A cold blanket covers everything. Your favorite spot to gather berries, down near a river, is frozen through, the bushes spiny bristles outlined starkly against the white. You’ve got some dried ones, but if you want to eat, want to have energy to ward off this cold, you’ve got to use your bow to hunt something. You’ve seen what happens when the cold outpaces the food, when the life drains out of someone’s eyes, when they start making the stupid mistakes of the walking dead. You’re not going to be one of those people.
There was once a time – most of human history, actually – when survival was in question day by day, moment by moment. A cut could mean a raging, life-ending infection. A pregnancy was a huge risk. Food ran away, often faster than you, just as desperate. Shelter was temporary at best, risky at worst, leaving you vulnerable in a way that keeping on the move did not. A dried up water hole could mean the end of everything.
This was a time before strongly worded emails to customer service departments, before being miffed at the delivery of a gadget being delayed a day. It was a time before the trouble of excess weight, and its attendant diseases, hearts unused to so much leisure unable to cope with the excess load. It was a time before introspection, before rights, before information in a magic box in your hand, before just about everything we consider worthwhile about being human today.
This time fascinates me.
We are creatures, same as the squirrel that knows when it’s time to store nuts, same as the fish that knows when it’s time to swim upstream, same as the bird that knows how to catch a wind just so so that they seem suspended in air as they survey the ground for prey. In our genes, our very fiber, we are a blink away from the beast that carried heavy weights across many miles on a migration, searching for a watering hole. We are not-so-distant cousins to the indefatigable hunter who made up for humanity’s puny size and unimpressive speed with his great endurance to track wounded prey over many days until it gave up its last. We are sisters to those who knew plants, when to pick them, how to store them, who made bows and flints, who told stories around a fire.
And yet most of that ancient knowledge is gone to us. In its place is a canny instinct for which Starbucks has the fastest lines and how to wheedle for position with a mercurial middle manager. Sometimes I think the majesty of who we were fell victim to our vast capacity to adapt our environment to ourselves instead of the other way around.
I was reminded of this frequent theme of thinking of mine this past Friday when I was at the movies watching The Last Jedi and a trailer came on for a movie called Alpha. (Linked below). It tells the tale of a boy in a band of early humans 20,000 years ago. He gets separated from his tribe, has to survive alone and befriends a wolf in the process. The focus of the movie is on the start of the human/dog relationship (in and of itself fascinating), but my imagination was lit aflame by the depiction of early human life. I mean really early. Before farming. Before writing. Before huts. When it was really in question whether this upstart species would snuff out like so many others, in a world that would kill them not with glee, but worse, with indifference to their very existence.
Here’s why I think this matters to me: we once had an answer to the question of “Why?” Why do I get up in the morning? Why do I try? Why do I strive, do, fix, clean? Once, necessity crowded out all such reverie. You kept moving because a mountain lion was trying to make you dinner. You got up to pick food instead of huddling in your cave because to not do it meant death. You fixed your tools because to not have them meant the difference between eating and starving. You kept your camp clean because you had some base knowing that dirty camps led to bad outcomes in a way you could never explain. On the rare occasion when you had an opportunity to wonder, perhaps you thought about the fact that you did it not just for you but for your offspring. Perhaps. But you probably never had time to wonder beyond that, to the larger meaning beyond being a self-regenerating creature, driven by the need to make more of you, and know that more of them would go on after you, and so on. But why? It didn’t matter, because the grand and vast world crowded in and demanded your all, right now, this breath.
Perhaps it is the overthinker in me who yearns for a demand so great and taxing that it crowds out all the worry and existential dread.
I had a thought a few weeks ago (revived by this movie trailer) about how I’d love to tell the story of a woman in one of those tribes. The one in the group that first left Africa, who crossed into the Arabian peninsula, who might have gone her whole life knowing only her small band, who probably died in her thirties, if not sooner, who could make and build a thousand things I can’t even imagine, but who could never envision what her children and their children would become in a world too vast for her to even imagine. Was she better off, or am I? I don’t know. But the yearning to find her inside me runs deep.
So what to do with this vast ache not for meaning, but for knowing? I’m not sure. Befriend a wolf. Build a fire without tools. Howl at the moon. Remember than at our cores we are all creatures, kin to the wild. Reach across the millennia to graze your fingertips over the profound and improbable miracle that, once, a handful of us walked on foot across bristling terrain and against all odds got to this, what we are today. It is who we all are at our core, children of these hearty and adventurous souls. The edges beyond the horizon still call to us in a world of shrinking mysteries.