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Upping the Stakes

Playing for Keeps

Would we listen to nature if our lives depended on it?

by Derrick Jensen

Published in the November/December 2009 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph: Robert and Shana Parkeharrison

PEOPLE WHO READ MY WORK often say, “Okay, so it’s clear you don’t like this culture, but what do you want to replace it?” The answer is that I don’t want any one culture to replace this culture. I want ten thousand cultures to replace this culture, each one arising organically from its own place. That’s how humans inhabited the planet (or, more precisely, their landbases, since each group inhabited a place, and not the whole world, which is precisely the point), before this culture set about reducing all cultures to one.

I live on Tolowa (Indian) land. Prior to the arrival of the dominant culture, the Tolowa lived here for 12,500 years, if you believe the myths of science. If you believe the myths of the Tolowa, they lived here since the beginning of time. This story may sound familiar, but its significance has, thus far, been lost on the dominant culture, so it bears repeating: when the first settlers arrived here maybe 180 years ago, the place was a paradise. Salmon ran in runs so thick you couldn’t see the bottoms of rivers, so thick people were afraid to put their boats in for fear they would capsize, so thick they would keep people awake at night with the slapping of their tails against the water, so thick you could hear the runs for miles before you could see them. Whales were commonplace in the nearby ocean. Forests were thick with frogs, newts, salamanders, birds, elk, bears. And of course huge ancient redwood trees.

Now I count myself blessed when I see two salmon in what we today call Mill Creek. Another Tolowa staple, Pacific lampreys, are in bad shape. Just three years ago you could not hold a human conversation outside at night in the spring, and now I hear maybe five or six frogs at night. Salamanders, newts, songbirds, all are equivalently gone. The rivers are poisoned with pesticides and herbicides. All in less than two centuries.

Why? Or, perhaps more important, how?

Only the most arrogant and ignorant among us would say something that implies that all humans are destructive, and that the dominant (white) culture is the most destructive simply because somehow indigenous peoples around the world were too stupid to invent backhoes and chainsaws, too backward to dominate their human and nonhuman neighbors with the efficiency and viciousness of the dominant culture. They might even try to argue that the Tolowa weren’t actually living sustainably, even though they lived here for at least 12,500 years. But when 12,500 years of living in place won’t convince them, it becomes pretty clear that evidence is secondary, and that there are, rather, ideological reasons the person cannot accept that humans have ever lived sustainably. One of these ideological reasons is very clear: if you can convince yourself that humans are inherently destructive, then you allow yourself the most convenient of all excuses not to work to stop this culture from destroying the planet: it’s simply in our nature to destroy, and you can’t fight biology, so let’s not fuss about all these little extinctions, and could someone please pass the TV remote? It’s an odious position, but a lot of people take it.

If we want to stop this culture from killing the planet, we might instead try asking how so many indigenous cultures lived in place for so long without destroying their landbases.

There are many differences between indigenous and nonindigenous ways of being in the world, but I want to mention two here. The first is that the indigenous had and have serious long-term relationships with the plants and animals with whom they share their landscape. Ray Rafael, who has written extensively on the concept of wilderness, has said that Native Americans hunted, gathered, and fished “using methods that would be sustainable over centuries and even millennia. They did not alter their environment beyond what could sustain them indefinitely. They did not farm, but they managed the environment. But it was different from the way that people try to manage it now, because they stayed in relationship with it.”

That last phrase is key. What would a society look like that was planning on being in that particular place five hundred years from now? What would an economics look like? If you knew for a fact that your descendants five hundred years from now would live on the same landbase you inhabit now, how would that affect your relationship to sources of water? How would that affect your relationship with topsoil? With forests? Would you produce waste products that are detrimental to the soil? Would you poison your water sources (or allow them to be poisoned)? Would you allow global warming to continue? If the very lives of your children and their children depended on your current actions—and of course they do—how would you act differently than you do?

The other difference I want to mention—and essentially every traditional indigenous person with whom I have ever spoken has said that it is the fundamental difference between western and indigenous peoples—is that even the most open Westerners view listening to the natural world as a metaphor, as opposed to something real. I asked American Indian writer Vine Deloria about this, and he said, “I think the primary thing is that Indians experience and relate to a living universe, whereas Western people, especially science, reduce things to objects, whether they’re living or not. The implications of this are immense. If you see the world around you as made up of objects for you to manipulate and exploit, not only is it inevitable that you will destroy the world by attempting to control it, but perceiving the world as lifeless robs you of the richness, beauty, and wisdom of participating in the larger pattern of life.” That brings to mind a great line by a Canadian lumberman: “When I look at trees I see dollar bills.” If when you look at trees, you see dollar bills, you’ll treat them one way. If when you look at trees, you see trees, you’ll treat them differently. If when you look at this particular tree you see this particular tree, you’ll treat it differently still. The same is true for salmon, and, of course, for women: if when I look at women I see objects, I’m going to treat them one way. If when I look at women I see women, I’ll treat them differently. And if when I look at this particular woman I see this particular woman, I’ll treat her differently still.

Here’s where people usually ask, “Okay, so how do I listen to the natural world?” When people ask me this, I always begin by asking them if they have ever made love. If so, I ask whether the other person always had to say, “put this here,” or “do that now,” or did they sometimes read their lover’s body, listen to the unspoken language of the flesh? Having established that one can communicate without words, I then ask if they have ever had any nonhuman friends (a.k.a. pets). If so, how did the dog or cat let you know that her food dish was empty? I used to have a dog friend who would look at me, look at the food dish, look at me, look at the food dish, until finally the message would get across to me.

How do we hear the rest of the natural world? Unsurprisingly enough, the answer is: by listening. That’s not easy, given that we have been told for several thousand years that these others are silent. But the fact that we cannot easily hear them doesn’t mean they aren’t speaking, and does not mean they have nothing to say. I’ve had people respond to my suggestion that they listen to the natural world by going outside for five minutes and then returning to say they didn’t hear anything. But how can you expect to learn any new language (remember, most nonhumans don’t speak English) in such a short time? Learning to listen to our nonhuman neighbors takes effort, humility, and patience.

The Tolowa believed the nonhuman world had something to say, and that what the nonhuman world had to say was vital to their own survival. Given that they were living here sustainably for 12,500 years, and given that we manifestly are not, perhaps the least we could do is acknowledge that they were on to something, and maybe even explore just what that kind of relationship might look and feel like.

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Derrick Jensen lives in northernmost California and is the author of, most recently, Songs of the Dead.

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