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.