[Note: This is the forty-seventh 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.
PHASES OF DEVELOPMENT
[Continued from #46]
The point where adolescence ends and adulthood begins is sort of blurry. Colin Turnbull noted that in Mbuti society, adulthood begins with marriage. It was a phase during which disputes and conflicts were more common, so adults were involved less in decision making, and more in the routines of daily life. Turnbull thought that adulthood was a time for doing, and elderhood was a time for being.
Wild cultures and modern cultures take a very different approach to adulthood. In our culture, doing implies working — activities that bring money into your life, so you can afford the basic necessities of survival. For many, “work” does not rhyme with “fun” or “joy.” Most consumers have peculiar illusions about the difference between needs (essentials) and wants (desires). Their conception of needs is far more expansive than other cultures — stuff like televisions, cell phones, computers, automobiles, and all other impulsive cravings. For several billion less affluent non-consumers, needs focus on today’s sustenance.
When I contemplate the amount of all the stuff I’ve thrown out in my life, it staggers me — many, many tons. Every week, garbage trucks rumble down the alley, and it’s stunning to imagine how much crap this neighborhood discards, or this city. It must end up in a landfill as high as the Alps, constantly growing taller. Every other animal in the family of life leaves the world in no worse condition than they found it. This is exactly what sustainability means.
Turnbull noted that in simpler cultures, “work” means no more than what you happen to be doing in your life (assuming that it’s socially acceptable). So, a child’s play is work, and so is the adolescent’s exploration of sexuality. Work is reading a book, or gazing at the stars, or making love, or singing and dancing. The Mbuti have no need for money, because the forest provides all their needs. For them, singing a honey song is seen as essential for survival. For the factory worker, installing windshields is essential for survival, because it is rewarded with trade tokens.
In essence, unlike child’s play, Mbuti adulthood is about playing a “constructive role in the furtherance of the social order,” and it is “done with a conscious sense of social responsibility.” This is about cooperation, and consideration for others. Importantly, the focus is on WE, not ME. In their culture, being independent and self-centered is irresponsible, obnoxious, and pathological.
In our culture, individualism and competition are promoted “with a curious fanaticism,” and this results in a fiercely exploitive crazy-making planet-thrashing nightmare world. In our culture, ME trumps WE. To us, absolute individual freedom is the Holy Grail — no responsibilities, no bosses, no rules, no cops, no consequences. I can do whatever I want. Stay out of my way. Shut up! To wild folks, this is absolute insanity.
In our culture, adulthood takes different forms. Turnbull wrote, “We have all met many adults in our lives who, without seeming to try, have shown us what a rich thing adulthood can be. We have also met many who have shown us what an empty thing it can be, sometimes by trying too hard to be other than what they are. We have also met all too many who neither try nor succeed, those who are frankly and openly concerned only with their own immediate welfare…”
In Mbuti society, elders are honored in their golden years. This phase of life is about being. Elders shift toward other important roles in society — guarding the camp, playing with children, mediating conflicts, and passing wisdom on to younger generations. They enjoy tremendous respect. While body and mind may have been stronger in years past, they are more experienced than ever, and their heart and soul continue getting stronger. They still have important things to do.
Elders are relieved of adult responsibilities, withdrawing from involvement in a future that is not theirs. These obligations are left to folks for whom the future belongs. So, their social horizons narrow, while their authority expands, as they approach their return “to the source of Spirit.” Elderhood encourages three paths: saints, witches, and wise ones. It’s common for elders to engage in more than one role.
Saints are rare elders who are radiant with spirit energy, aglow with a warm presence. They don’t need to preach, “they just have to be.” Their goodness can be especially beneficial to adolescents who travel on a more slippery path.
“Witch” refers to the African sense of the word, not to the unfortunate victims of the Christian Inquisition (“demonic” women who must be tortured and burned alive). Mbuti witches (male and female) have acquired excessive power, which is not under control, and can be used for good or ill, deliberately or not. Elderly recluses can provide an important service. They know all the shady things happening in the village, and they enjoy the freedom to piss off whoever they wish, and say exactly what they think. While this makes the offenders uncomfortable, it encourages increased integrity in the community.
Wise elders are living treasure chests of important knowledge and experience. They are the greatest babysitters, because children trust them. They can communicate in a special way, since kids are close to the beginning of life, and elders are close to the end. Elders are outside of the parent-child relationship, and its frictions, so things can be relaxed and open.
Of course, elders in modern cultures are a very different story. Elderhood is often associated with uselessness, decline, poor health, poverty, senility, death. Treating them as diminished beings results in a serious loss to the community. We send elders away to institutions for old folks, “a pre-death limbo” where they are isolated from family and younger generations, and denied the joys of old age. They become an annoying obligation for their children, who cherish their freedom and independence. For many, retirement can be painful and traumatic, because folks no longer feel valued. It can be a sad time of loneliness.
So, we’ve taken a peek at how wild and modern cultures attempt to guide their people through the phases of the life cycle, and the different outcomes they produce. Wild cultures were far more likely to enjoy functional, coherent societies, because everyone was on the same channel. Humankind has generated a multitude of groups that invent unique cultural abstractions that are fundamentally (sometimes violently) intolerant of the beliefs of outsiders. No other animal species does this. In The Mountain People, Turnbull noted that the Mbuti enjoyed a society that was harmonized by a common set of beliefs, values, lifestyles, and ethnicity. A beauty!
Our modern society is a boisterous mob of different cultures, ethnicities, classes, crime gangs, hate groups, religious beliefs, and so on. When jolted, it can explode into a swarm of furious hornets. Indeed, Turnbull would not even call it a society. “In larger-scale societies we are accustomed to diversity of belief, we even applaud ourselves for our tolerance, not recognizing that a society not bound together by a single powerful belief is not a society at all, but a political association of individuals held together only by the presence of law and force — the existence of which is a violence.” It’s a strong, wobbly, dimwitted Frankenstein, a manmade monster that cannot be kept on a leash.
Turnbull wrote, “Hunters frequently display those characteristics that we find so admirable in man: kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity, and others.” These traits not rare and noble virtues, they are fundamental to the survival of hunting cultures. The Taliban people are also apparently united by a single powerful belief, but their culture is built on a different foundation. They are civilized.
It’s important to pay attention to the core differences between wild and modern cultures. Hunting people lived in small groups, where everyone was family or friends, and all were on the same channel. They had an extremely intimate relationship with the lands they lived in, and they fully understood the patterns of food availability. They followed their stomachs, as they roamed across the land. For hunter-gatherers, the wild menu was highly diverse. They had many more dining options than the hungry dirty farmer with a cow and a wheat field.
Earlier, I mentioned how the San people in Botswana were able to survive in the Kalahari Desert through three years of extreme drought, because they possessed time-proven knowledge of how to live there. The long drought killed 250,000 of the cattle owned by their Bantu neighbors, of whom 180,000 were kept on life support by U.N. famine relief projects.
The domestication of plants and animals was a clever experiment. When conditions were suitable, agriculture could feed a lot of people, and spawn civilizations. But good luck was never a faithful companion. Life was full of surprises. It’s not a pleasant surprise to wake up every morning in a turbulent jam-packed world that is mercilessly pummeling the planet. Alas, the clever experiment has turned out to be perfectly un-clever.
Turnbull emphasized that the bottom line here is that a farmer can lose a year’s work in one unfortunate day. All of his eggs are stored in one basket. A Mbuti hunter can only lose a day’s work when his luck takes a nap. He has no need to hoard food, and constantly defend the stash. If one food source becomes scarce, he eats something else. They periodically move from place to place, as guided by their traditional wisdom, and shifting conditions.
Turnbull wrote, “The hunter and gatherer gives little thought for the morrow, getting his feed fresh, from day to day, with the ready assurance of someone who has come to terms with the world around him. He knows the world he lives in as few others do, and he lives in sympathy with it, rather than trying to dominate it. He is the best of conservationists, knowing exactly how much he can take from where at any given time.”
The farmer, on the other hand, is betting everything on a narrow mix of food resources, which exist in a fixed location (his field and pasture), and are entirely vulnerable to a wide variety of potential threats. A ripe field could suddenly be reduced to ashes. A swarm of locusts might discover his delicious wheat crop. Passing soldiers, friends or foes, could confiscate his livestock and stored grain. A fungus could turn his bumper crop of spuds into a field of stinky black slime overnight. His livestock could all drop dead when an epidemic of rinderpest or anthrax paid a visit to his region. Drought, deluge, flood, heat wave, early autumn frost, late springtime frost — farming was a risky business, not a pleasant stroll down Easy Street.
Modern consumers are vulnerable to all of the above risks, plus they are dependent on an extremely complex system of industrial agriculture, food processing, distribution, retailing, and a functional economic system. If the money in their wallets becomes worthless during an economic meltdown, what’s for dinner? Will they get evicted? Will the bank foreclose on their mortgage? The food system depends on the fossil fuel industry to keep stuff moving on the farms, highways, railways, and airlines. Refrigeration requires energy to keep food from spoiling. Stoves and ovens need power to cook meals. Industrial civilization must remain on life support to keep all the gears of the machine moving. An enormous house of cards. What could possibly go wrong?
CONNECTION TO PLACE
Coherent societies can only survive in coherent places — healthy wild ecosystems. Wild animals are a constant presence in the surrounding countryside, outnumbering the humans. Free critters inspire contemplation and deep respect. They provide the folks with food, and eventually compost them. Throughout every day, wild people devote careful attention to the ongoing drama of sounds, movements, smells, turds, tracks, spirits, and other matters of utmost importance. Being wild and free is a rich and fully engaging experience. It requires far more mindfulness than living in a glowing screen zoo.
In Encounters With Nature, Paul Shepard wrote about how our lives can be shaped by animals and places. For hundreds of thousands of years, wild kids enjoyed childhoods in healthy lands where everything around them, the entire landscape, was fully alive with their plant and animal relatives. Animals were especially fascinating. Three year olds take great delight in learning the names of different animals, because they are so amazing. Children’s lives were warmly embraced by their mothers, their family and neighbors, and by the land that fed them and fascinated them.
In 1997, I was living in the remains of a once prosperous copper mining district near Lake Superior. I was able to spend a bit of time with the Anishinabe activist Walter Bresette, a man who had a profound spiritual connection to life. One day, after lunch, I showed him a beautiful piece of copper that had been smoothed by passing glaciers. To the Anishinabe, all of Creation is alive, sacred, and related — everything in Creation is a being with spiritual power. I learned that copper rocks are especially sacred to the Anishinabe, and they affectionately and respectfully refer to these ancient and powerful red metal spirit beings as the copper people.
Walter took the heavy green stone in his hands, and gasped with amazement and delight. The two of them went off, into the next room, and sat down together by the wood stove. Walter bowed his head, and he and the copper spirits spent a long time in deep and sacred communication. It was an awesome and moving experience to observe. I will never forget it. He spent a night in my house, to feel the strong presence of so many copper spirits.
Shepard said that a child’s early homeland imprinted on its psyche, and remained a special and sacred place for the rest of its life. Kids soak in all that surrounds them. At puberty, rites of initiation further strengthened the spiritual bonds to place, via tests of endurance, vision quests, and so on. The person and the land were one. All beings on the land belonged there. None were pests or weeds that had to be eliminated.
In the good old days, before the plague of glowing screens, and the fear of perverts hiding behind every bush, children were allowed to run free, unsupervised, explore their home range, and get their hands dirty. I was one of these, and I was lucky to live close to forests, lakes, and wetlands. My imprint of this homeland remains vivid. I still remember that place in great detail. It played an important role in shaping my identity. Most of it has now been obliterated by sprawl. I have no interest in returning, it’s too painful to see.
Jay Griffiths and her brothers also spent much of their youth playing outdoors. Like me, they rarely watched television. She fears that her 1960s generation may be the last to experience the remaining vestiges of a normal childhood.
John Livingston lamented how being raised in a manmade reality deforms us. Like livestock, we become passive and obedient servants. We learn to endure the stress of living in dense populations of strangers, and spending most of our time in enclosed climate controlled cubicles with artificial lighting. Our cubicles are located inside vast concentration camps called cities. We are likely to develop a high tolerance for abuse, filth, squalor, noise, and intense pollution.
Richard Louv told a touching story about a Girl Scout field trip. Girls with AIDS from Los Angeles were taken to a camp in the mountains. One night, a nine year old girl woke up, and had to go to the bathroom. Stepping outside, she looked up and gasped. Growing up in a sprawling megalopolis, she had never seen stars before. “That night, I saw the power of nature on a child. She was a changed person. From that moment on, she saw everything. She used her senses. She was awake.”
Natalie Diaz, a Mojave poet, noted that in her language, the same word is used to say both “body” and “land.” The Mojave had no supermarkets, malls, cities, or online shopping. So, throughout their lives, their air, water, and food came from the land, their home. They were at one with the land, like a fetus in the womb.
There is a profound difference between purchasing food-like substances at a shopping center, and gathering nourishment from the land. When the land feeds you, an intimate and reverent relationship is born. I fished a lot in my boyhood years. Later in life, I took great pleasure in foraging in wild places, and on the recovering remains of abandoned farms and mining settlements. Over the years, I’ve gathered apples, pears, cherries, plums, blueberries, thimbleberries, blackberries, strawberries, elderberries, grapes, figs, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, acorns, mushrooms, asparagus, and so on. Joy!
Tom Brown was eight years old when he met an elderly Indian in the woods. Stalking Wolf was a tracker raised in a wild, free Apache community. He possessed vast knowledge about the natural world, and how to survive in it. He spent nine years teaching Tom and his buddy Rick. Tom grew up to establish a school for trackers, and write 17 books.
I was lucky to spend much of my childhood playing in the woods and swamps. I felt very at home in nature. Years later, a friend pointed me to Tom’s books, and it was a mind-blowing experience — an adult who had profound reverence and respect for the family of life. Religion had given me years of painful headaches, because it was so incoherent. Beliefs frequently seemed to have little or no influence on behavior. I finally found something that made sense, holiness was all around me. I could see it, hear it, touch it, smell it, respect it.
Jon Young happened to meet Tom Brown in 1971, when Tom was 18, and Jon was 10. Tom spent eight years teaching his young friend. When Jon later arrived at Rutgers University, he had extensive knowledge of wild ecosystems, which made him a total freak among his classmates, who seemed to be more than a little disconnected from life — suburban zoo animals.
Young soon discovered that he was the only person at Rutgers who understood bird language. One day, on an outdoor field trip, he heard a bird call. It was announcing the approach of a Cooper’s hawk, warning nearby critters that a predator was getting close. Pay attention! Jon mentioned this to the others. The professors gazed at the sky, saw nothing. They proceeded to exclaim that bird communication was impossible. Then, the hawk came into view. Wow! Jon’s classmates were astonished that the professors, who were card-carrying bird experts, were clueless about bird language.
Young clearly understood that connection to nature was precious, necessary, and vital. Not forming that connection was a crippling injury, one suffered by most folks in modern society. They have no hearts, because they are “dis-placed,” said Okanagan elder Jeanette Armstrong. In Chief Seattle’s famous speech, he allegedly said, “To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret.”
Jack Forbes, of Powhatan and Delaware heritage, diagnosed disconnection as an epidemic of insanity, which he called wétiko psychosis, the cannibal disease. It’s a spiritual illness that causes people to become predators, and to relentlessly consume the lives of others. Wétiko was the essence of European culture, a nightmare world of bloodthirsty vampires and werewolves. Their “religion” was something isolated from everyday life, practiced indoors, away from the perfection of Creation.
Anyway, in 1979, Jon Young asked a core question. Which people are the most fully connected to the family of life? Why are some cultures deeply connected, and others not? There are three components here: connection to self, connection to others, and connection to nature. In Western societies, disconnection from self, others, and nature (separation sickness) is at pandemic levels. Over time, Young learned that the San people (“Bushmen”) of the Kalahari were among the most connected cultures still in existence, so he spent time with them.
Being with the San, you always feel safe. They are super intelligent, super happy, super vital, and great problem solvers. You never feel competition. People are in love with every aspect of the ecosystem around them, celebrating it 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.
When San children grow up with nature in this way, they’re well-adjusted, healthier, happier, smarter, spiritually grounded, and more creative. By the time they are 12 to 15 years old, they have master tracker skills. They are illiterate, but they fully understand the language of the Kalahari. They are better scientists than civilized scientists.
The San are remarkably skilled at living like human beings. They are wary of entering buildings, because folks who do this too often become damaged, no longer human. They go crazy. Today, using the techno-juju of DNA mapping, it’s looking like the San are the common ancestors of all humankind. For two million years, our hominin ancestors lived like the San. We have their genes and instincts, but our culture lost its connection centuries ago.
Louis Liebenberg wrote two fantastic books about the tracking skills of San hunters on the Kalahari. He and Young became friends. San women were as good as men, or better, at interpreting spoor. Everyone in a band, even children, could observe human tracks, and accurately identify the individual person who made them. One time, Liebenberg asked some trackers if they could actually recognize the spoor of an individual antelope. “They found it very amusing that I should ask them such a stupid question. To them it is difficult to understand that some people can not do it.”
Lame Deer was a Lakota medicine man. His parents were the last generation to be born wild and free. His generation suffered from the relentless efforts of white people to destroy the Lakota people, and he fiercely resented this. Whites had lost their connection to the family of life, and were desperately in need of a big healing. Like their cattle, sheep, and lapdogs, their wild power had been bred out of them. Lame Deer shared a powerful story, in the hope of helping white folks outgrow their bad trip, so their world-killing rampage would come to an end.
He told us that we needed to experience nature in a good way, and become part of it. Let’s sit down and listen to the air. Let’s talk to the butterflies, owls, rivers, and lakes. They are our relatives. Let’s become like stones, plants, and trees. Let us be animals, and think and feel like animals. Even rocks are holy. Every man needs a stone to guide him. His story was painful and beautiful, but it failed to inspire a miraculous healing among the palefaces.
Aldous Huxley wrote, “A man must do more than indulge in introspection. If I would know myself I must know my environment.” Prince Charles said it a bit differently: “In so many ways we are what we are surrounded by, in the same way as we are what we eat.” Carson McCullers said, “To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.” Paul Shepard put it like this, “Knowing who you are is impossible without knowing where you are.”
Every five years, the average American moves to a different address in the same city, or another county, state, or nation. We typically spend 95 percent of our lives indoors. Someone once realized that prisoners in maximum security prisons typically spend more time outdoors than suburban kids do. We have become space aliens, residents of no place, something like zoo animals.
Many of us have been taught ideas that echo Thomas Hobbes, who declared that the lives of hunter-gatherers were “nasty, brutish, and short.” Many folks who have had direct experience would disagree. The wild cultures that were less than mellow tended to be engaged in herding or horticulture, situations in which it was more common to bump into neighbors in an unpleasant manner.
Peter Freuchen spent a lot of time with the Eskimos, and married into their culture. In Book of the Eskimos, he wrote that “they always enjoy life with an enviable intensity, and they believe themselves to be the happiest people on earth, living in the most beautiful country there is.”
Colin Turnbull spent years with the Mbuti Pygmies, and described them in The Forest People. He was amazed by their joyful way of living. He said that they laugh until they can no longer stand, then they sit down and laugh.
In Original Wisdom, Robert Wolff described the Sng’oi people of Malaysia. They knew each other’s unspoken thoughts, seeming to communicate telepathically. “They had an immense inner dignity, were happy, and content, and did not want anything.” They loved to laugh and joke. They were often singing and smiling. Angry voices were never heard.
In The People of the Polar North, Knud Rasmussen noted how the Eskimos pitied (and giggled at) the Danes, because they suffered from hurricane minds — they never stopped thinking. Knud once observed an Eskimo who appeared to be deep in thought, and asked him what he was thinking about. The man laughed. “Oh! It is only you white men who go in so much for thinking; up here we only think of our flesh-pits and of whether we have enough or not for the long Dark of the winter. If we have meat enough, then there is no need to think.” Their language included no tools for discussing abstractions. Eskimos rarely made plans for tomorrow. “An irresponsible happiness at merely being alive finds expression in their actions and conversation.”
In The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff described the natives she met in South America. The Tauripan people of Venezuela were the happiest people she had ever met. All of their children were relaxed, joyful, cooperative, and rarely cried — they were never bored, lonely, or argumentative. The Yequana people seemed unreal to Liedloff, because of their lack of unhappiness. As an expedition was moving up a challenging jungle stream, she noticed that the Italians would get completely enraged at the slightest mishap, while the Yequana just laughed the struggles away. Their daily life had a party mood to it.
In his book, In Search of the Primitive, Lewis Cotlow visited Eskimos in arctic Canada. One night, he spent several hours talking to local officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They kept repeating one idea in different ways: “The Eskimos are the happiest people in the world.”
In 1832, the artist George Catlin visited Indian tribes in the Upper Missouri River region. He wrote, “They live in a country well stocked with buffaloes and wild horses, which furnish them an excellent and easy living; their atmosphere is pure, which produces good health and long life, and they are the most independent and happiest race of Indians I have met with: they are all entirely in a state of primitive rudeness and wildness, and consequently are picturesque and handsome, almost beyond description. …In my travels I have more than realized my former predictions that those Indians, who could be found almost entirely in a state of nature, with the least knowledge of civilized society, would be found the most cleanly in their persons, elegant in their dress and manners, and enjoying life to the greatest perfection.”
Daniel L. Everett was sent to the Amazon to translate the Bible into the language of the illiterate Pirahã hunter-gatherers. He described his efforts in Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. He eventually realized that it was pointless “to convince happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus as their personal savior.” He became a devout atheist. “I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.”
[Continued in sample #48]