'The End,' Tree Frogs and Zachary

John Hockenberry considers endangered cultures and his son's interest in the tradition of poison dart-making

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 - 06:18 PM

We talked this morning about the loss of so-called “indigenous cultures” in our series, "The End." The fact that industrialization is driving certain cultures to extinction isn't new. However, in our globalized world, what constitutes preserving cultural traditions that are under threat? Is the world to embark on a kind of super sequestration of everything indigenous to keep it isolated from what might change it? Under this model the planet becomes a giant museum, with walls between gawking real people and the preserved “exhibits.” There is also a second model where the changing and mixing of cultural identities becomes a kind of preservation. We may lose certain tribes in the Amazon, in that they no longer live there, but do we lose everything about them?

I was talking to my son, Zachary, last week. We were riding our bikes in the mountains and he remarked on how he wanted to learn to make poisonous darts out of tree frogs. He’d studied all about it in school and said that tree frogs could produce enough toxin to supply an army of blow-darters. He looked at me with a poignant, longing expression that said that it would be great if his dad could pass along that tradition to his son. He dreamed that we would spend hours in the jungle catching frogs and making darts, extending a tradition thousands of years old into the 21st century and bringing it to a family in Brooklyn. It sure beats fixing problems with the Wii, or backing up the hard drives at home. I suspect our tradition of fixing electronics may be a passing ritual in our emerging digital culture compared to poison dart making. But a little piece of the ancient and apparently threatened Amazon tradition survives: It’s alive and well in the dreamy head of my 9-year-old boy. Now, none of this suggests that threats aren’t real or my son’s interest in toxic froggies is a substitute for preserving the indigenous cultures of the world. It’s just heartening to see evidence of the earth trying to save itself ... a little poison dart froggy culture planting a seed in a 9-year-old's brain that could sprout elsewhere.

Of course you may be saying, "John, have you given any thought to why your son has this interest in poison blow darts?" Okay, fair question, but blog posts are supposed to be short. I’m not going there... Today anyway.

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