I took a number of pictures of this tree, during different times of day, until I got the one I wanted: the tree is deserted, with the entire colony out foraging for fruit and insects, except for the everpresent sentinel. And then, one rainy morning a few days after I took this picture there was the roar of a chainsaw, and then a loud crash. I came out to look, and the dead tree was missing. Instead, there was a large number of Oropendola up in the sky, circling around the spot where their tree had stood in uncharacteristic silence. The object lesson of the Oropendola just became a bit more poignant: this is what collapse looks like.Since then the Orapendola have established a new colony, almost as big as the old one, on a tree some 10 meters away from the tree that was cut down. It is in the picture above. And so, it appears I chose appropriate mascots for the book: their community does abide.
I soon found out that the tree's roots were on an adjoining property, and that the owner of that property killed the tree by pouring a foundation slab over the roots and then, once it was dead and declared a hazard, hired some locals to cut it down. That person also owns a gift shop, and Oropendola nests sell for $75 apiece. The chainsaw gang charged her $300; there were about 50 nests. I saw them sitting in a wheelbarrow and stole one. The object lesson of the Oropendola became even more poignant: what destroyed their habitat was the profit motive.
The birds circled about for an hour, and then regrouped. They posted sentries on the neighboring tall trees, and spent a few hours drilling: flying back and forth between trees single-file and having the sentries check them out and in again, as before. A day later they started collecting grass for new nests. (They first assemble a giant stockpile of long strands of grass in the crook of a tree, and then start weaving.) Three days later, they didn't seem any less happy than before the calamity, and a lot louder (apparently, there was a lot for them to discuss).
The object lesson of the Oropendola is now complete. We are nesting in a dead tree. The tree was killed by somebody else's profit motive. Our communities will abide because 1. we are self-sufficient, 2. we have the ability to self-organize and recover in the face of calamity, and 3. we are not tied to any one place but are mobile.
Also since then my tropical wanderings took me to a place where I could observe some human communities that may or may not abide. I spent a couple of months house-sitting a property in a place called Tierra Oscura, sometimes translated as “Darklands,” which is situated in a lagoon within the Bocas Del Toro archipelago in the northeast of Panama. The archipelago has always been a favorite playground for the Panamanians themselves: the erstwhile dictator and CIA asset Manuel Noriega frequented Bocas Town on holidays, while the current president of Panama likes to spend weekends in one of the cottages near Red Frog Beach on the nearby island of Bastimentos.
But the last decade or so witnessed a remarkable transformation: the archipelago has been discovered by wealthy Gringos, who have moved in in their hundreds, buying up bits of coastal land and building houses on them. About a dozen of these houses have sprung up around Tierra Oscura, inserting themselves between the far more modest houses of the locals. Seeing an opportunity, another tribe—the Chinos, or Chinese merchants—moved in and opened stores catering to the Gringos as well as the locals.
But the locals are still all there. There are a few distinct tribes. First, there are the Indios. They live in shacks roughly nailed together out of rough-sawn boards and roofed with corrugated sheet metal, some on land, some over water nestled in the mangroves. They generally lack electricity and rise and go to bed with the sun, although they do sometimes run a generator to light up and amplify a party. They generally don't have pumped water, and gather the rainwater that falls on the roof using large blue plastic tanks. They don't have much furniture, and sleep in hammocks.
They do have chainsaws (important in a place where trees sprout up as soon as you turn around) but most of the work is done using the universal tool of choice, be it chopping down plantains, shaving coconuts or killing snakes: the machete. Of the tools of modern civilization, their most prized family possession seems to be a smallish outboard motor. The motor is essential for getting their cash crop—cacao pods—to market, where they exchange their winnings for large bags of rice, which is a staple.
But mostly they get around in cayucos, which are dugout canoes. Of these, the most ancient ones seem to be the most highly prized. Cayucos start out tippy, but get more stable with time as they become waterlogged below the waterline while their freeboard dries out. Indios of all ages, including kids as young as three and four, can be seen paddling around the lagoon at all hours, fishing, going visiting, or going to and from school.
They do have cell phones and laptops, and, not having electricity, frequently brought them over to the house we were house-sitting to get them charged. Unlike the neighboring Gringos, who would also charge their cell phones, but made it abundantly clear that they didn't want any Indios on their property, we would invite them to hang around as much as they liked. Our dock became a favorite fishing spot of theirs, with as many as four cayucos lurking underneath it at any one time.
Sometimes an entire Indio family would spend part of an afternoon with us, and while their devices were charging their kids would play and watch cartoons with ours. They would eat meals with us, which consisted mostly of stuff that grew in the back yard. This gave us a chance to get to know them a little. They are mostly shy and not at all talkative (they are bilingual, but for some, especially the kids, Spanish is pretty much tierra incognita). Nevertheless, I managed to find out a lot of details over time. For instance, some of them have a wild sense of humor, and a keen appreciation for the absurd.
The other local tribe I got to know a little bit are the Afro-Antilleans. These work in a number of trades. Some ferry passengers and cargo between the islands in pangas, which are large fiberglass boats with powerful outboard engines, and are the main form of transportation in the archipelago, there being almost no roads but thousands upon thousands of docks. Some work in forestry, the building trades, or as mechanics. They are bilingual, speaking perfectly good Spanish, plus a sort of English which, to the untrained ear, doesn't sound like English at all. It took me several hours of listening to them tell stories before I could actually understand everything that was being said. Think of rapid-fire Jamaican English, but with most of the vowels rationalized to more closely match Spanish ones.
I have been told that the Hispanics—the descendants of the conquistadors—also form a separate tribe, but I was unable to discern their distinctness. They seem to float in a sea of Spanish-speaking culture along with everyone else.
But the most distinct tribe of all (if it can be called that) are the Gringos. They inhabit houses that wouldn't look out of place in Florida, except that they are also “green,” meaning that they have rainwater collection systems, and rooftop solar panels with battery banks and inverters to run the various pumps, refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, lights and—don't you dare forget—the giant plasma TV that is the centerpiece of most of their living rooms. In a place where windows are generally just holes with wooden shutters and some netting, the Gringos put in plate glass windows and sliding doors. Since all of this stuff has to be guarded 24/7, they employ locals as “watchee men,” sometimes even building little shacks for them to live in. A more economical option is to get a free house-sitter, who lives in the “big house.” House-sitters are recruited from among the Gringos, because the locals aren't to be trusted.
Unlike the other tribes, the Gringos are predominantly monolingual. Some do speak passable Spanish, but most don't speak it well enough for extended dialog or storytelling. Almost none make any effort to lose the atrocious English accent, which makes Panamanian Spanish, with its crisp vowels, cloudy consonants and staccato delivery, sound like somebody is trying to speak Spanish while gulping down mashed potatoes. Few that I've noticed partake of the many gems of Latin American literature, be it Gabriel Garcia Márquez or Jorge Luis Borges or Pablo Neruda. The sense I got is that most of them treat Spanish as a necessary evil, to be spoken so-so for the sake of those locals guilty of the cardinal sin of not speaking God's own language, English. One appalling case is an individual who has lived in the area for years, and is yet to bring himself to mouth a simple “¡Gracias!”
In contrast to the locals, who get around in a cayuco, or a panga with a smallish outboard, the main form of transportation for the Gringo is the speedboat, powered by an outboard in the 75-150 horsepower range which burns through somewhere around five gallons an hour. With a typical round-trip to go shopping taking an hour or so, this adds up to a lot of gasoline, and the amount of time spent queued up at the fuel dock is a constant source of annoyance.
Also in contrast to the locals, who tend to take a purely functional approach to land management, some of the Gringos hire locals to do their landscaping, and maintain their compounds in immaculate condition—ready to be featured on the glossy cover of Better Homes and Gringos, perhaps? In a country where the average day-laborer makes somewhere around $10-12 a day, such a lavish lifestyle would be impossible to maintain using local resources.
In spite of these societal rifts and fault lines, the relations between the Gringos and the locals are mostly amicable and cordial, but there are some notable exceptions. The locals have two modes: peaceful, and, failing that, spit-your-teeth-out not peaceful at all by any stretch of the imagination. The tipping point between the two is tricky to discern, but raising your voice in anger, using expletives or ethnic slurs, making threats and ultimatums, attempting to extract an apology (the locals never apologize for being late on anything) are all dumb moves—unless you happen to enjoy spitting your teeth out.
Still, some Gringos do apparently run afoul of these simple rules. For instance, the late owner of the house we were house-sitting got almost killed—simply by being confrontational and combative with some of the neighbors—and died soon thereafter from the injuries he sustained during the confrontation. Some other Gringos I either met or heard of are still alive, but, given their demeanor vis-à-vis the locals, a life insurance policy on them wouldn't be a bad investment, if only they were a bit younger and healthier.
Such thumbnail sketches are fun to write, but there is a point I am building up to maybe making. And the point is, not all tribes are made equal. Communities composed of members of these tribes will not all do equally well, or badly. For instance, the Indios and the Afro-Antilleans will do fine. If the Indios find that they can't sell their cacao for rice, or if the Afro-Antilleans find that their trades aren't earning them enough to buy food, they will switch back to fishing, and growing and eating yucca and plantains.
By the way, yucca is ridiculously easy to grow. You take a yucca stem and break it into pieces, each about two hands long (it snaps like chalk). Then you poke a hole in the ground with a sharp stick (any sort of ground, even red clay). Scrape some seafood off a piling and dump it in the hole as fertilizer and soil amendment. Insert the piece of yucca stem in the hole, and tamp it down with your foot. The only tricky bit is that the piece of yucca stem cannot be planted upside-down, or it will refuse to sprout. Each planting will yield one or two large tubers. The drill then is to wash the dirt off, peel off the bark, hack it into pieces, boil the pieces until tender, and serve. The only hard work is ripping the tubers out of the ground. This, along with plantains, takes care of carbohydrates; the fish takes care of protein.
But what of the Gringos? Well, first of all, they don't match my definition of a community, because, to the extent that they are a community, they are a retirement community (the average age is well over 65) and my stipulation is that a community must be able to reproduce itself biologically. Secondly, their special status in the archipelago derives from the umbilical cord that ties them to the western financial scheme, which is falling apart. (The fact that Social Security is not long for this world, along with all the other rickety financial scaffolding they rely on, is a favorite subject of discussion, along with the assorted conundrums of health care, both local and state-side.)
And so, as far as the ability of the Gringo to abide in Panama's waterside jungle wonderland, it will be determined by just one thing: the ability to go native, to learn to live and work alongside the locals. This is by no means impossible, but the cultural resistance of the average Gringo to going native is simply stupendous, for, with some laudable exceptions, never has a generally somewhat plain and nondescript group of humans elevated itself in its own opinion so far above the rest of humanity, all, mind you, on the basis of very transitory material opulence made possible by a rigged financial scheme that is on its last legs.
At this point, the obvious futility of writing this essay becomes apparent, because my bottom line is this: “Don't be a Gringo.” Except that I am writing it in English, meaning that it will be read mostly by Gringos. Is this the end, then? Well, no, because some of you reading this are young enough and independent-minded enough to actually go ahead and go native. And some of these might then, together with the other natives (or gone-natives) form a community.
And for these few, here again are my XIII commandments of Communities that Abide [order link]. I came up with this list by examining many separatist, anarchic communities that have stood the test of time by lasting over the centuries. I excluded monastic and retirement communities, military orders and the like, and only considered the ones that reproduced biologically. And I found that they all share certain principles, which I expressed as these XIII “commandments.”
I. You Probably Shouldn't come together willy-nilly and form a community out of people that just happen to be hanging around, who don't have to do much of anything to join, and feel free to leave as soon as they get bored or it stops being fun. The community should be founded as a conscious, purposeful, overt act of secession from mainstream society, a significant historical event that is passed down through history and commemorated in song, ceremony and historical reenactment. A classic founding event is one where the founding members surrender all of their private property, making it communal, in a solemn ceremony, during which they take on new names and greet each other by their new names as brothers and sisters. The founding members should be remembered and revered for their brave and generous act. This makes the community into a self-aware, synergistic entity with a will of its own that transcends the wills of its individual members.
II. You Probably Shouldn't trap people within the community. Membership in the community should to be voluntary. Every member must have an iron-clad guarantee of being able to leave, no questions asked. That said, do everything you can to keep people from leaving because defections are very bad for morale. One good trick is to give people a vacation when they need it, and one good way to do that is to run an exchange program with another, similar community. There need not be an iron-clad guarantee of being able to come back and be accepted again, but this should be generally possible. Those born into the community should be given an explicit opportunity, during their teenage years, to rebel, escape, go out and see the world and sow their wild oats, and also the opportunity to come back, take the pledge, and be accepted as full members. When people behave badly, the threat of expulsion can be used, but that should be regarded as the “nuclear option.” On the other hand, you should probably have some rules for expelling people more or less automatically when they behave very, very badly indeed (though such cases should be exceedingly rare) because allowing such people to stick around is also very bad for morale.
III. You Probably Shouldn't carry on as if the community doesn't matter. The community should see itself as separate and distinct from the surrounding society. Its separatism should manifest itself in the way its members relate to members of the surrounding society: as external representatives of the community rather than as individual members. All dealings with the outside world, other than exchanging pleasantries and making conversation, should be on behalf of the community. It must not be possible for outsiders to exploit individual weaknesses or differences between members. To realize certain advantages, especially if the community is clandestine in nature, members can maintain the illusion that they are acting as individuals, but in reality they should act on behalf of the community at all times.
IV. You Probably Shouldn't spread out across the landscape. The community should be relatively self-contained. It cannot be virtual or only come together periodically. There has to be a geographic locus or a gathering place, with ample public space, even if it changes location from time to time. The community should be based on a communal living arrangement that provides all of the necessities. A community living in apartments scattered throughout a large city is not going to last very long; if that's how you have to start, then use the time you have to save money and buy land. A good, simple living arrangement, which minimizes housing costs while optimizing group cohesion and security, is to provide all adults and couples with bedrooms big enough for them and their infants, separate group bedrooms for children over a certain age, and common facilities for all other needs. This can be realized using one large building or several smaller ones.
V. You Probably Shouldn't allow creeping privatization. The community should pool and share all property and resources with the exception of personal effects. All money and goods coming in from the outside, including income, pensions, donations and even government handouts, should go into the common pot, from which it is allocated to common uses. Such common uses should include all the necessities: food, shelter, clothing, medicine, child care, elderly care, education, entertainment, etc. Members who become rich suddenly, through inheritance or some other means, must be given a choice: put the money in the pot, or keep it and leave the community. This pattern of communal consumption is very efficient.
VI. You Probably Shouldn't try to figure out what to do on your own. The community should have collective goals and needs that are made explicit. These goals and needs can only be met through collective, not individual, actions. The well-being of the community should be the result of collective action, of members working together on common projects. Also, this collective work should be largely voluntary, and members who are fed up with a certain task or a certain team should be able to raise the issue at the meeting and ask to be reassigned. It's great when members have brilliant new ideas on how to do things, but these have to be discussed in open meeting and expressed as initiatives to be pursued collectively.
VII. You Probably Shouldn't let outsiders order you around. It's best if the community itself is the ultimate source of authority for all of its members. It should have a universally accepted code of conduct, which is best kept unwritten and passed down orally. The ultimate recourse, above and beyond the reach of any external systems of justice or external authorities, or any individual's authority within the group, should be the open meeting, where everyone has the right to speak. People should only be able to speak for themselves: attempts at representation of any sort should be treated as hearsay and disregarded. You probably shouldn't resort to legalistic techniques such as vote-counting and vote by acclamation instead. Debate should continue until consensus is reached. To reach a consensus decision, use whatever tricks you have to in order to win over the (potentially vociferous and divisive) opposing voices, up to and including the threat of expulsion. A community that cannot reach full consensus on a key decision cannot function and should automatically split up. But this tends to be rare, because the members' status depends on them putting the needs of the community ahead of their own, and one of these needs happens to be the need for consensus. Decisions reached by consensus in open meeting should carry the force of law. Decisions imposed on the community from the outside should be regarded as acts of persecution, and countered with nonviolent protest, civil disobedience, evasion and, if conditions warrant, by staging an exodus. The time-tested foolproof way to avoid being subjected to outside authority is by fleeing, as a group. Oh, and you probably shouldn't waste your time on things like voting, trying to get elected, testifying in court, bringing lawsuits against people or institutions, or jury duty.
VIII. You Probably Shouldn't question the wonderful goodness of your community. Your community should have moral authority and meaning to those within it. It can't be a mere instrumentality or a living arrangement with no higher purpose than keeping you fed, clothed, sheltered and entertained. It shouldn't be treated in a utilitarian fashion. There should be an ideology, which is unquestioned, but which is interpreted to set specific goals and norms of behavior. The community shouldn't contradict these goals and norms in practice. It should also be able to fulfill these goals and comply with these norms, and to track and measure its success in doing so. The best ideologies are circularly defined systems where it is a good system because it is used by good people, and these people are good specifically because they use the good system. Since the ideology is never questioned, it need not be particularly logical and can be based on a mystical understanding, faith or revelation. But it can't be completely silly, or nobody will take it seriously.
IX. You Probably Shouldn't pretend that your life is more important than the life of your children and grandchildren (or other members' children and grandchildren if you don't have any of your own). If you are old and younger replacements for whatever it is you do are available, your job is primarily to help them take over and then to keep out of their way. Try to think of death as a sort of bowel movement—most days you move your bowels (if you are regular); one day your bowels move you. As a member of the community, you do not live for yourself; you live for the community—specifically, for its future generations. The main purpose of your community is to transcend the lifespans of the individual members by perpetuating its biological and cultural DNA. To this end, you probably should avoid sending your children through public education, treating it as mental poison. It has very little to do with educating, and everything to do with institutionalization. Also, if a child is forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in class, that creates a split allegiance, which you should probably regard as unacceptable. If this means that your community has to expend a great deal of its resources on child care and home schooling, so be it; after providing food, shelter and clothing, it's the most important job there is.
X. You Probably Shouldn't try to use violence, because it probably won't work. Internally, keep your methods of social control informal: gossip, ridicule, reprimand and scorn all work really well and are very cheap. Any sort of formal control enforced through the threat of violence is very destructive of group solidarity, terrible for morale, and very expensive. You should try to enforce taboos against striking people in anger (also children and animals). Use expulsion as the ultimate recourse. When dealing with outsiders, don't arm yourselves beyond a few nonlethal defensive weapons, don't look like a threat, stay off the external authorities' radar as much as possible, and work to create good will among your neighbors so that they will stand up for you. Also, be sure to avoid military service. If drafted, you should probably refuse to carry weapons or use lethal force of any sort.
XI. You Probably Shouldn't let your community get too big. When it has grown beyond 150 adult members, it's time to bud off a colony. With anything more than 100 people, reaching consensus decisions in an open meeting becomes significantly more difficult and time-consuming, raising the level of frustration with the already cumbersome process of consensus-building. People start trying to get around this problem by hiding decision-making inside committees, but that is incompatible with direct democracy, in which no person can be compelled to comply with a decision to which that person did not consent (except for the decision to expel that person, but most people quit voluntarily before that point is reached). Also, 150 people is about the maximum number of people with whom most of us are able to have personal relationships. Anything more, and you end up having to deal with near-strangers, eroding trust. The best way to split a community in two halves is by drawing lots to decide which families stay and which families go. Your community should definitely stay on friendly terms with the new colony (among other things, to give your children a wider choice of mates), but it's probably a bad idea to think of them as still being part of your community: they are now a law unto themselves: independent and unique and under no obligation to consult you or to reach consensus with you on any question.
XII. You Probably Shouldn't let your community get too rich. Material gratification, luxury and lavish lifestyles are not good for your community: children will become spoiled, adults will develop expensive tastes and bad habits. If times ever change for the worse, your community will be unable to cope. This is because communities that emphasize material gratification become alienating and conflicted when they fail to provide the material goods needed to attain and maintain that level of gratification. Your community should provide a basic level of material comfort, and an absolutely outstanding level of emotional and spiritual comfort. There are many ways to burn off the extra wealth: through recruitment activities and expansion, through good works in the surrounding society, by supporting various projects, causes and initiatives and so on. You can also spend the surplus on art, music, literature, craftsmanship, etc.
XIII. You Probably Shouldn't let your community get too cozy with the neighbors. Always keep in mind what made you form the community to start with: the fact that the surrounding society doesn't work, can't give you what you need, and, to put in the plainest terms possible, isn't any good. Over time your community may become strong and successful, and gain acceptance from the surrounding society, which can, over time, become too weak and internally conflicted to offer you any resistance, never mind try to persecute you. But your community needs a bit of persecution now and again, to give it a good reason for continuing to safeguard its separateness. To this end, it helps to maintain certain practices that alienate your community from the surrounding society just a bit, not badly enough to provoke them into showing up with torches and pitchforks, but enough to make them want to remain aloof and leave you alone much of the time.