Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’

Wild Animals

Monday, June 12th, 2017

Chavita On A Galisteo Starry Night 72

Chavita On A Galisteo Starry Night painting by Nolan Winkler

“Of all the lessons I have learned from the natural world, the most compelling is this: thousands of different kinds of us are here, doing what we must to meet our basic needs. Our methods are different, but our object is the same.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

There has been much news lately, locally and around the state, about mountain lions eating cats and dogs. How local? This morning we got word from a neighbor (a hundred yards away) that a trio of big pumas had just emerged from the forest and strolled across her driveway.

A new report by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reveals the stomach contents of 83 mountain lions were composed largely of cats, dogs, and other domesticated animals. And of the lions examined, only 5 per cent had eaten deer.

When my sister lived in Los Angeles in the 1980s, she had two big beautiful cats. When those cats were three-years-old, my sister witnessed a huge hawk snatch one them off her patio; and a few days later she watched the other cat killed by a coyote twenty feet from her house.

Which is to say, not only mountain lions eat cats and dogs.

“Few animals are as capable or resourceful as pumas or have been as successful. Even today, after having been exterminated throughout much of their former range, pumas are returning in eastern Canada and New England, where their habits seem to differ somewhat from the habits of western pumas in that they are even more shy.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Yesterday was a day filled with sightings of wild animals. In the morning, I was sitting on the deck on the south side of our house, enjoying the long-awaited sun, when up through a knothole, about ten feet away from me, came a glossy brown-and-tan snake, three-feet long. She slid along the deck and down into our vegetable garden, and when I stood up to see where the snake was going, she made an abrupt U-turn and slithered back under the deck. I think she was a Coast Patch-nosed snake, but she might have been a garter snake.

I was still tingling from my snake sighting when two bright yellow birds came zooming into the yard and began rummaging around in the ferns and berry bushes adjacent to our deck. I assumed these birds were goldfinches, but when I perused my bird book, the Wilson’s warbler became a suspect, too. What fabulous energy these little birds have.

Hours later, walking home from town, as I climbed the steep stretch of Little Lake Road just east of Highway One, a large skunk approached, walking down the hill with great determination, oblivious to me and the passing cars. Knowing skunks have poor eyesight and excellent hearing, I said loudly, “Hello cutie,” and the skunk reacted by raising his tale as he continued his downhill march. So I gave him a wide berth, he lowered his tail, and when he was another twenty feet down the hill, he left the road and entered the woods.

“Well-meaning human vegetarians notwithstanding, cats must eat animal protein or they slowly decline and eventually starve. Not for them the comfortable middle ground, eating meat one day and berries the next, and no carrion either. Fresh meat killed by themselves or by their mothers is virtually the only item on the feline menu.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

When I was forty-two, I became a vegan. Feeling poorly after a year on my vegan regimen, I went to an acupuncturist, she took my pulses, looked at my tongue, inquired about how I was feeling physically and emotionally, and opined that I would benefit greatly from the introduction of animal protein into my diet—fish and eggs if I was opposed to eating the flesh of warm-blooded animals.

But I was determined to stick to veganism and did so for another two years. My strength and stamina, as well as my tolerance for cold temperatures, diminished profoundly under the reign of veganism, though I made every effort to eat the proper combinations of foods and sufficient quantities to sustain me healthfully.

Then I blew out my knee. While convalescing and making little progress in healing, I consulted a dietician and an acupuncturist, and they both urged me to add animal protein to my diet, though not necessarily dairy products. Desperate to heal my knee and regain my strength, I added chicken and fish and eggs to my diet. And literally overnight I felt stronger and warmer and happier than I had felt in many years.

Nowadays, two or three times a week, I eat locally caught fish or locally raised chicken, and very occasionally pork from a local farm. We eat eggs we buy from our neighbor, and three or four days a week we are vegetarians, though not vegan. I have a gluten-free diet and do not eat dairy products. I find this diet sustaining and in no way a hardship, especially now that I have access to excellent locally made organic gluten-free bread.

We recently visited friends who raise two pigs a year from which they make pork chops and pork ribs and pork sausage. At supper I asked our hosts if they ever get emotionally attached to their pigs. They said they loved their pigs, petted them, bathed them, talked to them, brought them special treats, and killed and ate them with gratitude. I said I didn’t think I could do that—kill an animal I was emotionally attached to. Our friends said they were not sentimental people, and the meat of animals treated well tastes much better than the meat of animals treated poorly.

“The fact is, the important thing about big cats and small cats is not that they are different but that they are the same. And like so many other truths about cats, their sameness is due to their diet and their hunting.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I remember reading an article years ago about an exceedingly wealthy couple in Manhattan who invited a famous Chinese artist and his wife to dine with them in the wealthy couple’s spectacular apartment high above the city. When the Chinese guests were seated in the million-dollar living room, eating scrumptious hors d’oeuvres and sipping expensive wine, into the living room sauntered the wealthy couple’s cat, a magnificent blue gray behemoth.

Seeing the cat, the Chinese artist nodded appreciatively and said, “How good of you to purchase such a delicacy for our supper. We are deeply honored. Thank you.”

Huckleberries

Monday, April 10th, 2017

turn left at the moon tw

Turn Left At the Moon painting by Nolan Winkler

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

If even half the blossoms on the huckleberry bushes in the Mendocino area this year become fruit, then the huckleberry harvest will be by far the greatest since I moved here eleven years ago. Bushes on our property and in the surrounding woods that previously sported no blossoms or only a few are now white with hundreds and thousands of the lovely little bell-shaped flowers. And friends in nearby Albion report the huckleberry bushes thereabouts are also heavily freighted with flowers.

My guess is that the great rains of this seemingly interminable winter following four years of drought inspired the huckleberries to such prolificacy, though we must be careful not to celebrate too soon. Those myriad flowers must be pollinated, and the primary pollinators of huckleberry bushes are bumblebees; and the bumblebee population has been in decline due to the use of pesticides that should never have been invented, let alone deployed.

Alas, even if you and I and our close neighbors don’t use those ghastly poisons, it only takes a few shortsighted fools in the watershed spraying their shrubbery with bad stuff to decimate the bumblebees and honeybees in our area. Thus the fate of those blossoms is, literally, in the hands of fools and which way the winds blow.

But assuming we do have a bumper huckleberry crop, a few days of picking will fill our freezer with the dark little orbs for smoothies and pancakes and crisps throughout our next winter. And if the harvest is truly epic, we will make great quantities of jam and not have to wonder what to give our friends for Christmas this year.

Whenever I see huckleberries on their bushes, and especially when I am standing by a goodly bush grazing on the delicious fruit, I think of two novels by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife. These marvelous books are about a small population of hunter-gatherers living in Siberia 20,000 years ago, when wooly mammoths still roamed the earth and wolves were yet to be domesticated. And in each of these books there are vivid scenes in which bushes of wild berries are all that save the people from starvation and dehydration.

