So, Which Am I?

Last week, working with an idea for a new essay, I felt I’d gathered enough of the information I’d gone hunting for, had unearthed enough notes and journal jottings to begin writing, to see where sentences led, or, hopefully, leaped. At the same time, I’d begun my annual trek around the house, scouting what I’d soon need to pack up and load into my car for my migratory drive east to the island. And maybe because the memories of our recent trip to Namibia and Botswana were still playing vividly in my head, not just of varied terrains and landscapes or encounters with wildlife but of different cultures, too, I suddenly found myself asking as I went about my tasks: So which am I? A hunter-gatherer? Or a nomadic pastoralist?An unlikely question, I’ll concede. And somewhat fleeting. More a musing, actually. Yet, over time it stuck, or, rather, images did, no doubt stoked by my attempt to edit and organize the vast number of photographs I’d taken, among them: the Himba nomadic herders of Namibia and the Bushmen hunter-gatherers of Botswana, both of which have survived harsh desert conditions and seemingly unproductive places for 1000s of years.

Also, while doing some research online, in that confluence of happenstance that can land in our laps the odd but somehow useful, I stumbled upon a forum of folks responding to the question: if you were transformed into a pastoralist or a hunter-gatherer, which would you choose and in which ancient or modern culture? Strangely, the answers given tilted to food and diet. Noted in the respondents’ choices were the raw cow milk of the Masai of Eastern Africa, the once plentiful bison of North American Sioux, the salmon and seal of Arctic Inuit (though without mention of fermented seal flipper), and the sheep milk and yak of the Mongols, whose dietary preferences are summed up in an old Mongol expression: “Meat for men, leaves for animals.”

Personally, I like my meat and my salads. Watching me at a local farmer’s market or in a food store’s produce section has prompted my husband to say I forage. Yes, but I do not hunt. And certainly not with a Bushman’s poison-tipped arrows. Nor have I ever owned livestock. And, unlike the Himba, I doubt I’ll ever have to herd thirsty cattle and goats into a river rife with hungry crocs.

On its face, my question and the forum’s are, of course, silly, right? But not silly are the cultures and their traditions, many of them in jeopardy of being lost, that I recently had the privilege to briefly observe. The examples of which, if in some watered down version, I’d encountered while in Namibia and Botswana.

But first, some definitions. For pastoralists, the herding of domesticated animals is their primary activity, both socially and economically, and is usually coupled with mobility. Thus, nomadic pastoralism – an ecological adaptation that provides access to variable, seasonal resources like water and grazing grasses. Hunter-gatherers, also often in some way nomadic, subsist in the wild on food obtained by hunting and foraging.

And here, let’s pause to consider that we all have ancestral linkage to hunter-gatherers, the only form of survival until the “invention” of wide-spread agriculture more than 8,000 years ago. So when I’m foraging among the lettuces in the produce section, I’m loosely linked to my ancient gathering sisters, though a more apt comparison would likely apply were I to head further into Downeast Maine and harvest dulse seaweed in the mid-tidal zone. Or gather edible whelks on the shore in Steuben even if it’s a whole lot easier stopping at Ben’s in Ellsworth for a pint of pickled “wrinkles” that I’m ready to proclaim are more like cooked clams (if a bit chewier) than gum erasers, as some of my pals insist. Here, on the island, several folks keep goats, mostly for their milk to make cheese and yogurt, even soap. But I don’t think fellow islanders would look kindly on them if, as would-be pastoralists, they were to shepherd their flocks to various green spots on the island or, making their way to the mainland, muck up traffic on the bridge.  

Clearly our modern world doesn’t smile upon or offer a lot of opportunity to practice the lifestyles of our ancestral forebears. And sadly, as I recently learned, that is increasingly the case even in the remotest regions of Namibia and Botswana.

The Himba, indigenous nomadic pastoralists of which merely 30-50,000 remain, largely reside in the Kunene region of northern Namibia. Still primarily herders, they are now only semi-nomadic. Typically, they inhabit a small circular hamlet of huts around a livestock enclosure or kraal and a central fire, the okuruwo or holy fire that represents their ancestors, intermediaries to the Himba god Mukura. The huts are simple affairs: sapling posts bound together to form a domed roof then plastered in mud and dung or, for the more nomadic, draped with portable textiles, usually old blankets. Most notable about the Himba, however, if measured by the ubiquitous posters, photographs and brochures touting travel to Namibia, is the use of otjize, a mixture of fat and ochre the Himba women spread all over their bodies and hair, and too often renders them mere totemic images. 

