[Note: This is the forty-sixth 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.
WHO ARE WE?
Life in the Wild Lane
Over a long span of time, our minds, bodies, emotions, and instincts were given form on tropical savannahs. Like our savannah ancestors, you and I are social animals, and we do best in small groups, where we can maintain ongoing personal relationships with all the others. Many wild folks likely spent their entire lives without seeing a stranger. For them, exposure to dense crowds of odd-looking, odd-smelling, odd-sounding strangers would have been terrifying.
On the day of your birth, you did not squirt out of momma’s womb with credit cards, car keys, and a cell phone. You were a wild animal that evolution had fine-tuned for a wholesome life of hunting, scavenging, and gathering in a tropical wilderness. You were fully expecting to be welcomed into a kind and caring tribe — an egalitarian culture of anarchist singers, dancers, and nature lovers. You were not expecting to squirt into the frightening bright lights of a totally insane planet-thrashing civilization, condemned to a life sentence without parole.
You were expecting to spend your entire life out of doors, in a thriving ecosystem where humans were a wee minority group in the family of critters. You enjoyed frequently seeing, hearing, and smelling your wild non-human neighbors throughout every day. Many of these neighbors were good to eat, and some of them would eagerly leap at any opportunity to tear you to bloody shreds and ravenously feast on your yummy flesh. Survival required paying acute attention to reality at all times.
Paul Shepard wrote that for three million years, our wild hominin ancestors were “few in number, sensitive to the seasons and other life, humble in attitude toward the Earth, and comfortable as one species among many.”
It Takes a Village
Soon after birth, many animal species are capable of skills like walking, running, swimming, climbing, and feeding themselves. This is not true for humans, because we are an experiment to see what might happen if tropical primates were allowed to evolve unusually swollen brains. This project required some tweaks.
The birth canal from mom’s uterus to her vagina passes through an opening in the pelvis, and this opening is too small to allow the passage of a fetus with a more fully developed brain. Consequently, humans are born long before we are capable of functioning unassisted. Because we are helpless for an extended period, we require a lot of attention from mommy, daddy, and the surrounding tribe. Many observers have reported that wild people did an above average job of raising children.
Jean Liedloff spent two and a half years living with wild people in a Venezuelan jungle, while occasionally zipping back and forth to big city America, two cultures that could not possibly be more different. The wild folks were generally a kind and cheerful bunch. But every time she stepped off a plane in America, she would immediately be jolted by how strikingly unhappy people appeared. Why? This question eventually inspired her to become a therapist, and the author of an awesome book.
Our months in the womb were very safe and comfortable, the most peaceful period in our journey. Liedloff described how tribal folks made the transition to life in the outer world as pleasant as possible. From the moment of their birth, newborns were held and nursed and loved — and this warm, secure, continuous contact lasted until the infant indicated that it was ready to begin the creeping and crawling phase. Raised in this manner, wild kids lived with a sense of wellbeing that might last throughout their entire lives. They were well-adjusted and happy. Life was good.
On the other hand, in the big city realm, the bright and noisy world outside the womb could be a rather unpleasant place, sometimes hellish. Newborns were hustled away to a nursery, where they could cry by themselves until they ran out of tears. The sense of wellbeing disintegrated, and some of the infants never again recovered it.
Civilized folks, who spend their lives isolated in climate controlled cubicles, with state of the art entertainment systems, often have to buy books to learn how to raise a kid. Liedloff detested these <spit!> horrid books. She wrote that if parents followed the printed instructions, they would “produce children they cannot love, who grow up like themselves, anti-self, antisocial, incapable of giving, destined forever to go hungry.”
Phases of Development
During our life journey, we pass through four developmental phases. In any society, a child’s physical and emotional needs are different from those of an adolescent, adult, or elder. In any region of the world, everyone’s body physically changes through these four phases. No matter what culture we live in, our bodies will automatically proceed from one phase to the next as we meander through the years of our lives.
On the other hand, it’s very important to understand that our emotional development is never guaranteed to automatically proceed from one phase to the next. You cannot smoothly advance into adolescence emotionally until you successfully acquire the emotional skills of childhood. This is true for every transition through the four phases. Each must be completed before moving up to the next — but this doesn’t always happen.
Emotional development can get permanently stuck in one phase, even as the years and decades keep passing. Thus, you can have infantile adults, gray haired adolescents, and other victims of arrested development. Many may never develop a mature sense of social responsibility or emotional stability. This is especially common in complex societies, which have a long reputation for being incubators of mental deformities. Evolution didn’t prepare us for living in crowded, sprawling, synthetic habitats.
It takes about 20 years for a newborn to fully develop the body and brain of an adult. We did not squirt out of mom’s womb with a comprehensive understanding of how to effortlessly glide through our joyride to the finish line. Luckily, we are social animals, and if we had been lucky enough to be born into a healthy wild society, the community would have provided us with timely and competent mentoring. Folks born into complex societies, like ours, are often not so lucky.
Especially critical are the transitions from one phase to the next. For example, a child does not instinctively know how to gracefully move through the whirlwinds of puberty and then smoothly flow into a delightful adolescence. Rites of initiation are ceremonies that explore the wisdom of cultural stories, and provide important instructions for social behavior, conflict avoidance, and other core issues. When a safety net of support is provided, transitions can be much easier. These communities are more likely to nurture the blossoming of sane, competent, well-adjusted people. Modern communities do a far sloppier job of providing guidance and support.
We are now about to take a quick peek at the phases of development. Paul Shepard devoted a lot of attention to this subject in four of his books, especially Nature and Madness. He wore a critic’s hat, and focused his flame thrower on how civilized cultures achieved great advances in self-destruction, producing hordes of obedient grunts to crank the wheels of the machine, and build the palaces, while rubbishing the ecosystem. His writing emits a sharp aroma of extensive learning and intense brainpower, but it’s not a breeze to read. His career didn’t include intimate long-term experiences in wild cultures.
Among my all-time favorite books is The Human Cycle, by Colin Turnbull, a gentle soul and careful writer. This book focused on how different cultures guided their people through the transitions of life’s journey. Turnbull was raised in a pathetically dysfunctional family and peer group (upper class Britain). Later in life he deeply enjoyed spending lots of time with the Mbuti Pygmies, who celebrated life in the Ituri rainforest of Zaire. For many thousands of years they were a happy and sustainable society — until paradise turned into a war zone and logging camp. Turnbull shared fascinating descriptions of both wonderful and wonky cultures. He gave us a delicious glimpse of how our ancestors may have lived in the good old days.
The following comments are a generic overview. They do not describe universal practices that are exactly the same in all societies. Humans have created countless unique cultures over many thousands of years. Each attempted to guide folks through their life journey, in a wide variety of ways, with mixed results.
CHILDHOOD. Childhood is the thrilling and confusing era of intense change that spans between birthday and puberty. For their first three years, all Mbuti infants remained in constant contact with their mothers, which provided a heavenly bonding experience. This prepared the infant for becoming a confident and competent social being during the rest of its life.
On the other hand, in Turnbull’s upper class Britain (and throughout much of the civilized world), the mother-infant relationship was far less intimate and comforting. Turnbull was raised by a long series of nannies. Because of the terribly dangerous health risks of breastfeeding, his mother did not nurse him. His brother had different nannies, and lived in the same house, but the two never met until Colin was 6, and they shared a hotel room. With great excitement, they eagerly conversed, until mom discovered the mistake. Rich people can sometimes be oddballs. Colin begged gypsies to kidnap him, but they refused.
Carleton Coon wrote that the Andaman islanders nursed their young until the age of 3 or 4. The hungry little milk lovers were passed around, and suckled by all lactating women. Shepard noted that when the infant’s bond with mother was properly formed, it encouraged the potential for intellectual and emotional growth. But if this bonding was dodgy, the damage done could sometimes have lifelong impact.
As the infant eventually learned to speak, crawl, and explore, it became less dependent on mother. This began at around age three. For the next nine years or so, until the onset of puberty at 12 or so, it was an amazing time of discovery. In wild cultures, these nine years were a time window for the absolutely vital process of forming healthy bonds with nature, in all its diversity. During this experience, kids absorbed the richness of the natural order — animals, insects, plants, storms, stars, aromas, colors, sounds — the sacred wonderland of creation, home sweet home!
