There are many hindrances to perceiving reality: politics, belief systems, mores, sensory apparatus, language and religion, to name but a few of the more obvious. So the question is, how to allow one’s consciousness to go feral without having to run naked into the wilderness to thus perish imminently from starvation, overexposure and polluted water? Even the feral human consciousness of distant yore was shaped by visions and nightmares featuring monsters and deified anthropomorphs that range through the psyche to perhaps take form as rock art hidden in caves or rendered on canyon walls. It would seem that, by our very makeup, we are sensitive to mystery. We run into trouble when our spiritual reflections become institutionalized.
Recently, I had the opportunity to look through my western window into the eyes of a bobcat whose range I share. This is a fellow creature, who is entirely at home in its habitat from which it finds sufficient food and havens for rest and protection. Its consciousness is not fettered by misconception but, rather, free to respond to the needs and opportunities of the moment without hesitation. It is the product of biological evolution over millennia—as are we humans. Our eye contact resulted in mutual awareness. I have no idea what went on in the mind of the bobcat, but I was drawn into some chthonic realm of the wild that was profoundly familiar yet lay well beyond my daily range of experience. Later, I watched the bobcat at play beside a large hollow log 40 feet beyond the window. It rubbed its cheek on the log and then walked back and forth along the outside of the log, stopping to peer into either end but never entering the wooden tunnel although there was sufficient space. Then, in an instant, it jumped to the other end as though it had spotted a lively prey. It looked into the log for several seconds before withdrawing its attention and sauntering off into other realms of its range of homeland.
I admire that bobcat for its agility of presence. It is a creature of the wild whose perceptions are seemingly unfettered. I realize, as I write, that I am fettered by being restricted to the English language with a smattering of Spanish. I am restricted by the musical modes that remain embedded in my mind’s ear. I am restricted by my awareness of a body politic that is so centralized as to commit specific habitats—including entire watersheds—to legislation that terrorizes these habitats and destroys their ecological balance by virtue of the urge to pillage for natural resources. This is ecoterrorism at its worst, or such is my perception.
I am alarmed by our prevailing cultural perspective that restricts its sense of spirituality to within crystallizing religions no matter their persuasion, religions that exclude intuition of the sacred within life-nurturing habitat, denouncing such leanings as heathen or pagan.
Have these filters to perception of reality become so ingrained that current cultural attitudes are beyond redemption? Have we now so virtualized our perspective that we have rendered reality distasteful?
My friend, José Manuel Abeyta, was born at the beginning of the 20th century to parents from Laguna Pueblo who later moved to Isleta. He was a wise man, the caretaker of religious paraphernalia sacred to Keresan-speaking people. One day in the mid-1980s, I visited him at his home in Isleta. He consented to let me record an interview with him, this ancient man who made his living by handcrafting moccasins of elk and deer hide that he then sold or traded to other Indians in the area. Every Saturday throughout the year, Mr. Abeyta would run to the top of a peak in the Manzano Mountains some nine miles to the east and then run back. Thus he remained youthful into his 80s.
I asked him about his beliefs.
“They [Indians] had a religion about how to make it rain. Some had a religion about how to make things grow. Some had a religion about how to plant and giving thanks for the harvest. Now, all of the Indians have respect for the Earth. The Indians have two religions here. Some are Catholic, which is all right. And then we have our own religion. But the Indians, they believe in what they see. They believe in the Sun, which they see with their own eyes, which gives us light. It warms the Earth, which makes things grow. That’s where they have their belief. They believe in the clouds because it makes rain and makes things grow. They see the rainbow. That’s where they believe, too. They believe in the ground because that’s where everything’s growing. They believe in everything they see with their eyes. And Catholic religion’s good, but we talk about Jesus, and we don’t know who he is. We see his picture, and that’s the way he looks. But we Indians, we believe in what we see. I have my belief in the Sun because that’s the way my grandfather and my grandmother, they taught us. But we have respect for the Earth because that’s where everything grows, and we feed and we eat out of that…Everything we see, we believe, in our Indian way.”
José Manuel Abeyta passed away nearing the age of 90 after he had broken his leg and could run no more. But I shall remember his words to me that afternoon when he taught me to believe in what I can see. His vision included both intellect and intuition. He was in tune with his place in Nature that he regarded as sacred.
Science teaches us to accept only that which can be proven. Science has proven the fact of evolution but, as yet, not why life evolves or even exists. Science urges us in favor of fact over belief. But there is a vast region that is unknowable, at least within our current circumstances of limited perspective. That which is factually knowable was laboriously rendered over centuries by hardworking scientists for whom I have great respect.
However, I have enormous respect for José Manuel Abeyta and those fellow practitioners of the sacred who take their cue from Nature and celebrate the mystery of existence by “believing in what they can see.” They are not blind to the miracle of life. Thus they comport themselves with great respect for their sustaining habitat and rue the dominant cultural practice of overindulgence and neglect of homeland.
Speaking of belief, I believe there is a great cue to be taken from our neighbors who are indigenous to this homeland, this commons in which we are blessed to live. Theirs are systems of attitudes that are commensurate with the nature of homeland, that have evolved out of centuries, millennia of practice and reciprocity within homeland, within the commons. The commons does not exist solely for us to withdraw resources but also for us to nurture and sustain.
Reciprocity with Nature—not our ill-advised attempt at mastery of Nature—is our reason to be. Thus we contribute to evolution, not just of our species but of human culture. Cultural evolution is considerably more rapid than biological evolution. Today, mainstream cultural evolution is far outstripping our capacity to recognize ourselves as born of and reliant on Nature’s flow through time within our solar system and beyond. If we maintain our current course, we as a species will speed out of existence.
Therefore, the time is upon us to reevaluate our ethical standards, to question our cultural mores, our beliefs and attitudes. I have come to perceive consciousness as a commons, and I rebel at those who would privatize these commons of consciousness for personal and collective gain at expense unto death of much of the rest of life, including that of our own species. Over the last century, we have “progressed” to the strong possibility of self-extinction. In 1900, the human population of the planet was estimated to have been about one-and-a-half-billion souls. Just over a century later, we have nearly quintupled—expanded our population by a factor of five. We as a species, along with our attendant accoutrements, have truly outstripped the carrying capacity of our planetary biotic community. If we do not immediately accept the necessity for wide-ranging reciprocity and vigorously stir that into the commons of human consciousness—and thence act accordingly—the planet will serve us our eviction notice. Our species will not even be remembered as a failed experiment.
In 1968, poet Jerome Rothenberg published his book, Technicians of the Sacred, which is an anthology of poetry, truly a crystal of many windows revealing myriad facets of Indigenous Mind. It also reveals a perspective shared by those who have not forgotten their allegiance to the flow of Nature, their collective intuition of their place in Nature, their evolved sense of natural aesthetics that feeds the human soul like cool spring water on a hot day in the high desert. We are equipped to perceive the beauty of existence, not just the fact of that beauty. We don’t have to justify our recognition of that beauty but, rather, revel in the beauty itself and thus open ourselves to its natural relevance. Thus we become Naturists and take our spiritual guidance from the flow of Nature.
On page 300 of his magnum opus, Mutual Aid, first published in 1908, the great anarchist-philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin, who was also a world-class geographer and natural historian, wrote, “In the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support—not mutual struggle—has had the leading part. In its wide extension, even at the present time, we also see the best guarantee of a still loftier evolution of our race.”
Six or so decades earlier, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor. It is something to paint a particular picture, or carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the atmosphere and very medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
Aural historian, activist and author Jack Loeffler was honored in April 2015 at the 15th annual Nuestra Música concert of traditional northern New Mexico music, presented by the Lensic Performing Arts Center and the Spanish Colonial Arts Society. Loeffler’s website is www.loreoftheland.org