You Can't Get There from Here

Deep Island, pt. 2

Deep Island:


When you grow up, you can’t just spend all your time creekwalking and catching frogs. You have to do serious things. Which was why I was at college in the first place, two and a half Midwestern states away from where I grew up.

I was never entirely clear what I was doing there. Ostensibly I was there to get a liberal arts degree of some sort, preparatory to getting a relevant job where I could parlay that degree into a higher salary. But I was a sufficiently iconoclastic teenager that I didn’t really see things panning out that way for me. I already disbelieved to some extent in the idea that pursuit of money, and the comfort thereby attained, should be a primary pursuit of my life. Barring a brief obsession with cool watches, expensive gizmos never held any appeal for me; I was the kid who had never once played a console video game, and I believe I even lobbied my mom against us getting cable when I was fourteen. There were a lot of things I knew I didn’t want: and college seemed like the most effective way for me to get them anyhow. But it also seemed like it held promise as a way for me to get what I really did want. The problem was, I didn’t know what it was that I really wanted. The only thing I think I could’ve told you positively, back in those days, that I wanted, was to go out exploring—a goal I’d held at least since eighth grade, when I went on a class trip to a military museum where they had a make-your-own-dog-tags machine and I made mine say


(Yes, I was already using that pseudonym back then.)

By the time I was accepted to college the strength of that goal had waxed enough that I mooted the idea of taking a year’s deferment to travel the country and figure out what else I wanted out of life. But mine was aways a timid and permission-seeking iconoclasm, and when an uncle of mine told me, with the authority of having been that young once, that I’d probably just dink around all year, maybe never even get out of Ohio, and end up a year older and no wiser about my true motivations, I asumed he was right and dropped the matter. One of my weaknesses has always been to fear making mistakes so much that I let others have all the fun making them. Maybe he was right, but I still regret not pressing the point, because years down the line when I did finally put my thumb out beside that first highway in Russia, I started learning a slew of lessons that college never taught me—and if I’d started with those lessons, I might have realized sooner that what I wanted besides wandering, wanted way down deep, had always been, in so doing, to find a way home.

By that, of course, I don’t mean that my subconscious wanted me to set aside all my adolescent rebelliousness and see the merits of living in a nice picket-fence house and holding down a career with benefits. My subconscious and conscious mind, as far as I can tell, are equally revolted by that prospect. But I also don’t mean just a homestead somewhere on a forty-acre farm with a woodstove cozily burning away all winter. For a long time I did believe that was all I wanted. But on closer examination, it’s almost the same exact dream, with the “modern” color palette swapped out for “rustic”. It only speaks to the material details of life. The change I wanted, I came to realize, was on a more fundamental level. I wanted to find my way back into a healthy, living relationship with the Earth. There were only two troubles with that pretty phrase: I had no idea what it meant in real-life terms, and I had no idea how to achieve it.

And so, inevitably, I found my way to the anthropology department. If I didn’t know how to define “healthy relationship with the Earth”, I was pretty sure I could at least recognize it when I saw it. And I saw it in indigenous cultures all over the world. Wherever people lived directly from the land, where their food didn’t get to them by way of a global logistics chain but came straight from the Earth, respecting its limits—from what I read in my introductory class, their cultures were the kind of healthy I knew had to exist somewhere. I pitched myself into studying their lifeways. If I learned enough about them, I should be able to work my way backward until I could find a path there from my own fallen world, with its disjointed and dysfunctional relationship to the cycles and capacities of nature.

Anthropologists—or to be more specific, that moiety of anthropologists known as ethnologists— are a strange tribe. One and all, they come to the study of human cultures because they have some fascination with the way people live. Imagine this: on the Indonesian island of Bali, in small villages on the full and new moons, a witch comes into town. More precisely it is one of the village’s inhabitants, wearing a costume—a hideous mask with a tongue lolling out to the knees, between a pair of black-and-white-striped breasts that hang down just as far, and disgusting five-inch fingernails. Her name is Rangda. She shrieks her way into the village and challenges all the men to defend it against her. This, it would seem, shouldn’t take much trouble, because the men come out in force bearing their wavy-bladed kris daggers, but Rangda’s witchery is equal to the challenge, and she psychically repels them as they approach her. In time she is able even to force the men to turn their own daggers back on themselves. Only the protector of the village is finally able to turn the tide: Barong, a great lion, a figure carried by two men, who revives defenders who have fallen over and gives them strength until they can force Rangda out of the village. That, at least, is how it usually goes, though the outcome is never certain and sometimes Rangda wins, bringing disaster to the town. In all cases the men are spent at the end and must take a whole day to recover.1 To many people, this is just a curious and exotic tale, and after hearing it they can go on with their lives. To some, it has an electrifying effect, and sets them wondering: What kind of lives do these people live, so different from my own, in which a drama like this makes sense? What do they believe? What are their minds like? How can humans be so alike in some ways, and yet in others so different that we can only say that they live in different worlds? The people who find they must seek out answers to these questions are the ones who become anthropologists.

Yet despite that driving curiosity, many or most anthropologists will always find that no matter how close they get to answering their questions, they must always stop short. Because anthropology is, after all, a science: and not only that, but a science with an inferiority complex, long on observations and short on hypotheses, derided by practitioners of physics and biology as a lowly humanities field in an indecorous masquerade. Thus an ethnologist who does fieldwork in some far-off land will come home spilling with stories of awe and wonder, but when it comes time to write about them, must channelize these observations into detached, scientific writing. The ideal here is that the other culture is approached as an academic matter, and the researcher acts as a neutral eye. People who wonder how Rangda can ward off a whole crowd of fit young men must at some level hunger to inhabit a radically different mind. They are novelists and actors at heart, so fascinated with other people that they must on some level become those people. They have selves that are expansive and will happily encompass other lives. Such people, with such protean creativity, we need in this world. These people are then trained to observe other cultures with none but the least involvement from their starving souls, and they come back after a year of fieldwork on some far distant island trying to convince themselves and their faculty that they are entirely unchanged by the experience. Jung wrote that “[t]he analyst and his patient may set out by agreeing to deal with a chosen problem in an impersonal and objective manner; but once they are engaged, their whole personalities are involved in their discussion.”2 Likewise an understanding of another culture can only be reached when approached as a whole person. But this is something that ethnology is loath to permit. It must earn that -ology.

Or to put it more simply, it’s fine to learn about other cultures, as long as you don’t start believing what they say. And because many ethnologists won’t permit themselves the luxury of giving any credit to the magic behind the scenes, they begin, on some level, to suspect that the people they’re studying don’t either. The natives may say they believe in magic, indeed that “the performance of magical rites and the utterance of magical words are indispensable for the success of the enterprise in all its phases,”3 but don’t they really, deep down, have the same Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic ([weird]{.smallcaps}) mind as me? John Michael Greer relates a bizarre and symptomatic anecdote from his college days, corroborated by my own experiences, in which a T.A. spends the whole lecture relating various theories about why religions exist among all the peoples of the world, but leaves out what Greer felt to be the most obvious possibility—that people have what they understand as spiritual experiences sometimes, as polls consistently report they do, even in industrial countries.4 In my classes, the theory with the most currency seemed to be that religions serve to reinforce social cohesion by demanding sacrifice from everyone to prove loyalty to the group, a viewpoint alive and well in the first master’s thesis on Barong and Rangda that I found, which introduces that transcendent ritual with the surpassingly bloodless words, “Rituals are structured and framed within a ceremony. Groups use these sequenced actions to reinforce or regain social cohesion among members.”5 Absent the possibility that people genuinely believe in nonhuman, intelligent entities, in spirits, Greer’s professor and some of mine reduce animistic (and even polytheistic and monotheistic) people worldwide to a shifty group of characters constantly keeping an eye out for disloyalty through disingenous thought-policing.

Anthropology at its best, though, avoids this trap, and dispenses with the fantasy that the ethnologist should be, or even can, act as a dispassionate observer. Just as we don’t pretend we’ll get any literary value out of reading the Cliff’s Notes version of Jane Eyre instead of Brontë’s emotionally rich original, some anthropologists embrace the anthropos over the logos and let their humanities all hang out. What value I derived from my anthropology degree can in large part be put down to authors like these. In Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down I learned with the author that traditional Hmong really don’t harbor a suspicion deep down that epilepsy is a matter of a disarranged brain, and quite genuinely believe that seizures are incursions from the spirit world into someone who has the potential to be a medium. From Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places, I learned that in the minds of the Western Apache, their homeland’s landscape is woven with stories in practically every valley and cornfield, and that when they get too far from those stories, they start to “forget how to live right, forget how to be strong.”6 Basso admitted to learning a few things himself from his ethnographic subjects, and was friends with them.

It was from writings like these that I learned one of the most important lessons I think I’ve managed to learn: that people who live in close relation to the Earth don’t think like a university professor. Their world is full of spirits and magic, more or less invariably. They understand the Earth on a physical, practical level—but that’s a surface over their more essential understanding of the world as a place inhabited by spirits, even primarily made of spirits. The Sng’oi of Malaysia describe the world that Americans would call “real” as the “shadow world”, as opposed to the “real world”, which is visited each night in dreams.7

It didn’t surprise me, actually, that people living close to the land generally believed in the existence of supernatural entities. After all, basically all of my ancestors until no earlier than 1900 believed, to some degree, in a supernatural entity called God. It made sense that people whose relation to the land hasn’t been “improved” by tractors and modern agronomy also haven’t gotten the other half of the news that science brings, that “God is dead”. What did jangle me in my quest for the good life, though, was when I learned, another year or two in, that there might be a causative relation: believing in some kind of religion might be a prerequisite in order to live harmoniously with the Earth.

In my class on intentional communities, we read about dozens of utopian back-to-the-land movements, from small groups that are only remembered for having already-famous founders, through groups that met such success that they became entire standalone cultures, like the Amish and the Hutterites. And in looking for what makes a movement like that fold or endure, one of the only consistent predictive factors is whether the community is religiously based. The religious ones cohere. The secular ones, almost every time, gradually putter out as their members lose interest or get into arguments, or especially when the charismatic leader dies.

Up until I learned that, I figured more or less that religion was finally on its well-deserved downslope, ahead of an inevitable, more mature, secular age. I took the information of animism and other such superstition among hunter-gatherers in stride; naturally they would believe that, having never learned enough meteorology to figure out that rain dances are pointless, but if someone set up a high school for them, they’d soon be able to stop wasting their time. Yet if these American back-to-the-landers, raised in a post-Darwin, scientific-revolution world, couldn’t make a self-sufficient commune work without involving religion, it might not be quite so easy to get rid of it.

To learn that humans might, on some level, require religion was troubling. It meant one of two things: either humanity had a deep flaw way down in the mainframe code that condemned us to choose between harmonious stupidity and omnidestructive intelligence, or I was wrong and religions could be useful, even true, and I would do well to try to believe in one.

Unsurprisingly, I proceeded to live my everyday life as though the first possibility was the right one. But at the same time I decided, quietly, barely even telling myself, that I’d at least keep an eye out for some kind of religion—perhaps of a genus I’d never encountered, perhaps so different from religions I’d encountered that I wouldn’t even recognize it by that name—that I might be able to believe in.

My experience with Christianity had already ensured it wasn’t a possibility I was interested in further considering. To be sure, some of the back-to-the-land utopians I’d read about invoked Christian faith as their driving motive, suggesting there was a less world-despising strain available in its philosophy. But such approaches seemed to me like what you do if you have only a single coat, a light jacket inherited from your Spanish great-grandfather, and you now live in Minnesota and don’t realize you can go find a more suitable one. Why use Christianity to get back to the Earth when there were other spiritual systems much better suited?

Yet some kind of indigenous nature spirituality was, if anything, intellectually even worse. The high school science classes that had done so much to dissolve Christianity for me had had the same effect on that kind of superstition, except more so. Mixing classic monotheism with science is one thing. That pursuit has a long history and many devoted proponents. There may be a lot of hardcore scientists and followers of scientism who will maintain that professing to believe in both science and God bespeaks a poor understanding of science or an irrational compartmentalization of the mind, but there are also a lot of scientists out there who do believe, from one angle or another, in the big-G God of Abraham, and a good number of them have gotten lucrative book deals from outfits like Zondervan to tell you just how it’s possible to reconcile the two ideas. That is to say, if you’re into zero or one divine entity, science and Western culture have got your back.

On the topic of any higher number, though, agreement, it would seem, is unanimous: the idea that there could be that many gods, or spirits, or whatever, is not only wrong but so wrong that no thinking person has seriously believed it for over a thousand years—axiomatically wrong, so that it’s only a matter of time before any given atheist writer writes something like, “We all disbelieve in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, Zeus, and Odin. I simply go one god further and disbelieve in the Christian god.” To the most scientifically minded, monotheistic religion is still as annoying and persistent as the common cold, but polytheism, and even worse, pantheism—thank goodness those are plagues we’ve eradicated! (Except in backward, tribal parts of the world. Like, uh, most of India.)

Monotheism uninteresting and other-theism impossible, I was left, then, with no clear path to a spiritual relationship with the land, if indeed such a relationship was possible or even a coherent thing to want. And so I defaulted to trying to relate to the land in the same way as the only viable predecessors I figured I had: the hippies.

Taking the hippies as your role model in anything is a choice that should at the very least give you pause. The hippies undoubtedly accomplished some great, world-shaping things. Without them America might have stayed in Vietnam as long as it now has in Iraq, and we’d almost certainly have crappier music to look back on. Yet when you look at the back-to-the-land commune wing of their movement, it doesn’t take much digging to realize that rarely have so many people pursued a goal with so much enthusiasm and so completely failed to attain it. Of the innumerable communes founded in the ’60s and ’70s, a fraction of a percent remain. The inhabitants of the rest of them sold out back in the Reagan administration; even now they comprise the senior echelons of the corporate power they decried fifty years ago (and that lucky class of retirees who receive both Social Security and investment dividends—two checks a month signed by The Man).

What I learned in my intentional communities class seems to make it clear why those back-to-the-landers are all back from the land. I once argued that it was because they were allergic to hard work, but I now realize I confused proximate and ultimate causes there. Those who believe their hard work is for a good cause will happily do a whole lifetime of hard work. But the hippies, for all their Indian gurus and Aquarian evolution-of-consciousness hype, by and large never really believed, deep down and indelibly, that living in harmony with the Earth was where it was at. Getting back to the land, rather, was mostly a way to get away from the mainstream culture—America in the ’60s: straitlaced to the degree of self-parody, racist, and warlike, all under a Leave It to Beaver gee-whiz innocent face.

“And the sign said, ‘Long-haired freaky people need not apply…’ ” (via)

And getting away from that is, really, a fine goal: it’s just not the goal they had convinced themselves they were pursuing, preferring to imagine themselves less as escapists and more as Thoreauvian romantic ascetics. In time, maybe they even would have become those. The plot twist came when, a few years later, all the hippies who stayed in the cities instead, singing their songs and putting flowers in gun barrels, managed to actually take the helm of the behemoth ship of American culture and steer it onto their own heading. Once that happened, the prairie dogs out in the country began poking their heads up and deciding it was safe to come out now. And thus the vast Völkerwanderung that had poured across the countryside receded back to where it had come from.

Nevertheless, some few of them stayed—probably a testament to their sheer stubbornness (though even then, I’ve heard that the flagship of those communities, The Farm out in Tennesssee, is showing signs of strain). More importantly, it seemed to me that the trail they had blazed was the only one available for me to follow if no spiritual route was available to me. And what the hippies left behind to mark their trail were books: The Foxfire Book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus (if Euell Gibbons wasn’t a hippie, hippies certainly made him a bestseller), The Good Life, Ina May Gaskin’s midwifery books, and shelves’ worth of tinkering into the now-lost art of “appropriate technology”. I tended to find not these old books but new ones on the same topics, like Sam Thayer’s nonpareil books on wild edible plants, and one or two of the books on deer hide tanning that pop up reliably every couple years. These I would make serve as my Bible. The hippies had gone back to the land not through spiritual means but with good old-fashioned R&D, and I would tread the same path but figure out how not to make the same mistakes.

And so I went out hunting deer with my dad in West Virginia, and searching for wild leeks in the spring. One fall at home in Ohio I processed a huge batch of acorn flour. And I loved it. Shelling and grinding and leaching acorns, I was in my element, and that’s still one of the most vivid autumns in my memory. And yet—my forays into wild edibles somehow never seemed to last long. I loved the land. I dreamed of eventually knowing it like a friend. But I couldn’t manage to convince myself that it was actually okay to see it that way. Instead I kept lapsing back to seeing it as a warehouse to be harvested from, if admittedly a very pretty one. But this relationship felt dead, utilitarian, and soon, repelled by something in it that I couldn’t yet describe, I would be back at the books or the computer, instead of out on a creekwalk or anything like one. I never felt like I was getting perceptibly closer to my real destiny; I was always off in the weeds on some unimportant side path.

That’s a feeling I’ve known for much of my life. Living that way long enough, it’ll dishearten a guy. I never took to drink or other drugs, but I’ve frittered away plenty enough life to consider myself addicted to a more modern vice, the hounding down of little scraps of disconnected information and stupid punch lines on the internet. (The title of a recent McSweeney’s book comes forcibly to mind: Keep Scrolling Till You Feel Something.) Scientifically based malady, scientifically based drug: it’s at least a neatly symmetrical bind.

  1. Wolff, Robert. Original Wisdom, pp. 25–29. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2001. 

  2. Jung, Carl. Man and His Symbols, p. 45. New York, N.Y.: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1964. 

  3. Frazer, Sir James G. Preface, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, p. 4. By Bronisław Malinowski. Web: Wolne Lektury,

  4. Greer, John Michael. “The Changing of the Gods”. The Well of Galabes (blog), Feb. 22, 2015, <>. 

  5. Tafoya, Xóchitl Ysabela. “Ritualizing Barong and Rangda: Repercussions of Collaborative Field Experience in Karambitan, Bali.” Master’s thesis, Univ. of Maryland, 2009. 

  6. Basso, Keith. Wisdom Sits in Places, p. 39, quoting Wilson Lavender. Albuquerque: Univ. of N.M. Press, 1996. 

  7. Wolff, op. cit., pp. 88–89. 

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