Fly Away

Humans can be quite likable, but we have some nasty traits.  One is that we tend to think of ourselves as the only intelligent beings on the planet.  The funny thing about evolution is that it gave us both big brains and opposable thumbs—a winning combination to destroy the planet.  (Just look at Washington, DC and try to disagree.)  Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds is poignant in this context.  Page after page of nearly unbelievable displays of intelligence among birds demonstrates that we are hardly alone on the smarts scale.  Birds make and use tools, have better memories than most of us do, and can solve problems that I even have trouble following.  We tend to take birds for granted because they seem to flit everywhere, but the book ends soberly by noting how global warming is driving many species to extinction.

Homo sapiens (I’ll leave out the questionable and redundant second sapiens) like to think we’ve got it all figured out.  We tend to forget that we too evolved for our environment—we adapt well, which has allowed us to change our environment and adapt to it (again, opposable thumbs).  Many scientists therefore conclude that we are the most intelligent beings in existence.  Ironically they make such assertions when it’s clear that other species can perceive things we can’t.  Ackerman’s chapter on migration states what we well know—migrating birds can sense the earth’s magnetic field, something beyond the ability of humans.  We lack the correct organ or bulb or lobe to pick up that signal.  And yet we think we can rule out other forms of intelligence when we don’t even know all the forms of possible sensory input.  We could learn a lot from looking at birds, including a little humility.

The Genius of Birds explores several different kinds of intelligence.  What becomes clear is that birds, like people, have minds.  Like human beings they come on a scale of intellectual ability that doesn’t suggest only one kind is necessary.  For our large brains we can’t seem to get it through our thick skulls that we need biodiversity.  We need other species to fill other niches and our own remarkable ability to thrive has only been because we are part of a tremendous, interconnected net encompassing all of life.  Other species have contributed to our evolution as we clearly do to theirs.  When we end up thinking that we alone are smart and our own prosperity alone matters we are sawing away at the branch on which we sit.  Further up the birds look at us and wonder if we really know what we’re doing.

Dayglow

Yellow and orange leaves on a damp pavement.  A sky claustrophobically occluded with gray clouds.  A decided chill in the air.  All you have to do is add a few pumpkins and the feeling of October is complete.  I don’t know why this particular image of the change of seasons grips me the way it does.  As a homeowner I don’t want to turn the heat on too soon because the gas bills will jet up and will stay that way for seven or eight months.  I get depressed when skys are cloudy for days at a time.  Around here the leaves have only just begun to change.  In other words, there’s a decided difference between the way I imagine October and the way that it feels on the ground.  In my imagination there are Ray Bradbury titles, The October Country, The Autumn People, but here in the physical world I shiver and add another layer.

Over the past several weeks I’ve been struggling to figure out why horror appeals to me.  It seems to be the Poe-esque mood rather than any startles or gore.  The sense of mystery that hangs in the air when you simply don’t know what to expect.  Will it be a warm, summer-like day or will it be rainy and raw, a day when you wouldn’t venture outside without the necessity to do so?  October is like that.  It is changeable.  Beginning in late September it is dark longer than it is light and for much of the rest of the year I will go to bed when it’s dark outside.  It’s always still dark when I awake.  Is it any wonder that October has its hooks in me?

Short stories, of which I’ve had about twenty published, seem to be the best way to capture this mood.  You see, it isn’t a sustained feeling.  It’s piecemeal like that extra quilt you throw on your bed at night.  The urge to hibernate creeps in, but capitalism doesn’t allow for that.  October is an artist, and I’m just the guy wandering the galley, pausing before each painting.  This feeling only comes after summer, and it is fleeting.  In November the leaves will be down and the cold will settle in quite earnestly.  The candles we lit for Halloween will be our guide-lights to those we hold out to Christmas when the dayglow will begin to return at an hour that reminds us change is the only thing that’s permanent.  And in this there’s a profound hope.

Anthropocene

The word “Anthropocene” has been showing up quite a bit lately.  For a period of many years I was an avid, self-taught amateur geologist.  In my dreams I still am, I guess.  My interest in the ages of rocks began when I, like Charles Lyell, began to consider the implications of their extreme longevity.  The Bible, of course, famously intimates we live in a comparatively new neighborhood.  Having grown up believing that literally and firmly, and also having started a modest fossil collection, I failed to see the conflict.  I mean, there were fossils right down there by the river.  Tons of them.  Some Young Earth Creationists had already begun, by that point, to suggest they’d arisen because of Noah’s flood, but dinosaurs still seemed to be a problem.  In many ways rocks broke me out of my fundamentalist stupor.

While at Nashotah House I taught electives on Genesis 1-11.  I read about the geologic ages of the planet and would fall into Devonian dreams of a world entirely different from ours—a world in which there was no Bible for there were no humans to make God in their image.  I knew that we lived in the Quaternary Period of the Holocene Era.  I don’t think the term Anthropocene was in wide use then.  Parsing it is simple enough—it is the “human age.”  The age in which the planet was, has been, and is being altered by human behavior.   There’s no agreed-up start date for the Anthropocene, but it will likely be set in the twentieth century; the twentieth century in our way of counting.  There have been millions of centuries before that.

A couple of weekends back I attended a church program on plastics.  These useful polymers are deeply, deeply integrated into our lives and are promoted by the far too powerful petroleum industry.  The problem with plastics is that they break down and invade the bodies of animals and humans.  And although they do decompose it takes many centuries for them to do so.  Naming the Anthropocene is an effort to get us to see that a human perspective is far too brief to deal with the many issues we raise.  Our practices on this planet will likely not destroy the earth, but they may very well make it uninhabitable by us, or by creatures we like to see.  Life is persistent, and rock lasts for eons.  Even stone’s not eternal, however, and the idea of the Anthropocene is to get us to look at ourselves and realize that our use of this planet, as toxic as it is, is shortsighted.  We will someday be the fossils under a bridge long crumbled to dust for those in the future who know of no such thing as Genesis.  Perhaps we should act like it.

Burger Impossible

On the way home from Ithaca, we’ve learned the hard way to avoid I-80 through the Poconos on a holiday weekend.  Past experience indicates that about 80 percent of the population of New Jersey (to be fair, a percentage of that may be those from New York City) tries to squeeze through the Delaware Water Gap at just about dinner-time the day before work starts again.  There is a longer alternate route, I-476, the turnpike, which you catch north of Scranton and exit in Allentown.  The only issue with this plan is that, unless you want to exit the turnpike to try to find food in rural Pennsylvania, there’s only one travel plaza between our entrance and exit.  It’s a nice enough stopping point, but for a vegan on the road options are limited.  As we pulled in we noticed there was a Burger King.  Would they have the much touted “impossible burger”?

It turns out that they did.  Having last had a whopper well over two decades ago, mouth memory may have faded a bit, but I can honestly say this was like the whopper I remembered.  If you hold the cheese and mayo, you have a vegan version.  This discovery made me strangely happy.  For years at remote locations (and some urban) we’ve stopped when the only other options are meat based and had the BK veggie burger.  It’s not too bad most of the time, but if you want to think you’re eating meat while not contributing to the massive environmental degradation of industrial farming, the impossible burger seems like a reasonable option.  This is one area of technology that I’m glad seems to be catching up with ethics.

I often ponder how much our western point-of-view is based on the Bible.  Our reluctance to include animals in our ethics is another example of how the hard line between species has been applied.  Even scientists are susceptible to worldview bias.  When we realize we’re all part of a continuum of biological relatedness, it’s a lot more difficult to argue for our special place in the divine eye.  At the same time, insisting one’s ethics be applied to all is a form of fascism.  I’m just glad my conscience can be assuaged with some plant-based food options.  After all, I’ve been on the road for a few hours and I’m sitting here happy to be eating at Burger King.  It’s a matter of perspective.

Meatings

It was almost a little too real.  As I looked at the fake blood—this wasn’t a horror movie—I had a hard time accepting this wasn’t the real thing.  I mean Beyond Meat’s vegetable-based sausage.  My daughter recently sent me a captivating article about artificial meat.  Unlike many paeans to its virtues by fellow vegetarians and vegans, this was written by an omnivore who unabashedly stated that we’ve reached the point where synthetic meat has surpassed the real thing in flavor and the eating experience.  The piece on Outside made me glad.  Feedlots, apart from being the largest industrial polluters in this country, are a horror film based on a true story.  The way we treat “food animals” violates just about every ethical stance in the book, and it’s a big book.  We do it for profit, of course.  Now that artificial meat is turning a substantial profit, those who slaughter are starting to pay attention.

I recently ate at a local restaurant where our waiter recommended the cauliflower burger.  The thought wasn’t appealing.  Don’t get me wrong, I do like cauliflower.  I prefer it raw, however, since cooking brings out its more cruciferous qualities.  In any case, our server said, “It’s new on the menu.  We offered it once before and so many people requested it that we’ve made it a regular item.”  Now we don’t exactly live in a hippie haven here.  Still, enough people are asking for alternatives that we’re discovering it pretty easy to find plant-based protein in some pretty remarkable places.  It put me in mind of my most challenging course in college: biomedical ethics.

A class that asked, and then pressed on very sensitive questions, biomedical ethics required a term paper.  I wrote mine on animal testing.  This was back in the 1980s, and technology has moved on since then.  Even back in those dark ages of Reaganomics, artificial tissue was being lab grown, eliminating the need for animal testing on many products.  Now we’re reaching the point where the same may apply to comestibles.  I’ve long used vegetarian alternatives (now vegan ones) and they’ve increasingly improved.  When I had the most recent alternative, however, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t meat.  It was too real.  I’m not morally opposed to verisimilitude, I assure you.  The closer they get to the real thing, the better it is for the animals who’ll never need to be born to be killed by us.  It’s just I find the fake blood upsetting, and I’m happy to be reminded that this is only a simulacrum after all.

Whether or Weather

It was a self-inflicted double feature.  I’d been pondering movies about the weather.  Tons of movies have the weather in them, sometimes even as a significant plot element.  Few films, however, take the weather as their central thesis.  These movies verge on horror as the weather is something much larger than we are and which is deadly.  Let’s face it, a film about sunny skies and light breezes doesn’t have much of a hook.  I began by watching The Perfect Storm.  I’d seen it before, of course.  Not much like its book, which is nonfiction, it follows the loss of the sword boat Andrea Gail in the eponymous storm of 1991.  Not all members of the crew get a backstory, and since nobody knows what really happened, it was a chance for special effects to drive the story just as massive waves drive the boat.  The weather, while central, is seldom commented upon.  The characters are motivated by trying to make a living but there’s not enough time to give all six of them adequate stories.  Add to that another boat with no backstory and the movie become disjointed and smoky.

The next feature was The Day after Tomorrow.  Again, I’d seen it before, but you know how one thing leads to another.  Like The Perfect Storm, The Day after Tomorrow introduces more subplots than the movie can handle, even bringing a Russian freighter up Fifth Avenue in order to have a wolf-chase scene that is simply dropped after it’s discovered that wolves can’t climb ladders.  Still, the latter story has an environmental message.  Aware that human activity does lead to global warming, it tries to picture what would happen if it were speeded up into a matter of weeks rather than years.  No  matter how long it takes, the weather will get you.

As I’ve contended before, the sheer scope of the weather practically makes it divine.  Although we live in different climatic zones we’re all tied together under a single, volatile, powerful atmosphere.  Early humans realized that their survival depended on the weather.  Drought kills as readily as sudden ice ages.  The key, it seems, is balance.  Nature isn’t kind to species who assert too much dominance.  One of the means of nature’s control is the weather.  Until the development of meteorology, and even after its first tentative steps, the weather was considered a divine bailiwick.  We may proclaim it entirely natural, but it still commands its share of awe and majesty.  And it can easily claim a few weekend hours searching the skies for some kind of meaning.

A Decade

Please pardon my being sentimental, but today marks one decade of blogging on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.  I realized, thinking this over, that I used to make some interesting, perhaps even quotable statements back then.  Why not, I thought, farm those older posts to celebrate what I was thinking when I was a tenth-of-a-century younger?  So for today’s post, I’m presenting some quotable quotes from July 2009, starting with one of the zingers from my very first post.  For convenience, I’ve even provided the links to the posts so you can see them in context, if your July has somehow not filled itself up already.

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, by the way, was the name given when one of my nieces thrust a recorder in my face and asked me what I would call a blog, if I had one.  She subsequently set this site up for me.  One aspect of the title may not have been evident: it’s a quasi-anagram for my initials.  It has been, from the beginning, mostly metaphorical.  Without further ado, then, a few of my favorite lines from a decade long gone:

“He had a sidekick called Cypher (sold separately), and arch-enemies with such names as Primordious Drool and Wacky Protestor. I marveled at the missed opportunity here — they could have called them Text Critic and Doctor Mentary Hypothesis!” First post: Bible Guy, July 12, 2009. <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/12/bible-guy/>

“Technology has outstripped reality.” Asherah Begins, July 13, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/13/asherah-begins/>

“Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.”  God is Great (not)?, July 14, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/14/god-is-great-not/>

“When he [Aqhat] refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes.” Sects and Violence, July 15, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/15/sects-and-violence/>

“Indeed, one may think of them [religion and monsters] as fellow ventricles in the anatomy of fear.” Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost, July 16, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/16/vampires-mummies-and-the-holy-ghost/>

“Better to consider it [weather] human than to face unfeeling nature.” Changing Faces of the Divine, July 18, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/18/changing-faces-of-the-divine/>

“As the gods are drinking themselves senseless (how else can the latest Bush administration be explained?)…” Drunken Moonshine, July 20, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/20/drunken-moonshine/>

“As usual, we kill off what we don’t comprehend.” Not Lion, July 22, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/22/not-lion/>

“A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word ‘yes’ to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates!” Religious Origins, July 23, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/23/religious-origins/>

“I never used a computer regularly until I began my Ph.D., and then it was only a glorified typewriter, qwerty on steroids.” Who We Were, July 27, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/27/who-we-were/>

“I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.” Yes, Mammon, July 28, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/28/yes-mammon/>

Where do you suppose we’ll be a decade from now?