Archive for the ‘Thoreau’ Category

Year 7 at A Druid Way   Leave a comment

At the close of my seventh year with this blog, I’m devoting a post to taking stock.

First, thank-yous to everyone — nearly 10,000 of you this past year — who keep coming back to read, to ruminate, and to comment.  As I note on my About page, quoting Philip Carr-Gomm:

Just as the spiritual path can be characterised as the ongoing attempt to both remember yourself and forget yourself, so blogging can be seen as a challenge to both be more personal, more open, more sharing of the riches of a life and at the same time to take yourself less seriously, to let go of the concern about what other people might think about you, and to reveal rather than conceal your curiosity and amazement at the often crazy world you find yourself in.

As a spiritual practice, writing here keeps me turning over my experiences and perspectives — a good thing, I’ve found, for both consciousness and compost. This coming February 2019 I’ll join a panel of speakers with the rich topic of “Spiritual Lessons from Everyday Life”, and my time with this blog will definitely contribute. Human experiences have no “size” that I can determine, despite any labels we apply to them. Seemingly “small” ones deliver impacts that may not fully mature for years, while the splashier ones often fade quickly as dreams. You keep turning them over, turning them over, and good stuff emerges, which you know in retrospect mostly because it nourishes what will grow in the future. If I neglect this, soon all I have is a midden that smells, attracts pests, and I learn I’ve forfeited an opportunity for work that is real. Fortunately I can pick up the pitchfork and shovel at any moment and begin.

What other people bring to say, and how they respond to what I share here, seems to work much the same way. You learn it’s often not about you at all, whatever you thought. Each of us makes individual journeys so idiosyncratic and often difficult to get into words that what amazes me is we’re able to share anything at all. Or as I have occasion to exclaim to my wife, I’ve slowly learned that two things are simultaneously true, in the best traditions of paradox: that I’m nothing like other people, and that I’m exactly like other people — I’m an alien, or I’m your twin. This blog usually lands somewhere along that continuum.

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Three of the most popular posts this past year originate not from this year but from my 2017 “Druid and Christian Themes” series. This intersection of traditions still lights up for me, as it apparently does for a sizable proportion of readers. Otherwise, the only excuse I can offer for my choice of topics is also Thoreau’s: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” But beyond Transcendentalist Yankee Smart-assery, he makes a subtler point: go deep enough inside yourself and you will find things to say that resonate for others at least some of the time. The odds of this happening are about the same as for baseball, so an average of .300 is respectable indeed.

Looking a little further at the Druid-Christian intersection I recall how Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries:

Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.  It did this in at least four ways:  it continued to make use of certain old sacred sites, such as holy wells; it adopted the festivals and the associated folklore of the pagan calendar; it recorded the tales of the Bards, which encoded the oral teachings of the Druids; and it allowed some of the old gods to live in the memory of the people by co-opting them into the Church as saints (p. 31).

Since I find I’m citing Carr-Gomm a lot in this post, I’ll end with one more observation by him that I find still most topical today, the 30th of December 2018:

One of the most important tasks that face us today is one of reconciliation, whether that be between differing political or religious positions … the Christian community, far from taking fright at a perceived regression to a pagan past, can ally itself with [Druidry] which is complementary, and not antagonistic to Christian ideals and ethics …

St. Columba said “Christ is my Druid” and I believe that if we take Druidry to represent that ancient wisdom which lies deep within us, and that can connect us once again to the Earth and her wonders, we can understand how we can be Christian Druids, Buddhist Druids or Druids of whatever hue or depth is needed for us at our present stage of development.

May we each find and recognize “whatever hue or depth is needed for us at our present stage of development”. Blessings of the coming New Year to you all.

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Testing the True   Leave a comment

real_fakeA lot of talk these days about truth or reality and fakeness, almost as if our era was the only one ever so burdened, so challenged, so troubled by discerning the difference. So I cheer when I find a key to help me along the way, one I can hold up to the light and turn in my hands and consider, one I can offer to you and see whether it serves your need, too.

Es ist alles wahr wodurch du besser wirst, runs a German proverb Thoreau quotes in his journal entry for October, 1837 — “Everything is true through which we become better.”

I love this as a test for truth. No abstraction here, but rather a laboratory prompt, a calibration on our internal alethiometers, to use the example of Philip Pullman’s delicate device for measuring truth.

alethiometerIn the first volume of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, Pullman describes the alethiometer like this:

It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with the finest and slenderest sable brush (Northern Lights, 1995).

(Do you have your own alethiometer already? You do? Is it in good working order? Or are you looking for one?)

And that in turn should tell me something. As much as it is anything else, truth is an image, a whole set of images, that I carry around. From childhood onward, from experience, from stories, movies and the examples of others, from my culture and the era I was born and grew up in, I gather up and walk with a museum of images. Does what I see and experience right now match those pictures? If not, can it be true? How can it be true?

Everything is true through which we become better. Should I walk around asking, “Have you become better yet?” Well, no: unless I start first with myself. You know this is my principal strategy for avoiding insufferable arrogance, spiritual myopia and self-righteousness. Turn the edge on myself first, before urging the blade on others. A better question is “How did you do it? And can I generalize a principle, extract a technique from your answer, so that I can pull it off, too?”

What am I doing, what have I done, and has it helped? Have I become better? If so, can I do more of it? How Druidic! Rather than an eternal and external standard to which I must somehow conform but which is native, apparently, to nobody, instead I practice one dependent on my life and my experience. Yet we can recognize a shared quality in both our experiences, even though they’re different. What can that tell us? What are we perceiving? Part of an answer seems to lie in the relationship between honoring my own experience even as I honor another’s.

To give a specific example, echinacea consistently upsets my system, but my wife finds it a wonderful aid. My truth doesn’t trump hers, but neither does hers negate mine. One principle does for both: if it helps, if through it I become better, it’s true for me. As with freedom, so with truth: yours ends where mine begins, and vice versa. Force either on me and they cease being what they are, but become their own opposites. (We still endlessly practice this negative magic on ourselves and each other.)

I do ritual alone, or with others, and stand together in a circle with the Visible and the Invisible to welcome the sacred. My wife and I work at our marriage, and it has its good and better years, like anything planted and cultivated, watered and weeded. I fell out of touch with a college friend, and we’ve drifted apart. I remember others regularly, and our relationship still holds true.

I find truth in the quality of such relationships. Improving a relationship is one way I become better.

Oh, uniformity or conformity has its place. Build a house and you want dimensions as close as you can measure and cut them. We also speak of angles, materials and directions as true. True north. We’re dismayed, or gratified, when potentials and promises come true. In a ritual it’s helpful if we work together. The chant grows stronger when we say or sing the words in unison, like any chorus. Unity can be … fun.

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Alan Watts (1915-1973)

The principle remains, whatever the design of the structure you build, house or ritual, song or life. As Alan Watts quipped decades ago — I can’t locate the source offhand — most creatures on the planet are endless variations on a single design: tubes with various attachments. (We’re improvisations, like jazz, like the unrepeatable concert version your favorite band performs of its signature song.) What wonderful diversity elaborating and playing with that unitary principle!

But what’s diversity for? I remember my first years at the school where I taught, serving as international student adviser. “Students from 38 countries!” the school brochures and website crowed at the time. “OK,” I said at one faculty meeting, feeling out the parameters of my new position. “We’ve got diversity. Now what do we do with it?” I genuinely wanted to know. No one answered. But I wasn’t being rhetorical. Was “having” diversity enough? Was that the goal, now achieved, box checked, on to the next item on some larger list? Was the school, were we, with our vaunted diversity, somehow now better? If so, how?! Could we measure it? Could we be or do something, anything, better as a result?

“I desire”, says Thoreau in Walden,

that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.

If we respect ourselves in all our quirky uniqueness and individuality, how can we not respect everything else? Your difference affirms mine. The world and all its creatures, the Chinese wan wu, “Ten Thousand Things”, announce this principle every moment. How can we not glory in such diversity?!

Apparently, to judge by what’s happening in so many places, we often can’t. Is it because we don’t trust our own uniqueness? Do we fear ourselves as distinct and free beings, and therefore fear everyone else who is also a unique self, different from us?

Does your difference help me become better? No, it must be said, not if I run from it in fear, or if I feel I must attack you to protect myself, or deny you any way to live your difference, so that it leaves mine alone. Shortsightedly, I could even claim your difference makes me worse, not better, because I don’t like it, or because you remind me of my own freedom and uniqueness. Because all difference urges me to the responsibility to live from that knowledge. No, I don’t want to become better. Save me from any such transformations! I want to be, not become.

I find truth in the quality of relationship. I want to connect to others who help me become, just as I want to help them become more of who they are.

Selfishly, I readily admit, they’re more fun to be around when they’re becoming than when they’re locked in fear and desperately trying to remain who they are. And paradoxically, they become more of who they are when they keep changing and growing. And so, they tell me, do I.

Yes, the Great Self of the Cosmos first says Be! But then its continues, saying Become! I want to hear those Words and live them. Because what else is there? Serving something larger than the self, another paradox here, fulfills the self. All the many species around me live and flourish and die and return because they and I are what the cosmos does.

And ritual, song, art, creativity in solving problems, joy, relationships with other unique beings, are all ways to express and take part in and complete that doing.

eplurunYes, to be national for a moment, the motto on our U.S. currency proclaims E pluribus unum — “Out of many, one”. When you start with states that are nearly independent nations, unity can hold great allure.

In other contexts, too, of course, we seek that uni-verse, that “one-turning”, of one-ness. But if we seek a more whole truth, a “single turning” through which we might become better, we also recognize and acknowledge and begin to live from its other half, too — its complement, which we’ve often overlooked: Ex uno plures — “Out of One, many”. As the old song goes, echo of a cosmic melody, you can’t have one without the other.

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Images: real/fake; alethiometerAlan Watts;

Wildness, and Thoreau at 200   Leave a comment

thoreauLong-time readers of this blog know my admiration for Henry David Thoreau (who rhymed his name with “borrow”). I’m well into a new biography* of him, and reminded by a New York Times book review that today is his 200th birthday.

*Walls, Laura Dassow. Thoreau: A Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. (Go for the Kindle edition; hardcover is $35!)

Partly from Thoreau (1817-1862) and his Transcendentalist circle, but also of course from vivid Medieval conceptions, Westerners get Nature-with-a-capital-N, that idealized if not deified Presence. In the same millennium-old perception, we get two Books of Wisdom as well. The Book of Scripture, the Bible, yes. But also the Book of Nature. (Ah, but which is volume one and which is sequel?)

From the Concord, Massachusetts man and his most famous book, we learn his credo: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world”. For there is a tameness that allows us to live together at all, that is much but not all of what we mean by “civilization”, and another (or perhaps the same) tameness that makes us lie down in front of the onrushing disasters of the day, provided they don’t touch us too directly and painfully.

Or at least not right away. (Boil me gradually, and I’m a happy frog or lobster.) A few posts ago, I wrote of making coffee in an analogy for doing ritual: any trade deal made or broken is fine with me — until it deprives me of a ready supply of overseas beans. Or let’s say I do step forward, full of fire and righteous indignation (is there any other kind?!) to protest a worthy Druid-y cause, putting my life on the line, what then? Isn’t my life always on the line? As one follower* of a certain wilderness prophet cautioned us long ago: “I may even give away all that I have to the poor, and give up my body to be burned. But if I don’t have love, none of these things will help me”. More to the point, I’d say, will they help anyone else?

cernunnosThere’s also a wildness in “a certain forest god”, as John Beckett calls Cernunnos. As without, so within. There’s a wildness in each of us that politicians are eager to sedate and numb to stasis with material consumption and soundbites and spin. There’s a wildness like that of the Wild Hunt of European legend and myth, which modern Pagans, among others, have elaborated in provocative directions. The wildness of Nature isn’t Sunday-afternoon safe, and direct contact with it (if we survive) can strip away our pretences and excuses, can initiate us into powerful awareness and lasting change.

But like Tolkien’s Ents, we don’t like to be “roused”. I’ll fight tooth and claw for a comfortable cage, if one’s on offer, rather than for freedoms I claim I desire. For someone like Thoreau, Walls declares, “The dilemma that pressed upon him was how to live the American Revolution not as dead history but as living experience that could overturn, and keep overturning, hidebound convention and comfortable habits”. For we humans stand at the hinge, the pivot, the axis, in and of nature and yet able for a time to hold ourselves apart from it. Because where else is there?

