Monday, October 22, 2012

Lightning Bird

There is no such thing as coincidence, right?  Sitting here in Oregon, I wrote a story about a guy in New Jersey, sent it to a site in England, where it was read by a guy in Greece, who pointed me to a story from South Africa, about a man I’d never heard of: Adrian Boshier (1939-1978).  His life was described in Lightning Bird, a biography by Lyall Watson (1939-2008).  Watson was the inventor of “the hundredth monkey,” a magical thinking meme that once went viral.  The book was just what I needed: a visit to an old-fashioned society.
Boshier was an Englishman who moved to South Africa when he was 16.  He was a reckless, brainy, and extremely lucky man who had a short, fantastic life — a whirlwind adventure in rewilding.  He lived in the bush for most of his first six years in Africa.  Unlike other whites, Boshier walked wherever he went, ate what natives ate, and drank their water.  He would head off into wild country with nothing but a pocketknife and a bag of salt (for trading), and live off the land for as long as he wanted. 
He became highly skilled at catching and befriending dangerous snakes.  Walking into a village wrapped up in a 14-foot python, he terrified the natives, giving birth to his reputation as a powerful magician.  He would catch an eight-foot cobra, milk its venom, and drink it before a wide-eyed crowd.  They called him Rradinoga, the father of snakes.
By and by, Boshier met Raymond Dart, the archeologist who discovered Australopithecus africanus.  Dart took him under his wing, and arranged museum work for him.  The lad also made some money selling snake venom to labs.
Boshier was forced to unlearn his narrow Englishness.  Natives taught him the juicy delights of gobbling three-inch caterpillars.  Eventually, he learned how to chase down a young antelope and strangle it with his bare hands.  When a leopard killed an animal, he would race at it screaming, scare it off, and snatch a hunk of flesh.  He once tried to swipe some fresh meat from five lions, unsuccessfully, but he lived to tell about it.
He was fascinated by native culture, and decided to learn more about diviners or witch doctors.  An elder told him to go to Makgabeng, a mountainous land that was home to fearsome spirit power.  The mountains were so dangerous that you shouldn’t even point your finger at them, let alone walk into them.  Boshier walked into them.  Before long, he gained the respect of the residents.
Their chief introduced him to the keeper of the traditions, who told Boshier that the spirits had brought him to Makgabeng to learn.  Why?  “The lessons that the spirits bring cannot be doubted and they must not be ignored.  If you disregard the experience offered by the sprits, you will fall.  You may even die.  But if you follow the path along which they lead, you will learn.  You will gain power and your sprits will be happy.”
A witch doctor reinforced this message.  She told him that his health problems resulted from his resistance to the spirits.  “The hospitals in your cities are full of the hornless ones, those who have been called and would not go.  No one asks for the spirits and it is not easy to live with them.  Everyone fights in the beginning, but in the end one must obey them and do their work.  You should be dead.  I do not know why they let you live.”
Eventually she taught him the skills of a witch doctor, and he was honored by an initiation ceremony.  But whenever he got too stressed, he would flee to Johannesburg and spend time with the whites.  He straddled two incompatible worlds, and never felt at home in either one.
In the mountains, he visited many caves, and studied the paintings on their walls.  Some were recent, and some were very old.  He met elders who understood their meaning.  They were not just decorative graffiti.  The images recorded information, something like writing.  Tribes who spoke different languages all understood the painted symbols in the same way, because they were like a universal form of communication, archetypal images.
The bright climax of the book occurred when a severe drought came to Makgabeng.  Since he was a powerful witch doctor, the people asked him to make it rain.  He responded in a beautiful way.  He found their sacred drums in a forgotten cave, where they had been hidden 50 years earlier, when German missionaries demanded their destruction.  A black bull was sacrificed to provide new hides for the drums.  To bring rain, everyone had to be initiated in the old ways, and the ancestors fully honored.  The people were united by an empowering healing process.  It rained.  Joy!
“There is in African custom an essential harmony, an equilibrium with the land which seems to be lacking in our lives.”  Africa is a special place.  The roots of the old culture go “all the way back, in one long unbroken line, to the origins of man.”  For all of us, a journey to Africa is a homecoming.  “There are few things in traditional life in Africa that can be identified as distinctively sacred in the sense that they can be separated from the rest of life.  For Africans, the whole of life is sacred.”
The megafauna of Africa did not go extinct, because humans coevolved with them.  Living in the tropics, we needed no clothes or substantial shelters.  A sumptuous buffet was available year round — lizards, snakes, roots, berries, nuts, grubs.  We got by with very simple tools for a long, long time.  This was the normal, time-proven, sustainable mode of human living — a mode that our genetic evolution had fine-tuned us for (with the same genes we have today).
Then, folks migrated out of Africa, to non-tropical lands where living conditions were less perfect, and survival was more challenging.  Dwelling outside of our evolutionary homeland turned us into something like moon explorers.  Without technological crutches, we would have been unable to survive.  Be clever or die!
The dark climax of the book was one of humankind’s big tragedies.  Some old cave paintings that Boshier studied had images of sheep.  Sheep were not indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa.  They came from the Middle East, where clever people had reduced strong and powerful wild mouflon into fuzzy, sub-intelligent freaks that could not survive without human care.
Portraits of sheep indicated that the clever moon explorers had returned to sacred Africa, bringing with them domesticated livestock, sacks of seeds, and the consuming mindset of the colonizer and domesticator.  “The introduction of a pastoral economy, starting perhaps three or four thousand years ago, seems to have marked the beginning of a relentless destruction, now almost complete, of the earliest way of human life.  It was the end of a society that had discovered how to live in harmony with — rather than at the expense of — nature.”
The archaeological community was always on the lookout for evidence of the miraculous transition, when primitive hominids, who lived by instinct, crossed the Rubicon and became self-aware Homo sapiens with complex brains — incredible modern humans!  Well, here we are, neck deep in a bubbling cauldron of toxic progress soup, big brains and all.  Success!  These days, the primitive side of the Rubicon is looking more and more like where we really belong — home.  Can we learn something here?
Boshier was an epileptic.  To Europeans, epilepsy was a disease.  To Africans, he was blessed by the spirits, very special.  Near the end of his life, he was having as many as 30 epileptic attacks per week.  On 18 November, 1978, Boshier waded into the waters of the Indian Ocean and died.  The next day, a storm raced into the bone dry Makgabeng, the thunder rumbled, and “it rained and rained and rained.”
Watson, Lyall, Lightning Bird — The Story of One Man’s Journey into Africa’s Past, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1982.

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