Imagine a catfish that paid little attention to the other living things in the lake — a fish that was raised in a radicalized catfish supremacy cult, believed that the creator of the universe was a catfish, and the only thing that mattered was the prosperity of catfish. How weird would that be? Unfortunately, many modern folks, eyes riveted to glowing screens, or confined in speeding vehicles, never experience a full immersion baptism in wild nature (like a catfish without a lake). For them, nature is merely static scenery along the highway. Boring and meaningless.
Wild kids spent lots of time watching the “others” (non-human animals), learned their names, categorized them, imitated them, and studied their anatomy when butchered. Kids knew the daily and seasonal patterns of the others, and watched them move through their life cycle, from youngsters to oldsters. Kids developed a strong feeling of kinship with them.
Hunting was a core component of our wild ancestors’ lives. Folks accumulated enormous amounts of knowledge about tracking and animal behavior. Our brains evolved, over hundreds of thousands of years, in wild Stone Age cultures. What you and I are today is a direct result of this very long, beautiful, and deeply intimate wild relationship, despite the fact that it is largely absent in the culture that currently suffocates us.
In an interview with Derrick Jensen, John Livingston shed more light on the process of bonding with nature. A newborn human is an incredibly flexible animal, capable of fully adapting to the worldviews, religions, lifestyles, and languages of a vast spectrum of cultures, from “primitive” to “advanced,” anywhere in the world.
Thus, a primary component of childhood is open-mindedness, a mindset in which they are free and eager to explore all possibilities. So, for youngsters who have access to wild nature, and who have a tingling curiosity to explore big magic, it’s perfectly normal, healthy, and life enhancing to form emotional and spiritual bonds with the family of life. If the bond with nature doesn’t form by age 12 or so, it’s likely that it never will, but not impossible.
In the ghoulish world of deepest, darkest couch potato suburbia, nature has been reduced to something that folks passively watch on gigantic flat screen TVs, while gobbling cheese doodles and guzzling fizzy sugar water. The normal around-the-clock stimulation of wildness, that every animal needs, is absent. Children are denied the vital education provided by the daily affairs of the family of life. They are hobbled by what Richard Louv would diagnose as Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD).
Stan Rowe called it EDD (Earth Deficiency Disease), a devastating disconnection from the meaning of life. EDD children tend to form bonds with machines, not nature. He estimated that consumers spend 95 percent of their lives indoors. Children are often kept under house arrest, because parents fear that going outdoors is too dangerous. The poor kids share some similarities with the homeless wild animals imprisoned in zoos. Rowe wrote, “Our two best doctors are our legs.” He hated cities. “The city is an unhealthy place for those who want to come home at least once before they die.”
In modern cultures, a major shift follows the open-minded curiosity of childhood. It is the dawn of a long era of tedious work, responsibilities, challenges, and annoyances. For this reason, Turnbull noted that we romanticize our childhood, a golden age of innocence and joy. The Mbuti did not idolize childhood, “because, for them, the world has remained a place of wonder, and the older they get the greater the wonder.” They bonded beautifully with nature, their forest home was sacred, and the source of all goodness. When they moved through the forest, they sang to it. They referred to it as mother, father, or both. Life was good.
By the arrival of puberty, wild children were well rooted in place, feeling at-one with the flora and fauna that surrounded them. They had developed a profoundly important spiritual connection to life. Florence Shepard, Paul’s wife, said it like this: “At the heart of our identity is a fundamentally wild being, one who finds in the whole of wild nature all that is true and beautiful in this world.”
PUBERTY. Oh-oh! Somewhere around 12 or so, the path begins to get slippery, anxious, and exciting. Welcome to puberty, girls and boys! Puberty is the kickoff for adolescence, which is the bridge between childhood and maturity. For females, adolescence is generally the years between 12 and 20; and for males, 14 to 25. Puberty is time to say goodbye to the sweet and easy innocence of childhood, and undergo a transformation into sexual beings.
In Mbuti country, the all-knowing adult community was fully prepared to launch into the traditional rituals and ceremonies that are among the most important events in life, according to Turnbull. These are the rites of initiation. Shepard noted that in various cultures, initiations often provided “ceremonies that include separation from family, instruction by elders, tests of endurance and pain, trials of solitude, visions, dreams, and rituals of rebirth.”
