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© 2007 by Al Fritsch
Chimaphila umbellata (pipsissewa)
With March's arrival our hope is that spring is
soon to follow. As we get older we seem to despise winter weather
more each passing year; snowy scenes fascinate us all the more
briefly; anticipated experience with icy conditions becomes more
challenging. Would that we were mesmerized by these last winter days
like youngsters who forget that snow melts and clothes get wet after
sledding. So much for the last vestiges of winter and its memories.
The first sunny days sweep all of us, young or old, into the new
horizons of springtime.
Yes, we want spring to come, grass to sprout
green, birds to return, a planted garden, and winter clothes stored
away. For spring brings us hope of better things to come; spring
gives new vitality; spring is the dress rehearsal for eternal life.
In March the stiff breezes dispel the cold and bring on the sun.
March is basketball madness; March is the sound of the baseball bat;
March is the increased chirping of the migratory birds, many just
passing through on their way further North. March is Johnny
Appleseed, Michelangelo, Luther Burbank, Saint Patrick, Harriet
Tubman, Albert Einstein, and Van Gogh.
March 1, 2007 To Whom Do Resources Belong?
To Yahweh belong Earth and all it holds, the world and all who
live in it. (Psalm 24:1)
During American Camping Week our minds turn to upcoming nature
experiences. We ask some searching questions: To whom does the
vast wilderness belong? Who should say that this land belongs to
me and that to you? Is it brute force or some legal mechanism that
makes this mine and that yours? Doesn't it all belong to God, and
are we not mere stewards for a short period? Doesn't the
wilderness belong to the mammal with the most power? Doesn't
belonging or ownership mean different things to different peoples
or in different periods of history? Who owns air? Those with
smokestacks? Oceans? Those with warships? Unpeopled and frigid
Antarctica? Penguins? Can't natives walk on lands where the
ancestors hunted and grazed or must one get permission from the
Our American tradition of land ownership has a long and
varied history. Our borrowed English legal system is based on
perceiving land as something to which we have an absolute right
through formal title. The understanding by Native Americans and
those of other cultures may be quite different. This is especially
true with respect to what is held in common. Eugene Hargrove
traces American attitudes to land to our legal and cultural Saxon
heritage and then further back to Teutonic concepts of land tenure.
Americans conceive of an absolute right to use land as they please.
The common heritage of humankind has been coopted by those who
hold legal titles and have discovered that they can use some legal
mechanism to become the owner of land or certain things; they seek
a proprietary right to property or a license to perform certain
acts of privileged stewardship. When a government is influenced by
money interests, those wanting to profit from a restricted
definition of "property" will find an opportunity to lay claim to
the commons. This had an historic precedent in the 17th century
when common grazing lands in England were enclosed and taken over
by influential persons and groups. In recent years the movement to
codify a "Law of the Seas" ran into major American opposition,
because some saw this as an appeal to a higher authority
(international law) while they want to exploit the sea floors.
From attitudes about absolute control to enclosure of the
commons comes a license to pollute air and water as one sees fit.
Likewise so-called "Wise use" groups seek to challenge the right of
the government to regulate their private land use. They demand to
be repaid for the lost opportunity to profit from the development
of their land, which is now being declared to be environmentally
restricted. For instance, a requirement not to build on fragile
seacoast in the south Atlantic states means the depression of
property values for developers. "Taking" implies a need to return
to the owner the millions of dollars lost through potential
March 2, 2007 Discerning Spirits
Never try to suppress the Spirit or treat the gift of prophecy
with contempt; think before you do anything -- hold on to what is
good and avoid every form of evil. (I Thessalonians 5: 19-22)
Today is the World Day of Prayer, a time when we should pray
that God touch the hearts and minds of world leaders as well as
people of all walks of life and religious beliefs. Prayer is more
needed than ever before and some gifts of prayer are needed today,
especially that we may know the difference between the workings of
the good and evil spirits. When it comes to general prayer, we may
feel inclined to concede that anything "spiritual" is good: this
sets one up for a grave deception. That is especially true since
many do not acknowledge evil spirits or even evil for that matter.
After a century with some of the worse atrocities ever committed
(genocide, concentration camps, and mass killings), it is difficult
to deny the presence of evil. But what about evil spirits?
Christian history holds fast to the concept of St. Paul that
discerning the spirits is a gift of the Holy Spirit. During this
season of Lent in an agnostic world the idea of discerning the
spirit is vitally needed. A number of religious retreat centers
and other locations have skilled people who are trained as
"spiritual directors." These are available to assist struggling
individuals to distinguish between the working of the good spirit
and that of the deceptions of the evil one. At certain times this
is needed, e.g., a vocational calling, a change in jobs, the advent
of new physical disabilities, death of a loved one, or mishaps in
life. Discerning the spirit means being able to cut away false
expectations or temptations and come to finding the will of God in
our lives. The spirit that entices people to substance abuse or to
failure to show love and charity for others is evil and needs
exposure and avoidance; the spiritual movement to peace, love and
reconciliation must be heard and followed.
Let's look again. If one were the devil, what would one do to
force others into the crass materialism where all would worship the
powers of Evil? Get toddlers to become attached to certain brands
of products, to want material things for Christmas, to junk old
articles and demand new ones. Building up a crass consumer who
becomes insensitive to the needs of others is part of the devil's
total education package, which can continue throughout life. The
evil spirit entices people to find the seven diabolic virtues:
bragging about expensive possessions; craving and acquiring what
you crave; lusting for power; going after the more costly;
tinkering with the sensual; getting angry at neighbors; and
avoiding obligatory tasks through virtually no excuse.
The Good Spirit makes one uneasy about such false cravings and
is able to enhance good acts through a feeling of gratitude and
pleasure in helping people in need. Interior peace, which prompts
us to further prayer and good works and leads us to an ever
deepening interior spirituality that looks out for others, prevails.
March 3, 2007 The Elk Have Returned
The elk is the featured animal of the month -- though there is
no specific reason to designate March as elk month except for the
sightings in the bare woods. It is a noble mammal, a member of the
deer family, and numbered about ten million in North America at the
arrival of Europeans. Through excess hunting the elk declined to
about one hundred thousand by 1900 and the eastern elk became
extinct. Now, a century later, the elk population has bounced back
to about one million. These elk are mostly located in the western
part of the United States and Canada but are also being found east
of the Mississippi in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina,
Michigan, and Pennsylvania. However the reintroduced elk are
western varieties brought east.
The reintroduction has been so successful that elk sightings
are quite common and the numbers have increased to such a extent
that limited hunting seasons are now occurring in the eastern
states to keep the numbers under control. Male members of this
large majestic mammal are known for their antlers, which grow and
are lost each year -- perhaps nature's defensive equipment that
assists the bull in defending his harem. No one want to get in the
way during the rutting season of autumn when the bull bugles to the
cows. These in turn give birth to youngsters in late spring. The
cows bark to each other in danger, mew to keep in communication,
and whine to signal to the calves, who in turn bleat for their
mothers when disturbed.
Elk thrive in a variety of climatic conditions from dry lands
to mountains and from somewhat open plains to forestlands. They
usually go to low ground and valleys in winter and develop a heavy
waterproof winter coat that assists them in the harsher months. In
spring, a light summer coat of fur helps them through the hotter
season. Elk have been prized by the Native American and later
hunters because of their meat and the use of fur and other body
parts such as bone for tools. Their immense size makes them a meat
source for the woodland dweller and for current residents. This
was first recorded during the Lewis and Clark expedition -- a
period when elk became a principal food for explorers.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation at P.O. Box 8249, Missoula,
Montana 59807, was established in 1984 to educate people about elk,
to protect them and establish areas for their reintroduction and
thriving, and to sponsor specific projects all over North America.
The group has 32,000 members and has generated immense interest in
preserving elk. The association regards elk as a premier animal in
North America, and with care and hope the elk should again prosper
and extend its range to all portions of this continent. Travelers
to the Rocky Mountain National park find the elk to be numerous and
quite photogenic. Somehow visitors are captivated by this majestic
creature and hope to extend their range and number to other parts
of North America.
Yellow violet, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
March 4, 2007 Listen to Jesus
We speak of the mystery of the Transfiguration twice each
year, once on the second Sunday of Lent and once on August 6th --
and yet the depths of this mystery never seems to be exhausted.
Here we focus on the aspect that deals with God's spoken command to
the disciples and to us as well, "Listen to him."
Sometimes we fail to see the importance of words. The
beginning of the public ministry of Jesus involved a solemn
proclamation from Isaiah the prophet that he is coming to proclaim
liberty to captives and to the afflicted including the blind. We
hear the words and think that the proclamation should be enough to
bring about liberation. What we fail to understand is that the
proclamation is the beginning of the actualization. Our own "word"
and that of others means so much to us, so the word of God means
all the more. If we but listen, we can understand the power of
those words -- and in this power we are able to spread the Good
News to others.
Listening then takes on several aspects that involve our
complete understanding. First is the phenomenon of the revelation
itself -- in this case the Transfiguring of Jesus into a glory of
radiating face and clothing that prefigures a future glory in which
we will participate. This is the initial message. The second part
of listening is the soaking into our consciousness of what is
occurring here. Both Jesus and the disciples need reenforcement
for the struggles that are to come. Thus the initial proclamation
is followed by a period of growth of consciousness when the truth
is more fully understood and actualized -- the emerging Kingdom.
We are called to actualize the glorifying process to some
degree. Jesus does not come as a despot demanding the
actualization immediately upon proclamation. Time includes our own
participation as members of the Body of Christ. We strive in an
elementary manner to put into effect the proclaimed words that we
read and hear from the Scriptures. In order to actualize what we
hear and reflect upon, we must go a step farther and attempt to
apply the message as best we can -- and this involves trial and
error. This experimentation in establishing God's kingdom requires
still more prayerful listening to sense how the Good Spirit moves
us in the everyday world in which we live.
We become a listening post in order to hear God's Word spoken
through the instrument of our Church and through the inspiration
given to each individual believer. What we hear must be allowed to
sink into the recesses of our hearts. There a deeper listening
occurs where proclamation becomes attached to our heart, but it
does not remain there as though a stored commodity. We move it
forward to actuality and that requires still more listening as to
means of application that always needs improvement. All in all, we
are called to see God's glory, to discover what it means, and to
proclaim it through word and actualize it through deed to the rest
of the world.
March 5, 2007 Excessive Wealth is Undemocratic
Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field
until everywhere belongs to them and they are the sole inhabitants
of the land. (Isaiah 4:8)
The richest twenty nations are gaining profits at a proportion
of sixty to one compared to the poorest nations. Wealth is
accumulating among certain groups at the highest speed in recorded
time. History shows that many cultures lived peacefully and in a
flourishing manner when the commons were recognized and honored.
Certainly, history records wealth being accumulated by kings and
associated nobles who retained their wealth through the force of
arms. However, that accumulated wealth and noticeable differences
among peoples led to destabilization, mass migration, and bloody
conflicts among nations. The movement of people from Africa to
Europe and from Latin America to North America is a manifestation
of this phenomenon today in places where wealth attracts people.
Today, globalization and rapid movement of money from one
country to another allows individuals to seek tax shelters in out-
of-the-way places and lenient or unregulated national economies.
The process is augmented by fast travel, communication, and
transfers of wealth with little transparency and oversight.
Wealthy individuals and corporations can easily influence weaker
nation states to hinder the establishment of an efficient
redistribution program in their own countries. The end result is
that the wealthy can blackmail weak governments and exercise
immense influence over regulatory legislation and enforcement
Concentrated wealth erodes and hinders the democratic process.
Those with wealth have more voice than those without. Scraps are
thrown to the poor, and they are permitted to gamble and hope to
get rich through short-term schemes. For the perceptive,
concentration of wealth is quite disturbing and causes them to
thrash out in some fashion -- and often in a violent manner.
Wealth becomes a lightning rod of discontent and ultimately a
threat to democratic processes. Democracy is like a fragile plant
requiring constant nurturing and encouragement through patience and
human interaction. When wealth is rigidly held, the alternative is
to comply and seek to join the system or to thrash out in a violent
manner. Cooperative efforts of partners take a back seat.
Money is not ugly nor is redistributing wealth necessarily
violent. Those with earned income are known to be far more
charitable than those who have wealth from other sources. Often
accumulated wealth is held more tightly. "Needs" are translated
into larger residences, more entertainment, and more travel. To
retain this wealth requires more security, more community control,
more legislative influence to halt redistribution of wealth, and
more political influence at all levels. Thus democratic principles
are sacrificed in order to retain the status quo. Broad-based
citizen power is weakened and citizen oversight is stifled.
March 6, 2007 Liberate the Affluent
But alas for you who are rich; you are having your consolation
now. Alas for you who have your fill now; you shall go hungry.
Alas for you who laugh now; you shall mourn and weep. Alas for
you when the world speaks well of you! This is the way their
ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:24-26)
We may place a blessing on the restless but not on those
settled in the comfort of their own affluence. The broad-based
acknowledgment of the established notable status of a few may seem
out of touch in a working democracy like our country. But is it?
Convenience, distinction, proper procedures, and high standing seem
so "in," and sacrifice, humble service, questioning the system and
lower standing seem so "out." The comfortably affluent do not seem
to be disturbed by the hundreds of millions of people who are
hungry, without proper housing or health care, or lacking in clean
water. False prophets seek to reenforce this comfort by never
questioning situations that bring about or perpetuate these
miserable conditions among our global neighbors. And never
questioning the status quo is ensuring the retention of the status
We cannot await movement by the affluent to change, for it
will never come. The moral imperative is to give up freely and
generously what is excessive. However, such a recognition of
improper ownership by the wealthy is an extraordinary insight and
can hardly be expected due to the insensitivity generated by
affluence. We can not expect spontaneous miracles and liberalizing
actions by the world's affluent. Instead, the wealthy will excuse
themselves and say their wealth is a temporary stewardship carried
out in cooperation with friendly governmental regulations -- and
they are the best stewards. They see no problem in the fact that
laws allow them to designate "legitimate" heirs who will continue
such practices long after that person's death.
A limited sharing of resources even in the form of massive
gifts given by multi-billionaires may have only limited success.
In some ways these are the largest monetary gifts ever given, but
then never before have people accumulated and been allowed to
retain such wealth. Liberation means first reexamining the power
and concentration of wealth and then proclaiming that retention of
this wealth by individuals is undemocratic.
True prophesy challenges this state of self-satisfaction and
must be free of the influence of the wealthy. The self-confidence
of the wealthy must be shaken and this done through the efforts of
our elected representatives in our government. These must initiate
oversight procedures into democratic practices and enact
legislation that regulates the excessive use of the world's limited
resources. Amazingly, the arguments are similar to those voiced in
the 18th century against absolute and often despotic monarchs.
Again, the citizens are called to liberate society but in a non-
violent and participative manner.
March 7, 2007 Reducing Affluence Improves Quality of
For here the proverb holds good: one sows, another reaps; I
sent you to reap a harvest you have not worked for. Others worked
for it; and you have come into the rewards of their trouble.
An argument is made that to surrender our affluence is to
diminish one's quality of life. However, this is not true and can
be shown in a number of ways. Affluence creates insensitivity and
thus the lack of generosity needed to improve the entire quality of
life of the community. The discontented grow in their discontent
and thus the broader community is destablized, security is
threatened, and more effort must be placed on fortifying the green
zones and gated communities. Affluence may give a certain comfort
to the individual, but the growing insecurity causes inherent
discomfort in a longer term.
Over-affluence means that more gadgets and conveniences must
be maintained and serviced, more funds made available to do this,
thus more headaches and cares that distract from higher quality
living. In fact, excessive wealth is quite worrisome and takes
more of one's time and energy than moderate amounts. A few come to
this insight on their own and downsize their own lifestyles and
argue for others to do the same. But peer and internal
reassurances can become quite alluring, and thus the movement to
this down-sizing is quite limited.
Instead of measuring achievements in dollars and center, the
awakening people see that satisfaction could be achieved in non-
monetary ways: volunteerism, charitable giving, renouncing wealth,
direct service for and with the poor. The long history of
religious and professional commitments testifies to this
satisfaction. A new sense of value emerges that is not dependent
on how much one makes in monetary compensation but on the degree to
which one gives from the heart. And furthermore, a new form of
recognition occurs when the poor respond in gratitude.
Our society needs a non-monetary gradation of professional
assistance, which overturns the basic assumptions of compensation
according to perceived skills. This new approach would not
decrease the quality of life. One can certainly show that non-
monetary compensation has a major part to play in authentic
caregiving. Often people sacrifice income to do things they enjoy
more in the service of others; some heroically go to war-torn
areas of the world to serve the poor. As long as the caregivers
have some moderate livelihood, they can pursue a life of attending
to the needs of others.
Oliver James, a British psychologist, has written a book,
Affluenza, showing that an epidemic of mindless consumerism is
sweeping the world; he has chronicled how depression has enveloped
the affluent and demonstrates that mental illness is especially
prevalent in English-speaking countries.
March 8, 2007 Choose Non-Violence in Place of Violence
The angry and impatient, who see the vast differences between
affluence and destitution, are tempted to choose violent means of
changing a troubled system. "To the barricades!" The mob sways
and the anger is reinforced by like-minded compatriots. In
countries where young people see little hope for meaningful
opportunities, the violent route seems all the more appealing. But
has violence ever succeeded without generating a continual spiral
of more violence to the innocent? The media is full of accounts of
suicide bombers and those blowing up subways and fruit markets; we
feebly say "enough." And do we as a people tolerate those who seem
to stress conquering militancy with more militancy -- and so the
violence continues to escalate? Do we give peace a chance?
The history books are filled with stories of violent
revolutions, insurrections and wars. It all seems so dramatic
until the blood flows; regimes quiver and fall in the wake of
armed conflict that seems so "efficient" at first. However, the
dark side of warfare soon emerges and by then the die is cast. How
does one get out of the struggle once it begins? The agonies of
the dying cause a sense of powerlessness to prevail among those who
sincerely want change. The fighters act automatically as they are
trained and the veterans carry physical and psychological wounds
for the rest of their lives. Struggles become more and more
encompassing, and women and children as well as warring males are
drawn into the conflict. No one profits from such struggles --
except perhaps the weapons' dealers.
Non-violent ways exist and have been proven successful for
major social change. Lives do not have to be lost through armed
conflict. No guarantee exists that a strategy for change will be
perfectly successful, for some of the champions of non-violence
have become martyrs of their causes. Both Mohandas Gandhi and
Martin Luther King have proved that non-violent methods can be
successful -- and in fact far more successful than armed conflict.
Citizens who seek to redistribute the wealth of the world recognize
that ultimate success lies in and through non-violent means.
Regulation and proper taxation can bring about this revolution far
better than the forces of armed conflict and the ensuing suffering.
Even a flat tax is good if the fee set allows for the
redistribution of massive wealth without threatening the livelihood
of those on the lower end of the earning spectrum.
A host of organizations are emerging that champion peaceful
means to social reform. These require a certain space for acting
and considerable cooperative efforts. The organizing is where the
attention is given, not through guerrilla warfare of many seeking
change through violent means. Non-violent work is not as dramatic
as shooting an AK-47 into the air but the results may have far more
lasting effect. So many stand at the crossroads of violence and
non-violent actions. The first seems ever so enticing, but the
results are risky at best. The second requires cooperative efforts
but will gain results in the long term.
Cardamine douglassii, purple cress / Bluegrass,
(photo: J. Powell)
March 9, 2007 Rainforest Products Revisited
We spoke before of a farewell to rainforests (5/20/05)
triggered by the threats to the tropical belt of such vegetation in
the equatorial midriff of our planet. A recent BBC reporter's
interview with those concerned and living in the impacted Brazilian
rainforest had one resident saying, "We talk about sanctions but
today they simply do not exist." The forest destruction continues
even though vast sections of the Amazon rainforest have been set
aside as a federally protected area. Actually, the temperate
rainforests, as in British Columbia (I had the experience of
camping in them three decades ago), are also threatened, but more
aggressive efforts are being made in Canada to preserve them and to
halt logging in the more pristine areas.
In the 2005 essay, I refrained from supporting the purchase of
rainforest products, and that certainly still applies to wood for
furniture and exotic species of animals and plants that are
harvested in these areas. These should be allowed to continue
where they reside. But what about products that are not
destructive of plant life such as the rubber sap or fruit and nuts
from the trees? Some modification could be made with regard to a
few products such as Brazil nuts, a commodity only grown in the
Amazon Basin rainforests and a nutritious product that many of us
know from the mixed nuts we purchase and enjoy.
The reason for my modification of position is that the
inhabitants of rainforests who seek a meaningful livelihood are
tempted to adapt the destructive practices introduced by
developers. Large quantities of Brazil nuts are found in the
forests of Brazil and neighboring parts of Bolivia and Peru. The
unshelled nuts with which we are familiar are really slices of a
larger nut ball with a hard outer coating; this hard ball falls
intact from the tree and is then divided into unshelled sections
and processed for shipment overseas. Unfortunately, some of the
unsorted nuts have a toxin that could be harmful to consumers and
so the European Union has placed restrictions on importation. If,
through testing, the toxin is discovered even to a rather small
degree, the entire shipment is returned to Brazil at the expense of
the original shipper. This makes it hard on all and especially on
the cooperatives that seek to help natives make a living gathering
and processing the forest products.
One alternative method used by Bolivians is to shell the
Brazil nuts and discard the more noticeably defective nut kernels
and thus ship a more desired product overseas. While we may not
have the "fun" of cracking the Brazil nut, still the nutritious
portions are available to consumers. Such products are highly
valued and, when the cooperatives insist on returning a larger
portion of the ultimate revenue to the gatherer, the natives have
a more dependable livelihood. Still these nut trees need
contiguous rainforest in order to thrive. If more land is declared
off limits to development, then the Brazil nut and other non-
destructive rainforest products can be shipped -- and all benefit.
March 10, 2007 Learn from the Poor
A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent
of a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "I tell
you solemnly, this poor widow has put more in than all who have
contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they
had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she
possessed, all she had to live on. (Mark 12:42-44)
We must be open to learning from all of creation, for God
offers the lowly and humble to us as teachers. If birds can teach
us not to be overly concerned, so can poor human beings give
lessons for all to heed.
Generosity has spiritual power. It is common knowledge that
the most consistently generous persons are those who have less. Of
course, a few wealthy people have college student centers and
libraries named after them, but these donors give from their
largess -- and plainly obtain the good will that it takes to allow
them to continue in their wealth. What must be highlighted today
is the solid and sincere offering of little people and the fact
that they can have a profound effect on healing the Earth. This
spiritual power of the poor must be championed. When all see that
their contributions given with generosity contain great power,
their example will be followed by more and more people.
Trust is another virtue, for the poor await tomorrow's daily
bread with no absolute assurance that it will come. The poor must
trust in God. But so must we all and we learn from them how to
place that trust unconditionally. We cannot do things alone; we
need the assistance of others and it takes a sensitivity that is
born in poverty to see this need and to open oneself to the
assistance of others -- and that means divine assistance.
Making do with limited resources is a third lesson from the
poor. Most affluent people would find it difficult to exist in
poverty for they expect services to be done for them. The poor
know it takes ingenuity to find out how things work and they
perform the task satisfactorily with little assistance -- a lesson
for a world of limited resource.
Sensitivity is not a monopoly of the poor -- and some of the
impoverished can be quite selfish and self-centered. But what we
often overlook is a false sensitivity on the part of the affluent
who think themselves generous by giving from the treasures they
possess and regard that as sufficient. They dare not see the real
needs of the poor lest they be moved to give far more -- and only
too often they love their possessions excessively.
Humility is a quality to be learned and the poor are lowly and
closer to "humus" or the soil itself. Healing our Earth involves
the meaningful participation of all people. While the poor are no
more experienced than are affluent people, still their gifts are
often quite unique and meaningful and should never be overlooked.
March 11, 2007 Reform for We Have Only a Little More
The next time we hear of a serious accident, especially in
areas where we have traveled or could have, we return to saying
that this could have happened to us. Only by the grace of God did
we avoid that accident. "Oh God, you give me a little more time.
In the Gospel (Luke 13: 1-9) Jesus gives us a lesson from the
non-bearing fig tree. The owner had awaited fruit from the tree
for three years, but he now wanted to cut it down for taking up
room in his vineyard where space was limited. The manager asked
that one more year of grace be given for the fig tree to produce
its fruit. Don't we also need just a little more time to come to
our senses, reform and produce fruit in great abundance.
Sometimes we need to see that the examples of sudden death to
workers and rebels given in this passage could also happen to us
except for the grace of God. We do not know what tomorrow will
bring, and so we soon see as we progress in age that we are at the
mercy of God at all times. And we know that what we are given is
a little more time, for time is always God's gift to us just as
eternity will be the ultimate gift.
As we move through life and wonder sometimes where all the
time goes, we are left with the reminder that we cannot act like
a sleeping dog. Often we ask, "Don't they know how short a dog's
life is? And they give half the time to sleeping?" The questions
when extended beyond dogs to human beings haunt us all the more.
Don't we know how short and how precious the rest of our lives is -
- whether one year or ninety? This remaining time may go even
faster than the past. And so the need for reform grows with time.
We often repeat what the psalmist says: "Teach us to count the few
days we have and so gain wisdom of heart" (90:12).
Reforming our ways in the Lenten season is what we ought to
do, as the season is half over and time for reform itself runs out.
We need to see our lives as what we expect for this year -- as
school days wind down, work continues, vacation looms in the
distance, and we think about the upcoming spring. Making the best
of our time means: sleeping when that is needed, praying for
guidance, and doing our allotted work with enthusiasm and
diligence. But reform should have a prominent place. Can we walk
a little more with the Lord? Can we search our souls as to how to
spend the remaining time better? And can we be thankful for the
many gifts given us unto now, and especially that of seeking a
deeper spiritual life? Yes, Lent is the perfect time to make some
desired changes. Let's try!
