Category Archives: Environment

Berrying Perspective

Two people looking at the same thing see something different. Since we’re living with a government of distorted perspective this truth appears refreshed daily. I was reminded of this while picking huckleberries. Huckleberries, according to the local edible berry guide, are called many different things. In this part of the country you know them when you see them. And if you see them you pick them. They appeal to the frustrated hunter-gatherer left in us city-dwellers. As I was trying my best to fill my bucket, I kept thinking of those who only see nature’s bounty as a means of turning a profit. In my mind they’re meanies—those who take all the fun out of the few freedoms we have left—although I realize that it’s a matter of perspective. Consider the huckleberry.

I’m a mere seasonal visitor to these parts. Since not too many of my own species make this location their permanent domicile, that’s perfectly natural. Many of the berry pickers I’ve encountered have been seasonal guests as well. There are the more “industrial” pickers, though. In a good year huckleberries can command fifty dollars a gallon on the local market. Unless you know an unfrequented secret site, a gallon can take several hours to pick even in a promising location. Overall, you need to arrive before anyone else and get the most productive bushes so that you don’t have to wander around the mountainside in search of a more lucrative locale. Not to mention that, like most berries, they have a limited shelf life. Nature prefers sharers to hoarders.

While I’m picking I generally think of bears. Unlike my species they don’t have the grocery store option. These berries are their survival, I suppose. Nature does provide. That’s how evolution works—we form symbiotic relationships with our environment. The meanies, however, can’t see beyond the self. What nature provides must be accumulated for my own benefit and not that of others. There are never enough huckleberries to go around, the industrial mind thinks, and so I’d better control the availability and set my price. You don’t even have to like huckleberries to do it. Ironically we call this having a gift. Standing here on this isolated mountainside, bent over a bush offering nature’s abundance, I believe that I’ve found a gift. I have to remind myself, however, that this too is a matter of perspective. It is a perspective that tastes right to me.

Nature Watching

Whenever I travel in the northwest, I keep an eye open for what one colleague calls “charismatic megafauna.” You know, the big animals that are so rare to see that they develop a charming, if imaginary, persona. Not that I’ve ever seen much of it here. It’s rarity is part of the charm. My usual hope is to see a moose—something that happens every three or four years. Black bears are even rarer. Grizzly bears, which still inhabit this area, and mountain lions I’ve never seen. I know they’re there, but their agenda is not to be seen. My first full day here I was sitting outside working on an academic paper. My time off work is rare, and when I get a moment, even in the wilderness, I try hard not to waste it. I had the feeling of being watched. Not the creepy kind of feeling, but the kind where you think an animal might be keeping a wary eye on you.

I looked over the top of my book. Several yards distant I could see a head bobbing up and down. Then I noticed a black patch on a nearby lodgepole pine. It took a few seconds for the red head to register. A mated pair of pileated woodpeckers. Not exactly huge, but they are large birds. And since they are the personality behind Woody Woodpecker, well, I guess you can call that charismatic. Charismatic enough for me to put down my Ugaritic mythology and go inside to fetch a camera. Of course they were gone by the time I’d returned. I decided to take a walk down the track in a vain hope of finding them again. Once in a while charismatic megafauna cooperate. There they were, one going after ants on the ground, the other perched above pecking wood.

Most of our large fauna we’ve driven to near extinction. Humans can’t stand not to be the biggest thing around. The megafauna remain, however, hidden though they may be. An online site for this area posted a photo of a cougar snapped last summer. I’m not sure when the last time a grizzly might’ve wandered down from Canada, but since last November I’m not sure why they’d even bother. Even the moose seem coy. Animals don’t do what we want them to do. Those that we can’t domesticate follow their own agendas and calendars we can’t hope to comprehend. As they flap away I can swear these woodpeckers are laughing at me.

Photographic Evidence

All photographs are lies. That moment preserved, formerly on celluloid but now with electrons, is gone for good as soon as the shutter is snapped. The camera doesn’t see as the eye sees. I was reminded of this during a mountain thunderstorm. I awoke early, coated with jet lag and the residue of my regular early morning schedule. It was still dark, but the reddish sunlight soon wrestled through a valley fed by a creek across the lake. The color was impressive, but my camera washed it out to a diluted Creamsicle orange. In reality the clouds were roiling overhead and lightning was streaking through a thunderhead like synapses firing violently in a massive brain. Thunder in the mountains can’t be photographed. Nor can it be forgot.

My work used to require quite a bit of travel. Before I would visit a campus I would spend some time on faculty pages, trying to put faces together with names. Impressed with how young these professors were, I’d knock on doors armed with foreknowledge of who might greet me. I wondered who these older people were when the door actually opened. It’s disconcerting to see someone age before your eyes. I would think back to the photographs online that had assured me this person would be much younger. The picture was a fossil. A moment frozen in time. The very next second after the photo capture that smiling face had changed. The best that we can hope for is a gross approximation.

Perceptions of reality, as all religions teach us, contain a healthy dose of illusion. While it contains ethereal beauty, this vision I’ve captured in my lens is only part of the picture. There is something deeper, more meaningful behind it. Photographs enhance memory. In the days before Photoshop they could be submitted as proof of an occurrence. They are a form of art. Whatever else they may be, they are also lies. Lies need not be of evil intent. Religions try to explain what some privileged individual realized was the truth. These who found a way of looking behind the photograph. The streaking lightning outside evades the slowness of my finger on the button. The thunder rolling and re-echoing through these valleys will remain in my head long after the sound waves cease to reverberate. Reality is more than it seems. Even my experience of this mountain thunderstorm is that of a single individual seeking enlightenment. Elsewhere others are up early, observing it too. What they experience may be something very different from me indeed. I have a photograph to prove it.

Sky Blue

How do you capture a true and abiding fascination in words? That’s a thought that comes to me once in a while when I think about the sky. It’s so hard to define, yet it’s always there. To quote myself: “To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine” (used with permission). I waited for The Imagined Sky: Cultural Perspectives, edited by Darrelyn Gunzburg, for years. I think I first saw an ad for the book two years in advance of publication (yes, scholarly presses can do stuff like that). I kept stopping by the Equinox booth at AAR/SBL to see if it was available. It was the same kind of drive that led me to write Weathering the Psalms. That hope of grasping the intangible. To hold the sky itself. One of my early creative writing club stories was about a boy who wanted the sky. I wanted this book.

Like all books of essays from different authors, it’s a mix of fruits and nuts. There’s some very interesting pieces in here while others seem to have been made to fit only with some difficulty. Still, the sky. I admit to being somewhat disappointed as I read along. This wasn’t for research—my book on the topic is already done—it was for pure intellectual curiosity, what passes for pleasure among academics. Many of the pieces were mired down in detail. Written bout the sky, they refused to soar. Then I came to Tim Ingold’s essay. Here’s what I’d been looking for. Someone who knew the sky could only be approached in terms that contradict themselves at every turn. There is something to say about the daytime sky. It has to do with the nature of light. And of the sky seeing us.

The sky, by definition, is larger than this rocky substrate we call home. It encompasses everything above us. I work in a cubicle with no access to outside windows. I wilt daily like a plant deprived of sun. (Although the wonderful article on light pollution by Tyler Nordgren gave me pause over even that.) I need to see the sky. When clouds block my view, my outlook begins to suffer. It’s that ethereal cerulean I crave. Without it I am but a troglodyte eking out a minimal survival on toadstools and lichen. The sky is our orientation. It is our timepiece. It is eternal. Of the things we do that are evil, polluting the sky is one of the most unforgivable. The key may be in the word “imagined,” but if we could only understand the sky we will have found true religion. They’re called “the heavens” for a reason.

Scaping By

Failure is a part of life. We don’t like stories about failure, however, unless the protagonist goes out with a memorable bang. So it is that when we fail we start looking for a scapegoat. Now it’s a little too early to tell if Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter can be considered a failure. According to a story on Friendly Atheist, “Ken Ham is Now Blaming Atheists for the Economic Failures of Ark Encounter,” the ark may be loaded with dinosaurs, but not money. People need their myths, yes, but myths that take themselves too seriously often fail to convince. Atheists, even the friendly variety, have always been convenient scapegoats. I wonder how many scapegoat species are in the Ark Encounter.

I don’t know about you, but I’m curious about the Ark Encounter. I don’t want to go because I don’t want them to have any of my money. As I’ve told academic friends who visit—I just can’t see contributing to their cause. Although the Right seems to implode when it reaches power (there are far too many selfish people in the Party, and selfishness leads to easy splintering) one thing that it has is money. Think about it, the extremely wealthy are on their side. If I was given a free pass I might find it worth my while to wend my way back down to Kentucky. Who doesn’t like a spectacle? And I would like to see how they represent scapegoats in their dioramas. Besides, with sea levels rising from “fictional” global warming it might not be a bad idea to get a few tips on how to build an ark, no matter what you believe.

You only fail when you fail to try. That was a phrase a friend used to repeat to me before disappearing from my life. A friend from college once told me that I had to stop admitting my failures if I wanted to move ahead in life. There is a danger in easy appearances of success, however. Failure can be a very noble teacher. There are mornings when I’m walking across Manhattan, passing the homeless in their blankets on the street, and I realize that I would not be where I am were it not for failures. I could hide them, but if I haven’t learned from them they’ll only burst out of the closet again when it gets too full. Is Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter a failure? It’s far too early to tell. One thing we know for sure, however, is that scapegoats will never be an endangered species even if there’s a world-wide flood.

James Tissot,Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat (Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

Ammonia Avenue

It’s 7:00 p.m. I’m still sitting on a bus, in unmoving traffic a mere three miles from home. I stepped out of my front door over 13 hours ago and I have only another hour before retiring to start it all over again tomorrow. My phone’s down to a charge level that the effort of getting a non-wifi connection will only drain it completely. I have no idea why I’m being rerouted. Later I’ll learn that we’ve been instructed to shelter in place because of a N-Aminoethylpiperazine spill. Better living through chemicals. I’m sheltering in place, all right. This bus is my ark.

There’s much about this complex world that I don’t understand. I readily admit that I don’t know much. One thing I do know is that I live my life trying not to impact others negatively. I’m reminded of this every time someone blows a cloud of smoke into my path, plays their music so loud that even they can’t really hear it, or spills Aminoethylpiperazine all over the place. I don’t haul corrosive chemicals (beyond what may be trapped in my gray matter) through anybody’s hometown. I think of that scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind—a dangerous chemical spill. Evacuate Devil’s Tower. There’s nothing to see here, folks. It strikes me that this is a larger ethical issue. The right to use, and potentially destroy, somebody else’s space. If you inhale Aminoethylpiperazine fumes, it can be fatal. It may take longer, but the same is true of second-hand smoke. The things that go beyond our own personal self-abuse into the realm of harming others. Somebody call an ethicist!

Commuting isn’t really a lifestyle choice. There may be a few stalwarts on this bus that really enjoy it, but from hearing the weary conversation of the regulars somehow I doubt it. We’ve been rerouted to New York City for our jobs. Our free time is consigned to an aluminum lozenge on wheels. Sometimes it actually moves. Have you ever tried to read a book when the head of the snoring guy next to you keeps falling into your lap? I think about those animals on the ark. Life is more than eating and breathing. You’ve got to have some space to move about. Even when I wake up I’m not in the same position as when I went to sleep. Of course, ethics demands I look at it from the other’s point of view. Someone needed a truckload of Aminoethylpiperazine, and they’re disappointed that it never arrived. Just don’t breathe too deeply. This flood can’t last forever.

Sea Around Us

Re-reading books is something I do somewhat too infrequently. One of the obvious reasons is that I won’t possibly finish everything I want to read in my lifetime as it is, and once something’s in the vault I tend to move on. I keep books, however, because I frequently go back to them to refresh my memory. Wholesale re-reading takes commitment. I just finished re-reading Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. It’s difficult to describe the impact this book had on me when I first read it, years ago. Even though modern editions state that it retains its authority (broadly it does) I couldn’t help but be struck by a number of things this time through. Carson thought of herself as a writer. In her day that meant adhering to the conventions of language, which was, I admit, embarrassingly masculine. The assumptions of the 1940s and ‘50s against which Carson struggled set the very frame for the discussion. I recall being told in school, by female English teachers, that the only proper pronoun to use when the subject was of indeterminate gender was the masculine. I raised my eyebrows, but being good at following rules, I didn’t raise my hand.

Not that this takes away from the poetry and mastery of The Sea Around Us. It is a wonderful book. It also made many people stop and think about the ocean for the first time. Really think. And that’s a second observation about my re-reading. Hearing the recitation of how, historically—or prehistorically—the oceans covered much of North America. Thinking about how my hometown, far, far inland would’ve been underwater for eons really made me ponder. We’ve built our coastal cities rapidly, and with typical human short-sightedness. Even without our generous input, global warming has been ongoing for centuries. Sea-levels have been rising. Our desire for wealth, settling as close as possible to the water to facilitate trade, didn’t take into account what would happen in the perhaps foreseeable future. Even now when the warning is loud and clear the businessmen of the White House are in full denial.

There’s a kind of strange justice to this. You see, one of the other features of The Sea Around Us, and one of the most compelling aspects of the book, is Carson’s narrative of how we came from the sea and our desire is to return to the sea. Our blood evolved from ocean water. We rely constantly and in significant ways on the oceans. They, for example, are the powerhouses and condensation points for almost all of our weather. They separate us and bring us together. The very origin of life itself basks in pelagic profundity. Indeed, the ocean supplies the very concept of “profound.” The deeps. Although it had a beginning, it seems the world ocean will outlive our tribal little race. Damaged and poisoned by our greed, in eons it will recover. And those beings that survive will find their own wisdom beneath the waves.