By Kallie Klein

Photo courtesy of the Crested Butte Arts Center and Dr. John Hausdoerffer

On Nov. 18, the Crested Butte Art Center hosted Dr. John Hausdoerffer to discuss his new book box-set (co-edited with Robin Wall Kimmerer and Gavin Van Horn) titled “Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations” The five book series is a collection composed of essays, interviews, stories, and poetry highlighting the relationship between humans and nonhumans. 

Dr. Hausdoerffer is the Dean of the Clark School of Environment and Sustainability as well as the founder of the ENVS program. Dr. Hausdoerffer has taken a sabbatical for the 2021-2022 academic year, largely to write and edit, but also to promote his new book: “What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be” . 

Greeting Dr. Hausdoerffer in the Steddy’s theater was an audience of roughly 20, and an environment primed for open discussion. The main focus of Hausdoerffer’s talk was a recent book he edited and which he has multiple works in: “What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be?” The book features essays, poems, and interviews from people all over the world responding to this ancestry question. 

Dr. Hausdoerffer is interested in the audience’s answer to his inquiries, breaking the heart of the question down while sharing examples from “Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations.” He goes on to say: “to answer you have to ask, who are your ancestors?” With this line, he is asking us to look at the question from a communal perspective, rather than individually. Dr. Hausdoerffer himself opts to examine diverse cultures and the ecological world to answer his pivotal ancestor question, expanding on the importance of kinship within both the natural world and the human world.

As the conversation began, he asked “how would you rephrase the question?” Dr. Hausdoerrfer did not offer his own answer until the end, instead calling upon the audience to share their understanding of the question. Some answers included “being a good ancestor is not about being remembered, but being contagious,” reflecting on a sense of leaving something behind that people can follow and learn from. 

Another answer: “being a good steward, so that the ego disappears.” Amongst the various answers, ideas were raised discussing how being aware of the ‘now’ and what is immediately present is one of the biggest and most important steps you can take towards being a good ancestor. Springing out of this conversation was a comparison between humans and trees through the lens of relationships. This idea led to comparisons with the book “The Overstory”, written by Richard Powers. “The Overstory” is composed of stories from the perspectives of different characters and examines their connection to trees, and how that connection brought them together to address the wider issue of destruction of forests. Similar to human relationships, forests foster through equal participation. 

Dr. Hausdoerffer goes on to share portions of essays from the book which aim to address his question. One of the essays featured was written by Aaron A. Abeyta, an author, Professor of English, and poet, who was born and raised in Antonito, Colorado and later became its mayor. Below is an excerpt from his essay “Ancestor of Fire”:

“I am asked what kind of ancestor will I be. I struggle with the answer because I mistake it for asking about the future, but really it is calling me back to the place where I learned how to be. In the distance of back then, the light is gone from the day. Everything has folded into purple and black. I imagine a single light; it glows in the vastness of memory. I hear wood split. Smoke ascends. I am a boy, again. I must have been helping the men lock up the sheep for the evening, but just beyond the corral my ancestor is chopping wood, preparing for the night. The wood box is full. Speak, she tells me; collect everything; care for lost things; she compares love to bread baked in a wood-burning stove. She has gone before me. This flame is sacred. I am an ancestor of Fire. Time has no limits.”

Another book contributor is Lindsey Lunsford, a Western Environmental Management aluma who now works as a sustainable food system specialist at Tuskegee University. The following passage is from her essay “Of Land and Legacy”:

“Daughters and Sons I Do Not Yet Know, I aspire to be the kind of ancestor that leaves something of value behind. Land. Your seat. Where you’ll stand, and if need be, where you are willing to fall. It is our ancestors who leave us our land, our seat, our place in this world. I aspire to be the type of ancestor that leaves behind a place upon which my descendants can set themselves. That is what my grandparents did for me. And it was no small feat.”

