Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Wild Free and Happy Sample 53

 

[Note: This is the fifty-third sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.

[Continued from sample 52]

ABRAHAMIC WEB

Mesopotamian cultures preserved many traditional stories from long, long ago.  The tales began as oral traditions, and quite a few were later inscribed on clay tablets, many of which are still readable.  These tablets date as far back as 3500 B.C.  Much later, around 586 B.C., Hebrew people were living in exile in Babylon.  Most scholars agree that the writing of the Torah began in Babylon, a project to create a lasting record of older traditions.  The Torah contains the five books of Moses.  In the Bible, these five books are called Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

In Genesis, a lad named Abraham appeared.  Abdullah Öcalan wrote that Abraham has been celebrated as the founding father of monotheistic religion in three scriptures, first in the Torah, then the Bible, and later the Qur’an.  Abraham was the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — which is why these three are known as Abrahamic religions.  All three provide a stage for characters including Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, and Moses.  All three believe in angels, judgment day, heaven for the good folks, and hell for everyone else.  All of their prophets were male.

It’s interesting to note that some of the values, ideas, and themes in ancient Sumerian legends have left their fingerprints on stories in Abrahamic scriptures.  These seem to be an indication of the Mesopotamian web influencing the Abrahamic cultures, which then spread the ideas to distant realms.  Today, some of these traditions are known to more than a billion people.  Let’s take a quick peek at how they compare, and pay a few visits to other points of interest.

Creation

A few pages back, I mentioned a Babylonian creation myth, in which Marduk killed the goddess Tiamat, created the world with her body, and then created humans.  Over the span of several thousand years, numerous Mesopotamian societies created a wide variety of stories, and Marduk makes guest appearances in many.  Some say he was the son of Enki.

Older than the Babylonian story was a Sumerian creation story that starred the god Enki, and the goddess Ninmah.  Once upon a time, the gods and goddesses were feeling overworked, so they decided to invent servants.  While preparing to create humans, they got into the mood for spiritual work by drinking “overmuch” and becoming roaring drunk.  Consequently, because our creators were totally sloshed, every human has at least one serious defect.  (Now the world makes perfect sense!)

Over the years, reputable researchers have worked hard to decipher characters that were etched on clay tablets thousands of years ago, in a long extinct dialect.  Their translations present us with a sanitized version of this drunken creation story that was safe to share with innocent children.  They tell us that the gods created humans from “clay.”  Öcalan, writing in the comfort of his luxurious prison cell, enjoyed the freedom to sidestep a scholarly obligation to disguise embarrassing ancient raunchiness.  He wrote, “It does not take much interpretative skill to realize that the narrative suggests that these servants were created from the feces of the gods.”  Holy shit!  Walking turds!

Let us now turn our attention to the Abrahamic version of the creation story.  In Genesis, humans were created in the Garden of Eden, a wilderness paradise.  Adam was made first, and then Eve was made from his rib.  Humans were the creator’s masterpiece, made in his image.  The first two humans had everything they needed — food, water, clean air, a perfect ecosystem, and a hot date. 

They could remain in paradise as long as they obeyed just one simple rule — don’t eat apples from one forbidden tree, or you will be severely punished.  There were many other trees in the garden, and it was perfectly OK to eat as much of their fruit as you wished.  Of course, just 14 short verses after the stern warning, they chose to break the one and only rule. 

The creator was infuriated.  He tossed them some leather clothes, and threw them out of paradise.  Their punishment for disobeying divine instructions was to till the ground from which they came — condemned to spend the rest of their lives chained to the backbreaking drudgery of farming (Genesis 3:1-24).  Eve was gullible and dim, as was Adam.

The Qur’an also tells a version of creation that includes Adam, Eve, forbidden fruit, and nudity.  Humans may be the only animals that are embarrassed by their nakedness.  Like the Sumerian story, the first humans were created from clay (soil from the earth).

So, both the Sumerian and Abrahamic creation stories imply that humans are less than brilliant.  Both also introduce the existence of a cosmic hierarchy.  Deities are all-powerful, immortal, and often short tempered.  Gods are our masters, and good humans always obey our masters.  Complex societies can work more smoothly when obedience is believed to be virtuous, and the mobs behave in an orderly manner.  Wild, free, and happy societies had no masters or hierarchies. 

Flood

In the Sumerian story of the great flood, the booze-headed gods had become thoroughly sick of humans.  There were way too many of them, and they were now making so much noise that the gods couldn’t sleep at night.  So, the way to cleanse the land of these noxious primate pests was to unleash a great flood and drown them all. 

At this point, the god Enki told the king of Sumer, Ziusudra, to build a large barge, gather up his family, and specimens of the various animal species, and spare them from the coming floods.  So he did.  Then, it rained, and rained, and rained, generating a great flood that lasted seven days.  The world got much quieter, and the gods slept much better.  Ziusudra made an offering to Enki, and then his family got to work repopulating the Earth. 

Floods were serious bad juju in Sumer, because the normal season for flooding in the Tigris Euphrates watershed corresponded to the time when wheat and barley crops were normally ripe.  If the un-harvested grain was suddenly washed away, hunger times followed, and gravediggers would work overtime.  Myths provided an explanation for why the gods sometimes punished them (humans are annoying).

In the remarkably similar Abrahamic flood story, the god Yahweh instructed Noah to build an ark.  God was thoroughly sick of humans, and regretted creating them.  He saw humans as being thoroughly wicked — every thought that crossed their minds was evil.  They were hopeless, a mistake (Genesis 6:5-7).  God told Noah to build an ark and load it with critters.  Then it rained for forty days and forty nights, and the mountains were covered.  The flood lasted 150 days.  Every nonaquatic critter drowned.  The creator was happy again. 

Unfortunately, the small group of surviving humans who stepped off of the ark were the same inherently flawed critters who had boarded it, and would now proceed to repopulate the Earth.  God sighed, and then took pity on his imperfect evil-loving boo-boos.  “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done.”  (Genesis 8:21)  In Islam, Noah is also celebrated as a great prophet.  The Qur’an presents a similar version of the flood story, a tale of immoral unbelievers who were drowned for their wrongs.

Myths seem to indicate how ideas traveled via ancient webs.  In Greece, river floods were almost unknown, but their myths still included flood stories, likely reflecting a Mesopotamian influence.  In one tale, Zeus got furiously pissed off at the sins of humankind, and decided it was flood time.  Prometheus discovered the plan, and told his son Deucalion to build an ark or chest.  Floods arrived, and Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha (Pandora’s daughter) floated for nine days and nights, until they safely landed on Mount Othrys.  They recreate humans by throwing stones behind their back, from which people are born.

In the Norse story of Ragnarök, the humanlike gods subdued the four forces of nature.  Of course, nature violently broke loose, and gave the arrogant control freak gods their bloody just rewards.  The whole world burned, and was then was submerged by floods.  Earth was cleansed, healed, and renewed.  Greek myths also mention that, from time to time, fires destroyed the world.

When you toss a stone into still water, ripples fan out in expanding circles.  The apocalyptic culture of ancient Mesopotamia can seem to be a splash that rippled around the world, disturbing the very long era of kinder and gentler cultures that preceded it.

Herder vs. Farmer

Jared Diamond wrote that Mesopotamia was unusual because it was home to a number of plant and animal species that were suitable for domestication.  Early hunter-gatherers were delighted to discover abundant wild foods.  They ceased being nomads, eventually gobbled up too much of the abundance, and began fooling around with domestication. 

The friction between farmers and herders is very old.  Farmers clustered along the floodplains of waterways.  Crops were habitual heavy drinkers and, in lucky times, they could produce generous harvests of nutrient-rich grains and pulses (peas, lentils, etc.).  Farming was hard work.  It chained you to a piece of land, where the food stored in your granary could provide an irresistible temptation to nomadic raiders, violent parasites.

Floodplains were primo real estate for both farmers and herders.  Herders managed livestock that had a serious addiction to grass and water.  In the eyes of livestock, a lush field of wheat and barley was a paradise of yummy grass.  Was it the farmer’s job to protect his fields, or the herder’s job to keep his critters in the hills?  Herding was an attractive choice for people disinterested in backbreaking drudgery, folks who preferred the freedom of nomadic living.

Myths preserve the enduring friction between farmers and herders.  Sumerians told a story about the lovely goddess Inanna, who was courted by Dumuzid (a herder), and Enkimdu (a farmer).  She chose the herder, the more prudent choice. 

Much later, this story is echoed in the Abrahamic tradition, by the story Cain (farmer) and Abel (herder).  God did not favor Cain’s offering, but gladly accepted Abel’s.  This hurt Cain’s feelings, so he murdered his brother, which did not amuse God.  Cain was banished, wandered away, and built the city of Enoch.

In both stories, the farmer appears inferior.  The Sumerian and Abrahamic traditions were strongly influenced by the culture of nomadic pastoralism.  For example: “Neither shall ye build house, nor sow seed, nor plant vineyard, nor have any: but all your days ye shall dwell in tents; that ye may live many days in the land where ye be strangers.”  (Jeremiah 35:7)

Bruce Chatwin wrote, “The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea were nomadic revivalists who howled abuse at the decadence of civilization.  By sinking roots in the land, by laying house to house and field to field, by turning the Temple into a sculpture gallery, the people had turned from their God.”

Chatwin also mentioned that the name Cain means metal-smith, and that in several languages the words for “violence” and “subjugation” are linked to the discovery of metal, and the malevolent arts of technology.  Warfare became much bloodier.  The pages of the Old Testament document the violent deaths of up to several million people, and the destruction of many cities.  For example:

“And so it was, that in the seventh day the battle was joined: and the children of Israel slew of the Syrians an hundred thousand footmen in one day.” (Kings 1, 20:29)  “But the Syrians fled before Israel; and David slew of the Syrians seven thousand men which fought in chariots, and forty thousand footmen, and killed Shophach the captain of the host.” (Chronicles 1, 19:18)

Jared Diamond discussed God’s instructions to Hebrew warriors, regarding the proper treatment of heathens.  When an ordinary city you are attacking does not surrender, besiege it, kill every male, enslave the women, children, and cattle, and take what you want.  On the other hand, when attacking cities that worship false gods, like the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, “thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-18)  Diamond noted that Joshua faithfully slaughtered every person in over 400 cities. 

METAPHYSICAL WHIRLWINDS

Wild cultures were local and simple, and their notions of the cosmos, if any, were quite different from the religions of civilization.  With the emergence of farming and herding, populations grew, ecosystems got pounded, and bloody conflicts became more numerous and destructive.  Religions developed a number of new and unusual mutations.  Old fashioned traditions of respect and reverence for creation often got hurled overboard.  Civilization was focused on growth, wealth, status seeking, dominance, and other quirky kinks.

Multiply and Subdue

By the time that the Abrahamic scriptures had been written down, the notion of human supremacy was well established in the Fertile Crescent.  Indeed, the human saga is a long story of our cleverness, our tireless expansion into every land, and the tumultuous “progress” we unleashed. 

A classic example of this mindset appears in Genesis.  Immediately after creating Adam and Eve, the first instructions that God gave them were: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”  (Genesis 1:28) 

Humans were made in God’s image, the world was made for humans, and only humans matter (no mention of limits or foresight).  Our holy mission was to multiply, subdue, and dominate.  The descendants of Adam and Eve have displayed exceptional skill at achieving these objectives.  Unintended consequences now include the climate crisis, surging extinctions, soaring population, pollution, deforestation, and on and on. 

Biblical scholars have reported that Earth was created between 4000 B.C. and 3000 B.C., some calculating specifically 3137 B.C., but scientists have some doubts.  Scholars who study historic demographic trends estimate that in that era, humankind had a population between 7 to 14 million.  Almost all of the planet still looked a lot like an ecological paradise.  Water in the Mississippi, Rhine, and Thames was safe to drink.  The Irish rainforest was full of stags, wolves, and boars.

Writing is a fantastically powerful technology, for both illuminating and casting spells.  If there was a deep cave somewhere in which God was unable to read our every thought, some might be tempted to question whether divine instructions given to a world of 14 million are still wise and appropriate in a world zooming toward 8 billion.  In the twenty-first century, maybe contraceptives are not tools of the devil.  But that cave does not exist.  Never mind!  Just kidding!

Linear Time

Control freak societies can get obsessive-compulsive about time, measuring it in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia.  I am writing at 4:08 PM PST on Sunday, January 17, A.D. 2021.  This moment is unique in the life of the universe, like a fingerprint, or a DNA sequence.  Many were just born, many just died, and Big Mama Nature received more kicks.

Wild folks had a softer and gentler perception of time.  Time was the daily passage of the sun across the sky, and the monthly phases of the moon.  Time was the perpetual cycle of winter, spring, summer, and fall.  It was the zig and zag of wet seasons and dry seasons, of cold ones and hot ones, of serenity and frightening storms.  For these people, time was circular, a wheel that never stops turning.  It keeps spinning and spinning, and it is real and alive and good.

In a number of Neolithic societies, like those in Mesopotamia, something extremely weird happens — the notion of linear time emerges.  It is not circular.  Linear time is like a drag strip for tire-burning hot rods, a one-way sprint from the starting line (creation) to the finish line (apocalypse), from paradise to wasteland, from womb to worms.  It is a cosmic (comic?) soap opera in which the spotlights remain focused on the rise and fall of an odd and amusing species of primates — as if we are the one and only thing in the universe that matters.  Nothing came before us, and nothing shall follow us.  How weird!

Paul Shepard said that folks living in Neolithic societies couldn’t help but notice that their way of life was wobbly, sloppy, and turbulent.  He wrote, “Living amidst collapsing ecosystems, agrarians accept a religion of arbitrary gods, catastrophic punishments by flood, pestilence, famine, and drought in an apocalyptic theology.”  Folks could see that the surrounding region was dotted with the ruins of past glory, remnants of the eternal two-step of overshoot, and its faithful companion, collapse.

Populations sometimes grew faster than Big Mama Nature could limit the swarms.  When the flood plains reached full occupancy, settlement expanded into forests, and up hillsides.  Hungry herds of hooved locusts chewed away the vegetation, exposing the naked soil, which blew away and washed away.  Rainfall and snowmelt rapidly ran off of stripped slopes.  Consequently, catastrophic floods were common, as were landslides.  Irrigation systems eventually made the fields so salty that nothing can grow in them.  A satellite flying over Mesopotamia now sees THIS.

The McNeills commented on the expanding shoreline along the Persian Gulf, into which the Tigris and Euphrates emptied.  Sumerian cities that were once located on the coast, or close to it, are today up to 100 miles (161 km) inland from the shore.  Former islands are now mainland, far from the coast.  Massive erosion was a perfectly normal consequence of upstream deforestation, overgrazing, and agriculture. 

George Perkins Marsh, in his 1864 book, described his visits to the ruins of many classic civilizations, and (correctly) worried that America was on the same path.  He wrote that where the Roman Empire once reigned, more than half of their lands today (1860s) are either deserted, desolate, or at least greatly reduced in both productiveness and population.  Vast forests are gone, much soil has been lost, springs have dried up, famous rivers have shrunk to humble brooklets, smaller rivers have dried up or have become seasonal, entrances to navigable streams are blocked by sandbars, former harbors are now distant from the sea, and large areas of shallow sea and fertile lowland are now foul smelling unhealthy swamps.

The ancient Greeks saw history as a long and tragic saga of human decline.  Hesiod writes of the Golden Age: “They lived like gods, free from worry and fatigue; old age did not afflict them; they rejoiced in continual festivity.”  This was followed by the Silver Age, a matriarchal era of agriculture, when men obeyed their mothers.  This was followed by the Bronze Age, a patriarchal era of war.  “Their pitiless hearts were as hard as steel; their might was untamable, their arms invincible.”  This was followed by the Iron Age, a time “when men respect neither their vows, nor justice, nor virtue.”

