Why Your Definition of “Land” Matters So Much!

By Neenah Payne

What does “land” mean to you? Americans may be surprised to discover multiple ways to define land — and how critical understanding those definitions is now to our survival as we face the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation “People of the Place of the Fire” and speaks a little of the Potawatomi language which is a member of the Algonquin family. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation is the federally-recognized government and represents over 37,000 members. It acts under a Constitution that includes executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The Potawatomi are located in the western Great Lakes region, upper Mississippi River, and Great Plains.

Professor Kimmerer is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plantsand Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Wikipedia says:

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants received the 2014 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. By 2021, over 500,000 copies had been sold worldwide…. In 2022 Dr. Kimmerer was awarded the Macarthur ‘genius’ award.

The beautifully written book has been a word-of-mouth sensation and hit the New York Times Best Seller List.

Seven Ways To Define “Land”

Professor Kimmerer lives in Syracuse, New York where she lives on an old farm tending gardens both cultivated and wild. She is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology and is the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. She holds a BS in Botany from SUNY ESF, an MS and PhD in Botany from the University of Wisconsin, and is the author of numerous scientific papers on plant ecology, bryophyte ecology, traditional knowledge and restoration ecology. Prof. Kimmerer’s interests include not only restoration of ecological communities, but restoration of our relationships to land.

In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants, Professor Kimmerer discusses seven ways to define “land”.

  1. LAND AS “CAPITAL”: Land is a means to make money. What’s done to it doesn’t matter.
  2. LAND AS “PROPERYTY”: Land is a collection of “resources” to be exploited and left desolate. For example, trees are defined in terms of “board feet of lumber” and their many priceless irreplaceable ecological gifts are ignored. Whole rainforests like the Amazon can be destroyed without thought.
  3. LAND AS “MACHINE:” Peopled with engineers and foresters whose goal is to reestablish structure and function for a very specific purpose.
  4. LAND AS “TEACHER AND HEALER”: This is the indigenous view. Professor Kimmerer explains that her Haudenosaunee neighbors say, “Human beings are the younger brothers and sisters of Creation. We haven’t been here nearly as long as the plants.
    So, that notion of humility — understanding the rest of the world as our teachers — is a profound change. Thinking of yourselves as the Younger Brothers of Creation instead of Masters of the Universe is a kind of cultural transformation that we need to have
    .”Professor Kimmerer points out that in 2009, President Evo Morales of Bolivia presented The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth to the United Nations. However, while the US grants personhood and rights to corporations, it does not to plants, animals, rivers, or the Earth. In that sense, the West is living in an inanimate, dead world. It is no wonder then that it is killing off one species after another — and now humanity itself is at risk.Professor Kimmerer explains that the Western worldview creates a crisis of loneliness. This is the existential loneliness that Belgian Professor Mattias Desmet, author of The Psychology of Totalitarianism, says leads to the “Mass Formation” (psychosis) that fuels the kind of totalitarianism we saw during COVID.However, most Americans ignore the 500 Native Nations in this hemisphere like a Big Pink Elephant in the living room. Yet, many of our states, cities, rivers, etc. carry Native American names. Even the name “American” was originally used by the colonists to refer to the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere. When the US Founding Fathers declared independence from Britain, they adopted the name for themselves and established the United States of America.
  5. LAND AS “RESPONSIBILITY”: Professor Kimmerer explains that this raises the bar for what restoration means because it includes making habitat for our non-human relatives.
  6. LAND AS “SACRED”/LAND AS “COMMUNITY”: Professor Kimmerer says: “Restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise. It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land. Therefore, reconnecting people and the landscape is as essential as reestablishing proper hydrology or cleaning up contamination. It is medicine for the earth.”
  7. LAND AS “HOME”: Professor Kimmerer describes how restored land will look.

Professor Kimmerer asks,

What if we could fashion a restoration plan that grew from understanding multiple meanings of land? Land as sustainer. Land as identity. And as grocery store and pharmacy. Land as connection to our ancestors. Land as moral obligation. Land as sacred. Land as self.

Which Path Will You Choose in 2023? shows that each of us has a vital choice to make now in whether we will assume more responsibility for maintaining the Earth on which our lives depend or whether we will participate in its destruction and further the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Author Eckhart Tolle and Belgian Professor Desmet are calling for humanity to evolve now. However, they don’t explain how. Fortunately, the world’s indigenous peoples continue to serve as role models. They have track records of thousands of years of being “keystone species” who accept responsibility for all of life for the next seven generations. We just need to be wise enough to learn from and follow them now if we want to survive.

The Great Turning

Professor Kimmerer points out that Joanna Macy speaks of The Great Turning as the “essential adventure of or time; the shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization’. She quotes Macy,

Restoration of land and relationship pushes that turning wheel. Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.

In the must-see video Joanna Macy, “The Great Turning”, Macy explains the Three Dimensions of the Great Turning and Four Guidelines on how to take part. Macy is the author of 13 books.

Three Dimensions of The Great Turning

At about 26:42, Macy points out that the following dimensions are concurrent, not sequential, and are mutually-supportive:

  1. Holding Actions: Political, legislative, regulatory, and legal actions to slow down the escalation of the destruction by the industrial growth society. These include direct actions: blockades, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of refusal. This is important because it saves lives and ecosystems.
  2. Building Alternatives: Creating new institutions based on old indigenous wisdom to create a life-sustaining civilization. New ways of growing food, new and old ways of holding the land, new ways of our measuring wealth, and new ways of learning. These institutions must be rooted in our values of who we think we are and what we need.
  3. Shift in Consciousness: A spiritual, cognitive, and scientific revolution based on reverence for the Web of Life, all of which is intelligent in a world made of relationships. A shift in identity based on yourself as an inseparable part of Earth. Macy says “We are being liberated from that tight, confining, separate “Cowboy Ego” — solitary, born to compete, driven by greed, and seduced into hatreds. Macy says we can break free of this ego now by identifying with Earth. She says, “This is liberation”.

Four Guidelines

Macy lists the following Four Guidelines at about 38:30:

  1. Come From Gratitude: Be grateful for this moment, for this breath, for plants, for air, for this Earth, for this Great Turning.
  2. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Remember that good things can happen in the dark — things germinate and gestate. The “Dark Night of the Soul” is the most critical part of any spiritual journey. Macy reads empowering poems.
  3. Link Arms: Don’t try to do it alone. Macy recommends study/action groups and refers people to her site at: https://www.joannamacy.net.
  4. Act Your Age: She says in confronting authorities, we can stand firm in the authority that Earth is 5 billion years old and the universe is estimated to be 15 billion years old.

Grief and Joy on a Planet in Crisis: Joanna Macy on the Best Time To Be Alive

“The way out is in”. Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay Buddhist practitioner and journalist Jo Confino are joined by eco-philosopher Joanna Macy. A scholar of Buddhism, systems theory, and deep ecology, Joanna Macy, PhD, is one of the most respected voices in the movements for peace, justice, and ecology. She interweaves her scholarship with learnings from six decades of activism, has written twelve books, and teaches an empowerment approach known as the Work That Reconnects. Together, all three discuss: the relevance of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings to the crises we face today as a species; the energy of simplicity; truth-telling and the power of facing the truth; the grounds for transformation; impermanence; interbeing.

Dr. David Suzuki Learned From The Haida Nation

Dr. David Suzuki’s Urgent Warnings To Humanity Now explains that Dr. David Suzuki is an internationally renowned Canadian geneticist, environmentalist, author of more than 52 books, iconic scientist, educator, broadcaster, activist, and the founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. The godfather of the environmental movement in Canada, Dr. Suzuki was ranked “the greatest living Canadian” in a 2005 poll. Dr. Suzuki has an urgent message: we have exhausted the biosphere and we must re-think our relationship with the natural world. He points out that we are driving 50 thousand species into extinction every year! Yet, out of our dire circumstances, he offers a blueprint for sustainability and survival.

Dr. Suzuki says that in the 1970s, there was a battle over logging in the Queen’s Charlotte Islands, now called Haida Gwaii (Islands of the Haida People), an archipelago of about 150 islands off the coast of British Columbia. The islands form the heartland of the Haida Nation, where the Haida have lived for over 13,000 years and make up about half the population.  The Haida exercise sovereignty over the islands through the Council of the Haida Nation. Part of the Canadian province of British Columbia, the islands were known from 1787 until 2010 as the Queen Charlotte Islands. As part of the Reconciliation between British Columbia and the Haida people, the Haida Gwaii Reconciliation Act renamed the archipelago on June 3, 2010.

When Dr. Suzuki was asked to do a film about the logging conflict, he was introduced to the worldview of the world’s indigenous peoples and wrote the book Wisdom of the Elders: Sacred Native Stories of Nature to show that indigenous perspectives all over the world are validated by the best science.

Wisdom of the Elders: Sacred Native Stories of Nature

The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature by Dr. Suzuki was published on 10/25/22 and has a foreword by Professor Kimmerer. Amazon says:

The Sacred Balance combines science, philosophy, spirituality, and Indigenous knowledge to offer concrete suggestions for creating an ecologically sustainable future.

The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature

Suzuki: The Sacred Balance— Learning from Indigenous Peoples: “The challenge of this millennium is to recognize what we need to live rich, rewarding lives without undermining the very elements that ensure them.” David Suzuki 1/9/23. Dr. Suzuki often wears the symbol of the Raven (Nang Kilslas) who taught the Haida many lessons. It similar to The Original Instructions Native Americans follow discussed further below.

Dr. Suzuki’s daughter Severn Cullis-Suzuki is an environmental and cultural activist, speaker, and author. Severn was named the Executive Director of The David Suzuki Foundation in 2021. Severn lived on Haida Gwaii, for 14 years until 2020. She worked on revitalization of the Haida language, the heritage language of her husband Gudt’aawtis Judson Brown and their two children.  Severn’s husband is the Marine Planning Program Manager for the Council of the Haida Nation (CHN).

Deer Wars: The Forest Awakens: On Haida Gwaii, British Columbia explains that culling deer is an act of cultural and ecological restoration features Severn’s husband, Judson Brown, and reports on the restoration in Gwaii Haanas. It was the conclusion of his 24-year career at Parks Canada.

Can Native American Wisdom Help Save Humanity Now?

Several countries have established Reconciliation Commissions: South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission  in 1996, Reconciliation Australia  in 2001, and Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission  in 2008 to facilitate the relationship with the First Nations peoples of Canada. See Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume One: Summary: Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.

What Is Reconciliation?

What Is Reconciliation from TRC – CVR on Vimeo.

US Truth and Conciliation Commission

Why hasn’t the United States established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Mark Charles would like to establish a Truth and Conciliation Commission in the US. He doesn’t like the term “reconciliation” because it implies a previous harmony. Charles is the co-author of Unsettling Truths – The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.

See Growing Calls To Repudiate “Doctrine of Discovery” and How Reconciliation With Native America Can Save Us.

We Can’t Live Without This | Chief Oren Lyons

The Original Instructions The West Forgot

Professor Kimmerer’s videos and book inspired me to write Mapping a New Geography of Hope With Native America which is included in My Articles About Native America on my Urban Gardens Revolution site. The articles show that the profound connection to the land Native American cultures have is our best guide to avoid the Sixth Mass Extinction now. We have just six inches of top soil left now — enough to grow food for just 60 years!

In the 2008 video Indigenous Native American Prophecy, actor Floyd Red Crow Westerman said Native Americans were told they would see America come and go. He said, “In a sense, America is dying from within because they forgot the instructions on how to live on Earth”. He warned that people who do not know how to live spiritually on Earth likely will not make it. He explained that when Columbus came, that started the true First World War. By WWII, the indigenous population of the Americas had dropped from 60 million to 800,000! The Native American population in the US is currently 4.5 million.

Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future

Overcoming ‘Place Blindness’: How to Connect with the Land You Live On

Rewilding allows you to see your environment with new eyes, sometimes as if for the very first time. You become more intimate with all its life-forms and sometimes see beyond the visible, connecting with a greater presence. In his book The Nature Principle, Richard Louv discusses “place blindness,” which afflicts people who live so much of their lives indoors or in front of screens that they do not look up to notice the land they live on….

Because place blindness inevitably leads to a disconnection with the living earth, it also leads to a lack of caring and interest in the planet’s well-being. Future generations will not value and care for the earth if they have little or no actual relationship with it.…

The more time we spend out on the land, exploring and learning about the different plants and animals, the natural history and ecology, and simply enjoying and getting to know the contours of the living earth, the more bonded we’ll feel to the places we call home. The more intimate we become with the land, the more we’ll grow to love and cherish it.

Easy Steps We Can Take Now

Collaborating now with Native America and adopting the values of the world’s indigenous peoples is the only way for humanity to survive now. Professor Kimmerer says that to become more “indigenous” to your area, just pay more attention to your surroundings. Each of us can take steps to change our relationship to the world. One way is to go foraging which can also be additional source of food.

Foraging With “Wildman” Steve Brill and Violet reports on my foraging trip in Prospect Park in December 2021. Foraging With “Wildman” Steve Brill in Central Park (Updated) explains that Steve showed how to use the edible Gingko biloba nuts and Honey Locust tree pods and seeds which are abundant in the fall in my neighborhood and in Central Park in New York City.

However, Mapping a New Geography of Hope With Native America explains that foraging was taken to a new level in the 10-week Earth Matter Compost and Farm Apprenticeship Program on Governor’s Island in the Fall of 2022. We watched the video below to learn about The Honorable Harvest which provides a much deeper understanding.

The “Honorable Harvest”: Lessons From an Indigenous Tradition of Giving Thanks

The Honorable Harvest with Robin Kimmerer

What does ethical reciprocity between humans and the natural world look like? The Honorable Harvest reminds us how to take, use and share while mindfully honoring the indigenous legacies that teach us how to commune with our planet. Featuring Robin Wall Kimmerer, Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Picture This Plant ID and Merlin Bird ID Apps

The Picture This app is the best plant ID app I’ve found so far for identifying plants, leaves, and trees.

The Merlin Bird ID app allows you to identify a bird even by its song! When I went foraging with Steve in December 2021, his daughter Violet co-led the tour. She is an avid birdwatcher who took some remarkable photos like the one below. Violet recommended the 2012 documentary “The Central Park Effect” which is available on Amazon Prime and as a DVD and she recommended The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature. A group of birdwatchers in a park near me introduced me to this app.

Using the “Picture This” app, I discovered 15 types of Oak trees in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY.  The Pin Oak and Northern Red Oak (aka “Red Oak”) are the most prevalent along the streets of my neighborhood. I found the other Oak trees in a nearby park. I had no idea there were so many kinds of Oak trees — and all in very easy walking distance of my apartment!

How To Identify Oak Leaves explains that there are over are over 600 species of Oak, with 55 in the continental United States. All oak trees have acorns, lobed leaves, and small, scaly bark. I collected the leaves shown below on three blocks of my street and can use the “Picture This” app to identify them. Next fall, I plan to collect them and preserve them in wax with labels. Just small steps like these help people begin to reconnect with the land a little more each day.

Ancient Native America Wisdom

The ancient indigenous wisdom the West lost during the Inquisition which is needed now to guide us from the brink of destruction was held onto by Native Americans. They still practice the “Original Instructions” on how to live on Earth. So, they have been a “keystone species” for thousands of years — protecting the earth, water, plants, and animals for the next seven generations.

This worldview and connectedness to the Earth provides people with a sense of purpose, identity, and collaboration which can heal the existential loneliness that fueled the “Mass Formation” (psychosis) described in Mapping a New Geography of Hope With Native America  and Which Path Will You Choose in 2023?.

My Articles About Native America in my Urban Gardens Revolutions site shows that a growing number of Native Americans are helping guide humanity from the brink now. We just have to be wise enough now to learn and follow. This series of articles will be updated periodically because there are so many Native American authors, professors, lawyers, scientists, etc. guiding the world back to sanity now.

Top image credit: CDN

Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post and Natural Blaze