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.

Why We Shouldn’t Root for Light to Overcome Darkness

By Madronna Holden

You don’t need a script to identify the hero in classic Western movies. He is the man on the white horse wearing a white hat.  The villain, by contrast, is a shadowy character dressed in black–associated in every other way with darkness, as well.

Though in other cultures, black is the color of fertility–the soil, after all is dark—and the richest soil is the darkest. But banishing the dark has come to be a metaphor for the triumph of knowledge over ignorance—as well as goodness over– in certain societies and religions.  In such worldviews, transformation of darkness into the “light” is the metaphor for righting one’s spirit.

It is not incidental that many such religions also value transcendence from earthly life and control through intellect or will– rather than mystery.

There are other destructive consequences of this view.  In many cultures who believe in the triumph of light over dark,  dark skin in humans is also the ground for racism. And those with the lightest skin are given the most social privilege.

But the actual triumph of light over dark would lead to the collapse of the physical universe. Physicists have discovered that “dark matter” makes up most of the matter in that universe, echoing the words of a native Plains Indian elder decades ago that it is empty space between things that allow humans to make their choices. It seems the universe may operate on the same principle, with dark matter being the birth home of the stars and planets.

The balance of light and dark, in my Parabola essay, “Light who Loves her Sister Darkness, not the overcoming of dark with light, is the way of the way of the natural world and its of seasons and days here on earth. Peasants who worked the soil understood this in the European Middle Ages, where folk religion held up the Black Madonna as an icon in art and worship.

But in industrial society, we are losing the balance of light and dark, in both perception and pragmatics. Since the invention of the light bulb, we have designed more and more effective lighting.  In modern cities humans light up the skies for twenty-four hours, extending work days and not incidentally, announcing to the natural world as a whole that humans are present.

So what is wrong with that?

For one thing, there are substantial savings in energy costs in cutting back on over-lighting and misdirected lighting.

A number of municipalities have initiated “dark skies initiatives” which both save on energy and cut light pollution that obscures the stars and confuses migrating animals as well as playing havoc with human biorhythms.  Such initiatives encourage the directing of light downward, onto the surfaces where it is needed, rather than up into the skies, where it scatters on dust participles to become light bubbles that obscure the night sky for hundreds of miles beyond major cities.

In New York City, for instance, a park was recently designed using lighting directed entirely downward where it would be of the most use to humans using that park at night.  And from above, the night still looks like the night.

Some believe that night lighting is a matter of safety and the brighter the better. Perhaps this harkens back to the safety of the fire ring in ancient human camps. But though light has arguably deterred crime in certain urban areas, there is some debate over this issue.   I spoke with a local policeman in Eugene, Oregon who believed the opposite:  he observed that bright lighting may light the way for a potential thief, who may well be daunted by an area that is mysterious to him or her.

In any event, as a recent New York City park proves, there is another way to light things up.

But setting aside the issues of energy saving and safety for the moment, why should we try to protect the darkness? For one thing, it is a kindness to other species that use the light of the stars (or the starlight reflected on the ocean) to navigate by. Millions (yes, that’s right) of birds die each year in collisions with lighted buildings at night, misdirected by the light that historically guided their migrations.

The Natural Resources Defense Council did an experiment in which they left half their office building in New York City unlit—and found fifty per cent fewer birds were killed in collisions with that building as a result.  A sad parallel tale is that of turtles who hatch on the sands of South Florida and migrate to the sea.  They have only a short time to get their heading and find their way into the water before they are caught by predators.  Their life and death flight was cued by starlight on the ocean.  But today they head in the opposite direction– straightaway for city lighting which obscures the more subtle starlight on the water.

It is a kindness to ourselves as well if we more often allow the natural cycles of light and dark to guide our body rhythms.  Researchers intrigued by the fact that breast cancer rates were higher among those who worked night shifts put cancer cells in a petri dish and found that those exposed to artificial light grew faster than those exposed to the regular day/night cycles.

Without darkness, our bodies cannot produce and replenish key hormones that keep up healthy.

The words of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson give us something to ponder: “When you look at the night sky, you realize how small we are within the cosmos. It’s kind of a resetting of your ego. To deny yourself of that state of mind, either willingly or unwittingly, is to not live to the full extent of what it is to be human.”

When our lights blot out the stars, we lose perspective on our place in the cosmos. We easily become egocentric as well as anthropocentric when we dwell only in the bubbles of light we have created, rather than in the  nature’s vast universe of proportion and mystery.

——————

I highly recommend the award-winning documentary, The City Dark, which makes many of the concrete points above. For a wealth of  information on health issues flowing from over-lighting, criteria for proper lighting and the energy savings that follow—as well as model “dark skies initiatives”–see the International Dark Sky Association website.

Plants as Persons: New Science Meets Enduring Ethics

By Madronna Holden

In his groundbreaking Plants as Persons:  A Philosophical Botany, Matthew Hall reveals botanical discoveries that indicate plants have individuality, self-recognition, self-direction, learning capacity, self- preservation and self-initiated movement.  Does this make them persons?  Hall’s conclusion is a resounding yes.

But if plants have the traits of persons on the list above, this does not make them persons like human persons.  Though Hall argues plants have a mind exhibited in the communication between plant parts by means of neural hormones, for instance, he stresses that they do not have a mind like the centralized human brainInstead they have a kind of “network mind”.

And though they may learn and adapt in the course of their lifetimes, their choices are not analogous to human free will.

What we have here is a contrary view to either the anthropocentrism that lays the world at the service of human ends or the anthropomorphism that projects human qualities on other natural lives.  Instead the particular qualities of plants challenge humans to expand their sense of personhood to include natural lives very different not only from humans but from all  persons in terms of a “zoocentric” bias that Hall argues permeates too much of our science.

Many indigenous peoples also attribute plants with the characteristics Hall outlines—in their worldviews the perception of plants as persons is commonplace.  Importantly, as Hall underscores in his detailed cross-cultural and historical analysis, those cultures with worldviews that see plants as persons also characteristically treat plants—and the living biosphere of which plants make up the substantial part—with respect and care.

