Rewriting the Human Story

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Rewriting the Human Story

Detail of painting, "Mariposa Indian Encampment, Yosemite Valley, California," by Albert Bierstadt, ca. 1872. Looking back on our history, Koehler asks, 'How do we heal — and atone for — the damage we’ve done?' (Public domain)

Oh sacred planet.

The terror of climate crisis is a long time in the making. As I read about the mass mobilization forming around the upcoming U.N. climate change convention, which is likely to accomplish far too little — because what’s needed is change at the roots of civilization — I feel a desperate impatience, a tearing at my soul. What can I do that’s bigger than anger, bigger than a demand for governmental and corporate entities to make changes they are essentially incapable of making?

Maybe I can help rewrite the story of civilization, which means unwriting the present story. From the Dark Mountain Manifesto, for instance, here are two of the “eight principles of uncivilization”:

“We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature.’ These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.

“We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.”

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With this in mind, I think about my family’s trip to Yellowstone National Park when I was a teenager (sometime in the previous century) and the tourist awe I felt as I gaped at Old Faithful and the gurgling springs and the incredible vistas of the Yellowstone River. America, America, God shed His grace on thee . . . know what I’m saying?

We’ve been preserving slices of scenic “wilderness” — keeping them out of our own exploitative reach — for 150 years now. What could possibly be wrong with that?

The problem, it turns out, is that the national park system is full of the bloodstains of American history. Manifest destiny meant the conquest of nature as well as the conquest of the continent’s indigenous inhabitants. It was all part of the same militarized arrogance.

“The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California’s San Joaquin River,” Eric Michael Johnson wrote a year ago in Scientific American, describing a vicious U.S. military attack on the Ahwahneechee tribe, whose forebears had lived in — and been deeply part of — the Yosemite Valley (as we renamed it) for thousands of years. Before we created the national park system, we drove out the people who lived there and, ironically, functioned as stewards of the land. They had kept it in eco-balance with a remarkably complex understanding of nature. Too bad. Now the land “belonged” to the newcomers, who had long, long ago dismissed the value of such understanding.

Turns out eco-stewardship doesn’t mean simply putting “nature” behind a glass case. Human beings have an active role to play in sustaining, as opposed to merely exploiting, the Earth’s ecosystems. After a century of U.S. occupation and the disappearance of controlled undergrowth burning, Johnson noted, “the Yosemite Valley biodiversity had actually declined, trees were now 20 percent smaller, and the forest was more vulnerable to catastrophic fires than it had been before the U.S. Army and armed vigilantes expelled the native population.”

And we didn’t simply expel the native population. We did our best to drive it — both the people and their cultural wisdom — into nonexistence. What we couldn’t kill we humiliated.

“Native Americans were evicted from almost all the American parks, but a few Ahwahneechee people were tolerated inside Yosemite for a few more decades,” Stephen Corry, director of Survivor International, wrote recently at Truthout. “They were forced to serve tourists and act out humiliating ‘Indian days’ for the visitors. The latter wanted the Indians they saw in the movies, so the Ahwahneechee had to dress and dance as if they were from the Great Plains. If they didn’t serve the park, they were out — and they all did finally die or leave, with their last dwellings deliberately and ignominiously burned down in a fire drill in 1969.”

The American conservation movement, Corry maintains, was just another aspect of colonialism. This was Western civilization in high gear, busy dominating tribal cultures and nature itself, proceeding with utter certainty, both moral and scientific, that it had no need to be part of the circle of life.

Only now, with Western moral rectitude in an advanced stage of collapse — and environmental catastrophe looming — are people in large numbers coming to realize how deeply, profoundly problematic our domination-based worldview really is.

“Even without considering questions of human rights and the intrinsic value of cultures,” environmentalist Alan Durning told Worldwatch Institute, “indigenous survival is a matter of crucial importance. We in the world’s dominant cultures simply cannot sustain the earth’s ecological health without the help of the world’s endangered cultures.”

And so the new story begins here, as we grope wondrously for the wisdom we’ve forgotten. How do we heal — and atone for — the damage we’ve done? How do we reclaim a sacred connection with our planet? How do we stop killing ourselves?

Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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