Nostalgic for the Pleistocene


    photo courtesy Florence Shepard

"We are space-needing, wild-country Pleistocene beings, trapped in overdense numbers in devastated, simplified ecosystems."

- Paul Shepard (1925-1996)

How's this for a statement of opinion: In this century and a whole lot of others, no other thinker has been anywhere near so visionary, prophetic, revolutionary and important as Paul Shepard.

Yet, if you know about Paul Shepard - about the man, his vision, and his books - you're a member of an anomalous minority.

Shepard, who died in 1996, has been lauded by Earth First! cofounder Dave Foreman, Wildlands Project president Michael Soulé, musician Paul Winter and anthropologist Richard Nelson.

Given such high-ranking respect, it's curious that so few of us are familiar with Shepard and his work. Through a publishing career spanning four decades, none of Shepard's earthshaking books ever gained more than "underground classic" status. Why?

Because, as writer Jack Turner points out, "Shepard's books are formidably intellectual (and) devoid of nods to popularization." Since popularization sells and formidable intellectualism does not, underground you go, dear professor.

Certainly, Shepard helped to dig himself this hole of public anonymity. He seems to have worked overtime to be dense and difficult. In addition to the wide range and complexity of his material, Shepard's style is ornate and stingy with punctuation, further complicated by his love of undefined scientific terms.

So only the serious need apply. And this is a crying shame, since his message deserves the largest possible audience.

But perhaps I'm overstating his difficulty. I'm no academic, the only credentials behind my name being BS and SoB. And as an intellectual, I'm a dilettante at best. Yet I not only read Shepard, but comprehend him. In fact, I've become addicted to this genial genius and the down-to-Earth good news of human ecology that he pioneered and professed.

In a nutshell, human ecology is the study of human nature and human needs as formed by our evolution alongside wild animals. It's called the "subversive science" by disciples as well as detractors because it attacks all the hallowed political, philosophical, religious and - most heretical! - economic underpinnings of the walled-in world view we call civilization.

Human ecology is no one-act play. Thus, it's appropriate that Shepard - writing for posterity, not celebrity - makes no bows to simplification, much less to popularization. Open any Shepard book to any page and you'll soon enough encounter his Abbeyish "subversiveness," his formidable intellectualism and his playful love of artful prose.

"Vegetarianism, like creationism, reinvents human biology to suit an ideology. There is no phylogenetic felicity in it."

"A stoic numbness and lack of imagination are inseparable from religious faith."

"(So-called "bad" animals) are clearly our unconscious proxies for something else. Spiders are a good example - as though they were invented to remind us of something we want to forget, but cannot remember either."

You said it, professor.

For Paul Shepard - Missouri country boy, WW II combat veteran, Yale Ph.D., falconer, fly fisher and adventurer - the font of our contemporary malaise, which he terms "a deep cultural pathology," is our failure to live well.

For Shepard, living well means following our evolutionary design. Just as birds evolved to fly, and fish were sculpted by natural selection to swim, we Homo saps have, written in our genes, a map to good living. In order to find our way out of the maze of cultural pathology that's baffling us and killing the natural world, says Shepard, we need to consult this map.

"The past," Shepard summarizes, "having shaped our species, holds the clues to normal function."

Having read all of Paul Shepard's books, some twice and more, I feel safe in asserting that the most accessible and compelling introduction to the scientific scriptures of human ecology is Coming Home to the Pleistocene, published by Island Press. This collection of nine fast-paced and lively scholarly essays provides an overview of the author's life work.

There's little new in Coming Home: the same themes are discussed in far greater detail in the body of Shepard's previous published work. But here, the meat of human ecology is served up in a refreshingly digestible form. For this we can thank Shepard's live-in editor, Florence Krall Shepard, author of Ecotones.

As Flo Shepard is the first to assert, this is Paul's book, not hers. In the preface, she tells us that her husband of 10 years worked passionately on Coming Home right to the end, completing final revisions and writing the introduction just two weeks before his death from lung cancer. Irony: He never smoked.

Once we were hunters

Before our shotgun transition from nomadic foraging to a sedentary agricultural life, wild animals and wild plants thriving in wild environments were our world.

What began with the scavenging of meat scraps and bone marrow, Shepard says, evolved into the pursuit of increasingly challenging prey, culminating during the 1.6 million icy years of the Pleistocene epoch in carefully planned and coordinated team-pursuit of the biggest, smartest and most dangerous of game.

The hunt evolved in parallel with emerging humanity, providing at first only food, clothing and shelter, but later supplying intellectual, social, artistic and spiritual meat as well. Our forebears slouched toward full humanity over thousands of generations, slowly mounting an upward-spiraling intellectual staircase. Shepard, indulging his taste for clever double entendre, calls it the Sacred Game - that is, the prey is the sacred game and the hunt is the sacred game.

By doing what came naturally in a wholly natural world, our ancestors lived well, enjoying lives that were intellectually, socially, spiritually and physically rich.

Traditional hunter-gatherers lived in intimate, warmly supportive, extended-family clans averaging two dozen souls: the original and ultimate social security. No "noble savages" these, argues Shepard, but happy campers - strangers to homelessness, angst and the other fruits of progress.

Back in the Pleistocene, say Shepard and the long list of solid scholars whose work he sorts through, our ancestors earned good, honest and even easy livings from a bounty of wild plants and animals.

When we lived as we are meant to live, says Shepard, the critical psychological transitions in life's bumpy journey were celebrated by the entire community in nature-based rites of passage, fostering on-schedule maturity and a strong sense of responsibility, unity and place.

Today, increasingly devoid of such confirmation of maturation and connectedness, we are sinking into a social and psychological bog of immaturity, ever more frustrated and confused, ever less committed to our fellow humans and the natural world - and thus, to life itself.

Shepard connects our design for healthy, happy living to the pathological present. He notes that we can't expect slow old natural selection to have erased or even significantly altered millions of years of evolutionary design and practice in just 10,000 years of agriculture and half that of civilization.

In short, the human genome retains its full Pleistocene integrity. We need the wild to be fully human.

In the last chapter of his last book, Paul Shepard shares his hope for the future of humanity and the natural world that sustains us all:

"All around us, aspects of the modern world - diet, exercise, medicine, art, work, family, philosophy, economics, ecology, psychology - have begun a long circle back toward their former coherence. Whether they can arrive before the natural world is damaged beyond repair and madness destroys humanity, we cannot tell."

While I'm no optimist, Professor Shepard was, and I cautiously defer to him.

David Petersen is the author of several books on the natural world, including Elkheart: A Personal Tribute to Wapiti and Their World (Johnson Books, 1998). He lives in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.