A friend and I exchanged book recommendations recently. He read my recommendation: Musashi, and I read his. Not something I’d ordinarily read. Nor was my recommendation something my friend would ordinarily read. But he did so diligently, Musashi is 984 pages, and he sent me a book report. So I created a book report in return.
In the preface the author talks about this book being the culmination of insights and story he’d been puzzling for most of his life, about us crazy humans and our passage from prehistoric survival to modern fantasies of escaping orbit only to replicate the patterns that have vexed us on earth: our relation to each other, to non-human life-forms and to the planet itself. Not that we’re ready for non-human life-forms anywhere but earth, nor that he even mentioned that. But such is the nature of story. He shows an appreciation and skill in the power of story and it will be interesting to see how he leverages it to explore and articulate his perspectives.
The author engages the reader immediately, who may have skipped the preface as many do, in a vibrant, exotic (to most) scenario of an African locale complete with an AK-47 toting Samburu warrior and a sense of incipient danger heralded by his quiet guide’s insistence that they move camp to a hideout without explanation. He finds a place at the hideout to signal his wife via satellite text and gps coordinates that he’s relocated and may be in danger while keeping watch for a leopard he saw the previous day. He carries a wooden club, just in case. A quote I highlighted was: “Feel this moment. You will never be here again. Because if I embrace my vulnerability, cherish the danger and hold it dear, I can dispel the wasteful energy of fear and become ever more attentive to detail.” We find he is 71 years old and enmeshed in ruminations about how various dangerous scenarios could unfold and whether he should be worried, whether he is over-thinking, and why he’s here and not in Montana, with his wife, enjoying a more sanguine existence mountain biking near his home. The reader is left wondering this as well.
We find out a gal named Tina, a short Scandinavian Valkyrie who is a fierce advocate and defender of the Samburu people and the lions of Africa, enlisted him on this trek to Africa. The tribe and the lions were often at odds as they both had an interest in the “skinny” cows the Samburu tended. The intention was to re-train both the Samburu, who killed the lions and the lions who killed the hamburgers, to co-exist without the killing part. Tina knew the author through his writings and stories of encounters with another apex predator: the polar bear. He hesitantly volunteers, mostly because he still wants to stitch together a triad related to the shaman, hunter and environment, the other world, the real world and the World. And his belief that story ties these together for those who can be present. I suspect that this division of the magical, the pragmatic and the living, perhaps animistic world, form a crucible for him for a life worth living and that Tina’s invitation offers a compelling opportunity to explore this, perhaps for the final time, in such primordial purity.
Evolution operates on a scale unfathomable to the human mind. And even though we can toss around numbers like 2.5 million when the first hominin ancestors appeared, it’s not a number we understand intuitively. Quantities like the Dunbar number, or the size of our social tribe that we can handle, are much smaller, numbering an average of 150. For chimpanzees, this drops to around 50. This cultural adaptation plays a role later in the book in the importance of tribes and groups with insiders and outsiders.
Our understanding of evolution, too, is that each stage must have some immediate survival value. So during the long progression to a new capability like wings to fly or aerobic efficiencies for persistence hunting, there must be stages presenting value themselves. Sort of breadth first search strategy (although some believe there is a teleology of intelligent design at work as well.) There’s evidence that as our brains grew, so did not only our ability with tools but also with art. And that this imaginative function may have been more critical to the unfolding and elaboration of our brains. And may have shaped the problems and potential resolutions and exacerbations in where we find ourselves today. Art and the appreciation of beauty might not just be “fitness indicators” for mating, i.e. a flex that we have time and energy enough to waste on the superfluous, but marks of phenomenally successful species and, in our case, intimately connected with abstract thinking.
(This reminds me of some recent research showing our senses don’t accurately map to features of the external environment but have evolved to facilitate survival and that the two aren’t necessarily, or even usually, related.)
“E.O. Wilson wrote that the function of art was to ‘impose order on the confusion caused by intelligence.’”
(What if something that seemed to be a wrong path for immediate survival in nature was necessary to get somewhere else? Sometimes the shortest path is not the most direct as it would appear from the local maxima, which may, in fact, be a dead end because of an unsurpassable ledge)
The arrival. Disappointment at modern development. Coming from the country of affluence, a young Samburu asked how many cows he has and was sorry for him when he said he has none. The author had always wanted to write a book on the role of storytelling in our evolution; he finds the book Sapiens which he brought with him seems to have a kindred notion and he looks forward to his quiet time there to read and reflect on ideas for his book.
Fossil records show our ancestors were myth makers. Recognizing not only the hard realities of the hunt and struggles of existence but also other worlds of the spirits and fantastic beings. They spent much effort creating crafts and rituals with no immediate or obvious agency for survival. But stories also conveyed social strategies and sometimes information and warnings about the locale. Stories were also something unique to a tribe and part of an identity that separated them from the “others.” Stories are also part of a curious behavior found in other animal species as well that we call play. We tell an incredible amount of stories to ourselves daily as well as absorb them from a constant stream of media. Our stories, like our technology, are mixed blessings with the power to cure and to curse.
And we finally get some action, even though most of it is taking part in his imagination. A lion killed a cow. He goes to investigate with a seasoned guide, but is not sure what they are supposed to be doing. Tracking it? Killing it? He finds a brief reprieve from mental flashbacks about animal encounters previously, about man’s sorry state of affairs in his understanding of proper relationships with nature and romanticizing about the purity of mindful awareness in the face of danger. They return without spotting the lion. He learned a cool way to kill a lion with a stick from a teenager. Purity of awareness of the moment was an exquisite state for him and I’m curious if the stories he is weaving for himself attributes this property solely to extreme demands of the environment rather than a skill that can be cultivated in any context and that’s why he’s looking for it in exotic places. I will place this evaluation on hold and continue with a blank slate.
The skinny cows aren’t out of trouble yet. Lions may be the least of their worries as they have been 4 days now without water. The author volunteers to assist. I find the author has a background in climate sciences. Writing textbooks on it, actually. He recounts the dramatic climate shifts earth has experienced prior to the last 9,000 of unusual stability. Humans gamely survived these cataclysms and then he ruminates on the current crisis, largely man made. He laments that in the social worlds, stories of fact (science) are far less convincing or effective than stories of myth and common purposes (politics, economics) and those stories we are living today build fictions that scale in ways deleterious to our ongoing survival. We need better stories if we’re to have any chance of averting our course. And, for the author, he finds reprieve from the incessant story telling of the brain through re-engaging in the raw sensuality of the world. The natural world, that is. The natural world without human footprints. Or with barefoot footprints, at least.
In parallel with reading this book, I was watching Interreflections and the speech of the Nobel prize winner in the 2030’s spoke to this chapter:
“We live in a world of stories and myths. And we’ve been told that the vast inequities we see is the price we must pay for innovation and progress. Well, innovation to what end? And how do we define this notion of progress? For if progress is about how much we can own, the availability of jobs, the state of a nation’s GDP, the rise of the stock market or the development of some gadget to entertain and distract you, then we face a serious existential crisis. I submit that true progress can only be measured in the health, stability, integrity, and responsible freedom of a civilization. Responsible to ourselves, responsible to each other and responsible to their earthly habitat, which we all share. And by those measures, my friends, there is little progress to be found”
The author climbs a mountain. Ruminates about the need to escape our stories and myths, as essential as they are, into the mindfulness of the moment. This is something he struggles with, needing to be reminded of it through frequent immersions in nature. The more demanding the task, the easier it is for him to drop, for a few moments, his internal dialogs which frequently spin towards finding worries and fears. He learns from his native guide that elephants can hear through their feet. There are myriad communications taking place in nature around us, only a few of which we’ve learned to recognize, much less translate. He finds his ideas of wealth differ from his Samburu friends and how different their mythologies are. Mythologies that neither he nor they are usually aware —woven by story and not as self-evident as we assume. The stories actively mold perception, not merely reporting it like the senses in nature.
His camp buddies take him to a local wildlife reserve so he can at least see a lion. This, of course, is tourist stuff and we hear disdain about the evils and his conflicted consciousness granting how it is beneficial, to the economy, to the animals suffering human predation outside the reserve but the vapid snapping of pictures and such grates on him. Where’s the primal fear and respect? He proposes an idea he heard from biologists about the need for a Conscious Revolution, and he believes this revolution involves some sort of unity remembered when we are in nature, thus the importance of preserving wilderness.
“There are doors connecting us to nature’s creatures if we’re patient and observant enough. I feel certain that there are more doors than we are patient and aware enough to see or open.”
That evening, a leopard comes to camp and growls outside his tent. Reminding this newbie to the realm that he is in the leopard’s territory.
Next day they go hunting for a runaway camel. He learns he’s invited to a wedding and he’ll be coming as a warrior, complete with face paint. He’s excited. But the camel hunt, not so much. Russian tourists show up, they drink a lot of vodka and everyone has a good time despite widely different story minds. The author suspects it’s the camel that has domesticated man, not the other way around. He finds out on the trek he is again over thinking things and is grateful when his mind shuts down for a few moments to deal with actual physical discomforts of the heat. He surmises that this is probably a result of dopamine hijinks. As we consume more, we desire more. We get spoiled and complain, not when we don’t have enough, but when we don’t have the more we’re accustomed to, or we see others have. Nature perhaps offers a kind of dopamine reset…
‘As Oliver Sacks wrote in “The Healing Power of Gardens”: In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.’
Now we’re caught up with the first Chapter, he’s moved camp to the bushes. He’s not sure why. It could be a group of German tourist that need all the lodging at the main camp. It may be terrorists sneaking over from Somalia, it might be violence triggered by the upcoming elections. Whatever it may be, it will probably be because of tribalism. How do we get out of this situation? One solution is to be happy. Most mobilizations of our worst tendencies seem to prey on those of moderate discontent. Not those struggling to survive nor those content with their situations. Fear is an important factor. Believe in data, suspect the motives behind the big lies, especially if it veers into territories where believing the lie is the main differentiator in who belongs and who doesn’t. But humans are malleable, we can change. We can be more mindful, especially of how these mechanisms work. There may be hope.
Reflecting up to this point. The author doesn’t want to provide some checklist of actions to take to resolve the situation. I think that is wise on his part. He’s wrestling with trying to put the data together with observations and introspection to understand why this is happening. Perhaps that will reveal some clues for change. And I find it curious that, as a climate specialist, he hasn’t yet introduced the same type of systems thinking to human behavior. He’s identified many linear chains from the first sapiens and their evolutions with art, story and real world pressures. Biology with its drivers for perpetuating DNA, sociopathic regimes with ideologies to profit the leaders and mobilize the masses. But it doesn’t seem he’s considered what might be the root cause of most of this maladaptive arc in human development, which is our economic foundations. The fabrication of a virulent mythos as money and systems whose equilibrium is based on unlimited consumption and continual growth. And with the impact of this system as poverty and artificial scarcity. Of course, this is also story, but it’s more like a fabric of a story, an approved vocabulary for a story that has insidious roots; a poison gnawing at the roots of the world tree while mere palliative solutions are researched on the surface
The camp (Motel at the End of Nowhere) is having toilet problems. He suggests composting toilets. Surely there is a place to buy them in Nairobi? Nope. Maybe we can make them from YouTube tutorials? Seriously? Just fix the water feed. Call the plumber, he’ll be here in a couple of days. Meanwhile, let’s patch it. But someone stole most of our tools. What about this old tube of Sparky Form-A-Gasket and these inner tubes and wires? It’s hopeless. Nope, Tiepe the kid to the rescue. Patches it up, it works. Next day sprouts another leak because of the strain of pulling the two sections together. System effects. Plumber comes. Too slow and inefficient. Author goes to get shoes for the wedding, traditional sandals. Hurts his feet. Bunch of spoiled, young German eco-tourists arrive. More snark. Let’s talk about the “Luxury Trap”, a concept he reads about in Sapiens during his downtime.
Luxury Trap is something I refer to as local optimum. Algorithmically it’s trying to find the best path to somewhere but getting foiled by what appears to be down hill sailing that leads to a deeper valley to climb out of than just taking the gradual ascent. The reason the algorithm gets fooled is that it can’t look that far ahead, so presented with easier or more difficult, it always chooses the immediately easier.
Sapiens says agriculture suckered us into that one. What seemed to reduce the struggle for perpetually hunting and scavenging for short-term food has turned into working even more while still living hand to mouth day by day.
In addition, the current author argues that for every degree of comfort obtained we have lost a layer of wonder and awareness of the “natural” world. He also realizes that in terms of conservation, an individual has minimal impact compared to the industrial-military polities. He notes the disparity between the politicians and economists, saying we can double the population and the scientists saying we are headed for disaster. And that while we are higher on the Luxury Trap scale than ever, people seem to be less happy about it.
After many delays, the wedding is at hand. He feels honored to be included and admires the simplicity and happiness of the simple pleasures of the Samburu and the clarity of their lifestyle while in no way trying to justify the poverty or romanticise their struggle but that he too is a minimalist, at least compared to other conspicuous consumers from his culture. Solidarity.
He realizes he is getting older and less able to go on these treks where he can experience nature telling him to stop thinking so much. And, thinking more about it, also realizes the old ways and wilderness areas are dying off as well.
He muses on the role of storytelling to both capture cultural adaptations and maps that facilitate survival and to wreck our relationships with their tribal insularities. But perhaps, between or outside of the stories and myths and practical reality, there is something from the shamanic realm, something ineffable that may be a contributing factor to our tenuous survival in challenging times. There may be power there to find and bring back. A power hinted at when he’s immersed in the wilderness and his thinking-mind shuts down for a merciful moment of simple awareness and aliveness. Something he can’t find elsewhere(?)
The author decides to head home, and he’s escorted to the bush plane rendezvous by friends he made on the trip. Cognitive dissonance with his impact of fossil fuel utilization under the current climate conditions, his advancing age and the seductions of the luxury trap have finally conspired to make this his last trip. He leaves us with fond memories, with a recommendation to keep positive and a reminder of the promise and dangers in our stories and mythologies and with hope in our frontal cortex as our sole bastion of freedom against hard-wired biology and nature’s tendentious course of trial-and-error corrections. Presence in the Now is where it’s at. Be careful of the imagination, and of stories others tell us. Keep grounded in reality and trust in your local neighborhood shaman.