Humanity in the patchwork of life
This story is on borrowed time. And it’s just a part of a story, a piece of human and living patchwork. Maybe you can borrow it, and make it part of your story too?
I’ll start it with borrowed words. Amitav Ghosh, in his book The Great Derangement, wrote:
It was as if every doorway and window that might allow us to escape the confines of language had to be slammed shut, to make sure that humans had no company in their dwindling world but their own abstractions and concepts. This, indeed, is a horizon within which every advance is achieved at the cost of “making the world more unlivable.”
We seem to be incapable of making human sense of our time. But we have to try. Or, I have to. So this is yet one more attempt to “escape the confines of language.”
I have not yet been able to put this into words. But I have to try. 3 years ago ago, a video on YouTube changed my view of the human place in the world forever, and irrevocably. That sentence, by itself, is embarrassing. Indeed, ‘cringe.’ But true. It was a short video, of a violent raid, the first of many, on the Gitumt’en (indigenous resistance to pipeline in unceded territory in Candada) checkpoint, by the Candian police. Here it is. Please watch it. It is violent. But you need to see this, as a human.
Here is what I saw. I saw, for the first time in my life, human beings, the Wet’suwet’en, standing WITH their environment. Identifying with it. Placing the quality of their environment — “you can drink this water right here … it feeds all our territories all the way down to the ocean” — as their life work, their integrity, their core mission and identity. And right there and then, my whole cosmogony flipped upside down. Because those words, from Molly Wickam, Wet’suwet’en spokesperson, who is wrenchingly arrested at the end of the video, actually allowed me to ‘escape the confines’ of my previous understanding.
In my previous understanding, humans had a troubled, extractive and exploitative relationship with their environment. That history had ups and downs, inequalities and differentiated responsibilities, for sure, but the core fact of an abusive and damaging relationship was unquestioned. My main hopes lay in a very speculative and uncertain possible change of paradigm, a change of heart.
But here, there was evidence of a fundamentally different relationship, one that predates any civilisation I came from (which is: settlers, colonisers, Europeans way too much in their own dualistic Descartian heads, as I have come to learn). And that fundamentally different civilisation had at its core the respect, love, and preservation of the environment they depended on. The people of that civilisation were willing to risk everything, arrest, harm, violence, to stop the damage of fossil fuel pipelines on their environment.
Quite simply, here were humans standing WITH their world, rather than against it. The landscape this opened to me was breathtaking: a future of life and purpose in accordance with our world, rather than one of conflict and doomed damage.
Quite simply, humanity became human. Humanity became possible. Humanity became real.
I didn’t have to exist in conflict with others and the air, water, mountains, forests, plants and animals that surround me. I could exist with them. On their side, and the side my child and his friends. I could be on the side of life. And everyone else could too: our human cultures could shift to the side of the living world we depend upon, that we relate to.
It struck me that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have images of animals on their traditional cloaks. At the highest point of their human role, in their role of “honour” as Aristotle put it, they represent the animals living in the environment of their territories. I am trying not to fetishize, idealize or appropriate a culture that is clearly not mine, and that I am still so far from understanding. I am trying to explain to you, whose culture may be close to mine, what it means to me to see humans, leaders of their communities, marching under the banner of the forms of life: amphibian, bird, plant, insect. Scientifically, from the basic functioning of ecosystems, we know we are not separate from, and cannot live without, other forms of life. So seeing a culture that represents that interdependency, that relationship, at the highest level, made me realise that humanity has existed — and can exist again — far beyond Cartesian dualism.
Embarrassingly, the Wet’suwet’en resistance was not the only YouTube video that changed my life and worldview, in the few minutes it took to watch and take it in. There is something about seeing and listening to other people, who are not lying, just communicating their core truths, that has an emancipatory power to take us far beyond where we were before. The second video, unsurprisingly, was of Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Potawatomi nation.
She talks of the last of the passenger pigeons, last of a vast and numerous species, named ‘Martha’, who died alone, caged, in a zoo. She talks of her own ancestors and their teachings of the “honorable harvest.” Just do yourself a favour and watch it (and read her books: Braiding Sweetgrass and the Democracy of Species).
Again, here was a completely different vision of humanity, far, far away from the extractive, exploitative, dominating frontier-seekers that I had been told we were. Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about the intelligence of our “more-than-human” relatives, plants and animals. She talks of her delight in learning about that ecosystemic intelligence, the ways the birds and plants and insects and mammals intersect, in beauty and function, with their human neighbours. And once again, this was a humanity I could see as viable — as alive, as worth defending, fighting for, breathing new (and old) life into.
Because who are we, as little animals, in this vast world? We are biped vertebrate mammals, we rear our helpless young together, we talk, we sing, we laugh, we are constantly trying, through our intelligence and imagination, to connect with the world beyond ourselves. We delight in games and understanding puzzles. We delight in absurdities and surprises. We love figuring out patterns, we love understanding patches, bits and bobs of our environment. Who better than we to learn and love our environment, our living neighbourhoods. Who better than we to make home and space for all the life there is.
So this is my little bit of story. I hope it opens some spaces in your mind and heart. I hope it makes you be want to be part of a future story, where we delight in living our lives in the fullness of what we can save of our living world. Where the highest honours we bestow to each other are for protecting that world, for itself, and for ourselves. And where our love and delight in being part of the web of life gives us the necessary strength to turn our intelligence to fighting of the man-made forces of destruction around us: the fossil fuel industry, economies of accumulation, empire, colonial and other domination.
Make no mistake. Right now, in order to be fully human, we have to give our all to rid our societies and cultures of the false stories of conquest, competition, frontiers, progress through destruction and domination, justifying devastation because of economic growth or some other “abstraction”, as Amitav Ghosh puts it. There is a lot of work we need to do to become worthy of being human again, but at least, now I know this for sure: there is a humanity worth aiming for, worth becoming again. Humanity as part and parcel, as a beloved relative, in the patchwork of life.