Nothing To Eat

Some stories are unsettling to the point of spirituality.  That’s my impression of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  My wife wanted my opinion of it and when she used the adjective “Kafkaesque” I knew I had to comply.  The comparison is eerie in that Franz Kafka essentially starved to death because no way could be found to feed him with his underlying medical condition.  The Vegetarian shifts focus in its three parts, but the protagonist, Yeong-hye, is a young woman who finds her life run by other people in her family after she decides to become a vegetarian (in actual fact, a vegan).  Basing her decision on disturbing dreams she has, those in her Korean culture cannot accept vegetarianism and attempt, by various forms of coercion, to change her decision.  Throughout the account, Yeong-hye becomes silent—we’re never given her point of view—but those around her can’t accept her decision.

This is a challenging book to read, given my own personal history, but after scratching my head a bit when I finished it I came to reflect on this spiritual side of it.  My own vegetarianism was an ethical decision.  I realize that I can’t and shouldn’t impose my ethics on others, but I’ve not had much resistance from others (apart from colleagues who occasionally make reservations at eateries with no hint of the concept).  Likewise, I became a vegan a few years back based on further reflection of an ethical kind.  This is actually a spiritual practice.  I don’t often express it in those terms, but clearly it is.  In the novel when Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law tries to direct her life, he takes her to a Buddhist restaurant because he knows nowhere else to find vegetarian offerings.

Yeong-hye believes herself to be becoming a plant, and that leads to the next logical step in this progression of thinking.  Eating is, or at least can be, a spiritual exercise.  Many religions advocate fasts of various durations to derive the benefits to the soul.  Daily life is a matter of routine for many, often based around our culturally driven mandate of three meals a day.  I’m not alone at working through lunch while trying to get more done at my job.  By the final meal of the day I find myself exhausted.  It’s about more than food.  This strange little book has put me into a reverie about the ethics of eating.  I don’t know if Han Kang is a vegetarian or not, but she does understand the soul of one.

Ethics of Nations

If it hadn’t started two world wars last century, Germany would likely have a stellar reputation.  I don’t say this because of my own Teutonic blood, but rather because as a nation they seem both intelligent and troubled.  Philosophical, if you will.  A story in Times Higher Education explains how Germany is planning its reopening with the input of humanities experts as well as scientists.  The stance is driven by ethics.  We know that when strictures are loosed more cases of COVID-19 will break out.  More people will inevitably die of it.  Germany realizes that this makes it an ethical issue as well as an economic one.  And ethics are best discussed by those who study humanities.  I noticed that they’re even including theologians on their panels.  This seems smart to me.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson’s reopening team in Britain is secret.  Not wanting the public to know who’s making the decisions that will certainly kill some of them, they prefer to act under cover of darkness.  The thing about the cone of silence is that it never works.  Historians will scratch their heads over how, in the course of one century, the good guys became the bad guys and the bad the good.  Have the Allies become an—to borrow a phrase—axis of evil?  The wealthy alone are worth saving, and the economy takes presedence over the welfare of the greatest number.  Back in my philosophy classes we learned about utilitarianism and also its problems.  You see, being a humanities specialist means learning to think through thorny issues, looking at all different angles.  Being a conservative means looking only at the bottom line.

Humanities are related to the concept of humanitarianism.  I know that’s a big word, and it doesn’t bring in much mammon, but still, it encompasses all of us.  This crisis could bring out the best in humankind, or we can let the narrative go to the Clorox-eaters and those who believe winning elections are all that’s important, even if there’s nobody left to govern when its all over.  Being a politician is a zero-sum game I guess.  Looking at the numbers, Germany seems to have brought the number of deaths down when measured against the count of established cases.  That to me seems like a human goal worth striving for.  Of course, we could just incite riots in our own countries to infect even more people.  Being reelected so as to give oneself even more tax breaks is all that really matters.  At least among the axis powers.

Integrity

I’m not lying when I say untruth has been on my mind a lot.  A few days ago I posted on freedom of speech and how it’s an ideal rather than an actuality.  What with lies being lobbed at us daily, I got to thinking about the ethical implications for honesty.  Integrity.  The freedom to state what we actually think is something a little different.  How often in daily life do we act authentically?  And when we’re with others we act differently than when we’re alone.  Which is truly us?  Someone pointed out to me recently that if you walk with someone your body language is different than if you walk alone.  Even walking alone your body language shows your interior frame of mind.  A sad walk isn’t the same as a happy walk.

As social creatures, the ideal of being forthright all of the time would lead to chaos.  All of us lie, one way or another, at times.  That’s where integrity comes in.  Integrity, it seems to me, indicates someone who is honest, all things being equal.  I once noticed a politician who blinked every time he said the word “God.”  That blink, I believe, was a form of “scare quote.”  I don’t know, but I suspect said politician didn’t have any strong belief in a deity.  Some circumstances require that you pay lip service anyway.  Ethics dictates that we try to be honest, but even keeping secrets is a kind of lie of omission.  Our own personal wants—which are honest—often have to be suppressed for the sake of fairness.  Again, we live in a situation where the most powerful pursue their own desires while neglecting the needs of others.  Is this then integrity?

Often I ponder what it means to be social creatures.  Some of us are naturally introverts.  We nevertheless rely on others because society is too complex.  What any one person could build an iPhone single-handedly, and then set up the 3G, 4G, or 5G network on which to use it?  Could that same person grow their own food, manufacture their own automobile, and construct their own house?  The self-made rugged individualist is a myth we cherish, but it too is an untruth.  We rely heavily on others and we count on those closest to us to be honest.  When lying becomes a lifestyle integrity lies in tatters on the floor.  Just three years ago I wouldn’t have been having such thoughts, if I’m honest with myself.

Morality, by Contract

So, maybe it’s the crazy wind that was blowing around here all day yesterday, but I’m beginning to wonder about corporate sanity (if there is such a thing).  Specifically, I’ve been hearing about more and more contracts with ethics clauses written into them.  This is downright weird.  Does the signing of a contract make one ethical?  It’s like that silly page that comes up on some workplace servers saying you’re very naughty if you’re not the person you’ve logged in as.  We all know that.  That’s why hackers hack and the rest of us comply.  But legislative morality?  Via contract?  The notion is strange because ethics relies on an agreed-upon set of standards.  If Trump has taught us anything it’s that there’s no agreed-upon set of standards.  Some of us can honestly say that we weigh our own ethics every time we do anything.  Send me a contract and see!

The first time I saw an ethical behavior clause it was in a contract from a Christian company.  They wanted no business dealings with the corrupt, misbehaving, and one might guess, pagan sort.  When such a contract is sent to a business, it means that said business will monitor the morality of all its employees.  That’s something I certainly wouldn’t want to be in charge of.  Rationalization is too easy and far too human.  Let the one without sin cast the first whereas.  Well, one would think that a Christian company might take that point of view.  The way some Christians have treated me over the years makes me shudder at the advantages taken.

This idea seems to be spreading out to secular companies as well.  You read about contracts with ethical clauses in them—anyone who’s not ethical will have no qualms about signing a contract stating s/he is!  Why offer a contract at all if someone’s morals are in doubt?  One of the things you learn from taking ethics courses (of which I had several) is that, beyond widely agreed-upon standards (it’s wrong to kill, for example, or take something that belongs to someone else) the details quickly fade to gray.  People find ways of living with themselves while trying to survive in society.  An ethics clause in a contract suggests I should live by the standards set by the issuer.  It attempts to vouch for my future behavior without knowing my future circumstances.  I’m all for ethical behavior, and I try to abide by my own moral code daily.  It’s just that putting morality into contracts implies thinking poorly of the party of the second part.  Better to add a sanity clause.

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Search Yourself

I was searching for someone on the internet (surprisingly, not myself).  Since this individual didn’t have much of a platform, I looked at MyLife.com.  Such sites draw in the curious and you soon end up paying (I suspect) for any salacious information such as arrest or court records.  In any case, what stood out is that we all presumably have a meter on the site that shows whether we’re good or bad.  It’s like a Leonard Cohen song.  Call me old-fashioned, but that’s what religion used to do.  Some forms of Christianity (Calvinism comes to mind) tell you that you can never be good enough.  Others are more lax (Episcopalians come to mind), as long as you go to mass enough and feel some guilt for misdeeds, you’ll get in.  All the various groups, however, have metrics by which you’re measured, largely based on what you believe.

