The Earth's Blanket

This month's book is about 'The Earth's Blanket- Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living' by Nancy J. Turner.  Nancy Turner is an ethnobotanist that has worked extensively in British Columbia to record indigenous knowledge.  She has written several books about the first peoples of British Columbia and their relationships to the plants, animals, land and water. In Earth's Blanket, she explores how traditional ecological knowledge created and still creates today a special connection with earth.   This interdependant relationship with earth, is what has allowed Indigenous peoples to live and steward the lands and waters where they live for thousands of years without apparent conflict as we now see in 'westernised' societies today.

A roadside tragedy- in between Pemberton and Whistler, BC

The book's namesake comes from the Nlaka'pmx (Thompson) Interior Salish concept of earth care.

""Flowers, plants & grass especially the later are the covering or blanket of the earth.  If too much plucked or ruthlessly destroyed [the] earth [is] sorry and weeps.  It rains or is angry and makes rain, fog & damp; and bad weather."" - excerpt from a manuscript written by James Teit,  an ethnographer that worked with the Nlaka'pmx peoples in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  pg 20 of Earth's Blanket

Pink Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis), Campion Mt. BC

The Earth's Blanket concept is a living, reciprocal relationship between people and nature.  It is also a teaching of the consequences of overuse of resources.  Turner explains that:

"Stories and ceremonies that invoke Earth, the needs of Earth and the potential reaction of earth to people's mistreatment demonstrates a long and multi-stranded tradition of viewing Earth and its landscapes as a living being, a vast, nurturing entity on which humans depend absolutely for their survival and well-being." pg 20 of Earth's Blanket

This is in contrast to how early non-indigenous Canadians thought of the land:

""Untilled fields, buried minerals or standing forests are of no value except for the wealth which, through industry, can be produced there from."  "- excerpt from Forest of British Columbia, the 1918 report written by H. N Whitford and R.D. Craig, pg 22 of Earth's Blanket

Forestry activity on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake

These two contrasting views of the Earth and of wealth is part of the reason why there has been so much conflict between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals, as well as environmental degradation through the Canadian landscape. Turner defines wealth as : " Wealth dwells in people who know about, appreciate and respect the other life forms around them and who understand the importance of habitats for people and all living things. " pg 24 Earth's Blanket

 She says that real wealth comes from community, from a sense of place, and a sense of responsibility for themselves, their families, communities and environment.  This idea of wealth is taught in many traditional societies, yet is non-existent in many 'modern' societies.  Contrary to poplar belief, "studies have show that if we move up the economic ladder without the comforts of close family and social bonds, without a strong sense of identity, without intellectual challenge and stimulation or without strong ties with the natural world and a realization of our place within it, we becomes  more stressed, more depressed and more discontented." pg. 26  This is another motivator for the Degrowth Movement.

Boot skiing- with friends

 I can remember one of my farm mentors from Linnaea Farm saying: "we don't have alot of money, but we sure do live well."  It was true- being connected to the land, the plants, the animals, the community, can create the conditions for 'the good life'.

One fine July Sunday afternoon

Preserving the stories and lessons from traditional aboriginal people, telling the stories, and incorporating these lessons into our lives is one way to help us to honour Earth and make us realize what real wealth is.  Turner says: "Perhaps one key to sustainable living is for all of us to become rooted to a place and, if we don't have them at first, to evolve our own stories about our relationships to our special places and to the trees and other life forms that live there." pg 67  This is in the tradition of place-based living as well it hints at something that Rob Hopkins does with Transition.  In the Transition Movement, they not only interview Elders, but also to created visions and stories of a future sustainable lifestyle.

With the elders...

In addition to preserving traditional stories, lessons, living in place, creating relationships with the land, many aboriginal cultures have a kincentric approach to nature.  This means that plants, animals, rocks, rivers, are respected, used and honoured as if  they are one. Turner explains below:

"Dr Richard Ateleo, educator and hereditary chief of Ahousaht, explained this concept further, nothing that the Nuu-Chah-Nulth belief system from which their traditional values arise can be articulated as follows:

The Creator made all things one.
All things are related and interconnected.
All things are sacred.
All things are therefore to be respected.""

- pg 72-73 from the Earth's Blanket

Mountain meadows

I was touched and inspired, and in awe of many of the stories and personal anecdotes from first nations elders interviewed by Turner in Earth's Blanket.  One of these stories from Dr. Mary Thomas, an elder of the Secwepemc people.  Dr. Mary Thomas has worked for years to preserve the language, knowledge and ecology of her people.  She tells of how foresters were cutting down deciduous trees such as birch, alder and trembling aspen to make way for commercially profitable coniferous trees.  The foresters did not understand the role that these trees played in the ecology of the forests- to build soil (from the leaves falling), to preserve moisture in the soil (leaves on the ground reduce evaporation, water then can seep back into the streams), the animals that depended on the trees (the sapsuckers that put holes in the trees, the hummingbirds and the ants that eat the sap), the succession of deciduous trees to coniferous, and that many deciduous trees tend live in riparian habitats and help to feed and protect streams.  All of these roles, relationships and processes were taught and observed by the stories and traditions of the Secwepemc people. It is sad that much of the environmental degradation of our lands, water and air could have been prevented if at the minimum, traditional knowledge had been consulted before doing anything, and in the best case scenario we could adopt and adapt the traditional ecological knowledge into our life views to create a more holistic vision of the Earth.

"A new paradigm of working with Nature and natural processes, rather than trying to conquer Nature, is starting to take hold in policies for resource management." pg 145

Western Pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis), Campion Mt. BC

Another interesting point that Turner talks about in the book, is how of Indigenous peoples' tended to their landscapes to make it more productive.  In British Columbia, Indigenous peoples would burn, prune, replant, fertilize, loosen soil, thin and more to make for better harvest of berries, roots, clams or other food/medicine/fibre plants and animals.  This was not acknowledged or maybe even noticed by later colonizers of the land, as they thought the forests and rivers and oceans wild and untouched.

" We now recognize not an absolute division at all, but a continuum between hunting and gathering and agriculture, with a complex assortment of strategies that mix and match these methods in various ways.  Indigenous peoples, such as those of British Columbia, who managed culturally important native resources usually did so by replicating or enhancing certain naturally occurring conditions.  This may result in genetic simplification- reduction of the number of species- in some sites, but often actually increases overall species and habitat diversity by creating more edges and patches of habitats at different stages of ecological succession, all the way from recently cleared areas to dense old-growth forest.  Unlike the single-crop fields of modern agriculture, of the clear-cuts and tree plantations of industrial forest, these human-tended environments retain many diverse, culturally important species that co-exist in companionable associations.  At a single location, once can expect to find trees, shrubs and herbaceous species, even epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants), which together provide the raw materials for people's food, technology and medicine." pg 163

Pattern recognition, observing and interacting, working with nature, diversity, food forests, resiliency, redundancy.... so many ideas and practices are mentioned in the above passage screams 'permaculture' to me.  I guess that shouldn't be too surprising since the roots of permaculture come from many sources of inspiration, including Indigenous knowledge and practices.

In addition, the practice of tending to the land, was not just to get better harvest, but also it was and is a way to link to their ancestors and the spirit world, to contribute to the health of their territory and to give back to Nature.

Dr. Daisy Sewid-Smith, and elder from Kwakwaka'wakw people of coastal BC summarizes below:

""People think that you don't have to do anything when you remove something from Nature.... And that is so far from the truth.  Because, when you remove something, you have to put something back to make that plant, animal fish, live again. "" pg. 174

Turner says that this may be one of the reasons behind reduction in ecosystem productivity and environmental destruction, because people don't feel they need to steward, or give back to the Earth, they only take from the Earth.

Carex sp.

So for everything you take, give back to the Earth.  Honour and steward.  Celebrate!  Develop sacred stories of place.  Observe and interact with Nature.   Re-evaluate wealth.  Listen and watch carefully to what results are coming from your actions.  Get to know the history, the people and the stories of the land. Take responsibility. Have compassion.  Care for your home- Earth.


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