Colorful Leaves

Weekends, it seems, are incomplete without being among books. You might think that someone who works in publishing might want to get away from books in the off hours, but quite the contrary. I love a good walk in the woods in autumn. Especially if it’s followed by a trip to the local independent bookstore. It just feels right being among books. I realize that I’m in the minority by expressing such an opinion, and that the book buying (and book publishing industry) is (are) small compared to other forms of passing one’s time, but they are significant beyond their size. My wife and I have scoped out the various indie book sellers all around. When we have to take the car in for service, we drop it off, have lunch at a diner, and stroll down to the bookshop. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.


Here’s the sign on our Clinton indie. In case you can’t make it out, the legend says “This is a book shop. Cross-roads of civilization. Refuge of all the arts. Against the ravages of time. Armoury of fearless truth. Against whispering rumour. Incessant trumpet of trade. From this place words may fly abroad not to perish as digital waves but fixed in time. Not corrupted by the hurrying hand but verified in truth. Friend, you stand on sacred ground. This is a book shop.” I especially appreciate the sentiment of sacred ground. Indeed, sanctuaries of all sorts often house books. As libraries experience funding difficulties, civilizations are in the throes of collapse. Just to have books around me makes me feel secure.

Some months ago we had to have a refrigerator replaced. Our apartment has a strange, offset back door that makes getting anything of size in or out difficult. The front door is a fairly straight shot, but just beyond the entryway I had set up a bookshelf after we moved in. The appliance guys came in, jaws literally dropping. “I’ve never seen so many books in one place,” one of them said. They then complained and told me they couldn’t get the old fridge out as the landlord had said they’d be able too. “Your books are in the way,” they complained with accusatory tones. I had to unload the books from two shelves and move them while they watched. I, the lover of books, was duly chastened. I’m afraid my love affair with reading has only become more passionate since that day. The books are back on their shelves and they’ve been joined by more friends. What is a weekend without books but a wasted opportunity?

Sects These Days

fisherreligionNew Religious Movements (NRMs) have long fascinated me. As a natural historian, looking back over where we’ve been has been my usual source of orientation. The idea that a new religious truth could emerge used to strike me as unlikely, especially in the western hemisphere. All major religions of ancient times have come from Asia. (I’m using “major” here only in terms of numbers, not importance.) I wasn’t sure if Mary Pat Fisher’s Religion in the Twenty-first Century was going to be about those traditional religions or NRMs. Both, it turns out. This little book, spun off of a bigger book, looks at very brief histories and contemporary expressions of traditional religions as well as some newer expressions of the spiritual quest. As such, it really doesn’t strive to reveal too much that’s new, but I found it interesting nevertheless.

To begin with Fisher reveals a bit of her own spiritual journey. This may be the first time I’ve ever read of a major textbook author (her larger world religions books are bestsellers) admit to having had a near death experience (NDE, as long as we’re using abbreviations). I know for a fact that Fisher is not the only academic to have experienced such, but trying to get anyone to admit as much requires, well, the confidence of a bestselling textbook, I guess. The fact is, human beings have a spiritual sense. Even academics. It can be effaced, sublimated, buried, or neglected, but it is there. There’s no other way to explain the persistence of religion. Even Nones, to update the discussion a little, often list themselves as spiritual, but not religious. It is part of the human condition, and it is well worth trying to understand.

This little spin-off text, at seventeen years old, does look a bit dated. Some of the predictions for the then coming new millennium were a touch optimistic. I suppose that’s the danger of any description of contemporary developments. Interfaith dialogues and initiatives, I suspect, still continue although we hear little of them. We continue to use religions as a way to divide between insiders and outsiders. Although our common yearning for spirituality has great potential to bring people together, historically it has wrenched them apart. I’m not sure that this particular book by Fisher is still available any more. Or it may have been updated. As one who tends to look back over history, however, I find the optimism refreshing. Perhaps as we continue to struggle with what it means to be human we will come to realize that religion is about what is inside, not out.

Signed, Sealed, Forgotten


I’m a little ashamed to admit it. With such a long list of moody horror movies out there, I gave in to watching The Seventh Sign again. 1988 was a momentous year. I had graduated from Boston University School of Theology the year before and had been functionally unemployed, as befits a future adjunct professor. I had joined the Episcopal Church, cutting off my chances of ordination in my previous United Methodist sect. I’d been accepted into doctoral programs at Oxford, St Andrews, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh but couldn’t afford any of them. I proposed to my future wife and by the end of the year had married her. In the midst of it all a friend convinced me to go see The Seventh Sign, then in theaters. A typical end of the world movie, The Seventh Sign was a “see once” movie to me, but I guess I’m weaker than I thought.

The movie got me to thinking about the end of the world. Not literally, but rather how we came to have such a strange idea. As creatures conscious of our own deaths, I suppose it’s natural that we think everything comes to an end. The mythical scenario of “the end of days,” however, is cobbled together from various pieces of the Bible, like some distorted, religious picture puzzle. The Book of Revelation doesn’t give a coherent story of the future. In seminary I learned that it was because Revelation is actually about what was happening in the Roman Empire in the first century, not about what would happen in the days when I happened to find myself conscious and eating Kraft macaroni and cheese, mixed with water instead of milk and working for Ritz Camera. I was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment. That was my own kind of personal apocalypse, I guess.

The Seventh Sign is unusual in that a Jewish boy, Avi, and a lapsed Christian woman, Abby (who rents a room to the new incarnation of Jesus who lives, apparently, quite a lot like I did at the time) have to figure this out together. Tying in several other mythological motifs, the number of seals broken is, if I count correctly, only five. The world is saved by self-sacrifice, as is generally expected, and everyone ends up feeling let down. It is a downer of a movie, and not very scary for a horror film. What struck me was how many scenes I remembered so precisely. So I guess it did manage to impress me on some level, back in 1988. I selected Edinburgh University and now once again, find myself outside the institution I covet. I’m still waiting to see what happens with those two last seals.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

When Bob Dylan was changing American music I wasn’t really in a place to notice. I was too young, living in a small town, and the member of a church suspicious of that kind of music. We didn’t listen to the radio at home, so I only really discovered who he was when I was in college. I’d heard many of his songs by then, of course, I just didn’t know the persona. So when the news broke that Dylan had been selected for a Nobel Prize in poetry he stunned me yet again. As someone who has always wondered if he’s made any contribution at all, let alone a significant one, this seemed like one of those roads a man walks down before he’s called a man. A mensch. A person who matters. I was pleased, then, to learn that I’m only 37 degrees of separation from the great man himself.

It was probably something like this desire to be significant that led me to genealogy in the first place. My wife had done significant work on her family tree, and apart from a college project in anthropology I’d done little. While at Nashotah House I began to work on it. I managed to make some connections and take many of my lineages (pedestrian, all of them) back a ways. One of the results of this was I posted some information on WikiTree. I had intended to put much more there, but since leaving academia I also seem to have misplaced anything resembling free time. The loss of summer is the hardest to bear for a man whose very pulse is divided into semesters. In any case, I received an email from WikiTree this week with the following chart, showing how I’m attached to Bob Dylan.


Now, I didn’t ask for this connection to fame. I received the email unsolicited, blowing in the wind, as it were. I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle all the hits that are sure to follow such a public revelation. Fame, I’m told, can be quite a burden. The one important thing this chart tells me, however, is that we’re all connected. I suspect there are some famous people much closer than 37 degrees from me. Melvin Purvis, “the man who shot John Dillinger” was married to one of my great aunt’s sisters or something like that. Some of my southern cousins even got to visit his gun-lined house. Fame, as it will, rests rather on the side of John Dillinger. And Bob Dylan. If we were to cast the net wide enough we’d see that we’re all related and therefore shouldn’t hate one another. I would say “we are family” but I think that might be a different artist’s song.

Tell It Straight

Apparently there is a burgeoning interest in swearing. Not necessarily in doing it, but in studying it. Over the past couple of years I’ve easily found a book every twelve months that devotes itself to the topic. After I finished reading the most recent one, my wife pointed me to a story on The Guardian that deals with the same topic. The story by Benjamin Bergen, “Well, I’ll be… There’s a real science to cussing and blaspheming but beware,” springs from his book on the subject, which I’ve not yet read. Interestingly, Bergen points out that there are four main classes of “bad words:” those that misuse religious concepts and names, those dealing with sex, words that denote various bodily effluvia, and finally, slurs. Today the final category, particularly when it comes to prejudicial slurs, is often considered the most offensive. Religious swears aren’t what they used to be.


Why concern ourselves with such things? For me, I suspect, it is because of laws. Yes, laws. The religion in which I was raised was all about what you could or couldn’t do. One of those species of forbidden activities was swearing. Problem was, I didn’t know what all the words were. How could I not say them if I didn’t know them? And how could I know them if somebody didn’t say them? This vexed my young mind. I thought perhaps I should keep a written list, but this would be hard to explain if anyone ever found it. To make matters worse, some of the words were not swears sometimes and other times they were. “Hell,” referring to the fiery place, was not swearing unless you instructed someone to go there. Other uses beyond the literal were swearing. An ass was fine if it was an animal, but not if it was on an animal. And if you added one consonant that you couldn’t even hear onto a structure built to hold back water you were in hot water. Who made up these rules? The Bible didn’t say much about it.

In high school I heard there were seven words that you couldn’t say on television. Since we didn’t watch George Carlin I didn’t know what they were, but by this point I had collected more than seven. When I finally did hear his shtick (quite recently, at that) it contained some words I didn’t expect which, while rude, were never considered “swearing” on my canonical list. So it is we find ourselves with no definitive rules about what not to say. Professors are writing books about such things and even after having read some I’m no closer to my definitive list than when I started. It’s all a matter of laws, I suppose. Only the rules keep shifting. Best just to keep my mouth shut.

God’s Meteorologist

weatherexperiment“To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine.“ I honestly don’t remember writing those words. A friend of my drew them out in a quote last year (perhaps the only time my book has every had such an honor) and they resonate with what a much better known writer has said. The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future was a book I bought upon first sight. Peter Moore’s story, like the science of the atmosphere, is only a small part of the whole. I glanced through the index for Increase Lapham while still in the bookstore, but despite his absence bought the tome anyway. I’m glad I did. Throughout this account of how meteorology developed in the nineteenth century religion and science are continually at play. As Moore points out, when faced with a violent storm, before any means of grasping the sheer enormity of the atmosphere existed, the only reasonable explanation was God. And it wasn’t just the clergy who believed this. Those we now recognize as scientists thought so too.

There are several key players in the drama of how we’ve come to our current understanding of the weather, but one that surprised me most was Robert FitzRoy. Everyone knows that FitzRoy was captain of the Beagle on Charles Darwin’s voyage that revolutionized science for ever. Some are even aware that FitzRoy, especially after his marriage, because a staunch evangelical Christian, parting ways with Darwin so far as to wave a Bible over his head at a public debate on evolution. I, for one, had no idea that FitzRoy almost singlehandedly invented the weather forecast. And that he did so as a government employee and doing so brought the ridicule of the scientific establishment because predicting was considered the purview of unscientific minds. It was as if the world I recognize had been whirled 180 degrees around by some unseen storm.

Any book on the weather, as I’ve learned, has to include a discussion of global warming. Climate change is real, and it is something we’ve done to our own planet. In a day when statistics can be produced showing that many scientific results are funded by companies with vested interests in the outcome of the experiments—even those at top universities—and we can see just how complex this web of financially motivated truth has become. Science is not pure rationality. It never has been, and it never can be as long as humans are the ones undertaking it. And we are beginning—just beginning—to see that there are some places where the wind blows freely through although those in white coats have assured us the room is sealed. This is a fascinating read and any book that makes me think I had the start of something profound to say is one I’ll buy on impulse any day.

Life As We Knew It

The government does funny things when your back is turned. Back in January, reading Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street, I learned that the government treats corporations as people. It assigns certain rights and privileges to these collectives so that business can thrive without interference. A recent article by Chip Colwell in The Conversation asks, “What if nature, like corporations, had the rights and protections of a person?” This isn’t merely an academic question. As Colwell points out, New Zealand has recently accorded a natural area personhood status to protect it from exploitation. Meanwhile we in the United States live in a country where companies—those nasty people—are chomping to get their teeth into the “natural resources” of our national parks and wilderness areas. Not because it’s best for the planet, but because their corporate person has one of humanity’s greatest evils—greed. Gluttony used to be a deadly sin. Now it’s called economy.

One thing this corporate person doesn’t understand: we have only one planet and it belongs to everyone. Or no one. Our capitalist outlook has given an undue sense of entitlement to those who have the means to take without asking. They can frack the ground under your feet and you’ll never know it. Until the earthquakes or sink holes come. Meanwhile natural areas—as Colwell indicates, considered sacred by many Native Americans—are unprotected from fictional persons that have immensely more power than any individual. We know what happens when the sacred is engaged in battle by the economic. It’s an unfair fight.


When the crush of work stress gets to be too much, nature is our balm. Many times my wife and I will head to the woods on a weekend just to regain the balance that is stolen by what we call civilization. Manhattan has its wonders, to be sure, but they pale next to a simple stretch of “undeveloped” land and a path to walk through it. There’s a reason that corporate executives have their vacation houses far from the towers they build. It’s not a question of whether the sacred forests are valuable, but rather who gets to own them. With the legalization of fiction—corporations are not people, no matter how logic may be distorted—we have doomed fact. The earth is our fact, and, at this moment our only fact. As Colwell suggests, if it were treated like a person we’d have to show it some respect. And with respect true civility can thrive.