‘Nature’s University’ promotes harmony of excellence

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 23, 2007

In last week’s column I shared some personal stories about my friendship with the late Stoney Nakoda elder and globetrotting goodwill ambassador George McLean, widely known as Chief Walking Buffalo.

Among the many responses that came in, one deserves particular attention.

Calgary coffee companion Jeff Perkins was struck by Walking Buffalo’s lesson from “Nature’s University” about how the plants of the forest, in all their diversity, live in harmony together, making the forest very beautiful. “Why can’t people be that way?” Walking Buffalo would ask.

But Jeff sees such harmony as illusory.

“The reality is that everything in the forest is struggling for nutriments, for water, for light, for space,” Jeff wrote. “Nature is not static. The harmony we perceive is but a momentary phase in that ongoing struggle for survival. So, in a way, people are exactly the same!”

My immediate response to Jeff was to acknowledge the importance of struggle. When each component in a system performs at its competitive best, the system as a whole prospers, whether it be a community of trees and flowers, or a community of people. Such struggle is good, I said, if it brings out the best in each competitor.

In this sense, we can speak of a harmony of excellence.

Since responding to Jeff, however, I have given more thought to this question, especially after attempting to deal with a nasty crop of dandelions determined to take over my lawn.

Sometimes undesirable influences can pose an overwhelming threat to the beauty of a forest. Are the effects of the spruce budworm or the mountain pine beetle “beautiful”? Only to the budworm and the beetle!

And what about the wartime human impact on Vietnam’s vegetation? Does anyone really think the defoliant Agent Orange in any way improved the beauty of its forests?

In our human relationships, too, negative influences can undermine the beauty of community.

In the Stoney Nakoda language spoken by Walking Buffalo, the word for “town” or “community” is oyade (pronounced oh-YAH-day). Interestingly, this is also the word for “peace.” The connection? A community is a place where peace prevails. Indeed, without such peace, community ceases to be beautiful and collapses.

Both Walking Buffalo and his son, the Cochrane Eagle’s newest columnist, Bill McLean, would agree that one virtue above all others is critical for the maintenance of such peace: respect. And a key factor in such respect is honesty.

But what happens to peace when lies and deceit are sown within a community?

In the Stoney Nakoda reserve at Morley back in the late 1960s, I witnessed just such a thing, and it nearly destroyed a beautiful community.

For some years, many of the families at Morley had been supporting themselves through small cow-calf operations. Like ranchers elsewhere, they did their buying and selling at auction marts, raised and harvested hay, and cooperated with each other in mending fences and branding.

Mom, dad and the kids each had their particular jobs to do in the family enterprise, and there was a neighbourliness and respect for each other – and for the livestock – that was refreshing.

True, they were not becoming millionaires, but there was no poverty of spirit, either.

Then came that fateful community-wide meeting called by the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA). If I had not been there myself to hear what the DIA official said, I would never have believed it.

The official told the audience that the DIA had done a study showing cow-calf operators at Morley were “living below the poverty line.” Therefore, the department was offering them a program that promised to greatly improve their quality of life. They should get rid of their cow-calf operations and accept welfare!

And for a time many believed the lie, the lie that dependency is somehow better than the freedom and satisfaction that come from struggle and achievement.

In computer jargon, there’s the expression GIGO – “garbage in, garbage out.” The quality of the results you get from a computer program is directly related to the quality of what you put into it.

The same can be said about community. When people exchange falsehood for respect, and dependency for freedom, the results are predictable.

Fortunately, things at Morley are turning around. Community members are once again paying attention to the wisdom of elders like Walking Buffalo and Bill McLean. Respect and integrity are restoring self-reliance and neighbourliness.

Harmony and beauty are returning to the forest.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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