Sunshine Recorder

Link: Kurt Vonnegut: Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088

Back in 1988, as part of an ad campaign to be printed in Time magazine, Volkswagen approached a number of notable thinkers and asked them to write a letter to the future—some words of advice to those living in 2088, to be precise. Many agreed, including novelist Kurt Vonnegut; his letter can be read below.

Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088:

It has been suggested that you might welcome words of wisdom from the past, and that several of us in the twentieth century should send you some. Do you know this advice from Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’? Or what about these instructions from St. John the Divine: ‘Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment has come’? The best advice from my own era for you or for just about anybody anytime, I guess, is a prayer first used by alcoholics who hoped to never take a drink again: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Our century hasn’t been as free with words of wisdom as some others, I think, because we were the first to get reliable information about the human situation: how many of us there were, how much food we could raise or gather, how fast we were reproducing, what made us sick, what made us die, how much damage we were doing to the air and water and topsoil on which most life forms depended, how violent and heartless nature can be, and on and on. Who could wax wise with so much bad news pouring in?

For me, the most paralyzing news was that Nature was no conservationist. It needed no help from us in taking the planet apart and putting it back together some different way, not necessarily improving it from the viewpoint of living things. It set fire to forests with lightning bolts. It paved vast tracts of arable land with lava, which could no more support life than big-city parking lots. It had in the past sent glaciers down from the North Pole to grind up major portions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Nor was there any reason to think that it wouldn’t do that again someday. At this very moment it is turning African farms to deserts, and can be expected to heave up tidal waves or shower down white-hot boulders from outer space at any time. It has not only exterminated exquisitely evolved species in a twinkling, but drained oceans and drowned continents as well. If people think Nature is their friend, then they sure don’t need an enemy.

Yes, and as you people a hundred years from now must know full well, and as your grandchildren will know even better: Nature is ruthless when it comes to matching the quantity of life in any given place at any given time to the quantity of nourishment available. So what have you and Nature done about overpopulation? Back here in 1988, we were seeing ourselves as a new sort of glacier, warm-blooded and clever, unstoppable, about to gobble up everything and then make love—and then double in size again.

On second thought, I am not sure I could bear to hear what you and Nature may have done about too many people for too small a food supply.

And here is a crazy idea I would like to try on you: Is it possible that we aimed rockets with hydrogen bomb warheads at each other, all set to go, in order to take our minds off the deeper problem—how cruelly Nature can be expected to treat us, Nature being Nature, in the by-and-by?

Now that we can discuss the mess we are in with some precision, I hope you have stopped choosing abysmally ignorant optimists for positions of leadership. They were useful only so long as nobody had a clue as to what was really going on—during the past seven million years or so. In my time they have been catastrophic as heads of sophisticated institutions with real work to do.

The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms:
  1. Reduce and stabilize your population.
  2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
  3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
  4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
  5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
  6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
  7. And so on. Or else.
Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now? Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians. For all I know, even bag ladies and bag gentlemen will have their own personal helicopters or rocket belts in A.D. 2088. Nobody will have to leave home to go to work or school, or even stop watching television. Everybody will sit around all day punching the keys of computer terminals connected to everything there is, and sip orange drink through straws like the astronauts.

Cheers,

Kurt Vonnegut
"Deep in the Woods" by Velibor Božović

"And all along, while walking through these alleys, streets and paths, I’ve been reminded that here, once upon a time and long before photography, there were only woods and meadows."

"Deep in the Woods" by Velibor Božović

"And all along, while walking through these alleys, streets and paths, I’ve been reminded that here, once upon a time and long before photography, there were only woods and meadows."

(Source: infra-thin)

Link: Rural > City > Cyberspace

A series of psychological studies over the past 20 years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper. The reason, according to attention restoration theory, or ART, is that when people aren’t being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax. They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind.

The results of the most recent such study were published in Psychological Science at the end of 2008. A team of University of Michigan researchers, led by psychologist Marc Berman, recruited some three dozen people and subjected them to a rigorous and mentally fatiguing series of tests designed to measure the capacity of their working memory and their ability to exert top-down control over their attention. The subjects were divided into two groups. Half of them spent about an hour walking through a secluded woodland park, and the other half spent an equal amount of time walking along busy downtown streets. Both groups then took the tests a second time. Spending time in the park, the researchers found, “significantly improved” people’s performance on the cognitive tests, indicating a substantial increase in attentiveness. Walking in the city, by contrast, led to no improvement in test results.

