Seriously Eccentric Saturday Musings

August 23, 2008 at 7:44 pm Leave a comment

Ok, brace yourselves. When nothing in particular occupies my mind, it leaves a lot of room for randomness. And so it begins …

Mama elephant and her kids - Kilimanjaro in background

Still reading The World Without Us. The author, Alan Weisman, is jumping around quite a bit from topic to topic; era to era; location to location. Since we’re often dealing in geologic time, you can imagine how disorienting this is. It suits me to a T. It forces the reader to seek patterns in trends and events across time and invest them with meaning that might not occur if she was led down a straight, chronological path.

Current mood: a heightened sense of excitement brought on by the bracing winds of chaotic intellectual stimulation. (Bite me, facebook and myspace. Let’s see you come up with an emoticon for that.)

After the jump, we travel to the origins of Homo sapiens accompanied by Paul Simon’s Graceland and U2’s One.

Shortly after I left Weisman (and you) at p. 51, we took a trip to Africa. Now, I’ve never been attracted to the Africa of the privileged white man, the macho Hemingway wannabe: big-game hunting, safari-going Brit colonists, surveying their conquered land; or missionary zealots seeking the domination of the heathen, African soul. That latter is worthy of a rant completely on its own, because of the insidious psychological scars it has left throughout the world, not to mention the other kinds of violence that occurred as large swaths of Africa were converted to Christianity.

You want to be a missionary? Got that missionary zeal? Let a stranger change your life. How’s that make you feel?

Paul Simon, Hurricane Eye, You’re The One, 2000.

Fantastic album. Best since Graceland. Speaking of Graceland (and Africa), Simon received a whole lot of heat for recording Graceland in South Africa, with South African musicians, seeming to flaunt the anti-apartheid movement and the UN’s cultural boycott of South Africa. But what Simon really did was bring a whole other musical tradition into contemporary, North American/European pop culture, strains of which were already heard and would resonate for listeners because of rock n’ roll’s roots in gospel courtesy of the African-American slave trade. Circuitous irony, huh?

By offering a platform to South African musicians, Simon transcended race and brought a small part of the real, not the culturally-appropriated, richness of African culture to North American ears. He brought two musical cultures together in a way that not even the best-intentioned cultural boycott, by definition divisive, could achieve. While (if) you’re reading the rest of my ramble, have a listen to this.

“This is the story of how we begin to remember …”

And another:

Weisman often hints (and once or twice explicitly states) that we have ancestral memories of the landscapes of our species’ origins baked in to our DNA. I think a lot about evolutionary theory, and about this very thing. What we are inclined to think, feel and do, based on our evolutionary history and our particular branch on the primate family tree.

All the science points to us (Homo sapiens, that is) as originating in Africa–specifically, the Great African Rift, which cuts through Ethiopia in the north through Kenya to what is now Nairobi on the Indian Ocean. When the next Ice Age comes, it is here that plant and animal life might remain and it is here that it most likely will spring up again. Weisman hints that this cycle may have gone on for much longer than we know, given the planet’s ability to completely wipe out any trace of us once we’re gone.

That Darwin and evolutionary theory can still be so hotly contested is remarkable to me, especially given the overwhelming scientific evidence. There is talk that the creationist, book-banning bigots of the heartland, or wherever it is they skulk around and spew their ignorant venom, will not exert the same influence as they have in the past on the upcoming U.S. election. However, one important poll put McCain ahead of Obama by five points, and many are seeing the gap close especially with the just-announced Biden VP nod so ……………….

Weisman’s descriptions of the Great African Rift Valley’s geography and ecology–as it is today, and as he imagines it was 1.5 million years ago, when our Great Ape ancestors climbed out of the treed canopy onto the plains and started walking upright–make for gripping, thought-provoking reading. This is the Africa I’m attracted to, but it is also one where its current social and political realities are swept under a rug. It is a Sheltering Sky-style Africa, with plenty of ennui and internal angst, but where our consciousness of real-world, here-and-now atrocities is dulled by the quinine-laced gin and tonic we sip on a dusty terrace, overlooking the encroaching desert or the plains beyond, where herds of elephant cluster to drink silhouetted by a red sun setting behind Mount Kilimanjaro.

This is the Africa of the safari-eco-tourist, which is a romanticized and clean (if not well lighted) place. Of course, it is not Weisman’s intention to dig into the messy politics of Africa, but neither I think should he completely dismiss them, because they are so relevant to our impact on the the region. Conservation efforts occur or are halted directly as a result of social and political upheavals that take place here so frequently.

If you have the money and the luxury of time, you can visit and carefully sidestep the incredibly complex political, religious and cultural divisions that continue to tear Africa apart: the blood diamond and cocoa trade; the dictatorship governments that still recruit child soldiers; ancient tribal feuds erupting into genocides; AIDS, malaria and drought that kill millions every year, while the Western world–even those motivated to help–sit back and do little, hands tied by a tangle of international politics and laws, hundreds of years of historical colonial oppression, and conflicting policies of foreign aid versus national self-determination.

In more cynical moments, my interpretation of the customary “hands-off” attitude toward political strife in Africa is that Western governments are uninterested in helping, because this continent, and the war-torn countries and suffering human beings within them–are just a bit too far south of the oil to matter. Will an African-American president have a different perspective?

While the siren call as Homo sapiens’ birthplace lures many to it, Africa was not a continent I particularly heard calling to me. To visit as an safari-eco-tourist is to be complicit in the wrongs perpetrated here for hundreds of years by my white, British forebears. I cannot imagine being shuttled out to a floodlit watering hole to view the elephants and wildebeest as they drink, their movements now timed to the tourists rather than the regular rhythms of nature. Nor would I feel comfortable as Maasai resort staff, clad in ceremonial garb, lay my table with silver and fine china, make up my bed with 300-threadcount linen sheets, and then retire to their own humble cottages, having sold their nomadic culture and lifestyles to the tourist trade.

Yet, how else to see it in safety?

It’s a bit of a conundrum.

Weisman is skirting that issue (so far). But, he’s showing me an Africa that, if I can only put my white guilt, my prissy North American squeamishness and my overactive superego to rest, I would very much like to visit. And he’s weaving together threads of the geological, cultural and social worlds into a united tapestry of life on this planet that speaks to the broader issue at hand: We are all one.

“We’re one, but we’re not the same. We’ve got to carry each other … carry each other.”

I may or may not visit in real life, but I can certainly explore virtually a continent that even evolutionists such as myself can call, metaphorically, the Garden of Eden.

Karuru and Gura Falls, in Kenya’s Aberdares Mountains (parts of which are now bound by an electric fence around 1,000 square hectares of land, protecting the land and its animals from poaching and further environmental destruction):

Where elephants hide:

(these photos from — a blog I found while googling the Great African Rift Valley.)

One of our closest living primate relatives, the chimpanzee, grooming Dr. Jane Goodall:

Incidentally, there is a theory that gossip among humans serves the same social cohesion function as grooming among chimps and other primates. Which if you think of the goings-on in a Saturday afternoon beauty parlour, as the patrons thumb through People and US magazines and chat, makes abundant and perfect sense.


Entry filed under: Books, Environmental Issues. Tags: , , , , , , .

The World Without Us Too Funny

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