The traditional Chehalis of Washington State, for instance, did not cut cottonwood or burn it for firewood, since they observed that it moved on its own—when there was no wind. Their respect for the cottonwood, that is, led to both careful observation of it and ensuing special treatment.  Notably, the water-loving cottonwood grows along river banks and in wetlands– and not cutting that tree helps preserve and cleanse local water tables protected by its roots.  A parallel case is that of the fig that grows along river and stream banks in traditional Kikuyu territory in Kenya.  Wangari Maathai, founder of the Greenbelt Movement responsible for the planting of a billion trees, inherited the Kikuyu belief that the fig is sacred and should not be disturbed where it grows along such watercourses. Thus she learned the relationship between these trees and the preservation of precious water resources.

Such examples are legion:  I was told by an herbalist at Makah (on the Olympic Peninsula) that local loggers refused to cut the alder which their tradition considered sacred.  Not incidentally, the alder is a nitrogen-fixing tree that plays an essential role in re-establishing tree growth in areas ravaged by fire—or clear cut logging in the modern era.  The respect for the alder’s healing power was such that when native loggers learned alders were due to be cut in a modern logging operation, they would stay away from the job to avoid having any part in this.

Further north, in the Koyukan lands, the birch was thought to carry out reciprocal relationships with its human users. This idea limited the harvesting of birth bark so that trees were not harmed in the process.  In terms of its contract with humans, the birch would retaliate with environmental depravation if its bark were overused or wasted.  Such reciprocal relationships between humans and plants prevailed throughout native North America, where cloth weavers, basket makers, canoe makers, and house builders used plants according to human-plant contracts in which plants were thought to give permission for their use—which they would never do if humans wasted or overused them—ruined their habitats or harvested them in any other destructive way.

Altogether, the perception of plants as beings with minds and choices of their own led to both the careful observation and the respectful treatment of plants and their habitats—as well as special sensitivity to the interdependent relationships between humans and plants.

All knowledge of nature might be considered a form of story—a paradigm, as modern philosophy terms it.    What Hall’s work raises for consideration is the question of which stories are in line with the scientifically observed dynamics of the natural world and also elicit ethical consideration of that world from humans.  He argues that the idea of plants as persons fills both these criteria. By contrast, the story of plants as “automatons”, as Hall argues, is not only wrong on scientific and rational terms—given the characteristics of plants that make them very different from automatons– but wrong on ethical terms—which license humans to treat these living creatures with such carelessness.

So why do the members of modern industrial society often miss these special characteristics of plants outlined by Hall—and thus fail to treat the natural world that sustains us with the respect and care that such a view engenders?  According to Hall we can chalk this up to a mistaken turn in Western thinking that took up Aristotle’s dualistic and hierarchical philosophy, dividing humans from nature as it set humans above all else on earth. There were other choices:  for instance, pre-Socratics who argued that all natural life should be accorded equal consideration since it shared the same natural sources.

But Aristotle’s views went well with a culture based on empire—whereas the view of the equality of all life did not.  Not incidentally, Aristotle’s views of the natural world mirrored his views of humans, which divided them into classes allotted at birth—with male urban Greek landholders placed above the farmers from conquered cultures and slaves originating as war captives. And all men placed above women whom Aristotle saw as soul-less vessels good only for reproductive purposes—unlike some pre-Socratics who held female thinkers in high esteem.

The worldview that sees things in terms of domination and hierarchy can also inhibit scientific understanding—as Hall argues that it does in what is misses in botanical life. Further, the worldview that separates humans from other natural lives has historically given little attention to the interdependent or reciprocal quality of that world– in which each action has consequences. This worldview, that is, often licenses the dismissal of ethical concerns with respect to the treatment of the natural world.

The stories we tell of the natural world are not accidental, but set in cultural contexts:  they both serve and reflect social purposes.  The best science transcends the limits of the dominating worldview—as did Nobel Prize winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, who attributes her brilliant results to her “speaking with the corn”. Though presently recognized with this award, she at first had a good deal of trouble publishing her work, given both the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated field and had such a holistic, reverential attitude toward the corn she studied.

It is no mistake that societies that sustained their ways of life for tens of thousands of years had a worldview that encouraged both the careful observation of plants as living beings—and the ethics that flowed from such a view. And Hall points out the ways in which modern science parallels such ancient ethics.

————

Madronna Holden’s review of Plants as Persons  was published in the newsletter of the International Society for Environmental Ethics ( summer 2012).

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

Attending to the Whole: Addressing the Tragedy of the Commons

By Madronna Holden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond damage control: getting the future we want

By Madronna Holden

In the face of emergencies like the Gulf oil spill, many of us feel like the man in the traditional story who pulls one drowning man after another out of the river.

But even as he reaches the end of his energy and wits, he sees another man running upriver to stop the one pushing all these people into the river in the first place.

Though in an emergency, it may seem that damage control is all we can, so, we should never let it replace our vision—or our rational perceptions of what needs to be done.

Community planner Eben Fodor, who is doing an independent evaluation of “Envision Eugene”,  Eugene’s Comprehensive Lands Assessment, observed in a South Eugene Neighbors meeting last night that such damage control has replaced vision in this process. Thus, instead of asking how to create a vital and thriving community of humans and nature, we must figure out how to eke out sustainability and cut carbon emissions in the context of the same growth-oriented development model that has caused our problems in the first place.

In this context, we can only pull as many as possible out of the river—and community members fight with one other over which are the most important to keep from drowning.

As innovative environmental designer William McDonough has put it, such a “visioning” process is like setting a goal of going 20 miles per hour rather than 30 in the wrong direction.

What we really need to do is turn around.

Robert Emmonds of Lane County Landwatch, also at the neighborhood meeting, outlined the ideas that might make this happen– with a primary goal of matching human use to the character of the land. Fitting people’s actions to the land rather than attempting remake the land to fit human convenience is an ancient and effective strategy in human history.  One that develop a partnership between humans and their land.

Whether or not we agree with its details, this proposal deserves to be on the table– which cannot happen, since the comprehensive plan is working under the constraints set out by the Oregon State Legislature to allow for growth.

I am glad there are those working on changing this.

As the statement of the recent global People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia points out, all peoples need the development necessary to sustain their lives. But neither the earth nor the human community can afford the current growth-oriented development strategy, which would require five planets just to accommodate the continued resource use of the current developed nations alone.

