As a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, I was intent upon finding a new place to hunt and gather so I began exploring a portion of the ceded territory. One warm spring about ten years ago, I found and fell in love with a little slice of the Nicolet National Forest during the Chippewa off reservation spring turkey season. From the moment I walked the hills I was taken with the place, but more so because of the topography. It took a few trips to understand there was a strange difference between this forest and the forest of my home. While I enjoyed the place, I could not quite put my finger on what was missing, until I noticed I could rarely find a mature tree. Once I could pinpoint that, I better understood the difference in how the National forest was managed to focus only on the timber and recreational market. Growing up on the Menominee Indian Reservation, I was accustomed to better healthier timber and vibrant forest systems.
What I saw in the Nicolet looked like foresters had only focused on taking out the trees with market value. This means the strong healthy trees are removed rather than taking out the sick and dying timber in order to foster the long term health of the forest. Instead of the health of the forest, I think they were more interested in immediate dollar value. Essentially that management style leaves behind only the sick and marginal trees, when that style of management is conducted over a hundred plus years, rather than a healthier forest, it left a unhealthy forest. It is clearly managed for the market value of timber, not for the health of a forest ecosystem supporting a broad base of life.
As I said, I grew up on the Menominee Reservation. So as a child, I spent all my time in a huge forest area directly south of the Nicolet National Forest. As many teachers and family members can attest, I sometimes spent a little too much time in the forest. The Menominee forest is like no other. As a forest, it has been logged steady for over a hundred years, yet to the untrained eye it looks untouched. Many people have commented on Menominee’s “old growth” forest, and I smile. It is not old growth, it is simply what true sustainable timber harvest looks like. The Menominee forest is the living embodiment of what sustainability is. For over a hundred years the Menominee people removed only what the forest could support without damage, living within their means. Long ago the Menominee decided to only take the sick and dying timber out. Then they continued to cut at a rate that ensured the forest, not just the timber but the entire forest, remained vibrant and healthy.
Considering my background in the Menominee forest, when I began tramping around the Nicolet I saw the complete opposite of what the Menominee forest is, even to the depth of how it is used by people. In Menominee, the forest is managed to provide more than just timber. It is managed to be a healthy forest. There, it is common for people to spend time in the forest and lakes regardless of the season. Picnics, rides, swimming, and gathering but the difference I have noticed is profound. Menominee families commonly go to the forest to be together, and to maintain the connections of people and land where one is not separate and distinct from the other. In Menominee the forest helps meet their physical, social, and spiritual needs. In the Nicolet, the majority of people I see are only there to take something away (hunting, fishing, woodcutting) or use the forest as a fast track for their ATV or snowmobile. That relationship is one of taking. It seems as though people think they are separate from the forest and it is simply a resource to meet their individual fiscal or recreational needs. Such a connection is almost abusive where it seems to be nothing more than a one sided relationship. But I have yet to see anyone in the Nicolet there to simply enjoy it for what it is.
One frosty morning while sitting in the Nicolet forest, high on a hill overlooking a quiet stream the heartbreak of reality became clear to me. The difference between the Menominee and Nicolet forests is a physical manifestation of cultural values. The different values between the tribal world I grew up in and mainstream society can be seen in the very landscapes they each exist within. The heartbreak came when it dawned on me how bad thingswill get before mainstream society wakes up and understands its misguided values.
Sitting on that high hill, I saw deeper into the issue than I ever have before. It dawned on me that sustainability is simply love at its very foundation. It is an act of love for self, neighbors, children, grandchildren, and all forms of life. Sustainability means living within your means and never taking more than any system can support. It does not matter if it is a forest system, or an ocean, or a farm. If you take more than the system can withstand, you will create a disaster.
I honestly think it sustainability is better understood by people who live their lives with an immediate connection to the landscape as well as their past, present, and future. For me, I can only say this has been a common denominator in the tribal communities I call home. That connection to landscape and your own past, present, and future creates a profoundly different perspective. How could I justify a clear cut of the very forest that supported my ancestors, me, and my children? How could I consider polluting the very water my children or grandchildren need to drink? How can the sacrifice of an entire forest ecosystem be thought of as yielding a short term profit? The perspective of mainstream America is different because they don’t understand they have a connection to the land and think themselves as separate from the very land itself. Actions and decisions are different based upon if you have a connection to the landscape or if you see yourself as separate from it. Without that connection people think clearcutting, factory farms, mining, and similar land use is justified. People think they can foul their own nest, and simply move away and build another nest somewhere else.
To discuss sustainability, much less love, with anyone is a scary proposition. When looking at the mainstream communities I often find myself, I can’t help but notice how most people rarely help or even know their neighbors, much less care how their individual choices impact others. Compared to the tribal communities I spend time in, where people know each other, help each other, even when they don’t get along as individuals, will at least do what is right for the community. It is driven by an unspoken love and commitment to the larger community and transcends individual differences. When I talk about sustainability as love, many make it clear they not only don’t understand me, but are often offended as though I have said something offensive.
The heartbreaking reality I saw that frosty morning on the hill is mainstream society is not capable or willing to live within their needs or means, because they don’t understand their connection to the land. Without a connection to the land, they lack the compassion necessary to be concerned with the very health of the land. The reality I saw was that until as a society, we are mature enough to love and care about each other we will never act or live in a sustainable manner. What frightens me, is the question of how bad will the ecological destruction have to get before people understand? How much must be lost before it is valued? And most importantly, when will people look beyond their short term appetites and wants to finally begin to care about themselves and everything around them?
Chad Waukechon is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who had the good fortune to grow up on the Menominee Indian Reservation. He lives with his wife and two children in Northeastern Wisconsin, embracing each season and their connection to the earth.