In Langscape Magazine Articles

Editorial | Acts of Rebellion: On Making the Impossible Possible

April 21, 2021

Terralingua at 25:
A Celebration of Biocultural Diversity

Langscape Magazine, Volume 10,  Double Issue
Summer/Winter 2021


It’s been twenty-five years since Terralingua was founded with a unique mission: to sustain biocultural diversity — the diversity of life in nature, culture, and languages.

To Indigenous Peoples and local communities the world over, it has been self-evident for millennia that language, culture, and land are bound together by an “inextricable link” — a link arising from long-term, intimate relationships of human communities with the environments they depend on. Back in 1996, however, the concept was largely novel and unfamiliar to the mainstream public. To many people, an integrative, holistic concept like that of biocultural diversity seemed quaint — if not outright “off the wall.” Driven by passion for an idea whose time, we felt, had come, we forged ahead nevertheless, developing a comprehensive program of research, policy-relevant analysis, and practical approaches to biocultural diversity conservation. To all that we later added a focus on education and outreach, for which Langscape Magazine has become an essential vehicle.

Fast forward twenty-five years, and the idea of biocultural diversity and its applications not only have become well established, but also are helping change how many of us view our place on earth and how we act in the world. More and more people are thinking of the web of life as a biocultural web — one in which biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity are mutually supportive and, together, sustain the life systems that in turn sustain us and all other life forms. And, increasingly, people recognize that our cultural and linguistic diversity is just as crucial to earth’s vitality and resilience as is our planet’s diversity of plants, animals, and ecosystems. Biocultural diversity, it seems, is coming of age.

Yet, as we at Terralingua reflect on our quarter-century milestone, we are also all too keenly aware of the flip side: the persistent — and indeed worsening — social and ecological crises of our times. Is there anything for us to celebrate, then? Yes, there is — and that is the very thing that Langscape Magazine has become a recognized standard-bearer for: the magnificent, riotous, often defiant, ever-resilient, and irresistibly resurging diversity of people on earth! In that vast and enduring diversity lies our best chance for a turnaround from the irredeemably self-destructive path we are hurtling along today.

In the first section, “Biocultural Diversity: Lenses, Mirrors, and Reflections,” Terralingua co-founder David Harmon looks back at our fortuitous beginnings. He then ponders the intellectual, emotional, and ethical implications of a biocultural perspective — one in which people “can come to their own understandings about the significance of diversity in nature and culture” and to their own recognition that “a thriving interplay between nature and culture is essential to a good and vibrant life.”

Complementing Dave’s piece is an essay by Kenneth Wilson, a visionary in the world of philanthropy who early on recognized the value and promise of the nascent idea of biocultural diversity and became a close Terralingua friend and ally. Ken offers a fond retrospective look at the birth of biocultural diversity, in which he skillfully traces the ideological and political changes that allowed the concept to emerge and take off when and how it did—and he invites everyone to embrace the idea and “take the dance” with it.

Environmental scientist Olga Mironenko reflects on the diversity of species and cultures and on the importance of both diversities as “cornerstones of resilience.” Puzzling at our proclivity to seek uniformity whereas “nature’s recipe for survival has been diversity,” she reminds us that diversity in all its forms is “one of the critical factors that will enable us to ensure our future” — a future that will be both kinder to the earth and free from cultural intolerance.

Another champion of biocultural diversity in the philanthropic world, Sonja Swift, explores the concept of “embodiment” as a way of expressing the profound body-land connection that occurs when we are “in contact with living landscapes.” She passionately argues that drawing that connection — or, more broadly, recognizing the deep-rooted link between the biological and the cultural — “has been and continues to be an act of rebellion.”

Jon Waterhouse, a storyteller and activist, brings an Indigenous lens to bear on the dramatic loss of biocultural diversity that we are experiencing “while focused so intensely on propelling ourselves further into the future.” To (re)learn about our rightful place in the world, he suggests, we should listen to the ancestral wisdom of Indigenous cultures that “have not only survived in their place for millennia,” but indeed “have thrived.”

