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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

Resisting Monoculture

On my 32nd birthday in December 1996, I spent an entire morning tramping around an Indian reservation in New Mexico with a Browning rifle slung over my shoulder. I had never been hunting, and I had only fired a rifle twice in my life, but on this day, I was hunting elk.

My companion and guide was Dennis Moquino, the youngest of four tribal elders from Zia Pueblo—a gentle but direct man in his forties with long black hair that his wife tied up into a ponytail every morning. I was on the reservation that month to open an exchange program between Zia and the private boys school in New Jersey where I worked as a religious studies teacher. Dennis was hosting me in his house and showing me around the reservation. I had remarked one day about the long strips of elk jerky drying in his laundry room and his response was characteristically gracious and adventurous—he took me elk hunting. We walked up to the top of the highest peak on the 27-square-mile Zia reservation. He showed me elk tracks and elk droppings. When we reached the top of the mountain, I found a small eagle feather perched on a rock. We never actually saw an elk, but it was a great day nevertheless. 

In the absence of any real quarry, we talked, a lot. He said that for everyone who lives in Zia, all of this (he swept his hand in a 360-degree motion across the landscape) is our backyard. He complained that his language, Keresan, was under threat because while his kids understood it when he spoke it to them, they almost never answered back. He explained that the tribe was debating whether or not to allow members to put satellite TV dishes on their houses. The Pueblo culture was built around community interactions outdoors under the wide-open New Mexico sky. He was worried about what would happen to their culture if people spent too much time indoors watching TV, like Anglos do. 

His concerns reminded me of something anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in the 1950s: “Civilization is no longer a fragile flower, to be carefully preserved and reared with great difficulty here and there in sheltered corners of a territory rich in natural resources,” he warned. “All that is over: humanity has taken to monoculture, once and for all, and is preparing to produce civilization in bulk, as if it were sugar-beet.” In agriculture, the word “monoculture” refers to the practice of cultivating a single crop over a large territory, sometimes with dire unintended consequences. The monoculture of wheat caused the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, and in the Midwest today, it wipes out milkweed which then decimates the monarch butterfly population that relies on it. But Levi-Strauss deploys the word as a metaphor for the logic of consumer capitalism, which tends to destroy naturally occurring diversity in order to produce things that are valuable in the marketplace, like plywood, cornstarch, Krab Sticks, or chicken nuggets. In the linguistic realm, it bulldozes the planet’s richly diverse ethnosphere to make room for just a handful of dominant languages. In the animal kingdom, it snuffs out species all over the planet in what Elizabeth Kolbert calls the “Sixth Great Extinction.” 

From my vantage on top of that mountain, Zia appeared to be the antithesis of monoculture (or perhaps, a small community standing in its way). There it was, an entire society of less than 1,000 people clinging to a patch of dry, remote high desert land, speaking a language known to only a few thousand people on earth. On this spot, Zia’s cultural and religious knowledge—the essence of the society’s distinctiveness—has been passed from generation to generation for 700 years. Despite its fragility, Zia appeared to be deeply, vertically rooted in this place. 

Twenty years later, I can see over the horizon to a terrible truth: Levi-Strauss’s prophecy is coming true all over the world as global capitalism deterritorializes the entire planet to make way for iPads, Chipotle, pay-at-the-pump, and high-speed wireless. Monoculture proliferates powerful mass delusions about property, technology, and the natural environment. It associates itself with Progress, thereby inoculating itself against criticism. It preaches a familiar message: Stay mobile. Stay connected. Internationalize yourself. Learn to love diversity (but only if it makes you feel good). Reject the parochialism and superstition of your village. Don’t get attached to the mountain or valley where you were born. Be willing to move to improve your economic condition. Connect everything to everything else. Learn the technology. Embrace opportunity. Grow. Learn. Expand.

That day on the mountain, feeling a universe removed from my over-cultivated New Jersey home and experiencing a burst of hopeful exuberance, I told Dennis that I thought Indians could help we Anglos save ourselves. He shook his head, laughed, and sort of rolled his eyes: “You’re gonna have to find your own way,” he said.

He is right, of course, and more recently, I have turned to my own cultural canon for answers, to Henry David Thoreau for example, who wrote “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and to Edward Abbey, who echoed Thoreau a century later in Desert Solitaire when he wrote: “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” These great American philosophers understood that resisting monoculture begins with a dogged insistence on learning the particulars of our natural surroundings, by focusing on the patch of ground that is most familiar to us, the one that we can readily see and touch.

In a meeting of faculty a few years back, we were asked to brainstorm on a whiteboard the things we believe are essential to the education of all college students. I wrote this: "learn the names of ten species of trees that grow in a five-mile radius of where you live." My point was that much of the knowledge students learn in college is designed to be portable and easily abstractable to a wide variety of locations and situations. Very little of it is rooted in the lived experience of real communities who are deeply connected to the land. In the realm of environmentalism, for example, I most trust the people whose activism begins with a patch of real land, the ones who want to know why the bullfrogs have stopped calling from the pond behind their houses or why there are fewer bees out in the Spring than they remembered from their childhood. They already know what I am now just learning, that we humans won't save ourselves from the looming disasters brought on by too much monoculture unless we reconnect with the land in very personal and meaningful ways.


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