Thomas Berry 1914-2009

By Madronna Holden

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Madronna Holden

Updated 5.21.2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Knowing What You Want

By Madronna Holden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

march 2013 100

By Madronna Holden

“Never use the words higher and lower”.

— Charles Darwin, notebooks

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

–Thomas P. Zwaka, cellular biologist

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

–Masanobu Fukuoka, Sowing Seeds in the Desert

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

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

Charles Darwin The Descent of Man


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignoring Natural Limits

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

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

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

In short, it inevitably crashes.

Social violence and unrest

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

Decreasing natural and cultural diversity

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

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

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

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

Ignorance of adaptive processes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denied dependency on sources of survival

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

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

Denied vulnerability and bonding

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

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

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

Loss of achievement through competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fostering illness rather than health

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

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

The Alternative: Survival of those who fit in

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Madronna Holden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Partnering with the Natural World

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By Madronna Holden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do we share our world?


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

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

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

Taking Back the Power to Nurture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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