ur American Indian Ecology

av J. Donald Hughes

The Unspoiled Continent

Long before the first European ship dropped anchor off the shores of the New World, the western continent was the home of the American Indians. They had lived here for twenty, thirty, forty thousand years. There was not a section of land unknown to some Indian tribe, and there was nowhere, from the slowly shifting arctic ice shelves to the blowing sand dunes of the Colorado Desert, where they did not go. Indians hunted buffalo on the plains and deer in the eastern forests. They planted corn in rich river bottom lands and near springs in the high desert. They caught salmon in the northwestern streams and set their boats on the Pacific waves in search of the great whales. Everywhere they went, they had learned to live with nature; to survive and indeed prosper in each kind of environment the vast land offered in seemingly infinite variety.
And they did all this without destroying, without polluting, without using up the living resources of the natural world. Somehow they had learned a secret that Europe had already lost, and which we seem to have lost now in America - the secret of how to live in harmony with Mother Earth, to use what she offers without hurting her; the secret of receiving gratefully the gifts of the Great Spirit.
When Indians alone cared for the American earth, this continent was clothed in a green robe of forests, unbroken grasslands, and useful desert plants, filled with an abundance of wildlife. Changes have occurred since people with different attitudes have taken over. More than fifty years ago, an Omaha Indian elder expressed it this way:
“When I was a youth the country was very beautiful. Along the rivers were belts of timberland, where grew cottonwoods, maples, elms, ash, hickory and walnut trees, and many other kinds. Also there were various kinds of vines and shrubs. And under these grew many good herbs and beautiful flowering plants. In both the woodland and the prairie I could see the trails of many kinds of animals and hear the cheerful songs of birds of many kinds. When I walked abroad I could see many forms of life, beautiful living creatures of many kinds which Wakanda had placed here; and these were after their manner walking, flying, leaping, running, playing all about. But now the face of all the land is changed and sad. The living creatures are gone. I see the land desolate, and I suffer… loneliness.”

When the first European explorers coasted the shores, ascended the rivers, and trekked overland, they constantly remarked at the richness and variety of the new land: deep, fertile soil, flourishing woodlands, prairies full of high grass and myriads of flowers, and clear rivers of good water. The land teemed with the wildlife that sometimes did not even flee at the approach of the invaders. The waters had as many fish as the sky had birds, and Europeans had never seen so many birds - nor would they ever again. The marshlands thronged with them and flights of passenger pigeons darkened the sky for hours as they moved overhead like a living wind. The Indians had been hunting, fishing, and gathering in America not for centuries but for millennia, and there were still as many buffalo on the plains and salmon in the rivers as there could be. The land was not untouched, but it was unspoiled.
In fact, it was so unspoiled that the Europeans thought they were finding a “wilderness.” Again and again that word appears in the explorers’ and settlers’ journals, and in all the European languages the word for wilderness means loneliness, a deserted territory, a land without human inhabitants. In English it is “wild-deer-ness,” the place of wild beasts, not of men. To those European strangers it was either a threatening, ragged, untrodden tract empty of human life, or a Garden of Eden still as it was when the hand of the Creator rested, a sublime solitude unmarked by the axe, plow, or wheel. This was not the Indian view. Luther Standing Bear, reflecting on the way his people had looked at the world of nature, said:
“We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as “wild.” Only to the white man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land “infested” with “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.”

Then who were the Indians? - the newcomers asked. That they were all around, no European could deny. Every place the explorers went, they met Indians in hunting parties, farming towns, fishing villages, and further to the south, in cities with multi-storied dwellings and fantastic pyramids. How could a land thronging with inhabitants be a wilderness? Simply because it looked like a wilderness to the Europeans. It was unmarred, unexploited, to their eyes. They regarded the Indians as savages, wild denizens of a wild land, like a human species of predator in the forest. Or as the children of nature, living as noble, uncorrupted innocents in a state of grace, or at least ignorance of civilization. In either case, the Indians were thought to be few in number (European diseases, spreading from distant first contacts, often depopulated entire districts before they were entered by the explorers and settlers). And how could people who made so few changes in the land and forests actually be said to “occupy” or “own” the land? Often the Europeans speak as if the new country had been uninhabited before they arrived.
But they were wrong. They could not have been more wrong. The condition of the New World as it met “the eyes of discovery” was a testimonial to the ecological wisdom of the Indians, both their attitudes and their ways of treating the natural environment. Nature flourished in the New World while the Old World was already deteriorating. Why? How was the North American continent preserved ecologically intact while it was in the hands of the Indians? What the Europeans saw before them was not a wilderness, an empty land. It was the artifact of a civilization whose relationship to the living world was perceived by the Indians in terms that Europeans would not grasp at all. If anyone asked Indians what they thought about animals, trees, and mountains, they answered by talking about the powerful spiritual beings that were those things. No European, whether he be Christian, rationalist, Jew, or deist, could possibly believe in ideas like those. They simply dismissed the Indians as believers in superstition, worshippers of devils, or simple people who held naive primitive opinions that Europeans had once held, too, in the distant and unenlightened past. But the Indian attitudes - the Indian philosophy and religion, if those restrictive words can even be used to apply to the wholeness of Indian thought - enabled the Indians to live in and to change the American environment without seriously degrading it. Their very languages, which few Europeans bothered to learn, revealed a view of nature so foreign to that of the Europeans, and in many ways so far beyond it, that we are only beginning to appreciate it today. If all the resources of modem anthropology, psychology, and linguistics are only now piecing together the picture of the ecology and culture of Indians before Columbus, it is not surprising that the Europeans who first arrived did not understand what they were seeing.
It was not a wilderness - it was a community in nature of living beings, among whom the Indians formed a part, but not all. There were also animals, trees, plants, and rivers, and the Indians regarded themselves as relatives of these, not as their superiors. An Indian took pride not in making a mark on the land, but in leaving as few marks as possible: in walking through the forest without breaking branches, in building a fire that made as little smoke as possible, in killing one deer without disturbing the others.
Of course they made changes in their surroundings. All living things do; buffaloes make wallows and bees build hives. Everywhere that people live, their activities have an effect on the natural environment. Mankind and human culture are agents of change in nature. Indians were no exception. Skilled, experienced Indian hunters killed moose in the north woods; they did so for thousands of years, long enough to exert a force of hunting selection on the moose population. They killed the slower ones, the less alert ones, more easily, So the moose of North America were different animals - faster, more alert perhaps - than they would have been if Indians had not been hunting them. Similar things happened to many other species in the forest ecosystems. The forest itself reflected the presence and character of its human inhabitants. Their land was not a wilderness, but a woodland park that had known expert hunters for millennia. Corn-growing Indians cleared the land, often by burning, and in some places in the South their planted fields stretched from one village to the next. Where they had established permanent towns, they tended to use up nearby trees for firewood: when Coronado came to Zuni, he said the people had to go some distance away from the village to find junipers. But almost everything the Indians did kept them in balance with nature.
For the Indians, living in careful balance with the natural environment was necessary to survival, since they lived so close to it and depended on it so completely. If they made serious mistakes in their treatment of nature, they felt the results right away; that is, they got immediate feedback. If they acted in ways that would destroy the balance of the natural communities where they found their food, clothing and shelter, then those communities would not provide for their needs any longer. Indians did not see this relationship as working in purely economic ways. Their actions were guided on every side by their view that nature is composed of a host of spirit persons who can talk to human beings and respond in a number of ways to the treatment they receive. They knew they had to be careful with those beings who shared the world with them because their lives were closely interlocked with them and they had to depend on them. And every part of their lives was involved in the relationship with nature.
For most modern urban people, our philosophy of life or how we think we see the world is one thing, and how we act in daily life is another. But for the Indians, life was all of one piece. How they perceived the natural environment, and how they treated it through the customary activities that were their ways of life, formed a consistent whole for each group.

