Beauty May Save Us: The Power of Nature’s Beauty

sky color

By Madronna Holden

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, a young Appalachian woman’s longing for something different—something just for herself—pulls her toward disaster in her susceptibility to sexual manipulation.

But on her way to an illicit rendezvous, her course of self-destruction is interrupted by a natural wonder.  She see the woods full of what seems to be a mysterious orange fire that she later learns it is a gathering of monarch butterflies.  This experience tells her that the passion she seeks is not about giving herself away.  It is erotic in an entirely different way:  a way that turns her onto a path of care for herself, her children– and the miracle of nature endangered by climate change.

As this novel indicates, our response to beauty can be centrally implicated in our personal choices.  It is also implicated in our cultural story.

That story prompted pioneers to ravage the beauty of the Pacific Northwest in their attempt to tame the land.  Some felt a fear bordering on panic of the grandeur of the old growth forests –a fear of the beauty that not only set humans in their humble place in the nature of things but was simply too much for them—too overwhelming. The self-styled heroes of Manifest Destiny hardly sought to be overcome by wonder.

We can only imagine how different our history might be had pioneers instead told a story that honored the beauty of the world that bestowed them with life, as did the Seri of the Baja Peninsula. Seri tradition has it that inside each of us is a flower and inside that flower is a word– the seed of language. To lose the beauty of such words is to lose the world they belong to.

Indeed, words of this kind have the power to revitalize our lives.  Poet, initiated Seneca medicine person, and translator of world poetry Jerome Rothenberg tells us that poets today inhabit a “Neolithic subculture” in which nouns become verbs and the leaden surety of ownership, hierarchy and control become vision, vitality—and life.

This reverses the dynamic in advertising that moves in the direction of life to death– as it downplays natural beauty in favor of consumer icons.  The feminine bodies such ads sell us are flawless –in a mortuary version of beauty possible only in the death of the actual body.

The intrusion of death into so-called beauty products is reflected by their ingredients—which include lead and other toxins.

Unfortunately, ads that link eroticism and death reflect a cultural truism.  The majority of women murdered in the US are murdered by lovers or ex-lovers.

Eroticism is connected with violence in another way observed by Maria Mies in her essay, “White Man’s Dilemma”. She observes how those responsible for destruction of the environment and its indigenous lives tour “exotic” places and partake in “sex tourism” in the attempt to regain the mystery and excitement of what they have destroyed—to recover the vitality of their own lives.

Just as love is at odds with control, beauty is at odds with ownership– whether that beauty be in other humans or the natural world.

Expanses of monochrome lawns exhibit an aesthetic akin to the airbrushed complexion of women in ads—and with as much hazard to the vitality of each.  Such lawns showcase the control of nature reliant on the death of unwanted  insects and “weeds” —and of lives shortened by exposure to pesticides.

Expanses of unremitting sameness are not an element of natural beauty.  Indeed, as educator Jean Kilbourne points out, they are not an aspect of life.

By contrast, our affinity with the natural world—our perception of loveliness based on diversity and vitality—results from the hundred thousand years in which we became human in concert with the natural world.

In that history, our sensual alertness developed as a survivor’s trait.

To deaden this sensual alertness takes considerable denial—and can result in considerable destruction. Nazi doctors interviewed by Robert Lifton cut off their own sensual awareness to facilitate their terrible acts– since if they had been fully present to those acts, they knew they would have been incapable of going through with them.

I heard a member of the Allied Liberation Forces in World War II make a similar point.  For him, the horror of the camps was encompassed in their smell:  the smell of dead and decaying human bodies.  He washed his clothes for a month after returning home in the attempt to get the stench of death out of them.  Yet when he asked inhabitants of a village near the camps how they stood the smell, they replied, “We smelled nothing”.

Today we numb ourselves to the ugliness of bulldozer- scraped land, ignoring its ruin for the sake of “development”.  But we do so at our peril. The same peril that follows our ignoring climate change in spite of the droughts and storms currently escalating in our weather patterns.

Indeed, it is only at our peril that we ignore the results of any of our actions.

Natural beauty may save us from such peril by calling us back to the world– re-awakening us to our sensual presence in the world– and our conscience in the process.

According to Navajo tradition, the harmony of the natural world expresses a model of harmony  in human life.  To “walk in beauty” is to be blessed with goodness.

Artist Lily Yeh would agree.  Her work  illustrates the potential for healing that exists in beauty.

In 1986 Yeh began an eighteen year campaign to bring beauty to impoverished neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.  She involved  local children in painting murals and constructing mosaics, creating oases of beauty in abandoned lots.  Eventually community adults joined her, including former drug lords who gave up their addictions to do so–and together they reclaimed large swathes of formerly devastated neighborhoods.

Yeh sees her creation of jewel-like mosaics as a powerful symbol, since we are all broken in some place–and mosaics use this brokenness as material with which to create beauty.

Yeh didn’t stop with the Village of the Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia.  She next set out to bring beauty to the survivors of a massacre in Rwanda living beside the unburied bones of 10,000 victims of genocide. These survivors wanted most of all to give their dead a reverential burial– but did not have the resources or the heart to do it.

Yeh worked with them to construct an expansive mosaic monument to protect the bones of the dead. The ceremonial burial that followed caused many to collapse in reliving their grief years after the massacre.

But after this burial, the community continued working with Yeh with new energy, turning children’s drawings into community murals that expressed their dreams for the future.

The revitalized local spirit drew help from outside even as it sparked energy within.  By the time Yeh left Rwanda, the survivors’ village  had  recovered weaving, planting and harvesting traditions; they had goats and cows and a clean reliable water supply from harvested rainwater, and they had built  solar arrays to power the sewing machines in a business operated by orphans of genocide.

“We celebrate life in beauty”,  to use Yeh’s guiding words.

But we can only do so if we have the courage, as Yeh did, to face the consequences of our human actions.  In going to Rwanda, Yeh was terrified–yet beauty led her on, since she believes that in the heart of the worst tragedy is a point of light waiting to be brought out.  It is our task to find and ignite the beauty waiting there.

Such beauty may yet heal us:  yet show us the way to repair our world.

Thus we must guard this beauty in one another along with our own creative impulses and the natural beauty that reminds us of our place and responsibilities in life.

Such beauty cannot be controlled or purchased–nor can we guarantee its permanence.

We can only nurture it– and make ourselves available to wonder.


This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  However, feel free to link to it or reproduce it with attribution.

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.

We Can’t Blame it on Nature

By Madronna Holden

Updated Oct. 19, 2011

In 1651 Western philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that human life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, a “war of every man against every man”.

William Golding popularized this perspective on the awful state of humans in nature in his modern novel, The Lord of the Flies, in which a group of boys stranded together on an island revert to the savage nature of humans without the constraining hand of civilization.

Though Hobbes thought that we must submit to state authority to rescue ourselves from such terrible natural tendencies, others maintained that our actions, derived from nature, are neither our choice nor our responsibility.

Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger put forth this “nature made me do it” theory in The Imperial Animal.  Their work bolstered the “spreading your genes around” theory—postulating that human social behavior, including colonialism and the oppressive of women by men, can be chalked up to the impulse to insure that as many of our genes as possible have a future.

What I remember most about Robin Fox’s presentation at the New School where he spoke when I was a grad student there was that he entertained no critical perspectives concerning his ideas.  That was hardly surprising, since he entertained no sense that we had any choices for which we might be responsible.

In this sense, Tiger and Fox’s theories had an unsavory kinship to the narrative of Manifest Destiny in which “civilized” folk were constrained by nature to overrun the world. As a pioneer in the Willamette Valley expressed it in her diary, the fact that the Kalapuya were dying as a result of her people’s taking over their land was a fact to be regretted but inevitable–for they were doomed to fade away before a superior race.

On a global scale, Manifest Destiny licensed the deaths of millions of indigenous peoples as being a simple matter of nature at work.  That is the implication of Robert Ardrey’s thesis that men were driven by the Territorial Imperative.

Some sociobiologists also used the “nature made me do it” idea to explain away rape. They postulated that the rapist got more genes to survive. They thereby glibly bypassed the fact that rape is a crime of violence, not sex—and thus not a matter of biology. As those who work with rape victims know all too well, the psychological trauma involved in rape cannot be ignored.

The sociobiologists so focused on their genes also neglected to mention that there are a number of cultures in the world that had no word for rape—since they had no concept of any such act before they encountered conquering and self-termed “civilizations”.  They learned that word as a result of the rape of their women during conquest.  In her article, “Locating the Cannibals”,  Amy Den Ouden observes how sexual violence against indigenous women has classically been used to “valorize” such acts of conquest.

In fact, rape, which on a global scale goes hand in hand with imperialism, is a decidedly unnatural act.  We hardly need remind ourselves that a good percentage of rapists kill their victims.  All in all, the violence of rape makes ludicrous the idea that rapists are driven by any biological impulse to pass on their genes. No  woman physically brutalized and psychologically traumatized is a good candidate for motherhood. And as my student, Amanda MacKenzie, noted, there are those who rape children far too young to conceive–brutal rapes which often leave their victims unable to conceive at all.

In opposition to the violence-based theories of “passing on one’s genes”, the best way to ensure healthy babies is to protect the health and well-being of their mothers. Many anthropologists assert that establishing a context for the care for children is a central reason that bonding and egalitarian relationships developed between human partners.

And with respect to the more than human animals, data is coming in that indicates that so-called “alpha” males actually pass on their genes less than more affable members of animal communities. This has been found in the red deer of Ireland, where the non-combatants breed while others are locking horns; among wolves, in a PBS documentary, in which a mild mannered wolf bred far more often than a dominant one.  Recently, research on baboons in the wild did genetic testing that indicated that male “buddies” of females rather than alpha males were actually far more likely to pass on genetic material.

Further,  culture is a key component to the survival of any humans beyond their deaths and women are unlikely to pass on the cultures of their predators to the children they bear. Indeed, in the human context, we can neither discount nor prioritize biological fathering over social fathering—the passing on of knowledge, experience and tradition.

