Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Wild Free and Happy Sample 05

[Note: This is the fifth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Savannah Pioneers

When our ancestors moved from the forest to the savannah, they began a journey into an entirely different way of life.  Critters that evolution had fine-tuned for arboreal living were poorly prepared for surviving on open grassland.  They were not big, strong, or speedy.  They didn’t have horns, fangs, or claws.  They couldn’t digest grass.  They had to adapt to different sources of food, and different threats to their survival.  It took centuries of trial and error to develop new ways of living, and hundreds of thousands of years to evolve new and improved bodies fine-tuned for their unique experiment.

In the early days, our ancestors were not apex (top level) predators, they may have been more like walking meatballs, easy prey for big cats, packs of hyenas, huge crocodiles, and other hungry carnivores.  Chris Stringer mentioned genetic research indicating that today’s Earth-pounding mob of Homo sapiens trace back to an ancestral population of about 10,000 breeding individuals.  Earlier, a million years ago, in the Homo erectus era, there were just 20,000 breeding individuals.  For a very long time, our ancestors existed not too far from the brink of extinction.  It wasn’t easy being a highly vulnerable ground-dwelling primate.

Scavenging and Primitive Hunting

Our ancestors on the African savannah were hunter-gatherers, and their diet majored in plant foods, with a regular supplement of highly nutritious animal foods.  In the early chapters of the great hominin adventure, they were not expert hunters with effective weapons.  Meat was acquired via scavenging and primitive hunting.  With bare hands, they could grab critters like grubs, grasshoppers, termites, maggots, snails, shellfish, lizards, and frogs.  They could kill animals sleeping under bushes, dig up others from their burrows, chase down slow moving aardvarks and porcupines, and snatch immature youngsters.  Large birds could be knocked down by throwing clubs.

It’s easy to forget that rocks can be lethal weapons.  Wendell Bennett wrote that the Tarahumara people of Mexico threw stones with remarkable accuracy, killing rabbits, birds, and animals up to the size of coyotes.  Some of their groups did more hunting with stones than with bows and arrows.

Alfred Crosby wrote that any human more than eight years old, male or female, can throw projectiles farther and more accurately than any other species.  This ability gave us the power to effect change from a distance.  Well-thrown projectiles could drive away hungry predators or kill a plump bunny for dinner.  Researcher Frans de Waal noted that stone throwing chimps also have “impressive long-range aim.”  (Ouch!)

Crosby noted that a few hundred years ago, Europeans visiting Samoa got a painful lesson in the superb stone-throwing skills of the natives.  Of the 61 men sent ashore, 12 were killed by well-thrown rocks.  Humans also invented the rock-throwing sling, which was even more deadly, especially when loaded with lumps of lead.  Many of the conquistadors visiting Mexico had life-changing experiences while getting stoned by the angry sling-twirling Indians.

Scavenging is getting meat from carcasses that you didn’t kill — leftovers from large carnivores, or animals that died from other causes.  In later times, as the ancestors became more skilled at hunting, scavenging was not abandoned.  Meat is treasure, no matter how it is acquired.  Scavenging was often less work and less dangerous than pursuing and killing an animal.

During the day, our ancestors paid careful attention to the skies.  When vultures flew in a specific direction, they might be en route to a fresh carcass.  Circling vultures were strong evidence of a banquet directly below.  Once you got a hot tip, it was best to move quickly, in an effort to beat other scavengers to the banquet.

Hyenas work in gangs, and can quickly strip the scraps off carcasses, leaving few leftovers, if any.  Their arrival time was sometimes delayed by their need to stop, pant, and cool off from time to time.  Our ancestors were far better at shedding heat, an important advantage.  If hyenas or jackals arrived first, it was sometimes possible to mob them and drive them off.  On lucky days, it was possible to steal lunch from a lone cheetah.

Lions were another story.  To drive them away from a kill, surprise was important.  You and your buddies should suddenly charge, waving your arms, shouting, throwing rocks, swinging clubs, or maybe start a grass fire upwind.  Smart scavengers never tried this when lions were just beginning their lunch feast, and were still very hungry.  It was best to wait until they were full and ready for a nap.  Lions rarely consume brains or marrow, and sometimes leave some meat scraps for the intrepid.

It was also important for scavengers to pay attention to trees.  When leopards didn’t completely consume a kill at one sitting, they stored the leftovers up in the branches.  Leopards are night creatures.  If you found their unguarded stash in the daytime, there was less chance of getting shredded and devoured by an angry cat.

Right now, your eyes are following a track of squiggly scratches, and your mind is comprehending meaning from them.  My thoughts and actions created those tracks, and they contain specific meaning for those who have learned how to interpret them.  The farther you are able to follow my tracks, the more you will learn about me.

Similarly, animals leave behind tracks and other signs as they move across the land.  Folks who are skilled at reading this information can accumulate pieces of a story.  They can perceive a fantastic amount of information by studying spoor — footprints, urine, feces, saliva, blood, fur bits, feeding signs, smells, sounds, and so on.  Spoor provides clues about the animal’s species, gender, size, behavior, direction of travel, time of passage, and so on. 

Fresh tracks left by a game animal indicated that it had passed through the area, and the direction it was moving — essential information for hungry hunters.  Also, spoor left by large carnivores indicated predators on the move.  Following their tracks might eventually lead to a recent kill, and a carcass to scavenge.

The San

Louis Liebenberg is a South African lad who has spent years on the Kalahari Desert with the San people (other names include Khoisan, Bushmen, !Kung).  He was not a nerdy anthropologist, he directly participated in hunts, and eventually became a skilled tracker.  He wrote two outstanding books about tracking, scavenging, and persistence hunting.

One time, Liebenberg asked some San trackers if they could actually recognize the spoor of an individual antelope.  They burst out laughing at his incredibly stupid question.  They couldn’t imagine anyone not being able to do this.  When they see a human footprint, they immediately know which individual in their band made it.  Children can identify the tracks of their parents.  Footprints are as unique and recognizable as faces.  To see the footprints of an unknown stranger was highly unusual, and would inspire caution. 

More anthropology books have been written about the San than any other wild people.  Geneticists have found that they have the oldest DNA of any living culture — it is the genetic foundation of nearly all modern humans.  Their genes are the closest to the ancient female from whom all living humans descend, known as Mitochondrial Eve.  Thus, your family tree likely leads back to ancestors similar to the San.  (Pygmies are the second oldest living culture.)

The San have been hunter-gatherers since the dawn of humankind, and they enjoyed a way of life that managed to survive into the 1970s.  Eight hundred years ago, the San homeland included all of southern Africa.  Since then, Bantu and European herders and farmers have displaced them from lands suitable for grazing and agriculture, forcing the San into the Kalahari where, on average, two of every five years are drought years, and severe droughts occur one in every four years.

There are large regions of the Kalahari that are quite flat, an endless landscape having no notable landmarks for a white boy like me, who would quickly become hopelessly lost, and turn into vulture chow.  The San, on the other hand, always know exactly where they are, across large regions, because they orient themselves by the layout of plant communities, noting their size, shape, position, and unique features.  They know the face of their land as well as they know the faces of their family.

Richard Lee wrote about the San.  Their primary food was mongongo nuts, which dropped once a year, but could be gathered all year long.  Meat was their second most desired food.  The Kalahari provided them with about 100 edible plant species, which they were careful not to overuse.  The San expected periodic times of scarcity, so they reserved some plant species for drought food.  Portions of their territory were set aside for lean times.

John Reader wrote about an extreme drought in Botswana that lasted three years, resulting in the deaths of 250,000 cattle and 180,000 people.  The San didn’t starve.  Each week they spent 12 to 19 hours foraging for their sustenance.  They lived in one of the harshest environments on Earth.  At the same time, hungry farming people had shifted to foraging during the drought, so the San lands were supporting a larger population than that of normal times.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has spent a lot of time with the San.  She wrote her first book on them in 1958, and her third in 2006.  Like any intelligent culture, their safety net included mindful family planning, to avoid the problems caused by overpopulation, and its trusty companions: environmental degradation, hunger, and conflict.

Because of low body fat and vigorous physical activities, San women began menstruating later.  Some did not have regular monthly periods.  Children were usually nursed for about four years, which further reduced their mom’s fertility.  Most of the women had one to four offspring.  Nomads moved frequently, and belongings and infants often had to be hauled long distances.  A woman could only carry one infant, so just one twin was kept.

When a child could not be kept, the woman gave birth alone, away from the camp, and buried the newborn before it drew breath.  In their culture, a newborn did not immediately become alive, so disposing it was OK.  Crippled or badly deformed infants were not kept, because they would be a drain on the wellbeing of the band.  To avoid unwanted pregnancies in harsh times, it was common for folks to abstain from intercourse. 

Jon Young is the star of several YouTube videos on nature connection.  He was an early student of Tom Brown, the famous author of many books on tracking and nature awareness.  Young visited a number of wild cultures to find those that remain most closely connected to nature.  He discovered that the San people were incredibly well connected.  They refuse to enter houses, because people who live indoors go insane.

Young says that with the San, you always feel safe.  They are super intelligent, super happy, super vital, and great problem solvers.  You never feel competition.  The people are in love with every aspect of the ecosystem around them, celebrating with childlike wonder through all stages of their life.  Every person in that community is committed to the flowering of every other person.  They are incredibly aware of their surroundings at all times, because a brief lapse of attention can kill you in lion country.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Wild Free and Happy Sample 04

[Note: This is the fourth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 


Our orangutan cousins in Sumatra spend about 90 percent of their time in the trees, where they are safe from hungry tigers.  Living in low density, often solitary, they enjoy a peaceful life, free from the emotional aggravation of living in an anxious crowd.  Of all the apes, they are the least noisy, usually silent.  They move through the trees at a leisurely pace, never in a hurry.  There is always something to eat in the rainforest.  On average, females give birth every eight years, a longer spacing than any other mammal.

Orangutans are very intelligent.  Researcher Biruté Mary Galdikas said, “I’ve had this feeling, ever since I was very young, that the tropical rainforest represents the original Garden of Eden.  Our ancestors left the garden, but orangutans never did.  They maintained a childlike innocence that humans lost a long, long time ago.”

Sadly, a mob of palm oil tycoons are furiously replacing the rainforest with palm plantations, mostly in Borneo and Sumatra.


Chimpanzees can grow to a standing height of 5.5 feet (1.7 m), weighing up to 130 pounds (60 kg).  Males are larger and more robust than females.  Chimps spend most of their time in the trees.  Because of their size, they are less speedy and graceful at leaping through the tree canopy, compared to smaller primates.  So, when they want to visit somewhere not close by, they go to the ground and knuckle walk.

Humans evolved for living on the ground, and are optimized for long distance running.  While chimps are smaller than humans, their arboreal lifestyle has made them far stronger.   One experiment found that the arm strength of male chimps is five times that of humans.  Big heavily muscled human wrestlers cannot hold a chimp still, even a young four year old. 

Frans de Waal warns that “Having a chimp in your home is like having a tiger in your home.”  When chimps feel threatened by a human, the human is in danger, and if he attempts to defend himself, the chimp will be even more brutal.  Outdoors, when humans appear to be harmlessly passing through, chimps generally ignore them.

Chimp bands are dominated by an alpha male, who is often backed up by one or more alpha wannabes.  From time to time, the alpha is challenged by lower status males, one of which will eventually dethrone the cocky king of the harem.  When the alpha is defeated, the new alpha often kills the infants of nursing females, so they will become fertile sooner, and produce offspring having his superior genes.  An alpha tends to be abrasive to everyone, to intimidate them, and assert his control.  When male strangers make an appearance, they are welcomed with teeth, fists, clubs, and stones.  In skirmishes to defend territory, chimps are sometimes beaten to death.


