Sunday, December 27, 2020

We're at a crossroads. Which way will we go?


I think you all know by now that I'm taken with the idea of liminality -- the place or point at which things meet. Dawn and dusk are liminal times. Beltane, in early May, and Samhain, in late October, are also liminal times, when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest.

This period we're in now -- the days between Christmas and the New Year -- has traditionally been another liminal time. I've heard it has to do with the calendar; in an early version, each month was assigned the same number of days, leaving a period of several days between the final month of one year and the first month of the new year. However these extra days came about, they became a sort of time out of time, given over to feasting, merrymaking, and all sorts of mischief, encouraged by a Lord of Misrule

Then, of course, the Catholic Church got hold of things and turned the party into the twelve days of Christmas.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about. 

I saw a striking image on Facebook a few days ago. It showed a crossroads in a desert: a road crossing over an arroyo or a seasonal stream. The caption suggested that 2020 -- the whole year -- has been a crossroads. And in many ways, I think, it's true. Modern life as we know it came to a screeching halt in mid-March, once we had an inkling of how bad things were going to get. A lot of what transpired afterwards was pretty awful. I don't have to enumerate the bad stuff -- all of us were there. 

But good things happened this year, too. People got married. Babies were born. Some folks discovered they liked working from home. Others recovered from cancer or some other terrible but non-COVID-19 illness.

For me, on the whole, 2020 has been a good year. I was able to retire from my day job on schedule, and I moved from the East Coast to New Mexico when I'd planned to do so. I'm a homebody anyway, so not being able to see people in person hasn't bothered me much. Some things have been inconvenient, to be sure, but overall, life unfolded for me pretty much as I expected it would. And yes, I know how lucky -- how privileged -- I am to be able to say that.

Regardless of how 2020 treated each of us, we are all standing, now, at a crossroads. The New Year stretches before us, bright with promise for some of us, shrouded in mystery for others. That's not metaphorical. Once or twice in my lifetime, I have stood on the threshold of a new year and could not -- could not -- make out where I would be at the end of it. In each case, those years have been marred by some personal upheaval.

That's not the case this year. When I look ahead to the end of 2021, I see myself settling in here in Santa Fe. I see the vaccines taking hold, allowing the rhythms of life -- of all our lives -- to resume beating normally. 

Or rather, beating to our new normal. Because maybe, just maybe, good things will come from having hit pause this year. The caption for that crossroads image I saw on Facebook said, in part, "Coming together and creating compassion and support will shape the future of how the planet and humanity will move forward." Those seem like worthy goals to me. 

Happy New Year, everyone.


These moments at the bloggy crossroads have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. We're so close to the finish line! Keep washing your hands and wearing your mask!

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The return of the light.

Tomorrow is Yule -- the winter solstice -- and that means our annus horribilis is almost over. And not a moment too soon, I say.

It has become customary for me to post a holiday ficlet at this time of year, as a gift to all of you. As I thought about what to write, I realized what I wanted to know most was how the folks from Seasons of the Fool have done this year. Here's what I learned.

Elsie Weber-Dahl reached for the doorknob and paused. “Oh, drat,” she muttered, and reached for the top mask on the stack of brightly-colored fabric masks in the basket by the door. Affixing the elastic straps around her ears, she pulled open the door – just in time to see the delivery boy from Al’s getting into his car. He had left the grocery order on the snowy stoop, though. She waved, and he dimmed his headlights in acknowledgement before pulling away.

She sighed. It had been weeks since she’d been any farther than the end of their driveway. They hadn't even gotten a tree for Yule. She had really hoped to have a chat with another human being, but she hadn’t been fast enough. 

She shut the door partway and called over her shoulder, “Thea, dear, we need to bring the groceries in.”

“Yes, dear,” replied her wife, distracted. Elsie went to the kitchen to find out what the matter was. There was Thea at the kitchen table, her chin in her hands, studying the three-card Tarot spread before her.

Elsie rubbed Thea’s shoulders. “That Tower,” she said bitterly. The Tower was the worst card in the deck. On it, a bolt of lightning shot from the blue, destroying a brick tower and sending those inside it plummeting to the rocks below.

Thea sighed and nodded. “It’s still with us. But at least it’s in the rear-view mirror,” she said, pointing at the offending card on the left side of the spread.

“The present isn’t much better, though,” Elsie said. There in the middle sat the Death card – a skeleton on his horse, with everyone bowing to the ground before him. Elsie knew the card didn’t mean literal death – although with this virus wreaking havoc throughout the world, it certainly could. But what it typically meant was change – the end of things as we have known them – and that certainly fit the events of this horrible year, too.

“I know,” Thea sighed. “We’re still in the thick of it. But look here.” She tapped the card in the future position on the right side of the spread: the Six of Swords. Two figures huddled in a boat, their backs to the viewer, as the boatman punted them toward a distant shore. “Soon we'll be our way out.”

“They look so defeated,” Elsie said softly. Thea looked up at her and put one of her hands on one of Elsie’s, squeezing gently. Then she rose. “Let’s get the food in before everything freezes.”

The two elderly ladies donned their winter gear – coats, hats, and boots – and then took off their hats to get their masks properly affixed. “I’ll be glad when we don’t have to do this anymore,” Thea grumbled as she put her hat back on.

“We could skip them this time,” Elsie said. “It’s not like we’ll see anyone out there.”

“But we can’t be too careful, dear,” said Thea. “Not when the vaccine is so close.”

“I know, dear. I know.” Elsie blew out a breath and opened the front door.

As they brought in the last of the bags, Thea paused, her eyes on the cottage kitty-corner from theirs. A car with Illinois plates sat in the driveway, its sides splashed with road salt, and a light glimmered in the living room window. “Julia’s here,” she told Elsie as she followed her to the kitchen.

“Oh?” Elsie dropped her bags on the counter and hurried back to the living room to peer out the window. “I wonder if she brought the little one.”

“We could go over and see,” Thea said. The two women shared an excited smile. They hadn’t seen their neighbor in months.

“Let me put some cookies on a plate,” said Elsie.

A few minutes later, cookies in hand and masks in place, they walked to Julia’s cottage and knocked on the door. “Just a minute,” a muffled voice came from inside. Then the door opened and there was Julia, her own mask hiding her mouth. But her eyes and voice smiled as she said, “I had a feeling it would be you two.”

“We brought you some cookies,” Elsie said. “Fresh baked this morning.” 

A tiny person wormed past Julia and threw herself on Elsie’s legs, nearly knocking her over. “Ms. Elsie!” she cried. “Ms. Thea!” And Thea got a similar enthusiastic hug.

“Six feet, Raylee,” Julie admonished.

The little girl sprang back reluctantly from the women. “I'm sorry. I forgot.”

“We talked about this,” Julia went on, taking her daughter’s hand. “We need to keep the ladies safe.” Raylee hung her head. 

“It’s all right,” Thea said. “We won’t get sick from you hugging our knees.”

Julie took the plate of cookies. “Thank you for these,” she said. “I’d invite you in, but…”

“Sure,” Elsie said, too quickly. “Can’t be too careful.” She beamed at Raylee. “How have you been?”

The little girl sighed. “Okay.”

“Zoom doesn’t work very well for kindergarteners,” Julia explained. “It’s been a hard year. The school district tried a staggered schedule for in-person learning, but then some kids got sick. So we went back to Zoom.”

“I miss my friends,” Raylee said.

“You’ll see them again,” Elsie reassured her. “The vaccine is coming. Next year will be better.”

“No, it won’t,” Raylee said. “It’s going to be like this forever.” She turned away and flopped down on the couch.

Julia and the older ladies shared a sad smile. “Daddy will be here tonight,” Julia called to her daughter, who didn’t seem to hear.

“Are the older kids coming with Dave?” Elsie asked.

Julia shook her head. “Too much homework. Randi’s in college now, and it’s finals week. And Rich…” She looked away. “Freshman year of high school. He got behind due to all the upheaval. In-person, remote, in-person, remote…” She crossed her arms. “It’s been so hard. I’ve barely gotten any work done this year.”

Elsie’s heart hurt for Julia. She reached out to hug her, but stopped herself just in time.

“Well,” Thea said. “We should be going.”

“Thank you for coming over,” Julia said. “So nice to see you both.” Reluctantly, she closed the door.

As the ladies traipsed back to their house, Elsie said, “We have to do something for that child.”

Thea glanced back at Julia’s cottage. “I have an idea,” she said.

The next morning was still quite dark, and very cold, when the Weber-Dahls approached Julia’s cottage. Thea rapped smartly on the door, and a moment later Dave opened it. His hair was thinner than Elsie remembered, but his eyes above his mask lit up. “Hello there,” he said. “I heard you stopped by. Thanks for the cookies.”

“You’re welcome,” said Thea. “Is Raylee up? We have something to show her.”

Dave laughed. “What, now?”

Right now,” Elsie said with an insistent nod. “You, too. And Julia.”

Dave side-eyed them. “What are you two up to?” He shook his head. “All right. Give us a few minutes.”

“Dress warmly,” Elsie said as he shut the door. Then they went back to their house to wait.

