by Luisa Maffi
It was the end of a long day twenty-six years ago in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. I was part way into my two-year stint as a doctoral researcher among the Tzeltal Maya. That day my Mayan field collaborator, Petul, and I had been recording Tzeltal elder Don Antonio telling old stories about people, plants, places, and spirits. In spite of his age, the old man had been talking for hours on end, hardly showing any sign of fatigue. Petul and I, instead, were exhausted. As we sat back, taking a rest, I casually observed: “Well, Petul, I guess that’s what people here usually do at night — sit around and listen to elders telling stories?”
Petul looked at me, puzzled. “Huh,” he said after a moment of reflection, “actually, that’s the way it used to be… But now, you see, the kids are going to school, and when they come back at the end of the day (if the school is close enough that they can come back daily at all), they have homework to do. So that’s what happens at night: they sit at the table under the light bulb and do their homework. Plus, some of the people now have TV, so at night they sit around and watch TV programs instead. We don’t spend that much time visiting one another and listening to stories anymore. And the kids often think that the old stories are weird, anyway, because of what they learn at school or see on TV…”
He paused, pondering. We had been working together for several months by then. Going around with an anthropologist interested in the “old ways” had made him keenly aware of how things had changed in his community and beyond. He had started asking himself questions about why things had changed the way they had, and whether people were better or worse off for that. “You know what?” he resumed after a while, “I think I’m going to start a circle of stories. I see that we’re losing a lot from not telling our stories anymore. I’ll invite Don Antonio and other elders to come to my house on Saturdays, when the kids are home from school, and I’ll tell the neighbors to join us as well. This should be good!”
So it went. And by that stroke of serendipity, in at least one Mayan household in the Chiapas Highlands, the old stories began to be told again.
I was reminded of that distant episode a few days ago when an article that argues for the value of Indigenous storytelling for biodiversity conservation crossed my computer screen.* Revitalizing the practice of storytelling, the authors point out, is crucial for the intergenerational transmission of traditional environmental knowledge (TEK). And ensuring the continuity of TEK is crucial for biodiversity conservation: TEK embodies millennia of keen observations of and skillful adaptations to the natural world that have allowed Indigenous Peoples and local communities to live sustainably for countless generations. The retelling of those stories benefits both the tellers and the non-Indigenous conservation practitioners who listen to them with open minds and hearts.
But the importance of storytelling definitely doesn’t end with the practical goal of making conservation efforts more effective and equitable by linking them to storytelling — valid and valuable as that purpose is. Oral traditions have been at the core of Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ identities, serving as the principal means to express their diverse worldviews, cultural and spiritual values and beliefs, and precepts about how to live in a spirit of reverence, respect, and reciprocity with one another and with the earth. That sense of interconnectedness and interdependence has conferred resilience to Indigenous and all other societies living in close contact with the natural world, allowing them to persist and resist over time, in spite of tremendous assimilation pressures from dominant Western or Westernized forces.
And it goes even deeper than that. Diversity in nature and culture is the hallmark of life on earth, the spontaneous expression of the evolutionary forces that bring life forth. The more diversity there is, the more vital and resilient the whole planet is. And the more attuned we are to diversity, the deeper the sense of “livingness” we can perceive and live by, as Terralingua co-founder Dave Harmon puts it.** The loss of that sense in Western thought has been one of the primary sources of the global environmental and social predicament we experience today.
In today’s globalized and ever more homogenized world, we are rapidly losing touch with the importance of diversity in both nature and culture. We watch with indifference as our own actions wantonly erode that diversity, as if it were of no consequence to us. But not so! The more we chip away at diversity, the more we fray the web of life of which we are a part, reducing our options for the future. And the more, as Dave Harmon also warns us, we narrow the scope of human experience and undermine the very essence of our humanity.
With ever-growing and accelerating signs of social turmoil and ecological disruption worldwide, we seem to be all too close to that dangerous cusp now. It may be tempting to look away from this disturbing and daunting picture and just “get on with our lives.” Yet, around the world today, there is a widespread malaise, an unsettling sense that “things are not well.” Many people are motivated to act but feel at a loss about how. It’s more important than ever, then, to remind ourselves of why we need biocultural diversity as a source of ecological and social resilience and resistance. And it’s more important than ever to hear ideas and stories that speak to the value of that diversity for the future of our species and all other species on earth. We all need new narratives that will unseat the long-dominant one of profit-driven economic growth, technology-driven “progress,” market-driven consumerism, and relentless accumulation of material goods—all at the expense of the flourishing of life in its myriad forms and of our ability to experience the true wealth of “livingness” and the comfort of emotional and spiritual well-being.
That’s what we set out to do with this issue of Langscape Magazine: bring together voices from all corners of the world that, collectively, weave strands of the new narrative we so urgently need. As if by the hand of a master weaver, many different threads unite here into a colorful tapestry, in which recurrent patterns emerge: the value of language and oral traditions, the importance of traditional knowledge and sense of place, and the need to (re)connect to biocultural heritage, other people, and the land to heal ourselves, each other, and the earth.
A diverse group of thinkers graces the pages of our “Ideas” section. Olga Mironenko, an environmental scientist, offers a fresh perspective on the diversity of species and cultures and the importance of both diversities as “cornerstones of resilience.” She ponders our “baffling proclivity” to seek uniformity whereas “nature’s recipe for survival has been diversity,” and invites us to remind ourselves that diversity in all its forms is “one of the critical factors that will enable us to ensure our future” — a future that will be both kinder to the earth and free from cultural intolerance.
Jon Waterhouse, a storyteller and activist, brings an Indigenous lens to bear on the dramatic loss of biocultural diversity that we are experiencing “while focused so intensely on propelling ourselves further into the future.” We have much to (re)learn, he argues, about our “place in nature and within the diverse condition of the planet — a condition that, as humans, it is our obligation to preserve.” And we can do so by listening with open minds and hearts to the knowledge of the ancestors — the age-old and evermore relevant wisdom of Indigenous cultures that “have not only survived in their place for millennia,” but indeed “have thrived.”
Radhika Borde, a social scientist and conservationist, asks what it means to be “rooted in place” in today’s world of disconnected city living and massive human migrations toward cities. Can the idea of biocultural diversity, usually applied to rural contexts, be extended to life in the built environment? It can, she suggests, if urban dwellers will make conscious efforts to grow roots “in and into” cities by becoming more conscious of them as biophysical places that owe immensely to their natural surrounds, both historically and in the present. When cities are seen in that biocultural light, they can then begin to “speak to a person’s soul and nourish it.”
The two contributors to “Reflections” provide telling examples of what happens when people do (or do not) let the land speak to them and nourish their souls. Page Lambert and her family have been listening to the language of the land for decades on their beloved ranch in rural Wyoming. But someone else isn’t listening: the Wyoming Department of Transportation, which wants to realign a highway right through the ranch. As worldviews clash, Page sees the heart of the ranch (and her own) sliced open by an “eminent domain fissure.” Yet she finds comfort and resilience in the long view: the land, she muses, will endure far beyond the scars left behind by human action.
That’s what Nejma Belarbi learns when she first hears “earth’s language” in an unlikely place: on the side of a dirt road trampled by feet and car tires, where tiny “plant people” reveal themselves to her once she begins to focus her attention. That’s the start of her journey away from the disconnected “urban industrial paradigm” she had experienced most of her life and back to the teachings of her North African elders, who speak of “our connection to all living things through the light that animates us.” Along the way, she reflects on how nature raises a mirror to our faces so that we may recognize human diversity as an intrinsic part of the diversity of life.
Our “Dispatches” from the field bring us stories of biocultural resilience and resurgence as diverse as the people and places they portray. Yet each story has the same moral: the value of traditional knowledge and practices and of connection to place for maintaining and restoring the “inextricable link” between humans and nature and thus ensuring the thriving of life.
Living in Japan, Mariia Ermilova learns a traditional craft that, long neglected, is attracting practitioners again: the colorful art of making tsurushibina, or “hanging doll” decorations. The “dolls” are mostly figures of plants and animals with deep cultural significance, embodying both practical and symbolic connections with nature. Practicing the craft, Mariia thinks, can serve to revitalize Japanese traditional knowledge and to foster environmental education, by helping people learn or relearn the “biocultural code” inscribed in this art.
Kanna K. Siripurapu, Sabnam Afrein, and Prasant Mohanty introduce us to the Kandha people of eastern India, who have followed their “biocultural code” for generations, practicing shifting agriculture and developing a great diversity of heirloom seeds adapted to different conditions. Their annual festivals celebrate this agro-biodiversity and the resilient community spirit manifested in the sharing of labor and the exchanging of seeds. Now urgent action is needed to safeguard this rich and diverse biocultural system from the forces of acculturation.
The Torwali people of northern Pakistan, we hear from Zubair Torwali, are holding on to their traditional knowledge—and to Bahadar’s farming almanac. Zubair goes back to his home village to learn more about the sophisticated agricultural calendar developed orally by villager Bahadar 150 years ago, which has been transmitted and used by local farmers since then. Along with an ingenious system for sharing irrigation water, also devised by Bahadar, the almanac has helped and continues to help farmers grow their crops and be resilient to famine and natural disasters.
Viveca Mellegård travels to northern Thailand where the Karen people have also held fast to their farming traditions, in spite of rampant encroachment of logging and a government ban on their shifting cultivation practices. They found strength in their hta—stories, poetry, and songs that convey their traditional knowledge—to fight a long battle against logging and for recognition of their farming methods. They won, and their lands have regenerated. Ironically, they now risk eviction from those lands, which the government wants to turn into a national park.
The Afro-Colombian communities of Isla Grande, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, have also long seen their territorial rights trampled and are making efforts to re-affirm their connection with their ancestral lands and biocultural heritage. Jennifer McRuer tells their story in a photo essay on a youth group project. Through photography and mapping, the youth are promoting a process of collective reflection and action that, by recognizing and strengthening relationships to place, aims to “innovate, adapt, and build resilience in the face of global change.”
New media are also central to language and culture revitalization efforts in northern Kenya, where members of the Gabbra, Borana, Konso, and El Molo Indigenous communities learn to use participatory video to create a “vision from within” for biocultural conservation. Thor Morales, who provided the training, watches in awe. In his photo essay, he shares the extraordinary experience of witnessing the video teams craft a “new form of resilience… using modern gear to revive the past and keep it going in a new but authentic way.”
New forms of resilience are indeed emerging worldwide as Indigenous Peoples and local communities strive to maintain or reconnect to their histories, languages, cultures, and lands as they move toward the future. At the same time, non-Indigenous people are beginning to realize they have a lot of reconnecting to do, too: to nature, by recognizing once again that humans are part of it, not separate from it; to place, by growing back their place-specific roots; and to First Peoples, by engaging in reconciliation with them after centuries of colonization, displacement, oppression, and often brutalization.
One place in which reconnection and reconciliation are starting to occur is the very bioregion from which Langscape Magazine hails: the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest, across the border between Canada and the USA. Original home to Coast Salish Peoples, this bioregion has witnessed over 150 years of harsh colonial history that has left deep scars on both the Indigenous inhabitants and the land. We devote a special “Action” section to a variety of inspiring initiatives that are taking place in this bioregion to heal the wounds of that history and rebuild respectful and resilient relationships of people to people and of people to place.
Salish Sea resident Rob Butler calls for a “renewal of our ancient relationship with nature” — one that has long been embedded in Indigenous ways but has largely been lost by settler populations. As a path toward that renewal, he proposes that people develop a “Nature Culture”: a “cultural imperative” to be aware of, celebrate, and sustain local nature — an effort from which he anticipates immense benefits for the health of both people and the land. Walking the talk, he then embarks with his family and others on a celebration of nature in the bioregion.
On Salt Spring Island in the Salish Sea, Joe Akerman comes home — literally and metaphorically — to Hwaaqw’um, a village site of his Quw’utsun (Coast Salish) ancestors, as a place to “heal the land, relationships with one another, and the people and communities around us as we find ways to reconnect to the natural systems that give our lives deeper meaning.” Hwaaqw’um is now a sacred space for Joe’s Quw’utsun relatives to gather again and to engage with members of the Salt Spring community in a caring dialogue on “reconcili-action.”
One island over, on Galiano, Daniel Kirkpatrick takes part in “Reconnecting,” an event that likewise aims to heal relationships with both First Nations and the land. From a Penelakut (Coast Salish) elder, he learns about shle’muxun, the Indigenous notion of stewardship, which sees the land as alive and calls for responsible, caring tending of the land that sustains you. Shle’muxun, he feels, is an “attainable and necessary goal.” And as this process unfolds in the Salish Sea, he muses that what happens here “may become a model for other bioregions around the globe.”
Perhaps it will — only time can tell. But one thing seems clear: the more we come together locally and globally in a circle of stories, and the more intently we listen to one another and to the land, the closer we get to (re)building a collective narrative — one that is as ancient as it sounds new — about our rightful place on earth: within the great circle of life.
Editor, Langscape Magazine
Co-founder and Director, Terralingua
*Fernández-Llamazares, A., & Cabeza, M. (2017). Rediscovering the potential of Indigenous storytelling for conservation practice. Conservation Letters. doi:10.1111/conl.12398
**Harmon, D. (2016). Biocultural diversity: Reason, ethics, and emotion. Langscape Magazine, 5(1), 10–13
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