Eco-warriors sometimes get exhausted. Often, it seems that there is too much bad news, and not enough good. And even the silver clouds, such as the election of an eco-sympathetic US president, can have dark linings.
So I’d like to share a book and a documentary that I have read and seen recently that cheered me up, and might offer balm to the battle-weary green soul.
I listened to the author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, reading the audiobook of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. She reads as beautifully as she writes, and you can often hear the smile in her voice as she describes her favourite wonders of nature. She is a member of the Potawatomi Nation, and also a professional botanist, and she brings these two traditions together, each enhancing the other.
The main message that I took away from the book is that, while we might sometimes think that humans are the worst thing that ever happened to the rest of the natural world, this is not true. We are part of nature, and when we choose to live harmoniously and respectfully it, this can benefit nature as much as it benefits us.
For example, Robin-the-botanist participates in a scientific study to assess the impacts of harvesting sweetgrass. Plots of grass are designated for indigenous-style harvesting, while control plots are left to their own devices. Spoiler alert! The respectfully-harvested plots become healthier than the left-alone plots.
Key to this is the concept of the indigenous “honourable harvest”, which can be summed up:
“Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life. Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last. Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken. Share.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”
In the absence of such honour and respect, modern civilisation has become like the Windigo, the insatiable monster of indigenous tradition. The more it consumes, the hungrier it becomes. Enough is never enough.
“The footprints of the Windigo [are] everywhere you look. They stomp in the industrial sludge of Onondaga Lake. And over a savagely clear-cut slope in the Oregon Coast Range where the earth is slumping into the river. You can see them where coal mines rip off mountaintops in West Virginia and in oil-slick footprints on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. A square mile of industrial soybeans. A diamond mine in Rwanda. A closet stuffed with clothes. Windigo footprints all, they are the tracks of insatiable consumption. So many have been bitten. You can see them walking the malls, eying your farm for a housing development, running for Congress. We are all complicit. We’ve allowed the “market” to define what we value so that the redefined common good seems to depend on profligate lifestyles that enrich the sellers while impoverishing the soul and the earth. Cautionary Windigo tales arose in a commons-based society where sharing was essential to survival and greed made any individual a danger to the whole. In the old times, individuals who endangered the community by taking too much for themselves were first counselled, then ostracized, and if the greed continued, they were eventually banished.”
This disconnection doesn’t just damage the Earth – it damages us, as our imagined dislocation leaves us feeling vulnerable and fearful.
“Philosophers call this state of isolation and disconnection “species loneliness”—a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship. As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbors.”
“It is a terrible punishment to be banished from the web of reciprocity, with no one to share with you and no one for you to care for.”
My favourite phrase in the book is “Regenerative Reciprocity”: when we remember who we are, and our relationship with our living, breathing planet, our attitude changes from one of rapaciousness to one of gratitude, and we start acting in very different ways. No matter how urban or technologically-mediated our lives are, this understanding is available to all of us – and it isn’t just good for the Earth, it is good for our emotional wellbeing:
“Each of us comes from people who were once indigenous. We can reclaim our membership in the cultures of gratitude that formed our old relationships with the living earth. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Windigo psychosis. A deep awareness of the gifts of the earth and of each other is medicine. The practice of gratitude lets us hear the badgering of marketers as the stomach grumblings of a Windigo. It celebrates cultures of regenerative reciprocity, where wealth is understood to be having enough to share and riches are counted in mutually beneficial relationships. Besides, it makes us happy.”
When I walk in the lovely countryside near my home, it makes me feel sad when I hear birds raising the alarm with their cries or the exaggeratedly loud beat of their wings, and when deer and rabbits go running at my approach. I can’t blame them – as Yuval Noah Harari points out in Sapiens, as the population of homo sapiens spread across the globe, there was a strong correlation between our arrival and the extinction of megafauna from each continent. It seems we were the likely perpetrator, as well as killing off the other five species of humans that used to share our planet. So running off seems like an eminently sensible survival strategy when there is a homo sapiens in the vicinity.
Could it ever become different? I would like to think so. Wall Kimmer paints a beautiful vision:
“We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of the earth’s beings.”
Coming back down to earth – literally – I also recommend Kiss the Ground (trailer here, full movie available on Netflix or Vimeo – or you can host your own screening). Narrated by Woody Harrelson, with celebrity appearances from Patricia Arquette, Gisele Bundchen, and Ian Somerhalder, as well as farmers, ranchers, scientists, and Paul Hawken, the author of Drawdown, the film focuses on how we produce our food, and the implications for soil health.
The bad news is that, in the US at least, the soil has become so depleted by industrial agriculture that it will only be able to produce 50 or 60 more harvests (yes, that is 50 or 60 more years of food production) before the topsoil is so eroded and/or denatured that agriculture collapses.
The good news is that soil regeneration can be simple, cheap, and enormously effective not just in improving the soil for future generations, but the revitalised vegetation also draws down CO2 into the ground through biosequestration to help mitigate climate change. The images towards the end of the film of the transformation of 35,000 square kilometres of the Loess Plateau in China are particularly dramatic. The film focuses mostly on farmers and large-scale projects, but these are principles we can apply at the domestic level of food production too (such as never leaving soil bare, but always having a cover crop), and we can also choose to support food producers who farm regeneratively.
Healthier plants, healthier humans, happier cattle, regenerated soil, and mitigated climate change. What’s not to love about that? That’s regenerative reciprocity in action!
Due to the lockdown in England, we’ve had to postpone TEDxStroudWomen until the spring. As the organising committee, we are of course disappointed to have to change our plans, but we also trust that it will be well worth the wait, and will be even bigger and better in March 2021! All tickets are valid for the rescheduled date, and we thank you for your patience.
On Tuesday, 17th November (that’s next Tuesday) I will be speaking at the WeWorld Summit 2020: Luminate. As well as salty old sea stories of ocean rowing, I will also be sharing some insights from my recent doctoral thesis for the first time in public, so do please join me, WeWorld founder Dr Rain Lim, and the other speakers for this exciting summit!