Ancestral Relations with the Land

If we are to heal the earth, we must also heal ourselves, individually and as communities. Moreover, the two are inter-connected. It’s all about relations — relations of mutual recognition and respect and mutual support and sustainability. It’s also about the daily practices of mutuality and responsible self-governance that support these relations.


Menzies_tweet_AncestorsBy Heather Menzies

As memories of giving the opening keynote at an International Conference on the Commons (IASC2015) start to fade, the lasting learning for me is twofold:

  • First, that we all have ancestral relations to the land; and,
  • second, that positioning ourselves to reclaim this, at first just in our imagination as a possible shift in perspective, is a critical step in reconnecting with the earth and the urgent task of transforming our economic and political relations with it, for mutual survival.

My speech was well received, with many people approaching me later to say thanks, to have me sign their copy of my book and to extend the conversation. What touched people most was my being moved, and even led, by fragments of information I’d uncovered in my research which, in turn, became like fragments of ancestral memory coming to life inside me.

Menzies_tweet_IdleNoMore_Thomas_DyckTheir attentiveness had deepened when I lingered over the phrase “a field in good heart” that dated back to commoning times. The words suggested a connection, heart to heart, between people like my ancestors who lived together on the commons and the land that they worked, and also inhabited deeply, even spiritually.

I wasn’t the only speaker evoking this theme. The conference as a whole was framed to honour the Indigenous peoples of Alberta and their unbroken connections to the land, and featured people with Aboriginal heritage from across Canada and around the world. Francois Paulette, who gave another of the keynote speeches is a Denesuline former chief, a residential school survivor and the co-chair of the Dene Nations Water Strategy. He also lives beside the river, having chosen to move back there when he realized “I was talking about my way of life but I wasn’t living it.

“Our way of life was in the river and on the land,” he said. “And also our spiritual practices that showed us how to live. Our river was our lifeline.”

In my last book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, I drew parallels between the degradation of the natural environment and a parallel degradation of the social environment. This is evident not just in deepening inequalities but also social marginalization and disengagement, loneliness and depression. I argued that if we are to heal the earth, we must also heal ourselves, individually and as communities. Moreover, the two are inter-connected. It’s all about relations, I argued: relations of mutual recognition and respect and mutual support and sustainability. It’s also about the daily practices of mutuality and responsible self-governance that support these relations.

I invited people to see themselves as entering a relationship with plants they might grow in a flower box, entering a relationship with neighbours in a community garden or cleaning up a shoreline, entering a relationship with that body of water as well.

Researching ancestral relations with the land is a way of deepening that connection. I started personally as I traced three out of four branches of my family tree back to the Tay River Valley in the Highlands of Scotland. Once there, though, I found that ancestral relations with the land are more than personal. Or perhaps I should say that the personal extends beyond the individual and the subjective; certainly it did for my ancestors as I dug into the history and uncovered the matrix of commons practices of sharing and governing relations with the land for mutual sustainability in which their lives were immersed.

Ancestral relations with the land clearly include the social. Another speaker at the IASC (International Association for the Study of the Commons) conference, Gitksan Ruby Gordon spoke of her ancestral relations with the huckleberry patches in northern B.C. as “a social infrastructure for berry patch management” that combined both skills and practices and community relationships of shared responsibility and care.

Ancestral relations can extend to the political as well. Every historical account I’ve read about commons and commons-like relations to the land includes an intricate network of rules governing access to the land and use of its resources, as well as an equally intricate network of consequences (sanctions, penalties) for free riders. But here is where the political doubles back to the personal. The current president of the IASC, Tine DeMoor has reviewed the record books of commons that thrived in the Netherlands in early modern times (some lasting for nearly 700 years), and found that the ones that endured did not need sanctions and were able to avoid the expense (time, money and emotional energy) that applying sanctions involved.

“The secret,” she wrote in a paper co-authored with Annelies Tukker, “seems to lie in ensuring that people meet frequently so that they ‘internalize’ rules….[and are] more frequently confronted with their moral duty to behave well…. [H]igh levels of participation consequently may have been more important for the longevity of the institution than sanctioning.”

A host of things are required to produce meaningful commitments at the Climate Change conference in December, including fact-based evidence of the irredeemable damage being done by an out-of-control global market economy. But cultural and spiritual ‘evidence’ has a place in the conversation too. The recoverable stories and memories of implicated connection to the earth can remind us of our shared, our collective heritage and what it’s calling us to do and say – beyond the founds of utilitarian rationality.

Remembering and daring to ground ourselves in our ancestral relations with the land will help bridge the nature-culture divide that continues to make the fate of the earth a political game of winners, losers and free riders that is someone else’s responsibility to resolve.

The Commons as a fable for our time – a fable with teeth. Part I

“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 2


Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good is an admirable, even noble, vision, and expresses very eloquently what will have to be done if humanity is to escape the current race towards disaster.”– Noam Chomsky

An uplands pasture near the ancestral Menzies lands in Scotland.

An uplands pasture near the ancestral Menzies lands in Scotland.

Fable is an old-fashioned word for a story meant to convey a useful lesson. I noticed it used in several reviews of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything on climate change and what to do about it in the context of addressing what the reviewer sensed as a gap in an otherwise excellent book: the absence of a vision to unite alternative action or, as one put it, a fable. I think the commons offers such a vision. This first of two blog posts is about being open to ancient story and vision.

Like so many activist writers, I knew what I was against: letting an overheated global corporate economy remain on a collision course with our increasingly distressed planet. But I couldn’t name what to do about this in terms meaningful enough for a social movement to sustain action on them.

I kept banging my head against ‘alternative job opportunities’ and other vagueries. Until I read Aboriginal environmental activist Clayton Thomas-Muller’s 2010 essay “The Seventh Generation” where he wrote: “something deep inside me snapped. I quit trying to be Canadian,” settling instead in the knowledge that “I was Cree.”

I packed a bag and headed to the Highlands of Scotland hoping to find remnants, faint echoes and lingering intimations of what it was like when my ancestors lived in direct relation with the earth, and called themselves “Cruithne,” simply “the people” in Gaelic. One day I tracked the small symbols on an ordinance map marking the ruins of stone shieling huts, seasonal dwellings in the upland pasturing commons where my forebears spent their summers, from Beltane to Llamas time on the old pagan calendar. The path that would take me there began at a lay-by beside a single-track road that ran around the back of Ben Lawrs, one of the biggest mountains in the Highlands. The path was a rock-studded affair that wound its way around bits of fern-covered bog, up over ridges and finally to a lovely hung valley where even I could tell the grass was taller and thicker if not positively lush.

Knowing that this area was land long inhabited not just by my father’s father’s people, the Menzies, but also those on his mother’s side and one side of my Mum’s family too, I walked into that valley as though I was coming home. I took in the feel of the ground rough and gnarled against the soles of my feet, the mist in the air billowing gently against my face. I heard the water in a stream that came boisterously down from the saddle-back ridge at the far end of the valley, and saw where it pooled beside a cluster of tumbled down stones that, yes, must be the ruins of the shieling huts, called bothies that I’d been reading about. One was more intact than others, the angle of the corner stones still sharp and clear, some cavities in the stone walls where my ancestors would have stored the cheese they’d made through the summer, plus the cooking tools, the horn and wooden spoons they used in eating. I was drawn to what seemed to be the entrance, a single slab of stone still marking the lentil above it. Some ancestors might well have shaped that stone, I realized, using an iron chisel forged from bog iron that they would have found under the peat during their summers here. My great, great grannies and aunties would have gone in and out this way, carrying armfuls of dried heather that served as mattresses for sleeping in the bothies.

I stood at the entranceway as though it was a portal to another time, and in a way it was. So I just stood there, immersing myself in the sense of this, open to what the spirits of my ancestors might have to tell me, should they by chance be present in the mist that was gathering, thicker now, in the valley. I had come to a place where my forebears had lived connected to the earth: as responsible inhabitants of a habitat, and it was helping me get my bearings.

Common means “together as one. For my ancestors on the common lands of the Highlands, it meant land and people together as one, one inter-relationship. It also meant negotiating that relationship in daily work, knowledge and governance practices – commons practices that persisted in some glens like this one right up until the Clearances (which I will unpack in later blog posts). These practices have recently been vindicated as the basis of a genuine alternative to market or state governance of land and resources, notably through the work of Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics in recognition of it.

To be continued…

On why a “People’s Climate” works, but only so far

“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 1

Countdown to Paris, Dec., 2015: The People’s Climate &

This article starts “The People’s Climate” blog series by Heather Menzies, author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good: A memoir & a manifesto.

In Reclaiming the Commons, I praise Bill McKibben and as Luddites for our times for championing limits on energy extraction.

– Heather Menzies



# One: On why a “People’s Climate” works, but only so far.

If you’d marched to the UN shouting “the people’s climate” 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have made sense like it does now. Two things have changed.

Back then, scientist-experts informed government decision-makers who spoke and acted to defend common-good things like the climate and the environment on behalf of people and the planet. Sometimes they needed a nudge from opposition parties and civil society groups, but that generally moved things along, sort of; though the crisis kept deepening, becoming more palpably obvious too. Now civil society groups –the people– are taking the initiative, informing themselves of the science and telling decision-makers what to say and do, NOW. The fate of the earth, and of its climate is no longer a scientists’ or official policymakers’ issue. It has become a people’s issue.

Secondly, environmental catastrophes of the past emerged from the environment itself – meteors, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, mini-ice ages, etc. This time, it’s ‘man-made,’ as Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her acclaimed book, The Sixth Extinction. To be more precise, today’s climate crisis is the product of modern, generally carbon-based industry, and the corporations who run them, generally for their own profit-making priorities. But deepening inequalities have sharpened public perception of other them-us dichotomies, making it easier for more people to say: It’s OUR climate, not something that corporations can simply abuse and abandon! It’s time for us therefore to have a say in healing it so that our children and grandchildren can breathe, and live!

So now what? In the next few blog posts I want to explore this. Because climate is “atmospheric conditions” and “the people” similarly amorphous, I want to ground ‘what’s next’ in place and habitat, and the institutions of responsible government through which the people’s climate priorities can be articulated into actionable policy.

It’s all about living within the carrying capacity of the living and lived-in environment. And that’s what economic governance in the days of the pre-modern commons was all about. Remnants of this common-good regulation extended into the early decades of the new industrial economy. For instance, there were limits set on the number of looms a single cloth manufacturer could operate – to help sustain the local socio-economic habitat of the craft-scale cloth industry in which families’ household economies ran on the work of a single loom. In the early 1800s, however, industrial corporations had achieved enough lobbying power that these regulations were rescinded. This deregulation (of a scale equivalent to free-trade agreements of today) triggered the Luddite movement. This movement was not anti-development or anti-progress as such, though that’s how it has generally been depicted. As I quote British historian E.P. Thompson in my new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, the Luddites “saw a role for capital in society, but within limits,” limits hinged to the carrying capacity of environment and habitat.

In Reclaiming the Commons, I praise Bill McKibben and as Luddites for our times. “They’re not trying to stop progress,” I write (pg. 189), “only redefine it as informed by the carrying capacity of this precious, fragile planet on which we all, and all progress, depends. The new normal is trying to inculcate is like that of our ancestors in the community and land-based economies of their day: regulating the pace and scale of economic activity so as to sustain relations within the local habitat. It simply made sense to do this. It was normal.

This is the new normal, the new common sense that the people who rallied under “the people’s climate” banner last year are claiming for us today.

Next: A fable for our time, with teeth, to help change the prevailing ‘common sense.’

Comment from Bill McKibben: “many thanks for this! translating that energy into something real is the next great step!”

Response from Heather: “Glad to think I might help channel this fine energy into actionable policy, Bill. Thanks.”