Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Protect Kankakee Sands

Before the turn of the twentieth century, Northern Indiana looked quite different. The area was formerly called the Grand Kankakee Marsh, or Kankakee Sands, but due to its stunning ecological diversity it was nicknamed “The Everglades of the North.”  The marsh area originally extended from the South Bend to what is now Momence, Illinois, making it the largest freshwater marsh in North America, and one of the largest in the world. As you can see in the map below, one of the marsh's defining features was Beaver Lake, once one of the largest lakes in Indiana, located in what is now Newton County. 

Here is how, as recounted in Gerald Born's The Saga of Jennie M. Conrad, the region used to look: 
                       Waterfowl came to Beaver Lake by the millions. They were so
                       numerous that early settlers reported at daybreak each morning
                       an eerie "boom" filled the air, a unique sound unlike any other
                       sound or reverberation in nature or civilization. This continuous
                       boom kept up for an hour or more until the sun was up and the
                       whole region was awake and vibrating with life. Waterfowl were
                       not the only creatures that sought the abundant food supply of the 
                       lake, for it was home to the gray wolf, the beaver, the white-tailed
                       deer, the Passenger Pigeon, and the bald eagle.

If my use of past tense in the above makes you wonder if something drastic happened to this landscape, you are right. From the mid-1800s to early 1900s, the decision was made to drain the marsh in order to create space for row crops. This was accomplished by dynamiting the limestone that formed a natural dam and digging a series of ditches. And, as people stood and watched, the region's precious water drained away and with it went the wildlife and a truly unique natural area. 

Since the mid-1990s, the Nature Conservancy has invested in an ambitious restoration project of the Kankakee Sands area. Large portions of the region, at least in the western area near the old site of historic Beaver Lake, have begun to take on vestiges of their former appearance. Waterfowl have returned in great numbers. Native prairie and wetland plants are growing. Regal Fritillaries fill the air. Bison roam the prairie. The landscape is returning to what it wants to be.

Or at least it would, if we were not preparing to potentially repeat the mistakes of the past. Recently, a corporation out of Texas ("Natural Prairie Dairy"), no doubt taking advantage of Indiana's lax environmental laws, received permission to establish a dairy "CAFO" (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) directly adjacent to the Beaver Lake site. The restoration sites are in purple below, while the proposed CAFO is outlined in white. 

The proposed CAFO would house 4,350 cows and annually produce 26 million gallons of waste (including urine, feces, pathogens, and parasites) to be pumped into a sewage lagoon roughly the size of three football fields. Additionally, the operation would pump 50-80 million gallons of groundwater from the area's aquifer each year. 

Though CAFOs are well-known for degrading air quality and contributing to antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, this operation may do the most damage to the region's water supply. Pollution from CAFOs has long been established as a threat to water quality, whether it is public lands like Kankakee Sands or the wells of private homeowners. The general practices in place at such facilities have been found to be entirely inadequate to protect against water contamination. The CAFO's proposed use of water, coupled with its assured pollution, creates a double-whammy potentially lethal to the region's ecology and deadly to its residents. First, given the Kankakee Sands' history as a marsh, it is a landscape that regularly floods, meaning that contaminants will be widely and continually spread. Second, the drain on groundwater will dry up residents' wells and starve the area of what it needs to be what it wants to be: a wetland. The Newton County paper recently ran a story about the serious concerns of local residents. Fifty-eight were concerned enough to hold a meeting to voice their objections.

As a response, Natural Prairie Dairy wrote their own letter to the Newton County paper. While I applaud their willingness to speak with those concerned, I do find myself questioning some of the assumptions in the letter. For one, it is impossible to ensure zero run off and zero impact on surrounding lands, especially when those lands flood regularly and when groundwater is extremely close to the surface. One only has to recall the recent and catastrophic flooding of the Kankakee to realize the dangers.  Additionally, according to the permit application Natural Prairie Dairy filed with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, twenty-eight of thirty soil tests of the area revealed water either at or near ground level. It is difficult to imagine that an installation with a sewage lagoon longer than three football fields located in region with such a hydrology will have zero impact on its neighbors. Therefore, though the emphasis on organic and pesticide-free farming is appreciated, it is really beside the point. The primary concern is water quality and the draining of the aquifer, which the letter does not address. Finally, no one questions that the operation would bring tax revenue to the county. The debate is not about the morality of CAFOs in general, but rather that this particular CAFO is dangerously misplaced due to the hydrology and history of the land it would occupy. If the CAFO is to be in Newton County, why not situate it elsewhere in the county where the landscape is more suitable? That way, everyone wins: the county gets revenue and the natural areas remain unblemished.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the decision to situate a CAFO in this exact location is that shows how little people have actually learned from the past. When the marsh was drained, the area was devastated, with effects still felt today, from flooding by the Kankakee River (which the marsh historically contained) to soil erosion. Learning about what was done to the marsh rightly makes us sad. But to learn that the same mistake will be repeated is not an occasion for sadness, but for other emotions altogether. Our ancestors may not have been aware of what they were doing when they disrupted the ecological balance. The same cannot be said of us.

No, we have plenty of evidence, not just locally, but globally for what happens to cultures that prioritize profit over natural resources. Famous Anthropologist Jared Diamond wrote a book some years ago called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In the book, Diamond argues for a common thread behind the catastrophes that brought down the ancient Maya, Polynesian peoples, the Anasazi, and others: misuse of environmental resources. At the top of the list of misused environmental resources? Water.

Step by step, we seem determined to tread the same path that has destroyed other societies. Though we may not be able to stem that tide on a national or global scale, we can speak up for own neighborhoods, like the Northwest Indiana region. Kankakee Sands is a sacred place to me and my family. Here we are at the Bison overlook.

Here you get a sense of the beauty of the prairie.

Here is Xander during a hike.

