Thursday, January 9, 2020

Earths Children: fantasy novels, spirituality, and tribalism

Earth's Children: fantasy novels, spirituality, and tribalism

by Sammy Castonguay, M.Sc. Geological Science


The prehistorical fantasy-novel series by Jean M. Auel is a modern classic and, by far, my favorite book series of all time. The sagas telling has been drawn out for decades, with the first book released in 1980 and the last in 2011. The series is "beloved by readers; acclaimed by experts", has been a #1 bestseller in 16 countries, and has sold over 45 million copies (those stats are from the pre-release video of the final book). But you probably know all that... as you are already in love with the series (why else would you click to read!?). Ok, to be fair, not everybody has read them. If that is you, read-on knowing full-well that I might reveal parts of the story (i.e. I will of course "spoil" things if your that type of person).

In this essay, I am not reviewing the series, any particular book, or giving any critiques. Instead, Im using this blog to organize my own complex thoughts and feelings about the role this fantasy art has played in my personal life. For instance, my winter beard. Since 2004, I have let my facial hair grow into a beard each winter and cut each spring. The first years I stopped shaving on my birthday in late October, and after the birth of our first child in mid-March he have me the perfect date for shaving. This year, winter 19-20, is the first time I have broken that pattern.
Why have I done this? Because of Jean M. Auels fabricated world of Earth's Children. Or more simply: because Jondalar taught me this. Yep. Thats right. Pulled out of the pages of The Valley of Horses; at some point, Jondi stoops by a stream to shave, feels the chill in the air, and decides to forgo the shave because winter is on the way.

I've never forgotten the feeling of reading that passage. I felt it with my body. It made sense and I just incorporated it into my life and until now I have never admitted (or really put it together) that it was this book that infused my life with that concept.

Image result for ayla clan of cave bearBooks have power; full of ideas that can sometimes change our mind imperceptibly. In the following rant, I plan to draw connections between my life and the book.

More importantly, I think it provides critical elements for the future of humanity.

Some things to clear the air

The books have great sex scenes. Great. I actually have never read another sex scene... so I dont have much for comparison, but from what I have read the sex scenes by Auel are legendary. This has led some folks to see these as 'smut' books. When I tell someone I've read these, unless they have read I usually get snickers and a funny smile. "Oh! Your into that, huh?". Well, yeah. Totally into that, but to be honest it was never the sex that kept me reading on. So, dont expect me to go into much detail on that aspect of the book (though Ill [sensually] touch on that later). 

I'm not attracted to Ayla or idolize Jondalar. I love the characters, but have never really identified with them in a romantic way. That said, I certainly attribute many behaviors I have picked up as an adult to them. They are honorable. Humble. Helpful. Flawed. Scared. But people, doing people things, in the Stone Age (Paleolithic). 

Going on a Journey

Life is a journey, plain and simple. Each person, living their own journey. Some journeys are literal, maybe moving across the country, but some many of today's modern journey are more metaphysical.

Here, I want to focus on two parts of my life journey that were greatly molded by what I read and liked from this great series: 1) my spiritual path and 2) my naturalist path.

Number 2) first: I'm a geologist, well by training, degree, and some professional practice. Since 2015 I've had the pleasure of expanding my teaching out of just the geosphere, but into other Earth Systems subject in an introductory level: astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, field ecology, and a course in Energy and Society. I'm pretty steeped and well versed in references and subtopics of each of these disciplines, generally speaking. Additionally, I had spend the years during my beginning obession with the earth learning quite a lot about the native plants of Oregon, plant identification, and quite a bit about basic field mycology.

When I go outside, I'm observing. Everything. Well, I don't scan and obsess... but my eyes and brain do pick up on the areas I might find something of interest: a rock or outcrop, an interesting or native plant, a fungi fruit, or a particular conifer cone. Practice has honed my pattern recognition. None of it is useful; I don't eat any of it or use it to make life-sustaining things. But nonetheless, I do have a need, a desire, to know my habitat and the other creatures or things I share it with. Or its general conditions. I guess, I'm a naturalist thru and thru. A few months ago I wrote a piece here referring to geologic mapping as the Ultimate Naturalist Experience. I have a feeling I may have felt right at home exploring across the western lands with Lewis and Clark or French Trappers*. Im an explorer. I love the place and landscape I am in, and getting to know it, but I am always a visitor and not something that 'belongs'. I know it. I feel it. Its OK. I tread lightly. But my life force is not entangled with any landscape like indigenous ancestors, or Ayla and Jondalar.

You can take the human out of the hunter-gather lifestyle, but for this H. sapeins the gatherer spirit is alive and well. I did grow up on a horse and cattle ranch in South Dakota, and so had lots of exposure to the open-range, shape of a landscape, navigating, and some plants. But it was the lengthy descriptions of Auel that piqued my interest in ethnobotany, or at least the precursor to using the herb, which is finding the herb. My reading of Valley of Horses overlapped with the beginning of my college path in the natural sciences. Feeding off one another, I suppose, the link between fantasy and my academic study became real during my year of intro-level Geology. Earlier in life I may have had questions, but for the first time ever I was imbued with the tools of terminology with my observations. Questions could become answers.

My first field trip with Dr. Sarah Ulerick was to the Lava Lands center part of the Newberry Volcanic National Monument off US HW 95. I'll never forget the sight of freshly frozen black, basaltic lava flows, channels and rills--cool to the foggy-morning October touch. Thousands of years old, but as fresh looking as baked bread from the oven. The surrounding Ponderous pine forest stopped abruptly on the edge, where an ecology on the non-existent soil was mostly lichens and the occasional shrubby sticks of desert gooseberries. For the first time, I saw the landscape as something I was in rather than on.

It wasn't long on this journey before I began gallivanting off to this place or that to see new [to me] territory: to observe new rock formations, to identify and photograph new native plants, to feel different atmospheric conditions, to walk new non-trails:

The journey brought me love, confidence, knowledge, charisma, experience, intertribal communication techniques, the joy of birth and the tragedy of miscarriage, and ... who I am. That journey has involved walking across hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles of the pristine, rocky biotic-encrusted crust of this Gaian Earth.

One of my last experiences as the student, I began combing the Amargosa Chaos region of the Black Mountains in Death Valley, CA with Dr. Marli Miller. A geologic icon (both the geography and the geologist) and a province mere centi-miles from the land of my birth. On one of my first arrivals I spewed to Marli my entire load of nuclear family's dissolution in ~1993, while walking into the Scallywag wash toward 'V' Canyon in the core of my Master's thesis study area. I later spent 40 days straight in that desert communing with that Chaos, and myself. My daughter Neva was tucked away backing in Laurie-Lovers cosmic-womb, born just a month after I crawled out of the desert. I obsessed (as one should in graduate school) about that area constantly for months and years later, culminating in a final graduating thesis. Then the Journey took me back across South Dakota, into the Northwoods of Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire).
I returned to Chaos next as a teacher.

But Jondalar and Thonlans Paleolithic journey was also one of sustenance: they collected, ate, and made things from the landscape along the way. I, of course, did not... always. I dont need do, nor should I tromp around with my white-privileged ass on "public lands" cutting off plants and digging up roots as a novelty to be in touch with the land. No thanks. But occasionally, it became a deep part of my spiritual practice. Not rarely, but usually only once to a particularly 'new' region to me, I would collect various plant material(s): roots, cones, leaves, seeds, flowers. Sometimes I'd eat, or weave, or wear, or dry to decorate, burn, or save for a later offering. Point here is, my proverbial Journey was not literally Paleolithic... but walking the landscape with my scanning eyes as a Geoscientists has resurrected a feeling of primal adventuring.
Easily conjures a spiritual resonance.

To the effect Auel's Earth Children has had on my Spiritual Journey. On the basis of the last paragraphs on my naturalist journey, I could be atheist but nebulously spiritual (whatever that means) and I could leave off there. It almost shows the complete picture of my spirituality... just like a chimpanzee is almost genetically the same as us. But that couple of percent really, really matters for the difference between our respective species. I'm saying that to fully describe my spirituality based on a form of atheistic, humanist naturalism is not going full Homo.

I'm an Animist. My own personal Shaman. Or a Pantheist. Or maybe a deist? Kind of polytheist, but not hard poly. Ugh! What am I!?!?! I just prefer Pagan. Because I hold several contradictory ideologies, which is important is dependent on my mood, who I am talking to, what I am doing... or perhaps maybe on what food I just ate. All I know is that there is no one right way. I enjoy thinking about various gods, and enjoy the practice of worshiping the goddess in my way, but my beliefs are not clear, not concrete, and certainly not stagnant! Since my 8th grade days of United Methodist Youth Fellowship, I've been pretty interested in the mystery aspects of the world, which spirituality and religion fit well. This is not rational stuff we are talking about, but instead is the human minds very long pursuit at trying to bring a higher meaning to ourselves, this place, and the natural order of things.

My spirituality is firmly rooted in awe. Its all sacred to me, and I love it! This plant, that rock, the little particles of nitrogen and argon in this room, and the electricity coursing through this computer! I worship it all as sacred, and profound. Nothing is mundane or unimportant. It all has meaning; all functioning as part of the grander system. The Earth System. Yeah... pretty nebulous, huh?

The Earths Children series was implemental for taking me back to a simpler form of religion. Only about two, maybe three, years earlier had I begun abandoning what conception and/or belief I had of the Judeo-Christian god. I had done a bit of exploration into nature religions, Wicca, read some Buddhist philosophy books, looked into Taoism, and even dabbled in Islam. Most of it still just seemed like religion and none of it (well, there are exceptions withing each of those topics) really got to the core of how I was feeling about my place in the world or why this is all here. It all just seemed to me human oriented. Well... duh!?! But when I began reading about Ayla's world, specifically the way that Jondalar spoke of the Great Mother, the Doni, in both an abstract conceptual way in addition to a personal-figure way... I realized I had found something different. Where animism, pantheism and goddess worship (a type of monotheism) collide.

That set the stage for me to be confident in my personal spiritual journey with nature. The 'journey' stuff mentioned above... yeah, that is my expression, my practice, of my form of spirituality. No one else; just me. Freestyle. Just a mere month ago, a great mentor of mine said something similar. That in a way, adventuring around looking at rocks was her way of 'connecting' or 'being spiritual'. A form of worship. In today's secular world, we should be suspect of religion and all the other hoo-ju- woo-ju. No doubt religion has led humanity down dark paths, killed millions, and even today is a most common expression of racism. I am VERY skeptical of religion and the power it is has held over humanity... but it is time we become proud of separating our PERSONAL spirituality and expression from any religious dogma. 

A Heavy Dose of Science in a Romance Novel?

First I must admit I havnt ready any other literature that could be considered a romance novel, I dont think. This post is a sample of my reading genre and style. So, I dont really know how much science other's in this genera might discuss science, engineering, or technology. But in this series, Auel seriously pumps out the rich, laborious details informed by scientific findings.

Archaeology- artifacts

Jean M. Auel has been recognized for the amazing amount of archaeological research that she included into this story. She didn't make it up if there was available archaeological evidence to inform her, though she clearly took a lot of liberties in expanding on interpretations. That's novel historical fiction literature folks. Still, I admire her drive to included the best [of the time] known materials and interpretations of the science to form her book around.

The embellishment bothers some folks. Who might say: "The main characters are just simple hero-archetypes that go around inventing everything or being being all of the technical and social leaps of the upper Paleolithic". Sure, Jondalar and Ayla are exemplary as characters and do end being involved in all of the real advances of humans of the time. But Auel does this as a backdrop. She was subtly educating the lei population on these amazing discrete advances by humans during this time. Like reading a section of a Physical Anthropology textbook but in a fictional novel. Isn't that what historical fiction novels strive to do?

My argument here is that this series brought Paleolithic archaeology into the cultural meme in a way that magazines like Scientific American or NatGeo could not. Remember... these are romance novels. Tremendous applause for Auel on this aspect. Respect.

Geologic Time

The setting of the series gives the reader an introductory perspective of glacial successions. Known as the WΓΌrm Glaciation (Ice age of the Alpine region of Europe), the time period during which the story takes place (circa 30,000 years ago) just before the Last Glacial Maximum (~22,000 years ago). Since, the glaciers have retreated during the interglacial we live in today. While this barely puts a dent into the depth of Geologic Time, this setting helps to immerse the non-scientist into the ice age. I was first turned onto this simple by the map on the inside cover of Valley of Horses. The website Don's Maps is awesome in general, but a series of maps can be found there that illustrate all the the areas visited through the series. 

Ethnobotany

The study of the direct use of plants by indigenous or folk medicine. Auel outdoes herself here! Amazing! While many have criticized her work for this aspect, claiming it is boring to read through pages and pages of plant descriptions or decoction preparations. But this... THIS is what kept me motivated! At times I had wished she gave more detail! While I did not try most of what was written, there are a fair number of things that have become staples in my life; mostly herbal field tea :). Yep... I LOVE picking some leaves from the field and making a strong tea. Its novel. Its fun. But mostly, I feel like it connects me to the place.
There are times I have startled people while walking along and I let out a "Oh my!". Its just a plant, but the abrupt surprised tone is usually mistaken as a snake sighting. 

Archaeology- Cave Art:

Ok...maybe this is where she outdoes herself! While the ethnobotany is lengthy for most of the series, in the final book The Land of Painted Caves is full of lengthy descriptions of the caves and the art within. Because Auel puts you inside of Ayla's head, you get to experience these caves in a way that a map, diagram, or scientific explanation never could. I will never go to these caves, but I have the best remote experience of them short of a full-body VR experience. Auel's writing is that good in this type of detail. Its not everybody's cup of tea.

Off topic from the book series, but this is a great TED by Genevieve von Petzinger is my favorite current snippet on thoughts about cave art: 

Spirituality: from Totems to The Mother

I covered exactly how the spirituality discussed in this series actually had an impact on my spiritual journey, but I didnt reveal much about the details presented in the book. This academic paper by Michel Clasquin-Johnson out of the University of South Africa does a really great job at summarizing the two major 'religions' described in the book. 

Basically, the Neanderthals-humans of the Clan, and associated flathead clans, all practice a form of Totemism. In their religion, they focus on a spirit animal that acts as a 'totem' for each person and even for each clan. The Cave Bear is the Clans totem, while also being the Mog-ur Creb's personal totem. This perspective is very much on the animist end of theology and there doesnt seem to be any form of direct worship of phenomenon other than an extreme respect for the processes impact on their lives. 

The Sapiens-humans of the series practice a form of matrifocal Earth-mother goddess religion. Jondalar first talks to Ayla about the mother Doni early in their friendship/courtship. This Doni is clearly a concept based on the archaeological interpretations of Paleolithic goddess statutes excavated from Europe. The trajectory of his descriptions of the Mother and his tribes beliefs plays out through the rest of the series as Ayla eventually takes on a spiritual-leader role in not one, but two tribes: the Mamutoii and the Zelandonii. Auel's writing on this aspect of human society is fairly rich.

The Mother's Song

Aside from the book, here is a TEDx talk that discusses the "Root of Religion".

I also particularly like many of the details and relations that Nicklas B. Failla writes about, as religion pertains to the use of entheogens. Specifically psychoactive fungi. Or more recently Paul Stamets gives an amazing, all-encompassing talk on the interconnections between mycology (fungi) and spirituality or consciousness.
I digress... point here is RELIGION as connected with cultures that are a reflection of their landscape.

The Zelandonii were of the land... and there is something inherently spiritual about that.

Tribalism and the Archaic Revival
By now this has been quite the trip, but as stated in the opening "I think it provides critical elements for the future of humanity."

I'm serious. 

Daniel Quinn is another of my favorite authors. Earth's Children is a novel informed by archaeological research but is far-and-away a craft of fiction. Daniel Quinn's trilogy of books surrounding the gorilla Ishmael is on a different level, as it is composed more of teachings of factual information about the current of human civilization but faceted in the ring of a fictional story. Clever writer that DQ. RIP. 

The books Ishmael, Story of B, and My Ishmael rock the foundation on which we today in modern civilization operate in the world. His analogies of Takers and Leavers, weaving through thought experiments and fictional tribes of Cawks (the Ells, Emms, Enns, etc.), and blunt speeches given by the character B (The Boiling Frog) take ones mind beyond human ideology and into a realm of human-animal nature. I cannot do more here to encapsulate any of the profound vision communicated in his books (there are many more than the above mentioned three), than just to say: look at the name of this blog. We are B at The B within Us. I am not Jondalar or Ayla, but I do identify with the character B. An antichrist. 

Ok... why did I bring up some other author's books? Because a major underlying message in Quinn's writing is that this is not working, how did this occur, now that you know how can we move beyond. 'This' refers to the Anthropocene, basically. 'This' is human domination of the planet over the rest of the Gaian evolved ecology we grew up in. The last 10,000ish years of 'our cultures' totalitarian agriculture and accompanying patriarchal social regime is not 'working' for most of the planets biological systems.

A conclusion derived by Quinn and readers is "there is no one right way to live" and for most of Homo sapiens history our social organization has been Tribalism. In this online course from Khan Academy on World History from beginning to 600 BCE does a pretty good job at giving a strait forward linear history through the "Agricultural Revolution". But generalizing the time period and the complex history ends up marginalizing and simplifying how complex both 'hunter-gatherer' lifestyles were and how complex the agricultural take-over. 

Tribalism has a bad rap in our modern vernacular, especially if one thinks we are applying this to politics. Here is an article that uses Tribalism as a very negative way in which people circle-jerk ideologies and are eroding democratic principles. Another lengthy article on the use of the work "tribe" and "tribalism" in politics. I add these references because I feel this is one of the strongest associations folks have when I say "tribalism", they immediately think of the "group think" and "herd mentality" the right-wing, conservative Republicans of the 201X decade and climaxing in the presidential reign of DJT #45.

That is the slippery side of tribalism, then, is: if I believe "if there is no one right way to live" but the tribal group next to me does think there is one right way to live and they feel like exerting that way upon me... the obviously there is conflict. Even worse, today we cant have a real form of tribalism because todays "tribes" are not defined by geography, family relations, type of work, food, or even religious beliefs...but instead entrenched in ideology. the Trump Tribe or Tea Party Tribe or any of the other NeoCon political tribes seem to group up for a handful of reasons that revolve around one four ideologies: Patriarchy, Monotheism, National/racial Supremacy, and Capitalism. These are a deadly combination, and our planet (us included) are suffering the wrath of these four ideologies.

Overcoming these is a gigantic feat. But I believe encouraging Tribalism is the best bet our species has for a future. Im not talking change in a generation, but changes over several generations.
No doubt, there will be some tribes of real shitty people. But in tribalism, if someone as part of the tribe is going against the tribal law (being a shitty person), they are dealt with through the tribal law and that behavior is not [ideally] replicated. So, there may be entire tribes of shitty people, but ideally they are not living among you making life shitty everyday. In tribalism we have the opportunity to 'weed out' bad behavior within the tribe. This is very idealistic, I realize, and doesnt come without hard work or harsh punishment... but I will remind you that those things are rampant in our social organization today, so arguing against tribalism because of the potential for brutality is a mute point for me when people are still stabbed in my community for "being black". A tribalism-type mentality still inflicting us, after all it is the social structure we evolved into (just like bison evolved into herds, or bees into a hive) but our HUGE system of governance has no room for tribal differences at the lower levels. There is ONE law to rule ALL the land: FEDERAL. Im not advocating here for dismantling the Federal government and overturning rule to the states, geesh. I like having an over-arching Federal government, and I actually believe it should have more power in many cases. But municipalities should also have more power and decision making ability. Even if they are, that is still not tribalism. A tribe is not a city or a voting block; this is not politics. A political systems emerges from a social organization, emerges from the tribe.

In this discussion on tribalism, I am also not referring to the modern day legal term applied to Native Americans by the Federal Government. Though these people once lived in tribes and practiced tribalism, and in some ways probably still do, the Federal recognized tribe for the purpose of governance is not the same as the tribal arrangement those people once had. Today's Federal recognized tribe is a concept derived from the European-style of governance, not an indigenous- system derived to adapt to the European-style of governance. However, that template (Federal Recognition) is certainly the best to work with for moving tribalism into the future. 

Am I talking about Neotribalism? Often any concept that seems to be resurrected from a more ancient, broken lineage, seems to have a neo- prefix on it, such as Neopaganism or Neoliberalism. Neotribalism was first used by Michel Maffesoli in sociology literature (here is a 2014 online article of his on looking at neotribalism). There are sociological data showing that modern society, well individuals at least, are suffering because of lack of community, spending more time away from the family or tribal unit for work or commute, and moving from the "place we grow up". Since the 1950's, these have become commonplace in the American norm and has destroyed civic pride.

But fear not! Tribalism is on the rise!
Here is a great example of how tribalism is emerging: Buti Yoga. "Buti" is pronounced "booty", but do not be fooled this is a serious holistic practice of (neo)yoga. The 'founder' Buzzie gold is adamant that this is not just a fitness program but a lifestyle program for women to build tribe. The teachers and practitioners of Buti Yoga are referred to as 'butisattva': empowered badass tribal warrior women. You can read/listen/watch more on your own:

I am encouraged by this type of movement and hope to see other forms of tribalism move into our communities.

Another modern concept gathering steam that supports a tribalism lifestyle is ReWilding. There is a human-body component (this TED is an example, this another) of this movement, but more importantly in the functioning and practice of tribes living on a landscape is nature rewilding. Here is a great TED talk on the topic and the Rewilding Institute has a great podcast.

OK, back-up. What? Rewilding the landscape and the rise of tribalism are related? Well, not necessarily related movements... but for bioregional tribalism to work... humans will need to have access to wild lands (i.e. the commons of old) and we will inevitable be wilder after we shed our globalism ways. I like this article that uses the term 'rewilding' as a digital detox. 

Pre-historical, or even modern-day, tribal peoples did not have the advantage of "standing on the shoulders of giants" in the same way modern global society does today. Usually the first critique of Tribalism or any type of paleolithic lifestyle being a viable for today is "well yeah, and the life expectancy was like 35 years old" and "modern civilization would not be possible" etc. etc.

No one is suggesting we go back to the stone-age. Time is linear and only moves forward. There is not way we can go back; we cant just unlearn totalitarian agriculture, reading, or modern tools. 

Look, for the most of human history as anatomically modern Homo sapiens we have been tribal. It worked, and we havnt figured out anything better. We have tried. And on a global scale. Not that what we have tried in the last 10,000 years global is exactly a failure, but shit... at one point do we consider it so? When the ocean is anoxic and void of life? I think there are plenty of environmental signs that show us this is not working. But we cant, nor should we, 'go back'. Lets go forward with what we have learned. Isnt that what we always should do as we make mistakes? Learn, change, and try again. 

In this year, 2020, we DO stand on the shoulders of giants. What you learn in a month this year may be the entirety of what your ancestor could have learned in a life time in the 1700's. We stand on the pillars of The Great Acceleration (post 1950), the giants of classical science, the Renaissance, the Roman Aqueducts, and back to the founding cultures of civilization with various forms of agriculture. But, let us not forget that those people--the first farmers--were standing on the shoulders of giants that had figured out how to keep our species on this planet for nearly 200,000 years prior. 

Lets recognize that style of human society as a success, and not a time of our past to be ashamed of. The way that tribal peoples were treated during the colonial era of Europe, spreading across continents murdering the savages, is the primary example of how the tribes-people have been viewed in the progress of civilization. "Obviously these people don't know what the fuck they are doing or how to live in the one right true way. Here is a bible, some respectable clothes, a plow, and your training in farming. Get with the program or die". And this, often, is still the way people think of those that are living in tribes. 

So, what does this look like? IDFK...but I imagine it cannot be socially engineered like the systems we have become accustomed to. We cant just make a tribal program. Just as we evolved into this construct, we will need to once again organically evolve into it.
Here are some concepts to ponder: 
The 'extended family' concept. 


More modern topics that lean-into tribalism:
Ecotechnology
The Ecotechnic Future
Sacred Futurism (please read this one, its powerful)

The Archaic Revival is... well... exactly what the terms say: a revival of the archaic, a re-life of the very old. The context in which Terrance McKenna used this terminology was, of course, in ourselves. In humanity. Is a return to a form of tribal living part of the archaic revival? Is this nonsense even possible? Do we have a choice? Yes, and for a while. But what choices will our grandchildren have?

Not a return to simpler times, but allowing the old ideas that were good be resurrected now that we have admonished many of the old bad ideas. Modern scientific methodology has brought about an extreme sort of knowing to the matter around us, yet we seem dumber and dumber to the very sense of living. In the search for knowledge we have lost a type of intelligence, but we can regain it. It is not a secret, or some hidden sacred knowledge tucked away in a book somewhere, or to be uttered in the future by some non-sense-ist. It is already here, and among us... but our extreme form of knowing has erected gigantic walls of doubt, failure, and and fear. 


1 comment: