Steel Industry

It was a building on Broadway, just south of Times Square.  I don’t know the name of the building or remember what business it may have housed, but I did notice on my quick walks through Manhattan on my way to the bus that it was being renovated.  The facing had been removed and an exposed I-beam bore the words Bethlehem Steel.  From coast to coast, and even to ships at sea, Bethlehem Steel was a major supplier.  Today the factory is still.  There’s a poignancy about such giants falling.  The world as we know it was largely constructed from the products of the still impressive, rusting reminder of days of glory.  No doubt the air is healthier to breathe and the noise level much more suited to humanity, but standing here next to this behemoth it’s easy to fall into a reverie.

I grew up near heavy industry.  Nobody in my family was directly involved, but my hometown had a steel mill just across the river and my next hometown housed an oil refinery.  Both are closed now and the area has been in an economic depression that has lasted for decades.  Industry on this kind of scale requires workers willing to sacrifice much in order just to survive in an industrial world.  Over 500 workers died over the years at the Bethlehem Steel plant.  Factory life involved dangerous jobs with machinery containing material at over 3,000 degrees, and single pieces of equipment that could easily crush a person beyond recognition.  Workers were in some sense expendable as the collective, the nation, grew.  The factory never shut down, running all through the night, seven days a week.  The profits were enormous.  So were the costs.

Global warming was well underway as the greenhouse gases belched into the sky.  Bethlehem Steel wasn’t the only polluter, of course.  Heavy industry, industrial farming, individual cars—we seem to be determined to poison the air we breathe in order to make money.  If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that we’re all connected.  Rising prices and supply chain breakdowns have underscored that we all depend on each other worldwide.  Climate change has already assured that disruptions will continue and likely worsen.  There’s a kind of autumnal beauty in desolation.  These great steel stacks stand rusting and silent beneath a leaden but too warm sky.  Actions have consequences, and those that affect many create ripples that become waves.  We have created monsters but we can’t control them.


Like a Hurricane

Around here we welcomed September in with the remains of Hurricane Ida.  For the second summer in a row, far inland, we’ve sustained hurricane damage.  For storms like this it’s not so much a question of if there will be damage, but rather “how much?”  It was complicated by the paper wasps.  It’s like a 1970s natural disaster movie.  It starts at the end of August.

I was going out to put the recycling bin away (more on this later).  When I opened the garage door I was stung three times by a paper wasp (or maybe two)—twice on the face and once on a finger.  The previous day when I’d taken the bin out there hadn’t been a nest, but 24 hours later, angry waspids were protecting their territory.  I couldn’t even get the door closed.  We don’t have any bug-killing spray on hand since we believe in live and let live.  But I do need to get into the garage.  Due to my weekly schedule I couldn’t get to the hardware store before Friday.  Fine, let the Hymenoptera have the garage.

The next day—actually later that day—Ida began to arrive.  We’ve had extensive roof repairs since moving in here.  We’ve had two-thirds of it replaced entirely.  Then the rain started.  The plumber came before it got bad to replace a cast-iron radiator that we had moved so I could repair the drywall behind it.  While doing that I repaired the ceiling where water from ex-Hurricane Isaias leaked through.  The roofer had patched this part after Isaias, so we thought we were good.  By mid-afternoon there was water dripping from the ceiling again and the repairs I had made crumbled into the bucket set there to catch the water.  So it goes.  Outside the street was closed due to flooding.  I couldn’t get into the garage to check for damage because, you know, wasps guarded the only door (still open).

It used to be that weather was a neutral topic to discuss.  Of course, it’s become politicized now.  Having a climate-change denier in the White House for four years made the topic dangerous to raise.  This area used to never get hit too badly by hurricanes.  Global warming, however, has changed everything.  I got up the morning after wondering where to start.  It was still dark and a cricket had come inside to get out of the weather.  It chirped as I came down stairs.  Everything will be all right.

Our unofficial rain gauge

Starting September

The deep green of late summer has been starting to brown at the edges.  The process is a slow one, but it’s urged along by the Halloween decorations beginning to appear in the stores and the spooky offerings showing up in various media.  Our second pandemic summer is winding down.  Autumn has always been my favorite season.  I like summer’s relaxed attitude.  Even winter’s chill is something I anticipate.  But autumn is so visceral that it’s spiritual.  Autumn catches in my throat.  I sniff the air expectantly.  I know the ghosts and ghouls are on their way.  I won’t feel so strange for watching horror movies when the season demands it.  Already light is scarce before work in the morning.  In order to accommodate my daily constitutional I’ve had to shift to the streets of our town where there’s a bit of artificial light at 5:30 a.m.

September has crept up on us under the guise of several heat waves and hurricanes crossing the country.  The season of scares is about upon us.  I have to admit to feeling a thrill when seeing orange and black in stores and on front lawns.  Halloween lights have begun to appear on some front porches and the candy has begun to spill out in grocery stores for those who want to shop early.  Outside, even with the heat waves and hurricanes, early morning declares that fall is on its way.  As early as August, like a squirrel I begin to horde away my autumnal reading and viewing.  Books and movies to see me through to what seems like the home base of spring when shivers cease and light begins to grow again.  Every year I tell myself I’ll be ready this time.  Every year it stuns me in its wonder.

The transitional seasons, unfortunately, are most under threat from global warming.  The periods between the extremes of heat and cold get foreshortened, making them even more precious.  I have to believe Halloween is capitalism’s attempt to sell autumn.  It’s a season of feeling, of pure emotion.  I almost fear its coming since I know it can’t last for nearly long enough.  There’s a beauty to the decline, and my migratory instincts for the classroom kick in.  If only it could be so forever.  Summer’s heat underscores autumn’s relief.  There’s treasure hidden here, even if it’s only temporary.  September is finally here.  And with it comes hope.

Things to come

Belated Lughnasadh

We’re accustomed to think of summer as a “non-holiday” season beyond the bookends of Memorial and Labor Days, and the midsummer Independence Day.  Still, ancient people felt the turning of the year at the start of August with the festival of Lughnasadh.  I often forget it myself, although I’ve been feeling a tinge of autumn in the air this past week.  You can smell it at the very tip of your nose if you’re sensitive enough.  The cool of the pre-dawn air presages changes to come.  The wheel turns constantly.  Lughnasadh was actually Sunday (August 1).  Along with Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc, and Beltane (May Day), it divides the year into quarters (now called cross-quarter days since they fall roughly midway between the solstices and equinoxes).  It reminds us that summer is getting on; Lughnasadh was the festival of early harvest.

Lughnasadh was originally said to have been initiated by Lugh, one of the most prominent of Celtic deities.  Several European cities, such as Lyon, have names that likely derive from Lugh.  A warrior god renowned for his ability with crafts, he was also a savior god.  Although I’m no expert in Celtic mythology, it’s difficult to live in a Gaelic country for three years and not absorb some of the fascination for it.  Unlike Greek mythology, there aren’t large numbers of ancient literary pieces that tell the full story.  There are tales enough to know that Lugh was a major god of pre-Christian Europe and that as Christianity spread he was challenged by another savior god.

Although now rather obscure in much of the world, the Christian holiday of Lammas, or “Loaf Mass” was settled on August 1, likely to draw attention from Lughnasadh.  It too was a celebration of first fruits, for as reluctant as we are to let the light and warmth of summer go, plants are beginning to feel the onset of fall.  Lammas is a festival of communion—thus the loaf—and continues to be celebrated with local customs.  It includes the blessing of bakeries or of bringing bread to church to be blessed.  Lost in the modern rendition of summer, Lughnasadh or Lammas is barely recognized by most of us.  I’d never heard of it until I began researching holidays for a book I wrote that was never published.  Festivals that celebrate the changing seasons have an appeal to those of us isolated indoors behind screens all the time.  Perhaps it’s time to bring some summer holidays back. Lugh says yes.

Perhaps Lugh, via Wikimedia Commons

Weather rules

One of the observations that prompted me to write Weathering the Psalms concerned the disruptive nature of storms.  Power outages was pretty common in that part of southeast Wisconsin where we were living at the time.  Downed trees could block rural access—more limited than the alternate routes of cities—for hours.  There was clearly a sense of being at the mercy of nature and it was disruptive to the human schedules and lives we’ve constructed.  The tornado warning we had a couple of days ago reminded me of that aspect.  While radar saves lives by giving advanced warning, it also makes it difficult to concentrate on work when you’re told to take shelter.  As far as I’m aware HR doesn’t have a tornado policy.

Having lived in the Midwest for a decade and a half, I came to be aware of the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.  While my phone was showing a watch, another family member’s was showing a warning.  My evening plans were replaced by standing at the window looking west.  The worst of the storm passed us but as long as the weather was threatening there was little else we could do.  Eventually all devices agreed that this was a warning and we should take shelter.  The storm eventually passed, leaving my tightly packed plans for the day in tatters, even though our actual house was fine.  That’s the nature of the weather that makes it so interesting.  As much as we like to think we’re on top of it, we’re really all potential victims.

Weather is more powerful than humans.  We have to change our plans according to its whims.  And climate change is making it more extreme.  Even with the evidence all around us deniers still try to block legislation that takes steps to preserving our planet.  Those who wish to destroy it for theological reasons don’t stop to think that doing so is about as selfish as you can get—something that the Bible really doesn’t promote at all.  One thing about the weather: although it is very different from place to place, we’re all in it together.  It can be very disruptive, yes.  It reminds us that we and our human plans are temporary.  When we’ve managed to do ourselves in, or have abandoned this planet to find a more hospitable one we can ruin, the weather will remain.  Majestic storms will come and go, whether or not there’s anyone here to see and appreciate them.


EBW

Nashotah House was a strange place to begin (and end) a teaching career.  Not only did you see students every day, but as faculty you were required to eat and worship with them twice a day.  (You were grudgingly permitted to have supper at home, with family, if applicable.)  You got to know students, and sometimes their families, well.  I suppose that was the point.  We had a lot of students from Texas, and one year a student spouse said she cried all the way home when she found her first colored leaf on the ground.  Granted, Wisconsin winters could be cold.  Even here in balmy Pennsylvania we have to use the furnace from October through May, leaving only four months of the year without artificial heat.  And even September can get pretty chilly.  I was thinking about this student spouse when I started to see the walnut trees turning yellow in July.

Yes, each plant has its own rhythm.  Not all of them need all their leaves until October or November.  Walnuts, however, are an interesting species (or whatever the plural of species is).  The walnuts you eat are probably of the Persian or English walnut variety.  Here in the United States, the Eastern Black Walnut is perhaps the most common deciduous tree east of the Mississippi, but since the nuts are hard to crack they aren’t grown commercially.  Squirrels worship them.  The EBW (do I really have to type out Eastern Black Walnut again?) is famous for its use of allelopathic chemicals.  Some people say it poisons the soil, but more specifically, allelopathic plants distribute chemicals into the soil that favor the growth of “friendly” species and inhibit others.  Yes, plants are quite smart.  The EBW is also wise in its use of the squirrel.  These ubiquitous chewers disperse the nuts widely.  It isn’t uncommon for me to find one on my porch when I go out for my early morning constitutional.  

The air is beginning to feel cool once in a while in the early mornings.  Like the walnut trees and the squirrels, I think I’m at the very early stages of feeling autumn coming on.  We’re still many weeks away from the colors of fall, harvest, and Halloween, but the wheel of the year is still turning.  It never really holds still.  We have the languorous month of August ahead, with its long, warm days and summertime activities.  The walnuts stand as sentinels, however, reminding us that nature is ever restless and ever inclined to change.  I don’t weep to see the changing leaves, but I do marvel at how nature seems to plan ahead for autumn, even in the midst of summer.


Weathering the Sleep

Weather still has a tremendous, if incremental, effect on life.  Patterns where a repeating weather cycle seems stuck in place are a good example.  While not exactly uncommon in summer around here, thunderstorms develop during the hot and humid days.  Our current pattern is that thunderstorms arrive in the middle of the night.  For days in a row.  We had a few days in our current series.  Some of us can’t sleep through thunderstorms, not least because we have to get up and close the windows, pulling fans out, so that the water doesn’t invade.  This means several nights of interrupted sleep and rather unforgiving work schedules the next day.  Companies don’t often take this fact of the weather into consideration.  I’m not the only one yawning all day.

Of course, other things interrupt sleep as well.  Any parent of a newborn has those perpetually baggy eyes that we’ve come to associate with trying to get an infant to sleep through the night.  Work doesn’t smile on that kindly either.  Both of these (and many others) are very real human concerns regarding slumber.  HR, on the other hand, looks at the clock with a frown.  This sort of work ethic is particularly bad in America where work is a kind of sacred obligation (unless you’re a minor, rich, or retired).  You owe that time, no matter how sleepy you are or sloppily you may work because of it.  In my case it’s the weather that’s been causing my drowsy days.  I guess I shouldn’t have given up caffeine a few years back.

Weather, although it’s treated as a “neutral” subject, affects everything.  There are deniers, but climate change is real.  It’s measured across centuries and millennia, however, and our point of view spans only the few decades of our own lifetimes.  We come again and again to the myth that this planet was created for us rather than the more factual realization that we grew organically out of it.  Our civilization is complex and grows more so all the time, requiring less and less time in nature.  Nature isn’t predisposed to be nice to us, or to any species.  It’s a matter of balance.  So it is with the weather.  This massive atmosphere above us seeks to balance itself out but we’re making it hotter than it should be.  Many suppose that God will sort it all out, if, indeed, forcing a crisis won’t compel divine intervention.  I just hope the “man upstairs” has been getting enough sleep.


The Future of Consciousness

Consciousness is unexplained.  We’re born and we become aware.  Raised by parents or guardians, we learn where we belong.  The decisions of one generation affect the futures of the next, often without conscious consideration.  I’ve been thinking about how, with our limited resources, we’ve pressed on, reproducing beyond what our environment can sustain and each of us is born conscious.  Some of us—many, in fact—in difficult circumstances.  Instead of working together to figure this out, we keep on, not quite sure of what we’re doing or where we’re going.  Heath Ledger’s Joker may’ve been speaking for all of humanity when he asked, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?”  Do any of us?

During a discussion the other day the topic of the severe western drought came up.  There have been general drought conditions in the western half of the country (the northwestern coast has been spared) for well over half-a-century.  I wonder why the cities in such regions continue to expand and then I realize that each generation is a kind of reboot.  We tend to think we belong where we’re born.  My thoughts turn toward the ancestors of the first nations and how they knew that moving was necessary for life.  When the ice sheets start descending you really don’t have many options.  Perhaps our sense of place is an evolved trait, brought on by the changed circumstances of invaders’ senses of ownership.  Capitalism certainly doesn’t help.  Those born in drought-ravaged areas soon come to think of it as normal.  We can adjust to just about anything.

Settled existence is necessary for a life that defines meaning by ownership.  For me, I have a difficult time imagining my life without my books.  What we read tends to define us.  What would I do if the ice sheets began descending again?  Such change takes time, of course, but our complex society doesn’t seem to be very good at advanced planning.  My consciousness tells me where I belong geographically, psychologically, and even religiously.  I was taught such things as a child and even if I unlearn lessons that were wrong, I will always still feel that they were right.  If I flee the coming ice sheet I simply have to accept that my reality has changed.  Until that ice sheet’s at my back door, however, I can continue to deny it’s a problem.  Consciousness is a funny thing.


Ever-Changing Skies

The weather is something we like to think is trivial.  We’ve got more important things to do than worry about it.  Yet even our most important ways of dealing with life’s issues have to take the humble weather into account.  The fact that I was awoken by a thunderstorm at around 1:30, and, given my schedule, thus began my day, perhaps has something to do with it.  And perhaps so does a conversation I overheard on a trip to Ithaca.  Now, upstate New York isn’t known for its cooperative weather.  In fact, the alma mater of Binghamton University includes the phrase “ever-changing skies.”  I was in a public place and a conversation was being had between two men who were strangers to me.  My ears perked up when I realized they were discussing higher education.

This should surprise none of my regular readers.  Higher education has been the stand-offish lover in my life.  In any case, as one guy was explaining to the other, he worked at Cornell University—one of the Ivy League schools—and he opined that the reason it had trouble recruiting faculty was, well, the weather.  Now, I’m one to sometimes take weather personally.  (I’m still wondering what the point of last night’s thunderstorm was.  Anything that wakes me after midnight essentially personally ends my night’s sleep.)  In any case, being one of those under-employed academics I had to think about this.  I’d be glad for a university post—would I turn one down because of the weather?  Is meteorological preference really that strong?  Especially since in polite conversation the weather is considered the shallowest of topics.

