2017 Journal

A record of occasional thoughts and questions

20 September 2017

Two questions: What is this great, creative flow we call the universe? What is this brief, animated community of atoms we call life? We dwell in mystery. We are mystery, each person, sparrow, beetle, or blade of grass, each pebble, each drop of dew.

1 September 2017

A reader of A Private History of Awe wrote to ask me whether I have come to terms with the fact that everyone I love will eventually die, as will I. Providing an adequate reply to her question would require more space and more concentrated thought than I could devote to an email. So I had to content myself with this brief response: "Of course I would like to imagine that humans might be spared the fate of all other species, that we might endure in some rarefied form, in some other dimension. But I have long since given up belief in immortality or an afterlife—a belief that was at the heart of my childhood religion, as it is at the core of most religions. I grieve when friends and loved ones die—and at age seventy-one, I have more and more occasion for such grief. But I accept this as the way of nature. Indeed, it is the way of the whole cosmos, which creates temporary forms, from quarks to galaxies, only to dissolve them again and again, creating new forms from the reclaimed energy. Why this should be so, why there is a universe at all, remains, for me, an impenetrable mystery. The chance to dwell for a spell in this mystery is consolation enough for knowing I will die."

7 August 2017

A morning walk: One Tiger Swallowtail, two Goldfinches. Otherwise, no butterflies, no birds. No bumble bees on the coneflowers, no honeybees, no wasps, no pollinators of any sort. Gardens languish, blossoms falling without bearing fruit. The two-leggeds that I meet, even the father pushing a baby in a stroller, wear earphones, listening to music or podcasts, unaware of the absence of birdsong. Pickups hauling trailers loaded with mowers rumble past, heading for weekly appointments with lawns saturated in poisons. A gas-powered trimmer roars from a cul-de-sac, louder than the traffic. A passenger jet sizzles across the cloudless sky. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies level mountains, drill holes in the ocean floor, fracture bedrock, dredge tar sands, in a frenzy to sell more coal and oil and gas. The overriding goal proclaimed by corporate and political leaders is to enlarge the industrial economy that is devouring the planet. Policy has lost touch with reality.  

Yet at the concert in the park last evening, a hundred children romped, filled with glee. Parents, grandparents, and lovers lounged on blankets, listening to the band, sharing talk and food with friends. In the tall grasses along the creek, where once a galaxy of fireflies glowed, a few lights flickered. So we must not despair. We must not give up on our species or our home. What we have unraveled can be woven back together, what we have torn can be mended. Don’t lament. Get to work.

21 July 2017

In response to a reader who sent a generous note about Divine Animal, I wrote: In making this book I sought to get back to the root impulse behind the creation of art, which is to bring some small beauty into the world, in gratitude for the world’s own inexhaustible beauty and mystery, and to make of my art a gift. For the gift to be complete, it must be received, and that reception is a gift in return. So, thank you.

20 July 2017

I seek a spirituality that is consistent with all that science has revealed about the universe and about life on Earth, and is also consistent with the deepest experience of beauty and mystery.

27 June 2017

Think about the breakdown of industrial civilization by analogy to a disturbance in a forest: Will it come relatively slowly, as from a beetle infestation or fungus? Or will it come swiftly, as from a hurricane or fire? And how will life recover, for humans and other species? What will the succession be like? Chaotic? Cruel? Deliberate? Can we prepare now for the recovery of civilized life on a new and sustainable basis? Must the collapse occur before humans can come to their senses? Will they come to their senses, even after breakdown? Or will hardship and collapse only make our descendants more ignorant, selfish, and violent?

26 June 2017

On a recent trip to New England, I was met at Boston's Logan airport by a friend. As we drove north toward New Hampshire in his electric car, the miles and miles of unbroken commercial development along the highway made me realize—as I do whenever I visit a big city—that we are not going to turn around this vast juggernaut of industrial civilization by deliberate choice. These franchises, big box stores, shops, warehouses, cars, trucks, airplanes, and other artifacts will not be abandoned so long as they provide convenience and pleasure and profit. All of this infrastructure, this ingrained pattern of living, will give way only through ecological and civilizational breakdown. Most likely the breakdown won’t be sudden, but gradual, like the crumbling of a road surface, and it will lead to ever-increasing suffering for humans and most other species. Too pessimistic? My friend didn’t think so. "It's realistic," he said. He and I are close in age, and we have watched the industrial/consumption culture metastasize for seven decades; each of us has written about it in book after book; we have discussed these matters with one another for more than a quarter of a century. But we don't give up on our species or on this glorious planet. Recognizing that this exploitative, ruinous culture will give way only through collapse inspires determination rather than despair. Those who see the breakdown happening, and who care about minimizing suffering and saving what’s valuable, must work to create alternative ways of meeting human needs while respecting natural limits. We must devise and support refuges, arks, seedbanks, enclaves, archives. We need to ask what must be preserved for future generations. What tools, ideas, values, institutions, practices, species, habitats, and other goods do we imagine will be essential for the wellbeing of our descendants? And how shall we save those necessities?

3 April 2017

Haunted by a memory from a visit to Rockford, Illinois, a year ago: After a day of driving, I set out for a walk from the motel where I would spend the night. But walk where? As far as I could see in any direction were other hotels and motels, gas stations, chain restaurants, big box stores, and pavement. Nothing distinguished this place from any other urban sprawl in the U.S., except for the dead flat topography. Near a Walmart, I passed a retention pond that was littered with trash, mainly bottles and cans and boxes, all debris from purchases at nearby stores and junk food shops. On a tiny gravel island in the middle of the pond, a hen mallard sat on a nest made—so far as I could discern—of wrapping paper and plastic scraps. Her mate hunched nearby, looking lost, his green head and orange feet the only spots of color in the desolate gray expanse. Here is a picture, I thought, of what we're doing to the planet and its creatures.

31 March 2017

Why have so many readers and viewers come to believe that all news stories in the electronic media are “fake”? Perhaps because the digital world of video games, animated films, photo-shopped images, and scripted narration has trained us to think of anything encountered on screens as a fabrication, rather than as an authentic representation of reality. The very notion of “reality”—a world independent of our images, theories, desires, and imagination—has faded in the digital age. What we call “nature,” however—the material cosmos, governed by physical laws—is not virtual; it is real, and we must align our way of life with the way of the cosmos, or perish.

24 March 2017

A friend wrote me to say that he had enjoyed reading A Private History of Awe, in spite of his resistance to anything that feels mystical. I replied that I shared his wariness of mysticism, partly because I have a strong impulse in that direction. It may be a holdover from a rural, Midwestern Christian upbringing; it may be the mortal animal’s desire to be part of something larger than my own perishing flesh; or it may be an intuitive response to some dimension of the universe that our meters don’t measure.

3 March 2017

Long silence here, as Ruth and I spent the past year designing and overseeing the construction of an energy-efficient, sun-powered, Craftsman-style bungalow just four blocks from the beloved old house where we had lived since 1973. The upheaval was motivated by the need to provide accessible lodging as we enter our seventies, and especially for Ruth as her Parkinson's disease progresses. We have now unpacked the old house and moved into the new one, and we are establishing fresh patterns of living here.