In 1994, Paula and I traveled to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey to take a week long introductory course in “primitive” survival skills and nature awareness from Tom Brown Jr., “The Tracker”. Tom Brown was well known for his exceptional abilities as a wildlife and human tracker which he had learned, along with many other skills, as a boy and young man from Stalking Wolf, one of the few remaining elders of a band of Southern Lipan Apaches. The class we took covered skills from shelter building, to making tools from rocks, to starting fires with a bow drill, but for me the most eye-opening experiences were all related to learning a way to connect to the natural world without domination. I discovered through this introductory class and several subsequent courses that most of the ways I normally moved through my days both cut me off from nature and had me trampling roughshod over the earth.
Take the simple act of walking, one foot in front of the other. Brown taught us to “fox walk”, to walk slowly feeling the earth through our feet with every step, always perfectly balanced. He brought the lesson home in a later class when he took all his students for a long hike through the New Jersey Pine Barrens wearing blindfolds. We had to search out where to step next, using our feet as sensors and constantly aware of every nuance of the earth we traversed.I discovered that my usual “white man’s walk” was really a matter of lurching from one foot to the next, always out of balance, always assuming that a flattened earth was going to be there to support the next step and that there was no reason to be concerned about what that next step might be doing to the earth underfoot. My “white man’s walk” was perfect for concrete, completely insensitive to the earth, and left me disconnected, unable to feel the ever-changing earth underfoot. Brown told us that by fox walking we could move through the day in a dynamic meditation, a meditation you can live your life in, especially if we also learned to use “wide angle vision”.
Perhaps because the “white man’s walk” is so precarious (unbalanced), I discovered that Tom Brown’s suggestion to look up as we fox walked was good advice. When I observed myself at my usual walk I found that I spent a good deal of the time looking down and seeing the ground, not the living landscape that surrounded me. What’s more, I found myself very busy with my own thoughts when my gaze was directed downward. When I looked up, the internal dialogue blessedly shut up and I was able to engage my senses as I walked along, smelling the damp earth, hearing the bird calls, feeling the wind and seeing the flights of the crows and occasional hawk overhead.
Brown advised us to use what he called “wide angle vision” to take in the entire panorama available if we expanded our view to the full field of vision we were capable of. By not focusing on a particular object or small area we could engage the rods in our eyes and see things more like a deer does; instead of a very clear view of a constricted area or object we would be able to notice any movement occurring anywhere in our entire field of vision and have greatly enhanced night vision as well. Brown said with practice we’d be able to see the blink of a bat’s eye off in the trees (though I have to confess that this I have never achieved). Perhaps most important, the earth came to life with a dance of birds and squirrels moving through the trees, leaves carried by the wind. Instead of seeing an objectified landscape I could begin to feel and become part of the living earth.
By teaching us what amounted to an entirely different way to be in our bodies and minds – walking to feel the earth, fully engaging all of our senses, softening our eyes to view the full field of vision, and quieting the churning of our thinking mind – Brown was providing us with the tools to form a very different kind of relationship to nature than is commonly practiced in the modern world.
By teaching us what amounted to an entirely different way to be in our bodies and minds – walking to feel the earth, fully engaging all of our senses, softening our eyes to view the full field of vision, and quieting the churning of our thinking mind – Brown was providing us with the tools to form a very different kind of relationship to nature than is commonly practiced in the modern world. Although Tom Brown is of European American ancestry the skills he taught came through Brown from his teacher, Stalking Wolf, an Apache who was raised among a band that had evaded capture by American or Mexican forces and lived free in the old ways, shunning any of the technologies of the invaders. Many of the ways of being I learned from Tom Brown must be common to many (perhaps all) gathering/hunting peoples.
It isn’t difficult to intuitively grasp how the quiet, well-balanced fox walk, highly tuned senses, quiet mind, and awareness of the natural world would be essential for people hunting wild game, avoiding predators and needing to know and be able to find dozens, perhaps hundreds, of plants that provide shelter, food, medicines and many of the tools needed for daily life. If you are someone interested in academic documentation (as I am also), Carolyn Merchant’s book, Ecological Revolutions, fully documents the practice of sensory immersion and participatory consciousness in gathering/hunting (and also horticultural) tribes in New England and contrasts Native American consciousness to that of the colonists and, later, the capitalists who took over New England.
Among the many changes that occurred in New England as power and occupation shifted from Native American tribes to colonial farmers and then to market-based capitalism was a great change in the relationship between humans and nature. As Merchant explains:
“Indians constructed nature as a society of equal face to face subjects. Animals, plants, and rocks were alive and could be communicated with directly. For eighteenth-century New England farmers, nature was an animate mother carrying out God’s dictates in the mundane world. Plants and even rocks grew on the earth’s surface, but were created for human use and could be harvested as commodities. Nineteenth-century scientists, industrialists, and market farmers reconstructed them as scientific objects to be analyzed in the laboratory and as natural resources to be extracted for profit.” (p. 23 Ecological Revolutions)
This shift from the Native American relationship between humans and nature as “equal face to face subjects” to the colonial farmers view of nature as created for human use and then the capitalists’ complete objectification of nature is what I consider a shift from power with relations to nature (power sharing between equals) to power over nature (domination).
The relationship of humans to nature in globalized patriarchy is clearly a power over relationship; we bulldoze the land to transform it into cities and roads, fish out and trash the ocean, pollute the earth, burn fossil fuels causing the climate to breakdown, and are bringing about the Sixth extinction of life on earth. When we respond to the environmental crises we cause, our solutions are almost always based in power over, often under the guise of “managing” the earth. In 2008, 28 scientists from three continents met in Sweden and identified nine planetary ecological boundaries they believed we either had already violated (climate change, nitrogen pollution, biodiversity loss) or were in danger of violating with unknown, but likely drastic repercussions (see The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans by Mark Lynas). Obviously these scientists were concerned with preserving the earth, but their idea was to keep humanity from not crossing these potentially cataclysmic boundaries, not to end human abuse of nature and truly restore the earth. Their hope was that humans could manage the earth to stay on the right side of these deadly boundaries.
As the outcomes of our power over relationship to the earth become more and more deadly, the power over based “solutions” proposed become more deadly also – and preposterous. The plans of mad scientists to geo-engineer the planet’s climate by various means such as blasting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to create sulphur-based aerosols to block sunlight and cool the earth (at a cost of $50 billion annually) are now being taken seriously. We have become so used to living with top down structures and the managers who administer these hierarchies that we think we have become the “God species” capable of managing the complexities of the entire earth. Yet, we can’t even manage the traffic in our cities!
The best model available for re-establishing power with nature comes from the people who for millennia maintained relations based in power with nature, the gathering/hunting bands.
The best model available for re-establishing power with nature comes from the people who for millennia maintained relations based in power with nature, the gathering/hunting bands. Some of these bands survive today, although the pressures placed on them by globalized capitalist patriarchy are extreme – theft of land, forced removals, forced enculturation, and exposure to the diseases of modern societies still continue (See Survival International for more info). Information on the lifeways of hundreds of gathering and hunting peoples are available in the historical and anthropological records and can help us to relearn power with relations to nature and each other. The gatherer/hunter way of life was practiced by all of our ancestors for thousands and thousands of years, far longer than human “civilization” has existed. As “equal face to face subjects” with nature, gatherer/hunters did not view themselves as above nature or as separate from nature. As equals, the animals were important models for gatherer/hunters. In North America, for example, the fox could show people how to walk, the heron how to stalk. Gatherer/hunters survived by knowing nature very well and by fitting in with how nature functions, not by attempting to force nature to their will. For example, as Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has explained about the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa:
“But unlike agricultural and industrial peoples who want to influence the natural world, the hunter-gatherers wanted to join with it and use its powers. This, too, is one of the most profound differences between these hunter-gatherers and the rest of us. During a drought, we might visit a place of worship to pray earnestly for rain, trying to persuade our deity to alter the environment and make it rain. Not the Ju/wasi. They would feel the change in the air, notice the behavior of the clouds that built in the western sky, know that rain was coming, and make themselves ready to join with the oncoming storm and participate in its power. There was a rain song, for instance, and with it, a rain dance. But the dance was not meant to bring rain or make rain. No, it was used to gather the power of the oncoming rain and use that power to help people. (p. 267, The Old Way: A Story of the First People, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas)
Our best hope for restoring the earth and restoring human societies is to practice power with nature and power with relations among humans. We can, through this practice, draw back from the precipice we stand on and re-learn how humans can fit in with nature’s way of doing things. One important way of ensuring survival by fitting in with the natural world is through the practice of energy conservation, a way of life common to all the other animals of the earth, as I discuss in Part 3 of my blog “Power With Nature: Low Energy, Low Consumption, The Good Life”.