OVER THE COURSE OF HUMAN HISTORY, certain nations have excelled far more than others at the art of ecological integration. In contrast to the steady ecological depletion characteristic of our modern moment, these cultures steadily enriched the ecological cycles of which they were a part— leaving them more diverse, verdant and vibrant with each spin. Today, as we strive to find our green way forward, it is crucial to recognize that such contributive cultures have already walked the path and laid the way. Only through this recognition can we begin to learn from them. In particular, how they themselves learned— a way of learning that was only possible through their view of plants and animals as kin, elders and, most notably, as teachers.
While countless great greening societies have thrived around the planet (and many quietly continue to do so), the example set by than those that first settled the continents of the Americas, is particularly enlightenening.
Five hundred years ago, prior to the arrival of germs, animals and humans from Europe, the Americas were home to hundreds of thriving, independent and prosperous nations.³² Contemporary estimates of the continents' populations at the time range from ten million to over one hundred million inhabitants,³³ with some city populations estimated to have exceeded one hundred thousand inhabitants.³⁴
Many of these nations were (and are) centuries old, with ancestries going back to the last ice age. Over the millennia they developed sophisticated hunting, fishing and cropping technologies. Many had mastered the use of fire to to clear the undergrowth of huge swaths of land. Others had developed systems of aquaculture and agriculture that encompassed entire forests, lakes and mountainsides.
Like all concentrations of humanity, it was inevitable that they would have an ecological impact corresponding their size and skills. Indeed, given the large populations and the potent technologies of the time, these nations were more than capable of over-hunting, overfishing,, over-gathering³⁵ and depleting the carrying capacities of the ecosystems of which they depended.
However, over-consumption and exploitation did not occur. Nor the depletion of the continent’s ecosystems.
In fact, just the opposite.
In 1492, the first Europeans to arrive recorded their observations of the land and people of the continents. They were shocked 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 lacked the conceptual ability to truly see what they were seeing. Seeped in a culture in which food largely came from single species crops and in which most animals were domesticated, the explorers were unable to comprehend that such bio-diverse abundance could be human facilitated. Consequently, they mistook the vibrant ecosystems they encountered to be the 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 in 1792 ³⁶
We know now that such colonial conclusions were gravely mistaken. Modern research has confirmed what the descendants of these nations have known all along. The thriving ecosystems of the time were not the result of a lack of human participation, but rather, the consequence of it.
Today, contemporary researchers are seeing past past an edifice of scientific misconception all built upon the false assumption that rich ecosystems are somehow isolated from human integration. Looking closely at the areas where these nations thrived; a flood of research is uncovering an underlying pattern. Where these first nations foraged, forests are today demonstrably more abundant and biodiverse than adjacent un-managed ecosystems.³⁷ Where they fished, today the rivers are more abundant than others.³⁸ Where they sourced their shellfish and clams, today the shoals host more species than adjacent un-cultivated ecosystems.³⁹ Poignantly, areas of thick Amazon rain-forest, long seen as the paragon of 'wilderness' and of 'nature', are now being shown to have been the site of pre-Columbian agriculture, gardens, towns and cities. Their places of living, ways of cultivating and cropping quite literally laid the ground for the verdent, vital and diverse Amazon ecosystems of today.⁴⁰
Significantly, while these first nations shared this ecological tendency, their various societal structures were immensely varied. While some were patriarchal, others were matriarchal; while some were kingdoms, others were confederacies; while some sought peace, others sought war.⁴¹ However, despite this social and political diversity, beneath lay a relatively consistent view of themselves and the world— especially as compared to the world view of the arriving Europeans.⁴²
Indeed, in much the same way that the disparate nations of Europe shared a continental and cultural provenance in the ideas of ancient Rome and Greece, so too did the nations of the Americas in their ice age ancestors. Just as the ideas of ancient Greece and Rome gave nations as disparate as England and Spain a common underlying view of ‘Man' and of 'Nature’, so too did the first nations of the Americas have their own underlying view that they largely shared. However, rather than a dichotomy of 'the hand of man' and of 'bounteous nature' that characterized the view of the colononists (we'll examine this in greater depth in the next chapter), across the Americas, nations, clans and tribes shared an underlying ontology in which humans, animals and plants were members of a common family. For these nations, all beings were integral parts of the living land— a community of kindred relations sharing ancestry and origins, ecosytems and cycles.⁴³
From this world view, animals and plants were respected as kin: brothers or sisters, grandmothers or grandfathers.
This kincentric view of the world, determined how these cultures learned.⁴⁴ Just as they would learn from a distinguished human elder, these cultures paid special attention to those particularly distinguished organisms around them: beings that in elegance and ingenuity had magnificently mastered their ecological integration.
From a scientific perspective, we can today appreciate the depth of their world view.
Indeed, just as brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles are all parts of a family because of their shared ancestry, so too are plants, insects, animals, and humans parts of an ecological family connected by lineages that reach far back into time. Just as a son, parent and grandparent are subsets of a family system so too are humans, plants and animals all subset-systems of the ecosystems of which they are part. It then follows that, as younger and elder family members differ in their accumulation of wisdom, so too do members of an ecosystem vary in their mastery of ecological integration.
From this perspective, plants and animals— having had millions of years to integrate into a particular ecosystem— embody invaluable lessons and example for humans to follow.
In fact, a salmon and an eagle, an oyster and a pine tree, all embody the culmination of millions of years of behavioral and evolutionary trial and error— the result of innumerable interactions, adaptations and optimizations to integrate within a particular environment. In comparison, the first humans to settle in the Americas were newcomers— ecological younglings who had much to learn from their resident elders.
And so they did.
As early first nations observed the way in which the lives of plants and animals synced with the cycles of an ecosystem, tendencies were noted, characters observed and virtues discerned. From the cooperation of crows to the diligence of a deer; from the strength of a bear to the endurance of an elk, stories about a particular creature and the virtue that it most illuminated were passed down over the generations.
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— a means of formaly declaring family with a particular animal.⁴⁵ Through stories and myths, they were inspired by the animal's ecological example to lay out their clan’s principal values and ethics.
Grounded in these values and virtues, these societies were able to weave ecological mastery into the fabric of their language, grammar and values.⁴⁶ In so doing they were able to fast forward their ecological awareness, integration and collective well-being. In this way, their cultures came to sync with the cycles of the creatures they admired most— the migration of geese, the return of salmon, the coming and going of whales and elk— and precisely because these life-cycles continued to thrive, so could they continue to learn from them.
In a virtuous spiral of ever deeper awareness, such cultures steadily enhanced the harmony of the ecosystems of which they were part. 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 these cyclocentric nations⁴⁷, in turn we can learn from them and follow their example.
To do so, the ontological recognition our kinship with all Earth's creatures is key.
Only then can we realize the absence of this axiom in our modern view of the world.
And only then can we understand that this oversight is the result of an even deeper metaphysical mistake: an ancient error that has for too long destined all our endeavours and enterprises to deplete and degrade.