Indian Trails

Deep Island, pt. 3

Deep Island:


If I was going to follow the hippie path of researching my way to harmony with the Earth, it was clear that I would need to learn a bioregionally appropriate way of life from the indisputable masters of bioregionalism: the native peoples of the land.

I took it as foundational from the very beginning that I should learn to grow my own food. My teenage and college-age reading into what’s wrong with the Earth, from writers as disparate as Derrick Jensen and Wendell Berry, all seemed to agree on at least one main factor behind it all: growing food far from where it’s eaten. So, like countless others before me, I started projecting my dreams onto the backdrop of a plot of land somewhere in the country, where my garden would grow. But how, specifically, would I grow it once I got there?

I may have flirted briefly with the possibility of organic agriculture, but it never got much purchase in my mind. In fact I really didn’t want to get very close to agriculture of any kind, organic or not. My first countercultural readings, as a teenager who would believe almost anything as long as it was printed in a serif font and sounded a little like what I wanted to hear, had been in primitivism: the idea that humanity took a terrible wrong turn about ten thousand years ago, and it would be for the best if we tried to go back and live more like we did before then. The inciting incident is supposed to have been the creation of agriculture—from the Latin for ‘field growing’. It’s a nifty trick to cut down an entire field of random forbs and sedges to replace it with a sweeping vista all planted in some crop whose seeds you can eat. You can store up a lot of food that way. But you also reap a whole interesting crop of whirlwinds.

First you get unhealthy, because you’re only eating grains, and that’s not a way to be healthy. The archaeological record shows that after agriculture first appeared in the Fertile Crescent, people in the cultures that developed atop it began reaching adulthood six inches shorter, with weaker bones and more malnutrition.1 Then you also get oppression, since storing of food allows controlling that food, which in turn leads to a culture getting stratified into the farmers and the farmed-for.2 Also you get environmental degradation: slowly but surely, the irrigation-heavy agriculture between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers salted the earth that it sprang from, and now the fertility of the crescent is measured in lonely palm trees.3 Salinization isn’t the only way to ruin cropland. Repeatedly tilling the land makes your topsoil wash away; soil in Iowa is in some places whole feet lower than before agriculture got a hold of it.4 All told, agriculture came with enough bad sides that I wasn’t interested in dirtying my hands in it.

This is an oversimplification. One of the classics of organic farming literature is Farmers of Forty Centuries, the 1911 book by agronomist F. H. King5 that explained how Chinese and Japanese rice paddies had managed to stay fertile for over four thousand years and counting. Likewise the primitivist writings that led me to find condemnations of agriculture were oversimplified. They gave me a nice, clean answer to all the problems I saw facing the world—agriculture did it!—and a nice, clean path to travel, back to the Stone Age. The real world is much more complicated than single factors with single solutions, which is why this essay is forty-two thousand words long. But many of the broad strokes of the critique of agriculturally based civilizations still stood: tilling is still bad for topsoil and man still can’t live very healthily on bread alone. So I was on the lookout for something to do on that imaginary plot of land besides grow row crops.

I didn’t have to go far down the research path before I discovered a much more appealing way to work with the land: permaculture. Where American organic farming seems mostly to settle for doing less harm to the land, permaculture makes a goal of actively improving the fertility of the land. Permaculturists (“permies”) are always talking about building topsoil, adding natural fertility, sequestering carbon. The classic permaculture farm is a “food forest”, where the land is planted to mimic the ecosystem that would grow there without human intervention, except that many of the plants—from groundcover up to forest canopy—bear a crop that humans can eat, and other plants are there to support those plants, and others are there for distracting crop-eating animals or attracting game. Each farm has a different riotous, fractal complexity, springing from the ideas of the permie running it and that person’s understanding of tiny minutiae of microclimate, soil conformation, water drainage, and a galaxy of other things to pay attention to. To grow a farm that didn’t need to be tilled and replanted every year, one where wild animals could not only live but thrive, one that did most of its own work—this was a kind of food-growing I could imagine getting into.

It seemed like a revolution and a revelation, but of course it wasn’t really. Even the affable Australians who coined the word permaculture, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, admit that very little of what permaculture proposes is new. It’s just old wisdom that’s been forgotten for a little while, and the word permaculture is useful for grouping it all together where people can find it and use it again. People styled “hunter-gatherers” and “nomads” have been using permaculture practices for thousands of years. The various native nations of what’s now California, before the first Europeans came, had been “tending the wild” since time immemorial: walking through the forest, pruning low branches as they walked to improve the shade structure, intentionally planting useful trees in useful places, culling trees they couldn’t use, and basically treating the entire rolling extent of California’s forest lands as though it were an enormous garden that only needs replanting once a generation or so.6 A permaculture farmer I know in northern Wisconsin has a garden plot that appears to float on top of the water, made of little artificial islands with food growing on them. He calls it the chinampa garden, and the technique is a direct reproduction of the Aztec way of growing food on lakes in what’s now Mexico. He says chinampas are the most productive kind of food-growing arrangement ever invented. Outside of settlements and former settlements on the Amazon River you’ll find mysterious patches of terra preta, ‘dark soil’, nearly black and extraordinarily fertile. It was created over millennia of supplementing the poor local soil with charcoal, ground-up broken pottery, and other ingredients not yet discovered. It makes beneficial microorganisms reproduce like crazy and has the incredible ability to generate more terra preta if you leave a good amount of it when you take some away to use as potting soil. Scientists do not fully understand its mysteries. It was invented by horticultural Amazonian rainforest dwellers, who would have been called the lowest and meanest of the human race by early Spanish missionaries.7

Maybe it’s my anthropology training, but it seemed to me that if I wanted to learn about indigenous farming practices, the way to do it would be to actually learn from indigenous people. The trouble there was, I lived in Ohio, one of the first parts of this country that settlers pushed Natives out of. There are certainly some Shawnee and Miami people left, but most of them live in Oklahoma, and the ones who are still in Ohio aren’t exactly all over the place. Having spent eighteen years growing up there, I had never knowingly met one. Even if I did find a local Miami who cared to talk to a random Cincinnatian city-boy such as me, and even if he knew a lot about traditional subsistence practices, the landscape of Ohio is so transformed since 1800 that anything he could teach me would likely be nigh unusable anyway.

Luckily, I had a simple solution: I didn’t want to live in Ohio anyhow. Something about that transformed landscape. I couldn’t abide all the quadrilaterals. Not to mention the pathetic winters: maybe one or two decent snowfalls all season; two in every three Christmases entirely green. No, I was meant to be somewhere more northerly. My degree secured, I spent a year teaching English in Korea to make just enough money to settle my student debts. Then I finally lived my childhood dream: I spent a year and a half living from my backpack, hitchhiking from one city to another, first in Europe and then more broadly in America, eating like a gourmet or a starved raccoon from other people’s trash, blowing from one city to the next searching for somewhere else to be from.

Once I got back to the U.S. I formed my master plan. Maybe it was because over the last sixteen months I’d spoken or tried to speak Korean, Thai, Lao, Khmer, Mongolian, Russian, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian, and Welsh. I decided, now, that whenever I did find someplace where I wanted to put down roots, I would solidify that commitment by learning whatever language was spoken there before settlers came. In so doing I would achieve several things at once. For one thing I’d be consciously and specifically acting as a stick in the mud against the constant and harmful current in American culture that says the best place to be is somewhere else just down the road. If I wanted to live well with the Earth, I had to start by living with the Earth, and that meant staying in one place, reaching my toes down into the soil, and letting them root out around me. By doing something as unfashionable and unmodern as sitting down and learning one of North America’s famously knotty and thorny autochthonous langauges in all its complexity, I’d convince myself that I could stay somewhere long enough to make it home, and show people around me that even the bits of the past that we imagine to be quite well buried are in fact still right there when you look, and have a lot to teach us.

Then, too, I wanted to learn about the history of the place I was in, the real, deep history, not just the last two hundred years or so since the first white people showed up and started cutting down all the trees and building military forts. Perhaps I wouldn’t pick up history just from studying grammar patterns, but it seemed like I couldn’t fail to pick up a good amount of it in whatever I would read while learning, not to mention from the people I would learn with.

