Claire Hope Cummings

Spirit, Nature and Culture

Recorded: February 5, 2013

Why should we be concerned about the inherent integrity of the natural world?  Claire Hope Cummings, an environmental attorney, awakened her profound interest in the environment when she realized that there was both a cultural and spiritual component of place. In this video, Claire speaks about the spirituality of place, our relationship to nature and to indigenous cultures. Ms. Cummings, author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, speaks and writes about something equally important: ethical considerations about how corporations have taken ownership of the genes in our bodies and reengineered our sacred native seeds for industrial agriculture.

Author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds (2008) and other books, environmental lawyer and journalist, Claire Hope Cummings is interested in the environmental and political implications of how we eat and how food and farming reconnects us to each other and the places where we live.

Ms. Cummings brings three decades of broad experience in agriculture to her work. She has farmed in California and in Vietnam, where she had an organic farm on the Mekong Delta. For four years she was attorney for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of General Counsel. She has also represented and counseled numerous Native American tribes throughout the U.S. Ms. Cummings is a founder of the Cultural Conservancy, a native land rights organization.

For the past 15 years, Claire has been active in the local food and farming movement in the San Francisco Bay Area, helping to fund the Marin County Food Policy Council, and serving on the boards of organizations such as the Earth Island Institute, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Food First, and the Elmwood Institute – the predecessor organization for the Center for Ecoliteracy. Claire was awarded a Food and Society Policy Fellowship in 2001. She currently advises the Columbia Foundation’s sustainable communities and food system programs.

Claire Cummings:    I do have a moment where everything changed for me and that was, I was sitting at my desk, I was a staff attorney for the office of the General Counsel and as such, they send all the important cases by your desk.  And this case was 1980 and it was the Snowbowl Decision, it’s known as, where there was a ski development on the San Francisco peaks in the Four Corners area.

I read it and I was astounded, because the court was trying to grapple with something that was transcendent.  It was trying to say “Why is this place sacred to the Hopi and the Navajo?”  I mean, what did that mean?  And the court couldn’t figure that out but wanted to.  It just turned me around to read that and think that yes, there is something else other than the trees and the waters and the rocks.  There is a cultural component and a spiritual component to place and to native culture, that’s key to why we’re here.

I started the Sacred Land Foundation and basically the idea was to try to figure out what some of this meant and how could we help?

Huey Johnson:    Can you tell me how you got into this question of gene problems?

Claire Cummings:    You know, Huey, it’s no different than the work with native people.  My central value is the inherent integrity of the natural world and our obligation to act with reverence to that natural world.  A lot of the technologies of the last, latter part of the 20th century have really exceeded our ethical frame for evaluating; and we just don’t know what we’re doing.  We do not know what we’re doing, but we have this hubris that says we’ll do it anyway.  We can make it work.  We’ll find something.  We’ll make money.  We’ll be famous.  Whatever the motivation is, it goes forward without regard to any pause to think about what we’re doing and why, and what it might mean.  The patenting of life, the ownership– did you know that the University of California, Berkeley, my old alma mater, owns many of the genes in your body?  And seeds that used to be considered – that are sacred — they’re a gift from the Creator, they’re the natural heritage of all of us.

Well now, most of the seeds are patented and owned by these big biotech corporations who feel free to reengineer their DNA at will for profit and for market share.  To me it’s the same, it’s the same kind of attitude that caused us to eradicate native culture, traditional culture, and traditional land- based cultures.  People individually really care, you know, they love their family, they want to be healthy, they care about their place they live in and their community. But collectively we seem to be unable to take the steps necessary to take those values that we have as individuals and make them work for the common good, for preservation, for conservation and for…and to come up against the energy companies, the biotech companies, and the corporate control of government.

Part of what I’d like to say is, it’s different being a woman.  I was raised at a time when I was expected to maybe be a teacher, but I was not expected to be out in the world.  It was tough to make that choice and to have children and then you know go to law school and then become an environmental activist and represent native people.  And there was a lot of sexism, a tremendous amount. Most of the activists were kind of the young men that Dave Brower and those guys… you know, they had a different point of view.

But I as a woman had a sense that that wasn’t going to be enough, because that wasn’t what motivated me.  What motivated me was my children, the understanding I had about the natural world and diversity that came from my work with native people and native women, what it meant to preserve something as important as a sense of the sacred.

And the guys I was working with never talked about that.  So now we’re at this point where we’re saying ”Why did the environmental movement maybe not accomplish its goals?”   And the reason is… is because we lost touch with those deeper values.  So my sense now, at my age, is that it’s – there’s these enormous gifts, and creation is a gift, nature is a gift, our talents, whatever they are, are a gift and we’re here for such a short time and we’re here together, whoever we find ourselves with, our family, our friends, our teachers, our colleagues.  That’s where it starts being in relationship to those things, not to be distracted by the ideas of things, but the relationships.  And if we can pay attention to what they are and what they mean, then everything we do, and flowing from that, if it’s reverent, if it’s respectful, if it’s real, we will then succeed.

I would say what it’s about is reconnecting spirit, nature, and culture and we have to have all three.

  • Melinda Hemmelgarn

    Yes, Claire, it is our obligation to protect the natural world for future generations we will never know. Thank you for this reflection on what matters.