000 years in their home, the term, waq’ádyšwit, meaning “life”, was the “animating principle or ‘soul’ possessed by people as well as animals, plants, and forces of nature”. Waq’ádyšwit “implies intelligence, will, and consciousness” and since it existed in all natural things, it was the moral basis of the reciprocal partnerships between humans and their land. This is Eugene Hunn’s description of the belief system of these peoples: “People, animals, plants and other forces of nature-sun, earth, wind, and rock-are animated by spirit. As such they share with humankind intelligence and will, and thus have moral rights and obligations as PERSONS”.

“The earth is alive”, said Esther Stutzman, echoing this view from the perspective of her Western Oregon tradition: “It has a heart.” The indigenous peoples of Northern California likewise believed that the entire land was alive with spirit. In the early 1900’s, linguist Jaime de Angulo wrote of his frustration in trying to get a classificatory word for “animals” as opposed to humans in the Pit River language. His consultant, Pit River elder “Wild Bill”, told him there was no such term in the Pit River language, since there was no such distinction between humans and other natural beings in Pit River culture. When pressed, the only equivalent Wild Bill would give for “animal” was a term that meant “world-all-over-living”-a category which embraced all natural things, including what the white men called animals, what they called humans, and even what they saw as objects. In Wild Bill’s words: “Everything is living, even the rocks, even that bench you are sitting on. Somebody made that bench for a purpose, didn’t he? Well, then it’s alive, isn’t it? Everything is alive.”

Everything, that is, has a will and purpose of its own. Even those creatures we might dismiss in Western culture: like mice and bats. Like the water we mistreat, according to Takelma Siletz elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim. Or the salmon whose honoring she has recently re-instituted along with the ancient ceremonies of her people. “Grandma Aggie” Pilgrim’s insight is that if we restore our reverence to these aspects of the land that sustains us, we will treat them better: not using the water, for instance, as our “garbage dump”.

Wild Bill went on to contrast this worldview with that of the whites: “White people think everything is dead… They don’t believe anything is alive.” As a result of living in a “dead” world, he concluded, “They are dead themselves.” I once had a student of Pit River heritage in one of my classes at Linfield College. He related how an elder had told him that in traditional times, humans had been able to speak to the animals. Some might still be able to do that-if we were ready to listen.

His elders urged Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee to dive in the rivers to train for his spirit quest “when the water was alive”- when it was full of power and spirit. “The eyes of the world are looking at you”, they would tell him. Thus the multiple eyes of the natural world assessed his behavior-and ordained the length of his life and that of his people here with it. It was a survival technique increasing human awareness of the natural world that worked for Cultee’s ancestors for 10,000 years.

I led off this essay by asking how recognizing a world with a will, consciousness-and the ability to feel empathy toward others-might change our behavior toward it. There is a linked question. How would it change our quality of life to recognize that our daily lives take our place in such a living world?


You are always welcome to link to this post.  Note it is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to cite it rather than link here. Thank you.

The Sahaptin material cited above is from Eugene S. Hunn and David H. French, “Western Columbia River Sahaptins”, Handbook of North American Indians 12, and Hunn, Eugene S., with James Selam and Family: Nchi’i-Wána “The Big River” Mid-Columbian Indians and Their Land (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press: 1990).

The Pit River quotes are from Bob Callahan, ed. A Jaime de Angulo Reader (Berkeley: Turtle Island Press, 1979).

The One that Got Away and Other Stories of Sustainability

The next time a fisherman tells you he let that big one get away you might congratulate him on his sustainability practice. The bigger the fish that got away the better, as indicated by the research publicized by OSU professor Mark Hixon, multi-award winning marine biologist. It seems that fishing folklore that enshrines the wily old fish too smart to be caught had something to it. As the research cited by Hixon indicates, larger and older female fish need protection in offshore reserves, since they are the ones most likely to breed-as well as to pass on the best survival genes.

Hixon is at the forefront of scientific research, but as chair of the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee, he grappled with the distressing anti-science mentality of the recent Bush US administration. He is not alone. The results of the survey released last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that over half of the 1600 EPA professionals who filled out the Union’s detailed questionnaire reported incidents of political interference in their work, in which they were pressured by superiors to skew their findings.

If he worked as a knowledgeable elder whose job was to oversee the delicate balance of human and natural (spiritual) resources in traditional Northern California, Hixon would have had more community authority and support. Yurok/Klamath elder Lucy Thompson explained the “laws of the fish dam” overseen by traditional leaders in a book she self published in 1916. In a report confirmed by an anthropological study, she explained how traditional fish traps were open on one side to allow a number of salmon to escape upriver. The shaman also mandated that the trap could only be used for a short period of time, after which was taken down so that the entire run could pass to its spawning grounds.

Thompson noted that US conservation laws had gone into effect on the Klamath River, but they weren’t working very well. These laws prohibited nets from stretching all the way across the river, but because they only applied to individuals, they didn’t take into consideration the overall picture, which yielded a gauntlet of nets very few salmon could make it through.

Without a more comprehensive conservation policy, she predicted that the young California society would not protect the salmon resources as her people had done for thousands of years.

Throughout the Northwest, native spokespeople for those that US culture rendered “voiceless’, as Siletz spiritual elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim puts it, spoke out on behalf of the salmon. In 1846 a Chinook representative at the mouth of the Columbia told treaty negotiator Anson Dart his people would not sign until the pioneer commercial activity that disturbed the salmon was removed from the mouth of the river.

His plea was ignored, though earlier fur traders like Alexander Ross, who was reliant on native resources and good will, could not ignore native strictures for taking the salmon with care and respect. They were strictures which native peoples all over the Northwest held the early whites to. Fur traders on the Columbia as well as on Grays Harbor and Puget Sound encountered native protest against the pioneer method of fishing, which seemed bent on “catching them all”– even if they couldn’t use them.

In the early 1900s, Henry Cultee witnessed a fish cannery operation that blockaded the Humptulips and backed up the salmon so thickly they couldn’t be canned fast enough to keep them all from spoiling. Thus the canners hired scows to tow boatloads of the rotted fish out to sea to dump them. “It would have done a lot of good”, Cultee remarked, if they had let these salmon run upriver instead.

Letting some go was the perennial strategy of the native people wherever the salmon ran in the Pacific Northwest, out of courtesy to the people upriver as well as out of fundamental respect for the salmon themselves. The native strategy resulted in the fish runs so prolific they “embarrassed” pioneer Ezra Meeker on Puget Sound, who could hardly move his boat through the millions of salmon he encountered in such a run there. In one Columbia River camp in 1805, Lewis and Clark counted 107 bundles of salmon that Clark estimated to weigh ten thousand pounds. Altogether, the fifty thousand Indians who lived along the Columbia took an estimated forty-two million pounds of salmon a year from the great river of the West. Notably, this take was at least seven times the contemporary harvest. This stunning pre-contact catch harmed neither the abundance nor sustainability of the salmon runs.

This did not happen accidentally. Native fishing practices were governed by the belief that the salmon were kin with whom humans could and should engage in interpersonal partnerships. This partnership has recently been re-asserted by Takelma-Siletz elder Agnes Pilgrim Baker. Others, like Nisqually elder Billy Frank Jr., have worked for years with Washington state officials and other fisherman to protect salmon resources in western Washington.

Grandma Aggie’s own work is paying off. Salmon runs have been coming back along the Applegate and Rogue Rivers, the traditional territory of her ancestors and the site of the salmon ceremony she recently revived. Her spirituality is linked to pragmatic action– “walking your talk”. She expresses satisfaction that the dam will soon be coming off the Applegate River just upriver from the salmon ceremony site–and another dam is coming off the Rogue shortly thereafter. She worked on a local citizen committee to help bring this about.

Letting the best go for the future was not only a strategy applied to the salmon. In the Willamette Valley, a pioneer witnessed a traditional Kalapuya hunt in which the people encircled the deer. Before they took any, they let the biggest and strongest go. This is the opposite strategy from hunting the biggest deer or elk to place its “rack” on a wall.

But the indigenous peoples who lived sustainably in the Northwest for thousands of years had the time and inclination to learn from nature. Theirs was not an attitude of domination of the natural world– or of gaining the trophies to express this. Instead, they worked to establish a reciprocal partnership with the other natural beings who share our lives.

That is as simple and wise a strategy as saving the best seeds for future crops– or passing on a better world for our children and their children.

To get involved in saving the Northwest’s fish resources:

Locally, OSPRIG’s campaign supporting marine reserves in Oregon is coordinated here. UNESCO has a recent report on the importance of local knowledge in sustaining fisheries.

Update:  in 2009, the Oregon Legislature approved a bill to protect two offshore areas as marine reserves.

For a detailed scholarly report of the environmental strategies of the indigenous peoples of California, see M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild.

An analysis of traditional indigenous ecological practices in the Pacific Northwest is here.

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 copy it in any other form than a link to this page. Thanks.

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.