Tag Archives: society

Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” by Alan Moore

I watched the film adaptation of this graphic novel many years ago, before I even knew about the graphic novel. I liked the film a lot. It spoke to my interest in science fiction, adventure tales, and 19th century literature. All of these things are brilliantly blended together in this book, which is lavishly illustrated by Kevin O’Neill.

This omnibus edition includes two full volumes, as well as a wealth of supplemental material that is all worth exploring. There are coloring pages, games, instructions for crafts, everything that an intrepid nerd could ask for.

In addition to all the fun material and the brilliant artwork, there is Moore’s incredible writing, which flows effortlessly while focusing a lens on human nature, and also touching on the mystical and unusual in experience.

Moore uses the character of Miss Mina Murray as a voice of criticism against the male-dominated society of the 19th century.

Mina Murray: “Why are men so obsessed with mechanisms that further nothing but destruction?”

Here she is not only speaking out against patriarchy, but she is also making a bold comment on the industrial revolution, and the negative impacts that it had on society. She then goes on to express how challenging it can be for women in positions of authority.

Mina Murray: “The point is that I’m supposed to be the person organizing this… this menagerie! But that will never do, will it? Because I’m a woman! They constantly undermine my authority, him and that Quatermain…”

Shifting the focus away from social criticism, I want to share a well-written passage describing Allan Quatermain’s drug-induced altered state of consciousness.

Quatermain had felt the consciousness torn from his body, gripped by the drug’s phantasmal diamond fist. He’d heard Marisa scream and then the awareness was dashed from him by a cold, obliterating light. Now he was lost. As sensibility returned, he found himself afloat, a ghostly form amidst a shimmering violet limbo. What had happened? This was not the breathtaking immersion in past incarnation that the drug had hitherto provided. All about him dream-like forms congealed from viscous twilight, half-materialized before once more dissolving into opalescent nothing. Smoldering ferns and mollusk spirals, scintillating on the brink of substance.

Describing the experience of a shift in consciousness is not an easy task for a writer, since the nature of this experience is generally beyond words. But Moore does a great job is conveying the experience.

One of the characters in this book is Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. As the tale progresses, Jekyll fades out of the story and Hyde becomes the dominant character. This symbolizes what happens when the dualistic nature of humans gets out of balance. As Hyde points out, there has to be a balance. If the light becomes too strong, or the dark becomes too strong, then there are negative effects on the individual.

Hyde: “Anyway, what that silly bastard did , he thought is he quarantined all these bad parts, what was left would be a ****ing angel. huh-huh.”

Driver: “Hang on. If you’re this chap’s sins, how did you end up so bloody big?”

Hyde: “Good point [chlop]. That’f a very goob poimp. I mean, when I started out, good God, I was practically a ****ing dwarf. Jekyll, on the other hand, a great big strapping fellow. Since then, though, my growth’s been unrestricted, while he’s wasted away to nothing. Obvious, really. Without me, you see, Jekyll has no drives…and without him, I have no restraints.”

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I will say, though, that the last section is very long, comprised entirely of small-type text and is intended to mimic a travel almanac. While you may be tempted to skip over this somewhat tedious part of the book, I found it worthwhile to read through it. It is brimming with literary and pop-culture references to fictional locations, and is done so in a very creative way. It is not easy to read, but I think it’s worth it. I found lots and lots of subtle allusions to books I had read in the past, which stirred some good memories for me.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading stuff.

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“The Invisible Man” by H. G. Wells: Belief in the Unseen

I figured I would start out the October spooky reading with the classic sci-fi tale from H.G. Wells. Not surprising, Wells weaves some thought-provoking social commentary into his story. While I discovered a lot of philosophical ideas within the text, the one that really stood out for me was the question of whether things unseen (such as God and the spirit) can exist.

My sense is that during the time Wells was writing, the dominant scientific belief was that if something truly existed in the universe, then it could be scientifically observed and studied. There was skepticism that unseen phenomena, such as God, could exist.

After the first gusty panic had spent itself Iping became argumentative. Scepticism suddenly reared its head—rather nervous scepticism, not at all assured of its back, but scepticism nevertheless. It was so much easier not to believe in an invisible man; and those who had actually seen him dissolve into thin air, or felt the strength of his arm, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

(H. G. Wells: Seven Novels; p. 197)

I addition to a skepticism of the existence of things unseen, there is also social stigma attached to those individuals who do perceive beings that are invisible (angels, demons, spirits, gods, etc.). These people are often considered delusional or mentally ill, and that the unseen entities with which they are conversing are just creations of a diseased mind.

This stranger, to the perceptions of the proprietor of the cocoanut shy, appeared to be talking to himself, and Mr. Huxter remarked the same thing. He stopped at the foot of the Coach and Horses steps, and, according to Mr. Huxter, appeared to undergo a severe internal struggle before he could induce himself to enter the house.

(p. 198)

After Kemp, who symbolizes the scientific thinker, encounters the invisible man, he begins to ponder the existence of invisible entities. Essentially, he is contemplating whether the existence of God is a possibility.

“Invisible!” he said.

“Is there such a thing as an invisible animal? In the sea, yes. Thousands! millions. All the larvae, all the little nauplii and tornarias, all the microscopic things, the jelly-fish. In the sea there are more things invisible than visible! I never thought of that before. And in the ponds too! All those little pond-life things—specks of colourless translucent jelly! But in the air? No!

“It can’t be.

“But after all—why not?

(p. 223)

Another interesting point about this passage is that Kemp claims that the sea has more things invisible than visible. The sea is a common metaphor for the subconscious mind. Psychologically speaking, there is so much happening in the mind that is beyond the grasp of our ordinary consciousness. Science has not even scratched the surface of the deeper realms of consciousness. There is much there that is still invisible to us.

For me, the most powerful passage in the entire text is when the invisible man reveals to Kemp his plans for establishing a “Reign of Terror.”

“Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes—no doubt it’s startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways—scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.”

(p. 251)

Here Wells is making a dual criticism. On one level, the passage expresses his views on the concept of a vengeful God, one that hands down orders “on scraps of paper” (symbolizing scriptures) and then doles out severe punishment to the people who fail to heed the word of God. Additionally, Wells is criticizing the concept of divine rule as embodied in an absolute monarchy. These rulers live in palaces, unseen by the common folk, and hand down laws (more scraps of paper) and decree punishment upon those villagers who fail to obey the laws.

What makes this book such a masterpiece is that it is a great story, and it also has deeper meaning if you look beneath the surface. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. Have a great day, and keep reading cool stuff.

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Thoughts on the Bhagavad Gita (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

I’ve been wanting to read the Bhagavad Gita for a while, but the copy that I had (provided to me by the Hare Krishnas at a Dead concert) seemed very long, so I was reluctant to start. But recently I did give it a shot and quickly realized that it was about 90% commentary, so I put it back and made the decision to find a different translation. So when I was perusing books at a bookstore recently, I discovered a translation by the poet Stephen Mitchell. I figured this would be a good version for me to delve into, and I was correct. The text flowed beautifully, and it was very easy to follow and digest the text.

As with all spiritual texts, there is such a wealth of wisdom that it is impossible to do it justice in a short blog post. With that in mind, I will share a few quotes that I connected with, as well as my thoughts regarding those passages.

Driven by desire for pleasure
and power, caught up in ritual,
they strive to gain heaven; but rebirth
is the only result of their striving.

They are lured by their desires,
besotted by the scriptures’ words;
their minds have not been made clear
by the practice of meditation.

The scriptures dwell in duality.
Be beyond all opposites, Arjuna:
anchored in the real, and free
from all thoughts of wealth and comfort.

(p. 54)

While mystical and spiritual texts are great sources of wisdom and inspiration, Lord Krishna points out the issue—they fall short of the wisdom and freedom gained from active spiritual pursuits. Scripture uses symbolic language to try to express the ineffable experience of direct connection with the Divine which is gained through yoga and meditation. Those who seek the Divine solely in text will never find what they seek. It is only through actively engaging in practices that one may catch a momentary glimpse of the Divine.

As fire is obscured by smoke,
as a mirror is covered by dust,
as a fetus is wrapped in a membrane,
so wisdom is obscured by desire.

Wisdom is destroyed, Arjuna,
by the constant enemy of the wise,
which, flaring up as desire,
blazes with insatiable flames.

(p. 69)

This made me think a lot about our current society. Social media, advertising, and even the news to some extent, all feed the human desire for what they don’t have, or what they don’t have enough of, or what will keep them safe, and on and on and on. This desire, this constant striving, is manifesting much of our current social and political problems right now. People are prone to react rather than think and respond carefully. I have made a conscious effort to minimize the amount of social media and advertising information that I am exposed to, and as a result, I have become much happier and calmer.

I am the father of the universe
and its mother, essence and goal
of all knowledge, the refiner, the sacred
Om, and the threefold Vedas.

I am the beginning and the end,
origin and dissolution,
refuge, home, true lover,
womb and imperishable seed.

I am the heat of the sun,
I hold back the rain and release it,
I am death, and the deathless,
and all that is or is not.

(pp. 116 – 117)

What I like about this passage where Lord Krishna is describing himself to Arjuna is that he uses a series of opposites to describe his essence. It is like a balancing of light and dark, yin and yang, life and death. The Divine must surly encompass all, for everything emanates from the Source and, therefore, everything must exist within the Source. This kind of echoes Revelation 22:13 where Christ says: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

This is the soul-destroying
threefold entrance to hell:
desire, anger, and greed.
Every man should avoid them.

The man who refuses to enter
these three gates into darkness
does what is best for himself
and attains the ultimate goal.

(p. 173)

This is so true. If more people would replace desire with acceptance, anger with love and forgiveness, and greed with charity, what a different world this would be. How much happier we would be as a global society. There is still hope for us. Although I sometimes despair, I remember that humans have an incredible capacity to change. I will do my best to help promote change for the better.

Thanks for stopping by, and many blessings!

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Thoughts on “Henry VI: Part 3” by William Shakespeare

While this is the last of the “Henry VI” plays, the history continues with Richard III, which actually concludes the series. Anyway, overall, I enjoyed this play. It was a pretty easy read and explored some themes on politics and society which I found to be relevant today. I figured for this post, I would share a couple passages that stood out for me.

That’s not my fear; my meed hath got me fame:
I have not stopp’d mine ears to their demands,
Nor posted off their suits with slow delays;
My pity hath been balm to heal their wounds,
My mildness hath allay’d their swelling griefs,
My mercy dried their water-flowing tears;
I have not been desirous of their wealth,
Nor much oppress’d them with great subsidies.
Nor forward of revenge, though they much err’d:
Then why should they love Edward more than me?
No, Exeter, these graces challenge grace:
And when the lion fawns upon the lamb,
The lamb will never cease to follow him.

(Act IV, scene viii)

Here Henry is expressing his disillusion with being a leader. He considers all the good things he has done, but in spite of all that, he still does not have the support of the people. He comes to the conclusion that people too often view kindness as a weakness. This is a sentiment that sadly seems to have survived into the present day. Personally, I prefer the benevolent leader, but I see that a lot of people do not share my sentiment.

Lo, now my glory smear’d in dust and blood!
My parks, my walks, my manors that I had.
Even now forsake me, and of all my lands
Is nothing left me but my body’s length.
Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?
And, live we how we can, yet die we must.

(Act V, scene ii)

In this scene, Warwick realizes that all his worldly accomplishments amount to nothing in the end. As I read this, I was reminded of Shelley’s great poem, “Ozymandias.” So many of us spend our whole lives, striving and working to create something that will serve as a lasting monument to our lives. But in the end, none of it matters. We all die, and everything that we created will eventually crumble and turn to dust. This seems even more true now in the digital age. How many people can name relatives more than three generations back? Our connection to history is diminishing. I’m sure after I die, that everything I have been writing on this blog will eventually fade away too. It is just the nature of existence. We create things, and our creations eventually return to dust.

