Dear Emily

I hope you don’t mind me sharing this little letter with our friends.  I think everybody experiences love differently and I always like hearing about other peoples’ joys and struggles with it.  I’m sharing this letter for those who feel that way too, and for those who like to think about love and all of the different ways it impacts us and find its way to us.

I don’t believe in soulmates anymore. Or rather I do more than ever, but I don’t buy that love at first sight kind of crap I used to believe in.  I was a sensitive kid and always imagined a grandiose type of romance for my future. My perception of love is a bit more refined these days, though not nearly as refined as it will be when we’re old and grey.  I actually think love is far grander than the image of it I had as a kid.  I’ll let the poets take it away:

We are more together

than we know, how else could we keep on discovering

we are more together than we thought?

You are the known way leading always to the unknown,

and you are the known place to which the unknown is always

leading me back.

– Wendell Berry


Do you remember when we first met?  It was April, and the greens were popping like acrylic, and the sky was blue.  We met on a concrete basketball court on a windy day.  I got nervous around girls then, and I have always had a habit of singing out loud whenever I feel awkward.  Doesn’t everybody?  Usually whatever tune is on my mind will come out sounding like I think I’m better than I really am.  Well, you had a friend with you, and I thought you both were cute, so I was very uncomfortable, and naturally I started singing,

“Well I thought about the army, Dad said son you’re fuckin’ high…”

You said, “Are you singing Ben Folds?  Oh my gosh you just became my best friend.”

Then for the first time I saw those big blue eyes of yours.  With all that shyness, you’ll never be able to hide your personality, it’s all there in your eyes.  I was immediately impressed.

Literally, that was how we started.  I know how it sounds, cornier than bad fiction, but somehow it sparked some kindling in our flammable teenage souls.  It led to several months of giddy interest and flirting, mostly by way of telling friends to tell the other how we feel, which then led to several more months doing of whatever it is teenagers call a relationship.  I think we liked each other then, but we weren’t soul-mates, not yet.  Hell, we didn’t even know each other.

During the first year or so we were dating, I always had that song in my head, a different one by Ben Folds, the one he did with Regina Spektor, you know,

“You don’t know me..”

I knew you didn’t know me, and I didn’t know you, but I liked the way your body felt when we sat next to each other, and the way you always tried to hide what you were really thinking.  I’m a sucker for mystery, and for girls with big blue eyes.  In the beginning, it was an accident that we were together I think.  The thing that stayed us during that time was the easy way we sat in silence, the way your nose twitches when you laugh, and I will always remember the first time you put your head on my shoulder.

It was an indoor soccer game.  We watched our wine-drunk friends clown around in the basement of Bump City, a meaningless night except for when you laid your curly blonde hair on my shoulder and I liked the way it felt.  We broke up a week later.

If not for the memory of that moment, I don’t think I would have ever agreed to try us out again.  Since getting back together roughly six years ago, I have seriously considered breaking your heart twice.  One was a night just before we left for college.  I entered the evening with full intention of ending things.  We talked and talked that night, and I never did get around to it.  It was mainly out of pity that I didn’t pull the trigger.  Some say that pity is a weak emotion, undesirable, but it’s because of pity, and an honest desire for your happiness, that I have ever gotten to experience the utter joy of being in love with you.

There were trying times in college.  Both of us drank too much.  I was selfish.  My dreams of what I might become were based more on how others would see me than how I could be happy.  I was blinded from what would become of us if I sought personal glory in exchange for a life in pursuit of simple pleasures.  Thus I was always comparing our relationship to the ideal version I had in my head of what two lovers ought to be, and wondering whether our relationship would interfere with my egotistical dreams.  I must have required monumental patience to have trusted that I would someday become the man you somehow saw in me.

There were good times too.  Can you count on two hands the number of times we had Harry Potter marathons?  I don’t think so.  Remember when my room flooded at Delta Sig and I became your second roommate?  I’ve never watched so much Friends in my life.  In spring, just as the first hints of summer blew in from the south, we rode a tandem bike together.  Later, we rode our single bikes to Keats and back.  We spent almost an entire day in that quiet little town, walking and reveling in the silence.  You taught me how to properly cook eggs.  Beerio-Kart. You got me a job as a dishwasher and now I can almost cook as well as you can.  You shared your notes with me in the class we had together that I never went to.  You taught me how to care for somebody when they’re sick, and how to put other peoples’ needs in front of my own.  You showed me a kind of love that is patient but urgent, respectful yet demanding, and I can remember clearly each moment that has brought us closer to becoming soul-mates.

There was a time when I didn’t think I could carry on in our relationship.  I was frustrated because I was trying to balance my own pursuits with the demands of a relationship, and we had reached a deep, flat valley in the landscape of love.  The journey was becoming tedious.  I remember there were five or six days that we didn’t see each other, and I began thinking as if we didn’t have a future.  In my mind I was making preparations for our break-up.  By the time I saw you next, I had so built up our separation in my head that I was no longer distracted by the false image my mind had painted of you with anxious thoughts and selfish desires.

I saw you with crystal clarity that night, you were wearing pajama pants and that baggy shirt you like to wear to bed.  You had made popcorn and left out some dinner for me which you had made earlier that night.  Cabbage soup.  It was fantastic.  I saw you, for the first time in a while, as you, exactly as you are.  I was awestruck.  As you slept that night, your back in my chest, a realization sunk into my subconscious that you were my future.  The clarity of that thought and the certainty that accompanied it was profound.  It had me grounded like a stone to that place by your side.  A deep pleasure was permeating from you and I was experiencing it from head to toe.  I felt at home.  I know now, looking back, that I was experiencing my first hint of real love.

Sometimes I am afraid that people in love are so focused on what they think love ought to be that they forget to experience it as it is.  As a result, we cast false projections on our lovers in an attempt to compensate for the difference between our dreams and reality.  I think this is sad for two reasons: one is that nobody ought to be expected to change in order to fulfill somebody else’s false expectations of them.  The other is that whatever thoughts your imagination can conjure of love or of the world, reality, once you are reconciled to it, is almost certainly more interesting.

The story that is sold to us of love as children almost always ends in marriage.  It’s the one about Prince Charming and Cinderella, or one of the other stories like that which contains exactly the same amount of bullshit.  I no longer believe in that type of soul-mate. The effect of those stories is that our notion of love as children is focused on courtship, when in reality love doesn’t even begin to happen until tears have been shed and genuine work has put into it.  The other effect is that women are treated as if their main value is their appearance.  We belittle the traditional work of a woman by replacing it with machines, chemicals, microwave dinners and frozen vegetables.  I want you to marry me because of the wholesome life I believe we can build together, not because of how pretty you look in a fancy dress.

We will make the simple pleasures worth our while.  A meal made with our hands over a fire built by our hands will not only feed our bodies, the work we put into it will feed our joy.  Your work is worth more to me than the work any machine will ever do.

