Photo Credit: Nils Leonhardt

What Does It Take to Be A Good Ancestor?

Author of 'Mossback' speaks on watersheds, Indigenous knowledge, and the complexity of ancestry

IN DAVID PRITCHETT’S Mossback, swamps are living creatures — both in the sense of the bustle of activity and verdant ecosystems contained within them, as well as the impression they give of having seen history unfold. In their soft ground can be felt the footprints of modernity, and Pritchett here follows those prints to make a kind of forensic ecology.

To celebrate the release of this remarkable new work, we asked Kamea Chayne, host of the Green Dreamer Podcast, to speak with Pritchett about geology, parenting, and the imperative of being responsible ancestors.

Kamea Chayne: We can’t talk about your book without talking about the meaning of ‘mossback.’ I would appreciate it if you can shine a light on the meaning of ‘mossback’ and your key inspirations to reclaim the word.

David Pritchett: Well I love the word. I first heard the term used, I think, in high school when I lived in Arkansas by fishers to describe big old fish or turtles that had algae growing on their backs. In research for the book, I came across the term describing Confederates who evaded the draft by hiding out. The word was really evocative and multilayered, and when I dug further into its use and etymology, I found that it seemed to be a derogatory term sort of like the more modern “redneck,” and there is some suggestion that it came from the Carolina swamps and used in that same disparaging way to describe poor folks who were so slow moving that they had moss growing on their backs. I was really taken when I found a report during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War recounting a gun fight between the Ku Klux Klan and a group called the “Mossy-backs.” So for me, the word conjures a complex meaning with allusions of ecological connection, but also perhaps an unwillingness to fight wealthy people’s wars or to tolerate explicitly white supremacist institutions. That’s the sort of backwardness I can get behind. I found “mossback,” with its multivalent meaning really helpful, since I’ve been looking for metaphors that contribute to the somewhat odd admixture of ecological well being with racial and economic analysis that the word connotes. Of course, I’m doing some fanciful reading, as it’s highly unlikely that the Mossy-backs had a robust racial analysis, or that Confederate deserters were thinking much beyond themselves and their families. But I want to reclaim the word and use it insofar as it moves us toward the kind of environmental and racial solidarity that I believe our times require. 

KC: Throughout Mossback, you share various personal and ancestral anecdotes about yourself, like in the chapter THINKING LIKE A MOUNTAIN, you write about your upbringing as a white American growing up in Kenya. Or in another chapter, you address it to your ancestor CAPTAIN WARE, sharing how you’re contending with the legacy of your ancestors. Can you give us a glimpse into your upbringing that compelled you to sit with the difficult questions around power dynamics, hierarchy, and white supremacy, and share about your motivations to include stories about yourself and your ancestors in the book?

DP: We lived in Kenya during my childhood, which gave me exposure to a completely different culture and ecosystem than the one in the United States to which we returned when I was a teenager. While I was not aware of it then, I would say looking back that this gave me a tacit understanding that there are many worlds in this one. 

It wasn’t until later that I began to ask questions that led me down the path of trying to understand why Euro-American culture was such a dominant and dominating force in the places I had lived and visited. 

I took a course once that encouraged us to write a letter to an ancestor in order to grapple with the legacy of white supremacy. That was a really fruitful activity for me. Researching and exploring the life of one of my ancestors, Captain William Ware, an enslaver and one of the first settlers in the hill country of Texas, helped to give specificity and context to the time in which he lived and the decisions he made. 

In the Kimeru culture I grew up alongside, ancestors were kept alive in a way by reusing their names in new generations. By naming a child after their great uncle, that ancestor is still present in a way. 

I think about this a lot when I think about doing ancestral work. In learning about Captain Ware and invoking his name, in a way it feels like I am bending time and making him closer. That is a bit disconcerting, as I don’t want to get too close to this person who made choices that I believe were deeply harmful. At the same time, I wonder, if we can bend time, can we also influence the past? Can we heal backward? 

There are some wildly fascinating quantum experiments that seem to suggest retrocausality, that the present can influence the past. I’m not a quantum physicist, so I hardly understand these theories and certainly not qualified to evaluate their merits, but I do find it at least an inspiring metaphor. Healing harms has to include accountability, so trying to heal our ancestors’ harms must mean a reckoning, both with their own choices but also with the ways in which their choices might have benefitted me. This is personal, in that it involves my lineage and legacy, but must of course also be political. 