Kaylena Bray is a member of the Seneca tribe and is cofounder of the Ancestral Maguey Organization, which supports small maize and agave farms to strengthen local economies. Her essay is titled “Onëö (Word for Corn in Seneca)”:

“I look at corn and I see an ancestor. For as long as I can remember I’ve been surrounded by the taste and smell of Seneca white corn grown by my dad and grandpa. This corn is called Onëö’gan in the Seneca language. Our farmland is located in the thunderous Western New York Region, and made up of rich clay soil that seems to plaster every footprint and tractor tire like individualized molded art…The ancestral lineage carried through seeds has become a tangible reminder for me of what it means to be an ancestor. The grandfather pod corn was given its name for a reason. It acts as an ancestral grandfather. It is a source of strength and resilience that carries its influence in unknown and lasting ways, and watches protectively. I feel a similar source of influence from the corn I grew up eating, Onëö’gan, and it strikes me how unknowingly yet persistently I’ve had this connection my entire life. To this day, when I eat white corn in soups or boiled bread, I think of what life must have been like for my ancestors, and the strength and resilience needed for this corn to be here. I think of the French expedition of 1687 where they burned half a million bushels of white corn in a raid designed to wipe out the Haudenosaunee at Gannagaro, present-day New York. Despite these attempts we are still here, and the corn is still here. There is a sign displayed prominently in the seed House of this extensive and ancient corn collection. It’s a framed photo of corncobs and imprinted seeds that reads,

‘They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds.’”

The specific essays and sections of the essays are important in demonstrating what a non-human ancestor can look like, even if in the end it is compared to a human. Aaron Abeyta claims his ancestor as fire and Kaylena Bray speaks of seeds as her ancestor, demonstrating the possibility of ancestral kinship between the natural and human world.

Dr.Hausdoerffer rounds up the discussion by sharing his answer to the question found in his essay “What Is Your Rice?”

“I first heard this question — what kind of ancestor do you want to be?— on the White Earth reservation of Minnesota while visiting Indigenous leader Winona LaDuke. A member of her community, within seconds of meeting me on LaDuke’s back porch, asked me this question and stopped me in my tracks. I wrote about it in Wildness: relations of people and place: What kind of ancestor do you want to be? Michael Dahl’s question hangs thick in the Minnesota air. I lean against the deck railing as the chill of evening tightens my skin. Two stories below, Round Lake reddens, matching the maples that are flashing the last burst of fall color. Michael, White Earth Anishinaabe and Midewiwin Lodge leader, offers me the intense grin I suspect he gets when he’s just floored a person with an idea. This makes me like Michael Dahl. “What kind of ancestor do I want to be?” I repeat Michaels query slowly, quietly, as if talking to myself. The question implies that we are, always and already, ancestors. Even before our descendants are born. Even if we never have children. In terms of space, nowhere is, ethically speaking, ‘away.’… Now Michael asked me to think about ethics in terms of time. No era is ‘away.’ Ethically, all times and all generations are now. So how are we to live?… I know my rice- it is a snowpack. And if that snowpack declines, if my generation does not act erratically to mitigate climate change, I worry that I will have failed as an ancestor. Yet regardless of the dire potential outcome of our apathy, acting now as if I already am a good ancestor- connecting my daughter’s with the power of snow while showing them and my students options for confronting climate change — enlivens a more resilient future for my descendants. Maybe they will even ski in the summer.”

In an interview with Alan Wartes at Think Studios, Dr. Hausdoerffer Revealed that a discussion with Michael Dahl gave him his answer. Dahl explains his connection to the wild rice they harvest and farm on the Minnesota Lakes; his material and spiritual connection to the rice and how he fears that he will not be a good ancestor if he watches climate change destroy the rice that both he and his culture depends on so wholly. This conversation inspired Dr. Hausdoerffer to consider what his rice is. 

Finally, Dr. Hausdoerffer shares tips on how to answer this question: “Who is your ancestor?” A portion of that advice: “Make sure there is something you love where you are living.” Dr. Hausdoerffer challenges us to think about how you understand this ancestry question. How would you pass this question on to others? Then reflect and challenge yourself to answer the question in your own way: “what kind of ancestor do I want to be?”