Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Interfering with nature

In Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History, next after almond is apple.  According to the book:
The Jewish religion forbade it, but the Christian church encouraged grafting because it symbolized attaching new members of the church onto the Tree of Christ.  Meddling with God's design by hybridization though was the subject of theological debate in Britain until almost the  nineteenth century....Johnny Appleseed...thought grafting "cruel" to the trees and collected leftover seeds from cider presses.
Now, the debate is over genetic engineering.  It seems to be an eternal question -- how much should we mess with nature?

Gardening is messing with nature  -- we encourage certain plants to grow, while uprooting others.  And if we weren't gardening, hunting and gathering also interferes with nature, by taking the life of animals, or taking parts of plants.

It seems every generation finds new ways to make life easier for humans, but at the same time, there are always people who object, saying nature should not be interfered with.  In time, the new ways become old ways.  We become accustomed to gardening, then to grafting.  We no longer object to those, but when someone comes up with a new way of interfering with nature, we are not comfortable with it.

How do we know what is right? How do we know where to draw the line?  It seems to me there isn't some moral law which for example says you can hybridize but not genetically engineer.  It seems to me that all life forms evolve toward preserving their species.  How do we preserve our species? By not only heaping the people alive today with wealth, but by preserving our health and habitat for generations to come.

Names to meditate on

I read in Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History by Diana Wells that there are two kinds of almonds: sweet (dulcis) and bitter (amara).  The word amara jumped out at me.  I like the sound of it.  I thought it would make a good meditation theme, imagining someone named Amara, someone who has a tartness to her which gives her strength.  I like a lot of names, many of them botanically oriented.  It would be interesting to meditate on each.  I think each one represents strengths I want to draw out in myself.  These names could include the ones I use for this blog:


and also


History of communications

Information Architecture: An Emerging 21st Century Profession by Earl Morrogh includes a brief history of communications.

The development of the printing press brought:
  • More people had access to knowledge, which was a factor in bringing about the scientific revolution.  
  • The beginning of mass culture, as people in different places read the same books, used the same musical scores, made clothing from the same patterns.
  • Languages that were often used in publishing became national languages, while those not often published became local dialects.  
  • The idea of ownership of words.  Copyright, intellectual property.  
  • A sense of that certain spellings and grammar were correct, while others were incorrect.
Those last two items in particular are something that are so ingrained in my culture, that I don't often think about that fact that it's not the only way to be.

Then came the telegraph.  It was not routinely used by individuals, but was used by governments, business, and the media.  Now people could get stories in their newspapers of things that were happening across the globe soon after they happened.

That's something else that is easy to take for granted.  Imagine what it would be like if we didn't get news from across the globe until letters crossed the ocean by boat.  Or, even before that, imagine when it was not routine for boats to cross the ocean.

Next came the telephone, then radio.  It was thought that radio could be used for education, but it ended up being used more for entertainment. 

Actually, with the printing press, with radio, and with the internet, there was great potential for intellectual use, and these media were used for such lofty purposes, but they also have been used for what appeals to the masses.  When the printing press was invented, one popular use was pornography, which is also a popular use of the internet.  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

No one knows it all

This morning on NPR, Shankar Vedantam talked about research on ritual. The research found that when people perform a ritual before eating, the food seems more flavorful.

 Rituals, music, dance, and storytelling have been part of human culture for ages. Atheists scoff at religious rituals. But now science tells us that humans get something out of rituals.

To me, it seems to relate to the story "A Surprising Barrier to Clean Water: Human Nature."  In this story, aid workers want Kenyans to add chlorine to water in order to purify it, but the people don't want to do it.

You have the so-called experts, the ones who think they live by science and logic and intelligence, thinking that what other people do is stupid.  And yet, people do what they do for a reason.  The experts just don't understand the reason.  So it's the experts who are being ignorant.

If you think you know it all, you're probably wrong.

To educate the world

Three things from yesterday's NRP story After a Marine's Suicide, a Family Recalls Missed Red Flags strike me:
  1. Military service is part of his family tradition, going back to the Revolutionary war, and yet his family had never heard of post traumatic stress disorder.  I thought everyone knew about PTSD.  Certainly a military family should know about it.  We need to educate people.
  2. He joined the military because he wanted to help the world.  To me that shows a real lack of vision with regard to what sort of action might be helpful to the world.  We need to give our young people more helpful ways to help the world.  
  3. A reader going by the name AddySun wrote a comment on the story.   Her husband was in the military. She told of how destructively he behaved, and said that she eventually left him.  Much as we want to help those we love who are troubled, we also have to take care of ourselves. She had to leave him to save herself.  I think if I were in that position, I would always feel there was something wrong with me for not being able to help him find his way back to sanity, for abandoning him.  When I look at her situation, I know she did the right thing, and I just have to remind myself to view myself in the same way that I view others.
I have been thinking the past few days how troubled I am about the ignorance in the world.  Politicians who are leading us sometimes are making their decisions based on wrong information (for example, Tom Akin, who believes, "If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”)

I am upset by parents who are cruel to their parents.  I wish parent education were a pre-requisite for childbearing.

But I don't think these things can be mandated.  I am thinking of Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge.  The solution is not to find the truth and impose it on people.  Because we can't be wedded to one version of the truth.  We have to keep our minds open, always learning.

So this is my cause, my passion: to make information available.  To tell military families about PTSD.  To tell young people about opportunities to help the world.  To tell people in harmful relationships that they need to take care of themselves.  To give policymakers accurate information about the topics on which they are making policies.  To teach parents about childrearing practices.  And not only to convey facts, but to convey something about the value of critical thinking and of always being open to new information, rather than being set in one view.  To give people all this information, but then to let them choose what to do with it.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Middle age

When I was little, a lifetime was unimaginably long.  But in middle age, one gets to have more of a view of how long a lifetime is.

