Thoughts on N. Scott Nomaday’s ‘An American Land Ethic’

If you’ve not come across N. Scott Nomaday – the native american poet, essayist and novelist – then reading him at first may come as a challenge; such is the world view he presents, at odds to that other view which so many of us are taught is ‘real’. It’s not, of course. We grow our lens from our culture, are ‘educated’ to see thus, and the western lens have been over-influenced by those who taught us to dissect life and its wonder more than embrace it. The forest marvel is reduced to the quantitative bits; the community to work units; cultural and historical paths to tarmac lanes of resource movement; the landscape to a warehouse and factory of ‘natural resources’.

And we’re not taught to ask questions that challenge what lies beneath, like: what is a forest?; what is a path?; what is a landscape?; who am I without the broth within which I am, and that makes me me?

Don’t misinterpret metaphysical depth as mere romance. It isn’t that.

Los Angeles-based photographer, Steve Engelmann.

Here’s a challenge. Read Nomaday’s essay An American Land Ethic. It is profound, and much anthologised. It requires rereading .. and then again. And it’s more than an epistle on relationships within a land-people complex, it is also an epistle on the meanings of generations, and self. Who are we without the links through memory?

There are lessons here.

And his last lesson in this essay is exactly what we need to be challenged with; to think about; to speak about. Because these questions and challenges are far far far far deeper than looking merely at segregated-from-meaning numbers we’ve been taught to set apart from the ideas that beget them. And yet the ideas come first.

Is that so difficult to appreciate?

Every sentence of his last paragraph deserves their own line.


In Ko-sahn and in her people we have always had the example of a deep, ethical regard for the land.

We had better learn from it.

Surely that ethic is merely latent in our- selves.

It must now be activated, I believe.

We Americans must come again to a moral comprehension of the earth and air.

We must live according to the principle of a land ethic.

The alternative is that we shall not live at all.”


Chris Perley
Thoughtscapes

Chris Perley grew up in landscapes. His playgrounds were hills, streams, fields and woods. He studied forest ecology because of the experience he had sitting within a complex forest. You can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste a forest. But those feelings were not taught in his science education. Something was missing. A rainbow was being unwoven. Quanta was all.

The quiet dissatisfaction grew while working to integrate the woodlands into what were essentially colonial factory landscapes, and later in policy and research. The marginalising of our potential, and our connection to place, was all too evident. He has called for a ‘Reimagining’ ever since.
 From a machine able to be reduced to disconnected bits, to a complex system that is inherently indivisible.

His subsequent work was on the philosophy – old and new – required to reimagine our landscapes, to see and be something different as members of place and community.
Chris has worked as an editor, a writer, and is an affiliated researcher for Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

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