In the caves and covered places of the Lower Pecos, on the northern banks of the Rio Grande, grand shamans spread their arms above ghostly congregations, sprout feathers, fur, fangs, and talons, and stretch exorbitantly across great canvases of rock.
Some have held their poses for 5,000 years, frozen in hues of purple, ochre and blood red set by ancient artists who climbed the rocks of these cliff-bound rivers to ply their sacred, colorful trade.
The art we see has been preserved in part because of its felicitous location, high, dry and remote. Nature was kind to it, but so were people. Until now, no one across its thousands of years of constant attention destroyed it.
On a July 8 Science Friday podcast, Solveig Turpin, the archeologist who is most responsible for bringing this treasure to the attention of the world, was asked whether, throughout the centuries, this sacred gallery and place of visions had been vandalized, or erased, or destroyed.
The answer was no. That does not mean it was left alone, set apart as an untouchable specimen of past spiritual messaging. Rather, it was mined as inspiration, an ever-flowing spiritual river alongside the might Rio Grande, channeling the invisible essence of life even as the river carried life’s water. Sometimes younger artists drew in the same spaces as their ancestors, layering their work within the images of the previous drawings, nesting generation within generation, essence within essence.
Or sometimes, the archeologist suggested, a bit of the pigments might have been scraped off, mixed into the potent drinks of tribal puberty rights and imbibed by the initiates.
But both ways were expressions of absorption and honor. The one way sought to incorporate the youthful artists into the work of the ancestors. The other sought to incorporate the work of their ancestors into the youthful initiates.
The art is meant to be timeless. Eternal. It is a cycle of spirit and nature and civilization each nurturing the other. Nature-as-canvas and pigment and animal offers itself as a medium for the grand expression of civilization, which, in the hands of the artists, in turn offers a celebration of humankind’s grandeur through the vocabulary of nature.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we too could see our civilization in such a way, not as transcending or mastering or subjugating nature but celebrating it? What if we imagined that our creations would one day be ground up and nurture (not poison) the next generations?
What would our world look like if we saw our cities, our medicine, our art, our roads, our buildings as artful expressions of an enduring civilization drawn with the fragile pigment of the earth?
How would we build and manufacture and consume if we imagined that for generations to come our creations would be displayed larger-than-life for all to gaze upon and critique?
How would we design our world if we remembered that we too, like the shamans, dance upon a thin canvas of earth that must be shared by all generations?
A single fawn has taken to bedding just outside our daughter’s window. Nestled between a sweetbay magnolia and the warm stucco wall, the fawn disappears upon a bed of fallen leaves.
(The magnolia is an evergreen that loses its leaves all year-round, which means no matter how voraciously the friendly microscopic beasties in the soil munch away, there is always a soft bedding of leaves beneath the tree.)
The fawn is always alone, and seems to walk with limp, its back legs moving stiffly, well past the time of newborn awkwardness.
So I don’t know if it has been abandoned, or chooses to be alone. I don’t know if it is happy or sad, at ease or just hanging on. Perhaps it comes out of despair, or perhaps it just wants some time to itself, an uncrowded space free of the demands of display, expectations, comparisons or performance. Perhaps it just likes the view.
The windows of the house there are easily at fawn-eye-level, and the fawn stood for a long time yesterday looking at them. I wonder if it saw its reflection, and if so, was it annoyed at this silent trespasser, this loiterer who crashed its secret place? or was it thinking that finally there was another else like him (her?) to play with, someone who could finally understand?
I am waiting for the fawn this morning, eager to see how it fills its place today.
(photo: the place where the fawn lies - though he/she is not there now)
Really. It is a movie about dirt, and is appropriately called Dirt.
It is a must-see, humorous, informative, and inspiring reminder of how awesome is this precious world of ours.
(It is free on-line, too, through Hulu and other video sites. Invite some friends over, turn down the lights, and turn up the sound.)
It reminds us of the essential role played by that humble stuff we step on, sweep away, pave over, push around and otherwise derisively call, a la Mary Douglas, stuff-out-of-place. Dirt is the word we tend to use for the stuff we don’t want, that messes things up, that we want to wash off.
And yet, Dirt, soil, humus, adamah, is the stuff we are all made from. The first human, we all know, according to Torah, was called Adam, for he was made from adamah. And it is the stuff that grows the things that give us food, organic materials, shade, medicines, oxygen and much more.
We might as well say Dirt is Us. It is so simple and ubiquitous and yet so complex and increasingly rare.
It is - along with water - the single most unique ingredient of earth that allows the chemistry of our planet to mix with our abundant sunlight and give birth to life.
There is no life without healthy soil. So, while we do not need to fetishize it, or take it home in a jar or make it our pet, we do need to appreciate it, understand it, be in awe of it, and most of all protect and nourish it so that it can in turn protect and nourish us.
Watch the movie. Share it with your friends. And even if you leave the dirt outside, bring the message home.
The Forward recently published a most disturbing piece about Jewish summer camps signing on to allow fracking (hydraulic fracturing) on their land.
Regardless of your view of the future of natural gas extraction, the current technology creates enormous and inequitable problems. And the exemptions that oil companies are extracting from governments are most distressing.
We should make our camp owners and directors aware that many of us are not willing to send our children to sites where the water and air is contaminated by fracking techniques.
Nor do we want to give our money to Jewish enterprises that endorse what is at present a reckless and destructive and inequitable energy effort.
We are now beginning to explore efforts to approach camp owners and talk with them about fracking. If you want to help us, please let me know.
There seems to be a consensus among folks who write about homes these days that privacy is (a) a modern value; (b) a modern luxury; or (c) at the very least, a modern amenity.
Perhaps because of the necessary modesty of the pre-modern home (few rooms serving multiple purposes for assorted occupants with little visual and aural barriers) there was an assumption of an accepted, or at least acquired, immodesty of spirit.
But I don’t fully agree. We know from the midrash that the rabbis of old valued modesty of person and modesty of household. They cast their imaginations back and tell us that even in the trek through the wilderness, the Jews so valued modesty that they situated their tent openings in such a way that neighbors could not see directly into each others’ domains.
And the gemara hailed one woman as being so pious that even the rafters of her house never saw the hair on her head (that is, she always kept her head modestly covered, even in the protected space of her home).
Privacy, so it seems, was always desired, even if not always readily available indoors. It was no doubt hard to finagle in the crowded, well-used square footage of older homes. So where could privacy be found?
One obvious answer is in the cover of darkness, the blanket of sleep, and the feigned deafness of fellow housemates. (Not unlike the way many of us live in apartments these days.)
But there was another way as well, that many of us in the more populated areas of the world have lost. Nature. The great outdoors. Woods and meadows and beaches and glades and gardens.
The rapturous biblical Song of Songs knows of this: “Come, my beloved, let us go into the open; let us lodge among the henna shrubs. Let us go early to the vineyards, let us see if the vine has flowered, if its blossoms have opened. If the pomegranates are in bloom, there I will give my love to you.” (7:12-13)
If the indoors was often where we exposed, it was the outdoors where, at times, we could find private space.
In a dense world that is getting denser all the time, it is hard to imagine that the commons was a place that could hold our secrets. (Though I imagine folks in Wyoming, with just over a half a million people settled across just under 100,000 square miles, might know the isolation of open spaces.)
But it was. We may never be able to feel the power and gifts of nature that our ancestors felt. We may never be able to conjure up what it felt like knowing there was still earth that had not been discovered, places that had not been settled; a “there” that had not been mapped.
We may never surmount the claustrophobic feeling we get when we think of how people have filled the banks and crevices of this tender planet, and peppered the world in volume, construction and waste.
But we should not project such feelings back onto our ancestors, who had a different relationship with relationships, with the gifts of the commons, and the shared-yet-personal outdoors.
Maryland Democrat raises national profile on bay, environment
By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun
11:09 PM EDT, July 3, 2011
WASHINGTON — Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a longtime advocate of the Chesapeake Bay, is wading into the high-profile debate over the federal regulation of pesticides—instantly putting him at odds with fellow Democrats while potentially raising his national profile on environmental issues.
Maryland’s junior senator is threatening to filibuster a proposal to limit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s oversight of pesticides that end up in the nation’s waterways, including the bay. The move, which at the very least will delay the legislation, has set off a behind-the-scenes scramble among advocates who hope to override him if he carries through on the threat.
For his part, Cardin said he believes the proposal needed slowing down.
“Pesticides have a direct impact on our water,” Cardin, 67, said in an interview. “The hold allows us to use a more deliberative process and that gives us more of a chance to review” the legislation.
His decision to hold up the legislation, which sailed through the House of Representatives on a bipartisan vote in March and had recently been approved by a Senate committee, was the latest effort by Cardin to address clean water, an area in which the veteran lawmaker has taken a growing interest since coming to the Senate in 2007.
In April, he chaired a hearing on the natural gas drilling procedure known as hydraulic fracturing. Federal and state officials are studying the environmental impact of “fracking.”
A month later, he introduced a bill to require that new federal highways capture polluted runoff after a storm, arguing that every inch of rain that falls on a mile of two-lane highway produces 52,000 gallons of contaminated water.
Finally, Cardin expects to reintroduce a comprehensive proposal this year that he says will strengthen cleanup of the Chesapeake. That measure, which failed to pass last year, requires states to craft plans to meet 2025 cleanup targets and would then prod officials by threatening to cut off federal funds.
The environmental news service Greenwire recently described Cardin as “the Senate’s ‘King of Water.’”
“He’s really emerged as the go-to person in the United States Senate on clean water,” said Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Bob Gibbs, an Ohio Republican, in a response to a 2009 federal appeals court decision that required farmers and others using pesticides to obtain a special permit from the EPA and submit to more strict regulations. The implementation of that ruling, which has repeatedly been delayed, is set for October.
I have been reading about the Commons lately, the stuff of life that is shared by all of us; the stuff that is not and should never be enclosed, cordoned off, claimed or owned by any one person or entity; the stuff that - should it ever disappear, be destroyed or withdrawn - would take civilization with it.
The Commons is air, water, green space, language, culture, knowledge, streets, calendar, holidays, the Fourth of July… Once upon a time, it was a popular, prized concept that guided much of how society thought. Today, if known at all, it is cast as quaint, archaic, at odds with the fast-paced, segmented, possessive (if not possessed) world of the buy-and-sell marketplace.
And yet it is wrong to lament the passing of the Commons. It is still here, used - and abused - and increasingly under siege though it may be.
For the Commons will never go away. It cannot. It is an essential, non-negotiable component of life. And for the first time in decades (perhaps in response to the over-zealous and unfulfilled promises of the marketplace), it is showing signs of renewal: in the resurgence of community gardens, the attraction of walkable communities, the creation of pedestrian malls, the success of wikis, Twitter, and open-sourcing.
Communities the world over are rediscovering and reclaiming the Commons without knowing it, without naming it as such. Reclaiming it is very good, but not good enough. We need to name what we are doing so we can elevate, promote and unite these discrete efforts into a world-wide movement that reclaims the Commons. We need to learn more about what the Commons is, what it means, and expand its use in practice.
We need to speak and believe, once again, in the Commons as a desired value and to place it in the center of society’s most precious assumptions. The marketplace, like the mighty Mississippi, is good and essential when it properly runs its course, but it is destructive and unmanageable when it swells beyond its banks. We need to speak of and rebuild the corrective of the Commons, to say that the collective is as every bit as treasured as the individual; that sharing is every bit as treasured as owning; that preserving is every bit as treasured as creating.
This is not a call to undo the marketplace or tear down Wall Street. I am a daughter of capitalism. It is, however, a call to understand its place, and its limits. We need the marketplace just as we need the Commons. But we cannot allow the market’s unchecked appetite for possession and profit to be the ultimate definition of value. And we cannot allow its relentless pursuit of wealth to be the undoing of the Commons. The marketplace needs the commons - and the government that builds and protects it. Indeed it will fail without it.
This July 4th, as we travel the interstates to gather on lawns, city streets, river banks, national parks and even around television sets to celebrate this date we cherish in common, let’s also celebrate the legacy of the Commons. We would not be here without it.
(A good introduction can be found in “The Growth of the Commons Paradigm,” by David Bollier. Chapter 2 (pp. 27-40) in Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice (MIT Press, 2007), edited by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom. The pdf can be found on-line.)