2021 Journal

A record of occasional thoughts and questions

5 January 2021

The stillness we observe in winter is not the quiescence of death but a fertile waiting—seed, bud, cocoon, chrysalis, roots, hibernating and estivating animals, soil organisms primed for new growth. Pin oaks (Quercus palustris) hold most of their leaves long into winter; their lower branches stretch out stiffly like petticoats. Rredbuds shed their old bark, revealing new orangish bark underneath.

11 January 2021

Two versions of a sentence that was sounding in my head as I woke this morning: You must be adequate to the glory the world presents or you will not perceive it. You must be alert to the world’s glory or you will not see it. The word “adequate” reminded me of E. F. Schumacher’s chapters on “Adaequatio” in A Guide for the Perplexed. The “Great Truth” of “adaequatio,” he writes is, “the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing to be known.” Schumacher’s concern is to challenge the scientific materialist belief that nothing is real unless it can be measured, observed, or otherwise known by the methods of science. Put simply, he argues that we cannot know God—or spirit, mind, the transcendent—unless we believe that such knowledge is possible. “As the Buddhists say, faith opens ‘the eye of truth,’ also called ‘the Eye of the Heart’ or ‘the Eye of the Soul.’ Saint Augustine insisted that ‘our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.’”

18 January 2021

On winter walks, bundled up against the cold, knowing I can return to a warm house and a well-stocked pantry, I often think about how other creatures sustain their lives through these hard months. Many of those with wings migrate south to find warmth and food. With luck, the monarch butterflies that began life as miniscule eggs on milkweed in our southern Indiana yard last summer will reach a forested mountainside refuge in Mexico, where they will join with half a million other monarchs to drape the trees in black and gold. Sandhill and whooping cranes leave Indiana wetlands for the Gulf coast, while songbirds and warblers fly to forests and grasslands as far away as the Amazon. Several species of bats—including the one named for our state, the Indiana bat—leave our limestone cave country to hibernate in caves farther south.

But what about the animals that don’t migrate? How do they manage in these frozen, food-scarce months? Some hibernate, like groundhogs and chipmunks, lowering their heart rate, metabolic rate, and body temperature, living off fat accumulated when food was plentiful. Snakes hibernate in burrows, basements, stumps, stacks of firewood, and the dens of other animals. In the coldest regions, skunks also hibernate, but here in the Indiana hill country they do so only temporarily, rousing in warmer spells to go foraging for insects, worms, toads, and almost anything else edible, and then retreating to their den for another snooze. This on-and-off sluggishness is known to biologists as torpor—a pattern familiar to parents of teenagers.

Most native bees and wasps hibernate in the soil, in nests made by their mothers, in tree cavities, or under mulch piles and fallen leaves (a good excuse not to rake your yard too thoroughly). Honeybees survive the cold, blossomless months by clustering in their hives around the queen bee, shivering to generate warmth, and feeding on stored honey. Some butterflies overwinter as eggs laid on twigs and leaves, some as caterpillars sheltering in the leaf litter surrounding their host plants, some as chrysalises, and a few species, such as the handsome Mourning Cloak, as adults, hidden in tree crevices or woodpiles; in all of these stages, they avoid freezing by pumping a natural antifreeze into their body fluids. Squirrels curl up in their leafy nests, high in the bare branches, or in the cavities of trees, dozing much of the time, venturing out now and again to retrieve acorns and other nuts they buried during the summer. Raccoons sleep in the hardest weather, but the rest of the time they go about their sly ways, snug in fur coats, alert for any chance of a meal. Beavers hunker down in their lodges, feeding on branches they stored under the ice. Frogs and turtles burrow into the mud of ponds, lakes, and rivers. A few species of fish, such as carp, also burrow into the mud, but most fish idle near the bottom, slowing their bodily processes to conserve energy.

On my winter walks I am also mindful of how my own species, lacking those clever adaptations, makes it through the hard months. We cannot hibernate, cannot grow thicker fur or denser feathers, cannot fashion nests out of leaves or burrow underground. Some of us migrate from northern states to winter in Florida, Arizona, and other warmer destinations. But most of us stay put in our year-round homes, tethered by jobs, children in school, elders to care for, or lack of funds. So we put on another layer of clothes and turn up the thermostat. Instead of living off accumulated fat, we keep eating, foraging in grocery stores, restaurants, and takeout places.   

Alas, a dismaying number of our fellow humans cannot afford the cost of food and warm clothing, let alone the rent or mortgage notes in our high-priced housing markets. Within a ten-minute walk of where I am writing these lines on an icy January day, homeless people recently filled a park with tents. Last month, a man sleeping in one of those tents died from the cold. So local officials no longer allow overnight camping; instead, the tent-dwellers are transported or directed to overnight shelters provided by churches, nonprofits, and local agencies. No one imagines that shelters are a solution to poverty; they are a temporary stay against misery. Our neighbors who are currently experiencing homelessness need permanent, affordable housing if they are to live securely, and with the dignity due to all human beings, in winter and in all seasons of the year.

3 February 2021

Reply to a friend who studies the effects of global heating on permafrost: Your response to The Way of Imagination is encouraging for me not only because of our friendship, but also because of your training and research. I worried that including personal stories within this account of our collective human/Earth story might seem self-indulgent; but I wanted to use the personal to draw the reader into the public, shared story. As you could tell, I was trying to balance a realistic picture of what we’re up against—what we’ve done to the planet already and what long-term damage we’ve set in motion—with an appeal not to despair, not to look away, but instead to envision ways of harmonizing human actions with Earth’s natural systems, and to work toward that vision.

12 February 2021

When I pass the bookshelves in the upstairs hallway, I often notice my copy of the Hicks translation of Marcus Aurelius’s book of meditations, which they entitle The Emperor’s Handbook (NY: Scribner, 2002). Yesterday, on a whim, I pulled the book off the shelf, opened it at random, and read the only marked passage on the exposed pages:

"The creative force is a part of everything it produces. This should cause us to revere nature all the more, as well as to realize that by thinking and acting in accord with nature’s design and will, we tap into the mind of this creative force. The cosmic mind is as much a part of us, then, as it is of the universe, and all the power and knowledge available in the universe are accessible to the man who lives in perfect harmony with nature (72-73)." 

Replace the words nature or cosmic mind with Way, and you have the essential teaching of Taoism and Zen Buddhism. It is also the essence of Transcendentalism, as embodied in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. In Christian/Platonic terms, cosmic mind is equivalent to Sophia or Logos. Within the individual, it equates to spirit and soul. This vision is as close as I have come to a philosophy of life, a way of understanding the nature of things and my own existence.

22 February 2021

Two epigraphs for my new book of stories:

"Things get odder on this planet, not less so.” Loren Eiseley, The Unexpected Universe  (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969).

“I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvelous as well as for the murderous.” Seamus Heaney, “The Nobel Lecture” (1995) in Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).

5 March 2021

The shiny russet husks of the pussywillow buds are cracking open to reveal the snow-white catkins. The cosmos forever unfolding.

16 March 2021

Keep an eye out for Alison Deming's superb new book, A Woven World, which will be published by Counterpoint Press this fall. Here's my endorsement:

Only a daring poet, who happens also to be a superb essayist, would try stitching together two endeavors seemingly so disparate as high-fashion dressmaking and ocean-edge fishing. But Alison Deming succeeds brilliantly. To these twin themes of fish and fashion, she adds threads of family and cultural history stretching from Paris to New York to a Canadian island in the Bay of Fundy, from the mid-nineteenth century to our own day. What binds the book together is her admiration for “the maker class,” people skilled in the use of hand and eye to produce the essentials of life. Deming reminds us that literature is one of those essentials—a truth captured by the word “poet,” whose Greek root means “one who makes.”

22 March 2021

Reply to a friend:

You misread me to think I’m pursuing “world saving goals.” I’m just trying to lead as responsible a life as I can within the constraints imposed by an industrial-destruction economy and a political system geared, as you point out, to perpetuate corporate piracy. I make a distinction between local “capitalists”—the owner of a shop, car dealership, restaurant, or other small-scale enterprise who hopes to make a return on his or her investments and labor—and the magnates atop multi-billion-dollar global corporations. The local business person is answerable to his or her neighbors, often has the family name over the door, and must show some concern for the common good in order to keep operating. The corporate executive, on the other hand, bears loyalty to no place, no community, no nation. Nominally, that executive works on behalf of stockholders, but those stockholders are not required, by law or custom, to value anything besides an increase in share price. And those corporations, plus their obscenely rich executives and owners, control not only our government but also the governments of the entire “developed” world. Frankly, I don’t see any power short of ecological collapse that will undo this Earth-devouring marriage of greed, technology, politics, and unbridled human appetite.

So I don’t imagine largescale salvation. What I hope to do is nurture greater degrees of kindness, cooperation, conservation, and creativity within whatever small sphere of family, friends, neighbors, students, and readers I can reach. We’re alive now, and we can’t know how things will go in the future; we can only do whatever is within our power to mend the world, as you plant and tend a patch of land. I keep writing partly out of habit, partly because I would not know quite who I am if I quit, and partly because I hope to speak to a modest audience of folks who share some of my affections and concerns. I hope to entertain them along the way, if only with a well-turned sentence or a comic scene or a curious idea or a sly story.

Now I’m going outside with Ruth to set out the kale seedlings we’ve been nursing along. Like Thoreau, I still have faith in seeds.

20 April 2021

In the Book of Genesis, God instructs humans to “be fruitful and multiply.” Edward Abbey famously warned, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Certainly, the quest for perpetual growth that drives global capitalism is vastly destructive. But “growth for the sake of growth” is the impulse of every organism. Think of bacteria multiplying in a petri dish, the multitude of seeds scattered to the winds by dandelions and maples, the slew of salmon eggs, the hordes of locusts, the sky-filling flocks of starlings, the thousand sea turtles hatched for every one that survives to adulthood. All organisms expand their numbers and range until they encounter limits—from predation, crowding, disease, lack of food or water or sunlight or other essential resources. Technology allows our species to temporarily override these constraints. We share the universal impulse to be fruitful and multiply, but we are perhaps unique among life forms in our ability to willingly alter our behavior so as to respect natural limits, because we understand that the disruption of Earth’s living systems threatens the survival of countless species, including our own. Since Earth is finite, in order to avoid the fate of bacteria that perish once they have exhausted the resources within their petri dish, we must choose to curb our numbers, our appetites, and our technology.