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Shifting Stories: Repairing our Relations with the Living World

Here on the Pacific Northwest coast of North America, the WSANEC (Saanich) People call this time of year, the Moon of the Child, as it is the first full moon after the winter solstice and thus the beginning of a new year. The living world is slowly rebirthing as the sun returns to us, lengthening and eventually warming the days. As we wait, the Anishinaabe call this the Spirit Moon…honouring the silence and bitter cold of deep winter. They consider it a time for pondering the appropriate place of humans among the living world, often through story and dance. The Celtic/Old English/Germanic name for this full moon is the Wolf Moon, for wolves were considered teachers and storytellers through their howling, expressing their strong sense of communal communication.

Many Western thinkers say we are “between stories.” The modern story has its roots in a machine understanding of the universe and Earth. The universe is considered to move in mechanical ways, like a clock. The Earth is considered dead, passive matter, upon which humans exert their will. Our science is based on taking it apart bit by bit to understand it, and then manipulating it for our own ends.

This world perspective first took shape during the colonial era, which over hundreds of years, spread death to peoples and species around the world. Colonial countries staked their claims by planting their flags on other people’s land, but also terraforming the territories they claimed. They did this according to European conceptions of what it meant to be “civilized” and to have an economy of “efficiency” and “progress.” Other peoples were considered backward with no “real” economy and no real “nation.” Yet, as so many writers are exploring now, the Indigenous peoples encountered by Europeans around the world were often working in harmony with the natural world so that their means of sustenance was not as obvious as clearcutting forests and putting up private property fences for farming and grazing. To Europeans, Indigenous peoples were squandering the wealth around them rather than engaging in careful husbandry.

The book The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh examines the Dutch East India Company who wrested sole control of the Indonesian islands where the nutmeg and mace tree originally grew. As part of the growing spice trade, often used for medicinal as well as culinary purposes, the Dutch wanted to establish a trade monopoly. When the local Banda Islanders would not cooperate, the colonists burned the villages to the ground and either slaughtered the local people or enslaved them, all part of the genocidal purposes of “clearances.” While some Bandanese escaped, their language, customs, and intact ways of living were largely erased.

Yet, as historical accounts describe, to the Banda Islanders, their volcanic islands were sacred and alive. Their stories and songs honored nutmeg and its gifts as well as the overall bounty of their lifeworld. To the Europeans, nutmeg and mace were commodities from an inanimate Earth, their dominant story.

There is another egregious twist in this colonial genocidal story, which has been called the “Great Dying." Nutmeg was so highly prized that the Dutch exported tree stock to many other places, replacing native species with plantation production, cashing in on the value of a crop that fetched astronomical prices. However, once the market became flooded, and the value of spices began to fall, the Dutch then systematically destroyed the trees to restrict supply, a way to increase the price one again. As Ghosh says, “Wars of extermination were precisely biopolitical wars, in which the weaponization of the environment was a critical element of the conflict.”

The Industrial era further expanded this process with the increase of machines, chemicals, and engineering of every kind. The refrains became: of course we want progress, of course we want control, of course we want to win the global competition, of course we want conveniences, of course we want comforts. Yet, it is this rapacious vision that continues - whether billionaires planning to colonize the moon and Mars, the War on Terror to maintain access to o