In the Spirit of the Earth

Take another look at the author’s name. Yes, historian Calvin Luther Martin— whose best-known book is the prizewinning KEEPERS OF THE GAME: INDIAN-ANIMAL RELATIONSHIPS AND THE FUR TRADE—was reared in the tradition of that Calvin and that Luther. “Dad was a preacher,” Martin’s last chapter begins, “who introduced himself loudly as a Minister of the Gospel and who fed his kids on two books”: the Bible and PILGRIM’S PROGRESS. What those two books offer is a frame of reference, a narrative in which both an individual’s life and the collective experience of humankind can be intelligibly located.

Rejecting that Judeo-Christian narrative, Martin also rejects the secular narrative of history that celebrates the inexorable progress of human knowledge and mastery of the natural world. Martin still believes profoundly in the Fall of Man, but he doesn’t locate that rupture in the biblical Eden, nor does he see it in terms of humanity’s alienation from God as a result of sin. Martin’s Eden is the world of hunter-gatherers, people whose lives, he argues, bore little resemblance to stock notions of “primitive man.” Indeed, he believes that they lived in harmony with nature in a way that we should seek to emulate.

The Fall? That took place in the neolithic age, when people began to hoard food and domesticate animals on a large scale. This development wasn’t primarily wrought by technology, Martin contends, but rather by a new image of the relationship between humans and the natural world In the despoliation of the planet and the insane convolutions of “history”—meaning petty but terribly destructive human affairs—we see the legacy of that fateful transformation.

Many other writers have offered similar revisionary narratives. What gives Martin’s book its distinctive power is that it actually allows the reader to see the world from a radically different perspective. The reader may reject Martin’s perspective, may even conclude that his reverence for hunter-gatherers is more than slightly crazy, but for the space of the book the reader will have the absorbing, unsettling experience of seeing the familiar world through different eyes.