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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Poem - "Sage Creek"

One of my poems was published in the latest issue of Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics.  It's a beautiful journal.  I hope you'll consider buying a copy, or better still, subscribing.

Here are the first few lines:
Halfway through the fall we drive west, far from urban glow,
To see the stars that we have never seen at home.

We go to the Badlands, at night, to the primitive campground
And listen to the coyotes singing from rim to rim
Of the valley where we are trying to sleep.
The voices of three packs rise like questions:
Who are you? What are you doing here?
You can read it all here.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Good Education Should Lead To Good Questions

"If we treat the contemplation of the best life as a luxury we cannot afford, seemingly urgent matters will crowd out the truly important ones."


"If the aim of education is to gain money and power, where can we turn for help in knowing what to do with that money and power? Only a disordered mind thinks that these are ends in themselves. Socrates offers us the cautionary tale of the athlete-physician Herodicus, who wins fame and money through his athletic prowess and medicine, then proceeds to spend all his wealth trying to preserve his youth. This is what we mean by a disordered mind. He has been trained in the STEM fields of his time, and his training gains him great wealth, but it leaves him foolish enough to spend it all on something he can never buy."

From my latest article, co-authored with John Kaag, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Read it all here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Martin Luther on Liberal Education

"Therefore, I pray you all, my dear sirs and friends, for God’s sake and the poor youths’, not to treat this subject as lightly as some do, who are not aware of what the prince of this world intends. For it is a serious and important matter that we help and assist our youth, and one in which Christ and all the world are mightily concerned. By helping them we shall be helping ourselves and all men. And reflect that these secret, subtle and crafty attacks of the devil must needs be met with deep Christian seriousness. If it is necessary, dear sirs, to expend annually such great sums for firearms, roads, bridges, dams and countless similar items, in order that a city may enjoy temporal peace and prosperity, why should not at least as much be devoted to the poor, needy youth, so that we might engage one or two competent men to teach school?"
-- Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” in AE 45:357 (1524) (emphasis added) A full translation of the letter is available here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Thoreau on Liberal Education, Wealth, and Freedom

“We seem to have forgotten that the expression "a liberal education" originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only. But taking a hint from the word, I would go a step further and say, that it is not the man of wealth and leisure simply, though devoted to art, or science, or literature, who, in a true sense, is liberally educated, but only the earnest and free man.”
 -- Henry David Thoreau, "The Last Days of John Brown"

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Giving Thanks In The "Damned Country": Stegner on "Antibiotic"

“’What a damned country,’ he said. Watching the river, he had not noticed the movement at the far corner of the garden below him, but now as he swung the glasses down he saw there one of the ragged, black-robed boys who raked and sprinkled the paths every day….He stood up, and Chapman stepped back, not to be caught watching, but the boy only pulled on his robe again. Then he knelt once more on the rug of his turban and bowed himself in prayer towards the east…..The praying boy was not pathetic or repulsive or ridiculous. His every move was assured, completely natural. His touching of the earth with his forehead made Chapman want somehow to lay a hand on his bent back. They have more death than we do, Chapman thought. Whatever he is praying to has more death in it than anything we know. Maybe it had more life too. Suppose he had sent up a prayer of thanksgiving a little while ago when he found his son out of danger? He had been doing something like praying all night, praying to modern medicine, propitiating science, purifying himself with germicides, placating the germ theory of disease. But suppose he had prayed in thanksgiving, where would he have directed his prayer? Not to God, not to Allah, not to the Nile or any of its creature-gods or the deities of light. To some laboratory technician in a white coat. To the Antibiotic God. For the first time it occurred to him what the word ‘antibiotic’ really meant.” 

--Wallace Stegner, “The City Of The Living,” in Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991) 524-5. (Boldface emphasis is mine.)

"We live in the Antibiotic Age, and Antibiotic means literally 'against life'. We had better not be against life. That is the way to become as extinct as the dinosaurs. And if, as the population experts were guessing in November 1954, the human race will (other things being equal) have increased so much in the next three hundred years that we will only have a square yard of ground apiece to stand on, then we may want to take turns running to some preserved place such as Dinosaur….That means we need as much wilderness as can still be saved. There isn’t much left, and there is no more where the old open spaces came from."

-- Wallace Stegner, This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country And Its Magic Rivers. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955) 14.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

National Park Law - Knopf and Stegner

Those who would protect the Parks and Monuments must rest their case always on the organic law that created the National Park Service. Any attempt to change that law would certainly bring on an instant and nation-wide and wholly bi-partisan explosion of protest. The danger is not that the law will be repealed or changed but that it will be whittled away through special concessions and permits. It is necessary to bear in mind Stephen Mather’s wise warnings when an advocate of whittling insists that he intends to create no precedents. With the best intentions in the world, he could not help creating a precedent. His successors in office might not agree with him about precedents, and they would have to use his own precedent against him.

“The people, to whom the Parks belong, should be given the full facts on which to base a judgment, whenever the question of intrusion on Park lands arises. The people, as taxpayers who foot the bill, should also know, with fair exactness, and from a responsible reviewing body, how much a reclamation project is going to cost them, whether in a Park or not. [....]

“The attitude of Americans toward nature has been changing—slowly, perhaps, but inexorably. Fifty thousand persons camped out in one Park, the Great Smokies, in a single summer month of 1954. That same summer I spent a night at Manitou Experimental Forest, in which a near-by campground, run by the Forest Service and at that moment without a water supply, was expected to be used by fifty thousand people before winter. In 1951 Glacier National Park had a half-million visitors; in 1953 it had more than 630,000. In that same year, the last for which total figures are available, Grand Canyon had 830,000 odd, Yellowstone 1,300,000, and Yosemite just short of a million. Those figures are impressive no matter how you take them. They mean that what the Parks and Monuments provide and preserve without impairment is increasingly appreciated and increasingly needed by more and more millions of American families.”

Alfred A. Knopf, “The National Park Idea,” in This is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers, Wallace Stegner, ed. 91-91. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955) (Emphasis in boldface mine)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Slow, Important Work Of Poetry

At the time it seemed like chance that brought me to minor in comparative poetry in college.

Without having a master plan, over four years I wound up taking a number of poetry classes in four languages. Eventually I asked my college to consider them a new minor area of study. They agreed, and I graduated.

And then, slowly, over a quarter century, I began reading more poetry in more languages. It's always slow; I can't pick up a book of poems and read it like a novel. If the poetry is any good at all, I can read one or two poems, and then I've got to put the book down and let the words sit with me.

Often, I go back and read the same poem again, and again.

The very best poems I try to memorize, even though my memory for verse has never been good. I imagine most people would consider that a useless exercise, a waste of storage space in an already cluttered brain.

But in each season of my life I've found that it is some form of poetry that acts as salve to my soul's wounds or food that sustains its long journey forward.  Homer's long story-poems; old epics and sagas from Ireland and Wales and Iceland; Vedic verses and Greek scriptures; Gregorian chants that have echoed in stone chambers for centuries; Shakespeare's or Petrarch's sonnets; the Psalms and proverbs of Hebrew priests and kings; a few words put together well by Dylan Thomas, Gary Snyder, Tomas Tranströmer, or C.S. Lewis; or the timely phrases of some of my favorite contemporaries like Patrick Hicks, Abigail Carroll, Mary Karr, Wendell Berry, Melissa Kwasny, John Lane, or Brian Turner.  Each of them has, at some point, given me the daily bread I craved.

I can't seem to predict when the need will arise, but suddenly, there it is, and I find myself quoting Joachim du Bellay's sonnet about travel, and home:
Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage
Ou comme cestuy-là qui conquit la toison
Et puis est retourné, plein d'usage et raison
Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge
His simple words save me from forming new ones and free me to think and feel as the occasion demands; his words give utterance to what I find welling up inside me. His words change my homesickness into a stage in a worthwhile journey.  Here is a very loose translation of those lines: "Happy is he who, like Ulysses, made a beautiful journey, or like that man who seized the Golden Fleece, and then traveled home again, full of wisdom, to live the rest of his life with his family." We are pulled in both directions at once: towards the Golden Fleece and adventures in Troy, and towards the home we left behind when we departed on our quest.

That sonnet often reminds me, in turn, of verses about Abraham.
Consider Abraham, who dwelled in tents,
because he was looking forward to a city with foundations.
This longing for home that I sometimes have when I travel is itself no alien in any land.  We all may feel it in any place.  Everyone feels lost sometimes. Knowing that others have found words to express their feeling of being lost is itself a reminder that we are not alone. Hölderlin's opening words in his poem about St. John's exile on Patmos say this well:
Nah ist, und schwer zu fassen, der Gott
It does seem that God - like home and family and love and neighbors - is close enough to grasp, so close that we could meaningfully touch them all right now. And yet so far that nothing but our words can draw near.

I am no good at praying, but I often wish I were. I think the fact that we make light of prayer - both by mocking those who pray and by being those who speak piously of prayer but who do not allow ourselves to confess the weakness prayer implies - says something of another shared longing, not unlike the longing for home.  We long to comfort those far away when tragic events fall on them.  They may be total strangers, but we know how horrible we would feel in their place, and we know that right now there is nothing we can do to staunch the flow of pain for them.  But we can hold them in the center of our consciousness and, for a little while, not let any lesser thoughts crowd them out of our hearts and minds.  We can, for a little while, consider our lives to be connected to theirs.  We can, for a little while, ask ourselves what we might do to change the world so that this pain will not be inflicted on others.

Since I am not adept at praying, In those times I find the prayers of others buoy me up above the waves of emotional tempest.  The prayer books of my tradition - the various versions of The Book of Common Prayer - often transform my anguish into something articulate. Of course, we turn to that same book when a baby is born, when a couple is wed, and when our beloved are interred.  These events? We know they are coming, and yet it is not easy to prepare oneself, to be always ready for those days.  I live in a tent; poetry often gives me a foundation to build on, and the better I've memorized it, the stronger that foundation becomes.

Those words, buried like seeds, slowly come to bear fruit in my life.  Sometimes I wonder: was it really chance that brought me to the poems?

In the hardest of times, and also in the most joyful times, the words of poets are like a cup of water in a dry place. They refresh me, and they clear my throat so that I can take in that which sustains my own life, and speak other words, both old and new, that may sustain the lives of others.