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THE JEFFERSON BIBLE

One of the things that sets our teeth on edge these days is the assumption that we are citizens of a Christian nation – an assumption grounded on the idea that Christianity was the founding religion of America. But we are not and never were a Christian country in any established sense, the way Anglicanism is the state church of England, with the King as its (titular) head. This is perfectly clear in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which proposes freedom to choose your religion while prohibiting “the establishment of (state-sponsored) religion” in the new American democracy.

The principal doctrine influencing both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was enlightenment Deism, the concept that a “clock-maker God” created the universe but then stepped (way) back to let it run on its own, leaving human beings to reach our own philosophical conclusions and moral decisions through reason and observation.  

Although the founding fathers were baptized in various Protestant denominations and most attended church, early presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were self-declared Deists, or non-Christians.  Both were drawn to the concept of Unitarianism’s one God as opposed to Trinitarianism’s divine trio. They believed neither that Jesus was divine nor in miracles or the resurrection.  

George Washington attended the Anglican church but rejected its Trinitarian tenets by standing silent during the Apostle’s Creed and refusing to take communion.

The Apostle’s Creed  begins

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…”  It always startled me that there was nothing in the creed about Jesus’s actual life; just that semicolon between his birth and his death.

It is what that semicolon avoids – the actual life and teachings of Jesus, that motivated Thomas Jefferson, who had also been brought up Anglican, to create his own version of the Bible.  Though he was often attacked politically as an atheist, he was a great admirer of Unitarian ideas (Unitarianism didn’t become an official denomination until after this death) and was friends with British Unitarian Joseph Priestley. In an 1803 letter to Priestley, Jefferson proposed a new “Christian System beginning with a review of the morals of the ancient philosophers, moving on to the ethics of the Jews, and concluding with the “principles of a pure deism taught by Jesus, “omitting the question of his deity.”

The first volume, titled The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, was completed in 1804, but no copies exist today.  The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, became the Jefferson Bible. which he completed in 1820 by (literally, with a penknife and glue) cutting and pasting from the four Gospels in four languages – Greek, Latin, French, and English versions of each verse together -including Jesus’s sayings and parables but omitting miracles and “the supernatural.”  The result was a scrapbook-like red leather folio that Jefferson kept for his personal devotions, being loath to publish it in his lifetime given the notoriety he knew it would stir up.

My friend Brian Schandevel loaned me a biography of the Jefferson Bible which tells the story about how this scrapbook got lost in Jefferson’s personal effects and was not officially published (by the U.S. Government Printing Office) until 1904, when multiple copies were distributed to all of the Senators and Representatives.  After that, well into the mid-Twentieth century, every Member of Congress was presented a copy after being sworn in.

So who was Jefferson’s Jesus?

As Jefferson puts it in an 1803 letter to his daughter “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.  I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”

Jefferson works his way consecutively through Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels, grouping precepts on one topic from all four together along with the parables, though with very little narration and minus anything he considers “supernatural.”

What struck me about Jefferson’s Bible:

  • Jesus is portrayed as a radical religious iconoclast breaking many of the traditional household rules and rituals which formed Jewish religion and society of his time. Theologian Marcus Borg describes this as a “purity system: in which “those who were carefully observant of the purity codes were ‘the pure,’ of course.  The worst of the nonobservant were ‘outcasts’ They included occupational groups such as tax collectors and perhaps shepherds. . .’The righteous’ were those who followed the purity system, and sinners’ were those who did not,” The Pharisees, observant Jews who enforced purity norms, became Jesus’s particular enemies. The Jefferson Bible is full of episodes were Jesus stirs up their ire and then has to escape arrest by leaving town in a hurry. 
  • The precepts and parables that Jefferson presents as Jesus’s basic teaching are startlingly compassionate and inclusive.  He welcomes all kinds of social outcasts– tax collectors, Samaritans, women (even loose and menstruating women), Gentiles, the poor and the uninfluential- within an ethic of compassion, inclusion, and diversity that would be utter anathema to today’s “Christian Nationalists.”  
  • Jesus is not God. He is a devoutly spiritual person in an intimate relationship with a loving deity who dwells within every one of us, an inward wisdom that is part of a transcendent divinity.  Borg would understand Jefferson’s Jesus is “The Jesus of History,” in contrast to the “Christ of Faith” who is divine in and of himself, a concept he understands as arising from the spiritual experiences of “Post-Easter” Christians.

There are several editions of The Jefferson Bible available today, including one from the Humanist Press, and another by the Unitarian Beacon Press. The latter has a preface by Unitarian minister Forrester Church, whose Congressman father, Senator Frank Church, gave him his swearing-in copy when he was ten years old. 

As a result, Forrester Church became a lifelong fan of that semicolon:   In the book “I encountered a savior who was born in the usual way and died in the usual way.  By Jefferson’s reading, it was Jesus’ unusual life on earth – made unusual by the simple eloquence of his teachings – that truly mattered.….I define religion as our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. Resurrection or no resurrection, Jesus triumphed over death: he lived in such a way that his life proved worth dying for.”

Churches to the Rescue

My late husband, Henry Pratt and I, had quite an effective political partnership: I would participate in (or found) in a grass roots group and he would advise us from his store of knowledge about “interest group politics,” which was his specialty as a Professor of Political Science.

Although Henry has been gone almost 24 years, things that I learned from him keep cropping up in my columns for the European-based online magazine, Impakter.com.

This latest one, however, is straight from the horse’s mouth, based on two books he wrote about what happens when faith groups join together in concerted political action.

Are We Still Evolving?

I have always assumed that we human beings have evolved as far as we can go, that our neo-cortexes are as advanced as they are ever going to be, and that the processes by which our hearts and minds blend to make decisions are completely finished off.

There are some doomsayers out there like Adam Kirsch who are convinced that our very advancement, our “traditional role as earth’s protagonist, the most important being in creation” might be bringing us to well-deserved self- extinction, given that we have used so many of our talents for degrading the very environment that sustains us.

A dear friend of mine has moved to a community for retired clergy, theologians, and missionaries where they improve the shining hour by “hearing each other into speech,” publishing their interesting discussions in a series of paperbacks. In the most recent edition that I have read, William Moreman brings up the idea that we are still evolving in ways that make surviving the chaos of our times quite hopeful. He explores “the notion of evolution as a driving force pressing the human race to take a leap to a new stage, a new consciousness and a new ordering of our life on this planet…to be a fractal part of the larger chaotic, evolutionary thrust.”

According to the paleontologist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the entire cosmos is conscious, with human beings as integral elements in its continuing evolution. Tuning into that wider consciousness, we find that we are fractals in the heart of everything – all paradigms aligned. Teilhard’s ideas have led Al Gore to hope that human beings can evolve toward an Omega point where a harmony will be achieved with the inherent balance of the universe.

Surrounded as we are with doomsaying media (if it bleeds, it leads), I think we take the world, and our role within it, far more gloomily than we need to. I certainly felt more optimistic after reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, a data-driven analysis of how violence has actually diminished over human history, And, more recently, I have been cheered by the news that mitigation of carbon emissions has become so economically and technologically effective that we may be able to use these tragic brains of ours to halt our destruction of nature in time to save the human race.

And how about what goes on inside each of us – haven’t we felt some kind of lifetime evolution within ourselves? When I consider my own personal evolution, -not my predictable developmental from child to adult, but the changes in the way I have understood things so much better and act on them far more effectively since my sixties – there is a delightful and significant evolution in my life.

Discernment (seeing how things have gone over and over again when I behave in a certain way) has combined with determination to improve my act until I have got my heart and brain to act in entirely different ways than before. How about you?

.

BEGINNER’S MIND

I belong to a little group of friends who meet every month to check in with each other’s lives and discuss a topic like “silence” or “hospitality” or “compassion.”  This January, it was “Paradigm Changes.”  Wouldn’t you know it, we decided that each of us would select a way we were doing things and change it, for which purpose we used a “30 Day Challenge” chart with “Every Day I Will…” at the top and 30 little squares to record our progress.   Does it sound like New Year’s Resolutions to you? It did to me, so I resolved to choose something light-hearted – to cultivate a (child-like) beginner’s mind.

It’s a core teaching of Buddhism, having to do with being entirely present in each moment the way we used to get so caught up in our play that everything else vanished from our minds. One of Buddhism’s ways of cultivating this state is to look at everything you encounter through the bandbox fresh, brand-new eyes of a child.

The trouble is, this winter proved a hard time to be light-hearted. It turned out to be one of those grim, grey Januarys we often have in Michigan, with no sun whatsoever plus sheets and sheets of cold, hard rain – a challengingly bleak time to cultivate childhood joy. Or, “if there is no self, then whose arthritis is this?”

So I did little things, like bet myself I wouldn’t see a single patch of blue driving home through the murk, and then click my mental heels when I saw one.  (It turns out that this isn’t a very smart thing to do with your foot on the accelerator, so I resolved to have my moments of hilarity when I wasn’t driving.) When I heard a lovely flute piece on the living room radio I would attempt a jig; when a Tufted Titmouse alit on my feeder I stopped and stared, and jumped with joy when children tore whooping around the playground. There was a huge snowfall, delightful in its dazzle (until tree branches started falling all over my yard); I got excited in a blissfully child-like way the next morning when I saw determined little possum tracks etched in the new snow, punctuated by a tail dragging along between them.

In spite of my friends still catching covid and my being in a high-risk group, I resolved to return to a few small local museums to experience the joy of finding something that delights me – most often a blazingly bright minimalist abstraction – before which to stand and stare. Look what I found!

I Sometimes stumble upon things at an art show that are just plain funny.  There was an hilarious juxtaposition of installations where I laughed and laughed and took this picture:

After I posted it on our neighborhood newsletter, I got a furious repost demanding how could I be so insensitive as to promulgate a rape scene?   Gentle reader, look again:  the stuffed people are facing upward after apparently falling over backwards on top of each other, and that’s why the little boy from the other installation finds the whole thing (like I do) hilarious.

Cultivating one’s (long-lost) inner child involves returning, after years and years of heavily responsible adulthood, to a “beginner’s mind.”  I tried to think of something I could get up to that was beginnerish in that way ?  When I was seven years old I hit a mischievous streak in my otherwise rule-abiding life: I founded a Mischief Club with my best friend. to startle people – like jumping over their jump ropes in the middle of a game or moving their belongings to somebody else’s locker.

When a childhood friend (who had witnessed my Mischief Club phase ) turned up in town and asked me to stop by her motel, I decided it would be fun to engage in some mild social mischief. Although Lilybet comes from a family of rather reserved folks, she has a raucous sense of humor and a flair for writing and reciting limericks.

So I put of a couple of limericks in my pocket and drove to her hotel, where I found her on a sofa in the foyer flanked by relatives.  Determined to carry out my resolution to be as silly as possible, I sat down with her and, instead of having the organ-recital about our ailments my crowd usually indulge in, I read her one of my limericks:

Way back in the 1940s

We were told it was always naughty

If we ever blew our noses

Anywhere on our own clotheses.

Nice girls in the 1950s

Always used our handkerchiefties

That is why I think it’s not

Nice to fill your sleeves with snot.

We hugged and jiggled and simply howled with laughter while, would you believe it, the relatives laughed right along with us!

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS?

After the gatherings and feasting and general jollity of Christmastime, it is traditional to prepare for the stark winter months by making resolutions. We usually do this on an individual basis, with a list of things we want to change in our lives. Everyone knows how dispiriting this can turn out to be three or four months later, when we have “broken” them all.

 A “resolution” is something you resolve to do, with a flavor of fixity of purpose, a tight-lipped determination.   When we make a New Year’s resolution we are resolute about something.   There are negative items on our lists – to interrupt people less for example ; and positive wishes as well -such as to listen more closely to what other people are saying.

