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.