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Coming From Different Cultures

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

Coming From Different Cultures

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The Maidu People, who occupied the mountains and foothills in this area before they were nearly exterminated by whites flooding into California, called Lassen Peak Kohm Yah-mah-nee. Ishi, “the last wild Indian in America,” belonged to the Maidu. He wandered half-starved into the nearby town of Oroville in 1911.

“You can’t be more alone, and not crazy, than Ishi.”
Gary Thompson

The sorrow of Ishi and his Yahi tribe, a subset of the Maidu People, still reverberates through these lands. When I first came to California over 30 years ago, I took a backpacking trip into Kingsley Cave, where the last viable group of Ishi’s band was ambushed and massacred in the late 19th century by local settlers.

“Ishi country. Cold. Our lungs make the words stay in the air long enough for us to watch them drift off. We’re eyeing each other as if we were strangers, as if we came from different cultures.”
Gary Thompson

Kingsley Cave itself is more like a semi-circular outcropping with a view of the surrounding wilderness. Standing on its ash floor, the detailed description of the massacre by our knowledgeable guide formed an impression I’ll never forget. (A wonderful book about Ishi is “Ishi, Last of His Tribe,” by Theodora Kroeber.)

There were three hundred different linguistic tribes in California, and it came down to one emaciated man named Ishi. He died of tuberculosis in 1916, but not before telling a friend that whites were “smart but not wise, knowing many things including much that is false.”

Lassen is the southernmost peak of the Cascade Range. Lassen Park has three of four types of volcanoes found in the world: cinder cones, shield volcanoes, and dome volcanoes. Lassen Peak itself is a dome volcano, the largest ‘plug’ volcano in the world. The Maidu believed the earth is anchored in a great sea by five ropes, and that when the gods are angry they give the ropes a good tug.

The vistas above 2200 meters (7000 feet) in Lassen National Park are so stunning that one is agape without even getting out of the car. We stopped often, drinking in the peaks above and the valleys below. Whereas summer had just ended in the Central Valley, fall was just ending at that elevation. Everything was very dry, and the entire place seemed to be waiting for the first snowfall, which was due within days.

We drove some distance off the beautifully designed and almost seamlessly integrated highway, and hiked a couple of miles in. We passed a small lake nestled in the corner of a small canyon, and walked on to another larger lake, surrounded by steep slopes on three sides. The place was devoid of human presence and residue.

“It is enough to get ourselves lost, as Ishi would want, to give our trust over to this place—Deer Creek—that will be its own story for longer than even Ishi can tell it.” Gary Thompson

There are moments when I wonder whether the transmutation of the individual has anything to do with this world. But then I realize again that if it doesn’t, humanity will go completely to hell. Therefore the only time when the transformation of the individual is all that matters is if humankind is irretrievably lost.

Even under the best of circumstances however, there is a tension between the timeless state of being, and the temporal state of the world. Balancing the actuality of the first with the reality of the second is, to my mind, the first job of the human being.

At times like these, when “events are in the saddle and ride mankind,” an extra measure of responsibility is demanded of the individual. Of course, many believe it’s already too late at this juncture, and even for humankind. But it’s not too late at any time until bottom is reached, and no alternative is possible because no alternative is in place.

Given the scale of the challenges facing humanity, what are we as individuals to do? It’s disturbing to hear the experts talk about the global economic crisis in terms of growth. ‘We have to restore confidence so we can restart growth,’ they say. But true growth has a completely different meaning.

The meaning of being human is to grow into a human being; and the meaning of a human being is to grow into a god.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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