Weekend Review: Becoming Native to This Place by Wes Jackson

Becoming Native to This Place
If we accept the fact that our society is increasingly disconnected from our natural surroundings and that disconnection is intimately linked with a host of serious problems, climate change among them, we are often left to wonder exactly what we are to do about it. If the problem is the way that we all see the world, how does an entire society shift its mindset? Becoming Native to This Place (1994) by Wes Jackson is the manuscript version of a speech that he delivered in 1991 as part of the Blazer Lectures at the University of Kentucky. Founder of The Land Institute near Salina, Kansas, Jackson's writing is both simple and straightforward as well as touchingly profound.
The crux of his argument, and the source of his title, is that Americans need to stop behaving as if we are newcomers to this country and treating the land as a bottomless basket of goodies from which we can take and take and take without giving anything back or considering the consequences. The positive alternative he poses is that we start interacting with our surroundings as if we are part of them. As if we are native to them.

This is a very slim volume, but Jackson packs it with a wealth of information. He explores how we got to this point by investigating reductionist vs. dialectical ways of looking at the world, saying that we take "deep-lying assumptions to be 'only natural,' 'just the way things are,'" but we need to question our assumptions about our relationship to the land and to agriculture. What he is posing is not an end to science, as the opposition might claim, but an end to our emphasis on science only as we now know it and a change in its application. It's not a luddite-like "return to the past", but a moving forward that is more mindful; an assessment, back to the source, of energy and materials and an estimate of what the community costs are to provide this or that building material or gadget and a collective decision about whether or not it's really worth it. For example, instead of thinking about the land as a collection of "resources," we can shift to a perspective that honors each element of an ecosystem in its relationship to the larger systems at work. This is difficult in a society, like ours, that seeks out large, expensive, one-size-fits-all solutions to our problems. Interacting directly with our place necessitates smaller, regional systems, and developing elegant local solutions to local problems, based on the uniqueness of each place. He suggests turning to nature's economy to generate better ideas and mimicking natural systems as solutions to problems. He reminds us that if we look back through human history, we evolved to work best in small communities, not nation states.

He opens with an anecdote that I found to be especially prescient; about universities and how they should be teaching "homecoming" instead of upward mobility. The purpose of higher education, he proposes, is not to gain knowledge in order to go out and change the world, but to gain knowledge in order to come back home and to make your home a better, more vibrant, more economically viable place to live. It's exciting to think of what might happen if instead of flocking to Wall Street, our nation's best and brightest returned to their hometowns and put their minds to work on how to make farming a lucrative, pleasurable, and environmentally/people-friendly career, for example.

In his words, "We of the Western civilization have moved from the church, to the nation-state, to economics as the primary organizing structure for our lives. Now that we are devotees of economics, it is time to move more aggressively on to the fourth phase, already underway, ecology" (116). I agree.

7 comments:

  1. WOW. I almost want to cry. I will hunt down this book right away! Yes, what if our education wasn't about upward mobility...and about homecoming instead....love it.

    Thanks!

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  2. wow is right. i agree as well. fab review. i am going to read this as soon as i can get my hands on it. thanks for sharing!

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  3. thank you for this post.
    i'd love to read the book.
    xx

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  4. I have always admired Wes Jackson - thank you for such a thoughtful review!

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  5. Thanks for pointing out this book. I hadn't seen it yet. Looks important.

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  6. How interesting! Your blog is full of great photos too. Thanks for sharing, and for visiting mine!

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  7. Great review, as always.
    I like the idea of 'homecoming'. As a university educated Canadian I have heard the brain drain theory often. Many Canadians move south to America. I feel that where I live now is a place that my husband and I naturally gravitated to. I feel that I can change my new home for the better- even if that place is in the middle of a desert.

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