Thursday, December 21, 2017

Teaching Tropical Ecology in Belize and Guatemala

Two out of every three January terms my colleague Craig Spencer and I teach a course on tropical ecology in Central America.  Right now I'm in the midst of preparing for our next trip there.

Sunrise on the Barrier Reef in Belize

In this post I'll try to answer some of the questions that we are often asked about the course.  Probably the most common question is "What do you do in your course?" The second most common must be "How can I teach a course like that?"  I'll start with the first question:

What do you do in Guatemala and Belize?

The short answer to this question is a lot. I'll try to summarize.

Our approach to tropical ecology includes the standard elements you'd find in any ecology course: our students read a lot about the ecosystems and the prominent species of plants and animals they're likely to encounter.  We teach them what we know about the systems we think we understand, and we tell them about the big gaps in our knowledge that we're aware of - knowing full well that we likely have blind spots we aren't aware of.

In Guatemala this means learning about the ecology of a dense forest growing on a karst plateau, and a deep lake where the water does not circulate much.

In Belize we study the mangroves and the barrier reef.  The mangroves are like a porous filter between salt and fresh water, like a cell wall on a macro scale.  They serve as a buffer against hurricanes; they keep topsoil from eroding into the sea, and they are a rich and colorful nursery for thousands of species.

The Importance of Human Ecology

We want our students to learn much more than the plants, animals, soil, air, and water, though.  Perhaps more than anything, we want them to learn the human ecology of the places we visit.  Ecology is not merely an academic study; it is, at its heart, the study of both the world and of our place in it. We don't just look at macaws, jaguars, vines, and ceiba trees; we look at the way our lives - even our visit to these amazing places - affect and are affected by these plants and animals.  We don't stay in hotels; we rent rooms in local homes, and we eat meals with local people.  We hire local teachers to teach us Spanish and the Itzá language. We study the history of the Itzá people, and we visit ancient ruins.  We walk through the forest and camp overnight with local guides who can teach us what they know of that place. We spend time playing soccer with a local youth group, we talk with and listen to local teachers, nurses, physicians, forest rangers, ecologists, NGO volunteers, government officials, town elders, and children.  If the ecology of the place matters, surely it matters because these people whose ancestors have lived there for so long matter.


The church in San José, Petén, Guatemala

In fact, even if you think they don't matter to you, if you're reading this post in North America these people do matter to you. If their ecology suffers, they will be forced to move to look for new sources of income and food.  Simple-minded and disingenuous politicians will tell you this is a problem to be solved by erecting a wall on our border, but walls are a partial solution at best, and at worst, they are blinders that keep us from seeing the source of the problem; walls ignore the real illness and conceal the symptoms, as though willful ignorance were good medicine.  The real question - in my mind, anyway - is why anyone who lived on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá would ever want to leave.  The answer is that people leave beautiful homes when those homes cease to be liveable.  Which means the medicine that is needed is one that treats the illness itself, and not just the symptoms.  My students (I hope) return from our course no longer able to see Guatemalan immigrants to the United States as a mere abstraction.  Break bread in someone's home and you will see that they are human, too, with lives as particular and intricate and important and rooted as your own.  Only when we disturb those roots and strip away the soil must the lives be transplanted.

This is what I mean by human ecology.

One of my students examining and being examined by nature

Where do you go?

Our time in Guatemala is chiefly in central and northern Petén. Until recently, the landscape of northern Petén was dominated by dense forest, mostly old-growth lowland forests.  Surface water is mostly wetlands that vary considerably from one season to the next. There are several small-to-medium-sized rivers, and small streams, but I think a good deal of the water flows underground in karst formations; the Petén has thin soil over a wide karst plateau.  There is not much water flowing on the surface.  In the center of Petén there is one very deep lake, Lake Petén Itzá.  This is a gem in the forest. Flying over it on a sunny day you can see the shallows fade from pale green to rich emerald, and the depths along the north side of the lake plunge to amethyst and dark sapphire. The lake has no obvious inflow or outflow, except a few small streams flowing in from the south and west, and a little creek flowing out in the east.

My students leap into Lake Petén Itzá to cool off.

In Belize we spend most of our time on one of the barrier islands that have no permanent residents.  We use that island as a home base from which we can boat out to patch reefs, mangroves, turtle grass beds, deep channels, and the fore-reef.  We snorkel with our students in all these places, slowly gathering experiences of similar species in diverse environments, so that the students (and we) can see both the ecology of small places and the web of relations between those small places. In mangroves, for instance, we might see juvenile caribbean reef squid that are a few inches long.  When we see them on patch reefs, they might be five or six inches long, and in deep water they might reach eight inches. Each location gives us a glimpse of another stage of their life cycle.

My students watch the sunset in Belize

Why do you do this? Aren't you a Humanities professor?

Even if people don't often ask me this, it's obvious that quite a few people think it.  Yes, I'm a professor of philosophy and classics, and I teach religion courses, too.  But for my whole life I have been fascinated by life underwater. My most recent book was the result of eight years of researching the lives of brook trout in the Appalachian mountains, and much of my research now has to do with ocean and riparian environments in Alaska.  I don't do much of what would count as research in the natural sciences, but I do spend a lot of time observing nature. This is both because I find it beautiful, and because I think it's a bad idea to try to formulate ethical principles about things I haven't experienced or seen firsthand. Of course it's not impossible to write policies about things one hasn't done; one needn't commit larceny before writing a law prohibiting theft.  But experience teaches me things I might not learn in other ways, and that can keep me from trusting too much in my own opinions.  As Aristotle put it,
“Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena grow more and more able to formulate, as the foundations of their theories, principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development: while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.” Aristotle, De Generatione et corruptione, 316a5-10 (Basic Works, McKeon, trans.)
I want to "dwell in intimate association of nature and its phenomena," and being able to formulate better principles is a nice side effect of doing so.

How Can I Teach A Course Like This?  Can others participate in this trip?

The answer to the second of these questions is both yes and no.  When I'm in Guatemala and Belize, I'm teaching. Unfortunately, this means I don't have time to bring others along and act as their tour guide.

However, the people I work with in Guatemala - the Asociación Bio-Itzá - would be happy to have you come for a visit. They're in the small town of San Josè, Petèn, Guatemala, right on the north shores of the lake.   And this is the answer to the first question.  Want to teach such a course?  Get in touch with Bio-Itzá and they can help you set it up. 

You can get to San José by flying or driving to Flores, then going around the lake by bus or car to San José, about a twenty minute drive. 

Flores, Petén, Guatemala

In San José they have a traditional community medicinal garden. Just north of town  is the Bio-Itzá Reserve, where you can go for guided walking tours or overnight stays. It's rustic and gorgeous. (Visits to the Reserve must be arranged in advance through Bio-Itzá.)

When you stay in San José you can easily take a launch (a wooden motor boat) across the lake to Flores, the seat of Nojpetén or Tayasal, the last Maya kingdom that fell to the Spanish.

Flores is a pretty place as well, and I like to take my students to visit ARCAS to see their animal rehabilitation center. (There's a great documentary about that place that was on PBS this year called "Jungle Animal Hospital.")

Scarlet macaws being rehabilitated at ARCAS so they can be released back into the wild

If you stay in San José, you can also take a short trip (about a half hour by car) to Tikal, or to Yaxhá, both of which are amazingly well-preserved Maya ruins. A little further past Tikal is Uaxactún, where you can see more ruins, and you can also visit a community that is trying to practice sustainable forestry.

This region is not like the tourist areas of Western Guatemala; it's more like the rural frontier of Guatemala, a long-neglected place that is now at risk of being overrun by slash-and-burn forestry, cattle farms, and oil development. It makes me think of the Dakotas over the last century; the population is small and indigenous, and most people in power in Guatemala seem to consider the forest to be a wasteland that is better burned down than preserved. I do not share that view, and while I know that more tourism will bring development and other risks to both culture and forest, the risks are already there in other forms. I hope that ecotourism will offer some counterweight to the other kinds of development that don't seek to preserve the biological integrity or cultural history of this place.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Butterflies In My Stomach

This week I’ve been helping a student with a lepidoptera project.  The project is hers, and she's not in one of my classes, though she did take the Tropical Ecology class I teach in Central America this year.
Kentucky roadside butterfly banquet. Can you see the little one?

Here is the danger of becoming a professor of Environmental Humanities: people begin to assume that you care about nature, and that you are willing to share what you know.

Both of these things are true, by the way. (Many of my photos of wildlife and nature are here, on my Instagram account.  I do care, and I am delighted to share the little I know.)


Over the years, I have come to love insects. This has come about partly through my years studying trout, char, and salmon, and of the places they live.  I've spent a good portion of the last decade walking Appalachian waterways from Maine to Georgia.  Over that same time, I've walked hundreds of miles through the remaining forests of northern Guatemala and Nicaragua. As both a researcher and teacher I've walked through the mountains of the American West; and I've made similar excursions to the foothills of the Brooks Range, the Kenai Peninsula, and Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. 

The fish that I love depend upon the insects, so, like so many people who gaze at salmonids, I have come to know many riparian insects.  

Once you study the insects along the streams, you start to notice the other plants and animals that depend upon them, too.  In Kentucky I have come upon a steaming pile of bear scat that was full of half-digested cicadas.  I've started to notice the wings of insects, left behind by the birds that only eat the fleshy bodies of the bugs they catch.

Butterfly wing, left behind by birds. Guatemala.

From there, it's not a big leap to realize that if the fish and the birds and the plants need the insects, then so do I.  Butterflies and other insects feed the larger animals my species eats, and they pollinate the plants that feed us. All of us have the actions of butterflies in our stomachs. Can you see the lepidoptera in this next photo?  There are quite a few of them, resting on the bark of this tree in Petén.

Gray cracker butterflies, Petén, Guatemala.

Little six-legged creatures feed us all.  The small things matter.

And so do my students, even if they're not currently enrolled in one of my classes.  

So in the past week I’ve gathered a few hundred of my best butterfly photos to share with my student. This photo is one of the worst in photo quality, but it’s a great image nevertheless:

Butterflies on the ground in Kentucky, 2008.

I took this nine years ago in the mountains in Kentucky while working on my book on brook trout.  Three distinct species of butterflies are gathered here, sipping minerals from the ground.  My coauthor Matthew Dickerson and I came upon this arboreal banquet by chance.  

I wish I'd had a better camera with me. For now, the blurry image is enough to bring to mind that memory of hundreds of lepidoptera sipping and supping together on the forest floor, filling their bellies with the bare earth before flying off to pollinate flowers that, through a complex net of relationships, would someday fill my belly too.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Wicked Problems in Environmental Policy

When I first started teaching environmental philosophy courses I used anthologies of helpful articles for my core readings.  These included articles about topics ranging from environmental ethics and philosophy of nature to animal rights, land ethics, and pollution. 

The more I read, the more I realized how hard it is to do more than a simple survey of problems in a single semester. From early on, I started adding narratives to my classes, using texts by people like Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Henry Thoreau, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Vandana Shiva. I've also included sacred texts and poems from around the world, because while many of those narratives and poems don't solve the problems, the form of writing they use makes them a flowing spring of renewable thought-provocation. 

Recently I've taken on an even broader approach to teaching environmental humanities courses by designing a course I call "How To Begin To Solve 'Wicked Problems' In Environmental Policy."

I won't explain everything here, because the topic is too big to explain in detail now, but I will try to explain what I mean by the title of the course.  

The previous sentence is a picture of what the course is like: there's too much to cover all at once; there are too many elements to explain to do them all justice in a short space; so it's often more helpful to begin the process and to keep it before you as an ongoing matter than to treat it as a simple problem to be solved with a simple solution.

This is the nature of "wicked problems," after all.  It's not that the problems are wicked or evil, but they are immensely complex, with many changeable parts or situations, and any solution that is offered will change the situation.  An example might help to illustrate what I mean.  Let's consider world poverty.  

If we take poverty to mean simply the lack of funds on the part of the impoverished, then it is a simple problem to solve (even if it isn't an easy one.) All you have to do is find out how much money the poor lack, and give it to them. If poverty were simply a lack of funds, then filling that lack with funds would be the solution. But this solution fails to ask what caused the lack of funds in the first place, or why it matters. And it fails to acknowledge that handing over money changes the situation into which the money is given. Economists know that economic predictions are not a precise science. There are simply too many factors at play in human economic systems.  As the 17th-century philosopher Mary Astell put it, "single medicines are too weak to cure such complicated distempers." [1] Some medicines have side effects, after all, and the same is true in economics, and in many other disciplines.

So how do I teach this course?  I start with some problems I understand too poorly and some narratives that I know will be incomplete, focusing on two places where I teach and do research: Guatemala's Petén Department, and the headwaters of the Bristol Bay region of Alaska.  In both cases, there is competition for certain resources, and the use of one resource can threaten or permanently impair other resources. 

I don't expect my students can solve these problems for other people, but they are problems I've come to know more and more intimately over years of firsthand experience of the regions in question.  So I tell my students stories about those places, and I try to introduce them (often by video calls) to people who work in those places.  I want my students to get to know as many different stakeholders as possible, and to hear their stories in the context of those peoples' lives.

You might justifiably ask: if I don't expect my students to solve the problems, and if I myself don't have the solutions, what justifies teaching such a course?  My answer is, first, that it is better to try than not to try, and second, that in looking at problems in which we don't feel a personal investment we can often learn to tackle the problems that are closer to home.

There's an ethical and political upside to this, too: once you see that certain problems are "wicked problems," you can start to see the ways that policy-touting charlatans try to pull the wool over your eyes. It is a very old political trick to win votes by claiming that wicked problems are simple ones, and that only you or your party can see the simple solution. This gives a strange comfort to voters who have been perplexed by complexity, and that comfort wins votes on the cheap, at the expense of humility, neighborly care, mutual struggle, bipartisan collaboration, and seriousness of thought.

I have more to say about this - some of it no doubt will be mistaken - but for now I'll wrap up this piece with a rough outline of what I propose to my students as a way to begin to solve wicked problems in environmental policy.  Here it is:  

1) First, identify the community of stakeholders. 
a. Do so for their perspectives, for their interests, and for their tools.
b. Ask: Who are the stakeholders?
i. Go beyond the financial stakeholders or stockholders. 
ii. Include everyone who affects, or is affected by, the policy under consideration.
c. Remember Charles Peirce’s idea: science is the work of a community, not of an individual.
d. Make concept maps, and use other kinds of visualizations of the problems.
i. This is a way of utilizing a broad range of tools. Don’t just use the tools others tell you are relevant; include the arts and the sciences alike.
ii. Drawing and sketching pictures will help you to see better. As Louis Agassiz said, “the pencil is one of the best eyes.” It is often better than a camera.
iii. Music, literature, poetry, and the visual arts may be just as helpful as the tools offered by STEM fields and policy-making professions like law.
iv. If you include the arts, you wind up including the artists; similarly, if you exclude the arts, you exclude the wisdom and insight of the artists.
v. Include ordinary daily practices. Learn to fish, even if you don’t plan to fish. Hike in the woods, even if you don’t like the outdoors. These are, in a way, practices of paying attention to the world.
e. Include other voices and texts in the conversation, not just the shareholders, but all the stakeholders. 
f. Define “stakeholders” as broadly as you can. Include a community across generations. Include the departed and the not-yet-born if possible.
i. Traditions might be full of wisdom, so don’t ignore them, especially if they are specific to a place. Traditions may be inarticulate wisdom that is tested by time.
ii. Plan for seven generations. I sometimes think of this as the difference between planting those crops you will harvest this year and planting hardwood trees so that they will be old-growth trees long after you are dead. Humans – and other species – need both kinds of plants. 

Bear scat along a salmon river, Katmai Preserve, Alaska

2) Second, fill your toolbox—and your community’s toolbox—with bear poop.
This is an inside reference my students will understand by the end of the semester, but I'll fill you in briefly: I take the time when I am in the wild to look at animal scat, because it is often a picture of what food is available to the animals, and that, in turn, is a picture of the problems the environment is facing.  Paying attention to scat over time gives you a long-term picture of changes to the environment.  Poop is a tool that is free, that is right in front of you, and that is easy to overlook as unimportant or distasteful.  Bear poop that is full of salmon bones tells me one story; bear poop that is full of berries tells me another.  I don't literally fill my toolbox with bear poop, but paying attention to negligible things like bear poop gives me new tools I wouldn't have otherwise. What does this mean for us?
a. Identify the community’s tools, perspectives, and skills, and seek to integrate them into a tool-wielding community. 
b. See the problem as broadly as you can. We tend to frame problems based on our perspective, so do what you can to gain the perspectives of others.
Emerson: move your body so that your eyes see the world from a different angle. 
c. Try to gain as many tools as you can 
d. Value experience and first-hand knowledge 
i. Go underwater – that is, look at the world in new and unfamiliar ways, from unfamiliar vantage points. 
ii. Travel – get to know the world differently, and get to know how others know the world. Don't just do tourism, but saunter, as Thoreau puts it.
iii. Learn the languages you can – even a little bit will make a difference. Words are tools, and they are lenses through which to see the world anew.
iv. Study “unnecessary” knowledge, and not just the knowledge others tell you is necessary – don’t let others tell you what tools are worth gaining. 
v. Foster your curiosity. Don’t let it die of neglect. 
e. Engage in labs, even in the Humanities – learn experientially. 

3) Third, have what Peirce calls “regulative ideals” 
a. Aim high, and have a direction. But 
b. Recognize that the direction will change; this is like taking bearings while navigating. You have to keep adjusting as you move and as you discover the landscape

4) Fourth, don’t expect perfection 
a. and don’t expect ultimate solutions. Expect that truly ‘wicked’ problems will continue to be problems, and that they will continue to change and to spawn new problems. Such is life. 
b. Instead, expect meliorism, growth, improvement 
c. Peirce uses some odd words to describe all this: tychism, synechism, agapism: chance, continuity, love. Someday, look these up, or ask me to define them for you. Vocabulary is a powerful tool.
5) Fifth, do expect growth, and strive to cultivate good things. This is the work of ethics.

6) Sixth, do expect to be part of a community that continues to work on the problems for a long time. 

7) And seventh, don’t give up! 

Of course it is possible to solve environmental policy problems apart from a community; once you’re no longer a part of a community, “policy” takes on a simpler meaning, and so does “environmental.” But merely redefining words—or merely divorcing yourself from a situation—doesn’t solve the problem. Rather, those decisions only blind us to the problem. This is satisfying our own irritation rather than satisfying the needs generated by the actual problem. 


[1] Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Sharon L. Jansen, ed. (Steilacoom, WA: Saltar's Point Press, 2014) p.65.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Ethics of Automation: Poetry and Robot Priests

Philosophy professor Evan Selinger posted a question on Twitter yesterday about whether there are jobs that it would be unethical to automate.

As I am a Christian, an ethicist, and a philosopher of religion, this is something I’ve been pondering for a few years: is there a case to be made for automating the work of clergy?

A German company recently automated a confessional. On the one hand, this might have great therapeutic effects. On the other hand, it raises a number of ethical, legal, and theological questions. 

In terms of ethics and law: who has access to the information confessed, and what is the legal status of that confession?  Is there anything like the privilege of confidentiality enjoyed by clergy who hear private confessions from their parishioners? 
On the theological and ecclesiastical side: can a meaningful confession be heard by someone who cannot sin, or does confession depend on making a confession to a member of one’s own community and church?  Can a machine be a member of a church, or does it have something more like the status of a chalice or a chasuble – something the community uses liturgically but that does not have standing in the deliberations and practices of the community? Another important question: can a machine act as a vicar? That is, can a machine stand in as a representative of God and proclaim the forgiveness of God as we believe those who have been ordained may do?

Despite the many weaknesses of religion, one strength of religion is that it moves slowly. Yes, this too is a weakness at many times, but it is good to move slowly when declaring sainthood, for instance.  That’s a decision that we should make carefully. Think about it like this: if we are saying that person X is an example of good conduct, shouldn’t we consider that person very carefully, from as many points of view as possible, and do so after that person’s life has ended and all testimony has been heard?  Similarly, most religious traditions take time to consider carefully whether someone should be ordained as clergy. In my tradition, we speak of this as the “process of discernment,” and it is a process that can take years, and that involves the whole community.  The downside is that this process is slow.  The upside is that it keeps us from making rash decisions, or at least it helps us to make fewer rash decisions. We aren’t perfect.

My first, gut response to Selinger’s question was that we should not outsource the writing of poetry to machines.  My concerns here are twofold: one has to do with the danger of persuasion: not much moves us as powerfully as poetry does. My second concern is about the importance of having out arts be the expressions of the heart of our communities. But I could be wrong: maybe robots should be writing poetry – their own poetry, from one machine to another.  I do not wish to deprive anyone of the right to artistic expression, nor do I wish to deprive envy community of the right to have its own forms of beauty. Still, I worry about the way a machine could be used to produce arrangements of words, sounds, and images that would persuade us to act as we should not.

My second response to Selinger’s question is related to the first: poetry is at the heart of most religions, and I find myself with a hesitant uncertainty about whether we should allow robots to be priests.

It’s not that I think we should be unwilling to automate the tedious parts of clerical work.  In fact, that might be a real boon to the community.  We have allowed automation in many areas that has benefited us: bank tellers and airline pilots have given up portions of their work to reliable machines, and the result has been convenience and increased safety. Why could a robot not also tend the sick and the needy, read to those in hospice, visit those in prison, and so on?  As I've written before, my wife is an Episcopal priest, and her work can be very demanding. There might be some parts of it that could be automated, freeing her up for other work that only people can do.

My concern is not about the feasibility of having machines do this work. On the whole, I’m in favor of it. But I do worry that if we hand over caring for others to our machines, we might do so to our own detriment. We should use the technologies we have to serve those in need. Of this I have no doubt.  But we should not pretend that in so doing we have done all that we must do.  I agree with Dr. King and Gandhi on this: we ourselves need to care for those in need. Caring for those in need is not a one-way transaction that serves only the sick and the poor; it is something that the powerful and hale need as well.

I have more to say about all of this, so this post is a too-hasty start, but I want to risk continuing Evan Selinger’s conversation rather than risk neglecting it.  Evan has raised for us one of the more important questions the current generation will face, I think.

For right now, I will end this post by returning to poetry and mythology, which is, as I said, a powerful resource for thinking about how we will act. We need poetry, and we need to reflect on it together to sort out the good poems from the bad. I’ll mention it here for your reflection:  J.R.R. Tolkien reflected on the poems of Genesis by creating his own myth of creation in the Silmarillion. One element of that creation story that my co-author Matthew Dickerson and I often return to is the story in which one of God’s creations imitates God in making more sentient beings, without God’s explicit permission.  Here’s the passage I have in mind:
“The making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.”
Might it be possible for us also to make sentient life in imitation of God "without thought of mockery," and, if so, might it be that those lives we make could write poems and become priests? As anyone who has read Tolkien's myth knows, this raises a new set of ethical questions that now have to be resolved.


Update, 22 May 2018: Irina Raicu just published a very thoughtful reply to this, entitled "Parenting, Politeness, Poets, and Priests" at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Her article is very much worth the time it will take you to read it.  You may find it here.

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.