The War on Beauty

I was in grade school during the height of the cold war, the decade of duck and cover hydrogen bomb drills and Nikita Kruschchev pounding his shoe and promising to bury us. But what I feared most from the “red menace” wasn’t nuclear incineration. It was life in a world like the Life Magazine photos of Moscow: grey, cold, barren, and devoid of beauty. Two things brought this to mind recently.

The first was an article in the New York Times, How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution. Charles Darwin believed that animals “could appreciate beauty for its own sake,” and behave accordingly, in ways that far exceed the utilitarian requirements of survival and reproduction. Mocked by his peers, this aspect of his theory was neglected – until now. A new generation of biologists believe that “Beauty…does not have to be a proxy for health or advantageous genes. Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”

The other news that brought the barrenness of 1950’s Moscow to mind was anything but a delightful story of exuberant animals. It was an account of how, with open gates but furloughed rangers, some visitors have been trashing our National Parks. I was particularly saddened to read of the vandalism at Joshua Tree National Park, a place with great meaning for me.

Joshua tree cut down by vandals. NPS photo, Public Domain

Visitors have cut down trees, graffitied rocks, driven off-road vehicles over fragile desert soil, and camped under rare trees. Scientists say the Joshua trees face possible extinction by 2100 due to loss of habitat to climate change. In October, Park Superintendent, David Smith, told National Geographic, “We’re just in crisis mode right now.” The willful destruction during the shutdown is simply accelerating the destruction of a magnificent desert refuge the size of Delaware.

You have to wonder why, unlike in every previous government shutdown, the current administration chose to leave the National Park gates open even as personnel were furloughed. Were they simply stupid? Or was this a move that parallels their attack on so much else that makes life for the vast majority of us worth living: clean water, clean air, education, health care, and so much more?

Although Trump is not capable of strategic thinking, some of his puppet masters are, and I often wonder if they don’t want a world like the photos I saw of life in Moscow in the 50’s – a dispirited, sick, hungry, uneducated peasantry, obliged to work until they drop, for beggars pay at meaningless jobs.

James Hillman said the lack of beauty in contemporary public life is pathological. I would add that it’s part of a cluster of pathologies, that pass for sanity in minds of many of those with plenty of greed and lust for power, but no imagination.

A high school friend, a poet, didn’t hold back in a piece he published in the school literary magazine, with this description of our dean, which I’ve never forgotten:

His triple breasted chin,
arranged in folds upon his chest,
he blunts my life with a technicality.

During the ’60’s, a time of excess as well as exuberant celebrations of imagination and beauty, Phil Ochs, one of the best protest singers of the era, wrote a poem for the back of his last album, with a line that read:

You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty,
Ah but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.

That is a beautiful hint and instruction!

Who and What Divide Us?

Embed from Getty Images
A Camp Fire evacuee plays with an abandoned dog, Chico, CA, Nov. 15

Daily updates on the deadliest fire in California history are almost too horrific to take in. The Camp Fire, named after its place of origin on Camp Creek Road, has destroyed the town of Paradise. This is a beautiful part of California, just a few miles east of Chico where Mary and I once lived.

The ever-changing toll stands at 71 people known dead, more than 1000 missing, and as many as 12,000 buildings destroyed. Fifty thousand people have been displaced. Breathing the air for a day in San Francisco, 150 miles away, is equivalent to smoking 11 cigarettes. (1).

At the same time, stories of generosity emerge as vividly as the deadly statistics. A former NFL linebacker, who lived through the Santa Rosa fire, paid for three large truckloads of bedding and similar goods to be sent to those in shelters. Individuals and businesses throughout north state are doing what they can to help. There are stories of people displaced by the fire spending their days sorting donated goods to benefit others. Here is another dramatic account from the LA Times on November 12: Continue reading

An Avian Stray

The wounded magpie

Last Friday afternoon, I came home from various errands to find a magpie with a broken wing in the back yard. Seeming dazed, it was swung its head back and forth, as if its vision was impaired, and flapped wings in unsuccessful effort to fly. Then it would run, often in circles, falling over because its balance was off. The afternoon was hot, but the bird was fast enough to scoot away when I tried to set a water bowl nearby.

In the evening, I turned on sprinklers. As the sun got low, other magpies flew into the yard to peck at seeds or insects. The injured bird joined them to eat, but when they flew away, it made it’s way alone to a section of fence behind the cover of bushes. Hours later, when I took the dogs out before bed, I shone a flashlight to look, and the bird hadn’t moved. I wondered if the magpie, left behind by its tribe, felt something akin to loneliness.

I hadn’t been sure the bird would last through the night, fearing that injuries or a cat would finish it off, but in the morning, it was dashed around with more energy and coordination than the day before. I checked on it through the day, and that afternoon, was surprised to see it approach a squirrel that climbed down a tree in the shade where the bird was resting.

Magpie and squirrel

The magpie came close to the squirrel, who at that point, charged and drove it away, but this close encounter between two species I’d never seen interact before made me wonder again if the bird was experiencing something we would call abandonment.

We’ll never know, but such speculations can no longer be dismissed as mere projection or pathetic fallacy. I’ve seen numerous examples of this recently, including an article this week in The Atlantic, about an Alaskan Orca who carried her dead calf with her for 17 days:

“It is hardly anthropomorphic to ascribe grief to animals that are so intelligent and intensely social. Tahlequah’s relatives occasionally helped her carry her dead calf, and may have helped to feed her during her mourning…

The Lummi Nation, who live in the Salish Sea and also depend on salmon, have long understood this side of the southern residents. ‘We’ve fished alongside them since time immemorial,’ says Jay Julius, the nation’s chairman. ‘They live for the same thing we live for: family.’”

Our role in the magpie’s story came to a happy ending. We managed to scoop it into a cardboard box I’d drilled with air holes, and on Sunday morning, carried it to the Sacramento Wildlife Care Association, a wonderful organization that rehabilitates injured or orphaned birds and animals.

As I’ve said before, both modern physics and ancient Buddhist teachings agree that there really isn’t “a world out there,” out there.  The physical world we experience is what our limited senses configure out of swirling masses of energy and light. The meanings we experience are those we impute on a world that is far more dream than solid “reality.”

I never named the magpie for fear it wouldn’t survive, but in my favorite version of the dream, this bird, healed and nourished until it is strong again, will rejoin its fellow magpies, stronger than it was before, as a result of its time of trial and solitude.

Stories…again.

Pre-Columbian, Mexico. At Art Institute of Chicago. Public Domain.

Yesterday, at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s Club, someone asked what I blog about – an excellent question. Though it might not be obvious looking at eight years worth of posts here, it took only a moment to answer.

The constant thread running through almost all the posts here was stated like this by 20th century poet, Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

One area of fascination for me is the way both modern physics and ancient Buddhist tenets agree that our seemingly solid and stable world is anything but. “Out there” we have only complex patterns of swirling light and energy. It’s the same “in here.” Our limited physical senses give us an illusory experience of a solid world, and we make up stories about it. Many of them deal with simple survival: red means stop and green means go; every part of the oleander is poisonous; if you face the rising sun, north is left and south is right.

Of far greater interest are the stories individuals and cultures tell themselves about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing there. That’s where we get into trouble, by and large, as a glance at any newspaper will confirm.

I’ve never forgotten the account of a young boy, a fan of The Six-Million Dollar Man, a TV show in the late 70’s, that told of an astronaut, badly injured in a crash, who received bionic implants during surgery, which gave him super-powers. The boy decided to jump off the roof of his home, thinking that if he hurt himself badly enough, he might get super powers. He lived, but spent a long time in traction.

Stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and they can kill  individuals, cultures, and as we are coming to see, entire species.

*****

Last night the sun, through a brown haze, was red when it set. This morning, through a brown haze, the sun was red when it rose. When we left the house at 7:15 to take the dogs for a walk, there was fine dusting of ash on the cars. Though Redding is 170 miles north, and Yosemite almost 200 miles south, there is no way to forget that California and much of the west is burning in what has become a year round fire season.

The northern California fire chief said fires of this intensity are new, and sadly, appear to be a “new normal.” During a summer of worldwide weather extremes, the scientific community is united in saying climate change is not in the future – it’s here. At the same time several pastors have said that God is angry because California tolerates gay people.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and stories can kill individuals, cultures, and maybe our entire species.

