Panel 4: Belongings

From engineered landscapes to agriculture: The cultivated wild in prehistoric North America
Kevin O'Briant
Paleo Systems

With Rob Whitehair and Pam Voth 
Tree and Sky Media Arts

Is the Indigenous gone feral? From spirits to the spirit of climate change
Dr. Mary Keller
Associate Academic Professional Lecturer, Religious Studies
University of Wyoming

Towards cohabitation: from conflict management to the creation of multispecies communities
Dr. Susan Boonman-Berson
Bear At Work

Comments 9

  1. Nau mai, haere mai. Greetings and welcome to you all. My name is Trisia Farrelly. I am Co-Director of the Political Ecology Research Centre, and it is my absolute pleasure to Chair this panel.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed watching this wonderfully eclectic collection of presentations. This panel has certainly highlighted the interdisciplinary quality encouraged in this conference. I don’t know if you have access to the following Radio New Zealand broadcast of an interview with the key organiser of this conference, Nick Holm:

    In the interview, Nick does a fabulous job of troubling the notion of ‘ferality.’ Some his comments highlight a number of points raised by the speakers in this panel. One of those was about the need to consider territories beyond those culturally constructed by humans, and to consider those culturally constructed by non-humans (including spirits) more accurately as mutually constituted processes of human and non-human interrelationships. Which brings in another key theme I drew from this panel: the dynamic nature of ‘nature’ (in the most complex, integrated and holistic sense). Due to the dynamic nature of human-environment relationships and their inherent complexity, humans would do well to practice humility in the ways they profess to be able to ‘manage’ ecosystems and to make clear the limits of their knowledge – those ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ that permeate all knowledge systems.

    So my question for this panel and conference attendees is as follows:

    “To what extent is a panel entitled ‘Belonging’ legitimate in a feral-themed conference since the very word itself (feral) implies resistance to order, to place, and to people?”

    I would like to encourage you to post follow-up questions and responses to this panel this week. Also, please feel free to completely ignore my question if you would prefer to answer a different question or respond to another comment posted here!

    Don’t forget to check out the other great panels open this week too.

    Ngā mihi

    1. I want to pick up the question regarding belonging. Be longing. Feral, being related to funeral invokes longing. Resisting order also suggests to me longing. Belonging is always a struggle of inside and outside.

  2. I have a question for dr. Mary Keller. Thank you for a thought-provoking presentation; I learnt a lot from it. My question is about the implications of your argument for the politics and public discourses of climate change: what do you think is the ‘added value’ of thinking about the climate changes in such spiritual terms, i.e. as ‘the great bad spirit’; what is this perspective able to illuminate and to show that secular discourses of climate change are unable to illuminate? Thank you.

    1. This is a great question. Let’s make sure I have your question correct. What purchase or pragmatic efficacy do I think comes with the name “The Spirit of Climate Change”?
      1) Weather and natural disasters invoke “OMG” language. If you watch videos of the floods in West Virginia, or the people fleeing fires in CA, the voices in those videos keep saying Oh My God. Maybe Holy Shit. Our brains turn to language that invokes power beyond human ken, and the language suggests a kind of supplication. People recognize that they are overcome and they are asking for a “belonging” or connection to that power by naming it. Holy Shit is not far from being a prayer from this irreverent but serious perspective. This tells us something important about humans and language. I predict that people will turn to language that invokes religious registers of power as they encounter their precarity in a biosphere gone feral. I would say that this is already happening as a kind of deeply repressed political unconscious that is erupting with nativist resolution, willing to sacrifice the enemies that are the actual cause of this problem. Remember–religious people have a very ambivalent record with regard to their reactions to “others.” By naming it the Spirit of Climate Change, I like to think I can take a little air out of the bubbles of anxiety, repression, fear. So I hope to have a pragmatic impact at the level of people who look for religious language, and who might find some relief in considering the Spirit of Climate Change by someone who does not label it as good or evil, but rather places us in history in relationship to something bigger than us. It’s not that those people are listening to me–anymore than they are listening to climate scientists. But it is one of my vainglorious hopes.
      Among my interdisciplinary colleagues, I want to plunge into what that religious language (OMH, Holy Shit, the Spirit of Climate Change) means from the analytical perspective of the comparative study of religion so that other experts can strategize their rhetoric in the narration of climate change. It is my experience that audiences nod their heads when I call abrupt climate crises “OMG weather.” My scientific and social scientific friends have seen this turn to theological language but they never thought it was more than simple exclamations. When I bring in the idea that humans search for symbolic language that points to power that is outside of human control, they generally get the deep significance of this insight on language for the narration of our situation. It can be a relief to them to realize that “religious” approaches to climate crises can be analyzed for their discursive function relating to the human vulnerability to the power of weather.
      2) The study of spirit possession has offered some insights about human agency that have been important to feminist theorists, post-colonial theorists, and philosophers of “agency.” I study bodies that are receptive to forces that are ambivalent. Forces that lift them up and speak through them. Forces with historical knowledge that wields a person in ways they don’t understand. It used to be that spirit possession would have been perceived by most academics as a bizarre throwback to pre-Enlightenment knowledge. It used to be that possessed people would have been understood using “deprivation theories” in which the person was evaluated to be poor, uneducated, weak, hysterical. But now, across the humanities and even into cognitive sciences, economics, and evolutionary biology, we do not see a “rational, self-possessed individual” as the norm with which value is adjudicated. Now it makes sense to most fields of study that humans are spoken-through more than they are speaking, due to biological, economic, sociological constellations. In my focus on narrating human agency in the time of climate change, where even the indigenous has gone feral, I find it useful to compare our experiences of being moved and vulnerable to abrupt climate crises to this new normative model whereby our question becomes “How do I move with, negotiate with, navigate with this spirit afoot?”

      3)Recalling Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies, who the governing authorites argued “must not be named,” I think I am stepping into the breach between the public and the scientists when I use the name “The Spirit of Climate Change”. I try to do so with some levity to puncture nativist reactions across the board. People across this spectrum can choose to do what they want with the name, but I think it has purchase. People in faith traditions who have been trying to pray their way out of climate crises can be challenged to turn and face the Spirit of Climate Change rather than pretend its not there, and with such a turn toward its religious significance (it’s bigger than you are and so you will need help, to put it simply in traditional form), realizing that they can get closer to the face of their god by looking at the truth of climate change. Will they secure refuge for the most vulnerable or will they build walls? In terms of scientists, they generally dislike the idea of “beliefs” and instead want data. I can bring them data about a history for which they might have little awareness, but perhaps growing curiosity. Now that the scientist have witnessed the forty year delay in action that has benefited from Christian Evangelicalism partnered with the extractive industries under the guise of conservative politics with the idea that God is in charge, my data has greater interest with regard to the narration. So also, many of us who look consistently at the crisis laying itself out may find some intellectual refuge in naming the damn thing as we witness the rapid developments.

      Does that help answer your query? You’ve helped me to think this through and I appreciate the question. I think I have some more issues to chew on with regard to giving this talk, and my next book, a practical edge. I hope to hear more from you.

  3. I would like begin my comments by addressing Trisia’s question, “To what extent is a panel entitled ‘Belonging’ legitimate in a feral-themed conference since the very word itself (feral) implies resistance to order, to place, and to people?”

    “Belonging” implies boundaries; to belong means to be within a bounded group or category. And arbitrary boundaries are a fundamental problem of a reductionist worldview that persistently puts things into categories, whether those categories are species, academic disciplines, native vs. non-native living things, or the “human” vs. the “natural”. A multi-disciplinary conference can and should explore and explode those classifications. What I was attempting to convey in my presentation was the arbitrary nature of the boundaries between nature and humanity. Many of us live in societies where these boundaries have been imposed so insistently that they have become quite real. However, as Mark Davis described in his keynote address on novel ecologies, we don’t have to leave these boundaries uncontested. Or, as he put it “I am of the planet Earth and nothing that is earthly is alien to me.”

    Which brings me to Mary Keller’s discussion of indigeneity, which she defined as a “term of difference meant to signal an intimate relationship with nature.” In my research on prehistoric and historic indigenous North American societies, and especially the way those societies interacted with non-human species, that difference is quite profound. The inseparability of human life from that which sustains it in many Native American/First Nations societies is axiomatic. The subtlety of the North American archaeological record underscores this point: identifying the evidence for human impact on the prehistoric landscape is extremely difficult. Also in line with Mary’s point, this inseparability between humanity and nature extends into the spiritual realm as well.

    And that brings me to bears, and Susan Boonman-Berson’s presentation. In 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition followed the Missouri River up into modern-day Montana. While moving through the northern plains, they experienced numerous violent encounters with grizzly bears in a place where they are all but extirpated today. In his essay “Frenchmen, Bears, and Sandbars” (from the 2006 book Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes), Vine Deloria, Jr., a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, marvels at these violent interactions, and contrasts them with Native relationships: “Why this response from grizzlies as the party moved across the land? Did the bears see vulnerability in the white men they could not detect in the Indians? The Indians of all tribes had a long-standing and complex relationship with bears. For many tribes the bear was a prophet…. Other tribes saw the bear as a medicine animal…. The Utes…saw the bear as a religious personality and their bear dance reflected the status he enjoyed with them.”

    In late summer and early fall, bears come out of the mountains into communities like mine to feed on ripening apple trees and to fatten up for a long winter’s hibernation. One solution to avoiding negative human-bear interactions where I live is to consciously collect this fallen fruit for making cider, forcing the bears to look elsewhere for food. People in a community on the neighboring Salish and Kootenai Indian reservation took a different approach: planting chokecherry and serviceberry trees and bushes on the far margins of town, so the bears would be able to feed themselves there and leave the humans and their apples in town alone. The two different cultural approaches are illuminating.

    I believe the reason why there appears to be such a profound difference between the domesticated and the feral in our industrialized societies today is because we have lost the give-and-take that interconnectedness requires. Our relationships with species like bears or maize has historically been dialectical: we interacted with one another and created new possibilities together. Today, we impose our will on the world around us. We give other species no quarter or freedom to evolve with us; our maize is engineered, controlled, planted and harvested by massive computer-controlled machines; electric fences (and solid doorknobs) keep the bears out of our built environments while we further fragment their habitats with houses and screaming highways. But these electric fences, these boundaries, deny the fundamental truth of our existence: our lives are inseparable from the natural world which sustains us.

    1. Thanks all for your great questions and discussion! The discussion triggers a lot to me. And I completely agree with Kevin O’Briant’s view on this. By the way, I will look for the book you mentioned. I have been in Montana for half a year, years ago, and I also went to see one of those bison jumps. These are indeed controlled hunts, but completely different than the ‘controlled’ hunts we have nowadays (shooting specific amounts of animals or other ways of hunting, but no ‘jumps’). With the ‘jumps’ the hunt didn’t end after the jump (if I understand correctly), there was also a trajectory with the dead bison after the actual ‘jump’, while the controlled hunts nowadays often end after the bullet has been shot and the animal is dead. The animal if often brought to the butcher. And to think about the relation and processes between humans and animals in such a way, including the dead ones, is actually really interesting to think about.

      Another word that triggers me, is the word control, and with that I also reflect on the ‘belonging’ of this session. Traditionally, in most western management practices, we manage from the idea of ‘we need to have control over’ the other (in my case other animals). This idea of having control over is also reflected in the use of many categorizations in wildlife management. For instance, native versus invasive, wild or domesticated etc. However, designating these animals or plants as e.g. invasive or e.g. problematic can be very dramatic for them, mostly they will be killed. The rigidity of such categories in policy and formal management is also a problem in how they –should be (can they even be?) implemented in practice; practice is very messy, dynamic etc. Indeed, as Kevin states, there remains hardly any space in most western societies ‘to evolve with’ the other animals, think along with them, dare to adopt a dynamic way of management. Perhaps we should even think about ‘rewilding’ our own mind? Said that, often ‘wild’ is said to belong to wild nature (whatever that might be), or belong somewhere else, but not here, where we live. Equally ‘feral’ is also such a term, what does it say? Is there a feral space to be found somewhere, e.g. a buffer zone in-between wild versus domesticated, and how to discriminate between all these spaces and animals living there. To me, the answer in finding ways to live together with ‘the other’ (whether we call that a wild or feral other being). Such ways of living can be found in what Kevin brought up in illuminating the different approaches of ‘living with’ bears in two communities, one is not better than the other, they work. The interesting thing is, what makes them work? I mean, in one way or another the humans and bears have learned to understand each other. That is just fascinating! (I guess, I should return to Montana 🙂 ). We – humans – are (in the middle of) nature. With our co-fellow plants and animals we need to understand and as such live with them in a very dynamic and creative ways instead of trying to have control over them.

      1. If you haven’t been there yet, I found Jonathan Wald’s presentation and comments in the Conservation panel very interesting with respect to this notion of “control”, because he sees ferality as an “escape from control” or an “undomestication”. As an archaeologist, I was coming at this from the opposite direction, i.e., how did we get to this level of control? Not so much the reverse process. Perhaps some rewilding of my mind is in order.

  4. Kevin, Would it be the case that after the industrial revolution, one would say that run away global warming is the ecological niche that humans have built?

    1. On the broadest possible scale, yes. Much in the way that the construction and abandonment of that rail yard in Berlin (from Mark Davis’ keynote presentation) resulted in an ecological niche that was subsequently occupied by the “novel ecosystem” that is today’s Südgelände Railway Park, we are inadvertently creating a global ecological niche that is clearly deleterious to many species, but perhaps good for others. On the other hand, I would contrast this with the sort of deliberate cultural niche construction characterized by Columbia Plateau tribes’ maintenance of camas lily prairies. Global warming is the unconscious creation of an ecological niche and we have yet to see what species will choose (or be able) to occupy it.

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