Mohammed Tahur Ould Sidi
Trans-Saharan salt trade; Camels versus trucks
NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
18 Jan 2003
- 22.666667 -3.983333
- :04 - 1:02:21
- SONY TCD-D7
- Sennheiser MKH 50
- Sennheiser MKH 30
Decoded MS Stereo
Log of DAT #:8a
Date: January 18, 19, 2003
G = Godfried Peter Agbezudor
MT = Mohammed Tahur Ould Sidi
AK = Alou Kone
WD = Wade Davis
CR = Chris Rainier
AC = Alex Chadwick
CJ = Carolyn Jensen
Leo = Leo del Aguila
0:00 AC-What does he say?
G-You asked me to come here around 2:30, but I was here before 2:30 and you came at 3:30. All that I had to do today I forgot. Now that you asked me the question, I also have a question to ask you.
AC-I apologize for coming late. I'm new here and I'm trying to learn new things and I apologize.
0:59 AC-So my question, uh¿(interruption by Leo)
AC-Uh, the question, we know that one man here sold his camels and bought a truck to continue this business and we hear other young men say this life is too difficult we don't want to do it. Does he think this is going to, that the salt trade will go on or will it go out because it's too difficult, or will it change so much because of the trucks that the camel caravan will disappear?
4:52 G-It is rather unfortunate for this man to have sold all his camels to buy a truck. And if you ask me why, I will go ahead and explain to you he has lost something great in life.
7:34 G-Well, hmm, it is very unfortunate for this man because someone who is used to his camels has sold all of his camels to buy a truck, of course which he has no idea of. He can drive it today, of course, when he breaks down in the middle of the sand, that is when he is going to regret more. And even working on the truck, it's not a job for one person. It takes more than 10 persons to upload a truck and offload it. He must also think of buying the spare parts to fix the truck, but then he must also learn to fix up the truck when he breaks down, when he's all alone. But when he's riding his camels a camel gets sick, he knows what to do. either he offload his camels, and load the stuff on the other camels and let him walk free until they walk home to get healed, or he lets the camel go because the camel can always find its way back home. But a truck will always give him a problem, which he doesn't know today, but left to him and his fate.
9:00 AC-I have only one more question for him, and I will be happy to answer his question. Is there something if the caravan were to disappear, is there something symbolic or powerful about the salt trade and the caravan that is above just business. Does it mean something to the people here? Does the caravan have a kind of power, and the idea of the salt caravan have a kind of power beyond the, beyond what we do for business? Is it something that people do for reasons beyond just taking a, making money. Is it important for people here that it persists because it means something?
AC-Does it represent something in the heart?
14:08 G-Today it has no significance, but previously it did have. Why? Because people now choose to make this trade in six days instead of the longer period that our fathers used to make it. They buy trucks, quickly buy the salt from here, instead of exchanging the salt for goods, they buy the salt and then go down to Timbuktu and in six days they are in and out, and in and out. The value of the trade is losing and now I think it is better for those who have their camels to keep their camels instead of selling them and buying trucks to run across the desert.
14:56 AC-When he says the value of the trade is losing its value, what does he mean?
17:59 G-I can not talk much on this, but all that I know is that the military of Mali has started bringing their trucks in here and now the people are following. The salt that people take from here a day in trucks, our camels can not carry that, but I remember when my father was telling me in the beginning it is always better to use camels instead of trucks and I still have it deep in me that it is still the best way to convey the salt from here to Timbuktu.
18:38 AC-Alright, if you can record, I just want to ask him one more thing. I just want to ask him what his question is. Ask him what his question is.
21:25 G-I am beginning to notice some few things this day that some of my colleagues who I've been walking with have not chosen to stay in Araouane, or in (unintelligible word), closer to Timbuktu, to raise camels and sell them, rather than walk the camel all the way to go down to Timbuktu. Why? Because, well, we walk up here with our camels. Most of the time we want the salt to be well worked so we don't carry patches of mud on our camels only to get to our destination to be cleaned and to be taken off. But here, today, you have the trucks coming in whether the salt is clean or it's not clean, they just load everything onto the truck and it is quicker for them to convey these things to the coast and to sell and then come back in six days, whereas I will come back in 15 to 20 days to get there, only to find out the price of salt, instead of 4000, it's not abundant in the market, it is reduced to 2000, and I always lose. And most of my friends are beginning to quit and that is going to make the camel walking a very dull business in the near future.
22:54 AC-What question do you have for me?
24:37 G-To conclude, it's what you have already seen for yourself. You think about some 10 years ago, when camels would come in chains from Timbuktu to Taoudenni. On your way you can see you will find more than 20 as a length, more than 50 caravans moving, going towards Taoudenni, or going towards Timbuktu all loaded with salt, but today how many did you see on your way when you were coming yesterday? And that's the question, you see?
25:13 AC-Two. I saw on our way coming up we drove three days and we saw three caravans coming up from Timbuktu.
28:17 G-It is, it is becoming very clear, even within us, the camel walkers, that the truck riders are destroying this market. They go all the way from here to Mauritania, Algeria, to all those markets where we normally walk our camels to sell the salt. Today, when you walk here from Timbuktu, you might find only two people walking their camels, meaning each day and day out. The trade is declining. People are bringing in big trucks. But I remember some few years ago when the military was actually taking control of this place nobody was bringing in any truck. When you came here the whole place was flooded with camels, flooded with people, Arabs, walking the camels. And for a kilometer away from here it would be difficult even for you to go through because you find thousands upon thousands of camels all around. Today it is even difficult for a man to find an Asali, an Asali is a camel. Why? Because truck riders bring in their trucks and they load anything on their trucks and send them away, whether good or bad. Even workers are refusing to work these days on the mines because you work and you work for a truck owner. You don't get anything for yourself. So the work is slowly declining.
30:02 AC-Thank you.
30:07-Leo says hi to me (Sarah), sets up the next recording at the prison, recording wind. MS, mkh 50/30, Sonosax pre-amp, D-7.
31:42-35:53-Strong wind out at prison
35:53-Leo sets up prison interview with minister of film, Alou Kone
1:00:45 Leo says that was the prison interview
1:00:50-1:02:20 Ambi. Wind inside the prison
1:02:47 AC-I want you to hear a little bit of the Sahara. We're inside my tent. We're actually, the tent is set up beside a truck, which is blocking the wind, but there's a lot of wind in the Sahara, and this is it.
1:03:04-1:03:29-Ambi of wind in Sahara.
1:03:30 AC-We left the salt mines about an hour ago and drove south until we found a long dune running east and west. We've pulled down behind it to try to block some of this wind and set up our tents right beside the trucks. But you can hear what the wind is like, it's blowing so hard. We couldn't even take the tape recorder out for most of the day. We were afraid it would clog up with sand. So here we are recording inside a tent.
1:03:56-1:04:01 Ambi of wind inside tent.
1:04:02 AC-This is what the Sahara sounds like. People say the deserts silent, but this is the desert.
1:04:08-1:05:17-Ambi of wind in tent.
1:05:18 AC-Outside the sun's gone down by now, well, the sun's just starting to go down. We're on a great plain here. We can look off oh maybe, I guess the visibility is a mile and a half, two miles. All we see is this red carpet of sand and every now and then a little flat section of rock that looks purple in this light underneath this very gray-blue sky. The color of the sky's changed because there's so much sand in the air today from this wind storm. Wind storm's been blowing for a couple of days, but it got much stronger today. Then just to our north there's a long dune. It looks like a dune from a picture of the Sahara. This is kind of dune that you'd imagine. It's just bare of any kind of vegetation. This sharp peak and these sides falling away. If you climb the dune, which is very hard to do, the softer the sand gets. It's very hard to climb near the top. The dune's probably 50, 60 feet high, but it's got this mass and this bulk to it. It's absolutely beautiful, but also powerful, simple, plain. You can see here how the beauty of the desert, the power of the desert would seduce someone in a long walking trip to get from here to Timbuktu would take at least two weeks, longer than that I think. And on that trip I think you'd get, I think you'd get drunk with the power of the desert and the absence, the absence that you see of trees, of streams, of any kind of life. It's just the powerful image of the dunes and the sand and the sky.
1:07:33 AC-Just behind us there's a full moon rising through the sand haze. The light's all dim and soft cause the sand has turned the air that way. The wind's been blowing hard like this most of the day. We're hoping that it will soften and abate at least somewhat tonight so we'll be able to do recording again. We're going to travel and try to find a camel caravan that's headed south with a load of salt.
1:08:15-1:08:30-Ambi of wind.
1:08:53 AC-The economics of trucks versus camels, the distortions in the market because salt has changed value because of abundance, the power of supply and demand, here is brought up against the power of this landscape and the meaning of this landscape and the power from it. Maybe the trucks will take away from this trade, maybe the trucks will change the value of the salt, but the value of this landscape somehow is going to stay here.
1:09:50 AC-The camp crew's laid out the tents and they've set out, actually they've set out a table and some chairs there. It's almost dark. We'll put out a couple of torches. It's time to eat and then settle down for the night.
1:10:03-1:10:53-Ambi of camp setting up.
1:11:30-Leo sets up next recording.
1:13:34-1:16:21-Ambi of wind.
1:16:41-1:19:52-Ambi. More wind
Leo talks about the windy, dusty conditions and how he was a surfer in South America.
1:24:05-1:25:19-Ambi of wind
1:25:34-Leo sets up recording, Sunday 19th interview with Wade Davis.
1:28:47 WD-Wade Davis and I'm explorer in residence at National Geographic. I'm an Anthropologist and a writer.
AC-How long have you been working on the ethnosphere project as an idea?
1:29:02 WD-The ethnosphere is a concept as something that just sort of came out of a series of journeys that I had done and I just sort of coined the term in a recent book, Light at the Edge of the World. Not to try to make more of it than it is. All it was is an idea to try to suggest to people that just as there's a biological web of life, that surrounds the planet, so to there's a cultural web of life, a spiritual web of life, an intellectual web of life and I coined the term ethnosphere to refer to that. And really as a concept to try to suggest that just as a biosphere is being impacted by human activities, so to is the cultural web of life. And I defined the ethnosphere really as the sum total of all ideas, beliefs, intuitions, myths brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. It really is humanity's legacy. And the idea really grew out of what so many of us have been doing in anthropology, which is baring witness to a tremendous process of change, the key indicator of which, of course is language loss. And this is kind of like the canary in the coal mine.
AC-And why is that, why is the loss of language so important?
1:30:18 WD-Well it's at least an indicator of a process of a trend and the key statistics are rather dramatic. I mean of the 6000 languages spoken when you and I were born, fully half of them are not being taught to school children. Which means that effectively, and unless something changes, they're already dead and of course language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules, it's a flash of the human spirit it's a vehicle through which the soul of every particular character comes into the material world. I mean every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of philosophical possibilities. And one of the roles of a writer, of course, is not necessarily to change the world. I've always thought of what Peter Matheson said, ¿Those who think they can change the world are not only wrong, but dangerous¿, he was speaking the truth. But at the same time a writer and a scholar does have an obligation to bare witness to the world. And it struck me that even as we were lamenting the demise of biological diversity we were forgetting that there was this parallel process of loss. And the thing that I find most disturbing about it was the idea that these various societies around the world were somehow destined to fade away by some natural laws. If they were failed attempts at being us, or failed attempts at being modern, when that's not the case at all. In every instance these are societies that are not destined to fade away, these are societies that are being driven out of existence by identifiable sources. It's not change, per se, that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere. I mean all cultures through all time have constantly being adapted for new possibilities for life. And nor is it technology that threatens the ethnosphere. I mean a Sioux Indian did not stop being a Sioux Indian when he gave up the bow and arrow. An American did not cease being an American when he gave up the horse and buggy. It's neither change nor technology that threatens this extraordinary realm of diversity that is the ethnosphere, it is always power. And that's kind of an optimistic and a pessimistic observation. But if you look around the world, in almost every case, whether it's the Panan in Borneo who are suffering because of the egregious deforestation of their homeland, or the mouth of the Niger River where the Algona can no longer farm their once fertile soils because of the influence of the petrol-chemical industry, or it's the Yano Mamo, where you have disease coming in because of the discovery of gold. In every case we can actually identify an objective force that is overwhelming the people's capacity to change on their own terms. What this suggests is it's sort of optimistic. Only that it suggests that if the people are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be the facilitator of cultural survival.
1:33:07 AC-When you say that this change is an aspect of power, you mean the modern world is encroaching on these people's lives as industry and business seeks to develop new technologies, new markets, use new resources?
1:33:27 WD-Ya, you can all it the face of modernity or you can call it the face of kind of oppression if you will. I think in not every instance, but often you have a case where there's a political dynamic in play as well, often at the expense of natural resources. And I mean, in the end I think that the real question is, you know I remember a comment by the famous anthropologist Margaret Meade who said that her greatest nightmare was that as we drifted from a polychromatic world of diversity to a kind of monochromatic world of monotony, as we sort of went through this blandly amorphous condensation to some kind of world culture, her greatest nightmare was that someday we would awake from a dream, having not only found ourselves in an increasingly homogeneous world, but that we would have forgotten that there are other possibilities. And I think one of the key notions we have in the ethnosphere is not only that these cultures are not failed attempts of being us, but these are unique manifestations of the human spirit that reflect something about the overall capacity of humanity to deal with the various vicissitudes of life and the adaptive challenges of life. You know it's interesting human beings, as a recognizable species have been around for perhaps a million years, the Neolithic revolution, which gave us agriculture, at which time we succumbed to the call to the sea, and we developed specialization, hierarchy, and surplus which allowed for sedentary life was only 10,000 years ago. Modern industrial society as we know it is perhaps only 300 years old, and that shallow history doesn't suggest to me that that particular paradigm has all the answers for all the challenges that we will face in the ensuing millennia. And all these different societies in the world represent the overall human repertoire for dealing with all the human choices and challenges that we will confront. And when asked the meaning of being human they respond with 10,000 different voices. And it's within that diversity of spirit and hope that I think we can find the best way to maneuver ourselves as a species through the coming years.
AC-What is it that you would like the ethnosphere idea to accomplish if you were, someone said you're trying to do, you're trying to call attention to this question, but then what?
1:35:53 WD-Well I think the most, you know the real question before us is how are we going to find a way to live in a multi-cultural pluralistic world of increasing contact, increasing trade relations. How can we all benefit from the genius of human intuition and intelligence without the adaptation of say innovation needing to imply the illumination of ethnicity or of culture? I personally feel that diversity is more than a kind of foundation of stability. It's an article of faith. It makes for a more curious and poetic world. I'd much rather live in a multi-colored world than in a world of monotony.
AC-How is it the story of the story of the salt caravans and the people of Taoudenni and of Timbuktu, how does that fit into the ethnosphere project here?
1:36:46 WD-Well the ethnosphere, as I said, is just an organizing principle to begin to encourage us to encourage us to pay attention to the process that is happening all around us as languages are lost as cultures are being assimilated and transformed. At any one point on the planet that you drop down you're going to find some small little melodrama of the ethnosphere, which is of great interest. And one of the things we're trying to do at the National Geographic is not just take the reader to some exotic local and try to paint the portrait of that local as being of the other, we're trying to identify those places where there are cultural practices going on where they're so inherently interesting and wondrous that the viewer or the reader can't help but come away dazzled. There are many places in the world like that, I mean one of the things that we want try to do in Equatory West Africa is take people into the heart of a voodoo ceremony, and show how people taken by their spirits in the sublime spirit of faith that is spirit possession actually handled burning embers with impunity. Not because of the inherent sensational aspect of that religious practice, but because it tells us something rather extraordinary about the mind's ability to affect the body when catalyzed in a state of extreme excitation. We want to take people on the ships of the Polynesian seafarers and watch as the contemporary navigators read the waves and orient themselves through the impossible reaches of the ocean. And one of the things that interest me in Mali the most is not just the salt trade, per se, which is in and of itself fascinating, but the metaphor that the movement of geography that the caravans represented. I mean I find it absolutely astonishing that this commodity, salt, readily replaced by cheaper substitutes from Europe or from America made from the sea, nevertheless has since the 12th century the salt of Taoudenni maintained it's allure, it's mystique as the gold of the desert. I mean what is it about this single commodity that has allowed this trade to persist? Well on the one hand we know that they say it's a medicine, we know that they say the taste is spectacular, that it's like gold of the desert in their mind. But of course probably those attributes were put on to the product and what really made the product so inherently desirable was it's scarcity and that it did come from the heart of the Sahara and to get to the product implied a journey of such magnitude, and that's what made it such a precious item¿
1:39:34 WD-The journey. And of course I'm interested in the journey because one of the things that I'm always trying to suggest is that we know now based on genetics is that we're all brothers. We all know that now scientifically. We also know that by definition every human population has the same mental acuity, the same raw genius, the same raw adaptive capacities, and what's so fascinating about the ethnosphere, about the whole range of culture, is to pay attention to how cultures choose to manipulate that extraordinary human capacity, which is the mind. And I find it, for example, find it as interesting that the nomadic peoples of the Sahara found a way to move through this impossible desert, found a way to adapt to this desert, found a way to orient themselves in this desert, which to us is so foreboding and impossible. And that's one of the things we've seen in the caravan, you know we've paid attention when we've asked our guides well, what is it that you look for? Well it's the stars. Well what else do you look for? Well it's the wind, it's the orientation of the plants, we watch for the orientation of the wind, we look for the prevailing orientation of the sand, we watch for the orientation of the dunes. What's made it all come together is when you ask them what happens when all that falls apart they say well we sit still and we listen and a voice, and some say the voice of Allah, comes to us. And in that peace we find our way. That's to me a marvelous metaphor of adaptation in the desert.
1:41:16 AC-You talk a lot about special knowledge of different people, a knowledge that people had in pre-colonial societies, indigenous people had, and have in those societies to the extent that they still exist. What is that special knowledge here in the desert along the route of the salt caravan?
1:41:39 WD-I think one obvious knowledge is just orientation and adaptability to this particularly harsh environment. I'm always interested in these populations that have managed to survive and thrive in the most impossible of habitats, whether it's the ice of the high arctic, which is in itself a desert, or here in the Sahara. I mean it was astonishing yesterday, for example, when we came upon the caravan that we had first seen coming south as we approached Taoudenni, you know, if you recall they saw the formidable clouds that dropped so much rain on us so unexpectedly in the desert. But as they moved south they were worried about the salt and the rain impacting the salt and unexpectedly on the way south we come upon then waiting for the salt, the precious commodity that comprises the trade, to dry out so they can continue their journey without risk of ruining the product for which that journey is being made.
AC-But in the process they've run out of water.
1:42:40 WD-But in the process they've run out of water. Now here we are, they had no idea that we were coming, they probably knew enough that there were probably other caravans coming, they had been seated there for three days, they were down to a couple of liters of water, and with complete ease they simply decided well what shall we do. Well, we heard somewhere that there were once camels that grazed in some place, roughly 15 kilometers away, and they simply dispatched one of their mates with one of the camels to go and dig a well in the desert. Now they didn't even know precisely where. They didn't, it wasn't event the sheer audacity that amazed me, it was the calm with which they were able to do it, even as they used their last liters of water to brew us tea to honor their obligation, their social obligation to maintain the commitment to hospitality to generosity of spirit, a welcoming element of their heart, which is of course a classic characteristic of people of the desert.
AC-They're running out of water, they're sending, they've run out of water, they've sent a member of their group out to an ambiguous unknown destination to try to dig, hand dig 4 or 5 feet down to see if he can find water and yet when we arrive in the desert they offer to share their water.
1:44:08 WD-They share their water. And what's so interesting about that is you see we in the west, I think, you know we have a wonderful culture, too, and it's got all kinds of unique and remarkable attributes, as every culture does, but one of the things we try to do is to reduce so much to the level of the material and to the utilitarian so we say well wait a minute, what can the salt trade be about, can't they get cheaper salt down south. Or we think about, well why would they save their water for us, I mean that's all they've got left. We know, we know that this morning they had to get up and whether that fellow found water or not they had to proceed. Now it turned out that the next well was only 40 kilometers away, still not a modest distance in this desert, and by good fortune for them the climate, the weather pattern in these recent days has been rather cool, making it an easier passage. But I believe that even in the summer when movement through this desert is like moving through an anvil of hell, they still would have shared that last drop of water because ultimately not to do so would be to shame themselves because a social obligation is paramount, even more than survival itself because the social obligation and the social network that allows a society as a whole to thrive. And that's an important distinction. You know, we in the west celebrate the individual at the expense of the community. And we take that for granted and we're grateful for that but we forget that when that first came about, perhaps during the renaissance, that was the sociological equivalent of the splitting of the atom. And it makes us very unique and very different from most populations of the world where the collective still counts for more than the individual because without the well being of the collective the individual cannot survive.
AC-Let me just ask you. You know I've shared this experience with you, I share your experience about the wonder of this people. I just could hear an American sitting back, or someone in my own family, sitting back and saying well okay they have this special knowledge, and it applies to crossing the desert and maybe the salt trade is going to disappear in five more years, so who needs that special knowledge anymore, what difference does it make?
1:46:40 WD-Well it's sort of like when people say to me you're worried about the loss of languages, but isn't that a good thing, wouldn't that be so much better for communication and peace if we all just spoke one language. And of course they're implying that that language be English. And I always respond to them by saying you know that's a really brilliant idea, let's make that language Uraba, let's make it Swaheli, let's make it Chinese, and suddenly people realize that oh there's something inherently valuable about my tradition. And of course, if this salt caravan is lost, if the trucks supplant it, as we've witnessed might be the case. What will be lost ultimately? Will the world stop? No. Will people in Philadelphia be poorer for it? Perhaps not. But when you take the salt caravan as one example, and then you add a spiritual esoteric practice from Tibet, and the orientation of the people in Polynesia, and the whistle speech of Mazatek people, the unique knowledge of the Jaguar shaman, who in the Amazon can smell animal urine at forty paces and tell you which creature left it behind, and all the intuitions of the spiritual world of the other, all the notions of adaptation to the diverse habitats of the world, all the hopes and prayers of all the possibilities of all the people that have ever evolved on this face of this brilliant Earth, add those all together and clearly we would be weaker if all that was reduced to a single modality of thought.
1:48:13 AC-Um, this project is supposed to last five years, what are you going to do?
WD-I hope it lasts ten years.
AC-I hope it lasts longer than that.
WD-I hope it last the rest of our lives.
AC-You're current plan is¿(Alex asks Roberto something)
1:48:36 WD-You know I firmly believe that politics change little and the polemics are never persuasive, but I do believe that story telling can change the world. And we at the National Geographic, I believe it's the greatest story telling institution in the world and so we're so grateful that they've embraced this idea as part of their overall conservation initiative. Now again, we don't necessarily expect to change the world, but we can at the very least bare witness to a process that's going on and a process that will indeed affect all peoples on the planet. And this is this condensation of the diversity of the human spirit that is brought into being by culture. And so what we want to do is identify those areas, and we start with a big concept, a poetic notion of the ethnosphere, just as an organizing principle. In the same way, it's so fascinating 30 years ago the term biodiversity or biosphere were part of the vernacular of a rare handful of scientists, now they're part of the vocabulary of school children and concerns about the demise of species, of plant and animal, is part of the general backdrop of our age. And sometimes a word like biosphere can be useful organizing principles that begin to allow people's thinking to coalesce and move into a new direction, which is how history actually shifts. So we don't have any illusions that this is some kind of extraordinarily complex scientific notion, it's just simply a word, a poetic thought. Now how do we demonstrate to people the validity and the wonder and the importance of unique visions of life itself as brought into being by culture? Well, you know the way we do it is to embark on a series of journeys that will take us to those cultures where there are practices, adaptations, beliefs that are so inherently dazzling and so wondrous that our readers and our viewers can't help, we hope, but take a pause, pay attention and be themselves filled with wonder at the very thought of the diversity and brilliance of the human mind as made manifest in culture. That's what we're really trying to. So, you know we want to take you to places like here in the Sahara where these extraordinary guides can take us through a landscape that to our eye is monotonous, consistent, threatening, and we can watch in their eyes the ease with which they move through this landscape, orienting themselves not only by the obvious factors of the direction of prevailing winds, the orientation of the stars, the direction of the dunes, but certain other intangible elements such as the sense of well being that they get with their faith in Allah, their ability to sit still when they get disoriented and listen for the voice that will lead them on their way. We want to take you to places like Polynesia where we can still travel with ancient sea farers who are rekindling and revitalizing ancient forms of navigation which allowed the Polynesians to cover the largest culture sphere on Earth, 10 million miles of islands flung like jewels across the entire pacific ocean, the largest culture sphere ever developed. A culture sphere that grew because people could follow the currents that moved them through the ocean and read them as we would read the river on a landscape. People who could sense the presence of distant atolls even beyond the horizon just by watching the waves at the side of their boat. These are remarkable features of the human mind. Or take dream time. And also another thing we're really trying to do is to read through to a deeper level of cultural understanding so people can really begin to appreciate these diverse ways of being. I mean one classic example that always comes up is the dreamtime of Australian Aboriginal people. I mean most people think of the dreamtime, or the they think of the Aboriginal people as a kind of an image from Crocodile Dundee as this sort of a natural tracker who has some sort of an inherent capacity to read the sands. But you have to ask question why is it for example that we in the West have been obsessed with a call to progress that has constantly been reinventing our society both politically, socially, technologically, and why is it that the Aboriginal people of Australia have lived basically for 60,000 years in that continent home of theirs, yes having some impact in terms of burning certain areas for grassland to increase the numbers of animals and so on, but fundamentally not embracing the call to progress. Was it because they are stupid? Obviously not, we know they're equally mentally alert. Well when you really get into the belief system then you really understand what the dreaming is. And the dreaming affects that for the Aboriginal people there are two parallel universes. There is a world of the phenomenological realm in which a rock is a rock and a tree is a tree, but there's also the realm of the dreaming and that is a parallel universe. And when the Aboriginal person went on the walkabout, and all of the songs are trajectories of the movements, walk by the primordial ancestors at the dawn of time when they sang the world into being, the contemporary Aboriginal person walks that same trajectory he is not only walking in the footsteps of the ancestors, he is also participating in the act of creation because that rock at his feet exists in a physical sense, but also only exists as he dreams it being into creation as he moves through sacred geography. So how, if you're moving through a landscape where your thoughts are responsible for the creation of that landscape, how can you possibly create a cult of improvement in a world that's still being born? And that's when realize oh what these people were all about.
1:54:52 interruption because wind is getting too strong.
1:55:11 WD-You know, one of the things that we in the West try to appreciate or think of other people, even if those of us sympathetic with their situations or intrigued by their histories, nevertheless try to invoke either Roseau and the proverbial notion of the savage and try to explain that's how they are closer to the Earth than we are or we sort of invoke Henry David Thoreau and say they were more contemplative and sensitive in their relation. And both ideas appear almost silly for anyone who's seriously traveled in this world. I mean you've been to the salt mine, a harsh, bitter, difficult environment. There's not a lot of room for sentiment or nostalgia in the fierce desert of the Sahara. Indigenous people are not weakened by sentimentally or nostalgia, but they have nevertheless forged through time and ritual a traditional mystique of the Earth that is based not on this idea of being consciously aware of their place in it, but on a far subtler intuition. And that is the idea, as in the case of the Aboriginal people of Australia, that the Earth can exist only because it is being breathed into consciousness. In other words it can only exist because it is being filtered through the human imagination. Now what does that actually mean in concrete terms? It means that I grew up in the forest of British Columbia, raised to believe those forests literally existed to be cut. But a Quagiolf lad, he was raised to believe those forests were the abode of Hukkuk and the Crooked Beak of heaven, and that cannibal spirits that dwelt at the end of the world. And he knew that when he was initiated in the Hamatsi initiation he would have to entered that world, embrace those spirits, emerge transformed, whole, back in his village to celebrate the potlatch. Now is that forest the abode of a spirit, or does it exist as a volume of timber? Ultimately it doesn't matter. What matters is what the belief system creates to that natural world. By the same token, if you go to the mountains of Southern Peru, the Runa Kuna are raised to believe that those mountains are the abode of an Apu spirit, that each mountain has the spirit of an Apu that will direct the destiny of each individual child and as long as you are in the shadow of that spirit you will be affected and impacted by the power of that spirit. Now we in America are raised to believe that a mountain is a pile of inner rock ready to be mined. Is a mountain the abode of a spirit? Is it a pile of rock? Who is to say? Ultimately the question has no meaning. What is significant is how the belief affects the human being. You from Montana, raised to believe that rock is to be mined will be a profoundly different person and more importantly have a profoundly different relationship to that mountain than a Runa Kuna kid who believes that that mountain is the abode of a spirit. So all around the world we see in indigenous cultures how the belief systems create different relationships to the natural world. And so when we look at ourselves and we consider reflexively that our culture is a paragon of humanity's potential, and when we indulge our own ethnocentric tendencies, which of course all peoples are fiercely proud of their own interpretation of reality, it behooves us to be a little more modest and to take a good look at our culture, for example in the West. And say a martian anthropologist landed in America. He or she would see many wondrous things and if the measure of success was technological wizardry, our world would come out on top, but if they looked at the social structure they'd ask a few questions. They'd say, you know, you say you believe in marriage, but why do half your marriages end in divorce? You say you love your children, but by the time a young American is 18 you've allowed them to passively watch two years of television. You say you like grandparents but only 6 percent of households are prepared to have grandparents living with grandchildren. You say you love your grandchildren, but you have the slogan 24/7 dedication to workplace at the expense of your family. Now add to that your propensity to perpetuate an economic model that depends upon the natural resources of the Earth in a way that most scientists would now say is threatening the very foundations of life on that Earth. You'd certainly say we are many wondrous things, but the paragon of humanity's potential we most certainly are not. And these other cultures aren't failed attempts at being us, they're unique answers to the challenge of being alive.
1:59:48 interruption, audio problem.
1:59:52 AC-Let me just ask this. We saw these miners laboring under just horrific conditions for practically no money. I mean this is just an amazing system, but it certainly doesn't operate on any kind of principles of I'm gonna work for this much money and that kind of return that we would recognize. Are there cultural practices that perhaps should go extinct, that are not worth preserving, you know, slavery, genital mutilation, all these kinds of things that are cultural practices that it's hard to say okay that's their cultural tradition, I'm for it.
2:00:35 WD-That's an excellent question because anthropologists are often accused of embracing an extreme relativism as if any cultural practice can be rationalized. As if you could rationalize the heinous acts of Nazism for example, because after all they had an ideology, they had an ethnicity, they had a language. No anthropologist calls for the elimination of judgment. What anthropology is the suspension of judgment so that the judgments we're obliged to make can be informed ones. Now in the case of this particular mine it is not a pleasant place to be. Not in the heat of May, in the heat of April. And clearly the economic exchange mechanism is very distinct. There are various ways that the flow of money and wealth goes through this mine. The conditions in many ways are horrific. But in other ways we have to be careful not to judge those ways until we fully understand them. And it's also useful to recall, you know, the plight of a coal miner in West Virginia is not necessarily pleasant and there are factories throughout America where the economic apparatus of exchange is not necessarily ideal. In other words something's going on in this mind. And no one in anthropology and certainly no one at the National Geographic on our team is trying to suggest that all cultural practices are sweet. On the contrary they're rough, they're mean, they're tough, they're challenging. And sometimes they're sublime. What I'm interested in is less the practices of this mine, a mine that has been worked for 8 centuries, practices that may seem tough to us, did not in my eyes seem particularly worse than the way that many people around the world, for better or worse, are obliged to make their living. I am interested in the symbolism of the salt. How it is that the scarcity of this resource keeps the trade alive. I am interested in the mechanism of transport which allowed for this knowledge of the Sahara to be realized and practiced in day to day life with this particular commodity. You know, I'm not trying to say that the life of a miner in Taoudenni is a life that I would seek for myself or for my children, on the other hand there are many places around the world where their economic activities are of a nature that I would try to flee from. So I think we have to be a little careful on casting judgment on the practices of the mine here. I mean I came to the mine for example fully expecting it to be a far more bleak place. You know I came expecting to see evidence of indentured labor, although we did certainly find that. I mean we interviewed a man, you know, I mean it's a useful lesson in fact to. We met with one man who actually astonished his entire community by staying out here for not only for 6 months of the season when the mine is worked by a number of people, but he actually stayed on alone. He's the only person in the history of the mines to have done so, through an impossibly hot summer, till the people returned. And during that time his daily round was Biblical. He got up with the sun, he marched two and a half hours through the desert to a well, he sat alone at that well, drinking from it, gathering his water only to return at sunset, perhaps to chip away at a bit of salt the following day. Was this some kind of romantic gesture, was it some kind of spiritual quest? Quite to the contrary. It was because he had found himself in debt. He was an indentured laborer and it was shame alone that kept him at that mine, shame alone that kept him from facing his family. And you can only imagine what kind of burden that had placed upon him that would rationalize that kind of feat of actually staying out in this hell of a desert during this six months of the hottest time of the year. I mean no one's saying the ethnosphere is pretty. I mean, you know what I mean? It's like New Guinea. It doesn't have to be nice to be wonderful.
2:05:14 AC-It doesn't have to be nice to be wonderful?
2:05:17 WD-I mean, ya, I mean you know, it's sort of like Ayahuasca, Ayahuasca's many things, but pleasant isn't one of them.
AC-This is the drug in South America?
WD-Ya I mean, you know the Amazon I'm always intrigued. I spent three years living in the Amazon and I always went there despite myself and I was always felt there was an inverse relationship between how much North Americans said they love the Amazon and how much time they'd actually spent there. I always felt like a crystal of sugar on the tongue of a beast impatiently awaiting disillusion and yet I was drawn there because of the genius of the people and their adaptation. And there's no better example of that than their preparation of Ayahuasca, the vision vine, the vine of the soul. Now this of course is a very powerfully psychoactive plant. Now that isn't what makes it so interesting, what makes it so fascinating is the nature of its elaboration. Here you have an a flora of 80,000 species of plants that from which the Native Americans have found that have this incredible capacity. One of them is a vine, or a liana, called Banisteriopsis caapi. It has a series of beta-carbolines in it called harmine and harmoline, that alone are mildly psychoactive. They create hues of blues and purples, like the slow moving of the sky. Then there's another shrub called Psychotria viridis from the coffee family, which has in it a series of very psychoactive compounds in it which are known as Tryptomines, 5-Methoxy-dimethyltryptamine, Dimethyltryptomine (DMT), these are powerfully psycho-active agents. But critically they're orally inactive. They cannot be taken by mouth because they are naturally denatured by an enzyme, Monoamine oxidase, found in the human gut. They can only be potent if taken in conjunction with some other drug that neutralizes the¿(cuts off, end of tape)