Preserving the wild human | An interview with Dr. Louis Herman

So we start to wake up. The paleo movement and the primitive skills movement are growing as ways to start incorporating some of wild vitality into our daily routines, how we grow our food, how we prepare our meals, how we organize our relationship to our bodies. There is endless practical wisdom in recovering the narrative of who we are. It’s not for nothing that the paleo movement is huge now. It doesn’t mean going back to hunting-gathering, but as much as you can, it means eat wild, organic, grass-fed, free-range animals. Avoid what is exclusively factory-made and profit engineered. As much as possible go back to the evolutionary legacy and work forward from there.

The more we recognize that we are also the Earth the less likely we are to damage and destroy what it means to be an alive, healthy, conscious human being. There’s great power in attuning yourself to sunset and sunrise, those two markers of all life on Earth. And so on and so on. You can keep multiplying examples.

The idea for most people is to bring as much nature and wildlife as possible back into the cities. It sounds simple, almost childish, but it’s profound. They’ve done controlled studies where people recovering from the same surgery under the same conditions have been exposed to a room with a view of a garden and room with a view of another building opposite. Not surprisingly, those subjects who had a room with a view of a garden had a much quicker recovery, needed less pain medication, had fewer complications, and so on. The body responds to nature. We are nature.  So, for example, Richard Register has advocated bringing streams and rivers back to life as corridors for wildlife to pass through cities. This would beautify urban areas while helping preserve the integrity of surrounding ecosystems and providing a recreational and spiritual resource for frazzled city dwellers.

We don’t have to hear lions roaring outside or baboons barking at sunset to experience the planet as spinning on its axis in a wild solar system. We don’t think of outer space as “wild” but of course in a deep sense it is the ultimate pristine wilderness. The sun and the moon and the arrangements of the planets are all part of a single system, ultimately the universe, which makes wilderness on earth possible. We are dealing with a single evolutionary whole. When we watch a sunset and see the sun disappear from view, we can for a few seconds experience a moment of vertigo as the Earth rolls back on its axis and we actually feel that we live on a great globe in the blackness of space orbiting an immense exploding star—our sun. I live in Hawaii so most nights I can go outside, lie on the lawn and look at the few hundred glittering stars I can see—a tiny handful of the two hundred billion in the Milky Way. I can then see myself from the perspective of someone standing in South Africa, at the opposite end of the planet, and realize that gravity is actually pinning my back to the lawn and I’m really looking down into the unfathomable immensities of the blackest space. Then I have a second when I want to grab hold of something to stop myself hurtling downward. Such experiences are exhilarating and give us courage and energy for the struggles of life and politics. Tuning our daily routine to sunrise and sunset helps awaken our primal integrity. Bringing it into consciousness heals, guides and inspires.

We now need to extend this “future primal synthesis” into our politics and our education. In fact we can already see elements of primal politics returning in many areas in society. We see it in the movement to balance globalization with localization; centralization with decentralization. It is captured in the old Greens slogan “think global, act local.” We see it in the growing recognition that small-scale, decentralized, social structures facilitate face-to-face decision-making and an ethos of caring and sharing, all the while raising the consciousness of the community. We can see primal politics returning in the growth of various forms of cooperative living and working. We see it in the eco-village movement; we can see it in innovative Brazilian cities like Porto Allegre and Belo Horizonte, which instituted  participatory budgeting and allowed citizen groups to meet face-to-face to set priorities for the city budget. In the ferment of small group discussion, citizens came up with simple but dramatically effective ways of eliminating illiteracy, poverty and hunger. In the process, civic involvement increased and political corruption decreased.

At the national level we can see primal politics at work in the transformation of Bhutan’s model of development from one based on GNP—gross national product—to GNH—gross national happiness. The final chapter of my book considers a number of such experiments in detail. The point is to make what is implicit explicit and in so doing accelerate exponentially the transformation of our political culture.

We are now at a critical point in the drama of civilization. By all indications the next decade will be the turning point. Many young people now feel hopeless in the face of the immensity of our problems and give in to cynicism and despair. On the other hand the examples of the “future primal return” I gave above show an intuitive ad hoc groping towards primal wisdom. My deepest intuition is that what is needed is for the truth quest itself to be made explicit and to “go viral.” For that to happen a cultural catalyst is needed—a self-replicating meme—which has the capacity to trigger in the individual a sense that “Yes—I can change the world. I can understand the crisis; I do have a unique and meaningful contribution to make.” I think the meme could be the constellation of primal politics with the truth quest at its center.

At the same time as working on the cultural level, we urgently need to do all we can to preserve and expand any remaining scrap of wilderness left on the planet. That should be one of our most urgent economic and political priorities globally. It should be elevated to the top of the list. Wilderness preservation does not only mean ipso facto the integrity of the biosphere, it is also our greatest spiritual and emotional resource for reorienting human beings in right relationship to themselves, their own bodies, one another and planet Earth. That’s my vision.

The MOON: We have a Congress that’s trying to get rid of our wilderness areas.

Herman: Right. Again, the failure is one of vision, consciousness. But I suggest primal politics as a way of orienting yourself that serves your highest, best interest as an individual; that serves favored interest groups—Palestinian, right- wing Republican, etc.—in balance with what serves the species and the planet. If you can buy into the epistemology, if you can buy into the vision of the method, we will all start coming together—because it is very deeply rooted. It’s primal. This is the great wisdom that all primal people have to offer: the way of reconnecting human affairs to our wilderness origins in a million different ways. They do it in the most obvious, simple way because they live off wilderness and in wilderness, but all the shamanic systems and all their cultural systems are all ways of attuning the human to nature as the parent.

The MOON: How has wilderness been instrumental in your life?

Herman: It saved my life. It really did. It gave me that basic sort of love of life, as well as confidence and trust in the universe that it was a beautiful, amazing, mysterious place.

I grew up in a relatively privileged environment. My father was a doctor. We were not wealthy; he was young and had a practice tending poor whites and blacks in South Africa during apartheid. But we had a big garden and my earliest memories are of being in this garden, which was safe and full of animals and little creatures. I have powerful memories of simply staring at the sun glistening off the leaves of the poplar tree and thinking, “This is absolutely amazing.” I must have been all of, I don’t know, maybe four or five. I also remember wondering why other people weren’t equally mesmerized. The simplest little things were filled with such beauty. The world was an incredible kaleidoscope of living forms and creatures.

We lived near the beach, which around Port Elizabeth is quite wild and one of the world’s richest fisheries. To the east was an area of thick tangled thornbush, which sheltered a herd of wild elephants. It was about an hour’s drive outside the city and we would sometimes visit the herd and drive around the enormous fence that had been erected around the reserve.  Stopping was prohibited since the herd had been traumatized by hunters and could charge through the fence when enraged. I remember once illegally stopping by the fence, wanting to give an orange to an infuriated bull and suddenly being aware of looking back into the depths of ancient wild Africa. It was profoundly humbling and invigorating.

So I had this sense that the world was very rich—full of life and beauty, fascinating and mysterious—while human society was ugly and boring, dangerous and frightening. Some of this had to do with apartheid, which was the ruling ideology. Apartheid South Africa was an authoritarian society based on the violent repression of the majority of the population. That ideology spilled over into the school system. Although my boys-only school was one of the best by South African standards, the education was based on fear and punishment. We were regularly whipped for a great variety of arbitrary infractions. None of it made any sense to me; nothing I was learning in school seemed to have any relevance to anything I cared about or anything that gave me joy. So being able to escape from school and spend my summers on the beach and in the bush really kept a part of me wild, alive and well. Wilderness reminded me that reality was much bigger than civilization. Civilization was dangerous and I didn’t know my place in it. I was scared and worried and depressed. But I had huge chunks of time with good friends and a healthy imagination in a beautiful, clean, wild world. My best memories are of that.

Then our family moved to England and into a very urbanized environment where I didn’t have access to that sort of wilderness. I really missed it. Each time I’d go back to South Africa I would feel that much more alive, invigorated, and comforted and confident. Nature was like a tonic; it gave me courage.

It even worked in my dreams. At school I would dream about walking through the veldt, and that gave me comfort. I knew wilderness was in a sense more fundamental, and more real than civilization, and I knew that in it I was free from damaged and dangerous human beings. In a sense it was pure, it was “God’s country.” I didn’t have words to express it like this as a child, but I was always drawn to it with this sort of intensity and passion and longing that a religious devotee is drawn to worship. Only later when I started reading in the phenomenology of comparative religion did I realize that it was a primary religious experience.

After ten years in England and getting a degree in medicine at Cambridge, I felt I was suffocating. Every bit of England seemed to have been paved over or plowed under. Being surrounded by masses of urbanized, bureaucratized humans depressed me profoundly. Driven by both youthful idealism and desperation I joined the Israeli military and spent the next two years living outdoors, exposed to the elements, spending my days running and shooting in what was left of a Biblical wilderness. During the training I came back to life and felt empowered and comforted and invigorated. I felt like a child again, relaxed, free of neuroses, and as if I could take on anything. The war of course was something else and the confrontation with the reality of an indigenous Palestinian society was a shock. But ironically it was my time in the army, living the life of the body, on the land exposed to the elements, that sensitized me to the power and wisdom of indigenous cultures. It became clear that a visceral connection to nature was somehow essential for mental and physical health.

Then later on, as I studied philosophy and political science, I saw that a deep understanding of Earth was the missing dimension in the soul of modern humanity. Our notions of wilderness and life in a state of nature were completely perverted. John Locke’s idea that “wilderness was waste until converted by human labor into valuable property” seemed to me to be clearly a symptom of a terminal spiritual pathology. When I read the works of traditional Native Americans like Black Elk, Standing Bear, and Lame Deer, I found myself immediately identifying  with their experience of wilderness and their shock at the  invasion by the “barbarians from Europe.” “How strange,” I thought to myself, “here I am, a South African Jew and a Zionist, a Cambridge-educated scientist, identifying so profoundly with Native American hunter-gatherers. Where does this come from?” My book was in part an attempt to answer that.

Clearly we can’t all go back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle even if we all wanted to. I think our approach to that way of life should be like our approach to a yoga retreat or a meditational retreat—a periodic return to a very simple form of life, which brings you closer to the important realities, which help heal and tune and inspire. I would recommend creating the conditions where those San Bushmen who wished to continue with the old life were given the means and the opportunity to do so by the surrounding society—which means, by the people who own the land and by the national government of Botswana and Namibia and South Africa. Preservation of the San way of life would be recognized as a spiritual and cultural resource for all of humanity.

Participation in that way of life would be on a voluntary basis. But it could be made available to outsiders so that, if we wished, we might, as a right of initiation into mature adulthood or as a wisdom retreat, join a group of Kalahari nomads for a week or two to reconnect to the source. I believe that is the original meaning of the word “religion”—from religare—to reconnect; to go back to the source

That’s really my approach, in addition to the obvious human rights issues that confront all indigenous people. We’ve got a few remaining groups who have a culture that is forty thousand or fifty thousand years old, who wish to preserve that way of life, despite the fact that it is antithetical to the way of life of industrial civilization. That’s a political, moral issue, but it affects us all—not just the indigenous people whose way of life is threatened. What is the value of preserving that way of life? Clearly the government of Botswana wants San land for a game reserve without Bushmen. The Bushmen want that land for hunting and gathering, the way they always used to. But in addition to the land’s value for the San, we need to have a larger discussion of the value of this cultural form for all of humanity. We need to preserve wilderness for all humanity because it’s our genetic and spiritual inheritance.


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