Early this week, while highlighting Allan Savory, I noted his appearance on the new PBS series Earth: A New Wild. There was another episode of the series this past Wednesday, entitled Forests, that included a visit to the Huaorani in the Amazonian Rainforest.
What struck me about the segment was how little the westerners even attempted to fit into the environment.
Think about it. You’re about to visit a remote tribe in the Amazonian jungle, where it is continuously hot and humid. What kind of clothing would you bring to wear?
Well, if you are a barefooter, it’s certainly not shoes. But might you not go even farther?
Not if you are the host of the show. It’s what I call “the western assumption”: just keep doing things the western way, regardless of whether they truly make sense or not. The western way seems to be based on isolation from nature, not immersion into it.
Even when visiting an incredibly natural location, the default is to put as many barriers between the western person and the nature as possible.
We see that start right when the host arrives at the Huaorani village. Hi guide is Ryan Killackey, also known as “Yasuni Man”, a film-maker who has done a lot of work in the area.
Look at their respective footwear.
Ryan jumps out of the boat barefoot. But our host, M. Sanjayan, is not only shod, he has on monster rubber boots.
M. Sanjayan is a conservation scientist, but he has managed to separate himself from exactly what he is interested in conserving. Even more interesting, he was born in Sri Lanka, and lived there for 6 years before moving Sierra Leone. Neither of those places is particularly western. He probably grew up going barefoot a lot. But from college on, he was here in the United States, and obviously absorbed that pretty well.
Contrast that with what the Huaorani are wearing (or not wearing, I should say). Here are Ryan and Sanjayan as they go to meet them.
The natives are dressed for the weather. They know their environment, intimately. We are told that it is exceptionally hot and wet. Is it arrogant (and maybe a bit stupid) of the westerners not to dress at least somewhat similarly?
Later, Ryan and Sanjayan are accompanying some Huaorani through the forest. At that point, even Ryan abandons his bare feet for large rubber boots. Nice isolation, guys!
Seriously, what a contrast. And which of those 4 men look like they belong there, and which look horribly out of place
Clearly, the Huaorani can negotiate the jungle and the rocks and the branches and the streams quite well in their bare feet. That’s what bare feet do. The show even has a subtle hint to this, with a close-up of a native footfall.
But could a westerner emulate that? I guess not.
Even later, Sanjayan is accompanying the Huaorani along a jungle trail. He makes a comment about how hard it is to keep up with them. Well, you know, that’s what bare feet in a jungle (or elsewhere!) do so well.
It’s also a rainy day, so here’s what we are shown.
The Huaorani are naked and quite comfortable. Sanjayan has on a waterproof jacket over his regular clothing. He just has to be roasting in there (and imagine the soup inside his boots).
What would be wrong with just letting his skin handle things. It’s warm enough that a little water won’t be uncomfortable—the Huaorani are proving that.
But the Western Assumption is that our way is always better; it’s really, really hard to mentally break out of that mold. (And of course, that also applies to all the people who go out wearing shoes every day when they really aren’t necessary.) We have some technology, so we must use it.
Another part of the segment also mentions the giant earthworks that have been found in the Amazon jungle. I first read about these in Charles Mann’s 1491. They are also interesting to me because we have similar earthworks around here, of a similar age, which I’ve blogged about.
Back to the Huaorani, while we see that they are dressed quite appropriately for the weather, the Western Assumption is that there is something inherently wrong with nudity. Heck, they started the show with warning that it showed “Tribal Nudity” (in case it might make your eyes explode).
But then “tribal nudity” is okay to broadcast; would they even consider western nudity (like, let’s say, on a French or Caribbean beach)?
If you ask westerners about nudity, what you’ll often get is a comment like this:
I really don’t want to see a bunch of ugly, naked people walking around everywhere. Puke!
Yet, I bet that wasn’t the thought on seeing the Huaorani, who are a bunch of naked people walking around everywhere. They just looked normal.
Why? Because we expected it. But the Western Assumption is that people (well “civilized” people) have to always wear clothing. If it were the norm for us to go naked when the weather allowed, we simply wouldn’t see it as “ugly, naked”. We’d recognize the bodies for what they are: human, with different shapes and sizes and ages. It’s just a question of what we are used to seeing.
I’d also note that the Western Assumption is also that people (well “civilized” people) always wear shoes. And that bare feet are “ugly, naked”. But again, it’s just that we all are not used to seeing them in a western context, that’s all. Again, it’s just a question of what we are used to seeing.
Near the end of the segment on the Huaorani, we see them outside their dwelling.
Now who looks out of place? They’re catching our Western Assumption. It starts to become part of their norm to wear shorts even when they are unnecessary. They see enough westerners and shorts start to look “normal”, even though they were perfectly OK the way they looked before.
It may be the Western Assumption.
But it is only an assumption; too bad it has become a presumption.
[If you missed the show, you can see it on the PBS site, here. From outside the U.S., try to find a proxy service that will let you peek inside.]