Lessons for modern living from nature-based cultures

Professor Jules Pretty has travelled the world to explore how and why people live close to nature. In his book, The Edge of Extinction, he examines this relationship and discovers that money can’t buy interconnectedness with nature

The notion of the inevitable benefits of all material progress is a modern invention.

Hunters and foragers, many farmers and herders too, tend to believe that their current communities are not necessarily any better than those of the past or elsewhere in the world. Past and future are valued neither more nor less than the present. But economic development too easily justifies the losses of both species and special places, as we expect losses to be offset by ‘progress’ – simply by creating something, which the developers deem much better.

Our environmental problems are thus human problems. Disconnection from the land, in the form of non-regular contact, already has the capacity to damage and even destroy cultures. Yet many talk of the need for escape, to get away from it all. Something important remains elusive to many people in affluent countries. It is a deep satisfaction and happiness derived from the sense of belonging, of feeling connected to the land and real community. Obviously, this is not a happiness which can be bought. The proportion of people in industrialised countries describing themselves as ‘happy’ has not changed since the 1950s, despite a trebling of per capita wealth as measured by GDP.

Consumer culture has transformed the old equations about people and land. The values of this consumer culture have caused considerable environmental, health and social side-effects, so serious that they threaten this finite planet’s capacity to resource all our wants. Conventional economic growth encourages a race to the top of material consumption, even though large numbers of people are excluded from this race and currently have no prospects of escaping poverty or hunger. We still call this progress.

“Through a different kind of consciousness of the world, perhaps our impact can be changed.”

A good future will not be a return to something solely rooted in the past: we need medical, farm and transport technology, certainly computers and modern communications. But a hybrid vigour might be created through Zen-like practices, rather than either-or. It must be possible to harness the wisdom of the old ways, rather than abandoning them while making use of new technologies which serve our purpose. New, greener economies in which material goods have not harmed the planet would be good economies: even better if production processes could accumulate natural capital. The great majority of non-industrial cultures which maintain links with the land have done so through local cultural institutions, often manifesting in nature a variety of spiritual symbols and stories that command respect.

If we wish to convince people to manage the planet sustainably and consume in different ways, then we will need moral teachings and wisdom about the environment and our duties as individuals. Through a different kind of consciousness of the world, perhaps our impact can be changed.

There is some journeying to be done. Paths to be explored, and new ones made. Each year, the pine leans a little further. After night, the dawn comes. There is mud, but the birds are singing. The waves come and go, but the ocean is still there.

Each new day begins in the Pacific along the north-south dateline. The earth spins, and the sun appears to travel from east to west. That is why I started in the east and migrated west, across continents to explore how and why people still live close to nature, land and sea. I sought for clues on modern ways of living that will not condemn cultures and economies to extinction. I walked and travelled by pirogue, skidoo, skiff, canoe, air boat, horse-trap, cable car, jeep, car, van, truck, train and plane. Sleep came in tents and farmhouses, cabins and houseboats, bleak administration blocks and occasionally distinctive hotels. And the food we shared was muttonbirds and mutton, pike and catfish, moose and porcupine, crawfish and flounder, noodles and breakfast grills. Extinction has already been a reality for many species, but I saw, close up, sharks and kangaroos, horses and sheep, elephants and lions, gun dogs and catfish, swallows and curlews, alligators and coyotes, and all the while the land was being narrated by corvids. Extinction has denied many human groups and languages a future. It now threatens the ways of life of the affluent, even though many ignore the signs.

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I walked with local Maori people along the coasts of the Pacific, climbed newly accessible mountains in China with thousands of others, and journeyed into petroglyph-rich deserts of Australia where oil and gas have come but the locals are extinct. I travelled with nomads across the continent-wide steppes of southern Siberia, walked and boated in the inland swamps of southern Africa – rich with wildlife – and journeyed out onto the Arctic cold with ice-fishermen in Finland. I explored the coasts and inland marshes of eastern England and the coastal glens of Northern Ireland, and trekked with Innu people across the taiga’s snowy forests and lakes of the Labrador interior. The passages continued in the Americas on the small farms of Amish horse-cultures, then with Cajun swampers of the deep south’s largest inland swamp, and finally in the deathly deserts of the west, to the lowest places where the Timbisha live, and to some of the highest, ending up at the Pacific Ocean again.

I met and travelled with people defending nature-based cultures, proud of their relationships with the land, and only willing to join with the modern world on their terms. Lessons for modern living may lie in some of the stories from these places.

People on the land like to tell stories. Perhaps ripples will travel far.

An extract from Jules Pretty’s book The Edge of Extinction:

The Shamans of Tuva

We have come to a perfectly normal neighbourhood of Kyzyl. We think we’re going just to talk and listen, but a ceremony will transport us away. The society was formed in 2001 by Kara-ool and three colleagues to work for the revival of Tyvinian traditions and culture, and there are now 40 shamans here. We are shown to a shadowy room with a small window where Kara-ool sits at a small desk. Murbat Victor Khovalygeyvitch, the silver-haired vice-chairman, stands alongside in a tan jacket and roll neck sweater. Six more fully-masked shamans sit in a row, including Larissa Churum-oolowna and Orlanma Mongush. Larissa’s father, grand and great-grand fathers were shamans, but she did not begin practising until 38 years of age. Orlanma worked in the police, hiding her shaman skills like so many others. Kara-ool has been practising much longer, since 1961. His grandmother was a famed shamaness, and people came to visit in the depths of night. His grandfather was a Buddhist monk who studied in Tibet. It is a harsh thought: lifetimes spent keeping knowledge from the ruling forces.

The blue-green walls are a backdrop for a menagerie: three bearskins pinned out, surprised skulls of ox and wild boar, eagles in flight, a bow with arrows, argali skulls, prayer flags and many braided ropes and beads. A snake, a squirrel, a horn. Victor holds a drum as large as a shield, the north-south cross beams carved into helmeted heads, the membrane representing the border between worlds. A small wooden table in the far corner is crammed with figurines and cards with signs. The room is silent. There is no sign of any other world, yet my mind is wondering what the modern world would make of this.

Then a mobile phone rings, and Larissa steps out. No one blinks.

Gwen’s Louisiana Swamp Recommendation

Gwen Roland, author of Atchafalaya Houseboat, had said: “you have to go”. She lived out on Bloody Bayou with Calvin in their own gimcrack houseboat for near a decade in the 1970s and 1980s. That first evening, I sat in the houseboat porch wrapped in the sound of croaking frogs and sawing crickets, the occasional splashdown of fish or alligator. Across the dark swamp of cypresses was the distant line of flickering lights on the I-10. Another fish jumped, and a wind whispered through the trees. Sometimes all we need is a place to sit and be absorbed by the world.

I realise the moon should be up, and step outside the screen. It is climbing through the black cypresses and washing ghostly silver onto this inky waterscape. Earlier, the sun had slid blazing orange into the water, and everyone had gone home, leaving me with a couple of beers. Since Katrina, there are few visitors, the restaurant no longer opens nightly. The contrast with the desert could not be greater – so much blue water, verdant green and gold of autumn trees, bottle-green water hyacinth. Clouds of insects, and also a stab of loneliness. In the distance, geese gabble, then a harsh caw, and a laugh. Inside the houseboat, moonlight now streams through the windows and across the floor, and there is no need for artificial light. I could live in a houseboat like this. The creaks and sighs, the rhythm of water, the response of the boat to walking. Then silence, which becomes a kind of presence rather than absence.

Making Sacrifices for Finite Earth in the American Deserts

Down on the Panamint flats, we search again for the stone lines. Far from the road they remain in place, but near the tarmac they have been shuffled. If they are ancient, they should be left alone. Some have been formed into circles, spirals, and names. By now the stars above the flats are glittering. The playa shimmers mercury under the gibbous moon, hanging over the Telescope and smiling on the land. We continue further into the playa, and smile now ourselves. We are tired after nine hours of walking on the mountain, but down here is a kind of magic. It warps time and space, makes us want to stay forever in the wrecked perspective of the desert.

We come back to the road, and promptly realise we have lost the car. It’s not possible. Just this one straight road across the playa. We walk west, and can’t find it. Retrace our steps. Worry mounts. This is mad. And then, there it is, parked at the base of the hills. The desert changes so much in the mind. “A world without wilderness is a cage,” predicted Edward Abbey, and there is some wildness in the relationship between people and the land. It is not separation. A member of the Timbisha Shoshone, Pauline Esteves, reminds us: “The Timbisha people have lived on our homeland forever, and we’ll live here forever. We are people of the land.” Abbey’s other plea works too: “Stay out of here. Don’t go. Stay home and read a good book. Even if you survive, which is not certain, you will have a miserable time.” But our greatest danger is that society may reach a point where too few people see the planet as worth preserving. We humans make sacrifices for what we love, not for rational or material ends.