Landscape with Wisdom

One of my favorite books is a dog-eared, yellowing Dover paperback entitled simply Great Speeches by Native Americans, and one of my favorite passages in the book is a short, politely dismissive speech made in 1744 by an anonymous Iroquois spokesman, delivered to the colonial leaders of Virginia in response to the government’s offer to provide a college education for some of the young men from the Iroquois tribe. It is a great distillation of the difference between intelligence and wisdom, especially when it comes to respecting, understanding, and surviving nature.

After thanking the governors of Virginia for their generosity and adding (in a wonderfully sly observation) that the tribe was “convinced” that the offer was made in good faith, the Iroquois representative goes on to explain why the tribe must reject it:

“…you who are wise must know that different nations have different conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss if our ideas of this kind of education happen not to be same with yours. We have had some experience of it: several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but when they came back to us, they were bad runners; ignorant of every means of living in the woods; unable to bear either cold or hunger; knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy; spoke our language imperfectly; were therefore neither fit for hunters, warriors, or counselors; they were totally good for nothing.”

Benjamin Franklin apparently liked to tell this story, and the importance of distinguishing between “education” (or formal intelligence) and wisdom also struck me last summer when I was in southern Peru working on a story about the Nasca civilization for National Geographic (the story is just out at link: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/03/nasca/hall-text).

The Nasca culture emerged around 200 B.C.E. on the southern coast of Peru and flourished for about eight centuries, despite the challenges of settling in one of the driest and most forbidding desert environments on the planet. And flourish they did, culturally and artistically. They invented a superb new form of pottery, were famously non-belligerent, and shrewdly adapted to shortages of water by moving up and down river valleys in the Andean foothills to settle closer to major watersheds.

The Nascan culture is of course most famous for the enigmatic lines, geometrical shapes, and naturalistic figures they drew on the desert floor, and at one level (the most obvious one), my story is about the “mystery” of the lines: why they were made and what scientists now think they mean.

That mystery turns out to be pretty straightforward: as research by Markus Reindel and his colleagues has shown, the lines served as stages for public rituals that the Nascan people held, primarily to pray for water. (Part of the evidence for this is that scientists have excavated raised, altar-like platforms on some of the larger trapezoidal geoglyphs and discovered the smashed remains of ritual offerings, including broken shells of Spondylus, a marine creature that reaches the coastal Peruvian waters only during El Nino events; in the kind of correlation that sometimes passes for scientific evidence these days, the Nascans correctly associated the shells with weather that brought torrential rains to the region).

But the lines and spirals and hummingbirds sometimes distract us from the people who made them. As I learned more about the Nascan people, I came away impressed by their social resilience, their natural resourcefulness, their landscape wisdom. They understood their environment, and that understanding informed what you might call a wise adaptation to an unforgiving environment.

The Nasca had a profound, intimate—in fact, I don’t mind calling it wise—relationship with their natural environment. Many archaeologists believe the Nasca either invented or refined an ingenious system of horizontal irrigation wells known as puquios, which tapped into the sloping underground water table as it descends from the Andes. The sheer engineering feat is amazing, not to mention the quotidian wisdom of using underground tunnels to carry water through a desert to minimize evaporation.

There are other examples. During an excursion to the highlands, Bernhard Eitel, a geophysicist (and also president of the University of Heidelberg), told me that Nascan farmers used a technique for planting seeds that minimized disturbing the substructure of the soil in what is some of the richest agricultural land in the world. And on a visit to a settlement known as La Muna, Johny Isla, a terrifically insightful Peruvian archaeologist, pointed out that the Nasca people recycled their trash, using it as fill when they built walls. “It’s a society that managed its resources very well,” Isla told me. “That is what Nasca is all about.” (The accompanying photograph shows Isla standing on one of the spirals on the Cresta de Sacramento, which we visited at dawn).

When we speak of wisdom, we usually think of shrewd decision-making, a cultural basis of knowledge, negotiating conflict or contradiction between present and future, or between personal and group needs. But the cultural success of the Nasca (and the Native Americans) reminds us that an intimate knowledge of one’s environment—knowing how to survive in it, how to “read” it, how to coexist with its uncertainties and unpredictabilities—is an essential aspect of wisdom. If wisdom, like any skill, ultimately enhances one’s chances for survival, then this landscape awareness served the Nasca very well. They survived for centuries in one of the driest, most forbidding, and indeed meteorologically hostile environments in the world. There is wisdom in such nature-based knowledge.

The Iroquois understood that wisdom, too, and were even willing to share it. After turning down the offer of free college educations for their young men, their spokesman mischievously made a counter-offer. “If the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons,” he said, “we will take great care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them.” Discount
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2 Comments

  1. How often do you write your blogs? I enjoy them a lot

  2. I found your blog when I was searching on bing, and it brought me right to what I was looking for. I’m going to add your rss feed to my Google Reader, I look forward to reading more of your thoughts

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