I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world


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Authentic culture?

I’ve recently been writing about the theme of Otherness and in a couple of previous posts I mentioned the work of photographer Jimmy Nelson and his beautiful and thought-provoking Before They Pass Away photo documentation of the world’s last indigenous tribes.

As I’d hoped, my own reflections have sparked the beginnings of some interesting conversation on Otherness! I hope it continues because it is a fascinating topic and one that is incredibly relevant in our increasingly inter-connected and globalized world.

One idea I’ve seen crop up a couple of times now is that of authenticity. Both Jimmy Nelson, in his TED talk and other writings, as well as a friend of mine, have commented on the fact that tribal societies have an authenticity that we in the developed world have lost. Their cultures are more authentic than ours, and consequently their lives seem to be more meaningful.

I find this to be an interesting concept – one worth discussing and defining further.

First of all, what do we mean by ‘authentic’ in the context of cultures?

I, for one, take it to mean something that is ‘real’, ‘not a copy,’ ‘genuine’, perhaps also the opposite of ‘fake’.

So, is it accurate to say that tribal cultures are more ‘real’ than developed, first-world cultures? For example, is US culture or British culture or Japanese culture less ‘authentic’, meaning ‘less real’, ‘less genuine’, ‘more fake’?

I am coming from a Western perspective myself, and I think may of us in the West look to cultures around the world – particularly in developing countries, and perhaps most especially in tribal cultures – as being more authentic and a sort of remnant of an idealized past that we can no longer access in modern North America and Western Europe. But if that is the case, then when did North American and Western European cultures cease to be ‘real’ and ‘authentic’? How could we define the shift from authentic to inauthentic when discussing the history and culture of the West?

Maasai family - authentic culture?

Maasai family – authentic culture?

tv family

1950s American family – inauthentic culture?

My first thought in response to these questions is that we may consider Western culture as being less authentic because we see so much of our culture being heavily influenced by modern materialism, advertising and marketing, by machines, industry, and all sorts of advanced technology. Most of us watch TV, we drive cars, we eat processed food, we might not spend much time in nature, probably don’t grow our own food or raise farm animals. There are chemicals and preservatives in much of what we eat. Because of these characteristics of our Western modern culture, we may feel we live in a more ‘artificial’ and ‘less authentic’ way.

A friend of mine wrote an interesting comment to some of my previous questions about why we are attracted to images and information about Others, particularly those who live in tribal societies. Here she mentions the view that tribal cultures are more authentic as a reason why we are interested in Others. Now I’ll let her speak for herself and quote her in full here:

Personally I think [we are interested in learning about Others because of] the desire for meaning and seeing worlds where things are made by hands. We have destroyed our connection to every aspect of living. We don’t make things, our tools, our food… even the milk westerners feed their babies is a powdered manufactured chemical. We don’t go on hikes, we watch strangers hiking on TV. To see people who have meaning and authenticity in the things they do, the way they dress… it’s become the stuff of legend in the west. It’s loved and loathed equally. If I knit a hat from fiber I spun myself people are either amazed or they laugh and say ‘why? Go to Walmart and buy a hat for a dollar!” We live in a manufactured meaningless world, we look at these cultures with a desperate longing like an orphan sees a complete family (functional or not).

I have so much more to say on this topic, but it certainly won’t fit all into one blog post. So, I’ll leave you with some questions to consider instead.

How do we define what is ‘authentic’ in human culture? What do we consider to be the essential elements of a true and meaningful culture?

Is it true and fair to say that modern Western cultures are no longer authentic?

Is it true that tribal cultures are essentially different from developed world cultures, or are all humans everywhere just doing the same sorts of things, albeit in different ways, and with different materials, in both tribal and developed-world cultures?

Have modern cultures irreparably lost something essential, or are the elements of tribal cultures that we value still available to us in our modern lifestyle?

Is it possible to fully live in the modern, technologically advanced, increasingly urbanized world and still have an ‘authentic’ culture?

If you’d like to join in the conversation, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

 

*NOTE: I find it difficult to chose terminology to use when discussing a topic like this. How do we chose between terms like ‘indigenous’, ‘tribal’, ‘traditional’ to describe cultures? I feel like all are a bit inadequate, and also are loaded with stereotypes, value judgement and assumptions – and they probably also have different meanings for different people. The problem is the same with trying to write about the ‘opposite’ of tribal cultures – we can use terms like ‘developed” or ‘first-world’ (as opposed to ‘developing’ or ‘third world’), or we can talk about ‘modern’ cultures (although in reality, any tribal society in existence today is also ‘modern’ and has been evolving just as long as any other non-tribal culture!). And here I also talk about Western culture as being sort of synonymous with ‘modern’ or ‘developed’, but obviously, there are many other countries that are modern and developed but not Western, such as Japan and South Korea, just to name a few. So, I’d just like to point out the flaws in my own use of terminology and bring up the fact that all the terms we use to discuss cultures in this way are loaded with biases, generalizations and assumptions. I’m just trying to do the best I can to be understood while discussing an incredibly complex topic, so please forgive my shortcomings!


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The wonders of the universe

I stumbled across this great astronomy site today. There is an amazing collection of astronomy photos from various photographers around the world, each with a brief descriptions by a professional astronomer. It sounds incredible, but it looks like there is a photo for every day of the year, each year, since June 1995!

Click here to check out the Astronomy Picture of the Day. Enjoy some amazing images of our wonderful universe!

 

 


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Fascinating insights into elephant intelligence and culture

Her’s an interesting piece of reading for the day. The capabilities of animals never ceases to amaze me!

Elephants recognize the voices of their enemies: African elephants can distinguish human languages, genders and ages associated with danger | NATURE

File:Serengeti Elefantenherde2.jpg

Female African elephants


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Do we inherit the suffering of our ancestors?

I’ve recently come across a number of articles on the subject of epigenetics. According to LiveScience, epigenetics ‘literally means “above” or “on top of” genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes “on” or “off.” These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells “read” genes.

Studies have seemed to show that the effects of things like stress, obesity, and living through famine or war can be passed on from parents to children, and perhaps even to grandchildren and beyond. The effects of these experiences on a parent can alter the way genes are turned on or off in the DNA of one’s offspring. So, in my lay person understanding, it seems that parents might not just pass on their basic genetic material to their children, but also residual effects of certain life experiences.

I’m not going to pretend to understand it all, and I’m certainly not going to try and explain what I’ve read. It’s a bit too complex for me, and I think I’ll need to give these articles a few more readings to better get my head around the information. But this certainly adds a whole new layer to the way we think about genetic inheritance and the effects parents have on their children and future descendent. Our experiences, life style choices, and physical and mental health may be even more important to those who come after us than we previously thought.

If you’d like to read more, here are a few recent articles on epigenetics:

The Economist Explains: What is Epigenetics? | The Economist

Epigenetics: The Sins of the Father | NATURE

Can Children Inherit Stress? | New York Times

Poisoned Inheritance | The Economist


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Beautiful giants

The blue whale, the largest animal that’s ever lived, dwarfing even the largest dinosaurs. Mind-boggling!

(Although I’ve never actually met one) I find something about whales so charismatic, so enchanting. Maybe it sounds a bit strange to describe a whale that way, but there, I’ve said it.

They are intelligent, seem to exude a sort of calm elegance, and their size – particularly that of the blue whale – boggles the mind. Images of whales peacefully soaring through blue seas, singing to each other, is just so soothing and captures my imagination.

Here is a clip from the series Blue Planet, in which David Attenborough shares some amazing facts about these wonderful creatures. Somehow, contemplating the existence of these whales is a humbling experience and makes me feel very small and insignificant, in a good way. Nothing like Nature’s wonders to remind us of our place in the grand scheme of things!


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What is an omnivore to do?

For the sake of transparency, I’ll share with you the reasons I’m not currently a vegetarian or vegan:

  • I love pretty much all food, including meat.
  • I feel healthier if I eat meat sometimes, as well as other animal protein sources like eggs and yogurt.
  • I don’t have the discipline to never eat meat.
  • I don’t always think about animal welfare when I’m shopping for food, cooking or eating what someone else has prepared for me.
  • Perhaps I’m just a bit lazy.

Now, I’m not saying these are ‘good’ reasons. They don’t necessarily justify my non-vegetarianism. But those are the honest reasons why I am not currently a vegetarian. That being said, I usually only eat meat once a week at the moment, so ‘vegetarian’ eating is the norm for me the vast majority of the time.

Anyway, the truth is I am an omnivore, and so are most of the people on the planet. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you judge the matter, but it is true all the same. And, as this article from The Economist points out, as people around the world become more affluent, meat eating is on the rise. Meat is a desirable commodity for most people, and if it is affordable and available, they want more of it!

This does create issues that we omnivores have to think about and address.

One issue is that raising livestock does have negative environmental effects, such as the use of land and water for sustaining animals, the destruction of natural ecological systems to create grazing land (i.e. chopping down the Amazon Rainforest to make space for cattle farming), and CO2 emissions that come from cows, to list some of the most obvious.

So, eating meat means that more animals will be raised for food, which means that there will be more harm done to the environment.

There is a way to lessen the impact, but it presents it’s own moral and ethical problems: efficient factory farming. This type of intensive farming can decrease the impact of livestock on the environment but obviously has the downside of being worse for the animals involved.

So, in a nutshell, you can’t have enough happy, frolicking, free-range animals to feed everyone without taking up huge amounts of space and wrecking the environment. You also can’t completely protect the environment and valuable wild habitats without resorting to the cruelty of factory farming.

I admit, it seems that the obvious best-choice is for everyone to become vegetarian (although, realistically, this isn’t an option for everyone either, due to the geography and climate, and consequently the food sources available, in certain areas of the world. I also cannot claim that it would be the healthiest choice for every individual, as I am not a nutritionist or doctor). However, I think one must face the fact that that’s not the direction things are heading, and while global vegetarianism may be ideal (I stress the may), this isn’t a perfect world and we can’t wait around for that to happen.

So, the question is: how can the least damage be done, to both the environment and the animals involved? How can we strike a balance between treating food animals as humanely as possible while using the least amount of land and other valuable natural resources?

One additional and very important bit of information the article highlights is that not all animals are equal when it comes to environmental impact, resource usage and nutritional output. For example, pork and poultry are more efficient than red meat (i.e. more protein with less environmental cost), and dairy is a more efficient form of protein than meat. Just a little something else to think about.

Click here for the full article from the EconomistLivestock: Meat and Greens

 


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Green honey, violet sheep and wine-coloured seas… but no blue sky? (thoughts on culture, language and colour )

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How do culture and language effect the way we see and interpret colour? What is the ‘true’ colour of the world around us?

We take for granted that colour is ‘real’, an observable, definable, and objective part of our world. The grass is green and the sky is blue… or are they?

The ancient Greek poet Homer, author of the great epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, described the sea as being the colour of wine, sheep as violet and honey as green, along with many other seemingly strange colour descriptions… and there was no mention of the colour blue in his works at all. This fascinating RADIOLAB podcast delves into the discovery of Homer’s strange world of colour, and the language of colour in cultures past and present.

I find this story particularly interesting because the Iliad and Odyssey are some of my favourite stories of all time. One of my sons is even named after the hero Odysseus (that’s how much I love these stories!), and I’ve visited the ruins of ancient Troy and swam in the very sea that Homer describes in his epic poems. It’s strange and wonderful to have looked over the plains of Troy and the waves of the Aegean sea, to have stood under the same scorching summer sky, just as Homer must have done thousands of years ago, and yet know that we would describe that natural world so differently.

Listen to the podcast here:

RADIOLAB: Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?

Wine-coloured sea? Blue sky? On the Aegean sea, not far from Troy (Truva).

Wine-coloured sea? Blue sky? On the Aegean sea, not far from Troy (Truva).


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Man hunts antelope…

This video of a hunter of the San tribe in south Africa, using the ancient hunting technique David Attenborough refers to as the ‘persistence method’ – running prey down on foot until either hunter or animal give up and collapse from exhaustion – is truly stunning.

There is something so raw about this epic chase. Essentials only. A man – bone and muscle and sweat and blood – using his speed and endurance to catch his prey, simply running on his own two feet through the desert. There is the scorching sun overhead, the sand beneath his feet, the shimmering heat in the air. There is the speed and power, the gracefulness, of the wild antelope… and a life and death struggle to survive.

It is a primal experience. The human animal, striped of pomp and circumstance, with only a minimum of material objects at his disposal. The state of trance-like focus, the stark clarity of mind – there is no moment but the present, no task but the one crucial task at hand: continue, conquer, survive.

At the end of this epic chase there is both tragic defeat and heroic victory. The cost of human survival is the life of the antelope. Death, this savage struggle live in a harsh environment, to kill to live… it isn’t glamorous or romantic. But there is something earthy, grounding, unflinchingly real – even tender – as the man strikes the killing blow, pays homage to the nobility of the animal and sends its spirit back to the desert sands from which it came.

Witnessing such an experience brings me back to those Big Questions I never get tired of asking…

What does it mean to be a human on this earth? How to live, and die, well? How to co-exist with other creatures on this planet, how to live authentically and simply, how to get down to that essential, earthy, raw experience, to live with focus and clarity, to do what is necessary and remain free of unnecessary burdens? How to make the most of this one wild and precious life?