Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Composite Hero

About a year and a half ago, I had the chance to read Steven Rosen's The Jedi in the Lotus, a book about the Hindu symbolism and themes of the Star Wars films. Rosen makes some interesting points in the book and the one I want to concentrate and expand upon in this post is the concept of the "composite hero." The term refers to a group of characters who each strongly exemplify a primary skill or personality trait needed to balance out the others in the group. The members of the group, on their own, are imbalanced or incomplete, but together, they form a unified whole or complete "hero."

The concept of the "composite hero" is a way to think about how narratives like this:

Can be compared to narratives like this:

Rosen, probably drawing on the work of famed Ramayana scholar Robert Goldman, notes that in the Indian epic the characters of Rama, his brother Lakshmana, his wife Sita, and his follower Hanuman (pictured above), all complement and complete one another. (For a quick synopsis of the Ramayanaread this link or, better yet, get this book!) Rama is the paradigmatic leader and king, Lakshmana represents brotherly loyalty, Hanuman stands for strength and devotion, and Sita is the exemplar of faithful womanhood. (Sita's portrayal has been seen as problematic and its cultural meaning is, at the least, debatable.)

Rosen compares the interactions of these characters in the epic to the main heroic ensemble of the original Star Wars. Each of those characters also embodies an archetypal ideal: the maverick mercenary (Han), the enthusiastic youth (Luke), the idealist (Leia), the tough guy (Chewie), the wise mentor (Obi-Wan), and the sidekicks (Threepio and Artoo). Each has his/her own strengths, but when they come together, they create something much stronger than the sum of the parts.

The novel Watership Down, which is one of my absolute favorites to have read with Xander, has much the same dynamic.

The book tells the story of a group of rabbits fleeing a disaster and trying to establish a new warren. For those who haven't read it, the book is remarkably erudite and is in many ways a version of the Aeneid, but for kids...and with rabbits. Hazel is a caring, natural leader, Bigwig is tough and resolute, Bluebell provides humor, Dandelion tells stories for the group, Fiver is a kind of prophet and seer, and so on. None of these rabbits would be able to make it as an individual, but by pooling their talents, they are able to survive and create a new home.

A currently popular mythic narrative speaks to the same sense of composite heroics.

As Nick Fury says in the first Avengers (2012): "There was an idea...called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, to see if they could become something more." Over the course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that's exactly what they do: come together to be something greater than they could be on their own.

Certainly there is no shortage of narratives starring a lone hero who, using only his/her own talents and resourcefulness, accomplishes a goal or succeeds in a quest. Those stories emphasize our desire to feel unique and powerful as individuals. The narrative of the composite hero speaks to a different need: the need to feel like part of a team, as an accepted member of a community. Paradoxically, in these narratives, the characters only find out how talented they are as individulas by discovering how much they need other people. Their uniqueness emerges primarily when they work together with those who contribute very different things.

It may be a stretch, but I wonder if the narrative of the composite hero will become even more popular in times where we experience more and more social alienation. Going back to our roots as a species, we most likely lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers who all contributed, each in their own way, to the survival of the community. In a vastly more aggregated, industrialized society, it can be difficult to see how one's contributions help the greater whole or how one truly stands out in a teeming, faceless crowd. 

We all want to know that we matter and that we have something to offer. The myth of the composite hero offers a very basic, human truth about how to discover what that is: we truly find ourselves in our relationships to other people.

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

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Religion and Music

The last of the anniversary vote-getters is the topic of this post: Religion and Music. Music has always had a central role in religious practice. The earliest worship scriptures we have (namely the 1500 BCE Vedic writings from South Asia) are hymns. In other words, they are songs. Prior to that, certain ancient Mesopotamian writings make clear the role of music in reaching out to the deities they worshiped. There are those who argue that music is inherently religious, while others argue that music created religion, or vice versa. That's a debate for another time  - it's clear the two have long been interrelated, and will continue to be.

What I want to do here is look at some of the ways religious ideas have been employed in popular music from the last few decades, particularly in songs that (for one reason or another) I have personally found compelling. There are prominent examples I won't do much with, like Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" or Joan Osborne's "What if God was One of Us?" not because they're bad songs, but they just never really spoke to me.

The first example, for both the song and its video, is Madonna's (controversial) "Like a Prayer" from 1989. The video is below and the lyrics are here.

While some saw the song and video as blending the sacred with the profane and showing how sexuality could be sacred (even comparing it to the Biblical Song of Songs), others saw the video and its use of Christian imagery as blasphemous, including the pope at the time, John Paul II.

In other cases, songs use religious imagery or ideas to critique society. One such example, also from the late 1980s, is Motley Crue's "Wild Side." Supposedly, bassist and lead songwriter Nikki Sixx wrote the song as a twisting and inversion of the Lord's Prayer to describe life on the pitiless streets of Los Angeles. Read the lyrics and see for yourself.

Some bands employ religious imagery over and over in their songs, like U2. We could talk about "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Mysterious Ways, " "If God will Send His Angels," for Christian imagery or, I would argue, "Beautiful Day" or "Walk On" for Zen Buddhist inspirations. However, I have always enjoyed one of the band's lesser known and rougher-edged tunes: "The Fly." Off Achtung Baby, the song was conceived of as a message sent from a demon or a trickster figure suffering in Hell. Read the lyrics and take a listen.

I enjoy everything about the song, from how the distorted guitars match the distorted thoughts, to the switch between high-voiced choruses and snarling verses, to the soaring guitar solo. The greatest part, though, is the philosophical: the singer ("the Fly" persona) offers many compelling and persuasive aphorisms, but he is, after all, a denizen of Hell. Is he being insightful and offering sincere advice, or is this just another attempt at deceit? I used to think of the song every time I taught Othello in Core 4, since that combination of insight and deceit perfectly summarizes Iago. Whichever it is, we get some of my favorite lyrics of all time about the experience of writing or any other kind of creative endeavor: "Every artist is a cannibal / Every poet is a thief / All kill their inspiration / And sing about the grief." 

One final example evokes, in both its ebullience and its lyrics, the sentiment with which we started: music itself is a kind of religion as it gives rise to spiritual, transcendent feelings. This is the song "Ever Tear Drop is a Waterfall" by Coldplay. Read the lyrics and take a listen.

The song talks about how the beat of the music melds with the narrator's pulse, puts "Heaven in sight" and lights up the "Cathedrals in my heart." That's a beautiful image for how music and religion connect with one another, not to mention our own vitality. Beyond that, I've always found this song to be particularly inspirational. Whenever I'm down, I like to think I'm only "in the gap between the two trapeze" -- whatever it is, it's just a blip and I'll catch hold in a minute. In addition, I love the mind-blowing Zen-like quality of saying that "Every siren is a symphony / And every tear's a waterfall."

Religious experience is often defined as "ecstatic," which derives from Greek literally as "standing outside oneself." If you've ever been to your favorite band's concert and felt part of something bigger than yourself as the crowd cheers, or just been compelled to dance at home alone to a catchy song, can't we say that's being pulled "outside oneself"? Whenever we do, we enact what humans have known since the beginning: music and religion go together.

What are your favorite songs that deal with religious topics, images, or themes? What music gives you a transcendent feeling? Feel free to comment to this blog or at Facebook. Until the next time, take care.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Black Panther: the Poison of Anger and the Need for Justice

As has happened in the past, a topic has captured my interest to supersede my regularly scheduled blogging subject. (Don't worry, "Religion and Music" will have its day.)

This past week I (finally) had the chance to see Black Panther, the story of a superhero from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and it was as epic as everyone has been saying. This is a tale of truly mythic proportions, all with a resonating social conscience. There is a great deal I think this movie can teach us about how festering anger, even righteous anger, can destroy the good along with the bad. Simultaneously, it points out the need to recognize the egregious mistakes committed in the name of "tradition." These points are primarily carried out in the contrast between T'Challa (a.k.a "Black Panther") and N'Jadaka ("Killmonger"), which evokes (to me, at least) nothing less than the grand complexity of the Indian epic Mahabharata.

Before we get to that, though, there are a couple of other items worthy of note in this film. (Be careful if you haven't seen it yet, because I may give away spoilers.)

First, in what may be an unpopular statement, Black Panther's portrayal of its female characters vastly surpasses what you find in other superhero films, up to and including Wonder Woman.

From the elite warriors of the Dora Milaje (led by the fierce Okoye), to the scientist Shuri, to Queen Ramonda, to the resourceful Nakia, these are rich, multifaceted, self-determined people who are actually the ones to put things back together at a crucial moment when all seems broken. Having just re-watched Wonder Woman recently, the female characters in Black Panther seem far more multidimensional, and thus more empowering.

Second, I was rather taken aback to hear the character M'Baku ("Man-Ape" in the comics) say "Glory to Hanuman" prior to a ritual fight.

Hanuman is an Indian religious figure, not African. I wonder why the filmmakers would select Hanuman as the patron of the Jabari ape clan when there were ape figures in African mythology, such as A'ani of Egypt or Ghekre of the Baule in the Ivory Coast. Whatever the reason, they found it necessary to censor the use of Hanuman's name for distribution in India.

Third, as I blogged about a while back, there is a complicated relationship between fathers and sons, and Black Panther expertly delves into that territory. This isn't anything new for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or obviously the comics, for that matter). A recurrent aspect of the Thor movies is the hero coming to terms with Odin's expectations, and failures. Tony Stark also deals with father issues, as shown in Iron Man 2 and Captain America: Civil War. That the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken the care to create a multi-generational narrative is impressive, and something that (as I have noted before) puts it in touch with other world mythologies.

As I  mentioned above, one myth that Black Panther powerfully resembles is the Hindu Mahabharata, specifically how the past histories and antagonism between the characters Karna and Arjuna parallel N'Jadaka and T'Challa. In Mahabharata, the young woman Kunti becomes pregnant -- via an incantation -- with the sun god Surya's child. Fearing what will become of her and the child since she is not married, Kunti abandons the baby, who grows up to be Karna. Later, Kunti marries Pandu, who allows her to use the incantation again, giving birth to five other sons, one of whom is Arjuna, fathered by the god Indra. Arjuna grows up in royal splendor as a celebrated figure in the warrior class. Karna is also a worthy warrior, but given the ignorance of his parentage, he is denied the respect and honors that are his right. He grows up resenting and hating the Pandavas, especially Arjuna, and when the war for the right to rule the kingdom begins, Karna sides with the Pandavas' deadly enemies. The enmity between Karna and Arjuna builds to a fever pitch until, in the last days of the war (and in an act that is not his most honorable), Arjuna kills Karna while the latter's chariot wheel is stuck in the mud.

Karna is an unquestionably tragic figure. He is filled with rage because his life was ruined by forces outside of his control. He was treated unfairly all his life, first by his mother, then the impersonal constraints of hereditary social class, then by his own half-brothers.

N'Jadaka, the antagonist in Black Panther, has just as much reason to be angry. He can also easily be interpreted as a tragic figure.

After his father was killed by T'Challa's father, N'Jadaka was left to grow up amid American poverty, discrimination, and institutionalized racism. During this time, his anger (toward global oppression, T'Challa's father, T'Challa himself, and Wakanda in general) only festers and intensifies. He learns combat skills and becomes a lethal, remorseless murderer nicknamed "Killmonger," all as part of a plot to return to Wakanda and exact vengeance on all who've wronged him. Killmonger is entirely justified in his anger, but his plan (to spread Wakanda's weapons across the world and spark dozens of insurrections and wars) would only metastasize his pain throughout the globe, not to mention reproduce the problematic colonialist policy he decries.

T'Challa faces his own issues with anger and vengeance, but to a degree he has conquered some of those inner demons after hunting down his father's killer in Captain America: Civil War. You can see his transformation in the clip below.

Even with this character growth, Killmonger at first proves to be more powerful, overthrowing and nearly killing T'Challa. While he hovers between life and death, T'Challa encounters his father and his other ancestors. Now, knowing that his father killed N'Jadaka's father and abandoned the young boy to poverty and discrimination in America, just as Wakanda has abandoned the world through its isolationism, T'Challa comes to an epiphany you can watch in the clip below.

This epiphany restores T'Challa strength, physically as well as morally. Prior to that, he had been an apologist for his father and the Wakandan way, but now he recognizes all of their omissions, shortcomings, and crimes. Though T'Challa and N'Jadaka have not had their rematch yet, this scene decides the outcome for it inverts the relationship between the characters. Previously, N'Jadaka possessed the greater moral claim due to the wrongs he suffered and T'Challa's refusal to acknowledge them. However, N'Jadaka forfeits that claim by following a destructive path equivalent to the name "Killmonger." He has allowed his anger to make him cruel, vindictive, and oblivious to how he has become just like those he hates. On the other hand, when T'Challa shows the willingness to question and challenge his own society's assumptions and criticize it where it must rightly be criticized, he truly becomes "Black Panther" again and regains the moral high ground.

Black Panther has much to teach us about how to deal with injustice. N'Jadaka is completely justified in his outrage, but by myopically seeking vengeance, he loses himself to the identity of Killmonger. To paraphrase my colleague Rob Reuter, holding onto to anger is like drinking poison and expecting it to hurt someone else. Clinging to rage only corrodes your soul and turns you into that which you despise.

At the same time, it is naive and unreasonable to expect those who've been wronged to "just get over it." In Mahabharata, Kunti reaches out to Karna and entreats him to join his brothers and simply forget all of the wrongs done to him. Karna refuses, and I don't blame him: without Kunti acknowledging the impact of her actions or the Pandavas questioning their hereditary privilege, what reason does Karna have to join them? In contrast, after defeating Killmonger, T'Challa takes him to see his first Wakandan sunset, something he'd dreamed of as a child left in America.

T'Challa then offers to heal him so that he live the rest of his days in Wakanda. To me, these gestures are far more meaningful than Kunti's, as T'Challa honestly acknowledges Killmonger's grievances. This also makes T'Challa a more appealing character than Arjuna, who never shows Karna any sort of mercy. In the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna does question his society's warrior orthodoxy in the way T'Challa questions the ways of his Wakandan ancestors. However, Arjuna's concerns are ultimately satisfied and he reverts to his prior perspective. T'Challa is forever changed and sets about reforming his society. Killmonger, on the other hand, cannot bring himself to change. He is not capable of responding to T'Challa's offer. Anger has consumed him and he lets himself die rather than contemplate any other way of living.

That part of the film haunts me. What if Killmonger had chosen instead to transcend his anger, go with T'Challa, and embrace his heritage as N'Jadaka? What could the two of them have built together? What could we do if we all acknowledge our anger, admit to our injustices, and then rebuild as one? What would that be like? If Killmonger had just let go of his anger and hate, they could have built a new Wakanda together. Now, all they have is a sunset.

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

This Blog Will Eat Your Brain! (Or, the Mythology of Zombies)

Holding true to my promise, the topic for this post is the second-highest vote recipient of the anniversary election: Zombies!

The image above is from George Romero's film Night of the Living Dead (1968), one of the very first zombie movies ever made. Admittedly, the zombie has never been one of my favorite monsters to think about or study. They've only emerged to wander lethargically through my imagination quite recently, and due entirely to my sons' discovery of a certain computer game.

They seemed so taken with the muttering, shuffling, vacant-eyed creatures that I started to wonder what all the fuss was about. Zombies have certainly become famous, from World War Z to The Walking Dead to Zombie Apocalypse games and speculations. But what exactly is a "zombie" and where does the figure come from?

At root, a zombie is a reanimated corpse. In world mythology, the Egyptian god Osiris, killed by his brother Set and revived by his wife Isis, is an ancient example of a figure coming back from the dead. He is never quite the same, though, and is only able to live in the underworld, where he serves as its ruler.

In Celtic Irish myth, there is a creature called a marbh bheo, which is a human come back to life, but only for a select period of time, such as samhain (what we call "Halloween," the New Year's Eve of the Celtic calendar). The marbh bheo could eat, drink, dance, and even exact revenge for grievances experienced during life. But they could not speak, lest they divulge the secrets of what lies beyond death.

The region most associated with the Zombie myth, though, is the Caribbean, particularly Haiti and the greatly misunderstood religion of Vodun (sometimes called "Voodoo"). Put briefly, Vodun arose from the mix of West African traditions, Catholicism, and the brutality of the slave experience in the Caribbean. Vibrant rituals and personal connections to figures in a wide pantheon of gods (called loa) characterize Vodun. (As an aside, I have always found Baron Samedi to be one of the more intriguing loas. Perhaps the picture below will give some indication as to why.)

He has some interesting similarities to the Hindu god Shiva, and perhaps one day I will blog about those comparisons.

Anyways, amid the complexities of Vodun, legends grew of how bokor (priest-figures) could use their own powers or draw on the powers of the loa to transform the recently dead (or the still living) into mindless servants. In that way, the slave-master dynamic is acted out once more, but to the advantage of those historically oppressed. Some thoughtful pieces have been dedicated to sorting out this sad, forgotten part of the zombie myth.

Could there be such a thing as an actual zombie? To answer that question, we must come to terms with the fascinating story of Clairvius Narcisse, potentially a real life "zombie." Clairvius was thought to have died in Haiti in the early 1960s from a mysterious illness. His family buried him and that, supposedly, was that. One day in 1980, however, he wandered into his sister's village, dazed and confused. Over time, his memory returned to him and he recounted being given a strange powder by a bokor. He claimed that his "death" was really just a kind of coma and the bokor and others later exhumed him from the grave and shuffled him between employers as a field laborer for almost two decades. The whole time, Clairvius said, he was given more of the powder, which kept him in a foggy, hazy, and compliant mental state. Only when the powder wore off could he escape.

Could it be true? If so, what might be in the mysterious powder? Wade Davis, a Harvard-trained ethnobotanist, has long argued that the answer lies not in magic or religion, but neuro-toxicology. Davis suggests that the zombie myth, especially as it appears in Haiti, can be explained by a toxin (called "tetrodotoxin") present in certain plants and some fish. When harvested from these sources and administered at a sub-lethal dose, the toxin impairs metabolism and the parts of the brain that govern speech and willpower. Hence, you get a shuffling, mumbling, compliant servant - in other words, a zombie.

Both the story of Clairvius Narcisse and the findings of Wade Davis are controversial. Putting aside the question of whether zombies are "real" or not, we are still left with the question of why they are seemingly everywhere now in popular culture.  Whether it's terrifying zombies (like 28 Days Later) or silly zombies (Shaun of the Dead), the figure has certainly evolved, but its prominence appears to be growing.  Why?

In the wonderful phrase coined by scholar Judith Halberstam, "Monsters are meaning machines." In other words, monsters are closely connected to the times they represent, expressing the particular thoughts, fears, anxieties, animosities, and so forth of the period in which they appear. A perfect example is Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, which is a tapestry of Victorian England's repressed tumult over issues of class, race, and gender. Similarly, the original Japanese movie Godzilla (1954) is a poignant and visceral treatment of the horrors of atomic warfare. What do zombies embody that make them a meaningful monster for the current cultural moment?

The most persuasive argument I uncovered in the course of researching this blog is that zombies represent total societal and moral breakdown. They are a marauding, speechless, senseless, irrational, random force that threatens to consume you and turn you into one of them. A time of failing economies, environmental devastation, and perpetual war and strife is a moment when the threats to civilization are global and dispersed rather than specific. In that situation, the zombie, a monster that symbolizes the utter breakdown of civilization, would be popular.

That's all for the zombie, for now. Next time, I tackle the third highest vote recipient: religion and music. Until then, take care.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Real-Life Monsters

Today marks the one year anniversary of my very first blog. Happy birthday, Forest Dweller Thoughts! It's been an interesting year, quite unlike any other in my life and the blog has served as creative and personal catharsis many times over. Thank you to everyone who's been reading it. I appreciate being able to bend your ear from time to time.

There will be a little more retrospective at the end. First though, as followers of my affiliated Facebook page know, I held a contest to decide the topic of this anniversary post. The top vote-getter: "Real-Life Monsters." So, you wanted it, here you go!

As former students will recall, the study of monsters has figured prominently in my academic research. Over the last twenty years, a group of interdisciplinary scholars have developed something called "monster theory," which purports to analyzes myths and stories of monsters from around the globe. In a class once, I asked what people thought the key ingredient was for being a monster. "Scary," was the answer. The academic study of monsters tries to delve down into what accounts for that. Some of the cross-cultural characteristics of monstrosity include deformity, anthropophagy ("eating people") or violence, representing the wilderness, and association with the night. All of these things break fundamental social or psychological categories. Monsters scare us because they represent breaks in what we consider to be the natural order of the community or the world.

What one defines as the "natural order" thus determines what is a monster, so monstrosity can be relative, making it an interesting point of cultural comparison. Examples that I've dealt with in my various courses have included the likes of Greek mythic beasts, Ravana from Hinduism, Bram Stoker's "Dracula," Lovecraft's "Cthulhu," and, the subject of my forthcoming book, the Buddhist god/demon Mara. In the blog, I've written about other kinds of beasts, like the Hodag of Wisconsin and the religious imagery of the Mothman of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. All of these beings are fictional, though. Are there biological organisms that actually fit the "monster paradigm"? What are the most physically impressive/unusual (which sounds better than "deformed"), violent, or wild? What organisms most challenge our current natural or mental categories?

There were clearly such creatures in the planet's past. There was the South American arctotherium, a bear that weighed two tons and stood eleven feet tall, and the shastasaurus, a marine predator sixty-five feet long. This is in addition to the usual speculation about the largest carnivorous dinosaurs. But what about the creatures of today? What animals have the right combination of unsettling abilities or habits to label them "monsters"?

One that comes to mind is the Komodo dragon.

As the article linked above describes, this is the heaviest lizard on earth. They're ten feet long weigh at least three hundred pounds. They dart quickly at their prey and bite with serrated teeth while their venom glands release a potent toxin into the victim's flesh. Rather than wrestle the prey down, the Komodo then steps back and lets the venom do its work. The toxin contains an anti-coagulant and a sedative, so the prey tries to escape, but slowly falls into shock. Komodos have been known to patiently follow their prey, often for miles, ghoulishly waiting until it collapses.

Komodos don't really attack humans, but the same cannot be said for the Botfly.

The Botfly makes its living by laying its eggs on a mammalian host. The body heat causes the eggs to hatch into maggots, which burrow into the host's flesh to feed. They pupate within the host, then drop out to the ground to continue their life-cycle as mature flies. Yes, this can happen to humans and, as argued by Matt Kaplan in Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: the Science of Monsters, such real-life parasites may have inspired a very popular fictional monster, the "xenomorph" (literally, "strange form") of the Aliens movies.

Moving out into the ocean, researchers have only just recently confirmed the existence of two massive species of squid. There is the giant squid (architeuthis), which is found in every ocean of the world.

This species can be as much as thirty feet in length. In the seas of the Antarctic, though, lurks the mesonychoteuthis, the "colossal squid," which grows to be more than forty feet in length and possesses the largest eyes ever recorded in the animal kingdom at sixteen inches in diameter. (That's about as big as a beach ball.)

While the giant squid has suction cups on its tentacles, the colossal squid has razor-sharp hooks. Don't get into a tickle fight with one of these things!

This is a place where myth and science meet, as the concept of a gigantic cephalopod roaming the oceans first took the form of the monstrous kraken, known from Greek myths and also literary works such as Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. If a mythic monster like the Kraken could be proven real, who knows what else exists out there?

In case you were wondering, I passed up discussion of creatures like the python and the great white shark since they are already fairly well known, and the actual human deaths caused by these creatures are in the single digits annually. Do you know what organism is responsible for the most human deaths each year?

Through transmission of disease, the tiny mosquito reliably kills about three quarters of a million people around the world every year.

The fact that a little insect can wreak that much havoc tells us something about what it means to be a monster. The point of monsters is not their size or their violence, but really their attachment to the unknown. The word "monster" comes from the Latin monstrare, "to reveal." A "monster" is literally a "revelation," a de-monstration of what we do not yet understand. Each of the creatures I picked to talk about somehow represents the unknown, and it is the unknown, more than anything else, that truly frightens us.

And it was being thrust into the unknown that initially inspired me to go on this blogging journey. It's been a great journey this past year. The freedom to write what I want and make the connections my mind wants to make has really reinvigorated my love of writing. Based solely on the number of views, some topics did not resonate much (like World Warschildren's books, and philosophical perspective), which is fine because I still enjoyed writing them. In other cases, I was pleasantly surprised by the popularity of some posts. Ones about John Taylor Gatto and Wendell Berrythe sport of archery  and turkeys captured a fair amount of attention. The post opposing the Beaver Lake CAFO garnered a whole other level of attention, but the most viewed post was still Ghosts, about my time working with the Phoenix Team in Drexel Hall.

So, what will year two bring? Zombies, for one, since that was the second highest vote recipient. At times there will be more of the same, with comparisons of myth and popular culture, but all I can really guarantee is unpredictability. As I wrote in my very first post, the title for this blog (the "Forest Dweller") is someone who has left behind old, comfortable trappings to explore what is new. One thing I have learned over the past year is that we are always engaged in that process, whether we know it or not.

Writing these posts has been a fun journey. Thanks for coming with me. Until next time, take care.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Controlled Burn

Humans have always had a complicated relationship with fire. Ever since our species harnessed fire, which according to some estimates could have been as early as 1.5 million years ago, we have felt ambivalent toward its power. There is something fascinating but also terrifying about the crackle and roar of the flames. 

Though I've only recently had the chance to write about it, fire has been on my mind since my family and I volunteered at a prescribed burn of the Frog's Glory property of NICHES Land Trust, near Delphi. Here I am with a "flapper" (a pole with a large piece of rubber on the end, used for stamping out flames) monitoring the fire-line.

Being part of that project was an exhilarating experience. The teamwork required to orchestrate the burn and ensure that the flames were extensive enough to cover the prescribed area but also limited enough to forestall risk to homeowners was quite impressive. After several minutes of setting fires in the brush and watching wavering lines of flame creep their way inward and outward, there was a moment when the prairie caught and leaping tongues of fire soared into the air. In that instant, I had an inkling of what ancient humans might have thought upon seeing the true power of fire for the first time.

It's no accident that fire occupies a central place in early human religiosity. In Indian Vedic practice, the god of fire was "Agni" (whose Sanskrit name is related to our English word "ignition") and ritual sacrifices were offered to his gaping, flaming maw as a way of transmitting gifts (through the smoke) to the celestial homes of the other gods above. 

Pele, the fire goddess of Hawai'an mythology, was thought to have been the creator of the island. She is still referred to as a cultural figure and long strands of glass formed from volcanic heat are referred to as "Pele's hair."

In this case, fire symbolizes culture, civilization, and human advancement. In Indian mythology, fire has tended to connote desire, anger, and power. (Just refresh yourself on the topic with one of my previous blogs.) In one of my favorite Hindu myths of all time (found in many versions, but look up Kumarasambhava or the Shiva Purana if you can), the god of desire (Kama) tries to disturb the ascetic Shiva's meditation with thoughts of lust. Shiva notices the disturbance, becomes enraged, and incinerates Kama, as you can see below.

The torrent of fire, however, demonstrates that despite destroying Kama's body (his spirit, as the disembodied essence of desire lives on), Shiva did not win the encounter because he literally exploded with anger. (Whenever I would teach this incident, I couldn't help but reference the appropriate Blue Oyster Cult song.)

In terms of ecology, humans have come a long way in understanding the role of fire in keeping the land healthy. From its inception in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service policy was to suppress any and all fires, and certainly not to start any of their own. This policy actually led to worse incidents, as dead wood and fuel built up to make more intense and uncontrollable wildfires. Research in the 1960s led to a change in mentality with the realization that some eco-systems are dependent on fire to renew themselves and allow native plants to maintain their hold. Within reason, sometimes you just have to let things burn. 

This new appreciation for fire accounts for prescribed burns like the one we participated in. Jeanette has taken some transfixing photos of such burns. Here are just a few of the more mesmerizing.

The sun, peering through the haze:

A tower of smoke and flame:

Xander, making his way through the burnt-out landscape. (It looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie):

Looking again at the metaphorical and mythological aspect, in Jeannette Walls' memoir The Glass Castle, she uses fire multiple as a metaphor to describe the moments in her life that danced between "turbulence and order." I think this is a good explanation for humanity's simultaneous fear and fascination with fire, and its persistent use in mythology. As the Shiva story shows above, perhaps the raging fires in the world outside remind us of the churning fire within each of us, whether it is anger or some other emotion, that makes every individual oscillate between inner turbulence and order. Just as the U.S. Forest Service learned that withholding fire only led to worse fires later on, bottling up one's emotions can have the same effect. It could be that "prescribed burns" are good ecology and psychology. 

On the lighter side, even in the midst of an intense prescribed burn, sometimes you just have to catch some shade under your flapper.

The next blog post will mark the one year anniversary of Forest Dweller Thoughts. Besides the next topic (which I might leave up to a vote on my Facebook page), I will offer some one-year retrospective thoughts. Until then, take care.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Life is Pain

Due to a chronic health condition, I've been thinking a lot about pain lately. Particularly, about how to deal with pain, about what persistent pain does to the body and the mind, about how it colonizes your thoughts and has you continually looking over your shoulder awaiting its onset or return. The First Noble Truth of the Buddha states (in the Pali language) sarvam dukkham - "All is pain." Some have translated this to mean, "Life is suffering," but I prefer the more literal translation that "all is pain." As a non sequitur, I was really surprised to see this line appear in the movie The Princess Bride. If you don't believe me, here's the clip:

Anyways, the Buddha argued that pain is the great leveler of human experience: there is no person who will avoid sickness, aging, and death. Seeing firsthand the pervasiveness of such pain, as depicted in the temple mural below, is supposedly what drove Siddhartha Gautama to undertake the spiritual journey that led him to become the Buddha.

Of course, there are those who endure far more than others, who are wracked with constant pain and disability throughout life, to the point where they are veritably imprisoned in a damaged cage of a body. What would it be like to be trapped in a physical form consisting of unremitting pain or, alternatively, one that is robbed of sensation, that has lost the ability to respond to one's commands? Not long ago, we lost Stephen Hawking, who endured the ravages of Lou Gehrig's Disease to produce brilliant insights into the workings of the universe. A few years back, I watched the film version of his life, The Theory of Everything. In the heartbreaking scene below, he fantasizes about performing the simplest action -- picking up a pen -- that is beyond his broken body, yet in the midst of that thought, delivers

Is that the key to living with pain - "However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at." Certainly there are many examples of those who've overcome pain or disability to achieve great things. Think of Helen Keller, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, or someone like Christopher Reeve, who brought prominence and dignity to the issue of spinal paralysis. In the following clip from several years ago, he connects with a fan who has also suffered paralysis.

Years ago, while teaching a course on science and the human condition, we read an article about Brooke Hopkins, a retired English professor from the University of Utah who broke his neck while mountain biking. Discussing the daily mechanical interventions needed to prolong his life and reading the descriptions of the constant physical torment he endures, I could not escape the recurrent, shameful thought, "thank goodness I'm not him."

But as Reeve points out in the clip, that is false comfort. As the Buddha saw, life is pain. Infirmity, illness, and death are the great predators that inevitably catch us all. We are all one freak accident or unexpected illness away from a changed life.

So, what's to be done? I am not sure, but my mind goes back to something I saw about two months ago. My wife and I stayed at a Bed and Breakfast in Valparaiso where you could birdwatch through beautiful picture windows and listen to the bird songs via microphones. There was a little bird we saw with a deformed, diseased eye. It could not fly as high or as fast as the other birds. Surely it would be preyed upon or dead by the next day, we thought. The next morning, though, it was back. And both days, it sang. Singing is an instinctive, territorial response in most birds, so this was not an expression of happiness or pleasure, as many people sometimes take it. But, despite its pain and disability, the bird kept on doing what it was driven to do. Could I be that strong? Hawking and Reeve and others have been able to push on and do remarkable things despite the traumas they suffered. They, as perhaps we all should aspire to, "sang" in their own ways and in the face of a life that is pain.

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.

The Composite Hero

About a year and a half ago, I had the chance to read Steven Rosen's The Jedi in the Lotus , a book about the Hindu symbolism and themes...

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