by Dave Meesters
On our trip to Florida last week, Janet and I had the privilege of seeing two eminent scientists speak. One of these speeches was an event that we’d been anticipating for months; the other took us completely by surprise. These two scientists shared strikingly different visions for how we can act to protect life in our apocalyptic age.
The first scientist was Linda Black Elk of the Catawba Nation, who lives on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and teaches at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota. Linda was a leader of the Standing Rock Medic & Healers Council during the fight to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. She and her husband Luke were keynote speakers at the Florida Herbal Conference. Linda’s keynote on the first night was titled “Our Lives Depend on Our Relatives”, and spoke of the genius of Indigenous science as a body of knowledge obtained through relationship. For Indigenous folks, plants are relatives, and one gets to know plants by forming relationships over time that are not unlike the relationships one forms with other people. Plants and humans are kin, and know each other with the kind of intimacy formed only through generations of interdependent relationship.
Linda demonstrated the fruits of relationship by sharing story after story of Indigenous science holding knowledge about plants, including the best ways of behaving towards them, that Eurocentric science is only just now beginning to understand, if it even understands at all. There is the Sand Cherry, whose fruits turn bitter if they smell a human approaching from upwind. And the Chokecherry, whose nutritious seeds can be eaten along with the rest of the fruit only if the seeds are crushed and the cyanide within is allowed to dissipate, as is done in the traditional way. The story of the Groundnut, a highly nutritious tuber that is laborious to dig directly but can be had more easily by “raiding” the groundnut caches that are stockpiled by prairie voles, speaks to the wider web of kinship and how relationships are maintained, where women sing to the mother voles and replace the pilfered groundnuts with corn and berries so that the voles will still have something to feed their children, in exchange for the tubers that will help the human children grow. The story of Sweetgrass shows how some plants can only thrive if they are being tended and harvested by their human kin—the human relationship is critical to their success.
After detailing the intricacy and wonder of all these relationships, Linda did not spare her audience from learning about the ways that those relationships have been devastated by the ongoing onslaughts of colonization. Specifically relevant to these stories was the Pick-Sloan project to install a series of dams along the Missouri river, which flooded the Cottonwood groves where the prairie voles cached their groundnuts as well as the habitats where Sweetgrass was abundant. In fact, as I heard it a major goal of the talk was to link the genocide against the First Nations of Turtle Island to the destruction of wild plants and ecosystems that so concerns herbalists and environmentalists. First Nations are the original scientists, who hold the most complete knowledge of how to care for the more-than-human world, how to live as responsible, caring members of the family of life. And this knowledge was achieved through active, mutually-sustaining relationship, not by making living beings an object of study, the way that Eurocentric science does. First Nations know that to destroy our ecologies is also to harm ourselves, because we are all family, and mutually dependent on each other. As Linda titled her talk, “Our lives depend on our relatives.” Her keynote ended with an unequivocal call to action: “Stand with us!” Stand with Indigenous people in their fight to reclaim their lands, in their fight to protect the plants, the water, and the earth. If we care for, and want to know how better to care for the other beings of the Earth, then we should stand with Indigenous people, who already know to do it.
We’d been looking forward to hearing Linda Black Elk speak ever since we saw the first promotional materials for the Florida conference, and she did not disappoint. Her talk was informative, passionate, challenging, and full of heart, going straight to the core of what inspires, angers, and frightens all of us who are called into relationship with plants, and who work to be forces for healing in our increasingly brutal and sickening world.
Just a few days later, as we slowly made our way home from the conference, we visited the limestone bluffs that overlook the Apalachicola river in northern Florida to meet some rare plants that don’t grow anywhere else. One of these plants, Torreya taxifolia, a conifer with leaves similar to a Yew, is destined for extinction in the wild, at least in its traditional range.
This Torreya apparently once grew throughout eastern North America, and was pushed south to Florida to take refuge from the glaciers during the last ice age. As the glaciers retreated north again, the tree should have been able to reclaim its former range, but it didn’t. The prevailing theory is that it wasn’t able to spread because the animal that historically dispersed its seeds had gone extinct, quite possibly through human activity (i.e. hunting). Whether the lost ecological partner was a giant tortoise, mastodon, or something else is up for debate. Unable to move north, Torreya was forced to make do where it was—Florida—a climate that was quickly getting warmer and drier than it preferred. The only places it was able to survive were the shady north faces of spring-fed ravines, known as “steepheads” locally, that are unique to these few square miles of Florida and far-southern Georgia. And now, the combination of further warming due to human-caused climate change and a recent fungal blight that attacks the trees and keeps them from reproducing is pushing this remnant population towards extinction. Only five or six trees of reproductive age survive in the wild.
When we arrived at the underfunded and nearly deserted state park that protects this unusual ecosystem, we saw that they were setting up for some kind of event. A white wedding tent had been erected, with tables and chairs, and there were signs telling you where to park. We went to the office to get oriented (there was almost no signage about the trees or anything else), and there we learned that coincidentally, on that very Thursday afternoon, there was going to be a special event, invite-only, to raise funds and awareness towards helping save the Torreya tree from extinction. The featured speaker at the event was to be the famous biologist E.O. Wilson.
For those who don’t know, Edward O. Wilson is a living legend. As a biologist he specializes in ants, and has been called the world’s leading expert, but he is perhaps better known for pushing the field of ecology to greater popular and scientific prominence. Wilson’s work is largely responsible for the concept of “biodiversity”, and his work on island biogeography helped scientists to understand (and quantify) the loss of biodiversity that resulted from ecosystems becoming isolated and fragmented due to development. As a Harvard scientist, he has used his privileged position to highlight the connection between the current extinction crisis and modern industrial society. He’s been active in the conservation movement, working with the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, and promoting legislation to protect American forests.
We disguised our great surprise at crossing paths with a famous biologist and, after helping the state park officer identify some pictures of Bayberry flowers she had on her phone, we went outside to discuss our plan of action. Even though it was an exclusive event for which tickets had long since sold out, we decided we had to crash it. We had time before it began, and we spent that time going to the woods to find the Torreya tress and another endangered conifer endemic to that small area, the Florida Yew tree (Taxus floridana). We found a fairly large stand of Yews in the understory, and eventually, several small Torreyas, all apparently planted and protected inside metal cages. Some of the cages were empty. There was one larger Torreya, about three feet high, that we spent some time with. It appeared healthy, and calm.
When we emerged from the woods we found that the conference attendees were about to hike down to the very spot where we just were. There they would plant a Torreya, and E.O. Wilson would speak a bit more and answer questions. We mixed in with this group and walked with them to where the Yews and Torreyas grew.
E.O. Wilson was the second scientist we heard speak that week. He too, like us and like Linda Black Elk, is deeply alarmed and concerned about what industrial capitalism is doing to the creatures of the world. Everyone in the crowd, many of whom were scientists and researchers themselves, wanted to know what he thought we could do about extinction, about the loss of the world’s biodiversity. And for Wilson, science is the answer. Not Indigenous science, but science as he practices it, and as it is practiced at the universities where conventional scientists are trained. He spoke with conviction about getting young people to be fascinated with nature and inspired to make scientific discoveries at a young age. He envisioned that it would only be through the expansion of science—training more scientists, accelerating scientific progress specifically in the life sciences, and raising the profile of science in society at large—that the culture would become more bonded with and invested in nature, and shift its values in favor of conservation. I was especially struck by his call to “Give me half a million passionate young scientists, and put them in charge of the wild places of the world!”
Half a million young scientists? This statement made me wince, especially when contrasted with what I heard in Linda Black Elk’s talk just days before. Because Wilson wasn’t talking about the original scientists, the Indigenous people worldwide who have longstanding caring relationships with the lands they live on. He wants to give control over “the wild places of the world” (whatever that even means) to the (presumably well-intentioned) products of the colonial system of higher education, an extension of the same force that is responsible for the destruction. Elsewhere Wilson has advocated for all humans to be excluded from 50% of the Earth’s land, to allow those ecosystems to regenerate.
I can relate to the intuitive sense that such a proposal must make to a lot of people, because the ecological destruction we are witnessing worldwide is due almost entirely to human activities. But the proposal goes further than that, to assume that humans must necessarily have a negative ecological impact, and therefore should be removed if healing is to take place. And more to the point, these proposals unforgivably neglect to credit Indigenous peoples for the beneficial effects that their presence has had on the ecosystems of which they are a natural part. E.O. Wilson and many like him want to tar Native Americans with the same brush that they use to condemn the profiteering industrial systems of exploitation that have brought the world’s ecosystems to the brink of collapse. But all humans are not the same, and all human ways of living with the land are not equally destructive.
Honestly, I am not sure if Wilson is actually trying to include Indigenous people in his circle of blame for ecological degradation. It seems just as likely that they are simply not considered. When Wilson wonders who would be qualified to guide the people of Earth to a healthy relationship with our non-human family, passionate scientists (like himself) are all who come to mind, because Native people are not in the picture. They’ve been erased.
But Indigenous people are still here, and they have something to say to us about how to relate to the creatures around us. Linda Black Elk’s talk demonstrates the level of familial care and mutual dependency that comes from long-term relationship with other species. Not study in the scientific sense, where the plant is an object that we gather data from but always hold at an “objective” distance, but relationship, where a plant may become necessary to our life, and we might become necessary to its. The physical, mental and spiritual separation of humans from the rest of nature is the very root cause of the disease that is endangering the Earth and all of its inhabitants, yet separation stands as the key ingredient in E.O. Wilson’s cure!
If we are going to solve the ecological crisis, then we have to find a healthy way to live with all the life around us, in a way where the web of life is enriched by our presence within it, not diminished. Linda Black Elk’s speech teaches us that Indigenous people are the key to making that happen, for everyone, because it is Indigenous people who have developed the mutually beneficial relationships that we need. Aside from the fact that justice demands we return these lands to the people it was stolen from, our concern for the continued life of the planet recommends that we do so as well. E.O. Wilson’s half-million young scientists can take direction from them.
Edward O. Wilson has done a lot, more than most people, to move mainstream science in the direction of a more holistic and accountable stance in relation to the Earth and to the creatures that we humans share the planet with. But his remarks on that day showed me just how far academic science still needs to go if it wants to participate in the deep healing that our world direly needs.
Thanks to Janet Kent for encouraging me to put these thoughts in writing.