How Prairie Dogs Cry for Rain: Reflections on Shelter, Rain, and Drought

By Madronna Holden

“If you kill off the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for rain.”

Traditional Navajo warming

One former prairie dog town stretched 25,000 square miles with its burrows sheltering 400 million animals.  When 20th century industry encountered such prodigious lives, it exterminated 98 per cent of them. However, the rains disappeared along with the prairie dogs, as both Navajo and Hopi individuals observed, looking out over the startling barrenness of lands from which prairie dogs were gone. Permaculture creator Bill Mollison proposed this explanation:  prairie dog tunnels join those of other earth borers to create “alveoli on the lungs” of the soil that discharge moisture when underground aquifers expand and contract with twice daily earth tides. Thus prairie dog burrows helped conduct water into the air from underground water sources, instigating cycles of rain.

If we view our actions according to the results they solicit, we might well say that the prairie dogs cry for rain. Perhaps we might also see the extermination of the prairie dogs as crying for drought in the results that action solicited—though the exterminators apparently did not think in terms of the relationships perceived by the Hopi and the Navajo. The latter cultures featured sophisticated use of metaphor to expose and elaborate the connections between one thing and another. Notably, like the prairie dog burrows, Navajo and Hopi also built their homes on a sense of interconnection.  Traditional Navajo hogans reflect the relational dimensions of the cosmos. Hopi kivas embrace their dwellers in the umbilical relationship with Mother Earth from which all humans emerge.

Industrialized western society has a very different conception of its houses—expressed in the story of the Three Little Pigs who build houses of straw, sticks, and brick respectively. The moral of this story emerges when the wolf (depicting nature as predator), blows down all the houses but that with the most solid walls—the one made of brick. The worldview exhibited in this tale impels humans to build walls between themselves and the natural world.  Indeed, those who hold this worldview not only build stout walls, but fences and borders and dams—and develop pesticides and antibiotics–  as they also separate individual humans, individual backyards—and individual nations– from one another.  In the division between insider and outsider in this scheme, the outsider is readily devalued—and if inconvenient, can be moved out of the way without a second thought, as was the case of the prairie dogs. Those with this worldview, as indigenous Chehalis elder Henry Cultee from Washington State put it, would rather “chew through a mountain than go around.”

However, walls do not make their builders as secure in safety or privilege as those same builders might think. In fact, a society’s emphasis on building walls has characteristically coincided with its imminent demise, as observed in a recent National Geographic article discussing the walls the Roman Empire built in Britain and Germany. These walls not only stood at the geographical terminus of the empire, but at its historical terminus as disintegration of the Empire took hold within and without.

All told, those who would split the world into insiders and outsiders face an impossible task — since the world is inevitably interdependent. Pesticides placed on lawns enter water tables and from there the amniotic fluid of pregnant women throughout the US.  Thusly underscoring the interdependence of the natural world, poisons used against outside creatures enter the most intimate of chambers in the human body. In fact, walls cannot keep us safe– they only blind us to what is on the other side of them, delaying our knowledge of and responsibility for the effects of our actions beyond those walls.  If a single hungry wolf cannot blow down a brick house, there are stronger winds in climate change-instigated tornados.  It is a deadly irony that self-enclosed climate-controlled cars emit carbon dioxide eroding the stability of the earth’s own climate.

The wall-obsessed ancient Romans are hardly unique in human history. The impulse to control things by segregating them is one of those “instincts of self-destruction”, as Nigerian Nobel Laureate Chinua Achebe put it, that successful human societies must find ways to discourage. In a pointed warning tale from ancient India, the protagonist destroys inconvenient nature spirits by drinking up the water in which these spirits live–which also happens to be all the water in the world, since the waters of life are interconnected. He thus instigates a drought that dries up all of life.

Early fur traders in the Pacific Northwest might have used such a warning story as they instigated their own planned drought.  They set out to trap the beaver to extinction, thereby establishing a “fur desert” to discourage other trappers from moving into the area and creating economic competition.  What resulted was an ecological desert where river courses narrowed and river estuaries dried up with the removal of the beaver from these habitats. Today conservation agencies are making attempts to re-introduce beavers in Eastern Oregon to help restore these lands, but a proactive understanding of interdependence would have saved both humans and beaver considerable woe.

Like the actions of prairie dogs, the actions of the indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest facilitated natural connections. Indigenous actions supported extensive biodiversity. The Willamette Valley was so flush with life that fur traders went there to stock up when their supplies ran low, terming it the “Gourmand’s Paradise” for the ease of their obtaining food there.

Attunement to the larger world is the enduring basis of human security. Such attunement is, after all, how living systems operate– as the lives within them attune themselves to one another over time.  There is no more profound security than assuming essential belonging in such a well-tuned system– as the stability of indigenous Northwestern societies attests. By contrast, the strategy of wall building is a lonely as well as an ineffectual one in its attempt to set humans apart from (and above) other lives. If we wish to establish ourselves in long term security, the lessons of history would have us relinquish the impulse to divide and control the natural world, just as they would discourage choices serving simple convenience and individual rewards for some over others.

Instead, such lessons would have us create stories in which those with whom we share the living world act as our teachers–as might the prairie dogs model the way to build a true home on this earth:

Perhaps you have felt the prairie dogs digging under us, opening the beating heart of the earth, shaping their burrows into the living cells of earth’s bloodstream that urge the rains to come. 

Suppose our homes did the same. Suppose what we built to shelter ourselves quenched the thirst of the grass, swelled water into the vine.  Suppose we too acted as the pulsing cells moving with the tide of the earth, praying for rain that stirs all things to life with our thoughts and our actions.

Suppose the beauty we made in our skin no matter what our age or shape or color was refuge for the swan and the hummingbird.  Beauty enough so his ivory no longer condemned the elephant.

Suppose our houses grew as green and leafy as trees, and memory traveled in our bodies with the echoes of a thousand other ways of being, tuning them to the hot and the cold that belongs to the land along with life-giving water.  

Suppose we sheltered the earth as it has sheltered us, sharing that climate-blanket that kept our ancestors safe for 100,000 years as they became human.

Suppose we sheltered ourselves following the lessons of sweet beauty as we look out upon a living landscape calling to us as the flower calls to the bee, asking for pollination.

Following the model of nature’s honey, we can build refuges of hope and inspiration and motivation–and healing.

Where nature can lead, we can follow.  Where nature has need, we can act out of our belonging to the land; praying for rain with the work of our hands.

We can regale other lives with our stories, gathering all the thirsty lives to the river we have set free.

 ——-

This post, along with other materials on this site, is copyright Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link to this essay, but it cannot be reproduced in any form in whole or in part without permission.

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.

Guidelines for Sustainable Technology

 This graphic (too appropriate to pass up) is from http://connexionsandcontradictions.blogspot.com/ (check it out)

Technology: Neither Savior nor Villain but Choice

By Madronna Holden

Since Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, declared that humans should do things because they can do them, our technology has taken on a double life as hero and villain. On the one hand technology is the hero in the story of progress, in which it assumes the power to shelter us, feed us, and extend our lifespan.  In this heroic guise, technology conquers nature and harnesses it to human ends.

However,  to conquer nature we must not only conquer our natural selves but override the natural order.  Technology conceived under this worldview has led to climate instability, the destruction of vast quantities of ocean life, toxic releases into our environment and accompanying cancer epidemics, persistent loss of soil fertility in industrial farming, and loss of the biodiversity that underlies the resilience of natural systems.

In the face of such crises, some resort to denial—denying that human actions contribute to climate change, for instance. Media financed by corporations dependent on current technologies have a hand in this:  whereas a recent review of peer-reviewed papers in science journals found 97 per cent of them took climate change as a given and focused on tactics to deal with it, over forty per cent of media stories in the same period focused on climate change “skepticism”–giving the impression of doubt in the scientific community that does not exist.

Such publicity also supports the idea that we can fix our problems with more of the same:  fantastic technologies to set mirrors in space to control the sunlight falling to earth, for instance.  It presents technology as eventually winning out if we just keep at it.  By this reasoning, it is okay to amass nuclear waste on faith that some generation in the future will figure out what to do with it.

In the context of overwhelming environmental crises, by contrast, many see technology as a villain.  They would return to a time “before technology”.

But technology itself is nothing more or less than a tool.  In fact, we became human through the technology of culture: by passing down our knowledge and experience between generations.  There is no human society without technology to return to.

And importantly, conceived as either hero or villain, technology is both larger than life—and impervious to choice.

Sustainable Technology Guidelines

In his historical analysis of modern technology, Ulrich Beck  argues that when we create technology without designing standards for it. the very technology that was meant to free us becomes a kind of fate– spiraling out of control. 

We must remedy this by choosing the kinds of  technology we will accept in order to fulfill the UN’s classic definition of sustainability: that the current generation of humans meet its needs without compromising the ability of succeeding generations to meet theirs.  As Amy Kocourek indicates in her comment here, this brings up the important issue of our definition of need.  Sustainable technology can never meet the needs of ourselves and of future generations if it seen as simply a new way to maintain the consumerist society we currently have.

Here are my suggestions for the criteria on which we might base that choice.

  • Sustainable technology must put us in touch with the results of our actions

Using a tool in the dark is dangerous for both ourselves and our world. Too often, technology (the food processing industry, modern sewage systems) disguises our relationship to the natural lives upon which we rely– and the results of our actions on these.

The contrast between the technology that distances us from the results of our actions and technology which brings us closer to them is illustrated by the difference between the “readiness to harm”  flowing from the invisibility of nuclear hazards outlined by  Arjun Makhijani,  and Siletz Takelma elder Grandma Aggie’s technology of story, which brings us face to face with the effects of our actions on other species and other nations.  In the one case, dangerous technologies spring up in the breach between our action and our perception: in the other, technology fosters the careful observation and compassionate care that led to sustainable indigenous practices persisting for thousands of years.

Though it is unlikely that each of us would be able to become experts in the range of technologies used by our current society, this rule implies public transparency of an industry’s processes.  There is a reason why Polyface Farm, with its emphasis on sustainability with its careful modeling on natural system, places transparency as its first principle, and by contrast, the commercial US meat-packing industry fought not merely  to keep visitors out of its premises, but to keep pictures of its processes private.

Knowing what goes on in the technology that produces our food or energy tends to lead to more responsible– and healthful– choices. This rule is related to the public’s right to know, following current  right to know initiatives like that in Eugene, Oregon, which requires business reporting of toxic releases.  Over time, such data allows for the analysis of environmental effects of particular chemicals.  It also motivates businesses to become leaders in developing and using processes that they are proud to showcase:  as in the case of Forrest Paint in Eugene, which has become a national leader in recapture of chemicals in paint manufacturing and re-constitution and re-use of leftover paint products.

(Thanks to my student Neyssa Hays whose comment below reminded me to draw out this guideline in further detail).

In using resources from natural systems, we must follow nature’s debit system.

Human technology is capable of increasing the long term abundance and fertility of natural systems by returning to them more than it takes, as illustrated by the indigenous botanical practices in the Pacific Northwest—or the restoration and recovery of lands in Bangladesh and Mexico though indigenous agricultural methods.

In contrast, industrial agriculture is highly unsustainable in its failure to pay its natural debts.  Soil scientist Fred Magdoff details the negative feedback loop in which such agriculture compensates for the declining soil fertility it creates though injections of energy (chemical pesticides and fertilizers) from without.

There are many ways to be clever about this:  as in the recent idea for chemical-free pest management in rice fields that both raises soil fertility and cuts waste.

  • Sustainable technology must honor the limits of natural systems

Growth is an aspect of the natural world that expresses its fecundity.   But natural communities grow through transformation, exchange and creation of diversity—not by the accumulation of material goods in a way that toxifies, removes, or ties up the stuff of life away from its natural community.

We must grow within the context of natural systems: following the model of “natural capitalism”, for instance, we would conserve material resources and grow human ones such as knowledge and craft. The former are limited; the latter are not.

In honoring natural limits, sustainable technology must use renewable energy sources (this addition courtesy of Amanda Wilson) and/or put back what it draws from natural systems (courtesy of Brandt Hines).

  • Sustainable technology must be recognizable to natural systems and other natural lives

This is the primal wisdom of societies who saw all natural lives as their kin:  for hundreds of millions of years, ecological systems have developed in balance and concert so that all lives recognize each other in their physical make up, fitting together as the family of life.

Our technology must adapt itself to our natural family rather than expecting the chemistry and order of the natural world to adapt to us. . In referring to the living roofs, for instance, William McDonough says: “Imagine that you have a building that looks up into the sky, and the birds flying overhead can look down from the sky and say. ―Oh, it‘s our people – they‘re back! ‘ “

  • Sustainable technology must  follow the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle states that we must not release new technologies into the environment until they are proven safe. This reverses the usual practice in the contemporary US, in which chemicals, for instance, must be proven dangerous before we stop their release.

The precautionary principle is a way of extending our care into the future, as “fore-caring”. This principle honors human ingenuity with the faith that we can observe our world with care and act with finesse.

This is a principle of justice as well as ecology, which inhibits the creation of profit for some by transferring harm to others.

  • Any waste produced by sustainable technology must be food for natural life

This simply follows the model of natural systems in which waste produced by some always equals food for others.  This means that any heavy metals, etc., used by a particular technology must not be waste:  they must be safely re-captured and reused.

Whereas sustainable technology cannot turn food or energy into waste, it can do the opposite:  catalyze the turning of waste into food.  Bringing the leaves from my neighbors’ trees that our city would otherwise haul away onto my yard as food for the soil is an example.  The city of Olympia, Washington does this on a larger scale, hauling away all forms of kitchen and yard waste to a business contracted to turn it into compost.

  • Sustainable technology must foster biodiversity and thus natural resilience

Resilience is intimately linked to biodiversity through a simple bottom line: the more choices one has, the more options with which to survive stress.

In honoring diversity, technology should be specific to place, responding to the irreplaceable specificity of the land—and the lives of all species that have thrived on it.


What would you add to this list? Which particular technologies ought to be included or excluded on these grounds?

Jon Unger has suggested two additions that are linked to the social context of sustainable technology that have caused me to add two more ideas for consideration here:

  • Sustainable technology should be democratic in its  development, implementation and accessibility

If society does not choose its technologies, as stated at the beginning of this essay,  it becomes governed by them.  Technology that is readily understandable and user friendly  is key to being able to choose it– or reject it– according to its effects.   This is an issue central to the democratic nature of sustainable technology.

In the words of OSU student John Aldridge, “It is important that highly-industrialized nations recognize their moral obligation to pay their environmental dues” by making sure that the technological “help” they provide other nations passes the  “litnus  test”  of being environmentally sound, as well as being freely accepted by and  “consistent with the worldview of the receiver.

“Furthermore”,  Aldridge continues, “developers and distributors of technology should not market their tools as exclusive goods. If a nation is in need of a good, it should be available.”  This means, for instance, that patent laws should not stand in the way of health or environmental sustainability.  If developers and distributors do not wish to follow the model of Gaviotas and make their developments patent-free, they can at least avoid the actions of the pharmaceuticals who sued South Africa for patent infringement when it developed an inexpensive antibiotic to prevent infant deaths.

Further,  technological development must not infringe on other populations by using their DNA for genome research or their traditions for profit without their knowledge or economic compensation. In terms of patents in general, Vandana Shiva’s standards in the  “no patents on life” campaign is a good way to avoid patent abuses such as that in which a US firm patented the basmati rice that was developed in India– making it “illegal” for its own originators to use it without paying this firm.

  • Sustainable technology should be cost effective

Mr. Unger sees this as part of sustainable technology’s appeal to the “mass consumer”.  I see it as something more.  It is important that technology be available to the larger portion of humans rather than only to the upper or elite class. As the community of Gaviotas indicates in its refusal to patent any of its inventions, sustainable technology should be grounded in its values and effectiveness–in its use for all– rather than profit for a few.

To make technology cost effective, the US must cut its “perverse subsidies” that result, for example, in fresh local food raised organically and purchased locally being more costly than highly processed and packaged food transported over thousands of miles.

Without “perverse subsidies”, sustainable food production would be less costly (and thus more readily available to all), since it has lower costs of transportation, packaging, advertising, chemical and fossil fuel inputs, than does highly processed food. There is a parallel case to be made in the example of energy:  if we cut massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and price technology at its true environmental and health costs, other energy producing  technologies would be cost effective in comparison– including the most important energy producing tact of all– conservation. And since nuclear plants are so expensive to insure, they would never be built without their government subsidies.

As Laura Zeljeznjak notes in her comment below, another aspect of this cost-effectiveness is that sustainable technology should be cost-effective for the natural world.  It should be made or drawn from sustainable materials rather than those and use up rare and irreplaceable resources, as well as ravaging other natural lives and their habitats.

Altogether, the “pricing” of sustainable technology must follow an emphatically different model from technology based on  “profit” for its developers (or in the case of patents on particular natural products, its self–proclaimed “discoverers”).  As discussed in the “The Trouble with Progress”, technology driven by the profit motive has succeeded only in ravaging the planet and undermining our relationships with other lives, human and more than human–and thus is the opposite of sustainable options.


We belong to this world, whose history has gifted us with our intelligence and our capacity for care. We must accept this tremendous gift and bear it with the honor it deserves for the sake of  all the lives who share our world.


It Can be Done

Polyface Farm, for instance, has developed an agricultural model that fulfills all of these criteria.

Gaviotas in Colombia has developed an entire community grounded in such principles, still going strong after over 40 years.

And then there are the sustained yield forest practices of the Menominee Tribe.

Any examples you want to add here?

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.

Biodiversity in the Pacific Northwest: Lessons from a Living Land

By Madronna Holden

One reviewer of a manuscript I wrote changed the Upper and Lower Chehalis peoples into the “North” and “South” Chehalis, in spite of the fact that these peoples traditionally lived (and still live today) along a river that runs east to west.  This man obviously thought that since north is “up” on a map, the Upper Chehalis must live north of the Lower Chehalis, imposing a standard modern map of the land and its squared off directions on the land.

Monoculture stems from this same type of thinking:  pick a favorite crop and impose it on the land according to your own  map of what the land should produce– in spite of the nature of the land itself.  Then all else becomes a weed—the dandelion, for instance, becomes the occasion for dangerous pesticide use in home lawns.

Wheat farming in the nineteenth century Willamette Valley was an example of this tactic. Planting wheat throughout the valley not only meant tremendous labor inputs to clear land and sustain this crop, but subjected the farmers to the vagaries of the national wheat market—leading to a cycle of boom and bust in the local economy.

The potato certainly seemed like a great crop to plant in nineteenth century Ireland—until the notorious potato blight hit and there was mass starvation, since there was nothing else to survive on.  Such examples give us cautionary lessons in looking to a “magic bullet”,  such as a single genetically engineered crop, to meet our agricultural needs.

