Friday, December 28, 2012

Get Off The Mountain

Get off the mountain--
we are not wanted up there.
To climb is only an offense
to gravity, to the earth
and the sea which birthed us.

Feel this truth in your bones
with every heavy step uphill,
hear it with every pebble
skittering down the slope;
we are not wanted up there.

Even the sages have left,
back down to the valleys
where life is made, their only answer
to the seeker's many questions--
we are not wanted up there.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

What We Leave Behind

I picked up Derrick Jensen's book What We Leave Behind the other day. As always, I find him hard to read. I respect him for what he's saying, and I know he's just being honest and unrelenting in his condemnation of our ravaging civilization, but it's still very gloomy reading. He's definitely a glass-half-empty type of guy:
Back to this morning. I step outside, napkins in hand. I hear the birds singing back and forth, and I'm reminded of the ongoing destruction of the planet.
There's Derrick, being his usual cheerful self. Like I said, hard to read, though he's right on target and has a lot of good info. Especially the first part of the book, much of it about waste, garbage, feces, and so forth. The historical perspective was interesting, about how people viewed garbage (really, they didn't, since garbage was not waste, but a resource, and was utilized). Made me think about my own.

For starters, human waste. The napkins he's holding were for toilet paper, as he now prefers to poop outside in the forest. As I pondered, I remembered something I wrote long ago as a teenager:

I feel so cut off from the jump and flow of life. I am totally disconnected from almost every part of my life. I have never seen the plants or animals that produce my food; I don't usually even know what country they come from, let alone what specific farm or farmer produces them. I do not know where my water comes from, where it has been, or where it goes. I don't know the people who made my tools, furniture, clothes, or electronics, I don't know the trees, plants, and mineral deposits where the materials came from. They show our leaders on the television, but I've never met them. I do not know where my urine or feces goes, or what is done with it. And the heat for my house comes from fossil fuels I've never seen burned in plants I've never seen.  

I wrote that when I lived in Michigan, and it still applies today, in Florida. I've looked into some of these things, for this post, and learned about a few of them. For example, I know the water here comes from reverse osmosis plants pumping water from the aquifer under my feet. I could go see the plants if I wanted to, all three are in this very city. My garbage ends up in an incinerator -- pleasantly called "waste to energy" or, even better, "resource recovery" plants --  from which [some of] my electricity also comes. The sewage, hard to figure out, it seems that after treatment, the dried sludge used to go to a landfill, then Cape Coral started turning it into humanure, but something changed this year and I can't find out if they still do that or now send it to a landfill; all the newspaper links are inaccessible, and this article is ambiguous

So it's not that I can't find these things out, though some are rather more difficult to find than they should be. No, the real problem is that I have to ask at all. Shouldn't it be painfully obvious to an organism where it's shit goes? I mean, it's my shit, I put it where I put it; but we've built a system in which the shit doesn't stay where it's put, it goes somewhere, is acted upon by others. That's weird. Of course, it always was acted on by others, but those others used to be merely soil organisms, or maybe a hungry dog. And to not know where my water comes from? Or my food? This is a matter of grave concern, all of it. 

Because (I skipped ahead in the book) Jensen talks about fighting back. But I think he's deluded. On the other hand, this may be why he's so sad. Of course in the end people know the Earth supports them. But our experience (and Jensen even says this himself) is that water comes from a faucet, food from the supermarket, shit goes somewhere else. Everything is abstract. And when it comes down to that, one will fight to the death to defend it; not to overthrow it. No one is going to work to destroy that which supports them. Which is weird to say because that is what modern civilization is actually doing, but it's removed from experience, a mere abstraction. Our immediate reality tells us that to fight back is to fight against getting food, water, sanitation, and all the rest. 

Jensen quotes someone saying something like "do not have a revolution until you are prepared to eat rats." And this is the crux. One might fight back against a regime, or even a type of economic system, as they have done for all of history. But even the communists didn't want to destroy civilization, not even industrial civilization. This is a whole other order of problem which we are being asked to fight against. Something right down to the core of our lives. No one knows how to live without civilization, except a few pockets of indigenous peoples around the world. In fact, to overthrow civilization would be to doom billions to starvation and death, because you can't support that many without it. 

Which is tragic, because of course this is what the Earth needs most, an overthrow of, at the very least, modern civilization as it works now. I don't know if civilization in any form is sustainable, let alone if a high tech one is, as the techno-futurists fantasize. But we're going to hit limits eventually, probably soon, or maybe already. And that's going to hurt, and things will change as a matter of course. I've read that Native American civilizations like Cahokia, when they got overpopulated and teetered over the unsustainable cliff, just went back to hunting and gathering and small farming, having never lost the skills totally. They were never so many, or so estranged, that this was impossible; this is not true for us. 

The other tragedy is, of course, that of human dignity and self-determination. A man used to be his own sanitation engineer, by moving his outhouse now and then (actually, this isn't sustainable either, read this). He didn't have to delegate his power out to specialists and technicians. He grew or hunted his own food, drank from a local stream, which didn't need reverse osmosis plants, made his own clothes, tools and furniture, or knew the men and women who did. His garbage decayed and enriched the soil, and so was not garbage. His body would eventually do the same. 

I have to admit, I was especially irritated to not be able to find out where the sludge solids go around here. Here we are, mining the worlds soils of nutrients with our agricultural model, never adding anything back but poisonous fertilizers, converting it into feces, and then, where do those nutrients go? I hate the thought of them being stuck in a landfill, or incinerated (the ashes to go to a landfill), to mix with heavy metals and toxic chemicals (which they've already done in the sewers and incinerators). It's like taking the world's fertility, mixing it with poison, and burying it far from the access or use of any living thing save some extremophile anaerobic bacteria. Same goes for human bodies, for that matter. We're running 200 species extinct daily, stealing the Earth's productivity to make human flesh, then, when they die, soaking them in embalming chemicals for burial in hermetic concrete vaults. 

Madness. Madness. How can this go on?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Was It Worth It?

I'm reading Alan Watts' book The Supreme Identity again. It's one of his older works, and one of the best books I've read on metaphysics, because it is a very reasoned argument he makes, building up on some pretty solid premises. It's a pretty hard read, therefore, for both that reason, and the fact that he takes a lot of time explaining things, to try to make clear a subject that is inherently hard to talk about. I will also note that he wrote this while still an Anglican priest, and he admits in the intro that, because he was still "in the system" as it were, trying to match Vedanta and Christian theology, it is, perhaps, "somewhat torturous." Still I find it illuminating. Not a good intro to his writing, though. 

I'm on the part where he's discussing the Problem of Evil. I won't get into the arguments here, I haven't the time and it'd be better if you just read it (the whole book, that is), for I'm sure to ruin the argument in trying to simplify it here. But briefly, he argues for a God that, rather than being absolutely good, is the source of both good and evil (in the finite, relative realm), while Himself transcending both. Towards the end of the chapter he says something like how, from our limited perspective, evil seems absolutely terrible, yet, from the standpoint of the infinite, it is an integral part of the finite duality, and even the most atrocious acts are worth it, for the overall beauty of the whole Creation. He likens it to standing with your face pressed to a painting; stepping back, you suddenly see that those ugly shadows are what give shape, form, balance, and identity to the light and color.

Now, I talk a good deal on here about civilization and it's pitfalls. I've long sympathized with the Daniel Quinn/Ishmael position that civilization has been the cause of many of the negatives we see in the world today: war, poverty, starvation, disease, environmental degradation. These may exist at a basic level in all humanity, true, but civilization grows them to a scale unimaginable at that level.

So, has it been worth it? Much as we hate war and genocide, crushing poverty and tyrannical rulers, plagues and pollution and things like high art, advanced medicine, the internet and global communications, justify it? I have a hard time here. Human history has been a bumpy road, full of inhumanity and horrors that we in the West can hardly imagine, given our plush lifestyles. No living American has had a war happen in their own backyard, we really have no idea. Though there are systemic problems, the vast majority of us don't know true poverty, true starvation. These things are everywhere in poorer places, a vast suffering of masses of people. They would still be living at peace if it weren't for civilization, close to the Earth, in communities where no one is left behind. If it weren't for agricultural surplus, expanding populations, and urbanization, there could never be slums and shantytowns.

But I must admit it hurts my very heart to imagine a world without Ode To Joy. Whenever it plays, I feel like I want to burst with happiness, and tears often come to my eyes. Or Starry Night, by Van Gogh; my favorite painting. A perfect case in point, actually; the man, like civilization, was tortured and half-insane, yet look what came of it! Or, appropriate to today's topic, Edvard Munch's The Scream; a creepy painting, yet it stirs the soul. What about all the poetry, the great novels and plays, the elegance of higher mathematics? What about telescopes revealing the heavens, microscopes showing us worlds within? What about the rush of foreign money and help when a disaster strikes a place like Haiti? Before such a thing would be impossible, if ever we learned about the disaster in the first place.

One can narrow it down to religion, as they did in one of the Intelligence Squared debates. We all know of the bigotry, the crusades and jihads, the suicide bombers on buses, the gay-bashing and abortion clinic bombings, the strife in South Asia, the Troubles in Ireland. They are terrible. But religion has also brought us the stained glass at St Denis Cathedral, in fact all of the great cathedrals, mosques, temples, and shrines. Most of the art down the long centuries has been religiously inspired, if not overt iconography. And what about the joy and giving at Christmas, the pillar of Islam that requires charity, the ideals of love and brotherhood, compassion and kindness? It hasn't been all bad, you know?

Tribal equality is a wonderful thing, and clearly mankind evolved to fit that lifestyle. We certainly have problems squaring a tribal mind to a globalized world. Yet, we have grown, stumbling, into something more. Tribes are isolated, closed within themselves, extremely conservative and narrow. Today, we have ideals of universal brotherly love, individual freedom and innovation. Such things would never occur to a hunter-gatherer, because it is born out of the long march of history, which has slowly built upon our awareness.

Is this all we've become?
I'm also reading Lord of the Rings (I usually have several books going at once), and think of the elves in this case. Immortal, they watched as evil first came down into the world, and watched as many great and lovely things died or faded. At one point, Merry, a hobbit, states that he has never until this quest been outside his country, and, had he known the perils that awaited, he should not have had the courage to do so. Haldir, an elf, says in his reply, "The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater."

It grows perhaps the greater. The play of duality in the world is inevitable, and is what gives us joy and love, even if it also requires we know sorrow and hate. And of course, civilization is, and all this discussion is rendered moot by that fact. We are here, and there's no going back. Even if we had the deepest, darkest collapse from modern society, we would have the memory of civilization, would still almost surely continue agriculture, metallurgy, the use of animal labor, and other such advanced things. I doubt we could ever slide all the way back to the sort of natural tribal state that the Cro Magnon lived within.

I'm not sure we should want to, either. I've never been too sure about "spiritual evolution" but in some sense, we have in fact matured as a species. Many things have been discovered within ourselves that likely would not have been under the simple tribal conditions. We needed a more complex substrate, that of civilization, to bring it out of us. Emergent properties. We often do a lousy job exhibiting these higher things, of course. But they are there, waiting for each one of us.

To those of you who have read this far, I beg you to reply. This is one post I'd be very interested to have a discussion on, to hear your opinions and thoughts on the topic: Has it been worth the pain, to walk this road of civilization? Would we have been better off remaining stone age adepts, wise in a simple way, in tune with Nature? Or is it a good thing, in spite of all the hurt and horror, to have come this way, and to have found the more refined aspects of heart and mind?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

It Is What It Is

It is what it is. 

Man am I sick of this phrase. I used to joke that this was the most common five words on a construction site. Probably true. But I'm starting to think it less funny. It's actually rather depressing. What is this fatalism that seems to be sweeping the nation? Everyone is saying this, or things like it. I hear it in class, on the radio, from friends, and from strangers overheard in diners and coffeeshops. Everyone seems to be throwing up their hands at the world and saying, "there's nothing I can do." 

I heard a story on NPR the other day, about teaching strategies, East and West. Here in the West, kids are taught that smart kids are the ones that do well in school. In the East, kids are taught that it's the hardworking kids that succeed. An experiment was done, some years ago, where children from Japan and from American were given a math problem far above their ability. The Americans gave up after, on average, thirty seconds, saying "we haven't had this yet." The Japanese children worked on it for over an hour. 

We deride the East, saying they are robots that learn only by rote. Somewhat true, their creativity is less pronounced. But it seems that Americans are helpless without being told exactly how to do things. We don't work for things, we give up. They said it was because failure in the West is taken as a personality flaw, not merely a lack of effort or even luck. So when confronted with an insurmountable problem, we turn away. What has happened to us?

I said to my uncle that back after WWII, there was a surge in energy, a sort of collective testosterone rush after having won the war. We were invincible, unstoppable. Just as in any contest, the victors go home, full of optimism and pride, have lots of sex (baby boom) and build lots of things (suburbia, highways, etc). The post-war boom. Things got stagnant more or less in the 70s, and now we're on a downswing it seems. Oh, there's been GDP growth, but that means little, especially to the common man, who's wages have stayed stagnant for decades. 

I think the fatalism is a defensive strategy for this decline. Things are failing, and people are stepping back from it in a sense, as a way of insulating themselves from it. That's the way things go, they seem to say, and as it falls, they try to remain separate. When things slip downwards, there is no collective energy for doing things. It is a period of waiting, to see which way things are going. But to wait too long is to fail entirely. And anyways, insulating yourself from the failure of the world is to cause the failure of the world: if no one does anything to sustain, to build, to keep alive, then, it will not be sustained, built or kept alive! It's a positive feedback loop, also known as a vicious cycle. 

Not that it's all bad, this accepting of reality; in a way it is a good thing. In remodeling homes, a specific case, you see that there's nothing you can do about the shoddy work that went before, or the fact that the wall studs are warped. The baseboard is going to have gaps between it and the wall. You grab your caulk gun and go to work. But too often I see, even in myself, an unwillingness to go the extra mile, to put in the effort and time and care to make things right. Money rules the day, and working quickly in some ways trumps doing things precisely. The evil profit motive ruining things once again. Again with the baseboard: if the corner joints aren't perfect, even when the walls were, it's okay, caulk will hide it. You say things like, "good enough for paint-grade," "can't see it from my house," and "spackle caulk and paint make a carpenter what he ain't." 

True enough. In the end, we make it look good. And often, as I said, you just have to fudge things to make them work. A good carpenter is one who can hide his mistakes, they say. One must work with what is there, must be able to see clearly what is. 

Of course, for myself, very often I rage internally against the standards some people hold. They want their walls smooth and their woodwork perfect, even in an old house, every joint hidden, every nailhole covered, and so forth. The smallest defect, they freak out over. (They also want it done for next to nothing, and as fast as possible). I may not have the patience for finish carpentry. These Euclidian ideals do not square with the world, they do not follow the curves, so to speak, of the earth. Thus the old man wastes much energy picking every leaf off of is lawn, though more fall every day, and becomes bitter and obsessed. 

So in a sense, the fatalism is a positive response. We are awakening to the reality around us, seeing it clearly, and in a sense realizing that certain things cannot be altered, and do not need to be. We are tuning in a bit better to what's there to be tuned into, ditching these Platonic ideals for a more empirical reality. This shall be the birth of the new world, as the old crumbles. 

But that it is a fatalism, and not mere clarity, is what makes me think it is an example of a greater problem. We are getting soft. We have had it too good, been too insulated from real work and real things. We have fewer than ever people entering into the trades as apprentices. In 20 years, who is going to be doing the work that will so desperately needed to be done, as we recreate our society? Mexicans, I suppose; such work has always gone to the latest wave of immigrants, from the Irish, to the Italians, the Polish, and so on. Yet as goes the prosperity, so go the Mexican immigrants, I bet. I'm sure they'd rather be poor in their own land with their families nearby, than poor in a foreign place.

Even our wars, we are loathe to fight. The hoopla over the Benghazi attacks. We are fighting a global War on Terror, however misconceived, people. Do you really think there will be no casualties? Do the Taliban or al Qaeda, after a drone strike, freak out and lob investigations and controversy at their commanders and leaders? No. These are men who know what a war is. They know about suffering, they know about effort. They mourn their dead, and go right back to the fight. 

If we are going to fight wars, which I'm not saying we should, we should do it 100%. I agree with our military leaders in this. Clear goals, and support your commanders. If you can't do both, it's time to pull out. There will be mishaps, there will be pain, there will be death. If you can't handle that, don't fight a war. 

So while I'm all for recognizing reality, we need to ditch this phrase and the attitude behind it. We are not mere slaves to fate. Perhaps the government is corrupt, business self-interested and insane. Fine, but don't submit to it with fatalism. Fight! Build something new! We can't wait for the old to fall before we work to make the new, we must start now, with hope and energy. Otherwise we're going to be stuck with some dystopian future we really aren't going to like. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

One Night

I worked my way around the small pond, pushing the willow branches into the soft, damp earth along the margins. The world around me had fallen silent-- muffled, perhaps, by the dew already settling on the grass. The stars shone clear high above, the silky wash of the Milky Way spanning the velvet dark; and as I finished up, my eye was caught by a sudden light to the east. It was the moon, heaving its luminous bulk over the horizon like a revelation. It hung there, unreasonably still, as if this waning gibbous moon longed to remain, to hold on to what light it had left. But incrementally, it lifted over the trees, accepting its nature and the changes of time. 

Soon my backpack full of fresh branches was emptied, and I took to roaming the night, glorying in what I had done, ignoring roads and property lines as I strode across the soaking fields and lawns. Boundaries of all kinds were falling away. All my usual reference points were gone, swallowed by the dark maw of night,  and elation surged in me, my awareness sharpened, expanding laterally. The world dissolved into a mysterious enormity which I drifted through, a singular point of perception made whole, and joining with the rest, as much as my feet were soaking in the chilly wetness, and my lungs the misty air. 

Something had transformed the trees. Trees that, by day, seemed isolated and dwarfed by the spaciousness of these open fields, a place that was, in fact, former forest, long ago bulldozed. Now, under the cover of night, they rose up before me, looming against the moonlight, phantom spirits of the forest this land, in its hidden heart, even yet remains, though long held down by the mowers. 

They seemed to rise, physical manifestations of the very night itself, the growing soul of darkness itself. But not darkness in any evil sense, no-- dark only in the way of things unknown, unfathomed, but very much alive. One pine, as I wandered free over those fields, seemed itself to walk towards me, though of course it was I who, by no design of mine, was steering straight for it. A large, two-trunked pine, feathering dark branches out against the star littered sky, each needle singular in its existence, glistening in the moon. It was a silhouette of pure presence. 

It seemed to hold a quiet wisdom, a strong sense of knowing, and as I drew nearer, even seemed to hold the moon itself between the tongs of its split trunk. A living memory, random remnant from a bulldozed wood, survivor of wild storms and man alike, standing quite alone in a vast sea of undeveloped property. This tree remembered a different owner, and this, I knew then, in a way I cannot quite recapture now, was the tree-lord of this patch of ground, one of the sovereign sentinels who wait, wait... wait for the day the mowers come no more, ready to tend a fresh growth of seedlings, the someday lords of a forest yet to be. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Guerrilla Gardening

So, as I said in the last post, I'm realizing I'd like to work in a nursery or something, to have my hands in the dirt; merely designing landscapes or whatever isn't enough. But in the meantime, this past weekend I struck out into the world of guerrilla gardening. I've started planting trees. Trees are some of my favorite plants, because they often have that freedom thing going. Aside from some of the lower branches, they tend to grow as they will. They are impossible to ignore, towering over you. They are in themselves wildlife habitat. And, they live a long time, so planting them is a lasting effort. I could see myself becoming an arborist, a tree planter of some kind, maybe even a forester, but from a conservation angle. 

So, guerrilla gardening. I've been collecting acorns from the live oaks in the yard, and planted over 130 last weekend while house and dogsitting for my parents, mostly in a wildlife management area and in a bit of neglected, undeveloped land. I have also been planting willow cuttings. Willows are amazing because you can cut any old branch, stick it in some damp ground, and you'll get a tree from it. Their bark has loads of rooting hormone in it, and you can make "willow tea," and with it get cuttings of anything other tree to root and grow themselves.

For starters, let's just say that, though still young, I'm well on my way to being that weird, "eccentric" old gentleman stereotype (as much as you can stereotype eccentricity). I went out one afternoon to a drainage ditch by that neglected bit of land, where a few willows grew (specifically, native Coastal Plain Willows). Cut over 30 branches. I had to walk a half-mile back to the house, and watched as passing motorists slowed down to bend their necks at the weird guy with a huge bundle of leafy branches walking down the road, with more sticking up out of his backpack. I looked ridiculous. 

Later that night I made my stealthy way, dressed in black, out toward the park area in the middle of this partially developed subdivision, where there is a man-made pond. See, one thing I hate about southwest Florida is the lack of trees. It's all so newly developed here. Everything that isn't still pine forest looks bald and naked, literally scalped, and the houses just sit there, starkly dominating the scene. Horrible. So I'm working on remedying that. Also, I hate that a park has so few trees, and that this pond has no shoreline vegetation conducive to wildlife. The whole shoreline is just lawn and weeds growing a bit unruly beyond the reach of mowers. No reeds or cattails, even, which I find strange. May have to remedy that as well... 

But for the moment, I just started setting the willow branches. I put about 20 there at the pond, in select locations; another 8 or so along the ditch draining it, and the remaining 10 or so in another smaller pond that forms part of the ditch system. I figure they have a great shot at growing, given that the soil was all quite damp; and as we're heading into the dry season, if it's damp now, they'll be fine the rest of the year. 

So, this isn't quite "traditional" guerrilla gardening, which is to beautify neglected areas, especially in urban zones, or to plant food crops in the same sorts of places. Well, I think the delicate willow branches growing up there in the sun-baked park will help a lot, shading the waters a bit, sheltering frogs and minnows and birds, waving gently in the wind. That's beautiful in my book. 

I keep true to the guerrilla aspect by not asking permission, and plan to put in more trees when the time is right, probably oaks and pines. May make some seed bombs as well, though since the grass is mowed regularly it might be wasted there. I have wider plans for the trees I'm growing (I have a ton of acorns started in pots here at the house, as well as some found-seedlings). There are many places I'd like to plant acorns, but with the mowers, it is necessary to have an actual tree to put in, with stakes for a warning, or any seedling coming up will be mindlessly destroyed. 

And of course I'm still working on aligning my life in better accord with my new understanding. For now, this is a mere hobby, but eventually I know I've got to make a living this way. I just had to get started right away, in some manner, because who wants to wait, once they've figured out what they're supposed to be doing? 

(A note on seed bombs, for any who are interested: in sunny, drier climates, such as Florida in the dry season, or in the Southwest US, I hear that seed bombs made with clay may bake solid. Because unless it rains a good bit, to soften the clay, it will sit there in the sun, basically firing itself almost into a ceramic, and therefore becomes useless. I read that instead one can use a recipe of seeds, compost, and a bit of egg whites as a binder. These will come apart better when the rains do come.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Not very long ago I had a bit of a personal epiphany. I was over at my uncle's house, trimming his hedges. The sun was shining, but had just rained a few hours before, so the leaves were dripping wet. And as I went down the row of bushes, manually shearing off the excess, I realized that I really love doing this. The sharp yet quiet sound of the shears, the fresh coolness of the rain against my skin, and mainly, working with the plants. There is something about gardening that really appeals to me at a deep, soul level.

Seems like most of the other jobs I've had has been somehow anti-life. Certainly the home remodeling of recent times, which is hugely energy and resource intensive, very wasteful, polluting (with toxic chemicals), etc. Even retail jobs produce a lot of waste, and encouraging consumption doesn't quite appeal to me. Generally our economy is anti-life, speaking broadly, which is why we say it's unsustainable. This of course filters down to the lowest level, where everyone contributes to it.

I don't feel like I'm contributing anything positive to Life, not even really to the human world; I'm helping some investors make their unholy profits, and managing to feed myself on their scraps. If I were merely providing housing for people, fine, that's honorable; but we can all be real about this. No matter how used to them we are, our 2000 sq ft houses are wildly out of proportion to human needs. Unless you have a very large family, who needs such a big house? The way we arrange ourselves, everyone having their own room, typically at least 10'x10', it's pretty gluttonous in terms of space and housing. Certainly it is not the only way things can or should be. Indeed, humans evolved living in tents and huts, or large but communal long houses or lodges.

I visited, on my way to Utah last spring, some of the ancient pueblos in Arizona and Colorado. It is incredible how small those things are. The buildings seem large, but the actual rooms are claustrophobic, hardly enough space to fit a man's body laying down. Yet this is how they lived, for centuries, them and their families cuddling in these small spaces. Why do we all sleep separately (save for couples)? Why do we need so large a space for a bed room, where the chief activities are sleep, sex, and general rest? Many of our basic assumptions on this and other aspects of every day life are so clouded and myopic it sickens me.

It's the same thing with most fields of work these days: everything is tainted by the profit motive, even such basic and honorable things as farming and medicine. I've never been afraid of hard work, but I do hate knowing that my work has, inseparable from it, this threading of dishonor, the sleaziness of greed, corruption, power. Nothing is pure. This is the stuff Marx and Engels talked about. How can I really love what I do if I know that, even if I'm farming and feeding the world, I'm also poisoning the soil and rivers, or keeping livestock in barely livable conditions? I've never been able to find a fit for myself, because everywhere our system is corrupted, and I'm looking for truly honorable work.

With gardening, I am able to encourage and produce life; at least if done right. For example, trimming a bush doesn't hurt it, because it will just come back twice as hard. You can grow food and also build the soil and biodiversity as you do. In this there is still some true honor. And as I stood there in the sunlight and the rain-wet leaves, I realized that I need to be doing something with plants in my life. I'm almost thirty years old and I think I've found my calling, in general at least.

So I've been brooding on this a bit. Brooding is kind of dark sounding; call it musing, pondering. Trying to figure out which way to go with it, while realizing all the more how right this epiphany is. I mean, since I can remember I've loved plants and gardens. My parents say I used to play under the bean poles as a small child, they were like teepees, and even as I grew older I preferred being outside. I loved helping my dad in our massive flower gardens as I matured still more, propogating plants, helping design new plots, turning the soil, adding truckload after truckload of compost. Never felt like work to me. We'd smile and attribute it to our Irish blood, which makes us love to have our hands in good soil.

There was this one corner of the garden, it was my spot. It was a fairly large, lush bed on our side of the fence; meanwhile, the neighbor behind us had a big hedge, like a green and living wall. The neighbor to the side had let that part of his yard grow wild, as it was out of sight out of mind, behind his garage. There was a huge Norway spruce growing there, a good sized white cedar, tons of weeds, and a thicket of some kind of bamboo sort of plant, which spilled over into the yard behind him, also a forgotten place of decaying firewood and weeds. It's pathetic, because I'm talking about a very small area, but it was the wildest part of the yard, and I was drawn to it.

I know also that I've been missing having a garden for years. Every spring I wish I had a plot to put some seeds down in, and every summer and fall I simmer in jealousy at a few of my friends' pictures they post online, of their produce. Seems like every year, I'm not situated somewhere that I can do this for myself. Part of that is, of course, me following my other loves: camping, and, later on, hiking. Wilderness has always called me, but I'm realizing that maybe half of that call was the call of plants. To simply be in places surrounded by the vegetal world. The wild-freedom-call is another thing aside, and not to be ignored here. But plants... they are strange to me, mysterious. Living beings so far removed from my human experience that they rather baffle me. Alive like me, but mostly foreign. Their body form is different. Their senses are different. Their life cycles, different. Gardening is a conversation with this mystery. Even hiking in the forest is a sort of communion with kingdom Plantae, though it goes beyond that into general ecology too.

I think even the way I get all fired up over sustainability and permaculture and all that, is largely fueled by this. There are many good things to be done in those fields, and I'm not saying I'm purely all about the growing of plants. I'm fascinated by many aspects of sustainability, the basic philosophy of it, the science and ecology of it, and specific fields, like urban design, new building materials and methods, and new energy sources and methods.

But those will have to be for other people. I want to have my hands in the dirt, somehow, some way. My part in all this, I think, must be working with plants. I titled this "Gardening" but it could be anything: farming, working in a nursery, or as an arborist, or a conservation forester. I hardly know where this could take me.

Friday, November 2, 2012


I was going to write this big post to follow the ideas of the last one, but I just haven't had any focus lately. I jump around from one thing to another, can hardly sit still or stick to any one thing. So I think I'm just going to post this link to an article I read recently in Astronomy magazine (The official article is pay-only, but I found it posted in full on a forum). It sort of blew my mind. It shouldn't have, because the idea is latent in the concept of a Multiverse, but somehow it never had an impact on me until now:
It means the Big Bang was probably just a local event, a big to-do in the ’hood, confined to only the observable universe.
But she slightly misspoke. It’s not a very small percentage that’s observable. You see, any fraction of infinity is essentially zero. It means we cannot see even a few paintbrush strokes of the celestial masterwork. All we can ever hope to study is 0 percent.
That is just straight up amazing, in the original sense of being lost in a maze. I've been trying all week to work out the implications, but it's like my mind keeps sliding off the issue. That in addition to my general lack of focus. Where does it leave us?

Personally an infinite [and eternal] universe makes much more sense to me than one starting from one place at one time. That is to say, the big bang still makes a lot of sense, but not as the start of literal existence. I can see that it would explain how the current state of things got going, under these specific natural laws and in this specific form; but the whole getting something from nothing is kind of a deal breaker for me.

Also, as far as my metaphysical understanding goes, it jives better with that as well. This concept of knowing 0% doesn't refute what science has found. No. But it does allow for a deeper understanding. If the "Laws of Nature" aren't absolute across the wider multiverse, there's nothing to say they're absolute even here in our universe. Knowledge becomes relative, which is demonstrable regardless of this finding.

The easy, simple analogy is a dictionary. A dictionary contains all words, defines one word with other words, which can themselves be found in that dictionary. It rests upon itself. The Bible does the same, and so do the collected works of science. Internally, it works beautifully (well, not the Bible so much, which contradicts the crap out of itself). But the question is whether it has external consistency. A dictionary is great, but what ties it to reality besides its own circular logic? A dictionary of the Spanish language is also true, for example.

Likewise science, which does tie out to the wider world in most cases. This is why I love science, because it works from observation and facts. But from any given set of facts, any number of ways of connecting the dots (the facts) exists. Science goes for the elegant, simple theory. But a Rube Goldberg universe is possible too, full of horribly complex interactions causing things. And there is also the problem of spontaneous events, not replicable in a laboratory, plus the whole inner mental world which so far is completely beyond the Pale of the scientific method, being a materialist method (as it should be, mind you).

In the end, the good thing about an infinite universe it that, if truly understood, it would free us from the provincialism of ego and prejudice. Everything becomes possible, and nothing is sure. Our boundaries remain, of course, I am still me, the Theory of Gravitation is still the Theory of Gravitation... but now the backdoor is opened, connecting everything and erasing the isolation of a worldview that rests upon itself.

Some would say that is a horrible, insecure way to live. Like blindly flailing about in a void, with nothing to stand on. Me, I believe it is freeing. To know nothing is to stand in awe of everything. Who knows where that might take us?

Looks like I wrote a big ass post anyways. Oh well.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Great Blue Heron

I saw this Great Blue Heron, one of my favorite birds, out on my dock today when I went down to the kitchen for dinner. I think this can serve as a brief example of the sort of intelligence I was talking about in the last post. Because, typically you would expect to see herons standing in shallow water and weeds, hunting fish and frogs. Certainly it seems strange that he was standing in the open like he was, especially since I noticed him at 6 PM, and he remained there, essentially motionless, until 7:30 when I went inside. I sat on the balcony, hoping to see which way he would fly off, wondering where his nightly roost would be; but he outlasted me, as nature so often does. I grew tired of waiting and went inside. It was nearly full dark by then, and he'd been there at least an hour and a half-- who knows how long he'd been there before I spotted him.

What was he doing there? Definitely not hunting. For one thing, he was not in a good place for hunting: at least a foot and a half above the water's surface, not in the productive weed beds lining the shallows. Also, he barely moved for over an hour, hardly a twitch, aside from incrementally increasing the S-curve of his neck until his head was resting nearly on his shoulders. As dusk deepened, he did some slow wing stretches, similar to how I might stretch the muscles that lie across my shoulder blades. He also did a few knee bends, lifting one leg up, then the other. I thought he was getting ready to fly off. I think he was waiting for me to leave.

I wondered about predators. Certainly not many things prey on these the largest of herons. Possibly a bald eagle, but they prefer fish. An alligator might snap one up, but this heron was mostly safe from that, given the distance it is down to the water surface from the edge of the dock. A Great Horned Owl might take one, but probably not very often. Bobcat? Maybe. Coyote? Possibly. But this was the genius of the bird's chosen location. Not only was it far from any cover a stalking predator might use, but look at his placement. He set himself up right where the fourth tie-off post would have been, had it not been broken off. I don't think this was random or by accident.

One post, two posts, three posts, fo-- HEY!

To a casual glance, and in the growing gloom of dusk, though right out in the open this bird had in a way concealed himself within a regularity of his environment. This is intelligence of a certain manner. Not mere chance, nor the determinism of a genetic behavior. He probably didn't have to think about these things, but this intelligence isn't necessarily rational or lingual; more akin to intuition. Rational thought is just a recent layer of complexification of intelligence.

He wasn't ready to fly off to roost, was probably wanting to wait for full darkness, so no hungry eyes would see where he would finally bed down for the night. Most likely he was digesting a large meal. Often, birds feed just before nightfall, to see their high metabolisms through the night. I guess this one had gotten lucky with a large fish, or several smaller fish or frogs, and was content and satisfied for the day. So what did he do? He flew off to a good place in which to rest. He would have done the Buddha proud, as he faced toward the setting sun across the water, alert, but quiet in body and mind.

I suppose it's easy to discount all of this about inner intelligence. There are always two sides to any story or issue. Here, one could say the bird's behavior was the result of an inner intelligence, but one can just as easily say it is all genetic programming, just a dumb bird in a dumb universe. Sort of like the debate between materialism and idealism:
George Berkeley put forward the contention that nothing is real, in the sense that the universe exists only in our perceptions. When asked by Boswell what he thought of Berkeley's theory that matter may not, in fact, exist, Johnson kicked hard at a stone and stated, "I refute him thus!"
Johnson felt the reality of his foot hitting the stone, but Berkeley could say that he only perceived it, and cannot prove the reality at all. It goes round and round. I posit that both are correct. That is, there is the external view of science, which talks of the material evolution, but I also think there is an inward sense to everything, not just mere mechanics and behaviorism.

I guess the point is, I'm arguing for an acknowledgement of this "two sides to everything" fact. Materialism is not, in fact, the only possibility. It is ignorance to rule out the opposite position categorically; such a ruling out cannot be done, as it would have no basis in fact. This either-or thing cannot be resolved by choosing one or the other, the solution is to transcend the question by subsuming both in to a larger answer. This, really, is why, though I've been interested in both science and religion since earliest childhood, eventually this interest led me into metaphysics. I don't want just to cheerlead for one side, a relative understanding. Like all humans, I long for absolutes.

As Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido, said: everything—even mountains, rivers, plants, and trees—should be your teacher. And this is what natural philosophy is all about, what materialist science has lost, and what my next post, I think, is going to be about.

(By the way, the gator to the left of the frame in the second picture is, of course, fake)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Integral Thought

I've talked on here before about why I feel that science and spirituality must (and will) be reunited at some point in some way, but I was reminded of this issue recently by a Christian friend's Facebook post about a non-believer doctor who had a near death experience and came out with a more open mind on such things. I agreed with the general thrust of the argument he made. Science as it stands is, well, absurd, just as much as spirituality as it stands is often vague, ungrounded, and even willfully ignorant. Neither truly satisfy.

I want to explain why I call science absurd, because in general I know that science is the most powerful, accurate mode of exploring our physical reality. In fact, it is not truly science I have ever had an issue with, it is the materialist philosophy underlying it. The issue is that it says things like, the universe sprang from nothing. This is like saying heat comes from cold, or consciousness from unconsciousness (it says those things as well). But, cold is an absence of heat, or maybe more accurately, a form of heat, a negative measure or sense of heat. Likewise, nothing is a negative sense of something. That is, you can have the nonexistence of a particular thing, but you cannot have nothing absolutely. If you had nothingness, you clearly have something; the only way to have nothing is to not have it. It's all just playing with words at this point, the same way I can say "a square circle;" just because the words can be lined up or uttered doesn't mean that they have any sense or reality to them.

Then, take evolution. For the majority of those who don't believe in evolution, it seems the major deal-breaker is the evolution of man. They can, theoretically, if perhaps a bit uncomfortably, accept that animals, plants, and bacteria evolve, but, they say, what about the human soul? That requires special creation. I actually somewhat agree, in a qualified sense that I will elaborate presently. I see the word "soul" and think "consciousness, mind, self." And, when I think about it, how can human consciousness spring from non-consciousness? See, I could agree with the blind, stupid universe of materialist science if humans (and some animals, let's be honest) did not have consciousness and self awareness. It is theoretically possible that such a universe bumped itself randomly into atoms, stars, galaxies and life. 

But, consciousness exists, and therefore, I call bullshit on that idea. Because no one can figure out or even understand how meaning can come from non-meaning, how awareness could grow from non-awareness. The great mystery of how brain cells' electrochemical reactions somehow result in thought and feeling. And not mere thought or feeling, but the self-awareness of such. How does this arise through the evolution of an inherently unconscious world? Where did it come from, and how does it relate to that unconscious world?

The only solution that I see that is both subjectively and objectively acceptable is to grant consciousness to all existence, from the atoms to the galactic superclusters. It has been there from the beginning. At least on a basic, rudimentary level. The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin puts this in terms of the Within and the Without of things, and based a rather marvelous philosophy on the notion. Everything has an objective existence (that which is studied by science), but also, a subjective, inner sense. They are two perspectives, or properties, of existence. I might put it this way: philosophers talk of "extension" as that property of a thing existing in physical space, extended into space. So here, extension is lined with or enfolded with intention. I don't know if that is a perfectly accurate pair of opposites, but I kind of like how it sounds.  

One way of understanding how this would work is to see the following. You, to your own experience, know yourself to be a subjective being, a soul if you will, a center of experience, meaning, and understanding, and, ultimately, consciousness. You look at me and see an object, a thing beheld within your conscious awareness-- yet you also have no problem granting to me that I too am a subjective being, that I am a center of awareness as well (unless you are a solipsist), just as you accept your own objective physical reality as perceived by me. I am suggesting that we can simply extend that notion to all the universe. 

This helps explain where consciousness came from. The universe, from it's formation, has been gaining in complexity (at least in scattered areas, since as a whole it is winding down through entropy). From simple atoms, to more complex atoms, to molecules and chemical bonding, to complex organic chemistry, to life, ecology, and so on. With each rise in complexity, there is less of the universe involved (far more atoms than molecules, far more organisms than ecological systems); i.e., the scope is narrower. But each level up is a gain in the depth of consciousness. 
Teilhard talks of an interdependent energy between the Within and the Without; he believes that this energy is "psychic" in nature, but that it is divided into two distinct components: a tangential energy and a radial energy. Teilhard believes that tangential energy "links an element with all others of the same order." Radial energy draws an element towards "ever greater complexity and centricity," which for Teilhard means spiritual perfection. (from the above link)
You can begin to see the facility of the idea. The universe is not entirely random. Not that the Within of things is highly conscious like the human mind. An atom isn't "thinking" about how to join with another atom, or wishing it could find one to join with. A bacteria isn't "thinking" about how to adapt to the antibiotics it has encountered. But there is a leaning in a direction, towards survival, towards greater complexity. The leaning is sort of an inward intelligence in the basic way it might make a gain. 

Robert Pirsig wrote in Lila about how for any scientific problem, an infinite number of hypotheses exist; yet, we don't waste time testing all of them, we have a sense of what ones are most likely. It isn't random computation. Consider a computer. If it were hungry, it would first try chewing on the refrigerator door, then the table, then it's own hand... finally it would hit on "sandwich" and be satisfied. This is because it is not designed to think, but to compute quickly. It would do it quickly, but it would still have to try every possibility. Human minds don't go through everything in the kitchen; we bypass 99% of what's around and go straight for food. In computational speed computers are better, but the human brain is far more efficient, because it can truly think.

This helps us understand evolution. Originally evolution was thought to be a long, gradual change over endless eons. But further understanding shows that often species changed very rapidly, in terms of punctuated equilibrium. This makes sense, since things evolve to maintain a fit with the world in which they live, and out there, things can move fast. The climate doesn't take millions of years to shift, it can happen in a few hundred or thousand years. Some changes happen much, much faster (the antibiotic threat to becteria, for example, or pesticides to insects). But how can random mutations occur fast enough to keep up? 

Maybe there is an inner sense about which way to evolve, which genes to swap around. A sort of sensing which way the environment is changing, and an inward push in that direction. I don't see this as some objective god directing evolution. I think of it as being the same way I encounter my world: I see what's there, what's needed, and my own desire pushes me in the direction of the right sorts of changes. It's not evolution by a higher law, but by an inner creativity and sense of discovery. 

And maybe this is the effort of the entire universe. An evolution not as being akin to building an edifice, with continual embellishments continually added to the basic edifice, but more as an organic unfolding, where all that you will find in the final flower was present in the original bud. Creation not as a momentary act of an outside agent, but an ongoing creative transformation, evolution united with involution. The birth of a mind that then goes on to discover a universe that it makes even as it discovers it (as we, every night, discover a world even as we dream it). Maybe the DNA has a level of intelligence, maybe everything does; maybe the animists were right all along, spirit resides in all things. 

(anyone interested in this stuff might enjoy reading: de Chardin's Phenomenon of Man, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and his less well known Lila, Alan Watt's Supreme Identity, Fritjov Capra's Tao of Physics, and Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything and other works. Wilber is worth mentioning especially because of his work in "integral thought," which I guess is what this post is all about.)

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Is civilization possible without slavery? 

I don't know that it is. You can read online that not every civilization has had slaves, but then again, most have. Certainly the most "civilized" have kept humans as chattel. In the West, our origins are tainted by this fact, as Athens and all of Greece was a slave society, and Rome, the West's Classical model, was very much dependent on the slave class. I'm not even getting into the Arab slave trade, nor what was going on in the East, which were monumental in their own ways. 

There was less slavery at other times. It declined in the Dark Ages and on into Medieval Europe. Not to the point of being absent, and it differed country to country, but it was largely replaced by serfdom. Which is still basically forced labor, though not as explicit and carrying somewhat more freedom. But then the Renaissance hits, the great "rebirth" of Western civilization, and what does it bring? The horrors of the African slave trade, the enslavement of whole nations of Native Americans, plus indentured servitude, which was in some ways worse, as far as how the people were treated (an African slave was an investment for life, so was somewhat less abused than someone only "owned" for 4-7 years. They worked the latter to death, more often than you'd think, to get their money's worth). 

I've heard that if people had been civil and patient, slavery in the Old South would have died out on its own, without the national bloodletting of the Civil War. Much the way Canada waited patiently to themselves eventually split from England by a gentlemen's agreement, no Canadian Revolution required. Canadians like to use these examples to prove how violent we Americans are. They are only partially right, because things aren't black and white or simple like that. There were principles at stake, and institutional human suffering, and these are worth fighting for and against, respectively.

Thoreau had something to say about this:
When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. (1)
It's true, it would have ended of itself, the way things were going. But only because we replaced human slaves with machine slaves. Be certain that I am not saying that it is immoral to use machines to do our work. I am simply saying that slavery has not been abolished, only mutated and changed. Of course, there is still wage slavery, as machines have not replaced all human labor, and actual human slavery still persists in pockets all around the world, even here in the US. But that is not my overall point here. The point here is that high civilization is not possible without free labor, and that the degree of civilization is based on how much free labor (energy) is available.

Hell, take animal domestication, the final nail in the slavery case. No civilization has existed that did not have domesticated animals, that is, enslaved animals. Perhaps the American civilizations like Cahokia, the Aztecs and Maya did (the Inca had llamas), but they practiced human slavery, were not as stable or long lasting, and not as developed (at least in the case of Cahokia) as, say, Greece, Rome, China, India, or the Arab world. That is, they were not as far removed from the hunter-gatherer and simple horticultural models they grew out of, and that is why they so easily disappeared back into those models when their civilizations dissolved (in the case of Cahokia and the Mayans). 

Animal slavery is where higher civilization began. It's one thing to keep a herd of sheep around to eat, or even cattle for milk and cheese and meat. But when you strap a saddle on a horse, or a yoke on a pair of ox and force them to do the work for you, you free up human labor to do things like form more refined administrative techniques, writing, art, religious embellishment, war, and technological invention. 

And it all comes down to energy, no? The Age of Fossil Fuel is exactly the same as the Age of Animal Domestication, in that the vast power available in either the livestock or the oil barrel frees humans from drudgery and labor to do other things. Each is a step up of an order of magnitude from what went before. That's why higher civilization developed out of the use of animal labor, and why the Industrial Age sprung up when we tapped the energy of machine labor running on fossil fuels. 

This is the issue around which our current energy woes revolve. Naturally no labor is free, even slave labor, since the slaves need to be bought, and fed, and at least minimally maintained in good health, much as a horse or ox needs to be. Likewise the machine, which, while often cheaper than human workers, still needs maintenance and fuel. It's funny, the way the owner class comes to depend on its slaves, and the energy they represent.

So now the upshot. If it turns out to be true that Peak Oil is not resolved via new energy sources, things are going to decline in complexity. This is obvious, but one must understand what's at stake. You read books like James Kunstler's A World Made By Hand, and it seems like democracy and freedom largely survive the fall. I wonder at that. Power doesn't let go so easily, and I wonder if instead of a sort of benign localism of freeholders and townsfolk, we won't end up with something more akin to a world under a myriad of Pol Pots. Those used to living high on the hog are not going to want to climb down, and I fear that they will simply see that as the oil energy goes, they must return to human energy in the form of serfs and slaves.

(Finally, check out this link, and savor the irony)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Creative Methods

I've been thinking again about creativity, and ways to increase inspiration. Partially because I feel I'm in a rut, but also because creativity is life, and, both for myself and society, the future depends on it. If I want to have a full and good life, I need to keep on that razor edge of experience and consciousness, to keep seeing and seeking the new. Same goes for society, which is lost in short-term thinking, staring at the ground one foot in front of itself as it charges toward a cliff.

So. I was thinking about how to induce the creative flow. Seems a hard thing, so often the muses seem to be erratic, unpredictable. How can one tap into this at will? There are tons of websites on this, which talk about special techniques you must pay to get, as well as more mundane things, like taking a walk, word association, "stop being so logical," and so on. I don't discount these techniques, by the way. Little tricks and exercises can be pretty helpful.

Take free writing. Set yourself a timer, or a set number of pages you will fill, and start writing. Start even, if you must, writing things like, "this is a really stupid exercise, because I have nothing to say, what a waste of time this will be..." Don't stop, don't edit, don't even really think, just keep the pen (or typing) going. Later you go back and cherry-pick the good, the interesting bits. This has worked for me; both in the initial writing, out of which I have dug out some gold, as well in a more long-term sense, by simply steering my mind into more receptive territory, helping to lift me out of the creative doldrums in general. 

Another thing I know, is that creativity springs, I'm sure of this, at least in part from plenty of "staring into space" time. That is, not consuming or absorbing information and stimuli, but just doing nothing, letting your mind roam. I know that the last few months I've filled much of my free time with TV, books, internet, and so forth, and consequently have hardly written a line, and this blog has fallen into cobwebs and dust, comparatively speaking.

The consumption has its uses and importance, of course. Sort of like pre-loading ideas and images before a mushroom trip; it is the material with which the insights build themselves. You can't build a house without the wood and brick. But you also need the Plan. And in creative endeavors, that equates to Inspiration. A way for those building blocks to come together. The way a shaman would throw his bones, and in their random fall could read the future. You need that element of freedom, to let the materials assemble themselves into your work. Thus, the Plan is found by drifting freely. 

Watch this TED video on the elusive creative genius. Gilbert talks about an anecdote of Tom Waits, who gets inspiration once while he was driving. The anecdote is funny and interesting, but you can see here what I'm talking about too. Driving is an automatic thing, largely. We don't have to think too much about the tasks, most of the time; and so the mind is free to roam. Assuming, of course, the radio is off and you're alone. It is not at all strange that Waits had a new song pop into his head at such a moment. The same is true on the toilet, when (assuming your bowels are functioning right) you're relaxed, and your mind unoccupied. 

I also came across this brilliant article in Scientific American, titled "An Easy Way to Increase Creativity." It talks about "psychological distance:
...anything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves falls into the “psychologically distant” category. It’s also possible to induce a state of “psychological distance” simply by changing the way we think about a particular problem, such as attempting to take another person's perspective, or by thinking of the question as if it were unreal and unlikely.
There are a series of experiments discussed, which I find very interesting and a fresh approach, for me at least, and something I aim to try. It's fascinating, though maybe obvious... this idea that simply by reframing a problem, you can suddenly get more insights. Pretend you are trying to solve it a year from now, or in a distant city, or even that the problem itself is far less probable. It's a cliche, putting yourself in another man's shoes, but I never thought of using that for creative purposes; I always took it at face value, a lesson in tolerance, empathy and understanding.

Lastly, drugs work. I mentioned mushrooms. I've never done them, but I believe psychedelics are powerful tools for creativity. A lot of visionary art has come as a result of their use. So is marijuana, alcohol, and caffeine. These I've sampled, and except for caffeine, they rarely produce any amazing works while one is actually under the influence. Alcohol relaxes inhibitions, and used moderately may loosen up your writers block, but the line is easy to cross into idiotic drunken ramblings. Caffeine makes you productive as hell, thus, there's more chance that something good will flow out. Cannabis, however, I found the most useful. It can help knock you out of your mental habits, into new frames of seeing things. And creativity is all about seeing. Not just visually, no; I mean really contacting experience with clarity.

This ties back to "staring into space" time. A Zen sort of method, although I'm not necessarily talking about meditation. Meditation does help, of course, for me at least; the clarity of observation it brings is what I'm talking about. It helps temper my habit to wallow in my prejudices and habitual understanding, helping me to see things not as I am, but as they are. But, ideas and thoughts are worthwhile too, and sometimes it is right to let yourself follow them, rather than practicing at clarity and emptiness. It's a different state of consciousness than pure meditation, but it is a relative, and I think the two interact and commingle.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

On Change and Being Stuck

Watched this amazingly inspiring video a week ago, and since then have been thinking a lot about making changes. Changes in my own life, changes in the greater world around me. The message isn't particularly new for me, but really had an impact, and I urge anyone coming across this page to watch it.

So I'm trying to figure out what I'm really going to do. I keep running into this problem of feeling utterly trapped. I've felt this way ever since I came of age, out of the egocentric world of the child and teenager. I guess around age 18, especially after 9-11. Started getting into politics and bigger issues, trying to understand this system in which we live, and trying to figure out my place within it, and finding very few good options before me.

I know I've talked a lot on here about living the change, saying stuff about opting out of the system as it is. But man, how? How can people operate outside of the system? If you don't play by the rules, you don't get to eat. If you don't work, then you don't get to sleep indoors. They got us by the short and curlies.

One example I know I've thrown out there was gardening. Want to grow a garden? Well, you have to own land, but homesteading is so far from what most people are capable of, it's hard to imagine it happening. I mean, for those who can afford to buy land, often they buy it in town near their job. They have a house, not property. A huge building of outsized proportions, a weight around their neck, often, because we've become accustomed to such foolishness. And to really be free of the system, you can't just grow a token garden out back, a few tomato plants and maybe some lettuce, beans, and cucumbers. You need to plant a sizable amount of land (in terms of an acre or more) and have a host of skills that few people really have anymore: food preservation, crop rotation, what to do about plant disease and pests, and maybe tending livestock, among much else. I'm talking about farming, and farming requires a lot of knowledge.

And that's just for food. What about everything else we need? Clothing, shelter, transportation, medical care, etc etc. How to opt out of all that? I mean, they own our lives, whoever "they" is, if there is a "who" besides the inhuman system itself... they own our lives because they own the means of sustaining our lives. I say again: you dont work, you don't eat, you don't sleep indoors, you don't get to go to the doctor, you lose every which way. How can you fight back against such a thing? You can put out your recycling, consume less, you can try to elect better leaders, take your money out of the banks, but in the end, youre going to go to work every day because your stomach demands it, and more importantly, your children's stomachs.

I think often of Grapes of Wrath, which I know is a novel but it's such a vivid image of the Depression, and seems accurate from what I've read. And not just the Depression, but the way the union battles went for decades back then, the brutal fight it was. Brutal not just because Power fights you on it, but because you have to sit there, watch your children cry because they're hungry, while you strike and picket. What a thing to do! Most men would work for the lowered wages, rather than strike and get nothing. The only ray of hope is that, in spite of those horrible stakes, people did it anyways. They fought back, they suffered, but they did what they had to do.

But here we're talking not about just getting more workplace rights, fairer laws and economic practices, but a whole new economic paradigm. We don't have a clear goal, like better wages, the 8 hour workday or the 5 day work week, or an end to child labor. It's hard to even know where we're trying to go.

So I just don't know. I'm constantly inspired by these sorts of videos, books, ideas, but never know how to proceed. The edges of this problem are just out of reach. I can't imagine any way to have a real impact on the sort of paradigm shift I'm referring to, and can imagine even less a mass movement in this direction. I don't want to give into despair, but I feel like I've been stuck for the last 11 years and it just plain sucks.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


I think that's the great thing about books, writing, the internet. The pure scholasticism of it. The realm of ideas passing between minds, distilled into these symbols (words) that can transmit info without confusion, if the time is taken to be clear. 

I recently left this as part of a reply to a poem over on Cym's blog. I was feeling rather expansive just then, very positive. I think I'm still riding a crest from yesterday, a half day at work, hanging out with my roommate, and commemorating my summit of Katahdin, northern terminous of the Appalachian Trail, now these four years past, remembering my trail buddies and the best six months of my life. My heart is full.

But anyways, as I think about what I wrote in reply to Cym, I wonder. I have long been a writer, in the sense that I feel I can communicate best in that way. Firstly, I'm an introvert, and not a natural at small talk and chit chat. Not in a freakish way, but let's look at it this way: you read through this blog, it would seem I have a lot to say, but in person I'm quite reserved and don't tend to expound on things like I do here. I do sometimes, expecially with people I know well, and I can do the small talk thing too, but often it just doesn't seem worth the effort. (Not to mention people rarely seem to want to give you the time to really speak your side, and a friend who can listen to an opposing view is a valuable thing. I'm looking at you, Dan and Clayton).

For some reason, the connection between my mind and my fingers (typing) is far more clear and easy than that between my mind and mouth. I'm not much of a talker, it doesn't come easy to me. I sometimes even get tripped up with my words, and at that point just look to find a fast end to the conversation. In a way it's like my mouth can't keep up with my mind. But most of the time, the issue is just the natural flow of ideas. It's easier in writing. I find I can order my thoughts better, and thus communicate more clearly and be understood better.

Thus my comment. In writing, you can be more systematic, more rational, more exact. You can lay out an argument or position, then go through and address every objection and quibble, without leaving things out, without ambiguity. In contrast, discussion often falls into emotional appeals and a general lack of clarity. That was my problem with those Intelligence Squared debates I posted about last time. I don't know all the logical fallacies, not by far, but I noticed many were used, such as appeals to authority, appeals to emotion, ad hominem attacks, and so forth.

So, in general I stand by what I said in the comment, but in the end, it is wrong. Debates of all kinds are basically fatally flawed from the start. Everyone has a unique perspective. Two people can be looking at the same exact tree, but they see it differently; besides all their past experiences that shade the present experience with memories and emotional influences, they are literally seeing the tree from different angles, because their eyes are not at the same point in space, and maybe even have different sensitivities to light, color, and visual acuity. Fundamentally, everyone lives in their own world, because a "world" is, in fact, actually only an image of the world (worldview), with all of the "world" actually existing in one's individual consciousness, and based on one's unique perspective and experience.

This is why they say never debate politics and religion with family and friends (a dubious statement, really). I mean, look at our political atmosphere. The Democrats and the Republicans are not even discussing the same things. They are so trapped in their respective ideologies, they literally cannot see any other way of looking at things. (And while I feel the Republicans are far more out of touch with reality than Democrats, in general the vast, vast majority of both are still living in American Dreamland). They are talking right past each other.

So. Any good debate or argument must start with definitions of terms. Often when this is done, you find much greater agreement. (The I2 debates, by the way, don't do this, which was irritating. They just throw a statement out there and say "go"). If you don't clearly deliniate the topic, and don't define your terms, you are necessarily going to be arguing about totally different things. So every debate eventually devolves into semantics. Into definitions. Into "what exactly do you mean by "is"?

But, definitions are arbitrary and self referencing. Every word in any given definition can also be found in the dictionary, with its own definition, with more words that are in the dictionary... It's a big circle jerk of concepts, afloat in a sea of the undefined. In reality there are no divisions. Just as the tree that you see is not, in fact, twenty feet away but is in fact in your consciousness, with no space between you and it, so also are definitions impossible. Nothing exists in isolation.

Even in a more traditional perspective, that tree is not a separate thing, it is a pattern within a larger pattern. It is one with its wood, but also one with the birds that nest in it, the air it inhales, the water it absorbs, the fungus it supports in the soil, the soil itself, the sun... To define "tree" you have to define everything. And "universe" cannot be defined, because that would be to draw a line between universe and... what? The universe is everything, so no line can be drawn.

So in the end, how could even the most systematic, written argument be anything but an infinite dictionary/encyclopedia of the entire universe? It could never be finished, because absolute precision would mean one of two things. More and more definitions, more and more disection and analysis (literally "to cut apart"), which will go on forever. Even the atoms ("unbreakable") are continually subdivided. Or on the other hand, just shut your mouth, put down your pen, and see the real clarity.

The most precise argument is the one with zero definitions, the whole as given, not as understood or analyzed. To science, a tree is ridiculously complicated, with complex inner workings, into microbiology, chemistry, and basic physical laws, plus connections with the greater ecology and even into geology and astronomy. But it's only complex when you try to talk about it in the rational, serial, step by step way. Take it as a whole, take it as it is, and it's so simple a child gets it.

The tree stands in the field, declaring only "Thus!"

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Filter Bubbles

::wipes dust off of blog::

Wow, sorry for the absence. I keep feeling like I want to write, but don't. I've been too busy working (12 days straight!), plus two classes and in my off-time, just consuming too much media to produce any of my own; a serious problem, but the product of low energy. Part of it, too, is a sort of depression. I think I may be having inklings of a midlife crisis here. Nothing full blown, but it's there.

One thing is that I'm getting to the age where I'm beginning to realize that my life is not going to be some epic thing, I'm probably not going to change the world, write the next great novel, do anything seriously earth shattering. Youth has that boundless optimism, but experience comes along and proves it wrong. I am an ordinary man, not some maverick, not likely to be a creative genius or do anything too amazing. I am likely to be one of the nameless massmen of the dustbin of history, who did nothing more noteworthy than to simply struggle to stay alive until he died, forgotten. It's kind of a disturbing notion to accept.

Plus, I'm starting to realize just how self-centered my life is. I've been stressing for more than a decade about what I'm to do with myself, both big stuff and little stuff. What to study, what career to choose, which trail to hike, which book to read, TV show to watch, etc etc. I've talked plenty about ego on here, but it's becoming distressingly clear just how caught up I am in myself. My life has become a sort of monument to my self. Here I read all these books, trying to learn things that have no actual application except to aggrandize my own self-image as a know-it-all. I live for myself, which is to live for nothing at all, yet I don't know how to get out of it. I feel I've gone too far that I've forgotten how to get back.

Partly, the problem is that my love of knowledge has become a sort of addiction to information. I remember back in the day, between 18 and 21, discovering Eastern religions, waking up to the political world (9/11 was my coming of age in that respect), learning about Peak Oil, inklings of cultural collapse, and all that stuff. It was like a punch in the face, everything seemed to open up and be illuminated. But the glow has worn off. I keep hoping that the next beautiful idea will change my life. Yet, it has largely devolved into a pointless addiction. The internet is especially bad for this. I can lose hours on Wikipedia without realizing it, following links. It is no different with books, though. And it's all a reflection of my own selfish interests.

I recently watched a debate on PBS, a show called Intelligence Squared, debating this proposition: The internet is closing our minds (podcast here). Interesting debate. I fell toward the "pro" position, though with some reservations. It seems to me (and those arguing the "pro" position) that often the internet becomes sort of a hall of mirrors, a giant narcissistic image of the self. Do we not more often search out things we agree with? I never go to FOX news website, but have often gone to places such as CommonDreams, alternative news and information. People filter their own information intake in this way.

Furthermore, there are filter bubbles (a TED video, whose speaker was also in the I2 debate), thanks to the "personalization" of Google and social media. Google tracks the sort of stuff you search, builds up a sort of database or rubric, then when you search something new, guesses at the sorts of websites you want to see. A liberal and a conservative will get different results when they search "Obama," the latter getting more stuff slanted towards the birther "debate" and Obamacare. Up to 60% of first-page links on a Google search will be personalized this way. Yet it is not generally known among internet users that this is going on, because you have to put two computers side by side to see the differences.

Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter can be bad in this way too, or worse. They are watching what you're watching, and helping tailor your internet experience. But basing the future on the past, so to speak, is idiotic. It is probably more important that we don't just keep plodding down the tracks of our old ideologies, but that we are exposed to new ideas.

Of course, you can still find anything on the internet, read any viewpoint you want, and expose yourself to all kinds of new ideas. And it is a wonderful way for people to connect. Atheists used to be all alone, usually; but now, they can get online, meet whole forums full of other atheists, and not feel so isolated. People into paleo-skills can find people with like interests and tons of resources to further their skill set. It's pretty amazing, really.

But this was my reservation against being on the "pro" side; basically the internet isn't closing the American mind, certain web companies are. Filter bubbles do exist, yet they aren't absolute. This is my experience. I've learned tons from the internet, though I also admit that I tend to gloss over dissenting viewpoints, often dismissing them out of hand as closed-minded conservative shills for big business. I read some of them, and enjoy a good debate, but I don't always have the time or inclination. And like any human, I prefer to have agreement than dissent. And with all the trolls and flamers out there on the interwebs, a good serious debate can be hard to come by, and the comment threads under an article are not conducive to anything but making quick sniping comments. It's just not the right format.

In the end, the "pro" position won. It was an good debate, proven by the fact that at the end I was less sure of my position than at the beginning; but I'm not sure it deserves the status of being called "Oxford style" debate. I feel that at Oxford, the debaters would present more clearly, define the question and their terms more strictly and explicitly, and be less informal. But it would be great to see political candidates debate that way.