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Keynote Address on Native American Ecology, at
“Farm, Field & Forest: Living with the Land”
Ecology and Economy Conference
Town Hall of Orange, Massachusetts
September 25, 2010
Good Afternoon! Thank you very much to the town of Orange, Mass., for hosting this conference. Thank you for today’s chance to speak with so many scientists and experts in so many fields. And, Thanks to Genevieve Fraser, whose initiative has brought us here to learn from each other, and to go forth as more-empowered citizens.
Way back in 1983, William Cronon wrote that “the best measure of a culture’s ecological stability may well be---how successfully do its environmental changes maintain its ability to reproduce itself?”
The need for a conference like this is a measure of the troubling, present answers to Cronon’s question. For generations of research, and for all the delivery of its findings on the state of nature around us, right up to today, we still have to act within a system whose controllers and consultants conceive of nature largely as a sub-system of economics. We each have our estimates of how far from backwards ecology has turned this around. But ecology still sounds like a sub-discussion within others, such as “this fiscal quarter,” and “this election cycle.”
Let's go right at this, and start with a positive question out of William Cronon's question. Do you think most Americans, and our "deciders" alike, have a compelling interest in a society with stable foundations? From where we are, then---in a country with an average of 1300 miles between the production and consumption of food---in a country with so much simultaneous honor and disregard for the past---how can we speak to that? What are the demonstrable best ways forward? How can we get the real story of this land "behind us" in helpful and empowering ways, as each of us works to advance a healthier, long-term stewardship of our blessings here?
I hope this talk points to the many assets we have in the full story of human beings on this land. To me as an historian, they read like experiments that we can see going on in a very long-term laboratory. So I hope to suggest that wherever we speak and work, if the facts matter, they're on the side of healthy change, from the ecological foundation.
So, for 30 minutes followed by a wide-open forum here, let's see what this land taught the first Americans of how to live sustainably and well. Let's look at Native New England in terms of their forestry, wildlife and food practices, which have come down to us in orature and colonial reports from the end of the last Ice Age, to the dawn of the Renaissance and Transatlantic economy. We have oral traditions of people walking to Nantucket to visit their cousins, and reports in Shakespeare's English that show the wisdom of this land's first peoples.
Some general points first. Ecology tells us of Nature as "a continually conserved natural order of nutrients that cycles through both living and non-living parts of the environment." What we call life "flows through" every form. From today's genome analyses, too, we know that all living things have genes more alike than they are different.
Those same cycles within cycles were, in Native New England terms, a living web of interrelated and interdependent forms---summed up in a code of Reciprocal Relationship. Evidence we can see, for example in David Kinsley's Ecology and Religion, is that Native American hunting-and-gathering, and farming---practiced separately, or together, as here---had a spiritual aspect as much as a practical one. And of these things, it's fitting and empowering to speak in present tense.
Every kind of being in nature is a real part of a real Family, because they are the same living substance. Every being and power has an intrinsic value, and a voice of its own to be heard. There are heroes of goodness who make mistakes, and there are beings of pure malignant mischief, whose "evil" is usually willfulness---a defiance of known rules greater than itself. In this universe, things work together without being all the same; and, every single detail has its place. In this universe, the best outcomes emerge from the interconnections between differences, rather than from reducing any Other to an object, by disrespect, or violence.
This is a code that might be the product of hard, sore human experience worth the listening. It's a kind of safeguard, that discourages impetuous short-term damage that might (and usually does) turn out to be long-term damage to oneself---not to mention others.
As we come out of schools and into the marketplace, it's not easy to hear, let alone to live by, a code that says, first, that everything around us is alive. But in sum, this is a code that promises real disaster in return for disrespect.
We also know, for example from Ake Hultkranz's Native Religions of North America, and from Shepard Krech's The Ecological Indian, that sometimes in some places, Native peoples too applied what we, looking back, see as an unwise misuse of land, with unsuccessful results. We can see in some places an over-population problem, or deleterious effects from over-hunting. And those include examples from before the Transatlantic fur trade.