The researchers then conducted a similar experiment with another set of people. Rather than taking walks between the rounds of testing, these subjects simply looked at photographs of either calm rural scenes or busy urban ones. The results were the same. The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness. “In sum,” concluded the researchers, “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.” Spending time in the natural world seems to be of “vital importance” to “effective cognitive functioning.”

There is no Sleepy Hollow on the internet, no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic. There is only the endless, mesmerizing buzz of the urban street. The stimulations of the web, like those of the city, can be invigorating and inspiring. We wouldn’t want to give them up. But they are, as well, exhausting and distracting. They can easily, as Hawthorne understood, overwhelm all quieter modes of thought. One of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is the one that informs the fears of both the scientist Joseph Weizenbaum and the artist Richard Foreman: a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.

It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion. Psychologists have long studied how people experience fear and react to physical threats, but it’s only recently that they’ve begun researching the sources of our nobler instincts. What they’re finding is that, as Antonio Damasio, the director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, explains, the higher emotions emerge from neural processes that “are inherently slow.” In one recent experiment, Damasio and his colleagues had subjects listen to stories describing people experiencing physical or psychological pain. The subjects were then put into a magnetic resonance imaging machine and their brains were scanned as they were asked to remember the stories. The experiment revealed that while the human brain reacts very quickly to demonstrations of physical pain – when you see someone injured, the primitive pain centers in your own brain activate almost instantaneously – the more sophisticated mental process of empathizing with psychological suffering unfolds much more slowly. It takes time, the researchers discovered, for the brain “to transcend immediate involvement of the body” and begin to understand and to feel “the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation.”

The experiment, say the scholars, indicates that the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions. “For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection,” cautions Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a member of the research team. “If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states.” It would be rash to jump to the conclusion that the internet is undermining our moral sense. It would not be rash to suggest that as the net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.

There are those who are heartened by the ease with which our minds are adapting to the web’s intellectual ethic. “Technological progress does not reverse,” writes aWall Street Journal columnist, “so the trend toward multitasking and consuming many different types of information will only continue.” We need not worry, though, because our “human software” will in time “catch up to the machine technology that made the information abundance possible.” We’ll “evolve” to become more agile consumers of data. The writer of a cover story in New Yorkmagazine says that as we become used to “the 21st-century task” of “fitting” among bits of online information, “the wiring of the brain will inevitably change to deal more efficiently with more information.” We may lose our capacity “to concentrate on a complex task from beginning to end,” but in recompense we’ll gain new skills, such as the ability to “conduct 34 conversations simultaneously across six different media.” A prominent economist writes, cheerily, that “the web allows us to borrow cognitive strengths from autism and to be better infovores.” An Atlantic author suggests that our “technology-induced ADD” may be “a short-term problem,” stemming from our reliance on “cognitive habits evolved and perfected in an era of limited information flow.” Developing new cognitive habits is “the only viable approach to navigating the age of constant connectivity.”

These writers are certainly correct in arguing that we’re being molded by our new information environment. Our mental adaptability, built into the deepest workings of our brains, is a keynote of intellectual history. But if there’s comfort in their reassurances, it’s of a very cold sort. Adaptation leaves us better suited to our circumstances, but qualitatively it’s a neutral process. What matters in the end is not our becoming but what we become. In the 1950s, Martin Heidegger observed that the looming “tide of technological revolution” could “so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking.” Our ability to engage in “meditative thinking,” which he saw as the very essence of our humanity, might become a victim of headlong progress. The tumultuous advance of technology could, like the arrival of the locomotive at the Concord station, drown out the refined perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that arise only through contemplation and reflection. The “frenziedness of technology,” Heidegger wrote, threatens to “entrench itself everywhere.”

It may be that we are now entering the final stage of that entrenchment. We are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls.

Link: The Fire Burns Yet

Native American peoples are still here and still caring for their land. Can their conquerors say the same?

A few years ago, I was invited to attend a traditional Haida memorial ceremony. It was for a prominent community member in Old Masset on Haida Gwaii, off British Columbia. Before the potlatch, a friend casually mentioned a highly unusual event. When the man had died a few months earlier, a school of killer whales came into the harbour, right up close to the shoreline near his house. Killer whales were one of the deceased’s hereditary crests, passed down through the family matriline.

On the Pacific Northwest coast, Haida families inherit rights of association with certain ‘totemic’ species by virtue of legendary events in which their respective ancestors were involved. Stories of one clan descending from a supernatural salmon or another emerging ancestrally from a cedar tree are typical. But such tales do not merely recount legendary events of the past: they shape how people interpret the present. So Raven, the central character of Haida mythology, brought light and fire (by theft) to the world, and enabled the original Haida to emerge from a clamshell. And today, many Haidas continue to interpret the actions of particular living ravens as communicating to them, signalling messages of value from which their human relatives might learn.

I had already heard, and read, many similar accounts of Native relationships with the natural world and witnessed too many unusual events to be wholly sceptical about killer whales coming to pay their respects to a human relative. So I nodded politely, placed the information in a mental compartment not for literal or scientific scrutiny, and gave the matter no further thought at the time.

At a key moment in the ceremony, a cedarwood box containing small amounts of traditional food (salmon, kelp, etc) is placed on a log fire to consume its material form, while the essence, transformed into smoke, carries upwards. In the ceremony I attended after hearing about the visit of the killer whales, the charred box fell perfectly into four neat sections, cleanly releasing the man’s spirit heavenwards. At that moment, I glanced up, and noticed two bald eagles alighting in a nearby pine tree. They remained there, apparently attending to the events below. Haidas noticed this too, though they gave no overt indication until one of the ministers added a prayer to her litany, thanking the Creator for sending them. Bald eagles, it turned out, were another of the deceased’s hereditary crests.

As an anthropologist, I am a scientist, and profess the standard commitment to search for objective truth via observation and reason; I cheerfully accept established scientific laws. Yet this commitment has often been challenged by my experiences among Native communities involving the natural world, which I am unable to explain by scientific reason. I have come to believe that such experiences point towards a different, genuinely sustainable relationship with nature. But taking account of them means listening much more carefully to other people’s world views than we have done to date.

As the world starts to feel the effects of burgeoning human populations, declining biodiversity, climate warming, sea-level rise, and severe weather events, humanity seems helpless. Our global economy is geared to endless growth, and the in-tandem consumption of resources and production of unmanageable waste. Well-meaning initiatives multiply with each passing day, but typically founder against the unthinkable prospect that we might actually change fundamental aspects of our behaviour.

Of course, our cumulative ‘Western’ knowledge, our science, indeed our technology, has produced many wonderful things, not least modern medicine. But the current organisation of our global economy, and its obsession with endless — often trivial — innovation keeps us stuck on a path that might easily lead to the demise of both our species and its habitat. Can we do no better? After 200,000 years ofHomo sapiens, and less than two centuries of living in industrial states geared to exponential technological innovation, must we just shrug in the face of the inevitable? Have another martini and watch our own sunset? Or are there other models from which we might learn?

I am a social anthropologist, British by birth, American by naturalisation. Since the late 1970s, I have spent a fair amount of time residing in and visiting Native communities throughout the US and Canada. Most of my resident fieldwork has been with the Hopi of Arizona, but I have also worked with some of the New Mexico Pueblos, the Hoopa of northern California, the Puget Salish of Washington State, the Cayuga and Mohawk of upstate New York, the Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw and other peoples of British Columbia, and the Choctaw and Chickasaw of Mississippi and Oklahoma.

As a Briton, I grew up with the idea (shared by many in Americans too) that American Indians had been assimilated, died off or, in all events, lost their traditional culture long ago. My undergraduate education in anthropology at the University of Cambridge in the early 1970s did nothing to correct this mistaken idea. North American Indian studies were almost entirely absent from my course of study, and none of my teachers had any experience of Native North American societies. Indeed, they tended to be disdainful of the very idea: Native Americans were somehow second-class indigenes, mentioned only in connection with ethnographic reconstructions of times long gone. As far as research went, Native American societies were either no longer extant or wholly acculturated and not suitable for anthropological study.

I began to realise how inapt this conception was when I entered graduate school at the University of New Mexico. I went on some initial trips to the Rio Grande Pueblos led by Alfonso Ortiz, a Pueblo anthropologist. I learnt not only that Pueblo peoples were still fluent in their languages (six in all — Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Keresan, Zuni and Hopi; except for the first three, all completely unrelated to each other), but also that they remained deeply attached to age-old ritual practices and to their subsistence economy. More than anything else, they were jealously protective of their autonomy from the dominant society.

