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How Our Wilderness Origins Show Us the Way Forward
By Louis G. Herman
New World Library Copyright © 2013 Louis G. Herman
All rights reserved.
THE TRUTH QUEST
"But how do you know when a path has no heart, don Juan?"
"Before you embark on it you ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path."
"But how will I know for sure whether a path has a heart or not?"
"Anybody would know that. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path."
— Carlos Castañeda,The Teachings of Don Juan
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
— T. S. Eliot,Four Quarters, "Little Gidding"
The truth of the quest is not a true doctrine resulting from an intentionalist investigation of objects, but a balanced state of existence ... [formed in the process of the quest].
— Eric Voegelin,In Search of Order
The Journey Home
My search for a way forward took me back to beginnings — my birthplace and the likely birthplace of humanity, southern Africa. My hometown, Port Elizabeth, is a small coastal city on the eastern corner of the southern tip of Africa. Here, at the foot of this great continent, two ocean currents meet and mix: the icy Benguela sweeping up from Antarctica along the Skeleton Coast of West Africa, and the warm, hazy Mozambique flowing down from the tropics along the east coast. Their confluence creates one of the richest collections of coastal and ocean ecosystems on earth. Rocky ledges and tidal pools support a wealth of shellfish, with whales, seals, dolphins, and great white sharks cruising offshore. North and east of Port Elizabeth begins a dramatic geological feature, the Great Rift, which runs most of the length of the continent. This epic mountainous escarpment separates the rain forests of the west from drier, more open savanna to the east — what South Africans call the veldt* — the game-filled, tree-dotted parkland around whose lakes, rivers, and coastlines our earliest ancestors thrived. This forms what the South African historian Noel Mostert calls the "hemispheric seam" of the planet, a primordial frontier separating east and west, from which early hominids emerged.
In 1998 I returned to Port Elizabeth, the site of luminous childhood experiences that started me on my quest long before I understood what "politics" meant. I had been at the University of Hawai'i for two decades, teaching and researching, trying to get the largest, clearest picture of the crises that seemed to grip the heart of our civilization. In the process I had come to some shocking realizations. The first was that the collective impact of globalizing industrial capitalism was destroying wilderness ecosystems and causing the extinction of living species at a rate unprecedented since the earth's last great mass extinction. We were applying our African-incubated genius to an act of destruction equivalent to the impact of the gigantic asteroid that collided with the earth sixty-five million years ago. The second was that this situation was the result of choices we made centuries ago, choices we remake daily when pledging our allegiance to political and economic institutions promising growth in material wealth at all costs.
My studies in political philosophy had made it clear that the intellectual foundations of our current way of life had long since been demolished. But the institutions those philosophies led to — the bureaucratic nation-state, the multinational corporation, the global marketplace, the mechanized factory producing cheap goods, and competitive, self-centered individualism — all continued reproducing and expanding with the crazy vitality of a cancer. Their sheer overwhelming presence paralyzed political imagination, trapping us in a tyranny of "what exists." The first step out of this impasse seemed intuitively obvious: to go back to "what was," to imaginatively reconstruct the simplest, earliest form of human society, in order to rethink "what could and should be." Later I came to think of this movement back to go forward as a fundamental aspect of creative renewal — an "eternal primal return."
Personal reasons also drove me back. Until that point I had approached the consciousness of early human societies through texts, libraries, and universities. I felt an urgent need to fix this contradiction, to balance some of the thousands of hours spent indoors with my face turned away from the world, sitting at a desk, staring at books and computer screens. I was hungry for strong, simple experiences of what it meant to be a fully embodied human being in a southern African wilderness. Finally, I was close to burnout and just plain homesick.
The Port Elizabeth airport had barely changed since I was a child. Its single, small terminal building sat in the bush near a rocky wild coastline. As soon as I stepped out of the plane, I took in a deep breath, thick with the smells of salt spray and coastal vegetation, and savored the thrill of being home again. The coastal terrace of southern Africa gets rain throughout the year and is covered with tough, small-leafed, flowering bush — the aromatic fynbos or "fine bush" of the Southern Cape. This small area is so ancient and so unique that it constitutes one of the earth's six plant kingdoms, with one of the largest concentrations of biodiversity anywhere. Forest- and bush-covered mountain ranges follow much of the coastline, providing a noble backdrop to enormous curving bays of surf-pounded white sand beaches. Clear rivers and streams, stained amber by forest vegetation, run through valleys and steep gorges to empty into rocky coves and open sandy bays.
