• Tag Archives big history
  • I (heart) Religion

    Imbolc                               Waning Bridget Moon

    Some people like NASCAR, others quilting, some the middle ages, some middle age.  Tastes and attractions vary for often indiscernible reasons.  Me, I like religions.  Most of them anyhow.  Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Shinto, Taoism, Celtic Faery Faith, ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian, Voodoo, Native American, Mayan, Aztec, Hawai’ian, Tibetan Buddhism, Jain.  Buddhism, except for its practices like meditation, mindfulness, some how doesn’t attract me.  Don’t know why.

    A part of me, a strong, even dominant part never left the young boy stage where why came out at every instance of anything.  Why do birds sing?  Why do dogs die?  Why is the sky blue?  Why is Dad grumpy?  Why did you make noise last night, Mom?

    Philosophy suited me, fit me like a bespoke suit straight from Saville Row.  What is beauty?  Why do we love?  What is justice?  What is the nature of reality?  What is reality anyhow?

    Religion is often a folk way of asking–and answering–these same questions.

    Let me give you an example from breakfast.  I just experienced transubstantiation.  The folks who run the monastery think that happens at the eucharist as the wine and wafer transform themselves into the actual body and blood of Jesus.  I”m not sure about that.  But, I do know that this morning I ate an apple, a slice of bread with peanut butter and drank some tea.  They became me.

    No.  I’m not saying I’m Jesus, far from it.  I am saying that the apple, the peanut butter, the bread and the tea did transform, through the miracle of my digestive tract and its millions, billions, of host organisms, into me.  Think about it.  After the big bang and the gradual cooling of the universe, gas clouds gathered, due to gravity and created stars from the initial elements, thinks like hydrogen, iron.  The stars themselves, in their fusion furnaces, then combined and transformed those basic elements into the familiar elements making up the periodic table.

    Later still, as the gas clouds and chunks of matter surrounding each star coalesced those elements deposited themselves inside and on the newly born planets, comets and asteroids.  Those same elements, the very same elements, then, through more eons, at least here on earth, combined and recombined to form simple organisms like single celled animals and  plants. Long after that those simple organisms combined to form multi-celled life forms, among them humans.

    This morning I–consider that I–the end point of a certain historic chain of events traceable to the creation of the universe ate.  In eating I took in the products of other organisms, the apple which grew in the air on a tree, wheat which grew in fields across these very plains and peanuts which grew beneath the soil.  I also drank water, the same water present on earth for eons, perhaps the same water drunk by dinosaurs.

    And it is, even now, as I write, becoming me.  The apple, the wheat, the peanut are also, like me, the end point of a traceable (if we had the instruments and skill) chain from the moment before time until now.  So we recombine, sift and shift elements.  A miracle.

  • Next Week

    Winter                                                                      Waning Moon of the Cold Month

    With the Latin tutoring session behind me and Chapter 26 coming up, I downloaded a commentary on Caesar’s Gallic Wars with Latin text.  I’m gonna have a shot at it for a while.

    Started my Titian research last week by reading the Grove entry on Titian and checking out other websites and the Met’s timelines.  Printed out some stuff.  Next I’m going to read the catalog to get an overview of the show and to get images of each object in a file so I can reference them as I work.

    Also trying to decide what to do for the Woolly retreat.  One thought is to share my work on Ovid.  Still, it’s pretty inelegant, representing as those first 60 or so verses do the earliest of my work both in learning the language and then attempting translation.  Another is to talk about Big History but that seems pedantic.  I’ve thought about reading the first pages of Missing, just to see what folks think, but it’s low brow compared to the stuff most Woollies read.  Gotta decide sometime soon since the retreat starts on February 3rd.  I head out right after the Titian lecture.

    Another possibility is to share the research process on Titian, let them see what it takes to learn enough to tour a special exhibit.

    I just had another idea as I wrote this:  do an exegetical piece on Jacob at the Jabbok Ford.  About dreams, struggling with the angel of our better selves.  Hmmm.

  • Missing Spirit

    Winter                                                            Waning Moon of the Winter Solstice

    Wondered if I was missing something.  Turned on the radio to 99.5 and listened to Christmas music, classical variety.  As I just to wrote to my brother and sister, there is some residual Methodist wandering around in my head, recalling those nights in the church on John Street, candles winking out as congregants extinguished them, leaving the sanctuary in darkness, a voice, in this particular instance, a voice from the Metropolitan Opera, a hometown gal who’d made it big in the big city, singing out of that darkness, O Holy Night.  Still sends shivers up my spine.

    There is, too, a small boy waiting for Santa Claus and the luster of mid-day on objects below.  He misses the Christmas tree and the presents and the music.  And family.  Perhaps most of all family.

    These both are, however, voices from my past, valued and warmly received when they emerge, but no longer vital in my present, just as the music of the 60’s or the cars of the 50’s still recall a good time, an important time, but a time now gone by.

    I pressed the cd button and returned to the lectures on Big History, this time a review of the paleolithic, a historical era critical for our species, but often overlooked.  In this time we migrated first to the southern rim of Asia, then across the waters to Australia, and through Asia, across the land bridge to North America.  Each one of these migrations a test for our new specie’s capacity for collective learning, each one requiring a new set of skills, new tricks to wring energy and resources out of a new environment.  These were tests we passed and in that passing set the stage for our current dominance of the earth’s biosphere.

    Christmastime and the Christmas spirit no longer enfolds me as it once did, sweeping down after thanksgiving and placing me in the confusing mix of retail extravaganza and high religious celebration.  Now the Solstice carries some of that numinosity for me, but none of the commercial buzz.  I don’t miss the maw of gifts and money and credit, false gods if ever there were ones.  Quiet, calm, still.  Dark, meditative, inward.  That’s the reason for the season for me now.

    So, I’m glad for a place of peace as the Christmas machine churns anxiously all around me.  Still into the incarnation though.

  • Whoa

    Winter Solstice                                                Full Moon of the Winter Solstice

    Just to show you the power of the internet.  I sent this e-mail after I wrote the last blog entry and Professor Christian answered within 30 minutes.  From Australia.  How ’bout that?

    Hello, Professor Christian,

    Very stimulating material.  I love the large frame and the reframe.

    Here’s the question:  if the primary outcome of our uniqueness, the idea of collective learning logrolling adaptation into the future, is increasing energy consumption, is there any hope for those of us in the environmental movement who want to throttle back what now seems to me to be the defining characteristic of our species?

    I’ve just finished this lecture, so you may answer this question further on, but as a person responsible for the Sierra Club’s legislative work here in Minnesota, it gave me pause.

    Thanks for introducing really new ideas to me.  It’s a lot of fun.


    Delighted that you enjoyed the lectures.  I think the question you ask really is the key and where all this leads (at let for us humans).  If I’m right, collective learning has yielded huge benefits, but also got us in a serious mess.  But collective learning is also, as far as I can see, the only thing likely to get us out of this mess.  So, more funds fir education, research, and particularly research into sustainability in all its forms.  I’m not a politician and, stated like that I may sound simplistic, but I can see no other way of interpreting the story I tried to tell in my lectures.

    Thank you very much for your kind email.

    David Christian

  • Homo sapiens the Energy Sink

    Winter Solstice                                                                    Full Moon of the Winter Solstice

    Still listening to the series of lectures, Big History.  There was a really striking concept in the most recent lecture, one in which Professor David Christian, considered the perennial question:  What makes humans unique?  There have been many answers from imago dei to tool-maker to bi-pedalism to our brain to bulk ratio.  Each of these has run into challenges over time.  Professor Christian offers an idea that was new to me.

    His idea is that humans, unique among organisms on earth, perhaps even unique among organisms in our galaxy, have the capacity to adapt quickly and often to their environment.  He offers as evidence the escalating energy controlled by humans ever since the Paleolithic.  This was the time when the humans went of out of Africa and began the vast migrations that put our species in literally all parts of the known world.  Each time an organism enters a new environment it has to adapt to that environment in such a way that it can meet its energy needs.  The familiar finches from Darwin’s Galapagos journey developed beaks suited for the kind of nut or other form of food found in the particular new niche they inhabited.

    As Christian points out, organisms usually develop one such trick and apply over and over until their run as a species ends in an extinction event of some kind.  We are unique in that we adapt within one generation to a new or changed environment.  We then pass on those tricks through symbolic language so each generation can build on the learnings of the past.  Christian calls this collective learning.  It is, he says, the truly unique facet of homo sapiens.

    How it manifests itself is in our increasing control over energy sources.  We now consume up to 40% of all energy utilized by all organisms on earth.  This means that some species no longer have enough energy and die out.  We are an extinction event ourselves on the order of magnitude of other notables like the Chixilub meteor.

    Here’s what really caught me with this idea.  Our unique ability to adapt early and often manifests itself in increasing energy and resource consumption, consumption that has grown remarkably since the migrations of the Paleolithic.  To me this means that those of us in the environmental community have placed ourselves over against the defining outcome of what it means to be human.  I’m not sure what this means quite yet, but I don’t think its good.

  • Emergence

    Samhain                                       Waning Thanksgiving Moon

    One of those days.  Snow brought our first drive way clearing by John Sutton, but not until both Kate and I had left.  I did the sidewalk.

    The drive into the Sierra Club took about 15 minutes longer than usual, but I made it to the first interview on time.  I spent the next 3 hours with Michelle and Margaret as I will tomorrow, interviewing candidates for the Sierra Club policy position.  One candidate referred to us as the big boys at the State Capitol.  Hitch up those britches and let’s get to work.

    On the way in and back I’m listening, as I mentioned yesterday, to lectures on Big History.  A topic important to Big History and important to me is the quality of emergence, a key mark of complexity, the theme that holds all the various epochs since the big bang together.  Emergence refers to qualities that become evident only after two or more other elements combine in some patterned way.  The easy example is hydrogen and oxygen.  Examine the two of them separately and you would not come up with the emergent proper that comes when you combine two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom in a certain way.  Water.  Another, more complex example, is a human.  The individual constituents of the body, chemically, do not suggest the possibility of life if combined.

    Emergence fascinates me because it is used by a few thinkers to reimagine the sacred.  I’m not sure the exact line of thought but it has my attention right now.

    Then, when I got home, to a plowed driveway, I slipped and slid my car into a snowbank, a snowbank we had paid John Sutton to create.  This entailed a trip to the hardware store for granite grit, a session with Warren, my neighbor, who came to my aid with a tow rope, then scattering grit on the slope of our driveway.  Then, finally, I could get the car in the garage.  Minnesota is a place where sometimes getting the car in the garage at night is an accomplishment.

  • Big History

    Samhain                                                         Waning Thanksgiving Moon

    The temperature has stayed above freezing so we’re having a significant rain event, but little snow.  I found a snow removal guy yesterday.  Prices varied wildly from $25 a time to $50.  All the same snow.  Not sure what the deal is.  We went with $25.

    The Medtronic event went by rapidly with only one hour available for folks to mill around and look.  As often happens, though, we docents had the same hour when the guests arrived, had cocktails and mingled.  As with any group, they checked in with each other, took the temperature of the room and few wandered.  With the exception of CEO Bill Hawkins who remembered the singularity of the T’ang Dynasty blue horse ming ch’i (spirit object).   We discussed it and the meaning of tomb objects in general.  Other than a brief conversation about Ming dynasty blue and white ceramics, that was my evening.

    On the way in I started a fascinating new lecture series from the Teaching Company called Big History.  This takes history’s starting point as the big bang and moves in increments from there:  birth of suns, creation of elements, creation of earth and the solar system, the origin of life, humans, agriculture, the modern revolution.  The guy who’s teaching this course happens to be the guy who conceived of Big History as a discipline, basing it, as I suspected on Braudel’s notion of the longue duree, seeing history from longer and longer durations of time.

    Tomorrow and Wednesday will consist largely of interviews at the Sierra Club.  We’re hiring a policy staff person.