You Don’t Own Nature: My Thoughts on the Environment

Earlier this year, my friend and mentor Steve Russell, Cherokee judge and scholar, passed away. There’s something he used to say that I only just now grasp. He said, according to Native Americans, we don’t own the land. The land owns us.

Over the past several years, I have stripped away various extraneous things from my life. I live modestly. I drive little. I wear casual and mostly old or used clothes. I’m surrounded by trees. And my family’s dogs. I go outside a lot and experience nature’s rhythms. Right now, it’s Spring, so there are mosquitoes, caterpillars, rain storms. There are budding flowers and green trees.

The other day, I was shown a video online with some comments. The video showed a white man petting a manatee. It’s against the law to touch manatees. They are endangered and important.

It was noted that petting manatees is illegal, but many commenters said: I don’t care. I would pet one, anyway.

The person who showed me this video was upset. She cares deeply about wildlife. Couldn’t they see that if manatees got use to us instead of being cautious that the manatees could get hurt? Already, manatees are struck quite often by boat propellors and injured or killed. Why couldn’t people just leave wildlife alone?

I thought about for a couple of days. Most of the people online were white people–and they seemed to feel entitled to nature. They seemed to think nature belonged to them.

I don’t know for certain the root cause of cultural norms like this, but I get the feeling that it’s mostly about power and control. Power and control over nature. And people who feel terrified by a loss of power and control are deeply injured inside.

Of course, it’s useless to try to own nature. My mentor Steve Russell was right: Nature owns us. This great Earth exerts her power whether we like it or not.

I hope that some day, we will begin to think of each creature as having autonomy and dignity just like us. Each is entitled to its life.

Maybe then, manatees won’t be endangered anymore and people who see them will only take pictures.

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