Swans Commentary » swans.com April 10, 2006  





by Milo Clark





(Swans - April 10, 2006)  What an ugly word! Yet, how central, how essential to our culture. Ponder for a moment, if you will, how such ugliness of word could be a core factor of our society.

Are you puzzled? Put off?

For much, if not most, of human experience, the idea of, much less practices of, property were unknown; to a degree, unknowable. (1) How could something so central to these times been so long unknown, unknowable to others?

Even minimal research into indigenous languages reveals many words of English to be untranslatable, unavailable, incomprehensible. Property, possession, exploitation, development, and progress figure prominently among them.

For many peoples with vastly different understandings of their actualities there was apparently little need to separate themselves, much less their tools or families, from their communities. For them, unlike for us, community encompasses all beings, all life forms, and all physical circumstances.

Their norms are sharing rather than withholding. The classic potlatch of northwestern peoples in North America is a noteworthy although not unique example.

If we consider there to be two basic paths through which humankind has evolved in socio-economic terms, they may be as hunter-gatherers and as farmers. Hunter-gatherers hold in common what farmers hold in private. (2)

Hunter-gatherers depend on intimate knowledge covering every factor of the lands over which they roam, on which they exist. They depend on intimate knowledge of the plants and animals with whom they share life. Life shared in profound ways. They know the seasons and the natural rhythms governing every one and every thing with which they are intimately involved. They know the shapes of land, the patterns of wind, the timings of storms. They know how other beings of their place follow their seasons, their patterns. Life is song.

We are told that the aborigines of Australia sing their lives, their histories, how they travel their songlines in annual patterns of migration. We are shown their physical and visual patternings engraved or painted on rock surfaces in places of community gathering or ritual significance. (3) We can listen to the plaintive wails of didgeridoo which we hear as music and they know as an expression of vitality as well as a communicator of their story.

For many, many indigenous cultures, percussion, as we would say, is also central to their understandings of community. Drumming sets the rhythms of song, provides context for story and gives lesson, history, and direction.

For most who hunted and gathered for food, song and drumming were essential components of asking permission, for dreaming whereabouts and knowing willingness of plants and animals to share themselves as food.

The lands over which hunter-gatherers moved in annual and seasonal search for food and ritual progression were always there. They have always been for them exceptionally meaningful actualities.

Songs, words spoken in key progressions and rhythms, told them that their creation as humans and their being on this land and of this land were vitally commingled and intimately mixed. They were the land. The land was them.

If anything can encapsulate the hunter-gatherer existence, it is a need and willingness to live and let live. Forests remained forests. Plains remained plains. Hills stood up and stayed up. People remained people. Storm, earthquake, volcano, fire, and catastrophe affected both land and people. People, however, did not initiate them.

Research again and again shows that the hunter-gatherer life was far from mean, brutish, and short. We are learning that extremely complex languages with complex grammars and descriptive powers far beyond ours had evolved for them over eons. Yet, many words and language sounds critical for them fail to exist in modern Indo-European languages.

Farmers, in contrast, have very different relationships within their communities and with their lands. Farmers are a relatively recent phenomenon in world history, perhaps going back a few thousand years out of millions.

Whereas hunter-gatherers had extended periods within their annual or even daily cycles of what we might call leisure, farmers, in growing seasons, are at work nearly continuously. Whose lives may, indeed, be mean, short, and brutish?

Daniel Quinn, in his Ishmael series, (4) describes farmer societies as takers. He asks whether evolution stopped with man, this mere blip in earth time? While we may say, no, evolution has not stopped, our cultural myth stands in sharp contrast. History, our cultural mythologies, begins with farmers and tells the stories of farmers.

Posh, you say.

With farmers came fields. With fields came edges. With fields came crops. With crops came surpluses. With surpluses came markets. With markets came towns. With towns came cities. With cities came hierarchies. With hierarchies came rulers. With rulers came armies with which to seize more fields, more resources, more workers . . .

Still posh?

Fields have edges, boundaries. Tillage leaves marks on land. Farmers mark boundaries with rocks, hedgerows, fences. Farmers defend their boundaries. Out of defending boundaries came legal boundaries, laws designed to determine and declare property rights.

Farmers expand, move, take over, dispossess. Dispossess? To dispossess, as the very word says, means to take over from others who, in the view of takers, have no property rights in their land. Dispossession has been the farmers' story as they advanced over continents, trampled over peoples, tore up land, progressed in their contexts.

Well, if your society had no concepts of property or rights to property or law and legal processes to determine and to protect property rights for individuals and other legal determinations of person: then what?

We all know the answers to that question. Losers lose.

Losers in Quinn's terms are leavers. Hunter-gatherers are leavers.

A relatively recent, in historical terms, apology for takers is the Christian Bible in all its variants. The Christian Bible is a farmers' document. In Genesis, takers are told that they are the pinnacle of evolution and that the whole process is designed to justify their takings. The Bible takes present form in written languages (albeit with many, many variations over time), which gives it a mythic significance quite different than hunter-gatherers' oral traditions.

In transitions from Judaic to Christian ritual, the cantor has been lost. For Jews, the cantor sings their story. Hymn hardly does it.

In short, the whole damn thing now belongs to farmers and they can prove it with their deeds, their fences, their lawyers, their armies, their myths.

Is it ironic that a classic taker's action now takes place in the cradle of farmer civilization, Mesopotamia, a.k.a. Iraq? Is it ironic that the taker's armies now invading ancient Mesopotamia are systematically destroying places like Babylon and Ur with their clues to prior times and scripts in ancient tongues? Is it ironic that a key taker pattern is to destroy leaver language and leaver culture? Will it be ironic that the next stage of this action expands into ancient Persia, a.k.a. Iran? Is it ironic that justification for this taking rests in interpretations of the Christian Bible? Is it ironic that Jesus, the hero of the Christian Bible's New Testament, is a classic leaver?

Is irony itself being destroyed now?


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1.  The evolving concepts of property may be no more than 400 or 500 years old.  (back)

2.  Destruction of the commons in old England marks western transitions in property concepts and definitions.  (back)

3.  Petroglyphs, pictographs, rock art exists throughout the world, shows great commonality and documents much about ancient hunter-gatherer cultures.  (back)

4.  A sample of Daniel Quinn's works:

Ishmael (1992),
Providence, the story of a fifty-year vision quest (1994),
The Story of B, an adventure of the mind and spirit (1996),
My Ishmael, a sequel (1997),
A Newcomer's Guide to the Afterlife (1998),
Beyond Civilization, humanity's next great adventure (1999),
The Man Who Grew Young (2001),
Beyond Dachau (2001),
The Holy (2002),
Tales of Adam (2005).

Note: Anthropologist Hugh Brody has written insightfully about indigenous peoples, their lives, their dilemmas and their languages. See his The Other Side of Eden, North Point Press, New York, 2000, ISBN 0-86547-610-1.

Brody, blond and blue eyed of Irish name, was raised as a Jew. His heritage helps to frame his work.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 10, 2006