Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Tikopia (tik-o-PEE-a) is a wee island in the Pacific, quite close to the middle of nowhere, the remains of an ancient volcano.  Its area is 1.8 square miles (4.6 km2), much of it steep rugged hillside.  The closest neighbors live on Anuta, 85 miles away (137 km), a long and dangerous voyage in a dugout canoe.  Tiny Tikopia is eleven times larger than Anuta. 

Humans arrived in Tikopia maybe 3,000 years ago, and brought along pigs, dogs, fowl, rats, and the seeds of Polynesian foods.  For a while, folks ate well, dining on the abundant birds, fish, and shellfish.  As abundance faded, slash and burn agriculture gained momentum.  Deforestation crept up the slopes, and eroded soils washed down, accumulating near the shore.  Efforts were made to stabilize and expand the shoreline.  As a result, Tikopia’s land area is now 40 percent larger, and the reef area is 41 percent smaller.  There is much more land suitable for raising food.

The crater of Tikopia’s volcano used to be a saltwater bay linked to the sea, home to plentiful fish and shellfish.  Soil deposits have now blocked the connection to the sea, turning the bay into a lake.  This sharply reduced the marine life that formerly thrived in the bay.  The villages that depended on this food were screwed.  Around 1700, they exterminated a village having fertile land.  Another village fled in fear, paddling into the ocean, almost certainly drowning.  Conflict is hunger’s shadow.

The lake water is too salty to drink, as is the ocean.  Drinking water is obtained from springs flowing out of the hillsides, coming from sources above the villages and latrines.  Ashes, excrement, and kitchen wastes are used to return nutrients to the gardens and orchards.

Over time, folks planted more food-producing trees.  Eventually, they developed a clever three-story system of arboriculture, mixing tall, medium, and short tree species.  These included bananas, papaya, coconuts, sago, chestnuts, and almonds.  On the ground, they grew root crops, like taro, sweet potatoes, yams, and manioc.  This system maximized food production, reduced erosion, enriched the soil, was less vulnerable to cyclone damage, and did not require endless toil.  Pigs swiped too much human food, and were eliminated before 1800, as were the dogs.

Nature kept life interesting by sending drought years and frequent cyclones.  These could hammer the food supply.  Because Tikopia was so far from anywhere, importing food from elsewhere was not an option.  Folks preserved calories for famine years in two ways.  (1) They dug pits and fermented taro, breadfruit, and manioc into glop called masi, which could be stored for several years.  (2) The pith of the sago palm was dried and ground into storable flour.

Each house was assigned specific garden plots and orchards that comprised their primary source of nutrition.  If you ran short, you starved.  Carrying capacity expanded and declined in synch with food production.  When conditions got tight, older males in the household would set limits on reproduction.  The families complied, because everyone understood the painful consequences of having too many mouths to feed.

Because it encouraged social stability, population management was intelligent and ethical.  It was done in several ways.  Junior members of the family might be expected to remain bachelors or spinsters.  Everyone practiced coitus interruptus.  Efforts were made to induce miscarriages to end unwanted pregnancies.  Newborns were promptly suffocated.  It was usually OK to have two sons, but subsequent male offspring were strangled, to avoid conflicts over land inheritance.  Unmarried males sometimes jumped into a canoe and never returned.  Others swam out into the open sea and fed the sharks.  When all options failed, it was time to fetch clubs and go on the warpath.

I invite you to watch The Island of Tikopia, a pleasant 53-minute video.  It shows us cool people living in a tropical paradise.  Tikopia is blessed by being tiny, isolated, unsuitable for industrial agriculture, and having no valuable resources.  Hence, they have not been obliterated by modernity.  They will never suffer from automobiles or cell phones.  Even today, Tikopians live in functional communities, and enjoy an easygoing way of life that is unimaginable to frantic consumers thrashing through life in Crazyland.

The video does not focus on how contact with civilization has impacted their society.  On a different island, the Sentineli welcome all visitors with a shower of arrows.  They have learned from painful experience that outsiders can be bad juju.  Tikopians had no fear of visitors, because anyone who paddled in was a mellow islander like themselves.  Whites were different; following a visit in 1828, a quarter of the population died from disease.

Missionaries began to wash ashore in 1857, occasionally visiting the island.  Within 50 years, they had made a few converts.  Half were baptized by 1928, and by 1955, most were nominally Christian.  Chiefs who agreed to be baptized were rewarded with metal axes, knives, adzes, and other amazing stuff.  Heathens who preferred the ancient path were rewarded with self-righteous intolerance.

More destructive than dysentery, pneumonia, measles, and influenza was the deliberate introduction of European morality.  Much of the traditional culture managed to survive, but Christians were especially uptight about sex, family planning, and which deity to worship.  Naturally, the stern prohibition of premarital sex was disregarded by almost all youths, including horny young Christians.

Naturally, the mission’s opposition to population control had negative results.  Population soared 37 percent from 1,288 in 1928 (too many), to 1,753 in 1952 (way too many) — just in time for a devastating cyclone, and a bloody plunge into helter-skelter.  This drove anthropologist Raymond Firth crazy.  Christian culture was obsessed with compulsory conformity, but disinterested in the predictable results.  Tikopians had evolved a remarkably competent culture that adapted to the ecosystem and mindfully lived within limits.  Leave it alone, he shouted.

Anyone who has studied European history knows that this irrational morality of unrestrained growth has, over the centuries, led to the death of hundreds of millions via wars, famines, and epidemics.  Is this truly more ethical than intelligent family planning?  The principles of carrying capacity and overshoot apply to both tiny islands and the entire planet, as we are now in the process of discovering.

When the first humans arrived in Tikopia, there were no mammals.  There were no wild herbivores to freeload on their food supply.  The only man-eating predators were sharks, which swam outside the reefs.  In the absence of large predators, humans were the dominant animal.  There were no lions, jaguars, or hyenas to provide essential population control services.  Thus, a culture of mindful restraint was the preferred path to sustainability.

Today, Tikopia is one of 900+ islands in the nation of Solomon Islands, which is 95 percent Christian.  The Tikopian population crisis has been addressed by sending folks to establish colonies on other islands — islands that have been depopulated via exposure to the diseases of civilization.  Other Tikopians enjoy rewarding careers in manual labor at coconut plantations on larger islands.  How much longer can the consequences of European morality be sidestepped?  Sea levels are rising, cyclones are intensifying, and low-lying islands in the Solomons are vanishing.  Good luck islanders!

Firth, Raymond, We, The Tikopia, American Book Company, New York, 1936.

Firth, Raymond, Tikopia Ritual and Belief, Beacon Press, Boston, 1967.

Kirch, Patrick Vinton and Douglas E. Yen, Tikopia — The Prehistory and Ecology of a Polynesian Outlier, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1982.

Winter Solstice 2016

December 21, 2016.  Merry monsoon season!  I wake to the music of gentle rains, bike to the library in the rain, take long evening walks in the rain, and float off to dreamland to the sweet sound of splashing droplets.  Occasionally, a brilliant sunbeam blasts through the clouds and frightens everyone.  Occasionally, we are blessed by the sight of a breathtaking double rainbow, bright and beautiful from one end to the other.

Following the normal passage of many months with little rain, the Willamette River is now flowing high and fast, roaring over the rocks, an inspiring symphony of dancing water.  The monsoons have filled the Grass People with ecstasy, and the parks and lawns are screaming green and intensely alive.  The trunks of the older trees have grown a gorgeous green fur of moist moss and delicate ferns.  Even my scruffy Funkytown neighborhood looks a bit like Fairyland.

I wrote those words a week ago.  Since then, there has been an incredible ice storm, which put a thick coat of glittering ice on everything, creating a Fairyland of sparkles.  Countless tree limbs snapped off.  A number of grandmother trees were unable to bear the weight, and tumbled to their deaths. 

I had no electricity for two nights and a day — no heat, no cooking, no lights, no computer, no radio, no freezer, no reading.  Dressed for a cold winter day, I sat beside two small candles, having ancestral memories of times when life was simpler, the climate was stable, and the polar bears were fat and happy.  Ancestors would gather around the burning hearth, and enrich the long dark hours with songs and stories.  Today, the rains have resumed, the ice is gone, and I’m staring at a glowing screen, typing news to folks in faraway lands.  Howdy!

In the rituals of my life, there is a sacred land on the south side of a freeway, a power line easement.  This holy place is called The Mile of Blackberries.  I travel there every year in July, at the crack of dawn, to fill my buckets while it’s still cool.  The berries are top quality, abundant, and easy to pick without excessive loss of blood (from razor sharp thorns).  At home, I can cases of jam and sauce.  This morning I had blackberry sauce on my oatmeal, with chopped walnuts that I also gathered.

This year, I biked over there to check on the ripening berries, and the berries were gone!  The entire mile had been bulldozed to make an exit ramp or something.  It was heartbreaking!  The soils and climate of this valley are ideal habitat for the Blackberry People, and they grow everywhere, usually in tangled, impenetrable briar patches.  Most patches do not produce generous quantities of large juicy grade-A berries.

After a few days of hopeless despair, I hopped on my bike, and embarked on a voyage of discovery.  Hooray!  I found several excellent blackberry nations, and my annual tradition survived for one more year.  These prime locations are far off the beaten path, not accessible by automobile.  Foraging for berries always triggers ancestral memories, filling me with a profound sense of wellbeing.

I was amazed to discover that wherever I explored, I also found homeless camps.  They’re sleeping in their cars, under every bridge, in every park, in the carport below my apartment, and even in isolated locations along highways.  The American Dream now needs a cane and hearing aids.  There really are limits to growth — a truth as obvious as the sun and moon — but impossible for our culture to accept.  Limits don’t care whether or not we accept them.  Limits are amused by how oddly we utilize our legendary big brains.

Charities feed the homeless thousands here.  Unlike Oakland, Detroit, or Chicago, the scene here has yet to deteriorate into routine violence.  I’m not afraid to walk most places at night.  But one evening in September, as I was beginning a bike ride, I heard loud noises that didn’t sound like cherry bombs.  When I returned from my bike ride, the whole neighborhood was a busy crime scene.  A lad was shot dead in the alley at the end of our driveway.  Stepping outside my door, and looking left, I can see where he died, 100 feet away.  No arrests have been made.

This has been an encouraging year for my creative work.  In May, I published my third book, Understanding Sustainability, a collection of book reviews related to ecological sustainability.  My social network of virtual comrades continues to expand, including folks in France, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Pakistan, India, Germany, Ireland, Britain, Canada, Hungary, Sweden, Croatia, Belgium, Tunisia, Iran, Russia, and the United States.

My blog has gotten much busier this year.  In the first half of 2016, views averaged 3,000 per month.  By late October, they were over 8,000.  In mid-December, they had soared to 11,341.  Apparently, my reviews are rising in Google’s search rankings, becoming more likely to appear on the first page of hits.  I also suspect that my work is being used more in classrooms, which delights me.  Ignorance is curable!

Anyway, it’s been a satisfying year.  I’m doing meaningful work, and there are people who appreciate it.  I continue working on my fourth book, currently a daunting disorderly mob of 110,000 words.  It would be fun if I could finish it in the coming year, but that’s what I thought a year ago.  It’s not easy being a wordsmith, but it feels good.


Saturday, December 31, 2016


I have a story to tell, a story about freedom, and a wild society we call the Sentineli.  In an age of big craziness, they inspire pleasant daydreams.  It’s almost impossible for me to imagine how perfectly free they are, or to comprehend just how far modern society has drifted from the freedom enjoyed by my wild ancestors.

The Andaman archipelago lies in the Bay of Bengal.  These tropical islands are part of India.  North Sentinel Island is inhabited by the Sentineli, a society of negrito pygmies who have short stature, dark skin tone, and peppercorn hair.  Outsiders can sometimes view them from offshore boats, or from helicopters, but the Sentineli want nothing to do with outsiders.  Intruders who get too close are showered with arrows, rocks, and rude comments. 

North Sentinel Island is 14,700 acres (5,949 ha), a bit smaller than Manhattan.  The interior is forest, surrounded by sandy beaches, surrounded by reefs.  [Aerial photo]  Treacherous currents make landing on the island impossible for ten months of the year, and extremely dangerous for the other two. The island has neither valuable timber nor minerals.  For these reasons, the Sentineli are still free people in the twenty-first century.  Unlike the societies on nearby islands that have been ravaged by the diseases of civilization, the Sentineli are “clearly extremely alert, healthy, and thriving.”

Flyovers have noted the existence of several villages with clusters of small huts.  No evidence of agriculture has been observed.  There may be 50 Sentineli, or 500, nobody knows.  They survive by foraging, fishing, and gathering shellfish.  They may also hunt for turtles, birds, and yummy invertebrates.  Their small canoes are used in the lagoons, but not for open-sea travel.  They fish with spears and nets.

Long ago, two expeditions were able to land on North Sentinel.  They brought along folks from a nearby island to serve as translators.  In the brief and hostile meetings, the Sentineli spoke a language that the translators did not understand.  Obviously, they have been living in isolation for a long time.  They may very well be descendants of the folks who first settled in the Andaman Islands 60,000 years ago.  North Sentinel Island is a time capsule, the Sentineli still live like humans during the warm interglacial before the last ice age.

In 1974, National Geographic sent an expedition to film the Sentineli.  The director was promptly hit in the leg with an arrow, and immediately lost interest in the project.  In 2004, when a ferocious tsunami rocked the lives of tens of millions in the region, the Sentineli made it to high ground and survived.  Some believe that they have a sixth sense, because of their elevated sensitivity to the winds and waves.  In 2006, rogue fishermen got too close, and two were killed.  A helicopter sent to fetch their bodies was driven away.

Between 1967 and 1996, a number of contact expeditions were attempted, for the purpose of anthropological research.  Anthropologists are highly educated scientists.  They were certainly aware that successfully making contact would have exposed the natives to deadly diseases for which they had no immunity.  Like modern missionaries in the Amazon, they didn’t care if making contact would result in numerous deaths.  On the bright side, anthropologists actually had sufficient intelligence to understand the strong message being sent via volleys of arrows and rocks.

In 1996, the Indian government banned further contact expeditions, for any reason, in order to protect the natives from disease.  The natives were clearly not begging to join civilization and enjoy the pleasures of shopping, taxpaying, cell phone addiction, and wage slavery.  So, the Sentineli enjoy complete separation from the modern world.  In an amazing demonstration of respect, wise leaders decided to leave these people alone, and allow them to live in wildness and freedom (unlike the other 1.3 billion Indians).

Imagine what it would be like to live in a society that was not at war with the planet and the future — a genuinely sustainable way of life, a tropical culture with a year round supply of food, where your wardrobe consisted of a g-string, headband, and a couple leaves.  Imagine a life without money, clocks, calendars, automobiles, airplanes, sirens, internet, locks, fences, bosses, salesman, presidents, police, classrooms, guns, dogs, nuclear weapons, taxes, racism, billionaires, and intolerant proselytizing religions.  Imagine a paradise where the diseases of civilization were unknown.

Contemplate the enormous load of information stored in your brain, accumulated during a lifetime of existing in a highly complex society, and your constant struggle to keep pace with competitors in the endless race for status, wealth, and power.  Imagine being blissfully unaware of absolutely everything happening in the outside world — and the entire outside world knowing almost nothing about your society.  Imagine having a healthy, simple, sane life — living in a manner very much like your ancestors did 15,000 years ago.

Imagine living on an island where there were no strangers, where the soundtrack was waves, birds, breezes, and the voices of your friends and family.  We weren’t meant to live like consumers.  There are better paths.

Here are some links:


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Old North Trail

In 1891, Walter McClintock graduated from Yale, with plans to join his father’s prosperous carpet making business in smog-choked Pittsburgh.  Luckily, he was spared from a dull job by getting very sick with typhoid fever.  To recover, he took a trip to North Dakota, where he fell deeply in love with the west.  He worked as a photographer for a forest survey project, and became friends with the team’s Blackfoot scout, Siksikakoan.  Later, Siksikakoan introduced him to the elderly chief Mad Wolf.

Once Mad Wolf came to trust McClintock, he adopted the young lad as his son.  Mad Wolf hoped that if his people had a white leader, they would receive better treatment from the incoming settlers, many of whom were not skilled at behaving with common decency.  McClintock spent lots of time with a number of elders, listened to many stories, and several years later wrote The Old North Trail.  He also took more than a thousand photographs, many of which illustrate the book.  Today, a century later, Amazon lists his book as a best seller.  It’s fascinating and easy to read.

The Blackfeet lived on the plains east of the Rocky Mountains, from Montana up into Alberta.  When the painter George Catlin met them in 1832, he said they were the happiest Indians or all.  The Old North Trail was an ancient footpath that passed through their territory.  In places, old ruts are still visible.  Today, some suspect that it may have been 2,000 to 3,000 miles long, linking Canada and Mexico.  Because many tribes used the trail, travel was dangerous.  It was a common place for ambushes and tribal wars.

In the old days, the Blackfeet used dogs as beasts of burden.  Sometime before 1750, they acquired horses, triggering radical change.  Horses greatly increased their ability to hunt, feed more people, wage war, haul trade goods, and zoom across the plains at superhuman velocity.  Corn farmers became highly vulnerable to horse-mounted raids by neighboring tribes, forcing many to abandon their fields and become nomadic.  After 1780, the Blackfeet were hammered by wave after wave of deadly diseases.  Their population dropped by maybe 90 percent.

By 1883, white folks had succeeded in nearly exterminating the buffalo, and this made the traditional Blackfoot life impossible.  The tribe was forced onto reservations, given ration tickets, treated like dogs, and were not allowed freedom of travel.  Missionaries introduced them to sin, hell, damnation, guilt, and submission.  Teachers taught youths the ABC’s of civilization, using the English language.

By the time McClintock arrived, many young Blackfeet were disoriented victims of cultural genocide, largely indifferent to their tribe’s customs, traditions, and religion.  During important ceremonies, many would be drinking, gambling, or horseracing.  Only the elders still remembered the traditional ways, and their days were numbered.  McClintock wanted to record the story of these people, before their culture ceased to exist.  The Blackfeet people fascinated McClintock, and he described them in a respectful manner.

His book is a magical 500-page voyage into another time and place.  Readers can soar away from the spooky nightmare world of automobiles and cell phone zombies, and imagine living in wildness and freedom.  The Blackfeet elders shared fond memories of a way of life that was far more in balance with the circle of life.  In the good old days, “the mountain slopes abounded in beaver, wapiti, moose, mountain sheep, and grizzly bears, while immense herds of antelope and buffalo roamed over the plains.”

One night, McClintock awoke to discover a huge grizzly bear stepping over him to finish off his dinner leftovers.  Grizzlies were still common.  Wolves and coyotes often howled passionate serenades under the stars.  Humans were not the dominant species; they were delicious two-legged meatballs.  Modern folks, obsessed with glowing screens, would not have lasted long in a reality where man-eating carnivores were never far away.  To survive, folks actually had to pay careful attention to reality, and behave in an intelligent manner.  Imagine that!

The people wore clothing of animal hides, and lived in tipis, in an ecosystem of scorching summers and long blast-freezer winters.  Powerful storms could race across the plains at astonishing speed.  On a pleasantly warm November day, McClintock noticed distant turbulent clouds that were rushing across the plains in his direction.  Danger!  The temperature sharply dropped, howling winds pounded him, and a whiteout blizzard commenced.  He lost all sense of direction, and freezing to death was a strong possibility.  He managed to return to camp.  The storm lasted ten days.

McClintock wrote, “The Blackfeet subsisted mainly upon buffalo meat, when it could be secured.  They also used sarvis berries, wild cherries, buffalo berries and vegetables such as camas, wild turnips, wild onions, wild potatoes, bitter root, and wild rhubarb.  They secured wild ducks and geese by striking them over the head with long sticks.  Beaver tails were considered a great delicacy.”

A vegetarian would soon starve on the plains.  The Blackfeet survived by killing and eating their animal relatives.  When natives died, their corpses were returned to the circle of life.  The dead were placed upon scaffolds built in trees, called death lodges (like THIS or THIS).  The Blackfeet did not arrogantly interrupt the circle dance of life with buried caskets or cremation.

McClintock was amazed by how well the Blackfeet lived without thrashing their ecosystem.  Whites did amazing things with science and industry, but the Blackfeet were superior in terms of their personal integrity.  In no Blackfoot community could you find the “depravity, misery, and consuming vice, which involve multitudes in the industrial centers of all the large cities of Christendom.”  By thriving in a lifestyle with few wants, they did not deteriorate into infantile consumers.

The last chapter in the book has pissed off many reviewers.  The preceding thirty-eight chapters did not provide, in any way, a flattering impression of settler society.  In 1910, respect for savages was politically incorrect, and publishers were not fond of risky projects.  The Blackfeet were hopelessly screwed.  Whites were here to stay.  Happy endings sold more books.

So, the story concludes with a jarring shift.  McClintock praised the integrity of the Blackfoot people, and was proud of their heroic advance toward Christian civilization.  “The industrious are rapidly becoming self-supporting.  Some of them live in well-made and comfortable houses, and own ranches, with large herds of cattle and horses.  They wear white men’s clothes, purchased from the trading stores, own high priced wagons and buggies and make use of modern farming implements.”  Hooray!

Anyway, the book provides readers with a wonderful peephole into a way of life that was not insane.  Children were raised in a land that was wild, free, and thriving — grizzly bears, not teddy bears.  The good power (Great Spirit) was everywhere, in everything — mountains, plains, winds, waters, trees, birds, and animals.  Everyone was on the same cultural channel, free from the friction of diversity and wealth inequality.  They grew up in coherent communities where it was rare to see a stranger.  [Cool excerpt]

McClintock’s book described how a healthy culture disintegrated into incoherence over the course of just one generation.  Beliefs got us into this mess, not genes.  I’m very optimistic that the coming decades of resource depletion, climate change, and the collapse of our economic system will provide a miraculous cure for consumer fever.  Survival will require paying careful attention to reality, and behaving in an intelligent manner.  Radical change in one generation is not totally impossible when the time is ripe.  Think positive!

McClintock, Walter, The Old North Trail, MacMillan and Co., London, 1910.

A free download of the book is HERE.  Over 1,400 of McClintock’s photos are HERE (click “View all images”).

Sundance Excerpt

Below you will find a passage from Walter McClintock’s book The Old North Trail.  It describes a portion of the ceremony performed on the first day of the Sundance.  Note how it honors many of the other animals that inhabited the ecosystem.  The ceremony was born in an era prior to the settler’s war on wildlife, and before the arrival of the cult of human supremacy.

The relationship of the Blackfeet to the other animals was one of profound reverence, respect, and adoration.  McClintock presents us with a magnificent example of a culture that was nearly the opposite of ours.  It was not insanely self-destructive, surviving at the cost of unborn generations.  It was a way of life that could have continued for a very long time.  All of us have ancestors who once lived in a similar manner.  We carry their blood and genes.  Here is McClintock:

Ceremonial Transferring the Medicine Pipe

The ceremonial transferring the Medicine Pipe from Lone Chief to Mu-koi-sa-po began just as the sun rose from the plains.  Its bright rays streaming into the open lodge, fell upon the priests chanting the seven Thunder songs, beating on their medicine drums, and burning sweet pine as incense.  After the Thunder songs, Lone Chief, as the giver up of the Pipe held it in his arms singing:

“I am now moving around.”  The Pipe was laid down during the tenth song, all chanting in unison: “I will sit down.”  In the eleventh, or buffalo song, all chanted: “I will take away the Chief’s (Pipe’s) robe,” and made the sign of the buffalo with their curved forefingers, while Mu-koi-sa-po and his wife opened the outside cover of the medicine bundle.

They chanted the Antelope song and imitated with their hands the motions of an antelope walking, while the strings of antelope rawhide were being loosened.  It was explained that the antelope is supposed to be opening the bundle with his hoofs.  While loosening an inner wrapper, bound by strings of elk hide, they chanted an Elk song and made the Elk sign, holding their hands open on either side of the head with fingers extended to represent antlers.  They imitated the actions of an elk as if loosening the wrapper with his hoofs. 

The time had now come for the dances to be held over the skins representing the spirits of the birds and animals included in the medicine bundle.  Only members of the society danced with the Pipe, although it was customary for anyone, who made a vow, to fulfil that vow by dancing with a skin provided for that purpose.  Whenever a prominent chief arose to take part, or an Indian who had performed some unusual feat, he was applauded by the spectators.  Mu-koi-sa-po, as the recipient of the Pipe, did not rise to dance, but remained seated beside the medicine bundle, receiving the skins as they were turned over to him by those taking part in the ceremonial.

For the Grizzly Bear dance, the drummers chanted “I begin to grow restless in the spring,” representing a bear making ready to come from his winter den.  Lone Chief drew his robe around him and arose to dance, imitating the bear going from his den and chanting: “I take my robe.  My robe is sacred.  I wander in the summer.”

Placing both hands upon the Pipe, he chanted, “Sacred Chief, (Pipe)!  Every one, men, women, and children will now behold you.”  Slowly raising the Pipe, he sang, “The Great Mystery beholds our Chief arise.  The Chief is sacred.”  He shook the Pipe in imitation of a bear, but was careful not to handle it roughly, lest a storm should come, nor to make a misstep in his dance, nor allow a skin, or feather to fall, lest some misfortune would befall him.  He again laid the Pipe down, with the chant, “This lodge is sacred; the ground, also, where the Chief lies is sacred.”

While Lone Chief danced with the Pipe, the drummers beat time and chanted Bear songs.  He imitated with his hands a bear holding up its paws, and, placing his feet together, moved backward and forward, with short jumps, making the lumbering movements of a bear running, breathing heavily and imitating his digging and turning over stones for insects.  Then he blew shrilly upon his medicine whistle, representing the sounds made by the wings of the Thunder Bird, which comes forth in the spring at the same time that the bear leaves his winter den.  He held the Pipe in his right hand, spreading out the fingers of his left in imitation of the wings of the flying Thunder Bird.

During the Swan song, Bear Child danced alone, representing the chief Swan, the leader of the flock.  He made the Swan sign, with both hands held before him, palms out and fingers spread in imitation of a swan sailing through the air with extended wings.

In the Antelope dance, Red Fox made motions with his hands, in imitation of an antelope walking, moving the Pipe in the same manner and looking keenly alert, as if watching for an enemy.

During the singing of the Crane song, the dancers imitated the motions of flying Cranes and gave the crane call.  There were no dances for water birds, but the people remained seated, while songs were sung for the ducks and geese.  Mu-koi-sa-po and his wife were painted, during the four Horse songs, sometimes called Resting songs.  It was necessary to sing all the words and notes of these four songs accurately, because, if anyone made a mistake, misfortune would surely come to his horses.

After a short rest, during which a pipe was passed around for a smoke, seven Owl songs were sung.  They were followed by seven Buffalo songs, in honor of the power that went with the band of sacred white buffalo skin, which was to be worn around the head of the Pipe owner.  Seven songs were also sung to a water bird called Good Rusher, because it runs so fast along the surface of the water and is believed to possess great power.  It is said to drown people by dragging them beneath the water.  The muskrat skin was used by its owner to wipe the paint from his face accompanied with the song, “All the water birds and little water animals are my friends.”

The Bee songs are sung by the owner of the Pipe as a warning, when he is angered, because anyone that angers a bee will be stung.  The Bee songs are also believed to possess, not only power for making the owner proof against any spell, or evil charm, but also to cause the evil power to react upon the enemy that is trying to injure him.  The woman’s pipe, which goes with the Medicine Pipe, has a plain flat stem and is not decorated.  During the ceremonial, it was unrolled by Etomo-waki and was smoked only by the women.

The Medicine Pipe is decorated with feathers and weasel tails.  The owner begins smoking it by blowing a whiff first towards the sky and another towards the ground.  The closing song of the ceremonial was the Good Luck song, which should bring good fortune to Mu-koi-sa-po.  Whenever he might wish for anything, as owner of the Medicine Pipe, it would only be necessary for him to sing this song to have his desire fulfilled.

At sunset, Lone Chief led Mu-koi-sa-po and his wife, Etomo-waki, from the lodge and, facing in turn the four directions, chanted first towards the West, “Over there are the mountains.  May you see them as long as you live, for from them you must receive your sweet pine as incense.”

Then towards the North, “Strength will come from the North.  May you look for many years upon the star that never moves (North Star).”

Then towards the East, “Old age will come from below (East) where lies the light of the sun.”

Then towards the South, “May the warm winds of the South bring you success in securing food.”


My review of The Old North Trail is HERE.  A free download of McClintock’s book is HERE.  Over 1,400 of his photos are HERE (click on “View all images”).

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Gallic Wars

After a long and crazy joyride in overshoot, enormous bills are coming due.  Industrial civilization is sliding toward foreclosure.  Capitalism gets the blame, but the roots of the madness go far deeper, older than ancient empires.  Many public buildings in America imitate the architecture of the Roman Empire, with their rows of tall stone columns.  Like ancient empires, our economic tentacles reach far into distant provinces, sucking up the wealth.  Like them, we are obsessed with perpetual growth, by any means necessary, to avoid being absorbed by competing empires.

Empires must constantly resist competitors.  Empires behave like alpha male chimps defending their harems.  Alphas live amidst numerous horny alpha wannabes, who carefully wait for the moment when the big boy stumbles.  Julius Caesar was a famous alpha, and The Gallic Wars is the story of his glory days, when he turned hundreds of thousands of folks into wolf chow and compost.  His book gives us a glimpse of life in Western Europe more than 2,000 years ago (51 B.C.).

Chimps fight for dominance with fists, feet, teeth, and teamwork.  Killing is not the objective.  Caesar’s troops were professional killers, well equipped with state of the art swords, spears, helmets, armor.  Fighting was face-to-face.  Warriors had to “come to grips” with their foes, and get splashed with blood and sweat.  Those who were aggressive, strong, experienced, and lucky were more likely to see another day.  Today, we fight more with technology — triggers, pushbuttons, and mouse clicks.

In a nutshell, this book is a play-by-play description of Caesar’s efforts to conquer the world.  He immodestly boasts about his brilliant victories, conquering the Celtic tribes of Gaul (France) and Belgae (Belgium).  The Gallic tribes had agriculture and cities, which chained them to a place they had to defend.  Roman trade networks gave them access to luxurious status trinkets.  The Belgae lived farther from empire, and were more scruffy and dangerous.  (MAP)

There were two groups in Gaul’s upper class, Druidic priests and warriors.  The priests provided spiritual guidance, resolved conflicts, and oversaw sacrifices.  Their training, which took up to 20 years, required them to memorize a large collection of verses.  Druids shunned writing, because it weakened memory, a crippling handicap.  Consequently, we know almost nothing about them today.  Caesar noted that human sacrifices were common, an excellent way to reward criminals.  Men were sometimes burned alive in wicker baskets.

Gallic warriors had no fear of death, because souls never die, they move to other bodies.  Their tribes clashed like Los Angeles street gangs.  If the Gallic tribes had been unified, they could have turned the Romans into wolf chow, but they figured this out too late in the game.  They eventually merged their armies together under Vercingetorix, and 40,000 Gauls attacked Caesar.  At the end of the battle, only 800 Gauls survived (according to Caesar).

When Caesar conquered a tribe, they were forced to pay tribute to Rome.  They also had to provide conscripts for the Roman legions.  The legions largely consisted of lads from the provinces, not indigenous Romans.  In Rome, the citizens enjoyed many luxuries, thanks to the massive wealth extracted from the provinces.  Military expansion generated many prisoners, who were either executed or sold into slavery.  Around 30 to 40 percent of the residents of Rome were slaves (similar to low wage workers today).  They were often treated brutally.  Today, our school children are taught that Rome was cool, a role model for a great nation.

Caesar took his troops to England.  Along the southern coast, there were colonies of Belgae farmers, who lived much like the Gauls.  North of the coast lived the indigenous Britons, who were skilled at hit-and-run guerilla warfare.  They would swarm out of the forest, kill disorganized troops, and return to the forest, where Romans dared not follow.

Few Britons grew grain.  They were herders and hunters who lived on milk and flesh.  They were clothed in animal skins, and the men had long hair and moustaches.  Warriors applied woad to turn their skin blue, causing opponents to wet their pants with fear.  The effort to conquer England failed when most of the Roman ships were destroyed by a powerful storm.  Caesar was almost defeated, and barely managed to escape.

German tribes were the scariest opponents.  Most of them lived east of the Rhine River, but some had crossed the river, and conquered portions of Gaul.  This was a serious threat to empire turf.  Caesar attacked the 120,000 German intruders, transforming most of them to wolf chow.

He then built a wooden bridge across the Rhine, spent 18 days molesting Germans, returned to Gaul, and destroyed the bridge.  Roman legions did not haul tons of food with them on their campaigns.  They acquired food along the way, snatching it from farms and towns.  This didn’t work in Germany, where little grain was grown and stored.  Also, wilderness warfare gave the Germans a huge advantage.  Protected by the mighty river, they were lucky to remain wild and free longer than other regions.

In those days, Germany was a land of vast forests and wetlands.  Caesar jabbered about the numerous stags and elk.  The aurochs (wild cattle) astonished him.  He said they were a bit smaller than elephants, and impossible to tame.  “Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied.”  The “wild and savage” Germans “were men of huge stature, of incredible valor and practice in arms.”  They were hunters, herders, and warriors.  Their diet majored in milk, cheese, and flesh.  They wore deerskin cloaks that left much of their bodies exposed, even in cold weather.

Chieftains assigned parcels of land to clans and families every year.  Everyone had to move annually, so nobody constructed McMansions (cool idea!).  The best parcels never stayed in the same hands, and this wisely prevented some from getting richer than others.  Equality breeds contentment and cooperation.  On the other hand, robbing others was OK.  Raiding outsiders was a good way to improve useful skills, grab booty, and cure boredom.

Conquest was also OK.  It pushed back folks who might raid your livestock.  Life was more secure when outsiders lived nowhere close.  The best neighbors were those who lived far away, and were never seen.  The Suevi tribe was the largest, most warlike, and most feared.  On one side of their territory, there was an uninhabited region that was 600 miles long.  Smart people didn’t mess with them.

As discussed in my review of Germania, tribes that became dependent on agriculture and/or herding increased the carrying capacity of the land.  Thus, population increased, as did social tensions.  Livestock were valuable status trinkets that presented an irresistible temptation for rustlers.  Raiding and tribal warfare were common in this era.  The same pattern emerged in the American west (and everywhere else) when tribes acquired domesticated horses and livestock.  Anthropology reports that nomadic hunter-gatherers avoided much craziness by owning very little.  They were egalitarian — the opposite of empire.

Anyway, everyone in Rome was amazed by Caesar’s astonishing success in war.  Then, when he returned to Rome, he was assassinated by nobles.  The end.

Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, London MacMillan, London, 1908.  Translated by T.  R.  Holmes.

Saturday, November 5, 2016


Everyone everywhere has tribal ancestors.  Folks with European roots know little about their kin who lived in the countless centuries of wild freedom.  Tacitus gives us a glimpse at their world, as it was over 1,900 years ago.  He was a Roman historian, born in A.D. 56, and died in 117.  He wrote Germania in 98.  It provided a brief overview of several dozen Germanic tribes of the era, as viewed from a civilized perspective.  For example, the Batavi, Chatti, Usipii, Tencteri, Chauci, Fosi, Cimbri, Anglii, and Varini.  (MAP)

In the days of Tacitus, Germania was a vast wild frontier of forest and marsh, “a land rude in its surface, rigorous in its climate, cheerless to every beholder and cultivator, except a native.”  The mighty Rhine River separated the German motherland from the tribes of Belgica (Belgium) and the Celtic tribes of Gaul (France).  Since there were no bridges in those days, the treacherous fast-flowing river provided an effective security barrier.

The Rhine protected Germania from the evil Empire.  Moving armies across the wild river was a serious challenge, and the barbarians on the other side were notoriously ferocious.  The German side was heavily forested.  The Roman war machine excelled at fighting in open country, and avoided engagements near forest, where they lost their tactical superiority.  So, the badass Germans remained proud, wild, and free, whilst the tribes of Gaul and Belgica, who surrendered to Empire (to avoid annihilation), were obligated to pay tributes and taxes, and provide numerous young conscripts to fight in the Roman legion.

Throughout Germania, the people had the appearance of a pure unmixed race.  They had reddish hair, blue eyes, large strong bodies, and were not weakened by cold or hunger.  They raised herds and flocks, and grew a little grain.  Their diet majored in meat, cheese, fruit, and beer.  Warriors took great delight in fighting, hunting, feasting, and oblivion drinking.  Dreary laborious toil was the domain of women, old men, and slaves.

Germanic spirituality majored in reverence for nature.  They worshipped in the living temple of the great outdoors — not inside walls.  Their deities inhabited sacred groves that were the tribe’s place of origin.  Folks would gather in the grove and offer sacrifices, which were sometimes human.  A number of tribes had festivals honoring Ertha (Big Mama Earth), a deity always present in their lives.

Notably, they were still animists — they did not imagine their deities to have human form.  Centuries later, as Indo-European influences intensified, a pantheon (family) of humanlike deities evolved in German metaphysics.  In this new culture of human supremacy, a powerful male god ruled over a colorful mob of lesser gods, goddesses, and tricksters.  This tradition spread from Greece (Zeus), to Rome (Jupiter), Germany (Wotan), and Scandinavia (Odin).

Germania was not a realm of love and peace.  “They actually think it tame and stupid to acquire by the sweat of toil what they might win by their blood.”  Raids and conflicts were common, and tribes depended on their warriors for survival.  In their rites of initiation, the transition of a boy into a man was marked by giving him a shield and spear.  From then on, the man was not allowed to cut his hair or beard until the day he killed his first foe.

Year after year, tribes invested much time and effort in killing folks from other tribes.  Romans were delighted by the fact that Germans worked so hard to kill other Germans.  They had to fight to survive.  The Cherusci were seen as foolish and cowardly, because of their deep love of peace — they were exterminated.  It was common for conquered tribes to go extinct; survivors were sold into slavery.

The Batavi avoided gangster raids by inhabiting an island in the Rhine.  The Suiones felt so safe and secure that they didn’t carry arms all the time — they had a pleasant life by the sea, centuries before the era of seaborne Viking terrorists.  Some tribes enjoyed safety by inhabiting remote locations in vast primeval forests.

The Hercynian forest once spanned east from the Rhine, across modern Germany, to the Carpathians, and all the way to Dacia (present-day Romania).  A quick traveler could cross the forest north to south in nine days, but it was very long, from east to west.  In 51 B.C., Julius Caesar noted, “There is no man in the Germany we know who can say that he has reached the edge of that forest, though he may have gone forward sixty days’ journey, or who has learnt in what place it begins.”  Pliny also mentioned it:  “The vast trees of the Hercynian forest, untouched for ages, and as old as the world, by their almost immortal destiny exceed common wonders.”

Every ecosystem has a limit to how many humans it can support.  In the time of Tacitus, the carrying capacity was quite low, because large-scale forest mining and soil mining were not yet possible.  Iron axes were still rare luxuries, and the moldboard plow would not come into common use for another thousand years.  Forest soils were too heavy for digging sticks.

Aurochs (wild cattle) inhabited a range spanning from England to China.  Bulls were up to 6 feet (180 cm) tall at the shoulder, much larger than modern cattle.  They were very strong, terribly aggressive, and loved to disembowel passing humans, wolves, and other annoyances.  Hence, the Germans preferred to enslave passive, dim-witted domestic cattle and sheep, which could be confined close to home.  By milking the livestock, they could extract four times more calories from their enslaved animals, compared to simply eating them.  Cheese could be stored for later use.

Nobody owned aurochs, or confined them to pastures, but somebody did own the horses and livestock.  These animals were an important form of wealth, and stealing them from neighbors was an exciting way to get rich quick, or die trying.  Hence, raiding was a popular pastime.  Naturally, it was a good way to make enemies, and ignite long-term feuds.  By majoring in herding, and building no permanent settlements, tribes could pack up and move when life got too hot.

In a world of tribal warfare, there was strength in numbers.  Family planning increased vulnerability.  “To limit the increase of children, or put to death any of the later progeny is accounted infamous.”  Thus, limited carrying capacity, plus population pressure, plus the crazy-making juju of hoarding wealth hurled Germania into a bloody cesspool, similar to the far larger one we’re soaking in today.

Our cousins the chimps do not enslave domesticated animals to inflate carrying capacity.  They respond to the tensions of crowding with kicks, punches, and bites — sometimes killing competitors.  Germans did increase carrying capacity, did not limit births, made enemies with raiding, nurtured feuds, and resolved tensions with spears, javelins, and long knives — intending to kill competitors.  This was not the only possible strategy, in theory, but it has been common around the world.  Crowded critters get crabby.

Tacitus described one tribe of good old-fashioned hunter-gatherers, the only example of fully wild and free Europeans I have found.  The Fenni (Finnish) enjoyed a life of magnificent simplicity in the great white north.  Their culture was so complete and well balanced that they had no need to wish for anything.  Listen:

“The Fenni live in a state of amazing savageness and squalid poverty.  They are destitute of arms, horses, and settled abodes: their food is herbs; their clothing, skins; their bed, the ground.  Their only dependence is on their arrows, which, for want of iron, are headed with bone; and the chase is the support of the women as well as the men; the former accompany the latter in the pursuit, and claim a share of the prey.  Nor do they provide any other shelter for their infants from wild beasts and storms, than a covering of branches twisted together.  This is the resort of youth; this is the receptacle of old age.  Yet even this way of life is in their estimation happier than groaning over the plough; toiling in the erection of houses; subjecting their own fortunes and those of others to the agitations of alternate hope and fear.  Secure against men, secure against the gods, they have attained the most difficult point, not to need even a wish.”

Tacitus, Caius Cornelius, edited by Hadas, Moses, Complete Works of Tacitus, The Modern Library, New York, 1942.  Germania is a short work, and free downloads are available on the web in PDF and text.  Amazon has a free Kindle version.