[Note: This is the fifty-first sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews. These samples are not freestanding pieces. They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time. If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.
[Continued from sample 50]
And now, dearest reader, it’s time for a brief message from your humble storyteller. Hi! I’m going nuts! The plan here was to compress some super-significant trends of the last 10,000 years down to a lumpy chubby chapter. It’s a journey that wanders from wild, free, and happy to the nightmarish whirlwinds of the twenty-first century. It’s about unconditional surrender to those who control us, and to the beliefs we’re expected to profess. It’s about wealth and obsession with status. It’s about disconnection from nature, disintegration of traditional wild cultures, and a free-fall into self-destructive meaninglessness without a parachute.
I’m far more comfortable talking about logical and linear history — names, dates, places, descriptions, consequences. But this chapter spends some time poking and squeezing a number of slippery and slithery mental inventions that smell like abstractions, mental fabrications — freedom, control, progress, success, etc. I am not a philosopher. Abstractions are not my forte, and I’ve burned up too many hours trying to envision a clever approach here.
I would love it if this rowdy mob of ideas would simply go to their assigned seats and, in an orderly manner, stand up and introduce themselves to you. They aren’t interested. They aren’t obedient robots. So, Plan B is to flip through a series of snapshots, an exhibition of impressions, ideas, trends, and curiosities. What follows is not logical and linear, it’s more random, intertwined, and meandering. Let’s see what happens. Do your best. Here we go.
Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, living in small nomadic groups. Survival required cooperation, sharing, and the prompt resolution of conflicts. They were egalitarian, everyone enjoyed equal worth — women, men, young, and old. Nobody gave orders, or obeyed orders. Nobody went hungry unless everyone did. Folks who became infected with pride, and got big headed, were mocked and shunned until they recovered. Healthy communities could not tolerate the disharmony generated by self-centered oddballs.
Over the course of two million years, hominins fine-tuned the dance of small group survival in tropical grasslands. This long and gentle path carefully guided the evolution of our bodies and minds. Each band of hunter-gatherers operated with a conscious identity of “we.” They thought like a group, not a bucketful of anxious, irritated, self-oriented individuals.
Similarly, the relationship between bands of hunter-gatherers and the surrounding family of life also consisted of a strong sense of “we,” of oneness. Richard Nelson spent time with the Koyukon people of Alaska, who were the opposite of arrogant human supremacists. They told him, “Every animal knows way more than you do,” which was true. Wild critters perfectly understood the art of natural survival. It was impossible for tropical primates to survive in Alaska without manmade technology that compensated for their numerous physiological limitations.
Nelson beautifully described their attitude of profound respect and reverence. “Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature — however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be — is never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They feel. They can be offended. And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect. All things in nature have a special kind of life, something unknown to contemporary Euro-Americans, something powerful.”
Herds and Property
Among tropical wild people, personal property was minimal, usually no more than could be carried in both hands — spears, nets, pouches, feathers, baskets, bits of clothing, and so on. Nobody coveted simple stuff like this. It did not make people crazy, greedy, or homicidal. There was no hoarding. A hunter would get no benefit from owning 900 spears. Spears were too quick and easy to replace.
For hunter-gatherers, status was not based on property, it was based on their special knowledge or abilities — healing, storytelling, tracking, hunting, conflict resolution, shamanic gifts, and so on. Social status was about respect — not power, authority, competition, or control. Everyone knew who was really good at certain stuff, and they received honor for their gifts. This form of status was normal and healthy.
Herding was a different game. Managing livestock was a constant responsibility. Animals had to be guided to water and fresh grass. They had to be protected from predation. Wild carnivores had to be exterminated at every opportunity. Male animals not needed for breeding services were mellowed out via castration. Some nomads regularly collected milk from lactating females. Herders assisted when animals were birthing. To avoid overgrazing, and to discourage losses from escape and predation, there were limits to herd size. Thus, a relationship formed between herders and the group of critters they regularly oversaw. Master and slave. Controller and controlled.
