This third – and penultimate – installment continues, once more, where the previous post left off. We’re now heading out of southern New Mexico towards the middle and more northern parts of the state.
7. Looking to the mountain of Indigenous education: Greg Cajete
Bernalillo (NM) north of Albuquerque is not a place where we would have stopped of our own accord. But it’s the town where, after a couple of phone calls to make an appointment, Gregory Cajete offered to meet us for lunch. Greg, who is the Director of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico and an Associate Professor in the College of Education, is one of the US’s foremost scholars of indigenous education and Native American epistemology and ethics.
I wanted to meet him to get his feedback on the “U.S.A.: The Unsustainable State of America” project I’m trying to get into orbit. I had made forays towards other Native American scholars but failed – for the time being, at least – to meet with success. Perhaps my project seems too naïve to them, or perhaps they are wary because it comes from a European researcher (a descendant of the former and current oppressors of their own people) who can be suspect of wanting to instrumentalize all things Native for his own benefit and aura, as has so often been done in the past. As hard as I tried to keep communication lines alive and to demonstrate my sincerity, it didn’t always work, alas. After initial contacts that seemed cordial, e-mails and calls were suddenly no longer returned, for whatever reason; not quite understanding what had gone awry and why, I felt really sad but could do little more to mend the situation. Greg, though, kindly agreed to get together and, things being as they are, I felt a tad nervous and also a trifle too reverential as we entered the “The Range” Café which he had suggested as the place for us to meet.
We chatted about university life – its good sides and its disappointments – and we agreed that alternative perspectives on ecology and spirituality are difficult to push through the mainstream academic culture. Greg also concurred with my suggestion that, in a very significant sense, white Western cultures today are in dire need of “development aid” from Indigenous ones. The sense of soul loss and ecological decay is rampant and has deleterious impacts on people’s everyday lives, and although Greg is not one to oversimplify things, he does believe – rightly so (and that’s why I was so eager to meet him) – that Indigenous wisdom will be a key element of any ecology of the future. I realize that many of our modernist colleagues will disagree more or less vehemently; that’s probably because they confuse “indigenous” with archaic or because they know that ancestral epistemologies of the human-nature connection fly in the face of today’s resource extractivism and materialist consumerism.
I was very touched that Greg brought to lunch, as a gift, a copy of one his most important books entitled Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education. It’s pretty much out of print and I was both happy and honored to receive it from its author, with a very kind dedication. The upshot of this major book is that (a) mainstream science education in America is done in a way that’s uninspiring and stifling for many Native Americans, (b) a program of science education suited to Indigenous values and knowledges is of paramount importance for Native Americans themselves (and this is Greg’s main line of work as an Indigenous educator), and (c) reflecting on an Indigenous curriculum of scientific and ecological education can be of great benefit to non-Native persons of Euro and Anglo origin (and this was more my own initial interest in discussing Greg’s ideas with him). It’s striking to see how spontaneously universalist Greg’s approach is, and how powerfully centered his thoughts are on the notion and practice of transformation, wholeness and harmony:
Much of Indigenous education can be called “endogenous” education; it revolves around a transformational process of learning by bringing forth illumination from one’s ego center. Educating and enlivening the inner self is the imperative of Indigenous education embodied in the metaphor, “seeking life” or “for life’s sake.” Inherent in this metaphor is the realization that ritual, myth, vision, art, and learning the art of relationship in a particular environment, facilitates the health and wholeness of the individual, family, and community. Education for wholeness, by striving for a level of harmony between individuals and their world, is an ancient foundation of the educational process of all cultures. In its most natural dimension, all true education is transformative and Nature centered. Indeed, the Latin root educare, meaning “to draw out,” embodies the spirit of the transformative quality of education. … The goals of wholeness, self-knowledge, and wisdom are held in common by all the traditional educational philosophies around the world. Indeed, even through medieval times, all forms of European education were tied to some form of spiritual training. Education was considered important in inducing or otherwise facilitating harmony between a person and the world. The goal was to produce a person with a well-integrated relationship between thought and action. The idealized outcome was anticipated as following naturally from the right education. (Look to the Mountain, p. 209)
