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.

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 & 350.org

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 350.org as Luddites for our times for championing limits on energy extraction.

– Heather Menzies

Source: http://peoplesclimate.org/

Source: http://peoplesclimate.org/

# 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 350.org 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 350.org 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.”

David Bollier reviews Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Commons blogger David Bollier has reviewed Heather’s new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good.

“The great virtue of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good is its willingness to probe into the deep personal and spiritual dimensions of commoning — while not losing sight of the entrenched, all-too-real political and policy structures that also must be confronted.  We need more such approaches to the commons — because if the commons aspires to bring about a more integrated, holistic way of life and self-governance, we must begin to pay as much attention to the inner, invisible mysteries as the outer, visible dramas.”

Read the full review on David’s blog.

My new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good begins as a memoir, my personal journey into the Highlands of Scotland to find that place on earth where my ancestors once lived in direct relations with the land, in self-governing commons.  It ends with a manifesto that identifies commons-keeping practices that could be reclaimed today. I link these practices to some promising initiatives in current social movements to frame what I see as a possibly emergent movement to reclaim the commons of earth, and perhaps a lost identity as commoners, too.

Order your copy from New Society Publishers today!

Heather`s New Book: Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Book cover: Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

“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. There’s more than a little irony in the fact that it is the indigenous people all over the world who are at the forefront of the struggle to rescue us from the fate that the most technologically advanced societies are creating, day by day. There’s not much time, and it’s a huge task. I hope what this book has the impact it deserves.”
— Noam Chomsky

“Globalization of the corporate mandate — maximize growth and profit — has been incredibly destructive of the social and ecological fabric that are the keys to sustainability. When the great Crash, ecologic or economic, comes, Heather Menzies’ brilliant critique, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, provides an understanding of why it came about and a path towards a truly sustainable way for humanity to live on the planet.” — David Suzuki

Commoning was a way of life for most of our ancestors. In Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, author Heather Menzies journeys to her roots in the Scottish Highlands, where her family lived in direct relation with the land since before recorded time.

Beginning with an intimate account of unearthing the heritage of the commons and the real tragedy of its loss, Menzies offers a detailed description of the self-organizing, self-governing and self-informing principles of this nearly forgotten way of life, including its spiritual practices and traditions. She then identifies pivotal commons practices that could be usefully revived today. A final ‘manifesto’ section pulls these facets together into a unified vision for reclaiming the commons, drawing a number of current popular initiatives into the commons and commoning frame – such as local food security, permaculture and the Occupy Movement.

An engaging memoir of personal and political discovery, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good combines moving reflections on our common heritage with a contemporary call to action, individually and collectively, locally and globally. Readers will be inspired by the book’s vision of reviving the commons ethos of empathy and mutual respect, and energized by her practical suggestions for connecting people and place for the common good.

Order your copy from New Society Publishers today!