Oetzi

by Kenneth Miller on September 20, 2010

Like many people my age, I own lots of old equipment, and some new. Perhaps I might have more new gear if I had consumed less beer and bought fewer bottles of single-malt Scotch.

New pack, new parka, in time, in time … in time the moon bounces and rolls along the avenue at Callanais, north in the Orkneys, built 500 years before the Pyramids of Giza. The backpacks I’ve retired never seem to just melt away and disappear. When I die, I suppose I will have one each, of every size backpack ever made. Perhaps I will build a replica of Callanais with old backpacks. That’s the problem with buying good gear, it tends to get replaced with better ideas. That, and we tend to grow larger with passing years. I replace the worn gear, and the megalith of packs grows larger.

I still look at the new designs, wondering if the idea lives up to the advertising, by which I mean that I tend to approach life as a citizen, and not as a consumer. After all, 2008 showed us that the unrestrained market did not self-correct, which leads to a comparison between consumers and a cancerous growth, which also does not self-correct. Why keep looking?

We all see the catalogues, the websites and the constant chant of buy, buy, buy. I never really understood why we had so much interest in catalogues and websites until I came across a description of a shamanic ritual described by Mircea Eliade. At the beginning of the ritual, the shaman would list the equipment he planned to use. This sounded a little familiar. Who hasn’t been around a campfire when someone pulled out a bottle of whiskey and began describing where it came from and how it came into his possession, and, of course, how good it tastes? Imagine this happening for everything in use. The drum is not an inanimate object, but formed out of living beings. The wooden frame was formed out of birch trees, and these birch trees lived on the bank of a stream, and enjoyed the sun that always shines there. The drumhead was formed from a goatskin, and the goat’s life earned a full description. The same goes for the person who put the drum together; he or she gets a description of his or her life. At some point, something began to form in my addled skull, something that said this might as well show up as an entry in a catalogue, as the pattern of description matches those used in catalogues.

This still leaves us with a buy, buy, buy chant. Until we find Julian Jaynes’ description of consciousness. Although his description is complicated, it mostly relates to observing the rules outside your mind, and then using them to form ideas inside your mind. Using his description, we find that looking at catalogues for equipment we have used and understand becomes an exercising of our consciousness. With this background as a start point, the discovery of Oetzi the iceman gained an entire other set of meanings.

Someone killed Oetzi. Why he was killed produces academic argument; it promises to produce more. It doesn’t really matter for me. As he was dying, he leaned his unfinished bow against a rock, in a small depression, where it remained, undisturbed, for 5,300 years. Now there’s an argument for “where’s it going to go.” Oetzi’s backpack, or some wood that might be his backpack, interests me a lot, mostly because I have an older Osprey that matches the design, although the materials are different. Oetzi’s pack was built out of two blocks of what look like 1×6 ash boards, and a hazel arched hoop. If you were to take the arched hoop and tie it to the ash boards, you have the same pack frame used by Osprey. My Osprey uses a padded hip belt with an arched fiberglass hoop, which for the purpose of this essay is the same as Oetzi’s supposed pack.  This means I am concerned with the development of the design within their heads, and not the actual material evidence.

The boots found with him are close to my mukluks’ design. Cut a piece of bearskin a bit larger than your foot, place it fur side up, and sew other pieces of bearskin, fur side in, around your foot. Fill the boot with soft grasses, and then put your feet into net socks, and stick them into the boots. Tie the boots closed by stepping on a leather strap and pulling up the ends, threading the ends into the tops of the net socks, and then wrapping the ends around your legs and tying the ends together. My Steger mukluks are a leather foot, with a closed canvas top. Fill the modern mukluk with felt boot liners and extra-thick socks. Add traction with a painted-on rubber sole. The difference between the two occurs mostly in the materials available. Across 5,300 years and thousands of miles of distance, we still think the same way about some of the same problems in our lives.

Conventional knowledge tells us that Oetzi lacked development and was just a savage living in the mountains. Julian Jaynes observed just the opposite, stating that the areas of agricultural development and civilization produced a human brain that up to 2,000 years ago lacked a mid-brain. William Calvin, a neurobiologist with a pen, agreed with the observation of the behaviors, but disagreed with the physical development part. We solve this problem if the agricultural people attain consciousness somewhat recently, as Jaynes suggests, allowing a longer time-line for the northern people. Our ancestors tended to live in small groups in the midst of overwhelming landscapes. Imagine a pathfinder standing on a pass in a massive landscape, surrounded by chaos of everything, wondering, “How do I keep my people alive?” The answers they developed include a use of animals to interact with that which is all around, and a development of clever ideas to thrive in difficult weather. As hard as it seems today, we valued intelligence for its own sake. We watch the trees drop leaves or needles, knowing that they see us as short lived, and show little understanding of any life form but the cancerous cell. A ponderosa forest, with a 1,000-year life and a memory to match, watches as the teeming masses run by, screaming their battle cry of “just do it.” Pathfinders travel the wilderness of the mountains and their minds, observing and evaluating the equipment they wear or carry. When they can’t find a multi-national corporation that sells what they need, they sew it themselves, carrying on a tradition that we know goes back to at least to Oetzi, as he leans his bow against a rock, before he lays himself down to die. When he did not return, we also know the ritual the next pathfinder presided over. We retain the vestiges, and Eliade described the reasons behind the ritual. Our ancestors observed that death involved a loss of focus or concentration. A toast to the dead, therefore, pledges a search for the less-focused parts of the deceased, and then the escort of those parts in their final journey. Today, good whiskey replaces the more traditional amanita muscaria, probably to reduce the projectile vomiting.

We carry forward markers of our culture. We travel into the wilderness and stand in the center of something we do not control or influence. As we stand there, surrounded by all, all of our decisions influence the level of manipulation applied to that wild place. Our ancestors lived by killing deer that migrated through their territory. Manipulate the wild and the deer may not return, and all the people die. Kill all the deer that come into the valley, and next year the memory of sweet grass on the valley floor may not exist. In late summer, rains bring forth mushrooms, and the deer love mushrooms. Imagine a pathfinder and a couple of hunters stalking a deer herd, watching as the deer begin to eat the red mushrooms with white spots on their caps. Suddenly, 10,000 deer bolt in many different directions. Guess who gets to eat the red mushrooms with the white spots so they can find which way the deer went … yep, the pathfinder. If he fails, all his people starve in winter’s cold. The survival of our northern people has never looked certain, pushed into wastelands by the teeming hordes of the south. Our pathfinders always attempted to assist us using discipline and whatever else was needed to find solutions. Originally, that was amanita muscaria, though as solutions were catalogued, and became memory, good whiskey was substituted. In our time, when a friend dies, we gather and toast the dead with good whiskey, continuing a part of our mountain culture that was old 5,000 years ago.

Kenneth Miller spent most of his adult life helping to organize and perform Mountain SAR in Colorado, before wandering the west to fight wildfires for the USFS.  He is now trying to balance that out by sitting in coffee shops studying with renegade Ph.D.s.


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