Roots and revivals

Walking composition

“The premise of Earth asking something of me—of me!—makes my heart swell.”
—Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Returning the Gift

Friends sometimes ask me how long I’ll stick it out in Montana. It’s natural, I suppose, to wonder why, if the politics of a place is oppressive or repressive, one doesn’t just move. And yet, when you feel that you belong to a place—not that it belongs to you, but that you belong to it—picking up and leaving isn’t a light notion. As a born-and-raised Montanan who’s the daughter of on the one hand a born-and-raised-Montanan, and on the other of an emigre and exile who was not allowed to see his family or return to his home country for nearly twenty years, the questions of home and belonging are almost always with me.

When I read or watch news stories of refugees, whether from Syria or Honduras or elsewhere, all I can think of is how bad it has to get to force a person to pick up sticks and leave. How bad would it have to get for me, for you, to turn your back on your home and know you might never be able to return? How many people actually choose to leave their homelands? What imagined countries do they carry in their hearts?

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I think that these subjects, of home and belonging, are trickling around the world, finding outlets in places I didn’t expect to see them. I keep coming across conversations of community and the drawbacks of fierce individualism, and the damage that absolutist private property rights cause. I bump into these concepts in random places, and just in the last few weeks an essay of mine about private property versus the health of the commons, published five years ago, went from around 6,000 Facebook shares (where it had stuck since it came out) to nearly 70,000. It’s clearly hitting some kind of nerve, though where exactly, I don’t know.

One of the recent readers of that essay shared a music video that they’d helped to make to advocate for preservation of a waterway in India, teaching me the concept of “poromboke.” In their comment, they explained:

“The Poromboke is a medieval tamil agrarian revenue term that denotes lands reserved for shared communal uses. Such lands cannot be traded or built upon, and yield no revenue to the crown or the government. The term and its legal essence have survived well into present times. But the quality and health of the Poromboke commons began its decline when the property making agenda of the British colonial masters collided with the notion of the commons. Perhaps because it was strictly not property that could be traded, it began to be seen as worthless. Today, the word poromboke has degraded culturally to refer to worthless persons or places.”

One of the lyrics of the video sticks with me: “After Ennore got its power plant, acres of ash, but river scant.” The whole ensemble reminds me of a short Aeon video I think I shared a few months back, about sand mining in Cambodia for Singapore’s expansion that ruins island fisheries. (I cannot for the life of me find that video and I seem to remember having trouble last time I wanted to share it.)

Sometimes we don’t even need to flee home. Sometimes someone steals it from underfoot. (See also: all of colonial history.)

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I listened to an interview with Stephen Jenkinson recently (I know, I know, I mention him maybe too much) where he talked about being a citizen of the soil. It came up partly in a discussion on individual rights—the eternal pull between “freedom from” and “freedom to”—and dovetailed strangely on my watching of Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head. There is something freeing about knowing that you can’t have everything exactly as you wish, that you owe something to the communities around you.

I know Montana has a lot of narrow-minded people and especially narrow-minded politicians. So does everywhere else. But it remains just about the most beautiful place I have ever been and I don’t see why I should let the white nationalists and uber-wealthy and resource-extractors have all of this life-richness to themselves. Besides which, most people can’t afford to just leave, and the rivers and trees and wildlife certainly can’t pick up and relocate somewhere else.

If I think of myself as a citizen of the watersheds I rely on, the dynamics of this place and its struggles look very different. It’s worth fighting for, even if we lose. The roots will remain.

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Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • This two-hour episode of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Podcast & Blast with conservation biologist and Aldo Leopold scholar Curt Meine was so interesting I might have to listen to it again: “We’re at an inflection point because the convergence of concerns can no longer be avoided. . . . The long-term has hit the short-term.”

  • Scotland Outdoors talked with a former paratrooper walking the coastline of the UK. If you need another reminder that physical and/or real-world interaction can help restore a faith in humanity, this episode has it: “What [people] do to go out of their way to want to help you is quite phenomenal.”

  • I also loved this Scotland Outdoors episode on the importance of land connection for refugees. It presents a number of ideas I’d never thought about before, and reminded me of Jonathan Stalls telling me about the group of Iraqi refugee women he often walks with in Denver, and the kind of community they’ve built.

  • The growing problem of rural America as a dumping ground for corporate waste, by Alan Guebert in Farm Forum.

  • American Scholar has a pair of essays pinpointing the disconcerting idea that people might be willing to forego any attempt to fight for liberal democracy if given enough physical comfort, one on China and one on Russia.

  • The Smarty Pants podcast rebroadcast a fun interview with historian and Women Warriors author Pamela Toler about the ample evidence for women warriors throughout history and some of the ways that past historians pretzeled evidence to erase the existence of women who were honored for their fighting abilities.

  • I keep forgetting to share this piece from The Guardian cracking open the idea of the literary canon and pointing out that Māori have a canon, too.

  • Using ethnography and the insights gained from the close observational skills of mushroom hunters to inform AI development and improve medical diagnostics, by Anne Harris and Lisa Herzog in Aeon’s sister magazine Pysche.

  • If we needed another reminder that highways are destructive and that you can never, ever solve congestion by keeping people dependent on cars, Arch Daily has a good article about highways and their futures. (I have never been to Houston and knew it was car-centric but not that one highway has 26 lanes?! And that after it expanded, traffic increased by 30% — “induced demand” is the name for that phenomenon.)