How could present-day America possibly exist if great numbers of people believed that the minerals in the ground, the trees and the rocks, and the earth itself were all alive? Not only alive, but our equals? If our society suddenly believed it was sacrilegious to remove minerals from the earth, or to buy and sell land, our society would evaporate…
It is logical, normal, and self-protective for Americans to find the philosophical, political, and economic modes of Indian culture inappropriate and foolish.
– Jerry Mander1
Yampah, Luksh and Coush: these three plants are botanically classified in the genera Perideridia, Lomatium and Cymopterus. They can also be called weeds. For a gardener, farmer, rancher or restorationist, weeds are any plant that doesn’t belong. This declaration is made regardless of any value the plant might actually have as food or medicine for people, or as a companion for the intended crops, or as a key player in a natural response to disturbance. The modern, control-obsessed mind, focused on goals, production and order, is unable to accept unplanned elements in a design, and must strike out at them. That this is a strike at life itself is unrecognised. The dire consequences of this blind-shooting, doesn’t-belong philosophy – which include rapidly depleting resources, dangerously polluted water and air, and an increasingly top-heavy and unstable system of human consumption – were not only predictable, but actually predicted. We were warned, and here we are, grasping at straws of sustainability, when in reality the system cannot be sustained in any recognisable form.
By contrast, subsistence-based indigenous human cultures have a much different relationship to ecosystems and all their living creatures, including the weeds. If human life is to continue for many more generations at all, it will only be if this knowledge can re-seed within human culture at large, take hold, and grow. This is in much the same way that the isolated stands of old growth forest (and isolated stands are all that are left) might yet act to seed surrounding regeneration. But is there enough left? Of sustainable humanity, or of old growth forest? Or of coral reefs or of prairie or of steppe? That remains to be seen.
In the meantime, it is vital to learn as much as we can from the few and the little that remain. In the summer of 2012, I met a Shoshone-trained elder who has been living a traditional, migratory, subsistence existence for the past three decades out in the wilds, and I experienced joyful disillusionment with what I learned from her. I call the disillusionment joyful because being parted from my illusions was a positive thing.
The philosophy of dream it and it will happen, or if only you believe and have the right intentions every little thing’s gonna be alright, so prevalent in American culture – especially in the New Age subculture – is pure hokum, and living that way can only be sustained by grand self-delusion. No, as humans, our intentions do not create reality. If they did, millions of people around the world would cease being starved, imprisoned and bombed (much of it on the US taxpayer bill) simply by having the right intentions to make it stop. Do not these uncountable suffering souls dream of an end to their torture? Does it continue because they are not pure enough of heart? Are only US Americans good enough to make it work? What a conceit.
The Shoshone-trained elder I met was named Finisia Medrano, aka Tranny Granny, and she would turn off many civilised folks, including the permaculture fans, with her obscenity-laced speech, anti-American screeds and down-to-gritty-earth common sense. What’s ironic of course is that The Hoop is a permaculture quite deep, profoundly so. Too deep for most contemporary people to comprehend, due to cultural divides. Indeed, the chasm between the indigenous and techno-consumer cultures and their attendant viewpoints is likely uncrossable for all but a few. This, if nothing else, I learned from spending time with Finisia. There are ways of understanding life and all its relations that are quite simply beyond me and will most likely always remain so. Losing this illusion might have been her greatest gift to me, conveyed through the weeds she showed me.
The chasm between the indigenous and techno-consumer cultures and their attendant viewpoints is likely uncrossable for all but a few.
I, and most people reading this publication who have been inculcated by what Finisia calls ‘Occupied America’, cannot and never will see the world the way that a native non-Coloniser can and does. We must simply accept this as the way of the world. Yet, if we are at all concerned about the survival of life on Earth, even just our own, we must pay attention to these alien (to us) and alienated (for them) cultures and their world-views, and we must try to learn from them, even though much of it will go against everything we have been brainwashed to believe.
Yampah, Luksh and Coush: these are just three of the many plants that were food and medicine for the Native Americans which are now classified as weeds by the Colonisers because they are found in places where they don’t belong, have no use, or are in the way. They live in farm fields, on livestock ranges, or mixed in with so-called invasives slated to be sprayed to death. They are illegal to plant on public land. These are three plants that Finisia introduced me to. Meeting them, interacting with them, and consuming them, did something to me that changed me. They touched me somewhere inside, awakening a hint of awareness that has long lay dormant. They are wild foods. Their growth habits, flavours and energetic punch are distinctly undomesticated. They gave me a small taste (pun intended) of what has been called rewilding.
Rewilding has been a buzzword for some time. Like all buzzwords – green, sustainable, permaculture – any meaning originally conveyed has been smothered through their popularity. Mummification through meme-ification, if you will. People use them to sound current, without concern for their own charade. We have whole clubs of naked emperors, with everyone tacitly agreeing not to point that out. In this context, Finisia is one of the few people I’ve ever met who is either proud of her clothes or proud of her nudity.
Regardless, when Finisia used the words rewilding and permaculture to describe the ways of The Hoop, I heard those words as if for the first time, because now they had meaning. No poseur is she, and for this she has lived a life of abuse. ‘I’m the dog everyone loves to kick,’ she has said. She has been harassed, jailed, threatened and chased off innumerable times, all for trying to follow the traditional, sustainable lifestyle of this land’s original human inhabitants. The kind of lifestyle to which humans will have to return in order to avoid extinction. A lifestyle of seeding, cultivating and eating many wild foods, not only Yampah, Luksh and Coush.
Finisia does not limit herself to these native plants. She is interested in any edible plants that can be rewilded, including domesticated vegetables, and she has been experimenting with whatever she can get her hands on. The is-it-native? purity test does not interest her. She has seen the effects of invasive plants such as cheatgrass, but makes no efforts to eradicate them. She just seeds the Yampah in the cheatgrass, believing that it will take over again on its own.
In her view, these plants are ‘refugees without legs’, and we humans must be their locomotion
There’s no debate about Climate Change as far as Finisia is concerned. In her decades on the land, she has seen how ecosystems are changing and becoming inhospitable for what had been growing there previously. Therefore these plants need to be moved to places better suited to them. Of course, this means intentionally invading an area with a non-native, but in her view, these plants are ‘refugees without legs’, and we humans must be their locomotion. The picture she painted revealed to me the folly of restoration work that attempts to return a piece of land to its so-called pristine state before the European Invasion; first, because climate change means that the mix of plants from a century or two ago will no longer thrive there as they did, and second, because the restorationists almost always leave humans out of their ecosystems, even though the indigenous people were integral, inseparable elements. What are preserves preserving? We know what Indian reservations are reserving: exile and poverty. That’s where we’re trying to lock up our last best chance of communal survival, and ignoring it as hard as we can.
Finisia mentioned that – despite the ongoing genocide of the remaining Native Americans – Long House has declared that ‘it is time to open the bundles’. As far as I can tell, this means that Native American elders have decided that skills and knowledge need to be shared with whomever will listen because the crisis facing the Earth is too great to keep secrets anymore. So, Finisia has been trying to teach. But, she says, she has an ‘availability/credibility’ problem. That is, she is credible only when she is living The Hoop, eating the native foods, remaining wild in the wild. But she is not available then. If she does make herself available, away from The Hoop, then she loses her credibility. The dichotomy of theory versus practice doesn’t apply here because there is only practice, albeit one rooted in deep wisdom. Like the weeds that form the basis of the indigenous diet, one can know them only by giving oneself over to them and all that comes with them, which is feral. All else is casual disregard.
This view, that actuality of knowledge can only be found in experiential immediacy – a view that is understood by any number of spiritual and indigenous traditions – is completely and utterly at odds with the egocentric, superficial, virtual reality of life in the US. For example, think of the number of people you know who really believe that social media is a legitimate form of community. The notion is absurd. There is, as Gertrude Stein put it, no there there. Ones and zeros are producing shapes on a screen, with no materiality, no vitality. The rest is in the imagination, which increasingly mistakes its pixelated illusions for real substance, to its own sad detriment.
Theodore Roszak put it well in Where the Wasteland Ends: ‘The loss of transcendent energies in our society…has not been experienced as a loss at all, but as an historical necessity to which enlightened people adapt without protest, perhaps even welcome as a positive gain in
maturity.’ Indeed. And including pretentious Earth-based spirituality in a permaculture design course does service to neither permaculture (in its non-buzzword potentiality) nor to the dying flickers of transcendent energies we are snuffing out. Holistic comprehension cannot be attained by copy-catting rituals and sonorously murmuring magic words from a culture totally divorced from ours, especially when that separation is being enforced by us with such strident and perverse insolence.
Weeds, we spit with our speech whenever we see something that doesn’t belong. We do the same to the people among us who don’t toe the lines, even though those lines do nothing but mark the border of an entrapping cage where we are beaten into obedience. Most people are happy to crack the whip whenever they can, all the while convincing themselves that there’s nothing else they can do, that it’s for their own good, and isn’t that what everyone else is doing anyway? The authentic is an endangered species because we are stamping it out. People like Finisia are few and far between because we are striving for their extinction. The train is going over the cliff, and we are urging the engineer to speed up. Weeds! we shout out, and reach for a sharp tool, a bottle of poison, or a social construct with which to eradicate them.
But we’re not all dead yet. So for now, any individual can still dismiss daydreams and taste the tangible. That is what I, anyway, found when I met Yampah, Luksh and Coush.
- Mander, Jerry In The Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the
Survival of the Indian Nation, Sierra Club Books, 1992, p. 227.