Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The End of the Wilderness: Implications for Cryptozoology and other parts of the Paradigm

In a memorable scene of the film The Truman Show, a young Truman (an unwitting captive in an artificial world designed as a secret television studio) declares in his grad school classroom that he wants to be an explorer when he grows up. His teacher, or rather an actor employed as his teacher, immediately tells Truman that everywhere has been explored, there is nothing left to discover. This is one of many ploys employed to limit Truman's interest in the outside world. It is also, of course, to help establish Truman's character as someone willing to explore the unknown and escape the confines of his reality.

But, it is also largely true. It's not true of course. There are plenty of mysteries, plenty of new discoveries made daily. I've been in archaeology for about fifteen years now, and while some basic elements haven't changed much, so much has been refined by new discoveries, and some things have just come out of the blue. Other field sciences continue to find new fossil species, new evidence for past climate, or perhaps a crater from the still-mysterious Tunguska blast. New scientific discoveries in turn lead to new paradigm shifts, such as increasing evidence that while geneticists continue to get greater control over their subject material, greater questions emerge that may undermine the entire notion of gene theory (see also this press release on other genetic re-thinking).

But in the traditional sense, the wilderness is nearly gone. By next year, half the world's population will live in cities. The reciprocal point is that with so many people, and urbanism sprawling ever farther along rail and road lines, wilderness has vanished. A recent review in Science magazine emphasizes we have to stop thinking about pristine wilderness, and understand that in one form or another, humans have domesticated and constructed the planet. Twelve years ago, only 17% of the globe could be considered pristine wilderness, without settlement, farms, access roads, and the like. That percentage has to be smaller today. This isn't even considering the element of being pristine, not being unexplored, let alone surveilled by satellites and airplanes to the point that anyone can get a free, detailed, updating 3d map of the world from one of several sources (I use Google Earth, but I've heard good things about some of the other similar programs).

I've never visited true wilderness from that definition. Sure, I've trampled through forest and brush in Mexico and Guatemala that looked impressive, that at points required a machete to continue. But I've done the same thing half-a-mile from a Walmart in Louisiana, or in National Park land in Mississippi. In all of those cases, I was either in parkland, or in areas farmers knew well enough because they either farmed them at points (and then let them grow back) or travelled through these areas to their farmland.

I have colleagues who do work in something closer to wilderness. An ex-girlfriend of mine used to hike a day's journey or more into the Maya Mountains, up steep rockfaces with the danger of killer bees and deadly fer-de-lance. They'd stay for three weeks, getting some logistical support from helicopters in the British military, before walking back out again. Even here, though, this wilderness had once been farmland (though farther in the past, during the Classic period of the Maya whose settlemets and tombs the archaeologists were studying), and the work was being done within a jaguar preserve that had been surveyed by the project in order to find the ruins. Another of my colleagues, who did survey in some of the wildest parts of Central America, worked in the "wilderness" too. Of course, this wilderness was one where he was accompanied by the locals, and there was concern of being ambushed by bandits and kidnappers out in the bush, and not without cause as this is exactly what happened on one trip. That colleague was convinced that we should do no further archaeology in parkland at known sites, but instead should focus on the frontiers, because that is where unknown sites will be found, if not by archaeologists, then by looters.

But therein again lies the point. Looters are a human issue, and they go hand-in-hand with local settlements where the looters live (the buyers and middlemen may be international or from the city, but despite what the movies might have you think, tomb raiders are typically poor locals looking for a way to make money). That these are issues of human interaction and conflict, and the relationship between humans and their environment, including cultural resources in the case of archaeology.

But so much of the Spooky Paradigm is based on the notion of exploration. The word and the concept appear time and again in discussion and advertising of the subject. In some cases, this is referring to mental or spiritual or metaphysical exploration. But in other cases, it doesn't mean that at all, and is very much in the realm of physical exploration.

Cryptozoology is the most obvious example, as the entire concept is based around undiscovered animals living where they are mostly undetected by science. The Center for Fortean Zoology expedition to Gambia in 2006 is a great example of this (you can see a film on the expedition, or look through the expedition's blog and background), an expedition to the Dark Continent to look for dinosaur-like creatures based on native accounts. It could be right out of an adventure story a century ago. An entertainment-oriented simalcrum of cryptozoology has been airing on the SciFi Channel, called Destination Truth. I think it is telling that all of the episodes, even though dealing with creatures (such as a Bigfoot-like hominid, chupacabra, a haunting, a lake monster, a werewolf, and something akin to a gremlin) in most cases reported and more famous elsewhere, are centered around "remote" areas in former colonial lands, in the Southern Hemisphere, and also very much presented in relationship to "exotic" local beliefs and cultures.

Even in the Northern Hemisphere, the wilderness argument is evoked to explain how Sasquatch, for example, could continue to elude capture (alive or dead). This has led to some acronomious debate in the Bigfoot community, for example, between those who open to Bigfoot reports in any part of the continent, regardless of the terrain or proximity to urban areas, and those who think Sasquatch exists in the rugged forests of the Northwest, but scoff at reports from the outskirts of suburbia east of the Mississippi. One obvious point, and one not thought up by myself, is that by definition sightings and evidence of cryptids are reported by people, and not always people in the absolute middle of nowhere.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying big animals are not found in relatively remote places, or that there is no wilderness left at all (there still is some, even if it is only 10-15% of the planet, that's still a lot of ground). In November of last year, I blogged about a paper presented on this topic concerning the "Lost World" of Vietnam. For years, there have been reports of spectacular new animal discoveries in the post-Cold War forests of Vietnam. Some are questionable, but many are clearly legitimate and extraordinary. But Dr. McElwee's point was that these aren't lost worlds, they are quite inhabited, and "discovery" is a relative matter creating a false notion of pristine wilderness where people (just not European settlers) have lived for quite some time. She focused on the hominid searchers in this "Lost World" as being a symptom of a larger lingering colonial mentality, with dangers for it being replicated at the local state level and looking at such "Lost World's" as places to be exploited since they are "empty."

What I am getting at is not that there isn't wilderness, but that rather these stories of strange and unexplained phenomena are not those of the mysteries of the frontier and wilderness, but rather they are evidence of mystery being in our domesticated world. Bigfoot may be a wild man of the wilderness, but so many sightings are made along roads, on farms and private land, and other places that may not be in a metropolitan area, but that are also not in the deepest and darkest mountain caves and thickest forest. Aquatic monster sightings don't come from submarines in the darkest depths of the seas, or in the center of oceans far from land. They come from lakes, often large well-visited lakes in heavily populated areas. UFOs are supposed to be, in the majority opinion, from outer space. And indeed, there is a branch of ufology that is interested in video from the space shuttle or other views of orbit or the Moon. But the true natural habitat of the UFO is slowly moving over suburban housing developments, along the ridges and valleys of ranches, or even over major cities. Pilot sightings might be considered an exception to this. And while spooky old hospitals and insane asylums or old cemeteries are common haunts for ghost hunting teams, so many spectral stories come from inhabited (and not even necessarily that old) private homes or businesses.

Just as the Science review suggests a new paradigm for conservation, one focused on managing a domesticated world, the Spooky Paradigm is not one of monsters on the edges of the known world, but of strange things happening in mundane places, of mystery intruding on everyday life. Not in far away places with exotic names for creatures never seen by civilized man, because at this point, everywhere is civilized in the basic sense of the word. This isn't just a matter of form or style, but directly effects the frames used for understanding these mysteries. Lisa Shiel , as she discusses in a recent interview on Binnall of America, has been writing about her claims of communication and interaction with Bigfoot creatures that braid horse hair, leave stick signs, and have other ways of interacting with humans. I find these concepts to be, to say the least, bizarre and difficult to believe. But I have to admit, I could see how one could argue that an intelligent Bigfoot, one able to interact with humans, would presumably have a better shot at living in closer proximity to human settlements and evading detection than say a non-human-intelligencelevel giant ape like Gigantopithecus. This is a similar dilemma to the question of time in ufology. If UFOs have been seen on Earth for thousands of years, some of the assumptions about visiting space aliens, especially the notion that they were attracted by the a-bomb and other recent technological development, start to give way to ideas about a permanent presence by UFOs on the Earth, either as indigenous cryptoterrestrials or as ultraterrestrials or some other kind of thing from another dimension.

The world hasn't been all explored, like Truman's teacher said. We explored it, an found that it held even more mysteries than initially thought possible.

No comments: