Revelation: The World As We Walk

“No story is like a wheeled vehicle whose contact with the road is continuous. Stories walk, like animals and men. And their steps are not only between narrated events but between each sentence, sometimes each word. Every step is a stride over something not said.” – John Berger

My dogs and I always enjoy a good amount of brisk walk every six in the morning. As early as 5:30 AM, they will start to occupy the bed to rouse their human, akin to an alarm, signifying that it is a new day, and they want to go outside. As I prepare the leash, I often observed that the younger pup (a year-old male Shi Tzu x Terrier) is more excited than the older one (a three year-old Shi Tzu x Poodle). It is because of the age difference perhaps. I’m really not sure. Our course is usually the immediate neighboring block. They stop for the occasional pee and poo. And sniffing is also a very noticeable behavior as we go along. They keenly smell the grass, the earth, stagnant water after a night of long rain, and even other dogs. After all, canines sense their world through smell (unlike human whose perception is heavily reliant on vision). They discover things as they roam around. Walking takes around twenty minutes, sometimes longer if they are still fervent to continue. The activity is already a mundane ritual for us.

Currently, it is relatively easy to find a number of physicians attesting that walking promotes better blood circulation and balances your energy level as you start the day.

It also burns the extra energy of your dogs – an important practice to eliminate unwanted behavior like hyperactivity and excessive barking (simply, it stops them from being bored).

A short walk late in the afternoon is also a good distressing activity after a long hard-day of work. Walking, as a form of physical exercise, has long been examined by many researchers (from medical research to physical education)

It is quite unlikely, however, to see walking as a focal concept when we talk about social theory and epistemology. That is why it is fascinating to reflect on why anthropologist Tim Ingold poses the idea that walking is a means of understanding (through the process of ‘revelation’) the world. Aside from the mere physical exercise, what can we get from walking?

Walking and Wayfaring

“When I was a child my father, who is a botanist, used to take me for walks in the countryside, pointing out on the way all the plants and fungi – especially the fungi – that grew here and there. Sometimes he would get me to smell them, or to try out their distinctive tastes. His manner of teaching was to show me things, literally to point them out.  If I would but notice the things to which he directed my attention, and recognize the sights, smells and tastes that he wanted me to experience because they were so dear to him, then I would discover for myself much of what he already knew. Now, many years later, as an anthropologist, I read about how people in Australian Aboriginal societies pass their knowledge across the generations. And I find that the principle is just the same!”  – Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill

How do humans navigate? How can we find our destination within the realm of the unfamiliar? Recent technological advances made the process of navigation much easier. People are now equipped with smartphones, GPS, maps, and other apps/gadgets to locate places. Just type the exact address and a readily accessible phone software will assist you without fail. The advent of map-making, and the progress of this technology, changed the way we discover (and unveil) the world. Hauntingly, a destination-oriented transport alludes the idea that nothing is worth ‘learning’ along the path of travel. It presses us to think that we are situated within finite destinations. A certain end. A universe of points and coordinates, not pathways.

For the longest time (prior to the invention of mapmaking), humans discovered the worlds by means of wayfaring (like walking). For Ingold, wayfaring is humanity’s fundamental modality of travel. We build our knowledge as we explore, we learn as we walk. And as we move, we just don’t leave trails on the ground but also meanings and stories inscribed together with the movement. Walking, then, becomes a cognitive revelation. It grounds us to understand not only ourselves but our surrounding.

Bruce Chatwin’s book titled “The Songlines”, for instance, narrates how Australian aborigines conceive their world and formative history. Based on Aboriginal cosmology, there are ‘songlines’ that crisscross the whole continent of Australia and are said to have been traced out by their ancestral creators as they walked the land during the formative time called the Dreaming, leaving their mark in such landscape features as hills, rivers, rocky outcrops, ridges, waterholes and gullies. Outsiders may just view the varying physical markers in Australia as simple geographical contours. But for the local aborigines, these markers hold stories and histories, symbols and meanings.

Our early ancestors relied on physical markers (like creeks, trees, mountain ridges, rivers, even stars) to understand and navigate their environment. In his essay titled “Ilongot Visiting: Social Grace and the Rhythms of Everyday Life”, Renato Rosaldo discussed how the Ilongot people in the northern Philippines navigate their terrain by means of walking. Rosaldo posited, “Ilongot speak of walking on paths that meander, like the courses of the streams they follow, in ways that cannot be foreseen”.

Final Thoughts…

For the wayfarer, speed is not an issue because the destination is never the end goal. People whose business of life  is conducted at successive stopping-points (destinations) wants to spend his time in places, not between them. And it misses the whole aspect of building knowledge by means of simple movement. Like how my dogs sense the world as they smell their path of navigation, humans produce/reproduce narratives and meanings as they traverse their respective landscapes. Walking is a matter of laying trails and stories as one goes along.

Take a break and have a phenomenological walk.

Animals Make Us Human

The Internet loves cats and dogs! That’s no-brainer. Do a quick search on Youtube and you’ll easily spot a clip of a cat chasing a perpetual moving laser pointer! And let me guess. That video has more than a hundred thousand views, right? Silly humans. Well, it shows our fascination over pets. But aside from the fact that they are cute and fluffy, our close social proximity to cats and dogs can be traced to our shared history of co-evolution. Roughly 13,000 to 30,000 years ago, humans started to domesticate animals. In Darwinian evolution, this process is called artificial selection. And it started way before the internet, the smartphones, the Apollo mission, and the Industrial Revolution! And what was the first animal that we domesticated? The dog.

Scientists cannot still identify the exact time when humans started to treat dogs as pets, but it is certain that canine domestication was widespread. In 2008, a 31,700-year-old dog bones were excavated in Belgium. It is considered as our earliest domesticated canine. Prehistoric dog skeletons have also been discovered across Asia, Europe, Western Russia, and Australia. But how did this happen? Well, it is probable that canine domestication started from a purely serendipitous process. Some researchers hypothesized that there were wolves that would go close to early human settlements while looking for food. They were possibly attracted to the garbage and food waste produced by humans. Wolves that were bold enough to approach humans, yet not aggressive enough to rip their hands, got fed. This stage of “self-domestication” by wolves was pivotal for us to breed them for hunting, standing guard, and herding (and later, becoming cute life forms).

This piece talks about how humans figure to the life of animals and vice-versa. The title is based on a work of a popular animal scientist Temple Grandin. In 2009, she published a book titled Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Grandin is currently one of the most celebrated animal advocate and animal behavior expert in the world. Her own experience with autism and knowledge on animal science helped her understand how animals think, act, and feel. The work is an enthralling exploration on how animals ‘see’ their world. Her ultimate goal is to teach people how to give pets the best and happiest life. She argues that physical need is just a part of the total animal welfare. More than food and shelter, animals need a well-conditioned mental health. According to Grandin, the best way to create good living conditions for any animal is “to base animal welfare programs on the core emotion systems in the brain.” In doing so, the environment where they live should activate positive emotions and avoid negative emotions any more than necessary. By achieving a balance core emotion system, pets will have lesser behavioral problems. For example, it is almost always better to give animals freedom to act naturally. It is because their normal functions (e.g. walking, running, sniffing the ground) are closely connected to satisfy their emotions (being happy, for instance). If you can’t give them the freedom to act naturally, you should design activities that will trigger their positive emotions. Grandin posits that emotion should be the primary concern, not the behavior.

But what about the value of animals to the life of man? How do they figure to our humanity? Listed here are three examples of human-animal interrelations that show the importance of animals to the worldviews of people.

How Animals Shape Worldviews (Making Us Human)

1. Fighting Cocks in the Balinese Culture — In 1973, anthropologist Clifford Geertz published an ethnography titled Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. This essay is part of his most influential work in the social science titled The Interpretations of Culture. In this study, Geertz explored the symbolic meanings attached to cock and cockfighting among the locals of Bali, Indonesia. He discovered that cocks traditionally signify masculinity and power in the villages of Bali. That is why during cockfight, winningest cocks are associated to successful and prestigious individuals or leaders. Betting process and norms on cockfighting can also be used to examine the social divides and political tensions of the community. There are unspoken but widely understood rules such as “you can’t bet against your relatives” or “village members will automatically group together when playing with outsiders”. These customs simply show the symbolic value of cock and cockfighting among Balinese.

