I have been messing about in boats all of my life, spending hours rowing my dory into sea marshes full of greenish mud and hermit crabs and sea gulls and herons. I fished for flounder and eel with a drop line and trawled for mackerel with a shiner. I caught blowfish for my mother, who considered their lower regions a great delicacy, and captured horse shoe crabs for my Aunt, who ate their stomachs.
As a teenager, I sailed with my friends up the New England coast, learning what it feels like to capsize, what tearing a hole in the hull sounds like as you go over the rock, and how bleak and cold and utterly without hope you feel clinging to the mast in a northeast gale.
Back in February 2019 (in what seems now another century!) I posted a blog on Making Political Sausage – how to get real political work done. Now, in these difficult times not only of pandemic but economic and racial turmoil, individuals feel more helpless than ever.
They are right: individuals can’t do anything; they need to join things. Starting at this point that I made in my previous blog, I go more deeply into how we can strengthen ourselves during these difficult pandemic times by joining like-minded groups.
But we are in a pandemic! This is no time to join things!
Think again, and tip toe into the world of tech. Your smartphone and your screen can exponentially strengthen your political outreach, and any organization you choose to join has a well set up program to help you.
Here’s my update, and I hope it makes you feel less helpless!
If ever there was a time for figuring out what our philosophy of life is, it is now, when our job and household routines are stood on their heads and the economy is in free fall, all because a tiny little virus is rampaging through the world, leaving people deathly ill and many dying, all around us.
My Socrates Café is still going during the pandemic – albeit on Zoom – everyone as eager as ever to engage in spirited discussions about “what is the truth,” “how do we form values in a free thinking society,” “are there practical ways to become open-minded,” “are being alone and lonely the same or different,” and “where does the universe end – what is it, anyway?”
Sometime in the dark of our nights, most of us have asked ourselves “what is this all about? Is Covid 19 a random happening? Is everything on earth mere chaos, whirling about every which way without rhyme or reason?”
It is a good time to get out pencil and paper to review our personal philosophies.
I have been thinking a lot about Stoicism lately. I once devised a questionnaire for both my high school and college reunions where I asked them to make a list of the worst things that had happened in their lives and then to write down the quality of character that got them through. We had survived divorces, deaths of husbands, suicides of children, cancer, and the general mayhem of life by calling up a quality we called “grit” or “stiff upper lip” or “keeping going.”
I knew my classmates well enough to realize they were not just shoving aside the bad things that happened to them. They survived through a quality much deeper than denial: an inner balance or equanimity they described as facing up to their tragedy, “seeing things through to the end,” and then ” bouncing back.” Equanimity is a stalwart presence of mind, an inner strength that enables us to endure all things while staying heart-whole.
You don’t get that way from taking your world as a random collection of atoms bouncing around chaotically: my classmates were living by an idea about how human beings should behave that, in the world of philosophy, is best expressed in Stoicism. My father had been a student of philosophy at Columbia University, and one of the books he kept with him was The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. When my seas of anxiety rose and stormed during my thirties I bought a copy, and became very fond of that beleaguered Emperor, jotting down his rules of life while surrounded by wild tribes of Germans at his outpost on the Danube, his empire ravaged by plague, flood and constant war.
Marcus, who became Roman Emperor in 161CE, was a Stoic This ancient Greek way of life takes the things we can’t control – our health, random catastrophes, the contradictions and setbacks of economies and careers – and separates them from what we can control. Looking at these realities squarely, you develop an inner balance and the apply your chosen values to a course of action.
Stoic philosophers were quite scientific, using their reason to study nature, which included human nature. Like America’s founders, they sought truths that were reasonable and “self-evident” and then worked out principles to apply them. In an age when personal satisfaction or “self-actualization” is a paramount value, it is hard to grasp that both classical and enlightenment thinkers took “the good” as a social rather than an individual aspiration. Or, as Marcus Aurelius puts it, “The mind of the universe is social.”
“Begin each day “by telling yourself today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness….”
How did he figure that out? It is really very simple – try it yourself:
1. What do I think is good?
2. What do I think is evil?
I am serious: in a few short sentences or single words, write down your answers.
“Are you distracted by outward cares,” asks Marcus. “Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the Good and learn to curb your restlessness. Guard also against another kind of error: the folly of those who weary their days in much business, but lack any aim on which their whole effort, say, their whole thought, is focused.”
