Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Tree of Life and Knowledge


      It began with a print I have of a Sumerian seal - priestesses surround a tree and hold out the branches so we can see the fruit. It’s called The Tree of Life and Knowledge. One tree? But I was raised with two: one of life and one of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  Even side by side, didn’t life and knowledge long for each other? Has it ever been the same since the two were separated? Is that the human condition, that life and knowledge separate?  
I’ve been reading Richard Wright’s A Short History of Progress, which I recommend to anyone interested in How It Has Been, and what I learned began with The People Who Painted the Caves. How fascinated I have been with paleolithic art - attending workshops, lectures, films, and actually entering one - dispensing my own and others' theories on shamanic naturalism - a realism not snatched from the mythic again until the Renaissance. 
Chauvet Cave, Ardeche, France
Early modern humans became proficient at hunting. Their stone weapons continually improved - sharper, stronger, lighter. Their population rose.   Have you imagined one man, or one troupe tracking a huge animal for hours? I have. But "some of their slaughter sites were almost industrial in size; a thousand mammoths at one; more than 100,000 horses at another. » (P. 38) And then there was nothing to sustain them. 
They had overreached. They did not know how, or weren’t willing, to change course, and they disappeared. So 40,000 years ago, we were doing the same thing - separating life and knowledge - that we do now. 

The Sumerians also overreached. Their brilliant use of irrigation changed villages into towns, and towns into great cities. But civilizations use massive resources, and when the trees were turned into timber, and the great mats of roots and mosses no longer held in the soil, the flash floods began, and later when more powerful floods broke through the dams, vast quantities of water surged - and we get the story of the Flood. Their gods saw humans as dangerous. They had sinned against the earth itself, and the gods set out to destroy them, which is what it must feel like when your dams break. 
Athens? Apparently the Athenians we're worried about deforestation in the sixth century B.C.E! A couple hundred years later Plato, in the Critias, lamented the ecological damage that had been  done: 
What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man all the fat and soft earth have washed away…… mountains..had trees not very long ago. The land was enriched by the yearly rains which were not lost to it as is now…… Springs and streams running everywhere. Now only abandon shrines remain to show where the Springs once flowed.

That last line really captured me. I wrote this poem:

  Delphi, denuded

                                  Now only abandoned shrines remain to  
show where the springs once flowed                                                                 Plato  Critias 
Remnants    rubble   crumbled marble 
                           One formerly holy slab at the center  
   Imagine Pythia the Oracle  her long hair tangled 

        in everyone’s fate
           still listening for Gaea 
      No  Pythia    

           someone was blinded looking into the sun
                  and named their assailant Apollo  
               You are no longer speaking for Her
                       now you incant  enchant  intone 
                            for the light of the world   
The spring  

      it always says the shrines were centered at a spring  
          long dried up   after the trees were felled  
             now the site is nearly naked   a few bushes  
                  three standing columns   a bit of lintel 
         just enough to let you know this was the omphalos  the navel

Those blue-black treeless mountains  above  unembarrassed by   

      their bare breasts          
          the mountains are just like us  they have lost their memory  
                we think the mountains were always that way   
                   And I can’t even end with Pythia’s voice
                                still present in the wind 
              because the wind  my friends  is as empty as the shrine

The examples of civilizations that have peaked, overreached continues in our own day. The separation of knowledge and life is a feature of our time. It would take the rest of this page to detail the post-industrial processes feeding the smelter of progress that have leached, leaked and released sickening or deadly chemicals into our lives. 
We will not admit to any limits. Science depends on and demands the freedom to explore without boundaries. What could we do next? Assemble a robotic human? Clone a woman? Who has ever known a human who said, in advance of experimentation, this could lead to disaster, so I’ll stop?

Not only have life and knowledge been separated, but knowledge itself has been disdained, discredited.  David A. Baker writes:

The separation of knowledge from life is one of the tragedies of our time.  Immersed in technology, we become addicted to transient knowledge which has little to do with life or the organic structure of our own lives.
Knowledge supports life when an elder teaches a child how to plant; when medications and medical techniques are created for our benefit, not profit; when a composer uses his skills to create a sound world for us, or our leaders stop denying reality and work to create a sustainable world that is sound. Knowledge supports life when the ripe, fragile fruit of life, and the varieties of knowledge, grow together on our family tree.






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