Healing harms has to include accountability, so trying to heal our ancestors’ harms must mean a reckoning, both with their own choices but also with the ways in which their choices might have benefitted me.

KC: I really resonated with your chapter titled THE WATERSHED AND THE GRID, in which you point out how grid maps are indifferent to the contours of the land. I would be curious to have you talk more about this idea of being more or less in tune with the dynamics and relationalities of the land through the grid or the watershed, and what lessons some of these historic and present day stories can offer.

DP: I would be remiss if I didn’t start by naming some of the folks who inspired my own imagination around watersheds and grids. 

Terri Michaelis was the coordinator of a watershed restoration project in northeastern Indiana where I lived for a time. She did amazing work connecting the larger community to the Eel river and its watershed, and guided me in facilitating a small riverbank restoration project. Terri showed me the value of rigorous scientific research paired with community engagement on behalf of our watersheds. Ched Myers is a theologian who has written a manifesto for environmentally active Christians to claim “watershed discipleship,” being disciples in their watershed, understanding their own role in the “watershed moment” we live within as humans irrevocably change our world, and encouraging people to become disciples of their watershed. Ched’s insight first inspired my thinking about watersheds. Mark Lakeman is an architect passionate about renewing cities through place-making, and founded the City Repair project, catalyzing sustainable cultural landscapes and ecological communities. His rich analysis of how the grid functions to alienate us from our terrain and from each other fomented my own understanding and research. 

Imagination informs how we understand and engage with our landscapes. The grid and the watershed offer two views of how to inhabit a place. The former, a geometric abstraction, creates the illusion of human control over the land and its community. The watershed, an ecological unit, denotes an area of land united by the flow of water across it. Putting a grid over a map makes it easy to parcel out acreage and make straight roads easy to navigate, but does not consider the presence of say, a river’s meander through the grid, or the presence of old growth forest. 

The watershed, on the other hand, is likewise somewhat abstract, but attends to the contours of the terrain, and a watershed-informed human community would work with the flow of water rather than attempt to control it. 

Watersheds are scalable units, from the small creek running through a neighborhood to the vast network that creates the Mississippi River watershed. The multiple scales help us remember how we are connected to the lives of others, for instance, as Wendell Berry says, “do unto those downstream as you would those upstream do unto you.” 

So I think watersheds represent a critical way to imagine how humans can work within the natural forms of our landscapes rather than attempting to assert control of the terrain we inhabit. I think a really useful practice is to traverse your local watershed. This can be done in a variety of ways. In North Manchester, Indiana, Terri Michaelis led a yearly canoe trip in which participants could canoe down part of the river and in the process learn about important issues related to water quality initiatives. I have hiked much of the Ventura River, which isn’t deep enough to float, as a way to understand it better, as I write about a bit in my epilogue. I’d love to actually circumambulate the perimeter of my watershed, although in my context the terrain is not very amenable to that. But I think in some gentler landscapes that could be an amazing way to get a sense of the scope of the watershed. This sort of practice gives you a personal knowledge of the watershed in ways that a map can never do. 

KC: Part of your background is that you’re also certified in track and sign, which I’m sure influenced your perspectives and curiosities. In the chapter HUNGERING BODIES, you write: “For all the attention that food ethicists and food activists give to what goes into our mouths, there is little consciousness of the other end of the alimentary canal…in the same way that the tracker looks at scat in order to more deeply understand a creature, i similarly want to look at food and appetites in reverse. What can our excrement reveal about our food systems?” I would love it if you can talk more about what your awareness of track and sign has led you to unravel about how different foodways impact the humanure of different communities.

DP: One of the fascinating aspects of track and sign is how much can be learned by an animal’s scat. I remember hiking on a trail through a chaparral valley in late fall, and coming across a large pile of bear scat with hundreds of manzanita seeds, indicating the bear had been at higher elevations recently eating the manzanita berries within probably two days of making this scat. Clearly, though I was hiking in the sunny valleys of the Los Padres close to sea level, the bear knew that up at higher elevation, the berries were ripe, and bears are always looking for a good meal. Excrement can thus be a sort of map of an animal’s movement across and knowledge of the landscape. If you start to pay attention while out on a hike, it’s quite easy to find coyote or fox or bobcat scats displayed. We don’t know exactly what they mean, but it is clear that so many animals use their excrement to communicate. A pile of poo may just mean “I’m here,” or it may communicate a variety of things about the maker’s health or fertility. 

