A Savanna Life in a Technological World

Ranching vs Hunting-Gathering, Part I

Ranching vs Hunting-Gathering, Part I

We were born into this world with an expectation. Natural selection gave it to us. Our world is very different than the one we expected. This distance is a canyon that gets perceptibly wider and deeper all the time. It grows by sudden big events and by tiny trickles over the millenia. This canyon is created by technology, but when I just say that, it is hard to appreciate all the different twists and turns that technology takes when entering our lives.

One of the reasons I became a rancher because I wanted a life that would be as much like our ancestors as possible, while still interacting with the real world. Now, as I rancher, I laugh at that idea, for a few reasons. I don’t know if I can really think of another life that is closer, it’s just… I’m a rancher now. I think differently. But the difference between my life and the life that anthropologists describe from the handful of hunter gatherer people we know is interesting and I am going to spend the next few weeks talking about that difference, each weeking taking up a different topic. In the process I will try to avoid the usual traps of either complaining about a reality or ignoring a reality. This will hint at the complex and insidious ways that technology shapes our lives.

But first I am going to talk about the complex and insidious ways that I shape my life to avoid technology, by talking about what happened on the ranch since last time. With the help of my not-at-all-afraid-of-technology friend Richard (hi Richard), we got a fair amount done. The pump guy came out and we got the submersible pump down in the ditch on the west side and that mostly plumbed and wired. We got all the fittings and risers put together and now we have a pipeline on the west side. We built garden beds and planted a garden. We finished the fence around the yard and there hasn’t been duck poop on the porch for over a week. We mowed about a hundred acres of pasture and cut, and ripped and bashed and smashed a bunch of blackberries. The neighbor and I kicked four loads of cattle off the place, and a few weeks ago we received eight more loads of Belcampo cattle. The milk cow (did I mention we have a milk cow?) calved and Hanna started milking. I’m not going to say much about that because I don’t have much good to say about that, but as long as Hanna is happy I am happy. Abel named the calf ‘Pecan,’ which I guess is pretty nice. Almost sounds like a lot got done.

That was fun, wasn’t it, now let’s get back to the idea at hand. The topic of the week this week will be large animals; how the structure of my life gives me a different relationship to large animals than hunter-gatherer people have. This is a pretty basic aspect. Large animals are so central to the life of hunter-gatherer people, and yet there are very few ways of living today where they factor at all. But just because big animals take up a huge amount of my psychic space, does not mean that the relationship is the same.

Technology has progressed to the point where there are no technical limitations to our ability to obtain large animals. So the only animals that are left are the animals that someone protects. Which means that someone must protect them. That someone is me. This is something that we did not evolve having to do. In our culture we have a word that queues us into the fact that we are doing something we did not evolve to do. That word is ‘stress.’ Somehow, somewhere, stress points to ‘the canyon’ and it would be good for us to get into the habit of noticing it and untangling how that happens.

Starting off at the most basic level, these 500 animals are ‘mine’ at least insofar as I am in charge of them. This is in stark contrast to the level of responsibility we evolved with. When anthropologists have studied hunter-gatherers, particularly African hunter-gatherers a few decades ago, they find people that report very low levels of anxiety about their food, and about pretty much everything. Then we shift things around so that the animals need to get owned. Suddenly you create a psychic environment that humans did not evolve with.

Let’s start with liabilities. With roads and cars and people zipping around at 70 miles an hour inside tin cans, suddenly ‘my’ cattle really need to stay off the road. In modern America we navigate the complexities of complete strangers hurtling around with a web of tort laws. People file lawsuits and it does a pretty good job of keeping the cattle off the road. It does that by putting extra stress of the cattle owner. I might not die if the cattle get on the road, but someone else could, so I feel like I could die. Stress.

Then there is sickness. A hunter-gatherer finds a sick animal, great. Easy. I have to figure out what is wrong with that animal and wonder if they are all going to get it and figure out what to do about it. We didn’t evolve doing that. Stress.

Which brings us to handling. Often times this means that we need to get all these animals in and get really close to all of them and get them out of there so that they all survive. As a hunter-gatherer you just need to kill one, which sounds harder but I don’t know if it is. Stress, stress, stress.

This just looks at keeping the animals here and keeping them alive. We haven’t even talked about getting them to gain, which I will talk about next post when I talk about the human relationship to land.

So, when I look at a distance at the cattle here grazing peacefully in the valley, superficially it looks like an ancient scene, but because the modern world is the way it is, there is a different psychological signature left by everything.

That being said, I started off saying that people evolved being around big animals. I am around these animals all the time. I see them doing the things they do, even if it is from on top of a mower, or with a generator droning in the background. I can watch the way they affect the grass and how the grass effects them as they get fat. That is pretty powerful and where else can you get that? Even though handling the animals is stressful, when you do it and your successful, you get a feeling in your pants. You feel alive, powerful. Human maybe.

Our lives will be absolutely dominated by technology. We have no choice in that matter. But the life we build involves navigating all the tradeoffs that technology offers. This series, and this blog, are about those tradeoffs, for ranchers and everyone else.

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