I’m reading a book that I love so much I can hardly put it down: Euphoria, by Lily King. It’s a work of fiction based loosely on the lives of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, written so richly that you feel the lush beauty and terror of the jungles of New Guinea and its denizens deep in your bones. It’s the next best thing to being there (but without the bot flies).
I’m not going to review the book—I haven’t even finished it yet. But already I’m struck by the main-character anthropologists. The Bateson-like character tells of his first field experience, in which he was so clueless that all he could think to do was go around measuring the cranial circumference of all the people in his village and then retire to his tent to write it all down. The Mead-type, conversely, wasted no time in her first field study befriending the women and living as they did, sharing their work, washing and cooking with them, coming to understand their complex social relationships.
I can’t help but think of my friend and author, the late Christine Franquemont. The years she spent living in Chinchero, Peru—living with the people, not as a visiting scientist—gave her insights I would never have if I visited that community a hundred times, no matter how cordial and welcoming the people are. She understood not just what they did and why they did it, but how they felt and what it meant to them. She brought this deep understanding to her writing in Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes, and much of what she said was a revelation to me. You can’t get that being a mere observer.
I’m not sure why the yearning to understand people in other cultures runs so deep; heck, I can’t even understand the ones in my own household sometimes. Maybe I should start keeping field notes. But meanwhile, back to that book.
Ps – the cover of Euphoria is a closeup view of the inner bark of the Rainbow Gum tree (Eucalyptus deglupta). It really looks like that.