But here is a crucial difference in one of Shep Krech's summary observations: "If we describe a Native American as a conservationist, we do not mean that he/she calculates sustainable yield into the distant future…but rather that he/she does not waste, or despoil, or exhaust, or extinguish." As, that is, a principle: one that Native peoples seldom intentionally breached. Their core value in common, Krech writes---with a full awareness of the exceptions---is to "leave the environment and resources in a usable state for succeeding generations."
We can say, this seems to be what we have lost. In positive terms, it's accurate to say that this mentality is gaining political respect in global, 21st century terms---not least as the result of recognized threats.
So let me describe a few criteria that reflect in useful ways the substance of ancient knowledge in this inheritance. Brown University's Krech and others have assessed this using an approach called TEK, or Traditional Ecological Knowledge.
TEK is a way to see the substantive and useful middle ground---between what science calls principles, and what Native peoples understand as the guides and parameters of each cycle, within the great one.
Some of TEK's criteria include, first, a culture's awareness of resource management and of its environmental impact. How much deliberate human manipulation of the ecological laws of succession can we see in action? Was it fruitful, or a dead end? To what degree can we see, in a given culture's actions, a clear comprehension of the interrelatedness of all things?
Did they use and listen to their ecological indicators? Did they harvest in ways that cooperated with the master cycles around them? Did they demonstrate effective teaching of their ecological knowledge? And what, if any, were the cumulative effects of their learning upon the land that sustained---or, failed to sustain---their culture?
Those criteria have their correlatives in what I'd like to show you today. And on that note, I'd like you to hear from one of the first published historians of Native peoples and colonies in this place.
His name was Thomas Morton---a confident outdoorsman born in England's wild West Country under Queen Elizabeth: a well-educated attorney who, like the Frenchman Marc Lescarbot, found himself in America and, then, found himself writing out all he he'd observed, first-hand. Why? So that people to come here after him might create an America that worked, because it drew upon what already worked.
Like Morton, we stand poised to draw new inspirations from both our Native American heritage, and from the Renaissance. Both offered Morton what they offer us now---an inheritance of wisdom and great benefit in one supremely practical method: to be first, an observer.
I'd like you to hear Morton's "voice" from his 1637 book, New English Canaan. I wonder where, ecologically, we might be today, if the proponents of a "howling" American wilderness had not hoisted him out of the country in a cow's harness---America's first English poet, and its first "criminal exile."
"In the month of June, Anno Salutis 16, it was my chance to arrive in the parts of New England, with 30 servants, and provision of all sorts fit for a plantation. And, while our houses were building, I did endeavor to take a survey of the country.
"The more I looked, the more I liked it. And when I had more seriously considered of the beauty of the place, with all her fair endowments, I did not think that in all the known world it could be .paralleled. For so many goodly groves of trees, dainty fine round rising hillucks, delicate fair large plains; sweet crystal fountains and clear-running streams that twine in fine meanders through the meads, making so sweet a murmuring noise to hear as would even lull the senses with delight asleep, so pleasantly do they glide upon the pebble stones, jetting most jocundly where they do meet; and hand in hand run down to Neptune's Court, to pay the yearly tribute which they owe to him as sovereign Lord of all the springs. Contained within the volume of the land, fowls in abundance, fish in multitude, and discovered besides, millions of turtledoves on the green boughs; which sat pecking of the full ripe pleasant grapes that were supported by the lusty trees; whose fruitful load did cause the arms to bend. With which here and there dispersed you might see lilies, and of the Daphnean tree; which made the land to me seem paradise. For in mine eye, 'twas Nature's Masterpiece: Her chiefest Magazine of all, where lives Her store. If this land be not rich, then is the whole world poor."
