Six Thousand Lessons
When I was a boy I wanted to see the world. Bit by bit it’s happened. In 1948, when I was three, I left my home in Mamaroneck, just north of New York City, and flew with my mother to a different life in the San Fernando Valley, outside Los Angeles. I spent my adolescent summers at the Grand Canyon and swam in the great Pacific. Later, when my mother married again, we moved to the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. Another sort of canyon. I traveled across Europe by bus when I was seventeen. I went to Mexico. I camped in the desert in Namibia and on the polar plateau, twenty kilometers from the South Pole. I flew to Bangkok and Belem, to Nairobi and Perth, and traveled out into the country beyond.
Over the years I ate many unfamiliar meals, overheard arguments conducted on city streets in Pashto, Afrikaans, Flemish, Cree. I prayed in houses of worship not my own, walked through refugee camps in Lebanon, and crossed impossible mountain passes on the Silk Road. Witness, not achievement, is what I was after. From the beginning, I wanted to understand how very different each stretch of landscape, each boulevard, each cultural aspiration was. The human epistemologies, the six thousand spoken ways of knowing God, are like the six thousand ways a river can run down from high country to low, like the six thousand ways dawn might break over the Atacama, the Tanami, the Gobi, or the Sonoran.
Having seen so much, you could assume, if you are not paying close attention, that you know where you are, succumbing to the heresy of believing one place actually closely resembles another. But this is not true. Each place is itself only, and nowhere repeated. Miss it and it’s gone.
Of the six thousand valuable lessons that might be offered a persistent traveler, here is a single one. Over the years in speaking with Indigenous people—Yupik and Inupiat in Alaska and Inuit in Canada—I came to understand that they prefer to lack the way we use collective nouns in the West for a species. Their tendency is not to respond to a question about what it is that “caribou” do, but to say instead what an individual caribou once did in a particular set of circumstances—in that place, at that time of year, in that type of weather, with these other animals around. It is important to understand, they say, that on another, apparently similar occasion, that animal might do something different. All caribou, despite their resemblance to each other, are not only differentiated one from the other but in the end are unpredictable.
In Xian once, where Chinese archaeologists had recently uncovered a marching army of terra-cotta soldiers and horses, and where visitors can view them in long pits in situ, I studied several hundred with a pair of binoculars. The face of each one, men and horses alike, was unique. I’ve watched herds of impala bounding away from lions on the savanna of Africa and flocks of white corellas roosting at dusk in copses of gum trees in the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, and have had no doubt in those moments that with patience and tutoring I could distinguish one animal from another.
It is terrifying for me to consider, now, how television, a kind of cultural nerve gas, has compromised the world’s six thousand epistemologies, collapsing them into “what we all know” and “what we all believe.” To consider how some yearn for all of us to speak Mandarin or English, “to make life easier.” To consider how a stunning photograph of a phantom orchid can be made to stand today for all phantom orchids. To consider how traveling to Vienna can mean for some that you’ve more or less been to Prague. How, if you’re pressed for time, one thing can justifiably take the place of another.
During these years of travel, my understanding of what diversity can mean has evolved. I began with an intuition, that the world was, from place to place and culture to culture, far more different than I had been led to believe. Later, I began to understand that to ignore these differences is not simply insensitive but unjust and perilous. To ignore the differences does not make things better. It creates isolation, pain, fury, despair. Finally, I came to see something profound. Long-term, healthy patterns of social organization, among all social life-forms, it seemed to me, hinged on work that maintained the integrity of the community while at the same time granting autonomy to its individuals. What made a society beautiful was some combination of autonomy and deference that, together, minimized strife.
In my understanding diversity is not, as I had once thought, a characteristic of life. It is, instead, a condition necessary for life. To eliminate diversity would be like eliminating carbon and expecting life to go on. This, I believe, is why even a passing acquaintance with endangered languages or endangered species or endangered cultures brings with it so much anxiety, so much sadness. We know in our tissues that the fewer the differences we encounter, wherever it is we go, the more widespread the kingdom of death has become.
An Intimate Geography
It was night, but not the color of sky you might expect. The sun was up in the north, a few fingers above the horizon, and the air itself was bluer than it had been that afternoon, when the light was more golden. A friend and I, on a June “evening,” were sitting atop a knoll in the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. We had our spotting scopes trained on a herd of several hundred barren-ground caribou, browsing three miles away in the treeless, U-shaped valley of the Anaktuvuk River. The herd drifted in silence across an immensity of space.
Sitting there, some hundreds of feet above the valley floor, we joked that the air was so transparent you could see all the way to the Anaktuvuk’s confluence with the Colville River, ninety miles down the valley. The dustless atmosphere scattered so little light, we facetiously agreed, it was only the curvature of the Earth that kept us from being able to see clear to Franz Josef Land, in the Russian Arctic. I braced the fingers of my left hand against a cobble embedded in the tundra by my hip, to shift my weight and steady my gaze. The orange lichen on the rock blazed in my eye like a cutting torch before I turned back to the spotting scope and the distant caribou.
Years later, at the opposite end of the planet, I was aboard a German ecotourist ship crossing the Drake Passage from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia. The vessel was yawing through forty-foot seas, pitching and rolling in a Beaufort force 11 storm, one category shy of a hurricane. Dressed in storm gear and gripping a leeward rail outside on one of the upper decks, I stood shoulder to shoulder with a colleague. The surface of the gray sea before fus had no point of stillness, no transparency. Veils of storm-ripped water ballooned in the air, and the voices of a flock of albatrosses, teetering in incomprehensible flight, cut the roar of the wind rising and collapsing in the ship’s superstructure. In the shadowless morning light, beyond the grip of my gloves on the rail, beyond the snap of our parka hoods crumpling in the wind, the surface of the ocean was another earthly immensity, this one more contained, and a little louder, than the one in the Brooks Range.
In April 1988 I was traveling across China in the company of several other writers. In Chongqing, in Sichuan Province, we made arrangements to descend the stretch of the Yangtze River that cuts through the Wushan Mountains, the site of the famed Three Gorges, upriver from Yichang. At that time, years before the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, the Yangtze still moved swiftly through the bottom of this steep-walled canyon, falling, as it did, 519 feet between Chongqing and Yichang.
Despite the occasional set of rapids, the water in the gorges teemed with commerce—shirtless men paddled slender, pirogue-like boats down, up, and across the Yangtze; larger passenger vessels, such as ours, plowed through; and we passed heavily loaded lighters and packets laboring against the current. The air was ripe with the smells of spoiling fish, fresh vegetables, and human waste. The scene, a kind of Third World cliché, didn’t fully engage me—until I caught sight, unexpectedly, of great runs of vertical space on the right bank, variegated fields rising straight up, perhaps nine hundred feet, into a blue sky. The terraced slopes were as steep as playground slides, a skein of garden plots and traversing rice paddies, dotted with sheds and houses. These images might be visible between sections of bare cliff for no more than thirty seconds as the ship passed them, but the convergence of cultural and physical geography was spectacular. The boldness of the farming ventures made my heart race. And in that mute, imposing gorge I discovered a different type of seductive earthly immensity. I wanted time to ferret out all the revealing detail in those densely patterned clefts. But our riverboat bore on. I inhaled sharply the damp perfume of human life around me, and gazed instead at the bolus of light shattering endlessly on the turbid water of the bow wave.