Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Magic of December Nights

December Skies:
    I have been spending parts of several evenings since Daylight Savings Time ended standing outside at about 8PM and looking up at the southwest part of the sky. It gets dark noticeably earlier now, and I am unabashedly in love with December and winter skies. The moon has gone through several phases over the last weeks, and it seems so powerful and quietly majestic up there, particularly when there is that seeming haze and shadow surrounding it. The stars seem brighter and more dramatic against the deeper and darker blues that characterize the night sky at this time of the year. The constellations seem clearer and larger. At times like this I think much more about light and dark-about how those two concepts so clearly manifest themselves as winter draws closer. As Christmas lights and candles appear on porches, houses and streets and trees and store windows I am once again awakened to the importance of light to us humans, particularly now. It is quietly wonderful. I remembered a piece about light several years ago, and I thought I would dig it out and share it again...
Let There Be Light:
   December is a month overflowing with observances and ritual. There are so many celebrations from so many different religious and ethnic traditions from around the world taking place during this month. There is, of course, Christmas and the various minor celebrations leading up to and associated with it: Advent, the 12 Days of Christmas, Yule, and others depending on your ethnicity, culture, and religious tradition. There is also Hanukkah with its 8 days of oil-based food, candles, and dreidel playing, and Kwanzaa with its celebration of Pan-African culture, candles, and values. And if you are Buddhist, Hopi, Hindu, traditional Persian, Wiccan, or West African Dogon, there are celebrations for you as well during this month. What so many of these celebrations and observances have in common is the prominence of light in their observances. Candles, bonfires, logs, electric lights, tree lights, flashing lights-light is a common element, metaphor and symbol world -wide at this time of the year. And our rituals bring that home.
 It make perfect sense that humans are so light conscious in December. Humans look to nature to try to figure out what is coming and what God or the gods have in store for us. For most of our history that has meant looking to the sky-to the sun, the moon and the stars. Humans have known for centuries that the length of the days was changing at this time of the year and that the winter solstice was coming. This became a time of deep spiritual meaning for early humans, and it was marked in many different ways depending upon geography and culture. As the length of the days slowly increased it was as if the earth was being reborn, and we were living through and witnessing that process. We had to acknowledge it and honor it, else it may not happen again. So symbolically, many cultures created rituals that recognized it as a time of rebirth. Many of the stories, myths and traditions from different times and places began to associate this time leading to and just after the solstice with miraculous births, enlightenment, miracles, and/or new beginnings. The Druid bonfires and the Germanic and Norse Yule logs, for example, were symbolic and metaphoric symbols of cleansing, sacrifice, and the simultaneous death and rebirth of the earth-from the shortest day of the year to gradually more and more hours of sunlight. To the ancient Persians this was the time of the Yalda festival, and Mithras, the symbol of truth, strength, goodness and light, was born to a virgin mother at this time of the year. His birth was celebrated with flame and holy fire. Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god, was also celebrated at this time. We humans even long ago seemed to know that we had to meet the darkness with light. 
   New beginnings are important in most religious traditions, and light was a strong metaphor for that. Our language today shows that it still is. We speak of, “seeing the light, or “coming into the light.” There is the “inner light,” and we also “let our light shine.”  We use light as a symbol for transformation and rebirth, and these qualities are readily spoken of and alluded to in many of the rituals and ceremonies that occur at this time of the year. Hanukkah is about rebirth and new beginnings as it celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem from its desecration when Antiochus made it into a Greek temple. The candles symbolize, in part, the rebirth of the religion. The candles in Kwanzaa symbolize the reawakened connection and awareness of African values and connections for people of African descent. To Buddhists, Bodhi Day in December celebrates the Buddha becoming a Buddha-an enlightened one who suddenly could see beyond illusion. To Christians, the Star of Bethlehem led to a new beginning for humans, as it led the Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. Light was symbolically leading us forward.

