Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.

Insecticide

Although Halloween is more about spiders than insects, a real fear seems to be swirling around the latter.  For the second time in a year, a study has been published indicating a precipitous drop in the numbers of six-legged creatures worldwide.  This is alarming because everything’s connected.  Loss of insects means loss of vertebrates that feed on them and that leads to loss of species upon which we depend.  The problem with “humans first,” simply “America first” writ large, is that all species are interconnected.  The loss of one will lead to the loss of others—that’s the way connections work—until the entire picture changes.  And it won’t be prettier.  Even for lack of bugs.

Scientists aren’t sure of why this is happening, but the likely culprit seems to be global warming.  Temperatures are changing so rapidly that evolution can’t keep up.  And since those in political power don’t believe in evolution—America first!—they have difficulty seeing how global warming—a myth!—could possibly pose any threat.  Just ask the wooly mammoth.  The fact is that the very small frequently offer the answers long before it’s too late.  The problem is you have to pay attention.  And that attention must be not on America, or Trump, or Kavanaugh.  The Supreme Court is jobless if there are no people left.  We are part of an ecosystem, and the silence of that ecosystem is very loud indeed.   Decades ago Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring to warn of the dangers of pesticides.  In our short-sighted way, we responded by banning the most dangerous of them and turning up the heat.

We like to focus on the negative aspects of religion these days, but one of the overlooked benefits of it has been religions’ ability to shift focus.  Christianity, for example, has been an advocate of thinking of others before thinking of oneself.  Now certain elected officials seem constitutionally unable to think of anyone but themselves, but the fact is none of us would be here if it weren’t for the insects.  They work to keep our planet neat and tidy, even if we regard them as a sign of uncleanness in our houses.  Maybe not the lowest, they are one of the essential building blocks of the world we know and recognize.  And they are disappearing.  As Carson recognized decades ago, the loss of insects leads to a silent spring because the birds that feed on them will disappear.  And what about pollination—whose job will that become?  I suppose we could assign it to migrant workers, but we’re sending them away too.  America first will be America the silent and hungry.  Unless we listen to what the insects tell us.

Nature’s Voice

SpellSensuousCivilization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, it’s got its moments—modern medicine, indoor plumbing, Honey Boo Boo—but often it’s artificial. It’s like somebody made up a set of silly rules and those who dare violate them are treasonous barbarians. Over the past few years I’ve been reading books that consider our biological development and what nature seems to indicate about how people might exist more holistically in the world. I don’t mean New Age outlooks, although, surprisingly, such treatments often aren’t far off base. I’d never heard of David Abram or his book The Spell of the Sensuous. (For those who think sensuous means only one thing, the subtitle is Perception and Language in a More-Then-Human World.) Although somewhat dated, this is an insightful book. The basic premise is that we are, by nature, part of a much larger world but we have, like spoiled children, decided to take it all for ourselves and isolate our species from all others, claiming a superiority that none dare challenge. In the process we’ve lost much of what it benefits us being animals, and have separated ourselves from the wonders of the world all around us. Working in Manhattan, I have to agree.

Basing his observations on having lived among aboriginal peoples, Abram notes that although anthropologists have denied the tenets of Christian missionaries on the religious front, they have continued in that teaching concerning biases against nature-based belief systems. Peoples who live close to the land observe things which seem superstitious to the “civilized,” but which are, in reality, simply astute realizations based on watching how the world works. Like Thomas Nagel, he notes that consciousness pervades the natural world. Animals, plants, even the earth itself displays forms of awareness that we ignore in our rush to exploit and gain “wealth.” In reality, we suffer for having made ourselves something we’re not.

There’s a lot in this book, far more than a single blog post can say. I don’t agree with all the points Abram makes—that writing may be responsible for our dilemma is a bit of a stretch—but there is great wisdom in this tome. At several points I had to stop and ponder the implications of what he was saying. Yes, nature speaks. Creating a world where “success” is measured in removing yourself as far from nature as possible requires elaborate rules. As far as I can tell, obeying the rules means that if you’re one percent of the one percent you’ll have nothing to complain about. If you have enough money—itself an artificial construct—you can run for president with no other qualifications. Meanwhile, nature suffers at our hands and may only recover once the world is forced from our hands and the sensuous once again takes over, doing what it has always done.

