Monday, November 26, 2012

The Zenith

On the walls of the caves at Lascaux, France, there are paintings of aurochs, Bos primigenius, the awesome wild ancestors of domesticated cattle.  They stood up to six feet tall (1.8 m), and could weigh two tons.  Their thick horns were three feet long (0.9 m), pointed forward, and curved inward — perfect tools for ripping apart lions, tigers, wolves, and hunters.  They lived from England to northern China, south to the Indian Ocean, and along the Mediterranean coast of Africa.
In The Travels, Marco Polo (1254-1326 AD) wrote, “There are wild cattle in that country [almost] as big as elephants, splendid creatures….”  In Gallic War, Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) said of aurochs that “These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull.  Their strength and speed are extraordinary; and they show no mercy to any man or wild beast of which they catch sight.”  They didn’t fancy hunters.
In Travellers’ Tales (1883), Rev. H. C. Adams discussed the aurochs that used to inhabit Scotland.  “The wild cattle which anciently inhabited the great Caledonian forests, and are described by Boëtius as being fierce as lions, and bearing so great a hatred to man, that they will not eat any of the herbs that have been so much as touched by him, and are generally believed to have been a different and smaller breed than that of the aurochs of Germany.”
Aggressive creatures that could not be controlled were not welcome in a world increasingly dominated by domesticated humans.  The last wild aurochs died in Poland in 1627.  Domesticated cattle were smaller, far more passive, and easier prey for wolves.
Nobody owned wild aurochs, but docile cattle became private property, sources of wealth and status.  The more you owned, the greater your prestige.  As the herds grew, the land used for grazing expanded, and ancient forests were murdered to create more and more pastures.  The health of the land was less important than the wealth of the man.  Private property, and the insatiable lust for status, always tends to arouse infantile tendencies in domesticated humans.
Many regions were ravaged by overgrazing, and transformed into wastelands.  In The Others, Paul Shepard noted that “If the auroch was the most magnificent animal in the lives of our Pleistocene ancestors, in captivity it became the most destructive creature of all,” causing more damage than either fire or the ax.
Wild boars, the ancestors of domesticated pigs, still survive.  In northern regions, they can grow to enormous size.  Boars in Russia and Romania can weigh as much as 660 pounds (300 kg).  They have sharp tusks and can be very dangerous when threatened.  They have been known to gore tigers to death.  Wolves tend to leave adult boars alone, and focus their attention on yummy little piglets.
Boars and aurochs survived because they were strong and ferocious.  Mouflon, the wild ancestors of sheep, survived because they were faster than Olympic athletes on steroids.  They excelled at racing across steep, rocky landscapes.  The also had large curled horns, capable of rattling the brains of their foes when cornered.
Young mouflon orphans were quite easy to raise in captivity.  Hence, sheep were the first domesticated livestock animals.  Domestication erased most of their survival instincts.  Sheep were an easy meal for even coyotes.  A pack of wolves might kill a single horse or cow, and call it a night.  But many times, they killed an entire flock of sheep; because they were so easy to kill, it was hard to stop — and then they would just eat one or two.
For predators, killing is thrilling, an exciting climax, the jackpot.  This thrill may have been what motivated humans to continue inventing better weapons, so we could kill more and bigger animals, as well as other humans who aroused our displeasure.  Over time, the planet has paid an enormous price for this primitive arms race, which put us on the path to super-storm.
Before domestication, predators and prey lived in relative balance — the world worked pretty well.  If wolves ate a deer, this was normal and healthy.  Nobody’s feelings got hurt.  But as the domesticated world expanded, the wild world shrank, and wild prey became increasingly scarce.  We pretty much forced predators to eat our livestock, so they did, and then we got all huffed off about it.
Those dastardly predators consumed our precious wealth without paying for it, an unforgivable offense.  So we declared war on them, and we’ve been working hard to exterminate them for many centuries.  We’re making impressive progress, but we’re not quite finished.  We’ve also been busy wiping out wild humans, because they were obsolete obstacles to the complete domestication of everything everywhere.
