The First Principle of Earth: All life depends upon reciprocity – Part 3

Civilization’s Escape Attempt

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Life depends on death. Receiving depends upon giving. Waking depends upon sleeping. Activity depends upon rest. An in-breath requires an out-breath. This constant dynamic cycling of duality expresses the fundamental law of reciprocity, the natural law that governs the balance of opposing forces. Reciprocity stirs the cauldron of generativity. It is inescapable. In the grand scheme of life on planet earth, it is the foundation upon which all living systems rest.

What lives without the death of another? Perhaps a few species of bacteria that metabolize sulfur via heat vents on the ocean floor and maybe some species of algae and phytoplankton that live off sunlight and dissolved minerals alone. It could even be argued that parasites, viruses and bacteria that require living hosts survive on the life of others, not the death. However, the bigger picture of plants and animals participating in the web of life on the thin surface of this blue planet is a bit more complex. The death of one organism predicates the life of others and the life of one organism depends upon the death of others, more or less in equal measure. This describes the original and most fundamental cycle of reciprocity. Living and dying are woven together in an elegant dance of give and take, governed by the most basic natural law of life as we experience it.

Modern culture strives to rise above nature’s dance of life and death rather than fully embrace and participate in it. Death is understandably scary to a self-aware being. Awareness of death challenges our most basic sense of identity and meaning. Much of the subject of the world’s “great” religions is devoted to deriving meaning from the improbable reality of self-conscious life in the face of certain corporeal death. This is not true, however, of the cosmological systems of cultures and language groups that have not created civilizations.

The animist, pantheist, ancestrally oriented spiritual practices of oral peoples of place address the inherent paradox of life, yet there is something fundamentally different about these oral cosmological systems. Indigenous ancestral cosmologies treat the self and the soul as part of a continuum of seen and unseen forces, extending back to the ancestors and forward to the coming generations, woven together by ropes of connection to all of creation. The development of the soul is seen as the strengthening of these sacred connections through practice and mastery of skills and awareness. The soul matures and advances in a more horizontal or downward direction through deeper and deeper levels of conscious participation in the beauty and balance of nature. The difference with the old spiritualities and the new is the focus of their attention. Animist cultures face the earth and celebrate sensual involvement with it.

Abrahamic religious orientation is upward, toward a distant deity, toward a perfect unity with creation after corporeal experience comes to an end, negating the present earthly experience of sin and suffering. Eastern religions are more complex. They share with western Abrahamic traditions written cosmological doctrine and priestly classes that possess resources and political influence, yet still retain strong elements of shamanic practice as well. The mystic traditions within Christianity, Judaism and Islam also employ meditation, isolation in nature, poetic and artistic expression, dance, rhythm and trance as authentic ways of connecting to God and creation. But in most cases, both the Eastern and Western great religions perceive life as an experience of suffering. Suffering therefore, can only be transcended through enlightenment or an after-death state of unity with God and creation. If a generalization can be made, it is that the focus of civilized religions is on the human experience and future transcendence of suffering. Indigenous spiritual practices, as I understand them, focus on full sensual immersion in nature and navigating embodied intensities, such as ecstatic joy, raging grief and everything in between. One might then say, the equivalent of the Bible or Koran would be a direct, sense-oriented, worldly experience. This could include interaction with forces and beings unseen in ordinary states of consciousness. Civilized religious practices focus on the suffering in life and the hope or promise of transcending that suffering through following a particular religious path or set of doctrines. This is not surprising if we examine more deeply the conditions of civilized life for the common person.

My definition of “civilization” is an expansion of mass culture characterized by class divisions and specialized labor. Civilizations are composed of societies who claim to be civil, from the Latin civitas meaning city. Therefore, civilizations are societies who orient their activities and values primarily around cities and other human creations, rather than around nature or creation itself.  A fundamental narcissism and arrogance permeates all of civilization. More on that later.

The primary purpose of  traditional, village-based cultures is to care for their “people” as well as the places that provide them with the resources for food, clothing, shelter and medicine. It is not uncommon among people following the Old Ways to refer to stones, plants, animals and even landmarks as their relatives. Thus, taking care of the “people” in this context extends well beyond the boundaries of the human species.

Expansive cultures that generate cities still have to attend to the people and land, at least minimally. But, in all but possibly a few extinct matriarchal civilizations, these modern cultures all expand their territories. Expansion claims resources to support greater concentrations of wealth and power in an elite class. The most important mission of culture in a civilization, therefore, is to care for the elite class of rulers and landowners. The mission of caring for the people and the land is attended to as a necessary condition for survival, and in better examples, given eloquent lip service. 

In a kind civilization, the care of the common people and land is given dutiful attention second to the collection of resources required to maintain the elite class, i.e., the good king, the democratically elected president, the responsive and responsible CEO. In a despotic or greedy civilization, attention to the health of the land, civil liberties and welfare of the people are given minimum attention to maintain compliance. Decisions are solely in service of the short term goals of the elites. This creates mass suffering at a much different scale.

This new kind of class suffering could never exist in horizontally organized, village-based aboriginal societies. It is a product of the New Way. In the usual analysis of history, only the dynamics between kinder versus more cruel civilizations are examined. Cultures living in the Old Way are left out of the conversation as irrelevant. Ironically, the 600 year Federation of Indigenous Nations, known as the Iroquois Confederacy, existed on the North American continent long before it was named America.Though rarely mentioned, the Iroquois Confederacy had a profound effect upon the development of global democracy, a subject for a future blog. There is no example in the “civilized” world of a democratic government or federated cooperation between nations of differing cultures and languages lasting even three hundred years. This is one more example of the inherent myopia and deliberate self-centeredness of the New Way.

