“The accusation that we’ve lost our soul resonates with a very modern concern about authenticity.” –Patricia Hewitt
Alright, since I’m traveling down in the southwest at the moment…Colorado to be exact, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite old cowboy sayings. And ironically, it fits real well with most cowboy culture here in colorful Colorado.
The saying goes: “That cowboy is all hat and no cattle.”
I think most of us “get it.” There is a wide gulf between the authenticity of an old-school rancher who rides horses and actually herds cattle (and to one I met recently — here’s to you Ray) compared to the authenticity of some banker in Denver who dons a brand new black hat, denim shirt and big belt buckle in order to go dancing at the honky-tonk clubs on a Friday night. Now, I’m not knocking the hat-wearing banker (at least not too much). Banking is boring, while dancing is fun. And country music is plenty good music to dance to. Besides, cowboy hats are cool, and I’ve been known to role-play a fantasy or two from time to time. (I played Dungeons and Dragons in high-school…what were you thinking I meant?). Still, I figure most of us, if we were to be honest, would have to admit the hat-wearer who actually herds cattle would win the authenticity contest. And so the saying goes.
But let’s stop and think for a minute…why is authenticity often so hard to come by in our “modern” world?
Hmmm…well, imagine going out into the wild (let’s say, maybe somewhere in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and finding a wolf. A wolf in a pack. A wolf that chases caribou for a living. This wolf literally hunts the open tundra with her kin, runs the caribou, pulls them down with her teeth, and brings fresh warm flesh home to feed her pups.
Any problems with authenticity there?
Now imagine taking some nice bloody angus beef steaks up to that wolf’s lair, and laying a trail of them all the way down to the inside of a zoo in Anchorage. Now that the she-wolf is caged, imagine training her to howl a musical scale and jump and run around in circles — in other words, to sing and dance. And if the wolf sings and dances, you feed the wolf some dog food. If she dances real good, maybe another steak. You think to yourself: “the tourists will love it!” And they probably will.
But now, come up with some songs and dances for that wolf to do that would be “authentic”.
Don’t you reckon that might be hard? I mean, since the nature of an arctic wolf is not to sing and dance for dog food payments, but to run with her pack and bloody-well take down caribou?
No matter how much work you put into those songs and dances — no matter how gritty or hard-core you might make them, or how “wolfish” they might be, no matter how melancholy, deep, or sophisticated they get, those songs and dances done for dog food will never be authentic. At least not compared to the life that wolf once had (harder in many ways though it may have been).
I think we “modern” and “civilized” humans are in a fairly analogous situation. And while some readers might think I’m stretching a bad analogy to make a dubious point, other folks will know right away — deep down in their gut and the marrow of their bones — what I mean.
Life may be easier in many ways, yes. But authentic?
There was a time when all humans on this earth hunted and gathered or gardened or herded or farmed for their food. They built their own shelter, made their own clothing, started their own fire, chopped their own wood, and carried their own water. They fed, clothed and sheltered themselves, their children, and their elders. They were generous with their kin. They worked things out with their neighbors. Or sometimes, they made war. But if something needed to be done, they were the ones who did it. They participated fully in the task of all life — to be challenged, to survive, and to thrive.
Now, if we’re to be honest, I think most of us in our “modern” society, would have to admit that our daily lives are fairly trivial by comparison.
Less than 2% of Americans are farmers — i.e. are engaged in the process of feeding the rest of us. So then, what do the rest of us do to justify being fed?
And even among the select few who farm these days the old-school, self-sufficient Jeffersonian farmer is at best a rare oddity. The “modern” farmer in America is an employee of multinational corporations — a wage-slave for agri-business. And if we stop and consider it, most of us would probably give the authenticity prize to the odd old-schooler over the modern corporate farmer. Why? Imagine a wolf who, instead of hunting wild caribou on the open tundra, now manages an industrial reindeer feed lot for a wolf-boss. A dirty job, for sure, but “authentic”?
So the other 98% of us are mostly trying to figure out what song and dance we can do to get the folks who own the food supply (and every other supply) to give us a share. And in the process, we feel kinda lame about it. Or at least, I do.
Occasionally someone comes along and sings and dances about the emptiness of all this singing and dancing. And we think “Yeah…now that’s authentic.” But that gets old pretty quick too.
People will try pretty much anything to make a buck these days. And don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that’s wrong — it just is what it is. Folks have been made dependent on the system. What else are they going to do?
But for my part, I feel authenticity gets lost in the process. We’re just not the humans we once were. And to me, life feels a little less real for that.
How about you?
What does your bone marrow say?
that’s a very interesting point, Glenn. thank you for sharing it.
Well said. Living close to the bone is where it’s at.
Colorado, eh? Check out the southwest corner, Mesa Verde and Canyons of the Ancients if you haven’t already. There is some authenticity there, no doubt…. I’m from there, living in Sutton now but soon to return. If you would like good, authentic folks to connect with in SW CO, get in touch with Jaime V L, he’s a good friend and has my number…..
Keep your eyes along the skyline,
Excellent post, Glenn. Very thoughtful and well done. But you do need to re-read Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat, and stat! Wolves eat a heck of a lot more mice than caribou. Not as sexy, to be sure, but possibly more…oh, hell, I have to do it…authentic?!?!? ;-).
Well, since the average mouse weighs 1/20th of a pound and the average caribou weighs 200-400 lbs, I reckon that makes sense. 4000 mice to one small bou, so yeah, more mice probably do get eaten…good point Val. And I love re-imagining this post and substituting “mouse” for “caribou”, btw! I reckon wolves can eat mice and still be authentic…maybe they just loose street cred when they eat dog food or run reindeer feedlots. 😉
Oh, and folks here should know that I posted this from the coffee bar of an Alfalfa’s in Boulder, Colorado while sipping a Bhakti Chai latte (with soy). And yes, the double-shot of irony in that Chai was mighty tasty…
Thanks for the encouraging words Val, Jason, and Rustic!
Oh, and Jason, yeah…Jaime’s good people, for sure. One of these days I’d like to hang out in that part of CO.
It definitely seems like people might have a tougher time staying alive when they live in close connection with nature but that modern man has a hell of a tougher time FEELING alive in his probably much longer life. Hmmm.
Even when you choose to live out in the bush it seems like a bit of a role play at times because you are alone out there and don’t have a village with you to bounce feelings, reactions, fellowships forward back with. Something is still missing then. It’s hard to win these days. Yet, You get a lot more authentic out there cause you have a lot of time to reflect on nature and just listen and be and not trying to put yourself in center but just be part of the big picture.
“It definitely seems like people might have a tougher time staying alive when they live in close connection with nature but that modern man has a hell of a tougher time FEELING alive in his probably much longer life.”
Well said Gitte. I’ll be quoting you on this one, for sure.
And yeah, it’s a shame our culture tends to set it up so we have to choose between authentic community with humans vs. authentic community with nature. It seems like the last half of my life has been the search to find a way to have both…still not there though. But hopeful…still searching and working…
Let’s make a village!
I’m glad you are back in posting land again. If you can find it in your schedule to pass through Juneau on your way north, please contact me. You are welcome to join in for some kayaking and hiking and stay in ay in our less-favored guestroom (a high school exchange student from Turkey has the other this school year) or on my scrapy little sailboat. The sailboat has no head, blows around in the wind and sea, leaks rainwater through the decks, could sink in 125 feet of salt water at any moment, is surrounded by birds and fish and other sea creatures, and is moored in a tight community of active seafarers, so it does smack of authenticity enough to make me pine for living there again on a regular basis.
I’m off facebook and can’t find your email address, but I’ll be on WordPress until my current class in Natural History of Alaska ends in five weeks.
Thanks for your writing!
Yeah Gitte, not doubt. A village would be nice…I’ll even settle for a “field camp” so long as the same folks keep hanging around and coming back fairly regularly.
Hey Susan, I’d love to drop in and visit you guys. You’re sailboat sounds right up my alley! I’ll have to look into the Alaska Marine Highway system again. See if the ferry will work. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org, btw.
Count me in for a village!
Hmmm…I’d say Gitte + Tara = a heck of a good start at making a village!
Good stuff, Glenn. Glad to read your words and think of you and remember you well. Don’t worry, that’s not a eulogy (!), just appreciating you in this world. Much love from New Mexico. ~ Andrew Dahl-Bredine
Thanks Andrew. Good to hear from you. Hope all is well down there in New Mexico.