Anthropocene

The word “Anthropocene” has been showing up quite a bit lately.  For a period of many years I was an avid, self-taught amateur geologist.  In my dreams I still am, I guess.  My interest in the ages of rocks began when I, like Charles Lyell, began to consider the implications of their extreme longevity.  The Bible, of course, famously intimates we live in a comparatively new neighborhood.  Having grown up believing that literally and firmly, and also having started a modest fossil collection, I failed to see the conflict.  I mean, there were fossils right down there by the river.  Tons of them.  Some Young Earth Creationists had already begun, by that point, to suggest they’d arisen because of Noah’s flood, but dinosaurs still seemed to be a problem.  In many ways rocks broke me out of my fundamentalist stupor.

While at Nashotah House I taught electives on Genesis 1-11.  I read about the geologic ages of the planet and would fall into Devonian dreams of a world entirely different from ours—a world in which there was no Bible for there were no humans to make God in their image.  I knew that we lived in the Quaternary Period of the Holocene Era.  I don’t think the term Anthropocene was in wide use then.  Parsing it is simple enough—it is the “human age.”  The age in which the planet was, has been, and is being altered by human behavior.   There’s no agreed-up start date for the Anthropocene, but it will likely be set in the twentieth century; the twentieth century in our way of counting.  There have been millions of centuries before that.

A couple of weekends back I attended a church program on plastics.  These useful polymers are deeply, deeply integrated into our lives and are promoted by the far too powerful petroleum industry.  The problem with plastics is that they break down and invade the bodies of animals and humans.  And although they do decompose it takes many centuries for them to do so.  Naming the Anthropocene is an effort to get us to see that a human perspective is far too brief to deal with the many issues we raise.  Our practices on this planet will likely not destroy the earth, but they may very well make it uninhabitable by us, or by creatures we like to see.  Life is persistent, and rock lasts for eons.  Even stone’s not eternal, however, and the idea of the Anthropocene is to get us to look at ourselves and realize that our use of this planet, as toxic as it is, is shortsighted.  We will someday be the fossils under a bridge long crumbled to dust for those in the future who know of no such thing as Genesis.  Perhaps we should act like it.

Rock Solid

Old interests don’t die so much as they become sublimated.  As a child I picked up a cheap “gem display” in a small cardboard box at a yard sale, probably for a quarter.  A couple of the samples were missing, and those that remained were tiny, but I was fascinated that rocks came in such varieties, especially since the ones I tended to find on my own were all shades of gray.  Science education wasn’t especially great in my small town, and besides, I had a massive interest in not going to Hell, so religious study took precedence over my predilections toward scientific studies.  Still, as a child and later, I read a lot about science and I never doubted that it could teach us about the natural world.  Years later I rediscovered my love of rocks.  I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society.  I bought a rock hammer.  I began hounding.

One of the first truisms you learn about life is that movers don’t like heavy things.  Seems that if you are in the business of helping people move (for money, no less), you might be stoic about such matters.  But I have yet to move and not have the guys complain about all those boxes of books.  Well, the rock collection is even heavier.  I discreetly marked the boxes “heavy collection,” hoping nobody’d say “What you got in here, rocks?”  Because, well, yes.  I like rocks.  While in Wisconsin the collection grew—we lived in a house at Nashotah, and we had space.  I had a rock tumbler going in the basement.  We attended rock and gem shows.  Then we moved three times in three years.  I became embarrassed of my petrine peccadillo.

On my way out the door yesterday, I spied a fossil I’d picked up in Ithaca.  Immediately my old inclination to rocks returned.  I don’t know why I bought so many books on geology and seriously considered changing professions after my academic position fell apart.  Perhaps in a life so unstable rocks seemed solid, reliable.  Or maybe it was nostalgia for my young days when a cheap white box of neatly labeled specimens provided hours of transfixed wonder.  I still pick up interesting rocks, and even go to places where collecting is permitted.  This whole world under our feet is full of surprises and an interesting stone can send me into a reverie that is, if I’m honest, as spiritual as it is scientific.  

Eternal Return

For those of you who don’t live, eat, and breathe academic religious studies, it’s my duty to point out that the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) annual meeting begins this week.  For those of us in the biz it’s like the sun holding still at Makkedah as we try to prepare for our various roles.  This year the conference is in warm and sunny Denver, so be sure to dress in layers.  The meeting was held in Denver many years ago now, and I remember very little of it other than it being the year my final published paper from my Nashotah House days was read.  Or started to be.

I don’t know whether it was the altitude or the time of year, but I wasn’t feeling well the last time we met in Denver.  Although it may not show on this blog, I’m really into geology and the city has a great mineral collection in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  I went out to look at the collection the morning of my paper and had the great embarrassment of being sick while in the museum.  I went back to my hotel for a nap and when it was time to read my paper I had to excuse myself because running my eyes across the lines of text made me nauseous.  Concerned-looking philologists didn’t know what to do as I sat through the session with my head between my knees.  That’s how I remember Denver.

Perhaps this year will offer redemption.  You see, it’s very different attending the conference as the representative of a press instead of an institution.  Your time is completely booked.  People want to discuss their book ideas with you.  For a few short days of the year you’re one of the popular guys.  But for me, there are colleagues from every stage of my career on hand.  Not too many people from Nashotah House come, although there are more now than there were when I was about the only faculty member who went.  I see those I knew from Oshkosh and Rutgers, Gorgias and Routledge.  Those I knew as friends before we became professional colleagues.  They’re not after me to publish their books, and sometimes that’s all it takes to make three days of popularity really count.  Later today I’m off to Denver and I won’t have time to see the sparkling minerals this time around, but hopefully I’ll remember it more fondly when its over.

Getting Dirty

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

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

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

Nothing Better

While it may seem that the largest challenge on a blog like this is writing all these words every day, that’s often not the case. Early on in my blogging life, I learned that images draw readers in. That may no longer be the case, but I do try to ensure that my posts have apt illustrations. Due to the fact that I can’t keep up with technology, I no longer know where these images are even stored, so when I was seeking a picture—amid thousands—that I had saved on my backup drive, I came across a series of photos taken in central Pennsylvania. These showed some road-cuts with obvious and impressive folding of geological layers characteristic of orogenous zones. Geologists only discovered the earth was ancient in the nineteenth century, and evangelicals have been disputing it ever since.

Genesis, so the spotless thinking goes, says the world was created in six days. So, by God, in six days it was created! When Darwin simply put the pieces of the puzzle together, evangelicals objected loudly. They started electing US presidents in the next century—a blink of the eye in geologic terms. They don’t dispute non-biblical dinosaurs, however. Their kids would object. The impressive sedimentary layers (or for that matter, igneous or metamorphic) were, they claim, made by God to look old. To fool us. That’s the kind of deity he is. So I got to thinking of a “to do list” for a God with nothing better to do than to oversee intricate and complicated layers of rock that make sense in geological time, but which, apparently, are only planted here to test the faith of brand-spanking new Homo sapiens.

One thing such a deity might do is take care of social injustice. Since he is a father, I suspect we ought to listen to his son, my evangelical friends. Jesus of Nazareth seemed pretty set on helping other people and everyone loving one another. This was, of course, between stints of helping make the planet look older than it actually is so that sinful scientists could trick their compatriots into going to Hell by believing false evidence. There are so many things you could do if you had the time to make such intricate traps. Why not write another book, for example? The Bible could use a good sequel. But no, it is far better to spend divine time making a world look older than it is. And if I had been able to save the time looking for that image that took over half an hour to find, a post such as this would’ve never been created at all.

Where Angels Drink

Moving water is an impressive erosive force. When I have the opportunity to visit family in the western United States, we generally visit a cold, meltwater stream in the mountains where numerous circular cavities dot the resistant granite and basalt that make up the main exposed rock of the mountains. These cavities are nearly perfectly round, and can be quite deep. They are formed by pebbles and other sediment settling in natural depressions in the rock and being swirled around as the waters gush down the mountain. Over the millennia, the swirls grow into deeper holes, trapping the pebbles that will act as a natural drill, cutting away the circular depression as they are roiled around by the endless flow of water. Some of these potholes can grow quite large, but the ones I generally see have the diameter of perhaps a basketball, and are only about a cubit deep. They are young potholes.

At least that’s what I used to believe. The last time I was in the mountains, some younger members of the wider family were there. They came back from visiting the exact same creek that I had the day before, reporting that they’d seen the angels’ drinking cups. Excited in the way that only kids can be, they chattered on about the potholes and quickly moved on to other diversions. My mind, however, was fixated at the geologic phenomenon I had just seen. More precisely, I was amazed at how a religious explanation had come to account for a well understood aspect of nature. The previous day I had explained to my daughter the forces of nature that had carved these curiosities quite without angels. I had witnessed a kind of mythopoeia: the birth of a myth. The children probably did not make up this name, but I had never before heard it.

A very large pothole from Wikicommons (in Finland)

A very large pothole from Wikicommons (in Finland)

When potholes grow very large they are sometimes called the more secular giant’s cauldrons or giant’s kettles. When we see something in nature that appears to be intelligently designed, the mind naturally moves to the realm of the mythical. We don’t believe in giants any more, but angels are somewhat commonplace in the repertoire of supernatural creatures taken seriously. Surveys continually show that many Americans believe in angels, whether guardian or garden variety. Many people claim to have seen them. I can’t make that boast myself, but I now have a suspicion of where I might look to find angels. Particularly if it is a hot night in the mountains, I will, I’m sure, find them at their favorite watering holes.

Bedrock

Sadly it is a rare occasion to read a truly stupendous book. There are lots of wonderful books in the libraries of the world, great and small. When I read a tome that brings two of my favorite subjects together in a genteel cotillion, subjects which are generally portrayed as aiming heavy weapons at each other from deeply sunk trenches, it deserves the epithet of stupendous. David R. Montgomery’s The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood is one of those books. By page 8 I was thinking that Montgomery was someone with whom I’d feel comfortable raising a glass and sharing a story. He is a rare, serious scientist who considers that maybe religious stories have something to tell us about being human. The book, as the subtitle indicates, is about the Noah myth. Geology is the science that has taken the brunt of (the relatively new religion of) Creationism’s umbrage. Still, like a rational scientist, Montgomery doesn’t get mad or fly off into hyperbolic denunciations. He takes his rock hammer and taps until the flood myth crumbles.

Unlike many sober writers on the subject, Montgomery considers the possibility that folklore may in fact give clues to science. Those cultures that have flood stories, he patiently explains, probably has reasons to tell such myths. In this one book we are taken on guided tours of the Grand Canyon, bits of the Himalayas, “ancient” Mesopotamia, the scablands of eastern Washington, and even the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. At each station, we learn a bit about floods and rocks and fantasies. Although not a biblical scholar, Montgomery obviously did his homework and gives a fresh view of how Christians went from non-literalists in the first centuries of the church, through the scientific revolution, only to become literalists in the geologically very recent twentieth century. Creationism has nothing to do with real floods and quite a lot to do with personal insecurities.

It must be easy for scientists to trumpet bravado throughout the infinite universe. The scientific method is our best testable explanation for the physical world. Montgomery resists that temptation, realizing that religion does count for something after all. Religion evolved for a reason. Maybe it isn’t scientific, but it helps people to make sense of their world. Instead of characterizing religion and science as combatants in a war, Montgomery likens the opposition to a dance where the partners sometimes step on each other’s toes. I read his book dreaming my geological dreams, lost in deep time, and thinking that the world is maybe even more wondrous than miracles could ever convey. And we have occasional floods, and floods sometimes give us reasons for going on. There’s perhaps something religious about that.