Tim Flannery's writings on natural history in the longest term are always stimulating. His book on North America evokes nostalgia for all the wondrous land- and life-scapes this continuent has hosted. He combines the naturalist's curiosity with the environmentalist's despair in Here on Earth, A Natural History of the Planet (2010, Atlantic Monthly Press), and I wanted to offer a few comments stressing my own pecuilar structuring of the past 100 millennia.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
In The New Yorker of November 14, 2011, John McPhee, reflecting on his writing life, structures a "Progression" that takes off from the pieces he wrote using David Brower as a common denominator, Encounters with the Archdruid.
For me, the most memorable of the three encounters is, of course, the raft trip Brower, McPhee, and Archdambuilder Floyd Dominy took through the Grand Canyon. (Although the line I remember best comes from the hike into the North Cascades, when rain led Brower to the reassurance: "Clothes'll dry; skin's waterproof.") Dominy was Commissioner of Reclamation in the 1960's and building a Grand Canyon dam would have been his triumph.
In this article, McPhee uses up a column encapsulating Dominy, including a long quote where the latter demonized Brower (p.40). What struck me while reading this passage is how it validates my strong and long-held view that people like Dominy -- builder types, construction mavens, hard-headed bull-dozers, engineers full of facts and numbers and blueprints -- are romantics: Dreamers who use their formulas and figures to fill out fantasies of re-making the world in their own images of concrete and steel, dams and developments. Oh, the products they do get to carry through on are solid enough, but what drives them are the visions they have -- the gleam of the tower, the sweep of the damfront, the endless spread of the house-and-lot. They see a landscape and fantasize smashing it with their gigantic thumbprints pressed into the Earth. They pretend they deal with the "real world", and yet all their hard facts are just selected out and shaped to give color and shape to their dizzy imaginings. They convince themselves they have their feet on the ground and everybody else's head is in the clouds.
And so they end up like Dominy in McPhee's quote, saying "because (Brower)'s so God-damned ridiculous(,) I can't even reason with the man." When Dominy said "Brower hates my guts", he was projecting his own anger and frustration at his dream being thwarted. He put his dam fantasy for the Canyon up against Brower's vision of a natural Canyon, and he lost. No wonder Brower reminds him of a steer he owned, "an independent bastard" that he shot "right in the head", as "the only way I could get rid of the bastard".
It was a pleasure to defeat him and his dam dream.
And he was wrong, anyway, about Brower hating his stuffing. Brower was not a hater nor a prophet full of "Pentateuchal" anger. What drove him was love, of the land and of people. He did not rage and rant; he reached out and inspired. He dreamed and spoke out so that lots of people could know they shared that dream, and that it was worth working for. Who could be surprised that he gave Dominy's ilk hissy fits?
Thursday, December 15, 2011
The pre-Neoliithic has left us little evidence of human debate over migration: when to do it, where to go, what thwarted or directed it. After the revolution that brought farming, property, and the heightened struggle over land, the records proliferate. We can see the impulses to migrate, and the resistance to it; we can see the sweep of conquests and the variety of ways in which over-running peoples treated the more sedentary resisters. We can also see the strengthening of the hands of the latter in more recent times, until today migration is an epithet, bigotry toward migrators is acceptable, borders are made sacred, conquest has lost its glamor.
So it is possible now for the last half-millennium's natural spread of peoples (in this case from far-western Eurasia, i.e., whitefolk) to be demonized as imperialism and colonialization. Just as it is possible for these colonialists, once settled, to demonize later migrants in turn. What is curious is how Shepherd's screed (see my 25 Nov 2011 entry) against whitefolk trampling the Hualapai down fits into this post-Neolithic world. To the Hualapai, that area of northwestern Arizona where they ended up a millennium ago after their own extensive travels is their world, the place of their origin, their land from time immemorial. Control of the remnant called the Hualapai Indian Reservation is thus a primary issue for them, just as the whitefolk in central Arizona are determined to use anti-migration legislation and an army of border police to bolster their ebbing control of the state and its government. All over the world, we are creating these jurisdictional islands where the natural human characteristic to migrate is anthema, unnatural, even illegal.
If we forego the romancing of the noble Indian, the Hualapai Reservation is more clearly seen as a "special-use zone" where migration by non-Hualapai is controlled and taxed, stifled and prevented. As curious as is this incidence of modern human anti-migrationism, it must be admitted that the same is true of Grand Canyon National Park, a special-use zone of the strictest order, where a stance against migration (and change and land grabs) is heightened all the more because the Park's condition is (supposed) to be maintained as it was just before whitefolk in their millions set sail across the Atlantic (and Pacific and Mediterranean and Indian…). Isnt it odd that these special preserves of Park and Reservation preserve what humans are genetically not -- static and fixed in place? Meanwhile, and in spite of those who want to turn places like Arizona in its entirety into such special preserves, the very legitimate, genetically speaking, migrators uphold the banner of the wild and freely moving Homo sapiens of pre-Neolithic times. Is New York City more of a wilderness than the Grand Canyon?
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Several months ago, when I picked up on the migration angle, the Grand Canyon connection was very clear. I was reading books (by Chris Stringer, e.g.) that laid out humanity's history over the past 100 millennia as one in which migration was an essential component. Originating in a corner of Africa, we spread over that continent; we spread eastward along south Asia and to Australia; we spread north and west into Europe; north east into Asia; then with the right conditions, into the Americas; and, astonishingly, across the Pacific.
Into such a story, we can comfortably fit the migrations of the Paiutes to the Canyon's north side in the last millennium or so and the Pai to the south side, then, more lately, the Navajo coming south and west. And long before, the Hopi, carrying on the Puebloan traditions of settlement and villages that reach back more millennia, reinforce this view of humanity's multiple moves. In that scheme, the arrival of whitefolk -- Spanish, English & French -- is just another wave, one of many with sources in Europe and Asia, which continue from all over.