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Poem / Human Nature

dear gretas

An anthropologist offers a letter-poem for the pandemic era to environmental activist Greta Thunberg—and to the rest of us—while reenvisioning our species as Humo ludens collaborans (humorous playful collaborators).
Humo ludens collaborans

Javier Zayas Photography/Getty Images

In my poem, I call up anarchs. Who are they?

Anarchs are us: born leaderless and classless—and born to groove. Our species, Humo ludens collaborans (humorous playful collaborators), evolved in egalitarian gathering bands over hundreds of thousands of years. “Civilization and progress” emerged just a few thousand years ago, and only in the past century are many people waking up to the dozens of crises that class society, division of labor, and layers of alienation have created.

People today are alienated in our consciousnesses, relationships, and actions. A way to transform this alienation lives in the best practices of participation—what I call for in my poem as “new songs and dances to save the world.”

“Participation,” as discussed by French philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and British philosopher Owen Barfield during the 20th century, opened paths and reclaimed healing processes for me both personally and professionally.

These thinkers sharpened the idea that humans could engage with their environments through mystical “participation”—a kind of connection that arises out of the perception that one lives in a collective, very interconnected way with other beings, including nonhuman animals and plants. As Barfield wrote, “The possibility of a new kind of participation—what we might call final participation—was glimpsed by the Romantics when they concluded that ‘we must no longer look for the nature-spirits—for the Goddess Natura—on the farther side of the appearances; we must look for them within ourselves.’”

When we join together through participation—claiming our own internal “nature-spirits” and collaborating with others—we create new ways of being and relating that can help usher in a healthier world.

In this poem, I also draw from the books of evolutionary epidemiologist Robert Wallace. He’s written extensively about diseases—works that connect facts with theories. Wallace’s most recent book, Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19, will open eyes and minds to all the vectors and variables that matter, “wet markets” and subsequent interspecies spillovers.

For the health of our species and the future of all, humanity can make better choices.

dear gretas

rainforests are not just the lungs of the planet
they are the brains of classless peoples who live there
if the eco-logics of these true anarchs were followed by all
we would have zero pandemics
& few epidemics or little outbreaks
x & y & z would be gifted in small circles
with preexisting immunities in many species

thanks to rob wallace Big Farms Make Big Flu
we know how each pandemic spills over into us
a capital expenditure for slicing into the rainforest
creates a monoculture and selects for bad bugs
creates a new interspecies interface
and off we go
spillage from village to village
to “wet markets”
and over to the nearest airport

a Global Organization of Democracies
a Women’s Forum for Peace & Ecoequilibrio
could stop the slicing up of habitats
promote the self-determination of forest peoples
reforest the plantations savannas and then the deserts
bring hope and passion to the oncoming generations

new songs and dances to save the world

charles keil

Charles Keil is a musician, cultural anthropologist, and activist who has published a large number of books, including Urban Blues, Tiv Song: The Sociology of Art in a Classless Society, Polka Happiness, Music Grooves (with Steven Feld), and Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia (with Dick Blau, Angeliki Vellou Keil, and Steven Feld). Born to Groove, previously published online, is coming out as a book in 2021, along with Polka Theory: Perspectives on the Will to Party. Keil is a professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His biography can be summed up in books that have prepared him for versifying and improvised musicking in service to our true species—Humo ludens collaborans. His 2020 book Easily Pleased features “dear gretas,” published by 12/8 Publications.


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