Monday, November 23, 2015

ON CONTAINERS: A Response to Daniel Lord Small

The building that was created for Meadville/Lombard UU seminary was sold and not just repurposed but also totally renovated to house the Neubauer Collegium, which supports scholars and other thinkers in their work.  One of the recent thinking guests was  Daniel Lord Smail whose current work is "On Containers."

This abstract but “felt” concept is developing at the intersection of “deep time,” which is the effort to understand very very early humans combined with what we are now learning about how the brain forms concepts, metaphors, cultures out of human lives.   Here is a video of the talk Prof. Smail gave last month in the Meadville/Neubauer building.

The following is a blog post, but also a first response to this powerful but elusive field of study.  Professor Smail’s main formal study is in Mediterranean cultures and history.  But I’m adapting his ideas to what I know about Blackfeet.

The first container was the human hand.

This hand made it possible to create containers from whatever materials were in the environment.

Containers represent wealth because they make it possible to isolate, order, carry and store useful materials such a foodstuffs or fuel.

Containers make “wet cooking” possible by holding the food where it can be boiled even if the container is flammable, so long as it hold water.  Closely watching containers beginning to cook gives us concepts: “will this idea hold water?”  This is called “lattices” of thought -- a structuring that allows progress of ideas.

Cooking causes people to gather to eat, maybe in a shelter, and the bringing and sharing of food reinforces communities and families so that they become containers of relationship and a meaningful unit which can be linked in interaction with others.

Hunter-gatherer uses of containers must be light, convenient for carrying, like sacks made of hides, maybe small enough to attach to belts.   Even a shelter, like a tipi or other kind of tent, will be a “soft container.”  Hard-sided boxes don’t appear until people stay in one place, maybe because of agriculture or possibly because of fishing.  In the Pacific Northwest the people make houses out of easily split cedar boards, so there were boxes there, and the people lived on local fish.  They created canoes that were containers. 

In the Mandan villages, the people make houses out of reinforced earth mounds.  On the prairie along the Rockies, the Blackfeet cut lodgepole pine to make a skeleton on which to arrange a cover of skin.  In marshy land the people may bundle reeds into units of building.

The Blackfeet moved constantly and seasonally according to the sources of food.  When the Camas roots were ready to gather, they camped there to process them: burying them in a hole, building a fire on top and keeping it hot long enough to bake the roots.  People still do that by putting potatoes under a campfire to bake.  Though so far no animals have been observed making containers, some recognize natural containers and will, for instance, put a nut into a stone hole that will allow the shell to be cracked open without rolling when pounded.
baking camas roots

Much more elaborately, Blackfeet used “found” containers, opportunistic formations.  When using the technique called a “piskun” or buffalo jump, the people created a pop-up factory. Part of repeating the use of a certain place was not just the cliff that the animals could be driven over, but a cliff that had on the high side enough of a grassy valley (natural container) for a group of buffalo to linger there, grazing.  On the low side there needed to be another meadow where pits could be dug to throw in bones to cook the fat out of the marrow.  The meat was sliced thin, dried in sun and over smoky fires, sewn into sacks of skin, and stashed in caves high enough in the cliffs to keep the sacks dry.  

All of these strategies depend upon close observation and experience.  This makes human beings containers of knowledge for the others.  In that sense, animals who live in groups store knowledge of place and action.  Often it is a female, like a cow elk, maybe because they are not so likely to be killed young, so she remembers the migrations of the seasons, where the water sources are, and the good places to calve.

A responding use of hands is with tools.  A Plains Indian woman carried a digging stick because so much of the food was roots and rhizomes.  It is an humble object and usually overlooked by young male anthropologists.  This was the valuable object considered sacred because of its meaning at the Sun Ceremonies.  Tools -- in our relentless gender-role binaries -- are for men who must keep hands free for the instruments of hunting and war -- bows and arrows, or atl-atls and their use of containers corresponded:  quivers or small belt sacks -- but because everything was made of local materials, it was simpler to go where the supplies were than to remove them to carry along.  When metal knives, awls, needles arrived through trade, they were small and valuable, so the people of both genders made custom containers and sheaths for them.  For materials like hides, the container was likely to be a parfleche -- a rawhide folded envelope that lent itself to decoration, one of the few square objects in a camp.


In places with reeds or straight withy branches, like willows, baskets and woven shapes became containers.  In places with the hard obsidian glassy stones, the people learned flint-knapping, chipping the material into sharp points for knives and arrows and then those could be carried in a sack.  Other special materials that needed containers were paints: red iron ochre, yellow from certain fungi, special charcoals,  or aromatic smudges from dried sweet grass, balsam fir (sweet pine), sage.  No doubt there were medicinal leaves and roots.  The little fossil stones, iniskim,  that look like tiny buffalo were carried along and the advice was to make a little cushion of bison fur to protect them in their bundle.

So, if containers are women’s objects (womb) and tools are men’s objects (like penises) then the two must be brought together in order to create a culture of daily interface with the work of hunting, cooking, and gathering.  Then there are children who can mature.

In the course of this talk called “containers,” Smail presented lists of belongings made for purposes of taxation or inheritance.  On the short lists of poor households, some things were designated as “sad,” which in that area (Tuscany) means something like “tristesse” which means used, worn, shabby, or what in translations from Blackfeet are called “scabby.”  One whole tribal group was called “Scabby Robes” because their tanning was spotty for some reason.  They were a group who did a lot of trading, which meant they were vulnerable to disease from contact.

horsehair bridle

A category of objects that are “restrainers” rather than containers but can do the same work of linking, sorting, keeping at hand, carrying along, is that of the rope.  I once watched a man separate out vegetable fiber by taking tall green weeds between his two hands and vigorously rolling them until the soft green stuff was pulverized and fell away, leaving the tough supporting fibers that could then be twisted together.  Once horses were around, their tail hairs were excellent for fine braiding into beautifully patterned bridles.  Vegetable and sheep fibers are the basis for clothing and linens.  In the Pacific Northwest there was a kind of woolly dog that was kept for its coat, which could be a kind of knitting wool.  That area still produces characteristic sweaters.  

All of these land-based objects, so intimately felt by hands and so constantly in use -- storage is a kind of use -- are a relationship with place that is lost by the kind of urbanization that is made of concrete and plastic.  “Don’t touch,” is a childhood barrier to understanding the world.  

Around “basic” people -- maybe called “paleolithic” -- there is a lot of time in the day to sit doing daily occupations, making and preparing materials, and talking all the while: telling stories, explaining where to find materials, remembering events and who did what, gossiping and criticizing.  In the “anthropocene” the urge is to hurry, to focus on one partial work (one cooks, one sews, one manages money, one makes furniture) and to trust that others are doing their part of the work well.  Relationships are often not intimate, long-term, or in any context but their one duty.

I came to this body of thought (contained) through reflection on designed spiritual experience as in religious ceremonies.  I’ll continue in another post.  It was the subject of my doomed Master’s Thesis at M/L which stalled out in part because this kind of thinking was not done except by Eliade.  But also in part because this new dawn of neurological research had not made a “way in.”  The building itself has become the container that links and preserves my work.

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