So, I’m packing. Have been, on and off, since January. One of the most dreaded moments of packing is the closets. You know how in horror movies the villain often hides in closets? We have no danger of that. Any monster foolish enough to try it would be suffocated under tons of stuff. Some houses may have walk-in closets, but I am inclined to call a mining company whenever I need to find anything in ours. Our closets have led full lives. It’s almost 100 degrees outside and I’m excavating. We’re at that stage of “absolutely need to keep?” instead of “do we want this?” Then I came upon it. The layer of SBL tote bags. Like a paleontologist of ancient academia.
If you’ve been a member of the Society of Biblical Literature you know what I mean. Every year the Society wants you to realize value for your money, and they give you a tote-bag to help you haul home the books you’re going to buy. Long-time attendees know to pack an empty suitcase inside their regular one just to accommodate the books. (That could also account for about ninety percent of my packing—we have more books than a small town public library.) But it’s not the books that are the problem today, it’s the bags. I’ve been attending SBL since 1991. Do the math. I seem to recall that they didn’t do tote bags back in Kansas City, but soon after they became part of the agenda. And I have an impressive pile of them in my closet.
Too small for groceries—especially in the early editions, back when we could meet in smaller venues—and too impractical for anything other than books, they multiply in our closets. What professor doesn’t have his or her iconic briefcase already? Reduce, reuse, recycle they say. At least half of my totes have never been reused. Zippers? Who thought of that? Pulling handfuls out of the closet, I marvel at their colors. I can’t remember everyone walking around with a red bag—what year was that? (San Francisco, 2011.) The black leather edition—remember that one? (SBL, n.d.) The bags aren’t really useful for packing, on a movers’ scale. You can imagine the burly guys outside their truck scratching their heads at this impractical conveyance. Like so much else in life they’ve become mere souvenirs. From the French word for something like “remembrance,” souvenirs are meant to take us back to the place in vivid detail. I fear that many past meetings have run together into a blend of biblical arcana. I’m sure that’s just me. Still, I’m responsible for this new discovery. I’d I’ll need shortly to decide whether these totes go into the museum or back into the landfill that moving inevitably creates in a throw-away world.
Posted in Posts, Just for Fun, Bible, Books, Memoirs, Environment
Tagged Society of Biblical Literature, Books, recycling, San Francisco, Kansas City, Environment, moving, SBL
The details escape me. I was a student at Grove City College, working on a paper. In the library I ran across an article about a rain of fish. Always interested in the unusual, I was surprised to see such a piece in a reputable journal, and up until that time I’d never heard of Charles Fort or his gathering of such accounts from around the world. That paper was in my mind when I picked up It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes by Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff at a used bookstore. Subtitled Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky, it was published by the mainstream Harper, so I figured it wasn’t too far afield from reality. It turned out to be more the subtitle than the title, but an engaging read nevertheless.
There is a small section on rains of fish and other strange objects, but the book is really a tribute to the sky. Although I’m not an anthropologist, I have long been intrigued by the fact that people everywhere associate the sky with the divine. From the human perspective, it’s massive and all-encompassing. No matter where you stand on this planet, the sky extended over you, engulfing the horizon and implying even more beyond. It is responsible for our weather, and without the buffering of our atmosphere no life would’ve evolved on the earth at all (and that would be a pity because I enjoy writing this blog). Perhaps even before there were humans proper, our ancestors thought there was something divine about the sky.
While the firmament can’t be contained in a book, this one tries to consider just about everything you might find in the celestial realm. From extremes of weather to meteors to strange things falling from the sky, it tells of rain and snow and sunshine, insects, bats, and birds. The four seasons don’t really function as the best conceit for the book, since the sky is eternal and many of the aspects discussed are present all year long—the moon is with us always and the sun rises and sets even in winter. Nevertheless, this strange and alluring book demonstrates how the sky makes us what we are. Even though it was written in the last century it warns of global warming—then merely an idea—and shows how humans are capable of destroying that which gives them life. That article back in college suggested that the impossible happens, and that, given how the world is going, causes me to look upward with wonder.
Posted in Astronomy, Books, Current Events, Environment, Posts, Religious Origins, Weather
Tagged Charles Fort, Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky, Glenn Wolff, global warming, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes, Jerry Dennis
I was a science nerd as a kid. Well, at least I had a real soft spot for charismatic megafauna, but who doesn’t? We had those cheap, plastic figurines of dinosaurs that we incongruously mixed with our mammoths and cavemen—wait, no. We weren’t allowed cavemen because people didn’t evolve. Nevertheless, we didn’t see any problem putting glyptotherium in combat with t-rex. Pleistocene or Triassic didn’t matter—they weren’t here now. Extinction is the great equalizer. One of the figurines that always intrigued me was the giant ground sloth. I mean, here was a creature bigger than it needed to be. Not hurting anybody, it just wanted to eat leaves and laze around. A lifestyle that sounds attractive to this day.
Photo credit: Postdlf, from Wikimedia Commons
Human beings, in a process that is still continuing, wiped out animals bigger than themselves. The story is poignantly told in footprints discovered in White Sands National Monument. A Washington Post piece by Ben Guarino tells how paleontologists discovered a human footprint embedded in that of a giant sloth. Reading the story I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the very last one in existence. What if we’d uncovered the story of extinction in real time? Sloths, apart from being named after a mortal sin, never harmed anybody unprovoked. Simple vegetarians—principally vegans, apart from the occasional accidental bug, actually—they were the ultimate victims of human greed. It is virtually certain that we drove them extinct just like we did the dodo and the fiscally conservative Republican. Not exactly fast food, sloths couldn’t really outrun us, and like good Trumpists, we took advantage of their weakness to our own gain.
Or loss. There are no giant sloths left. We’ll never thrill to the sight of a living eucladoceros, or wonder at chalicotheres roaming the savanna. We’ll never run for our lives from an African bear otter (the mind reels). Our world becomes poorer for our presence, it seems. We moved from huddling in fear in our caves out to take on the beasts with our technology. Once we cottoned onto the concept, we refined it until we could drop an elephant with the single pull of a trigger. Our destruction of megafauna continues at an alarming and accelerating rate. Evolution does have quite an imagination, after all. Like human beings, it can take sins and make them larger than life. And “thou shalt not kill,” we say, applies only to our species.
Posted in Animals, Archaeology, Current Events, Environment, Evolution, Posts, Science
Tagged Ben Guarino, extinction, giant sloth, ground sloth, The Washington Post, White Sands National Monument
I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell you there may be spoilers below. The book to which I alluded last week—the one made into a movie—was Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. I first saw the book in a Green store in Ithaca, New York. I figured it must have a planet-friendly message if it were being sold at such a venue. I’ve finally had time to read it. There may be spoilers, so if you plan to see the movie, be warned.
Set in a kind of edenic dystopia not far from now, the novel gives none of its characters names. The narrator is the biologist of a four-member team sent into Area X—a region in the south from which no expedition has returned. Clearly intended to be part of a series, the novel does leave quite a few things hanging. Among the many unanswered questions is what has happened here. One of the problems with having Bible-radar is that you can’t overlook references to the Good Book. Without going into too much detail, the story has mysterious writing on the wall. That itself is a biblical trope, of course, but when the biologist discovers notebooks from previous expeditions, she considers that the writing is like something from the Old Testament. This description made me pause and ponder. The Hebrew Bible has, in the popular imagination, been cast in the role of a harbinger of doom and gloom. Granted, there are many passages that have earned that reputation, but on the whole it’s a very mixed bag. Still, in popular culture “Old Testament” means things are going wrong.
While not a horror novel, there are elements of horror here. People transforming into plants and animals, sloughing human skin. And resurrection—how New Testament! This made me think that maybe a penchant for horror isn’t such a strange thing for a guy who spent a decade and a half teaching the Hebrew Bible. My motivation for going in that direction had more to do with my interest in origins, but nevertheless, I also grew up watching monster movies. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, I was bringing the two together in this field of study. It’s difficult to tell at the end of book one what the overall message will be. But since I’m discussing the Hebrew Bible maybe I’ll take a stab at prophecy and predict that the second book of the series will be in my future. And I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.
Posted in Bible, Books, Environment, Literature, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged Annihilation, environmentalism, horror, hypocrisy, Ithaca, Jeff Vandermeer, Old Testament