In recent years, it has become fashionable to suggest that our various plant and animal domesticates actually domesticated themselves (e.g., Budiansky, 1999), or even domesticated us (Pollan, 2002). As some of the market material for Pollan’s Botany of Desire puts it, his book “shows how each plant has evolved to gratify human desires and thus has enticed us to help them multiply. Just who, he asks, is domesticating whom?” Such arguments invariably make the case that domestication is simply a question of co-evolution, and that as much as humans have used plants and animals, those plants and animals have equally used us, or even moreso, to proliferate across the globe. This is true, up to a point, but it obscures much more than it reveals. To say that domestication is a relationship is true, but in a trivial sense; it illustrates only the wide variety of relationships that are possible.
Every species on the planet, including Homo sapiens, evolved in a web of mutual relationship: each species literally created by the whole living world around it. Those relationships are innumerable: predator and prey, symbiont and host, competitors, allies, and every other kind of relationship. A squirrel lives in an oak tree; the oak tree provides shelter and food, and the squirrel spreads the oak’s seeds in its various acorn caches, some of which are inevitably forgotten or unused and left to grow into new oak trees. Plants flower to attract insects, which spread their pollen from flower to flower and help the plants reproduce. No species evolves in a vacuum.
Not even humans. The prevalent notion that humanity is uniquely separated from this web of relationship is a carefully cultivated form of ignorance. Even our bodies’ ecology is largely not our own. Only 1 in 10 of the cells in your body are human; the rest are microbes, including bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and even archaea, the very oldest forms of life on the planet. Very few make us ill. Most are innocuous, while others are essential. Most of them live in our gut, and without them, we would not be able to digest our food. Others have been co-opted into our immune systems, and without them, we would die from even the most trivial diseases. The human body, like all other animal bodies, is less a cohesive whole than a living ecosystem. The formation of a human being out of interaction with a more-than-human world does not end there, though: crows and ravens, for example, have influenced human cultures and languages (Marzluff & Angell, 2005).
Or consider the clearest case of human co-evolution, that of “man’s best friend,” the wolf. While most of the order primates exhibit strongly hierarchical societies, humans and chimpanzees act in a much more egalitarian manner (chimpanzees have often been considered hierarchical, but this is largely due to a major error in Jane Goodall’s research method; see “Goodall’s Bananas“). Wolves, on the other hand, became the dominant predators on the planet precisely because of their egalitarian pack structure (Schledit & Shalter, 2003) (wolves, too, have been supposed to be strictly hierarchical, but this again is due to a major methodological error in observing only captive wolf packs; see “Alpha Dogs, Wolf Packs & the Wandering Free Families“). It has been argued (quite convincingly) that the egalitarian streak that defines so much of what makes Homo sapiens a unique species may have been largely learned from our canid co-evolution.
The human-wolf relationship strikes even deeper, though. Wolves benefitted from association with hunter-gatherer humans, serving as hunting companions and extending the egalitarian pack structure to include non-canid hominids. Humans, meanwhile, looked to wolves for a whole host of reasons, including an extended set of senses.
“Dogs acted as humans’ alarm systems, trackers and hunting aids, garbage disposal facilities, hot-water bottles and children’s guardians and playmates. Humans provided dogs with food and security. This symbiotic relationship was stable over 100,000 years and intensified in the Holocene [Period] into mutual domestication,” said Dr Groves. “Humans domesticated dogs and dogs domesticated humans.” (Simonds, 1998)
Here again we see this common theme, but notice that even here there is an acknowledgement of an “intensification” in the Holocene, and it is only after that that we can consider it “domestication.” Earlier co-evolution muddies the question of dog domestication, pushing it into a period of time where the very term begins to become somewhat absurd.
Even the term domestication has the wrong ring, since the meeting of wolves and modern humans predates, by far, anything that could be considered a human habitation in the form of a domus (Latin for house). Canids’ use of dens dates back further. Consequently, instead of domestication, we should talk about “cubilication” (cubile, Latin for den) … and wonder who cubilicated whom. (Schleidt & Shalter, 2003)
Certainly, as mentioned before, the relationship between wolves and humans took a dramatic change in the Holocene. The academic discussion of domestication often involves terms that serve to white-wash its effects, such as “neoteny.” Neoteny is defined as the retention of juvenile characteristics in adult animals, and it does occur in the animal kingdom naturally, where it offers an ecological advantage. But neoteny is also a trait almost universally found in domesticated animals. It is selected for by human breeders to create greater docility. Such is the normal terminology, which makes the process seem benign enough. But if we strip away the white-wash, then we can also say that domestication was a eugenics program to warp animal bodies, to retard their growth, and to trap them in ever more childlike bodies. Wild wolf cubs wag their tails and bark often, but they outgrow this behavior as they grow older into mature adults. Any dog owner can recognize the “neoteny” in that comparison. A dog is an eternal cub, incapable of ever fully growing up. A dog’s floppy ears are another neotenous trait. Particularly in behavior, such neoteny has been observed in wolves—but only among captive wolf packs, as signs of abject submission, where the normal egalitarianism of the wild pack is replaced with patterns of hierarchy and constant struggles for dominance. To strip away the academic white-wash, the behavior of the domesticated dog reveals a life of groveling submission. The least neotenous breed of dog, the basenji, is bred in Africa as a hunting companion—as an equal, “neither needing nor appreciating a great deal of human attention or nurturing,” as Wikipedia puts it.
While the early stages of dog domestication were marked by a genuine co-evolution, wolves remained “wild” allies and companions of Homo sapiens until the last stages, well into the Holocene, when humans effectively betrayed that relationship and domesticated them. This reveals the fundamental nature of the domesticated relationship, and why the more contemporary theories of mutual domestication ring so hollow. Domestication is a fundamental transformation of a relationship between humans and other animals, from one of mutual trust in which the environment is shared, to one of total human control and domination (Ingold, 1994). After the betrayal of “man’s best friend,” domestication began in earnest, and distinct patterns emerged.
That the domestication of dogs came first makes sense; if we were to try to compare these events to relationships between people rather than species, we might think of a man who falls in love with a woman, marries her, and after several years of happy marriage decides to violently rape her. He finds he enjoys the experience, and begins to rape other women, as well. If we were to say that this is still copulation just like before, that would be trivially true, just as it is trivially true to equate domestication with co-evolution, but that statement obscures far more than it reveals. It would be far more significant to point out how the relationship changes—how a relationship of mutual trust in a shared environment is violently overturned and replaced with patterns of domination.
Decreases in brain size in domesticated mammals
|Cephalization, Wild||Decrease in Brain Weight||Neocorticalization, Wild||Decrease in Cortex Volume|
|From Wolf Herre & Manfred Rohrs, “Animals in Captivity,” Grzimek’s Encyclopedia of Mammals|
Domestication entailed both biological and behavioral changes. At first, domestication of any species of mammal is almost always accompanied by a dramatic reduction in body size; this is so generally true that it is used as the main indicator that domestication has occured. Only later are animals bred for extreme sizes, either larger or smaller. But there is one part of a domesticated animal’s body that becomes significantly smaller, and never recovers: the brain. Horse brains decreased in size 16% following domestication; pigs, 34%; dogs, between 30% and 10% (Simonds, 1998). Domestication selects for stupidity alongside tameness, and brings with it a toll on intellect that can never be recovered.
In nearly all species of domestic mammals, in which it has been measured, it has been found that the brain is smaller in size relative to the size of the body than it is in the wild progenitor. In Domestication: The Decline of Environmental Appreciation (1990), Hemmer discussed how brain size differs in geographically separate species of wild mammals, for example wolves and wild cats, and he believes that the domestic form is descended from the wild subspecies with the smallest cranial capacity. For the dog this is the wolf from western Asia, while for the domestic cat it is the wild cat from north-east Africa and western Asia. This fits with the archaeological evidence for the earliest finds of domestic cat, and for dogs from around 14,000 years ago.
Furthermore, it is a remarkable fact that the decrease in brain size, measured as the cranial capacity, remains small even in populations of feral mammals. According to Hemmer (1990), the dingo which has lived in feral populations for thousands of years has a brain size that is much smaller than all the subspecies of wolves and is similar to that of European domestic dogs. In another study of cranial capacities, “Feral Mammals of the Mediterranean Islands: Documents of Early Domestication” from The Walking Larder: Patterns of Domestication, Pastoralism, and Predation (J. Clutton-Brock, ed.) (1989), Colin Groves showed that the brains of domestic breeds of sheep are much reduced in size relative to those of all species of wild sheep and the brain of the European mouflon (which is an anciently feral breed originating from Corsica and Sardinia) is also reduced. (Clutton-Brock, 1991)
The process of domestication is not always entirely irreversible, though; animals go feral, or “rewild,” and begin to recover some of the things they lost in domestication. But the process is rarely complete; some stunting from the domesticated experience is simply not reversible.
Domestication causes an imbalance and disruption in the rate of growth of different parts of the organism, resulting in morphological proportions in the adult animal that differ from those of its wild counterpart. The mechanism of how this happens is not well understood but it is likely to be due to stress and to hormonal changes as a result of the animal’s emotional and physical dependence on humans. Domesticated animals that return to living in the wild, that is they become feral, will usually revert by natural selection to a physical form that is closer to the wild species as a consequence of the loss of this dependence. … The present-day feral pigs of Australia or North America are good examples of populations of animals that after a relatively short period conformed to a uniform type more closely resembling the wild boar than their highly domesticated antecedents. (Clutton-Brock, 1991)
In the process of domesticating other species, humans from some cultures began to exhibit some of the same signs of domestication shown in other species, including reduced body size.
One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’ 9″ for men, 5’ 5″ for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’ 3″ for men, 5’ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors. (Diamond, 1987)
Perhaps even more alarmingly, humans have also followed the trend for brain size. In the last 10,000 years, human cranial capacity has decreased by at least 8% (Ruff, et al., 1997). Researchers have been very quick to point out that brain size does not necessarily indicate intelligence (though they are strongly correlated), so this reduction does not necessarily mean that human intelligence has suffered the same blow from primitive to civilized as we can observe from dogs to wolves. Others have connected the loss of brain size to the aforementioned co-evolution with wolves (Simonds, 1998), but this theory seems contradicted by the timeline: most of the loss of brain size has occured only in the most recent fraction of the time of human-canid co-evolution. Specifically, it has occured over precisely the same fraction during which that co-evolution turned into domestication. The biological evidence is clearly consistent with a scenario of domestication, but do we dare follow the implications that holds for what has happened to human intelligence, much less human dignity?
Humans from domesticated cultures also show the same neotenous behaviors so often found in other domesticated animals. Mammals are defined by their mothers’ mammary glands, which produce milk for offspring. A thin layer in the small intestine produces lactase, an enzyme that breaks down the lactose in milk. Normally, this thin layer breaks down as a mammal matures, and the body stops producing lactase. “Lactose intolerance” is the normal condition for all adult mammals, including humans; it is lactose tolerance that is abnormal. The mutation that made a thicker layer that did not break down and allowed for the consumption of milk into adulthood appeared in the Middle East and Scandinavia, apparently independently, and spread from there. It is a juvenile characteristic now evident in many humans, the very definition of neoteny.
Humans have been domesticated. It has changed our biology (Leach, 2003) and our behavior. Domestication up-ended the normal pattern of life: the web of relationship in which each species contributed a unique element. Instead, domestication replaced that with a pattern of dominance, wherein other plants and animals could be twisted to fit human desires and used as property at will. But in so doing, humans created a system of relationship that could just as easily extend to them; humans became domesticated, human bodies became twisted, and human behavior became pathological (Russell, 2002).
Those who argue for “co-domestication” are correct that in terms of sheer numbers, domestication has been a success for many species. Domesticated dogs proliferate, while wild wolves are in jeopardy, for instance. By the same token, there are over 6 billion domesticated humans in the world today, while wild humans are now endangered. Is this an evolutionary advantage? In the short term, that could perhaps be argued, but it is certainly not a long-term, viable strategy. It is, in fact, a case of ecological overshoot.
Such cases are not uncommon. The case of the reindeer of St. Matthew’s Island is a common illustration. During the Second World War, the United States Coast Guard arranged for 29 reindeer to be barged to the island from Nunivak, to serve as an emergency food supply for a small base there. When the war ended a few months later and the base was shut down, the reindeer found themselves in a marvelous situation: a nearly uninhabited island with no predators whatsoever, and thick beds of lichen for food. By 1957, the island’s reindeer population had boomed to 1,350—forty-six times the number originally introduced to the island just 13 years before (about one generation for reindeer). By 1963, the herd had reached a size of 6,000—47 for every square mile of the small island. When they returned again in 1966, the herd had dropped to 42: 41 females, no fawns, and only one male, with abnormal antlers and apparently incapable of reproducing. By the 1980s, the St. Matthews reindeer herd had died out (Klein, 1987). Another example of overshoot can be seen in an algae bloom.
Detritus ecosystems are not uncommon. When nutrients from decaying autumn leaves on land are carried by runoff from melting snows into a pond, their consumption by algae in the pond may be checked until springtime by the low winter temperatures that keep the algae from growing. When warm weather arrives, the inflow of nutrients may already be largely complete for the year. The algal population, unable to plan ahead, explodes in the halcyon days of spring in an irruption or bloom that soon exhausts the finite legacy of sustenance materials. This algal Age of Exuberance lasts only a few weeks. Long before the seasonal cycle can bring in more detritus, there is a massive die-off of these innocently incautious and exuberant organisms. Their “age of overpopulation” is very brief, and its sequel is swift and inescapable. (Catton, 1982)
A case of ecological overshoot does not translate into evolutionary success, and that is precisely the situation that domestication has created. By replacing mutual relationship with systems of domination, the domesticated world is a small, inbred place lacking in diversity. Jared Diamond (1999), for example, specified six criteria that animals needed to meet in order to be properly domesticated:
- Flexible diet — Creatures that are willing to consume a wide variety of food sources and can live off lower trophic levels (such as corn or wheat) are less expensive to keep in captivity. Most carnivores can only be fed meat, which requires the expenditure of many herbivores.
- Reasonably fast growth rate — Fast maturity rate compared to the human life span allows breeding intervention and makes the animal useful within an acceptable duration of caretaking. Large animals such as elephants require many years before they reach a useful size.
- Ability to be bred in captivity — Creatures that are reluctant to breed when kept in captivity do not produce useful offspring, and instead are limited to capture in their wild state. Creatures such as the panda and cheetah are difficult to breed in captivity. (This likely has a good deal to do with the losses in cranial capacity; intelligent creatures are too traumatized by their captivity to breed, leaving only the most stupid animals who might be oblivious to what’s happened to them.)
- Pleasant disposition — Large creatures that are aggressive toward humans are dangerous to keep in captivity. The African buffalo has an unpredictable nature and is highly dangerous to humans. Although similar to domesticated pigs in many ways, American peccaries and Africa’s warthogs and bushpigs are also dangerous in captivity.
- Temperament which makes it unlikely to panic — A creature with a nervous disposition is difficult to keep in captivity as they will attempt to flee whenever they are startled. The gazelle is very flighty and it has a powerful leap that allows it to escape an enclosed pen.
- Modifiable social hierarchy — Social creatures that recognize a hierarchy of dominance can be raised to recognize a human as its pack leader. Bighorn sheep cannot be herded because they lack a dominance hierarchy, whilst antelopes and giant forest hogs are territorial when breeding and cannot be maintained in crowded enclosures in captivity.
The result of these requirements is that only a small number of animals have ever been domesticated, and with few exceptions they are large, ruminant herd mammals. With plants, domestication does little better: with the exception of a small selection of fruits and vegetables, the vast majority of the domesticated diet, past and present, comes from just a vanishingly small number of closely related cereal grain species. Besides their genetic closeness, the fact that all of our domesticates fulfill basically the same ecological niches makes the domesticated world a supreme example of a curtailed, stunted, and even pathological ecosystem. The various problem of agriculture (illustrated so well by Richard Manning (2005)) ultimately come down to the basic issue of a homogeneous, inbred ecology. The problems of soil loss and desertification that has dogged agriculture since its inception in the vast, dense cedar forests of the Fertile Crescent, that it turned into the desert wasteland of modern Iraq, are the result of monoculture: growing cereal grains adapted to catastrophe all in a field, year after year, seperated from the other plant, animal, fungal and even bacterial relationships and biological succession that mark these species in their usual ecological niche. The simplicity of domination is easy to spread, and easier to overshoot, but it lacks the mutuality of normal evolutionary relationships that make a living community stable and sustainable. When we see this behavior in human lineages, it is easier to understand; marrying within the same family may keep a line “pure,” but without the genetic input and variability of other lineages to nourish and enrich that line, it becomes increasingly weak, and even twisted, as it has no other inputs but itself. Likewise, domestication is the inbreeding of ecology.
The European conquest of the world was not primarily cultural, military or social, but ecological; as the domesticated ecology displaced wild ecologies, the European cultural standards adapted to the domesticated ecology took hold.
In the 1850s, with the avalanche of the pakeha and associated species pouring ashore, more models of Maori extinction appeared. Exotic weeds ran like quicksilver among the roads into the bush. Native birds retreated as exotic cats, dogs, and rats advanced. The inadvertently imported Old World housefly proved to be so effective at driving back the native bluebottle fly, hated by the pakeha because it learned to lay eggs in the flesh of sheep, the herdsmen took up the practice of carrying their own flies along with them into the back country in jars. The brown rats swept through the South Island, again exterminating all but a trace of the Maori rats, and in the 1860s were deep into the Southern Alps and growing to enormous sizes. Julis von Haast, a geologist who arrived in New Zealand in 1858, wrote Darwin that there was a proverb among the Maori that “as the white man’s fly drives away our own, and the clover kills our fern, so will the Maoris disappear before the white man himself.” (Crosby, 1993)
Today, some 40% of the earth’s land surface has been siezed by the domesticated ecology, driving forward a mass extinction of unparalleled speed and scope. Biologists agree that the key driving factor of this phenomenon is habitat loss: habitat gobbled up for the fields, pastures, cities and sprawl of the domesticated ecosystem, habitat disrupted by power lines and roads, and habitat simply destroyed by global climate change, pollution, and the various other costs of domestication and its various effects, including overpopulation.
Like other species of wild animals, the wild human is also on the brink of destruction, and for precisely the same reason: habitat loss. Recent encroachments against the Hadza by a spoiled Arab prince, and against the Kalahari bushmen by DeBeers, illustrate some of the contemporary means by which this process unfolds.
While wild humans are pushed to the brink of extinction, it can hardly be said that it has been a positive development for domesticated humans, either. The effect that this system has had on us is so profound that even avid rewilders often find new depths to its implications. As domesticated humans, we have become vastly diminished from our evolutionary heritage, physically, behaviorally, and socially, just like any other domesticated mammal.
As civilized people, we are also domesticated. We are to primitive peoples as cows and sheep are to bears and eagles. On the rental property where I live in California my landlord keeps two white domesticated ducks. These ducks have been bred to have wings so small as to prevent them from flying. This is a convenience for their keepers, but compared to wild ducks these are pitiful creatures.
Many primal peoples tend to view us as pitiful creatures, too—though powerful and dangerous because of our technology and sheer numbers. They regard civilization as a sort of social disease. We civilized people appear to act as though we were addicted to a powerful drug—a drug that comes in the forms of money, factory-made goods, oil, and electricity. We are helpless without this drug, so we have come to see any threat to its supply as a threat to our very existence. Therefore we are easily manipulated—by desire (for more) or fear (that what we have will be taken away)—and powerful commercial and political interests have learned to orchestrate our desires and fears in order to achieve their own purposes of profit and control. If told that the production of our drug involves slavery, stealing, and murder, or the ecological equivalents, we try to ignore the news so as not to have to face an intolerable double bind. (Heinberg, 1995)
Such is the plight of the domesticated human, but is it unavoidable? Is this simply a cause for despair, or can we change this state of affairs? Can we ever become wild again?
In some sense, no. Domestication is a process that cannot be entirely undone. Brain size in particular appears to be an enduring legacy of domestication. Dingos have been feral for thousands of years, yet their brain sizes have never recovered.
In a greater sense, however, this is the wrong question. The atavistic fantasy of turning back the clock to become wild again is simply not an option; the past is irretrievably done, and returning to it is never possible. The future is the only destiny that we can ever have a hand in shaping. Even after thousands of years of rewilding, dingos are not wolves. But by the same token, they’re not dogs, either. The task that lies before us—rewilding humans—is not a simple matter of trying to fulfill an atavistic fantasy, but creating a new, syncretic synthesis. We were once wild, but we can’t go back. We’re now domesticated, but we don’t have to stay that way. We can go feral.
