[Note: This is the thirteenth 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 200 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.]
Modes of Communication
All forms of life, both plants and animals, seem to communicate in various ways, sending and receiving information with the life around them, via sounds, smells, chemicals, behaviors, gestures, and so on. When I walk through a forest, I often hear warnings of my arrival being announced by noisy birds or squirrels. On dark nights, when I quietly wander past a pond where the spring peepers are roaring in celebration, they all suddenly become silent. In a rainforest, some calls warn of an approaching leopard, while different calls broadcast a snake alert.
Modern humans do not perceive or understand most of the constant communication taking place in the natural world. Jon Young learned nature awareness from his mentor, Tom Brown, and became highly attuned to bird language. One time, he went along on a field trip with ornithology students. He heard a call that warned of an approaching Cooper’s hawk, and mentioned this to the others. The professor winced and hissed “that’s impossible!” A minute later, the bird flew by. The students were amazed. They wondered why their highly educated professor did not understand bird language.
Clive Finlayson mentioned that hunters in Spain still use traditional technology to attract birds. During breeding season, they blow on rabbit bone whistles that imitate the mating calls of quails. Upon hearing the fake urgent pleas for hot romance, lust-crazed males would speed to the hunters, who could then catch them with their bare hands.
Nonhuman animals communicate about the here and now: “tiger coming.” Without words, baboons can communicate irritation, contentment, excitement, and so on. In addition to this basic mode, humans also have the ability to vocalize unusual sequences of grunts, clicks, gasps, and moans. Words enable the possibility of extremely complex communication. We can jabber about the here and now, the future, the past, events in other places, and a million other subjects.
Communication is sometimes mysteriously telepathic. Robert Wolff was astonished by the Sng’oi people of Malaysia. Whenever he made a rare unannounced visit, someone would be waiting for him on the trail, ready to lead him to their current camp. How did they know he was coming? They said that a feeling inspired them to go to the trail, be there, and respond to what happened. Jon Young told a similar story about the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Whenever you came to visit them, someone would be waiting.
We are the word critters. Words bounce off our lips and tongues, zoom through the air, and plunge into the ears of others. We learn words, speak words, hear words, think words, dream words. Nobody knows exactly when hominins began using words, but many scholars have imaginative opinions, none of which are supported by compelling archaeological evidence.
The first words babies learn are nouns (mama, dada). Then comes verbs, stuff to do (pee, poop, eat). Later comes feelings (happy, sad, tired, afraid), and abstractions (good, bad, progress, capitalism). At about 18 months, we begin assembling words into sequences. Everything significant to us has a name — other people, species of plants and animals, rivers, hills, stone formations, stars, tools, and countless others.
Paul Shepard wrote about two scientists who raised young chimps in their home, along with their own children of similar age. The chimps were at least as intelligent as children, until the children were three or four, learned language, and left the chimps in the dust. If the kids had been raised by wild chimps, they would have grown up to be intelligent animals, free from the enormous burdens of our cultural baggage, much of it unwholesome and crazy making.
Complex language was certainly an asset for survival in the hunter-gatherer days. It increased our ancestors’ ability to conjure clever new tricks and accumulate them. Over time, the power of the word critters intensified. At some point in the long journey, excess cleverness forced them to swerve over the line of ecological balance, and into the helter-skelter lane. Hominins got too big for their britches in the dance of the family of life.
Cleverness never rests. The growing herd developed a growing ecological footprint. Food resources became more and more scarce, forcing the transition into plant and animal domestication. By and by, this led to a huge escalation in the power of the word critters. They learned how to encode words into visual symbols that could be penned or painted onto papyrus, scratched into clay, chiseled into stone, cast into metal, converted into digital pixels, and so on. Then the word symbols could be arranged into sequences that conveyed important, detailed, informative meanings (similar to the fascinating stories told to hungry San trackers by the spoor of horny warthogs).
It’s interesting that the oldest written story found so far is the Epic of Gilgamesh, the saga of a lunatic king who built the imperial city of Uruk, in what is now Iraq, in about 2700 B.C. The story, scratched into clay tablets, describes a lecherous slime ball who worked hard to expand organic agriculture by deforesting lands along the Euphrates River, which triggered catastrophic erosion and flooding, and pissed off the gods. By 3200 B.C., Uruk was the biggest city in the world, home to 25,000+ people. Today, Uruk is a crude pile of brown rubble sitting amidst a desolate barren moonscape. Its spoor has an important message for ambitious glory seekers: “Don’t live like we did.”
In a previous section, we jabbered about how the rate of technological innovation was accelerated when people lived in dense populations, and were exposed to ideas and gizmos from other cultures, via long distance exploration, trade, and conflict. In the digital age, the flow of exotic information has shifted into warp drive. Technology enables written words, spoken words, and images to be sent to the other side of the planet in a second, with the click of a mouse.
On my bookshelves are rows of manuscripts written by many thinkers, from different cultures, from different eras — a crowd of interesting minds and stories. We have never before been able to store such vast amounts of information. And we have never before lived in such a destructive manner. This is not a coincidence. Almost all of that information is about stuff that is unhealthy, unnecessary, and unsustainable.
Industrial civilization is already in the early stages of collapse, and this is obvious to folks who are paying close attention to reality. Some worry that collapse will lead to a catastrophic loss of accumulated information. Some day in the coming decades, the grid, the lights, the laptops, and the cell phones will go dark forever. I expect that there are folks alive today who will see the last car die, and the last supermarket close. Without ongoing maintenance, time will eventually compost our wonderful libraries. When the oceans of modern data evaporate and fade from memory, our information will come from fireside stories, the here and now, and the ecosystem we inhabit.
Jon Young has devoted his life to helping people restore three types of severed connections — connection with others, connection with self, and connection with nature. My generation grew up playing outdoors with the neighbor kids. I was lucky to live close to forests, lakes, and open land. We had no iPods, cell phones, video games, or laptops. Our social networking was face to face, in the here and now, and preferably outdoors.
We were at home in nature. We built forts, climbed trees, went swimming, and caught frogs, turtles, salamanders, night crawlers, and fish. We played until mom called us home. Where I live now, it’s common to see tweakers, junkies, and other homeless folks camping amidst trash piles throughout the neighborhood. It’s getting unusual to see children playing.
Most of us spend most of our lives indoors, and our visits outdoors usually take place in manmade surroundings. Few of us spend our entire lives in the place we were born, and develop an intimate and reverent relationship with the wild ecosystem around us. This is a most unusual situation for tropical primates, or any other animals. We’re like the lads who walked on the moon in their silver spacesuits — lost, disconnected, homeless wanderers.
Folks in a post-collapse world are going to be devoting most of their attention to daily survival. This will require them to actually wander out into their ecosystem, on foot, and attempt to blend into it. When the land provides you with fish, nuts, and berries, you develop a spirit of gratitude and respect — connection. Your life will come into communication with the family of life around you.
Collapse is a strong medicine that will delete us or cure us. It will liberate us from countless toxic addictions, behaviors, beliefs, and relationships that have led us to the brink. So, cheer up! Time is running out for the most insane and destructive experiment in Earth’s history. Better days are coming. One way or another, healing will begin.