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The Last Nomads and the Culture of Fear

My wife and I went semi-nomadic in 2010, traveling the mountain West for almost two years. Not having a settled home was eye-opening, and taught me a lot about one of my perennial themes: how much humans lost when we became domesticated by agriculture.

For a committed permaculturist to give up a home and yard seems almost hypocritical, since a core tenet of permaculture is to deeply know a place and community. But our nomadic yen was strong. We were ready to leave the buzz of Portland, and in that fiercely Greened city I was feeling redundant. Yet no other place was calling us to live there. So, Kiel asked me, “Do we have to live anywhere? Why not travel?” Permaculturists are often asked to arrive at a new place and rapidly assess local resources, climate, culture, and the land’s character. Nomadism seemed a good way to hone those skills.

Kiel and I put our house on the market in the spring and moved into a small motorhome. We wandered though the Sierras, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Montana, slowly, with long stops. Over time, we settled into a pattern of two or three month stays in a modest rental house, punctuated by a few transition weeks in the RV while we traveled to and explored a new place. We fell naturally into a pattern of moving with the seasons, and getting to know a place in between.

We both had a vague feeling that this journeying was going to be important. I quickly found that, indeed, my landscape-reading skills improved—we learned to spot, even in high desert, those hidden east-facing ravines that stayed cool and moist and boasted vast biodiversity in their sweet microclimates. And we learned the social landscapes as well. The small towns of rural America no longer felt like the ones where we both had spent our childhoods. Now, too many rural hamlets looked and felt like clones of the same suburb, each having a vacant core bypassed with sprawling parking lots dotted with indistinguishable WalMart, Costco, Applebees, and Rite-Aid stores. As we roamed, we knew that larger understandings awaited us. The one we felt everywhere was that the world is shifting beneath everyone’s feet, and learning to be nimble and flexible will be a valuable trait in weathering the shocks of Peak Oil, climate instability, and economic collapse. But the tug of nomadism felt so deep that we suspected there was more to it than honing skills or a break from home. And after one special stop, some of the pieces fell into place.

We spent the summer of 2011 on a ranch off the northeastern corner of Yellowstone Park, in the shadow of the Beartooth range. Having grown surprisingly fond of the grasslands around us, we wanted to venture deeper into them, and spent a day east of Billings, walking the famous battlefield on the Little Bighorn where in 1876 Custer met his end. After arriving, we joined a graying crowd of retirees for a ranger’s lively talk on the battle. He had a keen sense of drama, and pulled our gaze across the very landscape where it all happened. Pointing south, he showed us the cloud-covered Wolf Mountains where Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse took those many of their people who refused to become Christianized farmers on the newly mandated reservation. The gully right in front of us was Deep Ravine, where a few of Custer’s men fled before they, too, were killed. Our minds’ eyes easily painted pictures, and I felt a growing sense of sadness, but not just for the many who had died where I stood.

The battle at Little Bighorn had been a victory for the plains tribes, but their war—and way of life—was lost soon after. A few years before, in 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty had mapped a huge reservation across adjoining corners of what are now South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska. Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arikara people, among others, were moved there. Tales of gold in 1874 in the Black Hills spawned a surge of miners and settlers onto the reservation, in violation of the treaty. The US Army drove out some of them, but thousands more streamed in. Disgusted, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, the Hunkpapa leader Gall, and other warrior leaders brought thousands of their people into the unceded Indian territories, a chunk of northern Wyoming where treaty declared “no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy.” Here the native people could hunt bison and live as they wanted. But in 1875 they were ordered back to the reservation. They refused. The Indian Agencies branded them as hostile, and hot-headed George Custer came as part of the multi-pronged force sent to bring them in. The army’s humiliating loss at Little Bighorn spurred the US government to pour more troops into the Indian Wars, and within a few years most of America’s indigenous people had been forced onto reservations, killed, or driven into Canada.

As Kiel and I walked the battlefield, we spotted signs of the fight. I was moved by the pathetically shallow pits that Major Reno’s outnumbered men had scraped with their mess plates in an open meadow, trying to hide from a ceaseless hail of arrows and bullets. But I was more struck by what the land around us was saying. Here were enormous expanses of grassland and sage, with trees in the valleys and on the mountains, as far as we could see. It was rich land, and, having spent weeks in nearby Yellowstone where the valleys are tracked with renewed bison herds, it wasn’t hard to grasp the riches this land had held. It once swarmed with tens of millions of deer, elk, bison, bear, wolf, trout, and birds. The plains people lived amidst this abundance at choice seasonal camps across an enormous territory where sometimes hundreds of families gathered. They were hunters and foragers, not farmers, able to trust that the land would provide for them, that there was enough for all without working the soil or clinging to a piece of ground. On the river below us had sprawled the huge encampment of families that Custer had attacked: at least 7500 Cheyenne, Lakota, Arikara, and others. Migratory people from many tribes, living on this land without owning it, all having converged there in 1876 after Sitting Bull had told them of his auspicious sun-dance vision: headless US soldiers falling from the sky, “raining down like grasshoppers.”

I stood looking at these now fenced, divided, roaded, bought and owned lands and the cattle and sheep grazing on them. Barbed-wire fences netted the grassland to the horizon in every direction. It made me numb, knowing that we—my ancestors and their companions—had taken and tamed every bit of this huge landscape, the unceded lands and much more, taken it away from those whom our eloquent ranger called “the freest people in the world.” We did this because, if I can use George W. Bush’s words more honestly than he ever did, we hated them for their freedom.

The war between farming people and nomads is as old as farming itself. It’s not that the two cultures are incompatible. But the mind of a farming people can’t conceive of harmony with foragers. The minds of agriculturists can’t conceive of harmony with much of anything. I’ve known gentle farmers. But I’m using the word “farmer” here as shorthand for a bundle of concepts, principally for the “civilized” mind that views the wild world as a threat to be subdued or a fragile, off-limits temple, rather than the one source of life and home that can always provide. When humans were domesticated by agriculture about 10,000 years ago, one of the key prejudices bred into us was that the only way to survive was to control nature. We can easily see how this applies to wild, exterior nature: You survived winter not by learning what food the land still held, but by hard laboring to make the land give up a hoardable surplus. But more importantly, we have tamed our interior nature as well. Those who wouldn’t subdue their own wild nature were brought under control. To use the communal grain storage that farmers were told would let them survive winter, to have your fields protected from thieves, to buy protection from the powerful, farmers have always paid the local strongman. If they didn’t pay their tithe to those who guarded the grain surplus, the leader’s goons would force them to, or run them off, or kill them. The root of the word “lord” is “hlaford,” or “keeper of the loaves,” showing the ancient relationship between controlling grain and controlling people. And when the same elites wanted to build their monumental tombs, you worked for them, or they took your crops and enslaved your family. It wasn’t just plants and animals that were domesticated.

We traded a great deal to become civilized. There’s a lot I like about civilization, from writing and the Constitution to ethnic restaurants and my iPhone. But Hobbes’s famous dictum, that the lives of “savages” were “nasty, brutish, solitary, and short” is nonsense written by a man who rarely left his desk. As I’ve written before, the advent of farming and the civilization that it allowed brought a decline in lifespan, health, leisure, and freedom. Famine is far more common among farmers than among foragers. Lifespan and health didn’t return to pre-agricultural levels nor did the certainty of famine recede until the unsustainable splurge of the oil age gave us the equally unsustainable technologies for converting whole ecosystems into food, medicine, and machines on a titanic scale. Both leisure and freedom have been in decline since farming began. Labor activists, the poor, and any post-9/11 traveler can attest that this process is still underway. I no longer see America’s increasingly ignored Constitution as a glorious step forward, but merely one of a long line of progressively more desperate holding actions against the immense power of elites to suppress the elementary rights of their subjects. To what state have we declined when only the revocable permission of the powerful can guarantee our basics? We gave up a staggering number of freedoms to have our food source guaranteed.

Why would anyone trade their freedom for poor health and a life of slavery? I’ve come to doubt that people became farmers voluntarily, and there are many recent examples of hunter-gatherer groups who took one look at farmers, saw what the trade entailed, and said no thanks (see Chapter 6 of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel). Foraging peoples are almost always converted into farmers by a combination of terror, coercion and the extinction of even the memory of an alternative. The people who once roamed the unceded lands of Wyoming could tell you how it was done, as could those all over the Americas, Australia, and Africa. Why should we believe it was ever different? Farming and the civilization it spawned are grounded in fear and oppression.

We can only speculate why people took up farming, but none of the common arguments explain our sacrifice, and they often contradict each other. One theory is that the climate deteriorated, making it necessary to settle and intensify food production. But an opposing theory is that humans found “gardens of Eden,” places so lush and productive that they settled there, had too many babies amidst the abundance, and then needed to grow more food. There are other guesses, too. What all the theories fail to explain is why: If agriculture is more work than hunting, shortens lifespan, increases disease, doesn’t prevent famine, and reduces personal freedom, why would anyone do it?

I can think of two good reasons, and together they form the heart of our culture: fear and coercion. The two theories I cite above, and most of the others, are based in scarcity. According to them either inhospitable climate caused hunger, or overpopulation caused hunger. Hungry people would be receptive to an alternative, even at the cost of leisure and freedom. They might resort to farming, especially if a charismatic leader were there to encourage them. But when conditions improved, wouldn’t they go back to hunting? Two other theories show why this might not happen. One is the Social Hypothesis, in which “Big Men” (the anthropologist’s term for strong but informal leaders) use a complex blend of loans, promises, and status to boost village food production for potlatch-style feasts that, while feeding many, increase their own power, in part by showing how good life could be under their rule. Once centralized power over food is in place, the leaders and their enforcers can hold onto it easily. Another theory is the hunter-ruler concept, in which an early farming village is raided and enslaved by well-armed hunters who find they like being at the top, and remain as a powerful and parasitic elite. Yet another is that people gathered at sites like Göbeckli Tepe in Turkey that predate agriculture, to build enormous temples under the direction of an elite priesthood. These huge projects outstripped the carrying capacity of the land, and the priests supervised additional workers to grow food for the builders—and for themselves.

Whatever the cause, farming creates a surplus that must be stored, and that leads inexorably to a concentration of power into the hands of those who control that surplus. In an agricultural society with its specialized labor, dependency on food storage, taxation of the masses, unequal land access, and controlling elite, Henry Kissinger’s cynical strategy is true: Food is an instrument of power. And that is why a farming civilization cannot tolerate nomads or hunter-gatherers. Nomads need nothing from civilization. They can’t be controlled.

As I looked over the immense grasslands that spilled to the ends of Montana’s big sky, I wondered why my ancestors had insisted on taking it all. In this immense land, wasn’t there enough room for Sitting Bull and his clan to pull their travoix through one corner of it, hunt bison and make camp? But I quickly realized that it wasn’t about having enough room. It was about control. A wild people can’t be coerced. Make them pay taxes? There is nothing they need from the government, and much they don’t want. Christianize them and make them farm? The land is the source of spirit and offers abundant food for the gathering, while farming would kill all that. Offer them a fenced parcel? The land belongs to everyone and no one.

Can you see how frightening all this is to a people raised to believe in original sin, the mercilessness of God, the virtue of hard work, the value of being meek, the need for law and order, the certainty of Hell for the fallen, and all the other fear-based indoctrinations driven into us by an elite whose first need is compliant servants? We could never live in harmony with people who wouldn’t play according to those rules. That way lay chaos, and a freedom that we find inconceivable and terrifying. To trust that nature and the land would provide everything we need meant that all our hard work has been a waste—that we’ve been foolish slaves all our lives. We couldn’t stand to have our world view undermined that way. The idea that out there were free people living in a deep union with nature while we toiled behind the plow, quaked before a vengeful god, and tugged our forelocks respectfully at our betters—that was intolerable, to the toilers, yes, but especially to the elites who ruled them. The wild humans had to be domesticated, or killed. Always. Everywhere. Or else some of us might stop being afraid.

And that has been the trajectory of agricultural civilization. A trade of freedom for order and supposed security, made at the expense of health, cultural diversity, and leisure as well. Foraging and horticultural people don’t have a Bill of Rights because they don’t need one. There is rarely enough concentration of power in their culture great enough to take their rights away. They have art, music, shelter, language, food, tools, justice, medicine, history, play, wisdom—and freedoms in a sense so profound that I can only get glimmers of it. For all that we have lost, the only significant gain I can think of (Big Pharma? The military? Welfare? Freeways? Processed food?) is writing. The rest becomes unnecessary when you leave the culture of fear. And I suspect someone could have come up with writing without civilization.

Can a farming civilization ever stop being afraid? Only if it is no longer brainwashed into the belief that domination, labor, and order are what protect it from the caprices of an untrustable nature. Can it ever allow other cultures to exist alongside of it? I’m not sure. I have a vision of farmers living only where farming has proven to be more or less sustainable, in large river valleys like the Nile and Mississippi, while nomads, foragers, and some horticulturists live in the hills, the smaller valleys, and the delicate lands that agriculture can only destroy. But that would demand that those farmers not fear the freedom of the nomads, and so far, that hasn’t happened. I hope we can mature to that point. I wish someday the descendants of Sitting Bull, as well as mine, can ride again across unfenced plains to hunt bison and gather in transient villages along the Little Bighorn, and anywhere.

My wife and I are not true nomads, and couldn’t ever be. Those days died in 1876. Our nomadism relied on fossil fuels, landlords with furnished rentals, farmers to sell us food, and the whole bloody infrastructure of civilization. I have no illusions about whose shoulders—and corpses—I’m standing on. But I’ve now had the chance to stretch my leash far enough to glimpse the larger features of a culture grounded in fear-mongering and violence, whose very laws, values, work ethic, and traditions enshrine the domination of the many by the powerful few. That is a culture that is killing a planet.

I’m still struggling to stay out of that culture. When I was about to graduate from the prep school that my father strained to afford, and I was blindly following my ordained trajectory by applying to college, a vague unease hit me. I remember telling a friend, “I know that all this schooling has bred me for it, but I don’t really want to contribute to this culture.” That has stayed with me. Sometimes I haven’t had the strength of character to stay true to that vision. Since those days, I’ve moved in and out of mainstream culture a couple of times. But this episode of nomadism has helped firm one thought: that at the end of my life, I hope I’ve done more to stop this culture of fear and create alternatives to it than contribute to it. And I will always be grateful for the gift of clarity and commitment given to me by the freest people in the world on that day overlooking the Little Bighorn River.

—Toby Hemenway, January 3, 2013

Editorial Notes: Recommended by reader Luane Todd.

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