Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Barbarian at the Gates of St. Peter

I have been mulling something that I read in the Meditations of Thomas Traherne, the English poet and priest.  What he says is that faith in God is to the soul, as the soul is to the body.  This schema has helped me to understand religion in general, and monotheistic religions in particular.  That hierarchical vision of mind/body dualism that we all know so well from the history of Christianity, in which the body is a kind of animal controlled by the higher power of the soul has another layer, in Traherne's schema. Faith governs and inspires the soul as the soul inspires the body.  To put it another way, faith in God gives the faithful a kind of super-power.  A spiritual and moral super-power.  No wonder religion is so appealing! This individual super-power is on top of the social power that is concentrated and organized by religious institutions and shared by those who belong to a church, etc.  Traherne's formulation might not be so revelatory to someone with a better religious education than I, who was only lightly exposed to religion as a child, and never truly understood the appeal of the Abrahamic religions.  I can grasp a little better how important faith can be in a person's life.
What I love about Traherne is that he is an uncommonly honest and paradoxical mystic. He speaks of the amorphous with brutal clarity. He sees the violence that is half-concealed in Christianity and owns up to it. For him, universal oneness is not a nice feeling but a never-ending and total responsibility to all the world.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Climate Change and Indigenous Culture

Climate change is here, like the Old Testament God, with thunder and brimstone, hurricanes and drought.  I have a friend who is of the distinctly denial-ist cast of mind, and he can only say "well, what are we going to do about it?"  There is nothing we can do about it.  When your planet is raining judgment on your ass, there's nothing you can "do about it", as in try to get it to stop.  There's no bargaining with a planetary system, at least by such paltry beings as we are.
But we can mend our ways, not because it's going to "arrest" climate change, that isn't going to happen, but to start on the long, long road to making another way of life that might be viable in the long, long run.  A way of life that respects the inter-relationship between civilization and biology, rather than our current way of life that is based on us civilized humans shamelessly and short-sightedly exploiting biology (and geology and each other and everything that we can get our hands on.)  We've been refining the machine for thousands of years now - the civilizational machine that let us crush every indigenous culture that ever humbly co-existed with an environment.  "We" "won."  And in winning, it seems that we lost as much as we won.
I'm re-reading Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel," which is a fine book that presents an environmental explanations for why "the West" could crush every other culture in the world.  His explicit purpose is to counter the white supremacist argument, so common until relatively recently and still lurking out there at present, that "the West" "won" because white Europeans are better at everything.  Diamond's argument is convincing and necessary.
But I'm also arguing with the book as much as I am agreeing with it, because Diamond can't seem to help siding with the conquerors. Can't blame him, it's a long tradition in our culture to side with the winners,  because we're that kind of culture.  But being able to conquer and annihilate another culture is not winning.  This is becoming increasingly clear as our conquering machine of a civilization has come to the end of its leash, having poisoned all the wells and enslaved all the people.  So here we are, with the Arctic and Antarctic breaking apart, struggling to figure out how to live, when all those native peoples that we ran over maybe had some insights on the question.

BTW, come to the Hawaii Agricultural Conference y'all, where there will be multiple sessions on indigenous agriculture.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Passion and Prejudice of the Newly Woke

I discovered feminism in college and for a couple of years that’s all I wanted to think about. Once I got my head around how to use it, I wanted to exercise that intellectual hammer to pound on anything that even vaguely resembled a nail. I came home on break and made incisive observations about my parents’ relationship, some of them out loud even, I’m embarrassed to remember. I’m still an ardent feminist but I’ve stopped being so childishly judgmental about it, I hope. It’s a tool to use, and actual people and their actual relationships are more interesting and a thousand times more complicated than any -ism ever invented. My radical feminist stage has matured to an ongoing practice that is less about judgement and more about compassion for everyone, both men and women, who have been ill-served by the age-old patterns of patriarchy. We can build better patterns, I am certain of it, and that certainty is more powerful than my old insurgency. But it will take time, that slow daily grind of making something real as dirt.
I try to remember my own fervent embrace of feminism when faced with people who seem a little drunk on ideology. For instance, those who, having recently become aware that their food doesn’t magically appear in the grocery stores, denounce “industrial agriculture” or “corporations” every time the existence of the modern food system comes up. Or that denounce “profit” and “corporations” because they’ve recently discovered capitalism and the kleptocratic patterns that it creates. The newly woke have to draw and enforce bright lines between good and evil, us and them, in order to consolidate and confirm their own understanding.
Likewise our species, homo sapiens, having created a new tool - a peculiar form of consciousness built around linguistic symbolism - are drunk as a new born feminist (or communist or nationalist or evangelical) on the power and possibilities that our ideological distinction seems to offer. We draw bright lines between us and them - us humans and all other forms of life that don’t have our kind of consciousness.
Only we humans matter because we are conscious; this is  the ideology we’ve lived by for thousands of years now, but a thousand years is nothing, a blink of the eye on the timescale of biology and geology.
It is a childishly selfish way to look at the world, an absolutism that hides our deep uncertainly. We are uncertain of the existence and meaning of our own consciousness. We know ourselves to be but newly woke, and that our time as this consciousness, this Me awoken from the darkness of all the ages that have come before, to be limited, imperiled, uncertain. It is a fragile, intricate, miraculous thing - this consciousness that we inhabit, that is all that we know.
Knowing this we are afraid for it.  We are so afraid of losing what we just got ahold of. We want to define and defend it, against all that is not conscious, against death, against our own mortal, biological bodies - even if that defensiveness doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s understandable, we’re new at this.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


I fell in love with a steer, my daughter's 4-H project steer Sangria. This was not a wise thing to do, since I knew from the start, from the day we brought him home, that he was going to the slaughterhouse on a definite date.  But I couldn't help myself - he was so sweet-tempered a creature there was no getting around getting attached to him.  "Getting attached" when you are a rancher/professional predator is never a good idea.  It makes things complicated and messy.  It is emotionally dangerous.  It is even intellectually dangerous.  Not to mention impractical.
And yet "getting attached" is quite possibly the kernel and core of what it means to be alive.  If you are not helplessly attached to something, someone, someplace or even some idea, then maybe you aren't really living.  That's where I  have a fundamental disagreement with the Buddha. Avoiding suffering is no way to live a life.  Non-attachment is not the goal, even if attachment causes suffering. Attachments make the heart sing, and I'm happy to suffer for my attachments.
Now, you might say, "if you were so attached to that steer, why didn't you save him from his fate, from being slaughtered?"  But that would be to turn him into a pet and that, strangely enough - from my point of view - would be a form of disrespect.  It would be to deny the biological relationship between grass/herbivore/carnivore, which is the much bigger context.  Of course, that biological relationship has been massively twisted and even perverted by our civilization/economic system but deep under all the complexities and alienations that our civilization allows and imposes is an ancient relationship that is more significant than the individual lives of the plants and animals tangled together within it.
Which is all perhaps a long-winded justification, but here is the challenge: can we eat as if every bite of food had a name? As if every article of clothing or electronic gadget came from a cotton plant or vein in a mine that merited a name and all the attachment that a name implies?  Can we privilege the vitality of broader ecological relationships over a concept of prosperity that only values human prosperity?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Civil Wars

I sing the civil warrs, tumultuous broyles,
And bloudy factions of a might land:
Whose people hauty, proud with forain spoyles,
Upon themselves, turne back their conquering hand:

-Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), quoted in David Armitage's Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (2017)

This is an English poet echoing the literary and military heritage of Rome to write about the civil war in England between the houses of Lancaster and York (which we are revisiting on HBO as Lannisters and Starks),  as well as presaging the imperial quandaries of our American present.  Are we not in the midst of civil war (with votes, thank god) in US?  Are we not a "people hauty" in our consumerist excesses made possible by our conquering super-power status?

David Armitage's elegant and compact book Civil Wars is both subtle and, for me at least, novel in its analysis of the distinctions between "regular" war, civil war, rebellion, revolution and insurrection.  I'll not think so casually about the deployment of such terms ever again.   And thinking clearly about these distinctions might be helpful in understanding where we stand as global citizens in this moment that seems so fraught with incoherence and instability.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Thomas Traherne 1636-1674

Last week I discovered Thomas Traherne, the English priest, poet, and essayist.  If - and its a big if - there is a new consciousness being born on the edge of ruin, he is one of its most luminous and strange ancestors.  


It is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable. For he hath a Benefactor so prone to give, that He delighteth in us for asking. Do not your inclinations tell you that the World is yours? Do you not covet all? Do you not long to have it; to enjoy it; to overcome it? To what end do men gather riches, but to multiply more? Do they not like Pyrrhus, the King of Epire, add house to house and lands to lands; that they may get it all? It is storied of that prince, that having conceived a purpose to invade Italy, he sent for Cineas, a philosopher and the King’s friend: to whom he communicated his design, and desired his counsel. Cineas asked him to what purpose he invaded Italy? He said, to conquer it. And what will you do when you, have conquered it? Go into France, said the King, and conquer that. And what will you do when you have conquered France? Conquer Germany. And what then? said the philosopher. Conquer Spain. I perceive, said Cineas, you mean to conquer all the World. What will you do when you have conquered all? Why then said the King we will return, and enjoy ourselves at quiet in our own land. So you may now, said the philosopher, without all this ado. Yet could he not divert him till he was ruined by the Romans. Thus men get one hundred pound a year that they may get another; and having two covet eight, and there is no end of all their labour; because the desire of their Soul is insatiable. Like Alexander the Great they must have all: and when they have got it all, be quiet. And may they not do all this before they begin? Nay it would be well, if they could be quiet. But if after all, they shall be like the stars, that are seated on high, but have no rest, what gain they more, but labour for their trouble? It was wittily feigned that that young man sat down and cried for more worlds to conquer. So insatiable is man, that millions will not please him. They are no more than so many tennis-balls, in comparison of the Greatness and Highness of his Soul.


Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world. Till you more feel it than your private estate, and are more present in the hemisphere, considering the glories and the beauties there, than in your own house: Till you remember how lately you were made, and how wonderful it was when you came into it: and more rejoice in the palace of your glory, than if it had been made but to-day morning.

Centuries of Meditation

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Rojava update

Rojava is probably the most fascinating, unlikely thing going on in the great big world right now.   I can hardly believe that it's a real thing, and not a fairy-tale - a scary, amazing fairy-tale of women taking up arms against ISIS amidst all the danger and destruction of Syria. 
Here's the latest from the Guardian.