Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Origin of Science

NOTE: To better understand the following, you might read my review of The Art of Tracking first.

Back in the 1800s, folks on the cutting edge of Western science were perplexed.  Evolution had apparently provided hunter-gatherers with essentially the same brains that we moderns have, yet they appeared to be severely retarded — no clear-cuts, mines, cities, insane asylums.  What was wrong with them?  This abnormality led Alfred Wallace to wonder if the theory of evolution was a hoax. 

At the time, he and his peers believed that science originated in ancient Greece, but none of them knew anything about the wild people of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.  Around 1950, anthropologists began spending time with these hunter-gatherers.  Their studies noted that the hunters carried small bows, which shot poison-tipped arrows.  Poisons were made from plants, snakes, scorpions, spiders, or beetle larvae.  They took from 6 hours to 3 days to kill the animal.  Because anthropologists could see the bows and arrows, they asked questions about them. 

What they could not see was enormous — a two million year tradition, a primary reason why humans walk upright, the mother of our high-powered brains — persistence hunting.  The researchers were attuned to cozy civilized living, not running barefoot across a thorny scorching hot desert for hours at a time.  Consequently, they missed a great deal.

Persistence hunting involved doggedly chasing game for hours until the animal collapsed from heat stroke and died.  Prey could run faster than hunters, for a while, until they became exhausted, overheated, and collapsed.  Their speedy escape left tracks that the less speedy hunters could follow.  Some hunters had fantastic skills in the art of tracking.  HERE is a 7-minute BBC video of a persistence hunt.

Louis Liebenberg is a South African lad, a “citizen scientist,” not a highly paid professional scientist from a luxurious education factory.  He has spent many years learning from the trackers of the Kalahari.  Because skilled trackers utilize an impressive variety of reasoning processes, he believes that tracking could have been the birth of science.  His first book, The Art of Tracking, was published in 1990.  It provides readers with an amazing collection of ideas.  The following commentary is on his 2013 book, The Origin of Science, which focuses on the relationship between tracking and science history.

Tracking requires accumulating an immense amount of knowledge about animal behavior and their spoor (tracks and other signs), an endless lifelong learning process.  In addition, while jogging across the desert in extreme heat, trackers must rapidly process complex inputs into accurate hypotheses.  The most gifted trackers excel at remembering, attention, reasoning, intuition, and imagination.  Their ancient culture enables them to survive in a vast desert that would promptly doom suburban consumers.

These wild super-survivors are nearly naked, unschooled, illiterate, unemployed, uninsured, homeless, penniless heathens who rarely take a bath.  Yet their culture remained sustainable for 100,000 years or more.  Their way of life is possible because they know how to engage in high quality scientific reasoning.  Tracking is about creative problem solving.  All trackers use inductive-deductive reasoning — track and sign recognition.  Advanced trackers also use hypothetico-deductive reasoning — track and sign interpretation, which requires more creativity.  Modern science continues to depend on both types of reasoning today.

Liebenberg has had years of direct experience with both wild people and modern people.  Tracking encourages wild people to develop heightened abilities for intuitive thinking, because the tracks of their prey are rarely clear and complete.  Intuition helps to fill in the blanks and suggest possible conclusions.  It is fast, automatic, effortless, and often unconscious.  Intuition also enhances social relationships.  Wild people are far more sensitive to each other than are folks in the modern world, “where perceptions of others have been blunted by fragmented and shallow relationships.”

For Liebenberg, “education” is a four-letter word, because it is so authoritarian.  Inmates are forced to sit indoors, in rows of hard seats, to have their brains filled with the infallible knowledge of modern science.  Truth is based on the authority of teachers and textbooks, and students on the golden path to success know better than to question authority.

“Modern societies in general, and education in particular, does more to stifle than to encourage intuitive thinking.”  Modern science is often hierarchical, elitist, and less accessible to non-specialist commoners.  On the Kalahari, tracking science is informal and accessible to everyone.  A youth can disagree with how an experienced elder has interpreted tracks, and suggest a different conclusion.  From childhood, youths are regularly exposed to the scientific process.

Modern human brains are probably little different from those of early Homo sapiens.  Liebenberg believes that “some trackers in the past probably were, and perhaps today are, just as ingenious as the most ingenious modern mathematicians and physicists.”  At the same time, both trackers and physicists are capable of being stunningly irrational.  “Cultures may go into decline when scientific knowledge is undermined by irrational belief systems.”

We believe that our industrial civilization is too smart to collapse, perpetual growth is possible, innovation will create “clean” sources of abundant energy, climate change can be reversed, eleven billion can be fed, and the best is yet to come.  He warns us that, “Political leaders who hold irrational and superstitious beliefs, and may even be anti-science, clearly may have serious negative implications for human welfare.”  (Gulp!)

The goal of this book is to argue that science began with prehistoric bipedal trackers.  I wonder if scientific processes aren’t even older than bipedal primates.  Who taught our ancestors the art of hunting — locating prey by scent, sight, sounds, tracks, and knowledge of prey behavior?  Who taught us concealment, stalking, silent movement, deception, ambush, and approaching prey from downwind?  Lions don’t sit in the grass with their mouths open, waiting for breakfast to prance in.  They survive because they have teamwork and powerful minds.  “The /Gwi believe that some species possess knowledge that transcends that of humans.”  In Alaska, the Koyukon proverb is, “Every animal knows way more than you do.”

On the Kalahari, the traditional wild culture is being driven to extinction by growing contact with you-know-who.  Herders are moving in, fencing off lands.  In the 1960s, hunters began using dogs.  Much more game was killed, but the tracking skills of the hunters declined.  More recently, horses have also been added.  The diabolical trio of hunters, horses, and dogs makes it much easier to overhunt and deplete wildlife populations.  Far less skill is needed.  Younger generations have shifted to making souvenirs for tourists, as their ancient culture is pounded against the rocks.

Liebenberg is working with Kalahari elders to encourage younger folks to learn tracking, in hopes that skilled trackers can gain employment collecting wildlife data for use in scientific research.  He has created CyberTracker, a smart phone app that can be used to collect data in the field.  The interface is icon-based, so it can be used by illiterate people.  It is now being used in research around the world, and is helpful in documenting ecological trends, like the welfare of endangered species.  It also encourages the survival and preservation of the art of tracking.

Liebenberg, Louis, The Origin of Science, CyberTracker, Cape Town, South Africa, 2013.

Free PDF downloads of Liebenberg’s books, The Art of Tracking, and The Origin of Science, are available HERE.  Amazon sells a Kindle version of The Origin of Science for $1.00.

The Art of Tracking

Right now, your eyes are following a track of squiggly scratches, and your mind is comprehending meaning from them.  This morning, my mental processes created those tracks, and they contain specific meaning for those who have learned the ability to interpret them.  The farther you are able to follow my tracks, the more you will learn.

Similarly, animals leave behind tracks and other signs as they move across the land, and folks who are skilled at reading this information can accumulate pieces of a story.  The indigenous trackers of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana can perceive a fantastic amount of information by studying spoor — footprints, urine, feces, saliva, blood, fur bits, feeding signs, smells, sounds, and so on.  Spoor provides clues about the animal’s species, gender, size, behavior, direction of travel, time of passage, and so on.

There are large regions of the Kalahari that are quite flat, an endless landscape having no notable landmarks for a white boy like me, who would quickly become hopelessly lost, and turn into cat food.  Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, always know exactly where they are, because they orient themselves by the layout of plant communities, noting their size, shape, position, and unique features.  They know the face of their land as well as they know the faces of their family.

Louis Liebenberg is a South African lad who has spent years with Kalahari trackers, learning their art.  He calls himself a citizen scientist, not a professional, and he has special gifts for thinking outside the box.  His work has impressed famous academic heavyweights at Harvard.  In 1990, he published The Art of Tracking.

After our primate ancestors moved out of the trees, they eventually evolved for bipedal travel — walking upright on two legs.  In Tanzania, 3.6 million years ago, two bipedal ancestors left their footprints in wet volcanic ash.  In 1978, scientists discovered 70 of their fossilized footprints, in a sequence that was 88 feet long (27m).  [Image]  These ancestors were probably Australopithecus afarensis.

Today, our living primate relatives are quadrupeds, four legs.  Chimps can sprint much faster than humans, but we excel at running long distances.  Moving on two legs is more energy efficient than on four.  Evolution optimized our feet and legs for the spring-like mechanics of running, not walking.  Over time, we lost our fur coats, and developed the ability to sweat profusely, so we excelled at shedding body heat.  Standing upright gave us a better view of the surroundings.

Many game animals can move much faster than humans, for short bursts, then they must stop to cool off.  The desert is especially hot at midday.  Humans are unusual because we can run for hours in the heat of the day.  We can doggedly follow the tracks of speedy prey, not giving them a chance to rest, until heat stroke brings them down, and often kills them.  Hunters also carried spears or clubs, to finish the job, if needed.  HERE is a 7-minute video.

This is called persistence hunting, and Liebenberg was apparently the first civilized scientist to participate in this (he nearly died from heat stroke).  In other regions, this method has been used to hunt reindeer, kangaroos, deer, and pronghorn antelope.  Our ancestors have likely practiced persistence hunting for two million years or more.  It played a central role in the evolution of the person you see in the mirror.

Gorillas are vegetarians, spending long hours stuffing their faces at the salad bar.  They have evolved large guts in order to digest this bulky fibrous diet.  In addition to plant foods, chimps, bonobos, and baboons also eat meat, an excellent source of nutrients and calories.  They are good at predation, killing small animals without weapons.

In the early days, our bipedal ancestors likewise killed small critters with their bare hands.  Eventually, they became hunters.  Early hunters used pointed sticks, stones, and clubs to stun small mammals and birds.  By and by, the ancestors learned how to kill large game, via persistence hunting, javelins, spears, bows and arrows, and so on.  Meat maybe provided forty percent of their calories.

In addition to predation and hunting, our ancestors also acquired meat by scavenging.  Large carnivores often kill large game, devour as much as possible, and then abandon a partially eaten carcass.  On the Kalahari, hunters always note vultures circling in the distance.  They indicate the location of a dying animal, or a yummy carcass.  With luck, our ancestors’ running abilities sometimes enabled them to beat the hyenas to lunch.  Hyenas are not as good at shedding heat.  They periodically need to stop and pant to cool off.

Because game animals can move faster than humans, for limited distances, the success of persistence hunting largely depended on tracking skills — following the spoor of their chosen prey who might be out of sight.  Kalahari people had exceptional tracking skills.  Women were as good as men, or better, at interpreting spoor.  Everyone in a band, both men and women, could observe human tracks, and accurately identify the individual person who made them.

One time, Liebenberg asked some trackers if they could actually recognize the spoor of an individual antelope.  “They found it very amusing that I should ask them such a stupid question.  To them it is difficult to understand that some people can not do it.”  Liebenberg described three levels of tracking strategies.

(1) Simple tracking is just following the prey’s footprints, under ideal conditions, when the prints are clear and easy to follow.

(2) Systematic tracking is used when the spoor trail is less than complete.  Using reasoning and deduction (inductive-deductive reasoning), the tracker can then develop a hypothesis of what the prey was doing, and the most likely direction of its escape route.  This is solely based on real evidence.  Then, the hunter proceeds in the prey’s probable direction, in hope of picking up the track again. 

(3) Speculative tracking is the most advanced and creative.  “Anticipating the animal’s movements, by looking at the terrain ahead and identifying themselves with the animal on the basis of their knowledge of the animal’s behavior, the trackers may follow an imaginary route, saving much time by only looking for signs where they expect to find them (hypothetico-deductive reasoning).  By predicting where the animal may have been going, the trackers can leave the spoor, take a shortcut, and look for the spoor further ahead.”

Like vervets, baboons, jackals, and most other species, our ancestors learned ways of communicating with each other, via sounds and gestures.  Some birds make one warning call for lions, and a different one for snakes.  Many species, including humans, pay careful attention to the vocalizations of other species.  It’s good to know when a lion is approaching, long before it can be seen.

At some point, nobody knows when, the ancestors developed complex language.  As social animals, they lived in small bands.  Each member collected and shared information, and the group developed a body of wisdom.  Language made it easier for them to relay accumulated wisdom to the next generation.

Biological evolution (genes) moves at a snail’s pace, but cultural evolution (knowledge) can boogie like gazelles on meth.  With spears and javelins, the ancestors didn’t need to spend hundreds of thousands years evolving claws and fangs.

A few million years of scampering through the rainforest canopy, followed by a few million years of persistence hunting and tracking, fundamentally directed the evolution of our bodies and minds.  Today, we have abandoned our ancient way of life; it’s nearly extinct.  Imagine what we’d look like after 500,000 years of sitting on couches, entranced by glowing screens, chugging sugar water.

I’ve now given you a wee whiff of this book.  When I write reviews, I usually select a few subjects that especially interest me.  This one was especially interesting from one end to the other.  It carries readers off to a sacred mountaintop, where we can get a better view of the big picture.  If we want to live sustainably for hundreds of thousands of years, simple living is the only option.  What good are all our amazing gizmos if they require an insanely unsustainable flash-in-the-pan culture?

In every way, the wild people of the Kalahari were completely in tune with their ecosystem.  In my world today, I observe the opposite — a society that could not possibly be more alienated.  Recent DNA mapping strongly suggests that the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari are the ancestors of all humans now on Earth.  You and I carry their genes.  Liebenberg pulls back the curtains of modernity and provides readers with a mind-expanding peek into distant corners of our family tree — the ancestors we have forgotten, and would be wise to remember.

In 2013, Liebenberg published The Origin of Science, which furthers his discussion of our Kalahari relatives.  My review is HERE.  There is some subject matter overlap between the two books, and my two reviews.  Sorry!  Take your anxiety meds.

Free PDFs of two Liebenberg books can be downloaded HERE.  YouTube has many Kalahari documentaries.

Liebenberg, Louis, The Art of Tracking, David Philip Publishers, Claremont, South Africa, 1990.

Saturday, April 1, 2017


One day in 1991, a strange letter arrived at the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco, where Joe Kane was working.  It was from members of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador, wild folks who have lived in the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years.  Their jungle home had fantastic biodiversity, including many species that live nowhere else on Earth.

The letter said that DuPont-Conoco was planning to destroy their ecosystem and culture.  The Indians were perfectly happy with their traditional way of life, and they had no interest in being destroyed.  They just wanted to be left alone.  Help!  Kane quit his job and moved to South America.  Several years later, he published Savages, which described his exciting, chaotic, and painful adventure.

Unlike our society, Huaorani men and women really have equal status.  It is never OK to give orders, or to raise a hand against a child or woman.  Family harmony is important.  A priest was amazed by them, “They are joyful in a way that is complete and without self-consciousness.”

The Huaorani strive to be in tune with the abundance of the forest, so they will always have enough to eat.  Sharing is essential.  “There is no higher manifestation of this ideal state than unqualified generosity, and no act more generous than to give away food.”  In the days prior to contact with outsiders, most natives never encountered more than seventy or eighty people during their entire lives, most of whom they knew by name.  Imagine that — a world without strangers or loneliness.

Hunting in a dense rainforest is not easy.  Their technology included spears and blowguns.  Poison darts would kill monkeys in the branches above, requiring the hunter to climb up and retrieve them.  Over time, the feet of men who spent a lot of time in the treetops changed shape, making it easier for them to climb (see image above).  Big toes bent outward, providing a tighter grip.

Until the 1950s, the Huaorani had almost no contact with the outer world.  Then, the missionaries arrived, to save the souls of the demon worshippers.  They believed that the Indians needed to live in permanent settlements, clear the jungle, become farmers, join the cash economy, and pay taxes.  Their children needed to learn Spanish, and get a proper civilized education, so they could abandon their backward culture and language.  Maidenform brassieres were distributed to the jungle camps, so women could conceal their shameful boobs.

The missionaries were walking disease bombs, and they knew that the natives had no immunity to the pathogens they brought into the rainforest, but they were on a mission from God.  Even ordinary influenza could wipe out uncontacted people.  It was vitally important to convert the savages to the one and only genuine interpretation of Christianity, before other missionaries arrived and introduced them to one of the many false interpretations (especially Catholic), condemning their souls to the eternal fires of Hell.

The missionaries held the natives in low regard and, likewise, the natives resented the freaky aliens.  The Huaorani word for outsiders was cowode (cannibals).  In their culture, sickness, misfortune, and death were never the result of mere bad luck, they were always caused by sorcery conjured by others.  When someone died, even an infant, justice required relatives to identify the culprit and kill him or her in revenge.  While this clashes with the virtuous morals our culture has invented, it kept their numbers stable.  Their ecological ethics were far superior to those of the aliens.

Kane became friends with Enqueri, a smart but unreliable Huaorani lad who could speak Spanish.  In 1956, his father and friends killed five missionaries, because soon after missionaries visited, many died from ghastly diseases.  It was easy to determine the source of this sorcery and deliver rough justice.

Clever missionaries realized that two could play this game.  After deaths, they would accuse the native shamans of demonic acts, and grieving families believed them.  By 1991, most shamans had been murdered.  Kane met a shaman named Mengatohue.  “He could enter an ayahuasca trance and become a jaguar.”  Missionaries told schoolchildren that he was an agent of the devil.  Kids mocked him.

Rachel Saint was the sister of one of the speared missionaries, and she continued to pursue his work.  One of her first native converts, Toña, became a preacher.  He attempted to convince the Huaorani that their traditional culture, everything they knew, was totally wrong.  Enqueri said that Toña “brought with him an evil so strong that it killed a child.”  To avenge this misfortune, he was killed with seven spears.

In 1967, oil was discovered in Huaorani country, an estimated 216 million barrels, enough to fuel American gas-guzzlers for about thirteen days.  In 1969, Saint created a protectorate (reservation) for the Huaorani, with a school and chapel.  Before long, all 104 Indian residents had polio, 16 died, and another 16 were crippled.

The Company (oil interests) helped Saint create and operate the protectorate.  They wanted to clear the Huaorani off their traditional lands, so they could build roads, do seismic testing, drill wells, and construct pipelines without bloody resistance.  Saint was thankful for their kind assistance, but regretted their dark side, the booze, prostitution, and violence that came with the full-scale capitalist blitzkrieg.  However, she never doubted that God was smiling on her holy ethnocide.

Ecuador’s government was impressively corrupt and incompetent.  They excelled at boosting debt, stashing stolen funds in Miami banks, and driving up food prices.  Seventy-nine percent of the people lived in poverty.  Officials were desperate for income from the oil industry, and they cooperated in every possible way.  Soldiers kept journalists and activists out of oil country, and the Company was free to pollute the land to the best of their abilities.  Toxic crud was dumped anywhere, and pipelines often leaked.  Rivers turned black, fish died, birds died, caimans died, bananas died, and natives got very sick.  For natives, middle age was 25.

Ecuador was also eager to rid their crowded cities of poor people.  The government promoted the colonization of the rainforest.  When roads were built, a four-mile strip (6.5 km) on each side was dedicated for settlement by colonists.  They flooded into the wilderness, erased jungle, built flimsy shacks, and attempted to produce coffee and cattle on low quality rainforest soil that was quickly depleted.  Many became laborers for the Company, where the work was hard, and the pay meager.  No effort was made to interfere with widespread illegal logging.

Colonization was a rapidly spreading cancer that wouldn’t stop until its ecosystem host was destroyed, including the tribal people.  There was fierce conflict between the Indians and colonists, many died, and many shacks were burned, but the cancer persisted.  A wise guy once noted that the words “road” and “raid” come from the same root.  No place is safer than a vast roadless forest.

The struggle against modernity continued, on and on, with little success.  Kane liked his Huaorani friends, but he wasn’t willing to dedicate his life to their struggle.  To the powerful, he was an annoying troublemaker, so he was unlikely to die from old age.  Kane returned to California and wrote his book.  By the last page, everything was worse, a saga of endless bullshit, craziness, and tragedy.  There are millions horror stories similar to Kane’s, for every commodity utilized by industrial civilization.

José Miguel Goldáraz was a Spanish priest who had spent 20 years in South America.  By and by, he lost interest in soul saving, and became an activist.  He had no doubt that the natives would kill oil workers in defense of their land.  “When the Huaorani kill, there is a spiritual discipline to it.  Americans kill without knowing they are doing it.  You don’t want to know you are doing it.  And yet you are going to destroy an entire way of life.  So you tell me: Who are the savages?”

Chevron vs. the Amazon is a 2016 documentary on YouTube.  Abby Martin visited oil country in Ecuador to observe the current state of affairs. 

Kane, Joe, Savages, Vintage Books, New York, 1996.

Photo: “Feet” by Phil Borges.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Last Child in the Woods

Richard Louv was born in 1949, a card-carrying member of the baby boomer generation.  He has been a newspaper reporter, syndicated columnist, and author of nine books.  The father of two sons, his writing often covered issues of family life.  Over the years, he interviewed thousands of parents, children, and social science experts.  Working on the front lines of American culture, he became increasingly aware that the children of boomers were moving down a path far different from their parents.

“They are the first daycare generation, the first post-sexual-revolution generation, the first generation to grow up in the electronic bubble, the first for whom nature is often an abstraction rather than a reality,” he says.  A fourth grader shocked him when he announced, “I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”  Louv came to understand that boomers were probably “the last generation of Americans to share an intimate, familial attachment to the land and water.”  This inspired him to write Last Child in the Woods.

He imagined three phases in American culture.  The first frontier started with the European invasion of North America.  Wave after wave of settlers exterminated natives, destroyed forests, and created farms.  In the 1790 census, nearly 4 million were counted.  By 1890, we had exploded to 63 million, and the wild frontier was gone.  The era of free land for homesteaders had ended.

The second frontier spanned from 1890 to 1990.  America was urbanizing, and life in industrial cities was noisy, stinky, and chaotic.  It was an era of dust storms, robber barons, the great depression, and two world wars.  Folks took pleasant imaginary voyages to “the good old days” of rugged pioneers, cowboys, Indians, and little houses on the prairie.

In 1990, there were 248 million of us, and the government ended its tradition of taking annual surveys of farm residents.  Most small farmers had sold out and moved to town.  The third frontier was born — computers, cell phones, video games, and a cornucopia of other excesses. 

In the first frontier, most Americans spent their lives in direct contact with the natural world, working hard to survive.  In the second frontier, for many Americans, the relationship with nature evolved into something like romantic attachment.  The third frontier became an era of electronic detachment from nature, digital space aliens.

“Not that long ago, the sound track of a young person’s days and nights was composed largely of the notes of nature.  Most people were raised on the land, worked the land, and were often buried on the same land.  The relationship was direct.  Today, the life of the senses is, literally, electrified.”  Childhood has shifted from loving streams to loving screens.

Louv was born into an America of 151 million.  As I write, it’s 324 million.  In his lifetime, lots and lots of fields and forests have been erased by vast swarms of nature-devouring consumers.  The pleasant rural countrysides where many boomers grew up have been replaced by rumbling six-lane thoroughfares lined with malls, burger joints, convenience stores, suburban sprawl, and homeless camps.

He once interviewed a fifth-grade girl for whom nature remained precious.  She adored her sacred grove, a place of peace, sweet air, and freedom.  It had a creek and waterfall.  She went there almost every day.  “And then they just cut the woods down.  It was like they cut down a part of me.”  Adults tend to speak fondly of nature, but their actions display a remarkable disinterest in defending it.  Children clearly understand the unspoken message.  Progress is sacred.  Don’t make a fuss.  It reminds me of Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist who created a monster that nobody could control.

Like many boomers, Louv spent much of his youth playing outdoors without supervision.  This had been the norm for all children everywhere — throughout all human history — until now.  Today’s poor kids have been herded indoors, where they get fat and depressed.  Stepping outdoors is simply too dangerous.  The nightly news is a constant horror show of psychopaths, gushing blood, and crazy politicians.  All kids are issued cell phones so that paranoid “helicopter parents” can know where they are at every moment.

Tree houses and tree climbing have been banned.  Fishing ponds are now off-limits.  Dangerous merry-go-rounds, swing sets, and basketball courts disappeared from playgrounds, and “No Running” signs are multiplying.  Large flocks of personal injury lawyers soar overhead, waiting for a child to get hurt.  With breathtaking speed, they dive into courthouses and file huge lawsuits.

Liability insurance rates are skyrocketing, and many communities are working hard to eliminate the menace of outdoor play.  Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are selling off wilderness camps, because insurance is too expensive.  Parents no longer expect scouting organizations to nurture healthy relationships with nature.  They prefer safe indoor activities, where kids can learn about technology or weight loss.

Public education has become obsessed with boosting test scores.  Consequently, “nearly 40 percent of American elementary schools either eliminated, or were considering eliminating recess.”  Playgrounds are a waste of precious time.  As kids get older, nature loses its wonder.  Many unlucky kids live in homes where TV is on most of the time.

Louv mentioned a program for children with AIDS.  Kids who had never been out of their urban jungle were taken to a camp in the mountains.  One night, a nine-year old girl had to go to the bathroom.  Stepping outdoors, she gasped!  She had never seen the stars before.  Wow!

On the third frontier, most teens will not effortlessly glide from high school graduation to living wage jobs.  Ten-year olds worry about college.  Parents now expect their kids to be high-achievers, tightly focused on success and careers — more computer time and study time, and little or no time for unstructured play.  Fanatical young achievers are determined to race up the golden ladder to Trump Valhalla and live in infamy.

Under relentless pressure to perform, kids who stumble contemplate suicide.  A stunning number of children are now gobbling antidepressants.  Obesity rates for American adults are skyrocketing, and rates for children are growing faster.  In communities isolated from nature, cultural autism is on the rise — reduced senses, feelings of isolation, attention fixated on glowing screens.  We are losing direct experience of the world, living like burned out zoo animals.

This is a crisis.  Louv is famous for coining the term Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD), a serious physical, emotional, and mental health issue.  It is curable.  Being close to nature boosts a child’s attention span and self-confidence.  It fosters creative play.  Contact with nature seems to be as important as good nutrition and adequate sleep.  We desperately need a movement to leave no child indoors.

Schools have been herding the kids down the dead end path of technology, status seeking, and high impact living.  The young are well aware of overpopulation, deforestation, mass extinction, climate change, and so on.  What can they do?  The wonderland of glowing screens can provide hours of escape from their anger, despair, and powerlessness.

Louv blasts readers with a fire hose of full strength hopium.  His recommendations range from simple commonsense strategies to soaring flights of magical thinking.  Meanwhile, around the clock, Mother Culture shouts at the herd.  “Fear not!  Everything is under control!  Shop like there’s no tomorrow!  The best is yet to come!”

I’ve spent decades trying to understand reality, a lonely path.  I have come to accept it, in the fullness of its darkness.  Being present in reality is not fatal.  On the other hand, denial, disconnection, and nonstop rage are soul killing and crazy making.  Louv introduces respectable suburban consumers to nature connection lite.  Jon Young goes further, encouraging dirty, sweaty, full strength, howling at the moon nature connection.  He says, “The future belongs to those who are deeply connected to nature.”  I agree. 

Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, 2008.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Right Relationship to Reality

Reverend Michael Dowd and his wife Connie Barlow are nomadic evolutionary evangelists who have been on the road since 2002, speaking to more than 2,000 audiences.  In their reality, evolution and religion are not in conflict; both can happily sit next to each other on the same pew.  A primary goal of their mission is teaching folks about sustainability.  For them, right relationship to reality is what ultimately matters.  We must be in right relationship with the soil, water, and life of this planet.  If we don’t get right with reality, we’re going to perish.

Their Grace Limits webpage provides links to an impressive collection of information on sustainability, including books, essays, and videos.  Dowd has read a number of books and essays aloud, recording them as MP3 files (with the authors’ permission).  They are available to download, free of charge.  Some of the books he has recorded include Overshoot by William Catton, The Green History of Religion by Anand Veeraraj, Afterburn by Richard Heinberg, The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton, and four books by John Michael Greer.

A root issue is the rejection of science — separation from reality.  Among fundamentalist Christians, 76 percent do not believe in evolution, 58 percent do not believe in climate change, and 77 percent deny that the universe is billions of years old.  According to 41 percent, we’re now living in the End Times, so there is no point in worrying about the health of creation.  The future doesn’t matter.  Religious youth are abandoning faith in record numbers.  Rates of teen pregnancy, obesity, spouse abuse, and porn addiction are highest in the most religiously conservative, Bible-centered parts of America.

I was impressed by how far Dowd’s thinking was from the perplexing theology I struggled with in my youth.  For example, Reality Reconciles Science and Religion is an 18-minute TEDx talk he gave in 2014.  He tells us that he is an evolutionary theologian, or a big history evangelist.  He teaches the gospel of right relationship with reality — especially factual realism.  Reality is my god.  Evidence is my scripture.  Big history is my creation story.  Ecology is my theology.  Integrity is my salvation.  Ensuring a just and healthy future is my mission (for the entire family of life).

Michael Dowd’s home page is HERE. 

Connie Barlow’s home page is HERE. 

HERE is info on Dowd’s book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Nature Connection

Stalking Wolf was a tracker raised in a wild, free Apache community.  His people never surrendered to the barbarian invaders, and some still continue living in freedom, as undocumented Americans, in remote desert regions.  Later in life, he spent time with his son in New Jersey, where he happened to meet an 8-year old boy named Tom Brown.  He mentored Tom and his buddy Rick for nine years, giving them an excellent education in tracking, survival, and respect for the family of life.  When it was time for him to return west, and end his life’s journey, he told Tom to teach someone else all that he had learned.

In 1971, when Tom was 18, he met a 10-year old boy named Jon Young, and trained him for eight years.  Tom went on to write 17 books, and launch his famous tracking school.  Young went to college, where he was a freak — a highly skilled tracker with a deep understanding of wild ecosystems, and enormous respect for the family of life.  Weirdo!

Young grew up in an era when there were only three channels on TV, so he and his buddies spent a lot of time outdoors, playing unsupervised in the woods, taking risks, and forming close bonds with children of different ages.  This is how well adjusted young animals are supposed to grow up, feeling at home in nature, connected.

He would have made a perfect poster boy for Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods.  It described the rapidly growing epidemic of Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) — separation sickness.  Today’s kids have far more distractions, like 500 TV channels, the internet, cell phones, and video games.  They typically have intrusive “helicopter parents” who micromanage them, constantly protecting them from dirt, danger, creativity, and freedom.

Every newborn that squirts out of the womb is a wild animal fine-tuned for thriving on tropical savannahs, fully connected to nature, acutely intelligent, and highly aware.  Even today, some are able to preserve nature connection during their childhood years, but it tends to suffocate in their teen years, due to a nonstop barrage of loony balderdash from the nightmare world of Sustainable Growth™.  A lucky few manage to maintain their connection into adulthood, and strengthen it as they go — maybe one in a thousand, according to Young.

In 1979, Tom Brown published his first masterpiece, The Tracker, a book that blew my mind.  In that year, Young asked his life question, “Who are the most connected to nature and how did they get that way?  Why are some folks deeply connected, and others not?”  In search of answers, he spent years visiting a number of indigenous cultures.  He discovered that the San Bushmen of the Kalahari in Botswana were incredibly well connected.  They refuse to enter houses, because people who live indoors go insane.

Young says that with the San, you always feel safe.  They are super intelligent, super happy, super vital, and great problem solvers.  You never feel competition.  People are in love with every aspect of the ecosystem around them, celebrating with childlike wonder through all stages of their life.  Every person in that community is committed to the flowering of every other person.  They are incredibly aware of their surroundings at all times, because a brief lapse of attention can kill you in lion country.

Today, using the techno-juju of DNA mapping, it’s looking like the San are the common ancestors of all humankind.  For two million years, our ancestors lived like they still do.  We have their genes and instincts, but our culture lost its nature connection centuries ago.  Culture is a whirlwind of beliefs.  Stupid beliefs can have deep roots and powerful momentum, but they are not invincible, especially when they are destabilizing society.  Never forget that there was a time when our culture, and its belief system, did not exist.  It’s a spooky mutant, and it has no long-term future.

Richard Louv compiled years of reputable research on the harms associated with NDD.  Complications of disconnection include drug addiction, autism, homelessness, attention deficit disorder, depression, suicide, obesity, anxiety, and on and on.  Kids who grew up as Young did were strikingly healthier, happier, and smarter.  They were more creative, well adjusted, spiritually grounded, and centered.

In 2011, the popular talk show celebrity Oprah Winfrey read Louv’s book, The Nature Principle, and added it to her influential summer reading list.  Suddenly, news of the NDD epidemic went viral.  Millions of mothers gasped in horror!  My God!  What have we done to our precious little couch potatoes?  Everyone wanted their children to be connected, because the benefits were obviously huge.  In the book, Louv mentioned that Young was an expert on nature connection.

Since 1983, Young has been developing mentoring projects, striving to help youths move beyond the soul-killing void of disconnection.  For a long time, he was seen as a last resort, a place to dump emotional basket cases that the experts could not fix, kids close to blinking out.  He had an impressive record of hitting home runs with high-risk youths, because he gave them what they desperately needed, connection.  There are three facets of connection: connection with others, connection with self, and connection with nature.

Consumer culture excels at disconnecting people from self, others, and nature.  Many adults fail to develop healthy connections with their husbands, wives, children, and friends.  Many don’t know the folks who have been their neighbors for years.  Many are only capable of forming connections with their dogs and cats.

Anyway, in recent years, awareness of the importance of nature connection has increased significantly, but so has the teen suicide rate.  Indeed, the NDD epidemic continues to spread.  Participation in nature conservation groups is declining, while connection to glowing screens has grown explosively.  The ecosystem is not getting the love and respect it so desperately needs.

Young points out that there is no miraculous silver bullet cure for NDD.  A weekend camping trip is not enough.  Youths attend his mentoring projects once or twice a week.  Most attendees develop connection in two years, on average.  He says that their values are significantly changed.  Connection opens up their empathy and their concern for others.  It causes them to seek meaning, and meaningful service to others, and to future generations.  Great!

When you meet a cool weasel, or find a bird nest, you want to share the exciting discovery.  The path to healing requires being with folks who will give you a listening ear, nonjudgmental story catchers.  Story catching is a life-giving connective experience.  It’s about giving full attention to listening, without interrupting, or projecting your thoughts.  Young says that grownups usually talk at each other, semi-listening, mostly waiting for a space in the conversation where they can cut in — intersecting monologues.

As a wordsmith, I can communicate knowledge about environmental history or ecological sustainability, but my connection to nature is hard to convey via words.  The Tracker blew my mind, but I know that many others say the book had little or no value for them.  I was lucky to preserve my nature connection into adulthood.

Young points out that you can’t succeed at bodybuilding by reading books.  You have to engage in actual exercise.  Similarly, nature connection is not acquired from books.  Book learning is education modeling.  Equally ineffective is recreation modeling, engaging in health and fitness activities.  The correct tool for this job is connection modeling, the mode of mentoring to which Young has devoted his life.

Modern societies have inherited a stupendous mess, a bloody pileup of thousands of years of trauma.  Magical thinking is not the answer.  Young optimistically estimates that the healing process will take 200 years.  He says we need to think of ourselves as foundation builders.  Our task is to begin the long and difficult journey home.  Live well!

Videos of Jon Young lectures:

Nature Connection Books:

Young, Jon; Evan McGown, and Ellen Haas, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting to Nature, 2nd ed., Owlink Media, Shelton, Washington, 2010.

Young, Jon, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2012.

Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, 2008.

Louv, Richard, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age, 2nd ed., Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, 2012.

Nature Connection Organizations:

Jon Young founded the 8 Shields Institute, which has been training nature connection mentors for 30 years.  It runs over 300 programs worldwide.  More info is HERE.

Richard Louv founded the Children and Nature Network, an organization that is influencing policy in Washington, via 122 grassroots campaigns.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Falcon

For almost the entire human saga, our ancestors were hunter-gathers.  For most of us, these kinfolk are long forgotten in family memory.  Quite a bit has been written about wild societies by visiting outsiders from civilization, strangers who could not fully understand the cultures of their subjects.  The Falcon is the autobiography of John Tanner, a fascinating book that gives readers a ringside seat at a wild society, prior to conquest, from the viewpoint of an insider.

Tanner was a white lad born about 1780, in frontier Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati, Ohio.  At the age of 9, he was captured by the Shawnee and taken to Saginaw, Michigan, where he was treated harshly for two years.  Then, up at Mackinaw, an Ottawa woman, who had lost her son, bought him for 20 gallons of whiskey, blankets, tobacco, and other treasures.  He was given a name that meant “the falcon.”

Tanner was a rough, tough, honest man who endured an incredibly difficult life.  He lived among the Ottawa and Ojibwa people from roughly 1790 to 1820, and spent this period hunting, trapping, fishing, and defending himself from a variety of angry and violent folks.  He traveled thousands of miles by foot, canoe, and horseback through a vast wilderness.  His saga mentions visits to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Pembina, North Dakota; Lake of the Woods, Ontario; and Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.

This story takes place in an era of bloody helter-skelter, when the traditional way of life was seriously assaulted, and beginning to disintegrate.  Disease ridden, pale faced terrorists had landed on the east coast, and their infectious pathogens spread to distant regions of the interior, killing enormous numbers of natives.  Terrorists were beginning to settle on the frontier.  Tanner’s parents had moved west from Virginia, stupidly planning to acquire prime real estate in an extremely dangerous wilderness.

In that era, many New England tribes had become heavily dependent on agriculture.  Corn produced far more food per acre than forest, leading to increased population density and conflict.  Diana Muir described how corn quickly depleted the soil, requiring ongoing deforestation to clear new fields.  When the devastating epidemics arrived, tribes had been on an unsustainable trajectory to run out of forest that was suitable for cropland.  Corn helped the Iroquois become a dominant power, and their aggressive expansion forced other Algonquin tribes to flee westward.

At the same time, the fur trade was a booming, and there was intense competition for pelts.  Many traders were lying, cheating, racist creeps.  Industrial scale trapping drove the beavers close to extinction in eastern regions, so traders and trappers had to keep moving westward.

As eastern tribes were forced westward by warfare, settlers, and the quest for pelts, they put growing pressure on the fierce Sioux tribes of the prairies, who were not amused.  Tanner spent a lot of time in hot zones close to Sioux country, where he was in constant danger of losing his scalp.

The Sioux hated Tanner and his tribe for trespassing.  Because Tanner was the offspring of terrorists, many of his Indian companions and family were wary of him — terrorists were often whirlwinds of evil spirits.  Several times, they tried to kill him.  Finally, the terrorists hated him because he looked like a savage, thought like a savage, and spoke a savage tongue.  He once made an effort to return to his kinfolk in Christian society, but he didn’t belong in that bizarre world, and kept catching fevers.

Indians were tolerant of gender-benders.  On a visit to Leech Lake, Minnesota, Tanner met the son of a chief who was an A-go-kwa — “one of those who make themselves women, and are called women by the Indians.  There are several of this sort among most, if not all the Indian tribes.”  The A-go-kwa was about 50-years old, and had lived with many husbands.

The central theme of the book is the endless struggle to survive.  Starvation was a primary threat, and getting food was job #1.  Mike Culpepper wrote an essay on Tanner’s life, including a description of his diet:  “Tanner hunts bear, buffalo, moose, but also eats muskrat, rabbit, beaver, porcupine, otter and other animals trapped for their fur, and, when game is not available, his dogs, horses, and scraps of leather.  He eats ducks, geese, blackbirds, and swan.  He fishes for sturgeon, dory, and unnamed small fish that are eaten by the handful.  He consumes corn, wild rice, and berries.”  Yum!

Throughout the book, Tanner and those around him suffer from infections and fevers.  He lived in an era where diseases were common and largely incurable, for both wild folks and the civilized.  Howard Simpson described the situation after 1812, as settlement of the Midwest began:  “The most lethal dangers the pioneers had to face were neither savages nor wild animals.  They were typhoid, malaria, dysentery, malignant scarlet fever, pneumonia, erysipelas in epidemic form, spotted fever, or what would now be called meningococcal meningitis, and diphtheria.”

Homo sapiens is a bipedal species — we move on two legs, not four.  This evolutionary trait enabled long distance running, chasing game until they collapsed from exhaustion, a practice often mentioned in discussions of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.  Tanner also mentioned this.  “There are among the Indians some, but not many, men who can run down an elk on the smooth prairie, when there is neither snow nor ice.  The moose and the buffalo surpass the elk in fleetness, and can rarely be taken by fair running by a man on foot.”

Tanner, armed with a low tech, single shot musket, killed lots of animals.  One winter, he was hired by a fur company to provide meat for Scottish settlers.  In four months, he killed about 100 buffalo.  Another winter, he hunted with a buddy.  “O-ke-mah-we-ninne, as he was called, killed nineteen moose, one beaver, and one bear.  I killed seventeen moose, one hundred beavers, and seven bears, but he was considered the better hunter, moose being the most difficult of all animals to kill.”

Nomadic people found some trade goods useful: muskets, ammo, gunpowder, knives, axes, pots, blankets, corn, etc.  They gained no prestige by hoarding valuable trade goods, because it was dumb.  The stuff they owned had to be hauled along, every time they moved to a new camp.  So, one pot was enough.  Consequently, they trapped just enough to secure the necessities, and no more.  Traders learned a toxic secret — offering booze seriously motivated the trappers to produce far more pelts.

Oblivion drinking is a regular celebration in this saga.  After a long, harsh winter of trapping, pelts would be taken to the trading post.  Necessities would be acquired, and the leftover income would be invested in 10 gallon (38 l) kegs of booze.  Over the course of the book, at least 100 gallons of rum and whiskey were guzzled.  Multi-day drunks often resulted in impolite comments, bloody fights, and murders.  Their lives were harsh, and a lovely drunk provided a vacation from the daily routine, a spirit journey.  Booze destroyed many lives.

In Tanner’s day, in roadless woodlands, dogs were their beasts of burden.  On the wide-open prairie, there was a new beast of burden, the horse.  The Spanish had brought horses to America, and some escaped.  They rapidly grew in numbers.  By 1700 or 1750, plains Indians had horses — lots of horses.  Horses greatly increased their ability to hunt, feed more people, and zoom across the plains at superhuman velocity.

Each horse was the private property of an individual.  Only fools hoarded 100 iron pots, but owning 100 horses provided immense social status.  Horses fed themselves, moved themselves to new camps, and hauled people and stuff.  Stealing them from neighbors was an exciting way to demonstrate your bravery and get rich quick, or die trying.  Raiding was a popular pastime.  Naturally, it was a good way to make enemies, and ignite long-term feuds.  In the horse age, living in a remote location was no longer safe and secure.

Tanner described the bloody side of raiding:  “I had four horses, one of which was a very fleet and beautiful one, being considered the best out of one hundred and eighty which a war-party of Crees, Assinneboins, and Ojibbeways, had recently brought from the Fall Indians.  In this excursion they had been absent seven months.  They had fallen upon and destroyed one village, and taken one hundred and fifty scalps, besides prisoners.”

Tanner spent most of his life in the Great White North, a region known for long and extremely harsh winters.  On chilly nights, they huddled around fires inside drafty lodges.  Tanner mentioned several close calls with death.  Once, after breaking through the ice, “we were no sooner out of the water than our moccasins and clothes were frozen so stiff that we could not travel.  I began also to think that we must die.  But I was not like my Indian brother, willing to sit down and wait patiently for death to come.”

Homo sapiens evolved on the warm tropical savannahs of Africa, where a year round supply of organic food was generally available.  They didn’t need clothing or shelter.  Hypothermia was never a risk.  Life was so much easier in an ecosystem for which evolution had fine-tuned our bodies.  Remember that.  The status quo is zooming toward sharp limits, and our soft lifestyles are a temporary high-impact luxury.

Tanner, John, The Falcon, Penguin Books, New York, 1994.  Free PDF download.

Culpepper, Mike, John Tanner Between Two Worlds.  This 10-page essay fills in many helpful details missing in Tanner’s words, and better describes the big picture dramas that affected his life.  It discusses his controversial end.

Fierst, John T., Return to Civilization, Minnesota History, Minnesota Historical Society, 1986.  This 15-page essay describes Tanner’s troubled life in Sault Ste. Marie, in the years after his story had been published.

Dr. Edwin James transcribed Tanner’s story, in 1828, at Sault Ste. Marie.  He edited out lots of excessive details, to make the story more readable.  The 1830 edition, published by Baldwin & Craddock in London, includes an 18-page introduction by James (HERE).

Muir, Diana, Reflections in Bullough’s Pond — Economy and Ecosystem in New England, University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2000.  Chapter one describes the ecological and social turbulence generated by the adaptation of agriculture by the Native Americans.

Simpson, Howard N., “The Impact of Disease on American History,” The New England Journal of Medicine CCL (1954):680.