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the various and sundry creations of sylvus tarn
Time ticks by as our society rushes headlong...

I've never been any good at generating original ideas, but taking bits and pieces and braiding them together—usually in a rather organic (that is to say messy and lumpy) way—ah, that I can do.

I recently purchased this variegated tickseed (coreopsis) from our local Meijers, as consolation. Shopping as therapy, so the experts say, never really works, and they're right, at least in the normal sense. Buying three plants, instead of the one on my list, did not make me happy for more than about an hour. I still had to slog through 3 days of petulance. What a bore. I am fortunate in the extreme with my health, and my occasional bouts of minor malaise certainly come nowhere near true depression; even so, time, and the optimism that comes with the new day, have proven to be the only real cure. (And then I come bouncing out of the gate with these wretched long essays. There's no winning.)


However these flowers attract butterflies, and whether my transplant is ultimately successful, the opening blooms—which had in addition to the variegated leaves an unexpected bonus of the cool new ‘red eye’ I was pleased to discover—brought to me a butterfly, one bigger and more unusual than the white sulphurs that typically grace our yard, especially now that the clover is blooming.

I've always considered butterflies a great gift; while I was in Vietnam, where there are sometimes clouds of the creatures, I learned a bit about photographing them (take a picture at a distance and slowly sneak up, closer and closer, clicking away. Even if the butterfly flies away, hold yourself in position ’cuz it'll probably come back, and land right underneath your lens. This photograph is cropped a little, but for composition, not because I wasn't able to get close enough to fill the frame with my subject.) Living in a city with little habitat for them, ‘fancy’ butteflies—monarchs, swallowtails, fritillaries—are so unusual they still provide cause for running to get the camera.

I think people have always considered them a great gift—recall how the Victorians used to avidly collect them, with nets; it's no longer the fashion to chloroform them and pin them to cards—we have good quality images to thank for the lapse of this old-time hobby—but I wonder if nowadays they are as frequent a gift: over and over again the books for butterfly gardening discuss the need for organic gardening and flat topped flowers such as butterfly weed or Queen Anne's lace—weeds.

Even given the temptation to romanticize the past, I do not believe there are so many now as there were a hundred years ago, when most people lived on farms and relied upon their own muscles—or those of farm animals—to accomplish their tasks. (Even the tidiest farm will still typically have ‘wild’ areas along roadside ditches and stands of trees for windbreaks, unconstrained areas not found in commercial or residential areas in cities.) —I read about one such modern experiment, Eric Brende's Better Off Flipping the Switch on Technology for our local library's Living Simple book discussion group. Given the fact that living on farm (or better yet, in a forest or plains) is about the most beautiful environment I could imagine, I was prepared to be enthralled by his lyrical description of outdoor life that he experienced with a bunch of back to the basics refugees from Amish, Mennonite and even “English” (i.e. mainstream american) communities.

Only problem was, the women had to stay inside and cook, (with no refrigeration, you spend most of all of your day prepping food, especially since it's all raw materials) not experience the outdoors; the sexism, even with the author's efforts to sugarcoat it, was appalling. There are other strands—or scales on the butterfly's wings Neal Stephenson's critique of SWIII, Jared Diamond's latest book, Hayao Miyazaki's films, the biography of John Brown I'm reading. And what on earth do these disparate things have to do with each other? How shall I braid them together, or arrange them into a pattern like a butterfly wing?

In fact, they all have to do with our culture and my efforts to diiscover its failings, that I might live a just and honorable life in spite of them. (It's difficult to know whether you're doing right if your whole community is operating under bad assumptions, and every society has them.) There have been several movements that have been compared to our current climate of rapid technological change and social upheaval, but my favorite is the Victorian era: the Age of Reason had sparked the Industrial age, which by its full flowering in the mid to late 1800s had displaced many workers, spawning the Luddites, and put many more into factories whose working conditions still serve as a metaphor for modern hell. Feminism was on the upsurge, and mores were loosening (hence, the ‘Gay 90s’); Aubrey Beardsley was illustrating the underbelly of Victorian prudery, which still was very much in force.

Machine made goods spread affluence downward, allowing middle classes to own stuff—like clocks—once only the provenance of the wealthy; meantime, the Arts and Crafts movement formed in reaction to the mechanistic sterility of these new goods, and the popularity of craft surged, resulting in an outpouring of beaded bags, fringe and any number of other crafts by middle class women, documented in Godey's magazine, the craft magazine of its day.

So it is now: as the Information Age builds upon the Industrial, folks once secure in their factory jobs rail against the machines (robots) or third-world workers who ‘steal’ their jobs. Road rage, frustration and stress, so they say, is soaring in our society; and so too are refuges from the sheer busyness of our life—beadwork, knitting, scrapbooking—the latter particularly seems to look back upon a (nonexistant) golden age of slower times and well-defined roles of happy children, indulgent grandparents, and crafty mothers of hearth and home, supported by breadwinning fathers.

