Monday, February 20, 2012

Reading Ishmael Pt. 2

Posted by Amy Baranski
On Friday, my husband and I escaped Seattle for the great Pacific Ocean. One of our favorite spots, a place we've returned to year after year, that’s located on the Olympic Peninsula. Getting here feels like traveling to the far reaches of earth. I love everything about it, except Weyerhaeuser.

The peninsula, rich with ancient cultures and still home to indigenous peoples, has a vast and unparalleled beauty. The traditions of the Makah, the Quileute, and the Quinault, to name a few, date back thousands of years. These first nations still practice ancient traditions such as fishing, now in motorized vessels, and hospitality to foreigners, now with resorts and RV parks. And ancient ways, in the ancient forms, are still alive. You can experience them and learn more by joining in weekend-long celebrations that honor Native American heritage or by simply talking to tribal members to learn more.

The reason I bring up indigenous cultures is because of Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I finished Ishmael last week as my second book during our Read a Book a Week challenge this month. Ishmael imparts an ecological urgency for humankind to change its current course which is doomed. Quinn stages his story as a conversation, in the Socratic Method, between a man and a teacher. Ishmael, the teacher, sits behind a large Plexiglas window and takes the shape of a giant ape that munches on leafy branches while bemused by the intellectual density of his pupil—a man.

Ishmael guides his student through an epistemological and anthropological journey to understand how we know what we know and what pivotal cultural events have led us to the brink of our current ecological demise. Quinn penned the first draft in 1977. After many revisions it finally published as a novel in 1990. That’s when I was ten and before the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in the North Pacific Gyre. It’s 2012, and there are now five garbage patches in different oceans around the world.

Ishmael, who doesn't know about the Pacific Trash Vortex, but can account for other frightening man-made environmental disasters, theorizes that during human evolution (which continues today) home sapiens split into two groups. Each group has enacted a different story, based on cultural norms and epistemological values. Ishmael calls one group the takers and the other the leavers. Ishmael argues the taker offshoot began in 8,000 BC, during the beginning of the agricultural revolution. Leaver culture began long before, and continues as a minority culture found in the practices of indigenous peoples.

In short, taker culture requires humans to take more than they've had in the past and hold dominion over the earth. Leaver culture requires humans to limit consumption and leave enough to satisfy the competing needs of other organisms to achieve a balance in nature. Takers view themselves outside of nature while leavers don’t make that separation. Ishmael says this difference comes from variant creation mythologies between the two groups. He details the stories of Adam’s fall and the Tree of Knowledge and the conflict between Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis. How we interpret these stories influences the dominant themes and customs of each culture.

Getting to Ishmael’s central argument feels tedious to the pupil, and a bit to this particular reader. He spends a lot of time discussing population explosions in relation to food production—as manufactured by methods born out of the agricultural revolution. Ishmael and Quinn want their student and reader to have hope. The message is, even though there’s much to be pessimistic change can happen at a greater speed than ever before.

There’s a lot more to the book, and in some ways the story feels a bit dated but in others it holds merit. Although Ishmael pales in comparison to one of the greatest environmental books ever written, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, it’s still worth picking up as an interesting thought-experiment.

I spent the better part of the weekend immersed in nature listening to the boom of the surf, watching bald eagles buzz the tree line and a nearby kite, searching for the periscope necks of harbor seals, beach combing for sea glass, and leapfrogging over drift wood. At a glance the environment appears in balance here, but beneath the surface lies another truth.


Cassandra said...

Amy - Wow. This sounds like a fantastic book. I have to find a copy and read it. Those garbage patches are disgusting, aren't they?

Amy Baranski said...

It was very interesting...and weird. I really spent some time thinking about it after I turned that last page. A great conversation starter for sure.

Mateo Maceo said...

Awesome summary Ames. Humor in the native American cultural offerings of today's OlyPen. Solid take home of the essence of his message. I feel I'm at once a leaver and a taker, caught in the glass between ape and subject. But your right, it makes one think. Thanks.