Saturday, May 6, 2017


One morning during the holiday season last year, I saw an item in a gift catalog called “The World’s Smartest Food Scale.” Able to weigh up to four different food items at once, a close-up color photo showed several luscious-looking raspberries on one weighing area, some pineapple chunks (for color contrast, presumably) on another, and so on. The description went on to detail how, after weighing the food items, the scale will then transmit the data wirelessly to a computer or mobile device, which can then access an online database and provide nutritional analysis. My first thought was: Seriously? If people were eating more raspberries and pineapple than pizza or McEngineered food, they probably wouldn’t need to weigh them.

After reading the catalog description, I happened to look out the window, where I saw some sparrows hopping around and occasionally pecking.

This led me to wonder: Apparently, the sparrows are able to find their ways and feed themselves through a challenging Michigan winter, selecting bits of food that will keep them alive and pretty healthy from whatever is available. Can we? I know I’ve opened a big can of worms in the way I formulated this question, but it can’t be helped— and I’m sure quite a few bird species will probably approve.

As I pondered this question, I recalled a television documentary I’d seen on PBS in the early 90s called The Last Navigator. I later learned the show was a follow-up to a book of the same title by Steve Thomas, and I took the time recently to read it. Its subject was traditional oceangoing navigation as practiced by the seafaring peoples of Micronesia.  The author, who had a longtime interest in sailing, had arranged an apprenticeship with Mau Piailug, a traditional master navigator from the Micronesian island of Satawal.

The islanders in the region migrated across the vast Pacific without compass, charts, or other instrumentation. With unwavering focus Piailug was able to guide an outrigger canoe and crew to reach destinations across hundreds or even thousands of miles of open ocean using only celestial bearings and a body of traditional seafaring wisdom. Doing so requires complete immersion in the dynamic complexities of ocean swell systems, animal cues, changing currents and weather conditions. To miss one’s target on an ocean voyage in these scantily provisioned vessels is to risk death. Nonetheless, the inhabitants of these far-flung scraps of land regularly journeyed back and forth to hunt, fish, trade, and refresh their local gene pools.

Given that within living memory the earth has been home to people who were capable of traversing the Pacific in small watercraft by their wits alone, could it really be that we now need an internet-linked device to navigate our dinner plates? I think I hear the sparrows laughing. But I feel it’s worth considering, because navigation – whether to the next island or the next bite to eat – is a central biological process.

To avoid becoming someone else’s lunch is also part of the equation. I was recently amazed as I watched an online video showing staph bacteria attempting to evade a prowling white blood cell. Odd to think that’s going on inside us all the time. Further, the process of navigation can be seen to scale up to higher-order biological systems such as individual deer, ducks and people, and then further to herds, flocks, and groups of the same species. Even ecosystems, nations and cultures can be said to navigate. As individuals, we have a hardwired “rooting reflex” that helps us with our very first navigational task: finding the nipple. It’s critical, and it’s important to note that the first task of an individual is to seek connection.

Consider the sequence of nautical navigation that has furnished such a ready metaphor in this article for the many kinds of navigation we engage in. We begin with ancient seafaring skills like those of Mau Piailug, who journeyed through ocean waves well beyond sight of land completely unaided by instrumentation. We see explorers up through the 19th century relying on stars and landmarks, then compasses, charts and observation logs. Finally we come to modern GPS-guided ships with full instrumentation, including satellite communications and information systems. 

But what happens to the voyage as layer upon layer of instrumentation are added?  What happens to the awareness of the voyager? Finally, what becomes of the ocean? What exactly is this stuff we’re floating on – you can interpret this as broadly as you like – and does the ocean really even matter anymore if we barely have to look at it and it's merely something to churn through? Do we even bother to taste our food after we weigh it with the World’s Smartest Scale? What becomes of life when we withdraw from immediate connection by stages and degrees? 

A few years ago I read a book by Jean Liedloff called The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost that might shed some light on these questions.  Liedloff spent two and a half years living with the Yequana and other indigenous people of the upper Orinoco River basin in Venezuela. In one passage (p. 19) she describes her astonishment upon seeing groups of very slightly built Tauripan people joking and laughing while carrying 75lb packs for miles through equatorial jungle heat – a physical task that would buckle grumbling Europeans twice their size.  How did they do it?  Her answer was by no means simple – I recommend reading the book – but what it came down to is that, like the Micronesian navigators, these people were in continuous communication with their environment.  Because they were not in a state of internal or external disconnection with their surroundings, the jungle supported them just as surely as the sea supported Piailug as he guided his outrigger canoe through the night toward distant horizons. It’s complete connection, a continuum.

I see some profound implications in Liedloff’s observations, and have seen parallels in other stories I’ve read.  For example, my wife Mary and I were married at Camp Ohiyesa in Holly, Michigan, where, it turns out, the noted Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk spent time during the early 20th century.  Seeking to know more, I read the famous account of his life and views, Black Elk Speaks, and somewhere along the way (maybe from the Ohiyesa camp director at the time) I picked up a story about how Black Elk, by then an elder, was observed standing by the lake without a shirt one freezing cold morning. Concerned for his safety and health, a member of the camp staff hurried over and suggested he get a coat on so not to catch cold.  Black Elk replied that on the contrary, this was his way of staying healthy, but acknowledged that these “old ways” were not understood.

In considering that scenario, again we see contrary cultural postures, with the indigenous perspective focused on living through environmental connection and integration while the Western view encourages limiting that exposure. As I recounted the Black Elk story to Mary, she replied by quoting some passages from a book she had in her hands at that moment called Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich. The author includes a brief account of the life of John Tanner, a settler who was kidnapped by the Shawnee in 1789 at the age of nine and later sold into the Ojibwe tribe to be raised as the son of a woman whose own son had died. From that point forward, Tanner grew up socialized completely as an Ojibwe. The account cited a description of an astonishing feat of endurance in which Tanner and a companion took turns riding and running beside a horse to cover a distance of 70 miles in a single day, which recalled some of Liedloff’s descriptions of people in the remote Venezuelan jungles. But the part of Erdrich’s narrative that motivated Mary’s sharing was another passage: “Visiting his family in Kentucky after having lived all his life in the north woods, John Tanner fell ill. He grew claustrophobic when nursed inside of a house, and had to sleep outside in his brother’s yard to regain his strength.” (p. 46)

Though it may seem counterintuitive in our culture, it’s possible to seek one’s well being through exposure to the world and to find security through deeper connection with it. It’s very different than having one’s experience mediated by a screen as most of my readers are presumably doing at this moment. Along the same lines, when comparing traditional Micronesian navigators with modern sailing captains and pilots, I am struck by the contrast between Piailug, with his hand on the rudder in continuous engagement with his rigorous and unpredictable environment, versus the relative isolation we see among modern navigators as they retreat to the techno-wombs in the cabins of their ships. 

I speak as a refugee from a culture that either despite or because of its technological wizardry appears to have fundamentally lost its bearings. Among my people these days, it is not uncommon to seek satellite navigational support to find one’s way to a Friday night party, and judging by the catalog item that inspired this writing, apparently some of us think that just to be on the safe side it’s a good idea to employ a wireless Internet hookup to negotiate the hazardous and uncertain terrain of their daily meals. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate technology, from the gas-fired furnace in my home currently pushing the chill back a step to the electronic medium through which I now communicate with you. However, with these examples and many others, there’s a price to be paid in the way technology reconfigures our connections and our distances, and not all the costs involved in these tradeoffs are easy to quantify. One thing that does seem clear is that on a fundamental level, as we put increasing amounts of technology between us and our environment, we are also, in effect, backing away from it.

As we do so, I find myself wondering what we might be backing ourselves into.

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