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Ishmael - Old but Good

My daughter asked if I’d read it.

Ishmael?” I asked. What came to mind was a horrible movie. “Does it have Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in it?

“That’s Ishtar and this is a good book, not a box-office flop.”

I thought longer and there was the smallest germ of memory. “Is the story about a telepathic gorilla?”

She smiled, “Remember anything else?”

“Not a thing.”

“Re-read it.” she suggested. “It’s your kind of a book…might even be worth reviewing on the website.”

She knew mixing pleasure and work defines my existence, and that this would seal the deal. A few days later as I read, I realized how well I had been pigeonholed: A telepathic gorilla was an intriguing start but Ishmael, the beast in question, was also an environmentalist, philosopher, and teacher. Now that’s my kind of ape.

What you now know paints this work of fiction by Daniel Quinn in shades of the outlandish, but that doesn’t prevent this work of fiction, first published in the early 1990s, from being a compelling and important read.

Living in captivity, this Yogi Maharishi of gorillas is looking for a do-gooder pupil who can help fight the tide of humanity hell-bent on destroying the world’s vast yet sensitive community of life. Ishmael finds a disillusioned young man who summarizes the course of most modern wayfarers with this one-liner, “Get a job, make some money, work till you’re sixty, then move to Florida to die.” This man’s first-person account, and his awakening as he argues and absorbs the primordial vibe of this philosophic primate, becomes the storyline.

The construct of this book makes it appealing: A gorilla understanding our plight and our peril and imparting wisdom back to a supposedly brainier specie creates an unreal, nonthreatening, blackboard for evaluating real principles about evolution, human history, cultural development, religion, human destiny, and environmental processes. We can ascertain the author’s position as a story and, with more tolerance, accept or reject that position knowing it’s a yarn rather than Ralph Nader or Al Gore on the soapbox yelling, “We need to change!”

Ishmael happens to agree with Nader and Gore, “Each of you contribute daily to the destruction of the world,” but he’s not politically charged, so we can pop his messages like candy-coated penicillin. Some will find this medicine curing. Others will find themselves shooting into toxic shock. Which is exactly why they should wrestle with this book—why are logical arguments about the course we are following, based on observation, measurement, and the rules of action and reaction, so threatening?

The meat of the book’s message is simple. Ishmael says, “Two fundamentally different stories have been enacted here during the lifetime of man. One began to be enacted some two or three million years ago by the people we’ve agreed to call the Leavers (hunter-gatherers and low-impact agriculturalists) and is still being enacted by them as successfully as ever. The other began to be enacted here some ten or twelve thousand years ago by the people we’ve agree to call the Takers (most agricultural-based societies), and is apparently about to end in catastrophe.”

Most agriculturalists stepped away from being Leavers -- Ishmael’s term for those who lived as part of the community of life without attempting to conquer it. Instead, they became Takers and, in their attempt to control their food production, environment, dominion, and destiny, waged war against the rest of nature. They willfully exterminated species that competed for their crops (birds, insects, rodents); they aggressively slaughtered species that threatened their herds (wolves, coyotes, bears, large cats); they pitilessly eradicated species as collateral damage in the exploitation of resources needed for their technologies (logging, mining).

For millions of years we had lived a balanced life in the ‘garden’ the gods had created for us as we evolved from pre-man to early man to Homo sapiens, and the gods told us, “‘You may eat of every tree in the garden save the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for on the day you eat of that tree you will certainly die.’”

Ishmael says, “The disaster occurred when, ten thousand years ago, the people of your culture said, ‘We’re as wise as the gods and can rule the world as well as they.’ When they took into their own hands the power of life and death over the world, their doom was assured…They were not in fact as wise as gods.”

And while the gods had not blessed us with sophisticated civilizations, complex cultures, clogged freeways, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Humvees, McDonalds, AK47s, as well as Disneylands, moon walks, Tupperware parties, ESPN, and desert golf greens to escape all of this, in an evolutionary blink of the eye we had infected the planet with fever, depleted our rainforests and oceans, and annihilated untold numbers of life forms. “After just a few thousand years of human rule, the world is at the point of death…It’s hard to imagine how the world could survive another century of this abuse.”

By the end of this quick read, many concepts that can alter a person’s view of the world have been spewed even though little action has really transpired. Yet the mystery of where the story is leading remains compelling enough to keep readers turning pages – rapidly. And that end  -- with Ishmael representing nature and the web of life -- is, of course, symbolic.

Of course, you’ll also need to torture me to spill the beans because you need to enjoy the journey and flex your brain mulling over the book’s biological position, environmental platform, cultural assumptions, religious stands, and economic ramifications. Whether or not you agree with the book, in a world where 6 billion humans are committing naturecide by eradicating over 30,000 species of plants and animals each year, we should be debating the facts, assumptions, and conclusions of Ishmael.

One of the reviewers quoted on the cover of the book states, “From now on I will divide the books I read into two categories – the ones I read before Ishmael and those read after.” We need more books with such impact if we are to protect ourselves from ourselves. We should also keep returning to older books like this one which are palatable and powerful.

This book ends with readers pondering a sign—which is also a koan—belonging to this guru of gorillas. One side of the sign reads:

With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?

The two interpretations of this clause are diametrically opposed. The first would maintain that man is an essential keeper guarding the welfare of gorilla (who also symbolizes nature). The second interpretation pits man as the nemesis of gorilla (or nature). Two opposing and complex mindsets about our connection to nature and our destiny are wrapped up tidily in this one short phrase.

The other side of Ishmael’s sign reads:

With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?

This, too, reads two ways. Interpret it literally and, yes, there is still hope even if we are eradicating specific species. Interpret it figuratively, with ‘gorilla’ symbolizing nature, and the answer is clearly, ‘No.’