Laurens van der Post (1906-1996) was born in South Africa and grew up to be a reporter, dairy farmer, soldier, writer, and television personality. He was the godfather of Prince William, and was sometimes referred to as “Prince Charles’ guru,” because he was a mystical visionary with a wise old soul, quite skilled at thinking outside the box.
He took great pleasure in creating fascinating stories intended to wake up people whose thinkers had fallen asleep. The transformative power of his stories was far more important to him than 100% factual accuracy, and he sometimes “embellished” them to make them more forceful. This was the storyteller’s job: creating amazing stories — not rigidly accurate scientific discourses.
Laurens was not universally loved by white South Africans, because he had an annoying habit of criticizing segregation, racism, and oppression. He had special fondness for the Bushmen, who were sharply mistreated by everyone, both black and white. Bushmen once inhabited all of southern Africa, but black and white newcomers drove them off their best lands, forcing them into the Kalahari Desert, an extremely harsh place.
In 1955, Laurens did a documentary on the Bushmen for the BBC, and it was the second most popular program ever, only the queen’s coronation had a bigger audience. He went on to write several books on Bushmen themes, including The Heart of the Hunter. Passages from this book are often quoted by writers of the counterculture, because Laurens had profound respect for the ability of simpler societies to live lightly on the Earth, with great reverence. He also had a robust contempt for modern industrial society, and he did not hesitate to express this. He had a front row seat for World War II, and this adventure in industrial warfare took much of the shine off of civilization’s reputation.
Laurens introduced us to his beloved wild Bushmen, people of “irrepressible gaiety.” One elder was “utterly at one with all the life that was and could ever be.” Bushmen were incredibly in tune with nature, and could feel the presence of unseen animals. They could sense danger from far away. They could communicate telepathically. They didn’t work hard, they didn’t have jobs, they didn’t have leaders, and they were free. Free! They had a culture that worked. John Reader once wrote that the Bushmen were able to live in their ordinary manner during the third year of extreme drought that killed 180,000 people and 250,000 cattle.
Unfortunately, the Bantu and European newcomers were farmers, herders, and assorted moneymakers — property freaks — and the way they treated Bushmen was similar to the relationship between Montana ranchers and prairie dogs. Consequently, the Bushmen avoided all contact with the outside world, because the dominant culture treated them like sub-human vermin, or no-cost slaves, or future tax-paying peasants or diamond miners.
Laurens lamented modern society, with its vast hordes of property freaks, the tragic innocent victims of arrested development. Because of our estrangement from nature, our minds had lost contact with core human instincts, we had lost our souls, we were starved for meaning, and we were mindlessly destroying system after system. He decreed: “One look at the identical towns we are building all over the world ought to be enough to show us that this kind of progress is like the proliferation of a single cell at the expense of the rest, which produces the cancer that kills the whole body.”
In 1961, Laurens did not think like the herd. He celebrated wild freedom, and denounced the destructive insanity of industrial civilization. Yet he was a popular and respected celebrity in Britain, and he sipped champagne with the richest and most powerful. He was knighted in 1981, becoming Sir Laurens van der Post, an extraordinary achievement for someone who was so at odds with mainstream thinking.
The power of this book lies in its rebellious and unconventional attitude. It’s OK to think. It’s OK to question. It’s OK to shout “Wolf!” when there are wolves as far as the eye can see. It’s OK to be different, to prefer integrity over trendiness, to seek truth instead of mindless conformity. If your heart is screaming about the senseless destruction of life on Earth, you aren’t crazy, you’re awake. What’s crazy is our way of life, our culture. This is an important concept to understand.
Creative people have a primary role to play in influencing the path of our society, because society permits them to think outside the box. Popes, politicians, tycoons, and educators aren’t allowed to do this, because they have an obligation to protect and preserve the pathological belief system that is laying waste to the world. Everything we need for healing can only be found outside the box, and creative people can help us find them, with luck.
The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t teach us a great deal about the Bushmen way of life. Laurens knew few Bushmen, spent little time with them, and didn’t know their language. The BBC documentary was almost aborted because Laurens and his team had a very hard time finding any Bushmen to film. Finally they found one band, who allowed themselves to be seen, because they were close to dying from dehydration. You could learn much more about the Bushmen by reading Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
The Bushmen finally got their own official home when the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was created in 1961. This Denmark-sized park was located in the middle of what is now Botswana. But diamonds were discovered on the reserve in the early ‘80s, and this inspired the government to remove the Bushmen from their land. In 2006, they won the right to return, but were forbidden to hunt or drink water. In 2011, they won the right to drink water.
Botswana promotes safari tours at the reserve, and this generates a lot of income for an extremely poor country. Rich tourists want to enjoy a pure wilderness experience, gazing at giraffes from their hot tubs, and wild, naked, blood-spattered savages would simply spoil this demented fantasy. Laurens would have a different opinion, of course.
van der Post, Laurens, The Heart of the Hunter, Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1961.