Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Life Held Cheap

This past week Alaskans—some of us, anyway—were revolted by three news stories about senseless killing.

The first was the destruction of twenty-eight wolves on the Alaska Peninsula as part of a predator control program, a program which is not only short-sighted but ignores research from Canada that suggests that instead of shooting predators, stopping hunting and letting nature take its course will not only replenish stocks but result in more trophy animals.

As Jenny Pursell noted in her letter to the Juneau Empire, on Monday, July 28, fourteen of the wolves, adults, were shot from the air. Of course they had pups. And each pup was pulled from the den and shot in the head.

(It should be noted here that no one has ever been allowed to film the airborne carnage: every pilot who was asked if he'd carry a film crew responded that he didn't dare for fear of losing his license or contracts. Twice Alaskans have rejected this sickening practice at the polls; we will reject it again in August.)

The second story comes from Point Hope, the northwestern-most corner of the North American continent, where life really is on the edge, and subsistence hunting can mean the difference between getting by and abandoning the village. Among subsistence hunters, every scrap of what is killed is used. In violation of this sacred trust, villagers were outraged by the sight of at least one hundred and twenty caribou that had been shot and left to rot over a forty-mile area [Anchorage Daily News].

The third story was the shooting of churchgoers in Tennessee because the gunman hated the liberal views of the congregation, especially as regards gay people.

These days it seems that many Americans' first reaction to irritating problems is to kill. It is as true of us as a nation as individuals. The present Administration thinks nothing of destroying tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives in a war that is based on a lie.

Even before this war began, in the eyes of much of the world we are considered barbaric on account of our use of the death penalty, which makes us just as guilty as the criminal each time someone is executed in our names, individually and collectively.

The media we produce, especially films and computer games, reinforce a Rambo-like mentality. When in doubt, kill. Need a little action? Kill. Been dissed on the street? Kill. Fed up with liberalism? Kill. Don't want to wait for nature to take its course? Kill. Don't like the government of another country? Kill. Want to know whom to elect governor? Go with the lady who killed the big caribou and cynically used the photo in her election campaign.

Do we now think that the most exalted meaning of what it is to be human is to kill? Are we now so isolated from each other and from the complex web of nature that we no longer have any sense of empathy with each other or the environment in which we live?

What now do we regard as "civilizing" influences? The so-called "right" of each individual to bear arms inflicted on us by a Rambo-court that chose to ignore decades of precedent? Does this decision imply the right to kill?

In an age when we now have to legislate what used to be considered basic human decency, do we even know or care any longer what "civilized" means?

As a country, as a state, as individuals we need to ask ourselves some very hard and basic questions about why we hold life so cheap, not only the lives of animals and people we disagree with, but our own lives that seem far too often to be driven only by greed and "having fun," usually at someone else's expense. Whatever happened to integrity and respect, especially self-respect?

What are we going to do when global warming really starts to bite? Survivalists are ready to kill. Will we be reduced to rending one another like rabid dogs?

The news this past week does not offer much in the way of hope for any other outcome.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Mote and the Beam

When I was about to leave the UK for France for a stint in a Charterhouse, a wag asked me what I thought the difference was between the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

I fixed him with a gimlet eye and replied, "It's the difference between the whited sepulchre and the whore of Babylon."

One of the ecumenical representatives at the Lambeth Conference seems unaware of the increasingly precarious position of many Roman Catholic ecclesial claims and doctrinal declarations in light of recent scholarship.

So that while there may be some truth in the statement that the Anglican Communion has "spiritual Alzheimer's" and "ecclesial Parkinsons" it is equally true that the Roman Catholic Church is suffering from Munchausen's disease.

Prelates in glass houses et cetera.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Alaska Journal

We are having a second autumn storm in as many weeks, a sign as worrying in the North Pacific as the early appearance and longevity of Hurricane Bertha in the Atlantic. These storms carry high winds and torrential rains; they normally start rolling in after mid-August and characterize October. Any resident of Juneau who can manage is absent in October.

The wind has played hob with the delphiniums, just beginning to bloom, and late, though not as late as the peas, which were planted in April and are only now beginning to blossom. The tall primroses have also suffered, and the lupines, while finished, struggle to stay upright while their seed ripens, which I hope to harvest. The dahlias, usually in full bloom by now, haven't even begun to bud.

Hummingbirds and bumblebees have perhaps suffered most from the wet, cold summer, because of flowers that bloomed and froze, or failed to bloom. The hummingbirds were nearly two weeks late arriving, and with their normal food supply out of sync, have gone through nearly thirty pounds of sugar in three months. I have always wondered what it must be like to live your entire life on a sugar high.

The mature males left more than a month ago. For two weeks, now, the females have been bringing their fledglings to the feeders; they are as comical as any young bird. Perching seems more difficult to learn than flying. One enterprising and precocious juvenile male decided to set up a territory and sat on the wrought-iron hook that holds one of the feeders. He persisted through an inch and a half of rain. I worried that he would die of cold and wet, but he fluffed out his already soft feathers and shook the water off periodically and seemed none the worse for wear. Presumably he has migrated, for his territory has been taken over by a juvenile female, who has been far more sensible about perching under cover during squalls.

But each day there are fewer birds, and they are increasingly tolerant of one another as they tank up on energy, sitting on the perches drinking, drinking, drinking until they have to stop for breath, their long tongues flicking over needle beaks, and then drinking some more. In a day or two the local birds will be gone, and then we will start getting migrants from up north, where the summer also has been cold and wet.

Thankfully the peonies are only just beginning to unfold so the blossoms won't be ruined by the current storm. But the fireweed flowers are climbing the stalk with alarming rapidity, and the big rain two weeks ago dumped fresh snow on the peaks. Termination dust doesn't usually arrive until September.

Every August the community garden hosts a little harvest fair to celebrate the fact that even in a climate as dire as ours it's possible to grow something with enough persistence and ingenuity, and to reward those who try. Sometimes the weather is so bad that a few carrots and potatoes are a miracle; even greenhouse produce can be affected. We haven't seen the sun for weeks, but evidently the length of light at this time of year makes up in part for lack of sun, because I'm happy to report that one pumpkin in my garden window is slightly larger than a softball, while the other is about the size of an American football.

Today I harvested the first Italian striped zucchini from the kitchen window pot, and the first Lebanese from one in the garden window. A few cherry tomatoes are starting to turn color, while out in the polytunnel the plants are really struggling. The Russian tomatoes all have fruit, but whether it will ripen or be edible is anyone's guess. The beans look starved for light.

The paradoxes of global warming keep mounting up. It is said that all the glaciers on Mt Shasta are growing because of increased moisture at high elevations, while ice in the Arctic Ocean this year has melted earlier and faster than any time in recorded history. At our latitudes, global warming means more cold and rain, and in winter, especially if the ground does not warm up enough during the summer, record amounts of snow. Which could, of course, or so geographers tell us, tip us into a new ice age.

Across the continent and ocean, warmth of different kind is bringing hope to the Lambeth Conference, as noted in this post from the Lambeth Journal (episcopalchurch.typepad.com/lambethjournal/):

The Language of Silence

The bishops gathered again in Canterbury Cathedral to pray and reflect and listen to the powerful words of the Archbishop of Canterbury. At one point during his reflection, he invited the bishops seated in the nave of the cathedral to silence. As difficult as this may be to comprehend, more than 600 bishops were completely silent.

I could have heard a pin drop in the cathedral. For several minutes we sat in silence, and I learned something more about the language of silence. When it ended, I had the overwhelming feeling that much had been accomplished during that time. It may be that more was accomplished for me in that time than in days of talking. I think silence is a language in which, at least this bishop, could stand to become more fluent.

Sean Rowe, Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Are You Ready for Resurrection?

[In the early 1980s I lived in a cabin hidden in a ravine in a wild part of northern California. My only neighbor was Muskrat, a wise woman who had grown up in the area, so poor that often all she had to eat was what she could catch. Shortly after her husband died, I fell sick with what was thought to be a mortal illness. But against all odds, I survived the surgery, and lived to see another spring.]

We had a real spring that year—spring for the first time in many seasons. The wildflowers were spectacular. We emerged each day into the sun, the flowers and I, blinking with new life. Each day I ventured a little farther.

There were more wood orchids than even Muskrat could remember. Mission Bells were easy to find, a stalk of scalloped umbrellas the size of my thumbnail, purple on the outside, speckled yellow inside. There were whole slopes of blue and white flags far up the creek near the wilderness area, and once I found a yellow lily.

It was the first spring of my new life. Each petal and leaf impressed itself as I walked slowly, or knelt dumbfounded with a trowel in my hand.

Golden eagles, back from their winter vacation, circled overhead, screaming; ospreys returned to their huge brush pile of a nest downstream; otters feasted on a late run of fish.

I planted seeds and strawberries, raising and lowering myself carefully, rejoicing at returning strength. It rained enough to keep things growing.

Steelhead splashed up the creek, thrashing in their gravel nests, spawning, rushing back to the sea. I was caught again in the wonder of death and life, a state of unknowing—of the old world, of my static, now shattered notions of life and self.

What did all those people feel—Jairus' daughter, the son of the Widow of Nain, Lazarus? Did they, too, wake to unknowing, to the dread of life without fear? A newness, the vastness of life not their own?

We pray presumptuously for miracles, not realizing the consequences, without pity for the poor victim. We speak glibly of resurrection.

Are you ready for resurrection? Don't believe it for a minute. No one can be ready. Maybe we can prepare for death, but it is infinitely more difficult to prepare for life. I had been told that full recovery from my surgery could take up to two years. But I now know that convalescence from the gift of life will take the rest of it.

[From: Seasons of Death and Life: A Wilderness Memoir]

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Pumpkin Love

As noted in the post of June 23, our cold spring and cool summer gave me the idea of bringing some of the vegetables inside, among them a trinity of pumpkin plants. I have always loved pumpkins, not only with a child's glee at jack-o-lanterns, but also with the ever-renewed astonishment that a small seed can produce such a structurally elaborate plant, with its dimorphic blossoms and spectacular fruit. While compassion for shattered lenses and jammed shutters has meant that few photographs of me exist, one of my favorites spared the camera in its taking as I managed to pass as the fourth jack-o-lantern in a row of three specimens of the genuine article.

My fascination is perhaps not as extreme as that of the boy in the short story who succumbed to trout envy, sticking his head under water for longer and longer periods of time until one day he grew gills, slipped into the stream and swam off. I would rather eat a pie than be one. But all the same, my attraction to these plants takes up hours of planning, watering, pruning and watching, a prickly vegetative lectio divina.

I'm happy to report that my pumpkin friends have so far done very well for themselves. They have adapted to the garden window and last week began producing the small globes that are potential fruits, along with many flower buds to provide the pollen essential to their fulfillment. But a dark cloud soon threatened all this cucurbitian bliss. There are no flying insects in my house and I was not about to enslave a bumblebee to do the work of pollination at the cost of its life. To complicate matters, the nubile fruits and their would-be lovers began blooming out of sync. Somehow I had to gather and save the pollen from the male flowers until a female flower bloomed.

In his essay, "How Flowers Changed the World," Loren Eiseley remarks: "Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know—even man himself—would never have existed . . . . Today we know that the appearance of the flowers contained also the equally mystifying emergence of man." But even Eiseley couldn't prepare me for the startling similarity of the pumpkin flowers' sexual organs to our own. It was with some delicacy, then, if not outright hesitation at invading their privacy, that I applied a Q-tip first to one and then, a day or two later, to the other—and waited to see if the little green ball would begin to swell or wither, yellow and collapse.

Self-knowledge is often painful: I am no good at pumpkin sex. I really don't think it has anything to do with having been celibate for 31 years; you don't forget the basics. But one by one the first few pumpkin globes that suffered my ministrations wrinkled, paled and had to be cut off to encourage the plants to further efforts.

I was terribly apologetic. The pumpkins in their turn were very forgiving. Realizing they had a dork for a caretaker, they decided to start blossoming in sync. This made the process much easier as I could apply flower to flower, all the while blushing and turning my head to one side so as to preserve some semblance of the proprieties. Bees are much more discreet.

This technique seems to have succeeded: there is now a rapidly expanding fruit on each of the vines. I rejoice over them daily, hoping and praying that nothing harms them. I gently pinch off new buds to focus energy; in this environment even one pumpkin per plant would be an amazing outcome.

There is little more to do now except watch the miracle unfold and hope that I don't drop the watering can as I reach over the fattening orbs to give the tomatoes a drink. We're past the solstice; autumn is rushing toward us. The fireweed is about to bloom, and when their petals reach the top of the stalk, winter will be only six weeks away.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


[First published in Sobornost, 1986]

A monk taught me to tie them. He
was taught by a monk, and
he in turn another monk before him,
like mirrors reflecting in
each other Silence.

They process their two-thread path
a single cord folded in on itself and wound,
distinguishable ends inextricable. They tie
the knotter in her own gnarled thoughts
twisting straight to stillness.

Did those
who refused Chalcedon think on knots
they fingered; engaged and indwelt, wonder
that description of a thing so simple
meant free-fall through speechlessness?

And if knots, what of incarnation?