Insect Inside

It seems a shame we don’t have an accurate name to classify all of them.  Insects, arachnids, and arthropods, I mean.  Those creatures smaller than us that inspire fear.  I suspect I’m not alone in experiencing a profound ill-at-easiness for some time after a close encounter with various of these small creatures.  Some experiences can be sublime, such as the other day when praying mantis on the glass of our front door provided a wonderful opportunity to look at a marvel from a seldom seen angle.  More often, however, the response is one of terror at being outnumbered, out-gunned, or out-run.  Spiders can be speedy as well as scary and I often yield the floor to them.  If I’ve got an empty peanut butter jar handy I try to catch and release, but I’ll look with worry at the spot of the encounter for days.

Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

Or the flying, stinging things.  Mostly they’re good for the environment and I don’t like to kill anything.  The other day, however, while returning the recycling bin to the garage I failed to notice paper wasps had built a nest (in just a day, since I’d taken the bin out only the afternoon before) above the door.  They were offended that I’d invaded their space—their concept of time is completely off from that of creatures that tend to live decades and want to stay in the same location for years at a time—and decided to attack.  This was a new stinging experience for me.  One flew down and stung my face then quicker than lightning landed on my right hand and bit again.  Its poison burned, I can tell you.  I’ve had run-ins with lots of stinging things in my time, but the shock probably added to the hurt.  I couldn’t even get the garage door shut, as previously mentioned.  

The next morning I awoke unsettled.  Houses have cracks and crevices.  They settle over time and critters can find their way in.  I understand.  Everyone needs a home.  But opening a door and being unexpectedly attacked hardly seems fair to me.  I hadn’t even seen the nest.  It’s easy to forget, in this virtual world of pandemic proportions, that we share the planet with a wide variety of others.  The large predators are mostly gone.  The countless small ones are still here, however, and many of them enjoy the way we’ve warmed the place up for them.  I have a feeling that when we finally outlive our welcome on our home, the insects, arachnids, and arthropods will be glad to stick around.


Like a Hurricane

Around here we welcomed September in with the remains of Hurricane Ida.  For the second summer in a row, far inland, we’ve sustained hurricane damage.  For storms like this it’s not so much a question of if there will be damage, but rather “how much?”  It was complicated by the paper wasps.  It’s like a 1970s natural disaster movie.  It starts at the end of August.

I was going out to put the recycling bin away (more on this later).  When I opened the garage door I was stung three times by a paper wasp (or maybe two)—twice on the face and once on a finger.  The previous day when I’d taken the bin out there hadn’t been a nest, but 24 hours later, angry waspids were protecting their territory.  I couldn’t even get the door closed.  We don’t have any bug-killing spray on hand since we believe in live and let live.  But I do need to get into the garage.  Due to my weekly schedule I couldn’t get to the hardware store before Friday.  Fine, let the Hymenoptera have the garage.

The next day—actually later that day—Ida began to arrive.  We’ve had extensive roof repairs since moving in here.  We’ve had two-thirds of it replaced entirely.  Then the rain started.  The plumber came before it got bad to replace a cast-iron radiator that we had moved so I could repair the drywall behind it.  While doing that I repaired the ceiling where water from ex-Hurricane Isaias leaked through.  The roofer had patched this part after Isaias, so we thought we were good.  By mid-afternoon there was water dripping from the ceiling again and the repairs I had made crumbled into the bucket set there to catch the water.  So it goes.  Outside the street was closed due to flooding.  I couldn’t get into the garage to check for damage because, you know, wasps guarded the only door (still open).

It used to be that weather was a neutral topic to discuss.  Of course, it’s become politicized now.  Having a climate-change denier in the White House for four years made the topic dangerous to raise.  This area used to never get hit too badly by hurricanes.  Global warming, however, has changed everything.  I got up the morning after wondering where to start.  It was still dark and a cricket had come inside to get out of the weather.  It chirped as I came down stairs.  Everything will be all right.