The acquisition and control of resources and territory requires protection, whether the government be kind or cruel, democratic or despotic. This necessitates not just a warrior class, but armies capable of standing against the armies of other expansive cultures. “Civilizations,” by definition, take on the mission of expanding and protecting their territory and influence. This demands the conversion or enslavement of others to the dominant set of cosmological beliefs, practices and language. “Civilization” has created a new kind of mass warfare as its primary method of  expansion and protection. Civilization adopts class structures that keep the majority of people in second class status or even in institutionally organized slavery. This would be inconceivable to most oral, village based cultures of place.

The pre-agricultural peoples of old may not have been peaceful, but they engaged in warfare, slavery and raiding on a completely different scale. The scale of primitive warfare, even in raiding cultures never put demands upon the people or landscape beyond its means. The demands of the natural law of reciprocity always came before the advantages of warfare and expansion. Not so with civilizations.

The shift began with the advent of plow agriculture, the domestication of food plants and grazing animals.  Food resources could now be traded and stockpiled. The scales of equilibrium that human cultures had lived within for countless generations of hunting, gathering and proto-agricultural activity began to tip. The central metaphor of human culture began to change. The horizontally-oriented ethic that “reciprocity makes right” became replaced by the vertical ethic of “might makes right.” The trajectory of human culture changed from care-taking to simply taking. The ability to take without giving back justified taking, elevating the practice of taking without giving to a symbol of social status. The more you could take, accumulate and control, the greater was your worth and the more you presumed to be favored by the gods or God. The sword and the plow together became the new paradigm of human society and culture. Get on board or get out of the way.

Here we have the taproot of modern history. Recorded history, by the very fact of being recorded in writing, contains both consciously and unconsciously the bias of expansion and conquest as well as the early marriage of agriculture and warfare. This is because writing itself, the “technologization of the word”*(Orality and Literacy) is a technology belonging originally only to civilized cultures, and originally only to the elite classes. This explains why “history,” in the classical sense, is the history of war and competing civilizations and religions and nations and language groups. History is civilization talking about itself. 

Hidden within this natural bias, however, is a lie. It is a lie by omission, not by proclamation, though plenty of lies by proclamation exist in historical accounts as well. The truth or falsehood of historical accounts depends to a large degree upon whom one sympathizes with and upon whether the account was written by the “victor” or the “victim,” as perceived by the reader. “History is written by the victorious,” is a famous adage. And it is true. In the bigger picture, all of history is written by the spokespeople of literate civilizations to support the point of view of literate civilization.

Until very recently, the point of view of the true victims of history was never written, it was only told. From the point of view of oral cultures of place, all of “history” is about civilized cultures taking their land and resources and killing or enslaving or assimilating their people, effectively extinguishing their cultures, languages and belief systems or appropriating the parts of them that proved useful to the conquering civilization. From this point of view, “history” is a story of systematic robbery, enslavement and genocide that goes back to the earliest civilizations that emerged from stone age culture 5 to 10,000 years ago, a relatively short time in the scheme of human evolution on the planet, and only a little greater than the short span of written history itself.

The advent of civilization is the story of systematic assault against cultures living by the natural law of reciprocity carried out by elite cultures who seemed to be attempting to escape from natural law. No longer were people primarily interested sustaining the abundance of the land upon which they and their ancestors had lived for countless generations and upon which they had developed extremely sensitive and responsive ecological awareness, technology and practices. No longer did the vision of the leaders of the people extend forward in particular places to the generations to come hundreds of years hence. This was the “Old Way.” Now elite groups of people following the “New Way” were far more committed to acquiring territory and concentrating wealth and influence in the hands of a class of rulers.

Taking without giving back in roughly equal measure became a source of social status that elevated a wealthy and powerful minority class of persons above the majority classes. This resulted in vertically oriented social structures with owning and ruling classes at the top of the pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, the peasant and farming classes maintained many of the beliefs and nature connected practices of the Old Way. But this had to be done in ways that did not directly challenge the authority of the elites. Vertically oriented societies now stood in contrast and in conflict to the horizontally ordered societies of oral cultures of place. And, as history bears out, horizontal nature connected societies, even those with warriors, could not hold their ground against the war technologies and mass armies and cosmological aggressiveness of the New Way.

Ironically, the principle English words used to describe the older, oral, horizontal societies that skillfully practiced taking care of kin and nature as their central cultural values are “primitive” and “savage.” Were we naming our own shadows and behavior in a psychological “projection?”

History as we know it is the abandonment of the natural law of reciprocity as the central guiding understanding of human culture. Now look where that has gotten us! How smart are we modern people, really? We can build nuclear weapons and internal combustion engines and cell phones and satellites. We are clever, and in love with our awesome cleverness! But smart?

We cannot underestimate how deeply the abandonment of nature has lodged itself in the modern person’s consciousness. If we are to make our way forward from this point in history we must find a way to return modern cultures and social organization to reciprocity. This is the mission of this blog, to stimulate conversation about the paths we might take toward a “New Old Way” which does not reject the cleverness of human technology but somehow finds a way to place it within systems of governing wisdom that are primarily informed by the natural laws that govern life on earth, most especially that of reciprocity: the balanced relationship of life and death, of taking and giving.

 

The First Principle of Earth: All life depends on reciprocity –  Part 2 

Part 2 – The Still Small Voicetumblr_lrtv5kOerI1r3v7q7o1_500_large

There is a Hawaiian word that I am trying to understand. Kuleana. It is something like responsibility, but kinder and somehow more generative and relational. The word kuleana is often used in a collective way as a call to take care of something. “Taking care of our elders is our kuleana.” Or like a t-shirt I saw recently, “More Limu, More Fish. The ocean is our kuleana.” (Limu is Hawai`ian for seaweed, an important food source here that local citizen groups are working to restore to health and abundance along the shorelines.)

A word like “responsibility” can be problematic. For me it carries too much of the inward weight of obligation and not enough of the levity and outward motion of an authentic call to respond, which I believe to be the original sense of the word. I am tempted to replace this word with “kuleana” in my vocabulary, and here in Hawai`i I can perhaps get away with that in certain situations. But even still, some Hawai`ians take offense at the appropriation of their words by non-Hawaiians, and understandably. “They stole our land, repressed our culture, usurped our rightful government and now they want to take our language, too!? And they don’t even really understand it!?”

I will admit to this offense myself. In the first draft of this chapter I tried to make the case for ‘“kuleana” and offer my interpretation of the word. Only thanks to my editor was this cultural faux-pas averted. I tell this only because it shows how a “well-meaning person,” in this case myself, is capable of delivering offense to persons of another cultural and experiential background without so intending, an example of unconscious ignorance obviously still alive and well in me. Not proud. And I hope my readers will kindly give me feedback of this nature if something offensive slips past my editor’s eye.

While I digress a bit, this is relevant to the topic of “responsibility” at hand. Reflecting on the feedback I had received I came to some realizations. I already advocate for people of European descent to connect with their own personal ancestors, as challenging and painful as that often can be. Even to identify with the earth-connected side of one’s European cultural heritage and history can be difficult and painful. Corollary to this, I must somehow reclaim the language of my birth and ancestry, not just borrow (steal) words from other cultures that seem to already have the meaning I am reaching for. First of all, every language is deeply nuanced. It is probably not possible to fully grasp the meaning of a foreign word without completely absorbing the language, customs and culture, and possibly even the landscape, that the word springs from and lives within.

To engage full responsibility for my use of language does not mean that I may not use Hawai`ian words, but rather when I do , I must become fully aware of why I am choosing Hawai`ian over English, and consider the audience where I am speaking or writing. I am  assuming permission is granted to me based upon the relationships that are present to the utterance.

For example, I am a beginning hula student. My kumu hula (hula teacher) has taught me a protection chant for entering the forest, in particular if my intention is to collect plant materials. If I am with my Kumu, I may use this Hawai`ian chant. In fact, it is respectful and expected of me, as a student, to do so if he gives me the nod. He has given me permission to use the chant outside of his presence as well, and very occasionally I do. After all, I have permission. However, usually, if I am leading a group into the forest and we pause to pray before entering, which is a cultural protocol not unique to Hawai`ian culture, I almost always choose to honor my own ancestry,culture and language by making my prayer in English. English words work fine for speaking to the unseen world. At this point in my cultural education, English is better, because it resonates more deeply inside me. I am attuned to my daily language and therefore it is a more effective way for me to communicate with the spirit world and with people who understand English. However, English words do not resonate as deeply with the land here in Hawai`i and in that way perhaps carry less power (and they sound much less beautiful to me.)  At some point, I may feel the Hawai`ian language and have permission from my cultural elders to use it, perhaps even a responsibility to do so. Because of the rich gifts I have received from the process of learning the language and culture, it may become my kuleana, my responsibility, to use the Hawai`ian language as a way of honoring and giving back to the teachers and elders who made the effort to educate me and to the culture and ancestors that host my presence here. That would be an example of reciprocity at work. What I am reaching for here is a nuanced understanding of the word “responsibility” and how our “ability to respond” is linked to the natural law of reciprocity.

There is something inside the human being that the Friends Meeting for Worship (Quaker Church) calls “the still, small voice.” I remember vividly the “meetings” I attended as a child. Meetings happened on Sunday, just like other churches, but there was no priest or preacher in front of the congregation. Members would arrive dressed in their Sunday best, take their seats facing front and sit quietly, as if waiting for the sermon. Nothing at all would happen for the longest time, just a room full of quiet adults and children. Sometimes the fifteen minutes that we kids were required to sit in silence (adults kept on in sitting for a full hour) felt like an unbroken eternity to me. No one would speak. There would only be the sounds of nature coming in from outside and the small sounds of people shifting position or coughing in the high-ceilinged room. On what I considered to be “better days,” before we were allowed to go downstairs to our Sunday School class where we could TALK, someone would speak during the meeting’s first fifteen minutes. It was commonly an older person of my grandparent’s generation.They would usually tell some kind of story, often about something that they observed in nature. Birds seemed to be a common theme to tell stories about. First would come the story in slow detail, usually about something that seemed pretty ordinary to me. And then would come a reflection on the experience that had meaning to the person, spiritual meaning, which they would share with the group. Sometimes the person speaking would refer to the Bible. But it was equally possible that they would quote Rumi or Ralph Waldo Emerson or something from the Bhagavad Gita if it was relevant to their message. When they were finished, no one said anything, the silence continued. On very rare occasions this would happen twice before I left the room. I was always relieved to go, but I liked it when people spoke. Quaker Sunday School was much like I imagine other Sunday Schools to be. We studied Bible Stories,played games,made crafty things and got ready to “Trick or Treat for UNICEF.”

It was only later, as a young adult, that I returned to a Friends Meeting in Seattle, Washington. I had not attended a meeting since I was nine years old, when my mother died. She was the force behind our family’s participation.. At nineteen, I was living in a group house in the University District, working temporary and part-time jobs to support my full-time peace and anti-nuclear activism. Many of the older persons who were leaders of this movement happened to be Quaker “grey hairs,” and I was very curious. One of my good friends, whose mother was a Quaker and had grown up in Meeting, invited me to come one Sunday morning. I attended irregularly for some years after that. This is when I began to reflect on the unusual character of this “church” more deeply. I never spoke for the hour we adults would sit together in silence, but I always came away enriched and renewed, with a feeling of support for the work I was doing in the world. My friend, Roger, did on occasion offer something during Silence. It was not forbidden to speak as a young person. The Quaker youth had plenty to say, including me, when it came to Meeting For Business, the forum where all the business and policies of the Meeting were discussed and decided by a process of spiritually guided consensus. There was a deep respect for elderhood in Friends culture, as well as a deep respect for the voice and power of youth. It was inspiring to find a pocket of this quality of respect within a culture that generally respects neither their elders nor youth.

The silence held within the Meeting for Worship was the place where the community of faith would gather together to listen for this sacred thing that they called “the still small voice.” This is the voice of guidance that lives and speaks within every person, if one takes the time to sit quietly,reflect and listen. To hear the still small voice does not necessarily move one to speak. When I asked about the conditions expected for speaking at  Meeting I was told only that one must feel moved by spirit to share. Sitting in a receptive silence with others brought me many personal reflections that came from the still small voice within. And very, very often, the words that were spoken at Meeting touched that still small voice within me in profound ways.

The belief in Friends Meeting is that God speaks to and through each of us, if we take the time to listen.The voice is not usually a booming or prophetic voice, though it can be sometimes. It is a deeply quiet voice. And that voice is most commonly heard in a state of profound, reflective silence. Scripture is considered to be an important, sacred basis for interpreting the inner voice, but not an exclusive one. There are Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and others who attend Meeting for Worship as equal participants. Pretty profound, really. Here was a “Peace Church” that practices peace and tolerance without preaching. Instead of “practice what you preach,” the moral instruction becomes “practice what you hear when you listen to the still small voice within.” Quakers through history are perhaps best known for the attention they give to conscience in the spiritual life and in their insistence that one must not only listen to conscience but act on it in worldly affairs.

Of the last three centuries, the Quaker church is perhaps the spiritual movement originating in Europe most historically committed to equality, democracy, religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and to peace and the practice of nonviolent social action in the United States. Philadelphia was founded by English leader William Penn in 1682 as a refuge for fellow Quakers who held the majority influence in politics and business in this important city for a full century. The movement for independence and the emergent federation of independent states was shaped in profound ways by Quaker values and thought, though Quakers themselves backed away from direct participation in politics because of a crisis of conscience stemming from their spiritual commitment to pacifism. Quaker Friend John Woolman was one of the early supporters of the 1755 tax-resistance movement that led to the Declaration of Independence. He wrote a spiritual diary that was published posthumously in 1772 which came to have a profound influence on the Religious Society of Friends. Woolman looked to nature as a powerful direct source of spiritual truth and guidance and a direct reflection of God and spiritual wisdom. He advocated harmonious relations between humans and nature as fundamental to a righteous life. “I believe that where the love of God is perfected and the true spirit of government watchfully attended to, a tenderness toward all creatures will be experienced, and a care felt in us that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation which the Great Creator intends for them under our government.

Quaker Friends have been important leaders and supporters of progressive currents within United States history from the very beginning: tax resistance against the British, abolition of slavery, religious and cultural tolerance and respect, women’s suffrage and rights, the labor movement, civil rights, the antiwar and antinuclear movements and the environmental movement. Their primary tool in these reformist movements has always been passive resistance, civil-disobedience and nonviolent direct action, since before those names were coined in the English language. The Quaker spiritual, cultural and political contributions give persons of European heritage one example of a cultural legacy of European descent that we can embrace and be proud of. It was surely deeply influenced by its contact with the philosophies, customs and wisdom of the original inhabitants of their new continent.This openness to influence is to its credit, especially considering the cultural attitudes of dominant European religious movements toward non-literate peoples at the time.

John Woolman remarks in the Journal, “The marks of famine in a land appear as humbling admonitions from God, instructing us by gentle chastisements, that we may remember that the outward supply of life is a gift from our Heavenly Father, and that we should not venture to use or apply that gift in a way contrary to pure reason.” To Woolman “pure reason” was roughly synonymous with what I call “natural law.” He is saying that signs of famine in nature, whether human famine or animal famine. They are communications to us, instructions, reminders, from the Creator to respond to the laws of nature and live gratefully in harmony with them. We should clearly not use the gifts given to us by life and the Creator in ways that run contrary to natural law, if we do, famine will ensue. Embedded within this very simple quote are profound understandings of reciprocity, responsibility, and the way the natural world communicates to the human conscience.

I am striving here to express the connection that John Woolman has obviously put together between presence to the natural world, the natural law of reciprocity and the human capacity to respond: responsibility. I am reaching for a deeply nuanced understanding of two English words that are in some ways very simple in their origins. Reciprocity comes from the root word reciprocal. This comes from Latin reciprocus and simply means back and forth, re- meaning back and pro- meaning forward. Responsibility is easy for the layperson to break down: ability to respond. The word “respond” comes from the Latin verb respondere meaning to “answer, to offer in return.” Because they share the same root prefix re-, meaning back, responsibility and reciprocity are connected in root meaning to a notion or a sense or a description of giving back or offering back. The natural law of reciprocity states simply that the forces and materials that generate life and abundance are gifts to the living and that the recipients of these gifts must give in return for the forces and materials that generate life to remain vital and not be diminished.

The animal and plant and microbial world all live by this law without thought, though not necessarily without consciousness. Thought is the quality of consciousness particularly assigned to humans. Thought is capable of being aware of itself, of making conscious choices about behavior and of reflecting upon those choices and evaluating their consequences later. Self awareness, choice and the ability to evaluate and alter behavior may exist in less developed ways in the animal world, but these qualities are developed in humans to a much more sophisticated order of magnitude. In this way, while animals certainly act on the basis of self-interest, they are not capable of greed, for example, in the way that humans are. The privileges of thought and choice come to humans at a cost. If they are not tempered with the responsibility to care for all of creation, to follow the natural law of reciprocity and to pay very close attention to the signs of nature, then we may destroy the very sources of life that nourish us by making poor choices – choices that benefit us, or some small minority of us, in the short term but diminish the very sources of life that nourish and sustain us and our fellow creatures in the long term. This seems obvious and sensible, but the ecological and social crisis that human history is now propelling us into at a global scale is no laughing matter. It is a direct result of choices we make individually and collectively every day.  Reciprocity is not merciful, it’s a law. When the balance of life is put in jeopardy, it will be restored by the most direct means possible. Taking without giving back cannot be sustained long term. The beings, mineral resources and energy resources that are taken from without replenishment will be exhausted eventually in the short term resulting, as John Woolman pointed out, in the “marks of famine” followed by famine itself.
The good news is that each of us has within us the capacity to listen with a highly developed quality of attention and observation to the still small voice of conscience that vibrates to the rhythm of nature. Our sense of reciprocity can be awakened. Our sense of responsibility can be restored to its authentic activity in our lives. Our sense of gratitude can be renewed. All of these things flow naturally from reflective silence and time spent immersed in nature, doing the things that we evolved to do with our minds and bodies and sharing those experiences with our friends and families. This is the subject matter of the New Old Way: finding ways to connect to kin and nature in a modern world as profoundly and skillfully as our ancestors did following the Old Ways

The First Principle of Earth: All life depends upon reciprocity – Part 1

Part 1

“Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship.”  Freida Jacques, Onandaga Nation

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Who has protected more ecological habitat in the United States, bird lovers or bird hunters?

“Not a fair question!” the bird hunter who is also a bird lover says. Okay, how about between people who identify primarily as bird lovers and watch birds as a passionate activity versus those who love birds and also hunt and eat them? Obviously a person can be both a lover and a hunter, and probably most bird hunters are bird lovers. But the reverse is not true, most modern bird lovers are not bird hunters also. So the question stands. Which group of people has protected and increased biodiversity in more ecological habitat than the other?

Bird hunters as a class of people have protected more ecological habitat by far, than bird lovers. Those who stand for the intrinsic beauty and value of nature primarily from the point of view of observation, experience and environmental science are represented by groups such as The Audubon Society, The Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Friends of the Earth, etc. The hunters are represented by Ducks Unlimited, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, National Wild Turkey Federation, etc. This is a strange divide, and a somewhat artificial one, but interesting in its philosophical and political differences. (My dear readers are going to have to wait for me to finish the research on this. I have this general statement of fact from a very reliable source and I am attempting to get ahold of the data which tallies up the acreages protected or restored by the likes of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Ducks Unlimited, versus the likes of the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Nature Conservancy. I think the hunting organizations win by a margin of about ten to one.)

This division goes back to the late 1800’s when the protection of habitats and ecosystems became a debate between the “Preservationists,” led by spokespeople like John Muir and the Sierra Club, and the “Conservationists” led by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and John Grinell and the Boone and Crockett Club. Both groups shared concerns about the protection of the environment from the ravages of industry and over-harvesting. The Preservationists felt that nature should be preserved in its pristine state for future generations primarily for its intrinsic and spiritual value. Conservationists felt that nature should be protected and conserved primarily for its useful values. This split in perspectives continues to this day and is what I am actually referring to with my question about bird hunters versus bird watchers. In truth, bird hunters and bird watchers are stand-ins for the broader categories of “nature users” versus “nature lovers”, “nature experiencers” versus “nature participants”. I will go more deeply into this philosophical debate in future blogs, but for now will simply point out that this debate does not exist in the indigenous world and might even be considered ridiculous. How can you separate the uses of nature from the love of nature for its intrinsic value? Use leads to love and love leads to use, there is no separation. In fact, separation of those aspects of relationship to nature is a very big part of the problem and not a part of the solution at all.

When one compiles and compares the acreage and people involved in ecological restoration efforts the hunters win the contest. The point is, something happens inside a person who harvests wild food from nature that moves us to give back. This force, a force I call reciprocity, is stronger and of greater consequence to the protection of nature than the love that comes from observing and appreciating nature for its beauty, elegance and spiritual value.

This may be very hard for for many of my “environmentalist” nature loving friends to accept. We “environmentalists” tend to come from educated middle and upper class backgrounds that stereotype two very important working class categories of people who, from my point of view, have a less sentimental and much more viscerally grounded love and connection for nature: hunters and farmers. Hunters and farmers are stereotypically considered to be “hicks,” especially hunters, and these stereotypes influence our thinking more than many of us care to admit. (There is a little love affair going with organic farmers and permaculturists in progressive circles right now, but the class division I am pointing to continues sharply in this arena as the divide between “organic” and “conventional” farmers.) This often unconscious prejudice expresses itself in our language and attitudes towards people who have, in the past, often lived without formal academic higher education. Educated environmentalists often try to grab the higher moral ground in environmental debates. However, without making direct personal and practical use of nature’s offerings through acts of harvesting food, medicines and other useful materials from nature and working with them with our own hands, I believe one’s sense of reciprocity is diminished.

These activities are linked, I believe, deep in our genetic heritage to how we calibrate our sensitivities and cultivate our connection to nature with our full range of senses engaged. One can feel love without feeling the call of reciprocity. This is the sentiment of love, the pleasurable feeling of love, without the nitty-gritty involvement, like a tantalizing love affair. All life depends on the death of other living creatures. If I am a person belonging to nature as a full participant, I live fully inside that unarguable truth. If I am an observer of nature, I may separate myself from the direct experience of the dirty, smelly reality of death as the source of life. Often the spiritual and inspirational perspective also carries an attitude toward human culture and activity as intrinsically destructive to the beauty and health of nature, rather than humans being important integral participants in the natural world.

I did not grow up hunting, but my earliest and most powerful memories of loving nature were fishing excursions with my favorite uncle. He would get me up for before dawn to help catch “brookies” with worms on tiny hooks from almost hidden meandering streams in the New Hampshire woodlands. We would come back to camp all proud and mosquito bitten with our limits of the delicious little trout. Then Uncle Linc would roll them in cornmeal and fry them up whole in a cast iron pan on the Coleman stove. I thought there was nothing so delicious in the world. I would pretty much give anything to go fishing with my Uncle Linc. He was the hunter and the fisherman and the farmer in my lineage that passed on to me a deep and passionate hands-on love of nature. He probably influenced the vocational direction of my life more than any other single adult, though I did not realize this until very recently, and sadly, long after his passing. From him I learned to be at home in nature, how to be quiet as we moved in the woods so as not to scare the fish we intended to catch, how delicious the food was that came straight from his garden and how to pull weeds. I am full of gratitude for these early experiences that live deep in my imagination, dreams and preferred activities to this day.

Humans that lived within the evolved pattern of village scale, stable, land-based cultures organized themselves around hunting and gathering and in time added in the domestication of animals and the cultivation of food crops for their own consumption. Some were nomadic, following the hoop of the seasons for their primary root and animal “harvests.” Some became nomadic herders. Before the advent of mass civilization and cities these cultures continued to harvest from the wild in addition to their reliance on “farmed” crops and domestic animals. Almost universally, they had the impact upon their environment of increasing not only the abundance of the species they hunted and the medicine, fibre and building materials they gathered, but also the biodiversity of their environments in general. Their management practices often included the careful use of fire to maintain diverse habitat for plants and animals that would not have existed without the human hand. The deliberate use of fire to maintain meadow habitats increased edge habitats where biodiversity flourished. Many plant species that were harvested as important food sources diminish and disappear when the harvesting of those species and fire management practices stop, impacting wildlife that utilizes those food plants as well. This general truth has many exceptions and is much argued about in scientific and and environmentalist circles. Much of this information is lost to history. In the Americas, the condition of the “wild” lands that were recorded by the first European explorers had already changed dramatically due to the ravages of European diseases upon the native population. It is possible that the extraordinary population of Great Plains bison was at least in part a population explosion due to much reduced hunting pressure.

I lived for ten years in Port Townsend,Washington. Port Townsend sits at the tip of the Quimper Peninsula, a landmass that juts northward into Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the northeast corner of the mountainous and much larger Olympic Peninsula. For years I was curious about the forests on the Quimper Peninsula. The largest douglas fir trees, the dominant species, were the size of the large second growth trees I saw in many places that had been logged at the turn of the century. This was not unusual. What was unusual was that there were no stumps in the forests. If this was second growth, where were the stumps? If it was first growth, why were the trees not huge like they were in the other old growth forests of the Olympic Peninsula? Was it the effect of the Olympic Mountain “rain shadow” that reduced the rainfall in our area? I settled for that explanation for a long time.

Then I learned about the “wolf trees.” There were old, old Douglas fir trees scattered here and there in the forests on the Quimper peninsula, individuals that had branches all the way to the ground. Some of these old giants were five hundred years old. The growth pattern of branches to the ground instead of long straight trunks indicated that those trees had grown up in an open meadow. All the other trees around these three to five hundred year old grandmother trees, were a hundred years old or less. Pretty much the whole peninsula had been open meadow at one time, maintained by human burning. The oral history of the place tells us that the camas meadows (a delicious edible bulb in the lily family and important staple carbohydrate for the northwest coastal tribes) were some of the most productive anywhere. Today the only camas left was in a little patch of unmowed grass at the Port Townsend Golf course. This patch is diminishing each year because of non-native species, but also because it is not being burned. More importantly, the soil was not being disturbed and the seeds were not being buried at harvest, a practice that gives Camas an edge in competing with the other low-growing plants..

The meadows provided forage and habitat for elk, deer and their predators as well as many species of seed eating birds, some of which were game birds. In less than 100 years much of that abundance and biodiversity was lost and the entire baseline nature of the landscape changed from camas prairie to Douglas fir forest overstory with salal and fern understory, not nearly as productive a landscape for herbivores, ground birds or Camas. Without careful, awareness-based human participation in the nature of that place, the resilience and ecological diversity of the land was diminished. Additionally, and maybe the greatest loss, was of the culturally based knowledge of how to sustainably live in that place and maintain its resilience.

In early days there was no such thing as “wilderness,” places in nature that humans did not live or hunt or harvest as participants in the wild web of life. The modern notion of wilderness as a pristine place without humans living in it is predicated upon the extinction and removal of the human cultures that formerly inhabited and participated in their wild habitats. These were arguably cultures that possessed and had generationally passed on the most attuned environmental sensitivity and the most sophisticated ecological expertise of place that has ever existed. From an indigenous point of view, modern wilderness is little more than a degraded nature museum with signs proclaiming, “Do not touch!” It is no longer viewed and valued as the beautiful, abundant, self-regenerating home, larder, and medicine cabinet the creator prepared for us to be participants within.

First Principle of the Universe: Everything is connected

The people of old knew this. Everything is connected. And like so many things known to the people of old, we modern literates have spent billions of dollars proving the truth of it.

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Don’t get me wrong here. Scientific argument, investigation and discovery reveals aspects of the wonder and unity of our universe in graphic detail, formerly only available to the imagination, dreams and psychic travels of the ancients[1]. We are at a point in history where anyone can look at photos of nebulae millions of light years away and peer into the world of microscopic cells, witnessing invisible biological processes. This is fantastic in the truest sense of the word. However the commoner must trust the person with the camera as to what those pictures represent. This is not really much different than the common person’s relationship to the shaman in an animist culture. The method of observation and interpretation looks different, but the cultural reliance on the word of the individuals who actually enter into the unseen worlds is quite similar.

Is it not interesting that the most abstract and expensive branch of modern science, subatomic physics, points ever more clearly and in great detail, at the unity and connectedness of creation? Mass can be transformed into energy and energy can transform into mass. In the beginning, according to Big Bang theory, there was only energy, which then began to take the form of matter with qualities of both mass and energy as it cooled and expanded. All of the elements present in the universe we observe and breathe and walk in today are descendents of the simplest of atomic elements, hydrogen. I The fusion furnaces of early hydrogen stars passed through star lifetimes and then burst forth in supernovae to populate the ethers with new hot gasses which in turn birthed new stars, new elements and new solar systems. And, not only does theoretical physics point at the unity of creation as an objective reality, but also includes the subjective reality of the consciousness of the observer.

The closer we observe the position of a subatomic particle the less we are able to observe its trajectory and momentum. The closer we determine a subatomic particle’s momentum the less we can know about its position. This is not due to interference created by the observer, but is rather a phenomenon of observation itself at the subatomic level. This is due to what is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and was demonstrated by the Bose Einstein condensate experiment, among others. Rubidium atoms were cooled down to near absolute zero. This reduced their vibration, and thus their velocity and momentum, to near zero. But as the rubidium atom’s momentum approached zero, their location became so diffused that the individual atoms couldn’t tell each other apart. Once their momentum approached zero,they could no longer be located in space to the perception of an observing consciousness. Even the elusive quality we call consciousness seems to be an inseparable part of the connectivity of the universe, both acting as a player and being played by the nature of reality itself in some strange and paradoxical way.

Many a wise shaman of old or present day might speak to these discoveries something like this: “Yes, things are not at all what they seem to be on the surface of observable reality. We have always known this. It is probably good you have discovered it for yourselves, though. Now let us proceed with the problems at hand…”

And what, exactly, are the problems at hand? This question is usually treated much like the political polls I have been receiving of late, asking me to rate the importance of issues on a scale from one to ten. OK, let’s see, is war and violence more important than climate change? Is either of those things more important than global child poverty and malnutrition? What about the refugee crisis or the war in Syria? Maybe the problem of human trafficking and the issue of sex slaves is more important? What about the gyre of plastic waste the size of a small continent in the Pacific Ocean?…Why is it that the more focused and definite I become on a particular issue, the less comfortable I become giving it the number one on the scale of importance? Is some kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at work in the social realm, where the closer I focus on one concern, other concerns seem to escalate in their potential for suffering and calamity in my peripheral awareness. Is this just me being indecisive?

Lately, I’ve been giving high marks to climate change in these questionnaires on principle, not because I really believe it is number one but because it seems to capture the enormity of what I am feeling. But now I have stopped responding altogether. I know these questionnaires are really just an excuse to gather data about me and send me more focused fundraising appeals. Everything is connected. Every “issue” is connected and vibrating with all of the other “issues.” The whole relative rating of “issues” is bunk. The right questions are not being asked. And what is the reason that the unity of all creation is being left out of the assumptions behind the question? As if we could rate the importance of one life form over that of another. What pattern of thinking and unconscious arrogance might be at work even in the framing of our questions?

What is the problem at hand? Is it a problem of human consciousness or a problem of the physical reality of human activity on a finite planet? This is another popular debate. Yes, both. How can they be separated? When it comes down to deciding if one life form is more important than another, a choice that politicians and judges argue about every day, by what criteria do we make such decisions? These are important decisions that express our collective social will and have very far reaching consequences in both time and space. For example, by deciding not to return water flow to a diverted stream in East Maui, but instead allow that water to irrigate industrially farmed cropland miles away, we are depriving countless creatures and farmers using ditch irrigation below the diversion, of a resource critical to their lives and livelihoods in favor of organisms and livelihoods at the other end of the irrigation canal. This is an example of how human consciousness is expressed through political processes that directly or indirectly reflect collective social will. The activity of diverting water will have both seen and unseen consequences in the short and long term.

If you have gotten this far you will likely favor a return of at least some measurable flow of water to the streams, if not all of it, because my bias is clear in even the title of this blog. When we turn off stream flow, creatures adapted to that specific stream die out completely This leads to extinction, a permanent and tragic ripple in the fragile fabric of life on this island planet. Such decisions should not be made lightly or out of ignorance of potential consequences. Life on this planet is precious and wonderful, definitely improbable, and nearly impossible given the entropic nature of the universe. We live on a tiny mote of magic, a very long way from any other similar inhabitable motes of magic.

Though life is fragile, it is also resilient. At least it is a bit more resilient than fragile in the mid-range picture of things. But nature’s facility at resilience lies in the unseen unity and connectedness of everything. Some ecological catastrophes, defined by me, create massive changes to a web of life’s ability to support biodiversity and abundance. These are caused by a cascade of unforeseen consequences from the loss of a single species in an ecosystem. Industrial scale hunting of sea otters is one famous example. Sea otters eat sea urchins, sea urchins eat the holdfasts of kelp. Sea otters neared extinction so that the European and Russian elite could wear their skins as coats. This wiped out the kelp forests of the west coast of North America due to an overpopulation of sea urchins. The kelp forests were a necessary habitat and food source for countless species, including the sea otter. Fur hunters had no intention of wiping out entire fisheries and damaging the biodiversity of the entire coastal ecosystem of a continent, but they did. This story has repeated itself over and over throughout human history. In the migrations of Homosapiens, mass extinction of megafauna and massive alterations to ecosystems have been the rule rather than the exception.