We also need to shift from damage control to rational planning in dealing with environmental health issues, according to the recently released report of the President’s Panel on Cancer.

The panel’s report noted that when forty-one per cent of US citizens will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes and nearly one in four will die from this disease–and the fastest rising cancer rate is among children– our medical rescue operation needs to look at what is happening upriver to create all these cancer victims.

The culprit is clearly environmental pollution. Thus the panel states that in order to stem the current cancer epidemic we much shift federal policy from a “reactionary” to a “precautionary” approach with respect to the over 80,000 human-made chemicals currently released into our environment. The panel has a clear and accessible list for individual and citizen actions to protect your family, your community, and your personal health—like curtailing of lawn chemical use and switching to organic foods wherever possible.

As with the cancer epidemic, current research implicates environmental toxins in the rates of obesity and diabetes among the current generation of children.  Researchers have isolated pesticides that are “obesegens”. Children exposed to this class of pesticides are more likely to grow up obese and to become diabetic.

Together, cancer, obesity and diabetes make children in this generation the first to have a predicted lifespan shorter than that of their parents.

US children are also subject to the fast food/junk food environment created by the concentrated corporate powers that produce and distribute US food. Our system of subsidies for such foods makes it more expensive for the individual consumer to buy organic, locally produced fruits and vegetables than a cheap burger. There is a painful scene in Food, Inc., in which a poor family assesses the costs of items in the fresh produce isle and rejects them all as too expensive.

Kelly Brownell, Director, Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, put it point blank:  our kids “haven’t a chance unless we curtail the junk food industry”. Not only does this industry carefully calculate salt, sugar, and fat percentages in fast food recipes to trigger addictive responses, but they use psychological and physiological research to find ways to bypass the decision-making areas of our brains and produce ads accordingly– to the tune of 100 million dollars every four days.

We pay these costs not only with our food dollars but with our health.

We also pay the costs of researching, marketing, protecting patents and fighting labeling genetically engineered foods. If we shifted to the precautionary rule with respect to these products we would not only require that they be labeled, but we would test them according to their long term effects—and require industry to foot the bill for this before they release their products into our environment.

A central reason why this does not happen is lack of oversight in regulatory agencies– as in the one that exempted BP from developing a plan for handling an accident like the one that is currently spilling as much as two and a half million gallons of oil a day into  the Gulf of Mexico– though a citizen group has a plan — a petition to stop offshore drilling.  Industry that funds research also oversees its results, leading to a scandal with regard to the scientific peer review process—an attempt to draw up a new ethics policy to keep scientific research independent.

We can see how industry might nix the publication of the study done by a scientist who found that genetically engineered  soy fed to three generations of hamsters caused sterility—and triggered gene expression for things such as hair growth inside their mouths.   In fact, the industry has worked to restrict  independent (non-industry funded) research on genetically engineered products.

But amidst all this dysfunction, there are those who are working at staying the hand of the ones sinking all the lives currently lost to cancer and diabetes. Senator Lautenberg recently introduced the Kid Safe Chemicals Act into Congressional committee. This legislation would institute a precautionary policy with regard to chemical usage in the US., following the lead of the European Union’s REACH program. The Environmental Working Group is tracing the progress of this bill and ways you can support it.

It is about time. In her congressional testimony, EPA director Lisa Jackson agreed, noting how outdated our current 1976 act is in this regard.

The old law does not even allow us to ban asbestos or to clamp down on the use of formaldehyde in construction products, so that this chemical, directly linked to asthma, is more prevalent in new construction than in houses several decades old.

“Fore-caring”—another term for the precautionary principle urged by Jackson and Lautenberg– is an essential moral act.  It is also a central pragmatic one. What, after all, is more pragmatic than protecting our own future?

Some would like to take this vision of “fore-caring” even further:  creating a society with the central value of caring.  Only a caring society would replace an economic system that rewards the acts that threaten our survival. Such a shift to a caring society is the goal of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, who plan a conference with this goal and an impressive array of speakers to be held this coming June in Washington, D.C..

They would like to invite all of you who are reading this to attend.

The network supports a constitutional amendment that states that corporations are not persons with the rights of human beings (as our law currently has it) and all US citizens have a right to a healthy environment.

A shift to a society of caring is only a return to the central value that made humans survivors for one hundred thousand years of our history. Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples gathered from around the globe at the People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia and asserted it in their statement:: “It is imperative that we forge a new system that restores harmony with nature and among human beings,”

There are too many lives of all species going down in the current river of carelessness and greed. We need not only to care for those wounded by our present policies, but to recognize what is wounding them—and develop a vision for changing that.

As the People’s Agreement on Climate Change observes, knowledge should be the shared inheritance of humanity.

So should vision.

Honoring the Water: Third Annual Willamette River Blessing led by Agnes Baker Pilgrim

Madronna Holden

Update:

Grandma Aggie’s words are featured on the theme page of the latest issue of YES magazine’s “water solutions issue”, which is full not only of ideas but good news in ways that small communities have made headway against corporate ownership.

Here are the words Grandma Aggie is fond of saying:   “We are all water babies.  It’s never too late to save the world.  Wherever you are, take care of the water- if you really want  to live”.


This past Sunday,  Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers came to Eugene to lead the third annual honoring of the water ceremony to bless the Willamette River.

Grandma Aggie smiles after traditional drummers from the Cottage Grove Longhouse sang and drummed to the river while she prayed.  Afterwards, others shared songs and poems in honor of the river.

Grandma Aggie reminded us we are all “water babies”, instructing us to “introduce ourselves to the water” as a way of thanking it and blessing ourselves. Each of us touched the water on the bowl in the chair beside her before she gave it back to the river along with water from all the rivers of the world she personally gathered in her  travels.

Grandma Aggie shared her concern for the rivers that she witnessed drying up in Australia in the past few years since she had last visited there.  She observed that perhaps Mother Earth is taking the water back, since we are not treating it properly.

She reminded us of all the ways water sustains and enhances our bodies and set out concrete tasks for those present, such as finding out how the water from things such as carpet cleaning gets disposed of– and making sure it does not contaminate our water in the process.

