On the last day of our trip, listening to CBC radio I heard about a scandal in Regina. Apparently they have a local bylaw there that if the “lawn” on your yard is more than 15 cm high it must be cut down. What a draconian rule! If you don’t do it the weed inspector will come down and do it for you and send you the bill. No wild flowers permitted in Regina.
It reminds me of the war that most of us who reside in towns have waged on dandelions. Such beautiful little yellow flowers. Some say the problem with dandelions is that they take over. They invade the lawn. That is true. Nature hates monoculture. If we didn’t insist on creating monocultures on our property, dandelions would have no place to invade. People forget that in nature there are seldom vast fields of yellow dandelions. Dandelions enter where nature has been destroyed. People in towns don’t want nature. So they get dandelions and want to use various horrid chemicals to defeat them.
Some town folks even think golf courses are nature at her finest! Those wide fairways where golf superintendents apply vats of carcinogenic substances to kill the weeds are what they think is nature. They actually consider that nature. Just goes to show how far they are removed from nature, they have forgotten what nature is like. The only difference between a wild flower and a weed is a public relations firm.
On the way home from British Columbia I saw another example of our war on nature. This was actually a big example. Just after we crossed the Alberta/B.C. border we lost nature. After we left Banff National Park we saw no nature until we arrived in Steinbach other than rain clouds. That was about 1,000 km.! Not one single animal other than an occasional cow. I don’t think cows were native to North America. The prairies that we took the better part of 2 days to travel through used to be grasslands. Less than 1% of the tall grass prairie remains. Less than 30% of the remaining grasslands are gone too. Actually, to me it looks like more than that has disappeared. We saw none other than in occasional sloughs or river banks. The grasslands seemed to have vanished.
The first European explorers were stunned when they encountered what they saw as an ocean of grass. They had never seen anything like it. After all, the grasslands of Europe were all but gone before they arrived. Most of that grassland is gone.
We have destroyed so much of nature in the holy names of progress.
I have also been told that the wildlife in North America, before contact with Europeans, was even more abundant than Africa. To me having been to Africa and having seen their depleted wildlife that makes ours pale into insignificance , I find that hard to believe. It is an awful desecration.
For two days, we saw virtually none. That is a pity. As the Red Rose Tea commercial used to say, “a dreadful pity.”
I even like dandelions when they have gone to seed. I think there is a beauty in old age.
I have already blogged about this amazing place, but wanted to make one more comment. This is a photograph of my favourite place in the Rocky Mountains. Chris has a better photograph of it than I do. But she will have to post her own blog. (Yes I am jealous). I loved the fact that the sun was coming out and flooding this small island with light.
This island is a spiritual place for the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, or more properly, Ĩyãħé Nakoda First Nation who believe mountains are physical representations of their ancestors. The Indigenous people have 8,000 years plus of ecological knowledge of the lake and island. They knew the land and creatures and organisms on it intimately. As a result they knew long ago that it was important for the area to be burned from time to time. They practiced controlled burns, long before modern conservationists and ecologists realized their importance. It is surprising how often traditional knowledge of Indigenous people, disregarded by whites for centuries, and dismissed as superstition or foolishness, has proved to be right.
As we saw throughout the Rockies we saw massive devastation caused by Mountain Pine beetles. Everywhere in this area the forest were largely red and green. Even on this tiny island, some have called the “Jewel of Jasper” and some have said is the most beautiful place in the Rocky Mountains, you can see the red trees that should be “evergreen”. Well they will never be green again! I wonder how soon all the trees on this tiny island are red. I hate to think of it. Until recent times when the twin forces of climate change and a lack of burns created perfect conditions for the Mountain Pine beetle they existed in the west but never posed pestilential problems as they do now. Because Indigenous people practiced regular controlled burns and did not cause climate change they never had a problem with Mountain Pine Beetles. Now they are a serious problem and it is all thanks to forces unleashed by modern white society.
Policies of non-Indigenous people have led, Indigenous people believe, to a lack of balance in nature. The natural balance is out of whack. Nature needs to be healed. We need a new attitude to nature. No let me rephrase that. We need an old attitude to nature. An attitude that respects nature, rather than seeing it as a resource to plunder.
Non-indigenous people, who for so long thought they were better than Indigenous people, and as the Eagles said, “raped the land, ” and “put up a bunch of ugly boxes, and called it paradise,” have a lot answer for. Or as they also said, “Call it paradise, and kiss it good-bye.”
The fact that Spirit Island is surrounded on three sides by the same mountain range is very rare and makes it particularly significant to the Ĩyãħé Nakoda (Stoney Nakoda) people.
The island is called Spirit Island. I love that name. They call this area, for good reason, the Hall of the Gods. What will they call it when the trees die? I suggest never green.
Stef, Charli, Chris and I had most pleasant walk through the temperature rainforest called, most appropriately, Cathedral Grove MacMillan Park B.C. I could not help but think about forest bathing. Many people, like me, believe that there is a power in nature to heal. This is not heebie jeebies stuff. Nor nude walks through the forest. While this is not yet scientifically proven, there is growing evidence that there are healing powers in nature that are becoming increasingly well documented.
In Japan there is a interesting notion that they call Shinrin-yoku. This refers to walking and/or staying in forests in order to promote health. It is a major form of relaxation in Japan; however, its effects have yet to be completely clarified. There was a scientific study there whose aims were: (1) to evaluate the psychological effects of shinrin-yoku in a large number of participants; and (2) to identify the factors related to these effects.
Shinrin-yoku means literally forest bathing and the activity has become a recognized stress management and relaxation technique.
Some people, like Richard Louv who wrote the book The Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, points to research that shows that the diminution of life in the world of nature has been one of the causes of increased rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (‘ADHD ‘) as well as other mental health problems. He is the person who coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe what happens when virtually a generation of young people is disconnected from nature. The result is an illness—a disorder.
Louv says that it is a short hand way of describing what people knew was happening but had no short way to describe. It is related to the increasing alienation between children and the natural world. That is the alienation or disconnect that humans feel toward the natural world. He points to recent studies that show that the symptoms of attention deficit disorder frequently are minimized with just a little contact with nature. There are other studies that show childhood obesity is partly caused by the absence of a natural connection between children and nature. Some of those studies also show the extraordinary benefits of connecting to nature for both children and adults.
Frances Kuo is the Director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois where they studied the relationship between green spaces and human health. She said that the range of outcomes related to deprivation of nature were staggering. Everything from earlier mortality in adults to general ailments in the population, ADHD symptoms, cognitive functions, mood issues and social functioning were often related to this deprivation of nature that many of us too often experience. The symptoms of this deprivation are vast.
On the 2011 CBC radio series The Bottom Line Professor Kuo said “just everything across the board,” is improved in nature. According to Kuo the presence or absence of grass or vegetation in a landscape is a huge predictor of whether or not people will like a place. People like nature. They want to see it. They want to be in it. They want to be a part of it. And if they do not feel that connection they often react adversely. They may not understand why, but that feeling of disconnection from nature is uncomfortable. It is literally disconcerting.
Kuo also studied the effect of nature on cognitive and emotional functioning. Her group went to homes in the inner city of Chicago. Some had more green areas than others. They looked at verbal and physical aggression and they found that people who had more grass or more shade trees were significantly less aggressive than nearby neighbours without any green space. Even a tiny green space helped a lot. She was surprised how such a small space could have such a remarkable effect.
Kuo points out how people often feel rejuvenated or refreshed after a brief walk in nature and she said, “It turns out that refreshment effect is quite documentable and quite consistent.” Her research shows that the part of the brain that deals with effortful activities gets a respite when one walks in nature or is around nature. “By giving that part of the brain a little vacation it gets rejuvenated and is able to operate better afterwards,” she said. It really is resting and then recharging the brain. It is good for us to be in nature. I know this is exactly how I felt after our brief walk through the woods in Cathedral Grove this afternoon.
Kuo also pointed out how there is research that showed that people in prison with no connection to nature had more self-aggression than people who have some connection to nature. They get aggressive with themselves because often there is no one else they can be aggressive towards. That research also showed that the nature deficit prisoners tended to have all kinds of illnesses more frequently than those better connected to nature.
She said that when we design cities we have to recognize the importance of nature to community health and stop thinking of trees and parks as “merely pretty.” They are much more important than that, though that is very good too. One of her colleagues calls it “the parsley around the pig.” According to Kuo, “nature in the city is functional. It helps to provide a healthy human habitat and it is as essential as providing vitamins.”
Diana Beresford-Kroeger is another person who understands the profound importance of nature on health. In particular she concentrates on the value of our relationship to trees. What better place to think of her than Cathedral Grove? She is a botanist who describes herself as “a renegade scientist.” Her latest book is called The Global Forrest.
Even in Victorian times they recognized the “forest as a spa”. They knew how it could rejuvenate and heal a person. First Nations people thought along those lines too when they initiated the sweat lodge system. They used the natural antibiotic fungicides from a forest to help heal people. Walk in to a pine forest when the temperatures are about 60º C and the air is rising, the pine trees produce a huge chemical factory from the needles, which are really modified leaves. From a distance you can even see a slight bluish haze rising from a pine forest. This reminds me of the Blue Ridge Forest, which was mainly deciduous. Chemicals are literally exhaled from the trees. They help breathing and provide a mild anesthetic.
Beresford-Kroeger says that in Ireland where they do deep meditation in forests they can actually “hear the trees”. Like children who have much better hearing than adults, can sometimes actually hear the tree. Her theories have not all been scientifically validated at this time. Yet, perhaps, it makes sense to hug a tree.
Many of us realize that nature infuses us with an inexplicable calm. Without understanding why, many of us find refuge in a park, even if just for a short stroll. That was how I felt at the Cathedral Grove.
The first people known and identified people to occupy the western Hemisphere have been called Clovis. It is believed they crossed into the western hemisphere from Asia by travelling through Beringia the land bridge. After that they spread south and east and evidence of their existence has been found in many places. It is believed that it took less than 2,000 years for them to reach the southern tip of South America. That is why many call them the first Americans, even though there is tantalizing but uncertain evidence of prior human occupation. The people were called Clovis after an archaeological site in New Mexico. I have driven near to Clovis but have not yet been there. Another pity.
Scientists have learned a lot about Clovis people from archaeological sites, particularly mammoth kills dating from about 9,500 B.C. (or 11,500 B.P.) to about 9,000 B.C. (11,000 B.P.). Scientists have discovered thousands of artifacts from those sites. In particular they found “Clovis” fluted spear points that were used for scraping cutting. These were tools of stone and some of ivory. Although elephant ivory is the most important source of ivory, it also comes from mammoths, walrus, hippopotamus, sperm whale, orca, and wart hog.
Most Clovis sites that have been discovered were near water. These people lived lives on the endangered species list, or at least would have if such a list had been created 11,000 years ago. As David Hurst Thomas said, “Clovis men and women faced extinction every day.”
North America at that time was a tough neighbourhood. If a Clovis hunter made one mistake and suffered serious injury he would die and his family would likely starve. They often “competed one-on-one for food with fierce predators and scavengers.” At the time North American still contained ferocious giant bears and sabre-toothed cats. People that survived in that environment were extraordinary.
Hunting during this time required enormous skill and knowledge, but they also had important attitudes. As David Hurst Thomas explained,
“As boys grew up, they discovered the nature and needs of their homeland—how to stalk, where to hide, how the wind worked, how animals behaved when startled. They accepted that mammoths and long-horned bison willingly made themselves available to humans, but only in exchange for a measure of deference. Disrespect was an affront that not only sabotaged the hunt, but also threatened the success of other hunters. Religious specialists were sometimes required to ensure appropriate etiquette toward the supernatural.”
Although Clovis people disappeared these respectful attitudes toward nature and animals did not. They resurfaced in many other Indigenous people of the Americas. For example similar rites were later found among the Naskapi indigenous people of Labrador! When the Clovis people hunted the huge mammoth’s spirit by entranced drumming and singing. It is speculated that before the kill the Clovis hunter would address this enormous beast that stood 14 feet tall at the shoulders by calling out the prey and its kinship names. Perhaps the hunter apologized for what came next and asked the animal for understanding and promised to treat it with respect. As David Hurst Thomas said, “The carcass was butchered in a special way, with some parts placed on display or disposed of ritually. It was important that the animal’s life force return home, regenerate its flesh, and come back another time.” Such respectful attitudes to prey were in stark contrast to the attitude of European migrants that came centuries later.
The San Francisco Peaks are the hugest mountains in Arizona and they can be seen from nearly everywhere in Northern Arionza. The Peaks are sacred to the Hopi, an Indigenous People of the American Southwest.
The Hopi Reservation is entirely surrounded by Navajo lands. The landscape is harsh and barren, so at least it appears. Actually it is far from barren. The Hopi have cultivated crops here for a thousand years.
The Hopi are deeply religious people. Their religion is a big part of their ordinary lives. Their religious ceremonies often focus on kachina which are spirit figures that symbolize nature in all of its forms. Carver wooden dolls, called kachina are ubiquitous in gift shops in the area. During the growing season kachina dancers get in on the act by representing the spiritual figures. Through the kachina the Hopi worshipped the living plants and animals that they believed arrived each year to stay with the tribe during the growing season.
Most of the Hopi villages are on or near three of the three flat topped mesas. They are name First, Second, and Third Mesa. We drove by the first two. When we were in the area a couple of years ago we drove by 2 of them and took note of the homes at the top but we had been advised it would not be a good idea to stop and photograph them from in town as friends of ours who had lived with them for a year had told us we would not be welcome. We did photograph them from a distance and I included a photograph in an earlier post.
Currently, the Hopi continue the agricultural practices and many of the ceremonies of their Anasazi forebears. Hopi villages still contain underground chambers called kivas which are said to represent the hole in the ground through which it was believed people emerged into the world. There is also a Hopi legend, that makes a lot of sense to me, that humanity has 3 times led to the destruction of the natural world by failing to honour the Creator’s divine laws. However, 3 times humanity has come back into being. Let’s hope they (we) do a better job this time around.
There are many beautiful places in the American Southwest. It is easy to feel connected to them.
One of the things I learned from the television series Native America, was that the Pueblo people of the American southwest were doing the same thing as the Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest thousands of miles away. As Robbie Robertson the narrators said, “The Pueblo people seek the same thing: to find their place in the world. They discover it in America’s Southwest.” Many times living out there, I thought I found it too. This is my place too. Maybe not my only place, but certainly my place.
The Hopi have a very complex religion with a rich mythological tradition. Just as it is with so many other religious groups, including Christians, it is not easy to find any customs or beliefs that all Hopi accept. Each village or mesa may have slightly different versions of their central myths. Some also suspect that stories told to outsiders are not genuine but merely told to tell curious people something, while holding the real versions close to themselves. Hopi people are often reluctant to share their sacred doctrines. Hopi are also often syncretic. They are willing to adopt sacred practices or beliefs from others when they find them helpful. For example if a practice helps bring rain why not use it?
Many Hopi creation stories revolve around Tawa, the sun spirit. Contemporary Hopi continue to petition Tawa for blessings for their newborn children. Tawas is the creator who formed the “First World” and its original inhabitants.
They also have interesting accounts of Masauwu or Skeleton Man who was the Spirit of Death and Master of the Upper World, or Fourth World so that people who escaped the wickedness of the Third World could be safe in the Fourth World. Sometimes Masauwu was described as wearing a hideous mask. At other time Masauwu was described as handsome.
