Monday, January 31, 2011

Reverence and gratitude -- 1

A line from a review in the NYT Book Review: "All Things Shining rightly argues that our culture suffers from a dearth of reverence and gratitude."

Is this true? And, if so, is it because (as the authors of the book under review apparently believe) we live in a secular age? Do we require a supernatural referent to be reverent? Do we need a transcendent giver to be grateful?

Let's leave aside the question of whether or not we live in a secular age. That would seem to depend upon where one lives and the degree to which one has been educated in contemporary thought. It is certainly true that the Western intellectual tradition in recent centuries has moved in a secular direction. The great majority of members of the National Academy of Sciences are atheists or agnostics. But an equally great majority of the general population of the United States believes firmly in God and immortality. Europe has become significantly more secular, but worldwide supernaturalist religion seems as entrenched as ever.

Perhaps we do suffer from a dearth of reverence and gratitude, but I suspect it has little to do with whether or not we believe in God.

If we are irreverent it is likely because we have an exaggerated view of our own extraordinary powers to shape our environment. We can move mountains, travel halfway around the world in a matter of hours, make deserts bloom. What is there to revere when there is seemingly nothing in our environment that we cannot manipulate?

And gratitude? If we lack gratitude, perhaps it is because of our sense of entitlement. We expect the world to be at our beck at the flip of a switch. In place of gratitude we cultivate resentment when things go even slightly awry.

Science may be the child of secularism (or is it the other way around?), but technology has no religion. Believers and non-believers alike have iPhones and flu shots. Hubris and entitlement are the prevailing sins of our meta-technological age.

Are reverence and gratitude qualities worth nourishing? And, if so, do we require a supernatural referent to be reverent and a giver to be grateful? Where does that leave the religious naturalist? More tomorrow.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Peaceful Earth

On this world-troubled morning, I'll reprise one of Anne's serene offerings. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The imperfect is our paradise

For a while, I think I will use Saturdays to reprise random posts of years ago, as a way of seeing where I've been, and maybe get a better fix on where I'm going. If you've been with me a long time, bear with me. What follows is a post from April 2007, with a few tinkers.

The Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
It is reasonable to ask, why, in a cyberspace teeming with millions of blogs, I sit here in a quiet corner of the house or College Commons each morning and compose these few words. I click "Post" and off they go to God knows where. I am grateful that they are read, but it is not to be read that I write.

I write because I have reached that age -- seventy years -- when I look around me and see a slovenly tangle of a life, a serendipitous stumbling from A to B. I know where I am but I haven't a clue how I got here. I stand on such a summit as I have found and see no trace of a path. I remember briars, and mire, and sunny glades, and freshets, and deep pools. I recall meeting strangers. I don't recall a map or compass.

Each of these posts is a jar of sorts, placed on a hill amidst the sprawl, in the hope that it will assert a dominion, make order out of chaos. I'm looking for that single sentence that will summarize -- something as glassy clear and shapely as those wide-mouthed Mason jars that lined the shelves on my grandmother's back porch pantry in Tennessee, the sort of jar that may have been the inspiration for Stevens' poem.

I go back to my dog-eared and well-thumbed Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, especially those poems like The Idea of Order at Key West, The Poems of our Climate, and Add This To Rhetoric that I discovered as a young man -- scraps of paper in a trackless wilderness, covered with words, flawed words, stubborn sounds, but somehow full of promise, evidence that someone had gone that way before and perhaps, just perhaps, reached a place of repose. Here is what I learned from Stevens, the single sentence that will summarize: "There never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang and, singing, made."

Friday, January 28, 2011

In the sweet by and by

In his splendid biography of Thomas Huxley, Adrian Desmond lists the three articles of faith underpinning Huxley's agnosticism (Huxley invented the term): "physical causation, the uniform order of nature, and an objective world."

In other words: There is a world outside of the human mind; nothing happens in that world that does not have a cause which is itself part of the world; those causes are orderly and can be known with an ever-increasing degree of verisimilitude.

Huxley knew these statements could not be proved. His belief in the unbreakable orderliness of nature was no less a matter of faith than the theist's belief in divine interventions, even if deductions from the assumption of order "are always verified by experience." His task then (as Desmond writes) was to discredit those who claimed miraculous deviations.

More than a century later we still await any verifiable claim of deviation.

Of course, claims of divine interventions, rewards, punishments, answered prayers, and miracles are almost universal, and those who believe in them are not likely to be persuaded by a lack of evidence that might convince a skeptic. And so the agnostic and the theist reside in their separate faith positions without much hope that the one will convince the other.

Huxley the agnostic had in his favor only a close shave with Ockham's razor -- he dismissed the apparently superfluous. When he died, the Catholic Review snarkily opined: "He is no longer an Agnostic; he knows now that the Christian revelation is true."

We'll see.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


In the previous two posts I referred to "soul-making." Clearly, by "soul" I mean something different than the airy-fairy immortal thing I was taught about in parochial school that is created entire at the first moment of conception and remains entire for eternity.

By soul I mean the ineffable essence of a self.

It is inextricably embedded in materiality, but is more than mere material.

A soul is first of all a genome, a unique fusion of the genomes of a father and mother, and therefore of a line of ancestors that reaches all the way back to the origin of life on Earth. I share genes with the hummingbird and gecko.

A soul is a body, exquisitely constructed in the womb as the genome expresses itself in bone and tissue.

A soul is an immune system, a way the body distinguishes self from non-self, thereby maintaining the integrity of the soul against forces of disintegration.

A soul is the body's awareness, a thing that grows from the faint spark of the fertilized egg to the reflective perceptions of maturity. Awareness can be cultivated, nourished. Awareness confers -- ah, here, here is the nub -- self-awareness.

A soul is an ever-growing storehouse of memories, utterly unique to each individual. These memories can reach across space and time far beyond a self's immediate environment. Education is soul-making. The Cat in the Hat is soul-making. War and Peace is soul-making. A scanning electron microscope image of an ant's eye and the Hubble Ultra-Deep-Field Photograph are soul-making.

And nature. There is no soul-making activity so rich in spontaneous possibility as immersion in the natural world. There is more to wonder at in a square-foot patch of weedy ground than in all the libraries on Earth.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nature --2

As I sit at my laptop writing this I am completely surrounded by human artifacts: the walls of the house, furniture, appliances, lights, fans, books, electronic devices. The only hint I have of the transhuman world is a glimpse out of the window, a few fronds of palm waving in the breeze, a branch of sea grape. In the big scheme of things, that glimpse of nature may be more important than all the accumulated artificial stuff that makes my life so comfortable.

I'm anxious to get out there, to start poking around. To pull love vine. To watch the hummingbirds and geckoes. To follow the long shore glide of the osprey. To catch the pipefish chasing its dinner. If one pays attention, there is one overriding lesson: Everything is connected.

Every part of me -- my bones, blood vessels, nerves, fingers and toes, eyes, nose, brain, even my instincts to laugh and cry, to be self-aware, to sympathize with others -- is anticipated in nature. We may think we are a special creation -- a whole day of creation given over just to us -- but we are on a continuum of infinitesimal change. I have more in common with the gecko than with the laptop I am writing on.

Admitting that we are part of nature, we may think that we are at the top of the continuum, but even that is a conceit. Where is the top of the surface of a sphere? Every part depends on every other. It may be possible to create a technotopia, some sort of totally artificial, non-organic, science-fiction world, but to put humans in such an environment would be like putting cut flowers in a vase -- they would be sure to wilt.

What do we learn from nature? First of all, connectedness.

And with connectedness, responsibility. Responsibility for participating artfully in the continuing creation.

What else?

That the universe is vast and deep beyond human understanding.

That a human life is a blip in cosmic time.

These are worthwhile lessons, life-transforming lessons, soul-making lessons. Worth those long hours, outside, paying attention.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nature -- 1

Shortly after I return to New England in late March I'm scheduled to give a talk on the theme "Let Nature Be Our Teacher." So I've been pondering what nature might teach us, and why we should want to know it.

First of all, I am a big believer that nature is our only reliable teacher. I have little confidence in pure reason as an avenue to truth, and no confidence in revelation. The entire enterprise of science is based on the idea that the final arbiter of truth is a close interrogation of nature. That is to say, empirical truth is the only reliable truth.

Of course, the interrogation of nature includes an examination of our own thoughts and dreams, but we have to be cautious about listening to those little voices in our heads that have a habit of constructing fantasies out of emotional needs. Dreams are part of the natural world, but they are fun-house mirrors of reality.

In any case, it is not science per se that I am expected to talk about. Rather, it is what we loosely call "natural history" or "nature study," and in particular the personal encounter with nature.

Why? Why study nature at all? What do bugs and birds and weeds and mushrooms and stars have to teach us that could possibly be of much use? And the answer, perhaps, is "very little." Very little, that is, of a utilitarian nature. Few of us are likely to be stranded on a desert island where a mastery of nature lore might be the secret of survival. In the 21st century, we need only to step into a supermarket or flip a switch to meet all of our material needs.

So why study nature? One might as well ask: Why study history, art, music, poetry. Non-utilitarian education is a way of expanding our soul, of forging links with the past, with the global present, with the universe of the galaxies and the DNA, not so that we can cash in at some later date (or in some other life) but because making a soul is satisfying in its own right.

And nowhere do we encounter soul-making materials so rich in content and so close at hand than in nature. I think of those lines fro Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day":
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?

What does nature have to teach? More tomorrow.

Monday, January 24, 2011


We have an osprey that patrols our shore. He sails to the south, then, an hour later, we see him riding north. Where the sea air meets the land it rises, and he rises with it, lifted by the shove of salt on his broad white wings. When his keen eyes spot a prey he plunges feet first into the water, and, if successful, takes his dinner to the top branch of a casuarina pine.

They call them fish hawks here.

It's at moments like this -- the osprey's effortless, flapless flight, the power, the grace -- that I wish I were a poet. The science of aerodynamics takes us only so far. The prose of the field guide feels stuffy and dry. In the introduction to his anthology of poetry about birds (Bright Wings, beautifully illustrated by David Allen Sibley), Billy Collins writes: "The genre of poetry makes its true appearance at the very point along the line of verbal expression where the possibilities of prose have been exhausted. The job of poetry, we might say, is to make sure that prose is never allowed to have the last word."

Let's give Hopkins the last word:
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
      dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
      As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, –- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Technology Giveth and Taketh

Chet is having telecomm issues on the island at the moment. He'll be back to regular blogging as soon as he can. In the meantime...

...a gift from Anne.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Divine particulars

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wanted to give expression to a kind of religion "to which physical science need not object." He struggles to do just that, and ties himself in knots. He is desperate to have his scientific cake and eat his supernaturalism too. He wants something more than the world mystery of the naturalist, something more than a vague sense that more exists than we presently conceive with our science, something more than "Why is there something rather than nothing?" He wants an "other," a "beyond," a parental "supreme reality" that he is willing to call God.

Instinctively and for "logical reasons," he finds it hard to believe that principles can exist which make no difference in facts. "But all facts are particular facts," he writes, "and the whole interest of the question of God's existence seems to me to lie in the consequence for particulars which that existence may be expected to entail. That no concrete particular of experience should alter its complexion in consequence of a God being there seems to me an incredible proposition."

And in this, of course, he is absolutely right.

If the existence of an attentive God does not manifest itself in particulars then the concept is superfluous.

In a lifetime of study of science and religion, I have encountered no particular fact that requires a supernatural intervention for its explanation. Believers, of course, invoke miracles and answered prayers, but their evidence is invariably anecdotal. Every scientific study of the efficacy of prayer has proven negative. Religions do not spring from miracles; "miracles" spring from religion, and every religion has its own catalog of divine interventions.

And what does James offer? "If asked just where the differences in fact which are due to God's existence come in, I should have to say that in general I have no hypothesis to offer beyond what the phenomenon of 'prayerful communion,' especially when certain kinds of incursion from the subconscious region take part in it, immediately suggests." Whatever that means.

A skimpy basis for theology.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thy shalt

When I turned on the lights in the kitchen this morning, I found the countertop covered with ants. Tiny black ants, as small as grains of salt. To me they looked like black dots. I began smushing them with my thumb. Then I took a wet paper towel and began mass murder.

But not without misgivings.

I've examined those black dots under a magnifier. Six legs. Antennae. Eyes. Bristles. Each black dot a tiny marvel of biological sophistication. I've read E. O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler's magnificent compendium The Ants, cataloging every details of the biology and behaviors of these tiny creatures. Crushing a single black dot with my thumb destroys vastly more complexity than smashing a Rolex watch with a hammer or hurling a Faberge egg against the wall.

Although we can see glimmers of moral behavior in some of the "higher" animals -- apes, dolphins, etc. -- humans are presumably the only creatures that have moral scruples about smushing ants. For most of the animal kingdom -- for most living beings -- it's dog eat dog, nature red in tooth and claw. The anteater has no compunctions about hoovering up ants with its snout.

Whence out moral sense?

The Golden Rule seems so universal among humans that it would appear to be innate -- that is, a product of natural selection. Which is to say, the religious naturalist need make no reference to "higher powers" to feel a moral imperative in her life. Moses did not come down from the mountain with a tablet that said "Do not smush ants." Jesus never mentioned ants in the Sermon on the Mount. Whatever misgivings I felt in the kitchen this morning had their origin in my naturalist's sense of the unity of creation, of the "rightness" of what is. And the more I have learned about the creation -- the biology and habits of ants, for example -- the more my moral sense has been sharpened.

The electron microscope image above of an ant's eye more effectively stimulates my sense of ethical responsibility -- to all of creation -- than any supposed instruction from on high.

(The image above is reproduced from the web site of the Berkeley Research Company.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

East of Eden?

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James sought to put his finger on the qualities that all religions share. These, he said, are twofold: 1. An uneasiness; and 2. Its solution.

The uneasiness reduced to its simplest terms is a sense "that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand." The solution is a sense that "we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers."

I've been thinking about how this analysis might apply to what we call religious naturalism.

It seems to me that the defining quality of naturalism is precisely a sense that there is nothing wrong with us, that we are part of a natural order (as opposed to a moral order) that embraces all of creation, that includes light and dark, dynamism and stasis, life and death, law and chaos.

In other words, we do not have a sense of original sin -- a primeval falling out with the gods that separates us from the natural order. If we sicken and die, if we must earn our living by the sweat of our brows, it is not because there is something "wrong," but simply because that is the way it is. All of it.

We have not been cast out of Eden. Eden is nature as we find it. If it seems morally flawed, then we can try to cultivate bowers of goodness, but those bowers themselves are constructed of natural elements.

If there is nothing "wrong" with us, then there is no need for a "solution." But we can enhance our sense of rightness by learning as much as we can about the natural order and our place in it.

The "religious" aspect of religious naturalism comes not from "making proper connection with the higher powers," but by integrating ourselves as fully as possible into the natural order. As humans, this means paying attention, taking pleasure, expressing gratitude, and celebrating a richness and depth to creation that we only partially experience and imperfectly understand.

(More about the moral dimension of religious naturalism tomorrow.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Order and chaos

"It is as if we all carry in our makeup the effects of accidents that have befallen our ancestors, as if we are in many ways programmed before we are born, our lives half outlined for us," writes V. S. Naipaul.

Sometimes it is disconcerting to think how accidental is our fate. I could easily list a hundred moments when if I had turned left rather than right my subsequent life would have been very different. Not to mention that incredible roll of the dice with which my life began, the race of the sperms to the egg, one wiggler of which won of a very, very crowded field. And if my life is so beholden to happenstance, then multiply that contingency by a long assembly of ancestors who turned to the left rather than the right, and…

It hardly bears thinking about.

But as Naipaul suggests, we are half programmed too, as I am constantly reminded as Tom -- with his new genealogical interests -- uncovers more and more of our family's past. There is an early photograph of his great-grandfather as a boy, for example, that could be Tom himself at the same age, a likeness that passed across four generations smuggled in the DNA of the male line.

Law and chance, constancy and variation, pattern and chaos. In this at least -- as the philosophers of the Middle Ages believed -- our lives are microcosms of the greater universe, which spills into a future that is only half-programmed by the past -- bound by law, shuffled by chance.

Monday, January 17, 2011


In 1941, on the eve of the war, my parents moved into a spanking new house in the suburbs of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the quintessential American dream house of the 1940s. A half-acre lot on a quiet street with a bus stop on the corner, white asbestos shingles, blue shutters, dormer windows upstairs, detached garage -- what every middle-class American aspired to. In 1948, RKO released a popular comedy called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myna Loy; our house was a more modest version of what Hollywood in the '40s imagined to be ideal. My father even had a little room upstairs for his photography hobby (which would soon be taken over as a bedroom for his growing family). I dare say he would have liked to build the house himself if he had had the time, which he didn't. But he did have the big backyard that he could improve at his leisure.

The backyard would also be the American dream. A white picket fence around the whole thing. A badminton court. Rose bushes. A barbecue pit. Brick pathways. A Victory garden. I remember the tools. A manual lawnmower (was there any other kind?). A roller for the badminton court that you filled with water. A hand-pushed plow for the garden. There were lots of odd bits of wood too, leftovers from the picket fence, from which I could bang together toy boats and airplanes.

The backyard was, for the duration of the war at least, a handyman's heaven, for father and son, with lots of projects going on at once. I'm puzzled at this late date how he managed to get the wood he needed for the picket fence. Wouldn't that have been hard to come by during the war? The bricks for the paths were no problem; on the property next door was "The Brick Pile."

A rather substantial house once stood where building lots were now being sold by the family that had once owned all the land thereabouts. The house had been demolished before my parents' arrival on the scene, and the materials stacked and stored in "The Brick Pile," "The Wood Pile," and "The Shed" -- all of which lay just beyond the picket fence. There was no end of things to do with the bricks, but most of what I built with my neighborhood pals had to do with the war -- pill boxes, forts, gun emplacements. "The Wood Pile" became a battleship or PT-boat. "The Shed" was supposed to be off-limits, but we found our way in, and snitched banister posts to use as machine guns. If my father wanted to pass on to me his handyman skills, he could not have chosen a better place to build his house.

As a promotion for the film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, RKO built seventy-three full-scale replicas of the eponymous house in cities around the country and raffled them off. One of the replicas was just a few blocks from our home in Chattanooga. It was quite the hit when it opened, with half the city driving by to see. It was classy, all right, but it didn't have a "Brick Pile" or a "Wood Pile" or a "Shed". Or a workbench in the basement made from a dismantled coal bin. It's hard for me to imagine Cary Grant as a handyman, although I'm sure he could have played one if the role required. He was just a bit too suave to do for himself what he could hire professional craftsmen to do. By the time the landscapers had finished with the Hollywood dream house around the corner, our backyard was already starting to show the first signs of a genteel decrepitude, a slight fraying of the American dream, but everything there was the product of a handyman's hand.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Last blackbird

A lovely gift from Anne this morning. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

We are used to seeing snow white egrets on the island, most often standing by the side of the road, artificial looking, like those plastic pink flamingoes that some folks stick up in their yards. Why artificial? Because somehow we can't quite believe that anything so improbably graceful can be real.

White egrets, yes. Black herons we almost never see.

Today I came upon a black heron (Hydranassa tricolor?) as I walked the beach. It was standing on an outcrop of rock at the Palm Point, gazing at the sea, like Keats' stout Cortez, "silent on a peak in Darien," beholding the Pacific.

I approached. Closer. I could tell that the heron's glistening eye was aware of my every step. Closer still. Why was I so intent on disturbing the bird's repose. I don't know. I simply wanted to be close, I suppose, to stand there with the heron, searching the sea "with wild surmise."

With an almost imperceptible shove, it lifted into the air, like a rowboat pushing off from shore, just floated upwards, as apparently effortlessly as a balloon. Did its wings move? Yes, of course, but with such graceful languor I have no memory of them moving at all.

Floated like a cloud, the long, thin legs trailing behind.

Landed twenty meters along the shore. In the direction I was walking. We played tag. As I approached, the heron advanced. It was as if it were showing off. See how blithely I scull the air, how casually I refute your law of gravity.

"What goes up, comes down," I thought smugly to myself. We'll see, the heron seemed to reply when with one last push it took flight out across the waves until it disappeared, a vanishing black dot against the sky.

Friday, January 14, 2011


On this scruffy little sandstone island the largest animal other than humans is the domesticated goat. Wild animals? The Bahamian boa is the biggest. Rats, of course. Altogether a rather impoverished fauna.

But as I sit in the hammock chair on the screened porch there's lots of activity to watch. Hummingbirds at the hanging feeder. Bananaquits at the sugar dish on M's gardening table. Geckos skittering on the stoop. Occasionally a brown racer snake slips close to the house. I watch with a dreamy awareness.

The creatures are also aware of me, and quick to react if I startle them or move toward their space. To me, they are a source of entertainment and wonder. To them, I am a potential threat.

I rhapsodize. They react.

In her wonderful book The Sacred Depths of Nature, the biologist Ursula Goodenough reproduces a comparative diagram of vertebrate brains: codfish, frog, alligator, goose, cat, human. We all have pretty much the same inventory of parts. During the course of evolution, the hindbrain has undergone the fewest changes. The most significant development has been the steady increase in the relative and absolute size of the cerebrum, with a corresponding decrease in the importance of the midbrain. As I look at the diagram on the page, it's like watching an explosion of pink flesh as the cerebrum grows and folds until finally all those bulbs and lobes I share with the bananaquits and geckos are squeezed into a knot that looks a bit like an afterthought -- which is exactly the wrong word to describe them.

It's not that I have less hardwired functionality than the creatures outside the porch; parts of my brain maintain my breathing, balance and other activities I don't have to consciously think about, and I will startle as quickly as the hummingbird. It’s the plasticity of the human brain -- its ability to be programmed by experience -- that sets me apart, that lets me be aware of the creatures in a reflective, creative way, and even lets me be aware of my awareness.

The bananaquit's brain is the size of a pea; mine is the size of a softball. But I love the fact that we share the same essential design -- cerebellum, optic lobe, pituitary, olfactory bulb, cerebrum, etc. -- love the fact that we are bound together by the great and beautiful drama of evolution.

Sacred depths indeed!

Thursday, January 13, 2011


On September 13, 1987, two unemployed young men in search of a fast buck entered a partly demolished radiation clinic in Goiania, Brazil. They removed a derelict cancer therapy machine containing a stainless steel cylinder about the size of a gallon paint can, which they sold to a junk dealer for twenty-five dollars. Inside the cylinder was a cake of crumbly powder that emitted a mysterious blue light. The dealer took the seemingly magical material home and distributed it to family and friends. His six-year-old niece rubbed the glowing dust on her body. One might imagine that she danced, eerily glowing in the sultry darkness of the tropic night like an enchanted elfin spite.

The dust was cesium-137, a highly radioactive substance. The light was the result of the decay of the cesium atoms. Another product of the decay was a flux of invisible particles with the power to damage living cells. The girl died. Others died or became grievously sick. More than two hundred people were contaminated.

I wrote about this episode long ago in a Globe column, subsequently adapted in The Virgin and the Mousetrap. The image of the girl dancing in the tropic night has never left me. I see her even today, whirling in a diaphanous cotton dress, luminous, like a lovely moth. A refulgent dust, an agent of healing, had become an instrument of death.

Knowledge always has the potential for harm. The care and use of knowledge requires wisdom and restraint.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The god of dirt

A few lines from one of Mary Oliver's poems:
The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
crow voice,
frog voice; now,
he said, and now,

and never once mentioned forever.
I've always loved that phrase -- the god of dirt. Some theologians call God "the ground of being." Yes, well, you know what the ground is made of.

I watch my tomato plants flourishing, turning dirt into stem and leaf and blossom. Now, they whisper, now. Not quite the Burning Bush, no thundering pronouncements from on high, just that gentle vegetable whisper. Now.

Dirt into delicious fruit. The utterly commonplace is a miracle more ravishing than raising Lazarus from the dead, or turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The god of dirt turns compost into ripe, red tomato flesh, without so much as a whirlwind or a lightning bolt. The dog and the crow and the frog look on, like the dumb beasts at Bethlehem, adoring. Now, they whisper. The moment, this moment, is enough.

The green bulb swells at the base of the blossom. The god of dirt does not ask for gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. She says, Give me a seed.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fruit or veg?

One of my first activities when I come to the island is to stop by Marco's nursery and buy a few tomato plants. I pot them for the porch, then wait in the sometimes forlorn hope that a few fat fruits will mature before we decamp in late March.

Tomatoes have been a food staple in Central America for over five thousand years. They started out as small, bitter berries growing on bushes of the nightshade family in the western deserts of South America, and were domesticated in Mexico, or so I learn from Harold McGee's big, wonderful book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. The nightshades are a Charles Addamsish family of plants, full of macabre chemicals, some toxic, and it must have taken some time for the Aztecs to breed an edible fruit. Europeans were slow to adopt the tomato, perhaps because of its similarity to deadly nightshade. And now, look, in the U.S. the tomato is second only to the potato in veggie popularity.

To be frank, it's not the eating that is my purpose, but the calming influence of watching something taking its own sweet time to grow.

Most of what we have on this tropic plot grows rank and wild. Sea lettuce, bur grass, love vine: Turn your back for a minute and they'll take over the yard, turning the house into Sleeping Beauty's castle. They don't so much grow as explode. Love vine will send out a voracious tendril twenty feet looking for a green plant to terrorize; once it gets a grip it will invest a tree or shrub in a smothering cope of tangled orange, all with untoward haste.

My tomatoes, by contrast, have a more languorous lifestyle, more suited to the pace I try to cultivate on the island. I drowse in the porch's hammock chair, my book a-flop in my lap, look at my tomato plants through half-closed lids, and think Yes, what's the hurry, we have nowhere to go, nothing to do, might as well take a snooze.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Who am I? A soma of a trillion cells that developed from a fertilized egg. But what about the 10 trillion cells in me and on me that aren't me? Or are they me, since apparently I couldn't get along without them? By some estimates, there is a kilogram's worth of bacteria in my gut. A kilogram! Is that possible? Commensal -- eating at the same table. That's a lot of bugs.

Here is a diagram from a recent issue of Science (December 24), showing the species of bacteria that live in various parts of the body. The red circles are species whose genomes have been sequenced. Give a big welcome to all your visitors!

The authors of the article that accompanies the diagram, Yun Kyung Lee and Sarkis K. Mazmanian, write:
Although microbes have been classically viewed as pathogens, it is now well established that the majority of host-bacterial interactions are symbiotic. During development and into adulthood, gut bacteria shape the tissues, cells, and molecular profile of our gastrointestinal immune system. This partnership, forged over many millennia of coevolution, is based on a molecular exchange involving bacterial signals that are recognized by host receptors to mediate beneficial outcomes for both microbes and humans.
Apparently we arrive in the world pristine. But no sooner do we poke our noses out of the womb than bacteria, fungi and viruses start colonizing our nooks and crannies, like the colonization of a new island arisen from the sea. It's called the human microbiome. Wave after wave of pioneers, enter our bodies by every access. Millions of genes in there, compared to the mere 30,000 or so that I inherited from my parents.

What happened to my microbiome several years ago when I was given a month-long course of antibiotics for lyme disease? How did my kilogram of symbiotic inhabitants deal with the trauma, if indeed it was a trauma? How long did it take them to recover?

It is now possible to transplant an entire digestive track into someone whose system has been ruined by disease. It used to be that the physicians first flushed the new track clean of microorganisms before transplanting, then relied on recolonization. But now it seems best to leave in the microbiome that came from the donor. A transplanted gut and transplanted bugs. Someone else's bugs. Every gut its unique biome.

I trust my kilogram of microcreaturedom is doing me enough good to warrant lugging around all that extra weight.

(A tip-'o-the-hat to Mo.)

Sunday, January 09, 2011


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Dark night of the soul

This morning at 5:45 A.M. in total darkness, the island garbage truck came lumbering loudly down our dead-end road, a hulking behemoth ablaze with eerie red lights. My wife woke me with a start, frightened and bewildered. It seemed as if an alien space ship was about to lift the house off its foundations.

Ours is a dark little corner of the world, lit only by the feeble light of stars. Sleep is lulled by the whisper of the surf, but I am prone to the hoo-has too, the oppressing, helpless worries that come at 2 A.M., what Loren Eiseley called "midnight examinations." Sleep is bedeviled by some part of the brain that chooses to replay the darkest tapes of daylight

From one of Phil Cousineau's anthologies, I remember this traditional English blessing:
Saint Francis and Saint Benedight
Blesse this house from wicked wight,
From the night-mare and the goblin,
That is hight Good-fellow Robin;
Keep it from all evil spirits,
Fairies, weezels, rats and ferrets,
From curfew time
To the next prime.
In the folk imagination nightmares and goblins, fairies and ferrets are all the same. For most of human history our ancestors lived in what Carl Sagan called a "demon-haunted world," a world of semi-human spirits, sprites, poltergeists, incubi, succubi, and other disturbers of the night. Science has chased those nocturnal terrors into murky corners of our brains, where neurons process the past days' events in dreams and wakeful worries. What is astonishing now in the 21st century is how many of us still choose to live with anthropomorphic apparitions.

My nocturnal goblins are no less real as tangles of flickering neurons programmed by natural selection to do whatever it is that neurons do at night. Meanwhile, I have my own blessing: Saint Francis and Saint Benedight protect me from wicked wights and garbage trucks.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Skeptics and true believers

A few more thoughts on Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow.

The story takes place in the snowbound provincial town of Kars in Eastern Turkey. The place is infested with radicals of every stripe: secular kemalists, theocratic Islamists, Kurdish separatists. Each group is utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause, and willing to inflict torture, maiming, assassination and suicide bombing on their rivals.

Here in the West, the so-called New Atheists have been quick to point out the horrific violence throughout history perpetrated in the name of religion. Religious commentators have responded by listing the atrocities committed by 20th-century "atheists" -- Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot. And so the argument has swung back and forth, going nowhere. The terms are wrong. It is not a debate about whether believers or atheists are more prone to violence. The culprits are true believers of any sort.

Religious people can be true believers. So can atheists. Religious people can be charitable and tolerant. So can atheists. Time to put away the tallies of murder by believers and unbelievers. The enemies of civilization are those who are so convinced they possess the truth that they are eager to inflict their "truth" on others, by rack or bomb if necessary.

Poor Ka, the protagonist of Pamuk's novel, is a man of sincere but fragile convictions, muddling his way through, knowing love is more important than politics, wanting nothing more than getting the hell out of Kars and off again to Germany with the beautiful Ipek. He bumbles between the radicals, the true believers, inciting suspicion in all of them. His violent fate, alas, is sealed.

Thursday, January 06, 2011


I have been reading Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow (I have previously blogged his novel My Name Is Red). Snow is about Turkish politics, and Turkish politics -- as increasingly in the U.S. -- is all about religion.

One thing the novel makes clear: Whatever else religion is about, it is about belonging.

It is about belonging to a group favored by God. No matter how poor, or excluded, or left behind by the onrush of civilization, if you belong to a "true faith" you thrive in solidarity with others of the chosen.

The novel's protagonist, Ka, is a secular intellectual, returned to Turkey from exile in Germany, a solitary man, and in his solitude lost. At one point he asks a holy sheikh, a guru of the town of Kars: "It's because I'm solitary that I can't believe in God. And because I can't believe in God, I can't escape from solitude. What should I do?"

It is an ancient longing -- to belong. To sit in the tiered rows of a megachurch, to stand with others and speak in tongues, to share a holy meal, to march in procession or make collective pilgrimage, to kneel in serried ranks and recite prescribed prayers, to wear a head scarf, to join jihad.

And God is the necessary guarantor of one's specialness. Without belief in divine approval one's collectivity is merely another subsidiary rabble, a fringe group, a lost tribe.

Ka is accused of having been frightened into becoming a believer. He responds: "No, it comes from inside. I want to join in and be just like everyone else."

The agnostic is not uncommonly a solitary person, pursuing a lonely dream, adrift, perhaps a little lost, wanting to belong but afraid of losing something more precious than belonging -- the searching rather than the finding. The agnostic eschews certainty because she values doubt, treasures creativity, finds what happiness she can in the groping quests of art and science, in the private affections of family and friends. She does not want to be "just like everyone else," but she pays a price -- the isolation of the outcast.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Our mornings belong to Phosphor

Hesper and Phosphor are the names the Greeks gave to the Evening Star and Morning Star. We now know, of course, that both are the planet Venus, the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon. Because Venus circles the Sun on a smaller orbit than ours, we always see the planet near the Sun, to one side or the other, catching it in darkness just after the Sun has set, or just before the Sun rises.

But you know this.

As the year begins Venus is high in the east at sunrise. Now it will slowly slide towards the Sun, by midyear disappearing into the dawn, reappearing in the evening sky late in the year.

In In Memoriam, Tennyson addresses Venus in both her guises. First as the Evening Star:
Sad Hesper o'er the buried sun
          And ready thou, to die with him,
          Thou watchest all things ever dim
And dimmer, and a glory done.
Then as the Morning Star:
Bright Phosphor, fresher for the night,
          By thee the world's great work is heard
          Beginning, and the wakeful bird;
Behind thee comes the greater light.
I slip in pre-dawn darkness onto the terrace. Ah, Phosphor. Wakeful beauty. You and I fresher for the night. Wait now, wait, coffee mug in hand, as the sky simmers into violet, pink and gold, until at last gleaming Phosphor dissolves in the star's greater light.

Who was the first to guess that Hesper and Phosphor are one?
Sweet Hesper-Phosphor, double name
          For what is one, the first, the last,
          Thou, like my present and my past,
Thy place is changed; thou are the same.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

In place of belief

And speaking of the poet Grace Schulman, let me make another gesture in her direction, to her long poem called In Place of Belief.

She recognizes that the predisposition to belief is deep within us. I would suggest that the predisposition is more than cultural, that something fleshy in our brains is hardwired to affirm a transcendent reality. How else to explain the almost universality of belief in the absence of evidence.

A predisposition for belief, but, for Schulman, as for some of us, an impossibility too.
Lao Tsu told it best: The way is nameless.
The real cannot be seen. Still I make lists
of miracles, and never mind eternal.
Here, lilies unfurl in rocky soil;

a papery plant blooms into silver dollars;
grackles bob in a ring like a holy synod.
Of these commonplace, earthly things she remakes the temple, that place of worship of her Jewish heritage:
Earthly, but so was God's roll call of items
to build a chest for the Law: acacia wood,

brass rings, indigo curtains, names of things
transient but fit to hold all that endures.
Commonplace, yes, but evincing the eternal mystery. Lilies. Grackles. An eyelash Moon slipping by a gleaming planet in the morning sky. A line of marching ants streaming across the countertop. The hummingbird at the feeder. Not the God who speaks from the burning bush, but it is enough.
                I would eavesdrop, spy,
and keep watch on the chance, however slight,
that the unseen might dazzle into sight.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Second Law

It is a firm principle of physics that the universe is running down. Energy is conserved, but always moves to more degraded forms. Stars burn out. Planets die.

Nowhere is the Second Law of Thermodynamics more apparent than in the tropics. Rust. Rot. Salt. Ultraviolet light. They all take their toll, nibbling away at the little paradise we have tried to build, trying their best to reduce order to dust.

And termites!

The ultimate servants of the Second Law. Tiny sand-colored troopers that nature seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of turning my house into powder.

Every year while we are away they try to undo my repairs of the previous winter. It is an unequal battle: one human brain against thousands of voracious appetites.

Poison? Yes, but sparingly. It's more mano-a-mano, the fierce fire of intelligence against raw instinct, a softball-sized mass of adaptable neurons versus teeming pinpoint compulsions.

I try to be philosophical about it. I know that we depend upon each other, me and the termites, that we are all part of a great cosmic drama, accompanying the universe on its long slide into finely-dispersed cold and dark. But it's hard. Hard to take the cosmic view when you touch the door trim and it disintegrates into a pile of splinters.

I try. I try. And I think of the last lines in Grace Schulman's book of poems, The Broken String:
How all that matters is to stand fast
On the ridge that's left, and hear the music.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year... one and all. Click on Anne's pic to enlarge.