Today, we live in the Overshoot Age, when billions of people spend their lives in the crazy lane, and nothing seems to really matter.  Do redwoods matter, or whales, or polar bears, or ravens, or children?  Is anything sacred?  Hello?  Is anybody home?

Holy Lands

Wild cultures felt a sense of sacred oneness with their ancestral homeland.  It was a relationship of profound reverence and respect.  Their creation stories do not include the notion of being forcibly evicted from paradise for naughty behavior.  Something like paradise was their birthplace and permanent address, the home of their ancestors, and the generations yet to be born.  A Karuk man once took me to a bluff, and pointed down to a bend in the Klamath River where the Karuk people were first brought into existence, long, long ago.

Modern Americans are two-legged tumbleweeds that have blown in from countless distant places.  We frequently move every few years.  Many tumbleweeds have little or no knowledge of their ancestral homelands.  Many never develop a spiritual connection to any place.  For them, nature is typically nothing more than a meaningless static backdrop along the highway, stuff they zoom past during their daily travels.

Paul Shepard noted that this was a big shift away from older cultures, in which folks felt a profound spiritual connection to the land where they lived.  His wife Florence Shepard said it like this, “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.”  By the time wild children reach puberty, they have developed a healthy connection to place.  They have a profound sense of belonging that most modern tumbleweeds cannot begin to imagine, and will never experience.

Vine Deloria was a Yankton Sioux who had immense respect for their traditional culture, because it had deep roots in place, and a healthy sense of coherence.  Settlers were ridiculously incoherent.  A missionary would tell them they were devil worshippers, convert them to the one true faith, and then a year later the next missionary would inform them that the first one was a demonic fire hose of lies and deceptions.  All the black robes read the same book, but none agreed on what it meant.

In 1945, a farmer named Mohammed Ali found an ancient jar near Nag Hammadi in Egypt.  Among the contents of this jar was a book containing the Gospel of Thomas.  This gospel of Jesus’ life had never been edited, corrected, clarified, or blessed by the official Holy Roman Church.  In chapter 113 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is talking about the nature of heaven — God’s kingdom.  He said that it was not an event that would occur in the future.  Here is what he said: “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”  In other words, heaven is where your feet are standing.  Wherever you stand is sacred ground.

Moralizing Society

Harvey Whitehouse wrote about how deities changed with the rise of civilizations.  Complex societies tend to promote the rise of gods that are all-powerful, all-seeing, and tireless moralizers — deities that reward the virtuous, and spank the naughty.  Folks tend to be more motivated by the fear of punishment, rather than the desire for rewards.  Strict morals can also be useful for getting ethnically diverse groups to march to the same drum, without getting uppity.

The objective here was to encourage beneficial behavior, because a disempowered, obedient, and orderly mob was a productive and profitable mob.  Elites do not enjoy the presence of rebels and rabble-rousers.  But in a big community, troublesome folks can often become invisible within the vast anonymous crowds.  In theory, all-seeing moralizing gods are personal deities.  They always know exactly what you (and everyone else) are doing and thinking.

In simple societies, the local spirits were less likely to become morality police.  There was no cultural diversity to generate friction, everyone shared the same worldview.  Folks in small groups lived in fishbowls — everyone was well aware of what everyone else was doing.  There were no secrets.  Folks were inclined to behave mindfully.  Misbehavior could lead to friendly nudges, a damaged reputation, an ass whooping, or ostracism. 

John Trudell, a Santee Sioux activist, bitterly detested the colonization of the Americas.  Traditionally, tribal people were raised in a culture of spiritual reality, which emphasized a profound respect and reverence for the family of life.  Their guiding star was responsibility.  Settlers, on the other hand, were far less interested in notions of responsibility.  Preachers blasted tribal folks with intensely toxic moralizing.  A primary objective was to make people feel powerless, to convince them that they’re bad, sinful, evil from birth — to paralyze them with guilt and shame, to strip away their self-respect.

Vine Deloria said that a tribal person “does not live in a tribe, the tribe lives in him.”  Their sense of identity was rooted in “we,” not “me.”  Self-centeredness was a spiritual abnormality.  Everyone had powerful bonds to the land, the clan, and their family.  I am an only child, and my good buddy Jim was one of seven children.  I envy their powerful lifelong bonds, and their ongoing mutual support.  This is the mode in which social primates evolved to live.

Robert Anton Wilson noted that living within a tribe, and benefitting from mutual support, was vital for survival.  Being punished by banishment or exile was like being thrown overboard in the high seas — an extremely brutal and terrifying punishment that was only chosen for hopelessly impossible buttheads.  Execution would have been more merciful.  The benefits of mutual support really encouraged conformity to time-proven tribal norms.

And this, dear reader, is why hierarchical societies, like industrial civilization, are wonderlands of craziness.  The air is constantly hissing with the voices of sorcerers.  Thou shalt compete (not cooperate).  Thou shalt hoard (not share).  Thou shalt always strive to become a heroic example of personal success and extravagant excess.  Fun fact: “Thou shalt” appears exactly 500 times in the King James Bible. 

Individual Salvation

A few pages back, we learned that the Sumerian gods could be sloppy drunks.  They created humans so flawed that the only solution was to exterminate them with a great flood.  The Genesis story echoes this.  When the flood subsided, Noah’s surviving kinfolk were still just as flawed as the countless humans who were deliberately drowned.  A rational person could wonder why all-knowing, all-powerful creators kept flubbing up when creating humans, but that might be heresy.  Let’s not go there.  Reason and religion usually sleep in separate beds.

It’s not heresy to perceive the obvious.  These Neolithic cultures clearly taught that the humans were inherently flawed.  In the Christian tradition, every newborn is evil until baptized.  Once baptized, living in strict obedience to divine instructions is not mandatory.  The world is filled with temptations, and we all have the freedom to be naughty or nice.  Nice folks are obedient, and their reward is salvation, the heavenly ticket to eternal paradise.  Death is when the good times begin.

With regard to salvation, everyone is equal, from billionaires to ditch diggers, women, and slaves.  Everyone has the option of seeking the path to a wonderful afterlife.  Nobody is worthless.  This is very cool, because if you were born a slave, that was God’s will, not a cruel misfortune.  So, with this understanding, you can happily shovel shit for a few decades, and then go to paradise for eternity.  Yippee!

Belief in salvation can be so powerful that it overrides survival instincts.  Michael Dowd wrote, “In group-to-group conflicts, any culture that offers the promise of an afterlife to those who heroically martyr themselves will likely triumph over an army of atheists who have the rational belief that death marks the absolute end of individual existence.”

Humans are social critters, not stray cats.  We are most comfortable when we are among small intimate groups of family and friends, where everyone is equal, and we care for each other.  With regard to individual salvation, the opposite is true.  When it’s time to meet the divine for your final exam, you are completely on your own.  I may achieve salvation, while everyone I love and respect does not (or vice versa).

Beyond flawed humans, the entire planet is flawed.  In the Christian sphere, they believe that the world is the realm of Satan, a place of evil.  For them, Earth is something like a cheap motel room where we get an opportunity to spend some time demonstrating our worthiness for salvation (or the toasty alternative).  It’s just an audition.  Of course, this implies that the living ecosystem does not deserve respect and reverence.  It’s just a funky roadside flophouse with stained sheets with cigarette burns, a cheap place for a short stay.  It’s OK to smash it up (or flood it).

[Continued on sample 54]

Friday, January 22, 2021

Wild Free and Happy Sample 52

 

[Note: This is the fifty-second sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.

HUMAN WEBS

The culture we live in is fantastically irrational, burning every bridge it crosses, and then charging forward to rubbish what lies ahead.  Efforts to comprehend reality often result in throbbing headaches.  In the early pages of this book, I mentioned a fundamental question that William Cronon’s father gave him, to help his son navigate the path of life with greater wisdom, “How did things get to be this way?”  Both father and son were history professors.  His question has guided my process of writing this book.

William and John McNeill were another father and son team of historians, and their vision was to write a book that actually answered the question.  William’s 1963 experiment was written in a conventional history textbook style, and was a hefty 829 pages.  John thought a slimmer and slicker book was possible.  He envisioned an unconventional approach, and with a few years of effort the two of them got the job done in 350 pages, The Human Web.

Webs are relationships that link together groups of people that have come into contact with each other.  These meetings encourage exchanges of information.  In ancient times, hunter-gatherers were few in number, and widely dispersed.  Bow and arrow technology somehow spread around the wild and roadless planet, to every continent except Australia.  This was made possible, over the passage of millennia, by the first worldwide web, which remained a loose and informal network.  As wild folks migrated into unknown lands, and encountered new challenges, innovation increased the odds for survival.  Learning the skills used by others could be extremely beneficial.

Then came agriculture.  As farming and herding grew in importance, the human herd also grew.  More and more cities and civilizations mutilated once-healthy ecosystems, filling the land with more and more people.  Strangers from different webs bumped into each other, more and more often.  These random meetings exposed folks to more and more foreign technologies, crops, ideas, goods, and so on.  Over time, regional webs formed, and these often merged with others, forming larger webs.  Webs enabled a wide variety of information to travel to distant lands, where it accumulated, mutated, intermingled, and jumped on the next boat or caravan to elsewhere. 

Eventually, via this process of mergers and acquisitions, the most powerful web of all came into existence around A.D. 200, the Old World Web.  In its early phase, it spanned across North Africa and most of Eurasia.  By 1450, about 75 percent of humans lived within it.  After 1890 it grew explosively.  Today, it has essentially become a single worldwide web that includes most of humankind, from beggars to billionaires.

As professors, the McNeills had a sacred occupational obligation to gush with pride about the wonders of science, technology, progress, and human brilliance.  It’s mandatory that innocent young students be filled with a radicalized blind faith that we’re zooming up the path to a better tomorrow.  At the same time, the McNeills felt a moral obligation to make an embarrassing confession, regarding the dark shadow of brilliance — civilization’s chronic addiction to self-destructive habits.  The amazing consumer wonderland that we live in is only kept on life support by ever-growing complexity made possible by ever-increasing flows of rapidly diminishing non-renewable resources, especially fossil energy — a steep and slippery downhill path to a mangled tomorrow.

More and more, the inflow of strategic resources is getting dodgy.  We are moving at a brisk velocity toward rock solid limits.  Consequently, John regretfully sighed, “the chances of cataclysmic violence seem depressingly good.”  They were writing 20 years ago, back in the happy days when far less was known about methane plumes, melting permafrost, abrupt climate change, and the limits of modern technology to conjure miraculous solutions.

Deep Connection

In prehistoric times, webs were small and simple exchanges between neighboring tribes.  Like all other wild critters, our ancestors were absolutely integrated into the ecosystem around them, to a degree that we can barely imagine today — like your hand is connected to your arm.  The full attention of all their senses was tuned into the sights, sounds, and smells of the surrounding land.  Their world was sacred, spiritually alive, worthy of full respect.

Louis Liebenberg spent lots of time among hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, folks who lived like your ancestors once did.  Today, some experts believe that the ancestors of every living human trace back to their ancient gene pool.  Hunting on the hot, dry Kalahari was challenging.  Some hunters were more skilled than others.  In one group, up to half of the adult men did not kill even one large animal in a year.  Some barely killed any large game during their entire lives.  Reciprocity was the bedrock norm.  Meat was always equally shared with everyone.  Hunters were expected to be humble and gentle.  When a lad had a long lucky streak, he might take some time off — sometimes for weeks or months — to avoid inspiring envy and resentment.

Each band lived within a territory that they considered their hunting grounds.  The boundary lines were not marked, but all the neighboring hunting bands knew where they were, and respected them.  Boundaries reduced the likelihood of friction and conflict.  In drought years, when a hunting ground dried up, the band could shift to the hunting ground of an allied band.  This provided life insurance in a land where precipitation varied from place to place, and year to year.

It’s hard to imagine our ancestors’ extremely intimate connection to place.  Natalie Diaz described this relationship.  In the Mojave culture, there is no separation between me and the place that surrounds me, we are one.  Each person is entirely a living embodiment of the nearby water, air, soil, plants, and animals.  In the Mojave language, the same word is used to express both body and land, because they are the same.  People are buried in the land of their birth, the land of their ancient ancestors, the place where they belong, home sweet home.  Over time, the family of life recycles their corpses, and new beings arise.

You carry yourself much differently when you deeply experience your sacred connection to all that is, and are fully present in a healthy wild ecosystem.  This sense of oneness with life, experienced by our Homo ancestors for more than two million years, has had a substantial influence on the development of what we are as a species.  The mind and body of the amazing critter you see in the mirror was fine-tuned via a very, very long era of successfully living as happy, healthy, brown skinned, curly haired, bare naked, illiterate wild heathens in the tropics. 

We continue to squirt out of the womb with the genes of a Pleistocene tropical primate.  Today’s newborns still expect to open their eyes in a healthy wild world that is filled with abundant life.  They are ready to spend their life’s journey wandering, living in small bands of family and friends, singing under the stars, dining on a generous variety of wild foods.  We only become unstable oddballs when we are born into a dysfunctional society, and have no choice but to learn its ways.

For us, still today, it is comfortable and enjoyable to be among small groups of people that we love, respect, and trust.  Cooperation and sharing are what healthy humans naturally do.  We expect to be fondly treated like an equal. 

In modern society, most of us do not spend every day surrounded by an intimate circle of equals.  It is unpleasant being around folks who are self-centered, disrespectful, and exploitive.  We are constantly encouraged by our culture’s thundering jungle drums to live and think like individuals, not sisters and brothers.  The fundamental verb of life is compete.  A primary purpose in life is to climb as high as possible up the pyramid of wealth and power. 

For us, still today, it is comfortable and enjoyable to wander through a forest, gathering mushrooms, berries, and nuts.  It’s healing to watch moonlight rippling on the surface of a wild and isolated lake.  It’s inspiring to feast on the beauty of northern lights in a winter wonderland.

In modern society, eight lane highways filled with speeding motorized wheelchairs seem like horrific glimpses into the rumbling bowels of hell.  Nothing could be more unnatural and traumatizing than living amidst large numbers of strangers, day after day.  We are like zoo inmates surrounded by walls and fences.  John Livingston wrote that lions raised in zoos, under absolute human control, and isolated from wild habitat, go insane.  They are “overfed, graceless, apathetic, almost catatonic.”  No animal was meant to live like this.

Today, our lives are connected to the global economy, industrial civilization, numerous news and entertainment feeds, and necessities produced by perfect strangers in faraway places.  Many of us don’t feel at home in nature.  We live in climate controlled space stations, staring at glowing screens, lonely in a world of billions, clinging to our companion animals.  Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, “What can one expect from a man who has spent the last 20 years of his life putting heads on pins?”

Big Fork

John Gowdy put his spotlight on a massive shift in the human saga.  Humans emerged maybe 300,000 years ago, near the end of the Pleistocene epoch.  The Pleistocene was a 2.5 million year era of countless whipsaw climate swings.  Trends could sometimes shift from ice age to tropical in just two centuries.  The pattern changed around 9,700 B.C., with the arrival of the Holocene epoch, a highly unusual and long lasting era of climate stability and warmer temperatures. 

