The lessons of island time

Every year I make a point to roam the planet and get back down to earth; to strip away the ornamentation of modern life, if only for a moment, and reflect on what it means to be human. Last year, I ventured through northern Europe for eight weeks, and then upon my return to the United States, backpacked for two weeks through Nevada’s Ruby Mountain Wilderness with my best friend, David Munson. This year, David and I spent two weeks mid-June living on a small island in the Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, several miles off the coast of Belize. It was, to say the least, a transformative experience.

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On the island I read a book called Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which features a dialogue between a man and his teacher, Ishmael, a telepathic gorilla. Ishmael walks the unnamed narrator Socratically through two different stories being enacted by humankind: one – the “Taker” worldview wherein humanity understands itself to own the world and takes it to be our self-evident destiny to absolutely control the human condition and ultimately transcend our animality to be more the gods of old than part of creation – a mythology of progress, as John Gray, puts it. Ishmael leads our narrator to an understanding of Taker mythology that shows it to be invariably destructive of the planet, essentially set in motion over the last 10,000 years of the agricultural revolution beginning with the conflicts between the Semitic and Caucasian peoples in Mesopotamia – the former, pastoralists in lifestyle; the latter, agricultural revolutionaries – in which the Taker Caucasians cannot stand to settle into a modus vivendi with the pastoralist Semites and, rather than peacefully coexist, expand “Taker Culture” by sword and fire, utterly intolerant of any way of life other than their own, and ultimately seeking to remove human beings from the laws of ecology by which nature (the gods) govern “who lives and who dies” on our humble planet.

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The pastoralist Semites represent, not the first, but continuances of the way humankind lived for three million years prior to the agricultural revolution – herders and hunter-gathers – who still survive today in the ever-waning number of indigenous tribes that still exist despite the march of “progress” that has been underway for the past 10,000 years. Rather than believing the Earth to belong to human beings, these “Leavers” understand humanity to be one animal among many, not destined to rule the Earth, but to coexist as part of its great ecology and to carry forward the emergence of sentience with grace and respect for the immutable laws that govern the existence and balance of life. Where Takers, according to Ishmael, lead destructive, discontent, criminal lives, the Leavers knew harmony with the Earth (even despite the harshness of nature, which Takers aim to escape altogether), a deep-rooted sense of purpose and contentment, and lived within the laws of nature – law-abiding Terran citizens.

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Ultimately, it seems to me, the turn-point on which the Taker-Leaver dualism hinges is the idea of purpose. For the Takers, humankind’s purpose is to progress; but “progress is [just] movement for movement’s sake” according to Hayek’s nihilistic dictum, and leaves us restless, insatiable, and discontent in our existence. Only in Taker Society do depression, obesity, addiction, bipolar, ADD, ADHD, mania, insomnia, and suicide really exist – and they are a reflection of the pointlessness of our eternal pursuit of “progress” as we envision it; never content, never sleeping, always seeking to transcend, yet nevertheless unable to ever be more than human – for in plucking ourselves from the forces of natural selection, we will never be able to evolve.

The Leavers, on the other hand, Ishmael says, understand humanity’s original place within nature, as stewards of a Franciscan bent, and do not struggle with nihilism, or the psychological ailments of modernity. They are “down to earth” and so they are happy, locked in step with the rhythms and melodies of the planet; a synchronicity long since forgotten by the Takers. To be part of something greater than ourselves; to have an unambiguous place on Earth; a true sense of home and authentic living in the ancient wisdom of “what works for people” passed down over millions of years.

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It is easy to lament the rapacious destruction of the Leavers that do today remain, to call for our peaceful co-existence, to live and let live, so that their ancient knowledge and ways of living will not be snuffed out for good, and to resent Taker Society for being what it is, accustomed to its ways over ten millennia; to be saddened by the trajectory of the human-nature relationship that dominates the planet; to wish to leave all the taking behind and return to simpler living; to re-immerse ourselves in the laws of ecology (for we cannot fall forever!) sooner than later, and avert our crashing down into the canyon below toward which our flightless jet has been plummeting since its inception (forgotten that we are falling, for falling gives a sensation of flight until one hits ground); to pity the Takers; to judge and to hate them; to blame them and to obsess over the fantasy of abandoning Taker mythology for a return to hunting and gathering and herding. How naïve! How childish! One does not judge, or blame, or pity, or hate a sheep for being a sheep, for they are but sheep, born into being sheep, living and dying as sheep and knowing no other way, convinced they are happy and righteous in their wool; unawares that they are fleecing themselves, even still.

The sheep will never abandon the herd, for the herd is all they’ve ever known, and the herd is an echo-chamber beating the drum of progress, sure to the deepest level that any other way of life would be nasty, poor, brutish, and short – and so the fruitless dream of convincing the Takers to again become Leavers is, to be sure, a bucket that will not labor to hold water – there is no hope there; only frustration.

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And so, if we labor for hope that we can stem the socioecological crisis of the Anthropocene, we must embrace a new story that inspires a new sense of purpose in the nihilism of Taker Society and reinvigorates living rather than simply being alive; a sense of home and place and meaning in human life as it exists today, for we cannot turn back the clock, forget what we have been up to for 10,000 years and return to the Leaver way of life. Indeed, we are far too many for that to be at all feasible in the first place, and no one would buy it.

Even life on the island was hardly removed from the luxuries of modernity. Indeed, we would forage and fish, but we were never far from agricultural produce brought by gas powered boat, a diesel generator that electrified the open-air kitchen in the “main building,” our Scuba gear, the Internet modem (even if spotty, unreliable, and generally inaccessible), our cell phones, cooking and harvesting tools, the litter washed up and strewn about the island, our mattresses, and solar powered lamps, toothbrushes, sunscreen, bug spray, and head torches were constant reminders that we were never far, never even close to truly removed, from Taker Culture and the luxuries of modernity. Nor, do I think, would we really have wanted to be. We merely sought to go out on a limb, not leap from the tree entirely; for at the end of our stay we hopped on airplanes and whooshed ourselves back to “civilization.”

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But the lessons of the island – of our little limb – we will retain, for its flavor was sweet and its memory powerful – wood labor that one cannot and would not forget; a resonant verse in the new song I will now forever sing; the poetry to onward recite to our Taker kin:

Back down to earth, to embrace the great clod,

To remember and love,

to lay in the grass, and tend to the sod.

For removed we may be, but never too far,

from the ground and the soil that reminds who we are.

Of Takers and Leavers, we humans of terra,

All are of one, as we forge our new era.

For as numbers grow and the planet may groan,

Our task is to labor and spread love for our home.

 

Our ways and our whims are all subject to change,

And our labor of love is to retake the reigns.

Together as people, all one in the same,

Our fate is in common in living’s great game.

Never removed,

in heart or in whole,

In being together we relight our souls;

By ushering in the sentience of beings,

To be first of the teachers is the song we must sing.

 

As time marches on and our place remembered,

Our purpose in life is the being of members

in the tribe of the planet and contentment of living,

As stewards and poets and artisans tending

To the movement of souls through the cosmic abyss,

The meaning we seek is in love and in bliss.

In oneness and many, the plural abounds,

For what works for people is diverse in its sounds,

And melodies change in verse and in rhythm,

We are never too far to bring together the schism.

 

Between humans and cultures and planet and creatures,

All people are set to be leaders and teachers,

But not by our rule, by fire and fist,

For if hubris proceeds we’ll be lost in the mist,

Groping and grabbing at whatever is solid,

But never content,

sordid and squalid.

 

From gorilla to human, to palm leaf and crab,

We can all reinvent the habits we have,

For the better of all and for all in the light,

It is merely the dawn of what life has in sight.

For the cosmos and Earth expresses through us

the sentience, galactic, of which we entrust

the powers of reason, foresight, and love,

the oceans below us and the stars up above.

Our task is each other,

To teach, serve, and write,

Takers and leavers and creatures, alike.

– J. M. Kincaid, 2017

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