T.S. Eliot, Four Quarters
“Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning…”
The great rivers of the Amazon were carved from the earth by a serpent with glowing eyes and many names. The first humans rode on her iridescent back as she curved through mountain and valley. She left a winding track behind her and when the rains came they overflowed and the forest grew tall and verdant. The serpent infused the waters with vital breath and it hummed with life. Creatures of every conceivable character were drawn to this new confusion of life, and the forest became vibrant with colour and song.
The serpent delivered gifts to each creature from the silent gods who illuminated the skies. Felines were given stealth and grace; bears, strength and cunning; birds, keen sight and swiftness of wing; and apes, agility and deftness. The human creature, frail in body and of clumsy design, were presented with the ability to reason. There were two conditions that came with the acceptance of each gift; the recipient could take no more from the forest than they needed, and that it should value all other life as its equal. As time passed, the great serpent perceived, that unlike the other creatures of the forest, a dark twin now accompanied the humans. Reason was the finest gift of them all but it also held enormous responsibility. Man’s newly received consciousness cast a lengthy shadow braided out of selfishness, envy, and greed. The serpent took shadows that grew too ominous, leading them into the murk of the river bed where they would transmute into gossamer and rise to the water’s surface. The human body shrivelled and died without its dark half, but the shadows rejoined the terrestrial world as consciousness. Men were presented with their egos and the understanding that their actions had consequences. It was this ability to distinguish between thoughts, emotions, and actions that rendered man unique to the animal kingdom and also made us capable of incredible selfishness. An equilibrium between man and nature emerged from this verity of awareness that was sustained for over a million sunrises.
Earthly change is a pendulum, impelled by great forces; the moon’s gravitational moves the tides to wax and wane, seasons of great abundance will inevitably be followed by ones of scarcity and hardship, and man’s fate oscillates closer and further to, but never quite within, his grasp.
The advent of agriculture saw the human population explode rapidly, squashing people together into communities for the first time in man’s history. Nearly every aspect of life changed radically, initiating a cultural and spiritual disconnect from hunter-gatherer origins. Egalitarian societies which had evolved through equal opportunity and participation yielded to hierarchies. Humans betrayed their place in the natural world when they began to measure other life by its usefulness to them, discarding the symbiosis that had been in existence for so long. The desire for understanding came now orbited around humanity. A trajectory of reasoning that eventually convinced humans of their superiority over other creatures. Growing numbers created a greater necessity for resources, leading to conflicts between expanding populations and generating the first isms between those humans who looked differently or came from another place.
Christopher Colombus set sight on the new world in 1492, mistaking it for the East Indies. The insolvent Spanish monarchy quickly sent conquistadors to this undiscovered continent for the glory of god and gold. Vast wealth was just compensation for all the new souls that would be acquired for their church. The bearded men arrived with guns, armour and horses, leaving the indigenous peoples dumbstruck, and the Conquistadors overwhelmed the surprisingly advanced populations they encountered. The first shipment of acquired riches delivered to Spain contained more gold than all of the European countries combined. As the Spanish continued to plunder their way through the Americas, tens of millions of natives were extinguished, many by smallpox and influenza that had also arrived from Europe. Anthropologists estimate that 95% of the native population died off in a little over a century. The subsequent cultural genocide was as voracious and enduring as any of the recently conveyed viral diseases. The Spanish monarchs ordered the catholic priests to deracinate the natives by suppressing their beliefs and inculcating western ideologies into them. When flattery, bribery, ridicule, and labour didn’t convince the natives to convert, then cruelty often did. Self-reliant communities suddenly found themselves enslaved, forced to work in plantations, mines and cotton fields for landowners and trading companies. The dwindling tribes of the first men were hunted for entertainment, with women and children taken for wives or slaves. The surviving natives retreated deeper into the jungle and higher into the Andes, looking outwards as an increasingly rapacious world encroached upon them.
Two hundred years after Christopher Columbus chanced upon the Bahamas, the enlightenment swept across Europe. Revolutionary concepts in philosophy and art were assimilated into society. Reason was used to understand the universe and improve the human condition. The goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness. Civilized Europeans claimed the discovery of knowledge that had been carried by the first men for a million and one sunrises. Inversely the Americas had been dragged into the dark ages after the initial genocide, with sustained violent attempts to integrate, pacify and acculturate its dwindling indigenous communities. As the colonials explored the Amazon basin, they stripped it of timber and life. The once busy interior now seemed a virgin, uninhabited place. Trading towns, highways, and strip mining were followed by the immense industrial cattle and soya farms that were gouged out of the forest. The entire Amazon biome now nothing more than a dwindling resource for humanity, with it’s entire ecosystem swaying over a precipice. The current coronavirus pandemic has called attention to the awful conditions to which the ragged populations of modern-day natives have become inured. Thrust into increasingly tighter reserves, the first men and last guardians of humankind’s ancestral knowledge are now picayune members of society. As former Peruvian President Alan Garcia once explained to a television crew, natives are, “second class citizens.”
Those who ignore the past also ignore human precondition. Societies are governed by people who don’t value the living world any more. The existence that humanity has designed for itself is a poor reflection of the one in which our species first evolved, and it is, therefore, a profoundly unhealthy place for too many people. Humans are extremely adaptable but like a river, man’s existence becomes stagnant when it ceases to flow. It is clear that modern life is making so many people unhealthy, unhappy, and frightened, therefore humanity should reflect on the parameters it now uses to measure progress. This narrative is based on our dominance over space and time, the conquest of nature, and the chase for material wealth. And yet, none of this has increased the amount of pleasure we can take from life. We are not happy because these things don’t allow us to connect. It is relatively easy to evaluate the cost of development: the areas of forests destroyed, topsoil eroded, fisheries depleted, the atmosphere pumped full of carbon, the cancers, and stress-related illnesses, etc… None of these things increases people’s contentment. Reforms by retrogressions, in contrast, return man to the simpler, established ways of the past. Indigenous cultures think generations ahead about their impact, a simple concept made complex by development agencies and politicians.
Humanity is still in its adolescence, self-obsessed and ill at ease with itself. For the same reasons that teenagers turn to their elders for advice, humanity should seek future guidance from its past. Man must embrace an equitable and ecological transformation that values nature as the foundation for a healthy society. This entails shifting away from monoculture to more sustainable practices, such as regenerative and diversified agriculture and diets, sustainable animal farming, green spaces and clean forms of energy. Consumerism threatens the ecological fabric of the entire planet. We refuse to accept the duality of the world we live in, one where our knowledge and ability to reason comes with responsibility. We want to to take pleasure from our connection with nature but frequently treat the living world with disdain. We must learn to honour ourselves and the life that surrounds us by remembering why the advice given to the first men resonates so strongly within each of us. Take no more than we need, and value all life as equal.