Years ago, I was flying back from a carefree vacation in England to my frantic life as a commuting professor, gazing down upon icebergs sparkling on the Greenland sea, with my tattered copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in my hands. In response to his request to “make your rules of life brief, yet so as to embrace the fundamentals,” I worked out my (mid-career) principles on the facing page. For my “Good,” I took “enlightenment,” the reasoned perception of truth; in that literature resounded with “great clarity” I would use it to lead my students to the service of truth in their lives. I took “oligarchies” as my Evil, and so determined to do my best for “the greatest good of the greatest number.” I resolved to quell the inner turmoil roiled up by academic nastiness by “not taking things personally,” and I would follow Marcus’ advice to withdraw into “the little field of self” when things felt overwhelming.
Your turn: on the basis of your list of What is Good and What is Evil, write down some principles by which you intend to achieve Stoic equanimity in these perilous times.
How did it come out? Would you like to share your findings in the comment section? For further ideas about how to apply Stoicism to your life, you might want to check out www.dailystoic.com.
Is Stoicism too strenuously selfless? You might consider Cynicism, a classical philosophy based on the idea that people only pursue their self-interest and that adhering to social norms is ridiculous. Nor will your life as a Cynic be entirely taken up with sneering – the word derives from “Dog” and you will get to lead a relaxing dog’s life doing your own thing – like chasing your tail and lying around in the sun all day long.
In a time when species are declining, oceans are rising, and our whole planet is threatened by global warming, authors who celebrate their joy in nature are sometimes accused of a sentimental nostalgia that fosters retreat from rather than actions against an ever grimmer environmental reality. What is the point of taking pleasure in rivers and forests when we have doomed them all in our greed and folly? Nature writers just fiddle above the flames while Mother Earth burns all around them.
Irish nature writer Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist brings his readers to the side of joy. Weaving the minute particulars of feather and lichen, otter and tadpole into a lyrically precise prose, his joy in nature is emotionally empowering in both a personal and a political sense.
McAnulty’s observations combine scientific detail with personal engagement. He is sitting near the sea on some “Silurian hornfels…the result of colliding continents and marine life recovering from extinction,” when some baby wrens hop up to him. As he hears them “drowning each other out with attention-grabbing chirps,” he muses that “this is the sound of our ancestors too, waves in one ear, wren siblings in the other. A two-track stereo. The sound of natural things that influence very other thing, whether we know it or not.”
Is this sense that human beings are woven into a web of natural being, (into “something far more deeply interfused” as Wordsworth put it, or like Thoreau’s idea of nature as “not of myself, but in myself”) mere romantic nostalgia for a natural abundance that we have destroyed?
On the contrary, the concept that human beings and nature interact in mutually beneficial interdependence is at the heart of contemporary environmental philosophies like Ecosophy and Deep Ecology, which are based on the Gaia Hypothesis that everything on the planet strives for balance in a complex synchronistic network.
McAnulty reaches his conclusions not by philosophical speculation but by direct experience. On a trip to Scotland to collect Goshawk data, for example, he notes that “Dave asked me to hold one of the birds, and as I bring it close to my chest its body heat illuminates me. I start to fill with something visceral. This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them. Perhaps it’s a feeling of love, or a longing. I don’t know for certain. it is a rare feeling, a sensation that most of my life (full of school and homework) doesn’t have the space for. The goshawk wriggles. I settle it down and look into its eyes again – as it grows older the baby-blue eyes will change, become a bright and deep amber….”
Astonishingly, Dara McAnulty is only 16 years old: he wrote The Diary of a Young Naturalist about the how nature saved him when he was 14 and suffering from depression over being viciously bulled for his autism. Observing the smallest details of the world around him provided a mind-grounding solace, an anchor to still the thrashing waves of “brain chaos,” “pain thrusting” stabs of “quick transitions,” all the “inner torments” and “liquid panic” of his condition.
“I consolidate myself by thinking, and thinking whilst intensely watching the flight patterns of dragonflies or starlings is explosive or mind-blowing. Who knows where watching sparrows will lead?”
Where it has led this courageous young naturalist, in spite of his paralytic nervousness around people, is to the discovery that when he stands in front of a bullhorn at a School Climate Strike or a microphone on radio or television, he can speak as eloquently as he writes on behalf of the earth and her creatures.
*The Diary of a Young Naturalist will be published in the U.S. by Milkwood Books next spring, but it is readily available to U.S. readers from Blackwell’s (www.Blackwells.co.uk ). Cover art by Larry Falls.
Do you ever find yourself longing
For the beginning of the world-
That unimaginable openness
When the earth awoke - all quick, and fresh, and teeming?
