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Isabel Allende
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Breaking through the Noise
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Learning Native WisdomLearning Native Wisdom

What Traditional Cultures Teach Us about Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality

Gary Holthaus

Narrated by Kenneth Lee

Available from Audible

Book published by University Press of Kentucky

Many native North American cultures have origins that predate Confucius, who lived five hundred years before the birth of Christ. For generations the people of these traditions have thrived under conditions that many view as harsh if not hostile. Through their close association with nature, members of native communities have created complex systems for cooperating with one another and living within their environments. Learning Native Wisdom: What Traditional Cultures Teach Us about Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality explains how to nurture a society by closely observing the traditions of various native cultures. Author Gary Holthaus explores the need to live sustainably, in harmony with the land, in order to preserve our cultures, communities, and humankind itself. Holthaus asserts that all cultures are subsistence cultures: urban or rural, all humans depend on the land and its provisions for survival. Humankind faces a convergence of forces: climate change, oil depletion, loss of water, loss of topsoil, and species die-off of proportions that exceed those of the past 65 million years. In Learning Native Wisdom, Holthaus shows that any path to sustainability includes elements of both subsistence and spirituality. The book offers a way to confront potential perils and create a better future.

Scientific evidence has made it abundantly clear that the world’s population can no longer continue its present rate of consuming and despoiling the planet’s limited natural resources. Scholars, activists, politicians, and citizens worldwide are promoting the idea of sustainability, or systems and practices of living that allow a community to maintain itself indefinitely. Despite increased interest in sustainability, its popularity alone is insufficient to shift our culture and society toward more stable practices. Gary Holthaus argues that sustainability is achievable but is less a set of practices than the result of a healthy worldview. Learning Native Wisdom: Reflections on Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality examines several facets of societies—cultural, economic, agricultural, and political—seeking insights into the ability of some societies to remain vibrant for thousands of years, even in extremely adverse conditions and climates. Holthaus looks to Eskimo and other Native American peoples of Alaska for the practical wisdom behind this way of living. Learning Native Wisdom explains why achieving a sustainable culture is more important than any other challenge we face today. Although there are many measures of a society’s progress, Holthaus warns that only a shift away from our current culture of short-term abundance, founded on a belief in infinite economic growth, will represent true advancement. In societies that value the longevity of people, culture, and the environment, subsistence and spirituality soon become closely allied with sustainability.Holthaus highlights the importance of language as a reflection of shared cultural values, and he shows how our understanding of the very word subsistence illustrates his argument. In a culture of abundance, the term implies deprivation and insecurity. However, as Holthaus reminds us, “All cultures are subsistence cultures.” Our post-Enlightenment consumer-based societies obscure or even deny our absolute dependence on soil, air, sunlight, and water for survival. This book identifies spirituality as a key component of meaningful cultural change, a concept that Holthaus defines as the recognition of the invisible connections between people, their neighbors, and their surroundings. For generations, native cultures celebrated and revered these connections, fostering a respect for past, present, and future generations and for the earth itself.Ultimately, Holthaus illustrates how spirituality and the concept of subsistence can act as powerful guiding forces on the path to global sustainability. He examines the perceptions of cultures far more successful at long-term survival than our own and describes how we might use their wisdom to overcome the sustainability crisis currently facing humanity.

Gary Holthaus is the author of several books, including From the Farm to the Table: What All Americans Need to Know about Agriculture and Wide Skies: Finding a Home in the West.


“Perhaps the most profound and right-on-dead-center narrative I have read in a decade. These musings are uncannily brilliant in the way they refresh our sense of the already-hackneyed term sustainability. This book engages readers as if they are in active dialogue with a great mind and are being asked to think as deeply and passionately as the writer.”

—Gary Paul Nabhab, author of Where Our Food Comes From and founder of Renewing America‚Äôs Food Traditions

“Holthaus offers a powerful case that we have ruptured the intimate bond between the health of humankind and the natural world, and that reconnecting the two may be one of our last chances for a viable future.”

—Garrit Voggesser, Senior Manager of the Tribal Lands Conservation Program, National Wildlife Federation

Learning Native Wisdom teaches that we are all 'native' to the earth. This wisdom is not exotic, primitive, or 'other' but is embedded in the ancient, practical daily lifeways passed down for millennia by all our ancestors—functional, sustainable (ethical), and broadly spiritual. Developed world societies are also subsistence cultures, at the moment locked into hunting and gathering the shirinking resource oil. With wisdom comes gratitude, manners, and care for creation. Holthaus quotes a farmer friend who says. 'No use talking about sustainable agriculture if you don't have a sustainable culture.' This book is just what we need. It is deeply informed by Gary Holthaus's many years of teaching and working in the Alaskan bush.”

—Gary Snyder, author of Mountains and Rivers Without End

“Gary Holthaus shows us with infinite care how our desire for sustainability in many dimensions—agriculture, environment, economy, to name a few—can never be achieved without the support of a sustainable culture. Drawing on age-old wisdom, he argues that subsistence, sustainability, and spirituality must go hand in hand if we are to make our lives and our world healthy and whole. Without romanticizing traditional cultures, he uses their experiences to demonstrate that we humans at one time lived in this world in more sustainable ways and that, knowing this, we have the possibility to do so again.”

—David D. Chrislip, author of The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook

“This is story-telling as learned from [Holthaus’s] Indian and Eskimo friends and mentors in Alaska, with a brilliance that is refreshing because it is rooted in experience. Anyone interested in sustainability will find this book engaging and different.”

—Craig Gerlach, Agricultural History

“For Holthaus, the 'spiritual task' is to learn to love the universe, including all the creation and the destruction, the health and the disease. Holthaus does a wonderful job of communicating this task throughout Learning Native Wisdom, as he describes how engagements in the continual effort of creating a sustainable culture require that humans learn to tell each other stories, learn to love the universe, learn to practice self-cultivation, and learn to participate in the relationship and reciprocity that entwine humans and the natural world.”

Worldviews: Environment Culture Religion

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University Press Audiobooks
an imprint of Redwood Audiobooks

University Press Audiobooks