Paleo Grift

The myth of a golden, prehistoric age of ease and leisure before the toil of agriculture is an idea that pops up often in the urban homesteading and permaculture scene. While I’m sympathetic to complaints about modern agriculture, I’ve long thought that this Golden Age narrative sounds too simple, too much like the “noble savage” archetype, the idea that if we can somehow just get back to “nature” all will be okay.

This notion of a idyllic distant past was the subject of an excellent episode of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast. Their guest was Daniel Immerwahr, a history professor at Northwestern University who was on to discuss his review of James Suzman’s book Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.

Suzman’s book, popular with the tech bro set, focuses on the Bushmen or San people of the Kalahari Desert, made famous by the 1980s movie The Gods Must Be Crazy (which I’ve never understood the appeal of, frankly). Suzman, relying on bad research, makes the claim that the San work 15 hours a week. In reality that 15 hours is the time spent just gathering food and the total doesn’t take into account processing food, building shelter, childcare etc. Other anthropologists peg the total at around 42 hours a week. And the San don’t live an idyllic life. In reality they are malnourished, don’t forage much anymore and were forced into resettlement areas by the South African government. The Gods Must Be Crazy, it turns out, was more propaganda than comedy.

Which brings us to Immerwahr main point, that a more careful reading of history might lead us to different conclusions. As he says in his review of Suzman’s book,

A 300,000-year history of work, done well, could ask probing questions about gender, slavery, inequality, the wage system, ideology, and workers’ political power. It might yield conclusions that would be more uncomfortable than encouraging to our ascendant elite. It might, indeed, offer insights as to how to dismantle that elite.

I’d add that the rosy view of hunter gatherer cultures contains a kind of racism that assumes that this way of living is easy, that it doesn’t involve skill or, as in the case of California native peoples what looks to westerners like hunting and gathering is actually a form of agriculture, just not a form that looks like European farming (See Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild for more on that thesis).

I guess it’s not surprising that our tech bros executives would embrace short work weeks and fictitious pre-historic diets while somehow forgetting about little humdrum things like the rights and dignity of workers, child care, shelter and food preparation.

Art and Grains

Posting has been light at Root Simple in the past few weeks because of a devilish case of acedia or, perhaps more specifically, what Mark Fisher called “depressive hedonia.” Fisher says,

Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it is by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.

In my case depressive hedonia manifests by way too much scrolling of social media feeds in search of novelty and outrage.

Which is why I want to shift the focus to people who’ve managed, in this pandemic, to focus on practical and creative tasks. First off is Roxana Jullapat, who owns the must go to East Hollywood bakery and cafe Friends and Family. Roxana has a new cookbook out called Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution. Just in time for Easter she has posted a recipe from the book for hot cross buns with marzipan crosses.  Roxana was a big supporter of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, a meetup group that I co-founded. It’s been a rough year for restaurants, so consider picking up a copy of her book or, if you’re a local, getting some takeout.


Meanwhile, friend of the blog Federico Tobon is launching a new zine, has completed 100 days of small drawings, and is making amazing little animated sculptures that you can see in his Instagram and TikTok.

He’s got an interesting technique for creating a 3d illusion in 2d images that he explains here. Sign up for Federico’s newsletter for some joy in your inbox.

One last thing about Federico. This tweet of his ends up in my Twitter notifications periodically:

Obviously, I need to follow this advice!

Let’s All Take a YouTube Break

Here’s a work song for finishing Harris tweed in the Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland. Filmed by Jack Cardiff of Powell & Pressburger in 1940/ 41

Behold this catchy musical sequence from Dil Se (“From the Heart”), a 1998 Bollywood romantic thriller. I haven’t seen the whole movie but if you’re interested it’s in Netflix.

And for readers who suffered through the Texas power crisis, Friend of the blog Eric of Garden Fork has a helpful playlist on how to use a generator safely.

A Pandemic Anniversary

Final scene of Tout Va Bien.

I suspect I’m not alone in reflecting back on the year anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic. I’ve been looking at the photos on my phone from February and March of 2020 and even went so far as to dig through credit card records to see where I ate out for the last time (Taix, at it turns out).