Before domestication, there were lions all over the place — along the Rhine, in Poland, Britain, southern France, Egypt, Greece, Palestine, Macedonia, Turkey, the Fertile Crescent, and India, according to David Quammen.  In some areas of Europe, they survived until about 11,000 years ago — around the time when domestication slithered into the daylight.
When I read Craig Dilworth’s notion that the high point of the human journey was the Upper Paleolithic era (40,000 – 25,000 BP), I was a bit dubious.  But today, flipping through Jean Clottes’ gorgeous book, Cave Art, I realized that he was correct.  Humans crawled deep inside caves with torches, and painted gorgeous portraits of the sacred animals for which they had the deepest respect and reverence.  Images included the horse, lion, aurochs, rhinoceros, salmon, bear, mammoth, buffalo, owl, hare, ibex, auk, weasel, reindeer, chamois, fox, and wild human. 
In the Upper Paleolithic era, the world was unimaginably alive and 100% wild and free.  This planet was nothing less than a spectacular, breathtaking miracle.  Modern folks would eagerly pay big money, and get on a 40-year waiting list to experience a pure, thriving wilderness filled with mammoths, lions, aurochs, and buffalo.  To gasp with wonder at vast clouds of birds filling the skies with beautiful music and motion.  To listen to rivers thrashing with countless salmon.  To see, hear, and feel the powerful vitality of the reality in which our species evolved, the type of world that the genes of every newborn baby expects to inhabit — a healthy, sane, beautiful, wild paradise.
Even then, at the zenith, we were very close to living too hard, getting too clever with too many tools, with too little foresight, too little wisdom.  The cave paintings have preserved that sense of profound wonderment from our days of jubilant celebration.  Our wild ancestors were passionately in love with life, and they were passionately in love with the world they lived in.  They provide us with a perspective from which it’s much easier to comprehend the scope of our current predicament.
To be continued.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Before Dogs Became Pets

The saga of dogs is a long strange trip.  Experts agree that all dogs are descendants of wild gray wolves.  They don’t agree when dogs were domesticated, but most say around 14,000 years ago.  Could it be a coincidence that this occurred around the time when humans were getting really good at killing really big animals with stone-tipped lances, and the countryside was dotted with mastodon corpses, and other dainty delicacies?
As humans emigrated from our African home, we moved into wolf country, and learned important skills from our new neighbors.  Wolves were social creatures, like we were.  We both lived in hierarchical groups.  We both chased and ate the same critters.  We both scavenged each other’s leftovers. 
Wolves and humans coexisted for a long time before dogs emerged.  Wolves learned to hang out on the fringe of human camps from time to time, because they were a source of food to scavenge.  They found bones to gnaw and offal to wolf down.  They slobbered whilst inhaling the intoxicating aroma of meat roasting on our campfires.  They found human excrement to be indescribably delicious, an overwhelming passion that may be the prime reason for the creation of dogs.
This scavenging activity became a regular habit, and humans actively classified their canine visitors as naughty or nice.  Aggressive nuisance wolves were killed, while the presence of more timid wolves was tolerated.  By and by, over many generations, this selection process resulted in dogs.  Dogs were smaller than wolves, and had smaller skulls and brains.  We selected for dogs having juvenile characteristics, because they were less trouble to have around.  Dogs helpfully announced the arrival of humans and beasts, and they drove away other predators.
Before going further, I must reveal my motives.  I believe that the domestication of plants and animals played a major role in the process that got us into our current predicament, the Earth Crisis.  Wild humans and wild wolves once lived in a manner that worked quite well, for a very long time.  Today, both are endangered.  Meanwhile, the population of domesticated humans and dogs has grown explosively, because of a temporary bubble of abundant energy.  The family of life is temporarily out of balance.
