By Linda Boeckhout
What exactly do we want from the animals and the plants? At first sight, it seems we have tried very hard to distance ourselves from the natural world we were once a part of. We wear elaborate, impractical clothes. We make sure our houses have comfortable savannah microclimates. We cook and process our food, undoing it of its natural flavours. Our bodily functions are usually locked out of our social discourse or distorted, buried in conventions and assumptions. Yet, at the same time, we cannot seem to leave the animals and the plants alone. Throughout the year man hunts, without being hungry. We have bred a whole class of domesticated animals that are exempt from having any function at all. We treat them as children, albeit disposable ones when we have no longer any need for them. We prefer to wear the skins that belonged to others, even though many alternatives are available. We grow flowers which will never set any seed and can only be propagated with our assistance. We try to retrieve peace of mind through mindfulness techniques that essentially boil down to being present in the moment, like the animals are. There are great differences in these pursuits. Some are invasive, others are harmless. Yet, all of these pastimes and habits reflect a pining for communion with nature, however clumsy or misguided at times. It seems we want to stand with one foot in the animal kingdom, but where is the other? We keep hanging around the Gates of Paradise.
Old myths, new myths
When did we start to be human and leave the animal way of life behind? It is something that cannot be agreed on by scientists. Was it when we started to use tools or started cooperating in the hunt? Some animals display similar rudimentary behaviour. It is more accurate to say that we are, as a species, defined by immaterial things, the very things that do not leave a trail in a cave or in the ground.
The first circumstantial evidence of uniquely human behaviour is relatively recent. The oldest evidence of artistic endeavour is no older than 100,000 years. Long before these manifestations though, there must have been a gradual shift towards thinking beyond what was present in the here and now. The most human we can be however, is by using the word to shape the world around us. The spoken word, our sharpest sword, however, has not left a trace for the larger part of our history. As a result, even the scientific theories about our cultural origins, are little more than conjecture. Old myths that no longer explain anything, give rise to new ones. The story of Adam and Eve is one of many blueprints for the creation myths of men. While it is an easy myth to ridicule, in the light of all we have come to know about our evolutionary path, it should not be discarded altogether. It tells a powerful story, not about our biological origins, but rather about the birth of our mind. We once lived in a large garden, unaware, and unquestioning of our world. The concept of our own death was unknown. But our sly mind began to live a life of its own. Once we started listening to its ambiguous tongue, knowledge became the glossy apple we sought after. From that moment on, the way back was shut. It is impossible to untaste the fruit of knowledge. And then the world ceased to be a garden and became a hostile place, with danger and death always eminent.
A mythical character of modern times is the noble savage. In a way it mirrors the symbolism that can be perceived in Genesis. It is a myth that often grows on well-meaning soil, a crumbly mixture of environmentalism and cultural idealism. Its underlying premise is that the emergence of organised religion and urbanism, tore our societies from a previously deep, wholesome communion with nature. The attractiveness of this idea lies in the promise of its possible retrieval. If we were once able to live ethically and in harmony with our surroundings, it can be done again. It is fair to say that a myth could not be successful if there was no amount of truth to it. Our ancestors must indeed have worked with their environment instead of opposing it. It is also true that our ancestors revered at least certain elements in nature. Animism is common among almost all indigenous people. It is suggested by cave paintings and body ornaments. It also resonates in the personas we find in various pantheons. Many of them display characteristics of animals. The question is whether our forebears revered nature out of innate wisdom or whether many of their cults were largely driven by fear. However lovely the first thought might be, the second assumption is just as likely. The best way to know ourselves and our ancestors, is to honestly regard the evidence of our contemporary attitude towards nature in today’s society. We are endowed with great knowledge of biology and ecosystems. As a group, though, we tend to be ruthless and at best indifferent about the effects of our behaviour. Now that we believe the laws of nature can be tweaked to an extent, the majority no longer sees any need to confer with it. Our ancestors, on the other hand, wielded little or no power over their habitat, so they feared to tread in this unknown universe. For them, it was better to be safe than sorry. Their reverence for the forces of nature must, at least in part, have acted as a makeshift insurance against a fickle fate. It is also safe to conclude that our ancestors lived in an apparent harmony with their surroundings out of their sheer number. At the dawn of agriculture, about 8000 years B.C., there were most likely only a couple of million people in the world. Without modern technology, their impact on the natural world must have been minute.
What would be a good way to commune with nature, to lessen our universal pain of the paradise that was lost? Our current way of connecting with the rest of the natural world will soon be at a dead end. Even in our seemingly harmless enjoyment of cut flowers and pets, we support an industry that pollutes and corrupts on a large scale. Neither does it do to pine for a glorious past that in all likelihood never was. Life was harsh, people died young. Maybe it would be more fruitful, to put the very knowledge we chose over the garden to work. Our understanding of the workings of nature’s laws provides us with great advantages. We no longer have to fear the forests and the rivers, as long we respect their innate qualities and the creatures that live in them. We must acknowledge that we have shut ourselves out of Paradise, cruel and beautiful at the same time. We can choose, however, to preserve Paradise without us in it. We can live just outside its gates, and be sustained by its renewable life forces. We have to kneel for nature’s forces, like our ancestors. No longer out of fear, but in reverence from where we came, and celebrate that which we now know to be fragile.
Questions for an uncertain future
The future looks bleak. Society as a whole is indifferent or unwilling to see the widespread destruction. The ones that do acknowledge the direness of our situation, have until now been powerless to stop it. But we must remember our departure from the animal kingdom is only an evolutionary second ago. We enter the world as a orphaned, self-destructive adolescent, with no support to fall back on. It is up to us how we deal with our inevitable banishment from the realm of our birth. Do we continue our spree of self-destructive, selfish behaviour or do we get it together? We can choose to put our best asset, the mind, to work and educate ourselves. And if there are no parents around to guide us, we must look for new role models. Our voices call once again upon the Gods and the Spirits of the Land, as we have done for the larger part of our history. The ways of our ancestors can help us, but we ourselves have to reinterpret these ways for a new world and age. If we take the time to stop yelling, we can still hear their voices. They cannot tell us what to do, as we find ourselves in an utterly singular situation, but they might inspire us.
We do not have to invent a new way of life all in one go. The question of how to live a good life outside the Paradise breaks down into countless smaller, but important questions. How would a responsible human community relate to domesticated and farm animals? How do we organise (or better still, disorganise) work in a way that encourages and enables us all to contribute our best? Is it acceptable to eat meat? Under what circumstances? How do we deal with issues of population and finite resources? How much do we really need? There are tiny pinpricks of hope. Permaculture puts the best of nature and our wits to work together. People can, when truly confronted with misery, rise up to display great acts of compassion. Global connectivity increases awareness and causes good ideas to travel and evolve faster. It is time to come into our own, because the window of opportunity is closing. It is time to stop loitering around the Gates of Paradise and vandalising all we get our hands on. We should grow up. Now.