Transubstantiation

 

Q:  Where do you get your supplies?

A:  Supplies?

Q:  The racks, the whips, the…I’m not sure what you call those long sticks that are used for stabbing the traitorous souls in the back.

A:  Jabbers.

Q:  “Jabbers”?

A:  We tend to be, in hell, both practical and literal in our language.

Q:  Right, well the so-called jabbers must break sometimes.

A:  Frequently, yes. The shards that get stuck inside of the traitorous souls turn into ice rats, and they eat their way out.

Q:  I assume that the eaten pieces of the soul regenerate after they’re eaten?

A:  The soul is infinite.

Q:  Ah, I see. Back to the jabbers. Where do you get new ones once a jabber breaks?

A:  It’s complicated.

Q: (laughs) You’re not going to make this easy, are you?

A:  The short answer is:  despair.

Q:  Despair?

A: (sighs) Look, how do you breathe?

Q:  How do I breathe?

A:  Yes. Explain the process to me.

Q:  I allow gasses to come in and out of my nose and mouth?

A:  You allow.

Q:  Do I have it wrong?

A:  Could you prevent it? Could you stop allowing the gasses to come in and out in a permanent way?

Q:  Not without ending my life, of course. And then I might wind up here (laughs).

A:  So you couldn’t, in other words, stop without altering the system of your body. The despair/jabber issue is very much the same principle. The appropriate sectors of hell stay open in the appropriate ways, and things flow in and out as they should. They are altered during the process of this flow in a way that is similar to how oxygen melds with your red blood cells and so on.

Q:  So, you’re not really in control? You don’t necessarily know how it works?

A:  I’m aware of it in an academic way. In the same way that, again, you are likely aware of the mechanics of your breathing, but you don’t stop to think about it as it happens.

Q:  I know the basics of the organs, the path…

A:  That’s right. You understand, vaguely, that oxygen enters your lungs and that it’s somehow distributed to parts of your body. You understand the generalized picture, even if you don’t grasp the finer details.

Q:  Well…I might know more than you think.

A:  Really? What does an oxygen molecule look like?

Q:  Look?

A:  So you don’t know?

Q:  I’ve seen the diagram. I have a notion.

A:  You’ve seen the diagram.

Q:  Maybe I don’t understand the nature of the question.

A:  Never mind. I’m being nitpicky. I’m being a bastard.

Q:  Let’s get back to despair.

A:  Sure, despair.

Q:  It’s how you get your supplies?

A:  In a sense, yes.

Q:  How do you transform the despair into things? Or, to get back to your oxygen example, how do they get transformed?

A:  You’re on to something in recognizing that I don’t transform them.

Q:  But there must be some sort of catalyst? Some sort of mechanism?

A:  Like how you convert energy into matter or vice versa?

Q:  Right. But you’re mocking me again, aren’t you?

A:  Listen, heaven is eternal bliss, right?

Q:  Right.

A:  And ignorance is bliss.

Q:  I think that’s more of a trite adage than actual—

A:  So, if heaven is bliss and ignorance is bliss, then maybe just being a corpse, rotting into nothingness without any consciousness is the purest kind of heaven. And that’s a transformation, right?

Q:  Are you trying to fill me with despair? Trying to fill your storehouse?

A:  I’m really not. I’m trying to tell you about the nature of transformation.

Q:  Okay.

A:  Body to bread, blood to wine. Despair to jabber.

Q:  And back?

A:  In a sense. It’s like the law of conservation, I suppose.

Q:  Conservation of despair?

A:  Conservation is at least partially about awareness and how we measure things, to be fair.

Q:  It’s about perception.

A:  You could say that.

Q:  I didn’t expect you to be so Eastern.

A:  That’s very clever of you.

Q:  You don’t make that sound like a compliment.

A:  Maybe it’s a matter of perception.

Q:  That’s clever of you. It’s more about perception than awareness?

A:  Here’s the thing about awareness.

Q:  Okay.

A:  If you really understand these things, then you recognize that the barriers are arbitrary and, in many ways, simply figurative. I should add, too, that if you follow my reasoning that heaven is ignorance, and if hell and heaven are opposites , then you might say that heaven’s being ignorance would make hell awareness. Hell is really recognizing that the jabbers are your own despair, just in another form.

Q:  Sounds a little trippy to me. Especially coming from you.

A:  Maybe you should be glad that you don’t get it.

Q:  Glad?

A:  If I’m right, then if you did get it…

Q:  Then…

A:  Then you’d be in hell, wouldn’t you?

 

 

 

Zeke Jarvis is an Associate Professor at Eureka College. His work has appeared in Bitter Oleander, Moon City Review and Scissors and Spackle, among other places. His books include In a Family Way and So Anyway…


Reflections on the Homely Laws of Phenology

 

“Here are no stories told you of what is to be seen at the other end of the world, but of things at home, in your own Native Countrey, at your own doors, easily examinable with little travel, less cost, and very little hazard. This book doth not shew you a Telescope, but a Mirror, it goes not about to put a delightful cheat upon you, with objects at a great distance, but shews you yourselves.”

Joshua Childrey, Britannia Botonia, 1660

 

“The Author of the following letters takes the liberty, with all proper deference, of laying before the public his idea of parochial history, which he thinks, ought to consist of natural productions and occurrences as well as antiquities. He is also of opinion that if stationary men would pay some attention to the districts on which they reside, and would publish their thoughts respecting the objects that surround them, from such materials might be drawn most complete county histories.”

Gilbert White, Natural History of Selborne, 1790

  

“The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet…. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841

 

 

I: Addiction and a New World

 

After I stopped smoking in the 1980s, I began to hike in the woods every day. As I walked and walked to dilute my withdrawal from nicotine, I took notes about what I saw around me in nature: flowers blooming, trees leafing, birds calling, insects crawling.

Addiction to moving and taking notes about what was happening in the natural world replaced the other addiction, and for the past 35 years, I have kept records of the progress of the seasons in my home, Yellow Springs, Ohio, a small town just south of the 40th Parallel in the Ohio Valley.

Since I was not actually interested in making sense of what I wrote down, I was free to write what I saw without ulterior purpose. To those with whom I shared my observations, the information seemed curious, maybe interesting, but without any legitimate context – except that of withdrawal from tobacco.

Later, the shaping of observations into patterns, making connections, coming to unofficial conclusions about random and unjuried data, seemed to occur spontaneously, seemed a simple result of my obsessions and my physiological needs.

To compensate for their loss of nicotine, some people might have created fantastic, surreal fictional worlds from all their fragments. Others might have become ecologists and searched to find signs of global warming. Others might have written poetry or become academic naturalists. Others might have found safe haven and escape and peace and God. Others might have returned to smoking or have given up the natural world for air conditioning and computers. I started making phenology almanacs, and having paid little attention to my habitat before my new self-discipline, I literally encountered a new world with odd laws I had never thought about.

 

 

II. Finding Weather

 

In the third month of this odyssey, my wife’s fortuitous gift of a barometer introduced me to the steady breathing of Earth, a structure around which I was able to cluster my notes about what I was observing. I began obsessively tracking barometric highs and lows, a process that allowed me to rediscover practical, pre-20th century weather prediction methods. From my graphs of barometric pressure, I discovered that the number of major cold fronts each month is more or less consistent from year to year, and that the Earth breathes at an average rate of about once every three to five days in the winter, and once each five to seven days at the peak of summer.

A short apprenticeship told me when important changes would occur and what kind of weather would take place on most any day. That information was expressed in the language of odds and percentages, and it was surprisingly accurate. The pulse of the world was steadier than I had ever imagined. Taking into consideration the consistency of certain patterns in the past, I could make fairly successful forecasts about the likelihood of the repetition of such occurrences in the future.

My graphs also allowed me to see the special properties of each season. Summer’s barometric configurations, for example, are usually slow and gentle, like low, rolling hills. Heat waves show up as plateaus. Thunderstorms are sharp, shallow troughs in the gentle waves of the atmospheric landscape. Hurricanes deepen the troughs. Autumn arrives like the sudden appearance of a pyramid on a broad plain. By the end of September, the fronts are stronger; the high-pressure peaks become taller; the lows are deeper, with almost every valley bringing precipitation. By December, the systems loom on the horizon of the graph like a range of mountains with violent extremes of altitude, sometimes snowcapped, almost always imposing and sliced by canyons of wind.

While tracking the weather, I saw that the plants, shrubs and trees I had been naming were natural allies of my graphs, and that they were parallel measures of the seasons and the passage of time. Soon I started making a list of when each wildflower blossomed and saw how each one consistently opened around a specific day, and that even though a cold year could set blooming back up to two weeks, and unusual warmth accelerate it, average dates were quite useful in establishing sequence of bloom which always showed me exactly where I was in the progress of the year.

Tracking barometric fractals and coordinating them with sequence observed in plants and animals, I found that the idea of four seasons referred only to relatively broad periods with which to identify time and space. At first, four gave birth to twelve: Early Winter, Deep Winter, Late Winter, Early Spring, Middle Spring, Late Spring, Early Summer, Middle Summer, Late Summer, Early Fall, Middle Fall, Late Fall. Twelve gave birth to fifty-two, and then (since the markers of seasons are truly infinite), uncountable seasons within seasons.

 

 

III. The Daybook and the Homely Laws of Phenology

 

As a way of compiling and sorting the hundreds of thousands of words I had used in my observations, I put together a daybook. This daybook has one chapter for each day of the year, and each chapter contains my notes for that day between 1984 and 2015. Its combination of 17th century meteorology and what Gilbert White called parochial history has provided the basis for the nature columns that I currently write for a number of newspapers and magazines. It has been a teacher that has shown me how clusters of observations create seasons. It has been a well of local natural history that is not available in another single place.

In addition, the daybook is the source for what I like to think of as laws of phenology. It appears to me that these laws or maxims or principles are the scaffolding upon which all phenological information is ordered and with which ecological assessments are made. They treat natural events not as separate occurrences but always connected to other events, in the context of other events, and creating context for other events.  This framework is most immediate and practical if it is built through personal contact with the environment. And, without such contact, the “laws” vanish for lack of raw material and structure.

