2014 Journal

An occasional record of thoughts and questions

17 November 2014

The digital age has democratized publishing, opening the way to a flood of books, magazines, and blogs. But this publishing revolution, on the whole a good thing, has made it harder for readers to find serious writing amid the dross. By serious, I mean writing that is patiently composed, with care taken over the selection of each word, the shaping of each sentence, the framing of narrative or argument. I mean writing that is the product of sustained reflection and imagination, writing that pursues real questions. I mean work that does not ape patterns others have made popular, but instead shows some portion of the world, some aspect of our lives, afresh. Serious writing repays our attention. It does not merely take up our time, divert us, amuse us; it sharpens our perceptions, deepens our understanding, enlarges our sympathies.  

9 November 2014

I have been thinking about paradoxes of the electronic age. The Web allows us to learn about Earth as a whole, with all its diversity of creatures and cultures, even as the industrial economy and global media, powered by the Internet, erode that diversity. Likewise, the Web allows us to monitor and pool information about planet-scale challenges—climate disruption, for instance, as well as deforestation, species extinction, and the exhaustion of the oceans—even as it distracts us from the sustained thought and effort required to address those challenges. Depending upon how we use it, the Web offers knowledge or trivia, insight or nonsense, a capacious view or shallow entertainment. Surfing the Web brings to mind an image of water-striders, their feet creating dimples in the surface of streams, scooting around without ever penetrating to the depths. I think also of the Platte River, a mile wide and a foot deep—only the digital universe is in effect infinitely wide; no one could ever exhaust its store of words, images, recordings, or data. Clearly, one can dive deep into a chosen domain—chess moves, bread-baking, the migration of birds, the transmigration of souls—as if one were researching in a universal library. But such in-depth use of the Web appears to be far less common than hectic or idle browsing.

7 November 2014

A flock of robins, which I first noticed yesterday amidst my gloom, glide in and out of the holly and black cherry trees, gobbling fruits. They don’t read newspapers, don’t know about climate disruption, and go about their lives as if the world were not hastening toward disaster.

24 October 2014

At birth each of us inherits a legacy of language. Throughout our lives, as speakers and listeners and, if we are literate, as readers and writers, we draw on this legacy, which was created by countless human beings over countless generations, and which continues to accumulate with every act of speech or writing. Language is a great commons, an open-source gift. Just as our lives depend on the natural commons of air, water, soil, and biodiversity, so our wellbeing depends as well on the language-based cultural commons, as embodied in literature, science, history, laws, and so many other human artifacts. Seen in this light, much advertising is a form of pollution, poisoning the language, sapping its vitality. Language is corrupted by all speech that deliberately misleads—including much political rhetoric, military apologetics, religious demagoguery, and propaganda disguised as “news”. Whether or not we mean to, those of us who are writers affect the commons of language, if only in the slightest way. So we should use language with respect and gratitude, and we should be generous in sharing with others what we have made by drawing on this shared inheritance.

20 September 2014

A good novel enlarges our moral imagination. A good essay invites us to think, to see larger patterns, to reflect on and not merely endure our days. Both literary forms are vital in a culture that urges us to care only about our own narrow interests and distracts us from thinking deeply or coherently about anything.

4 September 2014

Ann Zwinger died last weekend. She was an artist, conservationist, indomitable traveler to wild places, and marvelous writer. I keep her Beyond the Aspen Grove and Run, River, Run on the shelves by my writing desk, touchstones for clarity and insight. What a steadying, clarifying, illuminating presence she was, in every setting, whether on a trail, in conversation, or at a board meeting. Two favorite memories of her: In May 2005, while camping with several other writers and scientists on a knoll overlooking Mount St. Helens, she emerged from a tiny tent at dawn, every hair in place, wearing a tweed jacket and immaculate slacks, then she turned to salute the volcano, where a fumarole flushed pink with early sunlight, one elder greeting another, and then she walked to the chow tent, where several of our camping comrades, frazzled, unkempt, droopy-eyed, brooded over cups of coffee. “What have you seen so far this morning, gentlemen?” she asked. Age 81 at the time, brisk, bright, she had recently returned from the Galapagos Islands. The second memory: Walking with her along the Wabash River in Muncie, Indiana, where she had grown up, and where she had learned to love the patterns and textures and creatures of Earth, listening as she recalled youthful hi-jinks and joys. She was a rare soul.

4 July 2014

Humans emerged as a species from the original world, the matrix of soils, waters, creatures, and processes that we call “nature.” Indigenous peoples have always understood this, and have developed cultures that respect the sources of life. Modern science and technology, however, have allowed us to fashion an artificial world that insulates us ever more thoroughly from nature. If we choose, those of us who live in industrial societies need never leave the human bubble, with its buildings and vehicles and products and screens. Snug inside, dazzled by our gadgets and amusements, we may imagine that the manufactured world is the real one, a self-sufficient realm, and that “nature” is only a place to mine materials and dump wastes. Occasionally, an earthquake or hurricane or epidemic will shake this illusion, but as soon as the bodies are buried and the electricity comes back on and the debris is cleaned up, we may once again forget our dependence on nature. Yet everything we make, from computers to language, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and every molecule in our bodies comes directly or indirectly from that original world. Our well-being is entirely dependent on the well-being of Earth. This is the plainest common sense; yet in America, it seems beyond the comprehension of many—perhaps most—legislators, corporate executives, advertisers, merchants, and so-called consumers. By refusing to curb our numbers and appetites, by accelerating our rates of mineral extraction and pollution, we condemn ourselves and future generations to suffering. Those descendants will have reason to condemn us, as we condemn our predecessors who owned slaves or clearcut forests or started wars.

13 May 2014

How much is a butterfly worth? The flash of a hummingbird? The song of a warbler? A clear-flowing stream? An unplowed prairie? An in-breath of pure air? In our economy, whatever cannot be packaged and sold is defined as worthless. Anything that can be turned into money will be exploited, and will almost certainly be degraded. As John Muir wrote, "Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded."

12 April 2014

The combined effect of reading William James and Tolstoy lately has been to make me reflect on how I keep setting aside the big question about the ultimate frame or matrix of things—the question about whether the cosmos is the work of a Creator or the product of matter-in-motion. Is there an ultimate order to the universe—a moral order—in which we somehow participate? Or is the universe merely an accidental elaboration of matter driven by energy and governed by the laws of physics? Granted, the question cannot be answered definitively. But the answer one gives to it, the view one embraces, has enormous implications for one’s life, and for the choice between hope and despair. In Pragmatism, James argues—along lines similar to those of Tolstoy in A Confession—that believing in an ultimate moral order provides the only alternative to imagining that all human actions are meaningless, and that everything we do will perish along with the Earth.

31 March 2014

Rereading Williams James’s The Will to Believe and Other Essays (1896). His central question is whether, in light of modern science (as revolutionized in his day by Darwin and 19th-century physics), one could still believe that the universe is a moral order. In the title essay, he sets aside the irresolvable question of whether God exists in order to argue that it makes sense to act as if God exists--as if, behind or within nature, there is a transcendent order that nature itself only imperfectly reflects. If there is no moral order in the universe, then there is no “evil”; the phenomena of nature are either advantageous or disadvantageous to us, but with no intent or ethical significance. Hence Job’s questions about the reasons for suffering and pain go away.

What reason, other than an appeal to scripture, do we have for believing that the universe is arranged to benefit us? There is abundant, daily evidence to the contrary. Even if one believes in a Creator, why assume that the Creator is all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-loving? There is no logical necessity that a Creator would have these qualities. Further, why assume that a Creator, in establishing the laws of the physical universe and setting everything in motion, would be able to foresee all of the consequences? Perhaps the cosmos is merely an experiment, with God observing to see how things go. On the other hand, wouldn’t a Creator capable of fashioning and impelling the universe—and human life within it—be equally capable of intervening if things were going contrary to the Creator’s wishes? Wouldn’t such a Creator be capable of bringing about harmony and peace among humans, for example?

So far as we can see, only living creatures—and perhaps especially humans—can be moral agents. Nature gives rise to us, and we create rules of behavior and standards of right and wrong. If those rules are entirely our invention, then on what do we base them? Two sources stand out: the need to regulate our interactions as social animals (thou shalt not steal, kill, covet, etc.), and the desire to protect what we love (caring for children, rivers, fellow creatures, land, art). Thus, we see Leopold beginning from his love of wild things and ending up with his "land ethic." Love comes first; morals, second.

25 March 2014

When I speak with audiences about our responsibility to bear in mind the needs of the generations that will come after us, a century and more in the future, I am often asked why we should care about people who do not even exist. The first time I encountered this question, I had to puzzle before answering. Assuming that those unborn future generations bear no genetic link to ourselves—as the vast majority of them will not, even if we happen to have children—there is no biological reason for caring whether they flourish or suffer. Nor is there any logical reason to care for them, since the quality of their lives can have no direct impact on our own well-being. What I realized, as I pondered this challenge from the audience, is that the impulse to care about the fate of unborn generations arises from my sense of taking part in the human lineage. We are born into a world filled with blessings as well as curses inherited from previous generations—mathematics and nuclear weapons, antibiotics and racism, art and war; and we die passing on a world either enriched or diminished by our having lived. Our big brains enable us to remember and learn about the past, and to imagine the consequences of our actions. Failing to recognize our participation in this human lineage would be to waste our distinctive gifts. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the goods we’ve received from previous generations, including the bounty and resilience of nature they have taken pains to preserve. Likewise, I feel a profound regret over the legacy of damage those generations have passed on to us—from slavery, sexism, genocide, pollution, and the like. The regret prompts me to reduce the damage I might cause by my own way of life, and to resist the most damaging aspects of my society. The gratitude prompts me to help preserve the sources of our well-being—clean water and air, biodiversity, public lands, knowledge, art, democracy, among many others—and to add whatever new goods I can fashion with my limited time and talents. Caring about the fate of unborn generations—strangers who exist, as of now, only in our imagination—is an essential part of what it means to be human.

22 March 2014

I traveled to the Pecantico Forest Preserve in northern Illinois to do a show called "Wild Hope" with my friend Carrie Newcomer, a marvelous singer/songwriter. Before the concert, we sat down to a community pitch-in supper, amid a genial, talkative crowd of perhaps a hundred and fifty people who had come to hear Carrie's songs and my stories. Across the table from me, a little girl was intently drawing with crayons on scraps of paper. Perhaps six or seven years old, she had periwinkle blue eyes and a face as clear as rainwater. She wore a bright green hoodie with the hood pulled up. She had finished her meal, and every now and again she asked politely of her grandparents when they would take her outside to the playground. Each time, her grandmother or grandfather put her off by saying they wanted to talk with their friends just a few more minutes. So the girl kept drawing. To engage her, I asked if I could see her pictures. With evident pride, she presented them to me, explaining that one showed flowers, another showed a house with smoke coming out of the chimney, and a third one, a latticework of brilliant stripes, was "Just a pretty design." When I asked her how she had imagined such a beautiful design, she replied, "I saw it behind my eyes," and then she handed me the picture, saying, “Here, it’s for you.” I accepted it, but I worried that she might regret giving her picture to this bald, craggy stranger who happened to be sitting across the table from her. So I showed it to Carrie, who duly praised it, then I laid the picture on the table between me and the girl, thinking she could take it back if she had second thoughts. After a minute or so, she picked it up and offered it to me again, saying, “Here’s your picture.” So I thanked her, and tucked it into my pocket. Art as gift.

27 January 2014

Howard Zinn died on this date four years ago. Best known as the author of A People’s History of the United States, he belonged to the American tradition of great-hearted radical thinkers, which includes Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Susan B. Anthony, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Wendell Berry, among others. In 2010, while governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels referred to A People’s History as “crap” and directed that it be banned from teacher training and public schools in the state. He gave no evidence of having read the book, which emphasizes what Zinn regarded as neglected dimensions of our history—genocide against the native peoples, slavery (and the wealth derived from slavery), trade unions, the women’s rights and civil rights and peace movements, American wars of aggression, environmental devastation, and corporate corruption. While still governor, Mitch Daniels was appointed the next president of Purdue University—by a board of trustees, many of whom he had appointed. When questions were raised about this move, the state ethics board—which he had also appointed—found nothing amiss. While rereading Zinn’s memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, I was struck by his frequent use of the word “indignity” to describe the feelings of those who have suffered neglect or abuse—people of color, victims of sexual violence, immigrants, military veterans, the unemployed, the poor, the homeless. The Latin root of “dignity” means worth or merit. To insist on one’s dignity is to insist on one’s inherent worth, regardless of gender or skin color or level of income or place of birth. Howard Zinn believed that all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. Last November, students at Purdue University organized a public reading of A People’s History of the United States, to show their new president, Mitch Daniels, what they thought of his effort at censoring this book and these values. Solidarity readings were held simultaneously at nine other campuses, including the University of Chicago and Indiana University. 

15 January 2014

On a snowy night earlier this month, at a concert for the release of Tim’s Grimm’s new album, The Turning Point, I was approached between sets by a husky man in his 40s, bearded, bespectacled, and earnest. He told me his name, and told me he had read with interest my book In Limestone Country, because he was himself a carver of limestone. He specialized in grave markers. He had begun visiting cemeteries as a boy, in the company of his grandfather, and noticed early on the traditional designs—weeping willows, grieving mothers, angels, lambs, tree trunks with lopped off limbs, tools, swords, and all manner of crosses. He also noticed small aluminum tags identifying the graves of children, where stones had never been erected. Now, in his spare time, he visits Indiana cemeteries, notes down the names of those vanished children, and carves simple limestone markers to place on their graves.  A Catholic priest, learning of this work, commissioned him to make forty-six headstones for unmarked graves in the church cemetery. The man told me all of this without a hint of bragging, as though such consideration for strangers were the least one could expect from someone fortunate enough to learn how to carve stone.

1 January 2014

On Christmas Eve, I watched four children unwrap enough presents to a supply a small village with toys, clothing, puzzles, games, and books. One of the youngsters, a five-year-old boy, set his well-stuffed stocking aside until he had opened the larger items, which featured superhero figures, electronic gizmos, and construction kits. When he turned to the stocking, at the very bottom he found an orange, the only present of the dozen or more he received which had not been manufactured. He grimaced as he cupped the orange in his palm, muttering, “Oh, no, who wants this?” and then tossed it onto a heap of wrapping paper. Watching him, I recalled my mother’s account of the Christmas present she had most treasured as a child growing up in Chicago during the 1920s—a shiny orange, shipped all the way from Florida, the only one she would eat all year. The fruit had lost its savor for the boy who could eat oranges whenever he wished, and who wished, above all, for presents with batteries and buttons and screens. So our abundance impoverishes us.