The Land Ethic

I was born in northern California on the lands of the Wintu Tribe and grew up in western Washington on Muckleshoot and Coast Salish lands.

“To love a place is not enough. We must find ways to heal it.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer

I am a young white man of European descent, whose ancestors in the United States participated in settler-colonial perpetuated genocide, not only in the abstract but as documented participants. One of my most infamous likely ancestors is Captain Underhill, a once-heralded orchestrator of mass murders, including a tragic massacre of Pequot men, women, and children during a corn ceremony in 1636. (Afterwards, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared the next day one of “Thanksgiving.”) Underhill rampaged in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and other colonies, potentially killing thousands of Indigenous people in religiously fueled violence that was funded by Britain, the Netherlands, and other European colonizing powers.

In the 1800s, my more recent ancestors moved to what is now western Washington at a time when settlers regularly used their power to displace and wage war against Indigenous tribes. These ancestors were pioneers of colonial politics and industry, building the soon-to-be Washington State government and the first sawmill in the Washington territory. Subsequent generations did not rise into great prominence, but homesteaded, milled timber, and integrated into the modern economies of a growing Pacific Northwest. I long viewed this more recent family history as hardscrabble but productive. It was a relatively unimportant part of understanding my place in the fields of human ecology or resource conservation. Not until I attended the University of Montana, did teachers and friends help me understand the violence inherent in this legacy.

Research, writing, and video and photo storytelling are forms of power. It is my responsibility—and all of our responsibilities—to reflect on how our status, life, and family history actively shape worldviews, approaches to research, and presentations of the data and images that supposedly compose reality. I must take stock of my capacity to shape systems of power and consciously and unconsciously reproduce them. Too often, researchers—of all fields—who look like me and come from similar backgrounds have easily risen through academia and other professions without reckoning with the structures of power that pave multigenerational paths. Buoyed by a system designed for my success, my status as a white cisgender man, able-bodied and born into a well-educated middle-class family, easily integrated into dominant culture and education gives me immense privileges. This status also makes me complicit in innumerable forms of historic and ongoing oppression.

Nature First Principles

Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.

Educate yourself about the places you photograph.

Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.

Use discretion if sharing locations.

Know and follow rules and regulations.

Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.

Actively promote and educate others about these principles.

My master’s research topic, agriculture, was a system designed from the onset of America for white men to accumulate wealth and power. Despite now living in an age when people of any race and sex can own land; throughout the United States, land ownership, farm ownership, and wealth is still starkly divided by race, class, and gender. Farming (and land ownership broadly) in the United States today requires gobs of wealth, especially in this post-pandemic moment of an exploding real estate market. Increasingly, minorities who wish to enter agriculture have two choices: “inherit it or marry it,” which re-produces significant race, gender, and income inequality. This problem shows few signs of improving. In the U.S., Black ownership of farmland has shrunk over the past 100 years. In Montana today, 95% of farmers are white and two-thirds are men. Structural racism, sexism, and classism is built into our institutions of private land ownership, capitalism, and governance. Legacies live on.

We often are tempted in life to assume that the places we observe are more or less as they have always been. Yet in Montana and across the country, landscapes were lived (and yes, even farmed) under completely different social, cultural, and economic systems than they are today. Although I have no personal background in the site of my research, my family history and the settlement of the western frontier show many similarities to the development of Montana’s landscapes. These landscapes were once governed by different relationships, including kinships with local ecology. These lands were utilized in vastly different ways. And they were stewarded by diverse, abundant, and interconnected communities of Indigenous peoples who were unjustly removed from their homelands.

“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Across the Great Plains, this deliberate and deadly displacement stained the soil, soil which was supposedly destined to be “improved” by white men, soil that industry then systematically fertilized with the ground up bones of millions of slaughtered buffalo. These events are part of the vast genocide of Indigenous people and the near-extirpation of buffalo that were deliberate steps in creating the privatized agricultural landscapes we know today.

As descendant of white settlers, I frequently disregard that this transition to the current land regime was rapid, intentional, and incredibly cruel. I believe that researchers must always reiterate that these acts shaped our current systems and will never be ameliorated. As Gosnell et al. (2021) state in a recent paper on ranching in the west, “achieving equity and inclusion requires a deep reckoning with discriminatory histories and systems…” Academics must bring this reckoning to all aspects of their work. A settler-colonial legacy dating back to the very inception of the nation not only produced the lack of diversity within the modern agricultural industry today, but also the enormous power that agricultural symbols continue to wield. For an industry dependent on ecology and weather, its power is often complicit in spreading misinformation and stalling progress on one of the most pressing issues of our time, addressing human-caused climate change. Despite a history of oppression and continuing injustices, agriculture is central to our economies, our communities, and our global food security, and increasingly vulnerable to global disturbances like climate change.

My background and my upbringing are in many ways tied to the histories of colonial settlement in the United States that facilitated a privatized agricultural system that favors white men. Yet I came to Montana and its conventional agricultural community as an outsider, a well-educated liberal consumer, not a producer of food. My livelihood is not vulnerable to the whims of weather and markets like those farmers who graciously engaged in my research. Researchers like me can elevate certain voices and narratives, and I have a responsibility to ensure that my research acknowledges past injustices and meets the needs of future generations. Thus, my positionality must consciously and deliberately counter the prevailing assumptions of a society dominated by people like myself—privileged white men who benefit from the pastoral patriarchal-capitalist hegemony. Researchers have an obligation to dismantle these structures. Even if my specific research topic has little potential for addressing these inequalities, I can use the status and privilege gained from this research to do so. As an individual, I am entangled in the research I conduct. Therefore, my responsibilities as a person—not just a researcher—are to use my advantages to not perpetuate destructive racist-colonial processes, instead to attempt to do what I can to rectify these injustices.