As my experiences expanded, I have been continually astonished at the degree of cultural persistence across Native America. Wandering, with a Hoopa guide, on traditional lands of the Karuk and Yurok in northern California, I ran across preparations for the First Salmon ceremony, and a community life strongly grounded in their aboriginal heritage and the annual World Renewal cycle. On the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation on the US-Canadian border, even after 350 years of intensive colonisation (including, in 1710, a visit to London of ‘the four Mohawk kings’ to meet Queen Anne, and, in the mid-1700s, fighting for Sir William Johnson in the Seven Years’ War), despite continuous missionisation since the 1640s, despite relocation and land appropriation, the St Regis Mohawks still conduct business in the Mohawk language. Some Coast Salish people of the Puget Sound still use traditional beliefs in guardian spirits, who are encountered at power spots in their environment, to guide their actions.

Where Native Americans have lost their languages, as for most of the Haida, Hoopa, Chickasaw, or Puget Salish, there remains a palpable sense of continuity with the deep past, especially in the persistent value placed upon the land, its life-forms, and its sustaining force. A striking example of this can be found in Native service in the US military. Native Americans have the highest per‑capita participation in the military of any ethnic group in the US. While the Navajo code‑talkers of the Second World War are well-known, they were preceded in this by Choctaw code-talkers in the First World War, and accompanied in the Second World War by code-talkers from other tribes, including Hopi, Comanche, Cherokee, Lakota, and Meskwaki. Long before this, in the 18th century, the Six Nations of the Iroquois, having formed an alliance with the British, split in their allegiances to Loyalists and Patriots in the Revolutionary War, with many fighting on both sides. Native Americans fought in large numbers in the War of 1812, in the Civil War, and every major foreign engagement over the past two centuries.

In view of the generally awful treatment they have received at the hands of successive US governments, it seems surprising that so many should continue to enlist. I asked a decorated Hopi Second World War veteran — a man proud of his military service and at the same time strongly committed to Hopi autonomy — about this apparent paradox. He said that Native American patriotism has some different dimensions from that of non-Native compatriots. He pointed out that Natives, as the only class of Americans who are genuinely non-immigrants, fight to defend the land itself, a land for which their ancestors fought and died over countless generations.

This sense of the land has outlasted all the treaties (and their breaches), all its disposition by private cession and government pre-emption, and all its formal alienation to non‑Native hands. Hopis, for example, continue to look to their aboriginal land Hopitutskwa (roughly, the northeastern quarter of Arizona) as both the meaningful landscape of their ritual practices and as their defining territory, even though they have formal control of only a small portion of that (the Hopi Reservation), with the great majority controlled by the federal government and private owners. Native enlistment in military service has a deeper-rooted and more encompassing reality than conventional loyalty to the modern nation-state — it is a commitment to the land and all its life-forms. Of course, many Native Americans are patriotic in the standard sense as well.

Learning from this way of being in the world will require serious attention to Native perspectives: not just as a prop for some Western-conceived environmentalism that marshals the same old metaphysics in new bottles, but with a goal of refiguring the culture-nature, mind-body split that dominates much of Western thought. Such splits tend to reduce nature, including the human body, to physical forms and processes. According to this world-view, only human beings have minds. Nature is thus deprived of intrinsic sentience or conscious intentions: without those, or with only a token acknowledgement of their existence — such as a concern for animal suffering in animal rights ­— there can be no genuine ethics in human relations with other species. And upon our dualist metaphysics is built a whole scheme of global practices — political, economic, medical, even religious — that, notwithstanding its benefits, is the underlying cause of the present global environmental crisis. This is why I believe that refiguring our world-view is a prerequisite to solving, or at least ameliorating that crisis.

The Haida have undergone extensive change since smallpox severely diminished their population and colonial authorities imposed harsh measures of assimilation in the late 19th century. Notoriously the ‘Residential’ schools were designed to detach children from their own culture and language, and from the 1890s to the 1950s the Canadian government outlawed the potlatch ceremony, jailing people for participating in practices that decidedly transgressed against the protestant ethic and the accumulation of surplus. In the 20th century only a few elders continued to speak the language, and with the Canadian government’s suppression of the potlatch, traditional practices ebbed away.

Since the 1970s, however, there has been a cultural renaissance in Haida arts, the potlatch has resumed, and totem-pole carving has flourished. Many people continue to collect subsistence foods — berries, greens, tender pine cones, salmon, clams, etc — expressing age-old habits of relationship, and acknowledging their fundamental dependence on the natural environment of Haida Gwaii (‘islands of the Haida people’). The acknowledgement is not just theoretical: it is saturated with the sense of mutual sentience and engagement: matter-of-fact reports of respectful killer whales and solicitous bald eagles are very much part of everyday life.

Some 2,000 miles south of the Haida rainforests and fishing cultures of British Columbia, the Hopi of Arizona’s high desert would have no trouble recognising these beliefs. Hopis are dry-farmers in a land without rivers or streams, and they depend on meagre annual precipitation to raise their principal crops of maize, beans, and squash. Many Hopis still farm subsistence crops, speak their language (although it is under threat), and continue to practise a religion — and a science — that is fundamentally attuned to environmental processes. The ritual enactment of Katsina spirits epitomises this.

Katsinas represent myriad forces of the natural world, ancestral deities, moral principles, and historical events. During the Katsina season (roughly January to July), the spirits still come each year from their homes in the mountains to dwell around the villages. With human individuals as their spiritual vehicles, they manifest themselves in dance performances in the kivas (ritual chambers) and plazas of the dozen Hopi villages. Katsinas also make themselves manifest as clouds rising from the mountaintops, bringing life-giving rain to nourish all life-forms in Hopi country. Hopitutskwa, Hopi land, is a living, breathing landscape. Tuuwaqatsi, the natural world, or specifically its life forms, populates this landscape. Hopis continue to sing to, celebrate, and propitiate both the landscape and its life forms — the stage and its play.

Just like the Haida, Hopis, who depend on the natural world for their spiritual and physical subsistence, look directly to it for guidance. For example, when a woman gathers plants for food or crafts, she typically returns to the places her mothers have been going for generations. More than once, I have heard a woman say that she feels directed by the plants themselves; sometimes, the plants want her to leave them for another time, and go to gather their more vigorous relatives in another patch. Plants, too, are sentient in this world-view, and have supernatural capacities beyond their intrinsic chemical properties. Some are regarded as particularly effective at drawing down clouds. Hopis have always sung to their plants.

The Hopi year is arranged calendrically; seasonal phenomena are anticipated and ensured by ritual practices. For example, in the cold of Powamuy (the purification month of February), Hopis conduct Powamu, the ‘Bean Dance’, planting beans in containers in the kivas, where a hot fire (nowadays in a pot-belly stove) germinates them quickly. On the day of the dance, Katsinas (here meaning the personated spirits) emerge from the kivas to distribute the bean sprouts among village households where they are added to harukwivi (bean-sprout stew) for a feast. The whole sets out in miniature the desired progress of the agricultural season: planting in April, carefully nurturing the crops until the first fruits at Niman (the Home Dance in July), and thereafter gathering and celebrating the harvest.

The Powamuy ceremony is both a prayer for the agricultural cycle and a ritual prefiguring of it. In the ceremony, Hopis express their wish that the season will be successful, recognise their critical dependence on natural forces larger than themselves, and acknowledge that unless they proceed with care and commitment, acting ethically in relation to nature as well as to each other, things could well go wrong. When things do go wrong — a drought, or excessive rainfall that washes away the fields, or a plague of grasshoppers — Hopis typically blame their own failings: they question whether their ‘hearts’ were truly right, whether they have acted thoughtfully, whether their intentions were pure.

Their whole relationship with the natural world is shot through with the same ethical structure in which they frame their relationship with fellow human beings. This does not mean that individual (or collective) actions always follow those ideals: people get jealous, betray each other, become angry, plot against each other, and so on. In this regard, Hopis are no different from the rest of humanity. But their ideals, norms, morals, and virtues — most graphically on display in ritual performances — point to mutual responsibility, and to collective effort for peace and harmony, in both the natural and the social world. There can be no harmonious society if the balance of nature has not been maintained — by the deliberate exercise of human attentions.

I first attended the Hopi Snake Dance in 1978. It was a powerful example of this deliberate strategy to shape natural events through forms of ritual attention. The ceremony (no longer open to outsiders) features the Snake Society dancing with live rattlesnakes and bullsnakes held in their mouths: they dance in a solemn swaying motion, before releasing the snakes into the desert to carry their prayers to the natural forces, especially the sources of rain. In Hopi thought, snakes are especially associated with water, and are the guardians of springs. Lightning and rain are explicitly associated with snakes and their movements. That first year, I staked out my spot in the dusty plaza at dawn, waiting all day through the August heat until the late afternoon ceremony. I was transfixed, not least by the palpable seriousness of the protagonists: this was not some tourist spectacle but a profoundly thought-out ritual engagement, an age-old practice that seemed to go back to the dawn of time. Sure enough, within half an hour of the dance’s ending, rain began to fall, though there had not been a cloud in the sky all day.

Since then, I have seen the Snake Dance on three other occasions: each time rain began falling within a short period after the dance concluded. Under such circumstances, it felt that my scientific world-view, which identifies weather events solely as meteorological phenomena, needed as much defending as Hopi ‘magical’ beliefs in the ritual power of their snake ceremony.

Like the Haida, the Hopi people have experienced much change over the past century. Many younger Hopis no longer understand the language, nor practise subsistence farming, and the communities experience problems typical of the rural West in general and Indian reservations in particular: widespread unemployment, health concerns including a high incidence of diabetes, alcoholism and substance abuse, and poverty. But, again like the Haida, some of the strength of Hopi traditions derives from the fact that they continue to live where they always have, unlike large numbers of American Indians who were forcibly removed from their aboriginal lands by government actions.

Hopis are very conscious of the (non-monetary) value of their land, and have persistently refused to accept compensation for losses of parts of it. A 1970s Indian Claims Commission award of $5 million (that has grown with interest to near $50 million today), for the illegal taking of Hopi lands in the 19th century, has never been accepted, and it continues to sit in a bank even while many Hopis live below the poverty line. ‘Never sell your land’ is a key lesson Hopis point to as handed down from their elders. Even though these particular lands have long been formally outside Hopi control, some Hopis believe that if they accept the money, they will have sold their birthright, and the sentient land of their ancestors will never again look favourably upon them. Money, Hopis say, can never be relied on in the long run, while the land will always be there to support us.

Hopis know that their traditional lifestyle is tough: Màasaw, the earth deity who greeted them upon emergence from the world below, agreed to accept them only if they were prepared to live his hard, simple way of life. While many Hopis are poor and live in what the federal government defines as substandard housing, the older houses are ones they built themselves with sandstone, clay, and logs, and their owners are not indebted to banks or mortgage companies. For a long time, some villages refused to accept water or electricity lines, disliking the spiderweb-like intrusion into the earth (where Muy’ingwu, the germination deity, has his dwelling), and foreseeing also that this would indebt them to non-local companies, and compromise their independence.

In recent years, to gain access to electricity, some Hopis have installed solar panels, which neither interfere with the earth nor are controlled by utility companies. Amid all the changes over the past century, a core feature of Hopi belief is the animacy of the natural world, and the sentience of all its inhabitants. These beliefs underlie a sense of interdependence that is occasionally reflected in actions and events that Western thought treats as impossible. Hopis continue to celebrate and value this world-view, and identify the environmental breakdowns of the world at large as the result of their fellow humans’ failure to follow a similar path.

Link: Is Our Love Of Nature Writing Bourgeois Escapism?

We can’t get enough of books about discovering yourself in the wilderness. What’s it all about, asks Steven Poole.

The idealisation of the natural world is as old as the city, to the corrupting influence of which a return to pastoral life is always presented as a cure. But the increasing modern appetite of metropolitan readers for books about walking around and discovering yourself in nature is the literary equivalent of the rise of the north London “farmers’ market”. Both feed on nostalgie de la boue – the French term for a kind of rustic-fancying inverted snobbery, which literally means “nostalgia for the mud”. In the case of the urban consumer of nature writing, of course, the mud is to be hosed off one’s mental Range Rover immediately one lifts one’s eyes from the page and gives silent thanks for the civilised appurtenances of hot yoga and flat whites.

Much of the pastoral literary genre has long been a solidly bourgeois form of escapism. But nature is today also the arena for an oddly sublimated politics, and recent nature writing reflects some peculiarly modern concerns – sometimes in a way that the nice liberal audience would surely disown if applied to human affairs. In an era of immigration anxiety, for example, the ubiquitous ecological rhetoric of “native” and “invasive” species projects on to the natural world the patterns of human geopolitics. People talk of the grey squirrel as though he were the Middle Eastern asylum-seeker or eastern European plumber of tabloid hate-mongering, come over here as a benefits tourist or cunning job-thief.

