They knew the surrounding wilderness like the backs of their hands, or rather, the wilderness and the backs of their hands were continuous, separated by no boundary.
When Linear Turns Cyclical
They knew the surrounding wilderness like the backs of their hands, or rather, the wilderness and the backs of their hands were continuous, separated by no boundary. These ancient Homo erectus hunter-gatherers could easily identify hundreds of distinct plant species. They foraged for nuts, berries, and insects, and actively hunted large animals, such as the bison and mammoth for meat. Knowing precisely when and where Earth’s food would be plentiful, these hunter-gatherers lived nomadic lifestyles. So confidant in their oneness with the land and what it could offer, they did not bother storing or growing food. They dedicated around fifteen hours per week for this intimate, instinctual exchange with the land.
As we, modern Homo sapiens, attempt to temporally travel backwards to the time of ancient hunter-gatherers, in pursuit of locating ourselves in history, their lifestyles seem so distant, so foreign (although this is how humans have spent an estimated 95 percent of their existence on Earth, their Mother Earth). Precisely this way of thinking about time and history presents the greatest distinction between us, and them. For us, time is a linear, fleeting trajectory. We are constantly reflecting on the past, to in turn shape our future. It is almost as if we have no sense of present. On the contrary, hunter-gatherers live solely in the present—a cyclical, repetitive present. “There was a systematic continuity to everything,” says James Suzman in an interview with National Public Radio regarding his book Affluence Without Abundance. Suzman recalls that when he asked Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia (one of the few remaining groups of hunter-gatherers) what their great grandfather’s name was, some people would say, “I don’t know.”1
While modern humans’ and ancient hunter-gatherers’ concepts of time are at odds with one another, it seems that today, we have an innate longing for this present-mindfulness, to escape our high-pressure concept of time. We exercise this desire in multitudinous activities: meditation, yoga, dancing, running, playing sports, painting, reading, writing—to name just a few. We take time out of our busy days for these pleasures, to let time itself disappear. Many of these activities help us feel a present sense of purpose, of fullness. Of course it depends on how, why, and where someone participates in these pastimes, but I think they generally help humans maintain a healthy relationship with Nature. We dance to feel fluidity between our discrete, infinitesimal bodies and unending, nourishing surroundings. When we white-water raft, we insert ourselves in Earth’s pumping veins, which we submit so much trust to. We run under the searing 35°C sun; through cold shards and sharp wind; beneath falling streams. As soft grass cushions our Earth-pounding feet, as we let go of our thought-bursting mind-balloons, we learn the forms of Nature’s cries—how they make us feel, how they have the power to uplift us.
Many works of art—painting, photography, writing—are born from an appreciation of and eye for Earth, or born with the purpose of igniting such relationships, of helping humans regain the hunter-gatherer’s accord with Nature. On a walk around Glencoyne Bay, English Romantic poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy sprang across a “long belt” of daffodils. So charming were these daffodils of great glee, Wordsworth was inspired to write the poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (published in 1807 in Poems of Two Volumes). His first stanza reads:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.2
Within dematerialized time, we write and read (about Nature), as we let our inner hunter-gatherer come alive—alive in this, and only this moment, absorbed by the universe. But why do we attempt to access this state through reading and writing? And how else do we leverage storytelling to nurture an integrated nature? In their paper “Cooperation and the evolution of hunter-gatherer storytelling,” Anthropologist Daniel Smith and his colleagues propose, “storytelling may function as a mechanism to disseminate knowledge by broadcasting social norms to coordinate social behaviour and promote cooperation.”3 Such coordination is essential for any community, any species. A profound example is the story “The Sun and the Moon” (“U Aldew Sakay u Bulan”) from Agta, a present-day Filipino hunter-gatherer population.
In this story, when Moon (women) proves to be as strong as Sun (men) after a quarrel, they agree to split the time in lighting up the sky. Not only does this story promote the complete assimilation of human into Nature, but it establishes the norms of sex equality and cooperation, themes central to many stories from hunter-gatherer societies. In modern-day settled societies, we employ storytelling to regulate social behavior, and often in the context of policy change concerning the environment. For example, Terry Tempest Williams, an American author, conservationist, and activist, edited the 1995 collection Testimony: Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness. Given to all members of Congress, this was an artful form of communication by twenty American writers to sway public policy regarding threatened lands. At the 1996 dedication of the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, President Bill Clinton held up the collection and said, “This made a difference.”4 Storytelling and speaking on behalf of Nature (for those who feel disconnected from it), a tradition we preserve from ancient hunter-gatherers, made a difference in this moment. It was a positive factor in shaping many humans’ relationships with Nature. Regrettably, in 2017, President Donald Trump ordered a 47 percent reduction in the monument’s size.5 We must not forget that our nature-storytelling is not complete. And it may never be.
Here in modernity, we feel vast time separates us from ancient hunter-gatherers, as we have adapted to perceive time as a linear proceeding. We let the heavy past and present tug at our minds in a sinusoidal rhythm that never converges to the steady state present. Ancient hunter-gatherers and their surrounding wildlife coexisted in that stable steady state. While this state of being is no longer the norm, we strive to access it in many aspects of our daily lives, ranging from running to painting. In such escapes from time, we receive beautiful opportunities to reflect upon Nature. Perhaps most importantly, we tell stories (through forms we create in vanished time, but still within the context of our tumbling time) to connect and coordinate with one other, including Mother Nature.
- James Suzman quoted in Michaeleen Doucleff, “Are Hunter-Gatherers The Happiest Humans To Inhabit Earth?,” National Public Radio, October 1, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/10/01/551018759/are-hunter-gatherers-the-happiest-humans-to-inhabit-earth.
- William Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” Poetry Foundation (Chicago, Illinois), Nd. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45521/i-wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud
- Daniel Smith, “Why Do We Rell Stories? Hunter-Gatherers Shed Light on the Evolutionary Roots of Fiction,” The Conversation, September 19, 2018. https://theconversation.com/why-do-we-tell-stories-hunter-gatherers-shed-light-on-the-evolutionary-roots-of-fiction-88586
- David Sumner, “Testimony, Refuge, and the Sense of Place–A Conversation with Terry Tempest Williams,” Webber: The Contemporary West, Volume 19.3, Spring/Summer 2002. https://weberstudies.weber.edu/archive/archive%20C%20Vol.%2018.2-21.1/vol.%2019.3/sumner%20williams.htm.
- Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, “Trump’s Repeal of Utah Monuments Leaves Millions of Acres in Limbo,” https://suwa.org/trumps-assault-utah-monuments-leaves-millions-acres-limbo/