Why ask anthropology to look beyond the human? And why look to animals to do so? Looking at animals, who look back at us, and who look with us, and who are also, ultimately, part of us, even though their lives extend well beyond us, can tell us something. It can tell us about how that which lies “beyond” the human also sustains us and makes us the beings we are and those we might become. – Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human
One of the most frustrating things about Western civilization is its relentless anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism. Most of us modern, Western, scientific humans think that we are the only truly conscious beings, the only beings that can think, feel, and communicate. Itʻs a form of blindness or self-mutilation, in my opinion, as if we deliberately bound our feet or shut down one of our senses in order to belong to Team Civilization. Certainly such blindness makes ruthless exploitation of the natural world a lot easier on the conscience – if you consider all of it to be mindless matter then why not bring on the bulldozers? Continue reading “Trans-species Pidgins”
Despite our traits of pride and often enormous hubris sometimes the creator let’s the humans get away with most of our foolishness intact. This last hurricane – LANE – is a case in point. With all of our modern tools we tracked it all the way from the Baja, night and day with the infrared channels of the latest satellite technologies, with photographs from the International Space Station showing the giant 500 mile span of the storm, with brave men flying into the eye to measure the windspeed, and with the ominous hour by hour progress reports on all of the emergency channels, the TV, radio, and celphone alerts. It was the equivalent of a Central Pacific Region wide All Points Bulletin. We could track and measure it but in no way were we collectively able to change the course of events. Not even a little bit. And then we go about our business on the next day, knowing that some were buried in the deluge, some were burned out by the wind driven fires ahead of the rain, and to some it was just another rainy day in paradise.
The simple overwhelming fact is the Category 5 storm did not hit any of the islands at full strength. In the end, after travelling 2,500 miles, the storm dropped to Cat 3 and missed our small island by 150 miles. If it had passed closer or farther it would have been much more deadly; closer and the west coast of Hawaii island would have been raked by 130 mph winds, farther and the outer circulation would have had an open run with 75-80 mph winds without hitting the bulk of our sheltering Mauna Loa. We should be down on our knees kissing the ground and thanking our lucky stars. It let us live.
Down here at Ka Lae it was just another day at the beach, another day in paradise. No amount of engaged civic planning, no committee meetings deciding our fate, no proclamations from our leaders had the least effect. The simple fact was the the creator let us get away with it. The gods of the winds spared us.
This beautiful and rare little fern that lives in the forest above the ranch has an equally beautiful name: wahinenohomauna, which means woman (wahine) seated on or living on (noho) the mountain (mauna). She is no bigger than the palm of your hand and sits among the even smaller ferns and mosses that make up a kind of green fur on the trunk of a giant tree fern. In Hawaiian culture the high forest is wao akua or the realm of the gods. Here is one little god living in beauty – ferns upon ferns upon ferns.
Pele, they say in the legends, was a traveler from the ancestral homelands of Kahiki who came to this island with her clan of brothers and sisters and settled in the area named Keauhou. There was a war between the early settlers and Pele and her clan took refuge in a great cave. The volcano erupted and the cave collapsed, sealing the clan inside. This is how she became identified with the volcano Kilauea.
In the old days those who came as visitors to the hostile, numinous lands of Pele had themselves tattoo-ed using a blue dye made from a kind of iris that grows only near the volcano. Others brought the umbilical cords of their children, or of themselves, to place at the doorstep of the volcano.
Piko is the word for the belly button where the umbilical cord was attached. It is also the word for a spiritual place of origin and power – a center of the universe. That earth is fire, that we are connected from birth to the molten core of our earth, and live always under peril but centered in the knowledge of that connection – this is what might be expressed in the tradition of presenting the umbilical cord to Pele.
It is treacherous to cross over the volcano these days, when Pele is awake and the road cracks and buckles. It is not treacherous in the way it was for Chief Keoua’s army, that perished in a sudden rain of volcanic debris and molten glass two centuries ago, leaving their footprints behind in the hardened ash deposits.
How many times have I passed over the volcano? As a child, bumping along on the narrow old road through the lava fields in the back seat of the family car, dreamily seeing fairy realms in the forested slopes above; as a teen venturing through with my cousins, telling ourselves ghost stories as the darkness closed around the beams of the headlights; as a young mother hurrying home through the lava desert with my baby, singing to keep her quiet.
The more likely danger even now is falling asleep at the wheel on the curving road over the volcano and running into the unforgiving basalt fields on either side. That is how people lose their lives now. It is a long drive in the dark; do they begin to dream of ghostly shapes – of a white dog, of an old woman, of a young woman with fiery eyes? These are the forms that Pele is said to take when she appears to travelers.
Some days are better than others. Some days it’s hard to breathe. Those days start out red. Continue reading “Red Dawn: Living under the Eruption”
I shot Bunny the calf this morning. After feeding her bottles of milk twice daily for nearly four months. Euthanized her – to be more precise and perhaps less honest about something that it took me days to steel myself to do. She had broken a leg somehow and was wracked by arthritis in the other three. She could no longer get up without my help. I found the spot on her forehead that would kill her instantly and pulled the trigger. (I never get used to the silence inside the gunshot when your ears ring and the body falls to the ground, and it seems that time stops. It’s eerie and you want to cry and you are for a little while unclean in every way, a monster to all that look at you.) Continue reading “The Struggle”
“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: Continue reading “Since the Beginning of Time”
I’ve heard that the Bedouin celebrate the birth of a foal as an event second in importance only to of emergence of a poet, which seems an admirable way of looking at things to me. After weeks of anticipation and nervousness, I am celebrating the birth of a tall, black filly with one white foot and a star on her forehead. Continue reading “Nickering”
Of late, I’ve been under the spell of the Mongolian film-maker Byambasuren Davaa. She has made three movies: The Story of the Weeping Camel, The Cave of the Yellow Dog, and The Two Horses of Genghis Khan (Das Lied von den Zwei Pferden). I’ve only seen the first two of Byambasuren’s movies, the last was not released in the US. Her movies are a fascinating blend of fiction and documentary; the actors, humans and non-human, are themselves, they don’t even play themselves, they live their own lives but there is a movie camera and a story that they act in. Sometimes they think of the camera for a split second, as real people would do Continue reading “Pastoralist Propaganda”