Reading Keith Basso’s book, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among The Western Apache (University of New Mexico Press), I am reminded of my childhood fascination with Native Americans. When I was about ten years old, my grandmother gave me a map as a gift. It was not just any map, however; it was a map of the United States from a much different perspective than I had ever seen it. Instead of being described by interstate highways, national parks, or state borders, the map was organized based on Native American tribe concentrations and their names for places.
I remember the effect that looking at that familiar map with unfamiliar place names had on me as a young child; perhaps for the first time, I began to see landscape as an order higher than that of political boundaries and as something that transcends the law and order of men. From Snyder to Basso to Lopez, many American naturalist writers reflect a certain degree of nostalgia for the ways in which to many “native peoples, the land is thought to exhibit a sacred order.” While I felt a similar way in my youth, I am presently incapable of perceiving the Native American approach to nature as any more noble or sacred than our own approach.
Indeed, it does appear true that the ways in which many tribes, Navajo and Apache in particular, perceived nature is different from our own, but I do not dare to venture on any qualitative judgments between Native Americans’ perceptions and ours. In fact, a scientific exploration into many Native American land management techniques including but not limited to hunting, gathering, and fire ecology reveal that Native Americans were perhaps not as brilliant stewards of the land as was once thought. (For further discussion on this issue, I recommend an article entitled “Native American Land-Use Practices and Ecological Impacts” by M. Anderson and M. Moratto).
It seems to me that the real difference between Native American perceptions of the land and our own are not manifest in the damage or lack thereof done to the environment, but rather how those perceptions affect the individuals within each society. I do believe that the perceived divorce between man and nature has an effect on the mentalities, even happiness, of a given group of people. That is not something that should be ignored. However, had the Native Americans had as large a population as we do today, the rate of environmental destruction may have been comparable to our own.
This issue of place names in Basso’s book, for instance, is largely indicative of how the “sacredness” of these places is even ignored by Native Americans. The section on “Snakes’ Water” is a good example of the disparity between deep ecology and the ways of societal man. Remembering back to a Snyder piece entitled, “The Place, the Region, and the Commons,” Snyder discusses how a place should be referred to based on its geologic or floristic attributes rather than a randomly assigned name. Clearly, any name assigned to a place, regardless of how descriptive it is, is the result of a subjective decision made by humans. To a parasatoid wasp, the landscape may be defined more by presence or lack of volatile organic compounds; to a bear it may be presence of fruits and fish; to a child it may be the hue of the trees; to a scientist it may be the climate or the biota. In the “Snakes’ River” example, we run up against the folly of man. One time, long ago, at least according to Charles, Basso’s guide, people went to that place often, “they filled their containers with water. They knelt on these rocks when they drank water from their hands. Our [Apache] people were very grateful for this spring. It made them happy to know they could rely on it anytime. They were glad this place was here.”
That place, however, is no longer there. The spring that gave rise to the river is now dried up. The snakes are now gone. Yet, the name “Snakes’ River” is to be preserved. For what? Cultural integrity perhaps? If so, the dogmatic adherence to the traditions of now gone people represents a total obliviousness to the traditions’ initial purposes. While our ancestors beheld nature as it was, it seems we attempt to hold on to what they once had. Indeed, the snakes had no problem moving on to another locale. Rather than aiming to describe how we presently relate to the landscape, Basso seeks to argue that we largely view ourselves in relation to place based on how our forbearers did. Nature, however, is not so stagnant and backward looking as our cultural practices often are. Equilibriums do not exist in nature. Snakes’ River was not supposed to be where it was and nothing was lost when it dried up, at least from an ecological perspective. Rather, our intellectual inabilities to comprehend change are what create this perception that something has been lost.
Rather than hoping, praying, or wishing for stability as Charles’s ancestors did in regard to the water source at Snakes’ River, I revel in ecological change. It was Emerson who said, “Our age is retrospective.” He argues that we should confront nature head on, not through the eyes of our forbearers. Personally, the names of places are of little importance to me. I would be perfectly fine with it if we were to begin identifying regions by their latitude and longitude or by a simple grid system (imagine if New York City were changed to G4/S7 or something like that, I suppose it would be a bit difficult of a system to learn), but I suppose that sort of system lacks the beauty and poesy sought by so many members of our species. The point is, to me place-names mean very little. It is the tangible place that is important.
Once, years ago (I make it sound like I am so old!), I sought to be some sort of enlightened transparent eye ball sitting solemnly beneath a fig tree (or perhaps an American equivalent, like the closely related elm tree) calmly observing all that surrounded me. No longer do I seek such an abstracted goal. An intimate, scientific understanding of nature is what I now find to be the most rewarding. Aesthetic appreciation has its place, but a practical understanding of the world around me engenders a much deeper appreciation for nature. I would liken it to a seasoned painter walking through an art museum. While the untrained eye can walk through the halls of that museum and experience the beauty of the paintings surrounding it, the artist sees much more. He sees the exactitude of the brush strokes, the outstanding ways the colors were mixed, the painter’s eye for perfection. He understands the time put in to the work and he understands something of the emotional attachment of the artist to his work. As I walk through the forest, it is not simply a painting; it is all those things that lie beneath the painting, the elegance of photosynthesis, the complexity of mutualisms, and the simple beauty of plant designs. I wish not to confine these beautiful complexities into a socially constructed understanding nor to relegate them to something as simple as a title like “boreal forest.” In my complex understanding of these many processes and interactions occurring around me and my further apperception that there is so much I do not know- that no one knows- I am truly awed by the workings of this thing that some have come to call “god.”
Of course, all of this would imply that my appreciation for nature is entirely intellectual, which is certainly not the case. There is a visceral reaction that I think we all feel to some extent that dives deeper into what it means to be a human experiencing nature. But does it really have anything to do with being human? Indeed, we have no idea how a bee feels when it sees the flower which it is meant to pollinate. We do know, however, that it has a preference for specific flowers- the way they look, their scent, even their structures. Is it perhaps all animals that experience, in some way or another, a visceral reaction to their landscape? Does the endoparasatoid hymenoptera have a visceral reaction to the headspace of glucosolinate in a Brassicaceous plant? We certainly know that they are drawn to such things. I personally have no more proof that you, my reader, have a visceral reaction to a beautiful landscape than that hymenoptera does to the scent of glucosolinate.
There is a hypothesis that is derived from the highly refuted Savannah Hypothesis that argues humans are drawn to things like lawns and large open spaces because at the genesis of humanity, our landscape was characterized by a move from wetter forests to dryer, open savannah spaces. This also accounts for the development of bipedalism in humans in that we no longer lived in trees. Taking that discussion a bit further, world-renowned entomologist E.O. Wilson has argued in numerous texts for a concept he has called “biophilia,” which he defines as humanity’s “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” While these specific arguments are certainly subject to large amounts of criticism, I think they help illuminate the idea that there is something instinctive within humanity that encourages an appreciation for nature.
Do we as a society treat nature in a less sacred manner than Native Americans? Perhaps. I do not believe, however, that our actions toward nature are any worse. Has something been lost with our empiric approach to nature? Perhaps. However, I think something has been gained from this new view of nature. We are now privy to a world of secrets contained within the infinity of nature; we were once completely unaware of this world’s existence.
In an article in the New York Times published December 5, 2008, Peggy Orenstein discusses the invasion of wild turkeys into her Berkeley, California neighborhood. At first, Orenstein’s daughter is excited by the arrival of the charming looking creatures. However, as time passes and the birds become more pest-like, her daughter proclaims, “I hate turkeys.” As the author contemplates how to convey the beauty of the annoying creatures, she says to the reader, “I’ll just have to find some other way to teach her that the best response to nature is not ‘awww’ but awe.” Returning to the museum example, an uneducated appreciator of art may look at the more trained artist and think that he bastardizes the art-work through scrutinizing it so much. The uneducated appreciator, as he stands before a beautiful painting, will likely be moved, letting out an “ooh” or an “awww.” As the more studied artist examines the brush strokes and the manner in which the yellow dances with the orange in a way that he has attempted so often back in his own studio, however, he may not experience such an aesthetically oriented “ooh” or “awww,” but rather an intellectually driven awe.
And that map with all those Native American names that once opened me up to a new perception of how landscape interacts with humanity? It seems that it, like Snakes’ River and so many of the names listed on that map, has given way to the hegemonic interests of man- to have been swept away, left in the past. I often wonder where that map disappeared to and if I will ever see it again. If not, I suppose I will always retain the epiphany that it evoked; I should be so lucky that my experiences in the landscape sit with me as long. Because, while I do believe that we must confront reality head on and not through the eyes of our ancestors, I can never forget.