ISHMAEL is a book destined to be loved by those who love it and hated by those
who do not. It will be read and cherished by some, and studiously avoided and
censored by others. The key message is that it is up to us to understand our
own history and learn to respect our environment and live sustainably, perhaps
for the first time in recorded history. Jim Saveland, a fire ecologist from
the WO, gives us a brief sketch of ISHMAEL and interrelates it both to our
contemporary Forest Service life and to other books.
ISHMAEL, Daniel Quinn, Bantum/Turner Books ISBN:0-553-56166-9
Several people in business that I had met at various conferences had
recommended that I read Ishmael, especially when they found out that I was an
ecologist. Peter Senge mentioned the book in his introduction to the Fifth
Discipline Fieldbook. And then on page 304 of the Fieldbook is this
description of Ishmael:
by Daniel Quinn
Bantam/Turner Books, 1992, Paperback, 263 p.
ISBN 0-553-37540-7 $10.95
Reviewed by Jim Saveland
"When building shared vision includes ongoing reflection about our deepest
problems, it lifts us out of the frame of our existing aspirations, and
opens the doors to new ones. This novel does the same--not for an
organization, but for the human species. Civilization has built its own
hierarchy of meaning based on fragmentation, starting with the separation
of man from nature and the belief that evolution ended with us.
Consequently, we have become "takers" not "leavers," putting all succeeding
generations at risk. In Ishmael, Daniel Quinn uses a fictional teacher (a
gorilla in dialogue with a man) to trace the history of the story of
separation, domination, and isolation "we have been telling ourselves" for
thousands of years, and to suggest an alternative. Besides its potent
message, the book is itself a demonstration of how a shared vision, even
one that seems unlikely at first, can grow."
So when I saw Ishmael on sale at the 1995 Systems Thinking in Action
Conference, I decided to buy it and read it. There was another book that I
purchased that also had been highly recommended: Who Speaks for Wolf: A Native
American Learning Story, by Paula Underwood, A Tribe of Two Press, San Anselmo,
1991, ISBN 1-879678-01-2. S12.
I find it hard to put into words the power and beauty of Ishmael. On the
back cover are excerpts from newspaper reviews such as the one from The Austin
Chronicle, "[Ishmael] is as suspenseful, inventive, and socially urgent as any
fiction or nonfiction you are likely to read this or any other year." It
certainly was that. At one point I thought about the book, The Goal. What The
Goal is to Total Quality, Ishmael is to Learning Organizations; that is, a
profound work of fiction that encapsulates the key concepts. Yet, to compare
Ishmael to any other book does not do it justice.
So what's Ishmael about? While I was reading the last several pages, I
could not contain my enthusiasm. My nine year old son, who was in the same
room, could not help but notice. He asked me if it was a book that he could
read and understand. I replied that he'd probably have to wait awhile before
he could read it. So he asked me what it was about. Earlier in the day I had
come across a quote from Aldo Leopold that I thought pretty well summed up
Ishmael, so I quoted Leopold, "We abuse the land because we regard it as a
commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong,
we may begin to use it with love and respect." I had to do a little
interpreting to put Leopold's words in the language of a nine year old, and
then quick as a whip my son replied, "Oh, you mean like in Chief Seattle's
speech, especially the part where he says, 'The earth does not belong to us. We
belong to the earth.'" I was amazed. All I could say was, "You got it."
Later on I also thought about Vice President Gore's book, Earth in the
Balance. While there are a lot of the details in Gore's book that can be
debated, he got the core problem statement right when he said, "the global
environmental crisis is rooted in the dysfunctional pattern of our
civilization's relationship to the natural world." Our relationship to the
community of life is what Ishmael is about. The overriding flaw in Gore's book
is his underlying mental model - that only by creating a crisis (a "vision of
doom") can something meaningful be accomplished. The counterpoint from
"All along, I've been saying to myself, 'Yes, this is all very
interesting, but what good is it? This isn't going to change anything!'"
There were some parts of the book that particularly resonated with me and
have a lot to say to the Forest Service. The Forest Service has had difficulty
with building shared vision and our focus on "the historical or 'natural' range
of variability" in the Forest planning process is cause for concern. From the
"This is what we need. Not just stopping things. Not just less of
things. People need something positive to work for. They need a vision of
something that . . . I don't know. Something that . . ."
"I think what you're groping for is that people need more than to be
scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty. They need more
than a vision of doom. They need a vision of the world and of themselves
that inspires them."
"Yes. Definitely. Stopping pollution is not inspiring. Sorting your
trash is not inspiring. Cutting down on fluorocarbons is not inspiring. But
this . . . thinking of ourselves in a new way, thinking of the world in a
new way . . . This . . ."
I let it go. What the hell, he knew what I was trying to say.
"One thing I know people will say to me is 'Are you suggesting we go
back to being hunter-gatherers?'"
That message is extremely important to the Forest Service and bears repeating,
OUR TASK IS NOT TO REACH BACK BUT TO REACH FORWARD.
"That of course is an inane idea," Ishmael said. "The Leaver
life-style isn't about hunting and gathering, it's about letting the rest
of the community live--and agriculturalists can do that as well as
hunter-gatherers." He paused and shook his head. "What I've been at pains
to give you is a new paradigm of human history. The Leaver life is not an
antiquated thing that is 'back there' somewhere. Your task is not to reach
back but to reach forward."
And then there is the subject of workforce diversity, an issue that many
organizations are struggling with today. From Ishmael:
"There is one significant difference between the inmates of your
criminal prisons and the inmates of your cultural prison: The former
understand that the distribution of wealth and power inside the prison has
nothing to do with justice."
One thing that caught me by surprise in Ishmael was the profound
interpretation of Genesis. From Ishmael:
I blinked at him for a while, then asked him to explain.
"In your cultural prison, which inmates wield the power?"
"Ah," I said, "The male inmates. Especially the white male inmates."
"Yes, that's right. But you understand that these white male inmates
are indeed inmates and not warders. For all their power and privilege--for
all that they lord it over everyone else in the prison--not one of them has
a key that will unlock the gate."
"Yes, that's true. Donald Trump can do a lot of things I can't, but he
can no more get out of the prison than I can. But what does this have to do
"Justice demands that people other than white males have power in the
"Yes, I see. But what are you saying? That this isn't true?"
"True? Of course it's true that males--and, as you say, especially
white males--have called the shots inside the prison for thousands of
years, perhaps even from the beginning. Of course it's true that this is
unjust. And of course it's true that power and wealth within the prison
should be equitably redistributed. But it should be noted that what is
crucial to your survival as a race is not the redistribution of power and
wealth within the prison but rather the destruction of the prison itself."
"Yes, I see that. But I'm not sure many other people would."
"No. Among the politically active, the redistribution of wealth and
power is . . . I don't know what to call it that would be strong enough. An
idea whose time has come. The Holy Grail."
"Nonetheless, breaking out of the Taker prison is a common cause to
which all humanity can subscribe."
I shook my head. "I'm afraid it's a cause to which almost none of
humanity will subscribe. White or colored, male or female, what the people
of this culture want is to have as much wealth and power in the Taker
prison as they can get. They don't give a damn that it's a prison and they
don't give a damn that it's destroying the world."
Ishmael shrugged. "As always, you're a pessimist. Perhaps you're
right. I hope you're wrong."
"You'd just finished showing me that the story in Genesis that begins
with the Fall of Adam and ends with the murder of Abel is not what it's
conventionally understood to be by the people of my culture. It's the
story of our agricultural revolution as told by some of the earliest
victims of that revolution."
And then, later on in Ishmael:
"And there are two trees in the garden, one for the gods and one for
us. The one for them is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and
the one for us is the Tree of Life. But we can only find the Tree of Life
if we stay in the garden--and we can only stay in the garden if we keep our
hands off the gods' tree."
The details are fascinating, but I'll leave that for you to discover. For
those who have read Ishmael or will read it, I offer the following additional
insight. One thing this book caused me to do was immediately reread Genesis.
The following image of fire struck a chord with me:
"...a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of
life." Genesis 3:24
After just reading Ishmael, the image that popped into my mind was not a
threatening fire, but the council fire. From Who Speaks for Wolf:
"For those who understand the meaning of the Central Fire, there can
be no explanation. For those who not yet see the mounting flames calling
the hunter from his forest, the farmer from her field, gathering the People
to share their wisdom toward a shared decision ... know that each Council
Fire was lit as a beacon, forming the center toward which all faced. No
one of the People was the Fire. Yet the Fire was their Center,..."
All in all, a great read. I heartily recommend Ishmael to anyone and
everyone. Who Speaks for Wolf is right up there too.
Jim Saveland "The cultured might call him heathenish,
Fire Ecologist This man of few words, because his one care
Fire & Atmospheric Sci. Research Is not to interfere but to let nature renew
USDA Forest Service The sense of direction men undo." Lao Tzu