For Mbuti girls, the puberty alarm clock rings with a dramatic event, the passing of their first blood. It was time for initiation. Often the community waited until more than one girl was ready. The girls were then moved to the special elima house, where they changed their attire, announcing that they were no longer children. Boys were allowed to visit, and there was sexual play, but it never led to pregnancy. Girls and boys learned new songs and sang them together.
At puberty, boys were not awakened by a bloody alarm. Every two or three years, adults selected a group of boys between ages 9 and 11 for initiation. For Mbuti kids, who sleep in small huts near mom and dad, the mechanics of sex were no mystery at all. Initiation was the time to learn about lots of important stuff beyond the huffing and puffing, including the social responsibilities of adulthood. The strategy here was that the boys would learn — in advance — the possible consequences of what mom and dad did in the dark.
For the Mbuti, initiation led to the emergence of “a fully integrated self.” Me and my classmates seem to have passed through puberty in a fairly dis-integrated manner. For our ersatz initiation, we were more or less hurled off the end of the dock into deep water (note the high teen pregnancy rates). For more than a few, emotional development got stuck in adolescence (note the numerous struggling adults in our society who are the opposite of well-adjusted and fully integrated).
If there was just one idea that Turnbull could send you away with, it would be this: no culture handles puberty and adolescence as poorly as ours. “The consequences of our folly are to be seen all around us in the violence, neuroses, and loneliness of our youth, our adults, and aged.” Some never come close to having a full or rich life.
Shepard would be quick to add that this culture is also demented because of our disconnection from wildness and nature, our domestication of plants and animals, our conversion of ecosystems into cropland and crowded urban nightmares, the exploitive and oppressive hierarchies including patriarchy, and on and on. This is not a good path.
ADOLESCENCE. With the transition into adolescence, the time window for the free-flowing open-mindedness of childhood tends to draw closed. It becomes time to put on cultural blinders, and become fully immersed in our tribal identity. This is something like the process of how wet pourable concrete inevitably becomes rigid, strong, and permanent. The worldview, beliefs, and values of your culture become deeply imprinted infallible truths, a mindset you carry to the end of your days (usually).
If you were a wild, free, and happy Mbuti, this transition was perfectly normal, healthy, and beneficial — an essential step on the path to maturity. Throughout adolescence, the bonds with nature continued expanding and deepening — the Mbuti never outgrew their sacred relationship with the family of life.
If you are a citizen of industrial civilization, its ersatz initiation process leads to a far different outcome. Compulsory education extends from childhood into the years of adolescence. In my youth, busloads of kids my age were separated from society for seven or eight hours a day, so we could be rigorously trained in the myths of our culture, and the skills essential for full time employment. We were trained to become aggressive, status-seeking, narrowly focused achievers. Upon graduation, we were set free to join the voracious locust swarms of consumers.
Turnbull received his public education at Westminster, a prestigious school, where students had their brains filled with knowledge, in an efficient assembly line process. Intellectual skills, like competency in critical thinking, were not part of the curriculum. He had nothing nice to say about the abominable experience, only this: “It would have been good training for a life in prison.”
In Mbuti culture, following their initiation, the new adults did an excellent job of reintegrating with the community — almost all spent the rest of their days living among their friends and kinfolk. They didn’t banish themselves to faraway places, never to return. Notably, their community was stable, closely bonded, and highly supportive.
Rites of initiation are traditionally a three-step process: (1) separation from the community, (2) preparation for adulthood, and (3) reincorporation into society as an adult. Industrial culture commonly omits the last step. Many of our successful graduates are blasted out of a cannon into the outer world, to attend university, pursue a career, enlist in the military, or whatever. Turnbull complained that many of our adolescents actually “expect and want a permanent separation” from the community they grew up in, because they seek “freedom.” They scatter to the winds like tumbleweeds, and many are never seen again.
Like Turnbull, Shepard also loathed our culture’s assembly line for manufacturing adults, most of whom never formed close bonds with nature. Most were likely to imprint that normality was largely non-living, and that humans were the only beings that were truly alive. They internalize chaos, and when it’s time to master social relations, they are not prepared. Shepard wrote, “The only society more fearful than one run by children might be one run by childish adults.”
[Continued in sample #47]
NOTE: Since the last post, this blog crossed a threshold. As of this morning, it has now had 504,603 views! Thank you! I’m glad that my work is useful to some. On to a million…