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.