“I am the river and the river is me”: How New Zealand is defending Maori worldviews.

Perhaps one of the greatest struggles in indigenous communities today is the laws that oversee their affairs but do not incorporate their own intrinsic values.  Western society has become so accustomed to a worldview developed through sets of values such as Christianity that it becomes difficult to separate these perspectives from our every day lives.  But not all peoples hold the same values, including the Maori in New Zealand.

Recently, New Zealand attorney general Chris Finlayson worked on agreements between the New Zealand government and various Maori groups to enable a swath of land or entire body of water to be granted personhood in the eyes of New Zealand law.

“In [the Maori] worldview,” stated Finlayson,”‘I am the river and the river is me’.  Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are.”

This idea seems foreign to those who view “personhood” as something that belongs only to a human being.  But in a worldview that sees spirituality and what constitutes as living in a different light than what many Westerners see, this definition applies to traditional lands is completely logical.

NZ1.png

The former national park, Te Urewera, existed from 1954 to 2015 and consisted of 821 square miles of North Island.  Recently, the Te Urewera Act took effect so that the government abandoned its formal ownership and the land became its own legal entity, including having “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person” per the statute that was passed.  In other words, the park was granted personhood; a river system is expected to receive the same designation soon, once it passes Parliament.

This classifications seem like “unusual designations” for those accustomed to non-Maori worldview, yet the legal status is similar to that of corporations who are also not an individual human being.  The decision to grant personhood was a “profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world,” according to Pita Sharples, the minister of Maori affairs when the law passed.  The settlement resolved the ongoing argument between New Zealand government and Maori groups over the guardianship of natural features within the country.

One great advantage to passing this law for the sake of conservation is the power it gives to the land itself.  Lawsuits to protect the land can be brought on behalf of the land itself without any need to demonstrate how a human being is impacted while defending the land’s protection.

The river set to receive similar status is the Whanganui River, the third longest river in New Zealand.  To the Maori, it is “an invisible and living whole, comprising the river and all tributaries from the mountains to the sea – and that’s what we are giving effect to through this settlement,” according to Mr. Finalyson.

These new designations do not mean people cannot still enjoy Te Urewera like when it was a national park; it simply means special permits for activities like hunting must be issued through a new board that represents the river.  This board will consist of both government and Maori representatives.

The hope now is that this landmark decision will set precedent for other indigenous communities around the world whose worldviews and cultural paradigms are not being incorporated into the laws that govern their traditional and sacred sites.  Finlayon has already began discussions with Canada’s new attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, on how these concepts can be written into Canadian law.

Will Canada be next?

balance and the earth’s bioindicator.

On Sunday, I led a class on “Imagination”.  Most of the activities we can choose from for this section have to do with Global Warming.  I decided to do this activity called a “tea party” where I pass out roles to students for them to read out loud and later discuss.  Basically, the roles were testimonies from real people regarding the way their lives are being impacted by the idea of Global Warming.  A lot of the roles were from environmentalists or indigenous peoples.  Those were the ones who cared about stopping recent trends.  In particular, the indigenous roles discussed how entire cultures were being threatened by the effects of lifestyles others partake in, but which they do not themselves condone.  But there were also roles from people who were CEOs of businesses like airlines or nuclear energy facilities.  These people thought their efforts were the “lesser evil” in the energy departments, or their arguments were based on the services they’re expected to provide.  And, of course, there’s the argument about economy and creating independence for their countries.
We discussed these testimonies and how we could use our imaginations to create solutions.  But I actually found it pretty hard to lead the discussion.  No matter what solution we tried to come up with, all I could think was “Well, THAT’s a Band-Aid…” and “REDUCING emissions is still creating emissions”, etc.  I’ve become fairly convinced anymore that we simply cannot live a life of convenience.  It will never be sustainable…. But that’s not completely true.
When you look at the timeline of human history in relation to the Global Warming theory, most of our destruction has been in recent years.  While I hate that we are destroying the planet, the reality is destructive things have come in and out throughout the course of the Earth’s history.  The difference is what those pressures have been and how they’ve forced organisms to respond and adapt.  In other words, maybe there’s a balance to living a convenient lifestyle and living a sustainable one – we just have to give the Earth more time to catch up before we destroy the whole web.
If you damage part of a spider’s web, it can rebuild from what’s still there.  If you swat it down, that spider has to rebuild from nothing or die without a web to catch its food.
Being in an Environmental field, I’ve always had a limited view on Conservation.  I’ve always hated zoos, but anymore I question if we go to far trying to “save” certain species.  Things are meant to evolve.  If we have stressed an environment so much that species are changing, maybe we should let them change and recover on their own.  Otherwise, it’s like giving someone steroids instead of a healthy diet and weight lifting plan.  Or giving the fish instead of teaching how to fish.  Everything comes with a balance.
An interesting example of this is elephants.  Poaching is a ridiculous theft of innocent animal life.  Google for poached elephants and you will see images of elephants on their knees, their faces sliced off through their brains and their bodies just sitting there, discarded.  Humans can be so terrible, lazy, and selfish – and especially misguided.  But the amazing part about poaching is – it’s forcing elephants to evolve.  Their tusks are important for defense and winning mates, yet the very tools for securing reproduction are less important than the need to dispose of them to evade poachers.
elephants
In reality, it’s probably the smaller tusked-elephants having less competition, but it’s sad to see humans are the number 1 threat to these amazing beasts.
Nature has a lot of signs to tell us something is wrong, it’s just most people don’t take the time to think and care about it.  In particular, there are things – organisms or other signs – in nature that are considered excellent bioindicators of different environmental threats.
bioindicator
[ ˌbīōˈindiˌkātər ]
NOUN
noun: bioindicator · plural noun: bioindicators
an organism whose status in an ecosystem is analyzed as an indication of the ecosystem’s heath.
Powered by OxfordDictionaries · © Oxford University Press

Amphibians are a common bioindicator.  They absorb so much through their skin that they’re more quickly affected by pollution and contaminants than other organisms in an ecosystem.  So, if the frogs start dying, it’s time to figure out what’s going on before the larger creatures start dropping off, too.  But these typical bioindicators are generally used for an isolated ecosystem.  What indicates the health of the planet as a whole?  Well, I talked about this on Sunday to my students.  To me, one of the most sensitive bioindicators for the planet is: The Ocean.  Here’s what I told them…

In 2012, I traveled with SUNY Brockport to study San Salvador Island in the Bahamas.  It was a Biology/Geology course with a focus on Global Warming.  Now, some people hear “Global Warming” and they look outside at this harsh winter and scoff at the idea.  Yeah…You’re taking the idea too literally and looking at it too locally – the same problem with most of humanity.  We only care about the picture we live in and we fail to look at it as a whole.  Or, we simply don’t get it.  Like this guy:

It’s called a Greenhouse effect because of this: Picture a Greenhouse.  It harbors life where it is warm, can get sunlight, and can breathe and grow.  If you start a chainsaw in it, it will poison the air.  Start a car, it will eventually choke you and everyone else out.  Now, picture the Earth as a giant Greenhouse.  Enough cars and we choke out.  Also, trees make up the Earth’s “lungs” – so as we cut down trees, we cut down on the Earth’s lung capacity, and we accelerate us “choking out”.  If we don’t die from the atmosphere, we’ll die from the side effects of the atmosphere becoming increasingly tainted.

Greenhouse Effect

(P.S. I stole these images from the Internet…they’re not mine…)

So global warming is our increased emissions of CO2 building up inside our Greenhouse.  What does this mean for the planet?  Well, did you know that a lot of theories believe life came from the Ocean?  Whether you believe that or not, I think it’s hard to deny that the Ocean has some of the most ancient life forms on this planet.  Even if you believe the Earth was subjected to some kind of flood, I think it’s arguable that a flooded planet would harbor ocean life before anything else.  Furthermore, if you smooth out the planet so it’s completely flat, we would be living under 1.6 miles of water.  So, before tectonic plates began changing the depths and creating land, life was in theory thriving in those watery depths.

Okay – so Ocean Life has been here for (relatively speaking) forever…but as my trip to the Bahamas proved, the Ocean is RAPIDLY DYING.  We studied the coral reefs and parrotfish populations that live within those reefs.  Coral reefs are incredibly sensitive – not just to human activity (jet skis, people breaking the reefs, ships, etc.), but to indirect human or atmospherical activity.  In other words, the coral reefs to the Ocean are kind of like the amphibians to a small ecosystem.  And, if the Ocean is the “origin of life” – or at least the oldest, longest-standing habitat for it – then its recent rapid depletion should make it the planet’s BIOINDICATOR that something is seriously wrong.  So why is it so sensitive?

http://player.d.nationalgeographic.com/players/ngsvideo/share/?feed=http://feed.theplatform.com/f/ngs/dCCn2isYZ9N9&guid=2c9a368c-99f9-47e3-a748-ab35bdf70079&link=http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/

Coral reefs are the home to so many important organisms that keep incredibly biodiverse parts of the planet in motion.  Some animals eat the organisms that live in the coral structures (the coral organisms that build the structures themselves).  You can hear this if you hold your breath underwater and listen to the parrotfish.  They scrape and crunch as they go along, so it’s kind of like an underwater static that gets really loud when you’ve found a whole colony of hungry fish.  My favorite parrotfish is the Stoplight Parrotfish.  Like most fish, Parrotfish have different phases.  A Stoplight is an example of a fish with an Initial Phase:

initial parrotfish

Who then grows into my favorite, the Terminal Phase:

stoplight-parrot-fish-tropical-water

These Stoplight Parrotfish are also an example of an organism that can change its sex, theoretically allowing it to fill the community needs for reproduction.  We kept journals of all the fish we saw, but we also took population counts on the different varieties of Parrotfish to add to our study of the reef’s health.

Of course, the easiest way to assess the health of the reef is to look at its literal backbone: the coral itself.  In the Bahamas, besides actual reef damage, we’ve noted an alarming increase in what is called “bleaching”.  This is when the coral blanches because the zooxanthellae – the coral organisms – die.  It’s literally dead coral.  To accelerate this loss, there are algae blooms moving in.   These algae thrive on the various contaminants and pollutants that have been cropping up in our waters.  This is also a problem in the Great Lakes, especially after a storm event that washes contaminants into the water.  When algae thrives, it will block out light to organisms lower in the water.  When it clings to the coral, it accelerates the death of the zooxanthellae, consumes light and resources, and spreads.  It’s all a bad imbalance.

bleaching

But the coral are also struggling to grow.

How do coral “grow”?  Well, they build.  They build onto their structure which is, essentially, made of limestone: Calcium Carbonate, or CaCO3.  Coral organisms filter the water and get the minerals they need to build their homes.  These homes house the organisms that feed and protect so much biodiversity in the water.  The problem with Global Warming is… It’s destroying that basic chemical process.

Coralreefsandclimatechange

Normally, the atmosphere has CO2.  This CO2 precipitates in the ocean water, combining with H2O to create Carbonic Acid (like what’s in soda), hydrogen ions (H,+), bicarbonate (HCO,3-), and carbonate ions (CO3,2-).  This balance is really important because it determines the amount of free protons in the seawater – and free protons determine pH.  Life is very sensitive to changes in pH.

acidification_chemistry_chart_3-uun9tj

Well, CO2 dissolves very easily from its gaseous state into the water.  The problem is, we’ve been increasing the amount of CO2 in the air so much that the oceans are acidifying.  H,+ is the ion we look for to determine acid concentrations, and it’s exactly what’s being formed by all the excess CO2 in the air.  As the ocean acidifies, the tendency is for bicarbonates to be produced over the carbonate ions.  Meanwhile, there are calcium ions naturally in the water.  These can only bond to the carbonate ions.  When carbonate ions bond with calcium ions, they create calcium carbonate – or CaCO3.  Yes, the exact thing coral uses to live and grow.

So, as we produce emissions, we create a more acidic ocean, we destroy the ability to make calcium carbonate, thereby choking out the coral, increasing the algae bloom problem which also chokes out the coral, and therefore destroying the habitat for incredibly diverse, ancient ecosystems.

beforeandafter1

Yes, I consider these habitats an enormous planet bioindicator, and it’s indicating that we’re destroying the Earth.

In just the 20 years our Professor had been taking students to a handful of reefs for data collection on the island, he has seen the coral cover and parrotfish populations diminish to, relatively speaking, next to nothing.  These reefs used to look much more beautiful, but we had to swim far and wide to find coral that didn’t have colors being choked out by green and brown algae.  We swam along “The Wall”, where the ocean literally drops from 60 feet deep to over a mile of water.  Normally, one will spot a number of Hammerhead Sharks.  The only shark we saw was a Nurse Shark who had come unusually far up the shoreline.  You might think this is a relief, but we viewed it as a concern.  This popular vacation destination – the Caribbean – is dying because of human habit, and tourists are definitely making that happen faster.

beforeandafter2

Since the 1900s, there has been a 30% increase of H,+ ions in the Ocean.  Since the 1950s, the average temperature has increased by 0.31C in the top 300m of water.  Coral requires 25-29C, so it’s pretty sensitive.  Take a look at the changes in relation to the Industrial Revolution:

Climate Change

It’s predicted that 60% of the Earth’s coral reefs will be lost by the next 25 years.  And what about the 25 after that?

The carbonate threshold is predicted to be reached by 2050.  In other words, forget about retiring to snorkel in the reefs.  They’re going to be gone in under 40 years – UNLESS these environments are able to adapt quickly enough.   There have been prehistoric coral colony collapses that resulted in the corals we know today, but do we really want to be responsible for these threats to the planet?

To end on a less depressing note, check out how awesome the Triggerfish is when he swims:

survival vs. hobby.

