Saturday, December 7, 2019

Gracias, señora Orza

Estimada Sra. Orza,

One day when I was in middle school in New York you said to me “You’re good at languages. You should go to Middlebury.” I hadn’t heard of it before, and I had been planning to attend the cheapest local college I could attend, to save my family the cost of college. Then you handed me a brochure from Middlebury, about their summer language programs. A year later, when I was leaving to work in Nepal for the summer, you gave me a blank journal as a parting gift, reminding me that writing matters.

I haven’t seen you since then, and I haven’t been able to track you down to thank you in person, so I’m firing this out into the internet to say thank you to you and to all the other teachers like you. Why? Because you changed my life.

Three years after I last saw you, I drove to Middlebury to check it out, and I fell in love with the place. I sat in on a Religion class (a subject I thought I wouldn't find interesting at all) and learned more about religion in that single hour than I thought possible.

So I applied, and I got in, with a scholarship. I guess they thought I should go there, too! Over the next four years that college made it possible for me to study in Spain; to learn to read and translate multiple forms of classical Greek; to be exposed to history as more than names and dates; to study physics, and math, philosophy, and even a little more religion.

Looking back on those years now, I see that my whole career has arisen out of classes I took there.

And best of all, I met this amazing woman! I think you’d like her. Like you, she’s smart and sweet. Like you, she encourages me to keep learning. And like you, she’s fluent in Spanish.
We started dating in college, and we're still dating each other now, even though we're both married. I think you'd like her.

Far more than the classes, she has changed my life. So often it's the people you meet--and not just the things you learn--that change you. I'm grateful to have met you both.

So thanks for being a Spanish teacher in a middle school in rural New York. Thanks for putting up with all of us kids in your classes, year after year. And thanks for taking my future seriously enough that you thought that my life, my travels, and my studies really mattered. You saw all that far more clearly than I did back then, but over the years I’ve come to see what you saw, and I’m forever grateful.

Your loving student,


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

On Paying Attention To Bear Poop - My recent TEDx talk in Fargo

My TEDx talk in Fargo, summer 2019. It's about bear poop, and other things you don't need to know.

The allegedly unnecessary things - like bear poop, and poetry - are often the things you most need to know.

I'm grateful to my friend Greg and his team for making this possible. I had no plans ever to do a TEDx talk until I met Greg through some mutual friends. We were having coffee here in Sioux Falls a few years ago, and I said something about the ecology of fish and forests. It must have resonated with Greg, because when I was done, he said "You should come to Fargo to give a TEDx talk!"

Some of the best things happen when you take time to have a cup of coffee or tea with friends, or when you meet new people, or when you find some bear scat on a trail by a river. Each of these things can be the prompting of a new thought, the spoor that shows you a new path.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Commerce, Environmental Attention, and the Liturgical Calendar

Bighorn sheep in the Badlands National Park. The animals move together, responding to the land.
Lately I've been reflecting on liturgy, and especially on liturgical calendars.

By "liturgy" I mean the work we do together on a regular basis. The word "liturgy" comes from two Greek words that mean "the work of the people," and it usually refers to the rituals of worship in a religious congregation: it's the formula for when and how and where we stand, sit, kneel, pray, etc. 

Most religions I can think of have liturgical calendars that describe the regular cycle of rituals in a year. If liturgy usually refers to what we do when we gather for a holiday or a day of worship, a liturgical calendar organizes the year so that we know when those days occur. It usually gives a sense of the flow of time, connecting days to one another with some purpose: liturgical calendars connect
  • fasts with feasts, 
  • days of rest with days of labor, 
  • celebration with food,
  • the progress of our days with the progress of the skies,
  • remembrance with anticipation, 
  • rejoicing with mourning.  
By connecting the days, they don't crowd one another out. The fasting and mourning get their own unhurried time. They can be unhurried because they are connected to days of feasting and rejoicing. That is, we can mourn this week because we know that soon we will all cease our mourning for a while.

Watching the seasons change: autumn leaves make imprints in the ice on my campus green.

I used to think this was all silly, and a forced imposition on my freedom.

Lately I've been discovering that -- for me, at least -- the calendar's structure is a source of freedom from other calendars that don't help me to live well.

When I was younger I abandoned the liturgical calendar because I didn't want someone else telling me what days were holy. Why shouldn't they all be holy if I want them to be? And why should I fast just because someone else said we all should fast?

What I've come to see lately is that If we abandon the liturgical calendar with its times of feasting and fasting, the calendar doesn’t go away; it just becomes commercialized and turned into a calendar of constant consumption, constant labor. Feasting becomes purchasing; fasting becomes debt; and the two coincide with no time of rest between.

I experience the collapse of the calendar most where people like me have given it up and allowed others to co-opt it for commercial purposes. In simple terms, I experience it when I walk into a store in October and I hear Christmas music. All around me are ads telling me that my greatest obligation is to purchase things for Christmas, and to do so now.

This makes me want to shout: please spare me the Christmasy jingles, most of which drive me from your store. I like Christmas hymns, but the stress of being a cog in the machinery of holiday commerce has led me to appreciate the difference between Advent (a season of anticipation, of watching, and waiting) and Epiphany (a season of revealing, of celebration of birth, of discovery).

No one taught me this when I was young, but I've learned over the years that my tradition has different hymns for different times in the liturgical calendar. Now it feels odd to enter a pharmacy and to hear a hymn for the Nativity being played over the loudspeakers during Ordinary Time.

I used to think all that tradition to be nonsense. The older I get, the more I appreciate the thoughtful progress of a year, and the more I dislike the flattening of all days and all times into a yearlong, nonstop worship of commerce and toil.

We can't easily escape liturgical calendars, and I'm not sure we should. Even the birds of the air know when it is time to migrate, and they all have their liturgy of flight. The flowers know when to bloom, the salmon know when to spawn, the bears know when to look for the salmon. We humans used to know all these things, too.

Little by little we have lost connection to the liturgies that connect us to the land, the plants, the animals, the water, the wind, and the skies. When I ask my students what the phase of the moon is, it's rare that they know.

And I admit it is a wonderful thing not to need the moonlight. Running water, grocery stores, central heating, a solid roof, a functioning car, and many other modern conveniences are delightful. But they do come with costs; these good things are not free. They cost us money, which means we work more for them. And they have invisible costs, like the slow change of the quality of air in cities, the slow degradation of the planet's water, the slow loss of species around the world, the slow accumulation of things we throw away.

And then, when these slow processes pile up, we begin to notice them, and we begin to wonder: what have we done? We slowly gave up the liturgies of seedtime and harvest and replaced them with liturgical calendars in which all days are days of commerce and toil.

Which gives rise to new liturgies, urgent liturgies of anxiety. Look at what we have done, we say. With sackcloth and ashes we lament the fouling of our nest. As an environmental researcher, I see the fouling clearly and often, and I share that stress, that anxiety, that lamentation.

But if we replace the new liturgy of constant toil and waste with a newer one of constant lamentation over the toil and waste, we might wind up replacing one flattening of days with another.

Seedtime leads to harvest, and then seedtime again, with times of rest in between.

I don't know the solution, and I don't intend to argue for returning to some halcyon past. Nor do I plan to argue for the imposition of my chosen calendar on others. But I do intend to reexamine the calendar I inherited, to dust it off and see what I missed when I put it aside. Sometimes old ideas are still good ones; some old seeds can still bear new fruit. 

For now, what I propose is to mourn in some seasons, but also to rejoice in others. If there is mourning to do, it is also the case that there is still life to preserve. Each of these things--mourning and preserving, looking back at what is lost and looking ahead to what might flourish--calls for its own day. And each day calls for a calendar that can connect it to the other days in a way that keeps each day from dissolving into atomic time. Each day has some part of the whole of life. That part is worth seeing in its own day.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

On Living Imitably

Today I hope to spend a little time with a friend, talking over coffee. We're both busy, and we both have big aspirations. And we both have wonderful jobs in very different fields. Conversations like that are like tiny sabbaticals, moments of mutual support and reflection, time spent not getting ahead but noticing instead where you have been and where you hope to go. It is not the long hike but the pause to look at the compass and to take one's bearings. These things matter just as much as the walking, or maybe more.

Yesterday, knowing that I'd have this conversation today, I was in a reflective mood, perhaps more than usual. I was paying more attention to my daily life, I think. In the morning I taught a class on medieval philosophy. I spent some time moving stones in a garden on campus, part of a long-term project of making a meditative space for my community. I went to chapel. I met with a prospective student and her mother. Of course, I answered a lot of emails.

But one of the biggest things I did yesterday was I sat in my office with students and made them tea. And we talked about their studies and their lives.

Mugs in my office, waiting to be filled.

Tea is so simple: dead leaves and hot water. But the right mixture of leaves and water--and the right company--bring warmth to the hands and to the body; they deliver flavor and scent to the mouth and nose; they satisfy the gut in a remarkable way; they give a little stimulation of caffeine.

Perhaps most importantly, the tea, taken with another person, creates a moment. The moment lasts as long as the tea lasts, and then it moves on.

In those moments yesterday I talked with more students than I can quickly recount. (I have a lot of dirty mugs to wash when I get to the office today!) What they all wanted to talk about: how to live well.

One wanted to talk about her spiritual journey and her education, and how they meet and complement one another. Actually, quite a few wanted to talk about that.

Several wanted to talk about how to change the entire world, and to make it better for those who follow. That is, they had ideas about living sustainably, ideas that might be worth imitating, ideas that could grow and scale up.

There are times when I wish I had less paperwork to do, fewer reports to write, fewer exams to grade. (I'm falling behind in all of that, I admit.) And there are times when I wish I could seize the academy and just change it dramatically, because change in the academic world happens at a glacial pace. (And these days, the pace of glaciers is not hope-giving.) And of course there are times when I wish I had more money to give away, and that somehow the money I was paid corresponded to the amount of work I do. (Don't we all?) (Note to students: a Ph.D. in the Humanities is not a get-rich-quick scheme. FYI.)

Every year I think about leaving academics and starting up a business. When I am working for myself (yes, I've done so a number of times) I am also pretty happy. I like working with my hands, moving stones, writing books, guiding others through wild places. I like finding value where others don't see it, and then sharing that value broadly.

Today is not the day I will leave the academy, I think. Those conversations yesterday left me with the sense that while I could make a lot more money elsewhere, I am happy with the fact that I am making a difference right where I am. Maybe today's conversation will change that. In fact, I hope it will change me, at least a little. Good conversations should do that, just as pausing to look at the compass should change or at least verify the direction we are taking. After all, as I remind myself often: students are watching my trail, and some are following along behind me. The decisions I make matter for more than just my own life.

I hope today gives you a moment to pause, perhaps with a friend and a mug of something that warms you both, and with a compass that will help you to determine whether the path you are taking is worth continuing on, and imitating.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Perennial Thinking in Education, Ag, and Culture - Lori Walsh interviews Bill Vitek and me on SDPB

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting Bill Vitek at Augustana University. Together we taught a philosophy class and a biology class, he spoke in our chapel, and he gave a lecture on campus.

One of the persistent themes of his work is the connection between culture and agriculture: the two shape one another.

Image copyright David L. O'Hara 2019
A bit of prairie, with perennial grasses.

Another theme that is related to the first: we all eat, and we all think, and eating and thinking indluence one another.

A third theme: we tend to focus our thinking on the annual or the short-term, neglecting the perennial and long-term. having spent a few days with Bill, I'm now reflecting on what I find one of the most provocative parts of his work: what would it mean to shift from thinking of education as an annual crop to thinking of it as a perennial? Currently we begin planting at the beginning of the season, and we expect to harvest grades and graduates at the end of the term.

What if we thought of education in the way we think about caring for perennials? What if we considered school to be more like the planting of trees than like the planting of corn? Or what if we figured out a way (as they are doing at the Land Institute, where Bill is a collaborator with Wes Jackson - here's a link to one of their co-edited books) to give our annual crops perennial roots?

A view of the Augustana University campus, with historic buildings.

I have a lot of work and thinking and cultivating ahead of me, so I won't answer those questions here. If you have taken my classes, you already know how I have been working on this over the years (think of how I speak about grades and exams in my classes, for instance). And if you've read my books (like my book on C.S. Lewis' environmental thought, or my book on brook trout as indicators of both natural ecology and cultural ecology), you know I'm working on these ideas, and they will require long cultivation. I'm okay with that.

For now, feel free to listen to Bill and me as we are interviewed by Lori Walsh on South Dakota Public Radio.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Could a Robot Have a Mystical Experience?

My latest article, and my first on Medium: Can a Robot Have a Mystical Experience?

This is something I've been contemplating for a while, for a variety of reasons. It's not that I think that robots are about to have organic religion (that's not for me to say) but increasingly we are delegating small decisions to machines. We should prepare ourselves for times when machines will claim the right to make big decisions. The machines might be making such claims because they are self-conscious, but they might much more easily make such claims because it's easier to sell us products or political views when they come with the stamp of the divine.

It's worth linking back here to a previous post, if only to point out how helpful Evan Selinger, Irina Raicu, and Patrick Lin have been as I think about this. None of them should be blamed for my oddities or errors, but all have helped me to think more clearly.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Ants and Grasshoppers, Wasps and Cicadas

When the summer reaches its middle stretch and the temperatures rise the cicadas start to sing their mating songs. High in the trees they buzz and clatter, one of the perennial sounds of summer.

The Ant and the Grasshopper (or Cicada)

We’ve been thinking about cicadas for a long time. In his well-known fable, Aesop compares cicadas to those industrious hymenopterans, the hardworking ants. (Ants, bees, and wasps are all hymenopterans. Sometimes Aesop’s word “cicada” is translated as “grasshopper.”) Bernard Suits' book The Grasshopper reminds us of the timelessness of that comparison, and asks us to consider the place of play in a well-lived life. (Incidentally, there's a playful restaurant in Athens' Syntagma neighborhood called Tzitzigas kai Mermigas.)

Students of ancient Greek Philosophy will remember the cicadas in Plato’s Phaedrus. That text offers us a rare glimpse of Socrates outside the city walls. Cicadas hum loudly overhead when Socrates ironically declares that he is still trying to examine himself, and so he has no time for the cicadas’ sweet song. A little later on, Socrates (again, ironically) returns to the cicadas and suggests that their song is a distraction for those who would examine their lives in conversation with other people. (Aesop: Perry 373; Plato, 230b, 259a)

It’s no surprise to me that cicadas figure in these and other classic texts from around the world. Cicadas are both beautiful and mysterious to the young naturalist. Cicadas spend most of their lives underground. Late in life, they emerge and shed their exoskeleton. Their adult lives will be short, but full of singing, flying, and mating. Not a bad way to go, I think.

Cicadas can also be pests. Their noise can suck the calm out of a summer evening, and these subterranean tree parasites also suck the life out of trees.

The Myth of the Wasps

But it’s not the cicadas that interest me this year. Instead, I’m looking at the hymenopterans. Around this time of year another species emerges with the cicadas: cicada killer wasps (sphecius speciosus).

These two species have a lot in common. Like the cicada, the cicada wasps live underground for most of their lives; they become winged adults around the same time; and they die after mating. The wasps emerge from their burrows with mating fervor and haste. They move fast, darting and banking suddenly. The males joust with one another, constantly changing direction and speed. These are some of the biggest wasps we have, thick as a pencil and up to five centimeters long. They have huge eyes and long, black-and-yellow-striped bodies. They look dangerous.

They look dangerous, but they're not very dangerous to most of us.

Looks Can Deceive, For Good Reason

Contrary to their appearance, they don’t pose much threat to humans. My instinct on seeing huge, fast wasps is to run, or to swat them away. Evolutionarily, this is probably a good instinct. We fear creatures that look like they sting and bite because some of them can hurt us.

When I was a child, that fight-or-flight instinct was strong. Growing up in the Catskill Mountains, I learned to avoid snakes, spiders, and wasp nests, and to be on the lookout for larger predators like bears. One day when I was playing at the wooded edge of our lawn, Dad ran outside to tell my brother and me that one of the neighbors had just seen a bobcat nearby. We were small, and folks were worried. Would a bobcat attack a child? We all eyed the woods warily, and for weeks afterwards we distrusted the forest.

Fighting for Food Is Expensive

In my two decades of teaching environmental studies, I’ve come to realize that most of the creatures I encounter in the wild don’t want to tangle with humans. The wasps are interested in other wasps, and in cicadas. Like my father that day in the Catskills, the wasps are looking out for their families, and in doing so, they’re incidentally tending a garden from which other creatures benefit. As the name suggests, cicada killer wasps hunt cicadas to feed their offspring. By limiting the population of the cicadas, the wasps help the trees, which helps everything that depends on the trees, even the cicadas that survive and mate. Female cicada killer wasps paralyze cicadas with their stinger. Then they drag the cicadas into their burrows. The wasps lay male eggs on single cicadas, and female eggs on multiple cicadas. (The females grow bigger and need more food, so a female egg gets a bigger larder.)

A female cicada killer wasp won’t sting you unless you force her to. Grab her hard and she will fight back. Leave her alone, and she will leave you alone as well. Likewise, the stingless males might seem threatening, but they’re just looking for love, sometimes in the wrong places. The reason why they are flying so fast? They’re competing for mates, and they’re looking for a female who is ready to breed. All of those adults flying around right now will be dead in a few weeks; they’ve got work to do, and little time to do it. All of their children will be born in solitary burrows, lonely orphans. Their parents are doing what they can right now to make sure that those orphans survive. And so the cycle repeats itself. 

Why does any of this matter? 

First, I’m telling you a little about my work as an environmental philosopher. I don’t just study animal ethics and ocean policy. Much of my time is spent trying to observe the world around me. Like Thoreau and Aristotle before me I want to learn what I can about the lives I share this place with. Some of my research is done in journals and books, but a lot of it is done outdoors. I study salmon in the Arctic, I take my students diving on reefs and trekking through forests, and we spend time just watching the wasps and cicadas here on the prairie.

Second, I want to affirm that your fears of wasps and bees and snakes are natural and even reasonable. That instinct has helped our species survive and to care for our families, just like the instincts of the cicada killer wasps help them. There’s no shame in that.

Which brings me to my third point: the fears may be natural, but firsthand experience and liberal education can go a long way towards moderating those fears. The fears are limbic, buried deep in our genes and brains. But that should not satisfy us; we should take Socrates’ famous words about the examined life to heart, and examine the fears that constrain our decisions.

It’s reasonable to fear wasps in general, but the more you learn about wasps and bees, the more you’ll see that most of them want nothing to do with us. Think about it: we can kill them with a swat. We are giants in comparison to the biggest wasp in the world. For some hymenoptera, stinging us is expensive. Some bees die when their stinger is torn from their body. When wasps sting, they draw on their limited supply of potent toxins. Something similar is true of venomous snakes: it’s metabolically expensive for them to produce venom, and it’s extremely risky for them to attack something as large as an adult human. Most of them, given the choice, will avoid us. I see this in my fieldwork in the far north and the far south, too: many large carnivores like jaguars and brown bears would rather avoid me if they can. Animals, like humans, don’t want to spend more for a meal than necessary. 

(Of course, scarcity of food can justify greater expenditure of energy to make sure you have a meal. This is why, as the arctic is losing its ice, polar bears are walking farther and farther in search of food. This year several polar bears have been found an extraordinary distance from the ocean. Hunger can make migrants of us all.)
 This brings me to my last point: I’m not just writing about bees and bears, after all, but also about politics. The cicada killer wasps are a living parable, a fable with a moral. You and I have some prudent fears that are built into us.

It makes sense, on an evolutionary scale, to be fearful rather than trusting, and to avoid the unfamiliar. It makes sense to be wary of immigrants whose language, clothing, diet, cultural practices, and aromas differ from those of our friends and family. Likewise, it makes sense to be standoffish when you have had a bad experience with someone who does not walk, talk, or look like the group you most associate with.

Making fresh decisions costs us calories in mental effort, so we save our energy by limiting our social sphere. The echo chamber is comfortable because it’s an easy lift. Anyone who requires you to learn new vocabulary or new ways of thinking about love, family, politics, money, faith, recreation, food, or the other things that make up our lives is someone who costs us the energy we consume in making new decisions.

It’s tempting to look to simple technology to make our lives easier. It would be much easier to build higher walls, spray stronger toxins, create more information filters to choose our reading for us, and never to learn the names of those affected, as though we didn’t share an ecosystem.

As though we were not quite similar to one another. As though we did not all love our families. As though only some of us understood the value of hard work. As though we did not depend on one another. Kill the ones we have called the killers and be done with them.

But if we do so, we remove them from the system we share, and we leave a gap. Without the wasps, the cicadas lose a species that serves their species. If the cicadas multiply, the trees will pay the price. If we kill the wasps, we pass the buck along to the trees, and to everything that depends on them, including ourselves.

The Fable of the Bees, and the Examined Life

In Bernard de Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, he makes the claim that we are all driven by innate mechanisms and drives. Evolutionary theory backs that up, to some degree, but we’re not just machines.

We’ve got the capacity to examine ourselves, and to learn, and to make some changes. We might all be born with a fear of snakes, spiders, and wasps, but if we take the time to learn about them, and to learn about what drives them, we might find that we fear them less and welcome them more readily.

Could the same be true of our fellow humans who differ from us? For me, at least, this has been one of the best lessons of being an environmental philosopher.

Fellow Gardeners

Recently I was working in my garden here in South Dakota. Two male cicada killer wasps were feeding on the tiny blossoms that are just opening up on my mint plants. One of them, perhaps startled by my arrival in the garden, flew up into the air and bumped into me, then righted himself and flew off. The other sipped nectar and continued to hop around the garden. A moment later, the first one returned. He got over his fear and went back to eating. As they ate, they helped to pollinate the flowers, as so many bees and wasps do. My garden will bloom again next year in part because these “killers” helped me with my gardening.

I’ve also gotten over my fear, although it took me a lot longer than it took that male wasp. Little by little, as I’ve paid attention to the small creatures around me and tried to learn their names, I’ve come to welcome them as neighbors. I’m trying to learn their language, and to appreciate their culture. I’m glad to share the garden with them.