Saturday, November 29, 2014

Where We Belong

Where We Belong is a collection of Paul Shepard essays that discuss how we perceive the natural world, and how this influences the way we treat it.  Most of the essays were written between the 1950s and 1970s.  They include some ideas that evolved into major components of his classics.  Almost half of this book is devoted to provocative discussions of pioneer diaries, a special treat.

Humans evolved as hunters and scavengers on tropical savannahs.  Today, our genes are still those of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers — not Anthropocene cell phone zombies.  Shepard believed that the process of normal human development depended on experiences best provided by living close to wild nature.  Children need to be surrounded by a variety of wild species, to observe them, and learn from them.  They need to be outdoors, and experience how everything in their land is alive.

They need a culture that guides them through the transition from adolescence to adulthood, via rituals of initiation.  When this is not provided, “Self-generated substitutes created by adolescents are a virtual catalog of delinquency and neurosis … adolescents cannot discover their maturity in a city.”  They don’t understand that the all-natural dance of creatures eating creatures is normal and good.  They think that food comes from stores.  They are space aliens, as most of society is.

Some of the damage can be healed by spending more time with nature.  Emotionally impoverished city folks can “recover elements of human ecology warped by millennia of immersion in domesticated landscapes.  Paramount among these is the opportunity to be free of domestic animals both as social partners and as models of the nonhuman.”  We have a powerful desire to live in a wild landscape that is inhabited by wild animals — and parks and pets are a poor substitute.

Shepard was never a cheerleader for the domestication of plants and animals, because it spawned a way of living that was harmful to everything.  The relationship between the human and non-human shifted from one of freedom to one of human domination and control.  This led to profound changes in the way we perceived the world, and to destructive changes in behavior.

From the first civilizations, growing population fueled ongoing deforestation.  Sheep, goats, and cattle were then turned loose on the former forest.  These “hoofed locusts” gobbled up young seedlings, and ensured that the forest would never recover.  The exposed soil was then washed away by the rains, creating vast wastelands that modern visitors now perceive as natural and picturesque.  This resulted in a “lobotomy on the land, done not with a scalpel but with teeth and hooves.”  

The Minoan community of Jerash, a dusty village of 3,000, was once home to 250,000.  “No wonder Western consciousness is an overheated drama of God’s vengeance and catastrophe, preoccupation with sacrifice, portents and omens of punishment by a heavy-handed Jehovah.  Like the dinosaurs, which are known mainly for their vanishing, the ancestors we know best, and from whom we take our style, are those who seem to have lived mainly to call down calamity upon themselves.”

Much of the book is devoted to Shepard’s discussion of pioneer diaries from New Zealand and the Oregon Trail.  These essays are illuminating and disturbing.  In New Zealand, the English observed a gloomy, desolate, terrifying wildness, like “Caesar’s Britain,” that was dreadfully unimproved.  To their fundamentalist minds, wilderness was immoral and sinful.  The solution, of course, was to erase the existing ecosystem, and turn the land into a proper English countryside.  Settler Richard Taylor wrote, “The fern is like the savage; both are going down before civilization.”

On the Oregon Trail, early travelers from New England and the Midwest experienced landscapes that were beyond their imagination — vast wide-open spaces, and dark skies with billions of twinkling stars.  Their wagons were prairie schooners, sailing across the seas of waving grass.  At night, they sat around fires, fiddling and singing, listening to the hoots of owls, bellowing bison, and the music of the wind.  They were serenaded by enthusiastic choirs of wolves, howling and shrieking their ancient wild music. 

Folks used to existing in the bowels of civilization were jarred by feelings of isolation, solitude, and emptiness.  At times, the land was absolutely silent.  Then there were deluges, prairie fires, and tornados.  Humming clouds of the native mosquitoes were exceedingly friendly to the smelly travelers in funny attire.  “Everyone was deeply moved by the immense herds of buffalo as they roamed beside, toward, and even through the wagon trains.”

In hotter and drier regions, travelers found buffalo trails that looked like old roads, because of frequent use.  They saw rock formations that resembled castles, lighthouses, churches, palaces, and so on.  From a distance, they looked like manmade ancient ruins, ghost towns.  They wondered if the treeless landscape had once been cleared. 

It was spooky to experience a vast region showing no signs of being beaten and molested by civilization, except along the trail, which was strewn with litter.  Many began the pilgrimage overloaded with stuff, dumping ballast along the way, to make the journey less challenging.  Everywhere along the trail, people carved their names on rocks, stumps, skulls, and trees.

Readers get two impressions from these pioneer stories.  One is that the experience was precious and sacred, a very long trek through a healthy wild land.  Imagine how much people would pay today to experience a wild Nebraska where there were far more buffalo and wolves than humans — no highways, beer cans, motels, or fences.  The tales call up deep ancestral memories of how we all once lived, pleasant memories.

The other impression was that these travelers had not come to abandon civilization and return to wildness and freedom.  If the western plains had water, good soil, and forests, the travelers on the Oregon Trail would have stopped in their tracks, built cabins, and destroyed it.  But they knew that they could not survive on the plains, so they kept moving toward the promised land of salmon and forests, where their descendants would build Portland and Eugene, and create the ancient ruins of the future — enduring monuments to our experiment in civilization, warning signs to the distant generations yet-to-be-born.

The essays in this book discuss aspects of how civilized Western people interpret the natural world.  Their perspective is strongly influenced by our culture of wealth, alienation, and destruction.  What’s missing in this book is the perspective of people rooted in place, who have reverence and respect for the land they inhabit.

Okanagan elder Jeanette Armstrong is one of many who eloquently discuss the vital importance on having a healthy connection to place, community, and family.  She sees that our world is being disemboweled by alienated people who have no connection to place, people who have no hearts, because they are “dis-placed.”  Shepard put it like this, “Knowing who you are is impossible without knowing where you are.” 

Shepard, Paul, Where We Belong — Beyond Abstraction in Perceiving Nature, University of Georgia Press, Atlanta, 2003.


Riversong said...

“No wonder Western consciousness is an overheated drama of God’s vengeance and catastrophe."

This is why, unlike indigenous spirituality which venerates the sacred in all things because the world births and nurtures and then reclaims us, western religion worships God to keep Him from punishing us.

What Is Sustainable said...

In Nature and Madness, Shepard devotes a lot of attention to the Sky Father, and the three traditions he fathered — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The desert is a harsh and unforgiving place, and it influenced the spirituality of those who lived there. There was a time when the arid lands of the Middle East were far more alive, before the overgrazing. If there were cultural memories of the era of “milk and honey,” they must have added to the bitter feelings.