Here in this land we call America, or at least in this little northeastern corner of the Hudson Valley in New York, the forests could easily fool us. There are so many of them. So many trees. It is so easy to think it was always like this. So easy to walk in the woods and wonder, is this the way it used to be? Before there were so many people, and cars, and smoke, and concrete, and high-rises, and the sirens of ambulances and the gridlocked traffic of a country which is far better at moving than staying still?
Of course that is not true. All of these landscapes have shifted. Within a few decades of the first colonists coming from England to what they called New England they started writing home about how they were changing the landscape. Felling long trees and putting up fences for hogs and sheep. Changing the shape of Indian villages and putting in towns and forts and cows and horses. Fences to designate us vs. them. Fences to enable the land to be divided and function within the property system.
Sometimes I look at the landscape and see what might have once been there. Here in the north east, as the leaves fall and winter lies bare the stone and rock of the landscape’s contours beneath the trees, I am, usually, confident that some of these shapes have been here for a long time — longer than my ancestors, some of whom have been on this land for 400 years. I can’t help myself — I keep wondering what it was like before. Before we ruined paradise. Why do we always have to ruin paradise? I asked one of my indigenous friends not that long ago. We’ve been wondering the same thing for several centuries. Why do you?
When I engage with the pre-colonial histories of this place I learn of a people who lived without property systems. They didn’t own anything in the way in which we conceptualize ownership today. No real estate market. Entire combinations of interlocked industries that enabled a single person, or family, to get a single (often not built to last) little home just didn’t exist. These woods did not used to have fences. Or stone walls. They used to have trees so big that during chestnut season, so many chestnuts would fall that you could just walk, pick up food, eat it, and have enough to eat. There were lean times, too. Hard times. Cold times. No point in getting romantic about the past, after all. But even the simplest of facts: that things were not always like this, can give us a different starting place for a different imagination. There were whole societies — multiple societies — who lived not just without oil, but without fences. And not just in some far away land. But here. Right here. And many of those people are still alive. Right now. Right next door. When the past changes, the future changes.
Most of us have been told a lie about where we come from. And that means most of us have been told a lie about who we are. Because who we are derives from where we come from. And both who we are and where we come from inform — significantly — who we can become. What future we can even imagine as possible.
In other words, reimagining the past can help us reimagine the future.
Why do I ruin paradise? This is a question I ask myself often when I confront the contradictions that are a part of my everyday actions. Why do I love long, hot, showers? Why do I continue to eat food that was shipped from another part of the world, instead of eating local food? Why do I watch porn, listen to music that degrades other beings and promotes violence? Why do I use technologies that are built from precious, finite, elements from the living non-human ecosystem? Why do I buy stuff from online retailers? Why do I eat meat that was raised, and killed, in an inhumane, unnatural, way?
Within my lived history, these actions were, or have become, the norm. Or, at least, that’s what I grew up thinking. Perhaps, these actions are a symptom, or rather a group of symptoms, a syndrome?
The Shifting Baseline Syndrome is “the situation in which over time knowledge is lost about the state of the natural world, because people don’t perceive changes that are actually taking place. In this way, people’s perceptions of change are out of kilter with the actual changes taking place in the environment…”. In Wild Ones, John Mooallem, exemplifies this through the example of kids, anywhere in the world, looking up at night, and seeing a sky full of stars. To them this was the norm. Most kids growing up now look up, and see but a few stars. For them, this is the norm. Why should they expect anything different?
In history class we often learn about, and celebrate inventions (that are inherently extractive, and in hindsight, have set us on a trajectory of extraction and addiction). Can you imagine if we looked at those same inventions from the past with an open, reflective mind, and explored how they are shaping our present and whether that is good or bad? Can you imagine if the script in our history books changed, and the people that worked with, and nurtured the land, were celebrated? How might that change our perception of the present? And possibilities for the future?
On a personal level, it is acknowledging my flaws/addictions, that enables me to grapple/struggle with them, and sometimes overcome them. It is a slow, arduous process … What would this acknowledgement look like on a societal level? We need spaces to grieve. We need places to reflect. We need places to share Truth. As Bayo Akomolafe invites, “the times are urgent, we must slow down”.
“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.” — James Baldwin (from the final scene of the film ‘I Am Not Your Negro’)
Lead Author: Sara Jolena Wolcott (first 5 paragraphs)
Sara Jolena Wolcott, M.Div., is a healer, minister, and teacher who runs the international anticipatory community, Sequoia Samanvaya. She offers nurturing, radical, constructive courses that include reconnecting the histories of climate change into the Doctrine of Discovery/colonization and enabling new origin stories for those seeking to grow a new culture.
Anchor Author: Daniel Rudolph
Daniel Rudolph is interested in exploring alternative, experiential learning opportunities for people of all ages. He is passionate about forming community, and building public spaces for meaningful, transformational gathering. Currently he is spending a lot of his time learning juggling and facilitating gatherings. He also enjoys writing and sharing poetry. Daniel is a very curious and playful person and is always open for creative collaborations.