It hardly bears mentioning that there’s an appeal to wild, undiluted freedom. In our American culture, we remain fascinated with the idea (however often romanticized/over-simplified) of the American Indian. The “noble savage” of countless Western films and symbol of cultures we tragically destroyed, our idea of the Plains Indian has survived 100 years of forgetful history and even the modern attempt of many indigenous people to assert their real identity and cultural heritage (“Indian” represents a wide range of cultures and customs, after all, most of whom had very little in common with war-bonneted Cheyenne-style horseman many of us imagine). Even as I write these words, I can see on the wall of this coffee-house/brewpub a large, modern, strikingly bold painting of a Plains chief head in profile, massive feathered headdress on display. On our way here, we passed a dealership of the resurgent Indian brand of motorcycles. The settled, industrial agriculture that feeds the fat, bearded biker was what annihilated the Plains tribes, but that doesn’t stop his unconscious desire to connect with that ‘free spirit.’
The Plains tribes, for the most part, did indeed live without boundaries, following buffalo herds to where the hunting was best, and living in a hard, minimalist fashion when compared with today’s American popular culture. The rules by which they lived can be easy to ignore/forget. I remember when I first began to explore history as an adolescent, being drawn in a similar way to the Germanic peoples on the fringes of the Roman Empire. It was easy to cast their conflict with Rome in the same way we often imagine the conflict with the Plains Indians: arrogant, settled, impersonal monoculture butting up against untrammeled individual liberty.
I can still recall my illustrated kid’s book article on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, in which Germanic tribesmen, completely out-trained, out-supplied, and out-equipped, managed to trick and catch a large Roman army in an ambush deep in the German woods in A.D. 9. The entire Roman force was destroyed. I read it over and over, and loved the artistic renderings of the people. The Romans, cold arrogance etched into every officer’s face, surprised and afraid in the wild, and the Germans, all long hair, tall bodies, and huge swords, rushing out from the trees, crazy beards in full glory. Don’t most of us react in similar fashion to Custer’s great comeuppance at Little Big Horn? Something in us surges up when we see “civilization” stalled, even for a moment, in its “inexorable” advance. I am reminded of Aldo Leopold’s lament for the wild wolf, nearly extinct in America during his time of writing, and of how it pairs with George Carlin’s riff on American ranching. “I’ll take a wolf over some fucking jerkoff rancher any day of the week. Individualism gives way to sheep-like behavior. Sound familiar?”
There it is. What price have we paid in our transition from the wild life to the “settled” one? Have we not given over our proud wolf pelts for the dumb, herd-like fleece of the sheep? Is this what the biker (forgive the pun) sheepishly acknowledges when he answers the call to get out on the road, come what may? I have to drive seven hours even from my residence in Texas to see the glory of Big Bend National Park and take in (with relief) the immensity of it, the un-ordered riot of its colors, rock-faces, mountains, and winding streams, not to mention the welcome break in the omnipresent hum of “civilized” human noise: engines, tires on the roadway, barking dogs, and banging around.
Of course, my appreciation for the majesty of the high desert mountains is greatly enhanced by the kind of reflection my education has trained me to make. I can recall the recorded thoughts of my favorite writers on Nature, the sounds of music made that perfectly capture the atmosphere of a location like Big Bend, the stories from history and geology that amaze me the more for being true, and the general enjoyment of the kind of deep thinking over time that is best enjoyed when one isn’t worrying about day-to-day survival. Indeed, where are the great histories and other recorded thoughts and efforts of the Comanche, who held Texas for so long in unfettered, hunting and gathering freedom? What about those Cherusci Germans who ensnared the great army of Varus at Teutoburg? The Celts and Visigoths who famously sacked Rome, seven hundred years apart from each other? We will never know, because they were illiterate.
You might even say ‘anti-literate.’ When we read of Rome’s fall, it is now the norm to focus on Rome’s decadence: the corruption and in-fighting of its military, the debasing of its coinage, the venality of its emperors, the lead in its plumbing, the degeneracy of a populace that would rather have had barbarian mercenaries do their fighting for them than enlist in the once-proud Roman legions. Roman ‘civilization’ deserved every bit of its implosion. But it is taken for granted to the point of forgetfulness that someone had to burn the libraries, the vaults, the great cultural centers, and the law-books, reducing Europe to what we have known for a long time as the “Dark Ages.” Romans themselves, or at least people who imagined themselves as Roman, did not do these things. The great waves of Germanic and Central Asian tribes, for whom rape, murder, and burning were matters of fun and general pursuit in ‘raiding’ for plunder, put the torch to these things.
I can hear it now: “But the Romans raped, massacred, and burned as much as anybody!” Yes. Roman ‘punitive’ expeditions were as brutal and total as any tribal raid, and sometimes more so for being systematic and planned. I don’t mean to culturally whitewash or excuse it, but the Roman enterprise, for all its many flaws, left a rich cultural legacy on which much of what we think of as “Western Civilization” was built, and we are lucky to have what scraps remain that escaped those fires. I was shocked to learn as a college student that most of what we have from our entire history pre-A.D. 1000 survives as single fragments of copies of original manuscripts. If not for those lucky fragments, the Renaissance and much of what came after (that built the “modern” world as we know it) would have been lost forever.
Mathematics, art, architecture, engineering, strategy, communication, language: Rome cherished and preserved these things in a way that would have been impossible for the Cherusci or the Comanche to understand. These things confer enormous, incalculable benefits of which the Romans were well aware. The metaphor of the dumb, passive herd, easily fleeced, suddenly seems less appropriate. There are feats achieved by the human mind and hand in these things that rival (in their own way) the awe I feel when I absorb the grandeur of the natural world. Caesar, one of history’s luckiest and most overrated scumbags, famously subjugated Celtic Gaul (what is now modern France), employing what we would inarguably call genocide. It is estimated that over one million Celts were slaughtered, and their traditional culture nearly obliterated. In its place eventually rose Roman Gaul. We admire and respect the bravery of the individual Celtic warrior: the demonic, spiked hair, fearlessness in the face of death, incredible physique, and maker of his own law. Would we trade the aqueduct, university, community, and culture we owe to Rome for his indiscriminate raping and murdering?
Could sheep have built Trajan’s Column? A massive stone spike, made to commemorate the Roman Emperor’s final victory over the raiding Dacians in the early second century, the Column is covered with a winding, painstakingly detailed relief, climbing around and up it, depicting the campaign against the Dacians and its various aspects. The benefits of “civilization” as we know it are hinted at: sophisticated siege equipment taking walled towns, the Roman legionaries, in their cutting-edge armor, marching in perfect order, helping each other with field first aid on wounds, and taking part in the construction of bridges and pontoons. The Column itself, finely crafted and towering over its surroundings, is a metaphor for the combined achievements of the “civilized” world—an impressive feat of art and building at once. Fortunately for us, it still stands. The same can’t be said for the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient world. The rampaging Goths burned it almost as an afterthought.
“Civilization” as we know it brings many problems. Quite apart from the suppression of cultural diversity and individual spirit that can come with it, I have long considered state-sponsored terrorism, in which all great powers have indulged, to be the greatest threat to world security. “Civilization” can be degenerate, and a banal cultural wasteland separated from our greatest heritage: the connections with all life on earth that made us what we were in the many tens of thousands of years before settled agriculture. There is a reason we feel the deepest awe for the wild places, after all. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see far more than cold, impersonal arrogance in the lines of those Roman legionaries or, if you prefer, the tracks of the American railroad into the Old West. Comanche women toiled all day on back-breaking, menial tasks, little more than living property of the men who swept down upon Texas ranches to commit the worst kinds of atrocities. Would we wish that for our daughters? Or would we rather they have the imperfect world we have to present? When I look at civilization, I see a deep vault of memory, team-work, and achievement in law, arts, and sciences we would do well to keep in mind, and to honor, however much we might admire the idea of the “Indian.” If it were to disappear, what then?