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).

Stop Trying to “Help the Environment”

I often hear other people say they are “helping the environment.” Whenever I hear this phrase I’m a little disheartened. I concede the intentions are good. Everyone wants to “help the environment,” even those that are at the same time actively causing damage, which is almost all of us.

My struggle with this phrase is not the sentiment. When I hear it, I should recognize the intention of environmental stewardship and be grateful. What it indicates though is a continued misunderstanding of ecosystems and the natural world–that it is something separate over which we have control and ownership. It also communicates that it is a choice one can make. It is a false choice.

This exemplifies our collective ecological identity; separation. One’s ecological identity rests on the foundation of their ecological literacy of workings of ecosystems, their environmental literacy of environmental issues, and then their sense of connection and relationship to the natural in which they live and depend on for their existence. And then one’s ecological identity manifests itself in actions they take or don’t take. These actions are a reflection of how one sees themself and their place in the biosphere.

We do need to save the environment in order to save ourselves, but also because all other species of life has a right to existence as well. So, it’s the right thing to do. Let’s also clarify this. Consuming another organism is not damaging to the ecosystem. Humans are a part of the food chain. Destroying a habitat to install a monoculture does harm the health of the ecosystem. However, as long as we are “saving” or “helping” the environment, we are operating from a paradigm of ownership and separation and continuing to do harm.

Instead of describing that, for example, recycling is “helping” the environment, look instead to how the actions you take (or don’t take) impact the health of the ecosystem. What’s the difference? The former a paradigm accepting that one’s actions are doing harm to an “other” and we can only do what we can to help. The other is built on scientific literacy of the workings of the ecosystem in which one lives and fully understanding one’s impact on the living and nonliving systems in which they are embedded. One is built on a relationship of commodity and the other is built on a relationship of reciprocity.

We won’t have saved the environment until we no longer need to do what we can to help, but instead live in a way that doesn’t disrupt natural geochemical cycles, disrupt food chains, and eliminate other species through our overconsumption and destruction of habitat.

I must recognize and confess my own hypocrisy. I’m writing this on a computer, in a home office, living a lifestyle that contributes to all of these concerns which are the manifestation of our collective ecological identity–perpetual growth and consumption. And I’m saddened by it because I recognize the ecological impact. Living in ignorance of my impact is worse. So, get this, I do what I can to help. Well isn’t that neat little circle I just wrote myself around.

Of course this is just semantics, but hidden in the language we use about something is the foundation of our understanding of that thing. So maybe what I’m chasing is a shift in our identity in which we all have deeper understanding of the ecosystems in which we live, and then based on that understanding, we do what can to help and reduce our impact. More importantly, we contribute to our collective understanding participating in societal from the commodification of natural world to living in reciprocity with the natural world. This requires using what we need to survive without permanently reducing natural resources and habitats.

What is your part you can do to help bring that about? What does this mean for what you consume, where you live, how you transport yourself, what you eat? Maybe most importantly, what does it mean for how you participate in the collective change necessary, which leaders you choose to represent you and which collective action through which policies you support?

On This Good Friday

Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a time of renewal and rebirth for Christians—a time for spring (at least in the Northern hemisphere). Seeing as Christianity arose in cultures in the Northern hemisphere that makes sense. I struggle with the idea of intercessory prayer, virgin birth and a literal resurrection—though I’m active in the Methodist church. Like Dylan (Bob, not Dylan) said, “I contain multitudes.” We all do.

I do like the idea of renewal and rebirth though. This spring, a year into a pandemic and seeing some light ahead, feels especially springy. We’re not there yet, but I sure feel a need for a rebirth. I feel like my wife and I are going to have to relearn how to be social and go out in public. That’s a daunting task for us in normal times. We’ve been incredibly fortunate through all of this. This reminds me of a poem I like to revisit every spring.

A Purification, by Wendell Berry

At the 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 been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
Of mind and body, I close the trench.
Folding shut against the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.

I wonder how this time will change us and what will emerge out of this cocoon of social isolation, political and societal disruption and upheaval, and possibly even environmental awareness awakening. Could it be a rebirth? Or, will we crave the known and comfortable and look backwards searching for a something seemingly simpler and safer (even if it isn’t really). I guess that depends on whose voices and experiences we listen to and use to gain wisdom. I hope it is a more diverse and broader set of voices we allow ourselves to hear and allow to then lead.

I read this today from an essay in Today’s New York Times by Esau McCaulley titled The Unsettling Power of Easter.

As we leave the tombs of quarantine, a return to normal would be a disaster unless we recognize that we are going back to a world desperately in need of healing. For me, the source of that healing is an empty tomb in Jerusalem. The work that Jesus left his followers to do includes showing compassion and forgiveness and contending for a just society. It involves the ever-present offer for all to begin again. The weight of this work fills me with a terrifying fear, especially in light of all those who have done great evil in his name. Who is worthy of such a task? Like the women, [who first discovered the empty tomb as described in the book of Mark] the scope of it leaves me too often with a stunned silence.

We are all worthy of the task and responsible to undertake it. And it doesn’t require doing it in his name, or any other leader’s or prophet’s name. We do it for ourselves and for our neighbors, for those we know intimately, and those we’ve never met and never will. And we do it for the four-leggeds, winged, and finned, and the life rooted firmly to the ground in a forest far away from where we might personally visit. This is my hope for this Good Friday.

Bearing False Witness

I’d like to write about the Ten Commandments. Specifically, I’d like to write about number nine: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Those that know me, you can have a moment to recover yourself. I mean really, what’s my expertise here? Well not much. However, according to Rachel McIver-Morey from the Northfield United Methodist Church, what this commandment is really about is, “will you tell the truth if it costs you something?”

She provides this example:
“Bearing false witness in our context could be somebody speaking up in a workspace about something that is happening that is clearly wrong, and everybody else in the workspace holding silent—putting their heads down, looking away. That silence when everybody knows what’s happening—that silence is false witness.” (Covetousness – Deuteronomy 5:18-21)

Ok, now I’d like to connect this to the politics of the current leading voices in the Republican party, such as Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, Josh Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Greene, etc. I know, I know, first religion, then politics. Next I’m gonna talk about “Your Mama.” I think these politicians consistently are breaking the ninth commandment (and probably others too). We all do at times of course. These politicians do so while claiming to speak for Christians and have weaponized Christianity to remain in power, so I think it’s fair to focus on them.

Now, before you throw out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Bernie Sanders, or any other far left Democrat, I’m going to cut off this false equivalency. Let’s consider Ted Cruz’s response to current HR 1, For the People Act. He’s bearing false witness when he states that the intent is to make it legal for millions of “criminals and illegal aliens” to vote and that the bill “says America would be better off if more murderers were voting, America would be better of if more rapists and child molesters were voting” (AP News 3/19/21). It is certainly a common tactic of politicians to misrepresent or spin the contents of an opponent’s proposal as part of debate. But the current GOP has made bearing false witness about Democratic proposals their one and only tactic.  

You may disagree with the agenda of legislators on the far left. Here’s the difference. The Democrats are making complex policy proposals with the primary aim of improving the lives of citizens. Certainly, many are also enriching themselves and turning politics into a lucrative career, but that’s not what this is about. You may disagree with their ideas and proposals. Fine. Debate them and offer up a counter proposal, and the proposal that makes the most sense to the most people to solve the problem at hand gets the most votes. That’s how it should work. But, that is not how it has worked for quite some time.

The GOP has completely abandoned the democratic process and rely solely on a strategy of bearing false witness about the only proposals on the table to address current problems and simply cast stones. (See what I did there). In fact, the only policy agenda of the current GOP is to restrict voting rights.

Here’s where we come in; putting our heads down and looking away is also bearing false witness.

June 21, 1964

Why write and share a song about such a dark day? Well, there are some stories that deserve remembrance and telling. And, just knowing about an event and connecting and understanding it on an emotional level are two very different things.

This song was sort of dropped in my lap, so I had to see it through to some completion. It started from a simple song prompt from a Facebook group. The prompt was “pine cone.” Soon after seeing that prompt I was watching American Experience: Freedom Summer, first aired on PBS June 24, 2014. This is the story of when “more than 700 student volunteers from around the country joined organizers and local African Americans in a historic effort to shatter the foundations of white supremacy in Mississippi – then one of the nation’s most viciously racist, segregated states.” The primary focus of the story are the murders of three volunteers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer. James was black, and Andy and “Mickey” were white. In fact, Mickey had been marked for death by the KKK for his participation in Freedom Summer. Maybe, for the KKK, it’s worse to be a white person advocating for and helping the black community work toward equal rights than just being black.

How does this connect to pine cone? The video describes how Andy and Mickey were pulled out of the car and immediately, without hesitation or even conversation, simply shot and killed right there on the side of the road, while James watched and waited in fear for his turn. He ran and was chased into the woods where he was caught and executed. As this was described in the film, I had the image described in the last verse (which involves a pine cone).

The reality of this story is that these murderers included, and then were aided and abetted by local, state, and even federal law enforcement until public outcry finally forced legal action. Without that outcry, these murders would have been left unsolved. This story exemplifies systemic racism.

This story, and other stories that many might prefer we forget or “move past” are important. Finally, individuals like me (comfortable and white) just beginning getting it. I have never known the kind of constant, nagging, and oppressive fear that comes with being black in America–an accumulated trauma, a constant drumbeat, like one’s pounding heartbeat always in the background. When will racism strike next? Will it be subtle, systemic microaggressions that accumulate? Will it be abject discrimination preventing buying a home or getting a job, or might today be the day that it results in my murder?

People like me cannot know this. But we can help us not forget this part of our history (and present). We can help ensure these stories are not forgotten and this history is accurately taught in school. And we can speak up, even when it is uncomfortable. Claiming to not know what to say our how to say it is an excuse to allow systemic racism and white privilege to continue. Say something and engage in the conversation, even if it costs you privilege, comfort, and friendships. Such things based on such a lie aren’t worth it anyway.

There’s one more piece of this story to highlight. Would these particular murders be as infamous and influential to the passing of the Civil Rights act of 1964 if two of the victims were not white boys from outside of Mississippi? According to the NAACP, “From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of these people that were lynched 3,446 were black. The blacks lynched accounted for 72.7% of the people lynched. These numbers seem large, but it is known that not all of the lynchings were ever recorded. Out of the 4,743 people lynched only 1,297 white people were lynched. That is only 27.3%. Many of the whites lynched were lynched for helping the black or being anti lynching and even for domestic crimes.” How many of these stories of lynchings were lost to history and never solved? This is history that must be preserved and told in order to heal the trauma of systemic racism upon which this country is built.

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