Our society tends to behave opposite so many of these animals. Our waste more often indicates a global supply chain rather than our local landscape. We get rid of our waste as soon as possible, largely preventing it from participating in the fertility cycle of the ecosystem. I’m not suggesting we start pooping all over the city or parks, but it is interesting how quickly we seem to want to eliminate that regular reminder (or for some, a little irregular) of our embodiedness. 

Western science has only recently begun to mine the sticky ecologies of our feces to learn about health and wellbeing. One interesting study showed an inverse correlation between gut microbiome diversity and agriculture. The longer a group had been farming for subsistence rather than hunting and gathering, the less diverse their gut ecology. And of course, we know that as agriculture intensifies, humans tend to manage more and more of their landscape, leading to loss of biodiversity. This indicates that the diversity of our inner landscape is directly related to the diversity of the outer one we inhabit. To my knowledge, no one has explored that relationship between inner and outer diversity very thoroughly, but it seems crucial. For instance, our immune systems recognize the self by first recognizing what is nonself. So having a robust microbial ecology within our guts facilitates the development of a strong and healthy immune system. When the immune system does not have adequate early exposure to “others,” it begins to attack the cells of its own body, which can create all sorts of autoimmune diseases. It brings to mind the Greek myth of Erysichthon which I recently came across, in which he cut down a sacred grove of Demeter. As punishment, Erysichthon was cursed with insatiable hunger, which led him to eventually eat himself out of desperation. It may be a stretch, but it seems like we are in a similar circumstance. Biodiversity loss as a consequence of habitat destruction yields similar loss of microbiome diversity, leading our immune systems to eat ourselves.  

We have physiological and cultural abilities to enhance our places, to struggle in partnership with other species. Whether we do so depends entirely on us, and engaging in struggles of solidarity within our own species and for the benefit of many species. 

KC: A passage from your chapter FINDING OUR WAY HOME reads: 

“Scientists have proposed niche construction as a theory to understand the relationships between individual species and ecosystems – a relationship long known by Indigenous wisdom and merely lost to Euro-Americans. Niche construction asserts that species create the environment most suitable for them. For instance, chaparral ecologies set conditions amenable to wildfire, since many of these species benefit from natural fires sweeping across the landscape, bringing nutrients into the soil and eliminating competitor species. Lemon ants in the Amazon use formic acid as an herbicide to remove plants unsuitable for their habitation. Beavers create dams producing larger wetlands, which in turn lead to more riparian trees beavers can utilize for food and habitat.”

In another part, I think when talking about rootlessness, you mention how the roots of whiteness may be allelopathic, which refers to a species altering its surroundings to make them less hospitable to certain other forms of competing life while making them more hospitable to the species and community configuration that they rely on. 

Putting these together, I wonder if these niche constructions and agencies of all beings can also be considered metaphorically allelopathic in a sense. 

And what more, then, have you thought through in regards to this idea of the inevitability of anthropogenic change and the multitude of things that that can mean?

DP: It’s an important question, and one that captures the central question of much of environmental literature.

I think desire is a fundamental aspect of life. All organisms want to keep on living. This desire to live leads to the endless creativity expressed in the variety of life forms. That central mandate to persist is what has led life to unfold across the epochs and to diversify such that we find life at the wildest extremes from boiling ocean floor vents to the freezing poles. At the same time, when multiple organisms desire similar resources, struggle ensues. In a full canopy forest, trees and shrubs compete for access to light. So in a way, I think struggle is the outside edge of desire. If desire is the internal “felt” sense of being alive that motivates all organisms in some way, struggle is the outward manifestation of that desire where it meets the realities of a world that has unequally distributed resources and billions of organisms wanting the minerals and energy to meet their metabolic demands. 

Struggle isn’t simply the tired trope of “nature red in tooth and claw,” which connotes a world full of organisms engaged in an evolutionary analog of capitalist competition. Struggle can also be partnership and mutual aid, such as we see in the now well known relationship between bobtail squid and the bioluminescent bacteria Vibrio fischerii. The squid creates a habitat within its body amenable to the bacteria, feeding and protecting it, while the light emitted from V. fischerii prevents the squid’s shadow from being seen from predators below. Struggle can also be manifest in trickery, like the brown-headed cowbird that lays its eggs in other birds nests, so that the work of raising their young is then done by the other birds. 

That’s all a bit abstract, I know, but I think it is important to set the context for concepts like niche construction and allelopathy. Just like struggle can be manifested in different ways, from conflict to mutualism, so can niche construction. For instance, the niche construction of beavers who make wetlands through creek dams can increase the species diversity present by creating a larger and more varied area of hydrated soils. On the other hand, the secretion of juglone by black walnut trees certainly limits the growth of many species of plants around the trees, thus limiting competition for mineral resources in the space in their root zones. 

It seems that many, if not most, indigenous groups understand that humans have the ability to create conditions for more abundance and diversity. In California, this was often accomplished through fire management. Yes, “good fire” is anthropocentric in a way, since it promotes a lot of herbaceous species edible to humans, or to the animals that humans hunt, but generally encourages species richness. So just if we consider species diversity an intrinsic value, then fire management of the landscape, irrespective of whether it was helpful to humans, is a good thing. Native landscape management of California through fire created a beautifully diverse and abundant landscape, and I don’t think it is off the mark to say that humans and the chaparral landscapes coevolved together. 

Many folks in the deep ecology framework construe humans as a bane to the earth community. I don’t fall into that camp. It’s clear humans have wrought a lot of devastation, but that is not the only way to see humanity. I think one reason I, along with so many others, look to indigenous groups for stories and examples of how to inhabit the earth in better ways. Indigenous groups often live within (and tend!) some of the most biodiverse areas of the earth. To me, this suggests that humans are not intrinsically allelopathic to other living beings. We have physiological and cultural abilities to enhance our places, to struggle in partnership with other species. Whether we do so depends entirely on us, and engaging in struggles of solidarity within our own species and for the benefit of many species. 

I think rigorous study of all of this is important because it helps us both uncover the roots of allelopathic cultural ways of being, and inspires us to find alternative ways of being in the world in ways that promote diversity and mutual flourishing. 

Andreas Weber has defined love as a practice that makes others alive, and in doing so, enlivens oneself. And this reminds me of Robin D.G. Kelley’s mandate to himself to “love, study, struggle” which offers a good imperative to all of us enmeshed within the systems that have produced white supremacy, the extremes of global wealth and poverty, and a swiftly warming planet. Make the places you inhabit alive, and in the process, experience enlivenment; study to uncover the roots of allelopathies and to find alternatives; and struggle in solidarity for a better world. 

KC: In Mossback, you write: “What does it take to be a good ancestor? To be good kin after one’s life is over starts with being good kin in life. And this, for white settlers, means dismantling the house that white supremacy built.” We’ve talked quite a bit about how you’ve been contending with the legacies of your ancestors and what they have left behind for you. What else would you like to weave in here in terms of your other thought processes and learnings on how you want to leave the world, or what you want to see composted for our future generations?

DP: I think I actually want to first talk here not about being good kin, although that is my hope, but rather, about claiming bad kin. That’s an idea from Canadian philosopher, Alexis Shotwell. She talks about how so often white people don’t want to associate with those who they perceive as “bad white people” out of a politics of purity. The problem is that while I may not want to claim kinship with the white supremacists, they are more than happy to claim me as part of their group. Since white folks like me have benefitted from racist policies and behaviors, I believe we cannot simply absolve ourselves of responsibility for the harmful actions of our ancestors and the continued racist actions of present day white supremacists. So “claiming bad kin,” in Shotwell’s sense, means reckoning with past and present white supremacists. 

I agree with this assessment. As I discussed earlier, of the reasons I think it is important to claim lineages that we feel uncomfortable with is that I think accountability must come from relationships, and we need to create accountability for historical harms, by undoing restructuring the systems and relationships they created, but also we need to be in relationship with bad kin so that we can hold them accountable, despite the tension and conflict accountability may require. More broadly, if we are to create a movement of solidarity on behalf of the places and people we love, we have to include broad coalitions of people who will not look or think like we do. 

Race is a cultural construct, and so too, is whiteness. But while I hope for a day in which the binary of whiteness and blackness, or settler and native, has faded away to a plurality of place- based cultures, that day is not today. So I am working in the ways I can to take apart the logic and systems that create above and below in hopes of what the Zapatistas call a world where many worlds can fit. 

And ultimately, I trust that the world and the future doesn’t depend on the little I can do. I remember hearing a veteran organizer talk about the need to join institutions for this very reason. Life is challenging, and there are times when we simply can’t sustain the capacity it takes to be constantly working in the movement toward the futures we want. So we have to join institutions, because we know that they will carry the work forward when we are unable to. And when we can, we will link back into the struggle. And that seems like a way to be a good ancestor, by being a part of the struggle but not by making the fate of the future hinge on our deeds. 

KC: In terms of your approach, you’ve been keen on not being directive in terms of the takeaways you hope your readers have, but rather just inspiring different ways of seeing. Can you talk more about this intention – to not offer prescriptive solutions in spite of all of the injustices, pains, and crises at various levels that you’ve spoken to?

DP: Over two of the years I was writing Mossback, the global pandemic was raging, people were uprising against police violence, and every year wildfires devastated many of the communities around me in California. 

It would be really weird and quite egocentric to suggest that I have answers for all this. Besides, I just don’t think the solutions can be the same in all places, because every bioregion is really unique. The people who stand to best have answers for how to live well in a particular place are the people who have lived there longest. In the North American context, indigenous people have lived for millenia. Settler colonialism has devastated a lot of the cultural traditions, but not completely. That’s one reason to support indigenous sovereignty–it’s generally good environmental and social policy (the other reason, of course, being that it is the right thing to do). I don’t want to fetishize native cultures, because of course, all human cultures must constantly negotiate power and violence. But it does make sense to me that we learn from people who have proven their resilient and sustainable lifeways with millennia of evidence. 

I guess while so much seems so hopeless when I read the headlines, I do have a lot of faith in human creativity. Since I don’t have the answers, I suppose I’m hopeful that offering different frameworks might inspire new imaginations for the struggles we face. 

Matter has been consolidating and organizing to metabolize meaning for a long time, and through many extinction events. So I resist the existential terror of imagining humans disappearing, because I think life itself will persist and continue to unfold in beautiful ways.

KC: And, as we come to a close here, I would also love to leave space for you to share anything else you feel called to share about your writing journey, inspirations, how the process of writing this book shifted you personally… or otherwise.

DP: As I write this, my partner and I are waiting for our child to be born. This shatters a lot of the easy idealism of writing and makes plain how my choices impact the next generation. I wonder if and when our child will ask us what we did about climate change, or what part I took in various struggles for justice. This makes me want to be a good ancestor in a different way. 

Having a child also makes me think about what sort of world he will grow up in. But the truth is, I also want to push back on some of the narratives surrounding anxiety about climate change. Yes, the climate changing will absolutely make life more difficult, especially for people in the Global South, where the impacts of colonization magnify ecological disasters. A lot of techno-solutions to climate change rely on continued neo-colonization for the minerals that will support so called green energy. A lot of these solutions will only be widely available in the wealthiest countries. And so climate change has become another way to widen the gap between rich and poor. 

I don’t mean to downplay the realities of climate change. Ever since moving to California, every summer and fall has been plagued with destructive fires and unhealthy air quality. I’ve driven to work through turmeric air, worked with my partner to stuff towels in the doorway cracks of our old home to try to ward off smoky air, and hiked through forests of standing charcoal in the Sierras. This past winter, I’ve watched flooding happen in various parts of California, and wondered if the levy in our river valley would hold back the torrent. 

But still, I wonder if a lot of the anxiety and terror around climate change is simply a convenient way to be uncomfortable with the fact that we are mortal. That fear of death is redoubled when we consider facing the extinction of the human species. It seems unthinkable. But at the same time, I do not think humans are privileged. Matter has been consolidating and organizing to metabolize meaning for a long time, and through many extinction events. So I resist the existential terror of imagining humans disappearing, because I think life itself will persist and continue to unfold in beautiful ways. 

So I care more about working toward right relationships rather than abstract atmospheric carbon numbers. Right relationships might move us to cultural systems that allow for human flourishing and a diversity of nonhuman creatures.

And when I feel my child moving in my partner’s belly, I think about something aboriginal scholar Tyson Yunkaporta says in his book Sand Talk, that a child’s job is to relate to their people and to the world. The child’s job is connection. As my partner and I expand our family, I am hopeful, even against such foreboding futures, that our little one will offer us the gift of connection–to our local community, to our watershed, to our ancestors, and perhaps even to a more just future as it bends towards us in a different way through our child. 

David Pritchett is author of Mossback: Ecology, Emancipation, and Foraging for Hope in Painful Places. He works in emergency medicine, and he holds a diploma in mountain medicine and is certified in track and sign.

Kamea Chayne is the host of Green Dreamer, a podcast which explores our paths to collective healing, biocultural revitalization, and true abundance and wellness for all. She also publishes Uprooted, a reader-supported newsletter exploring counterculture perspectives on all things related to our planetary health.