Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Senator and the "Hairy Man from the East"

Note to visitors:  This post has an environmental theme, sparked by death of an ancient tree.  The post is long and at times unavoidably moralistic.  A 27-song music player extends the environmental theme, as does an annotated playlist at the end of the post. 


A greedy man never knows what he’s done.
Neil Young, "Natural Beauty” (1992)

In the early hours of January 16, in Seminole County, Florida, a 26 year old woman burned down the fifth oldest tree in the world.  The tree was a bald cypress, located in Big Tree Park, Longwood.  Nicknamed The Senator, the cypress was 3,500 years old, 118 feet high, 17.5 feet in trunk diameter.  It had once been taller, 165 feet, before being reduced by a hurricane in 1925.

The Senator was a sapling during the reign of Thutmose I in Egypt, and its life began not long after the Minoan eruption of Santorini (then Thera, probable subject of Plato's Atlantis legend).  The woman who burned it down was born in 1985, during the reign of Ronald Reagan –– in a year notable for the discovery of RMS Titanic, and hijackings of EgyptAir Flight 648, TWA Flight 847, the Achille Lauro.

The Senator (1967)
(Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
The fire-setter, along with another woman, had been smoking meth-amphetamine inside The Senator's hollow trunk.  She had initially lit a fire to see better, then photographed the burning giant with her cellphone and shared the photos, commenting, "I can't believe I burned down a tree older than Jesus.”  She did not report the fire.

Both women face drug charges, and for the fire-setter an additional charge of intentional burning of land, a third degree felony –– the penalty for which is a maximum five years in prison, five years probation, and $5,000 fine.

What to say here?  Was it drugs, stupidity, narcissism?  The fire-setter is identified as a model, and The Daily Mail has obtained come-hither photos from her (former) Facebook page:

The photo shows a use of nature as background prop, a typical usage where we pose against a natural backdrop.  Less typical is the careless use of an ancient tree for methamphetamine needs of the moment.  Some mix of drugs, vacuity, and narcissism produced or aggravated an astonishing disconnect between this individual and the land.

It is easy to rail against this casual narcissism, too easy.  The fire-setter's actions invite rebuke: I want to get back at her, point out how pathological she is.

And in an earlier draft of this post I did just that.  Snarkily theorized it was, too, yet only armchair venting, fanciful and likely wrong.  Worse, it objectified the fire-setter (about whom, after all, I know little) in the same way that she objectified The Senator (about which she knew little, save that it was a resource for private drug use).  Worse still, pathologizing her made the whole sad affair a localized one: Crazy lady does crazy thing –– case closed

The more troubling thought is that this woman is fairly ordinary, that thoughtless usage of our environment is widespread.  The Senator has many cousins in endangered and poisoned ecologies: melting glaciers, dying reefs, degraded sea floors; hydraulically fractured rock, clearcut forests, shaved mountaintops, mined tar sand.  Nor ought we forget The Senator’s animal cousins, species similarly exploited through dog fighting, cockfighting, shark killing (fins), gorilla killing (hands), whale and dolphin killing, overfishing, indiscriminate fish-killing (bottom trawling), elephant and rhino poaching, et cetera upon et cetera.

Such depredations happen all the time; glaringly, as in the above examples, but often invisibly and unnoticed.  Had the fire-setter burned down an abandoned chicken shack instead of a 3,500 year old tree, we wouldn’t be reading about it.   

The root problem is how easy it is to ignore our surroundings.  In the case of The Senator, the fire-setter used the tree as a tool, with as much care as I devote to my toaster.  She needed light so she set a fire, the fire got out of control.  No deeper complex or motive need be ferreted out.

The thing is, I can’t seem to let this go.  The Senator was killed casually but I can't accept its passing casually.  This post is partly elegy for The Senator, partly elaboration on the larger theme of humans’ connection or disconnection to their world.

Here is an assumption: two capacities foster care about something, whether that thing be person, dolphin, tree.  Let's take a tree.  We must first recognize that it's there, that it has life, a history, and a worth not defined by our needs.  Second, we must recruit a frame of reference, a user's guide, before we interact with that tree.  The first capacity is perceptual: we notice that something's there.  We pause, and during this pause the second capacity –– which is evaluative –– comes into play.  This is how we weigh our needs and usage rights against the needs and rights of that tree we are noticing.  We think before acting.

That first capacity, the seemingly simple act of noticing something, is not a given.  We see only what we're prepared to see.  Prior learnings and inherent dispositions prime us to approach things either carefully or carelessly.  Our singular histories operate behind the scenes of how we treat things.  Some of us will, without forethought, carve our initials in a tree; some won't.

When it mattered this 26 year old failed to take pause, failed to marshal any wider thinking, failed to recognize The Senator as a separate entity –– with a home and a right to stay in that home, with a history and a nature, with a place in the order of things and a right to keep on being.  This led to the death of the tree and afterwards to a self-evaluation on the order of “Oops, I burned the whole thing!” (I suppose that, for the sake of argument, I would not extend this right to keep on being to carpenter ants invading my home.  But The Senator was neither invasive nor predatory; it was minding its own business, just being a tree.)

Had this fire-setter been guided by more precautionary considerations, the venerable tree would still be alive.  Because it’s easier to care about something when we see it more fully, as a thing apart from our needs of the moment, when it strikes us as interesting in itself.

But wait! you say, let’s not underestimate the drug of choice here. Methamphetamine is nasty stuff.  It certainly fogs judgment, even for those with considerable maturity.  If not under its influence, perhaps the fire-setter would have been aware of her surroundings and aware her actions might harm those surroundings.

Well maybe the burning of The Senator can be reduced to methamphetamine’s fevered grip, with its power to turn mind to mush. Still, I’d like to argue that narcissism more than drugs killed the tree.  I confess this is a muddle for me.  I don't question methamphetamine’s impairment of judgment (see PBS–Frontline), but I do have objections:
  • It’s hard to accept that “the devil made me do it,” that volition and judgment was completely immobilized by methamphetamine.  Instead, I’m inclined to think there was a relative absence of judgment to begin with, versus a developed moral compass compromised by drugs.
  • The contrast is striking between enormity of the event and the fire-setter’s shallow behavior.  She needed light, so she lit a fire in a 3,500 years old tree-trunk.  The tree caught fire and she took photos of the impressive event.  Sharing them, she commented, "I can't believe I burned down a tree older than Jesus.”  She did not report the fire, even anonymously.  After that, she ... well, I don’t know, maybe went home, hung out with friends, went on Facebook.  The fire-setting, picture-taking, photo-sharing, commentary, and failure to report the fire –– these form a consistent weave.  They fit one another and suggest a characteristic style that showcases “me.”  Nowhere is there guilt, or remorse at what I did to you.  The point being: we can not easily explain away the burning of this tree as a situational, drug-induced deviation from what would normally have been mature behavior.
  • Far more environmental damage occurs routinely from unthinking narcissism than it does from drugs.  Pollution, habitat loss, global warming, the ordinary jerk tossing garbage from a car window, these require no mind-clouding chemical stimulants.  Therefore, I'm wondering if the The Senator would have died had its killer been less narcissistic.
    All this to say that, at the very least, drugs and narcissism fed the flames that destroyed the old tree.

    Importantly, if we generalize beyond the fate of this one tree to other environmental depredations, we find that foggy thinking requires no drugs at all.  Or better, that the activating “drugs” may be emotional enthusiasms and hungers, not chemical ones.  High on hype and “can do” optimism, low on awareness that nature is not our personal property, we do dumb things.  When it comes to property-usage rights, it is an achievement of no little arrogance to conclude that we own Earth, that we unilaterally call the shots.

    Time and again, this presents as blind certainty.  “Drill, baby, drill!” went the 2008 slogan at the Republican National Convention.  It’s catchy, its confident, it’s a commercial for the oil industry.  And it recalls an older commercial, a bit of bygone boosterism from my childhood: the theme song “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet” from The Dinah Shore Show in the 1950s.  That song got inside my head in 1952 and stayed there. Its bouncy assurance still makes me want to hop in and go, paying no mind to exhaust, smog, global warming.  (Click "See the U.S.A." song-link above to see the fetching Ms. Shore sing the song; after which, it will be inside your head.)

    Now while our hapless fire-setter was cavalier in her treatment of nature, I’ll give her this.  At least she has drug abuse to offer up as defense.  Most of the time, those who defile land, sea, and air do so without mitigations of drugs and impulsivity; some having simply grown away from nature, some profiting politically or financially on its back.

    Which brings me to an atypical group of people: a group preceding us in the Americas, a group proud but not vainglorious, a group that collectively revered the Earth, the Amerindian nations.

    Here is Luther Standing Bear (1868-1939), an Oglala Lakota:

         From Wakan Tanka there came a great unifying life force that
         flowed in and through all things –– the flowers of the plains,
         blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals –– and was the same
         force that had breathed into the first man.  ...

         Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water was a real
         and active principle. ...     

         This concept of life and its relations was humanizing and gave to
         the Lakota an abiding love.  It filled his being with the joy and
         mystery of living; it gave him reverence for all life; it made a place
         for all things in the scheme of existence with equal importance to
         all. ...

         Reflection upon life and its meaning, consideration of its wonders, 
         and observation of the world of creatures, began with childhood.
         (Land of the Spotted Eagle, p. 193, 1933/2006)

    We read about this oneness-with-nature so often that it's possible to drift along in its lyricism and overlook its substance.  This is not New-Age romanticism or Indian idyll.  There is a thoughtful paradox here in Luther Standing Bear's perspective: because his people felt essential unity with nature they could value and revere its distinct forms. Awareness of bedrock similarities permits curiosity about differences in outward appearance.

    Spider: Public Domain image
    I am less inclined to kill a spider when I think of it as another another life-form, doing its best to adapt within limitations of time, niche, happenstance.  Kind of like me but with six more legs.

    Appreciation of connection allows for appreciation of difference.

    Standing Bear elaborates this "humanizing" perspective:

         Everything was possessed of personality, only differing with us
         in form.  Knowledge was inherent in all things.  The world was a
         library and its books were the stones, leaves, grass, brooks, and
         the bird and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and
         blessings of earth.  We learned to do what only the student of
         nature ever learns, and that was to feel beauty.  (Ibid, p. 194)

     Uluru (Ayers Rock) at sunset
    (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
    One might nitpick that a stone, unlike a spider, reveals little "personality" on which to build a feeling of kinship.  Some things are more obviously animate than others, thus easier to identify with.  But Standing Bear casts a wide net in this regard, including even stones as things which, like us, share "the storms and blessings of earth.”

    The commonality here is that we are all Earth-forms and remain so. Person and stone are born of the same Earth and borne by that Earth, borne continuously for given lifetimes in given shapes, then borne afterwards in different shapes.  A person and a rock are cousins.

    Lechuguilla Cave, New Mexico
    (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons 
    This makes sense when we consider the sacred significance of Uluru to Aborigines in Australia, or the awe evoked by Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico, or even the admiration felt for a local rock outcropping.  In these instances, something in canyon, cave, rock formation speaks to us, absorbs us, seems inexplicably animate.  Though the experience of gazing at Uluru be unlike that of gazing at your dog, there nonetheless is a personal connection in both instances.

    A connection whereby something in the phenomenal world grabs us, and crucially where we are simultaneously open to being grabbed.  Had Luther Standing Bear visited Uluru, he surely would have been filled with "the joy and mystery of living.”

    By contrast, the fire-setter was too self-absorbed to be open to absorption in The Senator's "personality."  The Senator became merely an object to be used, a means to an end.  It held the relative status of a lantern.  Disconnection led to indifference.

    But if the fire-setter’s self-absorption is typical of a wider cultural pattern (not just the result of drug us), what does that mean?  What causes individuals, companies, industries to plump themselves up at the expense of the Earth?

    Standing Bear attributes this self-absorption to childhood guidance, or lack of it:

         I have come to know that the white mind does not feel toward
         nature as does the Indian mind, and it is because, I believe, of
         the difference in childhood instruction.  I have often noticed
         white boys gathered in a city by-street or alley jostling and
         pushing one another in a foolish manner.  They spend much
         time in this aimless fashion, their natural faculties neither seeing,
         hearing, nor feeling the varied life that surrounds them.  There
         is about them no awareness, no acuteness, and it is this dullness
         that gives ugly mannerisms full play; it takes from them natural
         poise and stimulation.  In contrast, Indian boys, who are naturally
         reared, are alert to their surroundings; their senses are not
         narrowed to observing only one another, and they cannot spend
         hours seeing nothing, hearing nothing, and thinking nothing in
         particular.  (Ibid, p. 195)

    I don't know whether Standing Bear's judgment is dated or harsh.  It does jibe with memories of boy behavior in my mid-1950s schoolyard recess.  (Although Standing Bear doesn’t mention girls, I suspect that they too engage in "jostling and pushing ... in a foolish manner,” only in different, more cliquish ways.)

    Standing Bear goes on to detail the consequences of “the difference in childhood instruction.”  Absent empathic connection with nature, the white man's approach was to dominate, modify,  commodify nature –– secure, settle, and develop it:

         The Indian and the white man sense things differently because 
         the white man has put distance between himself and nature; and
         assuming a lofty place in the scheme of order of things has lost 
         for him both reverence and understanding. ... Many times the 
         Indian is embarrassed and baffled by the white man's allusions 
         to nature in such terms as crude, primitive, wild, rude, untamed, 
         and savage.  For the Lakota, mountains, lakes, rivers, springs, 
         valleys, and woods were all finished beauty; winds, rain, snow, 
         sunshine, day, night, and change of seasons brought interest; 
         birds, insects, and animals filled the world with knowledge that
         defied the discernment of man.

         But nothing the Great Mystery placed in the land of the Indian
         pleased the white man, and nothing escaped his transforming
         hand. ... And here I find the great distinction between the
         faith of the Indian and the white man.  Indian faith sought         
         the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other
         sought the dominance of surroundings.  In sharing, in
         loving all and everything, one people naturally found a   
         measure of the thing they sought; while, in fearing, the
         other found need of conquest.  For one man the world was
         full of beauty; for the other it was a place of sin and ugliness
         to be endured until he went to another world, there to become
         a creature of wings, half-man and half-bird.  Forever one man
         directed his Mystery to change the world He had made; forever
         this man pleaded with Him to chastise His wicked ones; and
         forever he implored his Wakan Tanka to send His light to earth.
         Small wonder this man could not understand the other.
         (Ibid, pp. 196-197 [highlighting added])

    But what's behind this difference in the first place?  Why should European "settlers" have experienced nature as something "untamed" and "savage"?

    Was it that they didn't grow up here (not at first), such that the New World lacked the security of their familiar backyard?  Maybe.  That’s the simplest explanation.  And Standing Bear says as much: "In sharing, in loving all and everything, one people naturally found a measure of the thing they sought; while, in fearing, the other found need of conquest.”

    But Standing Bear also implies that Europeans would have possessed that same “conquest” orientation back in their ancestral homelands; that no matter where they found themselves, they felt hemmed in by “sin and ugliness.”  Their faith-based orientation wasn’t an adaptation to a new land, it came in their baggage.  It was an import.

    Luther Standing Bear
    (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
    I’m with Standing Bear here.  The thoroughgoing Westward Ho! reshaping of the New World suggests more than anxiety-driven momentum.  Insecurity about the New World could just as easily have been expressed in a go-slow approach, not pell-mell expansionism. True, it may have been the case that white people came on strong because they were fearful, hell-bent to make the unfamiliar familiar.  But they also seemed heaven-bent to civilize the "primitive" and the “rude.”

    They were on a mission.

    Now to the degree my (unquestioned) Truth is better than your (questionable) Truth, this missionary impulse gives off a whiff of narcissism.  Nor is this impulse culturally specific; that is, confined to European-Americans.  As a generality, the “transforming hand” –– exploitation of natural resources, environmental damage –– turns out to be a broadly human, universal tendency.

    Meaning, once we became homo sapiens we set ourselves the task of extensive migration out of Africa.  And wherever we opened a territory, there was environmental cost:

         Population growth was the driving force between Paleolithic and
         Neolithic for humans to spread over the world and to increase their
         inhabited area.  Already as hunters they had overexploited their
         game resources and eradicated many megafauna species.  As
         farmers, their overexploitation of the environment continued: the
         intensive use of irrigated fields increased salinization problems,
         while deforestation for agriculture or for wood caused erosion.
         In all cases, the resulting environmental damage persists until
         today: extinction is forever ... .

         Thus, Mesolithic to Neolithic humans were already capable of
         exerting a serious environmental impact.  There is no difference
         from the damage of today in quality, only in quantity.
         (Wolfgang Nentwig, "Human Environmental Impact in the 
         Paleolithic and Neolithic,” p. 1898, in Handbook of 
         Paleoanthropology [2007], Winfried Henke, Ian Tattersall,
         Thorold Hardt, eds.)

    Even so, we can forgive our ancestral habitat-ravagers because they didn’t know any better, didn’t possess today’s ecological knowledge. Which raises the question: can modern knowledge modify basic human tendencies?  Before we tackle that question though, here is an example of long-ago toxic pollution, that of ancient Roman metallurgy.

    A 2003 article by David Keyes, "How Rome Polluted the World,” describes Roman industrial pollution, in the form of airborne metallic dust released into the atmosphere by Roman smelting operations. These copper and lead smelting operations were located throughout the Roman Empire, in Southern Jordan, Spain, Greece, the Balkans, Britain; and their toxic residue lasted for centuries.  Fine metallic dust was released into the atmosphere, lifted by heat from the furnaces, dispersed, returned to earth.

    The dust really traveled:

         French researchers studying ice cores from Greenland estimate
         that something in the region of 800 tonnes of Roman copper and 
         400 tonnes of lead 'rained' down on Greenland in the form of 
         polluted snow between 500 BC and 300 AD.
         (David Keyes,, December 2003)

    Mostly, though, the toxic dust fell closer to the smelting-sites, polluting air, water, plants; and in turn, livestock; and in turn again, those humans not sick already from breathing contaminated air.  Keyes reports that total emissions from all smelting sites combined may have reached 4,000 tons a year (metric tonnes, each tonne being 2204.68 pounds).

    This account of Roman metallurgy describes events occurring 2,500 years ago.  In the Romans' defense, they had little knowledge of the extent or consequences of this pollution –– the science was not known. So perhaps we can excuse Flavius the toxic fallout from his smelting operation.  Nowadays he'd be up on the science, and surely be running an environmentally sensitive operation.

    Probably not, if subsequent history is any guide.  Because thus far, having “the science” has not by itself led to environmental maturity.

    As regards our North American habitation, the science for environmental stewardship is readily available, but seems to be ignored, denied, put on hold.  Such knowledge has not generated foresight or become part of working intelligence, whether in large scale industrial activities, or local instances of spoiling.  Through some deviltry, cautious adaptation to the New World (if it ever existed) shifted into continuing dominion over that world.

    Adaptation to anything –– a new job, new partner –– involves a degree of caution about the new, coupled with optimism or excitement.  But somewhere along the line, that balance between caution and optimism was lost in the “discovery” of America.  Caution took second place to “can do" certainty and the frenzy of progress.  Advancement became avarice; and earth, a moldable thing.  (For historical examples of greed trumping ecology, see California Gold Rush, Indian Removal Act (1830), The Trail of Tears, United States and Native American Relations; and for discussions of related land grabs, see Texas AnnexationMexican Cession, The 1897 Petition Against the Annexation of Hawaii.)

    Ironically, this “deviltry” has a touch of old time religion, and the Judeo-Christian roots of this faith are old indeed:

         And God said, Let us make Man in our image,
         after our likeness:and let them have dominion
         over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the 
         air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, 
         and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon
         the earth.  (Genesis 1:26, King James Bible)

    Here we have a divinely-sanctioned green light for “progress” and dominion, a sanction that would have helped pioneers overcome any apprehension stirred up by exploration of the new land.  And it would have privileged that element of optimism associated with the new, inspiring dreams of riches and prospects for gaining same.  With the wind of Providence at their backs, and whiff of missionary entitlement in the air, the pioneers would have been carried forward.  And if optimism shaded into acquisitive enthusiasm ... well, that wasn't a bad thing, only an intensification of the right thing.

    Space Junk Orbiting Earth
    (Courtesy: European Space Agency)
    By definition, an acquisitive spirit overrides the needs to balance land stewardship and overuse, conservation and depletion, giving and taking; and indeed, history is replete with imbalances on the side of taking.  But history is also replete with something just as serious, which is that we don’t just take, we leave something behind.  When self-interest and dominion trump preservation, a mess is left in the air, water, land.

    Pacific Ocean Debris:  Although this looks
    like a littered beach, it is a Public Domain
    photo of ocean garbage north of Hawaii.

    Because as a species we don’t clean up after ourselves very well; we gobble the Earth, unmindful of our waste. Our trail-blazing leaves a trail of scrap, litter, droppings, which is why we have space junk, the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, an ever warming planet.

    That said, some humans degrade their surroundings less than others; cynically perhaps, because they have less invasive technologies; less cynically, because they’ve achieved an optimal balance of resource preservation and usage, an ecological harmony. 

    In this regard, I nominate Amerindians for placement in the latter group. For despite differences among disparate Native American nations, there was a commonly shared reverence for the land.  And as a general principle, Luther Standing Bear is correct when he states: "Indian faith sought the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other sought the dominance of surroundings.” (See Raymond Pierotti & Daniel Wildcat, “Traditional Ecological Knowledge: The Third Alternative [Commentary],” Ecological Applications, Vol. 10, No. 5, October 2000.)

    As for ecological harmony, it is naive to assume that Native Americans themselves never left behind environmental footprints, or that they were uniform possessors of ecological wisdom, or that never was there divergence between religion and practice (see Native Americans and the Environment (2007), Michael E. Harkin & David Rich Lewis, eds.). But you’ll find little that is particularly damning.  And you'd have to go back 11,000 years to the late Pleistocene to make an argument for major Indian involvement (by the Clovis people) in extinction of species; and even that hypothesis is controversial.

    Here is a description of balanced land usage by Native Americans in colonial America (highlighting added):

         Colonial Landscape. ... Despite European perceptions, eastern
         North America was not a pristine wilderness.  It was a managed 
         landscape, one that the American Indians over many centuries 
         had modified extensively –– and in the light of their cultural and
         material needs –– efficiently.  Indians had cleared much land for 
         agriculture.  Likewise they followed a practice of systematic 
         woodland burning sometimes as part of the process of clearing 
         arable land but also to improve woodland graze for game, to
         ease passage through the forests, or to clean up insect-infested
         village sites.     

         Indian Land Use.  The Indians along the east coast subsisted
         through an intricate combination of hunting, fishing, and
         agriculture.  Fishing often coincided with annual spring spawning
         runs; hunting was primarily in the fall, when game animals were
         fattest.  Seasonal hunting helped prevent serious depletion of the
         game supply, although Indian braves ranged over large areas.
         Agriculture extended from spring planting through the last fall
         harvests, and, for the Indian no less than the European, produced
         the most extensive modification of the landscape. Indians
         practiced slash-and-burn agriculture moving their fields 
         frequently as soil became exhausted and clearing new fields by
         killing or burning trees and planting among the remaining trunks
         and stumps. Cultivating the land with crude hoes, the Indians
         grew maize, or corn, planted in hills and added gourds and beans
         that could climb the cornstalks... .

         Although slash-and-burn agriculture produces relatively poor 
         yields and looks slovenly, it was an efficient method for small 
         Indian populations living on forested lands because it required 
         minimal labor.  Light cultivation without total clearing likewise 
         prevented serious erosion, and the mixing of bean and corn  
         crops preserved some soil nutrients and delayed soil depletion 
         for a time.  Shifting fields also allowed heavily used land to 
         recover fertility.  Indians were not so much conscious 
         ecologists, as they were people with a strong sense of
         dependence on nature, but without urgent pressure to 
         supply consumer demands.  Their environmental impact 
         on the landscape was limited, but Indians did use the land
         more extensively than the first Europeans. 
         (Thad W. Tate, Our American Land: Yearbook of Agriculture 
         [1987]"Transformation of the Land in Colonial America,”
         pp. 32-36, USDA National Agricultural Library: Digital

    I chose this passage because it is unvarnished and free of adulation. Its author, Thad W. Tate, is listed in the 1987 Yearbook of Agriculture as the director of the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia.  (Now called the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, it is sponsored by The College of William and Mary and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.)

