Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

“Civilization starts in a forest, and ends in a desert.”

This saying came into my mind as I watched a homemade movie giving a picture of life in First Nations country far in the North of Saskatchewan. Little settlements in the bush, sometimes without any connection to the outside world other than by canoe, whose lives were very much occupied with the simple tasks of staying alive.

Living off the land there means living off the animals. One well-rounded lady in the movie gives a detailed description of how to make delicious soup from the nose of a moose. Fishing, hunting and the trap line are essential for survival. So, therefore, is the unspoiled habitat in which fish and animals can thrive. So it was on the prairies two centuries ago—when the buffalo still roamed free, and the passenger pigeon was not yet extinct. So it was in the days when the codfish off Newfoundland could be lifted out in a barrel, and farm salmon had not yet been invented.

Living off the animal world gives man an almost telepathic relationship with the fauna. People in such an environment develop an almost uncanny ability to track game, to understand the ways of nature and to respect the needs of the environment. Life depends on it.

The surveyors brought farming and agriculture to the Prairies. The buffalo no longer roam, and the deer and the antelope have a lot less room to play in. Canada became a breadbasket of the world. The population increased and cities grew. Wild animals and their habitat—and even the aboriginals who lived off them—were treated with contempt. The animal world, where allowed to survive, was treated as if it were vegetable: no longer wild and independent, but domesticated and bred for human use and convenience. Cattle, horses, pigs—but not much else. Wolves and other predators became a nuisance to be eliminated or a curiosity to be studied in a zoo.

Now, another revolution seems to be in progress. From Animal, to Vegetable, to Mineral. Machinery has replaced draft horses for power on the farm. Chemical fertilizers have replaced manure. The chemistry of living things is being explored: the artificial growth of living organs is being researched. Within a few years, vegetables and fruits will be raised hydroponically, and the chemistry of meat and milk production will be reproduced in the laboratory. Cows and meat animals will no longer be necessary. There is not much that even skilled labour can do that cannot be replaced, cheaper and more efficiently, by robots and the computer. As Thoreau commented, sitting by Walden pond: “We have become the tools of our tools.”

I detect a spirit of unease in the world. Environmentalists may be city folk, who don’t like the mining of coal, but still want electricity for their homes: who don’t like hunting animals, but still want to eat meat. That’s impractical. But when the movement matures a little bit more, perhaps it will be able to give us some leads as to how man takes his proper place in the natural world, whatever by then will be left of it.

What does this do to our civilization—to man himself? There’s an aliveness, wisdom, cunning, courage, and a spiritual dimension to the life of a hunter. There’s patience, realism, ingenuity, understanding of weather and nature, and much plain, dogged hard work in the life of the farmer. But what is there to live for in a world where all has been reduced to mechanical processes?

At the present time, it seems as if the be-all and end-all of existence is summed up by our business leaders in the concept of an ever-increasing Gross National Product. Yet surely, there is something more to civilization than material ‘economic development’. A good challenge for the twenty first century will be to find out just what that ‘something’ will be.

– Gemini, July 1998