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Traces of an Omnivore

Traces of an Omnivore

by Paul Shepard

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Paul Shepard is one of the most profound and original thinkers of our time. He has helped define the field of human ecology, and has played a vital role in the development of what have come to be known as environmental philosophy, ecophilosophy, and deep ecology -- new ways of thinking about human-environment interactions that ultimately hold great promise for


Paul Shepard is one of the most profound and original thinkers of our time. He has helped define the field of human ecology, and has played a vital role in the development of what have come to be known as environmental philosophy, ecophilosophy, and deep ecology -- new ways of thinking about human-environment interactions that ultimately hold great promise for healing the bonds between humans and the natural world. Traces of an Omnivore presents a readable and accessible introduction to this seminal thinker and writer.

Throughout his long and distinguished career, Paul Shepard has addressed the most fundamental question of life: Who are we? An oft-repeated theme of his writing is what he sees as the central fact of our existence: that our genetic heritage, formed by three million years of hunting and gathering remains essentially unchanged. Shepard argues that this, "our wild Pleistocene genome," influences everything from human neurology and ontogeny to our pathologies, social structure, myths, and cosmology.

While Shepard's writings travel widely across the intellectual landscape, exploring topics as diverse as aesthetics, the bear, hunting, perception, agriculture, human ontogeny, history, animal rights, domestication, post-modern deconstruction, tourism, vegetarianism, the iconography of animals, the Hudson River school of painters, human ecology, theoretical psychology, and metaphysics, the fundamental importance of our genetic makeup is the predominant theme of this collection.

As Jack Turner states in an eloquent and enlightening introduction, the essays gathered here "address controversy with an intellectual courage uncommon in an age that exults the relativist, the skeptic, and the cynic. Perused with care they will reward the reader with a deepened appreciation of what we so casually denigrate as primitive life -- the only life we have in the only world we will ever know."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This book presents 17 previously published essays by the late Shepard (The Company of Others), a long-time leader in the fields of human ecology and environmental philosophy. In each piece, from slightly varying perspectives, he attempts to answer the same two questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Shepard claims that our evolutionary heritage, shaped by our three-million-year history as hunters and gatherers, remains largely intact, making it impossible for us to separate ourselves from nature. Indeed, he interprets many of our social activities, such as dining rituals and the telling of fairy tales, as substitutes for more ancient ones. Despite a prolific publication record, Shepard is not well known. In the introduction, Jack Turner says that this, in part, is because "Shepard's books are formidably intellectual, devoid of nods to popularization." This collection demonstrates this point perfectly. A couple of the essays"The Corvidean Millennium; or, Letter from an Old Crow" and "Advice from the Pleistocene"are a joy to read. The others are largely impenetrable. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
If you want to cure the many ills afflicting our species, take your cues from our ancestors in the Pleistocene. That's the counsel Shepard (Thinking Animals, 1978, etc.) offers in these provocative if esoteric essays.

Shepard was long a stalwart in the field of human ecology; indeed, he pretty much defined that field and influenced its offspring, ecophilosophy and deep ecology. Here is a gallimaufry of his writings, "iotas of debris," as Shepard humbly refers to them, from journals obscure and rarefied, concerning the corruption of the human animal. For Shepard, our society is no longer sane, due to our warped relationship with the natural world. We are, in our hearts and genes, hunters and gatherers, Ice Age primates hot-wired for the wild. As we have tried to slough off this life, pathetically domesticating ourselves, we have jettisoned what was subtle, complex, and unique in our ancestors. Shepard argues against every facet of our present existence, from the way in which we raise our children to our inability to bond with wild creatures, from our postured distaste for hunting to our lack of wonder. He bumps into all sorts of figures as he goes his garrulous way—Martin Heidegger, Edith Cobb, Ortega y Gasset—and can spin a delightful tale, as in his wonderful inventory of the iconography of the bear. And though one might rightly gibe Shepard for moments of abstruseness (it is hard to imagine our ancestors in the Pleistocene jawing about the "adolescent cosmosizing process"), one of the highlights of this collection is its distillation of Shepard's often highly recondite books. He suffers no fools: If you can't get ontological, don't bother to apply.

Radical, indelicate, opinionated, and dauntingly learned even at their most outlandish, Shepard's ideas on humanity's true place in the environment are well worth mulling over.

