I celebrated Tu B’shvat, the festival of the trees that coincided with Shabbat this year, by reading a most charming book. It is a slim volume, all of 117 pages, written originally in Czech, and first published in Prague in 1929. The author is Karel Capek. The book is called The Gardener’s Year. It is a joyous romp through the emotional highs, lows and obsessions of the constant gardener. So endearing was this book that it was translated into English in 1931 by M and R Weatherall, and reprinted as a part of the Modern Library Gardening Series in 2002, with no less a series editor than Michael Pollan.
It was in the midst of this light-hearted diversion that I bumped into a powerful insight. Here is the set-up. Imagine gliding smoothly through Capek’s easy prose, reading along about how a hapless gardener must wrestle with an obstinate garden hose.
It will soon be clear that until it is tamed a hose is an extraordinarily evasive and dangerous beast, for it contorts itself, it jumps, it wriggles, it makes puddles of water, and dives with delight into the mess it has made; then it goes for the man who is going to use it and coils itself round his legs; you must hold it down with your foot, and then it rears and twists round your waist and neck, and while you are fighting with it as with a mighty cobra, the monster turns up its brass mouth and projects a mighty stream of water through the windows on to the curtains which have been recently hung.
When, not a page later, I am ambushed by this observational gem:
Odd as it may appear, a gardener does not grow from seed, shoot, bulb, rhizome, or cutting, but from experience, surroundings, and natural conditions. When I was a little boy I had towards my father’s garden a rebellious and even a vindictive attitude, because I was not allowed to tread on the beds and pick the unripe fruit. Just in the same way Adam was not allowed to tread on the beds and pick the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, because it was not yet ripe; but Adam - just like us children - picked the unripe fruit, and therefore was expelled from the Garden of Eden; since then the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge has always been unripe.
Who knew? The first humans were not, according this Capek midrash, forever forbidden access to this most desirable of fruits, this conveyor of the complete corpus of wisdom and knowledge. Nor were we, their unimagined offspring generations hence, damned to a life of naive innocence and solipsistic ignorance. What good news! For I have always been disturbed by the thought that our idyllic vision of paradise was one in which progress and development played no part; one which did not allow the full dignity of humanity to mature and flourish.
Rather, to push Capek’s midrash one step further, the problem was simply, regrettably, and profoundly, that neither the fruit nor the humans were yet ready for their mutual encounter. Both were still very young, in the throes of their own becoming. Both were busy gathering in experiences, nutrients and essences that would build the substance and scaffolding of their bodies. Both were busy filling out, plumping up and putting flesh on these foundations that would become and define their full being. This is delicate and intricate work that does not want to be rushed or interrupted.
But, according to Capek, that is exactly what happened. In the midst of becoming, the fruit was plucked, frozen in an unripe state, and ingested by an unripe body. The act of incorporating knowledge, literally bringing it into our bodies and making it one with us, was forever premature, incomplete.
So it remains to this very day. We are bombarded with raw knowledge, unripened, and indigestible. We are forced to act before we understand what we are doing:
How shall we manage the awesome power of atomic energy?
What are the ethics of cloning animals, body parts, whole persons?
When does genetically modified food mimic the healthy evolutionary traits of nature and when does it slide into the grotesque world of dangerous mutants?
Is it proper for new forms of life to be privately owned and patented?
How does one blend the equitable distribution of goods and services with the functioning of a free market?
Complete, ripened knowledge eludes us at every frontier. We are forced to deliberate, decide and function with ignorance fully in hand. Still, we bound on ahead. Like Adam and Eve, we will not be restrained. We have no choice. Ready or not, we will eat the fruit. And we will again be banished from the sheltering arms of certitude and complete knowing. That is our calling. It makes no sense to rail against such imperfection.
Acknowledging this, though, helps remedy it. We will no doubt be better off if, with each new discovery, we remember that we are again cast a bit further beyond the center of Eden. Success, and survival, demand that we proceed together, with humility, hard work, and eyes wide open.
I write these words as the world around me is bathed in the soothing, flowing light of the full moon. No wonder most of the Jewish holidays fall on (or near) the 15th of the lunar month, mid-way along the moon’s monthly trek. When the sky is cleared of clouds, allotting the moon full reign of the heavens, its light shines down upon us like pearls, poured from a jug, that break and splash upon hitting earth. Silently, the light bounces and spreads, gently subduing the realm of darkness. The light is fragile and thin, that is true, but also cool and just-strong-enough to calm our night fears and allow us to peer into the unknown just beyond reach.
An architectural peculiarity of my house makes me especially fond of this time of night at this time of the month. When the full moon is high in the sky, just about half-way along its nightly journey, its light floods through a skylight into my bathroom, filling the tub with its pale, cool presence. It almost appears as if the tub were awash in lunar water, the very stuff that could establish the moon as an hospitable outpost for human space explorations. So real it sometimes seems that I want to call NASA and say, here it is. Lunar water exists after all. Come, gather it up for yourselves.
The light, though beckoning, is also sometimes cruel, luring us with desperately desired but maddeningly elusive gifts of healing. I have often been tempted to climb into the tub, to sink and soak gently in those sacred waters poured from the very pools of heaven, reaching back to the first moments of the world’s creation. What ailment could not be cured by those primordial waters, when earth and heaven were one? What pains and sorrows could not be washed away?
These thoughts and feelings are magnified on this particular full moon of Shvat, for this month marks the turning of the seasons, when the sap begins to rise in the trees in Israel and the almond trees begin to bud. This full moon of Shvat is a herald that the back of the winter has been scaled and spring is now upon us. So even if the celestial blessings of rebirth are not ours, the earthly blessings of renewal are.
What more can we ask for?
I am looking forward to Sunday. If the weather cooperates, I am hoping to spend a few hours collecting my windfall of tree limbs that the weekend storm delivered. And if it is not too cold, for either me or the wood, I hope to saw many of the limbs into stove-sized fuel.
There is something compellingly intimate about sawing wood. When you saw, you have to hold the wood steady, gently restraining it, feeling it respond, reassuring it, noting where it resists and where it gives. You must avoid the knots and gently work it through. When the pile begins to grow around your feet, you gather up the sections you have cut, cradle them in your arms, and carry them to the woodpile. You then gently place them down, like a sleeping child whom you don’t want to wake. (Stacking wood is a whole other spiritual discipline.)
Sawing is a remarkably engaging, full-body experience. Kind of like meditation, I would imagine. No music; no extraneous thoughts; total concentration. And when you are done, there is a rush of instant gratification; instant satisfaction; and physical exhaustion.
One kind of tree populates most of our property: the tulip poplar. I can see why it is a favorite of woodworkers. It is easy to saw and easy to work into cabinets and veneers. The trunks shoot straight up for 50-80 feet without a branch in the way. That’s a nice run of wood (though not fun for kids who like to climb trees).
But if the tulip poplar is a sweetheart of a tree to saw, the beech is a bi***.
It is very hard and very dense. I would rather saw 10 poplar branches than one beech. Thankfully, we only have one beech that is big enough to drop branches - so I only had to saw two fallen beech limbs.
And the tree itself is gorgeous - it stands like a sentry in the center isle of our driveway, spreading its shade over half the house in the summer. I don’t know what we would do without it.
My nascent apple orchard is still just a gleam in our eyes. One of the three 5-foot trees I planted last summer died. The two that are left are struggling through the winter. We will see if blossoms return in the spring. I bought three more - these are just twigs though - to plant in the spring alongside the larger ones. Perhaps one day they will be gnarled and fruit-filled, if the deer don’t get them first.
All this growing personal fascination with trees - and just at the time when a new organization, the Baltimore Tree Trust, is being formed. Baltimore City has a 25% tree canopy cover. That is not enough. It wants and needs to return to 40%. Such a move will improve the social, structural, economic, spiritual, and physical health of the city and its residents. The BTT is designed to make that happen. I will report back to you with more information as this initiative grows. It will need our help.
In the midst of my wandering compass-less through the narrative tracts of wilderness (Genesis 1) and Eden (Genesis 2), comes a storm. Last night, the wind kicked up to 50 miles per hour, the rain pelted the earth and tropical warmth swept through our wintry air. I stood outside for a brief moment in the middle of the night, and discovered I had fallen into a coven of trees celebrating their arboreal sabbath. Their branches were freely swaying, in a melodic, care-free, unfrenzied, way. It was clear that at that moment, I was the trespasser, the visitor, on their property, when usually it is the other way around.
I was enchanted and awed by the wanton callousness, blitheness, of nature. It cared not about the seasons, or whether we had had our fill of rain, or the fragility of our power lines or the unimpeded necessity of roads. It did not care about long-distance truck drivers or anxious mothers or vigilant, over-worked repairmen.
The storm just raged on. Actually, rage is not the right word. This storm was not an angry storm. It had no attitude, no point to make, nothing it wanted to prove. It was just a storm that did what it was meant to do: blow things around. To be in its midst, in its simple rawness, was to be in the wilderness, if even for a moment.
Humility overwhelms us when faced with such a storm. We can do nothing to stop it; it will cease only in its own time, demanding its own price. It will rearrange the world we have created at its whim. It reminds us that despite the blessing of Genesis 1 when we are given the calling to “master the wilds,” we can never really do that.
Yet, if we can’t master the wilds, we can learn from it. And we can become better masters, of both ourselves and the natural world around us, by tending well to such lessons. How wonderful it is to match our pace to the earth’s; to count the minutes of the day by the arc of the sun as much as by the face of a clock; to breathe in and out in sync with the wind; to match our pulse to the rhythm of the tides.
Our civilized lives are richer for having been in the presence of the rawness of nature. Our inventions, constructions, productions are better for being modeled on the 4 billion years of experimentation nature has already invested in life.
I went out the next morning and discovered a quieter, if messier, world. The ground was littered with branches, those over-wrought limbs from the celebration of the night before. A windfall for me, I thought. I will gather them up and saw them and burn them in my wood-burning stove. I have come to greatly appreciate these windfall offerings; these unearned, surprise and warmly welcome gifts that come after nature’s modest, self-indulgent, blow-out.
But I also realize that the practical lessons of living in the presence and company of nature is a windfall that we too often overlook, and one of even more enduring, and pleasurable, value.
Although he doesn’t even know my name, Robert Pogue Harrison is my new best friend. He first won my heart with his book on Forests: the shadow of civilization which shows that the way forests are depicted in art, literature and popular imagination sheds light on the passions, desires and fears of that civilization. Over time, forests have alternatively been portrayed as refuge, horror, public, private, sacred, profane, alluring, repelling, nurturing, and murderous; all of this being much more a window into a society’s collective psyche than the nature of the woods.
Harrison reminds us, for we seem to continually forget, that we would hardly know ourselves without nature. For among all its other attributes, nature is a broad, reflective pond, showing us who we think we are, and what it is we think we are doing here. It is a mirror of our sometimes restless, sometimes peaceful spirituality, bouncing back to us now the enchantment, now the terror, of our existence. There is, therefore, nothing natural in the way we speak about nature. And if we are to truly understand ourselves, we should tend well to the ways we speak of, and behave toward, the physical world around us.
Harrison extends this message about the fluid imaging of nature into his next book, Gardens:an essay on the human condition, which I am only half-way through.
But from the very first page, this book helped cast a new light on one aspect the divergent nature of the two creation stories we find in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Most often, when the two chapters are compared, we focus on the differing order of creation, the apparently contradictory divine methods and timing used to bring forth man and woman, and the distinct blessing or calling given by God to the first humans.
But Harrison helps point out another distinction: that in Genesis 1 the humans are placed in a world of wilderness while in Genesis 2 the humans are placed in a protected garden.
There is a world of difference between wilderness and garden, each calling forth different practical and spiritual responses. Which is to say, these two stories should not be read as they often are: as competitive, contradictory, or vacillating in their vision of which is the true story of creation or the true representation of the human condition. Rather, they should be read as the warp and weft of the fabric of life, for it is only with both of them, in wilderness and garden, in rawness and refinement, in vulnerability and mastery, as observer and as tender, that the whole cloth of human existence can be woven.
I will speak more of this in a future post, as the lessons of Harrison’s powerful book sink in.
I recently spent a few days in NYC with my wonderful friend, Linda. She, like so many of us, saw and loved Avatar. I, of course, have my reservations about the film (see previous post). But Linda observed something powerful in the film that I wanted to share with you.
For those who have not seen the movie, I need to fill you in one element, which will not at all be a spoiler so it is safe to keep reading.
The indigenous population on the planet Pandora have long, flowing hair which they braid and let fall down their backs. At the ends of these braids are what can best be described as a cluster of tendrils - loose, gently flowing strands of gossamer.
It was through these tendrils that the natives communicated with the world of nature.
Their mode of rapid transportation was the native birds, and they connected and communicated with their birds by entwining their tendrils with the birds’ tendrils. They offered messages to their most sacred tree by whirling the tendrils around its gracefully drooping branches (much like those of fibre optic threads).
These tendrils reminded Linda of tzitziot, the delicate fringes that grace the four corners of the tallit. That, it seems to me, is a most intriguing thought.
The tallit is a central symbol of the Jewish people. It distinguishes us, carrying in its folds memories and stories of individuals, families and whole communities. In practice, each tallit is worn by only one person, perhaps for a lifetime. Over time, it assumes their identity, personality, smell. When worn over the head, it covers them almost entirely, creating their private, cocooned world. It is a momentary, physical refuge from the world swirling around them.
And yet, they would not be able to breathe if they and the tallit were hermetically sealed, all shut up. They would shrivel, both spiritually and physically, if there were no exchange, no communication between them and the world beyond. It is the fringes, then, the delicate and controlled unraveling at the edges of the garment, that safely create that bridge between them in their inviolable integrity and the world in its fullness. The tzitziot are the tendrils that bond the discrete self with the elements beyond.
Like all else in the natural world, no one individual and no one people can live alone. On the one hand, we must defend our boundaries and borders so we do not go spilling out all over the place. On the other, we must engage and connect with the nurturing and vibrancy that surrounds us. It is in the secrets of managing this exchange, in the details of building and crossing this threshold, that the magic of life is most fully found.
Such an awareness could be the beginning of a response to my third critique, showing us a way to both celebrate our unique tribalism, and celebrate and join with those who are other.
Avatar is touted by some as an environmental movie, and thus several people encouraged me to see it. And in some ways it is, but not in the most instructive, sophisticated or inspiring of ways.
I see three over-arching themes in this movie, none of which leaves me particularly upbeat:
1) yes, there is an environmental, nature-is-not-commodity message
2) there is an anti-colonial, anti-rapacious bully invader message
3) and there is pro multi-cultural message including cross-racial romance
It is the subtext of these messages, however, that disturbs.
Let’s start with the last point:
3) One of the grand messages of the movie is that tribalism is both a blessing and a danger. Allegiance to one’s own group is an expected, even necessary, aspect of survival, but it should not be pursued at the expense of demonizing or oppressing or patronizing the other. The movie however fails to show us how we can reach across demographic lines and embrace the other and even love the other, without betraying those we come from. The story depicts a world in which personal identity is either/or, with loyalty to one group leading to alienation from the other. That is hardly a message of hope in this already fractious world. Rather I would have loved to have seen a story that allows us to both take pride in our identities and heritage and transcend our prejudices and commingle in a harmonious civilization.
2) The invaders in the movie - the folks we in the audience first identify with - are depicted as gluttonous interlopers using ugly brute force to steal the natural resources from this foreign land and the land’s indigenous inhabitants. In an effort to take what they want simply because they want it, the invaders are prepared to destroy an entire ecological community, including all the living creatures that rely on it, and the civilization that thrives in its midst. You can’t argue with the moral message embedded here. It is clear who the good guys and who the bad guys are.
Which is why it is somewhat alarming that right-wing commentators such as John Nolte and John Podhoretz (as reported in the Baltimore Sun) lambast the film precisely on these points. If we cannot recognize and acknowledge the places where we have unleashed our destructive, excessive appetite, then we are a poor and dangerous nation indeed. Thankfully, most movie-goers who have made Avatar the fourth highest grossing movie of all time don’t have any trouble telling the good guys from the bad guys.
1) Then we come to the environmental message. Yes, the movie tries to teach us that all creation is bound together in one interwoven network of life, pulsing with a vibrancy that transcends the daily dramas of life and death. But it also seems to tell us that we must choose between advanced civilization: hospitals, stores, mass transportation, literature, museums, etc on the one hand, and living in concert with the rest of nature on the other; that we must either remain happy primitives living directly off the land, relying on our individual and immediate relations with nature to survive, or we will become ruthless, heartless predators consuming all within reach. This is neither an accurate nor helpful message. We needed to see soaring models of both social and ecological flourishing, with the human being fully human living in harmony with other species, races, types and the natural, unhurried flow of the physical world.
It would have been better if James Cameron spent a bit more of his immense talent and money on that.
After two years of contemplating and calculating, day-dreaming and dismissing plans for a wood burning stove, we finally sealed the deal. It was my appeasement, my consolation, over spending way too much money on fixing our house so it wouldn’t collapse around us, after discovering that our contractors of ten years ago built the walls so poorly that they were literally rotting out. As they say in Hebrew: im kvar, az kvar (which roughly translates as: if you are already committing so much time/money/effort/emotion to the project, might as well go all the way).
We justify the expense, if not the indulgence, based on the savings on oil costs it will earn us over 2-3 years. Let me say up front, the jury is still out on that. Not because wood stoves don’t generally live up to their reputation. But in this particular case, in this particular room (a great room with vaulted ceilings and no doors between it and the rest of the house to seal in the heat), the stove may be more of an aesthetic, complementary accessory than a truly functional appliance. Time will tell.
Except during black outs. We bought the stove with a cooktop so that not only will it give us soothing light and provide sufficient warmth in its immediate vicinity, but it will afford us a cooking surface. We have already made eggs on it, in record time!
So I am not at all unhappy with the purchase. The stove and I just have to bond a bit more, and take the time to learn what makes each other tick; and how to encourage the most out of each other. It is like any other relationship. I am looking forward to the exploration.
In the meantime, I am learning collateral lessons, mainly about wood. One of the selling points of the stove is that we imagine we will not need to purchase firewood for several years, for we live on modestly wooded lot. There are old woodpiles scattered here and there around the property, remnants of past downings of trees. And after a storm, there is literally a windfall: dead limbs and branches that the wind kindly trimmed and brought within our reach.
While the woods are mainly tulip poplar, we also have pine and beech, some maple and even a hickory tree. I am eager to learn about the different qualities of wood: when each kind is dry enough for burning; how well they each burn; for how long; their different weights; how easy they are to cut or saw or split. Just as bakers can tap the underside of a loaf of bread and know if it is done; just as an artist can look at their painting and decide it is complete; just as mechanics can listen to engines purr and know they are tuned just right, so I too want to be able to grasp a piece of wood and know what kind of tree it came from, how long it has been curing, and when best to use it in my stove.
When visiting a neighbor of mine for the first time several years ago, I noticed that he had a dining room table and breakfront made by the famed furniture maker, George Nakashima. His work is unmistakable: clean lines, sensuous curved edges, velvety smooth wood.
Coincidentally, I had just finished reading a book about Nakashima and his work. What captivated me most was not Nakashima’s design, lovely as it was, but his attitude toward the creative process, and the very wood itself.
He was of samurai lineage, and believed that cutting a tree was like cutting diamonds.
“The tree is given a chance to come forth with its story and, in that dialogue, teaches something to the woodworker,” his daughter, Mira, explains. “Each tree, each part of each tree, has its own particular destiny, its own special yearning to be fulfilled.” While that sentiment may be a bit lofty for a log I am going to burn, it nonetheless conjures up an awareness that this log does have a biography; that it may have laid down its first ring the year I got married or had my youngest child, or the year Bill Clinton was elected president.
This log lived through the same natural and emotional storms I did: the last great Baltimore blizzard and Hurricane Isabel - both in 2003, and personal upheavals not fit for this blog. Unlike wood purchased from jobbers, this wood has shared the same space as me, seen the same things I have, for the last 10 years. And now, it is being prepared to be consumed in the space of a few hours in my new ceramic-covered stove.
There is an intimacy knowing that our existence is intertwined. My growing awareness of this wood, on this lot, opens up a deeper appreciation for the majesty of all nature, its gifts to humankind, and our interdependence. It makes more present, and immediate, the work we do to bring humanity and civilization into sync with nature. And it challenges me to continually wonder: what it will take for us to bring to this laboring world both a saving equilibrium among all its creatures, and sova, a grand and enduring sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that guides all that we do?