Friday 24 October 2014


I was writing recently about finding where you are on the sea-bed.  It's hard to breathe beneath the surface, so you can't stay long, but rocks and roughness are down there which you could recognise if you saw them again.  You might, however, be all at sea if you were on the surface, where there seems to be no stable thing - the whole view is either heaving and roiling or a featureless flat calm.  But it doesn't have to be like that, and for Polynesian wayfinders it wasn't.  They could abstract information from minute clues: a single bird of a particular species, the light reflected on the base of  a cloud, the very existence of clouds, tiny differences in the direction of wind and wave - these could all help put them in a known place.  MIT's Lily Bui has written recently about how these master navigators did the impossible: they went into the unknown and featureless ocean and came back.  A key issue was memory, if you knew all the reaches you had traversed and noted all the changes of direction, all you needed to do was run the program backwards. Which meant that the navigator had to stay awake to record and remember: he was the one with the red eyes. But the knowledge was not lost with the death of one Wayfinder - they could record the key features on stick-charts [R above: showing the essential navigational features of the Marshall Islands] and also they could identify an apprentice who would learn the skills and absorb some of the knowledge by sitting at the feet of the master. Metafilter pointed at a long-form article about the whole business in April 2013. Suck it all up, you'll be amazed!  And it's not a dead art, the Hokule'a has been tooling about the Pacific reliably using the old ways for the last several years.

Which brings me to Wade Davis, a Canadian ethnographer who has poured into himself a greater variety of psychotropic vegetable matter than probably any man still walking-and-lucid after these multiple challenges. Read his book One River for an account of the cocktails. Or a Guardian article for the quick version: one concoction requires Banisteriopsis caapi, which contains beta-carbolines  and Psychotria viridis, which is loaded with psychotropic dimethyltryptamine (DMT); and it needs them both - either alone is relatively harmless. How many "let's taste this and . . .um . . . that" experiments did it take to find that out?? Davis then wrote a brilliant book called Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World based on his 2009 CBC Massey Lectures. I've lost my copies of both books, so you know what to get me for Christmas . . . along with some humbugs. The Massey Lectures are the Canadian equivalent of the Reith Lectures: a sort of sustained long-form multi-chapter TED talk.  Davis uses the Polynesian navigators as a casting off point to recognise that each and every culture on our blue planet has a unique solution to the conundrum is what it means to be human and alive. He's a bit of a celeb is our Wade, not least because he is so articulate and passionate and relentlessly erudite: have a look: I could listen all day.  Or Wade interviewed. It is fatuous to say or think that we humans are in some sense 'higher' or better evolved than a dung-beetle or the millions of bacteria which we house in our intestinome.  Equally it is hubris and a delusion to think that your culture in Kiev or Glasgow is the smallest bit above that of a walker of songlines in the Australian outback. It is merely a step in another direction. Which is a loaded metaphor because of our embedded certainty that progress is good; there are cultures out there for whom the primary purpose of the practice, lifestyle and ritual is to maintain things exactly as they were at the moment of creation. If we all walk in different ways, and/or stand with Général "J'y suis, j'y reste" MacMahon, we'll cover more ground. Diversity rules, OK!?

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