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  • j.p Muhly

Finding Common Grounds

By j.p. MUHLY

"According to traditional thought, if we fail to organize all aspects of our lives, including our work to make positive or healing contributions to our relationships, then we are actually making negative contributions instead. In other words, healing is not just a form of emotional or psychological surgery you reach for after there has been a significant injury. Instead, healing is seen as an everyday thing for everyone, something which, like sound nutrition, creates health. In short, the healing perspective must be built into the attitudes and processes that shape every aspect of every day. If it is not, then those attitudes and processes will contribute to ill health instead, and for all of us." - Rupert Ross, Returning to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice, 1996

As a Crown Attorney with Justice Canada in northwestern Ontario, Rupert Ross broadened his awareness about being a part of a Legal System that created laws to suit the desires of Justice Canada, the colonists and the business enterprises they were in cahoots with, and acting together for illegal or dishonest purposes, not being the least concerned about Justice. At the same time, he came to appreciate and gain an understanding of Aboriginal, Indigenous and Native People's approaches to justice that are grounded in healing and relationships and visions of the community lives that shape them.

Our sense of community and justice depends on a set of norms and expectations to which we all attach meaning. Offending behavior disrupts these senses and becomes offending when the relationships that satisfy our needs, socialize our children and knit us together as a community are broken. When individuals or groups become so focused on personal desires that the results of their behavior on other people and the environment are destructive, then the concepts of accountability, respect, and responsibility that bind cultures and societies together are seriously compromised. Building and maintaining effective communities to counteract these offensive trends requires partnerships among all shareholders in a community to make the processes of collaboration and communication about economic, governance and justice issues more democratic and egalitarian.

Justice is about relationships. Providing justice requires that we understand the inter--and intra-relationships of attitudes and behaviors in the realm of human ecology which is what communities and community dynamics are all about. Doing so can then lead to an understanding of why much abusive and debilitating behavior occurs. It can also lead to an understanding of how to heal those relationships, as well as how to heal our relationships with the natural environment upon which we depend. As a society, too often we have come to view naturally occurring relationships and the naturally created world as inadequate or superfluous and cultures and societies different from ours as uninformed (at best) -- yet in doing so we have created one conflict after another.

In separating ourselves from our communities and our inherited environments, we have disavowed, discounted, ignored and subverted our own humanness and our most fundamental values. We have traded any compassion and sympathy for people and nature in our decision-making processes for supposedly hard data, and have transformed the world into more useful commercial forms. We have given up valuing communities and cultures by joining power, economics and information to create a philosophy of improvement, founded on the ideology of perpetual financial growth and technological achievements. Unfortunately, for this approach to succeed, it was necessary to render nature into abstractions and production statistics; undermine community where attachment to place might not only exist but grow; and convert politics into the pursuit of material self-interest and hence, render people impotent as citizens and communities superfluous in the political and judicial processes.

I'm an 'Other-abled' Vietnam-era veteran who turned conscientious objector when I was a commissioned officer on active duty flying jets off of carriers. I woke up to the reality that it would be difficult for me to live with myself had I killed women and children and other community members for no good reason other than to support warmongering colonialism and the capitalist enterprises they supported.

In addition to over forty years of participation in both the built and natural environments, in the nineties and the turn of this century I was also involved with a few Mennonite Restorative and Transformative Justice programs; as a facilitator with the FoR / Quaker-based Alternatives to Violence Project volunteering in "Correctional" facilities; and training and being a part of a number of Indigenous and Native Peoples Healing and Peacemaking Circle efforts. I also had the honor of being able to dialogue with and be mentored a bit by Rupert Ross.

Other parts of my life have included organic beekeeping, biointensive gardening and community environmental efforts. Having experienced and struggled to live with post-traumatic issues, I've also, lived in a sort of hyper-empathetic reality -- different from -- but similar to what Octavia Butler chronicled beautifully in her Parable of the Sower -- except that mine was more about the destruction of the greater-than-human environment and the webs of life humanity depends on to exits -- and what drives people to be so thoughtless?

This sharing and my thoughts in large measure were prompted by reading Charles Geislers' article My Back Yard, Equity Concerns, and Land Grant Truth-Telling which appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of The Natural Farmer. While it is a well-researched and written overview that documents how colonialism with its manifest destiny and other rationalizations acquired significant amounts of unceded Indigenous and Native Peoples lands -- in addition to ignoring the slaughter of millions of children, women and communities -- Geislers' article also overlooks two additional great tragedies which are the immense amounts of Bio-cultural Diversity and Traditional Ecological Knowledge which were destroyed -- intentionally -- as part of the colonization of Turtle Island.

Sixty years ago, Elizabeth Sewell in her opus examination of the relationship between language, myth and science titled The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History, states that: "Myth, ... is not a mere fable but an ancient and vital form of reflection that unites poetry, philosophy, and natural science ... [which] ...share a common perception that "discovery, in science and poetry, is a mythological situation in which the mind unites with a figure of its own devising as a means toward understanding the world."

As seasons change and darkness gathers it also feels an opportune moment to think on Thomas Berry's concept of 'inscendence': the impulse not to rise above the world -- transcendence -- but to find common ground and collaborate to ensure a resilient and sustainable future for all forms of life; and James Lovelock writings about 'Gaia' which Bruno Latour's Facing Gaia -- Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime provides all sorts of insights about: “The emergence of modern sciences in the seventeenth century profoundly renewed our understanding of nature. For the last three centuries, new ideas of nature have been continually developed by theology, politics, economics, and science, especially the sciences of the material world."

To me, healing and justice are interconnected and are the foundation upon which common grounds reside; and are essential for communities, cultures and societies to be resilient and sustainable. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in a reality that has laws and a legal system structured to benefit corporate agendas, but which lack any meaningful attempts to create equitable realities for all the shareholders involved -- as well as long-term realities as opposed to short-term gains!

For thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- of years Indigenous and Native Peoples co-evolved and co-exited with the greater than human natural world and did so with respect and reverence and reciprocity. They also documented their understandings and the knowledge they gained through empirical processes every bit as valid as reductionist scientific views, but in oral traditional ways and shared what they learned in their myths and mythology with children of all ages.

"In the past, and to a limited extent in some communities today, the world of many Natives had spirits -- allies and enemies -- that were ubiquitous. Magic, ritual, courage and cautious fear allowed them to cope with the world. The non-Native person learns of this and is filled with astonishment, for he has been trained to think of magic as utter nonsense. Science evokes images of objectivity, data collection and accuracy. Magic is thought of as illusions, tricks and sleight of hand... Reality is radically different in the two cultures." [Rupert Ross, Dancing With a Ghost: Exploring Aboriginal Reality, 1992]

Finding Common Grounds' are rooted in efforts being made by groups and in communities who realize that continuing with the status quo will never lead to an egalitarian reality. And rather than pontificate, I thought I'd share some readings and other discoveries that have given me insights, understandings and knowledge about much of what has and in some places still exists in the world.

In The Biggest Estate on Earth Bill Gammage argues that for tens of thousands of years, Aborigines created what Australia was like -- before it was colonized by the British -- by using fire and other means to distribute plants and animals on grounds it preferred so that people knew where their resources were located and could harvest them as they chose. They could make paddocks without fences because in Australia the only large predators to disturb things were humans. The Aboriginals were not aimless hunter-gatherers; they planned and worked hard to make plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable. They depended not on chance, but on policy otherwise known as Traditional Ecological knowledge by Indigenous peoples.

In The Well of Remembrance Ralph Metzner "...explores some of the mythic roots of the Western worldview, the worldview of the culture that, for better and worse, has come to dominate most of the rest of the world's peoples. This domination has involved not only economic and political systems but also values, basic attitudes, religious beliefs, language, scientific understanding, and technological applications. Many individuals, tribes, and nations are struggling to free themselves from the residues of the ideological oppression practiced by what they see as Eurocentric culture. They seek to define their own ethnic or national identities by referring to ancestral traditions and mythic patterns of knowledge. At this time, it seems appropriate for Europeans and Euro-Americans likewise to probe their own ancestral mythology for insight and self-understanding. By focusing on the mythology and worldview of the pre-Christian Germanic tribes of Northern Europe, Metzner offers a meaningful exploration of not only Western ancestry, but how it influences much of life today.

David Graeber and David Wengrow's magnum opus The Dawn of Everything present "A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution — from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality - and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.” Drawing on path-breaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what's really there. If humans did not spend 95 percent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful possibilities, than we tend to assume. The Dawn of Everything fundamentally transforms our understanding of the human past and offers a path toward imagining new forms of freedom, and new ways of organizing society. This is a monumental book of formidable intellectual range, animated by curiosity, moral vision, and faith in the power of direct action:

To me, Finding Common Grounds is about relationships. It’s about expanding them where they exist; creating them where they do not exist, and repairing them where they have become frayed or destroyed. It includes relationships between people and the greater than the human environment. And includes a lot of listening to why people have come to cherish and hold the understandings they have without being judgmental, as well as understanding histories to enlighten our knowledge of how we’ve gotten to be who and where we are.

There are numerous groups in the New England, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic areas who are working to create a more agrarian cultural understanding of the connections between food, land use and health. There are also increasingly powerful, monopolized authoritarian movements and organizations that have been "legally" given the right to buy whatever government best supports their interests. What has been made obvious time after time throughout history are the continuing and growing inequalities and damage that levels of consolidation make on our communities, cultures, economy and social needs that will only bring more harm to communities, farmers, food workers and sustainable local and regional food systems for decades to come.

NOFA and NESWAG in their own unique ways strive to facilitate resilient and sustainable opportunities for multi-cultural and inclusive agricultural opportunities in opposition to the existing, immensely powerful and wealthy industrial agricultural system we struggle with and the inappropriate and unhealthy food system it has created.

What's too often overlooked; however, is that there's an immensely large reservoir of insightful, knowledgeable, working people and groups -- outside of the agriculturally focused groups -- including elders with long-term additional and perhaps alternative perspectives and understandings, who also struggle with and work to change efforts that are in opposition to community-based decision making and governance -- and whom should be active participants.

A large part of what also prompted my sharing these ideas and thoughts was a feeling that NOFA and NESWAG have the credibility and participation throughout the regions they focus on to stimulate the formation of collaborative and cooperative, local and other efforts focused on the creation of Common Ground-type dialogues and movements that can make their ideals realities, and I'd like to hope that they would be open to doing so!

J.p. muhly is a peripatetic imagineer and can be reached at

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