Category Archives: Culture views

Harkening

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” From Robert Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington from his speech in South Africa.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 27: Thousands of people rally on the National Mall before the start of the 44th annual March for Life January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. The march is a gathering and protest against the United States Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 27: Thousands of people rally on the National Mall before the start of the 44th annual March for Life January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. The march is a gathering and protest against the United States Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When I asked Rita what she would like to do for our fiftieth anniversary, she did not hesitate: The March for Life in Washington. The last time she went, she roomed with Dr. Mildred Jefferson; this time there would be a severe diminishment of intellect in that roommate, but she would have the consolation of a lifetime of companionship.  In consideration of being in our eighth decade, we lined up a sensible fly/stay package, deciding not to take the bus from Providence with seventy or so young people who do not require sleep. The young people, as it turns out, were the outstanding feature of this event.

We spent a couple of days walking around renewing our acquaintance with that mesmerizing city. Put flowers at the WWII Memorial for our dads and other family members. Visited the Holocaust Museum for the first time. Strolled in awe around Arlington Cemetery again and sat on the porch of the Robert E Lee house at its highest point, overlooking the Potomac, the Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson Memorials along with the dome of the Capitol in the distance. It was Lee’s farm that was forfeit to bury the dead.

But the highlight of our visit was the March. Six hundred thousand strong, nearly three quarters of whom were young people from all over the country. The contrast with the Woman’s March of  the week before  (link to comparison-language warningwas immediately apparent. No anger, no vitriol, no vagina costumes and obscene signs, no empty-headed egos full of their own celebrity contemplating bombing the White House. There was joy, genuine joy to be together, singing, laughing, dancing on the grass of the Mall before the March. The energy of these tens of thousands of young faces, their clear-eyed intelligence, their look you in the eye candor and confidence brought tears to my eyes. The torch has been passed and is on the move. For the first time in the forty-four years of this March, a Vice President spoke. He spoke of gentleness and love for the babies and for the mothers with an unexpected and challenging pregnancy. He encouraged us never to condemn, but to offer our lives, our treasure and our love to help. A willing audience to this call cheered and chanted, “We are the pro-life generation.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Opening paragraph from the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson

Tmarch-for-life-close-uphe young people there have the indefatigable enthusiasm and idealism of the young. They see themselves as survivors; twenty five percent of their generation didn’t make it out of the womb alive. Faith and prayer were evident with many, but science was the topic of discussion. The science is settled now. With ultrasound and fetal development studies well established, no uncertainty exists about the nature of the embryo, fully human from the start, a continuum, a personal story, needing only food, oxygen, nurturing and protection to join the rest of us in conversation and song and pursuit of happiness. The genetic inheritance of a thousand generations before them sets them apart from all other species.

They know in their hearts and in their minds and consciences what is at stake, and ask with wonder, “Can we not at least be honest about what abortion does?” It is the deliberate taking of the most vulnerable human life by a larger, more powerful human. Of that, there is no doubt. No doubt there are many serious reasons why many try to justify that taking, but it is a taking nonetheless. For these young people, this is an evil worth an uncomfortable ride for a day or two on a bus to declare their commitment to protecting this tiny life. They grew up hearing their parents from a statistically much less pro-life generation read to them from Dr. Seuss.  I saw several signs repeating what they heard as children from that eminent philosopher, Horton, in his definitive work, “Horton Hears A Who:” A person’s a person, no matter how small.

This generation’s majority cannot abide a culture that sees ending innocent lives as a necessary evil or even a desirable freedom.  “Freedom from what?”, they ask. They cannot reconcile the hypocrisy of a society that preaches fairness, kindness and tolerance, but fails to protect its tiniest citizenry from immolation. The starkness of its sheer bloodiness cannot be abided. Planned Parenthood must bring a lunch; these kids are not going gently into that dark night.

“I have given suck, and know

How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it is smiling in my face,

Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dashed his brains out, had I so sworn to you.”

Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, Act 1, William Shakespeare

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Confirmation Bias

“Good sense is the most evenly distributed commodity in the world, for each of us considers himself to be so well endowed therewith that even those who are the most difficult to please in all other matters are not wont to desire more of it than they have.” Discourse on Method,  Rene Descartes

Surveys taken during the mercifully terminated election cycle concluded that fifty nine percent of us believe the economy is getting worse, sixty four percent are convinced the American Dream of working hard and getting ahead is dead, and for eighty nine percent of us, at least once a week something in the news makes us truly angry. Yet the overall unemployment (those without jobs who want them and those who have given up looking) stands at 9.5%, down from 17.1% during the depths of the Great Recession. Inflation adjusted median income (not average, so it is not skewed by the ultra large and small) has fallen to $56,516 from its peak in 2000 of $57,909, and is up substantially from 1985, when we got along with less ($48,720).  By inflation adjusted, we mean the annual income is stated as if costs had remained par with the beginning of the tracking, so that the numbers reflect a true increase in median buying power. While a slight decrease in sixteen years is not good, neither is it disaster: we have stayed about even with increasing costs, and greatly improved our situation in the last thirty years.

Just a few more statistics.  Please keep your eyes from glazing over if you can.  The middle class has shrunk from 59% to 50% from 1981 until 2015 (oh my, the middle class is dying).  Are the inhabitants of the lost nine percent living under bridges and rummaging in dumpsters as the twenty-four-hour news cycle may have you believing? The reality is a bit different. Although the so called lower middle class has grown from 26% to 29%,  the higher income upper class has grown from 15% to 21%. The rich have gotten richer, and there are more poor, but again the news is mixed. Two thirds of the diminishing middle class moved up a notch, while one third went backwards. Not that statistics make those who have fallen behind feel any better (perhaps even worse), but as John Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things.”

Difficult challenges remain ahead: promised benefits to those who contributed much for their whole working lives like Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy, and while annual deficits began to diminish, overall national debt has doubled yet again in the last eight years to a daunting $18 trillion. Undocumented immigrant workers must be resolved; they came here illegally, but without them not much would be constructed, mowed, cleaned or harvested. An implacable murderous cadre derived from a worldwide huge, heretical sect that preaches conversion by the sword and a brutal unforgiving sharia law enforced to the death. Radical Islam wants us dead. The political courage and will to fix these has not been apparent of late, but that does not preclude the rise of necessary leadership and the willing compromises of the rest of us from remedies.  However, our immediate prospects are not as dire as most believe.