Those reading this perhaps have their own place where they go to feel at one with the world, to regain a sense of peace and wonder. How many such places will be sacrificed for the sake of tax revenue and convenience? I say, "Not this one." This CAFO should not be here, at a place only so recently (and only partially) restored from the injuries of our ancestors. In an essay about protecting Kentucky's Red River Gorge, Wendell Berry wrote that one ought to live on the land knowing that it is not given to us by our ancestors, but borrowed from our children. Will we hand over to them just what we received - a ruined landscape? I dream of a Kankakee Sands once again alive with the thunder of beating wings, humming with the drumbeat of Bison hooves, thronged with lush green trails, and trickling with clear waters that our children and children's children can enjoy. We cannot stand by and watch as the waters of Kankakee Sands drain away a second time. 

If you want to help organize against this CAFO or otherwise speak out against it, there is a Facebook site with a petition. You also might consider contacting the Newton County Commissioners and the Newton County Council. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Lost Worlds

Visions of vanished worlds have been on my mind for a couple of months now. While visiting Jasper Junction with my wife, I came across a secondhand copy of the book The Atlas of Legendary Places. (This was just one extraordinary find. Besides that, there were two action figures from the Inhumanoids toyline and two boxes of Tetley tea. Who takes Tetley tea to a secondhand store? Who buys Tetley tea from a secondhand store? The answer to the last question at least is clear: we do!)

Anyways, the book find was serendipitous as I have been considering writing something about vanished worlds, but not necessarily real worlds that have disappeared. Instead, I am fascinated by tales of lost worlds that never were, realms like Atlantis, Eden, and Camelot. Sure enough, the book had entries on each of these places. One common link between each of these locations (and some others I'm leaving out due to space constraints) is how they are evoked, either metaphorically or seriously, to make sense of experiences of tragedy and loss. There is already a great book on the subject (i.e. the "politics of nostalgia"), so in this post I mainly want to touch on how each of these three fictional lands has been used to construct visions of the "good old days." At the end, if you hang in there, I have included a special announcement.


According to the myth, Atlantis was once the most advanced and cultured civilization on earth, but it grew decadent, warlike, and complacent, leading to a cataclysmic punishment: earthquakes and tidal waves destroyed the entire island, entombing it beneath the waves forever. This story originates most likely with the Greek philosopher Plato, who used Atlantis as a metaphor for how societies can go wrong. Generations of later thinkers and explorers wondered if he was referring to an actual place possessed of untold riches. Hence began the speculation as the "real" location of the lost world.  For some, like Helena Blavatsky (a Russian Spiritualist/Medium/Psychic/Purveyor-of-all-things-weird), Atlantis was a real place that represented humanity's lost greatness. Blavatsky believed she was in psychic communication with departed residents of Atlantis and hoped to use their wisdom (among others, like the "Ascended Tibetan Masters" and representatives of Martian civilization) to point humanity out of its 19th century military-industrialist doldrums.


The Garden of Eden story is actually the second of two different creation stories in the Hebrew Bible's Genesis. (This alone should convince people that Biblical literalism is untenable, but, what are you going to do?) Believe it or not, like Atlantis, people have been looking for an actual location for this fictional spot for some time. (Check out this list - especially the first one.) While the Biblical story certainly has roots in Mesopotamian folklore, there are scholars who believe its pastoral setting is due to its context: it may well have been written during a period of increased urbanization, when nostalgia for green, idyllic places was high. In his attempt to create a Christian epic on par with the Iliad and Odyssey, John Milton used the Eden story in Paradise Lost to question the British monarchy and suggest it had gone astray from earlier, better foundations.


Arguably, one of the more prominent "lost worlds" referred to in American culture is Arthurian Camelot, the paragon of just rule and chivalry. Like Atlantis and Eden, Camelot came to an end through inner corruption, but the wonder of what it was for a brief, shining moment echoed on. This initially Welsh myth, which again has been a persistent focus of investigation, came to be equated with the Kennedy presidency, partly because of a prominent Broadway musical on the subject that ran during the period, but also due to the shock of Kennedy's tragic assassination, the abruptness of which resembled the end of Camelot -- or Atlantis and Eden, for that matter.

Myths of long lost lands of placid peace obviously fill a human need for security, for dealing with painful transitions and passages in our own day-to-day lives. They are a way to articulate, through narrative, the odd feeling that "good times" only exist in the past. For instance, take this oft-shared meme from the show The Office:

There is something haunting about this realization, which I am sure many of us have felt. Times change, circumstances shift, and comfort zones we have built up either retract or disappear. At those moments, what came before can feel like a paradise compared to the anxiety of not knowing what's coming. In those times, we relate to the residents of Atlantis, Eden, and Camelot - they too, we feel, lost something precious and golden to the fog of uncertainty.

However, these feelings can obscure something else that's equally true: almost nothing in life is completely perfect. There's a line in an old Billy Joel song: "The good old days weren't always good / and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems." (Check out the song, if you're curious.)

Or, for a more contemporary iteration of the same sentiment, there's Macklemore and Kesha, "Good Old Days."

Some of the best lines come at the end:

"Never thought we'd get old, maybe we're still young
May we always look back and think it was better than it was
Maybe these are the moments
Maybe I've been missing what it's about
Been scared of the future, thinking about the past
While missing out on now."

Pining over lost Atlantises, or Edens, or Camelots is wasted energy. Even in the stories, there were things drastically wrong in each of those settings that contributed to their demise. For each of these paradises, the "good old days" were not entirely good, and the same is true for all of us, except in times of strain and stress, there is a real temptation to feel that way. In that case, I've resolved to remember, at least for myself, that the good old days were good, but we need to make tomorrow better.

