The Synthesis Of Two North American Visions

Renewal can come from a new perception of old strengths,
especially when it allows a synthesis of old antagonists

One of the articles in Rediscovering The North American Vision (IC#3)
Originally published in Summer 1983 on page 23
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

RIGHT NOW North America provides the crucible for the interaction of two basic world-views about how human life on this planet is and should be. To put things simply in terms of dialectics: the thesis, the starting point here, is the pervasive Native American orientation towards the preservation of a balanced lifestyle of reciprocal interaction with the environment, the natural world; without any emphasis on change or the "development" of this world in any way. In contrast, the antithesis is provided by the attitudes of most Euro-Americans who settled and now dominate this continent. The world-view here emphasizes development for more extensive human use, with little emphasis on preservation (although there are important exceptions to this, especially recently).

That a synthesis of development and preservation can take place is an hypothesis that has yet to be firmly established. Existing models are suggestive, but far from complete. On the one hand, developmentalists need to be convinced that the most exciting kind of development towards the goals of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" can be achieved best through means that preserve and then enhance the dynamic balance of natural processes. To be able to enhance what Nature gives us without destroying the balance is a truly creative challenge.

On the other hand, preservationists need to be convinced that some kind of creative, co-evolutionary interaction with the natural world is possible without further messing things up. Native societies on this and other continents are replete with injunctions, "taboos", against changing modes of subsistence and interaction. What is needed here is not some standard developer’s plan, where a predetermined blueprint is laid over a landscape bull-dozed to fit it, but some kind of process of interactive sensitivity by which the needs and desires of life around us can be tuned into and enhanced. It is important to note that the requests of Nature Spirits for a positive, creative input from humanity – best exemplified by Dorothy Maclean’s work at Findhorn – seem to be nowhere recorded in the literature on native cultures. Respect is traditionally called for, but not mutual innovative interaction.

Clearly, stereotypes of development as domination, and preservation as stasis, need to be overcome if the synthesis of a balanced, dynamic co-creation is to take place. Rene Debos’ The Wooing of the Earth (Scribners, 1980) provides many good examples of positive symbiosis between people and environment. The following quotation from Gary Nabham’s The Desert Smells Like Rain (North Point Press, 1982) makes clear another point: we had better get on with our ecological vision quickly, or some of the existent North American examples won’t be there to guide us.

While the remaining acreage is miniscule (10,000 acres in 1913, 100 acres in 1980), it is all that is left of an ecologically sensitive subsistence strategy that has endured in deserts for centuries. Here, not only a rich heritage of crops remains, but also co-evolved microorganisms and weeds, as well as pests and beneficial insects. Amaranths, for instance, are hosts for insects that control corn-loving pests. Papago fields harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria which naturally associate with tepary bean roots. A species of solitary bee has been found visiting annual devil’s claw in Papago fields, but despite a thorough search has not been found on wild annual devil’s claw elsewhere. Moreover, there is a mutually beneficial relationship between these plants and their Papago stewards; the Papago have evolved field management skills that have allowed them to sustain food production for centuries without destroying the desert soils. The plants have evolved the ability to grow quickly, root deeply, disperse heat loads, and provide nutritious seeds for those who harvest them. These durable functional relationships between humans and other lifeforms are the products of a slow evolution and cannot be remade in a day. No amount of academic research on water harvesting and drought-hardy crops can replace a time-tried plant/man symbiosis such as that in which the Papago have participated. (p.47)


Reforestation is probably the one most straightforward action to take towards healing the scars on our planet and creatively making her everywhere beautiful again: small villages planting trees for peace; Richard St. Barbe Baker’s vision of the armies of the world at last turning, with no more open territory to conquer, to the task of "replenishing" their "dominion" (Genesis 1:28) and planting trees, regenerating life in the deserts caused by ignorance.

As for machines, we are provided with an excellent example of a potentially truly serving tool by the current developments in computer technology. As the native people once talked with animals in their legends, and as some now converse with nature spirits, we are also now learning to talk with our machines.

If this more literally human-sensitive technology can also be focused towards environmental sensitivity and enhancement, then we may actually be able to achieve the kind of synthesis described by Gary Snyder, where "computer technicians spend half their year walking with the elk."

On the moral side of things, another strand can also be woven in. One view of American history shows the rights of freedom and representation being extended outward in ever widening circles to include women and minority groups. The next step is to extend these rights to all living creatures and ecosystems.

Further, it is on the local level that extending rights in this way makes the most clear, intuitive sense. If people are looking around now and saying, "This might be where I and my children will be for a long time", then they will be more willing to strike up a bargain with their co-inhabitants of place.

One of the most obvious tasks of those of us concerned with synthesis is to create living examples of how this can be done. This means small communities (urban & rural) of a truly human scale which are enlivened by a creative relationship to their immediate environment, and stimulated by contact with all the diverse cultures around this planet striving for similar goals.

Coyote Old Man has tricked us again, drawn us into the cities so that we could really see that the most exciting life lies with the land we just passed over.

Coyote Old Man!
Hare, Raven, Crow,
Trickster and Shape Changer,
The one all tribes talk about
From one shore of Turtle Island to the other.

Help us all change to the shapes
Our opponents will see as Friends.
Help us fool them all by proving
They have nothing to fear
And nothing to prove.

Barry Plunker told the story of the Dancing Bear
And got the state trooper to dance with him.

Let us tell with our lives the story
Of the dances we can do
With "wasted" lands
And "dead" machines.

Surprise is the trick
That comes with the doing.

North America is blessed with a great diversity of achieving and preserving cultures, and a corresponding range of natural environments to match. Let us hope that the famous American aptitude for creative problem-solving can be channeled towards a new Manifest Destiny of making the most of all we have been given. Treaties with the Indians were to be good for "as long as the grass grows and the rivers run." Can we help the grass keep growing and rivers run again?

Robert Brothers got to a small community in Idaho (where he is known as Bobcat) by way of Harvard and a clinical psychology degree from Berkeley.

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