So why are we so angry and depressed as a culture? So divided? So unwilling to participate in reasonable problem solving and positive communication? And so entrenched in shouting across an unbridged chasm with vitriol, condemnation and accusations of stupidity expressed as superficially clever bumper sticker slogans and insulting memes? Neither side of the chasm is guiltless in this regard as we all Facebook and Twitter away, while congratulating our associated true believers with “Likes,” laughing emoticons and clichéd internet shorthand acronyms.

“A nation divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln

franklin-jefferson-adamsToo many aspects of this destructive phenomenon to explore in a blog post, but we can look at one: what the shrinks call “confirmation bias “– that damnable tendency to filter new information per our preconceived ideas.  We believe readily everything negative about those whom we judge harshly and remain resolutely tone deaf to everything negative on our side of the big chasm. The converse also applies: we believe nothing positive of the devils on the other side and every scintilla of remotely encouraging news about our guy (or girl).

 In short we believe ourselves to be right (or else why would we believe it?), but we lose our way and become mired in the sludge of our willingness to demean those with whom we disagree. They are morons, evil and better off dead. We not only disagree, we condemn in the basest terms possible.  If Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who disagreed on many issues about the structure of a new nation, had not worked so very hard to overcome profound differences, we might still be singing “God Save the Queen.”

Why can’t we sit down with a cup of coffee or an adult beverage or break some bread, put on our big boy pants as Tom Hanks recently suggested and be willing to engage in rational polite discussion to present and defend our side and to listen in good faith to those with whom we differ?  No vitriol, no accusations of imbecility or demonic possession, just a conversation. Maybe we can all expand our little gray cells and comprehension, and while we may not end up in agreement in every regard, there is a chance we can understand the other a bit better. In that we may begin to forge a way ahead we can all live with.  To yell from the sidelines and hope our leaders of one stripe or another fail us once again is like hoping the driver of the bus we are all on drives off a cliff. Can we leave behind our compulsion to please our likeminded fellows, and stop poisoning political speech? Perhaps we can find both useful discourse and real solutions.

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.” Aristotle

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Noise

 “There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it. Our culture is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.

Webb Lake wall panelsSteve Griffin, owner of Island Carpentry, has done much precise, beautiful work in our house in Middletown. We have come to know and value Steve’s friendship. Last year when he directed the installation and did the carpentry to install our gas fireplaces, he built a box over the mantle of one of them to mount our television. Bartering for our replaced electric kitchen stove, Steve’s wife, Mary Ann, created with Steve a four panel door to hide the box. Using old photographs Rita gave her, she painted a composite scene of our many summers spent in a rented old camp on Webb Lake in Weld, ME. This week she finished.

One of the many gifts Webb Lake gave us was solace and silence, especially early in the morning when the lake was mirror calm. I’m an early morning riser and have been for at least fifty years. Silence for private time, prayer and reading that leads to reflection and meditation is a before dawn activity for me, as it was on Webb Lake in the canoe. Here it is birdsong and sometimes the distant, muted foghorn in Newport Harbor which carries in the pre-dawn stillness. Is there anything more grand than that first cup of coffee in the sunroom looking out over the garden, the eighteenth century stone wall and Rhode Island Nursery across the lane? As Thomas Merton wrote, “our culture is geared…to help us evade any need to face (our) inner, silent self.” Yet this “inner, silent self” is where we most need to wander at leisure if we ever expect to find our peace, our self-knowledge, our connection.

“We live in a state of constant semi-attention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. We are more or less there.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.

To Merton’s constant semi-attention in the last few decades, we’ve layered on omnipresent emails, texts, Facebook, Snapchat, Tweets, YouTube, television with a thousand channels, Pandora, videos and video games on demand, the insistent phones on our belt and on and on.  And on.  We don’t have to do much to completely avoid our silent, inner selves and the meaning of our increasingly preoccupied lives. In truth, we seek commotion: for after all, within those distractions persists our ability to avoid what we truly need to engage. For the ‘unexamined’ life is frenetically busy, exhausting even, but on the surface painless, while vaguely troubling underneath is a deep discontent like a tumor without symptoms yet. Without recognizing our core, what is left wanting, and what change is prerequisite to peace, we are left without a center at rest. Human beings are born with restless hearts, with a hole in the center. Do we seek what will truly heal it or do we squander our time by obfuscating with the deluge of stimuli?

” A great strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire the sound of a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard this, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold a voice came to him and said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  1 Kings 19: 11-13

“What are you doing here?” is the only relevant question we all must answer.

Garden 2016As I was going through the painstaking process of pulling the disassembled tomato support cages from the ceiling joists of the shed, straightening out the bent members, cobbling them back together for one more year and erecting them around this season’s hope for red tomatoes, Rita remarked to me that I was a patient gardener. I have never thought of myself as particularly patient; Type A, driving for perfection, impatient with myself especially. But times and souls change, especially when we spend the time to fill the hole in the middle.

I realized planting the last of the pole beans, the yellow bush beans and peas today with Gianna and Ellie, our two oldest granddaughters, that the hours pass quickly. We laugh, teach, learn and plant. They tell us where to put the pumpkins and sunflowers, their favorites. We can also be quiet together. Gianna is eight and now is the official reader of seed packets, discerning depth and spacing. Why are cucumber and the various kinds of squash planted in rings called hills? Why are some seeds planted an inch deep, and some only a quarter inch? Why is the squirrel eating the new corn and cucumber sprouts? If we see the baby rabbits out there in the garden, will I turn into Mr. McGregor?

I further realize that the overriding sensation of the garden in the sun with sore muscles, dirty feet, red knees and calloused hands is contentment, deep, abiding contentment. And that is enough.

“We are not fully present and not fully absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. We just float along in the general noise which drowns out the deep, secret and insistent demands of the inner self.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.

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Science and Scientism, Part Two

“The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect human beings can start such battles. And only we can end them.” Dr. Francis Collins, who led the team that mapped the entire human genome. “The Language of God”

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

After the strident coverage of the scandals of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts, televangelists fell on hard times to the point where Billy Graham, who led more people to an altar call than any of the others, made the definitive point that he was not one. To many, televangelism became a punchline. A notable exception is the enthusiasm attained with his followers by one of the most successful of the current televangelists, although he is not a Christian one. His television series was a resounding success, produced by a fellow true believer, Seth MacFarlane, the animator who also produced a widely watched hit commercial series, “Family  Guy.”

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson came to broad public acclaim through the remake of the old Carl Sagan series from the eighties, “Cosmos.” Dr. deGrasse Tyson has it all: engaging personality, telegenic good looks, a pleasing, convincing voice, brilliant teaching skills, along with a great passion for and the certainty of his faith. He fills large public venues on his tours with high production value, entertaining presentations that sell out routinely. Dr. deGrasse Tyson is now a millionaire (and counting).

I have no objection to the science that he so ably teaches (in truth I love and read books on science regularly), but take issue with his other agenda: the aggressive deconstruction of other people’s faith. Joining Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Bill Nye and other apostles of the cult of scientism, he is not subtle, lobbing gratuitous enades right from the start of the Cosmos series using a shop worn atheist meme about Giordano Bruno[i].  He likes to fire up his flock with Tweets mocking anyone naïve enough to fall for the God myth.

Here’s a couple from December 25th, 2014 from a man clearly enamored of his own cleverness.

  1. ‏ On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642
  2. Merry Christmas to all. A Pagan holiday (BC) becomes a Religious holiday (AD). Which then becomes a Shopping holiday (USA).

The irony in #1 is apparent: Newton and many others who were seminal in Western science were deeply religious. #2 is factually wrong on sequence, dates and history (explanation in the article referenced in the footnote).[ii] The point of these was obviously not accuracy, it was self-satisfied mockery of other’s cherished beliefs. They reflect the central narrative of the scientism creed: the long struggle to climb out of the ignorance and mire of religion has finally triumphed, pulling mankind up from autocratic, stubborn ignorance and into pure, breathing-free reason; and, we, the deGrasse Tysons of the world, the enlightened, are its wizards.

“(Moderns) do not know that there are other methods (besides science) of finding the truth, such as honest, straightforward logical reasoning. They are less aware than previous generations of what good reasons are, for the very word ‘reason’ has drastically shrunk in meaning in modern philosophy.” Peter Kreeft,” Fundamentals of the Faith”

Their dogma ignores that modern science grew out of the soil of religion; there is no opposition, only complimentary and necessary perspectives. The founders of modern Western science were educated in church sponsored universities and faith filled, seeing no conflict between faith and reason: Newton, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal and many others. Many scientific advances have been made by priests and religious.  Here’s a few:

  • Father Jean Picard developed the first modern reasonably accurate estimate of the size of the earth. He was a contemporary of and collaborator with Isaac Newton, inventor of calculus and founder of modern physics.
  • Nicholas Copernicus, astronomer and mathematician, who formulated the math and calculations proving a heliocentric solar system, was a third order Dominican.
  • Gregor Mendel, father of gene theory and the science of modern genetics, was an Augustinian friar and abbot of the St. Thomas Abbey.
  • Father Georges Lemaitre
  • More recently, Father George Lemaitre, Belgian priest and teacher of astronomy and mathematics at the Catholic University of Leuven, first formulated the theory of an expanding universe in 1927, usually misattributed to Hubble, who published two years later. Father Lemaitre developed what became known as Hubble’s Constant, as necessary to those calculations, and first proposed the Big Bang Theory. After first challenging the theory, Albert Einstein met with Lemaitre, and after extensive review of the math, became a supporter.

Scientism is not science, but self-defines a schism between science and reason vs. religious faith and superstition.  This impoverished belief system violates a fundamental tenet of true science; by presupposing that no Creator exists, it distorts wide open inquiry to preclude any possibility of the divine. Rather than going wherever the evidence leads, scientism shuts down paths of examination.  If you want to maintain an open mind on the subject, I recommend some reading on this vast subject; it has far too long a history for a blog post. I briefly reviewed the slow devolution of philosophy to the current “enlightened” position of a false dichotomy between faith in a Creator and science in a couple of previous posts: Singularity and Beyond Singularity, but for a deeper look, I’ve included a short suggested reading list in a footnote[iii].

Science offers a valid, but limited understanding of our existence. Science is the specific study and understanding of physical phenomenon, mostly, but not entirely, based in the “scientific method” of observation of empirical and measurable data, then formulating hypotheses regarding those observations. Next it tests and hones hypotheses with experimentation, further observation and mathematics. Science is rooted, however, in broader metaphysical concepts: that we can trust our observations and reasoning, i.e. that our brains and observational equipment (biological and instruments) can be relied upon for accurate observation, and that the scientific method is valid. The foundation of science itself is a metaphysical concept that the universe is intelligible, and that human beings can come to understand that intelligibility. An intelligible universe would seem to indicate an intelligible origin. Great benefits have accrued to humankind through science and its practical cousin, technology, but also concomitant risk and always emerging ethical questions.

“Can,” “how,” “how much and how many,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “who,” “why and why not,” and their relationships are the domain of science, however “ought” and “should.” are the province of ethics, informed by millennia of philosophy and religion. On this ground, scientism has staked its claim as well. Science is, well, a science, but scientism is a faith, a type of religion, albeit a secular and relatively new one. Scientism holds that science is the only reliable guide to truth, and that metaphysics, philosophy, religion, poetry, art and other forms of human understanding are speculative, subjective, relative and not up to the exacting standards of hypothesis, experiment and empirical observation. From this perspective, objective truth is solely contained in the scientific method.

As with all stories, this has no certain beginning; and shrouded in the mists of antiquity, the story begins when we start watching and paying attention. When and where you start watching, dear reader, is what you must determine with some study and thought, and dare I say, some prayer.

“Positivism and existentialism are no longer as popular as they were earlier in this century, but their essential mind-set has taken root securely in our culture, especially the false premise common to both philosophies, namely that reason equals science.” Peter Kreeft, “Fundamentals of the Faith.”

 

[i] Father Robert Barron comments on “Cosmos: A Space Odyssey.”

[ii] Word on Fire Blog, “What Neil deGrasse Tyson Misses About Science and Faith,” Joe Heschmeyer

[iii] This list is far from comprehensive, and many other references are omitted, but they will provide a starting place from a variety of perspectives. I have read them and know them to be clear and well written. There are many others. I apologize for the incomplete references, but Amazon links to all are included. Most are available in inexpensive paperback or Kindle editions:

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Science and the Religion of Scientism, Part One

RFIDs, Human Trafficking and The Limits of Technology

“Berlin! The very name like two sharp bells of glory. Capital of science, seat of the Führer, nursery to Einstein, Staudinger, Bayer. Somewhere in these streets, plastic was invented, X-rays were discovered, continental drift was identified. What marvels does science cultivate here now? Superman soldiers, Dr. Hauptmann says, and weather-making machines and missiles that can be steered by men a thousand miles away.” All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

A tiny Radio Frequency Identification tag pairs with a Global Positioning System tracker all in a package about the size of a grain of rice. Inject it just below the skin of your expensive Black Lab, a three-thousand-dollar investment with vet fees. If your dog runs off and gets lost or is dognapped for sale in another state, with your cellphone application or the police, you can find her and bring her home safely. Not cheap, but worth it. You love that mutt.

Much has been learned through RFID GPS tracking to manage wildlife populations, even endangered wildlife, to help them thrive or to survive with little damage done during the insertion of the miniature device. Migration habits, size of territories and travel within territories, familial and group/herd relationships, feeding patterns, mating and other behaviors can be tracked, analyzed in computers and used to plan to help or hinder a species depending upon the habitat management objectives.

All good, right? What could go wrong? There are RFID/GPS trackers inserted into razor sharp arrows, so bow hunters can more easily track deer shot through only one lung from a tree stand; deer pierced like that can run a long way in terror and pain before lying down to bleed out. And worse. A lot worse.

“Human progress, though it is a great blessing for man, brings with it a great temptation. When the scale of values is disturbed and evil becomes mixed with good, individuals and groups consider only their own interests, not those of others. “Gaudium et spes,” (“Joy and Hope”), Vatican II documents.

implantA young emergency room resident in Boston heard a twenty-year-old patient tell him confidentially that she had a RFID/ [i] GPS tag inserted in her thigh against her will. At first the ER staff was incredulous and were making eye contact as though they had someone on their hands akin to a crazy claiming they had been injected with mutant genes during an alien abduction, but within a few minutes they realized that a prosaic local source of evil was at work. Like the branding of indentured Irish servant/slaves and the hobbling of runaway African slaves, more advanced technology had been introduced into the human trafficking industry.

The sex trade bosses have enhanced their surveillance and control capability; these devices have been used in the United States, injected into workers in industry and domestic service as well.[ii] The majority of the prey so subjected are native born Americans; it is not the exclusive province of exploited undocumented immigrants. Subdued in the domain of enslavement, the subjects are those with the fewest options. After they are tagged, their options further diminish.

“The process of going mad is dull, for the simple reason that it is going on. Routine and literalism and a certain dry-throated earnestness and mental thirst, these are the very atmosphere of morbidity… This slow and awful self-hypnotism of error is a process that can occur not only with individuals, but also with whole societies. It is hard to pick out and prove; that is why it is hard to cure.” From A Miscellany of Men, G.K. Chesterton, 1912

This is hardly a new phenomenon – evil uses of science and technology. Zyklon nerve gas to lower the cost per person of killing “undesirable” human beings in the showers of Auschwitz comes to mind. Or perhaps Margaret Sanger’s Planned Parenthood and eugenics nexus, where she advocated deceitful or even forced sterilization of “undesirable” breeders to bring about a more perfect human race.[iii] I could tell you of a co-worker, who suffered such a fate, but that is a tale for another time.

More recently, we see the alarming hastening of the demise of organ donors, especially for those “undesirables” with mental illness or long term illnesses who have expressed an interest in such a hastening. Already happening in the euthanasia friendly climes of Belgium and the Netherlands. Why wait for lethal injection to take effect? Anesthetize the patient, wheel them into the operating room and yank out the most desirable or profitable parts.[iv]

If we don’t understand how we arrived at this ethics of utility, where things are loved and people are used, there are some gaps to fill in. For a couple of thousand years of what is loosely described as Western Civilization we held that ‘reason’ or ‘wisdom’ encompassed science. Science was part of, but far from all of what was considered to be true. Truth and reason were humankind’s efforts to understand the reality of things, and that search involved other and greater aspects of truth than merely empirical observation, hypothesis and experiment. Like a sort of collective macular degeneration, our vision first occluded at the center then faded into an increasing myopia. Metaphysics, art, poetry, religion and philosophy were slowly blinkered as sources of truth.

This will require a part two – how we devolved from a more human wisdom to a new ethos, and how we grotesquely distorted science into a new faith, ‘Scientism.”

“Parts are not to be examined until the whole has been surveyed.” Samuel Johnson

 

[i] http://www.marketplace.org/2016/03/02/health-care/health-care-takes-fight-against-trafficking

[ii] https://polarisproject.org/sites/default/files/2015-Statistics.pdf

 

[iii] Maggie, Part Two. Quo Vadis Blog, June 2, 2013

[iv] Euthanasia by Organ Harvesting, Dr. Wesley Smith, First Things, March 31,2016

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The Blare of the Brass Trump

“There are two sides to a trumpeter’s personality.  There is the one that lives only to lay waste to the woodwinds and strings, leaving them lying blue and lifeless along the swath of destruction that is the trumpeter’s fury.  And then there’s the dark side.” Anonymous

TrumpMuch has been written of the Trump phenomenon, about ignorant, angry, racist voters who have taken more than enough and can’t take anymore. Far deeper and more intransigent than that, I’m afraid. The glib Donald proposes no real or even thoughtful solutions – only simplistic pandering, and he displays little depth of knowledge in any of the subjects about which he harangues. How is a privileged narcissist, a vain bully whose signature is insult and schoolboy humiliation of anyone who voices even minor criticism, successfully pretending as a “tell it like it is” savior of the common man? What vein is he mining?

Peggy Noonan this weekend starts the conversation best, I think, in her Wall Street Journal column, and I recommend it to you: “Trump and the Rise of the Unprotected.” She writes that the divide between the “protected” (well to do, influential, comfortable and safe) and the “unprotected” (everybody else) has widened to nearly unbridgeable and is intolerably frustrating to those on the vulnerable side. Noonan suggests that the protected includes most politicians, academia, the majority of both conservative and progressive media, the educated and the wealthy – defined as anyone not constantly worried about paycheck to paycheck necessities for their families.

The protected have no insight into what the majority of people deal with on Monday morning or in middle of the night sweats; the unprotected are in frigid water without a lifeboat while the Titanic goes down. The elite have for the most part abandoned public schools for their own children except for lip service to the teacher’s union. They converse smugly among themselves about the witlessness of the average person along with some occasional painless and riskless tsk, tsking about minorities and the disadvantaged, who need to be rescued by the government or free enterprise or some combination thereof. The protected and unprotected stand on the precipices of opposite sides of a canyon and shout bumper sticker slogans at each other.

Trumpism is not a joke, much as we wish it was, and neither is it an eruption without a cause. We can see it as the other side of the same coin as Obamaism. We long for a demagogue to lead us out of the bewilderment of our own inability to grasp what’s really going on. We are awash in information and immediacy of communication and bereft of understanding and wisdom, overloaded with bits of knowledge, and unable to piece together a meaningful picture of the whole. So we grasp at the self-serving kindness of strangers and fantasize that the expert, the manager, the technocrat can pick their way through the obstacles that no one else understands and bring us safely home.

“The vast accumulations of knowledge – or at least information – deposited by the nineteenth century have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.” T.S. Eliot, from the essay, “The Perfect Critic”

G.K. Chesterton wrote over a century ago in his brilliant short essay on juries, “The Twelve Men,” [i] The Fabian argument of the expert, that the man who is trained should be the man who is trusted would be absolutely unanswerable if it were really true that a man who studied a thing and practiced it every day went on seeing more and more of its significance. But he does not. He goes on seeing less and less of its significance. In the same way, alas! we all go on every day, unless we are continually goading ourselves into gratitude and humility, seeing less and less of the significance of the sky or the stones.”

Our culture is in great danger of intellectual and moral surrender to the expert, to the manager whom we believe knows all and can fix all, like Donald Trump, or for that matter, Barack Obama. We retreat from an overwhelming onslaught of data and information and cede authority to those longing to assume it. We flee into distractions, entertainments and the frivolous because we fear we cannot bear or understand what it is we need to understand and to bear. Mistaking management for leadership, we willingly turn over our governance to those we hope see the light that we do not.

“Trumpet players see each other, and it’s like we’re getting ready to square off and get into a fight.” Wynton Marsalis

 

 

 

[i] See free online version of Chesterton’s collection, “Tremendous Trifles” from the Gutenberg Project: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/8092/8092-h/8092-h.htm#link2H_4_0012

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A Tale of Two Athletes

A Tale of Two Athletes

“How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year.”      John Milton

When Aaron Hernandez was twenty three, he had realized his youthful dreams: a lucrative National Football League contract, making him a multimillionaire; new found fame and the adulation the public reserves for its talented sports heroes; a pretty fiancé, Shayanna Jenkins, with whom he had a young daughter; a big house, and a history of success and awards at Bristol Central High School in Connecticut, a national championship at the University of Florida and an American Conference Championship with the New England Patriots. He received the 2013 Pop Warner Youth Football League Inspiration for Youth Award. With Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady had the most lethal big and fast tight end duo in the league, almost unstoppable. Aaron Hernandez making the cut and up to speed on an end around run was daunting for any defense.

His signature touchdown celebration was to mime counting the money; he took pleasure in displaying his heavily tattooed, incredibly fit body. There were other shadows: his associations with the Bloods street gang, drugs and guns. His mother, Terri, played a minor role in organized crime, as a phone operator taking bets for a large sports gambling syndicate. Even though he was ranked as the top tight end prospect in the country, Hernandez, a consensus All American went later than expected in the fourth round of the NFL draft because of concerns about drug use and a history of violence.

“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Aaron Hernandez reconsideringWhen he was twenty four after a couple of weeks of nonstop media coverage, he was arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd, a semi-pro football player dating the sister of his fiancé. Lloyd was driven around for a couple of hours, taken to the back of a North Attleborough industrial park and executed with five shots from a .45 caliber handgun traced back to Hernandez. Within two days, the Patriots released him; the money dried up and he became just another guy in leg irons and an orange jump suit awaiting trial in the Bristol County Jail in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

“When I’m blind, when I cannot see, when all life’s trouble sweeps over me. When I’m in darkness and all I see is me, be with me, Lord.” Tom Booth, “Be With Me, Lord”

Mr. Lloyd had offended Hernandez by talking to his enemies in Cure, a Boston nightclub, about Hernandez’s alleged involvement in a previous drive by shooting in Boston in 2012. Two Cape Verdean immigrants were shot in their car; they had a run in with Hernandez at a bar earlier that night, “disrespecting” Hernandez, apparently a capital offense. After his conviction and life sentence for the Lloyd murder, Hernandez is under indictment for the other two earlier murders. More violent incidents and bar fights turned up in the investigations, including one in Florida, when he shot in the face his once friend and “right hand man” from the Bristol gang, Ernest Wallace, costing Wallace an eye. Hernandez’s future is now as bleak as it once was luminous; he will never run free again amongst similarly gifted athletes. His past is defined now with a chalked outline of a dead former friend on a weedy, littered back lot.

“What you are is God’s gift to you, what you become is your gift to God.” Hans Urs von Balthasar

Grant DesmeGrant Desme was named 2009 Arizona Fall League MVP. Only the best of major league prospects are sent to the fall leagues. Having been an early draft pick, he was one of the most touted minor league prospects in all of baseball. He had played baseball for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo after transferring over from San Diego State. First team All American and Triple Crown winner for the Big West Conference, he was an extraordinary athlete.[i] “I had everything figured out. I was on top of the world: successful at baseball, not having to go to school, having a big contract, but I was not where God wanted me to be.”

He had been injured by a pitch in 2007 that broke his wrist. Surgery followed, and the six week estimated healing time turned into over a year; he missed almost all of the 2008 season. During his recovery, he started to examine his dreams and plans for the future. The injury had him questioning his premises. “I couldn’t play baseball. God really started rocking my world. I was faced with a lot of silence… To have something that was completely out of my control, like an injury, strip that away left me wondering: What’s the purpose? What am I actually going after? Because if I can put all my effort into something and not have it fulfilled, why do it? It ended up making me think a lot about death, a lot about my entire existence on this earth. It made me confront the big questions about life, and it led me to God.”  He contemplated becoming a priest.

But Grant Desme returned to baseball, wanting to prove to himself that if he changed his course, it was not running away from a failure. He went back into Single A ball, but was soon bumped up to Double A. Combined with both teams, his stats (for a baseball geek like me) were, as he said, like a video game. A 30-30 season (over 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases – a thing of boyhood dreams)- OPS of .933 – 31 home runs -OBP of .365 – 6 triples – 42 stolen bases. He had speed, good judgment, hit to all fields and power. After the MVP Fall League, he was reassigned to the Oakland A’s and invited to spring training — on the verge of the jump to “The Show.” He loved playing baseball; all questions about his recovery and amazing skills were answered.

He retired.

Frater MatthewGrant Desme is now Frater (Brother) Matthew Desme of the Novertine Abbey. [ii]  He finished up his philosophy studies, and after four years of theology and an apostolic year in Rome he will finish his qualifying education for ordination as a priest. His life is radically simple with some baseball with the brothers from time to time – the ultimate ringer. “I realized that even if I played twenty years in the major leagues and ended up a Hall of Famer, I would still die one day. No matter what I achieved, I would be just as dead as everyone else in the cemetery… At every stage of my career, I thought happiness was just around the corner. No matter how well I played or how far I advanced, I never gained the complete, lasting happiness I was expecting. There were thrills, but none of them lasted. Everything here below is fleeting.”

Frater Matthew Desme says his previous life was a “very superficial form of masculinity … based on externals and trying to put yourself before others. I’ve since learned an authentic masculinity based on self-sacrificing love.” Grant Desme’s future is luminous with his past defined now as a grand worldly success that hadn’t lived up to his hopes for it.

Aaron Hernandez and Grant Desme were athletes gifted in a way 99.999% of us mortals will never experience, but their paths diverged in a radical way, as has their outcome. One became ensnared in the counterfeit happiness of our culture with self-fulfillment and self-gratification its goal; the other found peace and lasting happiness in humility, serving and loving others.

“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”                        C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

 

[i] Quotes from “He gave up baseball to follow God’s call.” The Catholic Voice, September 8, 2014

[ii] “Ex-Baseball Phenom Discusses Life in a Novertine Abbey” National Catholic Register, 4/8/13. http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/ex-baseball-phenom-chose-the-better-part-in-norbertine-abbey/

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Planned Desolation

“Now there’s a wall between us, somthin’ there’s been lost. I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed.” Shelter from the Storm from the Blood on the Tracks album, Bob Dylan

Josef Mengele, the banality of evil

Josef Mengele, the banality of evil

Documentation for the various studies was meticulous; the results held great potential to help people at risk. How long can a person survive hypothermia in a cold, cold sea? Can we develop new treatments for infection to aid the wounded by testing the new drugs on human subjects? What is the most cost effective method of high volume sterilization to reduce the propagation of lesser races? The good doctors’ tests were conducted in secure facilities with good logistics for rail service. At least for a while until Allied bombing destroyed the trains.

Especially desirable for the testing were young twins: compare the effects of deadly disease when the uninfected control in the experiment possesses the exact same DNA as the tested subject. Once the infected twin died, the doctors would kill them both because the comparative autopsies advanced the research.

“Because they ripped open expectant mothers in Gilead, while extending their territory, I will kindle a fire upon the wall of Rabbah, and it will devour her castles.” Amos 1: 13-14

The benefits of medical research were given this month as justification for collecting human specimens with bonuses paid for highly desirable organs.

The Center for Medical Progress secretly videotaped officials from Planned Parenthood over the last three years, and if you have not viewed them and have a strong stomach, they expose in gruesome detail the practices of America’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood[i]. These are not sociopathic outliers like Kenneth Gosnell, but directors of large districts like the Southern Pacific Region and Texas, as well as Senior Director of Medical Services, Deborah Nucatola, MD.

The undercover team, posing as parts buyers for medical research parts procurers, negotiated for specific fetal organs with bonuses for certain DNA or blood types. Parts included pancreases, lungs, livers, hearts, and eyeballs. Late term abortions were especially desirable. A la carte price schedule. To skirt the law, wholesale firms are on site which take possession of the organs and pay a fee for each. They in turn profit by selling them to research firms. The fees vary according to the rarity of the baby parts, blood and tissue types.

Abortion procedures are sometimes altered and discussed with the middleman, especially for larger fetuses. These procedures add risk of injury to the mothers, but are necessary to harvest intact cadavers. They are actually called cadavers by a Planned Parenthood negotiator; interesting term cadaver – not fetal tissue or protoplasm or medical waste, but a term normally reserved for a dead human being, which, of course, they are. Mothers who are pain tolerant and can endure wider dilation are valued for their ability to birth live, intact babies to provide the most lucrative organs. In many cases, mothers are not informed as to the disposition of their baby’s corpses even though Planned Parenthood tells the public they are.

Late term abortions in some states are illegal. Selling body parts and so called partial birth abortions are illegal in all jurisdictions, but produce the healthiest, most complete harvestable parts. Working around these restrictions is carefully done, but with these damning videos, not carefully enough. Some states have initiated investigations and shut down funding for Planned Parenthood, but not all. The U.S. Senate blocked an attempt to pull federal funding entirely, but this battle is far from over.

When we wrote our local officials asking for an investigation, some stonewalled and others answered back, parroting Planned Parenthood talking points: they make no profit by these practices; fetal research benefits medical science; if funding was pulled, access to women’s health care would be damaged beyond repair; the videos were edited. Policy setters (including President Obama) refuse to watch them; truth, apparently cuts too close to the bone. PP spends millions over the years on lobbying and political donations. Please watch these videos and make your own judgment as to whether statements by senior Planned Parenthood officials could be in any way mitigated by context, and the full videos are made available start to finish. Six of twelve have been released by the Center for Medical Progress. Link to videos.

“Is it not your duty to know what is right, you who hate what is good, and love evil? You who tear their skin from them, and their flesh from the bones!.. They chop them in pieces like flesh in a kettle, and like meat in a cauldron.” Micah 3: 1-3

Cecile Richards at Democrat National Convention 2012

Cecile Richards at Democrat National Convention 2012

Numbers can be revealing, here are a few to gain a sense of the real facts behind the health care scare scam proffered by the Planned Parenthood apologists.

  • Planned Parenthood claims that abortion constitutes only 3% of their services (327,000 out of ten million), but it is necessary to look under the hood. Their method of counting services is weighted. If they see a patient for a PAP smear, a pregnancy check and write a prescription of twelve months of birth control pills, it is counted as 14 services (one each for every month of the prescription). If the count is kept only for pregnant women who come in, 93% of them walk out without their baby still on board. A minor percentage gets other help or adoption services, if they push for it. Abortions are a third of their revenue, and another third comes from public funding. The abortions provide another source of revenue: baby parts for sale.
  • The sale of fetal body parts is not a new practice for Planned Parenthood. The ABC news magazine 20/20 exposed the practice over fifteen years ago, when Chris Wallace ran the story. However, like the current videos, the major news organizations, with the exception of Fox, are spending very little time on this story. It is suppressed by the parent organizations which have alliances with and ideological sympathy for Planned Parenthood and abortion.[ii]
  • While its defenders try to convince us that no public funds pay for abortions directly, taxpayer funds pay the bills, help keep the lights on and help pay the inflated salaries of the administrators, many of whom are non-medical people. One hundred and thirty seven of them make over a hundred thousand dollars a year. Its CEO, the now beleaguered Cecile Richards, made $523,616 in 2013. She looks good in sound bites though; non-profit work for PP pays well.
  • The claims that women’s health care would be negatively affected if public funds are withdrawn from PP are grossly misleading. There are approximately 700 Planned Parenthood clinics (abortion assembly lines) in the U.S, while 9,000 community health care centers provide women’s health care. Planned Parenthood serves 2.7 million patients a year; community health care centers over 21 million.
  • Planned Parenthood warns that breasts would be at risk without their clinics. However, they do only referrals for mammograms and zero actual mammograms a year. Community health care centers do 424,000. Planned Parenthood performs 378,000 PAP smear tests; community health centers 1,758,000. Women’s health care services would be far better served with increased taxpayer funding for community health care centers.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica, “Properly speaking conscience is not a power, but an act.” When evil is perceived, we are required to respond. We can do that politically. We can show up at our local PP clinic on August 22nd at 9 AM. At the least be prepared by being informed about the facts when the discussion comes up.

One of the videos shows the grotesque picking over of baby parts in a tray looking for prized tissues. The pictures are your worst nightmare of tiny hearts, crushed heads and little hands. The searchers were excited because the tray holds dismembered twins, which like the German World War II researchers in the death camps, were found to be of particular value.

“The most deadly poison of our time is indifference.” St. Maximillian Kolbe [iii]

 

[i] See previous post about the genesis of Planned Parenthood. Maggie Part 2.

[ii] See Crisis Magazine article on this. “Why News Organizations Protect Planned Parenthood.”

[iii][iii] Father Kolbe died in Auschwitz after volunteering to take the place of another prisoner, who was a Jewish father with a family.

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Population Bomb Defused

zpg“Sometime in the next fifteen years the end will come. By the end I mean the utter breakdown of the planet’s capacity to support humanity.” Dr. Paul Erlich, 1970

In 1973 before we moved to Maine, we lived in a two bedroom cottage on Mashnee Island where the Cape Cod Canal connected to the bay. One of my contractor customers was a locked down, fit, good looking guy with a locked down, fit, good looking wife and no children. He invited me back to his house to review some upcoming house building plans in his home office one afternoon. When I went in, he offered me some coffee and a half hour of pacing and proselytizing on his zealous organization, Zero Population Growth, for which he was the head of the Cape Cod chapter, one of 600 chapters. ZPG’s ideas rapidly gained ascendency due to Paul Erlich’s best seller, Population Bomb. Dr. Erlich, a Stanford professor of ecology and demographics, developed mathematical models of population growth that foretold of doomsday: the earth is running out of food, mass starvation, riots and complete social breakdown. His solution was population control, voluntary if possible, but government enforced if necessary. His “wisdom,” while radical in the late sixties and early seventies became mainstream and deeply inculcated in our culture. As we have seen again in the climate change debate, elaborate computer models aren’t always predictive. What was neglected in his models was the human capacity to adapt, to learn, and developments like the “green revolution” in India that multiplied our ability to feed and house the growing population. Imperfect solutions, but adjusting constantly to new reality.

My customer thrust on me with messianic fervor a copy of Erlich’s book. At a certain age, we are all convinced that the world is coming to an end, ignorant humans are the cause, and that we and likeminded cognoscenti are privy to its deprivations and must all rally to radical solutions. Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Chairman Mao, Voltaire, Adolph Hitler, even such as Margaret Sanger[i] and Peter Singer—so many similar true believers in that desperate parade—were convinced and convincing that they possessed the truth. The detritus of their error was death. Dr. Erlich delivered his version. Whether his inaccuracies were mistakes, bad computer modeling or lies to bolster an agenda, I’ll leave to others.

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” “Sometimes history needs a push.” Vladimir Lenin

Recent articles reminded me of Erlich’s past. The New York Times published “The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion” about the radical drop in birth rate to below replacement levels in many countries that threatens their culture and sustainability, citing Erlich’s work as an example of science gone wrong. Erlich was the darling of the media in the early seventies; movies like ZPG and Solvent Green were made. A frequent guest of Johnny Carson, he was often hailed as gospel by liberal media giants like Walter Cronkite and Howard K. Smith. He told Johnny to bet big that England wouldn’t exist by the year 2000. The world was headed for catastrophic uncontrolled population growth. Erlich recommended coercive birth control if voluntary good sense didn’t prevail. He advocated doing away with tax deductions for children and punitive luxury taxes on diapers, baby furniture and formula with public shaming of any mother birthing more than two children. India initiated mandatory sterilizations, and eight million women had their tubes tied against their will in hellish assembly line “clinics.” China initiated a one child policy with forced abortions and job loss, eviction from homes or jail time for violators. Much of Western Europe stopped having babies; so did we. ZPG put out scary videos of mobs of people wearing gas masks to enable breathing while immersed in polluted air caused by populations living like rats in a box.

The birth rate plummeted in many nations, including our own. We are now faced with rapidly aging populations, birth rates below the 2.1 minimum necessary to sustain an economy or take care of its own; some are calling what has befallen us a “demographic winter.”

“Children bring life, joy, hope, also trouble, but life is like this…However, it’s better to have a society with these worries and problems than a sad and grey society because it has remained without children.” Pope Francis, General Audience 3/18/15

The same media that parroted Erlich’s earlier errors still shills for him. He acknowledges that his time line was a bit off—England still exists after all, smug smile—but he contends that anthropogenic climate change, the toxins of ocean pollution and escalating species extinction support his earlier theory. After all, he intones in that affected condescension only an academic darling can perfect, “time for an ecologist is different” from that of the uninformed.

While MSNBC is delighted that a pope has finally seen the light as published this week in Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato Si’,” they neglect to report some of the document’s other conclusions that solutions to environmental challenges lie as well in our individual and local decisions about overconsumption, compassion in daily practice and sharing, perhaps more than in massive Al Gore like government power interventions that engender more disruption and human misery than they alleviate.

Some lessons for me are these. We do need to consider the impact of our daily life decisions, and while the scientists continue to work out their data, their models and their recommendations, each of us each day can begin right now, where we are to do our part. Erlich’s polemics praising small families and childlessness contributed to the fuel of the so named “sexual revolution,” with all its social ramifications of commitment phobia, single parent families and renegade male irresponsibility; it’s all of a piece. And that the generosity requisite for good child bearing and child rearing, if atrophying in our collective lives, is exactly the generous spirit we need to tamp down our personal avarice, our consumption and our reluctance to share our planet’s resources and in its future.[ii]

“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” Wilbur Wright, from “The Wright Brothers,” David McCullough[iii]

[i] See prior two part blog posts on Sanger’s handiwork and life. Maggie

[ii] As quoted by Regis Martin in Crisis Magazine, Ross Douthat wrote in a 2012 NY Times piece, our “’retreat from child rearing, is at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion,’ a condition of ‘decadence,’ he calls it, evoking a ‘spirit that privileges the present over the future.’”

[iii] While not his best book, Mr. McCullough at 81 may have lost some velocity off his fastball, but he still has all his pitches. Well worth your time.

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Abert Squirrels, Ponderosa Pine and the Mysteries of the Planet

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” “Essays on Conservation from Round River” Aldo Leopold.

IMG_0333During our recent stay in Flagstaff, Arizona, we were entertained through the window at breakfast by Abert squirrels feeding on the cones of the Ponderosa pines scattered throughout the grounds of the hotel.  Curious creatures, they are quite different from our New England gray squirrel and are primarily found on the Colorado Plateau in the Southwest with tasseled ears and eating pine cones like corn on the cob to get to the seeds. Their obvious attraction for the pines (I’m used to squirrels and oaks, not pine trees) prompted a little research, first to identify them, then to learn a bit about them. From spring to fall, Aberts feed on the tender phloem (inner bark) of the pine twigs; they chew around the bark, exposing the treat.  When they are finished, the twigs fall to the ground, providing fodder for mule deer, normally too high for deer to reach without a squirrel assist.  In the winter, Ponderosa cones are the main source of Abert food, since they don’t store acorns or hibernate, eat they must.

A single squirrel tends to return to one tree year after year and can cause defoliation. Abert squirrels eat almost exclusively Ponderosa pine shoots and cones, but they provide a great benefit to them through a cooperating third party, ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungi.  EM fungi strands act as extensions of Ponderosa pine roots; they are a vital component of those forests, helping trees draw water, nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients into the roots.  In turn the fungus obtains needed carbohydrates from the tree.  A secondary source of food for Abert squirrels is the fruiting body of EM fungi. Passing through the squirrel, the spores survive, spreading the fungi crucial to other Ponderosa’s existence. So the next time someone tells you that someone else is as useless as squirrel poop, you now have a rebuttal. This three way symbiosis is another of nature’s wonders.  Many examples of inextricably entwined animal to plant or plant to plant cooperatives are indispensable to the varied ecosystems that make up our planet’s living things. Abert squirrels aren’t just cute; they are metaphors for the complexity and dynamic interdependence so essential to the survival of all life here.

“No matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all the salient facts about any one of them.” “Essays on Conservation from Round River” Aldo Leopold.

Beside our main objective, the Grand Canyon, we took some side trips from Flagstaff. One was to Walnut Creek Canyon with its pueblos occupied, then abandoned a thousand years ago by the Sinagua, a pre-Columbian people who flourished from approximately 700 AD to 1500 AD. A Western branch of the Anasazi people, they contributed to the genetic and cultural make up of modern day Hopi.  Their name for themselves is still lost, but anthropologists named them “Sinagua,” Spanish for “without water.”

IMG_0260Walnut Creek Canyon is a National Monument located less than fifteen minutes from downtown Flagstaff.  Approximately 600’ deep, its rim is at around 6,700’ elevation. Ponderosa pines along with our Abert squirrels are abundant along the rim.  A Douglas fir ecosystem is on the northern shaded slopes of the canyon; directly opposite on the sunny southern slopes is a completely different ecosystem typical of the high desert with prickly pear cactus, other cacti and yucca plants.  In its shady depths, near the creek are Arizona black walnut trees, for which the canyon is named.  Over twenty species of edible plants are there besides the yucca, walnut and prickly pear cactus, including wild grape and elderberry. The contrast of the shady and sunny sides of the canyon is startling.

Up on the rim, the Sinagua hunted deer, big horn sheep and smaller animals.  They learned to construct dry farming flood pits in which they grew maize corn, beans and squash, the three sisters of Native American agriculture. The biodiversity of the canyon provided them food, medicine and abundant building materials, with our old friend Ponderosa pine supplying perfect ladder and beam stock.  The Sinagua got by on about a gallon of water per person per day. We modern day Americans use about 150 gallons a day for all our purposes.

We have become remote from our planet, its complexity, its beauty, its wonder, its remarkable life, and with that remoteness given away something precious to our understanding of who we are.  Aldo Leopold wrote, “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim.”

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”  “Essays on Conservation from Round River” Aldo Leopold.

My friend Matthew gave me a transcription of Pope Francis’ general audience on World Environment Day in June, 2013. (Link to whole document)”Cultivating and caring for creation is an instruction of God which He gave not only at the beginning of history, but has also given to each one of us.”  He said that “cultivating and caring” for the earth entailed not only the relationship between man and creation, but to human relations as well – a human ecology.  Francis warns that the environment and other persons suffer when we heedlessly acquire in a “culture of waste,” sacrificed to the idols of consumption. His advice is concrete, achievable by all of us at an intimate level.  What do we eat?  What do we consume?  What do we waste?  What are our idols?

Pope Francis advises us to affect what we can in our daily lives and decisions.  Not a counsel of pompous self righteousness which can infect the “environmental” community; not a proud self aggrandizement, counting ourselves as enlightened and condemning others: businesses, governments, the rich, but possessing a calm confidence in doing the right thing each day:  achievable beginning immediately, human and personal. This does not mean we don’t strive to understand, to address and to improve local and even global issues, but that we start with today, with ourselves and with our families.

I’m not suggesting we revert to subsistence hunter gatherers, only that each of us more frequently simply goes for walks, if not in wild places, at least in the forest, along streams and the ocean, grows some things in our gardens so that we don’t come to believe that the only source of our food is at Whole Foods, and in those quiet pursuits, think about our origins, our journey and our purpose.           

“The wilderness will lead you to the place where I will speak.” Hosea (Come Back to Me), Gregory Norbet

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