Family of Earth and Sky - Hertha D. Wong, John C. Elder

It's interesting to get together a collection of the stories that people in a variety of ecological settings tell about the land they live in and its other species. But this indiscriminate collection does not provide any ecological or historical context for individual stories. Some are oral tales, some are excerpts from literary works. Folklorists know that a story's much more interesting given some knowledge of who told it, when, under what circumstances.

I like that the editors included three versions of the Nivakle story "The Woman Who Was Married to a Jaguar" -- the variants give a better idea of the ideas expressed in the story. That, and the other Nivakle stories included, to my mind give a pretty unequivocal idea of "nature" as something to be feared, and conquered if possible, the area outside the village full of supernatural dangers which one must not have dealings with. But that's not at all what the editors are trying to argue. They are pleading for love and unity with all wild things. They write, "Just as the beginning of the girl's relationship with the formidable predator at once saves her from starvation and terrifies her, so too his eventual murder both releases her and destroys a character to whom we, the story's audience, have come to feel much closer than to those murderous humans." All I can say is, I'm not so sure about this "we"... A similar attitude emerges from the excerpt from the Kalevala where a hunter kills a bear and carries it home while pretending it's an honored guest, praising it extravagantly -- it seems clear to me that this is motivated not by respect but by fear, the whole elaborate business described in this tale is magic intended to prevent the bear's powerful spirit from taking revenge.

As the preceding remarks indicate, I think the editors have fallen prey to a deeply naive valorization of indigenous "spiritual" connection to nature. In their introduction, after awkwardly admitting the difficulty of determining who's "indigenous", they write, "By indigenous, then, we essentially mean early peoples of an area whose traditional cultures are rooted in particular landscapes with which they are essentially and specifically identified, whether they are presently living in those landscapes or not." This ought to include a lot of European agriculturalists, and indeed they include a couple of stories from Europe, but in the introduction they draw a distinction between western and non-western values, and in fact the real criterion for including stories here is their idealogical approval of them, combined with an ability to romanticize their tellers. (It's dubious to say that the Jataka [Buddhist teaching tales] are products of an indigenous culture in that sense, and they also included "Hailibu the Hunter", a pseudo-folk tale composed by the Chinese Communist government.) The elevation of a supposed "spiritual" connection with land and animals above the practical ecological compromises made by people as they establish a way of life can only obscure, not illuminate, any helpful lessons for the current ecological crisis.