We think of the wild huckleberries hereabouts as delicious additions to our store-bought main courses, but twenty thousand years ago, such berries might have been the only thing we could find to eat for days on end, and we would have been gleeful to see the bushes as laden with blossoms as they are in Mendocino these thousands of years after the last wooly mammoth succumbed to human hunger.

I am currently reading a collection of intoxicating essays entitled Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a Scottish poet with a most intriguing way of writing about birds and stones and landscapes and the ocean. Published in 2012, two of the longer essays in this volume are about remote islands—St. Kilda and Rona—off the coast of Scotland. Jamie writes with exquisite sensitivity about the birds and plants and seals that live on these islands, and the killer whales patrolling those seas. Inhabited by humans for hundreds of years, these islands are no longer home to any people, with only the decaying ruins of the old colonies remaining.

For me, Jamie’s collection of essays composes a deep meditation on the interaction of humans with the natural world, and how that interaction has evolved into estrangement for most of us, though we need not be estranged. Jamie is obviously enmeshed with the natural world, and her essays show us how we might experience ourselves as integral parts of the fantastical whole of life on earth.

I’m hoping the local huckleberries will set in profusion and turn darkly purple and come to taste of divine earthly sugars, so I may stand in the dappled forest light and eat my fill as I give thanks to the nature spirits for bringing me the boon of life.

Of Cats and Food

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Django Yoga

Django Yoga photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)

“The story of cats is a story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas from The Tribe of Tiger

We have one cat now, a twelve-year-old shorthaired gray named Django. We almost lost him eighteen months ago to complications arising from his extreme obesity—he weighed over twenty pounds—and in order to save him we became draconian masters feeding him half as much as we used to and splitting that lesser amount into four meals a day to encourage stomach shrinkage. The results have been good. Django has lost nine pounds, is noticeably more energetic and agile, and our veterinarian recently declared him fit as a fiddle.

However, there is a new development with Django. Accustomed to eating much more than he needed for the first eleven years of his life, Django now feels hungry all the time except when he is sleeping. He would, I gather, prefer to feel how he used to feel: fat. To that end, he has become a big talker, if you know what I mean.

Django asks to be fed by persistently reciting in cat language the famous line from Oliver Twist, “Please, sir, I’d like some more.” Telling him to be quiet has no effect whatsoever when those hungry excess fat cells get the best of him. Fortunately, we have found that if we pet Django for a few minutes and explain in soothing tones why he has to wait a little longer for food, he is often mollified. This suggests that he is not so much hungry as insecure about not being fat anymore.

“If you want to save a species, simply decide to eat it. Then it will be managed—like chickens, like turkeys, like deer, like Canadian geese.” Ted Nugent

In other food news, in case you hadn’t noticed, the price of eggs has skyrocketed. Why? Food prices should be going down along with the plunging price of gasoline. But they aren’t, just as our utility bills are not going down, though they should be, too, since a large percentage of California’s electricity is generated by power plants burning oil. But I was speaking of eggs.

Egg prices have gone way up because Proposition 2, passed by sixty percent of California voters, mandates that all eggs sold in California must come from chickens that have enough room in their cages to fully extend their wings and turn around. Predictably, the egg barons are suing the state for unusual kindness to hens because such kindness means the egg barons must replace their current commercial henhouses in which egg-laying chickens cannot spread their wings and turn around, especially with ten hens jammed into a single cage—a common practice in the industry.

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” George Bernard Shaw

It was reported today that Max Scherzer, a very good pitcher of baseballs, has signed a seven-year deal with the Washington Nationals for 210 millions dollars. That comes to thirty million a year, a million dollars per game, and approximately ten thousand dollars per pitch. His record-breaking deal is also cleverly structured so Max will pay almost no income tax on the gargantuan fortune.

Also in today’s news was an article stating that by 2016, the wealthiest one per cent of human beings on earth (wealth measured by dollars) will have more wealth than the combined wealth of all the rest of the people on earth. That staggering news was juxtaposed poignantly with news that nearly a third of the people on earth now survive, somehow, on less than a dollar a day.

A good head of lettuce costs $3.49.

A little can of kidney beans costs $2.85.

A large gluten-free blackberry muffin costs $4.25.

A small package of faux crab sushi costs $6.95.

Organic almonds are now seventeen dollars a pound.

Organic brown rice is three dollars a pound.

“Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” W.C. Fields

Walking up the hill from downtown Mendocino, a quartet of chicken legs secreted in a little ice chest in my knapsack, I come to a field rife with gophers and stop to admire a gorgeous orange tabby sitting still as a statue as she peers down at an entrance to the gopher kingdom, otherwise known as a gopher hole. The sight of this patient hunter reminds me that Django used to be quite the hunter of rats and mice until a broken tooth and a snaggletooth conspired to make it nearly impossible for him to eviscerate his kills, and so he became even more reliant on his humans for sustenance. In the wilds, Django would not have survived past his prime, and the same can be said for me.

The dry gopher-ridden field also reminds me that the drought is not over, not here or anywhere in California—the vegetable and rice and almond basket of America. I shudder to think how high food prices will go in the coming months should the meteorological consensus prove correct and the effects of the drought worsen. As if to echo my fears, a big shiny water truck rumbles by on its way to deliver water to someone with a dry well in January. Oh the things we take for granted.

I arrive home to Django singing multiple choruses from Oliver, though his next meal will not be served for another two hours. I put away the groceries, give Django a tummy rub and promise to feed him at five. He gives me a doubtful look, hunkers down in a pool of sunlight, and begins to assiduously clean himself with his tongue. I look out the window and watch in dismay as a dozen robins gobble my recently arisen Austrian Field Peas.

“You don’t have to kill and eat those birds,” I say to Django, “but couldn’t you at least chase them away?”

He gives me an ironic smile and resumes his toilette.

How Much Do You Love Him?

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

How Much Do You Love Him?

Django on Marcia’s Lap

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“The story of cats is the story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our cat Django is a very large and handsome gray cat, or as our veterinarian said politely, “Shall we call him obese?”

“But he hasn’t gained any weight for several years,” we hastened to explain. “He’s holding steady at twenty pounds and a little.”

The good doctor of cats and dogs was not greatly impressed by our feat of maintaining the status quo of Django’s enormity. We had rushed our twelve-year-old kitty to the one and only veterinarian office in the village of Mendocino because he was in severe distress, which turned out to be the result of urinary tract and kidney difficulties that could, sooner than later, lead to his death if we don’t start feeding him special expensive food or unless, as our vet explained, Django undergoes an operation to eliminate the problem entirely by turning him into a female in regard to how he urinates.