Humans and dogs live in the highest density in poorer regions, where many are malnourished and unhealthy.  In prosperous regions, humans and dogs are more likely to be over-nourished, neurotic, stressed out, and excessive consumers of resources (trendy $1,500 purebreds are not shit-eating dogs).  
I am not here to judge or criticize dog owners, and I mean that sincerely.  My goal is to explore the dark side of domestication, because there are many lessons to be learned — knowledge that may be important for any attempts to return to genuine sustainability.
Many assume that dogs have always been pets, since our days in the caves, but this is not true.  Dogs had a semi-wild, pariah-like existence for thousands of years before being reduced to pets, and losing their freedom.  Dozens of gray wolves were interviewed for this story, and they unanimously agreed that wolves never had any desire whatsoever to become dogs.  In fact, they were grievously insulted by the mere suggestion of this.
In his book Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez told many wolf stories.  Once upon a time, in Alaska’s Goldstream Valley, wolves killed 42 dogs one winter.  The Athbascan Indians took a vote, and by a landslide chose not to retaliate against the wolves.  Why?  Because everyone knew that wolves hated dogs.  Case closed.
I was repeatedly surprised in my research to discover that hunter-gatherers had little respect for dogs.  Dogs were uniquely second-class animals.  Domestication had diminished them to the degree that they were no longer able to survive in the wild, outside the human sphere (similar to sheep, cattle, maize, and consumers).  This serious abnormality was perfectly obvious to every illiterate, uneducated savage.
Wild hunting people recognized that wolves were beings that possessed immense spiritual power, according to Lopez.  The Nunamiut understood that wolves had souls, but not their sled dogs.  In the Sioux language, the term for wolf was shunkmanitu tanka, “the animal that looks like a dog (but) is a powerful spirit.”  Dogs were banned from ceremonial lodges, except when they arrived in the stew kettle, as they often did.
In The Way of the Shaman, Michael Harner discussed the animals that shamans used as guardian spirits.  Guardian spirits were almost always wild and untamed.  Domesticated animals typically lacked the spiritual power required for shamanic purposes.  (Cars are often named after powerful wild things, never pudgy barnyard riffraff.)
In The Forest People, Colin Turnbull described how Pygmies treated dogs: “And the hunting dogs, valuable as they are, get kicked around mercilessly from the day they are born to the day they die.”
In The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff wrote that the Yequana people never imposed their will on others, but with dogs they used strict discipline, hitting them with fists, sticks, and stones.
Dogs inherited coprophilia from their wolf ancestors (an obsession for the smell and taste of excrement).  In Book of the Eskimos, Peter Freuchen wrote that sled dogs were often a nuisance when someone attempted to take a crap.  Sometimes a good buddy would drive the dogs away with a whip until you were finished.  Dogs would sometimes have bloody fights over fresh turds. 
Freuchen also mentioned that it was perfectly acceptable to copulate with a dog when she was in heat, as long as it was done outdoors, in the open.  Brighter lads never attempted this with wolves.
In The Harmless People, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas discussed the dogs that lived with the Bushmen.  They were typically skeletal and weak from hunger.  Dogs were owned and named, but they were only fed excrement.  When they tried to snatch human food, they were stoned or whipped.  In return for regular hot meals, the grateful dogs drove away leopards, jackals, and hyenas.
In Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, John Lame Deer wrote, “There was great power in a wolf, even in a coyote.  You have made him into a freak — a toy poodle, a Pekingese, a lap dog….  That’s where you’ve fooled yourselves.  You have not only altered, declawed, and malformed your winged and four-legged cousins; you have done it to yourselves.”
In Ojibway Heritage, Basil Johnston told some dog tales.  In their creation stories, humans and other animals worked together in harmony.  All animals served the family of life in some way — except for the lowly dog, which had nothing to offer.  Dogs were dependent on humans for their survival, and the other animals had no sympathy: “He who allows himself to be servile deserves servitude.”
Other animals were outraged by the treachery of dogs, and considered killing them, but Bear objected.  He told the dogs: “For your betrayal, you shall no longer be regarded as a brother among us.  Instead of man, we shall attack you.  Worse than this, from now on you shall eat only what man has left, sleep in the cold and rain, and receive kicks as a reward for your fidelity.”
To a devout Muslim, a dog is an unclean animal that drives away angels, annuls prayers, and limits their owner’s benefits in paradise.  Muslims who touch a dog require ritual purification.  In 2011, a journalist commented that in the village of Novosasitli, Dagestan, dogs do not bark when the call to prayer beckons, because all unclean animals have been exterminated.
Likewise, their Jewish and Christian neighbors have been long-time hard-core dog haters.  “Dog” appears in the Bible 41 times, always harshly scribbled with venomous ink, never fondness.  For example:
“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”  (Matthew 7:6)
“Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.  For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.”  (Revelations 22:14-15)
So, dogs have not been beloved pets since the beginning.  They were the first offspring of domestication, and they were diminished by it.  As many times has they click the Undo button, nothing happens — they remain dogs.  Woof!
To be continued.  Stay tuned.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Wildness and Balance

In 1906, a young Danish lad named Peter Freuchen arrived in Greenland.  Tired of city life, he had signed up to spend the winter alone in a remote meteorological research station, far from anyone — an experience he never forgot.  The plan was that a sled would come every month to deliver food, coal, mail, and other supplies.  Much to his dismay, the sleds never arrived, because wolves stopped them, and ate the sled dogs, every time.
Freuchen had seven dogs at his cabin and, one by one, the wolves ate them all.  This made it impossible for him to escape.  He soon used up his coal, and had to spend most of an arctic winter with no heat, including four months of endless darkness.  The wolves tormented him: “I have never been so frightened in my life.  After my last dog was killed there was nothing to warn me of their approach, and often I wakened to hear them pawing on the roof of my cabin.”
There were wolf tracks everywhere, and he frequently heard them moving around in the darkness.  “As the winter wore on, the unnatural fervor of my hatred for the wolves increased.  My food was running low, and the darkness and the cold and the constant discomfort set my nerves on edge.  I jumped at the slightest sound, and the moan of the wind peopled the dark corners with evil spirits.”  He didn’t see another person for six months.  This tale is from his book Arctic Adventure.
It’s an important story, because it reminds us of the days before humans eliminated most of our predators, before we came to dominate the land almost everywhere.  Freuchen was nothing more than walking meat, one mistake away from becoming a feast for hungry wolves.  This was the normal mode for almost all of human history — the natural world was far from safe.  In my lifetime, I’ve walked countless hundreds of miles alone in the woods, almost never feeling like meat.  Something vital is missing, in this world of seven-point-something billion humans, and growing.  We’ve lost our brakes.
Lions and tigers and bears keep us humble, and we have a huge need for humility — deflating our grand illusions, and bringing us down to actual size.  To our sacred predators, we look like a tasty lunch, not the almighty masters of the universe.  They force us to pay sharp attention to the land around us, fully tuned in to all of our senses.  They make us feel alive.  They help us remember our long lost wildness.  This is good. 
I once lived alone in a remote forest for nine years.  I spent far more time in the company of wild animals than with humans.  The gorgeous red foxes always impressed me.  During long, cold winters, when the snow was waist-deep, I would watch them chase snowshoe hares across the pond and through the bushes, yelping and shrieking.  They lived outdoors all the time, they satisfied their own needs, and they lived well — without clothes or tools or fire.  This was their ancient sacred home; this was exactly where they belonged.  They did not have the slightest interest in being my friend.
I spent much of my time indoors, close to the wood stove, bundled up in clothing from Asia, listening to an Asian radio, typing on an Asian computer, and eating store-bought food from faraway lands.  I could not survive a winter out in the snow.  I was not wild and free, but I had immense respect for my relatives who were — the deer, coyotes, owls, and weasels.  They were so lucky!  They had never forgotten who they were.
