History of Me: Journey to Ancestral Lands

Well, I have done it. I have traveled to my ancestral lands. It was quite the whirlwind trip — and now, 4 countries, 8 travelers, and a jillion miles driven later, I’m going to tell you about it.

First Impressions

The first difference I noticed was even before I set foot on German soil: the lay of the land. Usually when I’m flying over the Midwest, the fun patchwork of farms looks like this:

NW Minn farm land - NASA
(This is a NASA aerial photo of NW Minnesota.)

But as we flew over Germany, I noticed that the German patchwork looked a little different…

(This is a Google Maps view of just outside Husum in NW Germany.)

See the difference? The US land divisions are very square and rigid, while the German land is much more of a mish-mash of various bits. Why is this? Modern colonialism.

As we learned back in the Little House / Wounded Knee project, the prairie land here in the present-day Midwest was systematically taken from Native inhabitants, divided up by white men with maps, and distributed to (mostly European/white) settlers via several Homestead Acts beginning in 1862 and extending through the early 1900’s. So, the land in NW Minnesota (and the rest of the land settled this way) was divided up all in one go, overwriting the footprint of previous inhabitants and their land-ways to parcel out equal squares to whatever applicant was granted the land — and the lay of the land shows those scars.

Germany, on the other hand, is still mostly populated by its original people groups (particularly in my family’s parts) and was able to keep its varied, traditional, organic land structure. Generally people lived (and still live) in their small towns and villages, and farm the land surrounding the village. This is in line with what we read in Kristin LavransdatterMorebath, and Daily Bread — folks lived in small communities together, and pretty much stayed put where they were. And although there is more movement and urbanization now today, as we drove through the countryside of Germany and the other countries we visited, it definitely felt like people had been living in these same European villages for hundreds (or thousands) of years. And in many cases, they have been. 

Snapshots

I’ve been struggling to put my trip into words for a while now, and at this point I’ve recognized that there’s no way I can adequately express everything we saw and felt and learned. So instead, I’ll just give a quick snapshot of each of the places we traveled to give you a little taste. If you want to know more, feel free to leave me a note in the comments and/or let’s grab coffee sometime!

Pellworm / Nordfriesland (The Clausens)

At the family barbecue in Nordfriesland!

The first week of our trip was spent in northwestern Germany — we traveled all over the state of Schleswig-Holstein, but focused particularly in the district (like a county) of Nordfriesland. By far the highlight of this place (and the trip!) was spending the week with our fantastically fun cousins. They definitely welcomed us like relatives immediately, and we had so much fun seeing their towns, their farms, their musical talents (including one accordion and many enthusiastic singing voices), and just getting to know them!

 

In addition to just being their awesome selves, our Clausen relatives also kindly took us around and taught us about the region. Due to being right on the North Sea, residents of Nordfriesland have always been fighting a neverending battle with the sea to keep their land from eroding. In fact, my family’s home island of Pellworm became an island in 1634 when a huge sea-flood broke through the sea-dikes, washed away most of the larger island of Strand, and left only the few smaller islands we have today. The old land is still there, but submerged — so now Pellworm and its neighbors are known for their mudflats, which are visible (and walkable) at low tide.

 

It was also super cool to get the cousin-guided tour of Pellworm itself. The island is just plain beautiful, and it was really meaningful to just be there and see the place and walk on the mud and breathe the air (and be blown over by the “not that bad today” wind!). Plus, when we visited both the Old Church (Altekirche – built in 1100’s) and the New Church (built in 1600’s… and still new, LOL), it was so cool to see the Clausen name EVERYWHERE! One of our cousins kept pointing it out, saying “our family gave this candelabra to the church” or “our family’s name is on that plaque from when they bought a new organ”. I could really feel both my connection to the place, and the old-ness of everything, in a very personal way. It’s my matrilineal island (or, as Daniel likes to say, “the place your mitochondria are from“) and being there felt in some ways like greeting a very long-ago friend. It was pretty special.

 

I’m not even coming close to doing justice to this part of the trip… but to avoid this post being incredibly long I’ll leave it there for now and go on to the next place. 🙂

Gerdau (The Hillmers)

It was a pretty long drive out of the way, but a few of us made the trek over to Gerdau, a small town in the modern-day state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), to see if we could find the burial places of our ancestor Hilmers (they only spelled it with one L). We didn’t find any direct ancestors in the cemetery, but we *did* find a sign proclaiming the town’s 1000-year anniversary celebrations (back in 2004)! Gerdau was another place where I really felt I could feel the ancientness of the village… people have been there since the year had three digits!!! (So basically as long as anyone knows.) We also found an entire street called Hilmer! We decided to go for it and knocked on the door of a house with a Hilmer mailbox, and met some very delightful Hilmers to whom we are probably not related (there are several unrelated lines of Hilmers from this area, including ours), but they gave us a book about the town that was printed for their millennial anniversary and were very kind. All in all, it was definitely worth the trip just to walk around such a beautiful and ancient village. And who knows, maybe I’ll find the right Hilmers next trip!

