Henry David Thoreau, Prophet and Scientist
July 11, 2009
A prophet is not someone who just predicts the future. Since the most ancient times, prophets have been men (and women; even when women were excluded from official religious positions) who have predicted disastrous outcomes to the way most people in their society lived; called for repentance from that way; and themselves lived in a way that was a constant reminder of the way of repentance. Repentance is not just a religious word; it means to turn around and utterly change the direction of your life.
This is exactly what Henry David Thoreau did in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840s and 1850s. He continually wrote and spoke (mostly at the Concord Lyceum) about how happiness does not come from the accumulation of material comforts, especially at the cost of debt, but from quiet contemplation of the wonders with which the natural world is continually filled. He is most famous for living in the woods for a couple of years, which was when he put his ideas into practice, and which time is recounted in his classic Walden. He reveled in building a comfortable cabin for very little money, and living on a very small income, the details of the budgets being shared with his readers. Thoreau was an inconvenient man. Though by no means a hermit (he went to town every couple of days even during his cabin phase), he was always separated from the normal crowd: when in town, he observed people as might an anthropologist from another planet. His presence was a prophetic denouncement of his materialistic society.
There was financial unrest then-as the agricultural economy of Massachusetts was being driven aside by the farms of the Ohio Valley and the railroads that brought their produce to the east-as there is now, and his example is valuable to us today. There are many prophets today, who write books, but who also live frugally, to prove that it can be done and as a challenge to the rest of society.
But Thoreau was also a scientist, though without formal training. The peace that he experienced came from close and quiet observation of the natural world, which is what scientists do. Nature suggested hypotheses to him, which he (however imperfectly) investigated. He was passionate about observing (the colors of ice and the stages by which it thawed) and measuring (the depths of Walden Pond). Scholars puzzle that his last writings were all "mere observations" of seed dispersal and spring budburst dates of plants. But, as one who like Thoreau has a big database of budburst dates, only on a computer instead of in a notebook, I am not puzzled at all. His observations were the basis upon which important ecological science was later based. Even his cabin in the woods was an experiment.
Without Ralph Waldo Emerson, there would have been no remembrance of Thoreau. It was Emerson's woodlot in which Thoreau briefly lived (and it was almost the only forest remaining in the vicinity). Emerson popularized Thoreau after the latter's death. But they were very different. Emerson was full of hot air. He would write long flowery-tongued passages about things, whether about the world of nature or the breathlessness of love, which he had not bothered to study. To Thoreau, nature was a living world from which to learn; to Emerson, it was a canvas upon which to paint his grand ideas. For example, Emerson said that "savage" languages were simple and consisted mostly of nouns. Had he even bothered to ask anyone who had learned Native American languages, and there were plenty in his scholarly circle, he would have known this was wrong. But Thoreau was fascinated by what he could learn from Native Americans. (His last words were "moose" and "Indian.")
For our survival, we need to heed the example of the prophet Thoreau. In our technological arrogance, we have had enough of Emersonian projection of our ideas upon the world.
Nature and Language
July 25, 2009
Our languages are an indication of our relationship to the world. In many "primitive" languages (such as Navaho), there is a large number of verb tenses, noun declensions, and many other structures that depict complex relationships among the inhabitants of the world, human and nonhuman. In contrast, Modern English has simplified into what is in many ways a means of straightforward technological information. Thousands of gifted writers demonstrate that Modern English can be a very creative medium of expression, and can evoke the beauty and complexity of the natural world. But we have lost something, I believe, in the transition to a complex civilization that sees itself as sitting on top of nature, extracting resources from it, rather than being a part of it.
English speaking people have dominated the spread of industrialism in recent centuries. Frequently, other languages have incorporated English words for new concepts rather than inventing their own. The result can be very striking. One example is Navaho.
I drove through northwestern New Mexico in March 2005, and listened to a Navaho radio station. The broadcaster was reading the news, and used English words for concepts that did not exist in Navaho. Here is the list that I wrote down at the time: "International investment scandal"; "anniversary of invasion of Iraq"; "demonstrators." The big topic right then was whether the brain-dead woman Terry Schiavo should be disconnected from artificial life support, and it was a cause-celebre of the Republican Party: "feeding tube"; "brain damage"; "House Majority Leader Tom Delay"; "special session." It occurred to me right then that, if you isolate from English only those things that are the product of modern civilization, what you would get would either be technical terms such as "flash drive" or ugly things such as "international monetary scandal."
Have we added anything beautiful to our language in recent centuries? Have we added anything that makes our language more expressive of the complexity and beauty of the natural world? Even the new scientific terms about the natural world sound mechanical: "evolutionary isolating mechanisms" and "ecosystems." (One of my favorites was always a term used by ecosystem modelers who studied carbon cycling: "standing dead compartment," which referred to the carbon atoms in dead vegetation that had not yet begun to decompose.) Scientists have even substituted "vocalizations" for the "songs" of birds. Science, like any other specialty, needs technical language for its own internal use. But I believe that we should all cultivate the use of beautiful ways of speaking about the natural world-because when we do, we will begin to see more of its complexities.
The Olive Tree
August 11, 2009
An old olive tree is not tall, but its trunk is a thick accumulation of gnarled and burled wood that tells the stories of years. Its leaves are narrow and silver, reflecting light and dispersing heat, helping it to stay cool in the hot dry summers of the land where it lives. From ancient times it has been the symbol of permanence, as well as of peace (think of the dove and the olive branch in Genesis), and those two things go together inseparably.
You can plant a field of wheat one year, and switch to something else the next year, depending on the market; but olive trees take years to grow large enough to bear fruit, which is rich with the healthiest oils in the world, and you cannot unplant and replant them. Olives are a defiance against our economy, including our agricultural economy, which makes everything into a commodity that can be instantly liquidated or replaced. To destroy olive trees is almost an act of war. In July, it was literally an act of war. Israeli settlers were being forced off of the land they illegally occupied—forced off by their own government. They retaliated against not their government but against nearby Palestinians—by burning their olive groves. This was a way of saying that people, also, are mere commodities, who can be uprooted and tossed into some other existence with the slightest change in political situation.
So what is it, other than an act of war against the Earth, when we destroy whole groves of olive trees for economic convenience? There are many thousands of olive trees in the San Joaquin Valley, where I grew up, especially near Lindsay, the town that gave its name to a brand of olives. On a visit there a few years ago, I saw hundreds of uprooted olive trees—the market changed, and it was time to use the land for something else for a few years.
The prevailing view in the San Joaquin Valley, as everywhere else, is that the land exists merely to produce things for us. More specifically, to produce things to make corporations rich. It is not a place to live and have communities. Decades ago, there was a famous sociological study comparing two San Joaquin Valley towns, Arvin and Dinuba. Arvin was a poor town, with little civic culture, because the only people who lived there were those who helped large corporations to extract agricultural wealth and haul it away—a lot of poor migrant laborers, and a few somewhat richer people involved in finance and equipment. In contrast, Dinuba had a large population of Japanese American farmers who sold much of their produce locally, and where a civic culture was thriving, with a healthy middle class. I even remember a classical radio station there about 1970. In both cases, the land was rich: but in the first case, that wealth was hauled away, and in the second it stayed. Lindsay was right in between. Alas, in the years since I have left, Lindsay has moved towards the Arvin end of the spectrum. The people there do not have much of a culture, because they exist mostly to facilitate the transfer of natural wealth to corporations that do not recognize them as people.
This story is taking place all over America where rural towns are shrinking and becoming extinct. What can we do? Part of what we need to do is to change our thinking; and the symbol of our thinking should be the olive tree.
I would like to thank author Trudy Wischemann of Lindsay, California for bringing these ideas to my attention a few years ago.
An Artificial Future
August 22, 2009
I happened to look at a children’s book recently. Its title was 2030:A Day in the Life of Tomorrow's Kids, and it was about the life of a typical American family of the future. It was supposed to be an optimistic book, in which many of today’s problems had been solved. For example, the people in the book lived in an eco-village where all power was solar or generated by wind. It was a medical utopia in which nanobots patrolled bloodstreams stopping trouble medical trouble before it started. All races and cultures got along—schoolkids learned about other cultures by connecting with them online. Everything was unrecognizably computerized—with the odd exception of a toaster in the kitchen. What’s there not to like about this?
Here is what is desperately wrong with that picture. The world depicted in this book is an entirely artificial one. All of the people spent all day with computerized goggles around their heads. If there was a world outside of their computerized cars and solar-brick buildings and outside of their goggles, it was not evident. No birds. No trees. No mountains. They were probably there, but who needs a mountain if there is a computerized skateboard park between school and home?
I believe, along with Richard Louv (author of Last Child in the Woods), that children absolutely need direct contact with the natural world of trees, flowers, grasses, animals, and rushing water. Not images of them on computer screens or the insides of 2030-style goggles. Not zoo specimens. But the real thing, absent of which we will lose our grasp of reality.
I recently listened to a tape on which my daughter interviewed my late mother about what her childhood had been like in rural Oklahoma of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a poor life full of chores, but it was rich in natural experience. They knew the trees and watched the birds and knew where their food came from. There is one image I most remember from what my mother said during this interview. They ate a lot of chicken and a lot of eggs, both raised in the barn. They also ate turkey, but mother turkeys would not lay their eggs in a barn. The only way to get baby turkeys was to let the mother turkey go out into the woods and build a nest. It was my mom’s job, as a little girl, to sneak after the turkey and see where she built her nest, so that her mom could go get the eggs and let them hatch in captivity. Today, turkeys have been bred to be stupid meat machines. But even a few decades ago, there was an unconquerable wildness about even turkeys. If you want them, you have to follow their rules. My mom knew something that a lot of kids do not know today—how dependent every meal is on the functioning of a healthy natural world.
The book 2030 made no cultural sense either. The Americans depicted therein were merely consumers. They had no culture of their own (other than the toaster, I suppose). None of the Americans were doing anything creative. The kids went to school and logged in to watch a token stereotypical black man playing calypso music in the Dominican Republic. But why should people in the Caribbean have culture any more than Americans do, in 2030? Why would the man make calypso music if he could just download it?
The people in that book need a dose of reality. The kid needs to have a real bird, in a real tree, deposit a nice fat dropping right in the middle of his goggle screen while he is skateboarding. And people today need to become aware of the natural world. Let us hope it is through education and recreation rather than through disaster. And we all need to remember that culture is something we make through deliberate creativity.
Resurgence Of Racism In the South—a Warning From Oklahoma
September 6, 2009
Racism sounds like something from the 1960s. It is something that our society has moved so far beyond, you would think. This series of essays is about ecology and evolution. From an evolutionary viewpoint, racism is stupid, since it denies the clear evolutionary advantages of genetic diversity. From an ecological viewpoint, racism is dangerous because it justifies the pollution and ecological degradation of the places where racial minorities live. Some Native American communities in northeastern Oklahoma suffer from extremely high levels of groundwater contamination from mining operations. If these were a communities of white people, the problem would have been immediately solved.
Every shred of scientific evidence shows that racism has no factual foundation. This is the conclusion of every scientifically valid study of human population genetics (I know this, from my research for the Encyclopedia of Evolution). From every viewpoint, racism is wrong, stupid, and extremely dangerous.
I was raised in a racist family. I heard my older relatives use offensive language all the time about racial minorities (significantly, not about Native Americans, since one side of my family is of Cherokee ancestry.) I even remember my parents and aunts and uncles saying that black people were not even human beings, and that Japanese people were evil. Once I got to know Japanese and black people, I realized that I had been lied to. I realized that all races contain a mixture of good and bad people. Looking back on the people I have known, my impression is that the Japanese, Mexicans, and blacks that I have had contact with were, on the average, nicer people than the whites that I have known. Now the racist generation of my family—except one uncle, who continues his racist remarks at age 90—has passed into history. I assumed that racism as a whole had faded into history as well.
However, enter President Barack Obama. Here is a man who, even if you disagree with his political views, has tremendous integrity. He has made more of an attempt—one which appears to be hopeless—to reach at least some bipartisan agreement on what our country should do, whether about our economy, our wars, or our ecological crisis. No Republican president has ever done this. Reagan and both Bushes simply pushed their own agendas. Bill Clinton didn’t do it either—just like the Republicans, he pushed his own ideas without listening to Republican objections. And yet, what is the Republican reaction to Barack Obama? They have mounted campaigns of hatred that are astonishing in their virulence. Republicans attacked Bill Clinton’s proposals, especially on health care reform, but not with the intensity that Republicans have shown at town hall meetings this summer. And Clinton was the one who did not try to have a dialogue with them. Obama tries to be nice and listen to criticism, and what does he get in return?
We all know what he gets in return. Representative David Scott, a black man, represents a predominantly white district in Georgia. He is a fiscal conservative. You would think that he is the sort of “blue dog” Democrat with whom Republicans might be able to have a dialogue. But instead, what happened? After the town hall meeting that he hosted, his office in Smyrna, Ga., was vandalized. A swastika was painted over the congressional sign outside his office. Hatred, even a resurgence of Nazi sentiments, is what Obama and any Congressional Democrats who happen to be black, encounter. You can find the account of this on even the conservative news sites, such as Fox news. Even the racists in my family’s earlier generation would not have done this: many of them fought in World War II to prevent the spread of not only German hegemony but Nazi philosophy.
Racism is certainly alive and kicking in Oklahoma. President Obama plans to televise a back-to-school speech after Labor Day for returning students. He plans to encourage them to study hard and stay in school. It will be exactly the same kind of speech that Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush gave to school children. But in Oklahoma, conservatives have launched a campaign to keep children home from school at that time. The signs are up all over Tulsa: Keep your kids home on “Socialist Propaganda Day,” September 8. When Ronald Reagan told kids to study hard in school, it was patriotic; when Barack Obama says it, it is “socialist propaganda.” (This is an exact quote.) This is not the position of Tulsa Public Schools; however, Tulsa Public Schools have given into the pressure: in order to see the speech, parents will have to sign their children up. The default is to boycott the speech. Since when has skipping a school event been the default choice? Only since we have had a black president. Read about it here.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this problem. The Republicans have no constructive alternatives to offer to Obama’s proposals on anything. All they can do is to disrupt meetings and, occasionally, use Nazi-inspired attacks against him. The Republican health care plan is that if you or your employer (if any) cannot afford insurance, you have the right to go out under the bridge and die. If you go to the emergency room, they will do minimal work and kick you out. (Minimal it may be, but it is very expensive, and will be paid for by the government.) A few constructive Republicans, such as Senator Olympia Snowe, have offered alternative plans, but you never hear about them. All you hear is conservatives screaming about how much they hate Obama, a hatred that everyone knows is racially-inspired even though the conservatives will not admit it.
Republicans objected to Clinton’s plans. This included, of course, the Republicans in Texas and Oklahoma. But in response to Obama, the governor of Texas issued a veiled threat that they might secede from the Union; the leadership of Oklahoma Republicans issued a similar announcement, and got enough support from Democrats to override the Democratic governor’s veto. Read about Texas from Fox News here and about Oklahoma here. No such threats were issued against Clinton in 1993. The only difference between 1993 and now is that the Democratic president is black. In Oklahoma, where I am embarrassed to live (but where, apparently, I have a lot of work to do—it is easy being a progressive in California, but Oklahoma is where our feeble example is needed), many people, perhaps even a slight majority, appear ready to revive the Confederacy. While they probably would not try to bring back slavery, their antipathy towards black progressives is obvious. Progressives with bumper stickers routinely have their cars vandalized in Oklahoma; I do not dare put any stickers on my car, or campaign signs outside my house. Were I black, I would be plenty scared right now.
Barack Obama has not visited Oklahoma. However much I would like to see him in person, I would recommend that he never do so, because I would fear for his safety. A large part of the citizenry of Oklahoma has taken a radical step backwards into racism.
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September 13, 2009
In a previous essay, I wrote about an artificial future where people get all their experience through a computerized intermediary rather than by direct contact with the real world of plants, birds—and people. And I wrote that these people had no culture. They were mere consumers. Aren’t we glad that this is not happening to us?
Actually it is happening to us. The future depicted in the book I referred to in the earlier essay is exactly the future that large corporations want us to have. A consumer lives only in the present, and has no history. A consumer downloads “books” and music to be experienced only briefly rather than owning. I can understand that corporations want to restrict file-sharing, but the technology that prevents copying files or changing their format (e.g. cassette tape to CD) also prevents a person from saving his or her own past. I have cassette tapes with voices of my family on it from the past—some from an old 1943 homemade record, some from 1972. I have recordings of performances of some of my own, admittedly mediocre music. Some of our family home movies were transferred to videocassette, and just recently to DVD. Fifteen years of my life are recorded on Kodachrome, the manufacture of which ends this year; these images have now been digitized. The technology to transfer from old to new formats will have been only briefly available, and soon such transfer will be impossible. I doubt that five years from now you can buy a machine that transfers VCR to DVD, or LP and cassette to CD, or have your slides digitized. Will there even be CDs and DVDs?
Do you have a past? Soon you will not be able to hear it or see it, nor make it into a form that can be used in the future. Soon you will be a mere consumer, transformed every moment into a new person with no past. Why should I want to keep recordings of my own music, since what I can buy is manifestly so much better? And why do I need a past or even a present, when the lives of celebrities are so much more flashy and colorful than mine?
Why do I need to make or keep a life, when there are many friendly corporations that will sell me a new life every day?
Many corporations are in the business of separating us from our ecological, cultural, even our personal connections with the rest of the world. If they succeed in this, we will be their willing slaves. We will be like the aphids that are tended by ants and used as merely conduits of plant sap to feed the ants. We will not cease to believe that we are part of a worldwide ecology and a long evolutionary history, but we will cease to realize it.
You Are an Ecosystem
September 30, 2009
Humans do not only live in ecosystems. We are ecosystems.
We are covered and filled with non-human organisms. We are their world. Only one-tenth of the cells in your body are human cells. You have about seventy trillion human cells, but there are seven hundred trillion other cells, mostly bacteria, on and in you. Bacteria live all over your skin, especially in warm moist places, eating dead cells and oils, and creating bad smells if you let their populations grow too much. There are millions of bacteria in your mouth. There are trillions of bacteria in our intestines, eating leftover food, and sometimes synthesizing what to them are waste products but to us are vitamins. These bacteria are mostly harmless, and some beneficial. They compete against bacteria that might otherwise cause us to get sick. For example, we all have staph bacteria on our skins, but the staph bacteria get little opportunity to spread, kept in their places by the more abundant, harmless bacteria for whom our hairs are as large as space towers.
And we are diverse ecosystems. Every part of your body has its own characteristic set of bacterial species. Research published this year indicates that the bacteria in your inner elbow are different from those on your outer elbow. Each of us has our own unique set of bacteria, largely inherited from our parents. Scientists are only now studying the diversity of bacterial species in our guts, and how they interact with one another and with our intestinal lining to maintain a healthy balance of their lives with ours.
Not all of our body-sharers are bacteria. Most people have mites living in hair follicles. They are usually harmless.
It would not be healthy for us to live in a sterile world even if it were possible. Our bodies have evolved in the presence of these other species, and would not be able to function without them.
We cannot get away from being part of the ecosystem of the Earth. We cannot even get out of being ecosystems ourselves.