Blood gushed from Mapote’s nostrils and his eyes rolled back in their sockets as he slipped into deep trance (!kia). Star sickness – a malevolent force which aggravates anger and jealousy – had beleaguered the Duma San, and as a shaman, the task of healing the community had befallen him. Sparks flew into the firmament from a blazing fire whilst women hauntingly chanted and beat drums, invoking the spirits of the dead (/lgauwasi) and most importantly, the high god Kaggen. The vigil of the healers rapt in !kia lasted through the night. Mapote navigated a perilous celestial bridge as his companions were skewered with razor-sharp spears and eaten alive by giant serpents. Kaggen then appears as a formidable praying mantis with pincers the size of acacias and imparts directions to a secret place lost in the mountains, instructing Mapote to meet him there on the next crescent moon. He had to make the journey alone, while everyone else was asleep and not tell a soul, lest his own be encaged forever by the great trickster mantis.
Since we evolved on the rich savannahs of Eastern Africa some 200,000 years ago, our species has expressed immense feats of survival, creation and destruction. We’ve gone from living in caves to now on our way to colonizing the moon. We’ve lived for aeons with a perspicacious knowledge of our environments and the supernatural, while more recently peering into the hidden dimensions of particles and the intricacies of black holes, indeed at the very crasis of the universe. Of the some 100 billion Homo sapiens that have ever walked the planet close to 8 billion presently grace the seven continents, a patchwork of legacies woven over generations by thousands of languages, diverse lifeways, distinct spiritualties and material cultures.
Analogizing Earth’s existence to a clock – an epic of 4.5 billion years – human beings have been around for the last three seconds or so, the dinosaurs left the dinner table just a few minutes before eleven pm. That our lineage somehow developed from timid shrews burrowing in the ground 60 million years ago to a force which has come to dominate every corner of the globe, is both astonishing and shocking. To date we haven’t been obliterated by a natural or nuclear disaster and there’s enough genetic variety and technological wizardry to keep us on the up, yet who can say what may become of us if these variables get scrambled? What is nature? What is man? What is civilization?
On these three questions Kaggen would elucidate with Mapote, in the bellows of the mighty UKhahlamba-Drakensberg Mountains in southern Africa. The dialog is set in the 1st century A.D, as Bantu pastoralists from the Rift Valley encroach upon San lands, the blossoming of one civilization presaging the withering of another. Although a trickster – and a shapeshifter – Kaggen grasped the enormity of passing on the lessons of time and as he soared as a winged Eland to the hidden cave, he hoped that the stories of old, stitched in memory, would be remembered anew. Not only had he seen powerful civilizations centered around the life-giving Tigris, Euphrates, Indus, Yangtze and Yellow rivers rise and fall, but also other hominid species, as they pit their wits against unforgiving elements. Erectus, he recalled, had been remarkably successful, (by some yardsticks the most successful of all human kinds) exploring vast tracts of the old world over a period of more than a million years, hunting large game and even navigating open seas in the Mediterranean and Pacific.
The story of human endeavor and succumbing should not be forgotten he mused. And that story is impossible to tell without grappling with the immensity of nature and of all the chemical structures and physical forces that have shaped our shallow history. Nor can we ever extradite ourselves from nature – as has so often been our handicap in the modern era – for we do not come into the world, we come out of it. We tend to criticize nature when we separate it in our minds from human nature, and denounce it for being bereft of pity and justice. Yet it is we who have most lacked pity and justice. Nature appears inimical to morality, however if that were true morality wouldn’t exist at all. What we think of as the ‘wild’, is really the unadulterated essence of ethics, the wellspring of all culture and ingenuity.
Mapote’s heart trembled nervously and his eyes darted around the ember-lit circle of huts as he slunk away into the still, starry night. The passage to convoke with Kaggen was perilous; he faced jagged crevices and a slimy 30 meter-high rock-face, the will to harness n/um and bring backpotent arcana for the benefit of his people his only inspiration and hope. Yet he had no idea what to expect and couldn’t understand why he, of all men, had been chosen for this audacious mission. Kaggen considered etching his teachings on the cave walls – a Rupestrian artistic expression the San engaged in for millennia during their epic 150,000 year hegira on Earth – though he feared the engravings might be discovered and so decided to cast his lessons instead onto a sparkling pool. He would entrain Mapote’s mind as to the absurdities and wonders he was to espy reflected back at him; those of centralized empires, industrialization, world wars, musical symphonies and philosophical treatises, medical breakthroughs, spacecraft and the conception of a digital dimension.
Now transformed into a porcupine he sat somewhat impatiently smoking a pipe, waiting for Mapote to arrive. He contemplated how difficult it may be for man to fathom dialectics between environment and civilization, for man was short-sighted and constricted in cosmic vision. However he also knew mankind was acutely curious about the world – always longing for ‘’the more’’ – and possessed the capacity to be sensitive to and empathetic with everything around him. Suddenly, Mapote alighted on the cold stone floor like a hooked fish, gasping for air.
‘’Time is running out for the Duma my son. Watch and listen carefully, for if you cannot pass on these teachings I’m afraid few others will.’’ Kaggen took a long drag of tobacco and then offered it to his exhausted acolyte, blowing his own prayers to gods even greater than himself.
‘’Why have you called for me oh omnipotent Kaggen? What secrets do you speak of?’’
‘’You know well how to transform into a star during !kia and thus have a unique ability to commune with the /lgauwasi. In time they may come to this plain to help your peoples’ cause, although I cannot be sure of that. Now pay attention! Reality is not any one thing or concept; reality simply is, always was and always will be, it is sui generis. It has no beginning and no end and is complete within itself. In the ensuing centuries your kind will make great strides in unlocking some of the universe’s mysteries, yet reality will forever be elusive to the mind and senses. It’s quite like a set of amaranthine Russian dolls, and so shall be for eternity. Be careful not to mistake the world (I mean to say reality, all there is) for an artefact or a machine; for it is neither made nor requires any maintenance. It is self-intelligent; from the vibrating strings inside each infinitesimal photon and DNA double-helices coiled inside each cell, to the orbiting of planets and the expansion of galaxies.’’
Kaggen then cast images of the quantum world and the capaciousness of the universe before Mapote’s eyes. He saw tiny pulsating strings, the stupefying complexity within chromosomes and billions of planets strewn like jewels across the infinite cosmic ocean. The subatomic world blew his mind, yet he was able to appreciate the inextricable connection between all life and the fundamental particles that constitute manifest reality. The San had always seen the world like this, the idea of somehow disentangling themselves from nature was inconceivable. They saw themselves as ‘the sacred children’, yet there was no room to be cosseted, for they were merely visitors whose purpose was to keep a synergetic relationship with the land. Indeed this is what they have done for longer than any group of people in human antiquity, treading lightly on their feet and gently in their hearts in what can only be described as the quintessential nature-bound culture. But were they civilized? Kaggen puffed the orphic bowl smooth and reclined broodingly against the dank grotto.
‘’What I’m about to show you now dear son of Earth, will most certainly startle you. But don’t be alarmed! This is just one pale blue dot in edgeless space, countless other planets have seen civilizations come and go, some more prosperous than others with respect to longevity, cultural expression and harmonics with their environments. As we speak, powerful civilizations centered on fertile river basins and politico-religious organization, have long passed their peak. The tide is turning; the hunter-gatherer way of life is gradually being overshadowed by the cult of the seed and societal specialization wrought by agriculture. Arrogance is seeping into hearts of men and kingdoms spill blood to inflate territories and enslave ‘inferior races’, each empire aberrantly believing they are carrying out a mandate from heaven. Save to say that ‘civilization’ has been far from civil. Howbeit, your kind will go on do wondrous things, and staring at the horizon of history, you will have a unique choice to make; for just as you will become the firebrands of biological and cultural destruction, you can also become the emissaries of their survival and flourishing.’’
Mapote went dizzy from what he’d witnessed. His bones chilled at the ethnocide of his and scores of other peoples across the globe. He shuddered to comprehend the extinction of so many animals and plants and he wept. Undeniably, the fulcrum of contemporary civilization has been the obdurate taming and domination of nature, right from its more innocent beginnings at the inception of the Neolithic era. After weathering the icy grip of the Younger Dryas, warmer climes ushered in the Holocene and with it, the proliferation of sedentary culture and environmental puppetry. Golden ages progressively galvanized previously unimaginable technological innovations as we sought to counter the vicissitudes of the natural world and imprint our ever-sharpening acumen upon it. Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution and having successfully harnessed the power of minerals locked up over billions of years beneath the sea, the juggernaut of modernity has steamed inexorably forward. And yet as we push to domesticate nature and exploit its riches, we are simultaneously pulled to explore the wild, yearning to enrich ourselves through connecting with raw, uncultured reality. Balancing these two seemingly opposing predilections – remembering the pasts we’ve come from as we craft the futures we’ll go to – is at the crux of the human story and so too, the story of planet Earth.
Mapote was sent back to camp before daybreak so as not to arouse suspicion and was ordered by Kaggen to return when a blazing comet appeared in the sky. He was shell-shocked at everything he’d observed, lost as to how he might even begin to pass on such astonishing revelations to his kinsmen. Theirs after all, could be described as the original affluent society, owning nothing but possessing everything, Elysian in their liaison with the world around them. How such dynamic equilibrium would in due course give way to a kind of inter-continental game of battleships utterly baffled Mapote and his heart quivered as a blood-red dawn spilled across the jagged, cerulean mountains. During the fretful interim between meetings with the cunning mantis, Mapote slept uneasily and one night Erob – the one who knows all – visited him in a dream that would change his destiny forever.
‘’I have been watching you, legendary hunter, and I have been watching Kaggen also. He appears an omniscient sage but he is cursed with a tendency toward deceit. At the proceeding convention in the cave you will be faced with a choice; one relates to light, the other to water. The former will freeze you in the past, whereas the latter will propel you into the future. The die is cast.’’
Mapote could not make sense of Erob’s eerie soothsaying. He felt helplessly trapped in a far-fetched fiction wherein he possessed little free will. Much of human history had been like this, as he beheld broadcast on the crystal-clear pool days prior. While taking guard over his clan one frosty evening, the comet came rushing across the sky, a celestial fireball flung dramatically into Earth’s orbit and the augury for Mapote’s pivotal encounter with Kaggen. Erob’s words replayed in his mind as he stealthily made the journey to the cave.
‘’Yours is a limited civilization in cosmological terms, although you have certainly come a long way and will likely go much farther. Cultural evolution stretches over millennia and just like biological evolution it takes on multifarious forms. Possibly by the end of the 21st century A.D mankind will advance to a level one civilization and thereby completely harness and sustain the energy of the planet. From there you could progress to level two, settling on other planets in your solar system and harvesting resources synergistically via colossal contraptions such as Dyson Spheres. Next up is a level three civilization, travelling and enterprising across galaxies at near light speed. Innumerable worlds and adventures lie on the horizon of your wildest dreams, like sunrises in the sky of consciousness. ’’ Mapote’s eyes flashed over the glistening pond as scenes of celestial navigation dissolved in ripples. Strangely the ripples continued, capturing his attention.
‘’Oh omnipotent Kaggen, might this quest to conquer the stars not overshadow the supreme truth of our unity with the world? Would the dominance of artificial intelligence not relegate our own intelligence to a purely transactional rather than transcendental capacity? In the race to space and search for immortality will we not anesthetize ourselves to the harmony of nature and the flow of life of which we are self-reflective expressions? Is immortality not the continuance, yet instead the renunciation of permanence?’’
‘’You have understood well scion of Duma. The advancement of civilization is a knife-edge; gain comes at the expense of pain, just as light is intertwined with darkness. I cannot say what destiny will bequeath your ilk; I can only implore you to always seek the better angels of your nature, seeing them as illustrations of the ultimate field of reality and consciousness which permeates all. Remember, you do not come into the world, you come out of it. Now I have said too much and it is time for you to join the spirits of the dead.’’
‘’I choose the path less trodden Kaggen, for bravery is at the heart of the human story. So too is my tribe valiant and their ‘star sickness’ is merely an illusion.’’ He then unhesitatingly dove into the swirling pool and travelled in time, just as Erob had alluded.
Mapote was catapulted into the distant future and teleported onto a spaceship jetting through hyperspace. Some beings looked familiar, others quite bizarre. The frontier of wilderness and fancy reached out on and on into the great, seamless beyond.