 

Cuxhaven (The Heldts)

This was the least certain family connection, as we’re not even certain this is the right place, but we have a photo of family in front of the Cuxhaven tower. We enjoyed recreating the photo, and appreciating the beautiful view of the sea (and the beach basket chairs!)

 

Lachen, Switzerland (The Kriegs)

Next we flew to Zurich and took a short train along Lake Zurich to the town of Lachen. We arrived on a Sunday, and it was really interesting to see just how shut down the whole town was. Pretty much everything was closed, and we hardly saw any people on the streets except a few walking or biking to church and some kids at a track meet. The two most interesting things about being in Lachen were (1) it was beautiful to sit and think of our ancestors living there along the lake, looking at the same view we were looking at; and (2), it’s possible (and statistically probable) that at some point these relatives were Catholic! (This is a big deal for old-school Europeans — as we discussed on our previous readings about religious divides.) There wasn’t a Lutheran cemetery in town, so we checked the Catholic one and found a couple of (unsure if related) Kriegs… so that’s an interesting twist. Regardless, it was a beautiful little town with a relaxed Sunday morning vibe, nestled between the lake and the beautiful (stereotypically Swiss) hills.

 

Brezno, Slovakia (The Surovis and Blaskos)

Having recently read my book about Slovakia and learned a ton, I was pretty excited just to spend some time in Brezno with the Tatra Mountains that my dad grew up hearing about from his grandma and aunties. It was a beautiful drive from the airport through the mountains to the town. On our way we stopped at a (Hungarian) castle that really gave me a visual, visceral sense of what it must have felt like when that castle was an active defensive fortress (and what it must have felt like to live in the town down the hill). It was super awesome and cool because castles, but it was also a little complicated because I knew that the Hungarians used this as part of their domination over the local Slovaks. History is messy, y’all.

In Brezno, the overwhelming feelings were amazement at the beauty of the surrounding mountains and trees, and relief whenever we found anyone who spoke ANY English! We also had a really good journey to the very well-maintained local Lutheran cemetery, where we appreciated the obvious care given to the ancestors — and we were able to find grave markers with all the different last names in our Slovak side of the family! This town definitely felt less Western, partly because of the extra language barrier, but also partly because you could see it was more run-down (per 1000 years of being under Hungary’s thumb) and had clearly been part of the Soviet bloc. It also felt more isolated to me, I think maybe due to the mountains as well as the less-complete infrastructure (they are still completing their first freeway). The mountains really dominate the landscape, so I can see why my great-grandparents would still be talking about the Tatra Mountains even once they lived in the middle of a city halfway around the world.

 

Dretyn, Poland (The Schulzs and Schwichtenbergs)

Our last stop was in Dretyn, Poland (formerly known as Treten, Prussia), which is located in the region of Pomerania. When my ancestors were there, it was called Pommern and it was controlled by Germany. My ancestors left when it was part of Prussia — but my one Schwichtenberg cousin that I know of no longer lives there, because after WWII they had to leave. Knowing this, we weren’t really sure what we would find in the village. Another cousin of mine has done extensive research on the Schwichtenbergs, and there is a network of towns where they lived, but we only had time to visit Dretyn, so we just crossed our fingers and drove.

The countryside was beautiful — there are these tall, thin trees that have a red tint, and they seem just magical! That combined with the alternating rolling farmland had me double-taking to see if I was actually in Minnesota. (No wonder my ancestors liked the Midwest!) Once we arrived in the town of Dretyn itself, the cemetery told the tale: the old section was full of German surnames and overgrown by decades of weeds, while the new section next to it was full of Slavic names and very well-tended, like the cemetery in Brezno. Now, whether this neglect is malicious or just due to the exodus of all the German relatives of those buried there, I’m not sure. But it was pretty clear that the era of Germans living in these parts was a thing of the past.

 

After returning to Hamburg, Daniel and I were able to have lunch with our Schwichtenberg cousin and visit the Auswanderer (Emigrant) Museum. He told us about how Dretyn had been occupied by the Russians after the war, and then his forebears were forced to leave with nothing. They found work in Niedersachsen, which is where he lives now. Although the Schwichtenberg house is still standing in Pomerania, and they wrote a letter to the Polish government requesting it back… they haven’t received a reply. Obviously Poland has some good reasons to be angry at Germany… but it’s sad to see that neglected cemetery and think of all the deaths and pain and wounds caused by violence in this oft-occupied area. As my cousin and I walked through the Auswanderer Museum together, I thought about the hardship of choosing to leave your homeland (like my ancestors) and the hardship of being forced to leave (like my cousin’s ancestors). Different, but both hard. So, we dealt with it like good Germans: we ate fish and drank beer. 🙂

 

Coming to America

Daniel and I had a few days of rest on Pellworm before flying out, but the Auswanderer Museum got my imagination ticking. By the time we got in our third (and fourth, and fifth…) line at the Hamburg airport to have our documents verified yet again, I was thinking of my ancestors waiting in Hamburg to get on the boat to America, worrying about getting their documents in order (or about getting caught if they weren’t in order), worrying about making the journey safely, standing in crowded and hot rooms with too many people, hoping things would be better where they were going. They probably didn’t know what they were in for… but they hoped it would be better, so they came. And brought their German (and Slovak) homelands in their hearts with them. This time, I carried those places with me too as I took one last look and got on the plane.

Conclusion

I have learned SO MUCH from this trip… I learned a bit of German (not much), I know what my home-places look and sound and feel like, and in some rather intangible way I feel more… rooted. Whole. Connected. I can’t even describe it. I’m sure little tidbits and thoughts will continue to come up as I finish my official reading project and beyond.

The other thing I am still pondering is something one of my cousins said, which I think is really smart. I commented how they had made us feel like family immediately, and she said, “I think Germans are like coconuts and Americans are like peaches. Germans have a hard shell, but once you get past it the middle is all soft and good; Americans are nice on the outside, but there’s a hard core that it’s tough to get into.” I just resonated with that so much — and I wonder how German-Americans lost that coconut-ness, since at one time WE were Germans — but it made me start to think about how I want to be more of a coconut and less of a peach. I want to have a thick skin, but be all soft and good on the inside. I think my cousin is super wise, and I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind as I return to the last bit of my reading project, about immigration and how my ancestors became “Americans” (whatever that means).

Next up, back to my reading list as we continue with the immigration book on my list, Not Fit For Our Society: Nativism and Immigration in America. (And unfortunately, it’s still a pretty relevant read right now.)

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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!

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!”)]

‘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… =)

‘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! =)

Imperial Geography: My Next Stack of Books

Since I finished my months-long self-imposed college course (lol) about the context and history surrounding the Little House on the Prairie books, I’ve been enjoying reading whatever I want, whether or not it fits my pre-determined schedule of interconnected research. I’ve breezed through a few fluff novels and savored a few books about excellent women.

But my brain has continued to percolate on all the stuff I put in it during my journey through Little House / Wounded Knee. And I still have questions.

The most notable one, for me, is, What happened to the land?

In LH/WK, I explored the human and historical context of the Little House events — I learned what life was like for some contemporary Native and African and Asian Americans —  but I never really thought much about the backdrop. Until I got to the eighth Little House book, These Happy Golden Years. In it, Almanzo and Laura discuss their future, including Almanzo’s plans to gain land by staking his claim (provided for by the Homestead Act, which divvied out land taken from Indians to white settlers in parcels). Here’s the section that made me scratch my head:

There was a small claim shanty on Almanzo’s homestead. On his tree claim there were no buildings at all, but the young trees were growing well. He had set them out carefully, and must cultivate and care for them for five years; then he could prove up on the claim and own the land. The trees were thriving much better than he had expected at first, for he said that if trees would grow on those prairies, he thought they would have grown there naturally before now.

“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.” (p.170-1)

In my post, I pondered whether this was just another form of colonization — the US Government made plans to colonize the environment as well as the people of the Plains. But just supposing that didn’t go deep enough; I wanted to know more!

I asked, “Anyone have a connection with an ethno-environmentalist historian??? Is that even a thing???” And after a little thinking and chatting and research, I discovered that yes, that is a thing. It’s called a geographer.

So, long story short, I discovered that there is, in fact, a whole field of study that addresses some of the human-environment questions I’ve been having, and there are plenty of books about said questions, and I have a stack of those books sitting next to me on the floor as I write. And I am going to read them, and blog about what I learn.

As you may have noticed by the title of this blog post, my main theme in this reading project is “Imperial Geography”, better explained as learning about “What happened to the earth when European settlers colonized North America? And what is the fallout for us today?”

Here is my reading list, in the (general) order I’ll be reading them:

  1. Human Geography: People, Place, and Culture — a textbook (for a quick geography primer, since I’ve never studied geography other than maps…)
  2. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
  3. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon
  4. Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States by George R. Stewart
  5. Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage
  6. Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning
  7. Earth Then and Now: Amazing Images of Our Changing World by Fred Pearce
  8. All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life by Winona LaDuke
  9. Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry

Before I dive in, I should say a few more things:

  • I never thought I would care about the environment. Seriously — I grew up with a theology of “subdue and dominate” environmental relations, and even later when I began to soften a bit I still separated the whole world into “human/important” and “everything else/less important”. Very binary. Very separate. But as I’ve been learning and thinking more — and especially after my recent trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — I’ve been thinking a lot more holistically about our existence on this planet. God didn’t just put humans here and then make us a bunch of stuff to entertain and sustain us — God created an entire planet full of beautiful, complicated ecosystems! And we’re all interconnected in ways we don’t even fully understand. So I’m excited for my very first, totally ignorant foray into the world of reading about environmental issues. I seriously know nothing! So this will be fun. =)
  • This reading project is going to be a bit different than the last one. Once I got going on LH/WK, I was very strict with myself about keeping up with my schedule. I’m glad I practiced being disciplined then, but for this project (a) I’m only reading one book at a time, (b) I might not make it through a book every week, and (c) the books are organized in the order I want to read them, not in a tight chronology. Basically, this is a gaggle of somewhat related books that I’ve made a connection between. So come along with me for a fun and slightly more relaxed reading journey!

All right, I think that’s all the notes I have. Let’s do this! =)

On to the first book…