I have read 2 books that have completely altered the framework through which I now see the world. And there is no going back.
As a white, middle-class American my presumptions about reality were of course based on the history as told by the winners. I was taught that the Europeans who “settled” the Americas, civilizing and taming the wilderness were heroes to be admired. There’s no doubt they were brave, or at least desperate enough to take unimaginable risks. They were ingenious, competitive and motivated to survive and thrive. My cultural indoctrination extolled the heroic efforts of the settlers in the “New World” against all odds, and when one considers what has been created out of “wilderness” it is truly mind-boggling.
After reading Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, I’ve been exposed to an alternative reality. The New World newcomers were certainly heroic but the results of their fortitude I realize now, thanks to these books, was akin to a holocaust. And an environmental disaster. Both are carefully researched - Barkskins a historical novel, Braiding Sweetgrass essays and reflections– and have profoundly altered my outlook on everything from the pastoral scenes I drive by and the woods I explore, to the small towns and endless cityscapes which I once viewed as bucolic, peaceful, charming and impressive - respectively.
Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, is also a botany professor/Potawatomi Nation member. Her book compares, contrasts and combines scientific theory about living and mineral natural resources with indigenous people’s traditional philosophy around the acquisition and use of that which they consider to be entities rather than resources. Use with gratitude, respect and reciprocity. The idea of thanking a deer for giving its life so the tribe can eat seemed a bit presumptuous to me at first. Did they ask the deer if it minded giving its life? But as she presents more examples of the practice of showing gratitude, respect and reciprocity to all the entities of the earth it begins to look much saner and more sustainable practice – at least to be aware of this approach as an option.
The world has been shaped by a Western dogma of the rightness of individuals to compete in order to acquire as much as possible. Many indigenous cultures, while they have some brutal practices, worked together for the common benefit & survival. It was not a life about accumulation, there were no McTeepees. If our consciousness included those 3 aspects – gratitude, respect and reciprocity - in all choices we make, I wonder how the world would look today.
Barkskins recounts the first Europeans in Canada perceiving the vast forests of giant pines as stretching endlessly before them westward from the east coast, with no inkling that they could ever harvest out what seemed to be an infinite supply of trees. When I walk in the woods now I cannot help but look at the stonewalls built 200 years ago snaking through the second growth maples and wonder what it would look like today if there had been no “invasion”, no farmers clearing the land. When I order shrimp at a restaurant, previously oblivious to the sourcing process, I can’t help but try to envision the unimaginable quantities of shrimp that must be harvested, worldwide, daily, to supply all the restuarants - including fastfood chains like Long John Silvers – and wonder how this can be sustained. And that’s just shrimp.
As we are now discovering, the sustainability of so many commonly accepted practices and resources is threatened. And yet we continue to watch the stock market and hope the economy grows. More consumption, more people, the environment becoming more inhospitable...in the last 50 years population has doubled, food consumption tripled and fuel use quadrupled. I wonder how commerce and society would function if land, and all it generates, were not considered commodities but, as Braiding Sweetgrass outlines, as beings to be used only as needed, with respect, gratitude and reciprocity. I wonder if this philosophy could ever be accepted in the competitive, market-driven world we live in now.
Both these books have come out, and to my attention, at a time when the world seems to be reaching a crescendo of environmental and resource challenges. Clearly we can no longer take anything for granted. Leaving NYC I look at the apartment buildings, imagine how many people live in them, the infrastructure and quantity of goods required to maintain those lifestyles in an economy based on growth; and then think of all the other mega-cities of the world and find myself peering into darkness as I try to imagine what could lie ahead.