Weather is vitally important.  Perhaps because of its ubiquity we tend to overlook it.  Think about rain on a wedding day.  Or a moving day.  In the latter case it can be more than inconvenient.  Sports events can be cancelled due to weather (baseball is especially prone to this).  Extreme weather (which is becoming more common) can shut everything down.  Is is just me, or does every thunderstorm now come with a “severe” warning attached?  Weather is more than just inconvenient; our lives depend upon it.  Thoughts not unrelated to these were in my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms.  I’ve only ever lived in rainy climates.  I realize many others aren’t nearly so lucky.  The drought in our western states is troubling.  Perhaps higher education might be able to rise above it?  Or will the most educated turn down jobs because of the inconvenience of ever-changing skies?


All Day Long

The summer solstice is always a bittersweet day.  The longest day of the year.  From now on the days will begin, almost imperceptibly at first, to get shorter.  The wheel begins its six-month roll toward the cold, dark days of winter.  Although the year whiplashes through these extremes in the temperate zones, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  The changes are slow right now.  In fact, the celebration of Midsummer doesn’t usually come until about the 24th.  These long, languorous days can be like that.  

I’ve been studying holidays for well over a decade by now.  Some have origins that are obvious, such as the solstices and equinoxes.  Although ancient peoples were quite capable of observing and marking these days, it seems their perceptions of the seasons were somewhat different than ours.  Midsummer, to us, is the official beginning of summer.  We all know, however, that we’ve had days that’ve felt like summer already.  They start to come, often in May.  “Meteorological summer” is actually June through August while “astronomical summer” begins today.  Our calendars are a matter of convention.  Not only that, but the motivation to mark special days began as a religious impulse.  Otherwise we’d have no particular reason to tell one day from another.

But think of the ancients again.  People were generally illiterate, and although the elites could mark and know the actual solstice, Midsummer marks what the weather feels like on the ground.  Seasons, in antiquity, were understood by what was happening on the ground.  For example, in Ireland February 1, the festival of Imbolc, was considered the start of spring.  Ewes were lambing and that was a sure sign winter was beginning to end.  With such and outlook, folk wisdom reckoned that summer began on May Day, or Beltane.  In such a perspective, the longest day marks midsummer.  Yes, the heat and humidity have really yet to set in, but the climate in Ireland and the British Isles is tempered by the Gulf Stream and doesn’t reach, say, Midwestern extremes.

Those of us raised in scientific worldviews have been taught from youth that summer begins today.  People haven’t always seen it that way.  Not everyone experiences the extremes of weather that temperate regions of the United States do.    In the northern hemisphere—for the global south experiences its shortest day of the year today—the days get no longer than this.  Wheels by their very nature spin.  Our round planet now gives us shorter days until the other extreme is reached.


Joyous Beltane

Every year around Beltane, I think of The Wicker Man.  Of course, the holiday itself, aka May Day, is no cause for alarm.  What makes the movie so effective—and I mean the original film, of course—is the fear of others’ religions.  My last two books have explored the nexus of horror and religion and The Wicker Man always stands out as an example of how naturally the two go together.  May Day, or Beltane, represents one of the cross-quarter days.  It falls roughly halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.  Days are noticeable longer now than they were back before the equinox, and Beltane, like many cross-quarter days, uses the symbolism of light to remind us of the seasonality of life.  While the light is here we should make use of it.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

Agricultural festivals—and many ancient holidays began as such—acknowledge the importance of the lives of animals pastoralists depended upon.  Imbolc, the start of spring, was marked by sheep beginning their lambing.  Beltane was the point at which cattle could be driven to pasture.  It stands opposite Samhain, the origin of our Halloween, with Lughnasadh falling between.  These holidays were often celebrated with bonfires (thus The Wicker Man), but fire was understood as protective rather than destructive.  Although the Celts seem to have originated in east-central Europe, they were pushed to the northern fringes of the British Isles by other invading peoples.  Their location in chillier climes suggests that fire may have also held a practical purpose.

May Day is celebrated throughout much of Europe as a day associated with fertility.  This, it seems, was a major cause of concern among Christian missionaries.  Fertility is, of course, a natural hope.  Agrarian peoples rely on it to survive.  Fire served to bless the animals and to keep away the mischief of the little people, or nature spirits.  Much of what we know of Beltane, as with other Celtic holidays, has to be reconstructed since the Celts didn’t leave a scholarly archive that could be farmed for information.  Indeed, prior to widespread literacy what would’ve been the point of writing down what the folk already knew?  It was obvious that summer was on the way.  Even in years when the temperatures struggle to warm consistently, there are hints that “the light-soaked days are coming.”  The bonfires of Beltane represent the warmth and light that are on their way.  And what religion could object to that?


Being Equal Again

Things creep up on you.  Like the equinox.  It really should be a holiday, but then again today’s already Saturday.  And from today, for the next six months, there will be more light than darkness.  It was an occasion ancient cultures marked and celebrated.  For us, unless it happens to fall near Easter (it’s still a couple weeks away this year), it’s an item in the news feed and nothing more.  It is, however, an opportunity to celebrate our place in nature.  The temperatures are beginning to warm just a bit around here, despite the flecks of snow in the air just three days ago.  The more tenacious of the spring perennials have already begun to shine green.  Things have begun to come back to life.  That’s why Easter is always in the spring.

Today it will be light as much as it is dark.  Balance.  Our old wobbly earth strikes this metaphorical fulcrum twice a year, giving us a glimpse of what lies ahead.  Birds, those great prognosticators, have been showing up to let us know things are about to change.  Finches, robins, starlings, and mourning doves have been conspicuous the last few days.  Even as the dirty, icy snow piles continue to hold on in their private mountains, they too seem to know time has come to be moving on.  Change is the way of nature.  This just happens to be the half of the year when we can see what we’re doing.  At this great balancing point of the year we should take the opportunity to ask if we like where we’re heading.  Do we welcome the light?

Soon enough we’ll begin to take it for granted.  Life will continue its busy ways even as we tell ourselves summer is the time for vacations.  Perhaps so.  But let’s linger in this moment.  Take a few minutes to ponder what it means to be in balance.  Equality.  It feels like something worth celebrating.  Corporate American parsimoniously counts days that might be considered grudging respites from trying to cop a profit.  Although we’re given Christmas off it can’t abide that moving target called Easter, which always comes on a Sunday anyway.  Here in that calendrical holiday barren zone between Presidents’ and Memorial days, we’ll always find spring, if we look for it.  It’s evident in the changing of the light, even if there’s still a chill in the air.  Even as our bosses ignore it, the red buds begin to appear on the trees.


Winter Waiting

The waiting, as Tom Petty knew, is the hardest part.  Along the slow turning of the wheel of the year it’s now light enough to go jogging before work.  That won’t last, however, because Daylight Saving Time is imminent and will set us back a month in the illumination department.  Also I haven’t been able to jog because the massive snowstorm we had a couple weeks back dumped over two feet of snow on the jogging trail and it hasn’t melted yet.  I miss it.  The jogging, I mean.  I’ve become one of those people who never the leave the house and I see how difficult it is just waiting.  Waiting for the snow to melt.  Waiting for the vaccine.  Waiting for the light.

I’m no psychologist, but I have to wonder if that isn’t one of the greatest stresses faced by the many stir-crazy people who’ve been shut-ins for pretty much a year now.  For us this snowstorm took away the little mobility we had.  Getting out daily for a constitutional put me in touch with nature, at least.  Now nature is under a thick, crusty white blanket, slumbering away.  But the birds have begun to return.  With their avian wisdom they’ve seen the end of winter.  Suddenly this past Wednesday they were here, bringing hope in their wings.  Birds have long been symbols of freedom—we’ve got a couple bald eagles in the neighborhood, reminding me of that.  A far more ancient association was that between the bird and the human soul.  The ability to soar.

We may still be mired in winter, but time is inexorable.  Relentless.  As the globe wobbles recklessly back toward the warmer seasons we need to take responsibility for our part in global warming.  Ironically these freak storms are the result of an overall warming trend.  The weakening of the jet stream that allows cold northern air to drop snow in Texas and storms to cover much of the rest of us all at the same time.  The pandemic has helped clear the air a bit.  At least we’ve rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, and we’ll try to begin undoing the damage to our planet that the last four years introduced.  It will take some time, of course.  By now we should be experts in biding our time.  The snow will melt.  The light will continue to grow.  I will get back out on that jogging path again.  But for now we wait.