Our unofficial rain gauge

Friendly Food

The rain felt like relief after the most recent heat wave.  We’d long planned to attend the Easton VegFest regardless.  Summer is the season for street festivals and it’s always a strange kind of affirmation to find one dedicated to vegans.  And to see so many people at it.  The cities of the Lehigh Valley have quite a few animal-friendly options for eating, and although the VegFest isn’t huge it’s a good place to find others who realize that our food choices matter.  So it was that we came upon the booth for NoPigNeva.  Now, if you’ve ever tried to shop for vegan food—I know there must be a few of you out there—you know how catch-as-catch-can it is.  Around here lots of grocery stores carry vegan items, but what you’re looking for may not be there.  Even WholeFoods in Allentown has a limited selection.

NoPigNeva is a supply company run by black women.  It supports worthy causes.  And it makes finding what you’re looking for essentially one-stop.  I’m no businessman, but I do wonder why, when they keep selling out of vegan stock, stores don’t get their orders refilled right away.  It’s almost as if we don’t want to believe people will buy it.  Vegan food has come a long way even in just the last five years.  I know that when I became a vegetarian almost two decades ago now I felt there was no way to get enough to eat as a vegan.  Options seemed so limited.  That’s no longer the case.  I’m guessing the success of the Impossible Whopper caught everyone (except consumers) by surprise.  Even now, if you order one (hold the mayo, please) you’re pretty much guaranteed it won’t have been sitting on the warming shelf.

There’s big money in the food industry.  I’m not a foodie, although it’s become fashionable to be one.  I do, however, think about whether my food is causing harm.  There is, I realize, no way not to impact the environment or other living creatures when eating.  Lessening that impact, however, and supporting historically oppressed groups feels good.  There is a morality to mastication.  Most animals, it seems, have evolved a fear of being eaten.  Perhaps we’re only starting to understand that breaking chains might have to begin with us.  Any industry (big agriculture) that tries to make it illegal to see where your food comes from is hardly to be trusted.  I trust more those willing to come to a street fair on a rainy Saturday afternoon to show that there is a better way.


Being Prey

Since we’ve thought our way to the top of the food chain, I suspect we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be prey.  All our top predators are pretty much under control—so much so that when a lion, tiger, or bear kills a person it makes the news.  Even sharks are in decline.  This thought comes to me while on my morning constitutional I spy with my old eye young rabbits.  Lots and lots of rabbits.  During the summer they appear in such profusion that I suspect most of us don’t stop to look at them any more.  We don’t really eat them any more (and besides, I’m a vegan), so what use are they too us?  They’re here to be prey animals.

A lot happens in the dark.  I’m an early riser and sometimes I hear the animals cavorting in the night.  Sometimes I find what’s left of a bunny in the back yard—evidence that someone was hungry during the wee hours.  What must it be like to be a food animal?  Rabbits have a reproductive biology that permits a doe to become pregnant before she has born the litter she’s already carrying.  This seems to be evolution’s way of ensuring survival for creatures so often eaten.  Emotional ties between parent and child must be passing at best.  When I see the young out on their own I often wonder how they can care for themselves at such a tender age.  Of course the average lifespan of the eastern cottontail is only 15 months with merely a quarter of the population making it to two years.  After that they may have one more year.  They rarely ever die of old age.  No time for emotional attachment.  Either that or it’s brief but very intense.

We take a fairly long lifespan for granted.  It’s sometimes difficult to realize that for most of human history life expectancy—for those who survived childhood (not many)—was the forties.  For women it was more likely the twenties.  Young couples started families early and kept the kids coming.  We were not exactly prey, but like the rabbits we had to learn to say goodbye too soon.  We’ve thought ourselves to not only the top of the food chain, but to the point of prolonging our lives so much that deaths can be utterly devastating.  I look at the rabbit nibbling the overgrown grass in my backyard and smile.  The only yard nearby without a dog, I like to think they feel safe here, even if just for a little while. From the perspective of prey, every second counts.


Evolving beyond Fear

Live Science recently reported on a story that may shed light on human evolutionary behavior.  While my conclusions are speculative, they make sense, given the circumstances.  Titled “Albino chimp baby murdered by its elders days after rare sighting,” the story by Nicoletta Lanese describes how an albino chimp caused a fear reaction among its community shortly after it was born.  A few days later it was killed by the chimps.  Scientists must be careful not to attribute human motive to such attacks, and so they note that this particular community has a tendency toward infanticide, but that doesn’t explain the initial fear reaction.  An individual who was “different” appeared and the response was one of deadly violence.  We’re far from understanding human motivations, let alone those of animals, but it’s difficult not to see this as typical human behavior.

Photo credit: Afrika Expeditionary Force, via Wikimedia Commons

Just because a behavior has evolved doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.  We evolved out of our need for tree dwelling in order to open new potential habitats—an experiment that proved wildly successful.  Can we not evolve out of fear of those who are different?  That seems to be the idea behind recent diversity and inclusion initiatives.  There are those who still resist them, but examine their beliefs and you’ll soon find fear of those who differ.  This atavistic tendency is remarkably close to the chimp behavior in killing an albino.  If we are to remain civilized, we must name such fear for what it is and grow beyond it.  Conservatism is often based in fear.  Fear of change is natural enough, but had our ancestors given in to it we’d still be in the trees.

We need to admit that the lives of those different matter. How long will we allow difference be a reason to fear other human beings?  The story on Live Science is difficult to read.  The chimp behavior is so typically human that we can feel sympathy for the murdered infant and his mother.  Fear, if left unattended, can bring us to this.  The antidote is education.  The more we learn the better we can cope with fear, which is, after all, a natural and necessary response to an evolved world.  Our fear of being prey has caused us to drive extinct most of our natural predators.  The world is hardly a better place for it.  Might not weighing fears and thinking through reasonable solutions be a better coping technique?  Fear can revert a human back into an animal state.  Or it can drive us toward improvement.


Yellow Jacket Redux

Back before what year it was really mattered, I stepped on a yellow jacket nest.  (I know I wrote about this last summer, but there’s a point being made here.)  So traumatic was the ensuing horror scene that I literally did not wear shorts (other than those obligatory for gym class) for at least a decade.  I’m still reluctant to do so.  The south side of our house is the best real estate in town.  For bugs.  After last year’s unfortunate yellow jacket massacre, I went out and patched every hole I could find and reach.  I missed one.  (Actually, it is where previous owners didn’t bother to reattach a porch light after installing a new porch.  The gap was too big to use filler and I was trying to figure out how to do the repair when it got cold out last fall.)  So the jackets are back.  Ironically, not two feet from where they settled last year.

I really don’t want to kill the little buggers.  I have respect for all of life, and if they didn’t regularly get into the house I’d leave them be.  They’re only doing what they evolved to do.  At times it seems like all of life is an experiment presided over by some alien race, curious about what would happen if a few select species were given an intellectual boost.  You see, these yellow jackets are smart.  They’re problem solvers.  When I realized what they were doing—it was already too late—I started going outside at 3 a.m. (I’m awake anyway) and duct-taping the gaps shut.  I did this three days in a row before I realized what would happen if the police drove by.  A guy in a hoodie in the dark, standing next to a window on someone’s back porch with a roll of duct tape in his hand?  How do you explain your way out of that one?

Nature couldn’t have given these yellow jackets a real analog for duct tape wrapping the entry to their home, but each day they came back and buzzed around it contemplatively.  I figured the stickiness of the tape (I could barely get it off my fingers) would dissuade them.  They began digging under it.  Not only that, they began building an exterior entrance tunnel.  Soon they had an even better fortified nest with an easily guarded means of ingress.  Their brains may be small, but working together they can accomplish truly remarkable things.  More so, in many ways, than this human who watches them with fear and reverence.


How You Feel

Image credit: NASA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever had someone tell you how you should feel?  This always feels like an odd thing on the receiving end.  Each of us is born, learns from our experiences, and confronts emotions.  Many people believe that they might improve others’ lives if only others would feel the way they think they should.  Interestingly, and simultaneously, at work and in social settings we’re being told to honor diversity.  We are to respect the feelings of others, no matter how uncomfortable they make us feel.  Who is the guardian of others’ feelings?  Emotions are tricky to figure out.  We can clearly see them at work in animals—the age-old flight or fight response, for example, is based on fear.  Still, based on their own experience and temperament, one animal will run while another in the same circumstances will attack.

Emotions don’t come with an instruction manual.  For a not insignificant outlay of resources you may hire a professional to help you work through them.  Or you might learn to trust your emotions.  They evolved for a reason.  Telling someone else how to feel invalidates their experience.  If they feel frustrated, or lonely, or angry, aren’t those legitimate human responses when neither fight or flight works?  Human societies create great complexities.  Some of us like things the way they were.  Many of us currently alive are only a generation away from people who grew up with horses clopping down the street and now all of life is virtually virtual.  How does that make you feel?  How do you even assess what the right feeling might be?

