Conserving our self-image

I like birds, as you may notice if you read much around here. I find them fascinating. I’m alternately amazed by and fearful for the complexity of habitats and migratory patterns; I worry about the impact on them of things like wind farms and urban lighting and even overzealous tree-pruning. The brown-headed nuthatch may not be most people’s idea of charismatic megafauna, but I like them.

brown-headed nuthatch
Photo by Anne Davis licensed Creative Commons.

So, not surprisingly, among the many other emails I get from the many other subscriptions I’ve long since come to regret, I get emails now and then about bird science and bird conservation.

This morning I got an email from the Audubon Society with the subject “Preserving America’s Conservation Legacy.” Note the wording: not “conserving America’s natural places” or its natural beauty or natural heritage or even preserving conservation itself but preserving our conservation legacy. Not about protecting birds, but about our proud history of protecting birds, which is not quite the same thing. Continue reading “Conserving our self-image”

One man’s hope is another man’s nightmare

Nine days from Thanksgiving and the leaves still cling to the trees, many of them, even the half-shorn maples still gold and rusty, the oaks just dipping the edges of their leaves into copper. I confess to being buoyed by the sight. Once the leaves are on the ground, once I rake them into piles and see them vacuumed up by sweet sweepers, gone to someone else’s compost, fall is over, whatever the calendar says, and winter, minus the frequent snows of my northern youth and the really biting cold that forces you to remember you’re alive, dammit, is a dreary brown season of freezing rain and mud, its challenges dull, its joys slippery and its comforts of the could be worse variety: “To rest contentedly beside the hearth / while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.” If the great maple outside my study window wants to cling a little while longer to its glorious past, I won’t complain.

Then again, the times being what they are and the internet bringing the world’s facts and fancies instantly to my fingertips, I’m painfully aware why this autumn has such a long tail: The world is growing warmer. Anthropogenic climate change. Impending disaster. My fleeting pleasure at avoiding the annual fate of every human being who ever lived in a temperate climate, the cyclical suffering endured by billions of people over tens of thousands of years, is granted by the same forces threatening to end civilization as we know it and plunge the world into chaos and hot darkness. So I’m told.

It’s hard, on a gorgeous fall day, crisp and clear and sixty degrees, to worry much about what the weather will be in a thousand years. It’s also hard to enjoy the day to the fullest nagged by thoughts of dying honeybees and failing crops and flooded cities and millions upon millions more refugees than we already have in the world. The existence of one truth doesn’t make the other false. To call the one a silver lining cheapens both, and to speak too freely of God’s grace seems flip. At the same time, to don sackcloth and ashes, or to pull my shade and worry up a tweet-storm, does nothing to feed and house the people of 2116 — or of 2016, for that matter.

Better, then, to take a walk and enjoy the day. If that walk can carry me to the grocery store or to church or to eat or have a beer, and thus save a trip in the car, then I’ve avoided a trifling contribution to the thing I’m worried about. If not, I might have the chance for a conversation with a neighbor. At the least I won’t have done any harm, and surely taking the trouble to appreciate the good in what’s here ought to be the starting point for asking what needs changing.

I think, though I am not quite sure, that this is the sort of observation that might begin to help us out of the mess we’re in politically. It is not an end point, but it is a starting point. I don’t expect to find universal salvation in taking walks. But if we don’t know our neighbors and our neighborhoods, all the policies in the world won’t save us. And if we can’t enjoy the days we have, we won’t enjoy the better ones we think we deserve.

The mad farmer, after the election

Every Wednesday, as part of our homeschool curriculum, I read a poem with my daughter. We talk about what it means and whether we like it (and why). Sometimes we analyze it. Then she responds by drawing or painting.

Last week I had intended to read G. K. Chesterton’s “For a War Memorial” in observance of Veteran’s Day and the Feast of St. Martin. But it was the day after the election, and she was upset and worried. So we read, instead, a couple of Wendell Berry’s “mad farmer” poems: “The Mad Farmer Revolution” and “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

the mad farmer plows up the parking lot in front of the polling place
In a parking lot / he planted a forest of little pines.

I think we both felt better afterwards.

Practice resurrection, friends.

The eve of destruction

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., February 28, 2016.

Gospel: Luke 13:1–9

It’s 30 AD, give or take. Galilee is abuzz with the news of yet another atrocity of the despised Roman governor Pontius Pilate—one not related by other historians but perfectly in keeping with what we know about Pilate’s character. The best guess is that a band of Galilean zealots who acknowledged no lord but God and refused to pay tribute to Rome had run afoul of Pilate and been ruthlessly repressed. Pilate has, as we hear, “mingled their blood with their sacrifices” in the Temple. Jesus hears the chatter about this incident—maybe someone tried to trap him into taking a position, as people often did to get him into trouble, into either sympathizing with or condemning the zealots—and instead of commenting on the case at hand, let alone the politics of it, he says, “Do you think they were worse sinners than you? Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

If that doesn’t cheer everybody straight up, Jesus tells a parable. A man plants a fig tree, and for three years running it bears no fruit. He wants to cut it down because it’s a waste of good soil. The gardener says no, no—let’s fertilize it again and wait another year. Maybe it will bear fruit next year.

And if it doesn’t, then we’ll cut it down.

Doesn’t sound like good news.

I mean, you were probably hoping to hear something about God’s infinite goodness and mercy, and here he goes setting deadlines.

It is valuable, I think, to remember that while God’s grace and mercy may be without limit in scope and magnitude, they do seem to have an expiration date: we’re all going to die. Maybe there’s hope after that, but the Bible doesn’t say so. Best not to risk it. You have another year. Make the most of it.

There’s also value in remembering that whatever the quality of God’s grace and mercy, our fellow humans with whom we have relationships may not be so patient. You have today. Make the most of it.

If that’s all we took away from this story, that would be something. It would be a pretty good lesson for Lent. Don’t wait. Repent now. Start atoning today. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

But I think we need a little more than that from this story. I need more from this story, anyway. Jesus was, after all, responding to a discussion about politics—about the terrors of oppressive regime and the foolishness of the zealots who were trying to overthrow it. People were upset, legitimately upset and fearful, and Jesus seems to be frankly dismissive of their fears. I don’t think he was: I think he was answering them—albeit a little sideways. Continue reading “The eve of destruction”

Meat and mystery

Another day, another tale of mystery meat.

Nestle voluntarily recalled two of its Hot Pocket products as part of a larger meat recall….

These products may have been affected by a recall by Rancho Feeding Corp. last week of 8.7 million pounds of beef product.

Regulators said the company processed “diseased and unsound animals” without a full federal inspection, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA says the products were unfit for human consumption.

What, faced with such horror, are the temptations? One is to crawl back under the covers and hide, to gnaw our Hot Pockets in nurtured ignorance. Another is to raise the hue and cry, to demand regulation or retribution, after which (we hope, stupidly) all will again be well. A third is to run away, retreat, withdraw into a culinary monastery of one, refusing to eat anything that might be tainted.

All three temptations lead us wrong. All three reinforce the error that led wrong us in the first place — that raised livestock to disease and unsoundness, hashed them into “beef product,” flavored them with chemicals, wrapped them in pastry and called them dinner.

What is at bottom wrong with our food system is that it indulges our desire to believe ourselves separate, apart, above. Food is grown from mud and shit. Every living thing is nourished by the death of another, or of many others. We rely on an earth we cannot control for our sustenance and on the decency and goodwill of others to bring it to us. Nature is messy. Life is messy.

The supermarket permits none of this. Dinner is chopped, diced, sized, sorted, arranged, flavored, cheerfully labeled, engagingly presented, laboratory-fresh, untouched by human hands, neat and clean and ordered.

Bullshit. Continue reading “Meat and mystery”

Fat(e), free will, and forgiveness

19th-century cartoon of a glutton

A hundred-odd years ago, gluttony was a sin, but fat men could be seen merely as successful. We seem to have reversed the calculus.

Some of the new research on possible causes of obesity is fascinating. New theories emerge continually, many of them at best inconsistent and at worst contradictory. But what interests me more is the debate that research sparks, which seems, at least in the popular arena, to be less about what actually causes obesity than about whose fault it is. It’s a subtle but important difference: the former is (largely, at least) a scientific question; the latter makes it a political or a philosophical one — and is, it seems to me, a thoroughly unhelpful approach. Continue reading “Fat(e), free will, and forgiveness”

Area man still not eating his veggies

Despite pleading and prodding from the feds, kids still won’t eat their veggies. A New York school district has decided to forgo federal funding for school lunches because of complaints about mandated smaller portion sizes and because new rules requiring kids to be served fruits and vegetables was resulting in massive waste:

The school district has decided to not participate in the National School Lunch program, saying recent changes requiring more fruits and vegetables on each tray has resulted in kids throwing the lunches away….

As part of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school lunches now must meet strict federal guidelines to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. Some of the rules include: serving larger portions of fruits and vegetables, offering dark green and deep orange vegetables and legumes every week, using whole grains in half the grains served and reducing salt by 10 percent….

[Superintendent Kay] Salvaggio said in her letter that “our school meals will continue to be nutritious and well-rounded” and that while kids can take a fruit and a vegetable, they won’t be required to do so. Portion sizes will also increase, a reaction to the reduced amount of food allowed under the new federal guidelines.

This would be news, I guess, except that the USDA has been telling Americans to eat their veggies for ninety-six years, and we haven’t listened yet. Did we really think putting them on kids’ trays unasked would work? (Especially if they look like the vegetables the school cafeteria served when I was a kid?)

The thing is, the USDA knows, or at least claims to know, what makes a successful nutrition education program, and they’ve known since the Second World War. Here’s what the Food and Nutrition Service says such a program must do: Continue reading “Area man still not eating his veggies”

A brief history of USDA nutritional advice

The USDA has made a big deal the last couple of years about its “healthy plate” model of good eating, which replaces the old food pyramid, which replaced the four food groups, which replaced… well… I thought a chart might help. Today’s post is a visual history of the USDA’s nutritional advice, showing how food groups and recommended servings have changed over the past century. You may note, first of all, that the government has been telling us to eat more fruits and vegetables since 1916. You may also note that until 1943, sugar was a food group. And you may note still further that despite all this advice, our diets are still crap.

Click the screenshot to view the live “interactive” chart:

screenshot

Redistricting and electoral fairness: the view from Eno precinct

As if the election wasn’t annoying enough, I got redistricted this year here in North Carolina. I haven’t moved, but I’m in a completely different congressional district — or, rather, I will be when the 113th Congress convenes in six weeks or so. I wasn’t nuts about my future-former representative, and I like the new guy considerably less, but in the big picture, it doesn’t make much difference, because they’re both in Congress now, and they’ll both be in Congress come January.

But in the bigger picture, redistricting seems to have made a heck of a difference. Republicans won 9 of North Carolina’s 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives this month. Combined with the state’s vote for Romney, a newly elected Republican governor, and a re-elected majority in both houses of the General Assembly, North Carolina looks like a very red state, yes? In fact, Democrats won a majority of votes cast in North Carolina Congressional elections this year, even while winning less than a third of the available seats. Welcome to the wonderful world of partisan redistricting.

Details, research, and some history after the jump. Continue reading “Redistricting and electoral fairness: the view from Eno precinct”

The angry poet lashes out at his solicitors on election day

Damn you, sirs! My vote is not my voice!
—He cried in futile fury at his email—
As if for quadrennia I silent slumbered
And woke to make myself a number!
A vote is a mere puny choice
Of wan capitulations offered retail:
But my voice is the howl of the lonely wind
Failing to sway the barren trees;
The echo of a squirrel’s endless chatter,
The dove’s meek coo, the storm’s great clatter,
And the hum of a thousand angry bees
That dance in the air with a single mind.
My voice is the song of a crosscut saw,
The crash of canopies rent and torn,
And the requiem for a single leaf that falls
Alighting soundless on the forest floor.
My voice is the horn that blaring saves
The sinking ship from the roaring waves!
The laughter of children in spring-clad sun
And the sigh of a dandelion scattering its seeds!
My voice is the voice — the voice — the voice of a man who needs
A good stiff drink. —And so he had one.