In 1995, still trying to get pregnant, I was diagnosed with cancer of the immune system. It was a moment that changed my life. I can still feel echoes of that shock. I still remember my first oncologist, trying to push chemo on me, and when I asked for information about the substances he was recommending, his nurse rummaged through dusty closets and came up with nothing. I found a way out of despair by learning all I could to save my life. Crucially, I learned that Non-Hodgkin’s B-cell lymphoma comes in three varieties, slow-growing, intermediate, and fast growing. The fast ones are often curable, but rare. The slow ones are best not to treat right away (that first oncologist was a greedy liar), respond well to chemo initially, but eventually they’ll turn intermediate and kill you. Median survival? 7-9 years. Ugh. One thing I hold against conventional medicine is that it’s so damn depressing, the way it presents information to patients.

I spent several years studying both the conventional side — finding more hopeful stats — (thank you Fox Chase Cancer Center for making your library so patient friendly!), and the alternative side. The alternative side is good at giving people hope and pluck. I spent some time experimenting with various concoctions they recommended. And while sifting the dross from the potential gold which included talking to other lymphoma patients who also had the gumption to experiment, I found two alternative treatments that merited an “A” on my scale. One wasn’t of use in lymphoma, which is usually disseminated (metastasized) by definition. That was hyperthermia (which has since made limited inroads into conventional cancer treatment). The other one was Coley’s Toxins. I wrote one of the first well-researched internet articles on the toxins. Coley’s Toxins had been blacklisted by the American Cancer Society for many years as a quack treatment, and are not conventionally available to this day. They are cheap to make, and unpatentable.

My approach, recommended by my next oncologist, was to do “watchful waiting” until the disease progressed. When it did, I availed myself of the various toxic drips they give to cancer patients. By that time, they were accompanied by monoclonal antibodies — bioengineered thingies that run through the immune system, gobble up B-cells, and improve the chemo’s effectiveness. I also did a rare treatment that gave me a year of remission called Bexxar. But then, in ’07, the lymphoma speeded up (underwent cellular transformation) and tried to kill me. I got hit by very harsh chemo. Spent that summer doing treatments, transfusions, and Neulasta injections, weak as a new-born chick, wondering if my hair would ever grow back.

And then came the worst day of my life, when the oncologist (who was just out fishing for warm bodies for his transplant program) told me in about 3 minutes that the chemo did not work much, to go home, and talk to the hospice. A clinical trial? “Too late,” he says! He also had the temerity to push “palliative chemo” on me which he admitted on further questioning would probably destroy my kidneys and what little remained of my bone marrow. I fantasize every Halloween about going out in a sheet to haunt this SOB.

Grieved terribly for couple of weeks, and then got really mad. I started calling cancer centers from coast to coast looking for a clinical trial. Was offered various heavy-hitting chemos that would have killed me. Was turned down by a private trial which would have ruined me financially. Then my caregiver drove me to two cancer centers on the off-chance they might have something. The second one paid off. I was accepted into a Danish clinical trial for a new antibody that has since been approved — but not for my kind of lymphoma. Life is full of ironies. And it so happened that I found the only humane oncologist of my entire career as a cancer patient. He looked me in the eye (tumors visibly sticking out of my belly and groin) and he said, “I will never give up on you.” And he kept his promise. Thank you, doctor Myint!

So… I went through the clinical trial for two months. It helped some. More importantly, it gave me the strength to go to Mexico and begin treatment with the toxins. The trial also bound me to be ct scanned every three months for two years, so my recovery is extremely well documented. Four months after I began the toxin treatment, my ct scan showed “massive shrinkage” of all the masses in my belly! What a day! The doc who removed my kidney stent remarked that such a thing almost never happened in his career as a urologist (the cancer had been pressing on my ureter).

It turns out that my internet article on the toxins had been noticed by a Canadian executive who was researching immune therapies for cancer. So inspired was he that he actually went to the Library of Congress to pore over doctor Coley’s notes from the early 20th century, and then built a lab to replicate his process. He wrote to me to tell me the toxins are about to be manufactured to modern standards, but I lost the letter. When I “was dying” I remembered his name, we talked, and after looking around, I went for treatment at the CHIPSA hospital in Tijuana, where they taught me how to inject myself with this substance via diabetic needles. Maybe the hardest thing I have ever done. It makes you ghastly ill for a day or two, the injection site is very painful for a week, and you have to do it three times a week. Argh! Horrible. My caregiver read me Quinn’s Ishmael when I lay there waiting for the effects to begin, to take my mind off the feverish horror to come. As I understand it, the toxins jolt the immune system into action, into recognizing the cancer cells for the threat they are, and killing them.

I got through by faith and stubbornness: I kept repeating to myself that this stuff works, and I’ll just keep on doing it no matter what. And so I did, for 3 years, and it did work. Thank you, Cameron Wookey, Don MacAdam, and Gar Hildebrand– the crew that helped me do this heroic thing. I could not have done it without you. And to the CHIPSA hospital, which in its reopened form is providing treatment and hope to lots of patients, and recently held a big all-paid celebration for us survivors.

William Coley, M.D., with heartfelt gratitude

I have been in full remission for 9 years now. And recently I have begun to think of myself as a person who no longer has lymphoma, though the lit insists low-grade follicular lymphoma is incurable. Early on, someone told me, when you have cancer, you have to throw every book at it. That’s what I did. And I learned so much I knew when to say no to more chemo, and take the road less traveled by. And it’s made all the difference.

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

— Dylan Thomas

I have witnessed only two deaths. They were not good. My mother was whisked off against her wishes to die in a hospital and to be subject to an unnecessary autopsy she had been strongly against. We all gathered ’round to witness her struggle, her laborious gasping for yet another breath. I did not have a sense that giving her extra oxygen through her nostrils eased her passing. (This had been the sole reason my father chose to remove her from our home where she wished to die. Dying people have difficulties breathing. Duh.)

I described the recent death of my father in the previous post. It was a horrible experience for me, and infinitely more horrible for him. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. Trusting the system, or for those with caring children, trusting that they will somehow manage to give you the good death we all deep down hope for… is foolish. The only person I know who had a good death was my grandmother. Still well, she dozed off one afternoon while her daughter, my aunt, was puttering in the kitchen nearby. And then she was gone. A lucky woman. But one can hardly bet on such luck.

Those experiences jolted me into a close examination of my own wishes and eventual options. I wrote a while back about ecologically sane disposal of the body. Since then, my final choice has become clear. I walk away. If a few of my remains are found — and I would be delighted to become food for one of the noble beasts, cougars or vultures if in America, and jackals or bears if in Europe — then I want them wrapped in a simple shroud, placed in a shallow grave lined with compost, with an apple tree planted over me. This of course goes against many laws in many places, but discreet action on private land remains a viable option everywhere. (There is yet another way, much simpler. Swimming out into the ocean. But I’d rather grow into an apple than a jellyfish.:)

Or perhaps by then there will be orchard cemeteries, and if I should have the misfortune to die in bed, that too would be lovely, my body nurturing a fruit tree the living could come and enjoy. And for a funeral? A simple horse-drawn cart, with a brass band playing the songs that sent generations of my ancestors to the next world, that would be the cherry on top.

I struggled mightily with the proper disposal of the dead, but it turns out that’s a simple problem. What about the dying itself? That’s where the real complexities enter in, and that’s where this insane world we live in makes things really difficult for those who would rather skip the usual: institutionalization, prolonged misery with one’s faculties radically diminished and one’s self-determination gone, often dying amidst strangers.

There are several issues that need thinking out, well prior to one’s actual need. Pain medications in an age of moral panics about certain drugs. Reliable lethal doses and access. And then, the most difficult one of them all: how to handle the fear and existential dread that falls upon those whose mortality suddenly ceases to be, um, theoretical. When I was told twelve years ago that I was dying, I was not only grief-stricken, and maddened by the rude and callous way the doctor handled the situation, but I also suffered from the realization that I was completely unprepared for… well, for what I am now calling the good death. I did have the time. I had no resources. I called the Hemlock Society for advice. They told me that the hospice folks leave plenty of morphine behind as they care for you. This is, I suspect, no longer true. Well. As it turned out, I used the time the doctor opined should be taken up to set my affairs in order to save my life instead. But that is another story, and another post.

So I was given a second chance for a rethink. While I believe that suicide is profoundly wrong for reasons too numerous to mention, the idea offers itself that to slightly speed the scythe that is already swooping down… calling it suicide seems a misnomer. It’s more of the last act of exercising the gift of choosing we were given at our birth as human beings. Many dying people refuse to eat — and nobody calls it suicide. (But really, isn’t starving to death, well, a somewhat sub-optimal way to go? Just sayin’….) If it is a kindness to ease the suffering of animals, why must humans endure the worst, at the mercy of often unmerciful happenstance? And being childless, I cannot console myself with idyllic pictures of a loving family gathering to say their goodbyes. It seems to me that when one’s life is done, and all that remains is waiting for the grim end, the kindest thing for all concerned is to make those last months as grimless and meaningful as possible.

I have been reading Michael Pollan’s latest: How to Change Your Mind. It follows his adventures with certain currently-forbidden substances (all hallucinogens, in his case) that he missed out on as a young man. One of the things the book describes are the scientific experiments, quite well corroborated, that demonstrate how the existential dread of dying can be substantially eased or eliminated by guided psychedelic experiences, enabling the person to make a spiritual turning that reframes the death that is coming. I remember when a dear friend was slowly dying of recurrent ovarian cancer — her last year spent being abused by one failing chemo after another, then the cold announcement from the doctor, and then the endless waiting… waiting… waiting… lying in front of television, resentful of the cruel blow of fate, and of death tarrying so. Bitter, too, against the Catholic faith she felt had let her down. She could have used help. But we were clueless.

Why not, instead, refuse heroic measures that swell the GDP with their false “palliative” promises and opt for experiences that bring one’s last days full circle into the meaning of it all, in the largest possible sense? This intimation of meaning which we can only guess at, but which is, experientially, within reach? For me, roaming the wildish lands and communing with critters (human and non) I have loved all my life would come first. And second, I would wish to have available to me all the substances given to us by God-Cosmos-Gaia exactly for the purpose of easing our pain, experiencing parting pleasures, expressing the love we feel without the usual restraint, seeing the meaning of our life with fresh eyes, and finding strength to face the beckoning transformation with grace.

Which leads me off on an exploration.

  • What are the best ways to deal with the pain that often accompanies one’s last months– and which, in its infinite unwisdom, this culture stigmatizes and prohibits — allowing you to walk into the proverbial hills despite your bad back and your bum ankle or the cancer gnawing at your insides? When my mother was dying, my father — being in the cancer research business — pulled some strings to obtain for her what in those days was the most effective way to deal with severe pain. This Brompton’s Cocktail (then commonly available behind the Iron Curtain) was made up of morphine, cocaine, heroin and alcohol. It is still illegal today. The mix was adjusted to the needs of the patient — he or she could choose to be more or less alert, more or less social. Why do we put up with a medical system that puts politics above patients’ needs?!
  • What is the best way to speed the scythe as you can walk no more, and wait in the hills for the blessed scavengers to transform your death into new life? The internet is vague about the dosage (maybe 300 mg of morphine might be enough; but what about a person whose previous months had included plenty of pain medication?). We need expert guides who can advise. And we need doctors who will allow us to build up a cache for when the day comes, well in advance. I think I will mix mine into creme brulee…
  • And finally, what is the best way to use those divine substances that grant us the mercy and vision that in normal consciousness would likely be unreachable? The peace beyond understanding. The rightness of Being. The rightness of Death. The hope for another adventure awaiting in the beyond. The deep gladness that one’s death serves life. A whole new gestalt in which the universe opens its arms to you and welcomes you home. This, as I understand it, the new generation of psychedelic researchers are focusing on. But they need not stop there! How about drugs given not to quell pain, but to suffuse with pleasure a body that no longer can do it on its own? What about pills or herbs that would bring happy, vivid dreams? What about hypnosis that would help the person relive the most meaningful days of their life?

If I am granted the foresight and the knowledge that the time has come, I will walk away into the wilderness to offer my body to the living. That too will require preparation and scouting out, depending on the season and my strength. I suspect it will take more than just putting on a backpack and heading west into the Rockies, as I had naively imagined. Maybe an old cabin might come in handy. After all, it could be winter. The very last adventure of this earthly life ought to be grand, don’t you think?

And when I am gone, the friends I have left behind will shield their eyes when a vulture or a raven flies overhead, and wonder if I am flying along.

annies home: Turkey Vulture

 

 

 

A few years back, there went by a news story about an event in Holland. Apparently, the Dutch have decided to… is there a good way to say this?… to kill their elderly. The human being in question — a lady with Alzheimer’s — apparently had her wits about her when the doctor tried to administer the lethal injection and fought back with alacrity. Then, the doctor asked the family members to hold her down. Then, he put her down like a sick dog. I was shocked. I remember being glad that this sort of thing does not go on in America.

I took care of my aged father for several years. He was relatively well, though his mind was sometimes better and sometimes worse. Living with him was very trying, because — and this was a lifelong pattern with him — he was a personality disordered man. I will not describe the scenes that sometimes went on between us. I will just mention that I had a dear friend nearby who regularly rescued me and let me stay there while my father raged and carried on. The last year of his life he suffered a fall, but recovered well, and his ct scans showed a healthy 91-year-old.

One evening, my father was unusually talkative. We discussed his future, and whether he would be willing to give assisted living a try. I was surprised and glad, because he rarely talked to me, and because we carried on a good discussion without his use of hearing aids. A hopeful sign, I thought! We went to bed agreeing to speak more on the morrow.

I woke at 5 am with him banging on my door, yelling, incoherent. I opened — a mistake — and when he lunged against me, trying to keep the door open, he broke my arm. I called the cops who quieted him down. Then I went to ER. When I came home and prepared my father’s breakfast and pills, he began to stalk me, telling me he wanted me out this instant. After giving him the pills, I locked myself in the bedroom. All was quiet for a few hours, then the yelling and banging on my door began. The door shook in its frame.

I called the cops again. They spent about three hours here, trying to calm him down, getting abused in turn. My father even struggled with them physically — I don’t know where he found the energy. I confessed to them I was worried that he was going to try to poison me, and they advised me to keep all my own food in the bedroom, which seemed an insane piece of advice. Is this how I should live? Eventually, they realized that he was past any signposts of sanity, called the medics, slapped the Baker Act on him (“dangerous to self and others”) and took him to the hospital, where my father tried to kick and hit personnel. They gave him some anti-psychotics that made him worse. Eventually, with great difficulty, they found him a bed in a psychiatric institution.

And this is where the system began to play me. I was, of course, a babe in the woods, and as the situation unfolded, I spent my days on the phone, trying to figure out what to do from one day to the next. And I toured many institutions that take in the aged. My father’s insurance would have paid 100% of the costs of him being in the mental hospital. But after zonking him hard with several different anti-psychotics, they claimed he was just fine now (after a week!) and I should make other arrangements. I had him transferred to assisted living — a very nice place as such places go. They did not tell me he had developed bed sores. (My father refused to move while he was there, making them believe that he could not — so I can’t really say it was all their poor care that brought those sores about.)

Was he well? Of course not. He shrieked all the way down from the hospital to the assisted living home. When there, my father — who you remember “could not move at all” in the hospital, started running around the assisted living place, barging into people’s rooms, and that even without his usual walker. He created such an upheaval that I was required to pay for round the clock aides to keep an eye on him. Eventually, we were able to ease off, and the home made arrangements with neighboring “memory care” unit (that’s where the Alzheimer’s people are) to take him during the day. He was also further dosed with anti-psychotics which nobody seemed to be able to adjust so that the crazies would stop but he could function.

Well, in the end, that arrangement fell apart, and he went back to the local hospital. There he lay zonked out of his mind, his sores getting worse, while they were trying to figure out what to do with him. There was some sort of an appeal to the state that took several weeks to resolve. Meanwhile, I was looking for a memory care place for him — and was lucky to find out near me, a small one that was run by a church, and people had individual attention. When the state declined the appeal, the church facility took him in. I was so glad then, full of hope that they would be able to get him off the drugs and back to being alive. It looked that way at first.

Then I ran into insurance problems. If my father had straight Medicare, the facility’s doctors and rehab people could look after him. But he had one of those HMO plans that demand the patient goes to certain doctors only. My BC/BS advisor went on vacation, the replacement was not able to get me either a competent doctor or a rehab person, and my father’s muscles went rapidly into permanent atrophy. When he came there, he was coherent, and was able to get up and have lunch at the common table. Within days, he was shrieking his head off, back on the nasty drugs, alone in his room. I came twice a day to check on him. He could still talk to me. I asked him if he was hungry or thirsty. He said no. Then he said: “I am afraid.” My father… whom I’ve never known to be afraid of anyone. That was the last thing he said.

The next day, as I was coming in, the director called me and told me I should talk to the hospice. This too was a shock. That day my father had refused all food (he actually crushed the spoon they were using to feed him some yogurt) and his message was clear. I was up till midnight making the arrangements, late Friday night.

The hospice got him a special soft bed, and took excellent care of his bed sores. They also got an attendant to be with him 24 hours a day. They made sure he was getting some water to wet his mouth, and eventually began to rub liquid morphine around his gums (though in my opinion, it took them excruciatingly long to get around to it).

My father died 6 days after the hospice took over. In three months, he went from a healthy albeit intermittently demented person to a corpse.

I came out of this ordeal with a case of PTSD, a frozen shoulder, and a lot of questions. I am writing this post to warn others. There were three problems with his care. 1) The anti-psychotics ruined his health. 2) The advice I was given was of the sort designed to “draw down” his assets (such a nice official phrase, eh?). He could have stayed in the psych unit until they stabilized him, at no cost to us. Instead, they lied to me. The assisted living home was motivated to go along with the lie, because they stood to profit by his monthly rent. And in the end, even the church place should have advised me that it looked like my father needed hospice, not moving to yet another institution. More money for them. (They did tell me, but after he had been moved, while assuring me it looked like they were wrong.) And 3), when I begged people to calm my father with opiates (which would have given him constipation but would not have turned him into a zombie) rather than zombifying anti-psychotics, they refused. Only the hospice can administer the opiates, they said. I had nowhere to turn.

So this is the way we kill the troublesome aged in America. The quiet ones — and I saw many during my sojourn through the institutions — lie in their chairs in front of the TV day in, day out, year in, year out. The hospice, btw, was free and excellent. Apparently, it is important in the United States to pour unlimited money into the dying. Why?

Loose wreath design | Didsbury Flower Lounge | Didsbury ...

The divine kingdom is among you/within you. Luke 17:21

Much water under the bridge since I last wrote. But maybe it’s been worth the wait. I am close to sensing the shape of my life to come. Here’s a sketch… perhaps even a scrap of a map to be of use to other pilgrims.

How to leave Babylon? I don’t have a youth’s lifetime before me. It is time to walk the escape routes I have so far discovered. I am sure there are other passageways still, obscured by brambles, thorns and piles of concrete, for others to squeeze through. I hear that Dmitry Orlov is back in the bosom of Mother Russia, living in the back country and building his dream houseboat that sails. Thousands of pioneers are flocking to eastern reaches of Siberia where Vladimir Putin opened the last planetary chance for homesteading on the cheap. But you must either know Russian, or receive special permission, as have the 15,000 Boer farmers from South Africa. I am fated to remain closer to Babylon than they, but stubbornly not of it. It’s a path anyone can follow, not only hardy young adventurers.

I wrote a while back that to leave domination is to leave Babylon. In order to do this, one has to begin opening spaces between people that allow for power sharing. So somebody asked, what exactly is power sharing? This is so far my best answer: it’s leaving one-upmanship games behind, and opening up spaces where people can share thoughts openly and without undue aggression, exert influence without manipulation, and dare to tell the truth. It’s keeping competition within limits so it doesn’t ride roughshod over cooperation. None of this is easy. All of it takes courage. But every skill learned, embodied and acted upon is another step on the way out.

Here are the words I am speaking into being:

Find your land of beauty where you are meant to sing praises of creation and enlarge the chances of life. Feed the soil. Grow the soil. Rewild. No matter how small a place, help it bring forth a richer, more abundant lifeweb than there was before. And rewild your own spirit by being in the NOW, a lot.

Open up more and more power-sharing spaces between you and other human beings. Some for a few minutes, some for a lifetime. Open up the realm where souls connect. That is the new frontier — explore it together. Such relationships, rich in attention and trust, wield magic and restorative power of their own. Such relationships are the embers of another way of being with each other, waiting to be stoked into flame.

Inviting enchantment in is also a reality changing experience. Knock, and it shall be opened. Turn until you align just right, and you shall find yourself in the valley of love and delight, as the Shakers knew. Live your life within and out of the generative process, imitating Mother Nature. “Unplanning,” as it’s been known on this blog. Life proceeds like a bud opening.

And finally, tell the truth. Untruth corrupts the soul and the body politic, and one form of corruption feeds the other. Truth reweaves the torn structure of the living world. After all, in Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That’s what makes it Paradise.

I walk away from the world of dead and dying soils into the world where soil is being brought back to life and abundance. I walk away from the spectacle world of fake news, misdirection, manipulation, power hoarding, chronic lies, and bullshit piled so high they’ll need Hercules to clean it out lest it all fall on them… and into the world where people simply and honorably tell each other the truth as best they know it. I walk away from arid atheism, materialism and consumerism, ossified religions and totalitarian ideological temptations into a world re-enchanted by those who dare to make the leap of faith, who rise in rebellion against reason gone rogue, who are ready to call on ancestral forces through prayer and ritual to guide us on our way. I walk away from anomie, anonymity, cynicism and shallowness into a world where relationships open up magical spaces of attention and trust. I walk away from a world of plans and goals gone awry, into a world that lets the future unfold from the goodness of the present moment.

And look; there is the door.

Something’s on my mind and I just can’t shake it,
I need some time and I want some space,
gotta get away from the human race…
— Grandmaster Flash: New York New York

Way back when, they used to berate us for having kids. You know… the Zero Population Growth, one kid or none crowd. If everybody did it, the population bomb would not have to go off. They lied. The people who did as they said are eliminating themselves from the gene pool. And the population bomb is blowing a bit of the planet up every day, species by species by species. Diversity of life going up in smoke.

Oh I know… they assure us that the “rate of population growth” has gone down. It has. But that hasn’t defused the bomb. There was a time a couple decades back when we were being lulled to sleep by assurances that by mid-21st century, population will level off and begin to decline. Nothing to worry about, right?

They are not saying that any more. The latest prognostications have been going up, 9-10 billion in 2050, 12 billion by 2100, and going up. I have looked upon this for some time as a farce… not for the planet, of course, but as one of the farcical stories unfolding among the more educated yet easily fooled humans. First, it was don’t worry, be happy. Now, the preoccupation is how we’ll feed the locust hordes. When will it be about how not to be locusts? When will farmers be asked to underproduce for humans, and give back to the soil and fellow critters? Never.

By the way, let’s pause for a moment. The august UN population agency tells us that we’ll reach 9.2 billion (that was in 2007, updated to 9.8 in 2017) in 2050. Really? We went 7 billion in the fall of 2011. That’s 6 and a half years ago. It took us only 6 and a half years to bloat another half a billion. The birth rate is not declining but holding steady. That would mean 8 billion in around, oh, let’s be a tad conservative and say 7 years. 2025. And let’s be equally conservative and add another billion in 15 years. That’s 10 billion in 2040. Are we being bullshitted? Why not? It worked to silence Paul Ehrlich

Because population has been, since the first Paleolithic aggrandizer takeover, a political question. Human elites always strive to grow their domesticated serf herds. More work, more food, more people. More people, more tools, inventions, slaves. More weapons, power, wealth, status for some. More work done, more food, more people. And so the seasons turn turn turn.

When people in the richer countries obliged the ZPG and stopped breeding like rabbi… er, domesticated animals, the elites began to berate them and started importing folks from countries where people were still cranking out babies like there was no tomorrow. In Europe, they are still berating them, and claiming that they need to grow their demographics despite the fact that huge numbers of their young people are unemployed with no prospects, robots are taking human jobs, and the Earth groans under the weight of the human mass. Japan is a notable exception, apparently assuming that fewer people on those crowded islands is not a bad thing at all. They have always marched to their own drummer.

The frog. Is it boiled yet? A friend of childbearing age and I are talking Ishmael. On one hand, the planet needs less of us. Less of us in numbers, less of us in human mass (yeah, fat shaming, baby!). On the other hand, both she and I love the culture we come from; we don’t look gladly toward the day when the language, history, culture, and genes of our motherland will blink out and go dark. Once a culture having risen like a phoenix from the ashes of imminent germanization, the Czechs seem poised to be overrun by other peoples from all sorts of other places because they are losing the demographic war.

So what do I tell her? She wants three children. My youngest cousin has four. I used to be counted among those preaching replacement or less. I am no longer. How does one square the circle? Do you value your home, your cultural inheritance passed to you in trust by countless generations, your kin? Have babies. Without them, there is no future for what you love. But what about the love of the Earth, love of Gaia?

Gaia will take care of Gaia. Humans blather, but haven’t got it in them to self-regulate our population. No species does. Effective regulation of population evolved by nature involves cycles of feedback due to predation. We have eliminated our large animal predators. What remains? Microorganisms and psychopaths. And those are the tools Mother Nature will use for the Big Cull. Psychopaths, rising in numbers along with the burgeoning population, will scheme ever more conflict and mayhem, and the tiny critters — whose evolution toward greater potency we have enabled by waging antibiotic wars on them — these microorganisms will keep trying for another global plague until they succeed. Of course, they adore increasingly crowded conditions — all the better to leap from host to host.

Reading Scott’s Against the Grain made my last square peg fall into its round hole. Humans have become a demographic plague on the planet because they have become too tame and too stress tolerant of the wrong kind of stress — overcrowding, sedentariness, monodiets of crap foods made for “human cattle,” boredom and anomie. It fucks up our hormones and neurochemicals, just like it fucked up the hormones and neurochemicals of the tame Russian foxes who started going into heat twice a year, whining, begging and wagging their tails. Selecting for docility and tolerance of the intolerable makes for domesticated humans. It makes us sheeple — even our brains, like the brains of domestic sheep, have shrunk. All domesticated critters are overbreeders because they have been selectively bred to be overbreeders. We are one of them.

The future that today’s babies will be meeting face to face won’t be like our present. Teach them to be smart and resourceful and resilient in a variety of situations. Mix in a hefty dose of practical skills into their education. Gift them strong immune systems, and pass on the knack to maintain these via fresh foods and hardy lifestyles fit for real human beings. Help them find highly capable and good-hearted but wily, wild-at-heart mates to have their own babies with. Teach them to recognize and foil those who would rather weed out all wildness, courage and spunk out of us, to control and manipulate us all the better. Begin in earnest to re-member lifeways fit for Homo sapiens to bequeath them. Weave for them stories and songs full of meaning that will buttress their psychological and spiritual health. Guide them to be brave, adventurous, fierce and strong, and to defend what they love.

Teach your children well.

An elite, believing itself in mortal danger or seized with celestial ambitions, would have little compunction in adopting survival strategies that risked killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
— James C. Scott

One of the key themes explored in this blog is the question of “what the heck happened” to get us into the mire we wallow in today. I have explained that I do not accept Quinn’s and Diamond’s hypothesis that agriculture is the culprit — although I agree with Scott that cultivated grains were political crops that made centralization and states possible. Those wishing to avail of my writings on that subject may click on the category of “origin of agriculture” to see all seven other posts on that theme, dealing with deep history, surplus, and the intensification of agriculture (and other aspects of the ancient food economies). In other series, I have explored the origin of equality and inequality (viz “roots of domination”).

Since the Small Farm Future blog and Chad over at Hipcrime Vocab are exploring the topic again, and so is James C. Scott in his (highly recommended) new book Against the Grain, I have finally made up my mind to finish the series so that I can move to other things. The pause in blogging has allowed me to settle into a mind pattern that I think works well. I don’t have access at present to all my notes, so some bits may need to be filled in later. Here is the outline.

Cultivation began in our deep past, in the Paleolithic, among hunter-gatherers. So did the rise of inequality. We have significant archeological remains testifying to the latter fact. During the Ice Age, in some sheltered places, rich in game, elites arose. Then the Ice Age grew colder, and they faded. They rose again before Younger Dryas, and faded once more during that inclement period. Then, with the massive moist warming of the Holocene, some areas on the face of our planet provided prodigious quantities of food for our forager ancestors — not only game and fish, but grass seeds, legumes, nuts and fruits, roots, tubers and berries. As Scott points out, these areas were often marshy at least part of the year (that explains why the Catal Huyukers built the first town ever so inexplicably amidst wetlands!). Ancient marshes not only abounded in ready-made human food, but also made possible early intensification of cultivation via periodic flooding. As he details so clearly, when foraging peoples spread wild seed on the soft moist ground fertilized by silt, cultivation was a child’s game, easy peasy.

With vast natural surpluses available, all human societies so blessed were faced with a dilemma. Do we share, or do we allow hoarding? The timeless tradition of “vigilant sharing” pointed in one direction… and I imagine most tribes kept on with it. But at the same time, in times of plenty vigilance tends to relax, people worry less about some individuals grabbing more, and certain types of personalities — the triple-As or aggrandizers (aggressive, ambitious, acquisitive people) begin to rise as they find ways to use the surplus for self-promotion and status games. Such individuals exist in all societies, and always have. Under egalitarian social structures, they are carefully watched, and if they get out of hand, they are knocked down a peg, or, if nothing else works, eliminated.

There is anthropological documentation that even among the Eskimos who have traditionally greatly feared such personalities, a sudden caribou windfall relaxes those worries, the sharing networks are suspended, and all can get as much food as they want. And so it happened in the Holocene. Many societies, like the Coastal Yurok, kept sharing (the Yurok would store surplus acorns in caches to which anyone had access, even travelers passing by). But a few relaxed their vigilance too far, and aggrandizers saw their opportunity to push the envelope. They were careful, in the beginning, to couch their hoarding schemes in the language of the good of the community, of course. The lavish feasts they organized meant a lot of work for them and their followers, and they were often left the poorest afterwards, having given all their wealth away. But they knew there was more coming their way, via debts and obligations, increasing competitiveness, and other strategies designed to keep people working more than they would ideally like to. I think of the aggrandizers as specialists in cranking out more work from otherwise work-averse humans who would rather live by the law of least effort, especially when Gaia provides so bounteously.

Step by tiny step, with much backsliding, the aggrandizers worked and schemed their way to more influence, more wealth, and eventually, more power. And since it was natural surplus that gave them the freedom to rise above their fellows, they put all their efforts into creating greater and greater surpluses. The New Guinea tribe of Enga is a perfect illustration of this very gradual slippery slope that leads to greater and greater elitism despite the tribe’s fairly egalitarian recent past. And so we end up with a system where “those who worked hardest and kept the least became those who worked the least and kept the most.”

Something of a big puzzle among anthropologists has been summed up by Chris Smaje thus: “How you make those inequalities stick in societies that generally are elaborately organised to build solidarity…?” My answer is by way of analogy. How do you begin with two modern human beings, a young couple who fall in love and marry, who have been raised as relative equals, both educated, with independent spirits, and end up some years down the line with a situation of profound domination and abuse by one partner of the other? The abuse does not come overnight, but begins via virtually imperceptible steps that eventually manipulate and intimidate the other into a position of cowering subservience and fear. And so it was with our ancestors. Small family obligations grew into heavy debts. Poverty appeared as some could not or would not keep up. Some nobler-than-thou families sprouted lineages linking them to guardian spirits or heroic ancestors. Religious societies were invented that promoted privilege for some. because, you know, their members were in special touch with the gods. The list of these “aggrandizer strategies” is practically endless.

Once the balance of power shifts in a profound way, whether in marriage or a band, it is very difficult to right it. And when the dominator has — in the former case — customs, cops, relatives and friends on his side, or in the latter case acquires the strongest hunters and warriors as his followers and well-rewarded goons, there is a moment that — however difficult to pinpoint precisely — transforms everything. A point of no return. A friend of mine gave it a name. Takeover.

Where does agriculture fit into this? As the now aggrandizer-run society keeps cranking out more and more work and more and more surpluses, its people get trapped in a hamster wheel, always trying to invent themselves out of their swelling overhead by getting more out of the environment. It does not matter what mix of hunting, fishing, gathering, and cultivation they follow — as long as they are driven to ratcheting intensification, their food-producing strategy will lead to ruin, sooner or later. Regardless of the official religion of the tribe, their real religion is the Cult of MORE. And here is where it gets even more pernicious.

Imagine thousands of societies living, as Daniel Quinn puts it, “in the hands of the gods” and sharing the bounty. But a few societies emerge that are run by aggrandizers and begin to crank out more work than their neighbors. More work, more food. More food, more people. More people, more tools, weapons, warriors, wombs. More raids won, slaves added to the workforce. Rinse and repeat. What we suddenly have is a short-term evolutionary advantage.

I say ‘short-term,’ because this runaway social system always ends with a crash; nevertheless, it’s lasted several thousand years now in some places, and has parlayed its evolutionary advantage into worldwide conquest. Escape routes have become few and far between. It has become known from recent anthropological accounts that some tribes have not been, as Quinn had thought, Leavers reaching back to the dawn of humankind, but rather Takers who escaped and became Leavers by choice. Rebels against takerism, apostates from the Cult of MORE.

I was once chastised that tracing the deep history of “what went wrong” cannot get us out of our predicament. And yet… awareness of what happened can turn into a butterfly effect. As Quinn’s B says: “vision is a river.” This river is carrying us to a waterfall. But rivers have been known to change their course in response to changes in the environment. Societies in decay reach a point when the aggrandizers begin inventing what David Graeber calls bullshit work. Building roads to nowhere, like the Chaco Canyoneers. Or canals running uphill, like the Peruvian Wari. Or pyramids and pyramid schemes, as our civilization has done. After all, the Cult of MORE must crank out more work, more food, more people lest the wheels fly off the chariot bearing its altar. Can we once again gather our wits, put the kibosh on the aggrandizers, stop the infernal treadmill, and let the living world live?

 

Ecological restoration is a work of hope.
— George Monbiot

Monbiot’s Feral is an astonishing book. I have become something of a book skimmer, but his stories of daredevil fishing in the sea off Wales in a kayak drew me in. And then came the marvelous tales — of a young man and his friends regrowing a forest on the bleakest sheep-ravaged land high in the Welsh mountains; of returning beavers to the land; of stalking the wisent in the Polish wildlife reserve and fishing and kayaking in Slovenia’s regenerated forests and rewilded rivers. Another soggy but heartwarming chapter tells of Trees for Life, a group in Scotland attempting to rewild many miles of interconnected lands despite opposition from elite hunters who favor deer overpopulation.

Not all of the book gave me heart. His encounters with the lies and subterfuges of the bureaucrats with “other” agendas and built-in stupidity were dispiriting, as were his accounts of ocean damage. (I am not surprised that now Britain is poised to Brexit, there is talk of protecting its sovereign coastal waters where trawler over-fishing has ruined fishing village livelihoods.) Apart from living a more rugged life, Monbiot does not have many pointers on how humans can rewild. He seems unable to distinguish between gleeful psychopaths and stubbornly free mountainmen. He also suffers from the delusion that the primary purpose of rural politics in Britain and America seems to be to keep the farmers happy. If only! Small criticism, this – the book was well worth my time.

Let me use his writings to flesh out a coherent sense of rewilding. Here are a few pointers:

• Reinstating ecosystems in which man’s power to dominate is consciously withheld
• Becoming feral – becoming wild(er) after captivity or domestication
• Permeable landscapes through which animals can move once more
• Restoring predators and keystone species that begin to drive the dynamic ecological processes which permit so many other species to thrive
• Permitting the ecological processes inherent to the place to resume (rather than trying to recapture and restore some prior state)
• Restraining our push for privileging safety over experience
• Richer, rawer, more strenuous life for humans

He says: “Rewilding, unlike conservation, has no fixed objective: it is driven not by human management but by natural processes. There is no point at which it can be said to have arrived. Rewilding of the kind that interests me does not seek to control the natural world, to re-create a particular ecosystem or landscape, but – having brought back some of the missing species – to allow it to find its own way.”

“The scientific principle behind rewilding is restoring what ecologists call trophic diversity. Trophic means relating to food and feeding. Restoring trophic diversity means enhancing the opportunities for animals, plants and other creatures to feed on each other; to rebuild the broken strands in the web of life. It means expanding the web both vertically and horizontally, increasing the number of trophic levels (top predators, middle predators, plant eaters, plants, carrion and detritus feeders) and creating opportunities for the number and complexity of relationships at every level to rise.”

“Much of the richness and complexity – the trophic diversity – of these food webs was lost before it was recorded. We live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of there could be again.”

Quoting the founder of Trees for Life: “Seeing the stumps in the peat and the remnant trees, I asked myself: what is the message in the land? What’s the story it’s telling us? My question was: What’s Nature seeking to do here? That is crucially different from the ethos of human domination. Rewilding is about humility, about stepping back.”

And now I would like to tell you why I reached for this book. I got the fanciful idea that farms and farming ought to be rewilded, and I am fishing for pointers. I imagine the farms of the future as places teeming with life, places where soil is grown at an astonishing rate and creatures large and small have once again repopulated the landscape. For me, it began with the realization that the permacultural ethic of “fair share” really means sharing with the critters who too have a claim on the fruits of the land. Our biomass, and the biomass of our domesticates, is crowding out everybody else – and then we grieve over species lost. Humans need to stop grieving and start shrinking, is my own thought. Not just births added are the problem, but pounds of human flesh! Not just pounds of human flesh, but pounds and bushels of human food we crank out like there is no tomorrow.

Once I had a garden upstate New York, and grew some pretty and much fussed over scarlet runner beans. And a delight they were. Then one day, I spied a creature with a big runner bean leaf in its mouth as it slunk off. Oh no, a woodchuck! Well, those of you having lived in North America’s eastern parts know that woodchucks are remorseless eating machines. And they climb fences. So my runner beans went the way of all flesh, and the woodchucks multiplied and multiplied until nature noticed and predators came out that-a-way. Back then, my thinking was, well, no more runner beans. I never even tried again. But now I think, why not grow runner beans and other veggies for the woodchucks? They certainly repaid me richly with the antics of the shortsighted babies staring me down a foot away, and the sight of them grazing the lawn in the early mist. And eventually, they fed the coyotes passing through, or the owls, or the red-tailed hawk family nesting by. Back then, despite myself, I felt possessive of the produce of my my my! garden. But now? My next garden will grow not just for me, but for the critters as well. And leave plenty of room where I neither trample nor gather; room of their own.

baby woodchuck

I have been rereading the comments that followed my post “No guarantees” – an amazing stream of good thoughts, theories, and hard-won advice. One of the topics that jumped out at me was the bitter claim that no matter what, if we harvest a garden or field, we are depleting fertility by definition.

Wildearthman wrote: “The only historical agriculture found that could be sustained more or less indefinitely occurred on river bottoms where fresh fertility was imported each year from distant mountains. Even with composting, cover crops, and green manures, fertility continues to decline. On my few acres in the Cascades, the topsoil was stripped in clear-cutting. The subsoil is a good quality loam, but I have to import a lot of fertility to make things grow here. How do you keep growing crops in the same old soil, drawing out nutrients with each crop, without at some point adding fertility from somewhere else?”

Jan countered: “The key to continued fertility is to close the nutrient cycle.”

I reasoned that if nature can go from lesser fertility to greater, so could we. Even in pristine forests or grasslands, animals harvest and take away. They leave their poop, true, but they carry away all the energy they need to grow and maintain themselves. That is not returned to the soil until the bird or elk or bison dies.

Osker suggested that a harvest should not be a subtraction from the ecosystem. Clearly, this is possible: a farmer thins the forest he planted 15 years ago, so that all the trees have greater access to the sun; win/win. Relying more on perennial crops – mainly nut trees — is part of Osker’s  strategy.

And so all this put a bee in my bonnet. Is it possible to garden in place without depleting fertility? Is it possible to work a field over generations without the soil sinking lower and lower, with the topsoil growing thinner and thinner?

Then I remembered John Jeavons. I took note of him way back when primarily for his effort to shrink the land needed to grow enough food for one person per year. Only now am I discovering his solution to the very question opened up by my friends on this blog.

To refresh folks’ memory, Jeavons runs a farm in coastal California where he decided to find out what is the minimum of land that will adequately feed a human with a vegetarian diet. He proposed 4,000 sq ft (8,000 with pathways etc.) and now has expanded those numbers to 10,000 in fertile situations and 16,000 in challenging situations. Over time, his experimentation developed into a whole system that has a number of components which are elucidated here.

I am not intending to evaluate his system. I will only alert you that his popular book How to Grow More Vegetables has a new edition coming out in July.

I do think that Jeavons has possibly resolved the puzzle of fertility maintenance or even – gasp – its increase. Jeavons – and this is stupendous – keeps only 40 % of his land for growing human food, and allots 60% of it to growing soil food. To feed the soil, he grows nitrogen fixers, carbon-rich crops, root-dense plants, and perennials with deep roots that bring up subsoil nutrients. (He is no slouch with humanure either). He carefully composts the lot, and adds buckets of it to the beds.

So here is my question. Is this the solution we have been looking for? I can see the face of an Amish farmer being told he has to plow up another 60% of his current fields, just to feed the soil. And why 60%? One of my annoyances with Jeavons is that he will make statements neither supported by an explanation nor by a reference to other sources. For example, he claims that vermicomposting is not suitable to his method because the worms make the nutrients too available. Who says?

Minor quibbling on my part. I walked a field this morning, 100 ft by 100 ft, and took in visually the area that would be dedicated to feeding soil. Huge! Feeding soil must precede feeding everybody else. What an idea! (I do believe that Jeavons does not strictly separate the soil feeding beds and the human feeding beds – for example, rye will give its grains to humans, but the bulk of the plant is pure carbon. And the decaying roots feed the soil directly.)

Feeding soil will not do you any good if you let it all run away in erosion. Crop rotation is a topic of its own, and so is minimal tillage. Rock dusts do not steal fertility elsewhere yet may help fertility in your garden (as they help the fertility of tropical islands lucky enough to lie within the plume of the volcanic dust). Wood ash enriches acidic soils, there are compost teas and plant brews, the word is still out on biochar (which can be easily obtained by burning some brush). Try throwing a little in your chicken coop along with some corn to encourage scratching, and soon the coop will have no dust, no smell, and no poop stalagmites. Later apply the bedding to your garden. No chickens? Here is a recipe: a bit of biochar, some worm castings, a bit of corn meal or flour, bit of pee and a bit of rock dust. Mix well, and let ripen a few days. Voilà!

This of course does not apply to those who sell their produce. They have to import fertility. But getting municipal compost or certain horse manures seems not so much like stealing, but recycling. Nah? Another thought… the ancient practice of letting land lie fallow (as long as it’s covered by vegetation, and grazed occasionally) can be thought of as a nascent glimmer of understanding that the soil needs to be fed.

But back to the main topic. Will the magic application of 60% soil food keep your-mine-our garden’s and field’s fertility increasing? Is this the solution we have been looking for 7,000 years?

Ecology Action garden

You give, I give, all must give.
— Enga proverb

This is a story about a unique tribe of people in Papua New Guinea. My information is based on the detailed book called Historical Vines, by American anthropologist Polly Wiessner and her Enga colleague, Akii Tomu. The reason Enga are of interest to the project of this blog are several. First, they are a large and successful tribe in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, woven together by culture and language. Second, they have made oral history an important part of their heritage passed down in the men’s houses from generation to generation. There are reliable data going back to about 1650. And last, they have — within memory — moved from mostly hunter/gatherers supplementing with swidden gardens to largely horticultural/agricultural subsistence and trading economy based on introduced sweet potatoes, and pigs. At the same time, they transitioned from what might be termed egalitarian transegalitarianism to pronounced status and wealth differences while maintaining egalitarian ethos. The accompanying changes are described in detail by the various elders interviewed, through direct witness or cross-checked rememberance.

Enga settled in the Highlands of New Guinea as the glacial cover retreated and the climate warmed, many centuries ago. They hunted marsupials and cassowaries, gathered the nuts and greens of the forest, and grew taro in slash and burn gardens. Land was plentiful, and they lived in widely spread-out settlements. There is pollen evidence that at one point they made the decision to concentrate and intensify their taro gardens in the bottom lands, and let the forests regenerate. About 300 years ago, sweet potato made its way slowly from the lowlands, where it was an indifferent crop, to the highlands, where it came to produce so plentifully that it changed the course of Enga history. Originally, men hunted, women gathered, and men and women worked the gardens together, men clearing and planting and women tending and harvesting.

Much changed with the gradual introduction of the sweet potato which turned out to produce prodigious amount of food in this mountainous climate, surpluses became ridiculously easy to come by, and the pig was turned into sweet potato “storage on the hoof.” The women became the primary food producers, while the men began to devote more time to traveling, trading and politics. Populations grew, tensions increased between the “hunters” and the “farmers,” and fights for fertile land became more frequent… Today, all the land is taken.

The population in the early days is estimated at 10,000 plus. Recently, 110 tribes divided into many clans and subclans were documented by the study conducted from 1985-95, and by then the population burgeoned to over 200,000. There are 9 mutually intelligible dialects. The clans are thought of as patrilineal associations of equals, while kinship on the female side plays an important cultural role in opening the society up to wider cultural influences, facilitating exchange with in-laws and beyond. Land is owned both individually and by the clan. A man can pass his land to his descendants, but it cannot pass to anyone outside the clan, unless they become permanent members. Clans and tribes have a common origin myth, sometimes referring to immortal sky people, other times to animals. Genealogies play a large role in establishing inheritance rights to land.

The Enga province is blessed with 7 salt springs, and this salt provided a prime item for wide area trading. It was exchanged for high quality stone axes, shells, cosmetic oils, bark twine, and foodstuffs. The trading paths would in time play an important role in the spread of various cults, as well as the extensive Tee exchange (a carefully organized sequence of trade-based festivals) network.

Westerners began to make modest inroads in the late 1930s. Enga suffered severe epidemics post contact, but unlike other tribes, their population continued to rise, possibly because the Enga had a tradition of stringent quarantine for people afflicted with contagious disease. There’s been an emphasis on large families: sons to assure future strength of the clan, and daughters as producers and links for exchange networks outside of the clan. Until the last few decades, the division between the sexes was strengthened by the existence of separate men’s and women’s houses. Incipient big men were always — as far back as memories reach — found at the focal points of influence over the flow of goods and valuables.

enga_province-map

Egalitarianism

Even in the hunting-gathering days, some men did rise to modest prominence on account of their oratory, hunting prowess, and able mediation of conflicts. This trend intensified as the Enga society grew in complexity. But egalitarianism was deeply rooted, and remained so until modern times.

Each adult in Enga society is a potential equal within gender and within the clan. Exceptions are granted to leaders who share their wealth with the clan. These leaders go to great lengths to show that what they want is also to the benefit of the tribe, while veiling self-interest from the public eye.

People are very careful not to boast about the accomplishment of relatives or ancestors; individual names in history are often replaced with clan names, and while individuals are credited, they are never elevated to the status of heroes. To the contrary, egalitarian ethics structure oral traditions to the point that founding ancestors may even be ridiculed. In the tribal “hall of fame” are such characters as Lungupini who uses his own leg as a block against which to cut grass. His and other ancestors’ exploits showing stupidity, tricksterism, and foolishness have entertained generations.

Among Enga, escalating competition is not practiced, where one loses if one does not give more than one has received. Generous returns for gifts given are desirable, but not necessary; they are aimed at strengthening the bond, not winning in the “game” of giving and establishing temporary superiority. Neither individuals nor clans try to outdo each other by giving back more than they received. Competition is constrained within the clan in other areas as well. For example, people do not compete to “be right” in the matters of history, but rather compare and correct the stories. This is not so unusual. Competition was severely constrained in many pre-state societies. If competition is allowed to accelerate, how would the emerging inequalities be mediated?

Cultural artifacts — myths, magic formulas, traditions, poems, songs, stories and proverbs — were all used not only to anchor one’s identity and to impart certain values, but also specifically to bring about change, or to mediate its effects.

Formerly, cults that specifically focused on rebalancing male and female energies were practiced with the intent to make peace between the sexes. Women are not equal in status to men, but are well respected as producers, and as diplomats behind the scenes. If a woman or child sickens or dies, the man has to make payments to the in-laws for the loss.

Employing men from one’s own clan would signal exploitation and inequality and would lead to loss of support. The big men only employed servants from among nearby clans, distant relations or immigrants. If a big man broke this rule, he would fast lose influence, because Enga understand that employment creates inferior positions. “Because fellow clansmen were equals, servants were almost always men from other clans who could not set up households on their own land — for instance war refugees, or the handicapped from inside or outside the clan who could not stand on their own. Blatant exploitation of one’s own clansmen, who were by definition equals, would eventually lead to loss of support.”

Cult duties were not part of big man repertoire; it was the elders or traveling hereditary shamen who were the specialists regarding cult ceremony and magic. Sons of low status men could become big men.

Kamongo

Even in the early days, big men — kamongo — are remembered to have risen to leadership. Small feasts based on taro and the produce of the forests were held, and people visited long distances. The pig did not play much of a role then. The kamongo were humble men who worked for the good of the tribe.

Even though the authors stress how durable and difficult to dislodge was the egalitarianism of the Enga clans, it is clear from the accounts describing the exploits of the succeeding generation of powerful kamongo that power indeed corrupts. Where the great grandfather was a modest man seeking to forge friendly relations with everyone, his son was a powerful wheeler-dealer who had many servants, great wealth, and put much emphasis on ceremonial attire and theatrical performance. His speeches stressed his abilities to deliver what he promised. The generation after him was already given to loud and shameless boasting and the insulting of competitors, and after that the kamongo began to lose respect for infighting, intrigue, cheating,  heavy politicking, and political murder.

While egalitarian values were often stressed and catered to, nevertheless, greater and greater inequality crept in, tolerated because the kamongo divided much of his wealth among the people of his clan, or applied it to clan projects (wars, war reparations, cult purchases, increasingly ostentatious ceremonies). In addition to kamongo leaders, the Enga also had local clan elders, war leaders and hereditary ceremonial specialists.

Men had to campaign to be leaders. They campaigned by giving pigs or other things to those who needed them. They paid bridewealth for others. They became spokesmen for their clans during confrontations with other clans. They offered hospitality to strangers. Anything done to benefit or promote the clan would be regarded as part of their campaign for leadership. The people recognized men who did these things as big-men.

Here is a list of kamongo duties:
– mobilize work parties
– settle internal disputes
– distribute food at funerals
– provide group members with dress and ornaments for ceremonial occasions
– host traditional dances
– plan events
– conduct peace negotiations successfully
– orate elegantly in public
– know the skills of peacemaking oratory to restore balance by avoiding implications of superiority on either side
– help finance bridewealth and other obligations of clan members
– mobilize the clan to go out and get pigs for a Tee exchange
– manage and distribute wealth in the Tee exchange
– give special gifts to potential trouble makers in a reparation settlement

They preferentially offered or withheld finance, manipulated both the multiplicity of interpersonal relationships in any exchange situation and the ambiguities surrounding who the proper receivers would be, for his own and his group’s advantage. The kamongo is nothing if not a genius at devising intricate plans which seem to benefit everyone, including the persons who do not receive pigs, and then at convincing people to implement them.

Wars resulting from premeditated homicide, rape, or other aggressive and insulting acts were sometimes engineered by big-men as parts of strategies to attain their own political goals. Successful payback by the enemy tribe reestablished a balance of power, and enabled tribes to hold on to their territory.

Though Enga adults of the same sex are considered potentially equal, men can make names for themselves, become kamongo and wield considerable influence by displaying skills in mediation, in public oration, and in manipulating wealth, among other things. Competition for status and leadership in these arenas is intense. Tolerance for big-men’s having several wives, more wealth, and greater influence than others depends heavily on the benefits they provide to their fellow clan members; should they fail to deliver, their demise is rapid.

Cults

From the early generations onward, Enga was a society of long-distance travelers, traders, importers and exporters, innovators and experimenters venturing out on paths forged by marriage ties. New crops, cultivation techniques, goods, valuables, cults, and even styles of leadership were given and taken readily — but experimentally so. They were accepted into the current repertoire, placed side by side with existing heritage, and left to settle into their own niches over time.

Such openness also extended to the realm of ritual. New cults were readily purchased and added to the existing repertoire. For clans who had eight to twelve cults or healing rituals, the solution to competing possibilities was not to narrow the field by discarding some but to perform rites to determine which was appropriate for the problem at hand. The same held true for styles of leadership. The often flamboyant performers and orators who organized the Tee cycle and Great Wars did not replace the local clan leaders, though their roles overlapped. The value of both was recognized, the one to represent their clans in a larger political arena and the other to provide stability in internal affairs. And so the old continued to reproduce the cultural heritage of the past and provide continuity while the new kept abreast of change.

Cults for the ancestors were the anchors of society. In their performances, the ideal relationship between various tribal segments were acted out and central norms reaffirmed, particularly the equality of male tribal members and households and the obligation of group members to share and cooperate. Boundaries were opened and relatives from other clans and tribes came as invited guests to celebrate, bringing specialties from their areas to help provision the feasts. Cults were also exchanged widely among Enga and with neighboring linguistic groups; in this context they became important forums in which leaders could set new directions. As integrative events, ancestral cults grew hand in hand with economic developments and must be counted among the greatest systems of ceremonial exchange.

The authors mention how the recent disappearance of the cults due to missionary activity — while retaining and enlarging economic exchange — left the society unmoored, unable to maintain an equilibrium and harmony through the balance of ritual and exchange. Some of the cults were maintained by ritual experts, others by tribal elders and big men, to establish cooperation with the spirit world and its mysteries, harmony between the sexes, effective response to crises, and mediation of change. Ritual innovation and the purchase of cults created an eclectic and evolving mix of ritual, magic, initiation of young people, and cosmology.

Following Enga logic that “name” and prosperity stem from distribution rather than from retention, cults or elements of them were exchanged widely. Both importers and exporters stood to benefit by enhanced connections made possible by shared traditions. They believed that with proper ritual, the spirit world and human world need not work at cross purposes but could cooperate to bring about prosperity. Ritual celebrations also brought about moratoria on warfare. At the more egalitarian, unity-building ritual celebrations, food was provided free for all. Some of the surplus was simply channeled into communing with the ancestors, and curtailed competition.

The cults were manipulated to set new goals and values, regulate relations between generations and genders, and standardize beliefs to make wide area exchange and marriage alliances. Bachelor cults helped young men mature, develop their individual abilities, and overcome the inequalities of birth and background. In particular, they were led to develop an aura about them — posture, movement, speech, and assurance — signaling physical health, inner worth, and social effectiveness. Such a man would then be able to gain the cooperation and generosity of others. Eventually, wealth management was added to these virtues by the leaders bent on extending the networks of exchange ever further. Bachelor cults and initiation ceremonies strengthened the bonds of brotherhood and the chance of future consensus. It also gave the older generation more power to steer the younger one.

The cults provided a counterpoint of opposing ideals — ones of equality, sharing and cooperation within and across boundaries that limited or structured the growing competition. They rewove the fabric of society when it was torn by competition, in order to reestablish continuity and balance in relation to the past, for the present, and to lead into the future.

Each cult was different. To give you the flavor of it, one of the cults — the Kepele cult — focused on building the structure — the house — around which the ceremonies would take place. Several clans collaborated, each having part of the building process as their task. The ritual would include processions as well as specific magical procedures meant to bring to fertility to the tribe, promote cooperation and good relations, and reaffirm the values the tribe depended on. Every household was expected to bring one pig, and the food was free to all.

Ceremonial Wars and the Tee

The Enga engaged in real (destructive) wars, usually over territory after population had grown. But they also staged so-called “ceremonial wars.” Young warriors were hosted by certain clans, strategic skirmishes went on by day, and feasting, dancing and courting followed at night. Spectators came from far and wide. Casualties were few, and after the war had ended, war reparations for the 2 – 4 men slain among allied clans would be undertaken. These reparations were not for lives lost, but rather for the contribution the dead man would have made. As such, they went on for years. In later times, reparations to enemies became common as well, because enemies no longer could just move on to empty territory — you were still neighbors and had to get along in the future. Reparations also prevented destructive feuds. Some elders believe that the Great Wars provided an outlet for aggression and that in total fewer lives were lost overall. The Ceremonial Wars were a brilliant invention that induced people to produce huge surpluses that grew the economy. It also provided new opportunities for creating new trading and marriage connections. They were, in effect, tournaments, carefully arranged and fought to display military strength, form alliances, and cultivate exchange.

The common cause, danger, and spectacle drew unprecedented crowds. Owing to the sheer number of participants brought together by the ever better drama and ritual, the Ceremonial Wars were instrumental in constructing vast exchange networks fueled by intensified home production within a broad segment of the population. The glamour, excitement, group spirit, and ceremony of these great tournaments lent much greater social and symbolic value to pigs, mobilizing each and every household to step up production for the exchanges. Basically, the Enga used the cults, the ceremonial wars, and later the famous Tee exchanges all to crank out surpluses and pass the new wealth around.

Tee exchanges were held for the principal reason of paying back creditors. They were also public distributions of wealth for specific events: marriages, funerals, and war reparations. When a project needed financing, a Tee would be organized. Those who wanted to join would arrange marriages to those along the routes, and began sending wealth into the system; eventually they would receive returns from it.

In order to join the Tee, families had to step up production. Early on, only a few families chose to do so. Many people had only a few pigs, and were not interested in the labor-intensive task of raising more. Only later, as the Tee came to be flooded with wealth from the ceremonial wars and then new wealth introduced by the Europeans and became more visible, did many more families join.

In the end, though, the Tee began to fall apart: partly, the kamongo became corrupt, endless conflicts tore the organization apart, and women objected to yet another step up in production.

The Tee comprised of the chains of finance that tapped into the wealth of non-kin; greater access to wealth was compelling to the neighbors who heard about it and then sought to join, while big men sought new sources of influence and finance to control the trade. Altered values and intergroup competition were needed to develop the system further.

It was constructed by a few individuals along major trade routes who discreetly concatenated preexisting trade and exchange relationships into chains of finance. The early Tee allowed big men to assemble more wealth without greatly augmenting production or arousing the attention of fellow clansmen. Competition to control the flow of wealth was there, but merely as a current that ran under the surface.


And now?

One of the last great kamongo gave up the pigs and converted to Seventh Day Adventism, as did many others. Nowadays, it’s Islam that draws the young. And the tribal traditions are fading away.

Enga who had experienced precontact years as adults described them as a time when people sought ever new ways to keep abreast of change, maintaining equilibrium and harmony through exchange and ritual. Balance was tenuous, however, for ever-accelerating production for exchange depended on a generous environment. Should exchange or ritual fail, warfare was by no means muted but alive and well-practiced as an alternative solution. And the environment could not be infinitely generous. In the face of growing pig and human populations, a time would come when resources would be insufficient for all. Choices then would be more severely constrained by the natural environment. As it happened, Australian patrols marched into Enga in 1939 to set off an entirely different trajectory of development… But one is tempted to ask, had the patrols not marched into Enga, what then?

Could the inventive Enga have come up with a solution that has evaded humans elsewhere?

Enga in ceremonial dress

It may seem like a detour from the usual topics of this blog, but it really isn’t. By and by, I will tie my thoughts regarding Islam into the overarching topic of uncivilization. But first, I need to share with you my journey, and what I have found.

I used to think that Islam was just another religion. Bzzt! Then, when I discovered it wasn’t, I thought that my exploration would lead to me separating the religion and its strictly religious concerns from the rest of Islam, and talk about the rest. But that too proved impossible. Islam is a political ideology firmly wedded to its religious aspect. But let’s begin at the beginning.

First, I discovered that Europe, and western Europe in particular, is in the throes of massive in-migration by people from Middle Eastern and African nations who are largely Muslim. And that there seems to be a major incompatibility between Muslims and the largely secular, post-Judeo-Christian Europe. This in-migration is a recent add-on to something that began in the 70s. Immigration policies were changed from protecting the locals and accepting people who were more or less compatible with local values, to aggressive multiculturalism that promoted people from far-flung parts of the world, and loudly deplored the locals as boring, not rainbowy enough, and racist. There were already Muslims in Europe at that time, in France from Algiers, in Germany from Turkey, and so forth. And in the Balkans, Muslim areas have existed since the Ottoman conquests. But from about the 70s on, progressive policies were implemented that over time made it possible for greater and greater numbers to come in, while enabling many of these incomers to live on welfare and to separate themselves into ethnic enclaves. The goal of integration was replaced by “sensitivity to other cultures,” and the rest is history.

Now, Europe has millions upon millions of Muslims who live in separate neighborhoods more or less according to their own rules. Perhaps most troubling, these areas are noted for their lack of women in the cafes, for plenty of burkas, rapidly rising street hooliganism and crime, and for sheltering those peculiar aspects of Islamic culture having to do with keeping women forcibly sequestered in the home, never learning the language of the host country, and never having a chance to participate in the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all women by that country’s laws.

Since I last spoke about Sweden, things have gotten both worse, and a little better. The wave of crime, said to be fueled notably by Somali and Afghani migrants, has gotten worse. The reports of rapes and vicious murders continue unabated, despite the efforts of the Swedish political elites to hush them up. But people’s voices are getting through. Just last week, a policeman published the details of the cases he’s been working on recently. The vast vast majority of those crimes were committed by migrants. He’s received massive support from Swedes on social media; nevertheless, the authorities are cracking down on him for racism.

In Germany, the critics of Merkel’s open door immigration policies have become more outspoken as well, defying intensive efforts of authorities to spy on them and to prosecute them for even slightly injudicious words. And the British have taken in many young men pretending to be children. When folks seeing who was coming in complained, barriers were erected to keep them from the public eye, and pleas for medical vetting were for naught. This after similar practices had been disclosed in the Scandinavian countries along with the abuse of the generous benefits that ought to be reserved for, you guessed it, children, and most grievously, after a “15 year old” 6 ft man in his early twenties had stabbed a Swedish child-shelter worker – herself a refugee from Lebanon — to death. Politically, anti-open-door parties are set to win in Holland and France, while even the teflon Ms. Merkel may be poised for a brisk slide toward defeat by a fellow Europhile.

In my bewilderment at the seeming madness of what I was witnessing, I began to study the Koran, and frequenting sites that were more “right wing” than any I had frequented in the past, mainly because they were dedicated to spreading information that was leaking one way or another from these various countries through social media, activists, and artists. And thus began my real education about Islam. I had trusted well-known religion expert Karen Armstrong, a former nun whom I admired for her honest portrayal of her early and miserable days in the cloister, to provide me with similarly honest information regarding Islam. But she let me down.

In reading the Koran myself, I suffered a shock. I discovered first hand all the hatred dished out in the Koran toward the likes of me, a kafir. Its incitement to violence. Its misogyny. Its vilification of Jews and Christians. And Mohammed’s unabashed and transparent use of the religious vehicle for self-aggrandizement, self-enrichment, bullying, lechery, lies and vengeful viciousness. Trying to recapture my shock now, so many months later, I realize I cannot do it justice. Islam needs to be experienced as I did, directly at the source. Do yourself and humanity a favor; please give it a few hours of your time.


A side note: when the Koran was compiled many centuries ago, it was organized from the longest passages to the shortest. This makes it confusing and virtually unreadable. That’s why getting a chronological Koran is essential. There are others besides the ones I point to below. Chronological Korans organize the contents by beginning with the early verses communicated when Mohammed was still living in Mecca, following up with the later Medinan verses. The verses are interspersed with the unfolding story of Mohammed to make more sense of the narrative. An Abridged Koran and A Simple Koran are the ones I have used, sometimes comparing the translation with others on the web.


Then, looking to communicate with Muslims directly, I joined one of the online forums dedicated to countering anti-islamic propaganda. It was a creepy experience. I ended up walking on eggshells for two months lest I say something I’d be castigated for, was castigated anyway, and had to leave the site because the stress of being in such a hostile environment was wearing me down. What I found was that honest and well-meaning if rather blunt questions were met not with a moderately-worded discussion suited for a forum ostensibly helping people see Islam and Muslims in a good light, but with vituperation. I was memorably told that we Americans are degenerates, our society a cesspool of immorality, and our values nonexistent. My every word was scrutinized and found wanting, and my free ranging inquiry resented as hateful American arrogance. Yikes! Later I found these folks are known for cyber stalking and doxing bloggers critical of Islam. I did meet one interesting Muslim there who maintained a civil discourse throughout, and introduced me to the fact that some contemporary Muslims cleave to the Koran only and are critical of the reliability of supporting information from the early hadith and the sira (collected sayings and biographies of Mohammed).

After that, my education came from several “counter-jihad” sites that I still follow regularly (here is one sample), and from reading a number of books, notably Irshad Majid’s The Trouble with Islam Today, Wafa Sultan’s A God Who Hates, and an obscure free online book that was once banned in the Netherlands, and speaks of the experience of a Muslim from Pakistan who once began a long trek west, looking for a culture more user-friendly than his own. He fell in love with the Netherlands, and makes no bones about his incredulity how willing the Dutch are to ruin the good thing they have. Wafa Sultan, a Syrian doctor who emigrated to the States, is an amazing woman. She became famous in the Arab-speaking world when she was interviewed side by side with a cleric who was all set to outshout her. Not a chance. She told him to pipe down, it was her turn! She is a sight to behold. These books not only opened up to me many of the issues contemporary religious and cultural Muslims struggle with, but they also shine a light on the mentality of people in heavily Muslim countries. I recommend them all, and commend these courageous souls for speaking so generously and freely of their experiences.

More recently, I have tussled with Muslims and their progressive allies online. I discovered first-hand the dishonesty that is described by counter-jihad folk as “taqiyya artistry.” Taqiyya as I understand it is a shia term for the permissibility of lying in the propagation of Islam and also to shield oneself from enemy backlash (the Shia’s main oppressor being the Sunni Muslims originally; Muslims all too routinely accuse each other of apostasy when opinions vary and feelings run high). I have come across people who will say anything, no matter how outrageous, in their effort at misdirection, at infusing Islam with a benevolent glow, or at casting aspersions at anything western. Since I follow Czech media, I ran into Muslims there who, relying on general ignorance, hit people over the head with a barrage of colonial guilt – this against a people who never had any colonies, were typically the butt of wider European power clashes, and suffered under the onslaught of Turk invaders who mercilessly pillaged southern Moravia and colonized neighboring Hungary for 150 years.

It’s not that Muslims don’t mean well. Often they believe alternative facts because western historians are not to be trusted, in their view. Or they are happy enough just to repeat islamic propaganda. Overall, though, it’s that their religion tells them all sorts of heinous acts – including crass deception — are piety itself, and lushly rewarded in heaven, if done “in the path of Allah.” Ah, there’s the rub of intensely self-righteous ideologies.

The left allies of Islam, on the other hand, deflect criticisms of Islam by venting scorn on Christianity, their usual whipping boy. They have a point; there are of course some equivalencies. But the intolerant Christianity of religious wars, burnings at the stake, and inquisition against heretics is largely and long since a thing of the past. In fact, Christians are now being shockingly brutalized, suffering frequent pogroms in many Islamic countries. Christianity no longer lives in the 16th century. As far as I can tell, Islam never left the 7th.

Looking back, it’s been for me a year and a half of shocks relating to Islam. Yet another such “rude surprise” concerns its history. But I will leave that for another time. You may ask – have I discovered any positives along the way? I am told that the language of the Koran is quite lovely in a whimsical sort of way, in Arabic, using puns and word play to get its message across. And my interaction with a small range of ardent Muslims gives me the impression that they are fellow utopians at heart, dreaming like us radical greens of a better social order, of that shining city on a hill that might usher us forth from this miserable time of Satanic mills gone doubling down. They certainly show a passion and a dedication to their task of spreading what they love we might do well to emulate. And clearly, their faith is a strength unto them.

There is something about human beings, when it comes to the unknown. We don’t seem to be able to just wonder about something and speculate creatively, maybe have a bit of fun with it. No, not us! Instead we like to decide beyond all possible doubt without a single shred of evidence.

We prefer to nail our colours to the mast before we even know if there is a ship attached to it, and often we’ll defend that position to the death.

— Pat Condell

German résistance (song, English subtitles):

https://vid.me/e/WBlA?stats=1