Tag Archives: Nature

Inconvenient, not Evil

Did you see the story last week about the raccoon who spent his day climbing a 25-story office building in Minnesota?

Little fellow became an internet sensation for a few hours, with millions checking in on his progress and wishing him a safe climb in perilous conditions.

In the comments sections that followed the coverage, I noticed how some thought it odd that a creature whom many think of as a filthy pest, suddenly had his own cheering section.

“Trash Panda…,”

“Vermin…,”

“Scavenger…,”

Strange choice of words, it seems to me, as we are blaming the raccoon for something the WE did. We built the cities and neighborhoods in what used to be their habitat. We killed off most of the stuff that they’d normally gather to sustain themselves, and then we get upset when they are forced to root through out trash for scraps.

That little critter in the YouTube videos wasn’t climbing a building to make a point and he wasn’t in it for the adventure. He was terrified of all the humans wandering around at street level.

Also last week, my Facebook feed lit up with posts from a friend of mine at work. He was having a problem with a mouse that had turned up in his apartment. Little critter was eating his bread and making all the standard mousey scurrying sounds as it moved to and fro.

Following along post after post, I read about the snap-traps and glue traps, all of which failed to undo a rodent of such size and cunning, that I began to wonder if NIMH weren’t missing another of its test subjects.

I surmised from the follow up posts that the critter was eventually cornered, and quite possibly bludgeoned to death.

Now, in the days leading up to the creatures demise, I must admit I was somewhat amused by the frequent and desperate nature of my friend’s posts. You’d have thought, from the tone, that his home had been taken over by a pack of angry badgers, rather than by a single rodent.

“City people,” I caught myself thinking with a wry smile.

But as this saga dragged on I began to pay more attention to the language used, in both his posts and by some of the people who left supportive comments…,

“Disgusting,”

“Filthy,”

“Vermin,”

“Evil,”

“Straight out of Hell!”

All this hate, earned for nothing more than trying to survive in a world we built.

***

The raccoon in Minnesota became an internet sensation because he was never really in anyone’s way. The mouse in the house is a different story.

I know that a lot of what I read last week was hyperbole.

That’s kinda what the internet is for.

But I can’t help but worry when I see good people equating inconvenience with evil.

And I have been seeing that kind of thing a great deal as of late.

And no, I’m not talking about rodents.

The species may vary, but the circumstances are really pretty similar.

Living beings, just trying to survive in a world we built.

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The Nature of the Message

We’ve all seen those solitary blades of grass reaching up from the cracks in a sidewalk, or maybe a bit of green clinging to the side of a wall where a bit of wind blown soil and seed found purchase amongst crumbling bricks.

It’s common enough to see these things as a sign of the impermanence of mankind’s imposition upon the natural world. The earth shifts, concrete falters, and the green world which was hiding just below the surface asserts itself with a vengeance.

I’ve shared that same feeling, and found some comfort in it.

Nothing we do, truly lasts forever.

But sometimes, I wonder if we haven’t misinterpreted the nature of the message.

Near my workplace there is a No Parking sign imbedded in the sidewalk, standing no less then seven feet above the roadway, and crowned, amazingly, with a healthy shock of leaves, waving in the breeze.

Upon closer examination, the base of the signpost is imbedded firmly within the pristine pavement. There are no cracks or gaps, no place for the earth beneath to show through. But there is a long thin vine, reaching up through the middle of the post, climbing all the way up into the light at the very top.

Sometimes, when I’m outside taking a break from work, find myself looking at that single, impossible plant, and I wonder about the people who pour the concrete, who build the sidewalks, the buildings, the streets, the systems, and the institutions that surround us.

Sometimes I wonder about myself.

We’ve put so much effort into reshaping the world…, giving it an order and a purpose and forcing it to adhere to some common vision of how we think the world should be, of how it can best serve us.

And we keep getting it wrong.

That sprig of green poking out of the pavement may not be a warning sign at all. It may instead be the sound of a trumpet, rousing us to action, calling us to break through the concrete and the metal that is even now closing over our heads.

Maybe it’s time to serve the world, rather than trying to force it to serve us.

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Chasing that hole in the sky.

“So, is this a religious thing, or do you just think it’s cool?”

We were sitting in the office at work, one of my managers and I, and I was making arrangements to leave a little early for the evening.  One of my co-workers had agreed to finish out my shift, and when my manager asked me what the occasion was, I’d told her that the wife and I were planning on driving straight through to Tennessee to secure our campsite for Monday’s eclipse.

She was adjusting my schedule in the system, shifting the little bars that represent my comings and goings, when she glanced up and asked the question.

Most of the folks in leadership at my job are at least somewhat aware of my spiritual leanings, if only in the abstract.  I’m the guy who asks off for unusual days on the calendar, and marks them down as religious observance – often followed by an unpronounceable series of letters:

Imbolc…Beltane…Lughnasadh…Samhain…,

I’d been planning for the Eclipse trip for a while, but I’d only been able to secure three days off from work, Sunday thru Tuesday, during which we’d make the twelve hour trip to our chosen spot along the path of totality, set up camp, watch the big show, enjoy some nature, break the whole thing down and drive back again.

As the trip grew closer, I’d been fussing with the itinerary, worried that our campsite might be over crowded, about traffic congestion in the area, about arriving so late in the afternoon that I’d be setting up camp in the dark.  And finally, with only a week to spare, I’d come to the conclusion that the best course of action was to just drive in over night and through the morning.

“So, is this a religious thing, or do you just think it’s cool?”

One of the other managers, who is fairly new and doesn’t know me as well, glanced over at us with a confused look on his face.

“No, I just think it’s cool.”

It was an honest answer, I thought.

I had no rituals planned, neither prayer nor sacrifice was on the agenda.

This was about a maybe once in a lifetime chance to watch the moon completely obscure the sun.  It was about science, and timing, and prepping to get the best photo I could with the equipment I have.  It was about being in the right place at the right time and seeing something remarkable and rare.

As the date of the eclipse grew closer, I’d seen more and more discussion groups showing up online, asking what were the proper traditions and ceremonies for pagans to observe during the eclipse.  And I’d sigh and shake my head.  Because there are none, not really.

An eclipse is too random, too site specific, and never repeating at the same locations at the same intervals.  The ancients didn’t leave us any eclipse related traditions, at least none that I’ve ever heard of, because there are none.

If spirits that live in the rocks and trees of central Tennessee decided they wanted to speak to me, certainly I would listen.  But maybe, if they could just hold that thought for another 2-minutes and 32-seconds…, that would be fantastic.

I was there for the sun, and the moon, and to see the thing that I’d missed too many times before.

I’d seen five eclipses already in my lifetime, all of them partial.

When I was a kid and the other children in my class had their shoebox viewers at the ready, I came to class with my fathers telescope, sun-lens equipped, and ready to share a first hand look with the rest of the class.

I’d watched that yellow disk slowly consumed by the interposing body of the moon, and I’d watched that shadow slip away again, its mission unfulfilled.  I’d felt the strange cooling in the air, listened to the hush of bird and insect, and watched as daylight faded into the semi-twilight that a partial eclipse can bring.  All that I was missing was that elusive moment of totality.

“No, I just think it’s cool.”

You’d think, after all these years and misadventures, that it wouldn’t still be so humbling to discover that I am an idiot.

Totality.

It was like nothing I have ever experienced and yet powerfully familiar.

Watching the last vestiges of the sun slip away through a pair of solar binoculars, I was visually disconnected from the world around me in the last few minutes before it hit.  And while I was expecting a long, gradual progression, I was totally unprepared to feel the sudden and repeated shifts in the world around me, as layer after layer of the sun’s atmosphere was blocked from view.

And when totality struck, I was unprepared for the noise it made.  There WAS a noise, although I couldn’t tell you if it came from outside or from within, but it sounded to me like something that the sound editor of an effects ridden disaster flick would be compelled to add, because you can’t just have the sun whiff out on screen, without some auditory cue – something between a deep throb and a gasp.

I was unprepared for the glowing white ring in the sky, for the deep red clouds on the horizon, and for the overwhelming feeling that this, THIS, is what the otherworld must feel like: detached and superimposed over our own world, always there just beneath the surface, and yet almost entirely out of reach.

Of course it was a “religious thing.”

Or no, not a religious thing at all.  A spiritual quest, maybe.

Because religion implies organization and planning and ritual, and try as you might, I just don’t think you can plan on an eclipse.  We do rituals to try and find our way, if only partially, into the otherworld of the gods and the ancestors.

But from time to time the Earth conducts a ritual of her own, and if we are very lucky, or very privileged, we may just stumble upon her and her sister moon, as they weave and dance in and around the fire of the sun.

And why else would so many of us travel so far to share in a single event, except in pilgrimage?  Each and every one of us, chasing that hole in the sky, and finding ourselves forever changed by what we have seen and felt.

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Her Shadow in Wings

The sun, glaring down from a faded sky,
Finds me perched in a high place,
Hammer,
Nails,
Shingles,
Hot asphalt burning my knees,
As I kneel,
An unwitting pilgrim,
At the heel of a solar god.

Relief, unexpected and fleeting,
As shade passes over me,
Accompanied by a cool breeze,
My gaze drawn upward,
To a raven wheeling against the Sun,
The poetic impulse takes me,
And I am awash in a sudden flood of verse,
Until my balance wavers,
Dangerously…,

And the moment passes,
Eyes down and the sun on my back,
I return to the task at hand,
But a single phrase lingers still,
“Her shadow in wings.”

 

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Homeless

I’d just pulled out of the grocery store parking lot and into some mild traffic, this was early last week, when the passenger side window of the car in front of me opened and ejected what looked like a wadded up fast food bag, which came to rest on the grassy slope beyond the curb.

There was no way I could pull over to pick it up, and no way to properly express my outrage to the uncaring occupants of the vehicle in front of me.

The litter was just there, a little blot of ugliness in my both my rearview mirror and my stomach.

I found myself wondering in what sort of condition those people keep their home.

What, I wondered, was their problem?

Why not just dispose of the thing properly?

I called these folks “uncaring” a moment ago, but I don’t know that I believe that.  There has to have been some thought process, some mental calculation that would compel a person to open her car window and cast her refuse into the street.

I imagined these people as horrible slobs, leaving a trail of filth in their wake wherever they go.

But maybe they just didn’t want that trash in their car, they could, I supposed, be incredibly tidy, within their own four walls.

And there, in the midst of my conjecture, I think I may have hit upon the element that I was missing.

Home, for most people, is what we own, an area bounded by fence or walls that belongs to exclusively to us.  Everything beyond those walls is outside, outside of our control, outside of our responsibility.

I don’t really see things that way.  Walls and fences have their uses, sure, but they are temporary things, in the grand scheme, and land ownership even more so.  The land does not belong to us, we are only its caretakers.

It is, I think, far more realistic to say that we belong to the land.

And so, last Sunday when I saw garbage indiscriminately flung into the street, it felt like a blemish upon my home.

Two days later, nearly half our population flung garbage into the presidency, and for the first time in my life, I felt homeless.

In the days that have passed since that seemingly endless Tuesday night, my emotional state has shifted from anger to despondency and back again more times than I can count.  I’ve listened to the speculation about the why’s and how’s, I’ve looked through the sorry demographics of who did and didn’t, I’ve listened to the explanations from those who voted for him, and I keep coming up with the same calculation that accounts for that wadded up bag on the side of the roadway.

This society is infected with a strange breed of selfishness that prevents us from truly seeing and empathizing with the world beyond that little patch that we imagine we own.

The problems and concerns of others, their very real fears about the future…, well, that’s on them, isn’t it.

And I don’t know what we can do about that attitude.  I don’t know how we can broaden the perceptions of people beyond themselves, except to continue to be who WE are, to continue to live in their world, and to open their hearts, one by one.

I suppose it would be easier, if I could just shut my eyes to it, but I can’t.

I wouldn’t want to.  I remember when I saw the world like they do.  I remember that, although less painful, it was a pretty empty way to live.

The anger is still there, but it’s at low ebb now.

The despondency, I’ve mostly replaced that with determination.

But I worry for my friends, many of whom are likely facing hard times ahead.

I worry for those of us who practice alternative religions, now that the evangelical movement has friends in high places, who have already expressed profound misunderstandings about both the Non-Establishment Clause, and simple human decency.

Mostly though, I worry about the land.

My ancestors believed that we were all a part of the land, and that the land herself was divine.

When they chose a king, he was symbolically married to the goddess of the land.

The success or the failure of that marriage could be seen in both the fruitfulness of the land and the prosperity of the people.  A disrespectful king could bring blight to the land and ruin to the governed.

Although the actual rituals of this marriage have not been practiced in many centuries, and never on this continent (so far as I know), I do believe that some vestige of this relationship, however unknown to our leaders, must still remain.  And the thought of it, of that man in THAT spiritual role…, frankly, it makes me nauseous.

Somehow, I don’t think a man with a reputation for using women and a well documented disdain for environmental protections will be the font of a bountiful union.  And if things go too badly, the goddess of this land may very well blame the society that put him there.  We may find that we are all homeless.

Goddess Statue

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Sacred Space: Sacristy

In every Catholic Church there is a special room, hidden somewhere out of sight, where the tools of the Mass are kept.  There is a rack where the priests vestments are hung, and cabinets which are used to store the various tools of the Mass: the paten and chalice, ciborium and censor.

In some churches, the Sacristy is equipped with a special sink which drains into the earth instead of into the sewers.  This sink is used to clean the vessels used during the rite of Communion, it being important that no part of the body or blood of their savior, having been washed away, should come into contact with human waste.  This is a part of the sacrament that no one sees, but is every bit as important as all the pomp and circumstance of the Mass.

If the true drama of the church takes place at the altar, before the eyes of the attendant faithful, we may think of the Sacristy as the backstage, a space both sacred and utilitarian, dedicated to the mundane needs of the priest and the fulfillment of his office.

While I grew up in the Church, I could never believe in the miracle it all hinged upon.

The rituals however, the mechanics of it all, these things were always fascinating to me.

I suppose some of the other christian churches must have Sacristies of their own, but I have observed that the further removed a denomination is from its Roman roots, the less likely it is to believe that an object can be imbued with holiness.  In these churches where the pulpit has replaced the holy altar, the robes are simply robes, and the weird little glass dixie-cups that they serve grape juice in are just weird little glass dixie-cups.

If a church like that has a Sacristy at all, surely would be in name only.

Of course, I could easily be wrong on that point.  I happily admit that my knowledge of that end of the Christian spectrum is somewhat lacking, and I am sure that someone among my friends or readers will correct me if I have muddled the details.

Still, it seems to me that if you believe that the tools of ritual are blessed, you must need a sanctified space in which to store them and to prepare them for use.

If you do not believe, or if the nature of your belief is such that you have no place for tools or ritual, the need for such a space is equally absent.

But what happens at the other end of that spectrum?  What if your belief is that everything has a living and sacred spirit, that every rock and tree, that the air we breath and the soil beneath our feet, is all of it inspirited, all humming with power and presence?

If all the word’s a stage, where do we hide all the props and costumes when they’re not in use?

 

As usual, we’ve got it backward.

“Nature is My Church” is a popular saying among pagans.

There are lots of variations of this sentiment, but it is almost always coupled an image of some pure wilderness setting, the idea being that the majesty of the forest canopy or the wind carved arches of desert stone are the pagan equivalent of a cathedrals walls.

And while I freely admit that many of my most deeply spiritual experiences, come from moments spent in a wilderness setting, I don’t think that this is what that phrase means, or what it should mean.

We have worked so hard, as a species, to compartmentalize our world and our lives.  “Nature,” we think of as a place apart from home and from work.  It is another place we might choose to go, instead of the mall or the gym.  Maybe we make daily visits to the jogging trail at the nearby city park, or we could save up our money for that once in a lifetime chance to gather the family head ‘cross country, basking in the majesty of some National Park.

But ‘going’ to church is what the Christians do.

Nature isn’t a place, and it is not a thing.

Nature is a force, and like gravity (or Facebook), it’s pretty much everywhere.

The trackless miles of old-growth forests are no more or less a part of nature than a few blades of grass, peeking up from a crack in the sidewalk.

Grass in Stone

We don’t go to nature.  Nature finds its way to us, always, crashing through whatever feeble barriers we might like to erect against it.  If nature is our church, then that’s the whole of it.

The world is OUR temple.

But does it feel that way?

Probably not.

If you are anything like me, what you feel, most of the time, is a great weight pressing you down, threatening to suffocate you beneath the endless minutia of the every day.

Oh, we can break through it from time to time.

We can steal a few moments of meditation.  We can light the fires on the special days, breathing  in the smoke, and feeling our lungs clear like we were bursting up from a deep dive.  We can calm our minds with a walk in the sunshine, or the rain, or beneath the light of the moon.

But these are fragmentary moments, and when they pass, we’ll still have to deal with pressure that comes along with the day to day grind of existence.  And most people call this “life”.

But I’ve found another word for it.

 

I call it Sacristy.

All the world is a Sacred Space, all of it, but we have made of it a storeroom.

We have, all around us, the tools of worship, but we seldom take them up.

Instead, we tuck them away in their special cubbies, lest they become misplaced.

Our spiritual selves we leave hanging on a rack, waiting for those ever so special occasions when we’ll slip them on and take ‘em for a twirl.

A couple thousand years ago a new religion, born of an unlikely marriage between a messianic cult and the religious methodology of ancient Rome, began to sweep across the land.  With its arrival the gods were banished from our day to day tasks, and the spirits of field and forest were ignored and eventually forgotten.

Because religion became a separate entity unto itself, and everything beyond the cathedral walls, profane.

And here we are, those of us who are working to resurrect the old ways, still burdened by this terrible idea: church is a place we go, religion is a thing we do, and most of our lives are spent backstage, just waiting for the next scene.

I work, and I pay my bills, and the list of things that need to be done just keeps piling up, and not the least bit of progress on the little temple that I’ve sworn to build behind my house.

Because where would I find the time, or the energy, or the money for materials, when everything else needs doing first?

It has become emblematic for me, my little temple project, of a much bigger problem.

A little more every day, I grow tired of living in the Sacristy.

****

This is the tenth post in this series, following the thoughts, planning, and (I hope), the eventual construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along, you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Where Nothing is Sacred

I have placed these two pictures together for a reason.

pipeline in sacred ground

Some people might look at these images with a sense of pride, taking from them a message that sacrifice and hard work are what make a nation great.

Others might find this particular juxtaposition somewhat uncomfortable.  There is, after all, a serene perfection in the image of Arlington National Cemetery that we in the West have come to expect in our monuments.  The mirrored layout of the two photos, however, might suggest that someone could tear into that hallowed ground, that the one image could somehow become the other.  And this corruption, this desecration of the sacred, should I hope, put us ill at ease.

And yet, we are even now gouging into the Earth, plowing a petroleum pipeline through sacred land in North Dakota, stripping away the dignity of the honored dead and despoiling the environment, all in the interest of the mighty dollar.  We are beating, gassing, and arresting the people who stand bravely in the path of this desecration.  We threaten them with guns and loose attack dogs on them.

And I wondered, just for a moment, how WE would react if the shoe were on the other foot.  What if it was something WE considered sacred that was being ruined in the interest of corporate greed.

And then I wondered if we, as a people, hold anything sacred at all.

And I am being very liberal with my use of the word “we” here because I don’t think any of us are clean from these particular sins.  If ‘you’ or ‘I’ am offended by these latest outrages against the heritage of our native peoples, we have benefited, willingly or no, from countless others.  It’s something we were born to, I’m afraid.

We are raised in it.

Or do we not still teach our children the old lie, that Christopher Columbus sailed out from Spain in the spirit of adventure and exploration?

Maybe we’ll tell them later that he actually sailed off looking for cash and prestige, and that when he failed in his quest to discover a new and more direct trade route with Asia, he settled instead on exploiting the unfortunate natives he encountered for their gold, and then selling them into sexual servitude and slavery.

The church didn’t like it.

They eventually jailed him for it.

But he still gets the bloody parade, doesn’t he.

We honor him, butcher that he was, and with good reason.  The impressions made by his boots on the shores of the ‘New World’ have never really faded, and for over five hundred years we have followed in his swaggering stride, sweeping across two continents in our hunger for the resources therein.

And the people who were already there?

We did what he did.  We slaughtered them, starved them, displaced them.

And when the folks back home became uncomfortable with the carnage, we displayed our great civility and generosity by writing and signing treaty after treaty, only to break them before the ink had time to dry.

What DO we hold sacred when no bond restrains us, neither word nor contract.

So what is the difference, really, between a rough circle of stones in a weed choked field in North Dakota, and that field of crisp white markers on a perfectly manicured lawn in Virginia?  Is it just that when WE hold something sacred, we throw money at it until it is suitably majestic.  Is that what makes it a holy place?  Or is it the bones of our fallen that lay in the dirt, that give the place its power over us?

Are we really so blind that we cannot, as a people, see the spirit in the land?

Or is it really just the money that we worship after all?

I’ve been following another story.

There is a proposed development project at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, a 420-acre resort complex, complete with hotels, restaurants, and upscale shopping on the canyon rim, and a tramway designed to carry tourists by the millions down to the canyon floor.  There at the sacred confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, if the plans go through, the rugged beauty of the canyon floor will “improved” by the addition of a restaurant, a river walk, and a several thousand seat amphitheater.

Welcome to America, where nothing is sacred, except for the dollar.

Columbus wins.

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