March 12, 2007 The Gift of Memory
In a phone call last night I asked the oldest man in our
parish whether he had ever known anyone who remembered the Civil
War. He has a wonderful memory and many good stories, but I doubt
that he had been asked that question before. After a moment's
pause he said his beloved grandmother could recall that war -- but
all the family were on the Southern side. I reminded him that we
who have second-hand memories of folks with first-hand accounts of
that war are a dwindling few (see 1/20/06). That happening
occurred over a century and a half ago. That stretches memory back
to its extreme, and it shows us how fragile and precious memory is.
We have written about sacred memory (6/22/04) and how to
challenge a slipping memory through eating parsley and doing other
exercises (10/19/04). Why all the fuss, since some people remember
nothing from the past and seem to keep on living? Perhaps the
answer is that good memories are such a delight that we like to
cherish them. The bad memories, well they are there as well, and
they can become a ground of experience that helps us do better
today. Yes, memory holds a key role in our everyday life,
especially for those of us who regard the present moment as
including an anticipated future along with a remembered past.
Our NOW includes our past to the degree that we recall it or
it is operative in subliminal ways. We are our past as well as our
future and so we now regard an eternal future as God's gift to us
and our past as remembered as a gift as well. Sometimes we are
aware the past is slipping. Of over nineteen thousand days in my
life, do I remember something from even ten percent of them?
Certainly a collection of day books can help in the recall but many
things are not remembered. And routine has a way of blurring great
spans of that time (how many things do we remember about the third
grade)? As we pause, a few appear, but thirty-six days of events -
- pretty difficult.
How often do we thank God for our past and that we are still
able to remember just a little bit of it -- the celebrations, great
teachers and classmates, difficulties, entertainments, vacations,
relatives, visits, pets, subjects of learning, national and
international events? Focusing on a single year from our past
along with photos and records can refresh our memory. The struggle
to recall is all the more reason to conceive of memory as a gift.
Records of a given period bring back memories even for those who
find it difficult to keep track of present happenings. The longer
term memories are sometimes more lasting, and these are worth
celebrating -- in a quiet way before the Lord. Thank God we can
remember and that these are the sign posts, although they are
already past, of the eternal journey that is still up ahead.
Sacred and fragile memory emerges as gift even when blurred.
This is brain awareness week, and a healthy brain is needed
for a good memory. Thus we ought to exercise our memory to some
degree. But even more let us thank God for what memory we have.
March 13, 2007 Seek Justice, Not Only Charity
When I feed the poor they call me a saint; when I ask why they
are poor they call me a communist. Don Helder Camara
One certainly cannot fault the person who gives to others in
charity, especially when the recipient is in real need and the
donor realizes that need plus the duty to give from one's surplus.
Researchers tell us that lower income people are actually the most
generous. The givers include those who are religious, are
skeptical about government, come from strong family backgrounds,
and have earned income (Reference: Arthur Brooks, Who Really
Cares). Generosity is often coupled with religious observance,
if we fail to give, we lose our souls. We are apprehensive that
the Lord will ask us on Judgment Day why we did not give to those
in need. Amazingly the excuse that I did not see them as hungry or
naked or thirsty will not be sufficient, for the failure to see
(our insensitivity) is at the heart of our undoing. And
insensitivity is the result of affluence.
Having said this, we sometimes think the only worthy thing to
do is to give in charity. In fact, this is the minimum of what we
can do for others. We are called to be with the poor, and even
perhaps to a far deeper calling of being poor. Being with the poor
involves a solidarity, and that is where we move deeper in the
mystery of divine love. Within this solidarity we realize that
justice must be done. If we seek to be in solidarity and yet to
overlook the just needs of others, the result is a sham and lip
service only. Solidarity means we work together with the other and
suffer the injustice along with the victim.
So often those with immense wealth are regarded as the most
generous, but we often suspect that "charity" may be an insurance
against losing some of that fortune through steeper taxes on the
wealthy. Furthermore, exercising power of the purse seems to
belong to the wealthy who give in "charity" and show which groups
can benefit and which ones are excluded through disapproval. The
giver has the power to decide. In fact, an injustice exists when
some retain much through tax benefits and others have so little
because of the lack of proper distribution to all people. On the
other hand, justice dictates that surpluses ought to be surrendered
and administered through representative governmental sources -- all
leading to a broader global justice.
Many people regard giving charity as a praiseworthy activity.
They see demanding justice as somewhat forceful and even
unchristian. And they neglect to ask searching questions? What if
the surpluses of the world were redistributed and all had the
minimum needed for a higher quality of life? Could we then look a
little differently at the charity-justice issue? As of now, we
must give weight to considering both and still give additional
attention to justice, for injustice is the root cause of inequality
and the ultimate need for charity. Give a fish and be back
tomorrow; teach to fish and the next day is taken care of.
March 14, 2007 Inspire the Overlooked
I have come to bring fire to the Earth, and how I wish it were
blazing already! (Luke 12:49)
Setting people on fire for the right cause is a gift and, in
this age of high-powered commercials, it can prove to be a daunting
task. All too often people have created defense mechanisms against
stray phone messages, spam, and television ads to buy this or that
product. Others are already on fire with the wrong things: drug
addictions, alcoholism, sexual problems, a sticky finger for
merchandise, and on and on. Being on fire is not something new but
it can be misdirected. That makes the efforts at inspiration for
a good cause all the harder.
Charismatic people such as Hitler could turn masses of people
on for the wrong causes, and so merely arousing emotions is not
necessarily a lofty goal. Religious charismatics are often gifted
at inciting people to rise, wave their arms and go into a fever
pitch. Sometimes this is for the duration of a revival and
sometimes for a longer period in life. But what brings on genuine
enthusiasm (the God within) with its balanced approach and staying
power? This is the inspiration that takes root and can be seen in
others and is worthy of imitation.
Those who are on fire with a wrong cause or direction are
certainly hard to engage in reasonable dialogue without a miracle
of grace to redirect. It is even more difficult if a dash of class
or racial hatred is involved. It is as though they are possessed -
- and removal of possession is a formidable task. For those, it
may be best not to attempt a frontal confrontation but to say some
prayers and hope the right person enters their lives, but they
should not be forgotten. On the other end of the spectrum, are
those who are moved by nothing and need to be inflamed with a zeal
that is lacking. Again, we can only do so much. If the person
responds generously, then the torch has been passed on.
As Saint Luke says, "Yahweh has pulled down princes from their
thrones and exalted the lowly" (1:52). We get a clue from this
passage that our attention must be on the often overlooked -- the
lowly. Sometimes they await inspiration and yet we have given too
much attention to those who are well-known but over- or under-
charged. Too often we determine and limit the audience to movers
and shakers or those we imagine to be. Sometimes the lowly are
outside our viewing area. When it comes to change, we are often
taken in by the outmoded dream that by inspiring the affluent and
notable, the peons will follow. Maybe, just maybe, that is not
God's way. The divine preference is to work with the lowly, to
inspire them to rise up. We need to discover this mysterious
preference. It is not that the notable will first change in a
grand benevolent gesture. The tables have been turned and we are
part of that turning. We must go out and search the byways for
those who have been overlooked. And the great challenge is that we
are called to inspire the overlooked.
March 15, 2007 Wind Chimes in Changing Times
Nature presents us with much music from the sound of the
gurgling clear stream to the chirping of arriving or overwintering
birds, from thunder to falling trees in a storm, from the coyote
call to squeaking rodent. Pronounced and gentle sounds sharpen our
hearing powers and allow us to notice and listen to nature.
Sometimes human beings can intervene and accentuate the sounds of
nature through a variety of devices from proximity to bird feeders
to rerouting running water streams. Nothing is ever so close to
musical possibilities as that part of mysterious nature we cannot
see but are immersed in -- the air: howling hurricanes, spooky
tornados, warning gusts before the storm, gentle breezes in the
trees, threatening drafts of warm or cold air, strong currents,
mysterious whispers on otherwise calm nights. All make us aware
that we live in a vital ocean of oxygen that allows us to breath
and move about.
One such human device that enhances the sounds of nature is
the wind chime, a perfect instrument to consider in windy March.
On deeper reflection one would have to look hard to find another
example of where human enhancement has added such beauty of sound
to nature's activities. In truth, the chimes are really
percussion instruments (drum or cymbal), for the gonging is the
result of one metal touching another through the force of wind, and
not a wind instrument (horn or whistle) as could occur through wind
pipes. Often we overlook the value of wind, not a strong hurricane
or tornado, but the gentle breezes or even stiffer gusts of late
winter and spring. The rushing air can have sounds, some quite
welcoming and others frightening, depending on the force. Often
only when wind exceeds a certain speed do we recognize the reality.
But that may not be the same where wind chimes are involved.
I have chimes hanging near the front porch. Each time I leave
and the breeze is gentle it reminds me that wind instruments are
musical, and nature has its whispers and its howls at given times.
The wind chimes are able to give us a gentle feeling that air,
though not seen, is a reality and that rushing air can be used to
power the electric generators of our world with no carbon dioxide
or air pollutants. Wind is free; wind is present; wind is most
often a blessing; wind is plentiful; and wind is powerful.
The Guinness Book of Records tells us the largest wind chimes
in the world are erected near Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The
designer is proud that the music can be heard throughout the
vicinity. These chimes are an ongoing recording with different
sounds and rhythms depending on the direction and speed of the wind
itself. Yes, wind chimes are worth noting for they intrude almost
imperceptibly on our hum-drum lives. Chimes are nature's church
bells calling us back to respect all creation and especially air.
We can appreciate the gift of wind that has been so long overlooked
as a source of our energy -- though sails and windmills have been
around for such a long time. Chimes remind us that the air that we
take so much for granted is needed for life.
March 16, 2007 Overfishing the Oceans
On Freedom of Information Day it is fitting to make some
effort to alert the world as to what is happening through
unregulated and illegal corporate fishing practices on the high
seas. The massive floating factories spread their extensive nets
over vast areas of the ocean surface and scoop up all sorts of
marine life; from these catches the workers select only what is
profitable and harm the rest of the marine life in the process.
Such profitable varieties include the highly marketable tuna fish
coming from 23 different areas of the globe. These are simply
being overfished to the point of extinction. No one seems to be
able to stop the practice without resorting to maritime regulations
that could only be enforced by an international police force that
presently does not exist.
The situation is truly critical, especially since we are
distracted by other crises in the world. The factory ships prowl
the oceans and fish in illegal fashion thus undercutting the
legitimate small fishing operations that have been the livelihood
of so many. The five billion dollar tuna fishing industry is
verging on collapse in a few years if regulations are not published
and enforced in the very near future. The rate of withdrawal far
exceeds fish replenishment, and this phenomenon also applies to
sardines, cod, and numerous other fish species that have been the
source of protein and employment for many of the world's lower
income people. What is happening is grossly unfair, and all the
while tuna and other fish are relatively cheap to buy and available
for many of the upper income people of the world. Maritime fish is
being consumed at record rates but this simply cannot be sustained
for as much as a decade in the future.
In fact, this overfishing condition is not irreversible, nor
is it hopeless provided governments put teeth into joint regulation
of the oceans. Experts tell us that the scientific community has
been able to identify the species and reproduction rates to a high
degree of accuracy. Applying this knowledge could protect the
traditional breeding grounds and allow all the depleted fish stocks
to replenish themselves in time. The question is whether nations
like the United States are willing to accept a global control
mechanism with enforcement powers. This crisis of will to control
and regulate is very real and covers other areas as well. Over and
over, from nuclear power to global warming, from unfair trade
practices to inefficient vehicles, the license of the privileged
clashes with the just demands of the world's people, and brute
power wins out.
Some recourse occurs in the transition to on-land catfish and
shrimp farms. These combined aquacultural and agricultural
enterprises are now becoming the only possibilities to replace the
depleted stocks of ocean fisheries and still uphold fish content
for the world's people. A combination of appropriate technologies
and global enforcement of fishing practices to prevent over-
harvesting may be the joint solution that is awaited at this time.
March 17, 2007 Be Willing to Sacrifice
This was to create one single New Man in himself out of the
two of them and by restoring peace through the cross, to unite them
both in a single body and reconcile them with God. In his own
person he killed the hostility. Later he came to bring the good
news of peace, peace to you who were far away and peace to those
who were near at hand. Through him, both of us have in the one
spirit our way to come to the Father. (Ephesians 2: 15-18)
We are mesmerized by fire. A certain symbolism could be
expressed by burning material things: it may be a sacrifice of
something to the Almighty -- and is not to be equated with violence
to persons, though some materialists would equate it as such.
However, this form of incineration has only limited value, and some
would object that it is a form of air pollution, as well as the
deliberate destruction of property that could have renewed value
through recycling. Symbolic sacrifices have their place as do
ritual ones but here we are talking about a deeper form of
sacrifice -- our time and efforts. In early spring, throughout
central Europe the spring bonfires were lit and celebrated under a
variety of names and purposes. Somehow this became the beginning
of life renewed as in the Pascal Fire before Easter.
A deeper form of sacrifice involves making holy the work that
we do. Here the notion that higher quality of life involves no
effort and only comfort and pleasure is challenged. A fuller
concept of quality of life includes the benefits that come
primarily to communities and not just to individuals. An elevated
participation or cooperation implies a higher quality of life for
all but does demand a certain sacrifice. Making holy takes effort,
but improving the quality of life for all can be immensely
satisfying. Furthermore, selfishness hurts each of us internally
as well as our social relationships.
A broader sense of sacrifice flows from an understanding of
the social nature of the world around us. The local and broader
interconnected communities and ultimately the social order are
damaged through human insensitivity. What becomes evident is that
just as someone will sacrifice for the well being of his or her
family, so in seeing the entire planet as one family he or she will
extend sacrifice to a broader context -- to whole regions and the
entire world. Sacrifice for others leads to liberation of all.
People are now more free, and their restlessness can be
channeled like a fast flowing stream to generate the electricity of
meaningful human activity. This form of electricity is social
change. Sacrifice now takes on a more voluntary nature, for the
more one sacrifices, the greater the liberation that will occur.
And this type of sacrifice involves freeing others from disease,
hunger, inadequate housing, illiteracy, and polluted water. The
more we can help bring this about, the more our sacrifices have
deep social meaning, and the more we realize it, the more
meaningful the sacrifice becomes for us.
March 18, 2007 Oneness through Forgiveness
Your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost
and is found. (Luke 15:32)
Bringing back to life or revitalizing is part of the Christian
story, the story of Jesus as risen Lord. It is a story centered on
the Resurrection, on forgiveness of sins, and on the barriers that
separate us from one another. We need to breathe new life into a
fractured world that is all around us. It is not easy to build
bridges between separated groups but it needs to be done. It is
important that each of us find ways to become bridge builders -- as
we attempt to span the torrents of life in a community and in a
bigger world. It takes ingenuity and effort.
The Prodigal Son or Forgiving Father story here is of three
people -- a son who thought of self to such a degree that he
squandered all his possessions on loose living; a brother who held
within himself all his own self-righteousness; and a forgiving
father who strives to bridge the gaps of family -- who allows the
son to leave; who looks for his return; who forgives him on
returning; and who goes out to the other son to get him to
reconcile with his brother. The parable has powerful implications
because it applies to how we act in our modern world.
We dream of being free but cannot be apart from others who are
part of our lives. Liberation is breaking through the barriers
that we construct and uniting with the other -- whether racial,
cultural or personal barriers. Global togetherness is not achieved
by violent revolution or by holding back in my precious self, some
sort of financial compensation to the "owners" (thus giving them
even more wealth). Will the have-nots violently take what is
rightly theirs? Does there exist a divine right of the
billionaires? Bridging the individual stands of the haves or
have-nots is a daunting task. Individual violence or retention is
not sufficient. One brother has done violence to himself and
property; the other is self-righteous in the wealth he holds. The
father serves as catalyst of change and builder of bridges.
Doesn't St. Paul tell slaves to obey their masters? Thus is
any idea of revolt counter to the basic message of the Scriptures?
But are we really in the same circumstances as Paul during the
Roman Empire with its overwhelming political power. Paul sees the
possibility that all people (male and female, gentile and Jew,
slave and free) are one -- in Christ. After 2000 years this sense
of oneness, set in germ stage by Paul, is now reaching maturation.
Human rights are clearly understood and called forth through
enlightenment. In time, our American forbearers gradually extended
voting rights to white males from much to little and finally no
property, to Blacks, to Native Americans, to women, and to those
between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one. Oneness grows as we
remove barriers that separate. Our mission is to extend this
bridging of separate bodies, to bind them into a unity and thus
help give greater life. This requires patience and forgiveness.
March 19, 2007 Is Changing the Social Order a Credible
The faithful all lived together and owned everything in
common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the
proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed.
On the feast of St. Joseph we are challenged to believe and
act upon what is credible. The early believing community shared
out of their surplus and gave according to each one's needs. This
radical sharing resulted in a credibility as to the worthiness of
their joint undertakings. Can this be repeated today?
Some would say our credibility is always at stake. Well, that
is true to some degree, but only to some degree. The challengers
of credibility must prove their case, and that is sometimes quite
difficult. When the challenged are honest, motivated, plain
spoken, public spirited and willing to stand firm amid rejection,
their testimony to credibility improves. It may not meet the
criteria for an incredulous audience, but it may receive a hearing
from the fair-minded who have time to reflect on the message.
Credibility depends equally on deliverer and receiver of the
message. Credibility is not the same as veracity or the quality of
truth about claims. Credibility deals with whether it is
believable even though the facts or claims may be fictitious.
Through propaganda and a hostile press, receivers of the claims may
be primed into being gullible. They may believe or be reluctant to
believe depending on what they have heard though not thoroughly
investigated. It may very well be that the reluctance to see
profound change as needed is due to the fear of our people to go
beyond the status quo. If migrants or the poor are regarded as
being at fault, then social needs are doubted. If the same
audience is convinced that the wealthy are virtuous and that riches
is reward for their virtue, then credible arguments for change are
Our ability to reclaim the commons that have been taken from
us strains the limits of authentic credibility. First, is not this
reclamation a daunting task that will take much courage and effort?
Will the effort be fruitful? If done on a minor or local level,
can this evolve into a global movement? Is this merely a pious
option or is this a necessity? If the process is put off, does
this extend the power of the status quo? Are there at least a few
who will act as catalysts? Is not meaningful and successful action
the ultimate test for credibility? Will it happen?
The challenge is more than a well reasoned and inspiring message
that will touch the hearts of many. This challenge includes seeing
people in distant lands, with different cultures and skin color as
brothers and sisters, understanding their basic needs, and doing
something about them. Only then are we in a better position to
recast and refine our message so that more and more hear it with
open hearts. And then we will find that the message is truly
credible if it leads to authentic action. The time to act is NOW.
Abandoned home and farm, Taylor County, Kentucky.
(photo: J. Powell)
March 20, 2007 The Abandoned Homestead
We are walking in the woods and come upon an abandoned
homestead -- a common occurrence in once highly populated rural
Kentucky. So many coves and natural watering places were chosen by
those early homesteaders in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
They wanted to settle far from the overpopulated and land-worn
east-coast farming areas. Here the land was cheap, wildlife was
plentiful, clear water near at hand, firewood abundant, small
valleys sufficiently fertile for a corn crop, many nut and acorn
trees for hogs to wander among and fatten, and a cleared hillside
for a cow or two to graze and a hay could be gathered for winter.
Life promised to be idyllic and so the extended family decided
that here was a good spot to settle down and build a house after
the original temporary log cabin had gotten too small and a bigger
one was needed for a growing family. The second house or homestead
would be somewhat permanent, and so local field and creek stones
were gathered during the non-growing parts of the year. These were
selected for exterior facing of the foundations, door steps, and
the chimney -- using the best where most seen and saving the less
suitable for filler and below ground foundation. Clay with lime
was pressed in as a mortar and cementing material, and gradually
the house became a reality.
Time takes its wear. The folks grew old and youngsters had
brighter vistas and either persuaded the original pioneers to move
further west to the beckoning plains or to stay among neighbors and
complete their final sojourn at the homestead. A second generation
grew up and even a third one in some places, but sooner or later
the sounds of laughter and fiddle and the clucks of the chickens
ceased. The wind and rain were relentless, and open doors and
windows let in the elements and occasional wildlife and in due time
the wooden parts decayed and fell in. Maybe the periodic brush
fire burned the remnants and all that remains today is the
stonework -- a more permanent reminder of the love that has been
expressed in played-out hills.
Here as we visit, a tinge of bittersweetness envelops us. We
are not archaeologists but can tell an old homestead; we are not
novelists but can evoke the tale of past residents and their
satisfaction after hard toil. The homestead seems so open to all
the world, but that is part of its charm -- it speaks ever so
gently of what has gone before. I never pass such a site without
striving to guess the goodness that was nurtured here and the
efforts that went into making this a home for a working family of
hill folks. The place's isolation makes us inquisitive: the
smokeless chimney speaks of a past that beckoned hospitality to the
passing stranger; the sight from a distance was part of someone's
dream of bliss. And yet the homestead is abandoned now, except for
our happening to come across it in the second growth landscape. I
never leave such sites without a feeling that this has been and
remains a sacred place -- a word to a shiftless world that
permanence is but for a moment but a happy moment while it lasts.
March 21, 2007 Challenge All to Change
Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, 'How hard it is
for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!' The
disciples were astounded by those words. Then Jesus insisted, 'My
children,' he said to them 'how hard it is to enter the kingdom of
God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.' (Mark
On the first day of spring, change is in the air. We may look
around and try to discover where change is needed in our lives.
Just as during the American Revolution, people underwent enormous
changes due to one-on-one conversation and through the spread of
pamphlets, talks, sermons, banners, church bells, and other media
events of that day, so outlets of change are needed today. Let us
consider a variety of ways that this can be done: create slogans,
print succinct and clever bumper stickers, sponsor concerts, and
press for talk shows with a theme that the commons belongs to all
of us, not to a choice few. In fact, compare this with the
seemingly strong support of the lotteries in which individuals have
little chance of winning. All have a right to the wealth of the
world -- and this should become our ground-swelling message,
confident that in articulating it over and over the tide will turn
in our favor.
Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, capitalism has become
established as the superpower's economy. Through a massive
propaganda machine that reaches into every home on television,
radio and internet, the system has impregnated most listeners with
a steady diet of goals of materialistic glory and comfort -- all
through entering, accepting, and becoming totally involved in the
system. Every morning or evening the changes in the stock market
both in America and also in Japan, the Pacific Rim, and the
European Union are broadcast.
Amid this propaganda blitz, emerge glaring weaknesses that are
worth pointing out: people do not have basic health care, others
who are outside of the moneyed system starve, unemployment is
rampant, and the largest military system in the world, which was
built to defend against the Soviet Union, is applied now to defend
the economic status quo. The legitimate needs of neighbor for
decent housing, food, health, and education are overlooked in the
haste to perform more militarily for security.
We must all change. To those who say we will put this off
until after the terrorist crisis, we must respond that the crisis
is far broader than already envisioned. To those who say change
will take time later, we respond that concentration of wealth has
happened with deliberate speed and so could the changes required to
redistribute the wealth. If one asks why experts (of their own
choosing) do not champion change, we ask who decides that they are
exerts. To those who say that advocating change will hurt one's
reputation, we ask who furnishes the standings on which the
reputation is based. Yes, we must all change now.
Old rock fence in rural Woodford County,
(photo: J. Powell)
March 22, 2007 Rock Fences and Dry Stone Walls
Kentucky is famous for its "rock fences" or dry stone walls
and some say the Commonwealth has more of these than any other
state. Many were built around the time of the Civil War either by
slaves and ex-slaves or by artisans who came from overseas,
especially from Ireland and Scotland. Many miles of these fences
are found today in the Bluegrass region of central Kentucky. These
picturesque fences were made from the scattered limestone rock
found in this area. Today, however, costly reconstruction and the
far lower cost of replacement by wire or wooden fencing, along with
road widening, has resulted in a sharp decline in this fencing. It
takes $100 worth of material and more than that in workmanship to
lay a three- by four-foot stretch of wall. Thus one can see that
a half mile of professionally replaced rock fencing could cost
about half a million dollars -- far more than the price of the 150-
year-old originals. In some road widening projects the fences have
been reconstructed away from the road as part of the road costs.
In youth I lived where the Bluegrass came up to the Ohio
River, and there was a vestige of a stone wall at the back border
of our farm. Since the limestone was found in thick or thin
layers, these rocks rendered themselves ideal for a dry layering of
one on top of the other. However the art of fence building is more
than just placing rocks in layers, and so we did not attempt any
such construction. However my Uncle Pete living next door decided
he would construct corner pillars out of native stone and did a
very fine set of them in various key locations on his farm.
At ASPI we had a good rock worker, Eddie Stallsworth, and
other workers who built a series of rock walls near building. That
is when I realized how much of an art rock laying really can be.
We did not dry stack the rocks however, for snakes love to reside
in such fences -- and we had plenty of copperheads in the
Rockcastle Valley. Rather, we had the stone (mostly sandstone)
laid with mortared foundations, with places at the bottom to drain
away any moisture build-up in the retaining walls.
Rock fences give a quaint and colorful beauty to the landscape
and they are characteristic of this area. They are really far more
ecological (using local native materials) then is the wire or
wooden fencing that replaces them. They can last for centuries
unless hit by vehicles, machinery or falling trees -- and even then
small patches can be repaired without purchase of new materials and
at a far lower cost than starting with only a ditch and foundation.
