George Walford: Canoes and Pesticides

Rousseau and Montaigne used primitive man to make a point about their own society, castigating the features of which they disapproved. Noting that our ‘thinkers’ of today follow the same practice, and with no greater attention to fact or balanced judgement, Nigel Barley reports on an exhibition of Red Indian work:

A wooden canoe was displayed. ‘Wooden canoes,’ we were informed, ‘operate in harmony with the environment and are non-polluting.’ Beside it was a picture of its process of construction, with Indians burning down large tracts of forest to obtain the correct timber and discarding most of the wood to rot.

A professional anthropologist, Barley did his field work in Africa, living with the Dowayos. He found that they knew less about African wild life than he did, and their tracking ability did not get much beyond telling motorbike tracks from footprints. Believing that chameleons were poisonous and cobras harmless, they did not know that caterpillars become butterflies and could neither tell one bird from another nor identify trees accurately.

Supplied with pesticide to help in growing cotton they were delighted to find that thrown into the river it killed all the fish, big and small, for miles downstream. The bushfires they started, to encourage the new grass, slaughtered vast numbers of young animals; they complained because Barley had not brought a machine-gun to finish off the few remaining antelope. “As far as ‘living in harmony with nature’ is concerned, the Dowayos are non-starters.”

(Nigel Barley 1983. The Innocent Anthropologist; notes from a mud hut. London: British Museum Publications Ltd. 194-5. Donald Rooum sent in the passage on the wooden canoes, drawing IC‘s attention to the book.)

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What’s Wrong with S.I.?
Nothing much, this month. Just a perception that the phrase “we follow a pattern set by one of the major ideologies,” used in advertising for Beyond Politics, is too restrictive. It has been replaced, starting with the back page of this issue of IC, with “we act within a pattern set by one of the major ideologies.” That will doubtless need correcting in its turn, but at least it’s an improvement.

from Ideological Commentary 50, March 1991.