A Sermon for the Choir

Please note, dear reader and esteemed member of the choir: this hortatory fragment was written some time ago. Since then, the climate has changed just slightly. This means it is already out of date. However, it remains less out of date than most hymnals, so the choir may still find it of modest interest.

How shall I begin? This world is filled with pain, with desperation and peril, but it is also full with unending beauty. Humankind, victims and perpetrators of our own stupidity and heedlessness, are also beautiful. While not shutting our eyes to the condition of our world and our fellow creatures, and of our own species, we must keep our hearts open to the beauty that surrounds us, wherever we are. Faith is the antidote to despair. Faith is not the province of facts; it is the province of experience.

All things are connected. Strip mines in Appalachia are connected to families who watch television for four hours each day, and can’t listen to each other. The ones who are killed and maimed in far away places by bombs dropped from planes from our countries are connected to the ones who lie hopeless beneath cardboard boxes and blankets on the streets of our cities. Not caring is connected to not caring.

Children who grow into teenagers who grow into adults without learning to respect and care for the world outside themselves are connected to politicians who do not respect the truth or care for the lives and living communities that are entrusted to them. A million people marching through the world’s streets pleading for a livable planet is connected to me listening, truly, when you speak.

It is a moral challenge. It is about truth, and ethics, and the fate of our children’s children, and the children of all beings. It is about being righteous in our relation to the future, and to the present. It is about being good.

It is one struggle. If we realize this, we can see that there is sanctity in working for justice, peace, and wholeness, and that learning to be virtuous is a revolutionary act.

Virtue is not fashionable. Goodness, sincerity, and innocence are not fashionable. Plant a flag on these things and you may be laughed at, but it is the only way to push forward towards a brighter future without being, and looking, like hypocrites.

If we want peace in the world, we have to be peaceful. If we try to fix the wrongs of the world out there while ignoring the cultivation of our own peace, we are too weak for the job at hand. Ghandi spoke of soul force. But we cannot have soul force if our souls are muddled with postmodern confusion about whether it is possible to tell right from wrong.

Real activism goes from the center of one’s self to the farthest reaches of the world. The strongest change comes from within. If our actions are harmonious and based on the same principles all the way from our closest, most immediate effects to out farthest, most distant effects, then we are strong.

The foresight that sees that unmitigated carbon emissions will lead to dire consequences is the same foresight that sees that children growing up in a culture of moral vacuity will lead to dire consequences. Politics would divide us into camps who see either the outer ethics of the world or the inner ethics of character, but seldom both. In the hands of vice, politics would divide and conquer virtue. This is not the way forward.

There is a universal ethics. They are values shared by all peoples and espoused by all faiths. If we base our efforts to save this earth on them, we can communicate across creed and culture and politics.

There is sanctity in all life. The world, created through whatever means, deserves to live. We may steward and cultivate, but not destroy.

If we accept the reductionist premise that all is mechanical, then we are attempting to make a meaningful argument on behalf of life, and of future life, in a context in which life itself has no meaning. It is like attempting to lift one’s self up by one’s own feet. Such a capitulation is not necessary.

We see that there is sacredness in standing up for justice and peace, and there is revolution in sincerity, kindness, honesty, and virtue. To be strong in righting the wrongs of the world, we must work for rightness and harmony and sanctity in ourselves, and among ourselves, and between ourselves and all of creation.

We must be ambassadors of truth and goodness, and yes: also of beauty, for real beauty also transcends boundaries of creed and culture. This is not the sort of beauty one has to be taught to appreciate. It is not the beauty of modern art, or of contemporary design, or of fashion, or of the avant-garde in any field. The distinguishing feature of the avant-garde is its speedy obsolescence. The distinguishing feature of beauty is that it is never obsolete.

Bringing truth, and goodness, and beauty into the world can happen in the humblest of ways. A smile. Work well done. Honesty. There are a million ways in which our human faculties can serve in the growth of the world, in the unfolding of something new. We cannot predict what that something will look like, but we can be, as fully and honestly and artfully as our capacities permit, today, and that will lead us on to what is next.

Jesus, I’ve heard, said to love your neighbour as yourself. Our neighbours are all the living things we come into contact with. Our neighbourhood is the community of all such things, and the culture that exists among them, and our relationships to them. If love fills the gap between our selves and all of our living relations, earth, plant, animal, human, then we cease to be an atom drifting about bumping into other inanimate objects, but become part of something larger, and can begin to see ourselves in all living things.

