Tag: Neolithic

Summer solstice 2020.

As old as time itself!

holding-the-sunThe point at which the sun reaches its farthest point north of the equator is the Summer Solstice, well it is for the Northern Hemisphere. This occurs annually on June 20 or June 21, depending on your time zone.

Here in Southern Oregon, the moment of the Summer Solstice will be at 2:43 PM or 14:43 PDT on Saturday, i.e. today! For the United Kingdom it will be at 22:43 BST on the same day or 21:43 GMT/UTC.

A quick web ‘look-up’ finds that the word solstice is from the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop), reflecting the fact that the Sun appears to stop at this time, albeit momentarily.

At the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge in Southern England, the prehistoric monument that took Neolithic builders an estimated 1,500 years to erect, for many years the Druids have celebrated the Solstice and, undoubtedly, will be doing so again.

AMESBURY, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 21: A man stands on top of Stonehenge as the sun rises over Salisbury Plain on June 21, 2006 in Amesbury, England. Police estimated around 17,000 people travelled to watch the sun rise ove the 5,000 year old stone circle to start the longest day of the year. The all-night party to celebrate the Summer Solstice passed with only four arrests being made. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
AMESBURY, UNITED KINGDOM – JUNE 21: A man stands on top of Stonehenge as the sun rises over Salisbury Plain on June 21, 2006 in Amesbury, England. Police estimated around 17,000 people travelled to watch the sun rise over the 5,000 year old stone circle to start the longest day of the year. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

There’s a good article over at EarthSky on this year’s Solstice. I would like to quote a little from it:

At the June solstice, Earth is positioned in its orbit so that our world’s North Pole is leaning most toward the sun. As seen from Earth, the sun is directly overhead at noon 23 1/2 degrees north of the equator, at an imaginary line encircling the globe known as the Tropic of Cancer – named after the constellation Cancer the Crab. This is as far north as the sun ever gets.

All locations north of the equator have days longer than 12 hours at the June solstice. Meanwhile, all locations south of the equator have days shorter than 12 hours.

and

Where should I look to see signs of the solstice in nature? Everywhere. For all of Earth’s creatures, nothing is so fundamental as the length of the day. After all, the sun is the ultimate source of almost all light and warmth on Earth’s surface.

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you might notice the early dawns and late sunsets, and the high arc of the sun across the sky each day. You might see how high the sun appears in the sky at local noon. And be sure to look at your noontime shadow. Around the time of the solstice, it’s your shortest noontime shadow of the year.

If you’re a person who’s tuned in to the out-of-doors, you know the peaceful, comforting feeling that accompanies these signs and signals of the year’s longest day.

Is the solstice the first day of summer? No world body has designated an official day to start each new season, and different schools of thought or traditions define the seasons in different ways.

In meteorology, for example, summer begins on June 1. And every schoolchild knows that summer starts when the last school bell of the year rings.

Yet June 21 is perhaps the most widely recognized day upon which summer begins in the Northern Hemisphere and upon which winter begins on the southern half of Earth’s globe. There’s nothing official about it, but it’s such a long-held tradition that we all recognize it to be so.

It has been universal among humans to treasure this time of warmth and light.

For us in the modern world, the solstice is a time to recall the reverence and understanding that early people had for the sky. Some 5,000 years ago, people placed huge stones in a circle on a broad plain in what’s now England and aligned them with the June solstice sunrise.

We may never comprehend the full significance of Stonehenge. But we do know that knowledge of this sort wasn’t limited to just one part of the world. Around the same time Stonehenge was being constructed in England, two great pyramids and then the Sphinx were built on Egyptian sands. If you stood at the Sphinx on the summer solstice and gazed toward the two pyramids, you’d see the sun set exactly between them.

How does it end up hotter later in the summer, if June has the longest day? People often ask:

If the June solstice brings the longest day, why do we experience the hottest weather in late July and August?

This effect is called the lag of the seasons. It’s the same reason it’s hotter in mid-afternoon than at noontime. Earth just takes a while to warm up after a long winter. Even in June, ice and snow still blanket the ground in some places. The sun has to melt the ice – and warm the oceans – and then we feel the most sweltering summer heat.

Ice and snow have been melting since spring began. Meltwater and rainwater have been percolating down through snow on tops of glaciers.

But the runoff from glaciers isn’t as great now as it’ll be in another month, even though sunlight is striking the northern hemisphere most directly around now.

So wait another month for the hottest weather. It’ll come when the days are already beginning to shorten again, as Earth continues to move in orbit around the sun, bringing us closer to another winter.

And so the cycle continues.

Indeed, so the cycle continues as it has for time immemorial!

A reminder of very ancient times.

The positives and negatives of dogs being dogs.

It is our routine at home here in Oregon to let the kitchen group of dogs out first (Lily, Ruby, Casey & Paloma, with Sweeny tagging along) while Jean puts together our small breakfast.  The time is around 6am to 6:30am and both Jean and I are usually wearing dressing gowns.  Once this first group has been outside, then I let the ‘bedroom’ group out (Pharaoh, Cleo, Hazel and Dhalia).

Such as I did this morning, unusually a day starting dull with overcast cloud.

Suddenly, I heard the most awful squealing of an animal in pain over in the dense wooded area to the South-West of the property.

The wooded area in question.
The wooded area in question.

In plastic slippers and dressing-gown only, I dashed into the woods and to my horror saw that Cleo, Hazel and Dhalia had cornered a young deer, and at least Hazel was nipping at a rear leg.

A not uncommon sight at home.
A not uncommon sight at home.

I screamed at the dogs, to no avail.  They took not the slightest notice of me.

Then the young deer wriggled free and fled into the trees.  The dogs recornered it and plunged in again.  The deer broke free again, and so it went on.  Eventually, after some ten minutes of the most dreadful hollering and chasing by me, the young deer jumped a fence and ran off with its mother who had been shadowing the terrible event.  I prayed that it wasn’t badly hurt.

Gracious, I was so angry with the dogs!  What disgusting behaviour towards this young, beautiful creature.

When I was back in the house trying to regain my breath, still so angry at the dogs, a thought came to my mind.  Tens of thousands of years ago, this behaviour of the dogs was held in great esteem.

Early man evolved from a tribal hunter-gatherer existence to the pastoral life of farming about 10,000 years ago.  If the DNA evidence shows, as it does, that the dog evolved from the wolf as a separate species around 100,000 years ago, then dogs were part of the life of hunter-gatherer man for something of the order of 90,000 years, possibly a couple of decades longer!

In fairness, the present lineage of dogs was domesticated from grey wolves only about 15,000 years ago. Despite fossil remains of domesticated dogs having been found in Siberia and Belgium from about 33,000 years ago, none of those lineages survived the Last Glacial Maximum. No fossil specimens prior to 33,000 years ago have indicated that they are clearly from the morphologically domesticated dog.

Even if, and it’s a very big ‘if’, the relationship between man and dog is only about 15,000 years old, one can only speculate how each species came to know the other, in every imaginable way.

Actually, we can go beyond speculation because in a study published by the PLOS ONE scientific journal in March 2013, Dr. Robert Losey, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta and the lead author, explained that:

Dog burials appear to be more common in areas where diets were rich in aquatic foods because these same areas also appear to have had the densest human populations and the most cemeteries,

If the practice of burying dogs was solely related to their importance in procuring terrestrial game, we would expect to see them in the Early Holocene (around 9,000 years ago), when human subsistence practices were focused on these animals. Further, we would expect to see them in later periods in areas where fish were never really major components of the diet and deer were the primary focus, but they are rare or absent in these regions.

The PLOS ONE paper went on to report that researchers found that most of the dog burials occurred during the Early Neolithic period, some 7,000-8,000 years ago, and that “dogs were only buried when human hunter-gatherers were also being buried.

So back to the morning’s drama between the dogs and the young deer.

The efficiency of the way the dogs cornered the deer was breath-taking.  Had I not been coming at them in such a state of anger and agitation, and especially if I was one of a group of say, 2 or 3 humans, the odds are that the deer could have been grabbed and dispatched.  In other words, those three dogs had demonstrated that 20,000, 40,000, 80,000 or more years ago, they were critically useful at helping early hunter-gatherer man feed himself.

Back to Dr. Losey’s view, “I think the hunter-gatherers here saw some of their dogs as being nearly the same as themselves, even at a spiritual level. At this time, dogs were the only animals living closely with humans, and they were likely known at an individual level, far more so than any other animal people encountered. People came to know them as unique, special individuals.

Does make sense, doesn’t it.

P1130569

“Oh look! We could have turkey for dinner tonight!”

Dogs and Man: an eternity of a relationship

New research shows the beauty of the bond between dog and man.

I was doing some research for another writing project and came across this on the NBC News website:

What prehistoric dog burials tell us about owners

By Jennifer Viegas

An analysis of ancient dog burials finds that the typical prehistoric dog owner ate a lot of seafood, had spiritual beliefs, and wore jewelry that sometimes wound up on the dog.

The study, published in PLoS ONE, is one of the first to directly test if there was a clear relationship between the practice of dog burial and human behaviors. The answer is yes.

Photo - Robert Losey. The ancient dog was buried in a resting position. It was part of a study to directly test if there was a clear relationship between the practice of dog burial and human behaviors. The answer is yes.
Photo – Robert Losey.
The ancient dog was buried in a resting position. It was part of a study to directly test if there was a clear relationship between the practice of dog burial and human behaviors. The answer is yes.

That PLOS ONE study, published March 2013, found that “dog domestication predates the beginning of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.”

Dr. Losey and his dog, Guiness

Dr. Robert Losey, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta and the lead author, explained that,

Dog burials appear to be more common in areas where diets were rich in aquatic foods because these same areas also appear to have had the densest human populations and the most cemeteries,

If the practice of burying dogs was solely related to their importance in procuring terrestrial game, we would expect to see them in the Early Holocene (around 9,000 years ago), when human subsistence practices were focused on these animals.

Robert Losey continued.

Further, we would expect to see them in later periods in areas where fish were never really major components of the diet and deer were the primary focus, but they are rare or absent in these regions.

The PLOS ONE paper went on to report that researchers found that most of the dog burials occurred during the Early Neolithic period, some 7,000-8,000 years ago, and that “dogs were only buried when human hunter-gatherers were also being buried.”  Dr. Losey went on to say,

I think the hunter-gatherers here saw some of their dogs as being nearly the same as themselves, even at a spiritual level. At this time, dogs were the only animals living closely with humans, and they were likely known at an individual level, far more so than any other animal people encountered. People came to know them as unique, special individuals.

Those interested in the research paper may find it here, and read the Abstract:

Ancient DNA Analysis Affirms the Canid from Altai as a Primitive Dog

Abstract

The origin of domestic dogs remains controversial, with genetic data indicating a separation between modern dogs and wolves in the Late Pleistocene. However, only a few dog-like fossils are found prior to the Last Glacial Maximum, and it is widely accepted that the dog domestication predates the beginning of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. In order to evaluate the genetic relationship of one of the oldest dogs, we have isolated ancient DNA from the recently described putative 33,000-year old Pleistocene dog from Altai and analysed 413 nucleotides of the mitochondrial control region. Our analyses reveal that the unique haplotype of the Altai dog is more closely related to modern dogs and prehistoric New World canids than it is to contemporary wolves. Further genetic analyses of ancient canids may reveal a more exact date and centre of domestication.

DNA testing indicates that the evolutionary split between dogs and wolves was around 100,000 years ago or more. The value of dogs to early human hunter-gatherers led to them quickly becoming ubiquitous across world cultures.

Thus it is in the order of 90,000 years, possibly a couple of decades longer, from the point where a bond was made between early man and the wolf to the era when man evolved from a tribal hunter-gatherer existence to farming the resources of the planet. Thousands and thousands of years of dogs being the greatest animal relationship we humans have ever experienced.

Back to that NBC news item:

Erik Axelsson, a researcher at Uppsala University’s Science for Life Laboratory, has also studied prehistoric dogs. He too found that human and dog diets, burial practices and more often paralleled each other, revealing how close the dog-human bond has been for thousands of years.

Axelsson said, “Dogs and humans share the same environment, we eat similar food and we get similar diseases.

Based on the number of burials, we also often spend eternity together too.

Eons of time.

A hundred, thousand years of knowing man, and it shows in the eyes.

Summer solstice

As old as time itself!

holding-the-sun

The point at which the sun reaches its farthest point north of the equator is the Summer Solstice, well it is for the Northern Hemisphere. This occurs annually on June 20 or June 21, depending on your time zone.

Here in Southern Oregon, the moment of the Summer Solstice will be 22:04 Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) on the evening of June 20th and at 05:04 GMT/UTC on June 21 2013 in the United Kingdom.

A quick web ‘look-up’ finds that the word solstice is from the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop), reflecting the fact that the Sun appears to stop at this time, albeit momentarily.

At the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge in Southern England, the prehistoric monument that took Neolithic builders an estimated 1,500 years to erect, for many years the Druids have celebrated the Solstice and, undoubtedly, will be doing so again.

AMESBURY, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 21:  A man stands on top of Stonehenge as the sun rises over Salisbury Plain on June 21, 2006 in Amesbury, England.  Police estimated around 17,000 people travelled to watch the sun rise ove the 5,000 year old stone circle to start the longest day of the year. The all-night party to celebrate the Summer Solstice passed with only four arrests being made. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
AMESBURY, UNITED KINGDOM – JUNE 21: A man stands on top of Stonehenge as the sun rises over Salisbury Plain on June 21, 2006 in Amesbury, England. Police estimated around 17,000 people travelled to watch the sun rise over the 5,000 year old stone circle to start the longest day of the year. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

The Changing Face of Society

A powerful and compelling essay from Tom Engelhardt

First, a preamble from me.

There have been a number of references to Tom Engelhardt’s writings on Learning from Dogs over the last 12 months; if you want to browse through them why not start with TomDispatch – The Great American Carbon Bomb.  Frequently, Tom writes an introductory piece to an essay from a guest author; Tom has generously given me written permission to republish any of his writings.

But his latest essay is 100% Tom and beautifully written.  My instinct is to agree with Tom’s conclusions entirely.  The reason you hear a slight hesitation in that last sentence is because I was not born an American, indeed only became a permanent USA resident this last April.  From the perspective of  a Londoner born in 1944, I suspect not too many years Tom’s senior, much of Tom’s essay really resonates with me.

OK, that’s enough from me.  Whoops, sorry, a few more words.  Tom’s essay is long, but so what!  Guess what I am saying is don’t be put off by the length, just make a mental note that if you haven’t got a quiet 15 minutes now, then wait until you have.  The essay will be compelling, I can guarantee it.  Especially if you are one of the many Learning from Dogs readers that is outside the USA – this provides very great insight into the Occupy Wall Street movement and the changes in society that are going to flow from that movement, flow around the globe.

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Wall Street by the Book Posted by Tom Engelhardt at 8:00pm, October 30, 2011.

OWS at Valley Forge
A (Self-)Graduation Speech for the Occupiers of Zuccotti Park 

By Tom Engelhardt

Once the Arab Spring broke loose, people began asking me why this country was still so quiet.  I would always point out that no one ever expects or predicts such events.  Nothing like this, I would say, happens until it happens, and only then do you try to make sense of it retrospectively.

Sounds smart enough, but here’s the truth of it: whatever I said, I wasn’t expecting you.  After this endless grim decade of war and debacle in America, I had no idea you were coming, not even after Madison.

You took me by surprise.  For all I know, you took yourself by surprise, the first of you who arrived at Zuccotti Park and, inspired by a bunch of Egyptian students, didn’t go home again.  And when the news of you penetrated my world, I didn’t pay much attention.  So I wasn’t among the best and brightest when it came to you.  But one thing’s for sure: you’ve had my attention these last weeks.  I already feel years younger thanks to you (even if my legs don’t).

Decades ago in the Neolithic age we now call “the Sixties,” I was, like you: outraged.  I was out in the streets (and in the library).  I was part of the anti-Vietnam War movement.  I turned in my draft card, joined a group called the Resistance, took part in the radical politics of the moment, researched the war, became a draft counselor, helped organize an anti-war Asian scholars group — I was at the time preparing to be a China scholar, before being swept away — began writing about (and against) the war, worked as an “underground” printer (there was nothing underground about us, but it sounded wonderful), and finally became an editor and journalist at an antiwar news service in San Francisco.

In that time of turmoil, I doubt I spent a moment pondering this irony: despite all those years in college and graduate school, the most crucial part of my education — learning about the nature of American power and how it was wielded — was largely self-taught in my off-hours.  And I wasn’t alone.  In those days, most of us found ourselves in a frenzy of teaching (each other), reading, writing — and acting.  That was how I first became an editor (without even knowing what an editor was): simply by having friends shove their essays at me and ask for help.

Those were heady years, as heady, I have no doubt, as this moment is for you.  But that doesn’t mean our moments were the same.  Not by a long shot.  Here’s one major difference: like so many of the young of that distant era, I was surfing the crest of a wave of American wealth and wellbeing.  We never thought about, but also never doubted, that if this moment ended, there would be perfectly normal jobs — good ones — awaiting us, should we want them.  It never crossed our minds that we couldn’t land on our feet in America, if we cared to.

In that sense, while we certainly talked about putting everything on the line, we didn’t; in truth, economically speaking, we couldn’t. Although you, the occupiers of Zuccotti Park and other encampments around the country, are a heterogeneous crew, many of you, I know, graduated from college in recent years.

Most of you were ushered off those leafy campuses (or their urban equivalents) with due pomp and ceremony, and plenty of what passes for inspiration.  I’m ready to bet, though, that in those ceremonies no one bothered to mention that you (and your parents) had essentially been conned, snookered out of tens of thousands of dollars on the implicit promise that such an “education” would usher you into a profession or at least a world of decent jobs.

As you know better than I, you got soaked by the educational equivalent of a subprime mortgage.  As a result, many of you were sent out of those gates and directly — as they say of houses that are worth less than what’s owed on their mortgages — underwater.

You essentially mortgaged your lives for an education and left college weighed down with so much debt — a veritable trillion-dollar bubble of it — that you may never straighten up, not if the 1% have their way.  Worse yet, you were sent into a world just then being stripped of its finery, where decent jobs were going the way of TVs with antennas and rotary telephones.

Lost Worlds and Utopia

Here’s a weakness of mine: graduation speeches.  I like their form, if not their everyday reality, and so from time to time give them unasked at TomDispatch.com, speeches for those of us already out in the world and seldom credited for never stopping learning.

In this case, though, don’t think of me as your graduation speaker.  Think of this as a self-graduation.  And this time, it’s positives all the way to the horizon.  After all, you haven’t incurred a cent of debt, because you and those around you in Zuccotti Park are giving the classes you took.  First, you began educating yourself in the realities of post-meltdown America, and then, miraculously enough, you went and educated many of the rest of us as well.

You really did change the conversation in this country in a heartbeat from, as Joshua Holland wroteat Alternet.org, “a relentless focus on the deficit to a discussion of the real issues facing Main Street: the lack of jobs… spiraling inequality, cash-strapped American families’ debt-loads, and the pernicious influence of money in politics that led us to this point” — and more amazingly yet, at no charge.

In other words, I’m not here, like the typical graduation speaker, to inspire you.  I’m here to tell you how you’ve inspired me.   In the four decades between the moment when I imagined I put everything on the line and the moment when you actually did, wealth and income inequalitiesexploded in ways unimaginable in the 1960s.  For ordinary Americans, the numbers that translated into daily troubles began heading downhill in the 1990s, the Clinton years, and only a fraudulent bubble in home values kept the good times rolling until 2008.

Then, of course, it burst big time.  But you know all this.  Who knows better than you the story of the financial and political flim-flam artists who brought this country to its knees, made out like bandits, and left the 99% in the dust?  Three years of stunned silence followed, as if Americans simply couldn’t believe it, couldn’t take it in — if, that is, you leave aside the Tea Party movement.

But give those aging, angry whites credit.  They were the first to cry out for a lost world (while denouncing some of the same bank bailouts and financial shenanigans you have).  That was before, in a political nano-second, the phrase “Tea Party” was essentially trademarked, occupied, and made the property of long-time Republican operatives, corporate cronies, and various billionaires.

That won’t happen to you.  Among your many strengths, the lack of a list of demands that so many of your elders have complained about, your inclusiveness, and your utopian streak — the urge to create a tiny, thoroughly democratic new society near the beating financial heart of the old one — will make you far harder to co-opt.  Add in the fact that, while any movement taking on inequity and unfairness is political, you are also, in the usual sense of the term, a strikingly apolitical movement.  Again, this is, to my mind, part of your strength.  It ensures that neither the Democratic Party nor left sects will find it easy to get a toehold in your environs.  Yes, in the long run, if you last and grow (as I suspect you will), a more traditional kind of politics may form around you, but it’s unlikely to abscond with you as those Republican operatives did with the Tea Party.

Actuarially, the Tea Party is a movement of the past in mourning for a lost world and the good life that went with it.  All you have to do is look at the sudden, post-2008 burst of poverty in the suburbs, that golden beacon of the post-World War II American dream, to know that something unprecedented is underway.

Once upon a time, no one imagined that an American world of home ownership and good jobs, of cheap gas and cheaper steaks, would ever end.  Nonetheless, it was kneecapped over the last few decades and it’s not coming back.  Not for you or your children, no matter what happens economically.

So don’t kid yourself: whether you know it or not, young as you are, you’re in mourning, too, or Occupy Wall Street wouldn’t exist. Unlike the Tea Party, however, you are young, which means that you’re also a movement of the unknown future, which is your strength.

Self-Education U.

Let me fess up here to my fondness for libraries (even though I find their silence unnerving).  As a child, I lived in the golden age of your lost world, but as something of an outsider.  The 1950s weren’t a golden age for my family, and they weren’t particularly happy years for me.  I was an only child, and my escape was into books.  Less than a block from where I lived was a local branch of the New York City public library and, in those days before adult problems had morphed into TV fare, I repaired there, like Harriet the Spy, to get the scoop on the mysterious world of grown-ups.  (The only question then was whether the librarian would let you out of the children’s section; mine did.)

I remembering hauling home piles of books, including John Toland’s But Not in Shame, Isaac Asimov’s space operas, and Désirée (a racy pop novel about a woman Napoleon loved), often with little idea what they were and no one to guide me.  On the shelves in my small room were yet more books, including most of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf, a collection of 51 classic volumes.  My set had been rescued from somebody’s flooded basement, their spines slightly warped and signs of mildew on some of them.  But I can still remember taking them off my shelf with a certain wonder: Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (thrilling!), Darwin’s The Origins of the Species(impenetrable), Homer’s The Odyssey (Cyclops!), and so on.

Books — Johannes Gutenberg’s more than 500-year-old “technology” — were my companions, my siblings, and also my building blocks.  To while away the hours, I would pile them up to create the landscape — valleys and mountains — within which my toy soldiers fought their battles.  So libraries and self-education, that’s a program in my comfort zone.

Though my route seemed happenstantial at the time, it’s probably no accident that, 35 years ago, I ended up as a book editor on the periphery of mainstream publishing and stayed there.  After all, it was a paid excuse to retreat to my room with books (to-be) and, if not turn them into mountains and valleys, then at least transform them into a kind of eternal play and self-education.

All of which is why, on arriving for the first time at your encampment in Zuccotti Park and taking that tiny set of steps down from Broadway, I was moved to find myself in, of all things, an informal open-air library.  The People’s Library no less, even if books sorted by category in plastic bins on tables isn’t exactly the way I once imagined The Library.

Still, it couldn’t be more appropriate for Occupy Wall Street, with its long, open-air meetings, its invited speakers and experts, its visiting authors, its constant debates and arguments, that feeling when you’re there that you can talk to anyone.

Like the best of library systems, it’s a Self-Education U., or perhaps a modern version of theChautauqua adult education movement.  Your goal, it seems, is to educate yourselves and then the rest of us in the realities and inequities of twenty-first century American life.

Still, for the advanced guard of your electronic generation to commit itself so publicly to actual books, ones you can pick up, leaf through, hand to someone else — that took me by surprise.  Those books, all donations, are flowing in from publishers (including Metropolitan Books, where I work, and Haymarket Books, which publishes me), private bookstores, authors, and well, just about anyone.  As I stood talking with some of you, the librarians of Zuccotti Park, I watched people arriving, unzipping backpacks, and handing over books.

Of the thousands of volumes you now have, some, as in any library, are indeed taken out and returned, but some not. As Bill Scott, a librarian sitting in front of a makeshift “reference table” in muffler and jacket told me, “The books are donated to us and we donate them to others.”

A youthful-looking 42, Scott, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, is spending his sabbatical semester camped out in the park.  His book, Troublemakers, is just about to be published and he’s bubbling with enthusiasm.  He’s ordered a couple of copies to donate himself.  “It’s my first book ever.  I’ve never even held it in my hands.  To shelve the first copy in the People’s Library, it’s like all the strands of my life coming together!”

Think of it: Yes, your peers in the park were texting and tweeting and streaming up a video storm.  They were social networking circles around the 1%, the mayor, the police, and whoever else got in their way.  Still, there you all were pushing a technology already relegated by many to the trash bin of cultural history.  You were betting your bottom dollar on the value to your movement of real books, the very things that kept me alive as a kid, that I’ve been editing, publishing, and even writingfor more than three decades.

“I Wanted Something Productive to Do”

That library — in fact, those libraries at Occupy Boston, Occupy Washington, Occupy San Francisco, and other encampments — may be the least commented upon part of your movement.  And yet, you set your library up not as an afterthought or a sideline, but almost as soon as you began imagining a society worth living in, a little world of your own.  You didn’t forget the books, which means you didn’t forget about education.  I mean, a real education.

This was both generous of you and, quite simply, inspiring.  Who would have expected that the old-fashioned, retro book would be at the heart of this country’s great protest movement of a tarnished new century?

When asked how the library began, librarian “Scales” (aka Sam Smith), an unemployed, 20-year-old blond dancer still in shorts on a chilly fall day, responded, “Nobody knows exactly who started it. It was like an immaculate conception.  It was just here.”  If the movement itself were a book, that might stand as its epigraph.  Even if Occupy Wall Street indeed did start somewhere (as did its library), the way it has exploded globally in a historical nanosecond, does give it exactly the feeling Scales described.

When asked why he himself was here, he simply said, “I wanted something productive to do.”

In an economy where “production” is gone with the wind, that makes the deepest sense to me.  Who doesn’t want to be productive in life?  Why should a generation that Wall Street and Washington seem perfectly happy to sideline not want to produce something of their own, as they now have?

I was no less touched, while listening in on a long meeting of the Library Working Group one Saturday afternoon amid the chaos of Zuccotti Park — crowd noise all around us, a band playing nearby — when the woman standing next to me interrupted your meeting.  She identified herself as an elected legislator from an upstate New York county who had driven down to see Occupy Wall Street for herself.  She just wanted you, the librarians, to know that she supported what you were doing and that, while her county was still funding its libraries, it was getting ever harder to do so, given strapped state and local budgets.

In other words, as education is priced out of the reach of so many Americans and in many communities library hours are cut back or local libraries shut down, you’ve opened for business.

Here are just a few things that you, the librarians of Zuccotti Park, said to me:

Bill Scott: “Part of the reason we’re down here is because we live in a society which promotes the idea that education should be bought and sold on the open market.  We want to establish it as a human right.  What the People’s Library proves is that books belong to the people, as does education.  People with student-loan debt find their freedom and options limited.  It severely limited my options.  I’m still crawling out from under a ton of debt.”

Zachary Loeb, who in what passes for real life is an actual librarian: “I’m working part time, so I wake up every morning and spend two hours sending out resumes, but the work isn’t out there.  My training’s in archiving, but nobody’s hiring.  I got a degree in library science, not philosophy, which I wanted to go into, to be on a job track.  Obviously, I’m not.  Lots of people are here because the work situation is abysmal.

“I’ve been an activist for a long time.  I read [the magazine] Adbusters and saw the call to occupy Wall Street.  I was down here on the first day.  I think we’ve changed the conversation in this country.  We’ve given people permission to stand up, to talk to each other, test their ideas out against each other, and consider decisions that shouldn’t simply be made by the powerful in Washington.”

Frances Mercanti-Anthony, out-of-work actress (“my last play closed in August”) and comic writer: “Knowledge is the greatest weapon we have.  What we’re doing is offering knowledge to people who have been disenfranchised.  Our online database of books [in the People’s Library] stands as a great symbol of the movement, of democracy, of knowledge, and sharing.”

Lighting Up the Landscape

Here’s what you’ve done: your anger and your thoughtfulness — what you don’t know and don’t mind not knowing, as well as what you do know — has lit up a previously dismal landscape.  And every move made by those who want to get rid of you has only spurred your growth.

I’m a pretty levelheaded guy, but call me a little starry-eyed right now and I don’t mind at all.  It’s something to feel this way for the first time in I don’t know how long, and whatever happens from now on, I can thank you for that — and for the sudden sense of possibility that goes with it.

Only six weeks into your movement, with so little known about where you’re going or what will happen, it’s undoubtedly early for graduation ceremonies.  Still, let’s face it, you’ve been growing up fast and, for all we know, these could have been the six weeks that changed the world.  Anyway, there’s no limit out here, where you can make your own traditions, on how often you can graduate yourself.

So I say, go for it.  Mark your progress thus far.  Self-graduate.  You don’t need me.   I’ll stay here and borrow a book from your library — and later, when I’m done, just as you suggest, I’ll donate it to someone else.

Shoulder your handmade signs.  Lift them high.  Chant your chants.  Let the drummers play as you march.  Head out toward Wall Street, toward the future, looking back over your shoulder, remembering exactly what your elders squandered, the world they left you, the debts they piled on you.  And the next time they start telling you what you should do with your movement, take it with a grain of salt.  The future, after all, is yours, not theirs.  It may be the only thing you have, exactly because it’s so beautifully unknown, so deeply unpredictable.  It’s your advantage over them because it’s one thing that Washington and Wall Street have no more way of controlling than you do.

In a world of increasing misery, you carry not just your debts, but ours too.  It’s a burden no one should shoulder, especially with winter bearing down, and that 1% of adults waiting for the cold to make tempers short, hoping you’ll begin to fall out, grow discouraged, and find life too miserable to bear, hoping that a New York winter will freeze you out of your own movement.

I take heart that last weekend, on a beautiful fall day, you, the librarians, were already discussing the need to buy “Alaska-style” sleeping bags and a generator which would give you heat; that you, like the mayor, are looking ahead and planning for winter.  This, after all, could be your Valley Forge.  As actress-librarian Mercanti-Anthony told me:  “We have the whole world behind us at this point.  We want to stand our ground for the long haul.  If we can make it through the winter, this occupation is here to stay.”

And she just might be right.  So head out now, and whatever you do, don’t go home.  It’s underwater anyway, and we need you.  We really do.  The world’s in a hell of a mess, but what a time for you to take it in your own hands and do your damnedest.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear(Haymarket Books), will be published in November. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses the Occupy Wall Street movement and what hope means in our time click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

Two years today!

Learning from Dogs first saw the light of day two years ago.

It all started on July 15th, 2009, during a very hot summer down in San Carlos, Mexico where I was first living with Jean.

Now, some 1,000 posts later life is very different.  Jean and I are now married and living incredibly happily, with our twelve dogs and six cats, in Payson, Arizona, some 80 miles NE of Phoenix, up at 5,000 feet on the fringe of the world’s largest Ponderosa Pine forest.

Ponderosa pine forest

So apologies if today’s Post is partly reflective on the last two years.  It also seems appropriate to revisit the reasons why so many articles on the Blog aren’t about dogs.

I feel the need to do that because the number of new readers now is just staggering.

The first full month was August 2009.  Wordpress stats reveal that there were 1,172 unique viewers of the Blog.  The last full month was, of course, June 2011.  Wordpress figures were 31,664 unique viewers!  That’s over a 1,000 viewers a day, and the trend is still upwards!

I am, of course, deeply moved by this response.  Thank you, one and all!

In writing Learning from Dogs, I have tried to stay close to the theme that dogs are a metaphor for change for mankind.  But that doesn’t mean that this is a doggy Blog.

As I wrote on the Welcome page, “Dogs live in the present – they just are!  Dogs make the best of each moment uncluttered by the sorts of complex fears and feelings that we humans have. They don’t judge, they simply take the world around them at face value.”

Learning from Dogs is a Blog about the fundamental truths that we need to be reminded of, for our long-term survival. Dogs teach us the importance of integrity, of faith and loyalty and of unconditional love.

But just as importantly, dogs are a reminder that our evolution to Neolithic man may have been an evolutionary mistake.  Stay with me for just a while.

Dogs were domesticated a mind-numbing number of years ago.  There is good evidence that dogs were co-operating with man 30,000 years ago.  However, one might speculate why the DNA of the dog separated from the grey wolf approximately 100,000 years ago.  Was it because they evolved even that far back as domesticated companions to man?  Science can’t tell us that yet.

But 30,000 years ago man was most definitely a hunter-gatherer.  Archaeologists have pondered whether the domesticated dog allowed man to be so successful as a hunter-gatherer that, in time, man was able to evolve into farming which, of course, we describe more accurately as the Neolithic Revolution.

Here’s an extract from WikiPedia,

The “Neolithic” Revolution is the first agricultural revolution—the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and settlement. Archaeological data indicate that various forms of domestication of plants and animals arose independently in six separate locales worldwide ca. 10,000–7000 years BP (8,000–5000 BC), with the earliest known evidence found throughout the tropical and subtropical areas of southwestern and southern Asia, northern and central Africa and Central America.

However, the Neolithic Revolution involved far more than the adoption of a limited set of food-producing techniques. During the next millennia it would transform the small and mobile groups of hunter-gatherers that had hitherto dominated human history, into sedentary societies based in built-up villages and towns, which radically modified their natural environment by means of specialized food-crop cultivation (e.g., irrigation and food storage technologies) that allowed extensive surplus food production.

These developments provided the basis for concentrated high population densities settlements, specialized and complex labor diversification, trading economies, the development of non-portable art, architecture, and culture, centralized administrations and political structures, hierarchical ideologies and depersonalized systems of knowledge (e.g., property regimes and writing).

There’s one sentence that just jumps off the ‘page’.  It’s this one. “During the next millennia it would transform the small and mobile groups of hunter-gatherers that had hitherto dominated human history

Here’s a quick bit of history about Homo Sapiens, from here,

Neanderthal man: from 230,000 years ago

Around 250,000 years ago Homo erectus disappears from the fossil record, to be followed in the Middle Palaeolithic period by humans with brains which again have increased in size. They are the first to be placed within the same genus as ourselves, as Homo sapiens(‘knowing man’).

By far the best known of them is Neanderthal man — named from the first fossil remains to be discovered, in 1856, in the Neander valley near Dusseldorf, in Germany. The scientific name of this subspecies is Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. The Neanderthals are widely spread through Europe and the Middle East, and they thrive for an extremely long period (from about 230,000 to 35,000 years ago). Bones of animals of all sizes, up to bison and mammoth, and sophisticated stone tools are found with their remains.

Thus as a species we, as in H. sapiens, survived for approximately 200,000 years as hunter-gatherers!

Now after just 12,000 years, give or take, as ‘farmers’ we are facing the real risk of extinction. Go back to that WikiPedia extract above and re-read “concentrated high population densities settlements, specialized and complex labor diversification, trading economies, the development of non-portable art, architecture, and culture, centralized administrations and political structures, hierarchical ideologies and depersonalized systems of knowledge (e.g., property regimes and writing)“.

If you want to fully comprehend the mess we, as in man, have got ourselves into, then watch the stunning movie What a Way To Go: life at the end of the empire.  That movie website is here or you can watch it from here.  (I will be reviewing the film on Learning from Dogs in the next couple of weeks.)

The filmmakers, Tim Bennett and Sally Erickson, towards the end of the film muse if mankind must go back to some form of hunter-gatherer society, not literally, of course, but ‘back’ to a form of society that is fundamentally sustainable with the world upon which we live.  As successful as Neanderthal man.  Here’s where dogs may have critically important lessons for mankind.

  • Dogs form small packs, up to a maximum of 50 animals
  • They have a simple hierarchy within the pack; the alpha female (who has first choice of breeding male and makes the very big decisions about whether the pack should move to a better territory), the beta male (always a dominant male that teaches the young pups their social skills and breaks up fights within the pack – my Pharaoh, as seen on the home page, is a beta GSD), and the omega dog (the clown dog, male or female. whose role is to keep the pack happy through play).
  • They survive through an extraordinary relationship with humans but if they have to revert to the ‘wild’ they survive as hunter-gatherers.

Maybe humans, at heart, also share certain similar characteristics:

  • We are happiest in social groups of less than 50
  • We much prefer simple methods of group order, where rules and discipline are managed within the group.  (Think about how easily we form all sorts of local clubs and groups.)
  • A ‘local’ approach to survival through deep and extensive group co-operation would be so much more effective than what most of us presently experience in our societies.

That’s why so many of the articles that appear on Learning from Dogs focus on the madness of what we experience so often in our present enormous, faceless, distant societies.

Back to Sally Erickson, one of the film makers mentioned earlier.  Here’s what she wrote in her Blog

Our world is in need of healing at every level. We as a species aren’t going to survive, the way we are going. If we don’t heal ourselves, evolve a new consciousness, and fundamentally change the way we live, human beings won’t make it.

Where’s it all heading?  Who knows?  I am reminded of that wonderful quote attributed to Niels Bohr but, more likely, from an unknown author (although Mark Twain is often suggested), “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

Happy Birthday, Learning from Dogs.  Thank you to all of you that have supported this venture over the last two years.