Wangari Maathai grew up in her homeland in Kenya, living close to the earth and learning traditional Kikuyu values and practices. Her memoir, Unbound, describes her daily activities as a child, her mother’s teachings, and how her people regarded the streams and forests in a land where the balance of nature is delicate, not to be abused without serious consequences for its inhabitants.
In Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, Maathai’s wisdom is distilled onto each page, every sentence the next drop in the flow. Wangari describes herself as working practically to solve problems she learned about in discussions with communities and among women’s groups. Their need for clean water, and for access to earn a living, were her daily concerns. Eventually, Wangari and the women she served established the Greenbelt Movement that planted over 30 million trees in Kenya.
In Replenishing, Wangari’s concerns about the destruction of the environment in Kenya are examined in light of the world’s sacred traditions. Always a practical perspective, her observations and reflections give readers much to consider often through humor. For example she writes that God in his wisdom created Adam on Friday. If he’d created him on Monday he’d have perished for lack of food!
Wangari Maathai’s clarity of thought is invaluable in this age where massive destruction of oceans, rivers, wildlands, and forests have imperiled life the world over. She and the women of Kenya remind us of the earth-shaking power of people to replenish the earth, if we choose to do so.
Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God is a masterpiece of contemporary American literature. After 16 novels, books of poetry, and memoir, and nominations for the Pulitzer, and winner of the National Book Award, this novel is a culmination of her storytelling, use of language, and imagination.
I’ve read and studied Erdrich’s works for at least 15 years, eagerly awaiting each new novel. Some have exceeded my expectations, others have not but are still excellent reads. But this one, THIS is an achievement — not just for her as a writer and artist — but for our times.
The writing is beautiful and flows with such ease, concise yet vivid description, that reading is seamless. The plot moves with tremendous pace and at times I was so full of suspense that I had to put my hand over the next sentence to keep myself from jumping ahead. As a woman with a daughter and sisters, and nieces, I was drawn to the main character, Cedar, who writes a diary for her unborn child — a record of a time when all that people assumed would never change was upended overnight.
If you are a woman of child-bearing age or a woman concerned about protection of women’s rights, if you are a a man who values women, a person of faith, or a citizen who wishes to understand this age, this time on earth, then you need to read this book. The earth is changing, we are changing.
In the dystopian tale, so prescient for today, she manages to still uplift the reader. She is a weaver of legend, personal destinies, and her own cultural perspective. Louise Erdrich manages to show us there is still hope, still good to be cherished and brought forward in all of us. Yet, Erdrich bravely portrays a potential future that threatens all we hold as good and right in human behavior, and the fate of the earth.
The spiritual nature of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff was an awesome experience for me. The sight of these sacred mountains took me off guard when they first came into view, and indeed, were the focal point of the sky all the way to Holbook, Arizona. I can see why so many first nations hold these mountains in such reverence, when from anywhere for hundreds of miles the shimmering white peaks are a beacon of light and orientation. The Hopi believe the Kachina spirits live at the top of the peak. Looking at this forested hillside on the way up the mountain to Snowbowl, I can almost feel the spirits there.
Our Lady of Guadalupe inspires millions of believers, offering a mothering balm of love, peace, and forgiveness through her Blessed Son. Read the legend of the appearance of the Holy Mother on Tepeyac Hill near Mexico City. Her apparition was witnessed by Juan Diego who had gone to the hill at the request of his Bishop to gather roses for the church. The Bishop’s actions were inspired by a request for a sign from the Holy Mother after she asked the Bishop to build a church on the hill. When Juan Diego returned with the roses, an image of the Holy Mother was embedded in his tilga–a garment that has remained without any sign of wear or age for the last 485 years.
Miracles do happen but we never know how or sometimes why. The universe and the Earth herself are imbued with numinous qualities that we intuit but can never “prove”.
In my novel Threshold, Dolores Olivarez is a devout Catholic who recites the Rosary as she hikes the mountain to the top.
At the summit, she looks out over the vast metropolis, and then down at the Birthplace of Tucson at the base of the mountain.
From a place of reverence, Dolores seeks to understand the meaning of her time and place, much as Juan Diego climbed to gather his roses.
In Threshold, Luna Lopez, a Tohono O’odham youth, is learning basket-making from an elder. She discovers the recurring pattern of a maze on her teacher’s baskets and queries what it means. Rather than tell her outright, Mrs. Romero tells an old Pima story. Luna is left to interpret it in her own life.
As the narrative unfolds, Luna recognizes circularity in things around her: seasons, natural history of trees and plants, and her own circulation system. She begins to intuit that the “man in the maze” is about her inner life.
Does time bend each September allowing us to return to it, to perhaps increase our understanding? If so, let us approach it with reverence.
Dr. Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a lifelong desert dweller, a linguist, and cultural preservationist. In 1999 she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her work creating a Tohono O’odham book of grammar. However, Dr. Zepeda’s poetry is what I wish to focus on and how the chance encounter with her performance in the first week of my residency in Tucson led to my deep feeling for a place and community as culturally rich as any I’ve known.
The poetry reading took place in the circular auditorium (kiva) in the American Indian Studies Department at U.A. In the large room with rows pitched down toward the lectern in its center, a soft voice rose and fell. Dr. Zepeda’s was reading from her book, Ocean Power. She spoke in O’odham and English, alternating between each as she read. I closed my eyes to listen to the language of desert communities at Tucson’s origin.
She explained the relationship of her family and community to rain in the desert, its precious nature, and how, after the long hot, dry foresummer, the first monsoon clouds gather, and people point and wait for the first cold dollops of rain.
After her lecture, I walked to my hot, dusty car to drive home. Not long after I was on the road, a massive monsoon cloud, as black as coal, threw lightening strikes like explosions on the ground, and rain burst from the sky, falling n buckets, cleansing the car and blinding my sight. I had to pull over. Flood waters gushed around drains, cars stalled as the water rose, but all the people smiled behind their windshields or stood outside their vehicles with open arms, letting the storm soak them to the bone. It was a celebration, first delivered through Dr. Zepeda’s poetry and, then, by the monsoon itself. I believe to this day that hearing about rain on the desert in O’odham made the impact of the storm much deeper for me. It was a true rite of passage. Listen to a short video about Dr. Zepeda.
As the New Year begins today, I am listening to Paul Baker’s beautiful Celtic harp renderings on The Quiet Path.
I believe it is important to be aware of first steps with the gift of this New Path.
Time as we Westerners perceive it, is a linear path. But, many other cultural traditions see time as circular, spiral in nature, turning back on itself, learning again and again until the lesson at each part of a life’s path, is complete.
On this first day of the new year, the new physical cycle of the sun’s path, take time to understand where you are on your life’s path. The sun “returns”, lengthening daytime, illuminating our perceptions, invigorating growth and fruitful endeavor.
Happy New Year My Dear Family and Friends!
“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”
The cries for boots on the ground in Syria, for retribution, and a growing “fear of other” are not new. In fact it is a predictable response to perceived threats to Americans.
I remember so well the face of George W. Bush as he declared “Mission Accomplished” after the first few rounds of that administration’s “Shock and Awe” campaigns. Did it make Iraq safe, did it stamp out terrorism? Is Al Quaeda wiped out?
No, in fact the opposite is true, and many analysts now target the Iraq War as the beginning of the rise of ISIS.
Another pernicious behavior among Americans is the “fear of the other” – of anyone perceived to not look like “us”…us being white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian immigrants. Americans are and never were of that description though the people in power for so long could be described that way. Of course, over nearly 3 centuries of grieving their rights, Americans begrudgingly are accepting that the “face” of the United States is multi-ethnic, and religiously diverse.
Let us not forget these ugly facts that are a part of our history: genocide of Native Americans; enslavement and persecution of African Americans; internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and so on.
Now the cry is to keep out Syrian refugees who might harbor terrorists. The fear is understandable in light of the bombing of a Russian jet, killing all aboard; the Paris shootings and slaughter, and the Beirut attacks on civilians — all claimed by ISIS as retribution for our way of life. This is a threat no doubt. But let it not push away our better angels to respond in an equal force, BECAUSE WE HAVE RECENTLY BEEN REMINDED THAT THE STRATEGY DOES NOT WORK, IN FACT IT CREATES WHAT IT PURPORTS TO STAMP OUT.
This is a time for calm, for prudent decision making and for our humanity to be strengthened. The Syrian refugees are fleeing the forces that have destroyed their homeland. Just as the Irish fled to America under the brutal oppression of the English in the nineteenth century. Our relatives were refugees fleeing from brutal forces, poverty, and oppression. Let us not forget who we are and extend a helping hand to people who are without country, without the basic resources to live.
We can keep our humanity and also keep our country safe.
E.O. Wilson reigns in my mind as our most important scientist-author of our time. He is University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard. Wilson has two Putlizer’s under his belt, for On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants with Bert Holldobler (1991).
He has penned dozens more books that have stayed on the New York Times Bestseller lists over decades of his career. He writes for the public as well as scientific community. If you have never read anything by Wilson, I recommend The Diversity of Life as a starting point. While published first in 1992, it is still relevant to understand the diversity of life across the planet, and – most important – the conservation areas that Wilson recommends must be preserved for the healthy functioning of the biosphere.
But, my reason for this post is to review his recent book, The Meaning of Human Existence (2014). Why is it important to read? He is most likely the most erudite scientist writing for the public today. His understanding of who we are as a species and society is informed by his comprehensive grasp of our genetic inheritance, the dynamics of sociobiology – how we function as a group – and the challenges to our existence in the near and distant future. Yes, it IS that significant.
The book calls for the reunification of the humanities with science. Wilson argues that the current separation of these two great ways of knowing our human nature, is at the crux of our possible self-destruction by lack of understanding our roots in nature. He explains the most basic evolutionary path leading to our essential human nature: our dualistic nature, usually ascribed to the humanities to explain.
Wilson shows us how our “selfish” genes and “altruistic” genes evolved, and how they work in a multilevel natural selection. This is relevant in understanding why we do what we do, predicting the kinds of decisions we will probably make, and – once understanding this – how we could use this knowledge to make critical decisions about new technologies that may doom human existence or secure our continued success into the future.
The Threat of Gene Engineering of Human Beings
He is writing about the new potential to design our own genetic endowment – design humans like we want them. This can also be applied to new threats from artificial intelligence (AI), a topic he does not address in this book, but which occurred to me as I read the book during a time when the nation is discussing the challenges inherent in AI development.
If we do not understand, who we are, and know how to understand our behavior, how can we possibly make these new, complex ethical decisions? Wilson writes that religion, which introduces a supernatural being who is in control of humans and the universe, is an outdated way of knowing that currently blocks human society’s ability to understand how the world works and based on that, to make the collective decisions we need to determine to secure that human life on earth will go forward as we know it.
What do you think about that? Does religion prevent us from knowing who we are biologically? How can we bridge the gap between these two powerful ways of knowing our story on Earth? Please comment so that we can discuss this online.