Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

Dirty Words, Green Thoughts

Compromises.  They get bad press. In this time of American public life, compromise is among the worst of bad words.  It’s true that we often seem weakest where we make one.  That’s OK, as long as we aren’t blindsided by them, as long as our compromises aren’t destructive to us, as long as we can make them and live with them as conscious acts.  But any one of those challenges can pierce us to the core.

As a case in point, I want to address a “local” issue that echoes everywhere.  Last December, over a thousand residents in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts gathered to protest the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee (VY) Nuclear Plant beyond its original 40-year licensing period. There were over 130 arrests, though the protest remained orderly — both protesters and police had prepared months in advance.

As Vermont transplants rather than natives, my wife and I inherited the controversy when we settled here over a decade ago.   So first, some details — as unbiased as I can make them, from sources on both sides. A Druid tries to find the multiple tertiaries or neglected alternatives between two opposed binaries, so bear with me here.

First, the pros:  VY has been through $400 million of upgrades since it was first commissioned in 1972.  These include a 2006 retrofit that allows the reactor to generate approximately 20% more energy than its original design specifies, obviating the need to build other plants or increase fossil fuel use.  Vermont relies on the plant for about 30% of its current energy use, and when VY is down for refueling, increased consumption of gas and oil must make up the difference.  Decommissioning the plant would require finding other (and mostly more expensive) energy sources to make up the shortfall.  Published estimates put the pollution savings over the past four decades  of operation at 50 million tons of carbon that VY’s nuclear capacity has avoided dumping into our atmosphere.  That clean operation contributes heavily to keeping our famously pristine Vermont air famously pristine. Employment statistics put the number of jobs directly connected with the plant and its operation at around 650 people, and the impact on the state economy in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  Obviously, shutting down the plant isn’t just a matter of pulling the plug.

Second, the cons:  VY’s design closely resembles the Fukushima reactor in Japan that failed in the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.   The 2006 upgrade that allows VY to generate approximately 20% more energy beyond its original design specs imposes unknown and unstudied stresses on a reactor structure deteriorating in spite of repairs — uncertainties the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) admits.  The plant stores its spent fuel in containment tanks that are now already at 95% capacity, yet the scheduled recommissioning is for another 20 years.   VY sits on the Connecticut River, whose waters ultimately empty into Long Island Sound.  An accident to either the reactor or fuel containment pools would not only affect the immediate area of mostly small towns, but carry radiation and waste downstream directly into the middle of  major centers of population like Springfield and Hartford, and numerous smaller towns like Greenfield, Deerfield, Northampton and Holyoke, MA, and Enfield, Middletown and Old Saybrook, CT.  It would then spread into the Long Island Sound and quickly impact eastern Long Island.  Tucking the spent rods and other waste away in “remote locations” like Yucca Mountain is no real solution, only a poor stop-gap measure.

Critics cite a string of mostly minor incidents at the plant over the years — small leaks, structural failures, and accidental discharges, as well as cover-ups, lies, bribery and arrogance in responses by the parent company Entergy, which runs eleven other nuclear plants around the country. Vermont governor Peter Shumlin openly says he wants VY shut down.  Entergy’s own website for VY (at www.safecleanreliable.com) addresses safety, somewhat obliquely, with a list of emergency contact numbers and the statement:  “The area approximately 10 miles around the Vermont Yankee is called the Emergency Planning Zone. Plans have been developed for warning and protecting people within this 10-mile area.”  Within this 10 mile radius live approximately 35,000 people. Yet after the Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan, the NRC recommended that Japan extend its emergency safety zone radius to 50 miles.   The number of people within a 50 mile radius of VY is 1,500,000.

Here’s an aerial view of VY, courtesy of Entergy:

VY may well be shut down in some future election cycle, or it may face a spate of incidents that call into question its safety.  It may even run safely (for a nuclear plant) until its all of its operating extensions expire.  Until then, unless I and everyone else who benefits from the plant volunteer to cut our energy usage by that 30% that VY generates, and help subsidize a transfer to alternate sources of energy, can we justify our self-righteous claims to “shut it down” with no further personal sacrifice?  What are we willing to give in order to get what we want?

Though some people deride our Druid rituals and mock our perspectives about the earth, what we do to the world we do to ourselves in very real ways.  The facts can be disputed — the principle operates in full force as it always has.  What goes around comes around: we know this, which is why such sayings have penetrated the common language and consciousness.  We alive today are part of the world’s karma — our karma, the choices we make and actions we take every day.  I turned on the oven to heat my lunch earlier today.  Would I be willing to make do with a solar oven, or eat my meal cold, or … any of a number of alternatives?

A Wise One observed that in the last decade the entire world had the opportunity to accept a major initiation — a step forward in consciousness, based in large part on our accepting greater responsibility for our actions and their consequences.  As a single aware corporate entity, the world consciousness refused this opportunity.  (Was it majority vote?!) Individually we still all grow at our own paces, but we also take part in a world shaped by planetary consciousness as a whole, to which we each contribute a part.  We can plainly see the results all around us right now, and whatever we may think of the ultimate causes, they began in human choices. As Gandalf observes (and why shouldn’t a decent movie Druid get his share of press?), if we regret the choices we see and the consequences of those choices which we know many will suffer, “so do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”  And that is enough for any film character, or four-dimensional beings like ourselves.  Each life improved is a life improved, and within our circles we can accomplish much of value before we leave this world.  It is not our task to redeem the planet.  World-saviors appear in flesh and myth to do such tasks.  (Unless you’re signing up for the job, in which case you should have been told where to go and what to do.  Just don’t ask me.)  The time that is given to us is enough to fill with the best that is in us right now — not in some imagined future “when we — or our people — have the power.”  To leave the last words again to Gandalf:  “[I]t is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

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Earth Mysteries — 5 of 7 — The Law of Cause and Effect

[Earth Mysteries 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7]

“Everything that exists is the effect of causes at work in the whole system of which each thing is a part, and everything becomes, in turn, the cause of effects elsewhere in the whole system.  In these workings of cause and effect, there must always be a similarity of kind between an effect and at least one of its causes, just as there must be a similarity of scale between an effect and the sum total of its causes.”*

Under the guise of karma, this principle is superficially familiar to more people, perhaps, than the other six laws.  Though not exactly what some people have in mind when they wish you “good karma,” as if it were the same thing as luck.  Where does luck fit in a world system of cause and effect? Worth considering.  A Wise One once remarked that it’s not always possible to be the cause in every situation — to initiate, to be the active force, to get things moving — but that if we must be effect, at least we can strive to be conscious effect.  Recognize the cause, and respond consciously, rather than be manipulated by it unconsciously.  Because who knows? — it may not have your best interests at heart.