 

 

A. Beginner’s Mind and the First Law of Phenology

 

The First Law of Phenology is self-evident and contains the whole of the process of observation and engagement with observation: When one thing is happening in nature, something else is happening, too. In a great synecdoche, the “one thing” always points to other things, one part linked to so many other parts, and ultimately to the whole.

Each event, therefore, is a mine from which one draws out limitless concurrent events. In natural history, this synecdochic law is even more useful than in poetry or fiction, an isolated flower or scent or taste easily able to conjure whole seasons as well as to map an ecological system.

In early June, for example, sweet, ripe strawberries are a single tip of summer. But with synecdochic power, their odor and flavor expands time and space, envelops a totality of events in their maturity. With strawberries come the longest days of the year and the completion of the forest canopy. The planting stars, Arcturus and the Corona Borealis, are overhead at night, Hercules not far behind them to the east, followed by the Milky Way, middle summer’s Vega and the Northern Cross. Scorpius follows Libra across the southern sky.

One ripe strawberry implies all of the flowers of early summer: chamomile, clustered snake root, white clover, red clover, yellow sweet clover, yarrow, blue-eyed grass, angelica, prairie false indigo, hemlock, blackberry blossoms, wild roses, swamp iris, meadow goat’s beard, feverfew, and crown vetch. To mention just a few.

Strawberries are a sign that mulberries and pie cherries are getting ripe, black raspberries not too far behind them, a sign that quail are whistling for their mates, that box turtles are laying their eggs, that spiders are weaving their webs across woodland paths, that the spring field crickets are mating. The catalogue of objects and events could go on and on. Each term in the list is convertible from part to whole, from microcosm to macrocosm.

One might conjecture that in order to trace something even as subtle as an instance of the “Butterfly Effect” (or sensitive dependence) to its source, it would be necessary to begin with the First Law of Phenology and follow the concentric circles of coincidence to a conclusion in which cause and effect might even be indistinguishable.

And if the First Law is both so simple and so broad that it might be applied to everything happening in the universe at any given instance, it is also the first step in the creation of local natural history. It is the core of the naturalist’s beginner’s mind.

 

 

B. The Second Law of Phenology

 

I took my thousands of nature observations and sorted them around 24-hour periods in a daybook. Once the clusters had been formed, the result was rather obvious: My notes for any given day created that day in my backyard natural history. And so the Second Law of Phenology: Any named unit of space or time is only the sum of its parts: What you see is what you get.

Gathering observations is a process of giving birth to these units. Each observed piece of information contributes to a larger construct; without these fragments there is no visible time or space at all to observers. A certain number of parts might be posited as necessary for any unit to exist as a concept. And the more parts one can identify, and the more dimensions one can add to the mix, the more the whole becomes.

The existence of any seasonal or geographic construct, then, is a matter of filling the emptiness of unawareness with detail. Indeed, the details are not peripheral but central. They are the only things. They are the critical parts of the whole, their synecdochic power enhanced by multiplication.

One might formulate a corollary to the Second Law, that a decrease in the number of elements decreases the construct in itself.  The critical tipping point of absences is of obvious concern to ecologists tracking the effects of climate change and mass extinctions. And any change in the makeup of one time or place affects the makeup of the next, in fact, the whole state of nature. The lushness of strawberry summer, for example, is so thick that it seems inconceivable that the loss of one element (or simply forgetting to include one element) alters its essence. But unless the construct of events in nature is fleshed out as much as possible, the whole is understood less fully and is in danger of erosion, and ultimately of collapse. At that point, you truly don’t get it if you don’t see it.

 

 

C. The Third Law of Phenology

 

The creation of radial data, using successive daybook entries about the course of nature for the same day of the year in the same place over many years, reveals a surprising regularity to natural phenomena on any given time in any specific locale, which can be used to monitor similarities and changes from year to year. Events accumulate to suggest patterns that are fractal but consistent.

So I thought that a Third Law of Phenology might then be formulated as follows: Radial time informs linear and circular time. As observation and clustering create sequence and connection in the mind of the observer, they also create a phenological network that links observed events through the radii of the years. Images and impressions from each year overlap, some almost the same, others seeming out of focus, but all together creating one time-lapse day across decades.

The Third Law, like the first two laws, is not surprising nor is it new. It simply suggests benefits of placing observations vertically instead of horizontally. If, for example, one tracks the trajectory of first cardinal song from March through August for a given year, the notes proceed in a linear fashion. Paying attention to first cardinal song during several twelve-month periods creates a circular pattern. However, in order to find average or typical times for any given day, I look at first cardinal song times for that day radially across a span of thirty or more years. The Third Law simply displays as well as enumerates the raw data for averaging.

A radial approach allows a contrast of events that are more difficult to identify in a linear or circular context. In addition, armed with radial data, the explorer finds unity as well as variation. Instead of the effect sought so diligently in the 19th century by the creator of the kinematoscope, in which still pictures were rotated or manipulated to create the illusion of motion, the radial observer might note an opposing effect, an inverse kinematoscope that stills the disruption of passage in which one kind of event reaches back and forth through multiple seasons, is knit tightly with parallel events that are separated only by linear and circular time, time that, in spite of appearance, and no matter how fast it seems to fly, makes the present only more fixed and indelible. Nothing is separate. One event is all there is.

 

 

D. The Fourth Law of Phenology

 

Adjunct to the Third Law, the Fourth Law revealed by the daybook is perhaps the most simple but most controversial of these curious principles: If something happens once, it will probably happen again. Certainly history as well as daily life are replete with events that did not or cannot happen again. On the other hand, radial time demonstrates the fractal consistency of self-similar patterns that traverse a cross-section of imaginary temporal units such as days or weeks or years. And without the Fourth Law, neither human nor beast, fish nor fowl, would venture out into the world. Frozen by uncertainty and unknowing, no creature would risk its existence in constant novelty. Without the Fourth Law, observation would make no sense. Who could draw conclusions from what occurs if the occurrence could not be repeated? Scientific method would implode. To the observer, matter would be an endless string of isolated, unreferenced, linear constructs, formed by the witness-mind. Buttressed by the first three laws, however, the collector of sense data can make sense, shaping a universe rich in experiences which never occur in isolation, which are the sum of their parts and which are then, thanks to the Fourth Law, enhanced and defended and actually created by salutary repetition. And so although not every event reoccurs, meaning or sense in both human life and nature is dependent on events that do reoccur.

 

E. The Fifth Law of Phenology

 

One of the dangers of making notes on phenomena in nature, having had academic training in language, history, philosophy and literature instead of in the natural sciences, is that the note-maker is likely to collect all sorts of information that doesn’t seem to fit with any other information he or she may have gleaned.

This, the reader may imagine, happened to me when I tried to focus on something other than nicotine. As my notes multiplied, however, I found that they seemed to clump in various and assorted ways. And the more notes I made, the more conclusions I came to, chaos congealing, so to speak, into new and unexpected forms. My conclusion was, in a way, a return to the First Law, but was also a step further, an audacious assertion, but one which was consistent with the other laws, and one which opened vistas to the unknown: Nothing is unconnected. Everything makes sense.

An incident in my almanacking career brought this home to me several years ago when the young daughter (age twelve, as I remember) of a friend of mine asked what she should do in order to become a scientist. Not being a scientist, of course, I could offer her no practical academic suggestion. And so I told her that she should just observe and take notes. “Everything eventually makes sense,” I told her, without really knowing if that were actually true.

And after she left, I began to question myself and wonder if I had, in fact, lied to her. So I went to my daybook to see if I could find something trivial that really was less trivial than it seemed. I decided to consider my observations about camel crickets (Ceuthophilus spp.), a variety of cricket easily identified by its large hump. These creatures live in the crawl space under my house and occasionally come out to explore. Checking my notes, I found that I had made 18 entries about camel crickets between 1998 and 2005. The notations read like this:

 

January 1, 2005: A sign of good luck for 2005: a camelback cricket in the bathtub when I went to take a shower.

January 14, 2001: Camel-back cricket found halfway up the bedroom wall.

January 14, 2004: Camel-back cricket killed by the dog on the kitchen floor this morning.

February 1, 2002: Camel-back cricket found in the bathtub when I got up. Skunk odor in the back yard at 6:00 a.m.

February 7, 2001: Camel back cricket found drowned in the dog’s water.

Mar 11, 1998: Baby camel cricket on the bathroom floor this morning, remnant of fall and winter.

May 31, 1999: Small camel cricket seen in the house at 4:30 a.m.

May 31, 2004: Small camel cricket found in a coffee cup in our cupboard.

June 1, 2000: I accidentally stepped on a medium-size camel cricket in the kitchen at 12:30 this morning; I saw another in the greenhouse at 6:00 a.m.

July 18, 2004: Body of a large cricket found at the bottom of the container of the dog’s kibbles.

August 19, 2004: A large camel-back cricket in the bathtub this morning. It sat in my hand as I brought it out to the greenhouse.

August 28, 2003: A huge camel cricket got into the tub last night, was hiding behind the shampoo bottles this morning.

September 2, 2005: Overnight, a large camel-back cricket got stuck in the bathtub.

November 14, 2000: Camel cricket found in the greenhouse.

December 5, 2000: Camel-back cricket killed in the house by one of the cats last night.

December 7, 2000: Camel-back cricket in the hallway, 8:45 p.m.

December 8, 2000: Camel-back cricket in the greenhouse this morning.

December 24, 2000: Tonight, as we sat with the candles lit after supper, a camel-back cricket came hopping down the hall. Good luck this Christmas Eve!

 

Now although my awareness of the camel cricket was completely casual, I decided I could make some broad generalizations about these creatures from what I had written down: The crickets seemed to be more active in the colder months. They liked bathtubs. They were accident-prone. During the summer, they were apparently content to stay in the dark of my cool crawl space doing whatever they liked. And at some point during the winter, the adults seemed to die off or appear less frequently while the young emerge.

Although these conclusions do not seem particularly unreasonable or profound, one might assume that they would be less complete than entomology reports from various universities. Such, however, was not the case. In fact, I found that while reports on the Internet by university entomologists fleshed out my picture of camel crickets, they were rife with just the kinds of qualifiers that I was forced to make.

Those academic descriptions were partial to words such as “often” and “sometimes.” And using a university-style entomological commentary, the casual almanacker might add to the standard description of these creatures that “indoors they sometimes get trapped in bathtubs,” or that “they seldom get trapped in sinks,” that “they occasionally fall into empty drinking glasses and are unable to get out,” or that “they don’t eat our clothes unless you leave them around on the bathroom floor,” or that “they frequently emerge at night in the kitchen,” or that “they have been known to jump into containers of kibbles and die,” or that “they drown in the dog’s water,” or that “they sometimes fall prey to house cats or are accidentally stepped on by humans.”

Had my addiction been less difficult to manage, it is quite likely I would never have paid attention to the camel crickets, or come to the above conclusions. And I hypothesize that the lay taker of notes, free from juried rigor, might demonstrate that not only do those insects have certain patterns of behavior, but that they also may bring on positive feelings of good fortune, that their presence sometimes might make the night seem less lonely and that their occasional visitations could frequently brighten the soul and make the year ahead seem sweet and promising.

As to whether all of this is simply an example of a “camel-cricket fallacy,” who can tell? The Fifth Law of Phenology is the least provable but the most exciting and promising of all the laws. Perhaps most important, without its promise of possibilities, neither scientists nor reformed addicts would bother to go to the woods.

 

 

IV. The Path to a Flat World

A. Aliens in the Land of Siri

 

I not only abandoned tobacco but also became enamored of collecting and hoarding notes about nature and with making sense out of a new, tangible world for myself. Having been quite divorced from my environment before I stopped smoking, I was surprised and delighted to find that it existed at all, comprised of thousands of individual creatures and movements.

But although it seemed to me that my homely discoveries would be so homely that I could find scholarly and anecdotal evidence of them everywhere, such was not the case. In fact, nowhere could I find a “parochial history,” a day-by-day description of the year for my location, or for the region in which I lived. Nor could I find guidance for the seeker of order in the chaotic world of sense data.

I also reflected that while scientific method takes advantage of all of what I saw as “laws,” and applies them with great variation and complexity in a plethora of scholarly books and journals and documentaries, the plain pieces of time and place with which the plethora are composed are simply not readily available or made available. Consequently, the lay observer often feels disconnected from the results of professional investigations. Current questions about the existence of climate change, for example, reflect this sort of estrangement from actual conditions, conditions which are always manifested in local ways and places.

And it is this alienation which is perhaps most dangerous in the current social situation in which Siri or Google seem to be able to answer almost any question and in which most people are indifferent to or ignorant of matters of the environment, aliens in their own country.

Of course, it is not for lack of opportunity that Emerson’s “civilized man” does not understand where he is. Everything is in front of him, but, distracted by technology, he does not look, does not see, and therefore does not get. Perhaps even more insidious is the common assumption by the civilized man that the almanac and its virtual descendants are enough.

 

 

B. The Almanac Fallacy

 

The Greenwich Nautical Almanac referenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson had been available since 1767, was a popular tool both on land and sea, and it documented the radical, sense-defying beliefs of the new astronomy. “The world is round,” those star-gazing authors said. “Contrary to what our eyes seem to tell us, earth is not the level, stationary center of the universe. We are inhabitants of an insignificant asteroid which is spinning at soul-splitting speed through infinite space for all eternity.”

Feathered with easily understood tables of weight and measures, the almanacker’s nest held eggs of surprising and less ordinary dimensions which few lay people understood: predictions about the risings and settings of planets, the arrival of comets and occultations and eclipses of the sun and moon. And most of the readers, never matching the events with the supposed times, were comforted simply to believe what they were told.

Not only did almanacs provide astronomical pronouncements, such as the above, with statistics to support their assertions, they sought out the most sensational and peculiar news items. They were the check-out counter tabloids of their times.

Novelty was absolute. And quantity was far more important than quality; if a

man had lived to be one hundred and fifteen, almanackers cared little whether or not he had had a good life.  How many times or how long something was supposed to have happened was considered more noteworthy than other characteristics of the event itself.

The obsession for the uncommon perverted even the simple pleasures of gardening. That someone should have grown a tomato was hardly worthy of mention; that someone should have grown a record-breaking, behemoth tomato was always something else again.

In my capacity as a small-town journalist, I once was called to the house of a man who had probably grown the fattest tomato of the season in my entire home town. Unfortunately, my visit was delayed more than a week, and when I arrived, the prize had decayed to an unpleasant smelling, olive-green wad of mush.

But the fellow had preserved it for me anyway in a plastic bag. He pulled it from the refrigerator, and held it up for me to see. “It’s not what it was,” he admitted, but he showed me a piece of paper on which he had written its impressive former circumference and weight. The idea of the great tomato transcended its demise. The bag of foul-smelling flesh and seeds was of more significance than some small, sweet red specimens that lay before us on the table, flushed and firm in the prime of their edible lives.

The error of using numbers to replace matter is not uncommon, of course. The readers of early almanacs, like Emerson’s “civilized man” and today’s smart-phone addicts, not only relished the outlandish, and the glorification of novelty, but they also basked in the authority of electronic data and information in itself; they began to slide into a new Age of Faith.

Unfortunately, today’s civilized men and women are in much greater peril than were Emerson’s of succumbing to the allure of disconnection. The temptations of 21st century virtual reality are so bright and colorful, so pornographic in their exaggerations and their movement, that they fill attention deficit to the brim and remove the senses from the less alluring, homely experience of non-electronic plants and animals, trees and other people.

 

 

C. Carol’s Moon and a Flat Earth

 

Recently a woman I will call Carol shyly admitted to me her anguish about the moon. It was a misunderstanding, she thought, certainly something she could or should have cleared up when she was younger.

“But now I’m so embarrassed,” she said. “You know I always thought the moon made its own light, and that, well, it glowed from inside.”

Then she told me how she had just read that the lunar surface actually reflected light from the sun. We talked for only a few minutes, but I was struck by her emotion and by her need to share her very real disillusion.

It was especially interesting to me because I had been thinking about the tension between scientific method and personal method. I had been thinking about how the authority of astronomers and physicists and naturalists is often intimidating and discouraging to the layperson, and how most of what modern humans think about the world and the universe is taken completely on faith. They defer to specialists like peasants to priests, and they lose their wonder and curiosity.

The problem is not that first impressions might be contrary to fact, but rather that media-forged, supposedly scientific assertions about the universe tend to discourage people from forming their own impressions, from valuing their own observations, and from putting those observations and investigations not only into a creative, personal world view, but also into practical ecological applications in their own landscape.

So I thought of Carol’s disillusion and self-deprecation as a logical conclusion of the widening gap between the personal and the academic-scientific-research-online-media complex, and the resultant breakdown of connection between the individual and the immediate landscape within his or her vision.

And I wanted to reassure Carol and to reassure myself: There are too many lessons to be learned from a self-lighting moon to mourn its error. In fact, the idea of Carol’s moon defiantly asserts the basic need to discover things for oneself. The journey through the cosmos does not begin with rocket ships or telescopes but rather with objects close at hand. It is not enough to accept what we read and hear and see in books and on screens. Such naiveté is the almanacker’s and the capitalist’s and the academic’s profit. It is the naiveté that embraces size over taste, statistics over flesh, novelty over the ordinary, blind faith over the individual’s experience.

A rebellion of personal observation and the courage to be wrong may be the only antidotes for such spiritual and scientific torpor. And the first step on the journey to intellectual liberation might be to limit one’s vision to what the senses often seem to say: that the world is flat.

Explorers may sail west in order to go east; rockets may go to Mars; satellites may send electrical impulses that many interpret to be pictures of a “round” earth. Believing these messages without investigation not only aborts one’s personal power, but also endangers habitat and contributes to a vast fouling of the planetary nest.

A healthy skepticism toward vicarious science will keep humanity from living in a place in which the sun and moon rise only on charts, where stars appear only on apps, where distance is measured by exotic formulae, and where circumference is the equivalent of flavor.

A flat world is a local world, a world that is created from simple, personal, immediate sense data, gathered and pondered and sorted, guided by simple “laws.” This flat world is accessible to everyone, and it is bright and deep and full of wonders. When the pilgrim in nature has come to its edge, having found the way by the stars that can be named from the closed dome above, there will be time enough for other notions.

 

 

V. Back to the Future

 

It would seem that the danger of disconnection from nature has continued now for several centuries, and that modern humans, like Emerson’s man on the street, have almost no idea what is happening around them.

Natural history is not neglected in academe or in the media. On the other hand, detailed local natural histories are few and far between, and other than gardeners’ journals and various memoirs and diaries of the seasons, a detailed view of what is happening at any given time or in any given place is often elusive. Consequently, the laws of phenology appear simplistic or irrelevant. The excitement of their strange assertions is lost in modern, almost holographic distractions. Indeed, without a bag full of observations, the laws hardly exist at all.

What began in the seventeenth century with Joshua Childrey’s Britannia Botonia and other compilations of common and uncommon events on earth, and then reached its zenith with the down-to-earth “parochial history” of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, has been replaced by massive amounts of loose and unfocused information, wandering stars of scientific knowledge that, rather than bringing the public closer to nature, have taken away the need and motivation for such engagement. So tangled with what Childrey might call a telescope, they fail to see themselves in the mirror, surrounded by their habitat.

I puzzle about the solution to such a situation except to return to the suggestion of Gilbert White: That each one should pay attention to what is occurring in his or her own parish, and that when enough data has been collected, a more coherent picture of reality will emerge. Returning to the new flat (local) world in which laws of phenology appear spontaneously from close examination of the landscape at hand (but disappear in the absence of immediate impressions), one can start again, move out finally and confidently, and with feet still on the ground, into the round and infinite cosmos.

 

 

 

Bill Felker received his B.A. in philosophy and his M.A. in foreign languages and area studies from the University of Minnesota, and his Ph.D. in foreign languages and history from the University of Tennessee. After half a century in the classroom, he now writes farm and nature almanacs for several regional newspapers and magazines. His radio segment, “Poor Will’s Almanack,” is broadcast weekly (and is available on podcast) on NPR’s WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Many of his phenological essays can be found on his website, www.poorwillsalmanack.com.

 


Smoking Beirut: Reports from the Front

1

On good days he felt like a cat, on bad days like a cricket, on regular days like a freshwater fish. He had never felt like a pig, he oinked only occasionally, when his wife went to the supermarket and he wanted to remind her to get some ham or wieners.

It seemed life was going on a bender in a jar of hornets, still he liked it, he liked putting on his riot gear, it gave him a buzz. The phallic black rubber nightstick, the exoskeletal protective suit, a vigilante’s helmet, a very trendy see-through shield, and the eternal fashion accessory, an oiled and at-the-ready black Beretta.

As he rode the bus with his men he witnessed the unflushed toilets of paradise through the small partition, they were going to get there early, earlier than 4, the festivities would begin at 6. His men, like the protesters, suffered the same pangs. They were not narcs in a rich swill, they were not custom’s men accustomed to bribes, and were deprived of any extra income. They either betray themselves, or betray the hand that feeds them. As he saw it the protesters wanted to be fed, and his men wanted to be fed. His poor men! His poor men? Not really, if the government collapses they’ll each go back to whoever made sure they got their current job, and beef up his or her militia, or maybe make the coffee, or become some sort of Mafioso factotum. Their bread was buttered by a butcher knife, that was certain.

They shared the protesters’ anxieties that block independence, they got that suicidal rush to love humanity but rise above it, and the meteoric boot is the only floatation device.

 

 

2

The grey asphalt was hot that day, many people will testify.  They chugged trainloads of vodka, vodka is a revolutionary drink. They were from a proud, ancient culture, the 2nd or 3rd oldest, ‘we who invented the alphabet’ and ‘according to the Greeks we taught the Ancient Greeks’ and ‘we who helped build the Temple of Solomon’, ‘we who have no camels in our country’. (This last statement offends the author mightily, as he sees nothing wrong with camels, in fact he thinks they’re delightful.) They were the roots of the movement (a statement I find delightful as well), young Che Guavaras, ‘Thy Bones Returned to Castro’, an energetic young but bald Lenin’s cast in cold cheap bronze, the color closer to metallic shit. Never ending variations of poor Plato’s ‘Republic’, a movement within the vortex of an untamed flush.

The voice of the blood was calling, but they just sat there deflowering their lungs. They had water, cigarettes, wet wipes, scarves, tomatoes and Eggs. You have to throw a few Eggs at politician’s cars to make a dramatic social statement. The author also has to object to the barbaric ritual of destroying good decent Eggs who only wish to lead honorable lives. They didn’t have Molotov cocktails, they were Molotov cocktails.

A crowd of cops were only a few meters away, dressed like gladiators, and it looked like they couldn’t wait to pig out after a suicidal rush. But right now were practicing choreography. Maybe one of them will fall tonight, a rubber bullet bouncing off his chest.

They were good people, the kind who would escort an elderly person to a colonoscopy exam.  But all their lives they’ve tripped on deaf assurances. Just follow the sounds of the explosions and you get a free tour of the country, a red carpet laid for you, made of blood, guts, gore, and genitalia. We Lebanese are a welcoming people. The cops facing them did not look like welcoming people, they didn’t look like people, with metal grills on their faces. They looked like they’d been knocked out of a devilish wind. Were they finger puppets or thimbles?

The politicians in turn called them ‘a hurricane in a coffee cup’, which made them brew even hotter and stronger, which meant they chanted freeze dried, mildewed slogans that were filtered through an old sock. They thought they could do whatever they had to do, but they could not swallow the dregs, and drifted away like teargas, leaving a few broken sunglasses behind.

 

 

3

They sat around the round table the color of rotten cheddar, a magnetic doughnut shaped object, as they sat on their fat instead of chewing it. They were in a jar full of hornets, in a jar full of hornets, in a jar full of hornets, they were bees that had already lost their sting, and they sat there not chewing the fat with their entrails hanging out. The Minister of Interior had his thumb up his butt, the Minister of Public Works was busy picking his nose, the Foreign Minister was peeking nervously out the window though the blinds, the Environment Minister was cutting a wheel of cheese into portions of different sizes and colors. They had lost the power to convince with tantrums, the people were nagging like angry mothers, an organic grassroots grassfueled revolution. Facing the blast of good punk rock they had failed to synchronize, strip and do a dance, and hypnotize even momentarily. The people on the whole were united, but that in turn had united the politicians. Let no one say any different, you will be punished for your bad luck as well as somebody else’s. Who will emerge as immortal protector of a holy grail full of steaming shit? And who will be required to submit a stool sample? The future was dark and looming with a lunatic’s smile just below the black and blue skies. They were camped down there, chanting, bellowing, asking them to leave while they still had faces that could be sketched. It was like asking a bum to leave his stench behind, and if we lose the stench, what will we be left with?

 

 

4

He took a final hit of crack before setting out, for the past 20 minutes afraid that his lighter might just explode in his hand. The entire popular movement was a booze hound and with nobody to scoop up its litter, marking its territory with graffiti and acid pee. Now full of high velocity vice he readied the bunch, someone had a banner of his genitalia hanging, another a darkish rectum, and another a barely popable pimple. And they will go avenge the offended, an undomesticated preacher said so.

They will leave an ashtray in their wake.

Last time a cop went for his gun, and received a wedgie in return, but the cops rarely dealt with them, preferring to give them a wide birth, a cesarean, born with clubs in hand. The protesters were their targets, or certain protestors, they subscribed to a certain skeleton of organization, but when the blood rises and the concentration dwindles, it was permissible to become a berserker. They loved life as much as any free man would, the protestors wanted the same demands, they were similar in this disrespect, but they were curable romantics. Most of them carried switchblades and butterfly knives, all the time, not merely on occasions, a very original young man had mastered the art of stabbing with a spoon.  But they preferred their bare hands and boots, time to break up this block party with similar demands, a feast for the flies.

They were perpetually on the brink of a civil war, and on the brink of perpetual fluffiness, every time the politicians fucked each other, a million corpses were conceived, left to rot on the city streets.

They were there to blacken a few eyes, a farce to be reckoned with.

The protesters had a point, their officials were corrupt and incompetent, the movement knew what it wanted, and maybe what it could possibly achieve. The protestors were buzzing around a hornet’s nest, no doubt, and it would seem that they were there to kick ass in favor of those hornets. But first they had a few questions of their own, didn’t these people vote for these hornets? It was a fair and democratic election. They claim most officials bought a lot of votes with cash, someone who sold their vote shouldn’t complain, they signed a commitment for 6 years. Should people who sell their votes stand up against corruption? And everyone knew, corruption or not, if elections were held today, chances are you’d end up with the same hornets even if not one single vote was bought. So the politicians need not worry, laugh and play! Junky mosquitos, stealing the nation’s lollipops.

They got a few licks off the lollipop, that’s the most they could get, should the ‘revolution’ succeed, their lollipop privileges are gone. Do they really believe hot dogs ought to be free? All causes, lost or not, feed on each other. They had beaten up a few activists and dragged some away to a place where they weren’t allowed in. There were no street lights, no electricity, headlights resembling fireflies, and the sounds of the city in a jungle or vice versa, great big beasts you cannot see but knew were close and lived under every roof and bed.

No dreams of free hot dogs

No new sneaker smell on one’s birthday

No for everybody and anybody

No for whatever tomorrow brings

No dirty socks

No birdbaths

No medical insurance

No enemas

No cartoons

No acknowledgeable feelings as they walked back under the visible stars and bloated and content moon.

 

 

5

Many found an inner moisture, running down a wine-colored I.V. tube in a Red Cross ambulance. A certain serpent-shaped letter the only difference between ‘smother’ and ‘mother’. An eternal power play of ‘us’ and ‘them’, or should it be ‘they’? Demonstrating, drumming, dancing around a vacant altar of sacrifice. The warring factions assembled and agreed: gentlemen, for the first time in our history, we’re united by the fairest of our virtues: greed.

They threw firecrackers that exploded just above the cop’s rooftops (happy new state!), they were reflected in the helmets and shiny gear making them look like electric clowns. One good thing about wearing riot gear is that the identity of the wearer and tearer was unknown. Bazooka breaths, using skulls as percussion instruments tuned to B Flat. Tears due to tear gas or shed crocodile-style, the sound of sirens seducing them to crash into the metal barriers.

Prophets come and go, but the cross remains the same, this time more clumsily managed, no one paying much attention to the girl running naked and screaming through a village, claiming she’d been raped. There were just too many moving parts, and the parts were human.

All under a glittering confetti of snapshots of genitalia that caught their attention, while the ghost of a chance was dragged kicking and screaming into an undercover police car. A case of classic paranoia, a moralizing dilemma, perhaps it isn’t a good day to start something new? Knives across borders, free hot dogs for everyone, piss tests, the world is a non-reversible slinky. But burying it for good would be quite an undertaking. A lone, battered, old taxi passes on the slippery, deserted road of this darkest of nights, slows down and eases into a pothole filled with rainwater, making a comforting splashing sound.

 

 

 
Kamal Abu-Husayn is a Beirut-dwelling, Egg-worshipping turkey. Would rather rub noses than shake hands, hates Santa, and is already weary of the next war he’ll be forced to live through, if he survives this one, of course. He sells surreal estate for a living, and managed to release a collection of poems in 2010 under the title of Bingo’s Bedtime Book, hopes to publish another volume soon: The Egg Laying Manual.