Referring to “the right education” might smack of ill-guided traditionalism in the eyes of many Western, postmodern or post-conventional” thinkers on education. However, in Cajete’s mind, the word “right” has no connotation of fixity or immutability. It’s not part of a vocabulary of orthodoxy (or “correct thinking”) but of a vocabulary of wisdom – of perpetual re-adjustment to what harmony between humans and their living environments requires. I have no doubt at all that reinstating such an awareness of the nature and necessity of harmony is a key element in any education towards perma-circularity. The Indigenous approach does not, in Cajete’s view, promote a view where humans are “part of” landscapes and biotopes like actors are “part of” a stage set and a text to be played out; harmony here means fine-tuned adjustment to the biome’s and the land’s circumstances, including the circumstance which humans themselves have brought about by denying their belonging to nature. As Greg puts it in another context where he dialogues with Eastern and Western thinkers of “neurophilosophy,” harmony has to do with “finding balance within chaos” and with perpetual, critical re-balancing:
I agree about the priority of maintaining balance that exists in Native cultures of course. There is an organic balance between cultivating individuality or personal power with realizing the close connection we have to one another and that our physical and biological survival is intimately interwoven with the communities that we create and that create us. Perhaps our ability to find balance within chaos is that we are indeed aware of how to manage or avoid external hypnosis so that we do not forget the higher wisdom our cultures maintain. … For Indigenous Peoples, truth is not a fixed point, but rather an ever-evolving point of balance, perpetually created and perpetually new. Also, … the Native American metaphorical mind and its right brain orientation allows the individual to perceive and process multiple layers of changing reality in order to find balance in chaos. (Critical Neurophilosophy and Indigenous Wisdom, edited by Four Arrows, Greg Cajete and Jongmin Lee, p. 115)
If we are to ever become a perma-circular civilization, the wisdom of balance and harmony will have to be recouped. And this will require us to open up to areas of knowledge that have been long closed in the Western outlook: the epistemic domains anciently occupied by our own “medicine people,” in the guise of druids, herbalists, green and hedge “witches,” and assorted “cunning folk.” (See, for instance, Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe, Routledge; Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, Sussex Academic Press; Ronald Hutton, Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Duids in Britain, Yale University Press.) Celtic and other traditions will need to be looked at anew, as I already argued in an earlier post. Cutting-edge thinkers nowadays, such as Jeremy Narby (author of Intelligence in Nature) and David Abram (author of The Spell of the Sensuous), are striving to reinstate such a “wilder” and more animistic epistemology for the urgent benefit of the Western mind. And Cajete, from his Native American angle, says a very similar thing when he links the personal awareness of interdependence and responsibility with what he calls “metaphorical thinking”:
Each individual is obligated to consider how differing energies, including those created as an aspect of her actions, impact the existence of other beings within the community of all her relations. To have this perspective one has to be aware of the invisible as well as the visible energies. This also creates a habit of critical reflection on the merits of all activities and their impact on the community. Unless one is open to metaphorical thinking, Indigenous natural philosophy will remain mysterious because it has evolved from multi-level and multi-layered symbols that came to us long ago when we could talk to the animals and hear the gods or God more easily perhaps … The mediators for the transference of this knowledge and the re-establishment of these basic foundations of balance, were primarily the healers or medicine people. These included specialists in plants and herbs, in physical anatomy, in animal symbolism, etc. The most pronounced role was the shaman who embodied the relationships between humans and the more invisible entities around them. These teachers provided a centering point for a teaching process that was all about establishing and maintaining balance between individuals and communities and the forces that acted upon them to disrupt this balance. (Critical Neurophilosophy and Indigenous Wisdom, pp. 115-116)
Some readers may be shaking their heads at this point, puzzling about why Native outlooks and Shamanism are being given such a heavy role. One well-read and otherwise open-minded scientist colleague wrote to me recently that while it might be nice to bang some drums and dance around the campfire (I strongly objected to this caricature), she saw no need for “us Europeans” to look to American Indians as we have all we need in our own, ancient Greek traditions. Didn’t the Presocratic philosophers – in the person of Empedocles, Parmenides and Anaxagoras – already perceive the world as a set of cycles and circles, life and death flowing into one another and interdependence reigning supreme? And doesn’t most of today’s systems science recognize this generalized interdependence as well? I replied to her that while this may be so, two key elements made me steadfast in the conviction that Native American wisdom is essential for a culture of perma-circularity in the West:
- The ancient Greek philosophers have become mere academic museum pieces. If they’re the root of our modern, rationalist approach to the world (which we’ll see in a second they really aren’t), we certainly don’t live their precepts and lifeways any longer. Ask any European, and any contemporary Greek person for that matter, what they take from Parmenides’ Poem fragments and how his alleged “foundation of modern logic” affects them, and you’ll get a blank look except for a tiny handful of academic philosophers. There’s no living transmission of ancient Presocratic thought, no
- The deeper, more distant roots of Western reason in ancient Greek thought might well issue from central Asian shamanism. Science and the “scientific method” emanate, if from anywhere in the Greek past, from Plato and especially Aristotle – emphatically not from the Presocratics. There’s been a hard-fought attempt to make Parmenides into the “father of modern logic” by isolating one fragment from his – itself fragmented and fragmentary – Poem and to claim that he defined the foundations of logic in it. Some experts beg to differ, and Peter Kingsley’s fascinating work in his books In the Dark Places of Wisdom and Reality shows that it’s very likely that Parmenides was of Phoenician origin, that he lived in southern Italy and that he was performing shamanistic practices – of which his Poem is a flowery but detailed description, rather than being a proto-treatise of logic…
- As Kingsley (who has had an honorary professorship at the University of New Mexico, where Cajete also works, and whose work has been discussed by a New Mexico scholar recently) suggests in his latest book A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet and the Destiny of the Western World, Presocratic shamanism was influenced by central-European, Eurasian transmission of shamanistic teachings along the Silk Roads and other ancient paths – and those Eurasian roots are also those of many if not all Native American tribes, so that from the depths of history comes to us the intimation that, very probably, Presocratic wisdom and Native American wisdom have the same distant roots. Kingsley himself suggests as much, and he seems to be onto something.
So while, of course, we shouldn’t just be throwing everything together without careful analysis and research (which Kingsley has undertaken, as witnessed by the very abundant endnotes in all of his books), one thing seems clear: The comfortable dichotomy between “us, the Europeans (rooted in the dignity of ancient Greek philosophy)” and “they, the Native Americans (banging on drums and dancing around the fire)” is not only insulting and derogatory, but also false.
Now, perma-circularity as a basis for our transformed civilization might not require us to build Native American sweat lodges, literally – but most probably to quickly come up with their Western, contemporary equivalent. I don’t exactly know what this would be; but as part and parcel of this transformation, new curricula for the study of ecological science – allying non-Western Native, Western Native and Western non-Native perspectives in novel ways – are going to be of the essence. Bioregionalist thought, which originated in the 1960s through the contact between Californian counterculturals and Native American traditions, and which still nowadays constitutes a major resource for seekers of perma-circular thoughtways and lifeways, offers a “politics of place” where ecology is not just a science in the Western sense, but a lived experiential practice of living-in-place. This is where Greg Cajete’s work is particularly pioneering and inspiring. In his book Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, he asserts that
The Indigenous goal of living “a good life” is sometimes referred to by Native American people as striving “to always think the highest thought.” … Thinking the highest thought means thinking of one’s self, one’s community, and one’s environment “richly” – essentially, a spiritual mindset in which one thinks in the highest, most respectful, and most compassionate way … Certain developmental types of thought and knowledge form the essential steps to thinking the highest thought. … Learning about each step is lifelong, and one overlaps the other through time and levels of knowing. … Based on this perspective, the first way of thinking and knowing has to do with one’s physical place – one has to terms with where one physically lives. One has to know one’s home, one’s village, and then the land, the “earth upon which one lives.” This is the physical environment – the hills, canyons, valleys, forests, mountains, streams, rivers, plains, deserts, lakes, and seas. (p. 277)
There are four other, further ways of thinking on the way to wisdom, Cajete writes; but the ecologically rooted way is the first – the most basic one, the one without which the others are on fragile footing and risk degenerating into abstract, disincarnated or uprooted “philosophy” or “science.” This is one of the main reasons why Greg Cajete has devoted his life to thinking about Indigenous education – about how to help Native persons honor their heritage while living in a chaotic world where balance is precarious. Science – and geoscience and ecology in particular – is not at all rejected or scorned in the Indigenous perspective; it is integrated into a way of learning and transmission where symbolic thought, mythology and art, among other elements, are used as tools for developing an ability to “think the highest thought.” The implications for course contents and teaching methods are multifarious and complex. In his hands-on book entitled Igniting the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Educational Model, Cajete offers an impressive reconstruction of Native American science education, summarized in this elaborate mandala-shaped graph:
What about us Anglo and Euro Americans, and us Europeans? What would our own “Indigenous science education model” look like if it were to integrate long-excluded components of our more ancestral traditions? Aiming for a perma-circular economy and society, we truly cannot dispense with this question and with the – sometimes uneasy – epistemological issues it raises.
