2.1. On Reading One's Environment
The skills involved in Tomo's
hunting success were those many of us in a more technological culture might
envy. But for Tomo himself the envy seemed to run in the opposite direction.
"Though a gifted hunter with a dart, Tomo confessed that he, like most Waorani,
An odd preference, you might think,
considering that most of the shotguns available to the Waorani were "miserable
weapons: single-shot breechloaders cursed with weak firing springs that rarely
lasted a year." A small box of shells cost what three blowguns did—the
equivalent of a week's work (if work was to be had). A four-day journey was
required simply to make the purchase. Once obtained, the shotgun might be useful
for large terrestrial animals at close range (assuming it didn't misfire), "but
for birds and monkeys and anything that lived in the canopy, the blowgun was by
far the superior weapon." So what was the appeal of the shotgun?
The Waorani affection for shotguns
had little to do with efficiency. It was the intrinsic attraction of the object
itself, the clicking mechanisms, the polished stock, the power of the explosion.
As one Waorani hunter explained, "It makes such a beautiful noise."
In this regard, are we not all Waorani?
It's just that, as we tire of one shiny object, we need another—preferably a
more "sophisticated" one, or at least a different one. Walk into any high-tech
emporium, from Radio Shack to The Sharper Image, and (if you are at all like me)
you will experience on every hand "the intrinsic attraction of the object
itself"—exactly the sort of attraction that makes a Waorani hunter prefer a
shotgun with its cool clicking mechanisms to the blowgun that has become such an
intimate and accustomed part of himself.
This suggests what I think is largely
true: the history of technology is a history of walking away from ourselves. We
abandon old skills and ways of being. This is not in itself a bad thing. Every
individual's life is an endless journey from what he has been to what he is
becoming. We are continually leaving ourselves behind, and necessarily so.
That's what it means to grow. It is the same with cultures.
The problem, it seems to me, lies in a
profound shift of emphasis—a shift that was not necessary. The issue here, however, is difficult to
grasp within an already technologized culture.
In mastering the blowgun, Tomo
learned stealth and many physical skills. He learned great care, whether in
preparing his poisons or notching his dart or avoiding what we like to call
"collateral damage." He learned patience and focused attention. But above all,
he learned to read his environment through a resonant inner connection with it:
only by understanding the ways of the forest, the character and likely movements
of his prey, the meanings carried upon the ceaseless symphony of sounds
enlivening the jungle—only so could he find success in the hunt using a weapon
such as the blowgun.
The crucial point (it will emerge more
clearly in what follows) is that Tomo's reading of his environment was
thoroughly qualitative. He had to understand what it was
like to be a certain animal. He needed to
recognize the characteristic gestures of its movement—and, indeed, of all its
behaviors—to know it from the inside, so to speak. The decisive detail for a
particular hunt, whatever it turned out to be, was very likely available to Tomo
without reflection or calculation, because it was implicit in the larger,
expressive pattern that he grasped as a unified whole. Such "inner resonance"
with one's surroundings is profound, subtle, and revelatory, a prerequisite
(though not the only prerequisite) for any full understanding of the world.
The shift of emphasis I am concerned
about is the sacrifice of this qualitative attention to one's environment in
favor of a strictly analytical and technical understanding. It's the difference
between having information about someone, on the one hand, and knowing him, on the other.
Knowing gives us a power of direct recognition; we can be more fully open to the
expressive qualities of the person or thing—which also means being open to those
same qualities in ourselves. We overcome, in the moment of knowing, the barrier
between self and other. To experience the quality of a thing is necessarily to
experience it, to find
its shape and movement and significance reproduced within ourselves. This is
what I mean by "resonance."