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A brief history of our relationship with the Earth
, October 31, 2010
This review is from: In the Spirit of the Earth: Rethinking History and Time (Paperback)
Calvin Luther Martin's "In the Spirit of the Earth" examines several closely related themes: the history of modern man's relationship with the Earth and its creatures, our use of language, the mindset behind the development of technology, and history itself. Martin describes his work as combining memoir, ethnography, and history. I would add that this book is also a story. It tells of a species that once lived with a sense of connection to its natural surroundings, then severed that connection, and over thousands of years continued to build structures of thought, speech, and material culture which kept that connection broken. It tells how our range of human discourse "has narrowed from human/other-than-human to human/human."
It is also a meditation on the consequences of that story: the harm we have caused, in our quest for security and dominance, to our own psyches and spirits, to other species, and to other human beings who have not accepted our cultural paradigm.
The roots of this book go back at least to 1970, when Martin began studying the relationship between North American Indians and the land, its plants, and its animals--especially its animals. He discovered a repeating theme amongst tribal peoples: the spiritual and visceral connection ordinary people had with the animal powers. Drawing on his knowledge of both early Paleolithic cultures and what he learned of tribal peoples of the present era, he presents the reader with a plausible description of what human culture must have been like on the eve of the Neolithic Age, which ushered in agriculture, technology, urbanization, the concept of history, patriarchal gods, and the inability to live on the planet without despoiling it.
The theme of our bond with animals weaves through the book. In Paleolithic times we viewed wild animals as allies, even family. After the agricultural revolution, we domesticated, controlled, and abused animals. We demonized animals not under our control. And in contrast to the early mythologies which depicted animals as co-creators in stories of beginnings and transformations, Neolithic peoples wrote histories that were strictly about the doings of people, and the most powerful classes of people at that. Notions of history and time became tied up with the linear march of "progress," that is, the steps of accruing power over nature and over other humans whose ideas we oppose.
Martin's book is a powerful indictment of the prevailing mindset within which most literate people now live. The damage that has flowed from that mindset may be the undoing of us all. However, there are some things about our technological prowess that I find difficult to write off. For instance, my grandmother died in childbirth in a remote region without medical care. I would have died in childbirth too if I had not had access to modern health care. There is a price that comes with life in the wild. Would humans have all been better off to have none of the amenities we now enjoy?
One approach to this question suggests that the technological, rational, patriarchal stage has been a necessary but temporary phase in our species' development. Without it, we would never have developed as individuals with the capacity for self-examination. Nor would we possess distinct identities apart from our culture group, which is a relatively recent development in human history. According to some thinkers on this subject, the ability to act as an "I" has brought benefits as well as harm. But many also believe that we could be evolving toward a state of consciousness which will allow us each to perceive both as a discreet self and as a self connected to a greater whole that includes the entire network of Being--in other words, a state that combines our past and current ways of knowing.
Clearly, we can't go back to the past which Martin has written about so poignantly. But there is a way forward, and part of finding that way lies in examining what we've given up. Martin's book is an important contribution to helping us understand what we might want to carry forward into our future.
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