Category Archives: reading

“He came dancing across the water / Cortez, Cortez / What a killer.” — Neil Young

I spent thirty-three years and four months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force — the Marine Corps.  I served in all commissioned ranks from a second lieutenant to a major-general.  And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers.  In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism….

The words of General Smedley D. Butler, quoted in Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano.

Eduardo Galeano

The mighty war machine: a tool for wealth accumulation.  As it has been since armies plundered and pillaged their way across the known world.

The real problem isn’t that they behave as they do, carelessly playing war with human life so that they may become richer and more powerful.  Nor is it the fairy tale of heroism and bravery that is packaged as truth and sold to the people in true colour HD.  The problem is that we the people believe it.

General Butler was, in his time, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history.  He goes on…

Thus I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914.  I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for National City Bank to collect revenues in….I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912.  I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916.  I helped make Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903.

The ability of the ruling class to control the public opinion is remarkable.  In spite of unleashing a century of aggression and subterfuge  against the poor and indigenous places of the world, the great armies of the West continue to be celebrated as fundamentally noble and virtuous carriers of the Standard of Democracy.

If the popular narrative history of our culture is little more than an out-dated propaganda piece, projected onto a smoke-stained wall, what is it worth?  Reading Open Veins of Latin America – Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, I’ve been stuck by how much we know about things that don’t matter.

In fourteen-hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  School taught me that his ships were called the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and that after Columbus, many explorers came to begin the European settlement of Canada.

But in school, they didn’t teach me about the genocide of the Americas.  And I didn’t learn anything about the human cost of gold and silver trades, or the starvation that accompanied the changing fortunes of the sugar, cotton, chocolate, and coffee industries.  Popular movies don’t often portray the American military as generally despicable, frequently engaged in acts of highly questionable justification – or morality.

So … the ruling class has been exploiting for hundreds of years.  Lot’s of people have suffered, many throughout their entire lives.  Many have died terrible deaths, their families left to struggle without them.  But … the people of the West had an industrial revolution, experienced widely improved standards of living, and enjoyed tremendous ingenuity and innovation.  Decisions, decisions.

Certainly, nothing can be done about the past.  Yet, here we are …

“Oh, the jealousy – the greed – is the unraveling.  It’s the unraveling and it undoes all the joy that could be.”  — Joni Mitchell

Peace and love.


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27 04 12 · 2129

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” — Albert Einstein

I recently heard a world-renowned public-speaker say that all the best books he’d read were given to him by others.  He said he made a habit of buying cases full of the books he loved, and giving them to people all along his journey.  “I’ve found this book really added value to my life, and I thought you might appreciate it.”

Recently, a friend handed me a book called The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, by Wade Davis.  (Davis, it just so happens, has the infinitely enviable job title: “National Geographic – Explorer in Residence.”)  Essentially, Davis spends the book introducing the reader to some of our world’s oldest and most ‘exotic’ cultures, and doing what he can to dumb down their ancient philosophies to a level our tiny Western minds might comprehend.

It’s rare that a book hooks me as this one has.

I came to realize, simply by being with Otto and his family, that in a sense the Aboriginal peoples had never been truly nomadic.  To the contrary, they lived locked within the territories delineated by their ancestors.  This was a revelation.  Imagine for a moment if all the genius and intellect of all the generations that have come before you had been concentrated on a single set of tasks, focused exclusively on knowing a particular piece of ground, not only the plants and animals but every ecological, climatic, geographic detail, the pulse of every sentient creature, the rhythm of every breath of wind, the patterns of every season.  This was the norm in Aboriginal Australia. (p. 156)

The Australian Aboriginals are one of the many groups he lived with, developed relationships with, and profiles in great depth.  A common thread that seems to connect the cultures he elucidates is a very intimate connectedness with their environment.  Running in stark contrast to the modern notion of land as a capital asset, for these people the land itself is quite literally alive.  It defines them as living beings, as members of their families and communities, and importantly, as links in a chain that extends backwards and forwards through time.

What linked the clan territories was not the physical movement of peoples but rather the strength of a common idea, a subtle but universal philosophy, a way of thinking.  This was the Dreaming.  It refers on one level, as we have seen, to the first dawning, when the Rainbow Serpent and all the ancestral beings created the world.  And it is remembered in the Songlines, which are the trajectories that these ancestors travelled as they sang the world into being.

But the Songlines, I discovered from Otto, are not straight or linear.  They do no even necessarily exist in three-dimensional space.  In their numbers, however, they weave a web across an entire continent.  For a civilization that lacked the written word they became a record of the past, a promise of the future, and a network that in the moment bound together all people.  The goal of the individual, as Otto taught me, is not to follow the Songline from beginning to end, but to honour the ancestors at the points of power and memory that mark the passage of a Songline through one’s particular clan territory.

But, critically, the Dreaming is not a myth or a memory.  It is what happened at the time of creation, but also what happens now, and what will happen for all eternity.  In the Aboriginal universe there is no past, present, or future.  In not one of the hundreds of dialects spoken at the moment of contact was there a word for time.  There is no notion of linear progression, no goal of improvement, no idealization of the possibility of change.  To the contrary, the entire logos of the Dreaming is stasis, constancy, balance and consistency.  The entire purpose of humanity is not to improve anything.  It is to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation.  Imagine if all of Western intellectual and scientific passion had been focused from the beginning of time on keeping the Garden of Eden precisely as it was when Adam and Eve had their fateful conversation. (p. 157; emphasis added)

I wonder more and more about our culture’s conception of time, articulated perhaps most eloquently in the old adage: “time is money.”  It is very difficult for me, raised in a culture of commoditized time,  to even fathom an existence without “time.”

For thousands of years, our culture – that of intellect, invention, and industry –  has fancied itself as the pinnacle against which all others ought to be measured and to which all others ought to strive. Reading this book has really thrown into stark contrast the transience of many of those things our so-called civilization worships, and the fundamental importance of so much that we ignore, disregard, and belittle.

A world-view without time seems unimaginable, but when such a world-view is placed in its larger context: life lived in harmonious unity with its natural environment; a life where every mountain, butterfly, and gust of wind is imbued with life and significance, that which seemed unimaginable presents itself  like the forest that was lost among the trees.

I’ve heard it said that only a fool thinks himself wise.  Standing, as we are, at the forefront of Western civilization, and the ongoing technological/economic/information revolution, it seems fitting that so many wise-men, disregarded as savages, have shaken their heads at us.

Peace and love.

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“The search for truth is in one way hard and in another way easy, for it is evident that no one can master it fully or miss it wholly. But each adds a little to our knowledge of nature, and from all the facts assembled there arises a certain grandeur.” — Aristotle

The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.  The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.  His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food.  In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.  Nature says – he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.  Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight.  Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece.  In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue.  Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.  Almost I fear to think how glad I am.  In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake slough, and a what period soever of life, is always a child.  In the woods, is perpetual youth.  Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years.  In the woods, we return to reason and faith.  There I feel that nothing can befall me in life – no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair.  Standing on bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing.  I see all.  The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.  The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental.  To be brothers, to be acquaintances – master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance.  I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.

— from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature (1936)

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“The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.” — Albert Schweitzer

I have stumbled upon one of my favorite books.  It’s called On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, and tells the story of a European doctor who ventures to an isolated mission station in the equatorial jungles of 1910’s Africa.

Around the house stood the huts in which the white man’s labourers had lived when the trade was in full swing.  Now, half-ruined, they served as sleeping places for negroes who passed through.  On the second day after our arrival, I went to see whether there was any one in them, but no one answered my calls.  Then I opened the doors one by one, and in the last hut saw a man lying on the ground with his head almost buried in the sand and ants running all over him.  It was a victim of sleeping sickness whom his companions had left there, probably some days before, because they could not take him any farther.  He was past all help, though he still breathed.  While I busied with him I could see through the door of the hut the bright blue waters of the bay in their frame of green woods, a scene of almost magic beauty, looking still more enchanting in the flood of gloden light poured over it by the setting sun.  To be show in a single glace such a paradise and such helpless, hopeless misery was overwhelming … but it was a symbol of the condition of Africa.” (p. 121-122)

That doctor’s name is Albert Schweitzer.  Child prodigy.  Deacon.  Bach organist.  Eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Physical misery is great everywhere out here.  Are we justified in shutting our eyes and ignoring it because our European newspapers tell us nothing about it?  We civilised people have been spolit.  If any one of us is ill the doctor comes at once.  is an operation necessary, the door of some hospital or other opens to us immediately.  But let every one reflect on the meaning of the fact that out here millions and millions live without help or hope of it.  Every day thousands and thousands endure the most terrible sufferings, though medical science could avert them.  Every day there prevails in many and many a far-off hut a despair which we could banish.  Will each of my readers think what the last ten years of his family history would have been if they had passed without medical or surgical help of any sort?  It is time that we should wake from slumber and face our responsibilities! (p. 123)

Perhaps the world has not changed so much in the passage of a century.

Ever since the world’s far-off lands were discovered, what has been the conduct of the white peoples to the coloured ones?  What is the meaning of the simple fact that this and that people has died out, that others are dying out, and that the condition of others is getting worse and worse as a result of their discovery by men who professed to be followers of Jesus?  Who can describe the injustice and the cruelties that in the course of centuries they have suffered at the  hands of Europeans?  Who can measure the misery produced among them by the fiery drinks and the hideous diseases that we have taken to them?  If a record could be compiled of all that has happened between the white and the coloured races, it would make a book containing numbers of pages, referring to recent as well as to early times, which the reader would have to turn over unread, because their contents would be too horrible. (p. 124)

Again, time passes slowly in some part of the world.

We and our civilisation are burdened, really, with a great debt.  We are not free to confer benefits on these men, or not, as we please; it is our duty.  Anything we give them is not benevolence but atonement.  For every one who scattered injury some one ought to go out to take help, and when we have done all that is in our power, we shall not have atoned for the thousandth part of our guilt.  That is the foundation from which all deliberations about “works of mercy” out there must begin. (p.124)

Atonement.  Our whole world is built upon slavery.  Something else that hasn’t really changed.

““The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

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