Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Important Article on Same-Sex Relationships and Religion

I don't normally make blog posts that are merely links to other people's articles. But , in reading Jason Pitzl-Waters' end-of-year roundup on the most important Pagan news stories of the year, I followed a link to The Revealer's nominations for the best overall religious news stories of 2008. Among them was an incredibly lucid, well-reasoned article on the struggle within the Anglican Communion. Garret Keizer's article, "Turning Away from Jesus: Gay Rights and the War for the Episcopal Church" is one that many Quakers will not yet have read. And though not everything on the plate of the Episcopal Church is relevant to Quakers as we struggle with our own understandings around same-sex relationships in the context of the FUM personnel policy, a good deal is.

I suspect that we Friends are going to be a lot closer to hearing what Spirit intends for us on this matter when we are able to set aside our certainties and convictions that we and we alone truly understand what is right, and learn to hear the many voices and experiences that are part of this discussion.

I'm not saying that homophobia is acceptable, and I'm not saying that acceptance of same-sex marriages is not ultimately going to be what is required of us all. I'm pretty clear on those things, actually.

But it's what I'm not clear on that ought to be my concern, especially when I speak with Friends whose understandings are radically different from my own. What are we each hearing that the other is not saying? What are we not hearing that the other is?

I want us to keep listening to one another, to keep sitting down at the table together, and to trust God to lead, and the people to follow. (I do not want us to simplify our lives by walking away from one another. I think that would be a tragic mistake.)

I do want us to be open to what we don't already know. I think this article does a nice job of cultivating that, at least within me. I recommend it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Snow Falls

Snow falls.

Wraps the silence
packing it well

accidental breakage.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Yule and the Loss of Youth

I saw a young man walking by the side of the road yesterday.

He had a fey quality to him, and I felt I instantly recognized something in him that I'd seen before: a kind of tentative joy and relief, the sort that's felt by the misfit adolescent who finds himself suddenly furloughed from the old routine of being shoved into lockers by thuggish peers or of hiding the humiliation of being the smartest boy in school who doesn't know what to do with something as ungainly as loneliness and desire.

He reminded me of many nameless young Pagans, young men especially, that I have known. And, seeing him bounding lightly over the snowy sidewalk across the street from me, I couldn't help but grin in delight just to see him there.

Just as I grinned, the young man glanced up and saw me; he grinned back, began to wave a cheery greeting, and then, a heartbeat later, with a hitch in his step, brought his hand back down.

It could not have been clearer if he'd shouted it, his unspoken thought: "Do I know you?"

No, no, you don't know me. Even if my hasty impression of you is right, and you are a Pagan, you wouldn't know me today. My days of active community work and leadership seem to be behind me now.

It was a smaller Pagan community in which I came into my spiritual adulthood, one in which we still imagined we could all know one another's names and hearts. I was in my prime when I married Peter and moved to Massachusetts, and it was at that Yule almost twenty years ago where I first felt that sense of being a young family, standing at the bright, warm heart of things, at the first local ritual we went to with my daughter. I wonder if she remembers it at all? Casual pick-up drumming in the kitchen, endless platters of potluck food, sleepy children in laps and overstimulated ones racing through rooms thronged with people.

Then the call to ritual. An enactment of the season: As we stood round, in the center of a room now darkened except for candles, one child walked into the circle holding a box. Solemnly, dead, dry autumn leaves were placed inside the box, and that child's father, with antlers on his head and a copper sun between the tines, bowed to touch the box once...twice...three times with his antlers.

The box was opened, and lo and behold, the dry dead leaves had become green and living. Yule was come, life was returning, and we all joined in the songs.

On the way home, my daughter fell asleep in the back of the station wagon, and Peter and I were still wrapped in the soft glow of candles.

We were young, but grown. We were parents, but parents of a young child. Everything was ahead of us then. Traditions were still fluid and in formation, and understanding seemed to sprout and grow like the greenery in the magic Yule box. Our job and our pride was to share them, to gather the scattered children of the goddess for ritual and study and potlucks and community. Our passion was participating in and shaping and invoking the mystery of Pagan community. And it was good, and warm, and it did seem as if it would last forever.

Time passed. We became the leaders of a coven, hectic and always planning. Our child stopped being the girl with a rag doll who sucked her thumb, and became a teenager, familiar with music we'd never heard, organizer of sleepovers and parties and a gang of friends who seemed immortal.

It deepened us in community to watch her reshape our traditions to fit herself. By the time she entered college and her friends scattered, I was teaching school, exhausted on a Yule eve that often fell on a school night. It was wonderful to watch her take charge of the traditions. "Come to our house," she told all her friends. "We always have cinnamon buns. You can help me make them. You can decorate the tree." And they did, and the house became so full of singing, laughing, cooking, decorating girl-bodies that there was hardly room to turn around. At times, I thought my head would explode from all the chaos and the heat and the noise.

Outside, the winter air was cold.

But I loved it. (There is that. At least I had the wisdom, even then, to know I loved it.)

But this year, my daughter will not join us in decorating our Yule tree. For the first time, her life's course has taken her away from us on that particular night.

We are adrift, Peter and I. We are no longer the young leaders of community, and we are no longer the wise parental figures at the sidelines.

We're just middle-aged, our parenting behind us, both in the Pagan world and in our own family.

It's almost Yule. And I am old, and cold, and a little sad. I recognize the joyful step of youth, but youth does not know me, any more.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

American Quaker War Tax Resistance: A Book Review

American Quaker War Tax Resistance from the 17th through the 19th Century: A Documentary History. David Gross (ed). 2008. 500 p. The Picket Line, softcover, $24. (ISBN/EAN13:1438260156 / 9781438260150).

One of the wonderful things, for me, as a new convert to Quakers, is having 350 years of history to catch up on.

In American Quaker War Tax Resistance, David Gross has created, not so much a history of Quaker war tax resistance as a source book for those who seek help discerning their leadings in this area. Gross has brought together over a hundred historical documents, from Friends as weighty as John Woolman and Elias Hicks, to prominent critics of Quakers' practices such as Benjamin Franklin, who found Friends guilty of "A Variety of Evasion" to avoid entering into direct conflict between an outward show of support for the peace testimony and the military requirements of the state.

It is one of the strengths of this book that a full range of opinions and responses are represented. There are, as might be expected, moving stories of opposition to war. However, much as we would like to believe that Friends have always acted with integrity and uprightness, a closer examination of period sources shows, unsurprisingly, that Friends in the past have been as human as Friends in the present. This collection does justice to that truth, but in a way that does not keep it from usefulness to a Friend laboring today to discern what Spirit requires of him or her in faithfulness.

The introductory essay is particularly useful, at least to someone like me who is relatively unfamiliar with the details of how Friends, and how the United States, came gradually to understand the related ideas of civil disobedience, conscientious objection, and our peace testimony. It did, however, lead me to believe that a general reader, who is neither currently led toward war tax resistance themselves nor a historian by trade, might be happier with the editor's earlier book, We Won't Pay. Although We Won't Pay also contains a good deal of historical material, its focus on "tax resistance as an act of individual conscience and revenue refusal as a technique of nonviolent resistance," will probably appeal to those who find an anthology of historical materials, however moving, less useful than a modern reflection on them would be.

However, having paged through the source materials of the later book, I find myself deeply respectful of the care and thoroughness Gross brought to the project. This book may not appeal to everyone, but for the conscientious objector, the modern tax resister, or the serious Quaker historian, this anthology is a wonderful resource.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What to Do About Plastic: Watermelon Pickles and String Too Short To Save

There's an old joke about stingy, thrifty Yankees that deserves to make a comeback. If you haven't heard it, it goes like this:

The old man was known for his thrift and saving all his life. When he died, his children went up into his attic to see what he had kept up there. Neatly labeled, there were all sorts of things: boxes and jars of nails and screws, clothing long out of fashion, tools and books and cardboard boxes. Cardboard boxes labeled tin foil. Cardboard boxes labeled string.

And one box labeled, "string too short to save."

My grandmother knew how to make pickles out of watermelon rind, and I bet your grandmother or great grandmother did, too. I remember my mom telling me how, as a kid, they all loved when one particular mom made the tuna sandwiches for the school event. That mom only got six sandwiches out of a small can of tuna... as opposed to all the other moms, who could get ten.

Somewhere along the line, between the string-saving generations and our own, we began to live a disposable lifestyle. And the planet (as well as our purses and our schedules) is paying the price. We've got to stop laughing at thrift and econonomy, and start admiring it again.

We've got to live as though this were the only earth we've got.

I'm absolutely as big a culprit as anyone else in this country. My concern with plastic is a recent one; I used to laugh at my in-laws, who are big savers, the type of people to carefully preserve and reuse gift wrap, and to rinse and reuse plastic bags.

And though, taken on its own, rinsing and reusing bags is not going to avert environmental catastrophe, learning to live in a way that sees even the rind of the watermelon as something too good to waste may. It is no one practice of ours that must change, but our way of living and seeing.

To start with, let's recognize some basic principles:

Everything is connected.

This is just basic environmentalism, after all. Most of us understand that the DDT we spray against mosquitoes today wipes out songbirds and eagles tomorrow, and us the day after that. But we need to understand that environmental problems and solutions are connected, too: it is not enough to adopt one cause, whether its global warming or plastics in the oceans, to the exclusion of others.

This makes things complicated, of course.

