From My WindowIssue Date: June 6, 2019
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,
Due to the relentlessly bad weather in Oklahoma recently, we made an unexpected trip there to help our son and his family do some cleanup. So I packed a quick bag of the essentials including two books for the long car ride.
There are two things that happen when I read a truly great book. One is I instantly think of six people I need to loan the book to; and the other is I continue to think about the book as I go about my daily life after I finish it. Both things happened with these books.
The one I'd like to reflect on is "Braiding Sweetgrass " Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants" by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
The author is a PhD biologist, a mother, a wanna-be grandmother and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. In the book, she weaves these roles together in reflections on teaching; raising children; food; the belief systems of Native Americans, science and the environment in a thought-provoking way. By turns she uplifted and moved me to grief.
One of the chapters relates the custom of the spring fish runs up rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Early native tribes gathered and set fires on headlands of the coast which they believed guided the fish back to their natal waters to spawn. The annual fires maintained open meadows, which gave deer and other animals who need open space habitat. There was a ceremonial harvest of a single fish when the run started; and then no fish would be taken for four days, to ensure adequate numbers arrived in the headwaters to spawn and continue the health of the fish stocks. Then tribes harvested the number they needed for food, but no more than that. Restraint and care for the species was integral to their custom and culture.
Now, I can't say or know if their adherence to this standard was absolute; or if it was more of an aspirational goal or statement of intent. Certainly, our entire species has trouble adhering to our aspirational goals, whether they are personal, faith based or culture based. But having the standard or goal clear and respected, is critical to maintenance of any behavioral standard in all human populations. The fish story is a clear, easy to understand standard " one that would make sense to anyone taught the tradition. I found it both inspirational and intelligent.
What I do know is it took European immigrants to this land only a few short years to bring the buffalo to the very edge of extinction. The customs and culture of the new arrivals was not aligned to preservation of buffalo, or that of many other species then. The alignment was to exploitation of resources. And I fear Americans are still not aligned to a goal of maintaining this beautiful planet's plants, animals and resources.
I was mulling this as I looked at the healthy young rhubarb plants I was gifted by in-laws last fall. I will not be harvesting this year; the plants need to get established first. Likewise I have asparagus plants to put into the ground. They also need my restraint in harvest the first few years. Because I want both spring crops, personal favorites, for the future, I respect their need to get established first. And then I will harvest only for a short time, to allow the plant time to recover for the next year. I am invested in the plants on my property " but I feel invested in other resources, too " those that are shared by all of us.
Things that are valued by a large part of society get some respect from us. Whitetail deer are highly valued in Marinette County. There are rules about hunting, which are respected by the majority. A dog that chases deer is a pariah and may meet a quick end at the hands of a deer protector. People really care about ongoing viability of the population.
But on a national scale, many animals and plants do not get this kind of respect and support. There are serious threats to the endangered species act, which has been a tremendous success. But now economic considerations take precedence, and I am worried the regulatory mindset is ripe for a rollback. We make decisions without thinking of the intrinsic value of all of God's great creation, with every plant and every tiny insect having a purpose, whether or not we understand it. And we are making these decisions without any seeming regard to the needs or wishes of those who will come after us, including our grandchildren.
Even worse, the laws protecting our shared land, air, and water are being rolled back as if these assets belonged solely to those few profiting in this brief generation. Public lands are being leased to for-profit corporations, and the land will be left degraded, for eternity, never again like it was when the lease money changed hands.
But there is hope. "Save the Menominee River" is a local example of a passionate grass-roots group who is battling the establishment of a mine mere yards from the banks of this lovely resource for wildlife, fishing, tourism, boating, swimming and scenic beauty. The group's aspirational goal is to maintain a healthy river in their community. This is one example of people choosing to get involved and fighting, with or without the help of their elected officials, to preserve an asset that doesn't "belong" to them; it belongs to all of us and to our children and grandchildren. This is the kind of passion and engagement we need across this vast, beautiful nation. There is no amount of money, economic development or "prosperity" that could begin to compensate us for the contamination of a river. Whether you agree with them, or not, it is inspiring to see people willing to work hard to achieve what is going to be a difficult goal.
We are in desperate need of another environmental awakening like that which we had when I was young. And "Braiding Sweetgrass" is just the kind of read that can help. Scientists like climatologists, oceanographers and biologists can sound the alarm; but a scientist who is also an artist with words like this author can reach our hearts and not just our brains. Both our hearts and our brains are needed at this time of great risk to the planet and all of its occupants, including us.
The other book I read on the trip was "Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting" by Anna Quindlen. She is a Pulitzer prize winning author, gifted with both insight and the words to express her observations. It's a short and easy read and if you are a grandparent, you will find yourself nodding in agreement, laughing, and crying a little bit too. It is excellent and any grandparent or person who has a grandparent would enjoy it.
Song stuck in my head: The unlikely "Fluff" by Black Sabbath. I know what you are thinking, but it's a lovely instrumental; almost a lullaby.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.
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