Traditional Ecological Knowledge — and — Mr. Dust Storm Goes to Washington

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Cibecue Falls
(image from http://wildflowersofarizona.com)

My son studies history. I have to admit that I was surprised by his interest at first. I find it hard enough to be mindful of the present and honestly I have so many bad memories I don’t usually like to travel through the past. It is more a case of avoidance than denial (I hope) but if my son thinks history is a worthy path then I feel I ought to take a wander through his field once in awhile. I respect his intelligence.

I am in the middle of reading an extraordinary book (Wisdom Sits in Places) by the anthropologist Keith Basso. It describes – among other things – how the Dine people (Apaches to outsiders) approach history. 

In this paradigm, time seems to be of less importance than place. The key to understanding history is in knowing the names of places. Knowing the name for a place or relic is a surprisingly stable way to hold onto a history. Books can disintegrate, libraries can be sacked, monasteries razed and electronic technologies become obsolete but the land will always remain. Even when a landscape or relic changes if someone knows its true name then history can always be brought to life through imaginative thought.

I was astonished to read that the elders of Cibecue in Arizona were already well aware of the effects of climate change even in 1978 through their intimate knowledge of the land. Yet, 36 years later some supposedly well-educated men and women making decisions that affect the land and all life on this planet continue to be uncertain about even the reality of climate change. Argh. Let’s move on to thinking about consequences and solutions! Please.

Reaching the imagination of law makers isn’t easy. In the 1930s it required a massive dust storm. This dust storm journeyed all the way to Washington DC with a simple message: to get law makers to recognize a life and death struggle happening on their watch. Hugh Bennett, a soil scientist who was supposed to testify that day, opened all the windows and invited the dust to wander in. I like to think of those open windows as a virtual reality power point demonstration. When the dust arrived, it found a row of drinking glasses strategically lined up. First, it  sprinkled the water glasses with a fine silt. Then, it sifted through the room and even tapped the shoulders of the sleepy congressmen. Relentless, it eventually filled those water glasses with mud. Bennett got his land restoration funding. All it took was to slightly inconvenience a bunch of powerful men.

The climate scientist Ugo Bardi from Italy also uses local knowledge of the landscape and relics to illustrate the meaning of climate change. He found one example in the local ghiacciaia (ice house). Only hundred years ago, the ice house was easily filled with snow, so much snow that it supplied people with ice well into the summer. I am sure that walking into that structure today to see the enormity of the empty space would be a powerful demonstration of not only how radically and quickly the climate is changing but hopefully also act as an early warning system that we really do need to react with some alacrity ourselves.

I think as I wander around I will poke around for signs of change here in Austin. Hopefully, I will find some history in things. I wonder if we should require members of Congress to take a 10 minute outdoor recess each day. It could be educational for them to get outside. At the very least they might learn which way the wind blows.

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2 thoughts on “Traditional Ecological Knowledge — and — Mr. Dust Storm Goes to Washington

  1. I read about that hearing in Washington that got hit with a dust storm in an excellent book about the dust bowl called The Worst Hard Time. I wish someone could pull off a similar trick today, though it seems many people in power have become far more determined to deny reality.

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