Thursday, September 23, 2004

"Landscape and Narrative," Kalahari Bushmen . . . and Wal-Mart in Mexico (again)

I like it when otherwise disparate ideas and pieces of information suddenly come into contact with each other, each helping to enrich my understanding, if not make sense of something.
Ever since I first read Barry Lopez's "Landscape and Narrative," I have liked it: its distinction between exterior and interior landscapes and how the most powerful narratives are those that cause a resonance between those two landscapes in the listener instantly made sense to me, a poor student of narrative theory. But what prompts me to write about it today is that I've been rereading it (it appears in the reader we're using in our composition classes here) and it struck me more deeply this morning that Lopez's idea of an interior landscape is more determined by its understanding of and responses to exterior landscape than I had recognized before. But it struck me that way as a result of hearing
this story about Kalahari Bushmen on NPR. As you'll hear, the Botswana government wants to relocate the Bushmen from their homeland, and their representatives are in this country to seek financial support to fight the government. But what got my attention as I listened was how, in a very real way, we "civilized" types don't "get" the Bushmen: we either romanticize them ("How simple and uncomplicated and noble they must be!") or infantilize them ("Why would anyone want to live as they do?!"). Hmm--not too much difference between those two choices, is there? Anyway, what we don't get, I think, is that they perhaps have chosen their life more deliberately than many of us have. More: they have embraced it.
Two moments from the report stood out to me. One of the men has killed a lion with a spear. When asked how he did it, he simply replied something like, "You have to be good with a spear." The other moment was when one of the men, who had never been in California before, wanders a little away from the group of hikers (they are in the Santa Monica Mountains) and begins calling to a bird by whistling to it. Amazingly, the bird no only responds, it comes closer. Both of those moments are instances when we see that, to borrow Lopez'z terms these men's interior landscapes are "order[ed] . . . according to their exterior landscapes." We don't get them, in other words, because, as Western Civ has told itself and been told at least since the Renaissance, we expend so much energy distancing ourselves from the exterior landscape, seeking to make it irrelevant or even, as Fredric Jameson argues in his study of Postmodernism, bring about the end of Nature.
Enter Wal-Mart and my recent post about its building a store almost in the literal shadow of the pyramids of Teotihuacan. In a comment I made, I made up a term called "historical aesthetic" to describe why its presence there was upsetting to many of the locals (and why I was writing about it): its presence disrupted the (still) essentially agrarian character of the valley, which, of course, is what it was like 1000 years ago. But the Lopez essay, in combination with the NPR story, make me think that "historic aesthetic" is another term for that close correspondence between the interior and exterior landscapes of the region. Wal-Mart disrupts and, at least in this country's rural areas, eventually eradicates local commerce; other chains fill in the voids, but aside from hiring locals the chains aren't rooted in the community. "Needs" aren't served but invented.
This isn't an argument against free-market economies or more efficient and/or profitable ways of doing business, nor is it an unqualified celebration of small-town merchants (some of whom certainly have been rapacious). Rather, it's an observation that an economy's essential rootedness in the land and its people, more often than not, is a good thing. Its values tend to be indigenous, in tune with the land and seasons. As Jack Gladney thinks while roaming a supermarket's produce section in DeLillo's White Noise, "Nothing was out of season." To introduce even a figurative unreality into the ultimate reality of the food we consume seems to me, at best, yet a further disconnect of humans from the land and, at worst, a disservice to our health as human beings.


Anonymous said...

Off topic, but sometimes I feel like I'm out of season.

I don't know how often you visit, but I thought that I would let you know that I am no longer going to be using "deliriumspeaks." I have reasons that I won't bore you with.

I will try to keep checking in now and again to see what's happening in your part of the world though.

Happy trails to you...


Robert said...

Looks like you got to it before the nytimes online cover did. I assume this story will be having just as prominent place in the actual paper tomorrow. We'll see.

Aleksu said...

The value of Teotihuacan can't be translated to currency, that is the part that the people from Wal-Mart are unable to understand.

Blame it on the fact that there is not a single site considered sacred to the Americans that is more than 200 years old.

Teotihuacan (like Machu Picchu, Giza, the Taj Mahal, the Colysseum, the Parthenon) is an important part of humankind's cultural heritage, a concept hard to understand to those who run Wal-Mart on the basis of greed and profits.

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