Throwing Spears with Weller, Shepard, Jenkinson, and a Dream

{The following is an offshoot and distraction from another, much more difficult post, which can be read here.}

Via my studies of Stephen Jenkinson I found this talk on grief by Francis Weller,  In it, Weller likens the history of mankind to a 100 foot long rope. The first 99 feet represents humans in nature, hunting, foraging, defending themselves, making fires and clans. The last 10 inches represents agriculture, the last 3/4 inches the industrial age, and the last sliver, the information age. That sliver we call  “normal”  and by doing so, we  condemn ourselves to homelessness and deep, deep grief. The talk is full of gems and I suggest you listen to the whole thing.

Weller quotes Paul Shepard, whose fascinating book, Man in the Landscape, poses two theses that I find plausible and helpful. The first is that there is still, inevitably, a huge presence of that nomadic caveman, that hunter-gatherer in our primitive brains, in our very bodies. Even deeper:

The genes’…. environment extends from the immediate nucleoplasm surrounding them in the cell to the distant stars. It ranges from the colloids and membranes upon which they float to the light from the sun and croaking of frogs.


The idea of “remembering” our life in the trees does not mean recollecting a stream of day-to-day events. The human organism is its own remembering. The emergence of the past into consciousness is inseparable from awareness of ourselves.

Then, not allowing ourselves to engage that part of our identity – by not even making the movements that have kept us alive for millions of years, like throwing a spear or making a fire - we are starving our bodies, our minds, our culture, our world.

Now I understand why Stephen Jenkinson insists (in Homecoming) that the ancestors are still here, very much alive. How, I wondered, without some religious or mystical idea of a heaven or supernatural spirits, none of which I would invoke to explain anything? Well, here it is. My immediate ancestors, just one or two, exceptionally three generations deep, are still “here, alive” mentally, in my mind as memories. But they, and all the others that stand behind them are also literally, presently  alive: in my body, the way my organs and muscles evolved, in my brain, in my genes. Those and they are the immensely long taproot going immensely deep into time, still sucking nutrients from the rich earth and feeding them to me if only I will accept their food, if only I will not starve myself.  If only I remember and celebrate all the ancestors by letting them live in my body: the wild man and woman crawling through the late Pleistocene bottleneck, roving the forest and the grasslands with their fish eye, placing their hand prints in the Chauvet Cave 40.000 years ago, telling stories around the fire. To let them and the verdant world they are at home in “attract me into life,” as Weller says.
Today I recognized some of this when I opened the brand new issue of Orion Magazine and found the essay “The Great Rewilding,” in which George Monbiot writes:

My sense is that people like me are ecologically bored, that we possess the psychological equipment required to navigate a world that is far more challenging than our own—a world of horns and tusks and fangs and claws. Yet our lives have been reduced to the point at which loading the dishwasher seems to present an interesting challenge…  I think all of us have a sense that we’re not quite fulfilling our potential as the human beings who evolved in this really quite thrilling and exciting and dangerous environment, and that our lives are a bit too small and too constrained.

This movement, by the way, has caught the attention of the champions of de-extinction, like Stewart Brand of Revive & Restore, and National Geographic (see Brand’s  TED talk – for context, this the same man who advocates for nuclear energy and GMO’s). In the essay, “Why revive extinct species,” Brand writes: “The prospect of bringing back the aurochs is helping to boost the vibrant European “rewilding” movement to connect tracts of abandoned farmland into wildlife corridors spanning national boundaries.” This is only one of Brand’s misguided or rather misguiding statements, but I’ll not to into that here. Suffice it to say that Monbiot is not a fan – and neither are many who fear that de-exinction projects may undermine goodwill towards conservation of species now on the brink of extinction. This kind of “rewilding”,  then, is about as far from what I am talking about here as can be.
Then, the dream, which I am sure has something to do with all of this.

Several evenings ago, though the wood stove had brought the temperature in our house up to a balmy 67F (it’s usually 60F), I was shivering under my two comforters. “Are you okay?” DH asked, and I assured him I was not falling sick. It was the strangest feeling. Nothing was wrong, but I was cold, like there was a draft everywhere on my bare skin, despite the PJs, the two comforters and the two extra blankets DH piled on top of me.

That night, in that hot cave, I dreamed deeply. In the dream,

Amie, DH and I were with a group of strangers on a guided tour of some kind. We traveled in a plush bus, chatted in cafeteria line-ups, attended workshops. Aside from my daughter and husband, I knew only T, the tour guide/trainer, a woman whom I know as a trainer and love as a friend.  At some point the bus dropped us off at a Kafkaesque city/castle and I got separated from the group.  Running through a dark corridor to catch up, I abruptly came upon a big hole in the ground, an unfathomable deep cuboid of steps around a dark stairwell like the entrance to the Underworld itself. I teetered, in a panic, then discovered I was holding a broom for balance, and considered the slightest desire to fall anyway, but then recovered and stepped back. From there on the dream got darker. I walked around with the sure knowledge that the hole would get me anyway. Finally we all got on the bus to go home. DH, Amie and I were sitting up front so we saw the big river coming up in the flat landscape. The water was very high, almost as high as the road running right beside it, and on its flat surface the ice shone like silver under the sun. We were going too fast, but only we were aware of it. I tried to get T’s attention. I remember well T, standing in the aisle in the back, laughing and chatting, holding on.  Then the bus took the turn onto the river road and missed it. Two wheels touched the ice. A gasping silence fell.  The driver opened the door and DH, Amie and I jumped out onto the road. I looked behind me, the bus’ tires punched through the ice and the bus fell away from me. I remember all those faces staring at me in disbelief, or screaming, fists beating on the windows, and the wide-open hole of the door, empty. They fell away so neatly. The black river swallowed them up. We cried for someone to come out, but no one came out. The ice closed over the water.

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