a chapter from Americaa

The Ellwoods are fourth-generation ranchers. Roger, Connie, four kids. On Sundays, we all drive to church in town. That’s where I met them when the Outlaw Inn receptionist and her family took me along the first time. I got a gig on the Ellwoods’ ranch now, and rent a cabin for 20 bucks a month.

An intriguing li’l faith tribe these kindly folks are. When we take meals or chat on the porch or wherever we happen to have bunched, there’s typically a lot of laughter. A special kind of laughter, triggered not so much by looking at things in an off-the-wall way, but flowing out of a steady gladness of being. One reason is, I figure, that they don’t watch TV, don’t listen to the radio, don’t go to the movies, even the local paper they buy only on the weekends and mainly for the local news. They even remove the radios and the antennas, and the ashtrays of course, from their cars.

“Gimmie the pliers,” I bid them, “I’ll do the same in my buggy!”

They laugh.

Well, let’s look at it this way. What person can rinse clean their puny soul from all the world’s slag, the anxiety, the worry, which day by day, hour by hour, a trillion after trillion bytes like bad manna fall upon us through ever cheaper, abler, more ubiquitous electronic ducts? All that hail of “the news” from around the globe, the hourly drizzle of human shams, shakedowns, rip-offs and scams, the detailed minutes of disasters, natural and mechanical, murders personal and international, gossip local and global―are we sure we have the evolutionary means to digest it all emotionally, intellectually, morally, spiritually, just like our stomachs process white bread? And white bread they aren’t, they're unwise nutritional bits giving our taste a “high,” teasing it toward an immediate gratification, this time in the realm of soul.

For most of our evolutionary history the collective part of our psyche was being shaped towards operating within small bands. Such collective devises as “countries,” “nations,” or even larger tribal groupings, even plain hordes, have developed only in the last ten thousand years or so. In the previous 200 or 300 thousand years, or two million (depending on the current simian origin theory), humans lived and evolved in bands made up of a few hundred members, tops. That’s 95-plus percent of our evolutionary time.

In our day, evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar of Oxford has developed a credible theory linking the neocortex of the brain to group behavior. His point: the volume and structure of that “new bark” responsible for the higher functions such as language, conscious thought, spatial reasoning, was set around a quarter million years ago and evolutionarily is quite specifically limited. It can operate efficiently within a network of about 150 active personal connections. Hence the so-called “Dunbar’s number.”

In a similar mode, many contemporary sects typically organize themselves into local churches of 20-40 believers, which then gather monthly in the “fellowship” meetings of about 100-150, and annually in a convention of up to several thousand. Of these, the monthly meeting of 100-200 faithful appears to be the liveliest, the most satisfying community wise. From experience I speak. Besides, when the Christian faith was strongest in Europe, it was anchored in hundreds of thousands of rural and small-town communities of similar parishioner capacity.

You may have experienced the feeling when after many years you revisited your childhood country. The street, the woods, the stream, the baseball or soccer patch. The cherry tree in the orchard, the primer’s cover in the closet in the basement, if the old home is still there. Similarly, when one has a chance to spend time around one of those grumpy Protestant church-tribes, they too can take you to the childhood country pretty sweetly. In them, we re-live the child phase of our group behavior. They take us back in evolutionary time to the Paleolithic in us, the earliest forms of our collective conduct, when the “societies” were no more than a couple hundred members strong.