I began seriously rethinking my environmental practices after I got a wake-up call from my gall bladder that I needed to rethink my dietary ones. After I began to experience frequent physical pain from my typical high-fat, low-fiber American diet, I found myself forced to make some changes. They were easier than I thought, and, though I'm not as draconian in my avoidance of fat as I once was, I'm still careful with it, and I'm still benefitting from those changes.

One of the changes I made was to make sure that any foods I take in that are high in fat are also high in fiber, something that can help my body rid itself of the cholesterol that it produces in response to the fat. This seems to have been helpful. And it has been part of a strategy for making changes in what I eat: no more potato chips (mmm... potato chips!), but popcorn instead. No cookies--but high-fiber granola bars.

This has been great for my body--and in some ways, good for the earth. Success in dealing with this lifestyle problem gave me confidence to take on others. I wasn't sure, when I began it, that I would keep up with the more environmentally-friendly practice of hand-washing our dishes, but, to my satisfaction, I've actually begun to enjoy washing the dishes by hand. And, since Peter built us our triple-decker dishrack (in imitation of the glorious one at the Woolman Hill Quaker retreat center that inspired it), it actually takes less time to wash the dishes by hand than it did to rinse the dishes and stack them in the (now unused) dishwasher.

Isn't it a beauty?

Of course, if you look closely, you can see some of what has been wrong with my lifestyle changes. That plastic bin to the right of the dishrack holds little scraps of this and that we generate as we cook. And right on top is a white and gold folded bag for microwave popcorn. You know: those plastic lined, plastic wrapped, individual size bags of popcorn that cook up in a few minutes in the microwave.

When I changed my diet, I increased the number of convenience foods I substituted for other, high-fat processed foods in my diet.

So picture me now, standing in the supermarket, making my purchases. I have brought my reusable bags--no more plastic grocery bags for me, but I have since come to understand that, since the bags are made from polyester (yes, cloth is plastic too) and has a base of plastic, this is not anything like a perfect choice. (Cotton ducking would have been better for the earth, perhaps--though more expensive and, not being associated with reusing what we can, less successful as witness to other shoppers.) I hesitate over a loaf of bread: this one is bagged entirely in plastic, but this one is in paper, though the paper probably has a thin plastic lining to it as well. When I decide to go with the less-plastic packaging for the bread, I find myself in the next aisle over, pulling down a box of Orville Redenbacher from the shelf.

It contains individually plastic enshrouded, plastic-coated, bags of microwave popcorn.

If the contradiction between my struggle over the bread loaves and the selection of the popcorn comes to seem too great, I decide to go back to cooking my popcorn the old-fashioned way: in a pot on my stove, with popcorn sold in bulk. Problem: the bulk bags of popcorn are also plastic. It's a thicker, heavier plastic, and since the only way to assess the environmental impact of one plastic package over another is by weight, since densities vary so much, I hesitate briefly, then opt for the bulk bag anyway, reasoning that the quantity of food relative to the quantity of packaging is at least slightly better in the bulk bags; I select the largest bag I can, to maximize that effect.

All through the store, I make choices like this. Do I opt for the "fresh" broccoli (not local, trucked in under refrigeration which adds to global warming but does not require plastic wrap--I do not use the little produce bags at all any more, but rather store my produce in reused bags when I reach home)? Do I purchase canned vegetables (not wholly innocent either of energy costs for trucking, though they need no refrigeration, nor of plastic, which lines the cans... not to mention, I don't like them very much) or frozen? (High energy costs for transportation, plastic packaging even if I buy in bulk, but on the other hand, very little waste due to spoilage at my home or in the store...)

It's a complex calculus of interconnected environmental values, with no perfect answers, and if I insisted on a "right" answer for every choice, I would never make it out of the supermarket.

So instead, what I attempt to do is hold to overall environmental values, to remember that it is all connected, and to be open to trying new things as I find them. Some things I buy are heavy with plastic packaging; some things are not.

I am consistently inconsistent, as I try to remain open to seeing new places my life is contributing to the degradation of the earth, and try to avoid that.

By sticking to changes that do not make my life oppressive to me, but by seeking out new visions and ideas for change all the time, I encourage myself to go on, not to give way to despair and inaction. I find that for me, gentle change is best, so long as I return, again and again, to the question of whether or not I am living in the Spirit of loving kindness toward the earth.

Rather than give specific tips and tricks for energy conservation and waste avoidance here, that may or may not be helpful to you in your particular situation, let me share with you the broad outlines of a philosophy that is guiding me in making gradual and positive changes in my relationship with the earth.


