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.

People’s Climate: Di-vestment and Re-vestment

“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 4

When the great Crash, ecologic or economic, comes, Heather Menzies’ brilliant critique will provide an understanding of why it came about, and a path towards a truly sustainable way for humanity to live on the planet.

– David Suzuki

By Heather Menzies, Author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Heather with friends at her annual ladies gardening party.

Heather with her friends at her annual
ladies gardening party.

Divestment is part of the shift, but only the moving-away-from-the problem part. Moving toward the positive vision I outlined, of a society and global economy operating within the carrying capacity of the earth and its atmosphere, requires a partner line of action: what I call re-vestment.

The root word, to vest, means to clothe, to place in the possession of a person things like power and legal authority. It’s generally understood in the passive sense, as in someone vesting this authority in me, with me waiting ’til it happens, if it ever does. But this is a time of taking possession, as in the Occupy Movement blowing the whistle on a dysfunctional global economy. There’s also an array of DIY initiatives filling the gap left by the retreat of governments looking after the common good. So I invoke the word this way: taking back our power and authority. In fact, that’s the energy behind both sides of this coin: divesting ourselves as in withdrawing support for and compliance with the status quo, plus vesting ourselves in creating a new one.

This two-fold dynamic of change must operate in a lot of areas, including in ways of thinking and knowing. Consider this: The process of change is not something out there that we are trying to influence, at the UN Climate Conference and elsewhere, at least that’s only part of it. We are the process of change ourselves, individually as micro-agents of change participating in street actions, but also through the changes we make locally, re-purposing buildings into shared space and community, reviving old institutions like commons and community gardens, cooperatives and village/farmers’ markets operating on the priorities of right relations and fair trade, not profit.

The more people re-possess their voice, their power to enact a vision of an economy accountable to the sustainability needs of the earth and its inhabitants – even at the level of composting and local food cooperatives – and the more they own the experience they gain as relevant policy-related knowledge, the more the di-vestment/re-vestment process will bring this alternative vision to life. (I’ll come back to knowledge and experts in a later blog posting.)

In this first blog entry on this subject, I just want to say a couple more preliminary things; then perhaps some of you will take it further with your responses.

One of these is that the divestment/re-vestment involves changing the scale and pace of things in many areas of life, not just in industrial development. It’s important to focus on one dramatic thing, such as the accelerating extraction rate in current oil and gas development and the lethal link between this and carbon emissions. That has galvanized attention, and people have taken action!

But curtailing the rate of extraction is not a stand-alone event. To contribute to the larger shift – a lowering of demand as well as of supply, and of all development being regulated and limited by the realities of what this planet and its inhabitants can sustain – this larger, multi-faceted shift must be happening as well. (Happily, it is!). The larger agenda therefore involves scaling down, from machine scale (the global investment market is the largest machine of all!) more to a human and habitat scale, and moderating the pace of life (and the rising expectations of life the market constantly feeds us with) to something more conducive to fully experiencing life instead of simply consuming it. This doesn’t mean eliminating the global scale in everything, nor slowing everything down to a walk in the park – just a shift toward a healthy mix.

In my book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, I talk about this as both structural change and a personal and shared, social one of healing. How can we reconnect with the earth and be governed by its needs and limitations if we aren’t connected to ourselves and attentive to our own needs and limitations? We need to heal the disconnects within ourselves and the lives we live, as members of families and communities if we are to succeed in healing the earth.

For me, therefore, change must operate simultaneously on three levels:

1) the personal level of our daily lives;

2) the local and ‘mezzo’ level of pilot projects, institutional change, NGO actions and other sustained change generally at a local level and grounded in making a difference in real life; and,

3), the meta level of larger movements, solidarity building (especially with Aboriginal people whose often unextinguished treaty rights keep alive this other vision, of the earth as shared habitat, not real estate and extractable resources), and sharing the evolving vision, the many stories of turning it into the new common sense.

Moreover, these three levels are linked, and need to be intentionally linked so that communication can flow between them, generating dialogue and consolidating alternative-informing knowledge. Change will emerge through iterative evolution, with meta-level organizations with strong social-media networks helping to facilitate this evolution through the linkages, dialogue and policy discussion general assemblies that they create. (Besides, I think of Friends of the Earth and, in Canada, the Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians.) Besides identifying emergent strategies and championing meta-level actions, they can plug donors and would-be volunteers into local projects and institutions making meaningful change in the here and now.

I’m trying to live these three levels of change myself: coming home to myself by scaling and pacing my life within the carrying capacity of my (aging!) body and peace of mind, including through spiritual practices and gardening; coming home to my local community, through commitments to actual projects and institutions there (The West End Well Food Cooperative in Ottawa and the Gabriola Commons in BC), and coming home to the earth through both the gestalt effect of all that personal and local connection plus reaching deeper into the wisdom of the past and of contemporary thinkers, schemers and dreamers, and networking about this with others, including through this blog.

As I do, I identify myself less completely as a citizen of a nation state, and more as a commoner: an implicated participant in shared habitat, with both a right and a responsibility to be involved in its well being.

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

“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 3

Without ties to the land is to be a broken person.

– Scottish proverb

By Heather Menzies, Author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Heather Menzies

Heather Menzies stands before an uplands valley once used as pasture commons, just as the mist begins rolling down the hills.

