Our Predecessors

Jared Diamond, in his fascinating book on humans, The Third Chimpanzee, proposes the following:  Geographical variation in many aesthetic characteristics of the human form derive from selective pressure based on sexual preference as opposed to functional considerations (if significant survival function remains associated with a feature then that takes precedence).  In some cases, he goes so far as to say that these preferences for certain aesthetic characteristics may be essentially randomly generated at the outset and almost entirely arbitrary, such that whatever combination of the many possibilities prevails in a given population, and for however many centuries the group members all have borne the same stamp, it is quite possible that it has its origins quite simply in whatever happened to be the preferences that emerged as the style among the first inhabitants of that area, or within that culture if more than one culture inhabits an area.  As his starkest example he offers the Solomon Islands (pg. 110), where the islands are not far enough apart to have been settled by people of strikingly different origins, and which were settled more or less at the same time, quite a long time ago, but between the populations of which dramatic and distinctive variations in appearance exist.  Climactic conditions are nearly identical.  He dares us to account for it any other way.

This year’s writing is about the necessity and nature of mutual ownership between people and places over time in a sustainable version of human habitation.  Why am I rattling on about sexual selection?  Because one thing we should recognize about this process of habitation is that it is not something that is done by one generation any more than a truly sustainable agriculture can be practiced by individuals acting alone, and Diamond’s hypothesis about racial variation strikes me as analogous to some of the social and aesthetic features one notices in rooted cultures.  Hats in France, for example.  I remember a National Geographic article that highlighted a phenomenon where in times past each village or region in France maintained a fierce, serious pride and differentiation in the style of the hats worn by the women.  To my eye, of course, each looked sillier than the last, and I could not imagine how in the hang anyone had managed to come up with and successfully promote each non-functional pattern.  In the end, the function seemed to be to have something (anything!) to rally around and claim as a key part to the distinctiveness of one’s group identity.  Such things do offer a richness, bordering on whimsy though it may, that the fashion runway barons of Paris and New York and their hordes of followers seem to at once disregard and crave.  I would wager that each village having its own hat style would alarm these folks, since maquiladoras cannot be efficiently utilized in making only enough hats for one village at a time.  Their money is made by teaching people the pleasure of a new desire instead of an old identity, by getting as many people as possible to fall for the latest item so they can sell lots of them, then repeat the process by making their own creations from the year before seem dowdy.

This is to say, I think we might find that in the establishment of sustainable agri-cultures, distinctive regional characteristics are certain to appear and be cherished, and not all of those will have any logic behind them whatsoever, but will merely be reflections of the preferences of whoever got there first!  This cracks me up.  It is entirely possible that if a viable culture emerges in this valley someday, every person will, say, pierce the top of their left ear with Honey Locust thorns at the age of 15 for no reason.  If Jane Doe did it and was beloved and successful in the ways that culture deems, then it might become part of the stamp.  One of the functions of predecessors is to give us something to rally around, which is to say something to build on.

But of course this is not the only function.  It is important to recognize, especially in this these decades of extreme cultural upheaval, that those individuals regarded as predecessors are the ones that made it through the tough times; through a combination of luck and wits they managed to learn lifecraft in a place and pass the painful lessons learned on to the next generation, whose pain was thus lessened, and whose chances of thriving were thus increased.  So before you get excited about being one of the ancestors, be forewarned: you are going to have to earn at least part of your veneration.

Am I the only person who is fascinated by ancestor worship?  Not that I, myself, worship my ancestors!  Some of them were pretty great, don’t get me wrong.  The ancestor of mine that I tend to gravitate towards when looking for a role model is Leo Nelson, my great-grandfather, who applied his care and skill to generating a fruitful farm and raising a lovely family against steep odds in withering times and conditions in Bayfield, Wisconsin in the first half of the 20th century.

But I don’t worship him.  Why not?  I suspect it is because, a) I was raised Christian, and Christians of my family’s ilk typically don’t engage in such, and b) my sense of dependence on him and gratitude to him haven’t been dominant themes in my life.

Maybe in some parallel universe, I was born and raised in the Bayfield area, with the Great Depression having finished its work so thoroughly that the outside world was never seen or heard from again, and it was up to the imported Swedes and the members of the Red Cliff tribe to work out some kind of life in proximity or even together there on the shores of Lake Superior [Kitchi-Gami in Ojibway]  (This reminds me of the mysterious Melungeon communities in the mountains of the Sountheast).  In such a case, my very survival and that of my whole community would be utterly dependent on our brightest ingenuity, but perhaps even more on the memories and accumulated skills represented and carried by our elders.  Then my sense of gratitude to and dependence on Leo and his wife Anna would likely cross over into a form of reverence, which after their deaths would be coupled with a longing and a beseeching that could be called nothing more accurately than worship.

It seems to me this is roughly the function of ancestor worship in the indigenous context, be it an agricultural or hunter/gatherer society.  The way of living that a community’s progenitors managed to craft could never be perfect, but by golly it WORKED, because here we are!  In the long reach of human history, most people most of the time have had a keen awareness of the thin margin that separated them from disaster; the ways of the ancestors were an indispensable guide, an indescribable gift.  Their blessings and satisfaction while alive were key ingredients in the perpetuation of a successful way of living in a place…it is not hard to imagine the beseeching, deferential habits extending beyond the moment of death for those left living, striving, doing their best.  Those in the group who treated their progenitors with indifference or contempt were likely trimmed out of the population (through their ignorance) by predators, the elements, failed crops, hunger, disease, rejection by potential mates, etc.  Those who made it were mostly those who adored and emulated their predecessors.

Here in Virginia in 2017, this is not how it is done.  I’ll speak plainly: success in this madhouse economy mostly doesn’t come by emulating elders.  In order to “succeed” now, you have to keep up with the changes more than you have to memorize the golden way (or what have you).  But what if we find ourselves siding, as I do, with William James (1842-1910), who in a letter to H.G. Wells sent September 11, 1906, complained about “The moral flabbiness born of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS.  That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease.”  Hmm.  I judge that the patient is as sick as ever it was in 1906.  If we accept that the “cash interpretation” of success is a disease, I warrant we’ll find ourselves seeking, as humans always have done, the wisdom of our elders in the pursuit of healthier versions of success.  But folks, we are out of the habit, and between mass entertainment, the education system, and Wikipedia, we are not going to relearn it until we see one kind of wolf or another at one or more of our doors (for the record: I see them coming).  One of the greatest tragedies of our time is the plethora of retirement facilities full of people who are living longer than any previous generation, who are loaded with wisdom, experience, and stories, and who are also often desperately lonely and nearly entirely ignored.  Frankly, in this cash economy their wisdom is irrelevant.

Here in our neighborhood, there is a side economy going on to some extent…I think William James might approve.  Among several of us, there is the concept—lived out in varying ways—that that cash interpretation of success is a deception.  We are haltingly trying to make choices and establish patterns that depend on the flow of needful resources and needful relationships; to attend and respond to the flows of natural forces; to live as if love mattered.  Yes, we need money to make it work, and we all compromise when we must to make that happen.  But money doesn’t dictate to us what our needs are, or where our interests are going to fall.  I won’t claim that we’ve got a functioning village here, or that what we are doing amounts to a full-blown alternative model.  I am just saying that there are enough of us like this here that I am willing to claim it as an opening in the fog, and I am starting to get curious about what is going to emerge.

In a way I feel as if there is an inkling of the indigenous process of inhabitation (my phrase) at work.  By that I mean that here and again I feel like we are coalescing into a band, a group loosely assembled from many places and trying to make their way in a new place somewhat together.  But whereas the general human pattern would be literally learning to inhabit a previously uninhabited place, this time the new ground is learning how to live as if cash is, in the end, a lie when it comes to success and how to live in a way (partly within, partly removed from the cash-diseased economy) that prioritizes—in the ways we spend and direct our time and attention—those things that make for health, thriving, and reconnection to the life of this planet in real time, in this real place.  I put forward this assertion tentatively, and I know there are no associated guarantees.  People move.  People change.  The world changes around them.  I am just saying there seems to be a little fire to gather around, and I see people sidling up out of the shadows to its warmth.  Goodness knows it’s where I want to be!

To what (besides the geography of our little side valley that seems to have made us a side thought throughout the past two centuries, conveniently placing us outside the mainstream) can we credit this?  Well, I think that—like I suspect it might be for many a band just starting out—tough, new circumstances bring out the innovative, pioneering sides of people, and also bring the innovative pioneers out of the woodwork, and this happened here.  The environmental and political crises of the 60s and 70s were, as circumstances go, pretty tough and new in their ways.  The Counterculture of that time can be seen, I think, as an attempt by some to follow the arrow William James and many others (like, say, Jesus of Nazareth) drew for them; an arrow that pointed away from the rushing mob.  The Hippies and other folks expressing their disillusionment sought a way forward that lived the truth.  They had to try some things, and trial and error being what it is, not everything worked, and even those things that did work didn’t always last.  But there were a few folks who persisted, who saw fruits of their efforts—at least enough to modify their plan and keep on.

Those environmental and political crises have not really abated to the present day.  To our consternation, the same counterproductive forces keep rearing up in different forms.  A person who finds their self disillusioned today is disillusioned in much the same way as John Lennon or, for that matter, William James.

We happen, in our neighborhood, to have had several individuals that tried stuff in the late 70s with cooperative land ownership, etc., who, even though the forms changed around them and some hard, hard lessons were learned, persisted in some way in their pursuit of truthful lives that saw through the lie of cash success.  They have tried to treat their land accordingly and have raised their families on these notions, too.  I believe that to the extent there is a fire to gather around now, it was kindled by these courageous and creative predecessors.

This past Sunday many of us gathered to memorialize one of these predecessors who had passed away a week and a half earlier.  Samuel Johnson, my dear friend, neighbor, and mentor in so many ways succumbed to metastatic prostate cancer.  It was hard to accurately convey to the gathered group the debt of gratitude I feel to him, and I know many others felt the same.  Over time, as we try to carry on with our lives according to the values we shared with him—maybe even learned from him—we know we bear his indelible stamp.

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