Historic signs telling about rock fencing are found at key points
along the highway. Attempts are being made to declare these fences
heritage artifacts before they decline into near extinction. The
problem is who will maintenance requires a artisan and is
expensive. Some folks are being trained in dry stack fencing --
but only too often they are not the owners and caretakers of the
land on which these noble barriers are erected. Gradually the
value of the art work in rock is being appreciated and steps will
be taken to preserve the remaining fences.
Lonely railroad stretching to the Kentucky
(photo: J. Powell)
March 23, 2007 Railroads as Means of Public
Railroads have been used for transporting passengers for
almost two centuries, but we speak as though this is something new.
Actually public transportation on railroads should be termed
"renewed." Last night I heard what sounded like thunder when a
100-plus-car coal train prepared to depart from our Ravenna
railroad center a few blocks away for points south, loaded down
with "black gold" for Florida and Georgia powerplants. The
railroad tracks are in good order; the line was once used for
passengers. Why could the system not be reused for such purposes
provided the stations are reopened and the freight rerouted at
Such a passenger railroad system would use less fuel than
private automobiles and airplanes -- both highly inefficient in
passenger miles. The fact is that a good rail system is actually
in place, for expensive right-of-ways are in use or could be
reactivated in a short time. Passenger service may demand upgrades
on railroad surfaces and rails, but that would not cost nearly as
much as obtaining right-of-ways at this time. If passenger volume
could reach critical levels, the private rail lines would be able
to make improvements without governmental assistance -- though that
help could be defrayed by avoiding the often omitted environmental
costs of congested highways and airways.
With an improved public railroad passenger service, more and
more small and medium-sized towns and cities that suffer from lack
of transportation facilities could be retied into the national
network. Today, elderly folks and those who are young and wish to
visit relatives have been excluded from consideration because
public transportation is so minor outside of the Boston-Washington,
DC, corridor. In this part of rural Kentucky, public
transportation was far better served exactly one century ago
(through railroads) than it is today. Virtually every county of
the Commonwealth had rail facilities fairly nearby, whereas now
hardly a dozen of the larger centers offer that service.
Undoubtedly, expanding passenger service could stimulate the
economies of smaller towns, could result in reduced fares through
more use, could lead to profitability in passenger railways, and
could reduce the traffic on highways and at airports. And of
course there could be fuel savings of about ten percent in the
transportation sector -- and there would be less air pollution as
well. Passenger railroad service could be a win/win situation.
And the nation would profit by giving people who feel quite
isolated and at the mercy of friends and relatives for getting
around the means to improve their own quality of life to a marked
degree. The automobile industry in collusion with petroleum
companies successfully weakened the public transportation system
about a century ago. Maybe we have had enough time to learn some
lessons: America needs public railroad service. With the political
will this could be renewed at relatively low cost. Let's do it!
Phlox divaricata, blue
phlox. Franklin Co., Kentucky
(photo: J. Powell)
March 24, 2007 Wildflower Excursions
We have shown many photographs of wildflowers on this website
to the budding Earthhealer. Along with them we need to encourage
hiking in natural areas and observing wildflowers. The difficulty
in becoming too specific with wildflowers is that each reader has
a different time, place and set of species for which to be on the
lookout. Wildflowers generally have a wide blooming range but
usually there is an optimum (generally spring) period when many can
be seen in one excursion. Adding to the difficulty is that spring
comes early or late and thus fluctuates in timing with each zone
and microclimate. To simply state that April 20th is the best time
this year may be a mistake; one needs to be on the lookout for the
signs of best excursion periods.
It is always good to have a person who knows where the
wildflowers are located even though they often do not reappear at
exactly the same location in succeeding years. These wildflower
lovers are perceptive and appreciative of the phenomenon that is
unraveling before them in this growing season. And they can be
good teachers of what is good for us all. It is good if a
companion seeks to sketch, describe and photograph the blooming
plants. We never cease marveling at the delicate flowers, the
blending colors, and the distribution of the plants.
Second best to having an expert is to have a good handy
wildflower guide of your particular region. Take along a companion
who is also willing to read and describe the various flowers that
are observed. Often these specimens have been published on a
regional or statewide basis. Though colored guidebooks cost more,
the book should have colored photos or drawings of the particular
wildflower being described. Become familiar with the various plant
parts (stamen, sepal, petal, pistil, etc.) that are described in
the guidebook. When identifying a particular flower, you may
desire to note it so that there is some degree of accomplishment
from the excursion. Some people may find this last suggestion
distasteful, since they desire the outing to be pleasure and not
education, along with the burden of remembering what they expect to
forget so soon.
Again we need to note that the wildflowers are best allowed to
remain where they are. Don't harvest them unless they are exotic
invasives such as dandelions or garlic mustard (pull and harvest a
bale of that if you are so moved for these two can be eaten as
greens when well prepared). Don't err on the side of ignorance and
pull up native wildflowers. Some who regard themselves as
naturalists make that terrible mistake and need to be corrected.
Besides most wildflowers die after transplanting. Even picking a
bouquet of wildflowers is against the set rules and should only be
done if the flower is quite plentiful. Again remember that flowers
are best left in place and that exotics can also make beautiful
March 25, 2007 Refrain from Casting Stones
And Moses has ordered us in the Law to condemn women like this
to death by stoning. What have you to say?" (John 8:5)
It is far easier to cast stones at another than to have a
reconciliation and come to sincerely wish good for them. Doing
mean and displeasing acts is easy; doing good deeds is somewhat
more difficult, and goes against the anger that swells in our
hearts when we realize that a gulf exists between us and others.
The Conflict. The final weeks of Lent make us again
the rising level of antagonism which is swelling up in those who
challenge Jesus and his ministry. The testing comes as the crowds
look for someone to teach and lead them. The woman caught in
adultery is a mere pawn in the battle. She is as mistreated as
anyone in a world where the women must suffer and the men are
judged far less. Here both Jesus and the woman are being judged in
life-threatening circumstances -- but one is innocent and the other
guilty of the offenses she is accused of.
Another Complication. The Roman laws did not allow the Jews
put others to death, and yet the Mosaic law said an adulterous
woman should be stoned. If Jesus said "Yes" to the Mosaic Law, he
would defy the Roman law, and if he assented to the Roman law, he
would disobey his own religious tradition as understood.
What Would Jesus Do? At this time of testing he writes in the
sand -- the only time he is recorded to have written. While the
act is recorded, the substance of the message is not, and this
allows us to exercise our imagination about what is said. Is it
the record of each of the accusers' sins? Some think so, and
probably the ones who make the judgments against the woman have
that thought as well. The melting away of the accusers is
interesting. We are not meant to be lynching judges on such
serious matters, since we need legal systems to protect the
innocent and punish the guilty. Jesus does not take a stand as
would be expected by more judgmental folks. Rather he asks the
woman to repent and live a good life. This is where mercy takes
precedence over justice, and is expressed in the sense of
forgiveness given and the new life to be lived. But he also takes
a stand against the mob who wanted to lynch the woman, and he calls
on them to look into their own selves and reform their own lives as
What Do We Do? Wrongdoing is before us all and yet we are not
to judge the sinner, while we do affirm that wrongdoing should be
halted. The challenge is to confront the sinner while at the same
time not judging him or her. That takes more inner harmony and a
balanced relationship with God than appears at first sight. How
can I regard this radical form of peacemaking as part of my daily
life? As a new month approaches, and Easter is just around the
corner, we need to consider what we do instead of casting the first
stone. The opportunity comes up more often than we suspect.
March 26, 2007
EMMANUEL -- GOD WITH US
March 27, 2007 Radical Sharing is Necessary
John the Baptist answered, If anyone has two tunics he must
share with the one who has none, and the one with something to eat
must do the same. (Luke 3:11)
Radical sharing can take on more extreme forms in the kidney
donor who shares one of his good organs with those in need. Such
sharing is blessed, and is thought by many as heroic and beyond
ordinary demands. What is not beyond those demands is the sharing
of surplus wealth that is accumulating when the expenditure of that
wealth for the benefit of fellow human beings is of great need
today. Wealthy nations that spend so much on defense for the sake
of security are simply practicing selfishness that does not ensure
security and may be a path to insecurity and destruction.
Radical sharing leads to liberation of people both the holders
of excess and those who lack the basics of life. In sharing we
both liberate and are liberated. The initiator of the process
could be either party or, most likely, an external catalyst. And
here is where we enter into the radical sharing process. We
testify that the catalyst is an external force -- the Holy Spirit
who initiates all sharing -- because at the beginning God shares
with us. We only testify to the process that God has started, and
we are mere witnesses and catalysts. Inspiration comes from the
Holy Spirit who starts us all on the road to sharing.
