Alienation from nature has contributed to environmental problems in today’s world. Until fairly recently in human history, our daily lives have been intertwined with living things. Now we are increasingly suffering from an extinction of experience. David Suzuki says, “we must find a new story”, and Thomas Berry writes “we are in between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective”. Observation today can bring much needed respect, and if we are lucky, we will find that animals, birds and places intercept us in our wanderings, helping to bring forth distinctive and personal stories of the land.
Ecological or land literacy is not just what we know, but how we respond, how we let the natural world shape us and our cultures. An acquisition process like this inevitably leads to greater diversity of cultures, languages and stories about land and nature because close observation of one set of local circumstances leads to divergence from those responding to another set of conditions. This is a critical element of knowledge for sustainability – its local legitimacy, its creation and recreation, its adaptiveness, and its embeddedness in social processes. This knowledge ties people to the land, and to one another. So when landscape is lost, it is not just a habitat or feature. It is the meaning for some people’s lives. Such knowledges are often embedded in cultural and religious systems, giving them strong legitimacy. This knowledge takes time to build, though it can be rapidly lost. Writing of American geographies, Barry Lopez says, “to come to a specific understanding… requires not only time but a kind of local expertise, an intimacy with a place few of us ever develop. There is no way round the former requirement: if you want to know you must take the time. It is not in books”.
Such expertise remains a central part of the lives of people living close to the land. For 300,000 generations, hunter-gatherers with predominantly oral cultures survived natural selection despite the greater brawn and speed of other predators. Transmission of knowledge and capacity to learn new things helped hominids survive. Remnants of these contexts remain amongst the 600 hunter-gatherer-cultivator peoples across the world, living today mostly in landscapes on the edges of agricultural heartlands. In oral cultures, the values of stories and relations with the land are important.
These tell us something about what ecological literacy really is. It is not just knowing the names of things and their functional uses (or values), but placing ourselves as humans as an intimate part of an animate, information-rich, observant and talkative world. They do not see the world as inanimate, with natural resources to be exploited, gathered, shot and eaten. These things are done, but only in certain ways, and the world is respected and treated with care. Indigenous people believe that if they cause harm to nature, then they will themselves come to harm, whether it is speaking without respect of certain animals, or whether it is over-fishing a lake or hunting out a certain type of animal. This is something that the industrialised world seems to have lost, and perhaps needs to remember. We have come to believe that harm to the world is inconsequential, or at the very least if something is lost then it can be replaced. We no longer think the consequences will come back to haunt us. When we stop listening and watching with care, our literacy about the world declines, and the landscapes no longer speak to us.
For the Apache, says Keith Basso, “wisdom sits in places”, and landscapes are never culturally vacant. Animals, places and whole landscapes have meanings, sometimes sobering, sometimes uplifting, but always with a moral dimension. It is not just about knowing, it is about knowing what to do. Places and things “acquire the stamp of human events”, or memorable times, and people wrap these into stories that can be myths, historical tales, sagas or just gossip. Every story begins and ends with the phrase, “it happened at…”, and this anchoring of narrative to places means mention of a place evokes a particular story, which in turn carries a moral standard, and implication for certain types of social relations.
i) An effective story-teller seems to open up thinking, letting people travel in their minds.
ii) Land stories are never definitive: they vary over time and are regularly changed in detail.
iii) Places look after people, and so must be treated with respect: places do not lie, but if younger generations do not know the places or the stories, then they will miss something vital about the earth.
The danger is that disconnections could then grow again.