Archive for May 2012

Finite, and Living It

Normally I steer clear of posts that border on the political, because they accomplish little except to harden opinions and positions, and sharpen arguments, without leading to a solution.  But I make an exception in this post, for reasons I hope will become clear.

Especially in difficult times like these, we rely for perspective and direction on the supposed Wise Ones of our world, so it behooves them to be more cautious and informed in their public statements than this article by Tim Worstall in the U.K.’s Telegraph of May 16, 2012.  The article byline for the author identifies him as “Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, and one of the global experts on the metal scandium, one of the rare earths,” so you’d think he’d exercise more care in an international forum like this newspaper.  Here are his opening words, remarkable for their flippancy, misrepresentation and ignorance:

Apparently something terrible happens when we get to peak oil. I’ve never really quite understood the argument myself, but when we’ve used half of all the oil then civilisation collapses or something. I’m not sure why this should happen: we don’t start starving when there’s only half a loaf of bread left. But I am assured that something awful does happen.

That oil fields do get pumped out is obviously true – and also that you can have a good guess at when the ones we’re currently pumping will run out. The part I don’t get is the catastrophe. Some people seem to think that “peak oil” is when we can’t actually pump out a higher amount: that if we’ve got 70 million barrels a day, then that’s the most we can ever have, 70 million a day. Which is also called a disaster. Apparently this means that demand will move ahead of supply, which is simple sheer ignorance of the price system. There is no such thing as “supply” or “demand”. There is only either of them at a price. So, if there really is a limit on how fast we can pump the stuff up, the price will rise.

Worstall’s observations illustrate a confusion of realms, a common-enough misperception, and one we all make from time to time.  In the case of a recognized expert, though, we expect greater wisdom and sense — he simply isn’t thinking things through.  If you’re talking about the human economy of making brooms, say, or copies of DVDs of The Avengers, or oranges, or purebred Siamese cats, well and good.  Then Worstall is right, and supply and demand will play out pretty much as he claims.  Price is indeed the hinge between them.  Even in extreme cases of demand, say for parts to an antique car that went out of production decades ago, you can probably find a craftsperson who will forge and finish them for you.  Because they’re one-offs, they’ll cost you plenty.  But if you want the parts badly enough, and you have the necessary cash or other acceptable medium of exchange, someone will oblige and supply your demand. That’s Econ. 101.  It’s how modern economies are supposed to work.  We get it.

But turn to the natural economy of the physical environment and a different picture emerges.  The human and natural economies are NOT the same, and it’s dangerous to assume they are.  In the natural economy, many materials aren’t renewable, and they’re simply not subject to supply and demand.  A finite quantity exists, and when we use it up, there’s no more to be had, at any price.

Yes, we can grow more trees for wood, plant more fruits and vegetables for food.  Many metals and other materials can be recycled, and so on.  At least we’ve made a start on re-using and re-purposing.  But oil and natural gas, to name just two resources, exist in finite qualities.  Use more and we’ll run out sooner.  Use less and they’ll last longer.  Until we have replacements or other viable sources of energy, it’s only common sense to conserve and sip, rather than guzzle.  It’s not like running out of milk and going down to the nearest convenience store, or ultimately putting another 10,000 cows into milk production.  It’s rather as if I’m running out of air, trapped in a house-fire, or dragged underwater by a sinking ship.  My demand for air may become extreme, but if the supply runs out, I eventually die.  Life itself is finite, and no one has escaped its ending.  No extensions for love or money.  Demand for more hours or days has never obligated the universe to provide them, and no promise of payment or bribe suffices to keep our hearts beating a second longer.  They stop.

In the case of oil and gas, unknown supplies no doubt still exist.  Hydrofracking may prove helpful to buy us a little more time — or not.  It may well go the way of ethanol, which for a while looked like the next sure thing.  Yes, there’s petro-energy to be had, but if it costs more to produce than it’s worth, a different side of supply and demand switches on.  For the geeks among us, that’s EROEI — energy returned on energy invested.  We may have enough oil for 50 more years, or 75, or 100 or 200, but we will run out. At that point, demand won’t budge the simple physical fact of an exhausted resource.  At too high a price, it’s not worth it to anyone to extract a few more gallons or cubic meters.  As in the Monty Python parrot sketch, it’s kaput, used up, done, extinct, no more.

Unlike many peak-oil doomsayers, I’m willing to concede that down the road we may well devise a marvelous technological solution to our mammoth energy needs.  But until we do, it’s deeply stupid to continue using more each year, rather than less, now that production has recently peaked, even as peak oil historians predicted it would, six decades ago.  How high must the price of a barrel of oil rise, and how much must the economies and households and peoples of the world suffer, until that’s clear?

But good things will emerge from this crisis, too.  They may not be what we want, but as the Stones (almost) said, “we just might find we get what we need” in the moment. And there’s material for future posts.

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Image:  buffalo shortage

Foremath and Aftermath

Here are Yin and Yang, our two rhododendrons — a single red flower grows on the pink bush in the foreground, with a branch of the red bush showing in the background.  Plant envy?  Unfortunately the red bush doesn’t have a single pink flower, or the image would be complete.  In a month they’ll be back to their usually ungainly woody scraggly selves, with no hint of the glory they present each May.  Is the aftermath the only time we appreciate what we had — when it’s finally gone?

The aftermath is the consequences, the results, the outcome.   But we never hear of a “foremath,” whatever it is that stands before the event, the “math” — literally the “mowing” in Old English.

Most of our yard is the typical rural patch of grass, which given half a chance will turn to sumac, crabgrass, chicory, dandelions and even slender saplings inside six months.  In the few years that  we’ve owned the house, we’ve let whole quadrants go uncut for a season. Sometimes it’s from pure practical laziness — we’ve no one to impress, after all, and no condo association to yelp at us — and it saves gas and time, until we get around to putting in more of the permanent plantings that won’t require cutting.  Until then, we’re getting the lay of the land, seeing how soil and drainage and sun all work together (our three blueberry bushes, visible in the background in the second photo, thrive on the edge of our septic leachfield), and which local species lay claim first when we give them a chance to grow and spread.  The moles that love our damp soil also tunnel madly when we leave off mowing for the summer.  We think of it as natural aeration for the earth.

The northwest corner, shown here, shaded by the house itself for part of the day, yields wild strawberries if we mow carefully, first exposing the low-lying plants to sun, and then waiting while the berries ripen.  Patches of wildflowers emerge — common weeds, if you’re indifferent to the gift of color that comes unlabored-for.  I like to hold off till they go to seed, helping to ensure they’ll come back another year, and making peace with the spirits of plant species that — if you can believe the Findhorn experience and the lore of many traditional cultures — we all live with and persistently ignore to our own loss.

This year we’ve “reclaimed” most of the lawn for grass, as we expand the cultivated portion with raised beds and berry patches.  But I remind myself that we haven’t left any of it “undeveloped” — the unconscious arrogance of the word, applied to land and whole countries, suggests nature has no intention or capacity of its own for doing just fine without us.  Who hasn’t seen an old driveway or parking lot reverting to green?  Roots break up the asphalt remarkably fast, and every crack harbors a few shoots of green that enlarge the botanical beach-head for their fellows.  Tarmac and concrete, macadam and bitumen are not native species.

And what would any of us do, after all, without such natural events like the routine infection of our guts by millions of beneficial bacteria to help with digestion?  A glance at the entry for gut flora at Wikipedia reveals remarkable things:

Gut flora consist of microorganisms that live in the digestive tracts of animals and is the largest reservoir of human flora. In this context, gut is synonymous with intestinal, and flora with microbiota and microflora.

The human body, consisting of about 10 trillion cells, carries about ten times as many microorganisms in the intestines. The metabolic activities performed by these bacteria resemble those of an organ, leading some to liken gut bacteria to a “forgotten” organ. It is estimated that these gut flora have around 100 times as many genes in aggregate as there are in the human genome.

Bacteria make up most of the flora in the colon and up to 60% of the dry mass of feces. Somewhere between 300 and 1000 different species live in the gut, with most estimates at about 500. However, it is probable that 99% of the bacteria come from about 30 or 40 species. Fungi and protozoa also make up a part of the gut flora, but little is known about their activities.

Research suggests that the relationship between gut flora and humans is not merely commensal (a non-harmful coexistence), but rather a mutualistic relationship.  Though people can survive without gut flora, the microorganisms perform a host of useful functions, such as fermenting unused energy substrates, training the immune system, preventing growth of harmful, pathogenic bacteria, regulating the development of the gut, producing vitamins for the host (biotin and vitamin K), and producing hormones to direct the host to store fats.

Such marvels typically set off echoes in me, and because much of my training and predilection is linguistic in nature, the echoes often run to poems.  A moment’s work with that marvelous magician’s familiar Google brings me the lines of “Blind” by Harry Kemp:

The Spring blew trumpets of color;
Her Green sang in my brain–
I hear a blind man groping
“Tap-tap” with his cane;

I pitied him in his blindness;
But can I boast, “I see”?
Perhaps there walks a spirit
Close by, who pities me–

A spirit who hears me tapping
The five-sensed cane of mind
Amid such unsensed glories
That I am worse than blind.

Isn’t this all a piece of both the worst and the best in us?  We can be fatally short-sighted and blind, but we can also imagine our own blindness, see our own finitude — and move beyond it to a previously unimagined larger world.

Sick nasty: On being ill

Urban Dictionary (check it out if you haven’t yet visited it) obliges with this definition of “sick nasty”:  “This word is to be used when no other word can be used to describe the cool factor, greatness, or overwhelming emotion of something. However, the something is neither sick, nor nasty. The combination of the words sick and nasty provide a higher connotation of coolness then even the words tight or wicked can provide. It is kind of ghetto.”

Since I’m going for the literal rather than the metaphoric, I’ll bypass the ghetto, and the slang meanings of “ill,” too, and head straight for “body in misery.”  (It’s worth considering what connection coolness has with physical sickness, because when you’re in it, it’s distinctly not cool at all.)

Food poisoning can leave you half alive, no longer trusting your organs and bones.  My wife and I had been out of state to attend our niece’s high school graduation, and bad food choices dropped me into my own private third level of hell (that’s for the gluttons, which seems appropriate).  I won’t gross you out with gastrointestinal details: enough to say that the aftermath left me with aching joints, residual fever and chills, a nasty headache, and no desire ever to eat again.  To add insult to injury, we’d scheduled medical check-ups back home the next day.  Sometimes you feel rotten enough that a doctor is the last person you want to see.  And on top of that, he insisted it was time I had another digital rectal exam, part of the follow-through since my prostate surgery.  Necessary, maybe, but oh so evil.

OK, enough self-pity.  You get the idea.  This is a blog, after all, that’s supposed to provide plenty of buck (see the 5/18/12 entry).  No time to slack off now.

What illness can offer, besides a physical cleansing and rebalancing (we get sick when something’s out of whack, off kilter, messed up), is clarity, humility and gratitude.  At least that’s what I often get (when the worst of the symptoms have subsided), if I’m lucky.

Clarity first.  Flat on your back, you’ve got time to reflect.  If you’re not unconscious or delirious, reasonably free of pain, and cable is unavailable, you’re thrown back on yourself.  Time to make friends with the body, to coax it back to health if you can.  This marvelous machine of flesh now sits in the garage, lies in drydock, has gone off-line.  Time to adjust the timing belt, scrape off the barnacles, repair the hull, and reboot.  You get all kinds of ideas, some of which might even be useful.  You get to watch your thoughts spin like a Tibetan prayer wheel, only more gooey.  And through and above and below and within it all, you realize there are limits.  You get reacquainted with the fact that you will die.  Your time here is limited.  You can’t have it all, do it all, own it all.  You get your turn, and then it’s the next person’s.  What you do with your life is your gift to yourself.

And yes — I can get didactic and preachy, kinda.  Bear with me.

The humility part is good.  You have to rely on others.  When your body’s in meltdown, somebody else has to bring the drugs and the drinks, or you don’t get them.  You can’t get up without the world playing spin the bottle with your brain, or chills racking you, or legs turning to water.  That backrub to ease the crying vertebrae, the cool washcloth so welcome on hot skin, the light turned off because it hurts your eyes, the curtains drawn for the same reason, the soup that’s the only thing you can keep down — all of these are gifts that either others give you, or you don’t get them.  They’re out of your control.  Your minute-to-minute life is discomfort, interrupted by the kindness of someone caring for you.

Which brings you to gratitude.  You certainly have time for it. If you have to be sick, at least there’s some good that comes of it — later, if not right away.  As you start to feel better, you recall how you took so much for granted.  You resolve to try to do better.  Maybe the first stirrings of belief in immortality begin here, with recovery from illness.  You’re aren’t dying after all.  This too shall pass.  You rise again.  You will live to enjoy life again.

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prayer wheel

A Triad of Wisdom, Far Afield

Druid teaching, both historically and in contemporary versions, has often been expressed in triads — groups of three objects, perceptions or principles that share a link or common quality that brings them together.  An example  (with “check” meaning “stop” or “restrain”):  “There are three things not easy to check: a cataract in full spate, an arrow from a bow, and a rash tongue.”  Some of the best preserved are in Welsh, and have been collected in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (The Triads of the Island of Britain*, pronounced roughly tree-oyth un-iss pruh-dine).  The form makes them easier to remember, and memorization and mastery of triads were very likely part of Druidic training.  Composing new ones offers a kind of pleasure similar to writing haiku — capturing an insight in condensed form.  (One of my favorite haiku, since I’m on the subject:

Don’t worry, spiders —
I keep house

— Kobayashi Issa**, 1763-1827/translated by Robert Hass)

A great and often unrecognized triad appears in the Bible in Matthew 7:7 (an appropriately mystical-sounding number!).  The 2008 edition of the New International Version renders it like this:  “Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened for you.”

Apart from the obvious exhortation to persevere, there is much of value here.  Are all three actions parallel or equivalent?  To my mind they differ in important ways.  Asking is a verbal and intellectual act.  It involves thought and language.  Searching, or seeking, may often be emotional — a longing for something missing, a lack or gap sensed in the soul.  Knocking is concrete, physical:  a hand strikes a door.  All three may be necessary to locate and uncover what we desire.  None of the three is raised above the other two in importance.  All of them matter; all of them may be required.

And what are we to make of this exhortation to keep trying?  Many cite scripture as if belief itself were sufficient, when verses like this one make it clear that’s not always true.  Spiritual achievement, like every other kind, demands effort.  Little is handed to us without diligence on our part.

And though the three modes of investigation or inquiry aren’t apparently ranked, it’s long seemed to me that asking is lowest.  If you’ve got nothing else, try a simple petition.  It calls to mind a child asking for a treat or permission, or a beggar on a street-corner.  The other two modes require more of us — actual labor, either of a quest, or of knocking on a door (and who knows how long it took to find?).

It’s possible to see the three as a progression, too — a guide to action.  First, ask in order to find out where to start, at least, if you lack other guidance.  With that hint, begin the quest, seeking and searching until you start “getting warm.”  Once you actually locate what you’re looking for — the finding after the seeking — it’s time to knock, to try out the quest physically, get the body involved in manifesting the result of the search.  Without this vital third component of the quest, the “find” may never actually make it into life where we live it every day.

Sometimes the knocking is initiated “from the other side”  In Revelations, the Galilean master says, “I stand at the door and knock.”  Here the key seems to be to pay attention and to open when you hear a response to all your seeking and searching. The universe isn’t deaf, though it answers in its own time, not ours.  The Wise have said that the door of soul opens inward.  No point in shoving up against it, or pushing and then waiting for it to give, if it doesn’t swing that way …

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*The standard edition of the Welsh triads for several decades is the one shown in the illustration by Rachel Bromwitch, now in its 3rd edition.  The earliest Welsh triads appearing in writing date from the 13th century.

**Issa (a pen name which means “cup of tea”) composed more than 20,000 haiku.  You can read many of them conveniently gathered here.

book cover; door image.

The Fires of May, Green Dragons, and Talking Peas

Ah, Fifth Month, you’ve arrived.  In addition to providing striking images like this one, the May holiday of Beltane on or around May 1st is one of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic world and of revival Paganism. Along with Imbolc, Lunasa and Samhain, Beltane endures in many guises. The Beltane Fire Society of Edinburgh, Scotland has made its annual celebration a significant cultural event, with hundreds of participants and upwards of 10,000 spectators. Many communities celebrate May Day and its traditions like the Maypole and dancing (Morris Dancing in the U.K.). More generally, cultures worldwide have put the burgeoning of life in May  — November if you live Down Under — into ritual form.

I’m partial to the month for several reasons, not least because my mother, brother and I were all born in May.  It stands far enough away from other months with major holidays observed in North America to keep its own identity.  No Thanksgiving-Christmas slalom to blunt the onset of winter with cheer and feasting and family gatherings.  May greens and blossoms and flourishes happily on its own.  It embraces college graduations and weddings (though it can’t compete with June for the latter).  It’s finally safe here in VT to plant a garden in another week or two, with the last frosts retreating until September.  At the school where I teach, students manage to keep Beltaine events alive even if they pass on other Revival or Pagan holidays.

The day’s associations with fertility appear in Arthurian lore with stories of Queen Guinevere’s riding out on May Day, or going a-Maying.  In Collier’s painting above, the landscape hasn’t yet burst into full green, but the figures nearest Guinevere wear green, particularly the monk-like one at her bridle, who leads her horse.  Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot eroticized everything around her — greened it in every sense of the word.  Tennyson in his Idylls of the King says:

For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might …

Of course, there are other far more subtle and insightful readings of the story, ones which have mythic power in illuminating perennial human challenges of relationship and energy. But what is it about green that runs so deep in European culture as an ambivalent color in its representation of force? 

Anya Seton’s novel Green Darkness captures in its  blend of Gothic secrecy, sexual obsession, reincarnation and the struggle toward psychic rebalancing the full spectrum of mixed-ness of green in both title and story. As well as the positive color of growth and life, it shows its alternate face in the greenness of envy, the eco-threat of “greenhouse effect,” the supernatural (and original) “green giant” in the famous medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the novel and subsequent 1973 film Soylent Green, and the ghostly, sometimes greenish, light of decay hovering over swamps and graveyards that has occasioned numerous world-wide ghost stories, legends and folk-explanations. 

(Wikipedia blandly scientificizes the phenomenon thus:  “The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine spontaneously ignites on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires.”)  And most recently, “bad” greenness showed up during this year’s Earth Day last month, which apparently provoked fears in some quarters of the day as evil and Pagan, and a determination to fight the “Green Dragon” of the environmental movement as un-Christian and insidious and horrible and generally wicked. Never mind that stewardship of the earth, the impetus behind Earth Day, is a specifically Biblical imperative (the Sierra Club publishes a good resource illustrating this).  Ah, May.  Ah, silliness and wisdom and human-ness.

We could let a Celt and a poet have (almost) the last word. Dylan Thomas catches the ambivalence in his poem whose title is also the first line:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind

Hauls my shroud sail …

Yes, May is death and life both, as all seasons are.  But something in the irrepressible-ness of May makes it particularly a “hinge month” in our year.  The “green fuse” in us burns because it must in order for us to live at all, but our burning is our dying.  OK, Dylan, we get it.  Circle of life and all that.  What the fearful seem to react to in May and Earth Day and things Pagan-seeming is the recognition that not everything is sweetness and light.  The natural world, in spite of efforts of Disney and Company to the contrary, devours as well as births.  Nature isn’t so much “red in tooth and claw” as it is green. 

Yes, things bleed when we feed (or if you’re vegetarian, they’ll spill chlorophyll.  Did you know peas apparently talk to each other?).  And this lovely, appalling planet we live on is part of the deal.  It’s what we do in the interim between the “green fuse” and the “dead end” that makes all the difference, the only difference there is to make.  So here’s Seamus Heaney, another Celt and poet,  who gives us one thing we can do about it:  struggle to make sense, regardless of whether or not any exists to start with.  In his poem “Digging,” he talks about writing, but it’s “about” our human striving in general that, for him, takes this particular form.  It’s a poem of memory and meaning-making.  We’re all digging as we go.


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

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Beltane Fire Society image; Maibaum; John Maler Collier’s Queen Guinevere’s Maying; Soylent Green; Green Darkness; peat.

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