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.

A Weed is a Weed is a Weed? Good and Evil in the Garden

By Madronna Holden

Updated 3.4.12

New link for Polish beekeepers winning ban on  corn genetically engineered to produce Bt (see below)

At the 2.5 acre Grass Roots Garden, cultivated to feed the hungry in Lane County, Oregon, there is “weed walk” led by an Oregon State University Master Gardener on the first Saturday of each month.  The weed walk emphasizes the edibility of many weeds, which have a higher nutrient value than what we intentionally plant.

The presence of certain weeds also supports the growth of classic garden plants in contributing to the fertility of the soil. Dandelions, for instance, have long tap roots that bring up minerals and other nutrients from deep in the soil and make these available to garden plants.  For this reason, the dandelion, every part of which is edible, is one plant never pulled out of the personal garden of the head of the local Master Gardener program.

Wise gardeners who don’t want the dandelion to spread simply snip off the blooming flowers. They might add these sweet delicacies to fresh salads and leave others to bloom for the sake of honey bees and goldfinches who feed on them.

Of course, you shouldn’t eat these from an area that has been sprayed—and neither should the honey bees or goldfinches. But these are often unseen collateral damage in the mindset of good and evil in the garden: good being those plants under our control, and evil being those plants that audaciously grow on their own.

This is an historically rooted part of the Western worldview, as indicated by the journals of the early fur traders in the Pacific Northwest, who wrote that they planted their gardens not primarily to harvest the produce, but to teach “control over nature” to local indigenous peoples.  Herbicide commercials play off this worldview, depicting the “weed” as a sly and dangerous presence out to undermine our control of our yards and gardens.

Nowhere in these ads do we find the information in a recent study done by University of Pittsburgh researchers who found Round Up applied according to label instructions caused nearby amphibians to change their shape.  Ironically, Round Up, which also creates several other health and environmental harms, including likely human birth defects,  is one of the least toxic herbicides currently in use– less toxic than some of the products the US allows to be sold that are outlawed in European countries.

Atrazine, for instance, currently banned in Europe, has powerful hormonal effects.  It is directly linked to breast cancer and causes “chemical castration” in a number of species.  Atrazine  is, however, the number one herbicide currently used in the US–the number one contaminant of drinking water in agricultural areas.  An important film documents this in a discussion between a mother and scientist, which indicates data  that such chemicals will effect our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

The ads for herbicides also don’t mention that human labor is an effective way to banish unwanted plants—and though this course is more expensive than herbicides in the short run if we count the expense of labor, it is most effective in the long run in actually eradicating certain problem plants. Herbicide use is, by contrast, an economic woe for farmers who must continue to increase their herbicide use as more plants grown resistant to these chemicals.

Manual control also avoids serious environmental and health problems with the very things that make herbicides most effective—their “systemic” qualities (being taken up into all parts of the plant) and “persistent” qualities (which keep them from breaking down).  And even as we apply  stronger herbicides with more systemic and persistent qualities, we cannot keep ahead of the Mother Nature’s adaptability, which is creating herbicide-resistant “super weeds” in response.

A recent essay in Onearth, published by the natural Resources Defense Council, suggested we might take a “conciliatory” approach to even invasive weed control. That is, since there are weeds that are simply not going away, we might learn to live with them. This essay documents how quickly insects adapted to feed on a particular invasive species in its new habitat.

I love native plants and nurture many of them in my own yard, but I also find the declared “war” on all invasives ironic when waged by those who are themselves European transplants on the American continent. In a local natural area, a friend and I recently came upon a volunteer placing herbicides on the dandelions that grew (if only sparsely) in an open meadow next to a river.

Though I know the management is trying to restore the local ecosystem here, they might take into account that this tact not only places persistent and systematic poisons in water systems, but has potential effects on important root crops like native camas that also share this meadow.  According to Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman, herbicides used by the BLM and the National Forest Service have caused native harvesters of camas to become seriously ill from ingesting this former food staple.

One thing overlooked in the war on weeds is that they are often vital in providing humans with food. Take the case of modern rice grains imported to Asia during the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s.  These grains are more productive than their diverse counterparts (there were over a hundred rice varieties grown in traditional fields) only if one counts the yield of that one particular plant per acre.

But as Vandana Shiva points out, these single crops are less productive when measured against the total output of all crops in traditional fields.   Indeed, the greens that once grew between the rice rows– now considered weeds– provided essential vitamin A and other nutrient to the local diet.  Currently, vitamin A deficiency is a serious health threat among populations growing rice as weed free crops.

Weeds also historically fed the hungry during hard times in the US, since they are free, nutritious and readily available. Many poor families survived on such weeds during the Depression. My father cannot eat greens to this day without being reminded of the extreme deprivation of those days.

The good news is that his mother was able to gather enough weeds to keep her family from starving. As related to me by another man who lived through the Depression, those who massed in the California gold fields with their hungry children, hoping to pan enough gold for a loaf of bread, were not so lucky.

The weeds were reliable, but the gold wasn’t.

It is sheer folly to poison plants (along with ourselves and the environment) that are faithfully there for us in the worst of times and supplement our diets and fertilize the land in the best of times.

Instead we might redefine “weeds” as those plants that detract from balanced, diverse, and vital ecosystems —such as the genetically engineered corn that Polish beekeepers won a recent legal ban against, since its  Bt saturated pollen poisoned bees.

It is time we learned enough about our world to cease making enemies of our friends.

Please feel to pass on the information in this essay in whatever way you see fit.

Wangari Maathai 1940-2011

By Madronna Holden

“You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”

–Wangari Maathai

 Growing up in her Kikuyu village in the sight of Mt. Kenya, Wangari Maathai learned to revere that mountain as the glacial source of rivers and rain that sustained her land and people.  When her people climbed that peak, they walked barefoot out of reverence, for they felt they were approaching the realm of God.

Heaven, Maathai asserted, is right here, in our lives and the presence of the other lives of all species that share the earth. Thus the Kikuyu recognized the presence of divinity on the mountain.  As long as the people looked up and saw the clouds on the top of Mt. Kenya (that mountain, Maathai wrote, is a “shy mountain” and usually covered), they knew they could rely on the rains to come and the rivers to run full.

That reliance has grown shakier as the glaciers recede with climate change and logging denudes the land.  Maathai asserted that the land does not like to be “naked” in this way.  It wants to be covered with green life: with the trees that also yield protection for water resources, food, firewood and building materials for local villages. By tradition, her Kikuyu people never cut the streamside trees whose roots protected the abundance and clarity of precious water resources.

From her culture, especially as passed on to her from her grandfather, Professor Wangari Maathai of Nairobi University, the first African woman to hold a Nobel Prize and the first person to earn that prize as an environmentalist, learned to look at the mountain and “understand the future”.  Her reverence for the mountain motivated her work in the Greenbelt Movement, along with her continued emphasis on the relationship between social and environmental justice for the people of Kenya– as she  emphasized in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

In 1977, she founded the Greenbelt Movement, ultimately responsible for planting 47 million trees in Africa and billions of trees worldwide. Such planting was primarily the work of poor women carefully tending and watering their trees.

Without culture, Maathai wrote, humans have no real security in the world and easily succumb to the lure of material goods as a short term “fix”. It is a poor substitute for real security.  Maathai acknowledges there are negative things in some African cultures—but also positive ones that counteract the colonial assertions of African “backwardness”.  Essential among these is the ways in which traditional peoples know how to sustain their lives and health of their lands together.

As the current tribute to her life on the website of the Greenbelt Movement states, Wangari Maathai’s experience increasingly supported her view that “poverty and environmental destruction” were intertwined with “deeper issues of disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods, and what was best in their cultures”.

Founding and guiding the Greenbelt Movement that included over 900,000 African women was not always easy.  Maathai and other Greenbelt members were consistently jailed and harassed by the authoritarian regime of Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.

Even as Maathai considered environmental protection and human justice intertwined, she continued to speak out for both.  At one point she was beaten unconscious by police in a demonstration seeking the release of political prisoners—a demonstration that ultimately resulted in the release of 51 men.

Even as leaders were by tradition accountable to their people, Maathai used her own social status to support the cause of justice, as when she co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with five of her sister Nobel Laureates to advocate for peace, justice and equality worldwide.

It is with good reason that women were at the center of Maathai’s priorities as she developed ways to empower poor women globally.  Elected parliamentary representative after the demise of the authoritarian Moi regime, Nobel Laureate, professor at Nairobi University (the first woman to assume that position), winner of the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan, 2009), the Legion D’Honneur (France, 2006), and Elder of the Golden Heart and Elder of the Burning Spear (Kenya, 2004, 2003), the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2007), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), the Sophie Prize (2004), the Goldman Prize (1991), the Right Livelihood Award (1984), and honorary doctorates from Yale University and Morehouse College in the U.S., Ochanomizu University in Japan, and the University of Norway, Maathai still could not obtain a divorce from her husband who protested that she was “too outspoken for a woman”. Indeed, she was jailed for criticizing the judge who failed to grant her that divorce.

From the time that as a child Maathai lived in terror of the crushing violence of colonial authorities putting down the Mau Mau insurgence, Maathai experienced firsthand the effects of such violence on women and children.  Still she was tireless in enacting her vision even in the face of such violence. “Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times”, Maathai wrote, “But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.”

Sadly, the world has just lost this remarkable leader though ovarian cancer. But in her 71 years on this earth, she left a powerful legacy.  Her example is a distinctive one for meeting the environmental and social crises we currently face.

She taught us the importance of holding to our vision in the face of overwhelming odds—even as she worked in her own life to supplant the violence levied against her and the earth with compassion and justice.

Maathai modeled the way in which a simple act such as planting and caring for a tree can give poor women their power back at the same time that it can change the world for the better. And multiplied in community, such an act can become billions strong.

The roots of the billions of trees newly planted in Wangari Maathai’s wake are testimony to the hope and persistence that each of us might express in our lives, wherever and whoever we are.

————————

I want to acknowledge my former student Julie Bovett for emailing me about the sad fact of Wangari Maathai’s passing.

The Fourth Annual Willamette River Blessing: Opposing the Readiness to Harm

By Madronna Holden

What Traditional Stories and Ceremony Can Teach us About Sustainable Technology

On April 17, 2011,  the Willamette River flowed past the EWEB Plaza in Eugene, Oregon,  in great swells, rolling up over its banks and swirling through wetlands of willows– full of of itself for the annual river blessing led by Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.

For 22,000 years, Grandma Aggie told those gathered to take part in the blessing ceremony, her Takelma ancestors had lived in the Rogue River valley south of here, which they felt the Creator had shaped especially for them.

It was with “sick hearts”, a Rogue River man explained, that they moved at the hands of soldiers to the Siletz Reservation so many miles away. It was a sickness, an early reservation official wrote, that was serious indeed– since many who suffered it died as a result.  One man begged that if he might just have one more look at his land, he would be satisfied. But these are the points of history I am adding here. Grandma Aggie doesn’t call attention to them.

She has no rancor over this:  what is done is done, she says, and none of us were there.  Now we need to go forward in love for one another—and care for the earth that sustains us all. Over a century after her people were confined on the reservation surrounded by military forts to prevent them from attempting to go home, Grandma Aggie felt the call of the land and returned to live in her people’s homeland, reviving the ancient salmon ceremony there.

Her people’s ancient story of the salmon, Grandma Aggie says. taught her the salmon were people just like us who sacrifice themselves for our well-being.  It was this story that motivated her to dedicate herself to freeing the local rivers of dams and pollution.  Now all the dams are removed from the Rogue and it runs free its entire length.

But there is much yet to do to care for the waters of the world yet.

Grandma Aggie is fond of saying that we are all “water babies”—and through the water that gives us life we are all connected.  Thus she honors the requests of  communities  throughout the Northwest to bless their local rivers; bringing the message that working for the well-being of the rivers is working for our own well-being.

She warns us not to complain of the rain that settled over the Northwest this past week, but to speak well of water that is precious—and disappearing from so many parts of the world where she and the indigenous grandmothers have traveled. How we speak of the rain, she said, is how we speak to the water in ourselves.

As we circle close by the river and Grandma Aggie pours into it the waters of the other rivers of the world she has visited, I am struck by the simplicity and reverence of the traditions represented here.  A man at Grandma’s side prays to be one of the men who supports the work of the grandmothers, as men everywhere should be– and he tries to teach his boys.  Many who speak are choked with tears as they speak of their grief for the hurting earth and ask forgiveness of the living water for allowing its pollution.

