Your Chewing Gum is Made of Plastic, and Other Things I Didn’t Know

In this post, I finally read about how plastic is hiding in plain sight in all SORTS of things that we wouldn’t expect, and why that’s kinda not good. Curious? Let’s dive in!

Plastic Kills

Plastic Free - Beth TerryToday I’m reporting back on Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry.

The impetus for this book is the author’s experiencing of one day stumbling upon a photo on the internet of a baby albatross. It was dead and had decomposed to the point where you could see inside its ribcage… to the stomach full of plastic pellets. Its parents had tried to feed it, but they unknowingly fed it so many tiny plastic bits (that looked like fish eggs) that the baby bird starved to death.

plastic bird stomach
Not the same photo, but a similar one.

I mean, it’s pretty horrific, if you think about it: starving to death because you’re filling your stomach with something it can never process. Ugh.

It was an emotionally impactful moment for the author, and she decided to start exploring plastic: What was it? Where was it? Why didn’t it eventually go away? How did it relate to her? This book is the result of that questioning process.

So… what about plastic?

There is SO much information in this book — I could never remember it all, but thankfully the book is organized as sort of a reference manual, so I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it. Here are some of the main “big picture” things I learned:

  • Most plastic NEVER goes away. EVER. To me, this is the same kind of “whoa”-ness as when I read the very first book in this project (like a million years ago) and realized that we have NO safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. We also have NO safe way to dispose of most plastic because IT NEVER BIODEGRADES. Like, when we think of decomposition, it’s not just that stuff sits around and slowly vanishes, it’s literally being chemically broken down by other organisms — basically eaten. So when a tree log decomposes, it’s becoming fungi food. Or when an animal decomposes, it becomes fly food. But most plastic doesn’t EVER decompose, because it’s not anything’s food!
  • Plastic’s longevity (aka FOREVER) is surprising considering our “disposable” attitude toward it. It’s cheap to make… so we feel like it’s “disposable” — but again, it NEVER goes away! Every bit of plastic that’s ever been made is still present SOMEwhere on the earth, as Wikipedia cites, “down to the molecular level.” So that plastic spoon I used to eat my soup after church this morning? I threw it away after using it once, but it’ll still be here — unchanged — when I’m dead. I will turn to dirt before that spoon does. And I used it once. As the author puts it, “Why create disposable containers and packaging out of a material that lasts forever?” (p.28) Well, because…
  • Plastic is flexible (literally) and cheap, so we give it a low value. Many objects in our society are valued based on the rarity of the material or the time or skill it took to make the item. Since plastic is in high supply and easy to mass-produce, that means we think of it as cheap — and it is cheap, monetarily and temporarily. But it’s costly in the long run, because someday we’re going to have to deal with all this non-biodegradable, non-edible, chemical-absorbing matter with which we’re blanketing our planet…
  • But can’t we recycle??? Well… only to a point. Recycling is toted as an environmental “solution,” but the problem is that each time we re-formulate a recycled material (whether paper or plastic), it’s lower and lower quality (it’s called “downcycling”) until eventually it won’t hold together anymore and needs to be discarded. The problem is that even after that much use, remember, plastic is still a polymer (aka holding together) at the molecular level — so even once we can’t recycle it anymore it’s still plastic and it will still last forever.
  • Things I didn’t know were made of plastic: most fabric (“synthetic” = made of plastic), every writing utensil I own, most carpet, many glues, books (plastic coated cover paper), toilet paper (ouch), and even chewing gum (p.206) – GROSS.

WOOF. I don’t know about you, but that feels a leeeeeetle bit terrifying. It’s so ubiquitous, and it’s never going away.

And you know what? I can’t honestly say anything to make it better. There’s not really a “happy ending” to this book…

So NOW what?

Despite the looming-ness of the plastic problem, this book does a GREAT job of keeping a positive, encouraging, non-shaming tone, which is important when you’re dealing with a topic where your reader realizes they are literally CLOTHED IN the problem. It can feel really overwhelming. But Beth Terry really takes time to say, “Hey — small steps. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up and don’t get paralyzed.” I really appreciate that about this book — it’s so user-friendly and accessible.

That said, and while I really do support personal steps to be thoughtful about plastic consumption, as Barack Obama is quoted as saying at the conclusion of this book, “We can’t solve global warming because I f—ing changed the lightbulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective.” (p.309)

Yes, we started composting at our house. Yes, I stopped buying new clothing and have tried to shop only at thrift stores or on Craigslist for already-made items. Yes, we buy in bulk from the co-op using reusable containers as much as we can. Yes, I’ve been more aware when I’m using or buying a plastic object. Yes, I’ve even started washing out and reusing plastic Ziploc bags, even though I hate the smooshy feeling of washing warm, wet plastic.

BUT. Two things.

  1. Not everyone can afford to do those things. (Heck, not everyone even has access to a grocery store let alone a co-op.)
  2. Washing my plastic bags won’t save the world.

It’s REALLY important to remember that for things this big, change comes both at the personal level AND at the big, systematic level. I really like one idea from the book: the personal changes are daily reminders and conversation starters in the pursuit of bigger, wider change.

And especially because, as I learned in All Our Relations, environmental issues often disproportionately impact poor communities and communities of color, it is IMPERATIVE that we not buy a $30 zero-plastic water bottle, pat ourselves on the back, and go back to sleeping well at night. Environmentalism is not about assuaging our personal anxiety; it’s about working to care well for our fellow Earthlings (and ourselves!) on a large scale.

Conclusion

To me, one of the biggest messages of this book is that even when something is “out of sight, out of mind” it still has an impact. When we put something in the trash (or even in the recycling), we forget about it. It’s done. But “trash” doesn’t mean “gone” — we can’t discard something outside the environment. Likewise, just because I don’t live on an Indian reservation or in Flint, Michigan doesn’t mean I can shut my ears and go back to my nice, clean tap water. Life is relational; ecosystems are relational; so our environmentalism needs to be relational, too, and advocate for all our relations.

Meta-Conclusion

Well, folks, that’s the end! I’ve completed my investigation into Imperial Geography (for now). I answered my questions about why the US government offered tree claims to homesteaders, what happened to the land when European settlers came en masse to Turtle Island, and why environmentalism matters for real people today. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would, but I’m so thankful for all I’ve learned, and I’m sure it’ll come right along with me as I dive into my next reading / learning / blogging project… which I’ll tell you about in another post. 😉

Hopefully I’ve given you some things to think about — I know I’ve got plenty. Thanks for reading along with me!  ~Rebekah

[EDIT] P.S. Want to join in the next reading project? Here’s the first post!

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Humans and Earth: My Thoughts on ‘Earth Then and Now’

In Earth: Then and Now, we see “before and after” photos of sites around the world that have experienced massive change, both for better and for worse. Ready? Then let’s get started…

Okay. So. Here’s the world…

earth then and now fred pearceSo honestly, there wasn’t really that much TO this book. After a short foreword and introduction, the only significant text was a brief section intro page before each collection of photo pairs — so I’ll share a quick thought and then some photos and we’ll call it a day.

I somewhat expected this book to make a pretty strong case for — well, anything. But I was surprised to find it actually coming off pretty neutral. The author stated his thesis right out the gates:

Is there a final lesson here? I think so. Nature is not as fragile as we think. She is resilient. With time, she may recover from the worst we can throw at her. It is we, ultimately, who are the fragile ones. Look at these pictures and fear not so much for nature: fear for us. (p.18)

I actually totally agree with this statement. While I do think that ecosystems and species (including us…) are fragile, I think that Nature / Earth as a larger entity is way bigger and more resilient than any craziness we can cook up. I mean, all this life is still here even after giant meteors and whatever else made alllllll the dinosaurs go extinct. So I think that life on earth will survive… it’s just whether human life on earth will survive, or for which humans, or for how long.

That said, once the author made that point it was pretty much a fairly even spread of good news / bad news photos. Here’s one of the “good news” pairs:

ozone then and now

Good news: Seems the Earth is able to heal its ozone layer from the hole we burned in it. Hooray!

Of course, then there’s some bad news as well, like the massive drainage of the Aral Sea that turned most of it into a desert…

Aral Sea then and now

Where folks used to fish for food, now they raise cattle. Think about THAT for a minute.

And, a “bad news” a little closer to home — the much-disputed Tar Sands mining operation in Canada, from a beautiful sunlit forest to a dystopian slurry-field…

Tar Sands then and now

A pretty sweet world, you might say…

After all these photos, really I just return to the author’s (and my ) original point: yes, humans are capable of causing massive transformation, for better AND for worse. But even if we try our hardest to ruin everything, the Earth will live on. That sentiment is, I think, quite aptly captured by this photo pair:

Chernobyl then and now.jpg

Yep, that’s Chernobyl, still too radioactive to be safe for humans but being slowly reclaimed by the forest. (Nausicaa, anyone??)

Bottom line: We are simply one in an array of God’s wondrous creations. Whether we’re living, breathing participants or returned to dust, God’s good plan will continue.

And with that, I’m now off to start reading my next and final book in this reading project — Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. I’m excited for some really practical stuff to conclude this journey!

[P.S. Thanks to “The End of the World” video for my header titles. What weird, bizarre little throwback to high school! (“But I am le tired…” “Well, go take a nap. THEN FIRE ZE MISSILES!”)]

The World Through the Lens of “All Our Relations”

This week in Imperial Geography, I learn where we dump all the waste that no one wants… and why just reducing our carbon footprint isn’t gonna cut it. Intrigued? Then let’s dive in!

All Our Relations

all our relations - winona ladukeWhen I first planned out this project (now over a year ago, woof!) I was really excited to take a tour around the continent through the eyes of Winona LaDuke in her All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life.  I know she is a well-known political activist, and I was expecting exciting and powerful stories of daring protests and demonstrations.

But that’s not what I got. What I got was an eye-opening spotlight into why environmental issues are so vital to many Native communities and activists.

We put… what? Where?

Remember wayyyyyy back in my very first book of this project, when the geography textbook I read freaked me out about nuclear (and other undisposable) waste?

Is anyone else REALLY REALLY DISTURBED by the fact that there is NO way to prevent all our nuclear stuff from seeping into our environment? I get that we didn’t necessarily know this when we first invented nuclear power and stuff, but I mean… now that we know… you think maybe we should stop making more until we’ve figured that one out? I mean, I’m no nuclear physicist, but… I kind of like not eating radiation… Just saying…

Anyway, consider me officially alarmed by what seems like a rather imminently dangerous situation in terms of waste generation and disposal. I’m urgently looking forward to learning more (hopefully!) in my last few books for this project, All Our Relations and Plastic Free.

Well, here I am at All Our Relations, and yes, I have learned more. I wondered where all the waste no one wants near them goes in this country, and the answer is, it goes to Indian reservations.

Incredulous? I was, too. But one thing this book doesn’t skimp on is examples. Here are just a few:

  • “According to the Worldwatch Institute, 317 reservations in the United States are threatened by environmental hazards, ranging from toxic wastes to clearcuts.” (p.2 — yes, she hits you with that on PAGE TWO!)
  • “Today, an estimated 25 percent of all North American industry is located on or near the Great Lakes, all of which are drained by the St. Lawrence River.That puts the Akwesasne [Mohawk] Reservation downstream from some of the most lethal and extensive pollution on the continent.” (p.15) This has led to Mohawk mothers having contaminated breast milk. The “progress” so far on this is that GM agreed to dredge some of the gunk out of the river… and then shipped it off “to some unlucky community in Utah” (p.23).
  • In Florida, “America has lost half of its wetlands… due to agricultural conversion” (p.30), and the now-rare Florida panthers are being slowly killed off by infertility due to acute mercury poisoning.
  • In Canada, a US Air Force base runs test flights low over the forest where the Innu live, creating “sonic booms” that are “generally exactly at or above the human pain threshold of 110 decibels” and “produce a constant shock wave, traveling along the ground like the wake of a boat over water” that can “lift the water off the lake and tip a canoe and can drive animals insane: foxes have been known to eat their kits, geese to drop their eggs midflight, as a consequence of the sonic boom.” (p.55)

And these are just the first few chapters! As I read through case study after case study of governments and corporations dumping their unwanted chemicals/sound/industry/etc. onto or near Native peoples and Native land (what’s left of it), I started to see why environmentalism isn’t just a fad for many Indian folks: environmental issues are literally killing them. LaDuke sums up this urgency well: “We are the ones who stand up to the land eaters, the tree eaters, the destroyers and culture eaters” (p3).

