Posts Tagged ‘Laurens van der Post’

Kevin & Mumia

Monday, July 11th, 2016

moments that we shape twjpg

Moments That We Shape painting by Nolan Winkler 

“On a hot day in the southern desert of Africa I wanted to speak to one of my favorite Bushmen. He was sitting in the middle of a thorn bush, huddled in an attitude of the most intense concentration…but his friends would not let me get near him, saying, ‘But don’t you know, he is doing work of the utmost importance. He is making clouds.’” Laurens Van Der Post

Yesterday, the basketball player Kevin Durant signed a two-year contract with the Golden State Warriors for 55 million dollars and I read Chris Hedges’ interview with Mumia Abu Jamal, who has now served thirty-five years of a life sentence for a murder he may or may not have committed.

During the interview, Mumia, who is quite ill and not receiving adequate health care, said many troubling things. “The black political elites, including Barack Obama, are powerless. They are emblems. They are not the voice of black America. They are like a ventriloquist’s dummy. They mouth the same words the white corporate masters mouth. They do not name unpleasant truths. They never lifted their voices to denounce Bill Clinton’s decision to massively expand our system of mass incarceration. And they do not lift their voices now. They go right along with the repression. And they are well paid for it.”

He went on to say: “Black people will probably vote for Clinton, but this symbolizes the emptiness of hope. They fear Trump. They should look closely at the pictures from Trump’s third wedding. Hillary Clinton is in the front pew of the church. Hillary, Bill, Trump, and Melania are shown embracing at Trump’s estate during the reception. These people are part of the same elite circle. They represent the same financial interests. They work for the same empire. They have grown rich from the system. The words they shout back and forth during political campaigns are meaningless. Trump or Clinton will deliver the same political result. They will serve, like Obama, corporate and military power.”

“Everything that happens is at once natural and inconceivable.” E.E. Cioran

Kevin Durant is twenty-seven, seven-feet-tall, and one of best and most popular basketball players in the world. He was born in Washington D.C. where he and his sister and two brothers were raised by their mother and grandmother after their father abandoned the family. Kevin played one year of college basketball and then was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics the year before the team moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He was named rookie of the year and then played eight years for the Thunder before deciding to sign with the Warriors.

Kevin made 17 million dollars a year playing for the Thunder, but that was a small fraction of his annual income. He has lucrative endorsement deals with Nike, Sprint, Gatorade, Panini, General Electric, and 2K Sports. His agent is the media mogul Jay-Z. Kevin pledged a million dollars to the American Red Cross for the victims of the 2013 tornado disaster in Oklahoma. In 2014, he partnered with Kind Snacks and launched StrongAndKind.com to show “being kind is not a sign of weakness.” He is also a spokesperson for the Washington D.C. branch of P’Tones Records, a nationwide non-profit after-school music program.

With Kevin joining Steph, Klay, Draymond, and Andre on the Warriors, barring injuries, they should be the best team in the game.

I wonder what Kevin Durant thinks of Mumia Abu Jamal. Kevin describes himself as a high school kid who enjoys playing video games in his spare time. A devout Christian, Kevin goes to chapel before every game and has religious tattoos on his stomach, wrist, and back. He is, apparently, apolitical.

 “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature itself, but rather nature exposed to our methods of questioning.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Mumia told Chris Hedges, “The liberals and the Democrats are in many ways more dangerous than the right wing. Repression and neoliberalism are more effectively instituted by Democrats such as Bill and Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. They sound reasonable. But because what they do is hidden, it is more insidious and often more deadly.”

Kevin Durant met Obama on the White House basketball court and they shared a bro hug. Durant said of the meeting, “It was a good feeling to meet the president. Of course I always wanted to do that. Me being from D.C., it was pretty cool to see him. I was excited to get that opportunity. It’s something I’m always going to remember.”

Mumia has never met Obama, but in 2014 Obama nominated Debo P. Adegbile to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Debo, a former lawyer for the NAACP who worked on Abu-Jamal’s case, was rejected for the Justice Department job by the U.S. Senate because of his public support of Mumia.

Twenty years ago, when Mumia’s execution was drawing near, I joined thousands of other people on marches in San Francisco demanding Mumia be given a new trial. He never got a new trial, but his death sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Whether he is guilty of murder or not, there is no doubt he deserves a new trial. Sadly, he will probably never get one. He is the victim of our deeply racist social and justice systems, along with millions of other men and women trapped in poverty, and now that he is no longer in danger of being executed—except through the slow death of incarceration—he is rarely mentioned in the mainstream news.

I used to be an avid basketball fan. Two of my published novels feature basketball subplots involving fictional versions of The Golden State Warriors. In a sense, I owe my success as a writer to my interest in basketball, though nowadays I hardly follow professional basketball, for today’s game little resembles the beautiful sport I fell in love with as a young man.

I wonder if Mumia watches basketball on his tablet in his cell.

Cover Stories

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

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(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2015)

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

I recently got a letter from my editor at Counterpoint Press, the daring publishing company bringing out a paperback edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup in early 2016, saying he would soon be sending me samples of their cover ideas. So I held my breath for a few days and recalled my book cover adventures with publishers of my previous books. This helped temper fantasies of a superb cover for Buddha In A Teacup. Indeed, after reviewing my history of book covers, I decided to hope for legible.

Inside Moves. Published in 1978 by Doubleday, my first novel had a basketball subplot and the cover sample featured a small airborne man holding what might have been a basketball, but also might have been a bowling ball. This ambiguous athlete, wearing slacks and a sweater, was floating through the air surrounded by gothic-like letters with enormous serifs. At a glance, the letters seemed to spell INSIDE MOVIES. I expressed my concerns and the ball problem was addressed, but the confusing lettering remained and the book was often shelved in the Hobby section of bookstores.

Forgotten Impulses. Published in 1980 by Simon & Schuster, my second novel was originally entitled Mackie, which remained the title until a month before the book was to be printed. The cover for Mackie featured a spectacular oil painting of a woman wearing a sunhat and kneeling in her vegetable garden, the roots of the plants growing down through layers of soil to entangle the name Mackie. Alas, my editor called at the proverbial last minute to say Sales felt Mackie lacked punch. Could I come up with a meaty sub-title? My brother Steve, who came up with Inside Moves, helped me come up with Forgotten Impulses, and Sales dropped Mackie entirely and went with Forgotten Impulses. The hastily assembled new cover was composed of garish yellow gothic-like letters on a red and blue background.

Not that it mattered much. Simon & Schuster took the book out of print a few days after it was published.

Louie & Women. My third novel was published by Dutton in 1983 and featured a poorly rendered painting of a short buxom naked woman standing at a window. Filling most of the window frame was a painting of a wave—a painting within the painting. On the bed in the foreground of the room lies a pair of large white men’s jockey-style underwear. I strenuously objected and my editor said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to kill the book before it comes out anyway, so…”

“But why?”

“They don’t think it will sell. Sorry.”

Ruby & Spear. My fifth novel was published by Bantam in 1996 and the cover shows a black man going up to dunk a basketball into a hoop with a half-ripped net. This cover was so antithetical to the spirit of the story, I called my editor to express my disappointment and she said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to take the book out of print.”

“But the book hasn’t been published yet?”

“I know,” she said sadly. “Sorry.”

The Writer’s Path, published by 10-Speed in 2000, is a large collection of my original writing exercises. The proposed cover design was hideous and featured misleading subtitles that made the book sound like a touchy feely book for people trying to access their inner artist. The cover was changed from hideous to blah shortly before publication, but the misleading subtitles remained. Sadly, the hideous proposed cover was put up on all the online bookselling sites and remains there to this day. Nevertheless, the book sold ten thousand copies entirely by word-of-mouth. 10-Speed did absolutely nothing to promote the book, and then, in their great wisdom, Sales decided not to do a third printing because, after all, the book was selling itself.

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

Shortly before the cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived from Counterpoint, my editor wrote to say he had presented the book at a sales meeting and the response was positive. However, the consensus was that my original subtitle—tales of enlightenment—was inadequate because it did not say the short stories are contemporary. So I came up with Contemporary Dharma Tales, which he liked.

Ere long, five cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived via email, and just as I was about to unzip the big file to peruse them, another email came from my editor saying they had selected two finalists from the five and I should ignore those five and look at the two. But I looked at the five, loved one of them and disliked the other four, and then with trembling mouse opened the file containing the finalists. And lo, the one cover I loved was one of the two finalists. My wife and several friends agreed with my choice, I sent in our votes, and…

Will the final cover be the one we want? Will the book have a long and eventful life in print? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I am about to finish writing Ida’s Place Book Four: Renegade, the fourth volume of a fictional epic set in a mythical Here and Now, the covers for the Ida books exactly how I want them because I create them myself with the help of Garth the graphics wizard and Ian the master of the color copier at Zo, the finest (and only) copy shop in Mendocino. Coil bound copies of the Ida books, lavishly numbered and signed by the author, are available from my web site until that glorious (mythical) day when some prescient publisher presents them to that great big world on the other side of the tracks.

The Ida’s Place books and the original self-published hardback of Buddha In A Teacup are available at Underthetablebooks.com

Pomp & Circumstance

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

 

sextant

Sextant drawing by Todd

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

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

Been one of those weeks where every conversation with all kinds of different kinds of people began with talk of the drought and the state of our personal water supplies, and from there we spun off into discussions of the swiftly changing reality of what it is to be human on this little planet that used to seem so vast.

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” John Ruskin

You might have missed the news, or simply not given a hoot, that Stephen Hawking recently announced there are no black holes. Thus thousands of astronomers, physicists, science teachers, and graduate students are in various stages of shock that the foundation of their careers has been decreed by Mr. Black Hole himself to be a misconception, and that their decades of work have been about what isn’t there, and that billions of dollars spent on black hole-related research was essentially a big waste of money, not to mention time and space. Oops.

What made Hawking’s proclamation especially interesting to me was that the widespread foundational scientific belief in the existence of black holes was apparently not scientific at all, but mere conjecture. Hawking and his influential colleagues have abruptly changed their minds, so everyone else (including millions of people who ponied up the cash to buy Hawking’s A Brief History of Time) better change their minds, too, or risk…what? Not agreeing with the emperor who now blithely admits he wasn’t wearing any clothes, though he kind of thought he was, sort of? This is science? You betcha. Remember: medical doctors all over our scientific nation used to prescribe cigarettes to ameliorate symptoms of anxiety. Oops.

I hunted up Hawking’s explanation for why he and the entire scientific community were wrong about black holes, and I present his explanation here for your enjoyment. For extra fun, I suggest you imagine John Cleese and Eric Idle of Monty Python impersonating balding scientists taking turns presenting this blatantly self-contradictory proclamation—also pure conjecture if not outright balderdash.

“The absence of event horizons means that there are no black holes, in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity. There are however apparent horizons that persist for a period of time. This suggests that black holes should be redefined as metastable bound states of the gravitational field. It will also mean that the CFT on the boundary of anti de Sitter space will be dual to the whole anti de Sitter space, and not merely the region outside the horizon.

“The no hair theorems imply that in a gravitational collapse the space outside the event horizon will approach the metric of a Kerr solution. However inside the event horizon, the metric and matter fields will be classically chaotic. It is the approximation of this chaotic metric by a smooth Kerr metric that is responsible for the information loss in gravitational collapse. The chaotic collapsed object will radiate deterministically but chaotically. It will be like weather forecasting on Earth. That is unitary, but chaotic, so there is effective information loss. One can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance.”

“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin

Songs nowadays are no longer songs as I used to think of songs being songs. That is to say, the things I still call songs can be listened to with my eyes closed. But the popular songs of today, the Grammy winners and the songs on all the charts of today’s music must be seen in order to be properly heard? Songs today, not the ones we oldsters think of as songs, but the new ones the youngsters live by, are inextricably bound to little movies for which music is soundtrack, and most of these soundtracks are composed of many layers of synthesized sonic noise underpinned by mechanically generated rhythm tracks designed to support the visuals comprising the little movies.

“Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter: second, telling other people to do so.” Bertrand Russell

I like that definition of work: altering the position of matter. I would add that for some position altering of matter one earns money, and for some position altering of matter one does not earn money; and there are two kinds of money: regular money and gig money.

Gig money is worth much more than regular money. I used to think the added buying power of gig money had something to do with black holes, but now that black holes no longer exist, perhaps the extra buying power is attributable to anti de Sitter space, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I think the extraordinary nature of gig money is alchemical. Now before you climb on your scientific high horse and declare alchemy a pile of mystical infantile wishful thinking black hole rabbit poop, feast your eyes on the following from Smithsonian Magazine: “There is growing evidence that alchemists seem to have performed legitimate experiments, manipulated and analyzed the world in interesting ways and reported genuine results. And many of the great names in the canon of modern science took note, including Sir Isaac Newton and Lavoisier.”

What do I mean by gig money? The word gig has come to mean job in today’s world. “I have a regular nine-to-five gig for a software company, but my main thing is recording random street sounds and turning them into rhythm tracks,” is common parlance today, but a gig used to mean a performance, usually of jazz or poetry, made with the hope of possibly making some money from the performance, but maybe not making any money. It is this maybe/maybe not making money aspect of a gig that endows gig money with its alchemical mystical extra-potent power. Why? Because nature abhors a vacuum or nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum. You choose.

For instance, one night I made forty bucks for reading my short stories and telling jokes in a used bookstore in Sacramento, the audience unexpectedly large, the donations jar overflowing. With that gig money I bought groceries for the entire week, went out for Mexican food twice, bought new guitar strings and three pairs of pants at the Salvation Army, and still had money left over. So I bought a pile of Russell Hoban novels at the used bookstore, gave ten bucks to a friend, bought my sweetheart some flowers, and splurged on three goldfish for the backyard pond, and I still had money left over. And if I hadn’t gone and cultivated negative thoughts about an annoying person who was just doing the best he could, I might still have that gig money because thoughts are actions and the karmic wheel rolls on ceaselessly. Which is why we should always endeavor to be kind and generous even when we’re just sitting still with our eyes closed listening to songs.

 “There are two kinds of fools: one says, ‘This is old, therefore it is good’; the other says, ‘This is new, therefore it is better.’” W.R. Inge

Currently in the throes of rewriting my new novel, I am carving up my printed-out pages with red ink flowing from a pen held in my hand attached to my arm and directed by my brain far from the madding computer and text on a screen. Writing longhand and editing longhand are considered by most writers under the age of fifty, and even by many writers over fifty, to be antiquated practices inferior to doing everything on the screen from start to finish. I beg to differ, but who cares if I can tell by reading a few paragraphs of a novel or short story whether the author composed his or her words longhand or on a computer? That doesn’t mean one way of writing is better than the other, but it does prove (to my satisfaction) that there is a qualitative difference between those two ways of writing, and I find the quality of one of those ways vastly superior to the other. But that’s just me. And speaking of black holes, here is a recently crafted paragraph from my new novel.

In the near distance Donald sees the sign known to every alcoholic and pool player for a hundred miles around, a gigantic square of blinking neon, pink and green and blue, spelling Hotsy Totsy, a misleading moniker if there ever was one. Home to three pool tables, a long bar, seventeen bar stools, six warped plywood booths, two hideous bathrooms, and a juke box full of rock music from the 1960’s and 70’s—nothing after 1975—Hotsy Totsy is a low-ceilinged beer-soaked bunker presided over by the bald and portly Hell’s Angel Calvin Jensen, owner, bartender, bouncer and popcorn maker, popcorn and peanuts the primary foodstuffs available at Hotsy Totsy.

Connections

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

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

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen

The stock market was way up yesterday on news that Bank of America announced that he (being a gigantic person according to the Supreme Court) plans to cut sixteen thousand jobs by Christmas. How nice. What a fine and humane time to fire sixteen thousand people in order to increase quarterly profits for a quarter or two.

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

So I was in the hardware store buying screws and varnish and masking tape and grout and glue, and having a laugh with the fellow helping me find things (about the trials and tribulations and triumphs and compromises of fixing things), when a couple entered the store and my Super Wealthy People alarm went off. That is to say, having grown up in Atherton, a town that is not really a town but an enclave for super wealthy people and those who serve them, a shiver passes through me when one or more of these folks comes near, and then I try to get away as fast as I can.

The woman was elegant and beautiful and perfectly coiffed and wearing a gray silk dress and a strand of fat white pearls and these amazingly svelte red leather boots, an ensemble that probably cost as much as most people’s cars, and the man was wearing a shirt and trousers I would more likely frame and put on the wall than wear. As is the habit of many super wealthy people, the woman walked up to the fellow helping me find things and began speaking to him as if I did not exist and he and I were not already having a conversation, because as far as this beautiful wealthy woman was concerned I was invisible.

“I know you probably don’t carry the kind of thing we’re looking for,” she said to the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. Then she laughed in a sophisticated sort of way and added, “This being Mendocino and all, but…we’re looking for poison. To kill weeds.”

“Oh, we’ve got poison for killing weeds,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. “What kind of weeds are you wanting to kill?”

“They have it,” she said, turning to her husband who was peering into his phone and frowning gravely. “Tell him what we want it for.”

“We have a place here,” said her husband, flourishing his phone like a baton. “About a mile south of here. We only get up here a few times a year and there are these weeds that grow in the gravel driveway. We have them pulled, but then they come back. We want to kill them for good. Do you have a poison that will do that?”

Another fellow who helps me find things in the hardware store beckoned to me and I moved away from the Super Wealthy people to pay for my purchases and make my escape, but not until I heard the fellow who had previously been helping me say to the super wealthy people, “Well, I don’t know that anything will kill weeds forever. Even the strongest poison eventually dissipates.”

“Oh,” said the woman, pouting in a sophisticated sort of way, “but it’s so annoying to turn into our driveway and find those weeds there again.”

“Well,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me, “you could always pave the driveway. Weeds don’t grow through asphalt.”

“But we like the gravel,” said the woman. “The rustic feeling of the tires crunching on the gravel.”

“How about something that would last five years?” said the man, nodding authoritatively. “Or three? We could have someone apply it every three years.”

“There’s only two things that money can’t buy—that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes.” Guy Clark

I was thinking about those super wealthy people and the poison they wanted to buy as I was reading about the suddenly vanishing Greenland ice sheet, a shocking turn of events that even the most savvy of ice sheet scientists hadn’t expected to happen for some decades, if ever. And now the ice is gone. The ramifications of this astonishing disappearance can hardly be imagined, but oceans rising and catastrophic weather events are certainly to be expected; and there is nothing to be done about this unfolding disaster in the short term except to fasten our seatbelts, so to speak. In the long term, we can stop burning fossil fuels and, it seems to me, stop using poison to kill weeds in gravel driveways.

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m no more environmentally responsible than those weed killing wealthy people. After all, I drive a little truck that runs on gasoline and I turn on myriad electric lights to banish the darkness, and I use a computer and buy clothes made in China. And, in truth, people of all economic classes in America use poison to kill weeds. We all contribute to the sum total synergy wreaking havoc on the natural world, and we all have the opportunity to lessen our contributions, if only we will.

In related news, the net worth of the four hundred richest Americans grew by thirteen percent in the past year to 1.7 trillion dollars, while twenty-eight states report large increases in unemployment. Hmm. The stock market goes up when corporations fire lots of people, and the four hundred richest Americans, philanthropists all, I’m sure, keep getting richer and richer, and at an accelerating pace, just as the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating pace.

“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin

I learned about the phenomenon of ephemeralization from reading Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path, which Bucky defines in his stream-of-consciousness way as “the invisible chemical, metallurgical, and electronic production of ever-more-efficient and satisfyingly effective performance with the investment of ever-less weight and volume of materials per unit function formed or performed.” An illustration of this would be that the first moderately successful computer was the size of a huge office building and nowadays our little personal computers are thousands of times faster and more efficient and sophisticated than that original behemoth.

Bucky believed that ephemeralization would ultimately provide humanity with everything we needed to live successfully on spaceship earth without our needing to keep burning fossil fuels and destroying the environment. He also believed that computers and the worldwide interweb could provide the means for a shift in global awareness that would bring an end to war and overpopulation and the mistreatment of women and children and the needless destruction of the environment. Alas, computers and the worldwide interweb have not saved us, nor have they slowed our ravenous gobbling of the forests and oceans and mountains. Indeed, as our computers have gotten smaller and faster, the poor have gotten more plentiful and the richest four hundred people…

 “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

Many years ago I ran the Creative Writing program at the California State Summer School for the Arts, my students talented teens, one of whom, a sassy eighteen-year-old vixen, presented me with the book of poems Rain by William Carpenter, and said, “I want to have this man’s child.”

I read the book that night and found his poems as exciting as great short stories. I then wrote to Bill Carpenter and he and I eventually became pen pals. I told him that I was using his poems to inspire my young charges, and that certain of his poems seemed to help unlock their creative flow. Here is one of those poems that came to mind as I was writing this essay.

THE ECUADORIAN SAILORS

The Ecuadorian sailors arrive in Bucksport.

They stare at the American girls who stand

on the oil wharf in shorts and halters, eating

pistachio ice cream in the long Maine afternoons

as the sun drops behind the refinery. Evenings,

the Ecuadorians gather on deck. From the town hall

you can hear their slow, passionate music

as one of the officers, immaculately dressed,

sings something about love, about a man murdered,

a woman stolen in the night. The Bucksport girls

throw daisies to the Ecuadorians, who place them

behind their ears, and the officer sings about

a flower blooming in a forgotten place. The next

morning, the girls wear yellow flowers between

their breasts, but the sailors do not see them.

They want to shop in the American stores. They move

through Bucksport talking rapidly. Soon they find

Laverdiere’s Discount Drug Store, where you can buy

anything. A line of Ecuadorian sailors streams

from the ship down Main Street to Laverdiere’s.

Another line returns, carrying brown paper bags.

Where the two meet, they talk and touch fingers

like ants describing the source of food and pleasure.

Some have small bags with radios and calculators,

others have large mysterious bags. Two of them

carry a color television while a third holds the

rabbit-ear antenna and tells them where not to step.

One solitary man carries a red snow shovel, as if,

when he brings the shovel home to Ecuador, it

will snow in his village for the first time since

the Pleistocene. When Laverdiere’s closes, girls

come to the ship with long dresses and daisies

plaited in their hair. The air fills with music

from guitars, with emotions like red and blue rain-

forest parrots that no one in Bucksport has ever seen.

Each Ecuadorian sailor invites a girl to dance

and speaks to her in Spanish, which she understands

fluently, like a lost native language, like words

uttered by eloquent red parrots in a country where

it is always afternoon. At night, among the oil tanks,

the girls all become women. They go to their houses

before dawn, but they are not the same, they have

new languages, new bodies, they have grown darker

and will wear flowers forever between their breasts,

even when the sailors have returned to Ecuador, even

when they marry and take their clothes off for the

first time in a lighted room, the flowers will be there

like indelible tattoos. Their husbands will grow silent

as winter, but it will not matter, they will teach

their children three or four words of Spanish, a song

about red parrots crying in a place of sunlight where

it never snows, and where the heart is everything.

William Carpenter

 

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.