Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Stories that matter

Our stories of matter should matter.
Stuff to stuff, spun by our own star, spinning together life from dead breath.

We are tied to the air and to the land. We are tied to the stuff that swirls into our bodies with ever breath.

We are made of air.
Our stories once reminded us who we are, they now serve to sever us from anything that reminds us of our own mortality.

Science starts with the ground we walk on. So I share the same stories over and over again.

Turns out the ravens may be sharing stories, too. We are not the only ones aware of those beyond our own skin.

As we forget, I find comfort knowing other creatures will remember long after we've left.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

White moderation continues to kill

When I die, I hope nobody mistakes my kindness for niceness. I am not a nice man.
Dr. King's life profoundly affected mine.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice....Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
Martin Luther King, Jr., from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

The photo of Dr. King (D.C., August, 1963)  is from the National Archives and is the public domain.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Limbaugh and technology: a cautionary tale

A cautionary tale for me....

We're about a day away from the end of the darkest three weeks of the year.
The light has been surreal--grey upon grey.
There are no shadows, there are no edges to the light.
Winter is here.

I listened to some chatter on the radio today, some guy named Rush Limbaugh. I was fascinated.

The disconnect between reality and fantasy feeds a frothing class of folks who have been removed from the land, who fuel a suspect economy based on abstraction and fear, who know something is missing, and will use hate to fill the void.

Our science is about to let us manipulate genomes with impunity.
We are not ready, and I doubt that we ever will be.

Wes Jackson said it best--"we ought to stay out of the nuclei."
We won't so long as we can. of course.

I teach science, and I'm reasonably good at it, but there are days when I'd rather not think of what actually occurs in my classroom.
  • Jellyfish genes end up in bacteria, by the hands of young humans, mostly for the wow effect of seeing bacteria fluoresce.
  • Frogs and fetal pigs are sliced open with too little regard for the place their hearts last beat.
  • Pill bugs occasionally die through the carelessness of a young scientist.

The simplest, most powerful fight I have against our culture's unrestrained love of technological power may be letting students  plant basil seeds they harvested from dried flower heads using their fingers for something their fingers were meant to do.

The story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge is a myth, of course, but it is a deep and disturbing old story that resonates today. I'm not sure the tiny black seeds of last summer's basil flowers can ever compete with the siren song of high tech, but I have seen the joy a germinating plant can bring to a child who has never sown a seed before.

So much of what we require our kids to do today has little to do with the mammalian body that blesses each of us.

We need more wildness.
We need more us.

Happy New Year, everyone. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

We are hol(e)y

Thoughts while waiting for the light to return.....

While science rests on models, abstract shadows of patterns drawn out of noise, the models ultimately depend on nature.

Nature is the concrete stuff around us, in us, of us. Our children do not know this because we do not know it ourselves, so we do not teach this.

If we knew (and made a deliberate effort to remain conscious of what we know) our relationship with the natural world, we would change in ways that would make us happier. But that's never been the point of public education, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.


Our deepest selves, in the literal sense, take in molecules from this concrete world with each breath--our skin is a holey border revered by our sense of self, an ego that believes we are something separate from this stuff around us--but every living cell needs to interact with the world beyond ourselves or else it will die.

When we bleed, we mourn the tear in our border, but not the thousands of white blood cells, of us, writhing in a drop of blood that falls from a pricked finger into the rich earth of the garden. A few bacteria may be caught in the unseen drama before our cells ultimately lose the fight, themselves consumed by life unseen in the dirt.

While the story is abstract, the reality is not.

We are holey, we are not one.


Living (for most critters on this planet), means doing the things you need to do to get the stuff and energy required to keep your pieces together in some sort of organized way that lets you stay alive. While your physical being (a cell, a body, a colony, whatever) eventually crumbles, this living process called life continues through generations, life that is as much a part of you eons ago as it may be eons from now. We all share this with all other living things, reason enough to rejoice.

As we crumble and rebuild, crumble and rebuild, it becomes obvious that you and me are put together from stuff outside of our holy selves. Plants knit together the carbon, and we take it from there. What is not as obvious is that we are crumbling and rebuilding moment by moment, so that the stuff of you today is hardly the stuff of you just a few years ago, stuff that was once part of the nonliving, stuff of the dead, stuff of the still living.

We are holy, we are one.

The stuff we have here on Earth doesn't change much day to day--we get a few hundred tons of space dust every day, and we're losing hundreds of tons of hydrogen gas at the same time, but neither has much to do with day to day living here on Earth.

We are literally recycled stuff, bits and pieces put together in orderly fashion through the living before us, using the grace of free energy released by the sun.

We live (and die) by cycles, the cycles of stuff, and the cycles of seasons (which ultimately depend on the waxing and waning of available sunlight.

The great religions, at their best, have shared these truths with us for thousands of years. Science is starting to get there now, after a dark period of reductionist thought that still dominates our thinking in the western world.

So take a breath--feel the oxygen enter your lungs, imagine it coursing through your arteries to your cells, know that it will be transformed to water as it rejoins protons and electrons stripped from water by a plant not so long ago.

Eat an orange--feel the food surge down your esophagus, to be broken down into tinier and tinier bits, ultimately reduced to the carbon dioxide you breathe out, and to the protons and electrons that will join the oxygen you just took in.

Reason enough to say grace to the stuff, to the light, to us, to everything we call "stuff."

Photos by Leslie (sludge pile, sunset) and me (hops, shell)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Clam and kale soup

Not a post--I put my recipes where I can find them later

Low tide at 4:55. Sunset at 4:44.

The dreary December dusk descended with a breeze stiff enough to make my rake handle vibrate when held across the wind. The water-warmed wind wrapped around me like a September squall.

Foam broke off the back bay waves and skipped onto the mudflat, fleeting beach demons dissolving in the darkening gloom.

I got my dozen, then put three back. I had what I needed.

Back home kale waited for me.
  • Two handfuls of fresh dug clams
  • Three fistfuls of fresh cut kale
  • A few sprigs of rosemary cut off the bush
  • A small onion
  • Just enough olive oil
  • Big dab of butter
  • A glass (or two) of white wine
  • A cup of half and half cream

Prep the clams: 
  • Scrub the clams.
  • Bring clam pot water (about 3/4" deep) to boiling
  • Put clams in until opened.
  • Scoop out the clams, chop up the meat, save the juice, and hold in bowl until all clams cooked.
  • Once all clams cooked, dump chopped clams and juice back into the clam water and let simmer.
Everything else:
  • Pour just enough olive oil into iron skillet to coat bottom.
  • Toss in a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and cook until leaves flatten in oil, then remove the sprigs
  • Toss in chopped onion, and let simmer until onions start to sweeten just so
  • Pour in wine, and let simmer for 5 minutes
  • Rip up kale and toss into above in several handfuls--each handful should shrink into manageable size before tossing in the next.
  • Toss in dab of butter, simmer until melted
Put it together:
  • Pour the kale broth into the clam broth
  • Simmer a few minutes, long enough so that the kale and clams get acquainted
  • Toss in cup of half and half, turn off flame, and let set for 5 minutes.

Serve with bread and Guinness.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

St. Stephen's Day, a day late....

A reminder from last year's adventures
It is one thing to write of mortality, quite another to kiss its cheek.
I am in the land of the fine again, but we all are dancing in the same shadow.

Flatiron Building, 1902, Library of Congress

A St. Stephen's Day Story

My great grandfather was a bricklayer at a time when New York City, just a sail away, was laying a lot of bricks. He'd come to the States, ply his trade, then return to the island.

In New York City there are many magnificent buildings erected on the backs of those who traveled from home, because they had to, and I am sure many families in the area claim a particular building (or two) as their own.

To whom does a garden belong? The gardener who digs into the rich bed of life, or the rich man who pays for his gardener's services? And so it is with the Flatiron Building in New York City. It is as much ours as anyone with a legal claim to the deed.

I can only imagine the thoughts running through a man far younger than myself as he tumbled several stories to the street below in a city far from his home. I can only imagine the pain and fear as he was carted off to a hospital, at a time when no one expected a man to survive a fall like that.

I do not have to imagine, though, that he prayed.
I have little doubt that in his prayers, after, of course Jesus and Mary, he prayed to St. Stephen.
Stoning of St. Stephen, Paolo Uccello, 1435

St. Stephen was stoned to death for a few reasons, but clearly he agitated those in power with his belief that  "the most High dwells not in temples made with hands." He is the patron saint of bricklayers, which would be ironic in most cultures.

So today is a good reminder to me to remember a few things that matter:
  • We are here by the tenuous thread we call the Grace of God.
  • Though our individual threads will break, we are all part of a larger, living tapestry.
  • Spills, even bad ones, can end well.
  • We revere the temples of learning at our peril.

I am the same man;
I will not be the same teacher.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Pill bug Christmas prayer

My Christmas prayer last year....

Less than a mile away, in the gray shadows of a closed classroom, a pill bug wanders around some compost, feeling relief as it moistens it gills. It stumbles onto a fellow pill bug, exchanges greetings with a brief twitching of touching antennae, then ambles over to a piece of potato.

Wild pill bug, loitering on a North Cape May driveway.

It sees light we know exists, but no human will see today.
It knows sound we know exists; an old analog clock ticks a few feet away.
It knows of existence, and the existence of others like it.

Christmas means nothing, of course, to a critter no bigger than a wheat berry.
But living does.

The light is returning.

There is joy and wisdom in silence and darkness.
Merry Christmas!