What I want to impress upon my reader is not that returning stream flow is good and necessary, even though I think it is in most cases. What I want to do is bring the unity of the universe into the conversation in a radical way. This is something that the new wisdom and the old wisdom agree upon and yet it only remains active in either our spiritual discussions or our scientific and philosophical ones.Yet it remains as the most universal overarching understanding of all time. Everything is connected! We all come from the same source. We are made of the same stuff. Even our consciousness is part of the stuff of creation. Every action ripples out in concentric rings of effect into the universe, from gross events like supernovae, to the smallest step of an ant or the wave/particle energy of an electron. As beings who possess self-consciousness, awareness, observation and choice, this truth should be at the forefront of all decision making.

If we understand the unity and interconnectedness of creation to be the fundamental basis for all questions regarding human action, we change the perspective of the questioner in profound ways. First of all, it opens the door to humility. If I truly understand that every action I take ripples out into creation forever, I might become more observant of the effects of my actions upon the universe, or at least upon my little inhabited part of the universe. I might want to take advantage of the quality of my humanness that allows contemplation and observation. This is an opportunity given to me by the fact of my humanness, and the potential of having a self-conscious Self. Humility enters, because even if I am the most advanced scientist in my field, or the most advanced tracker, scout, healer or shaman in my village, I will never argue that my powers of observation cannot be improved upon.

Today, hubris, not humility, is rewarded in the political and economic realms. Witness the outpouring of support for Donald Trump, who offers nothing but hubris. Watch Bernie Sanders, whom I believe possesses an unusual amount of humility for a politician, use hubris to get attention and raise funds for his admittedly astute substantive messages. A presidential candidate who attempts to use humility as the foundation for their bid for the U.S. presidency you will never hear of unless you look deeply into the matter on your own determined initiative. That person will not, at this time, appear on your ballot, TV screen or newspaper as anything more than a curious human interest story. Yet humility is the most important human quality to flow from our most profound understanding of creation. Even so it gets almost no air-time in public discourse, except from the Dali Lama and Pope Francis and a few other international voices. We are paradoxical creatures indeed, choosing leaders who consistently lack one of the most important qualities needed for getting along with others.

Where in history have people actually selected leaders,expressing high degrees of humility as a consistent pattern? Only in “non-civilized” societies, as far as I know. That is, only in village-based, primarily oral cultures that live or lived directly off of their ancestral land for countless generations. Indigenous cultures. Old cultures. Cultures with a long ancestral memory of living in one place with no ambition to build empires or “markets”. This is where the Old comes into The New Old Way. These cultures were led by elders who took a long time to make decisions, who possessed great humility and placed a high value on careful and accurate observation.

The New Old Way postulates that the unity of creation is the most important starting point regarding human actions. It honors the process of modern scientific inquiry, even though it may challenge the allocation of the huge resources sometimes required to carry out its work. It may be that many of these resources are better devoted to addressing concerns related to survival, social peace and the restoration of nature, but it does not reject western academic science. At the same time, the New Old Way also honors and recognizes the old arts of scientific inquiry. The way of the scout, the tracker, the gatherer and the shaman are also science. They are the science of oral human culture, a science that predates literacy, a science that is unifying and connective. It is most unfortunate that modern literate science is often arrogant and dismissive of the old sciences. In the New Old Way they get along and there are numerous places where they are beginning to collaborate out of mutual respect. This is positive, and reflects the birthing impulse of a new world view.

As we move forward in this age of global end games, the voice of unity is extremely important. The unity and connection of the universe and what it means as a guiding principle for our personal and collective lives needs to come to the forefront of our awareness. Downstream effects of all of our actions play out for a very long time. The principle of considering the effects of decisions seven generations forward is based on indigenous science as well as the cultural memory of previous mass extinctions and their cost to humans and nature. The loss of the megafauna of the Americas, mastodons, giant sloths and their predators, notably saber toothed tigers, followed the arrival of the human hunters. We acted so swiftly and so greedily that the species at the business end of our spears did not even have a chance to adapt to our presence. This undoubtedly brought starvation to many a thriving human tribe, as the easy food sources disappeared.

Lessons learned in this way tend to have a lasting impact. And these lessons and their moral, ethical and technological implications have been kept alive culturally by the peoples who have lived directly from the land since these cataclysms. The need to respect,observe and know first hand the unity and interconnectedness of nature was universally developed out of direct necessity for long-term survival in each particular place that humans came to inhabit.

Today modern human cultures, languages and consciousness occupy continental and global spaces, not only regional ones. Mass culture has not only forgotten its roots but has systematically attempted to erase indigenous cultures from their territories, as well as indigenous cultural influences from the minds of the common people. There has been an ongoing land-grab and class stratification of society over the last few thousand years of mass civilization. Now is the time to readjust our compasses and evaluate the journey of civilization for its flaws, before it is too late. The unity and interconnectedness of all things is the new north on the social compass of the New Old Way.

 

[1]I think I need to emphasize right from the start that when I refer to “the people of old”, “ancient cultures” and “animist cultures” as I have here, I am struggling to reach for language that includes both the past and the present. These ancient cultures are not dead and gone, by any means. People of old and animist cultures are alive and kicking, if not necessarily well, though persons of such heritage will almost never refer to themselves in these kinds of general terms. This is paradox number one of many you will encounter as you hopefully read on. I am likely to offend indigenous persons, First Nations people, aboriginal people, Native Americans and their allies. For this I apologize in advance. All I can do is ask for help with a language shaped by a world view that relegates original human cultures to the past, when in fact they are both past and present, assuming they have survived genocide (and ecocide) at all. I am trying to help invent both a language and a world-view that includes ancient but living contemporary cultures. If you have suggestions, please share them by commenting. I love comments.