I have a list of books to read before I begin my volunteer teaching position.  My curriculum includes everything from self-esteem to ethics, considering that I will be teaching 8th grade.  One of the books that came in for my studies today is a book called Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv (ironically published by Algonquin Books).  I haven’t begun it yet, but I’ve been interested in reading in ever more than my other Rethinking Globalization and What Do You Stand For?, etc., titles.  I think I’m going to simultaneously enjoy the book while gawking at its blatant stupidity.  Just in reading the back cover, I get that the gist is: Louv has done a “cutting-edge” study to show how important the exposure to nature is to a child’s development.

Bahahahahahahaha….oh wait, this is a real American problem.  Kids seriously aren’t exposed to nature.  Me, I can’t imagine life without knowing nature…but there are kids who grew up in these concrete jungles who perhaps know shooting hoops after school outside, but then retreat to Huggies and fried chicken dinners from the fast food joint down the street, never even sharing a meal with their families.  I feel like this book is going to make a lot of valid, scientific points on why nature is important to the growth of a human, but the fact that anything else is even remotely considered upsets me.  It truly demonstrates how detached modern society is from nature, and makes me crave even more that I lived in a time 300 years prior so I could just walk off into the woods and neglect all these artificial expectations of my life.

Last Child in the Woods, which describes a generation so plugged into electronic diversion s that it has lost its connection to the natural world, is helping drive a movement quickly flourishing across the nation.” – The Nation’s Health

I’m sorry, but no.  There is no “movement”.  Maybe I would call it an “awakening”.  Like, so many things have become wrong to us that we even feel unhealthy, we are told we are unhealthy, and suddenly we have “discovered” this new lifestyle!  Nature!  Wowwww!!!  Like when Columbus “discovered” America!  Bahahaha don’t even get me started…

Suddenly, nature is a trend and no longer an ENORMOUS part of our existence.  We are so removed from the origin of our food and the realization that we are animals who live in family units that we can be shocked by such a layman study.  I feel like America is the biggest culprit for this blind sort of following and I associate it most closely with the “bread bowl” concept.  The Sioux author Vine Deloria, Jr. likes to advocate frequently in his writing that the “bread bowl” part of America is often a negativity, and that some form of separatism is actually healthy in maintaining cultural identity.  I think this is kind of true because I see America as that “melting point” where everyone kind of forgot what was important to their cultures enough to meld together, in the meantime losing the ability to thrive on their natural homelands.  Traditions are lost and the new, bland, boring “American lifestyle” forms.  The American “culture” soon, instead, becomes wealth and dog-eats-dog practice because everything is corporation and globalization over nationalism and humble life.  In fact, the “humble lifestyle” becomes so obsolete that it is romanticized in country songs.  That’s pathetic, though, isn’t it?

And with people forgetting what humans are, they are also forgetting what their food is.  Food is suddenly a pleasure rather than a sustenance.  It’s whatever it takes to get what you crave cheaply, quickly, and at no inconvenience to you.  Well, food used to be the motivation for society to work.  Now, I’m not so sure.  We call it “luxury”, but I think the real luxury is in understanding reality and respecting nature, not manipulating it for convenience’s sake.  Sure, pesticides and all those other chemicals grow bigger produce faster and easier, but at what expense?  Do we even know how it’s affecting us?  Do seriously so many people not consider this?  It wasn’t that long ago that Silent Spring and the DDT scare happened…what makes today any different?

I’m still not 100% the exact point at which this country went wrong, but sometimes I really hate that it doesn’t give me a choice.  My friends and I like to joke a lot about “I’m sorry because…” in group messages where we list ridiculous things we are “sorry” about.  I have a few favorites, like “I’m sorry because ankle socks fall down when I wear boots”, or “I’m sorry because traffic”, or “I’m sorry because I put deodorant on every day yet I don’t get where it goes because I have to put it on again the next day”… Well, one of my classics is “I’m sorry because I need money to legally live”.  But isn’t it true?  Hundreds of years ago, groups of people were living on this land and they didn’t have that kind of system.  They had one that looked after one another.  It was caring, sharing, and respecting both each other and the land they relied on.  Whatever happened to that?  At what point did we forget that “tinkering” outside in a garden is part of survival and not just some hobby?  That we are animals?  Why do we have to publish books that remind us our children should go outside every once in awhile instead of playing Xbox?  It seriously disturbs me…  Seriously.

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.

the land looks after us.

“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; yesbeets 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.

breathing.

It feels good right now. My mind wants to race but I’m nearly 9,000 feet up in the Swiss Alps, drinking beer after a good ski. From my pictures, life could look perfect.

And life isn’t bad. I just struggle with the nonessential.

But being so far away and in the heart of real mountains in real air with real people who live here and love this…it is so relaxing.

I realize it’s not about going anywhere cool half the time. It really is just having nothing to worry about, relaxing, enjoying nature which goes on with or without your daily anxiety, and engaging with people removed enough from your life to put your thoughts in perspective.

So, cheers.

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