Monday, July 7, 2014


I see people as driving around in little cars known as "bodies." When the car is new, they get around, can wave through the window or roll it down and say hello. When one hits a bad bump, or gets into a fender bender, or the car gets rusty, you can't get around anymore, maybe you can't roll the windows down and chat, or the windows fog up and you can't really see each other clearly. But the driver is still in there. Until the car just won't start-up anymore.

I have been thinking about loss of knowledge when societies come to an end. My tribe faced that, and now all we have are scraps of info collected by an ethnographer and artifact collector, collected after the society had already lost most of its ancient ways.

When I worked in Hawai'i, people were always interested in offering their mana'o. The office and its staff were always saying, "we would like your mana'o" on such a matter. There were flurries, blizzards, of mana'o. I used to think mana'o meant "insight," but then realized all it meant in reality was "opinion." But what I needed was not mana'o in most cases, but 'ike, "knowledge." Everyone would offer their mana'o, but when I asked for 'ike, all fell silent, but for the VERY few who knew what they were talking about...and had the experience to prove it. Of course some poor folks inevitably confused their mana'o as being 'ike.

Too much mana'o, not enough 'ike. Sounds like a Hawaiian proverb almost!

Archaeologists, living history folks and re-enactors are always researching lost knowledge. Stuff you can't even imagine that was once commonplace, but that now we don't even suspect existed. The Hawaiian renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s revived much of a culture which was almost gone. The Hawaiians showed the rest of us what was possible: traditional navigation, canoe construction, healing, agriculture, fish pond restoration, language revival, and more. 'Ike kahiko -- the knowledge of old.

Some people say, big deal, things change. Get over it. What if you didn't have the money for a dentist and you had a toothache? Lots of people have lost their jobs this last year. No money for such things. Teeth rot and fall out-- and the pain and suffering is horrible. What is worse, rotten teeth affects the rest of your health, and can even kill some folks with existing heart conditions or other ailments. What if not only could you not afford a dentist-- there weren't any more dentists, period? Would you know what plants to apply for pain and swelling? How to properly pull an infected tooth? How to care for the bleeding gum afterward to ward of infection and provide for proper healing? Neither would I.

Our culture is soaked by hubris today. The idea that we know it all, and our knowledge and civilization will continue forever.

The Romans thought the same thing, and we still had a thousand years to get through the Dark Ages before we began to recover much of their knowledge. The Library of Alexandria was burned to the ground. People could not read the Egyptian hieroglyphs until the last century and only within the last decades are people really beginning to understand the Mayan glyphs. There is so much knowledge lost-- we don't even know about all the things archaeologists find in medieval contexts. So much of our own society's knowledge is based on digital media (and we can't even read some of that from the Apollo space program!) or pulp paper that rots very quickly (unlike vellum, parchment, clay tablets, etc.).

We cannot sustain hubris. Knowledge of the most common things is lost all the time. Including the most taken-for-granted knowledge of today.

That's because societies and empires collapse-- without exception. Including our own. The Native Americans are often quoted as saying, "Only the Earth and Sky last forever." And the geologists and cosmologists dispute that as well!

What knowledge, skill, art, would YOU conserve? One place to begin thinking about such things is the Cultural Conservers group, and there are others who smell the winds of change and who are beginning to prepare in their own ways, so that all will not be lost.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Lance.
    For what its worth, -and it may not be worth much to some-, I think saving some of the innovations of the avant-garde artists of the 20th century may be worthwhile. Some of their strategies and techniques might be useful in the times ahead. ...There are other things of course, and sweeping past the hubris, as you mention, is just part of the ordeal.