And Now for the Big Announcement:
A couple of weeks ago I received word that my book manuscript (Malleable Mara: the Transformations of a Buddhist Symbol of Evil) has been accepted for publication by the State University of New York Press! This is a great press for studies of Buddhist and Hindu traditions. In one form or another -- through an MA thesis, a PhD dissertation, and then an actual book -- I have been working on this manuscript since about 2002, so this is the culmination of a lot of toil, self-doubt, and perseverance. For those curious, the book is about how the mythical figure "Mara" in Buddhism has been portrayed differently according to changing times, religious rivalries, cultural contexts, and even popular culture. Here is an artistic representation of Mara attempting to stop Siddhartha from becoming the Buddha:

(Mara's the green guy on the elephant.)

More to come as the book gets closer to release, but for now, I could not wait to share the news! Until the next post, take care.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Fathers and Sons

First, in between now and my last blog on archery, I came across a fascinating article on how the sport is played in Bhutan and the ways in which it brings people together. Imagine trying to hit a target from 460 feet!

The topic for this post stems from our family's most recent homeschooling unit dealing with civil rights and African-American history. Besides reading about Martin Luther King, the horrifying period after Reconstruction, and seeing a great musical on the 1961 Freedom Riders, we read the novel Sounder by William Armstrong. When I was in second grade, our teacher, Mr. Leichty, read the book to us and I was very taken by it, imagining what it would be like to be the boy in the story. Encountering it again, I was drawn to the character of the father, most likely because I am now a father myself, showing how time and life changes alter our perceptions of stories. Sounder also resonated with a book I read not too long ago: Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which also tells the tale of a relationship between a father and son during desperate times. In this post I'm going to compare the two stories and their remarkable similarities, especially looking at what they have to tell us about the complex ways fathers and sons perceive one another. (There will be times, necessarily, when I give away parts of each book, so keep that in mind. Obviously, if you've read both books, this post will mean more to you, but if you haven't, maybe by the end you'll want to.) Also, if you stay with me to the end, there is a bonus Haiku!

Sounder (1969) focuses on an African-American sharecropping family. Amid the poverty and racial oppression they face, the oldest boy and his father find joy in hunting with their hound named "Sounder" due to his booming bark. (Interestingly, the dog Sounder is the only named character in the entire book.) During a particularly bleak winter, as the family goes hungry day after day, the father goes out in the night to steal food so that they can eat. Not long after, the white sheriff and his deputies arrive to arrest the father in a disturbing scene that involves Sounder being badly wounded with a shotgun blast. Convinced the dog could still be alive, the boy searches for Sounder, who eventually returns, though mutilated and mute. The boy then undertakes long journeys looking for his father at various prison labor camps, encountering abuse and violence from whites along the way. Though he never finds his father, he does meet a teacher who offers to tutor him in reading and writing. Eventually, the father returns home, crippled by his years of hard labor in prison. He, and Sounder, die shortly thereafter and the boy moves on to continue his education.

The Road (2006) is not for the faint of heart. It is as stark and bleak as the cover above suggests. The same is true for the 2009 film adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen.

The Road describes a shattered, post-apocalyptic world of ash and cinders. An unnamed father and son travel through this devastated, desolate landscape, making their way to an undefined destination, with only each other for comfort. McCarthy reflects the spareness of the landscape in the text itself by eliding apostrophes, commas, quotation marks, and even capital letters. The words themselves have been rendered barren, just like the earth. As the man and boy travel, they face starvation and must be constantly vigilant against roving bands of ruthless cannibals. Though they speak of being "the good guys" and want to keep a spark of humanity ("the fire") burning, the father's uncompromising protection of his son often veers into unwarranted suspicion and even cruelty toward strangers. The boy picks up on this and fears they may be turning into "the bad guys." Sickness and a wound from a hostile band eventually lead to the father's death, but the boy is able to find a family of people he can trust and with whom he can carry on.

Both books share the device of not naming their characters. At one point, select critics found fault with Sounder for this move. Framing the characters in this way, though, lends both texts a kind of universality: they are not about particular people, they are about tensions, pains, and issues anyone can face. These books also refuse to provide firm places or dates, rendering the location of the narrative both nowhere and everywhere (though in fairness, given its firmer historical context, we could probably loosely locate Sounder). These choices on the part of the authors help to pull the reader in and see beyond particularities to the broader resonance of human experience.

Both books also delve into religious imagery. Sounder offers explicit instances where the boy and his mother refer to David and Goliath or Joseph in Egypt as touchstones for their current situations. I think it's significant that the Biblical references are entirely to the Old Testament, with that corpus' themes of escaping slavery, dealing with a wrathful (and usually inscrutable) God, and the pining for justice. The Road offers far less evident notions of religious imagery, but when more diffuse concepts arise, they are quite powerful. For instance, as the father looks at his sleeping son, he thinks, "If he is not the word of God God never spoke." This simple line potently communicates the father's fierce devotion, as well as the burden he feels. There are possible references to Job and Revelations in the book, and some have argued that the boy symbolizes a kind of Christ-child. I find this kind of interpretation much less convincing than the tack that the book wrestles with base human conflicts about what it means to be a good, moral person, and all the potential religious questions such a tension abuts.

Most poignant for me, however, is the register both stories hit regarding the journeys fathers take with their sons. (One certainly could read either text for the even more universal theme of parenthood, but as a father with sons, that is the level at which I was struck.) Both fathers struggle, but are ultimately unable, to protect their sons from a thoroughly hostile world. Both fathers are pushed over the moral line (one by stealing, the other by lying) in the effort to provide for their boys. The father in The Road is especially flawed, consistently acting in ways that bend or break the very morality he is trying to instill in his boy. Yet, what sets him apart from the surroundings is that he is at least attempting to provide a good example whereas the rest of world has given up. Finally, both fathers die when their sons are fairly young, yet, in acts of authorial mercy, Armstrong and McCarthy end their stories with each boy finding paths to seemingly brighter future, whether (respectively) through education or a surrogate family.

When my wife and I first became parents, I keenly felt the descent of heavy responsibility onto my shoulders and perceived, more than ever before, that the world around me did not correspond to the world I wanted for them. The books encapsulate what I fear and hope for my own sons. I fear how I will never be able to fully protect them, that hurts and trials unknown and unfair await them. I hope, even as it pains me, that like the boys in both stories, they will be able to move beyond my need to protect them. In Sounder, we can see that the boy has moved on when, after his father dies, he realizes Sounder will soon follow, but is willing to still leave to attend school, even though the dog is still living. He has let that part of his life go in order to create his future. In The Road, the boy could stay hidden where his dying father secluded them, but instead he ventures out and discovers another (friendly) family. I could not help but read the dire straits of both books as the fears we fathers have for our sons of what they will encounter when we're gone, but the endings gave me hope enough to trust that, though our boys must journey on ultimately without us, they will find their way. The last words of the father in The Road evoke a courageous faith in life that I am not certain I share, but to which I aspire: "Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again." In Sounder, the first book the boy finds is from Montaigne and at the end of the story, after his father's death, he recalls this famous quote: "Only the unwise think that what has changed is dead." It is a sign that the boy will carry forward his father's influence, remembering the man when he was in his prime. Those images, I suppose, live on in our children's minds, just as images of them as our little ones live on in ours.

Bonus Haiku
While shoveling snow the other day, I thought up a haiku:
                                                White flakes fall gently
                                                 on the earth. The call of a
                                                 hawk breaks the still air.

That's all for now. Until the next time, take care.

Thursday, January 25, 2018


Apologies for such a long absence, dear readers, but hopefully this edition will "hit the spot" (heh heh) as I am going to be writing about the dignified, disciplined sport of archery. My boys have been in the sport for about three years and have become quite good at it. Over the last several months, the whole family has gotten in on the act. Here I am at the local Iroquois Archery Club:

If I had been told a few years ago that I would also take up the sport, "skeptical" would be a mild word to describe my reaction. Over the last year, though, I've been making a point of expanding my horizons, saying "yes" more than "no," and taking up new hobbies. Not getting involved more in the boys' archery was a real regret of mine, so this past Fall when the club hosted a league open to newcomers, our whole family signed up. It was my first time taking aim at anything, let alone even holding a bow. The amount of discipline, concentration, and poise required to be successful at this sport is frankly astounding. Here's a quick rundown of just a few of the the myriad fine details one must master. First, plant your feet comfortably behind the line of your lane, shoulder-length apart, with your body as straight as possible. Then, nock the arrow (in other words, clip it onto the bow string with the tip on the arrow rest). Then, raise the bow and draw the string back with your middle three fingers, making sure your bow arm is relaxed and your wrist is slightly diagonal to the floor. Then find the "anchor point" where you are able to steady the bow as you aim. If you have a sight, you line up the X of the target with a colored dot calibrated in your path of vision. If (like me) you do not have a sight, you employ a slightly different strategy I call "take-your-best-damn-guess-and-adjust-accordingly." Once all this has taken place, let your fingers gently off the string and wait in rapt anticipation for the impact of the arrow. If Football is a game of inches, Archery is a game of millimeters: the most minuscule of variations in any of the above factors will result in a rogue arrow. If you release clumsily, don't have the exactly right anchor point, barely bend your wrist, tilt your neck wrong, or do any of an infinite number of things inaccurately, your arrow will miss. When all the mechanics align, however, there is immense satisfaction in hearing the thud of the arrowhead piercing the X of the target.

Here Luka is demonstrating his joy over a perfect score:

And Xander lets loose another successful shot:

Just watching them shoot makes me swell with pride, but also happy just because they derive so much enjoyment from it. Jeanette has also taken up the sport, and she is super good!

I've always admired Jeanette's precision and dedication to detail. Whether gardening or birding or working in the field, she has an impressive focus on getting the job done just right. Those qualities have made her an impressive archer - in just a few months she has progressed from shooting at 5 yards distance to 20 yards! That is an enormous jump. I really think she has a natural aptitude for the sport.

I am not nearly as proficient. While I've had moments and even streaks where things have "clicked," finding consistency in the basics is still a challenge. However, one of my favorite things about the sport is that, really at the end of day, it's only about your own performance. Your biggest competitor is yourself. So, I just try on improving my own scores, little by little, each time I shoot.

Archery has a long and hallowed history in myth and popular culture. Perhaps the best known figure to carry a bow is the Roman figure Cupid ("Eros" in Greek) who strikes us hapless humans with desire through his piercing shafts.

Kamadeva (Literally "God of Desire") is the corresponding Hindu figure. (He's also known in Sanskrit as manmatha, or "mind-breaker," to give an indication about what love does to us.) Kamadeva is an interesting fellow, riding around on a parrot with a bow made of rainbow sugarcane and arrows composed of strung together wasps and bees. He's a bit like Cupid, but redesigned by the Grateful Dead. Makes you think twice about Valentine's Day, doesn't it? (If you're interested in Kama, Catherine Benton's book is probably the best on him.)

I've always found it interesting how two distinct cultures decided in parallel to signify the onset of love and desire through archery: like being struck by an arrow, it can happen quickly, painfully, and unexpectedly.

In terms of mythic human archers, there's Robin Hood, of course, Legolas of Tolkien lore, Hawkeye and Green Arrow of the comic universes (Marvel and DC, respectively), and Katniss Everdeen of the more recent Hunger Games franchise. Certainly, there are plenty of others and numerous websites exist counting them down.

My favorite mythical archer is probably Arjuna from the Hindu Mahabharata, who I've mentioned in blogs previously.

It's said that, among other things, he was ambidextrous and could hold the bow with either hand, meaning he used two quivers. (Fun fact: "Arjuna" is actually Xander's middle name, so perhaps archery has been in our future for some time now!)

One of my most favorite archery myths comes from China, however. In the olden days, it's said that there were once ten suns and the land was parched and scorched. The pleas of the humans and all the other living things were heard and the celestial archer Yi was sent. He took a perch on a mountain and began shooting at the suns, which turned out to be ravens burning with a divine fire. One after one he shot them until only one remained. The last sun began moving across the sky in order to avoid Yi's shooting, so that's why the sun appears to travel overhead.

Archery has also been the inspiration for much philosophical musing. Confucius saw the discipline required for archery as a metaphor for the effort required to become a more perfect human being. Similarly, Aristotle saw "hitting the mark" in archery as a way to understand achieving the "golden mean," which was his concept of virtue and morality. Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery sees the sport as a way to foster "inner communication": all the parts of the mind and body must work together. More than that, the most successful archer will perform the tasks I described above so often and so perfectly that the muscles will do them automatically, reflexively, and the mind becomes completely empty and devoid of self. At that point, the archer becomes one with the bow and the arrow releases almost of its own accord. This sort of triumph over the concept of self and the duality between self and other is central to Buddhism.

Far outside these grandiose ways of looking at archery, it simply has been a tremendous bonding experience for my family and a great pastime to get to know new people. The members of the club we joined have been very welcoming to us and helpful as mentors for us to get started in the sport. We've joked that coming into the club and seeing its regular members is a little like the old sitcom Cheers. In the league last Fall, our family got to be all on the same team together. And we finished sixth! (Out of how many teams, you ask? *Cough,* six, *cough.*) But getting to spend time together as a family, making new friends, and studying the ancient discipline of archery sure feels like a win to me.

That's all for now. I hope to be a more regular contributor going forward. Until next time, take care.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Dutch Gurus, Yogic Powers, and Mad Titans

Once in a while my interests intersect in fascinating ways. This post is going to be about one of times and consequently we're going to go on a bit of stream of consciousness, so bear with me. Recently, during one of my frequent jaunts to the Jasper County Public Library, I came across not one but two books about a Dutch man named Wim Hof. Often described as a "daredevil," Hof claims to have created a training method which, through breathing techniques and exposure to the cold, allows a person to unlock control of his/her autonomic functions. This would mean conscious influence on things like immune response, heart rate, blood flow, and so on. (If you're curious, read about his method here and visit his website here.) Select acolytes of Hof credit his technique for allowing them to control or reverse the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, and Parkinson's. Hof himself became famous for feats such as meditating for hours in freezing temperatures, wearing only shorts:

Running a marathon (again, only in shorts) above the Arctic circle:

Sitting in freezing water:

Setting the record for ice immersion at 112 minutes:

He's also been the star of many different videos and promotional stunts. You can listen to him give an overview of his ideas in this video:

Basically, Hof argues that humans have coddled themselves through temperature-controlled houses and warm clothing and over the millennia lost the ability to harness the vital properties of cold. As we became more reliant on warming ourselves through technology, our bodies degenerated into being unable to heal themselves. Through controlled breathing and meditative exercises, Hof says he can open and ramp up his cardiovascular system to generate more than enough heat to stay warm. He claims this renders his body, and those who follow his training regimen, less susceptible to bacteria, viruses, cancers, and other causes of deteriorating health. It all starts with concentration on breathing, as he emphasizes to readers in the foreword to Scott Carney's book on the Wim Hof method: "It's time to bring Mother Nature's power back into our awareness. We are warriors seeking strength and happiness for everyone. Together we can regain what we've lost. In other words, there's nothing else to say other than 'Breathe, motherfuckers.'"

As interesting as Hof's method sounds, there are some deal-breakers that would keep me from practicing it. For instance, the earliest part of the training involves using only cold water during every shower as practice for your breathing. There are certain parameters I've established for my life and taking ice cold showers falls rather definitively outside those bounds. Yet, humans have been struggling to transcend the boundaries of nature and physiology throughout time. What is intriguing to me about Hof's method are the parallels between it and the techniques and supposed abilities of Indian yoga practitioners called siddhas ("perfected" ones). In contrast to popular perception, yoga is not about physical fitness or muscle tone; rather, it is an ancient meditative practice for attaining spiritual insight into the nature of ultimate reality. One of the treatises on yoga considered most authoritative, at least in the Hindu tradition, is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. According to that text, control of one's breath creates control of the body, which in turn garners control of the mind, and with control of the mind, one can begin to experience the true nature of one's soul and reality itself. Along the way, Patanjali says, one develops certain powers over the material world. For instance, quoting from Stoler-Miller's 1995 translation of the Yoga Sutra, the yogin "has knowledge of the thoughts of others" (64), "can become invisible," and by concentrating on the celestial spheres, has complete awareness of the movement of the moon and the disposition of all the stars (66). Yogins are also famed for displays of incredible stamina and strength, referred to in the texts as tapas ("heat") and sometimes ojas (which my Sanskrit teacher suggested was best translated as "supreme awesomeness").

Given our discussion of Hof's techniques above, it is interesting to note the presence of stamina and, especially, heat in the description of the powers of the yogin. Hof has described reading Eliade's Yoga: Immortality and Freedom and incorporating Tibetan tummo meditation into his method, so the similarity between his practice and the power of the yogin are not altogether surprising. It is worthwhile to point out, though, that Patanjali has a cautionary perspective on such abilities: "If they become a distraction these powers of perfection are impediments to pure contemplation" (68). One wonders if Patanjali would thus take issue with Hof's use of yoga-inspired practices.

While Hof's writings were driving me to look through the Yoga Sutra again and reacquaint myself with yogic powers, serendipity created another bend in this stream of thought. As I reread Patanjali, the trailer for Avengers: Infinity War came out:

With the Yoga Sutra in front of me, a hitherto unappreciated connection occurred. The six Infinity Stones in Marvel lore allow their owner to control (respectively) Space, Time, Power, Mind, Soul, and Reality. The articulation of yogic powers reads eerily like a recitation of the same areas: the yogin can master knowledge of the moon and stars (Space), ceases the turnings of thought and reads the thoughts of others (Mind), can see the future and access past lives (Time), gains insight into the indestructible Self (Soul), performs feats of strength (Power), and grasps the ultimate nature of the universe (Reality). Thanos, the character in the comics and the film who attempts to collect all of the stones and thus achieve supremacy over the universe, is often called the "mad titan." Does the connection to yoga lore make him more of a "mad yogin?"

Interestingly, the plot of the original Infinity Gauntlet series is quite similar to many Hindu myths: a demon uses yogic practice to acquire seemingly insurmountable power and overthrows the gods, who must resort to often unconventional stratagems to defeat him and restore cosmic balance. (See, for instance, the stories of Ravana, Hiranyakshipu, and Taraka.) In the Infinity story, the Avengers and other Marvel heroes would take the place of the deposed gods who must overcome the demon. Jim Starlin, the original author of the Infinity comics, was known for introducing religious themes into his work, so I wonder if he might have come across Hindu and yogic lore somewhere and adapted it into his own comic narratives. You can be certain I'm waiting anxiously for the film to see how this and other comparative religion elements are treated.

So, that's this time's stream of consciousness post - from Dutch yogins to mad Marvel titans. Until the next time, take care.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Magnificent Turkey!

Thanksgiving approaches, and for many people that means turkeys. Since March my wife Jeanette has worked for Laird Farms in Rensselaer growing greens and also helping with their animals, including goats and chickens, but most extensively turkeys. From time to time, I've enjoyed getting in on the act and helping Jeanette with her chores. Here we are helping guide the turkeys into the coops.

Here a turkey has gotten into the chicken area.

It's quite a magnificent sight to see them gathered all in one area.

I knew so little about turkeys when Jeanette started her job that the experience prompted me to learn more about these fascinating creatures. Given the time of the year, I thought it might be fun to talk about all the lesser known and lesser appreciated aspects of the animal that will be the centerpiece of many people's meals this Thursday.

One of the first aspects that struck me, and that Xander and Luka have said is their favorite part of turkey behavior, is their trilling and chortling. While sometimes turkeys do make sounds that are kind of like "gobble," the ululations are far more varied than I expected. Jeanette's favorite aspect of the birds is their highly social nature: they love to be in groups and congregate with each other. When going into the coops at night, they will move from one side to another to be next to certain other birds and in one case, a particular turkey hangs close to another bird who is blind, helping her find her way to and from the coop. They also gather close to humans, following us around on the farm with a very endearing expectancy. It's quite a sight to see a large herd of these animals gathering before you on a sunset evening in front of the fields. Though it could certainly just be me, I've come to enjoy the waddling and loping way they move and the kind of bouncy gracefulness of their stride and head-bobbing.

More broadly, as I've investigated the animal, I've found it was indigenous to North America, though the name "turkey" comes from European colonists. They had never seen such an animal and resorted to the convention of calling exotic animals "turkeys" after the country "Turkey," which was the gateway for unusual animals to enter Europe. According to archaeological records, Southwestern Native Americans raised and domesticated the birds, while woodland tribes did not. (An investigation of that discrepancy might be interesting.) The animal figures prominently in many Native Southwestern myths. In one such story, the turkey brings the sun down to warm the earth, but singes his head in the process, explaining why turkeys have bald heads. 

In an Apache legend, turkeys are the ones responsible for bringing grain and corn to humans. One exception to the Southwest-East divide on turkeys is the Cherokee, who held the animal in great cultural prominence.

European colonists found the turkey easy prey and killed them by the millions, much as they did with the passenger pigeon and bison. The turkeys' relative slowness and tendency to gather in groups in the face of danger led hunters of the time to widely deride the animal. (Even one Cherokee myth seems to paint the animal as unintelligent.) This is often seen as the derivation for the use of "turkey" as an insult - if I call a book, movie, or person a "real turkey," this is not meant as a compliment. At the same time, the bird has become identified with a day of national Thanksgiving. How do we explain this tension?

In her book, More than a Meal: the Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, Karen Davis has a complex hypothesis that attempts to answer that question. Using the theorist Rene Girard, she argues the following. Humans, of course, are animals, but wish to see themselves as above animality. We thus project our discomfort and self-loathing about our animal nature onto other animals and punish and abuse them in order to exorcise the animal in ourselves. The Turkey Thanksgiving ritual is thus a massive example of the "scapegoat" complex, acted out year after year. Whether you believe Davis (reviews of her book can be found here), it is incontestable that we "culturally encode" animals all the time and use them as symbols of our own thoughts and desires. For example, why are virile males called "stallions" or "studs" and in recent years older, sexual women are called "cougars"? It's all relative, too: while dogs are coddled and clothed in sweaters in the United States, they are considered filthy harbingers of disease in India.

Otherwise, there are many facts about turkeys that I never knew. They can actually fly quite well, and up into trees. They can live for about ten years and some have wingspans of up to six feet. You can tell a turkey's gender by the shape and color of its poop. And though Ben Franklin praised turkeys and disparaged eagles, he didn't actually lobby for the turkey to be the national emblem. (For more great turkey tidbits, read here.)

There's a burgeoning field of turkey jokes, which I can't help but include.

Q: What costume did the turkey wear every Halloween?
A: He was always a-gobblin'.

Q: What's the difference between a turkey and an owl?
A: Turkeys don't give a hoot.

Q: What's Superturkey's real name?
A: Cluck Kent

Q: How did Tom Turkey do at bat?
A: He hit a fowl ball.

Q: What does a Turkey drink from on New Year's Eve?
A: A gobblette.

You get the idea, though I have a whole book of these. Let me know if you crave more! I'm not hard to find.

In all, I've really come to appreciate the turkey. Going as a family to help put turkeys away or bring them food and water have been great bonding experiences. Watching the sunsets while helping the animals into their coops can be sublimely serene. Recently, we all arrived to find a large group of turkeys had gone down the road, over a bridge, and down by the river. It took all four of us to guide them back up, and when we did, they took off in their stilt-legged waddle, accompanied by their exuberant chortles. We all laughed and cheered. Just as we'd brought the turkeys back together, they brought us together too.

Happy Thanksgiving! Until the next post, take care.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Gaining Perspective

Though at the end of my last post I promised to talk about turkeys, I'm still waiting on an especially promising book on that topic to arrive via interlibrary loan, so that subject will have to wait until next time. (Fear not! I promise an abundance of turkey-related facts, lore, and musings very, very soon.)

For this outing, I wanted to talk about the topic of perspective. How do we look at ourselves in the grand scheme of things, relative to the vastness of space? I started ruminating on this topic lately due to the time of year: around this time of year there was a Core 9 lecture I'd give (since 2011) about Comparative Religions and I never could seem to find space to include an example about potential common ground between religious and non-religious worldviews. I thought one of the more promising avenues was by exploring how both a theistic worldview and a more dominantly scientific worldview can both tend to portray humans as quite minuscule in relation to the cosmos all around. There are three examples that I think demonstrate this tendency the best.

The first is from the Hindu Bhagavata Purana, an enormous collection of stories reinforcing devotion to the many forms of the god Vishnu, including one of his more playful forms, Krishna. (If you are interested in getting a translation of these stories, you can find one here and also here). In the most famous series of stories involving Krishna, the god incarnates among humans in order to destroy a demon. He is born miraculously to a human mother (Yashoda) and from the time of his birth carries a number of miraculous (not to mention mischievous) activities. In one example, as a toddler he places a clump of dirt in his mouth and Yashoda quickly steps in to dig it out. When she pries open his mouth, she instead sees the entire span of the universe and beyond, the creation and destruction of galaxies, swirls of constellations, and so on.

Here is an image from a series of Indian comics:

Here is an artist's depiction of mother and child together, with her vision in the background behind them:

Scholar of Indian religions Wendy Doniger has written about how this and other narrative in Hinduism accomplish the blending of the "microscopic and telescopic" views of human existence. On the one hand, what could be more mundane than a parent stooping to pick something of a child's mouth? At the other end, what could be more grand than the swirl of stars? To blend these views, the microscope and the telescope, is the special province of myth and it leaves poor Yashoda's mind blown. Krishna, even as a baby, sees her distress and removes the vision from her eyes.

Out of the Jewish theistic tradition, we have Job's encounter with Yahweh. For those very few of you who do not know poor Job's plight, he has lost his livelihood, his home, his family, and his health as the result of a wager between God and Satan (who in the original text is not the figure of ultimate evil he becomes in Christian tradition, but rather an agent of testing who works for God). Job has the opportunity to question God, who appears (as is often the case in the Hebrew texts) as a raging storm. Here is William Blake's interpretation of that encounter:

God's reply to Job puts the poor beseeching human in his place: "Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (Job 38: 4-7). [As an aside, the reference to "sons of God" is probably a sign of the influence of the cultural context of the Hebrew narratives. Mesopotamian religions as a whole conceived of councils of gods with one lead god. This is also visible in God's relationship with Satan in this same text.] Like Yashoda, Job's mind reels as God goes on for chapter after chapter, reiterating again and again how big the universe is and how little Job is. Put in his place, Job meekly slinks away.

Moving out of the realm of religious writings, forty years ago last month, NASA launched the space probe Voyager 1, which has become the first human-made spacecraft to reach interstellar space. (You can still check its mission status, if you're interested, along with its successor, Voyager 2.) In popular culture, the later consequences of the probe's journey were fodder for the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As the probe was leaving the solar system in early 1990, its cameras were turned around to look back towards earth and take one last image of what our planet looks like from four billion -- that's billion -- miles away. This is what that looks like:

Can you see us? We're that tiny bluish-white speck toward the lower right corner. The image has become known as the "Pale Blue Dot" photo and was the inspiration for Carl Sagan's book of the same name. In that book, Sagan reflects on the image in this way: 

                    Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone
                    you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human
                    being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and                     
                    suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic
                    doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator
                    and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple
                    in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer,
                    every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every
                    "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived
                    there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Besides demonstrating how a single human -- along with his/her thoughts, dreams, aspirations, joys, pains, etc., etc. -- is swallowed up next to the expanse of everything that is, the three examples also employ similar imagery. It's dirt in Krishna's mouth that reveals the cosmic wonder to Yashoda. Job, as he grovels before God, says that he "repents in dust and ashes." For Sagan, our entire species is a "mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam." On this point, we could add the observation of Kurt Vonnegut (another Secular Humanist) in Cat's Cradle humans are "mud that got to sit up and look
around." No doubt this goes to show that humans are but specks in the scope of all time and space, and would do well to remember that when tempted towards thoughts of grandeur. If you think that you're tiny and small compared to all that exists, you're right. We should all gain a healthy dose of humility from the perspective each example offers.

On the other hand, each story uses the seemingly lowliest of the low -- the very soil and ground beneath our feet -- to transport us to contemplation of the highest of the high. Doniger would refer to this as the flip of lenses between microscope/telescope and this metaphor may provide us with an affirming interpretation of the message behind these tales. Let us remember what we learned in my last post from Wendell Berry: every particle of dirt, as the source of life, is sacred. If we are but specks of "dirt," even metaphorically, can't the same be said of each and every one of us? Being small does not mean being insignificant.

When Yashoda looked in Krishna's mouth, she did not choose to see the cosmos in a speck of dirt, but by taking to heart that story's lesson, along with the lessons of Job and the Pale Blue Dot, whenever we look at even the tiniest grain of dirt, dust, or mud, we can use our newly-gained insight to view it as just as majestic and grand as the burgeoning of galaxies, the death-throes of stars, the trembling of the universe itself. Each of us is nothing. Each of us is everything. We are specks of dust. We are giants.

Next time (unless something else intervenes), there will be turkeys! Until then, take care.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Big Picture

Over the last several weeks, my wife and I have had something of an ongoing book club. It all started with my discovery of a list of classics in environmental writing and has expanded since then. Recently there were two books we read that, though they come from very different fields, struck me as having amazing parallels in their commentaries on modern life.

The first book was Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America (1977). Berry argues that the increased mechanization of agriculture and the "get big or get out" mentality have caused a shift in American farming. No longer about the generational commitment to the land and connections to a larger community, farming has instead become a highly specialized business. The shift has had profound consequences for our food system and cultural perception of the earth. With the advent of efficiency and technology as the standard, Berry suggests that agriculture has absorbed and adopted the values of soulless production and consumption. Instead, Berry wants us to return to the notion of farming as an art, as practically a religious profession that threads together "cult" (as in devotion), "culture," and "cultivation." This would mean smaller farms, less technology, and more localized, family agricultural endeavors. In his words, "a healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among a people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safe-guards a human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace" (47).

The second book was John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down (1992). This text is a classic of alternative education that attacks our system of compulsory schooling (K-12, 8am - 3pm, distinct subjects separated by Pavlovian-bells, desks in assembly-line rows, etc.). Gatto argues that our school system, though ostensibly intended to teach reading, writing, math, and so forth, actually has a "hidden curriculum" of instilling obedience to authority, conformity to social class, and reflexive consumerism for the next generation in the market economy. As a thirty year veteran of public school teaching, Gatto maintains that these factors are an open secret and that we have learned to shrug even as we realize that compulsory schooling doesn't work: students are bored and teachers complain about teaching, but we have convinced ourselves that this way (even though it only dates to about 1850) is the only way. The solution? Get rid of school. Here's what he suggests: "It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your natural youth in an institution that allows you no privacy...when children are given whole lives instead of age-graded ones in cell-blocks, they learn to read, write, and do arithmetic with ease, if those things make sense in the kind of life that unfolds around them" (23).

So what do these two books have in common? (First, by way of full disclosure, they lean into my area of bias, as my family homeschools and my wife works at a small-scale, organic, family farm.) Both authors are pointing to how entrenched systems of thought come to hold sway over our behaviors and outlooks. I know that, at least for myself, growing up I thought we had to go to school to learn and that to get food you had to go to the grocery store where it came in neat cellophane packages. These "have tos" are what post-modern philosophers like Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault called doxa, the unquestioned assumptions that undergird the architecture of society. No one questions these assumptions because they are buried so deeply that everyone takes them for granted. Bourdieu and Foucault both argue that social institutions have the most control not when they are big and powerful, but when they are invisible. People do not question what they do not see. Does "school" really equal "education"? Does "agriculture" really equal "farming"? Or does the second term in each pair potentially point to something greater and more expansive? If nothing else, Berry and Gatto pull back the veil to reveal the assumptions behind our agricultural and educational institutions and suggest they ought to be interrogated like everything else. It is always good to ask the questions, "Does it have to be this way? Is another life possible?"

Both authors reveal another problem in society: the lack of holistic thinking and an inability to appreciate the "big picture." In agriculture, Berry thinks this is the extraction of farming from the cultural web of human relations and knowledge to the point that it becomes a specialized profession. For Gatto, this is the isolation in school of different fields into supposedly separate areas - science from literature, politics from philosophy, demarcated by arbitrary bells and placed in distinct rooms. These phenomena are not unrelated, as Berry points out:

              That the discipline of agriculture should have been so divorced from other
              disciplines has its immediate cause in the compartmental structure of the
              universities, in which complementary, mutually sustaining and enriching
              disciplines are divided, according to "professions," into fragmented, one-
              eyed specialties. It is suggested...that farming shall be the responsibility
              of the college of agriculture, that shall be the sole charge of the professors
              of law, that morality, shall be taken care of by the philosophy department,
              reading by the English department, and so on (47).

Now, look at what Gatto says:

               The first lesson school teaches is the un-relating of everything. Everything
               (history, reading, language, dance, math, economics, etc.) is out of context
               and order. Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek.
               Behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences and the school obsession
               with facts and theories, the age-old human search for meaning lies well
               concealed (2-3).

Both point out the tendency toward fragmentation in our societal attention-spans: focus on the part, not the whole. In contrast, life is a single cloth with each segment interdependent with the others; Berry and Gatto show that when we extract single aspects and reduce them to isolated realms, it costs us, both in terms of understanding those single aspects as well as the larger world around us.

Both even invoke the power of soil or dirt as a way to talk about the issues they say we face as a people. Berry writes, "The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life" (90). Though speaking metaphorically, Gatto says this, "After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I've concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven't figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves" (105). In both statements, I detect a stirring call for far-reaching humility and respect for the inherent abilities and strengths we -- humans and the rest of the natural -- all possess together, and the beauty that can result if we acknowledge one another in this way.

Besides writing books, Berry and Gatto have both engaged in a number of projects to bring their views into wider application. Berry and his farming program in Kentucky have recently created an agreement with Sterling College to promote sustainable agriculture. Gatto has a series of lectures and videos on the problems with compulsory schooling as well as alternative methods of education.

I realize that many will greet these ideas as quite radical. Having friends in both agriculture and education, I'm sensitive to that fact and think there are ways we can all work together to reconsider the ways we have all done things over the decades. For me and my family, I'm grateful that the realms of nature, farming, and education so often overlap. For us, education often looks like this:

And this:

And our classroom often looks like this:

And this:

We are very fortunate. But I also wonder, if we would all think about nature and education as not being discrete, segregated entities, but an atmosphere that permeates us all, how different life would be. When next I write, as a related piece, perhaps I will reflect on my time volunteering at the farm that employs my wife. Specifically, that farm has a lot of turkeys. A lot of turkeys. And I have come to see the turkey as a very interesting animal, indeed. So, until next time, which may very well be turkey-time (at least as far as this blog is concerned), take care, and remember, the ways things are is not necessarily the way they have to be.

Protect Kankakee Sands

Before the turn of the twentieth century, Northern Indiana looked quite different. The area was formerly called the Grand Kankakee Marsh, or...

Most Popular Posts of the Past Month