a faltering symbiosis.

As we become more and more disconnected with our foods, we are also more and more disconnected with our world and our culture.

I can remember my storytelling grandma taking me for walks on trails through the woods where she would point out the native plants and the animals.  We would go home to her gardens that were full of native Pennsylvanian perennials.  We’d pick lovage and other vegetables from the salad garden, then rush outside after dinner with some sun tea to watch the 8-o’clock Bloom Primrose open from the gazebo.

Her favorite flower was the trillium, so each April the woods remind me of her more than usual.  Every time a bird flies hardly in sight overhead and I don’t recognize his flight pattern or song, I’m frustrated because I’m sure she’s told me his identity before and that she’d tell me again if she were here.  She’s been gone almost 8 years already and I wish I’d remembered things better when I was younger.  I often wonder how much wisdom is in 8 years, the ones I didn’t get.

Feeling that separation in time makes me really appreciate the 16 years I did get, even the ones I can’t remember at all.  It’s 16 more years than a lot of children ever get with their grandparents, learning from the wisest, being shown the same things that their great-great-grandparents had shown their grandparents.  I might feel inadequate and incomplete, but I’m a lot fuller than most – and that saddens me.

How many kids never really see their grandparents or their parents?  How many kids learn all of their lessons from Dora the Explorer and other TV shows?  While my grandma told me tales about the animals that taught me lessons about how to treat others, children are learning their lessons from cartoons and video games and not even going outside.  My only exception to not being outside was reading, but even then I would often climb into a tree with a bag of birdseed and sometimes fall asleep with a book on a limb.

I remember when grandma taught me how to plant a seed.  It went something like this: “First, dig a little hole.  Gently.  Enough for part of your finger.  Now, drop the seed to the bottom.  Give him a little drink, but not too much – just some encouragement.  Add a little love, maybe a kiss, and pat the dirt back on softly and water again.”  But she especially showed me how to find things that were already growing, and we would observe the patterns of the animals in the woods as they used their own techniques to harvest.  I particularly loved sitting in the woods during the winter for this reason; I could see through the bare trees so clearly, the red berries standing out against the snow, ruffled birds landing on dusted branches, and mouse tracks giving away all of their secret hideouts on the ground.

The Potawatomi and Chippewa used to watched these mouse tracks, too.  Rodent kinds store nuts in the ground where they remain when the weather has stripped most of the harvest from the woods.  The people knew this and, instead of spending exhausting hours harvesting for themselves, they would find the caches and take some of the nut reserves instead.  My favorite example of cache raiding is the Lakota-prairie vole thievery/symbiosis: Prairie voles (mice, as they called them) would hide hog nut (“mouse bean”) seeds in similar caches.  Before modern agricultural techniques and dams raped the Plains states and deterred biodiversity of the ecosystems, Lakota women used to take sticks to poke at these caches and steal from them.  But they didn’t just take, take, take.  This is one of my favorites — they would leave gifts of other things, like animal fat or berries in exchange for taking some of the seeds for their own uses…and they would sing a song.  (‘You have helped sustain my children during this coming winter, and we will not let your children go hungry.’)

And now we have McDonald’s.  And now we take as we need and don’t think about the future.  Now we have separated ourselves and forgotten that everything is a web.  We have forgotten that, although one practice may mean a big harvest this year and for ten years, in one hundred years it may not.  We have forgotten that bad omens aren’t just omens, that less trilliums blooming in April and more birds choosing to not overwinter in the snow are signs because they mean the world is sicker than it was the year before.  And this sickness is only continued when our next generation won’t have any way to relate to those stories about the raven not sharing his box of light with the world because all he cared about was himself, or about the whole world emerging from the earth – symbolic of the planet’s importance and the need for reemergence and rejuvenation every spring.  The more artificial this world becomes, the less biodiverse it will be, and there will no longer be prairie voles to sing songs to or cares and concerns about his children.

just wonder…

I wonder a lot what the world would be like without people.  I know we’ve only been here for a few hours in the calendar year that sums up the existence of Earth, but in just that short time I feel like we’ve seen so many changes.  Granted, the Earth wasn’t always stabled enough for the life forms we know today, but also humans haven’t been here all along either.  When I Googled “histroy of the world”, I thought it was funny that Wikipedia considers this the “history of humanity” – the time since the beginning of the Paleolithic Era.  And although only a fraction of this history is recorded, I think it’s safe to assume that animal and plant populations had continued to diversify and that the world maintained conditions favorable to human inhabitance.

Maybe species extinction has always been subtly present, with or without human influence on other populations.  Clearly creatures like dinosaurs seemed to disappear rather than to all adapt into other animals whose descendent we still have today.  However, that sudden catastrophe is always credited to some external phenomenon detrimental enough to severely disrupt the static lull the Earth had finally found.  Day in and day out, it’s turned around the same orbits and finally the same rates, establishing environmental equilibria that sustain typical mammalian and other life.  Water, precipitation, seasons, and balancing inter-special competition.  Only something as extrinsic as a meteor could seemingly explain a mass extinction like the dinosaurs.

In sum, I’d like to fault the development of the agrarian lifestyle with the downfall of the Earth and its biodiversity.

It’s hard to knowhow biodiverse the world was at the time of the “cave men”, but it’s safe to say that, while the Cro-Magnums still roamed about, humans were still very dependent on their nomadic lifestyles.  There is evidence of many bones being used as tools or decoration from kills they’d made as well as paintings of animals such as those in Lascaux.  These are not remains of people who tamed animals and cultivated food in small societies.  By the time of the stories in the Bible, however, the latter was the case.  Now people were beginning to define territories, isolate themselves, produce their own controlled sources of food, and eliminate enemies based on cultural divisions.  Surely, as they became less dependent on roaming and more dependent on their own farming skills, this is when humans began ignoring the importance of the world around them.

Not all people adapted to the agrarian lifestyle at this time, however.  In fact, was it not predominantly the Jewish culture using these practices?  The same culture that believed they have “dominion” over the other animals?  Elsewhere, people were still widely migrating by foot to new lands and new continents, far out of earshot of these “developed” cultures.  As this divergence occurred, so did the separation between those who culturally revere animals and the land and those who don’t.  In fact, for those in the Holy Land, it was somewhat blasphemous to not swine as swine when you’ve got a god providing everything for you and assisting you in defeating nations who were vetted against his acceptance.

Fast forward to the last 500 years.  Not much has changed in the big scheme of things until now.  People are still widely divided by those in societies with cultivated crops and livestock and those who are still mostly dependent on the land and who tend to relocate as needed.  However, they don’t seem to know much about each other – and thus begins the era of exploitation.  These “sophisticated” societies with their ships and their tamed horses start “discovering” new territories and conquering them for their resources and to add to their growing empires.  I guess the Holy Land no longer was good enough.  Suddenly, Africa becomes ransacked, India grows into a popular trade route, and eventually Australian aboriginals are overrun by British criminals.  The Americas, of course, are completely invaded.

Time and time again, the plundering societies view the indigenous groups with their “lacking” infrastructure, absence of livestock, and lifestyle choices.  Their foods weren’t always considered palatable and their 4,000-year-old farming techniques weren’t always understood.  However, only perhaps two large famines are suspected to have occurred in the Pre-Columbian Americas, both in the desert regions in established societies.  Disease and hunger became increasingly prevalent as Europeans began occupying the Americas and interrupting indigenous ways of life with their “superior” ways and attitudes.  A land that was once kept healthy and in check by South Americans with their techniques of burning acres at a time was now being neglected and scarred for mining resources.  Rather than peoples taking as they needed and moving as their needs ran short, newcomers because greedily consuming everything in sight – including land – and killing both animals and people for no substantial reasons at all.

I look outside and think it’s hard to believe that nearly everywhere around me should be wooded.  There would be no roads and other impervious materials altering the aquifers and redirecting high-velocity runoff.  There would be no concerns of chemical pollution or turbidity levels in naturally-occurring ponds.  There would be no need to monitor and regulate the numbers of different species or to keep an “endangered species” list.  That doesn’t mean species wouldn’t die out – that’s just a trend in nature.  But those trends wouldn’t be directly correlated to human activity.  In fact, most species’ sufferings appear to be directly correlated to the same species’ activity: humans.

I have friends who get angry if they park under a tree full of birds, or ones who complain about road kill or the dangers of deer, even in the city.  I know people who think swimming outside is gross because there are probably fish and things in the water.  All I can think is, probably the grossest thing in the water is you.  Humans are so filthy!  We are the reason why Lake Erie is gross, not the fish.  The fish are trying to keep living because they have no where to go.  The deer, too, have no where to go.  They used to be controlled by cougars and mountain lions, but oh no the farmer couldn’t lose any more chickens so we had to kill those off.  That means the deer continue to thrive and get cornered in big cities with nicely watered lawns.  Can you blame the deer?  He’s not evolutionarily trained to avoid cars.  Maybe you should be evolutionarily smart enough to realize this, and to respect that he needs a place to go, too.  And birds?  I don’t care what a bird does to your car; can you imagine a world without doves cooing in the morning?  I can guarantee you the same mess that gets on your car is the same mess that reseeds most of your favorite berries.

It’s hard to go through the list of things I disapprove of in modern society and realize how many of those things I do on a regular basis.  For example, work requires me to sit at a computer and use electricity, drive vehicles, and even dress in a certain way that doesn’t seem to permit avoiding factory-made clothes.  I have a phone, and everyone has a phone.  And even at an “environmental” company, I find myself hard-pressed to get pro-environment choices made (although I’m proud to say I’ve finally won the recycling argument for our lab materials, even if recycling isn’t a perfect solution to the waste).

I just wonder what the world would look like if no humans had developed.  Would it be the same story, just minus the people and the infrastructure?  Would it be much healthier?  Would it have dramatically altered into something unrecognizable?  What animals would be the most predominant?  Would any other animal fill in the niche that we would have left?

Sometimes I drive home over all of this asphalt and just wonder…