Anyone who looks at American Indian art with a sense of appreciation is impressed by the way in which it incorporates the images of nature. The designs represent clouds, the sun, moon, and stars, mountains, animals, birds, plants, insects, and the spirit beings that walk abroad in the world. Even the simplest decorated basket shows that the artist meant to relate his or her work to the whole universe. And a basket can be a microcosm, a mandala of the spirit life that Indians found both in nature and within themselves. Everything they made, whether it was painted pottery, weaving, embroidery, costumes, sand paintings, or petroglyphs, manifested their feeling for the many forms found in the natural world. A lodge of the Eastern plains, built of the same brown earth on which it stood, was made ”round like the day and the sun and the path of the stars.” The startling shape and color of a Northwest carver’s brilliantly painted eagle arrests us and says, “This man felt power in the eagle. He admired that great bird.” Indians loved nature, not in any romantic sentimental way, but with an honest, respectful love born of daily contact. The Indian attitude toward nature was never merely utilitarian. The Pawnees sang of plants this way:
“Spring is opening,
I can smell the different perfumes
of the white weeds used in the dance.”

They lived most of their lives in the out-of-doors, where they could look up to “behold the beauty of yonder moving black sky,” to “behold the black clouds rolling through the sky,” in the words of an Osage song. To think that they loved the changing moods of nature is not to read our own feelings back into the Indian experience; they themselves tell us how they felt in songs and prayers recorded long ago, such as this one of the Teton Sioux:
“May the sun rise well
May the earth appear
Brightly shone upon
May the moon rise well
May the earth appear
Brightly shone upon.”

The unmistakable Indian attitude toward nature is appreciation, varying
from calm enjoyment to awestruck wonder. Indian poems, songs and descriptions are full of natural images that reflect a pure interest in environmental beauty. They liked to “listen to the song the needles make when the wind blows,” according to Popovi Da, and “count the many shades of blue in the sky.”
Their attitude toward the natural world and their place within it was well expressed in the deservedly famous speech of Chief Seattle, of the Duwamish tribe, delivered before the governor of Washington Territory in 1853, at the new town that had been named in the Chief’s honor. Seattle was fortunate in having a translator, Dr. Henry Smith, of considerable literary skill. Here is a portion of the speech:
“Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays …
Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people…”
The images that recur in the words of the great Indian orator are those of nature; “the return of the sun or the seasons,” “the stars that never change,” the grass, the trees. They recur even more powerfully in the songs and chants used in the sacred ceremonies. In Indian ritual poetry, some natural objects and animals are not named directly, but referred to in short formulas that may remind us of the epithets of Homer by their cameo-like descriptions of natural characteristics. The Papagos, for example, may call the sun “the shining traveler,” ground squirrels “stayers in houses,” and the coyote “the woolly comrade”; while the Navajos can refer to the latter animal as “howler through the dawn.” Here are two lines from an Apache song celebrating a joyful union of the people with the source of all things:
The sunbeams stream forward, dawn boys, with shimmering shoes, …
On the beautiful mountains above, it is daylight.

Deep appreciation of nature is not limited to a few tribes, nor does any tribe seem to lack it. Here is part of a Papago speech given at the time of purification after a pilgrimage to the sea to obtain salt:
Then to the east they went, and, looking back,
They saw the earth lie beautifully moist and finished.
Then out flew Blue Jay magician;
Soft feathers he pulled out and let them fall,
Till earth was blue (with flowers).
Then out flew Yellow Finch magician;
Soft feathers he pulled out and let them fall,
Till earth was yellow (with flowers).
Thus it was fair, our year.

A Zuni rain prayer further illustrates the way in which sensitivity to natural beauty pervades ritual poetry:
Yonder on all sides our fathers,
Priests of the mossy mountains,
All those whose sacred places are round about,
Creatures of the open spaces
You of the wooded places,
We have passed you on your roads

You of the forest,
You of the brush,
All you who in divine wisdom,
Stand here quietly,

You will go before.

We have given our plume wands human form.
With the massed cloud wing

Of the one who is our grandfather,
The male turkey,
With eagle’s thin cloud wings,
And with the striped cloud wings
And massed cloud tails
Of all the birds of summer

Navajo prayers constantly repeat the word hozho, which is environmental beauty, the happiness one experiences by being in harmony with nature. As the Navajo put it, “My surroundings everywhere shall be beautiful as I walk about; the Earth is beautiful.” This is expressed in what is possibly the best known American Indian ritual poem, a song from the Navajo night chant:
Oh you who dwell among the cliffs
In the house made of dawn,
House made of evening light,
House made of dark cloud,
House made of he-rain,
House made of dark mist,
House made of she-rain,
House made of pollen,
House made of grasshoppers,
Where the dark mist curtains the doorway,
The path to which is on the rainbow,
Where the zigzag lightning stands high on top,
Where the he-rain stands high on top,
Oh, male divinity,
With your moccasins of dark cloud, come to us.

In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk.
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk
It is finished in beauty.

The beauty referred to is both spiritual beauty and the pervading beauty of the natural world. And appreciation for it is expressed not only in words, but in “walking,” that is, away of living, a way of treating the world. As Black Elk, a Sioux holy man, spoke in words addressed to Mother Earth, “Every step that we take upon You should be done in a sacred manner; each step should be as a prayer.” “Because You have made Your will known to us,” he continued, “we will walk the path of life in holiness, bearing the love and knowledge of you in our hearts!”
The attitude of Indians toward the natural environment was basically what we would call spiritual or religious, although religion for them was not separated from the rest of life. Their actions in respect to nature were in harmony with their view of the world as a sacred place, so if we wish to understand why they practiced conservation and avoided destructive exploitation, we will find that it is just as important to study their religion as it is to study their economy.
Indian languages had no word for “religion”; they expressed the idea by something like the Isleta Pueblo term “life-way” or ‘life-need.” To them, everything in their traditional way of life was sacred. For the Hopis, religion was simply “the Hopi way,” including everything in life as Hopis saw and lived it. The Hopis spent about a third of their waking lives in ritual dances, prayers, songs, and preparation for ceremonials. But they did not see these activities as different, “Sunday” things. Though Indians would select special days for tribal celebrations, they felt that “Every dawn as it comes is a holy event, and every day is holy.”
So the Indians saw all their experiences with nature as having what we would call a spiritual dimension. The ethics that told them how to treat the environment was part of their religious world view. They would explain their attitudes toward nature in religious terms, and their religion was a religion of nature. It was simple in its general outlines and highly complex in its details, especially when tribal differences are taken into account. It had no systematic theology that can be subjected to the kind of rational analysis that the philosophers of non-Indian Western Civilization like to make. It had no “either/or.” Some Indian religious ideas may seem to be contradictory at first glance to those educated in the European-American tradition. But if all Indian conceptions of nature are taken together, they will be seen to fit into a single, harmonious world view.
The Indians saw themselves as at one with nature. All their traditions agree on this. Nature is the larger whole of which mankind is only a part. People stand within the natural world, not separate from it; and are dependent on it, not dominant over it. All living things are one, and people are joined with birds and trees, predators and prey, rocks and rain in a vast, powerful, interrelationship. “The whole universe is enhanced with the same breath, rocks, trees, grass, earth, all animals, and men,” said Intiwa, a Hopi. “We are in one nest,” was a Taos Pueblo saying concerning humans, animals and birds. “That comfortable gap which we have left between ourselves and all other life on the planet, the Apache bridged in a stride.”
At the end of the Lakota Sioux cermony of the sacred pipe, all the participants would cry out, ‘We are related!” Joseph Epes Brown explains that these words do not only acknowledge “the relatedness of the immediate participating group. There is also an affirmation of the mysterious interrelatedness of all that is.”
The world, in Indian eyes, exists in intricate balance in all its parts, as male is balanced by female and the cardinal directions are in harmony with one another. Human beings must stay in harmony with it, and constantly strive to maintain the balance. The more powerful beings in the universe are not necessarily friendly or hostile to mankind, but rather indispensable parts of a carefully balanced whole, and therefore tend to sustain and preserve humanity along with everything else as long as the balance is not upset. This perception of nature is not so far from the ecological concept of the “balance of nature.
If people suffer, it is usually because they are out of harmony with nature, and though this is not always the fault of the individual, harmony must be restored. Every action in regard to nature must have its reciprocal action. The offerings made in many Indian ceremonies are not so much “sacrifices” as things given in exchange for other things taken or killed, to maintain the balance. A ceremony is one way in which people contribute to maintaining the world as it should be. Since mankind is related to the universe in reciprocity and balance, an act correctly performed should always obtain the appropriate response. A gift given compels a gift in return. A Papago, on offering tobacco or arrows, says “I give you this; now bring me luck.” In a Tewa myth, Spider Old Woman replied to a hunter who had given feathers to her, “We have to help you, because you never forget us; because you always take feathers out for us, we help you.” So Indians knew that human actions are a response to nature, but also that everything we do affects nature and calls forth a response. And the response is not impersonal.
They saw everything in nature as alive, not just animate, but fully alive in the way people are alive, conscious and sentient. The Zunis, for example, called everything, whether it be a star, mountain, flower, eagle, or the earth itself, ho’i, a “living person.” Some American Indians were primarily hunters, gatherers, or fishers, and others were planters. But all of them looked on the natural environment as a world of spiritual reality. That is, the earth and the living creatures in it were not “things” to be used. They were living beings, personalities possessing power. So Indians did not feel themselves to be the only real persons in a world of things; in their experience, all creatures were alive with the same life that was in them, and trees and rivers, snakes, bluejays, and elk, reverberated with power and resonated with spirit.
When this way of looking at the world is explained to modern non-Indians, they often assume that Indian beliefs are an attempt to explain nature. Since Indians lacked concepts like atoms, cold fronts, the second law of thermodynamics, and germs, these people think, Indians thought up ideas like spirits, guardians, and the wisdom of animals to supply causes for what they saw happening around them. But this is not true. The Indian view of nature comes from deeper inside the human psyche than mere rational thought or intellectual curiosity, although Indians certainly had these too. But Indians regarded things in nature as spiritual beings, not because they were seeking some explanation for natural phenomena, but because human beings experience a spiritual resonance in nature. Indians feel a bear, a tree, a corn plant, or a mountain as a sentient presence that can hear and understand their words, and respond. A public ceremonial like a Pueblo Indian rain dance can be expected, if done properly, to set up the same kind of resonance with the clouds, so that the people are in harmony with the forces of nature, and receive what they need to live. All this is conceived as a process, not of bending nature to human will, but of subordinating the human will to natural rhythms. Sickness may be understood, for example, as the result of getting out of harmony with nature, and the healing process as one of re-establishing the harmony by removing impediments to it. It is quite understandable, then, that animals, fish, birds, and plants are invoked to aid medicine men and women.
Nature was to them a great, interrelated community including animals, plants, human beings, and some things that Americans of the Western European tradition would call physical objects on the one hand, and purely spirits on the other. No person, tribe, or species within the living unity of nature was seen as self-sufficient, human beings possibly least of all. The Indian did not define himself or herself as primarily an autonomous individual, but as a part of a whole; a member of the tribe, a living being like other living beings, a part of nature. Because of this deep kinship, Indians accorded to every form of life the right to live, perpetuate its species, and follow the way of its own being as a conscious fellow creature. Animals were treated with the same consideration and respect as human beings.
Mankind was not the master of life, but one of its many manifestations, related to all the other creatures. As Black Elk said, “With all beings and all things we shall be as relatives.” To Indians, “Man is not lord of the universe. The forests and the fields have not been given him to despoil. He is equal in the world with the rabbit and the deer and the young corn plant.” Nature was not some European feudal fief with mankind as steward or subduer, but a primitive democracy in which every creature had its place, with privileges and duties to the others. In fact, the Indian view of the human role in nature is almost the reverse of the Western European understanding of ”dominion.” Greater power resides in natural forces and spiritual beings than in the hands of mankind. Human beings cannot dominate the natural world, for it is vastly more powerful and enduring than mankind.
The Cheyenne in no sense believes that he can control nature. Although his environment is hard and life is precarious, he sees it as a good environment. It is one, however, with which he must keep himself in close nine through careful and tight self-control. … Man must fit himself to the conditions of environmental organization and functioning.
Animals and plants can be addressed in prayer because, in all of nature, they are powers closest to human beings and may be willing to help them, provided they are approached in the proper manner. They are like human beings - and may even be human beings of another sort, or in disguise, or on another level of existence - but they are more mysterious, more holy, closer to the sources of power. They must be given at least the same respect and reciprocal fairness one would accord to a member of one’s own tribe.
So everything in nature was powerful, able to help or harm. Mankind depended on the other beings for life, and they depended on mankind to maintain the proper balance. Living things must not be hurt or killed needlessly. If any species were totally destroyed or driven away from an area, it would leave a terrible gap that could not be filled unless it were to return. Mankind should hold a reciprocating, mutually beneficial relationship with each type of being. And as a result, all Indian groups were very careful about how they treated animals, plants, and every other part of nature. They developed practices, differing in detail from place to place, that tended to conserve living creatures and preserve the balance of nature within their own living space.
American Indian ethics in regard to nature is, therefore, protective and life-preserving. It is a combination of reverence for life and affirmation to life, of which Albert Schweitzer would doubtless have approved. To Indians, the earth was a reality, not illusion, and it was loved, not callously exploited. The Hopis prayed for the welfare of all living things. Nothing could be killed except out of necessity. All tribes had similar ideas, feeling that every creature must be treated with care, never injured. The real “people” living in the world are not humans alone, but all spirit beings.
This viewing of the world in a sacred perspective was therefore, the caring for every aspect of the natural environment: “the wingeds, the two-leggeds, and the four-leggeds, are really the gifts of Wakan-Tanka. They are all wakan and should be treated as such.” This saying of Black Elk”s uses two Dakota words for concepts that are fundamental to understanding how Indians related to the environment. The first is wakan, ”power,” the sacred power that permeates all natural forms and movements. The Indian’s world was full of power, and of beings who had power, or were power. It would not be wise to attempt to define the exact relationships between these powers, or to make too fine a distinction between personal and impersonal power. The power that animates the universe and gives it regularity was described in one aspect as an impersonal force, or in another aspect as a personal deity, but these ideas were not opposed; they were two ends of a continuum. The Iroquois experienced an invisible force which they call orenda; other tribes had other names for a mysterious power that might often manifest itself in natural phenomena. The wakonda of Sioux-speaking tribes had its counterpart in maxpe of the Crows, the Hidatsa xupa, and the Algonquian manitou, all standing for the power perceived in nature. More personalized was Tirawa of the Pawnees, a supreme being who revealed himself through nature, or the “Wise One Above,” Heamma wihio of the Cheyennes, whose emblems were the sun and the spider that spins from itself.
The second word used by Black Elk is Wakan-Tanka his people’s name for the Great Spirit or “Great Mystery.” The sense of a “Master of life,” one spirit who breathed in everything and included all other spirits, existed in virtually every tribe. Names in the different Indian languages show how they understood the Great Spirit. The Apache supreme being was called Life Giver. The Algonquian Manitou and the Cherokee Esaugetuh Emissee mean “Giver of Breath.” Others, like the Papagos, used a word meaning “Earthmaker”; the Crow word Ahbadt-dadt-deah signifies “The One Who Made All Things.” There was the concept of a lofty creator being who made everything, like Alquntam of the Bella Coola, “from whom come, and to whom belong, all myths,” or the Haidas’ Sins Sganagwai, “Power of the Shining Heavens,” who was believed to give power to all things in nature, and of whom it could be said, ““whatever one thinks, he knows.” Although some tribes did not necessarily regard the Great Spirit and the Creator as the same, such an identification was usual. Black Elk gave voice to what was no doubt the feeling of most Indians when he prayed:
O Father and Grandfather Wakan-Tanka, You are the source and end of everything. My Father Wakan-Tanka, You are the one who watches over and sustains all life. O my Grandmother, You are the earthly source of all existence.

The world and all the good things in it were seen as the gifts of the Makers, to be received and used with thankfulness and reverent care, In this prayer, as is so often true in Indian expressions, the Great Spirit is addressed with terms of relationship that are both masculine and feminine. Tribes like the Utes and Zufu used words meaning “The Great He-She.” The Tewa creators, the Corn Mothers, were clearly female. The result of all these ideas for Indians was that everything in the natural environment was seen as a gift of the Great Spirit. As Black Hawk said, “I never take a drink of water from a spring without being mindful of His goodness.’’
But the Great Spirit was not alone in the world. The Indians recognized that nature is complicated, not simple, and there are things that are hard to understand. Why is the land so often steep and rocky along our trail? Why are rivers so crooked? Why do we have to die?