Restorying the Human-Earth Relationship
In Being Salmon, Being Human: Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild, Martin argues that our human narratives are woven deeply into the texture of the more-than-human world, alongside other phenomenal aspects of the world such as the dusk song of the blackbird, or the gathering howl of the wolf pack’s matriarch. Each chilling gust of winter wind, each scat mark on a rotten stump, each rumbling of spring ice: a sign in the landscape, adding its unique expressive style to the land’s layered speech. Like these other, more subtle vocal marks in the palpable landscape, so too human narratives reconfigure the phenomenal world through their particular dialectical style. Each storied action – individual or collective – adds its layer of meaningfulness, one more sign alongside so many others. Stories, like other forms of plant or animal communication, leave their marks in the land where others might read them. They live in the land, and the land in them. And we who grow up into a particular landscape or region, we experience the world in storied form, and in turn we reshape that world according to those stories. Whether the living Earth will thrive or not in the presence of the human animal, depends also on what stories we tell, and on what other-than-human stories we make room for to tell themselves in our presence.
Being storytelling animals, we humans act within the world according to the way we perceive it. If we experience the oceans and those who dwell therein to be alive, to be a great interiority, we will encounter this vast sphere of otherness with mutuality and respect. If, on the other hand, we perceive the oceans and their inhabitants as a mere ‘environment’ which is ‘out there’, as ‘raw material’, or ‘resource’, or ‘warehouse’ there for us to be exploited, we will treat them accordingly. It is now beyond reasonable doubt that given the current rates of fishing and the current size of the worldwide fishing fleet, all remaining fish populations of the oceans are threatened with depletion within just one more human generation.
But we see: even as the narrative of human supremacy continues to treat this ancient planet like a machine, there is a very different story we are being asked to tell. There is another story which strives to tell itself more fully through us. Earth throughout her many regions strives to resonate more strongly with the collective human psyche. Time and again, storytelling apes are being called upon to respond. Who is calling upon us? The salmon, the rivers, the clouds, the oceans, and, surely also that certain erotic attraction between bodies which is gravity (which truly excels in the work of drawing the human animal back, grounding it, holding it within, planting it with its feet onto this soil). In its complex and myriad ways, the animate Earth strives to draw humans back inside storied participation.
We are finding ourselves drawn inside a story which did not originate with modernity, nor with early Greek thought, nor even with the distant origin of our own species. We are gradually learning to situate ourselves inside a narrative which unfolds across the huge expanses of deep time. For surely, we live in a time of transition between stories. The narrative adaptation out of the shortsighted and egocentric story of human supremacy is already upon us. It is part of the work entrusted to this generation to hasten this changeover. What could that mean, to let ourselves be drawn more accurately, and also more beautifully, into geostory? And what role can each of us play?
How very spacious geostory is. How strongly it can pressure received frames of reference. To think: the salmon industry, now so dominant an actor in mediating human-salmon relations, has been around for about half a century. But humans have been asking to receive the gift of the salmon’s flesh at least since the last glacial period ended some 10,000 years ago, when the oceanic rims of Northern Europe and America became more accessible for human settlement as well as for the salmon. As the glaciers retreated, it is likely that the newly-accessible northern regions both of Europe and America saw humans and salmon arriving side by side, co-evolving strategies to dwell inside emerging habitats. What is half a century in relation to 10,000 years? One part in two hundred! Or to think: Salmon as the distinct species we know today have been accepting the responsibility to return from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans for at least six million years. Six million years equals thirty times the life history of Homo sapiens as a species. It is also three thousand times longer than the time that has passed between today and the life of Jesus. And it corresponds to fifteen thousand times the time that has passed since some thinking apes first thought it wise to treat the Earth, and all her processes, and all her creatures, as a machine. Given the salmon’s very long sojourn inside this ancient planet, it would seem to be far more parsimonious and precise indeed to think of salmon, not as objects, not as commodities, but as elders.
Original artwork courtesy of April White