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.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Babel, in Paraphrase

Recently I have been wandering my city with a camera and sketchbook, looking at the ways our use and design of spaces speak about what we value.

Seeing often requires unhasty attention, or training, or both.  I can't claim to have training in architecture, but I am trained in semiotics, and I suppose some of my grandfather's years as a toolmaker and my father's career as an engineer have rubbed off on me.  Whatever the cause, I care about design.

The ancient story of the Tower of Babel (found in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Genesis) is also a story about design, and semiotics.

It's also a story worth unhasty attention. One hasty version goes roughly like this: everyone on earth shared a common language and common vocabulary. The people, moving to a new place, decided to build a tower to heaven, so they baked bricks and began to build. But they did not finish it; their language became many languages, and they spread out in many directions, divided from one another.

The Bible has a number of stories like this, short tales that seem to be making some simple and clear point.  But as we ponder them unhastily - which is what theologians often do - we become more aware of how little we know.  The obvious becomes the obscure, and the quotidien becomes mysterious.

A simple story becomes an invitation to slow down even more, and to consider.  Selah, it says to us.

At first blush, the story of Babel appears to be a story of human hubris, and of God frustrating that hubris.  It could be a simple parallel to the expulsion from Eden, or to the flooding of the earth in the story of Noah: there are limits, and if you transgress those limits, you will make your lot in life worse.

Lately, as I've slowed down my reading, I've been noticing something else: the bricks.  The Bible does not often talk about the ethics of technology.  There are passages that speak of things like the ethics of weaving, of sharing resources, and of the production, preparation, and distribution of food.  But there are not many passages that name a particular human invention in the context of ethics. One of those inventions is named in several places: bricks.

The passage in Genesis 11 talks about bricks as a substitute for stone.  When I was young I often worked as a stonemason and bricklayer.  That experience may be what draws me to this passage.  Bricks are easy to make, and easy to cut.  We can standardize them, which makes building walls much faster.

The downside of bricks is related to their upside: they're easy to break, or to cut, or to erode.  They don't last as long as stone, and if they're not well-reinforced, they are not as resilient against natural disasters.  Some ancient stonemasons figured out how to cut and lay stones that can be jostled by an earthquake and then settle back into position, but bricks often collapse when the ground shakes beneath them. Bricks are easy to use, but they are not as reliable as stone.  In comparison to many kinds of stone, bricks are a short-term investment.


This makes me wonder: what was the problem with the Tower of Babel?  Was it the fact that the people were trying to build a tower to heaven?  Or was it that they were trying to build one badly, or cheaply, or fast?  Was it a problem of hubris, or a problem of materials and design?  Genesis 11 does not answer that question directly.  It leaves it as an open question for us.

Which is just what we should expect, if Genesis 11 conveys any truth.  Think about this: how would this story have been told before the Tower of Babel was built?  If the story is right, then before the Tower was built, the story would have been told in a language everyone would understand.  But now that we have tried to build it (whatever that means) the story must be told in words that are confused, for people who are scattered and divided and who do not share vocabulary.

To paraphrase this: somehow, our use of bricks resulted in making it harder to connect with one another. And it's not clear how.

But somehow, it is a story that hundreds of generations have found worth repeating, even if our words fail to say with precision why that is so.

Maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the way we continue to build walls of bricks.  And what those bricks say about us, and what we value.


Since writing this, I started reading Christopher Alexander's book, The Timeless Way of Building, recommended to me by some friends in Sioux Falls.  This line in particular stands out as serendipitous:
"But in our time the languages have broken down. Since they are no longer shared, the processes which keep them deep have broken down: and it is therefore virtually impossible for anybody, in our time, to make a building live." (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) p. 225

Thursday, August 25, 2016

How Twitter Helps Me Learn And Teach

A colleague asked me recently how I use social media to reach out to current undergraduates. It seemed fitting to answer such a question online.

