the world belongs to raccoons
Decolonization is Not a Metaphor and Raccoon
I take notes when I read, filling notebooks with reflections and quotes. Some books wind up filling half the notebook and others just a page or two. My notes from the essay Decolonization is Not a Metaphor filled 8 pages. I remember needing to read that essay several times to think through the things that Tuck and Wang were saying which, to be pithy about it boils down to give back the land. Yes. Give it back. Any work you do on stolen land will be inherently colonial. It can be anti-racist. It can be inclusive. It can be a lot of good things but if you are not reckoning with the fact of stolen land then it erases Indigenous presence and even if you are inviting us to one of your many tables what you are inviting us into is assimilation.
Now I get that for most people and organizations actually giving it back may not seem possible. Some people do give it back. They deed it over to a reserve or sell it back. They donate to Indigenous owned land trusts. There is a church in Vancouver that is working with an Indigenous housing agency to turn the church into Indigenous housing which, while not exactly land back is still kind of a neat idea. This turning churches into housing thing is really taking off and I like it.
I have asked people, as a thought experiment, to imagine what would be different about their church or business or neighbourhood if they gave the land back to the Indigenous people from whom it was taken. They can sign a lease for however long they imagine needing it, but what would change about their policies and practices if their building was now sitting on Indigenous land and they faced the possibility of eviction? What kind of agreements would they want in the lease first of all, and what demands are they concerned that the band or tribe would make on them?
Because decolonization means doing that. Even if you can’t physically give the land back, it means at the very least living as if you could and did. That’s still kind of a cop out, but it’s somewhere for you to begin. Particularly if you aren’t a land owner anyway. Which brings me to the book Raccoon by Daniel Heath Justice. And what a lovely book it is. I didn’t take nearly as many notes when I read this one but I didn’t need to.
civilization is a façade,
the world belongs to raccoons
This is the kind of book that washes over you and fills you with the wonder and affection that Daniel clearly has for raccoons. Now, he acknowledges difficult history associated with human relationship to raccoons including the origins of the racist epithet “coon.” He talks about hunting practices and the ways in with raccoons share a place in the American psyche with Black and Indigenous people. hint: it isn’t very nice. He loves this transgressive creatures, their brilliance and creativity. And most importantly, he listens to them.
It’s a difficult thing to learn to listen to the land around us, to the waters and the creatures above and below. We are used to looking to them for lessons and to read things into them, but that’s dangerous and both his book and Tuck and Wang’s essay demonstrate what happens when people map their own meaning onto things. When we reduce the land and everyone on it to commodities, when they become object lessons or examples or metaphors for other more human things. But listening to what raccoons or the land might actually be saying to us, that’s something different. That assumes they have spirit and agency.
Which of course they do.
It’s easy to see that raccoons have agency. One of them lives in the attic of my spouse’s workshop. He had put in some motion sensing cameras to see what was living there and when he responded to the notification we got a brief video of a raccoon heading directly for the camera with his little hands outstretched and then the camera tipped over and fizzled out. I laughed. He didn’t. Raccoons are curious and like new things, which is one reason why they have adapted so well to cities and other human habitations. They aren’t afraid to try and are remarkably well adapted to do that. At the other end of the spectrum is my partner’s other nemisis. The rat that had taken up residence in the basement. Rats are not curious and distrust new things, which helped him avoid increasingly ridiculous attempts at trapping him as my husband transformed into Wile E Coyote. There are consequences to sharing our lives with these beings and we find ways to navigate those relationships, we make agreements of a kind, even if they are unfairly imposed and not truly negotiated.
It’s harder to see the land and water having agency. Harder to see them as alive. We see them as producing and caring for life, as sustaining life. But we don’t generally see the land and water as alive on their own terms and yet even the Bible uses language that suggests the ancient Hebrews saw the world much more differently than the sanitized Christian narrative. Danage done by flood, earthquake, or tornado are frequently referred to as acts of God. Nobody would say that the raccoon damage in the workshop attic was an act of God. That was an act of raccoonish curiosity. But floods. That’s God. Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes. Mass ice sheets crushing everything in their path. God.
Some insurance companies have taken that language out of their policies in recognition that not everything agrees on God’s existence and I remember thinking it was a pity, because even if she was being unfairly blamed at least she was being noticed.
I’ve really digressed and this isn’t even the substack for it.
The land and the waters, the wind and the stars. They all have agency just as the raccoons do. They are beings in their own right with whom we are in relationship and that is the heart of both of these books. That relationship we have with land, with animals. Not for what they can give us or teach us but for who they are. And it should not surprise us that when we turn some of these beings into commodities we inevitably commodify others. Including ourselves.