Wednesday, May 30, 2007
But remembering isn’t the same as doing. It’s no wonder that Cindy Sheehan is weary of all the promises and flurry of activity among Democrats and others about ending our involvement in Iraq. As the casualties continue to mount daily, we keep hearing that if we want to Support The Troops, we must remain silent.
The "support the troops" line has worried me from the very beginning of the Iraq War, with the proliferation of car magnets, ribbons, and bumper stickers. It has always been, now and during Viet Nam, a paper banner meant to cover and dispose of any questions about the way a war is being waged and its purposes.
Yes, I understand full well the sensitivity about the need for respect for those who serve, the wounded and dead, and those who mourn for losses, living and dead. During all but the very end of the Viet Nam war, I was living in my hometown, a blue collar community where friends, neighbors, and acquaintances were hit hard by casualties, since few had college deferments or means to escape the draft and many chose to volunteer. Our city was also in the shadow of one of the nation's largest naval training centers, which meant many new recruits circulated in the community (us teenaged girls warned to stay away, though many were well-mannered, thoughtful young men) and some of my school classmates had one or both parents employed as civilians working for the military. The discussions we had throughout high school about the war were necessarily tempered by the knowledge that those around us had been personally affected.
Yet, when I ventured elsewhere among the suburban elite (summer school one year and another a National Science Foundation summer program at a Chicago museum), I discovered that young, angry war protesters, while maybe too polite to spit or heckle at returning soldiers, just didn't "get" that the soldiers were not the ones responsible for the war or the way it was being waged. Later in college in the hometown of Senator Joe McCarthy, I knew some students who would go into town to get coffee at a diner for the sole purpose of making fun of the "rednecks" who frequented it. In those days, anti-war sentiment was all too often tinged with moral smugness and disregard for those who lived and died by their own notions of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice.
While there has been some controversy in recent years as to whether the climate in our country during the Viet Nam war years was as hostile to servicemen as our popular culture later remembered it (see The Spitting Image), no doubt much of it was real. But instead of really learning from the divisions that tore us apart in the 1960’s and 1970’s and the folly of the imperialistic enterprise that caused them, all we seem to have gleaned from it is some hazy collective guilt that got put into the easy container of the “Support the Troops” slogan. Instead of keeping our minds fresh with the knowledge of the dignity and worth of each person who serves in the military, it seems to have worked only to have given us mass amnesia about how swaggering national pride can lead us to needless, wasteful death and destruction.
How tragic it will be if, like Viet Nam, the U.S. involvement in the Iraq war will only end when the number of our casualties reaches a number so high that the public cannot take it anymore and will finally find, somewhere, somehow, a political figure who will talk tough, claim victory, and order an “honorable” troop withdrawal, long, long after everyone knew that reasons for the war were a sham and that our efforts to restore peace and order were worse than futile. But how many more will have to die first while we protect our pride and our slogans?
Monday, May 28, 2007
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
I’ve been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – A Year of Food Life (HarperCollins 2007). I’m a great fan of her fiction, including The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, and The Poisonwood Bible. Fiction, however, is a misnomer. She writes the truth, about love, community, visions, dreams, and the natural world.
This latest book is an account of how she and her family lived for a year in their Appalachian home eating only food that they either produced themselves or was produced by local farmers. It also tells the larger story of how industrial agricultural practices combined with marketing and oil-guzzling transport is threatening is drastically reducing plant and animal species so as to lose resistance to disease and accomodations to local conditions, threaten our immediate physical health, and the long-term future of human survival.
It’s a message few us probably want to hear. That may explain a crude, satirical cartoon version of the book, painting it with the old myth that fresh food, organically grown is the rare privilege of the elite. [See PJ, May 21, 2007, never mind how the entire book explains in considerable detail why this is not and should not be so. The point is not to get us all to grow our own 21st century Victory Gardens or even to make vegetables and free animal meat and eggs the mainstays of our diet (though clearly that would not be a bad thing). It is to open our eyes to the insane, unnecessary extravagance of growing too much of a few crops, like corn and soy, on an industrial scale, with massive government subsidies for both the producers and the oil industry, the rapid elimination of genetic diversity among our main crops, and increasingly poorer health for us all as we consume more and more of less and less nutritious foods at a huge cost for both the present and future.
There is much to be gleaned from the book, but the following are a few excerpts, which may whet your appetite for more:
First, the book opens with Barbara’s family leaving Tucson, where they have lived for many years. The area is experiencing a drought – not normal, dry desert weather, but a severe shortage of the little rain to which they are accustomed. As they leave town, they encounter a young woman working as a cashier who scowls at the dark clouds outside and says she hopes it will not rain because she is soon to be off work and she wants to wash her car. She, like many of us these days, reflect a deep disconnect between our human-centered, contemporary U.S. culture and the natural world around us, even or maybe especially when it impacts us directly. Later on Kingsolver reflects and remarks:
It’s not a trivial difference: praying for or against rainfall during a drought. You can argue that wishes don’t count, but humans are good at making our own dreams manifest and we do, historically speaking, get what we wish for. What are the just deserts for a species too selfish or preoccupied to hope for rain when the land outside is dying? Should we buried under the topsoil in our own clean cars, to make room for wiser creatures?
p. 8, Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins 2007).
Although one might have expected that the 21st century would have taken us towards greater scientific knowledge and understanding of the world around us, the fact that we are so far removed from the natural world seems to be working in the opposite direction. We no longer have to wait for vegetables to come in season, as we take for granted that they come to us in the grocery store all year round from all over the world. Even more telling are the flowers that armies of landscapers bring fully grown into and out of our public spaces, with no sense of natural growth or progression. Our ability to meet our demands for instant gratification, enabled by science and fueled by oil, seems to have lead us backwards, not forwards, in our understanding of the world around us:
The same disconnection from natural processes may be at the heart of our country’s shift away from believing in evolution. In the past, principles of natural selection and change over time made sense to kids who’d watched it all unfold. Whether or not they knew the terms, farm families understood the processes well enough to imitate them: culling, selecting, and improving their herds and crops. For modern kids who intuitively believe in the spontaneous generation of fruits and vegetables in the produce section, trying to get their minds around the slow speciation of the plant kingdom may be a stretch.
p. 11, Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins 2007).
Human manners are wildly inconsistent; plenty of people before me have said so. but this one takes the cake: the manner in which we’re allowed to steal from future generations, while commanding them not to do that to us, and rolling our eyes at anyone who is tediously PC enough to point this out. The consipicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spirtual error, or even bad manners.
Our culture is not unacquainted with the idea of food as a spirtually loaded commodity. We’re just particular about which spiritual arguments we’ll accept as valid for declining certain foods. Generally unacceptable resons: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Acceptable: it’s prohibited by a holy text. Set down a platter of country ham in front of a rabbi, an imam, and a Buddhist monk, and you may have just conjured three different versions of damnation. Guests with high blood pressure may add a fourth. Is it such a stretch, then, to make moral choices about food based on the global consquences of its production and transport? In a country where 5 percent of the world’s population glugs down a quarter of all the fuel, also belching out that much of the world’s waste and pollution, we’ve apparently made big choices about consumption. They could be up for review.
p. 67, Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins 2007).Ironically, the old dietary laws seem to be the only ones that so-called orthodox Christians are willing to ignore based on the supposed protections brought about by sceintific methods of processing and testing of meat and seafood. Yet, even with these, we seem unable to look to the spirit of the laws and enact new ones based on present conditions.
For a report on Barbara Kingsolver’s talk at the National Cathedral, see Episcopal Café, Daily Episoplian, May 3, 2007
Accidentally On Purpose
Some days I’m not sure which I find more amazing – the lengths to which some religionists will go to disclaim science, or the lengths that some atheists will go to disclaim religion in the name of science. It seems like the one thing they can agree on is that the “supernatural” is at the heart of their differences. One believes that God is, by definition and essence, supernatural, and any other understanding or profession of belief in he, she, or it, is non-religion; the other believes that science leaves no reasonable possibility that the supernatural exists and that only science can disclose the truth about both humans and the physical world they live in and of which they are inextricably a part.
Despite this kind of talk, a great many people go happily on with their lives finding truth and meaning in both science and religion, with little or no concern about what some view as the contradiction. One does not need to trash science to not only believe in but to know, feel, and experience God. Nor does one need to repudiate religion to fully engage in scientific thoughts and endeavors.
Some might chalk this all up to what has been called, in a different context, Bioconceptualism:
Biconceptualism makes sense from the perspective of the brain and the mechanism of neural computation. The progressive and conservative worldviews are mutually exclusive. But in a human brain, both can exist side by side, each neurally inhibiting the other and structuring different areas of experience. It is hardly unnatural — or unusual — to be fiscally conservative and socially progressive, or to support a liberal domestic policy and a conservative foreign policy, or to have a conservative view of the market and a progressive view of civil liberties.[from Thinking Points – Chapter 2 - Biconceptualism].
Well, as with politics, one can dispute whether any particular views, even those usually characterized as polar opposites are, in fact, mutually exclusive and can only peacefully coexist if we neurally inhibit the supposed contradictions.
When it comes to science and faith, both are human constructs, both ways in which humans seek freedom from want and fear (and conceive of “freedom,” “want,” “fear,” and the need to be “free” from “want” and “fear”). Both are based on mental constructs, concepts, words, images, and memories, all founded in human experience, our own or that attested to by others. Understanding and observing, as best we can, what we humans in the name of both science and faith does not “prove” the existence or non-existence of God. Those who claim to know God – whether they can adequately describe, explain, or prove who or what he is, how he works, where he is in empirical terms to those who do not know him (as if the basic categories of “who,” “what,” “how,” “where” have any meaning or application as far as “he” is concerned) – sometimes resort to the notion of the “supernatural” as something over and beyond what we normally see and know rather than entertain the possibility that God permeates all (arguably is all – sort the heretical out of that, however you please) through and within human and non-human nature, whether we can see any kind of mechanical explanation of his presence (think Oz behind the curtain) or not.
What atheists don’t seem to get is that the concept of “supernatural” does not necessarily entail any kind of assertion of scientific fact or theory (although the Creationists do their best to claim that it does). The Divine is ultimately Mystery to us humans. No matter how hard we try, now matter how sophisticated our reason, no matter how hard we stretch our minds to encompass eternity freed of our rudimentary, Newtonian notions of time and space, we are never going to know it all because what we know and who we are are inextricably intertwined. We may be in God’s image, we may have God coursing through our blood and infused in our heards and minds, but we are not him and never will be.
Yet, science has given and continues to give us fascinating glimpses of the great Logos, the divine order, even through the lenses of human neurons. Modern physics, mathematics, and even chaos theory bring us into realms heretofore unimaginable. And, in the more lowly, earthly, biological realm, we have new studies suggesting that there not only are their positive, biological benefits from religious belief (better health, longer lives, etc.), we may also have the idea of God imprinted into our biological makeup.
In this regard, I find most fascinating Paul Bloom’s article ”Is God an Accident” in the December 2005 edition of Atlantic Monthly. The article begins with this preface:
Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. Recently psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon. One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry. Which leads to the question ...
By way of background, Bloom is a professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale who has written a number of thought-provoking articles for the general reading public about body/mind dualism, its biological origins, and the dangers it poses when embraced uncritically by religionists. (For a list of publications, see Selected Articles for a General Audience. He also serves on the board of The Center for Naturalism, an organization which “promotes science-based naturalism as a comprehensive worldview - a rational and fulfilling alternative to faith-based religions and other varieties of supernaturalism.”)
Bloom’s perspective is clearly that of a non-believer who thinks that the supernatural has no physical reality and therefore none worth talking about other than in the way the idea influences human behavior and culture. Although I don’t share that point of view, I very much respect it and the positive things he is trying to achieve with his vision. And he doesn’t strike me as a militant atheist – rather a good scientist full of curiosity, creativity, and concern and compassion for his fellow humans.
Nevertheless, what amazes me (though it hardly surprises) is his supposition that our predisposition to believe in so-called supernatural phenomena cannot possibly reflect an in-born capacity to know, feel, and experience a real-world Divine. Why is our tendency to look for causation everywhere (which apparently can cause us to “over-read” or misconstrue things as evidencing an intent even where there is none) not a biological means of directing us to look for and see God just as we, as infants, are programmed to search the faces of humans and to know our mothers?
What strikes me as ironic is that so many atheists fall into simplistic thinking about religion and/or God being nothing more than a “crutch” - a purely human-made tool designed to give the immature, ignorant, and week false comfort in terms of a promised afterlife, forgiveness, and, at the very least, a divine purpose to both our individual lives and the march of human history. They say that the evidence of science is that there is nothing but what is physical, what can be empirically proven by conventional scientific inquiry and testing. This tends to be a cold, hard, cynical view of the role religion plays in the lives of even those who do not any demonstrable harm in the name of their religion, such as wage war or discriminate against or persecute non-believers or non-conformists.
Bloom and those who embrace a spiritual and ethical “Naturalism” (i.e. spirituality and ethics without the supernatural), tread more gently and exhibit more compassion towards those of religious faith. Yet it seems that he falls into the same dualtistic trap he claims religion sets – just at the other end. For him, empirically proven physical reality must be all there is, that although our bodies “trick” us into thinking of both our mind and the Divine as being somewhere outside, separate, and apart from physical reality, nevertheless we must “know” for a fact that just because what we know and experience as our minds (our selves our souls) may well operate solely as the function of physical processes within the human body. While if that’s all there is, we can keep on dancing, nevertheless, but who is to say it is? Does the fact that we can discern physical causes within the human body, just as we discern physical causes of evolution, exhaust all real possibilities?
Finally, what strikes me as most odd is that the Creationists and other Biblical literalists are in the forefront of those most forcefully advocating the view that science in incompatible with religion. For them the “supernatural” cannot possibly act through the physical processes and patterns discerned by science, and humans cannot possibly know or experience God without embracing the supernatural as the sum and substance of what God is – defined not by the miracle of his love but by his capacity to perform what, from a human perspective, is the miraculous. For others, who consider themselves orthodox Christians but not necessarily opposed to science, the same kind of fear and paranoia arises when people begin to talk about whether Jesus “really” was the Son of God, was fully human and divine, was born of the Virgin Mary, was bodily resurrected, etc. What is “real” and “true” must be revealed as scientific, physical terms because otherwise one must concede to the atheists that it is all “just” what humans know and believe in their “hearts,” “minds,” and “souls.”
Call me a biconceptualist, if you will, but I do not see why the physical and spirtual understandings of human and extra-human reality must be mutually exclusive. Evidence that belief in God is part of our biological makeup, not merely or solely a cultural phenomenon, would seem to help bridge the gap. Maybe God is not an accident but only appears to be so – indeed, is known to us all, accidentally on purpose!
Love and Sacrifice
Wormwood’s Doxy and Tobias Haller have each written marvelous essays and sermons on love and sacrifice. They intersect, briefly, at the point of Haller’s epigram:
“Sin is asserting one’s individuality at the expense of others. Virtue is asserting one’s individuality on behalf of others.”(Haller on Sin and Virtue. ) To which Doxy responded with her own remarks Sin and Virtue, and Haller responded with More on Sin and Virtue.
What serve as marvelous bookends to this conversation are Doxy’s subsequent Just Love and Haller’s earlier Sermon for the feast of Saint Aelred
The upshot is that they both speak of love in thought-provoking ways but from considerably different angles. Doxy takes off from this distinction between love and sacrifice:
I am frequently taken to task by conservatives, who accuse me of ignoring the God of Judgment in favor of the God of Love. Their beef with me seems to stem from their view that loving is easy, but the sacrifice required to give God what He wants (and it’s almost always HE) is difficult.What follows is yet another example of how Paige(aka Doxy) strikes from the heart, her thoughts and words brimming of the struggles and joys of real, everyday human relationships with God and others. The deep thoughts are always present but not without being securely grounded in the stuff of real life and emotions.
What I take from their arguments is this: Any idiot can love. Only a holy person can sacrifice.
Which makes me wonder if they’ve ever loved anyone in their lives
Tobias, as always, combines passion and logic with near perfection and not only exposes and dissects the perverse views of nature and natural law expressed by conservatives on the subject of homosexuality, he turns their notions of the unnatural upside down and points out that while sex is one of the most “natural” features of human life, one that we share with a vast array of plants and animals, “what the Gospel shows us is the astonishing truth that love is unnatural.” He goes on to say:
God had imbued human hearts with love: which is not a creature, but the image of God’s self. Love is the gift which gave us the capacity to see and feel beyond our needs, beyond the needs even of our family or clan or society, the knowledge that we are not simply creatures living off each other, but creatures living for each other; that life is not based ultimately upon need but upon gift, and that life is not about the accumulation of assets and the preservation of the self or the species, but about the compassionate generosity that sacrifices even life itself for the sake of the beloved. God made us human, when to us, out of all creation, he gave this incredible energy that goes by the name of love. It is love itself, unnatural and counterintuitive love, which at its greatest sacrifices even its own life so that the beloved might live; it is love, the gift of God and the supernatural spark of the divine likeness that glows within each human soul, that makes human life truly human and most truly alive. It is love beyond price that makes life worth living, and worth giving up.This is only one piece of rich and complex whole. I can’t resist adding this last bit near the end which weaves together the earlier discussion of nature, unnatural love, and God’s gifts back towards human sexuality:
And when the time was ripe, God showed us this love in person, perfected in Jesus, who commands us to love each other the way he loved us: which is to say, not for what he could get out of us, but for what he could give us. God’s love is not based on need — God doesn’t need anything — but is rather God’s gift, stemming from God’s own nature, God who is love. The natural law of self-interest was merely God’s creature used to build up creation. But love is God’s self: and the love of God is not about transaction, but incarnation.
And when he had taught us this, we ceased being mere servants — who do as they are told but do not know why — and became friends, who do as they are commanded not in ignorance or out of fear, but out of trust, and in the knowledge of the love of God, who gave us life at our genesis, and gave us life again in the revelation of the Son of God, the beginning and the end, who became not only our savior, but our friend, who shared our life and of his great mercy allowed us to share in his.
Today we have a great opportunity, not just to keep our ecclesiastical kettle from boiling over, but to preserve the world anew, and to teach the mystery of charity to a world hungry for love but steeped in self-interest. Our world has forgotten Sirach’s wisdom, that true friendship is beyond price and cannot be bought or sold in the marketplace.
And I firmly believe that gays and lesbians — whether they have legalized their domestic partnerships, had their unions blessed, or gone off to Canada to get married — can be teachers in this new school of charity for the church and the world, to offer a teaching as powerful as what the monastery taught in the days of Aelred.
And I don’t just mean more Queer Eye for the Straight Church — we’ve been there and done that for centuries; writing the hymns, playing and singing the music, crafting and leading the liturgies, designing the buildings and generally making the church more attractive than it would have been without us. No, what I mean is far more serious and far more challenging. I’m talking about the practice of the presence of God, who in Jesus Christ commands us to love each other as he loved us, with the love that does not abide in relationships built on quid-pro-quo or cost and benefit.
For I believe with all my heart that same-sex couples not only can show forth the great mystery of mutual love as well as different-sex couples do (or fail to do), but may well be able to do it better, and with greater freedom. Free from the shackles of biological determinism by which human cultures have falsely and conventionally come to believe that men and women are naturally and separately suited only for particular roles and destined as means to particular ends, we can emphatically declare and show forth in our lives that human beings are not roles, nor are they means to an end: whether that end be the brief spasm of sexual release or the procreation of a family, the maintenance of a home, or of a society. For as long as marriage is seen primarily for what one gets out of it: as a contract for the interchange of property or the grant of rights, for the building of a family or a home, for the maintenance of the social status quo — rather than for what goes into it: as a covenant of the mutual gift of two persons to each other for no reason other than for love, as long as we see the union of two hearts and minds primarily for its extrinsic worth rather than for its intrinsic value, it will be branded with the hallmark of commerce, rather than blessed as the sign and sacrament of generosity.
Such true freedom and mutuality are difficult when church and society still harp on what they call “appropriate” roles for men and women, when they place their trust in a nuclear family that even at its best was not the means by which God chose to enter creation when the time came to come among us as one of us. True freedom and mutuality are difficult when people talk the talk of self-sacrifice, but walk the walk of imposing sacrifice on others — and how many women have been told it is their natural lot to suffer in silence when men take advantage of them or neglect them, all in the hopes that it will make those men more “domesticated.” True mutuality is most difficult precisely when people are perceived to be unequal, complementary or incomplete.
And this is why gays and lesbians, free from any necessary or conventionally preassigned roles, can staff the school of truly mutual love and friendship, most especially love nourished by friendship.
And, my friends, the greatest irony of all is that such loving relationships, same-sex and different-sex, will save the world, just as the monasteries did through the troubled times of the middle ages, not because that is what they set out to do, not as means to that end, but because God wills it so, and has willed it so from the beginning, when he saw that it was not good to be alone. For just as only self-interest could build the world, only love can finally save and preserve the world. The rabbis were right: the yetzer ha-ra, the inclination to self, plays its role in building up the world; but love is at the heart of tikkun olam, our partnership with God our friend in preserving and bringing to perfection the great work of creation. As Saint Paul’s spiritual grandfather Rabbi Hillel, reflecting on both the inclination to self and the love of others, said, “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
This speaks truth, in spades. But all the talk of nature, natural law, what is human and not, triggered some old thoughts and ideas, the way I was trained to think of how humans think, talk, and act with regard to themselves and their relations with the unnatural world. In short – the off topic tangent that takes off and leaves me wondering whether it has anyting to do with where I started. Anyway… this tangent was:
The Meadow Mouse
Aldo Leopold, forester, ecologist, and enviornmentalist, wrote his Sand County Almanac after living and working in the vicinity of Madison, Wisconsin (one of my many second homes). That work contains yet another epigram on Sin and Virtue:
"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
This is, I suppose, a variant of natural law, but it is not, as I see it, contrary to what Tobias has said. The emphasis is on conserving and maintaining healthy relationships with our non-human neighbors. It implies humility above all, derived from our understanding of both our limits and powers as human beings. It asks us to look, listen, and observe carefully, to do no harm or the least harm, whenever possible, to conserve, not waste, the riches of the natural and physical world around and within us.
It does, however, bring into question the remark Tobias attributed to (Alfred North?) Whitehead, “Life is perpetual theft,” which Tobias takes to mean “To a greater or lesser degree all of us live at the expense of other creatures.” While it is true that we consume all sorts of natural resources, often with great destructive greed, our use of water, oxygen, sunlight and the like is not simply a zero-sum game in which we take and others suffer in direct proportion. While it may not be all of who and what we are, we humans do have roles to play in the biotic community, roles which we cannot and should not want to escape. Those roles are not the stuff of narrow, humanly conceived determinism or cut-throat competition (our perversely human views of natural selection and the functions of biological life and death, now and across eternity). Our roles just as easily, and arguably more accurately, can be portrayed as that of fellow citizens.
We, however, like others, such as the meadow mouse and the hawk, tend to think and live as if we are the only members of the community, at least the only ones that count. Sand County Almanac famously begins with these observations:
A meadow mouse, startled by my approach, darts damply across the skunk track. Why is he abroad in daylight? Probably because he feels grieved about the thaw. Today his maze of secret tunnels, laboriously chewed through the matted grass under the snow, are tunnels no more, but only paths exposed to public view and ridicule. Indeed the thawing sun has mocked the basic premises of the microtine economic system!
The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.
* * *
A rough-legged hawk comes sailing over the meadow ahead. Now he stops, hovers like a kingfisher, and then drops like a feathered bomb into the marsh. He does not rise again, so I am sure he has caught, and is now eating, some worried mouse-engineer who could not wait until night to inspect the damage to his well-ordered world.
The rough-leg has no opinion why grass grows, but he is well aware that snow melts in order that hawks may catch mice. He came down out of the Arctic in the hope of thaws, for to him a thaw means freedom from want and fear.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press 1949) p. 4.
This opening passage takes the human view – longer, broader, encompassing both mouse and hawk (and deer and skunk, muskrat and rabbit, and many others). We like giant Gullivers can see both the comedy and the tragedy of the mouse who scurries and worries, but in the end, succumbs to death and his role as prey and fuel for the hawk. But the Lilliputian perspective ironically refers to human beings, who themselves are worried engineers, building and tending to their own tunnels, engaged in their own lifelong efforts to be free of want and fear. And just like the meadow and the hawk, we humans tend to see the features and functions of the natural world only in terms of how they may best serve us, especially in the short-term, in response to our immediate wants and needs. We may be capable of seeing and thinking in terms far broader and longer than our fellow citizens, but our view, necessarily the only view we have (if left to our own devices), is grounded in reference to ourselves.
All this is very interesting and thought-provoking in terms of biology, conservation, and ecopsychology, and ethics. But reading works like these critically can also bring some larger, or at least different, insights. For various reasons, we humans tend to think and act like our minds are something distinct and apart from our bodies, that our unique capabilties for self-consciousness, memory, deliberation and choice, come from and exist somewhere else. Consequently, what we construct with our minds and communicate in words is seen as somehow different from the houses and bridges and tunnels we build with our hands and tools.
One more perspective on the observations of Sand County Almanac, with its constant interplay between human and the non-human, is that the thoughts and words of the narrator are really much the same as the meadow mouse’s tunnel, subject to both scrutiny and wonder when viewed from afar, but also integral parts of how we carry on our own peculiarly human efforts to be free from want and fear. That perspective is given, in his own imitable fashion, by Peter Fritzell, Professor emeritus of English at Lawrence University in the following lecture on Sand County Almanac.