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


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.

2 thoughts on “The First Principle of Earth: All life depends upon reciprocity – Part 1

  1. This is an incredible piece of coherent thought and writing, Alan – timely, and necessary, as we grapple with now-familiar thought forms like “sustainability”, whose “buzz” often renders them useless or held hostage to ideas that do not take us all the way to the truth of things.
    I look forward to more, and will share this post widely. Thank you!!!! xxo Lea

    • Thank you Lea.

      We’ve been having conversations lately where your name has come up in reference to Dagara medicine. Kelley and I are thinking about hosting an informal mini-gathering of K people from our extended Northwest Village group – Michael P., Barbara V., Queen Mae(Kelly S.), Heather H., Thomas E., Liz R., Malama, ourselves, Daisy, Deborah, you . . . Just to kind of check in on how everyone is doing, not an official K gathering, but following the basic safety protocols of travel and initiated medicine people coming together. Mostly just really craving a conversation about the medicine with people I feel safe with and mutually respect, without politics. We will be in the Port Townsend, Washington area in mid to late June. Might you consider traveling up for a visit? I know it is a long way, but it would be really great to see you.
      Aloha, Alan

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