“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Confessions of Murder: He Borara Chapter 3.3

(5,902 words. Or Start from the beginning.)

        What I was least prepared for, Lac confides to his field journal, was the lack of privacy. I’m reluctant to use a value-laden term like pushy, but no other word so accurately denotes the characteristic of the Yanomamö that’s most salient to an outsider, at least an outsider from a more technologically advanced society—or from a more mannered society, to use another value-laden term. The men were already easy enough to hear, shouting, making these long, drawn-out howling noises beginning high on the scale and swinging downward, before they even knew Clemens and I were approaching their village again. “Oooooohwwwhhhhoooo,” one would bellow, with another one or two men picking up at various points along the way. But with all the excitement attending our arrival, they became almost deafening.

Lac had sat down outside the hut and begun writing as much to distract the men crowding around him as it was to preserve his earliest impressions, erecting what he hoped would be a shield of purposeful activity to ward off their demands for his trade goods. Sure enough, when he put pen to paper and started scratching some invisible grooves into the humidity-softened sheet, the men went silent, gazing intently at the strange, useless implement. Lac had to shake the pen and turn to some pages nearer the middle of the notebook, kept fresh by the surrounding sheets, before he could get any lines to appear, a feat which brought an immediate end to the hush, as the men cheered, jostled each other, pointed, and clicked their tongues in approval—or in what sounded like approval. 
  
            The women, for the most part, Lac proceeds writing, continue to maintain their distance, though a few of the bolder ones have come close enough to touch my arms and my hair. (My arm and leg hair startles and fascinates them, as their own bodies are nearly hairless.) The men crowd around me, feeling no compunctions about grabbing me or pulling at my clothes. I recall looking at old maps of Venezuela with the region south of the Orinoco labeled “Yababuji.” It seems this is something the Yanomamö say when they want an object in your possession. As Clemens and I carried the plastic totes holding all my supplies from his dugout canoe to the hut, the men would point at just about every tool or container and say, “Yababuji”—or something that sounds like it anyway. Whoever made those early maps must’ve had a sense of humor, turning a demand into a pronouncement of group identity, and a group identity into a place name. Yababuji: Gimme. I’ve marooned myself in the Land of Gimme. 

            Lac looks up to scan the crowd of gawping mystified Indians watching him make chains of tiny inscrutable drawings in his stack of gleaming white rectangular leaves. Hadn’t they ever seen Clemens writing? he briefly wonders before turning back to his journaling. I was worried at first, he writes, that the Yanomamö would be angry at my refusals to hand over my supplies, and that their anger might escalate into violence. When I shared this concern with Clemens, he said, “You have to stand your ground or they’ll clean you out in a day.” Nonetheless, you apparently do have to worry about being labeled stingy, which is why Clemens encouraged me to give some of my madohe (trade goods) to the village headman, a man named Baohikowa. I gave him a machete and a metal cooking pot. He seemed pleased, though in a stoic, understated way. Baohikowa (Clemens’s spelling) exudes an obvious air of quiet authority. The others can demand madohe all they want; I’m under no obligation. Indeed, they seem to accept my refusals after a few stern repetitions—at least until they see something else they want.

            Lac comes to the end of the line he’s writing and feels a sense of completion. As soon as he closes the notebook, he’ll finish sorting his supplies inside Clemens’s mud-and-thatch hut and begin interacting with the Yanomamö, hoping to light on a viable method for learning their language. Along with this thought, however, comes an upwelling of dread, like a bubble of thick tar rising in the back of his throat. His plan to ward off the men surrounding him by affecting deep immersion in the task of writing has succeeded, to a degree, bringing him the closest thing he’s felt to the relief of seclusion since waking up in the Malarialogìa hut across the river this morning. So, despite not having anything more in mind to write, he finds himself moving on to the next line in his notebook.

            They refer to me as a nabah, which I’ll probably transcribe phonetically as nabä—foreigner. Aside from the men of the Malarialogìa, and the Ye’kwana Indians from the north, the Yanomamö never encounter nabäs, though I’m not sure what they call their fellow tribesmen from distant villages. Clemens was the first white man they had ever seen, and many of the people here, he told me, are in fact visiting from a village several days walk southeast of here, so they’d never seen even him. Being the center of such a disturbance is really making it sink in for me how difficult it will be to observe this culture operating in all its dynamic and vital dimensions—what with me being the foreign element responsible for the disruption. And it’s not just the Yanomamö who are distracted; this is only the first day of my fieldwork (though really all I’m doing today falls into the category of logistics) and already my nerves are frazzled.

            He almost writes, I feel like my sanity is hanging by a thread, a very thin one, moment to moment. But he thinks better of it.

            I wrote of the headman Baohikowa, Lac writes instead, about how he projects authority by mere dint of his presence. Even as I wrote that line, though, I wondered if I’d be able to pick Baohikowa from a crowd of these other men. Over the coming days and weeks, as I endeavor to learn the language, I’ll be hoping to catch glimpses of them working these gardens I see on the edge of the forest, embarking on journeys into the jungle to hunt game, communing with their spirits. But before I can even learn their names—assuming I figure out a way to get them to divulge each other’s names—I’ll need to work out how to separate each individual from the mass of naked bodies. They all have the same thick raven-black hair cut in the same pudding-bowl style (cut with what?). All of their lower lips protrude, pushed out by the rolls of green tobacco. Some of them have bands around their upper arms, or belts made of some type of fabric, but mostly all they’re wearing is strings, one around their waists to which they tie the foreskin of their penises, and a couple to support some sort of tube hanging low on their backs. Why they tie their penises to their belts or waist strings I can’t begin to imagine. Maybe it’s simply to keep them from flopping around if they have to run. Or maybe it’s how they keep their penises sheathed within their foreskins—a nod to propriety?

            Meanwhile, the reek and the filth everywhere I turn has me constantly on the verge of succumbing to nausea. Nearly every one of the men crowding around me, jostling me, poking and prodding me—nearly all of them have some sort of sores or lesions on their skin. As I discovered yesterday when I first arrived with Clemens, the Yanomamö approach to hygiene is quite minimal, in the neighborhood of nonexistent. I was unsettled by my own stench after three and half days on the Orinoco; that’s nothing compared to being surrounded by dozens of men who’ve never seen a bar of soap. I estimate there to be between 100 and 150 people living in this village, which it turns out is comprised of two circular enclosures (shabonos), with another one tucked into the jungle beyond the one Clemens and I entered yesterday after following the trail from the river. It seems all these people simply take turns ducking out of the shabono to empty their bowels—and with the looming threat of attacks from neighboring villages they aren’t wont to wander too far beyond the wall. Thankfully, Clemens warned me to watch where I step while I walk back and forth between the hut and the shabono, or between the hut and the river. But the odor of fruity shit pervades the moist air, hovering like a heavy curtain hung at nose height, along with all the other noisome smells.   

            As Lac writes, a fat globule of sweat glints through his eyes’ periphery before smacking dully onto the page, smearing the script and quickly taking on its own inky tinge. A man crouching beside where he sits atop a sectioned log utters an untranscribable word as he leans over the page to examine the miniscule puddle. Lac sits up straight to see what the man will do. Extending his finger, the Indian cautiously reaches toward the notebook, pausing to meet Lac’s eye. Lac gives him what’s intended to be an encouraging nod. Sure enough, the man reaches down and dabs the drop of sweat with his finger. He then lifts it up for closer examination. Lac swipes a hand over his forehead, saying, “Sweat.” Then he takes the pen and scribbles a few swirls, saying, “Ink.”  With surprising nonchalance, the man repeats, “Ink.” He then dabs his own forearm with his wetted finger, looks at the light smudge with an expression of disappointment, and finally turns to look at the pen in Lac’s hand.

“Yababuji,” he says, pointing.

“No,” Lac replies. “I’m sorry but I’m using it.”

A brief clamor ensues.

Sighing, Lac lowers his head and writes, I’m trying to figure out if I’ve ever in my life felt as forlorn as I did watching Clemens make his way along the path back to the Orinoco River. I’m completely stranded here, awaiting his next visit in two weeks—give or take. I’ve decided I need to buy a dugout canoe of my own, since I’d rather avoid having to rely on Chuck, who has his own projects to attend to. Maybe the priest I spoke to at Platanal will let me use his shortwave radio to talk to Laura in Caracas; I imagine they’d have a radio at IVIC as well. She and I discussed her bringing the kids to join me in a couple of weeks, after I’ve had a chance to build our own hut and establish safe access to all our basic necessities. How clueless I was! If they were anywhere near this place now, my first order of business would be to get them the hell out. But I’d give anything to hear her voice, and I anticipate that the fulfillment of this particular need will be a critical ingredient of my emotional sustenance over the coming months. 

  Lost in thought now, Lac sits upright, touching the end of his pen to his lower lip. First, it’s the men who are struck by the gesture’s obscenity—ripples of laughter radiate outward through the half circle they form around him—and then it’s the children, who hold up their index fingers to mock him. He finds himself smiling. It really is a funny thing to do, looking off sightlessly into the distance, holding your writing implement to your mouth, as if silently filling it with the words you have yet to formulate.

Prior to Clemens’s departure, Lac futilely scratches on the dampened page before turning over several sheets to find a fresher one to begin again—and at this rate, he wonders, how long before I exhaust my supply of field journals? Until watching Clemens make his way along the trail back to the river, back to the canoe, and back to Tama Tama, which may as well be on another planet for all the ease I’d have of reaching it from here—until then the most desolated I’d ever felt was on the day I moved to campus. Not Sault St. Marie; that was only a couple of hours from home, and it represented a coming to fruition of family expectations. No, moving to Ann Arbor, to the University of Michigan, that was the rough one.

Lac halts in his writing. That was also when he found out that not only had Bess—his lone confidante and co-conspirator, his closest companion and most trusted sidekick, with whom, among all of his siblings, he shared by far the greatest intimacy, his beloved Bess—not only had she been present and participated in the nighttime raid with the wet socks; she’d been the one who’d improvised a solution to the problem posed by his unbound legs.

He has a desperate urge to stand up from the log and wander away from the gathering of filthy obtrusive Indians. Motoring up the Orinoco, he’d felt as though an anchor were attached to his neck, its drag pulling at him with greater weight the farther he traveled away from civilization, away from Laura and the kids. An anchor bound to his neck by a noose, he remembers thinking. Standing in the hut, watching the beige of Chuck’s shirt vanish into the undergrowth, surrounded by reeking naked bodies—men and children—with whom he had practically no chance of communicating in any significant way—beyond watching and demanding and mocking—standing there, he’d felt that invisible anchor swing dramatically downward, until it depended along his spine, vacillating like a clock’s pendulum beneath his feet, still tightening about his neck, but now weighing him down, making him feel that at any moment he could surrender and sink into the earth.

That first week in the dorm at U of M, Lac had realized that, while before the incident of the wet socks he had been closer to his sister Bess than to perhaps any other person in the world, it was only afterward that she began to encourage his flights of fancy in real earnest. He can’t quite recapture what he went through that day, after they’d moved all of his belongings from the truck into the dorm room. What he remembers is that it was all that time later and Bess still had tears in her eyes when she told him she knew how much he’d been hurt by his siblings’ betrayal. He couldn’t help wanting to explain why he’d felt it was such a great injustice, why the helplessness of knowing he could never get through to any of them that he hadn’t meant, in any literal sense, any of what he wrote was worse than the helplessness of being held immobile for the duration of the beating. Over the years, he’d rehearsed in his mind a multitude of ways he could explain it to them, but he’d never actually said any of it to anyone.

“Connor read to us what you wrote,” Bess said as she sat on the edge of his bed, the lone piece of furniture in the tiny room. “It’s so long ago now, but I remember feeling like it wasn’t really about any of us—it was more of a story, like fiction, but sort of involving us, or versions of us. But as Connor went on reading, David got more and more angry. They talked about how you thought you were better than the rest of us, smarter, destined for some kind of fame. I really don’t even know why I started getting angry too. It was almost like I had to if everybody else was, like I knew what I’d thought at first, but I was just a kid who didn’t understand anything. If Connor and David—and then Aileen and Shawna, and then all of them—if they were all mad, then maybe I should be too. And suddenly I was. You were on your way to bigger and better things and we were stuck in Port goddamned Austin forever.”

Lac, back in that cramped dorm room, didn’t feel the sting of betrayal in the present tense; instead, he looked back at the dreamy kid he was all those years back and knew how devastated he would have been by the revelation. His hurt was more like sympathy, sympathy for that lost little kid.

“You know, some of the stuff you wrote was just wild,” Bess picked up again after pausing long enough to calm herself. “About how you thought there were wizards or shamans living in those houses along Vine Street. And how they’d take you under their wing someday and start teaching you how to travel to other worlds. God, you were imaginative.”

“I was fourteen.”

“I never wrote anything like that when I was fourteen. Or fifteen. Or Sixteen. Connor and David never wrote anything like that. And I think that’s what really got to them—it was kind of what got to me. For all the ghosts and shadow warriors and secret missions and journeys of exploration to otherworldly spheres, what you said about us being stuck in Port Austin was true. I don’t know about the others, but I barely ever even thought about the world outside of Michigan back then.”

“We were just kids. I was off in La-La Land all the time, and you were busy doing normal kid stuff.”

“But until then I hadn’t realized just how normal I was.”

“Part of that was your age; you were old enough to start becoming aware of the wider world. You would’ve been more conscious of where you stood in relation to other people—how small a role you played in the grand scheme.”

“That’s true. But I guess my point is that everyone was angry, and I felt bad. So I thought maybe you deserved having us all angry at you. Maybe I should be angry too. And so I was.”

By the time he and Bess were having this conversation, Lac was already beginning to doubt his faith. Over the coming school year, he would go on to lose it altogether. The only one in his family who would know about these doubts, the only one he trusted to understand what he was going through, the only one he could talk to about it without fear of judgment was Bess. Amid the sympathy and resentment he was harboring on behalf of that teenage boy he once was, he still had an urge to justify what Bess had done as the preteen girl she had once been. Still, when she left, as he stood watching her pull away in their father’s truck through the dorm room window, he was bereft. He felt that same heavy downward pull of despair. Bess hadn’t truly ever turned against him; she’d simply made a bad decision. Yet he couldn’t help sensing that the us-against-the-world bond he shared with her had been avulsed. As thrilling as it had been squaring off against everyone and everything with Bess at his side, without her, he sunk beneath the weight of such profound loneliness that all the sturdiness went out of his limbs. He collapsed onto the bed and considered leaving U of M at the earliest opportunity, wandering off to—to where? Where could he possibly go to escape this?

Today, he couldn’t even say how long that feeling had lasted; all he knows is that the sight of Bess driving away as he stood by the window, Bess who was no longer the same Bess she’d been just an hour earlier, no longer his comrade at arms, no longer his partner in crime, that scene had forever seared itself into his mind. But what he experienced watching Clemens vanish into the jungle, on his way back to the dugout canoe, on his way back up the river to the mission outpost he himself had next to no chance of reaching by foot—that feeling was quite possibly worse. And he has yet to even begin recovering from it.

Having stood up without deciding it was time, Lac scans his surroundings for a flat surface on which he can continue writing. The men are gradually dispersing, opening the way for the kids to take up the task of harassing him. This changing of the guard comes as a relief; at least with the kids he understands that the game is about annoying the nabä—not about inventorying his possessions and deciding whether procuring them would be worth incurring the wrath of his kinfolk and provoking whatever retaliatory spells the whites may cast if they killed him. At least the children (nearly all boys) are coming to him in a spirit of play, a youthful innocence no one could mistake the adult men for being endowed with. At least the kids, though they point and say “Yababuji” just as frequently as the men, say it with smiles on their faces. This could very well be something they remember for the rest of their lives, he thinks, the day the nabä Shackley came to live among them. But though I may be the first white man these kids have seen, I certainly won’t be the last.

When Lac finally gives up his search for something flat to brace his notebook on and decides to sit on the mostly even ground beside Clemens’s hut, a couple of the kids following him utter what sounds like the same sentence or phrase. He considers trying to write it down, assuming it means something like “sitting down on the ground,” but then he realizes he hasn’t really caught enough of the utterance to bother. Hunching over his folded legs—Indian-style, he thinks, laughing silently to himself—he writes: 7 o’clock and several hours into my sojourn, and the men are finally starting to habituate to my presence. Or maybe they’re just losing interest. I still count six adult males milling about, keeping a weather eye on me (and my madohe), but the only Yanomamö currently trying to engage with me are young boys. Outwardly, these boys enact the same behaviors as the men, but it seems like for them demanding things of me is a joke instead of a deadly earnest quest to acquire my belongings. I’m getting the impression that as I try to learn basic elements of the lifestyle and language, the children are going to be of far more help than the adults. Whereas the men get frustrated by my lack of comprehension and, assuming I must be hard of hearing, keep increasing the vehemence of their demands, shouting the same meaningless words they spoke to me a moment before but at higher volume, the kids seem to intuit that I’m not recognizing the words they’re using. Or maybe it’s that I do a better job of nonverbally communicating to them that I hear but don’t understand—seeing as how I find them so much less imposing.

When Darwin first formulated the theory of natural selection, he right away saw through to the most disquieting of its ramifications; he was supplanting the long-established religious answer to the question of our origins with a far more prosaic explanation. Accounting for his years of balking at the prospect of going public with his revolutionary idea—until he was finally spurred to write Origin of Species by the threat of being scooped by Alfred Russel Wallace—he compared it to confessing to a murder. Indeed, Darwin himself went through the rest of his life as an agnostic, though his wife Emma remained devout.

When Lac decided, after a year at U of M, to switch his major to anthropology, he soon began to feel a similar sense of having traversed some boundary into a realm of dangerous and forbidden knowledge. And he had a similar sense that his transgression hadn’t been strictly voluntary. But there was Bess, through it all, the only one who reassured him that no matter how far astray he traveled in his intellectual pursuits, he was always welcome home. The only one who gave him the benefit of the doubt and didn’t assume that any unfamiliar belief he espoused rendered him unworthy of the designation of decent human being.

“What would I have been, like twelve?” Bess asked that day in his dorm. “You were the second-born, the rebel, always the defiant one, always going your own way, making it hard on yourself, like you just had to be different. Connor meanwhile acted like we were this tight-knit band of soldiers, with him of course the self-appointed captain. At the time, teasing you and playing for the home team was mostly a game for me—I think for most of us. I didn’t see then that in marshalling his forces like that, Connor wasn’t serving us; he was serving himself. He probably wouldn’t have bothered with any of the go-team nonsense if he wasn’t the leader. I swear, Lachlan, when I rolled up that sheet and tied it around your legs”—this was the instant Lac learned that Bess had been responsible, though she seemed to believe he already knew—“I thought we were still playing around, that it was just a game, like a prank. I bet even Connor was shocked by how out-of-hand it got. And it wasn’t hatred or anger even at that point. Yeah, we were mad that you’d put us down and we thought you deserved to be knocked down a peg after being so snooty and grandiose. But most of it was like—I don’t know. It was like the situation took over, like the thrill overtook us, and we got carried away. I started feeling horrible even before it was over.”

That night, Bess explained, represented a major transition for her. Young as she was, she’d never really considered where she came down on an issue like where she ought to stand in relation to her family’s attitudes about conformity and virtuous industry; she’d never thought much about which side she’d take should the family break into factions. Sure, she was closer to Lachlan already at the time, but she also understood why he was held in suspicion by the other siblings: his aloofness, his quietness, his supercilious airs, his vacantness, his utter lack of interest in their silly games. “After the wet sock incident”—so that’s what they were beating me with, he thought—“my perception of all your quirks changed somehow.”

Lac had listened, amazed, too dumbfounded to absorb the information about this horrific betrayal, which Bess went on to claim had ultimately served to solidify her loyalty. Over the coming days and weeks, his first at U of M, he realized that Connor and the others had had plenty of cause for what they’d done to him; he really had looked down his nose at them, thought them ever so boringly complacent in their blithe acceptance of the life that had been lain out before them, like an outfit chosen by a doting mother on the first day of school. Whereas when he closed his eyes he could gaze into a magically complicated cosmos the likes of which no one on earth had ever before glimpsed, when he looked into Connor’s eyes, or David’s eyes, or Aileen’s eyes, he couldn’t imagine anything going on there beyond the most basic stimulus and response, clever as those responses sometimes were.

All kids must feel the same way around that age, though—or a lot of kids anyway, probably the same ones who have such a difficult time seeing how much of a disruption their opting out of all the family’s traditions and enthusiasms causes, the same ones who have such a difficult time appreciating the dilemma their wayward viewpoints pose for their closest allies. You thought you had so much going on in that special head of yours, he thinks now as he paces alongside the mud-and-thatch hut, doing his best to ignore all the kids following him, mocking him in the weird spectacle of his peripatetic writing. He’s bracing his notebook against his open palm, holding it in place with the same hand scribbling out the letters. But you never had enough space in there to consider what was going on in other people’s heads.  

Factions within families, he writes, prepare us for factions at school and at work; every institution must form them. But families have the advantage of kinship ties, and yet they seem to exhibit the same inclination toward fractiousness. What holds them together? What holds any institution together for that matter? How do the more than a hundred Indians in this village get along without breaking into separate groups? Hunter-gather bands tend to have under fifty people in them, according to Professor Service. How do you get from a few dozen people wandering around together in search of food to this, well over a hundred people hunkering down to hide from enemies while tending to their gardens?

No sooner had Lac become enthralled with the lectures of Dr. White, his first anthropology professor, than he started picking up on all the fault lines separating scholars throughout the discipline. Professor White’s lectures inspired him to change his major, a final turning away from the brute practicality at the heart of his father’s legacy. But whatever naïve preconceptions he had of a field with commonly accepted methods and goals and mores and foundational theories were dashed before it was even time for finals that same semester.

Professor White holds the view that cultures, not just biological organisms, evolve over time with the growing complexity of their technology. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors were essentially like us, fully modern in their anatomy. But until around thirteen thousand years ago every human on earth lived the life of a hunter or forager. Another of his mentors, Dr. Service, has lain out the steps between that type of lifestyle and the one we’re more familiar with today. Bands consist of a few dozen hunter-gatherers who live nomadically. Tribes, like this group of Yanomamö, are able to sustain larger populations because they’ve learned to cultivate gardens. They tend to be more sedentary and encompass two or more competing clans or lineages. The next stage, chiefdoms, is probably what most of us think of when we conjure an image of Indians. These are much larger groups, and as such require more organization; the chief sits atop a hierarchy, often collecting tributes from his subjects. Since the food demands are more intense, chiefdoms also take part in trade networks. And they rely on fully developed agriculture. Service’s final stage is the state, which all of us Westerners are familiar with, having grown up in one.

Then there’s Professor Sahlins, who’s fond of pointing out that hunter-gathers, in many ways, are better off than those of us living in advanced civilizations. Band-level societies are egalitarian and democratic (at least as far as the adult males are concerned); their economies are based on cooperation and sharing. Since their nomadism precludes the accumulation of possessions or wealth, it’s thought that bands have low homicide rates and are almost entirely innocent of organized conflict—why risk a fight unless you hope to acquire access to strategic territory or resources? Though it must be admitted the evidence for such exceptional peacefulness is mixed. But a lack of possessions apparently strikes Dr. Sahlins as a major boon in its own right.

Quite a few anthropologists go even further, though, insisting that White’s and Service’s theory about cultures progressing through stereotyped stages along a path toward greater complexity all too closely resembles the Social Darwinism originally put forth by Herbert Spencer (which Darwin himself, ironically enough, rejected). The Boasians, for instance, believe that Service’s demarcation of stages is mostly arbitrary, because every society develops along its own unique historical trajectory. For them, it’s this uniqueness, not any generalized commonalities, that are the proper focus of our inquiries. Of course, Boas came onto the scene in the early twentieth century, at the time of anthropometrics, when researchers would show up in villages and start measuring skulls so they could provide supporting evidence for their preformed theory that people from less advanced cultures had smaller brains, and hence were less intelligent.

What’s today sometimes called scientific racism grew out of the impressions of European explorers who encountered indigenous peoples from all over the globe who went about wearing little more than dyes and paints, who knew nothing of steel or crops or architecture, and who seemed primitive in every other way imaginable. Lac now realizes that it would’ve been an entirely reasonable deduction that the natives’ inferior intellects must lay behind their failure to develop more technologically advanced cultures. There was obviously something separating you from the naked Indians you ran into on your journeys. Wouldn’t everyone assume these people’s minds must be as primitive as their material cultures? Yababuji indeed.

Of course, today, in the modern age of desegregation and civil rights, we know better. Images of the president’s little boy stepping forward to salute his father’s casket after his assassination last year, of protesters rallying on campus just this past spring in the lead up to the congressional vote on the Civil Rights Act, and of crowds of millions gathered on the National Square in Washington DC all channel through Lac’s mind as he casts about for another thread to pick up in his writing.  

The Cultural Evolutionists, the Marxists, the Boasians—and that’s just at U of M. And me, Lac wonders, where do I fit in here? Well, you can’t escape the influence of Boas; he, more than any other single individual, is responsible for founding the discipline of cultural anthropology. The contributions of Marx are pervasive throughout the various competing factions as well. But, seeing as how I’m here to take advantage of this quickly vanishing opportunity to study a growing and thriving tribal society made up of unknown numbers of politically independent villages, a society occupying a level of complexity between the stages of band and chiefdom, I’d have to locate myself pretty squarely in the camp with Leslie White and Elman Service. Though my specific area of interest is in genealogies, since the going hypothesis is that kinship is somehow the key to maintaining group cohesion as village sizes increase. And the approach I intend to take relies on a combination of Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralist modeling and calculations based on the pioneering population geneticist Sewall Wright’s “coefficient of relatedness,” a mathematical expression of one person’s degree of kinship to another. It is through this measure that I hope to bring Darwin back into the conversation about cultures, since the universal instinct toward nepotism is quite clearly an evolved characteristic of our species—and most other species for that matter.  

Lac lifts his gaze to ponder the twilit jungle surrounding him. Most of the kids have wandered off back to the shabono. He’s hardly alone, but he finally feels a sense of quiet suffusing the air around his head. After taking a long breath, he leans back down to write one last line in his notebook for the day: It all starts with learning the faces, learning the language, and getting the damned names.


Also read:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco


Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Wet Socks: He Borara Chapter 3.2

(2,252 words. Or start from the beginning.) 

He wakes, panicked and disoriented, to the sound of rapid shuffling. A light sleeper, he nearly always knows when someone enters the room in the middle of the night. Mom probably, he thinks, but why would she be moving so quickly, without so much as a murmur to announce her presence. Peering into the dark, he recognizes his brothers by their silhouetted outlines.

            “I can see you guys. What are you doing?”

            “He’s awake!” Connor. “Quick, grab his legs!”

            “I said, what are—”

            Lac’s face is covered, his head pushed back onto the mattress. Connor must’ve moved around to the head of his bed as he sat up to see who else had stirred from his bed or entered through the door to the hallway. Now his older brother is pressing a pillow down on his face. “I can’t breathe!” Lac shouts, the words formless and muffled. He reaches up to free himself but feels his wrists gripped and pulled away from his body. It won’t be any of these sensations that live on in his mind, for him to re-experience over and over in his dreams. In his panic, he relies on some instinct to tell him which way to writhe, first to his right, as he pulls with his bound arms to hoist himself up off of the mattress, and then to his left as he twists his neck backward, chin to the side, creating enough space for a single gasping breath.

            “Lordly Lachlan likes leaving the earth on his lengthy constitutionals,” Rachel taunts, half singing.

            How many of them are in here? Four at least. Not Bess. She wouldn’t be part of this. She must not even know it’s happening.

            “This should help you come back down to earth, your lofty Lordship.”

            It’s not the blows he’ll remember either, delivered by an attacker on either side, thudding loudly into his stomach and ribs. Lac grits his teeth, determined not to make a sound, not to cry. What feel like baseballs wrapped in slings he’ll later learn are bunches of socks soaked in water and stuffed into the ends of longer socks.

His mind brimful with rage, every corner of his awareness splashed with scalding pain, he still manages a thought, observing how the succession of blows, half a dozen landed in alternating turns from either side—loggers bringing down their axes in rhythmic chops—constitute neat bursts of fury, the exact rhythm, intensity, and duration you’d expect from an assailant provoked to sudden violence on the occasion of catching an antagonist at a stark disadvantage.

            What he’ll remember most, though, is the sensation of his legs, kicking wildly at first, thwarting any attempt at fixing a firm grasp, promising, for a thrilling moment, a mode of escape from all the other hands pinning and holding him in place; he could kick loose, plant his heels, and pivot his upper body free—until inspiration strikes one of his siblings. The sheet landing softly over his knees won’t limit the torque he can generate, he’s sure—until it pulls tight, folding into a rope. No, no, no. Hands on his ankles. The twisted sheet passing under his knees. Once around his shins then jerked roughly downward, lashing his bound legs to the bed, dashing his last desperate hope. The thwacking blows collide loudly, painfully, with his chest and abdomen, but his trapped feet are what lie in wait to haunt his nightmares, vivid replays of the sensation readily triggered by the slightest echo of immobility.

The lesson delivered, his teachers release him abruptly, but in his shaking frenzy it takes him several seconds to unbind his legs. His brothers and sisters had earlier that night found the notebook he’d been filling upon his return from each night’s walk with all the airy thoughts that occurred to him along the way. What fourteen-year-old doesn’t have grandiose fantasies? he would pose years later to reassure himself, still feeling the sting of exposure and shame.

His kicks having set the hammock to swaying dramatically once again, Lac opens his eyes to the full light of dawn issuing in through the netting at the door of the Malarialogìa men’s hut. Clemens’s hammock is empty. Lac swings his legs out over the floor as he runs his hand along the seam of his mosquito net. His back stiff, his legs above each knee alive with a pinching ache, he pauses to arrange his thoughts. It’s to be back to Tama Tama with Clemens today to gather his supplies for the next seventeen months into a larger dugout canoe. Then Clemens will motor back up the Orinoco with him before turning around and going back to the mission outpost, leaving Lac here alone, with the Yanomamö. The thought jolts him to his feet, flailing about in the netting. I’m supposed to get situated and then have Laura and the kids join me in the hut I’m to build outside the shabono, he thinks. But how can I bring them to this place? How can I be sure they won’t be killed? Or kidnapped? Or contract some fatal disease? What the hell was I thinking? So, what then? Is it back to Michigan? Back to all my benighted professors? Back to my family and—I’ll have to find some other type of work.

After securing his research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Lac had worked out an arrangement with the head of the University of Michigan’s Department of Human Genetics. He’d heard that Dr. Nelson was looking for anthropologists to help him with a project to study isolated tribes in South America. The plan was to compare the Indian’s genetic material to that of a cohort of Japanese people who’d survived exposure to radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Seeing the project as an opportunity to get funding for future research, possibly even obviating the need to interrupt his fieldwork with long stints of teaching, Lac had agreed to serve as a guide and translator for a research team slated to arrive next year, near the end of his time with the Yanomamö. He’d undergone training back in Ann Arbor so he could help take blood samples and give general health assessments. How would he explain to Nelson his immediate retreat from the jungle, before learning a single word of the language?
  
Lac, ducking clear of the mosquito netting at last, but still struggling to shed the residue of his dream-saturated sleep, catches himself after several moments staring vacantly at the empty hammock between the door and where he now stands alongside his own. Clemens has told him about how he joined the New Tribes after leaving the army at the end of the war. He wanted to see more of the world. He wanted to do some good. He couldn’t, after all he’d seen, after all he’d done, simply go back home to his old life. Five years later, he and another missionary were making first contact with the people of Mahekodo-teri, a few hours further up the Orinoco from the confluence with the Mavaca. Clemens stayed on after the other missionary returned to the states—for his wedding in 1951. When Clemens did eventually leave Yanomamöland to recuperate and raise funds, the Salesians, who’d ignored the Yanomamö up till then because they were too difficult to reach, took the opportunity to start building the mission compound at Platanal, a short distance from Mahekodo-teri. So it was downriver to Iyäwei-teri for Clemens. He convinced the people there to move closer to the confluence of the Ocamo River with the Orinoco, where he set up another mission outpost, staying for a few years. When he left, however, the Catholics moved in again. Lac has in fact spoken over shortwave radio to the Italian priest who’s currently stationed at Ocamo. Now Clemens has his hut outside the Bisaasi-teri shabono near the Mavaca, and so far the Salesians have been content to leave him to his own brand of mission work there.

Lac can’t help but admire Clemens, who’d even mentioned on the way from Tama Tama that he was considering bringing his own wife and children to stay with him at Bisaasi-teri when he returns, around six months from now. I wonder if the incident with the kidnapped women will dampen his excitement about bringing his family out here, Lac thinks as he attempts to stretch out the kinks in his shoulders and lower back. Either way, Clemens will be returning to this place himself—despite having admitted to Lac that he can’t claim to have converted a single Yanomamö. “They listen to the stories,” Clemens said to him at Tama Tama, “but they expect their holy men to prove their magic somehow—by curing sick children or by making a charm that brings success in a hunt—and until they see the magic working they’re skeptical. The best I can hope for usually is that some of them will pick up elements of the gospel and incorporate them into their mythology. It’s a start anyway, a foundation.”

Lac hid his smile upon hearing this, thinking the prospect of the missionaries ever managing to build anything atop so flimsy a foundation far too miniscule to warrant taking on the risks. Now, though, he realizes that, regardless of who gets the best of the petty squabbles among the missionaries, the white people as a general block, with all their technology and medicine, along with the sheer inexhaustibility of their creeping presence, will soon enough be offering the Yanomamö all the proof anyone could possibly need of their magic’s deadly effectiveness. The proselytizing at this stage may be futile, but the unceasing migration of people is nonetheless a harbinger of much more far-reaching, much more cataclysmic, transformations to come. Clemens has told him of the Yanomamö at Bisaasi-teri’s stories of several other villages to the south, almost twice as large and as yet uncontacted. How long before someone from the New Tribes—maybe Clemens himself—or someone with the Salesians reaches these more remote groups? Or worse—how long before some mining outfit or some logging operation decides to move into the territory?

No one’s really had a chance to study a tribal society comprised of so many independent villages before, Lac reminds himself. Where else in the world is there enough unexplored territory to support such a society? New Guinea perhaps. The chance to learn what these cultures have to teach us isn’t going to remain in existence for long; the tribes themselves won’t exist for long. If so much of what my professors back home believe about people living in these societies is wrong, then that’s all the more reason to stay in this damn jungle and do some proper research. Plus, if Chuck has survived repeated expeditions to this place over the course of a decade, then I should be able to manage a year and half out here myself.

As if conjured by the thought, Clemens just then pokes his head into the hut, where Lac is still stretching and shaking his limbs, working to emerge from his early morning fog. “These damnable bareto,” he says, ducking inside, swatting frantically at the invisible tormentors swarming his face. “It looks like we may get some rain today. That could make traveling on the river a bit smoother, if the water level raises enough. And it’ll keep the gnats under control too if we’re lucky.”

Lac had been eager to step out of the hut into the leaf-filtered sunlight until the missionary’s reminder of what he’d inevitably have to suffer in the daytime forest. A solid globe of anxiety has begun forming beneath his sternum, impeding the downward expansion of his lungs, leaving him to gulp in the musty air in tiny gasps, a giant guppy trapped in a bowl of stagnant water. When he’d passed out last night with that cracker leaching the moisture from the corners of his mouth, he was determined to get out of this jungle as quickly as he could, leaving those wretched people he’d encountered yesterday to whatever fate had in store for them. Now he knows there’s no way he’ll be able to live with himself if he returns to Ann Arbor emptyhanded, defeated, having vindicated everyone at home who swore to his fecklessness. At least for the time being, he’ll be going through with the original plan. Back to Tama Tama for the rest of his supplies. Then back to the Mavaca in a dugout canoe. Back to Bisaasi-teri to live among the Yanomamö and see what he can find out about them and their battles over women.

“Let’s get a bite and then get moving,” Lac says, convinced the best way to break down that globe of tension growing under his heart is to start working. Laura and the kids? You’ll have to get a better sense of how safe it is, he tells himself. You don’t have to decide that now. It’s seventeen months. Take it one step at a time. You’ll still have chances to get out if you decide it’s necessary. For now, just get to work. Get your supplies up here. Get Chuck’s hut outside the shabono into livable condition. Get to work on your own hut, big enough for everyone in case they eventually do end up coming. Start writing down observations. Start doing your best to learn the language. And see if you can keep your damn self from getting killed. 
**********

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Sleep of Reason: He Borara: Chapter 3.1

(2,433 words. Or start from the beginning.)

No sooner does he close his eyes than he’s back in his father’s house in Port Austin. “Annn-thhrro-pollogee”—the word seeps out through Malcolm Shackley’s beard-entangled lips as he recoils his chin, signaling that the emanation reeks of dubiety. “What, pray tell, is ann-thro-pology? I suppose it will put you in a higher wage grade than your physics and engineering degree at Sault Ste. Marie.”

“My professors seem to be doing okay,” Lac retorts. “Not that any of them has twelve mouths to feed,” he adds, fearing the unintended barb will only further provoke his father. Lac already regrets the blunt, offhand manner with which he delivered the news about his transfer to U of M. And his new major. Everyone in Port Austin has these ideas about college. You send off your perfectly normal kids—the ones you slaved away on a road crew or in a factory to feed and clothe as you worked dutifully to raise them and get them to school—and they come home with highfalutin ideas they toss at you with big fancy words. Like anthropology. Worse, they talk to you like they know something. They know things you’ve never even thought to ask about. What they don’t know, even though you did everything in your power to teach them, to show them—what they don’t know is how to work, how to get up every day and build or fix or do something of real value, with your hands, with your sweat and toil, the type of work that goes into being a man. Kids come back from college wanting to sit around getting paid for all their knowing.

Lac watches these thoughts simmer behind his father’s imposing eyes. He tries to maintain a placid demeanor, respectfully withstanding Malcolm’s contemptuous disappointment in his second-born child’s latest decision. Steeling himself to face down his impending denunciation as a smart-ass ingrate, he rushes to explain, “Anthropology is the science of culture, Dad. They go out to—”

His father interrupts him. “What sort of work will studying anthropology prepare you for? Are you planning to teach grownup kids old enough to be working, like these professors of yours?” In his father’s eyes, Lac is making a childish blunder, and now the elder Shackley is set to walk his ne’er-do-well son through the logic that ought to have helped him avoid it. Lac expected this. So far it’s not getting to him as he feared it might.

Lac’s older brother Connor, the firstborn of Malcolm’s outsized brood, is already moving up the ranks of the automobile factory in Detroit. Last year, when Lac was still an engineering major, Connor brought him to the city, showed him around the plant, and told him to say the word if he wanted to start doing “some honest work.” What is it, he wonders, with these people and their obsession with work? Don’t they ever get curious? Don’t they ever wonder what the point of all that work could possibly be? Don’t they ever wish the work they’re doing day-in and day-out could have some meaning—some purpose beyond fixing or assembling things a thousand other men could be fixing or assembling? Actually, a thousand other men already are working to fix and assemble those things right alongside them. How can they stand being so inconsequential, so interchangeable, so stuck in the same never-ending routines?

“I may have to do some teaching,” Lac answers his father. “But I’ll be a scientist. I’ll be doing research. I’ll be traveling and studying people’s cultures. I’ll be writing articles and books.”

“A scientist, huh? And who will be funding all this scientific research into other people’s cultures?”

Had his father’s tone really been that sneering? 

As the dream unfolds, his memory of the encounter blends with a dark fantasy of his father lecturing him on the endless ways professors lead their naïve students astray, filling their heads with silliness that could never survive beyond ivory tower walls, sending them headlong into peril—and even on occasion getting them killed—all for the sake of some crazy agenda no more enlightened than the mission of those lunatic Christians who wander into the jungle and wind up getting speared to death by the very natives whose souls they came to save. That’s if they don’t die of malaria first.

            Lac going on to become an atheist during his first year at U of M wouldn’t exactly advance his cause of appeasing Malcolm. After learning about so many different religions—every society, from states down to bands of hunter-gatherers, has its own—it just starts to seem like something humans do. Whichever particular faith among the multitude you end up being raised with is determined by pure happenstance. Sure, it could be that all religions tap into some general underlying truth, but there’s really too much variability, too much contradiction, for the theory of reconcilability to be at all plausible, however desperately some of his classmates clung to that position for its promise to preserve their beliefs intact within the crucible of science. The two traits common to all religions—or most of them at least—are the dualism of matter and spirit and the presumption of human-like agency driving natural events, neither of which holds up under skeptical scrutiny. What you start to see is that every supernatural belief system is a reflection of the society from which it emerges. That’s why whatever generous impulses are embodied in Christian doctrines become overlaid with pettiness and corruption once the faithful get tangled up in politics—or once the faithful get lost and gnat-bitten deep in the godforsaken jungle.

            Lac feels the swaying of his body in the hammock and realizes he’s no longer dreaming. His troubled thoughts have bulldozed him through the wall separating his sleep visions from his late-night lucubrations. For a moment, as he hugs his arms against the chill, he finds himself wondering if it was a minor tremor that so disturbed the gentle rocking of his hammock, but he knows the only displacement of the ground supporting his weight, however catastrophic, is merely figurative. Clemens’s snoring has ceased. Lac looks toward where he saw the missionary hanging his hammock but fails to pick out his shape from the dark space within the hut. At the outset of his journey down the Orinoco, Lac had already been fantasizing about the contents of his second book—after the one he’d write for an academic audience—based on a later return trip to the village at the confluence with the Mavaca. In this future book, he would reflect on the sad degradation, over the span of less than a decade, of the once proud Yanomamö, owing to increasing interference from the “outside world,” the world for which he continues to serve as a peaceful, signally respectful, even slightly traitorous emissary. He quietly chuckles at how sure of himself he was—and only a few days ago.

            Determined to calm himself, Lac stretches his legs, poking them out into the mosquito netting, and takes several deliberate breaths. Small pockets of the jungle surrounding the hut murmur to each other, an alien though somehow quaint breed of intimate late-night banter. After briefly nudging up against some frustration at being held captive to his fully alert state, with a humming mass of nervous tension behind his sternum, he feels his present predicament fading as his mind slides, not toward oblivion but back to what seems another lifetime, back to Port Austin. His walks. He hasn’t thought back to them in years, but he no sooner skims the surface than he feels himself plunging bodily into the joys and struggles of that time. He could step back into his life then and be right at home, as if the countless decisions and events filling the space between then and now were no more than the futile play of sails and rigging on a ship at the mercy of the currents. His walks, hours-long, used to simultaneously calm his mind and set fire to his imagination, though they also embarrassed him. In what was still basically a small fishing village, you couldn’t fart without everyone knowing which direction your ass was facing, as Malcolm liked to say.

So Lac, from his early teenage years, about the time most people begin experiencing some form of disquiet they need to tame, tried never to be noticed. People would think he was touched, or that he was being artsy-fartsy. Or worse, that he was being a snoop. A lot of times it began with one of the adventure stories he read. He’d close the book, sit back, and suddenly it was like his parents’ house wasn’t big enough anymore. He needed empty sky overhead, he needed to be moving, he needed to be actively fussing and tinkering and progressing along some journey if he was to have any chance of working out these big thoughts and fully embodying these gargantuan, heart-swelling sentiments.

When they got Josephine, it was easier to pass for pragmatic, but the routes he took weren’t exactly the most obvious dog-walking tracks, and the time he devoted was excessive. A neighbor once asked him if he dreamed of one day breeding German shepherds. Lac wasn’t sure about breeding them, but he was—still is—intensely fascinated with what goes into training them. Mostly, Lac liked to think about God, and the future. His visions of what all he might one day accomplish always had an otherworldly air to them. Maybe it was the proximity of so many distinct mediums, the big sky, the big body of water, the woods, the cold, the warmth. Maybe it was that, the derisive rumors notwithstanding, he succeeded in stepping away from the humdrum world of his brothers and sisters, mornings spent getting ready for school, the constant threat of fights on the playground, Malcolm’s chronic disapproval, people accusing him of putting on airs.

“Well, if you ever said anything interesting—if you ever did anything that wasn’t just like what everybody else does all the time,” he remembers saying to his sister.

“And what do you do that’s so spectacular, Mr. Dog Walker? What’s so special about your dog-walking adventures?”   

Sauntering past the scattered clusters of houses in old Port Austin, he would imagine fantastic stories for the inhabitants of nearly every one. Some of them were monsters, pulling the skin from children strip by strip to appease dark demonic deities. (He’d quicken his step past these, suspecting like all children do that some part of their imaginings are rooted in true intuitions.) Some of his neighbors were sad cases to be sure—especially the ones he was acquainted with in reality—but a few of them, the ones he always had the opportunity to meet over the course of some wild adventure whenever he hooked the leash to Josephine’s collar to take her along on one of his nightly expeditions, a few of them were potential mentors, poised to introduce him to the secret facets of the world, the facets none of his boring siblings, and certainly not his parents, had ever guessed at. This mentor would one day reveal himself, having borne witness to Lac standing transfixed by the blazing light of the stars and immediately recognized in him to capacity to understand his teachings, recognized him as someone he could pass along his secrets to, someone he could train to become a fellow spirit warrior, a member of the elite tribe of men who travel between worlds.

            Years later in Ann Arbor, he had no dog to accompany him on his walks, but the city made it easier to take on the purposeful demeanor of a man on his way somewhere, likely somewhere important. Now, as a young man, Lac saw the taller-fronted houses built with barely any space between them as symbols of family life, a species of comfortable captivity. Maybe someday, when he was old, when the scars he’d accumulated on his myriad adventures had healed, he’d settle into one of these huddled dwellings with an unimaginably pretty girl, a girl who radiated charm and warmth like one of the celestial spheres burning so far off in the sky to guide his way along the narrow streets, past the crowded houses. Everything for him then was future-directed, weighed in his mind according to its promise to initiate him into the magical hinterlands of existence. The sense of otherworldliness pervading his thoughts of the future didn’t so much fade as he grew up as simply grow vaguer and more distant, layered over with his airs of sophistication and tough-minded, hard-nosed worldliness.

Each of the houses he passed, he was aware, had a true history of its own, but history for Lac then was just another sort of mythology, just another storied, ambiguously supernatural realm. The touch and tone and sense of sacred passage attaching to each night’s walk—it never completely evaporated, even as his religious skepticism intensified over the course of his education, until one night he stopped on the sidewalk along one of his frequented routes through the neighborhood adjoining campus and, looking up at the sky, declared, “It’s just something people do, all these religious beliefs and rituals. It’s just part of our nature.” The end of his own religiousness, the demise of his Catholicism, the epiphany that transformed him in that instant into an atheist marked a sacred occasion in its own right, following as it did an undercurrent, not so much of divinity, but nonetheless of essences and resonances not moored to his beloved world of things discoverable by science—at least not moored in a way he could then see.

Once again awake in his hammock, Lac turns his head to see the contours of the mosquito net and the hammock bearing his guide and fellow traveler in the dim blue light of the looming dawn. He thinks back to how his mind turned the fronts of all those houses into something akin to the swinging facades of his sisters’ doll houses—the same way he looked through the wall of trees on the banks of the Orinoco and felt the presence of the people living beyond, carrying on through history a way of life implicating every human being alive today, his abiding intuition of mythical happenings on the other side of some divide, on the drabber side of which he suffers the misfortune of living. Gazing uncomfortably at the underside of the thatched roofing, he whispers, “What was I really expecting to find out here?”

Continue reading: Wet Socks: He Borara Chapter 3.2

Earlier Chapters:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco

He Borara: Chapter 2: Pandemonium

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Land of the Lost Ironies: He Borara: Chapter 3


            “It’s not always like this,” Chuck says as he completes the last of some running strides to catch up with Lac, who has charged ahead of him on their way back along the trail that first delivered them from the riverbank to the shabono. After talking with the Yanomamö men for a couple of hours—and being forced on half a dozen panic-stricken occasions to quietly await the outcome of a quick investigation of some section of the encampment wall—they’re now heading back to the rowboat so they can cross to the opposite bank of the Orinoco. “I mean, I’ve heard them talking about raids and fights like this before, but we seem to have walked right into the middle of some dangerous tension.”

Lac resists interjecting, “Obviously.”

They walk several more paces before Chuck adds, “I think it was just a matter of some seriously bad timing.”

The missionary’s tone is apologetic. Lac, ignoring the invitation latent in the ensuing silence to absolve him, wonders why Chuck is forbearing to use what they both just experienced as an opportunity to preach on the depraved state of man in the absence of Jesus. “You came here to study their way of life,” Lac imagines him gloating. “I came here to teach them a new way of life—to save their souls. After what you just saw, you tell me which of our missions’ ought to take precedence.”

As they thread their way along the trail through neck-high sawgrass, though, the only voices to be heard belong to the monkeys high in the distant canopy. Their whooping howls feature in the raucous theater of Lac’s agitated mind as long cylindrical tubes extending from their o-shaped faces, waving about against the deepening blue of the sky. Somehow, the image inches him closer to the brink of fury, as if the howlers were a chorus of obnoxious street barkers. He spent so much time preparing, planning so meticulously, anticipating every eventuality. What he walked into back there—that shouldn’t have happened. He shouldn’t have been the first to waddle through that entrance. The men would have recognized Clemens, so he would have been in danger a few seconds less, those crucial few seconds while Lac himself was a twitch away from being turned into a porcupine. He shouldn’t have arrived empty-handed. Proffering gifts in his outstretched hands, he would have posed less of a threat, and hence been less likely to provoke a preemptive attack. Most importantly, he shouldn’t have left his shotgun with the rest of his supplies and equipment back at Tama Tama.

The grass and tall weeds vanish abruptly as the two men plunge back into the dark understory, as barely any light from the sun makes it through the dense foliage overhead, even from directly above this pathetic excuse for a trail. The gnats, whose biting had never really seemed to abate, nevertheless return to their greater numbers and heightening frenzy as the men continue their march back toward the river.

“You okay, Shackley?” he hears Clemens say behind him.

Stopping to turn around and face the missionary, he opens his mouth to complain about being so grossly misled, but catches himself before saying a word. “I can’t say I was ready for that,” he admits instead. “It’s making me wonder…” He trails off, leaving Clemens to guess what it is he’s wondering, before turning back to continue along the meager trail.

Returning to his full, aggressive stride, Lac feels his unvoiced ire shifting toward the more deserving culprits, the ones whose knowledge and expertise he counted on, admired even, whose every word indelibly lodged itself in his brain, whose example shaped his every lofty vision of his own career. If anyone is to blame, he thinks, it’s my professors. It’s Dr. Sabine. It’s Dr. Hiddleson. All of them. They should have at least warned me of the possibility that the wild Indians would be hostile. All this crap about cultural relativism and not being the evil white man, the lone ranger lording it over the savages, the colonizer, the imperialist, the goddamned racist—they’ve got us so browbeaten and guilt-laden that we completely forget that the fucking Indians are human too, in every sense of the word. And sometimes humans kill other humans.

            He cants his head to call over his shoulder, “Okay, Clemens, tell me something. You’ve been wandering around in your rowboat on all these rivers and tributaries for more than fifteen years looking for uncontacted Indians.” He stops and turns before asking, “How often do they shoot arrows at you and chase you off?”

            “You hear lots of stories,” Chucks says as he draws near to where Lac is standing. “And it’s not just arrows. Some of the tribes bash each other’s heads in with clubs.” The trail is hardly more than a strip, not wide enough for them to walk two abreast. Chuck steps into the underbrush to sidle around Lac, saying, “I’ve actually only made first contact with one group—and you just met them.” Setting the pace now, he continues speaking over his shoulder, as Lac did a moment before. “When they first saw me, they were definitely scared. I think they were too shocked and, well, curious to respond violently. I was probably lucky. The other missionaries are always talking about close calls.” Ducking under a tangle of lianas, he grunts and takes a fortifying breath before continuing. “The thing is, it’s hard to say if you’re ever really making first contact. The Yanomamö already had machetes and axes when I got here. They were worn down to the nub, but they were also being used quite a bit. You have to remember too it hasn’t been that long—maybe a generation—since the rubber barons were down here killing and enslaving and torturing thousands upon thousands of the Indians. The Yanomamö may have traded for those machetes with the Ye’kwana. But even now there are often run-ins between ranchers and Indians. Loggers too—they’re probably even worse.”

            “You think they’re hostile to outsiders because of earlier attacks? That’s not what we walked into back there, was it? You said the fight was with another Yanomamö village.”

            “That’s true. And I can’t say what a war party from another village would have done to us. Maybe nothing. Of course, we may have been killed in a crossfire even if they weren’t trying to shoot us—they dip their arrows in poison when they’re hunting. I guess my point is just that it’s different out here. We may as well be a million miles away from any working justice system. It takes a certain kind of person to go into the jungle in the first place. Once you’re in it, well, it may be that you go a little crazy because it gets so intense—the discomfort, the constant threats, the endless insults to your person, the boredom—and you’re so far removed from anything you’re accustomed to. Anyway, it’s hard to tell how time in the jungle will affect a man. It changes people. I’ve even seen it happen to men with the New Tribes, good men. And God knows what the Indians have been through. I can’t say I really know much about how violent most indigenous tribes are before they meet anyone from civilization—I figure you’d know more about that than me. Either way, out here you have to be on your guard around people of pretty much any sort.”

            Lac detected no hint of sarcasm in Chuck’s suggestion that he ought to know more about what the Indians are like. It rankles nonetheless. Shooing the bareto away from his mouth, he inhales sharply, calming himself. The missionary’s words send his mind traveling back to a time when he and his dad were hunting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, along with his older brother and his uncle.

Lac would have been around thirteen, he figures, and after a few days wandering through the forest he was starting to get bored—in spite of the weeks of lobbying it had taken to get his dad to agree to let him tag along. At one point, as he was going about whistling and clownishly dancing around, he lifted his gaze to see the three older men crouching alongside a fallen tree. His dad shot him a look that struck him like a hard palm to the temple. Lac immediately fell silent, dropped to his knees, and crawled toward the cover of the wide trunk. Peering over it, he saw two men, both with rifles slung over their shoulders, making their way along a valley that was barely visible in the distance. Lac watched them for several moments until his dad pulled him down by the back of his vest.

“What’s the big deal?” he whispered.

His dad lifted his finger to lips, a gesture as peremptory as any command issued beside a raised hand. They waited in near complete silence for what seemed to Lac like an hour, until the men had long since disappeared into the forest. Even after he and the older men started moving again themselves, Lac sensed that a decision had somehow been made to keep silent, and to give the two strange men a wide berth. After what felt to the teenage Lac like hours, but may have been little more than twenty minutes, he opened his mouth to begin peppering his dad with questions. That’s when Uncle Rob swatted him hard on the back of the head. Lac turned to face his uncle, opening his mouth yet again to complain. The look on his uncle’s face was no less peremptory in its command to keep quiet than his father’s had been. They walked on, barely making a sound beyond the crunch of leaves and the snap of twigs beneath their boots, until the sun was nearly down and they wordlessly agreed to begin setting up camp, Lac fuming all the while.

“Those two men,” Uncle Rob said to him as they worked together running a rope for the roof of their tent. “Did you see their clothes?”

“Not really. They were wearing old jackets I suppose.”

“They were wearing tatters. Which tells your dad and me they’ve been out here for a long time.”

“So what?”

“So we’re in a different world out here. We’re a long way from any roads or any phones. It’s hard to tell what a man will do when he can be sure no one will know he’s doing it. Those two guys, we may have waved to them, shouted our hellos, and they may have waved and said hi back. Just as likely, though, they’d play friendly until they got close enough to shoot us. Then they’d rifle through our pockets and backpacks looking for money or anything they could sell. Men start to forget all about the rules when they’re a hundred miles from any police, a hundred miles from all the things that might remind them who they are. You gotta be careful who you just walk up to when you’re this deep in the forest.” 

Lac hasn’t recalled this exchange, or thought about Uncle Rob, since he was still a teenager. At the time, he’d remained sulky, thinking his dad and uncle were being paranoid. Or delusional even, pretending to be commandos on some secret mission. How the two men they saw traversing the valley would have reacted upon being alerted to their presence remains an experiment yet to be conducted. But Charles Clemens of the New Tribes Mission, who ought to be plenty qualified to remark on the matter, apparently agrees wholeheartedly with old Uncle Rob that you gotta be careful who you just walk up to when you’re this deep in the forest, or in his own words, that out here you have to be on your guard against people of pretty much any sort.   

Those times with his dad and brothers out in the Michigan wilderness had seemed so distant, from another lifetime. The last thing he expected venturing into the rain forest of Venezuela was to be reacquainted with anything from that period of his life. While the nostalgia is less than pure, he does manage to avoid delving into the myriad complications marring his reminiscences of that time, when he was both bullied and protected by men who were larger than life, when he still had the entirety of his adult life beckoning him onward with promises of boundless possibility. The memory effects a transformation, stripping away the dread that has been hanging from the trees like some pestilential fungus, suffusing the air with its spores, infecting his thoughts and weighing down his every step through the scrub. An actual breeze weaves its way through the shadowy undergrowth, a cleansing stream of thick, oxygen-rich air. For the first time in days, Lac experiences afresh the exhilaration of being beyond the reach of the workaday world, the thrill of impending discovery, the lure of the unknown on the other side of this thick teeming wall of green. The cooling and smoothing of the air speaks of their closeness to the river, but Lac feels like the breeze could almost be coming in response to a shift taking place in his own mind.

As they drag the rowboat from where they’d tucked it amid the latticework of kapok roots, Lac forgets his reasons for locking his thoughts away from the missionary, as though the farther away from the familiar world they travel, the more useless their so-called education proves, and the more pointless their competing agendas seem.

