When I tell about my engaged research into shamanism and shamanistic cultures, I have often encountered the same idea: that I am into a romantic idea called ‘back to nature’, that I idealize non-modern cultures, in short – that I am, somehow, loosening the high standards of philosophical reason that modern Western culture has reached.
This idea encountered me when I had written my first book on nature ‘Terugkeer van de natuur’ (The Return of Nature’). The title, as it happens, was more the idea of the publisher. My own title was considered too difficult, but of course, philosophically, it was much more clear, and would have prevented some of the romantic misunderstandings. It was ‘Nature as metaphor’. I wanted to show that through the concept of nature we express our deepest existential experiences, experiences which already presuppose ourselves as agents. Nature can never be observed as something ‘outside’.
And this – making it into something ‘outside’ is what is happening in our times – where indigenous peoples are persistantly being ‘finished off’ by large scale agriculture and extraction of crude resources by companies entering and overtaking their lands. All means seem allowed, from inventing new laws that make their traditional way of life illegal, to expulsion, to ‘helping’ them to settle down, to letting murders of shamans and protectors unpunished. The indigenous peoples who have up till now resisted modern ways of life have often done so by retracting into less inhabitable, less penetrable areas.
This morning I happened upon this well-done, non-romantic documentary (in German) on shamanism in present-day Mongolia. What is important if one doesn’t want to remain stuck in the standard ideas on shamanistic cultures, is to postpone one’s judgments and to listen to what the shamans themselves have to say. They are not voiceless, they are not ignorant about what they reject. They are clear about their views and goals. Still they are seldomly listened to.
One of these shamans, Ganbat Sandag, to be seen near the end of the film, says it clearly: ‘without us, without our way of life (that of the reindeer herds and hunters) this nature would not be that wild anymore as it is up till now’ (my paraphrase). In these words the key to the shamanistic understanding of our (human) relation to the world is given:
‘Wild’ does not mean ‘untouched by humans’ (that would be romantic), wild is what has been kept in a certain state by humans – in cooperation of course with the other creatures in that ‘world’. Nothing is untouched, is uncreated, is un-kept, un-domesticated.
The question is how we touch, how we domesticate, what kind of home we make and keep, and for whom. Modern capital in its more ugly forms (visible in the docu in the extraction of valuables from the mountains in the area, an activity that releases toxic substances, that in turn cause illnesses in the human and non-human population) destroys ‘wild’ homes, to create cheap, large scale, short-lived homeliness for the poor masses it first created and then transformed into customers.
Capital needs ‘wild’ nature outside of civilization – to create an image of conservation and space for its poor consumers – but in that wild nature the conservators, the hunters, are not allowed to live their lives anymore. All over the world traditional hunters are ‘hunted’ down by new laws and conservationist organisations (google some of the issues in which WWF is involved in Central Africa, for example).
What is at stake is a deeply philosophical issue: how we understand the human relations to nature – nature in us, us in nature or nature outside, and us outside of nature (then where will we be…?).
Ganbat Sandag says it clearly: ‘if we cannot hunt anymore, this way of life will disappear, and the reindeer will disappear as well.’
The difference of insight, and the bone of contention is thus: what is wild nature? The shamanistic peoples say – it is the nature that we have been preserving like this for ages. The modern peoples say – you get out of there, become sedentary like us, and leave ‘nature’ to itself. That, I agree with this shaman, is a romantic mistake.