In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story of the Windigo.
Born of our fears and our failings, Windigo is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else.
In terms of systems science, the Windigo is a case study of a positive feedback loop, in which a change in one entity promotes a similar change in another, connected part of the system. In this case, an increase in Windigo hunger causes an increase in Windigo eating, and that increased eating promotes only more rampant hunger in an eventual frenzy of uncontrolled consumption. In the natural as well as the built environment, positive feedback leads inexorably to change – sometimes to growth, sometimes to destruction. When growth is unbalanced, however, you can’t always tell the difference.
Stable balanced systems are typified by negative feedback loops, in which a change in one component incites an opposite change in another, so they balance each other out. When hunger causes increased eating, eating causes decreased hunger; satiety is possible. Negative feedback is a form of reciprocity, a coupling of forces that create balance and sustainability.
In the old times, individuals who endangered the community by taking too much for themselves were first counseled, then ostracized, and if the greed continued, they were eventually banished. The Windigo myth may have arisen from the remembrance of the banished, doomed to wander hungry, alone, wreaking vengeance on the ones who spurned them. It is a terrible punishment to be banished from the web of reciprocity, with no one to share with you and no one for you to care for.
I’ve been thinking a lot about banishment as the ultimate punishment. Severing the social ties, kicking somebody out of our community, which makes this person to never be able to fully satisfy their needs again. This is pretty heavy.
I think that modern forms of punishment like fines, jail time, and even death penalty are very mild in comparison. When everything else fails in anarchistic, alternative, restorative justice, banishment sounds appropriate. But where do we banish these windigo people? In the global hyper connected world, they will just find another community to resume their consumption.
Are the cities the place where windigos are banished? It seems fitting. It’s very hard to be satiated in a big city, and it’s very hard to form strong community ties, and most people in there just wander back and forth doing their job as slaves of the capital.
Are we banishing ourselves from these lands that we want to rewild, because we don’t trust ourselves to live in balance there?
Here is the full chapter: