OVER THE COURSE OF HUMAN HISTORY, certain nations have excelled far more than others at the art of ecological integration. While some societies systematically depleted the ecosystems of which they were part, certain societies steadily enriched them, increasing their sync with the cycles of life around them. As we strive to discern for ourselves what green should really mean, we have much to learn from these cultures. In particular the way in which they themselves learned— their way of knowing the plants and animals around them as kin, elders and teachers.
While great greening societies have thrived around the planet, there is no more dramatic an example than the nations that first inhabited the Americas.
Five hundred years ago, prior to the cataclysmic arrival of germs, animals and humans from Europe, the Americas were then home to hundreds of thriving, independent and prosperous nations.1 Contemporary estimates of the population of the continents at the time range in the tens of millions to over one hundred million2with many towns and cities ranging in size from tens of thousands to over a hundred thousand inhabitants.3
Like all nations and cities, concentrations of humans have a significant impact on the ecosystems around them. Having settled the continent over ten thousand years ago, America's first nations had long acquired sophisticated hunting, fishing and gathering technologies. Also common was the use of fire to effect huge swaths of land. In all respects, these nations were more than capable of over-hunting, over-fishing, over-gathering4and depleting the carrying capacities of the ecosystems of which they were part.
However, over-consumption and exploitation did not occur. Nor the depletion of the continent’s ecosystems.
Far from it.
In 1492, as the first Europeans arrived on the shores of a very old ‘new world’ they were shocked by not only by the vastly differing societies and cultures they encountered, but so too by the vastly different fauna and flora.
And their abundance.
From South America to North, explorers recorded dazzled accounts of the ecological vitality they observed: Rivers overflowing with fish; grasslands filled with countless grazing beasts; forests full of animals, birds, and trees of colossal size; coastal shoals overflowing with marine life.
Alas, the newcomers were seeped a culture of single crops and domesticated animals. Consequently they lacked the conceptual ability to truly see what they were seeing. All too often they, and their colonists to follow, mistook the ecological abundance they observed to be work of ‘nature’ alone:
“…the country before us exhibited every thing that bounteous nature could be expected to draw into one point of view. As we had no reason to imagine that this country had ever been indebted for any of its decorations to the hand of man, I could not possibly believe that any uncultivated country had ever been discovered exhibiting so rich a picture.”
— Captain Vancouver’s observations of the Pacific Northwest Coast, May 2nd 17925
However, today it is clear that this view was gravely mistaken. Modern research has confirmed what the descendants of these nations have known all along: thriving ecosystems were not due to a lack of human participation, but because of it.
Ecological abundance and human habitation were in fact direct correlates. Where these nations foraged, forests are today demonstrably more abundant and biodiverse than adjacent un-managed ecosystems6. Where these nations fished, the rivers are today more abundant than others7. Where they sourced their shellfish and clams, the shoals today host more species than adjacent un-cultivated, or “natural”, ecosystems8. Indeed, the very way that they fished and foraged, harvested and gathered was instrumental to the 'super-natural' flourishing of an ecosystem. Even the amazon rain-forest, long see as the paragon of wild ‘bounteous nature’, has been revealed to have been the site of pre-Columbian agriculture, gardens, towns and cities9
The way in which these nations, tribes and cities came to integrate and harmonize with the plants and animals around them, was as just as diverse and abundant as the ecosystems themselves. In this way agriculture, languages and political systems varied tremendously up and down the continent. While some were patriarchal, others were matriarchal. While some were kingdoms, others were confederacies. While some sought peace, others sought war.
However, despite their vast disparities in ways of life, political systems, morals and ethics,they nonetheless shared certain fundamental commonalities in their view of the world.10In much the same way that the disparate cultures and nations of Europe shared a common continental and cultural provenance, so too did the nations of the disparate Americas.11Justas the ancestral ideas and stories of Greece, Rome and Christianity ideas and stories provided a common ground in the world views of countries as disparate as England and Russia, Finland and France so too did the first nations of the Americas shared certain fundamentals in their view of the world.
In particular, a view of the world in which humans, animals and plants were all members of a common family and equally integral parts of the living land—a community of kindred beings sharing ancestry and origins.12
From this 'kincentric' world view, animals and plants were respected as kindred relations: elders brothers or sisters, grandmothers or grandfathers.13 Then, just as one learns from a distinguished elder, these cultures paid special attention to those particularly distinguished organisms around them. Creatures that in elegance, ingenuity and beauty had magnificently mastered their ecological integration.
From a genetic perspective, we can today deeply appreciate their understanding.
Just as genetic brothers and sisters are parts of a family, so too are plants, animals and humans parts of an ecological family connected by genetic lineages that reach far back into distant time. Likewise, just as grandsons and grandfathers are subsets of a family, so too are humans, plants and animals are all subsets systems of the ecosystems of which they are part. In this way, plants and animals, having had millions of years longer than humans to adapt and integrate into a particular ecosystem have invaluable systemic adaptions for humans to learn from.
Indeed, a salmon and an eagle, an oyster and a tree, all embody the culmination of hundreds of millions of years of behavioral and evolutionary trial and error— the result of innumerable interactions, adaptions and optimizations to integrate within a particular environment. In comparison, the first humans to settle in the Americas (only a few tens of thousands of years ago!) were newcomers— ecological young-lings who had much to learn from their resident elders.
And so they did.
As early Americans observed the way in which the lives of plants and animals synced with the cycles of an ecosystem, patterns were discerned. Tendencies were noted and the character of particular creatures discerned. Over time, these insights were passed down over the generations in moral stories that featured the creature and the ecological principle that it most illuminated—ever increasing the ecological awareness and integration of the community.
Often, a tribe, resonating with the character of a particular creature would adopt it as their representative and guide. Almost all North American first nations contained clans that took an animal as their totem.14Through stories and myths, they were inspired by the animal's ecological example— the cooperation of crows, the diligence of a deer, the strength of a bear, the endurance of an elk, the magnanimity of a salmon—to lay out their clan’s principal values and ethics.
So guided in the art of earthen integration, kincentric societies were able to weave ecological mastery into the fabric of their language, grammar and values.15In so doing they were able to by-pass the tedious, million-year process of evolutionary trial and error and dramatically fast forward their ecological awareness, integration and the collective well-being of themselves and their kindred relations. In this way their cultures came to revolve around the cycles of the creatures they admired most— the migration of geese, the return of salmon, the coming and going of whales.
And precisely because these life-cycles continued to thrive, so could they continue to learn from them.
In a spiral of ever deeper knowing, awareness and consciousness, kincentric cultures grew ever more in sync with the ecosystems around them. With the momentum of millennia of compounding insights, their way of knowing steadily led to an ecological understanding of unparalleled lucidity. Steadily, these societies were able to effectively co-create with plants and animals a common home for all to thrive.
Today, in realizing the great green feats of ecological enrichment of these nations, we long to follow their example.
To do so, the recognition of the power and potential of kincentric knowing is key— for only then can we realize its absolute absence in our modern way of seeing the world.
And only then can we understand that this hole in our worldview is the result of a deep metaphysical mistake: an ancient error that has for too long thwarted all of our modern attempts at green.
NEXT: Chapter 6 | Nature’s Fallacy
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Russell Maier and Banayan Angway, a western philosopher and Igorot wisdom keeper, met ten years ago to protect the Chico River, from an inundation of plastic pollution. Ever since, their exploration of the critical modern relevance of indigenous ecological wisdom has steadily unfolded. They are now publishing their insights in a theory of green and grey entitled the Tractatus Ayyew. The Full Story
1This biological encounter, after hundreds of thousands of years of continental ecological separation, was to have a seismic impact on the biomes and civilizations of the Americas. Diseases spread like wildfire ahead of European explorers killing 90-95% of human populations. Only several years later, explorers encountering the decimated and weakened of villages and cities made gravely inaccurate assumptions about the sparse human habitation they observed. Their estimations of human population and ecological consequence were thus woefully low. Population estimates weren’t rectified til centuries later by anthropologist such as Henry Dobyns.
2Henry Dobyns estimated a 1492 population of the Americas ranging from 90.04-112.55 million inhabitants. Dobyns, Henry F., An Appraisal of Techniques with a New Hemispheric Estimate, (Current Anthropology, 1966) Issue 7, no. 4 : p395–416.
3Charles C. Man provides a comprehensive survey of his field and academic research which has revealed Mesoamerican and North American population centers exceeding 100,000 prior to the arrival of Europeans Charles C. Man, 1491, (Vintage Publishing, 2006).
4“With their technology the people could have captured every fish, but that would have made no sense. River groups agreed to remove traps periodically to allow enough fish upstream to spawn and keep the run healthy. Spaces between weir stakes were also calibrated to allow smaller fish to ascend unimpeded. The fishery was so well managed that when the settlers arrived it is estimated that returning salmon numbered in the millions.” Arthur C. Ballard, The Salmon Weir on Green River in Western Washington, (Davidson Journal of Anthropology, 1957) Vol. 3 No. 1, Summer, pp. 37-54.
5Captain Vancouver’s observations of the Pacific Northwest Coast. George Vancouver, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World, vol. 2 (London: G. G. and J. Robinson, Paternoster-Row; and J. Edwards, Pall-Mall, 1798), 220–28, 288–89. Chapter 4, 2nd of May 1792
6“Patches of forest cleared and tended by indigenous communities but lost to time still show more food bounty for humans and animals than surrounding forests. [These] 'forest gardens’ show how Native land stewardship can outdo nature”, Gabriel Popkin, Forest Gardens Show how native land stewardship can outdo nature, (National Geographic: 2021)
7 “Persistence in the fishery [of salmon over the last 7,500 years] is not due simply to a lack of perturbation, but rather indicates resilience in the ecological–human system” Campbell, S. K., and V. L. Butler, Archaeological Evidence for Resilience of Pacific Northwest Salmon Populations and the Socioecological System over the last ~7,500 years, (Ecology & Science, 2021) Vol. 15, No. 1, Art. 17
8A. Groesbeck AS, Rowell K, Lepofsky D, Salomon AK, Ancient Clam Gardens Increased Shellfish Production: Adaptive Strategies from the Past Can Inform Food Security Today. (PLoS ONE, 2014) 9(3): e91235.
9“They practiced agriculture here [in the Amazon] for centuries… but instead of destroying the soil, they improved it, and that is something we don’t know how to do today...in tropical soils” Charles C. Man, 1491, (Vintage Publishing, 2006). Chapter 8, quoting Bruno Glaser, Institute of Soil Science and Social Geography, University of Bayreuth, Germany.
10The prevalence of a vast disparity of social structures and political systems throughout the pre-Columbian Americas (and the rest of the world) is the main argument of archaeologist and anthropologist Graeber and Wengrow. See: David Graeber, David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, (Signal Publishing, 2021).
11Jack D. Forbes, Indigenous Americans: Spirituality and Ecos, (Dædalus, 2021).
12"According to the beliefs of the Cree of eastern James Bay, it is the animals, not people, who control the success of the hunt, a view that has parallels in many other indigenous groups... a cosmology in which humans are part of a 'community of beings' within the ecological system." Berkes, F., Sacred Ecology. Third edition. (New York: Routledge 2012) Chapter 5, p.105.
13We are applying Enrique Salmon’s term ‘kincentric’ to describes cultures that relate to the plants and animals with which they share an ecosystem as kin: “Indigenous cultural models of nature include humans as one aspect of the complexity of life.” Enrique Salmón, Kincentric Ecology: Indigenous Perceptions of the Human-Nature Relationship, Ecological Applications, (Ecological Society of America, Oct., 2000) Vol. 10, No. 5, pp. 1327-1332.
14“A North American 500 years ago could travel from the shores of the Great Lakes to the Lousiana bayous and still find settlements – speaking languages entirely unrelated to their own- with members of their own Bear, Elk or Beaver Clans who were obliged to host and feed them.” David Graeber, David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, (Signal Publishing, 2021) Chapter 4. Free People, the Origin of Cultures, p. 123
15Ecological cosmology is deeply embeded in the Banayan’s Kan’kan’nue language and so too other kincentric cultures. See: Matthew C. Bronson, Lessons in the Old Language, (Global Oneness Project, 2018).