What story shall we tell?

The community in which Jedek is spoken is more gender-equal than Western societies, there is almost no interpersonal violence, they consciously encourage their children not to compete, and there are no laws or courts. There are no professions either, rather everyone has the skills that are required in a hunter-gatherer community. This way of life is reflected in the language. There are no indigenous words for occupations or for courts of law, and no indigenous verbs to denote ownership such as borrow, steal, buy or sell, but there is a rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing.

This is not a fable from a galaxy far, far away. It’s from a study by researchers at Lund University in Sweden. Jedek is spoken by a small community of people in the Malaysian highlands, and the language features described above are not uncommon among cultures not yet swept aside in the civilizational deluge. They are part of our human heritage.

It’s been known since forever that words both reflect and determine how we perceive the world, and what’s more, that it is possible to instrumentalise that tendency of language to determine perceptions. The relevant techniques are routinely learned and applied by advertisers, demagogues, preachers, storytellers and cognitive therapists, to name a few. What is less widely known, though, is the invisible way that a language’s deep-down warrants — what it does and doesn’t permit, what it privileges and what it plays down, what it values and what it disdains — shapes its speakers’ understanding and expectations of other people and themselves.

Now, contemplate for a moment what it means to live within the confines of a language-culture which values ownership and transactional self-interest to the extent that ours does…and wonder what that might do for our capacity to recognise and share our common interests. Our capacity to play, not compete. Our capacity to love.

I’m sure a healthy culture fills minds with a rich vocabulary for sharing, supporting, exchanging, listening and understanding, and offers only a meagre selection of words for those other things, best forgotten. A healthy culture wouldn’t even have words to express esteem for a “great deal”, or for obscene wealth, or for the act of blasting a junk automobile into orbit to attract “likes”, because those would be beyond all possibility of being esteemed.

But back to the speakers of Jedek. Their world is not a utopia and it’s not a new-age fantasy. They’re real people leading normal lives, albeit normal in a way that people from our culture would typically dismiss as less than cultured. But that reflects a deficit in our language and values, rather than in theirs.

As one of the Lund University researchers writes:

There are so many ways to be human, but all too often our own modern and mainly urban societies are used as the yardstick for what is universally human. We have so much to learn, not least about ourselves, from the largely undocumented and endangered linguistic and cultural riches that are out there.

Fish in a tank

A few evenings ago he was sitting up on his bed looking troubled. His cheeks seemed blotched and his eyes were flicking and blinking, almost as if he was going to cry. But he’s nine, and I think it’s a point of honour with him never to cry. He said quietly, as I bustled around getting ready for lights-out, “Daddy, there’s something that bothered me today…”. I paused for a proper look at him and asked what’s up? “On the way back we stopped in the Chinese supermarket. There were all these fish in the tank. There were so many they could hardly move…”, and that’s where he tailed off. His expression told the story. Continue reading “Fish in a tank”

We have lived with nature

We the Saami are a native people. We have lived with nature, not against it. — Mio Negga in these climate justice stories from 350.org

I would guess that Saami herders and hunters rely as much on motor power and mobile phones as the rest of us, but also that they’re more inclined to give Nature the benefit of the doubt in decisions small and large. The people who plan, approve and construct a hydroelectric dam,  on the other hand, are more inclined to privilege shareholder value, economic growth, personal career advancement, financial gain.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the dam-makers get their way.

When I was little and had my first carpentry kit, my Dad showed me how much easier it was to saw and shape with the grain of the wood rather than across it. People who live well seem to have that knack in life, and I suspect it’s true of cultures too. By this measure, our turbocharged fossil-fuelled industrial culture  does not live well. We have fought spectacularly against the grain of Nature for the past two centuries, and have equally spectacularly got our own way. But only in the short term. Our greatest victories over Nature have been Pyrrhic. We are now re-learning something that smaller, unnoticed cultures, like that of the Saami, never needed to forget.    

In the spirit of taking small steps, it’s a question we may ask in our daily choices:  is this with nature, or against it?

(photo credit: Abi King, Inside the TravelLab)

If you stop in the woods

If you stop in the woods, or move unobtrusively, and make a point of noticing, you discover there’s a lot going on.

It takes a few minutes, like eyes adjusting to the dark, before your senses re-tune. There are birds and rustlings, and puffs of air across your skin. Your nostrils open to the cacophony of scent. After a while longer, maybe an hour, a kind of spatial synaesthesia has taken over. The area around you is abuzz with conversation. In all directions stories are unfolding, on various temporal scales. Insects whirr and trees sigh. The ripples from your presence on the scene are noted and are fed back to you, and you become aware of that too.

You experience these stimuli as intimately as if your surroundings have become an extension of your body. It feels awesome. The woods themselves are your organs of perception.  They and everything that’s in them seem to be doing the thinking for you. What’s left is a kind of heightened sixth sense. Like waking into a lighter and immeasurably more alert state.

Is that how it is for the wild ones, all of the time?

It may have been an effort at first to “notice”, but when it’s time to trudge back to normality you find it’s almost a greater effort to switch off that enveloping hum, to shut your senses down and buckle into the familiar mental harness. There’s a boundless dialogue of life going on out there and the denizens of the wildwood are all a part of it. But we, the tamed ones, mostly blunder through insensate, having fenced ourselves off mentally and physically.

Why would we do that I wonder? How much was really gained in return for all that we lost?