Country Minds and the Age of Restoration
by Bob Weeden
I often think about this marvelous planet, both the place we call home and the world beyond our personal experience. I think in words and pictures. The words are about a wrong turn we made somewhere, unknowingly and with good intentions but bad consequences. The consequences to people are crowding, inequality, unfairness, despair, and violence. The consequences to the land are poisoning, extinction, less life, and the triumph of sameness over variety. The words are about a basic truth: when humanity is sick, the land is sick; when humanity is well, the land is well.
When I think in pictures I see a shallow pond full of life. Bullfrogs have taken over. They gobble everything in sight and shout “MORE! MORE! MORE!” At the edge of hearing, mid-sized voices call “Cool It! Cool It!” Many voices murmur like tiny tree frogs: “Hope! Hope! Hope! Hope!”
News media report on the world’s ills and the bullfrogs’ croaks very thoroughly. Where is the good news? It’s there if you look. Some comes as a reaction to the bad, as when billions of dollars for marsh restoration in the southern USA followed B. P. Deepwater Horizon’s disastrous oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. There are events more positive and hopeful than the “small good from big bad” sort, too. British and North American economists have joined in two decades, so far, of work to figure out an economy based on stability, not growth: in effect, taking the voice from the bullfrogs. In Kansas, The Land Institute is celebrating thirty-five years of a project to create an agriculture founded on a mixed-species culture of now-wild perennial grains to replace the annuals (wheat, corn, soybeans, etc.) that we grow at huge cost in soil loss and ecological impoverishment.
Those are visionary projects. There are thousands of local, practical ones. People are removing hundreds of unused and dangerous dams and returning streams to their ancient flows. Others plant native streamside vegetation to stabilize cow-damaged banks. Others set out nest boxes for bluebirds in places where fire and logging have eliminated the birds’ traditional sites in dead trees. Examples are everywhere, as varied as the land and our use of it.
People want to restore the land to good health. We’ve begun, and find joy and profit in the work. Will politicians follow where citizens lead? Will we declare an Age of Restoration, putting earth care on equal terms with other primary issues of the day? I think so. I think there is a better chance of doing that than continuing as we are. Bullfrogs soon will be an endangered species.
City and country alike need restoration. Cities need re-conceiving and rebuilding after over two centuries of industrialization, phenomenal growth, and unequal sharing of the temporary profits of that growth. Countrysides need physical and biological renewal after city money and power pillaged them. More than that, they need re-inhabitation, by which I mean the multigenerational processes that transform a geographical area into a home as understood, respected, and loved as a personal life partner can be.
Where is the good news? It’s there if you look.
Maybe I should elaborate a bit. In North America, the land was the First Nations’ early and millennial home. It was the first environs of European settlers. Industrialization sucked resources into cities, making the countryside less habitable. For two centuries many country people could (and can) find work only in cities or in service to city growth. After World War II, a lot of well-off city people came to the country to retire or for seasonal pleasure, a process that enlarged rural populations without reversing the decline in true inhabitation. Today, “dot.com” work, always disdainful of roots, continues that decline.
As well, a deluge of city models and ideas has flooded the minds of rural people, young and old, through all-pervasive media. No one is immune to its influence, or even given a chance to think about a balancing view. Young people living in the countryside often seem to have the same ideas and wants as youngsters in the city, except that rural youth know less of the cities’ reality. First Nations people, too, have often followed this path.
The upshot is that rural populations, whether locally bigger or smaller than a generation or two ago, have less country knowledge and less deep-down love of country places than ever before. This is a serious problem, if we are to make a good start on an Age of Restoration. What can we do? As an old teacher I immediately say to myself, “Change what schools teach and how they teach it.” But I have doubts that schools are the place to start. Jobs are.
Taking restoration seriously means changing the flow of money in our economy. That’s easy. I’ve seen changes like that before when peacetime production became war production in the 1940s, during the post-war revolution in transportation construction, and in water and air cleanup in the first decades of environmentalism. Political will could finance restoration without missing a beat.
If, however, we want country people to be more than bodies doing the will of city people, new money needs to be accompanied by new attitudes and policies. Too many rural jobs today are dead ends or stepping-stones into the city. Country restoration inevitably is a partnership process involving city and country people, with the latter taking on the bigger responsibility for directing and doing. In such a partnership, rural people’s participation will — if governments and businesses do their bit — mean a great deal: much broader horizons for local work, work involving professional as well as manual skills, planning and design capabilities, leadership abilities, and, in general, the exercise of talents, responsibility, and creativity that are now as scarce as hens’ teeth in small town and rural North America. With such prospects, more rural youth will stay home, ensuring the re-establishment of country knowledge and capacities that are now in serious jeopardy.
Taking restoration seriously means changing the flow of money in our economy. That’s easy… Political will could finance restoration without missing a beat.
Some rural regions in North America have substantial First Nations communities. They are lucky. Some First Nations people still possess highly valuable treasures of wisdom from many generations past that show up as canny insights into current situations. I well remember when, during the building of the oil patch on Alaska’s North Slope in the 1970s, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced worriedly that bowhead and grey whale numbers were very low. Their biologists had come to that conclusion after studying satellite photos of leads in spring ice and flying aerial surveys. Inuit from villages at Point Hope, Wainwright, Barrow, and Kaktovik, who had continued traditional whale and seal hunts, thought there were more — not lots, but more. The Bureau looked again. The Inuit were right.
All too often, traditional knowledge, no longer renewed each generation, clings precariously to existence in the minds of the elderly. They often express it best in their traditional language. Usually their children and grandchildren understand imperfectly. Worse, the old knowledge seems irrelevant to them. In fact, it is not at all irrelevant and will be even more valuable in a time of restoration of the land where the old language evolved. Traditional languages have a future.
The important thing is for minds thinking in any and every language to recover the place-centered attentiveness by which traditional First Nations languages served people so well. Maybe it is English that needs to change, having been modified during three centuries when industrial cultures were headed in what we now know included disastrous directions.
I’m sure English is up to the job. English has coped with huge changes in its centuries as an important language. There is no reason it can’t take the Age of Restoration in stride. One day, perhaps, it will help us get along in our world as successfully as traditional languages have done in their long reign. It is even possible that as we live attentively and lovingly in places as different as tundras, forests, and prairies, the imperialistic homogeneity of English will develop regional usages and vocabularies to fit their diversity.
If such a time comes, I hope we tip our hats in respectful acknowledgement that our ancestors pioneered that path.
Bob Weeden was a wildlife researcher and a professor of Resource Management at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, USA. Now retired on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, he planted and tends a 3-acre orchard. He has long been a conservation activist, volunteered with community projects such as the Salt Spring Island Conservancy in the past and currently with Terralingua.
Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. New York, NY: Viking.
Nelson, R. K. (1983). Make Prayers To The Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Sale, K. (1985). Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.