A December trip to the Amazon rainforest showed us more than inch-long stinging ants and entire pharmacies masquerading as leaves. It led us to a culture that was backward in all kinds of ways except the one we expected. And each step we took into this great tangle of trees and humanity seemed to reveal an unexpected path home.
The villages we found on our trek were throwbacks to a lost age. Yet despite their outwardly meager appearances, they held wealth. Where the things that really matter are concerned, these were rich people indeed, families and neighbors freed from the desire to consume and living with the spoils of less hurried days.
Strangely, Sebastian, our host at the eco-lodge, explained that the people in the few scattered towns on the edge of the jungle are deeply afraid of the forest and generally refuse to venture there. This is the jungle's great irony. Those in town have been ensnared by the civilization they're afraid to leave. They're stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty and artificial want, while the rainforest denizens they distrust seem to have eluded the traps that modern culture lays.
In many ways, they've preserved the hunter-gatherer society that the essential essay collection, Limited Wants, Unlimited Means, tells us has been humanity's preferred operating system for 99% of its time on Earth. They're stuck in the past but their example may point the way to a better future of the "new tribalism" outlined in Daniel Quinn's Beyond Civilization, which suggests that we can make commodities like time and community our most prized possessions without resorting to living in caves. (This would be good because after visiting places where you can't drink the water or flush the toilet tissue, I've found a new appreciation for some of modernity's happy extras.)
On the long ride home, I wondered how to head for a place where maybe you didn't need a constant cash flow to keep life going but instead had more of what money can't buy. Here's how I thought I might get started:
- Turn off the cell phone, ignore e-mail, and don't boot up the browser. Maybe it's a weekend thing or an evening rule. Whatever it takes to loosen technology's grip and reduce the ever-accelerating desire it creates for more, better, faster.
- Take frequent inventories. What do I have, what do I truly need, and what spending can really be skipped? Every time I pull out my wallet, I'm going to see if something I already have -- from a library card to a patched shirt -- can be substituted instead.
- Start frequently inviting people over for potlucks and conversation. Make evenings a time to mingle even if it's only a few hours. Build community by sponsoring it myself.
- Reduce my infrastructure. Maybe it means letting part of my lawn go wild so I don't need a rider mower. Or selling the van I rarely use. Closing off the spare bedroom or finding space to line dry laundry. I'm not yet sure, but if I have less infrastructure, I'll spend less maintaining it.
- Slow down and seek the pleasures waiting in smaller things much closer to home. Shrink my world a bit so that I can create time by spending less of it chasing things farther afield. It takes hours to be elsewhere and those are hours I want back.
These are my lessons from the rainforest. Time will tell if they'll survive the trip back to Vermont. But I'm hoping there's a way to put at least a little jungle in every day.