No matter how far human ignorance and greed goes in damaging and impoverishing the world, Life persists in its patient working of miracles. Even in the midst of the deepest poverty and oppression, there is light. Seeds sprout through cracks in the pavement.

The spark is always there. It cannot be extinguished. We must keep our eyes open, and notice it, and collaborate with it in brightening the world.

Between Here and There

There is a lot of talk in the small, curious world of theoretical physicists, and in the swarm of admiring hand-wavers, paper-skimmers, and buzzword-retailers that surrounds them, myself included, about the arrow of time. This arrow, which is no doubt fletched with the remnants of scores of papers debating its existence, speeds in only one direction. Nobody knows why. “The equations of physics,” so the story goes — I don’t know these equations, but I have this on good authority — can “run in either direction”. Why, then, do they run forward from now until tomorrow, rather than backward from tomorrow until now? Nobody knows, and it seems there is only a very mumbling and ill-equipped dude by the name of Entropy keeping tomorrow from crashing into yesterday and causing a mass of utter confusion.

One day, I will write down a theory about all this, and convince my physicist acquaintances to read it, perhaps along with some bitters for stomach calming or, perhaps more likely, a tube of caviar paste which they are, strangely, quite fond of. Today is not that day.

Today the arrow of time I want to discuss is psychological, not physical, and it moves — if it can be said to move at all — not necessarily forward or backward, but primarily sideways.

What could this possibly mean?

Time, psychologically, has at least two dimensions. There is the forward and backward dimension of the past we remember and the future we imagine; and there is an up, down, or sideways dimension of our current mental state and outlook. Why is our mental outlook a dimension of time? Because as it changes, the futures we can imagine also change. It is as though we are traveling sideways in a 2-dimensional plane of time: the forward-looking line of plausible futures changes with each version of now we inhabit. As usual, a scientific plot will help:

 

 

This is of course not the whole story. We behave as though there’s a future out there, and we’re going from here to there, but in fact there isn’t a there at all, only a interminable here that changes as it goes along, such that one here is vaguely related to what we did in the previous one. Brilliant, eh? No. It’s the biggest cliché since Zen and the Art of Whatever-You-Jolly-Well-Please. It’s also true.

The idea of a here, and a there, and some kind of passage in between is an important illusion. It’s important because without an imaginary future over there that we can be illogically striving towards, here tends to get increasingly shabby. Entropy, remember? He was talking about people, not futures, but Victor Frankl said it very well.

If there is what we imagine could be, should be, or must be — say, a world in which humans are living in something like harmony with the Earth, or a version of myself that has moved beyond Earth-destroying economic entanglements — here is our starting point, the situation as it is: a world getting closer to ecological collapse each day, and myself still eating, directly or otherwise, from the economic systems that are abusing the planet.

Futures have a function, and that is to alter what we do in the present. To serve this function, though, they have to be believable. To be believable, we have to be able to see a way to get between here and there. To see a way between here and there, through or around the obstacles that lie in between, we have to be looking from the right spot. To get to the right spot, we have to be able to move, not just forward in time, but up, down, and sideways, such that we can change our outlook until we catch sight of a future that looks so frickin’ fantastic that we’ll get — no, we’ll jump — up off our sorry butts and start trying to drag ourselves, possibly our friends and relatives or anyone else who will listen, possibly even the whole world, in that direction.

In extreme cases that are successful, this is called being a visionary. In extreme cases that are unsuccessful, it’s called being insane. Otherwise, it’s called the human condition. How I feel, what I ate for breakfast, what calamitous or inspiring thing I’ve just been informed of all change my outlook, and therefor what seems to lie between here and there. My movement up, down, and sideways in time is determined by a host of factors, only some of which are under my control. The more I understand them and learn to navigate, the better my view can be.

All this talk of viewpoint could be dismissed as romantic delusion, but the fact is that where we are — what forward-looking line we can see — is critical for practical, real-world effectiveness.

Famous change agents are famous in part because they were unusually capable navigators of perpendicular time, and were able to see a route between here and there that was invisible to others: Ghandi, for example, a route of non-violent resistance from tyranny to self-rule; MLK a route of non-violent resistance from oppression to civil rights; Victor Frankl a route from despair to meaning, no matter the circumstances; Elon Musk a route through a $100,000 battery-powered roadster from fossil-fueled disaster to universal clean energy; Donal– …. no, never mind. There are negative visionaries as well: those who are able to see a route from here to a version of there that is generally repugnant enough from where many people sit that they can’t see the line of possibility and are therefor taken horribly by surprise. Visionaries are nearly always underestimated, since their futures are simply impossible when viewed from where most people are looking from.

Every visionary is some percentage a failure. The vision of what could be — peace between Muslims and Hindus in India for example, or justice and equality between races in the USA — rarely fully comes true. Reality falls short of the mark, but it can get much closer thanks to someone finding a place to stand where they could catch a glimpse through a pin-hole of possibility, and then describe it convincingly enough to bring others close to the same viewing point.

Views of what’s possible create their own probabilities. The question is not which view of what’s possible is “most true”; the question is: which view of what’s possible will lead to the best result?

I think the heart, that organ of surpassing sagacity and sometimes of extreme foolishness, generally knows this. It is more prudent than the mind, and invests only in what is inspiring, knowing that what is inspiring has the best chance of success.

As an activist in any arena, even the petri dish of my own consciousness, I have to keep in mind that navigation of mindset and motion on the ground are of equal importance.  Just getting to the visionary place where I can see a way forward does nothing; pushing for change without getting to that place may do less than nothing, because the pushing might not be pointed in the right direction.

We need to have an inspiring vision, whether it’s of a more beautiful world, or a more enlightened version of myself, and we need to know in our hearts that this vision is possible. At the same time, we need to look very close to home, in both time and space, for the real action that will move us forward towards whatever a positive future will look like, whether it matches the vision or not. Like belief, a vision of the future is a tool that can be used for adjusting the knobs and dials of our own minds and motivations. Meanwhile, the knobs and dials of my mind affect the future I can see, and so believe.

Between here and there is an imaginary landscape. It is by changing the version of here I’m inhabiting that I can get the virtual reality out there to leverage the evolution of here so that, in time, there can become real.

Genesis

This is it, my friends. After some years of incubation, ideas begat words, which begat documents, which begat schemes, which begat domain names, which begat doubts, which begat delays, which begat panics, which begat more delays, which begat reflection, which begat inspiration, which begat more domain names, which begat a WordPress installation, which begat a “coming soon” page, which begat, after a surprisingly brief interval, this post.

It was bound to happen some time, just like our fine-tuned cosmos in the universe-proliferating schemes of Max Tegmark, or every possible version of everything according to the many quantum mechanical worlds of Hugh Everett. (These are highly unparsimonious theories, but they do forward the increasing difficult and quixotic aim of keeping meaning out of science’s view of the universe; and, incidentally, of this post.)

Starting a blog is like climbing up a rocky outcropping and flinging ideas into the wide, murky ocean of the internet. They may sink, float, or, in rare cases, catch some off-shore zephyr in their gossamer thought-sails and go zooming off toward the far horizon. It can be messy, but here’s the thing: ideas don’t really do any good if they’re just sitting around getting fat and eating all the potato chips in the back of my head. They need exercise. They need to get out a bit more.

The perfect exercise machine for a flabby ol’ idea is a conversation, and I’m hoping this blog will start a few. They may be online or off, light or deep, short or long. Possibly, it will facilitate communications with various people who, noting my lack of academic qualifications, wealth, royal parentage, or Twitter followers, would hesitate to communicate otherwise.

If I’m very lucky, it may even shatter the dull poignancy of a conversation in which nobody realizes their mutual enthusiasm for evolutionary game theory, composting their own manure, or even Life the Universe and Everything; due to this, they have a brief exchange of insipidity that is of interest to no one, then go away feeling slightly more disappointed about themselves and possibly the whole universe.  If this blog somehow thwarts even one such encounter, it will have paid the debt of its existence and proved a counter-example to my brother-in-law’s well-intentioned theory that talking about ideas makes me an aloof, nerd-infested brain case from which all sociable people will run away while silently clutching their heads. Disproving this theory is one of my ambitions in life.

I intend to write about some of the strange things I’ve noticed during my so-far-thirty-odd-year sojourn among the three-brained beings on this planet. Here’s one such strange thing: none of us are merely “on” the Earth; we are part of it, along with the rest of life; we are an expression of the creativity of Earth and Sun, of the miraculous propensity of the universe towards complexity and splendour. And, we are an expression of DNA, of natural selection, of genes selfish and altruistic, of the struggle for survival, of physics, chemistry, and biology. Worldviews can contain each other.

So, this blog will also be about jigsaw pieces of things — science, religion, ecology, enlightenment, politics — that seem to fit together surprisingly well, but haven’t been assembled quite yet.

You and me are like neurons in the brain of a very large creature. Each of our communications is a little action potential jumping across a synapse, contributing its minuscule vibration to the whole symphony of our sleep-walking global cranium that one way or another, through its harmony or discord, shapes the fate of the world.

Right now, that symphony isn’t sounding too good. But, the better we can each play our own instrument, and the more elegantly we can harmonize with others similar or dissimilar to ourselves, the more we can contribute to getting the whole orchestra pit back on track.

Dendrites collecting incoming signals? Check. Ion channels loaded? Check. Membrane potential approaching threshold voltage? Check. Neurotransmitters massed in the presynaptic terminal? Check. 3… 2… 1… ZAP!

Thanks for stopping by.

My Month of Eating From the Island

One year ago today I began a dietary experiment: I decided that for the month of May, I would eat only food grown or harvested on or around Cortes Island. This article is a lab report from that experiment.

A Hair-brained Scheme

When telling people about this experiment, the response was generally: “Cool!…Why?”

There were several motivations. I wanted to know the food that was on my plate. I wanted to see what it would be like, when looking at the food in front of me, to be able to see its history, to know it; to know where it came from; to know who I had to thank for the recent stages, at least, of the intricate chain of events that brought it to my plate; to know that, in its cultivation and transport, only some acceptable minimum of harm had been done to the rest of life; and to know that the economic flows that travel in the opposite direction alongside flows of nutrients — the money we pay to eat — was going where it should: to worthy, hard-working fellow islanders, from whence it could do its very small part toward local abundance.

And, too, I was curious what the effect on mental and physical health would be to eat very simply.

The plan was declared “hair-brained” by some of my acquaintances. They were right.

The Meaning of Dearth

I launched the experiment on May first, with very little preparation. On the same day, I learned a new word: “dearth”. Dearth, I found out, is the time of year when the stored food from last season has been eaten up, and the food from this season has yet to arrive. According to the local food experts and growers to whom I inquired by telephone, in this part of the world, “dearth” also means the month of May.

On Cortes, two things are unaffected by dearth: kale and chicken eggs. So, my diet became kale and chicken eggs.

Kale is a wonderful food, packed full of vitamins. You can find it perched at the very top of the what’s-the-most-nutritious-food lists handed out by health food stores. This is very good, but it turns out that vitamins are not what enables one to do things such as, for example, standing up from a chair, or walking across the yard.

What you need to do these sorts of things is calories, which the health food superstar has very few of. I discovered this experimentally when, after eating very little other than kale and eggs for three days, I no longer felt like walking across the yard or getting up from a chair once I’d sat down in it. Doing these things just seemed like a whole lot of work.

After several days of hopeful but fruitless telephone calls (while feeling less and less well fed, and eating more and more eggs) I finally found a solution in the root cellar at Linnaea Farm: potatoes. Most had been eaten or planted already, or had sprouted into long thin shrubs in the cellar, but in the back corner bin there were enough small, well-keeping fingerlings to get me through the month.

I replaced a gate post at Linnaea as a work trade, and walked off with a large bag of potatoes and some beautiful early greens from the production garden. My diet was suddenly rich and nutritious, and walking across the yard became less daunting immediately.

Discomfort Food

With potatoes, kale, eggs, and fish I had the makings of a healthy and satisfactory diet – or so I thought.

Part of the point of the experiment was to try a very simple diet. I know the labour-intensiveness of culinary creativity, thanks to learning to cook from my wonderful gourmand francophile mother who will, from time to time, whip up a batch of crepes as an afternoon snack, acting as though this was perfectly normal. I avoid culinary creativity when possible, and the only dish I’m known to be good at cooking is porridge. A local diet seemed like a great opportunity to take my nutritional laziness to the max.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was actually difficult to be satisfied with nothing but kale, eggs, potatoes, and fish. No coffee. No tea. No whipped cream. No toast with butter. No butter at all!

The problem of butter was more than recreational, because I knew I was going to be short on fats. It is also nice to have hash browns and a fried egg for breakfast, which requires something greasy, like butter, which requires access to something like a cow, which, despite my whining to the local cow owners, I hadn’t managed to get. Local butter was inaccessible, due to regulations for my protection.

Luckily, another solution was found: at some point in the past year or two, a heroic local food pioneer called Max was involved, in some way I haven’t quite understood, with butchering a sheep. As a result of this he had some jars of rendered sheep fat which he helpfully provided along with two large bags of delicious local nuts.

This opened up new culinary horizons, but they came with social complications. I have a small cabin — possibly the island’s tiniest tiny home — with a rudimentary kitchen in it. Rudimentary means that in one corner there is a nicely varnished but empty cabinet, with a sink in the top and a pipe out the bottom. That’s about it. Onto this is added a hot plate and an electric kettle. Cooking on this equipment is satisfying but very inefficient, so mostly I cook and eat out of a sort of communal kitchen nearby. This kitchen is inhabited by a bunch of people, with many different dietary preferences and requirements. Some of those preferences are, so to say, vegetable-oriented. So, when I arrived triumphant with my jar of sheep fat, and started sizzling it in a frying pan, and a powerful odour of lanolin and other obscure but very sheep-like smells began filling the kitchen, and then the house, the response was immediate.

Luckily, people who use communal kitchens are, for whatever reason, usually idealists of some kind or another. This was lucky because instead of my sheep fat being banned from the kitchen, I was treated with sympathy. As my brother said to my other brother, “just be glad you aren’t going to have to eat it”. If I was going to such extremes as to eat something so disgusting, then clearly I was, for some strange but possibly worthy reason, serious about this idealistic experiment.

Among the people with whom I share that kitchen are some very good cooks. So, in addition to fumigating them with strange carnivorous smells, getting in the way of fast-moving chefs with my never ending potato washing and kale cutting operations, and filling the refrigerator with containers of bulk-cooked potatoes, miscellaneous plants from the garden (sometimes with the roots still attached), and other precious items, I had to enjoy my spartan and repetitive menu in the middle of a parade of the most delicious-looking gourmet meals, top-notch coffee, and — worst of all — whip cream.

This was particularly notable during a two night camping trip with my family near the middle of the month. Recreational camping — that is, camping for some reason other than lack of housing — seems to be a lot about eating things. Such as marshmallows, cookies, and hot chocolate. I was prepared for this, and brought with an insulated bag full of all the local food I thought I could eat, when we headed off by boat for a remote part of the island.

On the first morning, though, as I was lying in a stupour recovering from a tent-free night providing a local fast food feast for the local mosquitoes, my brother came by. “The ravens ate your food,” he said. My sleep deprived mind refused to make sense of this statement. “What do you mean, they ‘ate’ it?” I asked, irritably, from my sleeping bag. “Well, they ate it”, he said. “You’ll have to come and see”.

They had, in fact, eaten it. At some point during the night, ravens had singled out my bag of local food among all the stores we’d brought, and tore it open. They had shredded the egg carton and carried away every single egg, cracked open two plastic containers of potatoes and nuts, and opened a bag of dried apples – my most precious ingredient – and strewn it around the camp site. Virtually the only thing intact was four cans of salmon and my jar of sheep fat.

I salvages a few of the potatoes. Between them, the canned salmon, and freshly-caught cod from the bay I made it through the camping trip. In fact, I enjoyed it. I was beginning to learn to appreciate the simplicity of local eating in fact, rather than just in theory.

The sheep fat was not bad. Fresh leeks sizzled with fat and fried into scrambled eggs makes an excellent breakfast. The experiment of eating local turned out to be more psychological than culinary. It’s astonishing how little eating has to do with getting fed. It’s even more astonishing how much of living has to do with eating! All of this becomes glaringly apparent when one is on a continuous diet of potatoes, surrounded by people whose days are hung together on large, delicious, and carefully prepared meals.

I was healthy – probably better nourished than on my normal diet – but it turns out that most of eating is recreational and social, not nutritional. It made clear to me the difference between eating a perfectly sound, healthy, nutritious, simple diet, and eating for fun – which, it turns out, seems to be the function of most food.

Health Food

There are many odd diet fads around – from “paleo” dieters gnawing on half-raw steaks, to vegan diets, to blood type diets, diets full of fat, diets with no fat, diets with “good” fat but not “bad” fat – it’s such a muddle who can say even what “health food” means? But, all diets seems to agree on two things:

  1. Don’t eat sugar
  2. Don’t eat too much grains, especially white wheat flour

Luckily, neither sugar nor wheat grows on Cortes. On the other end of the spectrum from these outlaws are the “superfoods”: a rotating cadre of specialty products that – if you believe the hype – will make you thin, beautiful and immortal, prevent cancer, cure acne, scrub your intestines, and possibly provoke enlightenment. Whether these claims are entirely reliable may require further research. Nevertheless, we are once again in luck because many of the foods that do come from Cortes – including kale, salmon, oysters, blackberries and blueberries – are frequent superfood-list members.

Local eating also promotes health in a less direct way. As one theory goes, our brains evolved to make us seek out and eat fatty, starchy, salty, and sweet things, which were less abundant than veggies and protein on the prehistoric savanna. Fast forward a million years or two, and we have all kinds of fatty and sugary things to eat, but the brain’s software hasn’t been updated in all that time, so we keep following the old instructions: all fat and sugar thou findeth, thou shalt eateth. This, among many other things, has lead to an obesity epidemic of grotesque proportions.

Luckily again, though, local dieters are spared this problem because Cortes is a bit like the proverbial savanna. Without sweet, fatty, starchy, salty things to eat, we not only eat less of those things, but we also eat less in general because we’re not coaxed to gluttony by the paleolithic nutritionists that lurk somewhere in the brain-stem.

We all know that overeating is unhealthy, especially when it leads to being overweight. But, it turns out that eating less is a good idea regardless of weight. This was born out by experiments with “caloric restriction” diets. Conducted, as usual, on rats, one study found that rats on a restricted diet survived as much as 30 – 50% longer than rats who were allowed to eat as much as they chose. Whether it’s ethical to test diets on rats is another question, but in this case researcher who did the study was so convinced by the results of his experiment, according to CBC, that he did unto himself as he’d done unto his rats and put himself on a caloric restriction diet too.

An Island of Abundance

As the month progressed, my diet became increasingly satisfactory, at times approaching gourmet. Max’s walnuts mixed with the delicious, subtle, wood-flavoured maple syrup from Cortes Gardens; A squash from Marnie, sliced raw, also with maple syrup; salmon candy from the Blocks, and the Block’s canned salmon, which is almost as good as candy; local blackberry jam, eaten by the occasional spoonful; goat milk, steamed on an espresso machine and flavoured with maple syrup; toasted squash seeds; green salad with nuts, pickles, hard-boiled eggs, and a sweet and sour honey and pickle-juice dressing; once one gets organized, the island’s bounty is enough to make a nutritious and tasty diet, even in May.

Local eating has this wonderful side effect: the ripples that come from our participation in the food chain become positive, rather than negative. There is no category of economic activity that is more worthy of our respect and support than our local farmers and food growers. Attempting to make a living (or even supplemental income) from small-scale farming in our current economic system is an act of idealism, or possibly love, but not of economic rationality.

Everything about so-called “laize-faire” market economics conspires to favour of soil-destroying industrial monocrop agriculture whose productivity is dependent on cheap fossil energy and chemical inputs, and whose externalized costs to the Earth and human welfare are largely missing from financial balance sheets.

Every dollar that’s spent locally and not sent off the island to support some other economy is a dollar that can circulate on island, making us all richer in one way or another. Because agriculture is a form of primary production, the positive effect of local spending is doubled or tripled. (Purchase an off-island apple at a local store and around twenty cents for every dollar stays on the island in the form of the store’s gross margin. Purchase a local apple – either directly or through a local store – and the whole value of the apple stays on the island.) By supporting our local farmers and food growers, we are supporting the sustainability, resilience, and prosperity of the whole island.

Gratitude

In the end, the most notable result of this experiment has been gratitude: gratitude for the wonderful diversity of food that we have the privilege of eating; gratitude for the gift of sustenance, and the humble plants and animals from which one can live well and fully; gratitude for the people whose commitment to soil, food, and doing things right allows us all to eat better and more ethically in this place; and a special, unexpected gratitude to those who brightened my life last May with gifts of local food from their own gardens and pantries.

We are what we eat. If we’re eating a problem, then we’re part of the problem; if we’re eating a solution, we’re part of the solution. The more we shorten the long chains of consequence that extend from our consumption out in to the world, so we can see where our footprints hit the earth, the more we can take responsibility for what we do to the planet, its other inhabitants, and ultimately, ourselves.

Charles Eisenstein, in his book Sacred Economics, says that sacredness comes with the uniqueness of particular things, particular places, particular people. Market economics emphasizes interchangeable conformity (between, for example, one picture-perfect apple an another; one ticky-tacky suburban house and another; one employee or consumer and another), and this interchangeability is the opposite of the uniqueness that Eisenstein considers prerequisite for reverence.

I don’t know if this is true (I’m sure that a Catholic would disagree that a communion wafer was any less sacred for its sameness to a few billion others), but I do know that knowing the particular story of the food I eat — what land it grew from, whose hands cared for and harvested it, where the costs, coming and going, end up — changes it. Less food becomes more nourishing, objects become relationships, and the web of connections that flows through all of us, often known as life, becomes just a little more apparent in its jaw-slackening, mind-composting awesomeness.

Arnica

I love flowers. They are the most defiant things in the world. Somehow, in all the utilitarian requirements of survival, in all the necessities of metabolism and photosynthesis and in the harsh contest of evolution, we have flowers: exquisite in symmetry and colour, defying all the ugliness of the world, catching our breath, making us stop a moment, be for a moment, seeing, listening.

They are speaking to us. “See?,” they’re saying. They too face hardships. They too are born, live briefly, and die. But in that little span between, they shine with unabashed radiance, beautifying the world. We can learn from them.

Flowers pay their due to evolution, of course; they serve a function, attracting pollinators, advertising nectar. They have to be practical, just like the rest of us, but have you ever stopped to ponder the generosity of a universe that creates the necessity of flowers? What a sly and awesome thing is nature to create so much beauty in the guise of survival.

Arnica is a mountain wildflower. It grows on the hillside where I spent my youth. It grows thickly beside the boulder under which a rabbit lived one winter; fewer flower down beside the bridge on our steep driveway, in the spot where my brother’s truck stayed after it tried and failed to deliver grandma’s piano to the house one winter.

My mother makes medicinal oils from the flowers of Arnica; they have soothed the many errors and injuries of childhood, along with the care with which they were prepared, and the maternal compassion with which they were applied. Here, wild Arnica cannot be taken for granted, just like the sun in May, or the creek in August. Some years they flower, others they don’t. It depends on the weather, no doubt, and on a thousand secret factors that only Arnica know.

Flora of North America describes it thus: Perennials, 5–100 cm (rhizomes relatively long and thin; caudices woody, relatively short and thick). Stems erect, simple or branched. Leaves basal (sterile basal rosettes often present) and/or cauline; mostly opposite (usually 1–10 pairs, distalmost sometimes alternate and usually smaller); petiolate or sessile; blades mostly cordate, deltate, elliptic, lanceolate, linear, oblanceolate, oblong, obovate, ovate, or spatulate, margins entire or toothed (usually dentate, denticulate, or serrate, sometimes crenate or slightly lobed), faces glabrous, hirsute, hispidulous, pilose, puberulent, scabrous, tomentose, villous, or woolly, often stipitate-glandular as well.

That is what an Arnica plant looks like after being scanned through the scanner of the human brain, and printed out as words. But, like all things, we can’t understand it merely through description, through the output of our own heads. We have to go out and meet it. We have to go out of our houses, out of our books and computers, out of our small containers of thought. Out of our minds even.

I met an Arnica flower yesterday. It had been plucked and was held in a vase, but still its slender stalk stood up impossibly tall and thin and perfect. At the top was a flower, golden and beautiful, like the sun had somehow fallen to earth and taken up lodgings in a botanical analog and proceeded to radiate with a beneficence of clearly solar origin. I wanted to hug it. You can’t really hug a flower, however. You can only stare at it in wonder. Sometimes, the flower stares back.

Several weeks later, I saw that same Arnica flower laid out on the kitchen windowsill. It was awaiting the harvest of enough other flowers to make a batch of oil, and it had wilted into a lifeless pile in the mean time. So I thought, but the next day another defiant miracle occurred: the wilted flower head went to seed, and a hundred tiny parachutes burst out where the petals had been, ready to fly, ready to plant the seeds for next year’s botanical sunrise.