For Morton, the point of power connecting healthy development and real prosperity in America's future has to be an informed observance of a "golden mean"---a fine line of judgment between human aspirations and natural realities. Canaan shows that Morton found this already operant in "New England." And he puts his first 10 chapters to work making sure that newcomers understand something indispensable to their own success---that Native Americans represent an ancient, successful and important civilization.
His formula for well-being meant never to lose the very feeling for this place that his words have just evoked to you. Affection, and wonder, he hoped, would be the basis, and part of the reward, for the pursuit of a hard-earned, intimate knowledge, and for a hard-nosed respect, for American nature. Without feeling, without respect, ambition alone becomes an extreme, with painful consequences.
So, onward. Let's look at the central elements that, in his and many observers' eyes, made Native life here successful for so long.
Of course, most of them are already fairly well-known; and, they are recognized and already practiced---to some degree. But "to some degree" is where we are, in the midst of a massive daily impact on this land. Let's look our land's first principles, their results, and the results of having changed them.
First, Native Americans here were "accustomed to set fire of the country in all places where they come, and to burn it twice a year, at the Spring and the Fall of the leaf."
How did this practice come about? The most likely scenario lies far back in the earliest Paleo-Indian periods here, after the retreat of the last glaciers about 13,000 years ago.
With the warming that arrived about 10,000 years ago---and, once hardwood forests had replaced the tundra-climate's spruces---the first pioneers here were sure to notice the beneficial results of fires caused by lightning-strikes. As these events burned away most accumulations of underbrush and forest debris, the landscape changed in ways that well-suited hunting and gathering societies.
These fires brought more sunlight to the soil, and recycled nutrients back into it. Ash, as you know, puts potassium into the soil and tempers its acidity---no small factor in New England's soil as we know it.
In effect, these fires increased the total food supply. They created conditions favorable for berries and fruits and the plants preferred by browsing animals---which, in turn, were the preferred game-animals by which tribal groups here fed themselves. Take a look at Native Northeastern cuisine before agriculture, and already your mouth starts to water at the range of "wild offerings" all through the year.
So, if fires made hunting and gathering easier, and more rewarding, the earliest New Englanders probably started to induce them, when lightning failed to do the annual trick. In the Spring and Fall here, they could count on plenty of rain to help ensure that the results were not excessive.
Those benefits and those management skills continued to accrue into the latest 1,000 years of Native agriculture here. Many observers besides Morton describe a New England that was more like an English park than a wilderness, with stands of great old trees, and vast vegetable gardens in the middle of half-open grasslands. But one of the most convincing proofs of rhythmic land-management by Native Americans is also the most tragic.
Just before Morton's 1624 arrival, a "plague" that may have been smallpox, chicken pox and/or measles devastated 90 percent of Native New England's villages. Waves of disease from 1616-18 simply annihilated the young and the healthy and the old alike, in places taking 19 of 20 people, and their incomparable understandings of this environment. And one of the most immediate consequences was an increasing return of the land to what some of the English called a choked and "ragged plain": the opposite of what they first found here.
Originally, then, annual controlled burns kept the fuel-load low on the ground. So the fires were mostly "ground" and not forest fires. They moved quickly, burned at low heat, and almost never turned into conflagrations.
Yet, sooner than later, colonists decided that these burns might be a threat to colonial structures and farms and properties. With every year that it went undone, the nightmare became more likely---and although I over-simplify, here we are.
I wonder what an experiment in these techniques would show today. Maybe a few square miles of state forest now considered a risk-zone could be cleared without fire first, and then managed for several years with burns at the spring and the fall of the leaf. If the national news is a yearly indication, we could do worse than to learn from Native American forestry. And our citizens and officials need to know it.
I used the word "rhythmic" a minute ago. You can see the regular, cyclical aspect of induced burning. As I thought how best to sum up these observations in the time we have today, I kept finding that what connected them all was a human time frame adapted to the great circles and cycles in every part of nature. Europeans too had to work with nature's cycles---but let's see how the differences of approach and results emerge in a look at more facts.
