Learning some steps in the Great Dance

In class this past week we watched The Great Dance, an excellent documentary on the !Xo San people and their hunting traditions. The San people live in the notoriously harsh Kalahari Desert and maintain a pre-agricultural lifestyle — their food is gathered and hunted using millennia-old techniques. It is an incredibly hard lifestyle, but I found myself amazed at the hunters’ physical abilities — the fact that they could read the most minute signs and accurately recreate the circumstances of an animal’s death, the fact that they could chase a kudu on foot for hours until the animal was exhausted and simply allowed itself to be killed, the fact that they could even survive on so little for so long.

Screech Owl had previously discussed what he called the Human Operating System 1.0 — this pre-agricultural lifestyle that required people to be fully engaged with and deeply aware of the world around them — and the hunters in this story were clearly living by the same system that had served humanity for thousands and thousands of years. In this day and age, we’ve mostly forgotten the kinds of knowledge that allow the San people to survive. We don’t grow up learning how to read tracks like a map or how to inhabit the mind of an animal we’re pursuing to better predict its movements. And for the most part, we don’t need to in the modern world — at least, that’s what popular knowledge would have us believe. But there’s an incredible depth of information we have no access to if we ignore these things, and this course may be a way to begin to remedy that. Tracking is like dancing, said one of the hunters in the movie, and I think it is a good thing that we are beginning to learn some of the elementary moves.

The second week of class each member of our group selected a small strip of colorful fabric that symbolized a particular direction and the energy associated with it. My blue floral print represented Northeast, a direction symbolizing imagination and sensory integration. Screech Owl asked us to carry the cloth around with us or put it someplace we’d see it often for a week, and then every time we noticed it, use it as an opportunity to check in with our senses and reconnect with our environment. I tied mine to my satchel so I’d see it every time I was about to go to or depart from a class, and it really did help reorient my attention.

On Wednesday, the Northwest group led our classmates to a small tree in the courtyard of Peddrew-Yates. We tore our ribbons in half and tied one piece to the branches, saying aloud a wish or goal we hoped this course would help us achieve. By the end, the shrub was full of colorful scraps fluttering in the icy breeze.

I pass the tree almost every day on my way across campus and can’t help but smile a little as my attention automatically broadens in response — owl eyes, deer ears, and dog nose checking in with my surroundings. After a semester out in the Blacksburg weather, I am curious as to how much these scraps of fabric — and the students who tied them there — will have changed.

Black Willow, checking in

As part of The Nature of Leadership, I’ll be documenting and reflecting on some of our class activities on this blog in the coming weeks. There will be a lot of nature talk, a little philosophy, and quite a bit of running around in the snow. Needless to say, I’m pretty excited. Stay tuned.

One of the first things we did in class was receive nature names and get divided into bands — cohorts that will stay together for the duration of the semester.

I’m part of the Cicada band, and the name I pulled was Black Willow. It’s not a majestic weather event or some variety of charismatic megafauna, but as a general enthusiast over the native plants of southeast Virginia after a dendrology class I took several semesters back, I kind of dig it. Black willows (their Latin name is Salix nigra) are interesting trees — they help stabilize the soil around waterways and are an important part of many riparian ecosystems. Their bark and branches can be used in basketwork and weaving, and their inner bark contains a bitter compound called salicylic acid — the chemical from which aspirin is synthesized. All in all, they are a plant whose moniker I am happy to adopt.

Plus, you know, they’re really lovely trees. Go down to the Duck Pond sometime and see them yourself.

(A bonus: I couldn’t help but think of the chart below as we pulled our names from the container. None of us, at least, are called Cheeseweed, which is probably for the best.)

On Origin Stories

Another semester, another series of blog posts. This new set tagged ENGL 3834 is for Intercultural Issues in Professional Writing, so expect to see a lot of writing on race, class, gender, power, and privilege in the context of communications. It’s gonna be heavy but interesting stuff, and I’m looking forward to the kind of conversations it will generate.

This week’s topic: origin stories, including our own. Whether you’re talking about superheroes or scientific principles, backstory is essential to put a person or a series of events in context. History is a kind of road map that explains why things are as they are today, and oftentimes it’s best to start as close to the beginning as you can.

Here’s my take on that.

1.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 13.8 billion years ago, there was nothing, until very suddenly there was something, which exploded outwards to form everything. Everything was, at the beginning, a chaotic sea of atoms which, herded together by gravity and electromagnetism, started to gradually form larger and more complex ways of organizing themselves. Some groups got so large and dense and hot they became stars, while other smaller groups became planets, and as those stars and planets settled into the dance the fundamental forces wrote for them. On some of these planets, chemicals near a hydrothermal vent or soupy pool catalyzed by lightning decided to get together and make something of themselves. Atoms organized into molecules, molecules into cells, cells into organs, and organs into living creatures. Some of those living creatures self-organized into what we know as people, and then into tribes, and then into cultures, until we land back in the present, where we find an individual sitting at their computer, thinking about where they came from and how they could even begin to answer that question.

This person knows they are a close cousin of violets, viruses, and vultures, and that the computer they’re typing this piece on is powered by electrical impulses and mostly made of carbon, same as them. When it comes down to it, this person thinks, everything has the same origin story if you look back far enough, which kind of makes this a family history, right?

And that, they think, is pretty cool.

2.

Asking me where I’m from will earn you different answers on different days. I was born in Detroit, grew up in the suburbs of Charlotte, NC, return to Ohio on holiday breaks, and spend most of my year in Blacksburg. I’ve lived in a tiny town in southern Switzerland and with a pack of marine researchers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. I’ve taken enough road trips that I measure I-75 by landmarks rather than by miles, and I’ve done enough flying that all airports are a kind of home. I cannot point to any one of these and say here, this is where I come from.  I am, I suppose, a sum total of all these places, and all the other places in between. Points of origin are harder to define than I had thought.

3. 

There are thousands of origin stories in a single person’s life: what set them on their career path, how they came to convert to a new religion, an accident that changed their outlook, what made them want to be a writer. Which of these, exactly, were you looking for?