   And light is as powerful today to us humans as it was long ago when we first figured out what the solstice was and what it could mean. Tradition has it that Martin Luther saw stars one night as he was composing a sermon and tried to capture their beauty by adding lighted candles to the Christmas tree inside his house. Whether that is true or not, by the time the Germanic tradition of the Christmas tree reached the US the idea of lights were a fixture. And now there are lighted houses, malls, streets, yards, shops and more. We are awash in lights; there are even whole streets and neighborhoods that collaborate to plan what their light scheme is going to be each holiday season. And many families now have a tradition of driving to visit different neighborhoods just to see the light displays.

   So our ancient connections to the rhythms and structures of the natural world are still with us, even if we do not recognize them as such. As up to date and modern as we are in this digital age, we are still human. That means we are still connected to our ancestors in some important and primal ways. As we celebrate our various rituals, traditions and personal rituals this season, I hope you can spend some time thinking on the links between what we do now and what we as a species have always done. And I hope you can spend some evening time outside looking up and taking some time to marvel at what is going on up there. It is quite miraculous, and it still influences so much of what we do down here. Do have a safe, warm, happy, love and light filled holiday season however you celebrate it.  And enjoy the solstice. Let there be light and let it be good.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Power of "Thanks"

 “If the only prayer you said was, “Thank you”, that would be enough.”  
                             Meister Eckhart        
 “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”      
                           A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
 “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”     
 Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. This holiday is all about things that really please me: good food, being around people in a joyful and happy setting, reflection, and expressing gratitude for what I have and for where I am in my life. The relative lack of advertising and the tiny focus on what to buy when compared to Christmas gives me an opportunity to focus more on the day itself and to think about what the holiday is supposed to mean. In that light, I get a chance to look beyond myself and to acknowledge all the people, things and circumstances that are a part of my life that I had little, if anything, to do with. Particularly given the changes in my life over the last year and a half, I am incredibly aware of the value and wonder of family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Yes, we have disagreements, and yes, we do not always see eye to eye. But this day, Thanksgiving, is one day for me to join with many other people to formally acknowledge and embrace the fact that without them my life would not be as rich, as joyous or as full as it is. And how and why it happens as it does is something that is in many ways beyond me.

  This "giving of thanks" has always been a human and universal thing; it is probably a human need. It has happened in every part of the world, in every culture, and at all times. Throughout the centuries this giving of thanks has always involved some acknowledgement of forces outside of ourselves and expressed through public and group acknowledgment. Will the crops have a good season of growth? How high would the river be this year? When would the rain come? When and where will the next herd pass by? When would the heat come? Or go? Or stop? Will there be enough to eat? When would the war stop? These were all things that mattered to us, and we asked for help as a group and also expressed gratitude the same way. We know that these are not things that humans control all by ourselves, and we need the help of other people and other forces. We can get away from that somewhat in a modern civilization such as ours, as most of us are generally not so directly faced with struggles for the basics of life-food, shelter, etc. So it is good that we have at least one occasion when we can take a wider and broader look at ourselves and our lives and see the importance of family (by birth or chosen), and friendship. And for most of us it also involves an awareness of happenstance and/or some type of spirit or spirits. This is what we observe and celebrate when we observe Thanksgiving.

 Of course, it can be hard to hold on to that feeling in our civilization. We have been bombarded for several weeks now with advertisements for “Black Friday’ and “Cyber Monday” sales. Commerce is and always has been a key part of civilization, and the post-Thanksgiving time period is awash in sales, offers, and “special deals.” The time after the traditional autumn thanksgivings has always been the “get ready for winter” time. After the 1924 debut of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade this time became became the start of our “get ready for winter shopping time.” This became the time period when many retailers started turning a profit and going into the “black” and out of the red in accountant’s terms. Thus, the first day of the winter shopping season became known as “Black Friday, and it continues to be one of the biggest business days of the year. “Cyber Monday” came into being in 2005 as a marketing company’s idea to build online business. It has been very successful, taking in nearly 8 billion dollars last year.  This seasonal urge to spend is quite powerful in our culture; this move past gratitude into commerce will be a part of our culture for years to come.

   There is a way to extend that feeling of gratitude, though, even in the midst of so much commerce. Due in part to year end concerns about tax deductions, about 50% of all charity giving occurs in the last three months of the year. This led to the creation of “Giving Tuesday,” a day of donations to fund good, charitable causes following Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The founders wanted people to focus on extending the feeling of gratitude by following a weekend shopping spree with giving to help others and/or support good causes. The idea quickly took off, and it is now an international movement.  It even has its own website- https://www.givingtuesday.org/ which serves as a conduit to connect groups, causes, organizations and individuals. The website has history, tools to get organized, and connections to local movements from around the world. So that feeling of gratitude and giving can go on beyond Thursday, co -existing with the shopping frenzy. 

    I wish all of you a fun, thoughtful, comfortable and delicious Thanksgiving however you celebrate the holiday. I hope that you get the chance to reflect on people, situations and things for which you can be truly thankful. Even if things are tough, we all have some things, people, memories, and/ or moments for which we can be grateful. Here's hoping we can slow down enough to really acknowledge those things and to discover the quiet pleasure and joy in giving thanks.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Ernest J. Gaines

ERNEST J. GAINES: January 15, 1933-November 5, 2019

Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow.”     Ernest J. Gaines, A Gathering of Old Men

“Ain't we all been hurt by slavery?”

                         Ernest J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

             Ernest J. Gaines; Interviews with Ernest J. Gaines

     Sometime in the1970’s I was haunting the literature stacks at the Parkway Main Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia like I did on a regular basis. I had always been a reader, but my high school experiences combined with the times in which we lived made me an insatiable and voracious reader, and I spent a great deal of time at libraries. I was reading everything: beat and modern poetry, revisionist histories of the United States, Russian and African writers, books about Blacks in the American West, and tons of poetry and novels by Black authors. In the literature section that day I stumbled across a book that would become one of my guidelines for the next decade:Interviews with Black Authors, by John O’Brien. This book contained interviews with several of my favorite authors at the time-Ralph Ellison who wrote Invisible Man, Robert Hayden, whose poem, Frederick Douglass haunts me to this day, and Al Young, whose touching coming of age and music novel, Snakes, I learned about from a Nat Hentoff column in the Village Voice. There were a bunch of other authors with whom I was not familiar, and over time I read all of the interviews,  and I went on to read books by the people whose interviews intrigued me the most.That is how I discovered such wonderful and creative writers as Ishmael Reed, John Wideman and Alice Walker. And it is how I became acquainted with a Louisiana born writer by the name of Ernest J. Gaines.
       Gaines’ interview immediately captured me for two reasons. One was because he talked about capturing the sounds, dialect, time, and feel of the places in which his writing was set. I had read a little William Faulkner by then, and I knew what Faulkner was doing with  Yoknapatawpha county in his novels. Gaines acknowledged being influenced by Faulkner, but he also said that he knew that all the people who Faulkner portrayed were not like people he knew in real life on Southern plantations. He also did not see them in the Russian peasant novels he loved by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, so he decided he would portray them as he knew them. Gaines also talked about his Louisiana plantation setting he used in most of his novels almost as if it was a character  focusing, for example, on the role dust played in one of his novels, And he talked about how his characters related to struggles between the past and the present, how many of them were trying to define what it meant to be a man, and the various meanings death could have in not only his novels, but in real life. WOW! All of this was heady stuff for a young, urban Black boy in the 1970's, on the edge of “manhood,“ trying to play the blues, exploring his cultural past, loving history, and looking at all of this in different ways. I had to read this man.
   I read Catherine Carmier first and got acquainted with how Gaines could capture the dialect and sounds of characters-almost so I could hear them as I read the conversations. I could see how he could hint at themes and meaning without necessarily making it obvious. I was also impressed  by how he could present emotions in such a quietly intense way and how he could make the ordinary lives of so many of his characters feel real and compelling. I don't think i had ever at that point really identified with and really appreciated a female character in a novel before, but Catharine really affected me. This was a wonderful revelation that awakened me to new insights in reading. I was hooked. 

From there I read The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and I then had to read everything he wrote. His characters, ideas, setting, plots and quietly stated themes would sit with me for days after I finished reading one of his works. Some of his books, including, A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men, I read several times, getting something new out of each reading.  Ernest Gaines became one of my favorite writers, and he taught me and awakened me to so much.

  The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying were each made into powerful films. If you are not familiar with Gaines' work but are reluctant to jump right into reading a new author, I would recommend seeing those films. They are incredibly powerful, well-acted and well-directed (although I do have one little problem with a scene in Miss Jane Pittman.) I will see those films over the next week or two, and I may go back and re-read one or more of his books. Ernest J. Gaines wanted to bring the world he grew up in and knew to life in a full and meaningful way. He did that and much, much more.
(Here are a few websites about Ernest J. Gaines: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ernest-J-Gaines

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Humans and Time

                         The Chambers Brothers
  We “turned our clocks back” a little while ago and ended what we call “Daylight Saving Time.” We do these manipulations of the clock twice a year, and we have been doing this for over a hundred years in most parts of the country. As a kid it took me some time to learn how to “spring forward and fall back,” but once I got it, I didn’t think too much about what it meant or what it showed about us as a species or what it might mean about the universe. I simply adjusted my clocks, was grumpy or happy about “gaining” or “losing” an hour, and that was that. But the last year or so has found me thinking and wondering about this Daylight Saving thing and thinking about this thing we call “time?” How many different ways do we use and experience it?  What does how we relate to and use time tell us about us? Just what is “time” anyway??

   According to Webster’s College Dictionary, time is ,1.“indefinite, unlimited duration in which things are considered as happening in the past, present, or future; every moment there has ever been or ever will be… a system of measuring duration and 2.the period between two events or during which something exists, happens, or acts; measured or measurable interval.”  In both of those definitions there are a lot of words and ideas that depend on other words for those definitions to make any sense. It is assumed we all have an idea of “future” or an “event,” for example, and that we all agree on what those ideas mean. But that, of course, is not always true. Different cultures, professions, philosophies, etc. all have their own concepts of this thing we call time.   Is there really a universal definition of time?    
    We do not have one clear definition of “time” that is universal to all circumstances; what we call “time” can be and is often many things simultaneously. We have all been in situations where time seems to slow down or stop; boring class lectures, bad films, or conversations in which someone goes on and on and on. And we have been in situations where we ae excited, having a great time, and things seem to go by too fast. “Time flies when you are having fun” is a saying most of us can relate to. But the fun experience and the boring experience could have lasted for the same duration in measurable reality; they could have both been 45 minutes when we look at the clock. So if “a system of measuring duration” works as a definition of “time,” 45 minutes is 45 minutes. But there is also a psychological and emotional measure of time, and they go beyond something a clock can capture. And we often live within those emotional/psychological definitions: they are valid to us. So there is often a difference between “clock time” and the time I feel and experience. As a human I have to navigate a world in which actual time and my emotional experience of it can be at odds with each other. Think about anxiety attacks and panic attacks over what might happen “later.” That is the personal nature of time, and sometimes we have to wrestle with living both definitions simultaneously. For we have to live in the world that is about us.
   We humans are communal. We live in groups and groups need to share some ideas about time in order to function. Different groups have spent countless amounts of time thinking about how to measure, regulate, capture, and make use of time. That measuring and regulating are thing humans do. We all acknowledge something we call “time” and we want to at least understand it in some way and get whatever use we can from it. We used the changes in river height or temperature or rain or animal movements or crop growth to let us know what we should be doing at certain points of the regular earth cycle: seasons. As we observed more of the world around us and used our thinking and toll making skills we came up with sundials, water clocks, hourglasses, and eventually mechanical and later digital clocks. Colonization and global trading systems meant that certain ideas spread around the world, so the universality of Western ideas about “Clock Time” eventually became the norm for much of the world. So when most of the Western world went to Daylight Saving Time, much of the rest of the world had to also.
   The theory behind early versions of Daylight Saving Time was that it would extend periods of daylight and therefore save energy and money.  If this was enacted cities would save money by having the electric lights turn on an hour or two later. It was also believed DST would lead to people being outside the house longer, spending money and helping the economy. It was not an easy sell to many people, but by the end of World War I most Western countries had adopted some type of DST. Germany did it first as they wanted to minimize the use of expensive artificial light during World War I. They were the first to use it nationally in 1916. After the war other European nations slowly adopted the idea largely for the same economic reasons. In the US DST was passed into law in 1918. There was originally no nationwide idea of how DST would be observed, and states had different version of what DST meant. The Universal Time Act of 1966 set a national standard country wide. Arizona and Hawaii eventually opted out of the practice, so 48 states now spring forward and fall back.
   There is still a quietly ferocious debate as to whether DST is a good idea or not. In what ways is it still economical? In what ways isn’t it? How does it help society? Hurt it? The European Union wants to scrap DST, and there are arguments regularly made in the US Congress to scrap it as well. DST may well be on the cultural endangered species list.
    Regardless of how this plays out, though, one of the major things DST shows is that humans will measure, regulate, make use of and/or alter that which is around us. Whether it is something tactile, tangible or jut and idea or concept, we seem to need to do that. So whether I am grumbling about or happy about the “extra” or “lost” hour, when I turn that clock back or forward I am a participant in that very human thing: measure, regulate, and/or make use of what is around me. Happy Daily Standard Time.

(Here is a link to an article that examines pros and cons about Daylight Saving Time:https://www.timeanddate.com/time/dst/daylight-saving-debate.html

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Miralce of the Monarchs

   A few weeks ago I wrote about the ending of summer and the antics, activities and troubles of two of our major pollinators, bees and butterflies. I got several replies to that newsletter, and I appreciate folks taking the time to write and reply. Often these recipes bring out something I had not known before or remind me of something I forgot. One of those replies to that pollinator newsletter referenced a piece I had written back in 2016 about the migration patterns and behaviors of the monarch butterfly. I had forgotten about that piece, so I went back and found it.  And I was once again amazed at the surprises that nature often holds when we look closely at it. The monarch is a beautiful butterfly, but what is even more amazing about it is its toughness. I was totally unaware of that until a summer in 2000 when we accidentally stumbled onto something that led me to find out more about this miraculous creature:

    In late August of 2000 my wife and I were on our third trip to Kingston, Ontario.   We were there for the annual Limestone City Blues Festival, started by Kingston native Dan Aykroyd and which just celebrated its 23rd year in 2019. We had discovered the festival a few years before, and we quickly made it a ritual to spend the last full week of August in Kingston before returning to our teaching jobs. The festival was the main attraction at first, but we had also enjoyed seeing and learning the area. We had been up and down Princess Street, the main drag in Kingston, and discovered about a dozen independently owned and operated bookstores. We had been to wonderful Thai, Indian, Greek and Vietnamese restaurants. We had also visited art museums on the campuses of colleges in the area and visited the wonderful Maritime Museum of the Great Lakes. We had seen gardens, farm and school museums, and historic houses. Now we were getting off a ferry boat that had taken us across the St Lawrence River to visit Amherst Island, a cute farming community that from what we read had llamas (?) sunflower farms, and a migratory bird stopover/ grassland bordering Lake Ontario. That was our intended destination- as birders we wanted to see the various hawks, owls and other birds the frequented the reserve. But we were in for a marvelous surprise.
    We drove to the northwestern end of the island, past the llama farm, a number of small crop farms, some wonderful old wooden barns, and an amazing sunflower farm all on our way to the Edwards refuge. We got out of the car, turned into the wind, and carefully walked through the large field, dodging prodigious amounts of dung from the free roaming cows on the property. We quickly spotted Cooper’s hawks, marsh hawks, kingbirds, wrens, red tail hawks, ospreys and more. But then we noticed there were all these stalks of something sticking up across the field that seemed to have some small things clinging to them. Curious, we walked a little closer, and we couldn’t believe what we saw.  There were hundreds, literally hundreds, of monarch butterflies clinging to the grass stalks and trying to hold on in face of the wind. Unbeknownst to us, we had stumbled onto part of the northern range of the monarch butterfly. It was migration time, and they were there all over the refuge. This migratory stopover was not just for birds; the monarchs used it also.
    As we went from section to section of the field monarchs would arise, float around for a bit, and then land on another stalk. At times the air would be filled with dozens of  beautiful monarchs just flitting from stalk to stalk, hovering and then landing. Looking south across Lake Ontario, I realized I could not see the shoreline of New York State; it was there but it was beyond my eyesight. Then it hit me what was going on: these fragile looking little butterflies were feeding and waiting there on Amherst for the wind to change so they could make the long trip all the way across that huge lake to continue their migration southward. No; it did not seem possible.; how could these fragile looking gentle creatures do that?? How? We were on the island for some three or four more hours, and we saw the monarchs constantly and persistently traveling from stalk to stalk, feeding, resting and preparing for the next stage in their trip. They were going to do it. We were amazed and delighted.
      As I learned later, the migration of the monarch is a very strange trip indeed. Out of the hundreds of species of butterflies, monarchs are the only ones that make a true two-way migration of hundreds of miles the way birds do. Their range is astonishing-they may cover a distance of some 2,500-3,000 miles north from Mexico to Canada.  But that is not the only astounding thing about this migration; the monarch who overwinters in Mexico and starts the migration north out of Mexico is not the same individual monarch who finishes it in Canada. Each generation of monarchs, traveling some 50-100 miles a day, makes it only so far north. They give birth to another generation along the way, and it is that next generation that travels until it is time for it to give birth to yet another generation. In all, it is the third or fourth generation of northward flying monarchs that finally reach the northeastern United States and Canada. There they find enough milkweed to spend the summer and early fall. Coming southward, though, that third or fourth generation monarch makes the trip all the way to Mexico-across Lake Ontario and onwards for over 2,000 miles. And all along the way it stops at the same trees and islands and follows the same routes that the previous years’ monarchs did on their way to a winter home they never seen before.
    Once in Mexico they cluster in large communities, shut down their natural reproductive development, and wait until next February and March. Then they seemingly come back to life and travel north in those 3-5 week spurts as their reproductive ability returns and they lay the eggs for the next generation going north. This cycle will repeat come the fall, and on and on it will go. It is an amazing saga of instinct, renewal, generational knowledge and perseverance. 
       As I re-read this I am fascinated and amazed yet again. There before us and around us, and seemingly beneath our notice, is this constant, quiet miracle of birth, re-birth, inter-generational continuity, travel, and triumph that has been going on for centuries and centuries. Miracles truly come in all sizes and in all shapes. And the seemingly gentle little monarch has a lot to teach us about miracles, perseverance and commitment.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Bees and the Butterflies and Us

  The last two weeks or so here in the Delaware Valley have let us know that there is change going on-subtle, regular, change that is quietly making itself known to us. It is a predictable change that heralds the next step in the cycle that keeps us abreast of our world. The temperatures most days have been cooler-starting in the 60’s in the morning and mostly having highs in the mid-80’s or so. There are also changes going on in the immediate world around us-colors of plants and flowers are a little duller and some of them are starting to bend over a bit in their window boxes, pots, and planters. The birds, particularly the bright yellow and black goldfinches that have been dashing about the neighborhood, are losing their brightness. Soon they will be dull colored, they will move on, and other winged friends will be moving in.  Bees and butterflies seem to be in hyper-drive, appearing more numerous and dashing determinedly from flower to flower, seemingly working overtime. Fall is in the air, and we are at another one of those wonderful spots in the year where we have the simultaneous ending of one part of the cycle and the beginning of another. And it is quietly glorious.

 I enjoy being out at times like this, noticing the skies, looking at the sun and the, moon and enjoying the whole world being in transition again. This year I have been especially focusing on the bees and butterflies in my regular walks and trips around Northwest Philly. This section of the city has always had a huge number of great gardens, window boxes, planters and flowerpots. The plantings in this area make the streets and alleys gorgeous, lively and colorful-it can feel positively joyous to be out in the morning and taking in the quiet spectacle. And the flowers and plants draw a lot of butterflies and bees that make walking the area fun and exciting. At any moment bees and butterflies can zip past or be seen hovering over and on flowers, plants, and stalks, adding color and movement to the area.  They are truly a gift to the neighborhood, and I think I have noticed a great deal more of both of these insects in the neighborhood this year. That is both good and important.

   These two creatures have been in the news a lot recently as environmentalists, entomologists, gardeners, beekeepers and more have been sounding warnings about the drastic declines in their numbers over the last few decades. There are some 4,000 species of bees native to the United States, and according to some estimates, some 700 of those species are near extinction. Butterfly numbers have also been dropping dramatically, with the United Nations estimating that 9% of butterfly species worldwide are at risk of extinction.  We are losing many of these wonderful creatures, and this would is not only an esthetic loss.Not only are they fascinating to watch and beautiful to see: they are also a vital part of our economic structure.
   Bees and butterflies are pollinators, and as such they contribute mightily to the diversity and amount of our food supply. Honeybee pollination, for example, is said to add some 15 billion dollars annually to our agriculture production. That is an important part of our economy. Clearly, they play a big role in our lives. If they are at serious risk, then so are we. (US Pollinator Information | United States Department of Agriculture

The most severe threats to these species are believed to be loss of habitat due to development and the use of herbicides, particularly chemicals found in common weed killers such as Roundup. For years there have been court cases, lawsuits, attempts at legislation, and more to address these fears, and that is happening now in the political arena. But fear of losing pollinators is also being met on a more personal and local level. It is one of the reasons for the upsurge in organic gardening. Citizens seem to be planting not only for beauty now. I have noticed that a lot more gardeners in Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill have been planting more milkweed, sunflowers, bee balm, monarda, hyacinths, and other pollinator-attracting flowers and plants in recent years. This section of Philadelphia has a number of bee keepers and honey makers living and working in it. It also features a large number of organic community and personal gardens. Planting native species is also a big ethic among a lot of the gardeners here, and that is also a part of the Fairmount Park plan for caring for the Wissahickon Creek. 
    Intentional or not, there is a clear movement to make the Northwest a pollinator friendly part of the city. I believe people acting on these concerns is behind the growth in the number of pollinators I saw this year in the Northwest section of the city. Hopefully this can continue to move and grow and spread  throughout the city, the state and the nation. I still want to see those butterflies and bees in my garden and in gardens around the world.
 (If you are interested in learning more about pollinators, their status and things being done to help them)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Remembering Toni Morrison


“If you surrender to the air, you could ride it.” The Song of Solomon

“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind — wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”  Beloved

“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”                                                                                                                         Beloved

“Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”   Sula

Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be’   Sula  

   I am a reader: I have always been a reader. I don’t know exactly when I learned to read, but I cannot remember a time when I did not read. Comic books, newspaper comics, magazines, books, poems, cereal boxes, street signs, historical markers, advertisements: if it had words in English and it was in my sight, I probably read it. It is and has been one of the most joyous and important parts of my life. I interact with words, and I interact with them in a number of different and meaningful ways. That means, of course, that I love libraries and bookstores: those two institutions have helped me read a hell of a lot of books in my life. Dramas, history books, brochures, mysteries, fantasy, pamphlets, biographies and autobiographies, comedies, and fiction from any and all genres. And I collect quotes, quotes from movies, friends, historical figures, historical sayings, plays and especially from books. I find that authors, especially novelists, often have ways of saying and expressing things that capture me, touch me deeply, and lead me to new realizations. The above five quotes are among my all-time favorite literary quotes. They give me much to reflect upon, and they have been with me for years. And they all come from the mind and vision of one incredible and powerful author: Ms Toni Morrison.

  I have been a fan of Toni Morrison for over 45 years. She has been and is a voice that causes me to pause, to look at something differently or more deeply, and to become more aware of my own expectations, biases, and assumptions. She surprises me, and she helps me look at myself, sometimes even against my own will. She has a way of assembling words in ways that build images, share feelings, evoke scenes, paint landscapes, and allow you to hear the voice and meaning of her characters and what their lives really show. Sula, set mostly in a small Ohio town, was the first of her novels that I read, and the way her narration mixed poetic language, imagination, keen imagery and observation had me stop on page after page to re-read a particular passage again out loud-to hear it and to taste it and to feel it. Her ability to make us deeply feel and know the struggles and choices her two heroines go through in their attempt “to create something else to be” is almost painful. And the ways we are shown how loneliness, anger, and self-doubt, as well as determination, can sometimes be “dangerous” ring true throughout the novel. Sula is a relatively short book: 194 pages. But it seems full and deep.  It is truly a “weighty” book. It was also one of the first novels that had me seriously and deeply connect with female characters, and that opened up a whole new literary world for me.