The word feral comes from the Latin fera, meaning a wild beast. In Latin, that word has a second, unrelated meaning: feralis, “belonging to the dead.” Both are revealing. Feral animals certainly have a great deal more in common with wild animals than domesticated animals, but the incidental second meaning also tells us something of how feral animals differ. One of the most common myths in domesticated societies is that of the dying and rising god; by seperating itself from the web of mutual relationship that creates, sustains and enriches every species on earth, domesticated animals suffer a kind of “death.” In rewilding, re-entering that web of relationship, there is likewise a kind of resurrection.
Feral animals often cause terrible disturbances in their ecologies, because they are basically invasive species. Invasive species always cause disturbances, precisely because they have no web of relationship: they have no predators, so their numbers proliferate; they have not co-evolved with their food sources and neighboring flora and fauna, so they may over-eat, trample, or diminish the ecology. But this situation does not last forever. Over time, other predators may learn that a feral species is good to eat, and begin predating them. The hardier plants that can survive being trampled and eatern by these species proliferate. In general, feral animals are eventually woven into the ecology; they cease to be invasive, and become native.
Becoming biologically native is a process that often takes thousands of years. Culture is a means by which we can speed that process considerably. When the Indians’ ancestors entered the Americas, they did so as an invasive species. While the “overkill” hypothesis has been vastly overstated, it’s also undeniably true that the introduction of a new invasive species of alpha predator tipped many species over the edge. The process was difficult and many species that were already ailing were tipped into extinction, but ultimately, this invasive species became native. Culture allowed humans to enter into relationships with other species far more quickly than genetic evolution alone would have allowed. American Indians are in every meaningful sense “native”—they have a relationship with the ecology, or to put it more strongly, they are part of that ecology.
The most recent wave of native migration into the Americas, the one that brought the Inuit, began around 1000 CE. That means that the Inuit had spent only as much time in the Americas by the time of Columbus as Europeans have spent since; but where the Inuit were already undeniably native, Europeans in the Americas continue to act like an invasive species. This points to the power of culture. The Inuit have a wild culture, and so used their culture to create new relationships with their ecology faster than they would have otherwise been able to. Consider the example of one of these latter migrant peoples, the Koyukon, and how they used their language to relate to the birds of their ecology.
The Artic tern (k’idagaas’), the northern phalarope (tiyee), the rusty blackbird (ts’uhutlts’eegga), the blackpoll warbler (k’oot’anh), the slate colored junco (k’it’otlt’ahga)—all have such names. Written transcription, however, cannot convey the remarkable aptness of these names, which when spoken in Koyukon have a lilting, often whistle like quality. The interpenetration of human and nonhuman utterances is particularly vivid in the case of numerous bird songs that seem to enunciate whole phrases or statements in Koyukon.
Many bird calls are interpreted as Koyukon words … what is striking about these words is how perfectly they mirror the call’s pattern, so that someone outside the tribe who knows birdsongs can readily identify the species when the words are spoken in Koyukon. Not only the rhythym comes through, but also some of the tone, the “feel” that goes with it.
As we ponder such correspondences, we come to realize that the sounds and rhythyms of the Koyukon language have been deeply nourished by these nonhuman voices.
Hence the whirring, flutelike phrases of the hermit thrush, which sound in the forest thickest at twilight, speak the Koyukon words sook’eeyis deeyo—”it is a fine evening.” The thrushes also sometimes speak the phrase nahutl-eeyh—literally, “a sign of the spirit is perceived.” The thrush first uttered these words in the Distant Time, when it sensed a ghost nearby, and even today the call may be heard as a warning. (Abram, 1997)
Given the same time and opportunity, can the domesticated cultures of Europe claim anything like this kind of relationship with the more-than-human world? While the Inuit and related peoples came as wild humans seeking a new home, and making themselves native to it by using their culture to create new relationships there, the domesticated system did not come to migrate, but to conquer. Domesticated humans use their culture to precisely the opposite end: to actively resist becoming native, and to remain as invasive as possible, as long as possible. We do not seek to weave ourselves into a new ecology, but rather, to uproot that ecology and replace it with our own, to plow it under and plant rows of our own crops there, instead. Naturally, such goals can never be perfectly realized, but we have succeeded far more than we have failed, and it explains why, given the same amount of time, there is no doubt that the Inuit and their neighbors are native, while there is equally no doubt that Europeans remain invasive.
Reversing this is an enormous part of rewilding. To become feral, we must reverse what our culture is for. Domestication makes culture a bulwark against “going native,” providing us with traditions of “the Old World” that we can cling to, to slow the process of being woven into an ecosystem. Wild—and feral—cultures exist for precisely the opposite reason: to speed the transition, to weave us into an ecology much faster than biology alone would allow.
Like the domestication that it seeks to undo, rewilding is a many-faceted affair. Primitive or “earth” skills are the foundation of feral life; learning to provide for one’s shelter, clothing, food, tools and other needs without reliance on the domesticated world is the first step to leaving domestication behind. All too often, however, rewilders become fixated at this stage, and mistake this vital foundation for the whole of rewilding. As Tamarack Song wrote to the Teaching Drum email list, though:
We come from a technological society, so we naturally think that substituting primitive technology for civilized technology is our doorway. The only problem is that Native people are not into technology. They spend only a couple hours a day providing for their simple needs, and they mostly use simple means. Look at their tools—few and crude, and their craftwork — basic and utilitarian. What a Native person excels at is what I call qualitative skills—how to sit in a circle with your clan mates and speak your truth, how to find your special talent so that you can develop it to serve your people, how to use your intuition, the ways of honor and respect, how to live in balance with elders and women and children, how to speak in the language beyond words, how to befriend fear and live love. Without these skills, you will surely die. Or else you’ll go back to the life that shuns these skills.
I would not call native technology crude by any means, but it’s certainly not complex—”elegant” is a much better word. But it is absolutely true that when listening to native people, two themes stand out remarkably as the things that really matter: family and land.
The basic social foundation of wild (and feral) life is the family—bands and tribes are simply fancy terms for those. Domesticated societies invariably try to cast themselves in a metaphor of family: Roman emperors justified their authoritarian rule as the Pater patriae, the father of the Roman people, and perpetuated a familial model of domination and coercion down to the cruel Roman Pater familias; more recently, George Lakoff’s work on “frames” has discussed the dividing line between “liberals” and “conservatives” between metaphors of government as a nurturing mother or a stern father, respectively; Derrick Jensen has drawn many haunting parallels between the dynamics of civilization and the dynamics found in abusive families. If civilizations are abusive, dysfunctional families, then rewilding is the process of creating healthy, well-adjusted, nourishing families. As Willem Larsen wrote so beautifully about “The Wandering Free Families“:
Imagine this: you, your parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, mothers and fathers, children, cousins, second cousins, your whole extended family, has lived the life of a year-round summer camp for as long as you remember. You live together, resolve conflicts, and support one another as best you can, as a family. Your in-jokes have become the stuff of legend, your artistic styles have inspired each other, for countless generations you have collaborated on a vital and celebratory family culture that you enjoy. You make decisions as a community, relying on the wisdom of those you trust. The smallest child contributes to voice of the community as a whole. No police, no bureaucracy, no institutions…instead you have taboos, family consensus processes, and traditions. A Free Family, living your life on the land. …
In the modern world, we have some expressions that honor family connection…”blood is thicker than water,” for example. I know of none that get to the heart of the fundamental indigenous belief, that family holds all the roots of wealth (referring to its etymology): wholeness, wellness, health, and holiness.
Keep your eyes open, and you’ll observe where the modern world diverges, again and again, from the indigenous value of feeding family. Ancient initiations and vision quests served to show the seeker how they fit into their community, what role they would grow into, what unique gift their spirit would provide the tribe. In the modern world? The seeking adolescent hunts for a college in a distant land, a career in a distant city. Co-opting the vision quest and initiation for today’s children, the questors dream of apprenticing with a shaman in an Amazonian jungle, or studying leopards on a faraway continent. What happened to family, in the self-absorbed adolescent quest for a purpose? Will they receive postcards, perhaps? Will they someday get photos of their unknown grandchildren? When a native teenage “walkabout” ends, you return home, and find your place at last. When will we return home?
With hollowed-out hearts we keep the great gears of this modern world going. What have we given up in exchange for all its amusements? What misunderstood hungers rack our bodies, fed by false substitutes, bought by the fruits of our impersonal labors? What if a return to family sated these hungers, once and for all (though I don’t imply this a simple or obvious path…recovering from the loss of family, and returning to the heart of it, requires a substantial amount of work).
For wild (and feral) humans, the two are inseperable; family is land, and land is family. Your ancestors make up the soil, and so they live in the plants, and in the animals that eat the plants, and in the animals that eat them, until they return again and become soil again. Totems bind human ancestry into a more-than-human world; “Mother Earth” and “Father Sky” are more than empty platitudes, but a mythical reflection of the daily reality for people who are provided with everything they need by the earth and the sky. Wild humans generally describe the lands they live in as paradise, however forbidding they seem to us. What does it say that another of the most common myths of domesticated humans is that of paradise lost? And what does it say of our aspirations towards rewilding, that we also nurse the myth of some future where paradise is regained?
None of this is easy or straightforward, though. Rewilding, like domestication, is a complex process, one that changes our bodies, our thoughts, and most of all our relationships, both with other humans, and with the more-than-human world we all live in. Going feral cannot be a simple atavistic throwback, though; it requires creativity and synthesis. Our domesticated experience cannot be simply erased, so we must find ways to deal with it and to turn it to our advantage. The feral future that awaits us cannot be a simple return to the Stone Age. It will require a good deal more creativity than that. It will mean weaving what works in our culture, with what works for human cultures in general. It will require syncretism and incredible creativity. Going feral isn’t a question of turning back the clock, but going forward to create something new, based in a better understanding of the nature of a world of relationship.
That is not an easy process. Rewilding is a lifelong commitment.
Putting an urban person in the wilderness without comforts and conveniences would be as cruel as abandoning a domesticated pet by the roadside. Even if the animal survived, it would be miserable. And we would probably be miserable too, if the accouterments of civilization were abruptly withdrawn from us. Yet the wild cousins of our hypothetical companion animal—whether a parrot, a canine, or a feline—live quite happily away from houses and packaged pet food and resist our efforts to capture and domesticate them, just as primitive peoples live quite happily without civilization and often resist its imposition. Clearly, animals (including people) can adapt either to wild or domesticated ways of life over the course of several generations, while adult individuals tend to be much less adaptable. In the view of many of its proponents, primitivism implies a direction of social change over time, as opposed to an instantaneous, all-or-nothing choice. We in the industrial world have gradually accustomed ourselves to a way of life that appears to be leading toward a universal biological holocaust. The question is, shall we choose to gradually accustom ourselves to another way of life—one that more successfully integrates human purposes with ecological imperatives—or shall we cling to our present choices to the bitter end?
Obviously, we cannot turn back the clock. But we are at a point in history where we not only can, but must pick and choose among all the present and past elements of human culture to find those that are most humane and sustainable. While the new culture we will create by doing so will not likely represent simply an immediate return to wild food gathering, it could restore much of the freedom, naturalness, and spontaneity that we have traded for civilization’s artifices, and it could include new versions of cultural forms with roots in humanity’s remotest past. We need not slavishly imitate the past; we might, rather, be inspired by the best examples of human adaptation, past and present. Instead of “going back,” we should think of this process as “getting back on track.” (Heinberg, 1995)
A great many of us could return to wild food gathering in our own lifetimes, in fact, and the more who do, the better off we will all be. But even for those who cannot, or choose not, to go that far, rewilding offers a way forward, a way to restore the human dignity that has been stripped from us.
One of the Adinkra of the Akan people of West Africa depicts the Sankofa bird: a bird flying forward, looking backward, holding the egg of the future in its beak. It is transliterated as, “se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki,” literally, “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.” The Sankofa bird reminds us that sometimes the only way to move forward is to look backward, because if we’ve forgotten something vital, there may be no way to move forward until we remember it. We’ve lost the most vital thing of all, and it’s not taboo to go back and fetch it. It is, in fact, the only way forward.
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