Community, Democracy, and the Land

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This is who I am: Devil’s Den, Bull Run Farm, Sages Ravine, Spruce Knob, Dickinson’s Reach, Heron’s Rip, Moosilauke, Arun River Valley, Central Harlem, Cedar Mesa, Chama River, Chichicastango, Arch Rock, Drake’s Beach, Glacier Bay, Lake Atitlan, Knoll Farm.

That’s my biography. These words, these places, tell my story. These are the waters, the food, the wood, the dreams, and the memories that literally make up this body. These places define me. I’m alchemy of that land and the people who live there.

You love this land and are of it too. You know what I mean when I speak of these places as my biography. This land is your biography: this remarkable, unique place on the very edge of continents—forest, bay and ocean—is so rare and so evocative that our culture has made it one of the most expensive places in the world. Will it become a biological and scenic museum, or will your kids be able to make their homes here? Will people always be able to tie medicine bundles on its trees? Will everyone always be welcome here?

This is also my story: I’m the youngest son of a Jewish immigrant who fled poverty and politics in the Ukraine and upon arriving in America changed his name and his identity to get a job. He arrived here as The Other. My dad left me stories of diving off fishing piers into the East River in Brooklyn, New York. His struggles to find a home and a community, to create an identity that was respected by our democracy were all enormous sacrifices that make me forever privileged. He gave me a land ethic.

His legacy makes it impossible for me to think about land without also thinking about identity. After seeing the film Green Fire last night, I cannot think about identity without thinking about lovely Estella Leopold. What parts of her husband Aldo’s famous land ethic arose in him because of her womanliness and because of her Hispanic culture?

And when I think about the relationship between land, community, and democracy, I fail to honor my dad and myself if I don’t also ask, For Whom?

When this ideal of land, community, and democracy is practically and legally meaningful for all, it’s a powerful, healthy source for biological and social repair. And when it is really only a reality for some, then it is the deepest wound in a world of wounds.

Let me offer you a single word: Querencia. I suspect that not many who read this will know what it means. It’s a mestizo word, defined for me by Estavan Arrellano:

The place where the animal lives

The tendency of humans to return to where they were born

Affection, responsibility

The space where one feels secure

The place of one’s memories

The tendency to love and be loved

This word, Querencia, and many others like it in other languages, suggests that our strength, our affections, and our responsibility to one another have always been intimately connected to our relationship to place, to land. Today, we call someone with great creativity and intellectual power a genius, when this is translated as “a person distinctly of a place.” The story of where our creativity and strength and responsibility truly come from is almost lost, but not so here in Point Reyes. This is a place where the health of the land is still visible in the strength and creativity of the people. This is the gift of this place that must never be forgotten or it, too, will be lost even here.

Querencia doesn’t exist for just some people; it exists for all people.

The land is there waiting for us, for all of us. There’s no special membership to join, and no required education before you start. It’s open to bankers and farmers, people in business suits and people who can’t afford decent clothes. It doesn’t care if you’re young or old, brown or white. Our biology is hardwired to it. We are always seeking its rhythms. The sounds of its heartbeat calls to us every moment of every day.

We answer this call when we dance, when we surf. We answer this call when we stand in front of ocean waves and feel the power and grace. Its voice is in the birds. Its care for us is the water that makes up our bodies. Some can taste it in ripe tomatoes; some can feel it in stones polished by the sea, or the kiss of a child. It is the voice of life; it is our intimate experience of moving wind, water, and sky. The wonder is what binds us together. That wonder is what we need. And it’s not just there for some of us; it’s there for all of us. To care is not Republican or Democrat, conservative or radical. To care is not reserved for environmentalists. To care is simply human.

Without some sense of shared humanity and shared relationship to the land, we lose our way. Many of the things that define a healthy human experience erode. We lose our ability to judge between what is real and what is artificial. We lose our sense of our spiritual or metaphysical place in the “big picture.” We lose our sense of belonging. We lose our sense of tolerance and acceptance of other life.

I have wrestled for years with two short statements from Leopold that are like koans for me. I am challenged by them, and I turn them over and over as I come to better understand the relationship between land, community, and democracy. The first is this: “There are two things that interest me; the relationship of people to each other, and the relationship of people to land.”

This one is so rich because it asks a very important and difficult question: how do our relationships to one another shape the health of our land? Leopold has helped me to see that nothing affects the health of the land more than the quality of relationships between people.

Many biologists and sociologists now concur that a healthy land leads to a healthy human culture, but what about the opposite? How might bad relations between people affect the health of the land? When we are greedy, when we are at odds, when we fear each other, when we are under the influence of spells, lies, and myths, we hurt the land as much as we hurt ourselves. Every time. The failings of our culture become a destruction of the land.

So, if this is true, and I believe it is, then one of the most important and durable ways to help the health of the land, to be a good environmentalist, is to focus on healing relationship between people. And now I come to the really hard part: one of the most important ways to heal people and relationships between people is to reconnect them to the land.

That’s a hard thing for some environmentalists to hear: we may not be able to heal the earth by separating people from it but only by reconnecting people to it. You can’t protect land from people; you can only protect land with people. As a nation and as an environmental movement, we’ve spent too much time separating people and the land and precious little time being in dialogue about what is a healthy relationship between the two.

I’ve spent the last decade trying to do just this: strengthening the courage of diverse people by bringing them together on a healthy piece of land to discover what values and beliefs they share and can act collectively on. I have seen with my own eyes, week after week, how an experience of the land can lead people in dire opposition to one another—Republican and Democratic legislatures fighting over climate change—to see one another differently and to find a shared story for the future.

I’m thinking now of my two daughters, Willow and Wren. As parents, we can give our children an experience of what we value, but then they have to grow up on their own. And as they grow up, all we can do as parents is love them and keep a dialogue going as they make their first vital choices in life. The same is true in our communities. How do our communities learn to keep talking and to be in relationship? Though I consider myself to be a spiritual person, I do not feel our churches offer that place today. And though I consider myself a civic person, I do not believe our town halls offer that place today. And I don’t think our malls do, either, or even our main streets. The future of conservation, I believe, is not just in saving land but also in connecting people to that place and to create, on the land, opportunities to sustain difficult conversations about what matters most.

Leopold was right. The land still offers a place and a set of relationships for us as humans to be at our best or at our worst. A human experience of the land helps to shape our identity, our sense of self. It helps to establish our relationship to the community and to the larger world. When we mess with that relationship between people and place, we put in jeopardy our most important relationships and our democracy itself.

And Leopold was also wrong. The second of Leopold’s statements is this: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” I know how he feels, but in reality no one—even those in pain and those who live an awake and conscious life—ought to (or truly does) live in isolation. Today, to care about people and to care about the land is to live in a world of wounds, yes, but what Leopold didn’t live to see is the presence of a world of people, of all colors, ages, and incomes, who are holding up this planet and loving her, and they are the hope of democracy.


This essay is based on a presentation delivered at the Geography of Hope Conference in March 2013 in Point Reyes, California.

  • Peter Forbes

    Peter Forbes is an educator, writer and facilitator who is learning and innovating across the boundaries of profession, culture and home and this has made his work influential to the fields of leadership development, sustainability, philanthropy and conservation.

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