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