Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Edge of Extinction

The Anglo-Welsh painter and poet, David Jones, knew that a landscape only becomes real to us when it is, "actually loved and known", when we inhabit it not only physically but in the histories and stories that it carries as part of a living community and tradition.

It is a lesson that Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, exemplifies in this fine book, "The Edges of Extinction" that takes us on a journey through twelve particular places from New Zealand to the desert landscape of the United States and allows those places, and their people, to speak of what they 'actually love and know'.

In doing so, he invites us to consider how these communities, many fragile, embattled yet always courageous in the face of the march of 'progress', have deeply valuable stories to tell of how we might re-envision our own relationship to place, and the place that is our earthly home.

The stories, beautifully unfolded, slowly accumulate into helpful lessons for living of which I would like to identify four.

The first is the the importance of inviting conversation and of listening to what emerges. So often these are communities that have been deliberately marginalised and yet no one is better equipped to understand the realities of their place. You have the image of the Corps of Engineers spending billions of dollars trying to overawe the ecosystems of Louisiana, to render them 'safe' for human living (or perhaps commerce) without ever once consulting the long accumulation of local knowledge, embedded in indigenous occupants and long time resident alike. Repeated failure does not appear to imbue any humility in the engineers! Yet, as the example, of Tuva shows, when an indigenous community are in power there is, at least, the restored possibility of a sensible pattern of land use after the depredations of 'Soviet scientific agriculture'.

The second is that conservation can only be fully achieved if we allow ourselves to live within and be bounded by natural limits - extracting ourselves is always a failure. The most common form of extraction is, of course, our current consumerist trajectory, living as if neither local nor planetary boundaries truly mattered. But there are others - the conceit, for example, that many of the so called wilderness areas should be depleted of humans to make for their long term viability, not recognising that indigenous people have been an essential part of the landscape's life for generations. This practice has resulted in the creation of 'conservation refugees' - like the San Bushman in Botswana expelled so that tourists can enjoy the illusion of 'pristine nature'. Or where we force populations to become sedentary so they can be fully 'civilised', deeply wounding them in the process, like the Inuit in Canada, forced into dispirited settlements so they can be educated like us, depriving them of the nomadic patterns that allow for wholeness. There is a beautifully moving section of the chapter from Labrador where a young Inuit reestablishes the tradition of long distance journeys through the landscape and invites people, young especially, to join him, each winter: a modern enabling of a long tradition. One that reminds us of recent studies on the importance of being in nature for the preservation and deepening of our own well-being; for example, in studies relating to the reduction of attention deficit disorders in children that comes with exposure to play in nature.

The third is that this pattern of embodied listening to and living in a particular place gives rise to forms of knowledge that we may be tempted within our materialist frames to dismiss; and, yet, these forms arise, and complement, more mainstream, scientific manners of knowing. What does it mean, for example, when a traditional fisherman in Finland says that it is a tradition in his family that they dream where fish are located and he does not mean it metaphorically? What does it mean, as a Polynesian sailor, to navigate great distances over open bodies of water, with striking accuracy, using a range of sensory and intuited knowledge that extends the boundaries of what it would be normally imagined we can pay attention to? It is to Jules' credit that he reports these occasions with an open minded phenomenology that allow them to stand pondering in our own minds without rush to any conclusions.

The fourth is that we are only likely to preserve what we first learn to love; and, that here are a continuous series of images of what can and is loved, embodied in real people, living fulfilled lives, that are happy. Time and again in Jules' chapters, people speak of their love for the world in this their particular places whether it be of the nomadism of Tuvan herders or traditional fisherman in Finland or the Amish renewing the possibilities of agriculture on their highly productive small farms in Ohio. The Amish are a powerful example of the possibility of love of community, of the valuing of social capital, as a filter through which to judge change. Is it good for the community is their key test for any proposed innovation - the Amish are not 'archaic' but their movement through time moves at a different pace, one more attuned to what makes for long term sustainability. As a result, they weathered the 2008 crisis with merely a ripple of its recognition. The key to a long term sustainable future is an appeal to a loving care of beauty and the vibrant communities it gives rise to, rather than either the instilling of fear of catastrophe or utilitarian calculation.

It is, finally, this recurring testimony that makes the book not only a thoughtful exploration of the lives of others, genuinely other, tracking different paths to the mainstream, but a tracing of the patterns of what it might mean to love a place and be at home in it.

The homes themselves are all strikingly different but bound by being places that first and foremost are genuinely listened to - its possibilities and the stories it can give rise to.

The invitation is to truly listen to where we are and build a renewing life out of that shared landscape of hearing.

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