I’m not saying lose your corporate job at which you are a badass so we can move back to the 1700’s.  I’m just saying that the work of yours that I get to experience is more valuable to me than any work you will every do for a corporation, regardless of your salary.  I’m also saying that I will never treat you like a princess.  I would never subject you to that type of mistreatment.  Your health is more important than your looks.  Your passion is more important than your comfort.  Your integrity is more important than your amusement.  Your happiness is more important than mine.  You are no princess, you’re just Emily, and you’re far better than any princess that I have every heard of in any story, because you’re real.

I think we are always discovering that we are more together than we know, and each time it happens I am humbled.  I’ll think we are speaking two different languages then you will say something that I had been thinking but never told anybody and it will blow my mind.  For that reason I do think there is some unknown force binding us together and that we will never know the limits of our love unless we push the boundaries and push each other to never settle for an inane or bland life.

I know that we are not soul-mates yet.  We haven’t put in the necessary work to become soul-mates.  Asking you to marry me was only another step towards our becoming soul-mates.  Marriage will be the spiritual union that allows for us to begin doing the work and building the conditions that will eventually bind our souls.  I am as sure as a stone falls that we were meant to be together, but the love we feel will only ever be as strong as the work we give to each other.  My work for you will be the nurturing of the very ground you walk on, the nourishment of the food you eat, and the constant cultivation of the wonder and bewilderment I feel when I look into your eyes.

To the life we’ll build







The Gift

“The cloud is free only to go with the wind.

The rain is free only in falling.

The water is free only in its gathering together,

in its downward courses, in its rising into air.” [1]

Tim (in his bedroom – the south side of town)

At the break of an icy dawn, Tim woke in a cold sweat.  His dreams of the past receded in his mind as the slow breathing of his wife beside him brought him back to the present.  Even though it was Sunday, he knew he wouldn’t get back to sleep, so he rose slowly, taking care not to wake his sleeping lover.  Walking on soft carpet, his right knee ached from the day before, though it was better than his left, which had been fully replaced.  The base of his left femur felt weak from the slow grind of bone against steel.  He walked through the pain of old joints and carried the weight of a restless sleep into the kitchen, where he brewed some coffee.  Then he bundled up, walked outside and sat on the old chair on the cold concrete front porch to listen to the birds sing each-other awake.

Alex (about two miles north of Tim’s house, in his driveway)

Alex is not an early-riser, unless he has to work.  Some Sundays, he works concessions at Arrowhead stadium.  Today, in the grey hours before the world woke, he forced his unwieldy car to life.  Nothing moved in the air except a sparrow song bouncing off the concrete walls, and now the rumble of his old car.  Alex wore a yellow shirt and black pants.  His uniform was still saturated with grease from his last shift.  His eyelids were heavy, and the energy drinks weren’t helping much.  The dawn had still not come when he pulled up to the parking lot, where crowds of yellow-clad Aramark workers waited to be shuttled to the stadium.

Sparrows (foraging for trash outside Arrowhead Stadium)

In the warm, blue haze on a grass field outside the parking lot, two young sparrows roamed, searching for seeds, grains and trash.  As they foraged, their songs were dampened by the passing of loud engines. They moved as if they shared one mind, and fed each others’ energy with song.  Without warning, one was seized by the talons of a hawk.  The living bird watched as his mate’s struggles were muted by the hawk’s unbreakable grip.  On open ground, the hawk pecked at his victim, edging it closer to the brink of death with every stab of his mighty beak.

“In law is rest

if you love the law,

if you enter, singing, into it

as water in its descent.” [1]

Tim (in his kitchen)

On Sundays, Tim cooks breakfast for his wife.  He’s a good cook, and he likes doing it.  His specialty is breakfast food, an inheritance from his mother.  A good breakfast helped make up for the times his anger got the best of him.  This morning, they were going to a football game, and he had some making up to do.  He made a country style omelet and braised breakfast greens with toast and homemade jam.  If circumstances were different, he may have been a successful chef, rather than a construction worker, but he’s never been one to challenge the lot he’s been given.  Besides, money would only contaminate his love for good home-cooked food.  It’s the labors of love, whose only payment is reciprocal love, that Tim likes best.

Alex (on the bus)

He’s always known how to make people laugh, in ways that lets you know he likes you.  All of his jokes feel like inside jokes, even if you’re a stranger.  At work, each of his coworkers has a unique connection with him, and feel they have a friend in him, and can count on him to cheer them up.  In a cold world, laughter brings warmth from the inside out.  People have come to count on his good humor so much that it can feel like a burden at times, when he doesn’t feel like laughing.  It’s at those times when the warmth he’s shared counts the most.  When his fire needs kindling, he gets back the heat he’s given.

The sparrow

The frost that coated the morning grass was melted by warm blood.  Scattered feathers lay on the cold ground.  Just above, the silent flight of a grieving bird.  He called, staccato and nasally, helpless in the absence of his fallen mate.  Others joined him.  Drawn by the cries of the anguished bird, this new company stirred the scene with an instinctive chorus of common misery.  It was a tangled melody: unanimously angry and out of tune.  Then, like a burning ember in a field of dried grass, the song of the resistance of life against death began to spread.

“Or song is truest law, and you must enter singing; it has no other entrance.

It is the great chorus of parts.  The only outlawry is in division.” [1]


Tim has two children by a previous marriage.  His first wife left while he was on active duty in Vietnam.  He was a bookish soldier, and generally kept to himself.  He liked to write, especially poetry.  He sent many letters home to the girl who would become his ex-wife.  Around his brethren-at-arms, he chose his words carefully.  His friends knew he was dependable for choice words when the weight of impending doom was too much to bear.  He was injured in battle only once, shot in the knee.  Much later, he met a woman named Martha, and has been married to her for 32 years.  He and Martha have one daughter, who, at 18, announced she’d be joining the Army.  Only then did Tim understand the look on his father’s face when he had made the same choice years ago.


Mostly, his grandmother raised him.  As a kid, he was very comfortable around social workers.  Alex never knew his dad, but always felt the pain of his absence in the empty stare of his mom.  Drugs had taken a firm hold of his mother’s view of the world, then distorted the hell out of it.  Still, she taught Alex how to laugh.  Humor is a family heirloom.  So is addiction.  He would never forgive himself for the death of his lover, who was taken by their common habit.  Alex had a daughter to that woman, now six years old, whose eyes look like his mother’s.  They’re different though, because in them, he can see that she is present, and that he is seen.  They burn with beauty and meaning, fear and expectation, clarity and curiosity, and restore those things in Alex.
Just days ago, down the street from where Alex and his daughter live, a three year old was shot to death by one of twenty three bullets that peppered his home in a drive-by shooting.  It is a fearsome thing to look your daughter in the eye, knowing you brought her into a world where such cold numbness is allowed to do evil.  What’s to be done but teach her to laugh?

The hawk

Far above the trees, closer to the clouds than the ground, the hawk sits at his perch, stoic and waiting.  From the alpine concrete structure, he looks out upon a vast expanse of land.  To the west, the city looks unexceptional, a pebble on the beach, a wrinkle in a bedsheet.  Far below, tiny men gather on a small field to repeatedly bump into each-other.  Outside the green plain, there is a large red hill, which drops like a cliff to the black fields, now filled with the steel beasts.  At their edges, he sees the gathering of his prey.  He is the eye of death at the heart of life, motionless in the howling winds, heated by the common light.

“Whatever is singing is found, awaiting the return of whatever is lost.

Meet us in the air over the water, sing the swallows.

Meet me, meet me, the redbird sings, here here here here.” [1]

Tim (near the top of the red hill, nosebleed seats)

Full heat of the day still had not come, when Tim and Martha reached their seats.  They had gotten the tickets from a co-worker.  It was not their first game, but the first in a while, so they were breath-taken when they walked through the tunnel to see the mass of humanity before them.  They found their flip-down, orange-red seats just in time for the national anthem.  As well as anybody, these two knew the darkness in the world.  They feared for their daughter and were haunted by memories of war.  They believed, though, in the goodness at the heart of the world.  They believe in a future where peace is allowed to reign.  They know that there is decency and valor in men, and that whatever good is in the world, it’s worth fighting for.

They saw, while maybe not in practice, at least in theory, those ideals represented by the red, white and blue.  So when the banner was raised and the anthem sung, they stood at full salute, honoring the sacrifice of the men whose lives are carried on by the songs of their kin.

Alex (in the kitchen of a concession stand in the upper concourse at Arrowhead)

By 10 till noon, there was a thin layer of grease coating his face and hands.  Order after order of hot dogs and hamburgers had been flushing in since 11:00 or so.  There had been no stoppage of motion.  He was exhausted, when the national anthem finally offered a break.  The customers stopped and turned and put their hands over their hearts, and many of his coworkers did too.  Alex finally got a chance to stop and look around.  He saw that there was a division between the front of the counter and behind the counter.  A racial division, that is.  People giving orders were mostly white, people taking orders were mostly black.

Of course, this is an arrangement Alex was used to, both personally and culturally.  Having been born into it, it never really bothered him, nor did he ever stop to question it.  It was a mistake of the past, a dark detail in the history books, a slip of a bygone era.  With the clarity a daughter provides, though, he began to question these things.  Was it really in the past?  Can hundreds of years of brainwashing be cleansed from a country in half a century?  How can I bring myself to honor a symbol that, for most of its history, endorsed the exploitation of millions of lives for the good of the richest, wealthiest white men?

Maybe because he had hope that his daughter could live in a world where his friends aren’t taught to feel different or inferior because of their skin color, maybe because he felt powerless to speak against those norms that are changing but not yet changed, maybe he just wanted to help his friends, or maybe he was just tired, but when the banners raised and the anthem was sung, he knelt, eye level with the grease trap, and caught his breath.

The sparrows (in a grove of trees just outside the parking lot)

It started with a single song.  The disharmony of the grieving birds was shot through by a new melody, which sounded more like hope.  It silenced the sighing of the grieving company.  The song hesitated briefly, before it was taken up by another.  The song drifted between the birds, who took it as it came to them.  As the singing grew, the weight of the loss seemed to have been forgotten.  This was the resistance of life against fear.  Beneath the shadow of death, the sparrow had not forgotten the gift he was given, which was born a part of him.  He refused to deprive the world of his song, and when the hawk finally finds him, or the cold takes him, he will give up his moisture and return to dust, singing.

What the sparrow knew Tim and Alex had missed.  The resistance against the darkness isn’t fought on the battle field with a gun, or in protest of a song before a football game.  In Alex, the laughter he spread set fire to cold hearts.  In Tim, the words he spoke and meals he made, out of love, for his wife, turned anger into forgiveness.  The best defense against hatred is compassion.  Whoever you are, wherever you are, you’ve been given a gift, a song to sing, for the good of the world.

The undertaker is watching you, stoic and waiting, in many forms beneath the common light.  You can’t escape him, that’s the first rule of life.  The only assignment you were given in this brief moment in time we call living, is that when you finally meet him, you’d better be singing.

“Temporary is my time,

ain’t nothin’ in this world that’s mine

except the will I found to carry on.

Free is not your right to choose,

it’s answering what’s asked of you

to give the love you found until it’s gone.” [2]


– Based on a story by Loren Eiseley

[1] – Wendell Berry [2] – The Avett Brothers

The Owl

In early fall, when the air is still, the warm sun reigns, but a subtle breeze might carry a biting chill.   It was that chilly air through which I moved late one October afternoon.  It was the sort of walk that had no destination, or rather the walk itself was the destination.  The weather had put within me an inexplicable appreciation for life.  On days like this I often fail to heed the common expectations of civilization.  Fences are  hurdles instead of boundaries.  Time does not add up to minutes and hours, but just passes like water over rocks in a creek.

It’s during these times that my senses are most open to that language beneath words.  I was busy noticing the tangle of vine and tree when I came upon a lightly used path, which I decided to follow.  Stony, it was uncomfortable for strolling, and my face was racked by several dense spider webs along the way.  Unfazed, I whacked the bush back and beat the path forward and stumbled into an open meadow.  The grass was a myriad of greens and browns.  I found myself in the presence of half a dozen butterflies basking in the warm sunshine.  Without deciding, I sat on a rock to do the same.  I closed my eyes, and my mind eased into my surroundings.

The ecstasy of life was at full force about me when my ears were tickled by a soft laughter near where I sat.  My eyes sprang open and my neck nearly snapped when I turned to look for the source of the sound, but found only a squirrel, skinning an acorn for an afternoon snack.  I chuckled at the mistake, then turned back to my reverie, fearing I’d imbibed a different sort of ecstasy.  I was sitting near the entrance of the woods, facing the wall of trees and shrubs.  My back was to the sun, which had begun to dip beneath the trees on the opposite side of the meadow. Before me was a bush whose yellowing leaves were falling.   On that bush sat a bird, grey of feather, with black eyes, who noticed me staring at him.  He turned his head this way and that to get a good bird view of me. I knew he saw me, and in fact he seemed to be as curious as I was about our interaction.  Soon, one of his mates called, and he took off to his nest before night took us.  Time was washing over me all this while, and without my notice, a dark chill had crept up my back.  A cold wind slithered along the spine of my neck and around the base of my skull, and found my ears and I thought I heard a shrill voice, distant yet intimate,

Heed the darkness..

The shadow of the horizon had begun to swallow me, and the butterflies had long since receded.

The skin on the back of my neck felt clammy, and the hairs there stood at full attention.  A cold shiver sent forth goosebumps on my skin, and slowly, I turned to look into the grey meadow behind me.

The earth was all stillness now, but no warmth.  The only quiet movement was the untraceable flight of bats, who’ve risen for an early drink.  I got up to head back home, and to disturb the silence which was yielding phantoms in my mind.  Newly fallen leaves painted the ground to mask the way I came.  I searched along the edge of the wood until I found the old path.

The dusk concealed grey stones on the dank ground, so the walking was slow.  Still air amplified each movement, and in the shadow world before night, the woods were a Rorschach test.  My mind projected the contents of my dreams upon the world; it drew within the shadows things unseen in the light of day.  At last, an opening.  I’d found the main path.  Home and a warm fire were only a half-mile south at the foot of a wooded hill.  .


Without warning, I’d been struck in the side of the face by something that felt like a string of yarn with wire barbs at the end.  The attacker was light weight, but the weapon was sharp and the wielder swift.  Warmth was trickling down my cheek.  I felt the blood with my fingers.  After a brief moment of shock, I looked around to catch the silent assailant, and just managed to see, black on grey, the silhouette of an owl plunge into the dark trees.




This post is about two worlds. One world depends on diversity, the other demands uniformity. The substance of one world is mostly beneath the surface; it is deep and abiding. The other is pretty, but a hollow shell, empty on the inside. One is adaptable, resilient, and has lived eons. The other is vulnerable and ephemeral. One is low maintenance. The other is high maintenance. One has no use for the economy and is useless to it, except by exploitation. The other is a product of and lives in service to the economy. One is prairie. The other is that green mat we call the front yard. The story starts, as usual, just outside the back door of my parents’ house.

Beyond the door is a large slab of concrete. A dark brown stain gives it a more natural feel. On it lies furniture, and occasionally, people eating dinner together. There is also a grill, and some couches beneath an awning that doubles as a deck. Past the porch is the yard, where several shade gardens host a procession of perennial flowers during the growing season. There are close to a dozen trees, which shade both the gardens and the open lawn. Pecans, walnuts, and locust pods impregnate the ground each fall. Despite the trees, a vain attempt at a vegetable garden has been made on the south side of the yard, near the fence at the base of a west-facing slope. The tomato plants yield little, but what sunlight the plant collects, it sends to its few fruits, and the juices are densely flavored because of it.

Past the fence is the margins: a shallow stream veiled by densely packed trees and shrubs. It’s early October and the wood is showing its fatigue. The greens are pale, the browns are new and the leaves have been over-grazed. The forest is busy sending its energies below ground, ready to make one last show before its long winter slumber. Leaves are beginning to litter the Earth, and the soil is sweet with the scent of fresh decay. In the shadow of the trees the lawn stands green and bright and ignorant of the changing season.

“Nowhere in the world are lawns as prized as in America. In little more than a century, we’ve rolled a green mantle of it across the continent, with scant thought to the local conditions or expense.”
– Michael Pollan, Second Nature

“It must have been a little bit of heaven in its day, though for all the effort to create a wild and romantic setting, as a community Llewellyn Park couldn’t have been more artificial. It lacked almost everything that a real community needs to be organically whole: productive work, markets, cultural institutions, different classes of people.”
– James Howard Kunstler,  The Geography of Nowhere

European settlement in America brought about massive changes in vegetation patterns across the country. Seldom in the history of the world has one species altered the genetic composition of such a huge community of life so profoundly, so quickly. Together with the birds, trees and lilies, you and I are inextricably bound to an interdependent web of life. You can’t pick a flower without stealing nectar from a bee. You also can’t plant milkweed without giving food to butterfly larvae.

The history of suburbia in America is one of escape. Living conditions in cities in the mid-19th century were miserable. Industrialism had obvious environmental impact. Naturally, those who could afford to do so left. The men whose enterprises helped create those squalid conditions set up communities outside the city. Daily, these people took the morning train into the city to do business, then in the evenings, when their lot had been won, retreated to the towns which weren’t really towns, but just dwelling grounds, and had their leisure.

This pattern helped set the stage for the suburban sprawl we see today, and the problems associated with it. These planned communities were collections of people who depended on industrialism for living. They recognized the negative consequences of their exploitation of land and labor, but, instead of finding ways to clean the system, fled for greener pastures where they could ignore their mess. They still enjoyed the profits of industry, but left the cost to be dealt with by laborers of lower classes, and by the land itself. That’s the first problem: the men who claim profit from the degradation of our common home don’t pay the true cost. The other, I think is a problem of deception.

In these new planned communities, the land they lived on was no longer responsible for sustenance, only pleasure and leisure. Nature was forgotten as the ultimate means of life, and was cultivated to satisfy psychological desires instead of physical nourishment. They tried to engineer an Eden-like paradise, supported by the almighty dollar, inspired by the lawns and gardens of rich Englishmen who play croquet and drink their cocktails pinky out. They superimposed upon American soil the pretentious image of an English manor without considering local conditions, and in doing so, bulldozed ancient communities of life, rupturing the web of life that made Americans prosperous in the first place.

“Aesthetically, lawns enhance the quality of life, contribute to social harmony and community pride, increase property values and compliment other landscape plants.”
– The Lawn Institute

Turf has its benefits. It cools our environment. It sequesters carbon, absorbs pollutants like sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, and traps dust and smoke particles, thus cleaning the air. Dense turf reduces runoff by slowing surface water and absorbing it into its roots, reducing flood risks and soil erosion in streams. Surface soil erosion is also prevented by root systems that hold the soil in place. The opposite of runoff, infiltration, occurs in grassy lawns. The infiltrated water is purified by the soil, and recharges ground water, which is then used as drinking water. It also reduces noise and air pollution. Finally, according to The Lawn Institute, a 50’ x 50’ lawn of fine turf grass can produce enough oxygen for a family of four.

Environmental effects can also be felt at a personal level. Security, for example, because no danger can hide behind a four inch blade of grass. The dense turf provides sure footing. Short grass prevents itchy ankles, and allows for easy movement, which must have provided a hunting advantage for the early bipedals. Then there’s the matter of food security. Green flesh indicates available energy, and a productive ecosystem. There must be something our instinctive selves remember about the ability of the land to provide us with food. If the grass is green and strong, its foragers will grow strong and healthy, and thereby provide us with a substantial food source. The depth of our memory proves our ancestry.

The other party in this partnership, fescue and bluegrass, also receives its fair share of advantages. At its behest, we sweep aside native grasslands, regrade the land to cradle turf, till the soil, sow far more seeds than what will eventually be grass, nourish the ground with artificial fertilizer, unleash rivers of water upon it, and terminate would-be competitors. In its name, we pair armies of men with internal combustion to produce an environment that facilitates its growth in places where conditions would not otherwise allow for its success. There are many reasons to believe that this partnership is mutualistic in nature, each providing the other with benefits, and the relationship seems to benefit the greater network of organisms of which we both are a part. That is, according to a website dedicated to spreading the good word of lawn maintenance. The truth is, the “ecosystem services” I described earlier were pretty much a description of anything that isn’t concrete or asphalt, and it turns out turf is really only a half-step better.

“Lately we have begun to recognize that we are poisoning ourselves with our lawns, which receive, on average, more pesticide and herbicide per acre than any crop grown in this country.”

– Michael Pollan, Second Nature

“The Earth I tread on is not a dead inert mass.  It is a body – has a spirit – is organic – and fluid to the influence of its spirit – and to whatever particle of the spirit is in me.”

– Henry David Thoreau, Journal

“LEVIATHAN. A clump of big bluestem penetrates deeply into the subsoil and carries some nutrients up and deposits them and hauls others down and stores them; the old passages of decayed roots open the soil to percolation and aeration; the brief cycle of an individual plant accelerates the process, while the thick surface network of rootlets (something that can hardly be washed or blown away) sponges up moisture and foods: in these ways the tallgrass builds soil from rock debris. As a whale surfaces for air, so big blue comes up for sunlight, but it too belongs mostly to a netherworld.”

– William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth

“Plants absorb energy from the sun. This energy flows through a circuit called the biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers… The pyramid is a tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly, yet the stability of the system proves it to be a highly organized structure. Its functioning depends on the co-operation and competition of its diverse parts.”

“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.”

“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism.”
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

“We can see that it is the landscape of monoculture in which both nature and humanity are most at risk.”
– Wendell Berry, Home Economics

When I was in college, my house was a short distance from the country. I would tour miles and miles of empty country highway by bicycle. As I rode across the hills, the variety of nature was unmistakable. The tall grasses of the lowlands practically howled with insects. The shorter grass of the uplands revealed plovers dancing in the wind, which moved like a coursing river. Things grew according to place. I knew which grass would sing which bug song, which would hide the birds, and which revealed an approaching corn field. I knew I’d find shortgrass on the uplands and cornfields in the lowlands. I’d ride in to town near sundown. There’s so much space there, the sun can do what it wants with the sky, and it likes to make a show before it sets. I’d watch the red paint flood the horizon as I rode north into town under the cover of darkness.

It was during that time that I learned to love prairie, and the native things thereof. Grasslands, though they might seem plain, house extremely diverse ecosystems. A result of their diversity is their resiliency. In the event of adverse disturbance, a diverse system can draw upon its massive store of biological memory and respond accordingly. When soil is laid bare, some plant in the seed bank of the soil has adapted to exposed conditions, and it grows quickly to hold the naked earth in place while the slower growing plants are germinating and sprouting. In the rainforest, the diversity is obvious, and mostly between the tops of the trees and the first couple inches of soil. Prairies, on the other hand, are like icebergs and strong women: most of what’s there lies beneath the surface.

The roots of tallgrass prairie plants like big bluestem, goldenrod and Indian grass can grow as deep as three times the height of a man. From those depths they do business with other life forms. Some fungi mine the bedrock for minerals and collect nutrients in exchange for energy from the plant, earthworms eat decay, insects eat roots and there are carnivores and omnivores and a complex web of life, as long as there are roots at the base. All of this activity makes for robust, thriving ecology. The soil is teeming with life. By rule, the blacker it is, the more alive it is. Living soil drinks to replenish ground water and prevent flooding, breathes to clean air, and digests and recycles nutrients. The life within the soil is only as deep as its food source grows, and can only be as resilient as its food source is diverse.

Food webs are like pyramids. The stability of the system relies on the stability of the base. The base of almost all food systems (including our own) is the organisms who fuse a few common elements of the soil and air with the energy of the sun to create life (photo-synthesis). These are called producers. Primary consumers eat producers, secondary consumers eat the primary, and so on. Each level has to be supported by the one beneath it. If the base of the pyramid is diverse and healthy, so is the ecosystem it supports. Native prairie grasses and forbs live most of their lives deep within the ground. They surface only for air and sunshine. Below ground they are the base of the pyramid that is the life of the soil.

Soil supports the necessary conditions for life only so far as it is alive. As a system, life in the soil (symbiotic bacteria and fungi, nematodes, earthworms, insects, living roots, decaying roots, etc.) alters the properties of soil to produce an environment that facilitates growth and health. It absorbs water, breathes air, digests poisons, retains nutrients, helps plants absorb nutrients, and provides conditions that improve the wellness of growing things above ground.

The reason Midwest soils are black and fertile is because they have such a rich ecosystem that has been fed by a diverse array of deep rooting grasses and forbs for thousands of years. A naturalist friend once told me Johnson County was eighty percent prairie before European settlement. That was before it became the sprawling development we see today. Most of the old prairie grasses have been replaced by non-native turf grasses like fescue or Kentucky bluegrass. The roots of most of grasses in our lawns grow about four to six inches deep. The eclectic buffet of living and decaying grasses two stories deep in the ground was replaced by a sad tuft of surface sod about as deep as a beer can. The pyramid of life in the deep black Earth could not be supported by its newly fragile base. Deep, rich, life-giving earth was put to rest in favor of a bright green facelift, whose beauty is, literally, skin deep.

“Mowing the lawn, I felt like I was battling the earth rather than working it; each week it sent forth a green army and each week I beat it back with my infernal machine. Unlike every other plant in my garden, the grasses were anonymous, massified, deprived of any change or development whatsoever, not to mention any semblance of self-determination. I ruled a totalitarian landscape.”

“Our lawns exist less here than there; they drink from the national stream of images, lift our gaze from the real places we live and fix it on unreal places elsewhere. Lawns are a form of television.”
– Michael Pollan, Second Nature

“We feel the human fragility of the huge one-class housing development, just as we feel the natural fragility of the huge one-crop field… Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins.”

“And we should not neglect to notice that, whereas the monocultural landscape is totalitarian in tendency, the landscape of harmony is democratic and free.”                             – Wendell Berry, Home Economics

Few things force me to reminisce on my childhood like the smell of fresh cut grass. I absolutely love that smell. I love the feeling of grass blades flossing my toes. I love the sight of an open field, and especially love making good use of that field with the help of a frisbee or football. Most of my happiest memories from boyhood are of times on wide open, level planes of good turf. I also learned to work on good turf. My father taught me how to cut the grass straight and true. He taught me that work done right gives a man certain pleasures that normal recreation can’t provide. Those are lessons I carry with me in all of my work, and I learned them cutting turf. Lately, though, I’ve had a hard time convincing myself of the dignity of lawn maintenance.

As I mow my parents’ lawn each weekend, I sometimes wonder just what it is I am cultivating. It’s not food, or health, or shelter, it’s not even stewardship. I think… it’s a feeling. I’m cultivating this green carpet which yields an experience not too different than if I was seeing it through a TV. I sit back and look at the full, thick, clean cut lawn I just mowed and am no longer impressed. It seems my efforts have been in vain. It’s an illusion; it’s cultivated fantasy, calculated homogeny. I ruled this lawn with an iron fist, and do not enjoy its uniformity. It lacks in anything curious or worthy of close attention. It’s a product of force, not skill. A word to describe the experience of this undulating monotony: numbing. What type of person is to be made of such an experience?

At best, one who is bored, and believes nature is somewhere he must go to, other than where he is, and dreams of it only in books and movies, and is more entertained by video games than what is outside his front door. At worst, it makes a man who sees nature as an object of his will, to be controlled and manipulated for profit, regardless of destruction. How is a man who is used to such a relationship with nature going to treat his peers? His employees? Women? Our desire to control and produce uniformity in nature comes from the same unnatural but human desire for control and uniformity in culture. Both reveal an affinity for surface level pleasures in exchange for the deep things that make life wholesome and rich.

When we reduce nature down to our superficial expectations of her, we reduce ourselves down to those same expectations. If prairie is like a strong woman because of what can’t be seen on the surface, the American front lawn is like a girl who fills her lips with silicone to look like a movie star. It’s the man-boy skipping leg day to do curls at the gym, more worried about inflating his muscles than the health of his body. It’s an imitation of a standard cast into our mind’s eye by marketers and movies that is both superficial and unrealistic. Like the facelift, the result never quite lives up to the desired effect, and can’t hide the fact that it was forced. The real beauty is resorted to the margins, the weeds and the scars that are reminders of the futility of our efforts to control nature, and of the original beauty in the body we are given. They remind us of our troubled past, and of the dark things that lead us to take refuge in skin deep pleasures and superficial places.

I said before (and I’ll say it again) that the key to strength and resilience in nature is diversity. I think the same is true about the key to strength and resilience in human community. In times of disaster, a community must rely on its store of cultural skill and information to respond to adversity. One-class communities have limited backgrounds and experiences to draw upon to support themselves.

Uniformity deprives us of the pleasures of having neighbors with diverse perspectives and ancestries, of learning their ways of cooking, gardening, crafting and working, and of taking care of the land we depend on. When disaster strikes, diverse communities have vast supplies of cultural information to draw upon to find sources of strength, ingenuity, support, and love. Wild communities aren’t strong despite individual differences, they’re strong because of individual differences.  Uniformity undercuts strength because it goes against the laws of nature. Diversity is an essential part of the world, and to seek uniformity is to disparage the gift of life.

“We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.”

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not… To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution to intelligent tinkering.”
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

“Gardens also teach the necessary if un-American lesson that nature and culture can be compromised, that there might be some middle ground between the lawn and the forest – between those who would conquest the planet in the name of progress, and those who believe it’s time we abdicated our rule and left the earth in the care of its more innocent species. The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway.”
– Michael Pollan, Second Nature

“There are, I think, three questions that must be asked with respect to a human economy in any given place:
1. What is here?
2. What will nature permit us to do here?
3. What will nature help us to do here?”

“The margins are of the utmost importance. They are the division between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins – lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like – are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are set on human intention.”
– Wendell Berry, Home Economics

“Gods may rise from oceans and clouds, but I’ve heard of none rising from grasses, and this is peculiar because, unlike oceans or heavens, grasslands so evidently die and are reborn, and because, although less evidently, they are the place where our kind was made.”
– William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth

“I find it good to remember the eternity behind me, as well as the eternity before.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Journals

“The garden was large, and in Harry’s eyes, exactly what a garden should be. The Dursleys wouldn’t have liked it – there were plenty of weeds, and the grass needed cutting – but there were gnarled trees all around the walls, plants Harry had never seen spilling from every flower bed, and a big green pond full of frogs.”
– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I’m only a young man dipping his toes into the deep waters of the life I’ve been given. Knowing that the current is swift, I heed Bilbo’s advice, “if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you’ll be swept off to.” Up here, with the current still at my toes, I find it good to pause and look around a while. From here I see both the narrow, rocky streams that few find, and the wide, easy rivers that many take. I see a thousand streams moving in a thousand directions, all in one grand direction, to the sea. Knowing that I might be swept into currents and blinded by the white waters, I want my future homeowning self to remember a few things:

I think of progress as an outward movement, a thing moving us from a place we are now to a place we ought to be in the future, some far off destiny to which we never arrive. It forces us to know ourselves and the world not as we are, but as we are in our dreams, and blinds us from who we are as ourselves, and from the beauty of the world as it is.

Wendell Berry:

“People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God’s love for the world–not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be, but for the world as it was and is.”

Rather than measuring ourselves by how close we are to a world that’s never been, let’s measure instead how well we’ve taken care of the only home we’ve ever had. The only Earth we’ve always had is the one that finds its way beneath our fingernails when we ground ourselves to plant. The only choice we have is to take care of the land we are given during the time that is given us.

I agree that prevailing social and economic standards are not to be ignored. I’m not suggesting we all let our lawns loose to nature and forget about culture. I am suggesting that a lawn in Shawnee, Kansas shouldn’t look the same as one in Littleton, Colorado. Not because of different levels of prosperity, but because they are completely different environments that support entirely different communities of life. I am also suggesting that prevailing social and economic standards often prevent us from living healthy, wholesome lives, and that living your life strictly according to those standards will leave you feeling empty and without purpose.

Wendell Berry, again:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

I would like to see a quiet revolt against those who would have us ignore the destruction of development. I think this post was inspired by those who have been partaking in this revolt for years, centuries, and ages. It’s a peaceful revolution about knowing your place in the world. It’s accompanied by the stillness of knowing that even when fortunes in time are against you, the forces of eternity offer a more fulfilling reward.

Know that development is destructive, and know that you are a part of it, and laugh when laughter calls you, and love yourself and the ground you know. Do the things the economy wouldn’t have you do: feed what is underground; love the company of moles (even if you have to kill them), love the sight of unfamiliar plants, and know that each new plant you meet holds within it some secret of Creation; know that you are not the first to live here and you won’t be the last; count the fallen leaves and dried grass, fresh decay becoming new soil, as profit; count the company of bees and monarchs as dinner with royalty; cook yourself dinner; cook a loved one dinner; think circular, not linear; forget inputs and outputs, see cycles; share your surplus tomatoes with a neighbor you don’t know; count the landscape as your portfolio, then diversify it; know that your life can only be led forward by death, and that your death brings forward life.

Plant native plants. Big Bluestem, Lead plant, Indian Grass, Goldenrod, switchgrass. Plunge into the black depths some life giver to the netherworld. Reawaken the ancient communities deep underground that are the fertility of the soil. Bring to life the ground beneath your feet and nurture the health of the land you walk on.

Ask the right questions. Instead of asking how to overcome local conditions to make what you want of the land, ask what you can do that local conditions will support. Learn to use what is available to you in place, and how to use it without diminishing its quality over time, so that your grandchildren might use it too. Don’t throw away parts whose use you don’t understand.

Learn to recognize quality in nature, and remember that our own health is bound to the health of the ecosystem of which we are a part. Quality starts with diversity. Remember that healthy soil is living soil, and that we can only be as healthy as world we depend on.

Once you learn to recognize what diverse, abundant ecosystems look like, incorporate them into whatever piece of land you cultivate. Your green lawn will begin to look sad and empty. You’ll want to use your mower only sparingly. Keep your pathways, and the patches where kids can play, but in the margins, where no feet tread, plant some grass of a netherworld to keep eternity close by.

Take care that nature can do its work in the margins that preserve life, testaments to the indefinite past and future. In your garden, let the disorder of the world mingle with the order of your mind. Let the seasons dictate growth and greenness. Love the soils built from grasses who lived, died and lived again, in an equilibrium established before Adam, Eve, and the moment in the garden.

You will learn to love the colors of the seasons as they pass, and no longer be fooled by the always green grass. You will begin to feel the presence of another life around you, yours and the life of the land, and you’ll know that of the two, yours is the smaller and the less important. You will grow uncomfortable with uniformity, you’ll find it unnatural and numbing. You will begin to embrace diversity as a source of strength, beauty and health, both in the community of life that is your back yard and the community of humans with whom you share a life.

One last time, Wendell Berry:

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Passive Transport

“Traditional knowledge teaches that all facets of the universe are alive and interconnected. The stones and trees can hear, see, and act. Animals are cousins, possess consciousness, and speak in languages that humans understand. The land, sky, and water are imbued with a spirit shared by nature’s living creatures.”

– Glenn C. Reynolds, “A Native American Water Ethic”

the eyes of the flesh close; then in this sleeping head, which is less inert than is generally believed, other eyes open; the Unknown appears. The dark things of this unknown world come closer to man…
all this mystery that we call dreaming and that in fact is the approach to an invisible reality. The dream world is the aquarium of night.
So, at least, thought Gilliatt.”

– Victor Hugo, Toilers of the Sea

“and what was I but a guzzling sweating bag of certain saps waiting to give up its moisture: press me dry, powdery dry, and you’d have a lump of mineralized soil, about enough to pot a geranium.
Tell me, O Swami of the Waters, in a word, what is the essence of life? Saith he, Borrowed.”

– William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth

His chin had salsa on it. Bright red, it nearly dripped to his shirt before a mindless index finger picked it up. If he’d taken time to breathe between bites of burrito, he may have looked around to see me rudely staring in his direction. He and I were the only two solo diners on the Chipotle patio I’d decided to loiter during my lunch break. I wasn’t staring on purpose, but his flat features brought me back to someone I’d seen before. The pallor of his skin reminded me of an old science teacher.

I’d been thinking about that teacher lately. Searching for ways to connect to my middle school students, I thought of how he taught my class about water. “Water is in everything,” he’d say, “you are mostly water, tomatoes are almost completely water, plants are around 90% water,” etc.

As a middle schooler, hearing this cast me deep into my imagination; I was trying to comprehend how “up to 70% of my body is composed of water.” Doesn’t seem to leave room for much else… As was my habit, I checked out of the classroom to explore my mind, hoping to find answers to my questions dreaming of streamside walks beneath symphonies of invisible insects.

He would have told us about osmosis. Osmosis is the net movement of liquid (especially water) from an area of high solute concentration to an area of low solute concentration across a semi-permeable membrane, tending toward a uniform solute concentration across the system. (It’s also defined as “the process of unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc.”) My textbooks informed my consciousness about the physical forces around me, and my consciousness passively informed my imagination.

Never do I feel closer to nature than when I sit amongst the grasses, forbs, insects and birds, turn off my thoughts, and let my mind grow into its surroundings. As I dream, the membrane of my mind is made semi-permeable, and the knowledge of the Earth moves by passive transport to dilute the conscious thoughts of my ego. The system tends toward a state of uniform harmony, and I begin to hear myself in the songs of my earthly neighbors.

Our minds are more open to the truth when our consciousness is not fully alive, and the stuff of life can drift in unimpeded by thought.

Black Elk, a Sioux medicine man, says that “sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.” In a world where the incomprehensible outweighs our understanding of reality, dreams take a step closer to that eternal plane where our Genius lies. Dreamtime is circular; the past informs the present about the future.

So here I am, dreaming about my past, trying to use it to educate my students so they can take better care of our future. I keep being held back by something that bothers me about what my teacher said. He taught us that water is the universal solvent, meaning things are universally dissolved into it. If that’s true, then my teacher had his grammar wrong when he said “water is in everything.” Rather, he ought to have said, “everything is in water.”

On this muggy afternoon, on the black metal table in front of me sat a peanut butter and honey sandwich (I made it that morning so the honey had soaked in to the bottom slice of bread – nom), a string cheese, and a handful of cherry tomatoes. I’d stolen a lemon slice from the Chipotle, and squeezed it into my water to make the hard tap more palatable. Wanting to learn more about water, I thought I’d ask my drink a thing or two. I listened, it said, “it’s damn hot, and I’m damn cold. You’re welcome.” I thanked it, and drank it, and slowly slipped into dreamtime…


the essence of lemon in water.

it has more character,

more life,

has the essence of life in water.


the essence of a stream must reflect the character of a place.

life is water,

dust is the essence,

and sunlight animates the elixir.


I am a walking aqueous solution,

grass to beast to man.


one form of life to the next,

all transformations of the same fluid –

the life-giving

– no –

life-becoming (unbecoming) water.


fluidity all about me sings



“sweeeeel sweeeeel”,

a mixture of bird and bug song in the wet mid-summer heat.


in nearby grass a spider clings to an insect,

slowly sucking the sentient solution into itself.

Water transformed,

hexapod to arachnid.



the medium of change

the agent of death

the solvent of life.


all around us ancient dust is made new by

the river which is always running through it.

same old current.

but in God’s world,

water never carries the same solution twice.


Back to my afternoon tutoring session.

Porch Music

I’m writing from the basement porch of my parents’ house in Shawnee, Kansas. Our town has a typical suburban history.  It became reservation land in 1825.  The Indians whose name the town bears held council here, although the tribe spread as far west as Topeka during that time.  Their protection lasted just few decades before the area was opened for American settlement, and the land was tilled into farmland.  Evidence of that season still exists in old windbreaks, stonework fenceposts, and a sprinkling of hobby livestock enterprises.  I still hear the occasional ass’s heehaw or horse’s ninny on my jogging tours across the hills.  Wildflowers still mark the passing of the seasons along the fence of a nearby horse pasture.  But these pockets are rare.  Before long, farmland gave way to the homogenizing flood waters of suburban development.  Much of the past is now buried beneath concrete and Kentucky Bluegrass, but thankfully for us the hills have power here.  Marginal land is still preserved by steep hill sides, and along creeks where trails have been built.  Beauty is best beheld in those places.  The grandeur of the hills is best seen from a distance, where the houses are hidden beneath hickory and oak, and rooftops are but a sprinkle of trees in the forest. The land is kind, although we do not treat it well.  So why the kindness?  Poets say it best:

Now the spoiler has come: does it care?

Not faintly.  It has all time.  It knows the people are a tide

That swells and in time will ebb, and all

Their works dissolve.  Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty

Lives in the very grain of the granite,

Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. – As for us:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;

We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident

As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

–          Robinson Jeffers

No oceans here, just gentle creeks, heavy clay, interstate highways, and summer storms.  I want to write about nature here because I find it invigorating, and I think it’s too often overlooked.  But first, a little of where I’m coming from, some thoughts about the double edged sword that is science, why we were all born to be musicians, and a handful of life-changing quotes.

Education (Paralysis by Analysis)

I studied biology in college, because I wanted to be a doctor.  It didn’t work out because I never wanted to doctor. I just wanted to be a doctor, for respect, or something, maybe to satisfy my pride or maybe just because I didn’t know what else to do.  I teach about water quality now, part-time, and am trying to learn a thing or two about organic farming.  I don’t know what I’m working towards, but I am trying to sing a certain song, not of my own making.  I’m motivated by a friend who once told me, “Brendan, if you want to be a man, do three things: plant a tree, write a book, and have a kid.”  The first I practice through farming; where I learn how to cultivate life.  Also, I’ve planted like a dozen trees, so, check. The second is a workout for my artistic muscles.  I’ll learn how to write here.  The third will come in time.

After college I moved in with my parents, which is where I’ve been for the past six months.  It’s frustrating, like walking in old shoes that don’t quite fit anymore, but I’m enjoying what I can of it. The main thing I’ve learned of life after college is just how little I learned in school.  Biology literally means “the study of life,” but often times I felt my schooling distracted from my education:

for his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw.  Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow.  Though he never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as “man” or “woman.”  He preferred to write about “vocational groups,” “elements,” “classes” and “populations”: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.”

–          C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

This character, Mark, was a sociologist; I felt a similar effect during my own training in biology and economics.  Life was taxonomy and phylogeny, capital and labor, Carbon and Nitrogen, all things I could point to, analyze, and define, but nothing I could see.

So, because I want to change that (and in hopes of receiving my second man-card), I’ve decided to learn as much as I can about nature near home, then write about it.  I promise you (or maybe, warn you): I was trained as a scientist, but my heart is a novelist, and I won’t ignore it.  The blog is about ecology, but is inspired by poetry.

Science is useful, and fascinating.  It forces us to “unhumanize our views a little”.  It provides meaningful evidence to answer seemingly unanswerable questions.  It excites curiosity and shatters egocentrism.  Still, it can never answer everything, because where it removes bias it also introduces bias, by leaving behind what can’t be quantified effectively. Science can be pragmatic to a fault, and is slowed down by a dependence on statistics.  We trust numbers because they provide logical evidence and visual comparisons, but relying too heavily on numbers to inform decisions can degrade community and stagnate culture.

“To insist that diligent thought can bring about understanding of change is to reduce life to the comprehensible.”

–          William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways

I say, to insist that statistical analysis can bring about understanding of change is to reduce life to the quantifiable.

Mad Scientist

 “Phenomena intersect; to see one is to see nothing.”

–          Victor Hugo, Toilers of the Seas

 “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

–          J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

I worked in a lab in college, and liked it.  Good lab work requires diligence and care.  It forces you to pay attention to everything you do.  For this experiment, though, I’m stepping out of the lab.  The truth is, you can never be farther from life than when you are in a lab.  If you took chemistry or microbiology in college you know what I’m talking about; everything is sanitized and air tight.  Outside of the occasional live specimen, the environment is synthetically and intentionally devoid of living things.

For chemists and biochemists, experiments are tightly controlled to isolate singular phenomena and produce repeatable results.  For microbiologists, growth patterns are detected by controlled environmental conditions and organisms are identified by chemical treatment and analysis.  Neither is as dangerous as the dissection room.

To learn about a living thing in a lab, you first have to remove it from its environment. Previously a component of an interdependent community of life, it is now an individual.  Without place, it has lost vital connections which are essential to its identity.  Already, more information is lost than what can be found by looking at the individual alone.  Then, to explain its anatomy and physiology, you break it down further, identifying individual organ systems, organs, tissues, and cells along the way.  Each reduction breaks connections from the larger system (which is continuous, not discrete; the distinction is important), and the relationship of the individual part to the communal whole is forgotten.  The knowledge gained in the dissection room is and always will be incomplete.  The danger occurs when this incomplete knowledge is taken to be complete.

As a boy, I knew life was sacred.  I didn’t have to remind myself about it, I knew it.  I felt it in my bones, but I lost that certainty somewhere, and I think I can point to that moment.

The first cut was clumsy.  I still felt nauseous, struggling to stifle an innate repugnance the innards of a formaldehyde bathed frog, but the desensitization occurred quickly, and without my notice.  Each successive slice into the delicate viscera felt more natural than the one before.  Soon, guts were all about me. Labelling the sprawled contents of the dissevered frog felt so enlightening it became addicting.  In forty-five minutes we were done and the frog was trashed.  I put my backpack on and walked to history class, unaware of the magnitude of what had just occurred.

I didn’t know it then but I would never see living things the same way after that day.  I was detached from them.  By the time I cut into human flesh in college, desensitization was complete, and the sacred world I saw a child had become so distant I’d forgotten it existed.  I was an instrument of progress, and the living world was doomed to suffer my analysis.

Music, and Mindfulness

“..for the Spirit shall not descend without music!”

–          Cornel West

When I worked in a lab, two things made me feel connected to life: my coworkers, and music.  Tolkien knew the power of music.  His world was conceived in music.  As was ours, I have to believe, because of the universal effect it has on our souls.  Musical inspiration transcends race, religion, age, and gender, and if you listen, you can hear it playing, everywhere, all the time.  The raw material from which music is created is at the heart of our existence. The creation of music is the expression of emotion and culture, and the music of Creation is the origin of both.  It’s the rhythm of life, the eternal song we were born into.  We used to sing along to it, until we started trying to play our own tune.  We lost the count but it still hangs around us; it’s in us in fact, and we can still play it if only we listen.  We are only instruments, made to play a tune that was never ours.

I want to become a native of my homeland.  I want to sing the song of the those who’ve walked this ground across millennia.   I must turn my own voice off in my head, and sink into the voices around me.  I am trying to hear the song I heard as a kid, when life was so special, and living in the moment was so easy.  I am always cultivating a child-like sense of wonder about the world.

Jesus taught us:

“unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

He didn’t mean for us to think and act like children, but to embrace their delicate sensitivities.  It’s the child’s “humility” we must emulate, which means thinking of ourselves less, so that we can pay attention better.

Dr. King (about God):

“He is tough minded enough to transcend the world; he is tenderhearted enough to live in it.”

Dr. King (about which drumbeat we will dance to):

“We must make a choice.  Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability, or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum, move to its echoing sounds?  Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soulsaving music of eternity?”

The drum may be distant, but only because our minds are focused elsewhere.  The music of Creation dances to the drumbeat of eternity, and we can too, if we can learn to tune in to each moment, because it plays around us, here and now.


              “There was never any more inception than there is now,

              Nor any more youth or age than there is now;

              And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

              Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.


“And may I add, nor any more creation than there is now, nor any more miracles, or glories, or wonders, or immortality, or judgment days, than there are now.  And we shall never be nearer God and spiritual and transcendent things than we are now.  The babe in its mother’s womb is not nearer its mother than we are to the invisible sustaining and mothering powers of the universe, and to its spiritual entities, every moment of our lives.”


“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”

Ecology means “the study of interactions among organisms and their environment.”  With childlike sensitivities, I plan to study the interactions between my own environment and myself, with the moment as my guide and the land my teacher.

A picture:

The bench is facing east; it’s old, worn and weathered.  Shoeless, you walk to it. The soggy soil is a sponge, and the sharp grass has dew on it.  At the bench, you sit carefully to avoid splinters.  Now, you listen…

Nearby trees tell the story of a soft wind.  The chill of night excites your skin in the blue pre-dawn mist.  Each second is full.  The tangible quiet is pierced by an island of birdsong in the black forest behind you.  Soon the birdsong becomes an archipelago, and the winged prelude crescendos into sunlight as the horizon strikes its first chord across the western-most sector of sun.

The mist is lifting, and the voice is saying:

This land is made for you and me.