Two Tales of Coexistence

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I recently returned from a vacation that included a visit with friends who shared an amusing and surprisingly touching story of accommodation. Living in a fully urban environment, they were surprised when a family of raccoons became regular visitors to their yard, climbing over their roof and exterior walls in the process. The couple did battle with the critters for a while, taking a series of fairly comical steps to drive off the raccoons, including the use of a well-timed garden hose. Nature is persistent. Ultimately, my friends decided the raccoons weren’t causing any harm and gave in to coexistence.

Powerful thumbs contribute to raccoons’ adaptability

During the same vacation, I read Rebecca Solnit’s remarkable 2004 book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. I can’t say enough about how much I appreciate this book and Solnit’s writing in general. One event covered in this far-ranging book is a more profound and much darker tale of assimilation.

In the 1860s, the U.S. government forcibly moved a group of indigenous Modocs from their homeland in northern California to a reservation they were required to share with other, very different, indigenous peoples. Some of the Modocs repeatedly left the reservation and returned to their native land, led by a young Modoc named Kientpoos and known to many as Captain Jack. The situation escalated into the Modoc War, a grisly conflict that only lasted as long as it did because of the Modocs’ intimate knowledge of the landscape.

Captain Jack and his followers tried more than once to reach a peaceful settlement with the white colonists. The Modocs experience, lifestyle, and religion made a specific location vital to their identity. Taken away from their home, they were lost. Captain Jack pleaded with the army and other government representatives. As Solnit writes in River of Shadows:

“…Captain Jack recognized the difference between what the two groups wanted from the landscape and proposed that, like two different species, they could coexist, the whites as ranchers and loggers, the Modocs as wide-ranging hunters and gatherers. He was trying to be reasonable. He tried to be reasonable till the end, and he was a peacemaker by inclination, but reasonableness doesn’t do much for a person without rights.”

Unlike the Modocs, the white colonists had already separated their identity from time and location: clocks, the railroad, reliance on food that was often grown and gathered by others, the very nature of their role as settlers who had voluntarily uprooted their lives for other pastures. All of this gave the whites a sense of entitlement to claim manifest destiny over any land they put a stake in. A system of legally defined property rights and private property rigged the game against those who already occupied the land. Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer who documented the Modoc War for the U.S. Army, was another reflection of this spatial disintegration, creating images of a specific time and place that could be reproduced and viewed by others far away and at later times.

Stereograph image of Modoc scouts, Eadweard Muybridge, 1873

Unable to assimilate to a foreign new world, the Modocs who fought against the U.S. Army were overwhelmed by a white population that refused coexistence: some of the Modocs were executed, some were imprisoned, and others were sent to a different kind of prison in the form of a reservation in Oklahoma.

These two tales of adaptability may be wildly different, but they illustrate some of the hazards, and potential benefits, of adapting to changed surroundings. In fact, as Solnit describes in River of Shadows, some whites in northern California did coexist with the Modocs prior to the war, including marriage and family. We can only imagine how much richer we would be today if those two groups had continued peacefully.

Raccoons may have inhabited the land long before human settlements, but it’s unlikely, tempting as it might be, that we will roll back our cities in favor of wildlife. Of course, homeowners becoming accepting of outdoor raccoons is not really a tale of assimilation. While wildlife can demonstrate extraordinary adaptability in the search for food and shelter – like raccoons navigating urban landscapes instead of forests and streams – we generally prefer that people not have to undertake such effort just to survive.

Or do we? The U.S. government (that’s us) didn’t hesitate to force the Modocs onto foreign territory that was poorly suited to meet their basic needs. Should we penalize people for having spiritual ties to specific locations? Is geographic or temporal dislocation a virtue, or does it relieve us of guilt for our culture- and climate-destroying lifestyles? Will this become a moot point as increasing numbers of us are forced into climate refugee status in the years to come?

One of creativity’s most important attributes is an ability to see beyond the status quo, to see life as it can be rather than what it is. We reflect this ability in our day-to-day efforts, how we vote, and what we consume. We would be wise to embrace diversity and offer, not assimilation, but coexistence. Because in a self-created world of dislocation, our connections with each other may be all we really have.

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