11 November 2016
Thoughts in the aftermath of the ugly, dispiriting, dangerous presidential campaign and election, sent to about two dozen people in response to an invitation from two friends in Sitka, Alaska:
Friends, it lifts my spirits to see in the address list the names of so many people dear to me, and the names of others, unknown to me, whom Carolyn and Dorik count as members of a caring community. On learning the outcome of the election, perhaps some of you recalled, as I did, the opening line of a poem by Theodore Roethke: "In a dark time, the eye begins to see." The entire poem, like much of Roethke's work, is mysterious, inscrutable; I will not try to parse it here. But that opening line speaks to me now.
In this darkness--this smog of hatred, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, racism, and deceit--what do we see? We see more clearly the scale of the challenge to justice and sanity and peace. We see in the outcome of this election the poisonous legacy from slavery, from thousands of years of patriarchy, from wars of aggression and empire, and from the relentless exploitation of Earth. But we also see, especially in young people, the powerful resistance to that assault on our core values. And we begin to see what we must do: fight harder than ever to protect what is precious, in our households and neighborhoods and around the planet.
We need to reassure our children and grandchildren that this demagogic regime, headed by a bigot, does not define America, nor will it define the world in which they’ll grow up. We need to reassure our neighbors, whatever their religion or race or ethnicity or origins, that we stand with them in loving community. We need to care for those who are most vulnerable, whether because of poverty or age or prejudice. We need to protect our watersheds, our forests and wetlands and arable fields. We need to redouble our efforts to turn our civilization away from the path of consumption and waste, toward a path of conservation and restoration; away from the burning of fossil fuels to reliance on sun and wind and water. We need to hold public officials responsible for acting wisely and justly, in the interests of the common good; and when they fail to do so, we need to denounce them and vote them out of office. We need to demand that those who claim to hold religious faith live up to the ethical standards of their religion. We need to demand that corporate executives and financiers and social media entrepreneurs be held responsible for the social and environmental impact of their enterprises. We need to champion our common wealth—from atmosphere and oceans to public schools and parks. We need to act fiercely on behalf of coming generations and our fellow species.
All of this is more easily said than done, of course. But the only alternatives are to give up, retreat into private life, or, worst of all, join the wrecking crew. Let us help one another refuse those options. Let us do the difficult work.
Courage, friends. Blessings to you all—
5 November 2016
The whole of contemporary society seems contrived to prevent sustained thinking. The electronic realm, with its myriad sites and channels; the never-ceasing flow of messages, the tweets and blogs and posts; the constant background music; the saturation of all visible space by screens and advertisements; the crowding by people and artifacts—all distract us from reflection. In this disruptive environment, the practice of writing allows one to pursue an idea, a story, an image, or a voice over the course of hours or days or years. The writing will be interrupted by other tasks—family responsibilities, jobs, travel, sleep—but when one returns to the text, on screen or on paper, one can take up again and carry forward the previous line of thought or feeling or language. What other practice, aside from art, allows for such continuity of attention?
23 October 2016
Industrial civilization has failed. Driven by limitless human appetite and by the dream of conquering nature, it has degraded the conditions for life on Earth. What must we try to save from the wreckage? What knowledge and skills, what practices and institutions, what forms of biodiversity must we try to preserve, so that future generations will have a chance of rebuilding civilization on a wiser basis? We need a fleet of arks. We need schools and seedbanks, libraries and land trusts, co-ops and civic groups, works of art and works of love, all devoted to carrying through this era of ecological unraveling the cultural and natural wealth essential to human wellbeing. Many of these arks will perish amid the turbulence; but the larger the fleet, the likelier that some will survive.
11 August 2016
Reading Seneca, who lived in another turbulent era. His response to a world gone awry was to withdraw from the tumult and nurture his own soul. I resist his call to retreat into the self. How much harder it is, in such a time, to serve the well-being of others—indeed, to serve the well-being of the world, as pretentious as that sounds. How preposterous an ambition, how crippling a commitment! And yet my heroes, in youth and in maturity, are people who demonstrate just such boundless, courageous care for others: Jesus, the Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr., Wendell Berry, Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, William Lloyd Garrison, Rachel Carson, Joanna Macy, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall, Wangari Maathai...
29 July 2016
In response to a reporter who asked for a description of my "first story":
The earliest of my stories that I can still bear to read is one called “Prophet,” which was inspired by a family I came to know while growing up on a back road in Ohio. Like many people in that neighborhood, the family was poor, a condition aggravated by frequent additions of children. One of those kids was a classmate of mine in elementary school, a boy even more shy and awkward than I was. His father was an amateur preacher, especially devoted to the Book of Revelations. In that dire last book of the New Testament, the father detected signs that the end of the world was coming; he even specified the date, and went around the community warning everyone to repent or be damned to hellfire. He withdrew his children from school, quit his job, and hunkered down in the family shack to await the end. When the date passed without calamity, he moved his humiliated family away, and we never saw nor heard of them again. I was appalled and fascinated by this episode, imagining what my schoolmate must have felt, feeling sorry for the bedraggled mother, wondering if the world might in fact end one day. Years later, I wrote a highly fictionalized account of what I remembered, and after many revisions, this became “Prophet,” a story that was originally published in The Transatlantic Review and later collected in my Fetching the Dead (University of Illinois Press, 1984).
I have long since dismissed the prophet's notion that an angry God will smite us for our sins, obliterating the Earth and all its creatures in order to punish our errant species. Meanwhile, I have come to recognize that in our arrogance, short-sightedness, and greed we humans are despoiling the Earth without requiring the intervention of a divinity. We will not extinguish life on Earth, but we are destroying many of our fellow creatures even as we bequeath to our descendants a planet less beautiful, less diverse, less resilient than the one we have enjoyed.
5 July 2016
Headline in the business section of today's newspaper: “Wall Street Opens Lower as Global Growth Worries Seep in.” The only “growth” the stock financiers and stock brokers and hedge fund managers are concerned with is what can be measured in dollars or euros or yen. They are not worried about growth in human population and greenhouse gases, rising temperatures and sea levels, or soaring rates of species extinction, suicides, gun deaths, depression, cancer, or any other form of damage. In fact, there is a direct correlation between money-measured growth and the increase in damage to people and planet.
25 May 2016
Last night I finished reading Christopher Merrill's superb anthology The Way to the Salt Marsh: A John Hay Reader, a broader sampling of Hay’s work than I had ever read. His prose was concrete and direct in the early books, then grew more ornate over the years, more metaphysical, more anguished. The anguish arose from what he perceived as the increasing separation between industrial society and Earth, and the consequent damage to the natural world. I was struck anew by the impact of life on a dynamic landscape such as Cape Cod, with its daily and monthly tidal cycles, the migration of alewives and shorebirds, the dramatic changes in season, the volatile weather close to the ocean. It would be harder to ignore our encompassing natural context—the great Earth-patterns—in such a place than in the placid Midwest or in any large city. With air-conditioning and electronics and sloth keeping us indoors, and murky skies hiding the stars and planets and moon, and machines such as cars and airplanes erasing distances, it is all too easy to forget that we are living on a planet, alongside millions of other species.
1 May 2016
Like many of my essays, “Kinship and Kindness” (Orion, May/June 2016) begins with a report of lived experience, and then reflects on that experience, places it in an intellectual context, teases out its possible meanings. Most readers prefer narrative with little or no reflection; hence the popularity of romances and action movies and memoirs. The more complex my essays become, the more challenging they are to read as well as write. I can’t avoid the complexity, because the issues are tangled, the implications illusive. And yet, in this essay as in some other recent ones, having worked my way through complexity, I arrive at a fundamental insight. In this case, the recognition is that all of reality is One, a Unity, a Whole. We are kin to everything else, from quarks to kangaroos. This fact offers a ground for ethics, without recourse to religion.
12 April 2016
Sustainability: To live in such a way as to preserve the full beauty and bounty of Earth for future human generations, and for all living things. This is a moral imperative, our deepest responsibility. Yet how profoundly we have failed to embrace it.
7 April 2016
We spend our lives learning—some of us more, some of us less—and then we die. Insofar as any of that learning survives our passing, it does so by being stored in symbolic language (poems, novels, scientific discoveries, mathematical formulas, musical compositions, etc.); through being embodied in objects (houses built, furniture fashioned, quilts, bowls, paintings) or institutions (schools, libraries, museums, clubs, businesses, nonprofit organizations); or through the effects of our learning on those who live after us.
19 February 2016
In response to a correspondent who asked whether I have suffered from depression: “Deep grief, yes. Depression, no. I distinguish between the dark night of the soul that one experiences when looking inward, recognizing one’s mortality, one’s failings, one’s ignorance, and the darkness that one experiences when looking outward on the spectacle of suffering and damage for which we humans are responsible. While I have been afflicted by self-absorbed moodiness, verging at times on self-pity, my chief anguish has been over the pain and brokenness of others. I wouldn’t begin to compare myself to Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, or Gandhi, let alone to Jesus, the classic exemplar of this suffering-for-others, but I see in them (and in Wendell Berry, Walt Whitman, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and others of my heroes) a darkness arising from compassion. How can one be alert to the condition of the world, to the pain of humans and other living creatures, and not feel grief?”
3 February 2016
Are humans (like ants) unconsciously participating in some collective project? If so, what is it? Science? Art? A global web of transportation and communication? A planetary mind? A spiritual evolution to higher levels of being? When pondering this, one must remember that there are at least 50 billion galaxies and roughly 100 billion stars per galaxy. And all of this is supposed to be about us?
17 January 2016
According to Webster’s, a “freethinker” is “a person who forms opinions about religion independently of tradition, authority, or established belief.” The dictionary offers, as synonym, “atheist.” But mightn’t a freethinker arrive at a belief in God, without relying on “tradition, authority, or established belief”?
1 January 2016
The geological perspective is dizzying, the cosmic one even more so. If all is ephemeral, ever-shifting, is our grief over loss gratuitous? Is our dismay over human-caused devastation pointless? Under my feet here in Indiana is sediment from the wearing down of mountains. The Himalayas are capped with limestone formed from the bodies of ancient sea creatures. Heraclitus: all is flux. The Buddhist notion of shunyata or emptiness teaches that nothing has intrinsic existence; all phenomena arise and vanish out of an inexhaustible matrix. Then why this grief over the suffering and disappearance of particular things, creatures, people? Is this “inexhaustible matrix,” this source of the ten thousand things, what one beholds in the depths of meditation? Is this the reassurance felt by the mystics--that nothing is truly lost, because nothing ever exists apart from that source?
18 November 2015
After reading Divine Animal, a friend wrote to say: "To me, the novel is essentially an exploration of karma, not in that past life way that people talk about in pop magazines, but in the web of causes and dependencies that affect the courses of our lives and the possibilities for change that lie in choices we make each moment. So much of impermanence, interdependence, emptiness. So much in the power of compassion and love for family, for land, for others, and the courage we witness all around us every day. It's a Buddhist study." His words cast a new light on the novel for me, especially his understanding of karma as "the web of causes and dependencies that affect the courses of our lives and the possibilities for change that lie in choices we make each moment." One of my challenges in writing Divine Animal was to acknowledge the legacy of damage--to individuals, families, communities, and planet--while dramatizing the potential for healing. So much contemporary art, especially popular fiction and film, focuses only on damage, violence, danger, and strife--aspects of our existence that are far more gripping than compassion, kindness, and mending. It's much easier to evoke fear than caring.
30 October 2015
To a friend who is grappling with despair, I write this note of encouragement: You and I share a deep sense that we ought to be serving the world in some way, however modest; the more damage humans do to the Earth and to one another, the more futile that impulse can seem. I won’t let myself despair, however. As long as the rains come and seeds sprout and birds migrate and newborn humans open their eyes onto this amazing planet, and as long as I have my wits about me, I will do whatever I can to champion a culture of care.
26 October 2015
Why do we assume that mutations are random—or at least always random? Chaos theory has taught us that many patterns in nature we formerly regarded as random are in fact describable in mathematical terms. A second and larger question: Are the patterns we perceive in nature evidence of a patterning mind? Or are they simply the way things are, the given parameters of the observable universe?
12 September 2015
The phenomenal world is what’s available to our senses (waves on the ocean); the noumenal world is the “ultimate reality” (the water). Christians call the noumenal world “God” or "Spirit" or (in Paul Tillich’s phrase) the “Ground of Being”; Buddhists call it “nirvana” or “the Void.” Plato originally formulated the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon, the latter identified as the realm of Ideas, and the former identified as the imperfect projections of those Ideas in the world available to our senses. Kant argued that the Noumenon—which he called Ding an sich or the “thing-in-itself”—is unknowable, because we cannot reach behind our perceptions to the source that generates what we perceive. In Saving the Appearances,Owen Barfield calls this unknowable Noumenon “the unrepresented” and he calls Phenomena “the figurations,” as they are defined by our senses and cognitive categories. Physicists speak of the ground of reality as a quantum “soup,” from which particles arise spontaneously. Any metaphor, image, or other description of the Noumenon we might offer inevitably comes from the limited Phenomenal world, and thus is inadequate, misleading, or outright false.
29 July 2015
I’m struck by the way that trickster figures—Coyote, Raven, Spider, etc.—combine qualities that monotheistic cultures distinguish as “good” and “evil.” The tricksters bring light and fire, but they also bring strife and death; they are benefactors and malefactors. They have outsized appetites, especially for sex and food, and they eagerly satisfy those appetites at the expense of others. In short, the tricksters embody the full range of generous and selfish qualities that we carry ourselves. Sexuality is threatening only for religions that strive to divorce us from our animal bodies. Insofar as the tricksters are Creator figures, establishing the way the world works, they suggest that what monotheistic religions call “evil” is not an anomaly but an intrinsic feature of things. Suffering, cruelty, and death are bewildering only for theologies that imagine the Source—God, Yahweh, Allah, Brahman—is entirely loving and benevolent.
15 July 2015
A line from Thomas Paine's Common Sense points to one source of our callous behavior: “It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow.” Think of slavery; think of our wars fought far from America; think of the rich in their gated communities; think of our coddled generation, oblivious to the needs of the generations that will come after us.
5 July 2015
Although I have turned—or returned—my hand to fiction in recent years, the times transformed me into an essayist, and that is how I will be known, if I am known at all, for a spell after I depart. By “the times,” I mean the unraveling of Earth’s living web, our nation’s addiction to wars, the venality and inequity of our economic system, and the myriad causes of human suffering. What I’ve written in response to these grave matters always seems to me woefully inadequate, yet not to have made the effort would seem a betrayal.
30 June 2015
The shift from a culture of care based on familiarity and affection to one based primarily on money has freed us from many burdens, but it has also exposed us to risks. Junk food may ruin our children’s health; junk media may dull their minds. Hiring strangers to repair our houses may lead to shoddy work or scams. The more we count on private wages, savings, and loans to meet our needs, the more we may neglect the public wealth that our ancestors created—schools, libraries, parks, museums, civic organizations—as well as the natural wealth of healthy soils and waters and air. Those who cannot pay for necessities, such as medicines, may have to do without, unless they can secure help from government programs or charities. Those who can easily afford not only necessities but luxuries often resent paying taxes to benefit people whom they regard as lazy or alien or otherwise unworthy. When that resentment is turned into public policy, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the majority live in dread of job loss, accident, illness, divorce, or other contingencies that might plunge them into poverty.
10 June 2015
The devastation of Earth's living systems, most dramatically through climate disruption, is the result of a spiritual crisis, which has also given rise to extreme forms of inequality, poverty, racial profiling, sexual abuse, homelessness, and epidemic levels of mental illness. By "spiritual crisis," I do not mean a falling away from conventional religious beliefs, I mean a loss of the sense of the sacred, a failure of compassion, a surrender to selfishness.
31 May 2015
A sustainable culture is not good enough; we need a regenerative culture. We don’t merely want to stave off further degradation of the Earth; we want to help restore damaged ecosystems and societies and human bodies and minds.
3 May 2015
Physics proclaims the unity of Being, as mystics have been proclaiming it for millennia. But because physicists speak the language of mathematics, we take their word for it, whereas we may dismiss the mystics—unless we have shared their experience. I believe their experience is shared by many of us, perhaps all of us, at least in childhood, and at least fleetingly. But without a framework of expectation and understanding to account for this experience, we are likely to ignore it or forget it. One of the functions of art is to help us remember and honor such experiences.
Nature is an order to which we belong, with its own intrinsic beauty and value, independent of whatever use we may make of it. The blossom of bloodroot is as much a manifestation of cosmic order as a galaxy.
14 April 2015
Hurrying through the campus woods this morning, my mind already busy with tasks awaiting me at home, I noticed amid the brown leaves beside the path a glimmering of white blossoms. The sight brought me to a halt and filled me with joy, for these were the year’s first wildflowers. Bending down to look more closely, I recognized bloodroot, spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, cut-leaved toothwort, and trout lilies, all diminutive and seemingly frail plants less than a handbreadth high, their petals and sepals pure white or streaked with pink, their stamens and pistils yellow or green. Lifting my gaze, I could see there were luminous galaxies of them scattered across the forest floor.
I disappeared into the looking. My inner chatter ceased. For a spell there was only a communion of delicate blooms, fragrant soil, birdsong, sunlight, wind, breath, all suffused with an energy that might be joy, might be growth, might be the pulse of life.
7 April 2015
Modern physics shares the fundamental insight of many spiritual traditions: the world is One, emanating from a single source. Physicists maintain that everything in the perceivable cosmos is bound together, every particle and region affecting every other particle and region, the same physical laws operating everywhere. The universe works like a single field. What we call “life” is a coherent animation of a tiny portion of the cosmos, a gathering of atoms into a whole, every part of which is in communication with every other part, and with the surroundings (air, sun, other creatures). An organism is like a whorl in a stream, forming and persisting and changing shape and then dissipating back into the stream.
5 April 2015
What are the sources of love? Is there a single source? How does love relate to art? to the relief of human suffering? to the conservation and restoration of nature? Can secularism inspire the care that humans and nature need? Is our secular world-order a “success”? Has the desacralization of nature (a key condition for the emergence of science) encouraged us to despoil it? By stripping away from nature any sense of purpose or sacred presence, have we condemned it to devastation? The key question: What moves us to take care of anything—other people, places, communities, institutions, nature? Can we protect anything without feeling that it is sacred, holy, of ultimate value? As artists, how can our work nurture the sources of loving care?
3 April 2015
The world is given. We do not make it. We do not make our own life. To exist at all is to be the recipient of a gift. If we embrace this view, we should feel deeply grateful, and responsible. On the other hand, if we accept the view that the cosmos, the laws of nature, life, and our own existence are the results of accidents, without any transcendent meaning, then we have nothing to feel grateful for. Self is all.
22 March 2015
The universe is One. What is the nature of this unity? What can we know of it, beyond what science reveals about its constituents and processes? Periodically I return to this fundamental concern, to understand how the miniscule and ephemeral being that I experience through my own consciousness is related to the Being of the cosmos. When this yearning comes over me, I return to books on spirituality that I have read before, such as Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion. I cannot share his sense of communing directly with God or of being guided by the Inner Ligh, but I long for the simplification of life, the uncluttering, the centering focus that Kelly's God-connection gave to him.
1 March 2015
While sweeping and shoveling snow for ninety minutes from midmorning until noon, I thought about a “New Golden Rule.” The original golden rule can be expressed in two complementary ways: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. That is fine and noble, so far as it goes. But it has two limitations. (1) It appeals to selfishness by focusing on “you”—on one’s own self-interest. (2) The “others” embraced by the ethical rule are exclusively human. The history of ethics—as Aldo Leopold pointed out in “The Land Ethic”—reveals a gradual broadening of the category of “others” from one’s own tribe, gender, race, class, nationality, etc., to ultimately include all human beings. Leopold called on us to enlarge our sense of community to include “the land,” meaning soils, waters, and all living things. The New Golden Rule might go something like this: Treat other people, other creatures, and the land in the way you would wish that the people and creatures and places you love would be treated. This would shift the focus of love away from oneself to other beings, human and nonhuman, and to the nourishing matrix of nature.
25 February 2015
Here is a way of thinking about our task, as we help repair the world: Science, sociology, and other modes of knowledge reveal the way things are. The arts, history, philosophy, and other modes of imagination reveal the way things might be. Ethics tells us the way things should be. Put more plainly: In order to do good work, healing work, we need to understand our current situation, envision alternatives to that situation, and feel responsible for changing the situation. For example, in order to respond vigorously and wisely to climate disruption, we need science to document the causes and effects of greenhouse warming; we need sociology and psychology to explain why so many people, especially in the United States, refuse to accept the scientific consensus; and we need a broadly-shared moral concern for human suffering, for our fellow creatures, and for the fate of future generations. Knowledge and imagination without ethics are sterile. Ethics without knowledge and imagination is blind.
27 January 2015
I recently came across the term “defaunation,” which was coined by ecologists to refer to a reduction in the numbers of individual animals in a region, especially of top predators and grazers, whose absence can significantly affect the ecological balance. The chief causes are overhunting, deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and invasive species. This reminded me of the report published by the World Wildlife Fund last year, which found that the world’s population of animals—not species, but individual animals—has decreased by 52% since 1970. Imagine the destruction! So many creatures killed, starved, poisoned, or perishing for lack of habitat! What sort of “civilization” would wipe out half the world’s animals, the product of millions of years of evolution, in forty years?
17 January 2015
When I told my parents I wanted to switch my major, midway through college, from physics to English, my father replied, “But you already know English.” So I explained that I wanted to study British and American literature, go on for a Ph.D., and become a professor. To my parents, neither of whom had graduated from college, that goal seemed rather grand, but like many others of their generation, who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, they believed that a brighter future awaited their children. My father had earned his living in factories, first as a line worker and eventually as a manager, and he was surprised to learn that a person could actually get paid for reading and talking about books. My mother was a homemaker with sundry skills, none of which was dignified by a paycheck, but she was an artist at heart as well as an avid reader, and she understood that my real ambition was to become a writer. If becoming a professor of English would help me pursue that dream, then she would support me wholeheartedly, and she persuaded my father to do the same.
Half a century after my parents gave me their blessing, I can look back on a career that has proven to be more fulfilling than anything I could have imagined as an undergraduate. What a privilege to have earned my living all these years in the way my father found so implausible—by reading and writing, and by discussing works of literature with bright, inquisitive young people. In what other profession could one share on a daily basis the pleasures of language well used and art well made, while exploring the variety and meaning of human experience?
It is not fashionable in today’s academy to speak of literary study as a source of aesthetic pleasure, much less as a way and of exploring what it means to be human. But those were the rewards that drew me to the reading of stories and novels and poems in childhood, and that keep me reading now. Literature helps me think about how we shape our individual lives, how we treat one another, how we organize ourselves into communities, how we relate to the rest of nature, and how we might do all of those things differently. Biology influences our behavior profoundly, of course, as it does that of all animals; but humans are distinctive in the degree to which we must choose how to act, individually and collectively. Shall we go to war or make peace? Shall we enslave one another, or embrace one another? Shall we cheat and lie and steal, or shall we deal honestly? Shall we care for the poor, or discard them? Shall we regard Earth as a warehouse of raw materials or as our beautiful and irreplaceable home? Shall we think of ourselves as machines made of meat, or as beings with souls?
1 January 2015
Over the holidays, my wife and I received 212 solicitations from not-for-profit organizations, many by email, some by US mail, a few by phone calls. I kept a tally because the onslaught of appeals was so great. Judging from all those pleas, and from the deteriorating condition of American society, global capitalism has been a moral and environmental disaster, neglecting the needs of children, the elderly, the poor, refugees, indigenous peoples, military veterans, prisoners, schools, libraries, other species, oceans, forests, and future generations, to mention a sampling. The so-called “free market” exploits workers and degrades the conditions for all life on Earth, turning natural wealth into money, and funneling that money into the hands of those are already obscenely rich.
17 November 2014
The digital age has democratized publishing, opening the way to a flood of books, magazines, and blogs. But this publishing revolution, on the whole a good thing, has made it harder for readers to find serious writing amid the dross. By serious, I mean writing that is patiently composed, with care taken over the selection of each word, the shaping of each sentence, the framing of narrative or argument. I mean writing that is the product of sustained reflection and imagination, writing that pursues real questions. I mean work that does not ape patterns others have made popular, but instead shows some portion of the world, some aspect of our lives, afresh. Serious writing repays our attention. It does not merely take up our time, divert us, amuse us; it sharpens our perceptions, deepens our understanding, enlarges our sympathies.
9 November 2014
I have been thinking about paradoxes of the electronic age. The Web allows us to learn about Earth as a whole, with all its diversity of creatures and cultures, even as the industrial economy and global media, powered by the Internet, erode that diversity. Likewise, the Web allows us to monitor and pool information about planet-scale challenges—climate disruption, for instance, as well as deforestation, species extinction, and the exhaustion of the oceans—even as it distracts us from the sustained thought and effort required to address those challenges. Depending upon how we use it, the Web offers knowledge or trivia, insight or nonsense, a capacious view or shallow entertainment. Surfing the Web brings to mind an image of water-striders, their feet creating dimples in the surface of streams, scooting around without ever penetrating to the depths. I think also of the Platte River, a mile wide and a foot deep—only the digital universe is in effect infinitely wide; no one could ever exhaust its store of words, images, recordings, or data. Clearly, one can dive deep into a chosen domain—chess moves, bread-baking, the migration of birds, the transmigration of souls—as if one were researching in a universal library. But such in-depth use of the Web appears to be far less common than hectic or idle browsing.
7 November 2014
A flock of robins, which I first noticed yesterday amidst my gloom, glide in and out of the holly and black cherry trees, gobbling fruits. They don’t read newspapers, don’t know about climate disruption, and go about their lives as if the world were not hastening toward disaster.
24 October 2014
At birth each of us inherits a legacy of language. Throughout our lives, as speakers and listeners and, if we are literate, as readers and writers, we draw on this legacy, which was created by countless human beings over countless generations, and which continues to accumulate with every act of speech or writing. Language is a great commons, an open-source gift. Just as our lives depend on the natural commons of air, water, soil, and biodiversity, so our wellbeing depends as well on the language-based cultural commons, as embodied in literature, science, history, laws, and so many other human artifacts. Seen in this light, much advertising is a form of pollution, poisoning the language, sapping its vitality. Language is corrupted by all speech that deliberately misleads—including much political rhetoric, military apologetics, religious demagoguery, and propaganda disguised as “news”. Whether or not we mean to, those of us who are writers affect the commons of language, if only in the slightest way. So we should use language with respect and gratitude, and we should be generous in sharing with others what we have made by drawing on this shared inheritance.
20 September 2014
A good novel enlarges our moral imagination. A good essay invites us to think, to see larger patterns, to reflect on and not merely endure our days. Both literary forms are vital in a culture that urges us to care only about our own narrow interests and distracts us from thinking deeply or coherently about anything.
4 September 2014
Ann Zwinger died last weekend. She was an artist, conservationist, indomitable traveler to wild places, and marvelous writer. I keep her Beyond the Aspen Grove and Run, River, Run on the shelves by my writing desk, touchstones for clarity and insight. What a steadying, clarifying, illuminating presence she was, in every setting, whether on a trail, in conversation, or at a board meeting. Two favorite memories of her: In May 2005, while camping with several other writers and scientists on a knoll overlooking Mount St. Helens, she emerged from a tiny tent at dawn, every hair in place, wearing a tweed jacket and immaculate slacks, then she turned to salute the volcano, where a fumarole flushed pink with early sunlight, one elder greeting another, and then she walked to the chow tent, where several of our camping comrades, frazzled, unkempt, droopy-eyed, brooded over cups of coffee. “What have you seen so far this morning, gentlemen?” she asked. Age 81 at the time, brisk, bright, she had recently returned from the Galapagos Islands. The second memory: Walking with her along the Wabash River in Muncie, Indiana, where she had grown up, and where she had learned to love the patterns and textures and creatures of Earth, listening as she recalled youthful hi-jinks and joys. She was a rare soul.
4 July 2014
Humans emerged as a species from the original world, the matrix of soils, waters, creatures, and processes that we call “nature.” Indigenous peoples have always understood this, and have developed cultures that respect the sources of life. Modern science and technology, however, have allowed us to fashion an artificial world that insulates us ever more thoroughly from nature. If we choose, those of us who live in industrial societies need never leave the human bubble, with its buildings and vehicles and products and screens. Snug inside, dazzled by our gadgets and amusements, we may imagine that the manufactured world is the real one, a self-sufficient realm, and that “nature” is only a place to mine materials and dump wastes. Occasionally, an earthquake or hurricane or epidemic will shake this illusion, but as soon as the bodies are buried and the electricity comes back on and the debris is cleaned up, we may once again forget our dependence on nature. Yet everything we make, from computers to language, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and every molecule in our bodies comes directly or indirectly from that original world. Our well-being is entirely dependent on the well-being of Earth. This is the plainest common sense; yet in America, it seems beyond the comprehension of many—perhaps most—legislators, corporate executives, advertisers, merchants, and so-called consumers. By refusing to curb our numbers and appetites, by accelerating our rates of mineral extraction and pollution, we condemn ourselves and future generations to suffering. Those descendants will have reason to condemn us, as we condemn our predecessors who owned slaves or clearcut forests or started wars.
13 May 2014
How much is a butterfly worth? The flash of a hummingbird? The song of a warbler? A clear-flowing stream? An unplowed prairie? An in-breath of pure air? In our economy, whatever cannot be packaged and sold is defined as worthless. Anything that can be turned into money will be exploited, and will almost certainly be degraded. As John Muir wrote, "Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded."
12 April 2014
The combined effect of reading William James and Tolstoy lately has been to make me reflect on how I keep setting aside the big question about the ultimate frame or matrix of things—the question about whether the cosmos is the work of a Creator or the product of matter-in-motion. Is there an ultimate order to the universe—a moral order—in which we somehow participate? Or is the universe merely an accidental elaboration of matter driven by energy and governed by the laws of physics? Granted, the question cannot be answered definitively. But the answer one gives to it, the view one embraces, has enormous implications for one’s life, and for the choice between hope and despair. In Pragmatism, James argues—along lines similar to those of Tolstoy in A Confession—that believing in an ultimate moral order provides the only alternative to imagining that all human actions are meaningless, and that everything we do will perish along with the Earth.
31 March 2014
Rereading Williams James’s The Will to Believe and Other Essays (1896). His central question is whether, in light of modern science (as revolutionized in his day by Darwin and 19th-century physics), one could still believe that the universe is a moral order. In the title essay, he sets aside the irresolvable question of whether God exists in order to argue that it makes sense to act as if God exists--as if, behind or within nature, there is a transcendent order that nature itself only imperfectly reflects. If there is no moral order in the universe, then there is no “evil”; the phenomena of nature are either advantageous or disadvantageous to us, but with no intent or ethical significance. Hence Job’s questions about the reasons for suffering and pain go away.
What reason, other than an appeal to scripture, do we have for believing that the universe is arranged to benefit us? There is abundant, daily evidence to the contrary. Even if one believes in a Creator, why assume that the Creator is all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-loving? There is no logical necessity that a Creator would have these qualities. Further, why assume that a Creator, in establishing the laws of the physical universe and setting everything in motion, would be able to foresee all of the consequences? Perhaps the cosmos is merely an experiment, with God observing to see how things go. On the other hand, wouldn’t a Creator capable of fashioning and impelling the universe—and human life within it—be equally capable of intervening if things were going contrary to the Creator’s wishes? Wouldn’t such a Creator be capable of bringing about harmony and peace among humans, for example?
So far as we can see, only living creatures—and perhaps especially humans—can be moral agents. Nature gives rise to us, and we create rules of behavior and standards of right and wrong. If those rules are entirely our invention, then on what do we base them? Two sources stand out: the need to regulate our interactions as social animals (thou shalt not steal, kill, covet, etc.), and the desire to protect what we love (caring for children, rivers, fellow creatures, land, art). Thus, we see Leopold beginning from his love of wild things and ending up with his "land ethic." Love comes first; morals, second.
25 March 2014
When I speak with audiences about our responsibility to bear in mind the needs of the generations that will come after us, a century and more in the future, I am often asked why we should care about people who do not even exist. The first time I encountered this question, I had to puzzle before answering. Assuming that those unborn future generations bear no genetic link to ourselves—as the vast majority of them will not, even if we happen to have children—there is no biological reason for caring whether they flourish or suffer. Nor is there any logical reason to care for them, since the quality of their lives can have no direct impact on our own well-being. What I realized, as I pondered this challenge from the audience, is that the impulse to care about the fate of unborn generations arises from my sense of taking part in the human lineage. We are born into a world filled with blessings as well as curses inherited from previous generations—mathematics and nuclear weapons, antibiotics and racism, art and war; and we die passing on a world either enriched or diminished by our having lived. Our big brains enable us to remember and learn about the past, and to imagine the consequences of our actions. Failing to recognize our participation in this human lineage would be to waste our distinctive gifts. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the goods we’ve received from previous generations, including the bounty and resilience of nature they have taken pains to preserve. Likewise, I feel a profound regret over the legacy of damage those generations have passed on to us—from slavery, sexism, genocide, pollution, and the like. The regret prompts me to reduce the damage I might cause by my own way of life, and to resist the most damaging aspects of my society. The gratitude prompts me to help preserve the sources of our well-being—clean water and air, biodiversity, public lands, knowledge, art, democracy, among many others—and to add whatever new goods I can fashion with my limited time and talents. Caring about the fate of unborn generations—strangers who exist, as of now, only in our imagination—is an essential part of what it means to be human.
22 March 2014
I traveled to the Pecantico Forest Preserve in northern Illinois to do a show called "Wild Hope" with my friend Carrie Newcomer, a marvelous singer/songwriter. Before the concert, we sat down to a community pitch-in supper, amid a genial, talkative crowd of perhaps a hundred and fifty people who had come to hear Carrie's songs and my stories. Across the table from me, a little girl was intently drawing with crayons on scraps of paper. Perhaps six or seven years old, she had periwinkle blue eyes and a face as clear as rainwater. She wore a bright green hoodie with the hood pulled up. She had finished her meal, and every now and again she asked politely of her grandparents when they would take her outside to the playground. Each time, her grandmother or grandfather put her off by saying they wanted to talk with their friends just a few more minutes. So the girl kept drawing. To engage her, I asked if I could see her pictures. With evident pride, she presented them to me, explaining that one showed flowers, another showed a house with smoke coming out of the chimney, and a third one, a latticework of brilliant stripes, was "Just a pretty design." When I asked her how she had imagined such a beautiful design, she replied, "I saw it behind my eyes," and then she handed me the picture, saying, “Here, it’s for you.” I accepted it, but I worried that she might regret giving her picture to this bald, craggy stranger who happened to be sitting across the table from her. So I showed it to Carrie, who duly praised it, then I laid the picture on the table between me and the girl, thinking she could take it back if she had second thoughts. After a minute or so, she picked it up and offered it to me again, saying, “Here’s your picture.” So I thanked her, and tucked it into my pocket. Art as gift.
27 January 2014
Howard Zinn died on this date four years ago. Best known as the author of A People’s History of the United States, he belonged to the American tradition of great-hearted radical thinkers, which includes Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Susan B. Anthony, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Wendell Berry, among others. In 2010, while governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels referred to A People’s History as “crap” and directed that it be banned from teacher training and public schools in the state. He gave no evidence of having read the book, which emphasizes what Zinn regarded as neglected dimensions of our history—genocide against the native peoples, slavery (and the wealth derived from slavery), trade unions, the women’s rights and civil rights and peace movements, American wars of aggression, environmental devastation, and corporate corruption. While still governor, Mitch Daniels was appointed the next president of Purdue University—by a board of trustees, many of whom he had appointed. When questions were raised about this move, the state ethics board—which he had also appointed—found nothing amiss. While rereading Zinn’s memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, I was struck by his frequent use of the word “indignity” to describe the feelings of those who have suffered neglect or abuse—people of color, victims of sexual violence, immigrants, military veterans, the unemployed, the poor, the homeless. The Latin root of “dignity” means worth or merit. To insist on one’s dignity is to insist on one’s inherent worth, regardless of gender or skin color or level of income or place of birth. Howard Zinn believed that all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. Last November, students at Purdue University organized a public reading of A People’s History of the United States, to show their new president, Mitch Daniels, what they thought of his effort at censoring this book and these values. Solidarity readings were held simultaneously at nine other campuses, including the University of Chicago and Indiana University.
15 January 2014
On a snowy night earlier this month, at a concert for the release of Tim’s Grimm’s new album, The Turning Point, I was approached between sets by a husky man in his 40s, bearded, bespectacled, and earnest. He told me his name, and told me he had read with interest my book In Limestone Country, because he was himself a carver of limestone. He specialized in grave markers. He had begun visiting cemeteries as a boy, in the company of his grandfather, and noticed early on the traditional designs—weeping willows, grieving mothers, angels, lambs, tree trunks with lopped off limbs, tools, swords, and all manner of crosses. He also noticed small aluminum tags identifying the graves of children, where stones had never been erected. Now, in his spare time, he visits Indiana cemeteries, notes down the names of those vanished children, and carves simple limestone markers to place on their graves. A Catholic priest, learning of this work, commissioned him to make forty-six headstones for unmarked graves in the church cemetery. The man told me all of this without a hint of bragging, as though such consideration for strangers were the least one could expect from someone fortunate enough to learn how to carve stone.
1 January 2014
On Christmas Eve, I watched four children unwrap enough presents to a supply a small village with toys, clothing, puzzles, games, and books. One of the youngsters, a five-year-old boy, set his well-stuffed stocking aside until he had opened the larger items, which featured superhero figures, electronic gizmos, and construction kits. When he turned to the stocking, at the very bottom he found an orange, the only present of the dozen or more he received which had not been manufactured. He grimaced as he cupped the orange in his palm, muttering, “Oh, no, who wants this?” and then tossed it onto a heap of wrapping paper. Watching him, I recalled my mother’s account of the Christmas present she had most treasured as a child growing up in Chicago during the 1920s—a shiny orange, shipped all the way from Florida, the only one she would eat all year. The fruit had lost its savor for the boy who could eat oranges whenever he wished, and who wished, above all, for presents with batteries and buttons and screens. So our abundance impoverishes us.
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