If they could talk, what would the lead lemmings tell their comrades when the edge of the cliff came into view?

The White Snake – An Enigmatic Tale from the Brothers Grimm

Illustration for “The White Snake” by Walter Crane, ca. 1886, Public Domain

I once had a professor who made an extensive study of world folklore and said the greatest predictor of success for a fairytale hero is winning the help of an animal guide. Most often, the helpful animals are mammals, like Puss-in-Boots or talking horses.

“The White Snake,” a story from the Brothers Grimm, alters this pattern in startling ways. The helpful creatures are far more primitive, and the hero actually kills his horse – yet things come out right. The story has stayed with me since I first encountered it, as a wisdom tale centered on the theme of knowing the right thing to do at the right time, even when it violates norms and expectations.

Commentary on myth and folktales is a recent tradition that arose after the old ways of absorbing these stories, around hearth and campfire, disappeared. We can imagine earlier listeners holding the stories in imagination, letting the magic sink in over time, as we do with favorite novels and movies. This is a great way to experience a story, and we’re fortunate to have a good eight minute recording of The White Snake, accompanied by the text from the Brothers Grimm.

I suggest you read and listen to the story if you don’t know it, for the rest of this post will simply be my reflections on a few of the key questions The White Snake raises. Continue reading

Silence, Stillness

Wawona, Ca, Nov., 2017

If we have a bit of quiet time and pay attention at the turning of the year, we can feel a pause in the world and rest there.

It’s easier to experience this in the natural world, but what we truly long is a place of rest that is always available, unconditionally, a place we can visit any time, that won’t let us down. We only find this kind of refuge within.

Wawona, CA, Nov. 2017

Anam Thubten, a Tibetan Buddhist master insists that the simplest ways of meditation, though not easy, are are among the most profound:

“Try this. Pay attention to your breath in silence. Look at your mind. Immediately we see that thoughts are popping up. Don’t react to them. Just keep watching your mind. Notice that there is a gap between each thought. Notice that there is a space between the place where the last thought came to an end and the next one hasn’t yet arrived. In this space there is no ‘I’ or ‘me.’ That’s it.” (No Self, No Problem, 2009).

The “it” he refers to is the true nature of awareness – what we really are. The image given is the clear sky, unaffected by anything passing through it, just as clear, open awareness is not affected by any of the passing contents of consciousness.

Wawona, CA, Nov, 2017

Elsewhere, Anam Thubten gives this instruction: “Rest and let everything be as it is.”

Few of us can follow guidance like that without prior practice and the guidance of an experienced teacher. So what are we to do?

Wawona, CA, Nov., 2017

Chögyam Trungpa (1939 – 1987) was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teacher to settle and teach in this country. A master in the same lineage as Anam Thubten, he left us a practice for working with the breath as a focus for meditation that is both simple and profound.

We place our attention on the outgoing breath, letting any tension flow out with it. At the end of the out breath, we let go and rest. We rest without effort in the gap between out breaths, knowing that the in breath takes care of itself. This cycle of focus and rest, effort and letting go, will lead our thoughts and distractions to settle sufficiently to be able to follow Anam Thubten’s instruction and simply “rest and let everything be as it is.”

Wawona, CA, Nov, 2017

There are other ways to find the place of clarity and stillness within – this is one that works for me.

Wawona, CA, Nov. 2017

I wish you all a Happy New Year!

Wild Eating

animal house food fight

This post isn’t really about food fights in school cafeterias – some of us have matured (a bit) since those days.  Actually, the photo of John Belushi was a classic bait-and-switch, a ploy to draw you into a post about foods that are good for us.

At the end of November, I caught an interview on NPR’s Science Friday with Jo Robinson, an investigative journalist who specializes in science and health.  She discussed the way humans, since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, have bred the nutrition out of plants, and what the science of micro-nutrition has recently learned about optimizing our food choices.

eating on the wild side

The interview was a good introduction to Robinson’s bestseller, Eating on the Wild Side, and she led off with a discussion of corn.

Wild corn came with tough husks and only a few kernels per ear. It didn’t taste very good, but it was healthy, with 20% protein and only 2% sugar.  In contrast, modern corn has 2%-4% protein and sugar as high as 40%.  Still better than Ding Dongs, but headed in that direction.

At the core of this research are phytonutrients, molecular level nutrients that are natural wonder drugs.  Lab work over the last 15-20 years reveals that some phytonutriets increase resistance to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.  Unfortunately, they tend to make foods bitter, a taste we would rather avoid.

Taste hasn’t been the only factor in denaturing our food.  Carrots were red and purple until 400 years ago, when a group of Dutch growers, paying political homage to the House of Orange, used mutant yellow carrots to create the orange variety we know today.  Unfortunately, orange carrots have 16 times fewer antioxidants than red and purple varieties.

There’s good news on the carrot front; Robinson says we can find the older varieties in seed catalogs, and they actually taste better.  During the rest of the interview, she presented ways to maximize nutrition and the number of beneficial phytonutrients we eat.  Her suggestions included:

  • Eat the skins.  The skin of carrots of any variety contains half the nutritional value, so wash them but don’t peel them and throw the skins away.  Don’t skin potatoes before mashing them.
Blue Jade corn

Blue Jade corn

  • When choosing fruits and vegetables, a rule of thumb is the healthiest colors are red, blue, black, and purple.  There are exceptions, however, like artichokes, which Robinson says are among the best veggie choices.

  • Garlic really is a “wonder drug,” but it’s value depends on two substances combining after the cloves are cut or crushed, and one of these can be damaged if heated too soon.  The solution is to crush garlic then set it aside for 1o minutes before sautéing.

  • In one study three to four servings a week from the cabbage family (cabbage, broccoli, mustard greens, kale, and others) reduced the risk of prostate cancer in men by up to 60%.

  • Daily servings of Welches grape juice, made from Concord grapes, appears to improve the memory of seniors with early signs of Alzheimer’s.

  • The nutritional value of many fruits and veggies increases with cooking.  This includes berries, which makes berry pies and cobblers among the healthiest deserts.

***

Once, when I was younger, I lived as a strict vegetarian for two years.  At the time I was learning to meditate and tried out advice (which proved to be true) that a moderate diet and occasional fasting helps concentration.  My diet is different now, but I’m equally attentive to what I eat; my motive is overall health.

Wherever one stands on the issue of health care, no one can argue that the best way to stay healthy is not to get sick.  Next to quitting smoking and exercise, diet is a major behavioral variable we can tilt in our favor.  The effort is enjoyable to, in a mildly subversive way, like buying nothing on Black Friday.  In an era when the next big corporate move in fruit is patenting GMO apples that don’t turn brown, I find heirloom veggies like blue corn and purple carrots to be especially attractive.

Take a look at Jo Robinson’s website, eatwild.com; you’ll find it informative and inspiration.

***

PS:  Based on several comments, I’m adding links to possible sources of interesting seeds.

burpee.com:  For a long time, the seed catalog of choice.  Now online with info tailored to your climate zone.  I poked around enough to see that they have purple carrot seeds.

Heirloom Seed Companies: I found this link on Facebook. Haven’t checked it out yet, but it looks interesting.

Yule ~ The Beginner’s Guide To The Wheel Of The Year

Just in time for the solstice, here is another of Lily Wight’s wonderful “Wheel of the Year” posts, with beautiful illustrations and commentary on the Celtic and Nordic stories surrounding this ancient holiday. Enjoy her post and enjoy the return of light!

Lily Wight

Updated 18/12/2014

     There are four Solar Quarter Days (two equinoxes and two solstices) on The Wheel of The Year calendar.  Yule or The Winter Solstice is celebrated during a twelve day period from December into January.

     Yule commemorates the demise and rebirth of the sun’s powers because The Wheel continues to turn and daylight hours begin to lengthen again beyond The Shortest Day.

     The name “Yule” is thought to derive from the Old Norse ” jólnar”  – a collective term for the gods or “Yule Ones”.   Jólfaðr (Yule Father – interchangeable with All-Father) is one of many names attributed to Odin.  In Old Norse poetry names and terms for Odin are frequently synonymous with celebration and feasting.  Odin The Gift-Giver is undoubtedly the origin of our Santa Claus.

     The Midwinter period between the last harvest (Samhain)…

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