2. Reindeer Hunting Among the Cree – In the thick woodlands of northeastern Canada hunts the Cree people. They are native hunters-gatherers that target different game animals but focus mainly on reindeers. Social anthropologist Tim Ingold observed (see his book The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill) that when Cree hunters pursue reindeer in the woods, there comes a point when reindeer suddenly stops, turns its head and stares at the hunters directly. Instead of running, reindeers usually do this strange thing when aware of others’ presence. Biologists have concluded that this behavior is an adaptive mechanism so that reindeers can escape from their natural predator, wolves. During pack hunt, wolves will stop on their tracks the moment the reindeer stops running. The same thing also happens; the reindeer will stop and look at its pursuer squarely. But this is only a preparation for their next run. Since the reindeer will initiate the breaking of that stalemate, it will have a slight advantage over the wolves. Thus, a healthy adult deer can usually outrun wolf packs. This biological adaption against wolves, however, goes favorable for human hunters. When a reindeer stops, hunters can easily shoot using their projectile weapons.

Cree hunters cognize this phenomenon differently than Western science. That critical point when the deer stares at them during the pursuit is read by Cree hunters as a message of self-sacrifice. They feel that the animal “offers itself up, quite intentionally and in a spirit of good-will or even love towards the hunter.” For Ingold, this is fascinating because killing doesn’t simply appear as “termination of life but as an act that is critical to its regeneration.” Situated within the Cree worldview, the reindeer feeds the community to survive.

3. Honeyguides and the Yao tribesmen. Southeast Africa is widely known for its ecological affluence. One interesting story about this place is the commensal relation of a wild bird species called honeyguides (Indicator indicator) and an indigenous group called the Yao. Despite their obvious biological difference, these two species developed a call-system for communication. Yao people are known gatherers of honey. The problem, however, is that beehives are usually hidden at the top of tall tress, safely camouflaged among branches. This makes the tracking of hives fairly difficult. This is when honeyguides help the Yao tribesmen. Since they can easily scout above high branches, looking for hives is easy for these birds.

To inform the Yao gatherers, honeyguides will make a signature chirp, and will swoop from one tree to another until reaching the hive. Years of close interaction trained the gatherers to discern the said bird sound. They can also ask help from nearby honeyguides by performing a unique birdcall, handed for countless generations. Yao gatherers will be in-charge of getting the hive when they get into the location. After extracting the honey, the birds will then feast on the remaining beeswax and grubs. On their own, honeyguides can’t open beehives. It’s a win-win scenario for all. Hmm, except the bees.

Final Thoughts…

There are moments when people realize that humanity has always been enmeshed to a larger web of life. Our existence is not only of our own but an organ of a greater ecological dynamics. From our ‘everyday cats and dogs’ to ‘our not-so-everyday wild birds like honeyguides,’ the story of human-animal relation has gone a long way. Cross-species camaraderie is not an overnight phenomenon. On the contrary, it will always be a work-in-progress. This may be a reminder that animals make us human.

Culture For Dummies

It’s culture!

Films, books, paintings, operas, museums, ancestral homes, antiques – things that people mundanely associate to culture. India’s annual Festival of Colors (Holi), for instance, reminds us of the vividness of Eastern cultural landscape. The same thing goes when we experience the enthralling lights of Broadway. There’s a sense of intimate allure, yet hauntingly distant. We imagine culture as an exotic, romantic, and fashionable existence out there, far away. But it’s not.

Culture is one of the most ambiguous terms in the English language. In 2014, Merriam-Webster announced ‘culture’ as the Word of Year. They explained that this word saw the highest spike in terms of lookups on their site. “Culture is a word that we seem to be relying on more and more. It allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group with seriousness,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large. We live in a world where the use and abuse culture is widespread. With this in mind, we need to ask, “What is culture?” In his classic work titled Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, anthropologist Edward Tylor defined this concept as the “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society.” This definition is considered as the most popular (and quoted) anthropological conceptualization of this word. The word was originally derived from the archaic Latin colere which means to ‘to tend, to inhabit, to till, to worship.’

