Monday, August 11, 2014

Wisdom Sits in Places

Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Shell, Safeway, the highway matrix — everyone knows these culturally significant features of our landscape.  Less well known are the natural features of the land: the hills, prairies, ponds, and streams.  Our landscape watched the mammoths roam, it watched the furious madness of civilization, and it will watch the manmade eyesores dissolve into ancient ruins.

Waking up in the civilized world each morning is a jolt — jets, sirens, the endless rumble of machines.  Most of us live amidst hordes of two-legged tumbleweeds, nameless strangers.  We are the people from nowhere, blown out of our ancestral homelands by the howling winds of ambition and misfortune.  Our wild ancestors never lived here.  Carson McCullers wrote, “To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.”

Pssst!  Over here!  I’ve found the entrance to another realm, a temporary place of refuge, an escape from the madness.  It’s called Wisdom Sits in Places, and it was written by Keith Basso (1940-2013), an ethnographer-linguist.  In 1959, he began spending time in the Apache village of Cibecue, in Arizona.  He discovered a culture that had deep roots in the land, and a way of living that was far from insane.

The Apache culture also had entrances to other realms.  Many places on their land had names, and many of these named places were associated with stories, and many of these stories had ancient roots.  Everyone in Cibecue knew the named places, and their stories.  The voices of the wild ancestors could be heard whenever the stories were told, and their words were always conveyed in the present tense.  “Now we are in for trouble!”  Past and present swirled together.

The stories were a treasure of time-proven wisdom.  They often provided moral messages that taught the virtues of honorable living, and the unpleasant rewards of poor choices.  When people wandered off the good path, stories reminded them of where this would lead.  They helped people to live well.  Because of the power in the stories, the natives said, “The land looks after the people.” 

Most scholars who spend time learning about other cultures were raised in the modern world of nowhere.  These experts would study languages, ceremonies, food production, clothing, spirituality, and so on — but they paid too little attention to the relationship between culture and place, because this notion was absent in their way of knowing.  Often, the reports they published were missing essential components.

From 1979 to 1984, Basso worked on a project that blew his mind.  The Anglo world had zero respect for sacred places when there was big money to be made.  But natives didn’t want their sacred places destroyed, so they hired experts to document their culturally significant sites.  Elders took Basso to see these places, and record their stories.  He created a map that covered 45 square miles, and had 296 locations with Apache place names.

Ruth Patterson told Basso about her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s.  In those days, families spent much time on the land, away from the village.  They herded cattle, tended crops, roasted agave, and hunted.  As they moved about, parents taught their children about the land.  They pointed out places, spoke their names, and told the stories of those places.  They wanted their children to be properly educated.

Apaches used historic stories for healing purposes.  Nothing could be more impolite than directly criticizing another person, expressing anger, or providing unrequested advice.  Instead, the elders used stories to “shoot” healing notions.  During a conversation, they would mention the names of places having stories that would be good for the wayward person to remember.  Then, hopefully, he or she would reflect on the stories, understand their relevance, and make the changes needed to return to balance.

One time, three wise women sat with a woman who was too sad.  The first wise woman spoke a sentence that mentioned a place name.  Then the second mentioned another place.  So did the third.  The sad woman recalled mental pictures of those places, and heard the ancestors’ voices speak the stories of those places.  She reflected on their meanings, and the clouds lifted.  She laughed.  This was a gentle, effective, and brilliant act of healing.  They called it “speaking with names.” 

One day, Dudley Patterson was talking about stories and wisdom.  Basso asked him, “What is wisdom?”  Patterson replied, “It’s in these places.  Wisdom sits in places.”  In a long and beautiful passage, he told Basso how his grandmother explained the pursuit of wisdom.  Everyone is different.  Some are smart, some are half-smart, but only a few achieve wisdom.  Wisdom is acquired via a long dedicated quest; no one is born with it.

