LEARNING FROM THE PAST: THE RIPPLE EFFECT OF COMMUNITY ECOLOGY
The San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert of Botswana and eastern Namibia are considered to be the oldest known culture on earth. Quite literally the remnants of the stone age that has remained unchanged for some 40 000 years. Although most are illiterate, their signatures in the form of exquisite rock art are widespread. Ancient San artists and storytellers have adorned caves and hills throughout southern Africa offering us tantalising clues of a deeply fascinating lifestyle.
In modern society, I believe that it would be of infinite value to acknowledge this culture for what it is; a connection with our origins and our genetic pasts. To pay homage to the Bushwoman or Bushman within us all, and the landscape of Africa as the landscape of the human soul. The one from which we all emerged. And why this ancient culture, now sadly confined to small isolated communities deep within the Kalahari thousands of miles away, can still offer much to our modern world. A world, its fair to say, in urgent need of healing and inspiration. For a moment consider the following.
In Bushman society very little happens that is not community orientated. Games, dances, songs and rituals are all inclusive, embracing the fabric of togetherness and teamwork. Competitions as we know them today, do not exist. The fastest runner, best musician, dancer or healer are embraced and celebrated for the gift and talent they have. This without envy as it strengthens the ecology of the community.
These time honoured traditions that have bonded the community without exclusion for thousands of years, have ensured that each person and personality has been embraced into the clan. As a result conflict, social tension or personal agendas did not gain traction and were defused with empathy.
Survival as a tracker-hunter-gatherer in the Kalahari requires a great deal of knowing, skill and resourcefulness. Hunters would routinely share their knowledge and information and the most skilled bow-makers, arrow-makers and fibre spinners would co-create together. A hunting party is about the sum of the parts, with each team member essential to the outcome of a successful hunt. Perhaps the most specialised trade of them all was the sourcing of the toxic beetle larvae to produce arrow poison, and is a highly skilled pastime. Locating the larvae at the right time, and producing the lethal poison in the correct doses is one such example of the brilliance of their ancestral knowledge.
Bushman society, as basic as it may seem in the context of our modern variation, is actually a highly sophisticated system of intricate knowledge, strength and support, of compassion and resolve, and of authenticity. Most importantly however, it is one of total freedom to proclaim who and what you are within the community! Insecurities and feelings of guilt or inadequacy are pretty much foreign concepts. This is connected simplicity.
This, for me, addresses the fundamental component of San society and why they have survived as a culture for thousands of years: strength may lie in an individual’s resourcefulness, gifts and talents. But power lies in the combined impact of these.
In order to survive in such demanding and harsh environments, resilience is perhaps the keystone. And is it indeed any different in our societies of today? We may no longer live as San hunters, but we all remain hunters of sort, gatherers, trackers, nurturers and craftsmen. This in our world of escalating unpredictability and turbulence. In fact I would suggest that despite all our comforts and conveniences, not to mention the technological advancement at our fingertips, our world is far more sinister and dangerous than that of the Kalahari.
And to navigate meaningfully and with grace through our world, we should re-discover how the Bushman do the same through theirs. How they cope with uncertainty and are able to remain resilient in unforeseen circumstances. Perhaps the most fundamental definition of resilience is the capacity to remain motivated and empowered by your own self. To remain true to our own selves and life’s energies. This when faced with fear in life. Or perhaps when the systems, structures or environments that you are a part of seem impervious to change when every cell of your being recognises the urgent need for it. What then? How do you remain motivated and focussed, true to your self? A short term solution may come in the form of compulsive behaviour and stress management. Is it possible that the escalating cases of stress related illnesses, prescriptions of medication and even substance abuse around the world, is a reflection our inability to cope naturally? Sustainable resilience, as we can learn from Bushmen, comes only from within.
Perhaps a clue lies in the core concept of ecology, and what it represents for us. Lets refer to “ecology” as the standard operating system of the universe, and there are some basic laws that govern everything. Including our societies and our personal lives.
Firstly, our natural resources are limited and we must live less consumptively.
Secondly, the law of inter-connectedness reminds us that we are personally accountable for our impact on the natural world, our immediate society and a broader global community. Our legacy, in other words.
Thirdly, the law of biodiversity reminds us that the more diverse an ecosystem is, the more vibrant, productive and resilient it becomes.
While these principles certainly apply to our impact on nature and our natural resources, perhaps they also apply to the outcomes we demand on our own selves, our immediate family, our friends, colleagues and communities. What the Bushmen teach us is that the individual is the first priority, that each person is uniquely creative, resourceful and an essential part of the ecosystem. The way of living necessitates this without ego, arrogance or self indulgence. And that the more aligned you are with yourself, the more meaningful impact you have on the group. Traditions, rites of passage, rituals and superstitions are conserved and the more successful and harmonious the group becomes.
The consequence of this is what can be referred to as ‘community ecology’ which flows naturally within us and from us. Just as ripples on the surface of a pond. The impact of authentic intuitive individuals is the stone cast into the water, and like the ripples, each conscious thought or deed becomes the community. After all, should the collective consciousness of society be determined by the people within it, or the consciousness of people being determined by society?
The economy of the Bushmen society, although somewhat different to modern times, is based on this premise; that it all depends on the partnerships between awakened individuals, alert to meaningfully maintaining their own self and space. And a hunt was, and still is, considered one of the pivotal events in this process, one alive to all ancient tradition and ritual. In the heat and harshness of the Kalahari, both the incredible physical and mental endurance of the hunters are tested to breaking limits. A hunt is not only about providing protein, but also a sacred rite of entry into a state of timelessness, one without boundary between the past, present and future. One that provided a great sense of meaning and identity for each person. And of course, uniting the relationships between them.
Its easy to understand why traditional hunts are of incredibly important spiritual significance to the clan. Hunters had to compete with lions, leopards and cheetahs for survival and would pay homage not only to their own ancestors, but also the animal spirits of each steenbok, eland, kudu or springhare that fell to their arrows or traps. Each kill was made entirely out of necessity, and for Bushmen, the great law of the bush tolerates this necessity if done with respect, but does not tolerate any disrespectful or unnecessary killing or destruction of any kind. It is believed that should this great law be broken, the clan would be at risk of perilous consequences. The rains would fail, hunting and gathering would become difficult, illness and conflict would prevail, or the great mother would stop providing for them in some way.
Although our hunts may no longer be in pursuit of meat, leather and sustenance, they are very much in pursuit of a bigger and better economy. Of profits and possessions. Status and resource. Of wars to claim territory. Have we disrespected the great law of community ecology?
For me, spending time with San Bushmen in the Kalahari reminds us of this. It is an enlightening journey, a completely natural comforting step into the past, and a glance into the smokey mirror of time. In the reflection I recognised not only myself, but my own ancestry, and felt connected once again to the landscapes of our origins.