Mother Earth

Son, behold thy mother.

Behold thy mother.

As a planet-locked earthling, I’m thinking about Earth today. Such a quotidian planet. While I’ve been to others in my mind, this is the only one on which I’ve ever been or am likely to be. And yet there are no laws protecting it from my own species. Corporations are treated as individuals, legally. Only they’re much, much bigger and have lots more money. They can drill and dig and spew and slew all they wish. I can mutter a feeble, “Hey!” but they legally have to pay no attention. It’s like that guy with a loud device on a quiet bus. Or someone smoking too close to the door. They invade the little space you occupy and there’s nothing you can do about it. We look to our politicians to learn how to be better bullies. Our corporations look past us to the bottom line. When the planet dies, that will indeed be the bottom line.

We tend to make fun of those who believe there’s other life out there. Whether sci-fi nerds or gullible believers in conspiracy theories, we tell them all intelligent life is located right here. In your bank account. Your net worth. The contribution you make to the GNP. It all comes down to numbers. As if there weren’t something magical about walking in the woods. As if all of this is just dress rehearsal for the play of getting rich. The beasts we had to fear used to lurk in the jungle. Now they brazenly drive through our cities in expensive cars with tinted windows. They build towers to defy the spacemen to come down. “Don’t worry,” they seem to say, “our money is great enough that we can come to you.” And yet, we are still left with only one planet. And it seems to be getting quite stuffy down here.

I worry about our throwaway culture, because there’s nowhere else to go. You can’t prevent me from fracking the very ground beneath your feet. Or like Martin Luther, prevent me from flying over your head. You don’t like my loud music? You don’t like my noxious fumes? I can blow my vape into the shared, public airspace if I want. Ownership is a funny concept. Our species has been on this planet for a geologic sneeze and yet we plant our flags and bray our allegiances. It takes treaties and accords for us to act like civilized people. We won’t call it “global warming” because that offends those big people called corporations. If it feels a little warm in here to you, turn on the air conditioner. If we use up this planet, we can always buy another one.

Long Live Life

Horseshoe CrabsShortsighted and arrogant. No, I’m not describing Richard Fortey’s Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, but rather the collective human race. I love people—I really do. Collectively, however, we sometimes act in the most inexplicable ways. This thought came to me repeatedly while reading Fortey’s book. The subtitle might explain the subject a bit fuller: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind. Fortey is a paleontologist who tells the stories, almost biographies, of various creatures that have survived eons with little change. He is quick to point out that all creatures evolve, but in the case of some, evolution has been minimal. Animals, such as his titular examples, and many others (cyanobacteria, tuataras, and, of course, coelacanths, just as a sampling) can sometimes be so well adapted to their environments that they change very little over time. In this book Fortey travels to see the living examples of those creatures he’s studied in fossils, and tells the story of an amazing continuity in a world of constant change.

Some of the species, particularly the plants and microscopic organisms, I’d never heard of before. I also have to admit to being surprised at how many very old life forms still exist. And admittedly, this is only a snippet of a much larger cloth. Throughout, I was pleased to see, Fortey mentions various religions—themselves often throwbacks—but not disparagingly (except the creationists). Noting that some creatures have a Buddhist-like calm, or that the Bible occasionally provides the phrase a naturalist writer seeks, here is an irenic meeting of science and religion that is so much needed. So why did I say “shortsighted and arrogant” at the start of this post?

One of the more disturbing truths revealed, and not just about charismatic megafauna, is that people have often hunted animals to extinction. Fortey suggests it has always been so. Large animals (megafauna) are easy targets and we have repeatedly hunted (and continue to hunt) them to extinction. We destroy habitats and thereby drive species extinct that we haven’t even yet discovered. What could be more arrogant of a single species? Looking back over 4 billion years of evolution should give us some perspective. We’re relative newcomers on this planet, and it isn’t ours to do with as we please. Fortey is gentle, but he does remind us that some of the creatures in this book will likely, no matter how great the catastrophe, long outlive us on the planet. Ours is a brief day in the sun. Shouldn’t we care for our planet rather than pillage it for our own gain? Ask the horseshoe crab. When we understand its language we might be able to begin to call ourselves wise.

Pope of Deliverance

As I was out jogging just now, a large gasoline truck pulled across the road, stalling my attempt at healthy living. As I waited for the driver to move, I thought of Laudato Si’. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, the future seems, for the first time in a long time, an optimistic place. I’m not Roman Catholic, but knowing that the head of the largest Christian body in the world has made an ecclesiastical pronouncement about our responsibilities as citizens of the planet is nevertheless authoritative. A world run by blind greed cannot see the signs in plain sight. We have taken what does not belong to us and have left a wasteland behind. I look back over a lifetime of advocating, in the small way my small voice can reach, for responsible tenancy on the Earth, and feel comforted by such a powerful ally. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been a property “owner,” buying into the myth that the planet may be purchased, but it has never made sense to me that one species has the right to claim it all for itself, leaving it in a state our mothers would’ve never allowed our bedrooms to have been left, and supposing it is somebody else’s problem. If not ours, whose? We’re the ones paying the rent.

Those responsible for industrial level pollution baulk at the idea of economic fairness. Capitalism rewards the greedy and the only thing to trickle down is tears. Those with money can always count on lackeys to follow, thus when the man in white says this is important, those in red, and purple, and black have no choice but to follow. There’s no escaping the planet. We shouldn’t have to feel we need to escape. We need to take—dare I say it—corporate action. Those of us on an individual level sometimes think we can’t make a difference. Habits can be powerful things. A visit to a landfill can be a mystical experience. The visions you have there won’t be beatific, however. You might begin to understand the Inferno, in any case. We consume, and pollute, as if it is our right to do so. As if our brains have misfired into suicidal sociopaths.

Son, behold thy mother.

Son, behold thy mother.

Where, I have often wondered, is the voice of the church in all this? By far the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are religious. Religious leaders, embroiled in politics that lead to solvency and power, have frequently neglected to turn out the lights when they’ve left the board room. While it may seem to be an abuse that the Catholic Church is extremely wealthy and highly influential, it may be that the humble leader of such an organization is the only person truly capable of getting attention. The Pope’s voice carries farther than that of any other single individual in the Christian tradition. And the media are already buzzing about the long anticipated Laudato Si’. The Pope begins on a positive note, and if those who make any claim to be faithful pay attention to the truly important message—far more important than fighting condoms or ensuring that half the human race is kept out of the club house—there may be a slight glimmer of hope yet. Maybe religion really can deal with ultimate concerns after all.

Too Much Stuff

The informal name for economics, rightly, is “the dismal science.” When I recently learned about The Story of Stuff (storyofstuff.org), I found myself again shaking my head in dismay. I have no problem admitting that I’m a liberal pretty much through and through. I believe what I believe is right. Statistics show that the older we grow the more conservative we become, but in my case the opposite trend seems to be in effect. I grew up in a conservative backwater and I saw first-hand what it did to those who adhere to it most religiously. Rouseville, the town where I spent my teens, was an industrial armpit, dominated by a large Pennzoil refinery, now derelict. The town smelled bad despite the pristine woods that surrounded it, and pollution was everywhere evident. People didn’t move away because they couldn’t. Drugs were a rampant problem and I never felt safe going out at night, even though it was a town of less than a thousand souls.

Growing up I often wondered about this. When you live close to the edge, you hang on. The existence of the working class is precarious. Living in a cancer factory like that, you needed your job more than you needed food. If you were to survive, you had to work. Pennzoil was the only game in town. Local pride at being near the fountain head of the oil industry helped only a little. I turned to spirituality to cope. I’m now told that’s naive. I’m told that meaning is found in consuming. The most disheartening part of The Story of Stuff was learning that this was all intentional. Victor Lebow’s 1955 assessment of where our dismal science must go chills me:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms.”

Our spiritual satisfaction in buying? And what is more, this advice has been heeded as gospel by the government. Is it any wonder that one percent tell the rest of us what to do? It is time for civilization to grow up. Our infantile need for more stuff has poisoned the very well from which we drink. It may cost you some sleep, but take a look at the Story of Stuff. What you lose in sleep you may gain in peace of mind. And soul.

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