Lessons from the Inca Trail about Wonder, Gratitude, and Nature

Searching for wonder in the reality of nature

Fresno Bee, July 29, 2018

Modern human beings are alienated from nature. We live in air-conditioned rooms. We relate to higher things through dry, ancient books. We rarely see the stars or feel the rain. We are rootless.

I have been thinking about our alienation from nature after trekking through the Andes of Peru. The trek ran over high mountain passes, where we endured freezing rain and cold, windy nights. We witnessed wild jungles and wandering llamas. And we celebrated the blessing of sunshine, which gave us warmth and the rainbow.

Our guide paused at the entrance to Machu Picchu to give an offering. He gathered three coca leaves into a shape that represents the mountains. He presented this gift to each of the four directions. He left the coca in a secret niche at the Sun Gate.

It made sense to give thanks to the mountains, to the elements and to the coca that made our journey possible. Coca tea helps fight altitude sickness. Its salutary effect is a kind of magic. There is also magic in the sun’s heat, the river’s song, and the rainbow’s glow.

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Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel set high in the Andes Mountains in Peru. Andrew Fiala Special to The Bee

Religion in its best and original sense comes from the sense of wonder before the power of nature. It reminds us that we belong to the earth. We cannot live without land, water, and sun. These elements combine in the plants and animals that nurture us.

Nature is not all ease and comfort. Forest fires are rampaging in this long hot summer. Snow, rain, and cold are dangerous and difficult. But when the rains come or the sun breaks through, we give thanks.

In aboriginal Andean religion, the earth is a spiritual being called Pachamama, the earth mother. The mountains themselves are spiritual beings called Apus. These are powerful and mercurial beings. They can be dangerous or benevolent. To modern ears, this sounds far-fetched. But many cultures speak of mountains as divinities with personalities.

We still name mountains and understand their personas. In Yosemite there is Half Dome and El Capitan. Their presence is palpable. We also recognize that mountains do things. Climbers and backpackers have a saying: “Mountains make their own weather.” Temperatures change quickly. The wind comes on strong. Fire, rain, and snow are sudden in their appearance.

Modern science explains the orographic effect. Mountains interact with moving air masses. Changes in elevation cause changes in temperature that cause precipitation and swirling winds. Mountain weather is easily explained by atmospheric science.

But scientific explanation does not touch the lived sense that mountains are powerful beings. It makes sense to say that the mountains are angry or friendly. Thunder and lightning are threatening. Forest fires are malicious. Floods are cruel. Gentle blue skies and cool mountain streams are gracious and hospitable.

Much of the magic of nature is local. The sun is wrathful in the desert. It is cheerful in the cold high places. The rain is gentle in the valleys. It is vicious at 13,000 feet.

Those who live and work on the land are in touch with the personality of their local geography. Their livelihood comes from Pachamama. Their well-being depends upon the benevolence of the Apus.

There are very few farmers and shepherds left. We are no longer connected to nature.; we no longer belong to her. We do not know where our water and food come from.

The benefit of civilization is obvious. We dam the rivers and control the fires. We farm on an industrial scale. We drive and fly, instead of walking. We live in comfort and safety.

But this benefit is not without its costs. We are uprooted and dislocated. We lose track of who we are and where we belong. We no longer experience wonder or gratitude in their original organic sense.

This is not to say that we could go back to a world of Apus and the Pachamama. The world has moved on. But it is important to remember what we have left behind. We fill our lives with imitations of reality, flickering on screens. Out there in the natural world, the fires and storms still rage. And it is still possible to experience wonder, fear, and joy in the presence of the real.

Nature, Beauty, and Morality

The beauty of nature’s wonders can lead to a clearer view of the beauty of morality

Fresno Bee, July 28, 2017

Last week, I wrote about solitude and Yosemite. But solitude is not the only thing that lures us to the mountains. We also seek beauty. Lovers of nature cherish birdsong, gleaming granite and sparkling snow. The rainbow, the lightning and the wildflower fill us with awe and wonder.

The world contains many magical places of immense beauty. If the mountains are not to your taste, then enjoy the redwood forests, the ocean breakers, or the flowing river.

We spend too much time indoors. Americans devote about 10 hours per day to their glowing screens. One danger of this is obesity. As our waistlines expand, our attention spans shorten. The lack of natural beauty in our lives poses a spiritual, aesthetic and ethical danger.

Ethics has long been connected to aesthetics. Plato thought that beauty lifted us toward higher things, encouraging us to give birth to virtue and wisdom.

The good and the beautiful exhibit grace, balance and harmony. Good things have symmetry and order. The ability to experience beauty is connected with the knack for knowing the good.

A key here is what we might call “the aesthetic mood.” In the presence of beauty the mind is attuned to the world in a receptive and reverent fashion. When we pause to wonder at a Half Dome or Yosemite Falls, we shift perspectives. Beauty opens transcendent vistas. It encourages us to see beyond the narrow world of “me and mine.”

Only a perverse soul considers profit in the face of the beautiful. The rest of us smile and celebrate. We are grateful, inspired and humbled.

The beautiful is an end-in-itself. It is priceless and beyond exchange. Beautiful objects should be enjoyed and respected. They have inherent value, dignity and worth. It would be wrong to damage or destroy them.

The parallel with ethics is obvious. Morality requires us to value people for their own sake. Morality asks us to recognize the priceless dignity – and immense beauty – of the human being.

Some claim that all of this comes from God. Theists think that the value of human life is based on the fact that we are created in the image of God. They believe that beauty in this world is a sign of God’s love. John Muir said simply, “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”

Humanists appreciate beauty and humanity for its own sake. They think that morality and reason give value to life – as does the experience of order and harmony in nature.

Albert Einstein provides an inspiring source of the humanist idea. Einstein said, “Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.” He thought that we are held captive by our egos. He explained that we find meaning and hope by “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Aesthetic experience is an advanced human capacity. Children do seem to have an innate ability to wonder at sound and light. They are also caring and loving. But we have to be taught to see the beautiful, just as we have to learn to value human beings as ends-in-themselves.

That is why it is essential to take kids into nature and show them the beauty of the natural world. They need time away from their screens. They need to stretch their legs and their minds. They need to learn to develop the aesthetic mood. We help them cultivate reverence, humility, gratitude and awe by exposing them to the wonders of nature.

Adults need that too. Natural beauty provides reassurance and hope. Grace and joy are found beyond the depravity of the daily news. The mind is enlivened. The spirit is soothed. We think better and breathe easier in charming landscapes. We are elevated by the sense that this majestic world offers a secret to savor.

This is not selfish escapism. The demands of justice and love always remain. But we all need a refuge to reinvigorate the spirit. Natural splendor strengthens us for the sorrowful and the sordid. In the presence of the beautiful we want to be better people. Beauty inspires us to want to be worthy of this world and its wonders.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article163955142.html

Music At Glacier Point

In  moments of musical beauty, anger melts, hatred dissolves, peace dawns

Fresno Bee, August 27, 2016

WITHOUT HOPEFUL SPLASHES OF JOY, LIFE WOULD BE DULL AND MEANINGLESS.

Last Sunday, the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra performed at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. Perched on the edge of a cliff, the orchestra played original pieces composed in honor of Yosemite and the centennial of the National Park Service.

As Half Dome blushed in the setting sun, Yosemite’s granite gorges resounded with song. At dusk, a bat danced above the bassoons. After the last echo faded, a shooting star flashed into view. It quickly vanished into darkness.

img_0469-1Beauty is fleeting. It shines and echoes for a moment. Then it is gone. Youthful brilliance becomes old age. Summer sun gives way to winter winds. Music always returns into silence.

The fragility of beauty is a reminder of mortality. But beauty also soothes and reassures. Wonder and joy arouse our better angels. Natural splendor and human art make life worth living.

The concert at Glacier Point honored the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, whose work conserves the wild wonders of our continent. Some Park Service employees also play in the Mariposa orchestra. How cool for those rangers to serenade the park they love.

The arts and Yosemite

One might think it odd to stage a symphony at Glacier Point. But according to Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman, “From the signing of the Yosemite Grant to the present day, the arts have played a significant role in the creation and continued interest in preserving these public places.”

Yosemite sparkles in Ansel Adams’ photos. It is illuminated by John Muir’s prose. Yosemite has a new artistic champion in Les Marsden, the conductor of the Mariposa orchestra.

Marsden composed a complex cycle of four pieces to honor Yosemite and the Park Service. Marsden’s compositions are classically American, reminiscent of Aaron Copland. The music told the history of the national parks. It imitated wind, water, fire and animal life.

As Marsden’s dynamic baton came to rest and the music faded into silence, you could hear crickets chirping and birds singing. I was struck by the thought that human art is a response to nature’s call. The human imagination swells in the presence of Half Dome. Birdsong tickles our ears. Thunder quickens the heart. And Yosemite Falls provokes laughter and shouts.

WITHOUT HOPEFUL SPLASHES OF JOY, LIFE WOULD BE DULL AND MEANINGLESS.

Poetry, painting and music reflect the wonders of the world. Human art transcends matter. Without the soaring responsiveness of the human spirit the earth would be quiet and dull.

John Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” Muir explained that gardens and parks satisfy our “natural beauty-hunger.” We plant flowers, tend our gardens, and visit parks looking for inspiration and consolation.

Muir claimed that natural beauty comforts “nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.” For Muir, mountain parks are “fountains of life.” Their sublime wonder stirs the spirit.

Fountains of life

Art and music are also fountains of life. The arts encourage us to savor the world.

One of my colleagues, Thomas Loewenheim, the conductor of the Fresno State SymphonyOrchestra, has confessed his hope that music provides a path toward peace. I think he is right. Music, beauty, art and nature encourage us to transcend our petty differences. They lift us beyond ourselves and bring us together in awe, reverence and delight.

Stand on Glacier Point. Immerse yourself in poetry. Fill your lungs with song. Dig your fingers into the soil. Smell the wonder of flowers. Or simply listen to the birds. The aesthetic mood encourages us to breathe more deeply – to listen, see and feel.

In moments of beauty, anger melts, hatred dissolves and peace dawns. Winter storms will come to the high country. Fires will burn the hills. And madmen rage in the lowlands. But peace is found in beauty. And hope is found in the fragments of color, song, granite and water that we carry in our hearts.

Without hopeful splashes of joy, life would be dull and meaningless. Hallelujah for Yosemite. Hurray for Marsden and the Mariposa symphony.

And thank goodness for the men and women of the Park Service, whose work has preserved nature’s wonders for 100 years. Here’s hoping that the artists, rangers and natural wonders of our world will continue to inspire and console for another century.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article98045307.html#storylink=cpy

Don’t Miss Out on the Good Medicine of Nature

Nature, John Muir, and the National Parks

Fresno Bee, October 2, 2015

  • Yosemite and Sequoia national parks are sources of natural beauty
  • John Muir’s philosophy rooted in transcendentalism
  • We all can benefit from making contact with nature

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Sequoia and Yosemite national parks. There are practical reasons for preserving natural areas. Pure water and clean air are obviously useful. Biodiversity and flourishing natural ecosystems serve human interests.

But behind these parks is a philosophical ideal that celebrates the aesthetic and spiritual value of nature. Natural wonders sing to our souls. Yosemite Valley is a marvel. Sierra summits inspire. And the big trees awaken reverence.

Consider this: As the Rough fire raged this summer, firefighters took extra precautions to save sequoia trees. These ancient organisms have a kind of value which should be cherished and protected.

We are not born understanding this. Nature love is a late development. Sequoias were once logged. And a dam destroyed Hetch Hetchy Valley. Practical interests sometimes prevail. But beauty matters as much as business.

One source for this moral and aesthetic ideal is the American philosophical movement known as transcendentalism. The transcendentalists celebrated the spiritual power and wild delight of nature. They worshiped natural beauty, eating clouds and drinking wind, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it.

Emerson felt a sense of homecoming and companionship in the presence of nature. He argued that nature was “medicinal,” curing us of the stress of our workaday lives. Emerson disciple Henry David Thoreau dreamed of making direct contact with the mysterious power of nature. Thoreau set off on walking tours in search of contact – one of the original American backcountry hikers.

Emerson and Thoreau inspired John Muir, who brought transcendentalism to Central California. Muir’s enthusiastic nature worship helped create the national parks and the Sierra Club. Emerson himself visited Yosemite in 1871, accompanying Muir to the Mariposa grove of giant sequoias.

Muir said that going to the woods was going home. He described the big trees of the Sierra as superior beings arrived from another star – calm, bright and godlike creatures that leave us awestruck. He described Yosemite Valley as a work of art and a natural temple.

In defense of the national park idea, Muir explained, “Mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

Muir recognized the practical importance of the mountain ecosystem for the well-being of the rivers and waters of our own Central Valley. But he also thought that mountain grandeur and primeval forests were a source of spiritual power.

Granite cliffs, towering trees and sparkling waterfalls somehow elevate the spirit. They put human concerns in proper perspective. The sequoias have stood silently while entire civilizations have come and gone. The mountains have been carved by forces more powerful than anything homo sapiens could ever devise.

