Our Plant and Animal Elders

It is not only fallacious but imprudent to insist that humans are at the top of a natural hierarchy. In fact we are among the youngest and most fragile of species—and our place in the natural world is comparatively shaky. As a Siletz student of mine recently noted, plant and animal species that have been here so much longer than humans are rightfully due the respect given to our elders.

The non-human elders with which we share our ecosystems carry the ancient memory of life in their bodies, a memory that tunes them to their environment. This is something we sorely need to relearn. Without such knowledge, moderners accept life in places that have replaced and devastated natural systems. Such places smell bad, cause us difficulty in breathing, foster an atmosphere of alienation and violence—and certainly do not enliven us as do natural spaces inside and outside of cities. Such places are numbing–sometimes they are even purposefully engineered to be disorienting (as our shopping malls)–since market research that indicates we buy more if we are off balance.

Sustainable traditions, like the ones that endured for 10,000 years in the Pacific Northwest, treasured such bodily memory—even as they treasured their elders of all species. Chehalis elder Henry Cultee told me his ancestors were fond of saying, “The eyes of the world are looking at you”. The many eyes of the non-human world, that is. In turn, the way those “eyes” saw you and judged your heart would determine your longevity. Here “survival of the fittest” is based on the human fit in natural ecosystems.

This is a striking standard by which to judge human actions: attributing their moral guardianship to our non-human elders. It is both a profound and pragmatic idea. The young upstarts on this planet that we are have much to learn from our non-human elders who have endured here so much longer than ourselves.

This standard protects us from the impulse to clear cut an ancient forest or wipe out another species or its habitat– for it understands that is tantamount to destroying a library before we read the books. To lose our non-human elders is to lose their knowledge of survival. It is also, as the Chehalis words indicate, to lose an essential moral competence.

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