Closed System?

Photo credit: NASA, public domain

Nothing is wasted.  Not in nature.  Maybe that’s the true economy of life.  We humans come in and make our habitat in our own image and then start throwing things away.  I’m no great fan of yard work.   I would just as soon let nature take its course, but if it did I’d soon have no place to live.  Trees find their way into the cracks in the foundation and those flaccid white roots we see dangling from the ends of weeds can insinuate themselves into tiny places and slowly expand.  Buildings left without maintenance soon begin to crumble.  I’m reminded of this every time I visit Bethlehem Steel.  Weather, plants, even the occasional raven, slowly tear down what human hubris has built.  And it doesn’t stop there.

We set up a composting area for all those weeds, yes.  A place where we could make our own soil.  After three years it was pretty full and when I went to cut back the ever-growing trees and vines, I learned the bees had claimed our pile for their own.  Not happy to see me poking around their home—not happy at all—they began to hover aggressively.  I got the message.  Nothing is wasted, not even compost.  

Our species is in love with petroleum products.  We can’t live without plastic.  Looking at all the plastic litter around is evidence enough of this one-sided affair.  Our plastics cause so many problems.  They do break down, but never go away.  They get eaten.  Undigestible, they can slowly poison animals.  Whatever isn’t recycled becomes part of us.  Nothing is wasted.

Yard work monopolizes my weekends from May through October.  This year it started in April.  I had to mow the lawn in November.  Really only four months to make it through without the endless cycle of birth, growth, death.  Those who are worried that nature won’t recover from our foolish species haven’t paid close attention.  Even as we live here the seeds find every crevice and life, life is irrepressible!  Scientists try to tell us life is unique to this planet, but looking at its tenacity, how can that possibly be the case?  The tardigrade can survive extreme dehydration, very high pressure, very low pressure, radiation, air deprivation, and starvation.  It seems like the perfect space traveller.  We try to make the world in our own image.  We like to think our version of the world is the one to endure.  Nothing is wasted.  Nothing short of human hubris.


As Nature Directs

The news about the “stampede” in Israel last week is tragic.  People like to gather in large crowds once in a while.  Religious events are sometimes such occasions (although not so much the case among mainstream religions anymore).  In this case the celebration, largely among the Ultra-Orthodox, was Lag BaOmer, a festival with unknown origins.  It has to do with counting the omer, a measure, in a biblically based instruction regarding grain offerings.  Since it’s based on the lunar Jewish calendar, it doesn’t fall on the same date of the solar year every time.  To be honest, I’d not heard of this celebration before the tragedy that occurred last week.  Having been confined for over a year, many religious groups are anxious to be back together in numbers.  Nothing reinforces belief better than having the size to be taken seriously.

A few years back, if I recall correctly, it was Muslim faithful at Mecca who experienced a tragic uncontrolled panic.  Religious ideas bring people together, but they can’t always control the results.  I’m reminded of what a Protestant clergyman told me many years ago: after a Billy Graham crusade came to town, the regular ministers were ill-equipped to handle the large numbers of emotionally charged members who normally sat still in the pews.  Religion stirs people, but its psychological nature shows when it leads to tragedy.  No particular group is immune since we are all emotional animals.  One slip on the stairs, one panicked individual, and those nearby can be infected.  Already emotional from the event itself, nature takes its course.

Stampedes are an evolved flight response.  Herd animals, when perceiving a threat, begin to run.  Others, not even directly aware of the threat, join in.  Other animals, not aware of their “herd mentality,” seem to handle this more naturally than do people.  Indeed, our religions often instruct us not to think of ourselves as animals at all.  Our religious events are often removed from our familiar surroundings.  I suspect that may be one reason people don’t find “Zoom church” very satisfying.  The emotion of religion is more easily spread in person.  In a place specifically designed as being outside the norm.  You take your hat off in church.  You sit quietly, reverently, in church.  You do not use coarse language in church.  In a pandemic you try to join in while physically in the environment where the rest of everyday life occurs.  When we gather again, we must do it while being aware of our nature.  Being part of nature itself can often be, if well thought out, cause for celebration.  We mourn those who fall victim to it.


Unnatural Nature

It began as an odd sort of noise.  I had the study windows open during the morning of a heat wave and I heard a small, but metallic noise coming from the roof outside.  My study overlooks part of the first floor roof and slinking to the window I saw a sparrow trying to pick up a roofing nail.  We’ve had the roofers over twice already since we moved in a couple years back (and will have them again), and some of the nails from their work on the second-story roof landed here.  I’ve noticed sparrows pecking at them before.  Instead of skittishly flying away when I came up—I was only about a yard away—she still tried to lift the nail without success.  She then flew even closer to me, snatched up a different nail, and flew off with it.  Sparrows have, of course, adapted well to human dwellings, but what would a bird be wanting with a nail?  Surely not to make a nest?  It wasn’t even shiny—it was a rusty old one from the shingles replaced—since everyone knows birds are attracted to bright objects.

I’ve been a close watcher of nature my entire life.  This isn’t the same as being an outdoorsman, but when I can see outside, or when I do spend valued time outdoors, I look closely.  I always keep an eye out for animals on my daily jogs.  And I watch animal behavior through the window when work isn’t too pressing.  Still, I wonder about what a sparrow could want with a nail.  The next-door neighbors moved out a couple of months ago, and I watch the sparrows on their porch roof.  With no human activity nearby, they frequently gather there.  They seem to be picking up bits of human detritus—even pulling at, it looks from here, nails.  Now this behavior has me a little worried.  I’ve read about sparrows before and despite their innocent looks, they can be very aggressive birds, even attacking and sometimes killing larger perching fowl.  The idea of them weaponizing themselves is disconcerting.

Intelligence in nature is one of the last features many scientists want to admit to the the discussion.  There seems to be too strong a supposed correlation with shape of the physical brain and the ability to “think,” it seems to me.  I don’t know what the sparrows are planning, but clearly it involves gathering rusty old nails.  Even as I was writing this I noticed sparrows chirping aggressively.  Looking out my window across the street, I saw that a squirrel had crawled across an electric cable into a bushy roost where there must’ve been a sparrow nest.  Sparrows began flying into the fracas from all over the place, loudly chirping.  I couldn’t see what what happening because of the leaves, but the squirrel soon rushed out with a whole flutter of sparrows in pursuit.  Perhaps he’d discovered their plan with the nails.

Now, the next order of business…


Whether or Weather

It was a self-inflicted double feature.  I’d been pondering movies about the weather.  Tons of movies have the weather in them, sometimes even as a significant plot element.  Few films, however, take the weather as their central thesis.  These movies verge on horror as the weather is something much larger than we are and which is deadly.  Let’s face it, a film about sunny skies and light breezes doesn’t have much of a hook.  I began by watching The Perfect Storm.  I’d seen it before, of course.  Not much like its book, which is nonfiction, it follows the loss of the sword boat Andrea Gail in the eponymous storm of 1991.  Not all members of the crew get a backstory, and since nobody knows what really happened, it was a chance for special effects to drive the story just as massive waves drive the boat.  The weather, while central, is seldom commented upon.  The characters are motivated by trying to make a living but there’s not enough time to give all six of them adequate stories.  Add to that another boat with no backstory and the movie become disjointed and smoky.

The next feature was The Day after Tomorrow.  Again, I’d seen it before, but you know how one thing leads to another.  Like The Perfect Storm, The Day after Tomorrow introduces more subplots than the movie can handle, even bringing a Russian freighter up Fifth Avenue in order to have a wolf-chase scene that is simply dropped after it’s discovered that wolves can’t climb ladders.  Still, the latter story has an environmental message.  Aware that human activity does lead to global warming, it tries to picture what would happen if it were speeded up into a matter of weeks rather than years.  No  matter how long it takes, the weather will get you.

As I’ve contended before, the sheer scope of the weather practically makes it divine.  Although we live in different climatic zones we’re all tied together under a single, volatile, powerful atmosphere.  Early humans realized that their survival depended on the weather.  Drought kills as readily as sudden ice ages.  The key, it seems, is balance.  Nature isn’t kind to species who assert too much dominance.  One of the means of nature’s control is the weather.  Until the development of meteorology, and even after its first tentative steps, the weather was considered a divine bailiwick.  We may proclaim it entirely natural, but it still commands its share of awe and majesty.  And it can easily claim a few weekend hours searching the skies for some kind of meaning.


Hearing Nature’s Voice

Silence is a rare treat.  I enjoy music and witty repartee just as much as the next guy, but silence is revelatory.  At home and in hotels I sleep to the sound of a white noise generator.  You can’t predict the sounds of neighbors, and my hours are askew from those of the rest of the world.  Here at the lake, things are different.  I awake early, hoping to catch the sun as it trips over the mountain tops across the way, lighting successive peaks before it reaches the near horizon.  It is utterly still.  Perhaps it’s the interference of humans in the habitat, but crepuscular animals seldom wander past.  The stillness is divine.  For some the lake means loud jet skis and buzzing motorboats.  I come here seeking silence.

Our daily lives lack peace.  Even when things are good there are always more things to be done.  We cram as much as possible into days impossibly short, giving at least eight out of every twenty-four to those who deign to pay us for our efforts.  Sleep is troubled and interrupted.  There are noises in the night.  You can’t hear your soul.  As the first rays seep into the valleys across the lake the birds begin to greet it.  Their conversation may interrupt the silence, but it doesn’t break it.  Silence is finding one’s place in nature.  Taking time to be still.  To listen.

Thirty years ago I first came to the lake.  My wife had been coming here for years already before that.  There have been many changes even in my short time here.  I can, however, hear eternity in the silence, for forever is a whisper, not a shout.  As I watch the morning mist arise, skate, and dance over the surface of the water as still as the very mountains that cradle it, I strain my ears to catch any sound.  The twirling wraiths are as silent as they are ephemeral.  They spin away the last minutes before the whine of an early morning fisherman’s boat begins its sleepy journey to the deep water in the middle of the lake, herald of other daylight noises to come.  I will await tomorrow’s unction of silence, and although the baptism may be secular it’s redemptive after all.  Nature knows far more about the human soul than any measurements might reveal.  You only have to listen to hear it.


Reveries of the Fall

Just a quarter of an hour, studies show, of time in the woods can reduce stress. I suspect that if those fifteen minutes are spent running from a bear the opposite might result, but in general time in nature is an incredible solace. The weather hasn’t been particularly cooperative for October walks in the woods around here, but yesterday my wife and I managed to spend some time, along with many others, in Hacklebarney State Park, one of New Jersey’s gems. Living in the most densely populated state, to gather from the number of hikers we saw, encourages time in the woods. It was good to be reminded of the compelling scent of autumn leaves, the wonder of seeing their colors in the daylight when daily commutes begin and end in the dark. When work days are spent in the grayness of the city. Being out with nature, to borrow words from the Good Book, restoreth our souls.

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I suppose there’s nothing really logical about it. We’ve built civilization to protect ourselves from nature. Solid walls to keep predators out. Heat, running water, and electricity so that we can surf the internet without ever going outdoors. Permanent settlement always within reach of cell phone service and work email, we are the scions of civilization. Being unplugged just for an hour or two—even fifteen minutes—can feel like salvation. If that fifteen minutes is spent among rocks, trees, and the peculiar light that reflects off a lazy river. The internet will always wait, won’t it? Thoughts of work can be suspended until Monday, can’t they?

Hiking among the other expatriates of civilization in what used to be the Garden State contrasts so sharply with the image we project to the world. The Chris Christies and Donald Trumps who bluster that nature is there to be exploited. They may not say so with words, but lifestyles speak so much louder than syllables. Gaining wealth requires putting one’s own agenda first. We’re out here picking our way carefully over a rocky path. We have to stop frequently to let others go by the other way, or to let those faster than us pass by. But we’re all out here for the same reason. It’s a beautiful autumn day and spending it indoors feels wrong. I know that even getting online now feels like my time is being demanded by a million distractions. Unplugging, walking at a moderate pace, feeling the cool air and breathing the aroma of fall deeply into tired lungs, I can feel the stress draining away. If only for a day.


Finding Your Way

lost-artOnce while visiting the house of a friend, we took a walk in the woods. It was an area I didn’t know and after a few minutes it became clear that we were lost. There can be nearly no other feeling more frightening for a child. We wandered in the trees shouting for help for what seemed far longer than the maybe twenty minutes or so that my friend was disoriented. The message was clear: never go somewhere unless you know how to get where you’re going. I’ve been lost a few times since then and the gut-twisting fear is the same. Where am I? The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, by Tristan Gooley, is an amazing book for anyone who’s had that experience. We are residents of earth and we should know how to find our way around the place. Instead, most of us live in urban environments and never spend a lot of time outdoors learning that nature provides many, many clues to finding your way. You just have to know what to look for. I found myself wishing I could memorize large sections of this tome, assuring myself I’d never be lost again.

There is an irony about reading such a book during the commute to Manhattan. Apart from his small chapter on navigating in cities, Gooley spends most of his time offering advice on spotting hints in nature. I can’t believe the behavior of the mice, rats, pigeons, and cockroaches I’ve seen in the city is any less neurotic than that of the people. In nature trees, plants, land forms, weather, fungi, and the stars can all be used to guide a person home. There is a touch of quaint Britishness to the book, but the tips included quite often branch out to specifics in the United States, or even elsewhere. What all of this means is that in its own language the earth makes sense. We need to learn this language. Although Gooley doesn’t say it here, when we destroy our environment we’re increasing our ability to get lost.

One of the more interesting sections of the book used churches as a means of orienting oneself in unfamiliar country or a town. Church architecture, at least initially, followed a regular logic with an eastern orientation and opinions about the sacredness of the ground on the north-south axis as well. Knowing this holy geography, along with the ability to read lichens growing on the outside and finding the clues on tombstones, you can often find your way. There’s some poignancy here. There was a time when churches, synagogues, and mosques were natural means of showing people their cardinal points. We’ve come to rely on our devices to show us the way, and it’s a little early to know if that’s been a mistake. And if it weren’t for work today, I’d be outdoors, taking a walk and trying to learn to find my way through nature.


Nature Worship

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Here I am in a natural setting, with nature close at hand. From these windows I can see mountains, a mercury-smooth lake with fish breaking its silvery sheet, and trees aspiring for the sky. I hear a red squirrel chattering from one of those trees, and the call of a lonely osprey looking for its morning meal. It took a day of arduous travel to get here, and I am staring at a computer screen as nature puts on her show for me. I think, “it’ll still be there when I get done.” Then I think about what I think. Will it be there? This world we’re creating in our own image demands more and more of the planet we inhabit. To which we feel entitled. As I stood at the airport staring at the monitor, I couldn’t believe that my flight had been cancelled. What? I arrived at the airport at 5 a.m., flew countless miles, only to have you tell me my flight has been cancelled? Am I not owed better than this?

This attitude, I reflect, may be what brought us to such a place to begin with. This incredibly beautiful world was never ours to own. We’re guests. Invited perhaps, but guests nevertheless. And we all know that guests are supposed to be gracious and to act as if they wish to be invited back. So why am I rudely sitting here, ignoring my host? We are part of nature, but we tend to think of those closely attuned to nature as “uncivilized.” They don’t dress like city dwellers. Their hair is worn differently. They value things money can’t buy. They don’t play the entrepreneur’s game.

I travel to “get away from it all.” That which I’m getting away from is my life every other day of the year. How did we come to call this “civilized”? There’s no denying the creature comforts of a place to call home and a routine that seldom varies. But sitting here, amid nature, I realize the tremendous cost. Even as soon as it began to warm up in New Jersey we tried to carve out the time to explore local parks. To be outdoors among nature before heading back to the office on Monday. The whole point of worship is to break the flow of everyday time. To stop and think of the good that we have been invited to enjoy. I find myself amid this splendor, and I sit at my computer while nature awakens around me.


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.


Le sacrifice humain

The thought of lying tied to an altar while you know someone is about to murder you is a terrifying one. For several reasons. Clearly, you don’t want to die. A more potent fear, however, may be that a darkly savage deity lies behind the dead. An angry, demanding god who desires nothing less than your annihilation. A story in the Washington Post by Sarah Kaplan suggests new findings by anthropologists now suggest a much more frightening rationale behind the world-wide phenomenon of human sacrifice. Kaplan reports that the article in Nature suggests human sacrifice was a means of social stratification. Maintaining control. Surely it must be obvious that those sacrificed are never the powerful and elite, unless, in a reversal of power structures, they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the might that makes right. Think of England’s King Charles I, for example. The societies scrutinized in this study, however, are less “civilized” and human sacrifice is a means to remind people who’s in charge.

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What I find interesting about this is how easily the discussion slips into religion being part of the mix. Those of us who’ve spent our professional youths earning advanced degrees in the field have long realized that there is a political element to religion. Temples, yes, were built to the glory of their gods. They were also built to help finance the monarchies in power. Even the temple in Jerusalem was only erected after the monarchy was finally entrenched. Priests supported kings and kings supported priests. They were the elites of society. As Nathan so aptly pointed out, you don’t sacrifice your own lamb when you’re rich. You take someone else’s. Thus it has always been with the exercise of power.

The Nature study examines stratified and egalitarian societies. Human sacrifice is most pronounced in the most stratified. Those where—let’s not be too blunt here—the top one percent want to demonstrate their obvious control over the rest, human sacrifice is most common. Is it really religious? I think the answer is obvious. The gods people worship are those that are most like themselves. The difference is largely one of power. Might, despite all protestations to the contrary, does make right. Or at least right-wing. Human sacrifice still occurs. If the new study is right (and who can argue with science?) there is only one way to avoid being at the wrong end of the sacrificial knife. Or stone. Or torch. And it is to sacrifice the potential to become rich in order to ensure true equality.


The Reign of Rain

I’m on vacation for a week. My job is such that taking vacation is becoming a rare commodity, what with precious few allotted days and move-in, move-out schedules of a collegiate child, and so on. And also company policy about keeping employees in the office between Christmas and New Year. Anyway, now that I’m here I should be kicking back and enjoying the beautiful lake and getting out to do the things inmates of the city seldom do. It has, however, rained every day that I’ve been here. Not all-day rains, of course, but just enough that plans have to be interrupted or changed at the last minute. I end up sitting in the cabin playing Solitaire when I should be out getting some fresh air. So it goes.
Ironically, I am staying in the drought-stricken west. The western United States, I learned when researching for Weathering the Psalms, has been ensconced in a decades’ long drought. In fact, prior to my family trip here it hadn’t rained in quite a while. Our arrival with the clouds was, after all, mere coincidence. Still, it’s hard not to take the weather personally. I know that the weather is larger than any one person’s needs or desires. I also know that water is a commodity even rarer than vacation days, largely because of our misuse of the limited supply that we have. California’s plight has been in the news. We have large cities in water-challenged environments and people treat water like there’s no end to its abundance while the opposite is the case. Just thinking about it makes me thirsty.
There are many things a person can go without, some of which feel absolutely essential at the time. Many vacations, I know, are extravagant. Fancy hotels, high-priced entertainment, exotic locations. Work can feel so crushing that vacation my become the one island of sanity in the midst of a hostile ocean of obligation. For me, vacation is time with family in a stripped-down, natural setting. Of course, we do indulge in some of the comforts of home, but having nothing in view outside the window beyond that which nature dictates is a transcendent experience. From where I sit, I can see nothing of human artifice. I do see clouds, however. I know that more rain is on the way. And I know that it is a gift, complain as we might, of the highest magnitude.
  


Fly Like an Eagle

Hummingbirds, according to my bird book, have hearts that beat 1260 times a minute. That translates, if my math is to be trusted, to 21 beats per second. As the only birds capable of flying backwards, their aerial acrobatics are fascinating to watch as they hover, accelerate, and change directions like a biological UFO. During the summer they guzzle the empty calories of sugar-water that we leave for them in our feeders, so that we can lure them close enough to observe (that is, after all, how humans interact with their environment). The other day I watched a snapshot of developmental behavior. This July has been a good one for hummingbirds, with several a day visiting the local watering hole. I sometimes wonder about the flowers that are overburdened with nectar as these tiny birds hover by their communal font. At first it seemed that only one bird frequented the feeder. Then two came along, and although four feeding spouts were available, one would always chase the other away in a dogfight worthy of Baron von Richthofen. A third showed up, and when the first was busy chasing the second away, would fly over to the feeder to attempt a nip. Then a fourth. Eventually a fifth. And although there are four evenly spaced openings, only one took a drink at a time.

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“Bird brain” is a speciesist insult. Many birds are very intelligent and the comparison with human behavior is often apt. Protecting one’s private stash that is more than adequate for the community is worthy of comparison. Not to complicate speciesisms, but when a person prevents another from enjoying what one cannot, we call it being a dog in a manger (dogs, of course, do not eat the provender of the barnyard herbivores). A bird flying so fast that it’s a blur chases another away and cannot enjoy the high-calorie, human intoxicant we offer so that we can appreciate its incredible display. If we could fly like that, would we be so short-sighted?

God-like, we attempt to make nature in our own image. And mix metaphors like a professional editor. Not far from the shelter of the human breadline we offer, hover the larger, predatory birds. Those who fly fastest, super-charged with sugar and spite, stand a better chance of surviving. And when a luxury liner encounters an iceberg in the frigid north Atlantic, those who’ve lingered longer at the feeder are better equipped to gain quick access to the lifeboats that are sorely inadequate for the overbooked cruise. And if I were on board, would I not be like a hummingbird in the manger? My heart beats 21 times a second just to think about it.


Dead Wood

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Whether it makes a sound or not, when a tree falls in the forest it joins that great cycle that embraces all living things. Decomposition is as much a part of life as conception. Rotting logs provide homes and minerals and nutrients to other living creatures. Although the individual life is over, life as a whole goes on. Nowhere is this more evident than in nurse logs. Nurse logs are those trees that directly host seedlings after they die. While examining such a nurse log yesterday my daughter said, “It’s life after death.” Resurrection. The more I reflected on nature’s resurrection, the more selfish the human concept seemed to become. We want—and some of our religions offer—individual resurrection, the continuance of me, not mere life.

Nature has no theology. In its immediacy and pragmatism, creatures live without pondering what it means, striving to pass on the gift of life they’ve been given through their offspring to keep the cycle going. Evolution may shape forms into new varieties along the way, but we are more amoeba than angel. We are part of something larger than ourselves. Unfortunately our society has evolved to emphasize individual drive over collective effort. We don’t want to tax the ultra wealthy, for they are where we all want to be. It is the poor who are sacrificed on the unholy altar of this thinking that truly reflect what nature intends for us to be.

To justify our selfish outlook humans made gods in their image, adding prerogative to perfidy. Somehow we deserve more than others—longer life and even more life after that. Evolution has, in its non-directional way, distorted the picture by providing us with inordinately parsimonious attribution of souls, according to theologians. Nature belies our paltry attempts at self-deification. Quietly in the forest a tree dies, offering its life for those that will come after. The nurse log knows the true meaning of resurrection, while we fumble to gain more for ourselves, backed by the religions we’ve invented.


Vindication

Back in the summer of 2009, I chose the name of this blog on a whim. Relatives had been encouraging me to provide a platform for podcasts and the occasional post and asked me what I would call such a blog. The pun of sects and violence initially drew some good humored interest, but there was a serious subtext beneath the choice. Nature has now published an article declaring that violence and sex are related. (Sects and violence is a no-brainer; just look at the newspaper.) The connection has been established satisfactorily only in the brains of mice so far, but what is the real difference between mice and men?

Yes, men. The studies focus on the male brain, that organ that continues to confound those of us who daily try to use one. Certain circuits in the mouse hypothalamus trigger either a violent or loving response when stimulated certain ways. Aggression is almost an automatic response. My mind tied this in with the Singularity article in last week’s Time. As we race forward with technological mergers between artificial intelligence and the human machine, do we really understand what that brain is that we are attempting to emulate electronically? Biology, according to many theorists, does not bow to the rules of reductionism. What happens when the violence of natural circuits (fight or flight) kick in with titanium feet?

I commented on a friend’s post when he cited the Singularity article in Time. Others responded to my remarks suggesting I did not take the reality of this seriously enough. Those who are familiar with Sects and Violence in the Ancient World will have no such questions. The minds that have given us both gods and guns are machines that can not be replicated precisely. Their function is to keep a degenerating biological mass alive. Electronic brains with replaceable parts (think Wall-e) have no such concerns. The missing limb syndrome is a very human response that is well recognized by those who understand the human psyche. And that psyche, it seems, is ready to fight as long as it is properly stimulated.

A boy's eye-view of the world


Blessing Nature

Today is the traditional Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Yesterday the local Episcopal Church celebrated this feast with the somewhat Anglophile practice of the blessing of the animals. This is not generally an event to which my family pays particular attention – although we are animal lovers the only pets we have are hermit crabs and the spiders and bugs that naturally make their home along with us. Yesterday also happened to be a beautiful day for the local street fair and my brother and his family joined mine for the event. His family includes a dog and we noticed a sign advertising the local blessing of the animals. As my brother noted that his dog might better do with an exorcism, we decided to pick up a free blessing while the offer was good.

Normally animal services are held outdoors. This in itself is a commentary on the true equality of species. Many people feel it sacrilegious to bring animals into churches. Biologically speaking, however, that would exclude us all. Perhaps for allergies or the price of carpet cleaning it may be more expedient to bless the critters outside. After all, animals do fend for themselves out-of-doors, right? As we sat in an informal circle, the priest emerged from his office with his own dog at his side. A makeshift card-table altar had a simple wooden cross atop it to sanctify the area. As soon as they reached the center of our circle, the priest’s dog squatted to defecate on the lawn. It was a lighthearted moment, but it also spawned some reflection.

When it comes to religious settings and ceremonies, many normal behaviors and actions are considered inappropriate. This invisible divide reflects the time-honored division between the sacred and the profane. There is no tangible way to distinguish between the two; sacredness is a matter of cultural taste. Absolutes for sacred and profane simply do not exist. A priest’s dog following the dictates of nature is about as sacred an example of life as experienced by all creatures on this earth as any other. Expelling of waste is one of the characteristics of life as we know it. While some may find dog droppings offensive in sacred settings, I have a feeling St. Francis would simply have laughed.

Your dog did what?