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?


Leap Night

I was quite young when I saw Night of the Lepus for the first time.  Well, I had to have been at least ten, but when I recently sat down to watch it only one or two scenes looked familiar.  Like most poorly done horror films, Night of the Lepus has gained a cult following.  The story is loosely based on Russell Braddon’s comedic novel Year of the Angry Rabbit.  Without the comedy.  Or at least without intentionally being funny.  In an effort to control rabbit overpopulation in Arizona, a new virus is released into the population.  Instead of killing off the bunnies, it makes them grow as large as wolves and become carnivorous.  They go around attacking people with big, nasty, pointy teeth (to be fair, Monty Python and the Holy Grail wouldn’t be out for three more years).

Night of the Lepus was criticized for not being scary at all—a cardinal sin for a horror film.  I was kind of embarrassed when my wife walked in and found me watching it.  Nostalgia can do funny things to a person.  It is almost painful to watch the public officials make such obvious missteps each time they start to get an idea of what’s happening.  They’re almost as imbecilic as the Trump administration was.  Meanwhile rabbits are hard to make scary.  Perhaps William Claxton should’ve read Watership Down.  Ah, but Richard Adams’ classic was only published in 1972, the year the movie was released.  What was it about the mid-seventies and rabbits?  

Part of the problem is that Night of the Lepus takes itself seriously without the gravitas required to do so.  Who can believe actual rabbits are vicious when, to make them monstrous, the movie simply shows rabbits against miniature scenery?  Their human handlers occasionally smear their mouths with red, but a rabbit doesn’t appear cunning and vicious.  And to get them to attack people they had to use human actors in rabbit suits.  I’m a fan of nature going rampant as a vehicle for horror.  Hitchcock’s The Birds did it effectively.  So, I’m told, did Willard (which is remarkably difficult to access with HBO never having released it onto DVD).  The seventies were when ecology began to be recognized as perhaps the most important of global issues.  Half a century later we’re still struggling to reconcile ourselves with it.  Meanwhile the rabbits have begun to appear in our back yard.  They may nibble our perennials, but I’m not afraid.  At least as long as they don’t watch Night of the Lepus and start to get some ideas.


Rabbit Years

A childhood horror movie that I only recall in the most wispy of fringe memories is Night of the Lepus.  It’s one of those monster movies that involves mutated animals, in this case the unexpected rabbit.  I’m not sure why it’s been on my mind lately, but a little research indicated that it was based on the Russell Braddon novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit.  This book is out of print and still under copyright, so finding a copy wasn’t easy.  Apart from vague images of giant rabbits, I had no idea what to expect.  The book turned out to be a comedy horror, in that order.  Remembering that the movie wasn’t funny (although it is consistently considered one of the worst cinematic efforts of the time), I wasn’t prepared for this.

You see, I don’t like to read about books before I read them.  I don’t read cover copy.  (I tend not to watch movie trailers either, unless it can’t be helped, like when you’re in a theater.)  I suppose knowing a genre of a book helps, but I just wanted the experience of reading the story behind a movie that won’t completely vacate my memory cells.  The Year of the Angry Rabbit is a satire on government, war, and capitalism.  If you’re not expecting a serious horror story it’s quite funny.  Russell Braddon never became a household name—he was from Australia and a person’s cultural impact tends to be greatest on their own continent—but if you knew this was a satire from the start you’d probably enjoy it as such.  Although written in the sixties, it’s climax takes place at the millennium, now two decades past.  It’s always interesting to see what people thought we might be up to by now.

Although there are elements of humor to our politics, Orwell seems to have been more on the money than Braddon.  Nevertheless it’s important to keep the old stories alive.  There are still people like me who will seek out rather obscure novels from many decades ago.  They might have to have sat on library shelves for years without having been checked out—this used to be the glory of the library, before “evidence-based usage” studies ruined them.  I search for things I want to read in my local small town library and find that my tastes are too obscure.  Besides, old stuff has to be cleared out to make room for the more recent books hoi polloi wish to consume.  I’m glad they’re still reading.  For me, however, I’ll need to stretch back to a time before I was old enough to read to satisfy an unrelenting memory. It was rabbit years ago.


Whale Tales

Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

Always I’m surprised when other people seem surprised, specifically about animal intelligence.  Then I have to remind myself that our culture has absorbed the biblical view that people are different so thoroughly that even scientists believe it.  I watch the birds out my window quite a lot.  What they do is intentional and often quite intelligent.  True, not all animals are college material, but they are far brighter than the “automaton” paradigm with which I grew up.  So when I saw a piece in The Guardian titled “Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information” I kept the tab open until I could read it.  Then I woke up this morning wondering why one of my many open tabs had the header “Sperm” on it, only to remember that I was going to read about whales.

I’ve written about Moby-Dick many times on this blog.  Although Melville didn’t experience financial success with it, he managed to pen one of the most profound and memorable novels ever.  One of the things he stressed was the intelligence of the whaler’s prey.  The Guardian article describes how, due to the magic of digitized log books, researchers can now compare captains’ notes about whaling.  What this comparison makes clear is that whales shared the information about attacks and avoided the areas where they occurred.  Despite the massive size of their brains, researchers had supposed whales to be rather stupid—or automatons—simply waiting to get slaughtered.  Animal intelligence is visible anywhere as long as we’re not afraid of that bogeyman, “anthropomorphism.”

We’ve been taught that human beings are so special that we think other animals act like us only because we’re projecting onto them.  Since the Bible informs us that we’re special and they’re further down the food chain, we must assume that creatures who destroy their own planet believing that they’re serving the will of God are somehow smarter than animals living in harmony with their environment.  We’re so smart that we had to add an extra sapiens to Homo sapiens to show just how special we are.  I’ve long suspected that animals are far more intelligent than we allow them to be.  Philip Hoare’s article offers us yet more evidence that we’ve underestimated our non-sapiens companions time and again.  Ironically we can accept that evolution explains how life forms change over time, but we somehow can’t let go of the story that says we’re somehow different.  I think we need to get out more and simply watch how animals behave.


Old Wolves

Among the classic monsters, the werewolf seems to suffer from lack of a foundational novel.  Yes, vampires are older than Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and antecedents can be suggested for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but there isn’t a werewolf novel of similar stature.  Daniel Ogden, however, does us a service by providing an extended discussion of, as his title states, The Werewolf in the Ancient World.  His survey is intriguing and informative, and also insightful.  The werewolf is not always what it might seem.  Ogden is an able guide through sources from antiquity through some medieval tales, focusing mainly on the ancient ones.  He extensively explores their associations—witches, sorcerers, ghosts, and the like.  And related tales of human transformation.  He even suggests what some of those transformations may have been seeking.

The werewolf is perhaps the most obvious monster that expresses repressed desire for transformation—a kind of salvation.  Civilization comes with a cost and the werewolf is symbolic of the individual driven by animal desire, unrestrained by human convention.  It’s also an idea of great antiquity.  Although Ogden doesn’t go into it, stories of humans turned into wolves goes back at least to the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest pieces of literature we have in fairly complete form.  The idea is attested in writers such as Plato and Augustine, if only to refute it.  In other words, it is clearly something people have thought possible from very early times.  Our long association with the wolf, and its domesticated version—the dog—certainly plays a psychological role in such tales.

As Ogden points out, Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris, published in 1933, is perhaps as close as we come to a foundational novel.  In the Universal monsters series that developed a canon for monster boomers, The Wolf Man was a somewhat late entry, appearing in 1941—a decade later than Dracula and Frankenstein.  Despite these tardy cultural appearances, the werewolf has been part of our collective psyche far longer.  Ogden shows that clearly.  When you stop to rethink stories like Little Red Riding Hood, the talking, humanized wolf appears so naturally that we don’t often stop to consider the implications.  I certainly hadn’t made the connection explicitly until reading it here.  Ogden’s work is readable but academic, so be prepared for citations and some technical talk.  Nevertheless, this is the clearest guide to lycanthropy and the magical ideas behind it from ancient times to have appeared in recent years.  


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.