A few minutes later, the Turners emerged from their front door, swaddled in winter gear. Sharing a grin, the ladies went out to greet them. “Good morning!” Thea called. “Follow me!” She stepped off smartly up the street, the others falling in behind her.

“What’s that?” Raylee asked, sidling up to Elsie – but not too close.

“This?” Elsie said, lifting the thermos she carried in her gloved hands. “You’ll see.”

At the corner, Thea turned left, toward the lake. “I knew it,” Dave said. Julia shushed him.

The wooden stairs down to the beach hadn’t been shoveled, of course, but Thea and Elsie helped each other down without mishap. The Turners followed, staying a safe distance from the elderly ladies. The breeze off the lake was sharp, but they had timed it well. They wouldn’t have long to wait.

“Raylee,” Thea called. “Remember how dark it was when we left the house?”

The little girl nodded solemnly.

Thea pointed toward the east. “What’s that?”

Her eyes widened. She turned to her mother. “The sky is orange, Mommy!”

Julia nodded. “It is, isn’t it?”

“Do you think it will stay orange?” Dave asked her. “Let’s see.”

So the five of them stood on the snowy sand, listening to the creak of the icy lake and watching the sunrise.

“This calls for a toast,” Elsie said, unscrewing the thermos lid. Thea produced paper cups from a pocket and held them out for Elsie to fill. 

“Hot chocolate!” the little girl cried as she received her cup.

As Thea finished passing out the cups, Elsie said, “Raylee, do you know what today is? It’s the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. It’s been getting dark so early – have you noticed?” Raylee nodded. “Well, starting tomorrow, the days will begin getting longer again.” She smiled at Thea. “No matter how dark it seems, the dawn always comes.”

“The light always returns,” Thea said, smiling back. Then she raised her paper cup. “To the light!” They removed their masks and toasted the return of the sun.

As they walked back home, Raylee skipping ahead, Julia told the ladies, “Thank you so much. It’s been such a hard year. I can’t wait to get back to normal.”

“We’ll never see that normal again,” Dave said.

“No, we won’t,” Elsie said. “But who knows? Maybe our new normal will be better.”

Lake Huron sunrise | ehrlif | Deposit Photos


These moments of hopeful blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Happy holidays! Stay safe!

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Why I'll never be a libertarian.

Some weeks I can find tons of things to talk about for my weekly post. This week, for instance, I could join the chorus of condemnation of an old fart who called our First-Lady-to-be "kiddo" in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (things went downhill from there). Or I could address the escalating violence, and threats of violence, against election officials around the country because they refuse to overturn the will of the people and let President Trump have another term in office.

But today I'd rather talk about bears.

Evelyn Villing | Pixabay | CC0

Specifically, black bears in Grafton, New Hampshire.

You see, bears are opportunists. And they're smart. One of my favorite stories about Colorado is the one about a guy who left fast-food wrappers in the back seat of his car, which he parked near his house in a canyon outside of Boulder. A bear smelled the wrappers and broke into the car. The door slammed shut, and the bear tore up the car interior trying to get out. Some poor sheriff's deputy was tasked with opening the car door to let the bear out. Lucky for him, the bear was more interested in decamping than in attacking the deputy. (I tried just now to find a link to the story, and discovered at least one of these incidents happens every year.)

What prompted this recollection was an interview I read on with Matthew Hongoltz-Hettling, who has written a book called A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear. (You were waiting for the libertarian connection, weren't you?) It seems that in the mid-2000s, a group of libertarians went shopping for a small town that they could use as a demonstration project for a libertarian utopia. They settled on Grafton -- a town of about 1,000 people -- and proceeded to set up their Free Town Project. First, they erected makeshift housing -- tents and such -- in the woods. Then they gradually took over the town's government and did away with all those town services libertarians don't think governments should have to provide: things like trash pickup and the library and most police activities. 

The lack of trash pickup is what got them in trouble with the bears. See, there's a reason there are rules for burying your trash and locking away your food supplies in bear country: bears are both smart and opportunistic, as I said above. So when some of the libertarians decided to be radical and dump their trash however they wanted, and when others deliberately fed the bears because they thought it was cute -- well. The bears became a problem. 

Of course the town had no animal control officers, so people started trying to handle the problem their own way: shooting at the bears, setting off firecrackers, setting traps, and so on. That made the bears angry. Black bears generally don't attack humans, but an angry black bear will. And they have -- at least three times -- for the first time in the history of the state.

In the Vox article, Hongoltz-Hettling makes the point that the libertarians who tried to turn Grafton into a utopia weren't the white-supremacist type. Instead, they're the kind who believe that government should provide only the bare minimum in services in order to keep taxes low. Their theory is that individuals should be able to pick what they do -- and what they spend their money on. If schools aren't important to them, they shouldn't have to pay for them. If they don't want to pay for trash pickup, they should be able to bury their trash. And if they want to shoot a bear who's digging up their buried trash, that's okay, too.

What these folks refuse to acknowledge is that there's a social compact that goes along with being human. We agree, by virtue of being members of a society, that certain practices are for the good of the community, even if we don't benefit directly from them. Government is our vehicle for providing services that benefit the community, and we pool our money to pay for those services via taxation. We may not have kids in school, but we pay taxes to support the schools because it's in the best interest of the community for kids to be educated. We may not want to pay the town for trash pickup, but regular trash pickups are to the community's benefit.

If you don't want to pay for any of this stuff, fine -- you can do what these guys did and try to set up your own utopia. But as my friend Yvonne Hertzberger said when I shared the Vox story on Facebook: When you live laissez faire, you might get eaten by a bear.

And that's why I'll never be a libertarian.

These moments of beary laissez-faire blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Speaking of doing what's best for the community: Mask up and social distance! The vaccine's coming, and I don't want any of you to get sick when we're so close.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Trees can talk. | Here's hoping it's a Creative Commons work...
Every now and then, I come across something online that I find absolutely charming. (Apart from news about the National Zoo's new baby panda, I mean.)

This week it was a story in the New York Times Magazine called "The Social Life of Forests." It's a profile of Suzanne Simard, a botanist who specializes in forestry. Simard has discovered that trees and other plants in a forest communicate through fungi called mychorrizas. The fungi bond with the plants' roots and help the plants extract water and nutrients from the soil. In exchange, they receive some of the byproducts of the plants' photosynthesis.

But Simard has evidence the interaction is about more than just food swapping. The fungi also pass hormones and alarm signals from plant to plant -- even between different species. She has found that a so-called mother tree might nurture hundreds younger trees. Trees in the network that know they're dying will pass their nutrients along to other trees. And trees severed from the network have a worse chance of survival.

In short, a forest isn't just a simple collection of trees and other plants. It's a community. Maybe even a family. 

It's always interesting to see what people take from this kind of thing. Simard's colleagues, who were virtually all male, originally thought she was just a goofy girl -- until she proved her theories. After that, the materialists started complaining that she was attributing altruism to trees, which was impossible because everybody knows every species on Earth operates in survival-of-the-fittest mode. 

Besides all that, her findings open up an uncomfortable line of inquiry: What if plants are sentient?

I wrote about that very topic earlier this year. In that post, I quoted a Druidic philosopher named Emma Restall Orr. Here's what I wrote: 

[Orr] observes that a tree recognizes the resources available to it -- sunlight or shade, water, other trees nearby -- and adapts itself to them. It recognizes the seasons and understands what it is meant to do in each one. Just because we humans don't recognize all that activity as the sort of conscious thought we're used to, it doesn't mean it's not happening. And just because we don't understand the language of trees, it doesn't mean they don't have one.

I can't tell you how delighted I was to read this article about Simard this week. Trees do have language. They communicate with one another through mychorrizas. It's science!

Now, what you take from all this will depend on your own philosophical leanings. Some folks might see the hand of God, while others might see Lucifer spreading lies. After all, America was built on the theory of Manifest Destiny -- that God made humans the highest of his mortal creations, and gave us this Earth not to steward, but to exploit. And we are really good at exploitation. If we can make ourselves believe that a resource doesn't share our humanity, we will use it up to the last drop -- even if that resource is a Black person. Or a Native American person. Or a Tree person.

A materialist will have a lot of trouble with the idea of trees as persons. But science has proven that they talk to one another. They have a language -- we just can't understand it.

Possibly my all-time favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episode is called "Darmok." In it, Captain Picard and his crew meet a Tamarian starship. The Tamarian language is inscrutable -- the individual words can be translated, but the phrases they contain don't convey any meaning. The captain of this ship beams Picard down to a nearby planet and joins him there. Together, they must defeat a dangerous creature, and to do that, they have to learn to understand one another. Picard, bless him, figures out that Tamarians speak exclusively in metaphors -- that, for example, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" refers to a Tamarian tale about two heroes who become friends by facing adversity together. Tamarian civilization is sufficiently isolated that nobody who isn't a Tamarian would know the story, which of course means no other species could ever understand them.

As a Pagan and an animist, I have to conclude that to humans, the language of trees -- like that of the Tamarians -- is inscrutable, but is nevertheless a form of communication. That's a big step toward viewing them as sentient beings. And that's something we ought to think about when we look at a forest.


These moments of sentient blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Please stay home this holiday season, so your loved ones have a better chance of surviving until next year.