“How much do you love him?” said our vet, smiling sympathetically. “Such an operation costs around fifteen hundred dollars. The better diet and shedding some weight should do the trick for some years, though if he is blocked again, then short of surgery we would have to catheterize and hospitalize him for three days, after which he could have another episode, so cost can become an issue for some people.”

“That would be us,” I said, not entirely comfortable with equating the willingness to spend money and love, but I knew our vet was trying to be clear and up front about how much various procedures cost, and we appreciated his candor.

In any case, the vet bill certainly gave us pause, pun intended. For the emergency visit, urine analysis, blood analysis, antibiotic injection, painkiller injection, ten cans of special food, and kitty litter so we could keep the big fatso inside for a couple days while he recovered from his ordeal, our cost was three hundred and forty-two dollars. How much do we love our cat? That much. So far.

Then there is the problem of Django’s broken tooth. “Extractions of this nature,” said our vet, “can run from five hundred to a thousand dollars. If you don’t have the tooth removed, infection may ensue resulting in abscess, in which case dental work would be imperative or…” How much do we love this cat?

“A veterinarian and cat specialist, Dr. Richard Thoma, trying to locate a cat’s purr with a stethoscope, found that the sound was equally loud all over.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

When I was a landscaper forty years ago, I lived in a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house on the outskirts of Medford Oregon. My boss and his wife grew up on farms in Kansas and considered cats semi-wild animals to be tolerated around their two-acre homestead because the cats kept the rodent population in check. Every year or two, when the resident cat population became overly robust, my boss would gather up all but the best hunters and the most elusive cats and drown them.

I thought about this matter-of-fact drowning of kittens and cats as Marcia handed her credit card to the vey nice receptionist at our excellent village veterinarian clinic, and I thought of a photo essay I saw recently of cat meat vendors in China selling both live and butchered cats to eager shoppers in an open air market. And though I have no desire to drown or eat Django, that’s where my thoughts wandered when I thought of three hundred and forty-two dollars suddenly disappearing from our bank account, with further Django-related expenses looming on the not-too-distant horizon.

“People who have both dogs and cats can verify the statement: when called, the common response of dogs is to come, and of cats is to answer.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

That afternoon in the post office, I fell into conversation with a friend who responded to my emotional account of the Django crisis by telling me the story of her parents’ beloved and also impressively heavyset cat Hercules, who suffered from the identical malady Django suffers from, with costs of dealing with such urinary kidney problems eventually outstripping her parents’ devotion to the cat.

“It was that really cold wet winter a few years ago, and their roof was leaking badly, towels and buckets catching drips everywhere, the roofers supposed to come that afternoon, and there they were standing in the examining room looking down at big old Hercules sitting on the table with the vet petting the sweet old thing and waiting for them to choose between a dry house and the cat.”

“Even being fed by a person must seem like old times to a cat, because of the person’s manner of delivering food. A person characteristically puts down a dish of food and moves away from it, offering plenty of space, which invites the cat to approach and eat. In the same way, a hunting mother cat puts down the dead bird she has brought, backing away from it to show that she will not compete for the carcass and that her kitten can approach.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Save for a few brief stretches in my life—sixty-four years and counting—I’ve always had a cat or two and they’ve had me. Their personalities and propensities have been as varied as those of humans, and their intelligence quotas have been variable, too, ranging from clairvoyant geniuses to barely functional idiots. And until today, I never spent more than a few dollars on veterinary care for any of my cats, largely because I didn’t have the money and I wasn’t partnered with someone willing to spend hundreds of dollars to keep a cat alive. Most of my cats lived long and healthy lives, but one died young from feline leukemia, three were hit by cars, and one was snatched by a coyote. My sister’s beautiful young cat was plucked from her terrace by a hawk.

Thinking back and remembering Chubs and Girly Girl and Suzy Cat and Boy Boy and Bucky and Pele and Juju, I realize that part of their collective appeal was that they were largely independent from me and didn’t need much more than sufficient food and warmth and occasional shows of affection. They did not, in fact, cost hardly anything considering all the pleasure and help they gave me, and if they had cost very much, I would not have so blithely taken them on as one does with cats when one is in the habit of having them and being had by them.

“Long ago, around the southern shores of the Mediterranean, little African wildcats took shelter in people’s dwelling places, probably finding the supply of mice and rats and the escape from heavy rains much to their liking. There they stayed. Perhaps they even liked the warmth of people’s fires. The earliest cat known is from Jericho (now Israel) nine thousand years ago when one of the few amenities that people had that might attract a cat was fire.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our mighty federal government grants me six hundred and eighty-four dollars a month from Social Security, and we just gave exactly half that amount to our veterinarian to save Django’s life. Two weeks ago our healthcare insurance provider Anthem Blue Cross, seeing that I will turn sixty-five in seven months and Marcia will turn sixty-five in a year, decided to jack up our insurance rates nearly three hundred dollars a month to extract as much more money from us as they possibly can before we graduate to Medicare.

So to save a little money, we made the leap to Obamacare, and lo it came to pass that under the new healthcare system we will be covered by, wouldn’t you know it, Anthem Blue Cross and pay them a little more than the usurious sum we were paying them before they jacked up our rates to ever more dizzying heights, except under Obamacare our deductible is so high it would be laughable if it were not obscene.

Meanwhile, Django is lolling by the fire, fully recovered from his painful ordeal and blissfully unaware that if we hadn’t spent a big wad of cash, he would probably be looking for a dark place to curl up and die.

I rub his ample belly and say, “Hang in there, Django. Another seven months and I’ll be getting Medicare, otherwise known as Single Payer, which is what everyone in America would have if not for the crooks running our government. Then we’ll have a bit more money should you need some help and we decide we love you enough.”

Slaves of Fruit

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Slaves of Fruit

Cooking Down the Apples photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2013)

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Martin Luther

A few days ago, Abigail Summers, cellist, pianist and yogini, came over from Willits to work with Marcia on their string camp and attend rehearsals of the Symphony of the Redwoods wherein Abby shares a stand with Marcia at the front of the cello section. When I say string camp, you may imagine groups of people sitting around campfires playing with various lengths and colors and thicknesses of strings, and perhaps weaving those strings into fanciful sculptures or useful bags for carrying fruit and such. And though that sounds like great fun, the string camp I’m referring to is Navarro River String Camp, a twice-a-year event without campfires for beginning and intermediate adult players of violins, violas, and cellos, people keen to play chamber music with other string players and be coached by great and sympathetic professional musicians.

Upon her arrival Abigail gifted us with seven gorgeous persimmons on the verge of perfect ripeness, and I placed those delectable orange orbs in a bowl on the kitchen counter next to a bowl of walnuts recently given to us by our neighbors, and there the persimmons and walnuts sat for some days until last night when…

But first I must tell you about the apple and pear harvest we attended yesterday and why we, Marcia and I, are now slaves of fruit, as Marcia so aptly described our current reality here at Fox Hollow, so named for the foxes who share this neck of the woods with us and are especially enamored of our plums.

This has been a stupendous year for pears and apples in Mendocino, and though apples may retain their perfection for weeks and even months after picking, pears are perfectly ripe for but a fleeting—a few days at best—before they devolve into inedible rot. Yet when a good pear is perfectly ripe, there is little in the world to rival that fruit for sweetness and juiciness and the embodiment of life at the zenith of fulfillment. Thus when we arrived at Sam Edwards’ place a quarter mile down the hill from our house to participate in Ginny Sharkey’s and Sam’s annual apple juicing soiree, we were heartened to discover that along with hundreds of perfectly ripe apples adorning the many spectacular old trees on Sam’s Little Acre, there were many dozens of large and very ready pears, some to be juiced and some to be ferried home along with copious quantities of huge and delicious apples.

In these terrible times of hyper-inflation—never mind the phony governmental figures to the contrary—when not-very-good apples sell for three dollars or more per pound in the grocery stores, there is something positively surreal, nay, ultra-real, about walking through an orchard of well-established and well cared for apple trees and seeing so many huge and beautiful and delicious apples there for the taking, or in our case the shaking, which is how we got a good many of the orbs to come down, the ground a thick mat of just mown grass to cushion their falls. And as we gathered the fruit in buckets and bags to carry to the juicer, I imagined we were Bushmen coming upon this fabulous forest of fruit on the fringe of the Kalahari, the generosity of nature causing us to shout and ululate and dance a thank you dance to the apple gods.

“A major harvest of this kind was very much like a successful hunt for big game, and such major bounty was shared in the manner of big game, if without as much excitement. As the owner of the arrow, not the hunter, made the first divisions of the animal killed by the arrow, so the owner of a bag made the first division of the nuts, no matter who gathered the nuts or carried the bag. This sort of food gathering was surely of recent origin (“recent” in geological time), because without large skin bags, such a harvest could not take place, and before people could obtain large skins by hunting big game, there were no large skin bags.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas from The Old Way

Back home at Fox Hollow with our booty of apples and pears, a craving for a sweet treat overtook us after supper and Marcia was about to make pumpkin bread when I happened to fondle one of the aforementioned persimmons and diagnosed the fruit to be on the verge of liquidity. “Hark fair maiden,” I cried out to my wife as she prepared to open a can of pureed pumpkin, “these persimmons fast approach the point of no return and should be used post haste or nevermore.”

And yay verily it came to pass that Marcia, with cracking and chopping and stirring help from Todd, did make a stupendous loaf of gluten free and eggless persimmon walnut date bread that pleased us mightily before we went to bed, and again at breakfast with coffee. Gads what a taste treat, over which Marcia observed, “Methinks these tender sweet pears we gained from Sam and Ginny do quickly morph from yummy to yucky, which means today is the day we must render them into chutney, lest tomorrow prove deathly to their deliciousness.”

“I cannot but agree with you,” I exclaimed, “but before we enslave ourselves further to these sugary fruits, I beg you assist me in the pruning of Marion’s apple tree, the Golden Delicious thereupon crying to be picked, the branches of that ancient tree strangling each other for want of pruning.”

So we took ourselves thither (just two doors down, Marion another of the string camp honchos) and pruned and hewed and snipped that generous tree until we’d relieved her of myriad redundant appendages, and gathered another couple bags of fruit. Then we ate lunch, ran some errands, gave a big bag of apples to Ian at ZO, Mendocino’s incomparable copy shop, and spent much of the rest of the day peeling and coring and chopping pears to be cooked and spiced and stirred and canned, with a cup of excess spicy chutney juice proving a most delicious sauce on our rice at supper.

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” Mark Twain

The original Hebrew text of the Old Testament says nothing about apples being the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden; and for historical and geographical and climatic reasons, it is much more likely that the forbidden fruit mentioned in the Bible was figs or pomegranates, though why any non-poisonous fruit would be forbidden is another of the great Judeo-Christian mysteries.

“About 69 million tons of apples were grown worldwide in 2010, and China produced almost half of this total. The United States is the second-leading producer, with more than 6% of world production. Turkey is third, followed by Italy, India and Poland.” Wikipedia

Now we gaze upon our hundreds of apples to be turned into sauce and chutney and pies and crisps, and given to friends and neighbors, the badly bruised ones to be taken to our neighbor Kathy Mooney who will feed them to her magic horse Paloma. Magic? Yay verily. Paloma is a glorious white steed with sky blue eyes, the source of truckloads of manure per annum that not only enriches our vegetable beds, but fills the basins around our fruit trees where winter rains soak the vivacious nutrients out of the poop and feed the soil and fatten the worms and invigorate the roots and cause next year’s apples and plums to be huge and sweet, and so on.

For more information about Navarro River String Camp, please visit NavarroRiverMusic. com

Nature Bats Last

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2012)

“Deer have been around for five million years and must know what they’re doing.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our new home turns out to be a deer park, the resident deer so numerous and hungry that only rhododendrons and redwoods and ferns and huckleberries (the bushes not the berries) and a few other large trees can hope to survive the ravenous hordes. A crumbling wooden fence surrounds our property, and here and there remnant strands of barbed wire speak of a time when the previous owners may have experienced a modicum of deer-free living. I am a vegetable and herb gardener and hope to have a large garden growing soon, as well as berries and fruit trees and flowers, with a few raised beds off the deck outside the kitchen, none of which I can have until we transmogrify the deer situation.

To that end we have engaged the services of a deer fence installer, and at the moment he arrived last week to give us a bid, there were not four or five deer, but seventeen of those hungry animals browsing the shrubs and lower branches of trees and vacuuming up the golden leaves fallen from a very tall plum tree and devouring lilies and daisies, and shitting profusely everywhere around our house. And the deer fence guy, scanning the assembly of does and bucks and fast-growing fawns, quipped, “I see the problem.”

We have decided to bequeath the northern half our property to the deer and other wild things while fortifying the smaller southern portion of our humble homestead. The deer fence fellow is booked several weeks in advance and can’t start working on our property until December, so I might not get my garlic in this year, though I may plant a small bed and surround it with land mines or a more humane equivalent.

“There’s no place on Earth that’s changing faster—and no place where that change matters more—than Greenland.” Bill McKibben

Having recently read a number of fascinating and frightening articles about the sudden disappearance of the Greenland ice sheet, I was not surprised to hear that the super storm Sandy caused upwards of eighty billion dollars of damage. Such awesome storms are precisely what numerous new weather models predict will be the direct consequence of the vanishing ice sheets combined with warmer ocean temperatures, rising moisture content in the atmosphere, rising sea levels, and myriad other factors related to global warming. In other words, though Sandy has been called the storm of the century, she may very well be the first of many such super storms to frequently pummel North America in the foreseeable future. Even as I write this, another massive storm is swirling through New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with winter barely begun. Yikes.

Humans cannot construct storm fences around their big cities, though there is serious talk of building a gigantic sea wall around the island of Manhattan in anticipation of rapidly rising sea levels. (You gotta be kidding!) I wonder who will pay for the construction and upkeep of such a gargantuan wall? And how will such a wall keep hurricanes from toppling skyscrapers? Then, too, the eastern seaboard is rife with crappy old nuclear power plants full of plutonium ready to start melting down, several of those junky old plants identical to the crappy ones currently melting down at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan and radiating the entire Pacific Ocean. How many super storms will come and go before one or another of those nuclear power plant time bombs goes off? Not to be an alarmist, but we may very well be on the verge of millions of Americans and tens of millions of people in other countries being displaced annually by super storms and super droughts and super famines and super nuclear disasters; and I wonder where all those displaced people will go.

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” George Bernard Shaw

Election night, as Marcia and I took turns monitoring the voting results on our computers, I suddenly found myself hoping fervently that Obama would win, though I did not vote for him and I think he is a supreme poophead regarding most of the tremendous challenges confronting humanity today. What, I wondered, was behind this sudden hope that Obama and not Romney would be President for the next four years? And as I wondered, my mind filled with visions of being part of a band of ancient hunter-gatherers watching two alpha males fight to the death for control of the band. Both alphas were cunning and violent, but one of them was vastly more intelligent and resourceful than the other and would be much more likely to act to insure the survival of the entire band when we were down to our last few pieces of deer jerky and giant tigers were pawing at the walls of our hut—or so I felt in that moment of their mortal combat.

“America makes prodigious mistakes, America has colossal faults, but one thing cannot be denied: America is always on the move. She may be going to Hell, of course, but at least she isn’t standing still.” e.e. cummings

When my sister Kathy lived in Los Angeles, she rented the ground floor of a two-story house at the end of a little canyon road at the base of a steep hillside composed of wholly unstable soil and stone, a formation geologists call a junk pile. In the winter of 1979 torrential rains caused massive mudslides, one of which obliterated Kathy’s home and smashed her car to smithereens with a boulder the size of an elephant. Having lost most of her possessions to that torrent of mud and rocks, my sister moved out of the hills and settled in the flatlands. And less than half a year later, her former abode had been rebuilt and leased again (with an exorbitant increase in rent) to a couple newly arrived in Los Angeles who had no idea they were pitching their tipi, so to speak, in the line of inevitable disaster.

In that same year, while visiting my sister in the aftermath of the mudslide and her relocation to level ground, I dined with a movie producer whose home was built at the top of another massive junk pile of soil and rock very much like the one that had shed part of its mass and obliterated my sister’s place.

“Amazing view,” I said, gazing out on the smog-cloaked city. “I’ll bet it’s really something on a clear day.”

“Don’t be sarcastic,” said my host, joining me on her deck. “The air is getting better. It really is.”

“Do you ever worry about losing the house to a landslide?” I asked, noticing several ominous cracks in her patio.

“I’ve been told this place has gone down twice in the last twenty years,” she confided with a shrug. “And they are forever shoring up the foundation and sinking piers and doing whatever to keep it from going again.”

“So…”

“So that’s why I’m leasing instead of buying,” she said, nodding confidently, “and why I’ve got the best renters’ insurance money can buy and why I stay in my townhouse in Santa Monica when the rains get crazy.”

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan

One young left-of-the-mythic-center pundit we listened to in the wake of Obama’s victory over Romney opined that henceforth the only way the Republican Party would ever be anything more than an obstructionist gang of amoral dinosaurs, and a shrinking gang at that, was if they could find a charismatic leader, a latter day Ronald Reagan, to take the helm and mesmerize the masses as old Ronnie did.

Now I was never for a minute mesmerized by Reagan. On the contrary, I found him repulsive and so obviously the puppet of George Herbert Bush and his cronies that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why anyone found him attractive, let alone likeable and trustworthy. He knew almost nothing about anything, said only what he was told to say, and did such serious damage to our country and the world that we are still suffering from the impact of his policies. And yet he was the most popular President since Franklin Roosevelt. Why? I dunno.

“It’s too bad that stupidity isn’t painful.” Anton LaVey

From all I’ve read about the evolution of humans and human society, it is clear that we would not have survived as a species for long had it not been for our ability and willingness to cooperate with each other for the greater good, the good of the group transcendent of the selfish desires of individuals. And in thinking about the recent election and the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series and how people voted on the various state propositions and our wanting to install a deer fence around part of our property and the dawning of the age of rampant super storms and super calamities, it occurs to me that stupidity should henceforth be defined as the unwillingness to do what is best for the greater good.

After the Giants won the World Series, I read several articles by baseball writers and so-called baseball experts who were all baffled as to how the Giants could have possibly beaten the Reds, the Cards, and ultimately the Tigers, when the Giants, according to these experts, were so clearly the inferior collection of individual players. What a bunch of shortsighted knuckleheads! We, the Giants, were clearly the superior team and that’s why we kept on winning—because a great team is always far more than the sum of its parts and is invariably a highly cooperative community intolerant of selfishness. Or put another way, a great team is a collective dedicated to the success and well being of the entire group, and not just the enrichment of a few jerks who don’t care about anybody else. 

Junior High

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Wolf Me drawing by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2012)

“Hemingway never grew out of adolescence. His scope and depth stayed shallow because he had no idea what women are for.” Rex Stout

Today I fit several important pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of life, having found the first of those pieces a few days ago while I was at Mendocino K-8 School on Little Lake Road, shooting hoops despite the biting chill in the air and…

Wait. Doesn’t it strike you as remarkable, even astonishing, that in Mendocino of all places, a town known the world over as a seething vortex of artists and poets and potheads, that our K-8 school doesn’t have at least a mildly groovy name? Fantasia Archetype School. Raven Big Tree Learning Center. Earthling Haven Academy. Middle Earth Education Fulcrum. Doppelganger Nine. Fields of Elysium Lyceum. Mind Body Spirit Cognition Node. But I digress.

So…I was shooting hoops despite the biting chill when down the steps from the school to the playground came two people, a shapely young woman with hair of spun gold and a boy some four inches shorter than the young woman, a skinny, dorky boy with drab brown hair wearing a blue Mendocino K-8 School sweatshirt. And though I was a hundred yards away, I knew this boy and woman were courting, that they were the same age, numerically speaking, and that they were headed for the swings where many Mendocino K-8 junior high couples go to swing and flirt and talk about whatever junior high kids talk about these days.

Seeing these two physically mismatched lovebirds, I journeyed back through my memory archives to when I was a drab dorky boy in Eighth Grade and madly in love with three shapely young women who were, in every conceivable way (and I do mean conceivable), ready to hook up with men but found themselves surrounded by boys. And remembering those uneasy days of biological imbalance, when Lucy and Hannah and Shari were so obviously women while I and my male classmates were still so obviously boys, and having just finished reading The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas for the third time, I suddenly understood why so many girls today turn into women well in advance of their male age peers, which understanding was the aforementioned first of several pieces I just today fit into the jigsaw puzzle of life.

“We hope to find more pieces of the puzzle which will shed light on the connection between this upright, walking ape, our early ancestor, and modern man.” Richard Leakey

I love the many-times-proven fact that every human being on earth is a direct genetic descendant of the Ju/wasi (Bushmen) of southern Africa, and I am so grateful that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a keen observer and gifted writer, dwelt among some of the last Ju/wasi to live in the Old Way so we may know how our ancestors lived prior to the ruination of the African savannah and the decimation of the original Ju/wasi way of life.

To quote from The Old Way (with Ms. Thomas’s permission), “If you happen to see a contemporary film or photo showing Bushmen dressed in skins, perhaps beside a small grass shelter or following a line of antelope footprints or handling a bow and arrow, you are seeing a reenactment. Today, nobody lives in the Old Way. All Bushmen, unless they put on skins for a photographer, wear the clothing of the dominant cultures—invariably Western dress for men, and Western or African dress for women—and none live by hunting and gathering, although with these activities they sometimes supplement their meager diet, which today is often cornmeal provided by the Namibian government as a welfare ration. They have jobs if they can get them, although many cannot; they listen to popular music on the radio, dance the popular dances, are influenced to some degree by Christianity, and are aware of the larger world and national politics.”

The Old Way is a record of daily life among one of the very last groups of Ju/wasi living as their predecessors (our predecessors) lived for at least thirty-five thousand years. And guess what? The junior high biological gender divide of our modern times did not exist among our people for those thirty-five thousand years.

“N!ai reached the menarche (began to menstruate) when she was about seventeen years old. At this time an important ceremony was held for her with eland music and dancing—a much more important ceremony than her wedding. But she and /Gunda (her husband) had no child for three years, when she was almost twenty. This was a very normal age for a Ju/wa woman’s first pregnancy.

“In the Old Way, the human population, like most other populations who live in the Old Way, had it own regulation. The strenuous work and absence of body fat prevented hunter-gatherer women from menstruating at an early age…”

In harmony with this biological truth, a Ju/wa man was not allowed to wed until he had killed an antelope, no easy feat even for a strong and experienced hunter. Thus most Ju/wa men spent the years before marriage growing into their full size and strength while acquiring skills that would enable them to provide antelope meat for their families and relatives.

 “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” Lewis Carroll

When I was a little boy, my friends and I would pretend to be cowboys fighting Indians, the Indians being in the distance for us to shoot at with our pretend guns. When I was an older boy, my friends and I pretended to be American soldiers fighting Japanese and German soldiers, and these enemies, too, were in the distance for us to shoot at with our pretend guns. But when I played alone, I was always an Indian with a spear (fashioned from a grape stake or broom handle) and the bow and arrows I’d had since I was eight.

My childhood home stood on the edge of an abandoned estate, twenty acres of oaks and olive trees and overgrown vineyards and grasslands and ravines and chaparral teaming with wildlife—paradise. As far as I know, I was the only boy or girl in my neighborhood to habitually pretend to be an Indian; and there were certainly no other pretend Indians in our neck of the woods who took their pretending to the lengths I did. During those long summers when I was eight nine ten eleven and twelve, I lived for days on end in the wilds back of our house, barefoot and naked save for shorts, spending many a night camped out under the stars, with nuts and raisins and beef jerky for food, and a fire of twigs to keep me company as I gave voice to my invisible companions, wise old storytellers who knew everything there was to know about the animals and plants and spirits of that place.

I played tons of baseball with my friends and rode my bike all over the place, adventuring in the world of roads and stores, and I spent hours hunkered down in my bedroom with books, but no matter what else I might be doing, I longed to be in the woods, to follow a bird or butterfly to see where they might lead me; and to sit hidden and still for so long that the quail would forget I was there and resume their foraging around me, and a deer might appear close by, unaware of me, and I would be filled with wild joy knowing I might kill these animals if I needed to eat them to survive.

“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing

than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance” e.e. cummings

I attended school and went insane with boredom, the teachings dead and useless, the only good parts of school being singing and drawing and recess and ball games and socializing with my friends and being secretly in love with girls. And until Sixth Grade all my classmates were boys and girls, and it was only midway through Sixth Grade and from then on that girls became women and boys remained boys, a division that reached a painful zenith in Seventh and Eighth Grade, otherwise known as junior high.

“and down they forgot as up they grew” e.e. cummings

The summer after Eighth Grade I was hired by a neighbor to move many tons of soil from his backyard to his front yard. I shoveled heavy brown dirt from a gently sloping hillside into a large wheelbarrow and wheeled that barrow a hundred yards up and over an incline to the dumping point. This labor—five hours a day—lasted two months and changed my fast-growing body from skinny boy to muscular young man. Then, with only a month remaining before I started high school, I spent two weeks camped in the woods with my spear and fires and beef jerky, knowing these were the last days of my childhood and never wanting them to end.

“and now you are and i am now and we’re

a mystery which will never happen again” e.e. cummings

The week before I started high school, I went to a party; and all the girls my age had become women. They saw I was no longer a boy; and Shari who had been a woman since Seventh Grade kissed me tenderly as we danced and led me outside into the moonlight and we kissed unto mindlessness, but beyond that I didn’t have a clue what to do and Shari was clearly frustrated and disappointed.

A few days later, the Saturday before high school began, I came home from my camp in the woods to find Hannah had come to visit, Hannah whom I had secretly loved since Fifth Grade, Hannah with womanly curves and beautiful breasts, Hannah with a deep musical laugh who always got my jokes when no one else did, Hannah who was my primary dream girl and fantasy lover.

We played ping-pong, and as we played I realized I was naked save for shorts, and Hannah was naked save for shorts and a negligible blouse. I had caught up to her, biologically speaking, and she had come to me—never having been to my house before—because she knew I had caught up to her, and because she liked me.

Somehow we went from playing ping-pong on the terrace to walking through the overgrown vineyard to a massive oak, and there we embraced and kissed and kissed some more until she whispered sweetly, “Hey, you wanna do it?”

“I…I…”

“I know how,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “And I can show you.”

I was thirteen. Looking back, seeing myself with Hannah in those last moments of childhood, I may wish I had allowed her to show me, but now that I have found and fit enough pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of life, I understand that I was not yet fully a man, not yet a killer of antelopes or the modern equivalent, and therefore not allowed to take a wife.

