Since the Beginning of Time

“Since the beginning of time,” as [David] Kopenawa says of the Yanomami demiurge [Omama] and while giving an account of his life of political struggle against the expropriation of their forestland:

Omama has been the center of what the white people call ecology. It’s true!  Long before these words existed among them and they started to speak about them so much, they were already in us, though we did not name them the same way  [ . . . ] In the  rest, we human beings are the “ecology.” But it is equally the xapiri [spirits] , the game, the trees, the rivers, the fish, the sky, the rain, the wind, and the sun….  The white people who once ignored all these things are starting to hear them a little [and] now they call themselves the “people of the ecology.”*

This is why  perhaps, some of us have begun to see, through eyes like Kopenawa’s, that “the tapirs, the peccaries, the macaws that we hunt in the forest were once also humans” and “this is why today we are still the same kind.” It is also why, realizing that such a myth neces­sarily transforms our concepts, we who recently became “people of the ecology” had better strain to elaborate another understanding­ – panpsychic, transpecific, metamorphic – of “human” perspective.   – Peter Skafish, from his introduction to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics, 33.

If we are to truly be “people of the ecology” we have a lot of work to do.  A lot of digging around in the roots, a lot of time to spend in the dark.

Richard said to me on the phone the other day: “That post sent me to a dark place for a while, that post with the buffalo skulls.”  I thought to myself: good. Not that I want him or anyone to suffer, but good.  We have to go into the dark – into scary, uncomfortable places, into places of uncertainty and doubt.  We have to be able to say, from a very deep place: maybe we were wrong. Yes, it was wrong, what we did.  Because we could not see.  We were blinded, we were ignorant.  We did not have the words to understand.  To see what was right in front of us. The world in all its splendor – the prairie and the buffalo, the forests and the waters.  We thought it was ours for the taking.  We thought it was our God-given right.  But we were wrong.  Our myth was powerful but it was wrong – the myth of the God-ordained, the chosen ones, the crusaders,  the jihadis, the conquistadors, the missionaries, the colonists, the soldier-farmer-settlers, the entrepreneurs, the real estate developers. Our myth is the myth of the conquerors who do not see what is broken in the conquering.

Not that anything can be undone, not that we need to feel guilty for what was done.  It’s not about guilt, it is about constructing words in the darkness, words that are blasphemous and strange.   Traitorous, some would say.  Romantic and impractical, others would say.   Words that blur the borders,  Words of the un-conquerors.  Every word is a myth so let us choose them carefully.

It is not enough anymore to be human. At least in the way that we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves – as separate and distinct, as the pinnacle of evolution, as a species apart from all others.  But that is not who we are.  That science of “the ecology”  tells us so, that are interwoven with other species – the bacteria in our bodies, the food we eat. We could make words that would let us see with the eyes of the buffalo, with the eyes of the coyote, with the eyes of the dung beetle, with the eyes of the owl.  Words that let them in. Words that blur the borders.  Words that let us feel the “ecology” in our bodies and in our bones.  Yes, this is what we love – the web of all lives, the green wind in our nostrils.  Yes, our words would be “scientific” but it would be the science of the “people of the ecology.”  Pan-psychic, transpecific, metamorphic.   No, our words would not be scientific, because our science is not big enough for these myths. Not yet.


*David Kopenawa and Bruce Albert,  The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, (Cambridge:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013), 393.

4 Replies to “Since the Beginning of Time”

  1. Interesting.

    I agree we can do better with our words. And there is little to be gained by closing our eyes to the consequences of our actions. But I’m curious about turning to darkness as a sort of curative. Do you envision this as a sort of introspective exercise? Do you suppose there might be a cultural difference between peoples that bears on concepts of darkness (more desirable in one/less in another)?

    I would tend toward using light in looking for ways to improve things. Shining a light into darkness to find a way. Holding something up to the light; or suggesting that understanding has been found ‘when the light goes on’. Hearing someone else’s ideas is an excellent means to turn something over and look at it in another way.

    With no real appreciation for the scale of the Island, I’m curious if Kilauea’s recent activities are visible from the ranch? Any cause for alarm?

  2. Hi Clem,
    Kilauea’s recent fissures in residential areas are not directly visible from the ranch, but the caldera on the summit is visible. Being downwind from everything we are getting a good coating of ash and fairly high levels of sulphur dioxide in the air.
    The ranch sits on an older geological formation, so less likely to have volcanic activity but anything can happen really. I cannot imagine what people are going through having volcanic fissures opening in their backyards. How do you process that? How do you grieve for your house and your life there and the veneer of normality when it is so suddenly ripped apart? Which is why for people living near a volcano, Pele the volcano goddess is very much a living myth, a necessary myth, necessary words to speak of what is happening, just as light might be a necessary myth for certain situations.
    Light is a favorite metaphor of science – the light of knowledge versus the shadows of ignorance and superstition. But it is not possible to see everything. Some things are not visible and therefore in some sense dark. We could just as easily speak of the dark of knowledge. Knowledge gained slowly and with difficulty, for instance, feeling one’s way forward, which is perhaps as valuable as the knowledge gained from strong light and high elevation. Or the knowledge that one gains from pain and difficulty which are so effective in teaching us compassion.

  3. I like the myth of the spirits and the idea that we “have started to hear them” a little.

    We built our treehouse in the forest, all full of enthusiasm and glee, then sealed it off, and we’ve been busy furnishing and extending the thing ever since. Hard to hear those spirits what with all the hammering and sawing. Hard even to remember there’s a forest out there!

  4. Recognizing the duality of the whole. Both are one light and dark. Within the kernel is the center of all it will, and might be. Bird consumes the fruit, seed falls to ground. Cast to the soil, seeking, rain, sustenance and conditions needed to thrive. Sun and wind nurture, shape, sear, and mold. Each part of the whole is within. And without. It’s divinity within itself. As is with all the beings of creation. All are one, parts of the web that surround our planet fill the abysses, cover the land, moving with the wind. Take heart of the awakening. Recognize the kinship of all the parts. Nurture where can. Find the balance…..Thoughtful and inspiring are the insights of the many post of this community, Thank You.

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