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Severing and remembering

The reason traditional cultures are so important to the world right now is that they still know how to remember. So much of what native people and their oral traditions are about is the simple act of remembering. It may be remembering an ancient ceremony, reenacting a dance, reciting a prayer, or reconnecting to the past through the recitation of genealogies, and, of course, through storytelling. This kind of remembering is an essential part of ecological restoration. Watershed biologist Brock Dolman says that the word "restoration" should be pronounced "re-story-ation," because it really means to "re-story" something. Many traditional people say that all restoration work begins with prayer. It begins in our hearts, because that's where the stories are kept; then we must rethink the story before we begin the work of planning restoration. Even in an age when commercial media seem to have taken over storytelling in our lives, this age-old art survives as one of the most important tools of social transformation that we have, and it is the key to achieving sustainability as well. Stories can mend our broken world.

Reestablishing communities, both social and biological, begins with the simple act of telling the stories of the inhabitants. Storytelling is remembering. To re-member is to put back together. Remembering means bringing something back to mind rather than letting it be forgotten. If we want to save places, peoples, or plants, we have to remember their stories. In their stories are the details of their natural and social history and, most important, the meaning they have for our lives. We have just about engineered the world to the point of extinction because we fail to understand what things mean and see how they are connected. That blindness is caused by forgetting. And the remedy is remembering. As writer Milan Kundera has said, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

The opposite of remembering is severing. To sever is to cut off. The act of severing that is most disturbing to the integrity life on earth is the cutting of DNA. This is what genetic engineering does. It cuts into life at the molecular level. It severs something from its ancestors and changes its story. When DNA is taken from one organism and inserted into another, that new organism has a new evolutionary path, a new story, one created for it by human beings [and not evolution]. Some people think that we have the right to control the evolution and reproduction of other organisms and that there's nothing wrong with a technology that severs our relationships to nature and our past. I believe that the use of genetic technologies to re-create the world is the defining moral issue of our time. This technology, more than any that came before it, redefines who we are, what makes us human, and how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the natural world.

Now we are faced with a choice. Do we accept the triumph of the techno-elites, meaning do we let them decide what's best for us, or do we use our common sense and moral compass to restore the public role of humanity in evaluating and governing technology? To do the latter, we need to understand our place in the larger world and in the communities where we live. And for that we need myth and story, because they help us remember who we are and affirm our reverence for life and for the human condition. The one thing native people consistently say is that our survival depends on returning to a sense of the sacred. That means acting with respect -- toward each other and the natural world. And the one thing traditional native people consistently do is engage in acts of remembering the sacred.

-- Claire Hope Cummings, Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, pp. 184-186


Let's Roll
Yael Dragwyla

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