Within These Woods: Quaking Aspen

This week’s essay is about the quaking aspen. What’s most fascinating about them is their existences as a potential “super” organism. That’s not like leaping tall buildings or inheriting a global conglomarate industry to fund rage-filled vengence crime fighting. Listen to find out how it’s different. And then after you listen to me dig deeper and into the amazing complexity of trees and their participation in a greater community of living things in a forest by listening to my favorite podcast of all time, From Tree to Shining Tree from Radiolab. Trust me, it’s utterly fascinating and I have yet to find anyone who doesn’t agree with that assessment. But listen to me first.

Special Childhood Places

My ball cap shields my eyes a bit from the morning sun and frames my view from the kayak. The morning sun lifts the cool air left from the night. The still water reflects the shoreline made of white pine, balsam fir, sugar maple, basswood, and oak. This lake, where I’ve experienced the beginning of summer since I was a boy, is a special place though at times becomes rote and forgotten–until mornings such as these.

The sun climbs higher and I remove a layer of clothing. Summer is here. I stop paddling and drift across the surface. Bullfrog tadpoles twist and dive to safer depths leaving behind little swirls all around my invading kayak. It’s going to be a banner year for frogs I think. Later this summer, the rising and falling chorus of “rummmm” will fill the night. A larger swirl catches my eye. Probably a descending painted turtle, but maybe a northern pike or muskie reduced the bullfrog population by one.

Ahead, thick water lilies require more effort to push through. No gliding and coasting here. I stop to listen and look. A woodpecker continues to work away on a distant tree. The rapid pounding carries across the water. Across the bay, a beaver lodge with fresh cuttings with green leaves protrudes from the surface. Behind it on the shore, is a tall white pine upon which an old, but active eagle nest sits. I don’t see signs of either inhabitants this morning, but I know they are around and I like that.

This morning paddle is routine and nothing special, which only highlights my good fortune. There are so many in this world for whom this peaceful paddle, glide, sit, and listen, would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That saddens me. I’m sad for them and the lack of opportunity to connect to the natural world. And sad for all of us that so many do not get to connect to the natural world, and the ramification of that nature deficit on all of us and our collective connection to and therefore relationship with the natural world.

Then again, connection doesn’t have to come only from such grand spaces. It can happen in a suburban back yard observing squirrels and songbirds in a tree, a spiderweb in a tomato plant, or the coordinated efforts of ants carrying bounty across a sidewalk in a bustling city.

Then, I hear a distant lawnmower start and I start paddling again. Even in this space around the cabin, filled with wildlife and “natural” lands, human activity continues. An interruption or a part? I don’t’ know. I’ve probably thought more about this than I need to. Back on shore I see fresh deer tracks where a doe and fawn (or two) came to the lake during the night. The mower stops and I head to the cabin for some more coffee. This is how summer begins in my special childhood place. What is your special childhood place and how does it impact your emotional, intellectual, spiritual connection to the natural world?

P.S. My wife came in a few minutes after me from kayaking and asked “Did you see the sandhill cranes?” Oh well, it was still a good paddle.

Trusting the Science

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve followed the science. I understand science changes as we learn more–which is how I know the scientific process is working. When it gets it is wrong it self-corrects. That’s how it works. Science isn’t dogma, though of course at times scientists can be just as dogmatic as others because they still suffer from human fallibility. So, when they said stay home, I could so I did. When they said wear a mask, I could so I did. When they said get the vaccine I could so I did because it had been through clinical trials with a remarkably low side-effect rate.

It’s possible that there are things they got wrong or find out in the future changing directives and instructions. That’s how it works. It works as a system, despite human fallibility.

Actually, it works as a system because of human fallibility. Researchers, scientists, and academics can be a real pain in the ass. I know. They often have the hubris to think that they are the smartest person in the room because often they are–just ask them. They can be very competitive. So any claim made by a researcher is instantly challenged, tested, vetted, and verified before it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. Once published, many others line up to try and knock it down. Because of the process, it usually survives, though it might be added to, modified somewhat, corrected to some degree, and yes occasionally knocked down and discredited. A prime example of this is the link between the MMR vaccine and autism (see Lancet retracts 12=year-old article linking autism to MMR vaccines). The idea that there is a cabal of scientists that could all agree on some conspiracy of scientific fraud (about vaccines, Covid, climate change, etc.) without any one of them seizing the opportunity to put all the others in their place and be the one to break the story or make the finding is inconceivable.

Therefore, through it all I’ve done my part because I understand how scientists work and the process. So, I will take off my mask. I will, however, carry one with me, both literally and figuratively. There is light at the end of this long tunnel, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t a train in the form of a new variant, but just in case, I’ll keep the mask handy. There are some businesses and individuals that will still want me to wear one, which I will do so without complaint. It’s really no big deal to slip it back on again. It’s not an affront to my civil liberties any more than is wearing shoes or a shirt. I recognize that there might be individuals with heightened risk and are still vulnerable even with the vaccine. Even with the vaccine, one may have a compromised immune system so, while the risk of getting Covid is greatly reduced, the disease is probably lethal.

However, I’m not going to worry anymore about those that refuse to follow the science, wear their own mask or get the vaccine if there is no reason not to do either of those things. They can make that choice for themselves, but I also think it is an example of extreme selfishness and narcissism. If you choose to put yourself at risk still at this point, so be it. But also recognize that you might be contributing to the longevity of this global nightmare for all by ignoring the scientific process that effectively eradicated so many other diseases prior to this one. This one is no different than those others except this one was turned political by a president.

So, if you see me without a mask, know that I’m vaccinated, symptom free, and confident of my health. If I enter a store still displaying a sign requesting mask use, I’ll happily wear mine. Or if you are wearing one and would like me to as well, please ask and I’ll happily put on mine. And if you are not, I’m going to assume the same for you. even though it might be naive on my part, but that’s my choice just as it may be yours to put others at risk.

Combating (unacknowledged) Totalitarianism

Yesterday I had the option on Minnesota Public Radio of listening to a story marking a year since the murder of George Floyd or a celebration of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday.

Then today, reading through some notes for a seemingly unrelated writing project, I saw a connection between the two when I came across this quote from a book titled Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of Living, by Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana. You’re not familiar with it? Shocking. It is an application of systems theory to cognition.

In it, they were writing about how change (or resistance to it) in social systems follows the same patterns as change (or resistance to it) in individual humans and exploring the analogous concept of cognition in both systems–one micro and one macro. These passages jumped out at me. The first is related to how if humans cannot impact the social system, then they are just used by the social system and that if “…the human being cannot escape from this situation because his life is at stake, he is under social abuse.”

But, there are experiences that can override the individual being trapped in such a social system (in its extreme, totalitarianism or authoritarianism), and that “Love is one of these experiences, and as long as man has a language he can become an observer [of the system integrated into] through the experience of love.”

Finally, building on this concept, they provide this hypothetical. “When human being ‘A’ encounters another human being ‘B’ and loves him or her, he sees ‘B’ in a social context and becomes an observer of the society that ‘B’ integrates. ‘A’ may like or may not like what he sees in reference to ‘B’ and act accordingly, becoming antisocial* if he does not like what he sees. An absolute totalitarian society must negate love as an individual experience because love, sooner or later, leads to an ethical evaluation of the society that the loved on integrates.”

*I don’t believe they mean withdrawn, but instead counter or resist social norms.

The video of George Floyd’s murder captured by Darnella Frazier forced many of us to (finally) begin to truly see and attempt to have some empathy for the life experience of the oppressed, abused, and marginalized. A beginning anyway. This act of courage on her part to stand strong and record and share this injustice provided an opportunity to address such injustice. And it was possible because we couldn’t ignore the humanity of the victim and the inhumanity of the oppressor. In that moment we began to love “the other.”

Oh but how the “totalitarian” system of white supremacy immediately began to fight back. Almost immediately protests were hijacked and misrepresented as something other than a resistance to oppression. And then legislation and culture wars over voting rights, red-herrings of mask wearing as civil liberties, and limitations on what we can teach/converse with students about–even attempting to ban teaching about racism and the true horrors of slavery. This is institutional racism exerting totalitarianism. Many in our society live in a totalitarian society not acknowledged embedded within our democracy.

So, you’re asking, what does this have to do with Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday? The arts. The arts are one way we see one another, understand one another’s experiences, establish an emotional connection, and then build empathy. In totalitarian cultures the dominant culture resists, outlaws, and eliminates art as a means of controlling the narrative. Art gives us shelter from the storm

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Of course, it takes more than song to change the world. That’s the challenge we face right now. We’ve sung the songs, read the books, written the blogs, but that is just the beginning.

And speaking of such. Here’s a song. Seems fitting to share. I wrote it a year ago. I began with images of the Minneapolis riots and in particular this now iconic Julio Cortez AP image of the Minnehaha Lake Liquor store fire. I then explored the current events that lead us to that moment in history by incorporating iconic Dylan lyrics/images, I suppose in part to call out that we’ve been signing about this for 60 years and we’ve still got miles to go before we sleep (using the poetry of another Bob).

When The Old Escapes Into The New

Each spring I revisit the poem “A Purification” by Wendell Berry. It’s a good reminder to let go of some things and strive for renewal. Boy howdy, does that seem appropriate this year. This year I wrote this short song which is adapted from that poem. Turned it into a secular prayer of sorts. Here’s the song followed by the original poem.

A Purification, by Wendell Berry

At start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.

“A Purification” by Wendell Berry. Text as published in New Collected Poems (Counterpoint, 2012).

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