Shaped by the land, or the land is shaped by us?

How do communities decide where to come to rest and develop their village/town/city/etc.? Of course this answer is going to be highly dependent on the community in question – we need to understand why they are looking for a place to begin with, what sorts of conditions align with their cultural prerogatives, and what places are possible for their settlement (among many other considerations). Ángel Julián García Zambrano’s paper Transference of Primordial Threshold Crossings onto the Geomorphology of Mesoamerican Foundational Landscapes takes this question up in earnest regarding early Mesoamerican communities.

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Zambrano explains that the ontologies of early Mesoamerican cultures were imbued with “the act of crossing a threshold that allowed for communication between the earth’s inner watery realm and its surface” (215), enacted through traversing physical landscapes that were seen as thresholds between the two realms. These include specific landscape properties such as saddles in ridges – especially those with a prominence at the lowest part of the saddle – caves, tunnels, gullies, and springs. Although an oversimplification, this means that as early Mesoamerican cultures traversed their landscapes, they looked for landscape features that connected them to their beliefs. In places where these features were prominent, they founded towns. Furthermore and beyond mere founding, these cultures developed infrastructure that imitated, accentuated, and celebrated the landscape. For example, Zambrano explains how Utatlan in Guatemala is positioned with respect to the nearby ridge, with the protruding pyramid top aligned in the center of the saddle. The takeaway is that the land has a critical role in the built environments of these cultures, understood through the culture’s ontological lenses.

What does this mean to me? I see a distinction between Zambrano’s examples and the ways in which western cultures (read: settler colonial cultures) enact their relationships with the land. If the land is seen as an ‘other’ that must be tamed/settled/extracted, then settlement happens in ways that impose built environments on the land with the underlying perspective that “I will build wherever and whatever I want since the land is not part of me and my culture”. On the other hand, and exemplified in Zambrano’s paper, some cultures see the land as integral to their understanding of themselves and settle in ways that align with (not conceptually orthogonal to) the landscape. This indicates, to me, a distinct relationship with the land in ways that I cannot imagine analogous in western cultures. Although it should be obvious that I have some normative suppositions and about these two ways of integrating into/onto the land, I only mean to recognize that this difference is real and is but one more way that people have developed relationships to their environments.

That is all!

The yucky taste in your mouth is that deep ecology you just bit into.

I just finished reading Ramachandra Guha’s Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique. Guha takes aim at the deep ecologists who, according to Guha, have (at least) four common tenets: [1] Environmental discourses must shift from “anthropocentric” to “biocentric” perspectives; [2] The preservation of current wilderness and restoration/rewilding of degraded sites is of utmost importance; [3] Eastern (and, presumably, Indigenous) philosophies are themselves deep-ecological; and [4] Deep ecologists are leading the environmental movement. I applaud Guha’s disavowal of each of these tenets, recognizing that it is only from the place of American economic and militant privilege that deep ecology could even find purchase.

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With a recognition that the anthro/biocentric dichotomies are imagined – and perhaps even harmful – and that the deep ecology project ignores the needs of the world’s populations (especially those in rural communities), Guha argues that “a truly radical ecology in the American context ought to work toward a synthesis of the appropriate technology, alternate life style, and peace movements” (6). I couldn’t agree more.

The deep ecology discourse is especially relevant to me given my commitment to the environments and communities of the American West. My home state, Idaho, has one of the largest wilderness areas in the lower 48 states, aside dozens of smaller wilderness areas speckled throughout the west. The deep ecology discourse would rather see western environments rid of rural communities in order that the environment could remain pristine for the aesthetic and spiritual enjoyment of those privileged enough to make the trip. Guha rightly recognizes that this discourse ignores, at a minimum, the communities who live in those environments now. I do not mean to suggest that unchecked extraction is the logical valence to wilderness, but – as Guha suggests – that an American radical ecology be founded on the development of more reflective relationships between those on the land and the land itself. Guha states it best:

[Non-western rural communities] seek to wrest control of nature away from the state and the industrial sector and place it in the hands of [those] who live within that environment but are increasingly denied access to it. These communities have far more basic needs, their demands on the environment are far less intense, and they can draw upon a reservoir of cooperative social institutions and local ecological knowledge in managing the “commons”…on a sustainable basis. If colonial and capitalist expansion has both accentuated social inequalities and signaled a precipitous fall in ecological wisdom, an alternate ecology must rest on an alternate society and polity as well” (6, my italics).

Well said.

Let them dance, or shut up and listen

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I just finished reading Lois Ann Lorentzen’s Indigenous Feet: Ecofeminism, Globalization, and the Case of Chiapas. Lorentzen argues that the ecofeminist discourse does not adequately describe the oppressive gender relations nor environmental relations of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas, Mexico. Although Lorentzen admits that ecofeminism isn’t a singular discourse with concrete commitments, it does broadly recognize that “there are important connections between the domination of women (and other human subordinates) and the domination of nature” (cited by Lorentzen from Christine Eber’s Women and Alcohol in a Highland Maya Town: Water of Hope, Water of Sorrow). This broad conception lies at the foundation of the paper and is the critical component that Lorentzen challenges based on the Chiapas’ oppressive forces being asymmetrically dominant towards women and nature.

Simply, I agree with the general recognition that ecofeminism may not be suited to understanding a diverse set of contexts and circumstances, especially in those cases where oppressive forces have developed under particular historical forces. This does not mean that ecofeminism should be disregarded, however, as Lorentzen explains:

“The fact that ecofeminist activists and thinkers of various stripes bring international attention to both environmental and feminist concerns…creates a political space for women in various parts of the world who otherwise may not have been heard…If women from less affluent nations are epistemologically privileged within ecofeminism and considered the ‘experts’, they well may…contest idealizing tendencies of both official and ecofeminist discourse about the indigenous, the tribal, and the so-called Third World woman. This, in turn, makes for better ecofeminist theory and practice” (68).

I agree with this sentiment, wholeheartedly. If an ecofeminist approach allows us to create space for the oppressed to voice and understand their own oppression, then contextually relevant evaluations of particular circumstances can develop to inform both theory and practice. This is all good, in my opinion!