There is a steadily rising level of interest, in Western populations, for ancient Celtic and other so-called “pagan” traditions which, being pre-Christian and often even pre-Roman, contain perspectives on ecosystems and interdependence whose presuppositions differ profoundly from those of the geosciences and scientific ecology taught at our Western universities. This should be encouraging, even if it’s bound to initially infuriate the promoters of “the scientific method” as a bastion of rationalism from which symbolic thought, mythology and art, as well as other domains of knowledge, are for now excluded. Greg Cajete’s work – as well as that of a handful of others such as the late David Peat (author of Blackfoot Physics) – stands as a beacon for those of us who would breach the divide of cultures and of historical injury and finally recognize that the West, facing the devastating implications of how it has up to now used its “science” and its “technology,” needs the input, critical judgment and assistance of Native cultures more than ever if, to counteract the temptation of using its science and its technology in the destructive ways it has up to now, it is going to rekindle its own ancestral ecological wisdom.
8. Perma-circularity as hope and fact: Earthships in Taos
The perma-circular horizons opened up by work such as Gregory Cajete’s are essential. He is helping us to envisage a whole new “forest.” He is working out an alternative practice of “deep humanization” through which we can, once more, ask ourselves questions that were obvious to our more distant ancestors, but that modernity has made us forget the answers to. We don’t need “ancient” answers; we don’t need to artificially make ourselves “into Natives.” Wendy Tremaine’s sane reaction to my embarrassingly naïve and misconstrued e-mails (see previous post, section 6) pointed in the exact right direction: reconnecting with the indigenous and the ancestral, we seek and find new answers to, new responses to the challenge of “thinking the highest thought” as contemporary humans. Perma-circularity may, at the most fundamental level, mean pretty much the same thing as it did two or even fifteen centuries ago – our human brains as well as the Earth’s metabolism and equilibria haven’t changed all that much – but the way to realize it is bound to be very different.
The contemporary druid and “green wizard” John Michael Greer has written many wonderful books, one of which is entitled – somewhat long-windedly (but look who’s talking…) – Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and Other Hands-On Skills From the Appropriate Tech Toolkit. In it, he extols the benefits of what Dmitry Orlov, another contemporary member of the “cunning folk,” has called “shrinking the technosphere.” Greer’s and Orlov’s message is that in the face of our technological modernity’s ecological bottlenecks, rationally engineering a sensible “descent” away from today’s overshoot and ecological debt means moving from our veneration of “high tech” to a realistic quest for appropriate technologies. Human communities are likely, in the medium to near term, to need to re-learn more local, less trade- and production-obsessed ways of life, based on a sense of place and on the use of sufficiently simple and modular technologies, so that the need for expensive, professionalized and resource-intensive repair fades into oblivion and so that dependence on large, unmanageable infrastructures such as nationwide power grids or global road or air traffic networks becomes more and more optional.
The appropriate-tech movement has many components – from communications technologies to food production to mobility. One of the most interesting ones is the building of alternative housing arrangements that seek to be partly or even totally off the grid (using solar or wind power, or no power at all), that use as many recycled materials as possible and even nothing but recycled materials, that recycle water in a completely closed circuit, and so on. One such pioneering initiative is Earthship Biotecture in El Prado (NM) right outside of Taos, where we went after our visit to Greg Cajete.
Taos is beautifully located at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. Known for being a hangout for hipsters and bobos, it started attracting East Coast urbanites in the 1930s. The most famous of them was Mabel Dodge, a New York City woman who moved to Taos in 1917, started a literary “colony” that received the visits of many famous names (among which D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Willa Cather and Georgia O’Keefe), eventually married a local man named Tony Lujan, and wrote several bestsellers about her life in New Mexico, among which the famous Edge of the Taos Desert. We found Taos itself slightly under par compared to its hipster reputation – but on its outskirts we were awestruck by the stunning Rio Grande Gorge Bridge (which floats several hundred feet above a deep canyon along which the Rio Grande is flowing south, away from its headwaters in Colorado), and we paid a fascinating visit to the earthships settlement a few miles west of the gorge.
Earthships were initially pioneered by Michael Reynolds, an architect preoccupied with the building industry’s extractiveness and wastefulness and, more generally, with using recycling as a tool for a frugal, radically self-sufficient life. In that sense, Reynolds was and is the epitome of what perma-circularity is all about: namely, recycling as much as possible but within a context of frugality and reduction of consumption and overall material flows. The idea is to use only recycled materials (including plastic and glass bottles, tires, etc.) as well as local materials (wood, mud, etc.) and to build 100% circular metabolisms for wastes, energy and water. The designs are sometimes futuristic, as is the case for some of the buildings we sighted at Earthship Biotecture, but they need not be. According to Misha Hewitt and Kevin Telfer,
Earthships are not wacky, “way-out” or extreme buildings from the lunatic fringe. They should not be regarded as the domain of hippies, sock and sandal-wearing folk, assorted eco-nuts and survivalists. … In brief, earthships are a serious, rational and well designed architectural response to some of the challenges that face humankind in the 21st Century. They are also visually arresting, charismatic and extremely comfortable for those who live in them; indeed, they are often described as low carbon living in luxury. Not only do earthships address the fundamental question of how to provide safe shelter for their inhabitants, they have a thorough and holistic engagement with vital issues of sustainability, notably zero carbon and waste living, through recycling and reusing waste, energy saving and generation, water harvesting and recycling, and even food production. (Earthships: Building a zero carbon future for homes, p. 1)
It’s certainly true that earthships are visually arresting. Here are a couple of pictures from the Taos settlement:
The beauty is gritty, sometimes messy, but definitely striking. The materials are more malleable than the proverbial brick and concrete and, as result, like cob houses, earthships seem to be primarily molded by the fantasy and creativity of their designers. However, underneath the sometimes quirky outward appearance, earthships are anchored in a genuine science of perma-circularity from which we have a huge lot to learn – much more than from the pharaonic and failed attempts at high-tech, “space age” ventures such as Biosphere 2. That’s why earthships, which are emphatically not spaceships, are a danger to established moneyed interests vested in space conquest and spatial technologies: Once you’ve visited Earthship Biotecture, the idea that space technologies are somehow necessary in order for humans to learn about closed-loop living is, at best, mildly amusing – and, at worst, frankly grotesque. We don’t need artificial biospheres powered by huge underbellies of water pipelines, electrical connection and fossil fuel supply, designed to house earthlings imprisoned like exiled Martians in the middle of the Arizona desert… All we need – but we need much more of it – is visionary people like Reynolds and his fellow earthship-dwellers to offer us a modest but deeply relevant, appropriate technology of perma-circular building and living. This is exactly what they are doing, and the trilogy of books that Reynolds has published – entitled (you guessed it) Earthship, volumes I (How to Build Your Own), II (Systems and Components) and III (Evolution Beyond Economics) – presents serious scientific evidence as well as empirical techniques for self-construction and for community-building.
I really recommend that you stream or otherwise obtain the documentary Garbage Warrior about Reynolds’ philosophy of radical sustainability, his building techniques and his exhausting travails as he tries to find ways to spead his Earthship models and, for a long time, encounters obstacle after regulatory obstacle. It’s a great film and it’s also a very moving and suspenseful testimony to the audacity and persistence of one man and the people around him, who believe in his vision and dedicate their lives to a radical, perma-circular re-think of everything to do with housing in the modern world. The two key elements are: first, self-sufficiency – or what Ivan illich, in the 1960s, called “autonomy” and “conviviality” to convey the notion of reduced dependency on professionalized external services to help us lead our lives – and, second, radical sustainability – or what I call perma-circularity: the full circularity of extremely low energy, water and material flows. Here is Reynolds’ way of seeing, in his own words:
The concept of housing really has not changed much in centuries. We started with compartments to shelter us from the elements. Soon, we began to do things in these compartments that required light, fire and water and a reasonable level of comfort. To achieve this we began to bring energy and water to the compartments first by hand, and later by systems. … The systems, which are now centralized, have grown more important aspects of housing than the compartment itself. … We build all kinds of compartments out of wood, concrete, steel, and glass. We even put them on wheels, but they are still just compartments that we pump life support into. One can easily imagine the limitations, dependency, and vulnerability of being on a life support system in a hospital. What if you found that you had to stay on a life support system for the rest of your life? Many people would rather die than live this way. We are living this way. … When one buys a house today, he/she is essentially going on a voyage on planet Earth for the next thirty to forty years. Considering the condition of the planet, (due to years and years of abuse), our vessels must now be self-contained. Our numbers are too great for us to continue taking from the planet – we must now stand with it. The future must see a self-contained vessel capable of sustaining an environment for human habitat on its own, through its own interfacing with natural phenomena. This would allow the vessel to be taken anywhere – to the top of a mountain, out in the desert, to an island, anywhere. It would be an Earthship. (Earthship, volume I, p. 4 and pp. 8-9)
There is also an interesting talk by Reynolds in Auckland, New Zealand that you can watch right here:
Earthships are, in essence, ecologically self-contained “micro-biospheres” that are low-tech instead of high-tech and that allow for fully modular, non-infrastructure-requiring settlement dynamics where subdivisions can be generated without massive preparatory building sites, pipeline installations, power-grid connections, etc. As one woman at the New Mexico State parliament in Sante Fe says in the Garbage Warrior film, the foremost threat represented by Earthships is that they don’t require people to get tied into any large-scale energy-, water- or power-supply grid. Large utilities and many associated private economic interests stand to lose a whole lot from a potential generalization of Mike Reynolds’ visionary idea. That’s why it took New Mexico State legislators several years, and three successive submissions followed by hearings and votes, to finally accept into law a bill proposed by Reynolds. The aim of the bill was to allow citizens, individually or collectively, to experiment with new building methods and concepts on an experimental site (which is today Earthship Biotecture) – just like there are experimental sites for atomic bomb testing. Why, Reynolds asked, do we test nuclear bombs and space rockets and cars and medications, but not housing methods? Why are architectural visionaries required to have a permit before they can even build, and attempt to scale up, new concepts? The main reason: long-ingrained habits of thought … and powerful, vested moneyed interests. (The two often go together in our allegedly “free” market economies.)
The perceived “danger” of the Earthship idea to established industrial and financial interests can be clearly gotten from Reynolds’ vision of a post-economic world:
Imagine … no mortgage payment, no rent, no utility bill and living in a situation where you can grow much of your own food year round. … Why have all of our approaches toward fighting the world of economics been with economic weapons? Economic survival is nothing more than a ruthless game and we do not have to play it. Money has become the sea of life and everyone needs a boat. The sea keeps getting rougher and the boats keep getting more elaborate, but never elaborate enough for a comfortable ride. We do not have to stay here. There is land out there where you don’t need a financial boat, you just need an Earthship. The real dream application of the Earthship concept is for people to buy memberships in land users associations for relatively small amounts of money. They build their own independent, food producing, homes for a fraction of the cost of having a conventional home built and end up with little or no mortagage payment and no utility bills. … Now, without major portions of revenue going to shelter and nothing going to utilities and less going to food, we have a LIFE not just a grueling race. This whole process creates jobs relative to the building of Earthships and their various components as well as some management and office work relative to the land users association and various businesses. (Earthship, volume III, p. 254-255)
Indeed, perma-circularity generally isn’t “good business” for those who would like to have rebound effects make their high-tech “innovations” maximally profitable by selling as many units as possible at the highest possible price. What the Earthship Biotecture adventure shows, however, is that within a perma-circular frame of mind, our very notion of what makes for “good business” has to change fundamentally. Reynolds and his building crew get requests all the time – in the developed world but also in the developing world, including after disasters such as the 2004 tsunami that hit India and Indonesia. They aren’t giving everything away for free, but Reynolds emphatically does not want to become wealthy; he wants to do something meaningful and timely. We didn’t meet him personally when we visited the Taos Earthsip site; it’s quite likely that he has personal flaws and excesses like all of us, but one thing is certain: His determination and vision as well as his realism – like that of Wendy and Mikey on their Truth or Consequences homestead, like that of Greg Cajete in his role as university professor and Indigenous educator and speaker – are beacons of light that those of us who believe in perma-circular ideas and practices can and must look to. Each Earthship will be a “tree” that begins to shift the form and atmosphere of the whole “forest,” one house at a time.
9. Sky cities of the living Spirit: Àcoma and Taos Pueblos
In ancient times, life certainly wasn’t easier than now, but it was less destructive of the biosphere as a whole. This is the tenacious feeling – an intuition based on observation – that I harbored when we visited, all too briefly, two historical and still inhabited Pueblo settlements in New Mexico.
Pueblo Àcoma, located between Gallup and Albuquerque, is also called the “Sky City.” One of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in North America, it stands on an impressive mesa surrounded by other mesas in the distance, strewn over a vast plain. We came there on our way south to Truth or Consequences. The guide stated from the outset that he would not be answering any queries concerning Pueblo religion and rituals. This refusal to banalize and commercialize an ancestral worldview that still irrigates people’s souls – and to put it out in the open for the mere curiosity of non-Native tourists – seemed wise and dignified to me. It signaled something that I felt all the way through our visits to New Mexico Indian communities (and also later in Hopi country in Arizona): here was a community that refuses to be seen as a museum piece or an amusement-park attraction; here is living knowledge and practice – a truly living Spirit – that won’t just be reduced to a quaint village to buy pottery at. The pottery, incidentally, is stunningly beautiful and was getting sold to tourists on our tour, but the deeper secrets (to us outsiders) of the Pueblo thoughtways and lifeways were not given away that day. It was all the better. As I’ve tried to emphasize repeatedly throughout the last few posts, what Native cultures can teach us about perma-circularity practices and their spiritual underpinnings is of a totally different order and magnitude from what we project on them as fleeting visitors. Silence and respect are better than chatty “curiosity.”
At Taos Pueblo, the young woman who acted as our guide started out with the exact same caveat: She would not be going into any detail when it came to religion, spirituality or ritual – or, for that matter, worldview and philosophy. We learned a bit from her about the 1680 Pueblo revolt, a valiant though short-lived bout by the indigenous people to repel the Spanish occupiers. The backlash came a little later, and it was ruthlessly brutal – as is the case with all occupying forces. Considering how much Pueblo and other Native populations have been through over the past three and a half centuries (at least), it remains a tribute to their cultural grandeur how peacefully and openly they receive non-Native visitors – who are sometimes ignorant about past catastrophes and occasionally blurt out callous remarks in the most casual way. Inevitably the wounds of history come up in the locals’ narratives (from the Catholic church’s imposition of its “saints” to the attempts by white colonizers to cut off the community’s ancestral rights of access to a nearby lake, its water and its spiritual meaningful landscape), but a strange thing seems to be at work: In order to avoid becoming mere tourist attractions, Àcoma as well as Taos Pueblo inhabitants seem to cultivate a hospitality that doesn’t reduce to a need for money. I may be mistaken in this, and it may just be the wishful thinking of a guilt-ridden, distant descendant of the Europeans that “settled” (i.e. brutally occupied) these parts. But the intensity that floats over the apparent peacefulness of a place like Taos Pueblo in the middle of a sweltering July day may have to do with a particularly Native way of processing the incredible pain of the past – a way that’s neither meek nor bitter, but courageous, dignified and encased in a long-term outlook and a way of inhabiting the Earth of which the Anglo and Euro Americans have no inkling (and which they have routinely interpreted as fatalism and weakness, when it’s just exactly the opposite). I’m not mobilizing the “noble Indian” stereotype as I write this; I am sincerely impressed by that “something” I felt and saw in almost every pair of eyes, even in the least contact-friendly faces.
The long-term outlook – what Native American scholars such as Dan Wildcat call the “seventh generation ethic” – also has another striking impact when it comes to my own interest in perma-circular thought- and lifeways. Again, this may just be my imagination, but I had the intense intuition that places like Pueblo Àcoma and Taos Pueblo, while in many ways poverty-stricken due to the segregationist nature of American society towards Native Americans, pretty much reflect what a strictly one-planet life can and should offer. The excursion through the Earthship ethic of self-reliance and radical sustainability drove this home even more intensely. In many ways, these still inhabited “sky cities” of the ancient Pueblo are first-generation Earthship settlements, long before people like Mike Reynolds (re-)disovered radically sustainable building techniques. The streets and lodgings were simple and the Pueblo building technique of using mud, twigs and straw and of adding on “houses” (i.e., extra rooms) as the generations succeed one another – which leads to the characteristic pile-ups of the Pueblo buildings – all point toward radical sustainability.
I’m aware that some “development” advocates (even within the Native American communities themselves) might, in the name of progress and wealth, argue that such settlements are nowadays archaic and have long outlived their purpose. It’s true that they are no longer inhabited by more than 100 or 150 people at a time, and that the vast majority of Àcoma as well as Pueblo people live in other, more “mainstream” houses nearby. I’m not arguing in favor of unchosen poverty as a virtue – but I also think that, on the other hand, the choice of simplicity and perma-circular efficiency (as opposed to high-tech, space-age, “Biosphere 2” thinking) is a dire urgency for the whole developed as well as developing world.
The lessons from traditional Pueblo architecture don’t need to be imposed on anyone – but just like Mike Reynolds’ lessons from Earthship construction, they should be available to anyone for free and open experimentation. This was the meaning of the bill that Reynolds finally managed to get adopted by the New Mexico State legislators: Perma-circular lifeways require perma-circular thoughtways, and those call for the redelpoyment of vernacular architecture and self-construction practices. It’s only be developing safety rules for self-built housing, made with alternative materials and techniques, that vernacular housing can become more common and more widely accepted. Ancient Pueblo houses weren’t built on bureaucratic permits; the whole community pitched in, the “norms” for dwellings were functionally adapted to the climate and the landscape (shade, heat and water are managed, the materials are of a similar hue to the surrounding terrain, the disposition of buildings coheres with the ritual and spiritual needs of the settlement, etc.) and there was a deeply organic growth pattern that kept the Pueblo as an integral part – as opposed to a conqueror and negator – of the surrounding land.
Perma-circular settlements in the future, especially in the arid Southwest, might well need to look a lot more like modularized “Pueblos” composed of Earthships, than like Phoenix or Albuquerque’s sprawling subdivisions. Proximity to neighbors and to neghboring settlements, without the possibility of – nor the desire for – connecting into large-scale infrastructures might become the norm rather than the exception. Passing through suburban Bernalillo on our way to having lunch with Greg Cajete, we saw a wonderfully revealing sign that advertised a new subdivision with its homogeneous, power- and water-guzzling pavillions; it read, “Close to everything but your neighbors.” For this Anglo and Euro American mentality, Earthship Pueblos of the future might be a nightmare vision – but they should know better: the Anglo and Euro American worldview of conquest-driven efficiency (relishing rebound effects that make circularity a mere gimmick for more profits and more resource consumption) is quite possibly on its way out, like one more obsolete dinosaur.
[To be continued.]
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