From The Long Winter
by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Inside those thick, still walls, Pa said, the muskrats were sleeping now, each family curled in its own little room lined with grass. Each room had a small round doorway that opened into a sloping hall. The hallway curved down through the house from top to bottom and ended in dark water. That was the muskrats’ front door.
…Pa was shaking his head. “We’re going to have a hard winter,” he said, not liking the prospect.
“Why, how do you know?” Laura asked in surprise.
“The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses.” Pa told her. “I never saw a heavier-built muskrats’ house than that one.”
Laura looked at it again. It was very solid and big…
“Pa, how can the muskrats know?” she asked.
“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said. “But they do. God tells them, somehow, I suppose.”
“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” Laura wanted to know.
“Because,” said Pa, “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”
Laura said faintly, “I thought God takes care of us.”
“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us a conscience and brains to know what’s right. But He leaves it to us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”
“Can’t muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.
“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at this muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his lookout; he’s free and independent.”
Pa stood thinking for a minute, then he jerked his head. “Come along, little Half-Pint. We better make hay while the sun shines.”
I recently borrowed every book in the "Little House on the Prairie" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am an obsessive reader, the type that can't put a good book down until I've read it cover to cover. It took me a week to read them all.
So, this last week I've been in Laura Ingalls Wilder world... Telling my roommate the latest news, as though it were really happening: "Oh, this is terrible!-- Jack, their dog, drowned in the creek!" And then rejoicing with Laura in the next chapter, that Jack came back (the very next day ;-)
I was immediately struck by this passage about the muskrat lodge. Laura's Pa was a keen observer and lover of nature and its ways. A true pioneer heart, longing to live on the unsettled edges of the wilderness. As I read Laura's writing I nearly cried, several times, at how much has changed. Her cozy family life, Pa's fiddle singing with the prairie stars, swinging low on the horizon.
So much in those books I'll never know, never experience in my lifetime. The absolute quiet, the wild expanses. The howl of a wolf-pack, outside my log-cabin door. The assurance of a child, that with Pa and his gun, and our brave dog Jack, the wolves would never get me.
In The Long Winter, the Ingalls family barely survives a 7-month winter of non-stop blizzards. This scene, with the muskrat lodge, happens in the late summer before it.
How do the muskrats know?
"Ah," their little muskrat minds would computate, "the barometric pressure is extremely low, and a cold weather front is mixing with warm air from the gulf, which may result in increased precipitation this winter." Deep in their lodges in February, the muskrats would be sure to tune in for the evening news weather report, to hear the National Weather Service's latest predictions on the arrival of spring.
I think something happens to our own innate inner wisdom, every time we rely on an outside source, an "expert", to tell us what's going on. We trust it less. We get a little more distant from what we already sense is true, but can't back up with credentials.
I recently heard an interview on KFAI's "Inner Journey" program, with the founder of a new program for weight-loss called "Thintuition." The speaker's basic premise was that the more we buy into the latest fads, or follow the diet trends, the further we become from knowing our own body's natural balance-- and that the best way to lose weight is to tune into the signal which tells you, "You're full now," and end the meal. Blindly following a method that worked for someone else doesn't help you and your body get back in tune with each other.
Do Humans Have Instincts, or Not?
"Any repeated behavior can be called "instinctual." As can any behavior for which there is a strong innate component. However, to distinguish behavior beyond the control of the organism from behavior that has a repetitive component we can turn to the book "Instinct" (1961) stemming from the 1960 conference. A number of criteria were established which distinguishes instinctual from other kinds of behavior. To be considered instinctual a behavior must
- be automatic,
- be irresistible,
- occur at some point in development,
- be triggered by some event in the environment,
- occur in every member of the species,
- be unmodifiable, and
- govern behavior for which the organism needs no training (although the organism may profit from experience and to that degree the behavior is modifiable)
- The absence of one or more of these criteria indicates that the behavior is not fully instinctual.
If these criteria are used in a rigorous scientific manner, application of the term "instinct" cannot be used in reference to human behavior. When terms, such as mothering, territoriality, eating, mating, and so on, are used to denote human behavior they are seen to not meet the criteria listed above. In comparison to animal behavior such as hibernation, migration, nest building, mating and so on that are clearly instinctual, no human behavior meets the necessary criteria. In other words, under this definition, there are no human instincts." ~Wikipedia entry on instinct.
Many say that adult humans have no instincts. That's what defines us as humans, I suppose. Like Pa Ingalls was saying, "We're free." I don't necessarily agree that we lack instinct. I have a suspicion that becoming a new parent awakens certain instincts within us... to nuture and care. And also to guard our young from harm. Apparently, Freud writes that “the true prototypes of the relation of hate are derived not from sexual life, but from the ego’s struggle to maintain itself” and that “hate, as relation to objects, is older than love”.----------------------------------------------------
If we think about hate as a survival instinct, it makes a certain amount of sense. We tend to hate those who are most unlike ourselves, and be kindest to those who are most like us. In the end, those who are different are more likely to be competitors to my own type of genetic material. By contrast, those who are most similar to me are most likely to aid me and my kin in finding food and shelter. Is racism genetically ingrained? Hmm, I wonder...
If I did create for myself a cozy, post-peak-oil abode, and stocked it well with items necessary to survive a world with much less cheap energy. If I lived off the grid, and build myself thick muskrat-lodge-walls around me, so to speak, whom would I be willing to shelter? (Have you ever heard Sweet Honey in the Rock's song, "Would You Shelter Me?"-- it's so beautiful!)
"A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his lookout; he’s free and independent." (Pa Ingalls)I would shelter those who were most like me. With similar values, similar beliefs. Who I think I'd be able to get along with best, in the long run. My family? My friends? There is a limit, to what I could create alone, to be the hardworking ant saving grains below ground for the winter. Is the ant beholden to help the grasshopper, who thought nothing of the end of summer?
My house, if I can build it, will have its north side buried into a hill. A south-facing greenhouse will be built against it, to provide passive solar heating. A wood-burning stove and solar water heater would complete the matter of sustainable warm shelter.
Ability for a good cross-breeze in summer would be essential, and each summer move the cook-stove to a built-on screen room to keep the heat out of the main house. A sweet-water well, and a windmill to pump it. Seeds and garden and hoop-house to extend the growing season. A root cellar and plenty of canning supplies. Musical instruments and a library of good books.
Some people, now, would say that's a crazy way to live. Not too far into the future, though, it'll seem like a castle. But if I'm the only ant to save its grain, the only muskrat to build thick its walls, it's likely I won't be able to keep it. Some stronger person than me with a bigger gun or a bigger gang (or a US militia run amok) would claim it for their own. Or if everyone I've ever known, family and friends and friends of friends, shows up in the fall and wants to spend the winter-- what then?
But if I build it? Would it inspire more people to do the same?
What's the critical mass of people it would take to do this, to turn the"mainstream"?
Community makes it possible for humans, throughout our reign as top species, to thrive and succeed has been our ability to band together, and to share in work and gain access to a greater diversity of skills.
Brazil has a very strong movement for "landless farmers"-- displaced former workers of the land, whose descendants lived in the city slums. They are taught by the movement leaders essential skills in survival, communication, and are really creating their own new culture (for example, without the "machismo" factor rampant in most of Latin America). They recruit the poorest poor, who are willing to work so hard for the prospect of hope for their children. To have land! They want simply this: a way of life that can provide their needs, indefinitely. The more self-control over their destiny, the better. I was fortunate enough to see firsthand the work this movement (MST) is doing in Brazil-- to take the long overdue issue of land reform into their own hands.
If Brazil can undertake such an organized movement, why can't we?
I think I've got it, sometimes, when my brain doesn't get in the way.
My instinct says get ready, now.
Relearn what you can about survival, now, before the information is lost.
My environment says "Learn me."
If I learned how to read it, remember the signs of seasons, of cycles.
If I came "home",
--made myself comfortable again with the place I live in, prepared to exist self-sufficiently--
If I could learn to listen, really notice the earth,
If I could heed my gut,
reconnect my wires to the places within me that know without thinking
Perhaps God would start speaking to me again, too...
(along with the muskrats)
This week's question: (respond if inspired by hitting "comments", below.)
What's a time you felt like you acted out of instinct?