And perhaps the strongest weight against the theory that men naturally express aggression on behalf of their genes is the fact that so many human societies perceive the natural world as modeling interdependence and cooperation, rather than aggression and competition. For many of the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous peoples, for instance, following the “laws of nature’ means acting with cooperation, reciprocity and sharing.

This idea is supported by modern psychologists who recently published the results of four experiments addressing the question, “Can Nature make us More Caring”? They found the answer to that question to be an emphatic yes. Their experiments indicated that contact with nature not only makes us kinder and more caring—but more autonomous and impervious to outer-directed goals. Altogether, viewing slides of nature and imagining ourselves in natural landscapes shifts personal aspirations focused on gaining individual wealth and fame to a focus on caring.

And the simple act of having a plant on their desk made experimental subjects more likely to share money given them by the experimenter than those whose desk was empty of greenery.

The subjects so effected by contact with the natural world were a random group of US citizens, aged 19 to 54, numbering between one hundred and twelve subjects in the first experiment to seventy-five in the last  one.  They were women and men, Caucasian, African-American, Asian American, and Latinos or Latinas. Most of them spoke English as their first language, but a few didn’t.

One of the experimenters postulated that because we became human in communal cultures, exposure to the natural world re-stimulates our communal and sharing attributes.

I find this a hopeful point indeed.  And good support for protecting greenery in our modern cities. We are  thereby fostering not only the health, well-being, and relaxation of the members of our communities, as previous experiments have indicated—but improving the likelihood we will both make authentic personal decisions and enact care for others.


And here is an excellent discussion of the UN campaign to end violence against women.

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

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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.”

Thomas Berry 1914-2009

By Madronna Holden

“We must rethink all our basic values, the structure and functioning of our entire cultural tradition…This is undoubtedly the most awesome moment for rethinking our situation since the beginning of the Western civilizational enterprise some five thousand years ago.”
Thomas Berry, “Foreword”, Earth and Spirit


On the occasion of the death of Catholic priest and theologian (or “geologian”, as he preferred to call himself) Thomas Berry at age 94, I would like to reflect upon his model of a morality centered in the earthly community of life.

Thomas Berry’s philosophy was strikingly immanent and earth-centered.  In his seminal Dream of the Earth, he lamented the fact that too many Christians placed themselves in “a state of exile from our true country”, in that “the natural world is little mentioned”.   This state of “exile” was due to an inordinate emphasis on the hereafter in Christian theology.

But for Berry humans are an inescapable part of an earth community and thus “We should be clear about what happens when we destroy the living forms of this planet…we destroy the modes of divine presence.”

He took the bold step of siding with ecofeminist authors as he described the dynamics of Western history in which patriarchy ushered in social and environmental injustice.

Berry also stressed the necessity of recognizing our national obligations to native peoples: “Our first duty is to see that the Indians dwelling here have the land, the resources, and the independence to be themselves”. Our second duty is to honor the ways in which native traditions belong “among the great spiritual traditions” of humankind. Thirdly, we should respect the historical continuity of native communities.

Berry joined many modern ecologists in stressing the need for an earth-centered stance to replace the human-centered one of the industrial age. Such a stance is the only realistic one given our  interdependence with other natural life. As Berry noted, not a single species on earth nourishes itself.

As opposed to the worldview which sees the natural world as set in place for human use, Berry stated, “We need to present ourselves to the planet as the planet presents itself to us, in an avocatory rather than a dominating relationship.  There is need for a great courtesy toward the earth.” This is a courtesy; he went on, that we might learn from indigenous peoples such as the Iroquois, who modeled reverent gratitude toward the earth in their thanksgiving ceremonies.

In this context, he developed a detailed outline supporting the rights of all the beings with whom we share our earthly community. He insisted that all earth others (including not only plants and animals but natural landscape features such as rivers) have three essential rights: the right to existence, the right to habitat, and the right to “fulfill their role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community”.   Human rights do not cancel out the rights of earth others to exist in their natural state. Indeed, human rights are limited in a community which recognizes the rights of all life.

Whereas rights of nature are enduring, they are limited to the unique identity of those involved:  rights of a river or a tree are specific to themselves.  It would mean little to a river, for instance, to have the rights of a tree—or a human or an insect. Thus these rights are not in competition with each other, but an expression of the interdependent cycle of life in which each plays a role. In this context humans also have a right to wonder, beauty and intimacy that only our connection with a vital earthly community can fulfill.

Berry’s guidelines for a healing technology come down to following the patterns of nature—as gained most clearly in the intimate knowledge of place in bioregionalism. As we set such a technology in place, “the earth itself would be seen as the primary model in architecture, the primary scientist, the primary educator, healer, and technologist, even the primary manifestation of the ultimate mystery of things”.

Coincident with his work with indigenous and Eastern traditions, Berry felt that each subject in a universe of subjects had a story– and that story was interwoven into the universe’s story.  He found hope in the work of modern scientists who abandoned the objective distancing of their tradition to tell the story of natural life.  If we told the story of the natural world in this way, we would understand how to treat it differently as we developed a new “mythos” to replace the all too prevalent Judeo-Christian one that sees humans as standing over and apart from creation as a collection of objects–and licenses so much destruction as a result.

Berry offered a different interpretation of Christianity that led to responsibility to creation.

He joined with physicist Brian Swimme in developing a “universe story” in which humans had a special role as witnesses of the universe’s self-development and evolution.  The human role was not one of dominating or controlling creation, but of appreciating it.  In this sense, the human sense of wonder was a holy impulse: as Matthew Fox put it, Thomas Berry “sacralized curiosity”.   His intellectual and spiritual openness in this regard was linked to his personal engagement.

Notably, Swimme with whom Berry developed the “universe story”, emphatically declared himself an ecofeminist (“How to Heal a Lobotomy” in Ecofeminism and the Sacred) as a means of healing the dangerous dualism in Western thought that splits the world into hierarchical frames of subject/object, human/nature and male/female.

Though Berry saw nature as imbued with spirit in that it was the cradle of life (and he saw everything that lived as having a soul), he did not romanticize or idealize the natural world.  In that it existed for itself and not for humans, it could be destructive as well as life-giving from the human point of view.  But humans should become intimate with the larger story of nature that both gave them life and interwove all lives in its vast cosmic story.

Here are the words Berry chose to feature on his website—words that eloquently express the guiding principle of his work:  “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

Thomas Berry left us with much to think about—and much to live up to.

The Dangers of False Reverence: Destroying What We Think We Love

By Madronna Holden

Updated 5.21.2012

In Crossing the Next Meridian, Land, Water and the Future of the West, Charles Wilkinson notes two ideologies that resulted in the destruction of the salmon runs that once yielded 42 million pounds annually on the Columbia River alone.

The first is the sense of dominance that saw the land only as a resource for human exploitation. But the other is perhaps not so obvious.  It is a reverence for that which it destroys.

We don’t have to imagine the destructiveness of the first attitude:  we have history to inform us of it.  This attitude created a free for all in the Pacific Northwest in which, as Wilkinson puts it, the “fish hardly had a chance”.  This was expressed in the waste in the taking of salmon in the late 1800s, as in the case of the trap on Puget Sound that wiped out an entire run of sockeye salmon when tens of thousands of fish wedged themselves into that trap and suffocated before they could be released.

Wilkinson also notes that some pioneers, by contrast, held the salmon in reverence. But it was a strange reverence, an idealization that never really saw the salmon for what they were– or as anything that incited human responsibility. In their awe for the overwhelming abundance of the salmon runs, pioneers never saw their limits.  Unlike the indigenous system which set up seasonal harvest limits orchestrated by religious leaders, pioneer harvesters depleted that which they never thought would end.

Partly this was because they had no historical experience with the runs—but the destructiveness of their actions was also mingled with their idealization of Western lands as something larger than life.

I spoke with those who logged the old growth forests they found on arriving in Western Washington in the late 1800s– who had experienced the grace and power of those forests as they took them down with crosscut saws, leaving stumps twenty feet high– since mills couldn’t handle logs over five feet in diameter. As they grappled with those great trees body to body, they did not stop to think that the forest that defined their lives would ever be gone.

In their minds, the hugeness of the land bestowed it with a sense of eternity—a sense that it would endure no matter how humans behaved toward it.

After he had been a logger, one man I interviewed served as a fire lookout, living alone in a cabin on Mt. Rainier. In those days the animals were not afraid of humans–and just watching from his mountaintop as various animals came by, day after day, he felt a reverence for the natural world that was no longer entangled in struggling with something larger than life.

That was when he looked around and saw the old forests were going.   He was in a state of shock as a result.

When I interviewed him he was in his nineties and had spent several years tracking the changing weather patterns resulting from those missing trees.  He filled his notebooks, day after day, with his record of the lost forest, as if his faithfulness could redeem his former carelessness.

He wanted most of all for our generation to understand the mistakes made by his.

The pioneer west is not alone in expressing the dangers of such a reverence toward an idealized part of nature. The Ganges River in India is both one of the most revered and one of the most polluted rivers in the world.  In effect, this river is loved to death, as its idealization licenses some to overlook the fact that it has any limits—any needs of its own which might depend on human responsibility towards it.

The good news is that while political will in India has not taken up the cause of cleaning the sacred Ganges, this project has recently united Muslims and Hindus.

The idealization of women expresses a parallel dynamic of failed or too idealized reverence.  At the beginning of an abusive relationship, a man classically expresses intense reverence for the object of his desire.  Indeed, in modern Western culture, many relationships are characterized by a “romantic fallacy”—an idealized projection on the other that prevents each from seeing who they really are.

The romantic fallacy is exceedingly dangerous to the object of its projection.  For the Ganges, the salmon, the trees, the idealized woman, the object of such reverence loses subjective identity—the right to act on their own and have their  needs honored.  As Jean Kilbourne points out in her analysis of the idealized woman in modern advertising, that ideal portrays the woman as a kind of corpse.  The airbrushed presentations of her face are like mummified parodies of real life. Such an objectification of anything, she observes, is the first step toward licensing violence toward it.

Those who idealize another cast see them in terms of their own needs—and thus are all too liable to exact of them the kind of sacrifice Trask exacts of the indigenous elder who befriends him in Don Berry’s historical novel Trask, situated on the Oregon Coast.  In this novel, the pioneer protagonist kills the elder in the midst of his attempt to initiate himself in a spirit quest like that of traditional indigenous peoples.  In a profound metaphor for real history, the pioneer is literally out of his mind as he commits this murder, unaware that establishing his own “spiritual” connection to the land costs the life of another.  In his trance, he carries the dead body of the elder through the landscape in his personal search for a spiritual home.

The ambivalence of this murderous reverence—in which the land and its people become a sacrifice on the altar of human need– is expressed in this quote from the novel:

“Taking possession of the land is the first and final grasping of a man … toward immortality…As a child clutches blindly at his mother’s breast, so a man will strain to the land without understanding…

The thing that possesses a man to open a land is simple lust…A molding and carving and forging takes place between [man and land].. bitterly, happily, angrily, exultantly…  And in time there is no …clear edge of difference where … the land ends and the man begins.”

As this quote expresses, there is a profound human need to belong to something larger than oneself—something that begins before an individual’s birth and continues after death.  But such belonging cannot be had by seizing it:  “possession” and “land lust” are the contrary to belonging established in the mutual inter-working of the land and its human residents over time.

Moreover, we can never see a land so entwined in our own need for what it really is.  Idealization of the land, that is, inhibits true intimacy with it.

By contrast, indigenous reverence for their land rests on intimacy with it—on gratitude and humility for the daily gift of life the land provides. It is characterized by the reciprocity between a people and a land that is not larger than life, that is, but bound up in life itself.

In its link to daily life, such reverence motivates care for the land and for all life that shares it. This reverence is illustrated in the words of native naturalist Linda Hogan in Dwellings: “What does god look like? These fish, this water, this land.”

In such recognition of the divine in creation, there is quietude and fullness, as expressed by Rebecca Adamson, Founder of the First Nations Development Institute: “God is in the space and silence. That is where it is sacred. You look up on a starry night and you feel yourself unfold, and that silence is where God is.”

In her interview in  YES magazine (summer 2009), Adamson indicates an essential difference between opening to the silence of the divine in the stance above and the idealization in the pioneer perspective.  The indigenous perspective is based on fullness and gratefulness;  the pioneer perspective, like that of modern capitalism in general, is based on hunger and need:  on a “self-fulfilling scarcity”.

In the indigenous case, humans adapt to the fullness of natural life, in the pioneer case,  the land becomes a projection of human need.

Thus the latter sees the land as that which might redeem humans from their hunger for  belonging and security–even if they have to destroy it in order to possess it.

On Knowing What You Want

By Madronna Holden

What I’d like for Mother’s Day is for our children to get what they want. But first they have to know what that is.

And that isn’t an easy determination for any of us in the modern age–and especially for women. According to the authors of the Mother-Daughter Revolution, girls in our society start out with an open eroticism toward the natural world, a sensual love of life.  Their presence in their own bodies gives them a vital sense of who they are:  so that they touch the world around them by being in touch with themselves.

Such girls are feisty, as full of joy and experimentation as they are full of themselves.

But if they follow our primary social narrative, they change all that connection to the natural world to desire for a single man—and if they please him, they may, in the sexual act, earn back their original eroticism.  A mother accomplishes a “revolution” by siding with her daughter’s voice as she grows, honoring her real sense of desire—so that she does not get caught in the trap that causes white middle class girls’ self-esteem to plummet in half as they reach puberty today.

No wonder Freud declared women masochistic.  We’d have to be to follow this script. But we’ve had lots of practice, beginning with ancient Greece, in which the philosopher Aristotle told women that they could become virtuous (which, according to this sage, made them happy) by hitching their star to a virtuous man. They couldn’t earn such happiness, he stressed, on their own.

As in this case, those in power in societies like our own have always manipulated the desire of those on the bottom to keep them there.  Aristotle’s main focus in his Politics was to put down the irksome impulse of oppressed people to revolt in a “democracy” that excluded women, colonial subjects, and slaves.

And all of us today are to some extent victims of manipulated desire.  Ads shout “more” to us—telling us how much we need more food, more convenience, more newness, more improvement.  Such ads assure us that we can buy whatever it is we want—after they tell us what that is.

The first part of this media blitz is deficit or scarcity thinking, as traced in the history of advertising by Stuart Ewen, where we learn of corporate meetings back in the 1920s that concluded the fostering of psychological deficits was beneficial to selling more products.  Juliet Schor’s shocking Born to Buy details the ways in which modern advertising indoctrinates children from the youngest age with the idea that they are what they own.

This dynamic also gives girls and women the idea that their self-esteem is coincident with their image. Peggy Orenstein spent time with young women in four different schools from varied social classes and ethnic backgrounds.  Her findings indicate that these girls’ self-esteem plummeted when they reached puberty precisely because they were under so much pressure of appearances.

Educator Jean Kilbourne’s work details the deadly way ads manipulate desire for particular appearances—since they link sexuality with the objectification of and violence towards not only women but girls.  Altogether, such manipulation of desire muddies the water considerably in terms of young men and women coming of age today, for whom modern media is as much an influence as their education or their families.

Like all other earth dwellers, we are all intentional creatures.  In the 1900s Wild Bill, an elder of the Pit River people said this well: everything alive is for a purpose. As living creatures, we have a meaning, a sense of belonging, an orientation toward something.  But if we don’t know what this is, we are susceptible to the infinite desire for more and more upon which capitalistic growth is based.  “You can never get enough of what you didn’t want in the first place”, as the astute addiction counselor put it.   So never getting what we really want fuels the engine of growth as we keep consuming more and more in the hopes we will finally be satisfied.

In this age of the gluttonous consumer, we don’t need less.  We need less of those things that give us no real satisfaction, that destroy our self-esteem—and our environment.

But when we have a clear conversation with our own desires, we may find we want more.  I know I do.

For Mother’s Day, I want lots more.  I want clean water, fresh air, contact with a live natural world, a society that allows the unique gifts of each of us to come to fruition, a place of belonging for my daughter and the generations that follow.

In telling the story of a stalk of corn that mothered itself, persisting and reseeding without water in a dark cave for generations, Linda Hogan has these eloquent words to say about natural desire in Linda Hogan’s Dwellings (p.62): “The stalks of the corn want clean water… The leaves of the corn want good earth. The earth wants peace. The birds who eat the corn do not want poison.  Nothing wants to suffer. The wind does not want to carry the stories of death.”

This stalk that continues in a dark cave by itself is like buried human desire waiting for the sun and the rain all this time—so that is can rejoin the community of earthly life again.

Second Annual Willamette River Blessing

By Madronna Holden

Here are some pictures of the second annual blessing of the Willamette River led by Takelma Siltetz elder and chair of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers Agnes Pilgrim Baker Sunday, April 26 at at the EWEB Willamette River Plaza in Eugene, Oregon.

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Siletz Takelma Elder “Grandma” Agnes Pilgrim Baker speaks to the crowd at the second annual Willamette River Blessing where she reminded us once again that we are all “water babies” and owe the rivers our life.

For a detailed portrait and interview of Grandma Aggie, see this description of the first annual Willamette River Blessing.

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Part of the blessing ceremony was sacred and could not be photographed, but members of the audience were invited to write their prayers for the river on a flag which would fly by the river for the rest of the day and then be taken down and placed on a bamboo pole to continue to fly in the wind.

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A mother and her son walking by stop to read the prayers left for the river

Here  is a description of last year’s ceremony.

And the third annual blessing of the Willamette River is coming up Sunday, April 25.  See more details here.

How to Love a River

By Madronna Holden

Updated April 2012.

Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee obtained his own long life from sharing it with the river his people named themselves for. Hum-m-m-ptulips, that river was, its name humming along on the tongue the way its rifles hummed along, so that it cleaned itself out in three days after a rain.

His elders had taught him to dive deeply in the river when its water was “alive”, when it was at its most powerful– and the greatest challenge to humans.

Cultee told me of a cousin who simply wet his hair to give the appearance of diving.  His elders might be fooled, but the river knew who really dived there.  His cousin passed to the other side many decades ago while Cultee lived on in concert with the land.

He was in his mid-eighties when I first met him and still living in season in his “fishing shack” on the Humptulips, tending and mending heavy nets on his own.    He was ninety-nine when I last went to see him. Then he had given up the heavy labor at his ancestral place on the Humptulips.  He was living with his son Richard on the Skokomish Reservation, where the only medication he took was an occasional aspirin-and where he and Richard had taken in two small boys.

“Here we are, bachelors with children”, Henry Cultee quipped.

“Wherever you found a river”, Cultee once told me, “There you found Indians”.

The fluidity of the river mapped the flow of the land, rather than the frozen north or south of paper maps-and certainly-rather than fence lines, which Cultee complained stopped the flow of natural life

To the Northwest’s river people the treaty promise of the US government:  “as long as the rivers shall run” was no fleeting thing-even if Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens wrote to his superiors, that as soon as the US gained more strength in this area, they would no longer have to honor the treaties they were making.

Indian peoples themselves soon learned that to the US government, treaties held “as long as the rivers shall run–or thirty days, whichever comes first”.

Richard Cultee’s Skokomish people had another joke:  “We knew the whites had arrived when we woke up one morning and the river was moved.”

It was no joke that Tacoma Power stopped up the entire north fork of the Skokomish River with a massive dam at Cushman to generate electricity.

That whole section of the  river didn’t run at all any longer.  Neither did the salmon, whose care was outlined in traditional Skokomish tales, which instructed the people to allow the salmon to release their eggs so as to perpetuate and strengthen the runs.

There wasn’t any advice in those old stories about how to help the salmon up a dry river bed.

But the Skokomish fought the dam that blockaded their river.  Recently they achieved a settlement with the Tacoma utility that it would release enough water from its turbines to allow the river to flow again.