When elders become wise, people can see them change.  They are calm and confident.  They are not fearful, selfish, or angry.  They keep promises.  They pay careful attention, always listening for the voices of the ancestors.  Patterson’s grandmother summed it up something like this:

“Wisdom sits in places.  It’s like water that never dries up.  You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you?  Well, you also need to drink from places.  You must remember everything about them.  You must learn their names.  You must remember what happened at them long ago.  You must think about it and keep on thinking about it.  Then your mind will become smoother and smoother.  Then you will see danger before it happens.  You will walk a long way and live a long time.  You will be wise.  People will respect you.”

Years later, when Basso sat down to write his book, Cibecue had changed.  The road to the village had been paved, and there was a school, supermarket, medical clinic, and many new houses.  Big screen televisions were a new source of stories, sent from the spirit world of corporations, not ancestors.  People were spending far less time wandering about, old trails had grown over, and the younger generations were losing their connection to the land and its old-fashioned stories.  They preferred the new and useful information provided at school.

So, the book invites us to contemplate a society far different from our own.  It calls up ancient memories.  Everyone’s wild ancestors once lived in a way something like the Apaches.  It’s inspiring to remember this.  Observing the world from a tribal perspective allows us to realize how far we’ve strayed.  The people from nowhere are paying a terrible price for the frivolous wonders of modernity, and the wreckage it leaves behind.

Basso wrote, “We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.”  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.”  In the traditional Apache world, the people were surrounded by a beautiful culture that encouraged respect, caring, and wisdom.  In the modern consumer world, we’re surrounded by a wisdom-free nightmare of hurricane-force infantile energy reminiscent of a Godzilla movie.  But all hurricanes die.  Our Dark Age will pass.  Think positive!

Basso, Keith H., Wisdom Sits in Places, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1996.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Collapse of Western Civilization

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are science historians, and they are hopping mad at folks who deny that humans are the primary cause of climate change.  Their outrage inspired them to write The Collapse of Western Civilization, which has been selling furiously in its first month on the market.  It’s a 112-page science fiction rant.

The story is a discourse on the Penumbral Age (1988-2093), written in 2393 by a Chinese historian.  The Penumbral Age was a time of paralyzing anti-intellectualism, when humankind failed to take action on an emerging climate catastrophe, which ended up sinking western civilization.  In presenting this story, the authors are rubbing the denialists’ noses in the steaming mess they created, similar to the process of housebreaking a crappy puppy.

By 1988, scientists could clearly see the approach of a huge storm, and they dutifully reported their findings.  They believed that once the public was informed, they would rationally do what needed to be done.  But the public shrugged, and the scientists were too dignified to run out into the streets, jump up and down, and scream warnings.  Also, the scientists were too conservative — temperatures ended up rising far more than they had predicted. 

Early in the twenty-first century, many more people could see the storm, but still nothing was done.  A dark villain moved to center stage — the carbon-combustion complex, a disgusting mob of slimy creeps who made a lot of money in activities dependent on burning fossil fuel.  They created think tanks that hurled excrement and insults at the annoying climate scientists.  Screw-brained economists hissed that government should take a long nap and let the invisible hand of the market magically make the bad stuff go away.  (My favorite line is, “The invisible hand never picks up the check.”)

And so, in a heavy fog of mixed messages, everyone resumed staring at their cell phones, and the world went to heck.  There were terrible storms and droughts.  The ice caps melted, and this opened the floodgates to the Great Collapse (2073 to 2093), when sea levels were eight meters higher (26 ft.).  Twenty percent of humankind was forced to move to higher ground during the Great Migration, about 1.5 billion people.  Thus, 100 percent of humankind would have been 7.5 billion — in 2073 — an amazingly high number!

I just let the cat out of the bag.  This book is a gusher of intoxicating hope and optimism.  While the Great Collapse blindsided the hopelessly rotten governments of the west, China did OK.  The wise leaders of the Second People’s Republic of China maintained a strong central government, free of corruption.  When sea levels rose, they quickly built new cities inland, in safe locations.  When leaders have integrity, miracles happen.

