2021 Journal

A record of occasional thoughts and questions

22 September 2021 (Autumnal Equinox)

A friend told me recently about his mother dying at age 100. Reflecting on the ways she had shaped his character, he said, "I believe she tried to teach me humility, among her many lessons." His mother had succeeded, for my friend is a genuinely humble man--a rarity in this braggart, celebrity-worshipping society of ours. I always interpret humility and humble in light of their Indo-European root, which means earth, ground, soil. You can hear that source in humus. To be humble is to recognize that one is a creature of earth, sharing substance and breath with all other beings. The way that teaching came through in my country upbringing was to hear my mother say, “Don’t toot your own horn” or “Don’t show off,” or to hear my father say, “Don't look down on anybody, and don't kowtow to anybody” or "Treat everybody the same, with respect." This teaching shows up in many religious traditions as the instruction to honor the one Being that infuses all creatures, human and other than human. All divisions between classes of people--all hierarchies, all castes, all distinctions between superior and inferior, worthy and unworthy--are false. Knowing this, the early Quakers refused to take their hats off in the presence of aristocrats and royalty--and went to prison for their offense. Knowing this, traditional Hindus greet one another by pressing palms together, bowing slightly, and saying "Namaste," to acknowledge the divine essence they share.

12 September 2021

A reader from Scotland wrote me to ask who are my favorite writers. Here is my reply:

Greetings to you, Jay Mac, from the hill country of southern Indiana. I suspect you are a lifelong reader, as I am, and so you will understand when I say that I have many favorite writers, and the ones I turn to most frequently have changed over time. My earliest enthusiasm was for Mark Twain, whose work I still love. As a teenager, I read a lot of southern writers, such as William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Robert Penn Warren. In college I became fascinated by the American Transcendentalists, especially Thoreau and Emerson, along with their contemporaries, Melville and Whitman, to all of whom I keep returning. Because of my interest in ethics and social issues, I read works by James Baldwin and Thomas Merton, and I began developing an interest in Buddhism, which led me to Gary Snyder and Peter Matthiessen, and all of those writers still matter a great deal to me. During my four years in graduate school at Cambridge, I made up slightly for my ignorance of British literature by steeping myself in works by Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell. Back in the States, where I became a university teacher, I began reading authors whom some people call "nature writers" and I call "Earth writers": Wendell Berry, Annie, Dillard, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Wallace Stegner, Mary Oliver, Loren Eiseley, and Aldo Leopold, among others. Because I'm an American writer, I am drawn primarily to writers from my own country; but I also admire the work of Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Primo Levi, Thich Nhat Hanh, and--closer to your home ground--Robert Macfarlane, who has written memorably about Scotland, among many other places.

Thanks for your question. Keep reading.

27 August 2021

During the 1950s, in the rural pocket of Ohio where I grew up, kids would often gather on summer evenings in a hayfield or scruffy yard to make a lightning bug lantern. When it was my turn to host, I supplied a mason jar with holes punched in the lid, and a net cobbled together from cheesecloth, a loop of fence wire, and a stick. On instructions from my mother, who didn’t want us killing fireflies, we stuffed a few fresh leaves and a damp wash cloth in the jar. Then we waited, twitchy from anticipation.

As dark came on, one or two tiny lights began flashing among the tall grasses, and soon there were dozens, then hundreds, and on the grandest nights maybe thousands—as many fireflies, it seemed, as stars in the sky. One kid held the mason jar, ready to lift the lid and then set it quickly back in place. Another kid swept the net through the swirl of fireflies, catching several with each stroke, and then gently shook them into the jar. Once we had a jarful, we circled around to stare into the blinking galaxy.

On those nights when the gathering took place behind my house, I got to keep the lantern, which gave off enough light for me to read by in bed. I sat propped up on pillows, glancing back and forth between the page and the glittering jar. When I grew too sleepy for reading, I went outside to release the fireflies among the grasses where we had caught them, so they could go about their lives. I didn’t want our game to cause a single one to die.

Today, you can still find hayfields and scruffy yards in the northeastern corner of Ohio, and also in southern Indiana where I have spent my adult life, but on summer nights you will see precious few fireflies. Where there used to be hundreds or thousands of flashing lights, now there may be a handful or none at all. Evenings in June and July seem emptier without them. My children and grandchildren can peer into the glowing screens of cellphones, laptops, and sundry other devices, but they have never made a lightning bug lantern.

This might not strike you as much of a loss, in an age well supplied with entertainments. We have plenty of electric lights to break up the darkness, indoors and out. But consider that these mere bugs—which are in fact beetles, belonging to the largest order of insects—evolved a means of signaling to partners and predators by generating photons, like miniature suns, and they do so without producing any waste heat, without burning fossil fuel, without drawing electricity from wall sockets, batteries, solar panels, or nuclear reactors. Wonder at this achievement should be reason enough to lament the vanishing of fireflies. Add to wonder the fact that the light-emitting compound they created, called luciferin, is now being used in medical research, gene sequencing, drug development, brain-imaging, and in the search for signs of life on the moon and Mars. Shouldn’t simple prudence, as well as gratitude, prompt us to feel alarmed by the disappearance of such a useful creature?  

Year by year these tiny suns are winking out, and not only here in the Midwest. There are more than one hundred fifty species of fireflies in North America, more than two thousand worldwide, all diverging from a common ancestor roughly one hundred million years ago, and everywhere on Earth their numbers are diminishing. The reasons for this decline are not entirely known, but the factors we do know about—pollution, habitat loss, and global heating—are also causing declines among all classes of insects, animals, and plants. For instance, wildlife surveys reveal that populations of fish, birds, mammals, and other vertebrates have been reduced, on average, more than fifty percent over the past half century.

The prime factor driving the collapse of so many of our fellow species is rapid growth in our own. In 1951, when I first chased fireflies with a homemade net, the human population numbered just under 2.6 billion; in 2021, as I write these lines, the total has surpassed 7.9 billion, a threefold increase within a single lifetime. As our population swells, the habitat available for other species shrinks. Our towns and cities sprawl. We carve up the countryside with roads. We dam rivers. To grow more food, we fell forests, plow grasslands, drain wetlands, and empty aquifers; we scour the seas to catch more fish. As marine stocks plummet, we build gigantic trawlers that scrape the ocean floor bare; as we erode topsoil, we dump ever increasing amounts of fertilizer made from natural gas, using up fossil fuel and adding to greenhouse emissions; as monocrops attract pests and diseases, we spray more poisons, which seep into streams and reservoirs, and eventually into our bodies. And still, despite all this damage, nearly a billion humans go hungry, and millions more lack a place to sleep in safety.

In addition to suffering from pesticides, loss of habitat, and climate upheaval, firefly populations are dwindling worldwide due to light pollution, which drowns out their flashes and disrupts their mating. Imagine how many human romances would fail if phone service broke down. The same electric glare that bewilders fireflies also dims our view of the stars, enclosing us more tightly in the bubble we have manufactured to shield ourselves from the rest of nature. Lately, the bubble has been cracking, letting in floods and droughts, wildfires and hurricanes, drug-resistant microbes and epidemic diseases. On every continent, human refugees are on the move, more of them each year, fleeing environmental disasters and the wars fomented by those disasters.

In our efforts to enslave the whole of Earth to serve humans, we have made it less hospitable not only for ourselves but also for millions of other species. The crash of firefly populations is just one illustration of this debacle. A similar story could be told about drastic declines or extinctions among frogs, migratory songbirds, salmon, butterflies, bumble bees, cheetahs, chimpanzees, sedges, redwoods, longleaf pines, tortoises, sea turtles, orcas, sage grouse, and any number of other creatures.

For over three billion years, evolution has been weaving the web of life on Earth, linking all creatures, from bacteria to humpback whales, into vital relationships—pollinators to plants, plants to grazing animals, grazers to predators, predators to scavengers, scavengers to microbes, and so on through every level of complexity. We humans, latecomers to this pageant, are tearing the web to shreds. For the most part, we are not doing so maliciously, but carelessly, ignorantly, selfishly. Like other animals, we are following instinct and appetite. But unlike other animals, we have developed the technological means to multiply our population and amplify our actions beyond all biological constraints. Now that spree is ending, as we outstrip Earth’s supply of crucial resources, such as fresh water and forests, and we exceed Earth’s capacity for absorbing our wastes, such as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, plastics in the oceans, and toxins in the soil.

In cultures shaped by otherworldly religions and equipped with powerful tools, we may be lulled into thinking that humans are separate from the rest of nature, that our fate is not bound up with that of fireflies, warblers, and wolves. But this is an illusion, as long-lasting indigenous cultures have always known. We do not dwell outside of nature. We are woven into the web of life, and as it frays, our lives, our cities, our societies also begin to unravel. Knowing this, knowing how much of Earth’s abundance we have squandered, we are bound to feel dismay and grief. But we must not sink beyond grief to despair, for if we dismiss all efforts to undo the damage as futile, we will betray our children and future generations, along with our fellow species.

As an antidote to despair, consider once again the creativity of nature manifested in fireflies. Luciferin, their light-emitting compound, is made from atoms of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and hydrogen; except for hydrogen, every one of those elements was forged in the interior of stars that burned out or exploded billions of years ago. So those miniature suns that captivate children on summer evenings are fashioned from the remnants of actual suns. If nature can create such beauty from cosmic debris, what might we, as channelers of that creativity, be able to accomplish? We can replant forests, clean up rivers, restore prairies and wetlands, draw energy from wind and sun, grow food without poisons, and coax endangered species back from the edge of extinction. This work is already underway, in communities and watersheds around the world, carried on by people committed to preserving and mending Earth’s living web. Whatever our age or circumstances, wherever we live, however much or little time and effort we can devote, this is the work we are called to do.

20 July 2021

Among the trees I’ve met first in a book, and only later in a forest, my favorite is the paper birch, also known as white birch or canoe birch. As a writer, I’m partial to paper, which you can hear in its Latin species name, Betula papyrifera. Common in the woods of New England, but rare south of the Great Lakes where I grew up, this is the tree Robert Frost celebrated in his poem “Birches,” which I read for the first time in an English class during the spring of my junior year in high school. The following summer I memorized all fifty-nine lines of “Birches,” in hopes of impressing a girl at science camp by reciting it to her on an evening walk. The girl was fifteen, supersmart, and cute to boot; I was sixteen, and dazzled by her. On a night lit by fireflies, we took our walk, and I poured rather more romance into the recitation than Frost had put into the poem, although he did say, “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better,” which I took as encouragement for courtship. The girl smiled at my theatrics, but didn’t laugh. Five years later, after graduating from different colleges, we got married. That’s the chief source of my affection for paper birches. Midway through my seventies, I’ve lost a few  lines from the poem, but I haven’t lost the girl, now a grandmother, who dazzles me still. 

15 June 2021

We take care of what we love. But how do we learn that love?

When I was a boy, walking with my father in the woods near our home in Ohio, he would often say he wanted to visit an old friend. Then he would guide me to some great tree, and before he told me its name, he would have me notice the shape of its leaves, the sound of the wind in its branches, the smell and feel of the bark, the flowers or nuts it might bear, the plants that grew in its shade. Once I had become acquainted with the tree, he would say, for instance, “This old fellow is Sycamore,” and then he would say, “Sycamore, this is my son, Scott.” And so I met various kinds of oaks and maples and hickories, beech and sassafras, black cherry and tulip-tree, mulberry and walnut, and dozens of other species. In this way my father taught me not only to identify trees by their distinctive traits, but to recognize them as fellow creatures, each one an individual just as I was, and each one also, as I was, a member of a family—an ironwood among ironwoods, a sweetgum among sweetgums.

Today, having celebrated trees in a series of books, I’m sometimes asked, in a tone of incredulity, “Do you actually hug trees?” to which I reply, with equal incredulity, “Of course. Don’t you?”  

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.

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.

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.”

5 March 2021

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

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.’”

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.