Bonobos and chimps live close to each other, but their rainforest habitats are separated by the Zaire River.  The two species have never met in the wild, because neither can swim.  They look a lot alike, and until 1929 were thought to be a single species.  Chimps far outnumber bonobos, and their territory is much larger.  Male bonobos can weigh up to 86 pounds (39 kg), and females up to 68 pounds (31 kg).

The bonobo culture is strikingly unusual for primates.  Their groups are matriarchal.  Males are second-class.  Females determine how food is shared, and they eat while the males wait.  Chimps have sex only when a female is fertile.  Bonobos have sex almost anytime, several times a day, with anyone interested, young or old, in every imaginable way.  Because of this, it’s impossible to know who your biological father was.  So, no youngsters are deliberately killed.

Bonobos are incredibly lucky.  They live in a habitat with abundant food, and no serious competitors in their ecological niche, an ideal situation that does not encourage competition.  Chimps live in leaner lands, and compete for food with gorillas and baboons.  They feel the squeeze of crowding, and they reduce this pressure by infanticide, and by killing or driving away competitors.

Primate Diets

The first primates evolved from small nocturnal insectivores that gobbled bugs during the dinosaur era.  Today, all primates are omnivores, consuming both plant and animal foods.  None are vegetarians, but gorillas are primarily leaf eaters (folivores).  Most primate species are mainly fruit eaters (frugivores).  Tropical forests typically provide a year round supply of fruit, so most primates live close to them.  Fruit is 75 percent of a chimp’s diet, and sugar is rapidly converted to energy.  It’s interesting that human babies have a preference for things that taste sweet, a relic of our tree dwelling days.

Protein is an essential nutrient for primates, and it is mainly acquired by consuming animal foods, and certain types of leaves.  The primary source of animal protein is insects.  When insects are abundant, they can provide up to 90 percent of a healthy primate’s diet.  Meat is a high quality source of protein, far superior to plant sources.  It takes less effort for our digestive systems to utilize the protein from meat.  Some primates are good at predation, killing small animals.  Some are scavengers, dining on the leftovers of carcasses abandoned by carnivores.

While plant foods are most of their diet, bonobos also eat caterpillars, earthworms, shrews, reptiles, bats, flying squirrels, and small forest antelopes (duikers).  Chimpanzees also eat insects, birds, eggs, monkeys, duikers, bushbucks, wild pigs, and carrion.  Baboons also eat insects, fish, shellfish, rodents, hares, birds, vervet monkeys, and duikers.  The orangutan diet includes more than 400 types of food, but it majors in ripe fruit.  They sometimes dine on invertebrates, like caterpillars and worms, and, on rare occasions, meat.  Gibbons feed mainly on fruit, but also consume leaves, insects, bird eggs, and sometimes young birds.

Hominins are unusual primates because some species learned how to kill and cook large animals.  This was made possible by their experiments in tool making, and the domestication of fire.  Unlike other primate lines, hominins are able to digest big servings of highly nutritious animal foods.  Shepard Krech noted that the diet of Native Americans could sometimes include six to twelve pounds (2.7 to 5.4 kg) of meat per day.  For employees of the Hudson Bay Company, the daily ration was seven to eight pounds of meat.  Of course, the diet of wild artic societies consisted almost entirely of animal foods.

The Bottom Line

Non-hominin primates did not make complex weapons, strive to exterminate predators, spread around the world, enslave other species, invent agriculture, explode in numbers, live in filth, and die by the millions from infectious diseases.  They did not wage war against infectious diseases, soar into extreme overshoot, load the atmosphere with crud, and blindside the planet’s climate.  Instead, they continue to inhabit a niche in their ecosystem, and live as they have for millions of years, without rocking the boat.  This is nature’s way.

Somewhere along the path, hominins began exploring new paths that eventually led them farther and farther from nature’s way, into dark and dangerous realms.  A growing number of the cool new tricks we discovered had uncool consequences, eventually triggering disturbances that not only rocked the boat, but rocked the planet.  Edward Abbey said, “Man is literally undoing the work of organic evolution.”  This is the opposite of intelligent.

The accelerating frenzy of half-clever experiments has catapulted human modes of living to places far outside of the time-proven design encoded by our genetic evolution (hardware).  The long parade of naughty booboos was the result of an impulsive adolescent fling with cultural evolution (software).  I don’t believe that our hardware is fatally flawed.  Our software is, without a doubt, a deadly threat to us, our descendants, and the entire family of life.

In the coming decades, our operating system is going to crash, again and again, because of its countless bugs.  Before long, our radicalized blind faith in utopian techno-fantasies will be thoroughly rubbished by the nightmares we created with good intentions.  As life as we know it melts down, even stupid people (hopefully) will come to reject our culture’s fantasies.  What should we do?  Any bright ideas out there?

The disintegration and abandonment of the failed culture will create a vacuum, an opening for new modes of being, which must be radically different, radically simpler, and ecologically wise.  Now is a good time to be contemplating how things got to be this way.  Now would be an excellent time for serious efforts to learn from our many mistakes.  Repeating the same mistakes, generation after generation, is so embarrassing for critters with big brains (blush!).

In the following chapters, I’ll sketch out my interpretation of the human saga, from the perspective of humans as animals — not the Crown of Creation.  Happy trails!

Monday, November 26, 2018

California: A Fire Survey

Stephen Pyne is among the world’s foremost experts on fire, and the author of many books.  California: A Fire Survey presents a blazing discussion on how fire has perplexed and bedeviled the Golden State.  One of every nine Americans lives in California.  Thanks to the arrival of industrial civilization, 170 years of rapid growth, and a culture devoted to the hardcore pursuit of wealth and excess, the state’s ecosystems resemble the smashed up cars at the end of a demolition derby.

Throughout the colonization process, the newcomers were possessed with a burning desire for prosperity.  The madness shifted into high gear as the nation industrialized, and created the infrastructure for mowing down ancient forests, exterminating millions of buffalo, eliminating vast numbers of fish, and extracting valuable minerals with fanatical zeal.

When it reached the Pacific, the culture of furious greed collided with an unusually flammable ecosystem.  “An estimated 54 percent of California ecosystems are fire dependent, and most of the rest are fire adapted.”  The land has been burning for thousands of years, because of natural wildfire, and human caused burns.  This has displaced numerous fire intolerant species.  Under ideal conditions, once ignited, a California fire can burn and expand for weeks or months.  The potential for expansion depends on three things: fuel, terrain, and weather.  Of these, the availability of fuel is something that humans can influence.

There are two main types of fuel, forests (mostly in the north) and chaparral (mostly in the south).  Chaparral is grassland dotted with brush.  Much of its vegetation is flammable, and chamise is especially so.  Once it is older than 25 years, it burns with intensity, and then reseeds and resprouts.

“Malibu Canyon is to wildfire what the Red River is to flooding.”  Pyne called it a fire bellows.  It often provides an ideal combination of excellent fuel, fire friendly terrain, Santa Ana winds, and human foolishness.  It burns explosively.  Many celebrities have built mansions in the canyon, because it offers fantastic views of the ocean.  Malibu had major fires in 1956, 1993, 2003, 2007, and 2018.  While mansions come and go, taxpayer anger grows at spending millions of dollars on fire control to protect the property of the superrich.

Native Americans limited the buildup of fuel by deliberately setting fires.  When little fuel was available, fires burned with less intensity.  In regularly burned forests, fires stayed close to the ground, and were less likely to become serious crown fires.  This kept the forest more open, easier to travel in, and provided better habitat for game animals.  Regular burning thwarted the sacred sequoia’s competitors — fir, cedar, and pine.  The competitors, especially white fir, deposited thick layers of flammable debris that prevented sequoia regeneration, and encouraged intense fires that could kill the giants.  Fire made the majestic sequoia groves possible.

The newcomers to America had a very different perspective.  In their minds, fire destroyed precious timber, sending enormous potential profits up in smoke — horror!  And so, the cult of aggressive fire suppression was born.  Fight fires like crazy, in every possible way, and send the huge bills to taxpayers.  The unintended consequence of this brilliant strategy was an enormous buildup of unburned fuel over time, which set the stage for major conflagrations.  Oops!

Southern fires arrive like Godzilla.  Northern fires arrive like a flash flood or blizzard — in late August 1987, lightning ignited 4,161 fires in Northern California, destroying 755,475 acres (305,729 ha) and 42 homes.  Firefighters worked furiously to extinguish every ignition, but some escaped and spread out of control.  By and by, a few wise guys began reconsidering their self-defeating strategy, and contemplated using regular prescriptive burns to control fuel buildup.  After many decades of fire suppression, the forests had become severely clogged with fuel.  Mechanically removing fuel buildup from vast areas of forest is a huge and enormously expensive project.

Southern California fires were violent, frequent, and unavoidable.  In addition to forests and chaparral, a new major source of fuel was growing — suburbs.  Wildfires happily reduced wooden structures to ashes.  So, the wise guys created fuel breaks — strips of vegetation 100 feet (30 m) wide were cleared to separate the McMansions from the chaparral.  This often worked to stop the spread of flames, but not airborne sparks.  Regularly maintaining fuel breaks was expensive, and taxpayers bleated about the cost of prevention.

As the sprawl monster expanded, there was less and less space for fuel breaks in new developments, at which point fuel reduction implied suburb reduction, an unpopular idea.  Many, many suburbanites, for decades, with astonishing ignorance, stubbornly resisted replacing their extremely flammable wood shingled roofs with fire resistant material.  A number of local governments did not ban development in fire prone locations where the landscape was a wind tunnel.

Reducing the fuel load via prescribed burns was possible, in theory, but fire creates smoke, and smoke annoys suburbanites, especially the palace dwelling celebrities.  Smoke does not readily blow out of the bowl-like Los Angeles Basin, home to 17 million.  By 1947, the air in L.A. County was so filthy that the herd got uppity.  Numerous regulations were created, but the wildfires laughed at them.  So, the only remaining option was expensive and intensive fire suppression.

Whenever the Santa Ana winds blow, and there is adequate fuel, ignition requires no more than a spark.  In one Southern California national forest, 37 percent of fires were caused by bulldozers, chainsaws, and other equipment, vehicles caused 2 percent, power lines 2 percent, miscellaneous 14 percent, smokers 5 percent, campfires 4 percent, kids with matches 5 percent, lightning 2 percent, car crashes 2 percent, arson 8 percent, and unknown 19 percent.

In 1849, when the Gold Rush began, a city of canvas tents suddenly appeared along San Francisco Bay.  By 1906, it had rapidly grown into a major city, in which 90 percent of the structures were still wood framed.  As many other U.S. cities had already discovered, this was a recipe for catastrophic fire.  Plus, the city was unluckily nestled close to the San Andreas Fault and the Hayward Fault. 

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake sent waves across the land surface, ripping apart streets, water mains, and gas pipes.  Numerous fires soon appeared and quickly spread.  Hot air rose so fast that it sucked more heat upward, creating a chimney through the atmosphere.  Four days later, 28,188 structures had gone up in smoke, and 2,000 to 3,000 people perished.  On the outskirts of the city, only a fringe of houses remained standing.

Many homeless refugees fled across the bay to Oakland, and many stayed there.  Prior to settlement, about 2 percent of the Oakland region was woods.  As the city grew, grassland fires above the town burned often and harmlessly.  But a new gold rush was emerging — real estate development.  Suburbs were expanding up the hillsides.  Wealthy elites built their mansions where the views were stunning.

Rapid growth in the bay region increased the demand for lumber, which accelerated deforestation elsewhere.  A super ambitious developer in the Oakland story was Frank Havens.  One of his schemes was to plant fast growing eucalyptus trees from Australia, and make megabucks selling lumber and firewood.  Too late, he tearfully learned that his trees were worthless until they were 75 to 100 years old.  He discovered this after he had planted up to eight million trees along a 14 mile (22 km) strip from Berkeley to Oakland.  These trees drop lots of highly flammable bark strips as they grow, and when hard frosts kill the trees, they dump loads of highly flammable leaves.

By and by, the East Bay hills became the Malibu of the north.  Seasonal Diablo winds frequently howled in from the east, rushing through the dangerous fuel buildup.  A 1923 inferno burned 584 homes.  This was followed by fires in 1946, 1970, 1980, and finally, the Tunnel Fire of October 1991.  That year, a frost had killed eucalyptus trees, boosting the fuel load.  A record heat wave followed a summer of drought.  Many homes in Oakland were jammed close together, and many had wooden roof shingles.

The Oakland Hills firestorm began as a grassfire, which then exploded as winds gusted up to 65 miles per hour (100 km/h).  Power lines got zapped, disabling 17 water pumping stations.  Oakland had nonstandard fire hydrants, which could not be used by assisting fire departments.  In just one hour, 790 structures were destroyed.  Eventually, 3,354 houses, and 456 apartments and condos burned.

And so, dear reader, I wonder if treating an ecosystem like a treasure chest, and looting it as fast as possible, with complete disregard for future generations, using all the latest gizmos invented by mad scientists — “progress” — is truly a healthy path.  I wonder why our schools are still preparing youngsters for a life of mindless hardcore looting.  That seems a bit odd.  It isn’t even fun.

One thing missing in the book is the Big History perspective.  Fire was domesticated in Mother Africa, and the hot idea eventually spread everywhere.  Siberian hunters originally brought fire-making knowledge into the Americas.  What was California like when they arrived?  Did thousands of years of Indian burning displace fire intolerant species, and actually create a fire prone ecosystem?   

Bill Gammage described the scale of Aboriginal burning in Australia.  Most of the continent was burnt about every 1 to 5 years.  Just 40 years after the British colonists banned burning, the site of a tidy dairy farm could be replaced by dense rainforest.  This suggests that the hunter-gatherers radically altered the ecosystem.  In another book, Fire: A Brief History, Pyne described how domesticated fire altered many ecosystems.

Pyne, Stephen, California: A Fire Survey, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2016.

There are several Pyne videos on YouTube, running from 15 minutes to an hour.  He is articulate and well informed.  Many of his fire books are available on Amazon.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Wild Free and Happy Sample 03

[Note: This is the third sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 196 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

The Primate Clans

Primates include both apes (no tails) and monkeys (tails).  Over the eons, different primate species evolved in different ecosystems.  Each location had a different mix of climate, food resources, advantages, and dangers.  These variables encouraged unique evolutionary adaptations.  The adaptations that best increased the odds for survival were more likely to be passed on to the following generations.  Each ecosystem was also in a process of endless change, sometimes slow and gradual, and other times fast and extreme.  Over time, in response to change, primate evolution fine-tuned beneficial adaptations, and abandoned the duds.

Since Neanderthals disappeared from the stage, our closest living relatives are the chimps and bonobos, with whom we share up to 99 percent of our genes.  Next closest are gorillas, and in fourth place are orangutans.  The ancestors of all four relatives have inhabited tropical forests for millions years without trashing their ecosystems.  Mainstream culture teaches us that they are less intelligent than we are (an advantage?).  Unfortunately, evolution has not outfitted them with bulletproof hides to protect them from bushmeat hunters and crabby farmers.  They do not instinctively mob and exterminate loggers, miners, and developers.

Let’s take a peek at a few of our primate relatives.

Snow Monkeys

Japanese macaque (snow monkey) habitat ranges from sub-tropical to sub-arctic.  In their sub-arctic locations, temperatures can dip to -4°F (-20°C).  Snow might cover the ground for four months, in depths up to 10 feet (3 m).  As winter approaches, their summer fur grows and thickens into gorgeous insulated coats.  Bands sometimes take a pleasant soak in a hot spring, on a snowy winter day.  They have been observed at elevations as high as 10,433 feet (3,180 m).

During the summer, they build up body fat by feasting at the warm season buffet, which includes the fruit, seeds, nuts, the vegetation of 213 plant species, and the crops of crabby gun-toting farmers.  They also dine on fish, insects, and invertebrates.  In winter months, they survive on stored body fat, and rough foods like leaves and bark.  They huddle together to keep warm. 

Hominins (human ancestors) evolved for life in the tropics, where there was no need for warm fur.  When they migrated into non-tropical regions, life got dangerously chilly.  To survive in snow country, they needed warm clothing and shelters — technological crutches that require tedious time-consuming toil that was completely unnecessary in their natural habitat.  They did not gradually move out of warm lands, and let evolution perfectly fine tune them for cooler places.  They were already extremely unusual high-tech critters, with their thrusting spears and domesticated fire.  They impatiently bypassed evolution.  Oh-oh!


When climate change shrank the forest and expanded the savannah, the ancestors of baboons evolved in a way that allowed them to spend much of their time on the ground.  Few of them now live in tropical forests, but all baboons have retained the physique for scampering up trees.  Baboons intelligently avoid wild predators by sleeping at the top of steep cliffs.  Sleeping in trees protects them from lions and hyenas, but not leopards.  In daylight hours, when many large carnivores are snoozing, baboons forage in groups, paying constant attention to reality.

Spending time on the ground increased their vulnerability to daytime predators.  Male baboons evolved big, strong bodies and large canine teeth.  When predators approach, male baboons form a point defense to obstruct a quick, easy, surprise kill.  While the males hold off the threat, the females and their offspring have a chance to escape.  Baboons did not fabricate weapons and hunt animals larger than they were but, on happy days, they could mob a leopard and disassemble it.  Readers who have killed adult leopards with their teeth and bare hands know that this can be very dangerous.

