In the writings of some environmental philosophers one occasionally encounters the idea of a place-based ethic. My understanding of this idea is that it identifies as valuable the particular region as such. Two places might be identical in the species of plants and animals that they contain, in their ecological structure, and even perhaps in their beauty. For some, those regions would be of equivalent value. But from a place-based perspective, certain regions possess a value that is necessarily unique to it and which exists in addition to these general features. In Western culture we are somewhat familiar with this concept. Certain locations, such as the site of a historic battle, a famous cathedral, or the home of a famous scientist or artist are valued as what we might call sacred ground.
Here Stephen Charleson is reconstructing the system of fish traps that fed his ancestors. Unfortunately, the details about how this system functioned are lost to history.
This idea of a place-based ethic came to mind several times in conversation with Stephen and Karen. I was impressed by the extent to which their very identities are rooted here in Hesquiaht harbour. The name of the Hesquiaht Nation derives from a particular method of harvesting herring roe for which this region became renowned well before European contact. Likewise, the name of beach on which we met translates, according to Stephen, as the place of many traps. This name refers to a network of fishing traps that were used to harvest the salmon that spawned in the stream behind their home. The traps were destroyed in the late 1800s, along with various other aspects of Nuu Chahl Nuth oral and physical culture. But the remnants of this system are still present and have been the subject of archaeological investigation.
More evidence of the Place of Many Traps.
Getting back to the concept of place. In Nuu-Chah-Nuth culture, to introduce oneself as the member of a particular Nation is to convey distinctive features of one’s home territory. Stephen was keenly aware of the boundaries of his ancestral territory. He was able to point out exactly, from the pile of stones at one end of the harbour to a stretch of beach in the distance, was the area to which his people belong. All of the harvesting and hunting required to sustain his ancestors were supplied from within the boundaries of this region. It was not permissible for outsiders to harvest from this territory without permission.
It is tempting to compare this relationship to a particular territory as akin to the relationship I have with my surroundings in the city. Like Stephen, I cherish particular locations in my neighbourhood. For example I enjoy proximity to interesting stores and restaurants. I am happy to live close to a good park and I look forward to observing how it changes over the seasons. But in my case there is no longstanding cultural connection to these features of the landscape. It doesn’t matter to me if my neighbours landscape their gardens or modify their homes – so long as it looks okay. Such features of my immediate landscape have no bearing on my personal identity.
In the Nuu-chahl-nuth case, particular features of the landscape are intertwined with their oral and physical culture. For example, one can look at a large cedar tree and see where strips of bark were removed when the tree was half its size. One thereby knows that this particular amenity –this tree- was valued by ancestors who relied on it over hundreds of years. Stephen did not refrain from describing just how painful it is for him to see such objects destroyed.
Here is an example of a culturally modified cedar tree (on Meares Island). The tree is approximately 600 years old. The fluted pattern around the tree is created from the removal of sections of bark. The size of each rounded section depicts the size of the tree when a given section was removed. Hence this particular tree has been in use for several hundred years.
It became clear during this conversation that Stephen views us Westerners as belonging to a transient culture, or, as lacking grounding in a particular place. Understandably, on his view, it is the practice of our culture to visit other places and claim them as our own. I have to say that this topic made me slightly uneasy, even ashamed. After all we were sitting directly beneath a mountainside that had been stripped bare of trees, and alongside a beach that now produces a fraction of the shellfish that it once bore. I took Stephen to be suggesting that such devastation could only be committed by people lacking a place-based ethic.
Ultimately, I find myself disagreeing with Stephen that a place-based ethic is necessary to motivate a sense of stewardship for a region. That is, I think it possible for people to make sacrifices and live moderately even without a personal and cultural connection to the place supplying their needs and wants. But I found this point impossible to adequately express. How is it that people like us, coming from a remote region, sometimes regard it as a duty to protect a place like this, even without such strong personal or cultural connections?