spirit_keeperIn 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.


spirit_keeperIn my previous post, I suggested that I wrote my novel, The Spirit Keeper, with the understanding that in 1492 the cultures of Europe and North America were essentially separate but equal, with the differences between them resulting from lifestyle choices made by the different peoples.  I know it’s pushing credulity to suggest that mostly naked savages were the exact equivalent of well-clad socialites, but hear me out.  In this blog, I intend to explore one of the most fundamental differences between the cultures, which is, as it happens, the most important lesson I’ve learned from the First People of North America.

Are you ready?  Here it is:  You are what you eat.

Doesn’t really sound like an Indian aphorism, does it?  But it’s a truth the First Americans understood perfectly in 1492, a truth unknown to the equivalent cultures of Europe, and a truth which many 21st century Americans still struggle with today.  But there ain’t no doubt about the truth of this truth.  You are what you eat.  Literally.

In Europe in 1492, food consumption, like everything else, was a feature of class.  Wealthy, powerful people had all the food they wanted whenever they wanted it, without lifting a finger to raise it, kill it, prepare it, or clean up after it.  The more involved you were with food production, the lower your social standing, and those who scavenged scraps left behind by others truly were the bottom feeders of the European class system.

How different was the experience of eating in America in 1492!   In general, food consumption, like everything else in pre-Columbian North America, was a fairly democratic process.  Food was there to be hunted, gathered, or grown, pretty much by whoever was hungry.  Who fed you, whom you fed, and whom you ate with helped establish key relationships in the community, but not at all in the way food reflected social class in Europe.  Native peoples feasted or famined as a community, not as individuals.  When one person felt the pinch of hunger, everyone in the community felt the exact same pain.

Of course, lean times are inevitable for all people, and the European solution to feast/famine cycles was the development of new technologies to produce more and better food, as well as the rise of a central authority to carefully stockpile and distribute those precious resources.  This system has been so successful for Western Civilization that we now regard it as the only reasonable way to insure a reliable food supply for a large population.

But the First Americans chose a completely different sort of system which worked just as well.  Instead of developing technology to dominate the environment and a central authority to control the food supply, the First Americans worked with Nature to conserve resources to ensure there would always be enough, not just for them, but for future generations as well.  They did not kill or gather more than they needed to eat.  They regularly relocated their villages so as to give the depleted environment a chance to recover.  They trusted the earth to feed them, and, if for whatever reason it didn’t, then their scrawny bodies fed the earth instead.  It was a system which respected the inevitable balance of Nature, and though agonizing losses were inevitable, the remaining populace was generally far healthier and hardier than their counterparts in Europe.

Ah, but there’s one North American aspect of eating that even the most open-minded Westerners have trouble swallowing—the report from multiple sources, multiple locations, and multiple generations of occasional acts of cannibalism.  Details vary, but what it boils down to is that Indians were known to cook and serve the flesh of a victim of torture or to take a bite from the raw heart of a vanquished enemy.  To European sensibilities, this was the ultimate example of brutal savagery, proof positive that the naked primitives had a lot to learn before they could be called civilized.

The more I’ve thought about it, especially in light of what we Westerners now understand about nutrition, the more these gruesome acts of cannibalism begin to make sense.  I mean, if we ARE what we eat, then why shouldn’t we snarf down the heart of a worthy opponent who died bravely and well?  His still-beating heart would be filled with endorphins, hormones, enzymes and amino acids that would stimulate our own internal juices, thus providing nutrients we can’t get in any other way.  On a moral level, by eating our victim’s heart we convert the core chemicals that were once him into the core chemicals that are now us, thus offering him a resurrection.  You are what you eat.  So eat only those you honor and respect.

I have come to realize that I regularly participate in a similar ritual in my own garden.  I plant my carrot seeds in spring with loving care and tend them through their sprouting and growing.  I protect them, water them, and mulch them like babes in cozy swaddling, and, when the time comes, I rip them from the soil and consume them with as much savage gusto as any of the First Americans.  I hate to do it, but I have to, and since I have to do it, I honor my beloved babies by transforming them into me.  I try to assuage my guilt by reminding myself I need that vitamin A for my skin, the beta-carotene for my eyes, but I never lose sight of the fact that I am killing another life form so that I might live.

This concept is not unlike the one Jesus espoused when he passed out bread, said it was his body, and urged us all to wash it down with the wine that was his blood.  His act was symbolic, while the actions of the First Americans were literal, but the point is the same.  No one gets to eat with a clear conscience and clean hands.  We all kill to eat.  In order for you to live, many other things, including other people, simply have to die.

Because of the psychologically devastating nature of this undeniable truth, we humans have had to find ways to accept our guilt without going mad.  Western civilization has coped with the truth by whitewashing it, sterilizing it, and ignoring it.  The First Americans coped with it by reveling in the blood of their foes as it dribbled down their chins.

Which is the “right” way to fill our bellies?  Well, here in 21st century America, most of us live like the European kings of old.   With a few notable exceptions, most of us have all the food we want whenever we want it, without lifting a finger to raise it, kill it, prepare it, or clean up after it.  And so it comes as no surprise that here in 21st century America far too many of us are obese—many morbidly so—and way too many people are pretty much miserable all the time.  And why not?  We eat food we have no relationship with, produced by people we don’t know, packaged, transported and dumped upon us in such overwhelming abundance that it’s no wonder we’re all so horribly fat and miserable—we eat nothing but horribly fat and miserable food!

Maybe we should’ve paid more attention to the primitive savages 500 years ago when they tried to show us that we are what we eat.

 

Next time:  Why Should Modern Americans Care about Something That Happened Over 500 Years Ago? 



spirit_keeperIn a world filled with redundancy, repetition, and nothing new under the sun, one moment in time stands out as deliciously unique—the moment of reunion between two groups of humans who had been geographically separated for millennia unnumbered. In other words, 1492—when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Because the people Columbus “discovered” had been cut off from the rest of the world for who knows how long, the reunion offered the rare opportunity to learn all kinds of things about our species, to determine which traits are universal and which are cultural, and to figure out once and for all what really makes us clever monkeys tick.

Then the moment passed.

We got distracted, as always, by fussing, fighting, and dying, and the moments kept slipping away until here we are today.

But we can’t just let that moment go.  It’s too important, too tantalizing, too rife with possibilities, and I hope it isn’t too late to learn a thing or two from it.  If we could pry ourselves away from our usual fussing, fighting and dying—even for just a moment—surely we can still learn something very important.

When we look back at that singular event in 1492, the first thing we should notice is how similar all those people were.  Oh, I know, history buffs will howl in indignation, eager to cite dozens of differences between the Europeans and the people they encountered.  But the differences between Columbus and the Native-Guy-Whose-Name-We-Did-Not-Think-to-Record are incidental, compared to the differences between Columbus and the seagulls dropping guano on his poopdeck or between the Native Guy and the palm trees standing as silent witnesses to this momentous meeting of long-lost relations.

Humans are humans, after all, and, regardless of the massive cultural differences between the men meeting on that fateful beach, the thirsty mosquitoes buzzing ‘round their heads surely found them all delicious.

If all humans everywhere are members of the same species, then Columbus and the Native Guy were basically brothers.  Of course, in 1492 the Europeans immediately concluded they were Big Brother, because their cultures were obviously more advanced than any in North American.  Europe was, after all, the Old World, and those newbie Americans had their work cut out for them just to catch up with all the wonders of modern civilization.

But, um, just calling one culture older than another doesn’t make it so, you know.  Maybe at some point some people wandered this way while others wandered that way, but at no point in human history did new people just materialize out of thin air.  The fact is, all humans on earth can trace their lineage back for the exact same amount of time.  Therefore, the First Americans were not the goofy kid brother of the know-it-all Europeans.  If anything, these races were fraternal twins.

What this means is that North American cultures of 1492 were not a throwback to the Stone Age, not some lost cluster of cavemen that time somehow forgot.  Though they were, perhaps, geographically separated from the rest of the world, as far as I know the First Americans had not gotten caught in a stasis field wherein they stayed exactly the same for 15,000 years while the rest of the world grew up.  In 1492, the people of North America were every bit as mature, every bit as evolved as their counterparts of Europe.

Wait–what?  If the First Americans weren’t primitive savages, then what the hell were they?  Is it possible the cultures of Europe were not clearly better, brighter, older and wiser than those in North America, but that they were, in fact, just different?  But . . . but that flies in the face of everything we’ve been absolutely certain of for over 500 years!  Ah, well.  Vanity of vanities . . . there is no new thing under the sun.

It is so human to make mistakes.  Before Columbus, Europeans were quite sure the earth was flat.  Columbus himself died convinced he’d made it to China.  For 500 years we’ve been absolutely certain the Indians were lagging far behind Europeans in cultural development.  But what if that magic moment in 1492 was the meeting of two absolute equals?  What if the First American cultures were different from those of Europe, not because Americans were primitive savages, but because the First Americans made a whole series of different lifestyles choices than did the people of Europe?

I wrote The Spirit Keeper because I am hopelessly fascinated with the different choices made by the peoples of Europe and North America.  To me, the differences between Columbus and Native Guy, which seemed so vast and insurmountable to the two of them but so incidental to the hungry mosquitoes, are a treasure trove of insight into the human species, and by comparing the choices the people made, I think we can pull out all kinds of golden nuggets of pure truth.  Most of the basic choices of daily life—food, clothing, shelter, family, community, language—were made according to very different criteria in those two very different worlds.  And, by the way, neither of those worlds was old or new, advanced or primitive, better or worse—they really were just different worlds.

Though I could go on and on about the repercussions of the choices made by the different people, I think I should pause a moment to let readers digest what I’ve said thus far.

But please hurry.  The moment’s almost gone . . .

Next time:  The Most Important Lesson I’ve Learned from the First Americans