Ironically, knowing that our works will crumble does not fill me with despair. It’s oddly comforting to me. It makes me value what I do in the present even more. I write for the now; what happens later is not my concern.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you have a blessed day.

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Thoughts on “Henry VI: Part 2” by William Shakespeare

Reading this play not long after finishing Henry VI: Part 1, I can see just how much better Shakespeare’s craftsmanship is in this play.

As I am wont to do, I figured I would share and comment on the passages that stood out for me.

And, force perforce, I’ll make him yield the crown,
Whose bookish rule hath pulled fair England down.

(Act I, scene i)

Henry is criticized for being bookish, in other words, educated and thoughtful, as opposed to being a man of action. It is similar to the mindset of many people today. Educated leaders are deemed “elitist” by many individuals, who prefer a leader who embodies the characteristics of the common person. There is even the belief that the best political candidate is the one who has little or no experience in government, and virtually no formal education. Personally, I think being thoughtful and educated are prerequisites to being an effective and good leader.

Patience, good lady; wizards know their times:
Deep night, dark night, the silent of the night,
The time of night when Troy was set on fire;
The time when screech-owls cry and ban-dogs howl,
And spirits walk and ghosts break up their graves,
That time best fits the work we have in hand.
Madam, sit you and fear not: whom we raise,
We will make fast within a hallow’d verge.

(Act I, scene iv)

In this scene, Bolingbroke is preparing to conjure spirits. What struck me about this passage is the importance of time when performing an occult ritual. There are certain times, essentially threshold periods, when practice of spiritual or mystical arts is considered to be more effective. Midnight, dawn and dusk, solstices and equinoxes, full moons—these are all times that are significant in religious and mystical rites.

Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous:
Virtue is choked with foul ambition
And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand;
Foul subornation is predominant
And equity exiled your highness’ land.

(Act III, scene i)

Again, I could not help but notice the correlation with the political climate today. The majority of politicians do not appear to act based upon what is right and best for the country and the population, but instead are motivated by self-advancement and financial manipulation from corporate entities. Short-term financial benefits are often considered more important that long-term solutions to challenges. It is this short-sighted mentality and the self-centered focus that has led us to the socio-political mess that we are dealing with today.

Every time I read Shakespeare, I marvel at how similar humans are today to our ancestors 500 years ago. We have not advanced or changed all that much. Our technologies and general knowledge have leapt forward, but our core beliefs and motivations have remained the same. Personally, I feel that humans need to embrace a new paradigm if we are to continue as a species. If we maintain our current trajectory, I do not see our civilization lasting much longer.

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“Pasta Cunegonda” – How Umberto Eco Dealt with a Troll

Umberto Eco

In this short essay included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Eco tells the tale of how he had written an article with some pragmatic suggestions on how to take action against the right-wing government controlled media. The article spawned a hateful response from someone who sent Eco a copy of a book that Eco had written, with the word “Shit” written in big red letters across every other page. Rather than succumbing to anger, Eco looked at the event with his usual wit and insight.

I tried to understand the mind and the walk of life of my correspondent. For the psychology, there’s no need of a psychoanalytic session, and I leave it to the reader to draw conclusions. As for the man’s social background, I wonder if he already had the book at home, if he bought it specially, or if he stole it. If he already had the book at home, even if it belonged to his children, he must be a person of some status, which makes the business all the more interesting. If he stole it, theft too can be a form of political struggle, but the people who steal books were usually on the far left, and I would say that this isn’t the case here. Which leaves us with the possibility that he bought it, and if he did, then he spent a certain amount, plus the cost of mailing, in order to give himself this satisfaction. He must have calculated that he wasn’t going to contribute to my personal well-being, given the paltry percentage authors receive on paperbacks, but he didn’t consider the big check I will receive for this article.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp 193 – 4)

In my years of blogging, I have gotten several trollish remarks. After my initial indignation, I did my best to just let them go. But in this age of abundant internet trolling, Eco provides some great advice. There will always be people who disagree with you and feel emboldened to bolster their beliefs by putting you down. The best way to deal with them is with a sense of humor and a touch of empathy. And, if you can use it as inspiration for something creative, then by all means, do so!

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