  Song of Solomon, with its richly and multi-layered, symbolic language and mix of folklore, Biblical references, mysticism, and harsh reality is probably my favorite of all her books. As with all of her works, one of its major themes is identity and how we come to appreciate and learn our various ones. There is also incredible word play in the work, starting with the names of characters and the specific ways each of them speaks, and going on to include irony, puns, and the quiet power of the unsaid. The way Macon Dead discovers he has to look back and down, not only to his cultural past but also to his own childhood while on his quest, resonated with me on many levels. It amazed me that one writer could not only have all of these thoughts and ideas and themes going on in her head, but that she could somehow express them on paper in such a way that they speak to real people and to their real lives. It is one book I truly regret never having had an opportunity to teach.

  But the book which first exposed me to Toni Morrison and helped deepen my own searches for identities wasn’t one she wrote. It wasn’t a novel, and it was not a book of literary criticism and analysis. It was a massively researched and beautifully pulled together scrapbook she helped edit and nurture into being. It was a joyous, painful, celebratory, anger-producing, angry, and proud collection of words, facts, records, and pictures called, The Black Book, that she helped edit and publish in 1974 while she was an editor at Random House. I encountered it at the old Robins Bookstore on 13th Street, and I had never seen anything like it. It was a trade paperback with a cover that was a collage with pictures of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and Satchel Paige, racist stereotyped advertising labels for products, a Black cowboy with a rifle and saddle, an African bronze sculpture, and the words, “The Black Book” proudly front and center. In time frame it ranged from the pre-Columbian history of Africa and South America to the black movies and music stars of the 1930’s. It also included descriptions of slave whippings, escapes, stories about Black soldiers, pioneer farmers, seamen, athletes, inventors, and scientists, pictures of all black towns in the Midwest:  it was literally a book of just about all that we as a culture have seen, been through and done. As a 24 year- old in 1974 that book sent my ADD and curious mind in a thousand different directions at once, searching and looking at things, reading, researching and listening to hundreds of new things, and increasing my own knowledge and understandings of African-American cultures and experiences. (And, yes-we are way more than just one “culture.”) I wore the pages out of two editions of that book, and I later lost my remaining well-worn one during one of my many moves. But hearing of Toni Morrison’s death On August 5th took me to the library to take out a copy. And once again it did its magic, reminding of so much about heritage, triumph, struggle, and the incredible, simple resiliency African-Americans, and indeed, all human cultures need to have in order to survive in this world. It is a joy to re-encounter it, and I am joyously working my way through it again. It never gets old.

   There is so much more I could say about Toni Morrison and her importance to United States literature, cultural studies, and intellectual development. She was a prodigious writer: she wrote 11 novels, wrote and/or edited several books of literary criticism and analysis, co-wrote 5 children’s books, and penned numerous articles. She also taught at several colleges and universities including Princeton, Rutgers, Cornell, and the State University of New York. Her output lasted from the 1970’s until now, and several generations of readers, thinkers, writers, and fans got to read, meet, and encounter her ideas.  I cannot begin to catalog the ways in which she has influenced me, She is one of my many inspirations and starting points. So many of her quotes and ideas have become a part of me and how I look at the world. If you are not familiar with her, I encourage you to take the time to encounter her. She is not an easy read by any means. But she is a read that will give you much to think about, will amaze and dazzle you with the power of the written word, and just maybe have you look at the world around you and yourself in different and rewarding ways. She is simply one of the best and most important thinkers and authors it has been my good fortune to read. Rest in Peace, Ms, Morrison. Rest in peace. And thank you, so very much.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia biography of Toni Morrison:
The Toni Morrison Society:

Link to review of The Black Book: