28 October 2013

Nature, Animals, Intelligence and Madness

'The city child is asked, in effect, to go directly from his symbiosis with his mother to a mastery of social relations. He is to skip the genetic interlude in this task, in which he indulges in eight or ten years in nature, and go directly to the real job of life. During this time his frustration and inarticulate desire will be anaesthetised by portrayals of the nonhuman as entertainment in an array of images--toys, pictures, zoos and gardens, decorations, Disney films, motifs, and designs--a stew of nature so arbitrarily presented that the result of his years of trying to fix it in his heart will only lead to despair. No wonder the child of thirteen turns with keen interest to machines. Man-portrayed nature has proved incoherent.'

So writes Paul Shepard in his book Nature and Madness (1982, reprinted 2011). The profound damage to individuals, societies and the world of continuing to ignore the nonhuman elements of the given world has become an increasingly urgent theme. It is the subtext of Jerry Mander's, In the Absence of the Sacred (1991) which makes a dramatic link between what we've lost with technology, and what we cannot afford to lose from the nature-based cultures of American Indians, and of Wisdom of the Elders, by David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson (1992), which relates texts from and about aboriginal cultures to contemporary scientific insights about the nature of our planet and our relationships with it. Both of these books are excellent, but nobody writes with more authority, imagination, information or verbal beauty about the ties that bind the human to the nonhuman than does Paul Shepard.

His first book, Man in the Landscape (1967) was a peripatetic examination of how the human animal and western culture came to view nature. His masterwork, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1973, reprinted 2011) described in precise and evocative detail how humans, through the thousands of years of hunter-gatherer cultures which still constitute most of the history of our species, were once partners of nature--and could be again.

In Thinking Animals (1978, reprinted 2011) Shepard elaborates on the profound personal, cultural and ecological links between humans and other animals. In Nature and Madness, he sees our damaged personal and cultural psyches, and a great many of our personal and societal problems, as a case of arrested development, caused by too much technology and not enough familiarity with the living systems and coherence of the natural world. 'Careless of waste, wallowing in refuse, exterminating the enemies, having everything now and new, despising age, denying human natural history, fabricating pseudo traditions, swamped in the repeated personal crises of the ageing preadolescent: all are familiar images of American society,' Shepard writes. 'They are signs of private nightmares of incoherence and disorder in broken climaxes where technologies in pursuit of mastery create ever-worsening problems--private nightmares expanded to a social level.' These nightmares stem from the failure of humans, at crucial times in their lives, to fully experience the nonhuman natural world, directly and through a sympathetic culture, so they may become adults who 'love the world as the ground of [their] being,' and understand both the blessings and the limits of that world.

Until he retired to a home in Wyoming, Shepard was Professor of Human Ecology at Pitzer College in California. But from the beginning his books leapt into philosophy, aesthetics, archeology and anthropology, history and political policy--but always grounded by facts of nature. His gorgeously written prose sets off time bombs in the mind with every paragraph. Others who cover less ground still struggle to catch up to him.

An ecologist before there was Ecology, Shepard was always ahead of his time, and probably still is. Practically everything he's written challenges the predominant culture so basically--so persuasively. He has co-written or edited several other books, including a collection of essays on ecology called, The Subversive Science. That perhaps sums up Shephard's role.

[The foregoing was written by Bill Kowinski and originally published in Adbusters (Winter, 1999, pp. 74-76. It has been slightly edited for reprinting in TV Multiversity.]

No comments:

Post a Comment