Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Nature of Belonging

Yesterday my son's school hosted a public talk with renowned ethnographer, Wade Davis. He seems to have been just about everywhere, met so many remote peoples and lived so many amazing experiences and his stories tumble like little avalanches, one setting off another. He told the rapt group of kids that he once lit himself on fire and shook the hand of a voodoo priest. He made the priest laugh. Middle-school mouths were agape as he talked about an Innu man who made himself a shit-knife, butchered a dog to make a sled, and rode away into the night, and the time he brought back through customs a suitcase made of African pop cans and containing all the strange ingredients to make a powder that would turn people into zombies. He talked about Polynesian sailors who know when land is beyond the horizon by the way the waves hit their boat - and they know which islands are making those variations, too. His favourite food? Well he's had lemon-flavoured sauce that was actually ant sauce, but he had a French girlfriend once who was a really good cook... He spoke about the diversity of humanity; the great tapestry of unique answers to the question who are we?, and a deep connection to place.

He touched a few times on the assumption that our western technology makes us more advanced than others; that we consider it a thing to strive for, but that perhaps it just happens to be the world we're immersed in, and ours is simply different than the technology of others. This led me to think more deeply about why I feel so good about taking people out in the wilderness, here. It's because it's my culture. The trees and the moss and the weather and the way the water flows are the bowl that holds my life, and the sharing of that connection is our culture. I feel a deep sense of belonging here, and I enjoy feeling my community in our unique place; remarking on the tiniest discoveries and the changes that happen through the seasons, the living and dying and rotting and growing of this place that we are a part of.

Interestingly, it seems that our culture equates a connection to the land with lower class, lower sophistication, or "quaintness". We hold humanity to some different yard stick than the rest of earth's animals, imagining that intelligence includes a separation from the land and our earthly nature. We revere people who practice modern medicine more than we do biologists, despite the obvious fact that both professions are inextricably linked. Those of our society who actually work with the land are usually among the lowest-paid. We put a lot of value in education that steers us toward urban life. In urban landscapes, rivers are diverted, buried, and forgotten. Forests are razed. It matters more whether we remove our body hair and apply lipstick than it does that we feel the frost coming. The dance of the sunlight filtering through the natural canopy is lost to us. Even the wind and weather patterns have been changed by our "progress", and for many of us are no more than a nuisance, now.

There is such a thing as Nature Deficit Disorder.

We're having a municipal election in my community, and my main concern in thinking about who to vote for is who understands the land we live on. Luckily, there are a few candidates who I regularly run into in the woods, here. There are people among us who hear the differences in rainfall, feel slight temperature changes, and know by the smell of the woods when the mushrooms are coming. There are children who can climb 100-foot trees without fear because they know the ways different species of branches grow, flex, and snap well enough to navigate them. There are children and adults out every day, going off-trail and into the woods, and being a part of our home.

We do have a land-connection, still. We are finding ourselves again. Having invented cars doesn't mean we have to use them. We are finding our walking feet again. We are finding our connections to the place we live on, live in, live under and live because of. In an age of germicides, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics, we are discovering that were it not for the microbes that make up our bodies we would not live at all. With discoveries like the epigenome and entanglement, we are realizing that what we do truly does define us, and truly does effect every other particle in the universe. We matter. We are finally beginning to understand the significance of what Carl Sagan so famously wrote:
All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff. 
~Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, 1973.

The post-oil age is going to be an age of redefining our culture, rewiring our minds, and reawakening our hearts to the essence of our own home and being (because they are the same thing), and to the enormous potential and responsibility that comes of living with instead of upon.

Following is a talk given by Wade Davis in 2007. It's quite similar to the one I saw yesterday. Enjoy! (If for some reason this YouTube video does not appear, you can also see it here:

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