grist

 

Thursday, August 08, 2002
A Canadian archaeologist named Robert McGhee has written that the ASTt (Artic Small Tool tradition) peoples migrated into "the coldest, darkest, and most barren regions ever inhabited by man." He speculates that during the winters when they were hard-pressed for food, these people "may almost have hibernated in their unlit and unheated dwellings." One looks today upon the remains of their dwellings—a fox-bone awl, a quartz arrowhead, the ring of stones that held down their skin tents—with profound respect.

This is from Barry Lopez's magnificent Arctic Dreams—the book that, more than any other, got me interested in the Arctic and in the possible meanings of its landscape and exploration--I really can't say enough good things about it. Here he is discussing a prehistoric nomadic set of peoples that lived in the Canadian Arctic, including the far north. What interests me about them (in addition to the horrified respect of huddling in an unlit and unheated tent on an island north of Greenland) is the thought that there is some inherent aspect to their characters that drew that into that landscape and that, because of this aspect of their character, they persisted there for many years.
Try to imagine what the nature of their perception of the world must have been to elect a life like that--what aspects of their character it satisfied, what needs (both physical and spiritual) it met.

From there it is interesting to look in on any geography and imagine what in the landscape or environment people respond to in order to make their lives there. One of our neighbors, in commenting on the peculiar stubborn contrarian spirit of people who have grown up in Vermont (not those who summer and then move, or ski, and who are so protected from the land by technology that they could be anywhere, except for the views--similarly in the south, where air conditioning, in particular, has leached out any sort of native character, and replaced it with a desire for bright sun and no cold weather in a steady bath of physical comfort--not that there is anything wrong with that...) explained that you needed to imagine who would elect to stay in Vermont to farm its rocky slopes in its short growing season when they could move out to areas with flat land, warm weather and rich topsoil dozens of feet thick. That suddenly illuminated much for me about the odd contradictions in Vermont (muted by the layers of New York and Boston professional migrations).

And I think it is interesting to extend this to a personal level—to look at the discomforts that we inflict on ourselves to answer what needs and satisfy what traits of our own characters. Some, of course, comes from our circumstances--what choices we have been unable to avoid and have adapted to--and some comes from a lack of imagination--those things that we cannot figure out how to resolve or avoid. But that doesn't explain the all of the parts of our lives that trouble us, or cause us pain or discomfort. We have each chosen our hairshirts (consciously or not) that answer some need we each have for a certain kind of (what externally may be seen as) imperfections or flaws, easily correctable. imagine what it might



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