The Old AnimalMan is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.
DUST LIFTED in slow streaks off the alkaline playa in the dry basin called
Long Lake. Tiny orange and white flowers blossomed among boulders of black
Ten thousand years ago, when the first humans came to the Great Basin
highlands where I stood, Long Lake was part of a sweep of swamps and vast
watery basins fed by melting glaciers. Waterbirds lifted to wheel and
settle, refolding their wings. Their movements, to my dreaming, are a
flowering of momentum--in this, much like music.
At the end of a rocky two-track road, Long Lake is lost among the ridges
rising from the east side of Warner Valley into an enormous run of
uninhabited lava-rock and sagebrush highlands. I grew up believing there
was nothing in the vicinity of Long Lake but shimmering distances.
Then, sixty-five years old, I found that I'd spent my boyhood near an
ancient holy place. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the lava-flow
ridge at my back had fragmented into intricate, smooth-sided boulders,
which were everywhere inscribed--drawn on by ancient humans attempting to
manage their luck and their fate. The inscriptions were particularly thick
in places next to fractures, breaks where souls and spirits could be
thought to have emerged from an underworld, and through which they might
be fortunate enough to reenter.
Thousands of designs and figures had been pecked into the basalt surfaces
with stone or bone tools, ranging from entropic (behind the eye) patterns
of the sort seen in trances--grids and dot complexes--to discernible figures
metamorphosing from moss to fish to men and women. Some were colored with
pigment; others were delineated by thin encrustations of yellow and
greenish lichens. The oldest images reach back ten thousand years.
Anthropologists suggest they were created by shamans, priests who thought
all things, including stones, possess an innate soul. Animist cultures are
a global phenomenon that seems to have lasted thirty thousand years or so,
and still endure among people along the Yukon River lowlands of Alaska, in
enclaves like the Kalahari Desert of southwestern Africa, and in central
Australia. These cultures hold that their shamans talk to animals, that
while the shaman's body remains locked in a trance, the soul takes flight
through fissures in the rock (actuality) and goes down into the underworld
in order to encourage the emergence of hunting animals, or even out to the
Milky Way for instruction from gods and ancestors who live there. At least
that?s what they've told anthropologists.
IT WAS NOT that I'd never seen such inscriptions. At various points around
the edges of Warner, there are smooth-sided boulders inscribed with what
I'd thought were simplistic snakes and sunrises; or maybe the jagged lines
indicated days of travel. Those etchings were ordinarily considered the
work of ancestors of the northern Paiute, who lived in Warner when the
white settlers arrived. But the Paiute were relative latecomers, occupying
Warner for less than a thousand years. Earlier cultures
had come and gone since those boulders were inscribed.
Peter Farb, in Man's Rise to Civilization: The Cultural Ascent of the
Indians of North America
, explains that the people of
the northern Great Basin had fewer than a thousand of what
anthropologists call "cultural items." While this seems unlikely--
can a dream of heaven be called a cultural item?--Farb contrasts it to the
fact that, in 1942, George Patton's armies landed in North Africa with
547,000 different categories of nonmilitary hardware. This statistic
illustrates the vast distance between the Paiute mind-set and our own.
, Edward Dorn tells of visiting a Paiute couple who claimed to
be more than a hundred years old. Until midlife, they had lived the
traditional wandering life, but by Dorn's time, they were living in a
tin-sided trailer house on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation along the
Idaho-Nevada border. Savvy about the games of anthropology, they asked for
cartons of Camel cigarettes before allowing him to take pictures of them.
Then they told him something extraordinary: They'd never heard of white
men until they were adults.
Is it possible to imagine with any accuracy the psychology of people from
that preliterate culture? What did they yearn for, and how did they define
joyfulness? Can we guess, and would we know if we got it right? Open seas
lie between my intuitions about the world and those of Paiute people. Yet
here were those people, living in that trailer and demanding tribute in
cigarettes, who seemed to have crossed those seas so easily.
A Paiute family lived just up the hill from us in Warner, under a row of
Lombardy poplars planted by homesteaders next to a garden ditch. The man
of the family ran Caterpillar bulldozers for my father--his name was Don
Pancho--and his wife cleaned and ironed for my mother. The children--Vernon, Pearl, and
Henry--played with us kids, and Vernon was my best friend (he's been dead
for decades). Summer and winter, they lived in a pair of canvas tent
houses, one with a cookstove and the other for sleeping. Never allowed
inside, we used to wonder about what they did and said in those tents as
they persisted in surviving what I knew even then to be poverty. Now I
wonder if they despised us in their secret hearts, and if not, why not?
Peoples who tell their stories aloud are rapidly vanishing everywhere on
earth. Did anybody from our culture ever take the time to find out much
about the lives of native people who wandered the streets of northern
Nevada towns like Lovelock and Winnemucca when I was a young man? Or were
the northern Paiute basically invisible to a European culture obsessed
with getting rid of them so that settlement could proceed. What do we know
about the people who inscribed their designs on those boulders? Not much
really, except that in fundamental ways they were just like us.
FOR MILLENNIA, Long Lake was a gathering place. I like to think it was
sacred and thus invaluable. But in the years I lived there, preoccupied by
visions of an agricultural dream as we diked and drained the swamplands in
Warner, lost in rhythms of endless work, nobody ever guessed there was
much of anything to value in this country except for the fertile parts. As
a boy, I collected obsidian arrowheads and stored them in shoe boxes, yet
I believed wisdom was found only in books. Later, I tried to read
Aristotle and Kant, came to see my own emptiness, and went half-crazy. I
was lost, quite desperately wanting to understand how my life in Warner,
the happy land of childhood, had in the long run brought me to feel
so entirely contingent.
People whose ancestors had made peace with isolation were still living
nearby, but I didn't think of contacting them. What could they know? What
I might have done was recognize that those people were like me. Another
generation of Paiutes was no doubt still telling its stories; I might have
understood more about what it means to be myself if I'd made an attempt to
listen to them. But I didn't even think of this possibility, and in that
way, I missed another boat.
What might I have discovered? The little wind went on stirring the white
dust. The inscriptions at Long Lake were only props for unimaginable
ceremonies. What I could do was forget the wind and unpeopled distance and
think of the ordinary desperation that accompanied shamans on their
voyages, as evidence of the degree to which we are all alike.
Anthropological case studies are always partly make-believe, fictions
invented out of research, and are often infected with an unconscious
belief in progress--from a condition called "primitive" to one called
"civilized."So they are frequently vehicles for condescension, in which
dominion over other peoples is regarded as inevitable, if not entirely
justifiable. In such documents, primitive sometimes connotes being less
than human, and people are discussed as if they were animals, or objects.
But while interest in "simpler" or more "innocent" or "purer" societies is
often driven by simple curiosity or implicit condescension, we ultimately
value anthropological research as useful in our search for models we can
use in our efforts to reform and manage our own cultures.
It is often claimed that humans reached the limits of evolutionary
adaptation during the Paleolithic period. Sharman Apt Russell writes that
"we were few in number, tribal, creative, dependant on nature, in awe, in
touch, in our natural setting. We were at home." Then she asks, "Was it better emotionally? Were we
better? Were we more alive, more human, more engaged?"
With her, I wonder: If "primitives" were leading more natural lives, were
they necessarily happier? Besides, what does "natural" mean? According to
Russell, "We don't even know the meaning of better." But codifications of
"better" seem to be part of every political agenda. Do we think the lives
of preliterate people simple? An utterly condescending notion. There are
no simple lives. Who would want one?From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Nature of Generosity by William Kittredge. . Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.