“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?.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Notes from the Periphery: He Borara Chapter 3.4

Begin at the start. (11,996 words)

            The day starts early for the Yanomamö, though one should not presume just because it’s the middle of the night that all the activity of the village has ceased. The children, for instance, seem to have been curious last night about the sleeping habits of the nabä; at several points I awoke to find a clutch of them standing in the hut, silently watching me. Some men wandered in and out to check on me as well—or to check on my madohe. Now, it’s a little after dawn and several men are about the garden, clearing away brush, pulling up weeds, even sweeping the ground with dulled machetes and makeshift brooms. This is probably the best time of day for working in the garden; the chill is being driven away by the angling sun, with dew falling from the upper canopy like rain, but the heat has yet to descend and choke the air. It’s predominantly men in the garden, but there are a few women working alongside them. Others are making their way to and from the river to fill calabashes with the water that will be used throughout the day for drinking and washing.

            Lac is suffering under the burden of yet another night of frequently interrupted sleep. The crackers he’s been living on are no longer the least bit soothing to the churning in his stomach, but his options were limited by the darkness, and by his exhaustion. This morning, his plan is to boil some water for oatmeal and make himself a couple cups of coffee. Before standing up and taking to the trail to get the water, though, he must shake off the shattered remnants of the night’s shallow slumber. Despite the heaviness in his limbs and the sting in his eyes, Lac falls into the task of notetaking with calming ease. Describing what these people do throughout the day is his work, the one thing he knows he needs to be doing, and applying himself to such an involved and ongoing enterprise brings both succor and a sliver of gratification. How good an anthropologist you are, he tells himself, will ultimately be a matter of how much you notice that others would ignore, but for now keep in mind that no one from your world knows a damn thing about how the Yanomamö live. So noticing the most obvious behaviors will be of value—and a good start to the larger project.

            Lac is also relieved when he sees, and has no trouble recognizing, Bahikoawa, a man of medium height by Yanomamö standards, but with more distinctly Asiatic features. Lac estimates—or guesses really, since it seems all but impossible to tell—that the headman would be in his late thirties or early forties. The woman accompanying him in his work seems much younger. She could be his wife or his daughter; Lac is leaning toward wife. Looking up from the notebook and picking up his earlier thread, Lac thinks, ultimately your success will be a matter of how elegantly you sum up the big picture, but that all begins with building up a large stock of details.

            Before the gardening began this morning, Lac had already been woken by the sound of voices, as one after another of the Yanomamö ducked out from the shabono to relieve him or herself, chatting idly with each other as they passed. Bahikoawa was the first to remain outside the village for any length of time, as it seems he has a responsibility to scout the surrounding clearing for signs of raiders from enemy villages. This struck Lac as counterintuitive, and at first, as he squinted into the predawn light, he wondered if he was mistaking someone else for the headman Clemens had introduced him to. If a team of raiders were lying in ambush, wouldn’t the village headman make for a prime target? So why would he take it upon himself to conduct such a perilous investigation? Lac sighs, watching him as he crouches down to pull weeds, his young wife close at hand. I’ll have to ask him why the task falls to him, but that’s going to be at some distant time, as there’s no chance of communicating about such abstract points as things currently stand.

Lac stands up from his writing stump and stretches his arms over his head. A few men have wandered over already to check on him, and they find his grunts amusing. They speak to each other, smiling, animated, somehow managing to convey their sense that while this creature in their midst may look and act like a human being in certain superficial regards, he is, beneath the surface, something other than human, lesser. Smiling back at them dumbly, Lac ducks back into the hut to get a pot and a kettle for the morning’s victuals. He needs a bath, but he’s not sure if now is the best time of day for that. He’s not even sure whether it’s safe to bathe in this particular stretch of the Orinoco. Electric eels, anacondas, piranhas, the urethra-burrowing candiru—he wonders whether it may be best to see when and where the Yanomamö bathe before wading in himself. He’s also famished, having subsisted exclusively on those damn crackers since last leaving Tama Tama.

The plan is to carry some water from the river, fire up his kerosene stove, and make some oatmeal—along with some strong coffee. Before getting far along the trail, he turns back toward the entrance of the hut, wondering whether any of his supplies and equipment will be there when he returns. What’s stopping any of these men standing about, watching him, who all seem like jailers except for the patent lack of seriousness they demonstrate in their surveillance—more like an audience for a street performer, or a clown—what’s to stop any of them helping himself to the contents of his trunks or barrels?  

The air under the canopy is still chilly from the sun’s late arrival, but it offers a pleasantly unexpected gift of silence. Lac has already received a few requests for his pot and his kettle by the time he reaches the edge of the clearing, but as the trees shoot up on either side, the voices, for a precious moment, fade away before getting blotted out altogether by the dense jungle foliage, the endless living matter of the forest. Still, Lac only manages to savor the silence for a minute or two before old habits from his days in the Michigan woods take over, or perhaps it’s some primitive instinct, making him suspect something alarmingly amiss behind such a prolonged hush. He stops along the trail to listen, hearing little more than drops of dew colliding with leaves and far-away birds shrieking their bloodcurdling good-mornings to their neighbors. By the time he hears human voices again, those of the women and the few children who’ve proceeded him along the trail to the river, he’s at least as glad for the company as he is disappointed by the broken silence.

 In the States, when you see someone for the first time on a given day, you make eye contact from a distance of a few feet, smile, and say, “Good morning.” You may even enact this ritual greeting if the person you’re encountering is a stranger. When Lac sees the group of women scooping water into their halved gourds from the shore of the Orinoco, sees them halt in what must’ve been mid-sentence and drop their smiles as they turn to watch him—as if he were a predator who any instant may decide to plunge into the water and sink his teeth into their necks, he’s at a loss as to how to respond, so he finds himself gesturing toward his own chest with a splay-fingered grasping motion and saying, “Shackley,” smiling at his own goofy obliviousness. A couple of the women laugh, and as he makes his way down the muddy bank most of them pick up their conversation again, keeping watch on him with intermittent darting glances.

Shaking his head at his own stupidity, he wonders what they’re making of the idiot nabä who broadcasts his name so conspicuously in public while smiling like he doesn’t have a thought in his head. Then something else occurs to him: maybe it’s not the presence of the stupid nabä that’s making these women wary; maybe it’s that he also happens to be a man, one who by Western standards may be on the short side, but who compared with the Yanomamö is rather tall. Could these women, if sufficiently threatened, somehow kill me? Do any of them have some kind of deadly weapon tucked away, a dagger or a club they could pounce on me with, or a projectile they could shoot at me from a distance? 

Then there are the men. Hadn’t they recently had some kind of violent dispute over women—a club fight, according to Clemens? How can I possibly be sure I’m not in breach of some proscription no Yanomamö would even consider violating? And what if the customary sanction is a poison arrow in the back? He turns to scan the trail and the hushed forest swallowing it in shadow. Sure enough, he sees what at first appear to be irate men drawing bows behind him. But as he looks closer, he realizes that the two men are alert, not angry, and that while their arrows are nocked they’re not drawn. These men must be on guard duty, protecting the women from attack or abduction. Most importantly, they don’t seem to take him as much of a threat; they barely seem to notice him at all.

The women, their calabashes full, are already beginning their march back to the shabono. Lac checks his watch. The walk from the village to the river took him about eight minutes. Making good time, you could make it here and back, he thinks, in fifteen minutes. He waits until all the Yanomamö women are on their way up the bank or heading back along the trail before going down to the shore to fill his own pot and kettle.

The women keep up their lively banter all the while, carrying on in a plangent, almost whining tone that sounds like something in between pleading and accusing. As they disappear along the trail, the silence hums with the energy of their voices. Squatting down by the water, Lac experiences yet another moment of doubt. What the hell am I doing here with these people? When he stands up, he’s in a mood to chastise himself. What did you think? That the women would be the normal ones, that they’d mother you and help you figure out how to deal with the men? You’re not here to socialize and make friends. You’re here to learn about the culture and work out the implications of your findings for the history of the human race, if that’s not too grandiose a way of putting it.

Lac determines not to pursue any approach to his work that involves devoting any special effort or attention to the women, since, his safe passage to the river notwithstanding, the men seem aggressively protective, to put it diplomatically. Lac has another thought as he’s carrying the sloshing containers back to the hut: you’ll have to work out some kind of balance between watching and notetaking on the one hand, and engaging and building rapport on the other. For one, you’ll never learn the language if you’re sitting back and not participating in their conversations. Plus, you’ll be putting a serious limit on what you can learn from them if you haven’t established any trust or mutual understanding—if you don’t build any friendships.

Lac laughs. So forget what you just told yourself by the river. You really do need to socialize and make friends, but it’s probably best to befriend the men, at least at first.

Back at the hut, Lac begins arranging his tools and supplies to prepare his first official meal in the field. If he times everything correctly, he can make both the oatmeal and the coffee with reconstituted milk at the same time. The task begins with unpacking the actual oats, the instant coffee, and the powdered milk. Throughout the process, he feels the eyes of several Yanomamö on him. Lac had debarked with his family from New York on a freight ship because the five fifty-five gallon metal barrels containing his food and supplies for the next year and a half would have been prohibitively expensive to ship by air. Now he looks at the four barrels he’s brought to the hut and wonders how he’ll ever manage to keep them safe, these tokens of a past existence, magic vessels from a mythical advanced civilization, whose contents he’s been counting on—naïvely—to see him through his sojourn into the Stone Age. These four barrels, he thinks, contain all the civilization I’ll have access to for a very long time. And the troubling thing is, if a determined Yanomamö decides to requisition them, perhaps under the sanction of some obscure property custom unquestioningly adhered to by his people, I would have next to no recourse to any authority who could intervene to prevent the transfer of ownership.

What Lac does have, though, his one hugely reassuring piece of his own society, is his shotgun. And at least for now he also still has lots of food. He’s prudently sealed his store of oats in plastic, then sealed it again in another layer of plastic before sealing it a final time in metal, figuring these multiple layers of protection would render all of it moisture-proof, bug-proof, rodent-proof, and with any luck even Yanomamö-proof. What he discovers now, digging through one of the barrels to pull out his cup, his bowl, the sack of dried oats, the bag of coffee, the bag of milk powder, the kerosene stove, the alcohol primer, and the necessary utensils, is that his redundant seals come at a steep cost in accessibility. By the time he has the stove ready to light, with all the dishes and ingredients lined up, and is ready to cook, his belly is roaring, his head is light, and his hut is thronged with enthralled Yanomamö—with countless more looking in through the window and the open door. Lac shakes his head and laughs at the ridiculousness of the spectacle he must be creating for them. Right now, the basic premise of participant-observation, the method at the core of the ethnographic endeavor, is being radically overturned, as the Yanomamö are learning far more about the nabä living among them than he’s learning about them.

Lac sprays the element on the stove with the alcohol primer and strikes a match. When he sees the blue flame jump into life, loudly gulping down the ambient oxygen, he quickly reaches for the knob to dial up the jets of kerosene amid a cacophony of clicks and other sounds of astonishment from the men crowding around him. But turning the dial produces the most unexpected and puzzling effect: instead of igniting with contact, the kerosene smothers the burning primer, splashing unlit fuel in all directions. Only after a full second and a half of this dispersal does the kerosene at last decide to catch, setting alight the dirt floor and the mud wall.

“Oh shit!” Lac blurts, creating yet another unexpected reaction. The Yanomamö, who’ve been looking on amazed, collectively burst into uproarious laughter, as if they’d thought the casting of flames had been deliberate but now understand that this supposed wizard is actually a dunce. Lac shoots to his feet to stamp out the flames, only afterward sharing in the men’s mirth.

Maybe it’s like being the new kid at school, he thinks; no matter who you are you start out at the bottom of the totem pole, the butt of all the jokes, the source of all the vicious—if not malicious—hilarity, but from there you work your way up, with time earning a modicum of respect, and perhaps eventually achieving that longed-for status of cool. All of Lac’s professors who’d worked in the field spoke of how honored they were to have been adopted by the people they were studying, addressed and treated as kin. Lac had begun worrying on the boat ride up the Orinoco what it would mean if he failed to win this type of acceptance, how it would affect his work, what it would imply about him personally. But now, laughing and joining in with a couple of men reenacting his latest mishap, his worries are mollified. Even if he has the lowly status of village clown, at least he has some role to play in their society; and he can always work his way up to—something else. Lac goes through the process of priming the element with alcohol again, this time having scooped the coffee and the milk into their individual cups so he can concentrate more fully.

He still manages to create another small fire, but this time the stove remains lit as he extinguishes the unintended side flames. Putting the kettle on—really just a smaller pot—Lac considers whether all the people standing around the hut are breathing up too much oxygen for the stove to light properly. Or maybe it’s the humidity smothering the flame. Then something else occurs to him; he’s about to introduce these men to the phenomenon of boiling. Or is he? He’s already seen them using wooden racks as smokers. Clearly, they cook garden produce, like the large green plantains they harvest and store in the corners of the village structure. Have they ever boiled water? Do they eat soup? There are so many questions to answer about the daily habits and beliefs of these people, but all I’ve been able to observe so far has been their yen for bullying demands—that and their complete disregard for others’ personal space.

When steam billows from the smaller pot, the men point and discuss what they’re witnessing with some urgency. “Steam,” Lac says, moving his hand back and forth through the streaming clouds. He sees a couple of men make their way toward the door, and suddenly he’s fantasizing about a steam vigil kept up indefinitely, though he predicts they’ll habituate quickly enough. After pouring the hot water into the cups for his milk and coffee, he decants the one into the other. Then, as he turns to pour the last of the water onto his oats—which means he’ll have to return to the river for more if he’s to wash his dishes—he makes a disturbing discovery: despite all the containers and redundant sealing, a beetle of some sort has managed to find its way into the bowl. Lac picks it out, disgusted but unwilling to forego his breakfast on account of a single interloper—or even on account of its two companions that are revealed as he stirs.

He briefly wonders what the Yanomamö will think of him nonchalantly picking out the bugs and then proceeding to eat the infested food, but then, after stirring plenty of sugar into both his coffee and his oatmeal, he proceeds to do just that. No sooner does he spoon the first bite into his mouth than the men, realizing at last that this is food the nabä has been preparing, start making their demands again in earnest. A particular man, one whose presence and watchful eye have been especially dedicated, becomes indignant at Lac’s refusal to share, soon reaching the point of melodrama. Withholding food, Lac is made to understand, is such a great injustice that this man has been driven to a state of fury, a state in which he can’t help but make a spectacle of himself. Is this, Lac wonders, what that wildness I was so captivated by really amounts to?

Lac, whose steadfastness is crumbling, watches the man’s intimidating display as he rushes to finish his breakfast. “If you don’t give me some food,” Lac imagines him shouting, “I’ll smash your head in with this long pole I carry around for just such an occasion. I’ll wait until you turn around and loose one of these long arrows into your back, poisoning you, condemning you to a slow, excruciating, solitary death. I’ll wait until you’ve wandered off to the edge of the forest to squat down and shit and I’ll rifle through your trunk, stealing whatever I come across that may have some value to me. Then I’ll set the rest on fire.”

Lac shovels as much oatmeal into his mouth as he can before the intensity of the man’s threats prevails on him to scoop up the remnants from the bottom of the bowl and scrape them onto the open palm of the man’s hand. The offering produces the opposite of its intended effect. The other men instantly start shouting and protesting at the unfairness of his proffering food to one of them and not the others. Lac reflexively ducks his dead lower between his shoulders, as if hoping to muffle the ear-splitting clamor, feeling himself all the while poked and clutched and shoved.

“I don’t have any more!” he shouts back at last, leaning down to pick up his pots for an impromptu return to the river. He pushes his way through the wall of aggrieved bodies and out through the door into the already intense rays of the mid-morning sun. Making a beeline back into the trees, he mentally inventories all the supplies he’s left in plain view inside the hut, all the belongings he’s sure are about to belong to someone else. Stopping to turn back, he sees that four men are straggling behind him, amused by his abrupt departure, but also somewhat bored with his cowardly antics. Ignoring them, he proceeds, waving the bareto from his face to take in some calming breaths.

I’ve got to do something to establish some boundaries, he thinks, to earn some respect. I can’t let things go on like this or these men will ransack that hut, I’ll keel over from exhaustion, and I’ll quite possibly be dead before the week is out. And more than anything else I need to smoke a goddamned cigarette. This quitting business will have to wait. He forces a smile, but when he reaches the shore and squats down to dip his pot into the water his hands are trembling. How the hell did I get myself into this—No! Stop that! You’re here. Figure out a way to make it fucking work. You’re here because you chose to study the most remote tribe you could find on a map of the world. You’re here because this society is pristine, these villages remain sovereign, and most of these people have little or no inkling of the outside world, that a place called Venezuela even exists, much less that they’ve been occupying it their whole lives. You knew all your professors’ stories about how they sought out, lived among, and got adopted by some exotic group—well, to a one, all those professors had chosen groups who’d already been acculturated through contact with the surrounding state-level society that had absorbed their territory, leaving them with at best a mere semblance of their former sovereignty. You wanted to learn about man in a state of nature, humans whose lifestyles were uncorrupted by the grinding encroachment of civilization. Now here you are, for seventeen months, with Laura and the kids trapped in a giant research center, recognizing none of the faces they see looking back at them, with no car, no way to reach you, and no idea what you’re going through.

Lac stands and begins the awkward march back to the hut with his full jugs of water. A particular oversight is causing him more anxiety than all the others: he’s left his shotgun leaning against the inside wall, tucked behind one the barrels, but exposed nonetheless. He needs to make it back right away to make sure it’s still there. These men probably have no idea what it is or what it can do, but for all he knows they’d take it for some other use, as a club or a heavy walking stick. Who knows? What he does know is that his shotgun is the only thing keeping him from being truly and completely at the mercy of the Yanomamö. He’s even wondering now whether it may be a good idea to show them what he’s capable of while wielding it.

Resisting the urge to bolt through the forest to escape the men who trail behind him, bearing witness to his every blunder, he thinks, maybe I could circle around and approach the hut from the opposite direction, but only after I take some time alone in the forest to gather my wits. He knows the plan isn’t feasible though. Carving out such a path would probably take hours, and his hut would be thoroughly looted by the time he returned—he’s been away too long already. Instead, he picks up his pace, building up to a near jog.

The men seem to think this is good fun, or they’re amused by the nabä’s pathetic attempt at outpacing them. Coming up to the front of the hut through the garden clearing, Lac sees that the door is hanging ajar, just as he left it, but there’s no sign of bodies moving about inside, and no one loitering around outside. He sets down the pots and breaks into a full-out run to cover the remaining distance, every inch of his sweat-soaked, gnat-bitten flesh pricklingly alive with the chill of panic. Stepping into the shadowy structure, he sees two men squatting to examine his stove, holding it aloft to see what it looks like from underneath. Lac scans the site of his abbreviated breakfast with desperate eyes that are still adjusting to the absence of direct sunlight. Amazingly, the trunk with the container holding his oatmeal remains unplundered. The barrel containing all the machetes and axes he’s planning to exchange for information, and for help reaching other villages, looks as though it too has been the subject of a hands-on examination, but the seal hasn’t been breached. And there, in a position either unmoved or convincingly replaced, is his shotgun, braced against the wall behind his stacked trunks.

Lac collapses onto one of the trunks as the men pose questions he can neither answer nor comprehend about how his kerosene stove works. He could fire it up again to show them, but he figures they’ll have ample opportunity to witness his culinary blunders in the coming weeks and months—a thought that brings him to the brink of tears.

Rather than wallow, though, Lac gets to his feet and sets about washing the dishes he’s dirtied. He happily discovers his coffee cup is undisturbed and decides to pour himself another cup from the still-warm pot. As he’s scrubbing the bowl he abandoned when he so abruptly fled the hut, Lac realizes that he hasn’t escaped the negative consequences of his impulsive flight completely: one item is missing, the large wooden spoon he used to stir and scoop his oatmeal. Of all the things to steal.

With the dishes cleaned, Lac begins the dauntingly tedious process of resealing and repacking all his goods and equipment, appalled the whole time by his own stench, which intensifies with the day’s rising heat. He’s spent the entirety of each day since setting out for the Mavaca River covered in sweat. November is at the leading edge of the dry season, and he and the others on the motorized rowboat were blessed by a complete lack of rain, which also meant they were cursed by a complete lack of relief from the blazing heat of the sun. Already today, his shirt, his shorts, even his socks are soaked through. As the day goes on, the gallons of new sweat will wash away the residue of yesterday’s, and he’ll reach a point where he actually feels cleaner, but whenever he bends down, squats, or reaches for something overhead, he’ll be assailed by the reek wafting up to his nostrils from the most private of his body’s folding places. Just now, the odor is casting him back to the locker room of his high school back in Port Austin and the redolence of filthy teenage boys who have yet to master the finer points of daily hygiene. The memory makes him eager to glimpse something colorfully petalled the next time he enters the forest, so desperate is he to give his nostrils whatever reprieve is on offer from the fragrance of the local flora.

His next task then, now that he’s finished the arduous ritual of unpacking, cooking, eating, washing, and repacking—at least for the morning portion of what will be his daily sustenance routine—is to go back to the river to give the clothes he’s wearing a good scrubbing, to perform some cleansing ablutions on his own person, and to put on some clean clothes as the others dry. Even the thought of fresh clothes, worn atop freshly scoured skin, confers on him a bit of bliss.

The Yanomamö’s numbers have thinned, and as the sun lifts higher overhead, casting its more direct rays onto the earth, a collective torpor sets in, giving Lac a break from the incessant badgering, but leaving him no less irritable. None of them, he notices, seems to be going to the river to bathe just now; perhaps there’s a good reason for them not to. But do they ever bathe at all? They must. So is the water dangerous this time of day? Is it poisonous somehow? Will some goddamned monster, or some tiny parasite, bring my fieldwork to a premature and tragic end? Better now than six months into this fucking nightmare, he thinks, laughing quietly, at first releasing some of the nervous tension, but then gradually becoming more genuinely amused. Either way, I’m willing to risk it; I feel completely disgusting.

After locking away the last of his dishes, he fishes a bar of soap from the trunk and begins a leisurely stroll to the river, his third trip for the day. You expect the jungle to be lush, with exotic leaves and sparkling vines and vibrantly colored flowers everywhere you look. But the light is so dim beneath the canopy that the undergrowth isn’t really even green so much as gray. And it’s—what’s the word? Dirty. The plant life isn’t covered in some glowing sheen the way you imagine it would be. It’s dull, as if dried out and covered with dust. And it’s startlingly, even somewhat unnervingly, quiet, save for the raucous chattering and squawking of distant tropical birds.

The water, as he approaches unbuttoning his shirt, teems with unseen monsters. But something almost miraculous has happened: while a few small children attend to his comings and goings, there are currently no adult males watching him. The voices of the children—all boys—suffuse the air between the two muddy banks with a resounding lightness. Lac steps into the water, the tension and heat leaching away into the cooling current as he balances on a knife edge between terror and rapture. He wants nothing so much as to lie back and float down the river, away from this hellish village, and if some vampire fish digs its barbed prongs into the inside of his penis, or if a horde of frenzied piranha pick his bones clean a tiny razor pinch at a time, who’s to say that would be a worse fate than what’s in store for him in that fetid shabono, with all those nasty, obnoxious, blustery men?

He applies the soap to his chest and neck, soothed down to his soul by the coldness and the refreshing splash of each rinse. Some of the children enter the water with him, allaying his fears somewhat—though what if they’re assuming this white nabä knows how safe the water is, just as he in turn assumes they do? Standing thigh-deep as they wade in, he worries too that they may take interest in his uncircumcised but untied penis, but they maintain some distance as they squeal and splash and play, mostly ignoring the bizarre-looking grownup who sports a loose-hanging penis and can’t speak a word of the mother tongue.

The boys’ own penises hang free too, he notices, leaving him to wonder whether there may be some sort of elaborate ritual young men go through as a rite of passage, culminating in their first cock strings. Lac proceeds to soap and rinse his whole body, then he submerges, soaks, and wrings out his shirt, shorts, and underwear several times, then finally returns to the shore, seeing no way to avoid muddying his feet. After toweling off, he puts on a dry set of clothes before sitting down on a half toppled tree trunk to brush off his feet as best he can, enjoying limited success in suppressing his annoyance. By the time he’s gathering his wet clothes and the towel to head back to the hut, he’s already covered in sweat again, fresh though this new coat may be.

I suppose I’m still in the logistics stage of my fieldwork, Lac sits down outside his hut to write late that evening, and I suppose you could say I’ve run into a setback on that front: this morning, I set about preparing breakfast, which the Yanomamö turned into more of an adventure than I was prepared to embark on so early in the day. After fetching some water, cooking oatmeal and pouring coffee, eating, reluctantly relinquishing my last bite, and doing dishes, I decided a bath was in order. I also washed my filthy clothes. Returning to Clemens’s hut, ready to begin my observations at last, I saw that it was nearly noon. I’d somehow managed to burn up around six hours in tasks having nothing to do with ethnography or participant-observation. Noon—and my stomach was already growling again, hungry for lunch.

The unsettling conclusion I’ve reached is that I’m going to need to rough it a little more than I anticipated. You’re constantly sweating all day anyway, and you’d have to work at procuring and cooking and storing food pretty much all day to stave off hunger in anything like the fashion we’re accustomed to in industrialized cities. So I’m going to be spending much of my time among the Yanomamö filthy and famished. Maybe I’ll take their lead and let them show me how best to manage these things while living in the jungle.

Returning from the river, and prior to the dawning realization that he’d squandered half his day, Lac overheard some women arguing—though something in their voices makes them always seem like they’re arguing, or complaining—and it seemed the bone of contention was the smattering of boys who’d accompanied him to the river for his bathing and laundry. He’d wondered whether these kids might be orphans or latchkeys, what with all the apprehension surrounding the possibility of an attack from an enemy village. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one who thought it odd to see them roaming around unsupervised. The brute fact, however, is that Lac has no idea if his reading of the situation was at all accurate. The women could have been arguing about anything; they might not have been arguing at all.

Sitting outside the hut now, his notebook lying atop his knee, Lac quietly laughs as he imagines the women complimenting each other’s superb parenting, lustrous hair, and firm, smooth buttocks in those petulant voices, with all that over-the-top gesticulating. After trying to glean some useful observations from this memory of the quarrel, he decides to move on, writing simply that some women had a dispute, adding a parenthetical about the likely cause being differences about the supervision, or lack thereof, of children.

The need to reduce my diet and downgrade my standard of cleanliness looms, he writes, but my first day of real fieldwork wasn’t a complete bust; I wandered into the shabono at noon and found that it was nearly deserted. Walking around the perimeter, though, I saw that small gatherings of people remained. These mostly consisted of shapeless older women and countless children whose numbers swelled and diminished at intervals, raising the question of whether they’re free to go outside the village enclosure, perhaps under the protection of some taboo against killing children in a raid. But, honestly, they could simply have been disappearing into the shade beneath the thatched roofing and I would have had a difficult time spotting them.

Four men, probably in their twenties and thirties, remained inside the shabono as well. They were busy for some time rolling out tiny gumballs, which at first I thought might be a stage in the production of whatever poison Clemens had seen them applying to their arrow tips, but I later learned, as I watched them grind the balls into a green powder they mixed with sprinkled ashes from a burning log, that it was the drug they use to facilitate communion with their spirits. The image of a typical day that emerges from my casual observations of this one particular day begins with predawn visiting and chatting, along with anxious trips outside to void full bladders and bowels. With the light of day gaining strength, the headman scouts the environs for signs of enemy raiders. And then the gardening begins.

The garden appears to be sectioned, though in ways that aren’t obvious at first glance. Each man, or perhaps each family, works and harvests a particular area. A couple sections of what look like tobacco even have crude fences around them, about knee-high and consisting of nothing more than upright sticks tied to thin vines. They must be thoroughly ineffective as an impediment to theft—unless the true purpose is to signal the owner’s intention to defend his property. Everyone, woman and man alike, puts in a lip plug of tobacco first thing in the morning; they may even sleep with them tucked against their bottom teeth. And it seems the kids get an early start. I see boys as young as ten or twelve walking around with bulging bottom lips.

By far the most important cultigen, though, would have to be the bananas, or rather the cooking plantains. The Yanomamö keep hundreds of them hanging in bundles from the wooden supports of the shabono, taking some down to roast on a fire at several points throughout the day. Gardening mostly entails clearing away brush and pulling out weeds, but each section covers a large swath, so tending it thoroughly takes at least a couple hours. Bahikoawa, the headman, was the first to begin gardening this morning, and close to the last to finish, though I began my ill-fated efforts at preparing breakfast before they’d all left off for the morning, or for the early afternoon, as the case may be.

The humming knot of anxiety in Lac’s chest thickens as he recalls the morning’s proof of his ineptitude—and the dilemma it’s brought to light. He’s been reassuring himself that after today he’d be able to relax, knowing that he was capable of providing for his own basic needs here in the jungle, and indeed it turns out he is capable—just not if he’s determined to do some actual work at the same time. Even now, his stomach churns, foretelling of the hungry night ahead. He’s locked away his supply of what’s already become his favorite staple, his crackers and peanut butter, not wanting to deplete his store. Maybe I need to plant my own garden, he thinks, after the Yanomamö fashion. He smiles, shaking his head.

The sounds from the shabono fill the air over the clearing: what sounds like chanting from a handful of the men, dueling voices, with occasional interruptions blurted out by others. Lac looks from one to another of the men standing or squatting around him, suspecting they’ll wander off soon, as the evening chill sets in. He experiences a sense of warmth associated with old ideas in his head about what would go on within a communal dwelling carved out of the wilderness, the home everybody returns to after a day of wandering and toil. The women and nearly all of the older female children started disappearing into the forest even before the day’s gardening was finished. The remaining girls mostly looked after the youngest of the children, and a pretty consistent segregation by gender obtained. The men likewise disappeared into the forest but along separate routes. Lac would later learn that the women devoted most of the day to collecting and processing firewood, which they carried on their backs in impressively large baskets with straps running across their foreheads. It appears their role is to tend to the hearth, as it were, sustaining the cooking fires that burn at all times, the fires that keep everyone warm throughout the night. As for me, he stops to ponder, I have this hut to shield me from the cold, along with these clothes crusted over with my dried sweat, and a blanket.

The men, meanwhile, he writes, return at intervals with the game birds or monkeys they’ve hunted down with their bows and arrows. The tubes hanging against their lower backs are hollowed out bamboo shafts serving as quivers for their arrow tips, which come in several varieties, each one lending itself to the killing of a different kind of animal. The men also cook the meat—to excess, judging from the smell of charring, and without first skinning the animals—but there ensues a lot of enthusiastic sharing, though this takes places before the cooking as well as after. Meals are small, frequent, and spread out over the course of the day; what we’d call snacks take the place of the four squares.

As he writes, Lac is weighed down with the feeling, not so much of being exiled from the village, but of being condemned to this life on the periphery. He’s hungry, can’t talk to anyone, and remains restricted to his hut, for one because he needs to say close to his supplies, but for two because he has no place inside the shabono to hang his hammock, no allies or sponsors—no friends—to take him in and put him up for the night. Laura has this habit of tying all his scholarly and professional preoccupations to hidden themes she picks out of his personal history. As he was filling out genealogical charts representing various types of family organization in diverse cultures as part of his training, Laura suggested that what he was really doing was reenacting his earlier efforts to find a place for himself in his own family.

“You already had Connor as an older brother,” she said one night when he had the charts spread over the kitchen and living room of their campus apartment. “As a firstborn son, he casts a pretty big shadow. But then your parents just kept having more and more kids; you have eleven brothers and sisters, Lachlan. Any kid in your shoes would wonder about his ultimate value, try to find a role to play that makes him feel like he stands out in the midst of all that crowding.”

“My eleventh sibling wasn’t born until last year; it’s not like I spent my entire childhood feeling crowded out and anonymous to my whole family. I was a father myself by the time my youngest brother was born.”

“You still had more siblings than most people do, and you kept having to deal with a new one every couple of years.”

“That’s not unheard of for a family historically. My parents, what can I say, they’re very traditional.”

“It must have had an impact on you though. Why do you think you find Connor’s ‘smallminded provincialism’ so irritating—however successful he is? You could have carried on the family tradition right alongside him, but you chose not to.”

“It wasn’t much of a choice.”

“It wasn’t? Why not?”

“Well, you said Connor is successful. That kind of success doesn’t mean anything to me; it rings hollow. I can’t very well spend my whole life pursuing goals that mean nothing.”

“Those goals mean something to Connor: the career, the respectability, the big family.”

“Is that what this is about? Do you want to have more children? Laura, we’ve talked about this. Maybe after the initial phases of my fieldwork…”

“No, Lachlan, I’m not saying I want more children. Believe me, I’ve got my hands full with these too devils. For now. I’m just pointing out that your passion for this stuff”—she gestured around the room at all the charts lying about—“makes a certain kind of sense.”

