Editor’s note: This is the third book of our buddy Jon Turk’s that we’ve reviewed, and it’s a winner. Even though, to quote Jon, “ there isn’t a kayak, canoe, SUP, raft, or rowboat in sight” we’re still giving it a plug because (again quoting Jon) “my argument is that while kayaking is indeed about playing on the water, it is more fundamentally about our human relationship with the wild places on this planet, about love of wilderness, and the essential value of a deep communication with nature in this modern climate-altered, oil-soaked, consumer-oriented, politically-chaotic, anger-filled world. And that is what this book is about.”
That’s the argument he used to sell us on the book, and after reading it I’m giving it 5 stars, 2 thumbs up, and I’m buying a number of copies to give friends and family. It’s that good. Tsunami Rangers says, “Check it out!”
Lions, leopards, drought and death: Tracking Lions delights as it instructs. Jon Turk is both a story teller and a scientist and his story and research blend in this true tale of real time horror and mystic experience in the Kenya desert of the Samburu people. It is a study of mythologies that people love and kill for, where these myths come from, how they’re used to manipulate masses of people, why they work, and how and why our species could take responsibility for how we think and act when presented with them in order to preserve ourselves and the planet.
Everyone knows what a story is. What isn’t often discussed is how many stories we tell ourselves, how many kinds of stories there are, and how to determine whether a story is true or false. Turk delves deeply into these matters, referring to books and experiments by those who study how people act and what motivates them. He teases out some basic principles about how human beings have managed through story to create the modern world, a world that relies on technology which was designed to free us from onerous tasks and enhance our lives but which has simultaneously degraded our lives by cutting us off from the natural world and from each other.
The book starts by discussing the development of human intelligence and its effects on groups. Knowledge gained by individuals was shared with other individuals in close proximity. Co-operation within tribes arose. “It’s essential to recognize that just as co-operative behaviour maintained relative harmony within each tribe, the same behaviour did not – and does not – apply to interactions between tribes.” p. 34. The Us vs. Them paradigm was beginning.
As human intelligence developed, two things happened. About 70,000 years ago a Cognitive Revolution of both art and technology occurred. Turk quotes Carl Safina, author of Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace. Humans don’t simply survive because they’re the fittest. They survive because they appreciate beauty. Thus, music, dance, sculpture, painting, and story are born. As Turk points out, these arts have practical value when it comes to survival.
Ironically, as Jon says, “stories have been our strength and weakness, our path to survival and our passage to destruction” p. 59. Humans create myths to keep the tribe cohesive, but all tribes don’t have the same myths, and those tribes and myths come into conflict: “Human big brains evolved into a complex arms race. It takes intelligence to invent a lie and deceive your friends and neighbours. And then the non-cheaters need extra brainpower to perceive the intention of the cheaters and thwart their subterfuge. Suddenly, it all becomes complicated” p. 66.
Humans identify in groups, create identity marker narratives to keep the group together, imagine things that don’t exist, and then those stories are used by some individuals “to justify warfare that is not about securing something real, tangible and good to eat. Every despot and dictator in the world, from ancient times to the present, every religious fanatic who stands up on a soapbox to call a Holy War and convince me to throw your babies off the cliffs – is or has been a master storyteller” pp. 69 – 70.
Why so dire? Jon’s trip to Kenya starts with Nairobi and horrifying images of modern “civilization” as he drives out to the Samburu. The very rich and the very poor. Ubiquitous plastic trash. Ubiquitous AK-47s. An abundance of food for some and starvation for others. And it hasn’t rained in three years. While he’s in Kenya, unarmed villagers are being beaten and shot nearby. Women are raped. Pregnant women are shot. Children are not exempt. No one seems to know why. Is it conflict over scarce resources? Pre-election violence? Bare-knuckle racism? The average First World resident probably thinks that these atrocities couldn’t happen here but as our history shows, they already have… and things are heating up, again.
Climate change is exacerbating conditions in Kenya and all over the world. As Turk says about a village he’s visiting, “If you asked an average North American observer to comment on the economics of this village, he or she might say that these huts are an indication of poverty: cardboard walls, no granite countertops. But when we sit down for a warm cup of fresh-out-of-the-nanny goat milk, people speak of poverty in terms of grass. And grass is defined by rain. Rain is defined by climate. And climate on the Ragged Edge of the Anthropocene is controlled largely or partly by people in the developed world, like me, living a profligate lifestyle” pp. 80 – 81.
While in Kenya, Jon tracks two lions. The thought of lions generates fear (stories we tell ourselves: lions are dangerous and might kill me). Contemplating the fear-generating stories about lions relates to the fear-generating stories we have been told and tell ourselves about other human beings. Jon says, “Fear is not only unnecessary but also detrimental. I am not in control, nor do I need, or want, to be in control. I am a good neighbour, and that is the best energy I can put out there to the world” pp. 86 – 87. Interestingly, this attitude helps him out with the Samburu, the lions, and a visiting leopard.
The Samburu live in greater harmony with nature than the average First World inhabitant. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t survive. Thoughts (stories) about lions, leopards, black mambas, and lethal, psychotic neighbors would cause them to curl up into a whimpering ball and die. While living in the Motel at the End of the World, Jon experiences that harmony. Living with nature, living with lions, living with other humans who might kill him for no apparent reason, he journeys “into a wilder world where consciousness is not uniquely human consciousness, where plain old garden-variety reality is sufficient” p. 89. When he stops telling himself stories about where he is, what he’s doing, and what everyone else is doing, and welcomes uncertainty, even if he doesn’t arrive at an objective truth he can be calm and content and enjoy the moment.
Jon Turk went to Kenya to track lions and he did. But more came of the journey. It made him think about human minds and how they work. It forced him to go deeper into his own internal reality and notice the the stories in his head, and how by neutralizing those stories he could live comfortably and at peace in a Third World country in conditions most First World denizens would find appalling. This experience led him to examine the role that First World luxury and stories have on Third World reality, and what that luxury and those stories could mean for the survival of the human race. Because in the end, we are one global tribe, the Tribe of the Humans, and we rise or fall together.
Jon Turk’s experience with the Samburu led him to some ideas about how humans can act in a way to support our survival in a rapidly changing climate. As climate change models show, the situation in Kenya is coming to us all eventually. Climate refugees are already inundating North America’s southern borders, and when resources get scarce, fear and anxiety rise and frightened, angry people can be easily manipulated to commit atrocities, as they are in Kenya. What can one do? According to Jon, one thing is identify and examine the stories in our heads. As Jon says, “You don’t need to follow the stories that others put in your head. Because those stories will almost certainly benefit the storytellers, but they probably won’t benefit you, or society, or the planet” p. 132.
Stories are great, and they’re a part of who we are. There are cautionary tales for children, stories that remind us who we are and where we came from, stories that bind us together in harmony as families and groups, but all stories remove us into fictional reality and away from the present moment. It’s the difference between thinking “I’m killing a threat to my survival so I’m justified in committing any atrocity” (fictional reality) to “I’m killing a fellow human being who actually hasn’t hurt me at all” (present moment).
Another thing that can be done is to cultivate contentment. People who are happy and content are difficult to manipulate. They’re benevolent. They spread love. On the other hand, angry, unhappy people spread anger and unhappiness. Hateful people spread hate. Choosing to love your neighbors or at least feel mildly benevolent toward them is more conducive to the survival of the species than an attitude of “Kill, kill, kill!” Looking within for the sources of anger and discontent and understanding them as coming from within rather than from without is helpful in preserving peace and unity in dire circumstances.
Turk also points out that it’s important to beware of fear. Caution is one thing, and implies a rational assessment of a given situation: I’m tracking a lion and I need to pay attention and not daydream. Fear is another and implies a loss of control: I’m tracking a lion and I’m so terrified that’s it’s going to get me that I panic and run screaming into the brush and into the arms of the lion. Two different stories. Two different outcomes.
After all the intensity it almost surprised me that Turk ends on an upbeat note, but he does:
“Despite all the horrible and inexcusable hatred, aggression and racism that are evident in today’s world, violent deaths have decreased in the 21st century, compared with earlier times. In ancient agricultural societies, human-to-human violence accounted for 15 per cent of all deaths. During the 20th century that number dropped to 5 per cent, and so far in the 21st century war and crime are responsible for only 1 per cent of global mortality. We’re gaining on it. Patterns can and do change” p. 207.
Tracking Lions is a book about overcoming our stories and how it can be done. It’s also a book about how our stories arose in the first place and how, though they can help us survive, they could destroy us. We wouldn’t be the first civilization to fall. The theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, a man with a good track record for being right, predicted in 2017 that human beings would be extinct in 100 years as a result of climate change, epidemics, the odd asteroid, etc. If there was ever a time for human beings to come together and find a common story that will benefit us all, now is that time. We can overcome our stories. Tracking Lions shows us how.
Dr. Jon Turk is a scientist, author, and National Geographic award-winning explorer whose worldview was altered by extended visits with Moolynaut, a Siberian shaman. You can order a signed copy directly from Jon by going to http://www.jonturk.net/tracking-lions-myth-and-wilderness-in-samburu. Tracking Lions is also available as a Kindle or print version from Amazon.
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