Our Relationship to the Land

By Loretta Wrobel

As we begin a new year, a question nags me. How many years can we continue to live in an unsustainable manner where we view land as property, land and the non-human beings that reside on it as commodities, and land as capital to be used up without regard? In 2024 I will welcome my 80th birthday. I tremble when I remember in 8 short decades how my world has transformed.

The looming presence of dramatic climate change, with the devastating results– flooding, incessant forest fires that pollute our precious air, and the drying up of important water sources that leave us questioning about our survival. I was listening to an old talk given by Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist, professor, author, and citizen of the Potawatomi nation, speaking of her mourning the extinction of the once prolific passenger pigeons on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of their disappearance. She offered during that speech that we were losing an average of 200 species every day due to climate change. Other sources indicate we are losing 150 species daily. I add to my long list that rapid acceleration of the loss of species is occurring due to the effects of climate chaos. And again I am concerned about the future of our world.

Robin Wall Kimmerer was talking nearly a decade ago at a Bioneers Conference in 2014, comparing the eradication of the passenger pigeons to the relocation of her ancestors from the forests of Michigan to Kansas during the Trail of Death. Both of these events happened because land was needed, and the original peoples, as well as the birds, were viewed as stopping progress.

Ms. Kimmerer goes on to present us a blueprint for sustainability that is as relevant today as it was 10 years ago, when she initially discussed the wisdom of the Honorable Harvest. The relevancy is not surprising, as she is sharing ancient wisdom passed down from generations of her tribal people. This clear elaboration of ancient ways that indigenous peoples refined and verbally passed on over many generations reflects a path of sustainability. This world view is simple yet complex. It is a model that indigenous peoples followed, since they viewed the land as sacred, home, sustainer, ancestral wisdom, source of knowledge, and the residence of nonhuman relatives.

For us in our highly advanced technological culture, these tenets may be viewed as foolish or primitive. I was impressed when I heard her list these core beliefs, and pray that our generation of young people will see the truth and begin to practice these life-sustaining and endurable practices.

She enumerates ten key principles that allow me to feel hopeful. Here is a method of shifting from our capitalist, unsustainable, disrespectful and destructive course to a sustainable, healthy, and respectful philosophy. Adopting these beliefs can stem the out-of-control flow down the presently well-worn road to extinction that so many now extinct creatures have traveled. We desperately must do this for all living species.

The teachings of the Honorable Harvest are grounded in the reality of our utter dependence on the lives of other beings. The understanding that knowing the ways of the ones who take care of you, such as the plants that surround you, can help you thrive. Our young children can identify over one hundred corporate logos and a much smaller number of plants, average around ten. What does this show us about what is paramount in our society?

As we attempt to embrace these principles, the manner in which we impact our environment will be transfigured. Here is a list of these rules of sensible and compassionate living that Robin Kimmerer sees as a methodology to stop the destruction of climate change: Never take the first one, ask permission, take only what you need, listen for the answer, minimize harm, use everything you take, be grateful, share with others, reciprocate the gift and take only that which is given.

A book can be written about each of these commandments that appear as straightforward and easy. However, for the average person living in America today, these ten principles represent an extremely monumental stretch of thinking, acting and being. For example, when we take only what we need, we stop producing mountains of waste and we keep our houses free from excessive clutter. Instead, we in our western culture accept the idea that more is best. The more we possess, the happier we will be. So goes the mistaken assumption. We all experience the folly of that myth and still buy into purchasing more and more.

One of my favorites is share with others. Pause and imagine living in a sharing culture. How could our daily life be different if we operated on sharing rather than collecting and hoarding our commodities? What kind of world would we create if the status of an individual was counted by the degree of sharing and not by how much money, houses, or cars they possess? It is refreshing to consider how a switch in beliefs and thinking could alter an entire culture.

If you are still in the dark about what is given, consider the sun, whose energy rises each day and is shared freely with everyone. We have the wind, the ocean waves, and the forests. There are abundances of elements and species that allow us to be alive and breathing. Do we remember to thank all of these beings that are always there for us? “Saying thank you” is just accepting our interdependence, and releasing the erroneous idea that we are totally independent and self-reliant.

When we acknowledge that what is broken in our world is our relationship to the land, we are moving on the healing pathway. The deeper we understand having a positive connection to our earth is essential for our wellbeing, the more our chances for survival increase dramatically. Also, the wellbeing of all species on this amazing and diverse planet is vital to our continued existence. All life is intertwined. By vowing to remain committed to the belief that the welfare of other species is necessary to our continued healthy existence, we can invest in the strenuous work of changing how we relate to plants, soil, air, water, and to each other. May we see the sageness before it is too late. We have many ancestors with the answers for us, if we make the intelligent choice to pay attention. First peoples learned by observing, giving thanks, and honoring the land and nonhuman species. Can we follow their lead to combat climate change? I pray we will.

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