Grandma Aggie also  listed  some of the  ways in which we should continue to be grateful for the lives that supports our own, giving the example of the “one leggeds”– the trees whose bodies built her house whom she daily thanks.

She takes heart that honoring our rivers is catching on:  she has been asked to lead a similar ceremony on the Columbia and in Eastern Oregon.


In the back along the river behind Grandma Aggie you see these banners placed by the Fresh Water Trust of Corvallis in honor of Earth Day.

Each of these gorgeous banners was designed and painted by a middle school student in honor of the salmon celebrated by the traditional Tlingit story of Salmon Boy.

 

Here is a portion of the text that explains the banners:

“The Salmon River banner is inspired by a salmon trap stake, crafted and then fastened upright to a fish weir by a Tlingit trap owner who would place the stake and weir near the mouth of a salmon spawning stream. Doing this represented the highest value of respect to other humans and the valued and necessary salmon.

What would the jumping salmon see? A wonderful fully crafted representation of the Salmon Boy story, an announcement of the knowledge of and intent to abide by the requirements of that charter. But further, this is an object of great beauty and wonder, something that the salmon would appreciate in its own right as well as reflect upon the respect demonstrated by the state presenter through the exquisite quality of the carving.  In this way, it is not a representation to “lure” or “attract” or even merely a “reminder “, more a statement of intent to insure the sustainability of a species.

The Salmon Banners represent the image used on the trap stake, so in the event the salmon do return, they are given a gift of beauty to behold, offered by those how seek to sustain a relationship and welcome them back. It is a testimony to the power of the mythic charter to generate behavior by humans that respect salmon.

‘In order to understand how we treat salmon, you have to realize that we treat them like we would like to be treated.'”

-Eighty-two year old Tlingit elder James Osborne.


Any of you in the Eugene area will not want to miss the stunning exhibit, “How Water Speaks to Us” ,  at the Museum of Natural History through June 13.

How to Feed the World: Sustainable Food Production

By Madronna Holden

Updated 10. 25. 2012

“Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming on the same land”.

Science Daily, July 11, 2007


The quote above comes from a review of a University of Michigan study that finds that organic farming is especially important in feeding developing nations.  The video recently released (on “Food Day”:  October 25.2012) by the Food Myths program gives a solid outline of why industrial farming is not only not needed, but counter-productive in feeding the world.  In turn, if new technology, chemical inputs into agriculture, and genetic engineering will not feed the world, as I have argued elsewhere on this site, the propagation fair I attended in Eugene, Oregon illustrates what we need instead.

The fair consisted of a free exchange of plants and seeds.  It also offered free scions of hundreds of varieties of pears, apples, and plums, carefully labeled as to taste, keeping qualities, and disease hardiness.  Visitors could take these for free for grafting onto existing trees.  Or they could use root stocks and/or take advantage of the help of experienced grafters offered at cost.

Workshops entailed such topics as seed saving and winter gardening. And informational booths ranged from a focus on honeybees and native pollinators to a school gardens program.

Notably, Vandana Shiva has noted that the same kinds of fairs existed in traditionally sustainable farming areas of India, where growers (largely women) got together to trade seeds and ideas.

Here are the hallmarks of this fair that illustrate what we do need to feed the world.

Community values

This fair expressed sharing for all rather than profit for a few. The volunteer grafters, the workshop leaders, those who staffed booths and those who brought plants and seeds to give away were enthusiastic about sharing both information and food-growing resources. This contrasts sharply with Monsanto’s “terminator gene”, developed to protect its patent—which also threatens our food supply through unpredictable and uncontrollable gene migration.

The fair also expressed the value of care— for the environment, for community, and for the varieties of trees and seeds to be preserved locally.

Care is a productive value when it comes to such things. Care such as Barbara McClintock’s “speaking with the corn”, treating each plant as an individual, led to work that earned her the Nobel Prize. This echoes the care with which indigenous peoples tended their fertile “gourmand’s paradise” in the Willamette Valley:  care for both the natural lives that fed them and the human lives to come after them.

Indeed, such care sustained human communities and environments together throughout the indigenous Northwest.

It is such care that the government of Switzerland replicates in their constitution guaranteeing the “dignity” of all natural life.

Technologies

Here are the characteristics of sustainable food-producing technologies exhibited at the propagation fair.

Sustainable food-producing technologies should be place-based.

As opposed to the “one size fits all” technology of globalization, place-based technology is as flexible and particular as the individual yard into which it would be set—as special as each person’s choice of and care for a heritage tree or vegetable seed.

Such technology does not depend on a large plot of land.  As are many urban gardens today, a tree or vegetable plant can be placed in a backyard, on a parking strip, on a reclaimed vacant lot, or on a rooftop or terrace.

Seeds grown and saved from local gardens partnered with nature’s ability to adapt, rather than trying to force diverse ecological systems to adapt to human whims.

Sustainable food-producing technology should preserve biodiversity.

As Barbara Kingsolver observed, any society that relies on a single variety of an essential food source is one step from the devastating starvation suffered in the Irish potato famine when disease attacked the single kind of potato grown there.

Such a famine would not have happened in Peru, where the potato originated– and where traditional farmers grow uncounted varieties of this crop. Traditional farmers also keep wild areas open. There nature has a chance to grow whatever she wants—and farmers often find useful varieties arising in these wild places.

Maintaining this natural stock-producing area was also the practice of peasant farmers in Britain (where the hedgerows provided food to birds as well) and in Eastern Europe.

Sustainable food-producing technology should need few secondary material inputs.

Grafting needs no secondary technological inputs such as fossil fuels, pesticides and fertilizers, or expensive machinery.  Its tools are as simple as a grafting knife—and care in the hands and knowledge in the minds of those who tend grafted trees.

I would suggest that the complexity of a technology, as in the complexity of the grafting process, should center not on material input and fancy inventions, but on the complexity of knowledge and experience passed from one person to another.  Technology with this type of complexity relies not on depleting natural resources—but on the unlimited resource of human knowledge.

In an age of burgeoning human population and declining natural resources, we need this combination of complex knowledge and simple material input.

Sustainable food-producing technology should have a historical track record or careful research in terms of safety in line with the precautionary principle.

