Greetings as a new year begins! Powerful forces at work indicate a number of significant events and changes will occur this year. Most important will be increasingly severe and frequent environmental disasters, which will stress cultures globally. For decades industrial societies have refused to face the consequences of profligate mining and use of fossil fuels. It has been discouraging each New Year to look back on how little was done to protect Mother Earth, and to not see much hope of change in the coming new year.
But this year I see signs of hope, that the awakening youth across the world understand the existential threat posed by deepening environmental disasters in a way that so many of their elders have not, do not. They are demanding change because they are now seeing the consequences of not doing so.
What changes are needed? Who has answers? Einstein was right when he said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
For the past several weeks I’ve been writing how the Crow chief, Plenty Coups, helped guide his Nation through their cultural collapse, as the buffalo their culture depended on disappeared. The story is described by Jonathan Lear in Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. How did Plenty Coups find answers to a problem his culture had never faced? The details are laid out in yesterday’s post, The Crow and Visions.
At the age of 9 years, Plenty Coups went on a vision quest. The elders of the tribe listened to young Plenty Coups’s dream. Yellow Bear, “the wisest man in the lodge,” offered this interpretation:
“He has been told that in his lifetime the buffalo will go away forever,” said Yellow-bear, “and that in their place on the plains will come the bulls and cows and calves of the white man. I have myself seen these Spotted-buffalo drawing loads of the white man’s goods. And once at a big fort … I saw cows and calves of the same tribe as the bulls that drew the loads. “The dream of Plenty-coups means that the white man will take and hold this country and that their Spotted-buffalo will cover the plains. He was told to think for himself, to listen, to learn to avoid disaster by the experiences of others. He was advised to develop his body but not to forget his mind. The meaning of this dream is plain to me. I see its warning. The tribes who have fought the white man have all been beaten, wiped out. By listening as the Chickadee listens we may escape this and keep our lands.”Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation
The key to moving forward was to listen like a Chickadee-person.
Young Plenty Coups’s dream calls on him, and it gives him ethical advice-advice that seems designed to help him survive the cataclysmic rupture that is about to occur: become a chickadee! “He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee-person is a good listener. Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use. Whenever others are talking together of their successes and failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words.” Becoming a chickadee, then, is a virtue-a form of human excellence. One trains oneself by sharpening one’s ears; one acquires the ability to learn from the wisdom of others. And after one acquires this character trait, a new form of excellence opens up: one can survive the coming storm. “The lodges of countless Bird-people were in the forest when the Four Winds charged it. Only one is left unharmed, the lodge of the Chickadee-person.” Chickadee virtue called for a new form of courage, yet it drew on the traditional resources of Crow culture to do so.Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 819-832). Kindle Edition.
So the chickadee had an established position in traditional Crow life; but in Plenty Coups’s dream the chickadee was put to a new use. Young Plenty Coups was told to acquire the skills of listening and learning from others. But there was no longer any indication of what doing this might mean. In ordinary circumstances stances the meaning would be straightforward: if one were already ready in a warrior culture, one might be able to pick up tips from others about military strategy, how to shoot a bow, and so on. If one were already in a farming culture, one might pick up tips from one’s neighbors about how to rotate crops, what kind of fertilizer is good for this soil, and so on. But the dream-advice to become come a chickadee is being given in full recognition that upcoming events will be extraordinary. There is a storm coming that will blow down all the trees but one. And nothing is said about what constitutes the wisdom of others, what their successes are, or how one should learn from them. In particular, there is no first-order advice that one should simply pick up the skills and values of the white man. Indeed, there is no first-order advice at all-unless “learning to listen” counts as first-order behavior. Part of what it is to acquire the virtue of the chickadee is to be able to spot what the “successes” and the “wisdom” of others are-and to learn from them. The wisdom of a chickadee consists in being able to recognize the genuine wisdom of others. I shall discuss in the next chapter how this might be possible, but for the moment it suffices to note that Plenty Coups used the chickadee to radicalize a second-order virtue. It may be that the chickadee will learn from the white man in the sense of acquiring his skills and values; it may also be that the chickadee will see that there are failures in what the white man takes to be his successes, and will learn from that. And it may be that the chickadee “learns from others” in ways that allow him to go forward in entirely new directions. The only substantive commitment embodied in the chickadee virtue is that if one listens and learns from others in the right way-even in radically different circumstances, even with the collapse of one’s world-something good will come.
The Crow people survived by learning to adjust their culture after the buffalo were gone.
Our culture (in the United States) is shifting and on the verge of collapse. Evolving environmental chaos and the failure of our capitalist economic model are the main factors.
The Crow people looked to their youth for visions. We should do the same. What are the youth you know telling you? What is their vision? Perhaps it is not to be like a Chickadee-person. Perhaps it is.
My Quaker Yearly Meeting’s, Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), Peace and Social Concerns Committee has recently be working harder to engage with our youth. Environmental chaos is the main thing they are concerned about.
The idea of being like a Chickadee is familiar to Quakers, who emphasize listening to the Spirit, and listening to each other. I sometimes wonder whether we listen closely enough. There is a danger of trying to fit what we hear into our current circumstances. Maybe being intentional about listening closely and being expectant of the possibility of hearing something totally new would be helpful.