Sunday, June 15, 2008

Putting Down Roots

There is a missing piece in the discussion about sustainability. It is the significance of place and rootedness. Of humans putting down roots by once again becoming literal parts of their ecosystems. As long as we remain divorced from the land, above it and separate from it we will not live harmoniously with it.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in her wonderful book about her experiences with the !Kung bushmen in Africa (The Old Way), depicts a society of humans who were beautifully interwoven into their ecosystem, as full participants in a complex and healthy web of life. Particularly striking to me was her discussion of the relationship between humans and lions; how they co-evolved and lived harmoniously together over the ages (only to have that balance finally destroyed in recent times by the arrival of pastoralists). The Old Way is now gone for the !Kung, as Thomas made depressingly clear in her final chapters, and today you'd be hard-pressed to find even a few examples of societies which still fully participate in their ecosystems. But for the bulk of human history we all lived immersed in an ecosystem, coevolving with the plants and the other animals, adapting to local conditions and occupying vital niches.

As we developed culture and especially as we moved off the land into cities, we stepped out of our niches. We stepped out of nature and placed ourselves above it. Culture has been plunked down on top of nature, completely out of context. Nature gets squeezed to the outskirts of culture, for the most part. Out of sight and out of mind for a lot of people.

The fact is however that we are embedded in nature. We are shaped by the land around us. Our every move is embedded in the matrix of earth and atmosphere. As we move we set off eddies of air currents, our heat rises, we are exchanging gases with the atmosphere. The plants around us share with us their breath and we share with them our own. When we eat their fruits, we transmute their plant flesh into our own flesh. We feed on our soils as well, indirectly for the most part, but nevertheless. The smells, the sounds, the landscapes of nature are internalized, laid down as neural passages in our heads, becoming literally part of us.

A return to balance here on earth will require us to recognize and re-embrace our place within the larger ecosystem. But first we must merely remember. So much has already been forgotten.

In future posts, I will explore the subject of place and rootedness in depth. My next installment will cover the process of "naturalization" from a unique slant.

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