Seriously — what’s more innocent and natural than a woman breastfeeding her baby? And yet that, too, has been made poisonous. As LaDuke writes in the chapter on poisoned rivers and contaminated breastmilk, “Women are the first environment” (p18). It’s atrocious to think about our waste causing a Mohawk woman to poison her own child.

And why does this keep happening to them? Because in a country where they make up like 1% of the population Native peoples and nations are relatively powerless to stop it. LaDuke does share stories of lawsuits and protests and attempts to get companies and/or governments to respect their sovereignty and treaty rights, and there is a little hope… but it feels like a very David-and-Goliath sort of a battle.

The Mirage of “Clean Energy”

Another huge theme in this book is that the solution isn’t just about limiting ourselves. I kept being like “Okay, so THAT kind of energy isn’t ‘clean’ either… so what’s left?”

But that made me realize that the point isn’t finding an unlimited energy source that keeps our hands clean in terms of environmental sustainability — the point is that we place our desire for unlimited energy and productivity above all else. We only question HOW we will get “all the energy we need”, not WHETHER we actually “need” it.

So the core of the environmentalist conflict, for LaDuke, is not “clean energy vs dirty energy”, or even “conservationism vs extinction” — the conflict is really about an extractionist, resource-based view of the earth and nature versus one that views the earth as an entity in its own right. This giant paradigm shift is summarized well by this passage:

There is no way to set a price on this way of life. That simple truth more than anything else encapsulates the Anishinaabeg [Ojibwe] people’s struggle with the federal government, the miners, and the logging companies. For the past hundred years, Native people have been saying that their way of life, their land, their trees, their very future, cannot be quantified and are not for sale. And for that same amount of time, government and industry accountants have been picking away, trying to come up with a formula to compensate Indians for the theft of their lands and livelihoods. So long as both remain steadfast, there appears to be little hope for a meeting of minds in the next generation.” (p116)

Rather than urging us to exercise self-control within the existing energy-consuming paradigm, LaDuke calls us to completely transform our relationship with the earth. Instead of our current linear, resource-focused, consumeristic, anthropocentric worldview, she offers a more indigenous perspective — one that holds a more spiritual, holistic, circular, relational attitude toward life and the earth.

“When you step on one strand of a spider web, it all moves.” (p191)
“We are walking upon the faces of those yet to come.” (Iroquois teaching, p.194)

Conclusion

As I think I said at the start of this project, I never expected to be an environmentalist. I always thought environmentalism was like a hippie white people thing about saving the whales, and it seemed rather irrational and pointless to me, because humans > whales. What this book really cements for me is, (1) it’s really important to listen to people’s concerns without writing them off, because when you choose to care for the person by listening it lets you in to what really matters to them, and (2) environmental issues are less about restraint (aka only driving one car instead of two, or killing fewer whales) and more about fundamentally rethinking how our society and culture view our earth (aka why is our society car-based, and why do we feel we need to extract so much energy from the earth?). I’m excited to get practical with the last two books in this project!

Next up: Earth Then and Now: Amazing Images of Our Changing World.

‘Grassland’: The Power and Flaws of the American Environmentalist Movement

This week, on Imperial Geography… my conflicted thoughts about Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning. Let’s dive in!

grassland - richard manningSo, I was actually really excited to read this book, because compared to Prairie, which seemed a lot more scientific, this book seemed like it was going to be really political, and I was excited for an alternate viewpoint. What I got was half a book of pretentious white liberal nonsense and half a book of excellent enviro-economic insights about American culture in general and the American environmentalist movement in particular.

Let me explain.

The Bad News

The book is written as a sort of creative nonfiction travel memoir, from the point of view of the author, as he travels through (mostly) Montana. The first half of the book is devoted primarily to exploring the history of the prairie — mainly the western prairie, since he’s based in Montana — through the people he meets as he drives around to talk to them. This sounds fine and harmless, but I was consistently frustrated by a couple things:

1. No Native people

Despite the fact that the first part of the book is all about the history of the prairie / Montana, Manning talks to a total of ZERO Indians! I kept waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and there was some mystical Indian hearsay (“I once heard a Native man quoted as saying…”, p.34)… and there was one part where he talked about talking to this old white rancher lady about an old Indian who used to live nearby but left… but that was the closest he got. SERIOUSLY??? Dude — yes, the original inhabitants of what is now Montana were forced off their land and into reservations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ANY left! I just Googled “Indian reservations in Montana” and there are seven scattered throughout the state. Seven! According to the state of Montana’s video about Indian nations (which I would recommend, BTW), there are over 65,000 Native people living in Montana. That means, Mr. Manning, that in a state of about a million total people Natives make up over 6% of the total population — well above the national average. And you couldn’t even find ONE to talk to about the history of the prairie???

Considering my previous reading — and my own blind spot with regard to including Native voices in said reading project — I get it. It’s easy to be a part of the national “leaving out” of Indians and Indian history, because “every(white)body does it”. BUT here’s the thing. Manning does include a pretty substantial bit about Native people at the end of the book, so you’d think he would have thought to question (or ask for input about) the lack of Natives in the rest of the book. We can’t personally check all our flaws — but we can and should surround ourselves with people to help us check them, and Manning missed a big opportunity here and contributed to the continued erasure of Native voices from the national discourse.

2. Unquestioned manifest destiny writing

In addition to literally leaving Native voices out of the first half of the book, I was frequently frustrated by the author writing things that seemed really pro-colonization or Euro-centric and leaving them completely unquestioned within the narrative. For example, after quoting US General Sheridan’s opinion that buffalo hide hunters who were exterminating the buffalo herds “have done more… to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years” (p.85), Manning then attempts to soften the impact of this quote on the readers: “It is easy to make too much of a statement such as this, as if the extermination of the bison were the product of a willed agenda” (p.85). Clearly Manning anticipates reader outrage at the government / army and is proactively deflecting that outrage and explaining it as “Industrialization drives extermination” (p.86). I agree with that statement in the context that industrialization dehumanizes people and incentivizes production over humanity, but that doesn’t take away the fact that the “vexed Indian question” was one that both the US government and the people who comprised it all were bent on “settling”. Putting the issue into abstraction ignores, but doesn’t erase, the real felt feelings and impacts.

Then on top of defensive language about white settlement, we see a double standard emerge. In a section explaining the irony that white settlers decided to teach Native people how to farm when many Indians had been farming the land long before white settlers came, we read this: “William Least Heat Moon, in PrairyErth, speculates: ‘Surely, lore must have been deliberately withheld from a people taking away the land, so that the thieves got the big machine but not the operating instructions'” (p.98). While Manning is uncomfortable with readers extrapolating any sort of larger intention from General Sheridan’s statement, he’s apparently fine with implying that Indians conspired to withhold information from white settlers. Yes, the conspiracy of the Indians could reflect more favorably on them, since it would be an act of active resistance — but STILL. The evidence for this is (a) described as “speculation” and (b) not given any particular source. In contrast, the buffalo hide quote is from a general in the US Army — by name — in his exact words. Seems like a lot of acrobatics to keep the US government clean.

3. Land / Science > Native people

It’s weird, but as I was reading through this book, I kept feeling like Manning was trying so hard to personify and dignify the land that he eclipsed Native people. Like he’d throw in a mystical Indian quote in order to serve his personified land thesis, but not talk to Indians about the history of colonization of them and the land. Or he’d talk about the land teaching us (Americans / white colonists) stuff, like science, but completely skip over any discussion of Native people’s learning from and relationship with the land. It just felt like there was this weird huge gap where Indians SHOULD be in this book.

Additionally, this book (especially the first half) is full of that particular science-worshiping humanism that I find frequently coincides with white male privilege, especially in nerd culture. This could be a whole blog post in and of itself, so I’ll just summarize by saying this: Go watch Star Trek: The Next Generation — even just the first episode — and watch Picard defend the “nobility of humanity” and the progress associated with science and the ever-present expansion of the “frontier” (which, by the way, implies that space exploration is a moral and natural outgrowth of westward manifest destiny expansion in the US — whoa.). That’s what I’m talking about. In this book, it shows up in little side comments like “Science is eventually self-correcting” (p.100) and “eventually the wanderings of the plains built a national tradition of science. Credit this to the power of the land” (p.100). It’s as if Manning is implying that the genocide of Native people was just “part of the circle of life” and “the Native people were gone, but at least the land remained to teach us (white Americans) things” and “at least we ended up at science”. Just plain false and bothersome, not to mention icky-feeling.

So basically, the first 150 pages of this book were like pulling teeth for me to read. Let’s just say there are many all-caps sentences scrawled furiously in my notes. But thankfully for my investment in reading this book, the last 130 pages were a lot more positive.

The Good News

It’s clear to me as a reader that the second part of the book, in which Manning begins his diatribe about modern environmental degradation, is where he really begins to hit his stride. To me, it felt like he had always wanted to write the second half of the book and he tacked on the first half to add length and/or make it cooler and more pretentious.

Anyway, the last 130 pages — especially the last 50 — of this book yielded some FANTASTIC insights about our national relationship to the land and the history of the American environmentalism movement. Here are the highlights:

1. Nature is not meant to be pristine

Through a brief history of the creation of the first national parks and forest preserves, Manning effectively argued that the early American environmentalist movement grew from a dualism that separated humans/civilization from nature and preserved nature by keeping it in a pristine little roped-off area for humans’ enjoyment. This coincides with the popular romanticization in the early 1900s of nature, Indian “noble savages”, and childhood — as the author notes, literature at the time frequently equated childhood with “savage” freedom in nature, “as if the state of nature is appreciated only by the unschooled and unspoiled minds of children and Indians” (p.201). In reality, however, nature is not pristine, Indians are neither savage nor uncivilized, and all we humans are a part of the natural world and not its observers in some sort of nature park museum gallery. This point really hit home with me, and I find myself still turning over in my “rock tumbler” of a brain because it’s just so deep into our national narrative.

2. Farming was/is viewed as war with the land

Manning frames settlement as an effort of Europeans to impose an unnatural, measured logic on the land, symbolized by the attempts of early American surveyors to literally map the land into squares (aka “rectilinear cadastral grid”. Look it up, I had to!). Additionally, Manning notes that “throughout prairie literature [e.g. Willa Cather], the landscape is the rock on which European pieties founder” (199) and paints a picture of imposing monocultural wheat (European grass) farming onto the prairie as unnatural, dominating, unsustainable, and even violent. To support this endeavor, government agencies were created to be “in the refuge business” and bend nature to our collective economic will. Manning argues that the Fish and Wildlife Service preserves “have amounted to little more than duck farms,” while “the US Forest Service exists to produce trees; the Bureau of Land Management, to produce grass for cows; and the National Park Service, to produce scenery and rubber tomahawk stores for tourists” (p.248). In this way, the environmentalist impulse in the United States has grown from the dualist view of nature as pristine entertainment into nature as commodity made to serve our economic engine of environmental exploitation even in its preservation.

Interestingly, and in probably the most powerful section of the whole book, Manning uses this idea to challenge the animal rights movement, who questioned the revival of buffalo ranching as a more sustainable alternative to cattle ranching:

The animal-rights movement is urban and derives from people who follow civilization’s idea of progress as it is removed from nature. In their epithets aimed at [a buffalo rancher], we can hear an ancient accusation, the same the Chinese leveled at the Mongol nomad and the same the Jeffersonian yeoman [farmer] leveled at the Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Sioux. We hear the epithet: “Barbarian.”

…Why is it unethical to kill and eat a bison when all the rest of the bison and all the prairie life they stand for will go on? Why is it ethical, in the name of rights, to save a few bison in parks and zoos and eat instead wheat, to turn loose the plow that ensures, above all else, that nothing goes on? Why is the plowman not the barbarian simply because no one sees the blood on his hands? (p.245-246, emphasis added)

Essentially here, Manning argues that mass industrialized farming, which completely destroys the prairie ecosystem, is simply a more palatable and “civilized” destruction parallel to but less visible than the European settlers’ destruction of bison herds in the first place. We are appalled at the images of bison hunters standing on mountains of buffalo skulls, and we are appalled at images of mass graves at Wounded Knee, but we’re not appalled seeing images of farmers plowing up the prairie. Manning, I would argue, views them as inextricably linked pieces of the same destruction. He goes on to advocate a new kind of ethic:

The “ethic” that civilization would impose on the land is as artificially derived as the chemical fertilizers it would impose on a corn field. Aldo Leopold began tackling this notion a couple of generations ago with a call for a land ethic, which we took to mean an exhortation for an ethical treatment of the land. This has been the impetus for conservation.

