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.