There won’t automatically be salmon back on that water. The water flow comes all at once, in a steady blast from the turbines rather than in an ebb and flow.  But the Skokomish have visions for changing that too.

And someday they may be able to follow the injunctions in their ancient tale for caring for the salmon on their river again.  They have dreams about that:  and like the Chehalis who earned their long lives on the land in conjunction with the rivers, they plan on persisting.

So do the Takelma, represented by Takelma elder, Agnes Baker Pilgrim, who will conduct the second annual ceremony “honoring the water”-blessing the Willamette River-this coming Sunday, April 26 at the EWEB Plaza in Eugene, Oregon.  Grandma Aggie has international stature as chair of the International; Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. But she has local status with the salmon.

On her website Grandma Aggie conceives of her role as a “voice for the voiceless”-for all those things, that is, whom we have neglected because they may not speak in a human voice-or if they do, may speak only the language of the privileged.  In this sense she works to actualize a “democracy of all life” as East Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva has put it.

This phrase is an apt term to describe the “commons”- that natural life upon our own depends, no matter what our status in human society.

We are only now beginning to see what happens when we ignore the natural sources of our lives.

This is a lesson we would not have to learn the hard way if we had traditions of honoring the rivers in the way of the Takelma or Chehalis or Skokomish.

We might learn from the river instead.

There is nothing that can teach us more about the democracy of nature than a river.

And nothing that can teach us more about reciprocity and balance:  since what we put into the river ultimately comes back to us.

This is one tragic lesson in the current state of the Ganges River, sacred to millions, but one of the top ten most polluted rivers in the world whose flow is also threatened by global warming. Hindu ecofeminist Lina Gupta has analyzed how the idea of transcendence without reciprocity has led to the pollution of this river. There is a belief that the river is a goddess who can cleanse anything-and thus anything can be dumped into her with impunity.

It is the understanding of reciprocity and balance, Gupta writes, that is most dangerously missing from this perspective.  fortunately, since this essay was first posted here, the plight of the sacred Ganges has become a cause (cited in a news story in April 2012) for uniting Hindus and Muslims in cleaning this river.

Conceiving of the river as transcendent in this way implies that she never has to be cared for herself. Gupta argues that this attitude contradicts true Hindu belief about Dharmic (duty)  responsibility for one’s actions.  Gupta also ties this into the notion of dominance in the industrial world that denigrates the sources of nurturance that it designates as feminine-like the Mother Ganga.

Thus those who say they revere the river as transcendent can actually use this as an excuse to pollute it.

Global warming is currently affecting the glacier that feeds this river-and as its source dries up; millions downriver are affected by drought.  And the e.coli and heavy metal content from industrial pollution is directly affecting those who use this river as the source of their drinking water.

From a short-sighted human perspective, it might look like we can dump anything into our rivers and have it simply carried away.

But in fact, the river teaches reciprocity:  how what we dump there ultimately comes back to us.  It teaches karma, that is, in Hindu terms.

It also teaches another revered Hindu idea, according to Gupta: the idea that all is one.  In its flow it negates the modern industrial divisions between spirit and nature, humanity  and  the natural world.  When we pollute the rivers, we pollute our own bodies.

Meanwhile, back in Oregon, Grandma Aggie specifically requested that a sign be made for her blessing of the river that reads, “The river is not a garbage dump”.

Coming back to the question that began this essay– how do we love a river?

By caring for it, as have the Skokomish with the long court battle to free its water and as does the Chehalis River Council today.

By knowing it-following the example of the Corvallis Environmental Center’s mapping of the water quality in the Willamette River in conjunction with the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State. University.

By fighting its being bottled up in plastic and sent elsewhere, as are the Winnemem people currently defending their sacred McCloud River in Northern California.

By learning from rivers everywhere what they have to teach us about fostering the length of our lives on the land.

The Dangers of Pricing the Priceless

By Madronna Holden

Land was something priceless–something that could not be bought or sold at any price– in the worldview of the traditional peoples of the Pacific Northwest.

The local peoples gathered at the treaty proceedings at Cosmopolis on the Olympic Peninsula expressed the utmost frustration in their negotiations with Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens on this point. They could not make him understand that his plan to remove them from their homeland was unacceptable, since nothing could replace their land for them.  It was a concept that Stevens did not register even as native peoples spoke of the spirit of the land, of their love for this particular place, of the loneliness of the ancestors without the presence of their descendants.

Instead, Stevens flourished gifts to replace their land.  Whether  it is a literal story-or one meant to convey Stevens’ stance-Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee  told me that Stevens doffed his top hat and promised to fill it with gold for every man, woman and child at the treaty proceedings.

When the Indians refused to leave their homeland in exchange for any material compensation, Stevens spoke of how the “father in Washington” would ensure their safety in exchange for their lands-but could not be responsible for their welfare if they stayed in the way of the pioneers.  Native oral tradition has it that Stevens threatened to put them all on a boat and maroon them at sea until they learned to get along if they continued to insist that they would not live on the land of others’ rather than their own.

There was no bridging the gap between the perspective which sees the land as distinctive, precious, and priceless– and that which sees the land as a thing to be bought and sold. But some Indians still tried. An Upper Chehalis man spoke these words recounted by oral tradition:  “Move my body anywhere you wish, but cut off my head and place it on the land of my people.”

Stevens still didn’t get it. When the Chehalis, the Cowlitz and the Chinook refused to sign the treaty at Cosmopolis, he blamed his failed treaty on particular recalcitrant Indians rather than on the worldview he never understood.

At the Walla Walla treaty negotiations, government agent Joel Palmer tried to sway those present by stating that he had moved all the way across the country for his own betterment. Thus native peoples could move a little distance away from their land to go to a reservation- where the US government promised to better their lives.

But Palmer’s argument at Walla Walla had the same problem as Stevens’ argument at Cosmopolis.  It was based on the assumption that one could simply exchange one bit of land for another.  This idea has been carried into the present day in the idea of “mitigation”-if one wants to develop wetlands, one must recreate or maintain a comparable wetland somewhere else. But such a notion was wrenchingly sad to a group of elders on the Muckleshoot Cultural Committee who mourned the sacred sites they had lost to highway development.

This reflects an essential aspect of the indigenous worldviews:  the sense of the unique value of individual persons, other natural life, and particular lands such that none of these can be replaced by or exchanged for any another. [1]

By contrast, the modern industrial system prices everything-including human life.  This is what got the Ford Company into trouble for its exploding Pinto gas tank-which it failed to replace after creating a balance sheet on which the value it fixed for human life didn’t make it worth the cost of repairing the tank.  Ford is not alone. Our own EPA has done this kind of analysis in its decision to continue to allow cancer-causing chemicals on the market.

In a capitalist market system, what people are willing to pay for a thing determines its value.  But as economist Mark Sagoff points out, the truth doesn’t work that way. Three will never be the square root of six, no matter how many people are willing to pay  to make it different.

I don’t think some lobbyists currently in Washington D.C. believe this point.

But we cannot just blame them:  the mindset that sees everything as being capable of being exchanged for something else has led us into manufacturing plastics to use in place of natural materials.  This has not been spectacularly successful.  We  have plastics which result not only in brain cancer suffered by workers who make them, but in the endocrine disruption caused to infant bodies by plastics leaching into milk in baby bottles. Plastics with chlorine in their formulas (such as vinyl) are particularly toxic;  and plastics with BPA  cause endocrine disruption.

The fact that we have exchanged plastics for products of natural systems causes more general problems.  If it is hard to imagine what we would do without plastics in the modern age, it is also hard to figure out what to do with them.  Sunlight only breaks them down into smaller and smaller pieces that persist and are consumed by ocean plankton–and thus they have become a part of all ocean life.  And then there is that floating soup of plastic in the ocean–most of which has blown off of landfills.

All human bodies now consist of a certain percentage of plastic.  We have no idea what part of our physiology this replaces.

In complex and dynamic and carefully calibrated natural systems (including our own bodies), we cannot easily lift out and replace some part for another.  This should give us pause in gene splicing, where the attempt to replace one gene by another in “Roundup Ready” soybeans has produced a mysterious  “extra” gene whose effects are unknown. General problems with genetically engineered crops include gene migration which spreads genetically engineered genes for miles and the fact that genetically engineered crops have contaminated non-genetically engineered seed stocks.

It is a dangerous thing to blithely create something we cannot contain-even if its convenient business of substitution gives us something we want.  This is why the European Union has wisely created the REACH program to use the precautionary principle with respect to the creation and use of human-created chemicals.

This business of thinking we can exchange everything for something else needs to be re-evaluated.  The minute one sets a price on something, no matter how high– it is devalued.  For then it can be bought.

As did those who lived sustainable lives in the Pacific Northwest for tens of thousands of years, it is time to think about and revalue the things that are priceless–before we trade them all away.


[1] See Nancy Turner’s “Lesson of a Birch” in Resurgence no. 250, for more support for this point.

 

How can you not plant a rose in wartime?

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By Madronna Holden

updated 8.16.2011

“They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places.  We wanted the hardest place.  We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere.”

— Paolo Lugari (Gaviotas)

Some forty years ago, Paolo Lugari and a group of supporters founded the community of Gaviotas on the llanos-an aluminum-laced plain in Colombia situated between the territories of drug lords, guerrillas, right wing militia and an indigenous people trying to make their life there.  In partnership with native people and holding fast to values of cooperation, non-violence, sharing, and reciprocity with one another and with nature,  Gaviotas shaped a community that restored thousands of acres of rainforest with astounding biodiversity in a formerly ravaged area.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this restoration is the fact that the community of Gaviotas did not set out to do it intentionally. But as they held to their values of respect for the land and refusal to use chemicals and pesticides, their actions created this magnificent surprise.  Standing amidst its canopy besides a village where peace reigns in the midst of social turmoil, a bacteriologist declared, “This place is proof God exists”.

There is a folk story in which a man asks, “How can you plant a rose in wartime?”  The answer comes back: “How can you not plant a rose in war time”?

