Soule, Michael E., and Gary Lease. Reinventing Nature?
Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction. D.C.
“Cultural Parallax in Viewing North American Habitats” Gary Paul Nabhan
Does conservation of wilderness imply excluding residents who practice traditional forms of human subsistence? The debate over this issue is relevant to the question of the past human role in the "construction" of native ecological systems. What is original, untrammeled nature – primitive America? Is it pre-Columbian, implying that Native Americans walked softly and lived in harmony? Or did they and their ancestors deforest large areas, cause the mass extinction of mammals, and change the landscape everywhere by burning?
It is clear now that Native Americans practiced extensive and intensive land management, though this evidence was often invisible to the European settlers who arrived after epidemics had erased it. In any case, the polarized debate about aboriginal impacts obscures the complexity and diversity of old cultures in North America and ignores cultural adaptation and change. Such local, cultural knowledge of nature in indigenous groups is rapidly being lost because the mass media expose Native American children to pan-Indian culture and a generic electronic nature.
As for "truth," "origins," or "essentials" beyond the "metanarratives," the naturalist has a peculiar advantage -- by attending to species who have no words and no text other than context and yet among whom there is an unspoken consensus about the contingency of life and real substructures. A million species constantly make "assumptions" in their body language, indicating a common ground and the validity of their responses. A thousand million pairs of eyes, antennas, and other sense organs are fixed on something beyond themselves that sustains their being, in a relationship that works. To argue that because we interpose talk or pictures between us and this shared immanence, and that it therefore is meaningless, contradicts the testimony of life itself. The nonhuman realm, acting as if in common knowledge of a shared quiddity, of unlike but congruent representations, tests its reality billions of times every hour. It is the same world in which we ourselves live, experiencing it as process, structures, and meanings, interacting with the same events that the plants and other animals do.
We cannot find in the past or present any societies that are perfect in every aspect, or examples that we can simply revive lock-stock-and-barrel from extinction; but we can find models to study and learn from. They exist within the borders of the United States and in every part of the earth -- communities that have managed to fit themselves to their places for impressively long periods of time, that are less destructive of the biota around them, that may have acquired some vital knowledge of place which we lack. They may have not escaped the hand of time, but they have come closer than we have to adapting to it. My own research as a historian suggests that such enduring communities have had one dominant characteristic: they have made rules, and many of them, rules based on intimate local experience, to govern their behavior. They have not tried to "live free" of nature or of the group; nor have they resented restraints on individual initiative or left it to each individual to decide completely how to behave. On the contrary, they have accepted many kinds of limits on themselves and enforced them on one another. Their methods of enforcement may not meet our modern American standards of privacy or injustice; they may not be compatible with our modern sense of strong personal rights; and certainly they can stifle creativity or originality. But throughout history, having these rules and enforcing them vigorously seems to be a requirement for long-term ecological survival.
Let me highlight what Sara St. Antoine and I recently learned while interviewing fifty-two children from four different cultures, all of them living in the Sonoran Desert (Nabhan and St. Antoine 1992). Essentially we learned that with regard to knowledge about the natural world, intergenerational differences within cultures are becoming as great as the gaps between cultures. While showing a booklet of drawings of common desert plants and animals to O'odham children and their grandparents, for example, we realized that the children knew only a third of the names for these desert organisms in their native language that their grandparents knew. With the loss of those names, we wonder how much culturally encoded knowledge is lost as well. With over half the two hundred native languages on this continent falling out of use at an accelerating rate, a great diversity of perspectives on the structure and value of nature are surely being lost. And culture-specific land management practices are being lost as well.
One driving force in this loss of knowledge about the natural world is that children today spend more time in classrooms and in front of the television than they do directly interacting with their natural surroundings. The vast majority of the children we interviewed are now gaining most of their knowledge about other organisms vicariously: 77 percent of the Mexican children, 61 percent of the Anglo children, 60 percent of the Yaqui children, and 35 percent of the O'odham children told us they had seen more animals on television and in the movies than they had personally seen in the wild.
An even more telling measure of the lack of primary contact with their immediate nonhuman surroundings is this: a significant portion of kids today have never gone off alone, away from human habitations, to spend more than a half hour by themselves in a "natural" setting. None of the six Yaqui children responded that they had; nor had 58 percent of the O'odham, 53 percent of the Anglos, and 71 percent of the Mexican children. We also found that many children today have never been involved in collecting, carrying around, or playing with the feathers, bones, butterflies, or stones they find near their homes. Of those interviewed, 60 percent of the Yaqui children, 46 percent of the Anglos, 44 percent of the Mexicans, and 35 percent of the O'odham had never gathered such natural treasures. Such a paucity of contact with the natural world would have been unimaginable even a century ago, but it will become the norm as more than 38 percent of the children born after the year 2000 are destined to live in cities with more than a million other inhabitants.