"A rose by any other name is still a rose." Christian
intentional communities down through the ages, from religious
communities to Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement, have shared
everything in common. What was done on the local level needs now
to be globalized. We are to share the resources of the world with
all people, and the emphasis is on fair sharing not on legitimized
hoarding. Not only is it more perfect, but it is good Christian
practice. Our Jewish or Buddhist brothers and sisters would say
the same thing, as would other religious people as well.
The liberating message of radical sharing is directed both to
those who have access and those who lack. In fact, through a
generous and free parting with excess, those with superabundance
guarantee a rising quality of life to others -- and the act of
sharing makes for an improved quality of life for both givers and
receivers. This leap of faith in the act of sharing is needed for
the genuine development of the entire world. What is so necessary
is to see this as a dual act of freedom, not a taking by one apart
from the free act of the other, nor the giving up by the possessor.
Radical sharing is the act of realizing that what one gives and
another receives when done freely and non-violently on the part of
all parties binds the world more tightly together as one sharing
God hears the cry of the poor. So should each of us, allowing
that cry to penetrate our souls as one family. In so doing, the
cry becomes something shared and is a profound godly act as well.
March 28, 2007
Blue-green orb dashing, jewel in vastness splashing,
Lightning flashing, rocks smashing, waves crashing.
God enthused made Adam, Eve, but their freedom misused,
Whose progeny abused, Babel confused, Israel refused.
Earth breathless waiting, David's house,
Promised land, chosen people, Joseph's spouse,
At last expected advent, virgin birth!
Divine and human life, true mirth for lord and serf.
Fresh-spirited he departed, mission started,
Grace imparted, melted hard-hearted.
Some were dismayed by his motley parade,
But his trust one laid a plot; he was betrayed.
They brought him in accused, sad display
Thorn crowned, clowned, bruised and led away.
Life's final breath rebound from that mound,
Christ. A slumped corpse overhung this bloody ground.
Time fleeting, sweaty I scrambled to the place,
Midway up, paused, tempted to stop the race;
Height attained, my fingers touched the rocky rend,
Where his cross recast foe and friend.
Suddenly, sorrow, lamentation, deep down worth!
"Look what's been done to my Earth"
Rebirth new-found, I bounded down,
To hound all desecrators of now holy ground.
March 29, 2007 Take What is Rightly Ours
If one of the brothers or one of the sisters is in need of
clothes and has not enough food to live on, and one of you says to
them, 'I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty,'
without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good
is that? Faith is like that: if good works do not go with it, it
is quite dead. (James 2: 15-16)
The title does not necessarily match the quotation but they
are related. We must give when someone is in need; we must take
from the commons when we are in need. "Niceness" would say a few
good words for those in need; niceness would say refrain from
taking and suffer through the difficulty for the sake of the social
order and respect for what others "possess." But St. James tells
us that we must do more than be nice either as the haves or the
We note that the title does not say take what is "mine" for
that could set off a spasm of selfish grabbing. Taking for the
community what has been sequestered by a few has its problems also
but not as grave as the "all for me" attitude. Granted that under
certain circumstances, when life and death are involved, one may
take such basics as food and fuel for the sake of one's household.
However, taking for exclusive self-interest and squirreling away
for a remote rainy day is not right. During the dark days of post-
World War II Germany, Cardinal Frings of Cologne told his people
that taking coal to heat homes was not stealing when it was
absolutely needed. This principle extends to similar circumstances
that can be found in the world today. Take from what is the excess
surplus and not from others who seek to meet their own basic needs.
The ideal is the simultaneous act of the rich seeing the needs
of the poor and giving and the poor taking through grateful
receiving -- one grand act of sharing. However, that seldom occurs
spontaneously or even after we act as catalysts to trigger sharing
to occur. Waiting in patience is hardly virtuous if others in the
community lack basic needs. Thus matters may have to be taken into
one's own hands when critical conditions exist, and there is some
possibility of success. Forbearance may be needed in times of
persecution or oppression or when massive disability hinders
action, but the able-bodied must act under normal circumstances.
Under such conditions what is first taken that is rightly ours is
A salient but gentle sense of dignity is involved when the
taker reclaims the commons by initiating action that is restrained,
not greedy. To wait for others to give from their largesse is
unrealistic given the selfishness of our world. Reclaiming the
commons cannot be done alone but is hastened by catalytic agents
who incite action. The catalyst may be an outside empowering
agent. Such cases do occur under proper conditions. But often
takers are the change agents and outside catalytic agents may only
affirm and defend the actions taken.
March 30, 2007 Beautiful Landscape
On the birthday of Van Gogh who knew how to paint a beautiful
landscape we need to consider again the treasure that resides in
the beauty of nature. That beauty means the land is either left to
its primitive state or, if touched by human beings, is made all the
more beautiful. Mountains, rivers, seashores, forests all have
that charm and grace that only the hand of the Creator can give --
and scenes, whether visited or observed virtually, give us immense
peace of soul. We should regard these as a "commons" that should
be enjoyed by all people and are the common heritage of the world
and not just of a privileged few.
Landscape disturbance occurs in a variety of ways, some out of
selfishness, and others in the guise of giving employment to
workers or extracting useful products. The devastation of clear
cutting or mining a land for resources with no thought of
meaningful reclamation causes immense disturbance of land and the
souls of residents. If the disruption does not disturbed us, our
insensitivity borders on the dysfunctional and should be treated.
To tolerate massive alteration of the landscape is pathological and
only manifests the utter disturbance of our social order. The
pinnacle of misunderstanding of landscape is when a developer
builds a hilltop mansion so that the owner can observe untouched
beauty whereas others who observe the total scenic view see the
mansion as a disturbance -- what it really is. And this occurs
quite frequently in Appalachia and elsewhere.
What must we do given the current situation? Primitive scenes
and undisturbed natural beauty are becoming less and less a reality
and so we should consider other approaches besides attempting to
halt future mass disturbances. The best solution we can hope for
is reclamation of the devastated landscape in a host of remedial
practices: remove billboards and advertisements that mar the
landscape; halt clearcutting of forestlands and abide by better
harvesting practices that conserve the natural beauty of existing
forests; stop the extraction of coal in elevated landscapes and
use immediate methods of reclaiming top soil in level surface
mining areas in the West; check scattered developments in
undisturbed tracts of land and limit construction to existing
developments; take care that leasing of public lands occurs only
after strict environmental assessment; and educate the public on
the aesthetic and tourist potential of undisturbed lands.
Regarding natural beauty as a treasure is something that must
be taught to a society that finds it hard to realize nature's
importance. For this reason an investment in youth nature
experiences is something that would be a valuable long-term
investment in our country. Every young person should have an
opportunity to visit and observe areas of natural beauty with a
formal program of educating these people as to the flora and fauna
so that they come to appreciate the immense natural beauty all
around them. Essays, paintings, and projects dealing with such
beauty should be encouraged and be part of this education.
March 31, 2007 Doctors without Borders
Each month we give special attention to a group that seeks to
heal a portion of our wounded Earth. We have included local,
regional, national and international groups and find ourselves
within the last category this month. Médecins Sans Frontières
(MSF) or "Doctors without Borders" has deserved recognition since
long before it was awarded the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize.
This group seems fearless in penetrating war-torn parts of the
world or areas of deadly outbreaks of disease, and there brings
help to people who sometimes think they are totally forsaken. The
MSF realized that emergencies arise where they are least expected;
MSF must learn about the situation, determine needs, mobilize
quickly, and bring the required personnel and medical supplies and
equipment, through whatever means are available. The purpose is to
attend those most in need and to save lives when and where disaster
strikes. In fact, over and over one hears of MSF exploits in
Sudan, Lebanon, Haiti, and among tsunami and earthquake victims.
In a very real way, its doctors are the frontier caregivers of the
world and deserve attention and support. We can hardly heal the
Earth without giving special attention to those who hurt the most -
- and MSF helps determine who these sufferers are and how their
sufferings can be alleviated.
Columbia is a land with three million internally displaced
refugees (following Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the
Congo). MSF runs mobile clinics that provide basic medical
consultations, deliver essential drugs, treat mothers and children
and provide individual and group counseling. MSF offers medical
treatment to an estimated 250,000 people per year in that
unfortunate country alone, mostly for malaria, leishmaniasis,
parasitosis, chronic malnutrition and hypertension.
In April, 2005, MSF responded to a severe measles outbreak in
Chad. The MSF teams provided emergency assistance by treating
patients with measles, supplying medical materials and drugs,
setting up data collection systems to ensure continuous assessment
of the development of the epidemic outbreak, and carrying out
vaccination campaigns. In that season alone some 320,000 children
were immunized thanks in great part to MSF. The following year the
organization launched a massive measles vaccination campaign in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo to reach 500,000 children under
the age of five.