They say it’s easy to spot an American traveling abroad. He’s the one wearing short pants, sneakers, and a ball cap for every occasion. If not the outfit, we Americans are betrayed by other traits more attractive than our dress code. By nature a confident and happy group, we are loud talkers and relentless smilers, openly friendly to complete strangers as if the world was a giant receiving line. We have inherited an innate optimism that instills the peculiar American notion that every problem has a solution and the future can make up for the past.
Africans, too, have traits that distinguish them, including their own version of civility. They won’t touch you with their left hand and don’t want to be touched by yours. If you sit down at a bar or restaurant with an African friend, he will pour your beer into your glass and wait for you to pour his.
There are other distinctions. The African works hard when the situation calls for it but sees no reason to expend more energy than is necessary. They aren’t layabouts, but an African won’t go out of his way to burn calories like Americans do—I’ve never seen a Cross-Fit in Africa. Wasting energy doesn’t make sense and wouldn’t occur to most of them since they might need it for other things. My last time in Africa, I turned down an offer for a ride as I walked up a steep hill. An African would have gotten in the truck.
Americans are as independent as wildflowers, and we value our freedom more than anything else. Most disagreements during the pandemic actually came down to people just not wanting to be told what to do or how to think. I get that. I can be as skeptical of authority as anyone but, if playing an instrument in an orchestra, I wouldn’t say “I’m gonna play these chords no matter what everyone else is playing.” What seems like conforming might, in a certain context, be simply an attempt at harmony.
We should not be so wrapped up in our own stories that we forget that we are all supporting characters in someone else’s. The world is not made up of only two kinds of people—me and everyone else. I recently saw an exhibit of work by the artist Edward Hopper. I liked it a lot, even though the figures in the paintings looked lonely, as if his favorite subject was Eleanor Rigby (it was actually his wife).
Africans are not as concerned with their individuality and personal freedom as we are. Nor their personal space; if you live with a big family in a small house, you adjust. They must become accustomed to group living in the same way that bees do. Africans are the world champions at standing in line; I’ve seen them queue up closer than dominoes and wait indefinitely without complaining.
In Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Impenetrable Forest is not a description; it’s the actual name of the national park near Bwindi in western Uganda. Africa has some of the best place names—Timbukto, Zanzibar, Limpopo, Mountains of the Moon. “Impenetrable Forest“ sounds like something Joseph Conrad might have come up with, or the name of a ride at Disney’s Adventureland.
Bwindi means “place of darkness,” and it is definitely that. The obsidian nights in Bwindi are the darkest of dark. There is no light pollution, so the sky is bisected by the frayed banner of the Milky Way and the multitude of stars are like postcards from a distant place and time. Artificial light has become so ubiquitous that we have become unfamiliar with the night sky. Only one fifth of the population in the US and Europe can see the Milky Way at all. When the recent wandering of Jupiter and Venus created a lovely confluence in the evening sky, people called the police to report that something was amiss.
In the tropics, night descends abruptly. When you sit astride the equator, there is almost no dawn or dusk; daytime fades into a gray indifference and then it is night, until twelve hours later you suddenly realize it isn’t anymore.
Even during the day, the deeper recesses of the jungle are enveloped in darkness. The forest is penetrable, after all, and it has a serenity and dignity that is felt immediately as one enters and becomes swallowed by shadow. The colossal tree trunks are like the columns on the Parthenon and they support an opaque leaf canopy unpierced by sunlight. It can seem as if you are standing inside a circus bigtop.
A bigtop complete with elephants. We looked for mountain gorillas by following a trail pockmarked by elephant tracks the size of manhole covers. I may be under-estimating something I really know nothing about, but it seems that gorillas aren’t all that hard to track. The line of elephant tracks was littered by softball size pellets of gorilla poop—any Boy Scout could have followed it. The gorillas deposit evidence of their high fiber diet everywhere, and they are not light on their feet, leaving flattened vegetation in their wake.
It was late in the morning by the time we found them, and they had stopped to rest under a huge mahogany tree. What we didn’t know was that on a branch high above was a wasp nest. As soon as we stopped to pull out our cameras, the wasps attacked and we all scattered.
The wasp nest was the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and it made me think that Africa must be like Texas, where everything is big. The gorillas themselves are extra large. They travel in troops, and their number-one is a silverback that can weigh four hundred pounds and look strong enough to crush rocks with his fingers or punch a mule in the face and knock it cold.
The spirit of Jane Goodall rested over us as we journeyed through the forest. We were trekking with Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian and a new “Jane Goodall,” only for gorillas instead of chimpanzees. It was Jane who wrote the foreward to a recently published book by Gladys, and last year she presented Gladys with a conservation award.
Jane Goodall is an icon for anyone who cares about nature and the environment, so I asked Gladys to tell me about her. What is she like in person? Her answer began with, “Jane is nice.” It sounds like she must be humble and unpretentious in the way that some famous and influential people are not. Heroes can sometimes disappoint, so I was happy to know Jane Goodall won’t be one of them. Gladys said, “Jane has broadened her scope, going from saving chimpanzees to saving the world.” The name of her current book is The Book of Hope.
Humans and gorillas are similar in many ways. Gladys repeated a commonly cited fact—that humans share 98% of our DNA with gorillas. Still, that other 2% must be pretty important since there are some significant differences, too. Many aspects of the gorilla’s appearance and behavior remind me of myself, but not all of them. We’re cousins, but I would like to think we aren’t likely to be mistaken for each other.
There’s something there, though. I’ve been close enough to gorillas that I could reach out and touch them, and there’s no way to not feel the connection.
I read about a study done years ago—one that could only have been conceived in the U.K.— in which the researchers tried to understand a gorilla’s mental capacity by teaching it to play squash. A gorilla was taken onto the squash court and they whacked the ball around, hoping to coax him into following their example. It didn’t happen.
In frustration, they left the gorilla alone on the court with ball and racket to see if his natural curiosity would tempt him to pick them up and start playing squash. They waited outside for some time, but all was quiet. Finally, one of the researchers went to the door and peered through the peep hole to see what was going on. All he saw was an eyeball staring back at him—the eyeball of a gorilla. When you stare closely at a great ape, there is something (someone?) that stares back at you.
Anyone who looks deeply at the world can see the world looking back and might attest to seeing something of themselves in the other.
Names and Labels
In the Ursula Le Guin Earthsea Trilogy, a character’s true name is so intimate and important that it is held as a closely guarded secret; whoever knows another person’s true name gains a measure of power over them. Native American and many other Earth-based traditions consider a name as something to be earned and a reflection of the person’s character. Jim Croce sang that he had a name and would “carry it with me like my daddy did.” A few years ago, when I went on a vision quest in the desert, our guides encouraged us to take a “soul name.” They said we would not have to search for it; our name would find us and we would know it when we heard it. Names are as personal and comfortable as old shoes. They become intrinsic to our identity and important to our relationships with ourselves and others.
However, labels are something different, I think. We use labels to help us make sense of a complex world so that labeling things comes naturally to us, as naturally as this blog’s first paragraphs about Americans and Africans. We reach for labels reflexively— to resist would be like trying to suppress the urge to yawn or sneeze. We intimately attach labels to ourselves like they are additions to our given names and presume that they define us when they really don’t. We are more than our neighborhoods, doctrines, or worst mistakes. It must be that labels and categories play to our deep seated desire to belong. Yet, when they become stereotypes, labels become libels, and categories become the “us-versus- them” silos that everyone talks about.
To generalize is to oversimplify, and to categorize is to divide. When we talk about “Baby Boomers” or “Millennials,” are we saying that they all think the same or so differently from the other? Even the “Greatest Generation” must have had a few bad apples in there somewhere. I have decided to avoid labels for myself whenever I can. I don’t want to be put in anybody’s box, especially my own. I just think I am more complicated than that. Labels don’t take into account the complexity of an individual, the myriad connections that exist, or the way that everything is intimately entwined.
“Are you a Liberal or a Conservative?”
“Are those my only two choices?”
“Are you a Christian?”
“Maybe. Whose criteria are we using?”
In his book, Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence, the writer and technologist John Bridle takes issue with our tendency to give everything a label. He points out that science is beginning to break down the taxonomy of things and challenge the narrowness of our vision. Bridle points out that the closer we look without trying to categorize or control, the more we see of life’s splendid complexity and variety.
Consider what we label a forest. We think of a tree as consisting of a trunk, branches, and leaves because that’s all we see, but there is much more going on below. Suzanne Simard, a professor of biology at the University of British Columbia, has done more than anyone to help us realize that the forest underground consists of a living, symbiotic network of interconnected fibers of fungi intertwined with tree roots, called the mycorrhiza, that allows sharing of both nutrients and information between individual trees. Trees have always been social creatures that live in communities and have ways to intimately synchronize and communicate with one another through a teeming world of voices we never hear. The forest is not a lot of different things; it is actually a single, vibrant organism.
There is no better example than an aspen grove, where the individual trees resemble one another about as nearly as blades of grass, and what looks like hundreds, or thousands, of individual trees is not. They are all connected, arising from the same root system and genetically identical to the other. The grove is a single organism, not separate ones; it is one thing, not many.
Humans are so used to viewing the world from our “city on a hill” that we have ceded the awareness of our connections and common predicament. Symbiosis is not just something we learn in freshman biology; it is simply the way it works. A human being is an interdependent participant in a vast and complex web of more-than-human life, a network of mutually dependent organisms. The bacterial microbiome in our gut (there are more bacterial than human cells in a human body) profoundly influences our health and well-being. Insects and flowers can’t survive without each other and our own food supply, our ultimate fate, is inextricably entwined with the plight of the honeybees.
Change has always been the way of the world, but it’s like someone has reached in and turned up the dial. That’s unsettling, and we can’t shake our looming sense of dread. We feel paralyzed by the immensity of it all.
Yet sometimes there is a part of the universe that appears to us as if to say, “pay attention to this right now.” It seems this is one of those times. Climatic change and social upheaval are challenging us to question the whole idea of our individuality, awaken from the delusion of our independence from the rest of creation, and abandon our presumptive superiority to all that is not us. With a small shift of awareness, the the world can break into song in a way that it never did before.
We are living within a great unfolding, and I think it calls for us to alter our perceptions. If we unlearn the constellations, we might better see the stars. For one thing, we can recognize the value of the other without having to identify in it qualities that remind us of ourselves. That goes for other people and other species. We can reshape our idea of what is intelligent and what is not. There are no scientific studies in past decades that have shown that animals and plants are actually dumber than we thought. Quite the opposite. Each year we learn that many types of creatures have the capacity to learn, to communicate, and to remember. There are many types of intelligence, plenty of ways of how to live in this world. The more-than-human world—as philosopher, David Abrams has called it—is a commonwealth of beings, companions on the great adventure of time and becoming. He writes, …”we start to move forward (when) we learn to ask questions that are less concerned with ‘why can’t you be more like us’ and more ‘what is it like being you?’”
Lynn Margulis was an American evolutionary biologist and a primary proponent of what she termed “symbiosis” in evolution. She thought that there is more to it than just survival of the fittest and was a leading developer of the “Gaia Hypothesis,” which defines the Earth as a single self-regulating system. She wrote that “everything is equally evolved“ and that “life did not take over the world by combat, but through cooperation.”
We are assemblages, riotous communities living within multiple overlapping time frames. There are different conceptions of reality and levels of understanding, yet one level is no less real than all the others. Knowing that destroys any idea of hierarchy or division, splitting or lumping. Another way of phrasing it comes from John Muir, who said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it is hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Some differences are just a matter of perspective and scale, distinctions of shape, size, or duration rather than kind. A meandering stream and a glacier are both water flowing downstream. Every part is important to the whole, even though the slower, smaller, or quieter one often goes unnoticed, like a sneeze in a tornado. The poet Gary Snyder said it this way:
“As the crickets’ soft autumn hum
Is to us
So are we to the trees
As are they
To the rocks and the hills”
There will always be those who insist on categories and traffic in tired labels. I hope there will be others who choose to move beyond our ruthless individualism and realize we are the product of cooperation, interaction, and mutual dependence, both within the family of man and beyond it.
What does it mean to be a good human, a good earthling?
John Bridle said, “Just try to be nice. Be kind. Do the least harm.”
Anthony Bourdain said, “Go somewhere you’ve never been and listen to someone you think may have nothing in common with you. Be open to a world where you may not understand or agree with the person next to you.”
Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer/poet said, “No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul if you can’t keep the top soil from washing away…. Slow down. Pay attention. Do good work. Love your neighbors. Love your place. Settle for less, enjoy it more.
Lao Tse said, “Treat those who are good with goodness. And also treat those who are not good with goodness.”
great thoughts.thanks again jeff
You are an insightful author! I appreciated your thoughtful reflections.
Looking forward to more of your blogs and musings.