The annual Maryland Legislative Environmental Summit was held yesterday in Annapolis. Hundreds of people, really, a lot, (I’m waiting for the official count) packed into the Miller Senate Building to hear activists, elected officials, and me (!) make brief (5 minute) talks as this year’s legislative session kicks off. It was an honor to be a voice from “the faith community” speaking to such an august and passionate crowd, a group of people who work so hard on behalf of all of us. There is much to do, what with issues such as wind energy, water quality, a bag bill, and more. To keep abreast of issues, you can always check the Maryland League of Conservation Voters site. Or better yet, become one of their members and get updates sent to you.
I attach my presentation below, fyi:
We live in the midst of a 4-billion year old mystery, an on-going miracle that we call Earth. For all we know, no such miracle exists anywhere else. Whatever we may be skilled enough to find out there, there is likely not to be another Planet Earth, or another you, or another me, or another Bay or the parade of moonrises and sunsets, or the cascade of creatures that have filled our air and seas and land and made our world what it is today.
We are the chosen ones, blessed with being alive at this awesomely rich and perilous time. We didn’t ask for this moment, we didn’t create it, we did not earn it, and we don’t even understand it.
What we do understand, however, is that something very dangerous – even wicked - is happening out there – and we are doing our share to cause it.
But the good news is, we can do our share to stop it.
We are Earth’s most aware beneficiaries and its most powerful stewards.
We are not its masters, we are not its owners. We are its tenders. We are called upon to use it, take care of it, and give it – healthy and robust - to our children, just as our ancestors gave it to us.
Thomas Berry, the Catholic theologian – taught that each generation has a Great Work. It is a work that we do not choose, but that we are dealt by the hand of history. It is a work that drives our ultimate purpose and inspires our days, a work that all future generations will judge us by, a work that is bound to “the larger destinies of the universe.”
Our generation’s Great Work is to learn to thrive within life’s sustaining cycles. Our Great Work is to build a world that is resilient, ever new and ever fresh to each generation, that matches our desires and consumption, our use and our waste, our progress and our joys, to the untransgressible bounds of nature.
We must do this and we can do this, for we are not alone.
It is crowded in here.
It is crowded with your passion and persistence, your hard work and hopes, your wisdom and commitment.
And it is crowded with the concern and confusion, the hunger and the worry, the needs and prayers of hundreds more, thousands more, millions more who have never heard of you, but who depend upon you, and who need you to pursue this sacred work.
For all of us work on behalf of everyone who takes a breath of air, who wants a sip of clean water, who works to put food on their table, who takes refuge from the cold, seeks a good day’s work today and tomorrow, anyone who relies upon this awesome, giving world for their manifold, mundane needs. And that is everyone.
The names we use to describe our work might be throwing people off. It seems to me that Senator Carter Conway’s and Delegate McIntosh’s committees might need to be renamed:
Perhaps something like the: Education, Health and Environment, Economy, Jobs, Energy, Equity, Life’s Well-being, Earth Stewardship and Children of Tomorrow Committees.
The world of tomorrow will not be the world of yesterday. It will take more than science and knowledge, more than money and regulations to get us from here to there. It will take our trust, it will take our will, and it will take our faith.
We are not engaged in an us-vs-them agenda. It is not about jobs vs the environment; enviros vs progress, government vs the people.
Our task can be stated simply:
It is about us taking care of nature so nature can take care of us.
There is a great future waiting for us; we must find the way, and we must all get there together.
That is our Great Work.
That is our sacred work.
And that is why you are here.
Thank you for what you do.
In Genesis 1, on the sixth day, God creates man and woman after having created all the rest of Planet Earth. In a gracious effort to provide some guidance, some instruction to these bewildered, befuddled neophytes on how this novelty of life could possibly work, God says, “Look around. All this grandeur is there for you.”
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
“All this is at your disposal. But, and this is a huge But, you have to learn how to use it well so you don’t mess things up. (I am paraphrasing from the midrash here.)
“Let’s begin with the basics.
29Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
“Though I said to you” (interpreting God here), “that the earth is yours, your food shall be its plants. Not the animals and not just any plants, but the stuff that comes with seed, zorea zera, those things that fertilize, renew and regenerate themselves. To the animals and all the other creatures I give green plants for food. To you I give grains and fruits and vegetables of all kinds that carry this harvestable gift of regeneration.
“Regeneration. That is the key. Without that, all this ends. Even you. You need to know that, for you are the one species whose imagination will lead you to assume great powers. You will learn how to tame fire and subdue infections, travel great distances and send messages across the galaxies. But you will also learn how to wrest millions of years of stored energy (stored sunshine!) from the earth and consume it in a flash, to cut down forests faster than they can grow, to drag the seas clean, scraping all its life into your nets.
“To you I say, consume only that which has ‘seed’ in it, that which can regenerate itself. Harvest the fruit, preserve the seed, plant it and let it grow. Do not consume it all so that it is unable to renew itself.”
It seems a simple enough task. Use only what can be recycled and healthily reused. Consume only the stuff and the amounts that allow renewal. Yet we are failing at it.
There is one message we need to repeat over and over again til it sinks in and changes our thoughts, our values and our behavior:
We can’t get there from here (to a renewable, resilient world).
We can eventually get there.
But we can’t get there from here.
We need to step off this path and move to another. We can do it. We can survive it. We can thrive in it. Indeed, it is the only way we can. But we need to change paths, and it all begins with a change of spirit, of will, of desire.
And that is where we, the faith community, comes in. Spread the word.
While the philosophers and rabbis of old lost themselves in labyrinths of logic like: “Can we have free will if there is an All-Knowing God,” mothers of old (or so I imagine) struggled with the very real question: “How can I raise my child to reach for excellence but be content with their best?”
That is, how can we, how do we, hold together two sides of an irreconcilable coin: actively seeking perfection and being content with less?
How do we avoid feeling like failures, like we are living lesser lives, when we come up short? How do we not give up, slump in our chairs, be washed in despair, and set our sights lower next time so we are not so disappointed again?
This is hardly an idle question. It is one we must all grapple with throughout our lives. It is the question that determines the essence, and difference, of religious traditions, and the difference between a content life and a unsettled one.
Judaism answers in a pithy aphorism, and in the ways we are taught to live.
“Rabbi Tarfon said: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to ignore it.” (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:21) Our task is not to achieve perfection but simply strive for it.
Shabbat agrees, but teaches more sweetly. We learn from the ebb and flow of Shabbat and workweek that for six days we are to work, chasing perfection, never achieving it. Yet, once a week, we get Shabbat, a taste of perfection. The candles we kindle, a midrash tells us, are sparks from the primordial light of the first day of creation. A pure light, different from the sun (which was created on the fourth day), this first light was set aside for the end of time, but it dips into this work-a-day world once a week in the form of our Shabbat candles to inspire and refresh us.
So every seven days we get a taste of perfection, a respite, a balm that celebrates our good-enough workday achievements, soothes our sagging spirits and sends us stronger back into the frail, imperfect world to keep striving for better.
Hanukkah, too, offers us a way forward. We sing of the miracle of the oil, when what was enough for one day lasted for eight. The true miracle, though, was not the oil but the faith of those who bothered to light it. The work needed to restore the Temple was beyond the task of one day. Or one precious cruse of oil. To light it would be a waste at best and a folly at worst. Yet they lit.
So too we light our Hanukkiot in the midst of darkness for eight days, even though we know that when the week is over, the darkness again follow.
We know that when we start. But we light anyway. We must. For while the lights are burning, we are buoyed. And when they go out, we start our work again.
(My thoughts on this subject were stimulated by a conversation I had with Elicia Brown who is writing an article on this subject for Jewish Women International’s Jewish Woman magazine. Check out JWI, their important work and their wonderful magazine.)
We are deep into the season’s darkness, hurtling toward the shortest day of the year. Our days will continue to shorten and our nights will continue to lengthen until the welcome solstice (Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 12:30 AM here in Baltimore). Then, the sun will cease its southern recession, pause and begin its northern trek again. On that day, night in Baltimore will last 14 hours, 35 minutes and 59 seconds. That is way too much darkness.
My interfaith study group has begun delving into the nature of night, as found in the Bible. We imagined that we moderns could not begin to know the full experience of night (how it could evoke awe, depth, terrors, thickness, cover, refuge) as did those who lived before the easy flip of a switch. Our experience of darkness and our fabulously easy ability to create light right here and now strips out the rawness of unrelenting darkness. Back in the day, the dark must have felt as much like a creature, a presence, as a duration of time.
So we are reading narratives of night in the Bible. We began with Genesis 1 - a good place to start.
When God began to create the heavens and the earth - the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and a wind from God sweeping over the water - God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. (New Jewish Publication Society translation)
Or, in the creatively faithful translation of Everett Fox:
At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of the Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters - God said, Let there be light. And there was light.
It is our good fortune to have both a sailor in our study group, someone who has logged thousands of hours on the water, day and night, and a theater director. So we read and saw this text through their eyes.
The beginning of time began in water and darkness. That was the setting: darkness and water. Imagine that, our director said: all darkness, all around. You can see nothing. You know nothing about space, place, orientation. You have no sense of what “here” is. You just sense your body but don’t really know what it looks like. And then you feel a whoosh.
The sailor explained to us that not seeing on the water is different from not seeing on land. One’s exposure, lacking of bearings, leaves one feeling vulnerable.
You can walk in the darkness, count your footsteps, feel the rise and fall of the land, find a tree or rock to serve as a marker. There is a way to ground and orient yourself, even if only minimally. Not so in the dark at sea. You can stay put on land, know that you wake up at the same place you lay down on land. Not so at sea. (Yes, there are anchors for larger boats in shallower areas but not for all boats and not deep at sea and not here in the story.)
Even more, our sailor told us, it is not the water that is most attended to on the open sea. It is the wind. Water is water, he said. It is when it is whipped up by the wind that you notice it and must respond. The responsiveness of the sails, sense of security, ease, confidence - all are determined in some measure by the wind. A sailor is ever attentive to the wind’s speed, force, direction, waxing, waning. It is the wind that will determine the quality of the trip. And at night, in the darkness, exposed and drifting, the wind can feel like the whooshing, rishrushing of God.
With this understanding, the “rushing spirit/wind of God” takes on new resonance. In the midst of the chaotic, watery mass of creation, the text is telling us, there appears a constant, flowing wind that soothes and calms and fashions the world.
Perhaps even more, we can learn from this text that when we find ourselves adrift, afraid, in the dark, at a loss, we should pause, stay still, and attend to the spirit/wind that blows over the depth. Then, perhaps, the light will come.
(This is my column, written for the Bay Journal News Service, that appeared in the Baltimore Sun earlier this week:)
Ever since Adam and Eve took a bite of the apple, we have been haunted by Desire, that shape-shifting seducer who promises us beauty, understanding and fulfillment if only we chase after More.
On the one hand, that is a blessing. We would still be clumsy, clueless creatures huddling in caves — or naked in the Garden — without it.
Desire and appetite drive our ambition, fire our curiosity and lead us to discover in ways that complacency and fullness never can.
It is Desire that propels culture forward, urging us to explore, to dare, to persevere so we may uncover all the wisdom, comforts and delights that make life grand.
It is Desire that gives rise to the dignity of human achievement. Science, mathematics, medicine, the arts all depend on curiosity, appetite, the drive for more. It is these that have enabled us to recognize the awesome, intricate elegance of creation. What a pity if there were this grand universe and no one to gape in awe and wonder.
Should God ask us, as He asks Job in the Bible, “Can you tie cords to the Pleiades or undo the reins of Orion? Can you send an order to the clouds … or dispatch the lightning on a mission?” It is Desire that would have us answer, “Not yet, but we are trying.”
On the other hand, Desire is a curse. If left unchecked and undisciplined, it will drive us to excess, consuming both our resources and our spirit, and still not make us happy.
Unchecked Desire propels us right past Enough and straight toward the never-attainable More. We believe that if we just had one more handbag, one more car, one more bathroom, one more franchise, one more road, one more mall, we would be happy. Never mind that the last time we tried that it didn’t really work. This time, it will be different.
Even more, consumer desire, we are told, fuels the economy. But the dark secret is that it does so by fanning our discontent. Unhappiness is the currency that keeps the marketplace humming. “If the consumer forgets,” Jean Baudrillard said, “he will gently be reminded that he has no right to be happy.”
That is not good. Such a reckless Economy of More wreaks havoc on both the spirit and the environment, and ultimately back on the economy itself. The current world-wide crisis was not brought upon us by people buying too little but by people grasping for too much.
Once upon a time, the earth could absorb our reckless habits of consumption. No more. We are now 7 billion strong, growing at an astounding rate of 1 billion every 12 years. As the eminent Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson teaches us, humans have now become a geophysical force. Our numbers and our capacity can overwhelm global systems.
We may not [yet] possess the keys to the vaults of heaven or be able to call the wind to give birth to spring, but with our unchecked appetites we can foul the air and spoil the oceans and strip the Earth of fertile soil. We can destroy whole ecosystems, harvest the very last speck of nature’s bounty, rip the earth to shreds by desperately digging out the last crumbs of energy and metals. If we are the stewards of God’s creation, as many of our traditions say we are, presiding over global degradation and species extinction is not a good thing to have on our resume.
The solution may lie in the concept of Enoughness, in balancing the urge of Desire with the peace of satisfaction, the restlessness of curiosity with the quiet of contentment. The solution lies in knowing when and where we are full enough, and when we need more, to proceed humbly. It lies in creating systems that breathe in sync with the systems of the Earth so that discovery, creation, consumption and dissolution happen within the bounds of nature’s way.
Humans have never been good at this balance. Adam and Eve can tell you that. But we can learn to do it better than we ever have before, and today we know we must. For with all the upset caused by eating the apple, Adam and Eve had somewhere else to go. For us, there is nothing outside the Garden.
There is a wonderful teaching in the Jerusalem Talmud which reads: “Rabbi Yohanan, speaking on behalf of Rabbi Yossi, says: ‘Just as they (the other rabbis) believe that civilization depends on cisterns, so I believe that civilization depends on trees.’”
The work of blending civilization and nature has always been a challenge. In this “man vs nature” tug of war, we must ask, who wins? What has precedence over what; what should yield to what?
Gray infrastructures - the built environment of houses, streets, marketplaces, and water systems are often seen as more essential than Green infrastructure - trees, wetlands, swales, hills, bees, bats and more. (Think cutting down 40-year-old trees to make way for a 3-day Grand Prix.) Nature is seen as either plentiful or wild, or otherwise able to be pushed around and manipulated and superseded by humanity’s better management.
This discussion has echoes in old rabbinic texts exploring the rights of neighbors, landholders and trees.
In the case Rabbi Yohanan commented on above, the rabbis ask, how far apart must a tree on one neighbor’s property be planted from a cistern (a pit dug to hold water) on an adjacent neighbor’s property?
The answer was 25-50 amot, depending on the type of tree. (This way, the cistern would be reasonably safe from intruding roots.)
What if the tree and cistern are found to be too close? The rabbis answer: if the cistern was there first, the tree should be cut down, and the tree owner compensated. If the tree was there first (or if you are not certain which came first), the tree remains.
But Rabbi Yossi objects: not so. Even if the cistern came first, you do not cut the tree down.
Rabbi Yossi seems to be arguing for property rights: I can do what I want as long as it is in the domain of my property.
Okay, truth be told, I am not enamored of this position if Rabbi Yossi would also say that you can just as easily choose to chop down all the trees on your property on a whim. I am hoping that Rabbi Yosi would say even personal property rights have their limit when it comes to preserving nature.
So I am going with Rabbi Yohanan who interprets Rabbi Yossi as meaning: grey infrastructure, civilization, depends on green infrastructure. The two are not morally, or practically, equivalent. Civilization cannot survive without nature; nature will survive without civilization.
Cisterns are invaluable only so long as rain and water flow. Trees bring shade and bring water, hold the soil and protect your crops.
Good trees, good nature, make good civilization. We do need civilization to make nature usable to us, to turn grain into breads, wool into coats, stone into buildings, wood into homes, rain into captured water. And we need civilization at times to protect us from nature: wild animals, illness, the rawness of weather.
But we cannot abuse, push around, ignore or sacrifice nature and believe civilization will survive. We need to live within the tides of nature, mine the wisdom of biomimicry, yielding our forceful ways of civilization to the more efficient, elegant ways of nature. Then it will not be a question of who wins. We all do.
This is the group that brought us the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 which sought to limit the amount of greenhouse gases the world emits. The UNFCCC has posted videos of key presentations and links to various reports. And more are coming.
In concert with this annual event, four environmentally-concerned organizations have issued their own Bankrolling Climate Change report, which studies the coal-heavy investments of many of the world’s leading banking institutions.
Truth be told, it makes only the tiniest difference if your bank says it is “green” as it saves millions of pieces of paper (and millions of dollars) through on-line banking services if it still invests billions in dirty, destructive, dislocating coal-mining practices that destroy millions of acres of trees, foul the air with coal ash, force abandonment and relocation of tens of thousands and continue to spew CO2 into the atmosphere instead of investing in the next generation of essential life-sustaining energy.
This study is chock full of frightening information, such as, if China alone continues on its present pace of increasing the mining and burning of coal, by 2030 it will be spewing out as much CO2 emissions into the atmosphere as the whole world is doing now.
The report is a call to investors like you and me around the world to hold our banks to account.
Find out if your bank is one of the main investors in continuing to promote this fatal technology. And if it is, put your money where your mouth is.
The Maryland Chapter of the American Jewish Congress is developing a Green and Just Celebrations Guide for the Jewish community of Baltimore. Inspired by a guide of the same name published by Jews United for Justice in Washington, DC, it will be available (fall 2012) through synagogues and on the web, designed to make events and celebrations environmentally friendly, socially responsible, affordable and fun.
This is not the first time in Jewish history that the Jewish community has tried to wrestle with excessive and indulgent celebrations. “Sumptuary Laws” (provisions that sought to control extravagant personal spending and consumption) popped up over the centuries. From Rabban Gamaliel 2000 years ago (who sought to take the financial sting out of funerals, making them simpler and more affordable for the 99%) to the Rhine community in the 13th century to the Frankfort community in the 17th century to the Italian community in the 18th century.
The quest to control excessive consumption had two goals: (1) to relieve the social pressure on individuals and families who otherwise would spend more than they could afford; and (2) to avoid the waste of communal resources.
The challenge was how to do that. How does, how should, a community measure wealth and create just expectations for appropriate levels of spending?
Clearly, the definition of “excess” varies depending on financial capacity. The poor should not compete with or emulate the rich in their celebrations. But the rich should not flagrantly flaunt and waste their riches either. How, then, to figure out the right amount of whoopie?
The Council of the Four Lands (in the area of Poland today), came up with the following rules:
A. “The leaders of the community have agreed to deal severely with excessive and wasteful spending for festive meals…It is decreed that the number of participants at a simcha (celebration) be in accordance with one’s financial position.”
Clear enough. The expense of a celebration increases with the number of guests, so if you limit the number of guests, you limit the expense. And, the number of guests one can invite depends upon one’s wealth.
Now the question was, how to assess a person’s wealth, always a sticky task. But there was one way in which people’s wealth was publicly known. Through their philanthropy.
B. “One who pays two golden coins [to the community chest] can invite 15 people [to a bris]; one who pays four coins can invite 20 people; one who pays six coins can invite 25 people… And every 10 invitees must include at least one poor person.” (quoted from Meir Tamari, With All Your Possessions: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life)
One’s wealth was known by the amount one gave away. Having money, building great big houses and wearing expensive clothes and jewelry was not the measure by which you earned rights to large celebrations. Rather, if you had all that money, you were obliged to help the community, commensurately with what you were “worth”. One’s “worth,” this law reminds us, is not wealth kept, but wealth given to support the needs of one’s community.
The Jewish communities of old knew that wealth conferred obligation, and it was the fulfillment of this obligation which in turn conferred privilege, and helped strengthen community.
And more, in the midst of the celebration, one must remember and care for the poor.
It is a lesson we are struggling to remember today.
So perhaps we can learn more than just good consumer habits from these sumptuary laws. Perhaps we can learn good citizenship.
I love Thanksgiving, perhaps because it is so different from Judaism’s standard, classical, biblical holidays.
All our pilgrimage holidays, for example, happen away from home, toward home, longing for home. They teach us how to create a sense of place, of pride, of belonging in the midst of wandering and dislocation. They teach us how to be centered in mobility; how to weave stories into platforms of place; how to celebrate “here” when that is all we have. What they don’t speak of, given our long history of exile and exclusion, is the celebration of home. Understandably.
Passover is about leaving a home of horrors, shedding a past and journeying to a better tomorrow while in the midst of a volatile, meandering road to Home.
Sukkot is about accepting the security of in-betweenness. Neither in Egypt nor Israel, at home or on the road, we nonetheless are bidden to set up a hut to serve as our place of surety in this most unsure world. (Oddly, even the most misanthropic among us turns into a gracious host this holiday, for the liturgy recited before each dinner has us invite our ancestors, among others who might be present, as our honored guests.)
Shavuot, in the Bible, was the holiday marking the homecoming of Israel, yet somewhere in the presence of the long years of exile, it morphed into a celebration of Covenant instead, marking the law-giving in the wilderness of Sinai.
The High Holidays, too, are moments of spirit, not place. Purim and Hanukkah are about survival through wit and force.
We are ready, though, especially 63 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, to have a day that celebrates home. Yes, of course, we have the weekly Shabbat, a day of renewal and family, when the world shrinks down to habitable size and home looms large in the celebration. But perhaps because it comes every week, it does not have the lustre or homebound command of a once-a-year celebration like Thanksgiving.
Like many ethnic Americans, my family has added our particular, Jewish twist: we celebrate the night before, erev Thanksgiving. Everyone comes home Wednesday and that evening we have a boisterous brouhaha dinner with four generations, and a singularly unique combination of guests.
The centerpiece is a sculpted Tofurkey (yup, marinaded tofu molded into a turkey shape) but the real fun is being all together once again.
Thanksgiving is our one shared non-denominational American home holiday. We are not expected to fly to Cancun or the Bahamas on Thanksgiving. Airline commercials are not luring us to exotic places. This holiday’s travel is not about adventure but about getting home.
The backlash about Black Friday creep - with stores opening at midnight or even 9:00 pm on Thanksgiving Thursday - reveals that many Americans believe home is where people ought to be and America’s commerce can rest for one shared day.
For me, I love the festive, food-filled, flush of family. And then it only hurts a little when they are off on Thursday to their “other” family and friends.
(written beside the warming oven, in between batches of my Bubbe Ema - grandmother’s - cookies prepared for the holiday)
In the mid-19th century, Calvert Vaux created the iconic images of the American urban landscape, including the grounds at the White House, the Smithsonian Institute and (with his newly hired young recruit, Frederick Law Olmsted) Central Park. Though Vaux started in landscape design, he later moved into designing buildings and homes that would occupy these landscapes.
A populist of sorts, he believed that access to natural beauty was a right shared by all. And that natural beauty should not be marred by ugly architecture or blocked by aggressive private ownership.
In his classic book entitled Villas and cottages: a series of designs prepared for execution in the US, 1857, Vaux makes available to the general public (at least those of a certain means) drawings for what he believes are attractive houses that can appropriately grace various natural settings and landscapes. (He believed, no doubt, that the house should be made to suit the setting and not the setting manhandled to suit the house.)
In this book, he quotes N P Willis of Idlewild, a defender of the public’s access to the grandeur of nature and the limits of private ownership of public goods:
To fence out a genial eye from any corner of the earth which nature has lovingly touched with her pencil, which never repeats itself – to shut up a glen or a waterfall for one man’s exclusive knowing or enjoying – to lock up trees and glades, shady paths and haunts among rivulets, would be an embezzlement by one man of God’s gift to all. A capitalist might as well curtain off a star, or have the monopoly of an hour. Doors may lock, but outdoors is a freehold to feet and eyes. (p. 250)
One wonders what Willis and Vaux would say about how we can restore the blessings and shed the excesses of capitalism today.
I recently purchased and viewed Gasland. It is a documentary exploring the hazards that come in the wake of hydraulic fracturing (aka, fracking) to loose natural gas from pockets within shale formations around the country.
One of those formations is Marcellus Shale. It covers nine states, including most of West Virginia, half of Ohio and Pennsylvania, large chunks of New York, Kentucky, Tennessee and just nipping the very western tips of Maryland and Virginia and northern Alabama. It is huge, the biggest shale region in the United States.
And it is in the cross-hairs of the big gas companies.
The problem is that extracting this gas through fracking causes alarming and irreparable destruction to the land, water, air, animals, land values, crops and, of course, people. Oh, and it might be the cause of earthquakes that are beginning to damage dams and upset other fragile natural and built infrastructures.
Exactly what damage and how much damage it does, we do not know, in large measure because, courtesy of then-V.P. Dick Cheney, fracking was made exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Superfund Act, the Resource Conversation and Recovery Act (hazardous waste act), and the Environmental Policy Act. Which not only means that the drilling companies needn’t comply with these protections but that no one has the authority to monitor them.
We do not know what, exactly, the gas companies are pumping into the earth to release the pockets of natural gas or how such drilling is affecting the environment and the lives around the thousands and thousands of wells. But we do know this:
Drinking water and ground water in areas where fracking is taking place are becoming contaminated. (The EPA recently reported that fracking contaminants were found in a Wyoming aquifer.)
80,000 pounds of chemicals, most of which are toxic, are injected into each well under high pressure and remain in the ground migrating who-knows-where
Poisonous gases are emitted into the air through the fracking process
Millions of gallons of water are used to flush out the gas
Thousands of miles of roads with only one short-lived destination and one purpose have to be built to get the water, chemicals, building materials, people, etc to and from the well pad sites.
Land values are declining where fracking is occurring.
Banks are beginning to disallow their mortgagees from signing on with gas companies for fear that it will compromise the resale value of the house.
Perhaps not everything awful that is being said about fracking is true. But we don’t know because the industry has drawn a shroud of secrecy around its operations. Two things I believe are true:
when big business hides behind the skirts of non-disclosure, claims exemption from the major environmental laws that have been on the books since the days of Richard Nixon, and demands that the people it leases land from must sign non-disclosure (gagging) clauses, something is very wrong.
if our enemies were threatening or compromising our water supply and destroying our ecosystems the way Big Gas is, we would call them terrorists.
We can do something. The Frac Act (to repeal exemption and require disclosure) was introduced in both the House and the Senate. HR 2766 and S1215. (OpenCongress is a great way to find out what is going on in Congress and tracking bills of interest.)
Senator Cardin and Congressman Sarbanes are both co-sponsors of these bills. Check on the status of your representatives. If they are co-sponsoring or supporting these bills, thank them. If they are not, tell them why they should.
To become even more involved, check out and consider joining any of the anti-fracking efforts in our region, including jewsagainsthydrofracking on Facebook.
This is that scary and that important.
If ever there were a time for the faith community to raise its voice about what we are doing to the environment, how we conduct business, and the mean-spirited incapacity of the government, now is the time.
In their new book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, investigate how some of the most successful companies in the world got that way. They tested the belief that timing and luck were large players in success. Their conclusion: not luck but seizing the moment that luck provided was the key.
Everyone experiences both good luck and bad luck, they argue. The question is: do you squander it or ride it? get flattened by it or renewed by it? They call the bump after the luck: Return on Luck.
So, consider this:
The world-wide environment is in a most degraded state largely caused by human behavior.
The planet now hosts 7 billion human inhabitants, just 12 years after welcoming 6 billion, severely taxing our capacity to enable all of us to live well. (One billion people already live with food and water insecurity, meaning they often go hungry, under-nourished and with insufficient and tainted water.)
We are experiencing something new under the sun: never before have humans had the capacity to so alter the earth’s systems imperiling all humankind.
We have precious little time to respond.
Some of the greatest environmentalists (Gus Speth, eg) and economists (Jeffrey Sachs, eg) see the problem as a spiritual failure or “a moral crisis”. That is, they believe that the scientific, industrial, economic technical fixes that can be employed to turn the tide will only be taken if the human-spirit and public-will will endorse them, fight for them, demand them.
The most trusted institutions by far in the American landscape are the religious institutions. In a Pew 2010 poll, banks, congress, the federal government, large corporations, the news media, federal agencies, even the entertainment industry and the unions, were perceived as part of our nation’s biggest problems. The faith community was seen in powerfully positive light, bested only by small businesses and technology companies.
Add to that the fact that hard news - news we would otherwise choose to dismiss, belittle or outright deny - is best received, sometimes only received, if heard from someone who is trusted.
If ever there were a time when the faith communities were in a position to speak up with a strong, moral, loving and fair voice, and guide America to the right path, now is the time.
If ever we were positioned to help American regain the civility and the environmental health that all personal, communal, economic, and national prosperity are based upon, now is the time.
And perhaps by embracing this signal challenge, the one by which our generation will be judged for all time - whether we chose to save the world’s ecosystems while they are still recoverable or whether we chose to plunder them til we could plunder them no more - our stumbling congregations who are losing membership and worrying about their purpose and their own futures will be able to be rejuvenated, reclaimed and revived.
This might be a Return on Luck moment not only for the nation but our religious communities as well.
It is a moment we should not squander.
When we lived in the northern hinterlands of New Jersey (in what now seems lifetimes ago), we knew that summer had arrived when Gene, our gentle next-door neighbor, opened up his above-ground pool.
He would clean and remove the leaf-laden cover, wash off the sides, and unshock the water. (I don’t even want to know the chemical composition of the water, after a decade or more of being shocked and unshocked, shocked and unshocked. Though it did save thousands of gallons of water!)
If he did this on a weekend, we all would have the pleasure of seeing fall, winter and spring peeled away, layer by layer. If on a weekday, we would come home - greeted by this long hoped-for sign of summer.
We all need these signature moments, these small acts that help us set down markers in time’s indivisible trek; these signposts that signal to us - amid our demanding distractions - that we have crossed from here to there; that we are part of an folding mystery so much deeper than our daily affairs allow us to pause and note.
Now, it is true that on a wooded lot, you would think the signs of fall are obvious enough. I rake the leaves off my gravel path one morning and by the next, they are back, thicker than before.
But there are other, more telling signs, that truly herald the presence of fall.
1) The sun now enters our home through windows it missed in summer. Both because of the height of the summer sun’s journey and the presence of full foliage, the front rooms of our house get only a dappling of direct sunlight from June to September. But in the fall, the sunlight comes pouring in, so much so that I cannot see the images on my computer screen.
2) The sky is bigger now. This comes with the falling foliage. We can see so much more of the sky. We can see the daily drama of sunrise and sunset played out not only in the rise and fall of the day’s light, but in the changing canvas of the heavens themselves. And in dusk’s reflection on the stalwart, remaining golden leaves of our poplar trees, our woods are bathed in a light almost as glorious as Jerusalem’s ethereal sunsets (without the soft pinks).
3) The noise. If you strain in the summertime, with the air laden with moisture and leaves, you can just make out the hum of I-695 about a mile away. And you never hear the freight train whistle that rolls by two miles away. Not so in the fall. In the dry, crisp, naked air of fall, you can hear the trucks whizzing by, and the whistle of the hundred-car train ferrying goods from town to town.
The buffer between our home and the mad dash of civilization is peeled back every fall. Laterally, it is a reminder - which we occasionally wistfully veer toward forgetting - of the indivisibility of nature, action, and humanity.
And even more, vertically, it is a reminder that from where I stand, looking up, beneath the still-proud congregation of shedding tulip poplars, it is a straight shot up to the heavens. Nothing obscures or interrupts my connection to the grandest galaxy in the universe except the nuisance of space.
We can learn a lot from Dr. Seuss, or a local CSA, or a child’s coloring book.
That is: there’s a lot more variety in the world than we think.
Not all carrots are orange; not all potatoes are white; not all watermelons are red; not all bananas are yellow.
According to Plants for a Future, there are 20,000 edible plants in the world today. Yet, fewer than 20 species supply 90% of what the world eats.
It seems that in our rush to be food efficient, we have stripped the grand diversity of nature down to a narrow, pre-digested list and thus suffer the illusion of good-world sameness which leads us to question difference. I will explain.
Food limits lead to three deficits, it seems to me.
1) We are being deprived of many delightful and fascinating food sensations, experiences and nutrients. Even for those of us who keep kosher! All edible plants - in and of themselves - are kosher.
2) We are straining our soils to grow the same food over and over again, draining the land’s energies and nutrients in the process. We know the path that global monocultures lead us down. Not good and potentially devastating. (Chocolate and bananas lovers, too, beware.)
3) We learn from our food. As we eat, so we think. If we need our food to be predictable and unblemished, so too, we may be teaching ourselves that other stuff in the world needs to be predictable and unblemished.
Health food establishments such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s reject fruits and vegetables that have blemishes or are misshapen, arguing that their customers won’t buy them. But there is no obvious positive correlation between appearance and taste or value. Just the opposite. We now know that selecting food or flowers for looks often sacrifices flavor (and nutrition?) in food and smell in flowers.
Even more, lots of good food gets wasted (but hopefully processed) both in the industry and in our homes if it is less than perfect looking.
Does this habit of rejecting imperfect affect how we view life altogether? Does it affect how we view “blemished” or “misshapen” people, or how open we are to opinions and beliefs that are different from our own?
As we limit and homogenize the world around us, do we also limit and homogenize our sense of what is right and proper? Are our agricultural monocultures encouraging us to build cultural monocultures (even as the internet opens up unprecedented possibilities of mixing)? Are we increasingly building fortresses around our homes, neighborhoods and nations so that the richness (contamination?) of the “other” is kept at bay?
Even more, are we increasingly seeing our neighbors who deviate from us as the “other”: the Tea Party, the Occupy Wall Street, Republicans, Democrats?
There is no doubt that this country is being riven by incivility and efforts to outright delegitimize, denigrate and occasionally demonize the other. I wonder if those who are more accepting of blemished food are more open to honoring the “other”?
(photo: a dozen eggs from Kayam Farm CSA, with one green egg in it)
This is the city of Antwerp, circa 1572. It was one of the most cosmopolitan, creative, commercial cities of the 16th century, and home of some of the era’s most impressive engravers and printers.
I found this particular map in a charming book called Imagined Corners: exploring the world’s first atlas. It offers a treatment of the political, social, economic, religious, intellectual and cultural trends that gave rise to this new format - a unified, portable, bound collection of maps of the entire known world. This “atlas” (the term would not be coined til a few years later by Mercator) was called Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the Countries of the World), created by Abraham Ortel, and it was a runaway best-seller.
(Yes, now you know, I am one of those folks who loves maps, especially old maps, and can spend hours looking at them and reading about them. A wonderful thing to do over yomtov, the holidays! One of my pet peeves is that most of our mental maps today are of political boundaries - cities, states, nations - and streets. That is because they are based on our road maps. We use maps mostly for traveling than staying, for getting from here to there rather than recording and mapping what is here. Try to find a stream or watercourse on most common maps, never mind the stream’s name, and you will be sorely frustrated. Yet, we need to know the course of our rivers just as we know the turns on our streets. How different it was when land claims were marked in legal documents by, literally, “landmarks,” the markings of the earth itself: the old sycamore tree or the rock with the split in it or the north bank of the local creek. How wonderful it would be to carry those maps around in our minds once more.)
But what I found most riveting about this map (at least given my present pre-occupation with urban orchards) is the way their houses were laid out. And what happened with the space in between.
Throughout Antwerp, houses ringed the edges of city blocks, with open spaces occupying the land inside. Farms, orchards, (vineyards?) and perhaps even playing fields were nestled between the homes, creating a common place of food production, family gardens, as well as pastoral refuges in the middle of the city.
Commercial farms existed on either side of the city (beyond the moat on the north, east and south and along the river on the west). But the pocket farms were urban gardens, tended no doubt for the self-same reasons we tend community gardens today.
We can learn from this model. As we begin to re-imagine the design of our cities, as we begin redraw the lines between nature and home, green and built infrastructure, Antwerp of old offers us a wonderful alternative. We can build fields among buildings, farms alongside businesses, gardens nestled amid the courtyards of condos.
It sounds like a wonderful place to live.
In the run-up to the New Year, a bit of news may have escaped noticed:
“Wangari Muta Maathai died on September 25 (1940–2011). She was a Nobel Peace Laureate; environmentalist; scientist; parliamentarian; founder of the Green Belt Movement; advocate for social justice, human rights, and democracy; elder; and peacemaker. She lived and worked in Nairobi, Kenya.”
Her pioneering work, her unquenchable pursuit of justice, her unending optimism inspired millions around the world.
She died at a time heavy with meaning in the Jewish tradition. This week and next, during our Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, we celebrate the creation of the world, circle back to the freshness and promise when all was new, when both we and the world were young.
Every year, no matter the disappointments or losses or frustrations we knew, our tradition infuses us with daring, with hope, with what we can do tomorrow.
Such, too, were the native attributes of this remarkable woman. Every day a new day in this astonishingly awesome, unique and fragile world of ours.
In her memory, in your yard, at your congregation, in Israel or somewhere else around the world, plant a tree. Give the world a little more life to remember, in gratitude, one grand life.
When the rabbis-of-old mused about the nature of the universe, their telescope was the Tanakh (the Bible), their philosophical society the pathways of Yavneh and Babylon.
Without advanced technology, with no peering devices beyond their own eyes, they used the latest - which is to say the earliest - source of knowledge they had, the texts of their tradition.
They asked: “On what does the earth rest? How does it stay up, stay put, stay stable? What supports it?” (Even framing the question was a leap of faith, what with the physics of globes and planets and space and gravity being such a grand mystery. Which it remains today, even with all we know.) For answers they turned to the words in the Bible.
“The world rests on its pillars,” they answered, “for it says: ‘God shakes the earth from her place till her pillars tremble.’” (Job 9:6)
But if so, the more curious wondered, what do the pillars rest on? “Upon the waters,” they replied, “for it says: ‘He spread forth the earth upon the waters.’” (Psalm 136:6)
And what do the waters rest on? “The mountains, for it says: ‘The waters stood above the mountains.’”(Psalm 104:6)
And the mountains? “On the wind, for it says: ‘For, lo, He formed the mountains and created the wind [which supports the mountains] . (Amos 4:13)
The wind in turn, rests upon the storm, for it says: “The storm gives the wind its substance.” (Psalm 148:8)
The storm, in turn, rests upon the arm of the Holy One, blessed be He, for it says: “And undergirding [all creation] are God’s everlasting arms.” (Deuteronomy 33:27)
Finally, Rock Bottom (tzur olamim); a place that requires no other place; a support that requires no other support.
Ever curious, and eager to be more precise, the rabbis circle back to the beginning of this cascade of speculations, and wonder just how many pillars, in reality, held up the world? Some said twelve, one for each tribe. Others said seven, as in Proverbs 9.
But these answers did not satisfy R. Eleazar b. Shammua. He sought not the physical, but the metaphysical truth of existence. Material integrity allows the world to exist, he conceded. But it is spiritual integrity that enables it to thrive.
So, he asks, what is the spiritual foundation of the world? He answers, “The world rests on one pillar, and its name is ‘Righteousness’, for it is said: ‘The righteous form the foundation of the world.’” (Proverbs 10:25)
Rosh Hashanah is when we celebrate the birthday of the world. It is an appropriate time to speculate on what holds it up and what keeps it going.
It is humbling and exalting to imagine that the righteous tasks we do, both large and small, day in and day out, form the foundation that keeps this world going. But be certain that they are, for in truth, nothing else can.
Shana tova. Have a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous new year.
And may it be filled to overflowing with righteous tasks.
(Based on the Talmud, Hagigah 12b)
Janine Benyus is widely known for her pioneering work promoting biomimicry, that is, answering our technological needs by mimicking nature’s ways.
Nowadays, industry makes things by “heating, beating and treating.” Which may get the job done but often leaves destructive residues, gobbles up enormous amounts of financial and energy resources and only gets us half-way there.
Nature, on the other hand, has been field-testing the best ways to build things, dissolve things, grow things, arrest growth, and altogether thrive in the most efficient and enduring ways.
If we can conduct our industry in ways that are cheaper, enduring and better, why wouldn’t we?
That is the promise of biomimicry.
As Benyus says, “Learning about the natural world is one thing, learning from the natural world… that’s the switch.”
Brew a cup of tea, sit on a comfy chair and take 20 minutes to watch her TED talk. It will inspire you, and give you hope!
The oldest “to-scale” map in the world is of the city of Nippur on the Euphrates some 3500 years ago. What is so remarkable about the map (to us moderns) is that its most prominent feature is its watercourses. (Ignoring of course the crack that time - not the mapmaker - put there.)
The view (drawn from a vantage point found only through the mapmaker’s imagination) shows the rivers and canals that gave life to the city. The city walls complement and punctuate the prominence of the water.
Which made me think about a peculiar law of the Jewish divorce document (called a get). In the text of a get, one must note the location of the proceedings by city name and the nearest watercourse (and the presence of local wells!).
“On the _ day of the week, the __day of the month of _____in the year ____ from the creation of the world ..., in the city ____, which is located on the river ______, and situated near wells of water, I, _____, the son of ______, who today am present in the city _______, which is located on the river ______, and situated near wells of water, do willingly consent, being under no restraint, to release, to set free and put aside you, my wife _____, daughter of ______, who is today in the city of ______, which is located on the river ______, and situated near wells of water, who has been my wife until now.”
(I will speak of the poetry and power of situating this water symbolism in such a sad and otherwise crisp legal document in a future blog.)
Yet, today, if you were to close your eyes and imagine a map of a city you knew well, chances are the meandering lines that were conjured up in your mind would be the highways and streets with barely a notation about the local streams and rivers.
Sometimes the reason for that is understandable. Those rivers and streams have been paved over, shoved underground to get them out of the way. We no longer get our water directly from rivers or wells. Our water streams into our homes through hidden pipes of all sizes and lengths. Its origin is almost forgotten.
Other times the water is ignored because it is considered unnecessary. Even an obstacle. We use maps today mostly to navigate, to find out where to go rather than where we are. We want to find that “You are Here” note only so that we can discover how to get from here to there.
Since we no longer go to draw our water directly from its source but rather have the water come to us, and since water is no longer the major course of travel, and indeed is largely an impediment to land travel (which bridges handily - hopefully - allow), why bother having water clutter up the important things we need to show on our maps?
But since what falls out of sight falls out of mind, we pay a dear price for leaving streams and rivers off our maps.
I would like to lobby to restore the place of rivers and streams and watercourses on our maps. I want to know the ways the waters flow around my house, in my community, throughout my watershed. I want to know how I am connected to those upstream and downstream from me.
It is not enough to know that this runoff in the gutter “Drains to the Bay”.
Wherever possible, we need to daylight streams, rip off their covers and give them back to the neighborhood. And restore them to health so they can again manage our stormwater, cool our cities and serve as welcome refreshment in our daily lives.
We need to teach our children maps of our neighborhoods and cities that include, like the maps of old, the web of streams and rivers and lakes and bays that water our lives. We need to etch in our minds the watercourses of our homes so they can give anchor to a renewed and cherished sense of place.
An enterprising man in a white pick-up truck came to the house yesterday, lured no doubt by the state of our driveway. He was not the first.
Trolling for work in these difficult times, such eager workmen drive around neighborhoods like mine checking out the state of people’s driveways. They knock on your doors, tuck rolled-up brochures under your handles and otherwise find ways to tell you about their driveway repair services.
No doubt he saw our driveway (yup, that’s ours pictured above) and began licking his chops.
To all the world, our driveway is a mess, as cracked and sun-baked as an iguana in a tanning salon.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To us, the driveway is just beginning its lovely ascent into permeability.
The world is full of hard, rain-resistant, impermeable surfaces. Which means that when we get rain, especially lots of it, instead of staying put and percolating into the soil near where it falls, the water runs off, swelling and flooding local streams and rivers and overwhelming stormwater structures, and carrying all sorts of natural and man-made debris (trash, oil, pollutants, etc) into our already-overstressed water systems.
It rained last night and today the cracks of my driveway are outlined in moisture - which is precisely what we want. For that means that water was able to seep down into our ground, staying right where it landed, refreshing our aquifer (our neighborhood relies on well-water) and not rushing off into our local stream.
Land development standards are increasingly demanding that stormwater management be designed to keep water on site. We now realize that all those concrete culverts and diversionary methods of taking water away from the site are destructive of the eco-systems we are eager to heal. Which is why green roofs, rain barrels, rain gardens, green driveways and permeable surfaces are all becoming standard practices.
We are proud that our driveway is ahead of the curve! It started degrading years ago!
So, back at our front door, my husband thanked our visitor for coming, but declined his offer. Our driveway is just beginning to get to where we want it - functional for our cars, and receiving of rainfall whenever it comes.
The fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, begins with a celebration of the number ten.
It recounts how the world was created with ten utterances; what ten things were created just after creation; how there were the ten miracles in Egypt and ten at the Red Sea; ten generations for one historic era and ten generations for another.
But my favorite celebration is the ten miracles that occurred at the Temple in Jerusalem - every day and at every pilgrimage holiday, when the city was bustling and bursting with pilgrims.
The mishnah lists them, ticking them off one by one (click here for the whole text):
no woman ever miscarried from the smell of the sacrifices
no flies were seen in the slaughterhouse
the smoke from the altar never got in anyone’s eyes
no one ever got bitten by a scorpion
the rain never extinguished the sacred fire, and, my favorite,
despite the press and crush of crowds when the population of the city swelled beyond its earthly capacity, no one ever said: “There is no room for me to lodge in Jerusalem.”
After the awesome acts of creation, the miracles in Egypt, and the splitting of the Red Sea, these so-called “miracles” look very tame indeed. Why, then, would the rabbis catapult these mundane events to such a lofty heights?
Perhaps to teach us to celebrate the miracles of everyday life, when bad things do not happen, when the dog does not bark, when the power does not go out, when we do not cut ourselves making dinner or trip on the way to bathroom, when life goes merrily on its way. Every moment that life just does what life can do without a mishap or nuisance or pain or tragedy, that too is a miracle on par with Creation.
And perhaps even more, it comes to teach us to open our eyes, and hearts, and see. See broadly. For what is every bit as astonishing as the fact that no fly buzzed around the sacred meat was that someone, anyone, noticed.
How often do we pay attention to the absence of a nuisance, the absence of pain, the absence of discomfort, the absence of tragedy? Not just for ourselves alone but in aggregate, for all those around us?
Imagine, in this light, the immensity of miracles we are witness to when we just walk down the street. That we are able to walk, that so many others are able to walk; that we are not beset by marauders or plague; that we know how to share space and do not bump into one another; that life flows and greetings are exchanged and commerce happens; that no one says there is no room for me on this sidewalk - all these are everyday miracles.
Ten years ago, for a few brief moments, the miracles stopped. And the world, momentarily, seemed to come to an end. There were flies that sought to destroy our Jerusalem. There were rains that sought to extinguish the sacred fires of America. There were those who did try to say there is no room for us in this world.
But out of the ashes, the miracles stirred, came to life once again. People opened their doors to those who were stranded; heroes rushed in where angels dared to tread; strangers embraced strangers; we remembered, as a nation, the best of who we could be, and the gifts and blessings we can bring to this world.
Today is a national day of remembrance. Even as we recall the tragedy and the losses, even as we acknowledge the pain that will never go away, may we notice the everyday miracles that keep us going, the majesty of the human spirit, and that, if we will it, there is room for all.
This miraculous taming of God’s fierce fire; the channeling, damming and undamming of the stuff that drives the pulse of the universe and every creature’s heart.
Our slow, sad alienation from nature all began when we put those ions on the end of a leash.
The power we have harvested removes from us the awareness of the every day life. We forget the precious heaviness of water. We are blind to the ebb and flow of day’s light and darkness. Our spaces are filled with noise that drowns out the rustling, twittering, chattering and stillness of earth.
This is not a lament against progress. We know what our lives would be without electricity and we have chosen well.
But we still must acknowledge the collateral damage that has come with such a victory. And perhaps see what we can do to minimize it.
We can see both sides in disasters like hurricanes. Those with energy have the power to remove fallen trees; fix broken buildings and roads; help people in need; and get the world back into shape.
Yet those without energy for days on end enjoy blessings of our own. We feel again the rhythms of the earth, the circlings of the sun. Light is light and dark is dark. No mistake about it. Evening envelopes us slowly but wholly, and all we can do is pierce it faintly with our fisted candles and flashlights. We are reminded of the inevitable powers of night and day which the might of electricity makes us believe we can vanquish.
Without electricity, we rev up in the morning and slow down at night. We live more in the presence of those here with us than with those far away. We are more planful about the foods we eat and the people we eat with. We talk with neighbors, share our resources, cheer each other on. We are more mindful of the needs of others, send our thoughts to those who are also without power (of all kinds) and live in a more aware, intense, and appreciative way.
So, yes, we are still without power, five days after Irene, and since we are on a well, without water too. I am eager to put my house back in order, rinse the dishes with water gushing from the faucet, brush my teeth with water that flows without being poured, do a laundry at home.
But I will also miss the sweet quiet of the evenings, the increased visits to and from family, and the added intensity that living closer to nature’s rhythms has returned to us.
Peter Berger, the sociologist, wrote: “The reality of the social world hangs on the thin thread of conversation.”
One-on-one and nation-to-nation we measure each other, judge each other and choose to abide with each other (or not) by how we speak to and about each other.
Conversation is more than what we casually do just between us. Our words grow wings, and can jet around the world at the speed of sound. (Or if we are using fiber optics, at the speed of light.)
It is like the famous Norman Rockwell painting of gossiping. Only today, such conversation is aided by the instantaneous conveniences of twitter, facebook, and the dozens of other feeds that constantly keep us connected, whether we are happy about it or not.
That in and of itself is enough to tempt some of us to take a vow of silence (or impose that vow on others!).
What would the world look like if we could color-code the threads of conversations and track them as they coursed across the atmosphere?
All of which makes me see that we are also held in close communion with nature by a thin thread of conversation.
This conversation is equally complex. It possesses both the social element of human language, in which we reveal and reinforce our attitudes and relationships toward nature. What language do we use? Do we call it: nature, creation, resources, property, earth, land, dirt, soil, humus, loam, commodities, wilderness, weeds, wasteland, swamps, bogs, wetlands, peat, fuel, woods, timber, etc. Each carries its own values and valence.
And how we speak about nature affects how we treat it and value it, price it, ignore it or protect it.
Which is no doubt why the Torah tells us that in pursuing the divine act of bringing the physical world into existence, God began with the most human act of all: “And God said:”
By a bend in the Genesee River, fast along the eastern shore, right about where the massive Hutchison Building of the University of Rochester stands today, an Algonquin tribe once thrived.
They built homes from the forest’s abundant tree bark and farmed the rich soil. They occupied about 9 acres there. They created the foot paths (and followed the animal trails) that became the city’s major roads. They plied the rushing waters of the river when it was not yet tamed. It is believed that the area around the Genesee has been inhabited for thousands of years.
I thought about this tumbling re-use of land over the centuries, the chain of generations that benefited from it, and the landed legacy we inherit - and are destined to pass on - as I shuttled my son from home to dorm.
The university is known for its research in engineering and optics, and its devotion to music and art.
There is hope that a university, and especially its students, who are devoted to both beauty and progress, today and tomorrow, will help us figure out the right questions to ask, the right answers to explore, and the right things to do.
A 20-foot branch came crashing through our ceiling the other night.
It was raining a lot and a bit breezy. I can only imagine that the branch must have been compromised in some way and with the additional heft of the water absorbed, it was just too much to continue holding on.
So it let go.
I can imagine if I were hovering above a roof for years on end and finally had a chance to take a peek at what was happening underneath, I might go for it as well.
It is what we do as kids, lifting up rocks and stepping stones and rotting logs to see the life scurrying around underneath.
So it seemed with this branch. A bit invasive and a tad out-of-place. But exhibiting life’s urgent and essential curiosity.
And then the more we looked, the more we tended to the details of this branch, the more we saw a face. A long snout, bushy eyebrows, and a gentle lower jaw.
Even more than curious, this branch looked as if it were some forlorn, over-sized serpent that had gone rooting for friends and understanding when, thrusting his head down some rabbit hole to see if anybody was home, he got stuck.
For a very brief moment we toyed with keeping it there. He is becoming something like a pet. I mean “it”, it is becoming something like a pet. Or at least a nouveau decorative accent.
The roofer came a day or two ago and made a temporary seal around the hole so all is secure. The whole thing should be fixed next week. They will take a chain saw to the branch to get it out. And I will burn it in our stove when the cold weather comes again.
Then this intrusion and the forlorn looking face of Nature that seems to be carrying a worldly sadness tinged with a hopeful hint of expectation and a bigger fear of betrayal (Rorschach logs, anyone?), will just be another odd interlude in the annals of those of us who choose to live among the trees.
And it will remain a reminder that as much as we love nature, we love it on our terms.
Which, of course, nature often renegotiates.
My brother and I were at it again, arguing over the power of money as the prime motivator of the human spirit.
Maximizing one’s profits, whether through the stock market, the board room, career choice or the hording of one’s own possessions is what drives most people, so says my brother.
We were talking about the wisdom (according to my brother) or greed (according to me) of one of my neighbors who is selling his property in such a way that will maximize his take but diminish the aesthetics of the neighborhood. He has chosen to thumb his nose at the neighbors he is leaving behind and destroy one of the very attractions that lured him to this street years ago.
Why, I wonder. On the surface it appears that the answer is “money.” So while my brother can certainly claim to be right, I still believe, at root, he is wrong. For beyond tending to our basic needs, we want money not for its own sake, not for what money can buy, but for what money (and its surrogate: conspicuous stuff) can do.
Money, as Avner Offer teaches us, has the capacity to earn us the elusive gift of “regard,” that is, “acknowledgement, attention, acceptance, respect, reputation, status, power, intimacy, love, friendship, kinship, sociability.” *
Having money in our society, or even the appearance of having money, can secure those intangible but oh-so-desirable social goods that are essential to our feelings of peace, pride, satisfaction. As Adam Smith, of all people, says in The Theory of Moral Sentiments,
“What is the ... pursuit of wealth…? Is it to supply the necessities of nature? The wages of the meanest laborer can supply them… [So what are the real] advantages which we propose to gain by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition [ie, chasing ever more money]? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it.”
Which is to say, we crave money so we will not feel forgotten, overlooked, invisible, small. We crave it because we know that our lives are like ships sailing on the waters. We come and the waters part. We pass by and the waters close up again, as if we were never there. So, in a society that tends to regard what we have more than what we do, or our worth in dollars more than our worth in spirit, we crave money.
It is not money, then, that ultimately motivates us, but what it does for us, how it makes us feel.
Which begs the question: what if there were other ways to feel “regarded”? What if our compassion, our selflessness, our peace-making won regard? What if showing up when others stayed away, calling when others forgot, sharing instead of hording, earning less so that others could earn more, owning less so that others could have more, was the way our “worth” was measured, our “regard” won?
What if, in fact, having too much money was held in disregard? What if we were judged by what we gave away (in time, love, care, things, money) rather than by what we kept?
How would that change our economy, our jobs, our schedules, our heroes, our appetites, our lives, our well-being, our happiness?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find out?
*(from “Between the gift and the market: the economy of regard.”)
After a five month pilot program this past fall, Howard County is expanding its curbside compost pick-up program in Elkridge and Ellicott City.
Food makes up 14% of what goes into our nation’s landfills.
Food composting should save the county the cost of trash-removal, earn the county money (the nutrient-rich soil that is created from our kitchen and lawn scraps is black gold), and save precious space in rapidly filling landfills (which also translates into money).
Curbside composting is coming to us all. It is simply a matter of when.
My generation grew up with trash collection. My children grew up with trash collection and recycling. My grandchildren will grow up with trash collecting, recycling and composting.
But even better, as a 20-something said to me the other day, my great-grandchildren may grow with no trash collection at all - everything will be reclaimed, remade, reused, returned.
Where was the business community while the debt ceiling debate was going on?
Why weren’t they piling into Washington with grim faces and falling charts showing Congress what was likely to happen if America continued make a spectacle of itself, looking to all the world like the Osbournes had taken over the Capital?
Why are corporate lobbyists’ fingers only on the speed dial buttons when fighting for corporate welfare but not for the welfare of the nation?
Don’t they realize that their corporate welfare is dependent on the welfare of the nation, and the welfare of the nation is dependent on the middle class. If the middle class tanks, the wealthy tank too. That is what the mortgage debacle should have taught them. (Government bailouts won’t come with every crisis.)
It is the consumer that drives the economy. 70-80% of our economy is driven by what you and I buy. So when we don’t buy, and we aren’t buying now, the market suffers. Take care of us and you take care of the market. It is good old-fashioned self-interest that should move corporations to pay taxes and help balance the budget so the economy can go on humming.
And it is good old-fashioned self-interest and trickle-up economics that should have motivated corporations to weigh in.
It was clear that Washington could not resolve the debt ceiling debate alone, what with the Tea Party refusing to budge and body-snatching the Republicans, leadership and all.
There was however one strong voice that could have changed the nature of the debate, one voice that had the clout to force a fair deal, and that was the voice of the business community. “The markets instill discipline on politicians and governments,” Chris Rupkey of the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in NY is reported as saying. But in this case, they were AWOL.
As John Chambers, head of S&P’s sovereign ratings said on ABC’s “This Week”:
“It would take a stabilization of the debt as a share of the economy and eventual decline [to return the US credit rating to AAA],” he said. “And it would take, I think, more ability to reach consensus in Washington than what we’re observing now.”
This could have been the message the business community delivered months ago, sparing us all this debacle, and shame.
But they were surprisingly silent. They were either in denial, assuming all would work out in the end. America is, after all, too big to fail. Or they were hunkering down pretending they could protect themselves from all those pesky tax cuts while the country was bashing its head on the debt ceiling.
They must remember they are not separate from the rest of us. If they see themselves above us, it is only because we are carrying them.
The good news is, they will get another chance when Congress reconvenes.
Maybe next time they will do the right thing.
One third of the Chesapeake Bay is currently in what biologists call a “dead zone.” A dead zone occurs when too many nutrients, mostly from over-fertilized areas, flow into the Bay after rainstorms, causing algae to grow excessively. When the algae die, they suck oxygen out of the water and cause major trouble for Bay critters. Crabs and fish have to move if they are to survive, while already vulnerable oysters stand little chance of surviving.
There are two main solutions to this dilemma: use less fertilizer and send less nutrient-filled water to the bay. Many of us can help in both these areas in our very homes.
Turf grass (ie, what most of our lawns are made of) is Maryland’s single largest “crop” and huge contributor to the Bay’s dead-zone. Environment Maryland put out a report this past March outlining the problems and potential solutions to cutting down on this particular pollution source.
The home-grown solution is easy: love a natural lawn! There is nothing natural about the tufted lawns we have now. Most of our lawns are sprayed and fed and plucked and mown to yield a uniform smoothness that nature fights against. Why we have succumbed to this cultural fancy is a story all its own. This odd aesthetics would not in and of itself be a problem except that it is causing great problems to our local eco-system, to the animals that no longer can live there, to the people whose diet includes the seafood produced there and the watermen whose livelihood depends on that seafood.
A matter of fashion should not have such devastating effects. We can do three things to help:
Use little or no fertilizer. Once established, grass is amazingly resilient. That is why it is so hard to pluck up or dig up. Its root system is tough and it endures through droughts and cold and tough times.
Use little or no pesticides. A “weed” is not a botanical category but a human one. It is something that is undesirable, considered valueless and annoying. As “dirt” is matter out of place, so a “weed” is a plant out of place. But that is a matter of opinion and aesthetics. I love dandelions. I love the way they look. But they can also be used medicinally both internally and externally to fight bacterial infections, joint pain, skin disorders, gastro-intestinal ailments. Why we spray them to death is beyond me. So it is with other “weeds.” Torn pants used to be turned into rags. Today they are sold at a premium. Tastes and fancies can change. This one about our lawns would be for the better!
Plant something other than grass. A new industry is growing up to help us create alternatives to turf lawns. Check out ideas on the web.
Turn your lawn into a rain-garden. Besides needing little to no fertilizer or pesticides, rain gardens hold onto the rain that falls on your home and lawn. Slowing down the journey of water from home to rivers to Bay allows the earth more time to absorb the nutrients so they never reach the Bay. The earth is a natural filter, if we give it enough water and time. Rain gardens bring beauty to your home and restoration to the Bay’s waters. And the less lawn you have, the less you need to mow, the more money you save and the more CO2 you avoid putting into the air.
BJEN can help Baltimore synagogues, neighborhoods and schools explore grant programs to fund rain-gardens and other Bay-friendly landscaping. Contact me if you are interested.
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.)
Lists. Some of us love them and some of us hate them. We joke that it is good that Leviticus, the grand biblical book of lists, is read in the summertime when no one goes to shul anyway. And yet we could not live without lists: invitation lists, packing lists, shopping lists, laundry lists, to-do lists, top ten, ingredients, deposits, check lists, medical chart, punch list…
In my reading about homes in New England, I stumbled across whole books that were simply estate lists, that is, documents that listed the contents of a person’s possessions (their land, home and all that was in it) at the time of death.
And what was so remarkable about that is that for the most part, the list ran to 2-3 pages.
That’s it. After a lifetime of living, producing, consuming, accumulating, most of these good folks who lived what would have been considered comfortable lives had very few possessions.
Which put in high relief for me the mishnah which tells us that in addition to the statutory pilgrimages, people would go to the Temple for four reasons: (1) to mourn a death (2) to ask God for the recovery of a loved one who was ill (3) to be readmitted to their community after being cast out and (4) if they lost something.
In the context of the deep and wrenching sense of loss and the aching desire for wholeness that the other three situations evoke, I was always struck with how mundane and perhaps even crass the fourth reason was. Temple as Lost and Found? Temple as the place where you would stand and declare: “I lost my keys - if you find them please return them to…”
But of course, I was assuming possessions were a dime a dozen. I imagine that for some of us, the contents of our coat closet would fill at least half a dozen pages. Never mind the stuff we need to store off-site in those rental storage units.
When you read the inventories of New England households, however, you realize how precious, and indeed how distinctive, each item was. Each item was made by hand and had the unique markings of the peculiar ways the user handled it. Chips and dents and craftsmen’s markings. No factory-built sameness.
When my in-laws moved to Israel 30+ years ago, they took with them much of their American life, including their furniture. They were a modest family living a modest life in a modest home. And yet when they got to Beer Sheva, they realized that their modest American life and modest American holdings were massive in contrast to the modest southern Israeli life.
All of which is to say, we have so much stuff. Too much stuff. Imagine if our possessions had to all be listed in an estate account. How many pages would that take? How long would it take to assemble the list? Imagine if that list were to be published - for estate accounts are most often public documents. What would it say about us?
And the biggest kicker is: it is hard to say that we are richer or happier today for all of our possessions than they were in American colonial times, or in the times of ancient Israel.
Two years ago, you could count the flashes of the lightning bugs in my yard one by one, out loud, sipping tea between each count, and still not miss a beat. The display was frighteningly paltry, and not just at my house but throughout the neighborhood. I was fearful that somehow we had managed to massacre this crepuscular army of lit-up beetle bottoms.
But this year, they have rebounded.
The very best view of this blessed renewal can be found just a few doors down the street, where the fall of the land flattens out into a little creek, and opens onto a hidden pond in my neighbor’s side yard. It must be the combination of creek, pond, meadow-like lawn and arc of tall trees surrounding it all, for evening time hosts literally thousands and thousands of fireflies lighting up the ground, the bushes, the treetops, the air. The beauty of the incessant, urgent flickering is heightened by the accompanying absolute silence of the display.
We street-side visitors can see our neighbor’s light-show best through a break in the hedge, which frames the staging of this fairy display through an enchanted gateway. The scene is precisely what I would paint on the cover of a child’s book of bedtime poems (assuming I could paint). We are standing on this side of reality, close enough to watch the enchantment in awe, but knowing that we stand beside a threshold that we cannot cross.
Beauty and light, charm and hope, seeking and finding can be found there, on the other side, just beyond our reach. Each day is filled with preparation, anticipation, for the wonders, the adventures, the promises of the evening to come.
We do not fully inhabit that world. It is too sweet, too lovely, too light for us. But we can peer into it there, and imagine it from here, the way we can peer into the Garden of Eden, and seek to recapture it, and recreate it, as best we can.
I came out of the post office the other day to find three apparently kind and concerned people worrying over the fate of a small dog barking away inside a parked car. The driver’s window was open a crack, the day was hot though not impossible, the car was no doubt steamy, and the dog seemed unhappy about his confinement, though frisky and not in distress.
These kind people were quite anxious about the fate of this dog, were ruminating about the callous and reckless nature of its owner, had called 9-1-1 and could not pull themselves away from this potential small tragedy unfolding until it was somehow resolved.
But here’s the thing that got me: two of them were sitting all the while in SUV’s with their motors running and the air conditioning on. (I am rather certain about that because they too had their driver’s side windows open just a crack to allow them to talk to one another.)
Species are dying, the ocean are being over-fished and oxygen-starved, natural habitats that are home for millions of animals are being cut down and these kind folks are spending their time, their money and their CO2 chits on one small dog.
Imagine how the world would be if they spent those personal, monetary and energy resources on saving the world, or just one region of it, or just one species, or just one regulation or law or bill that worked to improve the ways we lived.
I am glad someone was looking out for this little dog. But we need them to work just as hard, indeed harder, looking out for the world. Perhaps instead of using the Big Blue as the iconic photo of the earth we needed to save, we should mold the planet into the shape of a dog enclosed in a case of metal and glass baking in the sun with the temperature rising.
Perhaps that will get the message across.
Film creator Jeremy Seifert tells us that “Every year in the United States, we throw away 96 billion pounds of food. That’s 263 million pounds a day, 11 million pounds an hour, 3,000 pounds per second!” (Talk about bal tachkhit - do not waste!)
Jeremy should know. He regularly feeds his family by diving into the trash heaps behind supermarkets and surfacing with perfectly edible, healthy, and unexpired food. (I hope he finds soap and clothes detergent there as well.)
In a world where millions go hungry and thousands die each day from malnutrition, to throw this food away is both a waste and a tragedy. I would bet that just miles, or even blocks, away, families are eating a diet of potato chips, pastries and sodas when they could have spinach, eggs, cheese and vegetables.
The film is being released July 19 on iTunes and Netflix. Check it out.
Last fall, the oak trees of Maryland yielded a bumper crop of acorns. In early October, I gathered up handfuls from out Towson way, hoping to plant them somewhere in my yard.
The street behind us has oak; one or two houses around my neighborhood has oak; but we don’t have any oak. I was hoping that soon we would.
The internet told me that acorns need 1000 hours of cool weather to “ripen,” so that I should put them in the refrigerator in plastic bags along with a bit of moist dirt and keep them there throughout the winter.
Since we would be turning off our fridge for the five months we were to be away, I approached my mother, who graciously acceded to the honor of incubating our dirt.
When we returned from our sabbatical, I thanked my mother, reclaimed my slumbering acorns and transferred them to small flower pots with soil from my crude but functional compost heap. Eight acorns all told. Remarkably, four have sprouted.
It takes them a while to get started, and once they do, they seem to grow in a most peculiar way. It is as if they first create a needle with an eye at the end of it through which they thread their outcropping of green. Then, they burst forth.
I will keep the saplings in larger and larger pots on my porch until they are ready to brave the elements on their own, and until I build an enclosure that will protect them from the deer.
From what I have read, an oak-and-poplar forest should be just fine.
And if someone can tell me what kind of oak these are, I would be most grateful.
The first major book that Adam Smith wrote was not The Wealth of Nations but The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Although I have just begun it (one of my summer goals is to read it all), I needed to get no further than Part 1, Section 1, Paragraph 1 to be amazed, and to imagine what our marketplace might look like if the book’s opening words were the first words studied in business school, and the first words that opened all corporate board meetings:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
“To feel much for others and little for ourselves… to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent, affections constitutes the perfection of human nature, and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.” (Part 1, Section 1, Paragraph 5)
If that is the moral underpinning of the theory of The Wealth of Nations, if that is what could guide our lending and borrowing and building, our buying and selling, instead of the excessive interest in self, imagine what a world it would be!
I recently bumped into the writings of John Burroughs, a nature essayist and early homesteader who built a house in the woods that he called “Slabsides”.
He wrote, as I have discovered, volumes. I have just begun to read them. But I wanted to share with you this quote that gives you a sense of his artistry, and captures the nexus between the natural and built environment. How wonderful it would be if we all knew the quarries where our stones came from, or had walked the woods where our lumber was felled. Or witnessed the furnace where our steel was shaped.
How strong, how rich, would the bond between ourselves and our homes be then?
“It seems to me that I built into my house every one of those superb autumn days which I spent in the woods getting out stone. I quarried the delicious weather into memories to adorn my walls. Every load that was sent home carried my heart and happiness with it.”
(John Burroughs, Roof-tree, Signs and Seasons 7:247-263)
In the midst of our heartland, in the midst of our Great Depression, America suffered one of its most devastating environmental, economic and human losses. The Dust Bowl ruined 50 million acres of what had been fertile, verdant grassland. Over 850,000,000 tons of topsoil were lost in 1935 alone. The systematic plowing under of the prairie sod destroyed an ecosystem that had developed over tens of thousands of years, and loosened billions of tons of topsoil so that, in the drought, it simply dried up and blew away.
By 1940, over 2 million people were displaced. Having lost farms, livelihood and sometimes children to the ever-present dirt, they abandoned their homes, becoming a wave of “environmental refugees”.
And the greatest tragedy was that it was all human-induced, predictable and avoidable.
Today, we are witnessing something similar, and equally avoidable in the very same place.
In his 2007 book called “dirt: the erosion of civilizations,” David Montgomery reminds us of what we know but often ignore: the essence of life resides in dirt. Dirt is the earth’s placenta, the womb that incubates the life that sustains us. It needs constant refreshment to remain fertile and productive.
No amount of sunshine, no amount of water, no amount of hard work or money can sustain our civilization if we don’t have good dirt for our plants and trees and produce to grow in.
I am beginning to think that we are living through a second, mostly invisible Dust Bowl. That is, the riches of the mid-west soil are being shipped to us in east and around the world in the form of food, whose waste - from our kitchens and restaurants and stores - is then being dumped in our landfills. This one-way process of food to trash is siphoning off the best of our mid-country’s land just like the winds and drought did in the 1930’s. Only this time, we can’t see it. (And we are not even talking about the farmers that have been displaced in the name of efficiency and technological development.)
True, some of us compost, a little. But mostly we are treating composting as a gentleman’s leisure, something to do if we garden and want enriched soil to make our geraniums bright.
But composting is serious business. It is part of the essential cycle of life, giving back to the soil the good stuff that helps it grow the food we eat. We should compost not so that we will have lovely decorative gardens but so that the earth doesn’t lose the goodness it so desperately needs, the goodness it loaned us in the guise of food but that it must get back in the form of organic waste.
What if, I am wondering… instead of making all those chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and shipping them cross state lines to artificially boost this year’s harvest, while damaging the soil for next year’s… what if we systematically collected our compost, much of which is the leftovers from the harvest that came from the mid-west, and haul it back to the mid-west (and, eventually, to the increasing local farms we hope to create and support) so the farmers could spread it on their fields and return it to whence it came? An added bonus would be for us to use it to power the very trucks that would haul the compost.
Right now, in many places, including most synagogues, half our garbage is organic. Instead of throwing it into a dead-end pit, what if we returned it to its source, and used it for the very purpose nature intended, to replenish the goodness of our fields.
So instead of contributing to the invisible Dust Bowl, we become part of the re-greening of the plains.
I am thinking that in 20 years or so, as part of the return-to-the-farm movement we are witnessing today, we will all have weekly municipal organic waste pick-up, just like we have recycling and garbage pick up today. Our fields will be healthier, our food will be healthier and our bodies will be healthier.
God has the key to life, as it says: “... and God opened Leah’s womb”
God has the key to rain, as it says: “... and God will open for you the storehouse of heaven” (Deuteronomy 28:12).
God as the key to livelihood, as it says, “You open Your hand and lovingly satisfy every living thing.”
(from the 8th century Letters of Rabbi Akiva)
This ancient tradition imagines that God is the Grand Celestial Key-Keeper, the One who oversees life’s storehouses of goods and the gates that keep them secure. Day in and day out, God opens and closes this door and that: now the one to the heavenly pool that falls as rain, now the one to the rays of energy that fall as sunlight, now the one to the pulse of air that rises and falls as breath.
There are times these doors must be open and times they must be closed.
This omer season between Passover and Shavuot, my family borrowed this image of a celestial key chain and made our own “omer counter” (a mnemonic device that helps us keep count of the days as they pass) using “orphaned” keys, that is, keys that no longer have doors of their own, keys whose original locks and treasures and secrets have evaporated, been lost, destroyed or forgotten.
We have appropriated these keys, salvaging their power to open and close doors of matter and recasting them as keys that manage the drama of time.
The colorful strand that grew before us, the daily discipline of adding a-key-a-day, helped to remind us that each day opens to us a new door. At night, upon counting, we would hang a new key. The key of the previous day was spent. It had been used - wisely or not, for better or worse - seeking the right lock to the choices, the experiences, the deeds of that day.
At night, the heir of a new day, a new key was chosen, slipped onto the chain, and let loose to go in search of its chosen door. We need so many keys.
Perhaps what really happens when the celestial Door of Doors opens for a moment at midnight on Shavuot, as the mystics tell us, is that God rains down upon us the gift of a brand new batch of keys.
Collaborative Consumption is an intriguing idea. It is based on the realization that many of us have too much and that perhaps we can put that excess to work.
For example, if I have a drill that I rarely use, perhaps I could rent it to you for when you rarely need it. Or perhaps I work at home and have a car that sits idle for most of the week. And perhaps you have no car but only need a car for discrete times of the day. I could, if I were entrepreneurial, create a web presence to publicize these excesses, and invite you to rent my drill or my car.
Friends do this all the time. Now this style of resource-sharing is becoming big business - person by person on a global scale. These peer-to-peer enterprises are popping up all over the place and being aggregated and promoted on dozens of websites. It is a groundswell of a movement that seeks to use well the dormant resources we already have. And that is very good.
(It also, as the authors of the book of the same name tell us, both assumes and builds the social capital of trust. None of this would happen if we did not have a propensity to trust one another and these transactions would not continue without both parties honoring that trust. The track record of collaborative consumption transactions so far has been remarkably good. I don’t know how the insurance companies are going to handle this, though. And a quick search on Google doesn’t seem to indicate any problems yet - but I would bet that sooner or later insurance companies will try to use this to jack up rates and make even more money. But then, again, maybe I am just jaded.)
But there is another point I wanted to make. While the upside of all this is that we are becoming better at using the excess “resources” we have, perhaps this peer-to-peer movement can help us rethink how we create and come by those excess “resources” in the first place.
Today, most of us, including me - I am sad to say - tend to build, buy and own for maximum need. So we build houses for the biggest family and crowds we imagine hosting; we buy plates and silverware and cups and mugs and kitchen utensils for the maximum kind of entertaining we imagine doing; we buy wardrobes and shoes and handbags for the maximum kind of adventures we imagine having.
Yet, while we expend - in aggregate - millions or billions of dollars warehousing stuff we rarely use, millions of people right here in America - never mind around the world - walk around daily in a state of need. (And then of course there are the environmental costs we incur in having mined, manufactured, packaged, transported, and marketed these items that we hardly ever use. Let’s not even talk about off-site storage units for the moment.)
I remember reading about how, years ago, people who attended weddings and holiday celebrations would bring their own utensils, knowing that the host family did not have service for the hordes invited. And favorite dresses or purses would be borrowed for women did not have wardrobes sufficient to cover every celebrated adventure that came their way. And Dagwood and Herb are forever borrowing tools from each other.
So what if, in addition to using well the excess that we have, which is wonderful, we also work on building a world that has less excess, less waste and greater equity?
It seems to me that this is the kind of world that the laws of shemittah, pe’ah, and tzedek (equity) were meant to build.
As we begin to pack up our things and erase our presence from this borrowed space in Cambridge - returning chairs and planters and lamps to their original places and the apartment itself to its rightful owner - I realize not only how revealing this place has been about the spirit of the one who fashioned it, but also how intrusive it must have been for her to have us live here.
With every shift we made, every surface we rearranged, every picture we ignored, we “manhandled” a bit of her life. This was a place carefully constructed - both intentionally and, in part, no doubt unconsciously - to capture the spirit of its owner, her comforts, her pride, her dreams achieved and those unfulfilled.
So it is with all of us. All our homes speak narratives of ourselves, projecting our sense of self out to the world and back onto us again.
To have people live in your home must feel a bit like having someone commandeer your wardrobe.
Architects, too, are famous for feeling that they “own” the spaces they design and build. They can get outright outraged if and when the occupiers use the spaces for purposes other than those anticipated, or worse, actually make structural changes.
Which in some way gets us to the ways we build our world. Increasingly, we seem to build our cities and our suburbs and our malls and public places as if we - now - are the sole intended users, the ones whose taste and dreams and needs matter most. We seem to build for immediate sale and occupancy, so quality and design and longevity often suffer. And those who come after us have to fit themselves into the places that reflect us. Or tear them down.
But what if we imagined that we were building for the centuries? What if versatility, sustainability, mobility, accessibility, camaraderie and privacy were essential elements of our building requirements - not even so much by law but by practice, by habit, by instinct?
We could make the spaces our own as long as we lived there, but we would also know, like many cultures did not so long ago, that we have inherited the spaces of our ancestors, and so our children will inherit our spaces after us.
What would our cities and streets, suburbs and public buildings and homes look like then? How would the architectural curriculum be transformed, the building arts be reframed, our attitudes toward the spaces we enclosed and fashion change?
Our lives and our dreams are etched out in the spaces we devise. The earth’s surface and the world’s economy are reshaped by them. And we, in turn, are reshaped by the earth and the economy. It is an iterative, endless, feedback loop of a process. It is something that is much too important to leave to architects and investors and bankers and builders. We must all learn and engage in the policy of earth-scaping and approach it very intentionally, and wisely.
(Photo: the view of our sitting area as seen from the dining area. looking south)
Why oh why oh why will the news folks not think for themselves?
Housing starts were down 10% over the last month - the lowest level since the 1940’s - the news media are telling us.
That is fine, but it is the jeremiad, sky-is-falling, oh-my-oh-my-oh-my attitude that accompanies it that is disturbing.
New housing starts are falling for several very good reasons:
1) We have too many houses. Builders over-built. The rule of thumb - so we are told buried somewhere in an otherwise hand-wringing report on low starts on NPR - that one million new homes a year would satisfy the market. But builders built - and bankers loaned money for - two million new homes a year for a good part of the past decade. So roughly speaking, we have a glut of 5-10 million new homes on the market.
Rather than lamenting the fact that we are not adding enough new homes to an already over-stuffed market, shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that the “invisible hand” is doing its thing? Or does that only work in one direction?
2) Not only do we have a glut of new homes, but thanks to the folks who brought us the recession by savaging the mortgage industry, we have too many existing homes on the market as well. When will the economists and market journalists recognize that enough is enough?
3) The very people whom the bankers-and-builders want to buy their new new-homes are the people whose investments, jobs and financial security the bankers-and-builders destroyed! Talk about hutzpah: first they build too much, bulk up the cost of the house, run a scam on the loan, crash a family’s finances and then complain when those same families aren’t buying their new stock.
I know: we are told that in the past, it has been the housing market that has pulled the economy out of its doldrums.
If you buy a house, you have to spend money on all that goes with it: appliances, paints, furnishings, art, tchotchkes, and that is supposed to stimulate the marketplace.
But perhaps we can look toward economic revival another way.
First, not far from the old way, we can look at home renovations. Remodeling and remaking existing homes can generate an ocean of new business and stimulate the economy with much less environmental degradation and waste than the creation of new homes.
A friend told me that for the first time in decades, more people are settling in, staying put, and renovating their houses less with an eye for resale and more with an eye toward personalizing their living space. That is, for the first time in ages, our houses are being seen first as our homes, the places that hold us close and bind us together with loved ones, the places that offer us refuge and peace, the places that we can personalize to fit our desires and our ways of inhabiting home, and only second as commodities, objects of resale for the future. That can be so very good for our spirits, our neighborhoods, our local workman and our economy.
Second, perhaps during such renovations we can build-in greater efficiencies, more energy-savings devices, better insulation. I would bet owners who expect to live in the homes they create will spend more money per house on such green amenities as better insulation, storm windows and efficient hvac systems than builders who build, sell and walk away. This dip in the new housing market can help cause a bump up in greener homes, an expansion of the green building market and decreased operating costs for homeowners.
Third, perhaps any money we save by renovating rather than buying new can be reinvested in other segments of our economy. We can begin to pay down our debts; buy greener, cleaner cars; pay those few extra pennies for local, organic foods which will eventually help bring the cost down for everyone; give a bit more tzedakah; get those music lessons you’ve been wanting; schedule that visit to the doctor you’ve been putting off; take that class you wanted to audit; buy tickets to the concert you thought you couldn’t afford.
If we cannot expect our shell-shocked financial theorists to see this new economic reality of ours, at least we should be able to expect our journalists to.
Low housing starts may not be the tragedy it is trumped up to be. Indeed, it may just be the green leading edge of economic recovery.
The sabbatical is almost over. It is time for me to begin to emotionally disconnect from this haven up north and prepare my return to Baltimore this summer. Just out of curiosity, I decided to check out how these differing lifestyles - city/suburb, apartment/house - affect the level of my CO2 emissions. That is, how does my ecological footprint here in Cambridge compare to my ecological footprint at home in Baltimore?
I used one of the easier and quicker - if coarser - carbon footprint calculators, at nature.org.
Here is what I found: our comfortable, city apartment lifestyle gives off a modest 15 tons of CO2/year, well below the national household-of-two average of 53 and much more in line with the world household-of-two average of 11, while our spacious, suburban Baltimore single detached dwelling lifestyle contributes a whopping 57 tons of CO2 a year.
And that is with our hybrid car, our composting all our foods stuffs, recycling everything we can (we usually generate only one small bag of garbage a week), swapping out most of our incandescents for CFLs, using energy star appliances, putting in a wood-burning stove, etc etc.
So while the green movement appropriately continues to preach individual behavior change, and a recasting of our attitudes and the narratives we tell ourselves about our relationship with the earth so we can fundamentally affect our consumption patterns for the better, there is no doubt that the buildings and neighborhoods we live in have a far greater impact that our intentional daily behaviors alone.
The truth is, on a policy level, clustered living is good for the earth, and, when done right, good for the spirit.
We must, therefore, re-imagine what it takes to make livable, friendly cities which blend privacy and neighborhood, density and open spaces, efficiency and beauty, nesting and prospect, home and commons, presence and away.
Efforts such as Transition Town, co-housing, re-treeing urban environments, daylighting our urban streams that have been buried underground, re-creating a greater sense of the commons, and equitable access to the raw gifts of nature are all pulling together to get us there.
How we retrofit suburbia is a bit more challenging. But there are folks working on that too.
The hope is that by this time next century, the ways we live, and the world we live in, will all be healthier, happier places.
It was a memorable trip down the driveway last night. A bodacious half-moon with a full-moon’s light shone on me and my garbage-can escort as we sauntered to the curb. It was a moon with an attitude, making up in self-possession what it lacked in size, proclaiming its majesty of the sky. Which is, after all, its patrimony: “And God fashioned the two great lights, the large one to rule the day and the small one to rule the night.” (Genesis 1:16)
The Torah does not stipulate minimum size requirements, so even a brash half-moon can own the night.
That, in itself, is a worthy object lesson: we can be bigger than we appear, fill a space larger than ourselves, if but dare to launch ourselves outward and let our lights illumine the dark spaces around us.
All the while, the trees serenaded us, squeaking and squealing as they swayed, like the joints of a chair groaning under the weight of its ample burden. Years ago, when we first heard that sound, we wondered if it meant a tree was about to fall. We went out in the wind, in the night, at dusk to see if we could catch the culprit, see why it moaned. We never found it, never could cut it down, and so it continues to moan to this day. Only last night it sounded softer, more content, as if the tree was just settling into its bones, working on making its bark catch up to the growth of the sapwood and the sapwood settle comfortably in with the stable heartwood. It was a sound of earnest living, the pleasures and pains of life.
The leaves over-hanging the driveway were not to be left out, silhouetted as they were upon the ground, my form mingled among them. We looked like the fading shadows on the flash-wall in the dark room of a science museum. Only the flash-wall images faded faster than the night shadows. Or so it seemed.
In life, unlike in physics, time, duration, is measured in relation not to speed but to worth. Our shadows in the science museum are meant to be ephemeral, playful, lithe and changeable to match our mood and perhaps capture, ever so fleetingly, a hidden essence that we would bare only in the safety of the dark, and only for a fleeting moment. They are just the right duration.
But we want our lives, this physical world, to go on forever. The moon shadows may last a night; our lives ten thousand more. But still, when measured against their worth to us, they are fleeting.
We dare not waste time, then. We must strike our poses, make our mark, thrust ourselves out so we can be bigger than we are. We must bare in the fullness of light that hidden essence that can illumine the world, so that as the shadows fade, we can know that we have dared to live.
Such was my walk to take out the trash. And all the while, the peepers kept peeping.
Mother’s Day used to be so uncomplicated. It was a time to surprise the one who always knew everything, and give to the one who was always giving to you.
Dad would take us shopping. All the kids would pile into the car, somehow thinking Mom would never notice, and go the mall to pick out a Mother’s Day gift, one that lit up the eyes of children.
We would get a joint gift and invariably, excitedly, settle on a piece of tin jewelry with bright, sparkly glass gems; or an apron - which back in the good old days held tight the vision of hearth and cookies, love and motherhood, and was often adorned with a front pocket that was clearly the secret entrance to the world’s tunnels of magic, for all sorts of amazement mysteriously appeared from within them. And then there were the home-made, hand-written cards scrawled with “I love you”, which were often tucked away in mom’s treasure chest.
Life was eternal then, parents forever young, children forever children, grandparents old enough to have attained worldly wisdom yet youthful enough to play games on the floor.
Generations fanned out all around. There was time and joy enough for all.
Yesterday, a colleague buried her mother, on Mother’s Day. Judaism calls the act of tending to the dead, hesed shel emet. Difficult to translate, it means something like the truest act of lovingkindness. In a world of transactional deeds, when people often do things for others so that - in some way or other - others will do things for them, tending to the dead is non-transactional. It is a gift we give to those we love, simply because we love them.
Those of us who love mothers, those of us who are mothers, sooner or later realize that time is not endless, that generations do not fan out forever. And the pain of that is almost more than we can bear. So for most of the year we pretend it isn’t there, we pretend it isn’t true. Which is why once a year we need to carve out a time to say what goes without saying.
It is good that Mother’s Day is in the spring, when we can bury our pain in a world of rebirth.
Yesterday, one of my sons and I planted an upside-down tomato plant with my mother. I can see why it is all the rage. It is neater to tend to than tromping around in the garden bed, it keeps the tomatoes a bit freer from bugs and no doubt makes harvesting them a breeze. I wonder if they can also be grown indoors for those without a garden to hoe. Maybe even all year round? We will see what sort of harvest ours gives us.
And, in my on-going attempts to tend well to my garden and keep the deer from my apple trees, I staked and fenced-in the saplings in my little orchard. It looks much neater now. The trees are snug but free, protected yet not constrained, much better than the netting that bound them too well.
Isn’t that what good mothering is all about anyway? Setting up the next generation so they can blossom and flourish, so that even after we are gone, they will still be bringing forth their fruit, their blessings, for themselves and the generations after them?
Perhaps on Mother’s Day , we should spend our time and money in the garden, our own or others, on community plots, apartment balconies or hanging baskets, growing flowers and vegetables and fruits, recapturing through our hands the feelings of eternity that our mothers once lovingly gave us.
(And since issues of sustainability and creating a healthy world for the next generation should be an integral part of our Mother’s Day celebrations, check out the source of your floral gift next year. Scientific American and Smithsonian tell us a bit about the environmental impact of all those Mother’s Day flowers, and Floraverde is an organization that certifies green and humane flower producers.)
This Thursday I go to Siach, an international gathering of environmental and social justice activists gathering on the shores of the Housatonic River in Connecticut. There, we hope to begin to create a global network of partners who work with organizations pursuing tzedek and hesed (justice and generosity), or so I imagine.
In anticipation of these rich discussions and connections, I turned back to a manifesto I wrote three years ago about what the Jewish community needed to do to become a leader in the sustainability revolution that is being born all around us.
There is no doubt that we have come a long way in three years. Yet there is much more that needs to be done.
So, with the intent of creating manifesto that can be brought before every congregation, school and federation to discuss, refine, endorse and implement, I share it with you here.
I need your feedback, your improvements. The manifesto is long - but the task is great and there is much to do. And in a way, it is not long enough. Each item still needs to be unpacked and explored and better explained. That comes next.
It is a work in progress. Please let me know what you think.
Throughout the ages, and most intensely in our lifetimes, the Jewish community has been in the forefront of just and noble causes. The current critical movement to keep the world healthy and sustainable should be no different. Yet to date we lag behind in our collective leadership. We should take our place in this green revolution. It is time.
We need to re-imagine the ways we live. We need to redesign how we mine, farm, manufacture, fund, build, power, own, move, use and dispose of the stuff that holds up society. We need to redefine what the good life is. If we don’t, we will so exhaust our resources - both natural and monetary - that we will bequeath to our children a world harsher, much less giving and much less prosperous than the one we inherited. And that dark legacy will be a stain on us all for generations to come.
Here is what we must do and how we can do it:
1. Reclaim environmental ethics as a central mitzvah, a sacred standard of Jewish practice.
We must enfold a Jewish earth ethic in the practices and policies of all that we do, from the paints we use in our classrooms and Section 202 housing, to the food we serve at our simchas to the cleaning supplies that clean our JCCs, to the curricula we develop in our day schools and synagogues, to the investment policies of our Federations’ endowments to the vans we buy to keep our seniors mobile to the legislative policies we endorse on local, state and federal levels.
In short, environmental concerns must become part of the formula that guides the values, operations and decisions of the Jewish community in the daily conduct of our lives.
2. Redeem the concept of am ha’aretz – the people of the land.
We act in accordance with our beliefs, our sense of self. For 2000 years, we have used the phrase am ha’aretz, the people of the earth, to denigrate the unlettered working class. It was contrasted with am hasefer, the people of the book, the learned and scholarly class.
This symbolic earthiness/learning dichotomy came to represent, and contribute to, the growing alienation of the Jewish people from their connection with the land. It is time for a reconciliation; time for the Jewish people to be known as both am ha’aretz and am ha’sefer, to renew our covenant with the land which serves as our provider and which we serve as its protectors, even as we continue to celebrate our unbreakable covenant with the text.
3. Reclaim the practice of Pe-ah (leaving the produce of the corners of your field for the needy)
We must find ways for businesses to integrate social justice in their commercial practices. The Torah offers the model of pe’ah, wherein we are commanded to plant a section of our fields for the needy as part of our standard business operations.
As we were bidden to do in the Bible, so we must do now. If corporate values (maximizing profits for the privileged shareholders) and public well-being (caring for the needy as well as the “commons”) continue to be pitted against one another, social justice will forever be a beggar. We need to explore the expansion of B-corporations (Benefit corporations), blend business and social entrepreneurship, and create tax structures that embed caring for the needy and the environment in their very operations.
4. Do not waste - Bal tashchit – classically translated as “do not wantonly destroy things,” this concept can be understood today as:
Make no waste. Nature knows no waste. Neither can a sustainable society. There is no “away” that can antiseptically handle our trash. We must develop ways to construct commerce, production, distribution, transportation and disposal so that it creates no waste, so that everything can be part of the 5-R’s: reduce, re-use, recycle, repair and redistribute. We need to engage in the growing field of collaborative consumption, which is part of a broader effort to build an economy in which we purchase services and outcomes rather than hardware and “goods” (as they say, why pay for the drill, which lies dormant most of its life, when all you want is the hole?).
5. Mazria Zera – Preserve the life-giving powers of growing things. God made this world with trees and plants that mazria zera, “bear seed within it”, so that life can go on under its own power. That is the way life is ordained to be. We dare not destroy earth’s life-giving systems, or create sterile seed, or disrupt the hormones of fish and wildlife or otherwise so impair the world that it ceases to bring forth new, healthy life. We dare not hunt and fish beyond reproductive levels or irrevocably foul the land and water or contaminate the world with refuse it cannot absorb. And we cannot nervously dismiss genetically modified foods but we cannot be careless in our pursuit of them either.
6. Sova – Enoughness. Our appetites have become extravagant even as the world’s population becomes more numerous and its resources more stressed. Yet, we are taught that the very stability of our economic system depends on buying more. The words “full” or “enough” or “No thanks, I don’t want any more” are considered anti-American, anti-progress, economically devastating. Yet, we must build an economic system based on progress, not growth; services more than stuff; access more than ownership. We must recalibrate our measure of fullness not only so that there will be enough for all, but even more, so that we can finally feel fulfilled, satisfied, and say, “No thanks. I am full. I have all I need. I have all I want.”
7. We must establish national and local Offices of Sustainability. Making the transition to sustainable operations and practices is not obvious or intuitive. Sustainability is as technical and demanding a field as IT, marketing and investing, and it needs its own professionals to guide us.
Local agencies, schools, synagogues cannot afford such personnel on their own. Centralized, trusted professional consultants are needed. Universities have them, municipalities have them, businesses have them. The non-profit world needs them.
And to buttress these local efforts, to create a national collection of wisdom, best practices and perhaps even a “collaborative resource use community,” local sustainability officers should be organized in a network by a national sustainability entity, perhaps best housed Jewish Federations of North America.
8. We must create national and local Green Funds. We need a handful of influential federations and philanthropists to come together to use their moral and financial suasion to fund the first stages of this effort and to move it toward the top of the American Jewish agenda.
Through the leverage of local and national Green Funds, Jewish philanthropists can inspire and enable the Jewish community to embrace this work. They can guide a national discussion on Jewish environmentalism. They can grow the field with new or expandable programs. They can support the pioneering and ground-breaking work of Jewish environmental organizations such as COEJL, Teva, Isabella Friedman, Hazon Kayam Farm, the Jewish Farm School and others that work on both ends of the learning continuum, teaching both the leaders and the learners. And they can serve as a model for local Jewish green funds.
9) Limmud - we must deepen and strengthen our centers of Jewish environmental learning. Our seminaries must offer courses and concentrations exploring the teachings of environmentalism and sustainability embedded in our classic texts and traditions. Our rabbis and lay leaders must be conversant in this field and confident in speaking to this issue both within and beyond the Jewish community. Our schools of education must train their students to authentically incorporate Jewish lessons and activities of sustainability in their year-round curricula. This must become a part of who we are.
10) Tzedek. We must place advocacy for sustainability and environmental justice on our communal and JCRC agendas. All the other issues that have captured our hearts – poverty, hunger, housing, third-world development – turn on the well-being of the natural environment and the affordability of clean energy. We cannot properly and systemically address the former without fundamentally addressing the latter.
There are more tasks we must undertake. These are just the beginning. But if we embrace them and adopt them, the others will follow. And we will have done our part to bring healing to this endangered world, and a life of opportunity and not unnecessary constraint to our children.
Judaism does not celebrate killing. When we speak of our enemies, we hope for repentance, a change of heart, not destruction of the soul.
That is the story of Yom Kippur, when we read about Jonah and the people of Nineveh. That is the story of the Exodus that we recount at the seder, when we diminish our wine, and thus our joy, as we speak of the plagues that afflicted and killed the Egyptians.
In interpreting the Bible, the rabbis severely restrained the application of capital punishment. To this very day, there is no capital punishment in Israel.
And yet, on rare occasions, there are exceptions. Eichmann was executed for his role in the Holocaust. Pharaoh and his men were hurled into the sea.
And today, there is Osama bin Laden.
How do we know how we should respond? Where do we draw the line between those destined for execution and those who should be spared? Our tradition offers a way for us to determine whether a crime, and an individual, rise to the level of deserving to die.
Psalm 104:35 offers an ambiguous reading. Classically, it is translated as:
“May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked be no more.”
This is most often taken to be asking for sinners to be punished, killed off, by God; that justice be meted out to those who pursue injustice.
However, the Talmud presents an alternative reading, in the voice of Bruria, the wife of the renowned sage, Rabbi Meir. Upon being mugged, Rabbi Meir came home and ranted to his wife about the ruffians who ruffed him up. He called for their death. Bruria responded: “But is that what you should ask for? After all (offering a softer reading of Ps 104:35), perhaps we should not read: ‘Let sinners be removed from this world.’ Rather, we should read: ‘Let sin be removed from this world.’”
Bruria was arguing that Rabbi Meir should pray for the bandits to repent and change their ways, not be zapped by God for their misdeeds.
That is a noble and gentle sentiment. Yet, at times it may be overly sentimental, and thus dangerous. We know that not all miscreants will be penitent. Some will never change and will always be a threat no matter where they are. So how shall we handle them?
Shall we read the verse as asking for the destruction of sinners or asking for the destruction of sin? Death or compassion?
Or perhaps there is a third way. Reconciling these two positions, allowing for compassion where appropriate but harsh punishment where necessary, tradition offers yet a third interpretation.
“Sinners” here is said to refer to a special class of sinners, those who sin unrepentantly, incessantly, tenaciously, aggressively; those who have become as dark as their actions, those who cannot and will not change.
In this light, bin Laden was a sinner, and in this light, tradition supports the actions of the United States.
Most of the world is breathing a sigh of relief today. Over time, perhaps, more information will come to light about the heinous, destructive nature of this man’s philosophy and deeds and the justice in his execution.
Today, we might feel relief, even pride, in the masterful, careful, limited and dignified way this maneuver was carried out and concluded. But we cannot be joyful that we were forced to do it.
Keys to front doors and back doors long abandoned and long forgotten; keys to private homes and public kitchens; keys to closets and cabinets, old hotel rooms, cars, rusty mailboxes, forsaken lockers and safes. Keys to who knows where and who remembers what?
I use them for my omer counter. Each day of the omer, from the second day of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot, we count. Day One of the Omer; Day Two of the Omer; Day Three of the Omer….
To remind us which day we are on, and to serve as a mnemonic so we don’t forget to count altogether, folk art has created a vast array of Omer Counters.
Our youngest son used to create a simple cross-hatch poster that hung in our kitchen. This year, he is away at college. The space reminding to count us lies vacant. I decided to fill it with a hand-made omer-counter made from keys.
Each night, we hang a key on our omer chain. Each night, we are reminded of life’s constant surprises, of opportunities hidden behind doors we have not yet opened. Or, through regret, or distraction, or anger, we once closed.
We are reminded it is up to us to see the openings that await us, the places we can go, the adventures we can dare to try.
Some doors are old ones - grown creaky from neglect. Some are brand new, scary for their novelty.
But one of the blessings of the Omer is that nightly we are reminded that life offers to pour itself out to us, to burst through the door, as we journey from Egypt to Sinai to the Promised Land, if we but dare to turn the key.
Egypt at night, courtesy of NASA’s photo of the day.
The Land of Goshen, where the Israelites first settled during the reign of Joseph, is thought to be located in the mid-right side of the “blossom” part of the flower. Having come in freedom to a wide, open place, the Israelites were ultimately pressed into the harsh and narrow service of building monuments to Pharaoh’s ego.
There are many lessons to be culled from the story of Passover. Some obvious, some extrapolated. The following is of the latter sort:
Under certain circumstances, the pursuit of comfort, even in a seemingly benign, welcoming environment, can seduce, lull and blind us to the incremental encroachment of slavery. What begins as a luxury becomes a necessity; what begins as desire becomes a need; what begins as a lark becomes a habit.
And then, one day, we see that we are no longer our own masters.
Passover allows us this moment of re-assessment. Have we landed where we wanted or have we somehow gone astray? Has a simple, innocent veering sometime a while ago led us to a place we do not want to be? Have we made the right choices for the right reasons?
What would it take to right our course? shed our shackles? Return to our simple but fulfilling land of milk and honey?
Pursuing that new course is true liberation.
In it she made matza balls, some “hard like a rock,” as she would say, for those who preferred them dense, and some so light and fluffy you almost weren’t sure you were eating them at all.
Then there were the other other-worldly delicacies that emanated from this spell-bound bowl: the “pesah bagels,” the matza brei, and the taiglach (small knotted pastries boiled in honey). It has been 24 years since my grandmother passed away. My mother kept this bowl, which she brought out every year on pesah.
Last year, as we were cleaning up after the holiday, I somehow ended up with the bowl. There is something about its smoothness, and its robin’s egg color that is just enchanting. Magical. It is hard to make something bad in this bowl.
Which is to say: much of the meaning of Passover comes in the preparations. Before the seder, before the dinner, before the matza comes the planning, the cleaning, the shopping, the cooking, the invitations. And its essence.
It is in these rituals, both those passed on from generation to generation and those created anew, that make the holiday. As in so many of life’s most precious rituals, it is in its anticipation that its drama, tension and meaning take flight.
Switching over the foods, utensils and routines of the kitchen hold much of the power of the holiday. Holding the bowls and plates and wooden spoons that span 3 and 4 generations releases the memories of the holiday.
Some people I know keep records in the backs of their haggadot of who attended their seder and who sat where. I keep menus in my computer of what I meant to cook (things always turn out differently in the end!) and who we thought would come (people always come and go at the last minute).
Families have fought over lesser issues than what exactly goes into the haroset.
And one of life’s most unheralded rites-of-passage is deciding when the seder should move from a parent’s home to a siblings - and then who will be the one to inherit it.
The seder, the story, the retelling, the gathering, the eating, the songs and the family jokes all build shared memories. But for many of us, much of the power in the holiday is found in its run-up, in the quiet but far from lonely scraping the carrot, peeling the egg, sauteeing the onions. For it is in standing by the stove, handling the pans, the knives, the bowls that we stand where our grandmothers did, see what they saw. It is through these acts that we are joined to our ancestors in this most basic of human tasks.
And as we are joined to those of the past, so those of the future will be joined to us.
Even, then, when we are alone in our kitchen, wondering if the sponge cake will fall or not, we know who we are, and “whose” we are.
Have a wonderful Passover.
In my on-going quest to blend economic prosperity with social justice, I offer you the following idea.
During this respite up in Cambridge, I determined that I neither wanted to spend the money nor expend the chemical and water waste in coloring my hair. I wish I could say it was about purity of motive and the release from the insatiable clutches of vanity. It wasn’t. It was all about saving money and the environment. And therefore it was subject to being overturned if I thought I looked awful. (Though I would color it less often to reduce my outflow of money and pollution.)
But, Avram seems to like it and in the dim light of the bathroom mirror I can’t really see what I look like, so, so far so good.
However, I can hear the Wall Street capitalists bemoaning the loss to the billion dollar hair industry if we all decided to go natural (though I am sure that we will not give up using all “product”. We still have to wash our hair!). So here is what I propose:
In lieu of the hundreds to thousands of dollars we each may spend each year coloring, dyeing and otherwise highlighting, streaking and tinting our hair, we take a portion of that saved expenditure, let’s call it a pe’ah, and tack it on to our hair care bill each time we go in for a haircut. This mandatory bonus for the salon will then be set aside to pay for haircare for the sick and indigent: for wigs for those undergoing cancer treatment who do not wish to be seen bald; for abused women who need someone to treat their bodies with love and care and tell them they are beautiful; for those who spend every dollar they get on food, shelter, shoes and medicine for their families and who have nothing left over for indulging themselves; for anyone needing someone to touch them gently, lovingly, safely, reassuring them that they and their bodies are blessed.
I know of a mobile dental unit that treats for free those who otherwise would not get dental care. Why can we not have a mobile salon, beautifully appointed with pastel colors and plushly upholstered chairs, that travels from place to place where people need to be reminded of the true treasures they are and the gifts they bear.
Then going grey would be a sign not of one’s parsimoniousness or slovenliness, but a part of one’s largesse and commitment to social justice. Just like the bracelets we all wore a few years ago, only this sign becomes a piece of us, a constant signal of who we truly are.
The month of Nissan has dawned, the first month of the Hebrew year, the month of Exodus, of harvests, of spring, and eternal renewal. The fears of winter are gone.
(Tishrei is also the Jewish new year - when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. But Nissan is always the first of months in the Torah. Whoever said there can be only one new beginning each revolution around the sun? The Jewish calendar reminds us that a new beginning comes with every dawn.)
So at this time of new beginnings, when the world feels fresh and our hope is restored, when despite the overwhelming weight of threats and war, of injustice, divisiveness and our earth’s degradation swirling all about, despite it feeling like so much is falling apart and there is so little we can do, our sacred story bolsters us, speaking of healing, overcoming oppression, starting over, leaving the old behind.
How appropriate, then, that NASA publishes this photo of the turmoil and beauty, the messiness and promise, of new beginnings.
Enjoy. May your Passover preparations lead you too to new beginnings, new awareness, new understandings, and a new openness as wide as the footpath in the midst of the Red Sea.
That is all you need to start.
In a supreme act of consumerism, we moderns have learned to buy time, that rarest and most precious of commodities. We do this in many ways, but one way that is doubly inventive is our penchant for distressed jeans. They are the ultimate symbol of purchasing an unearned identity, of paying for an imaginary personal past.
That in and of itself is worthy of exploration, but here I want to talk here about the unseen price we pay in the production of those jeans. Here is a menu of techniques used to give our jeans their pre-worn look:
[The] industry has developed a wide range of techniques [to simulate wear and tear] ... The very first distressed jeans were sold as stone-washed… washing them with a large pile of pumice stones is still common today, though it is increasingly supplemented by cellulose enzymes… One can [also] opt for acid wash, moon wash, monkey wash, show wash, white wash and mud wash. Chemicals such as potassium permanganate are applied to shift the tinting…. There is ozone fading or water jet fading. There are various forms of sandblasting, or handsanding…”
(from an article called “Buying Time” by Daniel Miller in a book entitled Time, Consumption and Everyday Life.)
Besides the fascinating awareness that we choose to walk around in clothes that proclaim a simulated life that we were perhaps too busy, unskilled or impatient to actually experience ourselves, simulated pre-worn jeans have two severe deficits:
the processes used to get the pre-worn affects are often detrimental to the health of the workers. For example, workers who use the sandblasting technique often contract silicosis, a serious lung disease;
the chemical wastes of these processes are polluting local waters and lands in the localities that manufacture the jeans.
Upon reading this, I got an idea, one that solves all the problems in one fell swoop. So I offer this as a not-so-tongue-in-cheek proposal:
Let manufacturers give new jeans to their pre-worn workers and let the workers spend a year wearing them while farming, teaching, being a kindergarten teacher, parenting, whatever they need to do to live their lives. Let the jeans legitimately get all dirty and worn and just the right touch of torn. Then collect the jeans and sell them at American malls and around the privileged world for inflated prices (just like jeans sell for now) and pay the workers a fare wage for their labor.
The benefits are multiple:
the workers/wearers will not be exposed to harmful chemicals
the environment will not suffer (no water, energy, waste will be consumed in the process other than that used by workers in their on-going daily lives)
the workers will be able to earn money wearing these jeans all the while doing valuable jobs that can truly benefit their community, thereby doubling their productivity
the jeans will have an authentic history and bear marks that carry real work and real memories
We could even get fancy and attach a photo of the prior owner of the jeans to the manufacturer’s sales tag, telling a bit about the prior owner, their town, their family, and what they did while wearing the jeans. This will personalize the pants, narrow the gap between purchaser and worker (we are seeking to do that with our local farmers, why not our jean wearers?) and can truly make a village out of the world. (That way we can more or less justify the jeans-miles-traveled so that we may clothe ourselves in pre-worn comfort and fantasy.)
This is, of course, offered part in gest and no doubt it is unlikely to be pursued or truly profitable (although half the world wears jeans; so there are lots of lesser-privileged people who could moonlight as pre-worn jean workers who can sell their services for other more-privileged members of the jean-wearing public). But as long as we are trying to live more ethically, it seems we should not be trafficking in a market in discretionary goods that harms people, water and land (which goes back to hurting people) for the sake of purchasing pants that offer us the unearned adventures of a surrogate life.
There is already enough in life that we need that leaves traces that are problematic. Being conscious of what we don’t need, and being aware of the toll such consumerism is taking, is part of the Grand Project of the 21st century.
100 years ago today, tragedy struck New York City, a city that has known more than its share of tragedies.
And it struck the Jewish people, a people that has known more than its share of tragedies.
And the Italian community, and the vast community of workers who, in that heady era of early industrialization, were enslaved and endangered by the thirst and greed of unscrupulous bosses.
I know much too little about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to comment more - but I, like so many, am both riveted to the story that is seared in our minds, and amazed at the hold this story has on our collective memory and imagination. Why it grips us so, is a question others are seeking to answer. But at the very least, it is a question that harbors hope.
