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.

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.

Unnatural Nature

It began as an odd sort of noise.  I had the study windows open during the morning of a heat wave and I heard a small, but metallic noise coming from the roof outside.  My study overlooks part of the first floor roof and slinking to the window I saw a sparrow trying to pick up a roofing nail.  We’ve had the roofers over twice already since we moved in a couple years back (and will have them again), and some of the nails from their work on the second-story roof landed here.  I’ve noticed sparrows pecking at them before.  Instead of skittishly flying away when I came up—I was only about a yard away—she still tried to lift the nail without success.  She then flew even closer to me, snatched up a different nail, and flew off with it.  Sparrows have, of course, adapted well to human dwellings, but what would a bird be wanting with a nail?  Surely not to make a nest?  It wasn’t even shiny—it was a rusty old one from the shingles replaced—since everyone knows birds are attracted to bright objects.

I’ve been a close watcher of nature my entire life.  This isn’t the same as being an outdoorsman, but when I can see outside, or when I do spend valued time outdoors, I look closely.  I always keep an eye out for animals on my daily jogs.  And I watch animal behavior through the window when work isn’t too pressing.  Still, I wonder about what a sparrow could want with a nail.  The next-door neighbors moved out a couple of months ago, and I watch the sparrows on their porch roof.  With no human activity nearby, they frequently gather there.  They seem to be picking up bits of human detritus—even pulling at, it looks from here, nails.  Now this behavior has me a little worried.  I’ve read about sparrows before and despite their innocent looks, they can be very aggressive birds, even attacking and sometimes killing larger perching fowl.  The idea of them weaponizing themselves is disconcerting.

Intelligence in nature is one of the last features many scientists want to admit to the the discussion.  There seems to be too strong a supposed correlation with shape of the physical brain and the ability to “think,” it seems to me.  I don’t know what the sparrows are planning, but clearly it involves gathering rusty old nails.  Even as I was writing this I noticed sparrows chirping aggressively.  Looking out my window across the street, I saw that a squirrel had crawled across an electric cable into a bushy roost where there must’ve been a sparrow nest.  Sparrows began flying into the fracas from all over the place, loudly chirping.  I couldn’t see what what happening because of the leaves, but the squirrel soon rushed out with a whole flutter of sparrows in pursuit.  Perhaps he’d discovered their plan with the nails.

Now, the next order of business…

Hurricane Isaias

People have been debating how to pronounce Hurricane “Isaias,” an hispanic name based on Isaiah.  Pennsylvania, which has few distinguishing features, is generally well enough inland not to have too much hurricane damage.  Isaias, however you pronounce it, dumped over five inches of rain in the small town in which we live.  Multiple roof leaks sprang up in our house and a small part of the ceiling in one room came down.  Not exactly wrath of God level treatment, but unwelcome nevertheless.  The real problem was the short amount of time in which the rain fell.  Averaging about an inch per hour, the water simply overwhelmed the devices put in place to keep it outside.  Being of my particular disposition I can’t help but think of the prophet Isaiah.

Not a classical prophet of doom per se, Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the New Testament.  He is remembered for “predictions” and soaring rhetoric that promises deliverance.  He’s also a prophet known for his woe declarations, as reflected in the Hebrew Bible.  This storm, I suspect, has delivered more of the woe than of the hope.  Streets were flooded as the local creek burst its banks.  Our own street was closed as I called our roofer who, I’m sure, had more than wanted popularity in one day.  Being a homeowner, I quickly discovered, is largely a matter of trying to keep the water out.  Our sump pump was working overtime and still the rain came.

My book Weathering the Psalms was intended to be the first in a series of volumes exploring meteorotheology in several books of the Bible.  The weather, you see, is a popular topic of discussion since in ancient times their meteorology was theology.  After the Psalms my exploration was intended to move toward the prophets.  There are dramatic events where these saintly folk were able to bring down rain, or withhold it.  Israel never experienced hurricanes because they don’t form in the Mediterranean.  Meteorological terms, however, shift over time just as by the time Isaias reached us it was a tropical storm.  The wind buffeted us a bit, but it was mainly a rain event.  I thought at first that I would look at weather terminology in Isaiah and see what I could find there.  I don’t know what my conclusions would have been since I was cut off before I could get that far.  Like those who cast their bread upon the waters, after many days it came back, ironically in the form of Isaias.

Narrow Passage

While on a rare family visit (it’s scary to get out too much) we visited Watkins Glen State Park in upstate New York.  My mother’s family has roots in this area, and we’ve visited it several times in the past.  There are always people there, but in manageable numbers.  The website declared it was mandatory to wear a mask (“New York tough”!) and to keep social distancing.  It perhaps didn’t help that we went during a heat wave when a walk along a waterfall-laced path seemed like a refreshing idea.  I guess I had in my head the modest crowds we’d encountered in our many past visits.  We were, however, not the only tourists (although somewhat local) with that particular plan.  Not by any metric I can conceive.

If you’ve never been to Watkins Glen, the park has a Civilian Conservation Corp-built stairway and trail (approximately 600 stairs) through a glacial and water-cut gorge.  The sedimentary layers are fascinating for anyone with an interest in geology and for those who like to ponder the millions of years required for the laying down and lifting up of multiple bedding planes.  The gorge itself has a curvilinear appeal that is almost mystical.  Waterfalls produce negative ions which, everyone knows, tend to make people happy.  I was, however, more on the terrified side of the spectrum.  It became clear even before we reached the gorge that there were hundreds of people already in the park.  Most of them unmasked.  Large crowds gathered around the more picturesque waterfalls, blocking the narrow walkways.  Tourists have no idea what “six feet” might possibly mean.  Stair-climbing is an aerobic exercise, and wearing a mask in such circumstances is the only smart thing to do.

While on the considerably less crowded trails of the Pennsylvania outdoors venues we more commonly frequent, I’m nervous when someone walks even more than six feet away in the opposite direction.  This felt like a nightmare to me.  Too many people paying too little heed to the mandated caution.  I’ll be quarantining myself for two weeks for sure.  Maybe more.  I don’t get out much in any case, but even though we were obstructing our view through cloudy glasses and trying to get adequate oxygen through made-to-specification cloth masks, there’s only so much that prophylactics can do.  I jog at first light to avoid other health nuts on the local trails.  I go to stores only for necessities.  Being in a canyon with the careless invincibles inspired less than confidence in this petrified pilgrim.  Knowing human nature, it seems closing popular state parks until people get smart may be the best way out of a tight squeeze.

Slimy Veggies

This wasn’t the work of ghosts, but it sure looked like it.  I snapped on the kitchen lights at 3:00 a.m. to find one of the counters dripping with slime.  It looked like the basement of the New York Public Library.  As I grabbed a damp rag and a roll of paper towels, I thought about Ghostbusters and fresh produce.  The slime, you see, came from a burst freezer pack.  During the pandemic we’ve been using Misfits, a service that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to your door.  Early on, back in March and April, it looked like various shortages, apart from toilet paper, were here to stay.   Every couple of weeks we’d get a Misfits box, so we’d at least have that.

Since fruits and vegetables are perishable, and since there is a time lag involved, they are packed with freezer bags.  These cold-pack bags are reusable and we began sticking them in our ice-box.  We have no free-standing freezer, so the unit atop our fridge was getting full.  The last week’s pack had begun to leak in transit, and, being too busy, I’d set it aside until I could figure out how to dispose of it in the most environmentally friendly way.  We don’t generate a huge amount of trash.  We compost our food scraps, and being vegan we don’t have smelly animal byproducts to toss.  And we recycle all that we can.  I guess just “throwing it out” has become a kind of last resort.  In the dark, the freezer bag made the decision for me and so I found myself mopping in the middle of the night.

