Reflections on Week Three – Lessons from “Native Science” and Black Locust
In the specter of global ecological cataclysm, Bill Plotkin (2013) implores humans to remember our true, ecological natures. Although Western philosophical thought attempts to firmly establish humans as exceptional among and separate from the wild world, “we, too, are expressions of nature’s qualities, patterns, and motifs…” (p. 2). Like all Earthlings, the human species arose from within the cauldron of evolutionary alchemy, and we are connected and related, through billions of years of co-creation, to every other being on Earth. We did not spring forth from a void fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head. Instead, “The ways we think, feel, perceive, imagine, and act have arisen in attunement to the rhythms of the day and the turning of the seasons and in intimate relationship with myriad other life-forms and forces” (p. 7).
Because of the radical interconnectivity of all beings within the cosmos, the myriad Anthropocene crises, created within the delusion of human exceptionalism, cannot be resolved until the realities of universal interdependence are remembered and embraced, not only practically in the real world, but also within research processes. Western environmental scientific culture requires “objective” analysis, detached from the subjects one is studying, and elevating one form of knowing, rational thought, above all others. The idea of “objectivity” also suffers from a core fallacy. As Gregory Cajete (2004) observes, “Any attempt to explain the story of the cosmos is also metaphysical, as the method of research always stems from a cultural orientation, a paradigm of thinking that has a history in some particular tradition. Therefore, there can be no such thing as a fully objective story of the universe” (p. 46).
Despite my personal opinions and values, as an environmental scientist specializing in environmental impact assessment, I have necessarily assumed the role of “objective” researcher for my work. I was quickly disillusioned as a budding young scientist, when I was chastised by mentors and peers for any displays of emotional attachment to my research subjects, which were seen as a feminine sentimentality that was definitely “unprofessional.” Proving I could be as detached and emotionless as any man, I embraced the cool rationality of mathematical equations and statistical analyses, developing models to assess “ecosystem services” and “biodiversity values” that not only reduced living beings to utilitarian values but also almost removed the researcher from analyses entirely, thereby ensuring “objectivity.” Ironically, rather than reducing environmental impact, the worldview that values more-than-humans based on their benefits to humans actually fosters the destruction of ecological integrity, by supporting the delusion that humans can weigh costs and benefits and terraform the living world accordingly to suit their individual purposes without any consequences.
Despite my attempts at dissociation, engaging with more-than-human research subjects, who more than likely would end up destroyed or “managed” beyond recognition, perpetually traumatized me. My doctor recommended antidepressants for chronic depression, and I came to realize that most of my colleagues suffered from the same affliction. Ironically, while the scientific orthodoxy is largely dismissive of emotional standpoints, which are seen as “irrational,” the economic and political structures that underpin environmental destruction are simultaneously held as “rational” (Kent & Brondo, 2020). Aldo Leopold observed that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds” (Leopold, 1953, as quoted in Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018, p. 276). Indeed, the lack of safe space within the orthodox community to express emotional distress has been traced to chronic and acute emotional responses in affected persons, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, increased risk of suicide, disempowerment, hopelessness, increased drug and alcohol abuse, and psychosis (Clayton, 2018; Cunsolo et al., 2020; Marshall et al., 2019; Walker, Leviston, Price, & Devine-Wright, 2015).
Shaming, Ignoring, or medicating away these symptoms does not address the core problem. Cajete (2004), who explains the philosophical basis of Native Science, says, “We cannot help but participate with the world. Whether we acknowledge and are creatively open to the perceptions that will result, or remain oblivious to its influence and creative possibilities toward deeper understanding, is our decision” (p. 50). In sharp contrast to Western science, Native science embraces all forms of knowing and perception, including the metaphoric mind:
Connected to the creative center of nature, the metaphoric mind has none of the limiting conditioning of the cultural order. Its processing is natural and instinctive; it perceives itself as part of the natural order, a part of the earth mind, inclusive and expansive in its processing of experience and knowledge. It invented the rational mind, and the rational mind in turn invented language, the written word, abstraction, and eventually the disposition to control nature rather than to be of nature. But this propensity of the rational mind also leads to the development of anthropocentric philosophy and of a science that would legitimize the oppression of nature, its elder brother… (Cajete, 2004, p. 51)
With this in mind, during week three of the year of rewilding, I committed to spending more time outside with co-researchers, trying to quiet what my rational mind thinks it knows in an effort to foster the integral metaphoric mind that knows how to observe, listen, and participate differently (Heddon, 2017; Noorani & Brigstocke, 2018; Plumwood, 2002).
In my meanderings through the wooded areas of the Land, I meet with an old Black Locust Robinia pseudoacacia tree. Although the scientific literature suggests that Black Locust is a medium-sized (40-60 feet tall and 12 to 30 inches in diameter) and relatively short-lived (approximately 90 years) species, this Individual lies beyond these limits and is in excess of 100 sprawling feet in height and a meter in diameter. I cannot fathom their age, and growth factor charts for popular forestry species offer no clues.
I decide to sit with them for a while. I introduce myself and present Tea and Tobacco as offerings. I lament that I do not know their true Indigenous name, as I have become aware that English, a colonizing language that carries on the winds of destruction, may be traumatizing to more-than-humans (Berry, 2019). Instead, I chant the Indigenous name for this region, hoping to convey my sincere desire for reparation.
As I sit with the old sentinel and look around, I see only human destructiveness. They are surrounded everywhere by “alien invasive species” – Wineberry Rubus phoenicolasius, Multiflora Rose Rosa multiflora, Asian Bittersweet Celastrus orbiculatus, Privet Ligustrum spp., and Autumn Olive Elaeagnus umbellata. I am overwhelmed by the seeming impossibility of ridding this place of colonizers. The familiar telltale clouds creep into my mind, manifesting as a sense of hopelessness. The pain becomes overwhelming. How can I possibly fix this?
I notice an inviting little spot in the cool leaves, mosses, and detritus near the Tree’s trunk, and I curl up there to indulge in a little crying. As I am lying there, staring off into the tangled branches of the mostly non-native underbrush, feeling sorry for myself, I cannot escape the ebullient songs of a nearby Mockingbird. Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, and others chime in. How can they be so joyful in this broken world with so many odds so clearly stacked against them? Who am I to sit here coddling my misery while the world sings? And then it hits me. A lifetime of conditioning does not fall away easily. How is my compulsion to “fix” this Land any different from any other Western notions of controlling “Nature”? And isn’t such an anthropocentric idea actually insulting to a sentient world perfectly capable and in the process of healing itself? The discovery of my residual, arrogant, human exceptionalism stuns me. Almost simultaneously a Blue Jay, a Tufted Titmouse, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker all alight in the branches of the Tree above my head and stare down at me, cocking their heads from side to side with curiosity, and I know in that moment that the best I can offer is to at least do no more harm.
As I sit with Black Locust’s revelations this week, I realize that my self-flagellation regarding my propensity for human arrogance still carries the taint of false separation. I and all humans are, after all, part of this erotic fray, as Cajete observes, whether we realize it or not. Rather than seeking to control, I can participate. I can sing songs for and with the beloved beings with whom I am sharing space. With my opposable thumbs, I can plant seeds and hope for the future. I can add to the collective appreciation for beauty, and as an ecologist, I can also use my brain to offer appropriate support to all the Land’s residents. Earth needs humans to remember how to be humans and to share our unique gifts with the world.
Berry, G. (2019). Speaking English with Country: Can the animate world hear us? Can we hear it? Pan: Philosophy, Activism, Nature, 14, 24-29.
Cajete, G. (2004). Philosophy of native science. American Indian thought, 45-57.
Clayton, S. (2018). Mental health risk and resilience among climate scientists. Nature Climate Change, 8(4), 260-261.
Cunsolo, A., & Ellis, N. R. (2018). Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Climate Change, 8(4), 275.
Cunsolo, A., Harper, S. L., Minor, K., Hayes, K., Williams, K. G., & Howard, C. (2020). Ecological grief and anxiety: the start of a healthy response to climate change? The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(7), e261-e263.
Heddon, D. (2017). Con-versing: listening, speaking, turning. In M. Bastian, O. Jones, N. Moore, & E. Roe (Eds.), participatory Research in More-than-Human Worlds (pp. 192-208): Routledge.
Kent, S., & Brondo, K. V. (2020). “Years Ago the Crabs Was so Plenty”: Anthropology’s Role in Ecological Grieving and Conservation Work. Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, 42(1), 16-24. doi:10.1111/cuag.12235
Marshall, N., Adger, W. N., Benham, C., Brown, K., Curnock, M. I., Gurney, G. G., . . . Thiault, L. (2019). Reef Grief: investigating the relationship between place meanings and place change on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Sustainability Science, 14(3), 579-587.
Noorani, T., & Brigstocke, J. (2018). More-than-human participatory research: University of Bristol/AHRC Connected Communities Programme.
Plotkin, B. (2013). Wild Mind: A field guide to the human psyche: New World Library.
Plumwood, V. (2002). Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason: Routledge.
Walker, I., Leviston, Z., Price, J., & Devine-Wright, P. (2015). Responses to a worsening environment: relative deprivation mediates between place attachments and behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45(7), 833-846.
Throughout this website, I will use capital letters for the names of more-than-humans to signal their personhood.