But I think he meant to call for something deeper: an ethic derived from the land. Harley Frank [chief of the Blood Blackfoot, who celebrated the return of the buffalo to their land] had it right to assert that the return of the bison marked the return of the power of his people. Power, when it derives from the land, is a land ethic. (p.246, emphasis added)

Conclusion

So, while this book started out pretty shaky and questionably for me, it came home to end in some pretty thought-provoking and challenging ideas. All in all, a powerful reminder that humans are just a part of God’s creation, not separate from it, and that we are called to live with the land and all creatures, not divide it into boxes for our exploitation and profit.

Next up – All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life by Winona LaDuke. And I’ll try to finish this one a little faster! …especially since I’m already brewing my next reading project… =)

‘Prairie’: How the West Was Won (with Trees)

This week, on Imperial Geography… Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage. And I finally get to the bottom of my question about trees! Let’s dive in!

Finally, the prairie!

prairie - a natural historyThis is the fifth book in my project, so I’m thrilled to finally get to actually read about the prairie, since that’s where I live! This book was primarily a book about nature and wildlife — like a naturalist’s guidebook to the prairies — so I learned a lot of “Discovery Channel” facts about the prairie. Here are some of my favorites:

  • I knew that much of the Midwest region is/used to be prairie, but it was fascinating to see that quantified a bit: “Globally, grasslands are the largest of the four terrestrial biomes… more than tundra, desert, or woodlands. (At least, …if natural conditions were allowed to prevail.)” (p.117-8). (More on that in a minute.)
  • Here, in southern Minnesota, we live in the “prairie-and-oak transition area” — basically the place where there hasn’t been enough water for a full forest to grow, but there are a few oak trees growing scattered throughout the prairie grasses.
  • The largest organism in the world is a tree: “The largest known aspen clone — and the largest organism currently alive — is a stand of 47,000 male stems in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah” (p.194).
  • Dirt is wayyyy cool and full of little critters: “Recent estimates suggest that the total weight, or biomass, of the invisible organisms that live in prairie soils is greater than the  mass of all the visible, above ground animals put together. … Together with the plant roots around which they live, these little creatures are the powerhouse of the prairie, responsible for anywhere between 60 and 90% of all the biological activity in the Great Plains grasslands. … A single teaspoon of dirt typically holds around 5 billion [critters]” (p.22-23).
  • Prairies have incredible biodiversity: “In the entire world, only about 70 species of plans are commonly grown as crops; by comparison, there are 5,000 wild plants in the Great Plains alone” (p.232).

Basically, even though prairies and grasslands aren’t as flashy as, say, rainforests or the arctic, they’re pretty awesome! There’s a lot going on inside those waving fields of tall grass. Unfortunately, about those waving fields…

The Decimation of the Prairie

Actually, decimation is factually inaccurate. Decimation would mean the death of one-tenth of the prairie when in fact, the reverse is true:

Taken as a whole, the Great Plains grasslands now rank as one of the most extensively altered ecosystems on Earth. … In the mixed grasslands, …the percentage of land under cultivation rises from 15% (in districts with scant precipitation) to over 99% (where conditions are most conducive to crop production). And in the tall grasslands, with their relatively generous climate and deep, black earth, as much as 99.9% of the native grasses have been plowed under to make way for agriculture. (p.28, emphasis added)

Yes, you read that right: 99.9% destruction in some places. So, to refer back to our study of the impact of colonization on Native peoples, where a 90-95% death rate is the baseline assumption, this is pretty similar.

There are really two sides to this story of prairie destruction: trees and farms.

So what about the trees?

You may recall from my initial post in this series that what initially started me on this line of questioning was a weird passage about government-supported forestation in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years:

“These government experts have got it all planned,” he  explained to Laura. “They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East.” (THGY, p.170-1)

I theorized that this was an intentional part of the colonization process and not just a useful toolkit (of wood) for farmers. And turns out, I was right.

To arriving European settlers who grew up in generally wooded Europe, a “lack of trees on the prairies was widely seen as a mark of deficiency: no lumber, no fuel, no rain. No nothing” (p.218). This is a direct ecological parallel to the terra nullius, plant-your-flag-and-it’s-yours ideology espoused by European invaders following the Doctrine of Discovery, as explained here by Mark Charles (Navajo):

It was the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European Nations to colonize Africa and enslave the African people. It was also the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “New World” inhabited by millions, and claim to have “discovered” it. Because his doctrine informed him that we, the indigenous peoples, were less than human, and therefore the land was empty. (emphasis added)

No “civilization”, no European recognition of the rights or humanity of the inhabitants: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to paint on. No trees, no European recognition of the existing ecosystems: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to plant trees on.

Charles Bessey, a Nebraska naturalist, theorized in the late 1800s that the “Great Plains grasslands represented the ruins of a prehistoric forest that had been brought low by bison and grass fires. If only the trees could be restored, he thought, the climate would improve — precipitation would increase — and life on the plains would be easy” (p.218, emphasis added). Toward this goal, Bessey made it his mission to personally plant trees all over the prairies. There is even a section of the Nebraska State Forest named after him. (Ironically, it cannot survive on the prairie and needs human replanting in order to sustain its numbers.)

Listening to Bessey’s beliefs about the supremacy of trees and the need to restore the “fallen” prairies to their glorious wooded state, it is not difficult to see the parallels with the cultural imperialism espoused by European settlers through their focus on Manifest Destiny and militant Christianization of “heathens”. Rather than the “pagan heathens” needing to be converted and “elevated” to a “higher level of civilization” (aka European whiteness) here we see the “empty” grasslands needing to be seeded and “elevated” (literally!) to the “higher levels of vegetation” (aka European woodlands).  In fact, the Prairie book even notes this disturbing comment:

Ever since the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska [note: Bessey’s home state] in 1872, the people [sic*] of the Great Plains have eagerly bent to the task of cultivating what one prairie arbori-enthusiast referred to as “missionaries of culture and refinement.” By which he meant woody plants. (p.218-9, emphasis added)

Holy crap — THE TREES ARE THE BAD GUYS. European settlers (and their descendants, in this case!) and even the US Government used trees as physical, living, growing emblems — even agents — of land theft and domination. I always thought of trees as friendly, but if you look at this from another direction (e.g. facing east) trees could also be seen as harbingers and then grave markers of cultural genocide. Especially for Plains peoples, whose carefully-managed hunting grounds were literally infested and perforated with trees.

This seriously just blows my mind.

Farms, farms everywhere…

As I continued to read about the sheer destruction of prairies, I hit this page and just felt sad:

prairie destruction stats from Prairie: A Natural History

That’s a lot of former prairie land, mainly plowed under to create more farmland — 99.6% in my state of Minnesota, 82.6% in my former state of Kansas, and 99.9% in Iowa, where my mom’s family is from. Reading this chart, I felt really sad — so I shared it on Facebook. I got pretty quick push back from one of my good friends from when we lived in Kansas, who is a farmer: “May I ask why it is so sad? There is an ever increasing number of people to feed in this world and having cropland is how that is accomplished.”

He makes a good point** — there is nothing inherently bad about farming. In fact, there are lots of amazing things about farms and farming and farmers! Here’s how I clarified: “It’s sad because prairies and their critters are beautiful and unique, and in most places have been nearly wiped out. I like food, but I like the parts of God’s creation that I can’t eat, too. Said another way, farming is a beautiful thing. But it’s not the only thing.

Farmer Friend and I went on to have a very interesting discussion about his farm, where he uses a no-till method to maximize moisture retention and minimize soil erosion — in other words, he is trying to find the best combination of high yield and good-for-the-soil farming methods. And there are many farmers that do this! The problem isn’t farming, or land development, or people affecting the ecosystems they live in — it’s the excess of this. The supremacy of this. It’s the hubris of taking land from other people and other creatures carelessly. And that carelessness — reflected in both private actions and public policy — has led to a lot of destruction.

Conclusion: “Not dead yet…”

The book tried really hard to strike a hopeful note at the end — and there are some things to be happy about. People are more aware of ecosystem destruction, plants and animals are finding ways to adapt and survive even in the little borders of prairie between fields and freeways, and farmers are learning ways to be kinder to the land. But I couldn’t help but read the book’s conclusion and hear “It’s not dead yet… It’s getting better…”

I’ll say this — I disagree a little bit with traditional conservationism, which seems to think that preserving every subspecies is paramount, even to the point of preventing two divergent bird species (east and west coast) from meeting and mating and recombining into the one species they once were before they diverged (p.I-can’t-find-it). We as humans are going to affect things — and that’s okay. We’re a part of all the natural systems in the world. We take up space just like any other creature, and we will leave our footprints on this earth.

BUT.

We can choose how we relate to the rest of nature. We can choose what kind of an effect we have. We can choose to prioritize domination or we can choose to prioritize sustainability and ecosystemic balance.

Tune in next time for thoughts on Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning.

————

*In this case, the general noun “people” seems to actually be referring to the non-Native inhabitants of Nebraska. I doubt most Native people would “eagerly” support the cultivation of “missionaries of culture and refinement” in their lands.

**I do, however, disagree with any implication that we need more farms because we don’t have enough food — studies show that we currently produce sufficient food to feed the people on the planet. In other words, poverty — inequality in the distribution of said food — is what leaves millions hungry, not “not enough farms.”

‘Changes in the Land’: The Making of a Literal New England

changes in the land - crononThis week I’m sharing my thoughts on Changes in the Land by William Cronon. It was actually referenced briefly in the last book I read (1491) so I was a little worried that reading it would be redundant. But it totally wasn’t! What I love about Changes in the Land is how specific it is — it goes into great detail based on thorough research including a plethora of first-hand accounts, which provided a nice contrast to 1491, which speaks in more big sweeps and generalities.

Here are my four biggest takeaways from Changes in the Land.

1. Indians and English didn’t get each other. A lot.

One of the big takeaways for me from this book was the extent to which English colonists and Indians didn’t get each other culturally, as illustrated here:

Indian men, seeing Englishmen working in the fields, could not understand why English women were not doing such work. At the same time, they failed to see the contributions colonial women were actually making: gardening, cooking, spinning and weaving textiles, sewing clothing, tending milch cows, making butter and cheese, caring for children, and so on. The English, for their part, had trouble seeing hunting and fishing — which most regarded as leisure activities — as involving real labor, and so tended to brand Indian men as lazy. (p.52)

When you have no idea why another culture does something differently than how you do it, it’s pretty hard to understand each other and pretty easy to make up inaccurate stereotypes based on your incorrect interpretation of the differences. And when one side has most of the power (as the English did once they outnumbered and started to dominate local Indian tribes), that can lead to some pretty bad and oppressive policies:

[T]he English used this Indian reliance on hunting not only to condemn Indian men as lazy savages but to deny that Indians had a rightful claim to the land they hunted. European perceptions of what constituted a proper use of the environment thus reinforced what became a European ideology of conquest. (p.53)

Because the English believed that hunting wasn’t a legitimate use of land, they used that cultural difference to justify their land theft and make it “legal”, because they were simply taking custody of land that was “empty” and not “in use”. This is where we start to really take a look under the hood of some of the “legal” gymnastics underpinning the process of European colonization of Native land. Speaking of which…

2. English property law was obsessed with productivity and “improvement”.

One idea that cropped up early in Cronon’s book was that of “improving” the land as the ultimate goal and value in land ownership and use. This belief was held by many Pilgrim/Puritan/English leaders, and basically stated that those that cultivated, subdued, or “improved” the land had a “superior right” (p. 56) to possess the land, as opposed to the Indians’ mere “natural” right of occupancy without being as “productive”. The English practiced this same policy among their own as they divided the land they took into individual parcels:

Land was allocated to inhabitants [of early New England villages] using the same biblical [sic] philosophy that had justified taking it from the Indians in the first place: individuals should only possess as much land as they were able to subdue and make productive. … A person with many servants and cattle could ‘improve’ more land than one who had few, and so was granted more land. (p. 73)

I read this idea the first time and kinda went “huh,” but then it began to crop up EVERYWHERE in the history of English settlement:

  • How do you “improve” a piece of land? Farm the heck out of it!
  • How do you “improve” a forest? Cut down all the trees for timber!
  • How do you “improve” a forest if you can’t afford to cut down and transport all the trees? Burn the trees to ash, which you can sell to soapmakers to make soap!

This leads to a new part of the problem, which is that the cheapest way to “improve” land was to clear new land… which means the doctrine of “improvement” supported continued territorial expansion on the part of the settlers. Cronon sums it up this way: “Ultimately, English property systems encouraged colonists to regard the products of the land — not to mention the land itself — as commodities, and so led them to orient a significant margin of their production toward commercial sale in the marketplace. The rural economy of New England thus acquired a new tendency toward expansion” (p.161). And this right here is what leads to later issues with the U.S. Government not being able to control its white settler creep across Indian borders (as we saw over and over in Little House / Wounded Knee) — because the ideology of moving further west to make money by “improving” on Indians’ “empty” land was established right from the get-go.

3. English settlers turned the land they took into New England… LITERALLY.

Rather than arriving and learning from the Indians or even adapting to the existing ecosystems, English colonists basically came and started imposing their ways and their values, and even their environment! In Changes in the Land, Cronon makes it clear that the way the English colonists changed the land was that they basically destroyed or made impossible the careful balance of systems previously set up by Indians (see the 1491 post for more on those) and began creating LITERALLY “New England” — in name as well as ecology:

  • English viewed forests (and other resources) through English eyes. When the English arrived in North America around 1630, they did so in the midst of a lumber shortage back home in England. Of course, then, this “New World” seemed full of riches, because there were trees everywhere! The settlers immediately started gobbling the lumber, using only the best quality wood for even simple things like fences, exporting boatloads of lumber to England, and building whole houses out of wood where in England they would have used mostly stone. This led to massive regional deforestation and firewood shortages as early as 1638 (p.121). And even as early as the 1790s most contemporary naturalists agreed that deforestation had changed the land significantly enough to notably change the weather in New England.
  • Indians practiced mobility; English imposed fixity. Many Indian groups had multiple seasonal dwellings — usually one for summer and one for winter — that coincided with where food could be found at a given time. This had the added benefit of allowing the various places they inhabited to recover rather than be used up. The English, however, treated habitation, land use, and land ownership as a permanent thing, which led to quicker soil exhaustion, deforestation, and game extinction. (This book provides a detailed case study of how this led to the extinction of the beaver in New England, p. 97-107.) In addition, the English basically propagated two “proper” uses of land: farming and grazing. The problem is that when cattle graze freely, sometimes they eat tasty farm crops. English law held each individual landowner responsible to guard their own property (including crops and cattle), and this led to all English-settled land being parceled and fenced off. Eventually, this fencing off of the land had huge impacts in restricting the mobility of Indians and in causing many foundational food and livelihood species for the Indians (e.g. bison, beaver, salmon) to dwindle significantly due to lack of habitat.
  • English settlers brought some “friends” over from England with them. The English brought over and raised domestic cattle in large herds. These herds ate all the native grasses (e.g. broomstraw, wild rye, and Spartinas), which were not adapted for long-term grazing, and in their place sprung up “English grasses” that had stowed away in cow fodder and cow dung: bluegrass (aka your lawn), white clover, dandelions, chickweeds, bloodworts, mulleins, mallows (yes, marshmallows), nightshades, plantains (aka “Englishman’s foot”), and stinging nettles are all European imports! (p.142) As Cronon puts it, “Many of these European weeds — to say nothing of grains, vegetables, and orchard trees — would eventually be among the commonest plants of the American landscape, their populations sustained in all places by the habitats human beings and domesticated animals created for them” (p.143, emphasis added). A few animal immigrants include the black fly, the cockroach, the honeybee, the gray rat, and the house mouse (not to mention cattle, pigs, and other farm animals).

The extent to which English settlers turned the land they took over into a New England can be seen in this example:

“The most serious threat to English crops, especially wheat and rye, was… a fungus: the ‘blast,’ or black stem rust, an Old World disease which first appeared in New England in the early 1660s. … It resulted in the virtual elimination of wheat raising in a number of settlements…. Colonists soon discovered that the blight was most common in areas where barberry bushes — another imported European weed…– were growing…. Barberries were indeed the host which supported one phase of the rust’s life cycle, and so produced thousands of spores that destroyed any wheat plants which lay down wind of them. A European weed, in other words, had brought with it a European disease that made it exceedingly difficult for European farmers, keeping European animals, to raise a key European crop. The blasting of wheat was thus a kind of metaphor for the extent to which Old World ecological relationships had been reproduced in New England” (p.154-5, emphasis added).

In addition to the genocide of millions of people (which I read about in Little House/Wounded Knee) the advent of European colonization also caused the decimation of native ecosystems to such a massive extent that we now have forgotten many of the actual native species and think of the immigrant species as natives. (Sadly, this sounds awfully familiar.)

CONCLUSION

It’s one thing to argue about the merits of, say, Europeans adopting potatoes from Peru, or Africans adopting bananas from Brazil… but it’s another thing to talk about an ENTIRE ECOSYSTEM, BASICALLY A WHOLE CONTINENT, STEAMROLLERING ITSELF IN CARBON COPY OVER ANOTHER ALREADY-EXISTING ECOSYSTEM AND CONTINENT. (Not to mention the accompanying decimation of the people.) It just makes me feel lost and sad. Single-minded conviction that one’s own system is superior to all others leads to a world — literally an entire continent — of destruction.

Tune in next time for “Names on the Land” by George R. Stewart, a book about the how and why of place names in this country.

1491: The Book that Turned My World Upside-Down

Since my last post it’s been a crazy few months, including a move and the birthdays of everyone in my house — but I FINALLY finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, and I’m all excited to talk about it! So let’s dive in! (NOTE: If you are considering reading this book and haven’t, STOP NOW. Here there be spoilers!)

What I Expected to Find…

1491 charles c mannWhen I chose this book for my “Imperial Geography” project, I expected that it would give me somewhat of a baseline. One of my driving questions behind this project was “What happened to the earth when European settlers colonized North America?” So I wanted to know, well, what the earth looked like BEFORE European settlers colonized North America.

Just from reading the dust jacket of 1491, I knew that there was more here when Columbus arrived than I had learned about in school (or at least, more than I remember). I figured I’d hear about all sorts of technologies and practices that made 15th-century North, Central, and South American contemporaries just as “advanced” or “civilized” (if not more) than their European contemporaries. And there were those things. Like:

  • What we today call “the Maya” were actually a “collection of about five dozen kingdoms and city-states in a network of alliance and feuds as convoluted as those of seventeenth-century Germany” (p.24).
  • The Inka empire in 1491 was the greatest on earth, the equivalent to “if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo” (p.64).
  • A large part of the reason that Indians were able to be defeated by invading Europeans was that Indian strongholds from North to South America were first visited by European disease (usually smallpox) that killed 90-95% of the population and caused political fragmentation, giving conquistadors a HUGE foothold: “Conquistadors tried to take Florida half a dozen times between 1510 and 1560 — and failed each time” (p.91-2).

One of the examples of the “advanced-ness” of some of these cultures that really stuck with me was a fairly long and detailed section on Nahuatl/Mexica philosophy and poetry. The excerpts were really beautiful and complex — a part of me wanted to make a study of it! Unfortunately, these days it’s a pretty obscure topic:

Cut short by Cortes, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way. The stacks of Nahuatl manuscripts in Mexican archives depict the tlamatinime [Nahuatl philosopher-poets] meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophes and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. … Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence — and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the disintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole. (p.123)

To me, this passage sums up a lot of my feelings on the topic of Native peoples — they were (and ARE!) an integral part of our human family. Sadly much of their ancient culture was destroyed and lost, but thankfully some of it — and some of them! — live on, and we can all benefit from their unique perspective. As the late Richard Twiss often said, Native Christians have something without which the rest of the church is incomplete. We need each other. So I’m sad not only that so many human/Indian lives were lost to European invasion, but that still today the rest of us have yet to fully embrace and learn from our Native sisters and brothers.

What I Didn’t Expect…

Before we got into any talk of different civilizations or people groups, the author nailed us with a “check your privilege” stereotype-buster. Mann leads off by explaining what he calls “Holmberg’s Mistake,” which is, in short, the mistaken assumption that all Indians and Indian cultures are by nature simplistic and naive. This assumption leads to the two sides of the stereotype coin, the “savage brute” — the Indian who is hopelessly degenerate — and the “noble savage” — the Indian who is childlike, innocent, and admirably at one with nature. Adherents to the “savage brute” school may think of Indians as animals; adherents to the “noble savage” school may venerate Indians as mystical, ancient elements of nature, hence the “wise old Indian” trope.

Going along with this “noble savage” stereotype about Native peoples is “what geographer William Denevan calls ‘the pristine myth’ — the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land” (p.5). Mann points out that the modern environmentalist movement has been based on this myth — think of the famous crying Indian commercial from the 70’s. But not only do these ideas of the “noble savage” and the “pristine America” turn Native peoples into something akin to endangered animals whose habitats need protection, they’re also… totally untrue! At least according to Mann and a wave of new research. (Stick with me — examples below…)

Mann’s thesis in this book — and it’s one that totally shocked me, in all honesty — is that the “pristine myth” is totally false, and that Indians from the Amazon to Alaska actually did have an impact on the land — a managerial impact. He takes the opportunity of this book to acquaint us with all sorts of new research about the peoples of the ancient Americas, and I have to say, his research and the research of the experts he interviewed is pretty compelling. According to this book:

  • Indian farmers in Central America were such masterful farmers that they developed  maize — and no one has figured out how they did it yet! In fact, “one writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica” (p.177). EPIC.
  • Plains Indians strategically used fire to maintain North American prairies as essentially a giant game park, while they gathered food and farmed elsewhere, away from the big game. Mann argues that “carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature — but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing” (p.252). MIND. TOTALLY. BLOWN.
  • Amazonian Indians practiced a complex form of agro-forestry and much of the rainforest is actually “managed forests”. In some places that are known to have been inhabited by early Amazonians, “almost half of the ecologically important species are those used by humans for food” (p.304-5), compared to 20% for non-managed forests. In addition, ancient Amazonian Indians had a particular way of enriching the thin tropical soil so much that even today farms are built on “terra preta” left over from their cultivation — and scientists today are still stumped as to how they made it. WHAAAAAT.

Seriously, there were so many mind-blowing revelations in this book that I still feel like I’m reeling, even though I finished reading like a week ago.

Confession Time

Honestly, when I first encountered Mann’s thesis — and even when I got to the part about the prairie being a product of Indian fire management — I was skeptical. I resisted. “But,” I said, “How can I respect Native environmental activists’ authority and self-stated cultural connection with the land if they’ve been CHANGING it this whole time???” I reacted really strongly and had a lot of push-back. I started to get nervous to read the Winona LaDuke  book I’ve got on my list down the road… How could the indigenous inhabitants of this land have authority if they controlled the land just like we do today?

At the end of 1491, Mann has this to say: “Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens” (p.326).

My push-back was about wanting to hang onto the nice, wise, “noble savage” image that I’d inadvertently embraced. I wanted Indians to be the moral guides, the ones who somehow stay clean and untouched by modern environmental sins. It’s easier that way — Westerners are the bad guys; Indians are the good guys; bada-bing, bada-boom. But you know what? They’re people too! In fact, they’re a LOT of peoples. Some of those peoples (like the Maya) overextended — they tried to live beyond what their land could sustain and it set the stage for political upheaval that probably led to their demise. Some peoples cut down trees to create farms. Some of them maintained forests but encouraged food-bearing trees to grow in greater abundance than the other trees. All of them ate food (plants and animals) and left traces of their existence and affected the land they lived on. The point is that everyone tried to interact with their land in a way that meant survival, and the ones that were most successful for the longest time, it seems, were the ones who also did it with respect, and with a thought to the sustainability of their relationship with their “large gardens”. 

There’s a concept that I’ve heard from multiple Lakota friends I’ve talked to — though I believe it originates with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) — called the “seventh generation.” Basically the idea is that all decisions should be made thinking about the impact of those decisions seven generations from now. To me, this concept sums up how many Indian cultures think about humanity’s relationship with the land. Is it wrong to live in a way that leaves traces on the land? Certainly not! To the contrary, all relationships leave marks on all the participants. However, I think it’s quite possible — even advisable — for humans to relate to and manage the land in a good way that leads to good outcomes for both the land and our descendants in seven generations.

Conclusion

Native peoples still have an authoritative voice as stewards of this land for thousands and thousands of years. They can make mistakes — they’re not perfect either, and they’re not required to be animalistic nature-sprites — they’re human, like the rest of us. But to me, that makes the goal of balance and cooperation with the rest of nature seem all the more attainable and worth pursuing. You don’t have to be a “noble savage” to be an environmentalist — you just have to want your children for the next seven generations to have food to eat and a beautiful place to live. And while the rest of us immigrants have come to live here through violence, we still can share in the responsibility of, as Charles Mann says, “creating the world’s largest gardens” for our children.

Next up: a book that Charles Mann references in 1491 — William Cronon’s  Changes in the Land. Hopefully it won’t take me three months this time! =)