Chapter Five–the turning point

In sketching the history of our spiritual condition as a people, I have skipped right over the turning point that has ultimately led to this condition. That turning point, known variously as the Neolithic Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Beginning of Civilization, marks a momentous change in the way people came to believe, behave, and make a living from the land—which makes it also a momentous cultural revolution. It is important to understand exactly what happened in these early days of civilization because these changes would come to have profound implications for all life on planet Earth.

When our wild ancestors were hunter-gatherers, they lived in groups of twenty to thirty individuals and they shared equitably what they plucked, dug, and hunted. They were mobile, following the ripening of fruits, nuts, and berries as well as the bulbs, corms, and roots they relied upon. Being attuned to the migrations of the birds and animals they favored, and knowing just where and when their preferred plants were ready for the taking, most such groups followed a seasonal pattern of moving from camp to camp within a territory they claimed as their own. When climactic and other environmental conditions were stable, a richly endowed territory might serve a group for many human generations, the people becoming one with the land, learning what it had to teach them about living in balance with their particular Community of Life. The teachings of the land about itself became the people’s traditional ecological knowledge, and it was kept alive through story, ritual, and cultural meme, passed from one generation to the next. In this way the people belonged to their chosen place, believing, at the same time, that their place had also chosen them. The people and the land were engaged in a dance of mutually beneficial exchange, and as long as the people gave back to the land as good as they got, observing the Law of Reciprocity, both people and land prospered.

With the advent of pastoralism and the cultivation of crops this ancient way of life was supplanted by an altogether different relationship between the people and the land they inhabited. Living in the old way, the idea that a human being, or group of human beings, could own sacred Mother Earth was absurd in the extreme. If the people were respectful and observant of the Law of Reciprocity, they might be fortunate enough to belong to a place, this being a sought after condition which conferred many benefits. But reversing the equation of who belongs to whom was unthinkable— revolutionary beyond all reason.

But the privatization of the commons was a necessary condition for agriculture to flourish, and indeed agriculture and private property have historically always gone hand in hand, the two being co-dependent as well as co-evolutionary. In those early days, when the Indigenous Worldview was dominant, “ownership” of land and crop was necessitated by the near-universal values of the sharing economy, where any surplus beyond what an individual and his family might immediately need was considered common property of the group, and legitimately available to each and all. Under these conditions any would-be farmer must lose all incentive to go to all of the work of planting, weeding, and watering a crop only to have the proceeds of his labor “shared” by his group at harvest time. A revolution in values, beliefs, and cultural institutions was necessary to make farming a going concern, and this would require the growing dominance of a particular personality type.

Within any population of humans there seem always to have been a range of personality types, and this form of diversity has no doubt contributed to the fitness of human groups throughout the ages. One recognizable type is what might be called the aggrandizer, and this personality may manifest in a number of different ways: as self-proclaimed “leader,” as bully and dominator, or as accumulator of power and its tokens. Within the egalitarian framework of hunter-gatherer society, such individuals were kept in check by group peer pressure and other culturally sanctioned leveling mechanisms. Within this kind of social order, the people so enjoyed being an equal-among-equals that they took great pains to protect themselves from would-be tyrants.

Given this long tradition of egalitarianism and sharing as background, it can’t have been easy for pioneering agriculturalists operating as loners. But at some point a number of non-sharing, aggrandizer individuals must have formed their own group of cultivators, who, as neighbors, cooperated in helping each other protect their crops from those of the “sharing” persuasion. Following some such pattern, the planting, tending, and harvesting of grains and other foodstuff managed to get a foothold in certain prime locations, and though this was a land-use revolution, it was also, necessarily, a cultural revolution.

The cultural institution of private property was a revolutionary discontinuity with the human past. The concept that any part of Mother Earth could belong to–be the private property of–a human being was such a reversal of the natural order of things that it could only be maintained by force of violence, and the perpetual threat of violence. It would be difficult to overestimate the far-reaching implications of this seemingly simple revolution in land tenure. Indeed, Western civilization–with its long history of wars of conquest, its campaigns of oppression, slavery, and colonialism–could never have unfolded the way it did without the enabling cultural institutions of agriculture and private property.

Working synergistically, private property and agriculture initiated changes in cultural practice and belief that would transform the human condition, even as transformed (“civilized”) humans would come to transform the living world. One of the first principles of systems thinking, as well as of ecology, is that you can never do just one thing. This is because everything is connected to everything else—systems connected to systems, one interpenetrating another, in an interdependent network of systems, where notions of linear cause-and-effect almost never apply. Even using the latest scientific knowledge and techniques, grasping how systems interrelate with one another is far from obvious, and sometimes discernible only in retrospect, if at all. What follows is my own synthesis, derived from three decades of intensive research, but offered only as my very best guess at how things got to be the way they are–and with the caveat that however detailed my analysis, it is bound to be an oversimplification of dynamic, complex, adaptive systems as they influence and impinge upon each others’ inner-directed agendas. If you can picture trying to sort out a ball of writhing snakes in an attempt to identify and name each one individually, you begin to get a graphic hint of the difficulty—but here goes, anyway.

That some creatures must die in order for others to live is a universal condition of life on Earth. While evidently a necessary condition, this hard reality makes violence and bloodshed an everyday part of staying alive. At the same time, all life forms are held to be sacred, as is the Earth and Sun that make life possible—this according to the Indigenous Worldview. How to deal with this paradox is a question that has been answered in different ways by different cultures for as long as humans have pondered the terms of our tenure here. The guidelines for an honorable harvest, practiced by many indigenous peoples all over the world, and far back in time, is, it seems to me, their attempt to make the best of a hard situation.  If you have to kill to stay alive, at least you can do so in an ethical and respectful way.

When we went from hunter to herder our relationship to our fellow creatures within the Community of Life was turned upside down, as was our relationship with Mother Earth. As hunters, we lived in natural ecosystems rich in diversity, and as a top predator we were dependent upon the healthy balance of that ecosystem. We were beholden to the good graces of Mother Nature for our very lives, and Mother Earth, our own planetary manifestation of Mother Nature, was the source of all that was good in the world, and was regarded, therefore, as sacred.  She was also a power and a personality you wanted to stay on the good side of, and so our wild ancestors sought to live their lives in the ways she seemed to prescribe, while also investing much ceremonial activity into placating this being who had the power to crush or make miserable those who displeased her. And not only was Mother Nature an intelligent, sentient, willful being with her own agenda and agency, everything in the world was seen this way; not just certain animals, but all animals, all plants, rocks, rivers, mountains, coves, and dells—everything. One of the words used to describe this way of understanding the world is animism—a word often spoken in disparagement of a backward and primitive people who lack the enlightenment of a contemporary civilized education. For me, the word animism has no such connotation, and when I use that word I do not mean for it to have any such pejorative associations.

Hunting (like fishing) is one of those activities where success or failure may depend upon any number of unknown variables, and persons who engage in such chancy activities tend to build up a set of beliefs around the sources of their successes or failures. Most tribal people who depend upon hunting as a mainstay of their lives believe that their chosen prey have something like a guardian spirit who, like Mother Nature herself, must be kept in a generous mood. Incurring the displeasure of the guardian spirit of a group’s prime prey species can bring down much suffering and bad ju-ju upon the people. Knowing this, most such groups engaged in elaborate rituals around the killing, butchering, distribution, and disposal of leftovers of their chosen animal, and they followed strict (yet flexible) guidelines in everyday practice.  These include: taking no more than you need, and using all that you take; always ask permission before a kill, and always give thanks afterwards; never take the first or the last of anything; be respectful of the animal that is giving its life so that the people may live; share equitably what has been given; know the ways of the ones who take care of you so that you may take care of them; because the relationship between predator and prey is all about reciprocity, be sure to give back as good as you get—and this includes taking care of the habitat which sustains those who sustain you; do all this with an attitude of respect and gratitude.

Within the Indigenous Worldview, all beings, all spirits, all “things,” have their own internally guided destiny to fulfill. This includes the land itself, which, in its variability and local individuality, naturally becomes what it is best suited to become. Likewise, every species within the Community of Life—both plant and animal—has its own particular place and purpose within its ecosystem, ranging from the very local to the regional all the way up to the global, since everything is connected to everything else in vast networks of interdependency, and nothing stands alone in isolation from the whole. Within this big-picture view, the hunter’s prey species is also seen as having its own place and purpose, and each individual within that species is understood to have its own creaturely life to live, its own destiny to fulfill. As a matter of respect and reverence for the sacredness of all life, the hunter seeks to make a clean kill which surprises the prey while in the fullness of its being, and preferably toward the end of a life lived wild and free. Killing with respect, sensitivity, and gratitude is still killing, but it is making the best of the non-negotiable conditions of life on Earth.

The violence that the hunter visits upon his prey is sudden and final, or should be, according to the hunter’s code. If it isn’t, there are apologies to be made to the suffering individual and to its guardian spirit. The violence committed by the herder is not limited to the time of slaughter, but extends over the entire life of the captive species, beginning with the selective breeding that begins with a wild animal living as a free agent in its natural habitat, with the intent and purpose of transforming such a creature into genetically-diminished, tractable domestic livestock. This is violence to a gene pool that has evolved, by natural selection, over thousands, millions, and even billions of years: a human usurpation of a natural process.  And, it is the theft of all the pleasures of living wild and free as a natural being— selective breeding stealing this potential from all future individuals within each genetically tampered-with species, but stealing also from the ecosystem whose wholeness was compromised by the loss of one of its own. Genetic manipulation by humans is a form of playing god, of usurping the evolutionary process for our own self-interested, short-sighted ends, and we jumped into this with no concept of the far-reaching implications of our tampering—implications that directly affect you and the damaged world you have inherited. But before spelling out some of those implications I feel I should give you a little of my own background so that you don’t jump to erroneous conclusions about why I am telling you all this.