The ancestors of both baboons and humans moved onto the savannah, where they learned to survive as ground dwelling primates in a rough neighborhood that included lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and crocodiles.  Baboons demonstrate that primates can survive in a dangerous habitat without spears, fire, or complex language — and they can do this without causing irreparable ecosystem degradation.  With smaller brains, grunt communication, and sticks and stones, the baboons have brilliantly lived sustainably for millions of years.  They continue to enjoy a healthy, pleasant, and traditional wild life.  Thus, our ancestors were not forced to choose between tool addiction and extinction. 

Baboons have tails, so they are monkeys, not apes.  Paul Shepard noted that ground monkeys are “the most aggressively status-conscious creatures on Earth.”  High-ranking males have primary access to females and food.  The rank order in the hierarchy regularly changed.  So, to maintain or elevate your rank, it was important to brutally attack your inferiors at every opportunity.  Daily life was a state of heightened stress and anxiety.  Any minute you might be chased, pummeled, and bitten. 

Robert Sapolsky spent 30 years studying a troop of baboons.  Over time, he came to like a few of them, but he really disliked the troop, because they were exceptionally mean to each other, hour after hour, day after day.  He came to understand that hierarchy and competition can be a destructive force in a community, and this principle also applied to humans, many of whom are shattered by stress filled lives.


Gorillas evolved a different mode of sustainable living.  They never left the tropical forests, and their diet is primarily vegetarian.  They would have a hard time surviving outside of the forest.  Gorillas spend hours each day stuffing their faces at the salad bar.  They have evolved large guts in order to digest this bulky fibrous feast.  Insects provide the animal food in their diet.  In one study, 25 percent of gorilla poop samples contained bits of termites.

Males can be twice as heavy as females, growing up to 485 pounds (220 kg).  The big guys can’t climb trees, but smaller gorillas do.  Trees are a place to sleep, and to escape from predators.  They live in groups of 6 to 30 individuals, dominated by one or two silverback males.  Silverbacks are generally shy and relaxed, except when disturbed by uninvited humans or other gorillas.  The only predators they fear are humans.


There are about 20 species of gibbons, apes that inhabit the tropical forests of Southeast Asia.  Gibbons are primarily arboreal, and they live in small monogamous groups.  They can swing through the tree canopy with astonishing speed — up to 34 miles per hour (55 km/h).  Science calls this form of travel brachiation.  Today, physically fit humans still have a limited ability to brachiate.  As a schoolboy, I used to swing by my arms, from rung to rung, on the monkey bars at the playground. 

Members of most gibbon species range in size from 12 to 17 pounds (5.5 to 7.5 kg).  Because they are small, confronting large predators is not an option, so the males and females of most species are about the same size.  Smallness is an asset, enabling them to travel rapidly through the forest canopy.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Rise of Homo Sapiens

The Rise of Homo Sapiens, by Frederick Coolidge (psychologist) and Thomas Wynn (anthropologist), is a book about the evolution of human cognition.  It describes the seven million year voyage that resulted in the magnificent mind that’s throbbing between your ears right now.  This voyage began with the first hominins — bipedal (two legged) apes who were either our direct ancestors, or our long lost cousins.

Note that the details of human evolution are the cause of endless barroom brawls among rowdy paleoanthropologists and archaeologists.  They constantly argue about the members of our family tree, the transitions between one species and the next, and the dates when changes happened.  To keep it simple here, the first brainy hominin was Homo erectus, who arrived on the African stage 1.8 million years ago.  Erectus probably evolved into Homo heidelbergensis, who was maybe the common ancestor of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens (our hero!).  Neanderthals are our cousins, not our direct ancestors (we share at least 99.5 percent of our DNA).

The authors believe that there were two significant surges in cognition, (1) Homo erectus 1.5 million years ago, and (2) Homo sapiens 40,000 years ago.  Erectus had a large brain, knapped stone tools, and was the first to move beyond woodland habitats.  They were able to survive in everything from dry savannahs to tropical rainforests.  From Africa, they spread to southern Europe and much of Asia.  Around 1.5 million years ago, they invented a major advance in stone tools — biface knapping.  These were hand axes and cleavers that had two cutting edges.  For the first time, folks could now effectively butcher large animals — an ability that greatly expanded their food resources.

Razor sharp stone tools were revolutionary.  Great apes, monkeys, and other mammals can only cut and chop with their teeth.  This book made me appreciate, for the first time, the huge importance of stone tools.  Cutting is big juju!  Imagine a world in which teeth were the only cutting edges for any purpose.  Civilization would be impossible, and you and I would be naked wild things on a sunny African savannah.

Another revolutionary technological discovery was the domestication of fire, which kicked open the gate to life as we know it.  The earliest evidence of fire was found in an African cave, dating to 1.4 million years ago.  Erectus was probably a fire user.  Prior to manufactured tools and domesticated fire, our ancestors were still ordinary animals, like baboons — wild, free, and happy.  These two changes shoved them outside the community of all other animals, and put them on an ominous new path.

In the million years following the invention of biface cutters, Homo erectus artifacts reveal no evidence of further innovation.  Maybe they now had everything they needed, and life was grand.  But the book’s authors live in a culture that is constantly disrupted by hurricanes of innovation.  To them, a million years of stability and sustainability is glaring evidence of feeblemindedness. 

Both authors are shameless out-of-the-closet human supremacists, and their book is a flag-waving celebration of human brilliance.  They write, “Homo sapiens has transformed the natural world into one of culture and civilization that our distant ancestors, let alone members of other species, possibly could not imagine.”  No kidding! 

The authors are also masters at the mysterious art of academic writing.  Behold: “The allometric trajectory that best distinguished anatomically modern Homo sapiens and Neanderthals was a tendency towards klinorhynchy or globularity in modern humans.”  The book was not a pleasure read for a general reader like me.  I was not the intended audience.

In the book, hominins are essentially presented as being biological machines.  Much attention is devoted to brain size, brain components, brain processes, and genetic evolution.  Subjects include decision making, planning, memory, learning, abstract thinking, language, communication.  Bones and artifacts reveal little or nothing about stuff like thinking, memory, or speaking, so the book indulges in a lot of speculating, which could get quite frisky, sometimes hopping over the fence of credibility.

Homo sapiens maybe emerged around 200,000 years ago.  Somewhere around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, there is evidence of a significant shift that is often referred to as the Great Leap Forward.  It was an era of breathtaking cave paintings, decorative ornaments, ceramics, carvings, and innovation in hunting technology.  The authors make the highly controversial assertion that this big shift “developed because of an additive genetic mutation or epigenetic event that affected the neural organization of the brain.”  And so, a new and turbulent chapter in the human saga was the result of random genetic juju that scrambled our thinkers.

Far less attention is devoted to significant factors that were external to the brain machines and their magic genes.  By the time of the Great Leap, folks had struggled to overcome a number of major challenges.  They had figured out how to survive in a chilly temperate climate — warm clothing, secure shelters, food storage.  Utilizing the latest state of the art technology, they had become highly skilled at team hunting.  They lived in regions having abundant game.  People who are struggling to survive are not going to have time to fool around with nonessential amusements.  But people living in times of prosperity, like the Baby Boomers, or the cave painters, can indulge in fanciful excesses and extravagances.

In the Great Leap era, the world was unimaginably alive and a spectacular, breathtaking miracle.  Modern folks would eagerly pay big money, and get on a 40-year waiting list to experience a pure, thriving wilderness filled with mammoths, lions, aurochs, and buffalo.  To gasp with wonder at vast clouds of birds filling the skies with beautiful music and motion.  To listen to rivers thrashing with countless salmon.  To see, hear, and feel the powerful vitality of the reality in which our species evolved, the type of world that the genes of every newborn baby expects to inhabit — a healthy, sane, beautiful, wild paradise.

Craig Dilworth wrote that the cave painting tribes were the luckiest humans of all, because they lived at the zenith of the entire human experience.  A number of revolutionary innovations had provided them with a temporary opportunity to experience a magnificent way of life.  But the road ahead was a rough one.  Another ice age was approaching, and Europe would get colder than it had been in 100,000 years.  Large game would become less abundant due to habitat change, and to the long-term consequences of, century after century, killing a few too many big critters that did not breed like bunnies.

Technological innovation has a regular habit of sharply biting its clever inventors, and their societies, on the ass.  Patching up the damage caused by the unintended consequences of progress typically inspires even more innovation, leading to even more unintended consequences, resulting in a treacherous downward spiral. 

Humans have retained some characteristics of ordinary animals — our minds are focused on the here and now, our capacity for acute foresight is flaccid, and we often become prisoners of habitual thoughts and behaviors.  Over time, human numbers grew, and food resources diminished.  Storms of devastating cleverness eventually led to the domestication of plants and animals, a transition that many anthropologists refer to as the Great Leap Backward. 

And now, dear reader, here we are, standing in the growing shadow of an era of climate change helter-skelter, a painful withdrawal from a total addiction to energy guzzling, and the eventual obliteration of life as we know it.  And, here we are talking about a book that celebrates the miracle of human cognition.  Oy!

A year ago, I spent a few hours with this book, and set it aside.  Recently, I looked at it again, because I was interested in some anthropological information.  I contemplated reviewing it, but decided not to.  Then, my muse gave me a dope slap (SMACK!).  The book is perfect!  It’s a haunting mug shot of the mindset that is engaged in a full-scale war against all life — yet refuses to notice it, or care.

This is the mindset in which educated brains are thoroughly marinated from childhood onward.  Like standing in front of a curvy funhouse mirror, the distorted reflection we see is Superman or Superwoman, powerful beings of greatness and goodness.  Thus, the notion of superheroes knowingly engaging in pathological mass destruction is perfectly ridiculous.  We much prefer the flattering portrait to the lost and confused critter behind the mask.  This may not be the path to a happy ending.

One passage noted that, “excepting humans,” today’s great apes are in decline (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans).  Could their big brains have doomed them?  “Large brains are expensive and have profound life-history consequences.  If they no longer yield a competitive edge, their owners will, predictably, go extinct.”  Do you think that humans truly are the exception?  Is our ever-growing cleverness rotting out our competitive edge, as it undermines the ecosystems that make our existence possible?  Will our superhero brains ever snap out of their trance, open their eyes, and become fully present in reality?  Stay tuned.  And now, a message from our sponsor…

Coolidge, Frederick L., and Thomas Wynn, The Rise of Homo Sapiens: The Evolution of Modern Thinking, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, U.K., 2009.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Dancing in the Streets

I was intrigued when our book group selected Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich.  It’s a history of collective joy and ecstatic ritual — stuff that’s pretty rare in the land of the glowing screen people.  Studying humankind’s long transition from wild and free to robo-consumers, it’s easy to perceive gradually advancing emotional decay.  Cultures slid further away from intimate connections to the family of life, and human societies grew from small clans of friends and family into sprawling megalopolises inhabited by millions of strangers.

In Colin Turnbull’s lovely book, The Forest People, the Mbuti Pygmies were beautiful people who thrived in a Congo rainforest.  They did not worship invisible deities, because that required a vivid imagination.  Instead, they had profound reverence and respect for their forest, which was not invisible, and gave them everything they needed.  This love often inspired song, dance, and jubilation.  Paradise was where their feet were standing.  Turnbull wrote that the Pygmy “likes to laugh until tears come to his eyes and he is too weak to stand.  He then sits down or lies on the ground and laughs still louder.”

In The Mbuti Pygmies, Turnbull spoke fondly of Father Longo, a Catholic missionary.  Pygmies had no word for evil.  “In order to convert them, then, he would first have to teach them the concept of evil, and that he was not prepared to do.”  He left them unmolested.

