Lecture Six: Wildness, Technology and Domestication


            As we have seen in lesson two, in the Western worldview there is a tendency to see the natural world as dualistic. On the one hand, there is the “material” world.  On the other hand, there is the “spiritual” one. The idea of “wilderness” is often conceived in terms of a parallel dichotomy. On the one hand, there is the tame world, the cultivated and domesticated world under human control.  On the other hand, there is wild nature, or wilderness, which exists completely without human influence.  Whether we believe that wilderness is good or bad, Westerners tend to believe in this dichotomy of the “kinds” of nature, one of which is wild and the other tame, one of which exists without any human effect upon it; the other is controlled by (or exploited by) human beings. Further, to those who see the exploitation resulting from the “dominating” view of the environment as the only alternative to leaving the land alone, the wilderness is the only “unspoiled’ portion of nature.   By contrast, Asian worldviews tend to believe in an interweaving of nature and human nature.  So do many indigenous worldviews. As M. Kat Anderson points out (Tending the Wild, p. 3), the “American wilderness” is one we have “constructed”, since the lands declared “wilderness” by pioneers actually bore the imprint of thousands of years of indigenous habitation and ecological practices. In short, what Westerners call “wilderness” are and were lands inhabited by indigenous peoples.

Many indigenous peoples do recognize a concept of a “wild”, sacred, nature that exists apart from human influence.  It is this sacred nature to which shamans may travel for advice from natural spirits.  In their vision quests, young Chehalis seekers were said to fast until the “smell of humanness” was gone from them so that they would be accepted and favored by some wild spirit with the gift of insight or power.  When I asked if such spirit powers might still be found (this was in l974), I was given the same answer that an anthropologist had been given in l926.  “Wherever there are wild places, there are spirit powers still.”

Such “wild places”, however, are not seen in terms of a dualistic nature/human dichotomy.  Instead, they exist as reservoirs of power and spirit in complementary interaction with the human world. Chehalis elder Henry Cultee told me in 1975 that the natural world had “eyes” that see into our hearts. And according to how the “eyes of the earth” judge our behavior, our lives as individuals and as peoples become long or short. This is another kind of “survival of the fittest” from that of the Western worldview. Given the fact that Cultee’s peoples lived at least ten to twelve thousand years in their traditional areas, the “eyes of the earth” ordained their environmental values and practices as good indeed. Among the Plateau peoples of the Northwest, nature ordained the “laws of creation” that taught humans how to live well with all natural creatures, including one another.  One of the values nature taught was reciprocity. Another was sharing, as noted in the eloquent words of Nisqually elder Janet McCloud (from Talking on the Water): 

I meet young people from all over the earth who say, “I’ve got to get back to nature.”  To me, that sounds like insanity.  Everyone is a part of nature.  Just look at the miracle of your own body.  It’s your first teacher.  Look at your hands, your heart, your digestive system.  They all work according to the laws of creation.  In white society, you often say, “know yourself.”  Well, part of coming home is doing just that, literally.  It’s not another mind trip; it’s not traveling to Indian or Japan or the Himalayas in search of the most spiritual mountain to climb.  It’s knowing there’s a mountain inside you, too.

Your heart is always beating and your breath is always moving in and out, isn’t it?  The laws of nature are with your wherever you are.  It’s marvelous when you see this—when you see that we live in symbiotic relationship to everything around us.  Your body is nature.  You have a river, a sun, and a moon inside, too.  Everything that’s out there is also in here.  Our body is connected to the mineral world through the skeleton.  I always tell children that the bones and rocks we use in the sweat lodge are their grandmothers and grandfathers.  “When you leave your body behind”, I tell them, “Your skeleton will become the minerals of the earth, and in the distant future, you may become the rocks and bones of your children’s sweatlodge.” We’re connected to the trees and plants through our nervous system, and to the four-legged animal world through eating and reproducing.

…  The Creator gave us all an individualized life plan.  The difference between humans or two-legged beings, and four-legged brings is that we have the power to consider who we are and why we’re here.  Animals don’t do that.  Most animals and particularly, predators are more worried about where their next meal is going to come from.  They can’t store food in large quantities the way we do, so they have to be more opportunistic in their hunting and gathering.  In a sense, their greediness is necessary for their survival.  Humans are supposed to be different, we are supposed to share.  That’s one of our natural laws of being.  Our spiritual is in our potential to give; that’s why Indians have so many giveaways.  That’s what Mother Earth does, she gives.

