Friday, May 22, 2020

Environmental Studies At Augustana - My recent interview with Lori Walsh on SD Public Radio

We have just launched a new major in Environmental Studies here at Augustana University. This week I had a chance to talk with Lori Walsh about this on South Dakota Public Radio.

The Augustana Outdoor Classroom, designed by an Environmental Philosophy class.
Prairie states are often (literally and figuratively) overlooked as "flyover country," but these states are the breadbasket of the nation. We need serious, broad, and interdisciplinary study of this place where we live so that we can sustain it for the long haul and become better ancestors to those who come after us.

Aldo Leopold wrote that "there are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm." Those dangers both add up to this: losing touch with the land and so with the very things that sustain our lives. 

You can hear the full interview here.

Strawberries in spring bloom. Do you know where your food comes from?

My thanks to Lori Walsh for being such a patient and thoughtful interviewer. In the past I've been interviewed while sitting with her in her studio. Phone interviews are new for me, and there's a little lag that has me talking over her unintentionally at the end. She rolls with it, unflappable and brilliant as always.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Philosophy of Liturgy, and Climate Grief

One reason I chose to teach a course in the Philosophy of Liturgy this year was the mounting grief I saw among climate activists. I've never taught that course before, but this seemed like a good year to start.

I admire Greta Thunberg for her passion and commitment. I similarly admire a number of my students for their constant concern for the environment. This world we share, “this fragile earth, our island home,” as the BCP calls it, should not be mistreated.

And it is being mistreated, by all of us.

The more you know about that, the more you feel as Greta seems to feel, and as Aldo Leopold felt, like someone who “lives alone in a world full of wounds.” In his book, Round River, Leopold wrote that

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. The government tells us we need flood control and comes to straighten the creek in our pasture. The engineer on the job tells us the creek is now able to carry off more flood water, but in the process we lost our old willows where the cows switched flies in the noon shade, and where the owl hooted on a winter night. We lost the little marshy spot where our fringed gentians bloomed. Some engineers are beginning to have a feeling in their bones that the meanderings of a creek not only improve the landscape but are a necessary part of the hydrologic functioning. The ecologist sees clearly that for similar reasons we can get along with less channel improvement on Round River.” --Aldo Leopold, Round River, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993. p.165 
When we hear of a single wound, most of us offer to help mend the wound. Most of the people you meet are, after all, people of good will, people who love their friends and families and who want the best for their community.

When we start to hear of more wounds, we react differently, wondering what we can do to protect ourselves from being wounded.

And when we find that there are wounds everywhere, it’s overwhelming. Some people react by plunging into grief. Seeing that the world is in peril, they wonder why no one else sees the peril, or cares about it. The problem is immense, the resources to cope with the problem are few, and lamentation quickly becomes fragile despair.

Others enter a state of denial, or of resignation. That’s just how it is, they say. It’s the price we pay for progress, and we can’t go back. There is nothing we can do but move on and hope for better solutions in the future. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we might die.

Thing is, they’re both partly right.

The world is in peril. And the wounds are too many for any one of us to heal on our own today.

A liturgical calendar can help. 

The Book of Ecclesiastes offers some helpful words: There is a time for everything under heaven. A time to heal, a time to rejoice, a time to mourn, a time to gather stones, and a time to cast stones away.

We need time dedicated to climate grief. This is like Lent, or Ramadan, or Yom Kippur, a time of fasting, of reflection on what we have done wrong, of repentance and turning away from our errors, of atonement. These are times for pausing to consider our lives and our connection with others. Lamentation of error is essential for learning to do better.

We also need time dedicated to hope. For every fast, there should be time for feasting. We need both the thin seedtime and the fat harvest. Just as we need to mourn our own ignorance and error, we need to celebrate the good things that are still worth seeking, striving for, and preserving.

Most people know the names of a few holidays. Few know the reasons for the holidays, or why they have lasted for so many centuries.

I’ll suggest that whatever tradition lies in your heritage or in the heritage of your community, take a little time to consider it. What rituals of fasting and feasting, of mourning and celebrating does it offer you? Religion is not without peril, of course, but it can also be a rich inheritance if you know what to do with it.

As you consider the liturgies you’ve inherited, remember that most ancient liturgical calendars follow the patterns of the heavens above. I don’t just mean that in some mystical sense (though there’s probably more there than we can easily grasp) but in the simplest sense: liturgical calendars follow days, weeks, months, and years.

It can be helpful to ask questions like these:
  • How can I begin and end each day so that each day has a sense of being meaningful? 
  • How can we begin and end each week so that toil does not become the pattern of every waking moment? 
  • What are the times of year that give themselves to fasting and mourning, feasting and celebrating, so that we can meaningfully reflect together on the real wounds, and lament together over what we’ve done; and so that we can rejoice together convivially, eating, drinking, and being merry in the wounds that we have worked together to heal.
Feasting and fasting, rejoicing and mourning, planting and harvesting. Each moment has its place in a life well-lived, and in the life of the community. Let's work on this together, and heal the wounds we can. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

On Religion And Robots

As we use machines to care for other people, we should also care about the principles that guide the way we make our machines. My latest article on religion and robots:

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.