“The Earth does not belong to man – man belongs to the Earth.” – Chief Seattle, 1854.
I’ve often thought about this quote and about property ownership. Territorial protection is something I can understand, but actually writing up deeds and claiming titles and values to land? That doesn’t make sense to me. It seems to contradict Chief Seattle’s notion, and I feel like I cannot be alone in my sentiments. I used to work evenings in downtown Cleveland drawing property plats for surveyors in Florida, thinking A.) how dull these suburban plans are (they’re all the same, they’re all monotonous) and B.) land ownership just leads to conflict (the plats were for checking violations).
Even territorial protection of this land before settlers arrived caused conflict, but of a different nature. Back then, most conflicts probably occurred over ancestral lands held by peoples of differing religious views or practices, or because of fishing or hunting rights, or maybe access to water, or even to obtain terrain with a particularly protective characteristic which sheltered people and resources from the weather or gave military advantage in defending a village. Essentially every conflict, in other words, was borne of a strong connection to the land and its resources.
Land ownership today doesn’t strike me as the same thing. Most of the disputes I was working to resolve were about fences being put as much as a fraction of an inch across a property line, or maybe violations of easements for utilities and other public services. As with the Gold Rushes that displaced countless natives over a century before, shale and oil industries snatch up property rights and extract billions in profit at stressful rates. Even the agricultural industry – probably the only remaining significant connection to the land that could be in any way respectful in this country – is, in my mind, becoming completely corrupt. GMOs are replacing native crops so that food hardly resembles food anymore, corn and soy are being grown in enormous quantities to feed humans, livestock, and also to provide as fillers in nearly everything we eat, and industrial techniques are destroying the integrity of the earth. Nearly all of this country’s topsoil has already washed out the delta of the Mississippi River. What’s to blame? Well, for a large part the industrialization of the farm. Mono-crops are also to blame, a theory supported wildly by the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas (which studies what makes a prairie thrive in its natural environment, etc.). Also, tilling techniques (before farmers tilled to contours) adds to the erosion, and chemical additives do incomprehensible damage to nitrogen-fixation levels, biodiversity, organism nervous systems, etc. etc. etc… The farming, harvesting, and gathering practices of the last thousands of years have fallen on deaf ears who think their short-term high yielding crops, animal domestication, and “sophisticated” techniques are the answers to our successes.
But we can’t succeed if we ruin the land. Why are people forgetting this?
As Chief Seattle said, the land dictates everything we do. It decides if we live or die. How has society become so far removed from reality that it has forgotten that?
I just finished reading a book today called The Land Looks After Us: A History of Native American Religion by Joel W. Martin. It brushed on relevant historical events and jumped around a lot between a huge number of nations, predominantly those in the continental states. It stressed how, while all the native cultures vary sometimes greatly, they all share the commonsense that the land gives everything they have. In fact, nearly all Creation stories in North America personify the earth as a mother out of which the first humans rose. The book continues to modern times, listing numerous ancestral sites of religious significance that are being defiled by tourists, such as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. I know I’ve been disturbed in the past by ancient sites and exotic islands being over-run and destroyed by tourism (hello, our native Hawai’ian friends!), but I’ve begun seeing it in different ways – as lifestyle errors. For example, my native Alaskan friends impress me with their heritage. Their peoples were some serious survivors out there on the tundra. Yet they completely honored the land and had resources for as long as they needed and took no more than that. While traveling in Alaska during the winter of 2012 for AISES Nationals, I was disheartened to see how drastic the contrast was between the host cultures we were exposed to at Conference and the heat-blasting, oil-thirsty, Commodity Central Anchorage that I was experiencing. This is NOT how these people lived! And while I loved the outdoor enthusiasm Alaskans have, I still felt hurt by the energy consumption (and Alaska does consume more than it produces, despite its excellent wind energy categorization).
In my mind, I’ve kept a tally of disturbing facts. For example, my mom did some volunteer work for children at charter schools in Pittsburgh. I remember going with her once. She dressed in black and hid in the bathroom while the children filed in to an auditorium. Then, she put on a cape, black triangular ears, and painted her face black. She slipped into the auditorium while the lights were off and a woman got on stage: “I think we have a visitor! Who do you see?” She then ran around the room, jumping over children. They laughed and tried touching her, shouting “Bat! Bat! Bat!” She then broke into this limerick (that I was sick of hearing at the time) telling children how bats are the only mammals that fly and that they shouldn’t be afraid of them. This was just one example of the work she does, but the program she was volunteering with has to work in a constant effort to dispel myths city children have about wildlife. Even the parents can be incredibly ignorant. (On a bioforray, I watched a woman peer into a pen of flying squirrels and go, “But, wait…Where are their wings??”)
When I moved to Cleveland, I realized the severity of the situation. Children, adults, people of all ages and education – they do not understand wildlife. Like, at all. AT. ALL. Sometimes they can’t tell a squirrel from a chipmunk. They’re shocked by the sight of a goldfinch if they leave their city of drab urban birds. They’ll cry about guns and hunting rights while ordering a burger from McDonald’s, then plead that I don’t remind them it is animal muscle they’re consuming. I’ve talked to children who were dumbfounded that their food grows, apparently never having seen food that doesn’t come out of a can or out of a produce bin. Maybe Adam and Even taught them that apples come from trees, but I could list a number of vegetables and they’d have no idea how they come to be. I’ve actually heard some kids suggest some produce is made in a factory, like Twinkies.
And it’s not just things that grow; it’s home cooked meals, too. I know so many adults now who never realized what “cooking from scratch” means. I remember making a chocolate beet cake and people being flabbergasted. Why? Here’s what they thought I did: Bought it in the store. Oh, you made it? Okay, from a box – but why’s it called “beet”? THERE ARE BEETS IN HERE? Here’s how I actually made it: I’ve milled my own flour, but usually I just use a bag. Yes, I add all of the little ingredients like baking soda and baking powder and real vanilla extract. No, I whipped my icing by hand with cream cheese and powdered sugar. Yes, I did use real beets; no, they weren’t canned; yes, beets do grow and I got them at the farmer’s market because they’re in season.
So not only are children unexposed and therefore fearful and disrespecting of the animals around them, they don’t understand where their food comes from. Their parents don’t cook them real meals, they probably don’t sit down together and have a TV-free conversation, and they are most likely filling up on junk. Its this ignorance that I see at the forefront of land disrespect. Who is going to care about the land if they don’t realize they need it for their food, the animals, and for the ecosystem to keep the world turning? And without the strength of a family unit, values and morals and other virtues get lost in the chaos of our egocentric society.
And that egocentric society scoffs at the natives who still hold the land of the highest value, who love and respect and prefer their culture so much that they’ll face the hardships of Reservation life to not leave. It’s the boastfulness that the modern way is “right” that leaves all of the sensible people feeling hopeless as they scramble to fix problems others are creating out of neglect, like me at my environmental engineering job or my mom in her children’s education program. Or like both of us at Wildlife Works, Inc. when we volunteer to feed raptors and other creatures that have been injured or abandoned as a side effect of humanity’s infringement on their natural lives and habitats.
Me, I can’t see myself without the land. It’s beyond impossible. Even if I could live in a sterile white building and eat endless, manufactured food at no cost, I would run away and risk starving as a hunter-gatherer. It’s not just about the nutritional value of natural, organic food, it’s in part about doing it myself. About maintaining control and knowledge over how to survive. About remembering I belong to the earth and not the other way around, so I can’t have the final say in anything. I just have to be prepared. But I’m not upset about it, either, because it’s the reason why I ever came to be. So I love the land. I especially love Appalachia, where I have lived my whole life. Whether in the mountains or cornfield, or even now along the Great Lakes, I couldn’t imagine life without being in the outdoors. Without gardening. Without going out of my way to make the best choices I can for the planet every time I have a choice to make. I get too anxious locked indoors or too far away from the mountains for too long. I have to climb to a peak or to the top of a tree and just feel like I can see, to remind myself that the world is still here. At least for a little.
And maybe I’m weird, but I think Twinkies are disgusting. Modern fruit is too sweet and too pulpy. Vegetables on the other hand… I can’t imagine not eating a huge bowl of vegetables, rice, and beans every once in awhile…with a nice cup of tea.