Saturday, November 25, 2006

"Neanderthals, Bandits & Farmers"

When I was in seminary, Steve Beall was always trying to develop a “theology of pastoralism” from the Tom McGuane book, “The Bushwacked Piano.” I never really understood what he was up to, but I began my own topological theology from Tillich/Eliade to the effect that there is a “horizontal” dimension (the earthly), and a “vertical” dimension (to the other-worldly, whether heavenly or satanic). This is a spatial assignment suprisingly widespread in various religious systems, some of which actualize the symbolic by climbing down into a hole (or Kiva) or by hiking to the top of a prominence (on a vision quest).

Then I organized the rest around the “home” (center) and the “wilderness” (as far out as you can get). Of course, you can make metaphorical hay out of this all along. The center (axis mundi: turning point of the world) is always where you are -- narcissistic but true. What choice do you have? Generally I got a bit confused when I went to working out the meaning of pastures, gardens, fields, and so on.

So I was pleased with my most recent remainder investment, a book called “Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began” by Colin Tudge. It’s an endearing 5” by 7.5” hardback, 52 pp., the dust jacket split top from bottom: emerald on top, purple on bottom. Considering that I’ve been putting lots of time and effort into capturing the actual worlds of my prairie ancestors (some fields, a lot more wilderness than now) and have been reading about the reconsideration of neanderthals in terms of both the skull of a little girl and the genomic patterns of their protein, this little book is really more of a book “marker” for ideas.

Written in 1998, there are no really new ideas in it. It’s an essay in the purest sense, essaying to reconsider a lot of old ideas in the light of then-new research. Gradually, the idea dawns that converting from hunting (pax Paul Shepherd) to agriculture was not a simple matter of progress nor was it quite the curse depicted in the Bible when the people were driven out of Eden and beset by the Flood -- but nearly. Climate study was confirming that indeed there was a mighty and unprecedented flood, more than just the melting of the glaciers. In fact, a climate shift that melted the ice caps in a few decades, raised the ocean by many feet, drowned the easily cultivated lands of what is now Iraq, forcing them to reinvent agriculture in tougher places. It could happen again, and not just in New Orleans. (A recent competition for a vision of Manhattan in the future took into consideration the possibility of it looking like Venice.)

A parallel body of theory was that human beings, through overpopulation and clever technology (the atl-atl), killed off whole species of animals -- just as we are doing today. Between Cain and Abel, we have changed the Earth and we continue to do it -- though we wonder, like Paul in the New Testament, “Why do I do what I would not?” So this little booklet is worth pondering.

Tudge’s idea is that people went to agriculture gradually, in several ways and stages, an insight which I appreciate:

1. Horticulture (from the Latin hortus meaning garden): “growing food plants intensively, initially on an individual basis.” So, one of the ways one can find the ancient camps of the Blackfeet along the paths they followed is to look for clusters of plants they liked and evidently took along to put where they would be convenient. Sarvisberries, sweetgrass, tobacco. Years ago I read an account of someone walking through the South American jungle with a “medicine man,” who watched for certain herbs and flowers, stopping to dig them up and transfer them closer to the village where he lived.

Second category is “arable farming” which entails breaking the soil, removing all pre-existing plants, and planting something new. Seeds, potatoes. Storable foods in enough quantity to support a city, which spares some people from "sweaty faced" toil so they can think but enslaves the plowman and his ox.

Tudge’s third phase is pastoralism -- animal keeping but not in the nomadic way. Most people would put it first, not third, seeing it as “more primitive” somehow. Doesn’t it go: “hunting, herding, fencing?” But Tudge is after another new idea from research: the management of grazing animals through the use of fire to move them around and to renew the grass. Another Blackfeet skill.

In some ways Tudge is only summing small paradigm shifts (if there IS such a thing -- maybe I should just call it “reframing the evidence”) that have begun to add up to something far more momentuous and world-shifting: how we came to be us and how we must save ourselves. Quite a religious subject: “what must we do to be saved?

His answer is shocking: We must be lazier. He points out that in hunting cultures, the hunters -- like lions, or horseback Blackfeet -- mostly sleep and groom. They can catch enough meat for pleasant enough lives for most of them: the quick, the clever and the community-based. The others die. But in an industrious, hustling, production-based society, there is enough to encourage more and more people who do less and less that isn't just busyness. The few must feed the many. (What is it now, 2% of the people are farmers?)

I won’t go farther. This is Thanksgiving weekend. Thank you, farmers.

1 comment:

Polly said...

I enjoyed this book (the concepts were new to me) and came across your blog after searching for the title. I enjoyed reading your interpretation. What do you mean by "..there is enough to encourage more and more people who do less and less that isn't just busyness."
Thanks! Polly