View Electronic Edition

The Beauty of Disconnection

I recently attended an environmental conference with the slogan prominent on its promotional literature and program brochure, "It's all connected." It made me sad to hear that. I had a twinge of the same kind of sadness I felt when I first read and understood the implications of John Muir's wonderful insight: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." The same kind of sadness I feel when I read something by Joseph Campbell or some other Jungian that shows that underlying the apparent diversity of religious belief and practice are almost identical images and concerns. The same kind of sadness and uneasiness as when someone tells me that I'm a member of the Global Village. It's all connected, is it? Ouch! How do I disconnect?

It's not that I don't recognize the power and beauty, even the truth, of this manner of thinking. Muir's astonishing statement—so clear, irreducible, and forceful—is surely one of the great energizers of the modern ecology movement, which is perhaps the one thing that will save us in the end. It is a statement both profoundly religious and profoundly practical. For me it is also profoundly troubling. Along with the mystical wonderment and sense of ecological responsibility that comes with the recognition of connectedness, more disturbing images come to mind. When applied to economics, connectedness seems to take the form of chain stores, multinational corporations, and international trade treaties which wipe out local enterprise and indigenous culture. When I think of it in the realm of religion, I envision smug missionaries who have done such a good job of convincing native people everywhere that their World-Maker is the same as God, and by this shoddy sleight of hand have been steadily impoverishing the world of the great fecundity and complex localism of belief systems that capture truths outside the Western canon. And I wonder—if everything's connected, does that mean that everything can be manipulated and controlled centrally by those who know how to pull strings at strategic places?

For the last twenty-five years my writing and publishing—never all that connected to mainstream concerns—have been heavily involved with California Indian culture and history. At one time California had over 500 politically independent tribal entities who spoke about one hundred distinct and mutually incomprehensible languages and who lived in a wide variety of ecological settings. While these groups may have been connected by marriage, trade, and other cultural ties, each was also proudly independent and unique, linked to a particular territory for most of its food, building material, and divine energy. Others, I suppose, might look over this bewildering array of humanity and discern connectedness-similarities of economy, belief, social structure, etc. But I keep stumbling, everywhere I turn, upon wonderful differences.

Take, for example, the Yurok language of the lower Klamath River in northwestern California. Once spoken by perhaps 2,000 people—quite enough for a complex language such as this—its future as a living language now rests in the hands of slightly more than a dozen fluent speakers, all quite elderly. There are many marvelous qualities to this language, but let me describe just one: its manner of counting. There are fifteen different ways of counting in Yurok, depending upon what is being counted. Two humans, for example, are described by the numeral ni'iyet. Two houses, however, are a'a'li. Different words are likewise used for two boats; two worms, snakes, ropes, or other long, skinny things; two trees; two plants other than trees; two tools; two rocks, coins, or other round objects; etc. I find myself filled with great joy when I encounter something like this, when I catch a glimmering of the way in which a language can capture and encode a significant— and to me—revelatory truth. They are right, of course. It is quite clear that the seven-ness of seven human beings is qualitatively different from the seven-ness of seven trees, both of which are qualitatively different from the seven-ness of seven birds, and so on. How precise this language is, to pay tribute to distinctness and to force those who speak that language to acknowledge the incomparability of different things. Our own system of counting, one-size-fits-all, has produced enormous benefits. It has allowed for a system of mathematics by which we can explore everything from the subatomic to the intergalac-tic. Our math-based science has given us the tools for understanding so much of the universe, and for controlling it, too. Yet I can't help but feel that among all the gains, we have lost something, something essential and truthful. We have lost a manner of thinking that allows us to see the world as something composed of unique, distinct, incomparable entities and small systems of great variety, great individuality, with rugged strengths and inviolable character.

If indeed it is all connected, I guess that eventually we'll find a single political system, economic system, religious system, and language that will cover it all. I hope these systems are good ones, kind to people and other inhabitants of the world, capacious enough to allow for at least some variety and complexity. Perhaps, along with everyone else, I too am working toward it. I have no doubt that in the years to come I'll attend more conferences, where I'll give out my phone number and address so as to increase my connectedness to others, thereby contributing— whether I want to or not—to the systems that are horrifically linking us all. I don't think I'm strong enough to withstand the epidemic of connectedness entirely. But for as long as possible, I'll honor and draw strength, wisdom, and insight from people and from ways of thinking that celebrate not the connectedness, but rather the uniqueness of the things around us. I'll continue to write along those lines, publish along those lines, and I hope, perhaps, read the writings of others who understand that other and beautiful world, that other and beautiful kind of truth.