Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pastoralism as a Factor in the Development of the Concept of Wod

Herders are well familiar with the phenomenon of turbulence which is central to the conception of wod. "It can be said that a turbulent flow is a flow which is disordered in time and space ... a turbulent flow must be unpredictable, in the sense that a small uncertainty as to its knowledge at a given initial time will amplify so as to render impossible a precise deterministic prediction of its evolution..." (Marcel Lesieur, Turbulence in Fluids, Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 2008, p. 2.) A less technical way of driving this point home is to point out that herders are extremely dependent on the weather, with all its unpredictable variations.

Pastoralists in particular are subject to sometimes wild fluctuations in rainfall which can create boom-and-bust cycles in their flocks, and thus their food supply. "With highly variable rainfall (both in time and space), pastoral economies are typically of the "bust and boom" type: a "boom" when rainfall is plentiful and herds and flocks grow, and a "bust" when drought (or late winter storms in Central Asia) occurs and animals die." (Cees de Haan, Henning Steinfeld, Harvey Blackburn, Livestock and the Environment : Finding a Balance, Report of Study by the Commission of the European Communities, WRENmedia, Suffolk, 1996, Chapter 2 : "Livestock Grazing Systems and the Environment".) "More recently analysts have noted that in dry lands biological populatoins fluctuate widely between boom cycles, when rain permits rapid population growth, and busts, when drought kills the excess animals." ("Pastoralism", in Karen Christensen, David Levinson, Encyclopedia of Community, Berkshire Publishing Group LLC, Thousand Oaks, California, 2003, p. 1056.)

When times are good, and grass is green and abundant, the temptation to multiply one's herds mounts, and yet a baby boom of one lush season can easily give way to the famine of the next if feed supplies run low due to sudden drought. Life becomes preciously dependent on turbulent flows that by their very nature are not completely predictable, and thus the struggle in these cultures is to find an approach to life capable of coping with this turbulence without failing to take advantage of whatever gains may be had from it in the meantime.

A logical response to boom-and-bust cycles, stemming from survival imperatives, is to exercise moderation. Over-conservatism can be debilitating inasmuch as moderate risk-taking can yield greater prosperity, but in a turbulent environment, over-risking can too easily lead to bust conditions, yielding a paradoxical model of moderation that might be called "cautious risk-taking". This approach moderates the gambler's dilemma, whereby lucky wins motivate the gambler to keep gambling until all resources have been lost. Criminals are often subject to the same dilemma ; it has been observed many times that bank robbers might well escape detection and be well off with their stash if they did not become greedy and keep robbing banks. Moderate risk taking can yield comfortable levels of prosperity that might otherwise be unavailable, but risk-taking taken past the point of reasonable audacity easily leads to a fall.

Thus, an approach to life that is lived in good faith with wod engages and plays with turbulence through moderate gambling and a willingness to take risks at times when the time seems right, but always with an attitude of attuned caution. This resolves the paradox of how Woden, the "Master of Wod", can rule over flows as wild as turbulence, and yet advise moderation throughout the Havamal, his manual of rede on how to achieve the good life.


Blogger Morning Angel said...

Regarding moderation, the denizens of the Sagas echo the Havamal.

Kveldulf (Skallagrim's father) says, "Just avoid aiming too high or contending with stronger men than yourself, but never give way to them either."

Ingjald (Grim's father), says, "There is more honour in accumulating little by little than in reaching for the sky and ending up flat on your face."

No doubt there are more (and better) examples than these two which spring to mind.

10:28 AM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Thank you for this fleshing out. I love the nuance in the speech of sagamen! They have pragmatism, yet do not submit ; they keep with the earthiness of the world, and yet have ambition that conceives prosperity. Great quotes! It is critical to differentiate and even separate "moderation", which in a sense is an active conservation of excellence, from "mediocrity". I think in the popular mind these are often equated. There is also Aristotle's point, that sometimes, at least when one is beginning to approach life, one must actually explore the extremes in order to find where the middle-place lies. Moderation is the fruit of wildness, not the jailer who would keep us from exploring the wooliness of our will.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Morning Angel said...

I'm either obsessive or just a nerd, but another saga quote came to mind as I was lying about in bed this morning. By golly, I don't recall at the moment where it is from, but for what it's worth...

"Brief is the life of excess."

If there's time later, I'll look for the source.

6:25 AM  

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