maandag 11 april 2011

First hand knowledge is a way of life

Barrly Lopez photograph by Robert Miller.

On the website of Orion Magazine, a splendid resource for high quality nature writing, I found a short 2001 essay by Barry Lopez (earlier) called The Naturalist. Speaking about field biology and native people he makes a number of assertions on the art and power of observation that are not just epistemological but ethical and well worth quoting in the context of forage psychogeography:
my experience with field biologists, those fresh to a task—say, caracara research—are the ones most likely to give themselves a deadline—ten years, say—against which they will challenge themselves to know all there is to know about that falcon. It never works. More seasoned field biologists, not as driven by a need to prove themselves, are content to concentrate on smaller arenas of knowledge. Instead of speaking definitively of coyote, armadillo, or wigeon, they tend to say, “This one animal, that one time, did this in that place.” It’s the approach to nature many hunting and gathering peoples take, to this day. The view suggests a horizon rather than a boundary for knowing, toward which we are always walking.

A modern naturalist, then, is no longer someone who goes no further than a stamp collector, mastering nomenclature and field marks. She or he knows a local flora and fauna as pieces of an inscrutable mystery, increasingly deep, a unity of organisms Western culture has been trying to elevate itself above since at least Mesopotamian times. The modern naturalist, in fact, has now become a kind of emissary in this, working to reestablish good relations with all the biological components humanity has excluded from its moral universe.  

One of the reasons native people still living in some sort of close, daily association with their ancestral lands are so fascinating to those who arrive from the rural, urban, and suburban districts of civilization is because they are so possessed of authority. They radiate the authority of firsthand encounters. They are storehouses of it. They have not read about it, they have not compiled notebooks and assembled documentary photographs. It is so important that they remember it. When you ask them for specifics, the depth of what they can offer is scary. It’s scary because it’s not tidy, it doesn’t lend itself to summation. By the very way that they say that they know, they suggest they are still learning something that cannot, in the end, be known.

Firsthand knowledge is enormously time consuming to acquire; with its dallying and lack of end points, it is also out of phase with the short-term demands of modern life. It teaches humility and fallibility, and so represents an antithesis to progress. It makes a stance of awe in the witness of natural process seem appropriate, and attempts at summary knowledge naïve. Historically, tyrants have sought selectively to eliminate firsthand knowledge when its sources lay outside their control. By silencing those with problematic firsthand experiences, they reduced the number of potential contradictions in their political or social designs, and so they felt safer. 
As an example of the power of firsthand knowledge the following qoute from Jared Diamond comes to mind. I found it through a recommended essay by US forager Samuel Thayer on the irrarional Western fear for using/eating wild plants (also see).
One day, when my companions of the Foré tribe and I were starving in the jungle because another tribe was blocking our return to the supply base, a Foré man returned to camp with a large rucksack full of mushrooms he had found, and started to roast them. Dinner at last! But then I had an unsettling thought: what if the mushrooms were poisonous?

I patiently explained to me Foré companions that I had read about some mushrooms’ being poisonous, that I had heard of even expert American mushroom collectors’ dying because of our difficulty in distinguishing safe from dangerous mushrooms, and that although we were all hungry, it just wasn’t worth the risk. At that point one of my companions got angry and told me to shut up and listen while they explained some things to me. After I had been quizzing them for years about names of hundreds of trees and birds, how could I insult them by assuming they didn’t have names for different mushrooms? Only Americans could be so stupid as to confuse poisonous mushrooms with safe ones. They went on to lecture me about 29 types of mushroom species, each species in the Foré language, and where in the forest one should look for it. This one, the tánti, grew on trees, and it was delicious and perfectly edible.

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