The potato blight did not hit Peru with such devastation as it did in Ireland.  In Peru, farmers grow dozens of types of potatoes, drawn from hedgerows that flourish as wild seed sources. As with such hedgerows—once prominent in Britain and continental Europe as well– the strategies of Northwest indigenous ecological management entailed fostering the ecological “edges”where diversity flourished between habitats.

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest were “salmon people”, but they were not salmon only people.  Situated as they were in the midst the richness of local salmon runs, they still had diverse subsistence strategies to complement taking of salmon. Not incidentally, this allowed them to limit their taking of the salmon in order to sustain them.

In negotiating treaties with the US government, native representatives insisted on rights to traditional subsistence resources that included an encompassing diversity.  To the extent that they could make this clear in the rudimentary vocabulary of the Chinook jargon in which negotiations were conducted, elders at the Cosmopolis treaty proceedings on Grays Harbor asked to reserve for their peoples not only their favorite salmon streams but cranberry bogs, oyster beds, prairies where they took camas and deer, and beaches where they took advantage of the whales that washed ashore.

Those who insisted on maintaining these diverse subsistence strategies had generations of experience to advise them. In traditional times if a salmon run were poor, there were sturgeon, seal, clams, smelt, and eel from the rivers and sea—and elk, deer, ducks, geese, and rabbit from the adjoining hills and prairies.

But it was the vast array of vegetable roots and seeds, ferns, berries and greens that most indicates the biodiversity of native subsistence strategies.  In 1945, Erna Gunther documented the use of ninety-seven local plants remembered by Puget Sound peoples– likely a mere fraction of those once used by peoples relocated from traditional lands.

East of the Cascades, an ethnography done by James Teit (again, after much change in traditional subsistence methods) among the Thompson Indians found 46 stems, leaves and flowering tops “used extensively” for food,  another 26 eaten as root crops, 41 more eaten as fruits and berries, and 6 eaten as nuts and seeds.  That is a total of 129 different vegetable foods utilized for food alone.

Additionally, these people used 176 plants for medicines, chewed 9 species, used 13 for non-medicinal drinks, 7 for smoking,  53 for manufacture, 13 for making dyes and paints, 7 for scents, and 16 for various forms of purification.

They gave at least 23 plants a special place in their traditional folklore and mythology and recognized 29 more as good food for the animals that shared their landscape.

Such biodiversity expresses how sustainable human cultures are interwoven in reciprocal independence with the natural world. All nature operates in this fashion. If we wish to honor and nourish the salmon, it is necessary to protect their habitat, just as the decaying bodies  of spawned salmon feed so many other lives.

In the traditions of indigenous northwesterners, it is also necessary to nourish one another.  In Western Washington, potlatch feasts held both within and between tribes helped redistribute food to those without resources.  Sharing between the well to do and the less well to do was institutionalized by such potlatches, in which the wealthy affirmed their social status by giving away goods and food to others.  Most villages in Western Washington had a community potlatch house in which such ceremonies were held.

In Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee’s words, “This was a country that was free to anybody and if you a different tribe, they let you go up, they don’t bar nobody.  If you hungry for something, you go out and get it.”

With permission, that is, from its caretakers– the particular people who were “rooted to the ground” in each locale– and undertook care for their land, establishing limits on usage of particular plants and animals during particular years or seasons.

In this context, the Lower Chehalis seasonally moved into Chinook territory to fish the Columbia River; the Upper Chehalis moved into Nisqually and Mud Bay territory to fish the Sound.  At particular times of the year, the Chinook, Cowlitz, and Quinault came to the Lower Chehalis territory on Grays Harbor to obtain seal. In July and August the Chinook and Cowlitz came to Lower Chehalis territory once again to fish for sturgeon.  Along with the Satsop, they all dug clams on the beach there. In turn, the Lower Chehalis would travel to Cowlitz territory to dip smelt when they ran in the winter.

In contrast to fences, which Cultee observed stopped the flow of life on the land, native maps honored the diverse mixture of space, time and life in such flows of people into and out of one another’s territories.

Cultee inherited the knowledge of the Harbor’s “fish trails” from his people. That knowledge told him not only where the fish swam, but when. He quipped that non-Indians might think him lazy, since he did not always get up at dawn to go out fishing. But he didn’t see any point in fishing when the fish weren’t there.  Thus though he worked less hours than some others, he caught more fish.

An Upper Chehalis grandmother told me her people followed “streams of trees”, noting how communities of plants seeded themselves together. Following such “streams”, one would never get lost on the land.

Near Florence, Oregon a Siuslaw elder instructed a young pioneer boy to listen to the distinct voices of the various watercourses—since if one learned to recognize these voices, one would always know where one was on the land.

In such maps of the land, there was neither clock time nor squared survey grids that caused “up” to be “north”, but an intersection of time, space, and the diversity of life.

The richness of these maps reflects the richness of a living land—to which it was necessary to attend with care.  The biodiverse subsistence strategies that flow from such observations illustrate the understanding that nothing in the natural world nourishes itself.

Biodiversity in indigenous subsistence strategies is directly linked to establishing a partnership with the land that follows nature’s models rather than trying to dominate it.

It is a pragmatic approach.

A UN conference recently convened in Brussels cited the largest study ever done comparing biodiverse  “ecological” agriculture (which avoids chemical inputs as well as genetically engineered seed) to conventional agriculture. In 286 projects in 57 developing countries, ecological agricultural outproduced conventional “industrial” agriculture by an average of 79 per cent.

The ecological methods also led to reclamation of degraded land, as in the area formerly known as the “Desert of Tanzania”, where  agroforestry rehabilitated 350,000 hectares  in two decades–while substantially raising local household income.

Besides avoiding chemical inputs, ecological agriculture uses diverse local seed, and grows a number of crops together, including mixing trees with other crops. This is the method by which the New Agricultural Movement in Bangladesh reclaimed their own land in the wake of the failed “high yield rice”– by combining forest, farm, rice paddies and animal husbandry on the same land.

Notably, in putting forests back,  “ecological agriculture” reverses the trend which causes conventional agriculture to produce 14 per cent of annual global carbon emissions and to add another 19 per cent through the deforestation it demands.

Nature does not “monocrop”.   And neither should we.

In a world with a burgeoning human population to feed–and with rapidly degrading agricultural land and climate change linked to industrial monoculture, we need biodiverse alternatives.

This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link here, but any part of it may be used off site only with attribution and permission.


A Solstice Story: Putting the Pieces Back Together Again

By Madronna Holden

Just after the US set up their space program, NASA hosted a group of Asian scientists, treating them to a tour of their facility– with which the visitors were duly impressed.  There followed a presentation of the benefits of Western science, during which the NASA administrators touted the importance of specialization.

The visitors listened attentively, but when the time came for questions, one asked, “Your technology is excellent at taking the world apart.  What is your plan for putting it back together again?”

To me, that is one of the central questions of the modern age.

There is an ancient answer to that question, in the storytelling technology that bridged so many aspects of the world, bringing them together.

Such stories bridged generations– and brought human culture itself into being.  Though we might not recognize passing stories between generations as a technology in the age of digital phones, such stories are the basic human tool that empowered us to expand our reach in both time and space.

This technology is  a powerful tool for not only bridging generations, but for linking human life with the larger community of natural life. When Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim tells the story of the salmon’s struggle to return to their home waters to carry on the the generations of the salmon people, that story brings humans and the salmon into  special solidarity.

Such stories not only bring communities together across generations and species. They have the potential to bring us from times of relative hopelessness and fear into vision.

The Chehalis knew how valuable such stories were, since they would bring those who heard them to a place where they “could take care of themselves”;  where they knew “how to get along with one another.”

Children would “pay” for stories by doing a task designated by the storyteller. The nurturance and wisdom of such storytellers was signed by the tasks they designed for these children. A child afraid to go to a certain place in the woods, for instance, might be told to fetch a stick from a place nearby–and then to repeat that task until he or she drew so near to the feared place, their fear would disappear.

Thelma Adamson’s  Chehalis fieldnotes (drawn up in 1926) record the profound insight that the power of our past will haunt us until we turn and face it. At that point it will become a vision power for us to use.

There is working knowledge here of the links between past and future– between wisdom learned from our past and vision for the future.  There is the working knowledge of how human generations depend upon and may nurture one another.

According to Jacob Bighorn, former administrator of the Chemawa Indian School, Native American education works from the premise that each child is given a natural “life plan” by the Creator that is theirs alone.  Certainly, giving children the understanding that each of their lives is a unique story the Creator waits to hear is an antidote to any future smallness imposed on them.

In this context, education is a “natural process” of supporting the child as his or her spirit-calling emerged.

In cultures throughout the world, the time of year surrounding the winter solstice is the season to draw inward and pay close attention to our dreams–and to tell stories.  Indeed, many indigenous peoples  only tell their traditional stories in the winter.

As Adamson’s recorded statement about the haunting of the past that chases us until we can learn to face–facing up to it may take considerable courage.  But certainly each of our pasts as well as our past as a society will continue to haunt us until we face it. Only then might we gain the wisdom of our past and the power to guide our future with vision.

This is the process that traditional stories enable.

Today we stand together on the verge of the longest night of the year, which is also the moment when our dreams are strongest. This is the moment when we need stories and their vision– when we need the hearth of community in which elders and young people come together to share their gifts with one another–and with our precious ravaged world.

The faith in the returning sun celebrated by solstice ceremonies is more difficult to hold to today, in the face of such things to face as climate change — or the 252 toxins recently found in the umbilical cords of 10 babies.

If you were an elder, how you would create the stories that are called for at this moment?  What gift would you share? What trust would you express in the actions of the next generation?

These questions were answered in the wisdom, generosity, and trust of the speaker at a gathering honoring indigenous environmental knowledge at OSU.

Here is the story she created, a story that truly brings us together as it teller Val Goodness notes, in relating a bit about the event where it took place, which she helped to organize.

The speaker, Elder Gail Woodside held a handmade clay pot in her hands.

This clay pot was decorated by native hands and she proudly said it was her Grandmother’s pot. It showed wear, and even had a small crack, which Elder Gail said happened when her daughter dropped it when she was young.

This pot was 100 years old. Elder Gail told us that the pot resembled her Grandmother’s knowledge about things in nature, full and complete knowledge handed down generation after generation through oral history. Her Grandmother’s indigenous knowledge about sustainability and the practice of her father’s use of fire to help things grow.

Elder Gail then held the pot up over her head and let the pot drop.We were shocked, and held our breath as the pretty little pot broke to pieces.

In her soft voice, Elder Gail bent down, picking up a piece of the broken pot, and said, “This….is the knowledge I have.”

She said the old ways and the knowledge are broken. Small pieces are used–borrowed from Native peoples– while the rest ignored as un-specialized or not scientific.

Elder Gail then asked all of us to come forward and take a piece of the pot. She challenged us all to come back this coming spring to put the little 100 year old pot back together as a symbol of unity in sharing our efforts to present indigenous knowledge in sustainability as an all day event for spring term.

So that the knowledge of sustainability can once again be whole.

Kiowa writer Scott Momaday once noted that oral tradition is as fragile as it is precious, since it is always “one generation away from extinction”.

The story created by Elder Gail illustrates this.  It is only the fact that pieces of this precious pot of tradition are in the hands of community that it has a chance of remaining whole.  But only if its members are each willing to keep and share and enable their piece so that it remains alive in the whole.

Second Annual Willamette River Blessing

By Madronna Holden

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

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

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

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

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

Here  is a description of last year’s ceremony.

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

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.”