2016 Journal

An occasional record of thoughts and questions

11 November 2016

Thoughts in the aftermath of the ugly, dispiriting, dangerous presidential campaign and election, sent to about two dozen people in response to an invitation from two friends in Sitka, Alaska:

Friends, it lifts my spirits to see in the address list the names of so many people dear to me, and the names of others, unknown to me, whom Carolyn and Dorik count as members of a caring community. On learning the outcome of the election, perhaps some of you recalled, as I did, the opening line of a poem by Theodore Roethke: "In a dark time, the eye begins to see." The entire poem, like much of Roethke's work, is mysterious, inscrutable; I will not try to parse it here. But that opening line speaks to me now.

In this darkness--this smog of hatred, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, racism, and deceit--what do we see? We see more clearly the scale of the challenge to justice and sanity and peace. We see in the outcome of this election the poisonous legacy from slavery, from thousands of years of patriarchy, from wars of aggression and empire, and from the relentless exploitation of Earth. But we also see, especially in young people, the powerful resistance to that assault on our core values. And we begin to see what we must do: fight harder than ever to protect what is precious, in our households and neighborhoods and around the planet.

We need to reassure our children and grandchildren that this demagogic regime, headed by a bigot, does not define America, nor will it define the world in which they’ll grow up. We need to reassure our neighbors, whatever their religion or race or ethnicity or origins, that we stand with them in loving community. We need to care for those who are most vulnerable, whether because of poverty or age or prejudice. We need to protect our watersheds, our forests and wetlands and arable fields. We need to redouble our efforts to turn our civilization away from the path of consumption and waste, toward a path of conservation and restoration; away from the burning of fossil fuels to reliance on sun and wind and water. We need to hold public officials responsible for acting wisely and justly, in the interests of the common good; and when they fail to do so, we need to denounce them and vote them out of office. We need to demand that those who claim to hold religious faith live up to the ethical standards of their religion. We need to demand that corporate executives and financiers and social media entrepreneurs be held responsible for the social and environmental impact of their enterprises. We need to champion our common wealth—from atmosphere and oceans to public schools and parks. We need to act fiercely on behalf of coming generations and our fellow species.

All of this is more easily said than done, of course. But the only alternatives are to give up, retreat into private life, or, worst of all, join the wrecking crew. Let us help one another refuse those options. Let us do the difficult work.

Courage, friends. Blessings to you all—


5 November 2016

The whole of contemporary society seems contrived to prevent sustained thinking. The electronic realm, with its myriad sites and channels; the never-ceasing flow of messages, the tweets and blogs and posts; the constant background music; the saturation of all visible space by screens and advertisements; the crowding by people and artifacts—all distract us from reflection. In this disruptive environment, the practice of writing allows one to pursue an idea, a story, an image, or a voice over the course of hours or days or years. The writing will be interrupted by other tasks—family responsibilities, jobs, travel, sleep—but when one returns to the text, on screen or on paper, one can take up again and carry forward the previous line of thought or feeling or language. What other practice, aside from art, allows for such continuity of attention?

23 October 2016

Industrial civilization has failed. Driven by limitless human appetite and by the dream of conquering nature, it has degraded the conditions for life on Earth. What must we try to save from the wreckage? What knowledge and skills, what practices and institutions, what forms of biodiversity must we try to preserve, so that future generations will have a chance of rebuilding civilization on a wiser basis? We need a fleet of arks. We need schools and seedbanks, libraries and land trusts, co-ops and civic groups, works of art and works of love, all devoted to carrying through this era of ecological unraveling the cultural and natural wealth essential to human wellbeing. Many of these arks will perish amid the turbulence; but the larger the fleet, the likelier that some will survive.

11 August 2016

Reading Seneca, who lived in another turbulent era. His response to a world gone awry was to withdraw from the tumult and nurture his own soul. I resist his call to retreat into the self. How much harder it is, in such a time, to serve the well-being of others—indeed, to serve the well-being of the world, as pretentious as that sounds. How preposterous an ambition, how crippling a commitment! And yet my heroes, in youth and in maturity, are people who demonstrate just such boundless, courageous care for others: Jesus, the Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr., Wendell Berry, Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, William Lloyd Garrison, Rachel Carson, Joanna Macy, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall, Wangari Maathai...

29 July 2016

In response to a reporter who asked for a description of my "first story":

The earliest of my stories that I can still bear to read is one called “Prophet,” which was inspired by a family I came to know while growing up on a back road in Ohio. Like many people in that neighborhood, the family was poor, a condition aggravated by frequent additions of children. One of those kids was a classmate of mine in elementary school, a boy even more shy and awkward than I was. His father was an amateur preacher, especially devoted to the Book of Revelations. In that dire last book of the New Testament, the father detected signs that the end of the world was coming; he even specified the date, and went around the community warning everyone to repent or be damned to hellfire. He withdrew his children from school, quit his job, and hunkered down in the family shack to await the end. When the date passed without calamity, he moved his humiliated family away, and we never saw nor heard of them again. I was appalled and fascinated by this episode, imagining what my schoolmate must have felt, feeling sorry for the bedraggled mother, wondering if the world might in fact end one day. Years later, I wrote a highly fictionalized account of what I remembered, and after many revisions, this became “Prophet,” a story that was originally published in The Transatlantic Review and later collected in my Fetching the Dead (University of Illinois Press, 1984).

