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Monday, August 23, 2010
Finding My Way through "The Wayfinders"
By John Taylor; 2010 Aug 23, Asma 03, 167 BE
The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, by Wade Davis, Anansi, 2009
Such is the pull of many competing media, and the energy it takes for me to keep a wife and two computer addicted kids away from screens at least a few hours each day, that my reading has diminished far more than it should. This spring I slowly worked through just one book, The Wayfinders, by Wade Davis. I was very impressed with it. How did I stumble across it? What happened was that I was writing some essays about wisdom and I thought of searching for the word "wisdom" in the titles of books in the local library. This was the only one available, and it was on the "New Books" shelf. I read the first few pages and was disappointed to find that I had already heard much of the book on the radio. But I plodded on regardless. Here is how one reviewer started off assessing this book,
"It seems odd that we need to be reminded that there are many ways of knowing the world, and that all of them are valuable. I know a carpenter in Ontario who has built dozens of houses, and yet is illiterate; one of the most successful farmers in our area has never read a book except the Bible. These are everyday examples. Wade Davis, in the 2009 Massey Lectures, now published in book form as The Wayfinders, goes further afield and presents many more striking cases of so-called primitive cultures that made mind-boggling contributions to the sum total of human knowledge, before being overrun by the juggernaut of progress." <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/books/review-the-wayfinders-by-wade-davis/article1379145/>
Davis describes how these far flung islanders in the Pacific figured out how to navigate the hugest ocean on the planet, using only the knowledge and dead reckoning of one "wayfinder," sitting silent at the rear of an outrigger. He describes the strange world view of a tribe in the Amazon whose shamans tell them, "Do not fish or hunt here because the gods say we should not." Unlike the West, for which nothing is sacred, these untouchable areas allow the local ecology to recover from the impact of their hunting and fishing in other places.
He tells of the Aboriginals of Australia, the hunter gatherers of South Africa, each of which has a unique and amazingly ancient heritage -- the South African tribe is more diverse, genetically and linguistically, than anywhere else. The Australian Aboriginals have been in the same place for some sixty thousand years, by far the oldest continuous language and culture in the world, all the more tragic because they were hunted to the brink of extinction by white English speaking newcomers in the 19th Century. The above reviewer adds,
"The aboriginal peoples of Australia, once a million strong, now reduced to about half that, spoke 270 languages. They are the closest descendants of the first human beings to leave Africa and so represent one of the great experiments in human thought. But they were hunted like animals by white settlers. Today, we are losing those languages at the rate of one per year; only 18 are now spoken by more than 500 people."
The story of this loss of languages reminded me why I am an Esperantist. We think of English as the international language and universal culture, and forget that we are speaking the language of imperialism, the language of genocide.
If the international language were Esperanto, local languages like these would be free to thrive without angering speakers of nationalist languages, which are in direct competition with far older and richer aboriginal languages. For example, where I live the tribe who were here originally, the Neutrals, were wiped out completely by the non-neutrals living around them, and their language is now long dead too. Most folks around here could not even name the tribe, much less speak their language.
English and other national languages are the tongues of the perpetrators of cultural, linguistic and literal genocide around the world. I speak Esperanto to my kids not because it is useful but as a political statement. Nobody is listening, least of all my kids, but it is a statement nonetheless. We cannot afford not to have a neutral language internationally. We cannot afford to say, with Zap Brannigan, "Your neutrality sickens me!"
"Why does ancient wisdom matter? Because these people lived on Earth for millennia without destroying it, whereas Europeans have been improving the New World (having already trashed the Old) for barely 500 years, and have brought it to the edge of ecological extinction. The entire purpose of humanity, according to aboriginal thought, Davis writes, is not to improve anything. It is to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation."
As I got into the book, I thought that surely this is one of the most important books of our time. It is the book that Ruhiyyih Khanum would write if she were around today. It even traces the sad story of the Mentawi, a nomadic tribe in Borneo among whom one of my favorite Hands of the Cause, Dr. Muhajir, cut his teeth. I plan to scan in the two stories, one of Dr. Muhajir among them and the other Davis' account of what happened to the Mentawi in the 1990's -- when I get my scanner going again.
Davis speaks of one proposal in British Columbia to extract hydrocarbon by utterly trashing the headwaters of three major rivers, a place sacred to native peoples for millennia.
"Environmental concerns aside, think for a moment what these proposals imply about our culture. We accept it as normal that people who have never been on the land, who have no history or connection to the country, may legally secure the right to come in and by the very nature of their enterprise leave in their wake a cultural and physical landscape utterly transformed and desecrated." (Wayfinders, pp. 117-118)
Unfortunately, since this book is based on Massey lectures on the CBC, and considering the fact that Wayfinders was published in Canada, I figured it hardly likely that Davis' book would have the impact on the world that it deserves. I was wrong. The latest Scientific American, September 2010, has a photo essay based on The Wayfinders, called, "Last of their Kind, The world's cultures have been disappearing, taking valuable knowledge with them, but there is reason to hope." If you cannot get ahold of Davis' book, at least check out this brief article on your local magazine rack.
"By their very existence the diverse cultures of the world bear witness to the folly of those who say we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet."