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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Solstice and the Paradoxes of Hope

I have been thinking about hope for several weeks now, since it seems a good thing to meditate on as we drift toward the darkest night of the year and the shortest day.  I have had two guides in my thinking, two guides who couldn't be more different from one another, but who made a great tag team. 

My first guide was Stephen Pinker, whose magisterial The Better Angels of Our Nature is a brilliantly researched book that could be said to be about hope.  His thesis is that in no other historical moment have there been so few wars, so little state-sanctioned violence, such an extension of human rights; this, in turn, has led to better health, standard of living, and education for more people on the planet than ever.  I began to read the book out of rebellion.  Like all of us, I watched the refugee crisis in Europe and the media's footage of endless lines of--hopeful?  hopeless?--people wandering from country to country, facing fences metaphorical and literal, trying to find an economy that could absorb them and the attitudes that would welcome them.  Like you, I was horrified by the Paris attacks, so close on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  Then there were the attacks at San Bernardino.  The concluding report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the government's decision to study the tragedies of the missing and murdered indigenous women are certainly hopeful, but hope only in the teeth of too many tragedies.  

Pinker's book comes with its own paradoxes.  How do you research hope?  Well, you research violence; you write a history of violence.  And then you mark the various ways and reasons it has fallen off.  With reams of research and daunting graphs and tables, Pinker is able to reveal the way human beings have constantly re-shaped their relationships with one another in ways that result, first, in fewer large-scale wars and, second, fewer small-scale conflicts.  Believe it or not, the wars that gathered people into empires were one of the first ways we decreased conflict.  Empires gave rise to the rule of law, and though that law might be capricious and the king's or emperor's motives for keeping internal conflict at minimum might be completely selfish, "Leviathan," to borrow the name Hobbes gave these governing bodies, made the world safer.  As well, government didn't want to have to manage small-scale conflicts between one knight and another--such conflicts made it hard to collect taxes and threatened valuable resources like food.  So the king turned his knights into courtiers who jested at court rather than jousting just north of some dark wood.  Manners were born.  Self-control and self-restraint were born, though there are of course places around the world where the self-control of "the civilizing process," as Pinker calls it, hasn't reached.  The Middle East is one; the American south is another.

Capitalism has played an intriguing role in "the civilizing process."  If you grew wheat and your neighbour kept cows, you might decide that rather than fight your neighbour for his land--a chancy and expensive process--you might instead barter.  Once Leviathan had created financial and physical infrastructure--money and roads--you might conduct your trade at further distances.  Pinker argues that "gentle commerce" had a whole host of unintended consequences, the most significant of which was empathy.  You had to imagine what someone who lived a goodly distance from you would like to buy or trade.  

In "The Humanitarian Revolution," (which I admit to not having finished yet, but I need hope NOW), Pinker looks at the way in which state-sanctioned violence--the torture of heretics or the burning of witches--has also declined in most of the world, as has slavery.  This change, like "The Civilizing Process" I described above, is much more complicated than I can explain here, but this passage will give you the gist of his findings:  "People began to sympathize with more of their fellow humans and were no longer indifferent to their suffering.  A new ideology coalesced from these forces, one that placed life and happiness at the center of values and that used reason and evidence to motivate the design of institutions" (133).  Those of us over fifty can probably look back and see some of the changes in how our culture has regarded human and animal rights.  Women's rights.  Gay rights.  The rights afforded too slowly to people of colour--First Nations in Canada and African Americans in the U.S.  But it's no longer intellectually or legally defensible to deny these rights, though people's opinions of "the other" are too slow to change.  The right of a woman to wear a niqab when she takes the oath of Canadian citizenship.  Animal rights.  Even the rights of the planet are being considered.

What Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahnemann calls "the availability heuristic"--our sense that we can come up with a lot of examples of violence and the violation of rights, so there must be a lot of both--is playing us false.  Things are better than the nightly news would have us think.

My other guide to hope is Jenna Butler, whose A Profession of Hope:  Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail has been an extraordinary and joyful reading experience.  Every word of this book is tender with hope.  She and her husband Thomas bought a quarter section of land 90 minutes north west of Edmonton and began farming, with the hope of being able to become self-sustaining. The book records their joyous and exhausting work on the land.  Here are some of the things I find hopeful--and these are idiosyncratic:  I find hope in the way they are able to see their quarter section as a complex and varied ecosystem where human intervention can allow the various parts to work together more richly and efficiently.  Who knew that digging a pond would bring frogs that helped with insects in the garden or that managing the forest would invite hawks and owls to help with pest control?  Who knew that "worm poop," which they cooked up in a bucket of red wigglers under the sink and to whom they fed their compost, would be the only thing between their market garden (besides a good shelterbelt) and grasshopper infestation that otherwise destroyed everything Big Ag had grown for miles around?  And then there is that wonderful relationship they have with the bees, who determine some of the cycles in the garden to ensure a constant supply of pollen.  (Another great hope book is Bee Time by Mark Winston.  Winston also has interesting advice for Big Ag:  leave more land wild to accommodate the bees, and you'll get a better yield than if you planted every square inch of your fields.)  In turn, the bees give them light in the middle of winter.  So here is perhaps the overarching hope of this wonderful book:  we can work with nature instead of against it, and find much joy, delight, wonder, and adventure in the process.  

But I also found the chapter called "Cartography" hopeful.  Jenna, who is also a poet, walks you through June in north country.  The prose here is so poetic that you are able to follow her through time and space with all the magic this entails.  Every one of our senses is engaged:  "Walk with the sun behind you, the cooling land lifting a night breeze around your ankles, to the bottom of the hill. Static ping of grasshoppers off road crush, sweet wild alfalfa in shades of purple, poplar leaves just past sticky green, everything about them the scent of rising sap.  A slight fog over the ground rolls as you walk:  the willows have let fly their seeds this week, and you will be chasing them through the garden beds for the next month.  This clock of seasons, of seeding:  past willow, not yet balsam poplar" (39-40).  Another element of hope was that McNally Robinson, where I bought my book, has planted A Profession of Hope all over their store--in memoir, in agriculture.  It's a book you can't quite categorize or pigeon hole, which is also hopeful.  We keep hope alive when we keep complexity and interconnections alive; we kill hope (along with a lot of other things) with certainty and with the idea that there's one right way to do everything and think about everything.

I also find hope in Jenna's humility, her sense that once she has stopped farming the land, it will return to some natural state, perhaps a bit better for her.  She has such respect for the land that she is willing to give it back to itself.  She knows she's only borrowed it for now.  That sense of the planet's integrity--that it's a place we've all just borrowed--is not only hopeful, but ethical.  When I taught "Literature and the Environment," I told my students that if human beings disappeared tomorrow the planet would be just fine--if not better off without us.  But if the bugs disappeared tomorrow, we'd all be toast.  Many of my students reminded me of that fact in their final exams, suggesting that they had suddenly seen that they were not the centre of the universe.  The bees and dragonflies and ants are that. 

I need hope not only because we are at the dark time of the year and I've watched too much news.   Twig is in the midst of another bout of pancreatitis, and I am faced with how much longer I am going to allow the cycle of suffering followed by treatment, which involves being in a vet's office all day for three days with a needle in his front leg, to go on.  Perhaps, at 15, his body simply doesn't have the resources to fight off this infection.  In How We Die, surgeon Sherwin Nuland talked of how hope changed for cancer patients, how they hoped not for a cure but to live long enough to see a child graduate or a grandchild born or to have one last Christmas with the family.  Twig has been reminding me, as has A Profession of Hope, that hope always exists in the context of our mortality.  Or, perhaps to be more precise, our mortality lingers around the edges of hope.  Perhaps our mortality is even a prerequisite for honest hope.  Hoping to find the perfect luxurious or cutting edge gift under the tree isn't really hope.  It's desire dressed up in hope.  "Hope is the things with feathers / That perches in the soul. / And sings the tune--without the words / And never stops at all," as Emily Dickinson wrote.

But hope may also require respect, our ability to get outside of ourselves.  Perhaps there is an ethics of hope that involves thinking both about self and other.  Many of the hopeful social transitions that Pinker observes came about because we could imagine someone else's suffering or we could suddenly envision the rights someone else deserved.  I have been thinking about a sentence in Sir Kenneth's Clark's Civilization:  that the Unicorn Tapestries illustrate nature naturing.  Once again, hope and mortality are linked.  Jenna's farm is certainly an example of "nature naturing."  But Twig and his chronic illness is also part of nature naturing.  He isn't talking to me, so I am going to need both respect and imagination to attempt to understand what his hope might be.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Memory-Roots of Christmas Trees


My memory is on full throttle this time of year, and I blame it on the light.  Just this morning, when I was talking with Katherine about the value of grasslands for carbon sequestration--which, counter-intuitively,  is equivalent to the value of forests--I remembered saying to Veronica when we drove from Montreal to the Eastern Townships and saw hills and hills of trees, "These are Quebec's lungs."  What a thing to come twanging out of my memory at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning!  Or Saturday I remembered David Powell standing in the middle of my tiny kitchen during a Christmas Noyse--a musical party I used to give every Christmas when my friends' children were young.  Adults and children brought violins, basoons, flutes, and the occasional rusty voice--and I remember David Powell saying that there had to be a way to give me more work room.

It's that late afternoon light that goes golden and looks like something out of a Vermeer or a Rembrandt.  How can a blue sky go golden?  If gold is added to blue, shouldn't it go green?  Or is light layered in a way that watercolour, say, isn't?  Then after the gold disappears, mystery starts to grow from beneath the trees and shrubs, close to the houses.  Neighbourhoods you know by heart suddenly look different in this light.  The sky remains azure while the tree branches and trunks turn an inky, saturated black that gives their tangles a new weight.  The azure subtly deepens until the air is a colour we never see in summer.  Then more change is wrought by what we do to answer this darkness:  we put up Christmas lights in our yards in arrangements that range from beautiful to funny, with everything in between.  We play with light.  All this changing of the light is an invitation to reflect and remember, to hunker down with the people we love and haul up the artifacts of memory through the sand of our everyday lives, like the early explorers of the pyramids.

I always find decorating the tree to be a kind of archeology, as each ornament comes swimming up with its history.  I have only one glass ball left of those my first husband and I bought in Cambridge Massachusetts the first year we were married.  And there's the tin Santa Claus Veronica brought back from her first term at McGill.  There is the flock of sheep my sister Karen sent to us, one at a time, from Atlanta, Georgia.  There are the decorations I bought when I knew I was pregnant and wanted to add a child's voice to the otherwise rather sophisticated tree.

But this year, it's the trees themselves that have come back to me, as if each of them is a layer in the sandstone of memory.

My mother had an older step-sister, my Aunt Hazel, who was childless and so who put her energy into breeding Scotties and making Christmas as beautiful as possible.  I make her sound like a cliche, but she was really a ferociously creative person, if sometimes frustrated by the outlets the 1950s gave her.  One year Aunt Hazel used only blue lights on her tree.  You have to realize that this was the late fifties or early sixties, and the only kinds of Christmas tree lights available were strings with large bulbs and many colours.  Suddenly the Christmas tree had an elegance that its otherwise higgledy-piggledy lights had never given it.  The next year, my mother did the same thing.  By that time, I was old enough to get myself up in the morning, and I had to leave to walk about three miles to school before anyone else was up--not uphill both ways.  Grand Rapids is relatively flat.  So I had my breakfast in front of the blue Christmas tree and used the house's silence to probe my Christmas presents to see if I could figure out what I was getting.  Books were a dead give-away:  everything was hardcover, and you could feel the slight dip made by the smaller pages.  That was the year I got Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki and Lin Yutang's The Chinese Way of Life.  The Christmas tree had grown up and so had I.  These were doubtless Aunt Hazel's recommendations.  I managed to read Kon Tiki because Mr. McElheny, my grade nine English teacher (and the person responsible for my love of poetry) said that sometimes skipping the first chapter and leaping into the second was a good strategy for cracking into a book that felt foreign.  I never did figure out how to read The Chinese Way of Life.

Our families were a bit befuddled when Dan and I moved to Winnipeg, where he played trumpet in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and I took classes on Russian literature.  They tried to imagine what this empty space north of North Dakota was like.  Was it wilderness?  So our first Christmas, my sister Karen gave Dan a little hatchet which we decided to use next Christmas.  There was an area east of Winnipeg where you could go to choose and cut down your own Christmas tree.  We found a lovely little evergreen, Dan wound up and gave it a good whack with his hatchet, and the head came flying right off.  Frozen wood is very, very hard.  (I suspect we should have soaked it before using it, but really Dan was a musician and I was a reader of long Russian novels:  what did we know about being woodsmen?)  We found another perfect little tree that someone had abandoned because it had fallen rather hard on its side as it came down and so was a bit flat there.  It nestled up closer to the wall than Christmas trees usually do.