We should treat the water as a “god”, Grandma Aggie tells us, with the reverence due that which gives us life.

Lest some of us get caught up in struggles over terms, we might use Grandma Aggie’s model of openness as she participates in the ceremonies of the other indigenous grandmothers, praying to the Creator with these words, “These ways are not my ways, but help me to gain something from them, too.”

Treating water as a “god” means listening to the natural world in a way that has pragmatic pay offs.  Grandma Aggie predicted the problems with disease among hatchery salmon before modern science verified it.

The people who lived with their land for 22,000 years expressed the vital humility that allowed them to attend to the natural lives that sustained them–and thus to live in a way that supported the abundance and fertility of their lands.

“Grandfather, help us keep the rivers clean for the sake of all the swimmers”, Grandma Aggie prays, as an eagle circles overhead, swallows circle the water in droves (flitting away after the ceremony), and ducks  bobble up on the bubbling water as if to learn closer to her words. At their presence, Grandma Aggie smiles the same smile she gives to children when she says she is “everybody’s Grandma”.

And for that moment, we are all part of a web of life that is whole.

Grandma Aggie’s stance exemplifies a technology of reverence:  a technology that brings lives together.  If technology’s purpose is to extend our reach in the world, sustainable technology should extend our sight as well.  Thus the story-technology of Grandma Aggie’s people reminds us that what we do touches other lives that are like our own in value and meaning—and upon which our own lives depend.

It is a technology that extends human reach by strengthening bonds of intimacy:  and thus motivating humans to act in a way that protects the precious fabric of life—a goal which Grandma Aggie specifically reminds us

Last October, the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers were in Japan, in the precise location where the devastating earthquake was to strike—and the continuing nuclear emergency emerged. In the wake of those disasters, Grandma Aggie recalls that the Japanese peoples were the most generous and hospitable she has ever met.  It is one way to understand this tragedy: to see it as happening to people with kind human faces.  Grandma Aggie told me of meeting another “Aggie” in Japan. This Aggie told Grandma Aggie she had dreamt of her coming and was anxious to meet her, since she bore the same name.

There is a profound metaphor in this story Aggie shares with simple delight: an understanding that each of us has a potential namesake in the lands we conceive of as most distant– and in the lives we might think of as different from our own human ones– like the salmon.  Shortly before, she reminded me again how hearing that the salmon were people who sacrificed themselves to sustain human lives impelled her to care for the river and its swimmers.

It was such traditional stories that created culture:  that gave us  physically puny humans the edge in adaptation. If this past teaches us anything, it is that the tools we use should bring us closer to understanding the long term and long rang results of our actions.

Blessing the river is that kind of technology: a ceremony that reminds us of our connection to one another and to the vital sources of our lives. It is about “spreading the word”, as Grandma Aggie asks us to do on leaving the ceremony—“so that everyone will know what went on here”.  So that everyone can join this community, feeling the hope and purpose of caring for the water that sustains us all.

By this criterion our contemporary technology doesn’t always fare so well.  Instead of making the results of our actions more visible to us, it cushions us from them.  We don’t understand the vulnerability of our water when we just turn on a faucet to have it magically appear.

Shortly after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, a newscaster questioned a local man who lamented that since radiation is invisible, local people had no idea how to respond to it.  This is not just the nature of radiation:  it is the way in which nuclear technology has been put into practice, based on secrecy and distancing, as detailed in too many unfortunate incidents in what Arjun Makhijani, co-editor of the MIT Press publication, Nuclear Wasteland, terms the  “readiness to harm”. 

We express such a “readiness to harm” toward those we think less valuable than ourselves—or those who are invisible to us.  If sustainable technology has made the the invisible visible, gives voice to the voiceless (in Grandma Aggie’s words), then technology that truncates our vision does the opposite:  leading to the multiple crises that come as unpleasant surprises to us in the present age.

Our contemporary crises and the contrasting indigenous success challenge us to re-shape our technology to make the results of our actions transparent, to extend our reach and power in the world even as we extend our compassion and wisdom.

How Vulnerability Weaves Natural and Human Communities

By Madronna Holden

“There’s a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in.”
– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Shortly after World War II, as the Japanese economy surged ahead, a survey set out to discover why the Japanese management style was so successful. One finding was surprising to those with a Western worldview:  successful Japanese CEOs characteristically revealed their personal vulnerability to others, including their subordinates. Once such vulnerabilities were revealed, the organization could work as a team to address them.

In his little gem of a book, Leadership is an Art, Max DePree observes that managers that cannot weep are not intimate with their work: “these people must not be trying to live up to their potential. They must think they cannot fail.” DePree is not speaking of tears of “chagrin or frustration”, which he finds particularly useless.  But tears resulting from care, from responsibility, from involvement—from understanding that the best “leaders don’t inflict pain, they bear pain”.

Indigenous peoples knew the value of such leadership as well.  Among some Plains peoples, there are joking stories of how one could barely find anyone to be “chief”– since one who assumed that status also assumed such vulnerability.  If there were hungry, they would find refuge in the leader’s tent, where the chief’s family went hungry until all others were fed.  And if there were disagreements, those involved would find both refuge and arbiter in that same tent.

This ancient idea of leadership not as dominance but service is something we could use more of in today’s world.  Under DePree’s leadership, Fortune 500 Company Herman Miller, a family business begun in 1923, excels in craftsmanship, personal care for its workers, creative physical design—and economic success.  DePree knows what he is talking about when he describes successful management.

His approach, however, is different from most CEOs in the US.  In the survey above, US CEOs felt that revealing their vulnerability would negate their power to lead. They worked to present themselves as strong – which they understood as invulnerable.  The repercussions of this included the inability to learn from their mistakes, substantial energy siphoned off in hiding what was really happening in an organization, and undermining the ability of an organization to work as a team.

These corporate executives were enacting a key component of the Western worldview: the idea that vulnerability is dangerous and must be guarded against at all costs. This is what the athletic competitions that  hold the attention of millions of us on television annually tell us:   one should never expose a vulnerability.  Instead, one should exploit the vulnerability of others.

One problem with this approach, as indicated in the recent prevalence of head injuries in professional football, is its lead up to violence. Another, as analyzed in Michael Messner’s, Power at Play, is that young men who often go into athletics to honor their bodies are tragically taught to dishonor them instead:  to use their bodies as instruments as they learn to ignore their vulnerability– as they “play through the pain”.

It is not just athletics that teaches us this, but the mechanized environment of modern industry.   As psychologist James Hillman puts it, an environment composed of “plastic, Styrofoam, cold metal” creates a “slow anesthetizing”, such that we “become brutal”. There is, after all, nothing vulnerable about plastic, Styrofoam or “cold metal”—no need to exercise our moral concern in such an arena.

The effects of our actions on others is ignored as their vulnerability becomes irrelevant, as in the case of the chemical company CEOs who viewed x-rays showing the bones of their workers dissolving from exposure to toxic chemicals— and saw this only as a problem to be hidden lest it detract from  their bottom line.

This is the same kind of  “psychic numbing” Robert Jay Lifton found in Nazi doctors who numbed their physical sensations lest they feel empathy for the pain they inflicted on others. Lifton gives examples in which professionals in the contemporary US today also exhibit “psychic numbing” as they carry out experiments on other lives.   Lifton suggests two remedies for the moral danger involved here:  that we become fully present in our bodies and that we focus our actions on empathy for other lives.

As eloquent Central American poet Daisy Zamora puts it, to be truly present in our bodies—to love our bodies for their uniqueness and their vulnerability– is to assume our place in the “unending chain of other bodies”.   It is to experience empathy for all the lives that inhabit a body as do we ourselves.

Vulnerability itself shapes human culture.  It is the reason why the developing brains of human children do not settle into their final physical configurations until a child reaches the age of ten or eleven.  Up until that, the child is dependent on adults to care for him or her.  And in those years of dependency the communication of culture takes place.

At the other end of life, the physical vulnerability of the elderly closes the circle of culture. As their community cares for the elderly who become physically dependent, elders give back the experience of their lifetimes, cached in stories,  to their community.  Vulnerability, at the beginning and end of life, creates the condition for the passing on of culture that makes humans unique among species.

Or at least it is that way in societies that keep their vital cultural heritage alive. If we see time as an arrow in which the past drops away from us—and the knowledge of our elders as useless, this link between physical vulnerability and intimacy is broken—and we come to the end of our lives as an abrupt wall, with no circle of legacy to re-enter. In this context, Madison Avenue has a heyday hawking youth culture.

But on a global scale, the youth culture is not always faring so well either. If we send children to work in factories at an early age–a capitalist tradition still followed in African chocolate plantations run by multi-nationals—or we allow them to go hungry (the greatest proportion of the hungry in the US today are children) — we also break the cycle that honors the children who depend on us as the carriers of our future.

I worry about a nation who can only see vulnerability (the hunger of children, the woundedness of returning soldiers) as a bit of red ink on a ledger somewhere.  We have nothing to hold us together as a nation if our impulse to care for one another is labeled as “socialism” (as various FOX news pundits characteristically label it) and thereby dismissed. If we cannot design ways to listen to one another, to learn from one another, to meet one another’s needs together– by what right do we call ourselves a nation?

To an isolated individual, a disabled veteran or hungry child on the streets, vulnerability is no asset.  In the context of “every man for himself”, one can understand why  some might wish to dump the “useless eaters” from the rolls of community support.  But I hope that their memory is not so short that they forget the origin of this term.  “Useless eaters” was the phrase used by Hitler to decide whom to send to the gas chambers.

By contrast, the society that understands and cares for the needs of its most vulnerable is also resilient.  When an individual  fell ill, mentally or physically, among many long enduring societies, that illness was a barometer of the health of the tribe. Among many such societies, an individual illness signed a way in which a family or whole community needed to change its behavior.

Such a culture would not have to wait to hear that their pregnant women carried toxins in their umbilical cords to do something about the toxins that currently pervade our environment.  One individual who came down with the cancer absent in ancient cultures would be enough for society to read oncoming disaster and change its ways.

We would need neither the demise of the renowned canary in a coal mine– or the pollinators of our crops– to expose the parallel vulnerability between humans and other natural lives. Just as the fabled canary was once used as a barometer of the health of mine air, colony collapse disorder among honeybees and other pollinators shows us what we are doing wrong–and what we need to change quickly.

The honeybee–and native pollinators like the bumblebee– illustrate stunningly the ways in which the lives of natural systems are interwoven as vulnerable to one another. These insects are covered with fine hairs that trap pollen as they visit the flowers from which they gather nectar as they fertilize them.  However, those same hairs now trap chemical pollutants.  Penn State researchers found that samples of bees from 23 states carried remnants of 98 different pesticides in their bodies.

The sticky hairs with which the bees clung to their diversity of pollen was such an asset in natural systems that the honeybees evidently did not have to worry much about toxins as they went.  A recent analysis of their genes indicates they have very few enzymes allowing them to detoxify pesticides.

In this sense, the little creatures whose brains perform complex locational and social functions we cannot mimic on any computer as they pollinate billions of dollars worth of crops annually are our new canary in a coal mine.

The fate of such creatures shows us– as our vulnerability has always done– how we are all in this together. That is the thing about vulnerability:  it does not privatize well—it alerts us instead to responsibility we share and must shoulder together.

The vulnerability we entrust to one another as we express our highest purposes:   the vulnerability that arises from a vision yet to be made real, a mistake for which we take responsibility, a need to lean on another for a time, from being present to the wondrous gift of a body that also ages and gets ill—points the way to creating stronger community.

As Thomas Berry has observed, not a one of  us nourishes ourselves.  Just as we depend on other lives for our own survival, our vulnerability to one another teaches us to treat with tenderness the vulnerable natural systems that provide us with clean air, fertile growing land, drinkable water and climate control.

These are things we can only protect together.   Just as we must protect together the social commons that provides us with learning from the past– with family, community and legacy—the commons that is as fragile as it is precious.

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Thanks to dear friend Leia Hart for reminding me of the great line by Leonard Cohen that begins this essay.

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.

Attending to the Whole: Addressing the Tragedy of the Commons

By Madronna Holden

Garret Hardin’s much cited essay, “Tragedy of the Commons”, asserts that as humans maximize their individual self-interest, they inevitably destroy the natural commons that sustains them.  Hardin used the theoretical example of a pasture, assuming individual grazers would more strongly weight the benefits to themselves in grazing more sheep as against the benefits to the commons in holding back — thus overgrazing their land to destruction.

If Hardin had used real history instead of his postulated example,  he might have revised his assumption about the inevitable destruction of human resources shared in common. In traditionally shared commons, many cultures characteristically  monitor and self-regulate their activity to protect their subsistence base, as in the case of Mongolian horse pasture  and tribal fisheries in the indigenous Pacific Northwest. The latter are two examples pointed out by three distinguished professors in the fields of agribusiness, ecology and property law in their essay, “Tragedy of Ecosystem Services”.

Humans have not always been so stupid as to destroy the natural commons that sustains them —given that they both recognize it as their means of survival and have the power to regulate it as a community.  On the other hand, humans who don’t have knowledge of the results of their actions on the commons may act so as to undermine its survival– and their own. Jared Diamond illustrates such cases of ecological failure in his book, Collapse.

But given good information and the power to implement community choices accordingly, humans have designed subsistence arrangements sustainable for hundreds or thousands of years—as did the terrace-farmers in New Guinea with which Diamond had firsthand experience.

Today, the “tragedy of the commons” results from the intersection of scarcity, powerlessness, and social competition – in which one person’s gain becomes another’s loss.  What began the massive post-industrial erosion of the commons in Europe were the seventeenth century enclosure and land privatization laws, creating scarcity for small grazers and setting them in competition with one another.  At the same time that this policy filled the coffers of a few, it took away the power of the community to recognize their common interests and care for their lands together.

Enclosure laws, purported to “protect” local farmers, actually drove them off their land, as it did the James family, whose members came to the US after they lost their own land as a result.  It was a memory so potent as to be passed through several generations — and communicated to me when I interviewed James family members on Grand Mound Prairie, Washington, over two hundred years later.

The tragedy of the commons derives not from human nature –or a human presence on the land which is inevitably destructive– but from systems that work against doing the right thing, ecologically speaking–by obscuring knowledge of the importance of natural systems to our survival, for instance.

Or by creating an economic system that robs individuals of ecologically sound alternatives.  In response to the essay  on “partnering with the natural world”  on this site, Darcy Myers gives the example of a woman in Haiti who recognizes the destructive ecological consequences of her actions, but cannot survive by doing otherwise.

I once asked a group of dislocated workers (former loggers) in a class I taught how many would support clear cutting if they were given an economic alternative.  If they saw a different means with which to support their families, not a one would have chosen to clear-cut the land.

According to “The Tragedy of Ecosystem Services” degradation of natural processes priced at 33 trillion annually (in 1994 dollars) results from a failure to recognize and value them. Simply put, in a system which prioritizes making money, protecting the commons doesn’t.  Services created by natural processes but unvalued in the present market system include clean water, clean air, stable weather patterns, carbon sequestration in forests, and soil fertility.

In this article, C. L. Lant, J. B. Ruhl, and S.E. Kraft outline three ways humans have historically treated “ecosystem services”: private property law, government regulation, and common law.

They  concur with the ample documentation that indicates current US private property law is inevitably regressive in terms of care for the commons.

Government regulation is an important stop-gap to save resources that might otherwise be lost forever. But in its overriding of local decision-making, such regulation may lead not only to resistance on the part of local communities,  but to oppositions between interest groups that obscure recognition of the commons itself.

The third way of caring for “ecosystem services” is by taking up the precedent of common law, which has fallen by wayside in the emphasis on private property in the US legal system since the nineteenth century.  The Mongolian pasturage and northwest fishing situations are models of such common law—as are older European grazing traditions.

The authors of this article propose that the best way for such common law to be developed and enforced is by local communities within particular ecosystems.  There are interesting parallels between such common law and the legal “rights of nature”, since both set up legal rights for the protection of natural commons.

Though these authors have no illusions about the shift in cultural values and economic habits such common law might require, they insist we cannot continue to ignore the value of natural systems that sustain our lives —letting them be grabbed and used up by whomever can do so.

Many indigenous cultural traditions see the natural commons as priceless—and their protection as taking precedence over individual human rights to amass wealth, for instance.  These traditions  express holistic worldviews that respect the intrinsic value of all earthly life–extending their sense of family to all species in the circle of time that includes, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe framed it, ” a community of the living, the dead and the unborn.”

A vision of the whole that extends our awareness and responsibility arms us to reverse the tragedy of the commons.

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.