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.

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