In several regions of the world, this change led to an abundance of wild grain.  For the first time, it became possible for agriculture to be practiced over the span of several thousand years without blast freezer interruptions.  Conditions became suitable for civilization.  Today, as temperature trends swerve toward hothouse, this moderate stable climate is beginning to experience sharp chest pains.  The sun is setting on the Holocene, and shadows are deepening on the future of industrial agriculture, and the billions who depend on it.  Climate change gave birth to our reckless joyride, and climate change will drive an iron stake through its heart.

James Scott focused his research on southern Mesopotamia because it was the birthplace of the earliest genuine states.  What are states?  They are hierarchical class-based societies, with rulers and tax collectors, built on a foundation of farming and herding.  Taxes were usually paid with grain, which was easier to transport and store than more perishable stuff.  States often had armies, defensive walls, palaces, ritual centers, and slaves.

In Mesopotamia (now Iraq and Kuwait), the transition from wild tribes to states took several thousand years.  By around 12,000 B.C., there is scattered evidence of hunter-gatherers who quit being nomads and settled down in regions having abundant wild foods.  The menu included wild grains and pulses, large herbivores, and wetland wildlife.  Plant and animal domestication began around 9,000 B.C.  Then, it took at least four thousand years (160 generations) before agricultural villages appeared, and then another two thousand years before the first states emerged, around 3,100 B.C. 

States were typically located close to the floodplains of large rivers, places having abundant fertile soil.  They could produce enough grain to feed a pool of laborers.  States had no interest in expanding into less productive lands that couldn’t generate enough wealth to pay the cost of governing them.  Scott noted that as late as A.D. 1600, most humans in the world were still not governed or taxed by any state. 

Over thousands of years, as many groups gradually shifted from wild and free toward a creepy new role as hardworking law-abiding taxpayers, housewives, or slaves, huge social changes took place.  On the other hand, wild humans in the tropics did not have a more-is-better mindset when acquiring plant and animal foods.  They simply took what they immediately needed, always being mindful to avoid overuse of scarce resources.  They lived and thought like a coherent group, not a motley crew of competitive self-centered individuals.  This very long tradition of mutual support strongly influenced the evolution of who we are today.

The important point here is that wild people were free, nobody gave or obeyed orders.  But with the transition to farming and herding, freedom got put on a short leash.  We began living under the firm control of a hierarchy of masters.  Small groups can readily and happily cooperate, but large dense groups tend to generate snarls and sparks.  Crowding overwhelms our Pleistocene minds, generating anxiety, paranoia, rage, depression, and so on.  Naturally, this undermines social tranquility. 

Masters fear disorder, because angry mobs can rip them to pieces.  To prevent this, crowds must be overseen by enforcers.  Rules must be strictly obeyed, and violators punished.  Growing up in civilization, folks have to obey numerous rules decreed by families, schools, religions, businesses, bureaucracies, and so on.  The god words for this way of life include compete, control, and obey.

Most of humankind is now compelled to spend much of their time wandering among mobs of strangers, folks who are not friends or kin.  Some crowded communities are ruled by violent gangs, ideological fanatics, or the chaotic whims of fate.  Others have law and order, tolerable rules, and sufficient enforcement — the preferred option for those who must live in Strangerland.

Livingston wrote that many endure the numbing conformity of Strangerland by choosing the safe and easy path of docility.  Rules are good tools for controlling people, but beliefs are sometimes even better.  When properly programmed by an ideology, our behavior can be largely manipulated by an autopilot of beliefs, like a self-driving robo-car.  Believers passively accept control from their superiors, and leap to their feet and when der Führer calls.

Because we excel at herd-like followership and self-deception, it’s easy to be swept away by trendy fads or bloody gangsters.  Leni Riefenstahl filmed Triumph of the Will, a haunting documentary on the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, which starred 700,000 Nazi supporters.  Scene after scene shows streets jammed with folks in crisp new uniforms, marching in orderly rows.  Today, with the benefit of highly advanced communication systems, charismatic hucksters, sorcerers, and lunatics can entrance large mobs of naive believers in many locations at the same time. 

Carl Jung lived through the whirlwinds of death and destruction during two world wars.  This was an ideal time to become a psychotherapist.  Mobs bring out the worst in us, creating ideal conditions for devastating psychic epidemics.  “The larger the number of people involved in an action, the greater the propensity towards mindlessness and barbarism.”  Huge growing crowds jammed together in big cities encouraged what Jung called the insectification of humankind.  People were at risk of “complete atomization into nothingness, or into meaninglessness.  Man cannot stand a meaningless life.” 

Mesopotamian Web

Sometime before 3,000 B.C., the first state-based civilization emerged in Sumer, located in southern Mesopotamia, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers approach the Persian Gulf, and empty into it.  This civilization developed the cultural DNA for the Mesopotamian web, which eventually metastasized into the Old World Web by around A.D. 200.  Today, the Old World Web dominates the whole planet, providing the thundering drumbeat for the global economy and industrial civilization.  Sumer initially lit the fuse. 

Abdullah Öcalan is a Kurdish political scientist (and political prisoner).  He wrote about the history of Mesopotamia, his ancestral homeland.  Sumerian civilization established or advanced many unusual experiments, including agriculture, herding, patriarchy, slavery, irrigation, deforestation, metallurgy, etc.  The ability to produce surplus food enabled some folks to indulge in specialized pursuits — merchants, potters, smiths, miners, leather workers, fishermen, bricklayers, weavers, scribes, and so on. 

Sumer’s inventions include the calendar, writing, mathematics, astrology, and prostitution.  Women took a distant second place in the gender hierarchy.  The traditional animism of wild folks was displaced by new forms of religion, first pantheism (multiple gods and goddesses), and later monotheism (one male god).  Öcalan wrote that today’s mosques, churches, synagogues, and universities have their roots in Mesopotamian ziggurats (temples). 

The McNeills noted that these ziggurats, constructed with millions of mud bricks, were the most conspicuous buildings in cities (like many of our jumbo sized capitol buildings and worship centers).  At the time, they were the biggest manmade structures in the world.  Ziggurats were monuments built to pay honor to deities.  In the good old days, all gods were local, each city had one or more.  Religions were local too.  Gods were twitchy scary rascals who sometimes made believers fat and happy, and other times sent plagues, locusts, famines, floods, fires, and other assorted miseries to slap them down, or rub them out. 

In order to discourage divine fury, cities built super-duper temples to flatter their gods’ fragile egos.  Benefits, if any, were temporary.  The ziggurats are long gone, and their gods abandoned.  In Babylon, the legendary Tower of Babel was built as tall as possible, which oddly pissed off their temperamental god, who saw it as an outrageous act of blasphemy that required strong punishment.  Some think the Babel legend was inspired by the ziggurat of Marduk (Babylon’s god), which certainly existed.

Babel is the Hebrew word for Babylon, a city on the Euphrates in northern Mesopotamia.  Let’s take a quick side trip here.  In maybe 586 B.C., Babylon’s famous ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, captured Jerusalem, destroyed their temple, and led the Jews away to a less than pleasurable exile in Babylon.  The Jews brought with them their scrolls of sacred scriptures, and this sparked a historic event — the creation of the first portable religion.  They were living and worshipping in a place that was far from their holy land.  The portability enabled by written scriptures made multinational religions possible — believers could establish congregations anywhere in the world.

In Babylon, congregations of Jewish men and women gathered for weekly meetings to spend time with a rabbi who discussed the sacred scriptures.  This preserved their cultural identity, and allowed them to remain distinct.  They did not melt into Babylonian society.  Congregational religions were another innovation from this era.  The McNeills wrote that this put Jews on the path to monotheism.  If the deity of Jerusalem could be worshipped in Babylon, then he could also be worshipped in Egypt or Lebanon.  One god fits all… everywhere.

As centuries passed, cities, civilizations, and empires grew.  In them, numerous competing variations of congregational religions provided solace to the huddled masses of Strangerland.  They enabled city dwellers to be among like-minded people with familiar faces, to benefit from friendship and mutual support, and to righteously snort and sneer at local heretics and infidels.  Urban populations lacked the intimate sense of community found in village life, or tribal life.  Congregations provided some pain relief, a sense of meaning and belonging.

Patriarchy

Öcalan presented a different perspective on the birth of monotheism.  Long, long ago, Babylon was home to a minor league god named Marduk.  Eventually, he rose to prominence after mercilessly slaughtering the primordial sea-serpent goddess, Tiamat (the female principle), and creating the world with her body.  Marduk (the male principle) then created humans, to take care of the daily dirty work as servants and slaves, freeing the gods to enjoy a decadent life of leisure and debauchery.

Marduk could be helpful or brutal, depending on his mood.  Over time, he became the supreme deity, and gained the title Bel (Lord).  In Babylon, he was astrologically associated with the jumbo planet we now call Jupiter.  Over time, this Mesopotamian web spread into new regions.  In Greece, the top god Zeus was also associated with Jupiter.  When it eventually got to Rome, their highest god was actually named Jupiter. 

What was happening here was a huge revolutionary transition in the human saga, from the Stone Age to the Neolithic era (the new stone age), when folks shifted from hunting and foraging to farming and herding.  The Neolithic first arose in Mesopotamia.  Then, the highly contagious culture spread to North Africa, India, China, the Danube region, southwest Europe, and elsewhere.  It matured into a culture of civilization, food production, slavery, patriarchy, growth mania, and so on.

In wild webs, bands of hunter-gatherers lived via cooperation.  In the Mesopotamian web, workers, housewives, and slaves were obligated to submit to the control of their assorted masters.  Top level masters (kings, emperors, etc.) were mortal patriarchs who had an expiration date.  Upon death, a new master had to take his place.  Sometimes the transfer of power was smooth, and other times it sparked fury.

Monotheism’s deity, Big Daddy, was immortal, invisible, and divine — the supreme master, who endured the passage of centuries, and the rise and fall of mortal rulers.  His rules were the highest ones.  They were permanent, and disobedience was dangerous and stupid.  God must be feared.  The invisible Big Daddy watches everything you do, and knows your every thought.  We behave differently when someone is watching us, and we experience guilt, shame, and paranoia when our minds are being read.  This submission to multiple layers of masters and rules was the oxygen that kept civilization on life support. 

In his pro-feminist writing, Öcalan wrote, “The 5,000 year history of civilization is essentially the history of the enslavement of women.”  Prior to 2000 B.C., the woman-mother culture strongly influenced Sumerian civilization, and the two sexes were fairly equal (no shaming of women).  Over time, the warrior class encouraged a strongman cult that came to dominate religion.  The creator of heaven and Earth was male (Marduk).  “So radical was this sexual rupture, that it resulted in the most significant change in social life that history has ever seen.”

This led to the “housewifization” of women, a sharp demotion.  Their new role was to sit at home, and faithfully obey their husbands.  Chastity became mandatory, in order to guarantee the genuine paternity of daddy’s children, so that only his true sons would rightfully inherit his wealth.  It was vital that young women remain virgins prior to marrying their master.

[Continued in sample 53]

 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 51

 [Note: This is the fifty-first sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.

[Continued from sample 50]

Plan B

And now, dearest reader, it’s time for a brief message from your humble storyteller.  Hi!  I’m going nuts!  The plan here was to compress some super-significant trends of the last 10,000 years down to a lumpy chubby chapter.  It’s a journey that wanders from wild, free, and happy to the nightmarish whirlwinds of the twenty-first century.  It’s about unconditional surrender to those who control us, and to the beliefs we’re expected to profess.  It’s about wealth and obsession with status.  It’s about disconnection from nature, disintegration of traditional wild cultures, and a free-fall into self-destructive meaninglessness without a parachute.

I’m far more comfortable talking about logical and linear history — names, dates, places, descriptions, consequences.  But this chapter spends some time poking and squeezing a number of slippery and slithery mental inventions that smell like abstractions, mental fabrications — freedom, control, progress, success, etc.  I am not a philosopher.  Abstractions are not my forte, and I’ve burned up too many hours trying to envision a clever approach here.

I would love it if this rowdy mob of ideas would simply go to their assigned seats and, in an orderly manner, stand up and introduce themselves to you.  They aren’t interested.  They aren’t obedient robots.  So, Plan B is to flip through a series of snapshots, an exhibition of impressions, ideas, trends, and curiosities.  What follows is not logical and linear, it’s more random, intertwined, and meandering.  Let’s see what happens.  Do your best.  Here we go.

Wild Oneness

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, living in small nomadic groups.  Survival required cooperation, sharing, and the prompt resolution of conflicts.  They were egalitarian, everyone enjoyed equal worth — women, men, young, and old.  Nobody gave orders, or obeyed orders.  Nobody went hungry unless everyone did.  Folks who became infected with pride, and got big headed, were mocked and shunned until they recovered.  Healthy communities could not tolerate the disharmony generated by self-centered oddballs. 

Over the course of two million years, hominins fine-tuned the dance of small group survival in tropical grasslands.  This long and gentle path carefully guided the evolution of our bodies and minds.  Each band of hunter-gatherers operated with a conscious identity of “we.”  They thought like a group, not a bucketful of anxious, irritated, self-oriented individuals.

Similarly, the relationship between bands of hunter-gatherers and the surrounding family of life also consisted of a strong sense of “we,” of oneness.  Richard Nelson spent time with the Koyukon people of Alaska, who were the opposite of arrogant human supremacists.  They told him, “Every animal knows way more than you do,” which was true.  Wild critters perfectly understood the art of natural survival.  It was impossible for tropical primates to survive in Alaska without manmade technology that compensated for their numerous physiological limitations.

Nelson beautifully described their attitude of profound respect and reverence.  “Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes.  A person moving through nature — however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be — is never truly alone.  The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified.  They feel.  They can be offended.  And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect.  All things in nature have a special kind of life, something unknown to contemporary Euro-Americans, something powerful.”

Herds and Property

Among tropical wild people, personal property was minimal, usually no more than could be carried in both hands — spears, nets, pouches, feathers, baskets, bits of clothing, and so on.  Nobody coveted simple stuff like this.  It did not make people crazy, greedy, or homicidal.  There was no hoarding.  A hunter would get no benefit from owning 900 spears.  Spears were too quick and easy to replace.

For hunter-gatherers, status was not based on property, it was based on their special knowledge or abilities — healing, storytelling, tracking, hunting, conflict resolution, shamanic gifts, and so on.  Social status was about respect — not power, authority, competition, or control.  Everyone knew who was really good at certain stuff, and they received honor for their gifts.  This form of status was normal and healthy. 

Herding was a different game.  Managing livestock was a constant responsibility.  Animals had to be guided to water and fresh grass.  They had to be protected from predation.  Wild carnivores had to be exterminated at every opportunity.  Male animals not needed for breeding services were mellowed out via castration.  Some nomads regularly collected milk from lactating females.  Herders assisted when animals were birthing.  To avoid overgrazing, and to discourage losses from escape and predation, there were limits to herd size.  Thus, a relationship formed between herders and the group of critters they regularly oversaw.  Master and slave.  Controller and controlled. 

Hunting produced meat via skill and good luck.  Herding produced meat via totalitarian control.  The concept of personal property expanded to include valuable animal slaves, a source of nourishing life energy.  Each critter in my herd became a status symbol, and my social rank was based on the value of the status symbols I possessed.  You are what you own.  This was a new and radical shift in the human saga.  It inspired a sense of power and omnipotence, an amazingly brilliant smarty-pants, Superman.  For the first time in the human saga, Superman could have ongoing life and death control over tons of living meat.  Whoa! 

My ownership of an easily replaced spear or loincloth had trivial importance.  On the other hand, my ownership of 40 large herbivores was a matter of tremendous significance.  This set me apart from (and above) someone who merely owned two goats.  More is better could lead to notions that I am better.  Superman had no immunity to a highly contagious mania known as status fever, which reduces kind and decent people to obnoxiously ambitious nutjobs.

Status Fever

Over time, status fever spread to epidemic levels in some cultures, becoming a primary motivator for individuals and groups.  It led to the emergence of many powerful nomadic tribes and empires, motivated by swarms of screaming demons.  More is better, by any means necessary!  Grab as much as you can.

Today, of course, billions suffer from advanced stages of multi drug resistant status fever, and most of them are not livestock herders.  Countless things have now been reduced to silly status trinkets that delirious consumers find irresistible, including clothing, jewelry, shoes, cell phones, jumbo TVs, appliances.  It’s a never-ending lifelong treadmill of resource intensive acquisitions, upgraded at every opportunity — bigger houses, fancier cars, cooler boats, exotic vacations, and on and on.  More!  More!  More!

Our culture celebrates this status seeking mentality, and encourages youngsters to spend their lives striving to increase their status display to the highest degree possible.  We are expected to continuously strive to hoard more than our neighbors, more than our parents and siblings, and to own more stuff than we owned last year.  Obviously, this is a ridiculously unsustainable dead end way of life.  If we weren’t raised in consumer society, this game would appear to be utterly idiotic and insane (and it is).

Stan Rowe perceived that consumers are raging narcissists, spellbound by their own image, imprisoned in an introspective cage — too much time spent before the mirror.  Their culture has become disconnected from an ancient relationship with nature and the family of life.  Many devote their entire lives to acquiring and discarding unnecessary stuff, hoping to someday find inner peace.  They are trying to fill the vacuum created by their loss of wildness, freedom, and functional community.  It’s an ineffective attempt to suppress a gnawing hollowness in their lives.

William Cronon compared and contrasted Native American society with the culture of European colonists.  Indians enjoyed far greater affluence because they were in an intimate long-term relationship with their ecosystem, and the things they considered to be needs were minimal.  They didn’t need a luxurious post and beam trophy home with a stone fireplace and a four horse garage.  When you have few wants, the path to prosperity is short and easy.  Even the least industrious wanted nothing. 

Colonists, on the other hand, had an insatiable hunger for an infinite number of frivolous needs.  They had thick black smoke pouring out their ears from raging brain-fires of status fever.  Their culture had a demonic technology called money, which made it much easier to exchange commodities, make profits, accumulate durable wealth, and soar away to daffy mental orgasms of pride, achievement, success.

Back home in Europe, more than 1,500 years of forest clearing had eliminated large regions of ancient woodlands.  Wildlife was severely depleted.  Rivers formerly loaded with salmon had become sewage canals.  Cities were incubators of infectious diseases.  America blew their twisted little minds.  They could make so much <bleeping> money if they destroyed everything they could, as quickly as possible.  They imagined that the supply of valuable resources was beyond limitless.  Most of this astonishing wealth was free for the taking.  Whee!

Robin Wall Kimmerer noted that among the Anishinabe, howling winter winds are associated with the Windigo, a legendary monster with a heart of ice.  It is the primal survival instinct in that rises during the Hunger Moon, and then swerves out of control, from need to greed.  It eats until hunger fades, but doesn’t stop.  Windigo is a selfish spirit that doesn’t know when it has taken too much.  It is the insatiable hunger of the corporation, the greed freak, and the maniacal consumer.  It’s daunting to see that much of modern society has now become thoroughly entranced by the Windigo spirit.

Different cultures assigned different status value to different types of property.  For California Indians, gold was just an ordinary type of stone.  Raymond Dasmann noted that they would happily trade ordinary gold nuggets for glass beads.  Pale faced Americans, on the other hand, went absolutely delirious with status fever at the sight of gold.  There was nothing they would not do to stuff the shiny stones into their pouches.  They washed away many mountains with hydraulic mining.  The Gold Rush brought people from everywhere.  “The Indians were deliberately decimated.”  In 1765, there may have been 130,000 in California.  In 1850, maybe 85,000.  By 1852 just 31,000 were left.

John Tanner was born in Kentucky in 1780, and captured by Indians at age 9.  He spent the next 30 years living on the wild side.  In one of his yarns, he jabbered about his favorite horse.  It had been stolen from another tribe by an aggressive war party.  The successful raiders had returned with 180 horses.  “In this excursion they had been absent seven months.  They had fallen upon and destroyed one village, and taken one hundred and fifty scalps, besides prisoners.”

Sitting Bull was not the slightest bit fond of insane colonizers.  “The love of possessions is a disease with them.”  A century ago, Peter Fruechen mentioned a comment from a mystified Eskimo, “You white people don’t really know how to do without things and still be happy.”  On another occasion, an Eskimo snarled at Knud Rasmussen.  “You are so strange, you white men!  You collect things you will never require, and you cannot leave even the graves alone.”

An old hippy friend of mine, Hitch-hiker John, observed American society with a mix of horror and amazement.  “They are never distracted by ideas,” he said.  “Brainwashed people have no issues — they don't know how to think.  The sole focus of their lives is just one all-consuming question: how can I get what I want?”

Full Granaries

In the good old days, wild lands were like commons, freely open to hunters, foragers, and all other wildness.  Folks were welcome to wander, explore, and help themselves to whatever they fancied, because the wild buffet was free to all, usually.  In some locations, groups did establish limits that defined the boundaries of their hunting territory, and enforced them.  When these limits were respected, there was less irritation that could lead to hurt feelings, conflict, and injuries.

Like herders, farmers were also possessed by a burning desire for ownership, and the status it conveyed.  They performed backbreaking labor to reduce wild forests and grasslands to cropland and pasture, land that was no longer freely open to one and all (No Trespassing!).  The transformation from wild to private typically involved erasing much of the healthy wild ecosystem, and replacing it with a highly controlled unsustainable manmade soil mining operation. 

Paul Shepard noted that the concept of controlling pests, animals, plants, and predators was relatively new.  “If the farmer can destroy his competitors, be they beetles, fungi, birds, or deer, and the pastoralist-rancher can kill lions and wolves, they will be inclined to do so.  Wild things become adversaries; they take up space, sunlight, or water that the farmer can use for his crops, or they invade the crops, eating, trampling, or infecting them with disease.”  Nature became an opponent, something to conquer and subdue.  This land is my land.  My harvest is stored in my granary.  My livestock are grazing on my pasture.

Raiders and Defenders

Wild folks let wild meat critters run free and enjoy their happy lives.  Wild game didn’t need to be provided with food, water, protective shelter, and security guards.  There was no need to cut, dry, and store hay.  When meat was needed, hunters went to work.  Similarly, wild food-producing plants were allowed to grow however they wished.  There was no need to engage in tedious backbreaking work. 

In essence, the simple hunter-gatherer way of life was about going out and getting what you needed, when you needed it, and leaving the rest alone.  All they needed was enough, and nothing more.  In the days before status fever epidemics swept through their homeland, they were genuine, good old-fashioned conservatives.  Leave the world in no worse shape than the day you were born (and better, if possible).

Big Mama Nature had zero interest in regularly serving lavish all you can eat banquets for wild humans.  As with all other critters, it was their responsibility to invest modest amounts of time and effort every week, to acquire their nutrients.  This approach could have a future.  The ecosystem did not need to be obliterated.

Compared to tropical regions, living in colder lands was more challenging.  There were lean periods every year, so food preservation and storage increased the odds for survival.  As discussed earlier, the domestication of plants (farming) and animals (herding) was essentially developed and intensified north of the tropics.  Domestication encouraged deforestation, soil erosion, overgrazing, wildlife destruction, population growth, tension, conflict, infectious disease, and so on.

Both farmers and herders invested immense amounts of time and effort accumulating stashes of essential life energy — edible nutrients made by domesticated plants and animals.  In a sense, their stashes were like treasure chests, collections of precious valuables.  The emergence of these new and unusual treasure chests triggered a huge turning point in the tropical primate saga.  On one dark and stormy night, a demon whispered an evil idea into the ear of a demented nutjob: stealing treasure chests required far less effort than creating them.  Oh my goodness!  Why didn’t I think of that?

Laborious drudgery was for scroungers, dolts, and slaves.  Clever exploitation trumps hard work.  A Berber proverb proclaimed, “Raiding is our agriculture.”  So, raiding became a respectable and manly profession.  Its frequent success created a need for the treasure makers to invent the warrior profession, in order to protect their stored wealth.  The raiding game led to centuries of conflict, which spilled rivers of blood.  It persists to this day, as a furious unlimited full-scale war on the family of life.

Sedentary communities were chained to a location.  They could not rapidly grab their treasure and flee.  So, they had to protect their towns and villages with palisades, walls, fortresses, moats.  Walled cities protected vast amounts of wealth.  Raiders kept inventing new and improved ways of overcoming physical barriers and exterminating city defenders.  At the same time, cities tirelessly invented new and better ways of protecting themselves and exterminating raiders.  Alfred Crosby wrote a fascinating book about the endless spiraling arms race in deadly technology, from thrown stones a hydrogen bombs.

Nomadic pastoralists owned treasure chests that were highly mobile — herds of precious four-legged food lockers.  Their nutritious flesh did not spoil whilst they remained alive, it increased — and they produced offspring too.  Many raids also acquired slaves, two-legged, muscle-powered busybodies that generously provided baby slaves.  Slaves and livestock were valuable commodities that could be sold to agrarian states, in exchange for city made goods.

The raiders’ highly mobile way of life gave them a strategic advantage over the immobile city dwellers, whose access to food could be cut off by an extended siege (when dogs became “siege mutton”), while flaming arrows landed on their wooden roofs, and corpses of plague victims were hurled in via catapult.  Barbarian hordes, like the Mongols, loved raiding farm country, because cities were fat, juicy sitting ducks.  It was often very easy to swipe the fruits of years of sweat and toil via a lightning raid.

James Scott noted that, as long as cities were weakly defended, barbarians could enjoy a far better life than farmers.  Mongols perceived agrarian communities to be ra’aya (herds) — irresistible get-rich-quick opportunities for merciless, bloodthirsty, mobs of looters.  Mounted on speedy horses, hundreds of nomads could suddenly appear out of nowhere, thunder into town without a polite invitation, and enjoy an exciting day of slaughter, rape, pillaging, and demolition. 

Horses played a starring role here.  For many thousands of years, they were simply wild game, a source of meat and hides.  Following domestication, they were also used as beasts of burden, carrying loads, and pulling them.  Eventually, folks developed saddles, stirrups, and bridles, which transformed horses into awesomely powerful high velocity assault missiles. 

This revolutionary innovation provided humans with mind-blowing godlike powers.  For two million years, hominins had moved across the land by foot, slower than an elderly squirrel.  Now, an astonishing new era had begun, and its destination was not love, peace, and happiness.  Mounted warriors turbocharged civilization’s expansion.  Cavalry enabled mass culture, mass control, and mass murder.

Status fever is an equal opportunity pathology.  Some cities began contemplating other cities in the region, calculating the amount of treasure they controlled, and the weaknesses in their defenses.  Naturally, strong cities overwhelmed weaker cities, and empires metastasized.  Conquering neighbors was an exciting way to fill treasure chests, and increase their herds of livestock, warriors, serfs, women, and slaves. 

Similarly, nomads were not honorable gentlemen having the highest moral principles.  It was not beneath their dignity to attack, kill, and rob other pastoralists, if they were believed to possess interesting treasure.  There was no reason why strangers should remain the owners of livestock that could become my property with a modest investment of belligerence and terrorism.  Social status was very important to testosterone powered egos, and macho lads took every opportunity for elevating it.

Throughout the centuries nomads have enjoyed being parasites on hard working farmers.  In A.D. 98, the Roman historian Tacitus said this about the tribal Germans: “They will much easier be persuaded to attack and reap wounds from an enemy, than to till the ground and wait the produce.  They consider it as an indication of effeminacy and want of courage to gain by the sweat of the brow, what they may acquire at the price of their blood.”

Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian, was born around A.D. 1150, and had more of a ringside seat at the bloody horror show.  “Now the warriors, who were always pillaging the neighborhood, used often to commit great slaughters.  Plundering houses, cutting down cattle, sacking everything, making great hauls of booty, rifling houses, then burning them, massacring male and female promiscuously — these, and not honest dealings, were their occupations.”  War dogs were popular too.  “Biorn had also a dog of extraordinary fierceness, a terribly vicious brute, dangerous for people to live with, which had often singly destroyed twelve men.”

Saxo also mentioned berserkers (bear shirts), warriors who wore bear skins into battle, and became ferociously violent, completely out of control, and fought in a trance-like wild fury.  Ralph Metzner called it a holy rage that they could not turn off.  They killed everyone in sight, even friends.  In Ireland, Cu Chulainn was so overheated with battle rage that a group of naked women was sent out to calm him. He was put in vats of cold water, which boiled and evaporated.

Giraldus Cambrensis (Jerry of Wales) visited Ireland, and wrote a report in A.D. 1185, when the rivers were full of salmon, the rainforest was full of wolves and boars, and indigenous chiefdoms were constantly fighting amongst themselves.  England’s King Henry was beginning the process of conquering Ireland.  The Irish were low-tech guerilla warriors, skilled at hit and run ambushes.  They used slings to hurl stones with skull-splitting accuracy.  They had spears, javelins, and axes.  The English were state-of-the-art warriors, having chain mail, armor, archers, and deadly swords.  For example, “He who had seen how John de Courcy wielded his sword, with one stroke lopping off heads, and with another arms, must needs have commended him for a most valiant soldier.”

Paul Henri Mallet wrote about the customs of pagan Scandinavia.  The scribes who penned the ancient sagas were associated with the nobility who were often highly engaged in the raiding industry.  Sagas devoted much attention to documenting the triumphs and defeats of warriors and warfare.  Mallet wrote one sentence that hit the nail on the head, “The weak had no right to what they could not defend.” 

In that culture, war was their source of honor, riches, and security.  Courage was the highest virtue, death was not feared.  The honorable way to die was violently, weapon in hand, ideally laughing with their final breath.  This was rewarded by a premier afterlife in Valhalla, where they would spend eternity in bloody battle.  Every day, they would delight in cutting each other to pieces, and then magically recover, mount their horses, and ride back to the hall of Odin for a night of feasting and oblivion drinking. Yippee!

The shameful way to die was bed death.  Folks who died of disease or old age were sent to a low class afterlife in Niflheim.  To avoid this fate, Mallet wrote, warriors would plunge off an ancestral cliff (ättestup) to a violent death, in order to end their lives honorably.  Those too weak to jump were sent to Valhalla by a caring friend smashing their skull with an ancestral club (ätteklubbor).  Stafva Hall in Sweden had annual festivals, with singing and dancing, after which the wobbly geezers, beyond their expiration dates, leaped into the lake far below.

With every century that followed, raiding continued spreading into new regions around the world, grabbing as much treasure as possible, often utilizing staggering amounts of destructive force.  The twentieth century saw tremendous advances in fossil-powered mechanized warfare, on land, on sea, and in the skies above.  Large cities could be reduced to ash trays with the push of a button.

Today, technological innovation has enabled many more options for raiders, few of which require “coming to grips” with their opponent, and getting splattered with their blood, sweat, and spit.  Millions of dollars can now be robbed with a mouse click, from a cozy cubicle in nowhere land.  We are living in the Golden Age of status fever.  In many communities, the infection rate among adults approaches 100 percent.  “More” is the god word of modern society.  Imagine what life would be like if humankind had remained wild and free.

Big Mama Nature is not amused.  She will still be standing — scarred and wounded but defiant — when the lights go out, and industrial civilization runs out of treasure, and finally slips beneath the waves.  Let the healing begin.