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