Saturday, February 20, 2016

Part I of... Something

I am at the moment in Hawaii, on holiday. On these things one has the chance now and then to learn a little about the indigenous cultures in 30 minute slices suitable for white people. So I learned a few things, and put them together with a few things I know, and here I am.

This is true: by being attentive to the size and character of ocean waves, and their direction relative to the wind, you can deduce an enormous amount about weather conditions in your area of the ocean, say, the million square miles around you. If you know the approximate date and make a rough estimate of the height of the sun throughout the midday, you can know your latitude fairly accurately. And so on. Bernard Moitessier, who employed a curious mixture of ancient and modern navigational technique, writes about this in The Long Way.

I have no idea what kind of model of the world the ancient Polynesian navigators used. I do know that they integrated close, continuous observation of the ocean, the sky, and the environment, and as a result pretty much knew where they were and what was likely to happen. They more or less routinely sailed absurdly tiny boats over thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean (which spends quite a lot of energy trying to kill boats) and got, generally, to the places they intended to reach. It wasn't safe, but it's still not safe with all our GPS and weather satellites and whatnot.

Consider a young woman on the bridge of a USN destroyer. She navigates with a variety of electronic instruments, but has no detailed notion of the character of the waves. They're 100 feet or more from where she's working, and they don't matter much to her navigational labors. She too can bring her ship home to Hawaii as a matter of routine.

The modern navigator uses a basket of specialized skills, none of which are particularly connected to the life and culture of her people. The ancient navigator used a basket of specialized skills that were an outgrowth of the total knowledge of his people's culture. Knowledge of the sea, the weather, the environment, was intimately tied to the daily life of his people, the way the got their food, how and what they worshipped, and so on.

The destroyer's voyage exists in a bubble, utterly separate and usually secret from the people. The Polynesian's voyage on the same path is literally woven from, and then back in to, the life and history of his people. His voyage has cultural weight and meaning.

Arguably, the bridge officer and the Polynesian are equally ignorant. Neither has the slightest conception of the other's world view and methods. While the bridge officer's world view is more accurate in a modern scientific sense, it serves her not particularly better than the ancient's served him, and in important ways it serves her less well.

There are similar stories to be told about much of the knowledge of indigenous peoples. No, they were not mysterious supermen with magic. There were just people, with world views laughably wrong by modern standards. Their ideas do not stand up to modern scientific methods. And yet, these ideas served then pretty well. Not well enough to allow them to exploit or destroy whichever invaders ultimately exploited or destroyed them, but well enough to live for thousands of years, sometimes, without completely screwing up their corner of the world. That's something we're having a spot of difficulty with, even with all our wonderfully accurate knowledge of everything.

There's a couple trains of thought that lead out from here and bring us back around to photography. Stay tuned.


  1. I highly recommend 'East is a Big Bird.'

  2. Well, I'd argue that in fact the "modern navigator"'s skills are indeed "intimately connected to the life and culture of her people", and, additionally, are "an outgrowth of the total knowledge of [her] people's culture", or where else did they come from? Even if the destroyer's mission is a secret one, every crew member is on a voyage "woven from, and then back into, the life and history of their people", and so their voyage too "has cultural weight and meaning."

    I think I see the distinction that you're trying to make, but I don't see that you've actually revealed any real differences at all.

    1. Of course all are welcome to their points if view, but destroyer operations have very little to do with my personal experience each day in feeding my family.

      You could talk about modern farming and its use of GPS controlled tractors, the use of satellite weather for both farming and shipping of food, and so on, but that's quite a large remove from my day to day reality.

      So, while it's all connected, I think it is important or at any rate interesting to distinguish between personal connections and the other thing. It is inherent in economies at scale that a great deal happens many steps removed, which is a difference, and use the specific difference I'm interested in here.

  3. Good start. I look forward to learning where you take this.

  4. sooo… on a slight tangent, compare the latest voyages of Hokule'a and the balsa-wood drifters.
    Nainoa, I do believe that you win this round of the ongoing discussion re Polynesian methods of crossing the Pacific yah.