It’s a foggy, windy Sunday morning out here in Berkeley as I sit at my desk reviewing the pages of this magazine. Over in the Middle East, predawn Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City have killed at least 42 people in what’s being described as the single deadliest attack since the current wave of violence began in a struggle over land that dates back to the 1940s.

Round-the-clock headlines about this tragic, ongoing conflict have had me wondering about our connection with land. About how a bond so natural, so instinctual, can be — nay, has always been — both a source of solace and sustenance as well as of terrible, life-depleting strife.

photo of farm workers
Jim Chew, who owns Forever Grateful Ranch, a pistachio farm in California’s Merced County, and his son, Sonny, work together to attach a blower used to clear debris and “mummy nuts” from the pistachio berms, on Nov 19, 2018. Photo by Lance Cheung/USDA.

Looking over the articles in this issue, I realize that several of them underscore this complicated relationship we have with land. Taken together, they reveal how our different understandings of this relationship lead to outcomes that can be either harmful or healing.

The feature on Black farmers in America (“Back to the Land”), for instance, highlights how a history of racism and discrimination against Black farmers by White landowners and by state and federal agencies has made it incredibly difficult for African Americans to own land. Only 1.4 percent of US farmers today are Black. This unwillingness to share land fairly is one of the key reasons for the massive wealth gap between Black and White families in the United States today.

Meanwhile, our cover story about the efforts of Indigenous tribes, ranchers, farmers, and environmentalists to block a proposed lithium mine in Nevada’s sagebrush land (“The Rush for White Gold”) underscores how the old “sacrifice zone” and energy vs. environment paradigms continue to plague our efforts to build a green energy future.

In both these articles, the central conflict arises from the dominant Western cultural view of land as a commodity to be captured, hoarded, and/or exploited.

On the other hand, the features about Canadian First Nations’ painstaking efforts to save native caribou herds (“Caribou Keepers”) and about the Klamath River tribes’ efforts to rehabilitate their river basin and salmon runs (“To Free a River”), speak of a relationship with land that’s based on responsibility and reciprocity. A relationship where, as botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “we are not passive recipients of [Earth’s] gifts, but active participants in her well-being.”

In both these cases, the tribes’ efforts are being supported by government agencies. That points to a shift in the Western colonial cultures’ thinking around land toward something that is less ownership-based and more accepting of our kinship with the rest of the living world. And it offers hope that it might actually be possible, at some point, to reach a state of equilibrium between humans and land.

But to reach that state, we need to first and foremost find harmony among ourselves.

On this grey morning, as I watch videos of bombed out homes and bloodied bodies in a far-off land, that task seems to be the hardest of all.