Culture is a central but contested concept in anthropology and sociology. It covers a complex range of social realities and phenomena transmitted by means of social learning. It gives people an array of cognitive tools for them to make sense of their world. And unlike the general assumption that it is ‘far away’, culture is actually unfolding right in front of our eyes. It is not always romantic and exotic; but it is practical, repetitive, and a guide to our every day humanity. It is not solely about music, or fashion, or taste, but an intricate combination of all these components weaved together to create multitudes of daily habits and practices. To better understand this point, Conrad Kottak (author of Mirror for Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology) posits that we can examine culture using a number attributes.

Attributes of Culture

1. It is learned. The way children absorb culture is dependent on humans’ biological capacity to learn complex thought. Most of the time, culture is learned unconsciously. Cultural knowledge is transmitted through observation and performance. It is usually passed from one generation to another, a rigid social process called enculturation.

Like Homo sapiens, other animals have the capacity to learn. For example, we can teach our dogs to do a trick or two. Wolves can learn hunting strategies by watching and tagging with other pack members. There are even group of chimpanzees capable of using simple tools to hunt their prey. These are social animals that learn from other members of the group or their environment. And the capacity to learn is important for them to survive. But cultural learning is radically different since it requires the ability of decoding/encoding symbols (signs that have no necessary connection to the things they signify). Humans can learn things despite the absence of actual experience. Students can learn the life of Adolf Hitler even though some were just born twenty years ago! This is possible because we have universe of symbols embedded in our culture. And we retrieve this information whenever necessary. It points us to the next attribute – that culture is fundamentally symbolic.

2. It is symbolic. This implies that social meanings are encoded into symbols such as words, signs, actions, events, objects, etcetera. Symbols are usually linguistic. But there are tons of nonverbal symbols around us. We think of countries when we see flags. Diamond is a symbol of wealth. A double arch may signify a particular fast food chain for many of us. Or we picture a clothing brand when looking at a bold check logo. We can efficiently transfer knowledge to a wider public because of our ability to encode and understand symbols.

(Centuries from now, future archaeologists may study the symbolic value of Star Wars franchise by analyzing artifacts like DVDs and merchandise. Who knows?!)

3. It is shared. An individual cannot simply claim that he/she have his/her own culture. Culture frames individuals as members of groups, sharing, producing, and reproducing practices and meanings together. Ever heard of the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”? It reminds us that behaviors and practices are simply parts of a larger whole – a communitas. Shared ideals, beliefs, values, and memories glue people of the same group. And enculturation makes people closer by providing similar experiences and worldviews.

4. It is all-encompassing. This means that all people are “cultured!” There’s a time in history when the term “culture” can only be associated to individuals with education, sophistication, high socio-economic pedigree, and those who can appreciate arts and letters. That’s just elitism talking! Culture encompasses people and the triviality of life. It includes pop culture, hip hop, and heavy metal music! It is more than the expected refinement – of partaking wine and cheese. Culture is about the grueling monotonous routines that we see unworthy of serious analysis.

5. It can be adaptive (or maladaptive). For 150,000 years, humans survived because we have biological and cultural ways of coping with environmental pressures. Moreover, social and cultural means of adaptation has only increased during the course of human evolution. It is seamlessly embodied by the survival of populations in extreme environmental conditions such as the freezing domains of Siberia and the arid ecology of Kalahari Desert.

The Viliui Sakha of Northeast Siberia is a good example on the resiliency of local communities. They are pastoralists and horticulturalists, well-accustomed to the cold climatic condition of the area. Come winter, the temperature drops to -50 to -60 degrees (they call this hard climate). During its peak, flying birds would usually freeze and die. And whey they spit, it will freeze before hitting the ground. Even though the place is almost freezing all throughout the year, they can still store enough food stuff because they understand what resources they should acquire, use, and maximize during a particular period. In addition, their local knowledge on sowing hides for clothing protects them from the desolate icy winds of Siberia. Winter is a territory of comfort for the Sakha. In this case, culture is a central tool kit to their survival.

Final Thoughts…

I think it is high time for people to recognize the nuances of culture as a conceptual tool. It may be complex but never impossible. Exploring the diversity of culture is a journey in understanding perspectives and voices. In a rapidly globalizing world, culture will eventually serve as bridge in understanding local narratives.