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.

Fueling Up the Smart Way

just-living-is-not-enough

My grandma and I were making a trip out to Ohio yesterday when I stopped at Get Go to fill up one of our Audis with her Fuel Perks.  Get Go and Sheetz have always had my admiration for how they create savings for customers as a way to keep business in their favor.  With fuel prices always rising and falling, saving at the pump regardless of the prices is an attractive choice.  I’ve long given up watching the fuel prices and accepted that driving a car with Premium petrol requirements and fueling up at competitive stores with competitive prices is always going to leave me paying a hefty bill.  I’ve also driven enough in Europe to realize our fuel prices are – relatively speaking – outrageously low, even in California.  Still, how to maximize your dollar at the pump?

First, let me just say: I am actually a fan of rising gas prices.  Before you grumble too much, consider what these prices are implying: Sure, you can argue it’s the oil industry being the king that it is and taking what it can from the common people.  But doesn’t it also come down to demand?  Not only do prices rise when we keep burning up gas at higher rates than we usually consume and/or extract it, but the prices are able to rise with our increased dependency on fuel.  I think it should cost an arm and a leg to fill up your car.  That’s a tiny sacrifice we make for a life of luxury that we don’t deserve and which is in turn destroying the planet.  So let the oil giants live like kings for the time being.  Their luxuries are short-lived, but also their investment in the business is incredibly genius.  They benefit from our dependency, stupidity, and greed as a society.  That makes them no less of a criminal than all of the other enterprises that thrive off of society’s demands.

But let’s talk about saving money.  Part of that comes from making good choices for the environment, too.  Sure, sometimes the green solution is the more expensive solution – but it’s the right solution.  And it doesn’t always have to be more expensive.  Sometimes it’s a matter of living with less, or just knowing how to spend less.

First, I am notorious for my miraculously low to non-existant electric and gas bills at my apartments in Cleveland.  How do I do it?  By living the same why I live in the country in Pennsylvania.  For the life of me, I don’t understand why city people drive as much as they do.  They have public transportation AND you can find five of the same stores within a five mile walk!  You’d be lucky to find a house that close to where I live, let alone a sole store… but we still make do!  Furthermore, city folk are all about working out.  They pay for gym memberships, drive the the gym, then do the same work that they could do if they made better lifestyle choices on a daily basis.  Talk about hypocrisy!

So how do I keep up my country, fuel-efficient, healthy ways in the city?  First of all, I always pick do-it-yourself before anything else.  Without a question, you can guarantee I walk up every flight of steps, walk to any store within a predefined radius, carry my own groceries in reusable bags, buy only what I need as I need it, buy things that are not only made or grown locally but that belong in the local climate, and I let the outdoors dictate my indoor climate as much as I can.  That means I open and close windows during the summer to utilize the cool night air and the breeze without the need of fans or air conditioning, and in the winter I seal my place up and keep it as cold as I like.  If you’re going to spend money on sweaters and socks, you might as well use them!  I hate artificial lighting, and if you’re going to have a place with windows that let heat escape, well you might as well use those too!  I do everything by natural light, save for some moments when I light candles or do turn on the electricity.

I cook my own meals from scratch and I grow most of my ingredients or harvest them from the patches of woods I find around Cleveland.  I am appalled that there are people in Cleveland who have asked me, “Wait, what’s compost?  You do that?”  I know down to the cents per kilowatt how much energy I’m using and I maximize this energy as much as possible.  If I’m making tea, I’ll use the steam off of the hot water to heat something else.  If I’m baking, I’ll use the cooling oven to reheat other things or just let it dissipate to heat my room or even my socks before bed.  I’d use a wood fire to cook in Cleveland if I could.  Also, I prefer to take baths rather than showers.  This allows me to run less water (although water is fairly recyclable in urban settings).  After my bath, I use the water to hand-scrub my clothes which then hang to dry on my drying rack.  I dream of the day that I can run all of my products off of a self-installed solar panel array.  I also think bikes are one of the best inventions of all time.

But this doesn’t answer the question of how to save money when I’ve gotta roll out my Audi and drive somewhere, like when neither a bike nor public transportation are suitable to haul my large hockey bag across seven states for my indulging in sports.  This is when I invest in Sheetz and Get Go.  Back to the pump at Get Go: I’m filling up only half of a tank on my grandma’s 50-cents-off-per-gallon discount and thinking, What a waste.  But my grandma is very particular about not letting the gauge go down too far and I know I’ve got to use it or she will complain.  Still, 50 cents off on only eight or so gallons?  I turned around to see a family with a huge truck tanking up, then unloading small gas cans and filling those too.  You’re not supposed to do that because that’s how you’ll make the system bankrupt, but they do it anyway.  Alas, my everlasting internal battle: social honesty or environmental responsibility?  I’d have to choose the honesty here.  I couldn’t milk a bargain that way without feeling guilt for how I was jeopardizing a widely-welcomed system.

However, filling up your truck – that is fair game and it’s a smart move.  I’m used to using Fuel Perks on my GMC pick-up truck, all 20-some gallons of it.  That’s why my tiny eight-gallon fill-up felt particularly illogical next to the F150 two pumps over.  But then I started recalling warnings from my parents about not using the Fuel Perks until a lot has been saved up and I realized that’s only true in a certain regard.  Honestly, you’re going to save the same amount of money regardless of the discount, right?  That’s just it, though: it’s a rate.  The rate may be the same, but your purchase size is what affects your savings.  So no matter if you’re saving 20 cents on a eight gallon fill-up or 40 cents on a 16 gallon fill-up, you’re saving the same amount despite the different rates.  What my parents were really trying to tell me is save up a lot of savings… then make a big purchase.  In other words, we rack up savings here and there, then buy a large quantity of fuel to expire our savings.  My little fill-up used up those savings on an unjustifiably small (if you’re not my grandma) quantity of fuel.

So do some math, weigh your values, and take the effort to do what’s right for your wallet – and the environment.  The point of this entry is really just to get you thinking about your daily choices and how it’s affecting your health, your planet, and your wallet in different proportions.