In February 2020 I was knocking on doors for Bernie and the last large public gathering I attended was the Bernie/Public Enemy rally on March 2nd. Alas, that brighter future that seemed possible was not to be, but I kept phone banking until the bitter end of the campaign. The triumph of business-as-usual combined with the untimely death of Michael Brooks were a source of considerable melancholy in the last half of 2020.

In mid-March the church secretary and I, on very short notice, helped put the Episcopal Cathedral’s services online when we could no longer meet in person.

In late spring through the summer of 2020 the one thing keeping me sane and occupied was rehabbing Kelly’s office shed. I redid the floor and ceiling and built a desk, bookcase and cabinets. Once we found out that Kelly had to go in for another round of risky open heart surgery, the remodeled shed gave her something to look forward to and something for me to work on.

While I was working on the shed, Slavoj Žižek’s managed to put out two books on the Pandemic that I read and enjoyed over the summer. Two observations from these  books stick with me. First, that we should remember that there are places in the world (such as Syria and Yemen) where things are so bad that COVID-19 is just a minor annoyance. Another point is that we need international solidarity, cooperation and mobilization to face crises like pandemics and climate change.

A lack of solidarity triggers, in me, moments of old testament prophet rage and foot stomping around the house. As Adam Curtis put it, we’re all just squealing individualist little piggies and that individualism isn’t working out well. I’ve lost the big-tent-homesteading ethos that led me to tolerate those who still cling to me-first ideology such as preppers, social media CEOs, corporate politicians of both parties, COVID denying wellness influencers and the local evangelical mega-church that decided to keep meeting during the worst of the pandemic.

At the same time I recognize that I was raised in the same culture and am susceptible to the same narcissism. I’m a squealing piggy with a blog after all. But let’s remember that this crisis has fallen disproportionately on poor and vulnerable people. We can’t forget the structures that perpetuated inequality and worsened the pandemic. Over 500,000 people needlessly went to an early grave in the U.S. and many of the people that cared for them are scarred for life while I sat comfortably at home.

I’ve also thought a lot about what works and what doesn’t during a crisis. A Buddhist friend taught me to observe my thoughts and emotions and that trick has been extraordinarily useful. Most of the time I noticed low level anxiety and fatigue caused by the constant risk management we all had to do. Sometimes I had COVID dreams and outburst of hypochondria. Observing these feelings helped to not get attached to them and kept them from spiraling out of control. I also came to the conclusion that it’s perfectly okay not to be productive all the time and recognize that the muses can be fickle in a crisis. Looking back I actually did a lot of construction work and beekeeping just not writing and podcasting.

I’m incredibly grateful to be financially secure, to have a roof over my head and to be fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, I’ve also eaten a lot of junk food and haven’t exercised like I used to. I took my first trip to the market in almost a year yesterday and am feeling optimistic and less anxious. But like Žižek, I hope that we don’t go back to the old normal but work towards a better, new normal.

What was the last year like for you?

I Can’t Get Adam Curtis Out of My Head

Could it be that this entire multi-thousand post blog, with all those canning, bread making, gardening, squirrel complaining ramblings are just an excuse for those few times I get to implore readers to watch the latest Adam Curtis documentary?

Methinks yes and so I must note that a new Curtis just dropped on the BBC yesterday. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is Curtis at his most sprawling and complex. We watched the first episode last night which covers, among other topics, British colonialism in Kenya, the Discoridian connection to the Kennedy assassination, anti-immigrant movements, artificial intelligence, a messy celebrity divorce and . . . the Bavarian Illuminati.

I can think of only a handful of other thoughtstylists who have helped guide me through these confusing times (Mark Fisher, Cornel West and Slavoj Žižek come to mind). More than any other period in my 55 years, at this particular point I think it’s important to look at the ideologies that change the way we perceive things. Curtis is a master at revealing what’s hidden in plain sight.

Perhaps the hidden message of all the posts on this blog is summed up in a quote from the late David Graeber that Curtis uses at the beginning of episode 1, “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make. And could just as easily make differently.”

Can’t Get You Out of My Head is streaming for free on the BBC. To watch it you’ll need to live in the U.K. or use a VPN to get around the regional blocking. You can also search on YouTube. Curtisheads post episodes which appear for awhile before the BBC takes them down. Just Google and you’ll find it. Here’s the last: Hypernormalization.