“When I was a kid,” he begins to say as they slide the rowboat down the bank through the suctioning mud, before being interrupted by a caught shoe. Bracing himself on the side of the boat, he lifts it free, producing a loud, almost comical gagging sound. “When I was a kid,” he begins again, “I loved adventure stories. I didn’t care if they were true or if they were fiction. Back then, there didn’t seem to be such a sharp distinction between the two. I was just as excited about Expedition Fawcett as I was by The Lost World. In college, though, that all changed. It was reading Darwin that made me want to go into anthropology.”

He glances over at Clemens as they swing the boat out into the water to see if the voicing of this blasphemous name induces any contortion of his sweat-soaked, washed out visage, but his face registers little aside from an intense focus on the delicate task at hand. “After Origin of Species,” Lac continues, “I turned right away to Voyage of the Beagle. After about a year I damn near had the whole book memorized. Then one of my professors used the section where he writes about the Indians of Tierra del Fuego as an example of nineteenth century racist attitudes.”

Clemens, with a hand on each gunwale, is already lowering himself into a seated position. It’s Lac’s turn to step aboard. His shoes trail thick streams of mud through the air, and his last awkward lurch sets the rowboat to tottering precariously. “He called them ‘poor wretches,’ Lac says as they steady the rocking, “with ‘hideous faces,’ whose ‘violent gestures were without dignity.’ I remember going through a crisis after that class. It was the last time I ever opened that book. I never read anymore adventure novels or expedition chronicles again either. Unless you count Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski.” 

The missionary hands him a paddle; the journey across the river will be too brief to warrant the use of the outboard. A few strokes on either side and they’re a quarter of the way to the opposing bank. Gazing mystified at the swirling eddies produced by each dip and pull of the paddle, Lac hears Clemens say, “You know, for me it was David Livingston and Albert Schweitzer.”

“Of course it was,” Lac says, chuckling. Clemens laughs along with him. “The irony,” Lac adds, “is that guys like Darwin and Livingston stand as icons of this evil imperialist drive to subjugate and enslave, but they were both staunch abolitionists.”

As they approach a clear spot on the bank, Clemens takes up the theme. “Schweitzer too. He wrote that part of his mission to build the hospital in Gabon was to make up for the crimes Europeans had committed against ‘the coloured races.’ A lot of his writings were criticisms of colonial oppression.”

We look back with such disdain for these doctors and missionaries and activists who did so much for indigenous peoples, Lac thinks, sussing out all the markers of their deep-seated racism, all the while declaring that our civilization’s supposed history of moral progress is but a myth. And no one notes the contradiction.

Their first task after hauling the rowboat up yet another soggy embankment is to find a clearing in the scrubland where Clemens says there’s an old hut they can hang their hammocks in to keep them out of reach of the ants and various other crawling insects. As they slog on, spiritlessly swinging their machetes, exhaustion beginning to set in, Lac turns his attention to the loud buzzing in the back of his mind, the insistent clamoring shame of his monumental error. He remembers once lying awake in his dorm at U of M and trying to mentally catalogue the elements common to all of his formerly beloved adventure tales, an exercise in cynicism and budding disillusionment. You start with a mystery and a hero. The mystery takes you to an exotic locale, leading to an ominous arrival. Now the quest begins. Along the way, you have an inventory of lethal threats, a certain fraction of which the characters will subsequently encounter—the disease-bearing insects; in the water, the piranha, the electric eels, those nightmarish, urethra-burrowing candiru, the anaconda; in the jungle, the venomous snakes, the wild boar gnashing and goring with their tusks, the jaguar, the hostile Indians. The characters nearly succumb before the mystery is finally unveiled and the object of the quest—the people of the lost civilization, the legendary monster, the secret medicinal plant—arrives on the scene to rescue them. But somehow the mystery then becomes a moral dilemma. Now that we know it’s here, how will we absorb it into our lives—without destroying it? Without destroying ourselves. But it all somehow redounds to the benefit—the development, the edification, the entertainment—of those of us carrying the torch of western civilization.

            Lac stops to watch Clemens hacking his way through the brush, engulfed by the darkening green immensity. Even if you decide to quit now, he thinks, you’ve still got quite an ordeal to go through before you make it out of here. Swiping away some of the sweat from his forehead and flicking away the bugs in one practiced motion, he takes again to the path carved out by the missionary, shrugging to adjust his pack. He realizes they’ve barely made it twenty yards from the top of the riverbank.

Before reading Darwin his freshman year at Sault Ste. Marie, Lac had perused scores of books about jungles and animals and geography, but they all unfurled as papery lists of lifeless, disconnected facts and details. In Darwin’s hands, on the contrary, every living creature on earth burst vividly to life on the page. His had been a synthesizing mind, not one geared toward mere observation. Origin unfolds as part chronicle of an idea’s incubation, part systematic weighing of evidence, and part exuberant celebration of the wondrousness of discovering how one simple theory could explain such infinitely diverse complexity. Lac absorbed it greedily, letting the points, the systematic style of reasoning, the character underlying it all, letting all of it permeate his thoughts, transforming them.

“I want to do something like that,” he’d said to himself after reading the final page and clapping the covers shut. This was the beginning of his self-imposed discipline, his ceaseless efforts to marshal his attention and corral his thoughts. First, master the details, and then progress to searching for the thread that binds them all together, the dynamic principle that sets them all in vital motion.

 But there was something else about Darwin’s style of thinking and writing and arguing, something he would come to associate with the project of science more generally. Lac had all his life felt bound to Port Austin, to Northern Michigan, to the struggles with his dad and his brothers and sisters, the smothering weight of the future’s most pressingly practical of considerations. Darwin’s was a mind unbound, a playground for fascination unfettered. Whereas most people’s curiosity before the natural world flashes for a fleeting moment before thudding into the wall of daily banality, the soaring wonder of great scientific minds again and again breaks through, like a freight train charging forth along the twin rails of pattern-seeking and prediction. The future-directedness of science was for Lac simultaneously a ticket to an unrestricted world and an escape from the mundane, a way to brush up against the eternal, the sacred even. People he knew growing up sought solace and spiritual uplift by muttering their futile prayers while kneeling beside their beds or by going to church and being led through the mindless motions. But religion obsesses over the past, trapping you there. Science looks out over the horizon, beckoning like a liberation. That’s the part he kept firmly in his grasp even after turning away from Darwin’s grand view of life at his professors’ behest.

“This is it,” Clemens says. “A guy from the Malarialogìa built this a few years back. It should keep the bats out of our hair.”

Lac scans the area, his eyes lighting on the ramshackle hut in a clearing in the brush. “The sun will only be up for a little while longer,” Chuck says as he clears the last of the sparse branches and vines in their path. “Not much point in trying to do anything but sleep after it gets dark.”

Inside the modest but blessedly empty hut, the missionary pulls his hammock from his bag and removes it from its rubber bag. Lac catches a whiff of the old sweat and stale wood smoke odor coming off the mildewed cotton. Recoiling, lifting his hand to his nose, he thinks: Even the damned missionaries are filthy down here.

“When we get back to Tama Tama,” Clemens says, “I’ll try to write up a list of common words and phrases. It took me months to start really picking up the language, but I can at least help get you started.”

Lac doesn’t tell him the issue is moot, because he won’t be returning to this place. Even now, he’s working out the logistics of his return trip to Puerto Ayacucho. Still, he can’t help wondering why this missionary is being so patient and helpful. It dawns on him, as it should have weeks ago, that Clemens knows he’s supposed to be writing a book, his dissertation, on the Yanomamö’s culture—a book that can be passed around to any other New Tribes missionary who follows him into the jungle in search of souls wilting for lack of Christ’s nourishing light. Disgusted, Lac finishes tying his own fresh hammock to the support posts and lies down, just in time to hear his kindly bald companion’s snoring begin in earnest. It’s not quite dark yet.

“Strange bedfellows,” he mutters, looking up at the underside of the thatched roof, wondering why he didn’t take a minute to check it for vermin but too exhausted to get up now. His legs and feet throb. His skin tingles and aches from the constant sweating and swelling. He can’t remember the last time he was this uncomfortable. But all the bodily insults are a mere backdrop for the chaos swirling in his mind. In spite of it all, however, he knows in a few moments he’ll be as deeply asleep as Chuck. Placing a cracker in his mouth and sipping from his canteen to wash it down, he smiles at the realization that he’s almost too tired to finish chewing. 

Also check out:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco

He Borara: Chapter 2: Pandemonium



Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"


Check out Napoleon Chagnon's original account of when he first met the Yanomamö (see particularly the section "The Longest Day: the First One" beginning on page 2).