I have long since dismissed the prophet's notion that an angry God will smite us for our sins, obliterating the Earth and all its creatures in order to punish our errant species. Meanwhile, I have come to recognize that in our arrogance, short-sightedness, and greed we humans are despoiling the Earth without requiring the intervention of a divinity. We will not extinguish life on Earth, but we are destroying many of our fellow creatures even as we bequeath to our descendants a planet less beautiful, less diverse, less resilient than the one we have enjoyed.

5 July 2016

Headline in the business section of today's newspaper: “Wall Street Opens Lower as Global Growth Worries Seep in.” The only “growth” the stock financiers and stock brokers and hedge fund managers are concerned with is what can be measured in dollars or euros or yen. They are not worried about growth in human population and greenhouse gases, rising temperatures and sea levels, or soaring rates of species extinction, suicides, gun deaths, depression, cancer, or any other form of damage. In fact, there is a direct correlation between money-measured growth and the increase in damage to people and planet.

25 May 2016

Last night I finished reading Christopher Merrill's superb anthology The Way to the Salt Marsh: A John Hay Reader, a broader sampling of Hay’s work than I had ever read. His prose was concrete and direct in the early books, then grew more ornate over the years, more metaphysical, more anguished. The anguish arose from what he perceived as the increasing separation between industrial society and Earth, and the consequent damage to the natural world. I was struck anew by the impact of life on a dynamic landscape such as Cape Cod, with its daily and monthly tidal cycles, the migration of alewives and shorebirds, the dramatic changes in season, the volatile weather close to the ocean. It would be harder to ignore our encompassing natural context—the great Earth-patterns—in such a place than in the placid Midwest or in any large city. With air-conditioning and electronics and sloth keeping us indoors, and murky skies hiding the stars and planets and moon, and machines such as cars and airplanes erasing distances, it is all too easy to forget that we are living on a planet, alongside millions of other species.

1 May 2016

Like many of my essays, “Kinship and Kindness” (Orion, May/June 2016) begins with a report of lived experience, and then reflects on that experience, places it in an intellectual context, teases out its possible meanings. Most readers prefer narrative with little or no reflection; hence the popularity of romances and action movies and memoirs. The more complex my essays become, the more challenging they are to read as well as write. I can’t avoid the complexity, because the issues are tangled, the implications illusive. And yet, in this essay as in some other recent ones, having worked my way through complexity, I arrive at a fundamental insight. In this case, the recognition is that all of reality is One, a Unity, a Whole. We are kin to everything else, from quarks to kangaroos. This fact offers a ground for ethics, without recourse to religion.

12 April 2016

Sustainability: To live in such a way as to preserve the full beauty and bounty of Earth for future human generations, and for all living things. This is a moral imperative, our deepest responsibility. Yet how profoundly we have failed to embrace it.

7 April 2016

We spend our lives learning—some of us more, some of us less—and then we die. Insofar as any of that learning survives our passing, it does so by being stored in symbolic language (poems, novels, scientific discoveries, mathematical formulas, musical compositions, etc.); through being embodied in objects (houses built, furniture fashioned, quilts, bowls, paintings) or institutions (schools, libraries, museums, clubs, businesses, nonprofit organizations); or through the effects of our learning on those who live after us.

19 February 2016

In response to a correspondent who asked whether I have suffered from depression: “Deep grief, yes. Depression, no. I distinguish between the dark night of the soul that one experiences when looking inward, recognizing one’s mortality, one’s failings, one’s ignorance, and the darkness that one experiences when looking outward on the spectacle of suffering and damage for which we humans are responsible. While I have been afflicted by self-absorbed moodiness, verging at times on self-pity, my chief anguish has been over the pain and brokenness of others. I wouldn’t begin to compare myself to Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, or Gandhi, let alone to Jesus, the classic exemplar of this suffering-for-others, but I see in them (and in Wendell Berry, Walt Whitman, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and others of my heroes) a darkness arising from compassion. How can one be alert to the condition of the world, to the pain of humans and other living creatures, and not feel grief?” 

3 February 2016

Are humans (like ants) unconsciously participating in some collective project? If so, what is it? Science? Art? A global web of transportation and communication? A planetary mind? A spiritual evolution to higher levels of being? When pondering this, one must remember that there are at least 50 billion galaxies and roughly 100 billion stars per galaxy. And all of this is supposed to be about us?

17 January 2016

According to Webster’s, a “freethinker” is “a person who forms opinions about religion independently of tradition, authority, or established belief.” The dictionary offers, as synonym, “atheist.”  But mightn’t a freethinker arrive at a belief in God, without relying on “tradition, authority, or established belief”?

1 January 2016

The geological perspective is dizzying, the cosmic one even more so. If all is ephemeral, ever-shifting, is our grief over loss gratuitous? Is our dismay over human-caused devastation pointless? Under my feet here in Indiana is sediment from the wearing down of mountains. The Himalayas are capped with limestone formed from the bodies of ancient sea creatures. Heraclitus: all is flux. The Buddhist notion of shunyata or emptiness teaches that nothing has intrinsic existence; all phenomena arise and vanish out of an inexhaustible matrix. Then why this grief over the suffering and disappearance of particular things, creatures, people? Is this “inexhaustible matrix,” this source of the ten thousand things, what one beholds in the depths of meditation? Is this the reassurance felt by the mystics--that nothing is truly lost, because nothing ever exists apart from that source?