From “Stations”

 

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We have been here before
and failed, bringing creation
about our ears. Why
can we not be taught 
there is no hill beyond this one
we roll our minds to the top
of, not to take off into
empty space, nor to be cast back down
where we began, but to hold the position
assigned to us, long as time
lasts, somewhere half-way
up between earth and heaven.

R.S. Thomas

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From “Church Going”

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A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

-Philip Larkin

From “The Summer Day”

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I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

-Mary Oliver

Driving to the oil patch

First two flames, one on each side of the road, like sentinels. Bright, 10 or 100 times brighter than any streetlight and wavering like a living thing. You feel naked and speed past hoping to escape notice.

Then fog. White soup fog so thick you can only see the center yellow dashed line right against your front tire if you squint. So thick you wonder if it will ever let up, if you will never make it out, run off the road or hit another person before you even see them. So thick you almost pull over but think of the danger from passing cars and think surely it can’t last much longer. Right?

Twenty, 30, 40 miles later you are justified and the white soup fades to patches, a veil of gauze on the world. Then it is gone altogether, leaving pitch black. No streetlights in western North Dakota. Then the lights again, bright, sputtering orange lights silhouetting the rolling prairie where there should be no light. Naked again, you speed on.

Sixty miles out the hotels start to speed past, neon light after neon light spelling “NO vacancy.” No vacancy in rural North Dakota, population none.

And then, over a crest, there it is. Mud-covered (from what? There was no mud – unless it was in the air, permeating everything to remind you why you’re really here) and breathless from brushes with death in the form of California, Alaska and Tennessee drivers, you see it. Destination: Oil Patch.

Destination: American Dream?

Famine politics

Image“There is no end to politicians who pursue, at the cost of all compassion and paying the price of human flesh, their denials, dogmas and ideologies. … In Ethiopia and in many food crises of the present and recent past, it is oppression, war and ‘civic mayhem’ that have been the main reasons for famine mortality.”

I just finished Thomas Keneally’s book “Three Famines,” which documents some history of the Irish potato famine, a WWII-era famine in Burma and more recent famines in the 1970s and 80s in Ethiopia.  In general, the book sort of outlines what I hear from talking with aid workers on the policy level and on the ground in hungry countries; food shortage is a key instigator of famine, but the problem is much, much more complex than just not having enough food to feed people in a country. In some cases, food is even shipped out of a country while people in the country starve because they don’t have enough – I was told this happened in Niger during recent food shortages. And even when there is enough food in the country, lower levels of food reserves drives up prices so the poorest people can’t afford enough to sustain themselves.

This book is rather confusingly organized and poorly written, and missing most citations that would give the author a lot more credibility, but still gives a good look at the politics of famine and the government policies and structures that elevate a food shortage or drought to famine proportions. Keneally provides a good reminder that just pouring money or food into a starving country isn’t necessarily a complete or entirely effective solution to a problem that is much broader than poor crop yield.

 

When it’s hip to be responsible

The Tanzanian Federation for Home Economics teaches women to grow and harvest sweet potatoes to make chips like these.

I spent a weekend in Bonn, Germany covering a United Nations conference on sustainability as part of a team of student journalists. The conference was eye-opening for me, as I’ve never been involved in a UN proceeding before; overall, it seemed somewhat disorganized and too policy-oriented for my taste, but I think that’s just United Nations operation (at least policy orientation; I’m not sure about the disorganization).

I made a few friends involved with youth organizations in Germany and other parts of Europe. I spent lunch one day talking with some young people who work with Micah Challenge and YMCA Germany (rather different from YMCA in the USA) about the pros and cons of “environmentalism” as a trendy movement.

On one hand, this falls into a category one friend defined as a “first-world problem,” which is basically code for “a ridiculous argument you wouldn’t have if you didn’t already have your basic needs met well.” And even to the extent it is a “problem,” it’s a good one to have; at least the people who buy into the trend are making consuming efforts to do things like recycle and buy environmentally-friendly vacuum cleaners and even, sometimes, buy Tumbleweed Houses.

However, I wonder what this trendiness does to the environmental cause as a whole. I’m sure there are more people like me who are reluctant to define themselves by anything (I, like many of my college cohort, am almost allergic to defining myself by a church denomination. And you have to nearly drag the descriptor “Christian” out of me sometimes). I have no real desire to be one of “THOSE people” who don’t shower, flush their toilets with dirty dishwater and (true story) skin road kill squirrels on their back porches and eat them because they don’t like waste. I ride my bicycle when I can because it saves money, I recycle because various roommates have made me feel guilty for not (which I now appreciate) and I use reusable grocery bags (sometimes) because I can’t stand plastic bags spilling out of my closet when I open the door. But beyond this utilitarianism, I can’t think of a time when I did something to conserve energy, water, waste or food — certainly not anything that made me uncomfortable.

One part — and a large part — of this reluctance is just that I’m lazy and like comfort whenever possible. But part, too, is my label allergy. If conserving natural resources were just a thing everyone did — in Germany, apparently one is fined for not recycling, which makes sense to me, though I don’t really want to argue politics — I wonder how the dynamics of conservation in the US would change?

What do you think? Is this a semantic hang-up that doesn’t make much difference or does the trendiness of environmentalism make a difference, good or bad?