Month: November 2007
A good day. A good week. I’ve spent these last warm days of autumn on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota with John Willis, a photographer and professor at Marlboro College in Vermont, and his wife, Pauline. John and I are collaborating on a book of his photographs. My charge — and it is as wonderful a charge as a writer can get — is to use my words to create a parallel text to John’s photographs. I am not to provide commentary or to write cut lines. This is a book of two artists responding to the same environment and experience through their respective art forms. I am both honored and excited to be able to share pages with John.
John has been going to the Rez for well over a decade. He and I first met through a program he runs there in the summer. It is called “Exposures,” and it attracted me with its authenticity and integrity. In Exposures, he takes young people from Vermont, the Bronx, the Navajo reservation, and other disparate cultural settings and brings them together with young people from Pine Ridge. They all work together on photography projects that document the people, places, and life on Pine Ridge.
So many projects, well intentioned and necessary as they are, focus on providing assistance and service. John tries to build upon strength. If he gives, which he does regularly, it is quietly and personally. In that way he echoes what I so appreciate about NANAI, the program from the Netherlands about which I just wrote. There is so much need on the Rez and so much sadness and poverty, that it is hard not to focus exclusively on need and deficiency. When you find people who acknowledge the need and deficiency, but try to build upon strength, you have found rare people, indeed.
I am excited to work with John on this book of his photographs, because we both see something far deeper and far more important than the sadness and poverty. We see the power of the people, the culture, and the land.
I invite all of you to view a few of John’s photographs at http://www.jwillis.net.
I’m going to make a strange comment, and I ask you to hear me out before you slam the computer shut in astonishment:
When I think back on the journey to the Netherlands and Iceland, I keep being haunted by the thought that the Netherlands is perhaps the greatest possible cultural manifestation of Christian values regarding the land, while Iceland is a perfect embodiment of pagan values regarding the land.
Now, stay with me.
The Christian charge regarding the earth is to subdue it and make it fruitful. More than anyplace I’ve ever been, the Netherlands has been successful in subduing the earth and bending her to its purposes. That they have done so gently and respectfully, and in the service of human good, is much to their credit. They have claimed land from the sea, they have run watercourses throughout their country, they have bred flowers and foods that increase human health and the experience of human beauty. They have, to the extent that it is possible, been gentle stewards of the land in the best manner of the Biblical injunction.
Iceland, on the other hand, has harnessed some of the power of the land in terms of such technologies as geothermal energy, but mostly they have adapted to its commands and demands, making an honest genuflection to its power and dominance. They make small roads, they live on what the land will bear in its natural cultivation rather than creating artificial environments to grow plants and animals that do not naturally thrive there, they leave great stones in their roadways if those stones have a historical precedent as having spiritual power. To travel across their country is to sense the presence of nature, not the presence of culture.
What strikes me as I consider these two worlds through which I passed is how viable each seems as a human adaptation to the land. We are, by our nature, culture builders. We do not live as feral beings and we do not live in a world of adaptation devoid of the exercise of imagination. That the Dutch have looked upon their environment and tried to master it, and the Icelanders have looked upon theirs and tried to fit into it, does not change the fact that each has, in its own way, tried to exercise a worthy stewardship over the piece of earth it calls its own.
The peril we face today does not come from such differing philosophies of how to serve as stewards of the earth, but from the failure to exercise control over how we act upon those philosophies. If the preservation and sustenance of the earth is not a core value in a culture’s philosophy; if the long term good of the earth is trumped by the belief in the short term good of the individual, then the land on which those people live will inevitably come to grief.
This is not a political position, it is a simple fact. Each person pursuing his or her self interest does not necessarily add up to the best interest of the land. It takes an active decision to believe that acting in the earth’s interest is actually in your own self interest. For a long time this seemed like a philosophical canard and little more. But, as the condition of the earth is shown to be ever more fragile and the threats to it ever more borderless and international, what was a philosophical canard is fast becoming a practical grounds for personal and governmental action.
In the last analysis, it does not matter how we look at the earth — as Christians, pagans, Muslims, Hindus,Taoists or Confucians or atheists or Jews — so long as we look at it as the place that must sustain our children. If we put aside our philosophical and political differences, if we recognize that the earth on which we walk must remain healthy enough to hold the footsteps of our children, we can truly weave the tapestry of cultures that the dreamers among us envision.
But if we don’t; if, when making our decisions, we refuse to look into the eyes of the children and grandchildren all around the world, that tapestry will be torn and destroyed before it is ever woven.
Then the winds that blow will be ill winds indeed, and none of us will need a weatherman to know which way those winds blow.