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Excerpt from Songs of the Dead

Luck (p. 148)

From chapter "Thunder"

In 2003, researchers set up remote cameras in the Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary in East Malaysia. In August that year, one of the cameras snapped a single picture of a Borneo bay cat, a wild animal the size of a large domestic cat with an extremely long tail. The sighting was significant in part because the Borneo bay cat had not been observed by humans since 1992, and had been thought to be extinct.

In 2005, in swampy forests in Arkansas, scientists videotaped an ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in the United States. On seeing the woodpecker, one of the scientists put his head in his hands and began to sob: although there had been many rumored sightings of the bird over the last seventy years, this was the first undeniable proof that the ivory-billed woodpecker lived.

Also in 2005, a botany graduate student at UC Berkeley found a dozen Mount Diablo buckwheat plants blooming on the side of that mountain. This was the first time a human being had seen this plant since 1936. No human knows where the plants have been in the meantime, or why they chose to bloom right then.

And yet again in 2005, an ecologist found a species of grass—california dissanthelium—who hadn’t been seen by humans in more than ninety years on Santa Catalina Island. The grass used to grow on three different islands, but had not been seen since 1912.

All over the world, in jungles, in mountain lairs, in swamps and desert caves, in other places, too, places they are safe, plants and animals are lying low, ghost dancing, waiting for their time to return. Perhaps the cannibal sickness—perhaps God—isn’t so powerful as we fear, isn’t so powerful as it wants us to think.

Or perhaps it is.

Have you ever considered how extraordinarily lucky the Europeans were—how lucky they had to be—in order to conquer the Americas? Have you ever considered the delicate thread of circumstance—of which the fraying and snapping of any part could have doomed the whole endeavor—that led to these stunning European victories? European civilization was at the time of Columbus on its last legs, having already hyper-exploited much of that continent’s resource base well past the breaking point. Without a massive influx of resources—in other words, without the discovery, conquest, and exploitation of new continents—European cities and cultures would soon have begun to collapse.

What would have happened to European civilization— to this whole wétiko culture—if, for example, Columbus had turned back on his first voyage, as many of his men wanted? The trip was far longer than anyone—including Columbus— had anticipated. To keep his crew from mutinying, Columbus kept two logs: one known only to him, showing the accurate distance traveled each day; and one grossly underreporting to his crew the distance they’d traveled from Europe. What if his deception hadn’t worked? It almost didn’t. By October 10, the only way Columbus could keep his crew from mutinying was by promising that if they didn’t sight land within two days they’d turn back. Well, we all know what happened October 12, and we all know why October 12 is a day of celebration for wétikos and a day of mourning for everyone else. How would the world look today had the crew made their demands one day sooner? What if the currents on which the ships rode had been one day slower, the land one day farther away? What if the crew had known that Columbus would steal not only from those whose land they “discovered,” but from them as well?

Or what if Columbus hadn’t landed at what is now called Hispaniola, had not first encountered the Arawaks, of whom he wrote, “They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. . . . They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want”? What if instead the wétikos would have first encountered a more warlike group of people, a group of people ready to defend themselves, ready to kill Columbus and crew to the last man? What if Columbus had never returned to Europe? How long would it have been before any crown repeated the folly of spending so much money to send someone to sail so far to the west? Would it have happened before Europe entered an irreversible and hopefully terminal decline?

When Hernando Cortés invaded what is now Mexico with only six hundred men, twenty horses, and ten small cannons, what would have happened had the inhabitants of the region not had long-held myths that told them of fair-skinned gods coming from the east in sailing ships? Who gave them those myths? Who taught them those lessons, lessons which would destroy them? What would have happened had Cortés not found Indian nations with whom he could ally against the Aztecs (only to subjugate these others once their usefulness had passed)? What if these Indians had slaughtered him on the beaches, as he later slaughtered them in their homes and streets, in mines, in forests, plains, deserts, hills?

The Europeans could not have conquered the Americas without the assistance of smallpox and other diseases, introduced both intentionally and accidentally. How different would the world look today if the Indians would not have been wiped out by these diseases? Would we be experiencing worldwide ecological collapse had the Europeans not given but received smallpox, carried it back home with them, had the civilized and not the indigenous suffered from its effects, and thus had the Europeans not been able to steal the resources and the land of those in the western hemisphere?

Something as insubstantial as fog saved Hitler’s life. Something as short as a single day, something as small as a virus, saved European civilization from crashing.