Archive for November, 2013

Right Relationship – Nurturing connection to the land through time and contemplation

Posted in anthro 610, spirit of the land, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on November 14, 2013 by onepercentyellow

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.

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Conservation, Preservation and the Noble Savage

Posted in anthro 610, spirit of the land, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on November 14, 2013 by onepercentyellow

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  We’ve all heard it.  How do we miss the mark?  By failing to be in relationship.

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been reading a lot on conservation and preservation of the natural world.  I’ve read about the National Park system, started with the landmark Yellowstone National Park, and the varying levels of success this system has seen.  On the one hand, the model has been adopted around the world, prompting governments to set aside tracts of undeveloped, unexploited land for preservation in a natural state.  Considering the clearing of forests, the breaking up of ancient prairie, the draining of wetlands, and the piece-by-piece dismantling of entire mountains, the preservation of natural spaces, thanks to the national park programs, seems a great boon to us – a gift to today’s children who have received the pleasure of visiting unplundered earth.  But this system is not without complications.  With an exercise of power, there is always compromise.

National park systems have, by and large, included removal of the human element as a part of the natural system (Chatty and Colchester), and in the tradition of Cartesian dualism, we suddenly find ourselves both in and out, living a contradiction and straining to be and not be at the same time.  Of course, humans are nature.  We are from the Earth.  We rely on her systems and cannot hope to live without this connection.  Our bodies know this.  As I’ve been exploring in Spirit of the Land, our spirits know this as well.  But our minds – oh our ego-warped minds – separate us from nature, place us above her systems, place us in CONTROL of her systems, where we begin to exercise will – severing relationship in favour of domination.

So what is the danger in setting up protected spaces?  Well, there are 3.

  • First is the effect on the space.
  • Second is the effect on the people of the space.
  • Third is the effect on the philosophy of space in general.

We are from the Earth, and our removal, like the removal of any of the natural elements of an ecosystem, has a profound effect on an area.  The introduction to Conservation and Mobile Indigenous Peoples mentions how periodic clearing of land in Africa would open up areas for larger game to graze, and how forest fires would provide needed nutrients to increase biodiversity.  Sometimes it is not our removal but our intervention that changes these natural systems.  I took an Anthropology class at the University of Alberta in the 90’s with Eric Higgs.  This was my first exposure to the notion of preservation being a problematic intervention in the natural world. Dr. Higgs put up two slides.  One was a valley bottom full of trees.  The other was the same valley bottom sparsely populated by trees and full of grassland.  Which one is from 1910 and which is from 5 years ago?  Fire suppression in the national parks had changed the landscape and grazing animals no longer had access to the spaces opened by natural fire.   Our absence and our protectionist presence is more complicated than it seems.

Second, we have national and international interests intervening in a local ecology and economy, such as in Miguel Montoya’s example in “Negotiating the Tropical Rainforest.”  These spaces become appropriated in service of ideals played out on stages far removed from the life that happens on the ground.  Values and image displaces direct engagement with the land and demonizes those who have lived within a subsistence relationship with a space.  Sometimes, as with Paul Nadasdy’s example of sheep hunting in the Arctic, this pushes individuals to use exploitative measures not typically employed in order to reap the benefits for the community rather than for the service of outsiders who wish to appropriate and manage the wealth.

Perhaps the greatest danger, however, lays in the mentality of those who live outside of these areas.  Who do you know who would dare to litter during their picturesque drive through the Icefields Parkway?  Would those same individuals balk at litter in their own concrete neighbourhood?  Would they ever see the concrete itself as an unnatural object?  When we set aside spaces as “nature” and separate them from the rest of the earth, we create a dual space.  One where nature is valued and exploitation is prohibited, and another where nature is taken for granted, or simply not even acknowledged, and exploitation is commonplace.  It is sometimes difficult to recognize that even in the middle of the concrete jungle, there is nature all around that deserves the same respect and appreciation as other spaces.

Finally, a brief comment on First Nations, #idlenomore and the natural world.  There is so much being said about the path forward in harmony with the Earth.  #idlenomore has brought hope and energy to those who have been looking for a mode to galvanize the environmental movement, and it’s tempting to simply herald First Nations globally as the model for right relationship with the land.  As my fellow student in Anthro 610 and Spirit of the land guest speaker Daniel Bogart-O-Brein state, it is First NationS – not a single nation, and we must be aware of the multiple perspectives on land use and relationship.  We cannot simply lump all indigenous groups into a single culture.  Nor can we romanticize these relationships as inherently conservationist, as argued by Eric Alden Smith and Mark Wishnie.

So, where does that leave us?  Well, I think it comes back to a Land Ethic.  We must feel love before we can act in right relationship.  This comes from having a relationship with the land where we live.  This is the sustaining kind of long-lasting relationship we wish to have with those who are most important to us.  The kind that allows us to see each other with messy hair and morning breath.  We cannot rely on others to create that relationship for us – be that permission from government or First Nations groups.  We should not (and cannot) wait for popular media to galvanize us into an eco-fad.  If we are to create right relationship we must do it individually, mindfully, and continually.  Like any great relationship, it takes time and concerted effort.

Works mentioned (I must apologize for citation formatting, but I just wanted to finally get this post out there!)

Chatty, Dawn and Colchester, Marcus. Eds. Conservation and Mobile Indigenous Peoples: Displacement, Forced Settlement, and Sustainable Development. Berghahn: UK. 2008. (Miguel Montoya’s paper is the second chapter of this book).

Smith, Eric Alden and Wishnie, Mark. “Conservation and Subsistence in Small-Scale Societies.” Annual Rev. Anthropol. 29:493-524. 2000.

Nadasdy, Paul. “The Anti-Politics of TEK: The Institutionalization of Co-Management Discourse and practis.” Anthropologica. 47:2, 215-232. 2005.

Higgs, Eric, et. al. Culture, Ecology and Restoration in Jasper National Park. U of A Press: Edmonton. 1999.