When Europeans first arrived, the area was filled with the magnificent big game of Africa — elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard, buffalo, and a great variety of buck. Hippopotami waded out of river mouths into the ocean surf to greet the startled Dutch sailors, who named the creatures zeekoe, "sea cows." The natural bounty of a region filled with flowers and birds is reflected in the Khoisan name for one of the mountain ranges, Outeniqua, meaning "laden with honey." The coast is dotted with gaping rock shelters, which hold some of the richest evidence for that last leap into modern human consciousness that took place roughly two hundred thousand years ago. Few places on earth could be more evocative of an African Eden than this most southern point of the ancient continent of Africa.
As a child I regularly explored one shelter on the Robberg Peninsula, the Mountain of Seals, which juts off the coast halfway between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. The eastern edge of the peninsula offers a spectacular view of the former whaling station of Plettenberg Bay. The western coast overlooks a small sandy beach cove fringed by rocks and tide pools. I began my pilgrimage home by returning to the Robberg for the first time after many years. I arrived at the end of the day to find the place deserted. I stepped out of the car, followed the path down the cliff to the cove, and was immediately immersed in the sights, smells, and feel of the coast: the sharp, feral mix of the fynbos, seaweed, and salt; the surf crashing on the ocean-scrubbed, bone-white shell-and-stone beach; and the shock of the cold water as I dove in. I scrambled out quickly, spooked by the shadows of large fish next to me in the raised swell. I climbed up and sat inside the mouth of the largest shelter, wide enough for a band of perhaps a dozen people. The floor was made up of fresh and fossilizing shell and bone; in nearby caves, these floors can extend down more than a dozen feet. The whole coastline is rich with archaeological finds from the period when self-conscious Homo sapiens emerged over the past two hundred thousand years. Nothing had changed since my childhood except for the addition of a small knee-high fence through which Stone Age relics spilled down the slope. As I sat warming in the golden last light of the day, I could see almost no sign of the intervening thousands of years of civilization. I felt as if I was stepping through a personal dreamscape into our deep past to when some of the first humans lived in that same place.*
We now know in persuasive detail that the earth was once nothing but wilderness: everything, everywhere untouched by human hand, unseen by human eye; nothing tamed, domesticated, or civilized. We know that out of an African savanna, incubated in it, nurtured by it, a primate lineage gradually evolved into hominids. Then hominids slowly developed the self-reflective, creative consciousness capable of language, art, religion, and politics. The very nature of our freedom and creativity emerged gradually, conditioned by the daily rhythms of sunrise and sunset, the seasonal movements of game, and the smells and colors of fruit, flower, and veldt. This is the first fact of life — one of the most startling discoveries of modern times: human beings were made by wilderness. Yet all our contemporary political institutions were created by men ignorant of this most basic reality.
Around sixty thousand years ago a population of hunter-gatherers walked out of southern Africa and rapidly spread over the rest of the planet. Most human beings alive today are direct descendants of that small group. Parts of that founder population never left their African Eden; they continued to develop and thrive as nomadic hunter-gatherers into modern times, protected by the harshness of the Kalahari Desert. Today their children barely survive, forced off their ancestral hunting grounds, often living in squalor, at the mercy of government agencies. Recent genetic and linguistic mapping studies support what long seemed clear to many of us who grew up in South Africa: Bushmen populations are the closest living relatives to our shared "African Adam and Eve."* Their traditional cosmology is most likely among the oldest on earth, seeming to recede back into the Paleolithic origins of human consciousness. Traditional nomadic Bushmen led an existence that in some ways seems enchanted, moving in small egalitarian bands held together by an ethos of caring for and sharing with one another, while being sensitively attuned to the natural world.
By contrast, the dominant political and economic institutions of our modern world were created from radically different assumptions about our origins. Political philosophers like John Locke accepted the Genesis account of earth's creation: that the planet was young, that all the plant and animal species appeared as a result of separate acts of divine creation, which culminated on the sixth day in the miraculous appearance of human beings. They believed the natural world existed as raw material for the central human project of productive labor — converting wilderness into wealth. In 1688, when Locke published his Two Treatises on Government, the iconic text of modern politics, the global human population was less than half a billion and vast tracts of forest and prairie still covered North America. Southern Africa was an Eden filled with great herds of grazing and browsing animals. To Locke and his contemporaries, all of this existed to feed human appetite and ambition. It was simply "waste" until transformed by human labor:
After visiting the Robberg and other coastal sites of early modern humans, I continued my pilgrimage north through Johannesburg, the violence-plagued metropolis of the country, and then into the sanctuary of the Drakensberg, the "dragon mountains," the highest range in the South African escarpment. This was the ancient summer hunting ground and last refuge of the /Xam, the southern San Bushmen. It is also something of a wilderness temple containing one of the largest concentrations of the most complex and beautiful of their sacred rock paintings.
I spent most of the first day following my guide across a gloriously empty setting: golden grass-covered foothills, sandstone cliffs, sheltered bush-lined valleys with icy streams, all framed by mountains, hazy blue and purple in the distance. It was perfect winter weather, warm, sunny, and windless with an impossibly blue sky. Every stone, every leaf, every blade of grass sparkled as if cut from crystal. Occasionally we would spot grazing eland — the largest of the African antelope and the sacred game animal of the Bushmen. We were looking for a shelter that contained a particularly significant collection of old paintings. The guide crossed a stream and then climbed up to the base of a sandstone cliff. We walked through a clump of thick bushes and, without any warning, stepped into the entrance — an enormous overhang of sandstone with a level sandy floor and sun-warmed rock panels. The shelter was like a gigantic natural balcony, offering a panoramic view of the valleys below and the mountains in the distance. But the view that fixed my gaze was the back wall covered with dozens of hauntingly detailed multicolored paintings.
A line of eland seemed to move across the central panel. Several cloaked figures stood behind. Some of the images are carefully painted over one another, in great detail and with obvious care. Off to one side was a large solitary eland with its head down, back legs crossed, and the hair on its shoulders erect, all signs of its death throes. Touching the tail of the eland was an upright human-like figure, also painted with legs crossed — but instead of human feet, the figure had painted hooves with the detailed fetlocks clearly visible. The part-antelope, part-human creature held what looked like a dancing stick in one hand, suggesting the central religious ritual of the Kalahari San — the healing trance dance sometimes called "the little death."
The complexity and mystery of the images were immediately obvious. No easy literal interpretation would do. The sensitivity of execution contrasted movingly with the rugged mountainscape outside the shelter. Yet the paintings seemed to complete the scene perfectly by suggesting the presence of an ancient creative hand and beauty-loving eye, both hand and eye crafted by that same surrounding wilderness.
The guide left me to spend the rest of the day alone, examining the paintings and enjoying the view. In late afternoon I walked back, satisfied and relaxed, happily musing how ancestral San life must have fitted into this landscape, hand in glove. The sun was setting below the hills in the distance. On my right, a series of steep sandstone cliffs glowed pink and gold in the last light. Suddenly, a hoarse shout echoed across the valley, sounding like "GETEM!" Shocked wide awake, I looked up: the silhouette of a head and shoulders appeared on the cliff edge ahead of me. More figures appeared. My thoughts flashed to Johannesburg, then the murder capital of the world. I tensed and held my breath. The shout was repeated — and just as suddenly I relaxed, recognizing from some forgotten memory the strangely human sound of a baboon's warning bark.
While less dangerous than their two-legged, urban relatives, baboons can still be intimidating. They seem a mix of human and dog, with teeth that can match a leopard's and a bad habit, probably learned from humans, of stoning climbers from above. A whole troop had arrived, and in the distance, a second troop appeared; I could see the outlines of the young scampering over the rocks. They were no longer looking at me. The adults moved to the edge of the cliff and squatted, still as sentinels, staring at the sinking sun. I found a flat rock, and as we sat together and watched the sun disappear, something deep inside me shifted and settled. For a long moment I had an exquisite feeling of complete identity with the baboons echoing back through the millennia to some old, ancestral primate sitting on a warm rock watching an African sunset. It was an exquisite feeling of connection to this place and a bone-deep certainty of the truth of Darwin's insight — "who understands the baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke."
This simple revelation was a turning point in my journey and a powerful affirmation of my quest. It had touched some emotional bedrock that gave me the confidence to continue my efforts to reconstruct a deeper, truer way of being human, of living together on this miraculous, evolving, and now-threatened earth.
Excerpted from Future Primal by Louis G. Herman. Copyright © 2013 Louis G. Herman. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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