These words of Chief Seattle, sent to me by cherished member of the Rozling community – Naomi of New York, who found them whilst browsing for a beginner’s yoga class – resonated deeply with me. Some of you might already have seen them when she posted them in a comment on my blog, but I wanted to make sure that they were also seen by those who get my blog by email rather than checking in at rozsavage.com.
These words seemed to appear at precisely the right moment. During the last couple of months I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship that humans have with the Earth. My cogitations have been given sharp focus by my two major upcoming speaking engagements, for National Geographic and at a one-off ocean-themed TED conference in the Galapagos. The latter, especially, has become a kind of existential quest. 18 minutes to present my message to the world. So who am I? What am I here for? What is the point of being me? Deep stuff. Important and energising, but also ever-so-slightly mind-boggling. This is part of the reason that my blogs have been rare and superficial. There has been a lot going on in my head, but during this formative period I’ve needed to keep myself to myself, until my thoughts are more fully formed.
And a lot of my thoughts have revolved around the interconnectedness of everything. No matter what your stance on climate change (and I become more and more reluctant to engage with that politically-loaded pair of words) there can be little doubt that we are changing the face of this planet as we resort to ever more extreme methods to extract the natural resources laid down many millennia ago. I am no scientist, but from a purely common-sense standpoint I cannot see how our current path can be sustained for more than a few decades – at most.
Two key questions are:
Do we have unique status?
Or are we just another animal?
My belief is that the answer to both is YES.
Yes, we are unique. We have free will. We have the ability to see into the future. We have amazing minds – and the ability to change the entire appearance of our habitat, in ways that are visible even from space.
But yes, we are also just another animal. When I am on the ocean I am keenly aware of this. Sure, I have GPS, satellite phone, and a supposedly unsinkable boat. But the ocean has no respect for my hopes, dreams, and schedules. Out there I am completely subject to the laws of physics and/or nature. There is no “conquering” of oceans – if the ocean is gracious enough to allow me to pass safely, then I am grateful. But it cares no more that I am a human than if I were a piece of plastic trash.
Anyway, enough of my existential angst. Over to Chief Seattle, who allegedly spoke thus in 1854 (and no matter the provenance of the speech – see notes at end – see if it resonates with you):
“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water how can you buy them?
“Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
“We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family.
“The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.
“The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.
“If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
“Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
“This we know the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
“One thing we know our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.
“Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
“When the last Red Man has vanished with his wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirits of my people left?
“We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children and love it, as God loves us all.
“As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know there is only one God. No man, be he Red Man or White Man, can be apart. We are brothers after all.”
[Another version, with cautionary notes, is online here]