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Navigating past and future

I've been waiting on a hold from the library for a few weeks and now that it's arrived, I am in a complete state of wonder and confusion. My world has been turned upside down yet again.

The book is called The Wayfinders and is a collection of CBC Massey Lectures delivered in 2009 by the Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis. It's an intense, wondrous look at the history and culture of humanity's oldest and most fragile societies. From the San people of the Kalahari, to the Anacondas of the Amazon Basin, to the seafaring peoples of Polynesia, my eyes are being opened to a vibrant, full colour world that I never knew existed. Often, these are cultures that are hanging on by the barest of threads, adapting to the horrific damage of European contact, colonization and globalization.

I became aware of this book, indirectly at least, due to my stamp collection. I've been working on the Polynesia section of my collection and trying to wrangle some sense into the few stamps I own from this massive area of big water and tiny islands. Collectors traditionally collect based on the colonizers: you might collect 'British Pacific Islands' or 'French Pacific' or even the smaller and often short lived German or Dutch colonies. Or you might just sort all the countries alphabetically by their current names and leave it at that.

But none of that feels right to me. I tend to look at maps and consider how people might travel from place to place. What are the typical migration routes. That kind of thing. Looking at a mass of ocean, 1/5 of the Earth's surface area, dotted with tiny islands, roughly bordered by a triangle with Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Aotearoa (New Zealand) at the points, it doesn't make any sense to a landlocked prairie boy. There's too much water, not enough land.

At the same time I'm trying to think about Fiji and Tahiti at the same time, I stumbled across a blog post, which referenced The Wayfinders, about Polynesian seafarers who routinely travelled between these far-flung islands, and had been doing so for hundreds, even thousands of years. How was this possible?

Everything I had read (which, admittedly, wasn't much) said that travelling long distances over open ocean was impossible before Europeans started discovering things in the 1500's. Polynesia was populated by random chance; fisherman lost at sea, etc. I knew about the British prize offered to anyone who could 'solve the longitude problem' to aid navigation on the high seas. But now here's an article saying the Polynesians knew how to do it hundreds of years earlier and were still sailing when 'contact' happened? I had to learn more.

It's a fascinating story, and one you should really read for yourself. Suffice to say that this knowledge was almost completely ignored by the Europeans who 'discovered' Polynesia. It didn't fit their worldview of humans 'progressing' from so-called savages, to barbarians, to civilized people. Having 'savages' who could also navigate on the high seas didn't fit their view of how the world worked, so it was ignored.

But if you don't ignore it, if you accept the premise or even embrace it, then the world completely changes. This massive expanse of 'empty' ocean becomes a teeming, thriving, connected community. And the map one might draw[1] is completely different than these cumbersome colonial / political strata.

You can repeat this again and again, in every area of the world that the Europeans came to late. The Amazon, the Kalahari, Australia, the Andes, the Prairies and Haida Gwaii too, and on and on. And in every case, if you're open to it, you will discover a way to see the world that is often deeper, richer, more magical, and vastly different than what you and I have been taught to see.

I'm not saying all this because what we have today is bad and these other ways are good. Merely that there are many, many ways to see the world, to consider why we are here and how we might live. Things that suck today, problems that have existed for generations even, don't have to be that way. There isn't a single way to do things; the bad side effects of modern life aren't inevitable.

It takes effort to try to see things differently, however. Real work. Lots of practice. That's what empathy practice is all about and it's something I practice often. And fail often, and practice again.

The subtitle of The Wayfinders is, Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. I don't know Mr. Davis' "why" yet. I'm still reading. But my "why" is about hope. Knowing that this ancient knowledge still exists, even in a fragile state, gives me hope. My hope is that it can be nurtured and strengthened and celebrated and spread, so that people will know that we're not stuck, that there are alternative paths we can take.

  1. It's worth noting that Polynesian navigators don't have maps. Navigators keep all the coordinates and markers in their heads! ↩︎