Sunday, 20 January 2013

Sunday Sermon: The Garden 4

Hello Everything. Thank you for all of your country and all of your people. Thank you for this opportunity to live a unique life in your service, Everything. Amen.
Hello everyone.

As repeatedly promised, I am going to discuss the religion of humanity's Garden Era. Attentive readers may have noticed in Garden 2 the difficulty I was having keeping my discussion of land practices from slipping into a discussion about religion, and the reason is that the two things are inseparable. The inseparability of the ecologically embedded lifestyle and economy on the one hand and the religious mentality behind it on the other means one can not be comprehended without attempting to comprehend both, or not adequately anyway. This sermon might be read with Garden 2 for that reason.

I was tempted but I can not offer a Sermon called "Religion Review: Totemism." Totemism is not a religion you can join, even if  you really want to, as it comes from a lifelong, all-encompassing embeddedness in country and kin. If that embeddedness, or the country/kin itself, is broken, it is impossible enough even for lifelong totemists to fully regain their religion. As Black Elk put it looking back on his life, "the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead." Don't get me wrong - native peoples can retain an enormous amount of culture, and they should be given every help to do so, for the benefit of us all, but their original deep religious life, like a clear felled ancient rainforest, cannot be regrown in just a generation and will never be the same again regardless.

For the Aboriginals of Australia when a person was born they were born directly from the earth at the place of birth. This was expressed so strongly to early European immigrants that for a long time it was an urban myth that Aboriginals did not actually get the relationship between coitus and pregnancy. It is very clear now that they did, and we should never mistake a people's mythological descriptors for ignorance of everyday reality. But religion, to the gardeners, is not inherited from parents or elders but from the country itself.

Similarly Law does not come from elders or society at all but from country, at least as it is perceived. Aboriginal Australia, and in my view Garden societies the world over, were terracracies (gaiocracies? envirocracies?), ruled, watched by and beholden to the existential environment itself, the living earth, sea and sky. That was the perception. In retrospect, to the Hebrew mythmaker, the gardeners "walked with God."

As I've noted variously before, religion is a human universal and remains so today. It has not diminished but changed. But the religion of the Garden might be called something else to distinguish it from anything we are familiar with. It is an elaborate ecological spirituality, adopted from birth alongside language and social behaviour, utterly embedded in country. Indeed there is no distinction between these latter things and 'belief'. The question, "What is your religion?" has no meaning in the Garden. One's 'religion' just is, and is connected inextricably to every aspect of living.

Whenever religion evolved, it came about simultaneously with language. Language can not exist without a system of meanings, and meanings had no science or scrutiny to refer to. Meanings had no referent at all in fact except the realities of life, and dreams and memories of the dead were as apparent as geographical features or animals. So the first meanings could only be, in effect, mythopoeic. In a way, religion and language are the same development. Neither are meaningfully comprehensible without the other. To have language is to have a belief system - a system of information, however nascent - and visa versa. Needless to say reason just hasn't come into things yet.

It is easy to imagine religion as a process of anthropomorphising non-human reality - giving places, creatures, ancestors and imaginary creatures minds and personalities. But the journey has been the other way around. The earliest consciousness had not yet any reason to believe everything else was not just as conscious as it was. People didn't have ideas, or they didn't credit their egos with ideas anyway. Muses had not been invented and neither had 'inspiration' or 'genius'. For consciousness in the Garden, ideas came directly from the general consciousness, from the land itself or from spirits, ancestors and creatures. It was all, quite obviously and uncontroversially, conscious.

An anecdote from early Australia has a black tracker on the trail of an escaped convict for some days (the Aboriginals were legendary trackers). After losing the trail for some time the native Australian said he would go and talk to his friend Koala. When he came back from his chat with the koala he said that he had been silly and Koala had set him straight. He led the crew in another direction and found the trail. This is a simple example of what I mean. The only interpretation we might reasonably have of the event is that the Aboriginal man in fact had access to deep intuitive powers of his own, informed by a lifelong experience of the country, but accessed them through a religious practice - his communication with the koala spirit. It didn't occur to the man for a moment that it was his knowledge guiding him.

To think about the religion of the Garden we constantly have to remind ourselves of this lack of self-consciousness. Garden life was not an examined life. No one was wondering what they should believe because what they believed was their very existence, including their economic existence. It defined their role in the social ecological environment in great detail, including who they were kin with and what their responsibilities were. All of it was preserved (and developed) in narrative, in stories, but the stories were directly connected to real world existence. And survival was ruthlessly dependent upon adherence to law.


In the end spirituality/life was about relationships, about modes of kinship in fact, and the best descriptor of the religion is totemism - the belief in kin groupings that include not only humans of blood-relation but specific species, places and natural phenomena (constellations in the sky, a particular gully, the south west wind, red loamy soil, whatever). 'Totem' means, quite literally, 'kin'. It is conceived as a family group.

According to Bill Gammage:
"Totems are ecological. The well known Eaglehawk and Crow division separates hunters from gatherers, and most totem names combine place, creature and totem: Tanda (Adelaide) red kangaroo, Wurundjeri (Melbourne) Ribbon Gum, Narrandera (NSW) jew lizard and so on. People studied first their own totem and its allies and habitat, to everyone's benefit. Jew lizard people studied the plants and animals around narrung's sandy habitat, the insects in the sand and the bark, the birds visiting, the winds, the water, the fire needs. To keep each in balance required repeating spiritually the same ancestral ceremonies, and ecologically the same management practices. Both are work, a dance as much as a fire regime, both protect the Dreaming and biodiversity, from long repetition both can be fine-tuned for success. Yet if the ecology changed, for example when rabbits or camels arrived, totems were adjusted to fit. 'Those totems were always there', people say, 'it's just that we didn't know about them before.' (p.136)
So a totem was not merely an animal. For one thing it is generally an animal in a particular area rather than an entire species. But more importantly a totem, although generally named after an animal of the totem (in Australian Aboriginal society anyway) was a grouping of creatures, places and human kin, along with all that totem's ancestors and spirits. It was a mythopoeic family, with all sorts of kinship responsibilities to go with it. Generally you could not eat or even touch your totem animals, for example, but most of the responsibilities involved enacting dances and songs in order to keep the many natural cycles going.

Note that the dances and songs are, however ineffectual to our modern view, generational mimetic vehicles for the content, which is the tribe's accumulated information technology.

The human capacity for this sort of ecological bonding with the environment and hence for steadily increasing the country's capacity to provide was precisely our evolutionary advantage over other creatures including other species of Homo. Detailed information is maintained and developed within each totem group via narrative, dance, music and song. And because there are many totem groupings there are many different strands of knowledge and law. Society can not only know more, but can pass it along accurately and developmentally. Logos has been born.

Although totemism is very foreign to us, to say the least, there is something very modern about it that I fear is often overlooked. For when we read about the development of the first agrarian societies we are given the impression that this is where the first division of labour (beyond age and gender divisions) occurred. It is not. An elaborate division of intellectual labour, beyond just age and gender divisions, was very well developed in the Garden. The first 'vocations' were totemic. As this proto-vocationalism elaborated, humans became more successful, and the Garden became increasingly comprehended (albeit as spirit, but the understanding was real) and managed.

In fact there was not one religious understanding and practice, even within a single tribe. If we were to interview in detail all the people in a Garden tribe and hence redact a tribal cosmology and religion, it would not make sense to any individual in the tribe. An individual was a totemist, not a tribalist, but collectively the totems made the tribe and the country. Garden religion was an ecosystem of ideas.

Totemism as a part of abiding human nature is manifest today, in my view, in vocationalism, especially the father-teaches-son variety which is becoming less common, and as more meagre remnant in obsessive behaviour generally. Broadly a totemistic nature appears to exist in our propensity to diversify our interests (even within a nuclear family) and find broader communities of those interests, however obscure. But that's an aside.

Over four sermons now I have attempted to broadly outline what I have labelled humanity's Garden Era. I am an amateur and I don't know if I have done the subject any real justice, but I hope to have at least painted a plausible picture based on what we know, and a basis for further critical enquiry and meditation.

For humans do have a nature - an embedded ecological nature as with other creatures, but including fire, technology, language, religion and all - which evolved to be that nature. We are also a colony species, and our nature did not evolve with us as individuals vs the environment but as colonies vs the environment. The myths about the Garden and the Golden Age and the like may or may not be tainted by actual memory, but the ancient mythmakers, in times far less detached from the Garden than we are now, were trying to describe something - grapple something - which they knew was real: the fact that there was once a nature and that it was, somehow, broken; that somehow we were now in a wilderness of our own nature, even as we left the wilderness behind.

The evolution of human nature, in aeon long eras of relative ecological stability, occurred in a particular manner, in particular types of colonies, with some particular unique specialities like language, fire and tools. And although that elaborate ecological system has gone, the nature which evolved within it has not. And that is the conundrum that this overall narrative - the Genesis narrative - is attempting to address.

[Tony Swain and Garry Trompf, The Religions of Oceania (1995) is a less romantic and more critically academic survey than Gammage's book, but this essay is indebted to both books, along with much Wikipedia. Obviously the spin is mine.]
Everything, forgive me my intellectual trespasses as I forgive the intellectual trespasses of others. Grant my readers keen minds and pure hearts, that they may discern my wisdom from my folly. In the cultivation of our wisdom Everything, our own small stake in your wisdom, help us all to do thy will. So be it.

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