As I continued to walk the land my people had walked and worked and with which they’d lived in common since before recorded time, bits from the academic research I’d done on the commons stood out. One is the phrase “a field in good heart.” At a utilitarian level, It means that the soil is fertile, having good structure for holding moisture and nutrients. But at another level, it means exactly what it implies as it links a farming field to a human heart: an intimacy of identification and connection.

I’m similarly moved by an old custom that an academic researcher uncovered. When the commoners had elected or chosen a field officer – the person entrusted to ensure that everyone followed the regulations, which included manuring practices and leaving fields to lie fallow on a regular basis – he took his oath of office while standing in the field. Often too, he would not only take off his hat, but also his shoes and stockings. Standing there bare foot, he reached down and picked up a handful of dirt and, holding that fist against his heart, he then took his oath, swearing to be faithful to the community and the land they farmed together.

One more story to make my point (see my book for more details): When my commoner-ancestors headed out from the main settlement where they lived full time and grew field crops, when they headed into the higher hills to the shieling for the summer, tradition bearers would lead them in songs, including Chi Mi, which is Gaelic for “I see.” Each verse began with these words, and went on to tell a story that linked the singers to some ridge or other feature of the landscape they were passing. Singing that song every year was a way of greeting that bit of the land like an old friend or relative. The stories of shared experience on the land knit them closer to it, affirming that connection as part of their identity.

There’s an old Scottish saying that a person with no ties to the land is “a broken person.” It’s a saying worth remembering as we work toward actionable policies, and a shared commitment, to heal the climate by healing humanity’s relations with the earth.

I don’t know whether someone like Clayton Thomas-Muller might see me as a possible ally some day. And I don’t know exactly whether seven generations back in time for me does situate me closer to a pre-modern identity, tied to the land or not. But if I am to have integrity as someone trying to articulate an alternative to the “same old, same old”, I must practice what I preach.

The heritage of the commons offers actionable policies, including limits on extraction, carbon and other emissions. This is part of the work we need to do to renegotiate relations with the earth for mutual sustainability, but only part.

The intellectual work is important; that’s the teeth of meaningful change. But reclaiming old rituals and practices of connection, relationship building and community are equally important. So is recovering the old stories of connection and, equally, owning the stories of disconnection and our participation in this. They are the cultural, spiritual and even psychological work that’s needed as much as the political work of policy making. Or, to continue the metaphor, they are the jaws in which the teeth are set. They are the face, the voice and the body, too, powering the momentum of identification and commitment that are needed to make earth-sustainabilty policies part of a new common sense.

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…

Occupy Habitat?

Occupy Habitat?

Reviving the Occupy Movement, Climate Change & the Commons

By Heather Menzies (author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good)

Heather Menzies speaks at Occupy Ottawa

Heather Menzies speaks about the White Poppy movement at Occupy Ottawa in November 2011.

Oxfam’s recent report, Working for the Few, on one per cent of the world’s population controlling most of the world’s economic power got me thinking about the relevance of the Occupy Movement, and why perhaps now would be a time to revive it.

The movement served notice on the moral danger of such deep inequalities: when even the hope of common-good consensus collapses into a them-versus-us divide. But equally, the occupiers brought the issue down to earth. One of the little-discussed truths about the escalating concentration of wealth and power is how ephemeral it is. It’s centred in the information systems running the post-industrial phase of the global market economy. It’s in the trillions of dollars and related influence vested in stocks, bonds, loans, mortgages, derivatives and other largely unregulated financial instruments. Quite apart from how insulated the wealthy can be, there’s the fact that the power they wield, relentlessly, 24-7, is through symbols on a screen, far removed from the impact those symbols have in real life, on the ground.

The impulse of the Occupy movement was brilliantly intuitive: to bring home the truth of what it means to real people through the simple act of real people coming together in real time and space, starting with Wall Street. Through their words and actions, they bore witness to the inequalities, the marginalization, the sickness and stress that ordinary people experience every day as they live out the realities of a global economy being driven faster and harder through a combination of digital networks plus deregulation.

That impulse could be extended further: to bring home the climate crisis as it’s lived out now by inhabitants of specific habitats being affected. Perhaps it’s time for the people involved in the Occupy movement in various cities and towns to form common cause with people in what’s largely defined as the environment movement. When they do, hopefully they can share the lessons of what they learned about living responsibly within earth’s habitats from when they occupied the habitats of city parks.

I showed up periodically at Ottawa Occupy, which had taken over a lovely park in downtown Ottawa. I came mostly to bring food and to express my solidarity. But I also spoke to the young men and women who were running the kitchen and organizing the daily general assemblies, and I paid attention. I noted how much energy and time they put into cultivating mutually respectful relations in the running of the camp. I noted how well they were taking care of daily business and taking care of the park itself.

It reminded me of the pre-modern commons I was currently researching for my new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good. The general assemblies, I told them, didn’t just date back to the township meeting practices of New England (and Upper Canada too). They harkened back to the self-governing practices of the commons which were still being extinguished (by the Enclosure Movement) when many of the early ‘settlers’ came to North America. Then, though, the scope of self-governance wasn’t just the social habitat. It was the social and the natural habitat together, with self-governance geared to the mutual sustainability of both habitat and inhabitants. That’s why the commons is a useful heritage to draw on today.