But in one important way the Victorians differed from us: they took for granted, as a societal given, that women and blacks were inferior. That the former might be a ‘civilizing influence’ and latter undeserving of slavery did not change the fact that these people took for granted that one's sex or skin color made one biologically, mentally inferior, and thus underserving of equality. That we still are fighting with this problems is undisputed, but at least we regard such as problems, rather than the societal default.

As a child, of course, I was exposed to this, and wondered how these people, who were obviously just as smart, could be so appallingly stupid? How could they be so blind? All societies, I was taught, were blind to such failures. Those living within them were doomed to suffer these filters of misunderstanding. They might grasp the problem partially—slavery was wrong, even if the paternalism that put white men at the top of the social scale was a given—but never see it entire. So my schoolbooks smugly taught, and I earnestly swallowed it down, unable even to resent such lies—or oversimplification, if you wish to be generous—on a conscious level.

Well, I've always had a tendency to gullibility.

When I complained about Christianity's failings (Catholicism in particular, that being how I was reared) my mother would return her great argument: ’twas Christianity that introduced the concept of all people being equal in the eyes of god—king, slave or child (children being of even less use, as they were a drain). This was its special contribution to Western Civilization, unmatched by the paganism then dominant. (And yes, I do now perceive some of the, ah, narrowness of this sentiment.)

But, obviously, Jesus had to get the idea of all souls’ value from somewhere. —And, it turns out, though most 19th century white men were racist, not all were: John Brown came of a family—a culture, if you will—that (at least according to this biographer) truly believed all men were brothers. Equal. It was a tiny, unusual culture, but it existed. (David Reynolds, in John Brown, Abolitionist The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, also claims he believed in the equality of women, but so far I've yet to see support—but I've got most of the book to go)

Both these men were poor, living on the fringes of society, scrabbling for a living as (presumably) a carpenter and tanner, respectively. Both were thought by the establishment of the day to be rabblerousers and crackpots, and were executed for their pains. Both were able to see outside the filters their societies imposed upon them. (Being on the margin, as opposed to comfortably well inserted, no doubt helped.)

Both would have their greatest influence not while they were alive, but would become mythic symbols that ultimately moved their societies, however kicking and screaming, in more just and humane directions. (It is not so surprising, I suppose, that Jesus’ original message of peace, love and justice for everyone—men or women, free or slave, Jew or Gentile—was overlaid with the less-enlightened cultural assumptions of his later disciples: perhaps the most difficult human test is the Golden Rule.) In hindsight, it's easy to see that sexism and racism are wrong. But without time's filter?

I've wondered for a long time what future societies will have to say about ours. If we find the Victorian's opinions (not to mention some of the old Biblical customs) about women and blacks quaint today, what will future generations find equally blindingly obvious about us? It seems fairly clear that our failures with environmentalism is likely to top the list. We are not living a sustainable lifestyle, and once resources dwindle beyond redemption, we shall have a population crash. Which will no doubt bring on any number of other crashes, not to mention conflicts, in its wake. Particularly in the US.

I haven't had a chance yet to read Jared Diamond's latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed —the chain bookstore was apparently out, and I suppose I'll order a copy from our local independent, but I've read essays that pretty clearly excerpt some of the book's major themes. One of them compares the success of Tokugawa Japan (1600s) to Easter Island—one thrives, because its leaders preserve the forests; the other dies out after they cut down all the trees. Even today, according to Diamond, 70% of Japan is covered in forests; the reverence this culture holds for nature permeates the films of Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away, or perhaps Kiki's Delivery Service being the ones with which most Americans will be familiar.

I happened to be in a state of exhaustion over the weekend, and we rented Laputa: Castle in the Sky. (I suppose I shall to read Gulliver's Travels now, to get the reference.) Like so many of Miyazaki's films, (especially Princess Mononoke) technology—even the scientific discoveries underlying it—are seen as having too great a price, being too prone to evil—to pursue, while nature, especially forests, are whole, wholesome, and healing.

Needless to say, beautiful and wonderful as I find the films, this is a depressing message to be sure, for basically they argue we should all go back and be peasant farmers. (Diamond takes the argument one step further, suggesting that even agricultural communities, in providing storable surpluses, create societal stratification, ultimately resulting in underclasses, particularly of...you guessed it, women. We had more leisure, a greatly varied diet, and better health as hunter-gatherers. Oh, joy.)