Maize or corn is central to Hopi subsistence and also religion. It is a central bond among people. In essence Hopi often see corn as physical sustenance, spiritual renewal, ceremonial objects and instruments of prayers. Often corn is seen as the Great Mother. In a literal sense this actually true. People who take in corn convert it into their own flesh inside their bodies.
The Hopi found their center in the American Southwest. It was the end of their migrations. They believe they are doing what Masauwu told them to do–connect to the world. Be a part of it. Indivisible from it. This is a theme I shall return to over and over again as I discuss Indigenous religious experiences or doctrines. By finding the center place Hopi believe they have honoured the commitment they made when they entered the world.
Along the way on their spiritual journey Native Americans created Chaco, balanced between the underworld and the heavens. They found 6 directions aligned to the movement of the sun and stars all aligned to the cosmos. This is another central concept of many Indigenous religious beliefs and practices. That was why Chaco drew people from thousands of miles away. Visitors brought hallowed objects like turquoise stones, tropical bird feather, seashells, and chocolate.
In the television series, Patricia Crown said, “Both cacao and scarlet macaws are tropical species that were brought from a great distance into Pueblo Bonito. There’s no question that there was this very large area of shared beliefs in ritual activities.” Chaco was a place where people came from vast distances to share with each other what they had learned. What could be more holy than that? “People share knowledge and beliefs based on thousands of years of observing their world. They have ceremonies to influence the very forces of nature that are still practiced today.” Hopi traditions say that Chaco was a special place to study the forces of nature. “It grows out of a deep connection with the earth, planted in time immemorial, developed over tens of thousands of years and shared across 2 continents by the pioneering people who created this world. They are Native Americans. Their teachings remain as relevant today as ever.”
Jim Enote is an elder of the Ashiwi Nation, a Pueblo group in what is now New Mexico and Northern Arizona known as the Zuni. He says that when his people come to water they lift it and splash themselves with it and then they throw it in the direction of Zuni to encourage rain. They have a name for this very large area in Northern Arizona. They call it the place of emergence. It includes what we now call the Grand Canyon and Glen Canyon. I visited large parts of the area on a number of occasions. It is incredibly beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful on earth.
I don’t know the exact boundaries of Zuni territory but I believe these photos are from in or near their historical territory.
Monument Valley is in my opinion one of the most beautiful places on earth and I am surprised how few people who winter in Arizona never visit it or haven’t even heard of it.
In that region the Zuni produced petroglyphs that have been there for more than a thousand years. To the Zuni this is not just art; it is history. One of them shows a row of sheep descending to the water. It is an ancient lesson. To find water follow the animals.
Jim and the Zuni have been using ancient petroglyphs, images from pottery, and from tapestries, and have considered their thoughts and prayers and together with all that have been making unique maps based on these images. Those maps are unlike any other maps in the world. “Not limited by lines or topography, they depict cultural landscapes and living memories.” Jim Enote put it this way, in the documentary series Native America that I watched this past winter, “The Zuni maps represent the world without defined boundaries.”
Many people are familiar with maps that contain streets and roads. But there is another way. The Zuni have found one of those other ways. As Enote said, “When they see Zuni hand painted maps, they realize there is a different way of looking at the world.” Isn’t that what travel and education are all about, finding different ways of looking at the world? Isn’t this why we converse with people of different cultures? Is this not what the world of ideas is all about? This is why I watch television shows like this one.
This different way of looking at the world is shared across North America. It is a reverence for place. Sacred caves, underground sanctuaries, grand canyons, real physical connections to earth. Its why many call it Mother Earth.
People like Enote when they visit a place like the Grand Canyon, with its steep walls of red rock, like those I saw at Canyon de Chelly, or Monument Valley, both in the same area, get the feeling that they are in a womb. They are inside Mother Earth. That is a deep and powerful connection! Enote said, in front of an incredible film of Horseshoe Canyon where I stood 2 years, “This is the place we came from so the river is like an umbilical cord. It’s all part of the Mother. The Mother is where we begin. Its our ultimate reference point.” Now that is a real connection to the physical earth.
I took this photo of Horseshoe Canyon getting as close to the edge as a person who is deathly afraid of heights could get. When he said that, I could not help but recollect the words of Paul Tillich that profound German theologian who defined God as our ultimate concern.
I am still thinking about civilization and whether or Europeans who arrived in the Americas had a monopoly on it, as many of them thought, and as many of their descendants still think.
A few years ago some good friends of ours lived on a Hopi Reservation for about a year. They invited us down to visit but I am sorry to say we did not go. That was a big mistake. We could have learned a lot. The Hopi, like so many Indigenous peoples of North America have a lot to teach us. Chris and I went on our own a couple of years ago, but frankly learned very little.
I did learn a bit about Hopi culture from watching a television series this winter on PBS called Native America.
In my last post on this subject, I mentioned how Chaco in northern New Mexico was connected with the Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest. Now I want to mention that the Hopi, many of whom now live in Northern Arizona, make pilgrimages to Chaco in northern New Mexico because they want to maintain their connection to places like Yupköyvi (Chaco in the Hopi language). As a result, there may be a connection to the ancient ceremonies of the Hopi back in Chaco and they are in turn connected too with the Amazon Rainforest To the Indigenous people, the Americas was a small world.
Chaco was built in northeast New Mexico between 900 and 1150 and it covered an area roughly the size of modern San Francisco. That is a pretty big city. And of course at that time people had no buses to get around as they do in San Francisco.
There were 12 great houses in the center of Chaco. They were 5 stories high and contained up to 800 rooms. “These were the biggest buildings in what will be the United States until the 1800s.” They also built cave like gathering places throughout the city. At one time they were covered but those roofs have long since collapsed. They are called kivas. The Hopis still use them in Arizona for special ceremonies conducted by men and women.
1,000-year old Kivasare very important to the Hopi. The rituals inside kivas centered on rainmaking, healing, hunting, all to ensure the continuation of life.” All of these were vitally important to the Hopi people. They often smoked pipes as part of the ceremonies. Like Indigenous people of the Canadian prairies, smoking, to the Hopis is a form of prayer. They meditate while smoking. They pray for rain, long life and abundance. Not that different from Christian prayers when you think of it. People pray to get stuff. But Leigh Kuwandwisiwma, a Hopi, said it is more than that. “We pray to the environment,” he says. And they are part of that environment. “We take the time to contemplate the power around us, the bird world, the reptilian world, the animal world, the insect world, are all part of who we are the Hopi People,” he says. It is a very different attitude to nature.
To Pueblo people of the American Southwest and Hopi people some of their modern corn is also sacred. It is their life-blood. Offering it to earth is a sacred offering. As the smoke carries prayers to the winds Leigh sprinkled cornmeal into the fire and it rose as part of the smoke. “It is a ritual that connects the Hopi to their origin story.”
Many North American Native people believe that they emerged from the earth. I accept these stories with respect. I do not accept them as literal reports of what happened, any more than I accept the story of Noah’s ark carrying two of all species on earth in his ark as a literal rendering of what happened. For example, I don’t think there were 2 blue whales on that ark, or 2 mammoths or 2 tigers. The story of Noah’s ark, like the creation stories of North American Native people are important however. They speak a profound truth. It is just not a literal truth. Sometimes those stories are difficult to interpret. That does not mean we should discard them. That just means we should work harder to interpret them.
“Many Native American people share a belief that they emerged from the earth. Hopi and ‘Pueblo traditions say that the place of emergence is beneath America’s best known natural wonder, the Grand Canyon. 5 million people visit each year, they come to connect with its natural beauty, but Pueblo people have an even deeper connection. This is their birth place.”
I like that story. Imagine emerging from the Grand Canyon. That would be pretty spectacular. It certainly does not seem any less civilized than the creation story in the Bible.
Some of my Catholic friends might be surprised that a heathen like me believes in original sin. But it’s true. It is just that it is a little different form the original sin they are supposed to believe in.
When Europeans arrived in North America, (they did not discover it for it had been there a very long time) they came with that a lot of baggage. In particular they came with arrogance epitomized by that famous European attitude of superiority. They were better than everyone and more important than everything else. Everything was subordinate to them. I think this attitude was best exemplified by Cecil Rhodes that famous English colonialist from Africa. He said, “We happen to be the best people in the world. And the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for humanity.”These attitudes led to the genocide of indigenous people, barbarous enslavement of African-Americans, domination of women by men, the debasement of all religions except their own nasty versions of Christianity, and the subjugation of nature to the will and power of men. This genocide Tzvetan Todorov in his book The Conquest of America called the “the greatest genocide in history.” Those attitudes were the original sin of the western hemisphere—the Americas.
The original inhabitants of North America had a very different attitude. Their attitude was more like this:
“Native America is alive. Its roots stretch back 13,000 years…to America’s original explorers. New people who create a new world. From North to South America distant peoples share one common belief a deep connection to Earth, sky, water and all living things.”
The original explorers of the western hemisphere were not Europeans. They came here long before then. They came before the Egyptians built the pyramids. They came before Christ was born. They were different. They avoided the original sin. Fundamentally, they had a different attitude to nature and to people. They were the ancestors to the Indigenous people of today.
Teresa Ryan, in a recent PBS documentary series, Native America, put it well, “We are part of this forest as much as the forest is part of us.” This is a fundamentally different attitude to nature and to all living things in it.
Beau Dick, n the same series, added to that: “All of our ceremonies illustrate that one notion connectedness— not only with our fellow beings with animals and other creatures, but with all of creation.”
This attitude I have called Affinity. This is my word. I have applied it to this philosophy because I wanted a convenient handle. I considered the expression “being-in-the-world” invented by Martin Heidegger. But his philosophy is very difficult and I am not sure I entirely understand it. He really uses it to apply just to humans, so it seems to me, but it does latch onto the very important basic notion that we are not separate and apart from nature. We are not alienated from it. We not apart from the world; we are a part of the world! We cannot hope to understand humans unless we take into consideration that they are part of the world. But, in my view, unlike Heidegger’s, this applies to all beings not just human beings.
From this fundamental principle, so different from the Europeans who later invaded their territory, a multitude of important consequences flow. As the PBS documentary Native America, said, “From this deep respect for nature, people create great nations.” That does not mean they were perfect. Not at all. But they were different in important respects. They had a lot they could contribute to the invaders, and they had a lot to learn from them. It is however very difficult, as the Europeans found after they invaded, to learn from the other whom you despise or at least do not respect. Feelings of supremacy are not a sound basis for learning. This does not mean they learned nothing from their hosts. It is just that they could have learned so much more had their feelings of superiority been blunted.
Many of the nations in the New World grappled with war and peace. They “develop governments from dictatorships to a democracy that will inspire the United States constitution.” Yet amazingly, here comes that powerful feeling of superiority again, that same constitution contained racist presumptions of superiority that helped to install the original sin as the basis of their society and has to this day prevented the United States from healing from that fundamental sin against at least 3 groups of people; Native Americans and African-Americans, and lets not forget, women. Of course, these white men also presumed to be superior to women. That was also part of the fundamental sin of white male supremacy that still haunts the United States, Canada, and frankly this entire western hemisphere. Not that the other hemisphere is much better. The other aspect of white male supremacy is supremacy over all animals, and even, all of nature. This last bias is still the least understood of these presumptions, but I believe eventually we will catch on that this too was a powerful illusion. It too has had a profound effect the west.
Sadly, the Europeans who arrived in the New World thought they were superior to the natives they found, to anyone who was not white, to women, and to all of nature. As a result they often failed to learn from their “inferiors.”
That deep sense of superiority drove the settlers in the New World and ultimately poisoned their relationship with indigenous peoples and African-American slaves. The west is still suffering from that influence and non-Indigenous must recognized that ill influence or that relationship will never be whole.
At the University of Winnipeg talk after showing the film Beyond Climate, Suzuki also discussed a new attitude to nature. He began by talking about the American economy.
After World War II and the end of the Great Depression, America President Franklin Roosevelt realized that the war economy had saved capitalism from self-destruction. But a war economy carries with it enormous unpalatable costs far beyond mere economic costs. He realized that what it needs is consumption. Constant relentless consumption. That was his solution.
Of course what the United States has actually done is to maintain both a consumer economy and war economy. The U.S. spends as much on the military as the 9 countries that are next in line, spend combined.
Suzuki thought we needed a better way. Climate change was just one of the things such an attitude had ushered in. He said he had learned a lot from indigenous people. In fact he said, “Indigenous people have taught me all I know.” This was important because much of the film dealt with the opposition of First Nations to the plans of Alberta and the Canadian government to build pipelines from the Oil Sands of Alberta to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) or oil or bitumen to the coast of British Columbia. Alberta was upset that the federal government could not ram through the pipeline approval process. Of course that is just not feasible. Those days are done. The Supreme Court won’t put up with it.
In the late 1970s Suzuki realized that we needed a new attitude to nature. And he found it. He found it in the 1980s when he went to interview indigenous people at Haida Gwaii. He wanted to talk to them about the protests by indigenous people over logging on their land. He talked to forest company executives, environmentalists, politicians, and, most importantly Haida. That was how he met Guujaaw a young artist who was leading the Haida opposition to the logging.
Suzuki wondered why the Haida were so vehemently opposed to logging since many of their own people got jobs with logging companies. And many of them badly needed jobs. Suzuki asked him, “What would happen if the trees were cut down?” His reply was profound, but Suzuki did not realize at first how profound. Guujaaw said, “Then we’ll be like everyone else, I guess.”
A few days later Suzuki thought about that answer and it “opened a window on a radically different way of seeing the world.” As we keep getting reports from the World Wildlife Fund and others about the incredible impact humans are having on the world, I think a new attitude to nature is exactly what we badly need. Suzuki explained it this way,
“Guujaaw and the Haida do not see themselves as ending at their skin or fingertips. Of course they would still be around physically if the trees were all gone, but a part of what it is to be Haida would be lost. The trees, fish, birds, air, water, and rocks are all part of who the Haida are. The land and everything on it embody their history, their culture, the very reasons why Haida are on this earth. Sever that connection and they become ‘like everybody else.”
Indigenous people around the world have similar attitudes. They are based on a deep attachment to the land they occupy. They are connected to that environment. It is part of who they are. Suzuki like other people from the west had a different attitude to nature and that has made all the difference. To the Haida, and other indigenous people, and as Suzuki concluded,
“…there is no environment ‘out there,’ separate and apart from us; I came to realize that we are the environment. Leading science corroborates this ancient understanding that whatever we do to the environment or to anything else, we do directly to ourselves.The ‘environmental’ crisis is a ‘human’ crisis; we are at the centre of it as both the cause the victims.”
Suzuki realized he had found the new perspective he needed. It allowed him to see the world through different eyes. He realized, as the Haida had before him, that what we needed to survive and thrive was not more money in order to live rich and healthy lives. This new attitude to nature was reflected in all the Haida did and found its fruits in how they wanted to interact with the land. As Suzuki said, “Rather than being separate and apart from the rest of nature, we are deeply embedded in and utterly dependent on the generosity of the biosphere.” I use the word “affinity” to describe this new attitude to nature. I will comment on again in these blogs.
It is this attitude that Albertans don’t understand. It is not just a matter of paying the Indigenous people money. They want jobs, they want money, but not at any cost. They don’t want it at the cost of their identity. That is why some of the indigenous people, but not all of them, do not want pipelines on their land and will sacrifice the jobs if necessary. I know that seems bizarre to Albertans and most Canadians for that matter. Alberta and Canada have to learn to respect that. Only then will they be able to successfully deal with Canada’s first nations. And perhaps Canada will learn something valuable in the process. Perhaps there is something of value in that new attitude to nature.