August 7, 2012

Good Tues. Grayish here. I heard a Swainson’s thrush chirping shortly before five, but the birds have gone pretty quiet this week. It’s too early for the songbirds to head south, but they are just about finishing up their business for the summer. Soon the chickadees will start caching seed for the winter.

In the category of books you may not get around to reading, I just finished Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist who died a few years ago at the age of 100. He travelled in the Brazilian wilderness in the 1930s contacting indigenous tribes, asking about their marriage and cooking customs, and listing their names for colors and body parts. The history of Brazil mirrors that of the US, beginning in 1500 as a colony of Portugal. The gold rush beginning in the 1690s drew tens of thousands of immigrants from Europe, who confiscated land from those Native Brazilians they didn’t kill. Brazil declared independence from Portugal in 1822. Black slavery, which dated back to the earliest settlements, was abolished in 1888. New waves of immigrants spread out from the central Atlantic coast, eventually populating a huge territory larger than the continental US. Large parts of Brazil have a lower population density than bush Alaska.

Anyway, Levi-Strauss relates his adventures and what he learned in a smart, well-written account, with digressions on how travel takes Europeans (and Americans) back in time and up the social scale as they visit “third world” areas mired in poverty. His accounts of his encounters with several South American Indian tribes are interesting and sometimes amusing. His attitude is that all humans are social beings, i.e., the essence of humanity is to belong to a community, and the culture of every community is worthy of the same respect as others, even if they do things your own culture disapproves (eating termite grubs, marrying one’s neice, same-sex relationships, painting your body, filing your teeth to points, singing and dancing all night long and sleeping until noon, drinking beer fermented with the aid of human spit, etc.). This leads Levi-Strauss to conclude that the earth began without human life and will end without it, that differentiation between cultures leads to fragmentation that will ultimately bring about the dissolution of all human society, possibly with the assistance of nuclear weapons. There will never be, he says, another New World. In short, a book to enjoy for its strangeness and to ponder.

The monkey’s name was Lucinda

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