I find that I am unable to live and work in a way that does not produce plastic waste. So I am trying to bear a different principle in mind: that of stewardship. Remember how they used to say, "A puppy is for a lifetime, not just for Christmas?" Plastic is forever. Try to confine the uses of it to ones where the useful lifetime of the object is significant in comparison to the thousands of years of waste it will eventually become. Care for plastic objects--cease to see them as "disposable"; because resin chairs will last forever as waste, do not be misled into thinking of them as unimportant because cheap to purchase; protect them from sun and weather so that they will last.

Stewardship relates to other things, as well. All our products and goods took a toll on the environment in their production. Care for them, maintain them, and keep them in service as though you could not afford a replacement, because the earth certainly can't.

And make purchases, when you do, with stewardship in mind. To the extent possible, pay more for the product that is durable, rather than buying the short-lived plastic version. My in-laws used to have an all-metal window fan. It was heavy as sin, and dated to the early 1950's. It was still running fine, even after thirty years. That cannot be said of the cheap plastic fans that flood the discount stores every summer.

This leads to the next principle:

Use it up, wear it out, make it do.

As you might guess, I love technology. I have owned exactly two new computers in all the many years I have used them. Ironically, one of the two new computers is past repair. Whereas our reconditioned, used, rebuilt, gutted and refurbished computers that have come into our homes seem to be eternal. They are like the axe that has been in our family for five generations: been through seven different handles and three different heads, that axe.

My point? Repair what you can. Upgrade rather than throw away, even in high-tech, if you can.

And in the low-tech field? I will acknowledge myself a mere piker among Quakers. Go to a Quaker business meeting--any Quaker business meeting--and you will discover women with needlework spread in their laps. They are mending, knitting, sewing. One of my favorite memories is of an older friend explaining how she carefully saves the worn-out jeans her husband wears, removes the lower pants legs, and then, when other pairs of jeans wear through in the knees, she grafts in the preserved lower legs over the holes.

All I do is knit... and I'll admit, I sometimes have yielded to the lure of cheap synthetic yarns, at that. Mending is kinder to the earth than playing with fiber... though, given my ability to knit my own, I will say I have begun to ask myself very seriously

Do you really need that?

I try to cultivate an attitude in myself that says that, if I can make it myself, from organic materials, it is cheating to settle for the machine-produced version. If I can do without it, why should I stuff my closets and drawers and shelves with more things I will one day have to cart to a landfill ( or, at best--albeit a good best--a used book or clothing store)?

It helps that I'm no fashion model. Books are my vice, and it is a thousand times harder for me to pass up a book than a blouse or a coat or a pair of boots. But whatever your priorities are, asking yourself that basic question--is this a need or a want?--is going to be helpful.

The recession is our friend.

Please don't hate me for saying this. I am well aware of the human suffering this recession is causing--near as well as far, as I watch friends struggle to cope with unemployment or the potential for it. And I know that it is much, much worse in communities here and abroad that have historically been poor, the last to benefit from good economic times and the first to suffer from bad ones.

But we have been living, producing, and consuming as if there was no limit, and that's patently untrue. I've been struggling for years to reduce my "earths required to sustain it" lifestyle from the American average of 15 to at least the European average of 5. (I'm at an 11 now, thanks for asking.) But necessity changes us faster than reason. Just as I did not make lasting change in my diet until compelled to by pain, so humans seem unable to make lasting changes in our relationship with the earth until we must.

And just as, though gas prices have fallen from their historic highs, the demand for gas guzzlers has not risen in response, perhaps we can take advantage of this moment of falling production and demand to rein in... our excessive production and demand.

For years, economists have bemoaned the fact that the United States is in transition from a production-based economy to a service-based one. But, in truth, which economy can the earth afford? We don't need more HDTVs, SUVs and I-pods. We do need health care for everyone, art, music, education, and community. We need to make the transition from an economy based on stuff to an economy based on people. And getting weaned off the stuff is probably easier while we're all worried about money.

Will it prolong the recession? Probably. And I'm honestly sorry that it is going to hurt so many individuals. But so will the economic disasters that global warming and desertification of habitats are going to cause. This recession can be our early warning: we've got to stop our out of control consumption, or we'll kill our planet.

In recognition of this, let me suggest:

Why not serve instead of consume?

This year, my family has opted for token-gifts and charitable donations only. No scrambling through the crazy shopping malls, looking for some gee-whiz bargain to make an already jaded consumer's eyes widen. This year, the gifts are few, small, handmade, used, or even flat-out regifted. Why not? If I give you my favorite Yule tree ornament, are you really going to be so mean as to complain because I have loved it for years before giving it to you?

The money we save is going to charitable donations. I'm hoping our big Christmas day activity, while turkey is roasing, will be choosing which organizations we as a family want to give money to. I think the shared generosity is going to feel a whole lot nicer than opening up a box with yet another sweater or CD in it... don't you?

