Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Trace I Left Behind

This summer I spent several weeks in and around Lake Clark National Park doing research on trout, salmon, and char. 

Sometimes I get quizzical looks when I say that I, a philosophy and classics professor, am researching fish.  Let me explain.

I teach environmental philosophy and a range of classes in what I call "environmental humanities."  These include courses in environmental ethics, nature writing, philosophy of nature, and even a course on environmental law and policy for first-year undergraduates, as an introduction to being a university student. 

I also teach courses in field ecology, including a monthlong course in tropical ecology in Guatemala and Belize.  I teach in Greece over my spring break, and this year we will be looking at the expansion of fish farms in the Mediterranean and how fishing has changed there over the last six thousand years.

Closer to home, I teach and practice what Norwegians call friluftsliv, or life in the free air.  Whenever possible, I teach outdoors.  Most years, I take my ancient philosophy students camping in the Badlands National Park to watch the Orionid meteor shower while we lie on sleeping bags under the stars.

In all of this, my aim is to make sure that nature is not an abstraction to my students, nor to me.  I want to know the places the fish live, the grasslands the bison roam, the forests where the jaguar and the ocelot hunt, the tundra rivers where the Dolly Varden chase the salmon under the watchful gaze of the bears.

In other words, my aim is to stay in contact with wildness, and to do so in a way that allows me to take something valuable home: intimate knowledge.  I am not a scientist, so I don't bring samples back to a laboratory.  I do bring home photographs, and I do spend a lot of time making observations of the places I work, so that I can bring home notebooks full of writing to share with my students. And of course, I write books and articles to share with others.

This summer, I was sorely tempted to bring something else home from Lake Clark: a tiny fossil.  I had chartered a float plane to take me to a fairly remote lake, and there my fellow researchers and I walked the shore to the mouth of a stream full of spawning salmon and rainbow trout.

Salmon preparing to spawn

As I often do, I sat down on the gravel and started to turn over rocks to see what invertebrates were living there.  The salmon are bright red and eye-catching, but the bugs and spiders tell an important part of the story of a place, as Kurt Fausch has written about in his recent book, For The Love Of Rivers. Who was it - J.B.S. Haldane, perhaps? - who quipped that God has "an inordinate fondness for beetles." The world is full of wonderful, tiny lives that are easy to overlook.

I don't try to bring beetles home, but one insect tempted me this summer.  Really, it was just a trace of an insect, just the trace of its wings, in fact.  I can't even tell you what insect it was.  All I can tell you is that somewhere near that river, probably millions of years ago, something like a dragonfly died in the mud, and the river graced its delicate wings with the cerement of silt.  That silt took the form of the wings, those wings left a fingerprint - a wingprint - on the earth.  And this summer, I found that print, that delicate, wonderful trace.

Fossilized trace of an insect's wing

While my son and my friend and our pilot walked, I sat with that stone in my hand and thought about pocketing it.  Here I was in the wilderness, and no one would know.  It's one tiny stone in the largest state in the union; who would miss it?

Ah, but it is one tiny stone that does not belong to me.  It is one tiny stone in a vast wilderness that belongs to all of us, and to all who will come after us.  It is one tiny piece of rock with an incomplete fossil of a little odonata. The river there has held it and cared for it since time immemorial.

Now I am back in South Dakota, but a tiny trace of my heart remains along the strand of that stream in Alaska. It lies there, wrapped around that delicate trace of insect wing, and I will never find it again in that vast wilderness.

But perhaps someone else will.  Until then, perhaps it is best not to let Midas' longings turn our hearts to stone too soon.  Let's walk the shores together, I will continue to say to my students.  And let's bring something intangible home in our memories.  And let's do the hard work of leaving behind the beautiful, delicate traces that wildness has safeguarded for so many, many years.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Sentiment That Invites Us To Pray - Peirce on Prayer and Inquiry

"One of Peirce’s ongoing aims was to reconcile religious life with the practice and spirit of science. Given the great differences between religion and science—in both practical and theoretical terms—this may have seemed like a fool’s errand in his time, and even more so in our time.  The spirit of science is one of progress and fallibility, an open community whose only heresy is an unwillingness to seek the truth, while the spirit of religion includes a tendency towards conservative closure of inquiry and of membership. While Peirce acknowledged these distinctions, he nevertheless maintained that religion was not necessarily opposed to science.  Certain aspects of religious practice —and especially the act of prayer—exemplify elements of inquiry.  Rather than causing thought to contract and community to become less important, as is often supposed, practice in prayer may be a creative act, like poetry, that can in fact lead to greater understanding of the world and of one’s place in it.  At its best, prayer arises from an instinct or from a sentiment, and it affords comfort, strength, and—perhaps most importantly—insight into the nature of the world...."

Read the rest here, in the latest volume of the Journal Of Scriptural Reasoning.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Bluejay Linings

"Well, look at the silver lining!"

An accident two years ago left me with some injuries that occasionally keep me from doing what I would like to do.  I shouldn't complain; my life's pretty good. But even little pains seem to draw all my attention.  If my whole body is fine but I've got a blister on my small toe, I can forget the beautiful landscape I'm in and focus instead on the blister, or on the hiking boots that rubbed too much while I climbed a once-in-a-lifetime mountain.  A splinter in my finger gets more of my attention than my wife's hand in mine does. Even small pain can keep my mind from noticing great loveliness.

Occasionally, my injuries keep me from being able to drive. When I cannot drive I rely on bicycling, and then I see much more clearly how much my city has been shaped by the automobile. We have very few taxis, and not much by way of public transit.  Our city is in a place where land is cheap and abundant, and the sprawling grid of streets and of wide green lawns is a response to the availability of land: it's not a walking city, it's a city for driving.  There are some nice bike trails, but they're mostly an afterthought that are designed for recreation and not for transportation.   Here in Sioux Falls, the private car rules the road.

I own several cars, and my cars are also a response to the land here, and to its weather.  The open prairie can get very cold in winter, and very hot in the summer.  In my lifetime, automobiles have become better and better at insulating me from the extremes of weather.  I can drive a thousand miles without feeling the air other than when I stop for rest or fuel.  This usually seems like an advantage.  Sometimes I wish I could talk with other drivers, but we are insulated from one another, too.

A few days ago someone told me that having to rely on my bicycle is a gift, an advantage.  "Look at the silver linings," they said. When you bike, you get exercise! I think they meant to console me, and I'm sure I've said the same kind of thing to others, hoping to boost their spirits by pointing out that things could be worse. And I'll probably wind up doing it again in my lifetime.  It's so easy to feel insulated from others' pain, and so hard to know the effects of our words on others.  Argh. If I've done that to you, I'm sorry.


Last January, as I walked through the forest of Petén, Guatemala with my students, I kept saying to them the last three lines from Gary Snyder's poem, "For the Children."  Those lines form a sort of haiku at the end of a longer poem:

stay together 
learn the flowers  
go light

I keep returning to that poem. Some of the hills are hard to climb, and I know that some of them will give me blisters.  Others...well, someday those once-in-a-lifetime mountains will be climbable only in my memory.  

For now, I'm trying not to let the well-intended words about "silver linings" rub me the wrong way, and to take them in the spirit they're offered in. They may be awkward, but they're meant to help.  

From my three-wheeled vélo, uninsulated from the weather, I find I am also exposed to the sound of the birds.  I haven't learned all the flowers yet, and I'm still working on the birdsongs, but I know many of their voices.  In the last month I've learned where the bluejays live in my neighborhood.  I didn't know we had bluejays near my house.  I've seen them in our city, but only rarely. Now I've found two pair, and I'm starting to figure out which are their favorite trees.  As I roll along quietly on my recumbent trike, the birds let me coast past them, eyeing me perhaps, as I listen for them high in the treetops of this prairie town.

Friday, March 3, 2017

What's In A Name? Almanzo Wilder and El Manzoor

In her novel Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells why her husband was named Almanzo.  It's a story that she learned in De Smet, South Dakota, but it reaches back a thousand years or so, through New York, and England, to somewhere in the Middle East, where Almanzo's ancestor had his life saved by "an Arab or somebody" named El Manzoor.

It's worth remembering that act of kindness shown to a Crusader, by a man with a Persian name. The Wilder family remembered that act centuries later.  ("Manzoor" and variants of it are fairly common in Iran today. For example, the kind and brilliant former Director of the Toronto and San Francisco Operas, Lotfi Mansouri, was born in Iran and educated in California.) 

This story makes me wonder: how might I live my life in such a way that another family will be glad to remember me a thousand years from now?

You can read the full text of my short essay about Almanzo and El Manzoor in today's Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Since the essay in the Argus doesn't include my footnotes, here are the relevant citations:
  • The passage from the novel is from Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Town on the Prairie. (New York: Harper Collins, 1971) 198-199.
  • The passage from Laura Ingalls Wilder's letter to her friend can be found here: LIW to Miss Weber, 11 February, 1952. Cited in Ann Romines, Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. p.233. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

SPUnK: The Society for the Preservation of Unnecessary Knowledge

My brilliant and curious student James Jennings was interviewed by the brilliant and curious Hugh Weber on South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Dakota Midday

James is a Philosophy and Classics major at Augustana University, and he's also the Prime Minister of SPUnK, a campus group I advise at Augustana University

SPUnK - the Society for the Preservation of Unnecessary Knowledge - is devoted to learning about things we don't need to learn about, because we think unnecessary knowledge is worth preserving and promoting. We distinguish between those things students are told they must study in order to get a job, and those things that we study because there is delight in wonder, and in learning new things, even if we don't yet see their practical use.  As both Plato's Socrates and Aristotle pointed out, the love of wisdom begins in wonder, and we seek knowledge not for some simple or material gain but for the satisfaction of wonder and out of a desire to know. Here's Aristotle:
"Now he who wonders and is perplexed feels that he is ignorant (thus the myth-lover is in a sense a philosopher, since myths are composed of wonders); therefore if it was to escape ignorance that men studied philosophy, it is obvious that they pursued science for the sake of knowledge, and not for any practical utility.The actual course of events bears witness to this; for speculation of this kind began with a view to recreation and pastime, at a time when practically all the necessities of life were already supplied. Clearly then it is for no extrinsic advantage that we seek this knowledge; for just as we call a man independent who exists for himself and not for another, so we call this the only independent science, since it alone exists for itself."*
Or, as Charles Peirce once put it, science is the practice of those who desire to find things out.**

This is what SPUnK is all about.

James and Hugh will teach you about paper towns, curiosity, education, Abraham Flexner, Albert Einstein, Rubik's Cubes, and other unnecessary knowledge.  It's a short interview, well worth a few minutes of your time. Unnecessary knowledge is worth quite a lot more than a little of our time, after all.


* For two places Plato and Aristotle say this, see Plato's Theaetetus 155b and Aristotle's Metaphysics 982b.)
** Peirce writes about this in the first chapter of Justus Buchler's The Philosophical Writings of Peirce.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I Want My Religion To Be A Garden

Today my ecology advisee and I met while walking across our campus. Walking and talking, we ignored the formalities of her writing, and attended to the plants and animals around us. Soon we will need to return to the texts: to her reading and writing. But today we did that by attending to the garden around us.


I’ve entered a stage of my life where I am less concerned with the proofs and proof-texts of religion and more interested in the practices that I've inherited. Like William James, I’m more curious about the fruits than the roots. I want my religion to be like a garden. I hope it has good soil, but I’m likely to judge its health by what it produces.

Maybe this is why liturgy has come to be meaningful for me, just as poetry has. I know I won’t be able to command words forever, so I want to store up good words while I can. I’ve seen my elders lose their words as their minds age. I’ve also seen them retain their songs. Ten years after his stroke, as he was approaching the end of his life, Granddad couldn’t understand my questions, couldn’t remember my name, couldn’t say much about what he needed. But sometimes a spark of life would come to his eyes, and he would begin to sing. It was almost always a song he had learned eighty years before, when he and the twentieth century were both still young.

And there is deep wisdom in the return to ancient songs, and to ancient texts. Don’t return because you must but because you can.  Don't return to slavishly obey them. Return as heirs who hold up inherited keepsakes to the light and consider the relics of our ancestors. What made them hold on to this, to save this for us, to pass this on to us? What role did it play in their lives?


Some of the relics seem silly at first, but they are often palimpsests of signs, layered meaning upon meaning. The Ark is a nice children’s story – as long as you leave all the death and violence out of it – but it’s also silly. Who believes you could make such a boat of gopher wood, and carry in it so many species?

But then I reflect a little longer and I think: it may be silly, but it is also a story of what we do, and of what we must do. We bring floods upon ourselves, and we fail to plan for them, and we mock those who do. I no longer reject the story of the Ark as unhistorical; now I think: we need more Arks, for the sake of the future.  That is, I'm not as concerned with the roots of the story as with the fruit such a story might bear when I hold it up to the light. We need Svalbard seed banks all over the world. We need to make Arks of our gardens, we need buffer strips around our waterways so that we can make Arks of our oceans. We need national parks as Arks of refuge from our constant expansion. The world is not limitless, but we spend it like teenagers spending their first paycheck on a wild weekend, full of expectation that there is so much more to come, so much time for saving later on.

Some of the relics we've inherited are not things but rituals. I’ve heard priests joke that their job is to “hatch, match, and dispatch”: to welcome new lives into a community, to bear witness to new commitments, to help the community say goodbye to those we have lost. They joke, but we know there’s not much that matters more than these acts of love.

The ritual of Communion has become meaningful to me for a similar reason: love. Where else can I go to sit as equals with people from across the community, to take bread and wine with them, regardless of race, class, gender, income, age, or language? All are welcome, I am told, and I have seen it happen, if only briefly, on Sunday mornings. I admit it: I’d rather sip coffee, alone, with a book and some good music in the background, preferably with a good view of mountains, or water, or both. But I commit myself to this ritual of sharing bread and wine with strangers because I recognize that what I want and what I need are not always the same thing.

We need hospitality towards the stranger, philoxenia as the Greek language calls it, friendship towards those who are not like us. We need to remember that for some people “good Samaritan” was an oxymoron, since Samaritans were another nation who didn’t act like us, and who therefore could not be good. Then we need to become that oxymoron, and show such goodness to others that we give them the delight of learning that people like us can love people like them.

We need to cultivate a sense of awe, and wonder, if only because awe and wonder remind us that we are not the end of the story, nor even its beginning. We are in the middle somewhere, which means we have received an inheritance, and now it is ours to safeguard and to pass on to others.

We need to avoid making idols not because the idols are wicked but because once we focus our worship on what we have made we become worse than we were. Idols induce myopia. The shiny stones narrow our gaze, their brilliance blinds us to darker and gentler colors.

Money can become an idol, and because it produces money, work can become one of those idols, too.  We need Sabbath-rest. We need it for ourselves and for our workers and for every field we till. We’ll be told we are fools for not maximizing our productivity, just as Noah was told he was a fool for focusing on the short-term need to build a lifeboat.


Noah lived to be nine hundred and fifty years old, we are told. Maybe the focus on productivity is an idol, too. 


I want my religion to be a garden, a place where beautiful things can grow, things worth looking at for their own sake, as well as things that will nourish my family and my neighbors.  A place where I must return, day after day, to see how things are growing; to see what needs to be fertilized, what needs to be pruned, what weeds need to be pulled; to see what old plants still blossom, what new plants are springing up from seeds borne on the unseen wind.


My gratitude to Ed Mooney, who reposted this on his Thoreau blog, Mists On The Rivers; and to Lori Walsh of South Dakota Public Radio for asking me to read this post on Dakota Midday on November 3, 2016.  People like Walsh and Mooney make good gardening possible, and far more joyful.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

An Examined Life

Today is the anniversary of an accident in which I was pretty badly hurt.  As I said in a previous post, soon I'll write more about that injury and what it has meant for me.  For now, let me focus on the positive: I'm alive, and I'm slowly recovering. And I am grateful for what I have: for my wife and children, who have been supportive and patient as I heal; for my friends who were with me when I was injured and who got me the help I needed; for caring doctors, nurses, and physical therapists; for colleagues and friends who have gone out of their way to help me back to my feet; and for people near and far who have cared for me in small ways and large.  To all of you: thanks. 

Someone asked me this week, what will you do to commemorate the day of your accident? Here's my answer: today, I am enjoying being alive.  I went to the gym with a friend, I got vegetables from our CSA at the Farmers' Market; I spent time in the garden; and I spent some time thinking about what comes next.

Plato famously wrote that Socrates said "An unexamined life is not to be lived by a human being."  By that I think he meant that if we have the opportunity to examine our lives and we do not, we are missing something important.  I don't know if animals examine their lives (I suspect some do, but it's hard to know); and I do not know if God examines the divine life as we might examine our own.  Aristotle says in several places that it is human to ask questions.  The beasts don't know the questions, and the gods already know the answers.  We find ourselves somewhere between them; we have the questions, but not the answers.  To examine one's life is to attend to the questions.

So here is what I am doing, a year after my brush with mortality: I am asking questions.  I've heard it said that when you suffer a great loss, it's good not to make big changes for the next year. Allow the shaken world to settle again, take time to find your sea legs, and then, when you're feeling more able to sway with the waves, scan the horizon.  I don't offer that as good advice for everyone, but there seems to be some wisdom in it nonetheless: over the last year I've returned to it repeatedly when I feel restless, and it has helped me to have a calendar-plan.  When I feel like making a change, I say "Give yourself a full year." If nothing else, it has calmed the waters a bit, and given me ease of mind.

Two years ago I wrote another piece for this blog about my "twenty-year plan."  As I look back on it, I still think the stars I chose to steer by are good ones.  Now, as I examine my life, I am adding two things: a five-year plan, and a seven generations plan.

The five-year plan is this: the one-year calendar has been helpful, so now I am giving myself a five-year calendar.  I am eager to use my days and years well, so for the next five years I will continue to examine my life and to ask: am I using this time well?  I don't mean I'll be spending five years in omphaloskepsis. What I mean is that I don't plan to leap into something new, but to tend the tiller of my life, and to do what I can to steer the best course.  That's still a metaphor, I know.  Bear with me.  I'm still working out the details.

Some of the details are clear, though.  What I said two years ago remains true.  Here's what I wrote then:
* I want to be more in love with my wife, and to be helping her to be glad to be in love with me twenty years from now;
* I want to continue to learn new things;
* I want to live near my kids for at least part of every year;
* I want to earn what we need, and to be a generous giver to those who have a hard time doing so.
Now I have some things to add, but I will sum them up in this: I want to invest for seven generations.  That is, I don't want to be so focused on the urgent things that clamor for my attention that I lose sight of those things of enduring value.  Imagine designing a building, as Gaudí did in designing the Sagrada Familia, that you will never see completed.  Imagine building the seed-vault of Svalbard, something that you hope will never have to be used, but that is an investment in those who might come after us.  This is what I want to imitate; I want to invest my time and skills in things that will be a gift to those who come later.  It's not that I want a shrine to my name; I don't care about that.  It's that I want to leave behind something worth inheriting, even if I am forgotten by those who receive it.

So I have no big changes in store, but I have a star to steer by, one that's too far away for me to reach, but by whose light my eye glistens with delightful anticipation.  Let the examination continue, for the sake of living well now, and for all the years - and generations - that I have before me.