How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Giving Thanks and Other Ironies of American Lore

The following is a re-run and minor edit of a post by the same name that I wrote last year. Happy Thanksgiving to all, including the black, red and white humans and non-humans that must endure the legacy of of colonialism.

390 years ago, a group of religious refugees landed on the shores of Massachusetts in the general vicinity of modern day Plymouth. Contrary to popular American folklore, religious persecution was not the primary motive for the emigration of the Pilgrims from Europe. This first wave of Puritans to reach North American was intent on establishing a “holy kingdom” on Earth, while they awaited Armageddon, which they were convinced, was imminent. The Puritans were political as well as religious radicals in their homeland and attempts to overthrow parliamentary rule in the United Kingdom to create a utopian theocracy had repeatedly failed. So they ventured to the New World intent on creating their Shangri-La.

The Pilgrims firmly believed they were God’s chosen people and that others who did not share their version of religious purity were instruments of Satan. While victims of bigotry themselves, they spared no judgment for their non-Puritan fellow men. Being God’s chosen, they assumed God would shelter them on their journey and provide for them upon their arrival in America. One can but imagine their dismay and surprise when as many as half their numbers perished in the Atlantic crossing and immediate aftermath from starvation and disease. God must have been testing them.

Although the Pilgrims were to form the first permanent English settlement in the current territory of the United States (the Spanish had settled Florida more than 50 years earlier), the Pilgrims were not the first Englishmen to arrive on the North American shores. Numerous expeditions and trade ships had preceded the landing at Plymouth, so by the time the Puritans arrived, the native Wampanoag Indian population had already been decimated by a robust slave trade and exotic diseases like measles and small pox.

The Native American star of the Thanksgiving story, Sqanto (who’s real name was Tisquantum), had several years previously befriended an English ship captain and sailed to Europe where he gained employment as a ship builder. Upon his return home however, Tisquantum was apprehended by a slave trader and sold to a Spanish Caribbean colony. While enslaved, he was rescued by a Franciscan monk, who managed to find passage for Tisquantum to Europe. From Europe, he finally made his way back to his familial home in New England in 1619 to find his tribe and people annihilated.

Roughly a year later, the Pilgrims arrived and attempted to make a living for themselves off a landscape they were woefully unequipped to deal with. In the age of year-round produce from around the world, it is difficult to imagine the Pilgrims would have been completely unfamiliar with the native North American flora and fauna. The seeds they brought with them for crops, like wheat, were not suited to the New England climate and soils, and they could not distinguish edible wild foods from toxic ones.

Given Tisquantum’s previous experience with Europeans, and the personal tragedy of his people, our contemporary, individualist, every man for himself mentality might beg the question, “Why on Earth did Squanto help the Pilgrims?” If he had left them to themselves, they all would have almost assuredly, died. But the Wampanoag people were constructed of a different moral standard than the Europeans who displaced them. Tisquantum and his people had an irrevocable tradition of sharing with those in need. Not offering food and support to the starving Pilgrims would have been paramount to murdering them in Wampanoag culture, so Squanto helped them. He taught them how to build shelters (wigwams) from trees and bark. He shared the native seeds of the three sisters, corn, squash and bean and taught them how to fertilize the soil with fish. He taught them to find wild foods and natural medicines and to identify poisonous plants. The Pilgrims survived.

In order to give thanks for enduring the first difficult year, the Pilgrims invited the Indians to a feast of Thanksgiving in 1621. When the Indians arrived en masse, it was evident the feast was pathetically under rationed, so the Indians sent a party to secure more provisions. Consequently, the Indians provided most of the food at this “first” Thanksgiving. The fare would have included wild turkey, but also fish, deer, squash, beans and corn and a variety of wild foods. The feast lasted for three days and was to mark a peace treaty of sorts. The Wampanoag granted to the Pilgrims the land area of their Plymouth colony and presumed that was the end of that.

But the puritanical Pilgrims had other ideas. When desperate, they were happy to accept the help of the satanic savages, but once restored to health and vitality, they were free to pursue their agenda of the spiritual purification of their new holy kingdom. More Puritans arrived in boatloads from Europe. As their numbers increased, the Puritans began a campaign to rid the land of its native people. Colonists repeatedly ransacked and pilfered Indian food stores and established colonies throughout the New England territory driving the native people from the land. Perceiving themselves as God’s chosen people, the Puritans felt entitled to the land and justified in all their unscrupulous actions. Some aspects of American culture haven't changed.

Eventually the perpetual conflict between the different cultures erupted in warfare. The King Phillip’s War, named for the Wampanoag Sachem, Pometacom (derisively named King Phillip by the settlers), ended badly for the Indians and resulted in massive exodus of the native people from their land into the Canadian territories. The rest, as they say, is history.