Grafting is an ancient human science. I once sat in an Arab garden on the Mount of Olives sustained by grafting techniques and local knowledge.  The caretaker of his tiny garden offered shade and comfort to guests, even as his garden offered up honey, olives, grapes and a dozen other varieties of fruit to the family that cared for it.  He told me that if something did not work on this land so densely planted that the leaves of the trees touches one another, he grafted other varieties that did.

He followed an ancient tradition that is all too little utilized in this war torn area.

Sustainable food-producing technology should have no deleterious side effects, for either the environment or other humans.

Side effects that negate the benefit of high-end technologies used in corporate farming include use of toxic chemicals and fossil fuels, drawing down the water table, and/ or carbon production.

Instead of such negative side effects, planting trees has the potential to ameliorate climate change and recharge ravaged water tables.

It is a wonderful that this process feeds us as well.

We have such technology and we can refine it.  We have no need to use technology touted as part of the “green revolution” that devastated lands such as those in Bangladesh reclaimed by the traditional and diverse farming methods of New Agricultural Moment or similarly in Mexico by Jesus Leon Santos.

It is a fool’s bargain to trade away temporary profit for a few for the destruction of the land we need to sustain us. Indeed, it is clearly irrational to give economic rewards to those who undermine the sources of our survival and spread toxins to any part of the planet we share.

By contrast, any robust economic system and the technology it develops must reward those who produce what we need for the flourishing of humans and other lives on this planet:  things such as nourishing food, secure livelihoods, clean air and water, good health, and a secure future for our children.

The more rare and precious are our natural resources, the more we must protect and care for them.

Think before you buy: Consumerism warning labels

By Madronna Holden

Updated 5.17.2012

Many of us buy too much for the wrong reasons and throw away too much as well. Even as we gauge the health of our economy by continued “growth” in dollar exchanges, the earth is groaning under the weight of our consumerism.

This is vastly different from the kinds of person to person exchanges that we find to nourish us at local small businesses and farmer’s markets—and a few larger businesses of conscience.

We have some hard-won warning labels outlining the health effects of cigarette smoking and side effects of drugs and pesticides (though the latter may be placed in print so tiny it is virtually unreadable).

But what if we looked at the larger picture?   My student Alyssa Bellamy suggested this warning label be places on all consumer items:

Warning: Consumption of this product means you have been brainwashed. Continued use may lead to your becoming ignorant, ill, and to further degradation of our earth and of the women and children and slave labor used to produce this product. And also, you may be tormented with never being satisfied and always trying to catch up.

My student Amanda MacKenzie suggested the items on this list:

Caution: Think before you buy this product.

  • Are you purchasing an item that supports making a quick buck for someone rather than ensuring the planet’s health for our future and for our children’s future?
  • Do you really need this product?  Do you want to be responsible for the way it was produced?   Continuing to purchase unsafe products produced by laborers working under conditions you would reject for yourself or your family will exaggerate these environmental toxins and labor practices.  If we keep buying such products, there is no incentive for companies to change their ways.
  • When we turn to consumerism, we become desensitized little by little.  We start feeling entitled, which opens up the pathway to competition’s replacing caring in us. This causes other humans to appear as potential threats.  This may manifest itself in small ways, like trying to keep up with the Joneses or starting a rumor so you get promoted instead of your co-worker.  This attitude can fester in a society and become more insidious, leading to war, rape, starvation, poverty, and a general disregard for the well-being of others.

I think Amanda’s analysis of the ways in which consumerism erodes our social fabric are especially astute.

Such “think before you buy” cautions ought to go not only on consumer products, but on the ads that we are liable to see flood the media with every political campaign as a result of the recent Supreme Court decision approving unlimited corporate campaign spending.

I would add the following items to the list above in assessing both purchasing choices and campaign ads:

  • Someone somewhere is paying for this ad.  YOU or your quality of life or that of your children may be part of the cost.
  • All consumer products or ads support particular values. An alert consumer will assess these values and if you don’t want to support these, don’t buy the product—or vote for it.
  • Does this ad speak to your ability to make decisions for yourself or does it attempt to manipulate you?  Don’t support anything that demeans you.
  • Who really benefits if you buy this ad or vote this way? (hint: check out who funded the ad.)
  • Does this ad attempt to scare or threaten you?  There is no reason to support this.
  • What information or support is there to back up the statements in this ad? Beware of fake “experts”.  Do you know, for instance, that many of the supposed “doctors” on tv ads are hired actors?
  • If you see the same ads over and over that you didn’t like the first time, stop watching them. There is a subconscious effect of such ads—even if you consciously feel you are ignoring them.

To keep our shared earth as well as our democracy safe and vital we need more than ever to follow the dictum:  Think before you buy”.  Here are links to websites that share information on consumer choices.

Join us in expanding this list. What warning labels would YOU place on media ads, campaign ads or consumer products?


To lead us off here is Marla Chirstensen‘s think before you buy warning label:

“Have you done your research? Which company is behind this product? How are their products manufactured? What toxins are in the product that will harm your body, the employees that manufacture it and/or the environment? What policies does this company have with regard to employee safety and long term protection for our earth?”

And here are Shawna Canaga‘s warnings:

“WARNING: Purchase of this product will lead to destruction of your self-esteem, your planet, and your voice for change.

WARNING: Families, women, and children world-wide have been displaced, lost farmland, are starving, incur disease, and are being violently oppressed so you may have this item. Is this what you want your dollars to do?

WARNING: This ad contains material which leads to anorexia, bulimia, self mutilation, violence against women, low self esteem, depression, severe personal debt, oppression of minorities, suicide, patriarchal support, increased division between the poor and the rich, addiction, sexual assault, and the continued consumer driven reinforcement of the idea that YOU’RE JUST NOT EVER GOING TO BE GOOD ENOUGH.”

And here is Molly Saranpaa‘s warning label:

“WARNING: We are attempting to distract you from anything and everything that does not concern amassing or consuming material goods. Over the years, we have spent billions trying to figure out how your mind works so we can subconsciously persuade you to buy this product (and countless others). We know that you really don’t NEED this product, but beware; we know how to make you WANT it.

“Be careful, without you being fully aware of it, we can skew YOUR values so that they line up with OURS. We value money and stuff above all else. We don’t care about our planet or the people who live on it. We have no conscience, no feelings and ultimately no remorse for what we do because we are a corporation. We can distort your personal values so much that before you know it, you will equate your own value (and that of those in your world) by the useless material possessions that you will never be able to get enough of. We think you are foolish and naive enough to by whatever it is you are selling.”

And Kirsten Tilleman added this:

“Warning:  Would you want your child to visit the farm where this meat was raised?

And we might add, would we want our child to visit the factory where other products are manufactured?”

From Darcy Meyers here is an additional  reminder of the importance of images in selling (and labeling) c0nsumer products:

“Since people consume goods based on images, I think we should also warn consumers about the effects of this consumption with images. For example, would you want to buy a can of tuna with a dead dolphin or seal on the front of the can? Or, what if a picture of the oil spill in the gulf was on every gas pump?”

And here are some suggestions from Carol Davis:

For media:
WARNING: The intent of this ad is to make you feel bad about your physical appearance in hope that you will buy our product(s) so we can laugh our way to the bank.

For campaign ads:
WARNING: This is part of a huge popularity contest and the purpose of this ad is to tell you exactly what you want to hear so you will vote for me/us. Be advised, I/we will not actually do what I/we said, it’s just for your vote.

On this point I would add,

Warning:  Know who is funding this candidate.

For consumer products:
WARNING: Should you decide to purchase this product, this company will make more from this item than the laborer that assembled it will make in a month, maybe a year, oh, maybe even 10 years. They will continue to struggle to feed their family, while our company president will buy more food than he/she needs.

Here is “warning” from Marissa Dubay  to place on conventional meat products:

WARNING: This product has been factory farmed, prepackaged, and laced with chemicals, hormones and food additives/dyes for your convenience. Ingesting this product can result in health risks that may include cancer, heart disease and high cholesterol. The animal that was slaughtered for your consumption may have been subject to brutal abuse and unsanitary living conditions, denied natural instinct or diet, and raised in an area so small it could not complete a 360 degree rotation for the duration of its short life. The production, processing, and transportation of this product uses large quantities of fossil fuel, depleting finite resources and contributing to global climate change. Your purchase ensures the continuation of these practices and increases demand for them.

And here is a pointed caution from Lindsay Longwell about the ways that modern products supplant our own knowledge and skill:

“ Warning: You did not put the work into growing this product, you did not sew it, ship it, package it, harvest it, you put no effort into this purchase at all, What would you do tomorrow if the world you knew disappeared forever?”

What Labels Really Mean Today

Labels can be very helpful in making healthy and responsible choices.  However, you will also want to avoid “greenwashing”– labels that mean absolutely nothing, such as “natural”, “cage free” or “antibiotic free”.  For what labels really mean, check out this detailed explanation in the March 2011 Audubon

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

march 2013 006

By Madronna Holden

Why should we call our bad dreams nightmares?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Lessons from Yellowjackets: Speaking with the Natural World

By Madronna Holden

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

For what, he never said.

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

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

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

We never saw him again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should all be so graced.

Confusing Discovery and Conquest: A Recipe for Destruction

By Madronna Holden

The worldview that links discovery with conquest has caused considerable social and environmental harm.   This attitude has deep roots in Western history.  Julius Caesar’s famous motto Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), featured on some  modern t-shirts, couldn’t be more clear on this point.  Discovery is a prelude to conquest.

Caesar himself didn’t invent this approach.  It was the guiding principle of the Athenian colonial empire, as illustrated in the tragedy of Melos. The people of Melos sent the Athenians a missive indicating they wished to live in their own way rather than join the empire.  The Athenian response was to massacre them.  In their proposal of neutrality the people of Melos violated the first rule of colonial empire, which is that whatever lands or peoples the conqueror casts his gaze upon, he owns.  In this context, the only alternative to assimilation of the Melos was their obliteration.

The worldview which mingles discovery with conquest persisted in the history of the Pacific Northwest—and it still persists today in our modern technology.  It is signed by the failure to see what we discover for what it is rather than for what we would make of it.  Indeed, an essential part of this discovering/conquering gaze is what it doesn’t see. Rather than Caesar’s I came, I saw, I conquered, the slogan of the conquering discoverer would more accurately be, “I came, I didn’t see, and I conquered”.  Or alternately, “I came, and I destroyed what I didn’t see.”

Take some examples from Pacific Northwest history.  Several decades after explorer Alexander Henry declared the Willamette Valley Kalapuya a wretched and homeless lot who lived out under the trees, those same Kalapuya began saving Oregon Trail pioneers from wholesale starvation—and it was the pioneers themselves that took shelter in the trunks of trees when they first arrived here. As for the traditional Kalapuya, one of their houses on Marys River (near Corvallis) was sixty feet long, and the ones near Tualatin might be twice that big.

But the denigration of the Kalapuya in the pioneer worldview led to the Senate’s refusal to sign treaties with them on the logic of those like Senator Sam Houston, whose Senate speech declared them “insignificant”.

The reduction of native villages to “huts” on lands that were “wastes”, as early  missionary Father Francis Blanchet wrote of the Chehalis, licensed their destruction. In fact, the Chehalis houses where Blanchet traveled, constructued by whole communities working together, included a potlatch house nearly two hundred feet long, to accommodate intertribal horse races inside in the wintertime.  But if one saw native houses as huts, that licensed their obliteration and replacement by a shipping port on the Chehalis River, as Blanchet proposed.

The blindness of those who crowded into a tiny cabin roofed with sail canvas and the camping mats of native people–and declared their abode the first house on Puget Sound– might simply have been humorous from the perspective of those at Port Madison whose cedar longhouse covered an acre of ground. In describing this contrast, historian and novelist Archie Binns stated that many pioneers foolishly assumed that, “a house is not a house unless built by whites”. This blindness  provided a license for destroying that which the pioneer worldview rendered invisible.

Throughout the Northwest, the cleared land upon which Native villages stood was favored by pioneers—and they seized it as they destroyed native homes, usually by burning. This is the mortal danger in the discoverer/conqueror’s blindness:  that which he renders invisible, his actions work to banish in fact.In the claims case pressed by several Puget Sound tribes in the early 1900s, indigenous peoples testified how the houses in village after village were burned by pioneers, who sought the land on which they stood–and ignored the fact that this land had been cleared by native people.