Still, we strive to contrive and survive, little Sarumans every one of us. “Once out of nature”, writes W B Yeats in his almost infamous poem “Sailing to Byzantium”,

I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling …

Artifice, civilization, nature, justice? Just let me live forever, something in me cries. Just that, and I’ll sacrifice everything else to achieve it. You too can sail to Byzantium — for a price.

“Send lawyers, guns, and money”, says Warren Zevon in a song with the same title. “I’m the innocent bystander. Somehow I got stuck between the rock and a hard place. And I’m down on my luck …” Solutions present themselves. Not all deserve us. Few have anything to do with luck. And innocence or guilt completely misses the point of now. We’re all in it.

But wait …

“Once out of nature”? Are we now in that impossible place? Is that the legacy of the much-bandied about “Anthropocene“, our mythical present day, that time when human action carries geological force? “Health”, said Thoreau, “is a sound relation to nature”. “Physician”, says the Galilean master, quoting wisdom already proverbial in his time, “heal thyself”.

Oh Yeats, let me take bodily form from every living thing, let me know form, let me inhabit nature fully, and I will understand better, I will heal, and I will be healed.

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*1 Corinthians 13:3.

Images: ThoreauCernunnos/Gundestrup Cauldron.

“Doing the True”   2 comments

Truth’s subject to leakage at any time. Mostly, though, when that happens — when truth does manage, against the odds, to seep in — we strive vigorously to plug the hole any time more than a little discomfort spills out into our lives.

Praise then such discomforts, for what they can, even occasionally, reveal to us.

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A burst of activity from Canadian viewers has been showing up on the page stats — one of a few places more wintry than here. A shout-out to Canadians trying to feel spring in February. It’s there — just under the snow, and behind the patience that, with this most recent bout of storms, is wearing thin for all but the most ardent lovers of winter.

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“The world is a spiritual vessel. It cannot be improved,” says the Tao Te Ching, ch. 29. Of all the books based on wise and penetrating observation of the world and its dynamics, for me the “TTC” holds a singular position. So I’ve pondered this verse ever since I encountered it as a teen-ager.

To speak to this assertion (which, if you follow the above link, can be read many ways), and unpack and qualify it for myself and my readers, here are two of John Michael Greer’s responses to comments on his recent Feb. 1, 2017 blogpost “Perched on the Wheel of Time“:

The notion that one person can transform the world is very deeply rooted in our culture, and it’s not entirely untrue; like most damaging beliefs, it’s a half-truth. Each of us can change the world, but how we can change it is determined by our cultural and historical context — and of course it’s also true that in a world in which everyone can change the world, no one person gets to change everything! It can be a real struggle, though, to break through the binary between “you can change everything” and “no one can change anything,” and grasp the many ways in which we all, to use a New Age term, help co-create the future.

It can be a valuable Druid practice to break through binaries, finding at least a third position between two poles. And discovering and walking the line revealed by repeated blundering into a damaging belief/half-truth — there’s another name for life, for the modest wisdom a person can accrue over several decades. How much can I co-create? Where are my energies best spent in trying? Can I co-operate with even one other person around me  — like a friend or partner, for starters — to maximize our co-creative acts?

And if this world can’t be “improved”? Well, certainly local conditions improve and deteriorate all the time, shaped in considerable part by the actions of individuals. Any overall equilibrium, though? I must ruefully admit that does seem to remain the same. But that’s not a reason to disengage. Greer expands on his perspective in a later comment on the same post, which I find persuasive as well:

…the Druid teachings I follow hold that this world, the world of human beings experiencing greed and hunger and a distinct lack of the brotherhood of man, is a necessary stage or mode of consciousness through which every soul must pass in due time. When we outgrow it, we move to a different stage or mode of consciousness, and the world stays the way it is so that it can provide the same experience to those who need it. Thus there’s only so much change you can make in the world — though there’s some, and making such changes are an important part of grappling with this mode of being. The changes that matter are those you make to yourself.

If a succinct statement of my bias is possible, Greer captures it in his last sentence here. “The changes that matter (most) to me are those I make to myself.”

First, because in the grand scheme of things I find change difficult. I’m assuming you do, too.

Second, because the changes I actually pull off, ones I make to myself, usually affect my immediate environment, where they’re more visible than they would be elsewhere. That means I get more feedback from them on what I’ve done, and whether it’s what I actually wanted. You know: life as laboratory.

Third, because I continue to learn the hard way that my understanding is often so imperfect in so many domains that I’d rather improve it and share what I’ve learned than botch my immediate environment out of ignorance or stupidity — and more likely, both. Humility is a really useful tool in my kit. Almost always I’ve ignored it at my peril.

And as for matters of scale, I’ve also met wise individuals in my life. Not many, but a few, human and non-human. But very, very few wise local governments, and even fewer wise nations. And that gives me guidance for where my energies are best spent — at least for me, in this cycle.

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So when anyone — whether Jesus or Donald Trump — offers up a version of “I alone can save you”, I need a lot of proof and demonstration before I’m willing to divert my energies to them from working in my own life.

Whitman sings in Song of Myself 32:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
    self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
    owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of
    years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

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It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. — Henry David Thoreau/OBOD’s weekly “Inspiration for Life”.

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Images: snow on moss in Westminster, VT.

Changing It Up For Real   4 comments

Rather than emigrating to Canada or some other country when the candidate you don’t want wins anyway, consider a more radical change. Why not remain in your native land, but opt out of as many systems, expectations, structures, economies, etc. as possible that exist for others’ benefit but perhaps not yours?

Harder, you say? Less practical? I’m far less interested in the malcontent who talks of relocating to Canada and much more engaged by anyone who actually makes a change with less talk and more action.

Consider Yury …

What would it actually require to do what he’s done?

Of course, in the scant two plus minutes of the video, we don’t get anything like a clear picture of Yury’s resources and choices. We do get a romanticized picture of independence and self-reliance. What else has Yury opted to do without, in order to make his change?

Like Thoreau’s accounting of his expenses early on in Walden, let’s suss out a rough estimate of what a comparable transformation would require while remaining in the States. Readers who live in other countries know better than I how to translate expenses and possibilities to their own circumstances.

We learn Yury opted out of a professional life as a lawyer five years back. Presumably unlike many law students in the States, he doesn’t have massive loans to repay. Probably he was even able to save a modest amount in order to launch himself into his new life.

Sixty miles outside of Moscow, he’s obviously rural. How much land does he own? Does he raise most of his own food? How near is the nearest town? Can he walk to a general store or market for things he can’t grow? Solar panels on the roof power lights and a computer, but not much else. He apparently cooks and heats with wood. We’re told a generator tides him over for the few months each year when the sun isn’t enough.

How does he wash clothes? Is he still covered by a state health care system, or has he opted out of that too, living as most of humanity has until the last few generations? No car? Public transport nearby — even a bus — would definitely help.

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I’m going to use Maine as a starting point, because land taxes are quite high in Vermont where I live. In New Hampshire, there’s no income tax, but various other taxes take a larger bite. Live in a scenic NH area with appealing vistas and you pay a “view tax”. Maine has fewer services, but someone like Yury isn’t looking for such things anyway.

So here’s my accounting:

1 — Property: .5 to 5 acres of land (I used Maine Listings): $3-10,000.

With careful shopping, the land may come with a well and/or septic in place. Composting toilets and rain collection systems can provide other options. A few miles from a town of a few thousand people will generally give you reasonable access to supplies, at least during the summer months, when hiking or biking with backpacks is relatively easy. A friendly neighbor you trade with — occasional transport to and from town in exchange for vegetables, firewood, yard work, etc. — can also make such an arrangement more doable.

Rental or leasing would allow for less expensive options for property and for the next item — taxes.

2 — Annual taxes: $100-1000

This depends of course on many variables — property size, township, distance from town, structures in place and added, etc. If you’re supporting yourself with any sort of service or product — eggs, firewood, craft items, seasonal labor — the figure rises.

3 — House/other structure(s): $1000-10,000+

Yury’s underground house is straw, clay and wood, with some sort of insulating and waterproofing membrane. Building aboveground lets more light in, alleviates many waterproofing issues, but increases heating needs. Earth-berming is a powerful compromise — imagine a house with only south-facing windows — all other sides are bermed. A sod roof of a foot or more of earth is cheap and effective insulation.

Earthwood Building School run by Rob and Jaki Roy in West Chazy in northern New York has links and images to give you a range of ideas. (Rob, here’s some free advertising!) What you’re willing to do for yourself, and your minimum requirements, your “without-which-not” list, can shift the price quite dramatically up or down. Sweat equity also makes an immense difference here. Do you need perfect, or serviceable?

Add to this a chicken coop, wood storage, gardening equipment, perennial plantings as needed, etc.

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4 — Annual living expenses: $2000-10,000+

Ivan McBeth, whom I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, lived with his wife Fearn for many years until his passing last year on about $8000 a year on their 40-acre property in northern Vermont. Much of his income derived from running Druidry workshops and building megalithic structures on site for clients.

Again, it might be possible to pare the lower end of that $2000 still further, especially with barter. Everyone has their necessities.

5 — “Future Fund”: ?

If you plan at all for the future, old age, emergencies, or a desire to change your life once again after a 1, 5 or 20 year experiment, a modest nest egg of any amount can help smooth the way.

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deltadepartOr you decide instead to relocate to another country.  More expensive, very likely. Learning another language, living in a different climate, with different lifestyles, social norms, history, national trajectory and attitudes towards foreigners, and Americans in particular, will all play their part in your experience.

So does any of this whet your appetite, or discourage you?

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Images: earth shelters; airplane.

Ice and Fire   Leave a comment

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[Out our front window. Standing in place and turning 180 degrees, adjusting the camera for contrast, the window of our stove.]

The Atlantic online recently posted an article titled “Awesomeness is Everything” asserting that the experience of awe makes people kinder, tunes them in spiritually, and generally adjusts our overly-human world by clueing it in to larger ones all around it.

As vastness expands our worldview, it shrinks our ego. Awe makes spiritual and religious people feel a greater sense of oneness with others. And this oneness can make us nicer: Researchers found that inducing awe—say, by having people stand in a grove of tall trees—increased generosity, in part by stoking “feelings of a small self.” Awe also shapes our sense of time. One series of studies found that awe made time feel more plentiful, which increased life satisfaction, willingness to donate time to charity,and preferences for experiences over material products.

In winter, my physical world contracts significantly. True, a car could take me to other places, but unless I have the time and resources to drive south for most of a day, the climate will stay much the same. Ice and fire predominate, returning this human life more closely to proper proportions.

Posted 20 December 2016 by adruidway in awe, Druidry, fire, ice, Thoreau, wood and water

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Jedediah Purdy’s “New Nature”   2 comments

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Jedediah Purdy

In “The New Nature” (Boston Review, Jan 11, 2016), author Jedediah Purdy opens provocatively when he asserts that the current age “adds nature to the list of things we can no longer regard as natural.” His essay’s not easy going, but it definitely rewards close reading — and re-reading. Purdy’s ultimate argument is that with the profound impact of our human presence on the planet, “nature is now a political question.”

How he pushes beyond this seeming truism is significant. Those of us alive today “confront the absence of political institutions, movements, or even widely shared sentiments of solidarity and shared challenges that operate on the scale of the problems concerning resource use and distribution we now face.”

ostrichesOf course, the challenges that humans have faced throughout our history frequently outpace our existing institutions, wisdom and capacity to take effective action. That’s one workable definition of “crisis,” after all. And the compulsions and sufferings of a crisis often catalyze the formation of just those institutions, wisdoms and capacities. (They also fail to do this painfully often, as we’ve learned to our cost.)

But Purdy’s contention goes beyond apparent truism or the obvious. Our current ecological predicament takes its shape as part of the third of three “revolutions of denaturalization.” The first of these is the realization that any political order is a human choice. The “divine right of kings” is out; flawed human agency is in. Whatever is “natural” about “the way things are” is what we’ve made and accepted. It decidedly does not inhere in the universe. It is not the will of any deity. (The caliph of Daesh/ISIL has no more claim to legitimacy than a local mayor. Humans put both of them in power. Humans can take them out.)

The second revolution, not surprisingly, concerns economics. Like politics, the “natural order of things” in a given economy is anything but natural. People aren’t destined by some cosmic law to be laborers, leaders, warriors, wealth-bearers, priests, etc. Humans choose how to feed and house themselves, what things have value, and who can gain access to them. Though nowadays we define prosperity in narrow terms, as one of my favorite political writers C. Douglas Lummis points out, “How and when a people prospers depends on what they hope, and prosperity becomes a strictly economic term only when we abandon all hopes but the economic one.”* Hope for more than a paycheck means a life based on more than money.

The third revolution hinges on nature. Purdy notes, “Both politics and the economy remain subject to persistent re-naturalization campaigns, whether from religious fundamentalists in politics or from market fundamentalists in economics. But in both politics and economics, the balance of intellectual forces has shifted to artificiality.” So too is “nature” subject to deification and renaturalization, and here the implications for modern Paganism and Druidry hit home.

Given the modern reflex abhorrence in many “organic” quarters towards anything “artificial,” it may take you a moment, as it did me, to move past such associations and hear what Purdy is actually claiming. To put it another way, keep doing what we’re doing, and we’ll keep getting what we’re getting. No god or demon (or magical elemental, set of “market forces” or cosmos) orders things this way — we do. Gaia, the clear implication is, won’t come to our (or Her) aid.

A religious re-naturalization of nature is therefore insufficient, whether it’s the RDNA (Reformed Druids of North America) gospel of “Nature is good” or Pope Francis’s emphasis on a divinely-ordered world of which we ought to be more compassionate stewards. Insofar as such a renaturalization or resacralization is part of any Druid program or agenda, it’s insufficient and perhaps even an obstacle. Only a political response, Purdy maintains, can begin to be adequate to the challenges of the Anthropocene Epoch– the human era we’re now in.

inwild-thorThus, Purdy points out, “Even wilderness, once the very definition of naturalness, is now a statutory category in U.S. public-lands law.” The Sierra Club still markets this (outdated, in Purdy’s perspective) view as one of its touchstones: “In wilderness is the salvation of the world.” (By way of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, paraphrasing Thoreau’s Walden; Thoreau actually wrote preservation.)

We often uncritically hold to a romantic (and Romantic) notion of the natural world as pure or unspoiled, a realm or order which is, at least in a few surviving locations, uncontaminated by human agency. But, Purdy continues, “as a practical matter, ‘nature’ no longer exists independent of human activity. From now on, the world we inhabit will be one that we have helped to make, and in ever-intensifying ways.”

Purdy is not anti-nature by any means, as a cursory reading of his essay might at first suggest. He’s not a foe to demonize or take down on Twitter, if you’re a radical Pagan/environmentalist. But the challenges he depicts are real. As a Druid I need to pay attention when he writes things like this:

To invoke nature’s self-evident meaning for human projects is to engage in a kind of politics that tries, like certain openly religious arguments, to lift itself above politics, to deny its political character while using that denial as a form of persuasion. It is akin in its paradox to partisan mobilization in favor of constitutional originalism, which legitimates solutions to political problems by recourse to extra-political criteria—in the present case, what nature was created to be, or self-evidently is.

Such arguments succeed by enabling their advocates to make the impossible claim that only their opponents’ positions are political, while their own reflect a profound comprehension of the world either as it is or was intended to be.

Is nature (or Nature) “self-evidently” anything? If so, what? Do Druids and Pagans generally have any special insight to share that can respond to views like Purdy’s with any kind of authority or credibility? Can we demonstrate a “profound comprehension of the world” in terms that matter and more importantly will shape policy? For environmentalists (and for Pagans, though Purdy doesn’t name them), “inspiration and epiphany in wild nature became both a shared activity and a marker of identity. They worked to preserve landscapes where these defining experiences were possible.”

Install-DemBut throughout human history, Purdy notes, various and successively changing ideals of nature have underpinned diverse economic and political arrangements that always consistently disenfranchise a designated fraction of humans. Whether slaves, minorities, women, aboriginal peoples, immigrants, certain racial or ethnic groups, someone always gets the short end of the stick from these idealizations of “nature.” To hold the natural world to anything but a democratic politics, Purdy says, is to exclude, to perpetuate injustice, and to oppress.

However, Purdy goes on, if we abandon an idealized nature,

if we embrace not just the Anthropocene condition but also the insight—if we accept that there is no boundary between nature and human action and that nature therefore cannot provide a boundary around contestation—we may have the basis of a democratic future. It will be democratic in the double sense of thoroughly politicizing nature’s future and recognizing the imperative of political equality among the people who will together create that future.

Whether a thoroughly politicized nature can aid us in creating a just future is an experiential question. We’ll prove or disprove it by political action rather than by theologizing about nature. (Yet every time we’ve attempted to discount a religious or theological view, it has returned in surprising force. Should we abandon theology for activism?)

In attempting to outline what a future democratic politics of nature might look like, Purdy offers the Food Movement as a kind of Exhibit A. Though the movement can be reduced to or parodied as privileged (mostly white) humans indulging in artisanal cheeses and wines at prices no one outside the 10% can afford, it marks the beginnings of much more, and

includes a number of elements that might be generalized to help shape the politics of the Anthropocene. First, it recognizes that the aesthetically and culturally significant aspects of environmental politics are not restricted to romantic nature but are also implicated in economic and policy areas long regarded as purely utilitarian. For example, a beautiful landscape worth preserving so that people can encounter it need not be pristine: it could be an agricultural landscape—preserved under easements or helped along by a network of farmers markets and farm-to-table organizations—whose cultural contribution is that people can work on it.

One problem with past policy is a fragmentation that separates and de-couples landscape from economy. The land is not merely a neutral resource. “The most credible food politics would combine an aesthetic attention to landscape with a concern for power and justice in the work of food production … [and] “ask what kinds of landscapes agriculture should make and what kinds of human lives should be possible there, so that the food movement’s interest in landscape and work is not restricted to showpiece enclaves for the wealthy.”

This blog and many of its concerns come under critique when Purdy remarks

It is too easy to say that, in the Anthropocene, we have to get used to change—a bromide that comes most readily to those with some control over the changes they confront—when the real problem is precisely how to build politics that can make the next set of changes more nearly a product of democratic intent than they currently seem destined to be.

addpostI write from a decided position of privilege. So, of course, does Purdy. He and I both belong to that tiny minority on the planet “with some control over the changes they confront.” And if you’re literate and have time to read blogs and access to the technology where they appear, so do you. Though some days it may not feel like it, we have the luxury to question why and imagine how and even manifest what next.

Here on this blog I contemplate and explore a minority practice and belief, and try to make sense of my experience and the historical period I find myself in. To blog at all is to write from time left after making a living. How many of us have that? Besides, if everyone talks, who listens? Blogs ideally create dialog. But often a blogger like me can be guilty of doing more talking and less listening. (It’s ideally a balance rather than a binary opposition.)

Purdy notes in that last excerpt that he spies a definite trend or direction. He hopes “the next set of changes [will be] more nearly a product of democratic intent than they currently seem destined to be.” And he ends with a curious bow that seems to evoke much he has taken pains to empty of force.

Even that thought, however, is a reminder that this is only a fighting chance, part of a fighting future. The politics of the Anthropocene will be either democratic or horrible. That alternative is no guarantee that a democratic Anthropocene would be decorous, pleasant, or admirable, but only that it would be a shared effort to shape our more-than-human future with human hands.

Is there no alternative between democratic or horrible? Isn’t our own era an example of both? And what is that “more-than-human” future he says that we will shape with our own less than godlike human hands?!

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IMAGES: Purdy; ostriches; “in wilderness” quotationinstalling democracy; add new post.

*Lummis, C Douglas. Radical Democracy. Cornell University Press, 1997.

[I happened on Lummis years ago and have been grateful ever since. A professor of cultural studies at Tsuda University in Japan, Lummis, who has spent much of life overseas, ably critiques Western trends and politics from the vantage point of an inside-outsider. Most of his work has been published in Japan, and often in Japanese — and hence he’s not as widely known in the West as he deserves.]

 

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