Tag Archives: Culture

“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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“Dead man lying by the side of the road, with the daylight in his eyes. Don’t let it bring you down, it’s only castles burning.” — Neil Young

I think often of the role played by elders in a society.

In elementary school growing up, we learned quite a lot about the various cultures of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.  I remember clearly the respect that the words of their elders carried, and the position of esteem and prominence that they played in their social units.  Elders, both male and female, were the leaders, the teachers, the decision makers and the judges that enabled their cultures and traditions to survive for thousands of years.  I imagine this wisdom played a role also in the survival of the people themselves, having chosen a particularly harsh environment in which to call home.

Traveling through Africa’s deep-rural areas, I regularly encountered much of the same reverence for the wisdom of the aged.  I was fortunate to witness many quiet deliberations, long minutes disappearing in silence with looks of distant concentration written in the deep lines of old faces.   I was fortunate also to hear the subsequent judgments, on issues ranging from agriculture to religion to love.  Universally, their words emerged with a slow and quiet caution, each carefully considered and weighed before being given a voice.  While many of those I happened to witness couldn’t read or write, and had certainly never studied logic or rhetoric, they spoke with lucidity of mind, and an intelligence which drew its source from a place far deeper than that available in books and displayed on expensive pieces of paper.

A few weeks ago, chance brought me into the foyer of a “retirement community” in suburban Toronto.  There, tucked in an out-of-the-way corner where they can’t bother anyone, is our culture’s store of wisdom.  I have been in a handful of such places, and I am always struck my the impression that everybody is waiting for something.  They sit, frail and gray, scattered about in comfortable arm-chairs, staring vacantly into space, or napping silently.  Hours later, I pass again through the same space and am slightly taken aback at just how little has changed in so many ticks of the clock. Perhaps the nappers are now staring vacantly, and the vacant starers are now napping.  Either way, precious little seems to be said of the thousands of years of collective life experience brought together in a single room.

There is something unsettling to me about all that waiting.  What are they waiting for?  After a life-time lived, one doesn’t expect the grand conclusion to be a drawn out hum, like the vertical coloured bars and mono-tone of an old television station, signed off for the long hours of the night.  Often, the comfortable arm-chairs seem to have arranged themselves around the main-entrance – spectators waiting for a show, any show at all, to punctuate the hum, even if only the Fed-ex guy dropping off a package. Do they have a choice, or is their actually their best-of-all-possible-options?

True wisdom is that gained from experience.  How tragic that this very moment, thousands of life-times of experience sit silently across our country and our continent.  Are we better off, for their silence?

We have little patience for such non-sense as wisdom anymore.  When the kids need to get to soccer practice, the truck needs an oil change, the neighbors just got a new TV, and there is talk of lay-offs at work, who has the time to bother with wisdom.  What place is there for slow and cautious consideration in a world ruled by a rule called “time-is-money”?  None, it would seem, except perhaps a nice, quiet corner, where they can’t bother anybody.

I’m not sure how it happened, but it does seem undeniable that reverence for the wisdom of our elders has been usurped by the indulgent whims of our children.  I grant, of course, that I am effectively comparing so-called “primitive cultures” with our so-called “developed world.”  I recognize how our quality of life differs across both time and space, and I am certain that, by what I have said so far, one could argue that the whims of children are superior to the wisdom of elders.  But does anybody really believe that?  The children may choose the most interesting paint job for the car, but do we let them drive, determine the destination, choose the path and look after the maintenance as well?

It’s obvious that modern technology and thought has brought us many wonderful things, but at what cost?  Those “primitive cultures” managed to survive for thousands of years, and provided we don’t kill them all, will likely go on for thousands of years more.  Our culture, on the other hand, though an infant itself in the grand scheme, has been compared to locomotive racing off a cliff.  We have created a world defined by unsustainability, instability and inequality.  No fancy computer modeling can sustain our level of resource consumption, and yet every day we consume more than the day before. Every day we consume more than the day before.

This is to be expected, I suppose, when the growing three-year-old in the backseat, tired of watching his personal DVD player, tired of playing with his various movie-themed, but creatively stagnant toys and tired of the wide variety of processed snacks his mom was able to gather (on sale) for the trip, begins to cry out for something else, something different, something new.

Kids are annoying when they cry.  I really wish there was something I could do to entertain him, to distract him, to just shut him up.

Old people are also annoying when they cry.  Good thing we have retirement communities to shut them away in, or we might have to listen to their slow, rambling and obsolete ideas about our flawless society.  Hurry up and get the kid in the van, or we’ll be late.  See you next year grandpa.

Peace and Love.

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