Listening to the Land
Ecologically speaking, it's healthy when nature and human beings participate in a mutual admiration society.
I wake early this morning and sit outside to watch and listen as the sun climbs over the hill. The chorus of birds begins slowly. First comes the "zeet, zeet, zeet" of the Brown Creeper, a simple pulse that sets the rhythm. Then the bird I call the "Aria Bird" chimes in with a trill of liquid notes. Then the Western Flycatcher begins singing his call, "too-wheat, too-wheat." The first rays of the sun filter through the branches of the redwoods and big leaf maples.
Now the chorus is in full song.
I am listening to the voice of this land, this particular spot in the Cazadero Hills of western Sonoma County. The voice changes with the seasons, the weather, the time of day. If the winds were blowing hard up on the ridge tops, if the day were gray and foggy, if the month were August instead of May, the voice would sound very different.
Learning to hear this voice is a long process. To recognize the pattern is a task for more than one lifetime. If I were indigenous to this place, if I came from people that had been rooted here for hundreds of generations, my culture would have oriented me to this song from birth. Its rhythms would determine what I ate, what work I did, what songs I sang, what ceremonies I performed. Its accumulated wisdom would alert me to any dangerous changes in the pattern, any missing voices.
Most of us are not indigenous. We've lost that deep connection to place; we've even lost any real understanding of what that kind of bond might mean. We're drawn to an earth-based spirituality out of a longing for some true, intimate connection with the earth. Yet too often we end up indoors manipulating our own internal imagery, knowing the phase of the moon by what our astrological calendar tells us, singing to the earth but not getting dirt under our nails.
|All of nature is engaged in a "great conversation"; everything is always communicating and listening for our answers.|
In my own life, I spend about half my time in these hills and the rest of the time on the road, traveling. Although sometimes schizophrenic, my journey is rooted deep and ranges far. I am always exploring the question, How do we re-establish a deep connection with place? Can we, as mobile, postmodern, overly literate, internet-addicted people, become indigenous? Can we do it in the city?
I believe we are called to try, for some very pressing reasons.
All over the world today, truly indigenous cultures are fighting to protect their lands. When the U'Wa of Colombia tell us that the oil is the blood of Mother Earth, and that allowing Occidental petroleum to drill on their lands would mean cultural extinction for them, we need to hear their voices through ears opened by our own earth bond.
And our own sanity may depend on that bond. Jeanette Armstrong is a writer, educator, and activist from an unbroken indigenous culture, the Okanogan people of the Northwest. She describes sitting on a hill with her father and grandmother, watching the rush of cars and traffic in the town down below.
"The people down there are dangerous, they are all insane," her grandmother said. Armstrong explains that she is equating insanity with lack of connection to place.
"We are our land/place. Not to know and to celebrate this is to be without language and without land. It is to be displaced. The Okanoga teach that anything displaced from all that it requires to survive in health will eventually perish. As Okanogans, our most essential responsibility is to learn to bond our whole individual selves and our communal selves to the land."