Dispatch #25: A Blues Lover’s Pilgrimage to the Motherland

By Alex Shoumatoff

Bamako : A Blues Lover’s Pilgrimage to the Motherland

There is at first glance nothing about Bamako to suggest that it is one of the hottest music spots on the planet. Bamako is the capital of Mali, the parched, land-locked West African country, two thirds of which is in the Sahara desert, which was just ranked by the U.N. Development’s Human Development Agency as the 184th worst country to be living in out of 187, on the basis of its annual per capita income ($350), the mean education level (fourth grade) and average lifespan (49) of its citizens, and the infant mortality rate (119 per 1000).
Bamako has to be one of the world’s most unprepossessing capitals, more like a big village, really, an anarchic collection of bougous, or neighborhoods. During the past decade of severe drought, its population has doubled to a million as villagers have streamed in from the dessicating countryside, and the city has grown swiftly and chaotically.
The bulk of Bamako sprawls up from the right bank of the Niger River to a tiara of tall red cliffs atop which sits the presidential palace. The president, General Amadou Toumani Touré, known as ATT, is widely perceived as someone who is not out for himself and has the best interests of Mali at heart. He led a coup of junior officers that ended the bloody, despotic 23-year rule of General Mousse Traore in l991, and then retired. He didn’t want to be president and only ran eleven years later because the people were clamoring for him, it is said, and won by a landslide, 64% of the vote. As Howard French points out in his new book on Africa, the democratization of Mali is one of the positive recent developments on the entire continent.
Most of Bamako’s structures are single-story, with courtyards where the women cook food on charcoal braziers. There are six main ethnic groups in Mali, with many sub-groups and the Bamana live with the Bamana, the Sangha with the Sangha, the Peulh with the Peulh, in large extended families and clans that take over entire blocks. The toubab, or whites (also known as ferenji), have their own bougous, too– the nicest ones, of course– with bougainvillea dripping over their walled, guarded compounds.
I am staying in a new luxury hotel called the Kampinski El Farouk. The glassy green Niger slides past my window, on its way up to Timbuctu. The downtown is a five-minute walk, so I set out to find the money-changers. Within a hundred and fifty yards blaring Cuban son, Jamaican rap, and bluesy-sounding ballads in Bambara (the language of the Bamana, Mali’s largest ethnic group), are competing for my ears. No music evolves in isolation any more, I reflect. Fusion is happening all the time. The music of Africa and the Americas has crossed and back-crossed and hybridized so many times that is no longer possible to identify what exactly comes from where. But there is a widespread perception that the music known as the blues, which emerged in the Afro-American South in the l890’s and fathered jazz and rock n’roll, and is so infectious and cathartic that it is the world’s dominant popular music form, originated here, in Mali. This perception has been reinforced by a recent seven-part PBS series on the blues, which begins in Mali; and by such cross-cultural collaborations as Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure’s Talking Timbuctu and Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabete’s Kulanjan, and the anthology album, From Memphis to Mali. Whatever the truth of it is, there is a lot of great music in Mali that has little or nothing to do with the blues, as I soon find out, entering the labyrinthine central market, which takes up most of the downtown, flowing out of buildings, across streets, spilling into alleys and courtyards. Every few yards a different blaster is playing a different cd or cassette, the stars of whatever part of Mali the person manning the next stall is from. The haunting melodies and intricate rhythms of Wassoulou, Mandinke, bogolon, and a host of other styles mingle with the steady low hum, punctuated with periodic eruptions of laughter, of people bartering with each other in mutually unintelligible languages. The visual assault is no less riotous : the thirty kinds of mango that that are grown in Mali are on display with the protocubist wood sculptures of the Dogon cliffdwellers, who live along a 100-mile-long escarpment upcountry; the dazzling, boldly patterned tissus that the women wrap themselves in; the sumptuous turquoise or green or yellow boubous, or frocks, that the men wear. My head is swimming in the joyous hullabaloo. Is this one of the world’s poorest countries, I wonder, or one of the richest? Perhaps the fact that there is so little for anyone to make off with is a blessing in disguise.
It is certainly one of the calmest and safest countries in Africa, or anywhere, and one of the few where Americans are still liked. This is because many families have a member living in Queens or some other Malian enclave in the States who is sending home money, and because the French, whose heavy-handed colonization is not remembered fondly, are so hated. With the national unemployment rate at 60%, there’s a huge pool of people who don’t have to get to work in morning, so they party in the city’s numerous clubs, which are hopping till three a.m. most days of the week and have names like the Bozo Club and the Bla-Bla Club (named not for empty chatter, but a town in the interior) and are like juke-joints in the American South in the twenties. Bonnie Rait, who made the blues pilgrimage to Mali in 1999, compared them to Texas roadhouses.

THE CHAIN OF EVENTS that has brought me here begins in l961, when I was fifteen and incarcerated in an exclusive all-boys prep school in New Hampshire (St. Paul’s—the same one John Kerry went to). We were allowed to go into town on Wednesday afternoon, and on one of these trips I bought a record of a black country blues singer from North Carolina called Pink Anderson. There was a photo of him on the cover, an old black man with a strong, kindly face, standing with his guitar in bib overalls on the porch of his shack.
I connected immediately with Anderson’s raw, lacerated voice and his throbbing, searing guitar-picking. As the sixties progressed, a lot of other white middle-class American kids had similarly powerful reactions to the blues, perhaps because we, too, were culturally eviscerated. As Alan Lomax writes in The Land Where the Blues Began, his l992 book about the recordings he made for the Library of Congress in the Mississippi Delta during the thirties and forties : “All of us… are beginning to experience the melancholy dissatisfaction that weighed upon the hearts of the black people of the Delta… feelings of anomie and alienation, of orphaning and rootlessness, the sense of being a commodity rather than a person; the loss of loved ones and of family and of place—this modern syndrome was the norm for the cotton farmers and the transient laborers of the Deep South a hundred years ago… Rage and anxiety pervade the emotions and the actions of both the haves and the have-nots. And the sound of the worried blues of the old Delta is heard in back alleys and palaces, alike.”
I decided I had to learn how to play this music, and the next time I was in New York City, I went to Manny’s, the musical-instrument emporium on 48th street and bought myself an eighty-dollar, bottom-of-the-line Epiphone steel-string guitar. Then went I down to the Folkore Center in Greenwich Village, a one-room operation presided over by a man named Izzy Young, where Bob Zimmerman, soon to become Bob Dylan, and other unknown musicians were hanging out and trading licks. I asked Young who could teach me how to play the country blues guitar, and Young sent me up to Harlem, to a blind old man named the Reverend Gary Davis, who was living with his wife in a shack behind a row of condemned buildings [see my Rolling Stone profile of him in the Music From Many Lands section of Past Dispatches]. Davis was one of the legendary masters of country blues, ragtime, and gospel fingerpicking. He had made some amazing “race” records in the thirties (the artists were paid with a bottle of whiskey), but these were long forgotten, and he was playing in the street and in the numerous storefront revival churches in the neighorhood. Soon he would be rediscovered. Peter, Paul, and Mary sang one of his songs, followed by the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, and Hot Tuna, and he and Annie were able to buy a little house in Jamaica, Queens, where I visited them every chance I could until his death in l973.
Davis became my guitar teacher, and one of the three or four most influential people in my life. The first tune he taught me was not a blues, but a haunting spiritual that was from a much older tradition. As in much of his music, you can hear echoes of Africa. 42 years later, I’m still trying to play the tunes he taught me, and lately, in Montreal, I’ve been doing them with a saxophonist named Jody Golick. Jody has a fabulous collection of Malian music; he spent two months in Bamako in l994. Every once in a while, when he plays me a cut from one of his cassettes or c.d.’s, I’ll hear a lick or a riff that is strongly reminiscent of Gary Davis. This is not surprising. Lomax recorded polyphonic fife and drum bands in the Deep South that were completely African (even though they were playing popular numbers from the Twenties like “After the Dance is Over”), and he discovered that “black African nonverbal performance traditions had survived virtually intact in African America.” Davis was one of the last living links to these traditions. So I decided to go to Mali and see how his music went over with the local musicians.
January and February were some of the most bitter cold months Montreal had had in years, and Jody and I got through it by jamming and listening to Malian music and jazz in the afternoons. I would send him e-mails like :

Can we say that Africa music is polyphonic, the same chord of melodic sequence is played over and over again hypnotically, joined by other instruments and voices chorically, antiphonally, syncopatically, until a dense polyphonic loop is created, while Western music is monophonic, following a single melody line that is more complex and follows a progression of chords and harmonies ?

To which he answered :

African polyphony works through a collection of rhythmic and melodic interlocking sequences or loops (called by theorists ‘ostinati,’ singular ‘ostinato’). Loops can be of different metres and lengths but all are based on a strict, often unstated, underlying rhythmic pulse. The resulting polyphony can be extremely complex and sophisticated and very difficult for the uninitiated listener to parse. For a Western musician the challenge is not learning a part, which may be fairly straightforward, but learning where to come in, which can be incredibly tricky and counterintuitive. Patterns seem to move in and out as they shift against each other, sort of like the famous Necker cube. When African music moves from traditional context to popular context it sheds complexity.
(In my opinion) there are two uniquely African contributions to Western music. 1) the polyphonic approach to organization which gave us the modern pop rhythm sound with bass and drums and especially backbeat. Also the 12/8, three-against-four metres that run through American music (e.g. the shuffle, the hiphop beat). 2) the metronomic approach to rhythmic pulse which made it swing.

It was mid-March when I got to Bamako. The weather was perfect, 80 degrees and bone-dry during the day, and the night cooled down to just the right temperature for sleeping. In a few months the ground temperature would hit 110.

Having swapped some greenbacks for Central African francs, I flagged a cab to Mali Cassette in Quizimbougou, where I loaded up on cassettes of Habib Koite (a fabulous Mande singer/guitarist who comes from a family of griots ), Salif Keita (an albino from a noble Mande family who broke taboos and became a professional musician and Bamako’s most progressive, out-of-the-box artist), and my new discovery but a veteran of the scene, Boubacar Traoré. On the counter was a weekly broadsheet listing who was playing where. Whatever you want to call it, the music of Mali is some of the most beautiful on earth. I am listening now (in Montreal, a year later) to Mali, a cd of singer/kora player Seckou Keita. Music doesn’t get any sweeter. Habib Koite came to Montreal this winter and heated up the place for a few nights at Kola Note, a club on the Avenue du Parc. If you ever get the chance to hear him live, don’t miss it.

That evening I went to the Hogan Club, where Toumani Diabete, a master of the kora (the twenty-one-stringed harp with a calabash for a sounding box), plays regularly, but that night some college students had commandeered it for a disco dance. They invited me to join them, but I was looking for Toumani and found him at a large open-air club called the Espace Bouna, which cost three dollars to get into. This was too steep for most Malians, and the audience was comprised of the elite, with a smattering of expats.
Toumani comes from a family of Bamana griots, or djele, as they are called– the oral historians and praise-singers of West Africa like the one in the Gambia from whom Alex Haley learned about his ancestor, Kunta Kinte. He says he is the 71th generation of kora players in his family. His father, Sidaki Diabaté, who died in l994, was known as the King of the kora; his grandfather taught the instrument at the University of Washington; and his twelve-year-old son is already spending so much time on his kora that he is neglecting his studies. I understood the fascination, how mastering this instrument becomes your life, when Toumani started playing, his two first fingers weaving delicate, ethereal, incredibly rapid and intricate arpeggios and tremolos on the two rows of strings, while his thumbs plucked alternating base lines. The kora is typically tuned diatonically (the white keys of the piano), to C major, but there is a mode of playing C major Toumani kept slipping into called the Dorian pentatonic (you leave out the fourth so that it can be played in either major and minor modes) that can give it a bluesy feel, if you want it to.
After the show I introduced myself to Toumani and gave him news and fond greetings from Jody Golick and Banning Eyre, PBS’s Afropop correspondant and the author of In Griot Time : An American Guitarist in Mali, the essential text for anyone interested in the music and the music scene. I told him that I had played with Taj Majal (we had a great jam for three hours in a music store in Berekley in l970. I walked in and he was playing some fantastic old-time country blues number, and we started playing and played all afternoon, then I left and I only then did I realize it was Taj.) Toumani is a very generous man, and a few minutes into our conversation he said, “What are you staying in a hotel for ? Come to my place.” So I moved to a room on the second floor of his house in the laid-back bougou of Bajala 3, sharing the hall with a dreadlocked percussionist from the Gambia living in Denmark (this was his first time back to Africa in seven years and he was “so glad to get out of that bomboclat place”); a young guitarist from Birmingham (this was his first time away from home and his loneliness was compounded by malaria); and a music writer from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, who had a deep appreciation and understanding of West African music and her Senegalese fiancé. Toumani is a big man in Bamako, and the bigger you are in Africa, the bigger your entourage. Several dozen Malians, young and old, related and not, were also living in the house. Most of them spent the day sitting in chairs out on street, moving from one side to other, depending on where the sun was. In the evening koras were brought out, and I jammed with them on my little traveling guitar until it came time to watch the Brazilian telenovela that everyone was immersed in and a television was set up on the sidewalk.
Every afternoon Toumani would appear in his Lexus with a steaming tub of rice and meat and vegetables, and we would all sit in the courtyard and eat together from it with our fingers. Then he and his entourage would go into a special room and pray, clearing out whatever impure thoughts and deeds might have arisen since the last time they prayed, a few hours before. The prayers sounded like the chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks. It was a beautiful scene. Rarely in my travels have I been welcomed with such warmth and hospitality. “Toumani opens his doors to everyone, and Allah opens his doors to him,” one of the elders told me.
Toumani had no trouble getting into “Candy Man,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” or “Twelve Gates to the City”– the Gary Davis tunes that I picked for him. “We speak the same language,” he said.
But the precise transcultural process that produced the blues is impossible to reconstruct, because there is a two-hundred-year gap between the emergence of the genre in the American South cut and the arrival of the first slaves, and because the blues has returned to Africa and cross-fertilized with the indigenous music repeatedly, along with other music from the diaspora like Cuba rumba and son, Jamaican calypso and reggae, and Brazilian samba. But the echoes are unmistakable, and they are in the pentatonic scale (the black keys of the piano), which blues and much of Mali’s music are in, and in 12/8 shuffle-hiphop rhythm or the five-beat African clave (the ”Bo Diddley” or “shave-and-a haircut—two bits”) beat.
One night I went to the Matignon, a funky local dive with couples writhing slowly in the darkness and a torrential rain pouring through holes in the roof, and heard Jimi Jakob and his band, Afuni, whose members came from three countries, infusing r & b and soul classics like Stevie Wonder’s “I just called to say I love you,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” with their own West African soulfulness. Another night I went to a very pleasant and presentable restaurant called El Torre to hear a group from the Ivory Coast called the Go girls, who had been rehearsing at Toumani’s. They sang lustily in five languages and ethnic styles : in bete and ziglibiti rhythm, from the Ivory Coast; Malenke, wolof from Senegal; sorai from northern Mali, around Timbuctu; sousou from Guinea.
Another night I went to the Jembe Club to hear Lobi Traoré, who plays what sounds like straight, hard-driving, proto-Howlin’ Wolf blues but is actually Bambara music from Segou, the capital of old Bamana empire, five hours north of Bamako, which is where Lobi is from. Most of Lobi’s songs are not about a broken heart but are devotional songs to Allah. So this is an important point : the pentatonic is not inherently bluesy. In a particular cultural and emotional context, it becomes the blues. There is eighth-century Taoist zither music from China that is meditation music, although it sounds a lot like delta blues.
I had met Ali Farka Touré, Mali’s most famous artist, at Mali Cassette, which he is part owner of. Sixty-six now, he spends most of his time on his farm in Nyafunke, up near Timbuktu. Touré was really duded out, in a blue suit with a blue hat and a blue-and-yellow flowered shirt, like a Malian John Lee Hooker, with whom he toured on the European world in the Sixties. But he took exception to his music being called blues. A lot of good-time Malian dance music is in the pentatonic. “We don’t have the blues,” he told me. “We aren’t sick. This word blues is for doctors of musicology—and nurses. The word blues doesn’t exist in Africa. The translation is African music. Our music has been modernized with European instruments and there has been some Western influence. But the big influence is our tradition.”
Toumani’s fantastic guitarist, Fantamady Kouyaté, and I recorded a gospel-highlife fusion song of mine called “One Morning Soon” that is posted on my Web site, DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com. Fantamady’s inspired gleaming electric-guitar runs, which give the major rumba chord progression a moody, bluesy, Malian feel, were simply his response to the feelings he got from my singing and playing. He didn’t understand the English lyrics, yet he commented on them with exquisite sensitivity and passion. Toumani invited me to come back next winter and make a record with him. “But I’m not anywhere as good a musician as you are,” I said. “What’s important is that the music comes from the heart,” he told me.
“You always know you have a family here,” he said as we embraced and I got in the cab.
On the plane home, returning with my musical horizons expanded in ways that I’ll be working on for years to come, the Muse came over me and gave me these lines :

If you’ve never been to Bamako,
Maybe it’s about time for you to go.
You’ll never know what’s in store
For you in Bamako
If you don’t show
You’ll be glad you did
and heavy-hearted when it’s time to go.

Back in Montreal, Kate McGarrigle, one of the legendary McGarrigle sisters, and Borza Gomeshi, who has a studio in the Laurentians, have digitally remastered my low-fidelity recording of Fantamady’s soaring solos into a coherent and beautiful bed-track, and I have laid down the vocals of “One Morning Soon.” Now we need some percussion and a bass and other instruments. It will be some day, inshallah, part of a cd with my music and songs called “Suitcase on the Loose.” (Sample lyrics : “I’m a stateless suitcase/ a weightless suitcase/a loveless and a hateless suitcase/ I’m a suitcase on the loose/ that’s seen a lot of use/ flying by the seat of my pants, catch as catch catch/I’m just trying to keep one town ahead of the re’po man.”)

Allen Evans, who has put out a recording of choice Gary Davis performances on his own recherché label, World Arbiter, sent me another of his cd’s, of the above-mentioned eight-century Taoist meditation music played on a zither tuned to the pentatonic. It sounds uncannily like Blind Willie Johnson, although emotionally neutral, completely cerebral [maybe, as an outsider, you can’t resonate emotionally the way a native listener would]. Allen speculated that the pentatonic originated in China and made its way west to the Ottoman Empire and from there with the slave trade to North Africa, where the New World slave trade disseminated throughout the Americas. But after seeing the extraordinary documentary on the wanderings of the gypsies, and how their music adapted to each country they reached, “Latcho Drom,” I think it is more likely that it originated in Rajasthan, India, with the people who became the gypsies and took it west across the Middle East and Europe to Spain, where it became flamenco and from there fused with the Moorish/Arabic music of North Africa, producing the proto-blues of Mali. The westward migration of the pentatonic is something I would like to write a book on some day.
But Jody argues that the pentatonic is everywhere. This is true. It is in pre-Colombian pan-pipes in the Andes, where it appears to have arisen independently, without diffusion, unless as some think it crossed the Pacific from Polynesia. The reason it is everywhere, he maintains, is because of acoustics, the physics of music. The octave breaks up into five harmonic steps which every ear, regardless of what culture it is in, hears. Maybe he is right. And this scale, in its many variations, sometimes produces and is the expression of a melancholy state of mind. [True of some pentatonic modes but not others.] The same or a similar sequence of notes produces analagous emotions in every culture. [A big claim to make …] That is why Toumani feels a complete affinity with the huaynos of the Peruvian Andes, the most famous of which is El Condor Passa. Music is truly the universal language, as Pythagoras and countless people after him have pointed out. But this doesn’t rule out the possibility that there is an ancient connection between the music of Rajasthan and that of Mali, via the gypsies, that the origin of the blues is really in India, if you take it back far enough. [Some hypotheses of cognitive evolution see music as a precursor to language. So maybe the origins of the blues are with early African hominins… It’s purely speculative and no one will ever know.]
The guitar is thought to have evolved from the stringed instruments of North Africa, but the most unquestionably bona fide African instrument in North America is the banjo. And yet it is almost only played by whites. (Gary Davis played a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar that he called a “gitjo.” I have one of his custom-made gitjos. And Taj Majal plays very rootsy southern country bluesy banjo, but there aren’t many others). The explanation for this is that the banjo was played in the minstrel shows on the plantations of the old South that the slaves put on for the masters, and the minstrel show was later appropriated by white musicians in black-face, and the banjo became not cool for blacks to play and a virtuoso instrument for white country musicians like Earl Scruggs. The Grand Old Opry is an Anglo-American metamorphosis of the minstrel show, and in bluegrass, too, you can also pick up distant echoes of Mali.

A distilled version of this ran in the December, 2004 issue of Travel & Leisure.

Postscript :
I sent this to Jody and he e-mailed me back : “I’m not crazy about ‘the universal language’ cliché. I don’t think music is very like language. Music is a human ‘universal.’ But the experience of a piece of music by a cultural insider versus a cultural outsider will never be the same. You and I will never experience Malian music quite the way a Malian does. What is universal is that music always evokes by entraining parts of brain and body. The wonder is how this entrainment evokes such a powerful emotional response. I don’t believe it’s a mystery, but I do think it’s wonderful.”
A few days later, we went together to McGill to hear a talk called “The Cognitive Nature of Music,” by a professor at Tufts named Jamahed Bharucha. Montreal is a mecca for the study of music as a major brain function, Dr. Bharuca said. Everybody likes music. The question is why ? How much of the response is from learning, how much is innate ?
I am aware that I have cognitive limitations when it comes to music, particularly to performing it. I don’t keep the beat and I don’t have a natural sense of pitch and sometimes sing off-key. My performance depends entirely on my energy level and state of mind. I am not a good listener. Listening skills are not one of my endowments. Perhaps I am a little deaf. I am like the glukhar, a bird that my grandfather hunted in Old Russia, as recounted in Russian Blood (posted in Past Dispatches). This bird had the unfortunate trait of becoming deaf when it was singing, so you could sneak up on it and blow it away.
My father’s hearing was the first of his senses to go. He had to wear a hearing aid at the end. So perhaps this is hereditary. But Pa was an accomplished classical pianist. So I wonder if I had had some formal training in music and played with more people over the years, would I still have these limitations ? A lot of it is a matter of practice, just playing something over and over until it becomes unconscious.
Dr. Bharuca talked about the pioneering work of D.O. Hebb on what is now called Hebbian learning, the sort that takes places in the brain. There are two layers of neurological networks. The second recognizes combinations of units in the first. Hebbian learning is the strengthening of connections between active-input units. “Winning units” are pattern or feature cluster detectors.
The domain of music is very constrained. Most pop music has only three chords. Through cultural lenses we recognize chords as part of the training regimen. We activate recognition of similar chords, tones not heard but expected. A probe tone is defined by how well it fits into a context. When the subjects of Dr. Bharuca’s test report a probe tone, they are reporting activation of the automatic computational neural process. The reaction time is one way to test expectation. The context primes or activates the most expected tones. These are consonant tones, as opposed to dissonant tones.
The D chord is more often associated with the C chord in Western cultures because there are a lot of shared frequencies, shared notes. How much is expectation based on spectral similarity and how much on cultural norm ? The speed of Westerners’ reaction time from C to D is a cultural norm, and from C to E is a spectral similarity. Reaction speed is affected by contextual identity, the distance between notes, and asymmetry, the replacing of one chord with another that is out of key. Schematic activation takes place when people embedded in a culture are navigating a musical environmental and hear things that are normal. When a dissonance, an asymmetry, occurs, they activate special resources, like attention. There are schematic versus veridical expectations. You can’t violate an expectation if you don’t have one. This produces what is known as a deceptive cadence. Even if you know a culturally suprising event is coming, it is still surprising and cognitively impenetrable.
Is there neural evidence of schematic knowledge of key relationships ? [i.e. is the pentatonic scale inscribed in the brain, the way Chomsky says the dative case is ]
When there is a change of key, does the brain have this implicit knowledge ? We all have activation in the prefrontal cortex, the orbitofrontal gyrus where schematic learning is going on. There are tone-sensitive surfaces called voczals (if I got this correct) where pitch invariants are represented. Absolute or “perfect” pitch without a reference pitch very few can activate, but we all have relative pitch, pitch invariance which is comparable to visual invariance (we all see what is out there in more or less the same way, although we may process it differently, due to cultural and psychological, physiological and cognitive differences). Different cells respond to translational invariance. The major and minor modes are pitch invariant, as are the ancient Greek modes, and the modes of Indian thats and ragas. In the key of C, if you hear F# instead of F, there is an ambiguity whether it is in the key of G or a tritone. F# will be heard as dissonant or unexpected at first, but over time it will effect a key change. There is cross-cultural learning. In the West only major and minor modes exist. But the ancient Greeks’ music was in other modes, and in India you have thats, ragas, kari, todi, bairar, flatted seconds. On the sitar, you can’t change key, but you can change mode. (the same with the kora. or sort of. Though Toumani is tuned to C Major he plays many, or most, songs in F Major but it’s a funny Malian-sounding F major because of the B natural – ie, F Lydian). Can we simulate the ancient Greek or the Indian brain ? (Here the recent study of birdsong at Berkeley seems relevant : the calls are genetic, but the songs are learned).
The gestalt perception of music is that in most musical scenarios we hear the tone as a unified object, but there are multiple levels of representation and attention levels. We can consciously select (or unconsciously) because of our limited capacity for attention. Some abstract patterns are perceived as fused. The tonal centers have a mapping function, translating from absolute to relative.

Over coffee, Jody explains that the circle of fifths is everywhere, because it has to do with the physics of sound (the standard work on this, Science and Music by British physicist Sir James Jeans, written 1938 and still in print), of the frequencies of sound that a column of air makes as it moves through a tube.
Let’s take the note A 220 (cycles per second or Hertz) – A below Middle C – as our starting pitch, or fundamental. Doubling the frequency is the same as fretting a string dead center. 440 cycles per second is perceived as an A an octave above our starting note. Tripling our original frequency to 660 cycles per second (like fretting a string a third of the way along and plucking the short bit) results in the note E a fifth above our second pitch. Thus just as a frequency ratio of 2:1 always produces an octave, a frequency ratio of 3:2 (in this case 660:440) always produces an interval of a fifth. That’s all you need to make a pentatonic scale. Four intervals of a fifth produces the 5 notes of the pentatonic scale. A E B F# C#; or when transposed to a single octave, A B C# E F# : 1 2 3 5 6 of a major scale.]
The pentatonic scale is derived from the first few notes in the harmonic series, so it, too, is everywhere. The octave is divided into five unequal parts : tone, tone, tone and a half, tone and a half. For instance, the inangha, or zither of Rwanda and Burundi, has seven strings tuned to G major pentatonic, G E D B A G E. The fifths over several octaves are compressed into one. One tune keeps repeating, as the ostinato, A G E, just like delta blues. What makes it blues is not the notes, but the temperament in which they are played. The feeling is not in the notes. To say that major is happy and minor is sad is simplistic. It’s all in the inflection and the context.

Not only the performer, but the listener determines the effect of a piece of music. I realized that part of why I keep hearing the same or similar sequence of notes producing the same or similar emotions in whatever culture I am going to is because I am looking for this. I am looking for and projecting familiar referents that may not be there, or exaggerating their existence, as part of easing myself into an unfamiliar setting. “Why, this is just like…” Just an anthropologist projects the thesis he brings with him into the field on to the people he is studying, unconsciously selecting the traits that support it and ignoring the ones that contradict it. Jody explained that “patterns we know are well worn neural structures. In unfamiliar music we perceive familiar patterns. They may or may not correspond to patterns the native listener perceives. They need not evoke similar emotion. I tend to hear rhythmic units of bars in nearly all music whether or not the original performer thinks the same way. Is it analysis or perception? All perception subsumes unconscious analysis. The results of some of that analysis presents as emotion.”
So what is universal about music is that the notes are basically the same. The differences are in the mode and mood in which they are played. Some of the differences are cultural, others individual. Is this it then ? We’d love to hear from readers– producers and consumers of music.

Dispatch #24: A Slideshow from the Congo

By Craig Lapp

The collection of slideshows are in Apple Quicktime. Click here to download Quicktime if you don’t already have it.

The best way to view these slideshows is to Right click, and select “save target as” or “save file” and save these to your hard drive.
If you are using a Mac, hold the “option” key while clicking on each link to get the same menu.  Please email andre@collegeinternetsolutions.com with any questions or to report any problems.

Craig Lapp is a Montreal-based soundman who went to the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) four times over 2003-2003 to do a documentary on the U.N. peacekeeping mission in DR Congo for the National Film Board, when he took these pictures. They are accompanied by the music of Franco, le Grand Maitre, the founder of the OK Jazz band and the B.B. King of Afro-Cuban rumba guitar-picking, with its glissading silver runs high on the neck and its endless variations and syncopations of a couple of insistently repeated chords. In l981, when Kinshasa was one of the coolest, or hottest, towns on the planet for music and the Bohemian good life– I came very close to staying there–  I jammed for an hour at some club in the cite with OK Jazz, adapting the Travis pick in a way that really rocked, before Franco finally appeared.  In l987, when I was doing a piece for Vanity Fair on the source of the AIDS panedemic, which was presumably somewhere in Africa, I visited Franco in his home in the Mantonge quartier of Kinshasa. He was a huge dude, well over three hundred pounds, and he had just written a hit called “Attention Na Sida,” “Watch out for AIDS.” We sat on the  patio on his roof, where there were four separate sets of livingroom furniture, a case of what I described in “African Madness” as “redundant multiplicity.” Three years later, when it looked as if Mobutu was going to go down (but he ended up lasting another six years), I returned to Kinshasa for Vanity Fair. Franco had died– of AIDS himself– the year before, and I looked up his lead and rhythm guitarists, who were out of work, having been displaced by the younger generation of hot guitarists, who took the rumba zairois to the next level of dazzling intricacy, soucousse. The leader guitarist begged me for some money and showed me a lightning-fast series of arpeggios from the sub-dominant to the dominant, which I am currently incorporating into my latest version of “One Morning Soon” (for two previous versions, see the “Music From Many Lands” Section).

Congo is going through some very rough times, as Craig’s pictures illustrate, but the Congolais have not lost their joie de vivre, and I hope they never will. The four hundred and some ethnic groups in the country have produced some of the world’s greatest music and wood sculpture, but many cultures and species are dying out in the ongoing civil war, which has claimed three million lives since l996. It is another great part of the world with a tragic history.”Kinshasa -These are all of kinshasa. It is very  unusual to be able to take photos in the capital because people freak out. There are all kinds of things here: kids sleeping rough, training for boxing at dawn in the stadium where Ali fought Foreman, parliament, street vendors, graduating students, a leopard in the zoo, public transport, people living in car wrecks in a cemetery…  The song is infidelite mado. Waterfront Kinshasa -These are all of the Kinshasa Waterfront from the water, riding on a UN pusher. There is a market on an island, only accesible by boat. Lots of wrecks to show the state of the economy, which mostly depends on shipping on the Congo River… This pusher had just come down from Kisangani, a three week trip. Its trip essentially marked the reopening of the river by the UN, although traffic is still rare. The captain (Ricardo Delsanta, from Uruguay) said, “you don’t know the country  until you’ve been down the river”.  The song is Ou est le Serieux, again…

Kisangani - These are all from Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville, home of Mistah Kurtz).  The song is Chacun Pour Soi.

Bunia - These are photos of the UN in Bunia, capital of Ituri province, eastern Congo.  The song is by Franco, called ‘Ou est le Serieux.  (All songs are from the same album)

Black and White Images - The pictures are mostly from a town called Drodro, east of Bunia. There was a massacre here in march of 2003. About 400-500 people were killed, although the numbers are very vague. Original estimates were about 1000. This was part of the local ethnic conflict between Hema and Lendu. Drodro is a Hema town and was presumably attacked by lendu. This massacre was referred to recently in a Harper’s article. A couple of the first photos are in Bunia itself. What is happening in the other pictures is that a UN investigation team has arrived in Drodro to find out what happened.  The song is Likambo Ya Ngana, by Franco, from the Rough Guide compilation.

Craig went on each of his visits to Bunia, where a mini-genocide between the Hema cattlekeepers and the Lendu farmers is going on. The situation has deteriorated seriously since my visit to Bunia in 2000, described in Dispatch #2. Craig is one of the few people I know who has been there, to some of the places I’ve been to, that not many people from our world get to, and he has a fabulous collection of Brazilian, African, and other world music that is ten years more recent than mine, plus is a lovely man, so he is valued friend. Craig did the soundtrack for his pictures. In a future Dispatch I will tell you about Benoit Quersin, the ethnomusicologist at the Musees Nationaux in Kinshasa and a jazz bass player who played on Chet Baker’s legendary l956 session in Amsterdam and with all the cats dans le temps (Google him and you’ll see what I mean). I met Benoit on my first trip to Zaire. He went with me to Madagascar and to the Amazon to research the historical basis of the Amazon Women myth. Both trips I wrote up for the New Yorker. They are in Past Dispatches. My book, “In Southern Light,” ends with a party at Benoit’s place on Mont Ngafula, overlooking Kinshasa. Benoit died of cirrhosis, malaria, and hepatitis– a triple whammy to his liver– in l990. He was only 66, and I was 23 years younger, but we were like von Humboldt and Bonpland, and his death was a terrible blow. I  wish he was still here so I could jam with him, now that I can play halfway decently. He never even told me that he had played with everybody. I only found that out two years ago, when I was learning some of Chet’s tunes and John Rudel, a percussionist who lives up the street, happened to spot his name on three of the cuts. He had put that early European chapter of his life behind him, as many African expats do.

             – Alex Shoumatoff

Dispatch #23: Cultivating Culture: Emergence or Emergency

Cultivating Culture: Emergence or emergency? 

By Jonathan Golick 

August 2003
Copyright J. Golick 2003 ©
All rights reserved.  No use without permission.


In 1994 I spent several months in Mali, West Africa. It is a country with a rich and ancient cultural heritage where more than a dozen local languages are spoken. At first the unfamiliar social customs and elaborate interpersonal protocols made even the simplest interactions perplexing. I was dazed by the alien culture and the sub-Saharan heat. What jumped out of the blur of new experience and what I often found most arresting were oddly de-contextualized glimpses of the familiar. 

For most people who live in the capitol, Bamako, the courtyard is the place for group domestic activity. It serves for washing and cooking and eating and playing and drinking tea and socializing. When there are important soccer matches, the few who own televisions set them up in courtyards where family and friends crowd in to watch the game. When the national team scores a goal, raucous cheering can be heard all over Bamako. During my stay, on Sunday nights at 9 o’clock a hush would descend on the city as groups gathered in courtyards to watch reruns of Dynasty dubbed in French.

I got to know a musician of the traditional griot caste, Toumani Diabate, who plays the cora, a 21-stringed African harp. He is a descendant of seventy generations of cora players. He knows songs and stories that his family has preserved for more than a thousand years. In the courtyard where locals and foreigners come to him for lessons, I met a group of neighborhood kids who wanted to know if it was true that Michael Jackson was the richest boy in the world. 

Beyond the city limits, long straight two-lane blacktop roads connect the major towns and villages. Traffic is generally light — people traveling on foot sometimes following herds of curly-horned cattle, carts pulled by ox or donkeys, a few bicycles and motorbikes. Trucks, buses, cars pass infrequently. Every 100 kilometers or so there is a sturdy billboard supported by stout steel pipes bearing the familiar full-color image of the Marlboro Man in his white cowboy hat, cigarette tucked rakishly in the corner of his mouth. I suspect that at the time, this was one of very few Western images that many people encountered on a regular basis.

In fact, the spread of Western technology and culture seemed moderate. While the state religion is Islam, there are still ethnic groups who adhere proudly to their animist heritage and beliefs. The radio was completely free of American music though the broadcast fare indicated that some local musicians were undergoing an unfortunate fascination with the electronic beat-box. Most of the limited television schedule was local. Most people dressed in brilliantly colored local fashions. Yet for some reason there was a proliferation of Chicago Bulls merchandise — t-shirts and caps. There was also a proliferation of blue plastic shopping bags which blew through the ancient dusty streets like tumbleweed, past the weavers at their looms and the shoeshine boys with their wooden boxes, who can clean or mend any shoe, including a rubber flip-flop, while you wait.
Individual living things seem precariously balanced in a state of temporary dynamic equilibrium that at any moment threatens to succumb to the forces of entropy, moving the organization of the molecules towards a state of disorder, inertia, death. A small variation in the environment can precipitate a catastrophic effect. A few bacteria can bring down an elephant. Or a few grams of lead. Yet on a global scale, life is remarkable in its dynamic resilience, its adaptability and ingenuity, its unity and diversity. Dead elephant molecules are quickly reorganized as bacteria molecules.

A scientific definition of “species” that tries to encompass the characteristic properties of natural biological groupings is remarkably hard to pin down. Whether on the basis of reproductive isolation, morphological differentiation and stability, or statistical genetic relationship, all the definitions present gray areas. In bacteria, the most populous creatures on earth, where gene transfer can be lateral, between living individuals, the notion of species nearly dissolves entirely. 
In these pages I wish to present some thoughts on biology and culture, on how organisms get along together, and on human attempts to manage the dynamic relationships we have evolved with other species and within our own.

The ideas that I bring forward are assembled from many sources. In Being About, Ellie Epp sets out a detailed picture of biological and neural knowing, how a simple life-form can know, how knowing evolves in creatures that possess nervous systems, and how all knowing is physical, structural. Being About, with its insistence on seeing organisms as whole bodies in material locations, has been a major inspiration to me affording an entirely new perspective on life and human being. In her work towards achieving an integrated vision of planetary processes, geoscientist Lynn Margulis has shown the power of symbiosis as an essential source of evolutionary novelty. Merlin Donald portrays the interwoven evolution of cognition and culture as co-evolution of internal (cognitive) and external (environmental) structure; that is, the world we make in turn makes us. Edwin Hutchins writes about distributed cognition, how we use tools, “material anchors,” to coordinate collective cognitive activity. Michael Pollan’s insightful and entertaining analysis of cultivation from the plant’s point-of-view is a source of fresh thinking about domestication, species interdependence and human cultural practices that affect these interactions.
We are a young species (though trying to pin down exactly how young is the subject of continuous debate). Our special abilities and capacities emerged recently – humans have been writing for only about 5000 years. The Western scientific tradition is but a few hundred years old. Yet we behave as if we are the font and repository of all earthly and heavenly knowledge and wisdom. Our insights have often been hampered by false intuitions about simple causality. (We naturally model our understanding of causal forces on human agency.) Linear, mechanistic explanations for complex, dynamic natural processes have been offered with disappointing and sometimes disastrous results. 

In the long run, will evolutionary forces select for better, more intelligent human institutions? Will errant systems of knowledge and social organization eventually be weeded out, adapt or die? Will ecological and social pressures exert such force that they outweigh the influence of the institutions whose economic needs drive Western cultural change? I believe they will, provided humanity doesn’t commit a fatal blunder first.

While the picture I offer regarding the course of the evolution of human society may seem pessimistic, I find optimism in the remarkable dynamic interactions that emerge in all living systems – including our own. 
Cultivating Culture: Emergence or emergency?

Living organisms are tricky. They are unlike inorganic matter. Living things actively change their structure, the organization of their cells and molecules, in close correspondence with regular variations of their immediate environments. Growth, digestion, movement — all are structural alterations of an organism interacting with the world around it. Even the simplest organism is not passive. An organism is coupled to its surroundings, taking advantage of aspects of the world that it has come to depend on for its continued stability. Being alive is dynamic interaction. 

The universe is chaotic but not random. Within the ceaseless flux that surrounds us some features are constant, some relationships fixed, some processes cyclic. We can count on certain kinds of stability in nature: the rising and setting of the sun and the moon, the progress of the seasons, the density and persistence of various forms of matter. Water behaves consistently and reliably: freezing temperature, boiling point and specific gravity are physical constants which change systematically relative to contextual conditions like pressure. There are other constants associated with light and gravity. Properties and processes of the world that are stable, regular and change systematically are sometimes referred to as invariants. 

A creature responds to a particular feature of the world by changing itself in a particular way. An organism’s response and the way it co-varies with a particular world-feature is determined in evolution by interactions over many generations. Moment by moment a creature remakes itself with respect to what it is and has available — its capabilities and environmental footholds or affordances — and what it needs to continue to survive and propagate. Its current structure is dependent not only on changes that take place during the lifetime of the individual creature but on changes over the course of the evolutionary history of its species and beyond, all the way back to the first self-replicating molecules and the beginnings of life; the continuous dynamic interaction of life with the world of which it is an integral part. 

Regularities in the world are built into the very design of living things. Properties of the way water behaves are embodied in the fins and skin of fish and in the design of living cells which take advantage of such properties of water as its ability to alter or carry some molecules and its ability to pass through certain molecular arrangements and not others. 


As well, there are constant aspects of an organism’s world in continuous change. No creature lives in isolation from the other life forms that abound in the environment. Organisms interact and co-evolve in complex ways. In the most familiar case of species interaction, the predator-prey relationship, one organism is another’s food. In other cases, organisms affect each other indirectly by modifying their mutual environment, the way beavers produce a good home for frogs by creating a pond. Some of the most common and important relationships in nature are where two or more organisms become entwined in a tightly bound, long-term evolutionary relationship. When the organisms are of different species biologists call it symbiosis; when the interacting creatures are of the same species it is called social behavior. Symbiotic relationships can be parasitic, where one organism benefits to the detriment of another; commensal, where one organism benefits from the relationship and the other is unaffected; or mutual, where all players benefit — though in the real world these relationships are not so neatly categorized. Domestication, for example, is mutual symbiosis, where one species provides sustenance for another in exchange for hospitable living conditions and reproductive advantages. 

Interdependent organisms evolve in dynamic synchrony with each other over generations, mutual sources of systematic behavior which are embodied in evolving abilities. In the predator-prey relationship, a kind of evolutionary arms race can emerge, where the effective capacities of a predator put pressure on a population of prey to evolve and improve avoidance strategies: speed, visual and olfactory acuity, camouflage, or even group-level behaviors, for example where members of a herd take turns keeping watch while others graze. Improvements on one side of the relationship demand compensatory responses from the other.

In the evolution of mutual symbioses an astonishing range of complex patterns of co-evolution have emerged. Numerous insect and plant species have evolved intricate relationships. There are individual species of fig wasp that have co-evolved exclusively with particular species of fig tree.  Bearing a load of pollen to fertilize the fig, a wasp enters the fruit — in reality, a flower that evolution has turned inside-out — to lay its eggs. The fig provides a nursery for larvae which, when they emerge as adults, take a load of pollen with them. Two species working in such an exchange co-evolve very specific interlocking morphological traits. Flowers may have brush-like appendages which apply pollen to pollinators; pollinators may have basket-like structures that carry pollen.

Even more common in nature are symbiotic relationships between complex organisms and microscopic organisms like bacteria, protozoa or fungi, where a large creature becomes the preferred habitat of a small one, which in turn furnishes critical biochemical processes for its host. There are certain microbes found only in specific environments like the digestive systems of termites, where they are responsible for turning wood into usable sustenance.  Cows and other ruminants have evolved a specialized organ, the rumen, that provides a hospitable environment for micro-organisms that break down otherwise indigestible cellulose. One hundred trillion similar microbes inhabit the human digestive system. Many such organisms, in evolving specific interactions with a host, have diverged evolutionarily from their free-living forebears, so that a single species of microbe comes to exist only within a single species of host. Certain bacteria are endemic to the roots of specific plants, which, in exchange for a favorable living environment — often within the tissues of the plant itself (galls, root nodules) — provide such necessary nutrients as nitrogen in a chemical form accessible to the plant. Trees have a long-standing relationship with fungi which live in the soil tangled in the roots (occasionally producing the spore-forming bodies we know as truffles). If all the earth’s fungi were suddenly wiped out, plant and animal life would quickly disappear.

The entomologist E. O. Wilson has called ants “the premier social insects.”  Some ants excavate elaborate underground labyrinths of passages and caverns. Different classes of workers fulfilling different functions within the social structure have become anatomically distinct (polymorphic). Ants have also evolved some fascinating symbioses. The leaf-cutter (attine) ants of Central and South America are familiar by their picturesque processions of workers carrying sizable pieces of leaves above their heads like green umbrellas. These ants are notorious in the tropics for their ability to strip the vegetation from a field or a grove of trees with devastating speed. But they do not eat the foliage that disappears underground into the nest. Instead, the leaf pieces are chewed into successively smaller bits by a series of successively smaller worker ants. The macerated leaves are carefully added to the mat that forms a growth medium for a particular species of fungus which breaks down the vegetable matter and grows tiny nutrient-rich structures that form the basis of the ants’ diet. Ant colonies have been found that contain millions of ants, thousands of openings, ventilation shafts and chambers, and hundreds of mold gardens meticulously tended by tiny worker ants. Another participant in the symbiosis is a bacteria with antibiotic properties that lives on the exterior of the ants’ bodies and helps keep the garden free of parasitic micro-organisms — weeds. In fact, the most common parasite that ants have to contend with is a single species of fungus found only in ant gardens. Ants have been tending their fungal gardens for fifty million years. The most evolutionary modern genus of ants, Atta, maintains a single genetic strain of fungus that has been in use for twenty million years, transported from nest to nest as a pellet in the mouth of the founding queen.  The ants and the fungi keep each other alive.

In The Botany of Desire, journalist and gardener Michael Pollan looks at human agriculture from the point of view of plants. He observes that wild grasses possess the genetic capacity to produce forms, the edible grains, so appealing to humans as to induce them to clear away forests to make way for cultivation. Or as Pollan puts it, “agriculture [is] something grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees.” 

Perhaps the most widespread and dramatic example of one organism indirectly affecting the evolution of others by modifying the environment is that of the earliest photosynthetic bacteria, which over perhaps a billion years gradually altered the earth’s atmospheric content, making available the oxygen that supports all the numerous and complex forms of aerobic life. 

Clearly, such processes have been absolutely fundamental to the unfolding of planetary life. Evidence of symbiotic relationships which initiated the evolution of cellular complexity billions of years ago is present in every cell of our bodies. Mitochondria, the parts of plant, animal and fungus cells that make energy available for nearly all cellular processes, were once autonomous bacteria with a particular knack for biochemical energy exchange. They formed an allegiance with another simple one-celled organism possessing little inner structure of its own. The bacteria, engulfed but not digested, found safe harbor in a new habitat; the host cell gained a new source of energy. In a process called symbiogenesis a new organism was created from the permanent union of two others. Thus began a new chapter in evolution. Cellular mitochondria possess relics of their former independence in the membrane that encloses them and in a loop of their own genetic material, separate from the DNA within the nucleus of the surrounding cell. Similarly, chloroplasts in green plant cells responsible for photosynthesis were once free-living photosynthetic bacteria that evolved a relationship with another cell, a relationship which became intimate over time until the functions of the two cells were wholly incorporated. The organisms can have no viable independent existence. Conversely, some things that appear to be single organisms are colonies of individuals, as in the case of jellyfish. Lichens, one of the most widely distributed life-forms, are in reality, an intimate alliance between fungi, algae and bacteria that has played a key role in planetary evolution turning rock into nutrient-rich soil for hundreds of millions of years. 

Biological Knowing

A simple organism maintains stability through time embodying structural responses to a small set of the regularities and properties of the world of which it is part. Homeostasis, the collection of processes for self-regulation and maintenance, is anything but static. It is the dynamic means by which a creature maintains its own internal balance with respect to its changing circumstances. It involves interactions between the creature’s functional parts in conjunction with environmental changes specifically relevant to the creature’s survival. Homeostatic functions are sometimes described as being automatic but that doesn’t really do adequate justice to the evolutionary history or the intricacy of the interdependent processes that come together in homeostasis. What is implied is that homeostasis takes place without the necessity of choice or conscious reasoning or knowledge, in our ordinary sense of the word. 

When we talk about knowing we usually reserve the term for relatively complicated creatures with central nervous systems and brains. People know their own names. A dog knows its owner’s smell. A pigeon knows its way home. A penguin chick knows its mother. But what does a jellyfish know? Or a plant? Or a one-celled creature? Or a human blastocyst bathing in amniotic fluid?

The kind of knowing that an organism like a plant does is built into the form and chemistry of its tissues. It can’t identify, remember or deliberate the way people can. The kind of knowing people do — at least the kind of knowing we know as knowing — can be conscious, purposeful. Knowing for us is internal, mental, but it is nonetheless physical, structural. 

How do the roots of a dormant plant know it’s spring? Cells in the root respond to changes in moisture and temperature and chemical composition of the soil. How does the plant know that if it starts its annual growth cycle and puts out shoots that break through the surface of the soil into daylight, it won’t meet a killing frost, squandering the stored-up energy that the plant expended on fruitless growth? We might say that it doesn’t know, not for sure. Plants make mistakes. Seasons are variable. It sometimes happens that a late killer frost wipes out spring growth.

But consider the bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, which reliably, every spring, produces one of the first blooms on the forest floor in my nearby (southern Québec) woods. If the resources necessary for its continued survival were depleted beyond a certain point it would be unable to create the structures (leaves with chlorophyll, root systems) it needs to replenish itself and would be unable to reproduce. Yet through years of variable thaws and frosts, this particular configuration of cells that we call sanguinaria has proven flexible enough to accommodate every climactic extreme it has encountered. 

The knowledge a plant possesses has accumulated over two to three billion years of biological evolution. What a plant knows about are aspects of the world that are consistent and relevant to living, like energy and nutrients and defenses against predation. The regularities of the world are inbuilt, inherent in the design of the plant. Living things come into being in collaboration with the world. They are embedded in a consistent world whose regularities are embodied in them. Evolutionary success of an organism can be seen as a successful embodiment, a coherent coupling between a changing organism and its changing world. Survival depends on the cohesion between the organism and its world. 

A complex creature embodies many different kinds of regularities in detailed ways. Perceptual abilities allow a creature more intimate contact with the world. Vision, smell, hearing: Perception gives a creature immediate access to more of the world, embodying a greater range of salient features of the environment in its physical arrangement. The creature encompasses more of the world and at the same time is more tightly embraced by the world, more intricately bound to it. Creatures that possess such sensitivities have evolved in a kind of collaborative contact with electromagnetic radiation (light, heat), with airborne chemical traces (odors), with cyclic variations in air pressure (sound) and with the important relationships these reveal about the world. Organisms have integrated properties of these phenomena into their design and behavior. 

Central nervous systems and complex brains evolved to coordinate and integrate: to coordinate and integrate a large, complex, self-propelled creature with its surroundings, by coordinating and integrating the sensation and control of its parts (which are spaced further and further apart with the evolution of larger, more complex creatures, and which also spread as an individual grows), tightening the link between perceiving and acting. 
Social Knowing

Many species have evolved complex behaviors and practices that depend on cooperation, on the coordination of behavior and on a sensitivity to other members of the same species. The more successful creatures are in merely recognizing each other (as conspecifics, mates, offspring, relatives, group members, individuals) the more detailed and intricate will be their cooperative strategies. Creatures that know more about each other will be more successful in predicting or affecting or evoking each others’ actions, more successful in coordinating themselves — their embodied knowledge — with their conspecifics. They will be more intimate cooperators.

Ants exhibit a panoply of intricate social behaviors, from nest building and organizing to functional differentiation amongst castes to domestication of aphids and fungi. Ant communication is achieved by altering the environment with chemical traces. Bees communicate through ritualized dances. Insect colonies like ant hills and beehives are sometimes likened to superorganisms that collectively exhibit behaviors that resemble functions associated with autonomous creatures.  Even with their limited neural structures insects achieve collective intelligence through coordinated action. 

In any creature where the young are born dependent on parental nurturing, sociality of some kind is necessary for survival. This necessity lies behind the development of many elaborated patterns of familial and group behavior. In some bird species, sexually immature year-old birds will help care for newly hatched siblings.  In some mammals immatures are cared for by a collective. Some animals have evolved large-scale patterns of coordinated behavior: birds flock, mammalian predators hunt in packs, grazing animals herd. 
In these cases, patterns of behavior are stable across many generations. Behaviors may change suddenly in response to drastic environmental change, such as sudden climate shift or a move to a new habitat. But within a relatively stable environment, social behavior in these species will remain relatively stable, changes moving slowly through a population across generations by genetic distribution.


Careful observation of primates has led to the understanding that culture, the process by which patterns of behavior are spread through a population by imitation and learning, is not limited to humans. Our closest cousins, chimpanzees, have a variety of behaviors confined to specific communities and spread by imitation, for example, fishing for termites with a leaf rib or using leaves as toilet paper.  Likewise orangutans, our most distant great ape cousins, exhibit behaviors that are cultural, including the use of simple tools and ritualized greetings.  Primatologist Carel Von Schaik hypothesizes that the ability to coordinate behavior this way must have arisen at least fourteen million years ago amongst the common ancestors of chimpanzees and orangutans.

Emerging humans refined this kind of coordination to new levels of depth and detail. The multiplicity of advantages that detailed coordination afforded made it a potent force in the refinement and spread of physical and behavioral adaptations in humans. It is by means of this refinement that humans have achieved their great numbers and wide global distribution, their ingenuity in adapting to any environment by adapting the environment to themselves. 
According to the archaeological record, since the human evolutionary path split from the other primates about six million years ago, human anatomy underwent a series of alterations that led to the emergence of the familiar human form about 100,000 years ago. Changes to the skeletal structure accompanied a preference for walking upright. Changes to brain size and organization and changes in the vocal production mechanisms accompanied a preference for living together in tightly bound association. About 50,000 years ago the changes precipitated an explosion in human artifact production. Archaeologist Richard Klein has said, “There was a kind of behavioral revolution 50,000 years ago. Nobody made art before 50,000 years ago; everybody did afterward.” 

The most obvious difference between humans and our nearest relatives is in the widespread manufacture and use of complex tools and artifacts — especially symbolic and communicational tools which make possible complex social organization and the ability to accumulate and refine knowledge about the world. 
What these abilities and practices rest on, capitalize on, refine and accentuate, is our highly developed ability for coordinating our internal structure with each other.


Cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has developed a model of brain-culture co-evolution that shows the development of human cognitive capacities as being intertwined with our evolving use of different representational techniques, distinctive human cognitive structures emerging from interactions between people and a human-altered environment.  He identifies three distinct phases occurring with the successive adoption of imitative gesture, symbolic language and writing as strategies of representing the world for the purpose of communication. 
In Donald’s model, humans’ earliest representational strategy, based on physiology and practices most closely resembling those of our primate ancestors, were mimetic, or imitative, using physical gesture (based on neurological findings, cognitive neuroscientist Michael Corballis suggests hand signals predominated ) to indicate and refer in a non-symbolic way, what Donald calls “public action-metaphor,” probably including an expanding repertoire of facial expressions. This style of communication provided improved but still crude tools for modeling and understanding the world, and good tools for coordinating people. Music, dance and theater are practices which probably first arose as pre-linguistic, coordinative strategies based on gestures of the body. 

These are practices by which people use their shared environment to coordinate with each other — not just their behavior but their physical organization. People became more closely attuned by conjointly aligning  aspects of bodies and brains by way of an environment containing a flowering of communicative acts and objects. At the same time, the survival advantages of this increasingly more detailed alignment promoted its spread. The changing cultural environment selected for the malleable brain structures which accommodated such coordination. The faster cultural/neural communicational tools were refined and spread, the faster and more accurately they were able to be refined and spread, in a kind of evolutionary feedback loop. 


But it was with the emergence of language and true symbolic practices that early humans became like modern ones. The use of symbols is widely recognized as the adaptation which truly distinguishes people, what Donald calls “the principle cognitive signature of humans.” 
Language  provides a system of vocal and body gestures by which we can evoke meaningful structures in each other and in ourselves. The gestures we use are minimal relative to the complexity of the relations they can evoke, relying for their communicative power on the activation of equivalent structures in the communicators. 

Successful communication depends on common structure. Linguistic communication requires a shared language: equivalent associations between word sounds and arrangement and internal structures of meaning. Spoken language additionally relies on subtle visual cues between speakers which we unconsciously use all the time. For example, a common phrase like, “Hey, look at that!,” usually accompanied by a movement of the head, a mere tilt of the chin, is an invitation to share attention by directing it to something in the common environment. The phrase is devoid of meaning unless we know the setting and orientation of the speaker and have access to the object of interest. Strategies like gaze-following and sharing of attention are skills acquired from our primate ancestors, necessary for linguistic competence. Such cognitive skills, precursors for the development of sophisticated communication in early humans, were refined in evolution and are further refined in individual development. 

Paul Bloom, a researcher in developmental psychology and child language acquisition at Yale, conducted an experiment which demonstrates one way in which gaze-following and attention-sharing are used in human communication, in this case, the learning of new words by a child. 

A three-year-old child and a researcher faced each other with several objects between them. Some of the objects were novel, created for the experiment. When the researcher said an unfamiliar word while looking at an unfamiliar object, subjects understood the word to be the name of the object at which the researcher was looking and used the name appropriately. In taking this subtle cue from the researcher, a child showed the understanding that another speaker is a person like herself, possessed of knowledge and beliefs that may be different from her own. To perform this act of double inference — that the word the researcher is speaking is a name and that it is the name of this particular object — she must know that other people have an intention in speaking, and that this intention is manifested by familiar patterns of behavior that can be understood through reciprocal patterns of behavior. By looking where the researcher looks, attending to the object of her attention, the child can mean what the researcher means. 

True symbolic language gave its users unprecedented power to model reality individually and collectively, to discover, express, share, accumulate and refine new strategies and previously undetected relationships. Observations of the world and successful behaviors could be shared and refined within a community, spread to other communities, and passed on to succeeding generations. This greatly accelerated the creation and spread of new strategies for living. The ability to rapidly accrete and refine knowledge, building on what has come before, has been called a “ratchet effect.” 
Language is a strong cohesive force. It allows the creation of narratives and myths embedding knowledge of the world and social ideals that cohere a community around a set of beliefs. It gives the power to structurally organize and coordinate ourselves: to organize neural structure of the members of a group by conjoining that structure to a common, collaboratively maintained system of symbols that can be simultaneously external and internal, simultaneously collective and individual. 


The third phase in Donald’s depiction of human cognitive evolution came about independent of obvious physiological changes. The invention of writing around five thousand years ago brought with it a new set of cognitive capabilities. Writing allows us to circumvent the constraints of working memory, which is transient and limited in capacity. We can only think about a limited number of things at once, in limited detail and it takes time and effort, inner rehearsal, to sustain them. By using written symbols to keep track, we can work with an unlimited number of stable elements. 

This change in representational strategy allowed for detailed coordination, communication, and collaboration over time and distance. It made possible the collaborative construction of large and complex theoretical systems for describing and communicating complex relationships. Writing makes us smarter as individuals by giving us the ability to immediately create stable physical anchors for things we’re thinking about. It makes us smarter as a species by providing stable representations which can be shared among peers and transmitted between generations. It provides us with further means to coordinate ourselves in ever more detailed and precise ways. 


Culture is a process through which survival strategies, aspects of world invariance, and successful patterns of interaction are refined and accumulated in the creation and maintenance of public artifacts, practices and systems of organization. E. O. Wilson observed that “culture can be interpreted as a hierarchical system of environmental tracking devices.”  Practices spread through a population and pass between generations with ongoing accumulation of novelty and refinement. 

Culture evolved (and continues to evolve) as the means by which we synchronize ourselves with other members of a community. Culture is a process which gives us common systems of organization to deal with the world around us as individuals and in groups. 
Beyond the functional significance of cultural processes, the evolving cultural environment is the source of salient invariance in the evolution and development of human cognitive structures. Through our use of communicative tools and technologies we have created a human milieu, an environment of intentional objects and systems, that has changed our nature, altered our physical organization and our abilities and changed our relationships with other organisms. 

Human capacities and their functional environment emerged over a span of five to six million years in a relatively small, geographically compact population. Those conditions no longer exist. The human population is now huge, diffused into all the climactic regions of the earth. While we can easily enumerate many of the consequent abilities we have acquired, there is currently no way to find out the kinds of small-scale structural changes that may have evolved over the last fifty thousand years in response to the proliferation of symbolic artifacts. 

It seems clear that at least some of the structural change is directly attributable to the developmental environment, the culturally-structured world in which a baby becomes an adult. (It’s worth noting that ethnically or nationally distinct cultural systems are virtually interchangeable, providing a developmental environment producing adults with very similar cognitive capacities and only superficial differences.) To what extent our fundamental genetic makeup has been altered by the cultural environment over the last fifty thousand years is not knowable by current techniques. 

Modern humans are separated from a small African population by an estimated six thousand generations. While the superficial characteristics we attribute to ethnicity emerged in genetically isolated populations long ago, since then, human genetic mixing has been widespread. Our long-standing habits of wandering and intermarriage throughout history have kept the gene pool swirling. Steve Olson, author of Mapping Human History, says that “the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today probably lived just a few thousand years ago”  An implication for evolution is that no population exists in long-term genetic isolation, which is a condition for accumulating genetic differentiation. Our pool of genetic possibility is widely shared. Humans are much more similar genetically than other species of large animals (partly due to our relative evolutionary youth, partly to our wandering ways).  It is probably impossible to discern what kinds of selective pressures are exerted on the human population as a whole in response to the kinds of changes we see in our current environment. 

As with the emergence of writing, widespread changes in response to cultural affordances are possible independent of genetic change. Even if our genes are not implicated, fundamental biochemical processes of human life are affected by our culturally defined interactions with the world. 


While it seems hardly the case today, from an evolutionary perspective, cultural practices arose from successful interactions between people and the world.   Whether techniques and technologies of communication or of hunting, farming  or child-rearing, they emerged and were refined and preserved over time because of their ability to optimize the resources of the users. 

Over generations, humans evolved symbiotic relationships with certain other species. Cultural practices emerged to optimize and perpetuate these evolving relationships. Agricultural practices that arose in a specific environment could harness complex sets of ecological interdependencies without any knowledge of the hidden complexities. Even the practice of spreading manure on a field deploys trillions of microbes, players in the intricate symbioses that produce the food we rely on. 

Over seven thousand years ago ancestors of the Incas in the Andes mountains first domesticated the potato.  During those years, agricultural practices emerged to deal with the variable geography and harsh climate. These include landscape modifications such as terraced fields and raised beds. They also include a reliance on genetic diversity. These farmers have developed over two hundred different potato cultivars of which a given planting may contain twenty or more. Where some varieties might be susceptible to disease or drought, others are resistant. The traditional systems of Andean agriculture include means for insuring the ongoing viability and fertility of plots through strategies of rotation and polyculture. The symbiotic bacteria that live within the roots of legumes planted as a rotational crop restore nitrogen levels in the soil. 

The potato was introduced to Spain in around 1570. Though at first resisted by a skeptical and conservative populace, within two hundred years it had become a staple of the European diet. Its high nutritional value, high per-acre yield and relative simplicity in cultivation gave it considerable value as a food crop. 

The potato came to Europe without its surrounding agricultural practices and without the wide genetic base that Andean farmers rely on as insurance against drought and disease. When a particular fungus arrived in Europe, it proved deadly to the few cultivars Europeans had imported. In Ireland, where social and political forces had pushed the population into total dependence on a single strain of a single food crop, the results were devastating. A million people died of starvation. 


In the industrialized world subsistence practices have been replaced by commercial agriculture. Taking advantage of economies of scale in the effort to feed an expanding population concentrated in cities, the practices that have arisen have reduced the number of people that directly interact with soil and plants and do the actual farming, but increased the numbers that expect to benefit indirectly from the production and distribution of food. Think of the number of people that derive (nonnutritive) advantage from food: the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, the petroleum and transportation industries, banks and insurance companies, processing and packaging, marketing and retailing, not to mention all of their shareholders — all part of the industrial food chain. 

Monoculture is a modern solution to the problem of feeding the masses. Millions of acres are devoted to the uniform production of genetically uniform crops. The inherent weakness in monoculture as exemplified by the Irish potato famine, susceptibility to catastrophic infection, is managed by chemical means. Fields are routinely prepared for planting by eradicating all life with a series of powerful antibacterials, fungicides, defoliants and insecticides. (One teaspoon of compost rich organic soil hosts 600 million to 1 billion beneficial microbes from 15,000 species.) The developing plants are also regularly treated. Chemical nutrients are provided via automated irrigation systems. After spraying with certain pesticides, fields are too toxic for people to enter. Symbiosis becomes antibiosis.
This type of agriculture has certain disadvantages for the long term. Modern economic strategies maximize immediate gain by ignoring future consequences. By arresting the life-processes that constitute normal soil biology, the intricate interactions of beneficial microbes are removed from the process and the soil is rapidly depleted of naturally occurring nutrients. The widespread introduction of antibiotics into the environment puts pressure on bacteria to evolve survival strategies like chemical resistance, rendering a particular antibiotic useless for the future. The loss of heterogeneous landscapes has led to the decline of many species of birds and mammals. The global pool of genetic variation is shrinking.

Monoculture extends beyond the field through industrial processing to the consumer, to whom food is presented as a uniform product. The most efficient way for a corporation to get its comestible product to market is to process and package millions of identical items and market and publicize uniform products. The very ideal of the perfect apple or French fry, that such a thing should exist and be desirable, is a direct result of the same social forces that actively promote agricultural monoculture. 
What are the essential differences between ant agriculture, traditional subsistence agriculture and modern industrial agriculture? 

One obvious difference is time scale. Whereas the ants have had fifty million years to work out the details, human farmers have had ten thousand years while the industrial system has developed over the last fifty. 

While the ants’ system is truly emergent, arising directly from evolutionary interactions between species and environment and spreading through populations slowly by genetic means, the Andean system of potato cultivation came out of deliberate human trial and error and was refined and spread by the participants amongst themselves. Subsistence farmers working intensively and continuously with plants and soil acquire a feeling for patterns of interaction that a farmer using automated means can never know. Inherent learning builds direct knowledge, even without a theoretical understanding of underlying principles, leading to successful strategies of interaction. Over a long course of trial and error, Andean potato growers have encountered and accommodated seven thousand years of environmental variation. 

The modern agro-industrial approach attempts to control those factors and systems of which it has explicit knowledge. Unfortunately, due to a sort of rationalist hubris, this knowledge, though constantly expanding, is applied as if it were complete and comprehensive. Furthermore, cultural practices are not promoted and propagated by the practitioners themselves but by the institutions that have arisen around agriculture: government regulatory bodies, financial institutions, chemical producers. In traditional societies, cultural practices are developed and maintained by the practitioners, while in a modern industrial society they are often sustained by outside agencies. 

This does not imply that traditional agriculture is necessarily better, more productive, more adaptive than modern technological agriculture. What it suggests is that a technology that has not emerged from sustained real-world interactions may not encompass real-world complexity as finely. An explicitly devised system can account for only those characteristics that are explicitly recognized and designed in. 

The cultural systems that have emerged which control modern agriculture are responding to a wide range of pressures well beyond the scope of maintaining and optimizing an intricate symbiotic economy between people, land and crops. While the ultimate goal of agriculture as a whole is sustainable sustenance, the goal of the agents who promote and propagate industrial agricultural technologies is continuously increasing returns in the shortest possible time. The details of the symbiosis, the long-term requirements of the larger biological systems, are not relevant, not part of the equation.

Hi-tech systems of agriculture are based on 19th and 20th century technologies and economies which are built on the myth of human dominance, the fallacy that humans are separate from nature and in control of it, have “dominion” over it. Current technologies, with their reliance on the laboratory, in vitro methodologies and an antibiotic practical philosophy, are not equipped with the tools (neither technical nor social) for encompassing the kind of dynamic complexity we see in real-world biological processes. Yet there is no implication that a future science with a more holistic approach to nature that includes a complete account of the complex interactions of planetary life is not emerging to provide a better understanding of the world and our place in it — as well as improved systems of agriculture. In fact such systems are emerging today with increasing interest in techniques of organic agriculture and a growing unease about toxins in the food chain.

In industrial agricultural practices we see human engineering of the modern variety proving inadequate to the task of managing complex biological systems. Responsibility for transmission of the cultural practices is situated far from the arena where such practices are applied. This is a marked change in the process by which practices are selected and disseminated.

Song and Story

Similar patterns can be seen in the way we manage other, more intimate cultural realms and resources. 

Narrative and song and artistic practice in general have been primary media of cultural interaction for millennia. No human society exists without them. Merlin Donald says, “Stories are still the only universally accessible form of human thought. They can still move people to undertake the most incredible projects and journeys, and drive people to attempt almost anything.”  I think this point can be sharpened. Stories and songs are so fundamental to our development and basic nature that it seems we have a need for them. As people and especially children have always done, we infer invariance, generalize, extract meaning and ascribe significance to the moral framework that stories reveal, weaving them into our worldview. 

For early humans narrative and song provided a significant part of the environment in which cognitive evolution proceeded. In preliterate societies such practices constitute the principal means of social coordination and knowledge preservation. Practices persist and are propagated by the users who benefit. Good songs and stories survive when people sing them and tell them to their children. Stories and songs are part of children’s developmental environment in every society, part of the complex emergent biological system by which we manage structural coordination.

For most of the people living in the industrialized countries narrative and song have been trivialized, downgraded to the status of “mere” entertainment; their primary source, electronic media centrally programmed for the sole purpose of providing ever-increasing gain to the industries responsible. The first job of a popular artist, or in the current lexicon, a content provider, is to interpret the constraints of the controlling system in order to reach the marketplace, to convince the media purveyors (TV networks, film studios, record labels) of an artist’s or project’s commercial potential. Viewers, known to the television industry as “eyeballs,” once active cultural participants, have become passive recipients, no longer part of the process of refinement and preservation. Profitable stories persist as reruns, “in syndication,” songs as “golden oldies,” but the big money is always in novelty. There is little advantage to vendors of entertainment to have a market crowded with timeless classics. As in the fashion industry, one season’s creations and their surrounding aesthetic will be quickly superseded by the next. 

In the commercialization of our cognitive ecology we see a change in the process that selects which songs and stories survive and disseminate. 

After fifty years of dominating the American cultural environment, television, the medium that sells eyeballs to advertisers, is penetrating to the farthest reaches of human settlement. Stories and songs that have persisted in human culture for millennia are being displaced by the disposable products of today’s industrial monoculture. Just as genetic diversity has its advantages, so does cultural diversity, and as we forge ahead into the future, particular cultural losses may someday prove tragic. 

While this trend may be shifting with the rise of the internet, a more cooperative medium  allowing decentralized access to a public information space, the technology is still in its infancy. Widespread computer use is confined to the industrialized world. There are a variety of experiments underway to introduce computers to people who have never had access to them before. In New Delhi, street kids quickly figured out how to surf the internet on computers in public kiosks.  A Swedish project is providing the nomadic Saami people with the technology to track reindeer herds and to keep widely spaced communities in touch with each other.  But it remains to be seen how the human-technological interaction will play out as the internet reaches beyond the industrialized world.

Human attempts to explicitly manage complex dynamic systems produce unforeseen consequences. What long-term effects electronic technologies may have on human cognitive capacities are unknown. What social effects may result from the ongoing depletion of cultural resources likewise. And the evolutionary consequences of our evolving human environment are impossible to evaluate. Yet such questions are worth considering as we refine and invest power and authority in the institutions which manage the developmental and functional environment of our most human capacities.

If cultural evolution is a directed search through design space that discovers optimal arrangements by trial and error, patterns of varying stability will emerge and evolve. If humanity’s current experiments are less successful, our future ones may be more so. But even if we blunder from an optimal peak or plateau into a Death Valley in design space and succeed in unleashing an environmental cataclysm, it is unlikely that we could destroy all life. According to the archaeological record, life has already withstood impacts that dwarf human destructive firepower. 

Evolutionary experiments will continue, even if it is left to the bacteria, once again, to carry them out.

  This discussion comes from James J. Gibson via Ellie Epp (2002)  Being About  <http:/www.sfu.ca/~elfreda/theory/beingabout/being.html>
  Richard Dawkins (1996) Climbing Mount Improbable  WW Norton
  Tom Wakeford (2001) Liaisons of Life Wiley and Sons
  E. O. Wilson (1971) The Insect Societies Belknap/Harvard p. 21
  Cameron R. Currie, Ulrich G. Mueller, David Malloch (1999) “The agricultural pathology of ant fungus gardens” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 96, July 1999  7998-8002,
  Michael Pollan (2001) The Botany of Desire Random House p. xxi
  Lynn Margulis (1998) Symbiotic Planet Basic
  For a detailed discussion see Epp, op cit.
  E. O. Wilson, op cit., p.1
  E. O. Wilson (1975) Sociobiology Belknap/Harvard p.125
  Andrew Whiten, J. Goodall, W.C. McGrew, T. Nishida, V. Reynolds, Y. Sugiyama, C. E. G. Tutin, R. W. Wrangham, C. Boesch, (1999) “Cultures in Chimpanzees” Nature, 399, 682-685
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  quoted — and contested — in Tim Appenzeller (1998) “Art: Evolution or Revolution?” Science 282 November 20, 1998, p.1451
  Merlin Donald (1991) The Origin of the Modern Mind  Harvard
  Michael Corballis (2002) From Hand to Mouth Princeton
  Merlin Donald (1997) “Précis of Origins of the Modern Mind” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16 737-791. <http://www.bbsonline.org/documents/a/00/00/05/66/bbs00000566-00/bbs.donald.html>
  Paul Bloom (2000) “How Children Learn the Meanings of Words” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24 <http://www.bbsonline.org/documents/a/00/00/04/32/bbs00000432-00/>
  Michael Tomasello (1999)  The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition Harvard
  E. O. Wilson (1975), op cit., p. 560
  Steve Olson (2002) “The Royal We” Atlantic Monthly May 2002 <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2002/05/olson.htm>
  Steve Olson (2001) “The Genetic Archaeology of Race” Atlantic Monthly April 2001 <www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/04/olson-p1.htm>
  Kevin Laland, John Odling-Smee, Marcus Feldman (1999) “Niche Construction, Biological Evolution and Cultural Change” Behavioral and Brain Sciences  22  577-660
  The details of potato cultivation are from Michael Pollan, op cit.
  Merlin Donald (2000) “The Cognitive Foundations of Institutional Knowledge” p. 8 Working paper for the Second KNEXUS Research Symposium <http://iis.stanford.edu/docs/knexus/MerlinDonald.pdf>
  Rory O’Connor (2002) “Reporter’s Notebook: Making Connections” Frontline PBS October, 2002 <http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/india/connection.html>
  BBC News (2002) “Hi-tech answer to reindeer tracking” November 20, 2002 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/2491501.stm>
  Lynn Margulis, op cit., p. 12

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Dispatch #22: Matchwork by Sasha Chavchavadze


The medium of matches combined with paper is a perfect metaphor for the uncertain and volatile culture in which we live. Though the work has an anarchic aspect – the potential for destruction by fire, the need for an explosion of meaning in a culture that has lost its bearings, it is not rooted in destruction or entropy. I use matches as a tool to describe the chemistry of change often brought about by loss and upheaval. Unlit matches, tiny units of energy which can save a life or kill, evoke both the nurturing and the destructive sides of human nature. The formal appeal of the work contradicts the element of danger, implying the integral nature of impermanence. The tension of the work, as in life, is in the potential for upheaval. 
      In a series of mixed-media installations and works on paper, I apply thousands of wooden matches perpendicularly to paper with glue, interspersed with ink drawings and “splinter narratives”. Matches explore the archeology of loss, slowing down time, breaking it apart “stick by stick”, exploring it as form and matter. The process, like seeding or knitting, arrests time in the moment. The match tips float above the surface of the paper creating a delicate staccato, and an ethereal second surface, in patterns, grids or linear formations. Sometimes the paper is rolled or folded, forcing the matches to conform to the surface, and creating three-dimensional objects. 
      The work grew out of a description of a match game described by Vladimir Nabokov in Speak Memory, one of the many visual devices he uses to come to terms with exile. Matches lend themselves to the language of fragmentation and loss (splinters, shards), suggesting the shifting of patterns, both internal and external, as one life is replaced by another (match games). For Nabokov fragmentation was not an end in itself, but became a form of syncopation as he searched for geometries and “thematic designs” in the overlay of past, present, and disparate parts of the world. When placed in patterns, grids and spirals, matches lend themselves to this rhythmic language, even suggesting the hidden geometries and cosmologies of physics.
      The work is rooted in my own family history of violent upheaval and migration: my grandparents’ loss of an entire ornate life in Russia due to revolution and execution, the family’s re-composition into American immigrant culture, and my father’s subsequent thirty-year career as a CIA operative. The recent series, “cold/war/baby”, is a literal reference to my birth in Berlin in 1954 (my father would push my baby carriage while he made contact with his agents), and a figurative reference to the Cold War legacy of nuclear arms.  American and Russian history, from the Revolutions to the Cold War, are revisited and sometimes “matched.”

Click on any picture to see full-sized image:

Title List (as labeled by each file)
Medium: wooden matches, ink, on paper
1. “Nabokov’s Matches #1″
3. “Nina’s Brush”
4. “Nabokov’s Matches 2,3,4,5″
6. “Nina’s Garden”
7. “Match Knife and Spoon”
9. “Disappearing Brooch”
28. “Songlines”
29. “cold/war/baby #1″
31. “All Worlds…#1,2,3,4″
34. “cold/war/baby # 2″
37. “Nabokov’s Ring”

Dispatch #21: Introduction to Keeper’s Memory : The Kim Esteve Art Collection and a Narrative History of Chacara Flora

by Edward Leffingwell

      I had heard about this great scene in Sao Paulo revolving around a man called Kim Esteve. In February of l999 the opportunity came to check it out. Kim is a bosom buddy of the New York-based photographer Jonathan Becker, and Jonathan and I   were doing a piece for Vanity Fair on the fabulous estancias in the lake district of northern Patagonia, so we stopped at Chacara Flora on the way down and spent a few days with Kim and his companion , Barbara Leary, and their interesting and entertaining friends. The scene was physically, esthetically, and in terms of sheer boisterous bohemian geniality, everything it was cracked up to be. Kim himself was an affable, unflappable man of about sixty,  a benevolent, Buddha-like Cheshire cat,  who in the Brazilian expression, não esquenta a cabeça, doesn’t get worked up about things,  a  magnanimous soul who  genuinely seemed to derive more  satisfaction from  nurturing the talents of others  than from basking in any personal limelight of his own. A great deal of vision and erudition, an extremely refined esthetic sensibility, had obviously gone into creating such a magnificent   space as Kim had done on his property, but Kim gave you the impression that it had all just sort of happened.   He referred to himself modestly as its “keeper,” when  in fact, the whole thing, down to the last detail, was Kim’s vision and energy and it deserves to be regarded as an epic, world class work of art in its own right.        Kim calls his compound McMillen’s Place in homage to its previous owner, an adventurous and original American who pioneered the first transcontinental passenger plane route due north from Rio and Sao Paul through the Amazon. Before that, early in the twentieth century, it was the homestead of a German landscaper, who grew ornamental trees, shrubs, and flowers on the property for his business, which is why the whole forested district then still on the outskirts of the city was called Chacara Flora. In the thirties Chacara Flora was developed into a residential community which attracted mainly foreigners living in Brazil.  Kim grew up down the street, where his parents had a large property, part of which is still wooded with the original forest and is said to be the home of several sloths. 

     Today Chacara Flora is the Bel-Air  of Sao Paulo, a lush, magical district of sumptuous homes secreted behind high walls and exuberant tropical vegetation that is a world apart and a welcome respite from the relentless verticality of most of Sao Paulo. In the middle of it is McMillen’s Place, a little Garden of Eden the size of several football fields, planted with a spongy lawn of Bermuda grass, roses and a vegetable garden. The walls of the buildings are covered with the little dark green leaves of intricate vines.   At the top of the property is a large copper-roofed gallery hung with the work of some of Brazil’s most provocative and seditious modern artists, which and whom Kim collects.  Many of his close friends— the ones we were entertained by for several nights in a row–  are the very artists whose works are on his walls, like the  magic realist Wesley Duke Lee, a  descendant of Robert E. and the tobacco Dukes whose father brought Methodism to Brazil and who perhaps to counterbalance the radical anarchy of his art is a staunch monarchist (So was Richard Evans Schultes, the legendary Harvard ethno-botanist who spent years in the  Amazon collecting and personally taking hallucinogens used by various local Indians.)  , and the fiendishly ingenious surrealist Bulgarian-Brazilian Antóno Peticov, who during the military dictatorship lived in exile in London with Caetano Veloso and  Gilberto Gil, and was a prime mover in the formation of the iconoclastic music group, Os Mutantes. Other local characters  rounded out the raucous klatch at Kim’s bar  like the jovial expat photographer James Granger, son of the British actor James Stewart Granger, who fetched up in Sao Paulo twenty years ago and has been living there, “by the seat of my pants,” he told me, ever since. They called themselves the macacos velhos, the old monkeys, who have seen it all. Jonathan belongs to this fraternity. Had MacMillen been alive, he undoubtedly would have been a member. You can almost feel his presence at the bar. 

         Late in the morning we would walk over to Kim’s parents’ property for a swim with Barbara’s white Labrador, Harry, growling and raising his leg at the gate of each passing high-walled compound along the road as if he owned the place, activating the guard dogs within, shattering the sultry silence until all of Chacara Flora was a cacophony of frenzied barking. Harry is a dog’s dog, who leaps into the air and snags tennis balls swatted way out over the lawn. Dogs have always been an important part of the scene, since the days of McMillen. 

        There are not many people in Brazil who have a sense of the past, a sense of place, and a preservationist, curatorial leaning the way Kim does. It is a now-oriented, sensual tropical society. The past is soon forgotten; as per the expression já era,” it’s history”.  Not many Paulistanos would have left their parents’ house and the pool house as originally constructed and furnished, so it is a hacienda-style, art-deco time-warp of the forties.  The décor, with its heavy brocaded curtains and dark wood-paneled study and somber colonial portraits and furniture, is that of a conservative businessman who takes his Spanish heritage seriously.    The Esteves are of old Catalan hidalgo stock. They made their mark as cotton shippers in Savanna and New Orleans. In the thirties, Kim’s father (Kim is the Catalan nickname for Joaquin, decided to light out for Brazil, the last frontier, and made a fortune exporting cotton and coffee, leaving his family comfortably off for the foreseeable future. This property, which is waiting for approval to be developed is interesting because it contains some of the last few acres of the original tropical rainforest in Sao Paulo—I suggested that Kim get in touch with Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution who coined the term biodiversity and is conducting a long-term, ongoing study of the minimum critical size of ecosystems, monitoring various-sized fragments of rainforest outside Manaus. It is also interesting because it shows how the esthetic sensibilities of both Kim and Charles, who did the pool house and then Kim’s gallery fifty years later,  have come light years. 

        Kim purchased McMillen’s place in l972. It was in shambles. There he was able to envision something on a scale and in a grand style that not many people attempt any more.  Only Stanley Marsh of Amarillo and a few others come to mind. The heyday of this sort of thing was a few centuries ago.  Kim’s scene—perhaps that’s why I felt so immediately at home in it—reminded me my ancestor’s estate in the Ukraine before the Russian revolution. There was a superb collection of Old Masters in the big-columned house; one of the ancestors had collected for the Hermitage, and formal banquets, with a liveried servant behind each chair, inside a huge hayloft. The painter and poet Taras Schevschenko, who became Ukraine’s greatest culture hero, was a regular guest. Schevschenko was a serf, and one of my great grandfathers bought a painting from Bryulov and Bryulov used the money to buy his freedom. Schevschenko, I imagine, was probably like Neil Williams, the Navajo abstract painter, a vital down-to-earth working- class man who painted in the same rebellious spirit that Chet Baker, say, played the trumpet and shot heroine. Kim befriended Williams on Longf Island and invited him to Brazil and even built a studio for him on the property.  One of my great uncles inherited a fortune in real estate from his uncle and sunk it entirely into butterflies, financing 80 some collecting trips around the world, much the way Kim sunk his inheritance into Brazilian modern art.

       Barbara, the last wife of Timothy Leary (and the second I know, Nena Thurman who left him to marry Robert Thurman, Tibetan professor at Columbia, their daughter the stunning Uma) is a serious cook, and she served up one ambrosial meal after another. A close friend of Helmut Newton, she was also a fine portrait photographer and took great pictures of all the guests. Guomar a radiant, loving woman in her fifties who possessed Kim’s Buddha-like calm, helped her and did the housecleaning and laundry and was an indispensable presence on the scene, an angel. 

       After a few days we went down to Kim’s beach house in Camburi here the party continued, with a crowd of lively Brazilians, several of whom were velhos macacos. Then we continued to Buenos Aires. Jonathan had persuaded Kim to join us for a few days, and he was a great traveling companion, going along with the flow, never impatient or complaining. He arranged for us to visit the Helft collection of mostly Argentine modern art. Marion Nelft, Jorge’s ex-wife, showed us around. Jorge Helft in the MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art’s, international council with Kim.  It was a real treat.  Then we continued to the estancias, which in the summer become a revolving house party, with endless people visiting back and forth for days at a time.  Then Kim went home. I thought he was one of the nicest people I’d ever met. I didn’t see him again for three years, until this spring, when my wife and I took our three little boys, who were on spring break, to see the teeming wildlife in the Pantanal of Mato Grosso.  We stopped for four days at Chácara Flora on the way back to Rio. This time I noticed details I hadn’t the first time, like the wainscoting in the McMillen house which Kim designed himself and had done by two local master carpenters. Most of it is painted green, and it is the most elegant wainscoting I have ever seen. There is nothing to compare with it in the Adirondacks. I think Kim was inspired to do this when he lived in Wainscott, Long Island, on Georgica Pond, where the use of thin beaded paneling first came into vogue. 
       There is a new school of art criticism that studies the psychology of collecting.  Hans Magnus Ensterberger, for instance, argues in Collecting: An Unruly Passion, that people collect to compensate for early childhood traumata. One of Henry Clay Frick’s great-nieces has recently written a book whose thesis is that every painting Frick acquired was an attempt to replace his daughter, who died at the age of nine when a safety-pin lodged in her throat.  Susan M. Pearce’s book, On Collecting: An Investigation Into Collecting in the European Tradition, has chapters on Collecting Culture, Collecting Oneself, Collecting Relationships, Collecting in Time, Collecting in Space; Collecting the Other, Within and Without; Collecting the Other, Beyond and Before; Collecting The Shape of Things to Come. Of these, the one that most applies to Kim is collecting relationships. Like the old breed of publishers—Alfred Knopf, Roger Straus– who formed close friendships with their favorite authors, Kim has gotten personally involved with his artists. I see no evidence of any deep-seated, subconscious drive; his motives for collecting seem straightforward.   “I collect contemporary art because it is what is happening now, and I collect what speaks to me,” he explained one evening. “I don’t collect as an investment, to have names on the wall, although of course you don’t want to lose money. Usually I know the artist personally, so I have some sense of the mind that produced the work.” 

        What about the mind that produced the scene?  Kim is someone who transcends national identity and the confines of any one culture; he is what my wife calls “an international human being.” On the one hand, he is completely Brazilian, the epitome of Brazilian paciência and sweetness. He speaks Portuguese with great relish for the expressiveness and playfulness of the language, and has the Brazilian sense of the absurd.  But he is also completely American. His mother was from Dallas, so he has Texan traits, as well:  a slow laconic delivery that misses nothing, a tendency to think big and go for it. Then there is another strain of Kim’s American-ness, which was forged in New York and  on Long Island: artsy, haut-bohemian, old WASP, sea- and sailboat-loving. Kim is what my grandmother, who lived in Locust Valley for the second half of her life, used to call “cozy.” This is a characteristic of old money, of people who are so secure in who they are that they don’t have to impress you, so they are completely relaxed and easy to be with.
Some of them cut end up having a radiance verging on enlightenment, and Kim I would say is one.  

          Added to this Northern graciousness is a Southern one— from when the Esteves lived in Savannah and New Orleans—  impeccable, instinctive manners of the Spanish blueblood and this begins to suggest what a multi-layered yet completely unassuming and accessible individual Kim is.  


         I am already scheming to write a Dispatch about the sertão for my Website: DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com, which will occasion further interaction with Kim and his scene and will hopefully bring me into contact with one of his most interesting artists, Maciej Babinski, who lives up in this torrid northeastern desert backland. On my last visit, Kim and I spoke a lot about Brazilian and world politics, which I hadn’t realized before he takes a keen interest in and is very much up on. We agreed that Brazil is looking pretty good at the moment, relative to the rest of the world, even though it has its own problems, like the twenty-three million people who are living on less than a dollar a day and the still pervasive mordomia and coronelismo in the government.  Brazil is far from the fray, a huge, complete, bustling world of its own. There is a lot of one-on-one crime, but no ethnic violence. People on the whole are very loving to each other.    Some of the wildest and most inventive art is coming from Brazil, so I am glad that Kim is finally getting his due with this fine, detailed appreciation by Edward Leffingwell. As Peticov put it, “Kim had the opportunity to do something, and he did something very interesting and important.”   

Dispatch #20: The Rape of the Cumberland Plateau

(originally appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of On Earth, the Natural Resource Defense Council’s magazine)

   The Flyover      If there were an international tribunal that prosecuted crimes against the planet, like the one in The Hague that deals with crimes against humanity, what is happening on the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Tennessee would undoubtedly be indictable.
         The crime—one of many clandestine ecocides American corporations are committing around the world—has taken place over three decades. About 200,000 acres on this tableland have already been clear-cut by the paper industry, and the cutting continues. Where some of the most biologically rich hardwood forest in North America’s temperate zone (which extends from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada) once grew, there are now row after row of loblolly pine trees genetically engineered to yield the most pulp in the shortest time. But  the paper industry’s insatiable appetite for timber has met with unexpected competition from an equally voracious insect. In the last four years, an estimated  50 to 70 percent of the pines planted on the plateau have been devoured by the southern pine beetle. The entire South has been ravaged by the worst outbreak in its history of this native predator of pine trees, caused by the tremendous increase in the amount of pine available for it to eat on the industry plantations that have replaced the native forest. Unable to salvage its dead timber, the paper industry has been losing hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet it seems still committed to destroying what remains of the extraordinarily lush forest on the Cumberland Plateau, which, along with eastern Tennessee’s Great Valley and the Cumberland Mountains, has the highest concentration of endangered species in North America. The loss of biodiversity is tragic, but also absurd economically; it doesn’t even make good business sense. 
         Not many people are aware of what is taking place. Nearly ninety percent of the Cumberland Plateau is in private hands and exempt from all but a few government regulations. The federal and state agencies that are supposed to be regulating the paper, timber, and mining industries are populated with former timber executives and have come to view them as clients whose permits and projects should be facilitated rather than scrutinized. The cozy relationship that exists between Tennessee’s public and private sectors, and the impunity and magnitude of the environmental destruction that is taking place on the plateau, is something you might expect in Guatemala or deep in the Brazilian Amazon, not in our republic, where there are supposed to be laws that protect our wilderness treasures and prosecute conflicts of interest. But a quarter of the world’s paper, and 60 percent of America’s wood products,  are being produced in the South,  and the will to address the abuses of the paper industry, which contributes millions of dollars to the campaign coffers of politicians around the country, just isn’t there— certainly not in Tennessee.
       There’s another reason for the lack of public awareness: Much of the devastation is  hidden from view by thin “beauty strips” of native forest that have been left along the plateau’s highways. The only way to get the full picture is to go up in a small plane and see it from the air.  

           SO EARLY THIS PAST SEPTEMBER I took off from Knoxville, Tennessee, in a Cessna 180 piloted by Hume Davenport, the founder of  a nonprofit, conservation-minded aviation service called SouthWings. Hume, whose ancestors came to the Cumberlands in l801, has provided his” flying classroom” to dozens of journalists, environmentalists, and policy-makers trying to grasp the enormity of what is happening on the plateau.  
           The Cumberlands (some dispense with the s) are made up of the Cumberland Plateau and the mountains and foothills on its edges. The plateau itself is a 400-mile-long tableland that is the tail end of the Appalachian Plateau, and extends from West Virginia and Virginia down into Kentucky and Tennessee on a southwesterly diagonal, and peters out in Alabama.  The part in Tennessee tapers from 55 miles wide to about 38, and contains 6,875 square miles— an area larger than the state of Connecticut). About 85 percent of  it  is still covered with the native woodland. Some of the last remaining large stands of the Appalachian mixed mesophytic forest (where a variety of hardwoods grow in moderately moist conditions) are here, but the plateau was “pretty much raked over the coals a century ago,” Hume explained, and most of the trees are second-growth.  East of the plateau, plunging a thousand feet in a steep escarpment that was a formidable barrier for the westering pioneers, until Daniel Boone forged a route through the Cumberland Gap in l769, is the Great Valley of East Tennessee, where Knoxville and Chattanooga are, and where the Tennessee River winds. 
     Soon we were over the Cumberland Mountains, whose peaks range from 2,000 to 4,000 feet.  Hume’s aeronautical map indicated  “numerous strip mines,” and   we could see that some of the mountains had been cored like apples. Others had been decapitated, or “cross-ridge mined,” in the industry’s euphemism. The heyday of the mining was between l920 and l970, and its scars were mostly overgrown with vegetation. But recent improvements in smokestack filters have renewed interest in burning coal, and mining is making a comeback. We circled Zeb Mountain, which the Robert Clear Coal Corporation had just gotten a permit to cross-ridge mine. Roads and sediment ponds had been put in on its slopes, and the trees had been clear-cut, like a person being shaved before an operation. Mud was oozing down into a stream below, smothering the habitat of a striking little fish called the black-side dace, which is only found in 30 streams on earth.
            “Mining and clearcutting go hand in hand,” Hume explained.  
            In nearby Pioneer, we made a few passes over the Royal Blue chip mill, which is owned by International Paper, the biggest paper company in the south. A chip mill is a satellite facility, where hardwoods of smaller diameter and plantation pines are diced into wafers that are taken to a mother mill, to be dissolved into pulp. The larger hardwoods are sawed up into boards at a sawmill. 
There are 259 chip and pulp mills in the 13 southern states. More than a hundred of them were constructed between l987 and l997, when chip exports (mostly to Japan) escalated by 500 percent. Five mills get their wood from the plateau. Royal Blue alone eats up 7,000 acres of hardwood trees a year—oaks, tulip poplars, and half a dozen other species— from within a 75-mile radius. We could see  two miniature logging trucks coming down the highway far below us, another being unloaded, and four waiting behind it. The logs were being picked up by a huge claw suspended from a crane that fed them into the chipper, which spewed the chips out a pipe directly onto railroad cars that would take them to International Paper’s mother mill in Cortland, Alabama. Most of the wood here is “gatewood”: No questions asked about where the timber comes from or the manner in which it was harvested. 
     WE BANKED southwest, and heading right down the middle of the plateau, began to see massive devastation. “This isn’t ma-and-pa, let’s-clear-40 acres stuff,” Hume yelled through the headphones. “It’s big, industrial tree-farming.  When they took out the big trees a century ago, at least they left the little ones to take their place. But now they’re scraping off the soil, right down to the bedrock. Because it’s thin and sandy, they have to spray massive amounts of fertilizer from crop dusters so the pine trees can grow. It’s complete insanity. Most of the trees they’re planting are being chewed up by beetles. Look at these plantations. It’s a graveyard.” 
      Below us vast stands of dead gray loblolly pine, covering hundreds of acres, had been skeletonized by the southern pine beetle, Dendroctonus frontalis. The beetle breaks out every 10 to 30 years—what triggers the outbreak is not understood—and attacks native longleaf, shortleaf, Virginia, black, yellow, Table Mountain, and white pines that are sparsely scattered in the hardwood forest. But with many tens of thousands of acres of monoculture pine on the plateau, the beetles have been having a field day.  The beetles are even chewing up saplings and the prize conifers in people’s yards.  In a race against the plague, the paper companies are being forced to cut their timber before it is mature, creating a glut of scrawny “bugwood” on the market. This has brought the price of pulp to a record low. Coupled with the hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenue from the timber the beetles have beaten them to, and competition from Canada’s timber industry, the South’s paper companies are in deep trouble.
       The biggest landowner on the southern plateau is Bowater, the largest manufacturer of newsprint in the country and one of the largest of the free-sheet coated paper that cut glossy magazines and catalogues are printed on. Now, as we flew south over Crossville, the commercial hub of the southern plateau and a burgeoning retirement community, houses abruptly gave way to Bowater’s industrial tree-farms and huge squares of mangled wasteland that had been hacked out of  the forest and not yet planted. “This plateau has been ransacked,” Hume said sadly. He took us over a particularly vast mutilated swath that some activists have dubbed the Triangle of Destruction, but it is only one of many. 
     The only clear-cutting I have seen on this scale was in the Amazon 25 years ago. Every merchantable stick below us had been taken, streambeds and banks had been torn up and gouged by recklessly driven machines, and the understory shrubs and stripped-off branches and other debris had been bulldozed into windrows, some of which had been torched and were shooting up sooty flames. “It used to be just Bowater,” Hume said, “but in the last few years International Paper and J.M. Huber—another paper company—have gotten into the act. When Huber showed up in ’97, we saw a vast increase, maybe a doubling, of the clear-cutting.” Four million additional acres of the South’s forests are being converted to pine plantations each year, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and the conversion rate is expected to double by 2040. 
       On the plateau, this translates to an annual holocaust of about fourteen million trees. What’s driving this? Consider that a quarter of the world’s paper is consumed in the South.  The average American consumes about half a ton a year— that’s factoring in toddlers and oldsters, people on life support. This is 111 times the per capita consumption in India, 300 times that of some African countries.  Much of this is glossy catalogues and other junk mail, which I get a two-foot stack of each week; the sections of the paper that I chuck without even glancing at them (the Washington Post and other newspapers are printed on Bowater paper taken straight from the Plateau); the inch-high stack of napkins we’re handed whenever we get take-out; the 10 feet of toilet paper we rip off to wipe ourselves. As one environmentalist put it arrestingly: “We’re wiping our asses with habitat.” 

The Forest Primeval

      The Appalachian mixed mesophytic forest, which still covers five-sixths of the Cumberland Plateau, evolved without disturbance for hundreds of million of years, because the glaciers never got this far south.  Genetically distinct populations of plants, salamanders, and other organisms arose in the hollows, coves, and gulfs that pleat the plateau.  There are nine endemic species of lungless plethodon salamander here.  But amphibians are among the first victims of deforestation and of the dessication and silting up of streams that ensue. The plateau also boasts 20 mussel and 40 crayfish species that evolved here and are found nowhere else. Even more diverse are the fish: 231 species, of which 67 are endemic: 16 minnows, five suckers, two cave springfish, one killifish, one pygmy sunfish, one sculpin, and an incredible 41 darters, and new ones are being discovered all the time. Others are probably being wiped out before they can even be identified. 
      The Cumberland Plateau has the highest concentration of caves and of cave-dwelling invertebrate species in North America. Three species of bat are endangered or threatened, and 12 of rodent. The plateau is also a major nexus for migratory birds, a pit stop for many species as they wend their way back and forth from South America or the Caribbean to the Canadian boreal, as well as the home of many year-round inhabitants. 
       The original forest still stands in only a few places on the plateau. Starting in the l870’s, as the Northeast was industrializing and its cities were mushrooming, there was a great demand for wood. The agents of coal and timber corporations came down and hornswoggled the local unschooled people of the Cumberlands out of their trees, paying 40 cents (in the coin of the day) for a 175-foot-tall tulip poplar, offering a new squirrel gun for 3,000 acres of timber rights. Pretty much every decent-sized tree, except the ones in the most inaccessible coves and hollows, was sawed down and floated down the Cumberland or Sequatchie rivers, or beginning in the l890’s, taken out by rail. The logging boom ended in l901. Then they went after the coal, and in the seventies, when most of that was gone, they started in on the trees again.  

      HUME BROUGHT HIS CESSNA DOWN at a small air strip belonging to the University of the South, in Sewanee, 50 miles south of the Triangle of Destruction. The university has a 10,000-acre campus that includes most of Shakerag Hollow, where some of the last virgin, old-growth forest in the state survives.   We picked our way down a steep trail into it with Jonathan Evans, a plant ecologist at the university, and his colleague David Haskell, who is an animal ecologist.
      David, a lanky, long-bearded Englishman who looked like the young Alfred Russell Wallace, or one of the other Victorian naturalists, said he’d like to get his hands on the local fishermen who came down into the hollow with buckets and filled them with salamanders for bait. Mountain dusky, spotted, marbled and slimy salamanders live here.  A dozen or so large, dazzling butterflies were flapping around: pipevine swallowtails, red-spotted purples, tiger swallowtails, a gulf fritillary, and a lone monarch fueling up for the long flight it would soon be taking to its winter hibernaculum in the volcanic highlands of central Mexico.  
       A hundred feet down we paused on a ledge under an overhanging, algae-greened wall of sandstone, whose cracks David said were home to  “a mysterious green plethodon.”  Jon pointed out a rare perennial fern,  Silene rotundifolia. Another 30 feet down we came upon several pawpaw trees. Papaw must be one of the least- known fruits in America— it tastes like a cross between papaya, banana, avocado, and mango—as well as one of the few that can ripen without direct sunlight. It needs to be shaded by bigger trees; its future depends on the survival of the hardwood forest. 
       As we continued our descent, the trees began to get very tall, 150, even 200 feet high or more: soaring, pencil-straight red oaks, tulip poplars, black walnuts, buckeyes, sugar maples, mockernut, pignut, and shagbark hickories. Some were cabled with grape vines so thick you couldn’t enclose them with your hands. 
      Jon pointed out some wild yam, a yellow mandarin (in the lily family), rattlesnake ferns, a rack of ghostly-white oyster mushrooms on a fallen, rotting log. David identified curiously approaching Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice, the flirtatious tawee-tawee-tawee-tee-o   of a hooded warbler, the wheeze of Acadian flycatcher, and found a mountain dusky salamander and a green frog below a spring spurting out of the steep slope of the hollow. Jon picked up a stout, five-inch-long, green caterpillar, whose head was bristling with menacing red horns. This was the biggest caterpillar I had ever seen or imagined could exist. He said it was called a hickory horn devil, and would become a royal walnut silk moth. “We have the full complement of silk moths here,” he told us proudly. 
      I ducked behind a boulder that had broken off from the cliffs above to find a four-foot-long black rat snake frozen in mid-slither and staring at me intently. It looked as if it had just eaten something, probably another snake. Black rat snakes are expert climbers and spend much of their time in trees, looking for nestlings or bird eggs. They kill by constriction. Very agile and fast, they are also known as pilot black snakes, because they den with timber rattlesnakes and copperheads (also denizens of Shakerag Hollow) and lead them to safety when the den is threatened. We returned up the path a few minutes later and  peered behind the boulder where the snake had been. It was gone.
   The forest was so lush and teeming with life, I half-expected to see monkeys flinging themselves through the trees. Shakerag Hollow has one of the most riotously species-rich forests in the South. By contrast, the pine plantations that are rapidly replacing these fecund ecosystems have 95 percent fewer species, according to one estimate by Harvard biologist E.O.Wilson. Who in their right mind would sanction this devastation, I wondered. Why? So we can have more reading matter, more toilet paper? So the beetles can have another smorgasbord? Is this a reasonable trade-off, or a kind of blasphemy?

Spinning the Landscape 
        We had not come to Sewanee to take a walk in Shakerag Hollow. That was my idea: I wanted to get a clear picture of what is being lost. We had come to talk to Jon about the study he and his colleagues at the university’s Landscape Analysis Laboratory put out last year. Called “An Assessment of Forest Change on the Cumberland Plateau in Southern Tennessee.” It is the first scientifically rigorous quantification of the havoc that the paper industry has been wreaking, going back to l981, in the seven southernmost of the 16 counties on the Tennessee part of the plateau. Jon was the principle investigator. David assessed the impact on the birds and the salamanders. Not surprisingly, he found that the salamander populations in the clear-cuts were dramatically smaller, and that the bird communities in the native forest, which have some of the highest biodiversity in the Southeast, could not be supported by the pine plantations and residential areas taking its place. 
       Jon had come from Rice in l994, attracted by the size of the campus and the opportunities it offered to study natural forest change. One day, he went up in a plane to see what the forest looked like from the air, and he saw, as we just had, the clear-cuts on Bowater land bordering the campus. “It’s sickening, isn’t it?” he asked us. “I can’t go up there any more.  When we started our study, in the late 90’s, the plateau wasn’t on anybody’s radar. Zack Wamp, the congressman from Chattanooga, had been hearing from his constituents who were alarmed by what was going on, but the paper industry was spinning the landscape. It was saying there’s always been pine on the plateau, we aren’t doing anything up there.
        “So we put a macroscope on this landscape and showed it for the world to see,” Jon went on.  In numerous flyovers and by poring over satellite photos and aerial shots taken by various federal and state agencies, Jon and his colleagues studied a 616,000-acre area, comprising about 38 percent of the seven southernmost counties that had originally been plateau forest (as opposed to the less accessible cove forest like Shakerag Hollow). They discovered that 12 to 15 percent of their study area—or about 73,000 acres—had been converted to pine farms. They also found that the conversion rate had doubled in the last three years of the study, from l997 to 2000. Only three years prior to Jon’s study, the Tennessee Division of Forestry and the University of Tennessee Forestry Extension Service were maintaining that an extensive conversion of native forest to pine was not taking place.  Using state-of-the-art computer mapping, Jon’s data precisely documented, for the first time, the horrible reality. A veil that had been kept in place by industry, state foresters, and industry-friendly academics and number-crunchers, had finally been lifted.

        Climbing back into the Cessna, we rose above the University of the South’s Gothic spires and flew southeast, off the plateau and into the Great Valley.  Before long an enormous industrial complex—Bowater’s Calhoun Mill—hove into view. The largest manufacturer of newsprint in the United States, it has been operating since l954 and sits on the Hiwassee River, a tributary of the Tennessee. As we circled it from several thousand feet above, the rotten-egg fumes of methyl mercaptan and hydrogen sulfide emitted by its digesters penetrated the cabin of the Cessna and made us all nauseous.  This is a pervasive smell in much of the rural South.   Bowater alone has 12 pulp and paper mills in the U.S., Canada, and South Korea, supported by 1.4 millions acres of owned or leased timberland in the U.S., the bulk of which—about 700,000 acres—are in the Southeast. It also owns 32 million acres of timber-cutting rights in Canada. Besides manufacturing 18 percent of North America’s newsprint and 7 percent of the world’s, Bowater produces five kinds of “market pulp,” one of which—Calhoun southern bleached hardwood Kraft pulp—is made here, from “premium grade southern mixed hardwoods,” as the company’s website explains.  The hardwoods come from the Cumberland Plateau, where Bowater owns about 160,000 acres. We could see a continuous procession of logging trucks entering and exiting the compound, adding their loads to a pile of logs the size of several football fields and three stories high. “The scale of this operation is intimidating,” Hume said. “It’s hard to fathom how many trees, how many acres of forest, it must take to feed it.” 
       After being unloaded, the logs, both the native hardwoods and plantation pines—scrawny bugwood, for the most part—are debarked in a drum. What happens next is no different from any pulp and paper mill.  The bark is used with coal  (which there was a small mountain of near the entrance of the complex) to fire the plant. The logs are fed into a chipper, and the chips conveyed to digesters, where the natural glue that binds the cellulose together in rigid columns of wood is dissolved in a soup of highly toxic chemicals (including the ones we were gagging on). The broken-down fiber then undergoes varying stages of pulping, from gray to off-white.  The lower-grade, softwood pulp is pressed into newsprint and wound on rollers, which are trucked to the printing plants of the Washington Post, or one of Bowater’s dozens of other customers.   Some of it is sent to the Kimberly Clark mill in nearby Loudon, Tennessee, to be made into an assortment of tissue   products, including  Cottonelle toilet paper. 
      Converting  the timber that comes to the Calhoun mill into pulp and paper  requires tons of chemicals a day. These are produced by a plant that the Olin chemical company has built close by. Instead of having to deliver the chemicals in hundreds of truckloads, they are piped directly to the mill. The residue after the wood is broken down includes some of the most hazardous and toxic substances in existence, such as polychlorinated dibenzo P dioxins (PCCD’s), mercury, and lead. Most of the mill’s contaminated effluent is discharged into several huge sludge ponds that we could see beside the river.  There it is broken down  chemically and eventually discharged into the river. 
“Generally, the paper industry’s view is that the solution to pollution is dilution,” explained Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  
Recently, the Calhoun Mill had a “color issue”TK: its effluent visibly changed the color of the Hiwassee River. “But the state worked with them on it,” an activist told me, “by raising the threshold of permissible visible color change so that the mill could meets its water-quality standards.” 
       A FEW DAYS LATER I put in a call to Barry Graden, Bowater’s southeastern woodlands operations manager. I asked him if I could come down and talk to him and get a tour of the mill and maybe go up with him to the plateau and take a look at Bowater’s operation up there. We did a little Tennessee waltz, with me proposing six days, one after the other, when I could come, and Barry telling me that he was booked on all of them.  
           “What about somebody else, then ?” I asked. “Is there somebody else who could show me around?” 
           “I’m running into a brick wall on that one,” Barry said.
          “What about Dave Smith, your timberlands manager?” I suggested. “He must know all about the operation.”
          “Dave isn’t authorized to talk to the media,” he said. “We have a strict policy regarding the media.” 
           “Well then, could you just tell me someplace that I could go to on my own where I could see what you’re doing?” I asked. Here he was no help either.
Barry and I  did end up having a long talk on the phone, during which he described all the good things Bowater was supposedly doing on the plateau. But it bore little resemblance to what I had seen from the air and from the ground. Barry explained that Bowater subscribed to something called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), whose objectives “protecting wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and watersheds, conserving soil,” and attending to the “visual impact” and “the aesthetics” of the timber  operation.” Barry himself was in charge of Bowater’s compliance with the initiative for the Southeast. More than 100 million acres of American forestland are enrolled in the program. But not everyone shared Barry’s enthusiasm for the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Activists contend that it competes with—and intentionally obscures—another protocol known as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which was developed in the late 1990s by environmental groups fighting to save to save the coastal rainforest in British Columbia. One hundred Fortune 500 companies, including Home Depot, now participate in the Forest Stewardship Council by agreeing not to use wood from endangered forests and to buy only FSC-certified wood harvested in accordance with sustainable logging and plantation practices cut. 
       “The paper industry’s response was to confuse the issue,” Allen Hershkowitz explained, “and counter the market momentum generated by the Forest Stewardship Council. International Paper will stamp on its paper we are complying with the SFI, and people will think it’s the FSC. It’s a classic weakening technique. But the SFI sucks. It’s a fig leaf that tolerates all kinds of bad practices, business as usual. Everything that is happening on the plateau is SFI-certified.”
   Barry assured me, “Everything we do is verified by an environmental auditor, and we provide our customers and the media and environmental organizations the opportunity to see for themselves that we are doing what we say we do.” But apparently, that didn’t include me. 
Barry also claimed that Bowater made every effort to protect endangered species, but Lee Barclay, the supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s field office in charge of protecting the federally-listed endangered and threatened species in Tennessee, complained that he often can’t get on cut the paper companies’ land to see what is there.  
        “They have to give us permission to enter;” Barclay told me.”It’s private land, so we have no authority unless we have proof that they are knowingly thumbing their noses at the Endangered Species Act, and you need dead bodies to do that.  Their attitude is, if we let them get a foot in the door, we’ll never be able to close it.”  
       Just this October the discovery of a new species of salamander on the plateau was announced. Who knows what other unknown flora and fauna are on the ninety percent of it that is in private hands ? And as Barclay said, “What does it cost to work around a small area that is the critical habitat of some rare snail ?”
The Neighbors

        I spent a week poking around on the plateau, talking with activists, spraying victims, government bureaucrats, local people in the “hollers.” In the Cumberland foothills, west of the plateau, near Pleasant Shade, which is near Difficult, which is near Defeated (where Confederate soldiers lost a battle to the Union), I walked out on a knife-edge ridge into some plateau forest that had never been cut. I saw some of biggest black walnuts and beeches in the country, so thick a class of 15 school kids would have had trouble encircling one of them with their joined hands. Twenty or so wild turkeys were scratching and rooting around in the leaf litter.  Pileated woodpeckers were calling exultantly, having just ripped into a dying tree and slurped up a meal of carpenter ants. It was like the sound of jungle. I came across an old, fallen-down farmhouse and barn that had been built with massive, dovetailed chestnut planks eight inches thick, two feet high, and fifteen feet long. Straight-grained, rot-resistant, easy to split and to plane and lasting forever, chestnut was an almost perfect wood, and the first tree that the settlers and loggers went after. 
I bought some watermelons from 84-year-old Willard Bouldin, who lives on a farm above the Triangle of Destruction. “That clear-cutting was the worst thing that ever happened around here,” Willard told me. “I mean they took everything, till the only thing left was burrs. What’re they gonna do when they run out of wood?” he mused. “I guess they’ll have to make paper out of something else.”
           I spent a night at Rita Pruett’s bed and breakfast, on the edge of Fall Creek Falls State Park, which is in the heart of the plateau and boasts the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. “Most of my guests are out-of-state leaf-peepers,” said Rita, whose people have been living on the plateau since the l830s. “They come over from the Smokies and say that our leaves are the prettiest. They don’t come here to see clear-cuts or pine plantations.” She took me for a drive, past the one-room schoolhouse that she had walked to as a child, past the boarded-up garment factory where she had worked to put herself through college, past her parents’ homestead up on Spencer Mountain, where we looked out over thousands of acres of Bowater clear-cut. “This is where it really hits me,” she said sadly. “The devastation is so vast, and it’s all happened in the last few years. It seems like they just jumped on all of Van Buren County at one time.” 
     Joe Rogers, whose people have lived up the road from Rita, in Spencer, for generations and now look out on thousands of more acres of Bowater clear-cut, drove me out to the park’s Caney Creek Gulf overlook. It was a magnificent wilderness vista, like a canyon in the Southwest except that it was full of trees. Its rims bristled with native old-growth conifers that had escaped the beetle and never been cut because the terrain was so rugged. Joe had worked for the national park service, training its employees how to combat highly invasive exotic species like kudzu and Japanese honeysuckle, until was terminated by the Bush regime last year. “This is what it all looked like,” he told me, “and given the right circumstances, it could all come back like this. But  the forest isn’t being given time to renew. I’ve seen this clear-cutting going on for years, and it’s just greed from my point of view. There’s a way to farm these forest products, as they’re called, without decimating the environment. But they’re just looking at their quota sheets, trying to generate money.”
            We drove down to Highway 8 and headed up Rocky River Road, which runs right through the Triangle of Destruction. Because it’s a back road Bowater hadn’t bothered to leave beauty strips, so you could see the mutilated wasteland spreading in every direction.  Much of it was bare earth, with a few branches and other debris scattered on it. We passed three flatbeds loaded with scrawny bugwood waiting for trucks to come and take them down to the Calhoun Mill, and stands of dead gray pine, and long lines of smoldering windrows separated by naked earth. 
        “This is all SFI-certified, if you can believe it,” Joe said.  We saw no effort to prevent erosion by  revegetation. No buffers of native forest along the streams (the stream management zones touted by Barry Graden). The machines had just ploughed right into the water, destroying the banks and streambeds. 
       “We gotta have more stringent laws here,” Joe said. “A lot of the loggers”— locals that Bowater contracts to cut their trees—“have only an eighth-grade education and don’t know any better. There has to be environmental education, too, starting in elementary school, so when the kids grow up they can educate their parents.”
   “The northern corporations have taken advantage of these people for a hundred years,” another long-time resident told me. “They feel powerless, and they are.  When a corporation opens up a mine, they line up for a job that lasts five years, then they’re right back where they started, except the land’s all chewed up.” 
       EVEN LOCALS  whose health has been damaged by the aerial spraying of herbicides and fertilizers hesitate to come forward. After an area has been clear-cut, herbicides  like Arsenol, Roundup, and Escort, are routinely sprayed to keep the hardwood sprouts from competing with the pine that is going to be planted. Then, and repeatedly during the pine’s 12-15 year growth cycle, fertilizers like diammonium phosphate and urea are sprayed to help them grow. The spraying is done by helicopters or AT-802 crop dusters with 58-foot wingspans that fly low over the clear-cut or right over the growing trees, delivering 20 or 30 loads per flight. The main outfit contracted by the paper companies  AirTech, which in the fall of l999, its first season of operation, sprayed over three million pounds of fertilizer on Bowater lands in eastern Tennessee. 
“The local residents are not notified, and the toxic compounds frequently drift over their property and cause physical ailments like headaches, nausea, burning lungs, nosebleeds, skin rashes, and SARD, or severe airway restrictive disorder, with which dozens of plateau people have been diagnosed,” said Mike Knapp, who is working on the issue for an organization called Save Our Cumberland Mountains. “Many others have been sprayed but haven’t come forward because they don’t think they can do anything about it, and haven’t gone to doctors because they can’t afford insurance. Only a few have substantiated their claims with blood tests and a full toxicological profile, which cost several thousand dollars.” In April, however, 14 families in Cumberland County filed a class-action suit against Bowater and AirTech. 
         Mike Crews was sprayed four years ago, and again on the 9th of last September, along with his 77-year-old mother and his 10-year-old grandson. They are preparing to sue Aerotech and International Paper, which owns the clear-cut bordering his mother’s land in Pinkney, west of the plateau, where the latest incident took place. Mike is a 53-year old employee of Murray International, where he transfers garden tractors from the paint line to the final assembly line, but he hasn’t been able to work for a year because of his poor health. “We went over there when they were putting more poison into the helicopter and pleaded with them not to spray, ” he told me. “I was already exposed to drift in l999 and my health was weakened. I got heart and respiratory problems, and they have to keep an eye on my liver as well.   I told them the way you’re spraying, it’s going to drift over our trees and kill them, and over the cattle in our pasture and our hayfields. They aren’t supposed to spray when the wind velocity is more than 10 miles per hour, and I showed him how the leaves on the ground were blowing and said the wind velocity must be more than that. But the man kept filling the chopper with poison, and the pilot said to me, ‘We have the right to spray and we’re going to proceed.’ So we drove over to the pasture and parked there, hoping that would stop them. My mom went into the woods, thinking it would shelter her from the mist. They flew over us seven times. We could feel the mist hitting our faces.
      “The next morning all three of us were having trouble breathing, so we went over to the clinic in Columbia and had blood and urine tests. My hemoglobin was dangerously low, which it had never been before.” Crews contacted a researcher at the Organic Crop Improvement Association, which investigates pesticide contamination. “He took samples off our shoes, clothing, and hats, and found traces of  2-4 D,  Bromacil, and another herbicide,”Crews continued.  “He hadn’t compiled all the poisons last time I talked to him. And I had a light stroke a week ago last Wednesday, so I haven’t been able to find out if he’s finished the report.
       “I’ve been battling this thing since l999. Someone in my shape, it kills you pretty quick. But I just want to say on behalf of the communities of Pinkney and West Point, that we’re keeping vigil. We’re all trying to work together to do something about this.” 
The Forest Watchers 
       I spent a day tromping around in the Cumberland Mountains with Doug Murray, the founder of a grassroots organization called Tennessee Forest Watch that he runs out of his house. An easygoing, cut chain-smoking, 59-year-old Californian, Doug took me to his favorite beautiful places and showed me the horrible things that had been done to them. He objected to being described as an activist. “Activist to me implies some kind of a tree sitter or banner hanger or professional environmentalist,” he said. “We are forest watchers,” which in this case includes Doug, two naturalists, and a 13-year-old neighbor’s boy, among others; none are paid. Doug, who has a masters degree in animal behavior and biology from U Cal Sonoma,  puts in 10-hour days, walking in the mountains by day, and by night writing up reports of the violations of forests and streams and the laws protecting them. 
        “We are just ecokeepers, housekeepers of the larger house,” Doug explained. “No expertise or PhD is required. It takes nothing to recognize a ruined stream; it’s innate, like the ability to recognize a bleeding wound or an ugly growth.” 
       When Doug first settled in the Cumberlands 20 years ago, he built himself a cabin deep in the woods, but no sooner had he banged the last nail when chainsaws started screaming all around him. The Champion paper company was cutting the 75,000-acre forest next to his land. They were his neighbors.  “I discovered that there were no regulations, no notification of intent to cut, no protection for endangered species, a complete hands-off policy, because it was private property, and private property rights are sacred in this part of the world,” Doug recalled. “Nobody knew what was happening, and nobody cared. Nobody was minding the store, so who was going to do it? Concerned citizens.”  Doug started to monitor and systematically document what he saw.  “It was dicey,” he recalled. “Who wants to march through private lands in the South, to tattle on really bad abuses? A guy could get his head blown off.” He called his one-man watchdog organization the Center, “to keep it as low-key and ambiguous as possible.”
       Doug gradually became an expert on the intricacies of the Clean Water Act. “It’s the only hook we have,” he explained. “People think we’re out to protect the water. We are, but it’s only a mechanism for stopping the rape.”
        Doug took me into the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area and showed me where an orange, highly acidic brook from an abandoned mine was pouring into a hemlock-lined creek called Straight Fork, wiping out the aquatic life downstream. This is what is known as a point-source pollution and is a violation of the Clean Water Act. So are the destruction of stream banks  and the diversion of their channels. These are the main things that Doug looks for. But getting anybody to do anything about such localized abuses is a major battle. Doug wrote up dozens of detailed reports and documented them with photographs and affidavits from natural scientists. Finally, five years ago, the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation,  which had maintained that point-source pollution is only something that comes out of a pipe, began to come around and decided that point-source pollution is, as Doug put it, “anything you can point a finger at.”
                 Doug’s latest battle is to save the blackside dace from being wiped out by the sediment from Zeb Mountain. But the judge who denied the motion for a temporary injunction to stop the mining until an environmental impact assessment was done is one of the Bush administration’s new right-wing, anti-environmental appointees, who came from a firm that represents polluting companies and other bad actors like Bowater in precisely this sort of suit from environmental groups. So the outlook for the dace in this stream is not looking good. 

        IN 1993 DOUG STARTED COMMUNICATING with an equally dedicated forest watcher named Cielo Sand. A Hoosier, she changed her name to Cielo after a vision quest in northern New Mexico in the late sixties. “I had no intention of becoming an activist,” she said, “but the river called me.”
         Cielo is married to Leaf Myczack, who plies the 652-mile long Tennessee, looking for bad actors, in a 30-foot sailing ketch that he and Cielo built in the late eighties, issuing homemade tickets  that have no official status or financial clout, but are, rather, “moral wake-up calls,” as Cielo explained. 
A few evenings after my day with Doug Murray, I pulled into the marina at Sale Creek, on the north bank of the Tennessee, half a mile of north of Chattanooga. Cielo had invited me for dinner on their boat, the Riverkeeper. The sun was setting as we boarded it and headed upriver. We passed three brand-new mansions perched on a bluff, each of them 15,000 or 20,000 square feet and mostly glass. Three-story, swept-back cabin cruisers were moored at the docks beneath them. The new American rich—a stark contrast to the dirt-poor plateau people living only 20 miles northwest.
      On the other side of the river was a lower middle-class waterfront community. We cruised past a family—a man and his wife and their three grown kids, all five of them in the 300-pound range– were sitting on their dock in aluminum deck chairs, drinking beers in the twilight. 
Cielo has a disarming way of hanging out at convenience stores and getting information out of loggers. Under her gauzy New Aginess is a woman of grit and determination. She developed a relationship with the Environmental Quality Staff of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and they alerted her to the fact that 17-24 new sites were being considered for chips mills on the Tennessee. 
     Cielo and other activists demanded an environmental impact statement be done for three mills that were to be built on the river; as a result, in 1993 the TVA denied them permits. It was a huge win; since then, no other chips mills across the Southeast have applied for river permits. But off-river permits, which don’t require an environmental impact statement, continued to proliferate.        
      In l996, Cielo and Danna Smith, who had worked on forest-protection campaigns for Greenpeace, founded the Dogwood Alliance, an umbrella group of 72 grassroots religious, student, and community activist organizations concerned with protecting the forests of the South. Last year Dogwood got Staples, the $11 billion office supply company, and one of International Paper’s biggest customers, to commit to phasing out products from endangered forests and to use an average of  30-percent post-consumer recycled fiber for all its paper products—an enormous victory. Dogwood considers “market strategy”—leveraging the paper companies through their consumers—as the best way to stop what they are doing on the plateau. “Hitting them where it hurts is the only language they understand,” Allen Hershkowitz agreed. “Some of Staples’ paper probably comes from the Royal Blue mill, and they need to know this. A lot more chain-of-custody work—tracing the fiber from the forest to the mill to the consumers—has to be done. Office Depot is another big customer of International Paper, and it also buys from the Weyerhaeuser paper company’s mill in Kingsport, Tennessee, which is just off the plateau and probably sources from it. Office Depot has to be pressured into making the same commitment that Staples and Home Depot have. Then we can get the three of them competing to have the greenest paper on the block. But first, a lot more dots have to be connected.”
       As for Bowater, because it supplies its newsprint or market pulp to practically every major publication in the country—The New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Knight-Ridder and Gannet chains; The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ, Conde Nast Traveler (which gives an annual environmental award), and the rest of the Conde Nast empire; Golf Digest, TV Guide, even the Utne Reader—the leveraging potential is very promising. With the Dogwood Alliance  as its main local partner, Allen is organizing an NRDC campaign that will invest five to seven million dollars into saving the Cumberland Plateau over the next 10 years. 
        “So what’s that going to do for it ?” I asked.
        “It means we don’t leave until we win,” he said. 
          So things are starting to move. The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund have initiatives of their own to save the plateau, and a new democratic governor in Nashville, Phil Bredesen, and his progressive circle offer a window of opportunity for passing regulatory legislation with some teeth. The Cumberland Plateau is poised at a critical moment in its history. If the opportunity is squandered, if everyone simply keeps playing the Tennessee Waltz, they will awaken one day to an irreversible tragedy, just as the song says: Now I know just how much I have lost.

Dispatch #19: On the Question of Animal Awareness

This is a blurb I wrote for Temple Grandin’s extraordinary book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.  Ms. Grandin was made famous by Oliver Sack’s profile in the New Yorker, An Anthropologist on Mars, subsequently collected in a book with the same title. Rupert Sheldrake’s Dogs Who Know When Their Master is Coming Home is another seminal book on this subject, which the Dispatches will henceforth take an active, ongoing interest in. Input from readers is most welcome. 

“In three decades of  interacting with dozens of naturalists and animal behaviorists, I have only met two who had the “special connection with animals” that Temple Grandin writes about—who  had the extraordinary empathy, the ability to enter the minds of other speces (particularly mammals), who seemed  to be almost more on their wavelength than on that of their fellow humans. Both of these people had learning disorders—one severe dyslexia,  the other non-verbal learning disorder, which is characterized by the same sort of hyperspecificity — one sees everything in great detail, but has difficulty processing and evaluating the information— with which autistics and, Ms. Grandin argues compellingly, animals see the world. Her insights are absolutely fascinating and groundbreaking contributions in the field of animal awareness, in which so much remains to be discovered. This book is  deeply moving and a triumph on many levels, not the least the understanding of herself and her condition that Ms. Grandin has succeeded in achieving and conveying so lucidly and putting to such productive use. She is an inspiration for us all.”

Dispatch #18: Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide

Ten years after arguably the most savage genocide in human history, the comprehension of how such an unspeakably horrible thing could have happened is still anything but clear. The chain of causes is long and complex, and how far back into Rwanda’s history one chooses to trace it, and the relative importance one gives to each cause, is a reflection of one’s cultural, political, and intellectual biases. Everyone who has examined the question (with a few notable, rigorously impartial exceptions) has projected his or her own culture and its history, social class, political persuasion and personal experience, so it is important to know what the hidden agendas (even from those who have them, in some cases) are. There is no better laboratory than Rwanda for students in the postmodern, deconstructionist field of historical studies known as “the production of history.”

Where does this monumental tragedy properly begin ? What is its first act and where is its dateline ? In neighboring Burundi in l972, when the Tutsi there (who, unlike Rwanda’s Tutsi, did not lose power after independence) massacred two-hundred thousand Hutu évolués, liquidating virtually the entire educated young generation of that ethnic group? Is it at this point that the idea of mass extermination enters the political discourse in these two tiny, overcrowded, ethnically riven countries ? Are the Tutsi of Burundi to some degree to blame for what happened to their Rwandan cousins twelve years later? That is what most French analysts and Western academics, who were invested in the Rwandan Hutu’s failed postcolonial experiment in creating an egalitarian, democratic society, think, and not only because of this underreported, now almost forgotten Burundian genocide, but because the Tutsi in both countries were an anachronistic feudal aristocracy that became even more oppressive during the colonial period. Privately professional Rwandanists intimate that “the Tutsi” got what was coming to them.

But the Burundian genocide was partly a response to the genocidal massacres, between l959 and l966, of about 20,000 of the Tutsi in Rwanda, whom their Hutu serfs succeeded in overthrowing, and the expulsion into exile of about 200,000 more. Tutsi analysts begin the tragedy with these “pilot genocides,” the first cases of ethnic slaughter in the region. They argue that the original relationship between the Tutsi cattlekeepers and the Hutu farmers was cordial and harmonious and based on mutual respect and the mutually agreeable and dissolvable leasing of the Tutsi’s cows to the Hutu in exchange for the Hutu’s agricultural produce and labor. The animosity only started after the Belgians came in after World War I and destroyed the delicate balance between the two ethnic groups, or modes of subsistence, by ruling indirectly through the Tutsi and making them oversee the forced labor gangs of Hutu that put in the roads and schools and hospitals and the rest of the Belgian “protectorate”s Western infrastructure. Many analysts, African and Western, argue that had not Rwandan society been destroyed by colonialism, had Rwanda’s political evolution been allowed to continue, the inequities (the “premise of inequality,” as one scholar calls it) would have eventually worked themselves out, and the genocide would never have happened.

But if you look at the Rwanda of three or four hundred years ago, long before Europeans gummed up the works, there is ample evidence of at least proto-genocidal behavior. The mwami, or king, had the power of life and death over all his subjects, and clans or lineages that fell into disfavor were regularly snuffed. When the mwami wanted to annex a neighboring kingdom or principality, if peaceful suasion, the offer of women and cows, failed, his soldiers slaughtered all the men and divied up the women and children as booty. The mutilations that shocked the West in l994—impalement, breast oblation, the harvesting of testicles as trophies—had been happening for centuries. Impalement was the punishment for cattle rustlers until the Belgians put a stop to it in the 1920s. But Rwanda was an expansionist state, and such symbolic acts of humiliation have been common on every continent at that stage of political evolution, when small polities are being gobbled up by bigger ones.

In the late 19th and early 20th century a number of fiercely warlike Hutu kingdoms in what is now northwestern Rwanda, collectively know as the abahinza, were forcibly annexed by the mwami with the help of the Germans (who were the first colonizers of Rwanda). The local chiefs were put to death and replaced by king’s kinsmen. Most of the Hutu ideologues of the l994 genocide and the ruling elete that carried it out belonged to abahinza lineages. For them the genocide was a long-awaited revenge. So does the tragedy begin with the subjugation of the abahinza, or in l700, or in l894, when the first whites arrive and as Chinoa Achebe quotes Yeats to characterize Nigeria’s colonial experience, “things fall apart” ? But the whites arrive just as the old king is dying, in time to witness a bloody succession struggle and a purge of the king’s clan by the queen’s clan, which usurps the throne. The capacity for genocide was clearly in Rwandan culture. But no more than it is in every society, and most of the killing at this point, with exceptions like the abahinza, was Tutsi on Tutsi, because most of the dozens of small kingdoms in the interlacustrine region (between Lake Victoria and the western, lake-studded arm of the Great Rift Valley in what is now eastern Congo) were ruled by Tutsi.

The Belgians classified everybody as Hutu or Tutsi and racialized what had been essentially a fluid class distinction (although who exactly the Tutsi are, to what extent did their taller, thinner somatotype evolve in place, and what relationship they have with physically nearly identical people in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, is still unclear).
Projecting the cockamany Eurocentric race science of the day, they embraced the Tutsi as long-lost “Hamitic” cousins, and at first reinforced the Tutsi’s supremacy and used them to run the colony. The Hutu, who were already being worked hard by the mwami’s chiefs, grew to hate the Tutsi. In l959, as the Belgians were leaving, they instigated a peasant revolution modeled after the French revolution that brought the ill-prepared Hutu to power. This set in motion the developments that culminated in genocide forty-five years later.

By l990 the Tutsi exiles in the five neighboring countries numbered about a million. They had been second-class citizens, perpetual refugees, in these countries for thirty years, and in Uganda more than 60,000 of them had been massacred in the early l980s by Milton Obote after he overthrew Idi Amin, so they decided, like the European Jews after the Holocaust, to take back their homeland and create a space where they could be safe (although Israel was created by Jewish terrorists already in Palestine, not by invading exiles). That fall a guerilla force of young English-speaking Tutsi exiles calling itself the Rwandese Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda from Uganda. By l992 the RPF had captured half the country and forced the Hutu regime to the negotiating table. Had this invasion not taken place, the genocide would not have happened, either, so this is another major cause, another reason why some argue that “the Tutsi brought it on themselves.” But who can blame the exiles for wanting to have a decent life, with basic civil rights, starting with the right not to be discriminated against, or even slaughtered, as foreign ethnics ?

There were many other causes. Overpopulation, environmental degradation, and resource scarcity was a big one, but it has not gotten enough attention because this issue is not in most analysts’ area of expertise. By l986, when I made my first trip to Rwanda, to write about the murder of Dian Fossey for Vanity Fair, the fertile Land of a Thousand Hills had the highest birth rate on earth– 8.2 live births per woman, and 25,000 new families needed land each year, but there wasn’t any. In the early nineties there was a severe drought in southern Rwanda, which created a great number of homeless, desperate refugees who were easily recruited by the promise that they could have the land the house of whoever they killed. At the same time, the world price of coffee crashed, and this escalated the youth unemployment. The ignorance of the general population was another underecognized cause : so many young men who had never been taught to think for themselves and believed whatever they were told, including the hate broadcasts of the regime’s radio station, that the Tutsi were coming back to enslave them again. The Catholic Church played a reprehensible role. Much of the wholesale slaughter took place in churches into which the Tutsi were lured by Hutu priests with the promise of sanctuary. France, which supported the extremist Hutu regime in the interests of maintaining a client state and a foothold of la francophonie in the region, was no less despicable. Mitterand’s and Habyarimana were dealing arms and cannabis together, and a dirty-tricks operative named Captain Barille was lurking around Kigali around the time of the genocide and may have had a hand in the events that precipate. All the well-intentioned foreign NGO’s that kept the Troisième République going when it was financially and morally bankrupt didn’t help the situation. The United Nations, which wrung its hands and did nothing, and the U.S., which prevented the Security Council from taking action by quibbling over the definition of genocide (reminiscent of its inaction and thwarting of international stepping in during the Armenian genocide), could have stopped the killing from spreading out of Kigali in the first few days, but instead just stood by and watched it happen. But the U.S. was still reeling from its disastrous “humanitarian intervention” in Somalia, and wasn’t about to send its soldiers to be killed in this “dinky little country that no one cares a rat’s ass about,” as an American diplomat described Rwanda to me.

The “proximate” cause, the event that triggered the slaughter, was the shooting down on April 6 of the plane carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi (although the killing had already begun in a few places hours before!). It is still not clear who did this—Hutu extremists, French secret agents, the RPF, Burundians, Ugandans, or five other possibilities. The French investigation fingering Paul Kagame, the RPF’s leader and now Rwanda’s president, is speculative. One of their own operatives, a certain Capitain Barille, was lurking around Kigali around the genocide and some suspect him of having a hand in the dirty deed. Barille had been in charge of security for Melchoir Ndadaye, Burundi’s first Hutu president, when he was assassinated the previous fall by Tutsi extremists in the army. This, too, is another important cause, because it ignited a pogrom of Tutsi in the countryside and retaliatory massacres of Hutu, and drove thousands of Hutu refugees up into Rwanda. The refugees were highly motivated to kill Tutsi and played a major role in the genocide. So were the young Hutu of northeastern Rwanda, who fled south when the RPF invaded. They were anonymous in Kigali, so they could kill at will.

Then there are all kinds of subsidiary causes, such as if the colonial lines had been drawn differently so that Rwanda extended east to Lake Victoria, it would have had access to east African markets and not have become the poor landlocked country that it did, and the Hutu and Tutsi would have been thrown in with many other ethnic groups and might not have become so viciously polarized.

Whatever cause or set of causes one opts for to explain what happened, the genocide had the opposite effect that its architects were hoping for : it brought the Tutsi back to power, and now the Hutu are finding what it was like to be a Tutsi when they were running the show, which is not unlike being a Palestinian in today’s Israel. Minority rule is never stable, and despite the commendable strides the current regime has made at rehabilitating and healing the country abolishing the ethnic identity card and putting forth at least the public ideology that Rwanda is for all Rwandans, it is still a hard-line dictatorship with no tolerance of criticism or dissent. Understandably it is wary of the millions of young Hutu who are milling around and waiting for someone to come along and make it worth their while to finish the job. Meanwhile the virus of genocide has spread to northeastern Congo, where two groups of similarly ethnically distinct cattlekeepers and farmers, the Hema and the Lendu, have been slaughtering each other for the last four years. It will be decades before Central Africa recovers from Rwanda’s societal self-immolation, from this appalling episode of collective psychotic violence and its toxic fallout in the region. The lesson to be taken from it, rather than pointing blame (for which there is no shortage of candidates), or brooding on the numerous what if’s, or writing off Rwanda as one of the world’s rabid societies, is that every society, even the most supposedly civilized ones, has committed genocide at some point in its history, and the capacity for evil lurks within each of us. What happened in Rwanda, like the Holocaust, is just an extreme case of humanity at its worst. We need to see history in black and white terms, as the good guys versus the bad guys, but it is never that way. The good and evil is layered and mixed. It is each of our responsibilities to make sure that something like this doesn’t ever happen again, anywhere, but it almost certainly will, probably in some other distant, unheard of part of the world, whose existing ethnic or religious differences have been exacerbated by Western manipulation and exploitation. Despite its uniquely tragic history, Rwanda certainly doesn’t have a patent on such behavior.

Dispatch #17: A Long Weekend in Armenia

Update, November 2004:
We have just posted some movies in Apple Quicktime format from when Alex Shoumatoff (aka “The Suitcase”) was in Armenia researching this dispatch.  The 12 Gates “Beautiful City Jam” below is a traditional spiritual as played by the Reverend Gary Davis Please click on the links below to view them in a browser window.  If you would like to save these to your hard drive, right-click and select “save target as” or if you are using a Macintosh computer, hold down the “option” key when you click these links: Click here to download Apple Quicktime if you don’t already have it…
Armenian Suitcase Collage (19.5 mb)
Beautiful City Jam (12.3 mb)
Duduk Jamming (8.3 mb)  

A few weeks ago, I was invited on a  junket to Armenia by a  New York carpet manufacturer of Armenian descent named James Tufenkian.  Tufenkian employs 1500 Tibetans in Nepal and a thousand Armenians in Armenia to make carpets for him and has done so well that he has opened an upscale boutique hotel in Yerevan, Armenia’s swinging capital,  and a large stone lodge on Lake Sevan, and is constructing another big hostelry  in a deep gorge on the road up to Georgia. He had hired a New York p.r. firm to bring some travel writers to see the hotels and the sights of Armenia and spread the word that the twelve-year-old,  smaller-than-Belgium-sized country is ready for tourism.  Tufenkian seems to be a  good guy, who is  spiritually as well as commercially oriented, one of the successful diasporic Armenians who are helping  their homeland transcend a history marked by repeated tragedy and emerge as the Costa Rica of Asia Minor.         The invitation was for a four-day, all-expenses-paid, whirlwind tour of the country. Normally I do not go on junkets. The last time I went on one was to the Galapagos, where  my libido had its dernier cri and I made a  fool of myself (see Dispatch #6 : Journal of the Flamingo. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in the Galapagos). I don’t like to travel in groups, especially with professional travel writers, who go with the understanding that by  they will gush about the accommodations and food and the sights, so that tourists will flock to the facilities of their host. My concept of traveling is very different. Like the late Bruce Chatwin, whom I knew slightly and admired greatly,  I recoiled, at the height of my career was a “literary journalist,”  at being called  a “travel writer.” (Now I don’t really care; anything anyone wants to call me is fine.)  Chatwin described himself as a writer who travels.  This is how I see myself. I am a writer who takes himself to different parts of the world, and writes about what he encounters, what happens.  I prefer to travel alone, because if you are with someone from your own culture, you will be distracted.
It becomes a shared experience, framed in the terms of your common culture, a bubble for two instead of one. 

      When I am on the road, I travel at the level of the local people, with a minimum of baggage: a hardshell suitcase, a sidebag, my little guitar, fields guides to the local fauna,   ethnological, historical, and political studies of that part of the world,  a small high-quality tape recorder, a camera,  and a little stack of Red Chinese notebooks (or “thought-catchers,” as I call them), and whatever clothes and medicine is needed. And of course, a lot of cultural and psychological baggage.   I have written about this in a chapter of my book, The Rivers Amazon, called “Out of Time:”

     “I had wanted to ‘experience the jungle’ as fully as I could, but try as I might, I could never stop the internal monologue, the broken thoughts of a thousand shapes, none of which had anything to do with where I was, that raced through my mind [as I struggled to keep up with three young Yanomamo men who were taking me at a lope through the rainforest of Roraima, near Brazil’s border with Venezuela,  during the first few days of l977]… You realize how everything that streams through your head is learned from the schools you went to, the books you read, the people you associated with, and it has no bearing on any culture but your own.” 

      Being divorced from all  familiar  referents,  culture shock sets in for the solo traveler. You begin to “hemmorhage from loneliness,” as Edward Hoagland wrote after a month of  wandering  around Sudan on his own. Ancient, long-buried traumas resurface  begin to replay themselves uncontrollably in your mind. One of the most realistic travelogues in this regard is Peter Matthiessen’s, The Snow Leopard, which is half about accompanying the zoologist George Schaller  on his quest for the elusive snow leopard through  remote valleys and mountain passes in northern Nepal, and half about the internal narrative that plays in Matthiessen’s while he is trekking behihd Schaler,  about how little he was able to give himself to his then wife twenty years earlier, whom he had left at home, dying of cancer, while he was off slaking his wanderlust. 
     So if traveling with others is about us, traveling alone is about you, and has  a different set of problems and filters.  You can never go completely native. Your cultural processor never stops working. Nor can you get rid of—and I  tried to strenuously during the Sixties, with various psychotropic drugs, to “be here now,” as Baba Ram Das/Richard Alpert us to do — the voyeur part of you that is always watching you having the  experience, the pour soi who is watching the en soi, in Sartre’s terms. Particularly if you are keeping a detailed record of your experiences and observations, the pour soi, the Writer Who Never Sleeps, Crayon Tojours Avec, the voyeur voyoux is always on duty. 

      I  have described myself at various times  as a literary geographer, a cultural ecologist, a “total-immersion journalist,” a bridge, a vessel, an empty calabash, a free-floating consciousness,  a  generalist who blithely transgresses discipline boundaries, a participatory journalist (like the late George Plimpton, another writer  I knew slightly and greatly admired, having invented my own  post-gonzo, dada, participant-observor genre of journalism : investigative golf, an example of which is posted as Dispatch 12); as the last of the wandering White Russians (the émigrés from the Tsarist nobility who fled the Russian Revolution in l917. The ones who got out, including my four grandparents. A million didn’t and were killed during the revolution and its aftermath.  This group by now is practically extinct, their stock having married into and been assimilated by their cultures of exile; I am at this point, at the age of fifty-seven,  one of the few ostensibly full-blooded White Russians left. Exile, the loss of  homeland, deracination, freed my family to explore the world, starting with my great-uncle, who collected butterflies in central Asia before the Revolution, and in his new life in the New World made the definitive collection of the rhopalocera (butterflies and moths) of  Jamaica in the thirties with my then teenage father, went on to climb in the Alps and the Caucasus and the Pamirs and wrote two about them. So exploring is in my blood, as is curiosity about the natural world. My three little boys are the seventh generation of naturalists in the family. 

         There is another Russian term that I relate to : neudobnyi chelovek, which means “an inconvenient person,” an outsider, a trouble-maker,  someone who asks questions about things that there is a conspiracy of silence about. Like the character in Jules Vernes’s Around The World in 80 Days, I am a passepartout, a skeleton key, Keats’s chameleon poet,  an intermediary or interpreter or presenter and documenter and buff or enthusiast or amateur of the Other, “a modern fugitive,” in the tradition of  Gauguin, D.H. Lawrence, Jack Kerouac, Aldous Huxley, and Colin Turnbull,  a misfit in my own world. My last book, Legends of the American Desert has a discussion of this personality type. 

           I see myself as  “an ambivalent and tormented representative of the Age of Reason,” as Nicholas Rizanovsky described Tsar Alexander I, who disappeared in Siberia and became a wandering monk, or starets,  named Fyodor Kuzmitch.  I am a throwback to the Enlightenment, the Encyclopedists, who went out and catalogued and classified and compared and cogitated about the life forms and life ways they encountered.    Enlightenment for me has always been primarily a quest for knowledge, and there is no better way to broaden your knowledge base than by traveling. 

         I am a “rootless cosmopolitan,” as Eddie Rosser, a Berlin-born jazz trumpeter who became Stalins’s state musician and then fell out of favor and was packed off to Siberia, was branded. I am Anagarika, the homeless one, Hindi for someone who has given up the home life for the ascetic life of a mendicant.  I am outis, Nobody, one of Homer’s epithets for Odysseus; the Beatles’ Nowhere Man; in Czech nymand, someone who doesn’t exist, a loser, an outsider. In the words of the Mekranoti, a community of Kayapo Indians in the Amazon, I am No Ket, No Eyes, a stranger in their midst who is so out to lunch in the rainforest that he doesn’t see what is going on; the Apache Pale Eyes, and all the other terms for white in cultures around the world, like the Navajo bilaga’ana, the Latin American gringo, the Swahili mzungu, the Lingala mendele. I would like to be more like the Buryat Mongols’ Tsagan, or White Tara, who has eyes in her feet and is alert at all times, with every step.  I am a pesquisador and an umushakashyatsi– Portuguese and Rwandese, respectively, for a researcher, someone who is trying to find something out. I am a parachutista, someone who lands in places without warning, who drops in. I am a service soul, whose primary reason for being here seems to document and celebrate vanishing cultures, ecosystems and species, the “infinite variety and supreme unity of life,” as Andrey Avinoff,  my great-uncle put it, and to do whatever I can to expose injustices and advocate for the voiceless and powerless;  He Who Puts Words on Paper and They Become the Truth, as my wife’s Rwandan brother-in-law  roasted me at a recent family gathering in Montreal. I am an umushyitsi, as Rwandans call a visitor or guest, someone who is passing through, and their children who die young. I am a maverick drifter vagabond roué pariah dog, “an exile from normality,” in Jan Morris’s term. In Canada, where my wife and our three boys live and are citizens,  I have no official  status or residential standing. I am just a tourist, who is not allowed to spend more than 180 days a year in the country. In many parts of the world, like Mexico,  I am just a tourist, a turista,  so tourist is a perfectly good word  for me. My Rwandese in-laws call me Sematovu, which means He Who Has Thistles in His Pasture and has several oblique metaphorical connotations:  someone who is a newcomer and hasn’t had time to clear the thistles in the pasture, or someone who is on the road so much that he is neglecting the maintenance of the home front, or someone who is a slob, who is incapable of keeping his house and all the stuff he has collected in order. 
      But the word I have come to use for myself is Suitcase. This is the name I sometimes perform under at the Café Perk on the Avenue du Parc on Tuesday afternoons– when I am in Montreal, of course. I am a beat-up weary old suitcase that has been tossed from plane to plane and has been everywhere from East Secaucus to the Caucasus, from Babylon to Avalon, from Bali to Mali,  and is starting to come apart at the seams. My lock is busted, my latches are stuck, and I’m tied together with string. Everywhere is home to me, the world is my pearl, the world is my career, wherever I appear, yet I belong nowhere. And one day I’ll just disappear and no one will even remember that I was there. 
      I should explain that this metonymy (a type of metaphor where a part comes to stand for the whole,  in this case a piece of equipment) occurred to me not only because shlepping around a suitcase ( I prefer a hardshell suitcase to a backpack because it is harder to break into) is the one thing that all my travels have in common, but because of a conversation I had with the Dalai Lama in l990. The conversation took place in 
Dharamsala, the seat of  the Tibetan  government-in-exile in Himachal Pradesh, India. I was doing a piece for Vanity Fair  about China’s genocide and ethnocide of the Tibetan people, and during a two-hour-long private audience with him, after discussing the political situation, we talked about the core beliefs of Buddhism, one of which is shunyata, or emptiness– the notion that nothing is really out there,  everything   is in your mind, is illusion, or more accurately, “like illusion.”  “Your Holiness,” I said to him, “last night in my hotel room I got up to go to the bathroom and tripped over my suitcase, which I had left in the middle of the room, and fell flat on my face. Now you can’t say the suitcase was all in my mind, but I had completely forgotten that it was there.”

     To which the Dalai Lama gave his slow, deep, resonant  laugh and  asked, “What is a suitcase ? You can describe everything about that suitcase—it size, shape, what it is made of, etcetera. But there will always be something about it that you failed to describe. And furthermore, if you had been a sub-atomic particle, you would have passed right through the suitcase. Therefore, neither you nor the suitcase exist independently.” 

      This was undoubtedly one of the most important conversations I have had in my life (But when I saw the Dalai Lama again five years later, he had no memory of it at all).

       So the Suitcase was going to demean himself and take a junket?  To go to Armenia for only four days?  What can anyone possibly learn about a new place in four days? I knew from experience that the first week’s impressions are mostly worthless projections of your own culture and comparisons with other places you’d been to that you end up throwing out. You are perceiving not so much things as they are, but what they remind you of.  Only after a week do you begin to perceive the place as it is, are you “there.” In four days I would barely recover from the jet lag, then I would have to go. It would be a hallucinal and completely meaningless experience, which was what was starting to appeal to me about it. Plus the fact that Armenia is somewhere I have always wanted to get to, because I have an obscure Armenian descent on my family tree : we are descended from the Bogratid dynasty, which ruled Armenia and Georgia a thousand years ago. And I’ve always felt good about Armenians, the few I know are extremely simpatico and very smart,  a vague connection and ethnic compatibility that I wanted to explore. So maybe I should go, I thought. The opportunity to get to Armenia may not come again. 

     But there is another, more pragmatic,problem with junkets:  no self-respecting travel magazine will buy a write-up of one. There are strict rules about taking freebees. The motto of  Conde Nast Traveler (which I was one of  the founding contributing editors of, but was let go after one of my golf buddies, using my name, tried to cadge a freebee from a golf resort in San Diego County in l991, and the resort got suspicious and called the magazine), is “Truth in Travel,”  i.e. its writers swear that they have not been corrupted by taking a  freebee and that they are giving you the real lowdown. Truth in travel to the luxury resorts and destinations that the magazine is a service publication for. Not the truth about what it is like to live in these countries. I often wondered whether Harold Evans, Tina Brown’s husband, who founded the magazine,  chuckled when he came up with that one.  But British travels writer are the most jaded and shameless junket-takers, so maybe Evans was just trying to put out an honest magazine. 

           Junkets have nothing to do with real traveling, but with being a shill for the tourism industry, which brings foreign exchange to cash-strapped developing countries (although little of the cash trickles down to the people) but erode and commodify and erzatzify their cultures in the process. When I go somewhere, I try to find out what life in the country, over the luxury compound wall,  is actually like. This trip was not going to offer much chance for that, however. We would be staying in the best hotels, eating in the best restaurants, and be taken to the most beautiful sights, when the average Armenian is struggling to live on eighty dollars a month.  Some publications don’t have the money to pay their writers’ travel expenses and allow them to write up junkets, but none that I write for.   I checked with my editor at Travel & Leisure to see if they were up for a piece on Armenia, and she gave me the expected response, “Not  if it’s a junket. You know the rules. You can go, and if Armenia turns out to be interesting and some place that our readers might like to go, let’s talk when you return, and maybe we’ll send you back.”

      But maybe there was some other way to capitalize on this junket, I thought, and there was. For some time I had been thinking of trying to do a t.v. travel series called Suitcase, and this goofy “long weekend in Armenia” could be the pilot for it. Nobody reads any more, so I was thinking that if maybe someone came along and filmed me doing my thing, casing out a new place, it could  have commercial potential. At the very least, it would provide a new and valuable dimension of documentation of what happened and what I encountered. So I spoke with my Montreal friend Howard Reitman, who is in the movie business, and he was up for coming along with a camera and filming whatever happened. 
       The main premise of the Suitcase is that the most interesting things that happen to you on the road are the things you didn’t plan for, the chance encounters, the unpredictable convergences and conjunctures, coincidences and synchronicities that can sometimes change your life. A few weeks after our long weekend in Armenia,  I described the Suitcases’s modus operandi to  a woman in Munich who had written long literary travel pieces for the German Geo, when is was still publishing such things–  spending months with the Romani, or gypsies, in Ceaucescu’s Romania; in  the ex-slave communites of Mauritius; covering Lhasa during the l987 riots.  “So you are an accidental journalist,” she said. That a good term, a good description of the Suitcase. 

        My wife and I met on an Air Ethiopia Flight from Entebbe, Uganda, to Rome, on October 7, 1987. Both of us had changed our flights at the last moment, and had I not been kicked out of my seat by the Ugandan minister of Youth, Culture, and Sports (Moses Taylor, who later tried to overthrow President Yowari Museveni and is presently behind bars), and plunked myself down next to her, and had not a whole chain of other flukey circumstances  fallen into place, we would never have met. Not only were our two lives radically transformed by this apparently chance meeting, but sixteen other people’s, and three people came into this world because of it. So you have to open yourself to these things. That is, for me, the Suitcase,  the whole point, and art of traveling : going with the flow, orchestrating the unpredictable. Breaking away from the patterns of your life that you get rutted in.
When life gets stale
You can always hit the trail
When you’re sick of bills and dishes
And unfulfilled wishes
And life gets boring
You can always go exploring. 
      Travel is my lifeblood : putting myself out there and encountering new landscapes, flora and fauna, music, languages, and people gets my juices flowing again. I never feel more engaged and alive than when I am somewhere that I have never been before, trying to figure things out, noticing things and wondering what they are and what they mean and how they fit with each other and into the overall picture. My wife, who is Rwandan and is a citizen of four countries as well as a permanent resident of Mexico, loves to travel as much as I do, and she says that I am the most talented traveler she has ever known, maybe even more talented that I am a writer. In terms of the places I choose to go to and what I pick up on and get interested in, and the ease with which I move around and connect with people,  my ability to “fit in everywhere.” Which Rosette possesses even more than I. There is an expression in Rwandese, “When you are in a land where the people eat flies, you eat them raw.” Rwanda a patrilineal society, so the women know that their life is going to involve a journey, that they will have to fit in to their husband’s family and culture, if he is not Rwandan, and so they are unusually adept at adapting. 

      Rosette and I consider ourselves, as the heads of a blended Luso-Slavic-Watusi- American-Canadian family of seven, she having had four exiles by the time she was thirty, me coming from a family of émigrés and being American only because of the accident of a revolution in Russia seventy-six years ago,  to be more citizens of the world than anything. But our passports are American, and this is a problem, because currently there are 59 countries on the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory list, thanks to the illicit junta’s illicit attack on Iraq, and the ill feeling that was already widespread due to the fact that America is sucking the marrow out of the rest of the world, that anywhere from 25 to 66% of  the world’s resources are flowing to the USA to maintain the American good life. (“Hey, so we’re doing more than our bit,” was a Rolling Stone editor’s response when I ran these numbers by him some time back, and this is sadly typical of the amount of angst that Americans feel about snookering the lion’s share of the world’s resources and opportunities.)   So with the world  growing farther apart than together these days and American xenophobia and geographically challenged culturebound cluelessness more pronounced than ever, I consider travel these days to be of more than just of personal benefit, a way to expand my knowledge  (there is another Rwandese proverb that says, “the more you see, the more you understand,” and Goethe said, “you only see what you know”), but an obligation. Apparently Jay Leno got a  bunch of young Americans on his show not long ago and asked them, Who did we fight the Vietnam war against ? And they didn’t have a clue, because they didn’t  even know that Vietnam is a country. Not long ago, I was in a pizza joint halfway out on Long Island, and got talking with several of its teenage patrons. I told them I had come down from Montreal, and none of them knew where Montreal was, or that it was Canada. So there’s a problem, exemplified by our president, who had never been to London or Paris before he took office, and a few months into his administration said, “Africa is country with a lot of problems.” Americans need to be reminded that there’s a rest of the world out there, even if they aren’t ever going to get there, which I’ve always found one of the most perplexing aspects of the “melting pot.”

       So this long weekend in Armenia would be more about us junketeers than about Armenia  or the Armenians, and would be a meditation about  the act of traveling : why I do it, and how I do it, which I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately, because this is what I’ve done with my life, and there will come a time when I won’t be able to do it anymore. How many years to I have left to do real, hard traveling? Maybe ten, fifteen if I’m lucky. 

      Of course I would take my little traveling guitar, currently a Yamaha six-string Guitalele that I picked up at Archimbault’s, Montreal great music store on St. Catherine St. I always do,   to break the ice with the locals and jam with them and learn their music and keep myself amused in transit, during the long stints of down-time, as there always are, when you are waiting to get to the next place, sitting in some airport or  train station, and nothing is happening. Maybe we should call the show the Strumming Suitcase, like the Singing Nun, I suggested to Howard as we boarded the plane to London, the first leg of our trip. The guitar can provide a sort of spontaneous running commentary on whatever we run into, and I can work on the Suitcase theme song, a swing cabaret Django Reinhart-style blues that I was working on and already have a whole cd’s worth of lyrics for. 

I’m a suitcase
Shuffling from place to place
A weary beat-up old suitcase
No name, no tags, no face
I got no destination or deadline
Just  pack my clothes and head on down the line

I’m a lost case
Going no place fast
A weary beat-up old suitcase
Running from the past
I’m still embarrassed about that trip to Paris 
It’s great to be home, but maybe I should still be in Rome
(this last couplet is from the fertile mind of my six-year-old Edgar)

Got no heart to break
Got no soul to rob
Got no money to take
Got no steady job
I’m just a suitcase
Always on the move
Here one day gone the next
Got no prepared text or pretext
Nothing left to lose, nothing to prove….
        “You’re going to have to be quick on your feet if you gonna keep up with Suitcase,” I warned Howard. “You’re going to have to have eyes in the back of your head, and in your feet like the White Tara.  You can’t miss a thing. Every snatch of conversation, everything that’s happening in the foreground, middle ground, and background. Because there is no story-line, no narrative arc. The Suitcase is all over the place, on the case. Lots of things are always happening at once, on many levels, and the Suitcase has to be attuned to all of them.” Every story is a window into the infinite, and this is has always been my  main problem as a writer—containing the subject. To explain what one thing is and how it got to be that way, you have to explain half a dozen other things, and each of these buds off half a dozen more. Winwood Reade, a Victorian historian of Africa (who ended up having the same problem and starting his history with the creation of the universe) calls this phenomenon “the law of infinite prerequisites.” It is similar to the Buddhist law of dependent existence, of the chain of causes that is responsible for everything that exists. 

            Sometimes the different levels of what is going on converge, and these moments of synchronicity, these conjunctures, as William Burroughs called them, can provide a heightened, even mystical experience. I hope you will be able to capture one of these moments, which we are bound to experience, I told Howard. They are the big pay-off of traveling, the epiphanies.

          “And not only that,” I added, “you’re going to have to style the Suitcase. That’s where I need help. How much Michael Moore, and how much Peter Ustinov, should he be ? Should he have his shirt tucked in, or out, lessening the impact of his pot belly and cutting an informal, accessible, comfortable-in-his skin figure ? How much erudition should he exude ? The viewer has to be able to identify with him, to buy his shtick, so it is not just a question of vanity that whenever possible he should be shot head-on, which makes him much more appealing,  than in profile, for instance. The Suitcase is  the ‘I’ of the travelogue, and there undoubtedly all kinds of tricks of cinematography that you know much better than I do, that would help put him over. We have to be on top of these things if we’re going to carve a niche for the Suitcase on cable t.v..” 

       “Just be yourself,” Howard suggested, “and we’ll worry about how it comes out later.” 


       We had a couple of hours layover in London, so we took the tube to South Kensington, where I used to live in the early sixties, in an upstairs flat in the former home of W.S. Gilbert, the librettist of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Victorian musical team, on a quiet, tree-lined street called Harrington Gardens.  The first two floors were rented by the Genealogical Society (royal or British, I don’t remember which). Americans of British descent who had always been told that they were descended from a duke would come here and find out that they were actually descended from the village chimneysweep. One man from Ohio actually staggered out into the street and had a heart attack on the pavement after making this devastating discovery. Our relations with the Genealogical Society deteriorated after I left a bath running upstairs and water leaked through the ceiling and damaged some priceless parish registers. There was a large, lovely garden in back, and a bench out on the street that two Lebanese brothers, who were renting another flat, and I would watch couples making out on summer evenings. Near the bench was a sign  that said, “It is an offense to allow your dog to foul the public footpath.” But it was no longer there.  I loved the eccentric precision of British English. 
There was a poster in the Gloucester Road post office that said, 


What a wonderfully iterative and mobilizing admonition. It made you glance anxiously over your shoulder for one of the nasty little things. It got your immediate attention. 

           I took Howard to some of my old haunts, the Bailey Hotel and the Stanhope Arms pub near the Gloucester Road Tube station, where I used to go for a pint with Geoffrey Stillingfleet and his cronies, even though I was only sixteen and they were in the seventies and eighties. Geoffrey had survived the infamous Japanese prisoner of war camp on the River Kwai. He had been a pilot in the RAF and had been shot down and was one of its first prisoners. When he returned to England and four years in the camp, he found that his fiancée had given him up for dead and had married his best friend, so he  devoted the rest of his life to good food and drink. Having no kin except a brother in Yorkshire, he took me under his wing, to all the classic British sporting events–  Henley for the crew races,  Twickenham for the rugby, Lords for the cricket, Wimbledon for the tennis. But the South Kensington I remembered had been several generations ago and only existed in my mind. The houses were still there, but the smell of the quartier was much richer.  Gilbert’s house was now the offices of an architectural firm and had been spruced up tremendously from since we were there and put on the historic register, as it deserved to be, because the Delft tiling and  dark baroque cabinetwork  and leaded stained glass in the interior were superb.  The soot and grime-covered wallpaper in the stairwell when we were there was now clean white sheetrock. My mother had offered to replace the wallpaper at her own expense, and the landlord had brought in the poet laureate (Betjman I believe) who was an expert on Victorian wallper. Betjman  said that the wallpaper was by William Morris and was priceless, even though its pre-raphaelite floral patterns were impossible to see. So it remained, and we left in l964 for a lighter and larger flat on the much noisier Cromwell Road.  No one there knew what had become of the Genealogical Society.

       I felt like Rip Van Winkle or a peripatetic Proust á la recherché du temps perdu, trying to recover one of the many lives I had forgotten, abandoned, bailed out of, moulted from like a cicada leaving his shell. This one was very remote, from the age of thirteen to eighteen, and only on some winter and spring vacations, because I was still going to boarding school in the States, and sometimes stayed with schoolmates, and in the summers we went to Switzerland. All I could recall were fragments. The anti-nuclear rallies in Trafalgar Square with Bertrand Russell leading the chant, “We don’t want Polaris.” Taking visiting Americans up the Thames to the Tower of London. In one of whose cells, after the umpteenth time, I noticed the words Marmaduke Neville l569 chiseled into one of its stone walls,  and went to the Public Records Office and learning that Neville had been imprisoned and beheaded by Henry VIII for being Catholic, wrote a short story about Neville’s last night in the Tower. In my story Neville had poached the Duke of Rutland’s trout, which I had done inadvertently that summer of my sixteenth year; it had been a capital offense until only a few years before.  That summer I made my way through the early, comedy-of-manners novels of Aldous Huxley, marveling at all the long words he used, looking them up and writing down their meanings and grouping them in synonymous clusters : Laconic, taciturn, reticent; malevolent, malicious, maleficent.    I remembered, for the first time in forty years,  a few snatches from   a  biker song that was a big hit on the British charts. The youth was dividing into Mods and the Rockers, and the Beatles and Stones were about to break out. It was  called “Just For Kicks.” 

When my bird decides to turn up
I’m off to have a burn-up
A burn-up with my bird upon my bike.

Just for kicks
We ride all through the night
My birds hangs on in fright….
      In a  second-hand bookstore bulging at the seams (that was my favorite thing about London, so many used bookstores), Howard and I found a book about Dagestan that was one of the People of Caucasus handbooks in a series called Caucasus World, published by Curzon, a small academic house in Surrey. There is also a handbook on the Armenians in the series, that would have been good to have along, had we know about it. 

     We returned to Heathrow and at the gate to the flight to Yerevan rendezvoused with the rest of our party, five young travel writers from New York, all but one of whom were gay, and Cindy Levens, from the pr firm that had put together the junket.  They proved to be delightful traveling companions, very smart and very funny,  except for one, whom we named Anum. I had just received an e-mail joke about changing one letter of a foreign phrase.  E Pluribus Unum becomes E Pluribus Anum,  there’s an asshole in every group. Anum was one of these people who has have a schedule and spends weeks researching and plotting where exactly he is going to go and what he is going to see. He  was all business, taking notes and photographs nonstop.  If it was 3:45 and we weren’t back on the bus when the itinerary Cindy had  given us  said we should be, he got very agitated.
Anum was the complete antithesis of the Suitcase’s spontaneous, adventitious approach, so we were at odds much of the time. He never had anything nice to say. Even  Howard, one of the most imperturbable and generous guys you’ll ever meet,  lost his patience with him once and called him a “bitch.”  But the others were great : David, the bright and hilarious twenty-six-year-old travel editor of the New York Post,  who is writing a novel and a play and a screenplay, who I predict the world will be hearing from soon.  Doug, who had just arrived from Zimbabwe (his father was one of the last white Southern Rhodesians whom Mugabe had not dispossessed, and was still on his farm; he was going to let them have it over his dead body)  and was living way up in Harlem and had filed a hilarious story about New York’s metrosexuals  for the Daily Telegraph; Gretchen, who was part Irish and part native American, from one of the Long Island tribes—the Massapequas, I think. The three of them were all heavy drinkers, seldom without a glass in hand during the entire trip.  I’m sure I would rapidly become a lush if I were a professional travel writer. They kept up a running gay patter, convulsing us with frequent outrageous and raunchy wisecracks. It was interesting  how they saw Armenia—Ah Men Yah !— as David joked–  through the lens of their sexuality. Which only reinforces mu point that we all have  lenses. There is a preponderance of gays in the travel- writing game, just as there is in the fashion and interior  decorating magazine worlds, because it’s a luxury lifestyle thing, an editor told me—staying in five-star hotels, eating in the three-star Michelin restaurants, jet-setting from one destination to the next. But many writers who travel and hard-core explorers are also gay : T.E.Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger, Bruce Chatwin, my great-uncle the lepitopterist, Tobias Schneebaum (one of my favorite Amazon books is Keep the River to your Right, in which the Brooklyn-born Schneebaum is abducted by some cannibals who turn out to be gay, and he has the time of his life), Colin Turnbull (who lived in the Ituri Forest and wrote the classic The Forest People, about the Bambuti pygmies, who never suspected his orientation, even after he returned with his black American companion), Jan Morris (who is now a woman). There are undoubtedly a lot of reasons for this. Maybe not being accepted by the mainstream of their own society, being a persecuted subculture themselves, contributes to being more open to other cultures, more cosmopolitan and magnanimous and adventurous. Not having family obligations or having the illusion that you are perpetuating yourself through children makes your one time around more intense, poignant, and detached. You’re sort of home free. You’re here, but it isn’t about you.  This is why many traditional societies like the Zuñi and the Tarahumara revere their gays as special, highly-realized beings. We all have to come to terms with the fact that we are alone. Gays have a head start. But my position is that there aren’t only two sexes. There are about fifty of them. 

     So I learned as much about the New York gay scene on our long weekend as  I did about Armenia or the Armenians.  I learned  that a “fluffer” is someone who sucks the dick of a porn star  so that it will be erect and ready to perform  when the camera starts rolling, and that there is a gay travel magazine called Out and About. We decided to start our own rival publication called Laid Over, for which I would contribute a column called the Peripatetic Pederast (when I told this to my second son, who graduated from Yale last spring, I was expecting him to be amused, but he struck out on both words; now I know I’m a dinosaur)  or maybe the Hapless Hetero. Our  fellow junketeers were the surprise ingredient—besides the many surprises of Armenia itself. Indeed our junket, our long weekend in Armenia, proved to be almost a nonstop surprise. 
           Before leaving, I had contacted two Armenians I knew:  Michael Arlen, a colleague from the old, William Shawn New Yorker, and Atom Egoyan, the Toronto-based film-maker, who had made a recent film, Ararat,  about the Armenian genocide and the Canadian grandchildren of some of its victims  coming to grips with its traumatic legacy. Michael  (Michael J., actually)  is the son of  a writer called Michael Arlen, who changed his name from Dikram Kuyumjian and wrote a novel in the twenties called The Green Hat, that was a huge bestseller and made him more famous than Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He is a very refined and classy guy with a wry  yet tremendously warm sense of humor. I am terribly fond of him and wish we saw more of each other.  Both of us went to St. Paul’s, the “exclusive”  New Hampshire prep school that John Kerry, the democratic front-runner, also attended, Michael some years before me  (I was ’64),  where generations of the old American WASP elite were educated and he wrote two  books about his family and his Armenian roots, Exiles and Passage to Ararat, as I did with Russian Blood. Michael told me he hadn’t been to Armenia since the l988 earthquake, and had known Yerevan in the mid-seventies, when it was the hippest city in the southern USSR. There was a lot of smuggling traffic with Beirut in those days. “Talk about being in the wrong place in the wrong time,” Arlen said of his homeland. “Armenia was the first Christian nation. It adopted Christianity a generation before Rome did. They thought they were getting in on a good thing, that Christianity was a growth stock, but they ended up being a Christian nation in a sea of Islam. Armenia was not a good place to be from 1000 A.D. on, and it culminated in the Turkish massacres.” 

      The biggest one was in l915, but massacres had been going on since the l890s and continued until 1922. Turkey took most of the country, including Ararat, and Ani, the city which the Bogratid kings built when they ruled Armenia in the ninth century,  and what’s left is a rocky, barren  enclave that’s smaller than Belgium (29,000 squares miles).”

           When I told Arlen that I was descended from the Bagratids, he suggested that I  announce, preferably drunk  on cognac, when I stepped off the plane in Yerevan, “I have come to reclaim what is rightfully mine,” which Egoyan also thought would be a “shining entry.” Egoyan said there was “tons of subculture in Yerevan– amazing jazz and contemporary experimental art—so much to do,  and I hope you’ll be able to access it while you’re there.” And he gave me the names and numbers of  a dozen  interesting people. 

 Armenia sits just below the narrow neck of land between the Black and the Caspian seas, where Asia Minor rammed and continues to ram into Europe, heaving up the Caucasus Mountains. It is a region of major tectonic and not uncoincidentally political instability, pleated with half a dozen lower, east-west-trending mountain chains, known collectively as the Lesser Caucasus whose strata  violently deformed and tilted and contorted by uplift. Besides Armenia’s earthquake, there was just recently one in Iran, immediately to the south. Both claimed about twenty-five thousand lives. Special methods and styles of building to withstand earthquakes have evolved over the centuries. The hills around Yerevan are plastered with close-packed, low-slung   dwellings partially dug into their sides, that look like mushroom colonies.  Four extinct, snow-covered volcanos rise spectacularly out of the three-thousand-foot Armenian plateau, which is mostly a treeless desert steppe, Tibetan in its starkness. Ararat is the highest (5156 meters); the others are Sipan, Aragatz, and Nemrut. 

       While its latitude is that of Madrid and Philadelphia, because of its elevation, the  climate of Armenia is like that of Montreal.  Spring and fall are the times to visit. The summer is too hot, the winter is bitter cold, as travelers have been complaining since Xenophon in the fifth century B.C..

      Because it sits at the entrance of the Caucasus land bridge, a major migratory and invasion corridor from the Middle East to Europe, Armenia has been a funnel of human activity,  the scene of a lot of  cultural exchange and carnage, and repeated foreign invasions over the centuries. It was on the silk route, so it has received a good deal of oriental input, as well as Hellenic, Persian, and Roman.  The first hominids from Africa, Homo ergaster, a transitional species, between H. habilis and H. erectus,  passed through 1.7 years ago; some their remains were recently found in a cave just over the Georgia border, to the north. 

       Few countries or people have a longer history than the Armenia and the Armenians. They seem to be descended from the Phrygians. By 900 B.C. the Armenian proto-state, known as Urartu, had become one of the most powerful  in the Middle East and had become a serious rival to the Assyrians (this is from Fitzroy Maclean’s To Caucasus). But in 590 B.C. the Urartians were overthrown by the Medes. In 521 Armenia became a satrapy of the Persian emperor Darius (Persia is now Iran), and when Alexander overthrew the Persians in 331 B.C., the Armenians abruptly found themselves under Macedonian suzereignty, and a period of Greco-Oriental influence began that lasted until 90 B.C., when a great Armenian king, Dikran or Triganes, established an independent Armenian empire that spread from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, and from Mesopotamia to the Pontic Alps (one of the chains of the lesser Caucasus). This was Armenia’s zenith, in terms of its surface area. Subsequent rulers played the Romans and the Persians off against each other with varying degrees of success until 260 A.D., when Armenia again became part of Persia. But in 286 the Romans restored King Trdat or Tiridates III to the throne of his ancestors. With the conversion of Trdat in the year 303 by his cousin, St. Gregory the Illuminator (whom he had previously kept confined for fourteen years in a well full of reptiles), Armenia became the bulwak of Christianity in Asia. The following century a holy man named Mesrop invented a special Armenian alphabet, which exists to this day, giving the culture an immediate impenetrability,  and the gospels and many other scriptures were translated by monks in university-like monasteries that had sprung up by the hundreds on the plateau. (Again like Tibet.)

        But toward the end of the fifth century the Persians conquered Armenia again, and the Armenian Christians endured savage persecution at the hands of Persian fire-worshipers. Then in the seventh century came the conquest by the Arabs and the rapid spread of Islam through the Middle East, and what was left of Armenia’s territories were fought over by the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople and the Mohammedan Khalifs of Bagdad. 

      In the ninth century Armenia briefly regained a measure of independence and some of its former glory. For the next century and a half the country was ruled by my ancestors, the Bagratuni, who were originally Jews, and had been deported from Judea to Armenia to Judea by Dikran the Great, and had gradually intermarried with the local noble families and converting to Christianity,  achieved prominence. (This is from the Jewish Encyclopedia.) The founders of the Bogratid dynasty, Shabat and Bagrat, were princes of princes. By the ninth century the Bagratuni had risen  to king of kings status, and they built a splendid city called Ani, and over a thousand monasteries on the plateau. The last Bagratid king, Gagik II, was captured in 1049 by the Byzantine emperor, and in l065 Ani was sacked and destroyed by the Seljuk Turks. But one branch of the Bagratuni had by become the rulers of Georgia and of two other small kingdoms to the north, Kakhetia and Imeretia, and they liberated Armenia from the Turks late in the twelfth century. Other lines of Bagratuni  produced two Byzantine emperors, Konstantin Porphyrogenitus and Comnenus, and connect to the Byzantine-Greek house of Paliologus. They are a major Eurasian trunk-line. (My great uncle Avinoff, the butterfly collector, who left us with a detailed family tree,  was once heard muttering the word Porphyrogenitus on the streets of Pittsburgh, where he lived and was the director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History from the late twenties until his death in l948.) 

        In 1236  the Mongols swept through, and Armenia was again subjugated. For the next seven centuries, the Armenians were stateless, an oppressed minority in Turkey, then, with the conquest of the Caucasus  by Tsar Nicholas I in the l840s, a far southern outlier  of the Russian empire.  Prince Nicholas Gagarine’s sumptuous two-volume 1846 Le Caucasse Pittoresque has 80 lithographs of the newly conquered territory : deep gorges and high mountain villages with minarets and sultans puffing hookahs on patios.

         Another branch of Bogratuni, the Bogrations, became a prominent family in the Russian nobility, and it is from them that I am descended, through a family called Jmakin, whose daughter married into the Panayev family, one of whose daughters married into the Lukianovitches, of eastern Ukraine, one of whose daughters married my great-grandfather, Nicholas Avinoff. There is a general-prince in War and Peace called Bogration, who was fatally wounded at the Battle of  Borodino, and in the l970s, when I was doing the research for Russian Blood,  I met in New York City a tall, slender, long-faced, silver-haired,  soft-spoken, melancholy aristocrat named Teymuraz Bogration, who was my remote cousin. In nineteenth-century St. Petersburg some  Bogration women dressed in mourning, with black dresses and veils,  on Good Friday, because that was the day  their ancestor in the House of David had been crucified. 

      During the First World War, as tsarism was crumbling, the imperial army pulled out of Armenia, leaving it defenseless, and the Turks moved in and committed the first major genocide of the twentieth century, about which there is a new book, Peter Balakian’s The Burning Tigris (the Tigris rises in the mountains of Armenia), that was on the New York Times’ best-seller list for several weeks. Balakian draws a grim parallel with America’s inaction and obstruction of the League of Nations during this holocaust and its thwarting of the international effort to stop the Rwandan genocide of l994. Fourteen years after the slaughter of close to a million Armenians by the Turks, Hitler argued to his staff, who were voicing reservations about the liquidation of the Jews,  “Who remembers the Armenians ?”  The Armenians who survived and their descendants do, and so do social scientists like Concordia University’s Frank Chalk, who have spend their careers trying to understand this most horrible act that humans are collectively capable of. 

      The Armenian genocide sparked a huge diaspora. Some fled to Iran or Iraq, some to Europe, some to the States and Canada. The American Armenians are almost a million strong.  In the fall of l917 the Russian empire collapsed, and Armenia  had a few years of shakey independence, until 1922, when it became a satellite republic of the USSR. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union  that Armenia regained, in l991, the independence it had lost eight centuries earlier. But the birthpains of its  reemergence have been violent.  No sooner was it on its own, than Armenia, led by its nationalistic new president,  began to fight with neighboring Azerbajan over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh, which is almost completely inhabited by Armenians and has been for as long as there are records, but which Stalin, in classic conquer-and-divide mode, gave to Azerbajan to weaken and adulterate Armenia and create friction with its neighbors. After an unsuccessful attempt by the Azeris at ethnic cleansing, the Armenians drove the Azeris out and now they control the region. The Nagorno-Karabakhians consider themselves an independent republic, a sister of Armenia, but the rest of the world doesn’t recognize their sovereignty, and Azerbajan has reacted by cutting off energy and food to Armenia. The Azeris have  oil, which makes the Americans willing to cut them a lot of slack, even though the America’s heart is with the Armenians. But this sort of  double-dealing and betrayal has been the story of the Middle East since it was carved up by England and France and American oil companies. There has been a cease-fire since l994, but the Nagorno-Karabakh situation remains unresolved, one of several frozen post-Soviet conflicts.  Armenia is completely land-locked, like Bolivia and Rwanda, and is surrounded on four sides by hostile Muslim populations.  The only road to the West is through Georgia, itself a failed state in far shakier shape than Armenia at the moment, with three secessionist regions of its own, and the first part of Georgia that you go through is predominantly Azeri. So Armenia’s geopolitical situation, as Michael Arlen pointed out, is not enviable. 

        The internal politics of post-Soviet Armenia have been turbulent, too. In l999 assassins credentialed as journalists burst into the Parliament and gunned down the prime minister, Vazgen Sadrkisian, and six other parliamentarians. Still in prison, the assassins refuse to say who they were working for. 

      And yet through all these vicissitudes, the Armenians have managed to retain a strong cultural identity,   despite centuries of persecution by the Turks and the Soviets,  two world wars and a genocide, thanks to the Armenian church and to the diaspora, which pumps an estimated seventy-five million dollars a month into the Armenian economy. Today there are about three million Armenians in the country, and four million exiles and hyphenated Armenians—in the Middle East, Europe, and North America. The biggest industry is diamond-cutting. The stones are flown down from Antwerp and Brussels. Cognac is the biggest import. Churchill drank only Armenian brandy (and literally swore by it). Pomogranates are another big crop. This is where Persephone was given pomograntes, and where many of the Greco-Roman mystery cults originated.

         Against all odds, and in comparison with its neighbors, which are basket cases,  Armenia is looking up. This  is due to the hard work, smarts, and indomitable spirit of the Armenians. Eight centuries of statelessness have only strengthened their resolve and tenacity and determination to survive as a people. Most of the able-bodied young adults are working in Moscow or St. Petersburg and sending money home to their families. The parallels between Armenia and Israel—both embattled islands of Judeo-Christianity in a hostile sea of Islam supported primarily by their American diasporas—are striking. (As well as Rwanda; all three are also scarred by a genocide.) The Armenian lobby in Washington is almost as powerful as the Israeli one, and there are many rich and prominent Americans of Armenian descent who are making sure that their homeland doesn’t go under. Armenians are shrewd business people, and very creative in the arts.  “Armenians are a lot like Jews, except that we drink  more,” Jirair Avanian, an Armenian-American who had been an art dealer in New York and was now running the best restaurant in Yerevan told me. The richest Armenian in the world is Kerk Kirkorian, who  owns the Mirage Corporation, with its lucrative hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, and is currently suing Chrysler-Daimler-Benz for a billion dollars. Kirkorian  is major money, and he is giving a hundred million dollars to develop Armenia’s museums and tourist infrastructure.  If it wasn’t for the support of its  diaspora, Armenia couldn’t survive. 

      We arrived in Yerevan around midnight and were ushered into the v.i.p. lounge for special treatment by Armenian customs and immigration, at a charge of fifty dollars a head, but instead were kept there for four hours while the officials, still stuck in the old Soviet authoritarian mindset,   combed through our passports for any irregularities and found that David’s photo was coming loose from its page, and that Gretchen’s pages didn’t have any room  for the entry stamp.  I was about to ask for the kniga zhalob, the complaint book—a useful thing when the officialdom  in a communist, or in this case former communist state  is being a pain in the ass—when finally we were liberated. It wasn’t a promising beginning, and as we drove through a sleazy quarter of garish neon-lit casinos and passed the enormous compound, surrounded by a high razor-wire fence, that the Americans were building their new embassy in, none of us were particularly excited to be here. Armenia is strategically important for the West, holding the tide against Islam, and the United States is giving it $75 million a year in aid, its second-highest per capita foreign aid package after Israel. But it is also being very generous to Armenia’s oil-rich enemy Azerbajan, even  though the Azeris have been harboring fugitive  Taliban and Al Q’eda and recruiting them for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

     Things looked up when we reached  the Avan Villa, Tufenkian’s  boutique hotel,  perched on a hill overlooking Yerevan, with an exhilarating view of Mt. Aragatz in the distance. The villa is like a private mansion,  decorated with exquisite taste, and the cuisine is superb. (And the Suitcase is not selling out saying this, because it is true.) Both are in the Armenian style. Tufenkian is to be congratulated. He has done his homeland proud.   When I got up the next morning and  breathed in the dry, sun-kissed air from my balcony, I thought for a moment I was  in Albuquerque. But as I looked more closely at the architecture, the pigs and chickens and rabbits and the fruits in the back yard below, I was clearly somewhere that was a lot earthier, more like Mexico. 

         Hayk Demoyan, who was to be our guide for the duration of our visit, joined us at breakfast.   A handsome, swarthy 28-year-old, Hayk had a PhD. in Armenian history from the university in Yerevan and was extremely knowledgeable, so we actually learned a good deal, although starting from near-total ignorance we still left with only  a rudimentary  understanding of this culture. Hayk had written a book about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but his doctorate was about Armenia’s golden age, when the culture flowered in the fifth century. The original Hayk was Noah’s great-great-grandson;  Armenians and Georgians trace their descent from him and sometimes refer to the region embracing their countries as Hayastan, or the land of Hayk. I asked Hayk if there were still any Bagratuni around, and he said that he was one himself.  His grandfather was named Bagrat Bagratuni. So he was a remote cousin. We are all something like thirty-second cousins, so Hayk was maybe like my tenth or fifteenth cousin. The connection was tenuous, because we were ethnically and culturally very different body-mind configurations.

      Hayk explained that the Armenian church is  not orthodox, like the Russian and the Greek churches, but monophyst, like the Ethiopian and Coptic Churches. Orthodox Christians believe that Christ is both human and divine, but monophysts believe that he is only divine, and they cross themselves up down, then left and diagonally back up to right, while the Orthodox go up, down, then right and diagonally back to the heart (spectacle, testicle, wallet, and watch, as Monty Python explains). The patriarch of the Armenian Church is known as the Catholicus. The church has two holy sees, or catholicostases,  one the third-century complex of Echhmiadzin, on the outskirts of Yerevan, and the other in Lebanon. The Catholicus in Lebanon died a few weeks after we got back. 

       We went to the Parajanov Museum, which both Arlen and Egoyan said was a must. Sergei Parajanov was a film-maker and artist during the Soviet period, a generation after Eisenstein. His films include the surreal, Dalaiesque “The Color of Pomogranate,” and  “Ashik Kerin,”  about an Armenian who was walled up alive in the fortress of Salkan as an offering to deter the Mongols. Parajanov also did some very interesting collages, which the museum is full of. The Soviets jailed him for many years for being a homosexual, which one of the women who showed us around the museum said he wasn’t, but he was a troublemaker, a dissident free spirit and a thorn in the side of the Kremlin.  In prison he did extraordinary found-art works like Cornell, from whatever he could get his hands on. Parajanov is the genius of the culture, a sensibility much like Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The other fabulous Armenian painter was Arshile Gorki (his real name Vasdanig Manoug Adoyan), much of whose work is renditions of his lost boyhood Armenia. 

       There have also been genius Armenian composers and musicians, like the pianist Arno Bobadjanian, of whom there is an extraordinary statue in one of Yerevan’s parks, leaning back and away from the keyboard, his head with its huge beak of a nose thrown up to the heavens with gusto. (This is one thing we noticed in Yerevan : a lot of the people have huge schnozzes. Why this preponderance of proboscises of more than ordinary protuberance, why Armenians tend to have big noses– if indeed they do– I haven’t a clue.) Araj Katchatanian composed the music for the epic Hollywood movie, “Spartacus,” and his Guyane Ballet was used for the movie “Caligula.” Talented Armenians are to be found in every walk of life : in American one has only to think of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy; the euthanasia activist  Kevorkian, “Dr. Death,” who is presently behind bars for his compassionate assisted deaths of the terminally ill who no longer wish to live;  Vartan Gregorian, whose career has included stints as president of Brown University, the New York Library, and currently the Carnegie Foundation, and is chairing the 9/11 memorial jury panel; the physicist Raymond Damadian, whose supporters recently took out a full page ad in the New York Times protesting his failure to be given the Nobel Prize. And let us not forget Giorgio Armani.  Or my kick-ass divorce lawyer in Plattsburgh, New York, Ara Assadourian.   And what do you think Giorgio Armani’s background is?

       So who are these people, the Armenians ? Why has their culture withstood so many onslaughts and refused to die ? That is what Howard and I were wondering as we wandered through the streets of Yerevan, striking up conversations in Russian with old men playing dominoes in seedy courtyards, Howard filming the passing scene while I traced weird and fanciful patterns on the fretboard of the Guitalele. Their appearance was distinctive. Wavy black hair, though some blondes, and  not a lot of body fat. They were different from their Arab neighbors, and even Georgians.  The guys were better looking  than the gals, David remarked (of course he was looking at the guys), whose contours were sheathed in tight-fitting spandex jeans and whose round faces were, with the occasional stunning exception, more handsome and  healthy than beautiful. Now that I was among nothing but Armenians, I didn’t particularly feel an ethnic connection with them, even with my cousin Haik. I was more European.  My Armenian, after all, was only a dash. I also had, while supposedly being hundred-percent “Russian,” German, French, Mongol, Tatar,  Cossack, Finnish, and Ukrainian blood. I was a mixed bag, like everyone.  But I felt more like these people than the Nepalis I had been with a few months before.  The Armenians were proud, and didn’t seem to have any self-esteem issues, and are famously hospitable. A woman came up to us and seeing that we were lost, not only directed us to  where we wanted to go, but offered to take us there. The Armenians tremendous solidarity is reinforced by their own alphabet and language (a unique variant of Indo-European; every once in a while we could recognize a word, but most of it was unintelligible), and of course their surnames; almost every one ends in –ian. The music, which features a reedy precursor of the clarinet called the duduk playing Middle Eastern minor scales, is also completely distinctive. Indeed the culture seems so homogenous and defining that for a non-Armenian,  it is almost oppressive. We didn’t see a single black person the whole time. Other than that, I have no other generalizations to offer, except that people everywhere are basically the same, except that they  have important differences in culture and upbringing that make them not the same at all.  I can report that the cigarettes were excellent, particularly a brand with black filters  that sold for fifty cents  (or 350 drams) a pack. They were real smokes, without the addictive chemical additives that ruin the taste of First World butts.

      What can tell you about “the Armenians ?’ Not much. We were drunk most of the time. I don’t even know what the negative stereotypes are, and didn’t pick up any Armenian jokes; you’d probably have to go to Turkey, Azerbajan, or Georgia to hear them.  Our driver was a somber, brooding guy for the first two days, but by the end he  really warmed up to us and thought we a complete gas. For those who can’t go there and form their own impressions, I recommend  Armenia : Portraits of Survival and Hope, by Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller, who interviews with three hundred Armenians in 1993-4, in the wake of the earthquake, which destroyed 40% of the country’s industrial capacity, and the pogroms in Azeri cities of Sumgait and Baku. Between 1988 and l990 one third of the Soviet era population emigrated. Today the economy has been transformed from a central-planned Soviet-style one  to an IMF- approved robber-capitalist model and the country is struggling to build a liberal democracy. See Gerald J. Libaradian’s The Challenge of Statehood : Armenia’s Political Thinking Since Independence. 

      Hayk took us to one of Tufenkian’s carpet factories, where nimble-fingered women were sitting at looms, spinning and chatting and laughing.  Each nine-by-twelve carpet takes three thousand hours of work.  I asked if they ever sang while they worked, and an old woman sang a dirge about her son, who had been killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
      We had a fabulous dinner at  Jirair Avanian’s restaurant, Dolmama, which was as good as the best restaurants in Mexico City. The whole feel of Yerevan, in fact– the bold, bright palette  of  the artwork and the decor, drawing on  a vibrant folkloric tradition– is a lot like Mexico City, but all comparisons, of course, are ultimately arid and only get you so far. The cuisine, for instance, is very different from Mexican food, but just as good in its own way, particularly the very thin, slightly crunchy unleavened flatbread name tk and the dolma–  beef submerged in garlic yogurt and wrapped in grape leaves, which has been a dish in these parts for three thousand years, going all the way back to the Urartians.
      The next day, Day Two, we drove north into the Lorree region, on the main road to Georgia, through which ninety percent of Armenia’s trade passes. The landscape was extremely rocky. There is a saying about how the Armenians are able to squeeze bread from stone. But the soil was volcanic and rich, and it was harvest-time. Roadside stands of pomogranates, grapes, plums, apricots,  and other fruits and nuts were  everywhere. 

       We drove through a village that looked no different from the others, but Hayk said was inhabited by Yezidi, one of Armenia’s few minority groups and a very interesting one. There are about a hundred fifty Jews in the country, and a small number of Greeks, Russians, and gypsies. The Yezidi are “almost Kurds,” Haik explained, but their religion is a mix of Islam and paganism. Like Zorostrians, they worship the peacock and dress in wildly colorful clothing. An Australian anthropologist named Ian MacIntosh, who used to be the executive director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based organization, Cultural Survival,  and his aboriginal wife are studying them. 

      We passed through Spitak, the epicenter of the l988 earthquake. Half of Spitak’s population, twenty thousand souls, were killed. Haik said there was a theory that the earthquake was deliberately caused by the Soviets, as their empire was unraveling,  to cripple Armenia as it was beginning to assert itself. 

       We topped a mountain pass where a fleet of black, Soviet-style limousines and a detachment of soldiers was waiting for the president, Robert Kocharian, who was  touring the region. I asked if Kocharian had been democratically elected, and Hayk said, “He thinks so. He is following the example of your president.” (So they know about Bush hijacking the election, I thought. He is a role model for these struggling democracies.)  The overthrow of Georgia’s president Shevernadze a few weeks after our return was not good news for Kocharian, or the new Azeri president, Ilham Aliyez, a dissolute playboy with no political experience who inherited the country from his father.

       On the other side of the pass, we drove along a river lined with the ruins of Soviet toxic chemical plants : huge concrete vats, tangles of rusty pipes. The river entered a gorge lined with oak forest, but many of the trees had been cut to provide fuel for the soldiers in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. This was some of the last native forest left in Armenia, but there is no national park system. Nothing is protected, so the indigenous flora (about three thousand species of higher plants) and fauna are going fast. Getting what is left protected would be a good cause for some ecology-minded hyphenated Armenian to take on. 

      Deep in the gorge, we reached a little outpost called Dzorogat, where Tufenkian was constructing a large hotel, not only for tourists, but for business conventions from Yerevan. It was a scenic location, with the potential to become some day like Bisbee, Arizona. High in the crags looming above us an enormous, condor-like bird of prey, a Eurasian griffon, with a white head and underwings and a ten-foot wingspan, was making slow, wide circles. We continued through some very dramatic and unusual geology.  The narrow gorge, whose warped strata had been tilted to the vertical, widened into an enormous canyon with a long,  flat grassy mesas, propped by dark basaltic columns inside it. High above the canyon was the Sanahin monastery. This was the main center of scholarship from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, where most of the manuscripts, handwritten and painted in Armenian script, were produced.   It was created for Queen Hozrovanoish, who was a Bagratuni. The Soviets closed it down in the late 1920’s. In l935 the Armenian catholicus was garroted by the KGB. There was an empty looted crypt with the imperial Russian double eagle which Hayk said was where one of the Dolgorukis had been buried. The Dolgorukis came from Armenia, bringing Christianity with them, and founded Moscow and became one of Russia’s princely families, along with the Imeritinsky’s, who were descended from the Bagratuni king of Imeretia.

     Some kids came up and I let them play my Guitalele and asked if there were any vipers around. My boys are very interested in snakes, so I always try to bring them herpetological intelligence from my travels. The vipers here are asps, small but very poisonous, like the one that Cleopatra (another ancestors through  the Bagratuni trunk-line, according to my great-uncle, who traced them to the Ptolemies) killed herself with. One of the boys ran off and soon returned with an asp that he had beheaded after it dropped off the roof of the monastery. The monastery was very solidly built of stone, and still in good shape for a ruin. As we wandered through it,  suddenly in came a busload of German tourists, dutifully tromping from room to room and taking photographs and gathering around a tour guide who told them the history of the place in German. They descended on a woman who was selling postcards in the nave, and almost cleaned her out. Fortunately there were a few left when they had gone, but the woman was charging a buck apiece for them. Already disturbed by the invasion of the Germans, I told the woman that the price of her postcards was completely out of whack with the price of everything else in the country. I could probably get the same postcard in Yerevan for a quarter, I said (which was true), and it doesn’t make a tourist feel good when he feels he is overcharged.  Haik was mortified, and  Anum rushed to the woman’s defense. “She’s just an enterprising woman charging what she can get, and the German were willingly paying it,” he argued. I’ve seen cultures destroyed by tourism, I said, like the Bora and the Witoto in the Peruvian Amazon, and this is only the beginning of  the ersatzification and commercialization of what is still a pretty pristine culture, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, to see this proto-capitalist gouging happening in the church of my ancestors. At least she could have the sensitivity to sell her stuff outside, like the other vendors, and not in the nave of the church.  Hayk said “the woman thinks you must be drunk.” But Howard, David, and Doug understood my point. Gretchen had bought some candles and had lit them and was saying a private prayer before them, and she felt that her space had been violated by the brouhaha that I had precipitated. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt like I had to say something.  Howard realized  that he should be getting this, Suitcase in a snit, and started filming.  The debate continued in the minivan as we returned to Yerevan. The more I thought about it,  the more I wished I had kept my mouth shut. Where does an American get off  being steamed up about a little thing like this, especially in one of the few countries that is on our side ? Who is ripping off whom ? 
       The next stop was completely surreal. Traveling a thousand years in the same day, we reached a gated California-style suburban community called Vahaknia on the outskirts of Yerevan. Modeled after Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles that is the biggest Armenian enclave in the U.S.,  it had twenty-four hour security, and four models of houses along a golf course—the first and only golf course in the Caucasus, and a section  of time-share townhouses. It was a faithful replica of the American dream, a transplant of the American good life.   The property was cut by a deep gorge and had a magnificent view of Ararat, a snow volcano as impressive as Mt. Fuji or Popocatapetl, soaring sixteen thousand feet up from the plateau. Hayk said that Ararat is the highest mountain in the world, compared to its surroundings.  Vahaknia named after its developer, Vahak Hovnanian, who is a big developer in southern New Jersey. Hovnanian’s daughter Nina is Armenia’s executive director of tourism and development. Atom Egoyan had given me her name, and she had invited us for a drink at her house, which was generic suburban except for the basement, where a boisterous cocktail was in progress; it  was done in exuberant Adirondack rustic style, with  wildly twisting branches for banisters on the stairs, and shelf fungi on the walls, and a bar made out of slices of a huge oak tree that had fallen down at her father’s place in New Jersey and she had had shipped over. One wall was the native bedrock, so the room seemed like a cave, and there was water running down into a pool from  it. Nina had grown up on the Upper East Side and was a hip and sophisticated New Yorker, wrapped in an imitation leopard-skin outfit that she had designed herself; she had been a fashion designer before taking this job. Her husband, a sweet, meek man who didn’t speak English, had been a Yerevan-based jazz drummer who toured the USSR, but after the Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out, he sold his drums and fought on the front lines, rising to the rank of general and becoming a great hero. They had been married for a year and had just had a daughter. The husband slapped out an infectious rhythm on his thighs as I did a swing rendition of Stardust on the Guitalele. 

       “Armenia is happening,” Nina told us. “It’s like we were in a bottle and a geni came and opened it.”   There were about twenty people in the room besides us, and the cognac was flowing. One woman told me all kinds of things that I never would have guessed Armenians were responsible for. Like the bronze used for the Statue of Liberty came from Lorree, where we had just been, and the guy who came up with the idea of greenbacks being green was Armenian. Yogurt is an Armenian word. So is carpet. The guy who started the yogurt craze in America with Colombo yogurt was an Armenian named Colombosian. Cher, by the way, is half Armenian, half Cherokee, the woman  went on. I told her I had a dash of Armenian blood myself, and she said  “There’s no such thing as a little bit Armenian.” It was like a love-fest down in Nina’s basement. We were getting a blast of Armenian hospitality that none of us would ever forget.

          Vahak took us up to the sales office. The houses and townhouses were selling like hotcakes, he told us.  He had already moved half of the six hundred units that he was going to build. Vahak, he told us, was the Zoroastrian god of fire, who was introduced to Armenia by the Persians  and incorporated into the Roman pantheon under the name Mitreaus.  A lot of the churches in Armenia are built on former Zoroastrian power spots. 
The Hoznanians had been refugees in Iraq after the genocide, but then in l959 there was a revolution in Iraq, the king was killed, and they immigrated to the States. Vahak got a phd. in solid state physics in Philadelphia and started working for Philco, but he and his three brothers decided to become developers and put their money together and began to build houses in southern New Jersey. Within ten years they were building houses all over country and were prospering. One of  Vahak’s brothers became the fifth or sixth biggest developer in the country and does 2000 houses a year all over the U.S.A.. It got to where the brothers were competing with each other. “They didn’t know which brother they were buying from,” Vahak told me, “so we decided it was better to stay brothers than partners and went our separate ways.” Vahak builds mostly in Ocean City and Monmouth County. On the surface he exuded a Donald Trump Atlantic City kind of hoakiness, but I took a closer look at him and saw a dignified and very smart gentleman. 

     “Let’s go to the driving range and hit some balls,” Vahak suggested, and Howard filmed  Vahak and me smacking balls out into the darkness while I showed him the secret of the swing, which I had learned from Jack Nicholson’s golf guru at the Sherwood Country Club outside of Los Angeles. Not that Vahak needed my advice. He was a serious golfer, with a twelve handicap, who belonged to two clubs in south Jersey. Anum almost killed Vahak’s son-in-law, the war hero, with a wicked shank. That might have changed  the course of modern Armenian history, like the journalist assassins who knocked off the prime minister four years ago.  Vahak insisted on giving us a tour of the miniature golf course. The whole soiree was  kitsch—Armenian kitsch, post-glasnost kitsch, which there is plenty of in Yerevan. But it was deeper than kitsch. It was Florida, dislocated and moved to a new, improbable landscape. The transplant had been successful. But in the process it had become Armenianized. The culture had appropriated it.  It had a flare and tackiness of its own. It was an expression of the energy and vitality of the Armenian-American community.  I wondered what archaeologists, excavating the ruins of Vahaknia a thousand years from now, would make of it. 

     “Genatsi,” Vahak said, bringing us another round of beers. This is the Armenian equivalent of bottoms up or skol. “It means, ‘I hope it happens for you,’” Vahak explained. To David, hopelessly locked into the perspective of his persuasion,  it sounded like Gay Nazi.  This was the only word of Armenian any of us picked up on our long weekend. Even the word for thankyou was such a tongue-twister that the Armenians say merci.
      Back in the minivan, all of us are pleasantly sloshed and agree that it has been an incredible day. There aren’t many places in the world you can travel a thousand years in an afternoon. India, Mexico— but these are well-known, well-traveled time-travel destinations. But Armenia is a sleeper. We discuss the kitschiness of Vahaknia, and I say that it is more than kitsch, something more serious.  Anum says, “Oh spare us the pontificating,” and this is where Howard calls him a bitch. 

      The next morning, Day Three, was a Saturday, and Howard and I went to the Matendarian Library, which contains the largest collection of ancient Armenian manuscripts in existence. It was a impressive piece of  communist Art Deco institutional architecture. A beautiful, spirited young woman gave us the tour. Howard was soon bored,  and didn’t notice that the flirtation going on between the two of us. Traveling has always had a sexual dimension for me. “You are uniting the world with your amours,” a Mexican friend once observed.  But then I met Rosette and that dimension of the Suitcase’s activities came to an end. 
       Our adorable guide showed us a fifth-century book by the father of Armenian history, Movses Khovenatsi, whose patron was my ancestor, Prince Sahak Bagratuni. “Before the Bagratuni were the Arshakuni,” she told us. “Yereshev, the fifth-century historian, said that conscious death is immortality,” she went on. This sounded like something mystical, like the Tibetan tulkus or incarnate lamas who are supposedly able to shoot their consciousness into their next body at the moment of death, but she explained that conscious death means when you give your life for your country or your family. “And this is a book by the sixth-century astronomer, Anania Shirakatsi,” she went on, “who said the earth is round long before Galileo, and the moon does not have a life of its own but is a reflection of the sun. This manuscript is by Mesrop Mashtots, who lived from 361 to 440 and invented the Armenian alphabet and a system of musical notation for the hymns he composed that no one is able to decipher today. This is the first printed book in Armenian, published in Venice in 1512, and the first Armenian newspaper, printed in Madras, India, in 1787.” She told us how the gold on the illuminated pages of the manuscripts was mixed with garlic juice,  the blue was ground from lapis lazuli,  the green came from copper oxide, and the red from the cochineal beetle, but no one today is able to reproduce the colors.  She showed us a poem by Khochatur Abarian, a nineteenth-century poet who modernized the Armenian language and disappeared on Mt. Ararat, then took us over a large map of Asia Minor. As her arm and hand moved up to point out an ancient city high up on the map, mine followed, and our undulating limbs did a little mating dance, like two snakes.  Howard, even though he wasn’t aware what was going on, captured the erotically charged pas de deux, or bras de deux, between  the aging Suitcase and the cute little Louis Vuitton. If I had been twenty years younger and unattached, I could have fallen in love with that girl, and maybe there would be a few half-Armenian Shoumatoffs running around, besides the half-Brazilian and half-Rwandan ones. But I’m out of the game now. 

I used to be cute and cunning
But now I’m out the running
And that’s just great
Cuz I’ve got my mate
I’ve spread my seed
What more do I need ?
       Kissing her hand farewell, I  emerged with Howard into the street as a large brass band—tubas, trombones, the works—followed by an excited crowd of children and moms, was coming up it. It was Breast Cancer Awareness Day in Yerevan, but our schedule for Day Three was taking us out of the city, east to Lake Sevan. We rendezvoused with the rest of the crew in the main plaza, piled into the minivan, and got out of  town.

          Everyone is in good spirits. Even Anum.  We are making up a song that goes “Take me back to Armenia, where the pomogranates are juicy and the bread is squeezed from stone.” “And you just might find the sheep of your dreams,” David adds. We stop at my insistence to  examine a roadcut that has a thick seam of obsidian, with huge jagged rocks of the black volcanic glass  lying  beneath it. I pocketed one for the boys.  After several hours Lake Sevan hoves into view. It is huge. It looks  like Great Salt Lake, but the water is sweet. Many places resemble each other, just like people, but they are not the same either.  Fishermen are rowing on  glassy surface of the lake, trolling nets. Tufenkian’s hotel, the Marak Tsapatagh, is on the far side of the lake. We stop at a sheep farm where a family of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh is tending a large flock that provides wool for his carpets. I play a couple of songs, Ochi Chornyi (Dark Eyes), This Land is Your Land, substituting Armenian place names : from Yerevan to Ararat, from Spitak to Lake Sevan, this land is made for you and me,  and everyone joins in as best they can, two groups of people from different parts of the world, living very different lives, reaching out to each other. Howard, who is filming, finds it quite moving. 

      The hotel is made of stone and is like a lodge in Colorado or the Canadian Rockies. There isn’t much to do except to eat and drink and walk, which I really need to do. The Azerbajan border is only twelve miles over the golden hills behind the hotel.  As we walk up to the Zanazan hotel for lunch a woman comes to the fence of her neat little farm and offers us some plums from her orchard, and we meet an old man hobbling with a cane who asks me in Russian if I know his nephew James Bagian, who lives in Los Angeles and is an astronaut for NASA. “Tell him where I am, and that I’m still alive,” the old man says. Everyone in the little village is a refugee from Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeris who lived here were driven out a few years ago and fled back to Azerbajan or were killed. It had been an Azeri village, but Hayk said that seventh-century Armenian chronicles attest that this side of the lake was originally part of Armenia, and “the principal of who was here first” gave the Armenians the right to expel the Azeris. This is the same principal that has been used to justify the takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh, and that the Congolese intellectual Wamba Dia Wamba deplores in Dispatch #2. Isn’t there a better way  for competing claims to be resolved than by force ? Can’t people learn to live with each other without invoking their prior claim and slaughtering the newcomers, or the newcomers coming with superior force and slaughtering the people in place ? I asked Hayk, and he said that was being naive. “We need to develop the mentality of Israel and rely on ourselves,” he said, “because that is the only way we are going to survive.” 

       We walk down to the lake as the sun is starting to set and come upon several boatloads of fishermen who are hauling their nets up on the beach and throwing their thrashing catch into plastic boxes,  just as the sunset is bloodying the sky, etching the mountains and mountainous clouds across the lake with fire and flooding the water with light. This is one of these heightened moments of mystical convergence, when you are out in the world and   happen upon something that is unexpectedly perfect, and you feel how rich and extraordinary life is.   We all feel this, and Howard gets it on film– the happy hullabaloo, the burly men’s monosyllabic but obvious satisfaction with their catch,   the squishy aquatic fecundity. It is the sort of charged quotidian tableau, where something else very important is going on in the background,  that Auden captures in his poem about the fall of Icarus. The boys and Gretchen are sloshed again. We take off our shoes and walk along the shore in the gently lapping water. “May the fish live to swim another day,” Gretchen says, holding her wine glass out toward the lake. It isn’t clear  which fish she is referring to, but her toast strikes the right chord. David predicts enthusiastically,  “When this country comes out of the closet, it’ll be one of the best gay destinations in the world.” We talk about why we love to travel, what we get out of it. “I’m a travel junkie,” Gretchen says. “I get the itchy feet, wanderlust. After a week or so I get bored out of my gourd in my little house in Queens. I get pale and itchy. It’s like being an actor and the show is over. I have to hit the road.”

      DAY FOUR, our last. Finally, we are here. We’re rocking. Wending our way back to Yerevan, we hit some of the most spectacular places in Armenia. Gardi, where there is a first-century Hellenic temple of Mitraeus, overlooking a yawning canyon that has another of these grassy mesas inside it. Mitraeus is not only the Persian Vahak, the Zoroastrian god of fire, but the Roman god of time, and the temple has twenty-four columns, one for each hour of the day. Huge caves are eaten out of the walls of the canyon below. Humans have undoubtedly lived here for a very long time. This is one of the most beautiful spots I have ever seen. We are high from the beauty.

          Nearby is a gorge called Geghard that has a very early church carved  into its rock walls. It is like Lalibella, in Ethiopia.  Today is Sunday, and many families are making a pilgrimage to this holy site. Women are selling sweet bread cakes and gelatinous strands of honey-encrusted nuts. Sheep are being brought to be sacrificed. Standing between two of them, I sing  and play a  gospel song by  the Reverend Gary Davis, my guitar teacher and guru :

Great Glory How Happy I am
My soul is washed in the blood of the Lamb

One day when Jesus was passing by
He set my sinful soul on fire
He made me laugh and he made me cry

Now stand back Satan get out of my way
I don’t want to hear another word you say
I’m on my way to the King’s highway
Glory halleloo….

    A crowd gathers around. Children stand to be photographed next to me. The Suitcase is a hit. We are invited to join a wedding party. Glasses of wine are passed around. “This is my kind of church,” Doug says. Everyone is  dancing and swaying to the strum and thrum of the Guitalele. Hayk breaks it up and says we must go inside now and forbids me to play once I get in.  We enter a room overlooked by two lions carved into the rock, the coat of arms of Proshian, a thirteenth-century notable who was related to the Bagratuni. The room is packed with pilgrims whose reverent faces are lit  by rows of blazing candles. The religion has come back strong after seventy years of Soviet repression.  Anum and I hike up to a little cave  carved out of the cliff above the church and he says he had been reading about how the Armenian church was founded by Christians fleeing Cappodocia, in the third century. Anum had been to Cappodocia, which is in Turkey, and said it was an amazing complex, with catacombs and an elaborate network of subterranean chambers and passageways. 

       Down in the gorge a large family group is having a picnic, dancing to the beat of drums and the  fluting of duduks. Howard and Doug and I want to join them, but Anum says we have to leave in fifteen minutes, if we’re going to keep on schedule and see the other places we have to see. I say but this is the real Armenia, and we argue and finally promising to be back in fifteen minutes, the three takes off for the gorge. “Well, did you see the real Armenia ?” Anum asks sarcastically when we return. “No,” I say. “They were packing up and leaving by the time we got there. The party was over. But at least we tried.” 

       Returning to the outskirts of Yerevan, we stopped at the St. Hripsime Chirch, built very solidly of stone in 618. In a crypt under the alter was the tomb of Hripsime, a beautiful virgin who had dedicated her life to the service of Christ and refused to marry the Armenian king, Trdates III, so he executed her. The stone used to crush her skull had been placed in a glass-over niche in the wall of the crypt.

       The last stop was Echmiadzin, the ancient capital of Armenia, built between 180 and 340. It was a vast ecclesiastical complex, with impressively robed and bearded clergymen standing around officiously and surveying the crowds and making sure that everyone showed the proper respect. One room in the main cathedral housed a priceless collection of relics : a thorn from Jesus’s crown, the head of the lance that speared him in the ribs while he was on the cross, and a fragment of Noah’s ark, which came to rest on top of Mount Ararat, as well as the hands of half a dozen eminent catholoci of the past, encased in silver. This was where the institutional memory of Armenia is preserved, but it was a little too institutional for me, and left Howard and Cindy,  non-Christians, cold. We were all a little  churched out. 

      We finished the day at the vernisage, the large open-air flea market in Yerevan, where there was all kinds of stuff to buy. Carpets, jewelry, old coins, Tsarist and Soviet memorabilia, cd’s,  spoons, chess sets, and other things skillfully carved from wood. I jammed with a duduk player in an embroidered white peasant shirt and was just getting the  minor scale down when it was time to leave. The next morning we were on the plane, wending our way back to  North America. It was only a scouting expedition,  but one that had to be followed up on, and made Howard and me some new friends. Armenia, we can report from our little taste of it, is ready to receive you and well worth going to. Howard is still editing his twenty hours of footage, trying to boil them down to fifteen minutes that would be of interest to a t.v.  producer, but they’re awfully rough. The best scenes turn out to be the ones of the Suitcase on the Guitalele. The music provides the only continuity to what is otherwise a complete mishmash.   Howard’s directional mike wasn’t working, and the persona of the Suitcase was all over the place and needs to be pulled together into a more coherent package. But I can see what I have to do, and so does Howard, and  the basic concept of the Suitcase was completely validated. We may have to go to another place and make the pilot from it. Mali is already beckoning. 

     On the plane to London I sit next to an Armenian woman who grew up in Iran and is living in L.A. and working for an airline.This is the first time she has been to her homeland, and she is sobbing uncontrollably at having to leave. “I want to move here if I can find a job,” she says. “The U.S. is a mess. The president and now Schwarzenegger. That’s it.” On the other side of me is another, more coiffed and hard-bitten Armenian woman,   who  also grew up in Iran and is living in Glendale, where she is the manager of a bank branch. This was her first time back to her homeland, too, but she has no desire to relocate. “For us, with our dollars, eating in the best restaurants, it’s heaven, but for the people who are living here, it’s another story. I’m going back to reality, to see what’s happening in the world.” 

Dispatch #16: The Garter Snake Dens of Manitoba

The Greatest Show on Earth

Each spring, on the plains of Manitoba, tens of thousands of red-sided garter snakes come boiling out of the depths of the earth. Before dispersing, they come together to mate in what is truly one of nature’s most riveting spectacles.

By Alex Shoumatoff / Photography by Chip Simons

The males emerge from the dens first, and then congregate in huge masses, waiting for the females.

My eight-year-old son, Zachary, belongs to seven generations of naturalists, going back to Russia in the l830s. Most of them were lepidopterists; Zach is the first to exhibit a deep fascination for reptiles and amphibians. Part of this undoubtedly has to do with Steve Irwin, the fearless, boundlessly enthusiastic Australian “crocodile hunter” on TV, whom Zach and his two brothers and millions of other kids are devoted fans of. But Zach possesses a remarkable empathy for other forms of life, an empathy I have encountered in only a few people in 35 years of writing about the natural world and those who study it.

I’ve learned a lot from him about snakes, salamanders, frogs, and turtles—subtly beautiful creatures I had never paid much attention to—watching him turn over rocks in Montreal’s Mount Royal Park, which we live on the edge of, uncover hundreds of red-backed salamanders, or net aquatic forms of red-spotted newts in ponds around our country place in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Turning up a milk snake on a Vermont farm, or a western diamondback on an Arizona ranch, within minutes of his arrival on the scene, Zach has shown me that reptiles and amphibians are far more ubiquitous than I had suspected, even with the assault they are under from so many quarters. So I decided to take Zach to see the snakes in Manitoba, which are justly counted as the ultimate ophidian experience.

In the first weeks of May, the porous limestone country north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, becomes the scene of the greatest orgy in nature, as tens of thousands of red-sided garter snakes emerge from their winter dens and procreate in huge, writhing mating balls. This is the largest gathering of communally denning garter snakes—or snakes of any kind—on the planet, the only place where you can take in thousands at a glance. It is an anachronistic expression of the riotous abundance of life that once proliferated, comparable to the mile-long clouds of nymphalid butterflies that you can still be enveloped in along the Congo River. It’s particularly heartening, because snakes have always been the most persecuted group of animals.

Their sexual frenzy usually peaks around Mother’s Day. But this year it was taking longer for them to come up from their subterranean hibernacula, the lack of insulating snow cover during the bitterly cold winter perhaps having driven them further down. The bacchanal was only just getting under way when we arrived a week later, on Victoria Day weekend (the Canadian equivalent of Memorial Day weekend).

Flying into Winnipeg, we headed north into the interlake region, between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg, most of which is pancake flat. Only scattered copses of the original aspen parkland remain, like islands in a sea of wheat and flax. After an hour or so, the soil got noticeably thinner. Cattle were grazing in rocky pastures, and in places the limestone bedrock was exposed. We could see scratches on it from the immense glaciers that had slid over it ages ago, bringing down granite boulders from hundreds of miles to the northwest. The deeper gouges were filled with finger lakes, swamps, and marshes full of frogs.

This is great habitat for snakes, but not for humans, and like most of rural Manitoba, the interlake region is losing population. The dens are near an old Jewish colony called Bender Hamlet, which lasted only from l903 to 1927 and was abandoned after the railroad passed it by. All that is left is its graveyard, kept up by one of the descendants of the 19 families that emigrated here from the Ukraine; he owns big malls in Winnipeg. Chatfield, the next settlement to the north, is down to nine full-time residents, and Narcisse, where the snakes are, has even fewer. So it is safe to say that the greatest vertebrate biomass in the RM, or rural municipality, of Armstrong, which Narcisse and Chatfield are in, is not human, but reptilian.

Four of the dens, containing an estimated 75,000 snakes, are in the 15,000-acre Narcisse Wildlife Management Area, which was created from the Narcisse communal pasture in l982. We rendezvoused there with Bill Preston, the emeritus curator of herpetology at the Manitoba Museum and the author of The Amphibians and Reptiles of Manitoba. Bill has been visiting the dens for 30 years and was instrumental in getting them protected.

“When I first got here,” he recalled, “there was a guy who collected the snakes for biological supply houses. Many of the biggest snakes were shipped to the States, where they were sold to pet stores and dissected in high school and college labs. We had a meeting at the museum, and got the province to limit collecting to only in the fall. But then Ojibway snake pickers arrived on the scene. They would set down sheets of tar paper in ditches overnight, and in the morning hundreds of snakes would be warming themselves under them. So we got the snake collecting stopped altogether and the four most productive dens annexed as provincial crown lands.”

Why is Manitoba, at the northern limit of where reptiles can live, so congenial to garter snakes? I asked. Preston attributed this to the combination of the karst topography, which provides roomy chambers for them to den together in, tons of lakes with an abundance of frogs, and hot summers. The winters here can go down to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but the caverns stay just above freezing. The snakes also den in shaley cliffs, and in the granitic Precambrian shield, to the east. Fifty dens are known in the province, but there are undoubtedly many more.

A snake slithers along a limestone trail running from the parking lot to its den.

The red-sided garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis, is one of at least 11 subspecies. Its lateral lines vary from white to orange to yellow; the topline is usually yellow, although not always. How the colors vary from den to den and how they relate to predation and mating success is under study.

Now schoolchildren across Canada are taught that May is the month when snakes emerge, and are assigned essays about the importance of helping the snakes get safely across highways.

Dana Neumann, a young interpreter with the provincial conservation department, took us to Den 3, a sinkhole (where one of the underground chambers had collapsed) on whose floor dozens of snakes were probing their way among newly leafed-out burdock and stinging nettles. Some of the snakes had formed wriggling balls. “So far it’s been more of a trickle than a flood,” Dana said. The den was fenced off, to keep the public from going into the pit and stomping the snakes, which used to happen. Now schoolchildren across Canada are taught that May is when the snakes emerge, and they are assigned essays about the importance of helping the snakes get safely across highways.

Some of these snakes had already climbed the walls of the sinkhole and were making their way into the woods. Zach was in seventh heaven, almost in a trance, picking up one snake after another gently and unhesitatingly and holding it for a while before placing it back in the grass. The snakes were totally docile; this is the place where someone with a snake phobia can come and get over it. “I have never caught so many snakes in my life,” Zach exclaimed. “This is the most wonderful thing that has happened to me. I wish you good luck and hope you don’t get eaten or stepped on or run over,” he said to a snake Dana identified as a female. “The females are longer and thicker,” she said. “Some are almost as big around as a loonie [a Canadian dollar coin] or even a toonie [a two-dollar coin].” Their females’ tail bases taper more abruptly than the males’, whose thicker tail bases house their hemipenes, or paired copulatory organs.

The vast majority of the snakes we were seeing were foot-and-a-half-long males, ranging from a year-and-a-half to 10 years old (garter snakes in captivity have lived to be 17). The males emerge first, in great number. Heating themselves up in the strong spring sunlight, they wait for the females, which emerge singly or a few at a time, nervous and exuding attractive-smelling pheromones. Most of them are quickly mobbed by males. Up to 100 males will vie for the chance to penetrate a female. Some of the females manage to run the gauntlet of the males and sneak off to safety. Some are chased up into bushes or trees. We saw several saskatoon shrubs, in white flower, englobulated with mating balls, dripping with snakes.

“I have never caught so many snakes in my life. This is the most wonderful thing that has happened to me. I wish you good luck, and hope you don’t get eaten or stepped on or run over,” he said to one.

After inseminating the female, the successful male plugs her with a gelatinous substance secreted from his kidney, which soon hardens and emits different, unattractive pheromones. The other males leave her alone—for now. She makes her way to the summer range, along with other inseminated females, and ones that have eluded the males and will meet up with boyfriends later—in less stressful circumstances—and smaller males that have little chance of squirming and muscling their way up to the female in a mating ball.

Heading for the swamps and marshes at the top speed of a person walking, the snakes feast on wood frogs, boreal chorus frogs, gray tree frogs, and leopard frogs. The imperative now is to eat. Each snake has lost 10 percent of its body weight over the winter, Dana explained, and has been losing an additional 1 percent a day since it emerged. Many don’t make it. Some are caught by crows, hawks, foxes, coyotes, or great horned owls. We saw several dead females whose livers had been picked out by crows. Others are run over by cars or trucks.

We were joined by Dave Roberts, Manitoba Conservation’s “wildlife technician” for the interlake region. In the fall of 2003, 2,000 snakes were killed on Highway 17. He told us that the annual slaughter occurs despite the fact that 12 new culverts were put under the road and a long fence beside it, thanks to the generosity of Manitoba Hydro, the province’s power company.

Despite this attrition, enough females make it to the swamps, where they bear 30 to 50 live young (the record is 70), which they have nothing further to do with. One brood can have several fathers, but the female bears young only once every two years. The gelatinous plug falls out within 36 hours of mating, so a female can mate again. She can store sperm, sequestering it over many ovulation cycles yet still keeping it viable, until she finally gets pregnant. Dana said one female in a lab had young seven years after her last contact with a male! The young snakes spend their first winter at the summer range; in their second fall, they return to the dens with the others.

Zach and I spent the night in Inwood, 20 minutes south. The garter snakes around here den not only in sinkholes and quarries but in old foundations and wells. They have colonized the abandoned Inwood creamery, and even the crawl space of Inwood Manor, the local old folks’ home, where they have appeared in hallways and rooms, scaring the daylights out of the residents.

“They seem to like the manor, and just in the last few years they’ve gotten bad,” the manor’s cook told me when we dropped in that afternoon. “We saw probably a dozen over the winter, but now they have probably left to wherever they go. They do their snake business in the summer months. This summer we’ll be doing major excavation around the whole building so they won’t be able to get in anywhere, so that should take care of it.”

We spoke with a white-haired woman in the home named Ethel Dadswell, who was knitting in the television room. Ethel was the resident snake catcher. “I hate them—enough to pick them up and throw them out the door,” she told us.

“Why are people so afraid of snakes?” I asked.

“You’ve got to admit, they’re a nasty-looking thing,” Ethel said. “Okay, you can see them outside, and that’s fine. But when you’re sitting here reading, completely relaxed, and there’s one in the corner, with its head reared up and looking around—that’s not a pleasant thing. I’m one of the people that nothing much bothers. If something needs to be done, I’ll do it. But others have a very real fear. They scream and scream and get frantic and can hardly breathe. That’s not a nice thing, when it can be controlled. I’d like someone to tell me why they’re so precious. What good do snakes do?”

“They eat bugs and help keep things in balance,” Zach said.

“They keep down the frog population,” I suggested, rather lamely in view of the dire straits the world’s batrachians are in almost everywhere. (But a frog population that is out of control because not enough of them are being eaten by snakes and other predators can become a horrendous problem, like the introduced bullfrogs in British Columbia.)

“They torture the frogs,” Ethel countered. “A frog is a nice thing. Frogs don’t do us any harm. Where I grew up, in Norris Lake, 11 miles south of here, when spring came the frogs used to sing me to sleep. But here you don’t hear anything, because there are so many snakes. If all they do is kill the frogs, then I’d rather not have them. This thing that they’re absolutely harmless—that doesn’t apply to anything. Not even people.”I don’t see how anyone can not like snakes,” Zach got up the gumption to say.

In the morning it was raining. Zach and I went to say goodbye to the snakes and to see whether the wetness had slowed their emergence and dampened their ardor. Some were out and about, but not as many as the day before. Zach picked one up from a large, writhing pile. He turned over a rusty metal plate, exposing hundreds more. “Come on, Zach, we have to go,” I said.

“Just one more snake,” Zach pleaded. He picked up another one, and, laying it back down softly on the scree, said, “Bye, snakey. I love you.”