Would you believe that the idea goes back 4000 years to a New Year celebration in ancient Babylonia called Akitu, when promises were made to various gods and debts were paid off? 

The Jewish New Year at Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays leading up to Yom Kippur may derive from that ancient Middle Eastern celebration; in Judaism, people list the wrongs they have done, and not only repent for them in their hearts but make atonement with anyone they have harmed.

We can learn from these traditional practices because a problem with the kind of New Year’s resolutions we list is that we make them as individuals rather than in groups.   Though this has the advantage of making us solely responsible for carrying them out, it is much easier to break them with impunity.

Would making resolutions with other people work out better?  I am not thinking so much about getting together with a friend to carry out a diet or exercise regime as finding a group that is resolute about the same thing that I am and strengthening our resolve (and effectiveness) by joining in their actions. 

Yes, evil stalks the world, fire and flood are upon us, the media tells us that we are failing to solve our problems, plague and pestilence assail us in relentless urges – it is no wonder many of my friends feel hopeless about the future and helpless about being able to change it.

A couple of years ago I had a wonderful long winter’s read in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  No mere shallow bromide about positive thinking, the book is full of data and charts proving that things are going exponentially better for the human race than they ever have before.   Nevertheless, the media – including liberal print news and progressive tv news analysis – keeps right on bombarding us with the misguided idea that nothing we can do will change things and that we are all going to hell in a handbasket.  So I am delighted that Steven Pinker has come out with a new book,  Englightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, and Human Progress.

Here’s Pinker’s TED talk on the topic: https://www.ted.com/talks/the_ted_interview_steven_pinker_on_the_case_for_optimism

Pinker notes that we are “more galvanized by negative thoughts than those of optimism and hopefulness,” (which is why the media favors bad news) and that the crucial thing about making resolutions lies in “our assessment of how our actions can affect the world. That is, if you are optimistic in the sense that good things will happen no matter what you do, then there’s no need to do anything. But if you have an attitude of what Hans Rosling called ‘possibilism’ and what Paul Romer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, called ‘constructive optimism,’ that attitude can lead to action. Again, with that variety of optimism, it’s not that good things will happen; it’s an if-then statement—namely, if we perform the following actions, then positive results could ensue.”  (See Steven Pinker on the Past, Present, and Future of Optimism | by Darryn King | OneZero (medium.com).

My proposal for our New Year’s resolutions this year is that, with a problem-solving adjustment in our attitudes and a spirit of constructive optimism in our hearts, we find groups that share our goals and then join them in their actions. Your resolution doesn’t have to swallow up any more of your time than you want: one call, one email a week in concert with the tactically brilliant folks in the groups suggested below can be very effectively lead to concrete results:

  • I resolve to do something about the attacks on our democracy.  Robert Hubbell suggests you join Sister District, “which is actively recruiting volunteers to help with all phases of the 2022 election.” A reader (of Hubbell’s daily newsletter sent the following note:

Our flagship electoral program works to get Democrats elected to strategic state legislative seats by supporting campaigns with grassroots action. We “sister” volunteers from deep blue districts with carefully targeted races in swing districts, where flipping control of the state legislature will advance progressive policy. Our volunteers canvass, phonebank, write postcards, text bank, and fundraise for candidates. We welcome volunteers and candidates of all genders! Defend Democracy is another effective group that lists specific actions.

Another group with lists of possible actions is Defend Democracy

  • I resolve to help get out the 2022 vote.    Jessica Craven has a practical, action-focused newsletter called Chop Wood, Carry Water, keeping you up to date on all sorts of ways to keep democracy going – see, especially, her link to Voters Not Politicians.   
  • I resolve to do something to mitigate global warming.  There are all sorts of groups bringing useful information and effective action to the aid of our Beloved Planet.   My two favorites are www.citizensclimatelobby.org  and www.sierraclub.org.  Or, to combine your interest in Democracy and the Environment, you can work with the Environmental Voter Project www.environmentalvoter.org  or the League of Conservation Voters www.lcv.org.

Making New Year’s Resolutions like these isn’t naively optimistic.   Nobody I know has any doubts about the vast reach and power of the evil (which I understand as the product of bad human choices) rampaging through our times; rather, we are determined (as Emily Dickinson puts it) to “dwell in possibility” while resolutely face up to the reality of evil and refusing to be cowed by it.



A Startling Joy

Have you ever been knocked off your feet by joy?  I don’t mean the moment when you spot your long-absent sweet heart rushing toward you in the airport with arms open to give you a bear hug, or the kind when your boss emails you that you’ve got the promotion you’ve spent years longing for.  This kind of joy that knocks you off of your feet is never anticipated, totally unexpected -a sudden surge of happiness that jolts you from the top of your head to your curled up toes.

For that moment, you know that the universe is existentially good, and that, for you, all manner of things are inexplicably well.

These days we are accosted by cascades of bad news.  Bad news is stronger “click bait,” more emotionally galvanizing, than good news; it is thrown at us to get our attention.  In the journalistic bromide, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  Even news channels whose basic political bent is as progressive as I am do this: “there is much bad news to report,” Robert Hubbell explains, “but it is overwhelmed by orders of magnitude by good news that goes unreported. Good news is not reported precisely because it is ubiquitous. It is all around us.”

Plenty of philosophers consider “the good” to be the ground of reality.  Plato and Socrates assumed that a moral good underlay all social arrangements, as did Adam Smith and America’s founders.   Like them (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”) Immanuel Kant insists that reason dictates a moral imperative. Christianity assumes that the universe rests in God’s hands, and that God is good.  Human error can always be corrected by attention to divine justice.  When the Reverend Martin Luther King said that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he meant (as did the Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker whom he was paraphrasing) that that the presence of God behind all things calls us to seek justice.

Here is how Parker put it in his 1853 sermon: “We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know that it bends toward justice.”  To this 19th century Unitarian, the universe contains moral directives which we must first discern and then enact.   Universalism, a denomination which merged with Unitarianism in 1961, goes even further in its assertion that the universe is intrinsically good and that every one of us is endowed from birth with goodness, dignity, and worth.

One of Hubbell’s respondents worries that when we are bombarded by bad news we experience “moral injury”:

          “It is a moral injury to see wrong being done, legally, in an ongoing way. And to not see enough being done to stop it. Moral injuries unbalance our sense that the world we live in is basically good. They bruise our trust that we will continue as a ‘good enough; nation.”

          “The the reader has put her finger on the answer,” responds Hubbell: “We do live in a world that is basically good—a truth that is difficult to see at times. Our perception of reality is skewed to the extent that it is informed by the relative proportion of good news versus bad reported by the news media.”

These days, everything we read and hear suggests an ever-increasing power of a profoundly malignant evil.  So where to these sudden moments of joy, of inexplicable happiness pouring all through our beings like warm butter, come from?

As I am waking up I like to listen to the radio.  A few mornings ago,  I lay there being accosted by news of a  gigantic tornado tearing whole towns apart and burying everyone in the rubble, the world-wide proliferation of the omicron covid variation, cascading Antarctic icebergs raising sea levels by ten feet, school shootings and species depletion – all of that – when my dread and my terror suddenly melted away and the world became inexplicably lovely, inexplicably good.  It was one of those warm-butter-all-through-me breakthroughs when all manner of things were well in every direction and I found myself reveling in a world of total joy, of total goodness.

Where did that come from?  If it was a breakthrough, where did it breakthrough from? Do we live in more than one world, all at the same time?  Is there a space we within us, buried beneath all the bad stuff, that we inhabit unwittingly?  Is it as real as the real world?  Is it the real world?

Wishing you all happiness and joy, as often and as jolting as possible.

A Time of Darkness, a Time of Waiting

It grows darker and darker now, for longer and longer.  The sun sets as early as 5 in the afternoon, and the dawn often brings only a narrow golden band that is all too soon absorbed by the grey overhang.   When we have sunshine, it is so fleeting that we rush to put our coats on and go for a walk before it vanishes. More often, the sun is a mere pewter disc, briefly glimpsed and, apparently, ephemeral.

Even if we don’t observe the liturgical season of Advent, we experience advent as a sense of something coming into being, an undisclosed incipience. This time of year, we sink into a sense of waiting and of longing, an ancient yearning for the end of so much darkness.  Catholic Priest Henri Nouwen sees it as a “time for deepening” when an odd mixture of joy and despair shapes our moods and feelings – joy if we are nurtured by a loving community and despair if we find ourselves alone.

Happiness, we are told, springs from attachment – to community, to family, to friends we are fond of or to someone deeply loved.  When people nurture children or fall in love,” writes Maia Szalavitz in an article about why people take opioids, “hormones like oxytocin are released, infusing memories of being together with endorphin-mediated feelings of calm, contentment and satisfaction. This is one way that social contact relieves stress, making bonding a fundamental protector of both mental and physical health.”  Conversely, “when we are far from our loved ones or sense that our relationships are threatened, we feel an anxiety that is not unlike withdrawal from drug.”

In countries like Finland and Denmark, where there are as little as six hours of daylight, Scandinavians seek to ward off winter gloom by producing an atmosphere of “hygge” (pronounced hoo-gah), a mood of cozy, warm comfort.  This can be a cup of coffee or tea or cocoa and a good book in your most comfortable chair, or it can be a gathering of friends or family for long winter talks and hilarious games.

To set the mood you need something baking in your oven, fire your fireplace and candles on the mantle, as well as evergreens and glittering ornaments fetched out from (dark) attics and basements.

“He seems very nice,” my mother would say when I brought a suitor home for her inspection, “but is he good for forty years of long winter evenings?” (Reader, he was)

The principal holiday of the season antedates Christian Christmas as the Winter Solstice, when our primitive fears that it will get darker and darker forever are alleviated by the observation that – very gradually and at first barely discernably -the year has turned and our days will get lighter and lighter from now on.  And that is why candles are lit everywhere to welcome the returning light and urge it on its way; and why, in Celtic traditions, we “open wide the guesting door” to family and friends and to all those in need of the solace of company.

When I was growing up, we attended midnight service on Christmas eve.  Full of every kind of expectation, we sat silently in the pitch dark sanctuary until an old chorister named Chauncey appeared at the door to sing, in a deep a capella voice,” Oh come, oh come Emmanuel” as he made his way up the aisle, swinging a dimly lit kerosene lantern.  When he reached the chancel, candles sprang into light all over the church.

I used that memory in my novel Fly Out of the Darkness, so here is that take on Advent, with my wishes for your joyous advent, profound hygge, merry Christmas, and strength for the new year.

Father Robin’s Solstice Sermon – The Worlds We Long For (annispratt.com)

Scientific Animism

I have long been a foe of either/or thinking, a logic that takes binaries as inevitably oppositional, with no compromise possible. I much prefer both/and solutions whereby opposites merge to form brand new syntheses.

We have begun to hear talk about the inherent rights of other-than-human beings in nature, including the lands’ right to sue humans for our abuses and depletions. While this is sometimes taken as a new concept it is actually a very old one, basic not only in the animism of all of our ancient ancestors who saw nature as ensouled or animated in-and-of-itself, but in present-day Native Americans’ traditional principles setting forth the duty of human beings to the natural beings that sustain us.

My sit-out-by-the-river-and-read-slowly book this summer was Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I found myself right at home with her synthesis of science and animism as complementary tools for approaching the seemingly intractable problems we are experiencing as we try to achieve sustainability on our threatened, beloved planet. Home in autumn, here is my article just published in Impakter.com:

MICE AT THE COTTAGE

                                         Mouse Menace 

Every spring, when I arrive at my northwestern Michigan cottage, I have to roust dozens of deer mice from winter complacency. Although I am quite fond of the peppy little creatures with their blazing white tummies, I draw the line at droppings on my kitchen counters and in my refrigerator, at gnawed-over soap, toilet paper shredded for nests, and neat gifts of shiny black seeds under my pillow, not to mention the pathos of little corpses all curled up in coffee cups.

Too, they can be carriers of the deadly Hantavirus, so I owe it to my family and guests to evict them.

Until this year, opening the cottage has always begun with an hours-long task of cleaning up their kitchen depredation, especially in the refrigerator: If I leave it open, there are mouse droppings; if I close it, there is mold. Then a very nice lady in the supermarket line gave me the secret password for cottage over-wintering: Bounce!

“Leave your fridge open, just fill it with sheets of Bounce – you can use them in your cupboards, too!”

The next spring, my refrigerator and cupboards were blessedly clean of both mice and mold.  

Then there was the glorious May day when, delighted to be back Up North, I popped a piece of raison bread into my toaster, only to be assailed by the odor of toasted mouse. That’s what I thought I smelled when I used the oven for the first time, but when I searched inside I didn’t come up with a single baked mouse. Nonetheless, every time I turned on the oven, the sour, musty odor filled the kitchen, so I called in the appliance man.

“Mouse all right: not mouse mouse, I mean—mouse pee.”

“What!”.

“Thing is, it’s the insulation along both sides: they like to pee in it. Get in there, pee over and over, all winter long. What you need is a spray bottle, see? You could try bleach, or maybe white vinegar, or Cs-4? White vinegar, I think—one part in four. That should do it.”

That did it very nicely. When I turned up the oven for my meatloaf the odor had vanished, and after cleaning every surface with Lysol and plugging in zappers, I settled down for a mouse-free summer.  Deterred by the odor of Bounce, they never crawled into the oven insulation again.         

                                      Musical Mice ♬ ♬ ♪ 

A mouse zapper is an electronic device (therefore of no use in the winter when the electricity is turned off) that emits exquisitely high-pitched sound waves inaudible to the human ear, but excruciating to a mice. Since they refuse to enter a room with one in it, these are humane devices to make sure mice stay outside of my cabin, all summer long.

Then I discovered that the acoustical sensitivities of these very same deer mice extend to musical appreciation. Very late on a moonlit spring night, a Canadian biologist recording bat communications picked up a lovely little trilling melody.* Almost supersonic, it was the mating song of a deer mouse singing his little heart out at the edge of the forest. After an interval (of assessing the musical quality of the love song and comparing it others she has heard?) a female took up her strain in an exquisite duet.

I began to worry about what my zappers might be doing to the sensitive and fine-tuned ears of these lovely little creatures, not to mention their emotional lives?                                  

Alas, my skittish houseguests convinced me to leave the zappers plugged in.

                                                   Soul Mice

I used to cut down the winter mayhem with a better mouse trap made from a large plastic bucket with three right angled entry tubes set in the lid. I filled it three quarters full of sunflower seeds and put it on my kitchen floor; the poor little things crawled in and ate themselves silly, perishing by dehydration.

“On the night that you were born,” my mother used to tell me on my birthday eve in a tone of lilting wonder, “there was a mouse in the wastepaper basket. Just as I went into labor, I saw his little pink ears sticking out.”

I’ve often wondered about that little creature, his ears translucent with the first dawn of my life on earth. Was he my herald angel?

In some cultures, there’s a belief that when you die your soul escapes in the form of a mouse. One terrible spring when my husband lay dying, I took a brief weekend away from the hospital to open the cottage. There was no hope at all, and before the week was up I would have to remove his life support.

On that bleak Easter morning, emptying my mouse bucket by the woodpile, I was offering words of regret and apology over the pathetic corpses when one tiny soul aroused itself to scurry away into the forest, as the sun dawned translucently through the golden veins of its ears.

*Canadian Biologist Martina Kalcounis-Rueppell, in Rob Dunn, “Singing Mice,” Smithsonian.com (May, 2011).

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.