Which way is up?
What is it about some people which allows them to go on acquiring things when the need has passed?
The preceding question is not rhetorical. The "people" in question is us.
I was reading an article a while back, part of a collection of readings in anthropology. Anthropology is not normally a subject which entices me to read on but in this case my eye was caught by what seemed to be a piece describing a new view of some of the 'hunter-gatherer' tribes of southern Africa.
There is a sequence of survival techniques through which mankind has ensured its continuance over the millennia, each one presumably a little more sophisticated than the last; and leading (of course) by a steady progression up to us. Never before us has there been a society in which so many people were able to concern themselves with matters that did not directly concern the provision of food.
at a good hunter-gatherer would have to say about it all
Looked at from here, from this pinnacle of another sort of evolution, the 'hunter-gatherer' is so far beneath us as to be almost out of sight. What is a 'hunter-gatherer' you ask? To use another common phrase, a 'hunter-gatherer' is someone who leads a 'hand-to-mouth' existence. Survival becomes everything and survival depends on a successful hunt or a successful gathering of available vegetables, fruits, etc., from the environment, since 'hunter-gatherers' do not take thought for the morrow either by raising animals themselves or by growing their own food.
The classic anthropological view of tribes living this way was a horrified finger-pointing at what seemed to be almost unimaginable poverty. These people literally had nothing they could call their own. Furthermore, so conventional wisdom said, they were without a clear sense of thrift, since, if they did succeed in killing a large animal, they would immediately have a big feast and eat the whole thing with much rejoicing, but without thinking about what they would eat the next day.
What can you say about people who violate some of the most cherished shibboleths of western society? Since they don't own anything, they have no need for money and since they have no money, they don't need banks to keep it in or stock exchanges to lose it in. Furthermore, since no one has a chance to have more than someone else there can be no social order based on wealth. What poverty! What misery! Poor benighted savages! They don’t even have pockets.
What nobody seemed to take into account, in all this moral handwringing, was that the people themselves were happy. They sang songs as they went about their 'miserable' lives, they all rejoiced when there was a major feast. Aside from the fact that they were not living as the anthropologists lived, when looked at in terms of the way they were living, on their terms, they were living very well.
Not even the new anthropologists are about to advocate that we should all throw away the keys to house and car and take up hunting-gathering as a way to happiness. They are saying something more profound. They are acknowledging that they are seeing value where none had been seen before. Now, in what marks an anthropological about-face, the hunter-gatherers of southern Africa are being recognized not as the bottom of the heap but in fact as a pinnacle of one kind of human development.
I consider this news rather ruefully. Consumer that I am I look about me at house and barn and outbuildings, all of which are mine by virtue of a piece of paper that says they are mine. Then there is the grass which must be mowed, the pastures that must be fenced, the creatures which are mine and expect to be looked after, all the goods and chattels, etc., etc., down to the growing pile of junk mail which comes into the house as regularly as bills but takes up more space and is largely unusable even for lighting fires because it is all stuck or stapled together. I suspect it comes back to us as more junk mail - after being recycled.
I note with some dismay that there is a growing list of 'how-to' books which seek to tell you how to deal with 'the paper pile-up' or how to organize your life or how to deal with clutter. I have even sent away for one myself. A daughter says it is terrific.
One thing for sure. No moving van will ever get us out of here. If we were to leave – heaven forbid! – it would probably be about as tidy as continental drift – and about as fast.
I hate to think what a good hunter-gatherer would have to say about it all.
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.