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.

A Parable

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a holiday known as Earth Day. Now, Earth Day was a poor holiday. She didn’t prostitute herself to commercialism, she wasn’t attached to any religion, and people didn’t even get the day off work. Still, she was an optimistic holiday. One of her prophets was a woman named Rachel Carson. A science writer who could see that our rampant greed and fatal shortsightedness were leading to environmental catastrophe, Carson wrote books of warning. People began to take heed. An ecology movement was born. New concepts like “sustainability” and “stewardship” and “moderation” became part of national consciousness. Other nations joined in. Earth Day was born. She was a happy child.

But there were demons in this land. Huddled in filthy holes in the ground, these demons cared only for owning as much of the earth as they could. They wanted to heat the planet so much that Earth Day couldn’t survive. They would drown her in the waters of her melted ice caps—her very tears. These demons couldn’t do it alone. They lived in the dark and since they cared for no one else, they had to find a Devil among them. A Devil who could quote Scripture. Such a Devil, they reasoned, would make the followers of the dead God join them. The followers of the dead God were like sheep without a shepherd. And the demons had all the money in the world. So they decided to kill Earth Day. Nobody would stop them.

With Earth Day gone, the weather went wild. Winds constantly blew. Hurricanes of new and intense savagery emerged year after year. The demons laughed, for when the people’s things were destroyed they would have to buy replacements. The demons would become even richer. The followers of the dead God clapped their hands in glee. But the demons and their Devil didn’t know that Earth Day couldn’t die. They did as they pleased, taking what they wanted from the what they supposed was her corpse. Then the weather, Earth Day’s dearest friend, began to do what it would in its rage. The demons awaited summer when they might feel hot again, but summer only comes after Earth Day. Oblivious, they lived their lives of plunder and greed until the followers of the dead God were all gone and they had no one left from whom to steal. Rejoicing in their acquisition of all the earth, they failed to notice the storm. Earth Day was returning and all their wealth could not save them.

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.

Sea Around Us

Re-reading books is something I do somewhat too infrequently. One of the obvious reasons is that I won’t possibly finish everything I want to read in my lifetime as it is, and once something’s in the vault I tend to move on. I keep books, however, because I frequently go back to them to refresh my memory. Wholesale re-reading takes commitment. I just finished re-reading Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. It’s difficult to describe the impact this book had on me when I first read it, years ago. Even though modern editions state that it retains its authority (broadly it does) I couldn’t help but be struck by a number of things this time through. Carson thought of herself as a writer. In her day that meant adhering to the conventions of language, which was, I admit, embarrassingly masculine. The assumptions of the 1940s and ‘50s against which Carson struggled set the very frame for the discussion. I recall being told in school, by female English teachers, that the only proper pronoun to use when the subject was of indeterminate gender was the masculine. I raised my eyebrows, but being good at following rules, I didn’t raise my hand.

Not that this takes away from the poetry and mastery of The Sea Around Us. It is a wonderful book. It also made many people stop and think about the ocean for the first time. Really think. And that’s a second observation about my re-reading. Hearing the recitation of how, historically—or prehistorically—the oceans covered much of North America. Thinking about how my hometown, far, far inland would’ve been underwater for eons really made me ponder. We’ve built our coastal cities rapidly, and with typical human short-sightedness. Even without our generous input, global warming has been ongoing for centuries. Sea-levels have been rising. Our desire for wealth, settling as close as possible to the water to facilitate trade, didn’t take into account what would happen in the perhaps foreseeable future. Even now when the warning is loud and clear the businessmen of the White House are in full denial.

There’s a kind of strange justice to this. You see, one of the other features of The Sea Around Us, and one of the most compelling aspects of the book, is Carson’s narrative of how we came from the sea and our desire is to return to the sea. Our blood evolved from ocean water. We rely constantly and in significant ways on the oceans. They, for example, are the powerhouses and condensation points for almost all of our weather. They separate us and bring us together. The very origin of life itself basks in pelagic profundity. Indeed, the ocean supplies the very concept of “profound.” The deeps. Although it had a beginning, it seems the world ocean will outlive our tribal little race. Damaged and poisoned by our greed, in eons it will recover. And those beings that survive will find their own wisdom beneath the waves.

See Around Us

There aren’t too many people that I consider personal heroes. Those that I do have earned the sobriquet in odd ways, I suppose. That makes them no less deserving. Rachel Carson became a hero because of The Sea Around Us. Published over a decade before I was born, it was a book that I treasured as a teen—or even as a tween, had the word existed then. I was no literary critic, but her style and lyrical writing drew me in and my own love of the ocean I’d never seen was kept alive through her words. Mark Hamilton Lytle, I think, shares my evaluation of Carson as a hero. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement brought out much of what I admired, and still admire, about her. A woman in a “man’s world,” she became a scientist with a gift for literary finesse. She struggled, she believed, and she died far too young.

Lytle’s book builds up to the publication of Silent Spring, which appeared just two years before Carson’s untimely death. I picked up Silent Spring as a tween as well, but only read it within the last few years. I knew this book had nearly singlehandedly launched the environmental movement, but as the shame of modern life constantly reminds me, I’d been too busy to read it. Born the year it was published, and not terribly far from where Carson herself was born, I had an affinity with the book that strangely kept me from it. It isn’t easy to read, even today. Especially today. With a government ignorantly rolling away all the environmental safeguards that six decades of careful thought have put into place, we need Carson now as much as we did in the 1960s. Her modern critics, as might be expected, tend to be men.

Carson showed that a woman can change the world. Those who disparage her stunning work claim that her following is a religion, not science. Carson was a rare scientist who saw that everything is interconnected. There may be some mysticism to this, but for those willing to admit it, we feel it to be true. On the eve of environmental degradation that will, in a perverse kind of justice, possibly wipe us out, we need to return to the fine words and clear thinking of one woman who took on industrial giants to give a voice to the people. We do have a right to determine what happens to our planet. Lytle makes the point that Carson was like a prophet. For me the comparative preposition can be removed altogether.

Maritime Dreams

MaineEarly in my teaching career, I used to arrive in Milwaukee on a train after midnight. A student from Nashotah House on work-study would pick me up at the train station and drive me the thirty miles to the seminary so that I could teach the next morning. Along the way, depending on the student, conversation ensued. One time I asked the driver why he was interested in what seemed to me an arcane topic (and that’s saying something!). He replied, “Who can ever say why they’re interested in something?” There was some deep wisdom there, I realized. Can any of us say why we’re interested in what we are? I, for example, don’t know why I’m interested in life on the sea. And in the sea. I fell in love with the idea of living on the coast when I was a landlocked child. The ocean came to me only in books, and I never actually saw an ocean until I went to graduate school. The experience confirmed for me that this was where my heart lies. The salt air, the gray waves, the constant call of the pounding surf. Moby Dick immediately became a kind of personal scripture when I first read it. A life near the sea felt right.

I could never really answer the question why. I don’t swim, and besides, the ocean currents I have experienced are really too strong for the placid kind of swimming a lake or pool seems to offer. I don’t own a boat, and I’m a poor pilot when asked to drive one. I’ve been out over the ocean on commercial boats only a couple of times. Still, the imagination is fired by the idea of the ocean. Especially the stormy north Atlantic. As a child Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us was one of my favorite books. Just staring at the cover could transport me to places I’d never seen. When landlocked in Wisconsin for several years, I turned to the Great Lakes for consolation. “Those who go down to the sea in ships” Psalm 107 declares, “Who do business on great waters; They have seen the works of the Lord.” Even so those who dream of the sea.

Ironically, for the Psalm, the Israelites were not a seafaring nation. Good harbors are rare on the coast of ancient Israel, and the maritime trade of antiquity was dominated by the neighbors to the north, the Phoenicians. Still, even the psalmist could dream of the sea. It has been said by various commentators, that the sea represents sexuality, or transcendence, or both. It is larger than we are. Indeed, the earth is by far mostly water as opposed to dry land. Life, even according to Genesis, first began in the waters. So I find myself in the midst of winter thinking about the ocean. It has been a long while since I’ve indulged in a day on the coast, even though I’m pretty much daily in a city on the sea. But I can’t experience the ocean so well with so many people around. Besides, there’s work to do. In those moments when my time is my own, however, I still dream of the ocean and the endless possibilities it represents.

Land’s End

Although not due for release for another two years, the internet is already buzzing about Pirates of the Caribbean 5. Thing is, once a studio finds a successful formula, they’re reluctant to let it go. Nevertheless, with a couple days off for New Year’s, and all the family here, we decided on a marathon of the four movies available for home viewing. I used to use a clip from the second movie (Dead Man’s Chest) in my classes to demonstrate how the Bible is portrayed in popular culture. In the scene where Pintel and Ragetti are rowing toward the beached Black Pearl, Ragetti is leafing through a Bible, although he can’t read. He says, in his defense, “It’s the Bible. You get credit for trying.” Indeed, the Bible appears disguised as the huge codex of the pirate code (a kind of over-compensatory pentateuch), and, as I noted before, the book that saves the mermaid’s life in On Stranger Tides. In fact, for those willing to look behind the scenes, the Bible shows up repeatedly in the series.

Even as a landlocked child maritime themes and concepts were compelling to me. I yearned for the ocean without ever seeing it. Long I stared at the cover of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us in wonder. When I finally had the opportunity to strike out on my own, it was to Boston I headed, with its rich New England tradition of the sea. I have tried, ever since, to return there. Theologians, although I don’t count myself among their number, have often found a religious resonance with the sea. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, based as they have been on a Disney ride, nevertheless manage to tap into the romance of the ocean. Not compellingly written, apart from the fun antics of Captain Jack Sparrow, they don’t present an entirely coherent story line, but they do put the viewer, vicariously, at least, on the ocean. And they have been among the most successful film series ever released. Many, I suspect, are drawn by the lure of the open ocean.

Rewatching the films also reminded me of Cthulhu’s influence on the character of Davy Jones. The origins of the euphemism “Davy Jones’ locker” are uncertain, although some trace it back to Jonah. Nevertheless, it stands for the place of death on the sea floor—the very place where Cthulhu lies dead but dreaming according to his creator H. P. Lovecraft. No doubt, Lovecraft’s description of Cthulhu played into the depiction of the character of Davy Jones as presented by Disney. At the end of At World’s End, Jones falls dead, once again, into the maelstrom that will take him back, dreaming, to the ocean floor. In so doing he participates in the endless give and take of the sea. I suspect a couple years hence will find me in a theater to watch what seems a somewhat tired trope, but it will be more the sea than the sparrow that will draw me in.

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

A Tale of Two Bees

We’re nearing the competition season for FIRST Robotics. The animated, mechanical creatures created from scratch since early January are now set to compete for a kind of ultimate, ultimate frisbee. Only you can’t call it “frisbee,” for copyright reasons. Ironically drone bombers have been in the headlines this past week. Drones are robotic planes that fly their missions with human pilots sitting safely hundreds, or even thousands of miles away from the action. People are beginning to wonder—is this ethical? I pull out the Scientific American I purchased at Bush International in Houston last week. There’s an article about robo-bees. In a scare that seems like it could have come straight from the X-Files, I’ve been reading about the disappearance of bees. There are people seriously worried about this. It does seem that we failed to learn the lesson of Rachel Carson, and a land of milk and honey just doesn’t appeal without the honey.

The robo-bees are the size and roughly the shape of biological bees. They can be programmed to behave like bees and pollinate plants that our missing bees have been, well, missing. There may be hope for the flowers after all. But I wonder about the honey. No doubt, technology will come to the rescue. Those labs that gave us sucralose, aspartame, and stevia can surely invent a golden, viscous liquid sweetener that drips from a pipette. No cause for worry here. We can recreate the natural world in the laboratory. Honey has been reputed to have medicinal effects, but we can synthesize medicines in the lab as well. You might not want to dribble those on your biscuits, however.

Honey is made from nectar, the mythological food of the gods. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism all recognize the religious significance of honey. Those of us who’ve been stung realize that a price has to be paid for such divine sweetness. The gods are like that. Roses have thorns for a reason. Not that I’m not impressed with the technology behind robo-bees. I am astounded that tiny robots can be built to fly and perform as we understand nature to dictate the Apis genus. They don’t, however, have the minds of bees. Mind is not the same as brain, as we’re beginning to learn. And minds are not limited to Homo sapiens. I recall when in our arrogance we thought we could improve the productivity of bees (capitalist bees) by breeding them with their Africanized cousins, biologically separated by an ocean. Many nightmares haunted me of the resulting killer bees. Yes, I had been stung as a child. Just by regular, garden-variety bees. From those painful events I learned a valuable lesson. We tinker with nature at our own cost. I, for one, am willing to deal with real-life stingers to taste the very food of the gods.

True bee or not true bee?

True bee or not true bee?

Implausible Deniability

Sandy gave us a little taste of dampness under the gunnel. You see, people live by the water because it beckons to us. That was actually Rachel Carson’s idea, but nevertheless, we do find ourselves drawn to the sea around us. Historically our great cities grew in the littoral because communication across the big water was, prior to jet travel and trans-oceanic cables, the best way to stay in touch. Have a business meeting in London, but live in New York? No problem. We can get you there in two-to-three weeks. And the ship sets sail. Since that day we’ve become more electronic. Those of us who experienced Sandy near New York City know that one of the biggest problems was that salt water and electrified trains don’t mix. Of course, conservative lobbies have insisted that Congress and the White House keep their eyes firmly shut about the possibility that a more unstoppable flood is coming. We may not need an ark, but we’re going to have to take some steps back.

A story on the Weather Channel shows the “smoking gun” of global warming. Oh wait, that’s just a myth. Industrialists tell us so. But what a devastating myth! The Gulf Stream waters of yore have kept the climate mild in northern latitudes. While in Scotland we spent a wonderful weekend with some friends on the Island of Arran in the Hebrides. Palm trees growing in Scotland? Yes! The warm Gulf Stream means that much of the British Isles remains relatively temperate despite their latitude. The Gulf Stream, due to climate change, is slowing. In less than a century, climatologists now predict, the oceans will rise three feet. Looks like I’ll need to wear my gaiters to work. We’ve known for about half of my life that we’ve been changing our environment. And not for the better. Those who are too wealthy stand to lose a little so we do what we can to protect them, the poor dears. The rest of us had better learn to swim.

We don’t worry when the people of some Indonesian island point out that their entire world may submerge. Put a little ocean water in the subway and, well, that’s an entirely other story. How are the peons to get to work? Let them wear hip-boots. Word from the top one percent is that there is no global warming. If the Gulf Stream is slowing down it’s because it’s lazy. What a moocher! Suppose it will be wanting a health plan next. That’s the problem with the weather—it changes like, uh, the weather. Unlike the minds of some people that are already made up and never change, no matter what the facts. When the one-percenters start speaking, I’m glad I’m wearing my hip-boots after all.

Where can I get me one of those?

Where can I get me one of those?

Silent Fright

“[A] sight to be endured with one’s mind closed to thoughts of the sterile and hideous world we are letting our technicians make,” is how Rachel Carson described the indiscriminate use of herbicides fifty years ago. Silent Spring, although clearly dated, remains a chilling book for a number of reasons. One of the most obvious is that although the book is half-a-century old, the breakdown of some of our toxins released into the environment before it was written is still not complete. And perhaps more frightening still is the fact that we continue to stumble forward without giving enough thought to where our actions against our planet might lead. The quote above presses urgently at the heart of the matter: those with the destructive interests are almost always those who set the agenda. As Carson noted fifty years ago, the right of the nature lover to enjoy an unspoiled part of nature is just as valid as the right of the greedy to rape the landscape for “resources.” But we all know who eventually gets their way.

On a finite planet with finite resources, one of those that cannot be replaced is the beauty that nature has spent billions of years evolving us to appreciate. Desire for beauty reaches down to our most primal and basic levels. In the United States how many people drive hundreds or thousands of miles just to see Yellowstone every year? And yet, last time I was there I spied an empty can carelessly tossed into one of the stunning blue hot pools that require a delicate balance of nature to maintain. Those who appreciate the glory must always be those who pay the price. The fancy name for this is aesthetics, and some writers have suggested that the violation of beauty is a deeply disturbing problem on a philosophical or theological level. The basics are easily comprehended: we mar the planet at the cost of not only our own, but of every future generation.

Silent Spring warned those empowered to make laws that a dangerous road had already been selected. The radioactive fallout from bombs detonated to indicate national superiority continues to render some locations uninhabitable, and all of us carry traces of toxins that others have spread in our bodies. Humans, as Prometheus represents, have the ability of forethought. It is not always easy; in fact, it is often very hard. Somewhere back in a cave somewhere, long, long ago, even before our species emerged, future humans realized how. We teach. We teach our young of the dangers we’ve discovered, and instruct them to avoid them. As society evolved, money—the ultimate poison—crept into the environment and education became devalued. Even now, higher education—established for the joy of learning—has become economically driven job training. And people we’ve never met, and companies we’ve never heard of, pay off those who make laws, and another piece of our pristine environment disappears. Silent Spring remains in print, but how can we convince the disinterested to read it?

Fall Silent

Some books impact an individual profoundly. Others are powerful enough to influence an entire society. Rachel Carson was the author of both. Tributes to the fifty year landmark of the publication of Silent Spring have appeared this month, and although the players have changed, the plot remains the same. Bryan Walsh’s tribute in Time a few weeks back captures the essence of the situation: an environmental danger is discovered, “industry” will at first deny it, then attack the science, and then try to frighten the population with the inevitable escalation of costs. Sometimes common sense wins, but only after a long tantrum by those whose main desire is personal enrichment.

Silent Spring is credited with starting the ecological movement. Until the early 1960s the world seemed vast enough to absorb our filthy, toxic run-off. We were only on the cusp of understanding that the world is much smaller than we had ever imagined. Disney had not yet published the theme song that would get through to the American imagination. We had yet to stand on the moon and look back at just how tiny our troubles were in an infinite universe. Using pseudo-religious backing, industries often claim the planet was made for us. In truth, we evolved to adapt to this planet. The sad story after sad story of those who’d figured out how to line their pockets at the expense of the health, and often the lives, of others constitutes an ignoble hall of shame. Rachel Carson, who truly deserves the title of prophet, was considered the enemy of progress. Better living through chemicals—who hasn’t heard the phrase?

The science behind DDT, which nearly drove the bald eagle to extinction, is not the culprit. The radium that rotted the teeth, mouths, and jaws of young women employed to paint it on watch hands, had always been radioactive. The coal still burning under Centralia suffers from properties properly discovered by science. In case after case we find greed running away with the science. Science unlocks the secrets of our universe, but it also gives ideas to those who are always looking to make a buck. It may be that Rachel Carson knew she was slinging stones at giants when Silent Spring was published. This one biblical metaphor might come in useful for those who are able to see the larger picture. We’ve only got one planet and if we want it to survive we’ve got to make it last. Giants should come to fear the disadvantaged who know how to use slings, whether with rocks or words.

Metaphor

Author Neal Stephenson, inspired by fellow author George B. Dyson, built a baidarka a few years back. The baidarka, an Aleutian version of the sea kayak, was such a necessity of life among the Aleut that it was treated as a living being. Whenever I find myself at the same latitude and longitude as the baidarka Neal built, I like to take it out for a relatively safe lake voyage. I’m not much of a swimmer, and taking boats out on the big water always chills me before the water actually touches my skin, but this is a kind of ritual that I feel compelled to observe. It is a participation in the mythic world of the Aleut. As spiritual beings, kayaks were a necessary part of life for island dwellers. In their own way, I suppose, they are saviors.

Author and partner in the baidarka

Traveling by water, I find, is a spiritual experience that eschews scientific quantification. It is a feeling, not a measurable commodity. To quote the great sage Rat in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” We are born of water, mostly made of water, and ineluctably drawn to the water. Rachel Carson suggested in her classic, The Sea Around Us (always one of my favorite books), that having evolved from the sea we are forever yearning to get back to the sea. Water is life as much as blood is.

broken water

When water breaks by being forced into an unyielding shore or by being thrown over a cliff to become a waterfall, flinging refreshing spray into the air, its great energy is released. Although its flow may be interrupted it will break apart granite and basalt, literally moving mountains and carving coastlines. Water that is placid in the morning may be raging by the end of the day. Water is life, and if life is anything more than a metaphor no one has yet convinced me of it.

Mystical Aquariums

This is the dawning of the age of aquariums. With the Gulf oil spill still gushing out of control, there is a current awareness of the plight of the seas due to unnatural (i.e. human) interference. Perhaps that is why so many people flocked to the Mystic Aquarium yesterday. That, and the fact that it was a beautiful day on the northeast coast. Having grown up in land-locked western Pennsylvania, I have always appreciated the oceans and their microcosms, designed for human visitation. My first actual aquarium experience was the New England Aquarium in Boston, a facility that sets a very high standard for all others. Trips to the Seattle Aquarium, the Norwalk Aquarium, the Camden Aquarium, and a variety of smaller facilities (I unfortunately missed out when my family visited the San Francisco and Shedd (Chicago) Aquariums) always leave me with a sense of connectedness to our planet. Life emerged from the seas, and, as Rachel Carson observed, we always long to go back to our ancestral home.

It is easy to spend an entire day at the Mystic Aquarium. Beluga whales are impressive close-up, and the sea lions show more intelligence that your average Republican. Jellyfish, with no brain at all, are capable of doing tricks humans can’t – a tank of bioluminescent jellies was captivating. The penguins had a fascination all their own. It had been a few years since I’d been able to pet a shark or ray. In a separate exhibit on Deep Sea exploration, largely featuring Robert Ballard, the man who discovered the Titanic, the aquarium houses several robots used for entering regions uninhabitable by humans. Since my intense association with FIRST Robotics is never far from mind this was an unexpected bonus. The biblical aspect of the journey, however, came at the end.

Exhausted from a day of wandering, hot and lethargic, we came across the final exhibit: Noah’s Ark! I had begun to wonder if I’d managed to spend a day in an entirely secular venue when the Bible showed up. The display was about the Black Sea. William Ryan and Walter Pittman’s theory of the origin of Noah’s flood in the Black Sea deluge was showcased, along with a video of Ballard, Ryan and Pittman discussing their ideas. As I tell my students, I don’t find this theory particularly convincing – the flood story first emerged, it seems, in southern Mesopotamia – but it is an excellent example of the hold the Bible has on the western imagination. The Black Sea did flood, shifting from fresh to salt water; that discovery is fascinating in itself. In the western world, however, it somehow just feels incomplete without giving old Noah his own Nantucket sleigh ride. To find the origin of the story of Noah, a trip to any vantage-point along the ocean where the power of the sea is evident is all that is required.

Evil Echinoderms

Ever since I can remember, I have longed for the ocean. Not a good swimmer, and not one to eat the myriad creatures that fill its immense waters, I find myself nonetheless drawn to its endless pounding surf and salt spray. Even before I’d read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, discovered the eternal fascination of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or had even heard of H. P. Lovecraft, I knew that I belonged to the ocean. It need not compete for my affection. It had already won. With family visiting this weekend and with an unseasonably warm March weather-system, we went down to the Jersey Shore yesterday to visit my old friend. Sandy Hook is a peninsula that juts up from New Jersey toward New York City, a sandbar of undeveloped free ocean access administered by the National Park Service. During the summer it can be intensely lined with fishermen and sun-worshipers, but in March it was a reasonable place to be. Sea creatures are abundant when left alone, and we saw our first harbor seal of the season, along with a galaxy of sea stars. These echinoderms had eluded me thus far; we’ve been to the shore several times during our Jersey days and had never discovered any. One large sea star had been stranded in an evaporated tide pool. Compassion overcame me and I carried it down to the surf to offer it a chance for continued survival.

Miserable sinner?

Recently I reread Jonathan Edwards’ horrific yet classic sermonic masterpiece, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Vividly depicting a furious deity barely capable of restraining his repressed wrath directed toward wicked human beings, but for an uncommon dose of misplaced compassion, Edwards suggests we all deserve ghastly destruction. Edwards underscores one of my recurrent observations about religion – it is a means of control. The great Puritan divinity only accepts penitent Puritans, all others go directly to Hell, not passing Go, not collecting their two-hundred dollars.

As I held that helpless sea star, destined for the cruel, drying rays of an unclouded sun, I did not think of its multiple transgressions. Murderous predators, sea stars consume other sea creatures, including their own kind, in the constant struggle for survival. This one had obviously had a successful run and had grown to an impressive size. I felt no rage, no desire to destroy this killer. Instead, I saw a radiant example of a being evolved to live in an environment that I can not even comprehend, just doing what it needs to get along in its undersea world. And I recognized the wrath of God for what it really is – one man’s unfulfilled plan to decide the destiny of his fellow creatures.