Yet, Western culture barely does any better in its indictment of the quest for knowledge: Neal Stephenson has recently written a review of SWIII for the NYT, in which he suggests that all the analytical ‘geekery’ of the more recent trilogy has been stripped out (or rather, moved elsewhere—into novels, graphic novels, cartoons, even online blogs), leaving only useless, visceral experience—what he calls vegging out—that washes over people “in a passive state ... without troubling yourself too much about what it all means”.

As it happens, I think Stephenson fails to see the value in ‘veg out’—our culture so abhors the idea of simply sitting to ‘be’, letting time, tide, experience, emotion flow over us, that a great many people resort to knitting, gardening and the like, to get that undemanding ‘present’ time. Yet despite our society's heavy reliance upon science and technology, we also have a surprisingly strong anti-technology stance, most clearly illustrated in these films when Obiwan urges Luke to give up his auto-targeter and rely upon ‘the Force’ instead. Stephenson claimed the first movie was celebrated by geeks, but what I principly recall was that while it was a cracking good story, it had more to do with Le Mort d'Arthur, and its mythic themes of brave knights slaying evil dragons (corps and governments, in the new version) to rescue beautiful princesses, than sf—at least any sf written in the last 50 years.

So SW might be excused for its focus on the mythic; but scientists are routinely depicted in American culture as mad, bad and impractical. However idyllic those hunter-gatherers’ lives may (and for vanishing remnants, still) be, the average life-span is still only 24 years. Moreover, men can up their chances of survival by practicing their wood or warcraft, but women have no recourse to the greatest danger facing them—there is no way to ‘practice’ birth—if the baby comes out wrong, and they often do, you're screwed. With only oral history, the opportunity to transmit our discoveries, our art, our culture, becomes severely limited. On the flip side, any number of sf authors have suggested that we'll change into something else; perhaps more immediately palatable was Alexander Key's The Forgotten Door, about a society that once had spaceships and the like, and still has the knowledge, but has progressed beyond the need for technology to live a peaceful nature based existance of the kind celebrated in Miyazaki's films.

I still hold to that hope that, ultimately, the increase of knowledge is our salvation. But I am beginning to believe that it is not the only ingredient: we need to synthesize, as well as analyze, our experiences; without that integration, that refreshment, analysis becomes too exhausting: in my own life, I alternate learning new techniques with meditative practice of long familiar ones. Thus art supports my knowledge of science; and any number of brilliant scientists are artists as well. They feed each other, but we have little patience for the contemplative/arts. Yoga puts it in another way: in order to be truly strong one must be flexible; and true limberness must be supported by strength. One without the other is useless, strained, badly functioning.

We are so harried, so caught up we have little time for reflection; and without its balance, finding sufficient energy for deep analysis is hard, and left to the few who are passionately driven. (Whom we then despise for their intellectual mastery, skipping too lightly upon surfaces to plumb like mastery—in any discipline—that we might appreciate our neighbor's, in a neighboring field.) Truly it is not easy to live fully in the present, completely accepting experience without judgement; nor to think about new ideas. (Jeez, I found it stressful just to switch from one gas station I was used to taking the car for an oil change, to a different one across the street—even though the latter's corporate policies are more in line with my own, and it's $2 cheaper to boot! How much more difficult to embrace an entirely new experience, then...?)

So here we are, caught up in a whirl of unsatisfying consumption, low-level anger, and unrelieved, exhausting stress. Perhaps in their heart of hearts the southerners who roundly denied it knew that their racism and the slavery it engendered was wrong, but couldn't give up what they saw as the necessities of their lifestyle. I am little better, struggling to force myself to ride my bike on trips of less than 10 miles. Yet I watch the cornfields around me being converted into mcmansions, and grieve as the roadside weeds and stands of trees—so much more soothing to drive by (and truly joyful to ride by)—disappear into yet more ugly buildings, soulless grass, and regimented flowers, and know that I'm not only saving gas but my sanity.

How many other ‘necessary’ things I need to give up remains to be seen, for my imagination nearly cracks with the injustices taking place outside my immediate vision; ultimately what makes life living is not more money, nor more things—but the love of family and friends, the stimulation of ideas, the beauty of a butterfly drinking nectar from a tickseed flower.

Postscript: I walked hand in hand with a child, who jumped and swooped after the sulphur she was trying to catch. “What would you do to that butterfly, if you caught it?” I asked. (I was thinking of butterflies on pins, you see.)

The child made a cup with her hands. “I would hold it and then make a wish and let it go,” she replied. “Butterflies are for super-duper wishes, because they are harder to catch than [cottonwood] fluffies.”

Much heartened, I continued walking in the glorious first day of summer, the afternoon sun gilding the green leaves, the sky garbed in blue beyond any jewel. Wishes, indeed.