Welcome to Earth Culture
I used to be interested in places of death. I used to want to visit all the mean, modern killing fields: Auschwitz, Rwanda, Cambodia… to bear witness as a human being whose life has been shaped – directly and indirectly, by those events. But no more. What I want now is to see skies without airplanes slicing through them, or the haze of electric lights in the distance. I want to hear wind with birdcalls in it, nothing else, except maybe the night sounds of animals, preferably lions, hyenas and hippos, the occasional night heron or cricket, and those odd, unidentifiable groans and coughs that make me feel inextricably part of a bigger world I cannot know.
When Europeans first arrived in what is now the United States, Canada, Central and South America, the indigenous people they encountered were virtually disease-free because they lived in such profound balance with the natural world. Even more remarkable is the fact that at the time of first contact, what is now California supported the greatest possible variety, vitality and density of animals, fish, birds, plants and humans, all of them well-fed and thriving thanks to the skillful management of the indigenous people here, with the knowledge that was developed and passed down for over 10,000 years.
It’s easy to imagine the exquisite vibrancy of California as it once was: streams so full of salmon that horses refused to cross; flocks of birds so thick they blocked the sun; and, of course, the towering, original redwood forests of the north before they were clear-cut. I like to think about how the world must have been, in its pre-conquest state, everything humming and roaring, buzzing and singing in a complex, interwoven orchestra of natural sounds. How silent would the night be? How filled with sound the day, especially at dawn as the forests, meadows, dunes and wetlands were waking up? It fills me with sadness that those of us alive today will never hear the music of an intact biosphere.
In Northern California, where I live, the Pomo, Yuki, Miwok, Wintun, and other native peoples inhabited this area for countless generations before white people arrived. Their original names for this area are beautiful, and most refer to a river, a watershed or the special quality of a specific place, describing a practical, lived meaning. As I drive along I wonder what it would be like to use those original names, to see the names on signs alongside – or instead of – the names grafted on by outsiders who did not understand the complexities of living in balance here, and did not honor their predecessors by learning the local names. How would it shape us to live with those names on a daily basis? Surely we would identify more deeply with the landscape and our hearts would be nourished by the poetry of the words themselves. Surely the names themselves would instruct us.
The current system of surveying land, dividing it into a rectangular grid and selling off pieces of it, began with Thomas Jefferson after the Revolutionary War as means of selling what was considered uninhabited land in order to pay off the war debt and create a nation of yeoman farmers. While this grid simplifies certain transactions, it also creates the illusion that each piece is disconnected from the others around it and superimposes a mental image of land divided from water and from itself, rather than reinforcing the deep knowing of the ways the land is connected and part of the whole. The indigenous understanding of a unified, shared landscape that was life-sustaining and therefore the responsibility of all was superseded by the notion of individual land ownership. We have inherited the dilemmas that result from this shift in thinking. What does it mean, then -- now and for the future -- to “belong to the land”?
What it would mean to see ourselves as citizens of a watershed rather than as individual landowners or residents?
Each of us has lived the story of how we came to be wherever we are – even if we are just visiting a place for the weekend. My own journey of be-longing began many years ago on a trip to Africa, when I had the opportunity to camp in the bush and experience a deep silence I had not previously known. When I returned to Santa Barbara, where I lived at the time, I could not sleep in the ‘noise’ of my quiet suburban neighborhood. I even began to hear the electricity humming in the walls late at night, when the rest of the city had gone to sleep. And so began a quest for silence, or at least for a place where natural sounds rather than human-made sounds predominated.
The story of that trip is nested, in turn, within a larger story of my work in Liberia, West Africa (the recent epicenter of the deadly Ebola epidemic that is ultimately a result of human encroachment and destruction of healthy natural habitat.) When I slept in that African silence, I was traveling with a group of Liberian former child soldiers who, since 2006, have been part of the extended family of our peacebuilding non-profit organization, everyday gandhis (www.everydaygandhis.org).
Liberia was settled by freed slaves from America that were sent back to West Africa in the early 1820’s. They suffered greatly, even as they subjugated the indigenous people there, usurped the most fertile coastal lands and installed themselves as the ruling class, forcing the local people off their ancestral lands. As in so many places around the world, including here, unhealed trauma is passed from generation to generation. In Liberia’s case, this trauma was compounded by the cold war, machinations of the CIA and continuing resource extraction by multinational corporations with little regard for the people, the place, or the animals. In 1989 a civil war erupted that lasted until 2004. It was a war that became infamous for the widespread use of child soldiers, with over 20,000 children forcibly conscripted by both government and rebel troops into lives of violence. They were drugged and starved and forced to commit atrocities. When we met them in December of 2006, they were emaciated, deeply traumatized, and drunk or high most of the time. Their healing journey has been remarkable in that they have dedicated themselves not only to their own healing but to becoming peacemakers in their community. They call themselves the Future Guardians of Peace, a new identity that frees them from the confinements of the either-or labels of victim and perpetrator. As a result of their war experiences, they have a deep commitment to peace and healing. We do not yet know how they will heal their relationship with the land that is both the landscape of home and of torment.
One of the most beautiful experiences of life in Africa is the experience of community. As in Nature, each individual and each group is part of an extended kin-net. My former colleague, Sawo, once tried to explain some of these kinship relationships to me: Sawo’s tribe, the Lorma, is considered to be an ‘uncle’ to the Mandingo tribe. Thus, Sawo was considered an uncle to Mamedi, a Mandingo elder on the everyday gandhis team. But Mamedi is older than Sawo, thus he is Sawo’s father and Sawo is therefore also Mamedi’s son. Since Mamedi and Sawo are both ‘leopard taboo’ (ie Leopard is their totem animal, another relationship with particular protocol and responsibilities), they are also brothers. And, because the Mandingo and the Lorma fought against each other during the civil war, they were at one time enemies. Last but not least, there are religious affiliations: Sawo is Christian and traditional/animist, Mamedi is Muslim. Just between these two men, then, there are at least five distinct, overlapping relationships. In the larger community, there are also additional layers of relationship within initiatory spiritual societies, clans, chiefdoms, quarters, districts, counties, business associations and intermarriages. Thus in Liberia individual identity is subsumed by a collective and complex ‘we’, which explains, in part, why the war as well as the peace process - and later the Ebola epidemic, could spread so fast. Add to this the historical and post-war trauma of the people and of the land itself, the trees, soils, water and animals that have been fought over and now violated by mining and timber concessions and we begin to see that, rather than only being ‘me’, we are all, literally, part of the larger ‘We’ – including the fact that every human being on Earth is descended from common African ancestral DNA.
The fact that we in the West seldom recognize ourselves within the larger global community of human beings – and, even more rarely, as part of the global non-human community does not negate the reality of those nested identities. We are the ‘we’ who bask in these delicious, alarmingly warm autumn days. (It’s October and I am barefoot in blustery days over 70 degrees.). We are the ‘we’ who gaze at the sea that reaches all the way to melting ice. Perhaps We have native roots, or We are immigrants or children of immigrants, fleeing violence or seeking a better life. Some of us are the ‘we’ whose ancestors came to this land and could not see its fullness nor the complexity and expertise of the people who were already here. The ‘We’ whose forebears bought and sold slaves and sent them to colonize the descendants of their distant relatives in their original homeland. The ‘We’ who buy redwood and drive cars. The ‘We’ who have come here seeking respite, seeking healing, seeking to understand how to repair ourselves and our world.