Flexibility was part of what Morton saw here; noting that Native New Englanders "used not to winter and summer in the same place, for that would make fuel scarce." That's good evidence that Native peoples had learned a few crucial built-in limits, and come to terms with them by adjustment. Changes in their living-places for maybe 8-10 years at a time simply gave their corn and vegetable gardens rest. As a friend of mine says, "The fields must eat and drink." Fallow-time, besides, was likely more of a pleasant change than problematic; with the benefits of aligning one's investments, shall we say, with the powers that are actually in control.
However obvious the idea of multi-crop gardens and crop rotation, what they point to is the need for new emphasis, on the fact that there are tried true ways and principles for maximum yield without maximum intervention by force of chemicals---and, with less labor.
Cronon darkly details the later soil exhaustion that came of New-English monoculture in the fields. Why? Because, one, nature in general had been re-conceived as, quote, "a resource to be mined until it was exhausted"; and, two, because of feeding the leftovers to their livestock: the cornstalks and other ungathered materials, instead of allowing them to enrich the soil.
Nor was that enough to feed English animals, which never before had fit into this ecology. So, they were turned out to browse around these farmsteads like half-wild creatures; and this kept even their manure from enriching the farming-earth.
It may seem hard to understand the refusal to plant legumes and cabbages and turnips and other root-crops along with one's intended main crop, to let them do so much of the crucial re-fertilization work. What we know is that nothing so early---or later, so widely---drove the expansion of English colonies as much as soil exhaustion, because of the lack of adaptation to local conditions.
In terms of Native hunting, the same dynamic of intervals-along-a-cycle applied. This land's great variety of food sources shaped every gathering season according to an efficient principle---when was the easiest local time of year to make the most of peak plenitude. There weren't many Puritans who approved (as Morton did) the easiest methods of doing anything---but, what a principle! Being guided by what's easiest to the wisdom of eating local.
In Spring, each tribe on its landscape had its own varieties of fish and birds in numbers that astounded the early writers. Along with those through Summer, southern Native communities had their crops, along with wild nuts, fruits and berries and more. That left winter as the season most concerned with hunting game. By then, as well, animals had had the time they needed to breed and to fatten themselves.
In short, you just could not wisely do the same food-providing things in every season, and eat the same things every season, year after year. If you followed the cycles of local peak seasons, if you knew how to observe, to adjust, and cooperate, you got the most reward with the least work; and that, within a great cycle that needed only these kinds of human adjustment to go on.
Picture the Native farms that sailors saw all along our shores---and, contrast that with the barrens of outer Cape Cod as it is today. If you contrast a reported average harvest there of "50 bushels of Indian corn an acre, plus 15-20 bushels of grain," with the stark fact of simply having to abandon exhausted fields after a short time of plenty, you can see clearly the potentials in adjustment; and that, against the certainty of a dead-end---called "desertification"---where no adaptations are made.
This is how stark the differences are between these cultural experiments with land. And that is how confidently we can anchor new discussions of the choices, where we meet the old resistance to change.
Native peoples' astute understandings of the relations between living things, within cycles, take us back to the soil as well.
"The" example is Three Sisters agriculture, in the relations between maize or Indian Corn, beans and squash. As we know, the corn planted in each little hill of their gardens became a climbing-post for the kidney beans that went in just a bit later. Then, the broad leaves of their squash (and pumpkins, and watermelons, and other ground-growing vegetables) kept the weeds down, and preserved moisture in the soil with a minimum of labor---with the added benefit of the beans fixing nitrogen back in the soil.
If that were a flawless system, Native communities would not have had to relocate every few years. As it was, it worked for about 5 times the history of the United States; while, for the methods begun to be used about 400 years ago, we have their results before us. If we cannot "remove" every few years to a new site within a cycle of time, the option is to change where we are.
As my Nipmuc friend Star or Bruce Curliss puts it, we need to turn successful practices into values that can guide and support the survival of a life worth living.
In relation to wildlife, clearly, Native people changed and managed the ecosystem in their own favor. But this they did within its observed limitations. Whether they listened ahead of the line, or were forced to it, they learned to Respect the seed---not to take every last animal, bird, or fish in reach, but to think in self-interest for tomorrow. To be a steward of strong breed-populations was an inheritance born out of ecological laws. Laws that manifested out of facts far beyond ourselves---and, laws that contain, with no doubt, our own fate. So here again is that word, limits; and here, your "golden mean" in play where Morton found it.
A Native man told him, "We are almost Beaver's brothers!" This, on the historical verge of too much Native cooperation with the fur trade, for its short-term rewards. For the first Transatlantic century or so, there was a balance between the two collective sides. You might say, neither culture could yet overpower the other; although, as far as I know, only one side of the Atlantic had aspirations that way.
So, what took down this balancing act as the dominant value-system governing land here? For some, it was that A), Native peoples were so devastated by disease that most of their authorities and sanctions could no longer function at old levels. In other views, it worked until B), Native people, in the midst of unparalleled destruction, were tempted into dependency by so-called "conveniences"---like metal tools and traps and guns, and, by exotic "status goods." This was the reach of the 17th-century European microbe and its marketplace.
As Cronon says, Native peoples too loved "property"---in their own way. Here, it was about meeting the yearly needs of local family and tribal groups. The "commercialization" that Morton also helped along was about the endless accumulation of capital and wealth. That, beyond plague and beyond the consequences of foreign goods, was the engine driving the most and the worst ecological changes as the 17th century came and went.
The powers that came to rule New England were not working according to the Renaissance. Bacon and Morton, too, were turning nature into mechanism. But in their tradition, there was at least a chance for observation and adaptation. Profit, whose goal then was the finance of churches, made land that was considered "un-used," "un-improved," or "un-developed" economically intolerable. This was the logic unfolding from the first arbitrary erasures of Native land rights: the prime criterion being, their "lack" of enclosure for cattle---which had never lived here in the first place.
Do the math. One house and farmstead, as a "fixed abode" in the new-and-only legal way to live here, burned an acre of wood a year. And, its livestock or foreign animals demanded from 2-10 times more land than farming---what we recognize today as the world's most wasteful use of it. By this logic, the colonies would have imploded, had they not had a West into which to ex-plode.
So, to look into the original American practices here is to stand on a frontier between cultures and choices. In many ways, culture is choices. But in too many halls of discussion ahead of us, limits are already synonyms for "a threat to our way of life." Yet---The fact is, we are not going to lose our culture for making new choices that mean change.
We're going to lose just about everything if we don't adapt. And, since the beginning here, it was "America" that created, and every day creates all its human cultures, out of its demands for adaptation. America always has demanded serious and constant adjustment to new realities---from language, to the rules of survival and prosperity. Change is the fact-based soul of American identity. Change is the traditional way to honor our past and save our future.
Consider. Life as a cycle, as a presence, rather than a march toward some never-known goal. Where the world was a circle and a cycle, people were, quote, "never in a hurry." They had "arrived" on the planet. Think of that. And, they still had room for what we call "progress"---because, observation and learning were the core of their life-ways. Maybe, then, one change to enable many more can come with thinking again about time itself in a Native New England way. Maybe, a different sense of time can unlock a quite-wonderful (and so, persuasive) change in our very sense of our purpose in this space.
Consider, too, the control over food-production by Native New England women, with its complement in their control over the birth rate and population. Whether here, or to the north where there was little agriculture, they kept numbers in tune with the land.
Respect for those things is also part of our ecological inheritance. And the point of having one is to interrogate where we are, with tomorrow in mind. What, then, are our optimum limitations? Where the Dream for so long has meant no limits, we can help our pioneer American mind to see new challenges in terms of today's frontier.
The land is warning us like a cosmic chorus right now, that we are close to the point where disrespect initiates disaster. From here, the challenge is in how we live: how we can be more fiercely free and creative within the healthy limits of the land.
Clearly, it's our generation's fate to discover those limits as never before. And the threats that enforce them are real. So, here we are---to learn from each other how to demonstrate, for all the people ahead on each of our paths, that a handful of limits are no diminution of freedom, but cutting-edge action in its interest.
Here today we carry forward the interrogation of our own present values---that too is the soul of the American frontier. You find it in Morton's Canaan where he sums up his portrait of Native life with a riddle for his peers. "We" then called Native peoples poor, but by all accounts they lived "richly," because they needed and wanted little. Why, Morton asked, did the people of progress seem to be so poor in the midst of plenty?
By the same comparisons we've made, some Europeans did see that most of their needs were artificial, or created "for" them. The Native American realities here gave them an anchoring reference-point for discerning between their real and their artificial needs.
We, meanwhile, still face an economy whose anchor is in building and outfitting more sprawling suburbs of houses and their cars. As the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef points out, every creature in nature faces limits in its growth. Growth for awhile created our incredible quality of life. But now we see how the current terms of growth, unmodified, begin to degrade that quality of life. These are the signs accumulating toward a turning-point that nobody wants.
But here in your midst are the powers to wake the world---because here are the allies of the forces that rule the living world around us.
The golden mean we've seen in action is a thoroughly practical sense of honor toward something greater than ourselves. It's an affection and appreciation for all the qualities we're endowed with by this land; and, a duty to the law that life worth living means maintaining harmony. Listen to the calls around us for a challenge to which people can rise.
Today, thanks to Genevieve, is another form of what Native New Englanders and "merry old Englishmen" knew as essential for breaking down barriers, for maintaining and promoting civilization---deliberate gatherings, where cross-pollination, critical views and creativity can mingle and move people forward. That's what Morton called "Revels"---and its fruit was a new dance around a primal American symbol of liberty, the Maypole. We need more events like this. The more deliberate discussion, the sooner we find the new ways forward.
What national means would better-suit our times than the story of this land as it began? Ohh, what a movie waits to be made about "New England"! If anybody wants to make that happen as much as I do, let me know. I can't imagine a better vehicle for showing the world---today, a world of eco-tourists and history-hunters---the glories of our 4-season mountains and hills and seacoasts, and their first pioneers.
There is no lack of interested citizens. A few years ago, C-SPAN registered 78 million households tuned in for readings from Plimoth Plantation texts. So I think Americans might enjoy a fundamental New England story that explains how Morton's crew were reading their mail, as they feasted with Native people on duck and deer and lobster and turkey every day, 30 miles up the coast from a huddle of starving Pilgrims, all alone in a howling wilderness.
Meanwhile, the local machine has been fighting to clear what it calls the "clutter" out of this election "for us," by dismissing the most ecological candidate on the lawful ballot.
But maybe that is a sign that, in reality, more and more people are arriving at a crucial inner change---realizing that Nature is not an "Externality," outside the fiscal quarter and the civic cycle. Can there be a sound policy for tomorrow without that basis?
We need strength, patience, positive spirit, and first-rate guides and anchors in this age of dis-information. So trust and draw from the story of the land. Whatever the work ahead, it's an inexhaustible well for our refreshment and inspiration. You heard it in Morton's music. What he saw was the fruit of 10 millennia, the results of a real and successful human experiment in living here, that you can show.
This land always has unleashed new powers for wise change. Now they're in our hands, and around us: the scientific curiosity, the creative understanding, and the civic activation of knowledge---toward smarter, healthier economics, based in a new self-interest and respect.
Let's hear all the voices of our land. They are our Helpers, toward a real well-being that people find only together.
Ladies and gentlemen and, again, Genevieve Fraser---Thank you for this chance to speak with you today.
The floor is yours!
Listen below to a fruitful discussion with audience members that followed,
including the in's and out's of working with Native Americans on new historical and cultural projects! We think you'll find it worthwhile despite the less-than-perfect sound quality.