Restoring the Sponge on the North Coast —A History of Dehydration
Kym Kemp / Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 @ 7:42 a.m. / Environment
Trees such as this may have stood for a thousand years or more prior to Euro-American incursion. (Photo courtesy of the Humboldt Historical Society)
The following piece is a guest article by Kyle Keegan. It was first printed in the Trees Foundation Newsletter. It is reprinted here with their kind permission. In a society that sees the effects of diminishing streams and increasingly damaging wildfires, the more knowledge we can gain about the systems that affect them, the more we can act to prevent some of the damage.
A Crisis of Culture
“The march of improvement is westward, its destiny `to rule the spacious world from clime to clime’ cannot be gainsayed; while on the shores of the Pacific the same mighty power `shall every field explore, Trace every wave and culture every shore.’”
Alta California, 1850
In 1850, the settlement of Eureka, which was sparked by the Gold Rush, signaled the beginning of the most radical change experienced by the land of the North Coast since the last Ice Age. The waves of environmental destruction that followed the arrival of the first early settlers (which still continue to this day) were merely symptoms of a much deeper cultural malady. These invaders imposed an entirely new set of ideologies, belief systems, and cultural values on the surrounding ecosystems and its native inhabitants.
The indigenous land-based cultures that had persisted on the North Coast for millennia prior to Euro-American incursion can be described as “kincentric,” a term coined by Native American ethnobotanist and restorationist, Dennis Marinez. In other words, native cultures of this region and beyond created belief systems or cosmologies that held humans as being merely a part of nature; where the elements that comprised the landscape (water, trees, animals, etc) were seen as kin. Leaf Hillman, who writes of the Karuk’s mythic cosmology, expresses this mindset clearly:
“All of us at the beginning of time were spirits. At the transformation, some spirit people become human beings and some become rocks and fish and trees and water and air and mosquitos and all those other things. That right there is the most fundamental principle that everything springs from, because that establishes our relationship to this place. We began at the same place that everything else did. We were all spirit people, all equal…we were all related because we were all spirit people. The transformation just meant that people took on different forms, different life forms, so that means that if the spirit becomes a tree or a rock, that’s a life form.”
It was this “kincentric” view of the land being replaced by an “anthropocentric”, or human-centered view of the land that set into motion the ecological devastation that followed. Anthropocentric belief systems are based on dominion and the control of Nature, and are centered on the rights and freedoms of the individual.
Numerous first-hand accounts written by early settlers during the Gold Rush era made three clear assumptions about California’s natural environment. Kat Anderson in her book, Tending the Wild writes:
“First, they assumed that its diverse natural resources lay idle, untapped, and uncultivated by lazy Indians and Californios. Second, they thought Nature’s abundance and diversity were going to waste, and they had a God-given right to use them for profit. Third, they viewed the resources of California as inexhaustible.” It was this endless frontier delusion, coupled by a belief system that justified the commodification of Nature for profit, that would set the stage for the first wave of attacks on North Coast ecosystems and its native peoples.
The Replacement of Localized Economies with Export-dependent Economies
Also of importance in understanding the sequence of events that have brought us to this current point in history, is the acknowledgement of what once were highly localized, and diverse land-based economic systems being replaced by—export-dependent, resource extractive economic systems.
The Indigenous people’s land-based economy was kept in balance by cultural ideologies and mysticism that practiced and upheld the virtues of self-regulation and the willingness to accept feedback from the surrounding environment. These ideologies were passed on and strengthened through stories and songs and became a requisite value to instill in each succeeding generation in order to assure their continued quality of life and survival. The resilient localized economies were based on: maintenance and support of biodiversity, regional self-reliance, personal and communal responsibility/restraint, appropriate technologies, and by creating cultures of place.
With the early beginnings of globalization and the industrial revolution came the erosion of localized economies, and with it followed the destruction of the land in which both the local economy and its people relied upon. Export-oriented, resource-based economies are incompatible with ecological soundness; since unlike Nature, energy (nutrients, carbon, minerals, life) flow linearly away from existing communities. The export-oriented economy relies upon the continuous extraction of local resources while becoming dependent and vulnerable to the fluctuations of global or domestic markets. By embracing this system, a community and culture relinquish control of their destiny.
The export economy exists only through perpetuating that similar unaccountable systems be carried out in far off lands; since most resources needed locally must be imported to the now dependent region. In th