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Recently, I reached for something hopeful to read. I wanted to get out of the funky funk current affairs has had me in. I wanted a bigger picture, something that might observe, teach, and inspire. Basically, a tonic for these blues I have been dwelling in. I reached for Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us.
Open your imagination to how we began – as semi-upright apes which spent some of their time in trees; next as ragtag bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers; then as purposeful custodians of favorite grains, chosen with mind-bending slowness, over thousands of years; and in time as intrepid farmers and clearers of forests with fixed roofs over our heads and a more reliable food supply; afterward as builders of villages and towns dwarfed by furrowed, well-tilled farmlands; then as makers, fed by such inventions as the steam engine (a lavish power source unlike horses, oxen, or water power, and not subject to health or weather, not limited by location); later as industry’s operators, drudges and tycoons who moved closer to the factories that arose in honey-combed cities beside endless fields of staple crops (like corn, wheat, and rice) and giant herds of key species (mainly cows, sheep, or pigs); and finally as builders of big buzzing metropolises, ringed by suburbs on whose fringes lay shrinking farms and forests; and then, as if magnetized by a fierce urge to coalesce, fleeing en mass into these mountainous hope-scented cities.
That’s about as big picture as you can get, the 150 thousand or so years of Homo sapiens developing like a Polaroid right in front of your eyes. It is the kind of scope that shares what a grand thing life is and what we on the now end of existence should consider as we take on the seemingly insurmountable troubles of our own day. The tribe can survive, adapt, invent.
The book doesn’t pose a pretty picture — our current environmental concerns weigh heavy within it. But it doesn’t look at just the real, rough edges of how we live on Earth and how we treat our home. It also looks at ways we are currently taking on our challenges through imagination, ingenuity, persistence, care, action, and number – the world’s problems are not to be taken on individually, though that is often where engagement starts, but with a growing collective effort and resource. Some lead by expertise and example, others take it from there. In that light, it is inspiring. One reads as an individual, but as the pages turn, one realizes that they describe the efforts of your kin and kind hard at work to do the right thing and mind this wonderful home for all of us, making better today so that our story will carry on into the future.
Ackerman’s sentences are beautiful, full of words that touch up to each other perfectly as they flow into informative paragraphs and chapter-length essays. She has a wonderful sense of observation and detail. The way she names species specifically like the pearls they are, or identifies the detail of cultures or individuals she is describing are testament to her expertise on what she is writing about. It deepens one’s understanding of the world. It is clear and full of insight, compassion, and, yes, hope. I don’t know if it was an odd choice or not to reach for on a whim, but I am loving it and it is mending me.
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo