ISSRM 2019: Together and Listening

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The OI partnered with the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management for their 2019 conference held at UW Oshkosh this past June. Participants were invited to submit writings based upon their experiences. This is one of those writings.

by Dr. Alexis F. Piper, Lecturer, Department of Literature and Languages, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Please, bear with the pedantic for a beat.

Not all that long ago (and what, at the same time, seems like eons ago) I wrote a dissertation that essentially argued (among other things) that the genre of American nature writing has appropriated Indigenous peoples and their ecological orientations for centuries, since the genre’s inception over three-hundred and fifty years ago.

In my academese-laden tome that I can’t even get my mother, father, or husband to read, I further argued that, by and large, nature writers in this country still aren’t really, ethically, genuinely, actively listening to Indigenous peoples and their ecological orientations.

I am delighted to report here that my argument seems to have held no water at this year’s ISSRM’s conference in Oshkosh. I was splendidly, spectacularly wrong–at least in the context of this conference. Although we all have a lot of work to do, at this year’s conference, I believe we listened.

At the plenary address featuring Potowatomi author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer, and at individual panels featuring Indigenous peoples, I believe many conference attendees listened, and, moreover, heard. Rarely has a scholar been so thrilled to be proven wrong. At this year’s conference, a string of fortunate flukes allowed me to both moderate and present at a session titled “Indigenous Peoples and Natural Resources.”

In a packed room, during the last session of the day, some amazing stuff happened. The individual talks–sans mine–were fascinating and uniquely divergent from one another, yet held together by a common thread: the “natural” world and all the beings that comprise it need to be seriously considered beyond what they can do and provide for humankind.

In other words, presenters were united in their understanding that there are alternative ways of thinking about the magna mater of this planet, ways that are more empathetic and less dominating and destructive, ways that don’t consider the vast, timeless, infinite, unfathomable Project of Life on this planet exclusively and myopically as resources for our own callow, newly-arrived species.

Further, this panel established that Indigenous peoples and perspectives need to be listened to for what they can teach all of us about these alternative Indigenous eco-orientations. Scientists, rhetoricians, sociologists, community leaders and activists, Indigenous educators, and folklorists from across the country came together in this session to explore critically important Indigenous ways of considering and interacting with what we mistakenly think of, from the Western-perspective, as “our” “natural resources.”

I’ve attended many conferences over the years, but the ISSRM conference is the only one I know of where such a wide array of disciplines, areas of expertise, knowledge, worldviews, and divergent life experiences could be shared in one room.

As academics, professionals, and scientists, these opportunities to forge connections outside of one’s own isolated “ivory tower” are invaluable. And I’m grateful that this year’s ISSRM conference in Oshkosh afforded this possibility for listening.

Yet, at least for me, the truly extraordinary breakthrough happened after the individual panel presenters had finished, during the question and discussion session.

It was at this point that I became profoundly glad that I turned out to be such an almost-comically inept moderator and let the discussion run over time because the last word of the session was something I’ll take with me for decades to come, possibly forever.

I floundered around after my own talk, fumbling and dodging questions with academese, but then, a fellow presenter, a spectacled Indigenous man from a tribe in Wisconsin, spoke up for only the second time in the session. His words were sparse and thoughtful even during his own talk, so, we were all rapt as he reminded us– in language strong and clear and plain, and in a voice that carried gravitas because of its content– that Indigenous people can’t do this on our own; we need allies.

Changing the way we think about and interact with the natural world and with those beings– animate and inanimate–who can teach us how to live and fulfill our potential while allowing those more-than-human beings to fulfill their own potential is a momentous, daunting, massive undertaking–one that requires allies and alliances, support, common ground, and shared purpose.

Re-imagining and vivifying literally Life-saving alternatives to Anthropocentrism (mankind-as-pinnacle thinking) and breaking the dominant cycle that has led us into unprecedented carbon levels (levels not witnessed by any human–ever), into unprecedented species and biodiversity loss, and into the dawn of the human-caused Sixth Mass Extinction is not only the responsibility of Indigenous peoples. (Which is grossly, preposterously unfair, if you think about it.)

We all need to do this difficult yet critical work together, every day.

Never has it been more important to take up the mantle and carry on this work, the work that so many Indigenous peoples have undertaken for centuries, often at great cost to ourselves, our communities and sovereign First Nations.

Yet this work of re-thinking, re-imagining, and re-vivifying our relationship with all that is more-than-human on Earth, I think, needs to start with listening–specifically listening to Indigenous peoples in an ethical way, a way that does not oversimplify, appropriate, dominate, or diminish the creative, generative, infinitely complex possibilities of Indigenous ecological orientations.

I have long written and spoken about the crucial imperative to genuinely listen to Indigenous peoples and their diverse conceptions of particular landscapes in a “scholarly,” abstract way; but it was a different experience all together seeing this take place “on the ground” in a real, concrete, flesh and bone, cotton and rayon shirt, leather and canvas backpack, plastic chair and metal desk kind of way.

The vivification of a dissertation and the witnessing of a scholarly argument coming to life is all too rare of an experience–and, yet, this was my experience at ISSRM in Oshkosh this year. This is an experience I’m grateful for, and one I’ll carry with me, along with the words that brought the “Indigenous Peoples and Natural Resources” panel home: “We all need to come together and do this–you with your science, and you with your stories, and us with our ecological knowledge and all of us with our lived experience. The science and what we are saying is the same. We need to help one another and those that take care of us and sustain us”.

In a culture that favors the speaker, the spoken, the thrust of throwing out words, rather than the absolutely integral, vulnerable act of receiving, of listening, I’m glad I got to listen to these final words of the panel, spoken from an Indigenous perspective.

I am still working on hearing these words, a crucial endeavor that will take some time and may never be completed because truly hearing these words and the words spoken by all of the sessions speakers means re-thinking and questioning the entire concept of “natural resources”.

Resources for whom?

And who gets to decide?

Should there even be such a category and such terminology as “natural resources”?

Are “natural resources” “ours” to designate as such? Why?

What does such proprietary, despotic thinking say about us as the supposed “most intelligent” species, the only species purportedly capable of ethical considerations and thought?

Perhaps paradoxically, these are some of the important questions I will continue to mull over after the 2019 annual meeting of the International Association of Society and Natural Resources.

Aldo Leopold– a unifying force for this year’s conference, given the proximity of Oshkosh to Leopold’s shack and the sand farm he revived– once wrote that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds”.

The isolation of thinking seriously about the natural world and the havoc we have wrought on it can be almost unbearable at times–and unbearably misanthropic.

But, at least by listening during the “Indigenous Peoples and Natural Resources” panel and by attending many of the panels and the plenary address at ISSRM, by listening to the incredibly important alternative perspectives so generously offered throughout the conference, I didn’t feel alone.

Thanks to my time in Oshkosh last month, I now know that I spent a lonely two years writing a somewhat meritless dissertation, but, I’m not really alone in my thinking and listening.

photo by Justin Mitchell @ Roche-a-Cri state park during ISSRM 2019

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Justin R. Mitchell

Justin is the founding editor of the Oshkosh Independent.

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