For some, this is alien, intimidating and incomprehensible. Some get vertigo in high places. The natural world is not all wildflowers and rainbows. There are fires and storms and earthquakes as well. But these infernal powers remind us of our fragility and the need to savor beauty when we find it.

Muir worried that people saw forests as weeds to be cleared or timber to be profited from. Today we have a different problem. We often cannot see the forest for the trees – or the trees themselves. We are no longer in contact with the natural world. Much of the time, we are immersed in virtual reality. We would often rather play with our phones and poke our computers than make contact with the world. And we miss out on the good medicine of nature, which offers a cure for the stresses of the human world.

National parks allow us to explore beauty and commune with nature. We should celebrate the inspired and tenacious work of visionaries such as Muir. We should also thank the nameless firefighters and trail-builders whose sweat and blood allows us to enjoy these places in safety.

These parks have a long history – and deep philosophical roots. But 125 years is only a small fraction of the life of a sequoia. It is nothing in comparison with the tempo of glaciers. Let’s hope that these parks last another 125 years so that our great-great-grandchildren may continue to make contact with these awesome fountains of life.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/article37369227.html#storylink=cpy

Lighten your load

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Lighten your load for a happier journey through life

Fresno Bee June 26, 2014

I am hiking the John Muir Trail as you read this. My 17-year-old son and I will walk over 200 miles through the Sierra from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney. By the time we are done we will have gained and lost some 45,000 feet of elevation.

The key to a long hike is a strong companion and a light pack. This is the truth of the trail. It is also a metaphor for life. Life is long, so lighten your load and find good hiking partners.

Whatever you carry will be on your back the entire way. A useful motto is “don’t bring it, if you don’t want to carry it.” That motto also holds for our psychological and spiritual loads. Leave regret, anger and resentment behind. Those negative emotions only weigh you down. It is sometimes difficult to move forward. But time marches on with or without us.

Our ancient ancestors were nomads, who followed the seasons and the herds. Our ancestors migrated to the U.S. and to California. The freedom of the wanderer is in our blood. Our forebears must have travelled light to get here.

But we are burdened by the weight of our habits. The older you get, the bigger your pack becomes, and the more difficult it is to move on. The longer you stay in one place, the deeper your habits become, and the harder it is to leave them behind.

There is a kind of elegance in traveling light. Traveling light means freedom. Without piles of stuff to weigh you down, you are always ready to ramble. But traveling light requires preparation. You have to pack carefully, with an eye to the difference between luxury and necessity.

What do you really need to lug with you? How much are you willing to carry? Most of the stuff that fills our houses is not necessary. Consider how much we eat — and throw away — during the course of a day or a week. A light pack contains few luxuries, maybe some chocolate or coffee.

But our culture encourages full pantries and stomachs. Advertising creates a need for more stuff. But if you had to carry that stuff around all day, you’d laugh at those who encourage you to buy more. Our nomadic ancestors would be amused.

I’ll admit that I like stuff, too. Even backpackers enjoy shopping for gear and groceries. But the process of trimming down your load forces you to evaluate priorities. You don’t need much to be healthy and happy.

Religions have long cultivated this sort of abstemiousness. Prayer and meditation turn the mind away from the loaded larders of our desires. The Sabbath is a weekly break from busy consumption. Some religions take a monthly break: Ramadan or Lent, for example. Take some time off. Give something up. Let something go. That’s good advice.

In our secular culture, the wisdom of the Sabbath is forgotten. Nor do we celebrate abstinence. A day without shopping is not good for business. Even our vacations are filled with frantic consumption. Indeed, we work harder during the week to be able to afford our weekend getaways.

There is wisdom in simplified daily living. Work enough to live decently. And use the rest of your time to explore and cultivate relationships with family, friends and the natural world.

A long hike is a kind of spiritual walkabout. You discover something about yourself and world by leaving home with only what you can carry on your back. When it all goes right — no rain, no blisters, etc. — the simplicity of the trail is a joy. You watch your step and walk until you find a good place to sleep. Other concerns slip away.

Hiking is walking meditation. Each step is simple and focused. Each creek crossing is a pleasure. Each summit is a triumph. Each night under the stars is a miracle. And each morning, we’re thankful for the lightness of our packs as we strap them on for another day.