My grandmothers just had their birthdays in the past few weeks. One turned 89 and the other turned 95.  At this point in their lives,  they don't have a lot of energy.  They couldn't for example take up horseback riding as a new hobby at this point.  When I was born, they were about the age that I am now.  So, the span of life that I've seen them live is about how much time that I have to do whatever it is that I want to do with my life. And that's only if I'm lucky enough to have longevity and health.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Where my gifts are appreciated

What do people need in order to thrive? We often think in terms of making sure everyone's needs are met, but I have a friend who reminds us that it's also essential to have our gifts be appreciated.

That's why I was there, going door to door for her City Council campaign.  Because she made my gifts welcome.  I never thought political organizing was something I wanted to do.  On the other hand, if I was going to do it, there are other candidates I also would have supported, had they wanted my support.  But they weren't interested in what I had to offer.

I thought back on my life.  Any time something went badly -- work, school, volunteering, hobbies, friends, romance -- it was usually because I was in a place where my gifts were not appreciated.

Should I be more mindful of that in making my choices? I've always been someone who doesn't want to take whatever's in front of me.  I want to see all the choices, and choose the one that is best.  I've always had stubborn loyalty to people I chose as my friends, even if they didn't appreciate what I had to offer.  What if I also take into account whether my gifts are appreciated?

Not that it would be the only thing.  It's true that when I look back at my life, I see that a lot of the unsuccessful things had to do with trying to fit somewhere where my gifts were not appreciated.  But when I look back at my life and see what has endured, I see that what has endured are things that I've stuck with in spite of my gifts being unwelcome.

I heard a song today that I remember liking 35 years ago.  I've liked folk music all my life.  I tried volunteering at a folk music venue.  They didn't need me.  I quit that venue, but I didn't quit folk music.  I found a different venue to volunteer at, one that did need what I had to offer.

I've grown apart from some people I used to be friends with.  Mostly it's because in the past, I chose friends with whom I could share my playful, silly side.  Now, what's most important to me is something different.  Now I choose people who see the world as complex, people who realize that what's right for them isn't what's right for everyone else, people who don't tell others what to do.

I've grown apart from many of the people I used to be close to, but some are still my friends.  It may not be the same, we may not spend time together much, but there are at least two people I've known over a decade with whom there is still some genuine friendship.  It feels like kind of a thin thread, but it also seems genuine and enduring.  Both of these are people who haven't always appreciated what I have to offer.  Both are people who pushed me away.  But I stuck with it, I maintained some sense of friendship even as we grew apart, because I saw something in that person that was worth treasuring.

So, with folk music and with friends, with everything that has endured in my life, there have been times when my gifts were not appreciated, but I stuck with them anyway.

So no, having my gifts be appreciated isn't everything.  I wouldn't work for a cause I was opposed to, just because the organizers appreciated my gifts.  Nonetheless, I could be more mindful of whether I have a place for my gifts to blossom.  I choose what values, interests and activities to pursue.  I choose to be with people I treasure.  But when I'm in a niche where my gifts are being smashed repeatedly, then it's time to turn away and see if there's a different niche, also compatible with my values, where my gifts could be given a chance to blossom.

Sunday, June 2, 2013


My friend seems to think that being interested in my ancestors makes me a bit of a white supremacist.  I find that in American society today, we are encouraged to celebrate African, Latin American, Native American, and Asian cultures.  We are to a certain extent allowed to celebrate Irish, Italian, Greek, and Armenian culture.  But it's frowned upon at times to embrace the 4 centuries we have of white American culture, or English culture.

I think humans have an instinct to take pride in their heritage.  Adopted children want to know about their birth parents.  I feel very fortunate that my grandmother has told me about her memories of her parents, grandparents, and great grandparents.  I identify with stories of Quakers because I grew up Quaker and my ancestors were Quaker.  I'm more interested in New England history than in history of other parts of the U.S. because that's where I grew up and where my ancestors grew up.  I'm interested in England, Scotland, and Ireland because that's where my ancestors are from.

In high school, my Latin teacher taught us not only the Latin language, but also something about the history and culture of people who spoke it.  She liked the culture.  I did not find in myself the same fascination she seemed to feel.  Many years later, I realized that she is of Italian heritage.

I'm interested in the people I see as my forebears.  It's not a rational thing.  It's not like I learn something about my heritage and then decide to be interested in that.  It's instinctive.  Certain things draw me and certain things don't.  I may have ideas about what I ought to be interested in (including my culture telling me I ought to be interested in African, Latin American, Native American and Asian cultures).  But there's clearly a difference between what I tell myself what I ought to be interested in, and what  my instincts draw me to.

My interests are not exclusive to what I perceive as my heritage.  I like Ethiopian food and Andean music.  Nor am I drawn to everything that I know to be in my heritage.  I am drawn to Quakers because I come from a long line of Quakers.  But I also have ancestors who were Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist, and I'm not drawn to that at all.

Is it wrong to embrace our cultural heritage?  No, I don't think it's wrong.  I just think we have to be careful that in liking our own heritage, we don't start to believe that our heritage is better than other heritages.  In my druid studies, I have read some things that seem to glorify druids and Celtic peoples above all others  (Peter Berresford Ellis, Ross Nichols, and Ellen Evert Hopman).  It's tempting to glorify our heritage.  We have to restrain ourselves, and remember that people of all cultures have both good and bad attributes.  We have to be careful, but there is also good to be found in embracing our heritage.  It gives us a path to learn history, values, music, crafts, healing practices, etc.  It gives us a way to be part of a community.  It gives us a sense of who we are.  It inspires us, gives us the courage to strive to be better.