Advice givers mean well.  Perhaps your emotional state causes them discomfort.  If only you would cope the way that they cope then we could all go home happy.  The lament, however, is a time-honored means of expressing frustration when things just aren’t going your way.  We like to believe that good people prosper and that things work out for them in the end.  We like to believe lots of things.  We also have plenty of feelings about them.  Invalidating others’ experience may make us feel better about ourselves.  After all, we have just given valuable advice to someone who hasn’t experienced the situation like we have.  Being a parent may be the best way of learning to empathize and help another human being deal with the always tricky realm of emotion.  The important thing is to let others know that, no matter what somebody else says, only they know how they are feeling.


Plants Saving Planet

Dot mx is not a normal extension for me to see.  Sometimes being north of the border can skew your view.  Then someone pointed Desserto out to me.  This is the kind of thing that benefits from sharing (see that share button below?  Why not click it?).  Desserto produces leather made of cactus.  Not only is industrial cattle raising the most polluting industry in the United States, it also involves great cruelty.  Cactus leather, however, is renewable, requires no irrigation, and actually decreases the carbon in the atmosphere.  A typical north of Tijuana attitude is that such a brilliant idea should occur here.  The fact is, those who live in the desert may well be the voices crying in the wilderness.

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Desserto doesn’t make leather items.  They produce the leather and sell it to manufacturers of durable goods.  I would kick my shoes off right now and buy a pair made from cactus leather.  For years I’ve been trying to find something to replace the leather that seems to be the only option.  Faux leather made of plastic isn’t environmentally friendly.  It seems that the best we can do is find something that will do the trick without the pollution both of cattle raising and of tanning.  To me this idea seems absolutely brilliant.  There are otherwise unarable deserts aplenty.  There are limited lands in the drought-ridden west where huge cattle lots create fear, terror, and tremendous waste.  If ever there was a case for putting two and two together, I’d say this is four.

I’m delighted to see this happening in Mexico.  I don’t have much skill in the manufacturing department, but I would be happy to purchase items from those who do.  Too often we look at land that doesn’t fit our paradigms for “good land” and assume there’s no use for it.  Perhaps we should start encouraging cacti and allow American Indians to have some of their former land back.  Everybody wins, except maybe big agra.  Large corporations may qualify as persons under the law (which to me is only asking for trouble for all people except those on the top of the false humans, legally recognized).  Their interests are more equal that the interests of the rest of us.  It’s easier to degrade the environment than it is to change.  Still, looking at a really good idea that could save the planet and provide something useful seems, to me, like an idea worthy of sharing.


All You Sea

Speaking of large ships, in honor of World Ocean Day, which was June 8, I had planned to watch Seaspiracy.  A Netflix original documentary, this really is a must-see film.  Not to pass the buck, but I’ve long believed it will be the younger generation that will take the initiative to improve conditions on our planet.   I’ve seen my own insanely selfish and aging generation (with even more aged and selfish senators) continue to exploit this planet like there’s no tomorrow.  If you watch Seaspiracy you may see that it’s closer to true than you might think.  There may be no tomorrow if we don’t change our ways right now.  Borrowing its title from Cowspiracy, another important documentary, Seaspiracy looks at the fishing industry and its devastating effects on our oceans.

There’s a lot of sobering stuff here.  It begins with plastics.  Single use plastics, and even recyclable plastics, are everywhere.  They kill sea animals, they break down into micro-particles and infiltrate everything.  Chances are you have lots of plastic in your body just from living in an environment where it’s everywhere.  Ali and Lucy Tabrizi take you on a very disturbing journey where governments keep secrets about their roles in depleting the oceans and where large corporations kill observers at sea where there’s no chance of the truth being discovered.  They take you to the claims behind “dolphin safe” tuna and other fish.  They take you to where the market price on illegally caught blue fins can bring in three million dollars per fish.  And they’re caught in great numbers.

The oceans, according to current projections, could be empty in 27 years.  If current practices don’t change, there could be basically nothing left by 2048.  Why?  Because humans are hooked on consuming.  Some critics complain the date should be 2072, as if that isn’t just kicking the can down the road.  I became a vegetarian many years ago, after leaning that way many years before that.  It took Cowspiracy to make me go vegan. We eat without thinking about where our food comes from.  Our industrial food practices are literally destroying our planet.  Having given up fish along with other meat, I didn’t think much about fishing.  Seaspiracy shows why fishing is everyone’s concern.  It’s largely unregulated, unenforceable laws apply, and companies try to make consumers feel better in their acceptance that some fish is safe for endangered species.  This documentary shows once again how the price of eating animals, and doing so on an industrial scale, is simply not sustainable.  My generation is perhaps too lazy to change its ways.  Our only hope is that the younger generation takes the state of this mess far more seriously than we do. And perhaps thinks before putting things in their mouths.


Museum Time

It was a very strange feeling.  Wearing masks, yes, and socially distancing, we went to a museum.  Casting my mind back, I can’t recall the last time I was in a museum.  On a family visit to Ithaca we decided to go to The Museum of the Earth.  Ithaca is a small town, and this is a small museum, nevertheless the first place Google (or Ecosia) brought up for fossil identification was The Museum of the Earth.  On Saturdays a paleontologist is on hand to help identify the traces of life from millions of years ago that lie scattered around for anyone to pick up.  Collecting fossils has a treasure-hunting vibe to it, and it’s great to find anything beyond the usual, ubiquitous sea shell imprints.  Don’t get me wrong—I love sea shells with their symmetry and flowing lines.  Some of them even look like angel wings.  But there’s a draw to the unusual.

Some time back I’d found a fossil in the Ithaca area that I couldn’t identify.  It was Saturday, and we’d all received at least our first vaccination.  And I had to wait in line to get an identification.  It was cheering to see so many people—with limited, timed entry—coming to a museum.  The specialist confirmed this to be an interesting fossil.  She identified it as a bryozoan, ancient animals related to coral.  This one, she suggested, based on the age of rocks in this area, was likely Devonian.  The age of fishes.  I was glad I hadn’t wasted her time, and I was glad to have an expert eye on something that, let’s be honest, often functions like pareidolia to the laity.

Years ago I took my daughter to an open house day at the geology department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  If it weren’t for the calculus requirements (and I even tried to teach myself calculus because of it), I was seriously considering going back to school to study geology.  There is an organic connection between biblical scholars interested in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and paleontology.  I get too busy, it seems, to go down to the local creek to look for fossils.  Perhaps it’s for the best because our house would be full of rocks (even more than it already is).  The earth is a great museum.  Even so, it felt like an alien activity, late in this pandemic, to remember what it’s like to explore these treasures indoors, with strangers.  It felt as if time was actually progressing.


Buried Truths

I owe a lot to fossils.  Growing up just a block from a fossil-laden river in western Pennsylvania, as a kid I’d go fossil hunting with my brothers.  They weren’t difficult to find.  Maybe not museum-quality, but not bad considering that they were free for the taking.  I’d pour over some rock with many shells perfectly impressed in it and wonder.  Of course, my childhood religion taught that the earth was quite a young place because that’s what the Bible seemed to indicate.  Other than Chick tracts and related comic books we didn’t have many books around the house to explain this discrepancy.  One thing was pretty clear—the fossils were quite real.  We had no doubt that there had been dinosaurs.  How they fit into the Bible’s chronology (since the Good Book was written long before dinosaurs had been discovered) was unclear.

Mine was not an educated family.  We simply believed what the preacher told us.  Since Fundamentalist preachers don’t attend seminary, their response was probably something along the lines of, “the Bible says…”  Thinking about how to apply the Bible in a complex world was not their strong suit.  So we’d be taught that evolution was evil, but just literally a stone’s throw from the church hundreds of fossils could be found.  I suppose the evidence of those fossils kept me grounded.  I never could buy the “theory” that God created the world with apparent evidence of great age to test our faith.  A deity like that isn’t worthy of the name.

I still pick up fossils when I find them.  Apart from a brain coral and some crinoids, mostly I just find shells.  Knowing that this particular rock is evidence of the sea floor millions of years ago is thrilling.  It puts me in touch with the great antiquity of our planet, the times when people had not yet evolved to complicate everything.  Just a few days ago I found a rock with a vignette of life under the sea.  Looking at it closely there are crinoids among the shells, and what appear to be a drag mark where some unknown creature disturbed the silty Paleozoic sea bottom on its way someplace long before humans showed up.  Fossils always remind me of the responsibility of reading the Bible with an eye toward rationality and a recognition that a guide isn’t the same thing as a taskmaster asking you to believe the ridiculous.  That, I suppose, is why I can’t pass up a fossil on the ground. 


As Nature Directs

The news about the “stampede” in Israel last week is tragic.  People like to gather in large crowds once in a while.  Religious events are sometimes such occasions (although not so much the case among mainstream religions anymore).  In this case the celebration, largely among the Ultra-Orthodox, was Lag BaOmer, a festival with unknown origins.  It has to do with counting the omer, a measure, in a biblically based instruction regarding grain offerings.  Since it’s based on the lunar Jewish calendar, it doesn’t fall on the same date of the solar year every time.  To be honest, I’d not heard of this celebration before the tragedy that occurred last week.  Having been confined for over a year, many religious groups are anxious to be back together in numbers.  Nothing reinforces belief better than having the size to be taken seriously.

A few years back, if I recall correctly, it was Muslim faithful at Mecca who experienced a tragic uncontrolled panic.  Religious ideas bring people together, but they can’t always control the results.  I’m reminded of what a Protestant clergyman told me many years ago: after a Billy Graham crusade came to town, the regular ministers were ill-equipped to handle the large numbers of emotionally charged members who normally sat still in the pews.  Religion stirs people, but its psychological nature shows when it leads to tragedy.  No particular group is immune since we are all emotional animals.  One slip on the stairs, one panicked individual, and those nearby can be infected.  Already emotional from the event itself, nature takes its course.

Stampedes are an evolved flight response.  Herd animals, when perceiving a threat, begin to run.  Others, not even directly aware of the threat, join in.  Other animals, not aware of their “herd mentality,” seem to handle this more naturally than do people.  Indeed, our religions often instruct us not to think of ourselves as animals at all.  Our religious events are often removed from our familiar surroundings.  I suspect that may be one reason people don’t find “Zoom church” very satisfying.  The emotion of religion is more easily spread in person.  In a place specifically designed as being outside the norm.  You take your hat off in church.  You sit quietly, reverently, in church.  You do not use coarse language in church.  In a pandemic you try to join in while physically in the environment where the rest of everyday life occurs.  When we gather again, we must do it while being aware of our nature.  Being part of nature itself can often be, if well thought out, cause for celebration.  We mourn those who fall victim to it.


Learning from Nature

Netflix is one of those companies that has shown that new models for providing both television and movies are emerging.  Of course there are many subscription services, but Netflix rose to the top of the pile during this pandemic.  I don’t watch it much, since my time is generally otherwise spoken for, but I did have a chance to watch My Octopus Teacher, a documentary about Craig Foster’s relationship with an octopus.  The story unfolds over a year in which Foster comes to know, and to be recognized by, an octopus.  Quite apart from the Cthulhu references that may come to mind, octopuses are often skittish, highly intelligent mollusks.  Perhaps what made this movie such a surprise hit was just how emotionally attached viewers become to the cephalopod through Foster’s relationship with her.

Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

Almost immediately in the documentary, the viewer is struck by just how intelligent octopuses are.  The particular personality—and there is no other word for it—featured in this film is able to think and solve problems.  Not only that, but she is capable of forming a relationship with a human being she came to trust.  For many decades we’ve been taught that animals are like automatons, reacting with stock behaviors, because they can’t think.  Any claims to animal intelligence were chalked up as “anthropomorphism,” or inappropriately allowing animals to share in that coveted human trait of being “intelligent.”  The idea comes from the Bible and not even scientists would question it for the longest time.  Spending part of each day with one octopus, however, gives the lie to animals being subject to programmed behavior.  Like both Heisenberg and Schrödinger demonstrated, being involved in the scenario necessarily changes it. 

Animal intelligence has great implications for religion, of course.  This is perhaps why it is such a taboo subject.  What does it mean if animals can think and act intentionally?  Does it imply morality?  Foster implicitly raises that very question as he tries to decide whether to keep the pajama sharks away from the octopus he’s befriended.  Is he watching nature or has he become a part of it?  Our religions are often our ethical signposts.  In more recent years ethics has been shifted to the philosophy department since many people outwardly distrust the obviously mythical aspects of religious stories.  Nevertheless, the implications are clearly there.  Doesn’t it make a difference that our world is filled with other intelligent beings apart from those of us with opposable thumbs?  Watch My Octopus Teacher before deciding on an answer.


Dark and Light

I perhaps have nothing new to say about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  It was published before I was ten, and although I grew up reading science fiction I really didn’t read any of Le Guin’s work until this year.  It wasn’t intentional—in a small town you read what you can get your hands on, and cover art designed to attract young boys often worked on me.  Now having read it, I’m left in a reflective mood.  Everyone, of course, comments on the gender aspect of the novel.  I guess I’ll be forgiven for doing so as well.  After all, it is the most striking feature of the story.  As we know from our lives on earth, gender affects pretty much everything about our lives.  The biological imperative is strong.  It’s no less strong in Left Hand of Darkness, but it is different.

In case you’re like me and haven’t read it (until now), it’s not a spoiler to indicate that it is the story of a male envoy to a planet where the people (and only large mammals) are genderless until once a month they enter “kemmering” when one becomes temporarily male and another temporarily female.  The genders aren’t fixed, but fluid.  Since the kemmering stage comes only once a month, during that time it become an urgent need among those experiencing it.  The novel isn’t about only that, of course, but it is the noteworthy feature that relates to the religion and daily life of the inhabitants of the planet Winter.

It might seem that this idea of shifting genders is itself science fiction, but it is not.  There are species on earth that change change gender, bringing into question the statement taken for universal that “male and female he made them.”  While gender seems to be evolution’s solution of choice for reproduction, that’s not universal either.  In other words, nature provides us with multiple ways in which plants, animals, and things in-between, can continue their existence on this planet.  The writers of the Bible weren’t great observers of nature, nor were they scientifically minded.  At a glance it looks like animals all conform to the model presented by Genesis.  In reality, the world is much more complex than that.  Religions aren’t always as comfortable with complexity as writers of science fiction tend to be.  Left Hand of Darkness is fine world-building and provocative at that.  This may be nothing new, but it is worth pondering again.


Joyous Beltane

Every year around Beltane, I think of The Wicker Man.  Of course, the holiday itself, aka May Day, is no cause for alarm.  What makes the movie so effective—and I mean the original film, of course—is the fear of others’ religions.  My last two books have explored the nexus of horror and religion and The Wicker Man always stands out as an example of how naturally the two go together.  May Day, or Beltane, represents one of the cross-quarter days.  It falls roughly halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.  Days are noticeable longer now than they were back before the equinox, and Beltane, like many cross-quarter days, uses the symbolism of light to remind us of the seasonality of life.  While the light is here we should make use of it.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

Agricultural festivals—and many ancient holidays began as such—acknowledge the importance of the lives of animals pastoralists depended upon.  Imbolc, the start of spring, was marked by sheep beginning their lambing.  Beltane was the point at which cattle could be driven to pasture.  It stands opposite Samhain, the origin of our Halloween, with Lughnasadh falling between.  These holidays were often celebrated with bonfires (thus The Wicker Man), but fire was understood as protective rather than destructive.  Although the Celts seem to have originated in east-central Europe, they were pushed to the northern fringes of the British Isles by other invading peoples.  Their location in chillier climes suggests that fire may have also held a practical purpose.

May Day is celebrated throughout much of Europe as a day associated with fertility.  This, it seems, was a major cause of concern among Christian missionaries.  Fertility is, of course, a natural hope.  Agrarian peoples rely on it to survive.  Fire served to bless the animals and to keep away the mischief of the little people, or nature spirits.  Much of what we know of Beltane, as with other Celtic holidays, has to be reconstructed since the Celts didn’t leave a scholarly archive that could be farmed for information.  Indeed, prior to widespread literacy what would’ve been the point of writing down what the folk already knew?  It was obvious that summer was on the way.  Even in years when the temperatures struggle to warm consistently, there are hints that “the light-soaked days are coming.”  The bonfires of Beltane represent the warmth and light that are on their way.  And what religion could object to that?