Monday, May 4, 2009

5 Terror In The Pasture

In order to become fully conscious, a human being needs to see his and her shadow. That is to say, if you are walking along the beach on a sunny afternoon and take no notice that you have no shadow following you, it is most likely that you are not consciously aware of yourself. Oh, yes, you are there. You put your foot or paw before you and see where you are going (proof being that you avoid walking into the sea), but no matter how long your shadow, you see it no more than most animals see themselves in the mirror.

We may take the above scene and substitute for the shadow a community of human beings. The stress is on the word “community”. Let us imagine that these human beings are the first apes forced at that very moment out of the trees they have always lived in. As far as the apes can remember, they had always lived in the rain forest and in trees. Then years of drought arrived. The forest dried out, and one day, today, lightning struck a tree and started a forest fire.

Whereas they needed to eat and shit just like any other creature, because of their lives spent living in trees, these apes—soon to become human beings) had not taken note that they shat. Their excrement simply dropped to the ground and was lost there. Nor did these apes—while living in trees—need to take note of their shadows. Nor had they taken any particular note that they lived together as a tribe. This is why when they came onto the beech, they did not know—at first—that they shat, that they had a shadow, or that they were a community. To find themselves on the beach was a most awkward moment, but at the same time, it fascinated.

Of the new things to discover and take note of, our ancestors probably learned to recognize their shadows first. After all, the shadow cast by our bodies has a real shape, even though when we touch it, we touch it without touching it. It is and it is not there. Then we went about learning toiled training. We made our first skirts and draped them around our ugly red behinds (living in trees we had not taken note of this), thus becoming able to cover up also our fur—an unwelcome reminder now of the days we had lived in trees. After we had learned to do all that, only then did we discover death and through death that we live in communities.

As strange as it may seem, the first human beings had not taken much of a notice of death, because death was too much like shit. When we lived in trees and died, we simply fell to the ground and out of sight. Even getting used to toilet training—a notable advance in consciousness—was something of a paradox. By letting our excrement drop in a hole and doing our shit as solitaries, we learned manners and to be discrete. We also transferred our new orientation to the dead. In those days, when individual faces still went unrecognized, death was noticed only by its stink and the area was avoided. Now, if you stank you were buried. Because a dead body was recognized to be no ordinary turd, the entire community came together for the burial. but for a long time burial did not become any greater ceremony than that.

How did the discovery of death and how did the community come about? The answer may sound as surreal as making an effort to imagine ourselves in the sun without a shadow, but here it is: we discovered death through cattle. To help us see the connection, let us recall weaver ants. These ants live in trees in rain forests. The ants cut up leaves, string their bodies together into “bridges”, “milk” sugar from caterpillar larvae, and exhibit other intricate tricks of their species at the same time as they have limited cognitive capacity and no consciousness. See and also
It may be that before human beings became aware of themselves as a community—though they were living in groups or tribes—they, like the weaver ants, were gardeners without too much consciousness of themselves as a community of special gifts. Except in the early days, the apes were gardeners of convenience. That is to say, after they had eaten the fruit of one garden, they moved through the trees to another garden of tree fruit.

But when the apes came out of the trees, they had to discover another kind of fruit. This is how they discovered edible roots. Then we discovered that mothers of animals gave milk, that this milk could be stolen from their young, and that the milk would keep flowing if the udder was routinely stimulated. Thus, we discovered milk could be had from goats, sheep, cows, yaks, lamas, camels, reindeer, pigs. Milk is so bound up with human food consumption and sense of well being, that in some societies even males offer babies their breast to comfort them.

It should not come as a surprise to us that human beings learned to exploit animals and themselves a long time ago (almost as soon as we came out of the trees and onto the plains), and that such exploitation was not necessarily a violent one. Animals were gathered, domesticated (conditioned to accept the human environment, castrated if need be), conditioned to accept a human hand on the udder to be milked, and then taken by a herded to pastures belonging to the community. The herder kept an eye over the flock to protect it from wolves, mountain lions, and thieves from neighboring communities.

It is, thus, likely that it was a herder who was the first to die defending the interests of a community. This made the community all the more conscious of the importance of the herder. It also made the community more conscious of itself. Many of us already know this story, though it is told in a different version. For example, most of us have heard the story of Abraham and his son Yitzak. I retell the story somewhat differently. All the same, it involves a goat, its herder John, and Abraham, the community elder and father of John.

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