We bury the 41st President of the United States this week. Let us not also bury decency, dignity, and the concept of the greater good. Those are qualities that he espoused, and we are sorely lacking such in the racket of our current uncivil discourse.
I sometimes disagreed with Mr. Bush’s choices during his presidency. No matter; he set an example of service and citizenship. We can choose to re-shoulder that challenge of civil discourse—and by “civil” I don’t mean mere political correctness. I mean vigorous, robust, muscular discourse, with an eye to what is good in each other.
Take up that staff and start the climb.
“I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know.” —from Wild Apples, by Henry David Thoreau, 1862
This is one of my favorite November surprises, every year: the leaves are nearly gone, but many of the wild apple trees in the woods still hold their fruit. Some wild apples are good to eat; others are, as Thoreau described, “sour, crabbed, and quite unpalatable to the civilized taste.” However, if “frozen while sound, let a warmer sun come to thaw them, for they are extremely sensitive to its rays, are found to be filled with a rich, sweet cider…and your jaws are the cider-press.”
I am more than a century hence, and I might just give that a try.
This, right now, is the week when the ash trees along the creek are brilliant yellow against the company of firs and pines.
Right now. Autumn is about “right now”— everything is changing moment to moment. Don’t wait. Be in it while it’s here. Inhale it, revel in it. Yes, I have hoses to bring in, last tomatoes to gather, last chance outdoor work to do; but simply being in autumn’s color is a vital part of preparing myself for winter. Right now.
Blackberries are a scourge in western Oregon, really hard to get rid of. They spread over the top of other plants and crush or smother them. They spread (and spread and spread) from their roots and re-root where their branch tips touch the ground. Birds can spread the berries over long distances. (Do you notice the repeated word “spread?”) Their barbed thorns are absolutely vicious.
But oh, come late summer, those berries! Juicy sweet and warm with sun, eaten right from the vine—no other fruit tastes so purple!
Pennyroyal in a dried stream in a dry pasture.
The community of Duluth, Minnesota is leading the way to a more civil discourse with their Speak Your Peace Civility Project. The purpose is to facilitate more respectful and effective communication. This is not a campaign to end disagreements. It is a campaign to improve public dialogue by simply reminding themselves of the very basic principles of respect. (Their key message is to promote the following nine simple tools for practicing civility, taken from P. M. Forni’s book Choosing Civility.)
Pay Attention. Be aware and attend to the world and the people around you.
Listen. Focus on others in order to better understand their points of view.
Be Inclusive. Welcome all groups of citizens working for the greater good of the community.
Don’t Gossip. And don’t accept when others choose to do so.
Show Respect. Honor other people and their opinions, especially in the midst of disagreement.
Be Agreeable. Look for opportunities to agree; don’t contradict just to do so.
Apologize. Be sincere and repair damaged relationships.
Give Constructive Criticism. When disagreeing, stick to the issues and don’t make a personal attack.
Take Responsibility. Don’t shift responsibility and blame onto others; share disagreements publicly.
In other words—it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
The members of the community of Duluth have taken it upon themselves to be more civil with each other. Chew on that idea for awhile.
Kindness is not wimpy. Kindness can be very hard work, requiring courage. We could all do with more of it. So by all means, speak your mind. Disagree. Even criticize. But speak your piece peacefully.
Think of what we could have.
It’s been another week of news ping-ponging all over the spectrum.
Take a breather. Smell a rose. Renew yourself.
One of my favorite events of the summer is the Black Sheep Gathering, a three-day show featuring many breeds of sheep in all their natural colors. For people who work in the ancient handcrafts involving wool—spinning, weaving, knitting, felting, rug-hooking, and so on—it’s fiber-geek heaven!
Sheep are a diverse lot, with hundreds of breeds. For years I have kept Shetland sheep, a primitive breed that dates back to the Bronze Age. Their colors range from creamy white to black, with many shades of gray and brown in between. Their wool is often “inconsistent,” meaning it varies from soft to coarse from the front to the rear of the animal. The neck wool is very fine, perfect for the very softest clothing. In bygone days the long coarse wool on the breech was used for things such as sailcloth (that is, cloth for the sails of ships). There were uses for all of it, and all of the colors, so it was highly desirable in ancient times, and still is a joy for spinners.
With industrialization, however, breeders began selecting for more consistent fleeces and for white only, to meet the demands of wool millers.
The thing is, whenever you select for one thing, you select against another, and you usually don’t know what it will be. Primitive sheep are very different from their “improved” counterparts—the primitives are notably more intelligent. Sheep are famous for being stupid, but primitive sheep still have their smarts because it hasn’t been bred out of them.
Selecting for white-only resulted in stupid. That’s one to contemplate, isn’t it.
We have a family of barn swallows in our garage again this summer. It’s a mess, but they are so fascinating to watch that we accommodate them. The parents arrived April 11th, investigated the top of our garage door opener and decided it was a good place again, and began the demanding task of gathering mud, grass and feathers to reconstruct the nest. On May 22nd the female began laying and incubating the eggs. On June 6th the eggs began hatching, and the parents went into high gear feeding their babies.
Now the babies are 18 days old, getting ready to fly any moment. The parents swoop in and out and in and out with insects to feed them. Once the mother glided in with a moth, lost hold of it, dove to snag it again, returned to the nest to pop it into a baby’s mouth, whereupon the baby dropped it, and the mother plunged to retrieve it once more and then crammed it into the baby’s gaping mouth; off again she soared to catch another insect, while her mate wheeled in with a mouthful. From dawn until dark they fly and hunt and feed their young, then spend the night resting at the nest.
Barn swallows live their lives on two continents. In July they will begin gathering into migratory groups, and by September they will all be on their way to wherever it is they go in South America. The youngsters will migrate with their parents along the 48-degree isotherm, feeding as they go on winged insects. Their annual cycle of migration staggers me! I think of these barn swallows as “mine,” yet they spend almost half of the year flying thousands (and thousands) of miles to or from someplace in South America. Winter home, summer home, fly fly fly feed feed feed work work work. “Borders” are non-existent to them.
Hash Rock is 5755’ high, part of the core of an ancient volcano. I eased myself out to the edge of the next cliff over to paint it. I’m not one for heights, but I’ve got a son and a cousin who climb these things, so I figured the least I could do was to step…oh…so…carefully…to the edge…well, near the edge…to live with it for an hour. A falcon swooped through the air below me, calling its insistent “kee kee kee kee kee.” I would love to look through its eyes just once, to see the way it sees. I would love to know its experience of precipice and high-in-mid-air that never includes fear. What an amazing kind of normal.