I had great hopes for Ehrenreich’s book, because it was a very neat idea.  I imagined a book to help us remember how essential it was, for health and sanity, to spend our lives in intimate daily contact with the family of life, in a thriving undefiled ecosystem — the mode of living for which we evolved.  The book didn’t quite do this.  Its time window was the era of civilization, beginning with brief glimpses of Canaanite orgies, and the lusty Dionysian cults of Greece.  The main focus was on Europe in the last 500 years.

For most, life in medieval times majored in backbreaking drudgery and poverty.  Folks avoided insanity by taking breaks for festive gatherings — carnivals where people wore costumes and masks.  There was singing, dancing, drinking, and good-natured mockery of their superiors.  The struggles of daily life were left behind, as peasants and nobles joined together, rolled down their socks, and dissolved into a sweet whirlwind of joyful noise and ecstatic celebration.

There were big cultural changes when puritanical cults appeared on the stage, with their fanatical intolerance.  Calvinism descended like a hard frost on fun.  Pleasure was of the devil.  Festivities were banned.  The music stopped.  Get back to work!  Naturally, this led to an epidemic of morbid melancholy (depression).

Over time, multinational salvation-oriented religions drove wedges into cohesive social relationships.  Believers were encouraged to regularly contemplate their shortcomings, and worry about where their souls would reside in the afterlife.  There was increased focus on “me,” the individual, and less on “us,” our community.  With the rise of individualism came “isolation, loneliness, a sense of disengagement, loss of vitality, and a feeling of burden because reality had no clear meaning.”

Then came the age of colonization, when this injured mindset spread to distant lands, forced its beliefs on others, and destroyed their cultures.  Missionaries were rigid, racist, domineering, and intolerant — dour and cheerless people who never laughed.  Savages were no longer allowed to practice their traditional ecstatic rituals, because they were devil worship.  Joy became a mental illness.

Ehrenreich wrote in 2007, but her chapter on the rise of fascist nationalism could have been written this morning.  Following their defeat in 1918, Germans were down and out.  Hitler revived their spirits with mysticism, color, and pageantry.  Hitler was a masterful performer and bullshit artist who entranced vast crowds with his highly animated oratory, repeatedly shouting slogan after slogan.  Thousands roared back, “Sieg heil!” [LOOK]

The Nazis built an enormous stadium at Nuremberg, and held annual gatherings in it.  Around the perimeter, 130 antiaircraft searchlights were aimed straight up into the night, creating an awe-inspiring circular colonnade of light beams. Folks were spellbound by the sight of thousands of soldiers, in crisp new uniforms, goose-stepping with astonishing precision, to the thundering drumbeats.

Like the Pied Piper, Hitler tried to unify and lead all good Germans to a heroic racially pure Teutonic utopia.  On the streets, gangs of roughneck brown shirts with swastika armbands aggressively harassed the socialists, Jews, and other undesirables.  The swing music of racially inferior Negroes was banned.  Radio and cinema reinforced the Third Reich’s message — make the Fatherland great again.

Military spectacles were a powerful way to manipulate crowds.  The barrage of high energy nationalism whipped them up.  But being orderly spectators was far less interesting than enthusiastically participating in singing, dancing, and merrymaking.  Nazi events were heavily policed.  Eventually, the parades and speeches got boring.

After the Hitler show was reduced to rubble, Ehrenreich discussed two new fads that seemed like modern attempts to revive ecstatic rituals — rock music, and sporting events.  In the ’60s, the Western world seemed to snap out of its brittle Puritan trance, get up, and dance.  White kids discovered what black folks had known for a long time — tune into the beat and shake those hips.  Letting yourself go led to ecstatic experiences.  At Beatles concerts, the music was often drowned out by the intense screaming and shrieking of thousands of girls. 

At football and soccer games, crowds quit being passive spectators.  Events took on carnival characteristics.  They put on costumes with their team colors, and painted their faces.  There were synchronized crowd movements, chants, dancing, feasting, and singing.  Eventually, the crowds got so loud and distracting that the players on the field complained.  Over time, games began to increasingly take on aspects of nationalistic military spectacles.  There were marching bands, precision drill teams, celebrities, loud music, flag waving, national anthems, and fireworks.

Modern psychology is focused on self-control, being a dependable human resource in an industrial society.  Old fashioned communal festivities were focused on escape from routines, losing the self, and becoming one with the soaring ecstasy of big joy.  I wish that Ehrenreich had invited Jacob Grimm into her story.  Long, long before the plague of Puritans, Europeans had deep roots in their ancestral lands, places that were spiritually alive with sacred groves, streams, mountains, animals, and fairies.  In Teutonic Mythology, Grimm described annual German bonfires:

“At all the cities, towns, and villages of a country, towards evening on the first (or third) day of Easter, there is lighted every year on mountain and hill a great fire of straw, turf, and wood, amidst a concourse and jubilation, not only of the young, but of many grown up peoples.  …Men and maids, and all who come, dance exulting and singing, hats are waved, handkerchiefs thrown into the fire.  The mountains all round are lighted up, and it is an elevating spectacle, scarcely paralleled by anything else, to survey the country for many miles round from one of the higher points, and in every direction at once to see a vast number of these bonfires, brighter or fainter, blazing up to heaven.” 

At Midsummer, there were wheels of fire rituals.  “A huge wheel is wrapt around with straw, so that none of the wood is left in sight, a strong pole is passed through the middle, and is grasped by the guiders of the wheel.  At a signal… the wheel is lighted with a torch, and set rapidly in motion, a shout of joy is raised, and all wave their torches on high, part of the men stay on the hill, part follow the rolling globe of fire as it is guided downhill to the Moselle.  …Whilst the wheel is rushing past the women and girls, they break out into cries of joy, answered by the men on the hill; and inhabitants of neighboring villages, who have flocked to the river side, mingle their voices in the universal rejoicing.”

In the old days, white folks still knew how to party like Pygmies.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2007.

Grimm, Jacob, Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols, 1883, Reprint, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1976.