Natural Relations

How we see nature is how we treat it

Redwood forest, Jedediah Smith State Park, California.

Stroking a thick, white mountain goat hide placed next to a loom, I watch master weaver Teri Rofkar create a traditional robe made from the animal’s wool. Next to the hide are strips of spruce root, raw material for her exquisite woven baskets, also on display. Teri tells stories about her indigenous Tlingit ancestors as her expert fingers weave a beautiful design.

“With such plentiful resources in your homeland, it’s easy to see how your people have been able to thrive,” I say.

“Resources?” she replies. “Mountain goats and trees aren’t resources. We have relationships with the goat and the tree.”

Since time immemorial, Teri tells me, the Tlingit have lived along the forested coast of what is today southeast Alaska, rich with spruce and cedar trees, mountain goats, salmon, bears, ravens and eagles. To make robes, they knew the optimal time of year to hunt the mountain goat, so the animal’s coat was in the best condition. In addition to the wool, they also used the hide, horns and meat.

To make baskets using spruce root and cedar bark, they carefully harvested the roots and bark so that the trees could continue to live. Today, weavers still use the same harvesting techniques. I wonder how Teri’s ancestors thousands of years ago had the foresight to harvest bark or roots in a way that did not kill the trees. The forests must have seemed endless and in a constant state of regeneration in the soggy climate.

This mindfulness speaks to the difference between resources and relationships. When people live with deep connections to the land, water, animals and plants that sustain them, it’s impossible not to respect and develop relationships with everything. Resources, on the other hand, tend to refer to end products—commodities. It’s tough to have a relationship with lumber, copper tubing or frozen fish sticks without knowing the forest, earth or water from which they came.

Ever since my conversation with Teri more than a decade ago, I have eliminated the word “resources” from my vocabulary and have replaced it with “relationships.” What a difference a word makes. Everything I eat, drink, breathe, touch, use and discard comes from our shared Earth home. And yet, how many of us stop to think about the relationships we have with animals, plants or rivers when we eat a burger or salad, pump gas into our cars or create photographs with our cameras and computers?

When I stopped using the word “resources,” I started thanking everything. Thank you, dirt, for growing food. Thank you, forests, for creating oxygen. Thank you, climate, for allowing me to exist. Admittedly, it’s not a stretch to think about relationships with what keeps me alive. But what about other stuff? Thank you, plastic? Thank you, fossil fuels? Eeks. What’s a concerned citizen of the modern industrialized world to do?

Seeing the world in terms of relationships encourages me to question what I use, where it comes from, how it’s made and who makes it. Asking myself why I need something leads to making better choices and being less wasteful. Maybe it leads to a relationship with a local farmer or fisherman. Maybe it leads to a conversation like the one I had with Teri, the one that shifted my thinking from mindless to mindful.

Another conversation I think of often is one between an old woman and Richard Wagamese, an Ojibway storyteller from the Wabaseemoong First Nation, who shares it in his book, Embers. It goes like this:

Me: Why am I alive?

Old Woman: Because everything else is.

Me: No. I mean the purpose.

Old Woman: That is the purpose. To learn about your relatives.

Me: My family?

Old Woman: Yes. The moon, stars, rocks, trees, plants, water, insects, birds, mammals. Your whole family. Learn about that relationship. How you’re moving through time and space together. That’s why you’re alive.

Inspired by wild lands and their significance to both wildlife and people, Amy Gulick is a firm believer in the power of visual stories to engage, inform and move viewers. Celebrating the wild and the photographers who use their images to raise awareness is at the core of Gulick’s work featured in Outdoor Photographer.