Friday, October 21, 2016

Nature gives to us. Can we give something back?

Robin Wall Kimmerer is Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and writes passionately and well about the science and beauty of the natural world, and about the human-made threats to its - to our - health and well being. In her most recent book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013), she talks about human interactions with nature as seen through the lens of the students she teaches:
One otherwise unremarkable morning I gave the students in my General Ecology class a survey. Among other things, they were asked to rate their understanding of the negative interactions between humans and the environment. Nearly every one of the two hundred students said confidently that humans and nature are a bad mix. These were third-year students who had selected a career in environmental protection, so the response was, in a way, not very surprising. They were well schooled in the mechanics of climate change, toxins in the land and water, and the crisis of habitat loss. Later in the survey, they were asked to rate their knowledge of positive interactions between people and land. The median response was “none.” I was stunned. How is it possible that in twenty years of education they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people and the environment? Perhaps the negative examples they see every day— brownfields, factory farms, suburban sprawl—truncated their ability to see some good between humans and the earth. As the land becomes impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision. When we talked about this after class, I realized that they could not even imagine what beneficial relations between their species and others might look like. How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like?
 I thought about this quote last evening as I read the latest issue of Trout Unlimited magazine. The current issue is all about the effects of climate change on the watersheds that support cold-water species like trout and salmon. All across the country the weather is playing havoc with the health of the streams and rivers that support fish and their food sources. Rivers and the life they support have always had to adapt to drought, fire, hurricanes, and monsoon-like rain events, but climate change is accelerating the rate at which these events occur, making it difficult for aquatic life to recover and adapt.

Whitewater River in Whitewater State Park

I have seen this in Minnesota on the streams that I love to fish. The Whitewater River and its tributaries have seen a series of major flooding events over the last decade. The MN DNR says that "mega-rains" are hitting MN with an increasing frequency all across the state: "These trends are consistent with the expectation that Minnesota and the Upper Midwest will receive more precipitation, and more precipitation from large events, in response to increasing global temperatures and increased available moisture for passing storm systems."

If we don't know know that humans are effecting the climate in negative ways... well, how could we not know? And it is only going to get worse. But the question that interests me at the moment is do we know what a beneficial relationship between us and other species looks like? That's where an organization like Trout Unlimited comes in. All across the country, and all across the state of Minnesota they organize volunteers to improve that habitat that supports trout and salmon. I have participated in volunteer projects on the Vermillion River in Farmington. A mostly dead stream has slowly been transformed into a healthy trout stream. Why does this matter? Because it means that farming practices along the river have to be addressed, wastewater treatment systems have to be improved, and citizens and politicians need to be educated and brought on board to support taking care of the environment. If we are going to do something about climate change this is the way it is going to happen. People have to be connected with the land and the water so they learn to love it and care for it. This is what TU does. This is what a beneficial relationship with the earth looks like.

So put down that bag of potato chips and your cell phone and get out there...

For Calling The Spirit Back From Wandering The Earth In Its Human Feet, by Joy Harjo
Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Poems, Joy Harjo

Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop.

Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.

Open the door, then close it behind you.

Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the Earth gathering essences of plants to clean.

Give it back with gratitude.

If you sing it will give your spirit lift to fly to the stars’ ears and back.

Acknowledge this Earth who has cared for you since you were a dream planting itself precisely within your parents’ desire.

Let your moccasin feet take you to the encampment of the guardians who have known you before time, who will be there after time. They sit before the fire that has been there without time.

Let the Earth stabilize your postcolonial insecure jitters.

Be respectful of the small insects, birds, and animal people who accompany you.
Ask their forgiveness for the harm we humans have brought down upon them.

Don’t worry.
The heart knows the way though there may be high-rises, interstates, checkpoints, armed soldiers, massacres, wars, and those who will despise you because they despise themselves.

The journey might take you a few hours, a day, a year, a few years, a hundred, a thousand, or even more.

Watch your mind. Without training it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time.

Do not hold regrets.

When you find your way to the circle, to the fire kept burning by the keepers of your soul, you will be welcomed.

You must clean yourself with cedar, sage, or other healing plant.

Cut the ties you have to failure and shame.

Let go the pain you are holding in your mind, your shoulders, your heart, all the way to your feet. Let go the pain of your ancestors to make way for those who are heading in our direction.

Ask for forgiveness.

Call upon the help of those who love you. These helpers take many forms: animal, element, bird, angel, saint, stone, or ancestor.

Call your spirit back. It may be caught in corners and creases of shame, judgement, and human abuse.

You must call in a way that your spirit will want to return. Speak to it as you would to a beloved child.

Welcome your spirit back from its wandering. It may return in pieces, in tatters. Gather them together. They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.

Your spirit will need to sleep awhile after it is bathed and given clean clothes.

Now you can have a party. Invite everyone you know who loves and supports you. Keep room for those who have no place else to go.

Make a giveaway, and remember, keep the speeches short.

Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way through the dark.

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