Sunday, April 5, 2015

At the end of my rope

Black & White Rendition at Hampton Beach
CC Jean StimmellL 3/29/15

Today is April 5th

In the old days, when I worked as a stone mason,
you could always start work by April first,
knowing the snow would be gone.
You could count on it...

But no longer!

The garden is submerged
under a foot of snow.
The driveway's slick with ice.
More snow predicted for tonight.

Unpredictability is the new normal
since us humans have screwed up
Mother Nature's thermostat.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The heron signifies those who fear the disorder of the world

I was mesmerized by this heron I recently photographed on Assateague Island in Maryland. Her stare pierced me with a primal blast of wisdom beyond anything our modern world has to offer. Could she be – in essence – a mythological creature? 

I did some research and found my answer in a bestiary.

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Such a book could be called a natural history of mythical creatures because they collected information about each animal, starting with what was known from ancient times.[1]

Originating in the Ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals, birds and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.[2]

Here’s what one Medieval Bestiary said about my heron:

General Attributes: “The heron is a bird that is wiser than all others, because it does not have many resting places, but lives near to where its food is. It nests in high trees, but gets its food from the water. It never eats carrion. It is afraid of rain storms and flies high above the clouds to avoid them; thus when a heron takes flight, it means that a storm is coming.”

Allegory/Moral: “The heron signifies those who fear the disorder of the world, and to avoid its storms fly high above it in spirit.”[3]

[1] Bestiary: The Natural History of Mythical Creatures by Terryl Whitlatch
[3] The Medieval Bestiary.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Becoming Gaia

Young princess
daring to leap
becomes one
 with all

I took this mythic-appearing photo of a young girl 

jumping off a sand dune at Hampton Beach 
as evening enveloped her on the  winter solstice.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A myth is what we call someone else's religion

Crater on Ceres 
or Bow Lake at sunset
CC Jean Stimmell: 3/6/15
It has been said that a myth is 
what we call someone else's religion.

In ancient times
one's fate was determined by
Apollo, Athena, and that whole crew:

The Oracle of Delphi
was always consulted
before voyagers set forth
in their swift ships.

Now science is our de facto god
But, really, what has changed?

Observe the narrative
in the newspaper today
about our swift ship
called Dawn on her "voyage
 between Mars and Jupiter
to visit a dwarf planet
named Ceres."

"'It went exactly the way we expected.
Dawn gently, elegantly slid into Ceres' 
gravitation embrace,' said the chief 
engineer of the NASA mission.

The drama is the same
only now our oracle
is an engineer.
Is it ice?
The bright spots inside a 92km-wide crater have been the big surprise
of the encounter with Ceres so far. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Back to the Future

A Verson of this essay with a different title and photo 
was published in the Concord Monitor 3/21/15
Photo collage: Collapsing barn in Epsom into big box store
CC Jean Stimmell: 2011
Back to the Future

I had an unusual dream recently about investing with my friends in a nonprofit farm which, rather than grow organic vegetables, celebrates entropy. We are all standing there together, surveying our grounds, happy with things just the way they are: Outbuildings settling comfortably into the earth, stonewalls falling down in artistic disarray, the old homestead clad in rich earthy tones like a majestic standing-dead, pine tree.

I think my dream was triggered by attending the opening of Susan Lirakis’s superb photography exhibit at the Epsom Library, giving me a chance to reconnect with many old friends from over the years, counterculture people who are now successful artists and craft people: A wonderfully mellowing community streaked with silvery gray, steeped now with the wisdom that comes with an appreciation of entropy that only comes from age.

Many of us, burned out from the political upheavals of the sixties, joined the back-to-the-land movement, retreating to the hills of NH, in search of something authentic and sustainable in a world  spinning wildly out of control. In the 1970s, I helped my friend and master woodworker, Neil English, build my small homesteader house. I grew big gardens, raised pigs and chickens; and earned my living building dry-laid stonewalls. At some point, early on, I started writing occasional columns for the Concord Monitor and taking black and white photographs I printed in my basement darkroom.

My passion in those early years was photographing old Yankee houses and barns. On most any back road, you could find some falling down. Part of me felt like an anthropologist documenting the demise of a vanishing tribe: those crusty old Yankees able to wrest a sustainable living from the rocky soil through an indigenous understanding of the land and the sacred rhythms of nature.

These magnificient post and beam buildings, falling into disarray, a totem to this bygone era, were now being overtaken by a seemingly unstoppable, spreading amoeba of  ricky ticky, suburban houses and flimsy, cookie cutter strip malls. A modern day Tocqueville traveling through America, Norwegian novelist, Karl Knausgaard, succinctly put his finger on what we, the Sixties Generation, were rebelling against:

“I had never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all differences the way this country did. In a system of mass production, the individual workers are replaceable and the products are identical. The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams. Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity.”⁠1

Remarkably, as things turned out, despite monumental societal and economic dislocation, many of the old buildings I photographed survived. Although both the buildings and my generation are showing the inevitable infirmities of age, we have much to celebrate because the prevailing cultural winds in this country have started to shift from mass produced, mindless conformity to a  yearning for a return to a sustainable, mindful way of life where we can empower ourselves by acting locally within our community in concert with the dictates of mother nature. 

One recent wave of change came as consumers, wanting to eat healthier and more sustainably, began rejecting giant agribusiness’s hermetically sealed, bland fodder – grown who knows where – for fresh, real food, grown locally. This movement is growing geometrically, morphing into farmers’ markets, co-ops of all kinds, and moving toward a collective mandate to buy locally, green, and sustainably, whatever it is one needs to have.

The underlying vision” as Rebecca Solnit has written,  “is neither state socialist nor corporate capitalist, but something humane, local and accountable… as in direct democracy.”⁠2

We are now witnessing the next wave of this vision coming from the art world, where as with food, consumers are now starting to demand the real thing: authentic art steeped with a sense of place, created by a local artisans they can relate to.  

Of course, this paradigm shift is not without precedent: in fact, it is only going back to the way things used to be before the advent of mass media.

For instance, in Northwood we had our Grange Hall with regularly scheduled entertainment and music. Back then people weren’t couch potatoes watching sit-coms on TV but active participants: singing, playing instruments, dancing, telling stories… All that creative community involvement shriveled up to the vanishing point over time with the advent of radio, then TV and now the internet.

What comes around, goes around: the local art community has returned.

I thought of this at Susan’s open house in Epsom, standing next to Neil English who now is in great demand, restoring those old, once falling down, post and beam buildings while, in his spare time, he has morphed into an acclaimed poet and performer. His wife Leigh is a award-winning calligrapher. And the list goes on: there are scores of respected artists and craft people, over and above those at the exhibit opening, living within 15 miles from my secluded Northwood home.

The days of anonymous, collective conformity and mass produced widgets is on the wane.  I am proud of my generation for doing our small part to make this happen and even happier that I have managed to  live long enough to see that cultural entropy is not a straight, downhill slide but circular. 

With the wisdom of age, I see now that the winding down process I experienced in the 1970s after Vietnam is part of the universal cycle of existence. Yes, autumn inexorably descends into the still depths of winter, but after the solstice comes the return of the light, which, in turn, ushers in the return of Spring and resurrection. 

1 My Saga, Part I, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. NYT Magazine, 2/25/15


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Nos Mas!

CC Jean Stimmell: 2/22/15
Snowmageddon 2015
–the endless winter –

Arctic air surges back tomorrow.
Average temp this month 11.4 degrees
– 12 degrees below normal –
42.4 “ of snow so far this month alone.

North facing windows covered with snow
ice dams and menacing icicles adorning our roof
Even The Buddha outside my office door is caving:

No Mas! He pleads to Old Man Winter: 
No More.

CC Jean Stimmell: 2/22/15
Old Man Winter:
a smirking genie
released by climate change
from a tree stump

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Our Traumatized Nation: A Culture of Fear

The following essay was published in the Concord Monitor 2/18/15
Wire protecting the perimeter:Danang Vietnam 1966
CC Jean Stimmell
Psychological insights into our culture of fear, love affair 
with guns –& a modest proposal toward a way forward

The Monitor recently featured a superb essay by Jonathan Baird on how we as Americans have become enmeshed in a culture of fear, spurred on by a “24/7 media spin cycle that thrives on sensationalism.” He points out how this fear mongering has been toxic to our collective sense of who we are as a people.

Fear in our culture, in its current form, has been gathering strength since President Nixon and Reagan ran for office on “law and order” platforms that exaggerated or, even in some cases, manufactured fearful scenarios, while characterizing their opponents as “weak” on the issue, in order to generate public support.

When the 9/11/01 attacks struck, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy: What did I tell you, the world is a terribly dangerous place!

The Twin Towers collapse also smashed our naïve belief that we are an exceptional people, immune to such tragedy: it was only supposed to happen to other countries – not us! 

Then, rather than being given space to grieve and heal, we were subjected to an endless loop of rewinds  – continuing to this day – of the twin towers exploding and then collapsing with the attendant chaos and counting the dead.

The end result was extremely traumatic and not just to individuals. In fact, one can make a good case that we were traumatized as a nation. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) tells us that Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may result from “exposure to actual or threatened death” followed by “experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event.”

Undisputedly, America exhibits symptoms of PTSD post 9/11, as defined in the DSM-5: “recurrent and intrusive memories of the event…persistent and exaggerated negative belief about the world (e.g., “The world is completely dangerous)…persistent negative emotional state (e.g., fear horror, anger)…angry outbursts (with little or not provocation) typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression…reckless or self-destructive behavior…hypervigilance,” paranoia, and the need to be in control.

Psychologically, as a result of the traumatized state of our nation, we feel an increased need to be in control and protect ourselves; this in turn, has lead to more and more citizens arming themselves with guns.

Baird points out how counter productive this is: Despite the fact that the U.S. “has by far the largest number of privately owned firearms in the developed world, we have more gun-related killings than any other developed country.” He provides scientific evidence that “a substantial number of murders, suicides and unintentional firearm fatalities can be prevented with reasonable gun policies.

This rising epidemic of gun ownership and increasing gun violence, Baird says, should be considers a public health emergency. The problem is that a gun used against another person, is extremely lethal compared to other forms of aggression.

A person can kill another with a gun in a blink of eye. That is more problematic than most people realize because we aren’t the rational beings we think we are.  If placed under sufficient stress – which varies person to person – we will react irrationally, falling prey to primitive, instinctual forces.

If I am triggered by an immediate and obvious threat (like a burglar in my home) or by a perceived threat (an ominous looking dark shadow outside my door at night), my body automatically mobilizes. At this point, my thinking is no longer driven by my rational neocortex but by my primitive midbrain (as in “Me good, you bad!).

When an person’s primal brain is triggered and gains control, it may take up to ten seconds for his conscious self to be aware of what he is doing. For that first ten seconds, his primal self  “may act, usually violently, on his or her impulses to the point that they may attack until they themselves have been incapacitated or the source of their rage has been destroyed.”1

In that ten seconds, in a fit of rage, an individual with a handgun has ample time to kill his beloved partner. However, if he only has his fists or a knife, his rational brain will most likely regain control before the result becomes life threatening.

Therapy with an emphasis on anger management can help prevent future occurrences. Interestingly, people with PTSD can be prone to rage when triggered by a sudden reminder of their original trauma, causing them to relive it through flashbacks or intrusive thoughts.

That brings us back to the argument I made at the beginning of this essay: that it is not only possible for individuals to suffer PTSD but countries as well; and, in fact, we as a nation were traumatized by 9/11. After an individual is traumatized, it is important that calmer heads prevail and treatment started to promote healing. So too it is with nations.

We all remember how our nation responded to 9/11. Certainly, a robust response was justified, but not an endless round of wars which continues to consume an absurd amount of our national treasury, while promoting fevers of panic about terrorism that has the effect of further traumatizing us.

This staggering increase in our security apparatus on a collective level parallels the increase in gun purchases at the individual level. The end result is a frightening loss in our freedom as we become increasingly controlled, surveilled, and militarized.

A majority of Americans disapprove of the seemingly endless wars we have been fighting at astronomical cost, along with the increasing restrictions on our personal freedom at home, but acquiesce because they think we have no choice.  The good news is that we do have a choice.

There is an alternative and it works. We haven’t heard much about it from our mainstream media and politicians who prosper short-term by fear-mongering and crying wolf. The only caveat is having the courage and willpower to carry it out because it flies in the face of business as usual.

The case study I wish to present took place in Norway in 2011: in the worst lone-wolf terrorist act in in modern history, a gunman murdered over 70 people, most of them teenagers attending a youth camp.

Mathew Harwood has written a terrific piece about what happened in the aftermath: Norwegians, individually and en masse, chose not to panic or let their world be altered by…[the gunman’s] horrific acts. They did not build a greater counter-terror security structure; they did not change their laws or create special terror legislation; they did not try…[the perpetrator] in some special way; they did not even close their parliament and ring it with fortifications. They were determined not to let…[terrorism] deprive them of the openness they valued. They exhibited neither hysteria nor bloodlust. It was, in our world, the bravest of collective acts, stunning in its restraint.” 2

On an individual level as well as the collective level, we must stand up in a similar manner for our precious open democracy by confronting the fear mongers who seek to inflame us for their own ends. Standing united, we must all take a deep breath, regain rational control from our primal brain, and let the healing begin.

Tagline: Jean is not against having guns and hunting as the accompanying photo shows. And he is not a pacifist. He spent 1-1/2 years in Vietnam in the navy, on the rivers and along the coast. He is a semi-retired psychotherapist and blogs at:

1 DiGiuseppe & Tafrate., 2006.