It is invigorating to be part of that bustling wonder called civilization. We’ll be glad to get back to town. But there is also wisdom in the simplicity of the trail and the freedom and grace of traveling light

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/06/27/4000349/ethics-lighten-your-load-for-a.html#storylink=cpy

 

Yosemite religion

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Yosemite reminds us to enjoy rainbows while they last

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2014

As the Fresno Bee commemorates Yosemite history, we should consider Yosemite’s spiritual importance.  The Valley is certainly awe-inspiring.  It’s difficult to imagine not being moved by the view of Half Dome or the thundering spray of Yosemite Falls.  In some people, Yosemite elicits an experience that may even be called “religious.”

The “Yosemite religion,” as one of my colleagues calls it, is based in the experience of the transcendent power of nature.  It is connected to an ecological point of view that sees a continuum between human life and the non-human world.

If there is such a thing as the Yosemite religion, then John Muir is its prophet.  For Muir, religious experience is rooted in the beauty of nature.  He explained, “no synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”  For Muir, the “sublime wonderlands” of the Sierra were manifestations of divinity.

Muir thought that city religions were weak imitations of the direct appearance of the divine in mountains, trees, and rivers.  Muir explained, “the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”  Muir saw himself as a modern John the Baptist.  He felt called to immerse people in “the beauty of God’s mountains” and spread the good news of Sierra transcendentalism.

Evangelizing on behalf of wilderness is necessary because most people do not see the value of the wild.  Some of Muir’s companions thought Yosemite was just a big hole in the ground.

As with any other kind of spiritual experience, receptivity and education matter.  Some people view Christian prayer as dull recitation.  Others see meditation as not much more than daydreaming.  And some people, I suppose, can look at a Yosemite landscape and see only a pile of rocks.

Yosemite can also provoke uneasiness and leave people anxious to return to the city.  The cliffs are daunting.  The waterfalls are intimidating.  And the idea of a bear in camp can make it hard to sleep.

Religions often propose a solution to our anxieties—through ritual, law, and spiritual practice, or through the intervention of a savior.  Civilization offers another remedy—by softening the hard parts of life and flattening out the steeps.  Civilization also keeps us so busy, that we do not think about the meaning of life—or the critters who roam the dark.

The Yosemite religion, however, offers no ritual, law, or savior.  The bears still rule the night.  The cliffs remain dangerous.  And the trails are steep.  Muir’s idea was to leave nature alone.  He also encouraged us to know the earth, its ecosystems, and our place within all of that.  Bears are less frightening when we understand them.  And mountaineers learn quickly to respect objective danger and know their own limits.

Ecological understanding does not always satisfy our narcissistic desires.  Cities and city religions celebrate the importance of humanity.  But wilderness reminds us of our mortality.  Earthquakes, glaciers, and rivers will eventually grind even the hardest mountain to dust.  Ancient civilizations have returned to earth, while the Sequoias have endured.

The indifference of wilderness may provoke anxiety.  But understanding can provide solace.  From the standpoint of geological time, the beauty of these rocks, waters, and creatures is as fragile and fleeting as our very lives.

I recently took a photo of my wife standing in the middle of a rainbow beside Vernal Falls.  The rainbow had appeared for a moment as the sun settled in the west.  And then it was gone.  We are incredibly fortunate to experience rainbows and share them with those we love.  But the mountains remind us that nothing lasts forever.

Muir did not lament death and change.  Rather, he celebrated the lavish abundance of nature and rejoiced and exulted “in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe.”

Yosemite does elicit joy and exultation—as well as gratitude and reflection.  Moments of beauty dawn for a moment and disappear.  We can’t hold them.  But we can love them while they last.  And if we continue to preserve these wild places, we hope that tomorrow our grandchildren may find their own rainbows beneath the ever-changing falls.

http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/06/13/3976526/yosemite-reminds-enjoy-rainbows.html

We must learn to live in harmony with nature

We must learn to live in harmony with nature

BY ANDREW FIALA

Fresno Bee February 7, 2014

Some have prayed to God to end our drought. But drought is not about God’s will. It’s about our habits. Human beings choose how to use the rain that falls. Despite the recent showers, we still need the wisdom to adapt to changing conditions.

Drought is a relative term that depends upon long-term average rainfall. Drought in the Olympic rain forest is different from drought in California. But we may have misjudged California’s long-term average. The 20th century was wetter than previous centuries. Less rain may be the new normal.

We must respond to local conditions and new circumstances. But we often ignore the constraints of our ecosystem, insisting on our own preferences, failing to harmonize with the land and its changes.

Aldo Leopold, the great conservation ecologist, warned that contemporary American life was out of synch with the land. Unsustainable practices do not respond to the unique beauty and integrity of the local environment. Leopold’s famous “land ethic” aims to find harmony with the land.

Harmony is an interesting concept. Musical harmony joins together different tones to make a synchronized and beautiful whole. Harmonizers respond to change in creative, sympathetic and peaceful ways. They don’t insist on their own tone. Rather, they learn to blend by listening and adapting to what’s unfolding around them. Grace, balance and harmony are essential for a happy life.

Harmonious living is a central idea in the Chinese philosophy known as Taoism. Taoist myths explain that Lao-Tzu, the old master of Taoism, despaired of the disharmony of political life and left civilization behind. But before he retreated to the wilderness, he reminded people to be less like rock and more like water: to flow with the world. Taoism links harmony with flowing water. The Tao Te Ching warns that without harmony, valleys dry up and life withers.

This discussion of harmony may sound frivolous in the face of the hard reality of drought. Drought forces tough choices about distributing harms and benefits. Do we need more dams and reservoirs? Should old rivers be restored? What about the fish? What about the farmers? Ask those questions around here and you’re bound to find conflict.

That is part of the problem. We’re in conflict with one another and in conflict with the land. We don’t listen, and we don’t blend.

A Taoist would suggest that toughness and hardness are part of the problem. To adamantly insist on living in a way that is not responsive to the natural world is to miss an opportunity to harmonize.

Green summer lawns, to cite one obvious example, are out of tune with the reality of our dry summer climate. To live harmoniously in California we may have to give up green summer grass. Someone might object, “A lush, green lawn is central to our way of life. And we’ll be poorer without them. Let someone else sacrifice. I want to live how I want to live.” When each party insists, conflict ensues.

We become adamant when asked to reassess our idea of what is needed for a good life. Drought, however, requires a reassessment of priorities. A different way of living would be beautiful in its own way, so long as it harmonizes with the world.

The point is not to advocate asceticism, self-denial and miserable subsistence. Nor should we prioritize fish over farmers or vice versa. The goal is to find a way to prosper while listening and blending. To live well is to live in balance. We forget that because we’ve been taught to insist and resist, to fight and accuse. That discordant approach is typical of our disharmonious political culture. It is the same sort of culture that led Lao-Tzu to despair.

Many prefer strife and struggle. We hammer each other, proudly displaying our resoluteness. But unyielding hardness only produces short-term gains. It does not delve into the difficult process of learning to blend with each other and conform to the land.

In the long run, the weather will change us, despite our resistance — just as water wears away the hardest stone. Human civilization is a tiny pebble in the river of time. Wisdom is learning to listen and harmonize with the changing chords of the natural world.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/02/07/3756489/we-must-learn-to-live-in-harmony.html#storylink=cpy

Perspective gained from the mountaintops

August 9, 2013

Summer trips to the mountains can open important vistas. The mountains provoke a sense of the sublime, offering hints of meaning that inspire reflection. Mountain vistas, oddly enough, provide a source for understanding human dignity.

It is important to occasionally observe the slow work of the glaciers, the relentless rush of waterfalls, and the immense temporal vistas of the starry night. It is edifying to lose yourself before the overpowering sublimity of the natural world. Our lifetimes are insignificant when considered from the vantage point of Half Dome. The length of human history is nothing at all when compared with the history of the planet, the solar system or the galaxy.

Romantic poets and philosophers celebrated the experience of the sublime in nature. It is sobering to know that from the standpoint of glacial time, nothing we do matters. But it is possible to be uplifted and inspired in the face of the relentless forces of nature.

Despite what the mountains tell us about our own insignificance, we know that the only thing that matters to us is this meager existence of ours. The glaciers may not care about our passions and ideas. But for each of us, present awareness is of infinite worth. The sublime contradiction between the fullness of consciousness and the fact of our own finitude is the source of deep wonder and thought.

I often ask students at the beginning of the semester whether they know the names of any of their great-great-grandparents. It is not surprising that, for the most part, they do not. The present generation has little need for remembrance that goes back beyond a few decades. We have too much to do today.

The past recedes quickly as we rush toward the edges of our lives. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will each be forgotten. But the waterfalls will roar and the granite cliffs will silently endure, as the marks we’ve left behind are effaced by the erosion of time.

How does such an awareness of our insignificance and the experience of the sublime connect to our understanding of ethics?

One response to the sublime is to “seize the day.” A sense of your own finitude can drive you to want to live the present moment to the fullest. Time is short. So make the most of every second. But we ought to avoid nihilistic hedonism and egoistic preoccupation. An ethical approach to seizing the day teaches us to live aware and engaged, embracing the totality of experience, without narcissistic self-absorption.

Another response to our fragile mortal existence aims to develop reverence for the past and a sense of gratitude toward those who paved the way. This is a feature of many religious traditions which commemorate ancient stories about those who came before. An ethic of remembrance attempts to slow the onslaughts of time, insisting that the past has meaning.

Awareness of our own mortal frailty should also lead toward deep reverence for life. If this is the one and only opportunity for life that each of us gets, then we should work to make things better, especially for those whose lives are miserable and even shorter than our own.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once suggested that two things filled him with awe and wonder: the starry skies above and the moral law within. The most amazing aspect of the experience of the sublime in nature is that we are able to conceive it. No other creature has a sense of the depths of time, understands the work of the glaciers or recognizes the movements of the planets. Human consciousness is a rare and precious gift in the vast and unconscious cosmos.

Likewise, no other creature is able to think about the meaning of existence and the questions of ethics. We are the only beings in the universe who conceive right and wrong, good and evil. That wonderful capacity for moral reflection is what imbues human life with dignity.

The mountains are majestic. The work of glaciers is awesome. The thundering waterfalls are inspiring. But there is nothing on earth comparable to the majestic and awesome thunder of the human mind that witnesses these wonders.

 

Animal Freedom and Cosmopolitan Human Borders

Wildlife knows no man-made political boundaries

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-05-05

Editor’s note: Andrew Fiala has just returned from sabbatical, which took him to Israel and Greece.

Birds and other migratory animals are cosmopolitan. They move across borders, following the seasons. Migratory animals remind us that no species owns the world or a particular place. We pass through the world. We don’t possess it. And we share the earth with other humans and species.

Before I returned to Fresno, I visited a Greek wildlife hospital, which treats and houses dozens of injured birds from a variety of species: storks, pelicans, eagles, including many endangered species. These birds fly through Greece from Europe to Africa and back. Even though Greece has many safe havens for such birds — isolated mountains and uninhabited islands — many birds are killed for sport by hunters or inadvertently poisoned. The wildlife refuge houses a sad population of once- beautiful animals who have been permanently disabled by human ignorance.

Healthy birds make amazingly long migrations that take them across heavily contested borders. Every season hundreds of millions of birds pass through Israel and the Palestinian territories. These birds cross borders, which the humans below them cannot cross.

Another important migratory flyway traverses the politically fragmented island of Cyprus, in the eastern Mediterranean. Millions of migratory birds pass over the border that divides Greek and Turkish parts of the island. Unfortunately, many of them are trapped and eaten in a yearly slaughter that appalls bird lovers.

I had a conversation with some Greeks about the conflict in Cyprus and remaining tensions with Turkey. One woman said that she hoped that the Greeks would eventually take back Constantinople — using the Greek name for the city that is now called Istanbul. People around the world continue to hold dangerous ideas about borders, possessions and national pride.

From the standpoint of the animals that roam the earth such things are irrelevant. The great animal migrations existed long before humans invented cities and nations. In fact, we were once migratory animals, following the herds out of Africa. It is only fairly recently, a few millennia, that we have created the borders that corral us into nation-states.

A number of philosophers have been trying to imagine a world without borders, arguing that such a world would be more natural, less violent and more just. The cosmopolitan vision wants justice to apply equally to all people across the globe. Cosmopolitans want to address global problems such as world hunger, poverty and inequality. A cosmopolitan world would be open to migration, allowing laborers to move across borders to find jobs. And it would be less inclined toward nationalism and war.

The cosmopolitan idea has roots in ancient Greek philosophy. The word “cosmopolitan” comes from the Greek. It can be literally translated as “citizen of the world.” Cosmopolitanism is focused on the common interests of the human species, instead of on narrow national and cultural identifications.

One source for this idea is the ancient philosopher Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes maintained, “the only true commonwealth was one that was as wide as the universe.” Diogenes chose to live according to nature — renouncing the trappings of civilization. His critics said he lived like a dog (the word “cynic” is related to the ancient Greek name for dog). Diogenes claimed that our cultural, religious, and political ideas make us unhappy and unnecessarily confine us.

The Cynics were on to something. From the vantage point of nature, our political differences do not matter much. We often forget that all human beings are members of the same species. Just as we often forget that we share the earth with a variety of other species with whom we ought to learn to co-exist.

Human borders enclose temporary settlements. The ancient Greeks gave way to Romans, Christians and Turks. And now the Eurozone is teetering. Civilizations rise and fall. But the birds and butterflies continue their yearly journey. These migrations will persist long after our civilization is forgotten — unless we kill the animals first.

Human beings like to believe that we are smarter than the other critters roaming the earth. But are we? If we were really smart, we’d stop fighting about names and borders and learn to cooperate with the other citizens of the world. Truly rational animals would strive to live in harmony with all the animals — human and nonhuman — with whom we share this small, fragile planet.

 

Gentle, rural Jesus

Gentle, rural Jesus had to face harsh urban reality

Fresno Bee, March 10, 2012

The region near the Sea of Galilee is lovely this time of year.  Wildflowers bloom on the hills.  The Jordan River begins here, flowing gently south toward the desert.  The tradition tells us that John baptized people here.  Perhaps John understood the joy of taking a dip in a mountain creek.

Jesus found his disciples here among the hill people and fishermen.  At some point after he swam with John in the Jordan, Jesus went to a hilltop above the Sea of Galilee, where he gave his Sermon on the Mount.  I stood on this rocky knoll the other day and watched the sun sink into the mists.  It was gently beautiful: a fitting place for a sermon about love.

Mark Twain came here once.  But he wasn’t impressed.  Twain thought the little lake of Galilee was “dismal and repellant” in comparison to the magnificence of our own Lake Tahoe.  He is right.  Nothing compares to Tahoe.  But there is something restful and reassuring about this modest lake, a welcome contrast to the tumult of Jerusalem and the severity of the desert below.

The version of Christianity that I prefer seems to come from the idyllic country of the Galilee.  This is the Christianity of river rats and fishermen—not the Christianity of priests and politicians. This is the Christianity of friendly food miracles: of turning water into wine and multiplying loaves and fishes.  While I doubt that these stories are true, there is value in the spirit of hospitality and generosity they inspire.

Similar values are found in the Sermon on the Mount and its predominantly gentle message.  The Galilean Jesus celebrates forgiveness and love, turns the other cheek, and loves his enemies.  There are worries about hellfire here, which point in another direction.  But in general Jesus suggests that we need to be more tolerant, merciful, and peaceful.

The idea that Jesus was a gentle soul in tune with nature has been described by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Emerson thought that churches and catechisms obscured the truth of Christianity.  He suggested that Christianity is best understood, “from the pastures, from a boat in the pond, from amidst the songs of wood-birds.”  What Jesus discovered, according to Emerson, is that nature is good and that we each possess the divine within us. Life does look good when you are floating on Tahoe or Galilee, when you take a dip in the Merced or the Jordan.

But Bible doesn’t leave it at that.  When Jesus goes to Jerusalem, the rural idealism of the Galilee comes into conflict with the political and religious hierarchies of church and state.  Political and religious authorities don’t like river rats and backwoods fishermen.  Such outsiders reject the rules and power plays of the city.  When these rustics go to town, they get into trouble.  Some of them get arrested and even killed.

The God of cities and temples is severe and wrathful, demanding obedience and sacrifice.  Jerusalem is a city of kings and priests, with a long history of religious violence.  It is not surprising that Jesus is killed in Jerusalem.  Wouldn’t Jesus have done better if he had stayed in the Galilee, swimming with John, fishing with Peter, and turning water into wine?  If only life were always and everywhere so easy.

But life is not easy everywhere.  As we drove to Galilee along the Jordan River from Jericho, we passed through impoverished Palestinian towns, we saw barbed wire and the new security wall.  We were hassled by the cops more than once.  Above the Galilee lies the contested Golan Heights and beyond that Syria, where children are being murdered by their own government.

The sweet and mild Jesus that Emerson dreamed of could not ignore the suffering of others.  It is nice to retreat from the city and enjoy a pleasant mountain holiday.  But poverty, injustice, and war make that impossible for most people.  The meek remain disinherited and there is no peace.  That may be why Jesus had to leave the hills and take his message to the halls of power.  Once you understand how easy it is to find peace, love, and joy among the wildflowers, you realize how wrong it is that so many of us are prevented from enjoying these simple blessings.