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  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. Read more

Trump, the Republican Party and the Attack on the U.S.Capitol: An American Progressive’s view

Dear Blog Subscribers,

This is my blog version of an article that was published in Impakter.com this morning: : https://impakter.com/trump-republican-party-attack-capitol/ My wonderful editor Claude Forthomme has added some videos you might want to check out.

 A Review of Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Random House, 2020) and  Carlos Lozada, What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020)

In the first months of the Trump presidency I wrote two columns for Impakter.com: “Trump Tyranny and the Politics of Resistance”  and “Trump and the Problem of Evil” .   The evil of the new regime, I postulated, derived from corporate greed underlying the Republican Party and its Libertarian adherents. In these last weeks of his presidency, however, corporations reeled in horror along with the rest of the nation as anarchistic Libertarians joined forces with white supremacist fascists to vandalize the Capitol of the United States, intent on stopping Senate certification Biden’s election.

The militant thugs who stormed our government, so reminiscent of Hitler’s Brown Shirts, were urged on by President Trump in a final confirmation of his nativistic and authoritarian tendencies.  There would have been no insurrection, however, without solid Republican Party support of their unstable and disorganized leader. Whatever clinical pathology he suffers from is less determinative of his fascism than Republican loyalty. As Paul Krugman chillingly puts it, there is nothing left of the Republican Party but blind loyalty and tribal ferocity: with 139 Republican members of the House of Representatives and 8 Senators still promulgating the lie that Biden lost the election when they reconvened after the riot, it is clear that Republican Party has “gone feral.”

Barack Obama On the Rise of Republican Obstructionism

In the midst of this turmoil, I have been trying to calm my soul by reading Barack Obama’s autobiography, A Promised Land. As you can imagine, it  comes from another country altogether – one where  a hard-working president assembles an experienced set of advisors and cabinet members to reach painstaking, thoroughly thought-through decisions. Given President Obama’s love for rooting about in the weeds of policy-making, I feared the book might prove excessively wonky, but he presents his personal experiences and reflections in his usual engagingly thoughtful style to make his autobiography a particularly interesting read in these difficult times.

Although the most “audaciously hopeful” of Presidents, Obama has been a lifelong adherent to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s insistence that we keep ourselves alert to the evils that stalk our world.  Obama picks up on what Trump and the Tea Party Republicans are up to from the start. “One thing was certain,” he reflects on their “birther” attempts to declare his presidency illegitimate with the lie that he wasn’t born in America: “a pretty big chunk of the American people, including some of the very folks I was trying to help, didn’t trust a word I said.”  Nor does Obama mince words about the racism underlying Trump’s birther lie: “for millions of Americans spooked by a Black Man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety.”  Moreover, “Promoting this story, a story that fed not trust but resentment – had come to define the modern Republican Party.”

President Obama’s “Promised Land” is governed by a sense of responsibility for all of its members in quest of a common good; this requires a “modern social contract” to meet such basic universal human needs as Social Security and Medicare: “We generally understood the advantages of a society that at least tried to offer a fair shake to everyone and build a floor beneath which nobody could sink.” 

Adherence to this idea depends upon a trust in government that Obama finds “difficult to sustain” in the face of the extreme economic inequity of American society. He is aware how Republican Party cultivates a useful demographic of working class whites filled with resentment and xenophobia  He worries about right wing use of the media, with Republican radio and tv shows, news outlets and leaders fostering the win/lose paradigm that white males without a college degree are being unfairly deprived by a “socialist, and “un-American” Democratic  Party that ignores their needs and is “far more concerned with the well-being of Blacks and Immigrants than with theirs.”

President Obama’s predictions are chilling:

“ …I found myself asking whether those impulses – of violence, reed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and sense of insignificancy by subordinating others – were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain.”  

What Were We Thinking?

Assaulted for four long years by Trump’s attacks on every norm of civility and democratic process I cherish, not to mention the rule of law itself, I have not been a fan of books about the Trump administration.  Intrigued by Carlos Lozada’s promise of  “a reading of all the books of the Trump Presidency, ”  I couldn’t resist picking up his Pulitzer Prize winning What Were We Thinking? A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.