In fact, lands pioneers favored throughout the northwest were those specifically modified by native labor:  as was the broad Willamette Valley early fur trappers nicknamed the “gourmand’s paradise” for its profusion of natural foods. But Lyman Abbot, major spokesmen for the ironically named “Friends of the Indians” who lobbied Congress to assimilate Indian peoples to white ways in the nineteenth century (and take their land in the process) argued that the Indians did not even “occupy” the land.  Real occupation, he argued, would consist of things like mining operations.

Or the beaver trade.  The destruction of beaver homes along with human ones was something Chehalis elder Mary Heck remarked in the claims trial above.  This gets to the heart of the discovering conqueror’s blindness—the conqueror destroys that which creates the very things he favors. Pioneers throughout the continental US coveted beaver meadows as choice farmland, as Carolyn Merchant details in her analysis of ecological changes in New England with the coming of pioneers.

But at the same time, Euroamericans brought the beaver to the brink of extinction.

Val Plumwood outlines the blindness of the “dominator” logic—or more properly, illogic—expressed here.  The conquering mindset divides the world into dualistic sets such as progress/backward, civilized/savage, human/nature, civilization/wilderness, man/woman, master/slave, boss/worker, insider/outsider, friend/enemy– with the idea that one is higher and one is lower.

From the perspective of the ones above, those below become “objects” for their use—and invisible in their own right.  And also invisible in terms of the ways in which those at the top rely on them.  As Carolyn Merchant also observed, seeing nature as an active process means recognizing the contributions of natural life in creating the landscape upon which we make our own lives. But today we are still laboring under the induced blindness of the discover/conqueror in this respect, which sets humans above nature and renders natural systems as there for our use–and invisible in their own right.

Thus  globalization and industrialization are systematically destroying seventeen ecosystem services priced at $33 trillion a year, treating these aspects of ecosystems as it they were merely objects for our use–and thus invisible both in  their own right and in their contributions to our survival.

It is a matter of logic and of justice that we recognize and honor the living communities that charge water tables, contain and filter storm water, hold hillsides together with their roots—and provide us with the air we breathe and the soil on which to grow our food.   But we are hampered in doing this by the mentality that mixes discovery with conquest.

The mentality does not ask the “discoverer” to assess the consequences to natural lives (including human ones) in the use of his newly discovered technology. Modern industrial society simply gives the rights of usage to the “discoverer” as a patent.  The dangers involved in this approach have led the European Union to institute the precautionary principle in its REACH program.  According to this principle, a new chemical must be proved safe before it can be distributed.

There is the further question of who owns something derived from an ecosystem– something created and sustained by other life. The notion that if we “discover” something it is ours to do with as we will brings to mind a quip comedian Dick Gregory made about the discovery of the American continent by Europeans. Following this historical precedent, he declared that he would like to discover himself a car.

To address this issue in modern globalization, Vandana Shiva has instituted a “no patents on life” campaign. According to its guidelines, discoverers can neither own nor lock up from others the use of what they “discover” if it is part of a living ecosystem.  This pertains especially to the patenting of food and medicinal products traditionally used by third world peoples.  In the case of Shiva’s India, corporations patented both basmati rice and neem—and attempted to use those patents to keep these products out of the hands of those who used them for generations.  Shiva’s idea has been picked up in a European Union proposal.

All in all, it is time to clear up our inherited confusion between discovery and conquest—and the near-sightedness that goes with it.

Let us re-imagine discovery as a matter of meeting and mutual learning—rather than overrunning and obliterating the others who share our earth.

After all, blindness to the natural sources of our lives is not a survival tactic.

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.

The Dandelion Wars: The Costs of Lawn Cosmetics

By Madronna Holden

“The earth wants peace.  The birds who eat the corn do not want poison…The wind does not want to carry the stories of death.”

–Linda Hogan, Dwellings

In many home improvement stores this spring, the first thing you will come upon is a display indicating that humans are engaged in a war against weeds and insects—a war that we can only win with the help of the featured chemical weapons.

These chemical weapons– such as the herbicides Weed and Feed, Round Up, and Week B Gon are poisons, pure and simple.  Thus the EPA states that it impermissible to claim any of them are safe.

But they are poisons on our side, the names are carefully geared to get us to think.  Who wouldn’t want to weed and feed their lawn with a helpful sprinkling of granules? For those who still like the image of the frontier quest of the unruly wilderness, there is Round Up. And for those who would like to banish dandelions as easily as pressing the nozzle button on a sprayer, there is Weed B Gon.

What good gardener would take up their work without getting the weeds and insects under control by enlisting these weapons? One that cares about the quality of our rivers and the salmon that swim there, for one. Certain of these pesticides have been directly linked to destruction of endangered salmon.  All pesticides work their way into groundwater, which works its way into rivers and streams. As a result of a court ruling in 2003, pesticide sales displays in Oregon, Washington and California  are required by law to display a warning stating that these chemicals are harmful to salmon.

Someone who wants their garden to set fruit might also avoid these, since usage of pesticides is linked to “colony collapse disorder” that is currently causing wholesale destruction of honey bees. The links are strong enough for some European countries to outlaw the nicotine-related pesticides that are most directly implicated. In the US, the state of California, whose almond crops have been hit especially hard by the death of bees, is re-evaluating the registration of particular pesticides as a result.

And one who cares about children should opt out of this war.  We can now trace in profound detail the chemical steps by which the most commonly used household insecticide in the US, chlorpyrifos  or CPF, disrupts the brain development of the human fetus and growing child.There are verified “cancer clusters” among the families of agricultural workers who apply pesticides as well.

As a result of its health risks, herbicides with 2,4-D in them–along with many other agricultural chemicals–  have been banned  in Sweden since 1977.  More and more European countries have joined Sweden’s ranks.  Quebec also joined their ranks this spring and is currently standing firm in the face of Dow Chemical’s legal suit in response.

When is enough proof enough? Sweden’s cancer rate has fallen since it banned a number of agricultural chemicals.  By contrast, the breast cancer rate of Israeli women during the period when large numbers of agricultural chemicals were used to remake the land was double that of other industrial nations.  Ten years after they developed stricter controls on these chemicals, their breast cancer rate fell into line with that of other industrial nations (which is already  rising alarmingly). In one study, biopsied breast material of women with cancer had twice the concentration of a class of pesticides  (chlorinated hydrocarbons) as did the breast cells of their peers without cancer. It was this same class of chemicals (organophosphates) which was confirmed as the cause of the death of four children in India on June 1.

Study after study associates commonly used pesticides with numerous cancers, autism and other neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, thyroid abnormalities, asthma and other respiratory diseases, early puberty of girls and sperm decline in boys and other general endocrine disruption, and bone and skin disorders.

All three herbicides above mimic plant hormones that cause plants to overgrow and die.  These plant hormones are chemically similar to human ones:  which is why 2 4-5 T (a key ingredient in the infamous Agent Orange along with the 2,4- D in Weed and Feed and Weed B Gon) is off the market after its byproducts caused abortions in humans.  The combination of the prevalence of 2, 4-D in the environment (including in amniotic fluid and in breast milk) and the clear indication of harm to developing humans has caused the EU nations and Quebec to pull it off the market.

But in the US, chemical companies have lobbied for a standard of proof of harm that is hard to reach in humans. For one thing, as we know from tobacco/lung cancer data and data from soldiers subjected to radiation in early A-bomb tests, cancers may only be detectable twenty years after exposure to their precipitating cause.

I venture that if one found cancer the day after spraying these chemicals, they would be off the market immediately.

There is also the fact that these hazards hit only a certain percentage of those subjected to them. But to use this as an excuse not to limit their use is tantamount to saying it is fine to give a serial killer a rifle and permission to shoot it—as long as some of his bullets are blanks.

The very reason that it is difficult to absolutely prove harm in humans to the current US chemical industry standard (we don’t want to subject humans to experimentation) is the reason why we should invoke the precautionary principle as the European Union has done with respect to man-made chemicals in its REACH program. To prevent making humans into experimental subjects for toxic chemical effects, we should require proof that these chemicals are safe before they are released.

This also leads me to ponder just what is it about the dandelions that incites us chemical warfare?  Is it the fact that they have the audacity to trespass on “our” lawns?  A friend noted that they are so blatant in their yellow flower– they tell the world we are not in control.

One pioneer  story has it is that the dandelion first arrived in Seattle in a doctor’s case, brought along for its medicinal properties.  Dandelion is still grown as a gourmet salad green, and the flower (not the white part, which is bitter), is a sweet addition to salads, as well as the main ingredient in dandelion wine.  Picking off the heads and putting them in salads is a good way to keep them from going to seed so as not to annoy your neighbors.  Of course this is the last thing you want to do with dandelions that have been sprayed.

Check out this site of the University of Maryland medical school for the many medicinal properties and uses of our humble dandelion.  Indeed, we might  see the dandelion as a gift instead of using dangerous chemicals to make war on it. One of the traditional and now research-supported functions of dandelion root is  as a liver cleanser in this modern world in which  our bodies are beset by so many toxins.

Who enforces the aesthetic standard that deems the dandelion so repugnant? Some of the same folks, I daresay, who declare wrinkles and gray hair  disreputable– and urge us to pay to remove them, even if it takes surgery.  As elective plastic surgery rises, so does the death toll from it.

Who decides the standards for which we are willing to make such trade-offs  on  our health?

The European Union and parts of Canada have looked at this issue rationally and decided that flawless lawns are not worth the health risks– especially to those, like children, unable to defend themselves. The ban on lawn chemicals used for “cosmetic” purposes in Quebec joins similar bans in a growing number of Canadian municipalities.  (117 as of 2006) Measuring the potential harm to  human health as evaluated by a professional organization of 6700 physicians, Quebec decided removing a few dandelions was simply not worth  it.

I find it heartening that these Canadians are countering the notion that we must risk our health to achieve an aesthetic that exhibits control of nature: a notion that advertisers are all too ready to have us uphold with respect to our bodies as well as our lawns. Check out the dangerous ingredients in commonly used  personal cosmetics. With eating disorders such as anorexia, adolescents risk death to look good by a standard they can never meet.

There is a dangerous element  in our inherited worldview that tells us we must battle  uncontrolled nature (in the dandelion or the wrinkle in our skin) in order to be an upstanding person.  In accepting the wrinkles on our faces, we must give up the sense that we are at war with the nature that ages us.

In accepting a few dandelions into our lawns, we must give up the sense that gardening is a war over the nature that would go back to its own devices without us. That means giving up on the part of our Western tradition expressed by early fur traders on the Columbia Plateau who wrote in their journals that they put in gardens not to harvest the produce but to illustrate to the Indians how to control nature.

But it is time to end the war on the natural world that sustains us—before we actually win it.


Here are some ways to help end that war with respect to home chemical usage:

  1. Check out the very helpful pamphlet, Natural Gardening, published by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality,which gives info on beneficial insects, as well as detailing least toxic controls for weeds and plant diseases.
  2. Investigate the least toxic alternatives libraries at NCAP.
  3. Inquire about the warning signs about dangers to salmon if they aren’t on display along with pesticides in home and garden stores.
  4. Give your local home and garden store positive feedback for offering least toxic alternatives, as many are now doing as a result of both customer feedback and information coming out on pesticide dangers.
  5. If you see someone applying spray in windy conditions, talk to them. If they are a neighbor, have a neighborly conversation with them.  If they are doing this for money, contact the appropriate agency to file a complaint. In Oregon, call the State Department of Agriculture.
  6. Talk to your neighbors and neighborhood organizations and share information about the dangers of pesticides and options for less toxic alternatives.
  7. Many municipalities have stormwater divisions with programs to help stem pesticide use:  call yours and find out if you can support their effort or help distribute their information.
  8. Avoid buying and using “broad spectrum” pesticides that kill all plants, all broad leaf plants, or all insects.  And if you have any of these around the house, don’t simply throw them away. They are hazardous waste:  call your local solid waste facility to see when they have hazardous waste collections and bring them there to be disposed of properly.
  9. Here are links to information on organic lawn care (site for both professionals and homeowners) and ten reasons to ditch your lawn care chemicals, since they are not only dangerous but unnecessary.

Together we can make peace with the land.

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.