Book Review | Mossback: Ecology, Emancipation, and Foraging for Hope in Painful Places

I invite you to take a deep breath. Notice what’s going on in your body. Notice what you feel. Notice what you hear. Take another breath and allow yourself to slow down.

How often throughout the day do you give yourself permission to return to self? To notice the sensations of your body? If you are like me this must be an intentional practice. It doesn’t just happen. The reality that has shaped me calls for constant motion, thought, and action. Breathing is a means to an end not an end in and of itself.

As people shaped by late-stage capitalism rooted in dominant Christian paradigms, we need guides to bring us back to ourselves – our bodies – and the web of relations in which we live. Such a trail map can be found in David Pritchett’s recently released book, Mossback: Ecology, Emancipation, and Foraging for Hope in Painful Places.

Throughout its pages Pritchett weaves together history, personal experience, ecological wisdom, and embodied practices that nurture interconnection much like a mycelial network. He invites readers, especially those with settler histories, to become mossbacks as a healing discipline.

The designation of mossback, originally a pejorative term, was flung at draft dodgers who hid in swamps, or reactionary people who were so set in their ways that moss grew on their backs. Pritchett reclaims the term to mean “a person united with their environment, a person moving slowly enough to listen… a mossback would understand interdependence… and actively reject participation in an enslaving society.” This invitation is ultimately an invitation to return to our deepest selves, to find home.

Given the violence and exploitation rife in our world, escapism can seem attractive, especially for those who are aware of root causes and layers of complicity. We just want to unhook ourselves from the grind of destruction. This is a futile effort though, since as Pritchett points out, there is no place that empire can’t reach. Instead, he calls us to deepen our roots and relationships in the very places where we find ourselves and cultivate a rough terrain of the spirit, “to make it harder for empires to completely control our desires or order our imaginations.”

This imagination can free us like birds to transcend the gridlines of our neighborhoods an cities, and learn the waterways and contours of the land that sustains a diversity of life. Pritchett writes about the battle between the grid and the watershed – settler colonization and Indigenous care for the land, and its ongoing impacts, both material and spiritual.

The notion of land being a commodity rather than a sacred relation continues to stunt the imagination of settler people. Healing and expanding imagination along these lines, Pritchett writes, happens in relationship between settler and Indigenous people, alongside a reckoning with the legacy of genocide and ecocide. Coming out of his experience living on Chumash land in Southern California, he holds forth the possibility of imagining a different future together where Indigenous people and species have sovereignty.

In another experiment with imagination, Pritchett dialogues with his own ancestor, Captain Ware, modeling accountability to the realities of white supremacy, African slavery, and indigenous displacement that shaped his family. As he asks, “What does it take to be a good ancestor” I hear both an inquiry into the past and also a challenge to us in the present. What does it mean for uprooted people from other continents, many of whose ancestors actively uprooted others in their settlement, to be in right relationship with place? It requires reparations and land return and “practicing good internationalism by honoring all the tribes and nations (human and creaturely) with whom we are in relation.”

In seeking right relationship with the places in which we live, as well as our familial and societal histories, we find ourselves on the path toward home. This path on which Pritchett guides us moves through the school of the wilderness, recognizing our vulnerability and interdependence with the more-than-human world, and into the catechism of tracking. “Tracking and nature awareness,” he writes, “help us see who we are in the world, and only by knowing our place in the world can we know the gift we have to offer.” Rather than a catechism of religious doctrines, Pritchett invites us to be instructed by the watersheds in which we live. How might our watersheds inform responses to “Who am I?” and “Who is my neighbor?”

As the book nears its end, Pritchett’s path leads us right into the water, to be erotically immersed in our bioregion. He reimagines baptism as a call to fully inhabit our bodies. Rather than a cleansing of our earthy selves, we are even more deeply submerged in the web of relations. “If water unites all the creatures in a watershed by its flow across the landscape,” he writes, “the river symbolizes the community of creatures bound together by water.”

It is through these mutual, sensory connections that we find our way home to our bodies and into the ecosystems that sustain us. Pritchett quotes the wisdom of Audre Lorde saying, “The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us–the poet–whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free.” Our bodies and the body of the earth carry the knowledge we need to heal. May we feel our way forward together, breathing and deepening our roots… and slowing down enough so that moss might just have a chance of making home with us.

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