Before Europeans commenced full-scale genocide upon wolves, the forest was a place of genuine danger.  Grimm's Fairy Tales is a collection of stories from old Europe, and the word “wolf” appears 72 times in this book.  Wolves were a significant fact of life in those days — no one dared to wander around in the forest staring at a cell phone, oblivious to their surroundings.  A wolf swallowed Tom Thumb, and another killed the grandmother of Little Red Riding Hood.  Humankind was not yet the unchallenged master of the world, but each conflict in these tales was resolved by the death of the wolf. 
In his book Man-Eaters, Michael Bright cited a number of stories of wolves killing humans.  Wolf packs in Paris killed 40 in 1450.  British sources noted 624 humans killed by wolves in Banbirpur in 1878.  In Finland, 22 children were killed in 1880-1881.  In the 1960s, wolves in the Ural Mountains attacked 168 and devoured 11.  Wolf attacks in Kyrgyzstan in 1999 made people afraid to go outdoors.  Today, our conversations rarely include the word “wolf.” 
Going back to an earlier time, the wolves once enjoyed a great victory.  In the stories of heathen Europe, there was a pantheon of gods and goddesses.  Odin was the chief god, and his animal allies were two ravens and two wolves.  During the battle of Ragnarök, in which the human gods were defeated by the forces of nature, Odin was swallowed alive by the mighty wolf Fenris.  Modern school kids plead for mercy because “the dog ate my homework.”  For the old Norse folk, the issue was “the wolf ate my god.”
Many years later, Jesus warned his followers: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:15).  We’ve been on the warpath against wolves ever since. 
Our wild ancestors saw wolves as sacred relatives, beings of great power.  Our domesticated ancestors, who were obsessed with having absolute control over nature, developed a pathological hatred of wolves that continues to this day.  A pack of wolves could exterminate your livestock or poultry overnight.  Battlefields always attracted crowds of ravens and wolves, who feasted on the fallen.  Wolves sometimes dug up fresh graves in the cemetery.  None of this was acceptable to domesticated humans.  There was no room for wolves in their worldview.  It’s time to reevaluate that worldview.

A note to readers.  After 14 months of writing weekly book reviews, it’s time to take a break.  The reviews will become the bulk of my second book.  Now it’s time to write some rants that will precede and follow the section of reviews — rants like the above rough draft.  Stay tuned.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Too Smart For Our Own Good

According to humans, the human brain is a miraculous organ.  No other species is even half as intelligent as we think we are.  But we’re seriously beating the planet, we’re not having fun, and everything is getting worse.  This is called progress.  Circle what is wrong with this picture.
Craig Dilworth circled humans.  Modern society drove him nuts, because it was so self-destructive.  It simply made no sense, from the perspective of the dominant worldview, which worshipped the most incredible organism in the entire universe.  How could a creature so brilliant act like this?
Dilworth, a very clever lad, eventually discovered a perspective from which our freaky behavior actually made perfect sense.  He called it the “ecological worldview,” and he thoroughly described it in his book Too Smart For Our Own Good. 
There was a time, long ago, when everyone’s ancestors lived with the ecological worldview, and some tribal people still do.  In the last 40 years or so, a few civilized people have been rediscovering it.  New ideas emerging from anthropology, archaeology, and economics have revealed that “primitive” living was awesome in many ways.  Life was not “nasty, brutish, and short.”
Our wild ancestors were well nourished, very healthy, and enjoyed a leisurely way of life in an endless unspoiled wilderness.  The air was clean, the water was pure, the rivers were filled with salmon, and there were countless mastodons and mammoths.  The Upper Paleolithic era (40,000 – 25,000 BP) may have been the high point of the human journey.  In many ways, it’s been downhill since then.
Unfortunately, the billions of people who now live with the mainstream worldview would be insulted by Dilworth’s theory, because it perceives civilized people in a most unflattering manner.  Fortunately, people who are capable of thinking outside the box are starting to tune in to the new ideas and gasp with excitement — coherence at last!
Anyway, in the beginning, when our ancient ancestors still lived in trees, everything was just great.  Then the climate got chilly, forests disappeared, and many of our tree-dwelling relatives went extinct.  Our ancestors’ bodies were perfect for living in trees, but comically unsuitable for life on the ground.  We were an easy lunch for hungry predators.  We couldn’t outrun them, but we could stand up and shower them with rocks.  Our new career had begun.
Our hands, eyes, and brains co-evolved.  Branches became throwing sticks and spears.  Rocks became projectiles, hammers, and cutters.  We kept inventing more and more tools, and accumulating them.  Eventually we became dependent on tools for our survival — a dangerous tendency, magnified by our limited powers of foresight.  Mistakes are often our best teachers.
Hunter-gatherers were able to thrive for vast periods of time without trashing the land because they lived sustainably.  Infanticide was moral because it prevented the misery of overpopulation.  It would have been immoral and antisocial to keep a newborn when the No Vacancy light was on (chimps and gorillas also kill newborns).  It wasn’t murder because a newborn did not become a person until the family decided to accept it.
Dilworth hammers on the obvious benefits of voluntarily limiting population, because it’s such an important idea.  The mainstream worldview disagrees, of course.  Living in a temporary bubble of abundant food and energy can make big throbbing brains forget many things.  But when the dark ages return, the notion that every human life is sacred will promptly walk off the stage.
Using terrible weapons of mass destruction — the lance and the javelin — we hunted our way to every corner of the planet, eliminating most of the large animals.  Then we switched to bows and arrows and chased the smaller stuff.  Then we moved to shorelines and lived on aquatic critters.  Up against the wall, because of population pressure, we made the fateful decision to till the soil and enslave plants and animals.  This brought an end to a long era of relative stability (slow-motion growth).
There was a pattern here, and it went all the way back to when we first became tool addicts — necessity was the mother of invention.  Dilworth called it the vicious circle principle (VCP):  “Humankind’s development consists in an accelerating movement from situations of scarcity, to technological innovation, to increased resource availability, to increased consumption, to population growth, to resource depletion, to scarcity once again, and so on.”  It was a merry-go-round that kept spinning faster and faster.  We created a monster that never stopped eating and growing.
With the arrival of agriculture, voluntary population control faded, and our numbers rose sharply.  Farmers were into growth, because there was safety in numbers.  Warfare was becoming an extermination game, and small conservative communities were sure to be erased and replaced by big, dynamic, pro-growth societies.  It was like an arms race, where villages were absorbed into chiefdoms, which were absorbed into kingdoms, which were absorbed into empires.  Grow or die!
As societies grew, they became more complex, and more socially stratified — a small group of well-fed elites, and a large group of serfs and slaves that lived near starvation on a meager diet of bread or potatoes.  Women lost status.  Contagious diseases became very popular.
Dilworth wished that non-renewable resources never existed.  Life would be dramatically better today if we had never had access to metals and fossil carbon.  He believed that we passed the point of no return when folks started pounding on metal.  This sparked a perfect storm of industrial insanity.  I’m inclined to think that the point of no return had more to do with the domestication of plants and animals, which radically changed our relationship with the family of life.
Dilworth does not believe that radical changes in philosophy and worldview will happen in time.  “Consequently human civilization — primarily Western techno-industrial urban society — will self-destruct, producing massive environmental damage, social chaos and megadeath.  We are entering a new dark age, with great dieback.”  Will we survive?
I’ve only scratched the surface here.  This book is a big cornucopia of ideas.  It’s time we took off our blinders.  It's time we quit pretending that the huge oncoming super-storm does not exist.  It's good to be present in reality, thinking clearly, and teaching our huge brains the amazing magical juju of foresight. 
Dilworth, Craig, Too Smart For Our Own Good, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010.