Ampersands thanks to Max

So it’s Friday and I’m having one of those mornings where I feel certain the universe is an all-powerful sentient being picking on me for no good reason. Put another way, I’m feeling sorry for myself. If you’re human and have been alive for at least seven years, you know what I’m talking about. The rational sectors of our brains know the universe has more important things to do than intentionally make us miserable, but when we’re in the throes of such angst the rational sectors are offline.

I decide to exercise my way out of my bad mood by walking to town. I usually drive into town on Fridays in August and September because Jack almost always has a big watermelon for me at the farmer’s market, and a big watermelon is not schlepable in my knapsack.

But I need to shake off this sense of being a victim of a malevolent universe, so I decide to walk to town, mail a package, hope the very important letter that should have come two days ago is waiting in my P.O. box, walk home, and then drive back to town to get the melon.

Halfway down the hill, a long half-mile, the walking is definitely resolving my angst and I’m about to turn around and go get my truck when some idiot talking on his phone while driving almost hits me and my certainty the universe is out to get me returns in force and I decide I better walk all the way to town.

This near-death experience gets me shouting at the Great Old Demon universe and the American medical insurance pharmaceutical mafia and various other orgs and peeps I feel are conspiring to ruin my one precious life. And I am at the zenith of my ranting when something moist nudges my left hand.

I look down and here is a criminally cute six-month-old Black Lab pup. She smiles adoringly, shoves her head under my fingers, and communicates, “I love you so much. I’m going to live with you from now on. Okay?”

To which I respond, “Hello cutie. Go away now. Go home.”

The pup likes my tone and trots along beside me as if she owns me.

I make emphatic shooing gestures. “Go home. Go home now.”

The pup stops and frowns quizzically. I walk on. The pup follows. I notice there is a tag on the pup’s collar, so I squat down to glean any salient info and the cutie is all over me, licking me and communicating, “Oh good. You love me and I love you. Hurray.”

The tag reads Luz, below which is a local phone number. Hoping this means Luz’s home is nearby, I stand up and say, “Go home, Luz. Shoo.”

Now a dog barks in the distance and Luz takes off running across the field and I think she must be headed home, so I continue on my way. But now she comes racing back to me and her exuberance carries her out into the road where a car screeches to a halt and the human driving the car glares at me and says, “Leash your dog, asshole.”

All of which makes me realize Luz is not very savvy about roads and cars. And given we are fast approaching the coast highway, and given I don’t possess a mobile phone, I decide the only thing to do is take the pup home and call the number on her tag.

The very moment I make this decision, a man I know comes by in his truck with his poodle glaring out the passenger window. I know for a fact this man carries a phone, so I flag him down, point at Luz, and before I can say a word, the passenger-side window sinks down, the poodle yaps at me, and the man says, “I’m late. I can’t help you.” And he speeds away.

Before I can form an opinion of this man’s behavior, another truck comes by, this one driven by a man I don’t know. He, too, is accompanied by a dog. He pulls over and gets out to see what’s going on.

“Do you know this pup?” I ask him. “Name is Luz. Very sweet.”

“I know all the dogs around here. Never seen this one before.”

He squats down, Luz runs to him, and as she is licking him and loving him, the man’s old black hound gets out of the truck and stalks toward me growling ominously.

The man says, “Cool it, Chico,” and Chico cools it.

I smile at Chico and say, “The pup seems clueless about cars.”

The man studies the tag on Luz’s collar. “There’s a local phone number.”

“I know, but I don’t have a phone with me,” I say, feeling ancient and low-tech.

“I do,” he says, picking up Luz and putting her in the cab of his truck. “I’ll take care of this. Don’t want her getting hit.”

“Thank you so much,” I say, bowing to him. “You’re a prince.”

Now the man and Chico and Luz drive away and I understand why the universe arranged for me to walk to town today. Luz needed saving. Who better to save her than a person mistakenly thinking the universe is out to get him?

I walk into town, mail my package, and find nothing in my P.O. box, the important letter I’ve been waiting for still in transit. But for some reason this delay no longer bothers me. I walk the steep hill home, jump in my truck, drive to the farmer’s market, and arrive at Jack’s stand an hour later than usual.

Jack finishes waiting on a woman buying many tomatoes, goes to his truck, and brings forth a behemoth melon, the largest of the season. “I was starting to think you weren’t coming today,” he says, setting the big beauty on the scale.

“I was delayed by the universe for other purposes.”

“Happens to me all the time,” says Jack, carefully calculating the very reasonable price for fourteen pounds of ambrosia.


Your Inner Bushman

(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.