All there is

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Van Gogh – Starry Night

Someone once told me they went to church because they didn’t want to believe that the physical was all there is. I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time to say that you’re asking an awful lot for there to be more than the physical, since the physical world is actually mind-blowingly huge. I remember reading a book about the universe to my daughter when she was young, and somewhere on the page that described the billions of galaxies, I had almost a physical sensation that my brain could not possibly absorb any more. Yet there was more, so much more. How could all of this not be enough? And just in case it isn’t actually enough, there’s an equally mind-bogglingly tiny universe of things that we can’t possibly understand. And if the very large and the very small aren’t enough, then perhaps the parallel universes, black holes, multiple dimensions and, to misquote Donald Rumsfeld, the known and unknown unknowns, will satisfy the need for “more”.

One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of people who believe in God, is that they seem to believe that humans are special. That humans have souls, some ghosty appendage not shared by any other creatures, and which means we get to live forever. That we’re not just some species of primate, but a superior kind of thing altogether. The trouble with thinking that we’re better than animals and plants and rocks and not even subject to the laws of nature, is that we act as though we’re not subject to the laws of nature.  We destroy the homes of our fellow Earthlings to make way for waterparks and megachurches. We confine animals in appalling conditions to produce cheap meat. We pollute water in the business of extracting fossil fuels, which we burn to heat the atmosphere. All of which is making our beautiful and very special planet uninhabitable not just for us, but for all the soulless creatures made of exactly the same stardust as we are.

I certainly won’t be going to church to feel part of something bigger than myself.  I’ll just go outside and look around.

The dark season

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“When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin

A cold front is moving through as I write this. There is thunder and lightning, wind, and rain and the temperature has dropped several degrees in the past half hour. I’m sitting in our little cabin watching the leaves fall and listening to the plink plink of raindrops on the metal roof. That fine stretch of mild and sunny fall days appears to be over and we are being transported rather ceremoniously into the dark season. Once we go back to standard time in a couple of weeks, the darkness will be a constant. We’ll only ever be a few hours from blackness and even during the middle of the day, the sun will be feeble and low on the horizon. This dark and stormy afternoon is foreshadowing many dark days to come.

I feel this darkness as a physical sensation. It weighs me down until late January, when at last, glimpses of light return. I do my best to get outside every day in the winter; to make sure I soak up every bit of light there is and sometimes, when it is clear and cold, and the light is reflecting off snow and ice, to feel relief. Even when it is snowy, or windy, or freezing rain, I like to get out in it, for a while at least, if only to appreciate the warmth inside afterwards. When I worked in an office, I used to have to get out into the weather everyday just to feel alive.

One of the pleasures of heating with wood, is that a fire provides not only heat but light as well, and the warm glow of a wood fire is as perfect an antidote to a cold night as there can be. We have a wood stove in our living room and one in the tiny cabin in our woods and they both contribute to my sanity throughout the winter.

The coming dark season does rather seem like a fine excuse to think darker thoughts and eat darker chocolate, and I plan to do both.

Have you ever really known a chicken?

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From left: Martha, Penny and Luxanna contemplating the wider world and their place in it.

When I look at large groups of people; soldiers marching in formation or images of Chinese factory workers, I see the group. I see the uniforms and stoic expressions. I might wonder for a second about the guy who is a head taller than the rest, or the worker with a wry smile, but it does not cross my mind to think about the life of the fellow, fourth from the left, who looks the same as all the rest. When it comes to animals I’m even worse. I see cows or pigs or chickadees. But not chickens.

Our backyard has been home to half a dozen or so chickens for nearly five years. Some have been with us since the beginning, some are younger, and two were hatched and raised right here by a broody hen.

Every one of the birds has a distinct personality and place in the flock. At first glance they all look like chickens doing chicken things, but to my more familiar eye, they are individuals doing chicken things, more or less, but certainly with their own personalities and relationships.

Patty, a red hen, is one the of the old birds. Since she stopped laying very many eggs, she has filled out glorious feathers, comb and wattles, and I always think of her as a middle age woman in full strength and vitality, if not fertility. She climbs a full story up onto our raised deck every day at around supper time to receive a little treat of rolled oats or wheat berries. She peeks in through the glass door until someone obliges her. Patty and Lisa used to be practically inseparable, until Lisa had a mid-life crisis a few weeks ago, more on which later.

Patty’s new companion, though not bff, is Luxanna, another red hen. Luxanna is scrawny and always slightly unkempt looking, but one of our best layers. She spends much of her time exploring away from the others and has gone through periods where she decided to bed down on the woodpile, instead of inside the coop with the others. Luxanna is a plucky chicken.

Uhura is known for laying huge eggs and chasing the dog. She’s pretty vocal at times, especially in the morning before the coop door is opened for the day.

Martha is a pretty Barred Plymouth Rock. From the time she was a day old, she was slower and dumber than the rest. Martha has been voted most likely to be eaten by a coyote, as she does not seem to have developed any smarts over the years.

Our broody hen is Penny. A broody hen is one that will sit on eggs until they hatch, pretty much no matter what. The last two years we have indulged her maternal instinct and found fertilized eggs for her to raise. The other birds seem to understand her aggressiveness towards them when she is raising chicks, because they welcome her back without any hesitation when she returns to the flock.

Lisa is a huge, white, old bird. She recently broke up with her constant companion Patty, and moved into the portable coop with Penny’s brood from this year. We carried her into the main coop a few nights in a row, but she would not be deterred, so we let her stay with the youngsters, where she remains. The most remarkable thing about Lisa is her new hobby of crowing. Our young rooster is still practicing, but Lisa produces a respectable cockadoodledoo most mornings. Lisa has a violent reaction to the sight of me in red flip-flops. She has never explained nor apologized for the injuries she has inflicted on me.

Anyone who has ever had a dog or cat, or even a pet rat, knows that animals have personalities, feelings, and relationships. Of course it makes sense that other animals would have rich inner lives too, but it is a continuing pleasure to observe the daily dramas of a little group of birds.

Thanksgiving for a climate realist

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In my little corner of the woods, we’ve had as fine a stretch of September weather as I can ever remember, and it has extended right into the first half of October. Day after day of mild, sunny perfectness that a person could really get used to. Meanwhile, my life is one bit of ordinariness after another. Drive a kid somewhere, clean something, cook something, walk the dog, rinse, repeat.

Occasionally, my oblivious housewifing is interrupted by reading or hearing some terrible news about the likelihood that the planet will become uninhabitable for humans in the near term unless we make drastic changes soon. That our kids will have reduced lifespans because the environment will not actually be suitable for the continuation of life as we know it. But somehow, I’m able to stick that information in the part of my brain that has a very secure lid, and carry on planning a new kitchen. Life has never been better chez nous.

When I’m feeling thoughtful, I sometimes wonder shouldn’t I be doing something; or at least yelling at the top of my lungs on every street corner and social media website, warning folks about the coming shitstorm? But then I think, yeah, we’re all going to die, what’s different about that? It’s just the hubris of the modern age that has convinced us that somehow we were going to be the exception to that rule. Very few of us ever were going to be lucky enough to slip peacefully into oblivion in our sleep, leaving a pretty corpse and clean browser cache. No, we’ve always been doomed to either suffer pain and indignity at the end, or else die suddenly and leave behind an unprepared family, forced to change all their plans that involved good old healthy and alive us. So the only thing different now is that the remote possibility of living into peaceful and healthy extreme old age is remoter still. What would be so wrong if we all lived like patients given a year to live; if we enjoyed these pleasant moments like they were the last ones?

Report after report says things are heating up faster than predicted. The ice is melting and oceans are acidifying, faster than we could have known, and words like “tipping point” and “runaway” are getting thrown around by bankers and insurance companies, not just the usual suspects.

I live in a country where the government has labeled people concerned with climate and environmental issues as ideological extremists, while they promote tar sands development and exports without any regard for the climate or even for the health of citizens who live near them. Government scientists are muzzled while funding is cut for basic environmental research. Spin and propaganda is used by all sides to convince the public to support them, but no one dares tell the truth. The conservatives tell us that we can extract all the carbon we want, and in fact must to save the economy, because we can mitigate the negative effects, if any. The other political parties either believe the same thing, but won’t let on, or tell us we can have a sustainable economy if only we wish hard enough.

This is all to say that I really don’t think the whole world is going to get together and agree to do anything meaningful that will actually change the outcome. Not before it’s already too late, anyway. So like the hospice patient who is spending the last months living life rather than fighting for a miracle cure, I’m actively appreciating these beautiful days and the people in them. Is this the last “normal” Thanksgiving? Probably not. Almost certainly we have years rather than months of decent quality of life. By this time next year, things will be almost the same as they are now, but we will have endured some more extreme weather, and more trees will have died, and no doubt somewhere in the world, people will have endured unimaginable suffering and probably it won’t be us. I will be grateful for the sunshine when it’s out, and the rain when it comes, the fire in the woodstove when it’s cold, and a family to share it with.