Category Archives: Environment

Getting Dirty

Composting is a very biblical activity.  Adam, according to the second creation account in Genesis, was formed from the divinely created dirt.  Some scholars try to capture the word-play in that story by suggesting “human” was made from “humus,” but since that sounds like chickpea dip it may not help so much after all.  Besides, we now know that soil has a complex and fascinating history.  Erosion grinds up rocks.  Organic matter dies and decays, forming the loosely packed substrate in which plants can survive, slowly breaking up the more dense pieces through the transformative power of water.  It is, imprecisely speaking, a miracle.  When Adam drops dead, he becomes once more part of the soil from which he was formed.  It’s poetic.  Elegant.  Economical.

Now that we have a house we’ve decided to try our hand at composting.  We’d considered it many times over the years since, what with recycling and hoarding, we’d managed to get our weekly garbage down to one fairly small bag.  Besides, since our government won’t be nice to the planet, somebody has to.  Institutional people that we are, my wife and I had to read up on composting before giving this very natural decomposition a try.  Things have to be just so for the process to work perfectly.  It was in the process of this reading that the biblical aspect became clear to me.  

The trick is to make sure the neighbors don’t complain about the smell.  That, in part, determines what can or can’t go into the compost bin.  Meat and dairy can’t go into the mix.  Since I’m primarily vegan such things aren’t generally here to be disposed of in any case.  Even the drier lint can go there, for the clothes that we wear become part of who we are, right Henry David?  And here’s where there’s a danger of TMI, although it’s good theology—cast-offs from our selves can also be composted.  Hair, for example.  The composting literature we have seems to take Adam himself out of the equation by specifying pet hair, but hey, mammals are mammals.  The longer I thought about this, the more obvious it was that burial, ideally, is a form of composting.  Giving back to the earth from which we’ve sprung.  That simple wire bin out by the garage is in the process of making the substrate for new life.  We may not be farmers, or gardeners like Adam, but composting feels like giving back somehow.  It’s an act of creation.

IAGY?

Here’s how messed up “America first” is.  As we’re forced to try to protect ourselves from a drunken, sexually abusive Supreme Court nominee, Indonesia is trying to recover from an earthquake and tsunami that have killed at least 1,400 people.  Of course, it’s “America first.”  The powers that be want us to buy their narrative that we only are important, the chosen ones.  You don’t even have to be non-American to be excluded.  Just ask the people of Puerto Rico.  No, it is far more important to railroad through an anti-abortion judge so we can cause misery to countless numbers of people in America first.  Natural disasters strike even here (Florence), and we can only glance away a moment from the constant drama being roiled in that ever bubbling swamp.  I thought it was supposed to be drained by now.  They did find some slimy choices for high offices, in any case.

This new form of Manifest Destiny is as bad as the old one was.  People are suffering from a terrible tragedy and our lips are chapped from calling our senators to try to get them not to vote for someone a vast majority of normal citizens find highly objectionable.  The Republican abuse of power is only overshadowed by its abuse of women.  When even Kellyanne Conway speaks out stating that we need to listen to the victims, it’s clear something is amiss.  How slowly they awaken, these creatures of the swamp.  “America first” looked like a party game for a while, but now that its true and ugly agenda is being shown those who climbed aboard that bus aren’t quite sure how to signal that they want off.

What of Indonesia?  What of a president who can’t even point to it on a map?  It’s not here, so it’s not our problem.  Nice drunken frat boys who feel up women are the best we can offer for the highest court in the land.  Elsewhere in the world they’re trying to address the global warming that is causing more and more extreme weather.  We can charge tariffs and still call ourselves Republican.  If we can’t start actual wars we’ll start trade wars.  You can’t be great until others bow before you, even if they’re bowed in grief for a natural disaster that claimed hundreds of lives.  We’ll make America first even if we have to fall into last place to do it.

Somebody Else’s Heaven

Ailanthus is known as the “tree of heaven.”  It’s an introduced species in North America and, like many such species, it outcompetes its rivals.  The tree of heaven isn’t bad to look at—in fact its handsome appearance was one of the reasons it was brought to these shores.  Heaven isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, however.  The tree is aggressive and resilient, and difficult to eradicate.  Among the many unexpected “gifts” the former owners of our house left us was a back yard full of ailanthus trees.  At first I thought they were pleasant but then I had to remove a small one.  The smell almost knocked me off my feet.  I then learned that the Chinese name for it translates to “foul smelling tree.”  Whose version of heaven is this?

Over the weekend I spent some time lopping off trees of heaven.  Mosquitoes, I found out, love its shade.  It keeps the kinds of friends you might expect.  Heaven is, after all, a construct.  The word can refer to either the great dome of the sky in which the ancients believed deities dwelled, or the realm of blessedness to which the righteous go after death.  In either case, it was assumed to be a pleasant place.  Any trees there (and there are some according to the Good Book) would likely have a pleasing fragrance.  The ironically named version we get down here didn’t get the memo, it seems.  As best as I can determine, the name of the tree refers to its rapid growth, as if it’s grasping for the sky.

A problem with our own species is that we seem to think we know more about this world than we do.  We introduce species from other parts of the planet without considering how they impact the local environment.  In the case of a property with lazy former owners, it can translate to a real problem with heaven trees.  We’re often taken in by the innocence of names.  The first time I saw a tree of heaven, in a public park in New Jersey, I thought I should write a blog post about it.  It took being invaded by heaven, however, to make it seem relevant.  Heaven is a foreign nation, it seems.  It should smell nice and be open to people of all nations and creeds.  According to Revelation the trees up there bear fruit every month of the year.  Presumably in heaven someone else has to take care of the yard work.

August Mornings

It’s August and I’m already starting to feel haunted.  While science may declare it nonsense, there’s a feeling in the air—particularly in the early morning—that tells us the seasons are changing.  While it may be different for everyone, for me it begins in the tip of my nose.  I can smell the change coming.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t have more hot days—a long string of them yet awaits—but the shift has begun.  Autumn is perhaps the season closest to the soul.  While I like all seasons for what they represent, fall has always put me in mind of melancholy rapture.  It’s a difficult concept to explain,  a kind of blissful evisceration.  A hitching of the breath in my lungs.  A sudden rush of joy followed by sadness.  The ease of summer living is ending.

Summer is the growth season when we look out and see the promise of provisions that will see us through long months of cold and chill.  The times we huddle down only to be blinded by the arctic beauty of the sun on a snow-covered day.  The indoors time.  Summer is when we can dash outside without a coat, giving no thought to whether we will be warm enough.  The scent of autumn is a slight chill.  It reminds me that while the crops have been growing, the monsters have too.  There’s a reason horror films are released in the fall.  I’m not the only one who knows they are coming.

Late summer is a liminal time.  While the calendar may tell us summer lasts until the autumnal equinox, traditional cultures marked time in a different way.  Equinoxes and solstices were closer to the middle of a season than its start.  Most years we begin to feel summer in May, or even April.  Winter cuts through November, and the thaw may begin as early as February.  When I step outside just after sunrise and breathe deeply, I can feel the monsters coming.  In a way I can’t explain, their lurking fills me with a frisson of anticipation.  Already the days are noticeably shorter.  Daylight itself seems to be fleeing before the ethereal chill that is still available in our rapidly warming world.  The seasons are all about feelings.  Emotions suffuse the changes of weather and human habits that accommodate to it.  There are shivers and then there are shivers that the creatures of autumn bring.  They’ve already begun to gather.

Animal Rains

We may have been to the moon—if not personally, collectively—but we still don’t control the weather down here.  It’s probably not news that the eastern part of the country has been getting a lot of rain lately.  One of the factors that led me to write Weathering the Psalms was the overwhelming tendency for humans to attribute weather to the divine.  It used to be that we couldn’t reach the sky, so placing deities there seemed a safe bet.  Now that we’ve shot through the thin membrane of atmosphere that swaddles our planet, we’ve discovered beyond a cold, dark space liberally sprinkled with stars and planets but mostly full of dark matter.  The deity we thought lived beyond the sky somehow wasn’t anywhere our probes flew and recorded.

Still, down here on the surface, we live with the realities of weather and still think of it in terms of punishment and pleasure.  When we don’t get enough rain, God is destroying us with drought.  Too much rain, and the Almighty is washing us away with flood.  The true variable in all of this is, obviously, human perception.  Sure, animals experience the weather too, and they sometimes look to be as disgusted as humans when it snows too early or too late, or when the rain just won’t stop.  I have to wonder if somewhere in their animals brains there’s the seed of an idea that the bird, or squirrel, or woodchuck in the sky is angry at them for some unspecified faunal sin.

While heading to the store yesterday, after weather reports assured us the rain was finally over for the day, the skies told a different story.  The vistas around here are never what they were in the midwest—or what they are in Big Sky country—but the approaching storm was pretty obvious.  An opaque drapery of precipitation was coming our way and although a rainbow would cheekily show up afterward, knowing that we’d been caught away from home with our windows open felt like punishment for something.  Perhaps the hubris of buying a house when all I really require is a corner in which to write.  Somewhere in my reptilian brain I translated a natural event into a supernatural one.  When we got home to discover the storm had gone north of us, it felt like redemption.  I spied the birds sheltering in shadows from the sun’s heat.  Were they thinking it was some kind of divine avian displeasure, and hoping for some rain to cool things off for a bit?  If so, was our religion correct, or was theirs?

Hidden Origins

This blog was born at the very lake I’m about to leave.  Although it’s relaxing, there’s an element of chaos to a family vacation that stirs up creativity.  Tomorrow’s long day of travel back east, however, will mean another day without a post.  Flights leave so early that you barely have time to slither out of bed to the shuttle, and the airport hotspots want your money to connect.  I’d rather maintain radio silence for a day.  That doesn’t mean I won’t keep my eyes open for religion hidden in the interstices of American life.  Since religion and mythology share sleeping quarters, I’m reminded of something I saw up here in the northwest the other day.  While in a local grocery and souvenir shop (for all groceries in this area carry souvenirs) I saw sasquatch dolls.

Such cryptids are unknown to science, of course.  Even if they really exist, their liminal status now places them firmly in the realms of mythology.  Being in the wilderness can be an uncanny experience.  Long accustomed to dwelling in cities and towns, we feel vulnerable out in the open.  Taking walks in the woods might just put you in the path of black bears, grizzlies, or mountain lions.  Who knows what else might be hiding in these woods?  It’s easy to believe in our myths here.  Vacation, in addition to being the ultimate reality, counts as time borrowed against work and its punishing rationality.  Religion thrives in the quiet moments when you’re not sure what might be hiding just out of view.

Did ancient people devise belief in such circumstances as this?  (Well, without the wifi and indoor plumbing, of course.)  It’s not hard to feel the spirit of the lake.  Standing chest-deep in the water, being rolled by the waves, there’s a kind of secular baptism taking place.  In the quiet unearthly voices can be heard.  No television or newspaper tells you that it can’t be happening.  Listening is much easier with no distractions.  These woods are vast.  Human access to them is limited to marked and maintained trails.  Beyond these borders, who knows?  Science comforts us with the assurance that there are no monsters out there.  Standing isolated from any other human beings, surrounded by ancient trees, you might begin to wonder if such assurance is as certain as it sounds.  The sasquatches are children’s toys, and the sense of the numinous you feel can, like all extraordinary things, be explained away.

Lions, Bears, and Caribou

The place I’ve been spending this week is the habitat of grizzly bears, caribou, and mountain lions, none of which I’ve ever seen here.  Two of these species view us as potential, if troublesome, prey.  In actuality, even here in the wilderness we’ve made the human presence felt and wildlife sightings are somewhat rare.  I saw more deer in New Jersey than I’ve ever seen here.  Kind of makes you wonder about the human reputation among other creatures.  We like to look at them in zoos, but we don’t see them in their natural surroundings.  I like to think that it’s because they have so much space out here to wander—we see plenty of evidence of moose, for example, without an antler or dewlap making an appearance.

The environment, as created in our won image, has become somewhat sterile.  Kind of the angry, old white man’s view of government.  One color is all you need.  Variety is too challenging, and threatening.  We’ve driven the wolves to extinction around here, so you won’t see any of those.  Won’t hear their plaintive howls on a moonlit night.  You’ll see motorboats aplenty, and cars with fancy technology, and airplanes buzzing overhead.  This will have to do for wilderness, since other places are fast developing into surveillance states to protect the rich men’s money.  Wilderness means nothing to such people, unless it can be exploited for personal gain.  The thing is, once it’s gone for them, it’s gone for us all.  I found a sardine tin shining like silver in the silt on the bottom of our lake.  Our fingerprints are everywhere.

The problem isn’t new.  Even some monks in late antiquity found that when they headed into the desert for heroic feats of spirituality, they were followed by the curious.  Crowds would sometimes gather to watch them being holy.  Would that break a saint’s concentration?  Do I even need to ask?  The forest service asks us to stay on the trails.  The trails are well trod.  Out of sight, but never far from mind are the bears and cougars.  We’ve driven them out of our path and then congratulate ourselves on becoming the top predators.  Once the beasts are gone we turn our instincts on our fellow humans.  To flush them out into the open we must tame their wildness. And when it’s all gone the only rule will be, in this distorted vision, that of rich white men.  An angry grizzly bear would be far more congenial.