Mystery Inventions

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and Daughter Mystery painting by Todd

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2012)

Deeply moved by a concert of music by Martinû and Mozart, a man gives fifty dollars to a street musician, a Venezuelan bass player whose musical inventions are reminiscent of Eric Satie and Bill Evans. The bass player uses the fifty dollars to buy herself the first nourishing meal she’s had in weeks, after which she catches a train to visit her mother for the first time in several months, and arrives to find her mother dying. With her last breath, the bass player’s mother reveals the identity of the bass player’s real father; and while questing to find her father, the bass player meets a pianist with whom she records ten improvisations, each a musical meditation on the question: what is life all about?

“As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious.” Albert Schweitzer

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas makes an excellent case for the digging stick and the ostrich egg being the two most important inventions in human history—more important than fire or weaponry. I am reading The Old Way again, Thomas’s masterpiece about the Bushmen of the Kalahari; and I find her book the perfect antidote to the information overload and resultant anxiety of this digital age. Here is a tiny taste of The Old Way.

“A digging stick is humble, yes. The very name of this item in the English language shows how seriously we underrate it—we assign specific nouns, not vaguely descriptive phrases, to objects that we consider important. Our long stick with a blade at the end is call a spear, for instance, not a stabbing stick. But even if a pointed stick seems insignificant to us in our innocence, as an invention of consequence it ranks with the discovery of the deep roots themselves and has made more difference to our species than virtually all the other inventions we celebrate with more enthusiasm.”

“Then, too, there is the ostrich egg. This useful item is first a meal and then a water bottle. To use these eggs, we had to do only two things—steal a fresh egg without being kicked by the ostrich, and open a hole in the shell. Unless the egg is opened carefully, the contents will spill, so the best way to eat the egg without wasting the contents is to pick up a rock, tap open a small hole in the shell, and stir the contents with a stick. After sucking out the egg, we had an empty eggshell, with obvious implications. An ostrich egg holds from five to five and a half cups of water, more than a day’s supply. No further refinement was needed except a wad of grass for a stopper.”

“On the dry savannah, the need for water limited our foraging. One ostrich eggshell filled with water could expand the foraging range of its owner by fifty to one hundred square miles.”

“Only one kind of primate—our kind—found a way to reach the deep buried foods, carry small amounts of water, and modify tree nests into ground nests so that we could sleep anywhere.”

“There is no greater mystery to me than that of light traveling through darkness.” Alexander Volkov

Writing about inventions, I am reminded of that old joke (and its many variations) about a world conference to determine the most important invention of all time, each nation having an egoistic stake in nominating an invention thought to have originated in their country.

So the Russian representative rises. “We nominate sputnik. After all, first satellite started space race that put people on moon and spawned most important technological breakthroughs thereafter.” Loud applause.

The American representative stands. “Hey, there’s no denying sputnik was a good little kick in the pants, but has anything changed the world more profoundly than the computer? We don’t think so. We nominate the computer, that fundamentally American creation, as the most important invention of all time.” Thunderous applause.

Then the representative of the group or nation the joke teller wants to make fun of stumbles to the podium. “Of course, sputnik was a game changer, and life without computers is almost unimaginable, but there is one invention we think is far more amazing than both of those illustrious inventions, and that is the thermos. Keeps hot things hot, and cold things cold. How does it know?”

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” Anais Nin

In 1900, the average life span of an American was forty-seven years, and the average life span for people in many other societies in the world was considerably less. The invention and deployment of penicillin in the 1940’s is credited with increasing that average life span to eighty years for citizens of America and other so-called advanced nations. Prior to the widespread use of antibiotics, millions of people, especially infants, children, and the elderly, died annually of diseases now easily cured. The most troubling result of this vast increase in human longevity is the increase in human population far beyond the regenerative capacity of the planet.

Consider this: paleoanthropologists have found almost no remains of pre-historic humans older than thirty. Lose a step ten thousand years ago and you were tiger food, or possibly vittles for your brethren. Now try to imagine the world today if most people still died shortly after their wisdom teeth emerged to replace those molars lost during the first twenty years of chewing on the tough and the raw.

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” Carl Jung

I recently came out with a new CD of piano and bass duets entitled Mystery Inventions on which I play piano and Kijé Izquierda plays bass. Each of our ten tunes explores variations on a basic melodic expression underscored by an intriguing bass pattern. Because my piano playing is spacious (some would say spare), the tunes on my previous piano albums 43 short Piano Improvisations and Ceremonies are melody-driven, whereas the bass drives the Mystery Inventions, even when the tempo is slow. I was tempted to bring in a drummer, but the interplay of bass and piano sounded so groovy, I opted for duet.

The most mysterious thing to me about my piano playing is that my left hand operates with no conscious direction from me, whereas my right hand learns through my conscious intentions. Because I do not read music or play music composed by other people, my compositions and improvisations are the result of hours of daily keyboard explorations during which I discover note patterns and interrelationships that captivate me sufficiently so I will repeat those patterns until my fingers remember them. The more thoroughly my fingers memorize these patterns, the freer I am to improvise on those patterns. I have been practicing this way for forty-five years, my right hand learning through my conscious inquiries, my left hand figuring things out on its own.

 “The final mystery is oneself.” Oscar Wilde

I don’t read music because when I was seven-years-old I took piano lessons from a very unhappy man who did not like me. After a few traumatic lessons wherein he berated me for not sufficiently practicing the assigned pieces, there came a horrific moment when he struck my right hand with a heavy metal pen because I was not, in his estimation, holding my hands correctly. I screamed bloody murder and ran out of the room. I can feel the ache in my knuckles to this day.

Thereafter I not only refused to play the piano, I could not look at our piano without feeling sick. Singing became my main mode of musical expression, and at sixteen I was a singer in a very loud rock band. The leader of the band was my close friend, and a talented guitarist. He used to come to my house and noodle around on his guitar while I accompanied him on bongos. One evening he pointed at our old upright piano and said, “Can you play that?”

“No,” I said, reluctant to even look at the piano.

“Oh, go on,” he said, reaching over and plunking a few notes. “Just play anything and I’ll play along.”

“No,” I said, furiously. “I don’t play the fucking piano, okay?”

“Please?” he insisted. “Just a few notes so I can play some harmonies.”

And because I wanted to please my friend, I went to the piano and played a simple pattern of notes; and six weeks later we opened for a rock band at a teen nightclub in the basement of a church in Woodside, California. I played simple patterns of notes and chords while my friend improvised on his electric twelve-string guitar. Two beautiful hippie chicks wearing dresses made of diaphanous scarves danced to our pubescent ragas, and afterwards a big black guy with a shaved head came up to me and said, “Busted hip, kid. You know Monk? Miles? Hubbard? Hancock? Evans? Cannonball? Check’em out.” So I did; and I was a goner.

And now, listening to Mystery Inventions, I bless that very sad man who smacked my knuckles fifty-five years ago, because if not for his striking me so cruelly, I might never have left the well-trod path and gotten lost in the wild jungle of possibilities.

Your Inner Bushman

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)

“The five groups of San or Bushmen are called the First People. Most call themselves Bushmen when referring to themselves collectively.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas from her book The Old Way

I wanted to open this article with that quote from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a great friend of the Kalahari Bushmen, so I would not be accused of using a derogatory term when speaking of the people from whom all humans on earth are descended. One of my favorite scientific discoveries of the last few decades is that every human being currently alive on the planet can trace his or her lineage directly to the same Bushman woman who lived in Southwest Africa 172,000 years ago.

The gathering of pertinent genetic data from around the world, as well as the complicated figuring that went into determining the identity of our great Mother, has now been duplicated by multiple scientific teams, and there is today universal agreement among physical anthropologists and geneticists (though not among members of Congress) that Eve, as the European-centric researchers have named her, was, indeed, a Bushman. The name I prefer for our Very First Lady is N!ai, the exclamation point indicating a loud click made by pressing the tongue against the top of the mouth and popping it down simultaneously with the sound ai (I).

Among the many groovy things about tracing our collective beginning back to N!ai is that until the 1950’s there were still extant bands of Bushmen in and around the Kalahari Desert living very much as they had for tens of thousands of years, and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and her parents and brother were among the first and last non-Bushmen to gently interface with these people and to record in great detail, in writing and film and sound recordings, how our Neolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors lived. Thus we know, in a tangible way, from whence we came.

“Interestingly, no anthropologist wanted to join us, although my father tried hard to find one and would have paid for his or her salary and all expenses. However, unlike the modern Kalahari, where the anthropologist/Bushman ratio often seems to be one to one, in those days (1950’s) no anthropologist took an interest in our project.” from The Old Way

The first book I ever read about Bushmen was The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post. What a great adventure story! I was sixteen and intent on becoming an actor and a musician, but I was so thrilled by van der Post’s book I decided if I had to go to college to avoid going to Vietnam, I would major in the study of Bushmen. I subsequently devoured the sequel to The Lost World of the Kalahari entitled The Heart of the Hunter, and then I found Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People and read it twice. By the time I matriculated at UC Santa Cruz in 1967 with a major in Anthropology, I had read virtually everything there was in print about Bushmen.

Upon my arrival at that bucolic campus, and much to my dismay, I was informed by my snooty professors that Laurens van der Post and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas were to be ignored in regard to Bushmen because, heaven forbid, neither was an accredited anthropologist, and thus their data was suspect and I was a fool for admiring them. Nevertheless, their books introduced me to Bushmen and I have subsequently been privileged to correspond with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas about many things, most especially about the first people.

“What determined the size of our groups? Water was the single most important factor—water and the food supply around it.” from The Old Way

This may come as a surprise to you, but there was no pasta in the diet of the first people. Indeed, the so-called hunter-gatherer diet now being hailed by avant-garde nutritionists as the healthiest possible diet for most human beings contains no dairy, no gluten, no wheat, almost no grain, and very little sugar. I know several people currently reveling in newfound health since making the shift away from a grain-based diet to one composed largely of fruits, vegetables, nuts, tubers, and…wait for it…meat. And why is such a diet so good for most humans? Because, quite simply, our metabolism, our inner Bushman, if you will, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years eating what our hunter-gatherer progenitors ate and not much else.

I cannot recommend highly enough Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book The Old Way to anyone interested in his or her origins. Ms. Thomas published this remarkable volume in 2006, nearly fifty years after publishing The Harmless People, having decided to revisit the copious notes she made while living with the Bushmen in the 1950’s, and to tell a new story imbued with experiences and insights accrued over her long life of study, exploration, and contemplation. I have loaned my copy of The Old Way to several people, and every one of them reported that the book inspired a profound and positive shift in their perceptions of themselves and the world.

For those who prefer fiction to non-fiction, as I generally do, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has also written two great novels—Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife—of what may ultimately be a trilogy of interconnected sagas focusing on a group of hunter-gatherers living somewhere in the northern hemisphere at a time when mammoths still roamed the earth, and when lions and tigers were much more likely to kill people than vice-versa.

“We lived in groups; we could dig roots; we could find water; we could catch grubs, snails, tortoises, porcupines, and other small animals that were not fast runners (sometimes called “slow game”); some of us could run down large antelopes; and we had fire. We had lived on the savannah for a million years.” from The Old Way

We lived in groups, and we dined in groups, and we shared our kills and harvests with friends and loved ones, which brings to mind our dear friend Juliette White, globetrotter, cellist, and patron of artists and friends, who died a little over a year ago. She was, among many things, the hostess of wonderful spontaneous meals devoured by lucky last-minute invitees to her cozy cottage a couple miles inland on Albion Ridge Road.  I met Juliette three years before she died. Her gift to me at the end of our first meeting was her blessing to marry her good friend Marcia, which I did. Thereafter, I was invited to a number of spontaneous dining soirees in Juliette’s commodious cottage; and some six months before she died, Juliette asked me to help her write her obituary.

So one morning over a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes bursting with huckleberries plucked from bushes growing in the forest surrounding her house, I interviewed Juliette about her long and multi-faceted life, and quite unexpectedly she said, “That was the year we went to Africa and lived with the Bushmen.” I nearly fell out of my chair. But it was true! Juliette had gone to Africa and made the long and dangerous trek by land rover into the Kalahari Desert to live for a time with the same Bushmen people that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas lived with and wrote about; and Juliette had several gorgeous photographs of those Bushmen people to prove it.

I then had the pleasure of sending copies of Juliette’s photographs to Elizabeth, who then wrote to Juliette and told her that she recognized the people and was glad and very touched to see them again.

And that story reminds me of huckleberries, which Juliette loved, and which the hunter-gatherers in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s novels are frequently saved by in the absence of water or any other food as they trek across the rugged earth seeking food and safe shelter and, with any luck, dry firewood.

This past fall the huckleberries were thick on the bushes that grow around our house on the edge of the redwood forest. We picked several quarts to freeze so we would have berries through the winter and into spring, and this morning I made gluten-free pancakes with some of those huckleberries, and I thought of Juliette and Elizabeth and of the hunter-gatherer diet, and how chocolate is not on that diet, but honey is, because Bushmen love honey. Oh, yes we do.

There is a bird that lives symbiotically with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, a brave and beautiful bird called the Honey Diviner. And this Honey Diviner comes to the Bushmen camp singing, “Hello my friends, I bring tidings of a big tree where the bees have amassed a great store of honey that is at this very moment oozing out of the hive and crying to be harvested. However, I do not have hands to get that honey from the bees, but you do, and I know you love honey as much as I do, so…”
And so the people follow the Honey Diviner to that big tree, even if it means running many miles across the desert, for they love honey as much as they love meat. And when they have braved the stings of those angry bees and filled their ostrich-shell bowls with honey, the people give the Honey Diviner a generous share of the sweet ambrosia, for without her they might never have found the hive.