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Being in Nature

I have a Twitter account but, far from engaging in embittered political crosstalk, I enjoy it for some weird little hobbies. I am on a “Mudlark” feed, for example, that shows me pictures of interesting historical items dug out of the thick Thames mud at London’s low tides; I hear from a number of British nature sites about the flora and fauna of fens and bogs in East Anglia; and I follow a couple of artists whose work grabs me by the middle.

Among these is a Welsh painter named Jackie Morris, who, when she discovered that the Oxford Junior Dictionary has dropped words like newt, acorn, bluebell, dandelion, heron, otter and wren  to make room for terms like blog and voicemail, dedicated a painting to each linguistically  banished object. The result was  The Lost Words,   which has taken UK classrooms by storm and launched a movement to “re-wild” childhood.

These stunning paintings illustrate poems and spells by Robert Macfarlane, who, my twitter feed tells me, is perhaps the best nature writer in England today. Which sent me, of course, haring off after his books until I got my hands on Landmarks for some absorbing summer reading.

Macfarlane’s  first chapter is about the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. He describes the twentieth century nature writer Nan Shepherd’s lifelong love for the area and how, in her lifetime of exploration and terrific climbs, she found them “’not of myself, but in myself,’” experiencing a profound sense, as Macfarlane puts it,  of “the inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.”

“While half asleep on the plutonic granite of the plateau she feels herself become stone-like, ‘rooted far down in their immobility’, metamorphosed by the igneous rocks into a new mineral self. Shepherd is a fierce see-er, then, and like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence.”66

An empiricist arriving at mysticism through immanence? And why does this series of abstractions, which probably leave you cold, fill me from head to toe with recognition?

Let’s start with some definitions

Empiricism:   Most of my friends are secular humanists, and this is where they come from: all of our knowledge derives from observation of what is going on in the material world and from applying the scientific method by proposing hypotheses and validating them by experiment.

Mysticism: This is where I am coming from. In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the 14 alternate Gospels declared heretical by the early church, Jesus locates the kingdom of heaven within creation, which includes the human individual and natural objects: “split a piece of wood, and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” While official Christianity rejected materiality, declaring  human beings existentially flawed while valuing only what was  super-natural, mystics through the ages have continued to seek God in nature.

Immanentism: The belief that the world is pervaded with divinity. Or, as Spinoza put it, “God is nature.”

All right, but why does all of this move me through and through? Through and through is the point, here. One morning last week I was leaving Frankfort, Michigan on my way home from errands when I had a whim to take a walk along the Betsie Bay lagoon. 

The Path along the Betsie Bay Lagoon

That late in the morning, I doubted there would be any birds to see, but I took my binocs anyway and entered a path where willows shimmered in a light wind off the bay and the air was redolent with honeysuckle. Cedar Waxwings were dipping and swooping in and out of a grove of sumacs heavy with dried berries; a Warbling Vireo (a little grey and brown bird which I rarely catch sight of among the high canopy) was warbling away in plain sight; a Vesper Sparrow was sitting on a low branch, while within the sweetness of the honeysuckle a Yellow Warbler sang “Sweet, sweet – I’m so sweet,” a Common Yellowthroat called imperiously to declare his nesting rights among the reeds, and a House Wren hopped along the fence in full throat, like a bubbling little wooden waterfall.

Did I mention that I have been quite anxious lately, getting my knickers all in a twist over family worries  and my own ego dramas? All of that dissolved entirely away as I was seized from head to toe by the sight and sound, wind and fragrance I was experiencing then, on that path,  in that particular moment.

Did I “loose myself” in nature? No, I was right there in heart and in body and in mind,  profoundly embedded in the material world as I took my  place with birds and fragrance, song and wind in our earthly paradise   as a mere element of rather than imperious thinker about a natural world shot through and through with divinity. 

It Is 2034, and Trump is Still President!

“And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills,” queried poet William Blake in dismay at the destruction that industrialization was wreaking on England’s “Green and Pleasant Land.”

 Jonathan Greenberg’s America 2034: Utopia Rising, where the long-time President now calls himself Donald Jesus Trump, depicts the triumph of mercenary cruelty over human comfort.  Like most dystopias, his book is dark and full of gloom; fortunately, he devotes equal time to what a better world would be like.

Here is the Book Review and Author Interview I wrote for Impakter, a European online magazine full of interesting articles. 

Socrates and Me

When I was getting ready for college, I expected that everyone would be sitting around under the trees discussing Plato. I could hardly wait; but when I got there, everyone was sitting around under the trees discussing “boys.”

When, after long years of graduate school, I finally landed a job as an Assistant Professor at a big university, I expected intellectual conversations among my peers.  Although I facilitated  philosophical discussion among my students, as the years went by my fellow faculty developed lockstep loyalty to a theory called deconstruction and were impatient when I refused to adopt it. If I asked a question like “What do you think is the meaning of life,” they  answered that all meanings are “socially constructed” and reprimanded me that,  if I thought otherwise, I was being deplorably “essentialist.”

When I  quit all that to become a full time writer, I  discovered, from a book by Christopher Phillips, that I might find stimulating intellectual conversation if I started a Socrates Cafe like his.  He also developed Democracy Cafes and Constitution Cafes,  conducting them not only on campuses but in elementary schools, prisons, and public squares.





That was in in 2007, and it wasn’t long before I enjoyed probing, explorative discussions on every topic we could imagine.  Where in universities (and especially, in law schools) “Socratic Dialogue” involves such intense argumentation that it easily slides into attack mode,  in Phillips’ style of discussion we avoid  challenging, interrupting, or rebutting each other.  As a teacher, I insisted that my students avoid that kind of viscerally verbal competition because  it stirs up such strong fright and flight emotions that their brains are flooded and they can’t  think at all.  Phillips also finds that respectful discussion and active listening,  rather than scheming your rebuttal in your head, opens rather than closes the mind.

The resulting atmosphere of open-mindedness, where opinion gives way to thought and one question leads to another,  makes every participant a true intellectual.  Anyone who wants to submits a question anonymously; then we vote for which one we will pursue that day. We don’t expect to find a final answer to our questions,  just leave with a lot of new ones.

Here’s a random pick –

Where is your center?  What is the center?     What determines belonging?     Define  normal?     Which truth is “truth”?    What is Common Sense?     What did Jean Paul Sartre mean by being “condemned to be free?”    What is a fact?     What is a good death and do we have a right to one?    Why are we here?  What is integrity?     If we each have “our own worlds” how do we manage to get along?     What is character? Can it be taught?  What is “doing the right thing” and what is that all about?  What is time!

And what do you think?

Wild Speculations and Ruptured Paradigms

Last summer I wrote an essay about whether climate warming will cause the extinction of the human species, so when I came across an article by Lucy Jakub on “Wild Speculation: Evolution After Humans,” I was interested in her startlingly idiosyncratic take.

I  spend many happy hours facilitating Socrates Cafes, where people ask philosophical questions and examine philosophical premises in an open-minded and open-hearted manner. As I read Jakub’s survey of speculative writing about the end of the species, I found myself querying the writers’ premises about how we got to this pass.

Geologist Dougal Dixon  (who assumes in those innocent years that it is a new Ice Age that will do us in) devotes his 1981 After Man to a scientific study, based on evolutionary genetics, of life forms that might evolve when we are gone.

“Humans go extinct because we lose our evolutionary advantage by adapting our environment to our needs, rather than the other way around.  When the resources needed to maintain our civilizations run out, we are unable to adapt quickly enough to survive. Crucially, nothing takes our place, and the planet reverts to an Edenic state, uncorrupted by knowledge.”

Let’s look at this philosophically: Dixon considers our capacity for adaption the fruit of our advanced cognition, which  isn’t advanced enough to prevent us from depleting our own ecosystem. But if this is so, is it our knowledge that corrupts us or poor choices about how to use it?

We did not all make those choices. Only a small (if powerful) elite of westernized humans – mostly male and mostly industrialists (think of Wordsworth! Think of Dickinson!) propose such a preposterous idea. Their presumption that human beings are separate from and in control of nature serves their bottom line and profit motive, while the rest of us have come to realize that we are more like ruinous genes running amok within it.

Jakubs  describes the “Speculative world-building,” of science fiction as a way to explore solutions to our environmental predicament. But Pierre Boulle, in his 1963  Planet of the Apes, is less worried about what is happening to the environment than what is happening in the pecking order, namely “man’s fall from dominance,” while Brian Aldiss, similarly, frets in his 1962 novel Hothouse that human beings have ceded control to (of all things) vegetation.

Do you see the pattern here? Nature (apes, plants) is a terrifying external force usurping human  power/over everything.

As we move into recent decades, however, Jakub notes that the “bourgeoning environmental movement led to a new genre, Eco-fiction, whose authors -Ursula K. Le Guin, Louise Erdrich, and Barbara Kingsolver- are especially beloved – mourned not the fall or humanity but the degradation of nature and our lost connection to it, and whose utopias didn’t necessarily include humans.”

Is it just a coincidence that the three authors she cites are women?  Or is the premise that nature is a degradable  “other” less  universal than it seems?

When women novelists write about nature there is a significant gender difference in our premises. In the 1980s I analyzed more than 300 novels by women to compare women heroes’ quests to those outlined (for “man”) by Joseph Campbell. What I found was that while his male hero took women as both “other” and embedded in an alien and dangerous realm of nature,” women saw themselves as deeply integrated in and interdependent with the green world around them.

In recent years, both men and women have embraced the Gaia hypothesis that our planet is an organism within which we and all other life-forms live and must maintain a mutually beneficial balance.  Meanwhile, Eco-fiction has become a widespread and popular genre to the extent that Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction lists more than 1000 volumes from all over the world.

Mary Woodbury, its most thoroughgoing curator, describes Eco-fiction (as) ecologically oriented fiction, which may be nature-oriented (non-human oriented) or environment-oriented (human impacts on nature). . .Eco-Fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us – our natural habitat.”

Ecology deals with the interactions of organisms within a system and takes human beings as one of those organisms. Eco-Fiction. in Woodbury’s definition,  is connective and understands nature as our commons. How we are to do the work of that connection and how we are to take our rightful place within that commons are questions this excitingly speculative new genre raises in our minds and hearts through the deep truths of storytelling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Joy of Natural Curiosity

You would think that when I am at my river cottage in Northern Michigan I would sit back, close my eyes, and relax.  I have the most comfortable deck chair you can imagine, fitted out with the most sybaritic of cushions, but I keep leaping up to see what is splashing in the river or to examine a flower I have suddenly noticed growing on the bank.

This summer I have read three books, dipping into each as the whim possesses me: The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861, Walter Isaacson’s   Leonardo Da Vinci, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.

“How sweet is the perception of a new natural fact! Suggesting what worlds remain to be unveiled,” exclaims Thoreau on April 18, 1852. “That phenomenon of the Andromeda  seen against the sun cheers me exceedingly.

I think that no one ever takes an original or detects a principle, without experiencing an inexpressible, as quite infinite and sane, pleasure, which advertises him of the dignity of that truth he has perceived.”

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “curiosity,” notes Isaacson, “like that of Einstein, often was about phenomena that people over the age of  ten no longer puzzle about.”

Leonardo’s puzzlings are scribbled over 7,200 pages of notebooks that Isaacson deftly organizes by topics. “My favorite gems in his notebooks,” he acknowledges, “are his To-Do lists, which sparkle with curiosity.”

From Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do Lists:

 “Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.”

“Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heaver and thicker than the air?”

“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.”

“Why is the sky blue?”

“Why can our eyes see only in a straight line?”

“What is yawning?”

I am way over the age of ten, but I retain a ten year old’s curiosity. I am always trying to figure out what is going on in nature – slogging through the wetlands to see what the beaver are up to, chasing up and down the river after sandpipers, or lying flat on my belly trying to figure out what Kimmerer means about the structure of mosses.

And what a joy I feel to see my sixteen year old grandaughter and thirteen year old grandson  bent over their nets and collecting jars, closely examining crawfish, dragonfly nymphs, minnows, and tiny river lampreys – curious as ever about the diverse and fascinating abundance of river life.

There is a lovely swathe of emerald, velvety moss right in front of my cottage that brings joy to our bare feet as we race down to swim in the river. After reading my book on mosses, it has revealed an eternity in itself.

Biologist Kimmerer and her assistant crouch on the forest floor, devising multiple experiments to figure out why Dictanum Flagellare shares space with Tetraphis pellucida  rather than compete with each other, as might ordinarily be expected of different moss species. Is it the wind? Is it slugs, they ask themselves, and create a sticky surface to see what might be crawling around. The answer, after two long summers of mosquitoes, sore backs, and discarded  hypotheses?  Chipmunks!

“Part of the fascination of working with mosses,” writes Kimmerer, “is the chance to see if and when the ecological rules of the large transcend the boundaries of scale and will illuminate the behavior of the smallest beings. It is a search for order, a desire for a glimpse of the threads that hold the world together.” P. 58

All three of the authors I read this summer – a nineteenth century New England naturalist, a Renaissance genius, and a Potawatomi scientist –   focus on minute particulars, tiny details like how a curl of hair resembles a river eddy (Leonardo), the motions a great blue heron’s wings make as it takes off (Thoreau), and the tiny sharp outgrowths that allow dried out moss to conduct raindrops to its ovules (Kimmerer). They possess an intense curiosity, an eye for the details of minute particulars, and a tendency to joy in  nature.

May it be so, and blessed be.

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What About Those Whitefish?

WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHITEFISH?

Review of Dan Egan, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. W.W. Norton: New York, 2017

I don’t know about you, but I have always considered evolution a long, drawn-out process, requiring thousands of years of mutations for genes to adapt.

That was before I got to thinking about recent developments among our Whitefish.

The Great Lakes, chockablock with fresh water fish like Lake Trout, Perch, Whitefish, Walleye and Chub, were landlocked for millennia. Few adaptions were needed in such static conditions. until the St. Lawrence Seaway and its associated locks opened pathways for creatures like the Sea Lamprey, Alewife, Quagga and Zebra Mussels to invade us.

And we all know what happened then.

Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes (which is also a compellingly readable history of sportfishing)  accounts for the invasions and die-offs that have plagued our fisheries since the 1950s.  First, the dread Sea Lamprey attached itself to the bellies of Lake Trout and Whitefish to suck their blood dry. They were no sooner extirpated by a scientifically produced toxin than the Alewives, their natural predators having been decimated by the lamprey, multiplied exponentially. However, overpopulation,  predation from the newly introduced Chinook and Coho Salmon,  and kidneys inefficient at processing fresh water cut Alewife numbers significantly.

Quagga and Zebra Mussels, flushed into lake waters with ship ballast, went to work on the surviving Alewives’ plankton supply, that also happened to feed the little shrimp-like critters Whitefish need to survive.

Fortunately, there was an ugly little invasive bottom feeder called a Gobie, whose round mouth is ringed with razor sharp teeth to crack mussel shells and get at the flesh inside.

Which brings me back to our Whitefish. Almost overnight, they suddenly adapted to eat not only the invasive mussels but the sharp-toothed Gobie.  Scientists were surprised to find “a paste of crushed mussel shell” in Whitefish excrement, causing them obvious pain from  a kind of fish hemorrhoids.

“But then nature stepped in,” Egan explains; they developed a “stiff ridge on their bellies” to help digest the tough shells.  Not only that, they began to eat the Gobies, sharp teeth and all, creating a whole new food chain.

A traditional Great Lakes Fisherman named Ken Koren, who was one of the first to report these sudden developments, said that he felt like he was “watching evolution at work.”

If evolution works that fast, can other plants and creatures adapt fast enough to maintain abundance despite the ravages of climate change?

The problem is humans. Or, as Pogo puts it, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Egan quotes a fishermen named Hendrickson who insists he is “’absolutely’ convinced the species is evolving before his eyes.

‘What we’re seeing with the whitefish, well, they might be the most adaptable fish in nature…..They’re more adaptable than some people I know.'”

Nature Rising?

My old friend Helen Klebesadel created this vision of “Nature Rising” in watercolor. “In this painting,” she explains, “the flying crow contains the forest trees, representing the interconnection of all parts of nature, including the human element.”

We humans tend to forget that we do not stand above and outside of nature, but are intricately interwoven within it. This winter the northern jet stream weakened to leave us shivering in temperatures that should have remained in the Arctic, and the rest of the country has experienced horrific storms, floods, and wildfires all year long. These disturbing events have left me worried over whether enough species will be able to adapt to climate change for nature itself to survive.

There is a newly popular term, “The Anthropocene,” indicating this epoch (following the Pleistocene) when humans have overwhelmingly influenced the planet. It carries an “aren’t we awful” connotation, casting a  gloomy light upon our culpability and the possible demise of our own species along with all of the others.

Several years ago, I made the (internet) acquaintance of Claude Forthomme, an Eco-Fiction writer, economist, and a retired Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia of Food and Agriculture at the United Nations. She is Senior Editor at Impakter, a European online magazine where she has published several of my articles.

I spend a frozen January writing an Impakter review of three books about nature’s awe-inspiring intricate particulars and a fourth about human culpability and anthropocentric doom .

Here is my review, with my take on whether human beings or nature will be the greatest planetary influence in the years to come:

http://bit.ly/2EWxycs

 

Has Anyone Ever Died For Lack of Gossip?

I often asked myself this question when my soul shuddered down the mute corridors of my academic department, where a heavy silence always prevailed.  There were no huddles of chatting professors, no voices to be heard except those of cowed students from behind closed office doors, nor did my colleagues ever pause to chat on the sofas of our comfortably furnished faculty lounge.

My University of Wisconsin culture was totally different from  Wayne State, where my husband Henry taught. Everywhere in his building you could be distracted  by  gaggles of fascinating gossip, both personal – “and do you know she said…and then, the gall of it, he said.. and political – an ever-fraught entanglement of academic cliques and territoriality.

Here’s a poem I wrote then:

We are born for a web of words, an embracing patter about baseball plays, whose mother called,

what she said, what you said, who is born and who is dying. 

Sometimes in the store when I pass by women talking all together, I feel a terrible hunger – has anyone ever died for lack of gossip?    

Well, what do you know? My feeling that gossip is a mortal necessity turns out to correct. According to Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, his striking new book on human history, around 70,000 years ago (about halfway into our 150,000 year residence on this planet)  human beings experienced a “Cognitive Revolution.”  As hunter-gatherers, we had communicated with our own bands and a few others nearby, but now we were able to exchange

larger quantities of information about the world surrounding” us, to have “the ability to transmit large quantities of information about Sapiens social relationships,” and also to “transmit information about things that really do not exist, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies, and human rights” (p.17).

Harari thinks that It all began with gossip, the passing along of personal, social, and spiritual information garnered from far and wide, an exchange of information that become the covenantal glue binding cities, nations, and civilizations.

We live by legal and social agreements; we are all in covenant, one with the other.

 

When our social agreements begin to crumble, argues New York Times columnist, David Brooks 

“We’re going to have to restore and re-enchant the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole deal.”

The cognitive mind-set of the far right perceives liberal progressives like me as so existentially “other” that they dismiss everything we say as “lying propaganda.”  To our shame, from within our similarly obdurate cognitive bubbles we  demonize them as deplorably stupid, inexorably evil and  unworthy of our conversation.

Our national covenant, the constitution,  prescribes a balance of powers within which we can thrash out our differences; it presumes that if citizens  exchange ideas it will be possible for us all to reach a compromise.  If, in both our personal and civic behavior, we cast aside our national covenant about how to handle disagreement, our democracy is in peril.

So this Thanksgiving, lets try good old gossip for starters, perhaps some  give-and-take about baseball scores, whose mother called, what he said, what she said, who was born, and who is dying. Having established our commonality, we might find openings to discuss what else – our economic needs, our fear of fire and flood, our hope for our families – that we have in common and can work together to ameliorate.

 

(The three bronze women are a sculpture by Rose-Aimee Belanger called “Les Chuchoteuses,” the whsperers)

 

 

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Review: Nina Munteanu, Water Is…:The Meaning of Water

Water Is…The Meaning of Water by Nina Munteanu. Pixel Press 2016

Are you fascinated by what goes on in the physical world? Are you curious about the inner workings of natural phenomena? For anyone like me who is fascinated by water, Nina Munteanu’s Water Is…:The Meaning of Water  offers wonderful analyses from minutia like the construction of a single drop to the way whirlpools and eddies form in the flow of a river and more macro issues like the relationship between the “stable chaos” of turbulence and quantum physics.

Water Is provides delightful explanations of things you thought you knew –

  • That “water occupies over 98% of a human cell molecule,”
  • That “what we do to water we do to ourselves.”
  • How water’s negative charge benefits the health
  • How water arrived in earth from the cosmos
  • What are we drinking, e.g. In various bottled waters?
  • Issues of sustainability at various locals- the Arab Sea, the Empire of Angkor

Though a practicing limnologist and water scientist, Munteanu considers herself “one of the mavericks of the scientific community,” attentive to what her colleagues term “weird water” – aspects of the way water behaves for which traditional science has not (yet) found formulas. The result is a trove of disparate treasures, like how Galileo understood water flow, the Chinese character for water,  Leonardo da Vinci’s water drawings, the Gaia Hypothesis, and David Bohm’s theory of flux

 

 

This is less a sit-down-all-in-sequence read than a quirkily diverse compendium of disparate wonders which I dipped in and out of, sitting on my cabin dock as the river babbled and eddied by me, all summer long.