Social media thrive on brevity, so I’ll keep this brief, invite my colleagues (and others) to comment below, and let this social medium be a forum for this topic.

The short answer to my colleague’s question is that I use my social media accounts for two main purposes:
1) to learn about new work in fields that interest me; and
2) to post things that I think might help others learn something new.
Here’s an even shorter answer: as a teacher and researcher, I want to live in a way that’s worth imitating. I’m sure I don’t always get it right, but I aim to make my social media accounts an illustration of how I’m trying to do that; I’m trying to live imitably.

There are a lot of social media, and my kids and my students use the social media differently from how I use them. This is not surprising, since we have different aims, and most of mine are professional: to learn from others, and to teach.

It might be easier to show than to tell, so here are links to three of my social media pages, all of which are public. I’ll post the links with some brief comments; have a look at them if you’re interested, and then comment below if you have questions. (Or feel free to reach me on those accounts.)

1) Twitter 
I like Twitter because it forces me to be terse. Click the link and you can see what I post. If you create a Twitter account you can also see who I follow. There are several thousand people in academic philosophy on Twitter, and many others who study things I enjoy learning about, like sharks, and stars, and jaguars. Those I follow tend to post things that help me to learn more about what’s going on in my field. My hope is that students who follow me on Twitter will see something imitable in my curiosity and in my interactions with others.

2) Instagram 
I teach Environmental Humanities - topics like environmental philosophy, ethics, ecology, nature writing, environmental law and policy. I think experience is a big part of learning, and my Instagram account has become a sampling of my wonder and delight in nature (mostly invertebrates, lately.) I hope students who come across it will find my curiosity contagious. I love capturing light.

3) LinkedIn 
One of the great things about LinkedIn is seeing who is hiring. I don’t “connect” with people if we don’t already have another kind of connection, but I do connect with alumni of my school. When I see a job ad or professional advice that looks helpful for my students and alums, I re-post those things for their benefit.

I use social media in part because younger people do, and I like learning new things from a new generation. I also use these media in order to show students what I do.

So what do you think?  What questions do you have?

Saturday, August 6, 2016

A Pretty Good Year

Last year was a pretty good year.  Or at least, what I remember of it was pretty good.

As my regular readers know, I'm a professor of philosophy and classics, and I teach a wide range of classes. (You can click on the "Teaching" link above to see a sampling of the courses I teach.)

Often people assume that means I wear tweed and a bowtie and that I spend my time in classrooms talking about old books.  All that is true, but it's only a part of what I do. 

In fact, most of my favorite classrooms are outdoors, where I'm likely to be found wearing jeans and hiking boots, a parka, or a wetsuit and snorkel.

Over the last dozen years or so my teaching and research have tended towards the environmental humanities.  Think of this as the merging of the humanities side of the liberal arts with a close observation of the natural world. I consider my work to be a continuation of the work that Thales and Aristotle did when they paid close attention to animals on the ground and to the skies above, and of the work of Peirce, Thoreau, and Bugbee, all of whom let a rising trout or a solar eclipse provoke philosophical reflection.

While I don't work in an indoor laboratory, I think that education is not about the imparting of information or the filling of an empty vessel with ideas.  Education is the kindling of a fire, as Plutarch wrote.  And that fire is kindled by the kinds of experiences that we get in labs, art studios, shared meals, liturgies, study travel, and seminars.  Lecture halls are a fine place to discuss environmental policy, to be sure.  But so is a prairie, especially when you're waiting for water to boil on your camp stove, and watching the sun's beams break over the horizon and melt a light frost on your tent.

When I'm at home, I like to take my classes outside to sit under trees on campus. In the fall, I try to bring my Ancient Philosophy students camping in the Badlands of South Dakota where we can view the stars far from urban glow.  Most Januaries, my students and I are in the subtropical forests of Guatemala and on a barrier island in Belize, studying ecology and culture.  I rarely take a spring break, since I usually take that week to teach a course in Greece.  Last summer I started teaching a class on trout and salmon in Alaska. 

Those are all beautiful, memorable places, but I don't visit them as a tourist.  I go to these places because I want my students to understand what is at stake when we talk about environmental regulations and practices.  I want them to meet displaced people whose permafrost islands are melting or whose forests are being burned down for meager cropland.  I want them to see the disappearing mangroves so that they can consider the full cost of seafood.  When they stay in homes in Guatemala, my students will meet people who can never again be a mere abstraction; after we return, my students will know that the people struggling to cross borders are not nameless, faceless strangers, but people who are looking for ways to feed those they love.

A little less than a year ago I was finishing up a year that had brought me to all these places.  I taught in the South Dakota Badlands, in Central America, in Greece, and in Alaska. Along the way, I had begun studying environmental law at Vermont Law School as a way of enhancing my teaching and my research.  It was a good year, and as August was winding down, my desk was covered with field notebooks full of observations from Alaska and Guatemala, ready to be written up.  My field notes are usually accompanied by thousands of photographs, and hundreds of sketches.  I began the fall semester last year ready to teach, and ready to write.

Field Notes, Copyright David L. O'Hara 2016
Field notes. A picture of some of the work I do when I'm inside, and not teaching; or, if you like, a picture of my desk as I recover from my injuries. I have a lot of catching up to do.

And then I wound up in the hospital with some serious injuries.  Those injuries put a sudden stop to all my teaching last fall, and for a long time I lost most of my ability to write.  (I'll try to write more about the injuries and my subsequent disabilities later; it's not an easy thing to write about yet.)

Now, as this summer hastens towards the beginning of another school year, I am able to look back on last year with a sense of good fortune - albeit mixed with one very bad day and its long-term consequences.  Physically, I'm regaining my flexibility and strength, a little at a time. I'm not where I was a year ago, and I may never be there again, but I'm alive and able to walk, so I'll count that in the "win" column of my life's scorecard.  Intellectually, most people seem to think I'm doing fine, so I'll also count that as a win.  Although it left me exhausted each day, I was able to teach again this spring, and I plan to be back in my classrooms (Deo volente!) this fall.

But here are these field notebooks, and hundreds of unedited pages on my hard drive.  It was my habit to write daily.  Over the last year, recovering from a brain injury has made it hard to write more than a few sentences at a time.

This morning I was looking at some of my pictures from my research in the Arctic last summer, and I was hit with a feeling of loss. Those photos and those notes should be a book by now, and perhaps several articles and book chapters, too.  Instead, over the last year, as I have waited for my body and brain to heal, and as I struggled to do my teaching, I had no strength to write.

It feels funny to say that, but perhaps I am not alone in finding that a brain injury can be slow to heal and extremely tiring. I don't say that to get your sympathy.  I am blessed with a very supportive community and an amazing wife who somehow has kept our life together and nursed me through my healing process.  I'm fortunate.  But if you've read this far, you might consider whether there are others around you who look like they're doing well physically but who might be nursing invisible wounds or who might be struggling to cope with invisible disabilities.  This past year has given me a new perspective on that by making me aware of my own disabilities, most of which you won't notice if you see me at the gym or in one of my classrooms.

I might not be able to write another book yet, so for now, here's my plan: I'll write a little at a time.  Thankfully, I've got my notes, sketches, and photos.  I'll start with them.

If you're curious about how a professor of philosophy and classics does research and writing about nature - and how he works to recover from a serious brain injury - you might check out some of my recent publications.  My book Downstream is the result of eight years of field research on the ecology of the Appalachians, with a focus on brook trout.  On this blog you'll also find my recently published poem, "Sage Creek," which might give you a glimpse of my ancient philosophy class camping and stargazing in the Badlands. Or feel free to look at my photos on Instagram. Even when I can't teach in the field, I can still wander my garden with a hand lens and camera.