Indigenous leader Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff and educator Libby Roderick share an Indigenous perspective on language as an entity that emanates “from the lands and waters where it originally develops and evolves and is infused with the spirit of those places.” Words, they explain, have intrinsic power because they carry the “energies of the places occupied by the peoples who speak them” — and thus “must be chosen and used with utmost care.”

Living in an urban context, Indigenous ethnobotanist Nejma Belarbi first hears “earth’s language” when tiny “plant people” reveal themselves to her on the side of a trampled dirt road. Musing that nature is the mirror in which we can recognize human diversity as an intrinsic part of the diversity of life, she journeys back to the teachings of her North African Elders, who speak of “our connection to all living things through the light that animates us.”

The next section, “Top Hits: Our Readers’ Favorites,” reveals our readers’ eclectic preferences. Two stories about mapping show how unconventional ways of representing geography can help expose and subvert colonial history. Activist geographer Jordan Engel points out that mapmaking has been an instrument of empire, particularly through the erasure of Indigenous place names that reflect the ecological and cultural history of a place and the relationship of the original people with the land. His remarkable Decolonial Atlas project is a collaborative effort to build alternative maps that “challenge our relationships with the environment and the dominant culture.”

Language scholars Maya Daurio, Sienna R. Craig, Daniel Kaufman, Ross Perlin, and Mark Turin reveal the power of “subversive” mapping in a timely way. The COVID pandemic hit while they were in the midst of producing digital mappings of the spatial distribution of New York’s astounding linguistic diversity — about 650 different languages spoken there! Suddenly, they realized that their language maps could be repurposed to help pinpoint health problems and other urgent needs the pandemic brought about among the city’s minorities.

Two of the other most popular stories included in this section revolve around Indigenous languages and the undeniable challenges (and opportunities) involved in learning them. Severn Cullis-Suzuki transports us to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the west coast of Canada that is home to the Haida First Nation. During a period of pandemic self-isolation, she and her family discover a silver lining: finding the inner calm and stillness needed for full-immersion Haida language practice.

Halfway around the world from Canada, Manju Maharjan and Yuvash Vaidya, two young members of the Newar people of Nepal, relate their fulfilling and pride-boosting experience mastering Ranjana, a special script for their native language, Nepalbhasa. Language homogenization in the country had caused the decline of both the language and the script, but a growing movement seeks to involve youths in learning to use the script through a series of creative workshops-festivals.

Why would a story about chickens be one of our top hits? That must be because of the light-hearted, yet utterly sympathetic way in which Kanna K. Siripurapu and Sabyasachi Das explore the cultural significance of India’s native poultry. Taking us to the hill country of Andhra Pradesh, they delve into the many ways native chicken breeds are used by rural communities in ceremonies and healing. Don’t miss the photos of the chickens and of the villagers imitating them!

Finally, there is little doubt as to why the story of D’ulus Mukhin, an Even youth from Siberia, is one of our readers’ favorites. His unvarnished tale, as told to Arctic explorer, artist, and photographer Galya Morrell, speaks to the daunting challenges faced by members of Russia’s minority groups—challenges that he, for one, overcomes by sheer courage and artistic vision. His words ring with an eloquence that is totally authentic and immensely powerful.

In the last section, “Around the World in Eleven Biocultural Stories,” we begin our tour in northwestern Mexico. Photographer and videographer Thor Morales shares with us the story of two Indigenous groups, the Yaqui and the Seri, who learn to use and then teach participatory video techniques to address through film what matters to Indigenous Peoples the most: territory — “a simple word that embraces culture, nature, history, dignity, land, food, dreams, landscapes, mindsets.”

In the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia, ethnobotanist and community activist Laurent Jean Pierre introduces us to his people’s “sweeping dance” — literally a way of dancing with a broom while sweeping. That seemingly humble tradition has important ecological and social implications, as it depends equally on the conservation of an endangered species of palm and on the maintenance of broom-making as an artisanal craft and industry.

Farther south in Colombia, educators Felipe Rodríguez Moreno and Norma Constanza Castaño Cuéllar bring us a story of recovery of both territory and sense of place. With their educational project, Felipe and Norma seek to foster pride of place and a sense of ownership and stewardship among both youth and adults in Bahía Solano, a biologically and culturally diverse fishing community on the country’s Pacific coast that has been deeply transformed by decades of planned immigration of farmers.

We then skip over to Australia to meet six forces of nature (and culture): six Aboriginal Australian women who came together around the idea of using contemporary song to reinstill pride in Indigenous languages and cultures and rebuild the strength of identity. Their “Yamani: Voices of an Ancient Land” project, whose story is told by Faith Baisden, Thomas Dick, Carolyn Barker, and Kristina Kelman, yielded a CD of songs in five different languages, a companion video, and rousing live performances.

On to northeastern India, where Khasi sociologist Raynold Lyngdoh serves up a feast: a rich tribute to the biocultural diversity of his native state of Meghalaya, a region of stunning natural beauty and vibrant, unique tribal cultures. While remote and still poorly known, the region faces constant threats from development, and its peoples engage in a valiant struggle to maintain their linguistic and cultural diversity and their distinct identities.

Living in Japan, researcher Mariia Ermilova learns a long neglected traditional craft that is being revived: the colorful art of making tsurushibina, or hanging doll decorations. The “dolls” are mostly figures of plants and animals with deep cultural significance, embodying both practical and symbolic connections with nature. Practicing the craft, Mariia argues, can serve to revitalize Japanese traditional knowledge and help people learn (or relearn) the “biocultural code” inscribed in this art.

The tour moves on to Africa, where two talented youths regale us with some mighty fine examples of that continent’s gift for storytelling. Edna Kilusu, a Maasai student from Tanzania, is so fond of listening to her aunt’s nightly telling of traditional lore that she will sprint across the boma going to and from her aunt’s home, hoping that no dangerous creatures are out and about in the night. As a young person grounded in the present, she muses: “How do we move forward without forgetting our past?”

Across the continent, Abraham Ofori-Henaku, an Akan youth, offers a witty and refreshingly candid account of growing up in Ghana without knowing his ancestral language — a situation many Indigenous youths find themselves in today. He shares his regrets for his “missing tongue” and his struggles to find it — and his infectious zest for learning Twi is a telltale sign that he will get there someday!

We wrap up the tour in Europe, where three stories about Indigenous and local communities remind us how bioculturally rich that continent is, too. In the Russian Far East, Aleksandra Bocharnikova tells us, the Udege people put up a brave fight to prevent their traditional territory from becoming a protected area from which they would have been excluded, bringing an end to their customary way of life. Their fight made history in Russia, prompting a change in law to make it a goal for new national parks to protect Indigenous communities living in the territory.

From Russia to Spain, where Liza Zogib, Divya Venkatesh, Sandra Spissinger, and Concha Salguero conceive an art project to celebrate the ways of life of mobile Mediterranean pastoralists and the high biodiversity of grazed Mediterranean grassland. One Square Meter, realized by Almudena Sánchez Sánchez, Ana Trejo Rodríguez, and Inés García Zapata, is an amazing 3D one-square-meter sculpture of grazed land with its diverse complement of plant species — all made of felted wool!

The last stop is Italy, my home country. There, my photographer sister Anna Maffi pays a loving tribute to Marcello and Emma, an elderly farmer couple who are her neighbors in a tiny hamlet in the central Italian region of Umbria. In words and images, she gathers their memories of de prima — a time gone by in which farming life was hard, yet humanly rich and full of love and respect for the land that nourished you. Rooted in the land like their old, gnarly olive trees, Marcello and Emma are poignant reminders, in this era of mounting disconnect from nature, that a place-connected life is not only possible, it is indispensable.

With their courage, strength, passion, creativity, and determination, these and all other “voices of the earth” that have graced the pages of Langscape Magazine show us the way to a bioculturally wealthy future. Listening to their stories, I have no doubt we will get there.

On this festive occasion, I am deeply grateful to our storytellers for lifting our spirits, to our readers for embracing our message, to our funders and supporters for believing in what we do, and — last but not least — to our hard-working, committed team for making it all happen. Without every one of you, none of this would be possible. With all of you, the impossible becomes possible.

Bioculturally yours,

Luisa Maffi
Langscape Magazine Editor
Terralingua Co-founder and Director

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