    Tate’s writing seems dispassionate, neither politically conservative nor inclined towards sentimental or uncritical acceptance of Native Americans as naturally wise land stewards.  And Tate gives a mostly favorable assessment of Native American agriculture as it existed when the Europeans first came, concluding that indigenous Americans were efficient farmers who had a “limited” impact on the landscape.

    But a closer reading shows some “European" leakage in Tate’s article. Take his conclusion (highlighted) that Native Americans were not conscious ecologists.  Tate couples Indians’ “strong dependence on nature” (true) with their having been under no “urgent pressure to supply consumer demands” (true), so as to justify the premise that “Indians were not so much conscious ecologists” (false).  This undercuts the depth of Amerindian connection to the land, makes it less integral to their character –– that connection being relegated to a derivative of market forces.  What is central is redefined as peripheral.

    By this measure, Standing Bear’s faith –– which impresses as sturdy, organizing, cherished, inherent –– is actually a by-product of a self-contained agrarian system.  While Standing Bear might appear to be ecologically conscious, it is only because consumer demands were not forcing him to be otherwise.  In Tate’s ethnocentric phrasing, impersonal market forces trump personal and holistic connection to the Earth.  Beliefs in Wakan Tanka and harmony with nature are market-deep.

    In fairness to Tate, however, his article as a whole is not ethnocentric, and he is well aware of the tension between land stewardship and domination.  As his closing sentences indicate: 

         If the settlement of North America had begun with 
         conflicting attitudes of fear and attraction to the natural 
         setting, the colonial era drew to a close amid another 
         set of contradictory influences: a desire on the one 
         hand to nurture a landscape and a determination, on 
         the other, to dominate and exploit it.  This dilemma has
         colored the history of the American land ever since.
         (Thad W. Tate, Ibid, p. 36)

    Speaking of ethnocentric bias, let's veer off-path to touch on the man who wrote the Foreward to the 1987 Yearbook of Agriculture, Richard E. Lyng (1918-2003).  Lyng had been Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Agriculture in 1987.  He had pursued a career in agribusiness prior to his government service and had served under Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.  As Secretary of Agriculture, he had represented the federal government in a landmark 1988 Court case, Richard E. Lyng, Secretary of Agriculture, et al., Petitioners vs. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, et al.

    The case involved the U.S. Forest Service’s right to build a 6-mile road, and harvest timber, through the Chimney Rock section of the Six Rivers National Forest –– an area sacred to the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa Indians.  The Indians lost that case.  But here is a remarkable passage (highlighting added) from Justice William J. Brennan's dissent, in which he was joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun:

         In the final analysis, the Court's refusal to recognize the 
         constitutional dimension of respondents' injuries stems from
         its concern that acceptance of respondents' claim could 
         potentially strip the Government of its ability to manage and 
         use vast tracts of federal property.  In addition, the nature of 
         respondents' site-specific religious practices raises the specter 
         of future suits in which Native Americans seek to exclude all 
         human activity from such areas.  These concededly legitimate 
         concerns lie at the very heart of this case, which represents
         yet another stress point in the longstanding conflict 
         between two disparate cultures –– the dominant western
         culture which views land in terms of ownership and use, 
         and that of Native Americans, in which concepts of private 
         property are not only alien, but contrary to a belief system 
         that holds land sacred.  Rather than address this conflict in
         any meaningful fashion, however, the Court disclaims all
         responsibility for balancing these competing and potentially 
         irreconcilable interests, choosing instead to turn this difficult

         task over to the federal legislature.  Such an abdication is
         more than merely indefensible as an institutional matter: by
         defining respondents' injury as "non-constitutional,” the Court
         has effectively bestowed on one party to this conflict the
         unilateral authority to resolve all future disputes in its favor,
         subject only to the Court's toothless exhortation to be "sensitive"      
         to affected religions.  In my view, however, Native Americans
         deserve –– and the Constitution demands –– more than this.

    Well there you have it, cleanly laid out: land as owned property versus land as sacred space.  I don’t recall this 1988 Supreme Court case. Reading it now I realize Justice Brennan's moral weight.  Brennan (1906-1997) comes across as uncommonly principled and honest.  His sentiments about “the longstanding conflict between two disparate cultures” mirror Luther Standing Bear’s description of Indians’ harmony with natural surroundings in contrast to the white man’s "dominance of surroundings."  They also mirror the similar observations of Thad W. Tate.  Plus Brennan gives a distilled statement of the real issue, "that acceptance of respondents' claim could potentially strip the Government of its ability to manage and use vast tracts of federal property.”

    Justice Brennan wrote this dissent in 1988, fifty-five years after Standing Bear’s book.  And we are now twenty-five years past that, yet with the same continuing hedging and environmental obtuseness.* 

    *(A recent example: a 10/04/2011 Northwest Mining Association letter to the Office of Tribal Relations, U.S. Forest Service, criticized a report by that Office recommending potential changes to the Mining Law of 1872 –– a pro-mining statute signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.  The 2011 letter unhappily states that possible changes to this law would allow the Office of Tribal Relations "greater agency discretion when Sacred Sites may be impacted by hardrock exploration or development mining activities'; increased use of mineral withdrawal authority; an expanded definition of sacred area; and the formation of partnerships with tribes."  Citation update: the Northwest Mining Association is now the American Exploration & Mining Association, and I've been unable to locate archives prior to 2013; take my word though that the 10/04/2011 letter exists.)

    We have traveled from Native American conservationism to Thad W. Tate, and from Tate to Richard E. Lyng’s conservatism, a landmark 1988 Supreme Court case, and Justice Brennan's dissent.  And while this latter material addresses the “two disparate cultures” theme, it is abstract.  Let’s move back in time to something concrete, the 19th century heyday of predatory dominion over nature.

    And let’s focus on a signal environmental issue of that era, the plight of the buffalo (taxonomically, American bison).

