Many Moons

Scientists, often with their base matrix bound up with the local religion, are frequently interested in  myth.  And sometimes religion too.  This is no surprise.  Many of us go into religious studies because of its influence on our lives and scientists, who measure and analyze material realities, must be curious when their results challenge some religious or mythic assumptions.  So it is that Ernest Naylor addresses mythic beliefs about the moon’s influence on animals and what scientific findings on the same show.  Although this book wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be, Moonstruck: How Lunar Cycles Affect Life does address the subtitle assertion quite directly.  Naylor, a marine zoologist, knows about tides—caused by the moon—and their effects on marine organisms.  That connection is the main focus of the book, with occasional forays onto dry land.

What caught my attention right away was that when discussing myth and religious ideas, Naylor describes two stories as biblical: the woodcutter banished for gathering on the Sabbath and Judas’ banishment.  Both of these, he seems to believe, have the Bible banishing the criminals to the moon.  That was news to me.  There may well be folklore with such associations, but a simple opening of the covers of the Good Book would dispel this particular “myth.”  Neither the sabbath wood-gatherer nor Judas were banished to the moon after their deaths.  The former presumably went to Sheol and the latter presumably to Hell.  For me this illustrates yet again how many ideas professional people outside the guild suppose to be “biblical.”  The Bible says very little about the moon.  One New Testament demoniac is described as “moonstruck,” but beyond that the occasional references are mainly just to the moon qua moon.

The Bible’s a big book.  Everyone in western society knows it’s an important book but few read it.  Even fewer deeply engage with it to understand its original context and message.  We hear stuff and we’re told it’s in there, and we believe it.  I first noticed this in high school.  Classmates would tell me “the Bible says…” (you can fill in the blank with just about anything, this isn’t a quiz).  Almost always they were wrong.  By that point I’d read the Good Book many times cover-to-cover.  I owned concordances and knew when foreign matter was introduced.  The thing about the Bible is that it’s fairly simple to look it up.  Moonstruck focuses on marine animals and tells interesting connections to the moon.  It has a chapter on humans and the moon, finding little direct biological influence.  It’s an informative book, just don’t use it to verify what’s in the Bible.


Animal Spirituality

I had little scientific basis for my claims.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have evidence, but it was more one of those “if you see something say something” kinds of scenarios.  I have been claiming for many years that animals experience some kind of spirituality.  My evidence was drawn from disparate scientific materials I’d read, along with ancient religions.  Egyptians believed baboons worshiped the sun.  Chimpanzees make threatening gestures toward the sky during thunderstorms.  Penguins grieve.  Human spirituality, it seems to me, is part of our kinship with other living creatures.  Then I found an article by none other than Marc Bekoff titled “We’re Not the Only Animals Who Feel Grief and Spirituality,” in no less a prestigious place than Psychology Today.  Bekoff, some of whose books I’ve reported on here, has studied animal emotions professionally.

Our ideas of human exceptionality, it seems to me, often get us into trouble.  Arrogance is perhaps the most dangerous of psychological states.  When we see ourselves as part of a continuum, and realize that it can go on beyond us—yes, there are likely greater intelligences—humility should be an expected response.  Those who are arrogant frequently experience their comeuppance, even if they have to get elected to high office for it to happen.  We share emotions with our fellow creatures, and, now according to at least one expert, we share spirituality.  What is spirituality?  It seems to be an awareness that the body isn’t everything.  In my lexicon it’s listed there right with consciousness, mind, and soul.  We know it because we feel it.

The interconnectedness of the world, and beyond, is something many want to take exception from.  Looking around, such folks say, “Hey, we’re different than all of this.”  Yes and no.  We’re different, but that makes us no less a part of it.  Nature is our matrix.  We build fancy houses, but so do bower birds, and they do it without benefit of opposable thumbs, or even hands.  Of late we seem reluctant to admit that even human beings have spirituality.  That doesn’t stop us from feeling it, however.  I’m glad that others see it in the animal realm also.  Anyone who’s “owned” a dog knows what it’s like to receive worship.  We’ve selectively bred these wolves to adore us.  Is it so much of a stretch, then, to suppose that other animals also feel a sense of admiration for what’s beyond themselves?  Only the most arrogant wouldn’t pause to consider it.


Wild Oats

The day after Thanksgiving, although it’s too late for millions of industrially slaughtered animals, is a good time to think about plant-based diets.  I’ve been a vegan for three years now, and it has led me to some interesting places.  One of them is oat milk.  Like most Americans, I eat cereal for breakfast most days.  (When I volunteered for the dig at Tel Dor in 1987, however, olives, Nutella, and bagels made quite a passable morning meal.)  Apart from cereal breakfasts being a religiously motivated practice, they’re easy to prepare but difficult to do without milk.  You can (and many sometimes do) eat dry cereal, but we’ve been conditioned to pour milk on it to make a kind of soupy, grainy start to our day.  It feels familiar.

We started out, after much research, using soy milk.  It has to be a particular brand, though, because it can have an oily taste.  We eventually switched to oat milk.  Unlike soy, I can actually drink it like regular milk.  We’ve been buying Planet Oat, but recently we tried Oatly.  Now, I’m one for a working breakfast.  Time is precious and work begins uncompromisingly early.  That means I don’t read cereal boxes or milk cartons any more.  That changed with Oatly.  I found an entertaining and eloquently stated kind of creed on the back of the carton.  When’s the last time someone brought spirituality to the breakfast table (apart from introducing the eating breakfast cereal craze)?  It makes me feel more grounded.

The intricately interconnected web of life makes me think that we should be cognizant of our food.  What we eat should be approached reflectively.  If we had government subsidies for fields of oats rather than industrial farms for the inhumane treatment of “food animals” it seems to me the world would be in a better place, spiritually.  There’s been some comeback of wildlife since Covid-19 forced us all indoors.  I am glad to see it.  These creatures are our siblings.  Even if that seems to be going too far, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny that animals have emotions and minds, particularly those that humans eat.  Given the foodieness of contemporary society (everyone’s talking about food rather worshipfully these days) it would seem that pondering at least how we treat animals before we eat them should be a matter of common courtesy.  Being so far removed from our sources of sustenance has done something to us, I fear.  There are great alternatives out there, and some even make you smile while munching your cereal.


Predatory Birds

Maybe it’s a pandemic thing, what with humans huddling away more, but the big birds have come back.  Turkey buzzards and Canada geese are pretty common most of the time, it seems, but other large birds have been putting in an appearance around here lately.  Perhaps the most spectacular are the bald eagles.  My wife and I saw a couple on election day.  (I’ve been a lifelong believer in signs, as much as I try to deny it.)  We were out on a rare errand when one of them flew right over our car.  A couple days later I saw one out the window while I was at work.  My home office has a window that looks out over a small local park.  There are trees and a creek runs through it.  The eagle was likely keeping a look out for fish.

Image by Kathy Büscher from Pixabay.

This past week, however, the activity stepped up.  On a bleary-eyed Monday I sat in my office chair thinking that there were five whole days until I could relax again.  Mondays are hard.  I glanced out my west window and a bald eagle was heading straight toward our house.  I got a good look, but didn’t have time to grab my phone for a photo.  Two days latter, as I was getting through my email, a flash of wings caught my attention.  A great horned owl swooped up into a tree across the street.  Since the leaves are down, I had a chance to grab some binoculars and get a good look.  It was far enough away that a photo would’ve shown only a blur.  I should’ve been working, but sometimes you simply have to stop and look.

On Thursday, again in the morning, a broad winged hawk came and landed on the large electric wire that runs down my street.  The electric (I presume) cable is quite thick and sturdy.  With the binoculars I could see the bird’s claws gripping the twisted contours of the cable.  We regarded one another for some time.  We’ve only lived here for just over two years but I sit in that office nearly every day and I’d not seen such a slow riot of predatory birds.  As I said, I tend to take things as symbols.  I don’t always interpret them correctly, of course.  One thing that makes me glad is that seeing a bald eagle around here, at least for the time being, isn’t such a rare sight.  And I think I know what it means.


What Smells

One of the stories I recently read had a character commenting on the smell of a place.  Although humans can’t rival many other mammals and some birds for sense of scent, smell is a keen reminder of location.  It is also one of the more personal aspects of the senses.  We get nervous when people start talking about smells.  We all know, however, that places have their own fragrances.  Home smells a certain way.  You always notice it going home from college, where the dorms have their own smell.  When I was visiting campuses as part of my editorial expectations, I returned to Boston University School of Theology.  Apart from the main corridor of 745 Commonwealth avenue appearing smaller than I remembered, the smell was so familiar as to be overpowering.  I hadn’t been there for at least a couple of decades, but my brain remembered it well.

I trust science.  I also think science can’t explain everything, particularly in the life of emotions.  One of the natural limitations of science is the data with which we have to work.  We have limited input.  I remember in chemistry class in high school we worked with chemicals that replicated scents.  The particular ethyls used to reproduce fruit scents were similar only by suggestion.  I remember thinking the banana combination only smelled like bananas because it was suggested to me that it did.  Smell is a complex world, and we know many animals do it better than we do.  Dogs, bears, even mice, know more of the world through their noses.  I suspect Fido knows home primarily by its smellscape.  We, the “masters” tend to miss a lot.  And that makes me wonder what science might be missing by our limited sense of smell.

If there is a supernatural world, I wonder what it might smell like.  We’ve all known someone whose dog wouldn’t go into a certain room, or who reacted to something we couldn’t see.  Perhaps Fido couldn’t see anything that we couldn’t but could smell it.  I often think that when dogs are tested humans try to understand their visual acuity because that’s how we experience our world.  Dogs, however, experience their world through scent.  We could stand to learn quite a lot about this planet we inhabit if we could somehow access the smells that we simply lack the capacity to reach and analyze.  We are only beginning to scratch the surface.


Scared Space

It was dark.  I often work in dim light since the computer screen backlights everything.  I’d strained my back the day before, and getting into a standing position took some time, with the first steps being necessarily ginger.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it in the shadows.  A wolf spider was on the arm of my chair, just inches away.  I could move neither fast nor fast enough.  By the time I’d hobbled to an empty peanut butter jar (we keep them for this purpose), it was gone.  But the fright remained.  It was several hours until I could think of sitting in that chair again, although the spider was last seen fleeing the site of the attack.  That got me to thinking about how spaces maintain the events that transpire in them.  It’s the early stage of haunting, I suppose.

Spiders were a childhood terror.  Just a week before the current spider incident, I was in the basement doing some repairs when a spricket jumped on my arm.  Sprickets, also known as camel crickets or cave crickets, live in damp places and they actually jump at their perceived enemies to frighten them away.  It works.  I was absolutely terrified by the thing.  It was large, and although it was on my arm only a second or two, I wanted to run screaming from the cellar and strip off my shirt and throw it in the washer.  I couldn’t go back into the basement the entire day.  It was the site of the fright, you see.  Spricket and spider were long gone, but their threat remained in the place I’d encountered them.

I often write about sacred space.  There is also such a thing as scared space.  I can see how this would’ve evolved from our primate ancestors.  Chimpanzees, for example, are frightened of large spiders.  They can climb trees right after you and they are impossibly fast.  I suspect in our encounter the spider was more frightened of me than I was of it.  I’m a giant in its multiple eyes and, were I not a believer in catch-and-release, could easily have killed it.  (Messy for the chair, but conceivable.)  Our ancient ancestors would likely remember—this is the place the spider bit Oog.  Must avoid.  So the idea remains, scarring the spaces we habitually sit.  Spiders outdoors, as long as I see them before they see me, are not such a source of fear.  But right now I think I’ll pick a new favorite chair, until my favorite becomes sacred again.


Horse Senses

Chief was a smart horse.  The horse camp instructor told us that horses sometimes distended their midsections when a rider was strapping on the billet because they knew the strap would be tight.  The billet goes underneath the horse and is essentially what holds the saddle on.  The instructor told us to be firm about this—we weren’t going to hurt the horse by tightening the strap as much as possible.  Now, this was United Methodist Church camp, and I am someone who tries hard not to hurt anyone.  Besides, I’m not one of the larger specimens of the species and Chief was quite a large horse.  I can swear he had a knowing, laughing look in his eye that day as I pulled the billet tight.  Or so I thought.

As a camp counselor in the Western Pennsylvania Conference, you were assigned to a set of camps with no say in the matter, and I had been assigned four weeks of horse camp.  I wasn’t a kid who grew up wanting to ride or own a pony.  I was just doing my job.  Sitting atop a horse, I felt like some combination of John Wesley and Edgar Allan Poe heading for the house of Usher.  It was the first day of the first week of camp and my first time riding.  It was going fine until the instructor told us to canter, the speed between a trot and a gallop.  It was then that I felt the saddle starting to slip and I knew that Chief had used the old horse trick of distending his middle while I’d tightened the strap.  I felt the saddle begin to slip to the right (the wrong side for mounting or dismounting).  So I fell off a cantering horse.

Although the instructor yelled at me for not putting the reins over the pommel before I hit the ground, what stayed with me was how smart that horse was.  Chief, knowing the disparity of our relative sizes and weights, once stepped on my foot.  He was an intimidating horse with an attitude.  After the end of four weeks I’d gone on to the point where we spent an overnight in tents with our horses curried and tethered outside for the night.  What those days taught me was just how intelligent animals are.  I was reassigned from Chief to a more gentle horse for the remaining three weeks when the instructor realized she was stuck with me for a while.  But the horses, they knew me even better.


Believing and Seeing

Our eyes locked for a moment.  He wasn’t ten feet away.  Of course, like all famous people he knew that his fans thought they knew him and hoped that he would know her or him.  This isn’t a particularly rare thing to happen in New York City, but the instance in my mind happened in Atlantic City after an Alice Cooper concert that I attended with my brother.  As kids we’d listened to Cooper with some avidity,  and even the concert itself was a somewhat intimate affair (we were both adults at the time).  An audience of hundreds instead of thousands, and many of the attendees about our age—that is to say, not young.  That meeting of the eyes, however, reinforced something I already knew.  Looking is more that your eyes receiving light particle-waves.  It is a connection.

Try this with your bestie—it can be your spouse, lover, or friend.  It especially works if you’ve known her or him for many years.  See how long you can go staring into each other’s eyes.  It’s not easy.  You start to feel that they can see your secrets: your fears and vulnerabilities.  You glance away.  Materialists claim that seeing is a simple matter of light entering our eyes and our brains interpreting it.  We all know, however, what it’s like to be stared at.  How uncomfortable it makes us feel.  We can often tell when someone’s staring at our backs.  I wonder if there’s more to seeing than appears?  Performers often crave the energy of being before thousands of eyes.  They know how it’s just not the same when you have to pretend.  I knew that well as a teacher.

Could seeing really go both ways?  Even animals don’t like to be stared at.  It’s an informal experiment I’ve tried while jogging.  If you break eye contact with a deer, cat, or rabbit, you can get fairly close.  If you stare, however, they dash away.  It doesn’t matter if you turn your head—it’s the eye contact.  I ponder how this relates to narcissists in power.  They crave the eyes on them.  The way to de-power them is to stop looking.  Alice Cooper, I’m certain, has no idea who I am.  He wouldn’t remember me if we ever met.  That night he was standing outside the door of the afterparty where those who’d paid extra could get to meet him.  We didn’t exchange a word, but we made a connection.  There’s more to seeing than meets the eye.


Kind Animals

How many people could it be?  That’s the question a pandemic naturally raises.  Last weekend my wife and I ventured to a Vegan Festival in Easton.  Since we vegans are a rare bunch anyway, and since we tend to be socially conscious, there wasn’t likely to be any dangerous behavior.  That, and how many people would actually show up for what is often considered a somewhat wobbly crowd who don’t like to “rise, kill, and eat.”  It felt like a safe place to be with socially distanced kindred spirits.  Everyone was wearing masks and there was no Trump bravado going on.  For a moment it reminded me of the kind of accepting country the United States used to be.

Veganism, you see, isn’t just about not eating and not exploiting animals.  It’s about honoring the wonder of life in all creatures.  I realize some of the issues—believe me, I try to think things through thoroughly.  It’s all about consciousness.  We’re still a considerable distance from being able to define it, and some people, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, believe it might go all the way down and through the plant kingdom as well.  Consciousness is one of the great mysteries of science.  We hardly know what it is, and how are we to know where it stops?  If we assume other people are conscious (with a few notable exceptions) based on their words and actions, might we not suppose at least some of the “higher” animals are as well?  Or are you just being a fool when you talk to your dog?

You see how this naturally suggests consciousness may lessen by matters of degree, but then we learn that even some insects know how to count and can understand a concept of zero (beyond most Republicans).  We like to put insects down at the bottom because we’re bigger and therefore more important.  Veganism suggests that we stop and think about these things.  We don’t necessarily take everything for granted.  It is clear that the largest polluter and environmental problem is industrial animal farming.  Rainforests are cleared for grazing land.  Profits from big agra are staggering.  Wandering through the stalls, keeping our distance from others who perhaps think too much, we partook of the counterculture in our own quiet way.  The street festival was small this year, but I do have hopes that it might grow, along with some serious thinking about the consequences of our actions.  


The Parable of the Dates

Speaking of resurrection, a news story I saw on Agade, apparently originating in the New York Times, tells of dates.  The kind you eat.  These dates were newsworthy because they were grown from seeds two millennia old, found in an archaeological dig in Israel.  The story shows just how tenacious life can be.  Seeds dead for centuries came back to life and bore fruit.  Things like this fill me with an optimism about this thing we call life.  Two thousand years is a long time to be buried.  These seeds nevertheless came back when the conditions were right.  There’s a parable here.  The parable of the dates.

Tardigrades are remarkable.  Sometimes known as “water bears” or “moss piglets,” they are actually microscopic animals.  Google them and take a look.  The amazing thing about tardigrades is their ability to survive.  Although they are animals, they can go three decades without food or water.  (Not quite the same as two millennia, but trees have their own remarkable abilities.)  Tardigrades can survive temperatures as low as absolute zero and higher than boiling.  Scientists study what makes these little critters so sturdy, but the takeaway for me is that life is remarkably resilient.  Given that Republicans and their ilk seem set on destroying the planet, it is comforting to know that life will continue, even if without our particular species to appreciate it.

The idea has been expressed in many ways over the years.  Doctor Malcolm in Jurassic Park says “Life will find a way.”  Stephen Jay Gould wrote in Bully for Brontosaurus that when we talk of the destruction of the earth what we really mean is the end of our own survival.  The planet—life—can and will persist.  The funny thing is that we don’t really have an accurate understanding of what life is.  If a tardigrade can be revived after thirty years without water, isn’t this an exuberant expression of what life can do?  And what about the Galapagos Tortoise, surviving a century-and-a-half?  If we leave them alone, sea creatures can live even longer.  Bowhead whales last two hundred years while at least one Greenland shark doubled that.  And the news story about dates raised from two-thousand-year-old seeds indicates something wondrous about life.  It persists.  These dates are from the time of Jesus and the Roman Empire.  Some trees, such as the bristlecone pine, have been continuously alive for double that span.  We should be in awe of life.  And we should act like it, for it will outlive us by a long stretch.


Remaking King

Pet Sematary is (or was), according to Stephen King, his most bleak book.  The first movie made from it (Mary Lambert, 1989) never reached the iconic status of The Shining or Carrie, but it nevertheless conveyed the dread of resurrection.  It also followed the novel pretty closely.  The new movie version, which came out last year, uses the more slick, modern horror style that just doesn’t have the same feel as the slow pace of dread.  The whole thing feels rushed to fit too much in.  It does add some nice touches, however.  Borrowing the creepy animal masks of The Wicker Man, it adds a religious procession of children to the eponymous cemetery right at the start and uses a mask to add menace at the end.  There will be spoilers here, so if you’re even slower than me at getting to movies, be warned.

The main source of fear, which is only shown a couple of times before the accident, is the speeding Orinco trucks along the road that kill people and pets.  Since horror is an “intertextual” genre there are several knowing nods toward the 1989 film, sometimes lulling the viewer into a false sense of security.  (Can you have security watching horror?)  King’s novel, and the original movie, point to the impending death of Gage, the young son of the family.  Faking out the viewer, the new film has the truck killing Ellie, Gage’s older sister, instead.  While this must’ve made Jeté Laurence’s role fun to play (for the dead child comes back—and when the monster is a fragile little boy of four or five it’s hard to believe) but it interferes with the explanation of death to her that makes up so much of the story.

Why the wendigo is brought in only to be dropped is a mystery.  The wendigo would make for a great movie monster, but trying to squeeze mention of it into an already crowded plot doesn’t really help.  The ending of the new movie is well set up, and the realization that she’s living dead on the part of Ellie is well played out.  Otherwise the film assumes the watcher already knows how it goes.  I suppose that’s a perennial problem with remakes.  The source of horror in the novel and in both films is the idea that the dead can come back.  It’s an ancient fear and one with which all of us eventually deal.  Now that the nights and early mornings are turning cooler and darker, movies like Pet Sematary come readily to mind and we know the horror season has begun.


Bird Land

Since I like to blog about books, my usual reading practice is to stick with a book once I start it.  This can be problematic for short story collections because often there’s one in particular I want to read.  Somewhat embarrassed about it, I have to confess that sometimes it’s because I saw the movie first.  So it was with Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds.”  Du Maurier, the daughter of a father who also wrote horror, caught Alfred Hitchcock’s attention.  Several of his movies were based on her works.  Not all of them can be called horror—a genre that’s difficult to pin down—but they deal with gothic and thriller themes that had an appeal for Hitch.  In fact some analysts date the modern horror film to the period initiated by this iconic director.

I have a collection of du Maurier’s short stories, written in the day when 50 pages counted as a short story rather than “product” that could be “exploited” in various formats.  (Today it’s not easy to find literary magazines that will publish anything over 3,000 words, or roughly 10–12 pages.)  In any case, “The Birds” is an immersive tale.  The movie is quite different, of course, set in America with a cast of characters that can only be described as, well, Hitchcockian.  Du Maurier’s vision is much closer to the claustrophobic pandemic mindset.  A single English family, poor, tenant farmers, far from the centers of commerce, must figure out how to survive the bird attacks on their own.  The suddenly angry birds attack their hovel in time with the tides (they live near the coast) so the family has to gather supplies between attacks and try to last another night of pecking and clawing.

The story is quite effective.  Reading it suggests the importance of self-reliance and willingness to accept a changed reality on its own terms.  No explanation is given for the birds’ change of attitude.  Human intervention in the environment is supposed but how would a simple family living of the fringes of the fabric woven by the wealthy know?  Forced to react, they try to keep the kids calm while knowing, at some level, this can never end well.  The movie maintains the ambiguous ending, which is probably what makes it so scary.  Corvid or covid, there are things out there that drive us into our homes where we must shelter in place.  Although I didn’t read the whole book, this choice of story seems strangely apt for the current circumstances.


Yellow Jackets

Deeply conflicted.  That’s how I feel about calling the exterminator.  The longer I’m alive the more eastern my thinking becomes.  What right do I have to kill other animals for doing just what they’ve evolved to do?  The yellow jackets who made a nest in our siding were doing just what nature directed them to do.  In what sense is our house natural?  When they started getting inside, though, memories of having been traumatized by stepping on a yellow jacket nest when I was younger came to too sharp a focus.  Terror is probably the right word.  We were catching and releasing five or six a day and summer doesn’t look to be about to give way to autumn very soon.  There’s nothing like being startled by an angry bee when you walk into a room in summer-weight clothes.  So the exterminator came.

As the yellow jackets fled into the house to escape the poison I pondered what right I had to deprive them of their lives (here’s the eastern thinking part).  How was my comfort, or my lack of terror, more important than their need for a home?  Couldn’t we peacefully coexist?  You see, I’m no fan of violence of any sort.  In my ideal world there would be no war and no meanness.  You might not be able to call yellow jackets cuddly, but they don’t seem the happiest of creatures with whom to interact.  They’re industrious, like business owners want their drones to be, but their people skills aren’t too good.  Maybe it’s just projecting, but when they swarm the only word that comes to mind is anger.  Even their evolved body armor reflects that.  Still, I didn’t want them killed.  I just wanted them not to misunderstand our human interactions while shut in during a pandemic.

Life is a gift to all creatures.  I became a vegan years ago because of humanitarian concern for our fellow creatures.  The mess our world’s in now because of our lack of care for anything but money plainly shows.  Bees, it could be argued, make more of a contribution to the well-being of the planet than I do.  Who am I to make any claim of superiority?  Still, I’m responsible to pay half my salary on a mortgage that will keep me in one location until the situation betters.  When I see that silhouette in the window a sting of terror from my childhood comes back as I grab an empty peanutbutter jar to catch and release, only to have another bee replace the first.  Childhood traumas are like that, of course.  But now I apologize for bringing on the death of fellow creatures and I walk through the rooms through which they had freely flown.


More than Kids’ Stuff

Children and Young Adult literature (which has its own Library of Congress acronym!) has come a long way since I was a kid.  Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed the books I read as a young person, but there are many more choices that use a lot more imagination these days.  I’ve been reading Robert Repino’s books since Mort(e) appeared in 2015.  Spark and the League of Ursus is his latest and it continues his trademark use of animals (and stand-ins) to get at very human situations.  Spark is a carefully crafted story based on the idea that teddy bears do more than provide cuddles at night.  They are, in fact, a force for good, protecting human children from monsters.

As usual when I discuss books, I won’t give too much away.  I’m one of those guys who doesn’t even like to read back-cover blurbs because I’m afraid they’ll spoil the story.  Instead, I’m going to applaud the use of imagination in a world that seems stuck on a limited number of plot points.  Books like this, which stretch the imagination of the young without talking down to them—why does it cost us so much effort to admit that kids are smart?—are a great addition to CYA literature.  I was exploring this concept with another friend who writes when I read Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.  A story’s intended audience is often signaled by the age bracket of the protagonists.  I’d suppose ‘tweens might be about the age here, based on that metric.  (Green was more like New Adult, a category that lasts until about age 30.)

Reading material written for younger readers makes me feel younger myself.  I read Ransom Riggs first three Miss Peregrine novels (also published by Quirk, the house that publishes Spark).  You see, I’m really encouraged by this growth in younger readers’ material.  If we can get kids into books with such engaging stories I suspect there’ll be less chance that they become unimaginative, straight-laced adults who want to keep things just like they were when they were kids.  Imagination has that kind of liberating ability.  Besides, who doesn’t want their teddy bear to come to their rescue once in a while?  It’s not just children that can take a lesson from imaginative story-telling.  Repino’s War with No Name series was intended for adult readers but it is good preparation for getting a sense of the possibilities for readers who might, in all hope, never have to face wars at all.


Etymological Serpents

Snakes get a bad rap.  There are biological, evolutionary reasons people tend to fear them (some are dangerous and the way they move is literally creepy), but snakes are a necessary part of our ecosystem and very successful reptilian forms.  Nevertheless they get associated with evil.  The other day I was consulting a book of Christian symbolism.  This was actually a book I’ve had since my childhood.  My eye fell upon the entry for serpent and the book gave the etymology as from Latin for “sin.”  I’d never heard this before and as I thought about it, “serpent” has the same ending as “repent,” so I wondered if the terms might indeed be related.  That most authoritative of lexicons, the Oxford English Dictionary, soon set me straight.  The etymology of serpent is from Latin (at least partially) but not for the word “sin” but from the word “creeping.”

Given what serpents do, that name origin makes sense.  The idea of sin being attached to snakes is a biblical one.  The Garden of Eden oh so long ago, and a serpent wrapped around a fruit tree.  That story has become one of the most influential in western culture, played and endlessly replayed with some combination of apple, woman, and serpent.  Genesis, of course, doesn’t specify the tree as an apple tree.  That association seems to come again from the Latin.  The word “apple” is malum, which may also be used for evil.  In Latin they have different vowel lengths and only become homophones in the languages of non-native speakers.  The serpent, on the scene at the primordial fruit tree, becomes associated with sin because of this story, not by its etymology.

The biblical view of snakes is not a positive one.  By the time of Revelation the serpent is associated with Satan.  It’s also called a dragon, which, as modern fantasy aficionados can tell you, is quite a different thing.  The dragon becomes associated with evil because of the Good Book also.  The reptile order generally doesn’t fare too well in the biblical world.  There do seem to be Sumerian prototypes for the story of the snake and the tree.  It’s not completely original with Genesis.  Still, you’d like to think that if someone is going to write a book about symbols they might take extra care with the etymologies.  People tend to fear snakes.  It’s hardwired into our primate biology.  That’s no reason to make them the bad guys, though.  All you need is a good dictionary to clear things up.