And it gets better.  In 2090, a female scientist in Japan created a GMO fungus that gobbled up the greenhouse gas doo-doo, the storm passed, and the survivors lived happily ever after.  Unfortunately, by that time, there was a total dieoff in Africa and Australia.  Luckily, the northern folks, who contributed heavily to the disaster, survived (minus the polar bears).

The authors note that it’s now too late to halt climate change; it’s time for damage control.  The whole thing could have been prevented if only we had rapidly shifted to non-carbon-based energy sources.  Really?  No expert with both oars in the water believes that renewable energy could ever replace more than a small portion of the energy we currently produce from non-renewable fuels.  If we phased out the extraction of fossil energy, our way of life would go belly up.  The status quo is a dead end, and rational change provides few benefits when it’s a hundred years too late.

Solar panels and wind turbines are not made of pixie dust, rainbows, and good vibes.  They are produced by high-impact industrial processes.  They require the consumption of non-renewable resources.  They produce energy that is used to temporarily keep an extremely unsustainable society on life support.  Hydropower dams are ecological train wrecks.  The authors lament that carbon-free nuclear energy became unhip because of a few wee boo-boos.

The book gives high praise to the precautionary principle, which is old-fashioned common sense with a spiffy title.  If you see an emerging problem, nip it in the bud.  If a new technology is not perceived to be 100 percent safe by a consensus of scientists, forget about it until its safety can be proven beyond all doubt.  Duh!  Common sense says that humankind made a huge mistake by ignoring the warnings of scientists in 1988.

The precautionary principle would also have blocked the development of nuclear technology.  It was spectacularly stupid to build 440 nuclear reactors before the wizards had a plan for storing the wastes, which remain highly toxic for more than 100,000 years.  By 2073, all of these reactors will be far beyond their designed life expectancy.  Decommissioning can take decades, and it can cost more than the original construction.  If the 440 reactors are not decommissioned before the grid shuts down, each will do a lively impersonation of Fukushima, and spew deadly radiation forever.  Or maybe they will be disastrously decommissioned by war, earthquakes, terrorists, or economic meltdown.

Imagine a graph that spans 4,000 years, from A.D. 1 to 4000.  The trend line is fairly flat, except for a brief 200-year period in the middle, which looks like a tall spike, as narrow and sharp as an icicle.  As I write in 2014, we’re very close to the tip of this icicle.  This spike is the petroleum bubble, and its trend line is nearly the same as the bubbles of food production, human population, and resource extraction.  What’s important to grasp here is that the way of life we consider normal is an extreme deviation in the 200,000-year human journey.  It’s a temporary abnormality, and it can never again be repeated.

Oil production is quite close to peak.  The huge deposits are past peak.  Today we are extracting oil from lean, challenging deposits, and the output is expensive.  Costs will rise, production will decline, and economies will stumble until Game Over, which seems likely well before 2050.  Industrial agriculture has an expiration date.  (See The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb.)

Unfortunately, after the peak, our carbon problems are not going to fade away in a hundred years.  The book imagines that the global temperature in 2060, fanned by positive feedback loops, will be 11° C warmer than in 1988.  It’s hard to imagine agriculture surviving such a huge transition, consequently a population of 7.5 billion in 2073 seems impossible.  While the authors wring their hands about rising sea level, Brian Fagan (in The Great Warming) warns that the far greater threat of warming is megadroughts, like one in California that began in A.D. 1250 and lasted 100 years.

The bottom line here is that, even if our enormous carbon emissions were perfectly harmless, we have created such a cornucopia of perplexing predicaments that the coming years are certain to be exciting and memorable.  By definition, an unsustainable way of life can only be temporary.  It’s fun to dream, but I have a hunch that reality may not fully cooperate with the story’s imaginary hope and optimism.  Reality bats last.

Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik M., The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, Columbia University Press, New York, 2014.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Other Side of Eden

Hugh Brody is an English anthropologist.  His parents were Jewish, and a number of their relatives died in the holocaust.  Brody spent three decades in Canada hanging out with natives raised in hunter-gatherer societies.  He worked for the government, and made documentary films.

Brody was raised in a nutjob civilization.  He found the hunter-gatherers to be fascinating, because they had many virtues that were missing in modern society.  The natives were kind and generous people.  They radiated a profound love for the land of their birth, the home of their ancient ancestors.  They deliberately had small families.  Nobody gave orders to others.  Everyone made their own decisions.  Children were never disciplined.

He described his experiences in The Other Side of Eden, an excellent book.  It examined the vast gulf between farming societies and hunter-gatherers — the broken and the free.  In many ways, it was a predator-prey game.  Wild people were useless obstacles to the insatiable hunger of the powerful empire builders and soil miners.

Conquered hunters had to be broken — turned into educated, Christian, English-speaking wageworkers.  They had to be made dependent on a farm-based civilization, and this required turning their lives and minds inside out.  It was different in India, where the British colonized people who were already farmers.  These folks were allowed to keep their language, religion, and culture.  The empire simply skimmed off a portion of the cash flow and became a morbidly obese parasite.

Brody’s family was Orthodox and Zionist.  Later in life, his mind-altering experience with hunter-gatherers compelled him to reexamine his cultural programming.  Genesis was essentially the creation story of western civilization.  Eden was paradise, and Adam and Eve were provided with everything they needed.  There was just one simple rule to follow, and they promptly disobeyed it.  God threw them out.

They had two sons.  Cain was a farmer, and Abel was a herder.  God was not a vegetarian, and he loved Abel’s offerings of meat.  Cain got jealous, and killed his brother.  God condemned him to a life of endless toil.  Eventually, God came to loath the troublesome humans, and decided to drown them all.  Only a few were decent — Noah and his family were spared.  God instructed the survivors to spread across the world, multiply, and subdue wildness.

So, the descendants of Noah were cursed to be wanderers, with no permanent home.  Soil depletion, overbreeding, and belligerent neighbors forced them to keep moving.  We think of hunters as being nomads, and farmers as sedentary, but the opposite is closer to the truth.  Hunters tend to remain in the same territory for ages.  Farmers commonly pack up and move when greener pastures become available.

Yes, hunters did eventually migrate to every corner of the planet, but the diaspora took more than 100,000 years.  The new farming game grew explosively, and spread everywhere in a few thousand years.  It was a huge and tragic change in the human journey, because it was thoroughly unsustainable, ravaged everything in its path, and created mobs of rootless broken people.

Over 200 years ago, Sir William Jones noticed that Sanskrit had similarities to other languages, like Latin, Greek, and German.  Other linguists pursued this notion, and discovered many related languages.  These are now known as the Indo-European family of languages, and they are spoken by half of humankind.  They likely originated in the Fertile Crescent, and spread in all directions, as agriculture expanded.

Brody noted that Genesis made no mention of hunter-gatherers, it was a story told by the victors.  This Hebrew creation myth was especially peculiar in that it described two-legs as being superior to all the other animals.  In the stories of wild people, two-legs were often portrayed as the newbies — clumsy, comical, childlike critters who had much to learn from the older, wiser species.

The natives of northern Canada believed that they lived in the most beautiful place in the world.  It gave them everything they needed.  They treated their home with great reverence and respect.  They were extremely lucky that their chilly Eden wasn’t prime real estate for agriculture.  With the exception of horrific epidemics, they were relatively unmolested until the twentieth century.

But then, hell rumbled into Eden.  Obnoxious missionaries told them they were wicked devil worshippers.  The government built permanent settlements for them, with churches, schools, and stores.  Their ancestral land became the property of the state.  Loggers, ranchers, and miners moved in.  A large region of Eden became a training ground for supersonic low altitude NATO bombers.  By and by, the natives became fond of the pain killing magic of oblivion drinking.  The good old days were over.

The residential schools were sadistically cruel.  Children were taken from their families and sent far away.  The kids were beaten for speaking their language.  Many were malnourished or sexually abused.  Many died.  The primary goal of school was ethnocide — eliminating wild culture.  They weren’t really creating improved people; they were breaking them, like ranchers break wild horses.  The children were taught that they were primitive, and that everything they knew was wrong and stupid.  After a year of English-only, they forgot their native tongue.  It took years to relearn it, and many never did.

Control is the foundation of the farming mindset.  Settlers ravage ancient forests with sharp axes and plows.  They exterminate the wildlife and build sturdy fences.  When Brody brought an Inuit elder to England, they took a drive in the country.  Anaviapik was stunned, “It’s all built!”  The original ecosystem was gone.  It was unbelievable.

On one project, Brody hung out with alcoholic natives in an urban skid row.  He noted that white drinkers took great pride in holding their liquor while drinking heavily.  It was uncool to stumble around or slur words.  Respectable boozers remained in control.  Natives, on the other hand, let go.  “There is a welcome loss of self, a flight into another state of being, another kind of person” — a spirit journey.

Control is impossible in the hunting world.  Fish, birds, and game go where they wish, and do as they please.  Weather happens and patterns change suddenly without warning.  Hunter-gatherers must continually pay close attention to the land and its creatures.  A living ecosystem is not a predictable machine.  Intuition and improvisation are essential for survival.  Folks must be open to many states of mind.  Dreams provided important information.  “If there is a trail to be discovered, the dreamer must find it.”

“It is artists, speculative scientists, and those whose journeys in life depend on not quite knowing the destination who are close to hunter-gatherers, who rely upon a hunter-gatherer mind.”

Brody, Hugh, The Other Side of Eden, North Point Press, New York, 2001.

Monday, July 21, 2014

What Is Sustainable — The Interview Video

It is with great honor that I announce the premier of the What Is Sustainable video. It's 27 minutes, and rated PG. Fetch the popcorn!

Much gratitude to Robin and Janaia, for their fine work at PeakMoment TV.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Go Wild

Go Wild was written by Dr. John Ratey and Richard Manning.  I’m a Manning fan, and I was hoping for a book with rhythms similar to the writing of Tom Brown, Richard Nelson, or Jay Griffiths — work rooted in a spiritual connection to the family of life.  Our current path is a dead end.  If Big Mama Nature decides to let two-legged animals have a future, the key to survival is returning to a path of reverence, respect, and balance, like our ancient African ancestors lived.

Be aware that Go Wild does not take you on a fascinating tour of wild cultures.  The authors did not live with wild people, or interview any.  The book will not thoroughly erase your cultural programming and make you wild and free, nor will it transform you into a wild hunter-gatherer, shaman, sorcerer, or medicine woman.

The book’s subtitle is “Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization.”  But most of the major afflictions of civilization are not targeted — automobiles, television, cell phones, computers, education, wage slavery, materialism, submitting to masters.  Despite this omission, the book does provide interesting discussions about a variety of lesser-known afflictions.

Go Wild is a self-help book that offers many suggestions for eating better and living better.  Sugar is poison.  Shun grains, including whole grains, and avoid all other foods rich in carbohydrates — bananas, honey, potatoes, organic fruit juice, and so on.  It’s far healthier to get your calories from fats.  Run regularly, outdoors, not on a treadmill.  Sleep 8.5 hours every night.  Avoid artificial light.  Forge tribe-like bonds with your marathon-running buddies.  Practice meditation to revive your mindfulness, contentment, and joy.

Go Wild is primarily a science book, based on a Cartesian mindset that perceives living beings to be amazingly complex biochemical machines.  Two-legged animals raised in civilizations are severely damaged biochemical machines, and this book is an up-to-date shop manual for do-it-yourself backyard mechanics.  It’s about tuning up your brain and body for maximum performance, so you’ll remain happy, sharp, and fit well beyond 100, maybe 200.

Readers are introduced to a parade of medical doctors, biologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, endocrinologists, paleoanthropologists, and other assorted researchers who discuss their big discoveries.  Hot topics include oxytocin, vasopressin, cortisol, phytoncides, telomeres, neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, homeostasis, allostasis, dopamine, dyslipidemia, epigenics, and lipoproteins.

Folks who seriously follow some or all of the suggestions in this book will have a decent chance of experiencing genuine benefits.  Being raised in civilization causes many injuries, some of which can be healed, and many that cannot.  This book is likely to appeal to millions of pudgy, unhappy, poorly nourished, sleep deprived, stressed out, walking dead, well-educated professionals who are looking for ways to improve their health and wellbeing.

Ratey, John J. M.D., and Manning, Richard, Go Wild, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2014.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Great Warming

Recent decades have been a golden age for archaeologists.  New technology has provided tools for better understanding the past.  Researchers can now identify the climate trends of past centuries by analyzing the layers in tropical coral, tree rings, glacial ice packs, and lakeshore and seabed sediments.
Climate has played a primary role in influencing the course of human history.  It could enable the rise of mighty empires, and later reduce them to dusty ruins.  Big changes can happen suddenly, without warning, and have devastating effects.  Mighty scientists may huff and puff and stamp their feet, but climate will do whatever it wishes.
In 2000, archaeologist Brian Fagan published The Little Ice Age.  This book examined an era of cooler weather spanning from 1300 to 1850, and its effects on northern Europe.  In those days, most folks lived from harvest to harvest, with few safety nets.  In 1315, it barely stopped raining, and the heavy rains continued through 1316 and 1317, followed by horrendous weather in 1318.  At least 1.5 million folks checked out.  The famine of 1344-1345 was so extreme that even the super rich starved.
Preceding the Little Ice Age was the Medieval Warm Period, which spanned from 800 to 1300.  Fagan described this era in The Great Warming, published in 2008.  Far less was known about this time, because fewer written records have survived.  But new climate data has been filling in a number of missing pieces, revealing many forgotten events, important stuff.
When it was in the mood for mischief, the Little Ice Age was a harsh bully.  Fagan had expected the warm period to be the opposite, and in some regions, it was, sort of.  In Europe, there were fewer late frosts, and the growing season was three weeks longer.  There were vineyards in England and southern Norway.  Surplus wealth enabled the construction of grand cathedrals.
Whilst the weather was rather pleasant, the era suffered from a devastating spasm of innovation.  The diabolically powerful moldboard plow, which was able to turn heavy soils, replaced the primitive scratch plow.  A new harness allowed horses to replace pokey oxen as beasts of burden.  The new three-field fallowing system enabled two-thirds of the fields to be growing crops every year, instead of just half, with the old two-field system.
By using these new technologies, vast regions of highly fertile heavy soils could now be converted into highly productive cropland.  The only obstacle was the vast ancient forests, and their untamed wildlife.  Loggers grabbed their axes and exterminated more than half of Europe’s forests between 1100 and 1350.
Expanded cropland area, combined with a balmy climate, produced much more food, and this always resulted in a mushrooming mob.  Between 1000 and 1347, the population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million, despite short life expectancies.  It got so crowded that folks in 1300 were worse off than their grandparents in 1200.
In other regions, the warm period brought unpleasant weather.  The Mayans of the Yucatan lowlands experienced extended droughts and abundant misery.  “Hot, humid, and generally poorly drained, the Maya lowlands were a fragile, water-stressed environment even in the best of times,” Fagan observed.  “It’s hard to imagine a less likely place for a great civilization.”
The Mayan city of Tikal may have had 300,000 residents.  It was entirely dependent on rainfall for water.  Their ecosystem did not have dependable sources of water, like rivers or underground aquifers.  They developed amazing systems for storing rainwater, and these worked really well, usually, but not during multi-year droughts.  The drought of 910 lasted six years, and generated social unrest, which led to the collapse of many Mayan cities.
At the same time, severe droughts in western North America followed similar patterns.  Irrigation systems at Chaco Canyon enabled more than 2,000 folks to survive in an arid region for several centuries.  This worked well in wetter years.  After 1100, droughts intensified, and within 50 years the city was abandoned.
California was home to hunters and foragers.  Acorns were half of the diet for many tribes.  Oaks could produce as much food per acre as medieval European farms, and foragers could acquire a year’s supply in several weeks.  Fewer acorns fell in drought years, and extended droughts killed the oak trees.
Stumps at Mono Lake indicate that a severe drought began in 1250 and lasted for over a hundred years.  Fagan noted “None of today’s droughts, which last as long as four years, approach the intensity and duration of the Medieval Warm Period droughts.”  He called them megadroughts.  They baked away the surface waters and soil moisture.
The Yellow River (Huang He) has an appropriate nickname, China’s Sorrow, because it is one of the world’s most trouble-prone rivers.  Fagan said “the Huang He basin [has] been a crucible for human misery for more than seven thousand years.”  About 45 percent of the Chinese population lives in the basin.  From year to year, precipitation can vary by 30 percent.  A dry June is a bad omen.
To reduce the risk of famines, the Chinese built complex irrigation systems, which the Yellow River enjoyed burying with silt.  The yellow loess soil of the region was highly fertile, easy to till, and 200 feet deep (61 m) on average.  It was also light and easily erodible.  Once upon a time, forests held the soil in place, but deforestation* had catastrophic consequences.  The river carried an enormous load of yellow silt downstream, and this created perfect conditions for disastrous floods, which have killed many millions over the centuries.
This region has long been a spooky place to live, but the warm period was worse, “a time of violent climatic swings nurtured thousands of miles away that brought either lengthy dry cycles or torrential rainfall that inundated thousands of acres of the Huang He basin.”  (An extreme nineteenth century drought is described in Late Victorian Holocausts.)
Today, the global climate is hotter than the Medieval Warm Period.  The warming trend has been steadily building since 1860.  Glaciers are melting and folks are getting increasingly nervous about rising sea levels.  While this is indeed a bummer, Fagan warns that extended drought is a far greater threat.  Extended drought withers agriculture, toasts pastures, and dries up lakes and rivers.  Seven-point-something billion people will be extremely vulnerable when we move beyond Peak Food, and into the climate surprises of the coming decades.
Fagan, Brian, The Great Warming — Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008.
* In the 1930s, W. C. Lowdermilk, of the Soil Conservation Service, visited northern China as part of a research project.  In Shensi province, he saw an ancient irrigation system destroyed by silt, which had washed down from the uplands, where erosion gullies were up to 600 feet deep (183 m). 
He published his findings in Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years.  In this document, Figure 7 is a photo of serious erosion.  The caption reads: “A severely gullied area in the loess hills of North China.  These hills were once covered with trees and grass; but cultivation started the ruinous process of erosion.  There are thousands of acres like this in China today.  It produces nothing except yellow mud to clog the Yellow River with silt.”  For scale, note the human in the foreground.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Make Prayers to the Raven

In 1976 and 1977, anthropologist Richard Nelson lived with the Koyukon people of northwestern Alaska.  Their vast forested homeland is in the region where the Koyukuk River feeds into the Yukon River.  They are Athapaskan people, and they live inland from the Inupiaq Eskimos, who inhabit the coastal region to the west.

When Russian explorers found the Koyukon in 1838, they already had tobacco, iron pots, and other stuff, acquired via trade with Eskimos.  They had already been hammered by smallpox.  In 1898, they experienced a sudden infestation of gold prospectors; luckily, their streams were gold-free.  Unluckily, the gold rush ended their isolation from white society.  Swarms of missionaries and educators buzzed around the forest, determined to help the ignorant heathens rise out of barbarism, and experience the miracles of civilization and damnation.

When Nelson arrived in 1976, they were no longer nomadic.  About 2,000 Koyukon lived in eleven villages.  They travelled by snowmobile, hunted with rifles, and worshipped a Jewish guru.  Most of those under 30 spoke only English, and some were not fond of anthropologists.  Nelson spent a lot of time with the elders, who had been raised in the old ways.  Then he wrote an important book, Make Prayers to the Raven.  (In their stories, the creator was Raven.)

The Koyukon were the opposite of vegans.  About 90 percent of their diet was animal foods.  The bears, moose, geese, and salmon they ate came from the surrounding area, and were killed, butchered, and cooked by close friends and family.  Their survival depended on the wildlife.  They were extremely careful to take only what they needed, and to waste nothing.

Their wilderness was the opposite of big box grocery outlets that have an endless supply of fizzy sugar drinks, frozen pizza, and corn chips.  A year of abundant salmon might be followed by a meager year.  During Nelson’s visit, there were plenty moose and caribou, animals that had been scarce 30 years earlier.  The Koyukon had to pay close attention to the land, and continually fine-tune their relationship to it.  When times were lean, people starved — prior to the adaptation of rifles.  Now, they also had dependable access to the mysterious industrial substances that white folks referred to as “food.”

Traditional Koyukon society needed nothing from the outside world.  Their relationship to the ecosystem was one of absolute reverence and respect.  They were not masters or managers, they were simply members of the family of life.  The humble status of humans is evident in a frequently quoted phrase: “Every animal knows way more than you do.”

Nelson said it like this: “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.”

The Koyukon were not exotic freaks.  Their worldview and spirituality had much in common with all other cultures that thrived in the long era before the domestication fad.  They were perfectly wild and free — healthy, happy, intelligent, normal human beings.  Most modern people go to their graves without ever experiencing the magnificent beauty and power of the living world — the joy and wonder of the gift of life, the awe of being fully present in a sacred reality.  Most of them live and die in monotonous manmade habitats, having established no spiritual connection to life.

Nelson was born in Madison, Wisconsin.  His father was employed by the state.  Their middle class life provided food, clothing, and shelter.  A large portion of his childhood was spent in institutions of education — indoors — digesting, memorizing, and regurgitating words and numbers.  At that time, Madison was a disaster of concrete, traffic, and hordes of strangers.  Decades earlier, the forest and wildlife had been devoured by the metastasizing city.  So, as a young animal, Nelson was raised in devastating poverty, like most modern kids, isolated from wildness and freedom.

Anyway, something cool happened.  In 1973, Nelson hooked up with the University of Alaska and began spending time with Native Americans.  He arrived with his Euro-American cultural programming, and its wacky anthropocentric model of the natural world.  He had zero doubt that his perception of reality was correct and proper; it was absolute truth.

Then, he hung out with the Koyukon, and this blew his belief system completely out of the water.  They were intelligent people, and they saw the world in a very different way.  This made his Ph.D. mind whirl and spin.  “My Koyukon teachers had learned through their own traditions about dimensions in nature that I, as a Euro-American, had either not learned to perceive or had been explicitly taught do not exist.”

In less than 200 years, the white wizards of Wisconsin have transformed a healthy wilderness into a hideous nightmare called Madison.  It never occurred to them to adapt to the ecosystem, live with great respect and mindfulness, and preserve its health for future generations.  The Koyukon, on the other hand, have inhabited their forest for thousands of years, and it doesn’t look much different from how they found it.  They know every place in their forest as well as you know your kitchen.  Every location is rich with stories and spirits.

The Egyptians built huge pyramids, enduring monuments to their civilized megalomania, built by legions of miserable slaves.  The Koyukon have achieved something far more impressive.  “This legacy is the vast land itself, enduring and essentially unchanged despite having supported human life for countless centuries.”

Nelson’s book is a reflection of their culture.  He presents separate chapters to describe the physical realm and climate, insects and amphibians, fishes, birds, small mammals, predators, and large animals.  Eighteen pages are devoted to their relationship with bears, and birds get 43 pages.  The core of their culture is their relationships with the non-human relatives that share their land, and the need to nurture these relationships with absolute respect.  Nature always punishes acts of disrespect with bad luck, illness, or death — to the offender, or to a family member.

The good news here is that it’s not impossible for a highly educated adult to override their toxic cultural programming and experience the beauty and power of creation.  Most never do.  The important message of this book is that we are absolutely lost, but there are paths that are not lost, healthy paths.  Our cage is not locked, and it’s so much nicer outside.  It’s alive!

Nelson, Richard K., Make Prayers to the Raven — A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983.