That’s not to say that a cause is necessarily actively malevolent or is seeking you out to destroy you and unmake you.  But it may simply be a cause you or someone else set in motion at random, unconsciously, unintentionally.  If you’re its unconscious effect, it’s suddenly detour time.  Willing to go for a ride with a strange cause, one that beckons to you, flashing those stunning looks, that oh so beguiling smile?  Have fun!  Just don’t expect things to be the same when you get back.  Whenever that turns out to be …

You can be spontaneous and conscious too.  But be the cause.  Otherwise, what’s consciousness for?  I find that a fascinating, troubling question.

So many beings get along fine without the human excess of self-consciousness, that strange echo-chamber or feedback loop that tells us our thoughts, our feelings, our thoughts about our feelings, and our feelings about the thoughts we’re having about our feelings.  How often we long for pure experience, without that inner narrator who insists on supplying second thoughts, doubts, fears, insecurities, grubby little (or big) desires, and so on.  It’s like a bad voice-over in a film, a jangling mess that some spiritual traditions remedy with meditation to calm the “monkey of the mind,” so we can get at whatever of value may lie underneath the noise of consciousness.

OK, that’s human consciousness, and specifically self-consciousness, at its least attractive.  But what of consciousness itself?  It’s not all bad.  In fact, it seems to confer some evolutionary advantages.  A conscious being can make choices, react with more than instinct — maybe even live through challenging situations where instinct isn’t enough.  If you’ve observed animals, you can sometimes catch reflection and thinking.  Dogs and cats give evidence of it.  Both birds and mammals can learn and adapt, maximizing their ability to survive, and to pass on their genetic material to their offspring.  But is there more than evolutionary advantage to the species?  How about to the individual?

In more conscious creatures, play and possibly even pleasure are gifts that consciousness also seems to confer.  Otters play for hours, and birds — if you’re convinced by people like David Rothenberg — sing not only to defend their territory, attract mates and warn off rivals, but also to express joy. Is that too human?  Are we anthropomorphizing?

And creativity … to me that’s the greatest gift of consciousness. We’re problem solvers.  We love smooth sailing for sure, long for it deeply in the trough of trouble, but we’re often at our best when challenged, when pushed to grow.  Even our attempts at avoiding growth are frequently clever, creative, inspired.  We procrastinate, rationalize, justify, repress, suppress, distract ourselves, get addicted to something too small for the love we’re driven to express, and our suffering is outrageous, ridiculous, painful, outsized, exaggerated — often because we’ve made it just that way in our struggles to escape what we know we must do eventually.

And here’s the kicker:  even — and maybe especially — our avoidance just makes us stronger for when we finally do face down the problem or issue or challenge.  We’ve tried everything else, all the other options, and they’ve failed in some way.  So we bring to that eventually unavoidable moment of growth a head of anger and frustration, true, but also a chunk of wisdom and strength that we got precisely because we’ve resisted for so long.  That momentum, that power and wisdom with a glow of a little anger and a dash of curiosity under the fear — this very mixed package of preparation — may not always get us through the challenge.  It still may not be enough this time around.  Now we’re still effect, but we’re on the way to becoming cause.

The failure to meet the challenge this time, to pass the test, signals to us what we still need to do to be ready next time.  And the heightened emotion clinging to the lesson, the issue, and the events and people around it, flags it for us.  Never again will we completely be able to avoid it, to shove it entirely back into the shadows, and let ourselves slide into unconsciousness.  A tail sticking out of the box, or paw scratching at the door, or fur on the carpet, will be evidence of this animal self, our helper, our “trouble double,” that we’ve tried to hide.  We will be cause, even if we can’t yet pull it off.  Something in us knows this.  Our growth will seem to pursue us on its own — because we’ve made it ours by being cause even to a limited degree, and cause must, inevitably, unavoidably, have its effect.

All this time, we’ve not been idle; we’ve also been building up strength for our next attempt:  by more avoiding, maybe (if we’re really good at that), but also by a slowly growing awareness that growth is what we’re destined for, that we can actually work toward it, even if our own lives have to drag us there kicking and biting and howling the whole way, functioning as some of the causes we ourselves have set in motion.  There’s more strength building in us, and if there’s a cost, then we’ll pay.  (Another cause, another effect.)  We’re slow learners, because sometimes that’s the only way the lesson sinks in deep enough that we really get it good, get it down pat, and run with it.  One way or another …

And so the causes we absolutely needed to set in motion will become just the effects we need to experience down the road.  But because we grow as a result, the effects which were “everything we ever wanted” at the time will eventually come to box us in, because we’ve grown, and so they’re no longer enough for us.  Then they start to strand us, and constrict and blind and infuriate us, until we arise from them stronger and are again able to set new causes in motion.  Open-ended growth.  Our ideas of perfection often seem to involve stasis:  at some point we imagine we’ll “arrive” and not need to grow anymore.  Heavenly choirs and streets of gold, no telemarketers or spam or mosquitos or flu, and sitting around all day in Paradise Lounge, plucking at harps and sipping (virgin) daiquiris and margaritas.  Likewise our perspective on setbacks often doesn’t take in enough time to see the causes and effects playing out. Sometimes we can’t see them all, if they span multiple lives.  Or parallel ones, if you’re not prone to reincarnate like I am.

But back to perfection as stasis:  from what I’ve seen, that misses how the system works.  “Everything becomes, in turn, the cause of effects elsewhere in the whole system.”  No final perfection — that’s just another trap or sidestep.  Which is fine, if you’d like that experience: then it’s no trap or sidestep so much as interesting or even productive diversion.  (Having your cake is eating it too, after all.  Otherwise it just sits there.) We don’t arrive at long last at any unchanging endpoint.  That’s not perfection.  We’re travelers.  We may get rest stops, but the growth is endless.  “Eden bears those footprints leading out …”

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*Greer, John Michael.  Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. Weiser, 2012.

Image:  paradigm shift.

Earth Mysteries — 3 of 7 — The Law of Balance

[Earth Mysteries 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7]

Here, in the third of this series on J. M. Greer’s principles from his book Mystery Teachings, we come to the Law of Balance:

“Everything that exists can continue to exist only by being in balance with itself, with other things, and with the whole system of which it is a part.   That balance is not found by going to one extreme or the other or by remaining fixed at a static point; it is created by self-correcting movements to either side of a midpoint.”*

The Dao de Jing (Tao Te Ching), another keen guide to the natural order of things, observes, “Extremes do not last long.”  After storm, sun.  After destruction, rebirth.  But what are we to make of natural disasters?  How in hell, literally, are we supposed to “live in harmony” with an earthquake or hurricane or tornado?

Our science, which is just another word for knowing or wisdom, has only begun to recover some of the nature wisdom of our ancestors and spiritual traditions.  And perhaps too much time, at least in some of the “hard” sciences, is spent in pursuit of a grand theory, where close observation might serve our immediate purposes better.  But we’re recovering lost ground as we can.

The horrific tsunami of December 2004 in southeast Asia makes for a good study.  Here and there, among the human and natural devastation in its wake, are curious and instructive stories.  The case of 10-year Tilly Smith, vacationing with her parents in Phuket, Thailand, merits recounting.  According to the Telegraph‘s article, Tilly saw the tide drop unnaturally, remembered a recent geography lesson about tsunami warning signs from her school back in the U.K., and alerted her parents.  They were wise enough to listen to their daughter, warned the hotel where they were staying to evacuate inland, and over a hundred lives were saved as a result.

Another story comes from off the coast of India, in the Andaman Islands.  One of the aboriginal peoples living there is the Onge, who still practice hunting-gathering.  When the sea level dropped abruptly, the tribe responded immediately.  After a quick ritual scattering of pig and turtle skulls to propitiate the evil spirits they perceived at work, they retreated inland.  Unsuspecting tourists and local fisherman walked the exposed beach and gathered the fish floundering there, only to perish in the approaching monster waves.  The National Geographic account from about a month afterwards includes commentary from Bernice Notenboom, president of a travel company specializing in indigenous cultural tourism and one of the few westerners to have visited the area.  She observed of the Onge, “Their awareness of the ocean, earth, and the movement of animals has been accumulated over 60,000 years of inhabiting the islands.”

While this isn’t exactly expert testimony, every member of the tribe did survive, and her reasoning is sound.  The commercial influence of Western culture has uprooted many tribes, and this is something Notenboom does know, since she’s on the forefront of it with her tour company.  She remarked that one day in another nearby village, an old man approached her and said, “It is great to have you here, but let’s not make it a habit.”  There can be a cost to careless physical ease and the acquisition of material abundance, and if we “gain the whole world and lose our souls,” to paraphrase the renowned Galilean master, we may be swallowed up, figuratively or literally.

Balance doesn’t mean stagnation.  Many Westerners have felt the stirrings of a vague dis-ease with their own lives.  We point to this or that cause, shuffle our politicians and opinions, our allegiances and subscriptions to cable, but to reuse the almost-cliche, it’s another version of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  When the problem is systemic, tinkering with symptoms won’t help.  The “solution” is not one single thing to apply like a band-aid, but it will indeed involve changes of heart, which will come in different ways for different  people over time.  Anyone who has a single prescription for the troubles that ail us is frankly talking out his ass. Getting the ____ into or out of political office won’t budge the problem.

The “self-correcting movements to either side of a midpoint” of the Law of Balance sound so innocent.  But whenever the balance shifts, the corrections come just as predictably and inevitably.  Whether we like them or not, welcome or resist them, is another matter entirely.  We forget that we’re not “in control”:  there’s no helm to manage, no boss to prop up in place so that “things keep going the way they always have.”  Already they aren’t, and they won’t.  We’re part of a whole:  whatever happens to the whole happens to us, and what happens to us happens to the whole.  This is good news for those who work with the whole, and bad news for those who think this particular rule doesn’t apply to them.

There is such a thing as natural “justice” — it’s another name for rebalancing — but not always as humans would have it.  There’s no court of appeal when we’ve fouled the air and water, destroyed local economies with mega-corporations, junk-fed ourselves sick, fought our way to a glutton’s share of the world’s resources which are running out, and tried to rationalize it all. Now we have to find ways to live through the re-balancing.  What tools do we need? The inner resources are still available, though we’ve burnt through so many outer ones. The classic question of “Where is wisdom to be found?” really needs to be answered individually.  It’s a fine quest to devote a life to, one that I happen to think is far better than anything else you can name. Right now especially, money certainly doesn’t look like it’s worth the game. I know that I feel more alive looking for wisdom, and finding a piece of it I can test and try out in my own life, than I do swallowing anybody else’s brand of fear and paranoia and cynicism.  This blog is a piece of that quest for me.  Whose life is this, anyway? Make of life a laboratory for truth.

In the end, balance really is a matter of the heart. One Egyptian image of the after-world that’s stuck with me is the Scales of Anubis. The jackal-god of the Underworld places the human heart of the deceased in his scales, to weigh it against the feather of truth, of Ma’at, the natural order, cosmic justice or balance.  (For inquiring minds, that’s Anubis to the right of the support post.) Only a light heart, literally one not weighted down by human heaviness (you can fill in the ____ with your favorite kinds), can pass muster. One distinguishing quality of the truly holy or wise ones that we encounter in their presence is a lightness of being, a kind of expansion and opening up. There is always possibility, a way forward. Whatever happens, we can face it better with that kind of heart beating in our chests. Look for that, in others and yourself, in your quest.

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Image: scales of Anubis.

*Greer, John Michael.  Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. Weiser, 2012.

Edited/updated 11 October 2017

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.

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.

Digging

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.

Things Dying, Things New-Born

“Thou met’st with things dying, I with things new-born” says the Shepherd in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.  And his words seem a perfect description of spring.  Not all is new growth.  Much has died.  Sometimes we remember our own dead most vividly when life returns to the world around us.  We’re still here, but they will not share another spring with us, and sorrow is renewed along with the grass underfoot and the buds on the trees.  A bittersweet time.  A time of compost and ashes and dandelion greens in salads.  A time of sunlight growing, of life rising in the spine like sap in trees.  Spring, you old tonic.

Out of state and away from computers for several days, I return with a series of vivid impressions:  visiting my now retired cousins in Madison, Wisconsin, seeing them on their third of an acre lot, the earth bursting with literally scores of varieties of flowers, everything up and blooming more than a month early.  Their care over two decades in restoring an old and abused house to pristine condition (doing much of the dirtiest and hardest work themselves), the spaces full of lovely wood paneling and doors and moldings, and full as well of light on all sides from triple-paned windows.  Above ten degrees outdoors and their furnace goes off, if they get any sun.  A Druidic care for the space they live in, the house and grounds they beautify not only for themselves, but all who pass by and witness.

Longing for light. Opening blinds to a few wasps at the window, sluggish with morning cold.   The hazy spring moon growing each night, that Pagan moon by which Christians reckon the date for Easter according to that strange formula of “first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.”  (A perfectly Pagan calculation, when you think about it at all, even considering that the early Church wished for Easter to follow Passover, itself subject to a combined lunar and solar calendar.) People outdoors worshiping the sun on their skin, sitting in sidewalk cafes, heads leaned back and eyes closed.  Mild days and cool nights.  Love of this old world, with all its pains and joys.  Love renewed, spring’s gift, waiting to ripen in fruit and flower and heart.

Posted 6 April 2012 by adruidway in blessing, Druidry, Easter, love, nature, outdoors, spirituality, trees

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Mud Season and Tree Sugar

This warmth won’t last, though it makes me say
earth feels like home on a sunny day.
But let sky darken and wind turn chill
And old winter wields dominion still.

*  *  *

While the warm hours last, birds try out songs we haven’t heard for months, and the woodworkers appear.  Not carpenters or cabinet-makers, but those people who come out of the woodwork on fine days like this, delightfully odd folks you swear you’ve never seen before, or at least not on this planet.  Probably I play the role myself for at least one other person, with my day’s stubble and turtleneck, wool socks with Birkenstocks.  “There are things more important than comfort,” says author Ursula LeGuin, “unless you are an old woman or a cat.”  Though I can’t qualify as the former, I’ve been feeling feline these last few days, so I pay no mind.

In our co-op parking lot an old woman is singing to herself, a rhythmic song in another language that keeps time with her cane striking the ground.  A sky-blue 60s Cadillac makes its way around the parking lot, then subsides with a splutter.  A couple climb out, then look up like they’ve never seen sky before and, heads tilted back, they drink it in for a full minute or more.  Their pleasure is contagious.  It’s a day people greet strangers simply because we’ve resurfaced, emerged from the bunker of ice and snow and cold and hunkering down, into a world of thaw and mud and sudden warmth on the skin.

Sugar shacks smoke trough the night as the sap rises and the “sweet trees” yield their juice.  You pass what you think is just a stand of trees, and there’s a faint square glow from a shack window, someone patiently (or impatiently) at work through the evening.  Boil down the sap over a low heat, a wood fire as often as not, more and still more, then just keep going beyond all reason, and you eventually get a single lovely brown gallon for every thirty to forty of pale sap you’ve lugged in.  If you do sugaring for more than yourself and family and maybe a few friends, you upgrade and invest in an evaporator.  And if through the hours and days you manage not to scorch the slowly condensing syrup, that first taste on pancakes (or over a bowl of crisp new snow, a northern treat more rare this year) makes sore muscles and bloodshot eyes and smoky clothing worth it.

The French further north have their cabanes a sucre, where the temperatures haven’t risen quite so high and more of the white stuff remains.

And sweeter still, in less than ten days, the vernal equinox, with day then overtaking night.  Hail, growing light!

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Images:  Sugar shack; cabane.

Posted 13 March 2012 by adruidway in Druidry, equinox, nature, outdoors, poetry, Sugar Shack, trees

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Aboutness

“I heard you saw the movie yesterday.  So what’s it about?”  “Jean and Bill are arguing again.  What’s that about?”  “OK, he tried to explain and it still doesn’t make sense to me.  But you understand those kinds of things, so tell me about it.”  And there’s the old-time newspaper seller’s cry:  “Extra, extra!   Read all about it!!”

This elusive quality of aboutness is core to so many of our ways and days.  We spend years in education (and life) dividing things up into their parts and labeling them, and then at least as much time putting them back together, searching for the links and connections between them, so that we can “grasp” them, “get” them, understand them.  Re-assemble and it might resemble what it used to be.  We crave community, fellowship and friends along the way at least as much as we prize our American individualism and independence and self-reliance.  We long for aboutness.

About is near, close, approximately, almost — good enough for daily reckoning, for horseshoes and hand-grenades. It’s about five miles.  We’re about out of time.  About is sometimes the guts, the innards, the details, all the juicy pieces.  About is also the whole, the overview, the heart of the matter.  If you know about cars or cooking, you don’t need to know every specific model or recipe to “know your way around them.”  What you don’t know you can usually pick up quickly because of family similarities they share.  If you under-stand, you know the sub-stance.  Position yourself in the right place and time (apparently beneath what you desire to comprehend, according to the peculiar English idiom), and you’ll get the gist.

Layers, strata.  This onion-like reality keeps messing us up with its levels.  Its aboutness won’t stay put as just one thing, but consists of stuff piled on other stuff below it.  Often you gotta dig down through the fossil layer to reach the starting point.  Peel it all away, though, and sometimes all you have is peel.  You may know the simple and lovely blessing — there are several versions extant:

Back of the loaf is the snowy flour,
back of the flour is the mill;
back of the mill is the wheat and the shower,
the sun and the Maker’s will.

Sometimes if you pay attention you can catch it like a melody on the wind, something that lingers behind the sunlight.  We know more than we know we know.  This is the natural mysticism that comes with living, however hard we may try to ignore it.  This is the  aboutness that underlies our lives and our days, while we scurry from one thing to another, in pursuit of happiness.  So it follows us, shaking its head at our antics.  It could catch up to us if we stopped, looked and listened, if we made space for it to live with us, rather than renting out a room next door, trying vainly to catch our attention.

Robert Frost is one of my go-to guys for insight, as readers of this blog discover.  In “Directive” he begins with that sense of constriction, and our partial memory of a past that shines brighter because of what we’ve forgotten about its difficulties.  Yes, the poem’s “about” dying New England towns and abandoned houses, but also about us:

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather …

If there’s a place and home for us, he goes on to say, it’s reachable only by misdirection.  “You can’t get there from here,” because the “here” has no more substance than anything else.  It won’t serve as a starting point.  Time has wrenched it free of its moorings.  Things drift.

The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry—
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it …

Yes, there’s a story, maybe several stories, a hint or two that maybe somewhere else, or someone else, will do it for it us, will finally deliver to us what we’ve been seeking.  The stories of art, of music, of the great myths we want to believe even when we can’t.  Sometimes the hints are maddening, sometimes the only comfort we can lay hands on in our seeking.

Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.

Aren’t we almost there?  Or is it merely illusion?  Is this a path anyone else has traveled and succeeded in the end, or our own unique interstate roaring straight toward disaster?  What lies are we telling ourselves today?  And are we waking up to them at last?  You gotta get in to get out, go the Genesis lyrics (the band, not the Bible).  You have to get lost in order to be found.  That experience is necessary, though painful.  Not one of us is the son who stays at home.  We’re all prodigals.

And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home.

Might as well get comfortable being lost, because it’s gonna last a while.  Though we never can be wholly comfortable in illusions.  No end in sight.  The problem is that we don’t know this until the end actually IS in sight. What illusions do we need that will actually bring comfort for a time, at least?  They’re not illusions until we outgrow them, live through and past them.  In fact we need truths now that only later become illusions precisely because they will be too small for us anymore.

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.

Our house in earnest, playhouse in our childhood, has collapsed, or will.  Our old selves won’t do.  They don’t fit.  We shuffle them off like snake-skins that bear the imprint of what lived in them, down to scar and scale, and we mourn and mistake them for ourselves, another illusion, standing there in the mirror that consciousness provides.

Who then can show us the way?  From this perspective, we need, not salvation, but someone to show us where we can walk on our own two feet.  Not out of vanity or stiff-necked pride, but because we have to make our way ourselves.  Otherwise it doesn’t stick.  It vanishes like a dream on waking.  Yes, others have carried us there briefly, by art or alcohol or sex or those moments of ecstasy that come on us unannounced and unsought, glimpses of home through the fog.

Tolkien has Gandalf and Pippin touch on it briefly in The Lord of the Rings:

Gandalf:  The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.

Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?

Gandalf:  White shores … and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Frost continues, wise old poet-guru.  (Sigmund Freud once remarked, “Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me.”)

Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.

We keep flowing — we’re not meant to stay put.  Heaven as stasis, as a static destination, an endpoint, a final arrival, nothing beyond, is a false heaven.  Enchantments of different kinds surround us. Some deceive, and some actively conceal what we know we must have in order to live at all.  Yet what we seek also and paradoxically lies hidden in plain sight. The water was “the water of the house.”  It’s right here.  What can we use to gather it up?

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Be whole again.  What was lost is now found.  Restoration.  Return to what is native to you — your watering place.  This is the command that drives us onward, the quest buried in our blood and bones.  Reach for it. Whole again beyond confusion.

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The Hunger Games — a Meditation

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold,” says Katniss Everdeen, opening Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games as both narrator and protagonist, and launching a major theme and complex of imagery in the book.

The widely-anticipated movie version of the novel arrives in a little over a month, in late March.  The transformation of novel into film, with its inevitable directorial choices, budgetary limitations and too-specific casting of too-attractive young actors, will enchant some and disappoint others.  No film can perfectly incarnate the word-world of a book to everyone’s satisfaction.  (Here’s a link to an official trailer, in case you’re curious and haven’t yet seen it.)  But it’s the novel I wish to focus on here.

The presence or absence of warmth is a recurring theme:  heat — passion — violence — fire continually trade places throughout the story.  Human warmth is, after all, what initially launches Katniss into the story.  She volunteers on the spur of the moment to take the place of her beloved sister Prim, in the annual national lottery that selects a pair of youths from each of the twelve districts of a future North America and drops them into a televised death match.  It’s blood sport with a vengeance.

**Spoiler Alert**

Prim is now safe, thanks to Katniss.  But once Katniss is taken from her home, along with the other chosen youths who are now her rivals, she is pampered, buffed, polished, trained — and made over to show off an explicit fire imagery her stylists have conceived for her.  As part of the lead-up to the competition, along with her rivals, she is interviewed and paraded on a nationally broadcast special program.  But first, the finishing touches.

The team works on me until late afternoon, turning my skin to glowing satin, stenciling patterns on my arms, painting flame designs on my twenty perfect nails.  Then Venia goes to work on my hair, weaving strands of red in a pattern that begins at my left ear … They erase my face with a layer of pale make-up and draw my features back out. Huge dark eyes, full red lips, lashes that throw off bits of light when I blink. Finally, they cover my entire body in a powder that makes me shimmer in gold dust. (127-128, pprbk. edition)

After the makeover, Katniss is dressed in her costume for the evening.

I can feel the silken inside as they slip it down over my body, then the weight.  It must be forty pounds … The creature standing before me in the full length mirror has come from another world.  Where skin shimmers and eyes flash and apparently they make their clothes from jewels … the slightest movement gives the impression I am engulfed in tongues of fire. (128)

I’m not perceiving something new here — other authors have gone further — there’s a book out titled The Girl Who Was on Fire which explores this theme in the novel in depth.  Soon the gritty, violent death-match will replace this world of artifice and polish, and with the starkest contrast leave a trail of bodies dispatched bloodily, and even the survivors gashed, burnt, deafened, half-poisoned, dehydrated and starving.  But the elemental world the novel has conjured persists in these sharply unglamorous forms.  Fire of the spirit, the singular drive to survive.  Fire of anger at the political motivation underlying the contest which deploys needless violence and death.  Fire for cooking, fire as weapon, water for thirst and bathing, earth — a cave — for protection.  Fire of human passion, whether genuine or contrived for show.

The Hunger Games has already achieved the dubious distinction of banned book status, as if it advocated violence instead of patently demonstrating against it.  But violence nevertheless permeates our world, and the younger readers who have taken this book to heart and made it into a phenomenon respond enthusiastically to a story and an author who acknowledges this fact honestly. Further, Katniss offers a strong female protagonist in place of the one-dimensional tag-along female romantic interest more typical of plot-driven stories with male leads. She manages to confront imminent death, make hard choices, and still retain her integrity in the face of what is after all adult manipulation and advocacy of institutionalized violence for political ends. The same human capacity for strong feeling that draws us toward violence can also lead us to bonds of strong affection and loyalty that are one antidote to violence. If that is fighting fire with fire, it often works.

Images:  cover; banned.

Wood and Water

There’s elemental comfort in contemplating the woodpile in our back lean-to (and a second one outdoors) — a reassurance that reaches to the bone.  Wood is our primary source of heat, and we spend about $600 a year to heat our small ranch house.  Some rooms have electric baseboard which we use only minimally, when we’re away for more than a few days in winter, to save pipes from freezing.  Taking a break from splitting, I stand and count days and logs, logs and days.  And I give thanks to the waiting trees around our property.

Yes, it’s labor-intensive to feed a stove and keep it drawing well. If you’ve maintained a fire, you know these things, of course — I’m hardly telling you anything new.  But for us the payback of wood is true solace:  even when the power goes out, and no matter the windchill, we stay warm.  Each log is captured sunlight, and if you’ve spent any time in wood heat, you know its delightful penetrating quality, much like sunbathing. (This winter has been mild so far for southern VT — our heaviest single snowfall clocked in at under a foot, and the thermometer dove and hovered just below zero Fahrenheit for only a couple of days last month.  Today on our hilltop the mercury hit the mid-40s — briefly.)

Especially at night during a winter outage, with flames or embers our only source of illumination beyond candlelight or short bursts of flashlight, a moment’s reverie can transport us back 10,000 years to a Neolithic cave and the flicker of firelight on stone walls.  You sit close to each other for added warmth, and fire-watching feels both utterly ancient and distinctly human.  Then the hearth resumes its old and honored place as center of life and civilization.  (Brigid, saint and goddess, patron of Candlemas and Imbolc just past, is lady of the hearth-fire.) Without heat on a bitter night, we’re each reduced to King Lear’s “thing itself … unaccommodated man … a poor, bare, forked animal.”  At such times, more even than water, heat’s the immediate necessity.

When we first visited the house with a realtor on a bright, cold January day some years back, I remember thinking how much work wood heat would be.  But we’ve only needed to start a fire about half a dozen times since late October, when the stove began burning steadily.  Since then, the coals are almost always still hot enough in the morning to re-ignite whole logs without kindling.  My wife or I wake up most nights now, in the small hours,  almost taking turns without consciously planning it, to stoke the fire just once, and return to bed.  And we can cook on the stove.  Yes, it takes longer, but if the power’s out, time suddenly returns in abundance.

As for water, beyond our well, we have a small pond at the bottom of our yard.  Again, when we first saw the property, all I thought was “mosquito breeding ground,” but I’ve come to see its multiple advantages.  No, the water’s not potable (though the minnows, salamanders and frogs don’t seem to mind), but we can boil it if need be. It also serves for irrigation in a drought. Come spring, we’ll be fitting a hand pump to our well-head for water during extended power outages.  (I stare at the pond now, this pale February light reducing the scene to white, gray, black, wondering how thick the ice is, how much chipping with an axe to reach the frigid liquid water.)

I record all these details in part because my wife and I spent half an hour yesterday watching clips of the new National Geographic series Doomsday Preppers, premiering next Tues., Feb. 7.  While the featured families and individuals carry their preparations to extremes most of us would not, it’s perfectly sensible to maintain a store of several days’ food and drinking water in case of power outages or local natural disasters.  Dried, canned and easy-to-prep foods if you have no means of cooking, rice and flour, beans and pasta if you do.

The harshness of local events in the past several months, like the drought in Texas, the severe tornadoes in the Midwest, and hurricane Irene in the Northeast, have persuaded people in ways nothing else could to consider such preparations.  If heat isn’t under your control and you live in a temperate (read “cold”) zone, it’s wise to have a fall-back plan.  Ditto for cooling, if your home otherwise bakes in the summer.  You don’t have to expect “the end of the world as we know it” to use (as my grandmother liked to say) — “the good sense God gave gravel.”

While much is made of Americans’ dependence on electricity and foreign oil, most of us learn pretty quickly, if we have to, how to make do with wind, water, wood and fire.  If you grew up in a small town,  attended a summer camp, went hiking or just stayed up overnight outside a house, you have a preliminary sense of your abilities and tolerances in the natural world.  It’s useful to know these, and build on them.  That old sense of self-reliance that’s part of the story we tell ourselves about the “American character” is a good place to begin.  And for you readers from other parts of the world, consider the equivalents in your cultures.  Make it a game, especially if you have young kids.   Think through your options in emergencies and disasters, and if they feel too constraining, work to expand them.  We live in such varied circumstances, so no one solution will work for everybody.  And that’s as it should be.

Come September, my wife and I will be back in CT, in school housing, with different contingency plans to consider.

A weekend’s reflection and planning will pay off down the road, even if they simply get you through the next minor “inconvenience” more smoothly.  As the inconvenience increases, so will the payoff.  Live long enough and you know from personal experience that John Lennon spoke true: life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

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Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney Phil

To get you into the spirit of Imbolc and Groundhog’s Day tomorrow, February 2nd, here’s a Youtube video documenting record attendance at Gobbler’s Knob outside Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Groundhog’s Day, 2008.

If you’re impatient and don’t wish to watch the entire seven-minute video, begin with the first 20 seconds or so, as the town’s “Inner Circle” in black coats and top hats process to Gobbler’s Knob, and then cut to when the action picks up again with Phil’s appearance shortly after the four-minute mark.

For the “official” Groundhog Day site and up to the date info, as well as other videos, visit groundhog.org.

Ten Thousand Things

One of the more useful skills I’m practicing with Druidry (we all learn our lessons from many sources, in different guises and from different teachers, throughout our lives) concerns binary thinking.  It’s easier to recognize when we’re not practicing it ourselves.  You’re with us or you’re against us.  It’s good or it’s bad.  You’re young or you’re old.  Hot or cold.  1% or 99%.  And so on.  Next door in New Hampshire, the state license plates famously read “Live free or die.”

We can get distinctly uncomfortable around ambiguity that doesn’t fall into one or the other of two neat categories. Advertisers after all market to categories, and spend time labeling both products and consumers so they can target their products.  WordPress asks for tags and categories.  If you have something to sell that doesn’t fit under a label, you can have a devil of a time getting it on the shelves or in front of people’s noses.  Likewise, if you want to locate something that doesn’t fit a category, it can sometimes be a long challenge to track it down.

Of course, we can see plenty of this dualistic patterning in action now on a large scale in the States, and without needing to look any further than our presidential primaries.  Just tune in, and you’re sure to hear some variant of the following, especially across party lines:  one candidate’s or party’s ideas and proposals constitute all Goodness and Light and Upright Living, while the other threatens our very way of life.  Filled with greed, selfishness, and all signs of true evil, that Evil Other will — if we make the mistake of listening to/believing in/voting for them,  deliver us individually and as a nation into the hands of utter darkness, despair and destruction.

  Of course the drift into binary or polar thinking doesn’t originate or end with politics.  As author, blogger and Druid J. M. Greer notes, “Binaries exert a curious magnetism on the human mind.  Once we get caught up in thoughts of yes or no, right or wrong, love or hate, truth or falsehood, or any other binary, it can be hard to realize that the two poles of the binary don’t contain all of reality … Druid philosophy offers a useful tactic in situations of this kind.  When you encounter a binary, you simply look for a third factor that is not simply a midpoint between the two poles.  Find the third factor and you convert the binary into a ternary, a balanced threefold relationship that allows freedom and flexibility.”*

We all know numerous proverbs and images of three-ness.  “Third time’s the charm”; the three parts of a syllogism (thesis, antithesis and synthesis); beginning, middle and end;  the Three Blind Mice; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Father, Son and Holy Ghost; the examples are nearly endless.  What they amount to is a widespread recognition of the liberating and creative power of Three.  As the Tao Te Ching says (Ch. 42), “From the One comes Two, from the Two Three, and from the Three the Ten Thousand Things” of existence in this world.  The key is not to stop at two if we want to create.  Move on to three.

Greer amplifies the discussion of binary thinking in a post on his weekly blog.  He notes that

… the hardwired habit of snap judgments in binary form is always right below the surface. In most cases all it takes is a certain amount of stress to trigger it. Any kind of stress will do, and over the years, practitioners of mass thaumaturgy have gotten very good at finding ways to make people feel stressed so that the binary reaction kicks in and can be manipulated to order.

That’s when thinking in binaries goes haywire, the middle ground becomes invisible, and people think, say, and do resoundingly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives, one of which is charged to the bursting point with desire … or fear … Watch the way that many people on the American right these days insist that anybody to the left of George W. Bush is a socialist, or tfor that matter the way that some people on the American left insist that anybody to the right of Hillary Clinton is a fascist. Equally, and more to the point in our present context, think of the way the peak oil debate was stuck for so long in a binary that insisted that the extremes of continued progress and sudden catastrophic collapse were the only possible shapes of the postpetroleum future.

Binary thinking is evolutionarily useful, Greer notes, because it allows us to make snap judgments that can save our lives in crises.  But in situations where more careful thinking is not only possible but necessary, our ancient wiring and programming can leave us stranded at one pole or another, in stalemate, with no sense of the way forward.

Greer continues, observing that (in various kinds of Druid and magical training) “Back in the day, beginning students used to be assigned the homework of picking up the morning paper each day, writing down the first nine binaries they encountered, and finding a third option to each binary.”  This bit of training can offer a salutary unlocking and rebalancing of the debates of the day — or of any complex problem handicapped and hampered by sharply polarized thinking.

This useful little exercise [of identifying and expanding binaries] has at least three effects. First of all, it very quickly becomes apparent to the student just how much binary thinking goes on in the average human society. Second, it very quickly becomes at least as apparent to the student how much of an effort it takes, at least at first, to snap out of binary thinking. Third and most crucial is the discovery, which usually comes in short order, that once you find a third option, it’s very easy to find more—a fourth, a ninety-fourth, and so on—and they don’t have to fit between the two ends of the binary, as most beginners assume.

Ternary thinking isn’t just a liberating technique for the person who practices it.  It carries with it a desirable ripple effect, for

… when a discussion is mired in reactive binary thinking, it only takes one person resolutely bringing up a third option over and over again, to pop at least some of the participants out of the binary trap, and get them thinking about other options. They may end up staying with the option they originally supported, but they’re more likely to do it in a reasoned way rather than an automatic, unthinking way. They’re also more likely to be able to recognize that the other sides of the debate also have their points, and to be able to find grounds for mutual cooperation, because they aren’t stuck in a mental automatism that loads a torrent of positive emotions onto their side of the balance and an equal and opposite torrent of negative emotions onto the other side.

Given how shrill our political dialog has become, and how intransigent and loath to compromise the principal players remain, we could use a healthy dose of such thinking.  As one of the Wise has said, “God is what opposites have in common.” For me that means that the “truth” of a matter is less than likely to lie at either extreme of a binary, but somewhere else — not “in the middle” necessarily, as though God were a moderate or centrist deity.  The Tao Te Ching also notes (somewhat wryly, I’ve often felt) that “Extremes do not last long.”

But beyond the political sphere, the ternary in other settings leads us directly to the Ten Thousand Things, the world of possibility and options and freedom.  To give just one personal example, after my cancer surgery and the follow-up radiation  months later, I was weak and suffering from uncomfortable and chronic internal radiation burns in the lower colon.  “I’ve got to get better or I’ll have to quit my job,” I thought.  “I can’t work like this,” when almost every bathroom visit brought blood and pain.  Binary alert!  I was able to arrange a medical leave, during which a change of diet, specific exercise, rest, an inspiring class I audited, and several new activities and spiritual practices have helped with healing.

One of the latter is the subtly powerful principle of “both-and.”  Rather than stalling in a binary, embrace the whole.  So often I hear people saying, “I’m so upset!” or “I can’t believe it!” or some other incantation.  The more often they repeat it, the more forceful their mental and emotional state seems to become for them.  (Our most common targets of “black magic” are typically ourselves.)

“Both-and” works like this.  “I’m upset and I can also be calm.” Both are true.  Rather than denying what may be a very real state or situation, include it and move outward to include more.  This avoids the resistance or denial that often plagues affirmations or stubbornness or exertions of the will, as if we could force the universe to do what we’re simultaneously insisting it must not to!  (I want to be calm, but “I’m so upset!”)

Whitman, our old American proto-Druid, gets it.  “I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best.” Both-and, alive and well.  And as he also and famously said in “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself?  Very well then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The Ten Thousand Things all are moving about on their many and beautiful ways.  Come walk with me, and with them.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*J. M. Greer, The Druid Magic Handbook, 19.

Images: NH license; Obama; Gingrich; Whitman.

Imbolc/Candlemas

My wife and I returned late yesterday afternoon to a cold house — we heat only with wood — back from an overnight to Boston where we visited my wife’s cousin Sue in the hospital.  She’s due to go home soon after stem-cell replacement therapy and chemo for lymphoma.  So far the treatment’s working, and her toughness and optimism are heartening.

Our indoor thermometer read 49 degrees, and as we shivered in the last afternoon light and I rekindled a fire in our woodstove, I caught myself glancing a couple of times at a calendar, the way you do after a trip, to reorient yourself to times and days. Late January.  The last glimmer of sun over our front yard showed a typical Vermont winter scene — new snow, bare trees, and that deceptive bright calm that makes you believe you really don’t need to bundle yourself up and protect every extremity against single-digit New England winter days.  A single step outside offers a brisk corrective to that particular illusion.

Yes, frostbite lurks for the unwary, but there’s a subtle shift nonetheless.  Birds know it, plumped against the cold, heads cocked and alert for anyone else finding food, and so does the ivy drowsing beside my wife’s loom.  It’s perked up recently, as if waking from its own vegetative hibernation.

Sue’s bright spirits, beyond her own brand of courage, are in keeping with the changing season.  Imbolc approaches, the holiday also celebrated variously as Candlemas or St. Brigid’s Day on Feb. 1/2.  The northeastern U.S. lies in the grip of winter, and yet the holiday looks forward to spring.  The Irish word imbolc means “in the belly” — the fetal lambs growing and approaching the time of their birth into a larger world, full of darkness and light. Brigid draws devotees who keep shrines lit with light and fire.  The Wikipedia entry nicely sums up her importance:  “Saint Brigid is one of the few saints who stands on the boundary between pagan mythology, Druidism and Christian spirituality.”

Verses in her honor abound:

Fire in the forge that
shapes and tempers.

Fire of the hearth that
nourishes and heals.

Fire in the head that
incites and inspires.

You can feel the change with your eyes, on your skin, in your bones — a slightly different angle of light, longer days, a listening quality, if you go quiet enough to hear it.  A reason to celebrate with light and flame.

There’s an old Japanese saying I encountered while living and working in Tokyo two decades ago that often comes to my mind this time of year.  “What is the bravest of living things?  The plum tree, because it puts forth its blossoms in the snow.”  There’s a bravery in certitude, a trust that, as Genesis 8 declares, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”

There’s deep comfort in homely things — things of home — the soapstone stove, the hearth stones that accumulate wood-ash and need sweeping a few times a day, the armfuls of oak logs I bring to feed our fire.

Late this morning as I finish the final draft of this post, the stove still ticking and pinging softly as it heats and cools with each charge of wood, the wall thermometer finally reads 67.  My wife reads in bed, the sky lowers gray, and a fine snow clouds the air as it descends.

Light and blessings of the season to you.

The Arboreal Long View

The world’s oldest trees make a fit subject for a short post today. Check out that link. Spend a few minutes with images of ten trees alive for millennia.

Wikipedia went dark today in protest, political partisans continue to trade insults on the media stage, the global economy lumbers and stutters along, and humans are born, grow, discover, love, kill, invent, sing, go to war, paint, hate, create, die and come back to life. Ever had a sense of lifetime deja-vu?  As one of the Wise observed, “We keep coming back till we get it right.”

The trees are witnesses to so much of our mortal drama, and yet live lives almost unimaginably long in comparison with our few decades here.

Here’s a video link to a short (4-minute) link about some marvelous research into networks of trees which support and nourish each other:

Mother trees connect the forest

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