In my previous post I made a big deal about how we are what we eat, which is, I believe, why the First Americans would occasionally chow down on the oozing heart of a vanquished enemy. In this blog I intend to explore this idea further and consider a few of its many implications. By delving deeper into this one little difference between the Europeans and the First Americans, I hope to arrive at last at my real point, which is why that moment of meeting in 1492 is so important, why you should care, and why we need to have this conversation now.
I think we can all agree the Europeans of 1492 knew little about health and nutrition. They never worried about vitamins, minerals, proteins, or carbs because they had only the vaguest notion of how their own bodies worked. Oh, they knew it had something to do with the balance of humors, but they figured there was no problem some leeches and a good blood-letting couldn’t fix. Even today few people understand how to eat to achieve optimal health. So I suppose I’m going way out on a limb to suggest that in 1492 the First Americans understood more about nutrition than the average person does today.
Now I’m not saying the Indians were sitting around counting calories, organizing menus, and balancing the fiber and fats in their diets. What I am saying is that the First Americans were keenly aware there’s far more to food consumption than just a basic chemical exchange. That’s why the killing of game, the catching of fish, or the harvesting of crops always involved prayers or rituals to restore the balance of Nature. If you’re going to take the life of something so that you can live, the least you can do is say “Thank you,” right? Otherwise there’s a karmic deficit and your soul begins to shrivel.
Again, I’m not suggesting the First Americans were big believers in Karma, but my understanding is that they were huge believers in the concept of Transformation. They recognized that an individual is actually many completely different people in one lifetime, which is why they often changed names and why adoptions were so common and so important. Transformation also explains how they regarded food—they transformed the corn, the fish, or the deer into themselves.
But the North American concept of Transformation is not just some theoretical blah-blah to explain how to restore spiritual or karmic balance. It is a very practical application of an actual law of the physical universe, one which the First Americans seemed to recognize even in 1492, or nearly 300 years before Lavoisier gained fame by explaining the Conservation of Mass. (Oh, and it’s worth noting that although the First Americans were often criticized for savagery, it was fellow Europeans who lobbed off Lavoisier’s head, thus proving matter is, indeed, constant regardless of how many pieces a person is chopped into.)
At any rate, though the First Americans published no studies describing the chemical and molecular breakdown of matter, they did recognize, long before Columbus set sail, that different foodstuffs made them feel, well, different. They also knew very well what happened when a carcass was left to rot, such as when the body of a deceased loved one was laid out on a scaffold. While they were in their prime, the First Americans understood they were consuming the gifts of the earth, and when they died, they knew the earth was going to consume them in turn.
In other words, the First Americans didn’t just understand the basic laws of the physical universe in some vague, theoretical way; they applied those laws on a daily basis. After all, the premise underlying every thought, word, or deed in pre-Columbian America was the acceptance that there is always balance in Nature.
Which brings me finally to why I’m so hopelessly fascinated with that moment back in 1492 and why, in fact, I wrote The Spirit Keeper. It’s because in spite of my 100% European ancestry, my hardy Irish heritage, and my lily-white genetic make-up, I’m nothing like a European anymore—in fact, I don’t think any of us are. We can’t be if
I grew up in Indiana, where my family always had big gardens. Under the gentle coaxing of sun and rain, the chemicals of the earth were sucked up by the strawberries and corn, and when I ate those foods, those chemicals were turned into me. But where did the chemicals in the earth come from before my family laid claim to that scrap of soil? A lot of them came from the people who were here before us, the First Americans who lived on that soil, laughed, loved, and died on that soil, and when they died, they rotted here, and so our beans and squash and tomatoes and potatoes are all heavy-laden with the chemicals that were once those other living beings.
It’s a simple fact of physics, a basic law of the universe, the inexorable way of Nature. We are what we eat. And so we are, all of us, nothing but the chemicals of the dead, filtered up through the earth again and again and again.
And this is why I feel such a keen obligation to have this conversation, to commemorate that moment of meeting in 1492, and to beg for us as an amalgamated culture composed of Europeans, First Americans, Africans, Asians, and whoever else wants to climb aboard to learn the lessons of our shared history. We need to learn those lessons before the lapping waves of time wash away all traces of that unique opportunity to study ourselves.
After all, we’re all in this together now, like it or not, as we are all born on this planet of parents born here and their parents the same and their parents the same and all our ancestors slumber together in the soil that feeds us all and will in turn someday feed on us.
And that, by the way, is the punchline of the cosmic joke that was that singular moment in human history in 1492. It’s not just that we are what we eat. It’s also that we will become what we are eaten by. The European laws of physics eventually gave us atomic bombs, but the Native concept of Transformation suggests something even more earth-shattering: we will inevitably become that which we destroy.
In conclusion, I believe we need to have this conversation now because it’s time we recognize who and what we really are as members of the human species. We are not Europeans. We are not Americans. We are earth chow. We are stardust. We are clever little monkeys, and if only we’re willing to look at ourselves objectively, we might be able to figure out what it is that makes us so damned clever, what it is that really makes us tick.
But the clock, too, is ticking, my friends. Time is running out. One moment leads to another, and another, and another, and before you know it, all turn to dust again. Vanity of vanities—all is vanity.
In these blogs I’ve pointed out just a few of the lessons we can learn from comparing European/First American views on one tiny facet of life—the consumption of food. There are so many other fascinating topics of conversation: clothing, shelter, family, community, language, and on and on and on. But why should I do all the work? It’s someone else’s turn to talk now.