2015 Journal

An occasional record of thoughts and questions

18 November 2015

After reading Divine Animal, a friend wrote to say: "To me, the novel is essentially an exploration of karma, not in that past life way that people talk about in pop magazines, but in the web of causes and dependencies that affect the courses of our lives and the possibilities for change that lie in choices we make each moment. So much of impermanence, interdependence, emptiness. So much in the power of compassion and love for family, for land, for others, and the courage we witness all around us every day. It's a Buddhist study." His words cast a new light on the novel for me, especially his understanding of karma as "the web of causes and dependencies that affect the courses of our lives and the possibilities for change that lie in choices we make each moment." One of my challenges in writing Divine Animal was to acknowledge the legacy of damage--to individuals, families, communities, and planet--while dramatizing the potential for healing. So much contemporary art, especially popular fiction and film, focuses only on damage, violence, danger, and strife--aspects of our existence that are far more gripping than compassion, kindness, and mending. It's much easier to evoke fear than caring.

30 October 2015

To a friend who is grappling with despair, I write this note of encouragement: You and I share a deep sense that we ought to be serving the world in some way, however modest; the more damage humans do to the Earth and to one another, the more futile that impulse can seem. I won’t let myself despair, however. As long as the rains come and seeds sprout and birds migrate and newborn humans open their eyes onto this amazing planet, and as long as I have my wits about me, I will do whatever I can to champion a culture of care.

26 October 2015

Why do we assume that mutations are random—or at least always random? Chaos theory has taught us that many patterns in nature we formerly regarded as random are in fact describable in mathematical terms. A second and larger question: Are the patterns we perceive in nature evidence of a patterning mind? Or are they simply the way things are, the given parameters of the observable universe?

12 September 2015

The phenomenal world is what’s available to our senses (waves on the ocean); the noumenal world is the “ultimate reality” (the water). Christians call the noumenal world “God” or "Spirit" or (in Paul Tillich’s phrase) the “Ground of Being”; Buddhists call it “nirvana” or “the Void.” Plato originally formulated the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon, the latter identified as the realm of Ideas, and the former identified as the imperfect projections of those Ideas in the world available to our senses. Kant argued that the Noumenon—which he called Ding an sich or the “thing-in-itself”—is unknowable, because we cannot reach behind our perceptions to the source that generates what we perceive. In Saving the Appearances,Owen Barfield calls this unknowable Noumenon “the unrepresented” and he calls Phenomena “the figurations,” as they are defined by our senses and cognitive categories. Physicists speak of the ground of reality as a quantum “soup,” from which particles arise spontaneously. Any metaphor, image, or other description of the Noumenon we might offer inevitably comes from the limited Phenomenal world, and thus is inadequate, misleading, or outright false.

29 July 2015

I’m struck by the way that trickster figures—Coyote, Raven, Spider, etc.—combine qualities that monotheistic cultures distinguish as “good” and “evil.” The tricksters bring light and fire, but they also bring strife and death; they are benefactors and malefactors. They have outsized appetites, especially for sex and food, and they eagerly satisfy those appetites at the expense of others. In short, the tricksters embody the full range of generous and selfish qualities that we carry ourselves. Sexuality is threatening only for religions that strive to divorce us from our animal bodies. Insofar as the tricksters are Creator figures, establishing the way the world works, they suggest that what monotheistic religions call “evil” is not an anomaly but an intrinsic feature of things. Suffering, cruelty, and death are bewildering only for theologies that imagine the Source—God, Yahweh, Allah, Brahman—is entirely loving and benevolent.

15 July 2015

A line from Thomas Paine's Common Sense points to one source of our callous behavior: “It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow.” Think of slavery; think of our wars fought far from America; think of the rich in their gated communities; think of our coddled generation, oblivious to the needs of the generations that will come after us.

5 July 2015

Although I have turned—or returned—my hand to fiction in recent years, the times transformed me into an essayist, and that is how I will be known, if I am known at all, for a spell after I depart. By “the times,” I mean the unraveling of Earth’s living web, our nation’s addiction to wars, the venality and inequity of our economic system, and the myriad causes of human suffering. What I’ve written in response to these grave matters always seems to me woefully inadequate, yet not to have made the effort would seem a betrayal.

30 June 2015

The shift from a culture of care based on familiarity and affection to one based primarily on money has freed us from many burdens, but it has also exposed us to risks. Junk food may ruin our children’s health; junk media may dull their minds. Hiring strangers to repair our houses may lead to shoddy work or scams. The more we count on private wages, savings, and loans to meet our needs, the more we may neglect the public wealth that our ancestors created—schools, libraries, parks, museums, civic organizations—as well as the natural wealth of healthy soils and waters and air. Those who cannot pay for necessities, such as medicines, may have to do without, unless they can secure help from government programs or charities. Those who can easily afford not only necessities but luxuries often resent paying taxes to benefit people whom they regard as lazy or alien or otherwise unworthy. When that resentment is turned into public policy, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the majority live in dread of job loss, accident, illness, divorce, or other contingencies that might plunge them into poverty.

10 June 2015

The devastation of Earth's living systems, most dramatically through climate disruption, is the result of a spiritual crisis, which has also given rise to extreme forms of inequality, poverty, racial profiling, sexual abuse, homelessness, and epidemic levels of mental illness. By "spiritual crisis," I do not mean a falling away from conventional religious beliefs, I mean a loss of the sense of the sacred, a failure of compassion, a surrender to selfishness.

31 May 2015

A sustainable culture is not good enough; we need a regenerative culture. We don’t merely want to stave off further degradation of the Earth; we want to help restore damaged ecosystems and societies and human bodies and minds.

3 May 2015

Physics proclaims the unity of Being, as mystics have been proclaiming it for millennia. But because physicists speak the language of mathematics, we take their word for it, whereas we may dismiss the mystics—unless we have shared their experience. I believe their experience is shared by many of us, perhaps all of us, at least in childhood, and at least fleetingly. But without a framework of expectation and understanding to account for this experience, we are likely to ignore it or forget it. One of the functions of art is to help us remember and honor such experiences.

Nature is an order to which we belong, with its own intrinsic beauty and value, independent of whatever use we may make of it. The blossom of bloodroot is as much a manifestation of cosmic order as a galaxy.

14 April 2015

Hurrying through the campus woods this morning, my mind already busy with tasks awaiting me at home, I noticed amid the brown leaves beside the path a glimmering of white blossoms. The sight brought me to a halt and filled me with joy, for these were the year’s first wildflowers. Bending down to look more closely, I recognized bloodroot, spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, cut-leaved toothwort, and trout lilies, all diminutive and seemingly frail plants less than a handbreadth high, their petals and sepals pure white or streaked with pink, their stamens and pistils yellow or green. Lifting my gaze, I could see there were luminous galaxies of them scattered across the forest floor.

I disappeared into the looking. My inner chatter ceased. For a spell there was only a communion of delicate blooms, fragrant soil, birdsong, sunlight, wind, breath, all suffused with an energy that might be joy, might be growth, might be the pulse of life.

7 April 2015

Modern physics shares the fundamental insight of many spiritual traditions: the world is One, emanating from a single source. Physicists maintain that everything in the perceivable cosmos is bound together, every particle and region affecting every other particle and region, the same physical laws operating everywhere. The universe works like a single field. What we call “life” is a coherent animation of a tiny portion of the cosmos, a gathering of atoms into a whole, every part of which is in communication with every other part, and with the surroundings (air, sun, other creatures). An organism is like a whorl in a stream, forming and persisting and changing shape and then dissipating back into the stream.

5 April 2015

What are the sources of love? Is there a single source? How does love relate to art? to the relief of human suffering? to the conservation and restoration of nature? Can secularism inspire the care that humans and nature need? Is our secular world-order a “success”? Has the desacralization of nature (a key condition for the emergence of science) encouraged us to despoil it? By stripping away from nature any sense of purpose or sacred presence, have we condemned it to devastation? The key question: What moves us to take care of anything—other people, places, communities, institutions, nature? Can we protect anything without feeling that it is sacred, holy, of ultimate value? As artists, how can our work nurture the sources of loving care?

3 April 2015

The world is given. We do not make it. We do not make our own life. To exist at all is to be the recipient of a gift. If we embrace this view, we should feel deeply grateful, and responsible. On the other hand, if we accept the view that the cosmos, the laws of nature, life, and our own existence are the results of accidents, without any transcendent meaning, then we have nothing to feel grateful for. Self is all.

22 March 2015

The universe is One. What is the nature of this unity? What can we know of it, beyond what science reveals about its constituents and processes? Periodically I return to this fundamental concern, to understand how the miniscule and ephemeral being that I experience through my own consciousness is related to the Being of the cosmos. When this yearning comes over me, I return to books on spirituality that I have read before, such as Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion. I cannot share his sense of communing directly with God or of being guided by the Inner Ligh, but I long for the simplification of life, the uncluttering, the centering focus that Kelly's God-connection gave to him.

1 March 2015

While sweeping and shoveling snow for ninety minutes from midmorning until noon, I thought about a “New Golden Rule.” The original golden rule can be expressed in two complementary ways: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. That is fine and noble, so far as it goes. But it has two limitations. (1) It appeals to selfishness by focusing on “you”—on one’s own self-interest. (2) The “others” embraced by the ethical rule are exclusively human. The history of ethics—as Aldo Leopold pointed out in “The Land Ethic”—reveals a gradual broadening of the category of “others” from one’s own tribe, gender, race, class, nationality, etc., to ultimately include all human beings. Leopold called on us to enlarge our sense of community to include “the land,” meaning soils, waters, and all living things. The New Golden Rule might go something like this: Treat other people, other creatures, and the land in the way you would wish that the people and creatures and places you love would be treated. This would shift the focus of love away from oneself to other beings, human and nonhuman, and to the nourishing matrix of nature. 

25 February 2015

Here is a way of thinking about our task, as we help repair the world: Science, sociology, and other modes of knowledge reveal the way things are. The arts, history, philosophy, and other modes of imagination reveal the way things might be. Ethics tells us the way things should be. Put more plainly: In order to do good work, healing work, we need to understand our current situation, envision alternatives to that situation, and feel responsible for changing the situation. For example, in order to respond vigorously and wisely to climate disruption, we need science to document the causes and effects of greenhouse warming; we need sociology and psychology to explain why so many people, especially in the United States, refuse to accept the scientific consensus; and we need a broadly-shared moral concern for human suffering, for our fellow creatures, and for the fate of future generations. Knowledge and imagination without ethics are sterile. Ethics without knowledge and imagination is blind.

27 January 2015

I recently came across the term “defaunation,” which was coined by ecologists to refer to a reduction in the numbers of individual animals in a region, especially of top predators and grazers, whose absence can significantly affect the ecological balance. The chief causes are overhunting, deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and invasive species. This reminded me of the report published by the World Wildlife Fund last year, which found that the world’s population of animals—not species, but individual animals—has decreased by 52% since 1970. Imagine the destruction! So many creatures killed, starved, poisoned, or perishing for lack of habitat! What sort of “civilization” would wipe out half the world’s animals, the product of millions of years of evolution, in forty years?

17 January 2015

When I told my parents I wanted to switch my major, midway through college, from physics to English, my father replied, “But you already know English.” So I explained that I wanted to study British and American literature, go on for a Ph.D., and become a professor. To my parents, neither of whom had graduated from college, that goal seemed rather grand, but like many others of their generation, who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, they believed that a brighter future awaited their children. My father had earned his living in factories, first as a line worker and eventually as a manager, and he was surprised to learn that a person could actually get paid for reading and talking about books. My mother was a homemaker with sundry skills, none of which was dignified by a paycheck, but she was an artist at heart as well as an avid reader, and she understood that my real ambition was to become a writer. If becoming a professor of English would help me pursue that dream, then she would support me wholeheartedly, and she persuaded my father to do the same.

Half a century after my parents gave me their blessing, I can look back on a career that has proven to be more fulfilling than anything I could have imagined as an undergraduate. What a privilege to have earned my living all these years in the way my father found so implausible—by reading and writing, and by discussing works of literature with bright, inquisitive young people. In what other profession could one share on a daily basis the pleasures of language well used and art well made, while exploring the variety and meaning of human experience?

It is not fashionable in today’s academy to speak of literary study as a source of aesthetic pleasure, much less as a way and of exploring what it means to be human. But those were the rewards that drew me to the reading of stories and novels and poems in childhood, and that keep me reading now. Literature helps me think about how we shape our individual lives, how we treat one another, how we organize ourselves into communities, how we relate to the rest of nature, and how we might do all of those things differently. Biology influences our behavior profoundly, of course, as it does that of all animals; but humans are distinctive in the degree to which we must choose how to act, individually and collectively. Shall we go to war or make peace? Shall we enslave one another, or embrace one another? Shall we cheat and lie and steal, or shall we deal honestly? Shall we care for the poor, or discard them? Shall we regard Earth as a warehouse of raw materials or as our beautiful and irreplaceable home? Shall we think of ourselves as machines made of meat, or as beings with souls?

1 January 2015

Over the holidays, my wife and I received 212 solicitations from not-for-profit organizations, many by email, some by US mail, a few by phone calls. I kept a tally because the onslaught of appeals was so great. Judging from all those pleas, and from the deteriorating condition of American society, global capitalism has been a moral and environmental disaster, neglecting the needs of children, the elderly, the poor, refugees, indigenous peoples, military veterans, prisoners, schools, libraries, other species, oceans, forests, and future generations, to mention a sampling. The so-called “free market” exploits workers and degrades the conditions for all life on Earth, turning natural wealth into money, and funneling that money into the hands of those are already obscenely rich.