The odd thing—or one of the odd things—about religion is that it is now categorized as what you believe.  Historically religions began as a kind of bellwether of what you do rather than what you believe.  The two are related, of course.  The motivation behind an action might well be good while the end result is less so.  Secular justice regularly seeks to answer the question of why someone did something.  Was there malice involved?  Aforethought?  Was it an unfortunate accident?  Religion drives over this ground too.  Without getting into the many shades of gray that are morality, value judgments as to the goodness or badness of an action (or a person) were traditionally the purview of religion.

The internet itself has become a kind of god.  We turn to it for all kinds of answers.  It’s both a Bible and encyclopedia rolled into one.  When we want to know something about someone we google them.  Some of us have tried to control the narrative about ourselves by making websites.  (This, of course, presumes others will be interested in us.)  Social media also injects us into larger arteries of traffic.  People judge us by what we post or tweet.  Often without ever meeting us or getting to know who we really are behind our physical walls.  So this person I searched had left little to find.  Scraps here and there.  I didn’t believe everything I saw on MyLife.  After all, not everyone wants to subject her or himself to the constant scrutiny of the connected world.  Maybe it’s a religious thing.

Veg Out

It came to me vividly when I heard a speaker self-deferentially say he was crazy.  This was, I suspect, a way of defusing the fact that when vegans speak others often think they’re being judgmental or preachy.  I’m pretty sure this speaker wasn’t, and I try my best not to be.  It can be difficult when you’re passionate about something.  At the event, which included several people in age brackets more advanced than even mine, the question of “why” was predictably raised.  Apart from the rampant cruelty of industrial farming—some states even have laws preventing people from knowing what actually goes on in such places—there are other considerations.  One of them involves Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s person of the year.

Global warming is no joke, no matter how much the Republican Church laughs it off.  Greta Thunberg has become the face of a generation with a conscience, but one fact few wish to know is that industrial farming is by far the largest environmental threat to our planet.  The amount of pollution it causes is staggering.  The rain forests are being cleared for grazing land because people will buy beef.  The largest methane emissions come from farms, not factories.  Our lifestyle of eating animals on an industrial scale is one of the many hidden costs to the modern way of living.  Or of dying.   There are doubters, to be sure.  It’s pretty clear, however, that the agriculture business is massive and it is just as powerful as the other great offender—the petroleum industry.

Making facts known isn’t being judgmental.  People’s eating choices are up to them.  I’ve only been a vegan for about two years now and I sometimes can’t comply with my own ethical standards when I go out to eat.  Or when other people give food.  Many places have no concept of dining without animal products.  I’m not trying to make everyone else accept my standards; I have beliefs about animals that are based both on personal experience and lots of reading about faunal consciousness.  I fully accept that many others don’t agree.  What I do hope, however, is that people like the speaker I recently heard will not have to jokingly call themselves crazy because they’re vegan.  The narrative must change.  We must be willing to look at the way we live on this planet, and accept the fact that just because major polluting industries hide behind large, brown cow eyes doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question what they feed us.  We need to look at our plates and count the cost.

 

Why not try Veg Out, Bethlehem’s new vegan restaurant, if you’re in the Valley?

Dandy Lions

O great—just what I need right now.  I knew lawn care would soon become a necessary avocation after buying a house, but this I did not expect.  Over the weekend I found myself pulling up dandelions that were growing out of cracks in the front steps.  Since we compost, I laid them out on a slab, figuring when they dried out I could make them into more soil.  (From which more dandelions will grow, I know, but still it just feels right.)  I came back a day later to find that the dandelions had returned to the vertical position.  Zombie dandelions!  They apparently couldn’t stay dead.  Now, I’ve been writing about demons for the past several months and I’d forgotten about zombies.  Well, I did post about resurrection on Easter, but my short-lived digression left me unprepared for this.

Really, the persistence of life is a sign of hope.  Perhaps dead zones, such as morality in Washington DC, will someday come back to life.  There’s hope for a tree, Job tells us, even if cut down.  These dandelions were a message for me.  Don’t give up.  Prior to religion being hijacked by theology it was a system intended to make life better for people.  Human beings were more important than heretical thoughts.  You help those who need it, regardless of what they believe.  Or don’t believe.  That was the point behind resurrection, I suspect—we can rise above all this dirt in which we find ourselves.  There’s a nobility to it.  Then again, fear trumps hope just about every time.  The dandelions are rising and we have no hope of outnumbering them.  

The ancients feared the dead coming back.  It’s a primal phobia.  All those things we buried with tears we hoped would stay the way we left them.  Life, as Malcolm says, will find a way.  Politicians, it seems, will find a way around it.  Call it executive privilege or whatever you will, the end result is the same.  The yellow-headed fuzzies will threaten you even when uprooted and left to dry in the sun.  Now, our lawn isn’t pretty.  Grasses of different varieties contend with weeds I’ve never seen before for scarce resources.  I’ve never minded dandelions.  They don’t ask much, only they now seem to be demanding the right to come back from the compost.  And if we let that happen, all hope is lost.

Canadian Care

Amazon, probably not purely out of kindness, gives some customers access to the most read stories in the Washington Post. Apart from talking to my wife, this is about the only way I learn about what’s happening in the world (mine is a small world after all). I have no idea what Amazon’s metrics are for determining which stories to share, but I was amazed at one focusing on doctors in Canada. The story also appeared in Newsweek and other media sources. Unlike many medical professionals, these Canadian physicians are petitioning the government for lower salaries. They say they already have enough money and other healthcare workers aren’t being paid adequately. Why not share when you have extra? I’ve always thought Canada was far ahead of its southern neighbor in the ethics department, and this about clinches it.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful for doctors. (You should see how much money I give them!) Nobody wants to go through life with this or that hurting or aching all the time. Most of the doctors I’ve met have been kind and descent people. Seldom as strapped for cash as I am, but then my doctorate is in a more intellectual field; serves me right. What really becomes a star in my personal firmament is that somewhere in this world enamored of capitalism, a privileged class has said, “this isn’t right.” Economists have been warning us for years that unbridled capitalism isn’t sustainable, but that falls on deaf ears in this country. Maybe our political leaders should see an otolaryngologist? Maybe they’ve got some wax build-up in there.

Doctors work hard. They have long hours and have to put up with smelly and messy situations. There’s a reason we have to pay so much to compel them to look where the rest of us are told to avert our eyes. At the same time, every other major developed nation in the world has some form of socialized medicine—it is a basic human right. Everywhere but here. If you drive through New Jersey you can’t help but be taken by the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies that call this state home. There’s gold in them thar hills. As I gaze at them from the highway, my thoughts are driving across the border to a land that’s both affluent and caring. When’s the last time we heard an American entrepreneur say, “I’ve got enough—give the rest to someone else”? When too much is never enough, that’s something it’s going to take a Canadian doctor to treat, I fear.

Power in the Bus

“You’re not in control on a bus” my friend Marvin once wrote, in his short story “O Driver.” The commuter is the consummate captive. I don’t like to beat dead horses—we might need all the horses we can get before this is all done—but some commuters need to learn silence is golden. I take a very early bus with some hope that we might beat the inevitable traffic jams coming into New York in the morning. Every minute counts. Some people, however, feel compelled to comment when they think the bus is early. They’re already sitting on the bus, so what’s the problem? There’s another coming in 30 minutes and those of us concerned with getting in before the traffic make a point of being at the bus stop, well, early. The other day a guy got in at the stop after mine. He told the driver that the bus was running early (it actually wasn’t) but the driver obligingly sat for several minutes. The commuter’s always right, right? We got into the Port Authority late that morning. All because of one man’s mouth and his inability to keep it shut. I wonder why they even have that sign saying not to talk to the driver. That only applies when the bus is in motion. So…

The very next day the driver on the route was new. She was on time. Until. To understand this, you need to know my route is an express—it is entirely highway except for one short jog into another town about 10 miles down the road. My driver was doing great. “You missed the turn,” another passenger said. The driver apologized. A three-point-turn in a bus just isn’t possible on the highway, so she had to drive to an exit, wait for the light, and turn around. We were now speeding west, heading to New York City. The passenger, now acting as GPS, didn’t know this area very well. “Take the next exit,” she instructed. The driver dutifully did. It was a ramp with no reentry to the highway. We were touring rural New Jersey for some time before the driver found a place to make another U-turn. “Missing the turn,” the passenger now said, “That turn’s inconsequential. There’s another bus that comes just after this one.” She’s right. No less than three routes into New York follow that jog. But it was too late for us now. Finding our way to the highway, we again headed west. This time our driver took the correct exit, apologizing all the way. The next day we had a new driver.

Actions have consequences. For each and every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. I learned the latter in physics class. The former is a life lesson that might properly be called the mother of morality. When you talk on the bus you’re taking charge of about fifty lives. It has become clear to me through my years of commuting that most people shouldn’t have that kind of power.

Always Have with You

The place wasn’t meant for a family of six. Properly speaking, it was a one-bedroom house, or hovel. The attic, from which we could see the sky through the roof, was divided into two rooms, with no doors. You had to pull down the stairs in order to climb up there and that trapdoor had to be kept closed in the daytime. The house was heated by a single, oversized gas stove that sat in the middle of the living room—no ducts, vents, or radiators here. The bathroom had only a sink and a toilet. No tub. No shower. The only window that opened was the kitchen window, and before we moved in my mother insisted that my step-father pull out the nails that held the vinyl blinds permanently closed over the windows that would never open. The only reason we weren’t called “white trash” is that we lived above the Mason-Dixon line.

Reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America was, therefore, a little bit uncomfortable. First of all, bullies who care only for the wealthy are nothing new in American politics. Second of all, it reminded me of how, when I was found without a job, no college or university wanted to hire a guy with no connections, despite the Ph.D. That’s business as usual in these United States. What I have realized is that in this nation of self-made individuals, those allowed to make it often start from a class higher than my own. I was a first generation college student, and once my step-father gave in to the pressure to put a proper bathtub in his house, I’d come home to find carp swimming in it. White trash and ivory towers clash, don’t you know.

The saddest part of this book is that nothing has changed. Four centuries on and we still treat the poor with contempt. We love rags to riches stories because they’re so rare. The vast majority of the poor have a very hard existence. Even though, according to government statistics, we were considered a poverty-level family, we had it better than many. True, there were too many cars in the driveway, all of them used—very used, and the house was bulldozed as unfit for habitation immediately after we moved out, but many have it far worse. This book opens some old wounds, but it should be required reading for all politicians. Not that it would make much of a difference, though. The suffering of the poor is just far too easy to ignore as long as there is money to be made off of anyone less fortunate than yourself. That’s the American way. It always has been.

Frankenfear

While re-reading Frankenstein the uncomfortable thought kept recurring that our tendency to save lives leads to undiscovered fears. I’m not suggesting that we should just let people die, but even from my own experience of doctors, the sense of personal agency has become somewhat eroded. You go to the doctor and s/he tells you, “You should have this done.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out what this box that’s attached to my TV should be called, so how am I qualified to assess a professional opinion about my health? We mend bodies with plastic and metals and chemicals. Some modifications, like fillings and glasses, seem no brainers. But what about plastic tubes and computers to regulate body functions? They’re all good, but have we thought this through, I can hear Mary Shelley asking.

Religion, which is now also eroding, was a traditional way of coping with the fact of our own mortality. Everyone dies. From the beginning of the world, with the possible exception of Elijah—and even he had to come back—everyone has died. Religion traditionally said that it wasn’t the last word. The body wears out, and in a materialist world there’s nothing that can be left. Technology can prolong life, but some may not want it to be prolonged beyond a certain point. I’m not being morbid; I just don’t like arguing with what can’t be changed. Religion, it’s easy to forget, is about finding peace. Some people misunderstand that, for sure, but that doesn’t change the facts.

Did Prometheus overstep his bounds? Mary Shelley seemed to think so. In her recollections the story was intended to scare, not to predict. Victor Frankenstein creates the monster simply because he can. He does it alone, without thinking through the consequences even with a convenient Igor. Religion has often been cast as that annoying, moralizing sibling to science. (Philosophy could well join the ranks too, as some prefer it to religious thinking.) Without that sibling, however, how can we make informed decisions? Science, by its very definition, can’t tell us what should be done. The only values it knows are quantifiers. We live in a piecemeal world where some parts have been removed while others have been added. We don’t know if this is right or wrong since religion is one of the pieces excised without being replaced. Prometheus, ironically, translates to “forethought.” The problem with Frankenstein is precisely that Prometheus is missing.

Breakfast of Champions

In my efforts to become vegan, I’m finding dairy to be the hardest element to replace. I’m reminded of this every morning since the day begins with cereal. Most people don’t realize that cereal for breakfast is largely of religious motivation. The original Kelloggs were Seventh-Day Adventists, and therefore vegetarian. To promote both health and animal-free diets, they gave a big push to the idea the day should start with cereal. It’s a touch dry, however, and water on your flakes leads directly to paste. So I’ve been experimenting with alternate milks. Often I use soy milk, but it has to be the right brand. Some of the offerings on the market have that oily aftertaste characteristic of soy beans. Not sure of the legality of hemp milk these days, I recently tried oat. Oat milk should taste like oats, i.e., it shouldn’t have much taste at all.

The moral crisis came as I poured it into my oatmeal. You see, there’s a biblical injunction to cooking a calf in its mother’s milk. This is the reason meat and dairy can’t be mixed in kosher settings. Scholars debate the basic concept behind this regulation. Like eating a bird and its eggs, some suggest, this depletes nature and should be avoided. At least one generation should have a chance to avoid exploitation. At least until it grows up. But what of the oats and their oat milk? Have I gone too far? What hidden principle am I violating, however unintentional, here? This is the problem with any religious thinking—taken to extremes it begins to break down. Some of the earliest gods, after all, were agricultural deities.

Agribusiness is huge. People gotta eat, right? And it is one of the most massive environmental hazards humans have ever concocted. Industrial farming is the largest producer of methane and the largest user of potable water, by far. Keeping animals for our food is literally destroying our planet. Religions, interestingly, quite often concern themselves with eating habits. It’s strange how most of them in this country are silent regarding what is obviously an ethical issue. After all, we adapted to the cereal for breakfast lifestyle because of religious conviction. It’s difficult to change eating habits. That’s my current struggle. I could pour the oat milk over corn flakes, I suppose. But then again, the Bible forbids mixing fabrics from different plants. What’s an aspiring vegan to do?

Milkweed and Honey

I’ve never thought of bugs as an ethical concern. Well, not directly anyway. I had some truly frightening encounters with insects and arachnids as a child, so I tended to avoid bugs when I could. At times, I hesitate to admit, I took advantage of my size and smooched them. I did, however, mature out of that. Many years ago I stopped killing bugs that got inside, choosing instead to favor capture and release. I’d trap them in one of a variety of empty peanut-butter jars we kept around the house expressly for that purpose. The imprisoned intruder is then escorted outside and released. It seemed the only fair way to handle the situation—I don’t believe in exploiting size, and hating things with too many legs is prejudicial. Then I heard that insects are dying out.

Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

Instead of bringing glee, this instilled a kind of panic. According to a story in the Washington Post, scientists have noted a 75% drop in bug biomass over the past several years. Stop and think about that. Insects contribute so much to our lives that we barely pay them any mind. Everything from pollination to breaking down decomposing organic matter, bugs do it. We need our insects. As with most things these days, it seems that we humans are the likely culprits. We destroy habitat, we spread pesticides everywhere, we try to take all kinds of land and make it in our own image. And we’ve sacrificed our insects along the way. As the article states—driving around country lanes on a summer night doesn’t bring up the windshield splatter that it used to. I stopped to think about that. It seems to be true.

The tiny members of the animal kingdom do a tremendous amount of work. I know they’re not doing it for us, but the things they do we don’t have to—and oftentimes can’t—do. All fruits and vegetables are pollinated by insects. Honey has been the main place where some of this shortage has been felt most directly. Bees have been disappearing. So have monarch butterflies. The fact is, we can’t live in a world without bugs. This does make it an ethical issue. If we’re going to claim dominion over all things we have no right to overlook the smallest creatures. Sure, they can, well, bug you. They fly in your face or bite you while you’re sleeping. They’re only doing what they evolved to do. I don’t mean to bug you about it, but we need to look after the minuscule and vulnerable among us.

Planet A

Two of the classics of ecology, A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, and The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson, were published by Oxford University Press. In its present-day iteration the press has a Green Committee, on which I’ve sat from very nearly the beginning of my time there. As a committee, we’re reading these classics to see what we might learn some half-century-plus after they were published. I’d never read A Sand County Almanac before. It’s a pity, since I lived in southeast Wisconsin, from which the book takes its genesis, for about a dozen years. The writing is poetical prose, but the ideas are solid science—the land on which we’ve evolved knows how to take care of itself. When one species becomes too greedy, all suffer. Leopold ends his book by suggesting a land ethic should be put in place. Now, a human lifespan later, has it?

Hardly. Watching the Trump Administration doing everything it can to commodify any aspect of the environment that might make a buck—or at least a buck for the wealthy—is alarming in the extreme. There is no soul in the land, to this way of thinking. They believe that because they themselves lack a functional soul. A soul cannot exist without ethics. What we do to this planet is one of the largest ethical issues imaginable. No species, rational or not, destroys its own habitat. Except our own. Arrogant to the point of supposing ourselves divine, we think we can take what we want and give nothing back. And everything will be just fine. I wonder that we’ve had this inexpensive, readable guidebook this last seven decades and have continued to ignore its sage advice. Maybe we’re too busy making money to read something that sounds suspiciously like poetry.

One of the observations I had about the Almanac was how attuned to the philosophy of nature it is. Philosophy has many enemies these days, from prominent scientists to Republicans. Nobody seems to value the capacity for deep and thorough thinking through of a problem that is unbeholden to any orthodoxy. The philosopher can ask “what if?” without regret. When it comes to the environment, humans aren’t the only philosophers. We’ve convinced ourselves so completely that we’re more advanced than other species that we suppose they can’t teach us anything. One thing they do, however, without our interference, is create balance in nature. It’s an ethic to which even our species might aspire. If only we would listen to the wisdom of those who pay attention to the world that has given them life.

Berrying Perspective

Two people looking at the same thing see something different. Since we’re living with a government of distorted perspective this truth appears refreshed daily. I was reminded of this while picking huckleberries. Huckleberries, according to the local edible berry guide, are called many different things. In this part of the country you know them when you see them. And if you see them you pick them. They appeal to the frustrated hunter-gatherer left in us city-dwellers. As I was trying my best to fill my bucket, I kept thinking of those who only see nature’s bounty as a means of turning a profit. In my mind they’re meanies—those who take all the fun out of the few freedoms we have left—although I realize that it’s a matter of perspective. Consider the huckleberry.

I’m a mere seasonal visitor to these parts. Since not too many of my own species make this location their permanent domicile, that’s perfectly natural. Many of the berry pickers I’ve encountered have been seasonal guests as well. There are the more “industrial” pickers, though. In a good year huckleberries can command fifty dollars a gallon on the local market. Unless you know an unfrequented secret site, a gallon can take several hours to pick even in a promising location. Overall, you need to arrive before anyone else and get the most productive bushes so that you don’t have to wander around the mountainside in search of a more lucrative locale. Not to mention that, like most berries, they have a limited shelf life. Nature prefers sharers to hoarders.

While I’m picking I generally think of bears. Unlike my species they don’t have the grocery store option. These berries are their survival, I suppose. Nature does provide. That’s how evolution works—we form symbiotic relationships with our environment. The meanies, however, can’t see beyond the self. What nature provides must be accumulated for my own benefit and not that of others. There are never enough huckleberries to go around, the industrial mind thinks, and so I’d better control the availability and set my price. You don’t even have to like huckleberries to do it. Ironically we call this having a gift. Standing here on this isolated mountainside, bent over a bush offering nature’s abundance, I believe that I’ve found a gift. I have to remind myself, however, that this too is a matter of perspective. It is a perspective that tastes right to me.