Let Us Learn Again to Nourish a Gifted Subsistence
I am no newcomer to the question of how it is we might sustain ourselves. A half century ago I was embedded in what these days we would call a subsistence life. By age nine I knew how to grow a garden, draw water from a well, split firewood, milk cows and churn butter, chase deer and elk to elder hunters in our family, build simple shelter, and offer up daily prayers for the blessings of the land, its creatures, and our human neighbors. Those prayers, I now realize, were the spiritual bonding agent that held our life-way together. We bowed our heads over the big oak table and reminded ourselves we could earn a living only through the gifts of others. The water and food that filled our bellies came from nature. Muscle and mind power to transform nature’s gifts to a full pantry and a sheltering hearth also were gifts of the Creator whose spark of generative love allowed us to kindle gratitude for the companionship of our extended family and our neighbors up and down the valley. All those gifts were regularly acknowledged through reciprocal acts towards the land, the people, and the other plants and animals who resided in that greater community of all beings. It was, to be sure, a gifted subsistence.
When I share stories about that life with my students, I receive these contrasting responses: it is a quaint and outmoded way of life to which we never can return; it is a hopeful way to do life, if only we could.
My purpose in this personal essay is to share three simple ways we can invite ourselves to active practice of a gifted subsistence: first, by acknowledging gifts we receive from the natural world, second, through careful use of those gifts and the processes that produce them, and, third, by giving back to the natural world in ways that conserve and restore it as the generative source of all life. Gifted subsistence as a way of learning is thus a call to humble living and compassionate care for the world. That obligates us in sinew and soul to a life way of relationships, resourcefulness, and reciprocity. Think of those as the new/old three Rs of what could be called higher purpose education.
I wish to emphasize that my approach to more sustainable communities through gifted subsistence is a deeply personal and necessarily psychological journey. I understand efforts at the macro-scale of sustainability such as fierce attention to enhanced energy efficiencies and development of alternative energy sources to combat planetary effects of human-caused carbon emissions, the ubiquity of materials science and bio-technology, focus on efficient designs of our built and transportation infrastructure, remediation of degraded natural environments, and ever more interlinking of the world’s economies. However, these efforts require the need to push forward with technologies and ever grander feats of engineering from the molecular to the global scale to curb the impacts of our human ways. People who believe in that scenario—the mainstream view—need not worry that my small-scale, grassroots, person-to-person or person-to-woodpecker approach to sustenance will block their solution path. Rather, what I share here is less about mitigating external effects of our cumulatively harmful human actions and more about nourishing helpful shifts in our internal “landscape.” It is an inward-outward solution path that is less travelled but no less important in nudging our species toward more sustainable ways.
Speaking of our species, some may be surprised to know that I am optimistic about our kind’s future as keepers of the Earth because of our deep capacity in that role. It’s just that many of us are out of practice. The great human ecologist, Paul Shepard, wrote about our legacy in a 1996 book, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, published posthumously by his wife, Florence. She saw the book as a way to honor Paul and “a life lived with great creativity, joy, and love—a life committed to a vision of how we can become more fully human.” Paul Shepard distills his great scholarly vision and cumulative life experience with the land into a body of “cultural recovery” themes. He was convinced humans are imbued with a deep capacity for relationship with others of our kind and other-than-human beings because “we are a successful species in our own right that lived in harmony with the earth and its other forms for millions of years—a species that has not changed intrinsically.” He went on to say that that genome “is our Pleistocene treasure that transcends short-term and short-sighted goals. Possibilities lie within us. Our culture must express what the past calls forth in us but leaves us the freedom to shape.”
He offers seventy-plus characteristics of our Pleistocene legacy, including neotenous aspects such as how children need to have richly textured, natural play space to nourish children’s internal prediction of the living world; young people need to participate in an ecotopic economy keyed to place; and the developing child requires continuing presence of extended family or dense social structure. Our social lives require prestige based on demonstrated integrity, access to a fire circle or council of ten adults, the support of dynamic, emergent, and dispersed leadership, and the experience of decentralized power. Finally, among other aspects helpful for leading a 21st century adaptive version of Pleistocene life, Shepard spoke to the necessary centrality of narrative, routine recall and story, the importance of sensual (combined with concrete) science, use of only organic medicine, attention to listening to the sound environment as voice, immediate access to the wild, and—here it comes—formal recognition of a gifted subsistence.
Tapping that ancestral legacy of relationship with our home planet engages us in a process of cultural recovery, as Shepard put it. It also invites us what Chellis Glendinning called personal recovery from “western civilization.” For any reader who bristles at the suggestion that we need to recover from our culture ways, try this: Ask yourself who you believe is responsible for your well-being. Is it the government? Party leaders? Cable television talk jocks? You and you alone? The easy answer is that each of us is responsible for our well-being, but we do not exist in this world alone. As Shepard suggests, among our first human tools was cooperation. Sappy as this might sound, we are in this together and the “we” includes the community of all beings.
But before we rush on to solutions, perhaps we ought to pause and acknowledge that we are in a tough situation that many are suffering. Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown invite us to properly grieve for ourselves and others and the pain that is in the world even as does the medicine of healing ways. We can deny, we can repress, but “repression is not a local anesthetic” they write, and when we look away from suffering we also are likely to look away from positive connection and loving relationships, a form of psychic numbing. Repression, too, can trigger self alienation, displacement through consumption of goods, sex, entertainment, and mind-numbing substances, blame and scape-goating, political passivity, and an overriding sense of powerlessness. The remedy? A not-so-easy but effective process of “deep participation in the world’s self-healing” they write, through what Macy and Young Brown call the work that reconnects. The goals of that work are to “help people uncover and experience their innate connections with each other and with the systemic, self-healing powers in the web of life, so that they may be enlivened and motivated to play their part in creating a sustainable civilization.”
This is where those three Rs enter the picture. My experience has taught me that if we find ways to weave ourselves back into relationship with the living world of our human and other-than-human neighbors we will be poised to be more resourceful and reciprocal in our day to day actions. My lifework has been focused on ways to invite people into modest and regular affiliation with local nature—often literally in their own back yards. And where I once thought that restoring relationship with nature and with other humans involved separate processes, I now believe those two are intertwining strands of our human genome. This is backed by research by Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby that shows empirically that “the human mind contains functionally specialized, content-dependent cognitive adaptations for social exchange.” In other words, our brains evolved with the natural world as our constant partner, providing both sustenance and presenting frequent peril. Only through cooperative behavior were early humans able to minimize risks and optimize benefits. Paul Shepard again enlightens us in this regard:
Having learned from the animals and the nonliving surround, our primal
forebears emerged from the Pleistocene wary, able to discern advantage
in chance encounters as well as skilled in planning ahead, keenly sensitive
to the environment and its signs, communicative, cooperative, and sharing.
Before I go into greater detail of ways I have been working to invite awareness of a more gifted subsistence through helping people rediscover their relationship with local nature, here are two of my landmarks: First, my continuing exploration as a sustainability educator urges me to labor joyfully in my own backyard to, for example, create small pollinator and vegetable patches that provide some food for us and also enrich the local native habitat, thus providing more sustenance for wildlife whose presence in turn enriches my own daily life. Second, I humbly share my own experiences with others—there’s that cooperation effect. The ever-shifting cast of participants includes neighbors, family members, and students. The hope is that we inspire and support one another so that we are encouraged to keep making modest efforts at home to increase our contact with local nature and each other.
It is worth mentioning here that our work on behalf of a gifted subsistence offers the prospect of more immediate benefits such as greater interdependence and self-reliance within our communities. Added to this is the value of being better able to provide for ourselves with local foods and crafts and the important psychological benefits of sense of belonging to a place and being woven into a social group and the sense of confidence that comes with such relationships. And of course as our practice deepens and extends to others within and beyond the community, longer term benefits begin to accrue as local and regional businesses, schools, and other entities are more regionally reliant and resilient and thus less endangered when national or global scale systems go awry.
Within my sphere as an educator-participant in gifted subsistence I continue to experiment with this process across two courses I created called Children and Nature and Explorations in Sustainable Community Development. I began to offer these courses to our students four years ago. Students offer active feedback on how it goes for them and share helpful suggestions for supporting their process and their own work in their communities. The courses thus mimic nature in that they are ever-growing, ever-changing.
The genesis of the courses was a lament heard among some of our students in the community-based undergraduate program at Prescott College relative to a college learning objective to develop ecological literacy. Too often, this was viewed as something akin to mathematics in which the student would need to be responsible for understanding such tough scientific concepts as ecosystem dynamics, biological diversity, and strategies for conserving endangered species. When framed that way, it is little wonder that students often remarked that such knowledge was outside their experience and capability. I found this ironic and sad because each of us possesses a remarkable capacity to affiliate with the natural world, called biophilia by E.O. Wilson. This affinity is a gift of our ancestor’s long direct experience in responding to the ways nature both provides for us and can challenge us.
A helpful insight came to me one day as I read extensively about psychologist Albert Bandura’s practice of what he calls guided enactive mastery (GEM). In its most elemental expression, GEM recognizes that sometimes a person must be helped to realize she or he has the capacity to make important and healthful change. Bandura found over decades of work with people who often were fighting some form of addiction that they failed to acknowledge that they had it inside them to overcome the addiction. Equally worrisome was the fact that often the people did not have a clear model of the desired healthful behavior (a detailed vision of life beyond addiction) nor close access to people who were living models of that healthy behavior, nor others with whom the addicted person might make the difficult journey from addiction to recovery.
That got me to thinking: many of my students expressed disbelief that they had much in the way of foundational competence in relating to or understanding the natural world. As troubling, they had very little direct experience of nature itself or with people who do. Finally, though many were aware in a general way of some of the “inconvenient truths” about humanity and the planet, as Al Gore spoke of them, those problems seemed monstrous in scale. Apart from driving fewer miles or installing compact fluorescent bulbs or tossing aluminum soda cans into recycling bins, my students reported feeling helpless to regard themselves as an integral and positive part of the very natural world we were asking them to understand. And since many of these students were preparing to be classroom teachers, I shuddered to imagine what might happen when they instructed their own students in matters related to the human relationship with nature.
So, I drew on my experience as a one-time subsistence farmer, as a backyard naturalist, and as co-publisher of a small natural history press to re-frame my whole approach to “environmental education” as a taproot of growing toward a gifted subsistence. The courses became an adaptation of Bandura’s step-by-step GEM process. Briefly, this process assists people in acknowledging their own latent capacity to achieve some goal, to acquire a clear sense of what the goal is, to create a map of the steps along the journey to the goal, to have companions on that journey, to have ‘rest stops’ when challenges can be addressed and incremental progress noted, and, finally, to celebrate accomplishments and record those gains in ways that can be taught to the next generations. For our purposes here, then, the first business was to help people uncover (because for many this is latent and not consciously acknowledged) their universal human capacity to affiliate with the natural world. I knew from experience that most people have had some experiences with nature in their childhood, often through family camping adventures. So I invited students to recall one of their earliest and most memorable experiences in nature. What happened was amazing. Memories came flooding forth and as students shared them in the course other memories were triggered. One student linked the importance of her own childhood experiences in nature with the way she could raise her own daughter:
I want my daughter to grow up in the wild with a relationship of acceptance
and understanding of the laws of nature. So we walk hand in hand through
our big backyard and the woods beyond, her small hand wrapped tightly in
my narrow fingers, naming the flowers and plants and looking high above
our heads for birds we can identify by sight and sound. Memories of my
childhood walks with my grandmother flicker in my mind’s eye and I am
drawn back to the present, to the sound of the song birds high in the canopy
and my daughter calling out the names of wildflowers now familiar to her.
As students are awakened to the reality that they do possess innate capacity to relate to the natural world, they are more receptive to looking at models of a healthy natural environment.
This is a form of holding a clear vision of what it is we intend to do, in the Bandura sense. So in terms of a gifted subsistence, understanding that the health and vitality of the natural environment is the foundation of human life must be crystal clear if individuals are ever going to possess the authentic motivation to transform their lifestyles to be more in accord with nature’s needs.
I try to help students move toward such clarity through select readings on “natural services” which are those characteristics of natural processes such as oxygen, water, food, and materials for shelters, tools, and the like that nature provides. Another reading by a physician connects the health of the natural world to our own human health. Readings also include detailed accounts of how direct experience in the natural world contributes significantly to the full development of children’s cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities. It is these latter readings which really get the students interested and honestly motivated to delve into earth’s processes and how keeping those natural processes in good form is also a way to keep our own bodies, minds, and spirits in good shape. In this way, so-called “ecological literacy” becomes something very personal and thus of interest. Here’s how one student compared her local city park with her own extended back yard.
A funny thing happened to me at the park the other day, I didn’t feel the
earthy connection that I thought I would. The oaks, maples and poplars
were majestic as usual; the fescue grass richly green, the sparrows and
red-breasted robins that flitted between trees were delightful to watch…
Fall has certainly fallen here in West Virginia. However, as I write these
initial observations, it would appear that my time at the local neighborhood
park seem(s) almost Mayberry-esque. Sadly, Aunt Bea, Andy and Opie
may not have been so thrilled with what they would have seen. Perhaps I am
spoiled by the simple fact that I live on 95 acres of farm wilderness, with
complete privacy, surrounded by creeks, ponds, trees, rock formations, gardens,
animals both wild and domesticated. In the woods one could find ginseng and
yellow root, mushrooms in the right season, and wonderful stinking ramps. You
are never alone in the woods, a fox, groundhog or snake might surprise you
and on the rare occasion a bear.
It is an important step in people’s move toward new perception and practice to have companions on that journey. Often I learn from students that their own efforts to bring a new sustainable project to their community are met with either indifference or even resistance. This can cause a person to drop the project or certainly dampen enthusiasm for future similar efforts. In the two courses, I encourage students to create very modest community projects that do not ask much of participants, at least not at first. I also try to help them understand that their own facilitation with others needs to address the Bandura steps in one way or another. I thus spend some time and effort to help students craft developmentally detailed maps of their proposed community projects so that people who do participate are less likely to fade away before the project is completed.
Also, a natural cooperative spirit envelops many of the students in the courses so they provide companionship and encouragement to each other which can prove to be immensely helpful. Again, when someone feels that support, it is much easier for that person to understand why it is so important for her or him provide that kind of support for others involved in the community project. That reminds me of a crucial teaching of our master mentor-trainer in a year-long course ion mentoring that I took at a university in California some years ago. Right at the moment that the teacher was putting us through some emotionally taxing activity and we were seething with resentment or outraged or otherwise emotionally charged, she would come up to each of us and ask, “How do you FEEL right now?” And then, “never forget that feeling because that is how others will feel when you are engaging them in a mentored process one day.”
The next to last step in the adapted Bandura process is ensure that everyone involved has opportunities along the way—rest and reflection stops, I think of them—to go over little triumphs, lingering obstacles, the need to fidget with the remaining steps of the process, and a reminder of where we are headed and why we are doing all this. So we re-tell the vision, remind ourselves of the capacities we bring to the task, continue to record the history of this process in learning journals or some other format. One of my students from an earlier edition of Children and Nature proposed to create a natural children’s play space on part of the school grounds. She created the project plan, drew support from teachers and parents, and proceeded to round up funding for materials, including logs, boulders, and some soft wood chips for the pathways around small pollinator patches with butterfly gardens. I kept encouraging her to round up studies that cite the importance to children’s development of natural play spaces and unstructured play time with supervision at a discrete distance. The student was excited by the interest and progress. And then the principal called a time out. He was worried that the kids might hurt themselves if they fell on the wood chips which could have hard edges. At one of our check-ins we went over this challenge and decided that she would find more research on mulches less likely to cause injury. Meanwhile, she found another private school site with an interested director and is now working with her to create a natural play space. The student’s preparation for the one site helped her to share just the right information to convince a decision-maker at another site. The checking in with others helps to keep individuals motivated even in spite of obstacles.
Finally, the last phase of the Bandura process is to invite all involved with the community project to celebrate accomplishments, no matter how modest. Sometimes, my students report, this is a chance to show gratitude to people who have participated in early design phases of a project or who stand ready to help once plans are made final. Daniel Kemmis (see the interview elsewhere in the Journal) reminds us of the importance of acknowledging small gifts that often come along with any social project in which restoring the local human relationship with nature is involved. Just the fact that community members agree to conserve, preserve, restore, or otherwise put their collective efforts toward common purpose is itself worthy of celebration. This is especially so in today’s society which can tend to be isolating.
Another way to celebrate is to remind each other how important each one f us is to the larger health of our biophysical and social communities. One of my students decided to take a group of inner-city adolescents to a local park in one of New York’s boroughs to see who lived there in terms of wild plants and animals and to clean up some of the ever-present trash that litters the park.
One of the students commented, “we could be anywhere right now” after we
became surrounded by trees and could no longer see any of the buildings…
I was really happy with the way each student responded with the understanding
that individually each person can take responsibility for his or her local environment…Overall, I was very pleased with each student’s positive
responses and recognition of their natural environment. Our debrief centered
on the types of rubbish we collected and why the rubbish was there in the first
place. All students felt that dropping rubbish was not only lazy, but demonstrated
a complete lack of respect to the Park. Students strongly believed that it was
probably other young people who were responsible for creating that garbage.
My student was so impressed by the interest of these kids who scarcely knew that nature was in their own community and how amazed they were at the biodiversity. He is helping several of them to fill our applications to work in the Park in the summer to do further restoration work. I very much like this true story because it shows how the efforts of one individual can invite others into a local project which in every sense of that phrase serves to evoke awareness of and appreciation for a gifted subsistence.
I would like to end with a favorite quite from E. F. Schumacher, the economist who became famous for his book, Small is Beautiful. Though he did not use the word subsistence to describe a form of home or Buddhist economics, Schumacher did hold in high regard those seemingly modest changes we might make to enhance the quality of all life. Here are the lines in which he coins the now famous phrase:
I have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological
development, a direction that shall lead it back to the real needs of man,
and that also means: to the actual size of man. Man is small, and, therefore,
small is beautiful.”
Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). The adapted mind: Evolutionary
psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Macy, J. & Young Brown, M. (1998). Coming back to life: Practices to reconnect our lives, our
world. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Schumacher, E.E. (1973). Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered. New York:
Shepard, P. (1998). Coming home to the Pleistocene. Washington, D.C.: Island Press