Consider, too, the poor sheep, target of George Monbiot's passionate scorn in Feral, his recent manifesto for “rewilding” (bringing back animals that were once native, such as wolves). “I have an unhealthy obsession with sheep,” Monbiot writes. “I hate them.” Why so? “Partly as a result of their assaults,” Monbiot laments, evoking a picture of serried ranks of sheep marching militaristically over the hillsides in coordinated attacks, “Wales now possesses less than one-third of the average forest cover of Europe.” Sheep have been able to wreak such devastation, he says, “because they were never part of our native ecosystem”, and so “the vegetation of this country has evolved no defences against sheep.”

So goes the green version of the English Defence League: sheep aren’t natives! They are “a feral invasive species”. They don’t belong here. “Invasive species,” Monbiot complains, “challenge attempts to defend a unique and distinctive fauna and flora” – just as anti-immigration demagogues claim that foreigners will destroy a unique and distinctive British culture. “Certain animals and plants,” Monbiot warns us, even “have characteristics that allow them to invade” – what, like Panzers and U-boats? – ”and colonise many parts of the world.” Thus each ecosystem is conceived as a little Westphalian nation state, vulnerable to assault by expansionist outsiders.

Monbiot tells us, though, that his despised woolly jumpers arrived in the British isles during the Neolithic period. That means sheep have been here a damn sight longer than Saxons. If the sheep aren’t native, a lot of Britons aren’t either. At least he doesn’t want to send all the “invaders” back where they came from. He accepts that successful immigrants such as “grey squirrels and red signal crayfish" can’t be got rid of; indeed they "now belong to ecosystems from which they used to be absent". So they "belong", even though they still aren’t "native". It would probably be a kindness to standardise the situation by instituting a citizenship test for grey squirrels, after which they may be naturalised and given a passport.

What irks Monbiot about the insatiable hunger for lebensraum of “invasive species” is, finally, just that they will make everything duller to the eyes of naturalist aesthetes. “There is a danger,” he writes, “that ecosystems everywhere come to contain a similar set of species, making the world a blander and less surprising place.” Indeed, the spark of his desire for “rewilding” is, as he readily confesses in his intellectually generous and disarmingly enthusiastic book, that it would bring him more aesthetic pleasure. He came to the idea in the first place because he felt “ecologically bored”. What could, on the other hand, be less boring than seeing the sabre-toothed tiger roaming the streets of Shoreditch, the hippo snoozing outside the Hippodrome?

To be fair, Monbiot does not recommend the reintroduction through genetic jiggery-pokery of prehistoric animals, though a real-life Jurassic Park would seem to fulfil perfectly his desire to rewild areas of unproductive land for the entertainment and edification of anomic city-dwellers. (Are not dinosaurs even more ”native”, at least in the sense of having lived here longer ago, than the red squirrel?) And, though hippo bones have been discovered underneath Trafalgar Square, Monbiot does not recommend the animal’s reintroduction to Britain, because there isn’t much in the way of suitable habitat, and also hippos are very dangerous.

But this brings us to the central tension in his book. On one hand, nature is considered as something we should not attempt to manage – what is wild is just what is not cultured. Rewilding, Monbiot promises, “is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way”. There is a certain smug hands-off paternalism to this image, as though the rewilder is watching from a safe distance while nature, like an adorable little child, wanders off haltingly on its own path. But the rhetorical anti-managerialism is everywhere undercut by the explicitly described managerialism of rewilding. Choosing just which plants and animals to “reintroduce” certainly sounds like “managing” the ecosystem. Even more so does “culling exotic species which cannot be contained by native wildlife”. The euphemism “cull” for kill is presumably allowed in the context of liquidating troublesome foreigners.

… So who should really be in charge? Monbiot claims that rewilding “lets nature decide”. But is letting nature decide such a good idea? After all, nature tried to kill us all with the Black Death. Nature is currently experimenting feverishly to find just the right strain of avian flu to cause a global pandemic. “Nature,” as the young microbiologist points out in the zombie film World War Z, “is a serial killer.”

Nature writers do tend to whitewash the non-human world as a place of eternal sun-dappled peace and harmony, only ever the innocent victim of human depredation (Leach even says nature is like a “hostage” and we her “captors”) – always somehow forgetting that nature has exterminated countless members of her own realm through volcanic eruption, tsunami, or natural climate variation, not to mention the hideously gruesome day-in, day-out business of parts of nature killing and eating other parts. It was, indeed, the disgusting torture-porn brutality of nature that shook Charles Darwin's religious faith. “I cannot persuade myself,” he wrote, “that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.” You don't get special treatment from nature just because you're a native.

