The following is based on a talk given at the Reinhabitation Conference at North San Juan School, sponsored by the California Council on the Humanities, August 1976. It was published in The Old Ways (City Lights, 1977) and reprinted in A Place in Space (Counterpoint, 1995).
I came to the Pacific slope by a line of people that somehow worked their way west from the Atlantic over 150 years. One grandfather ended up in the Territory of Washington and homesteaded in Kitsap County. My mother’s side were railroad people down in Texas, and before that they’d worked the silver mines in Leadville, Colorado. My grandfather being a homesteader and my father a native of the state of Washington put our family relatively early in the Northwest. But there were people already there, long before my family, I learned as a boy. An elderly Salish Indian gentleman came by our farm once every few months in a Model T truck, selling smoked salmon. “Who is he?” “He’s an Indian,” my parents said.
Looking at all the different trees and plants that made up my second-growth Douglas fir forest plus cow pasture childhood universe, I realized that my parents were short on a certain kind of knowledge. They could say, “That’s a Doug fir, that’s a cedar, that’s bracken fern,” but I perceived a subtlety and complexity in those woods that went far beyond a few names.
As a child I spoke with the old Salishan man a few times over the years he made these stops—then, suddenly, he never came back. I sensed what he represented, what he knew, and what it meant to me: he knew better than anyone else I had ever met where I was. I had no notion of a white American or European heritage providing an identity; I defined myself by relation to the place. Later I also understood that “English language” is an identity—and later, via the hearsay of books, received the full cultural and historical view—but never forgot, or left, that first ground, the “where” of our “who are we?”
There are many people on the planet now who are not “inhabitants.” Far from their home villages; removed from ancestral territories; moved into town from the farm; went to pan gold in California—work on the pipeline— work for Bechtel in Iran. Actual inhabitants—peasants, paisanos, paysan, [End Page 44] peoples of the land, have been dismissed, laughed at, and overtaxed for centuries by the urban-based ruling elites. The intellectuals haven’t the least notion of what kind of sophisticated, attentive, creative intelligence it takes to “grow food.” Virtually all the plants in the gardens and the trees in the orchards, the sheep, cows, and goats in the pastures were domesticated in the Neolithic, before “civilization.” The differing regions of the world have long had—each—their own precise subsistence pattern developed over millennia by people who had settled in there and learned what particular kinds of plants the ground would “say” at that spot.
Humankind also clearly wanders. Four million years ago those smaller protohumans were moving in and out of the edges of forest and grassland in Africa—fairly warm, open enough to run in. At some point moving on, catching fire, sewing clothes, swinging around the arctic, setting out on amazing sea voyages. During the middle and late Pleistocene, large-fauna hunting era, a fairly nomadic grassland-and-tundra hunting life was established, with lots of mobility across northern Eurasia in particular. With the decline of the Ice Age—and here’s where we are—most of the big-game hunters went out of business. There was possibly a population drop in Eurasia and the Americas, as the old techniques no longer worked.
Countless local ecosystem habitation styles emerged. People developed specific ways to be in each of those niches: plant knowledge, boats, dogs, traps, nets, fishing—the smaller animals and smaller tools. From steep jungle slopes of Southwest China to coral atolls to barren arctic deserts—a spirit of what it was to be there evolved that spoke of a direct sense of relation to...