Critical Snow

No two snowflakes, I’ve always been told, are the same.  Far be it from me to question the collective wisdom of our species, but I wonder how this fact is ever confirmed.  I suppose I’ve personally swallowed a good deal of the evidence over time.  Snowflakes melt and we can’t get them all under the microscope, can we?  This year has been a winter of more than usual snow around here.  During our most recent storm I stared out the window and tried to count.  Billions of snowflakes collected in my yard alone, and no microscope-bearing statistician was anywhere to be seen.  I like the idea of each flake being unique, but I know it’s a theory impossible to falsify, and I wonder if it’s accurate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about critical thinking.  At its base, critical thinking is about asking questions and learning reputable places to find answers.  Not “fake news” or “alternative facts”—these are tools in the Devil’s workbox—but evidence-based information.  Primary education, it seems, is about learning to read, and write, and handle numbers.  It is about learning who we are  and who we’ve been.  About the way that science helps us understand this old world.  Higher education, as it’s generally conceived, used to be about learning critical thinking.  That was before colleges became mere trade schools, catering mainly to careers with high earning potential so that alumni would give more money back to the college.  Where will we learn critical thinking?  No two are the same, right?

Instead, knowledge and hearsay become very similar things.  I used to tell my students not to take my word for it.  Just because I can legitimately put the word “doctor” in front of my name doesn’t mean I know everything.  Yes, I am an expert but even experts aren’t exempt from the test.  So, as more snow starts to fall, I think about all the many, many places I’ve heard that no two flakes are the same.  I think of the astronomical number of snowflakes that have fallen this year alone.  The number of years before we ever evolved on this planet.  In ice ages and even during human-initiated global warming.  And I realize nobody’s done the actual work of comparing every single snowflake to every other one.  Tradition is like that accumulating snow, building on past layers until great glaciers form.  And who, I wonder, would argue with a glacier?


One Day or Another

Although normally a time for celebration, Mardi Gras, I’m told, was subdued this year.  Today is Ash Wednesday but many of us feel like we’ve been living a year of Lent already.  I once told a fellow office worker on Ash Wednesday, “I think about death every day, I don’t need a yearly reminder.”  Looking out at the old snow, melting, freezing, refreshed with occasional flurries, I’m reminded of the cycles of nature.  I’ve been watching the turn of the year’s wheel.  Over the solstice I looked into Yule, and just a few days ago considered Imbolc.  The wheel of the year is a symbol for modern earth-based religions seeking to be kept in sync with nature.  It is a cycle, slowly turning.  Death, in this way of thinking, is part of a larger system.  It seems appropriate to consider it this Ash Wednesday.

I say it’s Ash Wednesday but it would be more correct to say “for many Christians it’s Ash Wednesday.”  Cultural imperialism is difficult to shake.  With the pandemic still embracing us tight we haven’t had much reprieve from thoughts of death these many months.  Thinking of the wheel of the year, however, may bring hope.  A wheel in motion spins around to a new beginning that, in the nature of circles, is equally at every point.  New beginnings are offered every day.  While we’ve never been in a year of isolation before, there is nothing that hasn’t been before.  Self-aggrandizing dictators, world-wide pandemics, calls for social justice and fairness, have all come around before this.  They may come around again.  The main thing is to keep it moving.

It moves, in fact, without us.  One of our human foibles is being species-centric.  When we discuss, in a pique of teenage angst, of “destroying life on earth” we really mean destroying humankind and perhaps many other species as well.  Not all.  With a kind of collective insanity we go about warring against our own kind, exploiting all other species we deem valuable, and talk as if that’s all that matters.  Today, for some, it is Ash Wednesday.  For others it is World Human Spirit Day.  For many of us it’s just another workday among many very similar, cut from the fabric of a year that has no even spokes to keep it rolling.  Beneath our feet this orb spins on, regardless.  The cycles continue, with or without us.  How wonderful it would be if we could actively contribute to their progress.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash