Dog Wisdom

Ike 3This is Ike. He’s a pretty good-natured dog. He’s small and looking up at the world most of the time, so he’s a bit anxious and quivers a lot. He’s getting pretty old, 14 now, but he’s still got game and can teach us a thing or two.

Enjoy life, even when you have embarrassing slips along the way. Two days ago he slipped on the last step into the garage and did a face plant. But he bounced back up and was still ready to go. No matter how old and creaky he gets, he’s still up for a walk. Yesterday, he bounded off into the patch of tall grass near our house. He bounced around in there for a bit, his ears popping up above the 24” – 36” grass so we could track his movement. He then bounded out, doing a front roll as his snout caught in the thick grass on the edge of the weedy patch. He popped up, wagged his tail, did a quick playful down-dog pose and went back into the weeds.

Don’t go down steps in the dark.

Kill flies. Flies are very annoying. He growls and snaps at them whenever they buzz past him. And biting flies are the worst. He’s only caught one that I’ve seen. He still snaps at them, so it must have been satisfying. He snaps at bees too, but those aren’t as satisfying to catch. When we lived in Bemidji, I usually didn’t need to put him on a leash for our walks on the country, gravel road. If the biting flies got bad, he’d give me a backwards glance and then take off in a sprint towards home, leaving me to be the only thing attracting the biting flies. He’s a pretty smart dog.

Chase cats.

Run and play every day. His favorite toy is a stuffed penguin. He’s always got energy chase and retrieve it and play tug-o-war at least for a few minutes every day, before he’s got to take a rest. Unless it lands on the heat vent in the floor, because that shit is scary.

Read the room; approach dogs you don’t know with caution. Small dogs are usually ok to play with. Raise your hair and growl at bigger dogs until you know they are safe. And some dogs it’s best to not even look them in the eye. Pretend you didn’t see them and hopefully they’ll leave you alone.

Be mindful of where you leave your crap. He’s very particular about where he poops. He’ll search and search for the perfect spot to poop, even when it is 10 degrees outside and wading through deep snow. And then, as if offended by what he’s just done, he’ll sprint away from it, leaving me to pick it up. Who’s in cIke 2control here?

Every now and then it’s okay to take a break from impeachment, climate crisis, struggling schools, increased teenage suicide rate, and just sleep hard so you are ready to pick yourself back up and get back in the game.

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The Three Sisters

For centuries, the Iroquois (and now many other cultures) have been growing corn, beans, and squash together, referring to them as the Three Sisters. Corn grows tall and strong, serving as a natural pole for the beans to climb. The bean plants have nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in nodules in the roots, providing fertilizer to all three plants. The squash, with its broad leaves, provides shade and ground cover reducing weeds and preserving moisture in the soil.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) writes this about the three sisters in her book Braiding Sweetgrass—a book I want everyone to read!

The way3 sisters of the three sisters reminds me of one of these basic teachings of our people [RWK is Anishinaabe]. The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction, so they can be shared with others. Being among the sisters provides a visible manifestation of what a community can become when its members understand and share their gifts. In reciprocity, we fill our spirits as well as our bellies (p. 134).

Many Americans would identify hyper-individuality as the bedrock of American democracy and the U.S. constitution, while idealized conceptions of many American Indian nations are looked upon as examples of tribal communal or socialist examples. This of course is an oversimplification fraught with misconceptions, especially considering the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy of nations on the writing of the U.S. constitution. This hyper-individuality become more apparent during election season when any proposals from the left such as progressive taxation or increases to the social safety net are labeled as socialist or communist—that label and comparison to such countries with such programs serving as the ultimate derisive comparison and criticism.

I find this ironic living in a country with a culture encouraging and rewarding conformity (while espousing to encourage individuality and creativity). This is often expressed in a desire to keep up with others and to reduce individuality of “others” through criticism, hazing, punishment, and marginalization of those that are different. We see it in our politics, schools, social clubs, neighborhoods, etc., as the mainstream purposefully, or unwittingly, marginalizes those outside the norm—everything from brand of shoes a child wears to who someone falls in love with. We can easily see this in our marketing and advertising maybe more than anywhere else.

I see it in our education system with continually refining methods of identification of those outside the normal ways of learning and behaving as having a disability needing to be managed, overcome, or fixed in order to be successful in the mainstreamed education system. As a teacher, I’ve struggled to find the balance between identifying a disability to be corrected and having a difference that is a gift to be honored and nurtured. Do not mistake this attempt to understand the complexities of learning disabilities as support for a view that there are not students with learning disabilities that present significant roadblocks to their learning, thus requiring accommodation.

All of this occurs in a culture claiming to honor individuality and individual rights above all else, but at the same time criticizing, marginalizing, and even attempting to eliminate cultural practices that are rooted in tribal practices that do honor the individual while operating in much more communal or socialist ways. We dismiss as socialism any political, social ideas that challenge the American norms—even when those norms are damaging, limiting, and constricting of the ability of the individual’s pursuit of happiness in favor of the success of the individuals, families, and corporations which have accumulated and protect the majority of the country’s wealth and power. I think we would be well-served to pause and see what lessons we could learn from the three sisters. They’ve been teaching it for centuries now.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Press. Minneapolis.

Three Sisters Image: http://www.ucanr.org/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=25836

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A Matter of Perspective

We hiked the steep mountainside leading up to, and then down from, the Norwegian glacier. It was a very difficult hike for me physically. A combinationBase of Glacier of factors: change in altitude, jetlag, my own conditioning among other factors ultimately meant my Norwegian counterpart (professor Vegard Vereide) and I ended up separated from the group for much of the hike. Once I accepted the reality of my circumstance that I was that student who needed the special attention, and buried my humiliation down inside, we had quite a nice and illuminating hike.

Our isolation allowed us to have an extended conversation comparing the ecosystem, public and higher education, and politics of our two homes. Between this conversation, and my observations for a couple of weeks, I was struck by the similarities as much as any differences between the two. Sogndal Norway and Northern Minnesota are both boreal forests, and due to the peninsula of Norway having been connected to Norther America long after the plants on both evolved, the plants are much the same—both dominated by evergreens and soft-wood temperate forest trees such as birch and aspen. We stopped and sampled blueberries and lingonberries. I was intrigued by one of the pioneer species growing in the recently exposed rock by the receding glacier is a moss that is dark charcoal grey, almost black in color, that I haven’t seen in Minnesota.

GlacierDuring the years that he has led students to this glacier, even though it continues to “flow” down the mountain like a very slow river, it has receded a few hundred meters—meaning it is melting considerably faster than it is flowing down the mountain and adding new snow and ice at the top each winter. I could hear in his voice the frustration with the world unwilling to address the climate crisis. Meanwhile, I was just realizing that if I had visited a few years earlier, I would have had a much easier hike!

On the descent our conversation turned to comparing education systems and politics. Both are wealthy countries with similar gross domestic product per capita though the US has much greater income inequality, greater percentage living in poverty, and Norway provides nationalized healthcare and public education K – PhD (for those that continue to academically qualify for higher education). Of course, they pay for this with a more progressive (and steeper) income tax structure and considerably higher sales tax. Despite that, I never heard anyone “complain” about the high taxes. In fact, in conversations with multiple individuals, I sensed a certain pride that they lived in a society that has decided to pool its resources to ensure that as many as possible are healthy, educated, and happy with a good quality of life. I was spending time with teachers, professors, and educators, so my sample is definitely limited in scope. Everyone did seem happy, relaxed, and fit based on my observations of their interactions with me, each other, and how they carried themselves. They smiled a lot.

In my observations of a few different schools, and conversations with fellow educators, I saw more in common than not between our public education and Norway’s. The teachers, the classroom structure, how they teach, could easily have been happening in Minnesota. They have a national curriculum similar in scope and structure as our state standards, and they are (unfortunately) beginning to implement more standardized testing.

There were some notable exceptions. They have considerably more teachers per students and generally smaller schools allowing for smaller classes (or team teaching a single class). In the primary and lower secondary (approximate to K – 10th grade) the class stays together and the teacher comes to them. They have a much shorter school day, approximately five hours to our seven or eight hour day. The teachers of course work a full day and therefore have considerably more time for planning, professional development, and grading. There school year is a bit longer than ours though. This is expensive and therefore Norway spends about 7.5 % of GDP on education to the U.S. 5%.

As we continued to talk while descending the mountain, Vegard could sense my frustration when I said that the U.S. citizens were simply not wiling to invest the financial resources necessary for universal healthcare, properly funded public education, public transit and infrastructure. He said, “It seems to me that you could afford all of those things if you didn’t spend 700 hundred billion on your military.”

Also informative to me was that he knew how much our military budget is (he was correct, as it is 693 billion for 2019). I couldn’t have come up with that number for the USA, let alone what Norway spends on its military in a casual conversation on the side of a mountain cut off from the internet. It highlighted for me the impact the US has on the rest of the world and how much the rest of the world follows our society and politics. I suspect that while many envy much of what we have, many also must scratch their heads in wonderment at some of the choices we make—especially our current path of seemingly tearing ourselves apart from the inside out.

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The Trouble With Assimilation

Western settlers came to this continent and conquered the land and the peoples living there. As a matter of course and component of the genocide, they also worked to eliminate the culture and practices of those peoples. Those cultural practices based on discovered ecological knowledge came from thousands of years of cultural and biological evolution in those ecosystems and therefore were a part of the ecosystem’s homeostasis as the human culture.

Those practices and traits co-evolved within the ecosystem in which each of those peoples had lived and evolved for thousands of years. Enter the European immigrants whose cultures and practices evolved in a different ecosystem on a different continent. They observed the indigenous tribes’ practices such as planting corn, beans, and squash together. These three plants cooperated to grow together and helped to maintain the homeostasis of the soil in which they grew. To the European immigrants, this resulted in fields that looked like an uncontrolled, uncultivated mess. It did not match their worldview of conquering and subduing the beast that was their view of Mother Nature.

Fast forward a few hundred years and the genocide of the peoples’ culture and ecosystems are nearly complete. All have been conquered. Those left are expected to assimilate to this new worldview of domination = civilization. Those cultures, individuals, practices, and members of the ecosystems that cannot adapt are expected to fade away, die out, or leave. Indigenous peoples were expected to adapt to the new worldview economy, Western agricultural practices, education, and religion. Those new practices did not evolve in this place—in this ecosystem—and while those being discarded did. Therefore, I wonder if this imported culture can ever be in true ecological homeostasis. What if we are doing it all wrong? All of it. Instead of expecting the indigenous peoples and rest of the native ecosystems’ organisms, interactions, practices, cultures and all that resulted from thousands of years of evolution in this place, to adapt to this new worldview, it should be reversed. It’s as if we forgot how to live in the world.

Maybe homeostasis can never be reached in these “new world” ecosystems until all its inhabitants begin enacting the worldview, culture, and ecological practices that are the result of thousands of years of cultural and biological evolution in those ecosystems. Maybe, instead of the indigenous inhabitants of the New World assimilating and adapting to the new Western/European world view, culture and practices, it is the conquerors who need to assimilate and adapt to the old ways evolved on this New World.

Maybe the genocide (cultural and ecological) will not end until this shift occurs. Without this shift, maybe destruction of all is unavoidable. First the last of the indigenous peoples and cultures, then the stability of the native ecosystems, and then the conquerors will fade away. This will only leave behind an ecosystem pushed so far from homeostasis and equilibrium that a new homeostasis will be found, but not one that supports us. It will take millions of years of biological evolution and ecological succession, but Gaia will restore her balance for those species that can adapt biologically to the new homeostasis. But, that rate of evolution and balancing is far too slow for us and our culture to survive.

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And Then They Marched

children climate marchThe children marched last Friday. It might have been the ultimate teenage rebellion. I’m troubled, but not surprised by some of the disrespectful, hateful responses to the march, and to Greta Thornberg in particular, from a few right-wing commentators and politicians. The majority response has been positive and even expressions of hope in this next generation of kids. Though, should not the adults be providing the path forward?

While many cultures have ceremonies and rituals to treat this transition from child to adult with great importance, others, at times, treat acts of rebellion like a pathology to be squelched—often for good reasons over concern for safety. However, “rebellion if given proper reverence, is a necessary confrontation with society that ensures our sustainability…young people [must] be invited to contribute their disagreements to our shared aliveness” (Turner, 2017, Loc 249). The danger of dismissing or squelching teenage rebellion is driving the passion felt into shame and repression. The energy and passion still exist and then can be expressed in truly dangerous and self-destructive behaviors (Turner, 2017).

Maybe the anger felt by some of the “adults” is in part a natural reaction to teenage rebellion. “Sit down and be quiet.” I think it is also a reaction of fear and shame. No one likes to be scolded and in large part the intent of the march was a global scolding. We don’t like that their rebellion is not turning towards the typical dangers in early independence, but instead pointing out our own failures—pointing out that the danger is actually us! The older generation is hearing the younger generation and what we are hearing is an evaluation of how we’ve done. It isn’t a positive performance review.

GretaOften-times in folk tales, literature, and movies the rebel ends up being at first an outcast and then a leader for change. These children, and Greta Thornberg in particular, are outcasts and we do not like what she represents as an outcast because what it really shows is what we have cast out.

We’ve worried they never go outside. We’ve worried they are addicted to their phones. We’ve worried they spend too much time alone and won’t know how to do anything or interact with others. And then they marched.

We cannot now criticize or dismiss this as just an act of rebellion and tell them to sit down and be quiet. It might be time for the adults to shut up and listen for a bit, but just a bit, and then take action by taking leadership away from those in the way of necessary work to secure our children’s future and very existence. That’s what you do when you are the adult. They marched. Now, we act.

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Turner, Toko-pa (2019) Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home. Her Own Room Press. British Columbia, Canada.

Photos: March is from the independent.ie, Greta Thornberg from globalnews.ca

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Is This Really a Choice?

earth from space

Despite a current increase in concerns about environmental issues, at least the most important one in the climate crisis, I believe most people still view nature as separate from them and as a resource valued for its utilitarian purposes. It’s ours to do with as we see fit to maintain our modern lifestyle. As I wrote on September 19, I would venture a guess that many individuals have an ecological identity of disconnection with the ecosystem in which they live even though they are biologically infused with the air, water, and soil of where they live. We’ll recycle, and reduce the use of plastic bags, straws, and the like, but we’re not going to change the behaviors that required those resources but instead will rely on alternative fixes to maintain the lifestyle. When asked by the conservationists/environmentalists, to make these sacrifices, they are often met with derision. “Come on, really, I can’t use a straw in my drink?” We haven’t even gotten to the impact of the single use cup or plastic lid yet!

Because of this, conservationists are categorized as overly emotional, unrealistic, and even hyperbolic by the developers or polluters (and then the general population). Sometimes the hyperbole is unwarranted and sometimes it is probably out of frustration. The more the conservationist’s arguments are dismissed as too emotional, I suspect the more hyperbolic they become, maybe not as a conscious tactic, but simply due to frustration and fear for future state of the natural world. And so, we get in this positive feedback loop of conservationists getting louder and the developers dismissing them out of hand. However, since conservation is viewed as an emotional plea while the argument for utilizing or developing the natural resource (and often destroying it and other aspects of nature in the process) is based on objective needs and reality, the objective argument wins in the end and we continue our destruction of the natural world. This puts us in our current reality where conserving is nice and feels good when we can do it, but progress cannot be stopped.

This dynamic has created an unequal playing field for the two “sides” of the debate. There really is only one side, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Because conservationists are viewed as coming from an emotional and even an ideological paradigm they are not allowed to compromise their ideals. Therefore, if they drive their hybrid car to the airport to take a flight across country, they are labeled as hypocrites for conserving fuel with their automobile choice but criticized for the large carbon footprint of flying in an airliner. I guess, if you are going to pollute, go all out. However, the developer who might have a record of being a polluter in their business practice, can drive his gas-guzzling truck anywhere (including to the airport) and receive no criticism since he is consistent in his ideals. When that same developer compromises his ideal of maximizing profit and development of a resource for conservation he is praised for this act (which really is an act of hypocrisy since counter to normal practiced ideals). This demonstrates that deep down we know it is correct to preserve and conserve, but we are no at the present willing to make the sacrifices necessary to do so and so we continue to lose the argument for conservation.

Conservationists have begun to shift strategies. While it is still an impassioned argument, it is now becoming one from a utilitarian paradigm. Our very existence and way of life (within a generation and no longer a distant fear) depends on the preservation of the natural world. The danger of this strategy is that if we rely only on the utilitarian argument, then we will only save what we need. This requires that we understand each component’s role in the health and sustainability of an ecosystem and that each component is therefore necessary for our survival as well. Each new discovery and new set of data clarifies that all aspects of an ecosystem are interconnected. There aren’t extra pieces we can remove and keep the ecosystem stable. It’s not an Ikea bookshelf with a few extra screws included. Therefore, we may end up not saving a crucial aspect necessary for the stability of an ecosystem and also then for our survival because we do not understand its utilitarian purpose for our survival. In the end, for our survival, there really is only one argument—we need to conserve it all.

Of course, I’m realistic that as individuals we are trapped in a modern society that is built on energy consumption and destruction of natural resources. We cannot return to a time when there were less than a billion humans all living in small communities based on local agricultural practices or nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles. There does have to be compromise. We can rely on technological fixes to greatly mitigate our ecological impact, but those technological fixes only work for a long, sustainable future for our species (and all others frankly) if we do make significant societal lifestyle changes and eliminate getting energy from non-renewables and consuming natural resources in the form of single-use items. It will not be easy, and my generation will most likely not see the results of 276687.binour efforts, but our children might. If we don’t make the effort, then I fear one of the many dystopian futures predicted by our modern authors and filmmakers will become the norm—a continued decline and positive feedback loop of dwindling resources, increasing hardship, conflict leading towards extinction. Is this even a choice?

As always, consider subscribing to this blog and sharing on social media. Tusen Takk.

1 – Earth From Space image from http://www.earthobservatory.nasa.gov

2 – The Road movie still from http://www.independent.co.uk

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The Ecological Identity Concept

I’m in Norway this week and next as part of sabbatical research and learning. I acknowledge and am thankful for my privilege and fortune! One reason I came to Norway is to further explore the concept of, and how to teach, ecological identity. This term was originated by Mitchell Thomashow, has been influential in much of my thinking, teaching, and research, but is also admittedly not widely used within the field of education, environmentalism, or ecology. But I think it should be.

We all have an ecological identity whether recognized or not. Our collective and individual identity is rooted in the ecosystem in which it evolved and within which we live as individuals. Most people do not use this term, and possibly have not thought about their place, role, or culture as rooted in the ecosystem in which they live. Many people may not even consider that they live in an ecosystem!

I believe this disconnect, literally, from the ecosystem or natural world is foundational to our many looming environmental crises. By “natural world” I do not mean specifically wilderness or undisturbed nature as might be found in a national park. Downtown New York City is still in the natural world (though maybe has squished it like a stepped-on grape) and the individuals are still as literally connected to that ecosystem as American philosopher Henry David Thoreau was connected to Walden Pond or Norwegian philosopher Arnie Naess was connected to his cabin, Tvergastein. No matter where, all living beings are deeply connected to their place by the mere act of breathing, metabolizing, exhaling and excreting—in other words, by living.

A person not able to understand or think in these terms, I would argue, would have an ecological identity of disconnection. The opposite might be an ecological identity of strong understanding of understanding one’s connection to the ecosystem. Neither, however, translates directly into behaviors or actions that could be qualified as good or bad for “the environment.”

An individual can feel a deep connection to the ecosystem in which he or she lives through participation in recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, etc. but behave in such a way as to consume considerable energy while producing prodigious waste and pollution, having what we might call a large “ecological footprint.” Conversely, one could live in a high rise in downtown NY, Oslo, or London and behave in ways that minimizes energy consumption and waste production, and therefore have a small “ecological footprint” without ever setting foot in nature.

In both cases, the behaviors might be purely rote-learned behaviors not consciously thought about in the context of how it is an expression of his or her understanding of one’s place. I contend, however, that one’s biological, cultural, spiritual, and philosophical being all evolved within the ecosystem from which they and their “people” are from. Those aspects of their personhood (their identity) are rooted in and come from the ecosystem in which they live and can trace their ancestry to.

This brings me to Norway and the influence of Norwegian Philosopher Arnie Naess. He wrote extensively about the process of developing a personal philosophy deeply rooted in one’s place, and because of the connection to place, labeled this an “ecological philosophy” or (“ecosophy”). Out of the exploration of his ecological philosophy he introduced the concept of “deep ecology”. Deep ecology has these eight principles1:

  1. All living things have intrinsic value.
  2. The richness and diversity of life has intrinsic value.
  3. Except to satisfy vital needs, humans do not have the right to reduce this diversity and richness.
  4. It would be better for humans if there were fewer of them, and much better for other living creatures.
  5. Today the extent and nature of human interference in the various ecosystems is not sustainable, and the lack of sustainability is rising.
  6. Decisive improvement requires considerable changes: social, economic, technological, and ideological.
  7. An ideological change would essentially entail seeking a better quality of life rather than a raised standard of living.
  8. Those who accept the aforementioned points are responsible for trying to contribute directly or indirectly to the necessary change.

You can see that none of these above principles have anything to do with being outdoorsy or active in nature but could be influential aspects of a person’s behaviors and their identity. I choose the term “identity” over “philosophy” as I think it makes the concept of thinking about one’s place more accessible. This may be a product of growing up in and American culture and writing to an American audience.

Regardless, I don’t see any hope for working our way out of our current environmental crises and looming, dramatically-altered future climate, until individuals begin to think more purposefully and deeply (okay, philosophically, to honor Arnie) about their ecological identity and understand their connection to the natural world. Otherwise any behaviors intended to address environmental issues (i.e. recycling) are too little, too late as they are merely rote-learned behaviors as a result of reactionary policies coming as a means to fix a problem instead of preventing it in the first place. We should not have to legislate rules requiring ecological buffers between bodies of water fertilized lawns or agricultural fields to prevent fertilizer runoff, but instead individuals should know enough to ask and anticipate, “what happens if..?” Until we can do this individually and then collectively through political decision-making structures, we will always be chasing our tails.

To explore what this might mean for teachers and their role in guiding children to explore ecological identity I refer you to this recorded presentation of mine titled Educating for Ecological Identity.

As always, if you appreciate this blog, I invite you to subscribe to and share this on social media. Tusen takk.

1 – Introduction (2008). Alan Drengson in The Ecology of Wisdom: The Writings of Arnie Naess. (2008). edited by Alan Drengson and Bill Devall. Counterpoint Press. Berkeley CA.

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