Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sacred ox at the alter of post-industrial America

Throughout history all around the world 
the ox has been revered as a sacred animal:
As, for example, in this interfaithmary image:

Here is my image:
Sacred ox at the alter of post-industrial America
CC Jean Stimmell: Posterized ox: Pittsfield 4/12/14

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Male mallards parading about

Wetlands at Northwood Meadows: 4/9/14
CC Jean Stimmell
Two males swagger about
while their mates
prepare the nest

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Science can't save us

Enveloping Patterns of Nature
Along the edge of Jenness Pond 4/2/14
CC Jean Stimmell
I recently wrote about the movie Melancholia,1 pointing out  how science has no magic answers when natural catastrophe strikes. Mark Bittman recently made the same point in the aftermath of the new, alarming UN report2 about the calamitous  reality of climate change, saying:

Science “will not build a big umbrella that will reflect all that excess sun back into space; “they” will not compress and suck all that carbon underground; “they” will not release the secret plans for nuclear fusion “they’ve” been hiding.”3

It’s magical thinking to believe otherwise.

This idea that science will save us is a mindset that began with the scientific revolution after Galileo “discovered” that the earth is not the center of the universe, challenging our old religious sensibilities. The transformation is now complete: although we give lip service to religion, it is now science who is our god, the go-to one who provides meaning to our life by mesmerizing us with an endless stream of new technology and toys, fooling us into believing that with the help of science we can control our destiny.

Fritjof Capra,4 influential physicist and systems theorist, is quick to challenge that assumption, pointing out that while empirical science has produced great triumphs, the most fundamental questions of life still remain unexplored and unanswered. In the field of molecular biology, for instance, “biologists still know very little about how we breathe or how a wound heals or how an embryo develops into an organism.”

Capra says science today is looking for ‘the essence of life’ in the wrong places by focusing on breaking things into smaller and smaller parts. Sure, this approach has lead to miraculous gadgets and stupendous technology, but the true essence of life keeps receding into the distance like a mirage in the desert; scientists are losing their way in an attempt to count how many quacks can dance on a electron accelerator – as fruitless as a monolithic, one-god religion, attempting to count how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Instead, Capra says, we need to shift to a different kind of science that, up until now, has been given short shrift: a holistic science which finds meaning not by tearing things apart but by, instead in how they fit together:

 “As I said, when you study pattern, you need to map the pattern, whereas the study of substance is the study of quantities that can be measured. The study of pattern, or of form, is the study of quality, which requires visualizing and mapping…This is a very important aspect of studying patterns, and it is the reason why, every time the study of pattern was in the forefront, artists contributed significantly to the advancement of science. Perhaps the two most famous examples are Leonardo da Vinci, whose scientific life was a study of pattern, and the German poet Goethe in the eighteenth century, who made significant contributions to biology through his study of pattern. This is very important to us as parents and educators, because the study of pattern comes naturally to children; to visualize pattern, to draw pattern, is natural.”

This attention to pattern, this study of quality, which requires visualizing and mapping, is essential to our survival in the age of climate change.

It is through the study of patterns that we discover the whole: we discover what our bodies and unconscious self have always known: the ecosystems within our body interrelate with a myriad of surrounding ecosystems, human and more than human, all together forming an indivisible whole.

That’s the true essence of things: Not tearing things apart but learning to interconnect seamlessly as part of the whole. As Capra says, “All of the coordinating activities of life can only be grasped when life is understood as a self-organizing network…[These] systems working together, all parts of an indivisible whole, that is the very essence of life.”

What we need to do is go back to the future!

 The type of science Capra is talking has been a part of us since the first human being strode forth on the earth: our innate ability to live seamlessly within the rhythms of nature and our living, breathing mother earth. It’s in our genes. And it has a name: Sustainability.

“The law of gravity, as you know, was formalized by Galileo and Newton, but people knew about stepping off cliffs long before Galileo and Newton. Similarly, people knew about the laws of sustainability long before ecologists in the twentieth century began to discover them. In fact, what I’m going to talk about today is nothing that a ten-year-old Navajo boy or Hopi girl who grew up in a traditional Native American community would not understand and know.”
The choice is ours: to perish in a world we view as inanimate, a commodity to be exploited and picked apart for profit – or to come together as one to celebrate the sacredness of our living-breathing Mother Earth and to work heroically to save Her – and us.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Barking up the wrong tree for depression

Old tree, taking a time-out, filling its soul
 Odiorne State Park: 3/29/14
CC Jean Stimmell
 We are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to understanding and treating depression according to a new book The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic[1] by Jonathan Rottenberg. [2]

He convincingly documents how our mood system is a complex, multi-faceted, biological part of us, mostly beyond our conscious awareness, and it has significant evolutionary survival value.

Unfortunately, as modern humans, we have lost sight of positive attributes of depression because of the cultural constructs we have created through language. Using our ability to spew forth words, we have constructed stories depicting depression as an arch villain, a dreaded pathology that is unequivocally bad.

The trouble is, as Rottenberg notes, “the stories we tell ourselves about our moods often end up being just that. Stories.”

“One of the amazing things about the mood system is how much of it operates outside of conscious awareness. Moods, like most adaptations, developed in species that had neither language nor culture. Yet words are the first things that come to mind when most people think about moods. We are “mad,” we are “sad,” we are “glad.” So infatuated are we with language that both laypeople and scientists find it tempting to equate the language we use to describe mood with mood itself.
This is a big mistake. We need to shed this languagecentric view of mood, even if it threatens our pride to accept that we share a fundamental element of our mental toolkit with rabbits and roadrunners.”[3]

Rottenberg cites studies showing how subjects with depressed mood are more deliberate, skeptical, and careful in how they process information from their environment than subjects with elevated mood, concluding:

“Just as animals with no capacity for anxiety were gobbled up by predators long ago, without the capacity for sadness, we and other animals would probably commit rash acts and repeat costly mistakes.”[4]

So what is the bottom line.?

The bottom line that resonates with me is the poetic definition of depression that  Rottenberg cites by Lee Stranger, from his essay “Fading to Gray,”

Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.[5]

Coco barking up the wrong tree but not depressed

[1] I am indebted to Maria Popova for her review of Rottenberg at:
[2]  The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic by Jonathan Rottenberg
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Lee Stringer from his essay “Fading to Gray,” found in the altogether fantastic 2001 volume Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Weaving our own Sacred Canopy

Sacred Canopy
CC Jean Stimmell: Fort Foster, Kittery ME:  March 2014
Watching the movie Melancholia forced me to look death straight in the eye. It explores the existential question of finding meaning in life, even in the face of imminent death.[1]

Justine, the heroine of the movie, who had been, up to this point, overwhelmed by the pressures of modern life, pulls herself together at the end as a rogue planet is about to obliterate earth. She takes charge of her family, showing them how to find meaning in their lives in the face of death by building a magic teepee – a sacred canopy – and seeking refuge inside.

Her brother-in-law, the rational, man-in-charge, placed his trust in science to save the day. When it finally sinks in for him that their situation is hopeless – that science has no answers – he commits suicide, leaving his family members to fend for themselves.

Isn’t this the story of our modern times?

We have been set adrift. When push comes to shove, we can no longer count on organized religion or science to protect us: to provide us with that magic teepee or sacred canopy that our human species has always depended upon when death comes knocking.

In the West, the fabric of the religious sacred canopy began to fray over 500 years ago when Galileo “discovered” that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, ushering in the age of science.  Since then, our society has become increasingly secularized as science emerged as our surrogate, defacto god, the new deity who has mesmerized us with an endless stream of magical inventions, fooling us into believing that with science on our side, we are invincible, able to control our destiny.

But now we are beginning to see through that illusion. Rather than floating effortlessly on the magic carpet of technology, we find ourselves more stressed, anxious, and impoverished than ever.  We are finding science has few real solutions to improve our human condition, just an endless arcade of new products and gizmos.

And most important, when our own death draws near – facing the end of existence as we know it – we are discovering just as Justine’s brother-in-law did in the movies, science is powerless to help.

Perhaps that is because, in the cold world of empiricism, scientists can’t grasp that sacred canopies really exist because they can’t be measured or dissected like a laboratory rat. Rather, they agree with social scientists like Peter Berger who concludes in his book about religion entitled The Sacred Canopy, “Religion is to be understood as a human projection, grounded in specific infrastructures of human history.” [2]

However, whether science thinks sacred canopies are really real or not, in terms of mythological and psychological reality, they are an indispensible aspect of what it means to be human. Sacred canopies will vary depending on time and place and may involve symbolic self-transcendence or maybe not.  But the bottom line is, as our final moments approach, we need to be able to validate what is most meaningful in our lives, our human connection to one another. We do that by coming together and being there for each other, seeking refuge together under the symbolic sacred canopy of our choice.

For indigenous people, able to live mindfully in an animate world, their sacred canopy is not a human projection but a seamless part of everyday life, an ever-present reality woven out of their sustainable interdependent relationships with their tribe and the living, breathing earth.

For the rest of us, entangled as we are in the death throws of our materialist, out-of-control world, we must use the one tool we have left, our imagination, to try to recreate that indigenous experience where every moment is alive and sacred, secure in every fiber of our being that we are not alone but cradled in the arms of our living, breathing mother.


[2] The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger. Anchor Books Edition: 1969. Page 180

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The calendar says it’s Spring but the snow keeps falling

Snowing along the Merrimack: 3/23/14
CC Jean Stimmell

Along the Merrimack
trampled by unending Winter
disheveled grass in shambles
resemble my spirit