Hope in Our Own Backyards

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November 5, 2011 by sgoobie

Gardening vs. Globalization

A smiling sun warmed the autumn day as I walked the rows of flowers and shrubs.  The garden shop staff rushed about, spraying water from hoses.  Stopping every few steps to check tags, I searched for plant origins.

Europe.  Asia.  Europe.  Europe.  How hard can it be to find a local variety of plant? I wondered.

“Excuse me,” I asked the closest store employee.  “Do you have anything native to the West Coast?”

She thought for a moment.  “Native?”

“Yes, it’s a gift.”  My class would be visiting with an elder on a local First Nation reserve.  The students had wanted to bring a token of appreciation and something regionally appropriate to contribute to the community garden.

Around the store we went, in search of indigenous plants.  English Ivy, Japanese Maple, Mexican Orange, African violets — it seemed the entire globe was represented, save for our own backyard.  Even in the ferns section, tell-tale plants which splash the temperate rainforests up and down our coast, only varieties from afar remained.

Finally we came to a small corner with a few potted plants.  Seeing the hardy leaves, I was instantly reminded of my many mountain hikes on which I sampled juicy berries lining the trails.  “Huckleberry. Salal.  Here we go.”

Carrying my purchase from the store, I began to think.  Isn’t it odd that it is quick to find generic plants which originate in diverse bioregions from the far reaches of the globe, but when it comes to those distinct varieties which signify our very own local mountains and meadows, one must search high and low?  What does this say about our direct connection to the land, let alone of any cultural or emotional connection?  Do we in dominant modern society draw more of our knowledge and relationship to the natural world from places far away than what’s right in front of us?  Do our own backyards not matter?

Seeds of hope

At the end of a plain-looking cul-de-sac on suburban First Nation reserve lands, a cold rain drummed down with a steady beat on top of the tiny greenhouse.  The students were grateful to be dry.  Around us on shelves lay platters of drying mint — leaves curled up — and woven baskets of rosehip berries.  By the doorway stood the diminutive figure of Squamish elder and author Barbara Wyss, her hoodie pulled up over her head, leaving visible only her kind face and a few strands of grey hair.

As we listened quietly, she spoke of how the “Harmony Garden” began.  She explained about the need for fresh vegetables for people struggling to get by in the community, of how this garden’s vegetables are used in a local community kitchen.  But as the dialogue deepened she also spoke of the community’s youth rediscovering their own backyards, the land they lived on, the soil they came into contact with every day, that which gave them gifts of water and sustenance.

Perhaps what she was talking about we might call localism — a way of thinking which prioritizes the Local.  A history of colonization and the modern reality of globalization has brought us fantastic and powerful ideas across oceans and continents, concepts which have transformed society and the natural world.  Our schools are filled with imported knowledge, our libraries dominated by select international cultures and our shops bursting with the trinkets of distant lands.  At the same time, although these global ideas are of great benefit to developing technologies and modernizing society, they have often been adopted to the detriment of local knowledge.  What Canadian child can recognize and name more local varieties of birds than multinational corporate logos?  How many people are as familiar with their local flora and fauna as the big animals of the African savannah?  We can name the biggest rivers in the world, but how many people have ever followed their own life-sustaining streams to the source?  Local knowledge, gained through thousands of years of human experience in divergent lands, rooted to specific trees, creatures, and natural systems, has succumbed to the allure of “advanced” and seemingly exotic ideas imported from afar.

Yet often with a gentle reminder, if we search our memories and local culture, we can find our connection to the importance of the local.  Who can imagine a life unique to the West Coast without towering cedar trees, salmon in spawning pools or on dinner plates, eagles, seals, endless rainy days, snow-dusted mountains, bark-peeling arbutus trees clinging to cliff sides, elusive fins of orcas breaking glassy inlets, or cold ice-melt rivers swollen in the spring?  The shift of the seasons alone is such a priceless part of our local cultural identity and collective experience that we often don’t think of it as such.

Now more than ever, faced with unprecedented environmental destruction, we need to conserve and protect understandings of sustainable relationships with our local plant and animal kin.  Local knowledge is that which is quintessential to the place in which we live — it is not universal, nor necessarily transferable, although the power of local knowledge extends beyond regional boundaries.  Ultimately, as citizens, it is only at the local level that we may directly take action to address global crises.

To be indigenous does not necessarily apply only to aboriginal peoples.  It means, simply, that we protect a direct connection to the land on which we live.  It means that the animals, streams and mountains rooted to our region are an inseparable part of our individual, cultural and societal identities.  They are part of who we are.  In that sense, all of us — native and non-native peoples — need to unearth our own indigeneity.

Global and local

All of this is not to say we need to isolate ourselves or turn away from global sources of knowledge, to focus solely on the local.  The reality is, in the struggle to heal a dysfunctional relationship with the air, water and land, we need to have our eyes on both the local and the global, as humanity’s footprint has now extended across the entire planet from once-isolated activities.  However, though we are faced with global challenges such as rapid climate destabilization, we need to remember that our region-specific understandings — gained through our direct contact and interactions with the natural world and with our place-based ancestors — will empower us to forge a tangible, emotional, cultural and spiritual relationship up to the task of overcoming all those growing environmental injuries which need remedy.

It is in our own “backyards” that we may find hope.

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