Monday, April 28, 2014

The Wayfinders

Long, long ago, Teutonic storytellers told tales by the fire.  Many of them mention a deity who was a wisdom seeker, singer, poet, and warrior.  Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who daily flew out over the world, observed the events, and returned to report the news.  The names of his birds meant “thought” and “memory.”  Odin cherished these ravens.  He knew that the loss of thought would be terrible, but that the loss of memory would be far worse.  Thought is clever and useful, but memory is essential and indispensable.  When thought is disconnected from memory, the result is the world outside your window.

Wade Davis is very tuned into the high cost of forgetfulness.  Modern folks have not only forgotten who we are, and where we are from, but we are busy erasing the surviving remnants of much ancient knowledge.  There are about 7,000 languages in the world today, and half are approaching extinction.

When we wander amidst an endless herd of loud and smelly consumers, it’s easy to forget that our worldview is just one of many.  Our culture is a freak in human history, because of its blitzkrieg on future generations of all species.  Most perceive this to be perfectly normal; it’s all they know.  In his book, The Wayfinders, Davis takes us on a fascinating tour, visiting lucky people who have not been cut loose from their past.

We have been trained to perceive other cultures as inferior and primitive.  When the British washed up on the shore of Australia, they failed to recognize and respect the incredible genius of the Aborigines.  Through tens of thousands of years of trial and error, the natives learned how to live in balance with a damaged ecosystem that was hot, dry, and lean.  The white colonists have attempted to transplant a European way of life, which is starkly inappropriate, and can only exist temporarily.

The Aborigines have a network of travel routes that were sung into existence by the ancestors.  The songs describe the landmarks that travelers will find along the route.  If you know the song, you know the route.  Songs are maps.  The routes are called songlines.  The entire continent is spiritually alive, and the people have a remarkable awareness of place, and a profound reverence for it.

The Polynesian culture is found on thousands of islands scattered across a vast region of the Pacific.  The Spanish first encountered them in 1595, when they arrived in the Marquesas, a society of 300,000 people.  Within a month, eighty-five percent of the people died from European diseases.  For some reason, the islanders thought that the visitors were demons.

Polynesians were highly skilled at sea travel.  They built excellent catamarans, using Stone Age technology, that were fifty percent faster than the floating monstrosities from Spain.  Even with their state of the art sextants and charts, Europeans remained primitive navigators who got nervous when they drifted beyond sight of land.

Davis went on a voyage with Polynesians who remembered the ancient knowledge.  The navigators always knew exactly where they were.  They paid careful attention to the wind, clouds, stars, wave patterns, sky colors.  They noted the water’s salinity, phosphorescence, plant debris, and temperature.  Sharks, dolphins, porpoises, and birds provided information.  For example, white terns indicated land within 200 kilometers (124 mi.), and boobies stayed within 40 kilometers (25 mi.) of land.

On the Sahara, the people who understand the desert do not get lost.  They can read the winds, the texture of the sand, and the forms of the dunes.  They can smell water.  In Canada, the vast province of Nunavut is home to the Inuit people.  They were geniuses for surviving in a harsh climate with Stone Age technology.  Travelling by dogsled in the long months of darkness, they never got lost, because they were experts at reading the snow.

These older cultures learned how to adapt to their ecosystems, because this encouraged stability and survival.  They were blessed to inhabit ecosystems that did not provide ideal conditions for the birth of industrial nightmares.  Unfortunately, they have been “discovered.”  They now live in the shadow of spooky people from industrial nightmares.  Many natives have been absorbed into the consumer monoculture, and have lost their identity.

All species routinely produce mutations.  The mutants that can smoothly blend into the ecosystem, and live in balance with it, have a decent chance at continuing in the dance of evolution.  Disruptive mutants eventually end up on the bus to Extinctionville.

Experts now believe that the San people of the Kalahari may be the oldest culture on Earth.  As humankind migrated out of Mother Africa, folks found themselves in ecosystems quite different from their tropical place of origin.  Different regions inspired different cultural mutations.  

Social Darwinists typically imagine a hierarchy of cultures, with industrial civilization at the gleaming pinnacle.  Every student in our culture has this dodgy notion repeatedly pounded into his or her brain.  It is a sacred myth that is commonly mistaken for truth.  Colonists felt a religious obligation to illuminate primitive people, invite them into the wondrous world of wage slavery, and provide them with brassieres and Bibles.

Well, Big Mama Nature is in a rather furious mood these days, and she’s in the process of pounding an unforgettable lesson into our cheesy civilized brains.  It’s called reality — reaping what you sow.  Our culture is a psychopathic mutant, an immaculate failure.  We could not be farther from the pinnacle of successful adaptation, or closer to the tar pits of Extinctionville (can you smell the methane?).

Davis takes us on many intriguing side trips.  In remote regions of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta we find cultures that escaped from the colonial invaders, and have not been severed from their roots.  They call themselves the Older Brothers, the guardians of the world.  We are the immature Younger Brothers, the zombie-like demolition crew.  They are sure that the Younger Brothers will eventually wake up — when Big Mama Nature pulls the rug out from under us.  They invite us to join them, and live with respect for life.

Our culture has created a monster that is a menace to all life on Earth.  A culture of perpetual growth is both insane and suicidal.  We need to stop destroying ancient cultures.  Every culture that goes extinct removes important knowledge for living on Earth.  Older cultures provide living proof that there are other ways of thinking and living, and they can inspire us to search for the long-forgotten wisdom that lies outside the walls.  Stable long-lasting cultures are far more interesting than flash-in-the-pan burnouts.  Imagination gets better mileage than despair or denial.

Davis, Wade, The Wayfinders — Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, Anansi Press, Toronto, 2009.

YouTube has several videos of Davis talking about The Wayfinders.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Sideways Look at Time

In the realm of wild nature, there are countless cycles of change.  Geese arrive at winter’s end, build nests, raise goslings, and depart in autumn.  Apple trees leaf, blossom, fruit, and drop their leaves.  The sunlight has daily cycles and annual cycles.  The moon and women flow through their monthly rituals.  This is circular time, round and round and round.  This is wild time.

Once upon a time, the whole world was wilderness, and every creature was free.  The planet danced in wild time, and all was well.  Wild people caught salmon when the fish came home.  They killed reindeer when the herds passed through.  They ate blackberries when the fruit was ripe, and gathered nuts as they fell.

Wild people clustered in flourishing nutrient-rich ecosystems that were scattered here and there across the planetary wilderness.  All was well… until the accidents.  In a few of these clusters, clever smarty-pants, with wonderful intentions, devised strategies for forcing their land to produce more food.  Why be content with paradise?  Let’s fix it.

We are finally starting to realize that some incredibly brilliant ideas should be flushed down the loo immediately (probably all of them).  Here we are in the twenty-first century, and the world is the opposite of a vast wilderness.  It has been reduced to a bruised and beaten landscape by an ever-growing swarm of hungry two-legs.  Wildness struggles to survive in scattered shrinking pockets.  Wild tribes are nearly extinct.

As civilization became rooted, clock time gradually pushed wild time into the background.  Clock time is linear, not circular — a straight path with a starting line (paradise) and a finish line (apocalypse).  This throbbing straight line has phallic vibes, the same frequency used by patriarchal empire builders awash in raging torrents of testosterone.  It’s a furious dance of endless growth, and it inevitably jitterbugs into a minefield of bleached skeletons.

The incredibly brilliant notion of endless growth should have been flushed down the loo immediately.  Endless growth is insane, fantastically irrational, and always ends in tragedy.  But it’s a lot of fun at first.  Take a deep toke.  The endless growth jitterbug is a soaring mania with no off switch.  It stops when it dies.  Any society that mindfully chooses to quit jitterbugging becomes a helpless sitting duck for its jitterbugging neighbors, who are always hungry for more and more and more.

Jay Griffiths wrote A Sideways Look at Time, which discusses the mutation of time that followed in the wake of domestication, and rapidly accelerated with the emergence of the industrial era.  She thinks very highly of wild time, because it is normal, natural, and good.  With regard to linear time, she offers this sensible recommendation: “Drown your watch.”

The big three multinational, patriarchal, monotheistic religions run on linear time.  Their myths begin in a golden age of innocence and harmony, and go downhill from there, on a dead end road.  Griffiths was raised in a Christian home, but she lacked the gift of blind faith.  The church taught that God’s creation was a place of evil.  The kinky male clergy denounced lust, joyful sex, and women of power.  Their icon was a dying man nailed to a dead tree.  Wild time, wild people, and wild places were the realm of the devil.

As civilizations grew, years were assigned ID numbers.  In Rome, year #1 was the date of the city’s founding.  Numbering enabled better record keeping, and provided time markers for historians.  Calendars enclosed days and years, and sundials enclosed hours.  Later came mechanical clocks, and clanging church bells, factory bells, and school bells.  The sweet freedom of childhood was enclosed by rigid schedules, as kids were herded into education factories to have their minds filled.

To keep large restless mobs under control, law and order is essential — police and clocks.  Industrial civilization is impossible without synchronizing the mob to march in lockstep to the steady beat of the time machines.  All around the world now, the current hour will conclude at the same moment.

Today, the wristwatch people are isolated from nature.  They spend their lives in rectangular climate-controlled compartments with artificial lighting.  Blackberries, nuts, and salmon are available every day of the year.  Clocks and wristwatches were fabulous ideas, if the objective was to elevate stress and anxiety.  The Lakota have no word for “late,” and the Micmac have no word for “time.”  Native Americans were astonished by the wacky behavior of the colonists, who robotically obeyed the demands of ridiculous schedules.

In stable wild societies, older people became respected elders, folks with long memories who provided wise counsel.  They could foresee problems, and recommend solutions.  But in the lands of the wristwatch people, speed is of the essence, and the rate of change is dizzying.  In modern times, much of the knowledge that older people possess is obsolete and useless.  So, the elder’s role is waning, at the same time that people are living longer.  Progress has left them behind.

In a culture obsessed with youth, women with gray hair become invisible.  Cosmetic surgery is very expensive, and its results are temporary.  Tightly stretched facial skin is spooky looking, like “linoleum with lipstick.”  Hormone treatments promise the appearance of perpetual springtime.  Griffiths laments that many women avoid the elder’s path of wisdom and power.  The era of patriarchy has not been kind to the ladies.

In the minds of the wristwatch people, the notion of progress is as real as the Grand Canyon.  They have no doubt that the world is always getting better and better, because experts are tireless in their pursuit of continuous improvement.  We are so lucky to live in an age of endless miracles.

Actually, progress is a smiley-face mask that disguises a parasite.  Progress doesn’t shine on the salt of the Earth.  The lands of the U’wa people of Colombia are being destroyed to extract the precious oil needed to fuel the insatiable excesses of the world’s elite.  Chinese women are dying from the solvents used to make cell phones, and women in Bangladesh are crushed when their garment factory collapses.

The parasite devours anything in its path, and never rests.  The single thought on its mind is more now, more now, more now.  Only the present matters, a mindset that Griffiths calls “chronocentric.”  Bleep the future.  The grandchildren will simply have to adapt to living with radioactive wastes that remain highly toxic for 100,000 years.  It’s not our problem.

Of course, it’s heresy to voice doubts about progress.  Doing so transforms you into a knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing dolt.  The sacrifices needed to radically reduce the harm we cause are just too great.  It is our God-given right to indulge in every imaginable excess to the best of our ability.  It says so in the constitution.  Well, it’s time for gifted shamans to perform a magic act on our worldview — swap the dunce cap to progress, and the halo to sustainability.  It’s OK to be respectful to unborn generations of all species.  It’s normal.

So, that’s a little peek into where this fascinating book takes us.  Griffiths helps us remember what has been lost.  Unlike the predicaments of peak cheap energy, peak food, and climate change, our time problems are nothing but ideas, and ideas can be flushed down the loo.  A healthy life does not require seconds, minutes, and hours.  We can do just fine with sunrise and sunset, full moon and new moon, solstice and equinox, wildness and freedom.

Hark!  The bell has rung.  This review is over.  It’s a cool book.

Griffiths, Jay, A Sideways Look at Time, Jeremy P. Tarcher, New York, 1999. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Future Eaters

After spending more than 20 years reading hundreds of books describing various aspects of the Earth Crisis, The Future Eaters by Tim Flannery stands out.  It provides a sliver of hope for the future that is not built on magical thinking.  Flannery is a lad who is madly in love with the Australian region, and he dreams that it will eventually heal, far down the road someday.

Here’s the story.  Hominids evolved in Africa, and later migrated into Eurasia, where they lived in some regions for a million years before Homo sapiens drifted in.  In ecosystems where the fauna coevolved with hominids, the critters clearly understood that two-legs were predators, and they behaved accordingly.  But when Homo sapiens first appeared in Australia, none of the critters had ever seen a two-leg before, so they had no fear.

The fearless elephant seals on King Island weighed up to four tons.  They would calmly sun themselves while humans killed the animal sitting beside them.  On Kangaroo Island, men could walk up to fearless kangaroos and dispatch them with clubs.  Millions of birds were killed with sticks.  Flannery referred to these hunters as future eaters.  Future eaters were Homo sapiens that migrated into lands where the ecosystem had not coevolved with hominids.  Australians were the first future eaters, but far from the last.

The first phase of future eating was to hunt like there’s no tomorrow.  For example, New Zealand was loaded with birds.  Moas were ostrich-like birds that could grow to 10 feet (3 m) tall, and weigh 550 pounds (250 kg).  Future eaters arrived between 800 and 1,000 years ago, and by 400 years ago the moas were extinct.  Today we have found many collections of moa bones, some containing the remains of up to 90,000 birds.  Evidence suggests that a third of the meat was tossed away to rot.  Obviously, the birds were super-abundant and super-easy to kill.

Meanwhile, well-fed future eaters gave birth to growing numbers of baby future eaters.  More killers + less prey = trouble.  The party got ugly.  Friendly neighbors became mortal enemies.  Moas disappeared from the menu, and were replaced by Moe and Mona from a nearby village.  Cannibalism beats starvation.  Overhunting and overbreeding, followed by bloody social breakdown, was a normal pattern in the world of the future eaters.

Following the crash, the survivors had two options: learn from their mistakes, or fool around with new mistakes.  The New Zealanders didn’t have time to get their act together before they were discovered by palefaces.  It was a different story in New Caledonia, where the future eaters arrived 3,500 years ago.  They partied hard, crashed, did the warfare thing, adapted to their damaged ecosystem, and were having a nice time when Captain Cook washed up on shore.

Future eating contributed to extinctions.  In Australia, large animals were going extinct by 35,000 years ago.  Most megafauna in the Americas vanished 11,000 years ago.  In New Caledonia, it was 3,500 years ago.  In recently settled New Zealand, big animals went extinct 500 to 800 years ago.

In Africa, Asia, and Europe, some megafauna managed to survive, because of coevolution.  The unlucky ones were domesticated, which led to radical changes in our way of life.  Enslaved horses facilitated the bloody spread of the Indo-European culture from Ireland to India.  Along with oxen, horses enabled the expansion of soil mining.  Vast forests were eliminated to make room for growing herds of hooved locusts.

Australia is an unusual continent.  It has been geologically static for 60 million years.  Most of the soil is extremely old, and very low in nutrients.  Consequently, the fauna that won the evolution sweepstakes were energy efficient, majoring in marsupials and reptiles. 

On other continents, soils often contain twice as much phosphate and nitrates.  Lands having rich soils produced energy-guzzling ecosystems, including large numbers of megafauna.  The most energy-intensive species of all are warm-blooded carnivores like us.  Europe has 660 million people, and Australia has 17 million.

In addition to feeble soils, Australia has spooky weather, driven by the El NiƱo Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  The climate unpredictably swings between droughts and floods.  Droughts can last for many years, and then be washed away with a deluge.  These freaky swings encourage cautious lifestyles, weed out energy-guzzling species, and make agriculture especially unreliable. 

Flannery wonders if it’s moral to “live as a vegetarian in Australia, destroying seven kilograms of irreplaceable soil, upon which everything depends, for each kilogram of bread we consume?”  This question is relevant in all lands.  There is no free lunch in farm country.

Anyway, before humans arrived in the Australian region, the ecosystems were self-sustaining.  Then came the future eaters.  Extinctions included species that had performed essential ecosystem functions, like controlling woody brush.  When brush got out of control, it reduced grazing land for herbivores, and encouraged devastating wildfires.

To reduce this new imbalance, Aborigines periodically lit fires to keep the fuel from accumulating.  Unfortunately, during burns, soil nutrients went up in smoke, especially nitrogen.  Exposed soils were vulnerable to wind erosion.  The land got drier.  Centuries of burning produced a downward spiral that was largely irreversible.  There was no undo command.

The hunters must have had turbulent times as the initial era of plenty and prosperity dissolved into scarcity.  Then, “for 60,000 years Aborigines managed the crippled ecosystems, preventing them from degenerating further.”  For the last 12,000 years, surviving evidence suggests that they lived in a stable and sustainable manner.  They succeeded at this by learning the most important trick of all — adapting to their ecosystem.  They were forced to return their future eater badges and uniforms, and they were glad to do so.

Meanwhile, back in Eurasia, the nutrient rich soils were sprouting the biggest and craziest mob of future eaters to ever walk the Earth.  For the last 12,000 years, they have exploded in number, exterminated the megafauna, laid waste to forests and fisheries, and spilled oceans of blood.  Then, they discovered Australia, and imported the future eater mindset, with predictable results.

Today, the human population of the planet is almost entirely future eaters.  Our binge of plenty and prosperity is wheezing, bleeding, and staggering.  Climate change and the end of cheap and abundant energy will derail civilization as we know it.  We are proceeding into an era of scarcity and conflict.  When the smoke eventually clears, we would be wise to learn the most important trick of all. 

On the plus side, we are the first future eaters to comprehend the catastrophic effects of our future eating lifestyle.  It’s never too late to learn, think, and grow.  There’s never been a better time to question everything.  In a thousand years, if we make it, we may be asked to return our badges and uniforms.  There is hope!  Hooray!

Flannery, Timothy Fridtjof, The Future Eaters — An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, George Braziller, New York, 1995.