  

With many other progressives, I have been resisting like mad ever since Trump’s inauguration. Oddly, what I took away from Lozada’s compendium was not more horror at what we have been through but a critique of the way we have resisted. I found myself listing my own takeaways from Lozada’s takeaways: here are the questions I asked myself, and some of my (very tentative) proposals for progressives  (my personal analyses are in italics):

  Demonization is Undemocratic.    

“Aside from generalities about how Trump supporters may have voted for him out of a ‘depth of alienation,’ there is little effort in these (resistance) pages to understand, let alone reach out to, communities beyond the ones the (white liberals) themselves represent.”

“The resistance after Trump’s election worries endlessly about Trump’s America but betrays contempt for Trump’s Americans.”

 It is the contempt of the elite, college educated, mainly urban people for these others that has driven them, and keeps driving them, to believe Trump’s lies.   My solution: aim Biden/Democratic legislation directly at them, attending to their needs like jobs, stimulus money, health care, small business loans immediately; and be sure to let them know where these benefits come from.

There is “no room (in resistance ideology) for traditional conservatives or political moderates who may also want to stand up for their values in Trump’s America but find the president or his policies no less appalling…”

We have common needs and values: find out what these are, then work for bipartisan solutions. Develop more tolerance for compromise. 

“Simply because Trump’s moral compass is broken does not mean that yours unerringly points north.  There is a difference between being righteous and being right.”

One of the things Trump voters hate about us is our conviction that we are smart and right and they are dim-witted and immoral.  Honor our common humanity by showing them respect; follow Michelle Obama’s rule that “when they go low, we go high.

Liberal Progressives Need to Change the Way we Think

“I don’t think the urgency of our situation means that we cannot afford uncertainty.  I need to believe in the value of the doubt I now feel, in its ability to create a new space for the slowness of thought and conviction…”

Do not let the (ideological) perfect be the enemy of the (common) good.  Listen, don’t proclaim. Keep question marks in your conversations and replace intellectual arrogance with a tone of uncertainty or, at least, open-endedness.  This leads the door open for true interchange.

We take the shape of the institutions we are in.  “Popular culture compels us to ask ‘What do I want?’  Institutions urge a different query: ‘Given my role here, how should I act?’ … It is a question that combines personal responsibility with higher obligations, invoking conservative traditions that sycophants ignore, Never Trumpers forget, and pro-Trump intellectuals rationalize away…”

Institutions structure our thoughts and actions and embody our ideas; they form us. “The problem of institutions today is that rather than being formative, they have become performative, functioning as platforms for individual advancement rather than molds for individual improvement.” 

Reconsider the institutions (democratic elections, rule of law, division of power) we liberal progressives cherish, and work to keep these whole rather than going all revolutionary, making speeches about overthrowing everything. Revolution is too close to Libertarian anarchism to foster the common good.

Our Uneasy Future: We Are Not Evolving into Better People

“It’s a soothing vision – that today’s misdeeds will be overtaken by time, demography, and the eventual recognition of lasting traditions.  . . the arc of the moral universe may bend toward Justice, or it may snap back in our faces” in the form of a xenophobic backlash.

 “The mantra of inclusion is always being undermined by the mistrust and hatred of foreigners.”   

With many other progressives, I have assumed that as whites become a minority demographic in America – and this is coming soon, probably by 2040 – non-white voters will see to it that equity is established.  But the perennial and inherent xenophobia, along with the propensities for tyranny, brutality, suppression of opponents and outright cruelty that the Trump years demonstrated, are not going away with him.

Conclusion: Our Job in the Face of Continuing Toxicity

The fear and the greed and the violence to human dignity that we have witnessed in the last four years have always been with us in America, in the persistence of economic inequality and in our brutal history of enslavement and genocide.  Many American whites, including progressives, still act under white supremacy’s assumption that white culture is American culture.

The miracle of constitutional democracy is that it has enabled us to broaden our founders’ narrow concept of citizenship to include men and women of every race and ethnicity and gender identity.  It was their firm grasp of the human evil that will always seek to undermine the common good that led them to embrace a balance of power and a rule of law  in a Constitution sufficiently flexible to protect us from the powers of tyranny.

The riot at the United States Capitol reminds us how fragile democratic institutions are and how much attention we must devote to preserve them.  Biden won and we took back the senate because legions of us, from oldsters phoning and texting to Georgia teenagers pounding the pavements, put our sweat into it.  Our victory was not achieved by mere intellectual adherence to our ideas but by hours and hours of phone calls and texts and plain old door knocking, not to mention endlessly tedious meetings and committee deliberations.

 Life, as Aristotle puts it, does not consist in ideas but in actions.  Keeping ourselves alert to social evil and our eyes on the prize – that promised land of the common good – the only way forward for us is the nitty-gritty slog of engaged democracy.

Review of Patrik Svensson, The Book of Eels

Riddle me this: What is only a few millimeters long with a transparent body like a gossamer willow leaf, is born in the Sargasso Sea and then floats for three years on the Gulf Stream  until it reaches Europe or America?

Here’s another:  What sea creatures does Rachel Carson describe as looking like “thin glass rods, shorter than a finger”?

Wikepedia Commons

The first is the larval stage of eel development; the second the Glass Eel metamorphosis when they arrive in the estuaries of Europe and America after being borne for as much as three years along ocean currents.  They move up fresh water rivers to become Yellow Eels, a phase which can last thirty or forty years.  Then, in their final or Silver Eel phase, they bulk up with muscle and fat and develop reproductive organs in preparation for their return to the Sargasso Sea.    

Patrick Svensson’s The Book of Eels (New York: HarperCollins 2019) translated from Swedish by Agnes Broomé) is a delightfully engaging volume including scientific details about the European eel (Anguilla Anguilla ), a history of eel science,  eel  gastronomy,  autobiographical chapters about eel fishing with his father, anthropological takes on historic Swedish fishing communities, and an analysis of Rachel Carson’s role in nature writing and environmental action. 

Starting with Aristotle and including a fresh take on Freud’s years of eel research in Trieste, Svensson surveys the hundreds of years that it took scientists to determine the Sargasso Sea as the point of origin.  Even so, no scientist has ever demonstrated where eels go once they arrive and what they do in the depths of the ocean (reproduction is merely a logical assumption from the appearance of the larval eels).  Not a single mature Silver Eel in the reproductive phase has ever been found there.

Svensson’s autobiographical chapters recount the tender (though reserved) bonding between his father and himself on their life-long eeling forays.

My own encounters with eels did not bring me closer to my mother.  Fond of roasted eel, she sent me out to wrestle with the Silver Eels heading out into the Atlantic. I fished for those thrashing horrors, alive with muscle and resistance. from the dock with my drop line, hoping for a flounder or even a blowfish (we ignored their fierce faces and feasted on their tails) instead.  I dreaded finding an eel on my line because they didn’t drown in air like ordinary fish, but kept throwing themselves about on the dock, living breathing nightmares until, consumed by dread and remorse, I bashed them over the head with a hammer.

When I complained, my father came out from behind his pipe and newspaper long enough to explain that eels breathe air while slithering overland; Svensson describes them braiding themselves into balls and rolling over mud flats, breathing for those few minutes. They hibernate by burrowing down in the mud for the winter.   That is why Aristotle, one of the first to analyze eels scientifically, thought they were born through some process of mud metamorphosis. 

The Patuxet caught hibernating eels by wriggling their toes in the mud, a technique, Svensson informs us, that Tisquantum (Squanto) taught the Pilgrims after their first terrible winter.  As my mother’s family were from Plymouth, I have wondered if her appetite for eels derived from that historical tutelage.

Though he recognizes that Rachel Carson’s anthropomorphizing the eel  in Under the Sea-Wind is heretical to her scientific duty as an objective marine biologist, he admires the  leap of imagination she takes to arouse her reader’s sympathy: she “let the eel be an eel, but also something we can to some degree identify with” until it still  “a mystery, but no longer a complete stranger.”  In letting eels tell their own story, she “did manage to reach a kind of understanding that really shouldn’t be possible. Not through reductionism or empiricism or even science’s traditional belief in truth as it appears under the microscope, but by having faith in an ability that may in fact be unique to humans: imagination.”  It is by means of this heretical blending of science and story-telling that Carson galvanized a whole environmental movement.

Glenn Wolff and Jerry Dennis, A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame

Svensson finds the eel as so utterly distant from human comprehension as to become a metaphysical conundrum.  He rejects Decartes’ assertions that only humans possess souls and  that all other creatures are automata. He disagrees with the proposition that animals have no consciousness.   Defying scientific empiricism, he apprehends the eel’s place in the complex particularity of nature as a metaphysical conundrum, defining metaphysics as “not necessarily concerned with God” but with the “whole of reality, . . a branch of philosophy that is concerned with what exists outside, or beyond, objective nature, beyond what we can observe and describe with the help of our senses.”  He raises such questions as

  • What is time to the Silver Eel in the ocean depths beneath the Sargasso Sea?  
  • Does time possess a different duration at the bottom of the sea?   
  • Is time the same or different for the eel in each phase of its life?
  • What about bats, whose world consists entirely of echoes and is, therefore, “clearly in a completely different state of consciousness from a human”?  

Svensson entrances us with the eel’s life cycle only to horrify us with the extinction he foresees for the very species he has taught us to admire. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,  the joy in nature evoked in us by The Book of Eels  resolves into anticipatory grief.  Is this an intentional ploy to stir us to environmental activism?  This seems to have been the case for Rachel Carson, who went before Congress with a testimony that led to the eventual banning of DDT.  

But Svensson  has no hope for the eel’s future.  Though the European Union has proposed rules to sustain fisheries, fishing communities fail to comply with them. When he adds shifts in ocean currents caused by global warming to his gloomy predictions, there seems nothing left but the eel’s extinction.

I am a perennially hopeful person, so after finishing The Book of Eels I wondered if eel conservation efforts were really going as badly as Svensson indicates.  I  found some (small) comfort in a few items:

  • In Europe), there is indeed reluctance on the part of European Fisheries to comply with new regulations, and also an uptick in eel smuggling.  The Ecologist reports, however,  that in the twelve years since the European Commission proposed its eel conservation program some progress has been achieved.

“In 2007, the political decision to protect the eel was taken in Brussels; in 2009, the  very first (silver) eels began to be protected; in 2011 (two years of ocean migrations later), the first positive effect occurred.       Since 2011, the thirty-year decline in recruitment of young eel from the ocean halted, turning into a slight increase.”  

Svensson disagrees with this conclusion on the basis that the European Union ban only applies for three months of the year and not to the Glass Eel:  at 2017 rates of compliance, the eel population will continue to decline and, he insists, inevitably become extinct.

“It will take a long time to achieve the full recovery,” the Ecologist article concludes. “The level of protection for the eel is not yet as good as we intended to achieve. Overall, however, the trend is as positive as could have been expected.”

  • What about  Glass Eels?

 The Sustainable Eel Group,  a Europe-wide conservation and science-led organization working  to accelerate the eel’s recovery, reports success in removing  barriers to migration. Norfolk’s Fritton Lake, where businesses and eel sustainability groups have given “the critically endangered European Eel hope for the future,” is an example:  

”Fritton Lake is ideal habitat for eels. It is connected to the sea just south of Great Yarmouth. However, the previous tidal sluice, to keep sea water out, was also stopping baby eels getting in from the sea and adult eels getting out. The new sluice will let baby eels in, to grow in Fritton Lake to become adults, which will then get out again to breed. The eels will grow there for between 5 and 20 years before migrating back to sea to spawn.”

In Cornwall,  similarly,  eel passes have been  built around obstructions: more than 100 juvenile eels travelled 3,000km from the Sargasso Sea before being counted at the Environment Agency’s Brownshill Staunch eel pass, downstream of St Ives.

  • As a final note of hope, significant numbers of Eels have been restored to the Susquehanna river in America, where fish biologists of the Susquehanna River Commission catch eels at a dam that obstructs their route and then transport them upstream.

“The captured eels were measured, counted and shipped north where they were released into Deer Creek and Conestoga Creek. Over the next eight years, fish and wildlife would capture, transport and release more than 800,000 eels into the Susquehanna River or its tributaries….in total, close to a million eels have been re-introduced into the river since the program began. The American Eel is back.”           

In looking through the reviews, I see that conservationists are taking a deep interest in The Book of Eels.  Maybe Svensson’s simultaneously raising our joy in nature only to send us crashing into despair over eel apocalypse will shock us into action, with as significant an impact on the eel as Carson’s DDT studies had on the Osprey?

 I live in hope.

Pandemic Autumn

In the spring, I still had a sense of humor.  I could write comic pieces about how my mask frightened the neighbors because I looked like a burglar. Now the weather is cool again, and the same outfit seems sad rather than funny.

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year – back to school, fresh writing projects, activist tasks that refresh my spirits and lead to meeting all kinds of new people.   In the fall, even the “familiar strangers” of my daily encounters – sales clerks and grocery baggers, pharmacists and librarians – respond with more than their usual verve in the interactions I have always cherished.

Now it is all deliveries to my porch or the brief, unsatisfactory encounters of curb pickups.

My state of Michigan has managed Covid 19 very well, and I have not caught it, but a gang of white militiamen who are furious about masks, social distancing, and (especially) bar closures laid plans to kidnap our governor.  Our terrifyingly dictatorial President caught the virus, but, far from being sidelined, he has lurched back into the last weeks of his campaign with spooky intensity, wearing a superman undershirt.

There is dread in our world.  There is dread for our world.

There are sleepless nights.  There are tearful mornings. There are long, lonely stretches as the afternoon dark comes early.

A November without Thanksgiving and a winter without Christmas are upon us. We plan to gather around the Zoom hearth and eat our solitary feasts with some (remote) semblance of festivity.  I do feel rather clever to have purchased two electric lap robes for the porch, so that I can still have friends over for a chat.

My neighbors have been more neighborly than before the pandemic: they buy me groceries, swap extra supplies, go for walks and sit on the porch.   My friendship groups offer heartwarming support on Zoom, and I deeply cherish long phone calls with my dearest old friends.  

But we are dying – two of us are gone now (dear Rheba just a few weeks ago) and though I have a good, solid philosophy of mortality  along the lines of “What a life! What a lark,” it doesn’t keep timor mortis from my door every time I have a fever or feel a bit flu-ish.

My father was quite a recluse, as is one of my grandsons; I worry that being shut in so long might turn me into an agoraphobic.   I am unused to company:  last Saturday, with two real people coming over (distanced walk/with masks, distanced porch-sit/with masks) plus a densely populated Zoom meeting, I freaked out and crawled under my bed.

I have always talked to myself, but now I am talking to people who aren’t there.  When dear Rheba died (as Mozart played in a Canadian hospice where she was given an injection to the heart – what verve! what courage!) I fell right over keening, like a ululting Arabian widow.   Then her last words (filled in on the “motto” line of her Canadian end of life form) got through to me –

“Disturb the universe!  Rejoice!”

– So I got to my feet and brought her along on my household chores, chatting all about them with her.

This morning I had a long discussion with the bathroom spider about where he planned to secrete himself while I took my shower.

I bet I am not the only senior citizen arguing with her stuffed animal about who will sleep where in my bed.

I say good morning to the squirrel and to the nuthatch, and goodnight to the moon and the stars and to my picture of the Dalai Lama.

Tenzin Gyatso – 14th Dalai Lama

He is just my age and has this enormously engaging grin; he seems to find everything funny.

I plan to work on that.

Political Sausage in Pandemic Times

Dear Blog Subscribers,

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!

The Covid Stoic, and How to Become One

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.

1.

2.

3.

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.

Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller Books: Dorset, 2020).*

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.

Canticle

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.

Pandemic- Gateway to a Better World?

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.

Pandemic Lemonade

I haven’t worn a bra in two months.

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!”

An English Village of the Mind

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.