The Sentient and Soulful Landscape


February 28, 2016

She was nailing it! Speaking on how the Federal and State government were dealing with an environmental issue in northern California, she told stories of her family, earth, and water. Yet, many folk in the room of predominantly non-Indian middle (more or less) class folk were not getting it.

A problem with being middle (more or less) class in the US, is to have made it out of poverty and subsistence living, folk did it by obtaining and accepting a western education. While this education has served us well in obtaining a good money-earning job, it has done a shabby job of having us maintain relationship with the spirit of the landscape.

I grew up with an Okie neighbor who told stories. Those stories kept him in relationship with folk, told much about him, and spoke to his outlook on life, land, the future, and the past. Most often peppered with words most folk would find inappropriate for children’s ears—and many adults for that matter—they were the racy stories that kept a young teenagers attention from beginning to end. From him I learned stories spoke truth and were much easier to remember later than, say, the historical dates being taught to me in school. His stories also helped me know there is life and ways of being different from my normal. Which meant later in life I heard other stories as truthful rather than fantasyful.

Another friend, a Yakama, told me stories of her and her family’s life growing up in landscape of ancient people. Her stories walked a path that before too long intersected with a rabbit trail. Not one to walk away from an adventure, her story wandered the rabbit trail, many times finding and taking another trail. Often, but not always, a trail would be found leading back to the original path. Whether the story found the original path or not, each story found its way to a natural truth needing telling.

The native woman at the front of the room spoke to the spiritual damage that was surely to occur if the State of California began changing the water storage capabilities of the Shasta River. Perhaps it was the stories of that old boy from Oklahoma or maybe my Indian friend—most probably thanks to both of them—the damage of landscape life she spoke of made sense to me. Clearly, that was not the case for everyone in the room.

Western education does not leave room to know or believe truth outside a certain set of parameters. So when she began to speak of the river’s life and spirit as equal to that of human, people begin to think the speaker had entered the world of fantasy rather than the realm of fact. Folk were with her as long as she stayed with a western scientific grasp of water and land and environmental damage. However, when she moved, naturally, to what the river itself thought about humans changing the river’s life to serve agricultural want, non-Indian folk foundered.

The ancestors of the folk in the room believed in the river’s voice and spirituality long ago. However, that was many generations ago and they no longer have a place to know such thought as truth, but rather, plain silliness. Sadly, many folk in the room were religious—some conservative, some liberal. American religion though, specifically American Christian theology finds little truth in the thought of water, wind, or land being either sentient or soulful. Therefore, when she spoke of the river as one with knowledge and soul, a chasm appeared between speaker and audience.

Though we might not admit, the chasm speaks to how close we are to our parents thinking. Our technological walk is not much different from theirs. Many of us think our green values are ahead of those who went before. However, when our parents dammed the rivers of the west, they understood the resulting hydrologic energy as green and never ending. Our endorsement and support of wind machines and solar panels across massive landscapes is similar, if not the same of our parent’s support of dams. Any more than they might have thought of asking fish their opinion of dams, have we thought of asking what the wind, animals, or soil thinks of our green energy efforts. Because we do not think of the landscape as soulful or created equal to ourselves, we live and act with faith in western innovation rather than the spirit of landscape.

The critical thinking we obtain from our western education allows for a life that is no longer tied subsistence living. Yet, left alone, without a tie to the theology of landscape—a theology recognizing the fullness and soulfulness of landscape—we do little more than damage the landscape again. What too many folk did not hear that evening was that our children’s children wellbeing depends on the reclamation landscape’s spiritual insight. Which has me thinking. If we are going to get the message of that evening’s speaker, if we are going to know the kin of landscape, we must leave the beaten path, follow the rabbit trail, and listen to the voice and spirit of landscape. Which just might have a drawl of an Okie.

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