I finished this poem, oddly enough, the same day that I read an article by Margaret Renkl in the New York Times about how “The Pandemic Shows All is Not Lost.” “Covid 19,” she writes, “will not reverse the ravages of climate change, and it will not interrupt our progression toward an even more desperate future. But it is allowing us to see with our own eyes how ready the natural world stands to reclaim the planet we have trashed, how eagerly and swiftly it will rebound if we give it a chance.”
This pandemic, this end of our world,
Stifles us in our houses, while the houseless
Cower in abject fear of invisible menace-
Those silent microbes sundering us from each other.
Never mind - did you see the little birds,
Like tiny grace notes, cross the moon last evening?
At dawn, they land to feed along our rivers.
We find joy in their beauty, and faith in their returning.
When I was a little girl I attended a school where we stood on our feet every morning chanting “Praise him and magnify him forever” as our headmistress read from a wonderfully apochryphal psalm listing all of the glories of creation, one after the other. “O ye Fire and Heat, O ye Dews and Frosts, O ye Green Things upon the earth, O ye Whales, and all that move in the waters” – on and on she would go about the glories of creation as the voices of children called out our response in the morning of the day and of our lives.
The beasts of the field are suddenly among us:
Coyote lope along our empty sidewalks,
Foxes drop by for curious backyard visits,
Impertinent skunks on our lawns ignore us entirely.
Kangaroos lollop down streets in the center of Aukland,
Mountain lions walk fearless along the forest verges,
Black Bears loll in abandoned Yosemite campgrounds,
While toads and frogs migrate across empty highways.
The birds and the beasts and all things that move in the water
Rejoice in creation thown open by our absence.
This morning my friend Ashok sent me photos of the sky over the Himalayas, clear and blue for the first time in decades, and told me that the Covid 19 lockdown has brought thousands of flamingos back to Delhi. Of course we environmental activists don’t want to indulge in a “There, I told you so” attitude, but it is striking how very quickly nature cleanses itself when we bring ourselves to a halt for another reason entirely. The virus is an aspect of Mother Nature too, and if the only way to refresh the air we need to breathe is to live on a smaller scale, we have shown to ourselves that we can do it
“And so our first task when we emerge from this isolation,” concludes Renkl, “will be to remember to sear into our memories that pure pageantry of wildness, of life in its most insistent persisting. And then to try in every possible way to save it.”
They say that there are schools of dolphin at play
In the canals of Venice, now that no gondolas
Chockablock with tourists, roil the dazzling waters.
They trill merrily to each other in high-pitched music.
All the rest is true, but there are no dolphins in Venice:
It's just a story, a legend we have invented
Out of our terror, and out of our deep yearning
For a verdant world where we are in tune with the music
Of the beings of the earth, having found our place among them.
The way I keep my sanity during this pandemic lock-down is STRUCTURE, by which I mean doing the same things every day that I did before we got all closed in on ourselves. In my case this means writing for several hours two mornings a week (the other days include two for environmental activism and one for finances, with the weekends off.) As you may have noticed, the resulting blogs, posts, and tweets have been on the cheerful side – light-hearted, or even (I hope) humorous.
The whole time, however, I was working on this piece for Impakter, a European online magazine where I am a columnist. And in the middle of writing it, my older daughter, whose visionary ideas about the use of artificial intelligence to improve society are key to the article, came down with the coronavirus. Mercifully, she recovered.
Whereas Lorien envisions human beings fully capable of melding head and heart to build a better world, I am more skeptical about whether we have the moral will to achieve the world we long for once (if) we get through to the other side of the Pandemic Gateway.
On my daily walks, I wear a mask. But nobody else wears a mask. I have a pleasant (6 foot apart) chat with a young woman who is not wearing a mask, at the end of which she says she is a nurse anesthetist at the local hospital. I rush home to wash my mask.
I have always felt naked without lipstick. With a mask over my mouth every time I go out, I don’t need to put on lipstick.
My mask leaves me breathless whenever I walk up hill, and gets all fogged up when I breathe excitedly while birdwatching.
My engagement book reads like Wylie Coyote – Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!
Zoom is intrusive: it lets a whole committee into my home office and then, when they all disagree with me, there is no place to hide.
I discover that I can mute them: all of them!
A dear old friend tells me that, deprived of her volunteer comings and goings, she went “all OCD” and cleaned her garage “right down to the gnat’s eyebrow.”
(I feel no such compulsion)
I am not changed in any way by social isolation. I am not changed in any way by social isolation. But I can no longer get into the bathtub without my rubber ducky.
You know those bras I haven’t worn? I cut one up to make two masks, but it sure feels weird to stick my nose where my nipple used to be!
As I wait on the sidewalk for my friend to come out for a (socially distanced) chat, I realize that in my tweed cap, black jacket, mask, and umbrella I look like a robber intent on coshing her. So I devise an outfit consisting of a pink windbreaker, pretty cotton mask, and baseball cap to look less threatening.
I appear so utterly anonymous that I post it as a joke on Facebook. In the park a dear friend comes running up to me. “How did you know it was me,” I ask. “Oh, I recognized you from your Facebook picture!”
So, yesterday I decided that I needed to get my mind off the pandemic, which seems to have crept into every mental nook and crevice. When I was little, there was a lovely world I escaped to when things pressed down too hard upon my small shoulders, a world of tall grass and sunlight and the reassuring colloquies among mourning doves in the mulberry tree.
These days, I find solace in novels about life in rural England, quiet little villages where everyone knows everyone. There are cottages, of course, their front gardens friendly with hollyhocks and roses, and just enough quirky eccentricity to keep the gossip juices flowing.
There is nothing better for this proclivity than Angela Thirkell’s Barshetshire novels, which natter on about nothing at all and are indistinguishable from each other. I have shared this taste and our extensive Thirkell ttrove with a good friend, ever since we pounced upon a deceased Englishman’s collection at a local rummage sale.
So, in the present exigency, we swapped the novels we haven’t read (or have forgotten we’ve read) and I’ve been off and away at the end of each and every day of isolation, content in some English village of the mind.
But last night, with months of quarantine yet to come, I realized there was only one Thirkell left on my bedside table. And then, oh frabjous joy, I found J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country on my Kindle – an old church, a vicar, a shell-shocked World War I veteran – it would do for now. After that, it would be back to my collection of P.G. Wodehouse and E.F. Benson, who also write the same English village novel over and over about nothing much at all.
Of course, it’s all unrealistic escapism – that’s what makes these novels so comforting in our present perils, which are much more like what went on in the Lincolnshire village my own ancestors escaped from by the skin of their teeth.
One night last week, self-isolation blues were getting to me, so I went to look at the stars. There was a full March moon, and, while I stood gazing at it, a concatenation of bugling and cackling reached me from way high up. I wouldn’t have known what it was if I hadn’t heard Sandhill Cranes at the same time last spring, flying north on the rivers of the sky. Thousands of them pass through Michigan along The Mississippi Flyway, migrating from their wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico to breeding sites in Canada.
I I would have jumped up in the air and clicked my heels if I could (I did it mentally, anyway).
In these lonely days, we are allowed to get fresh air and exercise if we keep 6 feet apart and upwind from each other (rumor has it that dread Coronavirus droplets can be carried on the wind). Chance conversations with real human beings who stop to chat always lift my mood, and watching birds on their spring migration rachets me right out of my funk.
The Rouge River runs through Birmingham’s Quarton Lake, where Canada Geese are sorting themselves into mating pairs amid clamorous lunging and imprecation. (With their people-watching curtailed, New Yorkers have taken to goose goggling.) If you aim your binoculars away from the shore, you often see migrating ducks resting on their journey.
Last Saturday (March 21), I got into one of those arcane bird watcher’s conundrums trying to figure out whether the little ducks gliding and diving in the middle of the lake there were Buffleheads or Hooded Mergansers, only to come back on Sunday to discover both species present. From that distance, the males with their prominent white head markings looked quite similar: the key was in their mates. The female Bufflehead has a small, round head and is brownish all over, but the female Hooded Merganser has a wild rusty mane that looks, my bird guide says, as if she had attacked it with a hair dryer.
Figuring out the intricate details that Mother Nature bestows on her creatures focused my mind wonderfully, and helped me rise above my gloomy preoccupation. There is something reassuring in the way birds migrate on predictable routes and schedules. In my back yard, for example, a Red- winged Blackbird has appeared around March 5 (my mother’s birthday) every year since I started keeping feeder lists in 1982 (my family has always thought we might come back to each other as birds, maybe it is her?)
Bird species tend to migrate through our area at set times. If you happen along the riverside path in Birmingham’s Linden Park during the first week in May, a bunch of us with binoculars around our necks and frantic looks on our faces will be scrambling about in the bushes tallying migrating warblers, teeny tiny birds given to darting about way high up in the treetops (warbler neck is a significant muscular affliction of this season.) These little birds travel at night, descend at dawn, and don’t fly in the rain: if we have had a wind from the south and a nighttime rainstorm, we might get the warbler “fallout” that we have waited for all year long.
Between 1992 and 2010 we kept records for Oakland Audubon in Linden Park and Quarton Lake, 112 species of year-round and summer residents and 26 varieties of warblers passing through on their spring and fall migrations. Tired and hungry on flights from as far away as South America, they spot the glittering currents of the Rouge River and descend for restorative stopovers on their way to Canada and the Arctic Circle.
I think most of us became nerdy listers as the secondary effect of the sheer delight of bird watching. Just looking at birds is a mood lifter, as I first discovered as an anxious ten year-old New Yorker when a kindly Audubon Club maven plopped me down in the middle of a Central Park multi-species fallout with colorful, active, and excitedly chirping birds perched on the trees and bushes in every direction.
Although climate change and destruction of stopover habitat has led to a sad decline in bird numbers, Scientific American reports that it is also shifting the timing of bird migrations, but only by two days each decade – not enough to throw them off their seasonal feeding schedules. It is heartening, too, that so many of our fellow creatures are adapting themselves to global warming. The Scientific American notes “a study of 52 species published in Ecology Letters found that birds’ bodies are getting smaller over time while their wingspans are getting longer, apparently in response to rising temperatures. The smaller size may allow the animals to lose body heat faster as the climate warms, the researchers suggest.”
Are you interested in taking up bird watching? Here’s a great Cornell University Site to get you started.
Guess what? On March 29, the Kinglets were back! Tiny and darting swiftly in the undergrowth, they are the first migrating birds to alight along the Rouge River every year.
* visit Linden Park off of Lincoln at Shirley and Douglas Evans Nature Preserve off of Evergreen between 14 and 13 mile roads.
We are all locked up in our houses now – well, not exactly locked up, though it feels like it – self-isolated is the correct word. It is a weird situation for those of us who derive so much of our well-being from engaging with real live people; is it any wonder that we are beginning to converse with our teakettles?
Actually, talking to household objects isn’t all that strange. Travel writer Jan Morris, who at 90 is done with traveling, engages in “morning conversations with my toothbrush” and “night-time expressions of gratitude to the furniture.” She also likes to “thank a good omelette.”
In a round of texting with my (self-isolating) friends I discovered that Sharon thanks each object as she throws it in the trash or recycles it, and that Marie was so struck by the beauty of her fried egg this morning that she took a photo portrait.
Years ago, when Yorkshire pudding was a staple of our household, I would congratulate it when it rose crisply from the sides of the pan, but I would never forget to commiserate when it fell flat.
One day, when I was about twelve years old, I let myself into our New York City apartment so quietly that my mother kept up her animated conversation with our dog Tuffy. When I asked her if she was all right, she replied that I should only begin to worry when Tuffy began to talk back.
I am beginning to worry.
This morning, the wallpaper in my bathroom, which has a pattern of tiny pink flowers on tiny green stems amid even tinier polka-dots, asked me if I couldn’t be more cheerful; but then the scale wondered if I had been eating too much peanut butter. My bed chided me that I hadn’t made it yet, but after I tidied the sheets and patted down the duvet it declared, with a kind of smug complacency, “Now aren’t I all cozy?”
Has my lack of human contact alerted me to the way these things have been carrying on all along? Maybe I should follow Poet David Whyte’s advice in “Everything is Waiting For You” to “Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into/ The conversation. The kettle is singing/ Even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots Have left their arrogant aloofness and Seen the good in you at last.”
There is a silence to winter that is a being in and of itself. If you still the chatter in your head, you can sense the fields and forests humming quietly to themselves under the snowpack, way down below the roots of everything.
Did you think that the silence of winter portends emptiness?
Listen! Beneath the frozen lawn and the icy layer of leaves on the garden, can you here faint singing? Did you think that the silence of winter portends emptiness? Can you hear the field mice pattering in their intricate maze of pathways? How about chipmunks scurrying between cleverly discreet chambers, some for sleep others for storage or giving birth or private little bouts of copulation?
There is a deep hole dug into the brush pile, whose occupant remains unknown, a winter mystery.
Just below the frost line night crawler worms are waking in their slime-lined nests to quietly arrange themselves, side by side, in hermaphroditic alignments.
Today it is all mud and muck boots; tomorrow there will be snow and snowshoes, but winter is breaking up, don’t you worry.
Listen and attend! While silence sorts, nature cavorts.