Sunday, October 27, 2019

Kyle Powys Whyte on Wilderness

I saw Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte present at the University of Waterloo on Thursday night on climate change, traditional knowledge, and environmental justice. It was similar to what he said in this video, but longer and with a Q&A at the end. It was eye-opening in the worst way - in a necessary way. Now that I know, either I have to change or else accept my ongoing complicity. (Or find a new form of rationalization to knock it all out of the park, so to speak.)

I'll preface with an admission of my absolute love of wilderness areas just north of me. I have deeply loved every moment spent in Algonquin Park, Killarney, Temagami, and the islands of Georgian Bay. The landscapes are breathtaking and the early morning animal sightings are well worth the swarms of mosquitos and black flies. I can breathe there and think and feel in a way that is lost to me in my city focused on growing high rises.

Whyte had us consider this very philosophical question (paraphrased): To what extent can people have an experience of intrinsic value - a love of something as a good in itself, something that has no other purpose but to be enjoyed for itself - on land that has been genocidally constructed? Is it possible to have a sense of spiritual enjoyment as a byproduct of a place that has been gained through bloodshed and, well, basic terrorism? And, I would add, if it is possible, then what does that say about us?? Perhaps the more-to-the-point question, the essential question, is,

Is it possible for a good person to profoundly enjoy ill-gotten gains? 

My first thought is, from a slightly defensive stance, can a person be good but also forgetful? Or are we, the settlers, just living in that double-consciousness, that Freudian splitting, of rage for what our ancestors did to the original inhabitants of this land mixed with a convenient obliviousness as we hand over park fees and check the weather before getting on the water. Or are we living a full-on lie of mere clicktivism, rationalized with all the many reasons we couldn't possibly physically join the line at any of the fights for land rights going on in our country right now - fights that could potentially save the land and our climate from further environmental destruction? But that's not the answer either. We'd just be in the way there, too.

At the end, an audience member asked, after all the talk of park land, can we, the settlers, ever have any authentic spiritual experiences anywhere on this continent? So, can we??

Much of the land we use for "parks" are still contested. Whyte says we enjoy them only by rationalizing that they're ours to enjoy with three main arguments he dismantles as follows as far as I heard them, but these responses are likely mixed with my thoughts at the time:
1. Not all parks were taken through colonialism, BUT many are still contested today. How many people using the parks are certain of that area's history?
2. Parks are more inclusive now, so anyone can freely visit them, BUT there's a difference between visiting a park and living in the land.
3. Colonial discussions are unproductive. Parks are useful to the environment, providing sanctuary for trees that absorb our carbon emissions, BUT is that sufficient reasoning to override the genocidal takeover of the area?

A fourth rationalization that came to mind is, it's okay so long as we acknowledge the land. If we say a little territorial thing every morning, it gives us a free pass to get on with things. This is one of my concerns with land acknowledgements. It can be a bit like a thief confessing in church, being absolved of his sins, then immediately going out to spend the money he stole.

Another way he framed the discussion is, "To what extent can we enjoy something without consent?" Can we value something without caring about the consent to enjoy it? Can anything spiritual or profound occur when we're unclear about the consent status. To take his analogy further, mixed in with my own words:

We are, in fact, using the land instead of connecting with the land 
any time the question of consent is awry or in any way ignored. 

A fifth rationalization he didn't mention is deep in the colonialist mindset: might makes right. The land is all legit spoils of war. We're stronger, so we get more stuff. It's our land so long as we run things here. That's still a thing even if we don't want to believe it. It affects everything.

He spoke to this idea, in a way, in a heartbreaking story of the creation of the Tongariro National Park in New Zealand. There are mountains that are sacred to the Indigenous there. When colonialists came, the Indigenous realized that the only way to keep this most precious area safe, was to give it as a gift to the colonialists, who then took a big chunk of land around it as well. The Indigenous put up a sign asking that people not go up and down the mountains because of their sacred nature, but people largely ignore it. And that's the thing right there: the Indigenous don't want to tell other people how to live. Policing people is not their way. They hope that people will be respectful of a clear and meaningful request. Their sacred areas are overtaken because we, the settlers, are not living respectfully of anything.

Whyte allows that land acknowledgements is a good first step, one part of a practice of learning the degree of consent in that space. But another part is to learn the degree of self-determination status people have in an area. He says that the next question we must ask ourselves is,
"Can all people choose their own future here, on this land, or are they limited by ongoing colonialist practices?" 
I can't imagine how to resolve this one. He didn't speak further to it at length, but how do we reconcile taking over land, putting up borders and fences to stop natural seasonal migrations, shuttling people off to the worst areas, stealing and abusing their children to put an end to their way of life, then trying to force integration into our way of life but without anywhere near the same quality of education or health care or housing. When I think of it in this light, I think the settlers all need to leave, except we have nowhere to go, and it's too late anyway. The damage is done. As a teacher, my focus is in quality of education, but the economy of scale makes it difficult to plunk down a fully functioning high-school to serve the many very remote villages north of Thunder Bay. This is the complex journey we've provoked. The question I have, then, is, "What future do they hope to choose - and how much of that choice is already messed up by colonialist action to the extent that they can't even imagine thinking the future they might have chosen at one time?" It's a conundrum.

Furthermore, Whyte explained that our wilderness isn't remotely "wild" as we understand it. It has been carefully managed by Indigenous Peoples for thousands of years. But instead of erecting fences and logging acres of forest, taking the spoils of the resource-rich areas for short-term gains, they've walked and observed the same areas that were walked and observed by parents and grandparents with a thorough understanding of the intricacies and interdependence of the entire ecosystem. Forest management might look like moving a rock. We don't notice it because we don't understand long-term - like, forever long-term - management of land. They see all the ways to live and eat in the forest. We do landscape architecture.

We see parks as a place to vacation rather than part of our home. That's a mindset, again, of using rather than connecting with. I should clarify that that's how I understand his message. He didn't use those terms. I automatically started adding Taoist ideas to his words because of the similarities I can't not see between them.

He said a lot more than just this, but this is the part I needed to hear. It was appropriately and fruitfully upsetting.

1 comment:

The Mound of Sound said...

How much land is there that has not been taken at some point in human history from someone else? Isn't that one of our favourite pastimes since we figured out how to make clubs and sharpened sticks with fire-hardened points? Perhaps conquest is part of human genetic makeup.

"Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in 2007, "quantitative body counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with ax marks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own." According to Pinker, the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes "got it right" when he called pre-state life a 'war of all against all.'"

Similar wars swept Asia and Asia Pacific. Africa has a modern history of genocidal tribal conflicts. The world has a rich history of wars of extermination and exclusion, ethnic cleansing.