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Read an Excerpt

Traces of an Omnivore

By Paul Shepard


Copyright © 1996 Paul Shepard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-396-6


Plants, Animals, and Place

The Ark of the Mind

There is a profound, inescapable need for animals that is in all people everywhere, an urgent requirement for which no substitute exists. This need is no vague, romantic, or intangible yearning, no simple sop to our loneliness or nostalgia for Paradise. As hard and unavoidable as the compounds of our inner chemistry, it is universal but poorly recognized. It is grounded in the way that animals are used in the growth and development of the human person, in those priceless qualities which we lump together as "mind." Animals have a critical role in the shaping of personal identity and social consciousness. Among the first inhabitants of the mind's eye, they are basic to the development of speech and thought. Later they play a key role in the passage to adulthood. Because of their participation in each stage of the growth of consciousness, they are indispensable to our becoming human in the fullest sense.

In the first twelve years of every child's life, animals are seen by the imagination directly, without interpretation. Unencumbered by symbolism, they are as plain and unambiguous as their names: horse, cow, dog, chicken, bird, elephant. Each is for the child part of a fauna of behavioral conventions: whinnying eagerness, bovine nurturing, yapping pursuit, clucking anxiety, aerial capering. In its particular way of behaving, each calls up in the child a latent feeling or idea. The characteristic "message" of each animal is thus an outer reference whose corresponding inner twin is brought to life in the observing, mimicking, inchoate human polymorph.

This matching game is the first game for individual consciousness. Impressions received by the child from the intense activity of pretending, staring, and naming are forms of actual nourishment, providing sustenance for the eventual synthesis of the self and the growth of symbolic thought. Beast by beast, in the first years of life, the emotions, feelings, attitudes, intentions, and fears take their place in the forest of the self. Only through this process is the child free of the ambiguity of abstract explanation. The example of other humans is not a sufficient training ground for the perceptions. The adult's quicksilver change of mood, shading of trait, blending of response, tempering and concealment of motive, and fluid shifting of inner shape to fit outer circumstance are too slippery. Human subtlety is important later; but for the child it can be a form of madness.

A decade, from the beginnings of speech to the onset of puberty, is all we have to load the ark. The zoology of this period must be unequivocal, without recondite allusions. Poetry and song must mean what they say, games must be nothing but play, as unmistakable as a cat chasing a ball. It is right for the child to mimic fox and goose in a game of pretended capture, or speak the lines of the little pig or Chicken Little. By "identifying" with a number of animals in turn, the child discovers a common ground with other beings despite external differences between himself and them. Anthropomorphism at this stage is essential. The true means of interspecies communication, full of invisible nuance and removed from sensory detection, is not yet pertinent to the tasks of the child. By pretending that animals speak to one another, he imposes on them a pseudohumanity which, although illusory, is the glue of real kinship.

In such farces of socialized ecology, the vital natures of animals are encountered—and become our best defense against the conspiracy that animals are only machines or artifacts, and therefore against the lie that we ourselves are made of cogs, wheels, and wires. It is important as well for the child to literally see the animals' insides, for organs have names too, thus forming a fauna of stomachs, lungs, and hearts to which our own belong. Only the child who has had this experience can be pleased by his or her own organic nature.

Much is at stake in the first decade, for it culminates in a bonding to the matrix of the earth, a crucial step between the first infant-mother bond and formal entry into adult membership in a cosmos. Here the foundation for a poetry of ultimate meaning is based. This matrix, in which animals are the living, animate aspect, will be only as ample as the child's observation of nature, linked to speech and mimicry in play. The metaphysical richness of the individual's eventual personal philosophy depends on it. During childhood, however, abstractions such as chemistry, physics, ecosystems, morals, and ethics are noxious.

The animals do not live in an arbitrary environment (except for zoo and barnyard). Like their bodies and behavior, their location is peculiar to each. For human beings, habitat and environment are the literal space of the ground of thought. As messages, animals come into thought trailing the dust of their associations with a particular place. What the child wants, as Edith Cobb observed, is to find a place in which to make a world the way the world is made. The home range of the ten-year-old is the first context of spatial and temporal thought, perceived unconsciously in harmonious replication of his mother's body—the first "place" in contact with which the fetus and newborn moved. The child is a "traveler" mapping out the first spatially ordered reality of his life. The habitat of childhood is conceptualized as an ordered space inhabited by its creatures—turtles, frogs, mice, and rabbits—as events in place. For a ten- year-old, the home terrain is thus a constant pattern in which the compelling actions of animals are like moments in the life of a great spatial being.

The end of childhood is the end of that simple identity. The literal fauna have become the external expression of the child's own congeries of feelings and bodily processes, a community of self-confidence. That confidence will soon be tested, for adult life is full of contradictions. Indeed, adolescence is a preparation for ambiguity, a realm of penumbral shadows. Its language includes a widening sensitivity to pun and poetry. Appropriate to its psychology is attention to the zones between categories, zones that have their own animals. The borders from which obscenity and taboo arise are figured in creatures that embody a sense of overlapping reality: the insects that crawl between two surfaces, the owl flying at dusk, the bat that seems to be both bird and mammal.

The adolescent person is a marginal being between stages of life, on the shifting sands of an uncertain identity. In this respect his symbols are changeling species: the self- renewing, skin-shedding snake, the amphibious frog that loses a tail and grows legs, the caterpillar that metamorphoses into a butterfly. In each the thought of a new birth is manifest, the concrete expression of transformation. Human psychogenesis is such that the adolescent is, for a time, plunged back into his own natality. The concreteness of life, literal in the maternal and natural matrices, given consciousness in speech itself, will be reexperienced in a new, metaphorical idiom. No echo of this infantile state is more crucial than nourishment. Eating, the most fundamental route from outer to inner, is to be reevoked as the ritual act at the core of transformation and relatedness. Its emotion is refocused in intellectual and symbolic ways, using incorporation as the metaphor of connectedness. Henceforth, all rites of passage—elevation in social status, marriage, the reception of spiritual life—are celebrated and sometimes represented as feasts. Sacred meals, taboo food, and dietary laws everywhere refer to what is eaten as an agent of change in the eater.

As a collective, the animals of the natural environment comprise the metaphor of the human group. In tribal culture, each clan is committed to a particular species. This species, through its ecological relationship to other species, provides a vehicle both for the dynamic logic of myth and for the rules of society. Together the clans constitute the whole in a manner analogous to the ecology of animals. For the relationship between clans is defined by the relationship between their totemic animals in accordance with a myth about the animals in the beginning of time. Both this myth and the observations of the creatures themselves guide the interrelationships of humans, who are pledged by their clan identity to the mythic structure. The same fauna mimicked in childhood play to synthesize the individual self is, in maturity, liberated into new levels of social and metaphysical deliberation.

The use of animals in play in the first decade of life gives way in the young adult to dance, a universal human activity derived from the rhythmic imitation of animals. Through dance, in traditional societies, a particular human group acquires a style of its own, uniting its members while at the same time affirming the tutorial role of birds and mammals. People have always suspected that certain animals are masters and keepers of important secrets: metamorphosis, birth, puberty, healing, courtship, fertility, and protection. By dancing the animal, these mysteries are assimilated into adult understanding and recovered as a power of humankind.

Part of becoming adult is the dawning realization that the principle of transformation is a major feature of the cosmos. Movement and passage-making are inseparable from consciousness of time. Dancing in the feathers of birds and the masks of mammals displays the shape-shifting capacities of the soul. The religious principle of altered states has its special animals, whose greatest in the Northern Hemisphere is the bear. From its natural history comes a rainbow of horological suggestion so powerful that it may have changed the history and evolution of human thought. In circumpolar traditions across America, Europe, and Asia, south to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean, and the Himalayas, for perhaps fifty millennia, festivals of the bear ceremony have recognized the bear as sacred messenger and mediator, purveyor of meat, the paradigmatic grandparent, teacher, traveler between worlds.

Many features of the bear—especially the many races of the brown bear—place it in correspondence to humanity. Its size, appearance, mobility, dexterity, omnivorousness, reproduction, annual cycle, length of life, social behavior, and intelligence have an eerie relation to our own. These characteristics are the source of enduring speculative analogy and psychological tension. The geography of this rapture is as wide as the distribution of the brown bear and as ancient as mankind, a whole paragraph in the zoological hieroglyphics of human consciousness.

The bear is the only familiar omnivore whose size approximates our own. Omnivorousness is not only a kind of diet but a versatile style of perception—exploratory, pushy, relentless, zetetic, analytical, risk taking. It is like tasting the fruits of all actions, the meat of all situations, the kernel of all experiences, the root of all being. The bear is fisher, hunter, berry-picker, bulb-digger, honey-gatherer. It has an expressive face, binocular vision, vocal and gestural responses, sitting and bipedal stances, almost no tail, and a fine dexterity. Mother bears give birth secretly, tend and teach their young, and defend them fearlessly. And yet the bear is vividly Other—huge, furry, long-muzzled, long-clawed, quadrupedal—in these things nothing like a human.

In winter the brown bear withdraws into the earth from which it came as a cub, this winter sleep coinciding with the death of nature. Spring comes after the bear's emergence, as though it were called by him back to life. In the perspective of years this seasonal passage into the earth becomes a rhythmic movement. The bear's trip into the earth, translated into the rhythm of the life cycle, is unmistakably about death and rebirth.

In the hunt for the bear, there is no chase; it is killed ceremonially. A terrible, dangerous animal when abroad, in its den the bear is easily slain. Such a hunt of a large mammal is unique, for the animal is located as though it were a plant, seeming almost to combine the hunt with gathering. The meat of this "stepmother" is ritually distributed by the men, but the women dance and sing—reuniting what cannot otherwise be healed. The bear is given. More conspicuously than any other animal eaten by us, bear flesh is a gift to man from a distant god, showing that all hunted game allow themselves to be taken.

Spiraling in the northern sky, the celestial bear drops below the horizon in step with the seasonal sleep. In the world underground the bear dwells with its own people. To come into middle earth and provide us with sacred meat he puts on his bearskin and is welcomed by the mistress of the hearth, who shares the bear's life-giving secret. The people who understand these things butcher him with reverence and eat him carefully, confirming his special reality in themselves. In part of the message of the hunted bear is:

Save the bones of your dead and inter them in the earth. Remember that the spirit survives and lives again. Connect this sacred quality with every individual in a ceremonial bear-meat feast of communion. There are parallel lives below and above your plane which are eternal. Passage between them is the ultimate movement by which you know life.

The bear is the keeper of all gates: those between life and death, this world and others, flesh and spirit, man and animal form, inside and outside, even the phases of human individual life. He is the mediator between man and woman, the natural and the sacred. All guides and travelers to the other world in human form—shamans, Orpheus, Jesus—were represented by bears first.

* * *

The warping of the animal out of the myth of resurrection is a historical development, the collapse of an instructive metaphor. Replacing the bear exclusively with the human figure denies us each our bearskin. By zealously repudiating the animal form, omitting the middle matrix, we retreat from the polymorphic ambiguity of life. The bearless cosmos deprives us of personal experience of the sacred paradigm, substituting for it abstract, verbal exegesis. The loss makes for autism, middlemen, desperation, the failure of the kindred species who think in us.

The carrying of a positivistic, literal attitude toward animals into the adult sphere marks the failure of initiation and maturity in human life. The totally humanized myth of immortality is part of the zeitgeist of domestication, its ritual centered on sacrifice rather than the sacred hunt. Our dreams, however, remain true to a world different from the one in which we now live. Hunger for the wild animal's significance is reflected palely in the vicarious imagery of decorative arts, virtuoso and eccentric originality, pets, and media stereotypes.

No fine words can replace the dances and feasts of participation. Those arts remind us that we were thought up by the different beasts. They are kindred and ancestors. Before humans existed they worked out the round of life in thousands of variations as though anticipating the needs of style in the experiment of human cultures. Like the bear, we are selves composed of sleeping figures, each a secret that can be awakened in acts of correspondence. Self-consciousness is possible only in a world of Others. We are members of a human family and society, but the presence of animal Others enlarges our perception of the self beyond the city to the limits of the world, and deeply inward to that ground of being where live the lizard and monkey and fish.

Animal Rights and Humans Rites

A progressive march of civil justice over the past two centuries is the historic setting within which blacks, women, and lately eighteen-year-olds have been in part elevated in political power and social status. Whole nations and economic classes composing a "third world," usually identified by a nonindustrial economy, are now popularly regarded as unjustly deprived. The implication seems to be that powerful nations are economically obligated to satisfy the right to be rich and, implicitly, to be free. Meanwhile the egalitarian flood reached out to orphans, working children, infants, idiots, and cripples. Then, with the humanitarian movement of the past century spilling over, it came to the protection of domestic animals—a kind of fourth world—invoking in their name the right not to be overworked, tortured, or abandoned.


Excerpted from Traces of an Omnivore by Paul Shepard. Copyright © 1996 Paul Shepard. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Paul Shepard was Avery Professor of Human Ecology Emeritus at Pitzer College and the Claremont Graduate School. Among his books are Thinking Animals (Viking, 1978), Nature and Madness, (Sierra Club, 1982) and The Others (Island Press/Shearwater, 1995).

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