Hope that causes us to celebrate the unnamed tasks and unsung workers who stitch-by-stitch, brick-by-brick, row-by-row feed and house and cloth us. Hope that calls us to check and re-balance our appetites for goodness and for wealth. Hope that reminds us that it is not just the well-being of the marketplace that determines the well-being of the people, but the well-being of the people - in and at their places of work - that likewise determines the well-being of our marketplace.
Well-being does not flow in one direction. It is an iterative, reciprocal, mutually-dependent process.
So too the quest for environmental well-being demands the well-being of people, place and prosperity.
The triple-bottom-line is not a slogan or a mantra but rather a blueprint. It is the three-legged stool upon which society rests.
A production commemorating the fire created by Elizabeth Swados is being shown at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square in NYC, two blocks from the site of the fire.
Tonight at the Shabbat dinner table, speak a bit about the fire, the memories of those lost, the lessons that have since been learned, the remedies that have been put in place, and the work that is yet to be done.
May the memory of this tragedy - and the innocent lives lost - continue to bring awakening and healing.
The protective structures I devised to shield my apple trees through the winter instead became their undoing. When the posts went down in the wind and snow, the netting took the tree trunks with them.
Five trees were leafy and alive in the fall. Five trees were lost to the storms come spring. My mother called to gently break the news. “The storm brought down a lot branches, all over. I’m afraid the apple trees didn’t make it.”
Home for a dash of hugs and housekeeping, I checked on my apple trees. It looked like utter devastation. Branches from our poplars and the noble beech lay strewn across the yard. The two large apple trees were parallel to the ground, trapped and flattened by the nets that were meant to save them. The smaller trees were entangled in their posts and netting.
I gently unwound the ties, cut loose the bindings, freed the branches. And was amazed.
While the deer have had their way with many of the buds, the trees have miraculously survived. Weakened and bent, perhaps forever lame, life is there. If I can manage to protect the trees from the sweet tooth of our four-legged vagrants over the next few months, the trees may just have a chance.
And we may have apples again come Rosh Hashanah. If not this year, perhaps the next.
If years and years from now, a grandchild clambers onto a thick, low-hanging branch heavy with fruit on an oddly shaped tree with a perfectly shaped nook for nestling and reading, I will remember this winter, how the wrong protection is no protection at all, how good intentions are sometimes badly turned, and how adversity can give us the most surprising gifts of all.
It is a glorious Purim Day, when we are bidden to imagine that all of our foes are - at least for the moment - vanquished, subdued by our own hands no less (with a little help from You-Know-Who), and we are free to celebrate our deliverance without looking over our shoulders, or posting sentries by the gates, or locking our doors.
I am a firm believer in casting about in the realm of the imagination. We all need to spend quality time there every now and then to make a good showing here.
So off with you, bon voyage, and have fun with family and friends.
To accompany you, perhaps, a bit of travel reading.
The human tragedy in Japan continues to unfold and we continue to search for the lessons that lie buried for us amid its ruins.
Among all the teachings that will rise from the rubble, one rings out: we can no longer pretend that we hold nature by the tail, that we have tamed her and wrestled her and can ride her as we please.
We can no longer imagine that nature is a discretionary element in our lives, that it lies docile by the door, waiting demurely, even servilely, til we let her in.
Nature will not wait quietly out there while we root around in her cellar, raid her pantry and toss back the refuse when we are done.
Nature remains a force all its own. The awesome might of nature wielded by God and drawn for us in the last chapters of Job still reigns.
For a while, during our heady, easy, energy-besotted 20th century, we thought we had tamed the beast. At least enough.
We acted as if we were the hosts and nature the guest. Sometimes we welcomed nature into our home and sometimes not; sometimes she was well-mannered and sometimes not.
But we are reminded with all that is happening, the storms and the rain, the flooding and the earthquakes, the droughts and blizzards, that nature is not out there, beyond our doors and the boundaries of our cities.
Nature is in here. Or no, not even that.
We have confused who is in whose house.
It is not nature who is in ours, but we who are in nature’s.
We must mind the rules of our host, if we wish for things to go well.
While we will never rid the world of nature’s ravages, at least we can know that we have anticipated them better, have not added to their frequency or ferocity, or been the cause of collateral tragedies.
There is a deep intimacy that comes with the act of carrying. This thought came to me as I staggered home from campus the other day, a bulging book bag dangling heavily from my shoulders.
There is no hiding in the act of carrying, no concealing the weight, heft and volume of the object(s) being carried; no faking the strength, will and capacity needed by the one doing the carrying. No amount of girdles, vertical stripes, or other visual deception can alter the knowledge revealed through carrying.
To lift, hold, balance, cradle, and move an object yields an immediate body-to-body experience that other ways of transporting just do not possess.
To carry is to know; it demands that we respond and bend our energies and attention to the needs of the other. It is relational, cooperative. Successful carrying calls upon the two partners - the carrier and the carried - to work to fit together, to accommodate each other, wrap around, blend and meld into each other. This is for mutual benefit for to aid the other is to aid ourselves.
Perhaps that is why the Torah tells us God carried us as we entered into the sacred covenant - so that we could know each other in the most intimate of ways, and support each other in ways that precluded hiding or dissembling.
And perhaps that is why marriage is called nissuin, from the root n.s.a., to lift and carry, for marriage requires mutual shifting, adjusting, melding, each continually responding to the other. Nissuin is plural, reciprocal, for in marriage, it is first the one then the other who at times carries and at times is carried.
(Perhaps that is one reason, too, why we indulge in the otherwise anachronistic tradition of groom’s carrying brides over thresholds.)
So too, more prosaically but no less pointedly, when we carry around the stuff and substance of our daily lives, when our physical possessions lay deep within our arms, or are splayed across our backs, hang upon our shoulders, when we cannot put them down until we get to our destination, we gain a greater intimacy of the earth, what we have taken from it, what we have done to it, and how we rely upon it.
I imagine that if we had to carry everything we bought, every piece we possessed, everything we threw away, we would gain a deeper intimacy and appreciation of the world’s stuff, humanity’s ingenuity, and what it will take to successfully carry each other across the years yet to come.
“In Kangra, in the north-west of India,” I read recently in my continuing search for the elusive concept of home, “where the Mitakshara system is in force, ancestral property is held in common by a man and his descendants as co-sharers. Any one of them can demand partition at any time.
“The Mitakshara system distinguishes, in fact, the self-acquired property over which a man has full rights of ownership from the ancestral one, over which heirs have rights from the moment of their conception.
“In other words, the members of the senior generation are trustees rather than absolute owners of the joint property. They have no right to sell or to give away the joint capital to the detriment of the other shareholders.” (The ‘Casser Maison’ Ritual : Constructing the Self by Emptying the Home, Jean-Sébastien Marcoux Journal of Material Culture 2001 6: 213)
Now, let’s imagine this: All natural resources are, by definition, ancestral property and thus joint capital. No one dares to claim that they made them, or self-acquired them (at least, not fairly). No one can claim exclusive rights to them, either for themselves or for a small, well-heeled cadre of stakeholders. No one can claim a greater share of the rights to and use of water, land, air, minerals. These are the commons.
And what if we pushed this just a bit farther? That not only are all those present today equal shareholders of the commons, but they are all nascent trustees for the next generation who will justly lay claim to the commons?
And what if we were to say that any degradation of joint capital (not just the sale or divestment of the commons but its ruin, pollution and the like) to the detriment of present and future shareholders were illegal?
And what if we did not actually make this a law but have this be something that was even more powerful than law, that is, a social taboo?
Such, it seems to me, is what the concept of nahalah, sacred inheritance, in the Torah is all about. That the land is inalienable, a possession in and of the commons because it is owned only by God. It may and should be used by us to provide us a life of bounty and goodness. We can temporarily divide it up for private use, but only with some stipulations.
We must leave part of the field and its harvest for all who are hungry.
We must leave the land fallow and, as it were, ownerless every seventh year. Everyone has an equal right that year to glean across the entire field, not as a dispensation against trespassing but as co-owners of this gift, this joint inheritance, from God.
We must relinquish and return the land to its original tribal stewards every 50 years, to restore equity, break any encroaching denial or circumvention of the commons, and live out the lessons of nahalah.
If we could live with that as our model, as an ideal even if not as a workable plan, what would the world, our economy, our farms, our cities, our closets, our appetites look like today?
Being and Possession
There I was, happily reading along, thinking that I had found a new best friend, a soul-mate with whom to explore the mysteries of home and the ways we live in and are shaped by this primary space of ours, when bam!, I slammed into a teaching that shocked me.
(Okay, so Peter King won’t be my new best friend, but I do want to thank him for treading the same path as I am and clearing away much of the underbrush that would, no doubt, otherwise trip me up.)
In speaking about the necessity of calling home “mine” (albeit a “mine” that is often regularly and gracefully shared with others who also call it “mine”), and about how the ability to exclude others is a necessary attribute of home, King (in his book, In Dwelling) goes on to quote, approvingly, Roger Scruton on the nature of possessing:
“Ownership is the primary relations through which man and nature come together.”
“Through property man imbues the world with will, and begins therein to discover himself as a social being… “
“[Through ownership] the object is lifted out of mere ‘thinghood’ and rendered up to humanity.”
These quotes come, appropriately, from Scruton’s book called The Meaning of Conservatism (2001) and as much as they shocked me in the context of King, they also offer a keen insight into the challenges environmentalists face as we work to bring a more humble ideology of stewardship, tenancy, and usufruct back into western thought.
For Scruton, humans and nature (as if humans were not in their very being a part of nature!) come to into relationship only when humans reach across the divide to possess and impose their will upon nature. Scruton is using his school of philosophy to mend a breach between humans and nature that his school of philosophy created in the first place!
Spiritual environmentalists might counter Scruton’s thinking with Psalm 24:1 as an anthem: “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.”
In this view, humans and nature are part and parcel of God’s creation, of nature. We enter relationship with each other through this mutual awareness, mutual status. We do not need to possess and subdue nature to enter into relationship.
And nature does not need us to lift it out of its indignity of “thinghood.” In the narrative of creation, God made the world and at each step, before we humans ever came on the scene, the world was declared: good.
The first humans were given permission to use, indeed were charged with the task of using, the resources of the world to create home. But permission to use - which is an expression of relationship - is not the same as permission to own. Nor does ‘use’ necessarily mean to manipulate, change, handle or manhandle. I “use” the view of the tree outside my window although I never even touch it. I “use” you, my readers and audience, in this joyous semi-anonymous communication as my muses. Were it not for you, I would not be writing this, but I do not own you in any way. Nor, after writing these words, do I “own” them. Nor do you “own” the internet, though you most certainly use it.
Possession is not, then, the foundation of social being (although it is a prelude to enhancing or confounding it). Simply being in the presence of another, including nature, is.
And then the question becomes, now what ought I do?
The sun is out, bright, shiny and early today, after several days of snow, rain and cloudy skies.
It makes you notice.
Its brilliant debut this morning occurred a full 50 minutes later in the day than when we first arrived in Boston mid-January. Then, sunrise was at 7:10 and daylight was only 9 1/2 hours long.
Today, on the first of March, the harbinger of spring, the sun rose at 6:20 and will give us light for 11 hours and 13 minutes. It is seconds away from its longest daily leap forward of the year. (Today’s daylight is 2 minutes and 49 seconds longer than yesterday’s; the biggest growth spurt in daylight is, of course, around the equinox, when the sun is out for 2 minutes and 52 seconds more than the day before. And it does this for almost 16 days! Our spring days lengthen by 1/2 hour of daylight in only two weeks time. If this sounds confusing, go to this sunrise/sunset chart and plunk in your city name. It all becomes clear!)
For those of us whose energy and spirits are tethered to the rise and fall of the sun, this is the season we have been waiting for! We can take more walks, get more done, breathe more deeply as time itself seems to expand.
Funny how the sun seems to get younger and stronger as winter subsides. (I know, I know. The cause and affect are the other way ‘round but go with me on this one, just for the moment.)
And if the sun can get younger, and stronger, and last a bit longer, at this time of year, maybe, just maybe, so can we!
It’s worth a try. After all, Adar II, our double-dose of monthly joy, is coming.
This is the kind of snow that serves up in beauty what it lacks in volume. Big, wet flakes drape themselves on every surface, every limb, every wire, painting scenes of childhood dreams, the kind that animated Currier and Ives and allured Robert Frost.
It is the kind of snow in which evergreens bow under the influence of a million flakes while their bare-leafed neighbors strut their stuff, flaunting every bend and twist and curve beneath their glaze of white.
It is the kind of snow I love walking in, a bit, but mostly enjoy admiring from inside a warm, cozy home. No events will be cancelled today; most plans will not change; most people, I imagine, will just marvel at winter’s gentle beauty as they go about their day.
Yet I also wonder about the panhandlers who frequent the Squares where the local commerce happens. The ones who singsong their plaint, serenading you as you walk past, asking you either to buy their one copy of a shopworn paper or give them spare change. Your choice: spare change or newspaper. (I imagine that is to wiggle around the “no soliciting” rules.) They are part street musicians; part vendors; part local color; part nuisance. The lines between the parts keep shifting.
Still, where exactly do they live? Where are they in this snow?
And the clerk at the local stationers. We spoke a bit this week about the store’s closing next month, he with traces of fear he meant to stifle but could not hide. It was a raw, unexpected moment of intimacy that neither he nor I quite knew how to handle.
The stationers is on a corner. Just across the street in one direction is a bank, a credit union to be precise. And just across the street in another is a church. The clerk is flanked by the domain of commerce and the realm of the spirit. One might be given to imagine that when in need, this is the place to be, nestled in the midst of the currencies of earth and heaven. Yet I fear the clerk might fall in between, neither of them reaching out to scoop him up in his hour of need.
What role, do we, his neighbors, patrons, fellow sojourners, have toward him and the panhandlers and all the others who might not welcome this snow, whose needs have not been met by the world in which they live?
Still the snow falls, draping the trees. It seems so lovely outside.
In 1798, upon remembering that his artificial dove took an ignoble nose dive on its maiden flight, and being overcome with “humiliated self-esteem,” Xavier de Maistre decided to go for a walk.
Marveling at the ease with which the birds overhead managed to stay aloft, he awakened to a brand new sense of awe for all the unrecognized majesty around him.
So he wrote:
“A sense of profound admiration, of a kind I had never before experienced, lit up my soul. I thought I was beholding nature for the first time. I was surprised to hear the buzzing of the flies, the song of the birds, and that mysterious, indistinct hubbub* of the whole living creation as it spontaneously celebrated its author…
‘Who is the author of this brilliant mechanism,’ I exclaimed… ‘Who is he who, opening his creative hand, let the first swallow take wing… who ordered the trees to rise up out of the earth… who placed you on the earth’s surface to beautify it?’”
Awkwardly, he realized that he had said all this out loud.
Of course, the people around him stopped and stared, wondering who was this madman, proclaiming infatuation with the common wares of the world. He retired to his room again. Although in a much repaired state of mind.
I hope that you and I, too, become a little intoxicated with creation’s majesty every now and then, even if it causes people to stop and stare at us.
*It is interesting that de Maistre uses this phrase, for it is so reminiscent of kol demamah dakah, the still small voice, or the hushed murmuring, that Elijah witnesses (I Kings 19:12) in the wilderness.
This quote is from the book A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room, written by Xavier de Maistre and translated by Andrew Brown. Enjoy!
There are squares all over the place here. “Square” as in: “an open area or plaza in a city or town, formed by the meeting and intersecting of two or more streets and often planted with grass, trees, etc. in the center.” (dictionary.com)
Now, given Cambridge’s density, the definition needs a bit of tweaking. While we are heavy here on the intersection part, we are a bit sparse on the open area, grass, trees, etc. part.
Still and all, we have the more famous squares: Porter Square, Harvard Square, Davis Square, Inman Square. Those are intersections that anchor neighborhoods which have spawned local shopping districts that attract fierce loyalists. People become devoted to their squares, even as the squares, in turn, reflect the passions and the nature of their people.
But then we also have the more modest squares. Walk just a couple blocks in any direction and you will bump into a plaque proclaiming this non-descript intersection or that “Such-and-Such Square”.
Or more precisely, and poignantly, “So-and-So Square”. These squares, both great and small, we learn, are given the names of people. And they are not just about the people, but about the people in that place.
Famous people, common people, rich people, modest people, natives and newcomers. No companies or businesses or commercial sponsors. Just the people who lived here, worked here, loved it here, called here home.
The names remind us that once upon a time, people possessed a love of place, and of neighbors, history, familiarity and blessings that constancy of place affords. They remind us that people once put down roots so deep, that their memories remain long after they passed away.
They remind us that “place” is not fungible, that each place is unique; that despite the fact that when we bump into a mall on a highway somewhere, and it is a often hard to tell whether we are in Maryland or New York or Ohio or Wisconsin, still the uniqueness of place stirs. These “squares” remind us that each “place” has a personality that bulldozers can bury but that truly can never be erased.
The names and signs have a lot to do with it. I know that in Baltimore our neighborhoods also have names. And it is the people who actually know the names and boundaries they inscribe that feel the greatest sense of belonging to and ownership of place. But so many people don’t know those names, don’t feel the connection. And the names and signs are too few.
There is something wonderful about the pride and abundance of these oversized namings in these undersized intersections, nested within these large district-forming squares, that populate this place with sweet, enduring memories.
It is good to see a place so pleased with itself.
(Photo: Pooh’s reading place, made from carved tree trunk, on street in Porter Square district)
I rarely worry you with all my worries about what we ingest. My family has all but silenced me on that. As my oldest son says when I talk about yet the next thing we cannot/should not eat: “Eating will kill you. Not eating will kill you faster.”
However, there are times to break the silence.
I think most of us would agree that our food system, if not broken, is badly in need of repair. We have paid the devil in the coin of health of self and soil for the blessings of volume now.
So while we have lots of food today, the quality of that food (never mind the quality of the soil that must grow our food tomorrow) has been severely compromised.
All that being said, I focus your attention on soft drinks, and particularly the caramel-colored ones. The triple threat of those sodas (sweeteners, containers and colors), along with the wasted calories we absorb imbibing it, the wasted dollars we spend on buying it, the emissions we give off transporting it, the energy we use bottling, tossing, even recycling the packaging, leads me to encourage you to rethink your soda-drinking habits.
Here is an article that tells you things about: the cans (BPA in there), the color (the caramel is carcinogenic) as well as the sweetener in the diet stuff.
So, when we can save money, be more environmentally friendly, reduce packaging and shipping, make ourselves healthier, perhaps live longer, all by doing just one thing, consuming less soda, it seems like a proper and compelling message to share.
Even the birds today seem to be calling for a fresh start.
What if all our stuff had to be laid out in the open? What if everything we owned had to be on display, stacked on shelves without doors, hung on our walls, dangled from our ceilings?
What if we had no closets or cellars or attics or storage units that could gobble up, chug down and otherwise conceal - from ourselves as well as others - all that we had?
How would that affect our consumer appetites? How would that change what we bought and kept? (Confession: I say this as I prepare today to go to a local consignment shop to buy a book tote. My defense is that 1. the “new” one I am to buy is old, used, and would otherwise be tossed and trashed, and 2. my old one is tearing and leaving tracings of its innards all over my sweaters. I suppose you could argue that I should just use one of my canvas grocery bags. They are serviceable and large and sturdy enough. And you would no doubt be right. But, well, that just doesn’t seem, um, stylish enough.)
A blog I saw says that the Amish do not have closets. They hang their clothes on hooks on their wall. When the hooks are full, their wardrobe is complete. (And yes, I suppose it does depend on how many hooks they put up but the picture showed one neat row of seven hooks with one outfit on each hook. I trust it is genuine.)
Forty years ago, biofeedback burst on the scene allowing us to be more aware of our bodies and how we could control what were (up til then) considered uncontrollable physiological events affecting stress, heart rate, tension, etc.
More recently, we are being told that smart meters, which give us real-time feedback in home energy-use, will, like biofeedback, help make us better people. (Okay, not really. But we are told that the meters can help us figure out where our energy waste is which in turn will allow us to cut our use, our emissions, and our bills. And billions of dollars of stimulus funds were allotted to this, though the implementation is becoming more controversial than was anticipated.)
But what about general consumption? What about all those things we buy everyday? What if all our closets and drawers and boxes and bins and cellars were suddenly to spill out their innards, revealing to all, especially us - their owners - just how much we actually possessed. Somehow I think I would be horrified!
Which is why, perhaps, I am so enchanted with the wall of mugs and glasses that graces this tidy kitchen. It gently reminds me that perhaps “fullness” is closer than it appears, that our possessions should grace and not just fill our lives, that few items well-used are nubbed with the rubbings of everyday and so become carriers of our memories, surrogate diaries that we drink with our morning tea.
(Photo: shelves in my Cambridge kitchen)
Avram and I are living a scant half mile from The Harvard Museum of Natural History and pass it when we walk almost every day.
It is open 361 days of the year (closed New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas), has free admission always to those with Harvard IDs and free admission Sunday mornings for all Massachusetts residents.
It was increasingly embarrassing, therefore, that we had not yet gone. So yesterday morning we packed ourselves up (hand lens in tow) and trekked down for a late morning’s entertainment.
You have to hand it to the museum. It knows how to make an entrance. Or at least its architects did. The building is set 200 feet back from the road with an unimpeded view from street to stair. The walkway is like a teacher’s stare, holding you fast to the path to be trod. The visitor has a long time to contemplate what is on the inside by being gradually overwhelmed by what is on the outside.
(I can’t tell you more about the building, though, because while the keepers of the museum clearly have great regard for nature’s history and achievements, they seemed to give scant attention to human history and achievements. That is, there is no mention on their website, at least none that I could find, about the age, materials, construction techniques, architecture, or history of the building in which they are housed. It is as if the building is accidental and disconnected from their medium, as if nature is someplace far out there, exotic, distant and removed from what we build, live in and live on. That is a pity and a gulf which I imagine will be bridged over the next decades as they continue to refine their message and purpose.)
The exhibits, however, are extraordinary. At the very top of the stairs is the Ware Collection of Glass Flowers, displaying case after case of precision replicas of flowers and their various parts, exquisitely designed and created by Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolph (heirs to a magical family of glass-makers) made entirely of glass. The Blaschka’s are the Audubon of flowers, only offering their creations in glass and 3-D. The artistry defies description and it exhausts the mind to think how they did it all. Just the two of them.
Next to that is an equal display of nature’s creative prowess in The Mineralogical and Geological Gallery. This room has something like an acre of cases of the magic and variety that nature creates in more durable forms. The expansiveness was, unfortunately, a bit overwhelming if one attended to the details. (That is a critique of this human mind, not of the exhibit.)
But taken as a whole, as a celebration of the awesome variety, agility, responsiveness of nature to the opportunities and demands it faces over time, it was absolutely invigorating.
Then imagine our surprise when, as we were trekking along miles of aisles, we lit upon this display: two rounded columns of deep-hued stone, looking for all the world like tablets ready to be etched with God’s sacred charge.
They are elbaite, we were told, a crystal of the tourmaline group which can sport any number of vibrant colors. (Even more suggestive is that the crystalline structure of the tourmalines is powerfully reminiscent of a Jewish star!)
Perhaps the Ten Commandments were not carved on simple stone slabs, after all, but emblazened on glorious technicolor crystals?
The world does offer endless possibilities - and it is so very good for us to be reminded of that, as often as we can.
(Photo of elbaite crystal at the Harvard Museum of Natural History)
If Earth is our “Home,” it too has closets, those dark, earnest places where we tuck things away, treasures and trinkets and all sorts of things. Things we have in excess and things we can’t yet use. Things that are exhausted and things that need to ripen. Things that clasp our memories and things that await their day. Things we love and things we fear.
We keep them, guard them, have a hard time parting with them for they are part of us. They are our passions, our feelings, our ideas and our dreams caught willy-nilly in the amber that oozes from our lives.
Closets are acts in three tenses – past, present and future—with long intermissions. They encompass the ones who chose to save, the ones who guard the treasures and the ones who will remember and redeem them.
Which, it seems to me, explains why mountaintop removal is, for so many of us, so heinous and odious.
If each generation is the heir to all prior generations, then we are the inheritors, the stewards, of Earth’s precious estate, charged, among other things, with being “the keepers of the closets.” Mountaintop removal is nothing less than a brigand’s assault on our Home, our heritage and our trust.
Mountaintop removal ransacks our wardrobes, bulldozes the past that was stored up for us for more discriminate use. It removes all distinction of sacred and profane, open and closed, space; flattens all time to the urgent, insistent “now”; violates the attribute of having without using, of saving for the next generation.
Mountaintop removal doesn’t just make a mess, spilling out the densely packed guts of Earth’s closets, staining and destroying the rooms where we live. It raids and robs our children of their portion of Earth’s estate. Mountaintop removal implicates us all in ransacking and consuming those things we were entrusted to protect.
Judaism’s trope of M’dor l’dor, from generation to generation, is a call for us to remember the gifts of our parents, and for us to hand to our children a world that is full of promise: better, richer, and healthier than the one we inherited.
It is a calling we cannot neglect.
(Photo courtesy of Ohio Citizen Action)
It all begins with pockets. And bags and pouches, baskets and buckets, anything that helps us carry more than our eagerly cupped hands can reasonably hold. And the more we can carry, the more we will want.
For while at first desire builds capacity, soon the tables turn, and capacity begins to build desire.
I learned this recently by grocery shopping on foot.
In the suburbs, I would drive to the food store armed with my shopping list crafted in response to three questions:
1) What do I need? (We will ignore the problem of the flabby boundaries of “need” for the moment.)
2) What do I want?
3) Where will I store it?
I shudder to think what my cart would look like if it were bounded only by the first two questions. Where, after all, do appetites and desires end?
But thank goodness the practical aspect of limited shelf-space at home serves as a semi-conscious check on my buying. My “pantry” is very much like my stomach. When it is full, I am done.
(It is a blessing, I know, that the third question is about space and not about money. While I may pass up a certain item if I feel its cost exceeds its value, I do not limit my list to fit within a weekly budget. It is a blessing indeed to worry about running out of space before running out of money.)
But when shopping on foot, my list of things to purchase is shaped by somewhat different questions:
Can I get it home?
Will it fit into my nifty little rolling cart?
Can I carry it?
Can I get it home with all the other stuff I have to get home?
My shopping list these days is built as much by volume as by need. Triage is a big part of it.
How I hold and transport things are huge determinants of what I buy these days.
Which is not a new lesson, I know. In his scary but insightful book called, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill tells merchants how to get customers to buy more. One method: make sure they never run out of carrying space. When their hands (or baskets) are full, he tells the merchant, customers will stop buying. So… make sure you have baskets - big ones, easy to carry or push around - scattered throughout the store so customers always have space to drop in one more thing.
Similarly, a recent study reported by Scientific American teaches us that cities that reduced the availability of parking spots (in conjunction with other appropriate design and mobility initiatives) also reduced the presence of cars (thereby reducing miles driven and greenhouse gas emissions) and improved the quality of life.
Building capacity builds appetite. Reducing capacity reduces appetite.
There is a move afoot now to reverse the standard of building regulations. Instead of requiring a minimum number of spaces per construction area, it is being suggested that there be a maximum number of spaces.
All of which is to say, as appetite is a goad to technology, so technology is a goad to appetite.
This is not a call to halt exploration, discovery, progress or the grand imagination of the human spirit. It is a call to be wise about how we employ our imagination and our progress.
We must seek to channel the best of technology so we can seek to channel the best use of our appetites.
How big, after all, must our pockets be?
(Photo: my folding, rolling shopping cart)
Up a ways in New England, a mile or so from my childhood camp, was an old house that sat beside a sizable lake called Lovewell Pond (which the locals preferred to pronounce “lovel”).
Once a summer or so, each bunk could sign up for an overnight at that house. We begged for the privilege, for staying there meant skinny dipping in the lake, eating ‘smores, cozying up around an open fire, baking fresh biscuits in the morning and otherwise reveling in summer’s long enchantment.
One of the things I remember most about that house was the rag rugs. Throughout the living room and along the screened-in porch that ran the length of the house were rag rugs. About a dozen of them. They were dirty, for they held the sand and mud and dirt and dust that accumulated in such a vibrant outdoor place, and, with the way they were woven, were nearly impossible to clean. But they were colorful, and sturdy, and confident, and enigmatic, and comforting in their own way.
I was young and unable to understand why they fascinated, attracted, repulsed and made me sad.
But today, I read the following passage by Carolyn Steedman in a book called Domestic Space and it conjured up that house on the lake:
“... the rag rug is made from the torn fragments of other things: debris and leavings, the broken and torn things of industrial civilization. The rag rug carries with it the irreducible traces of an actual history and that history cannot be made to go away; but ways of writing it and wanting it (and what it represents) are actually somebody else’s story.”
Indeed. The rag rug - besides being a serviceable artifact that softens the tread and perks up the house (all the while holding in dirt that should have been cleaned up and discarded years ago) - is a silent witness to past vibrancy - not just of industrial civilization but of private lives. It is made of the surviving remnants, the ‘out-lasters,’ the enduring fabric that colored and covered the unfolding of now-hidden outings, occasions, dreams, dressing up. It is both celebration and sorrow, containing stories it can never tell and memories we can never hear. It is hard to know which is sadder: that it must remain mute or that we must remain deaf.
But no one makes rag rugs anymore. (Okay, I am sure someone is preserving the craft but of course I mean that it is not the typical, homespun, ordinary task that it once was.)
And that makes me wonder:
Where are the “rag rug” equivalents of today?
What will capture and preserve the fabric of our lives for those who come after us?
What do we lose by trashing the threads of the past?
And how would knowing that the cloth of our lives would become the useful embroideries of tomorrow affect the ways we lived?
(Photo from vintage chic)
The home, as Mary Douglas reminds us, is an “embryonic community.” It is a small version (the seed, the germ) of life writ large.
So perhaps, when issues concerning multinational commerce and nutrient trading confuse us, or when the ethical motivations that gave rise to them get drowned in the waves of market capitalization, we can return to the more familiar place of home and remind ourselves what these structures are morally designed to do.
Douglas (citing Jon Elster) teaches us:
The well-stocked home presents in small the essential problem of the commons. Its reserves are going to be a common resource for the denizens of the home if they can restrain their impatience….
If the homesteader consumes all his reserves in time of plenty, the home will be unable to supply his future needs… Opportunism traduces his overall plan. Stealing from the future prosperity of his own home, he free-rides on his own attempts to make himself a home, but the free-rider is the same person as the one who is providing the good things. This is the beauty of the model: since whoever free-rides on the goods of his own community is going to lose by its destruction.
(Mary Douglas, “The Idea of a Home: A Kind of Space,” Social Research, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring 1991) pp. 295-296)
The earth is our shared home. Together, we are all the homeowner who will lose by its destruction. To raid the reserves of our shared pantry in times of plenty, as we did in the 20th century and continue to do today, first in ignorance and then in defiance, without planning for a way to replenish our stock is like the homesteader eating his seed corn.
It is not just greedy. It is not just irresponsible. It is death.
We cannot live off fish if there are no more fish to catch. We cannot sell our corn if there is no more corn to harvest. We cannot water our fields if there is no more water in the well.
We must plan for tomorrow amidst our satisfaction today. Otherwise there will be no tomorrows to enjoy.
Now this is snow. Normal accumulation for Boston for an entire winter is 42.2 inches.
As of January 25, 49.6 inches have graced this region. And 10-20 inches more are expected today and tomorrow. The snow is falling somewhere around an inch an hour right now—a welcome diversion for a southern transplant with a soft spot for the white stuff on a cozy sabbatical morning but trying enough for the hardy, winter-proofed New Englanders. They are ready to get on with their lives.
Cities and snow don’t really go together. The biggest problem of course is where to put it all? Forget about renting out parking spaces. Folks with any spare real estate could earn a bundle renting out dumping spaces (otherwise colloquially known as “snow farms”). It’s seasonal income but it could be quite lucrative. (By the way, what did Philadelphia do with all that snow before the Eagles/Vikings game and how did they move it so fast?)
What is fascinating is how the snow changes sidewalk etiquette.
With so much snow piled up in such small public byways, often only a single lane is left to accommodate foot traffic. Everyone has to plan ahead.
The question is not who has the right-of-way. That smacks of rules, rights, claims and counter-claims. It is not that way at all. Rather the meeting is an exchange of gentility, graciousness, even chivalry. Upon approaching a narrow impasse one party steps aside, pausing in their journey, almost imperceptibly signaling to the on-comer that their advancement, their passage, may proceed uninhibited.
In return, a glance of gratitude, an ever-so-slight “pay-it-forward” nod of acknowledgment.
Sometimes you are the beneficiaries of such benevolence. Sometimes the bestower. It all seems to even out.
The other engaging snowy sidewalk culture is the ubiquitous presence of towering snowbanks, smoothed and rounded, looming up on either side as we wend our way through snow-bound walks.
This pristine palette of snow in easy reach of roving fingers and at perfect viewing height, is irresistibly transformed into ephemeral neighborhood billboards: proclaiming cupid’s latest announcements, folksy admonitions uplifting spirits, “kilroy was here” prints made by tiny hands; or simply a lengthy tracing of wainscotting for those more rushed or less talented.
Public spaces in city-snow become unavoidably, self-consciously, even intentionally shared. We are made mindful that we are all in this together, that our lives, otherwise parallel, hidden and kept apart behind locked doors, are in truth intertwined. I could be here for you and you for me if only we so choose. If only we knew each other.
There are 8 apartments in this four-floor walk-up (whose square footage is probably, all told, no bigger than some local Baltimore McMansions). We have briefly met four owners, to date, in chance encounters on the stairs. But we have not been invited into their apartments, nor, for some reason, have we invited them into ours.
At least, not yet. Perhaps the snow will change that.
For decades, Debbie Friedman created new genres of popular and liturgical Jewish music. She joined the faculty of the HUC School of Sacred Music in 2007. She passed away, much too young, earlier this month.
Every culture, every community, every person needs music, great music that enters us, engulfs us, helps define and anchor us.
Harry Witchel, author of the forthcoming book, You Are What You Hear, tells us that music defines our “social territory.” We are what we choose to hear, and we hang out with those who like the same music we do. Music is part of the ways we talk, part of the ways we communicate, part of the ways we know each other.
Colleges these days often include in the application process a question about what the applicant has stored on their Ipod.
Birds and whales use sounds, perhaps it could be called music, to mark the boundaries of their social territories - both to warn strangers away and to welcome friends in.
I remember reading about malls that wanted to limit the loitering of teens and so began playing music their grandparents would enjoy. It worked. The music fended off the “offending youth” like predator calls keep pigeons away.
Our environment is not just the land and water and buildings and streets. It is the light, the pulsing energy, and the noise that surrounds us, the noise that we choose to make, the noise that we choose to pull close around us. And while music has always been a part of human culture, it is even more so today with our ability to take our music with us wherever we go, and, with our ears plugged up, allowing us to block out the sounds and even consciousness of the physical world in which we tread.
Both the Jewish community and the environmental movement can use more music that inspires us, unites us, tags us as comrades, brothers and sisters, one big family.
May Debbie Friedman’s legacy encourage the blossoming of disciples who will bring more song, and common songs, to us all.
Things just got a little better, and a lot more confusing.
The United States Department of Agriculture is launching, come February 21, its new “USDA Certified Biobased Product” labeling program.
While this sounds good, and may eventually be, critics are already at best wary and at worst dismissive.
Consumer Ally recently posted a cautionary explanation of how the label might be a lot less than it appears, thus leading consumers to think they are getting more, and doing better, than they are. They report that to be eligible for USDA certification, only 25% of the product needs to be made from biobased (renewable) resources.
USDA’s BioPreferred program was created by the 2002 Farm Bill to increase the purchase and use of biobased products within the Federal government and the commercial market.
The biobased certification program is the second stage of the BioPreferred program. (Think EnergyStar for the food industry.) While it is critical to support our farming sector, one would have hoped that this green initiative would be equally motivated by a desire to encourage our farming industry to adopt more sustainable farming practices; to protect the quality of our soil and water; to grow healthier foods; to rebuild the natural fertility of our soil; to protect and preserve the woodlands and forests that are increasingly targeted for development into more farmlands.
As concerned consumers, we need to know what we are buying. And we need a scorecard to help us know. But we also need to know who is putting together the scorecard, and what their criteria and motivations are.
Please check out Consumer Ally’s critique, and the links they provide.
Check out other green awareness organizations such as Green America, as well as efforts by concerns such as Walmart to create a way to measure the Life Cycle impact of a product - from creation to disposal/recycling. And the all-encompassing, socially and environmentally responsible, emerging certification of Magen Tzedek.
In another decade or so, this will all be standardized and ironed-out. But for the moment, the educated consumer still has lots of work to do.
This is my workspace. It is in the kitchen, fast against the five-burner, turbo-charged gas stove (on my left). I can fire up the burner to heat water for tea without even getting up.
Out the window this morning I can see almost 2 dozen chimneys chugging away, puffing out smoke, struggling against this frigid winter’s day. (It is 12 degrees now, much warmer than the -3 when I awoke.)
A small flock of pigeons have taken up housekeeping on a chimney just to the west of us. When it is particularly cold, they tend to perch atop the chimney’s bricks, plunging into the shimmering heat of the building’s exhaust, an avian version of a shvitz, I suppose. One nesting pair seems to have won prime perching rights there. The others hang out on the peak of the steeply sloped roof, catching the remnants of the heat escaping from the attic.
But here is the point: The first night we were in the apartment, I set to cleaning. Not that the owner hadn’t done a credible job. Okay, there were some places that needed help. But even if there weren’t, I would have cleaned anyway. I cleaned to transform the sense of place; to mark it as mine, to strip it of past associations, recreate it so that it was no longer hers but ours. The ritual act of cleaning can do that. With the right attitude (and social structure), to clean is to claim (this doesn’t work as well if you are the hired help).
Whatever dirt I found that first night, I could disown. It was clearly not of my making, not my fault, not my responsibility. If anyone came in that night, or the next day, or perhaps even the next day, and saw those crumbs, that shmutz, that grease, they would know I was innocent, a victim of random grime. That it is not emblematic of how I live or keep house.
But then, today, as I bent down to wipe some newly spilled sugar granules off the floor, I noticed dirt encrusted in a place I had missed that first day. And suddenly, the question arose, whose dirt is it now?
If someone comes to visit and sees that dirt, five days into my residency, can I still disclaim it, still not be embarrassed by its presence? To whom will my visitors (silently, of course) assign ownership and responsibility? Will they still defer guilt to the maker of the grime, or, given how long it has been under my jurisdiction, will they extend that guilt to me?
Which leads to the larger question: at what point in time, after how many days or weeks or months or years can we no longer disown the presence in the world of mess, disorder, pollution, injustice, selfishness, inequity and the structures and values that lead to them? At what point do the injustices that we did not create become ours because we do not work to right them, or the mistakes of the past become ours because we do not work to fix them?
At what point in our personal lives must we take ownership of who we are, regardless of what was done to us in the past, and strive to be better? At what point do we stand up and say that how we got here does not fully limit where we can yet go?
At what point in our political lives do we lay claim to society’s wrongs that we have inherited and say the burden to clean them up is now ours, for if we don’t, the guilt for allowing them to continue will be ours too.
At what point, then, does the past’s behavior, the past’s wrongs, become mine?
That question is too urgent. I am off to clean up that shmutz.
It is snowing once again. And while that takes a bite out of the public works budget, upsets the schedules of schools and parents, and depresses some local commerce (though increasing select others), I confess that from my vantage point - a fourth floor walk-up in a vibrant urban community with low-rise buildings so that my gaze glances over the rooftops of my neighborhood - I am loving this. It is reminiscent of the dream-world of the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins, only cleaner.
Avram and I are trying out urban living, and with an easy walk to public transportation, a supermarket, fabulous hardware store (yeah!), bakeries, coffee shops and dozens of stores that fit almost every fancy, what’s not to like? We are no doubt exerting a footprint much lighter here than in Baltimore.
But as I look out the windows, I realize I know almost nothing about the people here, their lives or livelihoods, their dreams and desires, if they like noise or quiet, their patterns of coming, their destinations upon going. At least not yet.
They are to me as silent and foreign as the trees in my woods back home. I probably know less than half the trees in my woods by name (though we were introduced through our friend Charlie and I am trying to keep up!) which mirrors the study that tells us that most of us know less than half of our close human neighbors by name.
It is little wonder, then, that we often treat each other the way we treat the natural world around us, as resources and tools to get what we want.
One first corrective in helping us see the ‘other’ as neighbor, not as object but as subject, as a being that makes rightful claims upon us just by their very being (Emmanuel Levinas teaches us), is to get to know their names.
Charlie is helping me do that with trees as best he can. He is encouraging me to own and use a hand-lens, especially now in the winter months when buds adorn the tips of so many trees.
His argument is almost irresistible: “Think of your hand-lens as underwear: don’t leave home without it; keep it hidden most of the time under your clothes; and be embarrassed if someone discovers you without it.”
Now, if learning about our human neighbors could have as compelling an advocate, urging and device!
We often look far and wide to create a program, an event, an activity, a seder, a something that enlivens our experience of Tu B’shvat.
But, in truth, the answer is no further than the tips of our fingers: Plant a Tree!
I know, it is snowing outside. Literally, as I type this in my new office, it is snowing outside.
And even if it is not snowing everywhere, for many of us the ground is still likely to be frozen and resistant to our advances.
And for those of us who live in a warm climate, it may seem like an odd time to plant.
But I still say: go and plant. Get your hands dirty; use your whole body; be the midwife to a sapling. Just do it indoors.
I planted my apple trees indoors several years ago. They flourished. And they flourished still when I transplanted them outdoors. (Until the deer came and ate them. It was then I discovered that netting could be a girl’s best friend.)
So go ahead. Buy or dig up soil and bring it inside. Use that compost you have been creating. Grab a planter deep enough for the roots of a small tree. Bend and strain and push some dirt around. Pour water on the soil; place it in the sun.
The biggest problem may be finding a tree to buy right now. But if there are none around at local nurseries, go on-line. Buy a tree on Tu B’shvat and plant it when it arrives.
Baltimore City has set a goal of doubling its tree canopy in 30 years. That comes to about one million more trees over 30 years. That’s almost 100 trees a day, every day, for the next 30 years. Indeed, almost every major municipality in the United States needs more trees. Government cannot do it alone. It is up to all of us.
My naturalist friends may differ with me about this, but on this New Year of the Trees, the best thing we can do is not just talk about trees, or celebrate the symbolism of trees, or study texts about trees - although these are also laudable things to do.
But even more - the best thing we can do is plant trees. Better yet, fruit trees.
And in five years, may you harvest your bounty, dry or preserve it, and serve it with gusto at your Tu B’shvat seder. Then, go and plant the new year’s crop of trees.
To learn more about Tu B’shvat, check out Jewcology.
I have been distracted of late, switching gears, trying to enter the mindset, the territory, of my book on Home.
While some might call what I am doing “research”, it feels more like shpatziring, wandering around old ideas, rummaging around in old notes, window-shopping in books and quotes that line the avenues of my intellectual journey.
Amidst all this I had the delightful distraction of babysitting my 12-week-old granddaughter for two days. We played and sang and danced and ate but mostly, we walked.
Oddly, I was just then in the midst of reading Thoreau’s short monograph called, “Walking.” This is the source of Thoreau’s famous comment, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
Now, Thoreau, in typical fashion, doesn’t just talk about the experience walking; he doesn’t even settle for describing the exultation of walking. Rather, he raises the act of walking to fevered, ecstatic, conversionary crusade:
If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again – if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man – then you are ready for a walk…
Let’s assume, for a moment, that these lines are just a bit overwritten, for effect. In which case, we can argue that for Thoreau, walking seems to be not so much a casting off on a journey-of-no-return but rather a pilgrimage, a discovery. It is an experience of walking away from ourselves so that we might ultimately be blessed with rediscovering ourselves. Such walking is revelation as much as locomotion; becoming lost as much as arriving.
Such walks do not happen quickly. They take time, no less than an hour or two, giving our minds a chance to empty and reset. The first half hour we often are accompanied by what we thought we left behind; we are occupied with mulling, reviewing, planning, plotting, stewing, muttering, wondering.
But if we are lucky, and we walk long enough, we can eventually jostle and loosen the matters of the world that cling to us like burrs to our socks, so they weaken their hold and fall off. It is only then, when our legs move of their own rhythm, and our brains spurn our familiar ramblings, that other, nascent, generative thoughts burst forth. The best of ideas often spring upon us, quite suddenly, like an animal bounding out of the woods. It was likely hiding there all along but we wouldn’t have bumped into it if we hadn’t gone for that walk.
Thoreau speaks of seeking this conjured oblivion, which takes time to materialize:
Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit…. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village…
Walking cannot be rushed; we must give the world time to let go.
But, as long as we are blessed with feet that work and with a schedule that allows us several hours a week to disappear (without head phones), we too can escape into the wilds or the woods, or simply the ‘hood to empty out and fill up again.
It was a difficult weekend for the Jewish community. Even as stores were crowded and job creation increased, as we prepare for Tu B’shvat (the new year of the trees) and a new congressional session, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and songwriter Debbie Friedman died.
At a time when we need them most, one powerful voice of reason and understanding has been silenced for the moment. And one gentle voice of comfort and compassion has been stilled forever.
I do not know Rep. Giffords - though it is not hard to imagine her just as she is portrayed: open, kind, disarming, helpful. Perhaps, paradoxically, while her voice cannot now be heard directly, it can be echoed and multiplied throughout the halls of Congress as her colleagues realize that it is in such tones of honor and respect that the business of this country must be conducted.
Meanwhile, I wait for those on the right to begin to speak about the role of rhetoric in the public debate.
We will only know how much the gunman was influenced by talk radio and the vitriol and lack of respect for government and our public servants as time goes on. But it is past time for us to roll back the language and the symbols of hatred (no more cross-hairs on congressional districts, no more guns at rallies) and to stop the winking and nodding at the implications that the word “revolution” conjures up without realizing that it is but step from symbol to action.
Would that Glenn Beck and Rush and the others who traffic in language of hate ‘fess up to the danger and change their tune.
I did, however, know Debbie Friedman. I had the privilege of working with her when I helped found the National Center for Jewish Healing. And I had the privilege - like so many thousands - of being transported by her rousing, soothing, embracing concerts.
You could hear in Debbie’s voice the joy, the passion and the compassion of her spirit every time she sang. And you could feel her arms around you as she chanted her signature prayer for healing, standing - it seemed - at the very edge of the stage, slowly, imperceptibly turning so that her gaze, and her wishes, could could fall upon every single person in the room.
Her melodies are found in hundreds of congregations across the country. They are hummed and strummed by folks who might not even know she wrote them. Her music has enlivened modern Judaism in ways we have not yet begun to know.
And in this one weekend of tragedy, we see the weaving together of these two lives, for we are being asked to sing Debbie Friedman’s prayer of healing, Mi Sheberakh for Representative Giffords.
Something of a news flash: There is gold in our trash. (Someone bolder than I might have written “them thar trash” but I’ll stick with “our”.)
One hundred years from now, our descendants may scratch their heads and wonder how we could have been so benighted, how we could have been so waste-full and not known the value of it all.
After all, we saw what waste could do in Back to the Future. Throwing away trash, the by-product of things used, is like throwing away molasses, the by-product of sugar refined. It is dark and rich and full of energy; something to be used and sold and enjoyed.
Who knows but the landfills that dot the outskirts of our cities might be the greatest legacy we could be leaving our children.
Which is important, because of the latest news coming out this first week of a new decade.
The world population is set to hit 7 billion sometime later this year.
The price of oil is beginning to skyrocket once again, threatening economic recovery and the ability of the less-advantaged to meet their daily needs.
With all these environmental and economic pressures, we can no longer afford the concept of waste. Nature doesn’t have it. We are part of nature. Therefore we shouldn’t have it either.
Recycling our cans, papers and food is just the beginning. Appropriately and intentionally reusing, returning, recycling everything should be the norm. Things should be designed from the very start to be returned, reused, recycled.
Qantas, the airline of Australia, gets it. They have just announced that they will be creating bio-fuel for their jets from trash. And they are not alone.
Europe and China are pulling ahead of America in the green R&D sector. Sadly, America will become an economic laggard unless we vigorously promote research and implementation of cutting edge environmental and energy technologies. We need that to protect not only the earth but our standard of living, our standing in the world and our national security.
Now is not the time to be timid.
The 112th Congress opens today.
The 428th session of the Maryland General Assembly starts January 12th.
Weigh in. Make your voices heard.
Locally, check in with the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
Nationally, take your pick of organizations. If you need a place to start, check out the Natural Resources Defense Council.
We need you.
A branch from my stately beech fell down the other day, a casualty of trimming being done to tame the wild offshoots of a neighboring tree. When I went to haul the branch away, I noticed buds, lots of them, all over.
Somehow, I had reached this stage of life believing that buds come out in spring.
But here I was, in the bitter cold, lugging away a 10’ beech branch which looked ever so ready to burst into bloom. I turned to my apple trees, a half-lawn away, and my cherry trees which overhang my mailbox and discovered that, yup, they too were embroidered with buds all tightly hunched over, secure against the winter wind.
Huh. Why, I wondered, do trees put their buds out before winter, making them vulnerable to the harshness of winter and the hunger of foraging animals? Why use their flagging energy for this exhausting effort? After trying other ways through millions of years of evolution, what advantage do winter buds give them?
Seeking an answer, I did the only thing I could do: I called Charlie.
This is what he said: Trees actually put out two kinds of buds in the fall: branch buds and flower buds. This is why when spring comes, it can come very fast—because the hard work of assembling the materials for growth and the alchemy of mixing them together is done. The growth process becomes more one of elongation and expansion than creation anew. It’s like going to a party, he explains, and finding a balloon to blow up versus going to party, then finding the ingredients to make the balloon, then making the balloon, then blowing up the balloon. Trees can respond to the right springtime growing conditions most efficiently and quickly if the buds are ready to go.
There is a welcome and comforting lesson in this as one gets older. (This time of year seems to shake loose the shadows of mortality and release the pensive musings that accompany them.) We who have been blessed with wonderful years of blooms and blossom, we who still dare to anticipate more seasons of growth, nonetheless can begin to think of that day when we expend our energies more for the sake of the next generation, and less for us.
Winter buds are nature’s version of the Honi tale about the old man who plants a carob tree. The tree takes 70 years to flower, and yet he plants it anyway in his waning years so that his grandchildren will find this gift of fruit ready and waiting when they arrive, just as he found the gift of fruit ready and waiting for him.
When his grandchildren join the party of life, all they will have to do is blow up the balloon. And as they get older, and their fall and winter approach, they too will set the buds for the next generation.
It is the perfect end-of-year lesson, something to carry us through all the falls and springs of our lives: the value of laying down seed for the dreams of tomorrow no matter how tired we may be; believing in the buds that lay dormant throughout a cold, harsh spell whose emergence into blossoms in the returning warmth will bring welcome blessings. Families, organizations, schools, projects, learning, civilization - all of them need nothing less.
If you would like to meet Charlie, learn more about Maryland’s natural heritage, and discover programs and courses you may enjoy, check out the Natural History Society of Maryland.
Have a wonderful Shabbat, and a happy new year.
(Photo: beech buds)
I was talking to a new friend today who - while healthy and strong - is designing ways to close up his affairs so that things are tidy when he goes. Both he and I imagine he has many years left, but tidying up is the sort of thing you want to do when it still feels optional.
The problem, he confessed, is that in planning too much and tying things up too well, he was fearful that he would outlive his dreams. He had run a most successful business but retired from that 20 years ago. His most active days in non-profit organizations are behind him. He founded and runs a foundation, but he is “spending that down,” determined to give all the money away, so that it too will end before he does.
He’s always prided himself on being the sort that manages things well and responsibly. But now, with all his careful planning properly in play, he fears he may have more time than dreams. Then what?
Not that he doesn’t have ideas - he has them aplenty. His mind and desire to help those in need and in pain are as sharp as ever. But how could he begin something he cannot finish?
It was then we spoke a bit about Moses. I had always thought it achingly unfair that Moses would suffer through the lonely pangs of leadership and not realize the fulfillment of his dream; that he would be called to carry the Jewish people 40 long years in the wilderness to the very threshold of the land of Israel yet not be able to enter it. Where is the fairness in that? How is it right that Moses, or we, die before the achievement of our life’s ambitions?
But then, I imagined the opposite. What if we live past our life’s last ambitions? What if we arrive at our destination and feel we are done? Then what?
Which, in other words, is sadder: outliving our dreams or having our dreams outlive us?
The Torah, it seems, has chosen: we should always have dreams that excite us and drive us; we should always have dreams that we may never fulfill.
“It is not ours to complete the task,” our rabbis similarly teach us, “but neither are we free to ignore it.”
The Bekhor Shor, a biblical commentary, reinforces this by teaching that God’s last act of kindness to Moses was taking him up to the mountaintop and giving him a preview of the destiny of his people, what they would encounter, what they would achieve in the years to come, all the way til the end of time.
Do not read “and God showed him the whole land… as far as the Yam Ha-aharon, the Mediterranean Sea, but rather the Yom Ha-aharon, the last of days.”
My friend and I determined it was okay, indeed it was proper, for him to possess the vision, stoke the passion, and lead his people on a journey that he may never finish. Others can carry on after him.
If we are lucky, we will all be so blessed
“In fitting the space around her, a woman does not necessarily fill it the way a solid plugs up a hole. Instead, what happens for her is apt to be a circular stretching, such that she touches all the edges without filling up the center, thus still allowing the interior its essential emptiness.”
This quote is from a book called The Sacred and the Feminine: toward a theology of housework by Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi.
(Okay, I should probably pause here and explain that, no, the title is not a joke, though it comes perilously close to sounding like one. And no, Rabuzzi is not a friend - I don’t even know her; and no, I am not cozying up to her so she will take my cat. I am reading her book as part of the research for my book on home that I am hoping to work on when Avram and I go on sabbatical in January. No doubt there will be much on home, and new discoveries of place written here over the next few months. And rest assured, there is no wood-burning stove in our temporary apartment. No woods, no scavenged logs, no sawing to write about. Lucky you.)
The quote precisely captures the differing, indeed gendered, senses of tzimtzum (personal contraction) I have mused about before.
Tzimtzum, of course, is the kabbalistic term for God’s contraction, withdrawal, from the expanse of the universe to leave room for the creation of matter, the world and us.
Know, that before the emanations were emitted and the creatures were created, a supernal light was extended, filling the entire universe. There was no unoccupied place, that is, empty air or space; rather, all was filled by that extended light…. But then, the Infinite contracted Itself into a central point which is truly in the center of the light, and that light was contracted and withdrew to sides around the central point. Then an empty place remained with air and empty space. The Infinite then extended one straight line from the light, and in the empty space It emanated, created, formed, and made all of the worlds in their entireties (Etz Hayyim, Part 1, Chapter 1).
As I always understood it, the kabbalists imagined God retracting into one very small space, and leaving the whole expanse of the universe empty, ready to be filled with life. The supernal light then surrounded “the Infinite” like shrink-wrap, and shot out, re-entering and forming the world as we know it.
But this always felt a bit severe, lonely, and masculine. It seemed like God was not just retracting but retreating, moving away when moving aside would have been enough.
I thought about this as I imagined all the women who make room in their bodies for the children they bear, moving aside to create that “essential [life-giving] emptiness” that surrounds the child within. I thought about this when I imagined how we hold a newborn, not by pulling back and away but opening up and around, re-arranging our arms to create new, emptied, bounded space in which the child will be coddled, protected and loved; or how parents make room for their children on sofas and chairs, moving their arms and opening laps and creating space that is waiting to be entered.
Why, I thought, couldn’t that be the way God contracted in the story?
This translation gives us an opening to read it that way. Perhaps the sides to which the supernal light “contracted and withdrew” were not those of the Infinite but the outer sides of the universe. Perhaps the Infinite was in the middle and the light occupied the surround, edging the universe, bounding the empty space into which life would now be poured.
Perhaps the classic but harsher emptying-out and moving-over vision of the world’s creation can give way to this opening-up, enlarging self, embracing arms vision of the world’s birth. It makes the world a softer place to be.
(Photo: Me, holding my granddaughter at her baby naming in October, 2010)
”“And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”
The grandeur of the universe stupefies. Indeed, its very existence, its origins and dimensions, are baffling.
How could it have begun, morphing over the course of billions of years into something so grand while emerging from something so null? No stuff, no space, no time, no nothing. And then poof. Or bang. And voila. Shooting stars and tuna melts.
Or perhaps it has been there all along, existing for ever and all time, never a start, not knowing before?
Which makes more sense, a universe that stretches on forever and ever and ever and ever in space as it does in time, or one that starts (magic!) and then stops. Period. The End. Which is easier to grasp: absolute boundedness with nothing, nothing, on the other side (not even a side to consider “other”), or eternity, endlessness upon endlessness? How can we even wrap our minds around such concepts?
Add to that the fact that we are told the universe is mostly dark energy and dark matter; that it curves around on itself so finitude and infinity may eventually meet; that our senses and instruments limit the ways we know things so, like the characters in Flatland (a playful - if gender-biased - sociology of perception in the land of geometry), we can hardly imagine the worlds lying beyond us; and suddenly the next trip to the dentist seems oddly reassuring.
There is a blessing we are asked to say when we see lightning, shooting stars, a particularly spectacular sunset, and breathtaking vistas like the Grand Canyon: Blessed are you Adonai our God ruler of the Universe who continually (re)makes the work of creation… Oseh ma’asei bereishit.
I wonder what the rabbis of old would have said if they knew of miniature radios and microwave ovens, MRI machines, cell phones, fractal geometry and the stuff in the photographs from NASA’s “Image of the Day”. Our days would be spent in one long mantra of praise for the Creator.
Those of us who are easily distracted by the physics of a tube of toothpaste (never mind the crack of spaghetti) might want to consider adding oseh ma’asei bereishit to our daily morning fare, to cover all the miracles we encounter in the awe that accompanies us throughout the day.
We keep the public spaces of our house set at 62-65 degrees - which, despite one’s initial expectations, is surprisingly comfortable. (Although my husband may differ with me here.)
So, on an ordinary winter day, the living areas of our house that face north are a cool but manageable (depending on whom you ask) 62-65 degrees.
My office, on the other, hand faces south, with a bank of windows reaching 12 feet high that lets the sun in all day long. We knew that without the foliage from the giant beech, poplar and hickory trees in front, the winter sun beats in and helps heat my office somewhat.
What we did not know, til we removed the screens (to aid in watching the eclipse!) that the screens kept out so much light. And therefore so much heat. We decided not to replace the screens and see what happened.
This is what I can report. Here I sit, 2:00 p.m., sleeveless, in a room that is 78 degrees, heated passively by the light of the winter sun. As long as the sun is shining, my office is bright and toasty. Come evening, however, since there is almost nothing in my office that is designed to hold in the heat, the room cools down pretty quickly.
Which is why I was particularly interested to learn more about passive house technology.
Developed in Germany, modern passive building technology allows homes, congregations, offices to run with almost no reliance on fossil fuels for heating or cooling*. The siting, orientation, materials, airflow design and insulation all combine to create a healthy, comfortable and energy-lite building.
(* For all those keeping score, this statement does not take into account the fossil fuels needed to manufacture the materials or dig the holes or lay the foundation, etc. But the passive home folk DO account for that, that is, they conduct a comprehensive life-cycle analysis when planning your building so you can know from soup to nuts what your building’s carbon footprint is.)
This is not new. Generations of builders worked with the sun and the earth to build homes that capitalized on the free resources of nature. With the heady advent of cheap energy and the seductive promises of early technology, the era of the man-made trumped the wisdom of nature.
Now, we are returning to those lessons of old, blending the most efficient ways of the natural world with the imagination of human ingenuity. There are exciting times ahead.
I wish I had known that when I was renovating my home.
(Photo: my office bathed in December sunlight)
I started reading a curiously entertaining book called Home: the story of everyone who ever lived in our house by Julie Myerson. I have paused at page 47, the mere beginning of the 451-page book.
The book deserves to be large because, like so many houses, it gives birth to more stories than its space can readily contain. The single-family house that is now the author’s home is 150 years old and, for reasons yet to be revealed, has had an unusually large number of people living there.
In the pages of this book, the reader is treated to the rare, voyeuristic (and in this case, legal) pleasure of peeking both inside a family as it goes about its private life and looking inside the bones of a house as it morphs and molds around its residents.
The surprising success of this book gives me hope that just maybe the 20th century obsession with virgin buildings (an odd Victorian relic in an otherwise hedonistic world) is finally and blessedly giving way to an appreciation of the old. This, despite the fact that the marketplace continues to measure economic vitality by housing starts, even in this environment of bulging house foreclosures and an over-stocked housing market. I wish someone would explain that to me.
Perhaps the American 20th century urge to dismantle or, worse, simply abandon the old and begin anew, to venerate the untouched as opposed to the well-used, to build where no one has ever built before, is abating.
Why, for example, should uncirculated coins be worth more than circulated ones? Why should something pristine and never-used, wrapped and boxed and locked away in a vault somewhere be more valuable than one that survives after having withstood exchanges, drops, moving, loving hands caressing it, flooding, fires, being tossed, lost or otherwise misplaced? Why is disturbing old-growth forests and undeveloped land with impermeable surfaces, strip malls and cul-de-sacs in non-walkable communities preferable to re-inhabiting, renovating and rebuilding neighborly neighborhoods? Gratefully, attitudes are changing and the tide is turning.
More and more municipalities are pursuing smart growth; young adults and retirees both are moving back to the city. Homeowners and developers are building with salvaged materials, re-using planking, tiles, bricks, stone. Sometimes we are even charging premiums prices for that privilege.
While historians will no doubt speak of the first decade of the 21st century as one of ethnic and religious conflagration, and as a reckless, recurring, and astonishing betrayal of fiscal morality and abandonment of concern for public good by Wall Street, hopefully they will also see it as the struggle of individuals – millions of us - to reclaim a sense of the depth of time, the richness of history, the call of tomorrow and the realization that we are just a blip in the endless flow of time and place.
Our legacy, such as it is, will be carried downstream - as a blessing or curse for others. The choice is ours.
It is 2:07 a.m. and something is definitely eating the moon. We can see the slow assault from our living room window, the moon riding high in the sky, methodically being devoured by some nocturnal creature.
Or perhaps we are witness to celestial pentimento, the gods’ regret, the divine painting-over of the moon so it no longer beams itself down upon us, leaving only a delicate smudge stubbornly proclaiming its past glory. (The gods now wondering what to paint next.)
What must the benighted ancients have been thinking as they watched the heavens swallow up their moon?
3:00 a.m. The moon is a dim, red disk, reflecting the sunlight bending and streaming around the edges of the earth. As someone said, it is as if the moon is being bathed in all the earth’s sunrises and all the sunsets all at once. This is pure grist, reflections of love or portents of destruction depending if you are poet or prophet.
3:30 a.m. The mood is totally different. We watch the moon struggle to be free from the overshadowing earth. It now looks like a birth, the pale disk pushing through a translucent, ruddy placenta to once again shine white and full-bodied on the face on the deep.
The eclipse is a slowly unfolding affair.
3:50 a.m. The white edges are reasserting themselves. Before it sets, the moon will fully recover, no worse for the wear, a celebration of persistence, healing and renewal.
Soothing lessons to carry off to bed.
The winter solstice and a lunar eclipse converge tonight in a midnight extravaganza.
(You can learn more about tonight’s eclipse here.)
One of the wonders of lunar eclipses is the color of the moon. It turns coppery-red, reflecting the sunlight filtered through the earth’s shadow. Because of recent volcanic eruptions, the color may be even deeper than usual this year.
The eclipse begins at 1:33 am Tuesday morning. Totality happens at 2:41 am and lasts 72 minutes. The eclipse ends (that is, the moon totally exits the earth’s umbra, the conical core shadow) at 5:01 am.
So settle in for a sweet evening’s nap, rise around midnight, make a thermos of your favorite cocoa or cider, or something harder if you wish, snuggle up with a loved one and spend some time gazing at one of the greatest shows above earth.
The Book of Genesis opens its saga of human settlement by describing the rivers that gave life to our first place:
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
Likewise, by law Jewish divorce documents, called gittin, must identify the town in which it they are written by naming its closest river or body of water.
I have been thinking that from now on, I, too, as best as I am able, am going to introduce myself not just as someone who lives in Pikesville or Baltimore County, but as someone who lives in the Jones Falls watershed inside the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
That will remind me - and hopefully others - that we all live not just in a city or town nested in a county which is nested in a state, but in a particular watershed nested inside a larger watershed nested inside an even larger watershed.
I know that today, if someone asks me to imagine a map of Baltimore County or of the town I live in, I think of man-made elements: local streets, landmark buildings, major highways and county lines (though, luckily, given our location, much of Baltimore County’s boundaries are formed by our local watercourses).
But I am hoping my relationship to place differs, deepens, if I speak of myself as located not only within a legal, political entity but also within a construct crafted and defined by nature.
Of course it is not either/or. I live within nature and civilization. I am a child of both. But for all my life I have been preferencing the one and ignoring the other. What if I elevated them both to the same level? acknowledged them both equally, to myself and others? What if my watershed became as much a piece of my proclaimed identity as my little, unincorporated township?
Well, we will see.