And I wanted to make a gesture of reverse-colonialism: my ancestors’ countrymen made yours learn English, and to take a small step toward making things right, I’ll learn your language. It was interesting to me that when I mentioned my plan of learning Ojibwemowin to white people, many of them assumed that this was my main or sole reason for doing it. As if it were a form of penance. Forgive me, father, for my ancestors have sinned. — Memorize one hundred conjugations and you shall be absolved.

But I don’t really find white guilt a useful motivator. Above and beyond all those other factors, I was moved by the sheer delight of learning the language itself. People who “aren’t language people” (“Yeah, I took four years of Spanish in high school… all I remember is, ‘Dawndeh estuh el banjo?’ ”) seem to imagine that learning another language is good for nothing but toil, all amo, amas, amat, amamus until you might as well be in a medieval scriptorium. But I’ve spent a fair deal of time with languages and I can say with confidence that they are utterly fascinating and any effort you put in is rewarded if you keep a curious and wondering mindset.

I was looking for spirits, perhaps—but only the kind you find peopling any language. The ghosts of speakers long departed. Take a close look at English. Whose original stroke of genius was it to take the word spring—which started out meaning just ‘jump’—and apply it to a spring, where the water jumps up out of the ground, or to the springtime, when plants jump right up from seed? Who decided to name a bright red bird after Catholic cardinals with their bright red vestments? Linguists are at a loss to explain why exactly English has so many words for how light plays off a reflective surface—gleam, glare, glimmer, shimmer, sparkle, shine—when most languages get by with one or two. It’s not as if there’s something specifically about the British Isles that should’ve made people unusually sensitive to reflectivity. So they’ll say that it’s just down to happenstance. To which I might say: why just happenstance? Some people in our linguistic lineage decided to maintain a lot of different words for scattering light, and who knows why, but the rest of us seem to have liked those words enough to have kept them alive for several hundred years, so why not own that act of creation and maintenance as one more peculiar thread in the peculiar tapestry of English?

Even when we know why some odd word arose—like how you can eighty-six something while cleaning your garage because short-order cooks in the ’50s had a cryptic numerical code to communicate with waitstaff, in which 86 meant ‘we’re all out!’8—it somehow only adds depth to what feels, if you pay attention to it, almost like what Jung and Lévy-Brühl called “mystical participation”9—the sense that you’re not the only one thinking your thoughts, but only, as it were, thinking them on behalf of a much larger consciousness. So even if Sapir and Whorf were wrong (as many of the more respected linguists now say)10 and the words we use don’t dictate the thoughts we’re able to think—even if we can use any language equally well to formulate any thought—it seems beyond question, at least to me, that the language we use will at the very least give those thoughts a background of flavor, which can be disregarded by the most workmanlike communicators but is always there to taste if the poet in you cares to use your tongue for more than just talking.

And so, what might be there to discover in an indigenous language of North America, whose generations in bygone centuries led lives so different from the lives of the Anglo-Saxons who were, in the same centuries, busy using and passing on the words I’m currently writing? Those were the kind of spirits I was hoping to discover whenever I finally finished breezing from one place to another and found the one I wanted to call home.

  1. Diamond, Jared. “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”. Discover, May 1, 1999. 

  2. Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. New York, N.Y.: Bantam, 1992. 

  3. Diamond, Jared. Collapse, pp. 47–48. New York, N.Y.: Penguin, 2004. 

  4. I read a vivid description once of the difference in height between an Iowa prairie remnant patch and the farms near it, but can’t find it anywhere. If I do, I’ll add it here. 

  5. King, F.H. Farmers of Forty Centuries, 2004 (1911). Now available for free through Project Gutenberg at

  6. Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the Wild, throughout. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of Calif. Press, 2005. 

  7. Mann, Charles. “1491”. In The Atlantic, March 2002. 

  8. Adams, Cecil. The Straight Dope. New York, N.Y.: Ballantine, 1998. I have no page number for you because I gave away the book, but it has an index. 

  9. Jung op. cit., p. 7. 

  10. McWhorter, John. “4 Reasons to Learn a New Language” (TED talk), at 3:39. Also, yes, Sapir and Whorf didn’t really hold this hypothesis themselves, but their names are well known in connection to it and serve as a peg to hang this particular hat on. 

File under: religion, language, new world, permaculture, Deep Island

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