Really enjoyed getting to know Anishinaabe plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s way of thinking the other day. She spoke on campus about what we can learn from plants. Not some sort of metaphor—Kimmerer draws from indigenous teachings to argue that we should see plants as sovereign, sentient beings. There’s some Western precedent for this, too; apparently Plato argued that plants have souls.
Such a view leads to some interesting perspectives. Kimmerer talked about how “humans and plants worked together to create corn,” a cool way of thinking about the breeding process that turned a Mexican wild grass into the most important food source in the world.
There’s more here than semantics, philosophy, or spirituality. Kimmerer argued that Western cultural dominance has imposed the idea that plants are objects—referred to as “it”—rather than the pronoun we’d use for a living being, and the pronouns that her Potawatomi language still uses. In her view, this objectification is a key precursor to the abuse and exploitation of nature.
For the bulk of human history and until very recently, Kimmerer’s view was the dominant one. She argued that our lives since the Industrial Revolution have been humanity’s first experiment in treating the world as if it isn’t alive. “The results are in, and they don’t look good,” she said. If the grim projections of our environmental future are to be believed, she’s certainly right.
Okay, perhaps the title is a bit provocative. This from Seed Magazine captured my attention though:
To begin, we need to put our role on this planet in perspective by placing humanity and the Earth’s systems in a geological context. If you graph the range of global temperature variations over the past 100,000 years, most of it forms a wild, erratic sawtooth pattern as climatic variations have at turns scorched or frozen the world. But, about 10,000 years ago, temperature variation stabilized, and we entered what geologists call the Holocene epoch. This is the stable period during which agriculture and complex societies, including our own, developed and flourished.
Considering the fact that our modern globalized society has developed within these unusually stable conditions, it might come as no surprise that today’s hospitable environment is often taken for granted in investment decisions, political actions, and international agreements.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that civilization just happened to develop during a uniquely stable climate. What does it mean that human life as we know it has existed only in one fleeting stable window of geological time? Is a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle inherently more resilient than what we call civilization?
Probably not, but the passage above suggests that we might as well start thinking about our unstable climate—“suddenly and violently out of balance,” in Bill McKibben’s terms—as the norm, not the exception. If not from greenhouse gases, that stability was bound to end at some point, so we better start planning for our long-term future on this “tough new planet,” as McKibben says.
I’m taking a class on climate resilience this semester, so more on this to come.
I posted awhile back about horses in Detroit. My friend and former coworker Pasha Ellis organizes monthly equestrian events for kids in his central Detroit neighborhood with the group Motor City Horsemen. He envisions a future Detroit where horses become a prominent form of transportation.
It may seem like a bit of an esoteric goal. In an interview we did this summer, he explained his thinking. He said horses are about:
Bringing people closer to who they are. Helping people find definition without things, objects, man-made products. Yo, riding a horse is an exhilarating experience man, especially for people who’ve never rode a horse before. It’ll definitely cut down on pollution, and it will spark an interest, I feel, in nature and being closer to nature.
As the leader of the Fenkell and Dexter Community Coalition, Pasha organizes a wide range of projects in the neighborhood—tending gardens, cleaning streets, building community spaces in vacant lots. He argues that American consumer culture perpetuates an internalized mentality of white supremacy in distressed black Detroit neighborhoods. Improving the city’s quality of life therefore requires confronting that culture. Beyond the free fertilizer and saved fossil fuel, horses have a role to play in that work:
I think all aspects of nature have a healing aesthetic, whether it’s planting gardens, riding a horse, raising livestock, since it’s our natural element as people. It just puts us in a better place health-wise, overall. And like I say for these kids, these city kids, definitely just bringing them closer to nature and their humanity, opposed to, you know, ‘ooh I like that new car, that new car!’ You know, fuck that pollution, get up on this horse and stop next to that car. See how majestic you really feel!
News broke earlier this month that Detroit artist Tyree Guyton is going to systematically dismantle the Heidelberg Project. Over the years I’ve taken several visitors to Guyton’s found art installation, which sprawls across several blocks in the neighborhood in which he grew up. Guyton painted the street and sidewalks and smothered abandoned houses with clothing, appliances, children’s toys. I’ve written in the past that the unknowable histories of these once-loved everyday objects have a way of driving home the awesome magnitude of what has happened to Detroit.
Guyton’s work always seemed a fitting symbol of Detroiters’ ingenuity in the face of ever-increasing urban disinvestment, and a good counterpoint to the hype that tends to surround the (mostly) white, (mostly) recent transplants among Detroit’s arts scene.
“After 30 years, I’ve decided to take it apart piece-by-piece in a very methodical way, creating new realities as it comes apart,” Guyton told the Detroit Free Press. “I gotta go in a new direction. I gotta do something I have not done before.”