An integral aspect of the Spirit of the Land (SoL) course at Augustana is the nurturing of a contemplative practice. We have used a number of approaches (Buddhist, Christian, Archetypal Psychology, among others) to encourage stillness, silence and presence in a world that does not place great value on these traditions. It is a way to push students beyond the breakneck pace of their day-to-day lives and into a space where it is possible to hear the still, small voice of inner self. With that Being (that inner self), we can mindfully explore the existential connection with the natural world, physical space, and community of beings in which we all live. When questions of sustainability, ecology, and right relationship are explored from this contemplative foundation, it becomes possible to consider agency and knowledge from the perspective of the natural world, rather than simply the perspective of conservationists or preservationists.
In reading Peter Bates and David Natcher et. al.’s articles on Northern Canadian First Nations groups, and Susan Crate’s article on Soviet Indigenous groups (all found in Arctic Anthropology), I was struck by the connection between the contemplative tradition as it has been expressed in our SoL class and the traditional knowledge of these groups. This type of knowledge is not the kind that one can simply look up online and Get It. Like meditation, like yoga, like mastery of any discipline, this is a knowledge that is grounded in Being. It is developed through practice and integration of a more conscious way of taking action. Rather than going through the motions of doing something, we are pushed to embody what we do – be mindful, feel it deeply and make it a part of our Being. It also points to the emergent nature of knowledge.
The Northern groups Bates and Natcher et. al. worked with, revealed a unique perspective of time and sentience that sits in opposition to the dominant Western approach. First, the Northern groups were reluctant to place emphasis on a future orientation. For those doing work in sustainability and ecology, this poses a considerable barrier. The drive is to create policy or research agendas based on predictable changes in the natural world, but those who hold the Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of this space do not orient themselves to the future in this way. The Huslia residents, for example, do not “allow events that lie in the future to organize one’s life” (Natcher et. al. 119), and thus cultivate a radically present-oriented relationship with time and the natural world. In presence, we are forced to listen to the subtle changes of the natural world, “accepting that the future cannot be known [and allowing] appropriate preparation for uncertainty, rather than condemning a traveler to futile struggle against it” (Bates 90).
As we have explored presence in the SoL class, we have attempted to quiet our future-oriented ego self in order to hear the present-oriented inner self that is connected to all other beings (both animate and inanimate). In our exploration of the present moment, we have heard experiences of individuals (like Takota Coen) who have meditated and communicated with plants, and (like Sylvia McAdam) who have literally fallen in love with landscapes.
With such an orientation to time, I would argue, we can find a connection to the agency of the land – reflected in Natcher et. al.’s description of the Koyukon. Individuals in this community were reluctant to speak of the future of climate change, animal migrations, or other aspects of the natural world as they felt it negated the power of the natural world to participate in the conversation. During this reading I began to think of the natural world as a family member, and such summits discussing the possible futures of the natural world as equivalent to discussing a sibling behind his or her back. I could picture it as a sort of gossip session in which well-meaning scientists, policy makers, and social researchers are trying to determine what to do with that troublesome black sheep of the family. Then I pictured how infuriated I would be if I found out about such talk while I was absent. What if we were to host a present-oriented intervention rather than a back-room decision of when to ship someone off to rehabilitation.
Any good relationship requires presence and the sensitivity to see that the other has the agency to change. When we are in harmonious relationship, we appreciate the gifts of the other and reciprocate. We acknowledge the essential presence of the other and accept emerging aspects with curiosity and gratitude. When we are in wrong relationship we become controlling, demanding and dismissive. We center meaning on our own power and end up consuming rather than collaborating. These readings highlight different ways of seeing my relationship with time and natural systems, and encourage me to foster a present and emergent relationship with the world around me.
All this as I watch winter unfold for the first time in 4 years. As I approach winter with a welcoming respect for its essential place in this landscape, I feel better able to reconcile with this black sheep.
Works Mentioned (I apologize for any formatting problems… I just wanted to get this post up!)
Bates, Peter. 2007. Inuit and Scientific Philosophies about Planning, Prediction, and Uncertainty. Arctic Anthropology 44( 2): 87-100.
Crate, Susan A. 2006. Elder Knowledge and Sustainable Livelihoods in Post-Soviet Russia: Finding Dialogue across the Generations. Arctic Anthropology 43 ( 1): 40-51.
Natcher, David C., O. Huntington, H. Huntington, F.S. Chapin III, S.F. Trainor, and L. DeWilde. 2007. Notions of Time and Sentience: Methodological Considerations for Arctic Climate Change Research. Arctic Anthropology 44(2): 113-126.