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12. Identity: Idyllic Illusions

Jungles of South America

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Local craft on a tributary of the Orinoco

When introducing his 600 km journey along the River Ventuari in Venezuela in 1975, author Raymond Keogh states: I liked to call our venture an expedition. However, it was far from a professional investigation; it was more a curious peep, by young foresters, into the jungles of South America.

But for me it was to become a life-changing experience and offered pointers to where the ultimate definition of human identity might lie. Enlightenment percolated through daily occurrences that appeared commonplace, but the backdrop of the jungle against which they happened steered the underlying contemplation towards an unexpected conclusion.[1]

Immense Territory

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Any elevated ground is striking

Visual observations illustrated something of the dimension of the area through which the party travelled. The forest canopy is the only skyline along the river in flat country and any elevated ground is striking. Two blue mountain peaks became very noticeable on the horizon. Slowly they grew in size till they dominated the entire scene. These were the twin peaks of Cerro Moriche. The party passed their bulk at their very base; then watched them recede as slowly as they had come. This provided some idea of their speed, progress and a sense of the immensity of the territory through which they journeyed.

It soon became clear that the tribes of the area lived by the slash-and-burn system of agriculture that is practised widely throughout the tropical forests of the globe. The inhabitants open a clearing by cutting the trees and burning the debris; then they sow their crops, build their huts and stay in the clearing until the harvest-production decreases. After a number of seasons of cultivation they leave the patch to recuperate and move on to another segment of forest. In time, the fertility of the first area recovers after natural vegetation reinvades. Eventually they return to it and the cycle begins again.

Visible Scars on Nature

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Indians moving to a new cultivation site

There were few signs of man living in perfect harmony with nature and little evidence of anything approaching a pristine forest. On a lonely cutting high on a riverbank a Greek intellectual had turned to the solitude of nature for his existence and spent seven years as a hermit. Even he had left a visible scar on nature that was only in the first stages of recovery.

The destructive element was ubiquitous. Raymond had to admit: Before I came to the Orinoco I was searching for an elusive and static condition in which nature and mankind were living in an original and pristine condition of existence. I was seeking a steady-state in which man and nature linked together in a single harmonious unit and in which human identity found its perfect meaning.[1]

Raymond concluded that the notion that we can somehow trace ourselves back to a time when humanity lived in an idyllic setting, sharing a perfect bond with nature is illusionary.

Views Challenged  and Changed

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Could no longer ignore hybrid roots

Raymond began to approach the issue from a different angle:

Having dismissed the notion of a steady-state harmony between man and nature … I wondered how far into the past do major influences penetrate. In other words, how far back should we go, either individually or on the collective cultural level, to understand how the principal processes of the past impinge on our present identity? I reached an instinctive conclusion that it would be artificial to define any particular point or stage as the base of our ancestral and natural influences. By reaching this conclusion I made a significant step forward, which would eventually allow my inquiry into the nature of human identity to be unfettered by artificial definitions of who we are.[1]

Another conclusion that Raymond reached during the expedition was that we cannot arrive at a true definition of human identity if any factor that contributes to our makeup, is omitted. To do so would be to live a false identity. It was at this juncture that he relinquished his reluctance to deal with the hybrid dimension of his family’s identity.

It was time to face the uncomfortable truth.

Refs

[1] Keogh, R. M. Shelter and Shadows. (To be published in September 2016 as part of The Gerald Keogh Identity Series).

GKIS Gerald Keogh Identity Series

Coming Next

Hybrid Dimension of Identity here