Kenneth Helphand cites this story in his book, Defiant Gardens-Making Gardens in Wartime, in which he describes gardens planted in the worst of times-by the prisoners in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, for instance, who planted gardens they knew they would not live to harvest.  But as these prisoners tended their gardens, they also tended something inextinguishable in their spirits, Like that to which W. S. Merwin refers in his poem, “Place”: “On the last day of the world, I shall plant a tree”.

“Plant a  tree and plant a new beginning”, says Kenyan Wangari Maathai.  Planting trees led this Nobel Laureate and leader of the Kenyan-based Greenbelt Movement, to her courage and her persistence–and the hope that she wants above all to pass on the next generation despite the crushing challenges the future brings.

Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye expressed the sustaining power of the natural world this way, “The only word a tree knows is yes”. Perhaps all humans, like Nye in this poem, “are born to answer a tree”. Daryl Forde researched an African tale known by many of those sold into slavery that helped them endure the horrors of their oppression.  In that tale, the protagonist plants a “life tree” that survives him when he is stolen into a world where he is helpless.  However, his spirit revives when his brother comes upon the tree he left behind and waters it.

In line with such ancient wisdom some have transformed the “worst places” by finding a way to plant a garden there.  West Oakland is one such place, a disaster zone created by the industrialized global economy, where children are subject to lead poisoning, and residents are sandwiched between ports and warehouses, rail yards and diesel truck depots. Seventy per cent of the 30,000 people here live below the poverty line. Five years ago, this was no place to look for a garden.  There was no oasis anywhere where children could contribute their labor to an effort that mattered to them while they felt physically secure. But thanks to Willow Rosenthal and a dedicated band of neighborhood residents, that has changed.

Rosenthal chose West Oakland as a place to focus her efforts on organic gardening not in spite of the conditions there but because of them. Her effort started with a 2000 foot lot lent to her– and community support.  She worked on the supposition that the community contained its own answers to the desperate issues of hunger and pollution that faced them.  The first year, they harvested 2000 pounds of quality produce from their tiny garden and their effort grew from there.  Today West Oakland sports a Saturday farm stand which sells produce on a sliding scale that begins with zero and offers starts that residents can plant in their back yards, a local composting program where residents can either drop off their scraps or learn to compost them, cooking and gardening workshops, barbecues and other community-wide celebrations, a medicinal garden (established with the help of a local Filipina herbalist), and back yard gardens built and maintained with community effort, in addition to the intensive gardens farmed communally.

West Oakland’s community gardens have some publicity-for instance, an article in spring 2008’s Earth Island Journal.But there are those gardens we may not hear much about that are inspiring in their own quiet ways.  Lily Anderson describes one such garden:

“Two years ago, in the middle of a long period of unemployment, my father was living in Emeryville (also in the Bay Area) and found solace in a community garden, Big Daddy’s Complete Rejuvenating Garden. The garden is on top of what was once a gas station. The plants climb up art installations, sculptures, and paintings. I used to come into town and walk with my father, over the 580 freeway, to help tend his plot. Pesticides are forbidden at Big Daddy’s and so we would lay egg shells and halves of cut melon to distract the bugs from the tomato and spinach plants. I have never seen such a beautiful representation of nature and community before. Surrounded by industrial buildings and road noise, there’s a little oasis where people come together, discuss their garden, and sit among the flowers.”

There are solitary individuals working to green their cities in ways most of us will never hear of.  I would not have learned of “Gardener Robert” but for the information shared by my student, Kristian Godfrey, who worked in a bagel shop in Gainesville, Florida where Gardener Robert bartered his produce.  In her words, Robert “was a man who made gardens, and I mean he MADE them.”  Robert roamed the outskirts of modern American society, since he didn’t work. Perhaps he carried some mental distress that prevented him from doing so, “because he simply couldn’t sit still, he had so much energy he vibrated”-and he refused to deal with money-even the fee for a community garden plot.  He needed more space than that anyway. “Thus Robert would find abandoned plots of land; plots squished between buildings and apartments and businesses, and then proceed to track down the owners and then beg/ barter the use of their land for his gardens. He always had at least four in town. He would also ride his bicycle to abandoned places away from the city and garden. He offered space to anyone who wanted to garden with him, no charge. And the gardens fed him, every bite he ate. He would come to the bagel shop and barter, bags of bagels which would normally be thrown into the dumpster at the end of the day were traded for Robert’s Seminole pumpkins, bags of basil, or whatever happened to be in season.”

Gardener Robert would become depressed when the owners of his city plots would reclaim them, and his beautiful gardens would be paved over. But he would ride on seeking out his next spot to plant and beautify, even if it was only temporary.  As in the community of Gaviotas, “Gardener Robert survived and re- introduced plants in the hardest of places.”

Priti Shah adds another example of what she terms “guerrilla gardening”:

“I had the opportunity to participate in “guerilla farming” when visiting a friend in Honolulu.  We toured a few blocks and harvested greens from patches in front of restaurants and strip malls and dead space between high rises. I then helped plant a garden in the center of a busy road on the strip of dirt enclosed in concrete dividing the lanes. We tore up the dirt, added compost and soil, and then planted beans, sweet potatoes, greens, herbs and flowers. I was incredibly moved and thankful to see how much can be done with such a space.  I later checked in with my friend who notified me that the garden was doing well and people who live on that road are now care-taking and eating from it!”

If ever there was a “hard place” for such a garden, it was North Philadelphia where artist Lily Yeh began her work, in an area over half the original population had recently fled, leaving behind vacant buildings and lots full of garbage-and a remaining population where 32 per cent of the labor force was unemployed, houses were riddled with dangerous disrepair and schools provided the most meager of educations.  There was youth violence, high levels of incarceration, homelessness, drug addiction, and prostitution.

Why should she come to work in such a place by choice? Yeh was driven by a need to reclaim the meaning of art. Being Chinese, she had witnessed the massacre in Tiananmen Square.  Instead of turning away from that horror, she re-dedicated herself to proving the power of art to heal and redeem society.

In North Philadelphia, Yeh felt vulnerable, but not discouraged. She recognized her weakness as her strength, since what she could not do alone was an invitation for the community to help her.  That help early on included a former drug dealer who seized the opportunity to create real meaning with his labor. Yeh worked on “reconnecting what is broken, healing what is wounded, and making the invisible visible” in the most concrete of ways: by hauling garbage from abandoned lots and replacing devastation with plants and with the beauty of her art-sometimes she transformed the very garbage she  found into inspired mosaics.

Today, The Village (as it now called),  sports fourteen parks, numerous community gardens, educational facilities, a youth theater, offices and a crafts center serving 10,000 low income people whom Yeh’s leadership-through-art helped  re-possess and re-build their homes.

It all began with the simple idea that Yeh could offer a bit of beauty as a token of respect for the citizens of inner city Philadelphia.

After all, how can you not plant a rose in war time?

Misusing Darwin: How Misunderstanding “Survival of the Fittest” Makes us Unfit for Survival

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By Madronna Holden

“Never use the words higher and lower”.

— Charles Darwin, notebooks

“Perhaps there is no coincidence that amoeba, insects, animals, the human culture and society, generally follow innate rules of cooperation. Darwin’s explanation of evolution as a struggle for existence needs to be tempered with an acknowledgment of the importance of cooperation in the evolution of complexity.”

–Thomas P. Zwaka, cellular biologist

“To decide that people are the highest, most evolved species… reflects more the strongman logic of human beings than the true state of nature.”

–Masanobu Fukuoka, Sowing Seeds in the Desert

“Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life; few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope by a limit imposed from without [by science misused].”
Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man

“Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

Charles Darwin The Descent of Man


Charles Darwin was a meticulous observer of  the natural world in his seminal Origin of the Species.  But he left a problematic legacy when he turned to the analysis of human society in his Descent of Man.  On the one hand, we see his emphasis on the importance of cooperation in the development of human societies in the quote above.  On the other hand, he violated his own scientific precepts, such as “never use the words higher or lower” in his analysis of particular societies as being “below” those of Europeans in development.

As Japanese “natural farmer” Masanobu Fukuoka, observed, an essential question in the hierarchical notion  “survival of the fittest” is who decides what is “higher and lower”– and by what criteria. Humans who decide they are the highest and best products of evolution use criteria like human intelligence to come to this conclusion.

But as Darwin himself noted, the bee would undoubtedly use a very different critierion.

Darwin also noted that cooperation is far more important than competition in the working of natural systems, whereas social Darwinismin the guise of Manifest Destiny, for instance, emphasizes competition and thus justifies conquest.

More troubling even than its sloppy science is how social Darwinism asserts that societies on the side of “progress” are  destined to overcome and replace others as a matter of natural (or divine) law. It also asserts that impoverished classes are responsible for their own problems.  In this theory, even the children of the poor become “less fit”– and thus their hunger or poor schooling can be ignored. This view contorts  the idea of natural selection for sake of what Val Plumwood termed “dominator” societies.

Indeed, it misuses the scientific understanding of natural evolution to refurbish a notion rooted in ancient colonial history-in Aristotle’s declaration that slaves are slaves by nature, just as masters are masters. And “civilizations” or “advanced” societies have the natural license to take over the lands of others and impose their way of life on them. Darwin himself is complicit in this misunderstanding, since his own social conclusions (as opposed to his natural science investigations) included the unsupported statement that “males are more evolutionarily advanced than females”.

Such hierarchical dualism–dividing the world into male and female, poor and rich, civilization and “savage” as the higher and lower Darwin cautions himself to avoid, describes much of the history of modern nation states. But it is not the narrative that describes natural selection.  Indeed, human societies that  behave in this fashion are comparatively  short lived.

The untold part of this story is the way in which the overrun and eliminate idea of “survival of the fittest” makes those who hold it unfit for survival.

Ignoring Natural Limits

The historical experience of exploiting other lands and societies sets up the general practice of living beyond one’s limits.  The cataclysmic result is indicated in Overshoot, reviewed in Rachel’s Environmental Weekly for February 12, 2009-a fitting essay with which to commemorate Darwin’s 200th birthday.  Overshoot details the ways in which humans have temporarily increased the carrying capacity of the land (its ability to support human populations) by using up past resources (such as oil that takes millions of years to produce and minerals that will never be replaced) and future resources (ones necessary to the lives of our children).

Colonialism and certain dynamics of modern globalization  encourage such “overshooting”, when  some nations exploit the resources of others in order to survive, rather than living on their own natural budgets.

Ultimately however, an overshooting society runs out of “ghost acreage” on which to rely-and must face the dilemma of supporting an overblown population on ravaged natural systems.

In short, it inevitably crashes.

Social violence and unrest

Societies with beliefs in heroic conquest and legitimized oppression are fraught with internal dissension. As a result, they are the most short-lived societies in human history. They are fortunate to eke out a few hundred years before their collapse, as opposed to tens of thousands of years of longevity of certain indigenous societies.

Decreasing natural and cultural diversity

The thrust of natural evolution is to increase diversity–as Herbert Spengler, modern author of the theory of “social Darwinism”, acknowledged– though he failed to address how Manifest Destiny itself ran counter to such diversity in replacing hundreds of other human cultures with colonial ones on the North American and African continents.

In the modern industrial era, globalization directed by”mal-developed” nations (as Vandana Shiva has called them) use technological fixes unresponsive to unique ecological landscapes. Modern global development too often directly counters diversity in its emphasis on mono-technology (as in mono-cropping), as it attempts to adapt all landscapes to such one-size-fits-all subsistence strategies.

But diversification is necessary to natural selection. More choices allow more opportunities for natural selection and diverse systems are more resilient in the face of stress than homogenous ones. Place-sensitive small farming is more resilient to drought and disease than large scale industrial farming, for instance.

But modern globalization homogenizes both culture and place.  No McDonald’s is different from any other-no matter what the landscape on which it sits. Modern development results in the replacement of perhaps millions of other species with the human one.  As Murray Bookchin argues, this is not progress but reverse evolution.

Ignorance of adaptive processes

Darwin’s theory tells us that natural selection operates through the adaptation of species to their environments.  But this is hardly the same thing as the simple elimination of physically (or militarily) weak by those who are physically stronger.

Adaptation is a far different thing from seizure or reshaping of the land or control of its life systems.  Adaptation is a two-way process.  In order for there to be successful adaptation of the land to human needs, there must also be successful adaptation of humans to the land.

Physical power, that is, is not commensurate with adaptation. If the predator wipes out all its prey, it wipes out its own means of survival. Predators must have a complementary relationship with their prey in order for that relationship to be adaptive.

Ultimately, as Bookchin and Val Plumwood both observe, the sustainable predator-prey relationship is a balanced or egalitarian one. In any ecological system, even the “top predator” is eventually eaten as well as eater. In this way energy and resources are recirculated:  the life that we borrow from the natural system, as Plumwood puts it, goes back to the pool of life from whence it came.

In modern society, we try to avoid consciousness of the reciprocal nature of this process, Plumwood also notes, by embalming human bodies as if we could lift them out of the natural cycle.  But we aren’t doing either nature or ourselves any favor here. We thus enforce ignorance of the systems upon which we rely for survival-and turn cemeteries into toxic waste dumps, since the only way to stop decomposition of a human body is to fill it with poison.

An added irony here is that top predators are more vulnerable to the toxics we release in our environment today than are those lower on the food chain.  Such toxics concentrate as they move up the food chain. If, as the saying goes, it’s lonely at the top, it’s dangerous there too. This is only one way in which top predators are more fragile than their complements who live lower on the food chain.

Denied dependency on sources of survival

In any system based on domination, those at the top deny their dependency on the ones at the bottom, as Plumwood has also analyzed in detail. Thus the slave owners in the Old South devalued the real contribution of slaves to their “civilization”.  And the household labor of women is not financially compensated-as if it were worth nothing.

In worldviews marked by hierarchy and domination, humans also ignore and render invisible their dependency on the natural life that they deemed “lower” than humanity.  The ignorance of our dependency on natural systems allows us to blithely undermine our means of survival.

Denied vulnerability and bonding

There are other ways in which the overrun and overcome model of “survival of the fittest” blinds its holder to the actual workings of social and ecological relationships.  In terms of this model, there is no benefit in being vulnerable to others.  But in human societies, the links between vulnerability and bonding bring us culture itself. Just as the long dependency period of human children allows them to learn their culture, the physical vulnerability of elders puts them in a position to pass on cultural information.

As an added note to those who would link survival of the fittest to the sociobiological perspective that sees natural behavior primarily motivated by passing one’s genes around, there is the fact that in some societies social fathering is more important than genetic fathering. That is, identifying the actual genetic father of a child is of little consequence, and the man who nurtures a child and passes on personal experience and knowledge has the real status as “father”.

Humans are not the only ones to whom things other than physical strength count in the social arena. Dog and wolf packs will often defer to an older, more experienced animal in spite of its relative physical weakness or smaller stature.

Loss of achievement through competition

Contrary to the competitive notion of survival of the fittest, competition does not always breed achievement-including the transmission of genes.  Take the case of the red deer of Ireland.  Their fight to the death amidst clashing of antlers embodies the Euroamerican cultural myth of the young stag who replaces the older and weaker one.   But observation of the actual breeding habits of these deer indicates that while the more aggressive stags are fighting (often to the death), the other deer are breeding.

Similarly, in a recent study on bison University of California researchers found that the bulls  with the quietest calls are the ones most likely to breed.  Megan Wyman, the study’s lead author, speculates that these bulls keep a “low profile” in order to avoid a fight that would cause them to lose access to females.

In yet another examples, a  PBS documentary on the wolves of Yellowstone illustrates the breeding success of a wolf observers dubbed “Casanova” because he was so interested in breeding– but careful to avoid all fights with his peers.  When the alpha wolves of his clan were killed by other aggressive wolves, he wound up being the only male to pass on his genes.   A recent interview with a researcher on NPR revealed that DNA analysis verified that alpha baboons were passing on their genes far less frequently than baboons of less status that were “pals” with females.

These instances illustrate how natural selection may take more aggressive individuals out of the gene pool.

I am not saying this always happens– but I am saying the formula that asserts physical-dominance-equals-breeding is far too simplistic to explain what happens within any given species, much less in whole  ecological systems.

As for another wolf-related species with which we are intimately familiar, Temple Grandin, in her book Animals Make us Human has recently argued the scientific case that those who see dogs in the wild as having dominance hierarchies are decidedly wrong.  She undercuts the notion of the “alpha” dog with considerable data.  She does not dispute that those dogs living in human homes in contact with multiple other dogs in crowded conditions might express hierarchies as a method of maintaining order.  She only insists that this cannot be attributed to the nature of dogs.

In the human arena, psychologist Alfie Kohn has written several books on the importance of altruism and cooperation. His findings are summed up in a popular article called “How to Succeed without even Vying”, in which he tells the story of his search for an experiment that indicated competition improved performance.  He couldn’t find any-in spite of the fact that many experimenters set up their work to support the positive effects of competition.

Their results indicated that competition actually hampered performance.  Kohn speculates that the energy siphoned off in worrying about getting the other guy subtracts from performance, whereas cooperation adds energy to groups endeavors.

Fostering illness rather than health

On the basis of their research, geneticists in a recent essay in Science proposed that we define health in the physical body, natural systems, and social systems as cooperation– and illness in those same arenas as competition.

Their research  indicates  that cells in the healthy mammal body operate on complex cooperative dynamics–but when a sick cell leaves the cooperative cycle– and begins competing with others on an individualistic basis– we get illnesses such as cancer.

The Alternative: Survival of those who fit in

There is an alternative model to competitive or aggressive interpretations  of “survival of the fittest” expressed by long-lived societies who perceive human fitness for survival as “fitting into country”, in the words of indigenous Australians who explained this to anthropologist Deborah Rose. Longevity was directly linked to being “rooted to this ground” and acting with care before the “eyes” of the others who share it, as expressed by Chehalis elder Henry Cultee.

The article by Rose cites Tim Flannery’s analysis of the ecological operation of a particular Australian landscape and the resulting conclusion that “species that cooperate in large, complex systems have the best change for continuing life.”

Here is a quote from Rose, summing the knowledge she learned from her Aboriginal teachers:  unlike the “theory of survival through competition, an indigenous concept of survival of the fittest denotes…[that] those who are most fit are those who know most about how to fit in… It offers a synergistic account of life in which fitness is a project shared amongst living things, rather than a scare resource to be competed for. And it brings people into country as participants rather than ‘winners’” (p. 120)

Societies who have linked survival with fitting in traditionally managed their landscapes for resilient biodiversity, based on reciprocity and mutual adaptation between humans and nature.  Today these societies are in a special position to care for earth’s living systems in the face of stresses induced by industrialization, since modern indigenous peoples currently steward eighty per cent of the world’s biodiversity.

It is a misuse of the theories of a man who cautioned himself “never to use the words ‘higher’ and ‘lower” to perceive evolution as based on dominating hierarchies– especially human-established ones that  falsely preach that survivors are those who wipe out and replace other natural lives.


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Caring and the “Fore-caring” of Precaution: Watching over the Commons

By Madronna Holden

One day when I visited a Chehalis grandmother that I sat and spoke with many times, she called my attention to the prairie in front of her house. She loved that prairie which brought her the smell of wild strawberries in June and remembered images of her ancestors with their slender digging sticks prying camas up carefully, so carefully, so as not to “disturb the prairie”. Over generations, the careful work of her people and that of other indigenous women resulted in the camas flowers everywhere on the prairies pioneers nicknamed “camas lakes” for their stunning visual effect.

But that day the prairie this elder loved was full of shoveled mounds of dirt.  It seems that some people on a quest for wild foods had been seeking camas and had tunneled away, turning over and uprooting soil everywhere.  It was something I myself did not at first notice, but it was immediately apparent to this woman who in her eighties watched over the prairie just as she watched over the Chehalis children playing outside the tribal hall during recess from the Headstart Program.  She had an all too extensive recollection of the assaults on Chehalis identity and language during the boarding school era, but observing these children who “knew who they are”; she could finally say of her people, “I guess we made it”.

She had strong eyes with which to do all that watching:  ones that could warm you even in the coldest days. Others (non-Indians) advised me to wear a coat when I came to see her in her unheated cedar house.  But sitting there before her bright watching eyes, often flashing with glee at a joke, I was never cold.

She had plenty of vision with which to observe that those folks armed with shovels had “really messed up the prairie”.  This violated her ethic of non-disturbance the same way the sloppy leavings of a modern hunting camp violated the same ethic in Henry Cultee’s eyes.  You should take and use all of what you shot-and should there be something you couldn’t use of the animal that had given its life for your survival, you should respectfully bury it. Honoring the life you had taken and leaving the land just as you found it.

In this sense the “precautionary principle”, which mandates that we take special care not to disturb other lives now or in the future, is nothing new.

Caring for the land and for the people is anciently intertwined in traditional indigenous views in which animals were hunted so that meat could be shared. In some areas of California, the hunter never ate any of his own meat.  He could justify taking the life of another natural creature only by giving it away to feed others. In the same way, girls who harvest their first roots berries on the Mid-Columbia River never consume these themselves-but instead give them away.  In wisdom gleaned from observing the reciprocity of natural systems, they realize that the one who gives away her first harvest will see nature return the favor to her in future years.

What we share of nature and society expresses the content of what environmental philosophers term the “commons”.  The commons includes things like air, water, transportation and storm water systems upon which modern developers depend-and for the Chehalis grandmother, the prairie in front of her house. That commons differs radically from “private property”. What was truly “private”shouldn’t matter to anyone else.  Thus the grandmother above thought it as peculiar as it was insulting that social service folks had knocked on Indian doors with the purported purpose of teaching Indian women how to arrange their housekeeping.  Once the word got out, the Indian women they targeted didn’t let them in the door.

Digging up the prairie by any means convenient and intruding on the home life  of Chehalis people to proffer their re-arrangement both violate the ethic of non-disturbance shared by many native cultures and the modern precautionary principle–originally called “fore-caring”, in that it was caring for the future.

It was the same kind of violation that saddened the Chehalis grandmother when she had, years before, gone to visit someone at the state mental institution at Steilacoom.  She was indignant that the inmates could be “paraded around like that-human beings!”  She did not recall that there were many who were “lost to us that way” before contact, but when there were, her people would work to “bring them home again”.

To bring them, that is, back to a place of honor and belonging, to include and embrace them rather than to isolate and regiment them.

There is exemplary tenderness in this stance:  in the stance that honors all life exactly as it is– and understands disease as lack of belonging.  Instead of remaking the world for its own purposes, this stance attempts to enlarge itself to embrace those who have been left out, thus bringing them home again.

Imagine a science that worked with this kind of tenderness toward our world. It is a possible vision. Indigenous Community Conservation Areas now account for a substantial portion of the world’s lands (up to an estimated twelve per cent), and they include global areas with the largest cultural and biological diversity (“biocultural diversity”). Such areas are managed in terms of the ancient partnership between native peoples and their land.

Imagine if global development and technology turned to such tender caretaking:  what if we defined “progress” as enlarging ourselves, embracing others (including natural systems) as they are?

What if we exhibited such tenderness and watchfulness over our social and ecological worlds?

What if we instituted the precautionary principle in all aspects of our lives, combining the stance of non-disturbance with intimacy (so that we have the knowledge to understand whether or not we are disturbing others) and the watchful protection that many indigenous worldviews have modeled?

If we honored our own potential in this way, then perhaps we might begin to expect our actions in this vast mysterious world to yield unexpected positive consequences rather than the unintended negative ones we all too often face  today.  Like those in the community of Gaviotas in Colombia, who have worked  so carefully to be in harmony with their environment that thousands of acres of recovered rainforest have serendipitously risen up in their wake.

Imagine what daily life might be like if we expressed such tenderness towad our environment that we woke up each morning expecting wonderful surprises– and secure in the sense  that those who followed us would inherit an even more vital world than the one that sustains us.

This is a vision that all of us might work to make a reality.


As a point of information, I have not used this wise Chehalis elder’s name since, in keeping with her traditional values of humility she asked me to “use my words but don’t mention my name”– even as she asked me to pass on what she and others told me– to “make a book of it.”

Partnering with the Natural World

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By Madronna Holden

In 1927 Chehalis elder Mary Heck testified on behalf of her people before the U.S. Court of Claims. She spoke in Chehalis, enumerating the things a non-Indian court might count in terms of value.

She listed the houses that had been destroyed by pioneers who wanted the cleared land on which they stood. She told how long it took her people to build each of those great cedar houses that stood for generations unless they were destroyed by fire – the white tool of choice in this matter. She spoke the names of villages erased from maps that set down straight lines over lands and waters that contemporary Chehalis elders told me were traditionally navigated by “streams of trees” and “fish trails.”

But Mary Heck had something else to say as well, something she deemed important to place on the record alongside the list of the destroyed homes of her people: the destroyed homes of the beaver, devastated by pioneers as they drained her people’s lands for their farms.

Even in translated court transcripts, her tone comes through. She is speaking up for the beaver who shared a partnership with Chehalis women in their root digging grounds. Mary Heck credits the beaver for sustaining the wetlands and fertile ground the Indian women favored for these crops. In relating the destruction of the beaver’s homes, Mary Heck mourned the loss of a friend.

Just as the otter is a keystone species in Pacific Ocean ecosystems, the beaver had a central role in ecosystems both east and west of the Cascades. Indeed, in taking beaver and otter, the early fur traders could hardly have picked two species whose depletion had more profound effects on local ecosystems. Beaver dams helped create and sustain the wetlands that are now ninety-nine per-cent gone along the Willamette River, wetlands which married the river to the land, providing habitat for a proliferation of plant and animal species, containing and filtering storm water, and keeping ground water tables charged.

Across the Cascades, along the Crooked River, for instance, innumerable springs dried up when the beaver dams were lost in the wake of the fur trade. Then the once fertile lands that spread out beside that river shrank as the formerly meandering waters stayed to a deeply cut bed. In this sense, the concerted policy of Hudson’s Bay Company administrators John McLoughlin and George Simpson to stymie competitors by creating a “fur desert” in the Pacific Northwest had an ironic ring. In accomplishing their goal of depleting the otter and beaver, they enlarged dry land areas throughout the Northwest.

We can set Mary Heck’s story of the beaver alongside the modern ecologist’s story of the sea otter in expressing the dynamic interplay of species in a resilient ecosystem. Her perception, in turn, derives from the “partnership” worldview in the indigenous Northwest. With this point, I want to take up where many natural resources managers, including innovative ones such as “resilience” thinker Brian Walker leave off.  I want to shift from questions about how we “manage” natural resources to how we manage ourselves to support nature’s resilience.

The issue of partnership takes up a theme in a paper I recently gave on resilience thinking, in which partnership was one of four strategies I proposed for managing human behavior in ways that support the resiliency of natural systems.

The first step in establishing a partnership is treating our partners with comparable respect to that with which we treat ourselves.  In their 10,000 years of sustainable living here, the Pacific Northwest’s diverse indigenous cultures did this by treating all natural life as their intimate kin, with standing comparable to that of humans. “All animals and inanimate objects possessed spirits,” as STOWW (Small Tribes of Western Washington) stated in their handout for their 1975 treaty rights workshop. Among the Sahaptin-speaking people on the mid-Columbia River, the term for “life” is waq’ádyšwit, the “animating principle or ‘soul’ possessed by people as well as animals, plants, and forces of nature”. Waq’ádyšwit indicates “intelligence, will, and consciousness,” and since it exists in all natural things, it is the moral basis of the reciprocal partnerships between humans and their land. [i]

Parallel recognition of personhood in nature is found in the traditions of the inland valleys as expressed by contemporary Coos-Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman: “The earth is alive. It has a heart.” The indigenous peoples of Northern California likewise also perceived natural landscapes as comprised of persons alive with spirit. In the early 1900s, linguist Jaime de Angulo wrote of his frustration in trying to get a word for animals that contrasted with that for humans in the Pit River language. But there was no such word in their language, since there was no such distinction in Pit River culture.

A partnership worldview inherently promotes respect for diversity in its recognition that all natural life possesses spirit and personhood. In this sense, the partnership view envisions the most democratic of socio-ecological systems, embracing what Vandana Shiva terms “a democracy of all life”.

The radical equality between humans and other natural life in the partnership worldview goes hand in hand with the recognition that nature and humans are intertwined in the relational manner of Brian Walker’s “socio-ecological systems,” in which “changes in one domain of the system… inevitably impact the other.”

In this sense, both the partnership model and the resilience paradigm offer an alternative to the dualistic split of the worldview that sets humans apart from and above nature. Both concur with the modern science that tells us whatever we do to our natural environment, we do to ourselves. Thus, for instance, the pesticides and fire retardants released into our environment have become ubiquitous in U.S. breast milk.

In recognizing the dynamic reflexivity between ourselves and the natural world, indigenous Northwesterners developed an ethic of reciprocity, which entailed sharing the gifts of life with others, taking only as much as you could replace from natural systems, and treating natural life with respect in order to allow it to flourish – which in turn allowed humans to flourish. In such reciprocity, we find the intersection of ethics and practical outcomes in an interdependent world.

Take for instance, the case of the salmon in the Pacific Northwest.  Respecting the salmon as partners with humans, for instance, resulted in their abundance under native management, so that the indigenous peoples on the Columbia River harvested seven times the modern take without harming the sustainability of the runs.

Since all natural species were peoples in the partnership view, it followed that one should develop an ethics of consideration for the future generations of salmon and humans together. Drawing on this perspective Yurok elder Lucy Thompson observed in 1916 that non-Indian rules for protecting the salmon on the Klamath River were bound to fail, since they were based on the actions of individual fishermen – but their actions taken together created a gauntlet of barriers the salmon could not run.

