In Winona LaDuke’s recent essay, How to be a better ancestor, she shares a quote from Wes Jackson,“…if you’re working on something that you plan on finishing in your lifetime, you are not thinking big enough.” Appreciating the contributions of my ancestors help me understand and plan for work in a much bigger picture.
Some of my ancestors came over from Poland with knowledge in building ovens to burn coal. These ancestors worked in mines, and built those ovens in the foothills of what
settlers call Mt. Rainier. Some of my ancestors brought plant knowledge from Italy and grew gardens that fed communities during the great depression. The knowledge they brought from one place began connections with lands nurtured by the Columbia River and her tributaries.
Four generations after those coal ovens were built, my father worked to clean up soils in the Northwest contaminated with chemicals and minerals from extractive industries, perhaps including some of the pollution contributed by previous generations through mining and burning coal.
The work that needs to be done began before I was born and will not end in my lifetime.
Reflecting on the ways that my ancestors came to these lands, I realize that some cleaning up is in order. There were helpful contributions made by ancestors, such as growing and sharing foods. And, there were harmful contributions, such as extracting and creating the means to burn coal. As a descendant I have the opportunity to clean up after my ancestors and tend to these same lands. Cleaning up means respecting the waters and lands by helping to remove harmful chemicals, and tending to soils and waters by planting trees and shrubs. Cleaning up means giving back more than you receive. Cleaning up means helping to teach others so that they can do the same for their communities. In the process, I realize that it just plain feels good to clean up after yourself.
The sense of my life expands to include the lifetimes of my ancestors and generations to come. ‘Cleaning up after yourself’ does not just span one lifetime. I have come to understand that there is no separation between the actions of my ancestors and myself. I am here because of their actions and choices. Likewise, my actions are inseparable from those who will live long after I have returned to Earth, and so, this work becomes much bigger.
How can I be a better ancestor?
For the past few years, I’ve worked to coordinate training for graduate students and environmental professionals working in the Northwest to help communities understand and adapt to climate change. Some of the trainings are held in the foothills of Tahoma, Tacobeh, Pooskaus, Tacoma— there are many names for the mountain that has offered much to generations of my family. Through the trainings we bring people together– to water, trees and mountains–so that they may learn and deepen their own understanding of change. And, as they return to their individual homelands, I feel connected to a rising wave as they help communities adapt to the changes around them. Together we are working on plans that will benefit this and future generations, passing on cleaner air, soil and water. In doing so, I hope to model being a better ancestor, one who cleans up after herself.
Arwen Bird is the Principal of Woven Strategies, LLC.