Unquestionably, the Himba have suffered numerous hardships in Namibia’s quest for independence and the civil war with neighboring Angola, and in periods of genocide and punishing droughts. More recently, their way of life is threatened by plans to build large hydroelectric facilities on the Kunene River that would flood their land, and, more benignly, by mobile schools that educate but also introduce young Himba to modern Western ways. On a positive note, the Namibian government has made it possible for Himba to share in profits that increasing tourism brings. Compromises have been made. Conservancies have been created. Himba now get a small piece of the pie.

As for the Bushmen in Botswana, things look grimmer.

It’s widely accepted that the first people of southern Africa were the KhoiSan – more commonly known as Bushmen. Considered by many geneticists and anthropologists to be the oldest human culture on earth, it’s possible, they claim, that the San are ancestors to us all. Never considered war-like, the Bushmen legacy is one of hunting and gathering, of painting and dancing. So when warrior tribes arrived from the north, they found it easy to push the San from choice spots. Later, cattle farmers gave them a shove. Their livestock fencing greatly reduced Bushmen hunting grounds and cut off migratory routes including access to water. Hundreds of thousands of wild animals died along the fencelines. Since the 1990s, even the Botswana government has gotten in on trying to push out the Bushmen – in the name of eco-tourism no less. Most notable was their forcible removal from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve into permanent settlements in marginal areas outside the Reserve.  

Today, fewer than 10,000 Bushmen live in any traditional way. Most have no access to their former way of life – meaning the seasonal movement between passed-down-through-generations “campsites,” often nothing more than large rock overhangs and shallow caves, some handsomely engraved or painted with figures. Meaning men carrying a simple bag of steenbok hide with its quiver of arrows, digging stick, and short spear. And of knowing, in the seemingly barren terrain of vast salt pans or the Kalahari wracked by drought, where to dig for fleshy edible tubers and roots or in what dried elephant dung are recoverable nuts and seeds. And where the women gatherers know how to find wild cucumber and tsamma melon.

Now, sadly, many are “show Bushmen” trotted out for the tourists in traditional dress, carrying bows no longer strung with giraffe sinew and arrowheads no longer made of bone but purchased bits of steel. The more fortunate reside on the private reserves of committed conservationists and traditionally-minded owners (and which I would like to think we were lucky to experience) where local Bushmen can still practice some of their traditions even though they must live part of the year in settlements to fulfill a government mandate that all children be schooled. And where they’re more likely to don Western dress and need the money they earn selling crafts – as do the Himba – fashioned of ostrich egg shells, seeds and beads or painted with powered rock and fat.  

By now, it should be obvious that my original question is more than silly. And, in its truest sense, impossible to answer. I’m neither hunter-gatherer nor nomadic pastoralist. My ways are as foreign to Himba and Bushmen as theirs are to me.

Still, if pressed for an answer, I’d go with hunter-gatherer if only by way of what the anthropologists tell me is my passed-down-through-the-millennia inheritance. As a writer, certainly, I forage – for inspiration, ideas, information. In the process, I dig down, unearth. I also hunt: looking, listening, seeing where tracks lead. And, though cave painting is not part of my oeuvre, I attempt to express myself artistically.

But as I pack my car for my annual trek east, I also acknowledge the nomadic in me. True, I have no livestock to shepherd enroute, not even my long-time travel companion, our late dog Ben. And surely, as I survey my many – too many – accumulations I plan to squeeze into my car, I am unlike the possession-eschewing Himba.

Plus, trust me, unlike the Himba women, I cannot walk three steps with a single object balanced on my head. Not even an old blanket.  


The Where of It

As I write this, I’m sitting at a small desk in a western-facing window of our 21st floor Chicago apartment. My view, a now familiar one, is a swath of the city waking up, of tall buildings near and far, of rooftops, treetops and chimneys, and, far below, buses and cars and a few people walking their dogs. A little over a year ago, I hunkered down, as I had for the previous 16 years, at a desk in our Evanston home, in front of a large window looking out to a small patch of garden, the brick wall of our garage, the limbs of a leafy maple branching above. A month from now, after my annual migration to our Maine island home, I’ll plunk down at a desk in a place new to me, whose only occupants at the moment are a pair of carpenters busy with saws, hammers, and cut, fragrant lummber.

There, a long-held dream is materializing: a writing place all my own. A dedicated space. “A room of one’s own” that Virginia Woolf proclaimed decades ago was especially necessary for women writers. But rather than a room tucked into the confines of a larger house – or apartment – my new place is separate, detached, independently rooted into the landscape. In my case, in a small clearing in the woods adjacent to our house.

Not that such a place is necessary, of course. For years, in our Evanston house and now in this apartment, I’ve written in a spare bedroom appropriated as my “office” but where, too, the occasional overnight guest bunked down. And where my various manuscripts, drafts, files, notebooks and books shared space with checkbooks, ledgers, invoices, legal documents, construction plans, tax preparation forms, family photograph albums, and all the other myriad flotsam of household management. Even this, I know, can be considered a luxury. Consider Jane Austen who wrote in a busy sitting room in a small English cottage shared with her mother, sister, a friend and a steady stream of visitors. Fortunately, her family respected her work and Austen’s sister shouldered much of the house-running burden, as acknowledged by the novelist who once wrote: “Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb.” Writer Toni Morrison, for years juggling 9-to-5 jobs and young children, spent pre-dawn hours at a kitchen table. Maya Angelou occasionally sought the refuge of a motel room.

Many writers have long opted to set up shop at a table in a library. Others, not so much moved by necessity but preference, seek busier public spaces, like coffee shops. I have never been one of them. I prefer to be alone and without much background noise, particularly music with rhythmic insistences of its own. Oh, I certainly go “public” when things are already brewing, usually in the afternoon after, if I’m lucky, a few good hours at my desk, when I’m composing, re-writing in my head. It’s then I take a walk or go for a run. I’m propelled out by appointments, meetings, and social engagements. Or I attend to errands, maybe shop for dinner, and, in casual greetings to strangers while newly composed sentences are looping in and out of my noggin, I, like Angelou, “pretend to be normal.

But I’m definitely not in the camp of Richard Russo who, in an interview, claimed that writing in a public place such as a diner is a “less lonely way to write,” and where you know “when the phone rings, it’s not for you.” Neither can I ally with Eudora Welty who once boasted that she found it possible to write almost anywhere, although, admittedly, she preferred home because it’s “more convenient for an early riser and it’s the only place where you can keep out interruptions.” Or try to.

Working at home also enables a transition from waking to working and sliding into the writing to be quick and, usually, unremarkable – maybe nothing more than the simple choreography of getting out of bed, switching on the coffee maker and stumbling toward the desk. A dance I know well, but is most often embellished with additional steps: making the bed, getting dressed, reading the New York Times op-eds while slurping some yogurt, maybe emptying the dishwasher. Danger looms, however, if I first check emails or perform what writer William Gibson calls our “internet ablutions.”

As quoted by Alexandra Enders in “The Importance of Place: Where Writers Write and Why,” the late poet Robert Creeley who required “a kind of secure quiet,” once observed: “The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in a most fruitful manner.” The kind of place where a writer can access creativity, is able to incorporate memory, imagination, and curiosity, while negotiating how much protection such a space needs from everyday demands.  

A place where we park our butts in the chair and try to say or shout something. Meaning it’s as much psychic and physical. Meaning the actual where-and-what of a place has less to do with the whole enterprise than persistence and diligence and just showing up at your desk wherever that may be. “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” proclaimed E.B. White.

Of course it’s tempting to believe that if we have or are in the right place then surely we’ll write our best, our output will astonishingly pour forth. Many of my non-writer pals think our Maine island must surely be a superior place to work. Yes, in many ways, it offers more opportunities for solitude and reflection, and most days there is a sense that time doesn’t move at quite the same pace. But it is not free of distractions or demands -- of the sometimes seemingly endless lists of chores and tasks, of a short summer squeezed with houseguests, a burgeoning number of friends, an expanding garden, the seasonal plethora of gallery openings, performances, lectures, concerts and readings. Nor does the beauty of the place necessarily help. I can easily yield to the beguiling lure of the tides tossing new treasure on the shore, of trails leading into the mossy woods. There are days that, like a ship adrift, I can be lost in reverie staring out at the ever-changing Bay. Days when the pencil isn’t lifted, the computer sits untouched. A confession: writing slips further down the list when the sun is out. Plus, no matter where we’re parked, writing is hard. It can be tedious and boring when tackling the necessary daily increments that, it’s hoped, will open, lead somewhere or to something really engaging. Days when, seriously, I’d rather iron!

Now, as I get ready for my annual migratory drive east to the island, I’m wondering how my new writing place will change things. I don’t even know yet what to call it. Hut or shack, though attractively humble, don’t work – certainly not in the Henry Beston or Thoreau-and-Walden sense. Shall I stick with what was proposed to the island planning board? A writer’s workshop? A moniker that more than cabin or studio suggested here was a structure requiring electric power, yes, but didn’t hint at any requisite mucking things up with leach field and septic nor in its potential use require closer shoreland zoning scrutiny. Office no longer fits – a name I needed years ago as currency when I left the business world and wanted to legitimize my new endeavors.

How, now, might my daily routines be altered? My practiced habits of order? Oh, I’ll still be a “morning person.” But what if I wake especially early and want to go to work? Will I make the short trip outside, especially in the cold? Where, coffee mug in hand, will I read the hard-copied sentences of what I wrote the day before, a favorite way to start? Surely, distractions will still exist, but will I find more of them under my nose before heading out? How will I recognize my procrastination – the suddenly necessary need to re-arrange chairs, empty the waste can, straighten my desktop, clean the computer screen, resharpen pencils when I’m ready to or, rather, am sidling up to launching a new project or facing a looming deadline? I’ve yet to know what my new view will be like although in a nor’easter this winter, a seemingly healthy spruce crashed down, as though obligingly opening things up to the Bay beyond. And what now of expectations? Of new demands? That now, I must get the work done. Not having the right place is no longer an excuse.

I do know this: it will be more of a journey. A welcome one, I think. I will no longer take a few steps down the hall, all that’s been required in this apartment or our previous house. The walk now, even if brief, will likely seem more of a passage, akin to what I’ve experienced over the years when attending a handful of artists’ colonies. When you arrive at a place dedicated to your aim to work deliberately and intentionally. When you arrive at a threshold, open the door – your door – and, crossing over, hear the click of it shutting behind you. That click a type of pattern-recognition that acknowledges I’ve arrived. I’m here. Ready.



Venery? Verily

Bloat of hippos. Tower of giraffes. Dazzle of zebras.

A heap of new terms -- all acquired during my recent trip to Botswana and certainly less familliar than the skulk of foxes or raft of eiders common to our Maine island habitat. Upon returning home, they prompted me to pull from my shelves a book I've not poked around in for years -- James Lipton's The Exaltation of Larks.

A collection of authentic terms used mostly for groups of beasts, fish, fowl or insects, the book's thesis, Lipton writes, is "summed up very simply: when a group of ravens flap by, you should, if you want to refer to their presence, say, 'There goes an unkindness of ravens.' Anything else would be wrong."

Most commonly known as collective nouns, they've also been referred to as nouns of multitude or assemblage -- and, less commonly, as terms of venery. Never mind that venery, along with its adjective venereal, is often associated with, well, let's say, physical love. Harkening back to Middle English and now a largely archaic term, venery is politely defined as "the pursuit of sexual indulgence."

But venery also derives from venari, meaning "to hunt game," signifying the hunt or chase as used in 1320, in the earliest book on English hunting, Le Art de Venery. It's this -- terms of venery -- Lipton uses in Exaltation, though not aspiring to etymology or zoology or any other high order of scholarship other than, he hopes, the "modestly literary."

On full display are the wit and imaginative powers of our language forebears, words that we armchair philologists have had fun with for well over 500 years -- like a business of ferrets, a route of wolves, and the more obvious, though delightful, paddling of ducks. Lipton suggests breaking down the terms into "Six Families," all based on what seems to him like the apparent inspiration for each term. Thus, in the "Characteristic" family, we have a leap of leopards, a peep of chicks. "Habitat" yiels a nest of rabbits and "Appearance" offers a parliament of owls, a knot of toads. The "Comment" family reflects an observer's pro-or-con point of view, such as -- not hard to guess who's foe or fan here -- the richness of martens and the murder of crows.

Of course some terms have slipped out of usage -- a kindle of kittens, anyone? -- and Lipton finds this "lamentable." So, too, that some terms while still a part of our living speech -- like a plague of locusts or a pride of lion -- are so well-used and seemingly mundane that we've forgotten the poetry within them, their original aptness and daring. For Lipton, Exhalation offers a sort of "language sanctuary," a "wild-word refuge" in a time when, he claims, our dwindling language is a precious natural resource in need of protection.

Which brings me to Aesop. Or, rather, to Aesop by way of writer Edward Hoagland. Writing in a recent New York Times piece, "Pity Earth's Creatures," he observes that the ancient fabulist and story-teller believed to have lived 2,500 years ago "nailed down our fellowship with other beasties of the animal kingdom." Since, we've "reached an apogee of separation" as we alarmingly shred our habitat, advance what seems like a "conquest of every other vertebrate on earth." Current tectonic shifts in civilization have never happened this fast before, he warns.

Indeed, having some terms of venery fall out of usage may be "lamentable," but if we were to lose the "beasties" themselves? Clearly, a loss of words that denote the plural is not so hard to imagine if there are a lot fewer creatures around. A herd, for example, isn't needed if we only have Dumbo and not Jumbo, as Hoagland observes. Or, let's say, only Jumbo balancing on a ball in a circus tent and not his ivory-toting brethren traversing the African plains -- and for which a parade, lamentably obsolete, might be more appropriate.

Still, how quick we are, observes Hoagland, given our increasing propensities for separation and destruction, to proclaim we're pigs, sharks, lemmings, sitting ducks, a snake in the grass. We hawk merchandise, ape others, change our spots, weep crocodile tears. We're bearish, catty, chicken-hearted, dogged. We butt in and buzz off. Yes, muses Hoagland, were Aesop to sit among us, he might well "perk his ears, pick up a pen at this very thicket of still current figures of speech." No doubt he'd need more time to recognize that as a species and civilizatioin, we seem intent on claiming every inch of the planet as ours. On the other hand, were Isaac Newton able to sit benath an apple tree today, he may be quick to ask about the orchard,"what have you done with the birds? -- unwittingly evoking Rachel Carson who 50 years ago wrote of a DDT-induced "spring without voices," a premontion of what, with neonicotinoids, a new class of pesticides, we may now be doing to our honey bee populations.

As a species we've long had to accomodate disorienting noise, the seethe of superhighway traffic, cancerous-inducing smoke and pollution, toxicities in our drinking water. And we are familiar with numerous precedents for imperial decline -- but not in our written history, says Hoagland, for the kind of "climate aleration on the scale that's looming or for the gargantuan extinctions in forest and ocean."

As we increasingly worship at the altar of technology and rivet our gaze onto screens, we've become very talented at ignoring warning signs around us: prolonged droughts, floods, tsunamis, ice melts, major temperature swings, and intense heat waves of longer duration. But, from climate change and the rate at which we're already killing things off, is it possible we can escape unscathed? Not that human won't survive. I love how Hoagland likens us to lichen, how we're "hard to dislodge even in extremes from the rocks of our home" so that we'll likely survive if more "willy-nilly in reduced bands."

It's the other species, along with our forests and coral reefs that are largely undefended. Few are their allies within powers-that-be, among folks who probably don't, Thoreau-like, saunter in meadow or wood. Or notice, even if only in their car with the windows down, the presence -- or the more frightening absence -- of a spring chorus of frogs.

And if the truly lamentable happens, if we play a small hand -- or go whole hog -- in creating a world of fewer beasties, what will happen to Aesopian metaphors, Hoagland muses? Whether we're accused of crying wolf or playing possum, whether we let ourselves be buffaloed or keep trying to lead a horse to water, from where will we draw replacement similes and language, as, like deer in the headlights, we stumble into the darkness of a diminished planet?

So let me return to Lipton, to the latter half of Exaltation. Here we find collective nouns for people, many dating to the 15th century, social terms rich in wit and imagination that serve as both portraits of the time -- a safeguard of porters, a drift of fisherman -- and as commentary -- a boast of soldiers, an impudence of peddlers. Terms that, in the 500 years since, have led to a linguistic-free-for-all and spawned, says Lipton, a "game of venery."

Yielding hundreds of terms for people and things -- a flood of plumbers, wince of dentists, block of writers -- it's still being played and added to all the time, often with contemporary twists. An impasse of politicians, anyone? But as engaging as many terms are, I must confess that with Aesop and Hoagland in mind, I'm particularly drawn to a few -- a bark of cynics, an explosion of theorists, an offal of polluters. And, yes, the inevitability of comeuppances.

All photos by the author