Mischievous imps blowing invisible darts that stoke human passions and spin them out of control, moving twigs a few inches across the forest floor providing links in conflagrations that would not otherwise occur, plucking the strings of nature to produce crescendos of catastrophe. Zen-mathematician wizards dancing in their ice spheres high in the Vaznal Mountains, solving ever-deepening riddles of sound and sight and sensation, weaving order from the chaos the Loci imps foment. Winged muses carving sensuous stories from the clouds and celebrating the lives of those from whose dreams and tribulations they were born.
A fiery giantess is held captive in a hollow mountain. A sea serpent’s breath inspires the priestess of an island oracle poised above a chasm beneath which it sleeps. City-states are at war; slaves, led by a charismatic general, are in uprising; dictators and warlords are vying for power; neighboring kingdoms and empires are strategically courting local clients in pursuit of regional hegemony or outright conquest. Human avarice has strained the natural context on which it thrives. And ordinary people in extraordinary times, caught within the vortex of the powers that both surround and comprise them, navigate those turbulent currents.
Follow the adventures of Algonion Goodbow, the magical archer; Sarena of Ashra, the young girl at the center of this epic tale; their friends and mentors, guides and adversaries, as they thread the needle of great events, and discover truths even more profound than the myths of legend and lore. Discover the truth of fiction and the fiction of truth; celebrate the fantastic and sublime, in this magical tale laden with rich echoes of world history and world mythology, informed by blossoms of human consciousness from Chaos Theory to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, from Richard Dawkin’s Meme Theory to Eastern Mysticism, enriched by the author’s own travels and adventures.
A prophesied Disruption is upon the land of Calambria, causing the Earth to quake and societies to crumble. The Loci imps are its agents, but, according to Sadache mythology, it is Chaos, one of the two Parents of the Universe, who is its ultimate author. As Chaos eternally strives to make the One Many, Cosmos, the other Parent of the Universe, strives to make the Many One. The Sadache people view themselves as the children of Cosmos, whom they worship, and the lowest rung of a hierarchy of conscious beings opposing Chaos and the Loci imps. Above them, both of them and apart from them, are the drahmidi priests of the Cult of Cosmos, founded by the hero and conqueror Ogaro centuries before. Above the drahmidi are the Vaznallam wizards, Cosmos’s agents, just as the Loci are Chaos’s.
As the Great Disruption begins to manifest itself, Sarena of Ashra, a peasant girl from a village on the outskirts of the city-state of Boalus, flees an unwanted marriage to an arrogant lord and in search of freedom and destiny. She meets a young vagabond on the road, coming from the seat of the ceremonial High Kingdom, Ogaropol, fleeing his own pursuers. Together they form an alliance that leads through adventures together and apart, and binds them into two halves of a single whole.
Swirling around them are the wars of would be dictators and cult-leaders, of neighboring empires and kingdoms; the adventures of young Champions engaged in the prophesied Contest by which the Redeemer would be chosen and the Realignment realized. But, in both different and similar ways, the culmination of centuries of history flows through these two people, Algonion and Sarena, on haphazard quests of their own. And both the past and the future are forever changed by their discoveries and deeds.
The cloudscape glowed in the streaming light of the sun, whorls and tufts poised in a floating dance of fluid form. Strains of ethereal music drifted with strands of luminous mist among hovering puffs and whimsical foam behemoths.
Draped only in these wafting wisps, dazzling muses lounged on the tiers of a fountain carved from the froth. Feathered wings unfurled with an occasional flourish. Cerulean locks swirled in the gusty breeze. The spray of light laughter laced the air. Whether basking in a rain of radiance, or beneath the celestial canopy sparkling with thickly sprinkled specks of fire, there was always a gathering on the cloud-paved plaza, a mingling of sounds rising and falling like distant waves caressing a rocky shore.
“Welcome, Lord Evenstar!” the Chorus sang in unison, as Azhanli, alighting on the lip of the fountain, lowered her passenger onto the tier just below her own. Azhanli had asked the ancient wizard to join them, and ferried him there herself, for he had shared in the story to be told today, and would tell it again in the tongues of men when the world of Sarena’s vision had come to pass.
Azhanli was to conduct this day’s Chorus, for she too had been a part of the tale about to be told. Perched on the fountain’s edge like a sphinx posing her riddle to those gathered round, she orchestrated the various voices chiming in. Mellifluous chatter coalesced into a symphony of nuanced tones and gestures.
The whirling mists responded. At first, mere shadows of shapes emerged, and windswept whispers barely heard. The skin tingled with hints of crisp morning air. Twilit tints peeked through the veil of shifting vapors. Then a salty spray could be discerned, and hollow, echoing calls.
Plumes hardened into rugged cliffs, their heights haloed by dawn’s first blush. The cloud-carpet before them melted into a dull tide clad in tatters of fog, paying ceaseless homage to the chiseled sentinels of the land, salaaming in furies of foam at their feet. Gulls glided above the roiling surf, screeching a forlorn and ominous ode to the mysteries of sea and shore. The dark shroud of night had been just cast aside, revealing the naked spirit of day.
But brilliance blossomed without delay, clothing that spirit in splendor. The Ilyarian plaza became a shimmering panorama, flowing by as if seen through eyes aloft on the wind. Islands and coastal palisades rose starkly from the ocean waves like monuments to the gods. The sun-flecked sea danced in ecstasy below. Nestled within the land’s lush folds life sprouted and throve, rivers plummeted from mountain springs, leaves quivered on swaying boughs. And people strove, weaving tales of Nature’s own.
The soaring overture dove toward a sunbaked country far from the rolling swells, to a wedge of red rock overlooking a small village. A lone figure stood there, cleaving the warm dusty wind like a figurehead maiden mounted on a stone prow. Long black hair fluttered, a banner on the battlements, a sail in search of distant shores. And eyes dark and bright as starlit skies gazed into the golden haze of the horizon, reaching out across the vast expanse before them….
(For more vignettes excerpted or derived from my novel, “A Conspiracy of Wizards,” please see The Hollow Mountain, The Wizards’ Eye, “Flesh Around A Whim”, and The Cloud Gardener. Also see The History of the Writing of “A Conspiracy of Wizards” and About “A Conspiracy of Wizards”. To purchase an electronic copy of the novel, click the link below.)
As I have discussed in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and Do Deities Defecate? (among other essays), what people conceptualize as “god” may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “infinity,” “eternity,” and “love.” It may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “consciousness,” which, indeed, it is closely related to.
As humans, we know that we subjectively experience the existence of human “consciousness.” We have minds, which, by and large, are the expression of the functioning of our physical brains, in interaction with one another and our environment. We normally conceptualize this consciousness to be an individual-level phenomenon, each of us having our own, the connection among them being tendrils of communication among separate nodes of consciousness.
But this individual-level conceptualization becomes suspect on closer examination. We think in languages, using concepts, drawing on stories and narratives and sciences and philosophies that we did not individually invent. We wield metaphors and analogies and a wealth of material that preceded our own individual consciousness, with only a very slight individuation of that cognitive material on the margins identifying our own consciousness as unique, as differentiated from the collective consciousness from which it was born and in which it is embedded. (See, for instance, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for a vivid description of this collective consciousness.)
So human consciousness, in a sense, is not so much individual as collective, a shared process in which our individual participation provides the robustness and creativity, but in which our collective participation defines the scope and substance. But it is still strictly “human,” right?
Few who have ever had a beloved pet would be in complete agreement with that assessment. Our family dog Buttercup is clearly somewhat “conscious,” aware of our love for her and of hers for us, communicating her desire to play, to go out, to be petted, with ease and determination. She is excited at the prospect of walking to school with my daughter, where she knows she will get to run in the park on the way, and receive affection from the other children upon arrival. She has both human and dog friends that she recognizes and greets and communicates with on a rudimentary level. She clearly possesses some degree of what humans call “consciousness.”
To explore that ”lesser degree” of consciousness so clearly evident in large mammals, it’s useful to switch from the cultural (consciousness as a function of language and symbolic communication) to the biological (consciousness as an expression of genetic codes). The human mind, as an artifact of the human brain –which is an anatomical product of an evolutionary process of genetic reproduction, mutation, and competition for reproductive success– is clearly not absolutely unique. Like the individual in a society on the cognitive level, the human mind is the individuation of a biological and genetic theme. We see similarities to it among other large mammals, and even among very different animals, in some ways: when an insect scurries away from danger, the scurrying LOOKS a whole lot like fear, even if it isn’t. But maybe the resemblance isn’t completely irrelevant after all.
What distinguishes humans from all other creatures on Earth (with the possible exception of some large sea mammals) is cognitively complex symbolic communication (i.e., “language,” though the qualifier “cognitively complex” is necessary, due to the complex languages of many other creatures, such as bees, whose intricate dances indicate where the nectar is to be found). And, indeed, it is that cognitively complex language which has created the echo of genetic evolution particular to the anthrosphere: Human History (and the cultural/political/economic/cognitive evolution that defines it).
But that cognitively complex language is the product of a very slight genetic variation. We are genetically barely distinguishable from other large apes, more closely related to Chimpanzees than Chimpanzees are to Gorillas or Orangutans. So while language gives our biologically-based consciousness a particularly robust expression, it does not remove it in essence very far from our nearest biological relatives. They, too, have a nearly equal quantity of the individual-level stuff of consciousness, but merely lack the complex tendrils of communication that launch that consciousness into the societal level of development and expression.
What we see by looking at consciousness both through the lens of a cultural and human historical context, and the lens of a genetic and natural historical context, is that it is neither a particularly individual level phenomenon, nor an exclusively human phenomenon. It is, rather, something that is “out there” in the fabric of nature, finding different degrees and forms of expression in different contexts.
Neither is it any coincidence that these two lenses are both “evolutionary” lenses, one the lens of biological/genetic evolution and its products, and the other cultural/memetic evolution and its products. “Consciousness” as we know it, both in terms of the expression of the functioning of the human brain (a product of biological evolution), and in terms of the expression of the cognitive material accumulated and refined through communication among human brains (a product of cultural evolution), is an expression of evolutionary processes.
What is the exact nature of the connection between “evolution” and “consciousness”? Here’s one surprising suggestion: Both can be defined as the purposeful refinement of behavior and form in response to experience. Evolution is a process driven by the lathe of trial and error, in which the forms and behaviors (those genes in general) of living organisms are refined over time in response to relative reproductive success, preserving those that are most reproductively successful. Human consciousness is a process driven by the lathe of human experience and communication, in which those forms and behaviors (those cognitions in general) that are most copied by others are the ones that are preserved.
In fact, biologists routinely use the language and mathematics of economics to describe evolutionary and ecological phenomena. They refer to “strategies,” and employ the microeconomic tool of analysis known as “game theory” to analyze the evolution of competing biological strategies. Biologists are quick to emphasize that this is a metaphor, that there was no conscious intent behind the evolution of competing reproductive strategies, that they just “resemble” intentional human strategic action, that they just resemble “consciousness.”
But might this not be a bit anthrocentric of us? I am not disputing the recognition that biological evolution is not the intentional product of a centralized mind in the same way that human strategic behavior is (though, as I indicated above, even human strategic behavior, when involving any organization of human beings, has a decentralized element to it as well). But I am bringing into question the sharp conceptual differentiation between a process that we recognize as consciousness because we subjectively experience it, and the process that produced it that appears to be remarkably similar in form.
Might it not make more sense to conceptualize human consciousness, which is the product of evolutionary processes that envelope it and preceded it, as similar to those processes, rather than conceptualizing those preceding and enveloping processes as being similar to human consciousness? If it were not for the fact that we are human beings, subjectively aware of our own consciousness, wouldn’t it be more rational to give priority to the biological and historical progenitor of our consciousness than to its by-product (i.e., human consciousness)?
This conceptual journey began with the human individual, and panned out to identify consciousness as a function of the human collective, and then panned out futher to identify consciousness as a function of the evolutionary ecology of the planet Earth. Can we continue panning out, to see these all as nested levels of a coherent aspect of nature, that is woven into the fabric of the cosmos, and that finds different kinds of expression at different levels of manifestation?
Fritjov Capra, UC-Berkeley Physicist and author of The Tao of Physics, wrote more recently in The Web of Life, that a biological paradigm was replacing a physical one as the fundamental paradigm of Nature. The reason for this, posits Capra, is that the emerging science of complex dynamical systems (best known as “Chaos Theory”) is discovering that the kinds of processes most commonly associated with organic processes, with life, are far more widespread, far more fundamental, far more woven into the fabric of Nature, than we had previously realized. The universe and its subsystems are, in many ways, more like a vast living thing with living things nested within it, than like a dead mechanical device comprised of nested levels of mechanical components.
Even physics itself, moving toward String Theory, a mathematical model of “The Cosmic Symphony,” seems to be increasingly compatible with this view.
If it is more an organic than mechanical universe; if human consciousness can be recognized as a direct ”echo” of preceding and enveloping natural processes; and if we step back in yet another way and recognize that the mere existence of human consciousness demonstrates that Nature is somehow inherently capable of producing such a phenomenon, that matter and energy can be arranged in such a way as to become “conscious,” and if we contemplate the mind-bogglingly subtle and complex coherence of the universe and its myriad subsystems, is it such a leap to conceptualize the universe itself as a conscious entity, the fabric of Nature being, in a sense, “consciousness”?
Isn’t it that primal wisdom, that neolithic recognition, that has found expression in the form of God and gods? The error is not in the conceptualization, in the use of the metaphor and the exploration of reality that it facilitates, but rather in our conceptualization of conceptualization itself. We can’t seem to make the move from recognizing that what we hold in our minds and what those thoughts refer to are never identical, that we are always reducing, simplifying reality into forms we can grasp and work with, that reality itself is always more subtle and complex than our conceptualizations of it.
We seem to have fallen into two distinct patterns of error: The religious one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as intentionally ruled by an anthropomorphic God that thinks and acts suspiciously similar to how a human being thinks and acts; and the atheistic one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as a dead machine in which random chance produced the otherwise unremarkable isolated phenomenon of human consciousness.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the ancient civilization that was most remarkable for the florescence of rational thought and subtle and insightful natural philosophies was also most remarkable for the incomparably robust and rich mythology that it produced. The ancient Greeks demonstrated that when we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of the human imagination, we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of human reason as well. The two are more intimately related than we sometimes realize.
So, while I believe that literary gods serve us better than literal ones, I also believe that investing in the processes of consciousness serves us better than entrenching ourselves in its ephemeral products (see, e.g., Scholarship v. Ideology, Ideology v. Methodology and An Argument for Reason and Humility). The error is not that our literal gods need to be replaced with an equally off-the-mark recognition of their literal absence, but rather that we need to refine our entire relationship to reality, understanding that our conceptualizations are just that: Conceptualizations. Our own consciousness best articulates with the consciousness of which we are a part when it does so most flexibly, most humbly, and most imaginatively. The gods beckon us to know them better by knowing less and contemplating more.
As a global tumbleweed finally come to rest in South Jeffco, Colorado (Southwest Denver suburbs), I appreciate all the more the wonders of my new home, the place where my seven-year-old daughter was born and is growing up. Even in my nomadic days, I knew that I would one day relish seeing the same houses and same trees, same walls and same garden, same faces and same places, day after day, year after year, recognizing the marvelous in the mundane. I’ve always savored the familiarity of those favorite haunts I’ve settled into for longer stretches, or returned to frequently, and sought that familiarity even in the briefest of one-time visits, recognizing that a traveler who does not connect with the world he wanders only brushes across its surface, forever passing it by.
I recall several times, on my travels, being in the most exotic of third world villages, watching local eyes widen in wonder when I told them that I was from Chicago (“Al Capone!” most would immediately shout, having an iconic character that is synonymous for them with that far-off place veiled in legends of its own). The world is a vast and richly colorful story, our own lives and locales no less so than any other. Like beauty, how fascinating a place or slice of life is is a matter of perception, and there is considerable value in perceiving it more rather than less liberally.
But I am well aware of how often we forget to see the world through the eyes of a traveler, or of an extraterrestrial anthropologist, or of a primordial human being animating his or her surroundings with spirits of the imagination. What a loss not to be able to see in a wilderness river the singing nymphs dancing their way from mountain springs to surging sea, or in the mist-shrouded woods the mystical forces whispering to the human soul! So too the human narrative of which we are a part, so full of subtlety and complexity, of passions and aspirations, of strife and folly and occasional triumphs of great courage and generosity, is our own shared Odyssey, as we navigate between the Charybdises and Scyllas of our voyage together through history.
It is difficult for me to see the world in any other way, as some mundane drudgery or mere slog through life. The sound of a gentle breeze fluttering the new leaves of spring, or the ferocious wind howling like a hungry giant; the chirping of birds and laughter of children; even the murmur of passing cars or jet stream of passing airliners overhead; all constantly awaken my sense of wonder, my sense of joy to be a part of this marvelous, ultimately inexplicable existence of ours.
I try to teach my daughter to see the world in the same way, with games and stories and humor and shared curiosity. We can bring our own surroundings to life, by imagining the red-rock formations just over the Hogback along Coyote Song Trail in Ken Caryl’s South Valley Park as magical creatures petrified during an ancient epic adventure, sentinels who will remain at their posts until eons of wind and water wipe them away.
As a teacher, too, in Denver and Jeffco and Littleton, I tried to inspire my students to see the world through wondering eyes. When we speak of public education policy and education reform, we need to remember how important this goal is, seeking to transcend the ritualism of education, the rote drilling and shallow aspirations so many consider to be its essence, and make it instead a celebration of life and an inspiration to the mind and soul. The mechanics of how to accomplish this are important, but they are more “organics” than “mechanics,” something that arises from an institution that we must have the wisdom to ensure remains much more than the sum of its parts.
When we reduce education to something less than that, to a mere factory of curriculum conveyer belts along which we shuttle our children, exposing them as much as possible to assembly line teachers performing automated functions, lost in the Kabuki Theater of professional development programs and faculty meetings and parent-teacher conferences and narrowly, mechanically, and generally dysfunctionally defined “accountability,” we reinforce and reproduce our loss of imagination and concommitant loss of the deeper intellectual talents that imagination alone can foster. For a sense of wonder provokes a hunger for knowledge and insight, one that grows only more ravenous the more it is satisfied.
Finally, as a politically engaged advocate for interacting with our social institutional landscape as conscious and compassionate participants in its endless formation and transformation, I am increasingly convinced that that same sense of wonder is what serves us best. Many dismiss politics as something squalid and base, some remote appendage to our shared existence that we have to hold our nose and reluctantly tolerate. But it can be a rich and delightful celebration of life, a vehicle for our imaginations and aspirations, a major keyboard accessing the “word processor” we vie to type our narratives into as we write our shared story together.
Here in Colorado, I discovered state and local politics for the first time, and have found it to be surprisingly intimate and accessible. While many seem to think of our government and its officers as some remote “other,” that is a matter of choice, for there are numerous opportunities to participate in it, to be a part of it, as responsible and motivated members of a popular sovereignty should be. Such participation should not just be a matter of making noise and clamoring for the respective conflicting false certainties we hold, but also listening and learning, becoming informed and developing increasing awareness of the nuances involved in governing ourselves wisely.
When Aristotle said that “man is a political animal,” he meant, in Greek (referring to the polis, the classical Greek form of the political state), that we thrive best by being active members of our community. We can do this by getting to know our city, county, and state representatives, by attending events and listening to speakers, by engaging both with those who think like us and those who don’t, and by embracing the multi-faceted wonder of our existence.
We humans have such an enormous capacity for creating either great beauty or great ugliness together, of realizing our potential in service to our expansive humanity or of surrendering it in service to our animalistic and destructive urges. Which we do in any given instance is less a function of whether our ideology is “the right one” or not, and more a function of whether we see the world through wondering eyes. Wisdom arises from wonder, and well-being arises from wisdom. Let’s all wonder our way into an ever-improving future.
Preamble: History, Mythology, Judgment, and Analysis.
The American holiday of “Thanksgiving” is, at its most basic level, simply our version of the harvest festival common to all currently or historically agricultural societies. And the mythologized historical story we base it on can be appreciated for the morally instructive fiction that it is, rather than condemned for omissions and oversimplifications. It’s a beautiful story, after all, and if it presented itself as such, rather than as sterilized history, it would be completely inoffensive: Two peoples, profoundly alien to one another, converging in a wilderness familiar to one and hostile to the other, coming together in friendship and mutual support, and celebrating their solidarity with a great feast. We don’t want to, nor should we, abandon the warm emotions of goodwill evoked by such a story. But we allow those emotions to do us better service if we retain them within the context of the more complex reality within which that feast occurred, and within which, in a more general sense, our lives are still lived.
I did not refer to the Thanksgiving story as revisionist history, because it is largely accurate, as far as it goes. It is not so much revisionist as it is oversimplified and abbreviated with a bias. The complexities, the respective strategic calculations and miscalculations, the betrayals and differences in world view, are all as instructive as the fable itself, and instruct us in what is required to make that fable more of a reality in the future, on the global stage.
Historical mythology is simultaneously delightful and disturbing. It’s as delightful as any mythology, full of pageantry and exaggeration, mind-candy not dissimilar to a Homeric epic, or even a Dickens classic, full of spirits that visit us, and happy endings that vindicate our belief in ourselves, in our nation, and in our gods. It is disturbing because it blurs rather than clarifies history and its lessons, not, as some believe, by turning villains into heroes and heroes into villains, but rather by relegating ordinary complex people who are a little of both to one or the other category in order to serve our hunger for self-legitimation through historical amnesia.
But the truth, told well and lavishly, is as marvelous as our exaggerations and distortions, more informative than our revisions, and, for all the tragedy that is embedded in it, no less encouraging to our souls. For it is through the subtle and complex realities of history that we can learn the lessons of how to do better, and how to combine the humility and discomfort of self-criticism with the sincere commitment to the highest ideals, serving those ideals far more effectively than our mythologies ever could.
I am not talking about a different morality play, one which simply switches the roles of heroes and villains in an inverse but equal oversimplification of reality. That is too similar to the one we should seek to transcend. What we need is a story about people, infused with less judgment and more clarity, neither cleansing history of our sins, nor reducing it to a caricature of “critical thinking” which is the mere inversion of the non-critical thinking it mirrors rather than transcends.
The Story: Enlightened Self-Interest and Mutual Goodwill Undermined By Waves of Newcomers and an Inevitably Decisive Disparity in Military Power.
(For a more complete narrative, with perhaps an exaggeratedly favorable view of the Pilgrims, see http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mosmd/, from which some of the narrative below is drawn. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wampanoag_people and http://www.mayflowerfamilies.com/colonial_life/pilgrims.htm).
When the pilgrims arrived on the shore of North America, they may not have realized that they were the forerunners of a demographic and military onslaught. The Pilgrims (the Separatists seeking only religious freedom from the Church of England), unlike the rest of the Puritans (seeking to “purify” the Church of England and impose their beliefs on others), were a relatively tolerant and accommodating people, seeking freedom for themselves and not seeking to deprive it to others. These pilgrims, however, did harbor well-intentioned but ethnocentric and intrusive ambitions of bringing Christianity to the “heathen” people of the New World.
But the story of the Mayflower and the establishment of Plymouth Colony isn’t just a story of flight from religious persecution; it is also the story of English mercantile interests, for the merchants who financed the voyage sent some of their own along as well, expecting (but not getting) a return on their investment.
The story of these early settlers suffering disease and hunger in their first months, with about half dying off, and then, while recovering their strength, encountering the native Wampanoag tribe and forming an alliance with them, is well known and basically accurate. The Wampanoag were a hospitable people, and had previously befriended and cared for English and French explorers in the region.
When Samoset (an Abnaki Indian from Maine who had acquired some rudimentary English when explorers had kidnapped him and taken him back to England) walked into Plymouth Colony with a friendly greeting a few months after the Pilgrim’s arrival, the Pilgrims learned from him that the nearest Indian village was that of the Nemaskets, a Wampanoag tribe of about 300 people. The Pilgrims also learned from Samoset that Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, was then staying with the Nemaskets.
The Pilgrims reluctantly allowed Samoset to spend the night, but watched over him with a certain degree of distrust. Samoset returned with five more Indians a few days later, bringing with them some tools the Pilgrims had lost in the woods, as well as furs to trade. Samoset returned a couple of days later with Squanto, who spoke English with perfect fluency.
Squanto’s assistance proved invaluable to the Pilgrims, for he taught them the skills they needed to survive in that foreign place, such as how to catch and use fish as a fertilizer for corn, squash, and beans, a technique which proved especially useful to the Pilgrims, whose English seeds they had brought with them did not fare well in the New England soil.
Squanto and Samoset convinced the nearby Wampanoag that the Pilgrims were peaceful, and that it would be in everyone’s interests to form an alliance. The Pilgrims gained the obvious advantage of having friendly advisers and protectors nearby in this unfamiliar land, while the Wampanoag gained the prestige and implicit threat to both enemy tribal confederations and rebellious Wampanoag tribes that came with the alliance with English arms.
The Wampanoag themselves had been weakened by epidemic (probably European borne plague) in recent years. The Narraganset, an insular tribe, had had virtually no contact with European explorers and settlers, and so were less weakened by plague. As a result, the Narraganset had become an expansionist power in the area. The Wampanoag had hoped that their alliance with the English would help fortify them against the Narraganset threat.
The alliance, in turn, worried the Narraganset Indians, concerned that the Wampanoag and English would attack them. After years of being delayed by wars with the Pequots and Mohawks, the Narraganset finally launched a pre-emptive attack on the Wampanoag, which, with the help of the English, the Wampanoag successfully deflected.
It would be understandable for Massasoit not to have anticipated the eventual overwhelming power that the English would bring to the region, and beyond: A small band of near-starving settlers did not portend a tsunami of colonization, conquest and displacement. The Indians had no experience of any other civilization –other than the trickle of explorers and, now, settlers– and had no frame of reference for contemplating the onslaught to come. Even if Massasoit had had any inkling of it, military resistance (slaughtering colonists and all others who tried to land on those shores) could only have delayed the inevitable; no preferable strategy to alliance existed. Better to have these powerful newcomers on the side of the Wampanoag than of a rival Indian nation.
Despite the probable differing understandings of what the treaty, allotting 12000 acres to Plymouth Plantation, meant (due to different conceptualizations of land ownership and usage), there seems to have been a great deal of genuine good faith and friendliness between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. The Pilgrims nursed Massasoit back to health when he was sick, and were staunch allies of the Wampanoag against Narraganset aggression.
But, intentional or not, the Pilgrims had opened the way for a flood of less well-intentioned colonists. The Puritans that soon followed, with overwhelming numbers, took the land rather than paid for it or asked permission for its use, as the Pilgrims had done. Increasingly, the newcomers subjected the indigenous people to the invaders’ laws, violently punished resistance and suppressed rebellion, and began the relentless destruction of a world and a way of life.
The Lesson of History.
What is the lesson of history in this case? It’s not that the alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag was a bad choice by either, or that the disaster for the Wampanoag, and all Indians, that followed could have been avoided by some other strategy. But neither is it that good will and mutual cooperation among some triumph over all.
While it could have been less brutal and more accommodating, and a healthier synthesis could have been realized, the reality is that either the military or cultural conquest, and either the displacement or assimilation of the Indians, was more or less inevitable (not to say morally justifiable), given the historical context and the realities of human avarice. People can and will dispute this, and insist that the European invaders could have respected indigenous rights and sovereignty, restricting themselves to the small enclaves that the indigenous people willingly granted them, but, as much as we might wish that to be true, it was as far removed from reality as the more general version of the same belief, that we “could have” lived in a virtual paradise of peace and prosperity since almost the dawn of human history, had we only worked more cooperatively in our collective interests to do so.
Differences in power prevail, usually in brutal and unjust ways, unless and until the interests of both those who are prevailing and those who are not converge on some more mutually beneficial arrangement. That is not a fact that can be wished away. Some factions will be ahead of the curve, and pursue what will later be perceived to be an advanced morality, but they do not erase the tendency; they only create islands of relief from it.
That’s what our Thanksgiving story is; an island of goodwill and friendship between two very disparate peoples, in a brutal world whose brutality was destined to wash that island away. And it is all the more poignant for its seeming futility in retrospect, because our celebration of it is a testiment to how compelling such stories are: The more such islands we create, and the more we celebrate them, the better off we will be, because they reinforce those frames and narratives of our minds which appreciate and reach for such outcomes, and inhibit those frames and narratives of our minds which rationalize the brutality which too often prevails.
Just as the sins of the past cannot be erased, neither can humanity’s shining moments, those islands of goodwill in an otherwise relentlessly brutal tide. We should celebrate them, not as romanticized symbols of an unreality, but as real moments of the triumph of the human soul, against the odds and against the trend. Despite the strategic calculations, mutual distrust, and fundamental misunderstandings woven into it, and despite the difficulty of verifying the first “Thanksgiving Day Feast,” the friendship of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is an indisputable fact of history. It deserves our reverence, all the more so in light of the ways in which the goodwill it symbolizes was so cruelly betrayed by others who came later.
The lesson of history is that brutality is the norm, and mutual goodwill the struggling little zygote of hope that flickers within it. The ideologies that glorify brutality, that rationalize indifference to the welfare of others, to social justice, to common cause in the face of an inevitably shared fate, should be weakened every Thanksgiving Day, if those who give thanks do so reflectively, thinking not just about what they have to be thankful for, but what others, and generations of others past, have been deprived of in order to secure it.
Let’s all thank providence for the bounty we have been graced with, and for the minds and hearts capable of understanding that there is no bounty richer and more rewarding than working together in the shared endeavor of life, whether with friends and neighbors, or across borders and ideological chasms, sitting down to the shared feast of life in a spirit of mutual goodwill, committed to being as humane and enlightened as a small band of religious zealots and a decimated Indian tribe 390 years ago.
In the spirit and form of classical mythology, but informed by a synthesis of complex dynamical systems (“chaos”) theory and an amalgam of relevant social and biological (and even physical) theories, this is my attempt to capture the essence of our existence in a work of intellectual art. This is an exploration of the underlying dynamics of human existence, rendered in a tapestry of magical story-telling woven from threads of ultra-violet prose. Now if that doesn’t make you run hard in the other direction…, read on!
The interplay of chaos and order, which are sometimes perceived as opposites, are in reality complementary (reminiscent of the motto that Danish Physicist Neils Bohr chose for his coat of arms when he was knighted: “Contraria Sunt Complementa” [opposites are complementary], beneath the Taijitu [the symbol of yin and yang]). Disordering and ordering forces interact to produce complexity, revealing the universe to be more organic than mechanical in nature. Applications of this theme to physics, ecology, human history, and the nature of individual lives are laced throughout the story. A secondary theme involves human consciousness of these systems, and how it grows by finding order, discovering increased complexity, and finding a subtler order within that complexity, in an endless process of cognitive and spiritual refinement.
To a backdrop of a millenial struggle between the Loci (mischievous chaos-loving imps with the magical ability to make tiny changes with enormous consequences, such as moving a twig an inch to the left, and thus providing the necessary link in a chain of events that lead to a forest fire that would otherwise not have occurred) and the Vaznallam (serene order-loving semi-divine beings that live in an ice city high in the Vaznal Mountains), a host of characters on intertwined adventures find themselves involved in the fulfilment of a phrophesized “Realignment”, averting the holocaust of mounting natural and human disasters. In the course of these adventures, they undergo a paradigm shift of their own, discovering a subtler, more accurate, and more naturalistic explanation for the wonders of their world than the religious and mythical understanding of reality they (and the reader) had always held to be true.
Two of my favorite scenes:
1) Algonion, a main character on a highly adventurous spiritual quest (which leads him to become a wizard-trained archer-hero at one point), finds himself inside one of the ice spheres nested inside a larger sphere which is, in essence, the wizards’ incubator of wizardry. Inside, initially simple patterns of colored light and sound and tactile sensations cause pleasure when solved and pain when unsolved (by thinking, chanting, and moving in anticipation of the next sequences in the patterns), only to encounter ever deepening subtley and complexity of patterns upon each resolution. This is my representation of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which accumulating anomalies in old established paradigms cause focused attention on those anomalies, and subsequent paradigm shifts. And it synthesises this quintessentially western theory of scientific philosophy with elements of Eastern mysticism. See The Wizards’ Eye.
2) Inspired by National Geographic footage of the Rainforest Canopy Ecosystem, Algonion is fleeing the Loci imps in an enchanted forest, their emotion-destabilizing darts, and the javelins of electricity that flashed in the air, swinging from trees and sailing from branch to branch…, “If only I could fold myself into the wind, he thought, desperately, “wrap myself around it like flesh around a whim….” Arriving at a debris strewn set of slate ledges leading down to a sea which “churned as though tossed by a storm, thrashing about like a beast with struggling prey clamped in its jaws,” he did just that, and transformed himself with his last lopping strides into a gangling bird that skimmed above that choppy sea…. See “Flesh Around A Whim”.
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