Saturday, October 31, 2015


Flatiron Ranch, west of Browning, MT

Anne Grant sends me this message:  "I was recently honored to be selected as the first Elouise Cobell Fellow for UM's College of Humanities and Sciences. My current position is to document the history of the Blackfeet Indian Land Trust, which Elouise founded and is the first of its kind in the country.

"As I am delving into various histories, I thought you would be the perfect source of information regarding the actual property prior to the FWS’s conservation easement and before it’s purchase by The Nature Conservancy."

Of course, I'm flattered and pleased, though I had almost nothing to do with this ranch.  This post is the first info I sent.

Gradients, contrasting qualities that make it inevitable that what’s on one side will go to the other side, are the dynamic energy that make lots of things happen, from the movement of air around the planet to the balance of molecules and elements like salt in a body.  Also, values that are high on one side and low on the other can cause commerce or migration like the circulation of bison around the grassy prairie.

As it was explained to me, for an ecologist the value of the Flatiron Ranch is that the snow water at the top of the Rockies goes downhill along the waterways but also in underground filtering that is not seen until it “daylights” in small lakes or wells.  In the case of this foothills location, at the highest elevation the water is near-ice, clear and pure.   But by the bottom nearest the highway, the underground filtering has changed by adding earth minerals until it is a rather more alkali water.  Most people wouldn’t notice, but the plants and animals, including birds but not larger mammals, sort themselves out according to their preferred alkali/acid balance.  Different plants collect around the high ponds than at the fish pond by the ranch house.  This makes the ranch ideal for studying ecology, the interrelationships among living things and the mineral earth.  Ecology is one of the most powerful ideas of our times.

Students of ecology at the ranch.

Any waterway is a path and a boundary so Flatiron Creek is a natural way up and down the mountains for game animals and their predators.  That means that grizzlies and mountain lions, coyotes and wolves, also went up and down that way.  There was a ridge maybe a half-mile from the ranch house where grizzlies came, visible from the house with binoculars.  Bob could not resist salting that ridge with the carcasses of animals, usually road kill from human doin’s.  Whole cows hit by cars.

Some contemporary Skunkcaps

On the botany walk around the ranch that was my first real introduction to it (after Bob’s death) the scientist guiding us said that one of the keys to grasslands was sporadic but thorough grazing.  This evolved to fit with the buffalo, who came in a big herd, mowed everything down to the bottom, left a lot of dung and then moved on, maybe not returning for a year or more.  The guide showed us that grass that hadn’t been grazed for a long time became entangled and too thick to grow.  Until then I had assumed that the biggest danger was overgrazing, but he taught us that it was “wrong grazing.”  The Savory system of moving cattle around the pastures was meant to imitate bison and resulted in good growth.  Savory grazing means using movable fence, maybe electrified to keep the cows moving, while bad management put up fences that kept the cattle in one place until they got tired of not enough grazing and broke down their own exits.

The pond by the ranch house was fenced with cyclone mesh to keep a pet deer or two inside.  Bob planted fish and his own grandchildren snuck in there to catch them.  Many Canada geese nested around the ranch and in the spring an observant person could locate the places.  Bob would sneak in cautiously and steal a live egg, which he would keep warm in his shirt until it hatched.  When it came out of the shell, it would imprint on Bob and faithfully follow him around all summer.  In the fall, after a little indecision, it would migrate with the others.

Bob Scriver and "Eegy."

He learned to do this when we had a pet eagle that we’d raised.  When she began to lay eggs, they were sterile because eagles mate on the glide very high in the sky.  So Bob had the bright idea of substituting a goose egg from the Hutterite colony.  The first time was a tragedy, because he hadn’t remembered that domestic chicks were from the kind of birds that -- as soon as they are dry -- get up and walk off.  Since the eagle’s nest, such as it was, which was more a collection of sticks than any sort of structure, was up high, that was the end of the gosling.  The next time Bob built a little fence on the nest ledge and a walkway down to the bottom.  

If he was too busy to find a nest of Canada geese, he would just go by the Hutterites and buy a domestic egg.  Once I stopped on a vacation trip and found him sitting at his work table with a white duck nicely settled on his foot.  The ducks and geese turned out to be pretty good mousers.

Bob's Badger Tipi has disappeared.
This photo was taken at the Flatiron Ranch.

One summer Bob got the notion that we should go fishing, even though he was allergic to fish and itched for days after he mounted one.  We went out to Skunkcaps, which was just across the highway, a continuation of the Flatiron waterway except spread out into marshy flood plain with many beaver mazes in it, shallow water winding through the willow brush that shaded it.  I had no experience at fishing at all, and Bob’s dated back to boyhood.  We cut sticks, tied on fishing line and a hook, and caught grasshoppers for bait, squeezing their heads to make them a bit logy but not kill them.  The idea was for them to kick on the surface of the water as though they'd just fallen off the overhanging grass.

A mighty Skunkcap.

We went right in the water, waist-deep, having a terrific time on a hot summer day and not catching a darn thing, partly because we kept talking.  Finally we caught one small fish and carried it up to the Skunkcap’s cabin.  This was the old-timers, Alonzo and his wife, old enough to have been blinded in the epidemic of trachoma that plagued the Blackfeet until Doug Gold brought out a doctor friend from Pennsylvania who treated a lot of people and taught the school superintendent and the agent how to use a wooden matchstick to roll back the eyelid so ointment could be put under it.  The germ was chlamidia, a variation on the sexual infection that likewise preferred tender places.  The blindness resulted when the eyelid swelled so that the eyelashes turned under and scraped the cornea, damaging it the way scratched glass would lose its clarity. 

Alonzo and his wife were both close to blind.  Bob announced with fake importance that we had brought meat to the table and put his little fish on it.  The old timers came to feel around for what might be there and began to laugh hard at our lack of fishing skill.  The little cabin was pretty empty and we felt sheepish for not thinking ahead to bring food for them.  We knew them pretty well, since they lived a couple of doors down from Scriver Studio in another log cabin.  Alonzo would bring wood from his allotment on his horse-drawn wagon, which had been stripped to running gear and wheels.  I’m not sure there was a seat.  Otherwise, he would hitch a ride into town and come to the studio when he was ready to go home, patiently sitting out front until it was closing time so we could run him home in the pickup.

Eloise Cobell, heroine

Alonzo was said to be one of the few old time Blackfeet who wasn’t afraid to hunt grizzlies.  Maybe they visited his ranch and he shot them there.  Bears were taboo but if they’re trying to come in one’s house, one’s priorities are adjusted.  Bob was a fur buyer and Alonzo’s sons brought in many beaver, otter and muskrat hides.  Now and then maybe a mountain goat, but no one asked any questions.  That was part of the social ecology, addressing a gradient for a family with no income through Bob, the middleman, to the elegant furrier clientele, maybe at Beckman’s in Great Falls.

Friday, October 30, 2015


I just ran across this phrase, which struck me hard.  It refers to a situation in which a founding precipitate dies out after beginning to spread concentric circles around that first event.  You can see it vividly on a petri dish where bacteria have landed a first invader.  But it is also about tribes who begin with a small remnant of a circle which re-expands into a far bigger population, standardized in many respects so they can be recognized as belonging to the original circles.  Also, it applies to small towns, founded in a boom of construction or discovery, which then dwindles when the profit fades and yet identifies with that first small now-gone center.  AND nations, AND professions, AND academic “disciplines” -- it is the result of time, which cannot be restrained or stopped, but can be adapted to, used for good.  Think of it as strong wind.  

So the Blackfeet were nearly destroyed by disease.  Transformed by guns and horses. Then utterly changed by the loss of the buffalo.  But they transformed.  They’re still transforming.  What keeps them being Blackfeet?  Stories, relationships, and the land itself which prompts the ceremonies of identity.  But it is the tough outliers (in this case the ones who could endure college in spite of low expectations) who have become the seed of a new version.  The ceremonies are wealth-based, but they require generosity.

36th  SF Gay Pride Parade

Another group:  in the Sixties and Seventies in San Francisco, probably reacting to Fifties postwar conformity and restriction, there was a nucleus of gay men who not only defied society but also celebrated their defining sexual practices with outrageous public bravura.  Just as the circles began to widen, HIV jumped out of African jungle and spread around the world but was first diagnosed among gays in SF.  As the center of the community literally died, it transformed and to some degree scattered.  In the circumference circles formed by caring communities, some were enough a part of it to want to stick with their compatriots and help them in the most direct ways, like nursing and campaigning for meds.  They formed new communities and energized pre-existing ones:  Key West, Fire Island, Morocco.

A separate group, veteran men who had developed a different kind of PTSD from service in combat began to coalesce into support circles.  Some of them were gay and overlapped into intense SM ingroups, joined by bonding and a kind of religious intensity.  Not wings but leather.  Both these groups, HIV and PTSD, were heavily dependent on medical technique and knowledge, but based on compassion instead of profit, generosity rather than hoarding.  Maybe that was the origin of Medicins Sans Frontieres, heroes of our times.   These groups have a growing conversation that may finally beat down some mistaken assumptions about human beings, as for instance the stigmatizing of poverty.  Even the criminality of poverty.  (Have you heard about the state that fines penniless offenders a pint of their blood?) And the entitlement of the rich and high-status, even to destroy other people’s lives.

English upper-class boarding school dorm

Because of my growing circle of contacts with activists, I’ve been following the British scandal of the sexual use of small boys by high status men (reaching up into royalty) as human “party favors.”  But I’m going to swerve here.  I want to point to the society that taught these men that this was something special rather than shit destructive behavior that demonstrates degradation, not privilege.  I’m thinking about class-based boarding schools that gave the children of elite families (far away) more than just an education that supposedly qualified them to lead the empire, but also hooked them on torture, made them “lick the stick that beats them.”  When one gets into the back archives of such folks, the imposed eroticism of spanking and beating begin to turn up everywhere in the form of "discipline".

It's presented in skits as being "funny"

I was interested because I was spanked.  So when I read that the adult Winston Churchill loved to be spanked and so did Paul Tillich and many others who were turned over the knees of nursemaids who kept order that way -- in the process getting attention they craved besides a glimpse of forbidden petticoats and knickers -- I began to query myself.  I was spanked by my father (my brothers were spanked as well) often with no justification.  There was no beating with sticks, except for my mother, who switched our legs and who would slap faces if provoked enough.  I was never physically punished at school, but there was one teacher who punished boys by spanking them with a ruler and sometimes pulled down their pants to do it.   She did take them into a back room first.

This was in the Forties going into Fifties, in NE Portland (Vernon) when it was still a second generation European immigrant artisan, mechanic, and shop neighborhood.  People agreed that physical discipline was necessary.  What I'm saying is that bad behavior is culture-based, "tribal".  The sexual misuse of children starts as a social masquerade for what's good for them.  It rolls them up like armadillos.  Yet my mother and father never fought.  Violence between them was unthinkable.  No one in my family drank, smoked, cursed or played poker.  My father played chess.  We didn't talk things out.  I went into my bedroom, closed the door and locked it.

A family-changing accident

Closed skull concussion -- a different man

What my family didn’t realize then was that in 1948 my father had had one of those brain damage concussions in a car accident.  We just hated him for being unjust.  And I began to fight back.  I’m still fighting back.  But it edges towards the erotic in an unwelcome and sneaky ways.  I fell madly in love with someone from the parent generation because he could reach me.  When that failed, though the element of violence never became real but its ghost did, and partly because I had already turned back on myself -- auto-intimate, you might say -- which is useful for a writer.  In fact, this would be the spine of a pretty good novel about emptiness at the center of family.  

Today I've heard no one -- in a very vocal and vigorous crowd -- ask why so many English nobs love to be spanked or love to spank and punish and invade and torture small boys so much that they’re willing to pay big bucks to do it.  Even to the point of death, teeny private war of unequals.   If the practice is not eliminated from those schools, it will re-infect every generation.  It seems to have died down.   Maybe it helps that often now there are girls enrolled.  Girls are tattletales.  They'll rat out such behavior and they should.  I hope it's before they get hooked on abuse.  (Can you think of anything more arousing than a handsome cop hauling you around in front of everyone?  Especially knowing it's going to be viral on You Tube?  And that that damned cop will probably be fired.  What power!)   The emptying of orderly classrooms.

Just before things went wrong.

For a while we went all huggy.  But no longer can a distraught or lost child be innocently enfolded to give them shelter and comfort.  Not now.  If a strange man knocks on any door in any neighborhood, kids are likely to scatter the way indigenous kids used to disappear into the brush when a white man drove into the yard.  Teachers must stand with arms at their sides, a foot away.    The cheese stands alone in the circle.

The concept I began with is the idea that a nucleus of social change, no matter what causes it in the first place, will spread and spread until the middle is empty, and then re-establish itself, possibly transformed, out on the edges of the circle around that empty middle.   The middle that no longer contains the pattern that defined the group.  The “middle” of the Fifties -- mom, dad, kid, based on reproduction -- still lingers, but is emptying.  Around it are new nodes of mutual caring and -- inevitably -- greed and exploitation.  Those who witness must testify.  We all must transform.  If that's scolding and judging, okay.  That's what it is.  I'm moving away from an empty center, so naturally it's incoherent.  It will cohere in a new place.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


When even the Thames froze

Here’s one to think about for global warming doubters.  The atmosphere of the planet we call “Earth” (at the moment, in English) has changed quite a bit even in historic times.  The 17th century in Europe in particular seems to have had some extreme low temperatures that destroyed crops, caused famine and drove emigration to America.  The “little winter” is thought to be the result of volcano action that filled the air with dust enough to shut out sunshine.  

In the Americas about the same time was a human-caused change that no one in the Eurocentric world has studied much from an atmosphere-content angle.   This article reminds us.   The author is Dave Nichols, who edits the H-Amindian scholar’s network and has a blog at called “Stranger Things Have Happened.”  He is a history professor who specializes in early America, including the indigenous people.

Dave Nichols

“. . .The 1610 CO2 sink resulted from the “rewilding” of large parts of Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and the Antilles, as carbon-fixing forests replaced 160 million acres of fields and towns. Behind this regrowth lay grim second-order causes: the deaths of tens of millions of Native Americans, the former cultivators and inhabitants of the newly-reforested zones, from enslavement and epidemic disease. Peru suffered a catastrophic smallpox outbreak as early as the 1520s, Mexico lost 80-90% of its indigenous population (of at least twenty million) during the first eight decades of Spanish dominion, nearly all of the Taino peoples succumbed to disease, hunger, and overwork, and at least one epidemic scythed through the populous chiefdoms of southeastern North America in the sixteenth century.

“It is hard to convey the magnitude of these losses, which killed so many millions of people, destroyed at least two major regional empires, and paved the way for European conquest of the Americas. Mass deaths became depressingly common in the past century, and on a “longue-duree” time scale most empires are, almost as soon as they arise. Geology, however, gives us even longer time scale with which to appreciate the significance of European colonization and American depopulation. The latter left as its grim monument an atmospheric marker as distinctive, durable, and global as the iridium layer that betokened the death of the dinosaurs.

“Extinction did not prove absolute and final for the dinosaurs, of course; their much-evolved descendants remain with us, small, feathery, and prone to singing and soaring. Nor did European contact exterminate Native Americans, however much some Europeans might have wanted it. Sixteenth-century Indians' descendants might speak new languages, wear different clothing, and practice some trades unknown in pre-1500 America (like astronaut or lawyer) but they are still markedly and proudly indigenous. Individuals may die, but peoples are much harder to destroy.”

by DElevit on DeviantArt

These are “memento mori” events.  [Memento mori is the medieval Latin theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.  -- Wiki]  I wish someone would drop one of them down the front of Trump’s trousers.  

Survival of individuals and populations is what drives everything that living things do -- even when they are opposed to each other.  What supports survival is preserved by the survivor group by definition, but they are not necessarily individuals. Dave Nichols reminds us that the other element is transformation.  Both individuals and groups who can transform are more likely to survive.  The necessary transformation may be in a dimension so small as an evolved molecular change to fight a blood disease or may be as deliberate as vaccination.  We know there is always a remnant that mocks progress and, as we have seen in California, their children die.  There is always a cutting edge that rushes ahead to unproven medical interventions and they die as well.  And there is always a larger force, like the climate change that allows tropical insect vectors to move north, carrying malaria.  Sometimes that’s a big surprise.

I was interested in another bit of history, this time about sources of power and how each forces or bequeaths change.  (From mailing list of quotes, but I didn’t get the date.)  The original industries of England were powered by watermills, which is why they feature so largely in their novels -- they brought both wealth and tragedy as industrialization is prone to do.  Then the huge underground coal deposits were discovered and developed by deep mining, so the population and the factories moved there and towns were totally different because the men were underground and died young.  But the country as a whole became a major power, a dominator, and the cities grew.  The class system went into overdrive, which triggered labor unity.

In the US at the moment both coal and oil have been challenged by natural gas, which is much cheaper and easily piped.  And the “Green” forces are getting a toe-hold with wind turbines and solar energy, which is developing “off the grid” in scattered locations. The population has concentrated in cities so that power must be transported to them and is also now powered by the internet which must be transported on lines, supported by electrical sources.  Wealth and political control has moved to the transporters, I suppose you might say the “power vectors” which are supra- or sub- to organizations, usually corporations and uncontrollably international.  Those who move the oil and grain control the world.  At least the human population, and mostly in the cities.  

How is it that the population of small Montana towns are depleted, challenging the adaptability and possibly the survival of the place?  But a town like Shelby, which has made itself a hub of distribution (including people if you include the major private prison), is a “crossroads”?  Is it also outside governmental and even state of Montana control?  The troubles at the medical center suggest that.  Somehow too many regulators and enforcers (Homeland Security; Border Patrol; Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; FBI; CIA, Highway Patrol; Immigration and Customs; and the persistent usefulness of the “Medicine Line”) cancel each other out as well as pushing aside local law enforcement.   Minor local criminals thrive on drug traffic and deal-making; major criminals -- like international corporate resource manipulators -- also do well.

If the Anthropocene that began with carbon-based greenhouse effects ends by drowning the idyllic sunny islands where the moguls and movie stars build retreats and by heating the Middle East sand kingdoms past human existence, it seems like a well-deserved self-snuffing. If somehow the entire planet ends the Anthropocene, a thin layer of UV-disintegrated plastic covering both continents and seas, there will be no one here to be surprised or have regrets.

The best we can do is start transforming now in all the ways we can figure out.  Some groups are doomed.  (We can spare 1% as soon as we get a grip on them -- you know who I mean.)  It is not the weak, the infected, the crippled, the old, and the newborn who are threatening the group -- in spite of political fear-mongering -- but the greed and politics of the group are certainly killing individuals with weak defenses.

Remember the plagues: pestis in Europe, smallpox in America.  Memento mori.  The continents will re-wild without us.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


    This is worth re-blogging for several reasons, which I won't bother numbering.  One is that John McGill, the excellent editor of the Glacier Reporter is a trained anthropologist who has been in Browning a long time.  If he sees value in something, it will fulfill expectations.  So I haven't read this book, but I recommend it with confidence.

Another is that I've followed Barney Reeves,  and other people here value his work very highly though it is paleoarcheological, VERY early.  Here's a link to a sample of this kind of early work, which is complementary to the book announced here.  Just so you know.  This kind of investigation of the past is not meant to dictate the TRUTH, as so many used to do, always trying to show that they were best, first, most, entitled.  This is work that says, "Maybe, use your imagination, what is the evidence?"

The book we're talking about here is much more recent and seen through different eyes.  I'm interested in boundaries, edges, divides, and now that "method" is catching up to all the boxes we make, and smashing them before our eyes, this sort of simple-seeming account can be a revelation.

One of my peeves is that people come to a place like GNP and piously say,  "Oh, how beautiful!"  without assimilating anything but the postcard repetition they snap with their little digital camera, probably a selfie that crowds out a mountain.  They don't have a clue about some of the most sacred, massive and primeval forces.  This bugs me partly because my family in the Fifties were towed along on my father's path as he park-hopped us across the continent.  But he never tried to explain what we were seeing -- just that these were a string of pilgrimage sites.  And that's how I got here, going down the list of missed parks on the way from college in Chicago to home in Portland.  

Marrying Bob Scriver meant going through the curtain of stone to stories.  Although once he was telling about being up on the summit of one of the peaks and I asked him what was up there.  "Rocks," he said.  He was trying to put me off from his own secret exaltation, so it wouldn't become ordinary and shared.

Anyway, the book is on Amazon: I just ordered a copy for $8.  Here's Sally Thompson, who is not exactly the author -- maybe the main diplomat.  She makes me think of "Bones," the best of the CSI TV shows.

Sally Thompson


‘People Before the Park’ offers a look into 19th century Kootenai and Blackfeet Tribal tradition

Posted: Wednesday, October 28, 2015 6:00 am

Just released and available at bookstores around Montana, “People Before the Park: The Kootenai and Blackfeet Before Glacier National Park” explores the two tribes in a unique and important way.

There have been many books written about the Blackfeet and Kootenai tribes, and with such wealth of materials, author Sally Thompson at first thought that writing a history of the tribes from prehistoric times to the establishment of Glacier National Park would be possible. The assignment had come from Glacier National Park itself in 2008, but a change in approach soon became apparent to her.
“Given certain political issues, historical issues of trust between tribes and anthropologists, and controversial interpretations of spotty archeological data, it soon became clear that our initial goal wasn’t going to be easy to reach,” Thompson writes in her introduction. “A new approach was needed. Many meetings and six months later, we had a new structure in place. The Kootenai Culture Committee agreed to participate, noting an opportunity to correct common misperceptions, and committee members assigned the oversight of the project to Vernon Finley and Naida Lefthand. The Blackfeet Tribal Council, led by Willie Sharp, accepted a plan for the Pikunni Traditional Association to oversee the Blackfeet effort.”
With Blackfeet and Kootenai experts in place, the direction of the book took off independently of previous works and stands alone in both its approach and results. It was decided to focus on the seasonal round of the two tribes during the 19th century, avoiding conflict over the archeology of earlier times. And each tribe used its own criteria to decide what information to present and how to present it to readers.
The result is two very different approaches to telling the story. The Kootenai, for example, focus on the material aspects of the season, what foods are available, and when, where and how they would be prepared. Seasonal movement was also emphasized, especially routes to favored hunting and collecting grounds as well as strategies employed in traveling into Blackfeet country to hunt buffalo. The spiritual side of their lives, however, is not dealt with in detail, keeping it within their personal experience.
The Blackfeet, on the other hand, arrange their telling of the seasonal round with their spiritual ceremonies as the center about which the other activities revolve. Starting their calendar at the Vernal Equinox, each succeeding month is described not only in terms of movement, and of the plants and animals available at the time, but also the ceremonies that accompany those activities.
The catalog of plants and animals both used and still in use is extensive. Experts such as Pauline Matt offer their extensive knowledge of traditional botany to accurately describe all the plants, how they are collected and processed, and how they are used. Meanwhile, traditional experts like Percy Bullchild are quoted in Napi and other stories that explain how the world view of the Blackfeet fit perfectly into their lives, giving them direction and meaning.
One thing the Kootenai and Blackfeet authorities emphasized they wanted corrected was the previous focus by earlier writers on the sporadic warfare between the two tribes. Oftentimes, they noted members of the tribes interacted peacefully and in friendship, and this aspect receives attention.
In all, the book presents the lives of two neighboring but very different tribes in all their refinement and complexity, fitting perfectly into their environments. Sally Thompson has interwoven the written historical record of the Kootenai and Blackfeet in the 19th century with frequent expansions and explanations from Kootenai and Blackfeet experts to produce an historical work unlike most that students and readers encounter. It is an altogether pleasant experience to pass through the pages, a story of a time not that long ago.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015


This time of year a high prairie community is clenching for the winter, getting braced for profound cold, deep snow, high wind.  Last minute preparations are underway.  The festivals of unification and plenty -- Halloween and Thanksgiving -- are in preparation, which in this culture means buying a lot of stuff.  The schools have been humming along for a month.  And this year we have elections which may be undoing all preparations by accusing, worrying, withdrawing, blaming -- all that human struggle.   So my remedy is to focus on the most erudite and marginally comprehensible scholarly material I’ve got downloaded waiting to be figured out.  It’s my version of Sudoku puzzles.

Here’s a good one that will require so much concentration that I’ll stop worrying about the leak in my water line.  Leo and Roger are out there with the backhoe right now.

Waterline Archeology

This is the article being reviewed:  Malafouris, L. (2010). “Metaplasticity and the human becoming: principles of neuroarchaeology.” Journal of Anthropological Sciences 88: 49-72.

Here’s the review title:  * The introduction of “neuro-archaeology” and the synthesis of biological and neural aspects within the fields of neuroscience and archaeology. 

This is an excellent definition to chew on:  “Malafouris writes that the human mind is an “interactive, embodied, and distributed autonoetic system” and argues for the incorporation of this concept in archaeological studies.”

“Interactive” responds to the concept of ‘experience-dependent plasticity’.  This means that the brain is NOT a container that learns unyielding facts and precepts.  Rather, it is a kind of dance in which what happens is met by the brain reaching out to understand it.  One way I appreciate this concept is abandoning the idea of education as “units” or eggs of knowledge that are installed in the pockets of the brain, whether the students like it or not.  GIVE me an education assumes that it’s an object rather than a process.  Therefore, the learner has no obligation except to open their mouths or ears.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, looking curiously like a cowboy.

Here’s Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who intuitively knew what science is proving -- that we build our brains from our lives.  To live one way or another is a choice that creates us.  The idea has been around, just ignored.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!

A quote from the review:  “Neuroarchaeology aims at constructing an analytical bridge between brain and culture by putting material culture, embodiment, time and long term change at center stage in the study of mind. This paper presents a critical overview of this new research field and introduces the notion of ‘metaplasticity’ to describe the enactive constitutive intertwining between neural and cultural plasticity.” 

“Enactive” means you have to do something, that something is happening.
“Constitutive” means there are various parts that are coming together.
“Intertwining” implies that the forces and parts that are coming together are still separate enough to belong to one piece or another.  This is not merging, so identity needn’t be sacrificed but rather put in relationship with something else.

I’m not going to use “metaplasticity” in an archeological way, rather in a sociological way, but you might like to read the whole article, so here’s how you can get to the article.  (I seem to be in sympathy with English thinking, or maybe it’s that I subscribe to English sources.) 
Lambros Malafouris: this is what scholars look like now.

Metaplasticity and the human becoming: principles of neuroarchaeology by Lambros Malafouris, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3ER, U.K.  

“Mirror neurons” -- cells that provide empathy with what someone else is thinking/feeling.

“Embodied simulation” -- if you watch someone dancing, your brain will provide a dim echo in your own muscles.

“Social cognition” -- awareness of the group

“Neural exploitation” -- emphasizes the role of sensorimotor systems in the formation of abstract concepts, providing new perspectives on how the brain facilitates and supports the transmission of cultural values, beliefs, and practices.   This may be the single most major concept.

The formal thesis to be pursued is expressed as a little triangle.  Rather inscrutable.

(a)The hypothesis of extended mind, which explores the constitutive intertwining of cognition with material culture, 
(b) the hypothesis of enactive signification, which explores the nature of the material sign not as a representational mechanism but as a semiotic conflation and co-habitation through matter that enacts and brings forth the world, and finally, 
(c) the hypothesis of material agency, which explores agency not as a human property but as the emergent product of situated activity. 

“At the centre of investigation is now the question about how these abilities (e.g. language, symbolic capacity, theory of mind (ToM), causal belief, learning by teaching, ‘we’ intentionality, sense of selfhood, working memory, autonoesis, ability to plan and innovate) relate to the embodied character of human experience.” 

This sentence translates (I think) as follows:  the thinkers are not worrying about content but about how people get to their content, what we might call their method.  They are considering the following:

“Language” means that they need terms for what they talk about.  Even grammar can affect what you can say.

“Symbolic capacity is the ability to think of metaphors, which is similar to knowing terms but also a way to package an idea.  For instance, “taming the wilderness”.

Theory of Mind” (often abbreviated ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own.

Causal beliefs” is what you think key forces come from: in medicine it might involve believing that evil spells, germs or bad attitudes make you sick.  Obviously, the different causes imply different cures.  A mismatch can make trouble, maybe fatal.

“Learning by teachingmeans being in relationship that asks for interaction, attention to the steps of evidence, and confirmation that information was conveyed.

‘We’ intentionality” is the sense of belonging to a group and how one defines that group, what it means in terms of entitlement, obligation, and other expectations.  Shared goals.

“Sense of selfhood” is the terms of identity: your body, your mind, your close relationships, your abilities. 

Working memory” is the system responsible for the transient holding and processing of new and already-stored information, and is an important process for reasoning, comprehension, learning and memory updating.  Your dashboard.

Autonoetic” consciousness is the human ability to mentally place ourselves in the past, in the future, or in counterfactual situations, and to analyze our own thoughts. Our sense of self affects our behavior, in the present, past and future.

Ability to plan and innovate” is one of the most obvious items!  But far from the easiest.

These terms have been developed in order to think about obvious and ordinary things.  For instance, Leo is out there with the backhoe, which demands an interface between operator, and machine and an understanding of the combining physics of earth and water.  He is excruciatingly aware of the need for this since a few months ago a trench collapsed on him.  Vulnerability and suffering are a part of this work for him, more than is usual.  Our material culture is based on big machines that can push earth and water.

The frame belatedly bought by the Town to prevent trench collapse.

The entire community is sharply aware of these dynamics since dust, water (snow) and gumbo are things we struggle with all the time.  This struggle requires money, esp. when it is done through group-funded engineering specialists.  Many people here are farmers who own big acreages and are used to dealing with them on their own terms.  They are not comfortable delegating control of infrastructure, since on their own homesteads they often get by in their own inventive ways.  Everyone has a pile of old pipes and discarded mechanisms, to say nothing of a row of ancient machines, and they sometimes succeed in saving money by making them fit some new need.  Improvised money-saving is a basic principle of survival. 

An Eastslope community like this means that even with big machinery one is in direct contact with prairie and prairie weather which is vast -- you can see it rising behind the mountains and sweeping over the land.  Little humans face overwhelming challenges.  More than in some places, religion needs to provide protection, consensus, and an assurance of virtue.  The hand that is gripping the shovel, which must inevitably be used even when big machines are present, has to be operated with both skill and determination.  Too easily it can become a fist; too easily focused determination can become tyranny.

This has become relevant to Eastslope irrigation and its politics.  It isn't an idle puzzle after all.  it is material culture.

Monday, October 26, 2015


It was spring and even the more remote parts of the park were frothy with bloom from flowering trees, fruit trees actually, but not really meant for eating.  On the only park bench a single older woman sat reading.  When the man with the dog felt he had reached a point where it was safe to unsnap the leash from his Jack Russell to let him run, he approached the bench -- a little cautiously -- to ask whether she minded if he sat on the same bench.  She didn’t mind.

Actually, she didn’t really pay attention until she realized that the dog was sending up clouds of pigeons and even some ducks from the little stream.  Then, laughing, she put down her book in order to watch.  “So much energy!”  She had a nice smile.

That night at bedtime he would remember her clearly though he hadn’t wanted to really study her.  He was an artist, often figurative and sometimes did female nudes.  He thought she was Northern European of some sort.  Square shoulders but a soft neck and face, evenly proportioned, rather pale skin but with some kind of tint -- maybe she colored up if she were emotional, but she was calm now.  Her dress draped nicely at her knees and elbows.  No jewelry.  Not even rings.

She had seen and recognized the artist’s evaluation she was getting: she had been married to an artist.  But this man was more scholarly, not a person of passionate emotions.  Both of them watched the dog go pell-mell in huge winding circles, barking his jubilance at being loose on the grass.  The pleasure joined them and made sitting with a stranger seem natural.

He had decided that asking her what she had been reading was too invasive but glanced at the cover when she put down the book beside her.  Anais Nin.  He was a little startled.  Her eyebrows went up with amusement.  “I’m flying out tonight,” she said. “I was just doing some research at the Smithsonian.”  Just in case he had ideas.

“Ah,” he acknowledged.  “On Anais Nin?”

“Oh, no.  My ancestors.  I’m partly Native American.”


“Umatilla.  Do you know them?”

“Not at all.”   They were quiet for a while.  He was flummoxed that this woman should have a heritage he associated with being dark and even squat.  And he was embarrassed.  Clearly he was doing her some kind of injustice based on ignorance.

She seemed burnished, somehow.  But he was urban, knew nothing about the West or any tribes.

That night on the airplane, wedged into her seat with the little reading light shining in her lap but not quite ready to read, she smiled at how easy it was to block a conversation with a subject like an unknown Indian tribe, but then not hesitate to inquire casually about so controversial and sexual a figure as Anais Nin, even with a strange woman in a public place.  Political uneasiness about what might be correct; the vast ignorance that an educated white man wouldn’t know one tribe from another.   A kind of racism. Maybe it was that sex -- a subject that had become banal in this culture/time among people who considered themselves sophisticated -- was so patterned, even conventional, that propriety on a park bench was easily enacted.  But what does one say to a woman who is Native American?  Ask her where her beads and feathers are?  She chose not to be hurt by it, but to consider it amusing.

Anais Nin

That night the man, now in pajamas, sat at the long worktable in his bedroom so,  if he had visitors in the front room, he could shut the door on his projects.   They were too curious.  He sat at the end alongside the window.  A small breeze entered and made the roller blind plop gently.  He didn't care for curtains, considered them dust-catchers.  He leaned back far enough to reach a bookcase and took out a book of quotes.  He looked up Nin.  There were three quotes:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.”

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

He looked over at his little terrier who had arranged his side of the bed to suit himself by pulling the covers and pillows into a round nest, nicely supportive and protective.  The dog was snoring with satisfaction, with a few intervals of running in place -- also remembering the afternoon and the birds flying up.  Nin was Cuban -- that meant partly genetically indigenous to the Americas, didn’t it?  Also Spanish, of course.  Would that account for the burnished quality?

He looked at his reference books some more but there was nothing useful.  Now that he reflected, the woman had dark eyes.  Her skin had a shadowed sort of dusty quality over the pale skin.  Layered.  Tonalist.

He thought, “I should carry a card with my contacts on it.  I could have given her one.”  

In the airplane the woman’s book had fallen onto her lap.  It would be a long flight to Oregon.   “I should have thought to give that man my card.  I don’t even know his last name.  What a Victorian idea, exchanging cards, but how practical.”  Then, as usual, she was amused.  What an idea, to give a calling card to a man she met on a park bench!  She’d been at the Smithsonian and hadn’t given out cards there, either, though it would have made much more sense.  They would have been scholars of Native American peoples, maybe even people she would meet at conferences or visiting Oregon.  Networking, contacts.  But she had felt secretive about her research -- it was personal.

She considered herself too old to have fantasies about romance, but she wondered what this man thought, what he would see if he were on the high plateau of the Umatilla country.  What if he came for a conference at the big casino convention center?  Would he see that dry aromatic country for what it was, or try to make it into something else?  Then her thoughts flipped over, as they often did, and she wondered what there was about this man she was not seeing.  She hadn’t even asked him where he was from.  She couldn’t remember any clues from clothing or accent.  Then she slipped into sleep.

When they landed in Portland, she woke a bit fuzzy, but easily collected her few things and and went up the aisle patiently.  Walking back to the long-term parking in the dark green night along the Columbia River, she finally realized what she was hearing: spring frogs, the sound version of the blooming fruit trees.  A wild rhythmic frenzy of throats.  “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”