Pardon me while I write about something that has nothing to do with MD or PhD life.
I remember when I was small I was taught about Native American culture. They taught us the differences between their culture and the culture of the White settlers, and how such differences were a source of tension and conflict. I don’t remember much detail because I was very young. I do remember, though, that what happened to the Native peoples was taught to us as being truly sad and tragic. There was the story of the Trail of Tears, ambushes and massacres, and the general view that “Indians” were savage and uncivilized. They were often seen as animals, and frequently treated worse. It was obvious that the White settlers of the time were the villains of the story. White government agents signed treaties and broke them. Finally, tribes were expelled from their lands and moved onto reservations, many of which remain to this day — a legacy of the White man’s cruelty.
I remember my teachers describing the dichotomy of values toward the land: the settlers sought to own the land, while the Natives sought to be a part of it. The White man saw the land as property to be claimed, and the Native saw the land as a life-giver to be respected. One felt compelled to dominate and tame the wild places; the other felt compelled to protect and harmonize with the wild places. One viewed bison as a stupid beast to be killed for sport and wasted; the other viewed bison as a fellow dependent of mother earth to be used with great respect and efficiency. One thought of bears and wolves as dangerous, scary, and a nuissance; the other saw them as powerful, magnificent, and respected. One felt his destiny was to rule over the earth and its creatures; the other felt his destiny was to achieve balance and harmony with the earth and its creatures.
Of course, much of what I learned was an oversimplified generalization. I’m sure that much of the story was romanticized, making White men seem evil and Native Americans seem saintly. But what strikes me today is how similar we are now to the negative traits (fictitious or not) in those White men of old. The writing between the lines of what I was taught was, “yes, our ancestors did bad things, but we’re better now”. I now think of that idea and question it’s veracity. We still seek to dominate and own the land. We view animals more as property than as coexistent beings. We seek to develop the few remaining wild places of the country under the guise of making them more “accessible”, building highways through forests so that semi-trucks can give deer, raccoons, porcupines, and any other animal a traumatic and unnatural death. (I have hit a deer with my car once before, and nothing about it felt right or good.) We continue to expand our population, and where there are wild grasses or groves of trees on a bought-and-paid-for patch of land, we often raze it to lay down asphalt or concrete to either park upon or build upon. Our cities further encroach upon wilderness, and we wonder why there are deer and other animals in our suburbs. And many still look down upon the Native Americans who live upon the reservations and we judge them for having problems with alcohol, violence, poverty, and education — we think of them as uncivilized. In fact, we do the same thing about any number of groups of people.
We, as a people, are still much like the White man of those old stories. We still seek to use the land for our own purposes rather than harmonize with it. We view the Earth and its life as a resource to be exploited. We see the Earth much in the same way that we see a convenience store. It makes me sad that we haven’t learned from the past. With our words we vilify the White man of the past as being greedy and racist and wholly cruel, but with our actions we continue down the same path that they did. We justify ourselves by saying that we do it more respectfully, or that we do it with a greater eye for sustainability. And in some cases that may be true. We have, in truth, improved upon some things. But the overarching theme of our culture continues to be one of domination, expansion, and exploitation.
I am, of course, complicit in all of this. The very fact that I’m posting this on the internet is evidence that I am. I wish I weren’t. I should seek better ways to not be so. But even being complicit in its destruction, there is a part of me that longs to abandon the city and live with nature, harmonize with this planet that provides us all that we need for life. Inside of me is a little boy that wishes he could hear the wind blow across a quiet mountain meadow instead of the din of the city. Not just on vacation, but always. I hate that we have replaced the sound of crickets and natural night with the hum of artificial lights that blot out the stars. At times I find it odd that we spend so much effort and money grooming and preening and pruning our lawns and rosebushes and flower gardens as if we somehow know how to improve upon nature. The beauty of plant life isn’t enough, so we have to arrange it in neat little rows and cut every blade of grass so it is the same length. Keep the hedges trimmed so they’re neatly and symmetrically shaped. We take the massive and beautiful diversity of nature and strive to homogenize it. We attempt to tame, to domesticate, and to civilize the wild.
I don’t pretend that this model of society has been wholly unsuccessful. Our domination of nature has allowed us to do much. I question, though, whether doing much should really be our goal. I do lament the arrogance of modern humanity in its continuous pursuit of expansion and domination over mother Earth. And I admire those whose values foster a respect and coexistence with Earth and nature. We all depend on the Earth for life, and we share this dependency with every living creature on the planet. In this way we can think of ourselves as brothers and sisters of the wolves, bears, deer, moose, trees, plants, and so on. We all arise from, receive sustenance from, and return to the same dust, from the same Earth. We are all connected. In this way, I feel that protecting the few remaining wild places on this Earth is more important than just protecting species from extinction. Finding a deep inner connection with the planet and its life brings greater meaning to being alive. Nature has become a novelty for so many — a vacation destination akin to Disneyland. And this makes me sad. The true beauty of the natural world exists beyond simple aesthetics. It is much more profoundly meaningful than that. It touches something deep inside of me in a way that cannot be described with words.