By Spencer Klinefelter
I am seated cross-legged in the shade in an old walnut orchard, watching a chickadee nest. The parents come and go carrying insects and seeds, disappearing into a bafflingly small hole in the trunk of a walnut tree where they are greeted by a flurry of high-pitched chirps and whistles, and then silence resumes as they burst out in search of more to eat. Again and again and again, the cycle of fecundity turning.
What does it take for a world to grow? Sunlight, a bit of space, freedom to move, a lot of work - the chickadees show me these answers. The landscape does not arise out of nothing, it is the result of a million million years of shifting faults and plates, of water carving and soil building, of niche-finding and community-forming, of ten thousand-plus years of careful stewardship by people who took the time to know the land. This central coast of what we call California is the manifestation of a hundred generations of people working, tuning into the patterns and processes all around them. Wilderness then, more properly defined, is not a space that is absent of people or culture, but a space in which culture and ecology are woven together to create a richness that benefits both land and people. The diversity of our home places is in large part due to the work of people we have relegated to the past tense, and the knowledge of how to maintain and support that diversity has largely slipped away too.
What would it take to reclaim - to relearn - some of that old, deep understanding? I offer a few suggestions:
I - Listen. Listen to those who still remember bits and pieces of traditional ecological knowledge, they are the teachers we need most. Those who remember are not gone, they are still present on the land, fighting to restore a way of life. Support them. Seek out those who remember the healing properties of plants, the best places to see Fox or Great Blue Heron, when to burn the coastal prairie so that next season it will support a greater abundance of wildlife. Support the work of communities rebuilding their cultures.
II - Pay attention. To the land, its patterns and processes, where flowers grow and where birds nest. Knowledge of place must arise from love of place, and love can only come with time and a desire to know more deeply. Walk the trails, and leave the trails too, wander amongst the Doug Firs, the bay trees, the hazelnuts; learn their names, where to find them, how they can be helpful to our minds and bodies. Sit and watch awhile, say hello to those who come by and show that people are not simply a threat to the world, that we too can be friends with our more-than-human neighbors.
III - Spread the word. Share with others your love of place, take them out into the fields, let them see and hear and feel for themselves the sweetness of watching a chickadee nest. Let others taste wild strawberries, experience for the first time the first rays of light slipping down between the clouds.
Stewardship is not defined by any single act or person, it is a process, deeply communal and ongoing. We must exercise our compassion not just for the land but for one another - reciprocity is the only way forward if we desire healthy lives and land.
Illustration by Sage Farrell