….When Mabel McKay, a deceased Pomo basket weaver and doctor, heard somebody say that he had used native medicinal herbs but that they hadn’t worked for him, she responded, “You don’t know the songs. You have to know the right songs.” With no one to teach us, we don’t know the songs either. The native practice of dreaming songs about the nonhuman world seems as valuable and elusive as a piece of pure bunchgrass prairie or the truth about the land. “Gardening with a Wild Heart”
Some say wilderness disappeared with Lewis and Clark. We may still have wild lands, but true wilderness is gone. Maybe once we finished mapping every inch, that was the final nail in the coffin.
Indigenous cultures once had their very identify, culture, and religion tied to the Land. The plants and animals were as familiar and knowable to them as our ATM’s and supermarkets are to us today. They were Earth-based cultures. And although I consider our European cultures ‘Sky-based’–we identify with ideas i.e. ‘liberty and freedom’ or ‘God in Heaven’–there are still those of us who find sustenance and spiritual refreshment in Land. And I would argue since all human beings are fitted to this earth, therefore the natural world and its wildness must resonate for everyone. In essence, we are still Land-based peoples. Only our culturally-inherited earth knowledge has been diminished.
In todays world, it is expedient and pragmatic for conservation groups to cloth their case in economic terms, whether it be for wildlife or land preservation. Protecting wolves or bears becomes important because people like to view them, which brings in tourist dollars. Setting aside elk habitat is good for hunters as they pay for the game agencies. The argument to preserve every ‘cog and wheel’ for its own sake has no power.
Yet conservation groups are amiss to ignore this argument, for truly that is what is at the heart of the issue–we need these lands for our spirit; preserving the entire biotic community is important for its inherent value, not its monetary one. The mysteries of this Earth spark our sense of wonder. If all becomes mapped and pedestrian, where shall we look for awe, for beauty, for the surprise of diversity and difference. Without these basic human needs met, we lose our compass in this world.
It is time to add this other dimension to our call for protection. In my book The Wild Excellence I call this added element ‘The Sacred Land Ethic’. Aldo Leopold’s land ethic states
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. The land ethic simple enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.
To this eloquent and beautiful description of the way we should live, I’ve just added the word ‘sacred’ to include Land as a source of vision, spiritual awareness and sustenance. Sacred includes all the plant songs we have yet to remember, and all the dances the animals have yet to re-teach us. Sacred includes that moment when you stand in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or the moment alone in the woods when you encounter a new-born fawn.
All of us have resorted on many occasions to the natural world for restoration. So let us not hide behind the arguments of ‘monetary value’ of wildlife. Let us speak the truth of why it is we are fighting to preserve what’s left of the wilds.