To Subsist

Sherene Seikaly
vol 3., August/September 2021

It is Spring. The valley is a patchwork of ecologies, from desert to forest. To the west, damp shadows of coastal mountain ranges chase the sun. An oak parkland thrives at the foothills. Tendrils of sycamore forest cling to waterways; acorns line the small creeks. On the descent from the foothills, tall grasses cool the path to the lake. To the east, white sand stretches as far as the eye can see. It gives way to short grasslands flowing into salt marshes thriving on the lake’s shoreline. The snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada drenches the lake with water. It is a wet year; the lake spans miles,  deep enough to dive and not reach the bottom, shallow enough to wade to the shoulders. Tule lines the lake’s marshes, where elk, deer, and antelope graze. Small turtles peak in and out of the water, mussels thrive in the lake’s sloughs, and below the surface the fish are plentiful. A strong northern wind shifts the water several miles south. The wind and the water dance; the wind changes and the water moves with and against it. The pulses of the seasons shape life. Each season has its own bounties.

Contrary to what pop culture and

white-washed textbooks would have

you believe, Indigenous people

still exist, and we still know how

to protect and conserve the land.

This Is the Old Way That’s Also the New Way,”
Ruth Hopkins

Before the onset of ongoing catastrophe, the various bands of the Yokuts people lived in subsistence with the human and nonhuman ecologies of this basin and its plenty. Before the onset of the “people of reason,” before the impulse of homogenization, before the imperative of profit and property. Before the railroad agents scoured the countryside with “eviction” notices on stolen lands. Before the land grabs. Before the missionaries expanded along the coast, before the grazing cattle collapsed the native grasses and plants. Before the gold mining. Before capitalists, bankers, and lawyers cheated, swindled, and mobilized law and bureaucracy to industrialize, rationalize, modernize. Before they hid their spurious land deals in mountains of paper. Before they bribed desperate workers to buy dispossessed land only to quickly buy it back. Before Anglo settlers dug ditches that sucked the water from the mountains. Before they grazed sheep, before they girdled and butchered the oak trees. Before the lake and its surrounding valley became a vast field of geometrically grown wheat. Before the basin, in all of its layers of dispossession, would come to feed Manchester’s people, a people also dispossessed, their forests felled, their fens drained. Before commercial farms.

Before growers become eaters. Before experts innovated systems to feed people who had not known hunger. Before malaria. 

Before was subsistence. 

What does it mean to subsist?

The theorists and practitioners of development and modernization have waged war on subsistence for nearly a century. They preached: It is primitive, irrational, wretched, impoverished, and premodern to subsist. They preached: Our history and our present are inevitable, linear, progressive. They preached: There is no alternative. 

What does it mean to subsist?

Privilege is born in this pristine

wilderness / and you tear into it

with fangs, starved / for power you

cannot carry.

This Poem Is Taking Place on Stolen Land,”
Emily Clarke

What does it mean to subsist on an earth rapidly giving way to mudslides, fire, floods, and drought? On an earth eroding under the force of unbridled greed? Where billionaires perform spectacular acts of masturbation in space, boasting of their power to exit earth, while their employees don diapers to continue production? Where endless growth and unrestrained extraction have become a death cult?

What does it mean to subsist?

To subsist today is a return of sorts. A return to human and nonhuman ecologies layered with meaning, sedimented in the abused ground. A return to times and spaces liberated from linearity. A return to an older meaning of subsistence: to continue to exist, to stand firm.

A return that understands the tree of life as a coral: the trunk is a dotted line of death from which life can grow.  

Just as we are all connected,

so is the eternal return of time.

Our ancestors live as we remember

them, and our future exists as

we imagine it.

So, You Have Too Many People to Feed,”
Nico Albert

To see the living and the dead together in this relation moves us beyond haunting: after all, ghost acres were never specters to the people subsisting with the land. Ghosts are more than reminders of the past; they are powerful forces of the present, they are voices from the future.  To return to the Tulare Basin and its peoples, its sycamore and oak, its sands and grass, its marshes and sloughs, its turtles and fish, is to imagine a kinship that extends beyond human domains. As Rana Barakat teaches us, ghosts haunt but ancestors guide. The lake even in its death, sedimented into the coral of our everyday, is an ancestral guide from the future.

None of this is specific to any one place — each of these inspired and fed this piece:

Sherene Seikaly is Associate Professor of History at the University of California – Santa Barbara, co-editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, co-editor of Jadaliyya, and author of Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine..