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A Moral Imagination

My partner and I are working on manifesting a farmstead – a prospect that is both scary and exhilarating. I am grateful for the clarity of purpose and vision that each of our conversations brings us.

For the last 10-15 years, my relationship with “land,” “wilderness,” “nature,” etc. has been about getting to know the ecology of a place – the food and medicine that can be harvested, how fun rock climbing on basalt is but how I can’t stand 5.ouch granite faces, the way rain smells and the way snow sounds as it falls. I’ve had a very romantic relationship with “nature.” Heartfelt. Honest. Vulnerable. Adventurous.

But now suddenly, as my partner and I try to figure out how to manifest the farmstead of our dreams, my relationship with “land” has an added dimension of figuring out how to buy some of it. Our intentions feel honorable: He wants to steward a farm and raise healthy, happy animals that feed our community. I want to establish a botanical sanctuary for sensitive and endangered medicinal plant species. We want to live as lightly as we can and leave the land that nurtures us healthier and more productive than when we first arrive. Yet I have a nagging feeling attached to this whole land search process, a wave of nausea that comes up every time I think about signing a piece of paper that says, I own this land.

I’ve been contemplating why this is, what within me is at odds when I both want to build a home with my partner and feel sick about the practical steps required to make it happen. I share here with you the two primary worldviews that I realized are affecting my experience, as well as where I think I’m headed in weaving them together.

“Nature” and “Wilderness” in U.S. American Thought

Early American nationalism was heavily shaped by European Enlightenment ideas. These ideas were informed by Greco-Roman philosophy and Christian theology, traditions that repeatedly pointed to the dominant status of humans over nature. Consider Plato, speaking in the voice of Socrates, who wrote, “I am devoted to learning; landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me—only the people in the city can do that” (Phaedrus, section 230d). Or Descartes, who argued that, lacking rationality, non-human animals do not have souls or consciousness at all, but rather are mere automata that can be freely experimented upon (Discourse on Method, 1637). Or John Locke, who relegated the value of nature to little or nothing until the worker’s labor gives it value by virtue of making something from it (Second Treatise on Governemt, 1689).

It is no wonder that as post-revolutionary America spread further and further west, conquering and commodifying wild places and native people became central to settler colonial narratives of progress. Eventually, decimation of herds, overgrazing, and a growing capitalist economy fueled by coal, iron and gas indicated a need for some sort of conservation effort. Teddy Roosevelt is known for his strides in environmental conservation, putting under some form of protection approximately 230 million acres of public land during his presidency. He also established in 1891 the United States Forest Service (USFS), with the mandate to preserve and manage productive timber land. While much of these early conservation efforts were due to a romantic love for wild places, they were also due to an economic need to preserve wild places.

Along with a new conservation movement came the American environmental writers. From the transcendentalists to Desert Solitaire, new debates arose about the inherent value of nature; wilderness as a space for recreation and contemplation; and the necessity of conserving predator species and delicate ecosystems. One eventual response to this movement by the federal government was The Wilderness Act of 1964, which protected large tracts of unsettled land. It defined wilderness “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape… as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Along with the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, The Wilderness Act was a major turning point in American environmentalism.

Progress? Perhaps. But ultimately, the American concept of nature/wilderness got written down as something that exists outside of ourselves, operates by laws that are other than human, and can be commodified (hence the need for preservation to begin with).

“Nature” and “Wilderness” in Indigenous Traditions

My comments here stem from my relationships with indigenous people, primarily Dine, Anishinaabe, Lakota, Mohawk, Huichol, Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Schaghticoke. These thoughts have also been largely influenced by a variety of indigenous writers, artists, teachers and publications, such as Martin Prechtel, Winona LaDuke, Kiana Davenport, Ty Defoe, and Cultural Survival. These thoughts are not meant to represent or assume some sort of universal indigenous truth. They represent my own understanding of what people have shared with me, in the context of the choices I am making in my life and in the ways I strive to show up in the world with integrity and awareness. I struggle with how to talk about these things in conscious and effective ways. If my words offend you, please tell me. I want to get better at this.

In indigenous traditions, the physical and spiritual worlds, human and more-than-human beings, are fluid. The ideas of “wilderness” as something separate from humanness, or “supernatural” as something outside of a natural order, do not actually exist. In these traditions, nothing is outside of a natural order. There may be particular individuals who are gifted at tapping the deep webs of the cosmic order (i.e. shamans or medicine people), but everything is connected in the same system of life.

For indigenous peoples, their creation stories, their art and songs, their very existence and identity, are entwined and inseparable from the places they inhabit. Big Mountain Dine Elder Pauline Whitesinger explained that, “In our traditional tongue, there is no word for relocation. To relocate is to move away and disappear.” Native people and their allies around the world are staking their ground in the places that define who they are. Imagine little old ladies chaining themselves under their living room tables, crying out soul wrenching refusals to leave their homes as their houses are bulldozed and their sheep impounded. I’m not kidding. They are simultaneously protecting their very existence and the last pristine groundwater and coal deposits on this planet— “resources” to a person who commodifies nature, gifts to a person who experiences the world as an extension of self and a web of familial relations.

I recently attended a ceremony remembering the Great Falls Massacre of 1676 at Peskeompskut, or what is now called Turners Falls, Massachusetts, named after the military captain responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of native women, men and children at that spot. Doug Harris (Narragansett) said, “I’m forced to go back to the distinctions between a people whose existence is based on commodifying things, versus a people whose life is based on spiritual relations. For the Pocumtuck, the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, for the people of the Northeast, the earth is our mother. And you don’t buy and sell and trade the pieces of your mother’s body” (from The Beacon Tree Podcast, “The Great Falls Massacre, Part One).

Where I’m Headed

In all likelihood, at some point in the next few years, we will buy a piece of land. Goooo American Dream. We will steward it as consciously and humbly as we can. Our longterm goal is to then pass the land on to a next generation without purchase. Whether by donating to a land trust or some other alternative land tenure arrangement, we aim to remove the land from the speculative market and gift it to the next generation. My partner’s impetus has much to do with land access for beginning farmers (a class struggle of a particular kind), and my primary motivation is to not feel nauseous for my whole life because I’m perpetuating a system that feels morally wrong and foreign to my soul. Financially feasible? Economically responsible? Who knows. Where will the money come from to make this work? Who knows. But, as John Paul Lederach writes, “The wellspring lies in our moral imagination, which I will define as the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.”

[Added Note on 10/25/17: Upon rereading my own words, I still feel nauseous. I do think taking land out of private property speculation is a positive step towards re-establishing some degree of earth-human balance and healing the wounds of capitalism and colonization festering within and upon the earth herself. I also know that the homestead we eventually settle on will be just that – land we have settled on. Land that is not ours, was never ours. Settler land. I’m really not sure what to do this, practically speaking in my life as a human who wants to live simply and grow food and medicine while recognizing the genocide that makes my very existence in this place possible…]

Relevant Reading:

“The Incarceration of Wildness: Wilderness Areas As Prisons” by Thomas Birch – an article I read in college that has stuck with me.

Evicting People From Nature: Indigenous Land Rights and National Parks in Australia, Russia and the United Statesby Robert Poirier and David Ostergren – an article about the exclusion of indigenous peoples from their native lands through wilderness protection designations.

The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace by John Paul Lederach.

One Comment

  1. Madeleine
    Madeleine October 31, 2017

    As I read this post I kept wondering, “Well, what happened…?” And then got to your post script. Wishing you clarity with your relationship to the land, Cara. You will know what to do when the time comes, I believe.

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