If you go back far enough, human beings aren’t native to any part of the world except Africa. So we must be among the most invasive species of all. We’re eternal immigrants to a nature where we don’t belong. This assumption, too, is common in modern nature writing. We are interlopers, intruders. Nature is no longer our home. “All fields,” Dee writes, “tell of how we have orphaned ourselves from the world.”

Indeed, many writers implicitly prefer a nature cleansed of human presence. In Rebecca Solnit's recent memoir of illness and travel, The Faraway Nearby, she describes walking on a deserted beach in southern Iceland: “It was as close to a vision of paradise as I’ve been granted with my eyes open.” Paradise, it seems, has no people in it. The more deep-green eco-catastrophists of our time even seem to take a certain perverse pleasure in predicting that, one day, wise old Gaia will find a way to rid herself entirely of the human infection. We’re merely renters in a righteously hostile world, with no security of tenure and a capricious landlord.

Such anxieties might have been deepening over the last years in which a new world of ambient virtual information has seemed to render our daily experience ever more abstract. Now we live in the cloud, still further from the soil that once nurtured our ancestors. You can hear such a shift in sentiment in the lyrics of the American rock band the Strokes. On “Heart in a Cage” (2006), Julian Casablancas sang plaintively: “See I was born in a city but I belong in a field.” But by 2013’s “Partners in Crime” there was no more belonging to be had: “Let’s all be honest, where there’s a forest, we don’t belong.”

Some of us, then, become all the more nostalgic for an imaginary Edenic life in which we were welcome in nature’s bountiful embrace. Thus the genre of pastoral literature (which characteristically portrayed poor countryfolk, like shepherds, as the last authentic belongers), and the historically more recent ”Back to the Land” movements, according to which a concerted fetishisation of dirt and dung might cure our urban-induced alienation. They initially sprang up in response to the Industrial Revolution, and saw a revival of agricultural cooperatives and handicrafts – foreshadowing the fashions today for ”heirloom” turnips, “artisanal” cupcakes, and macrame classes. By the 1930s, unfortunately, the most vocal back-to-the-landers were fascists, in Britain and elsewhere: only by protecting and nurturing the national soil, it was argued, could we guarantee the ongoing purity of the national bloodline. (The “invasive species” here were Jews and other undesirable humans.)

Today’s back-to-nature revival is a response to corporations and the financial crisis: the global machine of mass “productivity” is broken, so we should retreat to our gardens and tend our organic carrots. “Death to the Supermarkets” read one poster recently on display in the “Idler Academy" in London. "Bake Bread, Play the Ukulele." (I can just hear it now.) "Hail the Chisel." (Is a chisel really natural?) "Hail the Horse." (Is a horse truly native?) "Anarchy in the UK." (I suppose we will still need electric sound systems, to play the Sex Pistols on.) “Stop Consuming, Start Producing. Back to the Land.” Overall, it sounds rather enjoyable, like a rustic punk barbecue.

The idea that we are apart from nature and either don’t belong in it or need to make a conscious effort to reintegrate ourselves with it, however, is tenable only once you have made the erroneous assumption that nature is exclusively medium-sized. Conceive of nature as basically the charismatic mammals and plants, plus a few pretty fluttering insects, and perhaps it’s hard to see our place in it. But your body contains 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells. Bacteria are part of nature, too. We are already ambulatory ecosystems.

It’s also reasonable to ask how we could be fundamentally separate from nature given that we are naturally evolved creatures. Isn’t nature working through us as much as through the honeybee? (Monbiot does not like the human attempt to “control” nature, yet he seems quite at ease with the heavy landscape-engineering of the badger or the termite.) And if nature is smaller than usually assumed – down to bacteria and viruses – it is also bigger. Solar systems and galaxies are part of nature, too. On the cosmic scale, some philosophers speculate that the appearance of conscious, inquiring human minds could be part of some deep evolutionary process whereby the universe comes to know itself. Feel at home yet?

I don’t agree with everything he’s saying, but he makes some good points, and raises interesting questions about invasive/native species and our place in nature. For example, should we try to eradicate invasive species, or should we just let ecosystems adapt to them because this is just part of nature?