SCIOPS 01.27: Cultural Orphans

Hey SCIOPS, how’s your head?

I spent the weekend deep in the woods, gathering much-needed strength from the trees and the water. It’s so important to stay in touch with the biosphere, especially as a cogsec practitioner. We evolved among plants and animals. Our brains are still hardwired for that type of stimulation. Asphalt and glass and glowing rectangles might one day be a part of our collective undermind, but not yet. For now we still feel that future shock, that technological sublime, and it’s only when we can get away from the industrial environment that we can see how heavily it weighs on our necks.

I also got in touch with humanity this weekend. Lots of humans, in fact: I went to a contra dance in a big old barn. If you don’t know (I didn’t),  contra is a structured group dance, kind of like square dancing. Partners make a big double line and then move up and down, dancing with each other couple in the line. This means that in one 10-minute dance I touched more people than in a whole month in the city.

The human touch is super important to a healthy psychological state. Another evolutionary masterstroke discarded in the modernist project. Touching others in a safe and bounded way is a big ask in our paranoid, dystopic Now. And of course I had to travel way out in the boonies to find that – in the country, you know your neighbors, you can trust them to handle your loved ones and you can hold them accountable if they abuse your trust. Who in the city would take their young daughter to do-si-do with a series of strangers? It’s not even an option in many places. And indeed, one of the historical names for contra is “country dance”.

I was also astonished to realize that this folk tradition, like me, has its roots in England by way of Appalachia. Because I grew up in pomo American cities, I had never heard of it. I love fiddle tunes – I even used to play in a (terrible) folk-revival band. But until now, I didn’t understand the purpose of that music. The structure, the timing, the foot-tapping 4/4 beats, they all serve to tie the dancers together and to define the flow of the couples across the floor. It’s an integral piece of a culture that has been fractured, dismantled, sold for parts.

Like most Americans, I’m a cultural orphan. I don’t know my heritage. I don’t know the dances of my ancestors, the names they used for fish and fowl, the traditions that held them together through difficult times. I have to build them piecemeal. We all do.

In a time of such chaos as we face today, it’s hard to find any stable anchor for our lives. We are severed, cast adrift, abandoned to the storm. And I can’t recommend the revival of ancient traditions – that way lies nationalism, jingoism, and cultural theft. But the wild lands are still there, for now, and for some definition of “wild”.

Go see the trees, the birds, the squirrels and the rats. Ask them for guidance. Ask them what’s missing, what’s needed, what’s right. Find that deep and ancient dance that all beings dance together, and carry that home in your heart. And maybe, together, we can cultivate new traditions.

Cultural orphans in the 21C, yes. We don’t have a choice about that. But we can choose to be cultual parents. We can raise the future up right.

Thanks for reading.

– Max


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