Thursday, November 14, 2013


What is a catastrophe for buffalo is a bonanza for humans, but only if they go to work at once and know how to efficiently cooperate.  The tasks, once dealing with a dead animal, are how to skin, eviscerate, de-bone, render out marrow, and slice the flesh into thin sheets that will dry efficiently.  Organs have uses (brains are fat for tanning, bladders are containers for liquids), appendages (hooves, tail) have uses.  It’s hard work that takes muscle and manual skill, especially before the acquisition of metal.  Even then, as Bob Scriver discovered when skinning the bull bison for the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, even though he was equipped with a bucket of knives one of the three man team had to stop to sharpen them now and then.  Obsidian doesn’t need sharpening.

Now let’s leave the busy Blackfeet with their survival-driven tasks, preserving the materials at hand to nurture the future, and turn to the lessons of the alluvial meadows where rhizomes grow in the grass and trees line the watercourse.  The first lesson is floods.  If a culture expects occasional floods, tsumanis, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and so on, they can plan for them.  The problem is that the predictability is weak and the intervals are wide.  Americans cannot grasp the reality of floods or droughts, either one, and build their homes and business expectations on the presumption that everything will stay just the same.  

Something meant to be a cure -- building of dams, diversion of water courses, and economic compensation systems like flood plain insurance -- are taken to be rock solid facts, reinforced by the conviction that human industrial power can do anything.  In fact, they confer short term gains and long term massive risk, maybe interfere with the ability to recover and go on.  Possibly, as with the giant dams of China, actually alter the turning of the planet.  The development and release of every new molecule carries the possibility of starting a chain reaction that will reorganize the terms of life.

A “deep experience” can have an effect in the intense moment that dissolves fear so that courage lingers afterwards, as well as opening consciousness to all of existence and merging with it enough to know that single dots kindle and die all the time, but that each one is a participant crucial to the whole.  Only humans wrestle with this problem of knowing they will die, but not when or how.  It is harder to answer the questions less often asked:  “Why am I here?”  What does it “mean”?   And what does “meaning” mean anyway?  These are usually addressed with pre-frontal cerebral forebrain thinking, but if these are not underlain with the primal mid-brain “felt concepts” nor confirmed by the basal ganglia connections formed by the growing infant -- issues of anxiety or comfort -- no thought-out philosophical system will really take root.

This is all part of the in-skin system, managed by the brain but extending throughout the body, including guts and toe muscles.  We are only trying to create a virtual construct in-skin that will fit the out-skin world well enough to be a map to survival.  But this is not always possible.  The out-skin world changes all the time.  What worked for Blackfeet two hundred years ago will not work for them today.  The problem is that the patterns that work for people in other places don’t work here either, and if people live here, they can find themselves pushed over the cliff without any idea of how to process what remains into a new way of living: new rhythms, new foods, new shelters, fitted into old ways of various kinds.

Groups form, sometimes by affinity and maybe genomic families.  We could call these rhizomes, dense centers that extend slender stolons carrying ideas, making connections.  It’s the same pattern as neurons reaching out for each other in the brain and the same pattern as the scattering of the stars across the cosmos. 

Gilles Deleuze and FĂ©lix Guattari use the term "rhizome" and "rhizomatic" to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation. In A Thousand Plateaus, they oppose it to an arborescent (branching like a tree) conception of knowledge, which works with dualist categories and binary choices. A rhizome works with planar and trans-species connections, while an arborescent model works with vertical and linear connections. Their use of the "orchid and the wasp" is taken from the biological concept of mutualism, in which two different species interact together to form a multiplicity  (i.e. a unity that is multiple in itself).

"As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the original source of 'things' and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those 'things.' A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by 'ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.' Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a 'rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.' The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

"In this model, culture spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or trickling downwards towards new spaces through fissures and gaps, eroding what is in its way. The surface can be interrupted and moved, but these disturbances leave no trace, as the water is charged with pressure and potential to always seek its equilibrium, and thereby establish smooth space."

This means that oppositions like white vs. Indian or men vs. women or democrat vs. republican are not relevant.  Winners vs. losers may also be illusions.  Things unfold by themselves and find their own level of comfort.  Small affinity groups or partners can be as valuable as major data-driven movements.  There needn’t be pressure to get to some goal: the journey is as valuable as the destination.  There is not one "turning point" but many.  The aspen growing along the Rockies are a good example of rhizomatous growth: a cluster of trees, all connected under the ground so that some people say the whole grove is one tree.

It might take a month to process the jumble of fallen buffalo, but in that month a lot is happening in terms of relationships and growing skills among the people.  Children are drawn into work, men are needed to do final kills and heavy work, women form alliances and friendships.  People who generally travel in small groups are together for this time.  Romance blossoms.  Unexpected things might happen.  Babies.

At some point -- a layer of charcoal suggests -- the pile of bones and offal was set afire and the people who had been working hard watched the sparks fly up in celebration before they separated again to find their own ways.

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