Amused is the word he’d use now to describe her response to having lighted on the supposed insight; though there was an edge of triumph to it as well, as though piecing together what makes this decidedly unconventional man she’s married tick amounted to some sort of victory. As he gallivants off—both in his mind and in a real physical sense—to far-ranging points unknown, with her in tow, she delights in knowing more about him—more about the inner workings of his psyche—than he knows about himself. If her ideas derive a little too much from the Freudianism she picked up in her English classes (he’s informed her Freud is falling out of fashion in most other departments), Lac nonetheless finds them disturbingly plausible more often than he’s willing to let on.

It’s true, he thinks now, I do have this attitude, not so much of disdain, but of profound disappointment at the narrowness of people’s interest in the world, the shallowness of their understanding of our place in the cosmos. Church, marriage, kids, an office job, an occasional game on the radio, maybe some hunting and fishing on Sundays—and that’s the extent of it. They don’t have the vaguest inkling of how small we are as a species, how late on the scene; they don’t have the vaguest inkling of how preposterous our rise from the lowliest origins would’ve seemed at the outset, but how eminently comprehensible each stage in the process usually is, with just enough effortful thought, just enough focused study. People at school tend to appreciate all this; no one else, not Connor, not Malcolm, pretty much no one he knows outside of academia appreciates any of it. Yet they slog on in their little dream pockets an infinitesimal fraction of the size of the actual universe, imagining the most impossible of beings driving everything that occurs within their miniscule worlds, blind to the one true miracle—that it all works without anyone driving anything, without anyone turning the dials or pulling the levers, that we owe our existence to the glorious accident of nature. What success is there to be had amid such obliviousness?

“Of course you latched on to the idea that none of what Connor and your father know has any merit,” Laura said, “that you’re privy to some grand secret about life and the universe that they aren’t even equipped mentally to suspect.”

“I may have turned my attention to science and to all those bigger questions out of spite, or for some need to carve out a unique identity,” he allowed. “I may have been doing something like that at first, but once I was on the path I kept going for no other reason than because it was true—and there’s no more reliable set of methods for learning about what’s really true and what isn’t. Everybody else is either going with what they’ve been told or making stuff up. Do you disagree?”

She claimed she didn’t. But sometimes Lac wonders if her urge to connect intellectual pursuits to personal motives leaves any room for objectivity. Or is she replacing a healthy scientific skepticism with something closer to cynicism? For Laura, we must all seem like we’re living inside our own dream bubbles, trying to look out but only seeing mirrors and prisms reflecting back to us our own distorted selves, only catching the most fleeting and blurry glimpses of the world beyond the filmy membrane. There’s probably something to that view, he thinks, but you go too far along that line of thinking and you end up with solipsism—and from there you’ll find no reason to pursue the truth, no point in investigating the natural world, no point in doing much of anything.

And what about Laura’s own hidden motives? Might she be psychoanalyzing everyone because she too feels crowded into anonymity, because she too needs to feel like she’s contributing something no one else could, something somehow truer, more fundamental? I mean, it’s not like she could ever go out on her own and study a group like the Yanomamö. There are lots of successful women in anthropology—Benedict, Mead—but don’t they do their research among people who are much more…? He lets the thought trail off as he looks up at the sky, taking a moment to savor the relative quiet. He needs to finish his notes on the day’s observations before the light wanes much further, or else he could use a flashlight. He considers it, but he’s not prepared to deal with whatever reception the Yanomamö have in store for such a dazzlingly useful bit of nabä magic.

The women, Lac writes, were accompanied on their quest for firewood by armed guards, men nervously on the lookout for disturbances in the brush, fidgeting with their nocked arrows. The two men standing guard over the women filling their calabashes with water earlier today were more relaxed, perhaps because they were closer to the village, or perhaps because Bahikoawa had already investigated the area for signs of enemy villagers. I counted four men on firewood detail, and their level of alertness marked a stark contrast with the casual attitude toward guarding the children. Do raiders target women for killing? That would explain why Bahikoawa is willing to conduct his investigations first thing every morning. But no—Clemens said the fight we walked into yesterday had been over stolen women, seven taken from this village, five taken back in a retaliatory attack. The women aren’t targeted for killing by the raiders; they’re targeted for kidnapping. But for what purpose? Are they taken as wives by the men of the rival village? Kept as slaves? Or is it a symbolic move, the ultimate humiliation of a rival group?

The more serious question for now, he thinks as he lifts his pen, is what am I going to tell Laura? He’s supposed to be getting situated and then sending for her, but he knows he can’t bring her here, with or without the kids. He can’t guarantee his own safety at any given moment out here; how could he possibly guarantee theirs? Though the kids, it seems, would probably be fine, assuming the Yanomamö offered some help feeding, bathing, and babysitting them—making sure they weren’t bitten by snakes or attacked by ants. How could I have been so far off the mark, he wonders, about what coming here would be like? Obviously, you can’t bring your family here, at least not until you have a better sense of how to negotiate your way around all the dangers, not until you figure out a way to keep these people from bullying and harassing them—which means you first need to figure out a way to keep them from bullying and harassing you. But what can I tell her? I can’t very well say, “Sorry honey, it turns out these Indians are pushy and violent and like to steal women from each other’s villages.” Meanwhile, though, she and the kids are stuck at IVIC; I don’t want them to be trapped there for the next year and a half.

Gazing out over the twilit tree line, Lac tunes in to the conversation of the men standing off to the side of where he sits writing. Their speaking has been steady all throughout his writing and all throughout his many long thoughtful pauses, but even when they addressed him or tried to get his attention he’s remained walled off, sealed within his own bubble of inattention. Now he wonders if the reason for there always being somebody, or somebodies, watching him, mildly harassing him, is because they’re curious—he represents, after all, one of the only, and surely the most bizarre, forms of entertainment available out here—or if it’s really just because he’s the easiest target for their bullying. If that’s the case, he’s going to have to alter their perception of him somehow, and the sooner the better. He leans over his notebook again.

In the afternoon, six of the adult men (two of whom had recently returned from hunting) got together to decorate each other’s bodies using at least two different kinds of feathers and copious amounts of red pigment. The smaller white feathers they scattered throughout their tonsured hair (how they shave these spots on their heads I have yet to witness); the larger brown feathers they attached to bands on their upper arms, making them poke up and radiate outward. Once they finished decking out their own and each other’s bodies, they began taking turns squatting down in pairs and shooting the ground up green powder I’d seen four of them preparing earlier through a three-foot wooden tube, less than an inch in diameter, into one another’s nostrils. The force of the blast was such that it produced a puff of powder from the opposite nostril. The recipients winced, recoiled, stood up, whipped their faces from side to side, slapped the sides of their heads, and often leaned forward, resting their palms on their knees, as if waiting to vomit. This is no idle pastime. They take their drug-taking very seriously.

