Paul Shepard was a pioneer in human ecology, a young field that studies the relationship between humans and their habitats. The decades of his career were an exciting time. New research was challenging myths about low impact (“primitive”) cultures, and scholars were starting to contemplate environmental ethics. He hoped that growing awareness might end humankind’s war on the planet, but as his hair got grayer, his disillusionment grew. Enlightenment takes time.
Encounters With Nature is a collection of Shepard’s essays, some of which reveal his thinking near the end of his days. It was compiled, edited, and published by his wife, Florence, after he died. She summed up the book in one sentence: “At the heart of our identity is a fundamentally wild being, one who finds in the whole of wild nature all that is true and beautiful in this world.” The essays spin around two themes that shaped human development: animals and place.
Our early pre-human ancestors lived in the trees of tropical rainforests. Leaping quickly from limb to limb through the canopy required far more brainpower than herbivores needed to manufacture manure on the wide-open savannah. Our time in the trees provided us with sharp minds, grasping hands, stereoscopic vision, and the ability to see in color.
Later, our ancestors moved to the ground, and became larger and stronger. To defend themselves against predators, they became socially organized. By and by, they came to walk erect. They were hunters, but lacked speed, fangs, and claws. Instead, they became long-distance runners. Many herbivores were capable of amazing bursts of speed, but they couldn’t outrun hunters who doggedly pursued them for hours. Some think that we lost our body hair to stay cooler while chasing lunch. Our ancestors also evolved arms and shoulders that were well suited for throwing sticks and stones.
Our culture takes great pride in the Industrial Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution, but the most important revolution was the Hunting Revolution. We moved onto the savannah, and learned how to hunt in packs. Our ancestors were hunters long before Homo sapiens first appeared. If you look in the mirror, you will observe the body of a tropical omnivore, fine-tuned for running and throwing — a hunter. Imagine what you would look like if your ancestors had spent the last two million years on couches watching television.
When civilized folks look in the mirror, they don’t see a hunter; they see the crown of creation, God’s masterpiece. We are taught that every other species is inferior and non-essential. Only humans matter. A chimp looking in the mirror sees a wild chimpanzee. They have not lost their identity. Coyotes have never forgotten how to be coyotes.
Shepard described three phases in the “identity formation” of each individual. In the first phase, we bond to our mother. In the second phase, between learning to speak and puberty, we have about a decade to bond with the living place we inhabit. All of us are wild animals at birth, expecting to spend our lives in wild ecosystems.
Wild children are fascinated by other wild animals, which are far more interesting than rubber ducks and teddy bears. Kids observe animals, learn their names, categorize them, imitate them, and study their anatomy when butchered. They learn the daily and seasonal patterns of the others. They watch the others transform from youngsters to oldsters, and a strong feeling of kinship develops. “It is a family tie and carries responsibility.”
Shepard has little to say about the realm of plants, which is equally alive and fascinating. Plants also play a major role in our bonding to nature. By puberty, wild children are well rooted in place, feeling at-one with the flora and fauna of the family of life. They have a profound sense of belonging that most modern tumbleweeds cannot begin to imagine, and will never experience.
Our bodies are those of hunters. Likewise, our minds were formed and perfected by two million years of hunting and foraging. We do not thrive in McMansions, malls, or cubicle farms. We’re like zoo animals with rusty souls, enduring a dreary existence so far from home. Condors are at home soaring with great joy above the mountains. When imprisoned by humans, they become sad biological specimens. A writer once concluded that condorness consisted of 10 percent condor and 90 percent place. The same is true for us.
The third phase is initiation, the transition into adulthood. “The youth is ushered into adult status by ceremonies that include separation from family, instruction by elders, tests of endurance and pain, trials of solitude, visions, dreams, and rituals of rebirth.”
What happens if the bond to mother is flawed? In her book, The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff described how wild people raised happy children, and how civilized folks often fail to.
What happens if we do not form a healthy bond to the family of life? We become space aliens, and see the natural world as static scenery, or something to plunder. Jay Griffiths described how wild children bond, and modern kids suffer, in her book, Kith.
What happens when adolescents aren’t initiated into adulthood? They can remain immature and alienated, whirling in infantile anxieties, often for the rest of their lives. The natural identity-forming process fails, and they assume a synthetic identity appropriate for the industrial culture.
For wild people, life was generous and giving. Food was acquired without regular hard work. The fruit, nuts, roots, and meat they got were gifts, for which they regularly expressed thanks and gratitude. Meat was always shared.
For farmers, food was not a gift, but a wage received for months of backbreaking work. If everything went well, there would be food to harvest at summer’s end. Food could be stored and traded. It became private property, and a source of wealth and power. For modern consumers, food is not a gift, it’s a product sold at stores. Many do not comprehend the link between pizza and the natural world.
The bottom line here is that we were normal and healthy at birth. Evolution did not design us to be Earth-wrecking savages. What turned us into freaks was our humanistic culture, which elevates us above all other animals, and celebrates our intelligence and technology. This illusion is certain to take a beating as we move into the age of collapses, driven by peak energy, peak food, peak humans, and peak everything else. Our crazy way of life is running out of time.
Our descendants are not going to hold humanistic culture in high regard, because its amazing bursts of cleverness could never outrun its tireless dark shadow. It’s obviously a suicidal culture, and this will encourage its abandonment. New and healthier modes of thinking are emerging, but have yet to go viral. Mainstream academia seems determined to cling to the cult of perpetual growth as it swirls around the drain, lost in pipedreams of techno-utopia.
Shepard has sketched out suggestions of what needs to be nurtured, and what needs to be dumped. This is precious information for people with imagination, who reject the orders to shop till they drop. Creative minds understand that other cultures are possible, and that it’s time to envision them. There is much to do before the lights go out.
Shepard, Paul, Encounters With Nature, Island Press, Washington, D. C., 1999.