Before Dan and I had Veronica--and an excuse not to abandon our own house for Michigan each Christmas--we sometimes packed up our Christmas decorations in our little Fiat along with our suitcases.  His parents didn't have a tree at all--something about allergies--so we sometimes bought a small extra tree to put up at my parents' house.  One year we stumbled on the perfect solution.  A man selling Christmas trees also had some live trees whose root balls were contained in bushel baskets.  We thought it would be perfect for my parents who lived out of town on a lot with lots of poplars, elms, and maples, but no evergreens.  After we'd used it for a Christmas tree, Dad could plant it.  There was a caveat, however; the seller said that if the tree were brought indoors he couldn't guarantee that it would make the transition back outdoors.  But we decorated it; Dad planted it; and it turned browner and browner through the spring.  Dad finally dug it up and found that there was no root ball; it had been chopped off like every other Christmas tree.

The first year after Dan and I separated, Veronica and I set out with the toboggan to buy a tree at a kiosk in our neighbourhood.  It was the coldest day yet, and dark, though star lit.  It seems, in retrospect, always the coldest day when we went looking for a tree.  But the long-needled Douglas fir, fragrant and thick, fit nicely on our long toboggan.  Veronica, who was seven at the time, sat backwards on the toboggan hanging onto the trunk, and we hushed through the snow in the starlight.  I have always felt that this was how you should bring home a tree.

I can still see a teen-aged Veronica and her best friends, Sara McQuarrie and Jenny Noland sitting in front of the Christmas tree to have their annual gift exchange.  Unlike Sara and Jenny, Veronica had no brothers.  I baked, as I always have.  We had about any kind of tea in the house you could want.  So Christmas happened for them in front of our tree.  One year the three of them decided that if Veronica and I ever had a less than perfect tree, that would be the year of the apocalypse.  Once we get the tree decorated, Veronica still sends a photograph to Jenny, and they joke about the apocalypse being averted.  But the trees were never perfect--or all trees are perfect, perhaps.  It's a matter of knowing where to hang the large silver balls to hide a hole.  It is not a matter of cutting off a branch from the bottom and drilling a hole higher up on the trunk and sticking it in--something my father frequently did. 


Bill and I work well together, whether it's building furniture, installing a workable closet for him, or putting up a Christmas tree.  We're calm and methodical.  He does the lifting and carrying, and I lie flat on my stomach to turn the screws that hold the tree in its stand. Then there was the year the just-decorated tree fell forward in slow motion.  I wasn't there; I was probably in the kitchen getting tea and Christmas cookies, but Bill and Veronica tell me that they simply stood, slack-jawed.  There was no time to rescue it, and yet the fall took forever.  That was the year we lost so many of the glass balls.  That year we decided that there was probably a complicated formula showing that the height of a feasible Christmas tree was in inverse proportion to the age of the person turning the screws to hold it up.  (There's probably another formula that calculates when seniors give up on live trees and go artificial.  We're not there yet.  We may never be.)  We've gone for smaller trees, and the ease of getting them up more than makes up for the lack of grandeur.  

For me, Christmas is at least in part a pantheistic holiday, as you might guess from the sheep and birds and owls and the Santa Claus holding Noah's Arc, a giraffe, and an elephant.  Bringing the tree into the house and lighting it with stars acknowledges how central nature is to our lives, how we are nurtured by its beauty even when it's energy is hidden from sight, underground in roots and dens.  As we lean toward the solstice with its almost atavistic threat that the days could just get shorter and shorter until...the lights that we put in the trees are promises to ourselves.  We create what's not there.  

This morning as I came downstairs in the still-dark morning at 7, I could see a glow coming from the living room.  Bill had lighted the tree before he left for work because he knows that sitting in the dark in front of a tree with a cup of coffee and a cat is how I like to begin my December days.  Just as the waning of the light brings a sense of mystery, so the dark mornings  are an invitation to explore parts of our minds we might otherwise ignore.  It's been a year since I undertook this ritual.  What has that year brought?  How have I failed the gifts it laid at my feet.  Where have I found the mysteries that, even in the dark of the year, glow with life and promise?  How will I nurture them? Where will I put down new roots this year?