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Personhood and the rights of nature

Over the last few years there’s been increasing debates in some quarters about the rights of nature and the feasibility of bestowing ‘personhood’ to landscapes or parts of landscapes. This is something that has many parts. It can be about legal protections, recognition of the ways First Nations people view landscapes or the natural world or a deeper ethical position on the rights of nature (even though, for some, bestowing personhood seems to contradict the idea of nature’s rights).

They’re interesting debates with some contradictions and limitations. However, they do share a common attempt to strengthen the rights of and protection of nature. You can see an interesting recent piece from The Guardian, written by Patrick Barkham, here.

*This is also published at localslowtravel.com

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Thoughts on the power of observation to engage with place

Many aspects to life are played out in public and observation is a very powerful skill to have. To my mind, the very act of observing (rather than looking/seeing) means you’ve begun the process of engaging with place and everyday life.  For me, the difference between seeing and observing is found in asking yourself two key questions: Why is that happening?  How did this occur?  By asking those kinds of questions, you start to dig below the surface of what you see. It’s through this you get to add to your own stories of a place, your own experiences and your own knowledge of self and others.

As an aside, this is why I’m not keen on listicles and ‘1001 things to do in (.wherever) before you die’ kinds of lists.  I have a personal concern with bucket lists – as if they are the ultimate definer of an experience, a life.  Too much time marking things off lists means too little time getting to know a place, its people and its everyday life.  Quiet reflection and observation (and most importantly, understanding of some kind) are too often subsumed by the next thing to tick off. 

The streets are the point of intersection of people’s lives, relationships, networks and interactions and the vignettes of people’s lives which unfold tell a lot about the pulses of everyday life, well away from the our own assumptions  But this is not that unusual – public spaces (parks, roads, wastelands, forests for example) provide glimpses into the everyday life of place. You just need to spend the time to observe and do, rather than rush by or through.

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Thoughts on Building Community Resilience

Over the last month or two I’ve had a various conversations with people about community resilience. These are focused on ideas of resilience being tied into either economic or psychological states, the expert knowledge of various groups – including community practitioners and bureaucrats – and the importance of getting ‘community’ on side.

While there’s quite a lot to unpack here, for this post I’ll just focus on how 4 points sum up how I see it.

As a professional working in the community resilience space, I don’t own knowledge and experience. I have different assumptions, ideas and experiences that I bring to the table, along with others. Therefore, a foundational part of this thinking is that I have things to contribute, and with others I can contribute and collaborate in the search for community resilience. Disagreement or different perspectives are important parts of the mix.

What this means hopefully is that we move away from that professional model that assumes professional, technical knowledge which we use to ‘create’ resilient communities.

My own ideas are influenced by the following:

  1. Most importantly, all communities have range of attributes  that support or enhance resilience. A significant part of my professional practice is identifying what they are and how these community ‘assets’ can be harnessed. Note that this doesn’t assume communities are straightforward things – they are problematic, meanings are contested between groups and there are some who are on the margins for a range of reasons.
  1. Communities are in constant change, which can be a positive or a negative thing. For me, this stems back to my social science training and explanatory frameworks which emphasise that things change and are changeable, and this is a ‘constant’. What this means is that I look at stability as an outcome of change. The stability we might find in a community might be because of its economic base – let’s say a large employer in the town means there’s little unemployment. But this stability is the outcome of a very changeable economic system, one which might impact on the employer in that town. Hence the things that are driving this stable employment are by definition, changeable. The loss of the employer would have a significant impact on the resilience of the town. It also emphasises that many processes impacting on community resilience are found well outside the community.
  1. As a community resilience practitioner, part of my role is to look at the relationship between these community characteristics (for example, little unemployment) and the forces of potential change which are beyond the reach of community influence (for example, the dynamics of the economic system). This is where I use my knowledge of the social sciences and different definitions of community resilience.
  1. Another part of my role is to, with communities, assess potential challenges and bring community groups together to see what can be done. This is where ‘building community resilience’ comes into it.
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Why the Yeti matters

“Why isn’t the Mirka here?”

I was in a valley deep within the Himalayas, discussing my list of local endangered animals with a group of herders.

“They’re very difficult to find.  But you can if you follow their trails.”

The comment certainly didn’t have all the herders nodding in agreement- there was plenty of animated disagreement and some scoffing laughter. 

Nevertheless, the herder stood by his question.  There was just one problem- I had no idea what a Mirka was.  I asked the assembled group to explain the term.

‘Yetis’ one of the other herders replied.

For me, this interaction highlights something that goes well beyond the work that drew me to this valley in the first place.  This was the moment I realised the Yeti represents two inherently connected worlds – wild places, and the stories of ‘wildness’ that go with them.  

This herder had summed up a very complex relationship in one sentence.

That was twelve years ago.  Over my time working in the Himalayas, I’ve heard other stories of Yetis – sometimes told to much laughter, sometimes to serious nodding.  Irrespective of the reaction, local people thought it important enough to mention the Yeti in discussions about establishing sustainable futures for their valleys and landscapes.

It was around the time of my discussions with the herders that Reinhold Messner wrote his book My Quest for the Yeti.  His mission in part was to prove the existence or otherwise of a strange creature he had encountered in a Tibetan forest. 

Trying to answer the question ‘Does it exist’ is nothing new.  To my mind though, this is the wrong question.  The bigger and more important question?  ‘What if the things that gave rise to the possibilities of its existence no longer exist’?

What happens when the biological and ecological wildness that could hide the Yeti – make its existence a perpetual ‘maybe’ – start to disappear?  This is a question that in many ways goes to the heart of the protection and conservation of mountain landscapes.

A related question: what if the rich cultural traditions that house Yeti stories are lost, because of social change, modernisation and science ‘proving’ it doesn’t exist?  This is a question of the centrality of cultural diversity and cultural traditions to the resilience of mountain communities.

The Yeti is a window into the diverse and rich cultural connections people have with ecosystems and landscapes in the Himalayas.  The legend’s gradual disappearance mirrors the gradual disappearance of these connections.

To look through this window, to discover the links and the pressures, you need to follow the Yeti’s trails.

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