Hunting produced meat via skill and good luck. Herding produced meat via totalitarian control. The concept of personal property expanded to include valuable animal slaves, a source of nourishing life energy. Each critter in my herd became a status symbol, and my social rank was based on the value of the status symbols I possessed. You are what you own. This was a new and radical shift in the human saga. It inspired a sense of power and omnipotence, an amazingly brilliant smarty-pants, Superman. For the first time in the human saga, Superman could have ongoing life and death control over tons of living meat. Whoa!
My ownership of an easily replaced spear or loincloth had trivial importance. On the other hand, my ownership of 40 large herbivores was a matter of tremendous significance. This set me apart from (and above) someone who merely owned two goats. More is better could lead to notions that I am better. Superman had no immunity to a highly contagious mania known as status fever, which reduces kind and decent people to obnoxiously ambitious nutjobs.
Over time, status fever spread to epidemic levels in some cultures, becoming a primary motivator for individuals and groups. It led to the emergence of many powerful nomadic tribes and empires, motivated by swarms of screaming demons. More is better, by any means necessary! Grab as much as you can.
Today, of course, billions suffer from advanced stages of multi drug resistant status fever, and most of them are not livestock herders. Countless things have now been reduced to silly status trinkets that delirious consumers find irresistible, including clothing, jewelry, shoes, cell phones, jumbo TVs, appliances. It’s a never-ending lifelong treadmill of resource intensive acquisitions, upgraded at every opportunity — bigger houses, fancier cars, cooler boats, exotic vacations, and on and on. More! More! More!
Our culture celebrates this status seeking mentality, and encourages youngsters to spend their lives striving to increase their status display to the highest degree possible. We are expected to continuously strive to hoard more than our neighbors, more than our parents and siblings, and to own more stuff than we owned last year. Obviously, this is a ridiculously unsustainable dead end way of life. If we weren’t raised in consumer society, this game would appear to be utterly idiotic and insane (and it is).
Stan Rowe perceived that consumers are raging narcissists, spellbound by their own image, imprisoned in an introspective cage — too much time spent before the mirror. Their culture has become disconnected from an ancient relationship with nature and the family of life. Many devote their entire lives to acquiring and discarding unnecessary stuff, hoping to someday find inner peace. They are trying to fill the vacuum created by their loss of wildness, freedom, and functional community. It’s an ineffective attempt to suppress a gnawing hollowness in their lives.
William Cronon compared and contrasted Native American society with the culture of European colonists. Indians enjoyed far greater affluence because they were in an intimate long-term relationship with their ecosystem, and the things they considered to be needs were minimal. They didn’t need a luxurious post and beam trophy home with a stone fireplace and a four horse garage. When you have few wants, the path to prosperity is short and easy. Even the least industrious wanted nothing.
Colonists, on the other hand, had an insatiable hunger for an infinite number of frivolous needs. They had thick black smoke pouring out their ears from raging brain-fires of status fever. Their culture had a demonic technology called money, which made it much easier to exchange commodities, make profits, accumulate durable wealth, and soar away to daffy mental orgasms of pride, achievement, success.
Back home in Europe, more than 1,500 years of forest clearing had eliminated large regions of ancient woodlands. Wildlife was severely depleted. Rivers formerly loaded with salmon had become sewage canals. Cities were incubators of infectious diseases. America blew their twisted little minds. They could make so much <bleeping> money if they destroyed everything they could, as quickly as possible. They imagined that the supply of valuable resources was beyond limitless. Most of this astonishing wealth was free for the taking. Whee!
Robin Wall Kimmerer noted that among the Anishinabe, howling winter winds are associated with the Windigo, a legendary monster with a heart of ice. It is the primal survival instinct in that rises during the Hunger Moon, and then swerves out of control, from need to greed. It eats until hunger fades, but doesn’t stop. Windigo is a selfish spirit that doesn’t know when it has taken too much. It is the insatiable hunger of the corporation, the greed freak, and the maniacal consumer. It’s daunting to see that much of modern society has now become thoroughly entranced by the Windigo spirit.
Different cultures assigned different status value to different types of property. For California Indians, gold was just an ordinary type of stone. Raymond Dasmann noted that they would happily trade ordinary gold nuggets for glass beads. Pale faced Americans, on the other hand, went absolutely delirious with status fever at the sight of gold. There was nothing they would not do to stuff the shiny stones into their pouches. They washed away many mountains with hydraulic mining. The Gold Rush brought people from everywhere. “The Indians were deliberately decimated.” In 1765, there may have been 130,000 in California. In 1850, maybe 85,000. By 1852 just 31,000 were left.
John Tanner was born in Kentucky in 1780, and captured by Indians at age 9. He spent the next 30 years living on the wild side. In one of his yarns, he jabbered about his favorite horse. It had been stolen from another tribe by an aggressive war party. The successful raiders had returned with 180 horses. “In this excursion they had been absent seven months. They had fallen upon and destroyed one village, and taken one hundred and fifty scalps, besides prisoners.”
Sitting Bull was not the slightest bit fond of insane colonizers. “The love of possessions is a disease with them.” A century ago, Peter Fruechen mentioned a comment from a mystified Eskimo, “You white people don’t really know how to do without things and still be happy.” On another occasion, an Eskimo snarled at Knud Rasmussen. “You are so strange, you white men! You collect things you will never require, and you cannot leave even the graves alone.”
An old hippy friend of mine, Hitch-hiker John, observed American society with a mix of horror and amazement. “They are never distracted by ideas,” he said. “Brainwashed people have no issues — they don't know how to think. The sole focus of their lives is just one all-consuming question: how can I get what I want?”
In the good old days, wild lands were like commons, freely open to hunters, foragers, and all other wildness. Folks were welcome to wander, explore, and help themselves to whatever they fancied, because the wild buffet was free to all, usually. In some locations, groups did establish limits that defined the boundaries of their hunting territory, and enforced them. When these limits were respected, there was less irritation that could lead to hurt feelings, conflict, and injuries.
Like herders, farmers were also possessed by a burning desire for ownership, and the status it conveyed. They performed backbreaking labor to reduce wild forests and grasslands to cropland and pasture, land that was no longer freely open to one and all (No Trespassing!). The transformation from wild to private typically involved erasing much of the healthy wild ecosystem, and replacing it with a highly controlled unsustainable manmade soil mining operation.
Paul Shepard noted that the concept of controlling pests, animals, plants, and predators was relatively new. “If the farmer can destroy his competitors, be they beetles, fungi, birds, or deer, and the pastoralist-rancher can kill lions and wolves, they will be inclined to do so. Wild things become adversaries; they take up space, sunlight, or water that the farmer can use for his crops, or they invade the crops, eating, trampling, or infecting them with disease.” Nature became an opponent, something to conquer and subdue. This land is my land. My harvest is stored in my granary. My livestock are grazing on my pasture.
Raiders and Defenders
Wild folks let wild meat critters run free and enjoy their happy lives. Wild game didn’t need to be provided with food, water, protective shelter, and security guards. There was no need to cut, dry, and store hay. When meat was needed, hunters went to work. Similarly, wild food-producing plants were allowed to grow however they wished. There was no need to engage in tedious backbreaking work.
In essence, the simple hunter-gatherer way of life was about going out and getting what you needed, when you needed it, and leaving the rest alone. All they needed was enough, and nothing more. In the days before status fever epidemics swept through their homeland, they were genuine, good old-fashioned conservatives. Leave the world in no worse shape than the day you were born (and better, if possible).
Big Mama Nature had zero interest in regularly serving lavish all you can eat banquets for wild humans. As with all other critters, it was their responsibility to invest modest amounts of time and effort every week, to acquire their nutrients. This approach could have a future. The ecosystem did not need to be obliterated.
Compared to tropical regions, living in colder lands was more challenging. There were lean periods every year, so food preservation and storage increased the odds for survival. As discussed earlier, the domestication of plants (farming) and animals (herding) was essentially developed and intensified north of the tropics. Domestication encouraged deforestation, soil erosion, overgrazing, wildlife destruction, population growth, tension, conflict, infectious disease, and so on.
Both farmers and herders invested immense amounts of time and effort accumulating stashes of essential life energy — edible nutrients made by domesticated plants and animals. In a sense, their stashes were like treasure chests, collections of precious valuables. The emergence of these new and unusual treasure chests triggered a huge turning point in the tropical primate saga. On one dark and stormy night, a demon whispered an evil idea into the ear of a demented nutjob: stealing treasure chests required far less effort than creating them. Oh my goodness! Why didn’t I think of that?
Laborious drudgery was for scroungers, dolts, and slaves. Clever exploitation trumps hard work. A Berber proverb proclaimed, “Raiding is our agriculture.” So, raiding became a respectable and manly profession. Its frequent success created a need for the treasure makers to invent the warrior profession, in order to protect their stored wealth. The raiding game led to centuries of conflict, which spilled rivers of blood. It persists to this day, as a furious unlimited full-scale war on the family of life.
Sedentary communities were chained to a location. They could not rapidly grab their treasure and flee. So, they had to protect their towns and villages with palisades, walls, fortresses, moats. Walled cities protected vast amounts of wealth. Raiders kept inventing new and improved ways of overcoming physical barriers and exterminating city defenders. At the same time, cities tirelessly invented new and better ways of protecting themselves and exterminating raiders. Alfred Crosby wrote a fascinating book about the endless spiraling arms race in deadly technology, from thrown stones a hydrogen bombs.
Nomadic pastoralists owned treasure chests that were highly mobile — herds of precious four-legged food lockers. Their nutritious flesh did not spoil whilst they remained alive, it increased — and they produced offspring too. Many raids also acquired slaves, two-legged, muscle-powered busybodies that generously provided baby slaves. Slaves and livestock were valuable commodities that could be sold to agrarian states, in exchange for city made goods.
The raiders’ highly mobile way of life gave them a strategic advantage over the immobile city dwellers, whose access to food could be cut off by an extended siege (when dogs became “siege mutton”), while flaming arrows landed on their wooden roofs, and corpses of plague victims were hurled in via catapult. Barbarian hordes, like the Mongols, loved raiding farm country, because cities were fat, juicy sitting ducks. It was often very easy to swipe the fruits of years of sweat and toil via a lightning raid.
James Scott noted that, as long as cities were weakly defended, barbarians could enjoy a far better life than farmers. Mongols perceived agrarian communities to be ra’aya (herds) — irresistible get-rich-quick opportunities for merciless, bloodthirsty, mobs of looters. Mounted on speedy horses, hundreds of nomads could suddenly appear out of nowhere, thunder into town without a polite invitation, and enjoy an exciting day of slaughter, rape, pillaging, and demolition.
Horses played a starring role here. For many thousands of years, they were simply wild game, a source of meat and hides. Following domestication, they were also used as beasts of burden, carrying loads, and pulling them. Eventually, folks developed saddles, stirrups, and bridles, which transformed horses into awesomely powerful high velocity assault missiles.
This revolutionary innovation provided humans with mind-blowing godlike powers. For two million years, hominins had moved across the land by foot, slower than an elderly squirrel. Now, an astonishing new era had begun, and its destination was not love, peace, and happiness. Mounted warriors turbocharged civilization’s expansion. Cavalry enabled mass culture, mass control, and mass murder.
Status fever is an equal opportunity pathology. Some cities began contemplating other cities in the region, calculating the amount of treasure they controlled, and the weaknesses in their defenses. Naturally, strong cities overwhelmed weaker cities, and empires metastasized. Conquering neighbors was an exciting way to fill treasure chests, and increase their herds of livestock, warriors, serfs, women, and slaves.
Similarly, nomads were not honorable gentlemen having the highest moral principles. It was not beneath their dignity to attack, kill, and rob other pastoralists, if they were believed to possess interesting treasure. There was no reason why strangers should remain the owners of livestock that could become my property with a modest investment of belligerence and terrorism. Social status was very important to testosterone powered egos, and macho lads took every opportunity for elevating it.
Throughout the centuries nomads have enjoyed being parasites on hard working farmers. In A.D. 98, the Roman historian Tacitus said this about the tribal Germans: “They will much easier be persuaded to attack and reap wounds from an enemy, than to till the ground and wait the produce. They consider it as an indication of effeminacy and want of courage to gain by the sweat of the brow, what they may acquire at the price of their blood.”
Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian, was born around A.D. 1150, and had more of a ringside seat at the bloody horror show. “Now the warriors, who were always pillaging the neighborhood, used often to commit great slaughters. Plundering houses, cutting down cattle, sacking everything, making great hauls of booty, rifling houses, then burning them, massacring male and female promiscuously — these, and not honest dealings, were their occupations.” War dogs were popular too. “Biorn had also a dog of extraordinary fierceness, a terribly vicious brute, dangerous for people to live with, which had often singly destroyed twelve men.”
Saxo also mentioned berserkers (bear shirts), warriors who wore bear skins into battle, and became ferociously violent, completely out of control, and fought in a trance-like wild fury. Ralph Metzner called it a holy rage that they could not turn off. They killed everyone in sight, even friends. In Ireland, Cu Chulainn was so overheated with battle rage that a group of naked women was sent out to calm him. He was put in vats of cold water, which boiled and evaporated.
Giraldus Cambrensis (Jerry of Wales) visited Ireland, and wrote a report in A.D. 1185, when the rivers were full of salmon, the rainforest was full of wolves and boars, and indigenous chiefdoms were constantly fighting amongst themselves. England’s King Henry was beginning the process of conquering Ireland. The Irish were low-tech guerilla warriors, skilled at hit and run ambushes. They used slings to hurl stones with skull-splitting accuracy. They had spears, javelins, and axes. The English were state-of-the-art warriors, having chain mail, armor, archers, and deadly swords. For example, “He who had seen how John de Courcy wielded his sword, with one stroke lopping off heads, and with another arms, must needs have commended him for a most valiant soldier.”
Paul Henri Mallet wrote about the customs of pagan Scandinavia. The scribes who penned the ancient sagas were associated with the nobility who were often highly engaged in the raiding industry. Sagas devoted much attention to documenting the triumphs and defeats of warriors and warfare. Mallet wrote one sentence that hit the nail on the head, “The weak had no right to what they could not defend.”
In that culture, war was their source of honor, riches, and security. Courage was the highest virtue, death was not feared. The honorable way to die was violently, weapon in hand, ideally laughing with their final breath. This was rewarded by a premier afterlife in Valhalla, where they would spend eternity in bloody battle. Every day, they would delight in cutting each other to pieces, and then magically recover, mount their horses, and ride back to the hall of Odin for a night of feasting and oblivion drinking. Yippee!
The shameful way to die was bed death. Folks who died of disease or old age were sent to a low class afterlife in Niflheim. To avoid this fate, Mallet wrote, warriors would plunge off an ancestral cliff (ättestup) to a violent death, in order to end their lives honorably. Those too weak to jump were sent to Valhalla by a caring friend smashing their skull with an ancestral club (ätteklubbor). Stafva Hall in Sweden had annual festivals, with singing and dancing, after which the wobbly geezers, beyond their expiration dates, leaped into the lake far below.
With every century that followed, raiding continued spreading into new regions around the world, grabbing as much treasure as possible, often utilizing staggering amounts of destructive force. The twentieth century saw tremendous advances in fossil-powered mechanized warfare, on land, on sea, and in the skies above. Large cities could be reduced to ash trays with the push of a button.
Today, technological innovation has enabled many more options for raiders, few of which require “coming to grips” with their opponent, and getting splattered with their blood, sweat, and spit. Millions of dollars can now be robbed with a mouse click, from a cozy cubicle in nowhere land. We are living in the Golden Age of status fever. In many communities, the infection rate among adults approaches 100 percent. “More” is the god word of modern society. Imagine what life would be like if humankind had remained wild and free.
Big Mama Nature is not amused. She will still be standing — scarred and wounded but defiant — when the lights go out, and industrial civilization runs out of treasure, and finally slips beneath the waves. Let the healing begin.