Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Web of Wyrd and Pulling Opportunities Out of the Landscape

            While agriculture multiplied the productivity of an area of land, it also pulled the opportunities right out of the landscape by monopolizing an area through which previously people would have wandered, and through serendipity, came right in contact with their needs. Now, it is not all as simple as that in the real world, and a foraging lifestyle does require great attunement with nature, and tending to the "wild orchards" within one's range, but on the whole, this does hold true. There is a great difference between a "range", and transforming that range into private property that is dedicated to one purpose and one purpose alone, against which all other uses have been excluded, and living beings extraneous to that purpose are thereby transformed into either "weeds" or "pests".

            But in a wild meadow, or in a forest or jungle, or even in wetlands, there is a webwork of interwoven diversity within which opportunities abound and surprises await. The sense of being intermeshed within a serendipitous weave that, it is true, weaves both serendipity and peril together, is far more palpable living in such environments.

            And if we observe the brachiating motion of our primate cousins as they swing through the trees -- and often one gets a sense of the jouissance, the sheer joy of being alive as they do so, similar to the sense one gets when Spiderman swings on his webs so freely throughout the city -- we can see in this "monkeybar"ing a kinesthetic experience of motion through a three-dimensional web, which, if you think about the treescape through which they traverse, a forest actually is. If one wanted to find an evolutionary grounding for the metaphysical belief that human beings are caught in a web or net of fate, such as the concept of wyrd in the Norse, or Indra's Net in the Hindu-influenced cultures, one might find it right here in the life-experience of moving through a rich meshwork. Anyone who has actually "bush-walked" and gone into the "thick of the bush" rather than staying on the trails knows this feeling in a palpable, kinesthetic sense. It is a completely different sense than the wide-openness of clearings and trails. Heidegger grounds "truth" in clearings, alethia, but it's safe to say that a great deal of the animals with whom we share the world would dispute clearings as comfortable places. In fact, they can be quite unsafe for animals. Hunters, in fact, often speak of "flushing out" prey "into the open". It may be that for animals, truth as well as safety would be found "in the thick/et", "in the midst of things", "in the nooks and crannies".

            Let's examine a nonagricultural environment where the demographics are not overcrowded. A gibbon is swinging and leaping through the three-dimensional meshwork of the branches. There, spontaneously, growing on its own, in differential distribution, lie fruits, of various varieties, blessings "growing on trees" (the one who first said "money doesn't grow on trees" never ran an avocado orchard!) in direct response to the sun and the soil. What is this but a palpable sense that the environment itself holds opportunities? And that simply by wandering, by enjoying one's energetic meandering through the web of the world, one will come upon ways to feed one's needs! In many of the world's eschatologies, we can see a longing expressing itself towards this condition of life which held for 99% of humanity's long evolution on earth, and certainly for the entirety of higher life itself. In Voluspa, the Norse prophecy of the overturning of the ages of ill, the new age is heralded by grains which grow themselves without needing to be sown : blessings growing from the earth itself without need to apply labor, planning, or micromanage the soil.

            But once agriculture monopolizes an area of land, nothing good will happen unless one intentionally makes it happen, and, as before mentioned, anything happening other than the good hoped for is almost automatically seen, by nature of the situation, in a paranoid fashion as an enemy. In the forest (or the wild meadow, etc.), the law is : Doing nothing, wandering about, one finds fruit. But this law is overturned in agriculture. In agriculture, this becomes : Doing nothing, wandering about, one starves. And, For anything good to happen at all, great effort is needed, and care, because the universe conspires against our plans. Where wandering exists at all in agrarian societies, it is usually in the form of a rural proletariat, or hired farmhands who wander from farm to farm, particularly at harvest times, who are indispensable, and yet who, instead of being masters of their own serendipity like the foragists, are often terribly exploited. There is as well some marginal hunting that happens amongst farmers fortunate enough to have retained some outlying wild lands, and in fact, amongst peasants who still maintain some connection to the older, more communal forms of land tenure, "the commons" are tenaciously defended -- pastures, meadowlands, and woodlands -- and there, to a limited degree, some of the older evolutionary possibilities can find expression. But the class dynamic in peasant societies often creates contradictions whereby the commons are increasingly whittled away, if not barred altogether by landlords who encroach, expropriate, and monopolize them. People in general face an increasingly domesticated landscape where the yields may prove much greater per acre (and yet we might pause here to note the fairly productive capacities of permaculture, which combines some of the serendipity of the old foragist systems with some of the design and planning of agricultural systems) than in wild forms, but often with less variety, and certainly without spontaneity. The crops do not grow on their own. (Although they once did : the Middle East/Fertile Crescent area was once home to wide swathes of meadows of wild wheat, which was so abundant that families could work at harvesting the wheat for two weeks a year and have enough for the rest of the year! And as long as the demographics stayed in proportion to what was wildly available, this remained the condition of the people. But once population expanded to the point that people needed to move beyond the range where wheat grew wildly, but where they wanted to continue to eat wheat, rather than changing their diet to suit the new environments, then intentional cultivation became a relative necessity.)

            All animals use "implements" in a manner of speaking to make use of their environment, but for most of them, they grow these implements as parts of their own bodies : fangs, claws, digging snouts, wings, and so forth. But human beings have learned to improvise their way throughout the world, and invent the implements that could prove useful to making use of new parts of the environment, and thus, have become very successful, able to make the nests of birds (and build homes), extend the teeth of animals by placing sharp rocks on poles to make spears, and eventually, to even extend themselves into parts of the electromagnetic spectrum for which their natural senses do not extend. So there are additional creative potentialities that developed and were constantly burgeoning and bursting within human beings. Human beings were not limited to the stereotyped cycles of other beings, and thus, both exiled and freed from that "cyclic eternity". A human being is not limited to strict mimicry, but can extrapolate, modify, and rearrange. When a human being uses a nest as a model to build a home, and many of the first homes were indeed wattle and daub just as many birds' nests are, the human being can, at least over time, identify the principles involved in that building, and modify them in an experimental way, either to meet a need corresponding to the environment, or just for the sheer creative joy of tinkering and discovering. We know that human beings were being inventive very early on in our evolution, and we find traces of this (but certainly should not limit our conception of the breadth of this to) in tinkering with, and eventually intentionally manufacturing, rocks to make shaped, sharp, deliberate tools. This use of manufactured rock, which was no doubt accompanied by the crafting of wood and vine and twine and other materials which unfortunately do not survive in the fossil record, is in fact why we call those times "the stone ages".

            The inventiveness and creativity of the species meant that it was constantly discovering new ways to eke opportunities out of nature, and this very success gave it a very real possibility of overexploiting an area, which would then require, if starvation was not to wipe them out, to find new ways of eking needs from nature. Humans eventually discovered that with proper design and care, the soil could support a great deal more produce than without that care, and management began to take its first strong foothold on the planet. In fact, agriculture in some ways was so spectacularly successful that it enabled, even with subsistence farming, not only the feeding of the people farming, but a small surplus on top of things, which, if coordinated or collected together in some way, either through a market of some kind, or taxation in some form and redistribution, could become a force in its own right, despite the paucity of that surplus. In fact, the sharing-ethos developed within the social evolutionary strategy of the human race, whereby people became successful through banding together and sharing in groups, mandated that collection and redistribution became the first forms of bringing the surplus together. (The market, despite the fantasies of some "free market" thinkers, came much later. It was not original, nor would such a separated, alienated form be the first spontaneous method that would occur to people.) The tribal council led by its elected chief would usually be the agent coordinating decisions around collection as well as distribution. A centralized treasury allowed for specialists of various kinds to be supported on a more full-time basis : artisans, shamans, and increasingly, as the system got more complex, administrators to take care of the work of coordination. From these sources, the division of labor expanded, and from that, tendencies towards civilization itself, as a mass complex of coordinated specialists, and of course, without an internet or phone system to bridge great distances, there was need to collect these specialists together in a centralized location to facilitate coordination, and thus we get the arising of the city, which then becomes not only a coordination center, but a control center as well (and thus an active potential for exploitation) over the rural areas, and the split between town and country, urban and rural, arises for the first time in history. These landmark changes in the living conditions of human beings are not incidentals, but powerfully shape people's experiences, and thus, in complex and nonlinear ways, but often direct ways as well, their conceptions of the world. A forest is not a farm is not a city, and the way one lives has powerful impacts on one's view of the world. Once there is a treasury, one is not limited by the necessities of an agricultural relation to the land ; rather, one simply has to find ways of relating advantageously to the managers and grantors of that treasury by holding out some sort of service deemed useful by them.

The result of this agrarian revolution and its urban exudation (which then reacts back upon its base and takes charge through coordination) is that it clears the meshwork of nature and replaces it with linearity, identifying only the most mechanical, and obviously effective levers in the system that will serve the ruling interests. Anything not mechanical and obvious becomes the realm of fickle fate, of cruel chance, of perilous fortune, and so forth, which reduces more and more to superstition and its specialists. Those not immersed in superstition eventually separate out the mechanical, obvious effects of nature, and these eventually become codified into science, culminating in Newton's laws summarizing all the known mechanical effects of the world. And yet since the advent of electromagnetic theory, relativity, and quantum physics, we know that we are in fact enmeshed in three-dimensional (and beyond!) webworks of forces, distributing themselves in a differential flux governed by various probabilities, with the resultant vectors emerging out as the mechanical laws identified by Newton. In a sense, energetically, we know now that we are still in the trees, in the webwork, and that webwork holds all kinds of unseen opportunities for us through scientific creativity. There is thus an opportunity to reclaim the bodily, kinesthetic sense of the brachiating monkey swinging through the forest searching for opportunities, and we can see how this outlook is in emergent struggle with the other historically-developed ways of looking at things, the agrarian and urban ethos. If the cosmos is a meshwork, how can we design our societies in ways that more correspond to these opportunities? These musings provide a font for creativity in action.


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