I’ve been staring at this beaver lodge for years.
Big Bar Creek
I thought at first, well, yes, it’s a good model for a house. And sure enough, the Secwepemc who are this land spent their winters in pit houses, possibly after observing beavers, possibly by observing bears, and possibly by modelling the human body, and possibly for a thousand other reasons, including that it was just plain cold. It’s kind of instinct to build a shelter and crawl inside it with your loved ones to stay warm and safe. It’s a second body, really, a kind of clothing.
A Beaver’s Hat
But long familiarity has got me thinking further. Sure, an ant hill is another model for a domed underground house. And I was happy with that observation, too. That, too, makes sense in the grasslands.
But, wait, there’s another principle at play here that might be more important than this tool-making, problem-solving behaviour, which sounds a little too comfortably like 20th Century Individual creativity to make me trust it completely anymore. You know the thing, I think. Creativity: the ability to re-imagine previously-used materials and recombine them in new and startling ways. This 21st century notion of creativity is not only the basis of attempts to create machine intelligence but lies at the heart of the theory of evolution, which was, for all its brilliance, a product of a mechanized age, no less so than the machine age’s bastard child, Nazism. Some care would do us well here. Practical solutions are very important, but what lies beneath them? What drives them? Is it “creativity” or is it something else? What can the land teach us? Well, let’s look at our porto-houses again, but this time both together.
The beaver lodge is at the side of a pond (because the beaver needs access to both land [for food] and water [for food storage and protection]; the ant hill is at the side of a rock (because the ants need access to both sun [for heat] and earth [for protection.] In both cases, these animals have recreated the world in the midst of winter, both with an artificial sun and both with an artificial self within water (beaver) or earth (ant). Are houses no different? If so, they’re not really “choices” or “creative solutions” so much as reflections of the planet as it mirrors itself. What’s more, both have an inside and an outside, and both have the capabilities to shed (rain, predators, snow for the beavers and excess stone plus predators for the ants), to be either within or without, and to gather in (food and members of the social group). It could be even simpler than that. In Secwepemc society, and all Plateau cultures, all the children of Sen’klip (loosely translated as Coyote) by different mothers, all creatures are in a sense people, ie part of a social group. That’s not to say they are human, but it is not to start from a point of difference either. If this principle is solid, then what these houses gather in is social life. Now, if this is so, it’s going to have to work out on the earth, too, otherwise it’s no principle at all. So, let’s look at some fine Secwepemc land above the Thompson River. If we are outside of this land, if we are not viewing it as a social space, we will see erosion here, cutting the hills away, something detrimental to stability and endurance. That’s a very Canadian point of view, and very scientific, but is it accurate?
Is it not just as much the case that the land is shedding water at points at which it is bared? And creating empty spaces within itself which rather than shed it, draw it in and concentrate it, translating the original emptiness (bare land) into an increased richness of life, within the earth, rather than exposed in the sun, ie in a place not of the earth? And what’s more that these cuts are (more or less) warmer than the exposed slopes, sheltering life from wind and concentrating the sun? Actually, that they draw life in, hold it, and create a rich environment that builds in strength, as more than endurance? Does a house do any more than this?
Does a city?
Well, a city might do less, because although it draws in food and sociability, it doesn’t increase life within itself. Like any human, beaver or ant house (ie artificial sun), it requires an external space to draw from (a gravity field). The gully above does so, too, but it creates primary materials and primary social energy, rather than secondary energy. In its relationship with the sun itself, that might be an important guide for our cities: if they can become generators of primary intra-species sociability rather than mere consumers of it, they might make very good gullies indeed. If that is going to be so, a little understanding of how gullies work is going to be invaluable. They are actually very complex systems, but a simple view ought to suffice for now. Have a look, in the early spring after a summer of fire.
The particular slope of a gully creates special effects in relationship to the sun (rapid erosion, or rapid settlement by grass; population by grass or by shrubs — all in response to sunlight angles, season, and time of day), to wind (winter exposure or winter snowdrifts [and extension of the wet season], and to fire (which populates wind and grass regimes in response to slope, exposure and water.) That’s complicated stuff, but it’s also very simple.
It’s like a big series of on-off switches. A 21st century mind is going to see data in that, electronic machines, and C code, but that might be a level of abstraction too far. More primary here is day and night, and the turning of the earth.
We are looking at energies created by and manipulated by the turning of the earth. And is that not a primary driver of sociability? Creating zones of exposure and shelter, of advantage and threat, due to the amount of light present? Whether one can see or be seen?
And that is, again, a story of sun and earth, of deep re-creation of their relationships at very elemental levels. Which include bodies. Eyes. And what draws the eyes to them.
Because in this world, the primary energy is one of attraction, as an internal energy, rather than an energy of repulsion, which is an external one, or observation, which is an exposed slope that the earth continues draws within itself to heal.
Observation does not exist on its own. Neither does a city. Let’s look at that together soon.