Once I used to go walking with an old woman who knew the name (in Zulu and English) of any plant, tree or shrub you cared to point out. And, with a little prompting, she would reveal its secret properties, medicinal and psychic. Roots, flowers, bark, tubers, were not just cures for fevers, aches and pains. Photosynthesis was just one of the tricks plants had mastered. They were alchemists, magicians of a chemistry that had a pervasive, subtle affect on people’s feelings, relationships – life itself. Eat the wrong one, and you could be instantly dead. Use the correct ones, and one could be loved, successful, at peace even with one’s enemies.
Granny Laughter was her name. And we’d talk about the world. Not so long ago, things changed very little, even over several lifetimes. Short of something cataclysmic, the natural world just got on with its business. Time was measured by the life of trees. Wild animals walked their age-old paths in the forests. Food, clothing, housing – all recognizable and familiar, decade after decade. What you learned in childhood came mostly from grandparents – accumulated and passed on over generations. And it remained useful through an entire life. So different from the present time, where exponential advances in technology make “knowledge” and “expertise” obsolete overnight. When last did you need to use the commands for DOS? A technology that controlled the computer (and business) world, less than 30 years ago, and was the start of Microsoft’s meteoric rise to fame and riches.
When I was small my grandfather taught me all about ingenious little contraptions that worked with clock springs, or gravity, or a combination. Not far from perpetual motion. Now things work with software, a set of instructions that starts off written in simple English, gets converted into strings of ones and zeros, and is processed by tiny electrical impulses acting on a sliver of fused sand. It is said the next advance will be to use biological computer processors. Imagine using your pot-plant to surf the Web. Will there be any curious side-effects if one uses poppies, or Indian hemp? The mind boggles at the possibilities.
Whatever transpires, one thing we can predict with certainty: today’s technology will be as obsolete as buggy whips and manual type-writers. All good and well, unless this relentless progress is dogged by the Law of Diminishing Returns – reliability decreases as complexity increases.
Does this incessant rush for newness increase our longing for a world where things were dependable, where change was measured in the growth of trees. Does overwhelming change cause us to hold dearly onto our memories. Is the past sweeter in the mind because it is transient? Each instant of time crystallized as a snowflake whose exact likeness will never be seen again?
Can humanity go on like this – or will we become so rootless that nothing matters except the here and now.
I for one like moss. The stuff that rolling stones don’t gather. I need to walk in the woods, breathe air alive with the subtle wizardry of the plant world. It’s timeless.