From Above

You can see a lot from 35,000 feet.  Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” comes back to me, although I’d never make so bold as to associate myself with Horus.  As I’m preparing for my return flight, I wonder what I might see.  Not much, I expect, since all the window seats were taken and I’ll be sitting in the middle section.  I like to see where I’m going.  On the way over, for example, about three hours into the flight, we were over the Grand Banks.  I’d just finished Brian Fagan’s Fishing, and the Grand Banks were on my mind.  The last land I saw was Cape Cod, although from the monitor I knew we’d passed near Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.   In other words, there was nothing but the north Atlantic beneath us.  We were hundreds of miles from land.  Then I saw it.

Was that an oil platform all the way out here?  I didn’t have enough time to wake my napping phone for a picture, but there was clearly a large platform and a nearby tanker.  Later I checked and, sure enough, Hibernia, the world’s largest oil platform is smack-dab in the middle of the Grand Banks.  A number of thoughts occurred.  We’d been flying for hours, and a platform this far out would make a great setting for a horror story.  (Okay, so my thoughts move in predictable directions sometimes.)  Another thought was this: why are we so dependent on petroleum that we’re all the way out here drilling for a polluting, non-renewable resource?  Is it not for profit margin alone?  This was an epiphany for me.

I still carry a little cautious hope around in a hidden pocket that there might be some places left for humanity to explore, but not exploit.  Fagan mentioned in his book that we’d trawled much of the ocean floor.  Although I admiring the engineering that could plant a platform in the stormy Atlantic, I still can’t help but feel a little bit let down that we’ve driven yet another stake into the unexplored world.  We really know so little about the oceans (apart from the fact that many creatures that live there can be eaten and otherwise exploited).  Our lack of scientific knowledge is addressed by great wells drilled down to draw out pollutants to grease the wheels of capitalism.  Yes, I was using fossil fuel in flying.  I’d be happy with solar-powered planes, if they existed (they’re above the clouds much of the time, so it would seem worth dreaming about).  In the meantime, however, the earth just keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Even from 35,000 feet.

Banned Magic

Grimoires“If you believe in the power of magic,” Eric Woolfson plaintively sang, “then I can change your mind.” A song that bewitched my younger years, when the atmosphere is just right, it can still bring a silent tear to my eye. Magic is a powerful elixir.

On my own personal almanac of holidays, Banned Book Week is one that takes the most preparation. In anticipation, for it is next week already, I read Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Since this blog doesn’t get nearly the readership of a banned book, I might explain that witches are among my favorite topics. Despite that, and despite growing up with constant curiosity about religion, I only learned about grimoires recently. Davies makes it clear in his book that apart from some standard texts that have been around for a few centuries, the idea of a magic book is really relatively recent. Yes, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had books of magic, but the concept of a grimoire only really fits the Zeitgeist of medieval Europe particularly well. Such books may draw on or cite oriental wisdom, frequently stepping into the forbidden territory of Arabic learning and alchemy, but they reflect the worldview of the Middle Ages when magic still seemed possible. In earlier centuries conjuring seems to have been subsumed under the miracles associated with Jesus, and we don’t hear much about magi beyond people like Simon Magus.

Davies packs a lot of information into his book, but my reason for focusing on it here, now, is the banned nature of grimoires. Many of them are considered rare and valuable books today, but in their day they were dangerous and forbidden. The concept that an idea can be suppressed is an odd one. In fact, many ideas have a very difficult time finding receptive minds. Once it is written down, however, an idea can circulate. The surest way to guarantee that it will is to ban it. People want to know what is so dangerous about this idea that it must be kept hidden. It makes an idea powerful, esoteric. Forbidden fruit, we all know if we’ll only be honest, is the sweetest.

Grimoires were considered most efficacious when written by hand. Although it took the printing press to proliferate such books, magic was believed to be most potent in the hand-written form. By writing text, one engages intimately with it. This is a reality we are in danger of losing in the computerized age. I grew up with only a second-hand typewriter acquired by my family when I was in high school. Most of what I wrote—for inspiration seldom comes when you’re sitting at your desk—was done by hand. My own little grimoires. Now we’ve added the interface of a keyboard. It is faster, and more efficient. Clinical even. But often the magic seems to be gone. And that is testified in many banned books. They especially, I would aver, believe in the power of magic.

Third Mile Island

Sitting in the shadow of the cooling towers of Three Mile Island along the banks of the Susquehanna River the night before a friend’s wedding is one of the college memories that remains vividly in my mind. The accident had occurred some six years earlier, but seeing those ominous blinking red lights, no doubt to warn low-flying aircraft of the massive towers, left me with an irrational sense of danger. It will be a sad day when we have nothing left to fear. The next year, the Chernobyl disaster took place. This tragedy has results that are still playing out among the millions exposed to the radiation. Perhaps these events explain why Alan Parson Project’s Ammonia Avenue remains among my favorite albums.

While having my oil changed yesterday, the waiting room television was fixated on the story of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, settling it comfortably between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. With anxiety about the year 2012 running amok, many people are looking for signs. Perhaps the most unfortunate meme the Bible has introduced to the world is the Apocalypse. In origin apocalyptic concepts emerged from the Zoroastrian idea that a dualistic change in ages was coming. Believing this world to be under the baleful influence of Angra Mainyu, a day was eventually going to arrive where all this would be turned around and Ahura Mazda would set things right. Christianity borrowed the idea, shrouded it in secrecy, and began an unhealthy interest in the end of all things.

Fukushima Daiichi may feel like the end of the world, but it is not. In fact, all that we know of our planet shows its great resilience. The late Stephen Jay Gould, in his popular book Bully for Brontosaurus, opined that the earth is not as fragile as is often supposed. He notes in the prologue, “Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run.” Not that we should not attempt to protect our environment – we do that to preserve ourselves and other species – but if we should fail, earth will carry on. Our globe is expected to support life for another 500 million years. Instead of following false positives, we might be better off reminding ourselves that Gaia still has a few tricks up her metaphorical sleeves.

One way or another