One of the natural laws among our people is the need to find a true relationship with all other beings.  Some of our other laws are to respect differences, be honest, know yours weaknesses, and maintain a clean and healthy land.  We need to learn these laws as children of the earth.  We need to value our lives, to see them as gifts from the Creator—gifts that cannot last forever.  The seasons of our life begin in the spring, when we are born, and progress through the summer, autumn, and winter, when the snow gets on our hair.  We can’t stop that motion, and we can’t go back.  We can only learn to value their cycle, which is the most important lesson of our humanity.”

In like fashion, a Pitt River student (this is a Northern California indigenous group) I once had protested that he could not answer a question on a final that asked for a discussion of the relationship between humans and nature. To his tradition, humans and nature were not distinct in the first place, so their relationship could not be discussed as if they were.

In the modern era, given the negative pressure of the current human population on wild habitats, “wilderness” set-asides are an essential part of our relationship to the natural world:  a legal way of protecting not only our aesthetic and spiritual heritage but the natural systems about which we still have so much to learn. By contrast, in cultures with a “kin-centered” intimacy with the natural world, wherein other animals and plants are seen as “blood relatives” who had “much to teach humans”, wild lands did not need to be protected from human activities.  One did not need to set aside habitats to protect other species, for instance, where cultural values and practices supported the ethical dictum that “all life has a right to exist for its own sake” and thus human harvesters should “not take everything” but instead “leave some for tomorrow; leave some for the other animals.” (cf. Tending the Wild, pp. 361-363).

Having discussed the cultural context of the idea of “wilderness” unaffected by humans, we can move on to a discussion of the cultural contexts of technology—and the industrialized idea of technology as taming or controlling nature.  It is important to understand that just as all societies affect the natural world, all societies (including many non-human ones) have technology, which simply means “tool”.  But indigenous technological strategies are generally based on the idea of diplomacy or partnership with the natural world, rather than domination or control of nature. In this sense, indigenous technologies reflect the modern idea of “biomimicry” (or the use of natural systems as models) in their technological development. Australian Bill Mollison, originator of the modern eco-agricultural movement of permaculture, took his model from Aboriginal practices.  Though some Westerners saw Aborigines as living for centuries in trackless “wilderness”, Mollison noted that the Aborigines influenced their environment everywhere they went.  He argued that there are no cultures that sustain themselves on wild food who do not understand agriculture—even as the camas prairies of the Northwest resulted in part from the gathering techniques of Native American women.

Indeed, there are not great technological divides between “hunters and foragers” and agriculturists”, since indigenous foragers used the sophisticated horticultural practices that led to the “Eden” early pioneers declared they had found in the northwestern landscape. It was this long-term and sustainable interaction with the environment that Mollison wanted to replicate in permaculture. It is interesting to note that Gregory Cajete, in his book outlining an internal view of native science (Native Science:  Natural Laws of Interdependence), also uses the term permaculture to describe Native agricultural practices– as “permanent” or sustainable agriculture.  (Cajete’s outline of the ethics of indigenous science is summarized in a question in our final exam).

The greater distinction in technology is not between indigenous hunting and gathering and agriculture, but between industrial monocultural and till-agriculture and biodiverse agricultural techniques. Interestingly, indigenous subsistence techniques specifically fostered the biodiversity of their lands, such that a recent UNESCO report calls for the preservation of biodiversity through biovcultutral diversity.  Given such traditions, 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is currently under the stewardship of native peoples.

This leads to some contrasts in ideas of domestication as well. Australian Aborigines (who also traditionally used dolphins to fish for them, while the latter remained free) express a different model of “domestication” than that in the Western worldview.  In the Western worldview, domestication means putting certain plants or animals under human control.  In this view, the lions who were taught to communicate with the San people as mentioned in our last lesson would not be called domesticated—since they were not under human control.  But the absolute link between domestication and control was not even part of Western agricultural tradition a few hundred years ago.  In Eastern and in Central Europe and in England, as in ancient Peru, wild areas were traditionally interlaced with farmed land as habitat for animals, as incubators of new seed crops from which farmers could draw their plantings, as protection for watercourses, as reservoirs of natural knowledge— and as the abode of spirits.  In peasant Europe such groves and wild hedgerows were protected as sacred.  Interestingly, these wild patches of land were often along watercourses, where they provided not only habitat but also protection from flooding.  Such wild lands were further considered as commons.  They did not fall under philosopher John Locke’s notion of property as nature “improved” by human labor.

Such historical practices give us an alternative to the equation of domestication with control and ownership.  They indicate how we might develop technological practices in dialogue with a natural world that still (to use a Chehalis phrase) “speaks for itself”, in which nature sometimes “takes its own course”—as the Gaviotans also chose to let it as they developed their pine forests.  We might develop a technology that is based not on domination of natural systems, that is, but in partnership with them.

Insight on the necessity of care in the use of human technology is expressed by the Chehalis.  As the Chehalis worldview sees it, all human power—no matter how benign it may seem–is also dangerous.  Any power strong enough to heal is also strong enough to kill.  Indeed, the stronger the power we hold, the more dangerous it is.  This does not mean we should stop developing or using all technology.  It does mean that we should be very careful with the technology we do use.  We should consider its consequences on the natural systems upon which we—and all of life– depend for survival.  In this context, we should assume a stance of humility, given that we cannot know every consequence of what we do.  This is the goal of those with the Science and Environmental Health Network who work for the institution of the precautionary principle. This principle, which indicates that a new technology should not be taken up unless it is proven harmless is now instituted in the European Union with respect to new chemicals.  A reading on the website (“caring for the commons”) indicates that such precaution has ancient roots.

The limits of human knowledge and the danger of human power indicate that the attempt to use technology to dominate nature can only lead to disaster.  In the indigenous worldview, the alternative is to work in partnership with natural systems.  It is thus that the Tukano (in the reading from Callicott) use shamans to communicate with the mysterious spirits of the non-human to guide their ecological choices.  Whether or not we agree that such practices are really a kind of science, as Suzuki and Knudtson and Hogan argue, we should not forget that wonder and mystery pervade the work of many of our own greatest scientists.  Nor should we forget the pragmatic nature of the shamanistic practices, developed by societies who lived in sustainable relationship with their environments for thousands of years.

In any event, the shamanistic personalization of the natural world is a good antidote for the potential dangers of its objectification.  Indeed, M. Kat Anderson argues that we needs stories and songs, values and practices that give us the kind of day to day intimacy with and respect for the natural world as did indigenous practices if we are to avoid the dangers of modern technology.  We will need “cultural changes as much as advancement in knowledge and transformation of economies.” (Tending the Wild, p. 361).

According to the model of reciprocity discussed in lesson three, for everything that we are able to control, something else is likely to go out of control.  In modern physics, this “out of control” nature of any system is essential to its very regeneration.  It is the periodic “chaos” or unpredictable movement of their elements that lead systems to reorganize themselves.  The alternative is entropy: in which a system simply “winds down” until it uses up all its energy.  As a concrete example, rain clouds that betoken the fertility of the natural world come with storms.  A cautionary tale from India expresses the view that we must accept some inconvenience, even chaos, along with the fertility of nature.  In this tale, a self-styled hero tries to rid the land of troublesome nature spirits that irk human beings.  These inconvenient spirits live in the very water with which the world sustains its life, and as it turns out, the only way to get rid of them is to rid the world of water.  Our do-gooder proceeds without thinking of the consequences of his actions.  Others are left to deal with the terrible drought he creates in the wake of his good intentions.  The lesson in this tale is the same one expressed by modern ecologist Wendell Berry, who noted that natural forces that may at times “threaten us are the same forces that sustain and renew us”.(The Unsettling of America, p. 130).

Gaviotas, as well as the example of many indigenous societies, illustrate that it is possible for human beings to be “a blessing on the land” rather than its ravager.  The Creator has given us special “medicine”, according to indigenous philosopher John Trudel—that medicine is our intellect.  But it is up to us whether we use this medicine in its true potential for healing.  Hegel once proposed that human beings can be the best of creatures because we can be the worst.  It is our freedom that gives us our potential danger— our ability to use our power to be the “worst.” But our freedom also gives us the ability to use our power for co-creation– to support the increase of natural beauty, abundance, and diversity.  The choice is up to us.

Essays for discussion:









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