Here I am in a natural setting, with nature close at hand. From these windows I can see mountains, a mercury-smooth lake with fish breaking its silvery sheet, and trees aspiring for the sky. I hear a red squirrel chattering from one of those trees, and the call of a lonely osprey looking for its morning meal. It took a day of arduous travel to get here, and I am staring at a computer screen as nature puts on her show for me. I think, “it’ll still be there when I get done.” Then I think about what I think. Will it be there? This world we’re creating in our own image demands more and more of the planet we inhabit. To which we feel entitled. As I stood at the airport staring at the monitor, I couldn’t believe that my flight had been cancelled. What? I arrived at the airport at 5 a.m., flew countless miles, only to have you tell me my flight has been cancelled? Am I not owed better than this?
This attitude, I reflect, may be what brought us to such a place to begin with. This incredibly beautiful world was never ours to own. We’re guests. Invited perhaps, but guests nevertheless. And we all know that guests are supposed to be gracious and to act as if they wish to be invited back. So why am I rudely sitting here, ignoring my host? We are part of nature, but we tend to think of those closely attuned to nature as “uncivilized.” They don’t dress like city dwellers. Their hair is worn differently. They value things money can’t buy. They don’t play the entrepreneur’s game.
I travel to “get away from it all.” That which I’m getting away from is my life every other day of the year. How did we come to call this “civilized”? There’s no denying the creature comforts of a place to call home and a routine that seldom varies. But sitting here, amid nature, I realize the tremendous cost. Even as soon as it began to warm up in New Jersey we tried to carve out the time to explore local parks. To be outdoors among nature before heading back to the office on Monday. The whole point of worship is to break the flow of everyday time. To stop and think of the good that we have been invited to enjoy. I find myself amid this splendor, and I sit at my computer while nature awakens around me.
Jasper Fforde is one of those writers who blends nonsense, deep thought, constant plot twists, and polished writing into compelling novels. His labors are always fun to read and often leave me with something profound to ponder. I haven’t followed his Thursday Next stories in any kind of strict sequence, but I figure that I can sacrifice a few of his abundant references to previous events to read through the latest installment I can get my hands on. The Woman Who Died a Lot was the most recent of these books for me. Thursday Next is a literary detective and her exploits often lead, certainly intentionally, to a feeling that in Fforde’s world libraries and reading are even more than fundamental. Everyone wants to be prided on literary achievement. His universe wouldn’t exist without books and those who love them.
In The Woman Who Died a Lot (and since I haven’t read all the books in the series I have to confess that this theme might’ve been developed earlier) in Fforde’s Swindon, religions have been united into the Church of the Global Standard Deity (GSD) and this GSD drives much of the plot. As Thursday races to solve the latest literary crime, the GSD has decided to smite Swindon. A number of global smitings have already taken place and everyone knows what to expect. A plasma-like discharge, of precise dimensions, wiping out a specified sinful part of the city. The sin here is greed and such smitings have lead to new kind of tourism where the morbidly curious gather outside the boundaries to watch the show, much like Jonah outside Nineveh. As in most Fforde novels there is both a touch of ridiculousness and social critique combined here. I can’t tell you how the smiting ends or you might not read the novel yourself.
The story is populated with peculiar religious orders that always evoke a laugh, and even a Ministry of Theistic Defense charged with finding a way around the smiting of a God willed into existence by the very people the GSD will destroy. I sometimes wonder if Fforde was ever a seminarian. We fabricate our own doom in this literary universe. It’s all in good fun and is reverently irreverent. Virtue is rewarded and in many respects the religion is conventional. The deity can be bargained with, but the law, once laid down, is inviolable. Casuistry is, of course, always an option. It’s a story told with tongue solidly in cheek, but also with brain fully engaged. Fforde is an author not afraid of religion. Indeed, he knows it can lead to a remarkable plot with consequences that will leave a reader scratching one’s saintly head.
After grousing about having too little time, today begins a trip out of town. Changing time zones, forsaking civilization, resting at a mountain lake. And I’m thinking of all that I’ll accomplish without having to go into the office for an entire week. I made similar plans last year. I’d lined up all the projects that had been piling up and figured that being away for a while would be perfect for getting them done. On the flight across the country, however, my laptop died. Gave up the electronic ghost and died. I grieved, and I was in shock. Thoughts of buying a replacement came to mind, but then, I told myself, I justified buying all my past laptops because of teaching. I carried my PowerPoints with me to class. We’d become a two, then three, computer family. I remembered the sign-up sheets they used to use when you needed an hour on the computer in the library. I’ve practically become a single entity with my hardware, how would I survive without?
Last year, survive I did. Concerned family members kindly offered to let me borrow their laptops so that I could post my daily ravings here. I was surrounded by nature’s majesty—mountains, a pristine (or nearly so) lake, huckleberries, fresh air—and my thoughts turned to the Borg. I’d read about transhumans, and now, I could see, I was becoming one. I don’t want the internet plugged into my brain. In fact, sometimes I don’t even want it sitting on my lap.
All of this is my long-winded way of saying to the ether that my usual posting pattern may be disrupted. It was at the lake, however, that this blog was born. I’m sure that those who first suggested it are a touch disappointed at the way it has grown up. Initially it was supposed to be mostly podcasts. My servers for those casts, however, charged for the service of holding my voice bytes. I used to get paid for sending that same voice out over a classroom full of students only to fall on the wrong side of politics and economy. So it is that I await my flight to remote reaches—remote reaches with Wifi, if the elements allow. If you don’t see my usual musings at my usual time, this will likely be the reason. Although, this time around, with a new top for my lap, I hope I’ll remember to get outdoors every now and again.
Anyone who spends long enough in the United Kingdom will hear about them. Not everyone believes in them, but reports of their presence are pervasive. Some call them ghosts while others call them protective spirits. They are the black dogs. As Mark Norman points out in his new book Black Dog Folklore, the tales of these spectral canines go back centuries and they also appear in other parts of the world. The majority of the lore comes from the British Isles and even there they are concentrated into certain parts of the country. Norman isn’t setting out to prove that they exist, though. This book is an exploration of folklore and the question of the reality of the phenomenon isn’t the point. The fact is people have reported encountering similar kinds of black dogs that vanish in similar ways frequently enough that secondary characteristics can be described and the accounts can be treated as lore.
Dogs were the earliest domesticated animals. Long before cattle and sheep could be tamed, humans and dogs had learned the mutual benefits of each other’s company. This very long association between species has, however, not always been smooth. Dogs retain something of the ancestral wolf in their nature, even as we harbor our inner ape. Some people fear dogs, and indeed, dogs are still used for security and can be trained to attack, or even kill, people. Their millennia-long association with humans, however, has assured them a place in our mythologies. Ancient cultures frequently mythologize dogs, making them prime candidates for an afterlife in folklore.
Traditionally, dogs are chthonian creatures. That word tripped me up the first time I encountered it. “Chthonian” is literally something like “of the earth,” but in mythology it is used to designate that they are associated with the underworld. As in life, dogs may act as guides in mythology, and one of their regular associations is with the realm of the dead. It’s no wonder, then, that dogs came to be associated with ghosts. As Norman demonstrates, the lore was pervasive enough to engage Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and perhaps even Bram Stoker used the image in Dracula. Winston Churchill referred to his depression as a black dog. Norman’s book won’t convince the reader that such things actually exist, but what it does do is draw the tales together to determine what there is to analyze. Since dogs have been our companions for so long, they have become part of our narrative tradition, participating in what it means to be human. As with all good folklore, there are those today who still swear these spectral dogs still haunt those who are willing to believe.
Posted in Animals, Books, Britannia, Classical Mythology, Monsters, Posts
Tagged Black Dog Folklore, Black Dogs, chthonian, folklore, ghosts, Mark Norman, mythology
Rituals rely on unchanging circumstances. When we attended a grocery store that was not our usual one my ritual was challenged. First I have to confess (as is appropriate for a ritual): I am no foodie. Having grown up in humble circumstances where eating out was an unknown, eating in meant the basic food of the unsophisticated. Although college and subsequent years opened my appreciation for new, and sometimes exotic foods (before my vegetarian days I ate ostrich when taken for dinner on a job interview. I didn’t get the job and shortly became a vegetarian—some things just aren’t worth it) I’m still a pretty boring grazer. I take the same thing for lunch each day at work. I eat the same thing for breakfast every day—inspired by the Seventh Day Adventist predilection for cereal—and I imagine my wife finds grocery planning with a guy like me to be its own trial. I see the grocery bill and scream. I eat to live, and not vice-versa.
So we were in a different grocery store. I take the same fruit for lunch every day, but here my apple of choice was more expensive. I looked for something in the price-range that I feel is affordable for fruit. My eye fell on a variety of apple I’d never seen. It was called Eve. Apples are one of those staples that I’ve always appreciated. We still sometimes go apple picking in the autumn, but it’s difficult to eat them all up before they go bad. In the orchards they list the different apple varieties available for picking on any given weekend, and I had never seen an Eve apple. For my boring lunch (since I eat breakfast about 3:30 most days, by noon anything tastes good for breaking the second fast) I wondered if Eve would do. Would this be too exciting for work? I pondered the dilemma.
Although our culture is increasingly biblically illiterate, here was a breed of apple based on Genesis 3. The Bible, of course, does not name the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and the apple was likely chosen much later because of the similarity of its name in Latin to the word for evil. The image has, however, become iconic. Eve reaching for the apple is so well known that advertisers use it with abandon and nobody fails to get the reference. This story is deeply embedded within our culture. The Bible on the grocery store shelf. Still, I’m wondering—should I try something new? Thinking of the work week ahead, I’m tempted.
One of the unexpected consequences of Christian theology is the ongoing insistence in science that human beings are qualitatively different from other animals. Actually, it goes back to the Hebrew Bible and the concept of “the image of God.” As the absolute line between human and beast continues to blur (intelligence, tool use, language use—you name it) mainstream teaching has trouble admitting that our special differences aren’t that different. A Washington Post story by Darryl Fears describes how capuchin monkeys have been using tools to extract cashews from their toxic husks for at least 700 years. These monkeys use a two-rock system to get at cashews, which, in their natural state, are inedible. The surprise here is that this makes these monkeys denizens of the Stone Age and capable of teaching complex behavior to their offspring.
Animals watch parents to learn to eat—it might seem to be a simple idea. In reality it’s more complicated than that. As I watched a doe and fawn foraging the other day, it occurred to me that what we call “instinct” is a way of getting around admitting animal intelligence. Why would a newborn (“unconscious”) animal seek to feed, or flee from predators? We call it instinct, but what we really mean is a form of will, a desire to survive. This “will” pervades nature well below the human-animal divide. Plants strive to thrive, and exhibit a “will” to live. By just taking all this for granted and calling it “instinct” we’ve further cut ourselves off from the organic world of which we’re all a part.
Christian culture gave rise to scientific method. No doubt this is an embarrassing scenario for those who believe science should reduce all the wonder of being alive to mathematical equations. Can’t we just pretend that rationality was creeping in from the beginning? Aristotle was going that way wasn’t he? But his work was “lost,” only to be recovered by Muslims who saw the value of such logical thinking and Christians—in an over-simplified history—wanted to catch up. Meanwhile, in the Dark Ages monkeys were using an intricate system to extract tasty nuts from toxic casings without the benefit of any religion at all. The Stone Age, we easily forget, was the first recognizable step on the road to the technological world we inhabit today. And we continue to use an outmoded paradigm to understand our place in that world.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Consciousness, Current Events, Evolution, Genesis, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged animal intelligence, Darryl Fears, image of God, instinct, science and religion, Stone Age, Washington Post