It’s a small price to pay, really, to try to help save the environment.  The past four years have contributed unconscionably to global warming.  We tend not to care because those who’ll bear the brunt of it in the short-term are the poor.  Industrialists can afford vacation homes in the mountains.  Our lifestyles have an impact everywhere.  We need to learn to think differently about things.  Of course, that leaky freezer pack did cause quite a mess.  The gooey slime was everywhere, but it was everywhere with a conscience.  I have to wonder what happens to the world when leaders lack conscience.  Unfortunately I don’t have to wonder long since I have the headlines to read.  No, this wasn’t the work of ghosts, but unless we change our ways it could well be.  And when those treating you like enemies are your leaders, who you gonna call?

Long Ranger

The summer solstice is nearly here (on which more anon).  The coronavirus outbreak reached crisis level in the United States just before the vernal equinox, so we’ve been living with this now for over a quarter of the year.  The World Health Organization has been warning that the greatest danger now is complacency.  I’ve been seeing troubling signs of it.  Many people equate the partial opening up as a license to ditch the masks and start having parties again.  I go jogging around 5 a.m. these days because, well, the solstice.  It’s light enough and I’ve already been awake a couple of hours by then.  Parks and playgrounds around here are officially closed still, but the other day just after first light I jogged by a group of guys playing basketball before sunrise.  The days are longer and it feels like nothing can harm us in summer.

Like most other people I worry about the economy.  You’d think books would be big business during a lockdown and in fact many kinds are doing quite well.  The academic kind less so.  Still, I haven’t given up my hope that the pandemic will prove transformative.  We should emerge from this better than we were going into it.  Granted, the Republican Party has put the bar really, really low, but people are, I hope, starting to realize we’re better than our government.  We know that black lives matter.  We know that science is real.  We know that people matter more than money.  Nevertheless it’s difficult to keep wearing masks when we’ve shed the winter clothes and donned short sleeves.  Disease, like Republicanism, doesn’t respect human desires.  We need to keep the masks on.

A strange kind of giddiness comes upon us during these long days.  There’s so much light!  Those who can sleep past 4 a.m. are finding the sky already glowing when they awake.  At this latitude it stays light until almost 9 p.m., or so I’m told.  Thinking back to our primal ancestors, we were only really active during daylight hours.  Sluggish and sleepy in the winter, we’re now stimulated with so many photons we don’t know what to do with them all.  I sincerely hope that Covid-19 has had enough of the human race and is ready to leave us alone.  In the light of the day, however, the evidence isn’t there to bear that out.  We can still celebrate the longest day of the year with masks on, knowing that six months from now things will be very different.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Apart from being Shakespearen click-bait, the title of this post reflects a present-day fear.  We live on the edge of rural Pennsylvania.  If you’re not familiar with the state, let me assure you, there are tons of woodlands and rural communities.  You can drive for hours in a straight line and seldom leave the forest.  When my wife sent me a warning email—I go to bed early and can’t seem to sleep late—I paid heed.  A bear has been ambling through our town.  My usual morning jog is along a trail at the edge of the woods.  Bears are crepuscular.  I watch horror movies.  Put it all together and a Shakespearean level of anxiety quickly builds.  It wouldn’t be so bad, but the photos show the bear romping through backyards and one of the reasons I jog the way I do is to avoid other people.

I see wildlife on my jogs.  I see deer frequently, along with feral cats, rabbits, and, in season, ducks.  I’ve seen raccoons, foxes, groundhogs, and even snapping turtles and salamanders.  It’s not much of a stretch to think a bear could be lurking there.  So instead I took to jogging the human streets.  The danger out here, of course, is the human-borne kind.  Covid-19 lurks, and even though I jog at 5 a.m. there are other elderly out and about.  I hear a cough and wonder whether my chances might be better with the bear.  The broken sidewalk’s a problem too.  I have tripped before in the half light, but without Superman’s knack for flying.  Or at least landing gracefully.

Thinking back, I wonder what has happened.  As I child I lived in truly rural Pennsylvania.  My brothers and I used to sleep on our open porch in the summers, even though we could occasionally hear bears going through the trashcans around the side of the house.  Our place was hard up on the woods, right at the edge of town.  I didn’t worry about the bears back then, though.  We’ve perhaps become more afraid of nature because we know we’ve not been good to it.  The episode of the X-Files we watched before bed last night had Scully saying that nature’s always out to get us.  Perhaps we’ve drawn too solid a line between ourselves and brother or sister bear.  We’re not above nature; we are nature.  But still, I’d rather not be pursued, or eaten by a bear, no matter how much I like Shakespeare.  So I’ll jog in town for awhile, taking my chances with the dangers of my own kind.

Photo credit: Manitoba Provincial Archives, via Wikimedia Commons

Weather Gods

It’s funny how old fascinations have the power to reemerge with the slightest provocation.  I guess writing a book will do that to you.  I just finished Peter J. Thuesen’s Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather.  There’s a certain kinship among those of us enamored of this relationship.  Thuesen finds himself in Indiana, and I was in Wisconsin during my research and writing of Weathering the Psalms.  I still haven’t reconciled myself with tornadoes, which were far too likely during my years in the Midwest.  As Thuesen explains, there’s just something about them.  Neither scientist nor theologian can fully explain them and the feeling of awe spans both disciplines.  The book covers a wide range that includes early Protestant settlers and their ideas of providence as well as modern understandings of atmospheric dynamics.  Still, the tornadoes…

Randomness also lies behind both tornadoes and science.  The eerie function of quantum mechanics makes it seem if there’s a kind of willfulness to even particle physics.  Too quick to join in are those among the evangelical camp that want to raise the flag of intelligent design.  Thuesen interrogates their theology as he asks questions about both theodicy and global warming.  Tornadoes are notorious for killing one person and leaving another right next door completely unscathed.  Literally tearing families apart.  Some of those we meet in these pages have turned to black-and-white religion for answers.  Others tend to see things more in shades of gray.  Does God send storms or merely allow them?  Are victims singled out or simply unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the right time?  America’s armchair theologians have their ready answers, but the weather remains unpredictable.

Readers will find interesting connections throughout.  The celestial orientation of religion is pretty obvious as well.  Even though modern believers don’t accept a heaven directly overhead, the orientation is still there.  Their maddening obtuseness when it comes to global warming is more than just a little naive.  Either that or they’re secretly gunning for armageddon.  Whichever it is, Thuesen treats all comers with respect.  Storms are awe-inspiring events.  I recall standing on the edge of a farm field in Illinois and staring up at a lightning display in clouds towering thousands of feet above me.  Looking out the south window one night as a cloud continuously lit by lightning made its slow way from west to east just south of where I stood.  It was a religious experience.  How could it not be?  If any of this resonates with you, this is a book you ought to read.

Weathering Frights

It reminded me of a nightmare.  The box, containing a book, was soaked through.  A sudden thunderstorm had come before we knew the box was even there on the porch and memories of several boxes of rain-ruined books came back uninvited.  Water and books just don’t mix.  This particular book, I knew, was Peter Thuesen’s Tornado God, which I had ordered back in December and which has just been released.  The irony wasn’t lost on me.  My own second book, Weathering the Psalms, was a rather inelegant treatment on a similar topic and I’ll discuss Thuesen’s book in further detail here once I’ve read it.  The point is that no matter how arrogant we become as a species the weather just remains beyond our control.  The rainbow at the end of this small storm was that although the packaging was soaked, I found the box before the book itself had time to get wet.

My research, ever since my first book, has largely been about making connections.  The weather is so quotidian, so common, that we discuss it without trepidation in casual conversation.  It is, however, one of the most dangerous things on our planet.  Severe storms kill both directly and indirectly.  Cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes can do so on a massive scale.  So can their dramatic opposite, drought.  Snow and melting ice caps also threaten life, as do floating chunks of ice in chilly oceans.  It’s no wonder that the weather has been associated with gods from the earliest times.  Even today literalists will say God is in the sky although meteorologists and astronomers can find no pearly gates when they look up.  We just can’t shake the idea that weather is some kind of reflection of divine moodiness.

As weather becomes more and more extreme—it’s already a system that we’ve tipped seriously off balance—I suspect more and more people will start to assign it some kind of divine agency.  This June we’ve already gone from shivering mornings with frost on the roof to nights when sleep is impossible because it’s so warm and humid, all within a matter of a couple of days.  And this isn’t that unusual.  Wait’l the gods really get angry.  Weather is closely related to the water cycle, of course.  We can learn about such things from books.  We can’t take them out during a storm, however, and homeownership is all about keeping water out, or only in prescribed locations indoors.  When the delivery driver leaves a box on your porch, however, it remains within reach of the storm gods.

Ahab’s Garden

One of my motivations, I have to admit, for re-reading Moby Dick this year was my wife’s gift of Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick, by Richard J. King.  I wanted to read the latter, and I’d been toying with the idea of reading the former.  So I did both.  King’s book explores the oceanic world introduced by Herman Melville’s classic.  The various creatures and natural phenomena mentioned by Melville are examined in the light of what we now know today and a few key finding emerge.  We continue to know little about our oceans, even as we deplete them.  The book is about whales, but not only about whales.  Anyone who’s read Moby Dick knows the novel encompasses about a year at sea and describes the many sights experienced by a crew that sets out with few port calls and many long hours on the open ocean.

King does a fine job here.  It’s particularly refreshing that he doesn’t hide from what he calls Melville’s natural theology.  Many science writers fear to go to such places.  Clearly Melville looked at the world through such lenses, however.  The novel is one of the American philosophical masterpieces.  Not only philosophical, but also theological.  We can only guess what Melville’s true beliefs were, but he described the book to Nathaniel Hawthorne as wicked, and he knew that he was butting heads with orthodoxy throughout.  Natural theology was, of course, an early form of science.  Today scientists tend to be embarrassed by their heritage, but King shows that in the hands of a genius like Melville the results can be extraordinary.

This is also a disturbing book.  Any volume dealing with the natural world these days likely is.  The over-exploitation of the ocean, our use of it as a dumping ground, and global warming have combined to make the recovery of whales, as well as many other species, slow if not impossible.  While commercial hunting of whales has largely ceased, the leviathans haven’t made much of a comeback, and several species are well on their way toward extinction.  Sea birds are less common than they were when Melville was writing.  We’ve influenced our world in such a bad way that we’ve likely set the clock ticking on the extinction of our own species.  In a sense then, natural theology is facing its own apocalypse.  Ahab’s Rolling Sea is not a dour book—it is a celebration of the world as it was once known, even if that world was less than just two hundred years ago.

Somebody Elsism

It’s 5:30 a.m. the day after Memorial Day and I’m out jogging.  I go out at this time because there’s not much likelihood of encountering many other people.  Oh, I know others are awake, but few are out on the trail at this time of morning.  I’m made a bit sad by the amount of trash I see along the path.  Yesterday turned into a pleasant afternoon and I suspect lots of people were out here then.  I even find the remains of some kind of homemade fireworks launcher, reminding me that it was supposed to be a patriotic holiday.  I’ve seen an uptick in Trump signs around here and I wonder if it has anything to do with the rampant somebody elsism that I see strewn along my jogging trail.

Somebody elsism is the attitude that I can make a mess of things and let somebody else deal with it.  (It’s my right as an American!)  Maybe you’ve seen it too.  The doggie doo-doo bags that are filled and left beside the trail for somebody else to pick up and dispose of.  It’s my right to own a dog, and although I may feel compelled to bag its leavings, somebody else will have to throw it away.  The idea’s pretty rampant.  I’ve even found such things on my front sidewalk.  I suspect this is a chapter in the myth of rugged individualism.  I have a right, but somebody else has the duty.

Life itself is like this, I guess.  We have to leave wills to help those left behind sort out the various messes we’ve made in our lifetimes.  Still, the Trump administration has all been about somebody elsism.  There is no such thing as controlled chaos.  The coronavirus should have taught us that, if we hadn’t figured it out long before.  Living together with other people requires a commitment to some basic things.  As much as I dislike yardwork, you can’t own a house and let the plants take over.  Your wild growth will seed somebody else’s weeds.  I’d rather be sitting inside reading.  It’s a holiday weekend and I have so little time to read during the week.  Won’t somebody else take care of the grass that has been loving the rain and warmer temperatures?  If only.  So I’m out jogging early, but I have to wait until it’s light.  There are so many things you can’t see before twilight kicks in, and unless somebody else picks them up I’m bound to step in them.

Cold Psalms

“Ne’er cast a cloot ’til May be oot,” as we heard it in Scotland, was a warning, loosely translated, to “never take off a layer until May is over.”  That bit of lowland wisdom fits this spring pretty well.  As I was donning full winter regalia for my jog this morning my thoughts naturally turned toward the weather.  Memory distorts things, of course, but I keep coming back to my youth and thinking late May used to be reliably warm.  There were chilly mornings from time to time, but yesterday held a touch of November in the air, as if the world somehow switched axes.  Even the usual animals I see—deer, groundhogs, ducks, and the occasional fox or raccoon—all seemed to be sleeping in this morning.  Who could blame them?

I postulated in Weathering the Psalms that the weather is somehow connected in our psyches with the divine.  It’s God’s big blue heaven, after all.  The weather is something we can only control in a bad way, though.  While other people are fixated on surviving the coronavirus outbreak Trump has been quietly (although well documentedly) been relaxing environmental regulations so that when this is all over the beleaguered wealthy will have further income streams.  And so global warming gets a head start on opening the doors of industry again.  Those older than even me tell me the weather is far wilder than when they were young.  Perhaps it’s just the Anthropocene hadn’t had time to settle in yet.  Or maybe environmental degradation is spitting in the face of God.

First light is beautiful.  I’ve been awakening before the sun for so many years now that I can’t recall what it’s like to stumble out of bed when blue begins edging the curtains.  When it does I pull on my sneakers and head out the door.  It’s easy to pretend out here that everything’s okay.  When I do spot a deer, statue-still until I’m mere feet away, I wonder what life was like before the koyaanisqatsi of industrialization.  When our human impact on the earth was humble, like that of our fellow animals.  Now the weather has turned.  It’s chilly out here this morning.  I’m wearing a stocking cap and gloves and I’m watching my own breath forming the only clouds in the sky.  The weather is a kind of psalm, I guess.  I should pull on another clout and consider the wisdom of my elders.

Religion’s Trickster

I’m not sure I’ve read any fiction by Native American writers before.  Owl Goingback has established a reputation among horror writers for his blending of Indian concepts and the horror genre.  Coyote Rage is a novel that blends worlds.  Coyote is, of course, a trickster figure.  Upset with human abuse of the world and our indiscriminate killing of animals, he decides to wipe out the human race.  Since all animals, including humans, plead their causes in the council in Galun’lati, the original world, he decides to take humans out by killing their last representative on the council, an elderly Native American in a nursing home.  The fact that his victim has a daughter unaware of her heritage, means that Coyote has two people to hunt.  As a shapeshifter able to travel between worlds, Coyote is a formidable enemy.

I don’t want to put any spoilers here, but it is worth considering the spiritual aspects of the story and how they blend so well into horror.  I’ve commented before on how religion plays into the genre.  Here is yet another example.  Galun’lati is presented as reality.  Not only do the animals talk there, it is a place that has its own dangers.  It’s a forest world, appropriate to Native American experience and context.  It’s very much a natural, supernatural world.  The novel splits its time between Galun’lati and the New World—this world—as humans try to prevent their own extinction while most people have no idea there’s even any threat.  Oblivious, we carry on.   Religion can play into horror that way.  While there are plenty of examples of purely secular horror, in my experience tales that have supernatural sources of threat are the scariest.

It may come back to the issue of ultimate concern.  When our spiritual wellbeing is taken into account, we often approach it with some trepidation.  The physical world feels so real and occupies much of our time.  If, however, we need to add spiritual concerns on top of everything else, it can become overwhelming.  What if physical threats, such as the coronavirus, and any other of a myriad of dangers, are only part of the picture?  What if there is another entire world in which we also have a stake?  If that world is beyond normal perception, we must rely on those who understand it.  Much effective horror knows to tap into this area of natural uncertainty.  Owl Goingback uses it remarkably well in crafting a horror tale that makes you think.