Cultures Of Habitat

Cultures Of Habitat by Gary Paul NabhanOn Nature, Culture, And Story
Gary Paul Nabhan
Counterpoint ($25)

by Michael Wiegers

Roger Risley has lived on the Olympic Peninsula for well over two decades, having come here from Buffalo to avoid school and slip under the radar of the Vietnam draft. Instead of in a classroom, he has worked in the rain and heat, planting seedlings in the yawn of clearcuts and hauling driftwood logs and stones in his canoe, to be milled and used to build his house. All the while he has studied the birds around him. He has learned how Steller's jays mimic red-tailed hawks and Clark's nutcrackers—a bird which hasn't lived on the peninsula for decades. He's heard jays imitate mockingbirds (a bird which itself mimics other birds) and grackles imitate RV alarms; he has witnessed hummingbirds poking at gasoline dripping from machinery, evidently thinking they were finding the alcoholic sugarwater junkfood of backyard birdfeeders. While clamming together, Roger has shown me how a stretch of beach where a week earlier we had gathered a half-dozen huge rock crabs was now filled with crows, crows that wouldn't be there looking for the clams if crabs capable of snapping their skinny legs were still there. Despite his land-learned knowledge, Roger is relegated to seasonal, temporary work for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, where he often seems to know more about this area and its habitats than his degreed coworkers.

What does all this have to do with Gary Paul Nabhan's Cultures of Habitat? Nabhan is an ethnobotanist who practices conservation notonly with the facts and figures of research and education, but also with direct experience and by listening to stories of people, like Risley, who work in and learn from their natural environments. As Nabhan expertly illustrates, an effective conservation movement cannot rely solely upon politicians, scientists, and activists, but must also learn from those who are “native” to an area.

The word “native” is loaded and in using it Nabhan indirectly raises complex, explosive questions. Who is native? For example, is an American Indian whose diet is snack foods and soft drinks more native than the gardener who preserves heirloom seeds indigenous to her region? What role might local oral history play in the face of computer models and cultural hybridization? How can science learn from the vocabulary and narrative of indigenous legends and myths? In twenty-four compelling essays, Nabhan illustrates the importance of interactions between humans and their surroundings, between plants and pollinators, between animals and weather—each instance witnessed in an effort to explore and reclaim what it means to “belong” in one's landscape rather than simply to exploit it.

Of course Nabhan could easily bog down in the semantics and commonly held beliefs of the environmental movement. Issues such as sustainability and biodiversity would then simply remain ideas. Too often conservationists pick up the tired mantle of Thoreau or celebrate the superficial qualities of indigenous peoples, translating their practices into a call for simplification. Yet plants and animals—nature—aren't simple, and the land management practiced by natives isn't either. Nabhan's genius is that he explores and embraces the complexity of habitats, taking into account the most difficult and dominant creatures—humans.

As Nabhan points out, we can't even begin to talk about the plants and animals that make up biodiversity when we are destroying the cultures and languages which know them best and which have named them: “Soon, whatever we can read about biodiversity will be written in less than five percent of the languages that have existed since Gutenberg's print revolution.” The majority of the world's insects are unnamed by western scientists, yet they are the critical mortar which holds habitats together. How can we protect complex habitats if we don't even know what to call their members and if we are exterminating the languages which describe them?

Indigenous persons are intrinsic to habitat survival. Nabhan writes of showdowns between native Guatemalans and loggers, of the importance of Aborigine burning practices, of traveling to the site of a remote Sand Papago settlement with one of its former residents, only to find it plowed under an extensive monoculture of onions.

Despite the bleak picture of a world hell-bent on homogenization, there is hope. Hope in the form of Cora Baker, a Hidatsa woman who still gardens in “the old way,” in the form of people like Roger and writers like Gary Paul Nabhan. We must tell the stories. As Nabhan says:

To restore any place, we must also begin to re-story it, to make it the lesson of our legends, festivals, and seasonal rites. Story is the way we encode deep-seated values within our culture. . . . By replenishing the land with our stories, we let the wild voices around us guide the restoration work we do. The stories will outlast us.

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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997