Thursday, October 29, 2009

An Ecological Approach to Cultural Sustainability, pt. 2

My first case study involves the folk culture that has grown up around fishing off the coast of East Penobscot Bay, Maine. Here the relation to the natural world is obvious, as fish are responsible for the culture’s livelihood. Not many years ago the groundfish diminished greatly in number, the result of overfishing. The fishing grounds are a commons, and the fishermen acted out its tragedy, with ever larger boats and larger catches. As my fishing friend Hap Collins said, “You can blow up a balloon only so big before it bursts.” Here as elsewhere in the Atlantic fishery the principle of limits to growth could not be more starkly demonstrated. More recently, with the global economic downturn, the price of lobster has plummeted, leaving many fishermen “underwater,” with their catch no longer paying the mortgage on their equipment. In response, the heavy hand of state and federal government has intervened to limit the catch and number of days that a fisherman can be on the water. This conservation method is meant to relieve the pressure on the fish so they can re-populate, but it also increases the pressure on the fishing culture, as now no one can make a living with short days. Ted Ames, a local fisherman, developed a different solution. He thought if he could find out where the fish spawning grounds were, then instead of limiting days on the water the spawning grounds could be declared off limits. Instead of trying to conduct a scientific survey, he went to the old-timers who had fished years ago and got oral histories about those places where all the young fish seemed to come from. The locations of the spawning habitat turned out to be relatively consistent down through the years. And so Ames has proposed, with some success, certain off-limits zones instead of short days. Ames’s oral histories are now safely archived at the Maine Folklife Center, by the way. If his idea proves successful, the folk culture of fishing off East Penobscot Bay may become viable once more. We folklorists who display the songs and crafts of this culture, who prize the stories that the crab-pickers tell one another, would do well to understand their interdependent relation to the local economy and the natural world, the importance of diversity in the fishery (not only groundfish but also lobsters, clams, and scallops, as well as seaweeds, sea urchins, and other wonders of the deep and not so deep), the lesson of unlimited growth, and the stewardship role that the fishermen are taking on by acting in their collective interest and avoiding the spawning grounds.

My second case study involves the folk culture of the Old Regular Baptists, a religious group known for their lined-out hymnody, who live in the mountains and river valleys of the Blue Ridge in central Appalachia, a natural ecosystem of great diversity in those areas that have not been destroyed by logging and mining. Those I know best live in southeastern Kentucky, and I will admit that I have been involved in presentation and display of their music, with cassettes and then CDs published on Folkways (though distributed mostly to Old Regular Baptists, at cost), and by presenting them festival appearances. But however satisfied they, and I, are to know that their music is undergoing renewal, the fact is that their folk culture remains fragile for a number of reasons: the small size of their population, the concentration in a relatively small geographic area, the dependence on old-fashioned religious beliefs and practices which do not appeal to the young, the difficulty in performing their expressive culture, whether the hymnody or the sung prayers or preaching, and most important, the economic dependence of the population on coal mining. It is chiefly a lack of diversity that appears to be the problem here, but it is not one that is easily solved. Indeed, one might argue that it is not a problem at all, but rather an intensifier of the folk culture as it acts to preserve itself in the face of adversity.

In the early 1990s I partnered with this group to help them transmit their music from one generation to the next, in response to a request from their leader; and I was able to get them a grant to support musical self-documentation so that they could record some of their endangered melodies—in this case, not only the hymn melodies but even more important, the lining tunes. However, their attachment to the natural world (God’s creation) in that particular place, is very strong, as is their attachment to that soundscape and their identification of it with that natural landscape. They often speak of them both—soundscape and landscape—as expressions of God that have a peculiar “drawing power” for them. If they move away as young adults to find better-paying work, they return to the home place late in middle age and join the churches of their foreparents. But many do not move away: they work in the mines. Or used to: today strip mining and mountaintop removal have introduced new efficiencies and thrown a lot of miners out of work. If five hundred workers are needed in an underground mine, only ninety workers are needed to effect mountaintop removal mining.

Of course, there is more to the biocultural relation between Old Regular Baptists and mountaintop removal than unemployment. Mountaintop removal is a most horrific form of ecological disturbance, as the first step removes all vegetation and topsoil, not only leaving the landscape unable to protect the nearby towns from flooding in heavy rains, but also killing off the rare and endangered species that characterize the diverse mountain ecology. After the mining process is done the land is reclaimed by returning topsoil and reseeding for vegetation, but the average length of time in which the landscape remains an open wound is ten years. I am not satisfied to have focused my cultural conservation efforts so narrowly upon the expressive culture of lined-out hymnody. Yes, I believe it is a cultural treasure—as they do, although it is even more important for them as a spiritual communion—but in continuing my work in the community I intend to pursue economic subjects as well. In truth many of them are ambivalent about mountaintop removal, as mining remains an important source of income. I have listened to them talk about this for some time; now I need to listen harder and see if I can understand where they are coming from, so as to learn where they may be wanting to go.

With the folk culture of the Old Regular Baptists, diversity plays an ambiguous role. They are not diverse but, paradoxically, this may intensify their cultural traditions. Indeed, in the last few decades some ecologists have questioned the adaptive value of diversity in certain cases. Tropical rain forests are very diverse but also very fragile. Certain ecosystems that have a dominant species such as a particular kind of grass, and which are not diverse, nevertheless seem relatively persistent and stable. The interconnectedness of the expressive culture to the landscape and soundscape is explicit and strong. Dependence on mining has been problematic over the course of the last hundred years, and appears to be even more so now, as mountaintop removal pushes the limits of growth to an extreme that threatens the entire biocultural community. Stewardship emerges in this community among their leaders, particularly the head of the Association of churches, Elwood Cornett, a thoughtful and intelligent community scholar who has led a musical and cultural renewal among them for the past twenty years or so, to the point where their church membership has increased steadily and the health of the religious folk culture appears far stronger than it was when I first began visiting them nearly twenty years ago.

To conclude, then, ecology and economy require marriage counseling, but there is no divorcing them: they too are interconnected. In fact they come from the same Greek root, oikos, meaning household. The early ecologists brought economy and ecology together when they spoke of “Nature’s economy,” by which they meant learning from Nature: an economics of sustainability that follows the path of the natural world: diverse, interconnected, appropriate in size, and looked after by humans who consider themselves caretakers, or stewards, not owners. Our efforts at cultural conservation result in better best practices when we think of sustainability in these terms rather than in the terms of the economists. Following this construction of nature we emphasize stewardship, not ownership; performance and community, not product and commodity; human rights, not property rights; and not only human rights but the rights of all living creatures. An ecology or an economy dependent on continuous growth must fail. This is what Emerson meant in his poem “Hamatreya” when he wrote the Earth Song. Here the earth speaks:

      The lawyer's deed
Ran sure
In tail
To them and to their heirs
Who shall succeed
Without fail
For evermore.

Here is the land,
Shaggy with wood,
With its old valley,
Mound, and flood.—
But the heritors—
Fled like the flood's foam;
The lawyer, and the laws,
And the kingdom,
Clean swept herefrom.
They called me theirs,

Who so controlled me;
      Yet every one
Wished to stay,
and is gone.
How am I theirs,
If they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?

[And now the poet speaks:]

When I heard the Earth-song,

I was no longer brave;

My avarice cooled

Like lust in the chill of the grave.


  1. Jeff:

    Challenging, insightful stuff, as always. I have found some similar connections between ecological models and ethnomusicological ones, particularly in my own work teaching an oral-tradition music as a community service:

    Thanks for these essays.

  2. Jeff,

    I love this paper, particularly for its critique of the notion that culture exists ad extra to economics and human sustainability. One view of cultural traditions might be as manifestations of the ecology of place, focused through the human physiology.

    This brings to mind another Wendell Berry work, 'Home Economics' in which he draws some of the same connections between economy and ecology, and also talks a bit about the shape of sustainable cultural traditions.

    Finally, does part of the problem of exhibitions and folklife appreciation events stem from the implication that such activities have a proper place only in the marketplace, and not integrated into daily life? That they are obsolete outside special exhibition? It seems that part of the threat to their existence comes from being relegated to special spaces. Ironically, it is their preservation in these special spaces that also allows them to enter a canon to be thought worthy of preserving, and brought to the attention of many who would otherwise forget, or simply never be introduced to such practices. A paradoxical relationship, to be sure.