Of course, it helps that we have chosen to:

Kill the television.

We do own one. It's a third-hand model from sometime in the 1980's. Probably consumes a lot of energy--except it's rarely turned on. And when it is, it's playing DVDs. We do watch television--but not current television, unless its with friends who have chosen to share the television with us. And we do buy DVDs of television shows we love--but mostly used, and then we share them with other friends.

And we don't watch ads.

Television shows and ads promote a vision of America that is blind to pollution, hunger, and even how Americans really live. Look around! Does anyone really look the way everyone looks on televsion: slim, eternally young, perfectly lit, in glamourous architectural fantasies of houses that never need cleaning (or mortgage payments real people can't afford)?

Ads are brainwashing. But your brain actually becomes cleaner and clearer without them. Kill the television. You won't regret it. Or save its use for among friends, in community, because being surrounded by real people you love is a wonderful antidote for the brain-poisoning consumerism television promotes.

Speaking of which, don't forget to:

Cherish community.

The saddest thing about American life is the way we tend to retreat to our individual houses, close the doors, and commune with the big electronic eye (whether as television, video game, or computer screen). We are atomized as a culture, and we are atomized as families. Half of all American families have the television on during dinner; 40% of teens do not eat dinner with their families at least five times a week. But the truly ironic thing about this is that the electronic media we retreat to present us with an imitation of the friends and family we are missing! Even video games, such as World of Warcraft, are popular in large part because of the interaction of player characters with other player characters (or NPCs--"non-player characters"--the ultimate surrogate friends). What we are hungry for, it seems to me, are the very relationships that are being repackaged and sold back to us in the form of movies, computer games, and television shows.

Are computers and media always destructive to community? I would say no--the vast majority of the friends I've had for more than a decade are friends I knew first either through the Internet (or its precursor, the Echo Net) or through their writing. The difference is in taking the time to meet, to correspond, and to invest in one another. If we treat one another as disposable resources, to be discarded as we flip a dial from one channel to another, or flit from one Internet forum to another, then we are not cherishing one another, and we will never truly be friends.

Conversely, if we behave as though each human being we interact with electronically is as human and feeling as are we, we may find ourselves rich in community.

Those of us rich in community rarely need stuff to make us feel whole. It's a start.

Work less.

I'm horrible at this one. My job eats my life, from September to July. And there's something wrong with that: being a school teacher should not be a sixty-hour-a-week commitment. Over time, most of us in the United States especially have added more and more hours of "productivity" to our working lives--and seen our time with community, with family, and with Spirit dwindle as a result. Not only does the excessive work schedule I have committed to make me much more open to reliance on more polluting convenience items, but I have noticed in myself a tendency to want to substitute shopping--something that can be quick, spontaneous, and on my erratic schedule--for time with friends, and material possessions for the missing walks in the woods, time spent with community, and even quiet rest and thought.

I doubt I'm alone in that.

It is no coincidence that old-time Quakers like John Woolman so simplified their work lives as to have time for their communities. It is no coincidence that the lion's share of Quaker and Pagan bloggers and thinkers I love and admire today have, by choice or by necessity, downshifted work lives, working sometimes in part time or in low-paying retail or temp jobs by day, but reserving enough of themselves as humans to think, play, connect with Spirit and with others.

Our culture sometimes looks down on those who are not in high-powered professional careers. As a society, we admire the work-addicted stock broker more than the part-time carpenter.

Have I mentioned that our society is broken? Our society is broken. When you find your way open to downshift, or if you find yourself urged inwardly to do so, do not insult yourself as lazy, but realize that Spirit may have more important uses for your time than buying and selling. Let it go.

Bear witness.

There is not a one of us capable of solving this environmental crisis. But each of us, if we are open to them, will find ourselves receiving inspiration from others. Just as Peter saw, at Woolman Hill, a model of a different way to approach dishes, and we were moved to adopt it, how many of my readers will be moved today to try to find something new, something more to move toward environmental sustainability? When I bring out my (alas, polyester, plastic-bottomed, and thus, flawed) reusable shopping bags at the supermarket, often there will be an opening to discuss them as some shopper in line with me remarks that they'd like to use those, too ( but they "always forget them." "Oh!" I say. "I used to do that, till I started keeping them folded in my purse. Now I use them all sorts of places, not just the grocery store!").

We share with one another. We encourage one another. We suggest and advise and laugh with one another about the inherent inconsistencies and complexities about what we are trying to do. Most of all, we support one another in seeing another set of values for our culture than consumption and competition. Together, in our witness, we invoke a changed vision that can lead to a changed world.

I will admit to being more open to one-on-one witness. One of the areas of my life I need to work much more assertively to change (along with unplugging things not in use to prevent "phantom load" contributions to global warming, buying in bulk from the co-op in order to avoid plastic packaging, and so on) is my relative unwillingness to pick up a pen and write a letter to suggest ways to reduce waste.

Every time I open a package and find a product wrapped entirely in biodegradable materials, some one has been there ahead of me, witnessing. I need to be more proactive, and write more letters to corporations, local restaurants, manufacturers, and so on. If I am regarded by my culture primarily as a consumer, I need to point out my needs and desires as a consumer to those who see me that way.

But I need to do all this remembering:

Love is the first motion.

No one takes in much that is shouted at them. If I cannot speak in kindness and respect to the restaurant that brings me an unwanted plastic straw or container, the earth probably doesn't need my help. If I do not see those I witness to as fully human, fully deserving of love and respect, and if I do not keep Spirit at the heart of all my witnessing, not only will I most probably alienate those I wish to reach, but I will also shut myself off from the movements of Spirit within me, witnessing to me in a way stronger than any human voice, testifying to what I must do next.

As Carl Magruder of Confessions of an EarthQuaker wrote,
Jesus warned the Jews continually against a legalistic piety, on the one hand. On the other, he said things like, "Forsake thy mother and father and go with me," which I think is less about family relations than it is to say, "Even that to which you are most attached, and that it seems appropriate for you to be attached to is secondary to your living a faithful life." How, then, can I not Forsake my Isuzu and follow?
It is only in love--love of one another, love of the Spirit or spirits that guide us, love for the planet that nurtures us--that we will find our way forward.

We will find our way forward, friends. (We must.)

Excuse me, please. I've gotta go turn off a few more lights, and unplug a few more appliances that aren't in use right now.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What's Wrong With Recycling? The Trouble With Plastic

I am increasingly troubled by the ubiquitous presence of something I used to take for granted: plastic.

I'm typing these words on a plastic keyboard, and watching them appear on a computer monitor that is largely made of plastic. At my left are a series of plastic notebooks I use to hold information on my work for my monthly meeting, and on my right a stack of DVDs I bought to show my classes in school. Plastic, plastic everywhere...

So, what's the problem? Plastic can be recycled, right?

Well, sometimes yes, and sometimes no... and actually, even when the answer is apparently yes, it's really no.

Here's what I mean: most of us who care two pins for the planet are by now familiar with the recycling symbol, with a number in the middle of an ouroboros of arrows. Setting aside for the moment the problem of plastic without the little symbol (not recyclable by any definition) and whatever plastics are not recyclable in your area, the chief difficulty is this: that little ouroboros is a symbol of eternity, of the snake that can eat its tail forever. And that implied promise is kept on materials like aluminum, steel, and glass, that essentially can be recycled forever. It is not the case for paper, but whatever paper is unrecoverable after repeated recyclings can, at least, be digested by microorganisms and return to feed the soil from which it came.

Plastic is never recyclable in this way. At best, plastic downcycles--it is reduced to a less and less useful form, until it reaches, in the end, an unrecoverable, unrecyclable end point... which is, unlike the grey cardboard box or the brown paper bag, as indigestible to the microorganisms that maintain our ecology as is plutonium.

And it may, ultimately, be as toxic.

This is not good news.

So what happens to the plastic that is not recycled, or which reaches the nadir of its recoverability, whether as a discarded bit of polar-fleece or as a bit of composite deck lumber? It does reenter the ecosystem, sometimes as windblown bits of plastic bag that whisk along the roadways until they are caught in a high tree; are tattered by the wind and sun until they are stripped from the tree; are ultimately caught up in streams or stormdrains or rivers, and are swept into the oceans, where they can wind up in places like this:
Photo by Chris Jordan

Or like this:

Photo: NOAA


Sorry to depress everybody with dead animal pictures. Somehow, it's hard for us to take things like the environment seriously unless we have something with eyes and a brain to empathize with, isn't it?

I've been unable to confirm the claims I've found online that "nearly every seabird on the planet has plastic waste" in its gullet--but it is clear that dead birds, fish, and sea turtles all too often prove to have ingested plastic waste. Kilograms of it, in the case of large animals. Enough to cause death through starvation, intestinal blockage or puncture, and so on, in all too many cases.

But here's the really bad news. That bit about the sea turtles and the birds? That's the good news, environmentally speaking. Because, yeah, we are seeing species dying off at a rate unprecedented in human history and maybe even in geological history, but, at least in theory, species that become extinct can be supplanted by new species that evolve. And there is certainly one hell of a selection pressure in operation here, to select for turtles, birds, whales, and dolphins that know the difference between a floating bit of plastic and their next meal. So, while we may lose some beloved aquatic species, there may, someday, be more to replace them.

If we haven't poisoned that entire ecosystem, of course.

Which is where the bad news really kicks in, because the dead sea turtles are the least of our problems with plastic. Plastic, you see, is really terrifying stuff: as far as we know, it will take geologic time to break down chemically: 500,000 to a million years. But it breaks down physically, into smaller and smaller bits, in a relatively short time--subject it to sun, water, weather, and it becomes tiny little particles.

This is not good news, even if it sounds like it is. To quote from one discussion of the often repeated (but little-supported) claim that plastic bags will degrade in "only" 500 years or so:
While polymers do indeed photodegrade, that doesn't remove it from the environment. The big pieces simply become smaller. This is mostly a minor irritant on land (where microscopic polymers will just become another inorganic component of soil), but poses serious risks to marine life, who can't distinguish indigestible polymer particles from food.
Thus marine organisms starve to death with guts full of styrofoam and PVC. This is bad enough when the creatures eating themselves to death are cuddly critters like sea turtles or pelicans, but as polymers degrade into microscopic bits the effect moves down the food chain, such that these particles are now replacing plankton. You can knock off the top of the food pyramid (turtles and pelicans) with little effect, but let's think really hard about what happens when you kick out the base.
All of which leaves aside the aesthetic issue of areas of ocean the size of continents that consist almost entirely of rafts of plastic garbage.
Those, by the way, look like this:

But it's not how they look that's the truly horrifying thing. It's how they act:
A study by the Japanese geochemist Hideshige Takada and his colleagues at Tokyo University in 2001 found that plastic polymers act like a sponge for resilient poisons such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls. Takada's team found non-water-soluble toxic chemicals can be found in plastic in levels as high as a million times their concentration in water.

In other words, we are starving out, poisoning, and crowding out the base of the ocean's food chain. Plastics are appearing in portions of our oceans at high enough densities to "smother marine life," and take the place of the plankton that feed all the other life forms of the sea--and which, taken as a whole, produce half our planet's oxygen.

Worried yet?

I am... an that's without taking into account the fact that, while too stable to break down naturally or fully by any biological process, plastics are also too unstable not to leach out vast quantities of toxic components used to stabilize, tint, or change various properties of plastics for short term use. So readily do plastics release poisons into the environment, in fact, that we are coming to understand that even in the short lifespan of a disposable plastic water bottle, it may well be leaching carcinogenic compounds into the liquids we consume. In fact, ironically enough, plastics break down so easily that museum curators, wanting to preserve some of the many pop-culture artifacts made from plastic in this century, find it exceedingly challenging to do so.
The problem...is that many of these components aren't chemically bound to the polymer chains. Thus, over time and under certain conditions, the additives can ooze out of the plastic. Studies suggest that many of these substances--including pthalates, flame retardants, and bisphenol A--leach from consumer products and cause significant health problems for humans.

Loss of these additives doesn't help the plastic, either.

I guess that's a concern when you're trying to preserve a forty-year-old Barbie doll. But, overall, I'd have to say its far more of a concern when you're considering thousands upon thousands of tons of this material, in the soil and in the oceans, creating biological deserts possibly for millenia to come.

Oh, yes--and did I mention that highly toxic processes involved in their production, as well?

We can't be having with this, people...

So what's to be done? Well. Let's talk. More tomorrow.

For more information, please see:
A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Plastic Gyre.
Marine Birds and Plastic Pollution.
Plastic Ocean.
Polymers are Forever.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Dark

I have been very aware of the growing darkness these last few weeks.

It's not surprising. I rise (too early!) and am out the door and off to work just about the time the sky is starting to gray up from the full blackness of night. As I drive over the wooded hills between my home and my job, the sky gradually warms. I watch as the east turns dying-embers red between the naked limbs of oaks and swamp maples. By the time I pull into my school's parking lot, the buses are clearly yellow, and the soft smudges of shadow are just beginning to be visible. By the time I lay out the supplies for the day in my classroom, a yellow glare is starting to beat through my windows.

But when I leave again at the end of the day, once again the land is fading back to charcoal and ash. By the time I reach my own house, the light in the windows is an appealing yellow, and the sky overhead is soft and dark.

It's dark, my friends. Yule is almost here, and the wheel is still turning.

As a Quaker, I have learned to love the Light. Well, truth to tell, even in my earliest Pagan days, I loved it, too. There are so many meditations and magickal exercises that focus on moonlight, or on starry nights of this or that planetary conjunction. I did my time with these. But best of all, I found, was sitting in the full, red light of morning, and opening myself, my spirit, to that as well.

I was never a night-time only Witch.

As for the moon, I think modern Witches hardly understand why she is so lovely and so special. We relate, we moderns (whether Pagan or cowan) to the moon mainly as art or as icon. Lots of Pagans can call to mind the face of a somewhat gooey Lady of the moon from some Pre-Raphaelite, Goth, or Pagan artist. But how many of us could convincingly draw Her face, as it truly appears in the heavens?

And how many of us understand why She matters so much? How many of us understand, viscerally, that for millions of years, if you were outside at night, it was because She was there, overhead, to show you the way?

We worship (though we do not know it) the deities of electric light and power, giving them some of our best hours, our best time. And lighting a token candle or two, chanting and pouring a libation to a moon whose phase we know merely from a calendar can give us no real sense of what the moon meant, to men and women whose experience of Night was of two things only: Moon, and Dark.

Without the moon, the Dark is all there is.

Now, that's not a bad thing. Frightening to us sometimes, because we know Dark (we moderns) no better than we know Moon. We think it must be full of terrors, and we are sure, if ever we enter the natural world, to bring mighty weapons to hold it at bay: flashlights and Coleman lanterns and floodlights.

But, you know, you can walk a trail in the woods in the dark--in the full dark, the real dark, the dark without the moon--if your feet are wise, and if you know your way.

And you can deal with the dark, the growing dark, the Midwinter Dark, as our ancestors did, once upon a time.

How did our ancestors live, back in the days before electricity banished the darkness?

Peter and I started an experiment one year with just that question.

Peter had read somewhere--I don't know where--a study of some group of humans, the sort anthropologists love to write about--who lived communally, in a world without artificial light beyond firelight and the moon. And those who studied them noted how they dealt with the dark time of the year.

They slept. A lot.

Moderns are mainly sleep deprived. We nap, or sleep in for long hours when we vacation, but mainly, we do without. Unimaginable, then that entire groups of people would curl up and go to sleep when the sun's light fails. That, by five or six on a winter's night, whole families are at rest...and will stay so until six thirty or seven the next morning.

Except they don't. Sleep is different, it turns out, when it is not artificially staved off by lamplight, but allowed to run the full length of a winter's night. At times, it was more like a light doze, or a meditative wakefulness. And then, with little to divide it from waking, sleep would return again. People roamed in and out of dreams and waking several times each night. There was a different quality to it, not just a different quantity.

When Peter told me about this article he'd read, I was fascinated. I found it hard to imagine how my life would feel if we had such a deep, such an intimate connection to the Dark.

So, to the best of our ability, we tried it.

We knew we had to work within the confines of our modern lives. We had still to cook our food in a modern kitchen, not over an open fire. We had to wake artificially, to make it to our assigned working hours.

But to the extent that we could, we decided to set aside the time between Yule and Imbolc--February 2nd--for the Dark. We would use no electric light, no computers, no television, no telephone except for emergencies, and no radio for that time. Oh, at work we would use such things, as we had need, and we set aside a room in the house for our daughter (then a very independent eleven year old) to use such modern conveniences when she liked. But to the extent we could, we did without them.

We did not go to bed at sunset. Again, we had a very modern eleven year old in our family, and it was not at all an experiment she was willing to try, to go to bed at seven at night! But we led our evening hours only by candle-light and a little bit of lamplight. I discovered that I was sensitive to lamp oil burned indoors, and could not tolerate much of it--but candles are much dimmer than you think, when you need to rely on them for all your illumination. They'll do to wash the dishes--but not to read a book, unless the print is quite large.

We did read. A lot, and out loud--a nineteenth century habit that we had always enjoyed to some degree, but which became important to us in our quiet and our shadowed house. It was intimate and soothing, and I have fond memories of what I read that winter.

Our Jewish friends Saundra and Mike, tired of being unable to reach us by phone, took to dropping by to spend time with us in the evenings. Saundra called us the "Shabbat house." I was touched.

But we also slept. Whether it was the dimmer lighting, the quiet of a life without email and television, or simply ceasing the struggle against the Dark, we found ourselves aware of our sleepiness. We might not have gone to bed at seven, but we often were asleep by eight or nine.

It was good. The nights were soft, and the Dark was gentle.

And when, by Imbolc, the days were lengthening and the nights were growing shorter once again, we felt the returning light, in a way that's simply untranslatable unless you have also lived a season with the Dark. Each tiny sign of the return of spring--not the opening of the buds, but the swelling of them; not the disappearance of the snow, but the thinning of it, and the way it reflected the fire of the sunset later every evening--became pronounced.

This is the power of the Dark.

As a child of the Light--in the Quaker ways as well as the old, Pagan ways--I will always revel in the full light of day, and in the ways it echoes in me the stirrings of Spirit, of God and of the gods.

But I also love the Dark. Winter dark, earth-dark, void-between-the-stars Dark. The darkness that is not Light's enemy, but its lover, its best beloved, its refuge and its friend.

I am a child of the Light. And I am a child of the Dark. I love and I embrace them both.

Blessings of the season of soft rest and shadow to you all.
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