Lucy Thompson’s insights stand beside those of all the indigenous peopled cited above in illustrating how the partnership view implements both intimate knowledge of natural systems and careful monitoring of the results of human actions on those systems. Thus is the alternative to the Not in my Backyard attitude which separates the consequences of environmental decisions from those who make them.  Ecofeminist Val Plumwood points out the fundamental irrationality of the modern global system in this respect, in which those who have the most power to make environmental decisions are the least likely to be visibly  and immediately affected by them. This broken feedback/ethical loop must be repaired by remedying a sense of “remoteness” from particular places (as the bioregional movement sets out to do), from the future (in the effects of our actions on future generations) and from those “others” which a hierarchical worldview renders invisible or inconsequential.

The ways in which the partnership model encouraged humans to manage themselves for the benefit of both their landscapes and themselves were not limited to the salmon. In Tending the Wild, Kat Anderson details the way that this worldview led to the exquisite bounty of root crops, wildfowl, and game recorded in hundreds of explorer records in native California. In like fashion, early explorers in the Willamette Valley termed it the “gourmand’s paradise” for the results of the specific management practices of the Kalapuya – and they would come to the Willamette Valley to stock up on provisions whenever they ran low.

The intersection of ethics and practical results in the partnership model is eloquently expressed by modern Nisqually leader Billy Frank, Jr., who has worked tirelessly both for Indian fishing rights and the care of the salmon and its habitat: “I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same thing.” [ii]

Modern Westerners cannot authentically or ethically take over the specific spiritual beliefs of other cultures. Nor can we return to the past. Yet as the Resilience Alliance’s workbook for resource managers observes, it is important to tell the story of ourselves and our land in ways that free us from the constraints of the ruling paradigm. In this context, the partnership worldview has much to show us about fostering a resilient world.

Indeed, the partnership worldview immunizes its holders against the paradox of domination. This paradox flows from the fact that the more one tries to control a thing, the less one sees it for what it is. One-way communication with natural life (we plant, you yield) subverts the knowledge we need to foster a resilient world. As a remedy for the dangers of such limited information gathering, the partnership model sensitizes humans to the ways in which natural life “talks back” to us.

This paradigm has important scientific potential, as expressed in geneticist Barbara McClintock‘s Nobel Prize-winning work she accomplished through “speaking with the corn,” getting to know each corn plant as an individual. It was not a popular method for any scientist, much less a woman beginning work in genetics several decades ago. For years McClintock struggled to continue her research without the support of her colleagues, finding ways to fund her own work.

This is the kind of leadership expressed by Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Pilgrim Baker in taking on her personal commitment as a “voice for the voiceless.” She does not say, “voice of the voiceless.” She is not subsuming or taking over the voice of the other. Instead she is expressing the central stance in the partnership worldview: speaking up for those we might otherwise leave out of our goals or visions, in the same way that Mary Heck called attention to the beaver.

Such leadership reminds us that in order to gear our behavior toward fostering a resilient natural world, we need to increase our listening skills-and thus expand our range of vision.

Key to the success of the partnership worldview is its attribution of agency to all in any socio-ecological system. Thus it helps us embrace a question as pressing in this era of increasing globalization as it was to cultures with 10,000 years of standing in the Pacific Northwest.

How do we share our world?


[i] “Western Columbia River Sahaptins,” Eugene Hunn and David H. French in Handbook of North American Indians v. 12.

[ii] Quoted in Charles Wilkinson, Messages from Frank’s Landing.

A slightly different version of this essay appears as “Partnership and Resilience” in Ecotrust’s online journal, People and Place.

Taking Back the Power to Nurture

In the November/December 2008 issue of the Women’s Health Activist Anabella Aspiras relates her personal experience of the rape of a close friend, who kept her assault a secret as Aspiras watched her sink into a deep depression, dropping out of her social circle and then out of school.

Only when Aspiras went to her missing friend’s house and demanded to know what had happened did she learn her friend had been raped. She also learned that her friend’s parents counseled their daughter not to report the rape, since they felt the criminal justice system would only traumatize their daughter further. Aspiras writes that as a result of being raped, the friend she “knew and loved in high school is gone”.  She concludes, “Until survivors of rape have reason to be confident in the criminal justice system, rape will continue to be under reported and women’s lives, like hers, will be lost.”

Over the years, I have heard far too many stories from my students about the assaults they experienced simply because they were women–and about which they had previously told no one.  A work-study student in a program at the University of Oregon, a Native American grandmother was assaulted by a man offering to help her carry a heavy piece of furniture into her new apartment in broad daylight in Eugene, Oregon.  Though she showered again and again, she could not get the smell of this man off her.

Another student was pulled into the bushes from a bike path and only managed to save her life as her assailant choked her by telling him to ease up, since she liked to move during sex.  She had to rasp out the lie again and again before she was able to get away.

One might hardly guess that another of my students who came to class as a well dressed professional had also come close to dying– at the hands of her raging ex-husband.  Luckily she managed to escape and take her children with her after he pulled out his hunting rifle and threatened to shoot them all.

The under reporting of such assaults on women in the military is a finding in the recent Congressional hearings. For the 2688 reported assaults in the military in 2007, there were four times as many that went unreported.  As Penny Coleman, widow of a veteran-victim of PTSD observes in her essay on sexual assault in the military, more than a third of women who seek VA care for mental health issues after returning from Afghanistan or Iraq, do so because of trauma created by a sexual assault.

Coleman is especially concerned with supporting assault survivors who choose not to seek medical or psychological help within the military system-for understandable reasons. A recent student of mine was seriously injured by her serviceman-husband.  She appealed to her husband’s military commander, only to have him cross-examine her as to what she had done to incite the assault and urge her to work harder to please the abuser. There is a happy ending to this story stemming from this woman’s self-assertion. She managed to leave the marriage that confined her on base with her dangerous husband.   Later she re-married another serviceman who treats her with equanimity and she considers her current marriage a true partnership.

The widespread incidence of the assault of women soldiers by fellow servicemen is a situation of which the military has evidently been cognizant for some time. Stationed near Detroit during the Detroit riots some decades ago, another of my students relates she was confined to base along with the other servicewomen in the area to avoid being raped by the Guardsman called up to put down the riots.

Sexual assault is not only a continuation of historical experience– it is also a multi-generational affair.  One of the saddest experiences of my teaching career occurred when the daughter of one of my students was raped. This woman and her husband had adopted five children, including this one.  One of their adopted babies came to them emotionally damaged, and they arranged their schedules so that they could hold her constantly for several months until she finally stopped crying.

But this mother did not have a similar cure for the violation of her raped daughter.  She stood by her as she went to court to prosecute the assault, but during the process this even-tempered and generous woman formerly so full of humor almost went crazy with grief.

Any one of these attacks on women is enough to illustrate what should be common knowledge:  rape is a crime of violence, not sex-and certainly not a part of human nature. There are cultures in which there is no word for rape– since such an action is literally unthinkable.  But sexual assault is a common occurrence in cultures that emphasize the value of domination. In such cultures, the links between power and nurturance are broken, so that those who nurture others have little power or status. And those with power use it without any sense of service or care.

The severance of nurturance from power is tragically expressed in the attack on the physical center of women’s ability to nurture life.

In patriarchal societies, the severance of nurturance from power may be quite intentional, as illustrated by Hitler’s censorship team. As they publicly smashed Kathe Kollwitz’s famous sculpture The Tower of Mothers, depicting a group of mothers protectively circling their children, they proclaimed, “The state keeps children safe, not mothers!”

The experience of the mother in my class and the parents of Aspiras’ friends directly experienced their inability to protect their children.

When nurturance and power are severed in a society, the voices of those who speak for future generations are no longer central to the sphere of political power, as they are in the Iroquois council of women who approve or disapprove all political decisions according to their effects on future generations. Instead, a society which severs nurturance from power puts “women and children last”, as Ruth Sidel’s book analyzing the modern western condition puts it.

In such a society, it is easy to confuse the fact that nurturance is disempowered with the idea that there is something in the nature of nurturance (as expressed in biological motherhood, for instance) that causes women’s oppression.  Expressing this confusion, certain feminists of the sixties declared that they must break with the biology of their own bodies–and it’s mothering capacities– in order to assume equal social power alongside men. This thinking was illustrated by Shilamuth Firestone, who reasoned that only the erasure of biological motherhood would allow women to share equality with men. Only when humans had the technology to fully dominate their biological nature, she insisted, would women be liberated.

There is little that can so well alienate women from our bodies as the experience– or potential experience– of sexual assault.  But to reject our biological nature only amplifies the denigration of our bodies that sexual assault expresses.  Further, Firestone’s cure of dominating nature only gives us more of the cultural value that underlines rape in the first place.  As ecofeminist Val Plumwood has eloquently detailed, one cannot express domination as a positive  value with respect to the natural world and expect that value to vanish as we relate to one another.

Fortunately, there is an alternative that connect nurturance and power, as in the case of the Iroquois.  Linked with the precautionary principle-or fore-caring for future generations– such guardianship, in essence, consists of choosing something you love and protecting it.

It involves, that is, taking back the power to nurture.

The Raging Grannies and the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers are more nurturers to be reckoned with. They have seeded groups working for social and environmental justice worldwide. Takelma Siletz elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, the chair of the Grandmothers, begins her public talks with a moving statement asserting the value of every woman in her audience. She goes on to insist that such valuable women can never accept a situation in which they are abused.

We need, Grandma Aggie also says, to return women, with their nurturant impulses in full play, to power. Not incidentally, she and the other grandmothers see the earth as female: as the violated mother whose power we must once again honor so that she, in turn, may nurture us all in the cycle of life. Notably, this earth-nurturer is no weakling.  If we misuse her water, for instance, Grandma Aggie says, she will take it back. This is her explanation for the global droughts she has seen in her travels with the other Grandmothers.

The Grandmothers know all too well the pervasive modern story that disempowers nurturers–and they are not buying it.  They have dedicated themselves to living out another story, in which women, joined together, honor the power that resides in nurturing the children of the future and the earth we share.

In this story, women are both fully empowered and nurturing. And those who use their power to nurture others are our true heroes-whether they be men or women.

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