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.

How to Love a River

By Madronna Holden

Updated April 2012.

Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee obtained his own long life from sharing it with the river his people named themselves for. Hum-m-m-ptulips, that river was, its name humming along on the tongue the way its rifles hummed along, so that it cleaned itself out in three days after a rain.

His elders had taught him to dive deeply in the river when its water was “alive”, when it was at its most powerful– and the greatest challenge to humans.

Cultee told me of a cousin who simply wet his hair to give the appearance of diving.  His elders might be fooled, but the river knew who really dived there.  His cousin passed to the other side many decades ago while Cultee lived on in concert with the land.

He was in his mid-eighties when I first met him and still living in season in his “fishing shack” on the Humptulips, tending and mending heavy nets on his own.    He was ninety-nine when I last went to see him. Then he had given up the heavy labor at his ancestral place on the Humptulips.  He was living with his son Richard on the Skokomish Reservation, where the only medication he took was an occasional aspirin-and where he and Richard had taken in two small boys.

“Here we are, bachelors with children”, Henry Cultee quipped.

“Wherever you found a river”, Cultee once told me, “There you found Indians”.

The fluidity of the river mapped the flow of the land, rather than the frozen north or south of paper maps-and certainly-rather than fence lines, which Cultee complained stopped the flow of natural life

To the Northwest’s river people the treaty promise of the US government:  “as long as the rivers shall run” was no fleeting thing-even if Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens wrote to his superiors, that as soon as the US gained more strength in this area, they would no longer have to honor the treaties they were making.

Indian peoples themselves soon learned that to the US government, treaties held “as long as the rivers shall run–or thirty days, whichever comes first”.

Richard Cultee’s Skokomish people had another joke:  “We knew the whites had arrived when we woke up one morning and the river was moved.”

It was no joke that Tacoma Power stopped up the entire north fork of the Skokomish River with a massive dam at Cushman to generate electricity.

That whole section of the  river didn’t run at all any longer.  Neither did the salmon, whose care was outlined in traditional Skokomish tales, which instructed the people to allow the salmon to release their eggs so as to perpetuate and strengthen the runs.

There wasn’t any advice in those old stories about how to help the salmon up a dry river bed.

But the Skokomish fought the dam that blockaded their river.  Recently they achieved a settlement with the Tacoma utility that it would release enough water from its turbines to allow the river to flow again.

There won’t automatically be salmon back on that water. The water flow comes all at once, in a steady blast from the turbines rather than in an ebb and flow.  But the Skokomish have visions for changing that too.

And someday they may be able to follow the injunctions in their ancient tale for caring for the salmon on their river again.  They have dreams about that:  and like the Chehalis who earned their long lives on the land in conjunction with the rivers, they plan on persisting.

So do the Takelma, represented by Takelma elder, Agnes Baker Pilgrim, who will conduct the second annual ceremony “honoring the water”-blessing the Willamette River-this coming Sunday, April 26 at the EWEB Plaza in Eugene, Oregon.  Grandma Aggie has international stature as chair of the International; Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. But she has local status with the salmon.

On her website Grandma Aggie conceives of her role as a “voice for the voiceless”-for all those things, that is, whom we have neglected because they may not speak in a human voice-or if they do, may speak only the language of the privileged.  In this sense she works to actualize a “democracy of all life” as East Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva has put it.

This phrase is an apt term to describe the “commons”- that natural life upon our own depends, no matter what our status in human society.

We are only now beginning to see what happens when we ignore the natural sources of our lives.

This is a lesson we would not have to learn the hard way if we had traditions of honoring the rivers in the way of the Takelma or Chehalis or Skokomish.

We might learn from the river instead.

There is nothing that can teach us more about the democracy of nature than a river.

And nothing that can teach us more about reciprocity and balance:  since what we put into the river ultimately comes back to us.

This is one tragic lesson in the current state of the Ganges River, sacred to millions, but one of the top ten most polluted rivers in the world whose flow is also threatened by global warming. Hindu ecofeminist Lina Gupta has analyzed how the idea of transcendence without reciprocity has led to the pollution of this river. There is a belief that the river is a goddess who can cleanse anything-and thus anything can be dumped into her with impunity.

It is the understanding of reciprocity and balance, Gupta writes, that is most dangerously missing from this perspective.  fortunately, since this essay was first posted here, the plight of the sacred Ganges has become a cause (cited in a news story in April 2012) for uniting Hindus and Muslims in cleaning this river.

Conceiving of the river as transcendent in this way implies that she never has to be cared for herself. Gupta argues that this attitude contradicts true Hindu belief about Dharmic (duty)  responsibility for one’s actions.  Gupta also ties this into the notion of dominance in the industrial world that denigrates the sources of nurturance that it designates as feminine-like the Mother Ganga.

Thus those who say they revere the river as transcendent can actually use this as an excuse to pollute it.

Global warming is currently affecting the glacier that feeds this river-and as its source dries up; millions downriver are affected by drought.  And the e.coli and heavy metal content from industrial pollution is directly affecting those who use this river as the source of their drinking water.

From a short-sighted human perspective, it might look like we can dump anything into our rivers and have it simply carried away.

But in fact, the river teaches reciprocity:  how what we dump there ultimately comes back to us.  It teaches karma, that is, in Hindu terms.

It also teaches another revered Hindu idea, according to Gupta: the idea that all is one.  In its flow it negates the modern industrial divisions between spirit and nature, humanity  and  the natural world.  When we pollute the rivers, we pollute our own bodies.

Meanwhile, back in Oregon, Grandma Aggie specifically requested that a sign be made for her blessing of the river that reads, “The river is not a garbage dump”.

Coming back to the question that began this essay– how do we love a river?

By caring for it, as have the Skokomish with the long court battle to free its water and as does the Chehalis River Council today.

By knowing it-following the example of the Corvallis Environmental Center’s mapping of the water quality in the Willamette River in conjunction with the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State. University.

By fighting its being bottled up in plastic and sent elsewhere, as are the Winnemem people currently defending their sacred McCloud River in Northern California.

By learning from rivers everywhere what they have to teach us about fostering the length of our lives on the land.

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.


This essay is under copyright protection as is all the material on this site, but please feel free to link to it, or to copy it, crediting its source.  If you want to reproduce it any other way, please email me for permission at holdenma@comcast.net. Thanks for visiting this site.

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.

Belonging to the Land: Historical Perspective

“We immigrants who call ourselves ‘natives’ after one paltry generation on the land, can scarcely fathom what it means to the Indian to walk on a land in which a hundred generations of ancestors have been buried”.

Eugene Hunn, anthropologist writing on the traditions of the mid-Columbia River peoples

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“Drift people”, the indigenous peoples of southwestern Washington called the newcomers to their land.  The “moving people” those on the Oregon coast called the pioneers, since, according to Coos-Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman, they would only “stay a little, move on, stay a little, move on”.  Pioneer Samuel James’ letter from Grand Mound, Washington in 1860 echoed that impression. He wrote, “The Americans are ever in motion. They generally calculate to build and do a little work on a piece of land, and then watch the first opportunity for selling, and the money they get is mostly spent in traveling before they settle again, and thus the great multitude of them are always on the move.”

Leroy Inman’s book of pioneer recollections on the Upper McKenzie River, near Eugene, Oregon expressed this restlessness with pride-since it was linked to Manifest Destiny. The pioneers were “restless men”, he observed.  But all this “pulling up stakes”  was done for the sake of owning land, which was all important to the pioneers– owning land “gave them power, and power governed Man’s destiny.”

Land was also all important to the Indians.  But indigenous peoples belonged to it rather than owned it. Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee saw this as a key difference between Indians and pioneers, expressed in the way they saw the names of the land. Indians named themselves for their land. This was a way of valuing its intrinsic worth, as modern environmental philosophers put it. By contrast, whites named the land for themselves-and thought this gave them the right to use it however they wished. After the land became their “property”, trees became lumber, rivers became shipping ports and waste removal conduits, and animals become game and skins.

Historically this process lent substantial irony to the term “settlers”.  Being in constant movement, remaking the land as you go, is hardly a settlement process.  It was the Indians that truly settled the land. The oldest human shoes found in the world are the 15,000 year old sandals in which the indigenous peoples of eastern Oregon walked the earth near Fort Rock.

Given their strong affinity for their lands, Oregon Indian Agent Anson Dart never succeeded in getting the Indians to move from the Willamette Valley and the mouth of the Columbia, the Oregon Coast and southwestern Oregon to lands east of the Cascades.  His treaty commission painstakingly recorded how each of these groups insisted they would sooner die than leave their land. Short of killing them all or removing them with military force (that policy came after Dart), the Indians could not be persuaded to leave their lands.

But the Indian refusal to leave their lands was not understood by those who were in constant motion themselves. At the Walla Walla treaty proceedings, Joel Palmer announced that if he had moved all the way from the east coast of the US to better his position, the Indians could move just a little off their traditional lands. He didn’t persuade the Indians.

Young Chief of the Cayuse expressed his sense of belonging to the land to Palmer and Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens this way: “The earth and water and grass says God has given our names and we are told those names. Neither the Indians nor the whites have a right to change those names… The same way the Earth says it was from her man was made.”

Young Chief also asked the government negotiators to ponder this question, “I wonder if this ground has anything to say. I wonder if this ground is listening… The Earth says, God has placed me here. The earth says that God tells me to take care of the Indians on this earth. God says to the fish on the Earth: feed them right. God named the roots that he should feed the Indians on. The water speaks the same way…the grass says the same thing.”

This is a powerful expression of belonging to the land.  And it is a vastly different thing from having it belong to you. If you belong to the land, it means you are responsible in your actions there.  It’s not a moneymaking but a caretaking proposition.

It also means recognizing the others that share this land.  One day some three decades back I was outside speaking to a young Chehalis mother in a soft Washington drizzle.  I asked if she minded standing in the rain to talk to me.

“We don’t mind the rain,” she responded, “It belongs here.”

The unsaid echo in her words was that her people belonged here too. Indeed, before they knew themselves as “Indians”, she told me, they knew themselves as “the people who live here.”

Belonging is tied up with recognizing the full community of life on the land-human and non-human. And in this context, according to Okanagan traditionalist Jeanette Armstrong, lack of belonging is a dangerous thing: “Okanagans say that ‘heart’ is where community and land come into our beings and become part of us because they are as essential to our survival as is our own skin.” In this context, “people without hearts” exhibit “collective disharmony and alienation from land.” These are blind to the destructive effects of their actions both on themselves and others.

There are two propositions we must grasp if we are to truly understand how to belong to the land and avoid the ethical and practical consequences of acting as people bereft of such belonging.

Firstly, we must stay with that land long enough to observe the consequences of our actions:  long enough to learn from our own mistakes-as well to learn how to listen the land.  We must, that is, reverse what Wendell Berry has called the “unsettling of America”. We must stop treating land anywhere as, in his words, a “one night stand”, in which we simply take what we want and move on.

Secondly, we must acknowledge that belonging to the land is a matter of belonging to a community of life over time. We can only belong to the land by honoring the ways in which other life and other natural processes belong here with us.  We must get our priorities straight, reversing the process by which we name the land for ourselves–and learn to know ourselves by how we belong to the land instead.

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Feel free to email me for pioneer quote sources.

Gilgamesh and other pioneers in paradise

11,000 years ago the country where modern Iran is today was a “paradise”, according to the archeologists currently investigating the world’s oldest Stonehenge-type religious site there.  This site is thousands of years older than the famed one in the British Isles.  In the most recent issue of the Smithsonian, archeologists speculate that the landscape filled with lakes and leaping gazelles amidst fields of wild grain so inspired its human inhabitants that they raised this religious tribute to its ineffable beauty. The carved stones there include images of vultures that traditional mythology tells us carried off the souls of the dead to heaven. A splendid heaven it must have been, scattering light onto the fertile earth below.

Another tribute to the immense forest (remember the biblical cedars of Lebanon?) on this land remains on tablets of stone that tell the tale of Gilgamesh.   This ancient king  of Uruk has more power over other humans than he knows what to do with–and dangerous arrogance with respect both to his subjects and to the natural world.

The moving poem of joy to this forest on these stone tablets sits amidst the chronicle of the forest’s destruction by Gilgamesh. After he “conquered” that forest and its guardian spirit, things didn’t go well for this king and his wild-man companion (and only equal among men) Enkidu.  Enkidu died shortly thereafter– after all, what is there for a wild man when the wilds are gone?

Gilgamesh defeated the forest and its guardian, but he ended his life in desperation.  He had immense logs brought from  the sacred forest to raise the mighty gates of Uruk where he ruled.  But his heroic escapades did not save him from coming face to face with his own death in the cycle of nature.

The land he deforested as a heroic adventure has fared no better in actual history.  The people of Uruk constructed  elaborate irrigation canals which resulted in the salination of the water table. And their once-paradise became a desert. But for their stone homage to a land now gone dry, the people themselves have disappeared.  Even their language has not been passed on. It is unrelated to any other language in the world, ancient or modern.

Bearing some resemblance to the paradise Gilgamesh came upon in the sacred forest,  George Yount’s 1833 description of the Napa Valley went like this:

“It was more than anything a wide and extended lawn, exuberant in wild oats and the place for wild beasts to lie down in. The deer, antelope, and the noble elk held quiet and undisturbed possession of all that wide domain. The above-named animals were numerous beyond all parallel, and herds of many hundred, they might be met so tame that they would hardly move to open the way for the traveler to pass. They were seen lying or grazing in immense herds on the sunny side of every hill, and their young like lambs frolicking in all directions. The wild geese and every species of water fowl darkened the surface of every bay and firth, and upon the land in flocks of millions they wandered in quest of insects and cropping the wild oats which grew there in the richest abundance. When disturbed, they arose to fly. The sound of their wings was like that of distant thunder. The rivers were literally crowded with salmon. It was a land of plenty and such a climate as no other land can boast of.”

In 1850, Thomas Mayfield’s description of the San Joaquin Valley includes these words:

“As we passed below the hills, the whole plain was covered with great patches of rose, yellow, scarlet, orange and blue… some of the patches of one color were a mile or more across… Several times we stopped to pick the different kinds of flowers and soon we had our horses and packs decorated with masses of all colors.”

I like to imagine this moment, when a family of pioneers on their way to the California gold fields (as they were) were stopped in their tracks by the loveliness of the land.  Can you imagine these pioneers so stunned by natural beauty they stopped the incessant journeying that caused the peoples of Oregon to term them the “moving people”–and covered themselves with flowers?

Something of the land stayed with this family.  Mayfield, a child at the time, was adopted by the local peoples after his mother died and his father went on to the gold fields.  The Indians raised Mayfield with love–and passed on their own love for the land to him as well.

But the land and people that nurtured him into manhood have not fared so well.  If the Choinumni people fed the Mayfield family so that they would not hunt with their firearms and scare the game, their tribe is tiny and fighting hard for federal recognition. And the land they once cared for is no longer a place to accommodate herds of wild game.  It has been plowed into vast irrigated fields for the mono-crops of industrialized agriculture. These fields today are becoming salinated in the same way as the fields of the ancient Middle East.  Further, in some areas of the Central California Valley, chemical fertilizers and pesticides have had such a profound effect on the land that nothing will grow on its own. This land, that is, is biologically dead.

Taking down the forests is more than a matter of axes and saws or modern chainsaws, as the tale of Enkidu and Gilgamesh tells us.  when we attack the spirit of the forest something vast in the potential legacy of human community dies with it.  In the same way, remaking the land for industrial farming is  more than a matter of plows and dams. These things are matters intertwined with the human soul. And something of “paradise” is lost when we change the land beyond its ability to care to revive itself and nurture wild things.

Clear cutting and industrial farming are not new things on the human horizon. As the tale of Gilgamesh indicates, humans have for thousands of years wrestled with the idea of taking down a forest–and they have not always won the struggle of conscience involved.  The tale of Gilgamesh is a cautionary tale in this respect.  as are the journals of Thomas Mayfield.

And so is the salt-laden biologically dead farmland of the Central California Valley waiting  to be reclaimed by a species of human care like that which the Choinumni once exercised.