I spent a week in the Tarra Valley of Victoria at the start of the year. This lush, cool landscape contains remnants of ancient rainforests that hark back to the times of Gondwana - massive old fern trees, towering Mountain Ash trees and Beech Myrtles that have been standing for a thousand years. It’s a watery place, so wet that a baby crayfish stopped me on the track and crossly waved an oversized claw at me, and another full sized one ambled casually into a nearby bush.
In these timeless forests the ancient world curls into today, my hand brushing mossy bark that had been growing when Angkor Wat was a living city and the Crusades set out across Europe, when Genghis Khan was sweeping the world and the Magna Carta was signed, when the Forbidden City was being built, when the Black Death galloped across the world and Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales. Time seems to slow and collapse and the past is present, and also a possible vision of the future. The national park signs talk about how the forest could look in the next 500 years, which after all is nothing, here.
Two books I’d taken with me brought the beauty of this natural world into piercing, poignant focus. The first was Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist with Native American heritage. This beautiful and thought provoking book twines together scientific knowledge with older Indigenous wisdoms and understandings of the world. The book is rich and multilayered but one clear message kept rising to the surface: The whole world is kin.
I also had David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet - his ‘witness statement and vision for the future’, which is also a documentary. It is powerful and urgent, a clear-eyed wake up call, but ultimately hopeful, providing a practical and still-possible path out of the mess we’ve created. Again, there is so much in this book but if there was one message I took from it, it was: Diversity is essential - we must re-wild to survive.
These two messages are joined. We are moulded by centuries of colonialist, capitalist and patriarchal thinking - where the world and its daily miracles are reduced to resources and commodities, where we are above the rest of creation (and man above woman), and exploration and dispossession of First Nations people is inevitable. Where people mean progress and ‘progress’ means pillaging the natural world. It's the way of the world. You can’t have your cake and eat it too; you can have either material comfort, with aircon and iPhones and Netflix and cars, or you can have wilderness.
We’ve all drunk deep at that well, the one that teaches us that it’s a shame, but just the way it is. It’s collateral damage, the price we pay for humans to thrive; mountaintops sliced off, rivers and oceans poisoned, ancient forest burnt and razed, seas filled with plastic and mass extinction. This sounds dramatic but it barely touches the reality of our presence on this earth. We all seem to have signed up to the idea that this is not only a price worth paying, but somehow inevitable, as if we have no other choice. To destroy our own home and our only source of life. We wouldn’t believe our actions if we were watching this unfold on some cosmic reality tv show. We’d say, ‘oh no, that’s unrealistic! They would never be so blind, so self destructive. So stoopid.’
To be fair to us, we’re the boiling frog. We’ve had centuries of adjustment to this new normal. This way of thinking has become deeply ingrained and it is hard, constant work to firstly, SEE the thinking patterns in our heads, and secondly to re-programme them. It’s not easy and it’s constant, hard work - but do it we must.
I grew up in 1970s Australia. When I was a kid, it was normal to hear racist slurs towards Indigenous people. It was routine to ridicule people with different or non binary sexuality and gender, and often much worse than ridicule. You could be expected to be called a ‘fat moll’ if you dared grace the beach with a soft body, and also be the only one expected to feel shame as a result of that casual cruelty. It was a time with the White Australia Policy was in place and brown and black immigrants were officially second rate citizens.
Most of us now look back on that time in horror. What toxic water we swam in! How could we have accepted that? Which shows us that it is possible to re-programme the way we think within a generation; to check our own conditioning and to form new neural pathways. It’s a tough, ongoing job but only by doing that is healthy, respectful, aware behaviour developed, and new laws put into place to protect this. We’ve done this time and again to outlaw slavery, stop public executions as entertainment, give women universal suffrage and equal pay, provide education for all, outlaw child labour and require bosses to treat workers well, put restrictions on corporations to protect land and people, pass anti hate speech bills, mandate seatbelts, outlaw dog fights.
Wear masks in public during pandemics.
We change all the time at a societal level, and this is what could be our saving.
Kimmerer also talks lucidly about language and how it links us with the world. ‘When a language dies, so much more than words are lost,’ she has said. ‘Language is the dwelling place of ideas that do not exist anywhere else.’
It is also defines our interactions with the world around us. In Kimmerer's traditional Potawatomi language (and many Indigenous languages) you use the same words to address the living world as you do your family. Most of the world is not only animate but kin, whereas in English, you are either a person or a thing (apart from some animals, usually pets). In other words, we deny the dignity of personhood to everything other than ourselves. To describe someone as 'it' feels wrong and distancing, but this is what we do to all other living things. It is much easier to take a chainsaw to 'it' rather than 'she'.
In Potawatomi, around 70% of the words are verbs, compared to around 30% of English words, which is a noun-based language - one that collects things. In Potawatomi you say to be a bay, to be a tree, to be an apple - that is, you describe the world as something alive, in action and always on the verge of change; not something dead and classified and contained. Not only is the natural world animate, but it is kin to us. Trees are ‘the standing people’, and there are rock people, bear people, beaver people.
This apparently simple difference in our languages shows us something profound. The choice of pronouns and descriptors reveals our world view. In Potawatomi there is no false hierarchy with humans at the top - indeed, humans are the newcomers and are taught to respect the wisdom of their elders, the other members of the natural world. Plants, animals, the sky, the river and seas, the rain and the sun - all are family, all are sovereign species. Humans are not superior to other members of the natural world, but utterly dependent on the gifts they provide for survival. In this world view, we are an interdependent democracy of species - not a tyranny of one above all.
A Life on Our Planet shows us the disastrous path we have taken over centuries, and Braiding Sweetgrass shows us some of the steps we took toward that path. How we have moved away from ancient and Indigenous understanding of the world, putting ourselves separate and above the rest of creation. This path will be the death of us, unless we also take the lesson from Attenborough’s book - of urgently re-populating the world with our wild family, with all the diverse kin that we share this planet with. Of making amends for this awful rift we have rent in our collective, multi-speciel family. And in the process of re-learning respect and gratitude for all that is around us, all our family members who are different to us, and essential in that difference - maybe then we will learn to extend that respect to all races within our own species. All genders and sexualities, all abilities, all manners of perception. All the human range of being.
We need difference to survive and the whole world is kin. Once upon a time, we knew these truths at a profound level. The first thing we need to do is remember. The echo of this understanding is still within us, deep down. It is time to turn towards those who have retained this knowledge and re-learn from them - the Indigenous people of the world. We need to humbly ask to be admitted into this holy grail of knowledge and we need to open our minds to old-new ways of thinking.
The poor boiling frog doesn’t realise his fate until it’s upon him, but we have been gifted a shutter-short window of awareness. We can still leap out of the deadly brew.
We’re almost, almost too late - but there are precious seconds left. There’s one thing that 2020 taught us, and that’s the usefulness of axial motion. In this past year we’ve had to grease our joints, and now the whole world is waiting for the pivot that will save us.
The very first, most essential step to do right now is to ban all old growth logging. Our standing people urgently need us to stand between them and the machines, and by that one act we allow other wild kin to flourish there. Protect the old ones still standing, and make space for new wilderness. We have to drastically cut our meat consumption and reduce the vast spaces dedicated to industrial farming, and turn away once and for all from fossil fuels. We can do this, and we can still live comfortable lives in harmony with nature. A world where humans help and support nature to thrive is possible, and now essential. The technologies are already there, and we have no choice but to take this path.
Not for woke points or some green dream or to virtue signal - but for all of our wildly differing, vastly varying, ultimately connected lives.
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