Monday, February 6, 2012

The Ohlone Way

The wee folk were once beaten by iron-using people, which made them detest this powerful metal, and the people who used it.  Consequently, when the Iron People conquered Europe, they were very careful to protect themselves.  They sewed bits of iron into their children’s clothing, and hung horseshoes on their doors.  They used the dark energy of forged iron to repel the bright spirits.
Malcolm Margolin’s book, The Ohlone Way, is a magnificent collection of bright knowledge that is powerfully repellent to the dark energy of misanthropes — those cynics who insist that all humans everywhere have always been self-centered, materialistic, and aggressively warlike by nature — fatally flawed, and rotten to the core.  If you carefully absorb the knowledge in this book, misanthropes will skedaddle whenever they see you coming.  Bye-bye!
Humans simply aren’t the problem.  The problem is crazy cultures.  It is cleansing and healing to comprehend this important distinction.  It implies no quick or easy remedies, but it negates the notion that the only effective solution to the Earth Crisis is human extinction.  We possess adequate intelligence to do what needs to be done, but whether we will ever do so remains a potent and prickly mystery.
The Ohlone were an assortment of tribes that lived in the region around San Francisco Bay for thousands of years prior to European conquest.  Margolin does a lovely job of describing the various aspects of their way of life, and Michael Harney’s drawings are intriguing — many show skies darkened with millions of seabirds.  The Ohlone were blessed to inhabit a land that provided an abundance of plant and animal foods. 
It’s so hard for us to imagine what a magical treasure this planet was prior to farmers.  Ohlone country, like much of the western region, was lucky to have a climate that was poorly suited for growing corn, so the tribes were able to avoid that dangerous and highly unstable way of life.  They didn’t farm, nor did they enslave animals, yet they were able to enjoy a complex culture and a stable way of life. 
Occasional armed conflicts were usually low-intensity ritual warfare, good for blowing off steam.  Sometimes conflicts were intense, wiping out whole villages.  But this was not a war-oriented culture.  There were no wooden palisades surrounding villages.  The men did not have shields, war clubs, tomahawks, or body armor.  The culture did not enshrine heroic war chiefs, nor did it create a sprawling empire.  They were really into dancing.
The Ohlone lost few people to disease, famine, and war.  But their culture was successful at maintaining a stable population.  Taboos and restrictions on sex kept a leash on the birth rate.  Sex was forbidden during the two years that a mother was nursing, as it was prior to hunts, or during menstruation.  Deformed babies and twins were not kept.  Women understood how to terminate unwanted pregnancies.  They were careful to avoid the horrors of population growth.  Smart!
Stability was the core of their success, and time-proven wisdom was carefully preserved.  “To be different was to be wrong, the best ways were the old ways.”  Innovators and rebels were scorned, as were freedom and individualism.  The Ohlone valued belonging — having strong social bonds to family, clan, and tribe.  A man without his family was nothing.  It was a society built on a foundation of cooperation, sharing, and generosity.  Greedy and aggressive people were banished, because they toxic.  Respectable people learned well, and then passed the ancient knowledge on to the next generation.
Stability is hard for us to comprehend.  The Ohlone could live in the same place for a thousand years and not destroy the soils or forests.  The hills were still filled with antelope, elk, and deer.  The rivers were still thrashing with salmon.  The nut trees continued producing sacred acorns.  Stability did not diminish the seals, sea lions, sea birds, or shellfish.  Fast forward a thousand years into the future, and it’s the same culture, the same stories, songs, and dances.
They did not live like a hurricane.  They lived like reverend guests in a sacred land.  “Everything was alive, everything had character, power, and magic, and consequently everything had to be dealt with properly.”  “It was a world in which thousands of living, feeling, magical things, all operating in dream logic, carried out their individual actions.”  “Power was everywhere, in everything, and therefore every act was religious.”
All of us have wild ancestors who enjoyed a similar manner of living.  The Ohlone were not fascinating freaks.  Five hundred years ago, the tribes of western North America were among the most stable, successful, and sustainable human societies on the planet.  The secret of their success was that their cultures were, in almost every way, the direct opposite of our own.  Sadly, the Iron People arrived in 1770, and hurricanes of progress and ecocide soon followed.
Margolin worked on this book for three years, and he often dreamed about the Ohlone.  “It produced in me a sense of victory to know that such a way of life is part of the human potential, part of the human history.” 
Yes, indeed!  The daily news in our world regularly fills us with awe and amazement at the stunning achievements of human foolishness.  It’s difficult not to feel like inmates at an insane asylum because, in many ways, we are.  On the bright side, we all have front row seats as our insane civilization crumbles before our eyes, creating thrilling opportunities for new experiments in living.  And Margolin reminds us of the important fact that our genes are not diseased, just our culture.  Victory over civilization is not impossible, it’s a matter of time and love and healing.


henryomad said...

Thanks for posting this, Rick. It's amazing how stupid we are, considering that good examples were everywhere to be seen and still are to a lesser extent now.

What Is Sustainable said...

Senator O’Mad, I just had a good laugh. According to Lewis Wolpert, “It is rationality that makes us human.” Good lord! Just what have we become, then?

Kaleo said...

Well...I think 'raw' undeveloped ego, extreme lack of self observation and knowledge, is a central part of the maladaptive iron people problem. I know it's the culture that sustains that ignorance. It is a both-and, chicken-or-the-egg issue. The two need to be attended to simultaneously for our way of living to be transformed!

What Is Sustainable said...

John Michael Greer once jabbered about the difference between problems and predicaments. Problems can have solutions, but predicaments have to be endured, and sort of outgrown or something. Our solutions-oriented high tech society totally chokes on predicaments (population explosion, climate change, methane plumes in the Arctic, etc.). Well, by the time that you and I celebrate our 150th birthdays, the current predicament should be behind us.

Diane Livia said...

CA indians, and probably all native americans, sustained themselves as much because of their management of the land as because they saw it all as sacred. M. Kat Anderson's studies of the aggressive and highly effective management methods of the CA indians demonstrates how they created the "garden" the Spaniards saw and described in writing when they invaded. It's highly likely the indians increased the abundance of resources and biodiversity overall.
They certainly increased the abundance of the resources they needed to be prosperous. "Before the Wilderness" is a wonderful collection of scholarly studies about the management methods used, and "Tending the Wild" is a compendium of the management methods of virtually all the indigenous peoples of CA based on scholarly studies and indigenous memory. The world they lived and prospered in for thousands of years was no accident of nature.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Diane! Thanks. I had not heard of Kat’s earlier book, and the library has a copy. My review of Tending the Wild is HERE