The ritual of Thanksgiving is as old as the history of the human species and transcends all cultures and places. At the time of the landing at Plymouth, The Wampanoag and other Native American peoples of the region participated in six annual celebrations of Thanksgiving to commemorate the seasons of the year and the bounty of nature. Thanksgiving for America’s indigenous cultures is a ritual of sharing and gratitude.

Sadly, this Thanksgiving, many Americans continue in the Puritan tradition, believing themselves to be a chosen people entitled to all the spoils they can accumulate. Those of us who have ample food on the table, heat for our homes, medical care and adequate finances for our children’s educations should be truly thankful, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day. We are a minority in the world, and we should never forget our wealth comes at the profound expense of others.

‘And a voice said, “All over the universe they have finished a day of happiness.” And looking down, I saw that the whole wide circle of the day was beautiful and green, with all fruits growing and all things kind and happy. Then a voice said, “Behold this day, for it is yours to make…” And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy (Black Elk, The Great Vision).’


Monday, November 7, 2011

Sneeches, Money and the Real Value of Wilderness

I was born into a concrete jungle in South Florida, where sawgrass rivers were dredged, drained and cut into neat quarter-acre, paved and cultivated parcels. Between the grid of asphalt and single-car garages, narrow glimpses of green could be seen, but the only unobstructed view of wide-open, unspoiled space was that of the blue sky. Even then, one had to blot out the overhead wires and frequent jet trails that obscured a clean view of an undegraded world.

Like a wild animal or prisoner in a jail cell, my childhood self always felt trapped by the each of the little human destructions of nature many refer to as “civilization.” I carved out an ecological niche amongst the broken cracks in the sidewalks where the ants and earthworms dwelled. Or in the sodden recesses of an old ficus, where pigeons laid treasure troves of small, white eggs. My home was a leafy, sheltered cave under a cycad or a perch, high up in a friendly tree. Even in the total absence of wilderness, my childish soul craved and sought out wild, natural spaces. Doesn’t everybody?

When my family and I first moved to the Turks and Caicos Islands over twenty years ago, I felt like I had been freed from my captivity. The TCI of those days was a largely naked wilderness. One could walk for miles down pristine shorelines or scramble through endless forest and shrubland, discovering new individual species in a seemingly infinite wilderness of biodiversity. People lived close to the land. The bountiful sea provided ample subsistence for all and a general isolation from the commercial centers of the world meant that consumerism was entirely unknown. We had no television. The tyranny of stuff and money was non-existent, so people simply got on with enjoying their carefree lives.

It wasn’t long before the speculators found paradise. First, Club Med arrived, which wasn’t too bad. Part of the Club Med philosophy at the time was to blend in with the surrounding community. For the most part, they remained relatively unobtrusive, but they opened the door and then every investor with dollar signs in his eyes wanted his own slice of paradise to develop for profit.

As each of the finite pieces of virgin beachfront succumbed to bulldozers, a more insidious change began to transform the land. Televisions now blared the mantras of commerce and large container ships delivered the now much-sought-after things to a land that once only knew seashells and hand-made toys. Instead of simply enjoying life, hearts were now set on procuring dollars and a frenzy of land sales ensued. People who once cooperated as a matter of existence now scrambled over one another to see who could collect the most pieces of the coveted capital pie.

I can’t understand what people are thinking when they survey a perfect, unspoiled landscape and lust for its dollar value destroyed. What do men think when they view a wild beach unobstructed by the inferior constructions of humans and imagine marring them with sterile monuments? How does one reconcile a caribou-swept Alaskan wilderness and imagine it cleared and blackened with the sickening stench of crude. This must be a disease. A disease called money. Money alone has the ability to render people senseless. Its pursuit becomes paramount to the extent that one forgets what is lost in its wake. When nature is converted to dollars, what does one gain but a few meaningless pieces of paper?

Dr. Seuss tells a tale of a group of island birds known as the Sneeches. The Sneeches in Seuss’s tale fall victim to a fix-it-up Chappie, who engages the Sneeches in the meaningless commerce of placing and removing stars from their bellies, convincing them that status is afforded to those who have exactly the right arrangement of stars. The Sneeches fall prey to this lunacy, just as modern humans are convinced that various automobiles or articles of clothing will set them apart from their peers. After the Chappie relieves the Sneeches of all their capital, he laughs as he makes his way to the next gullible consumer with the adage, “you can’t teach a Sneech.”

In Seuss’s fairy tale, the Sneeches actually do learn from their mistake and enter into a new lifestyle where stars or “whether they have one or not upon thars” becomes irrelevant. When will we learn?

With the recent economic global collapse, the Turks and Caicos Islands are enjoying a lull in their development boom. Vast areas of wilderness still remain unscathed. Let’s hope the people of these precious islands gain insight into preserving what is left before the next onslaught converting the priceless into meaningless paper ensues.