Barro Colorado Island, the site of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The island sits in Gatun Lake, part of the Panama Canal, and is a national protected area accessible only for biological research. A bit ironic that this site, preserved for the study of undisturbed nature, was formed only when humans built the Canal, flooding a swath of forest and making an island out of what was once just a hill.
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.
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!