not belonging

In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity so it could never be bought or sold.

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 17

Connection to land is something I’ve rarely experienced. Born and raised in “the big city,” I’ve only visited the land as a guest: foreign camper and hiker surrounded by RVs and flush toilets. One day, I did some weeding in a garden on a 300-acre sheep farm. I was sunburned and my knees were red from kneeling, but there was satisfaction in knowing that the beans could now grow better. I keep a number of house plants but I imagine they are awfully lonely and cramped. If only there was at least a garden of sorts, or even a larger pot for them. These few instances seem like my only connections with the land. These and food. But food, among many other services, are trucked and packaged in such ways that render the land invisible – as mere “capital” or “natural resources” (17).

I try to imagine how a “green” or healthy city might actually exist, and although there are many proposals and ideas, I think we need to stop and first reject “the settler mind” (17). I think it starts with the question of how people might begin a healthy relationship with land – how we might actually start to recognize beings and land as not belonging to anyone but themselves.

Step 1: say “hello” and “thank you” to the land. Introduce yourself. Listen. It’s harder than it sounds. Even if there are patches of soil here and there, they seem outmatched by the miles of concrete, steel, and asphalt strewn across the land, forced into the ground, and raised to the sky. What if electricity and internet worked like fungal networks, through organic material? What if water flowed through streams and marshes, across mountains, and into homes? What if we stopped modeling cities based on how much they can take from the land and instead how much they could give back? We would be thanking and caring for the streams and the mushrooms, our fellow beings, instead of glass fiber and lead pipes.

Step 2: give gifts to the land. Pumps, siphons, pile drivers, and excavators are tools of extraction – of taking from and hurting the land – and our primary tools of construction. What would be tools or devices of giving? Of deconstruction? Is it a matter of the device itself or the way we use it? Maybe it begins with planting a seed, and the tools of gardening and care.

Step X: work together. Relationships are not necessarily step by step, linear processes. Working together requires multiple interactions, unified movement, and nuanced organization. We learn this from ecosystems. There’s constant feedback, and as Robin Wall Kimmerer mentions, reciprocity.

no soloists

 

Make fruit only when you can afford it. That makes sense. But trees grow and accumulate calories at different rates depending on their habitats… But they don’t. If one tree fruits, they all fruit – there are no soloists… The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective. Exactly how they do this, we don’t know yet. But what we see is the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual.

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 13-16

Mast fruiting is the “boom and bust cycle” of certain plants, which instead of making fruits and seeds in a consistent yearly cycle, produce a huge amount crop at seemingly random times (14). In order for mast-fruiting trees to sustain themselves, each one fills their roots with sugar and starch to their very tips. When the time is just right, they make fruit all together, all at once, enough for feeding the forest and for birthing new trees (15).

trees talk

… trees are talking to one another. They communicate via pheromones, hormonelike compounds that are wafted on the breeze, laden with meaning… The trees in a forest are often interconnected by subterranean networks of mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots. The mycorrhizal symbiosis enables the fungi to forage for mineral nutrients in the soil and deliver them to the tree in exchange for carbohydrates… [They] may form fungal bridges between individual trees, so that all the trees in a forest are connected… they weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival.

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 20

gifts

A gift creates ongoing relationship… [it is] something for nothing, except that certain obligations are attached… That is the fundamental nature of gifts: they move, and their value increases with their passage… the currency of a gift economy is, at its root reciprocity… from private goods to common wealth.

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 24-29

I was just thinking about gifts. Christmas just passed and all the while leading up to it, there were talk of gifts and one of the most awkward questions I hear every year, “what would you like for your gift?” I’ve never easily answered this question – well maybe as a kid I asked for chocolate or stuffed animals – but in my more mature years, I’ve never felt comfortable asking anyone for gifts. It feels too much like some superficial exchange, a thoughtless Secret Santa.

The earth gives to us every moment. My mother gives to me each and every day. What more could I possibly ask of her, especially during a time that has become the prime celebration of commodification?

Still, pushed by the Gregorian calendar, deafening carols, and family wishlists, I give in to the season, tricking myself into thinking I could make someone happy with a dishcloth, when I could be doing the dishes; dumplings, when I could be cooking dinner; books, when we could be making stories worth writing; and money, when we could be building common wealth.

There’s just something that doesn’t sit right with me. It’s as if these gifts are slowly cutting off my relationships instead of creating them. It strips away my attention, time, and care into scraps of gift wrap and loose ribbons. Gifts are made every day, but many are received without appreciation. I think if I understand and take time to be thankful for all the gifts I receive, I can truly give back meaningfully. Because I want to give back. To my mom, my partner, the land, the trees, and all the critters in between.

impressions of optimization

If you read the professional literature, you quickly get the impression that the well-being of the forest is only of interest insofar as it is necessary for optimizing the lumber industry.

– Peter Wohllenben, Introduction in The Hidden Life of Trees, xiii

If you read the professional literature of any kind, if you observe the scenes around us, you not only get the impression of interest in optimization, but also the pervasiveness of global neoliberal market economies in our daily lives and common practices…

slow down

Slow down, breathe deep, and look around. What can you hear? What do you see? How do you feel?

…forests matter at a more fundamental level than most of us realize.

– Peter Wohlleben, Introduction to the English Edition in The Hidden Life of Trees, xi

Forests and mountains never cease to amaze me. When I think about the mountains I’ve clambered across and the trees that have sheltered me, I think, “if only I could stay here – if only this was home.”

What I like about these questions is that they could take place at any instance, anywhere. Whether we’re hammering away in dingy cubical at work, blazing a trail through a snowy forest, or wiggling through crowds of people, we should “slow down,” wonder why we aren’t at peace like the trees in the forest, and act in ways so we can be.

becoming indigenous

becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it… our relationship with the land cannot heal until we hear its stories

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 9

As someone born and raised in bustling cities, how can we take care of the land in our concrete, steel, and glass towers? We dare not even touch the earth, as asphalt rolls and sizzles at our feet. Inside hulking, chortling machines, we make our way to fluorescent square footage, where we go about our “work” – not to heal the ground, but to exploit it. We are everything but indigenous. We are foreign and strive to be alien.

I am detached, but I want to be joined.