Friday, May 9, 2008


Fresh from a constructive argument with archaeologist-writer Brian Fagan over a nuance of wording in his new work in progress about our brothers and sisters, the Cro-Magnons, I am directed to make my way along the unmarked highway called Change, a highway rife with switchbacks, cut-offs, dips, knobs, and harrowing escarpments. There are few if any markers or warnings about the distance to the next services, nor are there any Burma-Shave signs to lighten the burden of travel.

The point I was arguing with Fagan was that his new text should not refer to Hunters and Gatherers; rather these stalwarts should be called Foragers because in essence that's what they did. The foraging life, while by no means an easy one, is largely what most of us do now. There are, to be sure, some coupon clippers in our midst, some politicians with campaign war chests, some so-called developers who convert unusable land or farm land into housing tracts and malls. Mostly we still forage.

One of the more challenging choices to face the early Foragers was the decision to stay put, tend to the plants and seeds, keep an eye on the herds, cut back on ambitious travel plans. Once the Foragers gave over to Agriculture, they were screwed.

Another similar fork in the road came when someone figured out you could do more with, say, horses than eat them, use them for drayage or plowing: you could ride them. Riding a horse led to being able to herd more animals than you could on foot with a dog or two. Riding a horse led to a class distinction between those who had horses and those who walked. Chivalry was a code of behavior derived from those who owed and rode horses. Indeed, cavalier spoke of a more affluent and trouble free life of the propertied as opposed to--shades of Marxism--those who worked.

Writers are essentially Foragers, tracking through the traits of humanity for subject matter, finding history a fascinating enough preoccupation, pouncing on the stray tidbit of sex, religion, and politics for a feast, romping through the suction and pull of class distinction and behavior. The leisure of the theoried class, as it were. There are those of us who have settled into the literary equivalent of agriculture, which is to say the commerce of television and the made-to-order celebrity biography. I can recall a time when, working as a California-based editor, it was my job to canvass those "agriculturalists" in search of any stray literary project they may be essaying. On a number of occasions, I'd found a project worth pursuing and, following protocol, was given the go-ahead to initiate a contract, only to be told that the paltry $50,000 advance I could offer was not enough to maintain rent or lease payments on house and car, much less tuition for private schools. Come back with a realistic offer, man. Alas, that was about as reasonable as I could get. These agriculturalists, eager to return to the foraging ways of the book writer, were tied to their rented earth and could not escape.

In a sense the writer does resort to a non-subsidized form of agriculture, the crop being change, a record of what happens as a culture collides with change, who the victims are and who emerge as victors. It is invariably an unexpected collision, the bug against the windshield. We watch it as it affects our life, our goals, our attitudes; we watch it as it seals off previously accessible escape routes, reverses fortunes, backhands us with a swipe of our own attitude. In the process of collision, writers and agriculturalists have forged a strange kind of relationship that nearly defies understanding, each of us set in ways that seem unvaried since pen was first set to parchment or harrow blade to earth. Each of us is romanticized beyond belief, patronized, condescended to. Each of us is occasionally given a subsidy, perhaps even listened to, but the pressures for change in both areas is overwhelming. Our best hope is to do the work and hope to which ever fetish, god, or relevant force to which we attach some degree of fealty, hope for an abundant crop.


R.L. Bourges said...

A pedestrian forager myself. With some canine assistance to ward off the wild ducks.
Q: did Cro-Magnon foragers have national holidays with paid time off?

Wild Iris said...

The onset of agriculturalism encouraged the onset of disease and the annoyance of parasites. One must guard their writing against the very same in the practicality of agricultural type lifestyles, while lighting out on the adventures of the foragers on paper.

There are pros and cons to each, and each of us must measure our own opportunity cost in order to find which is the most economical decision, whether referring to writing or to life.

Lori Witzel said...

When I did my course among the Latter-Day Foragers --

I learned our pre-plow ancestors had a lot of free time.

Much as I love some fruits of technology (like this whole 'net thang) I sure do wonder about more wandering time...