Peter Berger, the sociologist, wrote: “The reality of the social world hangs on the thin thread of conversation.”
One-on-one and nation-to-nation we measure each other, judge each other and choose to abide with each other (or not) by how we speak to and about each other.
Conversation is more than what we casually do just between us. Our words grow wings, and can jet around the world at the speed of sound. (Or if we are using fiber optics, at the speed of light.)
It is like the famous Norman Rockwell painting of gossiping. Only today, such conversation is aided by the instantaneous conveniences of twitter, facebook, and the dozens of other feeds that constantly keep us connected, whether we are happy about it or not.
That in and of itself is enough to tempt some of us to take a vow of silence (or impose that vow on others!).
What would the world look like if we could color-code the threads of conversations and track them as they coursed across the atmosphere?
All of which makes me see that we are also held in close communion with nature by a thin thread of conversation.
This conversation is equally complex. It possesses both the social element of human language, in which we reveal and reinforce our attitudes and relationships toward nature. What language do we use? Do we call it: nature, creation, resources, property, earth, land, dirt, soil, humus, loam, commodities, wilderness, weeds, wasteland, swamps, bogs, wetlands, peat, fuel, woods, timber, etc. Each carries its own values and valence.
And how we speak about nature affects how we treat it and value it, price it, ignore it or protect it.
Which is no doubt why the Torah tells us that in pursuing the divine act of bringing the physical world into existence, God began with the most human act of all: “And God said:”
By a bend in the Genesee River, fast along the eastern shore, right about where the massive Hutchison Building of the University of Rochester stands today, an Algonquin tribe once thrived.
They built homes from the forest’s abundant tree bark and farmed the rich soil. They occupied about 9 acres there. They created the foot paths (and followed the animal trails) that became the city’s major roads. They plied the rushing waters of the river when it was not yet tamed. It is believed that the area around the Genesee has been inhabited for thousands of years.
I thought about this tumbling re-use of land over the centuries, the chain of generations that benefited from it, and the landed legacy we inherit - and are destined to pass on - as I shuttled my son from home to dorm.
The university is known for its research in engineering and optics, and its devotion to music and art.
There is hope that a university, and especially its students, who are devoted to both beauty and progress, today and tomorrow, will help us figure out the right questions to ask, the right answers to explore, and the right things to do.
A 20-foot branch came crashing through our ceiling the other night.
It was raining a lot and a bit breezy. I can only imagine that the branch must have been compromised in some way and with the additional heft of the water absorbed, it was just too much to continue holding on.
So it let go.
I can imagine if I were hovering above a roof for years on end and finally had a chance to take a peek at what was happening underneath, I might go for it as well.
It is what we do as kids, lifting up rocks and stepping stones and rotting logs to see the life scurrying around underneath.
So it seemed with this branch. A bit invasive and a tad out-of-place. But exhibiting life’s urgent and essential curiosity.
And then the more we looked, the more we tended to the details of this branch, the more we saw a face. A long snout, bushy eyebrows, and a gentle lower jaw.
Even more than curious, this branch looked as if it were some forlorn, over-sized serpent that had gone rooting for friends and understanding when, thrusting his head down some rabbit hole to see if anybody was home, he got stuck.
For a very brief moment we toyed with keeping it there. He is becoming something like a pet. I mean “it”, it is becoming something like a pet. Or at least a nouveau decorative accent.
The roofer came a day or two ago and made a temporary seal around the hole so all is secure. The whole thing should be fixed next week. They will take a chain saw to the branch to get it out. And I will burn it in our stove when the cold weather comes again.
Then this intrusion and the forlorn looking face of Nature that seems to be carrying a worldly sadness tinged with a hopeful hint of expectation and a bigger fear of betrayal (Rorschach logs, anyone?), will just be another odd interlude in the annals of those of us who choose to live among the trees.
And it will remain a reminder that as much as we love nature, we love it on our terms.
Which, of course, nature often renegotiates.
My brother and I were at it again, arguing over the power of money as the prime motivator of the human spirit.
Maximizing one’s profits, whether through the stock market, the board room, career choice or the hording of one’s own possessions is what drives most people, so says my brother.
We were talking about the wisdom (according to my brother) or greed (according to me) of one of my neighbors who is selling his property in such a way that will maximize his take but diminish the aesthetics of the neighborhood. He has chosen to thumb his nose at the neighbors he is leaving behind and destroy one of the very attractions that lured him to this street years ago.
Why, I wonder. On the surface it appears that the answer is “money.” So while my brother can certainly claim to be right, I still believe, at root, he is wrong. For beyond tending to our basic needs, we want money not for its own sake, not for what money can buy, but for what money (and its surrogate: conspicuous stuff) can do.
Money, as Avner Offer teaches us, has the capacity to earn us the elusive gift of “regard,” that is, “acknowledgement, attention, acceptance, respect, reputation, status, power, intimacy, love, friendship, kinship, sociability.” *
Having money in our society, or even the appearance of having money, can secure those intangible but oh-so-desirable social goods that are essential to our feelings of peace, pride, satisfaction. As Adam Smith, of all people, says in The Theory of Moral Sentiments,
“What is the ... pursuit of wealth…? Is it to supply the necessities of nature? The wages of the meanest laborer can supply them… [So what are the real] advantages which we propose to gain by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition [ie, chasing ever more money]? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it.”
Which is to say, we crave money so we will not feel forgotten, overlooked, invisible, small. We crave it because we know that our lives are like ships sailing on the waters. We come and the waters part. We pass by and the waters close up again, as if we were never there. So, in a society that tends to regard what we have more than what we do, or our worth in dollars more than our worth in spirit, we crave money.
It is not money, then, that ultimately motivates us, but what it does for us, how it makes us feel.
Which begs the question: what if there were other ways to feel “regarded”? What if our compassion, our selflessness, our peace-making won regard? What if showing up when others stayed away, calling when others forgot, sharing instead of hording, earning less so that others could earn more, owning less so that others could have more, was the way our “worth” was measured, our “regard” won?
What if, in fact, having too much money was held in disregard? What if we were judged by what we gave away (in time, love, care, things, money) rather than by what we kept?
How would that change our economy, our jobs, our schedules, our heroes, our appetites, our lives, our well-being, our happiness?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find out?
*(from “Between the gift and the market: the economy of regard.”)
After a five month pilot program this past fall, Howard County is expanding its curbside compost pick-up program in Elkridge and Ellicott City.
Food makes up 14% of what goes into our nation’s landfills.
Food composting should save the county the cost of trash-removal, earn the county money (the nutrient-rich soil that is created from our kitchen and lawn scraps is black gold), and save precious space in rapidly filling landfills (which also translates into money).
Curbside composting is coming to us all. It is simply a matter of when.
My generation grew up with trash collection. My children grew up with trash collection and recycling. My grandchildren will grow up with trash collecting, recycling and composting.
But even better, as a 20-something said to me the other day, my great-grandchildren may grow with no trash collection at all - everything will be reclaimed, remade, reused, returned.
Where was the business community while the debt ceiling debate was going on?
Why weren’t they piling into Washington with grim faces and falling charts showing Congress what was likely to happen if America continued make a spectacle of itself, looking to all the world like the Osbournes had taken over the Capital?
Why are corporate lobbyists’ fingers only on the speed dial buttons when fighting for corporate welfare but not for the welfare of the nation?
Don’t they realize that their corporate welfare is dependent on the welfare of the nation, and the welfare of the nation is dependent on the middle class. If the middle class tanks, the wealthy tank too. That is what the mortgage debacle should have taught them. (Government bailouts won’t come with every crisis.)
It is the consumer that drives the economy. 70-80% of our economy is driven by what you and I buy. So when we don’t buy, and we aren’t buying now, the market suffers. Take care of us and you take care of the market. It is good old-fashioned self-interest that should move corporations to pay taxes and help balance the budget so the economy can go on humming.
And it is good old-fashioned self-interest and trickle-up economics that should have motivated corporations to weigh in.
It was clear that Washington could not resolve the debt ceiling debate alone, what with the Tea Party refusing to budge and body-snatching the Republicans, leadership and all.
There was however one strong voice that could have changed the nature of the debate, one voice that had the clout to force a fair deal, and that was the voice of the business community. “The markets instill discipline on politicians and governments,” Chris Rupkey of the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in NY is reported as saying. But in this case, they were AWOL.
As John Chambers, head of S&P’s sovereign ratings said on ABC’s “This Week”:
“It would take a stabilization of the debt as a share of the economy and eventual decline [to return the US credit rating to AAA],” he said. “And it would take, I think, more ability to reach consensus in Washington than what we’re observing now.”
This could have been the message the business community delivered months ago, sparing us all this debacle, and shame.
But they were surprisingly silent. They were either in denial, assuming all would work out in the end. America is, after all, too big to fail. Or they were hunkering down pretending they could protect themselves from all those pesky tax cuts while the country was bashing its head on the debt ceiling.
They must remember they are not separate from the rest of us. If they see themselves above us, it is only because we are carrying them.
The good news is, they will get another chance when Congress reconvenes.
Maybe next time they will do the right thing.
One third of the Chesapeake Bay is currently in what biologists call a “dead zone.” A dead zone occurs when too many nutrients, mostly from over-fertilized areas, flow into the Bay after rainstorms, causing algae to grow excessively. When the algae die, they suck oxygen out of the water and cause major trouble for Bay critters. Crabs and fish have to move if they are to survive, while already vulnerable oysters stand little chance of surviving.
There are two main solutions to this dilemma: use less fertilizer and send less nutrient-filled water to the bay. Many of us can help in both these areas in our very homes.
Turf grass (ie, what most of our lawns are made of) is Maryland’s single largest “crop” and huge contributor to the Bay’s dead-zone. Environment Maryland put out a report this past March outlining the problems and potential solutions to cutting down on this particular pollution source.
The home-grown solution is easy: love a natural lawn! There is nothing natural about the tufted lawns we have now. Most of our lawns are sprayed and fed and plucked and mown to yield a uniform smoothness that nature fights against. Why we have succumbed to this cultural fancy is a story all its own. This odd aesthetics would not in and of itself be a problem except that it is causing great problems to our local eco-system, to the animals that no longer can live there, to the people whose diet includes the seafood produced there and the watermen whose livelihood depends on that seafood.
A matter of fashion should not have such devastating effects. We can do three things to help:
Use little or no fertilizer. Once established, grass is amazingly resilient. That is why it is so hard to pluck up or dig up. Its root system is tough and it endures through droughts and cold and tough times.
Use little or no pesticides. A “weed” is not a botanical category but a human one. It is something that is undesirable, considered valueless and annoying. As “dirt” is matter out of place, so a “weed” is a plant out of place. But that is a matter of opinion and aesthetics. I love dandelions. I love the way they look. But they can also be used medicinally both internally and externally to fight bacterial infections, joint pain, skin disorders, gastro-intestinal ailments. Why we spray them to death is beyond me. So it is with other “weeds.” Torn pants used to be turned into rags. Today they are sold at a premium. Tastes and fancies can change. This one about our lawns would be for the better!
Plant something other than grass. A new industry is growing up to help us create alternatives to turf lawns. Check out ideas on the web.
Turn your lawn into a rain-garden. Besides needing little to no fertilizer or pesticides, rain gardens hold onto the rain that falls on your home and lawn. Slowing down the journey of water from home to rivers to Bay allows the earth more time to absorb the nutrients so they never reach the Bay. The earth is a natural filter, if we give it enough water and time. Rain gardens bring beauty to your home and restoration to the Bay’s waters. And the less lawn you have, the less you need to mow, the more money you save and the more CO2 you avoid putting into the air.
BJEN can help Baltimore synagogues, neighborhoods and schools explore grant programs to fund rain-gardens and other Bay-friendly landscaping. Contact me if you are interested.