A few days ago, I found an obsidian arrowhead, apparently dug up by a pocket gopher whose mound was right nearby. The arrowhead lay in the trail where I walk several times each week. It is nearly perfect, with a sharp point and knife-like edges, the intricate patterns of the knapping process still clear. Holding the arrowhead in my hand, I wonder, two hundred years old? Less? More?
The unblemished arrowhead leads me to think of the hands that made it, of the people that once called these lands home. In this part of Montana, those people were nomadic, with a light touch on the land; there is little visible evidence that they ever lived here. This invisibility has created what is called the “pristine myth,” the idea that these lands were pristine prior to settlement – unaltered by human impact. But there were people here, and that myth is known to be false.
Returning from my walk, I set the arrowhead on the windowsill and returned to my work – I have been reading about narrative ethics and narrative accounts of value. A narrative is essentially a story. Through the stories a culture tells, landscapes take on meaning, and places, objects, or ideas take on value. Yet, narratives differ significantly over time and between cultures, creating contrasting values and beliefs. Katie McShane uses the concept of “wilderness” as an example of different narratives resulting in different values in her paper Some Challenges for Narrative Accounts of Value (citation below). McShane notes that people in the United States tend to support wilderness preservation more than people in the British Isles or Europe, and attributes this more favorable attitude to the US cultural idea that the wilderness is part of our history and our national character.
Although I think those who support wilderness often do so for reasons other than America’s character, I concur with McShane on the British Isles’ sentiments. I’ve spent much time in Great Britain, primarily the Scottish Highlands where the very word “wilderness” can raise peoples’ hackles. “We have no wilderness here,” is a frequent statement, despite the fact that “wilderness” is often applied to the Highlands in a very positive way, especially in the tourist media. But, the Highland narrative holds the memory that the landscape that feels so wild and has such scenic beauty was once home to many Highlanders who were cleared off the land to make room for sheep farms. Their culture has no “pristine myth”; theirs is a different narrative from the United States. This removal of the Highland people – the Clearances, as they are known – took place in the 1800s, the same century that the American Indians were removed from their homelands in the American West.
The arrowhead appeared in the trail just before I read McShane’s paper; even as I thought of the hands that made it, I thought how often the harsher narrative goes untold when speaking of the wildlands of the West. But, as McShane points out, the narrative of wilderness as part of the American character is “much nicer” than a story of the creation of uninhabited lands through the “genocidal rampage” that accompanied the colonization of the West and so tragically altered the American Indian story. That colonization also meant the demise of landscapes and species – the slaughter of the bison, the removal of the wolf.
Not far up the valley from where I found the arrowhead is a National Forest Wilderness Area. I believe it stands as evidence that the wilderness narrative has taken on a new storyline, the values underlying designated Wilderness Areas a positive trajectory for the future. This does not negate or overlook the past, for it is important to remember the beginning of the narrative, the forerunner to the current situation, learn from that, and move into the future with more wisdom and compassion; emphasizing that removal of indigenous people to create uninhabited lands for whatever reason – preserves, development, resource extraction – is a horrific concept. Yet, in an age when monstrous trophy homes stand in sub-alpine meadows and suburban sprawl marches up into the mountains, Wilderness Areas now provide havens for the non-human, preserves that allow the intricate web of life to carry forward.
The small arrowhead on my windowsill carries a heavy story, one that needs to be remembered. There is a deep history embedded in the obsidian, knapped into a sharp and cutting edge.
McShane, K. (2012) Some Challenges for Narrative Accounts of Value. Ethics & the Environment, 17, 45-69.