We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

A New Frame

Midsommar                                                                      Most Heat Moon

ein sofNext week we all give 5-8 minute presentations in our kabbalah class. The ostensible purpose is for us to have the chance to “learn as teachers.” It will be more than that for me. At first I thought I would work up something about tikkun olam, repairing the world, or, as the early kabbalists preferred, repairing God. The notion fits nicely within my political activism (now shelved)/reimagining faith work. But that would have been the more traditional student as presenter, a small talk focused on the content of what I’ve begun to learn.

Instead I’ve decided to go for it, to use the post below, Earthquake, as a starting point. I want to discuss my changing inner world, the push kabbalah has given me, adding its long standing contrarian position to my own.

Here’s how I imagine it might go right now.

Religion itself and sacred texts in particular as metaphors.

transcendence_ver5Kabbalah has reinforced and challenged a move I made many years ago away from the metaphysics of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as I understood it. I can summarize that move as a reaction against transcendence and its role in buttressing patriarchy. Transcendence moved me up and out of my body, up and out of my Self into a different a place, a place other than where I was, a better place, a place dominated by God. It didn’t really matter what image of God, what understanding of God you put in that sentence because it was the denial of the here and now, the embodiedness of us, that bothered me. The notion that transcendence puts us in a better place, a place only accessible outside of our bodies made us lesser creatures, doomed to spend most of our time in a less spiritual state. In the long tradition of a male imaged God it made that gender dominate because it was God that occupied the better place, the more spiritual place, the place, if we were lucky or faithful enough, that we might achieve permanently after death.

Going in and down became my primary metaphor for the spiritual life; spirituality became an inner journey, not a transcendent one. The body was not like a temple; it was a quite literal temple, a place, the place, where a journey toward understanding and meaning found its locus. It was natural, therefore, to leave Christianity and especially the Christian ministry, as this focus took hold of my pilgrimage.

images (6)This inner turn is what pagan means for me. It put spirituality more in the mode the Judaeo-Christian tradition terms incarnation, put a thumb on the scale for the notion of imago dei, rather than the three-story universe. Gardening and bee-keeping became ultimate spiritual practices. They made real, as real as can be, the whole immersion of this body in the web of life. Tomatoes, beets, leeks, garlic, raspberries, plums, apples, currants, beans, comb honey and liquid honey grew on our land, nurtured by our hands, then entered our bodies to actually, really become us. The true transubstantiation.

The Great Wheel, the Celtic sacred calendar that follows the web of life as earth’s orbit changes our seasons, became my liturgical calendar. Observing the wheeling of the stars above our turning earth was the closest I got to transcendence.

Kabbalah has reinforced this move. By suggesting the radical, very radical, notion that even such sacred texts as the Torah are metaphorical, a garment for the soul of souls, for example, it makes each metaphor used more important. The metaphysical becomes metaphorical. Or, perhaps it always was. So, metaphors matter.

You have come to the shore. There are no instructions. —Denise Levertov

You have come to the shore. There are no instructions. —Denise Levertov

Kabbalah challenges this move. By acknowledging transcendence as a metaphor, it allows us to soften its patriarchal implications, to seek, if you will allow this phrase, a deeper meaning. I can imagine an understanding of transcendence that poses a horizontal rather than a vertical metaphor. Transcendence, understood this way, could embed us in community, place us in the web of life. A hug could become a transcendent moment, the touching of another, one outside our inner world. So could this class be a time when our inner worlds intersect, when our body language and our spoken language give us brief entre to the world of another. Even the example I used of the garden and bee-keeping can also be seen as transcendent, a way the outer becomes inner.

Transcendence was not the only theological problem I had with the Judaeo-Christian tradition, I’m using it here as an example, a key example, but only that. I won’t go further into those today with one exception.

P1030762When I moved away from transcendence, I moved toward this world. This world of sensation and my inner world became the whole, I sheared off the metaphysical almost as cleanly as my logical positivist philosophy had done, though for quite different reasons. No metaphysics, no God. No metaphysics, no transcendence. I switched to an ontology informed only by my senses or by the extended reach of our limited human senses occasioned by science. That meant this world, at both the micro and macro levels was the only world.

Kabbalah has forced me to reconsider this drastic pulling back. It suggests a link between the hidden codes revealed by science and mathematics and the metaphorical nature of language. What language reveals, it also hides.  The language of the Torah unveils; but, it also conceals. Not done with this, not even by a long shot of Zeno’s arrow.

Think Again

Beltane                                                                Moon of the Summer Solstice

images (1)Reimagining Faith has been a project of mine since I slipped out of the Unitarian Universalist world leaving behind both Christianity and liberal religion, the first too narrow in its theology, the second too thin a broth. The stimulation for the project lay first in a decision I made to focus on my Celtic heritage for the writing I wanted to do. This commitment led me to the Great Wheel of the Year and its manifestation literally took root in the work Kate and I did at our Andover home.

When we bought the house there, it sat on a lot with the usual scraped earth look of new home construction. It had no lawn, no trees in front, no soil adequate for growing flowers. We hired a landscape architect and added several thousand dollars to the mortgage for his work which included retaining walls, perennial beds, wild prairie on two sides of our house and tiered perennial beds in the back with a patio at their bottom. Our goal was to enjoy the landscaping throughout the time we owned the house. And we did.

2011 10 13_1265In retrospect our request to him to make it all as low maintenance as possible seems laughable. He did as we wanted, putting in such sturdy plants as Stella D’oro, a species of daylily, shrubs, a bur oak and a Norwegian pine, some amur maples, a hardy brand of shrub rose, juniper, yew, a magnolia that Kate wanted, and a river birch. This work included an in-ground irrigation system and the very strange experience of having no lawn until one morning when the sod people came and rolled it out. Then we had a lawn that evening.

2012 05 01_4112We looked at it, saw that it was good and thought we were done. Ha. It began with a desire for flowers. I wanted to have fresh flowers available throughout the growing season, so I studied perennials. At that time I thought I was still holding to the low maintenance idea. I would plant perennials that would bloom throughout the Minnesota growing season, roughly May 15 to September 15, go out occasionally and cut the blooms, put them in a vase, repeat until frost killed them all back. Then, the next year the perennials would return and the process would recur. Easy, right?

No. Gardens are alive. They are dynamic. Species of flowers have very different horticultural needs. Some, like the spring ephemerals, grow early to avoid the shade of leafed out trees and shrubs. Some, like bleeding hearts and hosta, require shade. Others, like iris, a particular favorite of Kate, need an application of a pesticide to eliminate iris borers. Others, like tulips, wear out in the harsh weather cycles common to Minnesota. Trees planted around the beds grow, too, changing the sun and shade areas from year to year. Soil gets depleted as plants take nutrients from it to fuel their growth. Different flowers require different sorts of soil, too.

06 20 10_Garden_0052Once this world opened up to us, we began to enjoy working with all these variables to create beauty around our home. Gardening for flowers, eh? Well, how about some vegetables. This led to a two-year project of cutting down thorny black locust, chipping the branches, then hiring a stump grinder. After this was done, Jon built us several raised beds. We filled them with good soil and compost. Tomatoes, potatoes, beans, garlic, leeks, onions, carrots, beets flourished. Vegetables, eh? Why not fruit and nuts?

400_late summer 2010_0163Ecological Gardens came in with permaculture principles and added apple trees, plums, cherry trees, pears, currants, gooseberry bushes, blueberry bushes and hawthorns. On the vegetable garden site they added raspberries, a sun trap for tomatoes, and an herb spiral. At that point then we were maintaining multiple perennial flower beds, several vegetable beds, fruit trees and the bees that I had started keeping.

We did later add a firepit and picnic area, but those were the main horticultural efforts. This was a twenty year long immersion in plants and their needs, the way the seasons affected them and our human responsibility for their care.

WheelofYear1GIFWhen I stepped away from the Presbyterian ministry after marrying Kate, the Celtic pagan faith reflected in the Great Wheel began to inform my theological bent more and more. What was to come in the place of the Christian path? Perhaps it was a way of understanding our human journey, our pilgrimage as part of the planet on which we live rather than as separate from it or dominate over it.

Wicca, though, and the various neo-pagan movements seemed thin to me, not without merit as earth-based faiths, but often filled with gimcrackery and geegaws rather than guidance for the next phase of human existence here. I began to wonder about an ur-faith, a way of believing, of being religious, that could exist alongside, even below the other faith traditions, some path that could put us back in the natural world (from which we have never actually removed ourselves) and in so doing undergird the kind of compassion for our planet that might save humanity.

This is the concept behind reimagining faith. Is it possible to create a framework for an earth-based faith that respects science, yet offers ritual and private contemplative practices? What would a book look like that attempts to create a theology, conceptual scaffolding for such a faith? I got this far a while ago. But something has stopped me from moving forward. This post is about poking myself to move forward.

HesseI have finished 7 novels and am nearing completion of an 8th. So I can work on a long term project and see it through to completion. I’ve also been part of creating several organizations still in existence in Minnesota, among them MICAH, Jobs Now, and The Minnesota Council of NonProfits (originally the Philanthropy Project). These, too, are long term efforts that I helped see to completion.

Over time I’ve also worked with several other institutions in various roles that lasted for years: the Sierra Club, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Citizens for a Loring Park Community, the Stevens Square Community Organization, the West Bank PAC and the West Bank Community Development Corporation, not to mention the Presbyterian Church and the Unitarian-Universalists.

2010 01 19_3455I’ve had less persistence in my two non-fiction writing projects: an ecological history of Lake Superior and Reimagining Faith. Not sure why. Getting started on the research and idea end was not a problem, I have file folders, bookshelves, posts here on Ancientrails and various sketches for outlines. But I’ve never sustained the push to finish.

My now year long immersion in Reconstructionist Judaism, studying first mussar (ethics) and now kabbalah, has caused several sparks to go off for the Reimagining Faith work. I’m beginning to feel the urge to commit substantial writing time, thinking time to this project. What I’d like to do is produce a book that would lay out the skeleton and put some flesh on it. At that point I’d like Reimagining to become a collaborative project with whomever feels an attraction to it.

So let be it said, so let it be done. Yul Brynner, the Ten Commandments.

Summer Begins

Beltane                                                                                Running Creek Moon

house400So. A rookie takes the Indy 500. The Warriors outlast the Thunder to make the NBA finals a second year in a row. School has begun to wind down. The rhythm of our national life slips into summer, a season forever shaped by the farm, the growing season, even though the number of family farms has continued to sink since the middle of the last century. The kids get out of school to work on the farm, at least they used to. Now most school kids have probably never been on a farm, perhaps find them as foreign as they find the North Woods or the Rocky Mountains.

Here, so far, we’ve had a wet May and forecasters think that may extend into mid-to-late summer. The deeper into the fire season the moisture remains the better off we are. With one exception. All that rain encourages the grasses, shrubs and smaller plants. They in turn can become the fuel that advances a fire.

Bee-guyThe fire mitigation process has the flavor of seasonal work in that it needs to finish before the mountains dry out. Hard physical labor in the early summer fits the mood. Here in the mountains the mornings remain cool, pleasant for working outside.

A couple of days ago I noticed an odd newcomer in the mountain meadow the cattle company uses to grass feed some of its stock. A beehive. A single beehive surrounded by metal posts with both barbed wire (I think. From the road it’s hard to tell.) and electric fencing. It intrigued me, looked like a simple set up. Sort of rejiggered the beekeeper in me. Hey, maybe I can do that. I’m going into the meadow someday this week and check out the setup.


Write It Out

Beltane                                                                             Running Creek Moon

freshman year

Freshman Year, Alexandria H.S.

Ever since the great iconoclasm, my voice has been muted. Not sure why.  Topics don’t seem to occur to me. I’ve never had a theme, a particular ax, though felling and limbing the occasional political issue shows up once in awhile. Philosophical, quasi-theological pondering. That, too. Lots of did this, did that. The online continuation of a journal keeping way I’ve had for decades. Art. Yes, but not as much as I want.

Maybe there was a more intimate link between the images and the vitality of this blog than I realized. Apres le mitigation the whole copyright issue, the fate of images in an age of digital reproduction, will occupy some of my time.

Work on both Superior Wolf and Jennie’s Dead have been ongoing, though not yet much writing. Reimagining Faith occupies a lot of my free thinking time, wondering about mountains, about urbanization, about clouds that curve and mound above Mt. Evan’s, our weather maker. No Latin yet. Not until I can have regular time up here in the loft. Not yet.

Could be that underneath all this lies a reshuffling of priorities or a confirmation of old ones. It’s not yet a year since my prostate surgery and a friend of mine said it took her a year to feel right again. This year has felt in some ways like my first year here, a year when I can take in the mountain spring, the running creeks, the willows and their blaze of yellow green that lights up the creek beds, the mule deer and elk following the greening of the mountain meadows.

My 40 year fondness for Minnesota has also begun to reemerge, not in a nostalgic, wish I was still there way, but as a place I know well, a place to which I did become native, a place which shaped me with its lakes, the Mississippi, Lake Superior, wolves and moose and ravens and loons. Where Kate and I became as close as we could with the land we held temporarily as our own. Friends. Art. Theatre. Music. Family. Perhaps a bit like the old country, an emigre’s memories which help shape life in the new land. An anchor, a source of known stability amidst a whirl of difference. The West. Mountains. Family life.

So. There was something in there anyhow. Now, back to fire mitigation.

For those of you have heard of the Flow Hive and those who haven’t

Beltane                                                                            Beltane Moon

She Comes

Imbolc                             Black Mountain Moon

Birth of a queen bee: The Queen, The Queen

Up Early

Imbolc                                                  Black Mountain Moon

One of those nights. In spite of the warmth of my electric blanket I was awake at 3 a.m. For good. So I got up, let the dogs out, fed them, but didn’t go get the paper. (too early) It’s now 5:45 and I’m planning on working on Latin as soon as I finish this. Why waste the time?

There was more snow on the deck this morning. Not so much, maybe an inch. I’d say we got 10 inches over the weekend. Snow here is both more present-it snows more often-and less. It melts soon after coming. This week the weather will be cool enough to retain the snow on the grounds, but it should be sunny enough to melt the driveway.

I’m trying to increase my work. The long preparation for, then the execution of the move, distracted me at points, especially over the last couple of months. We needed our focus on the move and that’s where it was. Now though I want to write a new book, continue the work in Ovid and Caesar, dig into art scholarship, especially in aesthetics and Song Dynasty China, and get more deeply into my Reimagining Faith project by focusing on the concept of emergence.

We have a plan for a modest garden using raised beds designed around horse watering troughs. They have a root-centric bottom up watering system and come ready to use. All we’ll have to do is site them and fill them with soil. I purchased material for a Flow Hive set-up like the one posted below, but it won’t come until November, so I’ll give the bees a pass this year. In April I take the first of several classes in a Native Plant Master program.

Exercise is two-thirds of the way back to pre-move intensity and I’ve added three days.

All this happens wrapped in regular visitation with grandchildren, Jon and Jen, going to movies, reconnoitering Denver and our immediate area around home: Jefferson County, Park County, Evergreen.

Settling in. Becoming native to this place. A process.



Back At It

Lughnasa                                                                      College Moon

Another week begins. And, yes, after 22 years of working on my own time, Monday is still the first day of the work week. The weekend slows hit me even now. This habituation to weekends and work week begins not when we first draw a paycheck, but that first day of first grade, maybe even kindergarten. That’s when we begin learn the distinction between the work-a-day world of Monday to Friday and the different, more relaxed Saturday and Sunday. No wonder that rhythm doesn’t disappear, even when its usual props of work place or class room have long ago receded.

Today is auto maintenance and finish the firepit repairs. Plus more De Bello Gallico. Realized the other night that I want to read Vergil’s Georgics, too. This is a four book poem on agriculture. I’m beginning to feel that writing in some way about agriculture and horticulture, apiculture would be fun and important for me.

The exterior maintenance is wrapping up over the next couple of days, then the seal coater comes on Friday. I’ll finish packing the books, tomorrow probably. We also need to finish cleaning out the sheds and do a soil test for the garden. That’s the work week so far. As to the weekend? Nothing definitive right now.

This Should Stop. Now.

Lughnasa                                                                        College Moon

The Northrup King building in Northeast Minneapolis houses artists, floors and floors and floors of studios: potters, painters, metal workers, collage artists, sculptors, print makers. 5 years ago a docent group did an event there during Art-a-whirl. The room in which the event was held had remnants of the building’s original purpose. Slick concrete columns fat as oil drums flowered toward the top, supporting the weight of feed grains that would come into the top floor of the building, then get separated below through the chutes still visible in the large open area.

While the band played, memories of another time, in the late 1970’s swirled around. Back then Northrup King was still an independent seed company, selling seed to farmers. But in the mid-1970’s a specter stalked the seed industry. Large pharmaceutical companies had become aware of the great concentration of power available for those who controlled patents on seeds, on their genetic makeup. A huge buyup of seed companies was underway.

A group attempted to stop the buyout of Northrup King by Switzerland’s Sandoz corporation, but failed. Northrup King, or NK, became a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical company and was later sold to Sygenta, an agrochemical and seed company.

You may recall a post here on July 12th of this year that contained this quote: “Today, humans rely on fewer than 150 plants for nourishment, and just three cereal crops—wheat, rice, and corn—make up more than two-thirds of the world’s calories; along with barley, they own three-quarters of the global grain market.” Wired This could be the strategy statement for that buyup, which went unchallenged.

The result has been the concentration and subsequent manipulation of genetic material for many of those 150 plants and an even tighter focus on the big three: wheat, corn and rice. An article in today’s Star-Tribune mentions just one small outcome of this process, but one with big consequences for those of us who raise bees, the use of neonicotinoids. This pesticide-slathered on the seed before it is sold to the farmer for planting-has a role in colony collapse syndrome which has led to hive losses as high as 20% even for professional bee-keepers. It weakens the bee or kills them outright, geometrically increasing the effects of habitat loss (often created by the same agrochemical folks through “round-up ready” crops), mites, bee strains unprepared for the hygienic requirements these changes produce.

More than trouble for bees is exposed in the article Bees on the Brink. Here is the true problem (which is not to trivialize the problems for bees, but to see its place in a much larger and more insidious problem):

Though they represent just 2 percent of Minnesota’s population, farmers control half its land. And their embrace of the monocultures and pesticides that form the basis of modern industrial agriculture has been implicated in the decline of bees and pollinators.

But as long as farmers sit at the receiving end of an agri-chemical pipeline that fuels the nation’s rural economy, not much is likely to change…

The centralized control of seed genetics, with its beginnings in the mid-1970’s, has now become the apex of a command and control apparatus that dictates how over 1/2 of Minnesota’s land is used. And that’s just Minnesota. That control is hardly benign. Witness the Minnesota river and its agricultural runoff polluted waters.

The payoff, the ransom for which these lands are held in thrall by big pharma and big agrochem, of course, is higher yields. This however only reinforces a decades long collusion between agriculture scientists at land grant universities like Purdue, University of Minnesota Ag campus and Iowa State. Long before big pharma got involved crops have been manipulated not for better nutrition but for higher yields and crops that are easily harvested, shipped and processed.

The result? A farm sector which pollutes our waters, uses huge amounts of petroleum products in fertilizers and fuels, kills our bees, diminishes genetic diversity and worst of all produces food with less nutritional value. This is criminal and should stop. Now.


Toward the New

Summer                                                                Most Heat Moon

When asked last night if she wanted us to move to Colorado, Ruth nodded her blond head Ruth's 8thand said, “I want you to.” She may go with Grandma to look at property, give the grandchild’s view. We’ll give Ruth and Gabe a chance to have their say since they’ll be very important visitors (V.I.V.s), but Grandpop and Grandma will make the final choice, of course.

The standing in the drive-way, waving as the van pulls away ritual has happened. The three generation of Olson’s Sienna transport to Colorado has left the building.

As Colorado came rushing into the foreground of our lives this week, it’s made me consider what new things I might want to do out there. The first thing that came to mind? Learning to ride a horse. Something I’ve never done and what better place than the west. I don’t want to learn dressage or steeple chasing or barrel racing, but I would like to learn enough to ride on a mountain trail, maybe camp out.

A second thing came while reading an interesting article in this month’s Wired, “How We Can Tame Overlooked Wild Plants to Feed the World.” This article gives a broad brush presentation to how horticulture and agriculture will respond to climate change. It starts by referencing work being done in Ames, Iowa on domesticating new food crops.  The last creative work in domestication of new crop plants ended thousands of years ago.

Here’s the sentence that really jumped out at me: “Today, humans rely on fewer than 150 plants for nourishment, and just three cereal crops—wheat, rice, and corn—make up more than two-thirds of the world’s calories; along with barley, they own three-quarters of the global grain market.” op. cit.

The Land Institute outside Salina, Kansas has had my attention since I read founder Wes Jackson’s book, Becoming Native to This Place. This book along with the Great Work by Thomas Berry, The Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and an excellent climate change conference Kate and I attended in Iowa City changed the direction of my political activism from economic and racial justice issues to environmental policy. They also affected my horticultural practices, turning me from perennial flowers to vegetables and fruit grown in a soil sensitive, heirloom-biased way.

So. When we finally settle down, I want to have a raised bed or two for kitchen vegetables, smaller than what we have here, but I also want to have at least one raised bed or plot devoted to advancing a new food crop. I’m not sure what this would entail, but if something useful can be done on a small plot in the Rocky Mountains, I want to devote the time necessary to it. Given the long time horizons on such projects, I may not hope to get too far; but, any distance toward a broader food palate and one capable of producing in hotter normal temperatures will be useful to my grandchildren and their children.


July 2017
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