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Earth Jazz.

by Evan Eisenberg
  

Over the past few centuries, our perception of nature has become narrowly visual. As a result nature has taken on in our minds the frozen perfection of calendar photos, or the streamlined motion of television specials. Living in modern civilization, we see nature as an object to be manipulated or a view to be admired. We hear nature hardly at all. At the same time, we have come to hear music as a privileged language of human emotion, with no reference (except when the words or program say so) to the world outside.

While it may be a modern specialty, the bias toward a visual perception of nature is hardly a modern invention. It is not even a human invention. As primates, we are profoundly visual creatures. Our eyes' precise stereoscopy suits us to size up the world, our hands' precision grip to seize it. We anatomize and butcher, have visions and build.

The eye is attuned to objects, the ear to process. The eye lives in space, the ear in time. It is no wonder that music, of all arts, lends itself most readily to improvisation. While the eye perches dryly at a certain point of view, the ear swims. Since the eye individuates while the ear unites, music has long been thought the art best able to give humans a sense of oneness with each other and with the universe. The word we unfailingly use for the reconciliation of unlike things is a musical word, harmony. Music is perhaps the most social of all arts, and one of the few that admits of group improvisation.

For Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, music was the voice of the cosmos itself. For many traditional peoples it depicts the cycles and moods of nature, and often involves a delicate dialogue with birds and crickets, water and wind. By us it is bricked up in concert halls or living rooms, or blared from speakers that turn the outdoors into a living room. Meanwhile the sounds of nature are bricked out, glazed out, muffled by air conditioners and shredded by lawnmowers.

Both our perception of nature and our action upon it might be improved if we relied a bit less on sight and a bit more on sound. At least, we might use sound as a model. We might use sound in general, and one kind of sound in particular, as a model for our collaboration with nature.

What form should that collaboration take? The deep ecologists want us to sing one faint part among millions in nature's (imagined) harmony. The planet managers want to compose and conduct a planet-symphony of their own devising. Maybe there is a third possibility: a kind of earth jazz.

Hands on bongo drum.Its advice for humankind might go something like this: Ditch your notated score—whether ascribed to nature or yourself—and learn to improvise. Respond as flexibly to nature as nature responds to you. Accept nature's freedom as the premise of your own: accept that both are grounded in a deeper necessity. Relax your rigid beat and learn to follow nature's rhythms—in other words, to swing.

A good model for the planet might be a bebop quartet led by a saxophonist. The style of each sideman pervades the whole, since the drummer, bassist, and pianist play almost all the time. Each player, though, also takes solos, stretches of music that he makes his own. During most of these solos the leader "lays out." But during the leader's solos the other musicians keep playing. In other words, they are indispensable and he is not—a sobering lesson for any leader and one that man had better learn soon.

If you translate time into space, the sax player into humankind, and the three sidemen into other taxa—making the piano, say, the nonhuman animals, the bass the plants, the drum set a catch-all for fungi, protoctists, and bacteria—you get a lesson in how humans can work with nature. For humans to thrive, even the most humanized spaces must be innoculated with other species. Wildness, like swing, must flow through all things. But for other species to thrive, they must have some spaces to themselves: spaces from which humans discretely withdraw, excuse or recuse themselves, "lay out."

The leader of a jazz group takes a bird's eye view of its music. On some level, he is aware of the sounds each player is making. That awareness shapes his own playing, which in turn nudges the others' in sundry ways. But he does not try to make each note that is played fit some preset scheme.

All life plays variations on the same few chord changes. Each taxon improvises, following certain rules but obeying no predetermined destiny. Each responds to the riffing, comping, noodling and vamping of those around it. Life makes itself up as it goes along. Withal, a certain unity emerges that no one has willed.

Now, it might be objected that jazz is only a small part of the world's music. Since it grew up on a few small patches of the earth's surface—the Mississippi River valley, the stockyards of Chicago, the steel cliffs of Manhattan Island—how can it claim to shed light on the relations of humans and nature in other places?

Jazz is not just any music, but a mongrel of splendid pedigree. It is an urban music with deep rural roots. Its rhythms arise from the juxtaposition of chicken coops and locomotives, of bayous and steel mills, of tenements and penthouses. Most of all, it springs from the meeting of Africa and Europe—the tree where man was born, and the the axe that would take it down—on the soil of a new world.

Another reason jazz fits the bill is that it is a music of exile. Born of the African diaspora, it gives voice to our nomadic urges as well as our longing for a home. The bedrock of jazz is the blues—a music of yearning, of anger, of dashed hopes that (like the twelve-bar form itself) always spring back. The blues are born of exile, oppression, and shattered love. While these are the special condition of the African-American, they are also, in a broader sense, the state of all humans outside Eden.

For modern people, maybe for all people, earth jazz begins with earth blues. Until you have felt in your bones what it is to be a species that cannot help but change the world—a species that in making its paradise unmakes Eden—your attempts at a joyful, playful dialogue with nature are bound to ring hollow. Until you have sat down and wept by the rivers of Babylon, you will not discover that they, too, flow from Eden. When you do make that discovery, the Lord's song will rise in your throat unbidden.

The Maine coastline.Jamming with the Goddess

“It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing"—Ellington's dictum fits earth jazz, too. What is swing? Pedants have gone grey trying to define it. For our purposes, we can think of it as a kind of suppleness, a looseness far more exact than mere exactness. To swing, one must be aware of the rhythms behind the rhythm. In nature, this means the chaos behind apparent order, and the order behind apparent chaos. A rhythm in jazz is like the coastline of Maine: no single measurement is possible: as you look closer, new convolutions appear. A good jazz solo can never be notated: you can get down to the level of dotted hemidemisemiquavers and still know that further layers of complexity lurk just beneath. Biologists trying to describe or model a natural system often get the same feeling. And Ralph Ellison may have had the same feeling about social systems when—using a Louis Armstrong record as his jumping-off point—he said of "invisibility": "You're never quite on the beat. And you slip into the breaks and look around."

We do not swing. Our science, our lifestyles are rigid. We deal with nature now as one who carries a mug of coffee in his right hand and a book wedged between his right elbow and his side. The arm is locked rigidly against the body, there is no give, the coffee sloshes wildly with every step. No wonder we lose so much.

Let me come back to a question I raised earlier. How do you collaborate with Gaia if you don't know exactly how she works, or what she wants? You do it, I think, by playing earth jazz. You improvise. You are flexible and responsive. You work on a small scale, and are ready to change direction at the drop of a hat. You encourage diversity, giving each player—human or nonhuman—as much room as possible to stretch out. You trade fours with the goddess: play four bars, listen to her response, respond, listen, respond. True, sometimes her response may not be clear for centuries. But then no one said this would be easy.

At any rate, it may be easier to accept our exile from Eden—and the need to intensify that exile, in a sense, by stepping back and giving Eden more elbow room—if we see it as the premise of a creative give-and-take. The music of Eden may have been gorgeous beyond our fluffiest dreams, but whatever it was it was not earth jazz. In that tangle of world and self, trading fours was not an option. Without difference, without distance, there is no dialogue.

Spring blooms in the Pinacate desert of northern Mexico. Photo by Simmons Buntin.Midnight At the Oasis

Jazzmen trade fours; shepherds in pastoral trade sixes, swapping hexameters in friendly strife. Both practices may go back to the games of real shepherds. While the static ideal of Arcadia may be a mirage, some of its ancient habits—of playful riffing, of shifting boundaries, of discord deftly harmonized—can serve us surprisingly well. Panpipes or saxophones, the basic point is the same.

Let me start giving some examples of missing the point and of getting the point. In the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, there is a place the Papago Indians call A'al Waipia where sweetwater springs trickle into a small pond, inciting a riot of green in a world of grey. For thousands of years, A'al Waipia was the site of Indian settlements. As late as 1957, Papago irrigation ditches fed more than a dozen acres of crops and orchards.

In that year, the National Park Service moved in. As one of the few true desert oases in North America, A'al Waipia had to be protected. With the connivance of an Indian who claimed title to the land, the Park Service summarily condemned the fields and buildings. The oasis was returned to its natural state, so that its full value as a refuge of flora and fauna could be realized.

Things have not turned out quite as planned. Each year, the oasis looks less like an oasis. Each year, it loses plants and animals. When the ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan visited A'al Waipia in the early 1980s, not only had the fruit trees died; so had most of the "wild" trees. Only three cottonwoods remained, and only four willows. Summer annuals, too, were scarce. A survey Nabhan undertook with the help of ornithologists at three different times of year found a total of thirty-two bird species at A'al Waipia. At a similar oasis in the Mexican Sonora, the scientists found over sixty-five.

The Mexican oasis, known to the Papago as Ki:towak, is only thirty miles from A'al Waipia, but its aspect is very different. Resplendent with palms, cottonwoods, willows, elderberry, salt cedar, date, pomegranate, and fig; verdant in summer with squash, watermelon, beans, and other crops, and with wild greens coaxed forth by plowing and irrigation; its ditches rife with Olney's tule, the edible bulrush from which the oasis takes its name, Ki:towak offers plenty of food and shelter for teal, white-faced ibis, and dozens of other birds A'al Waipia no longer sees. For this is a cultivated oasis—cultivated in the thrifty, painstaking Papago way, of which I will say more in the next chapter—just as A'al Waipia was before the Park Service arrived.

Nabhan quotes a Papago farmer: "When people live and work in a place, and plant their seeds and water their trees, the birds go live with them. They like those places, there's plenty to eat and that's when we are friends to them."

Of course, I share the Park Service's presumption that ecologically sensitive places should be left wild or allowed to go wild whenever possible. But when indigenous people have been living in a place for thousands of years, chances are the "wild" things in that place have coevolved with them. Pulling them out of the ecological structure (if indeed we have the right to do so in the first place) may cause its collapse. A parks service schooled in earth jazz would be flexible enough to avoid such an error, or at least to correct it once its effects become clear. Unfortunately, by the time the actual Parks Service concedes this specific error, it may be too late, as there may be very few traditional Papago farmers left.

Downtown Nantucket. Photo courtesy University of Florida.Avoiding the Nantucket Sleighride

The same kind of flexibility can be applied to broader issues of "resource use." In the past couple of centuries, planet managers have convinced themselves that they know how to manage nature "sustainably." Scientists study a given renewable "resource"—fir, cod, what have you—and arrive at a consensus as to its growth rate, recovery rate, and so on. They determine the "maximum sustained yield"—the harvest that loggers or fishermen should be able to take every year, year after year, for all eternity—and the government sets its limits accordingly.

The only problem with this system is that it almost never works. For all the sophistication of their computer models, scientists have only the vaguest idea of what is going on in the woods and still less of what is going on under the water. The manifold factors that make fisheries, for instance, surge or ebb in cockeyed cycles—prey and predators, climate and currents, toxins and dams and a hundred things not yet identified—ensure that consensus stays slippery. Controlled, reproducible experiments are out of the question. With so much wriggle room, industry can always find scientists who will testify that a higher yield would be just fine, and politicians who will believe them. Even limits set in good faith tend to put too much faith in the compliance of fishing fleets. Worse, they put too much faith in the compliance of the fish themselves. If their population has been stable for several years, it is trusted to stay stable.

You might think that if a maximum sustained yield started to look unsustainable, it would be revised downward. In fact, just the opposite happens. What economists call a "ratchet effect" takes hold. In good years, extra boats go out and extra processing plants get built. But in the lean years that inevitably follow, those boats and plants are not put in drydock or shut down. Instead industry looks to the government, which responds with subsidies of one kind or another. Boats are kept afloat, relentlessly fishing an ever dwindling fishery. More often than not, the net effect—seen in recent years in herring, cod, ocean perch, salmon, lake trout, sardine, anchoveta, and many other stocks—is collapse.

A society attuned to earth jazz would not let itself get locked into such patterns. Its scientists, knowing their own fallibility, would recommend limits below those that their computers spat out. They would be ready to revise them downward at the first sign of decline—that is, at the first sign not masked by the froth of natural variation—and would revise them upward only by small degrees. Policy makers, knowing a thing or two about human nature, would assume that the scientists knew even less than they said they knew. Nor would they wait for perfect consensus before taking action. They would hedge their bets and make their policies as supple and reversible as possible. Enlisting the help of business and labor, they would evade the grip of the ratchet effect by diversifying local economies and spreading risk. In such a society, communities would not be hostage to the leaping and diving of a single resource like whalemen on a Nantucket sleighride—a ride that ends in the destruction of one party or both. But the society as a whole would ride the waves of nature's changes, and humankind's.

Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Photo courtesy National Park Service.Pick Your Eden

Whether we like it or not, the world culture of the near future will be, in large part, American. Both the best and the worst in American culture will be represented: the only question is, in what proportions? By speaking of earth jazz, I am trying to apply the greatest product of American culture to the greatest problem the world faces. It is not an answer to the problem, of course. Even to call it a model is stretching things a bit. When you come right down to the nitty-gritty of farming, industry, and the making of cities and villages, each region needs to work out its own answers. But as each of us hoes our own row (or nonrow, as the case may be), jazz may give us inspiration.

What seems at first glance to be vagueness may prove useful. Most visions of humankind's place in nature fail, I think, because they mark out too specific a place. One visionary likes the medieval city, another the nineteenth-century farming village, a third the desert Pueblo. It might make a good parlor game: "Pick Your Eden." The hunter-gatherer band; the Neolithic village; the putatively matrifocal culture of Old Europe; the "wild gardening" of South and Central American Indians; the "Old Planting Culture" of the South Seas; the elaborate mixed farming of East Asia; the wind-and-water technology of early modern Europe... Each of these has been somebody's pick, and none has been everybody's.

While each Eden may have something to teach us, none can begin to address the wide range of problems we face. Worse, each makes the mistake of being an Eden—a world made whole, once and for all. Better, I think, to accept the exile from Eden, with all the division and instability that is its baggage. Better to take as your model not a thing, time-and-place, or state of affairs, but a process.

Rather than be hostage of my own tastes, I start with the rock-bottom fact that we need wilderness. We need it not only for our psychological well being (at least, this seems likely) but for sheer biological survival. The question then is, What is our proper relation to wilderness? How can we keep it alive, when our natural tendency is to overrun or smother it? Should we live in it, supposing that were logically possible? Should we live like it—use it, that is, as a template for our manmade world? If we cannot live exactly like it—if the manmade world has some rules of its own—how can we continue to enjoy the boons it confers on us and on all other creatures?

In seeking answers to these questions, I have tried to skirt the problems that cling to particular Edens by choosing models that are somewhat abstract, like the Mountain and the Rivers of Eden. And now I have used a model that is not a place or a time or a kind of relation between humans and nature, but something else entirely: a kind of music. Something else entirely—it is, after all, on a different ontological plane—but not something unrelated. For it seems to me that music, of all the arts, has the most to say about the relation of humans and nature. Music describes the workings of nature (including humans) at a level deeper than any particular landscape—deeper, but not more abstract. It works on a different plane than the real world, but on its own plane it is just as specific and just as exact. That is why it can mirror some things in the real world more exactly than language, which is confined to the same plane as the real world and is constantly banging into the wrong things. Music, by contrast, shares the vast sonic plane with a fairly narrow set of natural sounds. It has infinite space for manoeuvre, infinite shades of nuance.

Because of this, and because the vast ocean of the world's music is fed by rivulets from every landscape and every culture, music has something to say about the relation between humans and nature on every inhabited inch of the earth's surface. In this way it avoids the twin perils of vagueness on the one side, and limited applicability on the other, that afflict more literal models.

A model is not worth much unless it can serve, somewhere down the line, as a guide to action. First, though, it may be useful to listen more closely to an idea essential to earth jazz: the idea of learning from nature.

RRiver otters along an Amazon River tributary.Gardening the Amazon

Anthropology is peculiar among the sciences in that its most out-of-date books are generally its best. The first, stumbling practitioners were the last to get a good look at the objects of study. It is as if the solar system had begun to disintegrate during the lifetimes of Galileo and Kepler and by Einstein's time consisted of the earth, the sun, and a cloud of dust.

Unfortunately, the first anthropologists did not take "primitive" farming very seriously. Its rituals, its "magic," the social roles it involved, the strange beliefs it seemed to imply—these were intriguing. Its efficacy, though, was presumed to be negligible when compared with that of modern agriculture.

For example, the most common agriculture of the rainforest, swidden or shifting cultivation, was long regarded as crude and wasteful. Its common name, "slash-and-burn," became a synonym for short-sighted mayhem. Only in the fifties and sixties, with the work of Conklin and Rappaport, did ethnographers begin to see just how deft a method swidden could be. New subtleties are even now coming to light, notably in Darryl Posey's studies of the Gorotire Kayapo.

The Kayapo are a fierce and ancient people who once roamed and ruled a portion of the Amazon basin as large as France. Though their lands have been eaten away by ranches and plantations, they now live in a proposed reserve of some five million acres, which includes grassland and savanna as well as rainforest. A few generations ago, the Kayapo were seminomadic; the entire tribe would trek for six to eight months, relying only on wild foods. Though they are now settled in villages, they still go on frequent hunting and foraging trips—including treks of two or three weeks—and spend several months of each year living in Brazil-nut groves.

In clearing a plot of forest for a garden, the men in each family fell the largest trees standing near the center of the plot in such a way that they topple outward, bringing smaller trees down with them. The result is a circle of just under an acre, constellated like a wheel. Great tree trunks radiate from the center: toward the circumference is a tangle of branches and leafage.

While all this biomass is baking in the sun, getting ready for burning, the women find their way through the outer tangle and into the open lanes between the trunks. Here they do something that textbook slash-and-burn gardeners do not do: they plant about a quarter of their root crops before the burn. When the fire does come, the root systems of these yams, sweet potatoes, taro, and manioc will be ready to suck up the flush of nutrients it lets loose. Moreover, they will have a jump on the weed seeds that will also want a share of that bonanza.

A slow burn is the ideal. Moving from one pile of debris to the next, the Kayapo may take the better part of a day to burn a single plot. This way, the heat is kept low and the roots of the crops already planted are not damaged.

A few days later, when the ashes have cooled, the women plant the rest of the root crops. A week or so after that, the men gather the branches and twigs that have not been thoroughly burned, make piles, and set them alight. In the ashes the women plant beans, squash, melons, and other plants that are particularly hungry for nutrients. The staggered planting helps ensure a staggered harvest: a good thing where food storage is difficult.

Now the plot looks less like a wheel than like an archery target. Allowing for variations that take advantage of the plot's various soil types, the crops are mainly arranged in concentric rings. In the outer ring, which is richest in nutrients because it is where the most of the foliage fell, papaya, bananas, cotton, urucu, tobacco, and beans thrive. The next ring is manioc, the next corn and rice. In the center are sweet potatoes and yams.

After a few seasons, this garden will no longer be planted. But it will not be "abandoned"—not in the textbook sense. True, it will be allowed to revert to forest. But it will remain useful to the Kayapo for decades. Though corn and rice disappear, sweet potatoes and yams keep bearing for four or five years, bananas and urucu for eight to twelve years, kupa for thirty or forty years. The volunteer plants that begin the process of succession include fruit trees, palms, and medicinal herbs. They also include berries that attract birds and other wildlife that the Kayapo like to hunt.

Once they are planted, the gardens will pretty much go of themselves. They have few pest problems, mainly because they are so small and widely scattered—in time and space—that large concentrations of pests can't build up. They can be left alone for months, and at later stages for years, which means they are well suited to a seminomadic (or hemiseminomadic) lifestyle. They can be visited and picked from during treks.

These gardens give high yields for very little work. In the balance sheet of calories invested against calories returned, they are triumphantly in the black: far more so than most modern fields. They also improve the soil of the rainforest. In fact, the "Indian black soil" found in certain places is aptly named, since it may well be an Indian creation. This, too, contradicts the textbooks, which tell us that swidden gardens lose their fertility after a year or two.

But then a question arises. If old plots are still fertile, why don't the Kayapo keep planting them? Why walk three or four hours to new gardens when you can replant old gardens that are just fifteen minutes away? In three or four years, admittedly, the nutrients released by the burn would be used up. But then why not do a new burn in a ten-year old garden, instead of waiting twenty years as the Kayapo do?

The reason has already been hinted at. Old fields that are returning to forest are full of plants directly useful to the Kayapo, as well as berries, fruits, and browse that attract birds and mammals. The latter factor may be the key. For all its abundance, the rainforest is not rich in meat. (That is why almost no pure hunter-gatherers live there.) The more widely the old gardens are dispersed, the greater the pool of game on which they can draw.

The Kayapo. Photo courtesy Greenpeace.Resource Islands

The Kayapo have learned to play the forest's own game, and win. Yet the forest does not lose. While parts of the ecosystem are changed to meet the people's needs, the changes are subtle—so subtle that Western eyes can hardly detect them. The structural principles of the forest are respected, and the ecosystem as a whole keeps its integrity.

The contrast with modern agriculture, as practiced in the ranches and plantations that are carved out of the Kayapo's ancient lands, could not be more striking. Instead of an acre, thousands of acres are cleared at once. Deprived of the forest's parasol, the fragile soil is baked by the sun. Organic matter breaks down rapidly and is soon leached or washed away by the heavy rains. The rains also wash away the soil itself, or pound it until it is hard as brick. In the space of a few years, forest has turned to desert.

Subtle as their swidden gardens are, the Kayapo have even subtler ways of playing the forest's game. Along their ancient paths through the forest, often near streamside campsites worn flat and hard with centuries of use, are patches of forest preternaturally rich in food plants. They did not get that way naturally (or rather, they did, if one grants that humans are part of nature). In these places, roots, tubers, stalks, and fruits foraged from the forest nearby have been replanted to form "resource islands." For a Kayapo it is second nature to replant an unfinished bit of food near where he shits.

Nor is it only the forest's game that the Kayapo play. In the campo (grassland) and cerrado (savanna) that are part of their range, and where for reasons of health they like to site their villages, there are islands of forest known as apete. These are much more common near the villages than elsewhere. At first glance, these patches of forest seem natural. Only recently have anthropologists caught on to the fact that some three-quarters of them are manmade. The Kayapo make them by building compost piles from branches and leaves, innoculating the compost with bits of ant and termite nests, planting trees they find especially useful, and then allowing "natural" afforestation to take over. After a few decades, this process can result in an apete as big as ten acres.

When Posey and a colleague collected 140 species of plants from apete near Gorotire, they learned that 138 of them were considered useful by the Kayapo, and 84 had been deliberately planted. Besides serving as supermarkets, the islands are used as shelters in time of war and epidemic, as refuges from the midday sun, as studios for body painting, as playgrounds, and as motels for trysting lovers.

Formerly, it was believed that the only way indigenous peoples managed the savanna was by burning, to keep it open and encourage the growth of fresh grass. The Kayapo do burn the campo, and one reason is to get fresh grass that will draw game. The other reason, though, is not to discourage trees, but to encourage the growth and fruiting of certain fire-loving trees.

Naturally, the Kayapo's ways of playing with nature have stimulated new thought about the beginnings of farming. Most scholars have assumed that people would have to be settled in one place before the domestication of plants could get started. But the Kayapo (and other peoples lately studied) show us forms of semidomestication that mesh deftly with a seminomadic way of life. Indeed, if you could shield your eyes from the slash-and-burn farming on which they have lately come to depend more heavily, and look only at their ways of moving and manipulating "wild" plants, you might think you had found the missing link between gathering and gardening.

The irony is dense: The Amazon basin, the one place on earth where nature and culture are most fiercely at odds, is also the place where the distinction between them comes to seem a fiction, thin as mist. But many other forms of wild gardening can be found in many other parts of the world.

Experimental fire in the Amazon basin. Photo courtesy Woods Hole Research Center.Signposts in the Forest

To be sure, indigenous farming is not always good farming. Slash-and-burn, for example, is not always done as well as the Kayapo do it. Where population pressures are too great, fallow periods are often too short and patches too close together. In tropical Africa, the forest fallow has been largely abandoned in favor of a much shorter grass fallow. In such cases, the forest is destroyed more slowly but just as surely as it would be destroyed by Western farming. Nor are Western incursions always to blame. Misuse of swidden in Africa seems to have started in prehistory, shortly after the practice was introduced from Asia. Scientists have found that sickle-cell anemia occurs mainly in those parts of Africa where slash-and-burn farming is an ancient practice. The reason is that having a single, recessive gene for sickle cell is a defense against malaria. Where malaria is common, the gene is favored, even though people who have the bad luck to have two of them become anemic. Malaria is common in places where bad swiddening has caused compaction of the soil, creating pools of standing water that are maternity wards for mosquitoes.

Peoples that have lived in the same place for a long time without ruining it are not "natural." They are smart and they are lucky. And because they have lived in the same place for a long time, they have been able to fine-tune their dealings with nature. No primitive people that is still around today can really be primitive. All have thousands of years of trial and error under their belts. In many cases, they have had the same basic technology for centuries, which has allowed them to work out many of the kinks—the places where technology rubbed the wrong way against nature, or against people, or against itself. From this point of view, it is we who are primitive.

But non-Western societies have not always been models of ecological rectitude. The collapse of the Maya seven centuries before Cortes may have been caused largely by the felling of trees to fuel the fires in which they made lime stucco for their vast monuments. The volcanic highlands of Central Mexico seem to have lost soil at least as rapidly to pre-Columbian farming as they would when the Spaniards brought the plow. An animistic sense of oneness with nature did not prevent the Maoris from deforesting much of New Zealand and clubbing into extinction its flightless moas. The much admired nature religion of the North American Indians did not stop them from overhunting the buffalo as soon as they got horses and rifles. Nor did believing that Buddha-mind was in all things prevent Chinese monks from shaving the mountains to feed their funeral pyres. Asian medicine, with its shamanistic faith in animal powers, has brought the Siberian tiger, the Bengal tiger, the Asian bear, the black rhinoceros, and a host of other noble beasts to the brink of oblivion. Meanwhile the same culture that gave us Zen ink drawings is erasing with quick strokes many of the world's last forests, importing almost four times as much timber as any other country.

Suppose we grant, then, that non-Western peoples are not always perfect. Surely we have much to learn from those who, like the Kayapo, do certain things supremely well. Why not take the wild garden as our model?

We may do so, but with a grain of salt. In its purest forms, the wild garden is well suited to people whose wants are modest, whose tools are simple, and who are thinly scattered across the face of the Mountain. Most of us do not fit that description. The wild garden takes us closer to Eden than we can wisely go.

Our way of learning from nature has to be more abstract; the systems we model on natural systems have to be more concentrated, less mixed up with the extant natural systems themselves. Since we can't trust ourselves to be as smart as the Kayapo—or rather, as much smarter than the Kayapo as our greater numbers and power would require—we had better mess with wilderness as little as possible. Jumping back to our basic metaphor, we might put it this way: Our kind of earth jazz has to have a harder edge. If the Kayapo play a kind of New Orleans shuffle, the parts seamlessly bobbing and weaving, what we have to play is more like hard bop. The ideal would be to use our solo space—farms, gardens, factories—as boldly and economically as Sonny Rollins uses his.

Even so, we have much to learn from the Kayapo and their peers. Their paths are not our paths; but in the green depths of their paths are signs that may point our way.

  

Evan Eisenberg is the author of The Ecology of Eden (Knopf, Vintage) and The Recording Angel, recently issued in an expanded edition by Yale University Press. His writing on nature, culture, politics, and technology has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, Slate, Salon, Natural History, Discover, and numerous other periodicals.
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