Andrew Saltarelli’s Joycean tour de force, Leaving Home, is a meditation on our hunter-gatherer predecessors and what we now must learn from them. He calls his genre-defying book a “poetical argument.” It is more—a journey both back in time and inward to our core, to the place of tranquility and laughter, to kinship round the fire.
He begins by exploring the Ohlone, Chumash, and Kalahari before opening onto a broad plain, where he touches on ten thousand things—ritual, the beginnings of agriculture, the submergence of hunter-gatherer consciousness, grammar, anthropomorphism, warfare, redness, dreaming, nurture, dogs, grandmothers, property, initiation, climate change, menstruation, Kant, otherness, hunting, farming, Hebrew prophets, food storage, is there a normative ontogeny, arrowheads, grief, metaphor, why porcupines should be killed last—all of these dots connected loosely and sometimes, it seems, magically.
All attempts to prune this long argument back have risked turning it into the thing from which it is trying to awaken the reader—the reduced field, narrowed vision, diminished sensory awareness, and quashed joy of the overcivilized human. Several years ago I became hooked on reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3500-page epic nonfiction novel, My Struggle. Like me, many reported they couldn’t get enough of it. Reviewers noted the author’s inability to leave anything out, his need for “inexhaustibility.” The same may be said of Leaving Home. Its length reflects the plenitude of the world we are on the verge of losing.
For Saltarelli the wounds of civilization are personal as well as historical. That is why the book’s subjective component is an important, not an accidental or superﬂuous, element. Saltarelli’s liminal relationship to our civilization also makes his critiques of Thoreau, Henry James, Wendell Berry, John Muir, and anyone else whose work he examines, especially fascinating; his view of them is far outside the frame in which we normally view cultural and literary icons. It’s because of where he’s not standing that he has something important to say about the current disintegration and what might come after it. (Reading this manuscript and seeing human existence through the hunter-gatherer lens reminded me of the thrill of seeing Christianity for the ﬁrst time through the eyes of Ludwig Feuerbach.)
What might we as a species become when this system has run its course, when capitalism has exhausted its welcome? What is “the way of the human being,” as Calvin Luther Martin puts it? What other ways are there to live than the ones that brought us here? That is the terrain this remarkable book explores.
—Edward Levy, poet and editor of numerous award-winning books, whose clients include Princeton University Press, Doubleday, Random House, and SUNY Press.