Aluna: A Message To Little Brother
A black line, a network of hidden connections, links all the sacred places on earth. If that line should be broken, calamities will ensue, and this beautiful world shall perish. Destroying a forest here and draining a swamp there might have dire consequences across the globe. The Kogi shamans cannot perform their work of maintaining the balance of nature much longer in the face of our depredations.
How are we to interpret this warning coming from the Kogi people of the Sierra Madre in Colombia, delivered through their latest film, Aluna?
Some may respond to the film with resistance, dismissing the Kogi’s message as primitive magico-religious thinking. Or some may stuff the Kogi’s beliefs and way of life into various ethnographic categories, a form of “Orientalism” that makes new ideas safe and makes them ours—a kind of imperialism. Or others who take for granted that scientific materialism constitutes basal reality will say, with sophistication, “Well, perhaps the Kogi are onto something after all. That ‘black line’ is a metaphor for ecological interconnectedness. Their talk of the ‘voice of water’ is code for the hydrological cycle. They are keen observers of nature and have articulated scientific truths in their own cultural language.”
All these responses discourage any real, conceptual shifts in our understanding and they assume that we know better the nature of reality. If their message were merely, “We must take better care of nature,” then our current understanding would be sufficient. But the Kogi people are inviting us into a much deeper change, one that begs us to ask if we really understand the nature of reality better than they do. It once seemed so. But today the fruits of our supposed understanding—social and ecological crisis—gnaw at our surety.
What makes Aluna remarkable is that fundamentally it is not a documentary. I have always been a little uncomfortable with documentaries about other cultures because they of necessity objectify their subjects, turning them into material for a video “document.” By documenting others we incorporate them into our world, into a safe educational or inspirational frame. But this film is not a documentary.
The Kogi are not interested in being studied. They have not allowed anthropologists to live among them. They have not let their civilization become an object within ours. The implicit power relation between the ethnographer and the Kogi has been reversed. They, in fact, have been studying us, and with increasing alarm. “We have warned little brother,” they tell us, “and little brother has not listened.” Dare we take the Kogi at face value? Dare we hold them in full agency as the true authors not only of this film, but of a message sent to us on their initiative?
The Gift of Humility
In one telling scene, the Kogi mama (shaman) Shibulata visits an astronomical observatory in England. The astronomer is struck by the fact that Shibulata evinces no curiosity about the telescope. Perhaps he recognizes the telescope as another manifestation of the same desire to conquer nature that has destroyed the forests and rivers and mangrove swamps near his home. The astronomer shows him photographs of galaxies invisible to the naked eye. The mama is not impressed—he is here to teach us, not to learn from us. Shibulata displays an uncanny power, picking out from a large photograph the single star in it among multitudinous galaxies and other objects. Naming it, he says, “That star is not visible to our eyes.”
In this film the Kogi tell us, sternly, imploringly, and with very great love, “You mutilate the world because you don’t remember the Great Mother. If you don’t stop, the world will die.” Please believe us, they say. You must stop doing this. “Do you think we say these words for the sake of talking? We are speaking the truth.”
Why hasn’t “little brother” listened? It has been more than 20 years since the Kogi first spoke their message to the modern world. I think perhaps we have not listened because we have not yet inhabited the humility that this film embodies. We continue to box, contain and reduce the Kogi people and their message so that it can rest comfortably in our existing Story of the World.
The Kogi themselves say that thought is the scaffolding of matter; that without thought, nothing could exist. The official Aluna website describes the Kogi’s view thusly: “We are not just plundering the world, we are dumbing it down, destroying both the physical structure and the thought underpinning existence.” The conceptual reduction of the Kogi and indigenous groups in general to academic subjects, museum specimens, New Age fetish objects, exploitable labor or tourist spectacles is part of this dumbing down.
Thankfully, the requisite humility to truly hear the Kogi is fast upon us as our dominant cultural mythology falls apart. We face repeated humiliation in the failure of our cherished systems of politics, law, medicine, education and more. Only with increasingly strenuous and willful ignorance can we deny that the grand project of “civilization” is failing. We see now that what we do to nature we do to ourselves, that its conquest brings our death. The utopian mirage of the technologist and the social engineer recedes ever farther into the distance.
The breakdown of our categories and narratives, the breakdown of our Story of the World, gives us the gift of humility. That is the only thing that can open us to receive the teachings of the Kogi and other indigenous people— to truly receive them, and not merely insert them into some comfortable silo called “indigenous wisdom.”
I am not suggesting that we adopt, part and parcel, the entire Kogi cosmology. We need not imitate their shamanic practices or learn to listen to bubbles in the water. What we must do is embrace the core understanding that motivates the attempt to listen to water in the first place: the understanding that nature is alive and intelligent, bearing certain qualities of a self that Western thought has arrogated to human beings alone. We must make it no longer an other; we must grant to nature the same agency that this film humbly grants to the Kogi. Then we will find our own ways of listening.
What Does Nature Want?
Granting subjectivity and agency to nature and everything in it does not mean to grant it human subjectivity and agency. It means asking, “What does the land want? What does the river want? What does the planet want?”—questions that seem crazy from the perspective of nature-as-thing.
The modern mind does not easily comprehend the idea of the intelligence of nature except through anthropomorphizing or deifying it—another attempt at conquest. The Kogi are not talking about a non-material, supernatural spirit infusing consciousness into otherwise dead matter. They do not abstract spirit, sacredness or consciousness out from matter. To do this denies the inherent being-ness of nature just as much as scientific materialism does. For the Kogi, matter is not a container for thought. Matter is thought made manifest—the thought of the Mother.
Materialism, however, isn’t what it used to be. Science is recognizing that nature is composed of interdependent systems within systems, just like a human body; that soil mycorrhizal networks are as complex as brain tissue; that water can carry information and structure; that the earth and even the sun maintain homeostatic balance just as a body does. We are learning that order, complexity and organization are fundamental properties of matter, mediated through physical processes that we recognize—and perhaps by others we do not. The excluded spirit is coming back to matter, not from without but from within.
So the question “What does nature want?” does not depend on anything supernatural, like an external intelligence. The “wanting” is an organic process, an entelechy born of relationship, a movement toward an unfolding wholeness.
A Non-Utilitarian Argument Against Ecocide
In that understanding, we can no longer cut down forests and drain swamps, dam rivers and fragment ecosystems with roads, dig pit mines and drill wells with impunity. The Kogi say to do so damages the whole body of nature, just as if you cut off a person’s limb or remove an organ. The well-being of all depends on the well-being of each. We cannot cut down one forest here and plant another there, assuring ourselves through the calculation of net carbon dioxide that we have done no damage. How do we know that we have not removed an organ? How do we know we have not destroyed, what the Kogi call an esuana—a key node on the black thread scaffolding the natural world? How do we know we have not destroyed a sacred tree, what the Kogi call “the father of the species,” upon which the whole species depends?
Until we can know it, we’d best refrain from committing further ecocide on any scale. Each intact estuary, river, forest and wetland that remains to us, we must treat as sacred, while restoring whatever we can. The Kogi say we are close to the dying of the world.
As the film makes clear, science is beginning to recognize what the Kogi have always known. An invisible web of causality does indeed connect every place on Earth. Building a road that cuts off the natural water flow at a key site might initiate a cascade of changes—more evaporation, salinization, vegetation die-off, flooding, drought— that have far-reaching effects. We must understand these effects as exemplifications of a general principle of interconnectedness. Furthermore, we must see the aliveness and intelligence of the world. As the Kogi say in the film, “If you knew she could feel, you would stop.”
Otherwise, we are left only with the logic of instrumental utilitarianism as our reason to protect nature— save the rainforest because of its value to us. But that mindset is part of the problem. We need more love, not more self-interest. We know it is wrong to exploit another person for our own gain, because another person is a full subject with her own feelings, desires, pain and joy. If we knew that nature, too, was a full subject, we would stop ravaging her as well.
Aluna brings this knowing a little closer. Only by hardening our hearts can we view the film’s images of filled-in swamps and bare, scarred mountains, and disbelieve that something is feeling very great pain. Only by the colonialistic dismissal of an entire culture’s cosmology and ways of knowing can we uphold our own dying mythology of nature as an insensate source of materials and repository of wastes. The sober indignation of the Kogi defies easy dismissal. It is not hard to believe that they—the largest intact civilization that has remained separate from global industrialized society—are indeed “Elder Brother.” It is not hard to believe their warning. To act on it, though, might require the same courage, patience and wisdom revealed in the Kogi.
From the Kogi Women:When a baby is born the Mother is rejuvenated.A daughter is like the Mother. She is the guardian of the Mother. The Mother is the owner of everything.All the rivers, all the mountains.Without women, daughters, who would guard all of this?When a baby is born you must have good thoughts.Teach the example of others who have lived well.If we don’t teach this baby boy, he will not know how to think.This baby girl will teach the next generation…she will carry on the thread.