The strings of green mucous began to stretch from their noses almost immediately after they’d received the doses, and once more they showed no inclination to wipe them away. Once the drug began to take effect, the men took up a seemingly heated exchange—half-shouting, half-chanting—with a multitude of invisible beings who apparently reside in a space atop the distant tree line, though at several points it appeared the men were interacting with creatures who’d covered all that distance and actually entered the village. The ritual has elements of dance and mimicry as well, both of which gradually became more pronounced, perhaps as the drug took stronger hold over the men’s bodies. They variously strutted and bobbed their heads like birds, crouched low to stalk unseen prey across the courtyard, and waddled to and fro as if shifting the weight of a shell or carapace (in imitation of an armadillo?).

The spirits the men commune with are likely semi-bestial, akin to the animal-headed but otherwise human figures in Egyptian murals. At a few points, the men’s gestures seemed to indicate that the beings were close—within reach even—and I came away with the impression that they must be quite small and nimble. The men maintained an impressive energy level throughout the hours-long back-and-forth. I’d characterize the tone as near to that of a vitriolic argument, of a sort I’ve already seen groups of Yanomamö embroiled in on a handful of occasions in the past two days; there are also elements of pleading counterpoised with elements of boasting, urgent plaintiveness set against a spirit of play.  

Not all of the adult men participated by any means, possibly suggesting that these six men comprise something of a separate class of shamans, but all the Yanomamö seemed to be, if not watching intently, at least listening in as they halfheartedly went about their chores: processing their newly acquired game, tending their hearths, preparing late afternoon snacks.

Lac squints at his writing through the gloaming, worriedly turning over the proper position to take with regard to his own boundaries and how far he’s willing to go in participating in the Yanomamö culture. Would he even be allowed to join the shamans in their daily rituals? He knows plenty of anthropologists who are avid drug-takers: marijuana, peyote, ayahuasca—they all swear by the salubrious effects for one’s mental and spiritual well-being. But Lac would rather not bolster the popular image of anthropology as the last academic refuge for drug-addled hippies claiming to be at one with the universe when they’re really just incapable of getting a handle on their addictions.

Closing his notebook and standing up to go back inside the hut, Lac directs his thoughts to tomorrow, to mapping out his day to ensure he’s far more productive than he was today, but his mind turns elsewhere in spite of his efforts. Inside the hut, he performs a ritual double-check of his supplies, testing the latches on his trunks, making sure the barrels are sealed, and situating his loaded shotgun close at hand by his hammock. Once again, he’s exhausted. Though it would be more accurate to say I’m still exhausted, he thinks, than that I’m exhausted again.

As he twists down to roll onto his hammock, he takes a second to appreciate the absence of Yanomamö in his darkened hut—or actually in Clemens’s darkened hut, as one of his tasks for the coming days is to build his own mud-and-thatch hut, with the help, if he can arrange it, of a few Yanomamö. But my first order of business, he thinks, is still to work out a process for learning the language, which will most likely entail joining them in whatever activities they’ll tolerate me participating in. That means you need to be awake early enough tomorrow to finish whatever breakfast you can throw together before the gardening is done, and then you can accompany some of the men on their hunt. That way, you’ll have a chance to shoot some game yourself, which means you’ll have something to contribute other than your manufactured goods. With any luck, the report of the gun will induce some hesitation the next time one of them feels an urge to push you around.

These are all plans he’s already worked out and repeated to himself more than once. What’s really occupying his mind, albeit in the background, is that the one man he’s loath to have thinking of anthropologists as a bunch of drugged out hippies is his father; that’s why the prospect of taking hallucinogens with the Indians is filling him with dread. Malcolm, as all the Shackley children have been told, was a man who in his early adulthood loved a drink after work, after dinner, before bed, and at intervals of a couple of hours over the course of both weekend days. When the drinking led to problems, the nature of which remain a mystery to them—Connor has claimed it had something to do with a totaled Ford none of them remember—Malcolm turned first to God, but ultimately he turned to himself for redemption. He no sooner ran out of excuses and evasions and was forced to accept that he had a problem, a weakness, than he set out determinedly to overcome it. And overcome it he did, in very short order, though the details of how he achieved this victory over himself have been kept secret.

It was the legendary ease of Malcolm’s deliverance that made him so contemptuous of anyone who allows himself to be mastered by alcohol, or by any other intoxicant. Connor is no teetotaler, but he’s meticulous in his exercise of moderation—and Judy always has recourse to letting Malcolm know if her husband and his first-born son gets it in his head to overindulge.

To the second-born son, this intense wariness of drink is silly, little more than adult playacting, an overdramatizing of a common struggle against vice. This position comes with its own sort of dramatic tension though; Lac has to drink nonchalantly, prove that he can enjoy himself with little fear of going overboard, but on occasion, as he discovered late in his undergrad years, he could have quite a bit of fun going overboard. In any other family, Lac was sure, he could have gotten blotto once in a while and not made any kind of production out of it. As the son of an erstwhile pseudo-dunk and current paragon of sobriety, he has to justify every sip. No matter what happens, the idea is to show that, without putting any effort into managing his craving, he could partake of the devil’s drink without forfeiting an ounce of respectability, without calling forth the demons of consequence.

It shouldn’t be such a big deal, he’s often thought; they must be borderline insane to worry about it so much, not to mention self-righteous, self-dramatizing, and close-minded. Naturally enough, though, no matter how hard he tries to pretend it isn’t the case, his father’s disapproval affects him. Not knowing anything about drugs, and not really knowing anyone with much experience using them, he’s terrified that all it will take is one hit to send him spinning out of control—and that would set back his cause of setting back theirs.

As in this one area of dispute, so it is with his whole crazy anthropology thing, he thinks, sinking down through the depths of his sleeplessness. What they don’t appreciate is that I’m going to do it regardless—No, I’m going to do the hell out of it, and I won’t turn out to be some hippie loafer who winds up penniless, living in a tie-dyed van, abandoning my wife and kids. I’ll do my fieldwork, come home, finish my Ph.D., and live the life of a respectable scholar, a scientist. Because this is 1964 dammit. There are more ways to earn a living than farming, fishing, and factory work. Of course, the plan wasn’t to merely get by as an anthropologist, support my family, hold my head high, and all that. The plan was to go beyond making ends meet. The plan was to make a name for myself, not merely do well enough, but do so well as to set a new standard. Because maybe in my own way I really am carrying the family torch, working to honor the Shackley name, not by going the same route as the others, but by blazing a completely new trail, opening up a completely unknown world.

And here I am. The one thing left out of all these grandiose plans, he thinks, is that getting them to work will require the cooperation of the Yanomamö—and the Yanomamö, up to this point, have proven singularly uncooperative.

******

Sleep falls heavy upon him. He remains insensate, exquisitely absent from his troubles, for longer than he has since reaching Caracas with is family, so when he awakes a full four hours after rolling into the hammock, it takes him a minute to reorient himself, to land himself back in this self-sought hell. The emptiness of the lightless hut startles him to the point of suspicion. Reaching to grip the stock of his shotgun, he considers turning on the flashlight he’s likewise positioned close at hand. The door to the hut is solid—not strong enough to withstand a heavy kick or two from a determined Yanomamö, but enough of an impediment to provide plenty of warning that he has company. Nonetheless, he can’t bring himself to trust the darkness. Is it because of a dream he’s just awoken from but already forgotten? Or is he just that unaccustomed to being alone out here? The third possibility is that he heard something. Though he has no recollection of any sound, he soon convinces himself the mystery noise was the cause of his waking up at such a random point in the night, though it’s also the case that his bladder is full enough to warrant an interruption in his slumbers.

Not wanting to call attention to any new type of madohe, Lac switches on the flashlight for just long enough to scan the edges of the hut where the dirt floor meets the mud walls. Nothing. But even as he’s moving his thumb to switch off the light he hears, distinctly, the sound of scurrying in the vicinity of his stacked trunks. He waits a full two beats before re-aiming and turning the light back on. This time, instead of switching it back off right away as he’d intended, he leaves it on, leveling the beam on the spot where he glimpsed the pestilent black eyes. Taking another step down in the caliber of the company you keep, he whispers to himself, smiling, even as his heart races.

His only option, he figures, if he wants to rid himself of his guest, is to kill it, because by chasing it out of the hut, he’d merely be inviting it to return. But if he’s hunting rat, the shotgun will be overkill. Situating the flashlight on the ground pointing upward, illuminating the hut but casting shadows behind the trunks and barrels, Lac opts for an alternative approach, pulling out the machete he’s hidden between the trunks. Lifting it to a height even with his head, he wheels around into the shadows and sees—nothing. He goes back to retrieve the flashlight so he can rely on a direct beam to locate the intruder. Just as he’s stepping behind the trunks again, though, he hears scratching and shuffling by the window, and, quickly redirecting the flashlight, he’s able to watch the little bastard stealing off into the night.

Lac clicks off the light and rushes to the window, hoping to witness the rat’s flight across the clearing. Instead, he’s startled by the sight of a man’s silhouette, a man with an emaciated dog circling his feet. Reflexively moving his body out of the line of sight, Lac gazes out at him through the bottom corner of the window. The windows in the hut are supposed to be covered by hinged screens of thatch, but the screen in this window has long since disappeared, and Lac has yet to make any effort at replacing it, relying instead on his mosquito netting to protect him—the door stands open most of the day anyway. So he peers out through a completely open aperture high in the wall of the hut.

The man, though Lac can’t make out his features, appears to be looking straight back at him. Though this is hardly unusual by Yanomamö standards—standing outside in the middle of the night, staring at the dwelling place of the visiting nabä—Lac is shaken, his second jolt since waking up a couple minutes ago. His eyes roam the dark interior of the hut, searching for the spot where he leaned his gun against the wall, thumbing the switch on the flashlight. It’s the flashlight, he realizes, that gave the man cause to stop and stare. And wouldn’t you be amazed too, he thinks, if you saw artificial light for the first time fluttering around through the window of the white men’s house?

This explanation for the man’s vigil calms Lac somewhat, but he remains by the window, keeping an eye on this figure seemingly keeping an eye on him. When the man continues standing there immobile for several minutes, staring at the hut—in through the window?—Lac begins to panic. But his fear quickly plateaus. Something about the dog at the man’s feet reassures him. From what he’s observed so far, the Yanomamö’s relationships with their dogs are nowhere near warm enough to win the approval of most Americans. Their presence is barely tolerated. They’re left to eat scraps and garbage and whatever they can hunt or scavenge on their own, which is why they’re all so bony, with those prominent ribs and cinched bellies. What gets to Lac the most, though, is the ambivalent way the dogs approach Yanomamö men, excited to be close to their masters, but ostensibly frightened, as if expecting a swat courtesy of their beloved. And he’s seen some instances of that courtesy already, not cruel exactly, but conveying the severest impatience, disdain even. Why the hell keep them around, Lac wondered, if their presence annoys you so much?

But the dog circling this particular man isn’t the least bit fearful. She walks with her head low to track whatever scents she can pick up from the ground, but when she stops to look up at her master her ears stretch high and her hind legs remain springy, almost like she’s ready to dart after a stick—this in contrast to the usual ducking and slinking and ear-flattening of the other dogs. As Lac watches, the man at last starts walking along a route that leads in a circle to the front of Clemens’s hut, as though swinging around to a spot where he can approach the door unseen. Lac tries to imagine what the man has just witnessed, the crazy flashes bursting out into the night. What must he be thinking? Just as he moves into an area backgrounded by the jungle, where there’s no contrast to make his outline visible, Lac recognizes his gait, or thinks he does.

It’s Bahikoawa, the village headman, and he’s giving every indication that his is a soul tormented. Is it all this trouble with that neighboring village, Lac wonders, the one they had to steal their women back from—or five of the seven originally stolen anyway? If that’s what’s on his mind, then he must have stood there watching the light streak across the inside of the hut, wondering how he might put this new bit of nabä sorcery to use militarily. He could use it to guide a troop through the dark, maybe even launch a nighttime raid.

Lac’s next attempt to divine the headman’s thoughts sends him bolting away from the window, cowering like a typical village dog. Is Bahikowoa circling around to the front of his ramshackle dwelling so he can get a running start, burst through the flimsily locked door, subdue the pesky idiotic nabä, and claim all this madohe for the village?

Lac goes to the front wall and pushes the thatch screen up and out from the window frame so he can see what’s in front of the door. With Laura and the kids foremost in his mind, he marvels once again at his own foolishness in stranding himself out here with these inscrutably volatile people before moving back into the center of the room to find his shotgun. His next thought brings a modicum of reassurance, though, enough to allow him to roll back onto his hammock—albeit with his eyes and the barrel of his gun fixed on the entrance. The thought was that Bahikoawa, if that’s who was standing out there in the middle of the thirty-yard stretch between the hut and the closest wall of the shabono, communicated a distinct emotion through his bearing and his gait.

And if that emotion is one that lends itself to the incitement of violence, Lac thinks now, I will have to rethink everything I know about human nature.

It only takes a beat before this strikes him as funny—as hilarious—so much so that he has to cover his mouth with his hand, the same hand he would use to fire the shotgun, to keep from filling the hut and the surrounding night with his laughter. And just like that, despite never for a second forgetting that he has to pee or that he’s in desperate need of a cigarette, he’s asleep, snoring quietly and evenly. 


More stuff to read: 

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco



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).

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.

Continue reading: Notes from the Periphery

Also read:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco



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