    The near-extinction of the buffalo resulted from a mix of parties converging on the prairie with the same goals.  These parties were the U.S. Government, U.S. Army, railroad industry, settlers, ranchers, miners, hunters, trappers, traders.  All had common interests in profit-making and in removing a staple food source of the plains Indians –– thereby hastening the dispossession of those plains from the Indians. (See Wild Life Issues in a Changing World, by Michael P. & James Sanderson, pp. 184-186.)

    Here is Winona LaDuke, Ojibwe-Jewish activist and 2000 vice-presidential nominee of the Green Party (highlighting added):

         During the 1800s, buffalo killing was part of military policy,
         and land grabbing was part of America.  Treaty after treaty was 
         signed during the great buffalo slaughters.  These two policies 
         were key to the colonization of the plains: the expansion of the 
         cattle and beef empires and, of course, the industrialization of 
         American agriculture.

         During the mid-1800s, federal and private encroachment into 
         Native areas protected by treaty increased dramatically and
         pushed Native nations and buffalo into smaller and smaller 
         areas. ... By 1867, market hunting of the bison was growing 
         exponentially.  The extermination proceeded in three distinct 
         phases, precisely corresponding to the extension of the 
         railroads –– the Union Pacific and Central Pacific (1869); 
         Southern Pacific (1883); Northern Pacific (1883); Atchison,
         Topeka and Santa Fe (1885); and Great Northern (1885) ––
         into three broad sections of the country.  Those railroads 
         moved the hunters in and the hides out, and were the vehicle 
         for an astonishing slaughter.  The speed of passenger trains
         was slow at that time, and, as historian Tom McHugh wrote, 
         “it often happens that the cars and buffalo would be side
         by side for a mile or two ... during these races, the car 
         windows are opened, and numerous breech-loaders fling      

         hundreds of bullets among the densely crowded and flying 
         masses.  Many of the poor animals fall, and more go off to 
         die in the ravines.  The train speeds on, and the scene is 
         repeated every few miles.”      
         (All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life
         [1999], p. 141)

    Mid-1870’s photograph of American bison skulls 
    waiting to be ground for fertilizer.  (Burton 
    Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library)
    There were perhaps 30 million buffalo in 1800. Nearly all were gone by 1890, with 10 to 15 million killed between 1870 and 1880, a single decade.  The numbers are staggering.  To be sure, there were intense market pressures, notably the strong European market for buffalo hides.  But there was also, as LaDuke notes, a home-grown demand for Indian lands –– a demand hastened by destroying the food staple of the plains Indians, thereby driving them off tribal grounds into reservations.

    How was it done, all this killing?  Most of the butchery was wrought by wholesale and unregulated commercial hunting, but in addition there was the popular attraction described by LaDuke of “sport” hunting, essentially a form of railroad tourism.

    There is little to be added to this story of the buffalo.  Some things really are too awful for words; the moral bankruptcy speaks for itself.

    (See Wilbur R. Jacobs, “Indians as Ecologists and Other Environmental Themes in American Frontier History,” pp. 47-62, American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History [1980] for a study of the environmental impact of the expanding frontier in the New World; also, The First Environmentalists, The Nation [2000] for a related discussion; also, Deep Water Horizon oil spill or Upper Big Branch Mine disaster for articles on today’s expanding frontier.)

    Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way
    Emanuel Leutze (1861) 

    (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
    Now the plight of the buffalo was only part of the larger pageant of expansionist domination. And in 19th century America, this urge to dominate was fueled and rationalized by attitudes derived from the work ethic, Puritanism, Christian missionary work, Manifest Destiny. These attitudes emphasized dominion of humans over nature, primacy of Heaven over earth, and potent combinations of the two: dominion and heavenward-gazing.  Or more baldly, business and religion.

    We are reminded here of Luther Standing Bear's description of how religion informed the white man's experience of the land, such that it was "a place of sin and ugliness to be endured until he went to another world, there to become a creature of wings, half-man and half-bird."

    To which, for emphasis, we quote this addendum by Standing Bear:

         Not until a European faith came was it taught that not life on earth
         but only life after death was to be glorified; and not until the native
         man forsook the faith of his forefathers did he learn of Satan and
         Hell.  (Land of the Spotted Eagle, p.198)

    It may be claiming too much to ascribe a major role in the "taming" of America to "European faith," but I don't think so.  The diligent ironing out of rumpled heathen places (while otherwise waiting for Eternity) may have been certainly more pronounced in the 19th century.  But that spirit of Manifest Destiny infuses contemporary politics still: mining, drilling, logging, property-development initiatives are embraced with the certainty of True Believers.  Concerns over environmental impact elicit cries of socialism and government meddling.  Faith trumps science.

    Here is a visual and historical argument for my position:

    American Progress 
    John Gast (1872)
    (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
    American Progress (1872) is a painting by John Gast.  It shows Columbia, the personification of America, floating over the western plains.  Scantily clad, she's a looker, not dowdy at all.  But she’s no cream puff, she’s serious, a worker.  She holds a schoolbook so she's probably smart, some kind of teacher-angel.  Moving east to west, she is unspooling wire to westward-marching telegraph poles below.  She brings light into darkness.

    And just look at those Indians and buffalo hightailing it out of there, as are some wolves (or dogs) and a bear.  The Indians are half-clothed, and one woman is bare-breasted; although, to be fair, Columbia looks close to showing a little more herself.  She presents as virginal, bookish, purposeful, yet coquettish for all that.  She apparently got up before dawn and flew out the door, in such a hurry to start her mission that she didn't finish dressing.  Still, she manages to look poised and unhurried.

    She is fascinating.  I'd follow her anywhere, she inspires that kind of confidence.  Plus, she’s got a star on her forehead, the Star of Empire, a 19th century trope for America’s Manifest Destiny.

    The animals on the dark side are mostly running wild, while the pioneers’ animals are harnessed.  The white men take their time; and that man in the conspicuous red shirt is relaxed, smoking a pipe, hand in pants pocket.  The place is clearly theirs.  A wagon, pony express rider, stagecoach, and trains can be seen, all heading west.  It's quite a day for America, by golly!

    And quite a feat by Gast to have depicted this pageant of Manifest Destiny so vividly.  An historical pageant we will now follow with three modern proofs that faith trumps reason.

    The first is this dispiriting passage from presidential hopeful Mitt Romney:

         My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change
         on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of
         dollars to try to reduce COemissions is not the right course for
         us.  My view with regards to energy policy is pretty straightforward.
         I want us to become energy secure and independent of the oil
         cartels.  And that means let’s aggressively develop our oil, our
         gas, our coal, our nuclear power.
         (Coral Davenport, "Mitt Romney's Shifting Views On Global
         Warming," NationalJournal, 10/28/2011)
    Wonder Woman, shown here as 
    played by Lynda Carter in the late  
    1970s TV series.  The Star of 
    Empire appears set in her tiara. 

    The second is from Romney rival, Rick Santorum, speaking (somewhat opaquely) on the menace of environmentalism:

         [Environmentalism is] this idea
         that man is here to serve the
         Earth, as opposed to husband its
         resources and be good stewards
         of the Earth.  And I think that is a
         phony ideal.  I don’t believe that
         that’s what we're here to do ––
         that man is here to use the
         resources and use them wisely,
         to care for the Earth, to be a
         steward of the Earth, we're
         not here to serve the Earth.
         ... when you have a worldview
         that elevates the Earth above man
         and says that we can’t take those resources because we're
         going to harm the earth; by things that frankly are just not
         scientifically proven, for example, the whole global warming
         debate –– this is all an attempt to, you know, to centralize
         power and to give more power to the government.
         I'm talking about the belief that man should be in charge of the 
         Earth; and have dominion over it and should be good stewards
         of it.  (Religion Dispatches, March 6, 2012)

    The third is a remarkable quote from Doug Phillips, leader of an evangelical Christian group, Vision Forum.  It is the beginning of Lesson No.10 from their 2010 annual report:

    The Ringo Kid, Stagecoach (1939)
    John Ford, Director
    (This striking image shows John Wayne as iconic
    white man superintending the prairie.  Sunlit from

    the side, framed in cloud-lit radiance, he appears to
    have materialized into the scene through a sky-portal.
    Click Turner Classic Movies for a clip of this scene.)
         Without a proper 
         understanding of the
         the biblical doctrine
         of creation, man, the
         animal kingdom,
         dominion and
         sovereignty, our
         children may well fall
         prey to the vision-
         destroying false
         worship and spirit of
         the age —
         pantheism is a direct
         attack on the biblical family because it devalues human life and seeks
         to obliterate the mandate that men through their families take dominion
         over the earth.  Most importantly, it substitutes the worship of the
         creature, for the worship of the Creator.
         (Religion Dispatches, March 6, 2012)

    Had enough?  A little benumbed?  Need something strong?

    This should snap you back.  We will oppose Governor Romney's, Senator Santorum's, Doug Phillips' statements with this passage from Chief Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan, Onandaga Nation:

         In 2000, as our elders were meeting in Chippewa country in
         Michigan, along comes an elder walking down the path.  It was
         early August, and clearly this was an Eskimo man.  He had no
         shirt on, but he was wearing his leathers; he had his sealskins on,
         and he was carrying a large flat drum.  Stocky and with a beard,
         he looked to be in his mid-fifties.  We sent a runner out to see who
         he was and what he wanted.  He said he wanted to address the
         elders, he had a message.  So of course we brought him in.  He
         was from Greenland, and he said, "The ice is melting in the north.
         The ice is melting in my country."  He began to tell us his story:
         fifteen years ago there was no melting in the area where he lived,
         except that people noticed for the first time in anybody's memory
         a trickle of water coming down a glacier.
         Four days ago when he left his country, there was a torrent, a river 
         pouring out into the Atlantic Ocean.  He said, We've lost several 
         thousand feet of our glacier already, and it's disrupted everything. 
         It's disrupted the hunting and the fishing.  He said the bears are 
         starving, the great white bears are starving, and there's nothing we 
         can do to help them.  Our hunters can't travel out on the ice any 
         more, they're afraid.  They have to go way around, which takes 
         more time.  He said the seals have moved, they have followed the 
         fish.  The birds are not coming in at the right time either.  He said, 
         It's a major disruption in our life and our lifestyle, and I bring this 
         message to you elders.  What can you do to help us?
         ("The Ice Is Melting,” [October 2004], Twenty-Fourth Annual
         E.F. Schumacher Lecture, Stockbridge, Massachusetts)
    Hmm, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Doug Phillips, Chief Lyons –– whom to heed?

    While you sit with that rhetorical question, let us return one last time to Luther Standing Bear.  Early in Land of the Spotted Eagle, Standing Bear describes how the land was "wild" only to the whites, not to the Indians (highlighting added):

         The 'Great Out-doors' was reality and not something to be talked 
         about in dim consciousness. ... Miles were to us as they were to
         the bird.  The land was ours to roam in as the sky was for them 
         to fly in.  We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful 
         rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as 'wild.' ...  
         Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness' and only to him 
         was the land ‘infested' with ‘wild' animals and ‘savage' people. 
         To us it was tame. ... Not until the hairy man from the east
         came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and
         the families we loved was it 'wild' for us.  When the very 
         animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then 
         it was that for us the 'Wild West' began. 
         (Land of the Spotted Eagle, p. 38)

    Think back to Gast's painting, American Progress.  The Indians depicted as living in darkness were standing in the light the whole time. It was in fact Columbia and her forces of progress who were benighted, and "the hairy man from the east” who needed schooling.  The wilderness had been tamed already by its indigenous occupants, but once re-settled had become "wild" for the Indians.

    Dark is really light then and light is dark, the unschooled are wise and the schooled are idiots, the wild is not wild but becomes so once tamed.  Everything is backwards.

    It seems a stretch to link actions of a 21st century methamphetamine addict to the 19th century doctrine of Manifest Destiny, or the Judeo-Christian story of God-granted primacy over nature.  But I think this history seeps in, becomes a narcissistic part of our cultural DNA.  As such, we should oppose it with a different doctrine, a doctrine which would amount to a counter-teaching in the style of Luther Standing Bear’s “childhood instruction.”  Our new curriculum will be broadly ecological: theories of systems ecology, holistic community, ecological humanities.  And if we integrate this new doctrine, and if the fates don't fling a comet our way, we may evolve to be thoughtful stewards of our world.

    Without such re-education, people, industries, governments will do what comes naturally, which is to act against nature, deplete resources, degrade environments, heat the planet.  Not to put too fine a point on it but evidence suggests we humans often act gluttonously.  Absent moral reflection, we consume our own planet.  And all the while, our gorging is carried out with incautious, even Heaven-approved optimism.

    So maybe it's not that crazy that some 26 year old burned down a 3,500 year old tree.  It was dark, right?  She brought light.  Like some down-home, unhinged Columbia, she too had an improvement plan.  And whether she knew it or not, she was working in the tradition of blind certainty.  
    Which prompts one final thought.  When the aliens come, let's hope they don't feel compelled to remodel the place –– lest when it's our turn to be discovered, we go the way of all progress.

    Playlist Notes:

    1. “Nature’s Way,” Spirit

    2. "The Good Way” (2001), Delbert Blackhorse: A Navajo singer of traditional songs (peyote music) of the Native American Church, as well as more contemporary songs.  This is from the album, Chants of Happiness.

    3. "To The Last Whale ... A. Critical Mass & B. Wind on the Water” (1975), Crosby & Nash: An ecological whale–Mass, Part A. credited to David Crosby, Part B. to Graham Nash.

    4. "All Along the Watchtower,” (1967), Bob Dylan

    5. "I Am The Ride” (2000), Chris Smither: The last verse contains these lines:

        And I don't care what it 
        Or who decorates the scenes
        The problem is more with my 
        sense of pride   
        Because it keeps me thinking “me"
        Instead of what it is to be
        I'm not a passenger, I am the ride
        I'm not a passenger, I am the ride

    6. "Ocean Station Bravo" (2010), Gordon Bok: A true story.  Bok’s version is a cover of a song by Bob Zentz, a coastguard sonar man who in 1967 communicated with a pod of humpback whales.  (Right click on above youtube link to hear Zentz’s version –– at the 4:00 minute point, Zentz tells his story.)

    7. "The Half-Remarkable Question" (1968), The Incredible String Band: Robin Williamson and Mike Heron were the core of this Scottish band. Williamson wrote this song –– it contains three (slightly varied) refrains, beginning with this one:

        O it’s the old forgotten question
        What is it that we are part of?
        What is it that we are?

    8. "Big Yellow Taxi" (1970), Joni Mitchell

    9. "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (1971), Marvin Gaye

    10. "Holding of the Hands Song" (1996), Mohawks & Standing Arrow: An Akwesasne Mohawk, Standing Arrow was an activist who, in 1957, led a band of 200 Mohawks in the occupation of fifteen square miles of land in upstate New York, claiming lawful rights to do so as per the Fort Stanwix  Treaty of 1784.

    11. "What About Me?" (1970), Quicksilver Messenger Service

    12. "The Dealers" (1975), Mary McCaslin: Her 1970’s albums were splendid.  The final verse of “The Dealers” goes:
        I’d like to go to the green woods
        Or the Superstition mountains
        You may come if you would
        Leave the dealers to their counting

    13. "Land Grab" (2008), Dr. John & The Lower 911

    14. “Pretty and the Fair” (1974), Jesse Colin Young

    15. “Furr" (2008), Blitzen Trapper

    16. "Buffalo Song" (2004), Olivia Tailfeathers: A singer from the Tribe (Blackfoot Confederacy) in Western Canada –– this song has a Fleetwood Mac vibe (or Maybe Fleetwood Mac was channeling an Amerindian vibe).

    17. "Paradise Lost" (2007), Storyhill

    18. "Branching Out" (1987), John Gorka: Elsewhere in this blog, I have mentioned that John Gorka, when not otherwise occupied on Earth, lives in Heaven.  (See post # 30, Devil In The Details [Part 3].)

    19. "Diggin' In The Deep Blue Sea" (2011), David Bromberg:  From a fine 2011 album, Use Me.  This admirable environmental song was co-written by Keb’ Mo and Gary Nicholson.  It contains this refrain:

        This whole world is just a junkie, yeah
        All strung out on gasoline
        Now they got boats out on the water
        And they’re diggin’ in the deep blue sea

    20. "Cousin Caterpillar" (1968), The Incredible String Band: This one was written by Mike Heron.

    21. "Natural Beauty" (1992), Neil Young: A live recording from the Harvest Moon album; it contains the lines quoted at the top of this post. Harvest Moon was a sequel to the Harvest album of 1972, that album containing two memorable singles, “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.”

    22. “Beauty” (2001), Delbert Blackhorse: Another one by Blackhorse, off the same album, Chants of Happiness, that includes “The Good Way.”

    23. “When I Go” (1998), Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer: Not really an environmentally themed song –– or then again, maybe it is –– but a beautiful epitaph for what was lost. Dave Carter (1952-2002) was himself lost too young from a heart attack, so the song is his epitaph also.  His partner Tracy Grammer wrote these lines the day following his death:

        Yesterday, shortly after he went unconscious, he came back
        for a lucid minute or two to tell me, "I just died ... Baby, I just  
        died ...”  There was a look of wonder in his eyes, and though I  
        cried and tried to deny it to him, I knew he was right and he   
        was on his way.  He stayed with me a minute more but despite  
        my attempts to keep him with me, I could see he was already 
        riding that thin chiffon wave between here and gone.  He 
        loved beauty, he was hopelessly drawn to the magic and the 
        light in all things.  I figure he saw something he could not resist 
        out of the corner of his eye and flew into it.

    24. "Vasco Da Gama" (2001 re-recording), Hugh Masakela: A new version of a mid-1970s song.

    25. "Vasco Da Gama" (1976), Hugh Masakela: This is the original version.  Among the descriptions of Vasco Da Gama is this fitting line:
    He invented discovery ... for colonization.

    26. "Desert Vision" (1995), City Folk

    27. "Before You Came" (1975), Jesse Colin Young


    Kit said...

    I am commenting on my own post here with an update on the person who burned The Senator. Click on link: Woman blamed for 'Senator' fire pleads not guilty.

    Kit said...

    Another update on the woman who burned down The Senator. Click on link: Woman accused of torching The Senator re-arrested.

    Comments are appreciated: