Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pastoral Roots and Stewardship

Instead of reading Chairman Mao
I think I'll go and milk my cow.
--Wendell Berry, "The Mad Farmer March"

Back in the day--when I was still leaning rightward regarding economic issues--the main sources for information on what would now be called "sustainability" were to be found only in leftish periodicals, such as Mother Earth News and the Co-Evolution Quarterly (later to be called the Whole Earth Review). Urban-dweller that I was at the time, I still longed for the life of the self-sufficient farmer/rancher whose ethos I'd been fostered into: farms, ranches, victory gardens, home-grown cattle and eggs that could be found in farmers' markets, home-made sausage and cheese, down-to-earth values.

Early on I was also seduced by the ideal of community, and actually partook in a co-operative apartment arrangement that did amazingly well, housing three women (including one who was married and attended Penn three days a week before heading home to husband and hearth in Washington DC for the other four days) and two men, a dog, and two cats. One of the cohort was an Orthodox Jew who managed to maintain Kosherness in a house full of heathens. We did rather well for over a year until she and I both left to marry and one other member bought a chicken farm in upstate New York.

I was reminded of all this by a recent op/ed piece by local pundit Rod Dreher in the Dallas Morning News on Kentucky farmer, poet, and advocate of sustainable living, Wendell Berry. One of the reasons I don't like political labels in general (Liberal, Conservative, Etc.) is because they generally don't do a very good job of describing folks in particular, and because many of us don't fit into tidy little piles. Wendell Berry is one such person, being extremely conservative in regard to land use, responsible stewardship, and the centrality of family and community. He's also a pacifist (for reasons that coincide with his other values), and a proponent of social justice. Likewise, Rod Dreher (author of the Crunchy Cons concept that describes conservatives who hold what otherwise might otherwise be considered tree-hugging Lefties; he also writes a blog for Beliefnet) shares a number of these values (as do I), which led him to write this week's essay.

Praising Wendell Berry gets one in trouble with free-market economists because Berry's model for how to live in the world posits that competition presupposes winners and losers and, thus, if the free market reigns, we foster a class partition into one or the other. A thoughtful critique of this stance (like this one from Taki's Magazine) would note that the "losers" aren't thrown into a pit of alligators or anything (ideally, they find something else to do), but I think that misses the point. Berry's own critique is primarily about values: the very same values that helped found the Republic in the first place: agrarianism, community, co-operation, responsibility, justice. And most critics of this view start talking immediately about personal preference, and ask "what if I don't want to do what Berry thinks I should do?"

So once again we move toward the politics of desire: I don't want to have to pay the high prices that free-range, hormone-free chickens or beef cost, so I shouldn't have to; I should be free to choose. Never mind the multiple long-term benefits of better choices, such as decreasing the amount of meat we eat (thus reducing the cost of our meat bill in the first place), the higher quality of the meat as a product, the welfare of the animals, the reduction of pollutants and chemical use, the livelihood of the farmer, etc. Never mind that people in the habit of considering the entirety of the picture (not just the initial cost) conclude that convenience is pretty far down on the list of reasons for doing anything. Never mind that personal preference (again in the long run) is a pretty lousy reason for doing anything (because, after all, we're not all hermits living alone in the wilderness). That we should only do what we want to do seems to be an awfully childish way of approaching life.

Another criticism I've heard lobbed toward both Dreher and Berry has to do with religion. While most folks would see faith as a good place to begin, those given to questioning its efficacy as a source of reason do have a legitimate complaint. Believing something frequently trumps rationality, and citing a god as the ultimate authority doesn't work in a cogent argument. The skeptics among us (and I include myself here) are always looking for solid evidence.

But this country and most others on this planet are grounded in one religious tradition or another, and faith permeates culture to such a degree that ignoring it isn't going to make it go away. Preferring that it not exist helps no one and alienates many. In addition, faith is usually only one reason for doing something--not the entire ground. So if you think we should be stewards of the earth rather than exploiters of its bounty, it doesn't make a lot of difference whether it's because of faith or simply because it makes good scientific sense. Until god is really dead, we have to take belief into account, and he/she doesn't appear to be expiring any time soon. Some form of religion is part of our history and foundational to more world views than not. And since many of the most reasonable people I know also believe in some form of divine being, I can't see dismissing an argument simply because it arises from a deeply held belief.

That said, we are what we do. So if we say one thing and do another, we're just hypocrites, and no amount of religious doctrine is going to make us anything else. And this is why I admire Wendell Berry; he's deeply Christian, and he lives, breathes, writes, and acts as a steward. And a steward, I think, is a good thing--a caretaker, a holder of the house, a fosterer of the land. Instead of doing something simply because it's convenient, or because it satisfies some immediate desire or preference, Berry thinks broadly about taking care of the earth, of sustaining life and well-being, rather than pursuing some nebulous notion of "happiness" that involves constant acquisition of stuff.

It's unfortunate that, like the words "green," "organic," and "natural," "sustainability" is becoming another buzzword, used as a mantra by some and derisively by others. It's already losing its root notions of upholding, supporting, preserving,--even cherishing, as well as restraining. It's a good word. We shouldn't turn it into jargon, but rather attend to its richness. We need to participate in all of its meanings if we're to temper the rapid, mindless, heedless, and perhaps inexorable destruction of habitat, species, cultures, and the very ways of life that allowed us to emerge into the modern world.

In many religious traditions, even those that arose where there were only two real seasons, this time of year found people celebrating first fruits: the biggest harvest festivals of the year. We commemorate the season in the U. S. after the harvest is in, the jam has been made, the pickles put up, the seeds gathered, and the root cellar stocked to tide us through the winter. We call it Thanksgiving and attribute the holiday to an almost mythical event in American history, but its practice is similar to much earlier celebrations. I'm reminded of my favorite Hebrew prayer, the Shehecheyanu, which is said frequently during the year, notably at the beginnings of festivals and holidays, and has special poignancy at harvest time:

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the world,
Who has kept us in life, sustained us,
and brought us to this moment.

I only hope that the idea of sustainability--creating the ability to sustain ourselves--doesn't get lost in all of the election and economic hoopla playing out on the news these days. It seems that anybody who talks about co-operation and sustenance is being branded a Socialist, and the idea of sacrificing wants in an effort to create an economy that supplies needs is being called Communist (and its clear that only cartoon definitions of either are being evoked), so the rhetoric will have to be tempered if we're to get back to talking about what we're leaving our children and grandchildren.

If we don't begin to talk more seriously about sustainability, and to act accordingly, the opportunity to address looming problems may disappear altogether. Predatory practices in the market seem to have buried whatever benefits might have existed under deregulation, and some serious reconsideration of the nature and scope of Capitalism seems to be occurring (see, for example, John Kenneth Galbraith's new book, The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too).

But economics, because it affects all of us, shouldn't just be the purview of theorists, and the better you and I understand what's going on, the better prepared we will be to make sound decisions in the voting booth over the next decade. Sustainable choices and market economies can actually work, as John Ikerd (an agricultural economist, who wrote Sustainable Capitalism: A Matter of Common Sense) and others have noted, even if they require careful thinking--and rethinking. Just because we're not all farmers doesn't mean we can't embrace agriculture as a metaphor, and see land stewardship as a model for better living. Our national roots reach deeply into this country's soil, and a careful study of those roots seems to be in order. This conversation should not be about who's a "Socialist" and who's a "Real American." It should be about going out and milking that cow.

In his 1980 essay, "Solving for Pattern," Wendell Berry offered some sound advice about how to create human solutions, grounded in specific human virtues. One such virtue is restraint, which he defines as "the ability to accept and live within limits; to resist changes that are merely novel or fashionable; to resist greed and pride; to resist the temptation to 'solve' problems by ignoring them, accepting them as 'trade-offs,' or bequeathing them to posterity."

Restraint is in short supply these days, but I look forward to the day when I don't have to rail constantly against greed and excess. The only way that'll happen, however, is if we can become a more educated electorate, and heed Berry's increasingly timely advice.

Sources for Wendell Berry quotations: "The Mad Farmer March" from A Part, North Point Press, 1980. "Solving For Pattern" was printed in The Gift of Good Land, Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, North Point Press, 1981.

Photo credits:
Strohräder (Straw bale) by Walter Pilsak; Pumpkins, by Yolan Chériaux. Both from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Need-based Economy

"Sustainability" has become such a buzzword these days that it's equated with the superficiality of "green" programs in sprawling, rapidly growing suburbs in areas only marginally capable of sustaining them at all. Any time people start throwing buzzwords and catchphrases around, they're on their way to becoming cliches, and their meaning in danger of being lost. But many readers of this blog have pointed out that something is better than nothing when it comes to the environment, no matter how little or how insincere, so I've learned to put up with it.

However, recent worldwide economic events have only brought the bare-assed emperor into the sunlight, and most of the band-aid efforts of the last couple of weeks are going to do little to cover him up. They're more like loose patches over an open wound. Only if we manage to keep sustainable living out of the landfill of overused tropes and in the forefront of the discussion of how we might live do we stand a real chance of surviving the present.

As I see it, the underlying problem is that our economy has nothing to do with home--with the understanding and management of the oikos that the Greeks were talking about when they coined the word "economics" in the first place. Of course, the slave-based, male-centered oikos is itself a lousy model for how we should live, but it did amount to a small-scale, hearth-centered, sustainable effort, with little negative effect on the environment.

Coincidentally enough, the term "domestic" arises from the Roman version of the oikos--the domus (the image above is a model of a self-contained Roman household). The term "domestic economy," therefore, is a bit redundant. But "economy" today refers to such a vast, convoluted, confused, and ill-defined entity that it's almost meaningless. The local household is all but obscured in the machinations of the market, even though it's at the center of the mortgage meltdown. And at the heart of the mortgage crisis is the idea of dwelling as commodity: something to be bought and sold, and only peripherally to house the "American Dream" that has since become a parody of itself: Ozzie, Harriet, their children, and their dog in a Little Box on a quiet street in Anytown, USA.

In order to maintain the semblance of dream-achievement, people work for too many hours and pay outrageous prices for ticky-tacky houses with too much floor space in gated communities; they enroll their children in too many activities and let them spend too much time watching television or playing video games. And then when their absurdly complex mortgages balloon into the stratosphere, they lose it all, and the so-called "domestic economy" fails.

In the nineteenth century, William Morris saw all this coming, and tried to imagine what a need-based economy would look like. News From Nowhere pictures people living small-scale lives where they produce what they need, make it beautiful, and enjoy a richness of community engagement almost unimaginable today. When I wrote More News From Nowhere, I was trying to imagine what we would have to "give up" today in order to achieve Morris's utopian dream. I have no illusions about the possibility of achieving any of what either of us created, and that's why they're both the stuff of hope and imagination rather than of reality.

That's not, however, to say that none it is possible. So I thought I'd include in this post a little list of Good Things To Read that offer me a tiny bit of hope that we might be able to switch paths and, now that capitalism-as-we-know-it is showing its true colors, find a different one, more carefully centered on what human beings really need: food, clothing, shelter, community, and justice.

From New Scientist this week, a special report on How our economy is killing the earth. Some of the articles are free online (premium subscribers have access to them all, or you can pick up the print edition at some US bookstores), including Why politicians dare not limit economic growth.

A recent article from Orion by Chris Carlson talks about Building an anti-economy; there's a lively conversation going on in the accompanying forum as well.

From the May/June issue of Orion Jeffrey Kaplan's exposure of the Gospel of Consumption offers some insights into the nature of work as defined by the current economy--and how things could be lots better.

The more I read Thomas Friedman's analyses of current events, the more I appreciate his perspective. His new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded made it to the top of the New York Times best seller list with good reason. Friedman's views are clearly articulated, and he actually offers remedies. I don't agree with everything he proposes, but his approach is generally more practical than I tend to be, and his ideas do have a better chance of actually being implemented than mine do. Also, he doesn't need a wormhole to get where he wants to go.

I fully understand the need for practical solutions in a world gone nuts. But without alternatives to the intellectual poverty we're suffering from today, and a good healthy injection of innovative concepts and reflective thinking about how we got where we are and how we can go somewhere else, we'll keep falling into the patterns we've established for ourselves--patterns that are becoming deeper and deeper ruts from which it's getting harder to extract ourselves. Just because something is the case doesn't mean it has to be. If anything at all beneficial has emerged from the current situation it's that people do seem to have recognized the need for radical rethinking on both local and global issues. Replacing greed with need seems to be a good place to start.

Images: Model of a Roman domus at the archaeological site in Vaison-la-Romaine, France. Photo by Ohto Kokko. Portrait of William Morris by George Frederick Watts. Both courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Involuntary Frugality

The news these past couple of weeks has been dreary. I find myself reading the financial pages of the local rag, rather than simply sticking to regional and national news, just to find out what business people are writing about. But the situation's irony hasn't escaped me. The economy itself is accomplishing what all the philosophical prattle of folks like me--pleading for us to mend out ways, spend less, live more lightly on our planet, and stop buying stuff we don't need--has failed to bring about in recent years. The financial world, all in a tizzy because the ground beneath their collective feet is giving way after years of illogical, unethical, and, yes, stupid practices, is now scrambling for ways to keep it out of the grave it's dug for itself.

Financial whiz kid Paul Kedrosky was predicting a new wave of frugality back in September (Frugality is the New Black), and although that seems years ago now, at this point he sounds like a prophet.

The papers and blogs are full of laments about what a lean Christmas everyone will have, being "forced to cut back" on such lifestyle givens as eating out and "going shopping whenever I feel like it." I hear women around here exclaim, in true dismay, that they can't afford to buy that cute little number at Chico's after all. How they fit all that stuff into their closets in the first place is beyond me, but these ladies are truly (to them) hurting. Their way of life, fostered by our collectively greedy culture, is in real danger.

I've posted before (in "Muddling Toward Frugality" back in January) about the "simple living" people (whose bible is RealSimple magazine; it's not really about an Amish-like simplicity; it's about "making life easier") and their buy-more-stuff-to-organize-your-stuff mentality, and it's going to be interesting to see how even good companies like Container Store (with its well-treated workforce and cushy benefits) will fare if the downturn continues for any length of time. Because one of the first things to be crossed off the shopping list is the fancy cedar hanger or the dress bag to hold the new outfit you didn't buy after all.

Of course, even though we are starting to pay down debt and save a bit of cash, all of this not-buying has to have some kind of negative effect on a greed-based, advertising-fed economy. If consumers don't buy more and more, and indeed end up buying less and less, surely that's going to send more retailers belly up. If people hang on to their old cars, rather than buying new ones, or choose to "buy down" (smaller, less expensive, more fuel-efficient models), surely the auto makers are going to have to scale down as well. Merger talks are under way as I type between General Motors and Chrysler, with the help of the Cerberus Capital Management group (still guarding the gates of hell?), and that can't be good news for workers.

I wonder if it occurs to them that building better (rather than bigger, fancier) cars--those meant to last, protect the safety of their passengers, and cost less to run--might be a way of rebuilding the industry. Imagine a company that invests in offering high-quality (rather than over-priced) maintenance services, builds cars in a carbon-neutral factory, and spends far less money on advertising (letting the cars advertise themselves) so that it can provide good wages and benefits without the union's having to strike for them? What if consumers weren't urged to buy a new car every few years, but rather to invest in maintaining the ones they already owned? What if a car were an instrument of transportation rather than a status symbol?

In this weekend's News, a feature article in the style section touted the "new old house" concept being developed around the area, with one such development right here in McKinney. The idea that ahistorical facades with two-storey entryways (not really porches) and cutesy turrets on every other house may not appeal to sensible people is finally making its way onto local builders' radar. But houses that reflect more the styles built around the turn of the nineteenth century, like this Tudor revival cottage in Austin, are gaining in popularity. The newer versions aren't a whole lot smaller than typical McMansions, but they're based on what passes for vernacular architecture in north Texas: prairie style foursquares and bungalows, and revival styles with a bit of Victorian whimsy, some exterior charm, and real front porches for visitin' with neighbors. They're still pretty pricey and feature more square footage than anyone really needs, so I'm waiting for Sarah Susanka's "not-so-big house" to catch on here, and I'm not holding my breath. If the economy stays on the skids for a bit longer, though, perhaps smaller houses will catch on. What they're going to do with all the characterless monster houses already built, I don't know. Maybe cities can tear them down and use the bricks to build sidewalks so people will be encouraged to drive less.

I doubt that the current situation will do all that much to rob us of our greed and nudge us too far toward sustainability. But I will be keeping an eye on the market, not just to see how much farther in value my measly retirement fund has fallen, but to see if we really retain anything from these hard lessons.

Pop quiz in the morning. The final exam will be cumulative.

Photo credits: Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why there is something rather than nothing

This last week, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics for discoveries concerning the concept of broken symmetry. The awardees, Yoichiro Nambu, Makoto Kobayashi, and Toshihide Maskawa, were all born in Japan, but Nambu (who garnered half of the prize) is a US citizen and works out of the Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago.

Now what, one might thoughtfully ask, has this got to do with home and hearth?

For one thing, these three gentlemen figured out why it is that we can even exist in this universe. At all. Broken symmetry is one of those ideas that's actually central to a theory of everything, in that it answers the question of why is there something rather than nothing--a question raised primarily in theological circles and regarded by some as a central issue in philosophy. This question never really perplexed me particularly because 1) Who cares? I mean, there is something, so why is why a problem? and 2) If there is a problem, physicists will certainly figure it out eventually.

And, indeed, these three guys did. The basic idea as explained on All Things Considered the other day, is that if there were perfect symmetry between matter and anti matter, nothing would exist because the two would cancel one another out. But the fact that the symmetry was broken, and there's more matter than anti matter, is why there's stuff rather than no stuff.

I can't even begin to understand all the forces involved in this, or even the basic physics underlying the process. But the Wikipedia article on spontaneous symmetry breaking is pretty helpful, and so is PhysOrg's article, Broken Symmetry: Answering the Solace of Quantum.

Were it not for this particular phenomenon, I wouldn't have to worry about learning to love the prairie. I suppose I could wax all kinds of poetic about what it all means, but for the moment, I'm just happy that these three men were finally recognized for work that helps me understand my universe just a little bit better.

Now, if CERN can get the Large Hadron Collider back online, it will have been a good year for particle physics.

Image credit: Big Bang, by Cédric Sorel, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Baseball and Melancholy

One thing about Cubs fans is that we never really do expect to win. I mean, we can have a great season, with a terrific record, and go on to blow it in the division playoffs, even if we've beaten the opposing team several times during the regular season. Or we get a little further into things and some fan catches the wrong ball and it's all over.

This year would have been a great one for winning the World Series, though: the hundredth anniversary of the last time the Cubs became the champs.

But perhaps not winning is what helps makes Cubs fans who they are, as if a certain post-season sadness were part of our character. After all, we've still got Wrigley Field, and the ivy, and one of the best in-park experiences in baseball. As traditional baseball parks drop off the map, to be replaced by bigger and "better" ones with sky boxes for rich folk, Wrigley remains staunchly American. Everyman's ballpark. You can still mark the seasons by the condition of the ivy on the brick wall.

I miss that ivy. Some of it (from a cutting) grew on a wall behind our flat on Seminary, only a block and a half from the Field. Among my fondest Chicago memories is puttering around in my garden while a game was going on, listening to the announcements and the cheering (or groaning) crowd, and Harry Caray leading the fans in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch. But that ivy really is a phenological marker. In the spring, at the beginning of the season, the outfield wall looks really scraggly, before it leafs out. And at the end of the season (which has been, more often than not, the end of the season at Wrigley), the barest hint of color starts to tinge the edges of the leaves. After everybody's gone home for the year, the ivy looks like the photo at the beginning of this post.

Perhaps the reason why baseball is the only sport I truly love is that it's laced with metaphor, and tied to place. In a World Series without a favorite team, I'll inevitably root for whichever team I've seen play, in a place where I've lived--southern California, Philadelphia, Chicago. Even Texas, if it ever comes to that. For me it's not a real summer without at least one game, and I've learned to live with the Rangers, just as I've more or less learned to live on the prairie. This year we went to the last Sunday home game, against the Angels, who beat the home team soundly. We sat just a few rows behind the visiting dugout, and I even managed to get some decent photos with my iPhone.

When George Carlin died, last June, in the middle of baseball season, the first clip I got online to watch was his hilarious take on the differences between football and baseball. Long after I forget which seven words we can't say on TV, I'll remember this bit.

And now summer has come and gone, and the Cubs are out of contention, and so are the Angels (one of my childhood favorite teams; I graduated from high school near Anaheim), and along with the equinox and yesterday's cold front, fall is making itself official. I won't be as interested as I thought I'd be in the outcome of the World Series this year. But as the playoffs wind down and the contenders are resolved, I'll get into the spirit despite the fact that I really don't care who wins. It's the game that's important, after all, and getting home, safe. And, of course, there's always next year.

Photos: Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), the species that grows at Wrigley, by John Delano; Cubs Win by L. B. Jacob, both from Wikimedia Commons. Angels fans celebrating a couple of runs on September 22, at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Poem in October

Now that the throes of finals grading are behind me (at least for another eleven weeks), I've had a little time to reflect on seasonal changes--something I like to do around equinoxes and solstices, but had to postpone because of the usual end-of-quarter mishegoss. This time of year usually finds me fraught with homesickness, and so I've used a wonderful autumn photo of the Sierras near my Dad's home town to open this post.

In my continuing effort to mark the seasons in this place, and to develop some enduring level of affection for the suburbanized prairie, I wandered my increasingly disheveled property this morning. The equinox occurred late last month, with little fanfare. No "weather" (which, in North Texas, means that it's been pleasant--dry, cool, relatively ozone-free), no catastrophes since Ike. It was actually Gustav who turned the season around for us, and brought us out of summer. We got little from Ike, but it kept things cool. At any rate, it's now fall, the flowers are fading, and the seasonal turn needs marking.

This is the time of year, too, that always brings poetry to mind--especially poetry of place. And since my daughter is well into her "thirtieth year to heaven" (she turns 30 next June), I thought of Poem in October by Dylan Thomas, whose unfailing ability to evoke his physical environment also came to mind as I strolled around in the back yard. Our landscapes have little in common, but there are moments at which our worlds touch briefly and then carom away from one another:

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

No hills here, and the day is already fair, and if the weather turns around it'll bring welcome rain, but there are blackbirds (a cacophony of them this morning: grackles, cowbirds, starlings, and even--for reasons I don't understand at all--a redwing). Fading summer is palpable in the garden, where the tomato vines have fruited again and there will be a few peppers, but the plants themselves are wan and scraggly. I've had to water twice this week to keep them from giving up the ghost. The barred owls have made themselves known again, but in the distance now--not like spring, when they're making porn movies in the trees outside my windows.

Leaves are beginning to drift down on the little patio Beloved Spouse recently constructed between the study window and the potting shed. I've moved a couple of chairs there, and our ice chest, and might get a pot or two of seasonal posies to brighten it up. Eventually it'll have alyssum growing around it, and I'll add a cafe table, and maybe even an arbor to cover it. With grapes, perhaps. Some day.

During October, Beloved Spouse and I also celebrate his birthday, and the anniversary of Sputnik (both events took place in October, 1957). I remember my father's saying to me after the launch was announced, "Some day those things will be all over the sky." Sure enough, by the time I was a teenager, my grandmother and I would sit outside her house on a clear night and watch satellites go by--sometimes two or three on an evening. Of course, here, only thirty miles north of Dallas (the route to which is lined with suburbs) with the usual combination of city lights and haze, it's hard enough to see stars, let alone satellites.

Add to all of this the coming of the Jewish New Year, and a sense of renewal, newness, beginnings and starting over. The Worm Ouroboros that swallows its own tail; the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Many Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur the way Gentiles celebrate December 31, only with more ritual and seriousness. But this is a harvest festival, and the celebration of first fruits as much as a renewal. We make account of our errors and strive for betterment, and we enjoy the harvest of pears (and, in alternate years, pecans).

I went out on my own front porch in the middle of September to see the Harvest moon rising hugely, but my favorite full moon happens this month: the Hunter's moon, when the trees have lost a lot of their leaves already, and it's easier to see rising. One of the projects I have on the back burner is to photograph the full moon each month for a year. I meant to start with the Harvest moon, but end-of-quarter distractions made me forget, so it'll have to wait until the fourteenth, when I'll probably think of Dylan Thomas again, and remember other bits of the poem, and relish the season, and mark the moment:

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

But now I've got to go work on pear conserve, and sweep the squirrel-borne detritus (half-munched bits of immature pecans everywhere) off the driveway so I can stop tracking pecan shells and guts into the house every time I come back inside. And then it's back to work on prep for the fall quarter: a new batch of students (180 or so of them), and a course I haven't taught in a year (Visual Anthropology) to keep things interesting.

Photo credits: A lovely shot of Norman Clyde Peak's northeast face in autumn, seen from Big Pine Creek, by Justin Johnsen via Wikimedia Commons. The last Rose of Sharon in my garden, and the last few tomatoes, still green.