Forget the word sustainability. Embrace instead, “reciprocity.” The waters and salmon feed us. The deer feed us. The cous (roots) and berries feed us. In turn? We give back and show reciprocity to the gifts of First Foods by taking care of the waters and the lands so they can always provide.
This was the message of Eric Quaempts, keynote speaker of the annual gala for the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in La Grande, Oregon, on October 24th. Eric directs the Umatilla Indian Reservation Department of Natural Resources and is a Yakama tribal member of Umatilla and Yakama descent. He’s innovative, a leader, and carries on the wisdom of the elders into a new age.
In contrast, the word “sustainable” can be thrown at projects like giant wind farms, arguing that the green energy makes up for the destruction of birds and bats in the blades and the great swathes of land lost. That sounds far from a reciprocal relationship. Wind energy can be reciprocal, but only if we think about it differently and act at small scales, while scaling back our energy consumption.
Reciprocity feels generous, giving, humble, and removes people from the center of all things. To carry out reciprocity, Eric told us how the Umatilla’s tribal department structures around the First Foods. To honor the water and salmon (that stand for all fish), they restore and protect watersheds. And so on. He shared with us, too, the ceremony of the feasts and the differences between “man” foods (water/fish, venison) and “woman” foods (cous and berries). The honoring of each food, and the presentation in great communal feasts adds reverence to the significance of First Foods.
The First Foods Eric spoke of that night sweep across northeast Oregon, Washington and even into Montana. Eric’s vision takes in the larger ecosystem, from summits to valleys and from headwaters to confluences.
How then would that change how we think about the invaluable work of Hells Canyon Preservation Council? I pondered this afterwards with others who were also moved by Eric’s presentation. The group has evolved from its original formation in 1967 to stop a massive dam that would have destroyed the longest free-flowing section of the Snake River that winds through the deepest canyon on earth.
The dam was never built thanks to many people, including my mentor Brock Evans, but the guardian tasks of HCPC were (and are) far from over. Even with a hard fought for congressional designation of National Recreation Area 40 years ago, the management under the U.S. Forest Service proved a polar opposite of reciprocity, especially in the 1980s when I wrote my thesis on the environmental controversies that embodied a microcosm of the Pacific Northwest, from salmon and tribal rights to logging, grazing, private land inholdings, wilderness, and jet boats versus nonmotorized recreation.
Giving back to the precious waters of the Snake River does not mean allowing noisy polluting jet boats to ply the wild river. Giving back to the salmon does not mean allowing livestock grazing that trample the banks of the tributary rivers where the chinook salmon spawn. Giving back to the deer, the cous and the berries does not mean logging the places that support them.
Over time, HCPC (with its visionary leaders, hard-working staff and many volunteers) has made a tremendous difference in helping shift management to be much more tilted toward reciprocity and has expanded its outreach to the larger ecosystem of northeast Oregon that is the sacred home of the Nez Perce (of Chief Joseph fame), and other tribes too.
The vigilance required is constant, as I discovered when a friend and I stumbled across a logging operation on the rim of Hells Canyon in a stunning forest of larch, lodgepole and fir close to the wilderness boundary. It would be like hiking a trail above the Grand Canyon and watching trees being felled and skid roads built across the delicate soils. Hells Canyon is deeper and wilder, yet far from safe yet.
What would it look like if HCPC took the same reciprocity approach that Eric showed us so clearly that night with the group of wonderful supporters? It felt appropriate that the fundraising dinner was not catered, but was cooked by local people from the local foods nearby. We shared in the harvest with squash and potato-based soups, salad, beef and lamb. The silent auction featured native plants, home-dried apples, heirloom seeds, and more.
Reciprocity is not new to this group of caring people from La Grande, Cove, Pendleton, Enterprise, Joseph, Baker City and Halfway. They live it here in a more rural part of the world than urban centers. How would it be to structure HCPC’s efforts this way? The more we can connect our foods with what it takes to provide for them, the better chance we have of engaging a greater number of people to care.
Just as local foods efforts are succeeding in linking the need to protect farm lands from subdivisions, we need to broaden that concept to the wilds. If we want water for the gardens that grow the squash in northeast Oregon, then we have to protect the watersheds all the way to the peaks. The native plants for birds efforts is similar, too, –to give back to the birds, we can give them the foods and shelter they need –each one of us making a difference.
Reciprocity. In a personal sense, I want to practice that in my life with deliberation. As I continue my gypsy journey across Oregon to the Pacific Coast and down to Point Reyes to meet my dear writer friend Sandra (!) and write on kingfishers and Halcyon, I drink in the sacredness of ancient trees all along the way –ponderosas in the Ochocos and the Fremont National Forests, and the immense redwoods of northern California. Through thousands of years, the trees have practiced reciprocity –giving back to the soils, to the air, to the wildlife that give to them.
Reciprocity. How will I live this day ahead of me? Indeed, the word informs all my actions and interactions –with people along the way too. Give and give back. Give without the need to know if there’s a reciprocal action. Be like the First Foods themselves that give without expectation, and yet through the act of giving, inspire reciprocal generosity.
As I write these words in the darkness before dawn with the crashing Pacific Ocean lit by the bright moon, it’s time to go outside my little abode here in my truck/camper “Alcyon” and take a stroll on the hard sands and listen to the wisdom of the waves and the constellations of Orion and Big Dipper above. Reciprocity.
And by the way–it’s not too late to DONATE to the Hells Canyon Preservation Council!