Previously published in Real Estate Magazine, Ft Bragg, Ca, November 2014
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. 1
It’s easy to see, even now, the exquisite vibrancy of this beautiful place. One can only imagine 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 before they were clear-cut. I like to imagine our beautiful stretch of coastline 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? I try to imagine the depth of each unique soundscape and I feel sad that those of us alive today will likely never hear the music of an intact biosphere.
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 have special meaning. For example, Mussel Rock, between Westport and Ft. Bragg, was known as Lilem. It was a Coastal Yuki village used as a trading and gathering spot for tribes from all over California, from the Chumash in Santa Barbara to the Yurok in Humboldt. Katuli was above the Navarro; Bokeya was the territory stretching from the Navarro to Gualala, and Gualala is a Pomo word that means ‘where the waters flow down’. Big River was Bidapte; Icheche was on the lower Garcia River; Kibesillah is a Pomo word signifying ‘flat rock’ or ‘head of the valley’. 2 Notice how most of these names refer to a river, a watershed or a place and describe a practical, lived meaning. Fort Bragg, on the other hand, was established to keep order on the Indian Reservation built here, and was named after a confederate general. As I drive along I sometimes 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 beautiful it would be to see signs with the names of the original settlements in the area. How would it shape us to live with those names on a daily basis? Perhaps we would identify more deeply with the landscape. Surely our hearts would be nourished by the poetry of the words themselves.
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.
And yet, one of the best things about living here is that so many people love this place deeply. Our shared appreciation helps us navigate our sometimes contentious local politics. Unfortunately, politicians don’t always follow the will of the people as the system intended. Now is the moment to rise above the influences of personal or corporate economic gain by aligning with a larger identity as citizens of the earth in order to ensure a viable, vibrant future for our grandchildrens’ grandchildren. One way to accomplish this is to expand the timeline within which we see ourselves from the human timeline of months to decades to one that is aligned with the pace of geologic transformation. This means learning to ‘think like a mountain’ or, in this case, like a watershed - centuries to millennia.
Like many of us, I wonder how best to contribute to a peaceful, close-knit community. As a parent, as a member of this community, and as a human being living in these times of deep ecological loss and uncertainty, I ask myself what role I might play in restoring a thriving ecosystem. What does it mean, then -- now and for the future -- to “belong to the land”?
Perhaps it is time to come full circle, to create a fresh way of seeing the land and understanding what we are looking at. With practice, we can learn to see the unifying patterns and discern the unique rhythms of this place, to appreciate the trees, wetlands, mountains, streams, dunes, and rivers as part of a larger weave of that which sustains us and deserves our care. By gathering together, sitting in Council, sharing local food, good company and even better stories, we can consider what it would mean to see ourselves as citizens of this watershed rather than as individual landowners or residents.
Each of us has lived the story of how we came to be here – even if we are just visiting 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 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 environment or local people. 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. Many people today find a parallel in gang violence.
Since 2006, peacebuilders from everyday gandhis have been working with several former child soldiers in Liberia. These young men were forcibly conscripted when they were 11, 12 and 13 years old. 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. Now, Lassana and Varlee, two of the original ‘Future Guardians of Peace’ are studying at colleges here in the US, with the unshakeable intention of returning home to contribute to the healing of their beloved Liberia. These two young men visit me often here in Mendocino. Some of you reading this article may have met them or might meet them soon. In fact, last winter they were here on the coast. During that visit, the loss of their childhood was particularly poignant when we went to a friend’s house on New Year’s Day. Her grandson was there playing with his new Lego set. Lassana and Varlee were mesmerized! It was their first experience ever playing with toys. My friend told me later, that as we were leaving with goodbyes and kisses at the front door, Lassana gave her a warm hug and said, “I have never just sat and played a game like that. I have never even thought of sitting like that and playing a game.” She said it drove home the home of the heartbreaking loss of their childhood more than anything else she had heard – and guess what they got for their next birthdays: Lego sets!
There is much talk these days of the ‘global village’. But what does this actually mean, in terms of our understanding here in the US? 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. Our friend, Sawo, a former member of the everyday gandhis staff in Liberia, 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 is an uncle to Mamedi, a Mandingo man 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. I wonder how many words they have in their language for relationships. My Zapotec friends once told me they have over 150 distinct words for various family relationships. Sawo and Mamedi may have that beat. 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 now 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 (not unlike our beloved Mendocino) 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.
We are the ‘we’ who bask in these delicious, alarmingly warm autumn days. (I am barefoot and the rhododendrons are blooming!). We are the ‘we’ who are thankful for rain even as the drought persists. 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. We are the ‘we’ whose forebears 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 create change.
There is a Zen saying: If you ask the right question you don’t need an answer. If we ask the right questions, if we inhabit the questions as the central organizing principle of our lives, we will know how to live. As this year draws to a close, we have an opportunity to take certain questions to heart that will guide and sustain us into the New Year - and beyond.
Who are We - to ourselves and to each other?
How do We express our love for this place, and for the Earth as a whole?
What does it mean to belong to a watershed?
1 Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson; Blackfoot Physics, F. David Peat; 1491, Charles C. Mann