If more people, and specifically more American white people, had read W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk when it was first published in 1903, would Isabel Wilkerson have still felt compelled to write The Warmth of Other Suns a century later? If more white Americans like me were to read either or both of these books now, or any of dozens of books on racism in America, will there be the need for someone to write a similar book about the mistreatment of Blacks at the turn of the twenty-second century?
The Souls of Black Folk is the first and only publication by W.E.B. DuBois that I’ve read, I’m embarrassed to say. It is regarded as a seminal work in American sociology and comprises a series of fourteen essays on many aspects of life that Black people experienced in America in the nineteenth century. It covers such topics as
Labor practices, including sharecropping
Segregated schooling and the greatly inferior education offered to Blacks, if any education was offered at all
Poor health care
Racism in organized religion
Enslavement through unjust imprisonment
Promises made to Blacks following the Civil War but never kept
Denial of voting rights
Limiting Blacks to manual trades and denying or limiting opportunities to professional training
People in power tricking Blacks into making poor choices or cheating them out of land ownership through predatory business practices
One of the early essays discusses the work of Booker T. Washington, whom I was taught to regard as a hero. DuBois takes issue with the compromises that Washington apparently had to make in the founding of the Tuskegee Institute.
The Black folk that DuBois describes are hard working, honest, cheerful in even the most difficult circumstances, and determined. They never stop thinking of or working for the benefits of the freedoms that are theirs by God-given right, but that are so often denied them. They are people of faith, even if the faith is one that they were obliged by their masters to follow.
God willing, some of my great-grandchildren will live to see the turn of the twenty-second century. Will they still be reading books then about the mistreatment and oppression of Blacks in America? I pray not.
Is the onset of cool weather and the promise of colorful trees calling you to spend some time in the woods? Consider borrowing or picking up a copy of The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben to take with you. Wohlleben anthropomorphizes trees. In thirty-six vignettes he uses traits and behaviors that we think of as exclusively human (or at least limited to mammals and birds) to explain many features of the lives of trees, including
How they grow
How they propagate
How they defend themselves
How they communicate with one another and with other species
Where they get their nourishment
How they transport water
How they respond to adverse weather
What threats affect trees in urban settings
How long they can live
What happens when they die
You get the picture. Trees not only have enemies, they recognize them and send warnings to other trees when enemies are attacking. Trees have friends, and they take care of each other. They seem to be able to measure the length of a day in order to determine when to bloom and set out new leaves or shut down and discard those leaves. Trees abandon territory that has become inhospitable because of increasing cold or heat. Generation by generation they will move to places where they can thrive.
Peter Wohlleben could easily have turned parts of this book into a tract against commercial forestry, an industry in which he earned his living for many years. His prophetic message is, instead, understated: “Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouses for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species, which is the way modern forestry currently treats them. Completely the opposite, in fact.” (p. 244)
In March 2020 I published a post asking if trees can be lonely. Peter Wohlleben would say “Yes, they can!” Sadly, the tree I wrote about was already dead when I wrote that post, but I didn’t realize it at the time, and I was hoping that it would show signs of life when spring arrived. Did my tree die of loneliness? Again, Wohlleben might say “yes.” His description of the emotional and intellectual life of trees also reminds me of Stevland, a sentient bamboo that learns to communicate in writing to humans in Sue Burke’s excellent sci-fi novel, Semiosis.
In Peter Wohlleben’s view, all of life, be it vegetable or animal life, possesses intelligence and is capable of using that intelligence to interact with the world around it. He closes out his final vignette with some speculation about what trees might have to offer beyond products of commercial value. We should care about trees “because of the little puzzles and wonders they present us with. Under the canopy of the trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of Nature, right on our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered. And who knows, perhaps one day the language of trees will eventually be deciphered, giving us the raw material for further amazing stories. Until then, when you take your next walk in the forest, give free rein to your imagination — in many cases, what you imagine is not so far removed from reality, after all!” (p. 244)
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the United States was on the upward slope of the first wave of infections, many states, including my home state of New Jersey, ordered residents to stay at home and venture out for essential business only. Included in the order was a provision that residents could venture outside for exercise. Walking became a popular pastime. My wife Jody and I spent many hours walking the streets of our suburban neighborhood. (More about walking in suburban neighborhoods later.)
As much as I rely on walking to get from one place to another, to take my eyes away from the computer screen, or to burn a few calories, I haven’t give the act of walking much thought. Rebecca Solnit has given walking a lot of thought. In Wanderlust: A Brief History of Walking, she has filled almost 300 pages with the results of that thought and research, supported by twenty-six pages of endnotes.
Although it is thoroughly documented and includes an index, Wanderlust does not read like a textbook. This excerpt from a discussion of labyrinths demonstrates Solnit’s desire to move her readers not to an academic understanding of her subject but to a personal appreciation and appropriation: “[N]arrative writing is . . . closely bound up with walking. To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide — a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted on to take one somewhere.” (p. 72)
In seventeen chapters, Rebecca Solnit discusses walking in its connection with learning, teaching, and philosophizing. Walking enables contemplation, Walking can be part of a pilgrimage or a journey of self-discovery. Walking in such events as walkathons represents a mutant form of pilgrimage. Walking can provide religious education through the exploration of medieval church architecture or through such devices as labyrinths or the Catholic Stations of the Cross. Walking enables freedom, escape, discovery, and appreciation. Connecting walking with a different art form, poetry, Solnit here discusses the travels of Dorothy and William Wordsworth.
Walking yields conquest or triumph as when one climbs a mountain. Walking is employed in confronting and protesting injustices. Walking serves romantic purposes. Walking the streets amounts to solicitation. Finally, walking itself can be art.
In a chapter titled “Aerobic Sisyphus and the Suburbanized Psyche,” Solnit discusses the curse that is modern suburban sprawl. Her history of walking is a history of cities and countrysides. “Suburbs are bereft of the natural glories and civic pleasures of those older spaces, and suburbanization has radically changed the scale and texture of everyday life, usually in ways that are inimical to getting about on foot.” (p. 250) Suburban residents drive wherever they need to go, even if wherever they need to go is only a few blocks away. One possible reason, although she doesn’t directly cite it as such, is that “[s]uburban sprawls generally make dull places to walk, and a large subdivision can become numbingly repetitive at three miles an hour instead of thirty of sixty.” (p. 253)
Our suburban neighborhood can be considered a subdivision; most of the houses, including ours, are Cape Cod-style homes built in the 1950s. They have been expanded and modified over the decades so that no two adjacent homes look the same, but walking the neighborhood day after day can become tedious, as Jody can attest. That won’t keep us from walking, though.
The approach of cooler weather and the persistence of limitations imposed by the pandemic might be encouraging you to spend more time walking. Wanderlust will help you understand why walking is such an essential human activity.
Over the last few years, and especially over the last few months, people in my circle of friends and acquaintances have been coming to terms with issues of racism, racial justice, and white privilege and supremacy. We’ve read books and periodical articles, listened to sermons, podcasts, and radio programs, and watched videos. Personal stories abound in these resources, from Emmett Till’s to George Floyd’s. Those stories help us understand that racism and related behaviors and issues are not abstractions. They affect real people.
In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson uses the stories of three individuals to school her readers on racism in the United States. These three are among the six million Blacks who left their lives and homes in the South behind between 1916 and 1970 and moved north and west in a sociological phenomenon that became known as the Great Migration.
I don’t remember learning about the Great Migration when I learned U.S. history in the 1960s and 1970s. It is alluded to briefly, although not called the Great Migration, in John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, which I read several years ago. Wilkerson does not refer to the great Mississippi Basin flood of 1927, but it is easy to see how it might have fit into her narrative: During the flood, Blacks in Mississippi were conscripted and ordered at gunpoint to work on reinforcing the levees along the lower Mississippi.
Wilkerson does not spare details when describing the mistreatment, abuse, and violence that Blacks have endured. She is also clear that the mistreatment and violence did not end when the migrants crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. White residents of communities where Blacks wanted to live would not permit that to take place. Landlords, employers, real-estate brokers, home sellers, banks, healthcare systems, school systems, and countless other individuals and institutions erected and maintained barriers to Black progress and well-being.
Those barriers might be less visible now, but they still exist. The Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and subsequent efforts to treat Blacks as equal partners in the American experiment might have been the beginning of the end, but the end is still not in sight in many respects.
I write this as a white male who has enjoyed the benefits of white privilege my entire life. I make no claim of being woke or anti-racist. I still bear prejudices and attitudes that I might not rid myself of in my lifetime. Nonetheless, The Warmth of Other Suns has opened my eyes a little more to the injustices Blacks have endured in America for over four centuries. If you are looking to understand how Black lives have not mattered, or how they do matter and always have mattered, The Warmth of Other Suns is a great resource for gaining that understanding.
In the summer of 1970, three friends and I decided to go on a canoe trip on the Delaware River. We had talked about it for a while, intending to go the previous spring, but we thought the river would be swollen and cold with runoff. So, we set our sights on a summer trip.
Bob, Steve, Phil, and I were members of Boy Scout Troop Seven, based at Saint Paul Roman Catholic Church in Clifton. Bob, at seventeen, was the oldest. I was sixteen, and Steve and Phil were fifteen. We were part of the core of the troop and we had leadership positions. We all worked our shifts at the annual Christmas tree sale, the troop’s major fundraiser. We earned merit badges and climbed the ranks. Steve and I had earned the canoeing merit badge one previous summer at scout camp. I don’t recall if Bob or Phil earned that badge, but they had others on their sashes. I achieved the rank of Life Scout, the rank immediately below Eagle.
The canoes, paddles, life vests, tents, and cooking gear were property of Troop Seven. We bought dehydrated food from a mail-order catalog. Bob, if I remember correctly, acquired a set of maps of the river that showed where the rapids were and how challenging they were on a scale of zero to six. Considering ourselves well equipped, we convinced our parents to let us go. The conditions were fairly simple: We would telephone one set of parents each day from a pay phone in a town along the way, and the parents whom we called would call the others.
On the appointed day, a Saturday, we loaded our canoes, gear, and supplies into Bob’s father’s ’55 or ’56 Ford pickup truck. My Dad drove his ’61 Ford station wagon. Our Scoutmaster, Frank, came to see us off. We drove up NY Route 97 to Hancock, New York, where the Delaware splits into East Branch and West Branch. We found a spot where we could park, and launched the canoes. Many years later my Dad would remember thinking, as we drifted around the first bend and out of sight, “What have I just done?!”
For the next eight days we paddled and drifted and sometimes walked our canoes through sections of the river that were too shallow to float them. We paddled through every set of rapids that we encountered, with one exception. At Skinners Falls, the only level-six rapids on the upper Delaware, we watched as several other canoes capsized or were swamped, and we decided to carry our gear and canoes around. (A few years later I went back through Skinners Falls with another friend, and we took on some water, but we made it safely through. Still later I nearly drowned my then bride-to-be when we capsized in a level-five rapids a little farther downstream.)
Breakfast and dinner came from the supply of dehydrated food. The food was nothing like our mothers’ home cooking, but it kept us going. We stopped midday and bought lunch from whatever store we could find. We camped on the riverbank and built cooking fires with whatever firewood we could gather. We almost certainly were trespassing on private lands many nights, but we were never chased away.
We had two canoes, one aluminum and one canvas-covered wood. I was the stern man in the wood-and-canvas canoe. Our evening routine included applying sealer to any scratches we found on the bottom of the wood-and-canvas canoe to keep it from leaking. The black splotches in one of the photos are sealer; that photo was taken late in the trip.
We drank water from the river, without any filtration, and with only halazone tablets for purification. We didn’t bring fishing equipment and we did little swimming. Near the end of the trip, though, we decided to take a swim. I remember swimming for a while and getting winded. For some reason I remember that as the moment I decided to give up whatever little tobacco use I indulged in.
Probably because we were teenage boys, we didn’t think much about our personal safety. Bob’s uncle had loaned him a single-shot .22-caliber pellet gun that looked like a large semiautomatic pistol. It wouldn’t have done much good if anyone decided to do us harm.
We managed to call home every day except one. We reached our destination, a cabin in Walpack, NJ, a day ahead of schedule. We used the free day to walk from the cabin to a nearby general store (Cal’s Country Corner?), where we bought supplies for a spaghetti dinner. Along the way we bought a basket of peaches at one of the many farm stands that dot the roadsides in that part of New Jersey. We finished off that basket, then stopped and bought another on the way back to the cabin. After a week of freeze-dried vegetables, fresh peaches never tasted so good.
The next day Bob’s father and his Uncle Bob came to pick us up. None of us had done much about hygiene in those eight days aside from brushing our teeth, so I can only imagine what we smelled like as we rode home.
I’d like to say that it was an important rite of passage and that we all formed permanent bonds that lasted us well into our adult lives, but it was really just a lark. We all got along and stayed in touch, but our later teens brought jobs, college, girlfriends, and other connections that took us away from one another and from the Boy Scouts. I last saw Bob a few years ago at the memorial viewing for one of our scout leaders. I connected with Steve in 1999 in Beaver, PA. I had learned that he had opened a sandwich shop in nearby Beaver Falls, and when Jody and I took our daughter Betsy on a college tour that included Geneva College, we spent a few minutes with Steve and his wife. I can’t recall spending a lot of time in Phil’s presence after that, and I lost touch with him.
Many times I’ve wished I could go back and be sixteen years old again. I would like to have made better choices for higher education and career (although I would not want to change how my marriage and family have turned out), but there’s probably part of me that wishes I could take that trip again, too.
Ray Walsh, my Dad, would have been one hundred years old in June 2020. It’s a good opportunity to share some reflections on his life.
He was born in June, 1920, to Martin and Margaretta (Donovan) Walsh, in Minooka, Pennsylvania, a neighborhood in the southern end of Scranton. Anthracite coal provided a livelihood for many of the residents of Minooka in those days, including the Walsh family, but that livelihood came with risks. Martin Walsh died in a coal-mine cave-in when Dad was an infant.
Margaretta’s story had taken tragic and troubling turns long before Martin’s untimely death. Her father essentially abandoned the family, and her mother died when Margaretta was still a child. She was raised by her sisters, she received only a first-grade education, and she never learned to read or write. She was put to work in a factory at age six, standing on a wooden box to reach whatever task she was assigned to do. She and Martin, the love of her life, were in their teens when they married. (A big Thank You! to cousin Pam Tanis Johnson for this paragraph about our grandmother.)
After Martin died, Margaretta managed to provide for herself and her six children, one girl and five boys, for several years. There was a seventh child, a girl named Rose, who died in infancy of influenza. In time Margaretta met and married a man whom the family referred to only as Kelly, and together they brought another child into the world, a girl named Joan (more about Aunt Joan later). Kelly expected his five stepsons to work in the mines. Dad’s first job — he was only about eleven years old when he started working — was caring for mules that were used by one miner to pull the trams in and out of his mine. The job didn’t last long: Dad let the mules escape from their pen, and that ended his career in the anthracite coal industry.
Margaretta, meanwhile, wanted no part of having her sons work in the mines, so she found a way to move most of the family to New Jersey. The oldest, Margaret, was married by then and stayed behind in the Scranton area. Dad also lived with Margaret and her husband Gene for a while, probably until the rest of the family could get settled and start to earn their own upkeep. They lived in Newark at first, then moved to the Watsessing section of Bloomfield.
Dad went to Bloomfield High School, and he earned enough credits to graduate by the middle of his junior year. Having grown up in the era of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Dad wanted to play baseball, and he was a decent catcher. It was the middle of the Great Depression, unfortunately, and Dad had to find time to play baseball in between his shifts at the nearby GE plant (or was it Westinghouse?). He once mentioned having an opportunity to try out for a spot in some major-league ball team’s farm system, but apparently either the opportunity disappeared or he had to forego it.
In Dad’s circle of acquaintances in Watsessing was a paperhanger named Charlie Hodson. Charlie and Mary Hodson had six daughters. The youngest daughter was Ruth, who was three years younger than Dad. Ruth married Bill Stanley in 1945, and they had two daughters. I married the younger of those two daughters, Jody, in 1977. Dad and my mother-in-law did not remember each other when they realized their lives had intersected earlier, but Dad remembered Donald Shaeffer, who married Kay Hodson.
Dad did not tell many stories about his younger years, so I know little of what happened after high school graduation. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, Dad joined thousands of young Americans who tried to enlist in the U.S. Army. A medical issue — I recall it being flat feet — kept him from being accepted at that time. As the war effort grew and a military draft was instituted, Dad was called to serve. He took basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey and received further training at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Once, when I told him about a trip to the Washington, D.C. area, he told me that one of his training exercises involved placing mock explosives on a highway bridge over the Potomac. He was assigned to an engineering battalion and deployed to Morocco. There he built, maintained, and operated terminals and depots for aviation fuel. From North Africa he went to Italy, then on to France. He was a few miles into Germany when the war ended in Europe in May, 1945.
Dad was no one’s hero. He was a citizen–soldier, like hundreds of thousands of his comrades in arms. He went to do a job, and when the job was done, he came home. He received an honorable discharge in September 1945. By then the family had moved — actually they had moved before the war — to Clifton. His mother had married a third time, Kelly having died some years before. Dutch, as we knew her third husband, came from a family that owned farmland in the Richfield section of Clifton. Together Grandma and Dutch ran a tavern across from what is now Columbus Middle School in Clifton.
Dad never said much about his family. I learned more from Aunt Joan, Dad’s younger sister, than I ever did from Dad. We saw Grandma and Dutch and Aunt Joan, Uncle Joe, and Pam occasionally. We generally saw the other members of Dad’s family only at funerals. If Dad and Mom were invited to family weddings, the probably declined. Aunt Joan was my Godmother. She, Uncle Joe, and Pam were the only members of my parents’ families who were invited to our wedding. I told her at one point that I wanted to see her once in a while when there wasn’t a coffin in the room, and she reminded me of that on several occasions. In her last years she lived in a senior housing complex, then in a nursing home. She was Dad’s favorite, and when either Jody and I, or my brother Mike and I would visit, she would share stories about him. He bought Joan a bicycle once and paid for it on an installment plan. When his brother Ed and sister-in-law Agnes, with whom Dad was living at the time, discovered a bill from the department store, they raised holy heck.
Again, details and dates are lacking, but sometime before the winter of 1949–1950 Dad took a room in a house in the Dutch Hill section of Clifton. During a particularly bad snowstorm he noticed two women who were struggling to clear the snow from their walks a few doors up the street. Rose and Betty Pinke were both single and living in the house that had been their family home since 1919. Dad helped them clean the snow away and struck up a relationship with Betty. They married in July 1951. Mike was born the following spring. Two years later I joined the family, followed by Tim, and finally Brian.
Dad wanted to pass on to his sons his love for baseball. He taught us how to throw, catch, keep our eyes on the ball, and swing level. He coached a Little League baseball team for several years, and Mike, Tim, and I played on the team. He and Mom always made sure there was a case of soda in the back of the car for the team to enjoy after our games. He taught us how to ride bicycles. He erected a pool for us in the backyard and built pigeon coops when Mike took an interested in raising pigeons. He taught me how to cut quarter-round molding with a coping saw to make a professional-looking inside corner.
When Mike was about to turn seventeen, he bought a ’57 Chevy. It was a plain four-door sedan with a straight six and a Powerglide transmission, and the engine needed a valve job and new piston rings. Over the course of one winter, Dad and Mike took apart the engine and put it back together. The car ran well after that; DIY mechanics could do that kind of work back then and expect good results.
Tim and I joined our local Boy Scout troop. Brian followed a few years later. Dad wasn’t interested in being a Scoutmaster; coaching baseball was more his speed. But he did support us and accompany us on some camping trips. On one trip the other adults on the trip were availing themselves of a supply of beer, but Dad drank only coffee the entire weekend. Dad struggled with alcohol, and he had recently come out of a period where it had gotten the better of him. I remember being proud of him for being there and for his self-control under the circumstances.
The year I turned sixteen, three of my scouting friends and I decided to take a multi-day canoe trip on the Delaware River. We would be on our own, with no adult supervision, finding our own campsites, and cooking our own food. We loaded our gear into a pickup truck belonging to one of the other fathers, and that father, Dad, and our Scoutmaster drove us to Hancock, New York. We put in on a branch of the Delaware and set off. Many years later Dad recalled watching us disappear around a bend in the river and thinking “What have I just done?!” We ended the trip eight days later, safe and whole.
Dad thought highly of his employment as a carpenter, and he did good work. His skills as a millwright were more in demand in his later working years. Several times he was called on to spend most of a summer holiday weekend dismantling or reinstalling a steam turbine or some other large piece of equipment. But he was always happy to get home, get cleaned up, and go sit on the screened-in porch with a can of beer, a copy of the Daily News, and a Yankees game playing on the radio. Those kinds of pleasures were most of what he asked for in life, a life that ended too soon.
Children learn from what they see the adults around them doing. So how did Dad learn to be a father, to be a dad? He never met his own father. Dad’s stepfather saw only the need to have him earn his keep. Yet, in a way that he would acknowledge was far from perfect, Dad somehow managed to be the father that we needed. I don’t often think, as some other sons might, how I miss his counsel and long to be able to see him again and ask him this question or that. We didn’t have that kind of a relationship when he was alive. But I do miss him, and I wish I had been more thoughtful and generous toward him. I’ll just have to conclude this remembrance acknowledging that regret and wishing him a happy one-hundredth birthday in heaven.
This has been a long read. If I had started earlier, I probably could have edited half of it out. Thank you for stopping by, and for your patience in reading to the end.
In 2020, Pentecost Sunday is May 31st. The Christian observance of Pentecost recalls the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:1–13, which was witnessed by travelers, or pilgrims, from all over the Roman world. Christians understand this event to mark the beginning of the Church. We can see the hallmarks of church activity in Acts 2:43–47, as the community of believers met regularly, prayed, worshiped, shared meals, practiced charity, and spread the Gospel message.
Did you ever wonder, though, why all of those people were in Jerusalem in the first place? Or why the day when the Holy Spirit came was already known as Pentecost? On Pentecost the Jews celebrated two events, one historical and one occurring annually. Jewish people still celebrate these events today, and they refer to this celebration as Shavuot (shah-voo-oat), a Hebrew word meaning “weeks.”
The historical event is the giving of the law, as represented by the Ten Commandments, to Moses on Mount Sinai. The annual event is the spring harvest, primarily the wheat harvest. Farmers would bring sheaves of wheat or loaves of wheat bread to the Temple in Jerusalem, along with the first fruits of other crops, as an offering of thanksgiving. You may see this celebration referred to as the Feast of Firstfruits, although in that sense it is the continuation of a festival that begins during Passover and continues for fifty days.
Pentecost is one of three pilgrimage festivals in the Jewish calendar. You may be able to think of another one pretty easily.* The third might not be as familiar: Sukkot is a seven-day festival that takes place in the fall; it commemorates the wandering in the wilderness after Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. During Sukkot, Jews eat some of their meals in shelters known as sukkahs that are usually open to the sky except for a roof of some sort of vegetation.
Worshipers attending church on Pentecost Sunday in our time mark the event by wearing something red to commemorate the tongues of fire. Churches are decorated with images of doves or tongues of fire, the two visual representations of the Holy Spirit that we see in the New Testament. Sermons, Scripture readings, and musical selections emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and the work of the Spirit in spreading the Gospel message and reviving the Church.
Like the Roman census ordered by Caesar Augustus, which brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, this Pentecost brought people from around the Roman world to Jerusalem so that they could have a life-changing encounter with Christ and Christ’s disciples.
How has God used seemingly unrelated events in your life or in the lives of others to accomplish his purposes?
*Passover is one of the other two pilgrimage festivals in the Jewish calendar. Simon of Cyrene, who was conscripted to help Jesus carry the cross, was probably in Jerusalem for the Passover (Luke 22:36). The merchants and money changers in the Temple would have been doing a brisk business at Passover (Luke 19:45–47) with people coming from all over the known world to purchase, then sacrifice, an animal or a bird in the temple.
Readers might experience a bit of cognitive dissonance as they move through this book. The message of the book could easily be “If you aren’t experiencing waves of panic, you aren’t paying attention.” But the text reads like the transcript of a comedy routine in many places. Here are a few examples:
As we covered in our section on monocultures that everyone will force their children to memorize because of the beauty of the prose and the fundamental wisdom of the insights, crops that are planted as monocultures are more susceptible to extreme weather events and pests.
(Page 91, in a chapter on food waste)
And what do we do with that excess of stuff that we now have? Do we treasure it and thank our lucky stars that we can buy an imitation Gucci bomber jacket for $10 and kiss the ground and love our parents and their parents for putting us on this verdant, splendid earth? Yep.
(Page 152, in a section on fast fashion)
There are so many things to give the British credit for: scones with cream and jam, Shakespeare, the idea that no one is above the law, ruthless colonialism, warm beer, I could go on.
(Page 186, in a section on using wood as a fuel)
In twenty-four chapters, Schlossberg covers much of our daily lives and activities, from entertainment to shopping to food to fashion to transportation to heating and air conditioning. In short, if we put on clothes, eat breakfast, go to work (even if we’re working from home), eat dinner, or watch a movie before heading off to bed, we’re doing something that in some way is damaging the environment. What’s worse, those of us who are fortunate enough to be considered middle class are damaging the environment in ways that will have a greater effect on those in lower socioeconomic strata.
At the moment it’s a bit harder than usual to focus on the environmental impact of my choices. I read the last chapters of Inconspicuous Consumption one evening. The next morning I was in line outside the local supermarket at 5:55 a.m., waiting to try my luck at finding ten days’ worth of groceries on shelves that had been stripped bare by panic shopping. It was five weeks into the state of emergency declared by the governor of New Jersey to curtail the spread of COVID-19. I’ve ordered things online, from e-tailers that I’ve never done business with before, that I can ordinarily find in the local supermarket. We haven’t had to put gas in our cars for weeks, which is a blessing, but we’ve used more soap and hot water, bleach and paper towels, in those five weeks than we have in the past five months.
On the other hand, It would be easy to pat myself on the back for long practices of composting kitchen scraps, recycling, drinking filtered tap water instead of water from plastic bottles, using reusable grocery bags, and wearing clothes until they are frayed and threadbare (much to my beloved wife’s chagrin). But I leave our WIFI router, cable TV box, digital clock-radios, and other devices that are constantly drawing power plugged in all day, every day. I can do more. I should do more.
I seldom say things like this, but every conscientious American should borrow this book from their local library and read it. It will open eyes and change attitudes. It won’t prescribe behavior or remedies to every concern that Tatiana Schlossberg raises. She admits in several places that there are no easy or obvious solutions, and it is impossible to say that things like e-commerce, fish farming, and large-scale agriculture are completely bad for the planet. But she connects enough dots to allow the reader to draw some pretty firm conclusions in many areas and take appropriate remedial action. She does so in a way that is approachable, not filled with dry statistics, nonjudgmental, and engaging in many places.
Your approach to food may have changed in the past few weeks. Mine has. Before the pandemic I could demolish a jar of Planter’s peanuts in a few days. Now I make it last more than a week. I was used to fixing myself a mid-morning snack or a second breakfast, but I haven’t done that in weeks. The biggest meal I’ve had in over a month was Easter dinner, and even then I probably ate only about two-thirds of what I might otherwise have eaten.
One reason for the change, to be frank, is to conserve TP. But I’m not as hungry because I’m not as active and not burning as many calories. I also really want to stretch our food supply so that I don’t have to make as many trips to the supermarket.
The health-related risks that we, especially those of us who have reached senior-citizen status, now incur in the supermarket make us think twice about our food purchases. How can I plan and execute my purchases, with the flexibility needed because some items may not be available when I go, to make my food purchases stretch as far as possible without hoarding? Will I then plan and prepare my meals carefully so as to avoid wasting it once I get it home?
That got me thinking of food waste in broader terms. (That, and Tatiana Schlossberg’s book, Inconspicuous Consumption) For the past several years, and even in the past few months, major news outlets such as the BBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post have published articles on the connection between food waste and climate change. They all cite an alarming statistic: Globally between thirty and forty percent of food is wasted. “If food loss and waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third-largest [greenhouse gas] emitter—surpassed only by China and the United States.” (Source:World Resources Institute)
Some food waste occurs before the food even leaves the fields where it is grown. Fruits and vegetables that are less than perfect are left in the field to decompose. I’ve picked produce as a volunteer at a local urban farm and I’ve dropped blemished peppers, strawberries, and tomatoes on the ground because they won’t sell at the farm’s markets (although I have taken some home, with the farm’s knowledge and permission). Some food is discarded by the stores or restaurants that purchase it because it has become unfit to sell or serve. I’ve passed over bruised fruit in the supermarket many times. Some food, such as bagged lettuce, packaged meat, or milk is discarded because the sell-by date has passed. Some food goes to waste in our refrigerators either before we get a chance to prepare it or after we prepare it and we forget about the leftovers.
Does the pandemic offer us an opportunity to think more carefully about food and food waste? Eventually the pandemic will end. Retail food supplies will stabilize and we’ll go back to a more casual approach to grocery shopping. But can we hold back from resuming that casual approach? Can we carry forward the more deliberate approach that we’ve developed in this moment of emergency? Can we plan and execute our food shopping trips and our food preparation and consumption to reduce the amount of food we waste?
Asking if we can do things like putting a blemished apple or a misshapen pepper in our carts may be a bridge too far. I understand the hesitation when a single bruised apple or pear might still cost $1.00 or more. But maybe not. There are businesses that offer produce that’s less than perfect but edible and affordable. Imperfect Foods and Missfits Market both deliver in New Jersey. City Saucery makes tomato sauce from imperfect produce. Do you have sources for imperfect produce that you can share? Leave a comment.
On the local retail front, maybe if enough consumers got together, grocery stores and other produce vendors might offer some of their less-than-perfect wares at reduced prices as well.
The real struggle, though, will be over what we do with leftovers and food that we can’t use because it’s gone bad or it’s well past its “sell by” date. We’ll look at some of those concerns in a future post.
For now, though, you’ve probably already rethought your approach to food because of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have modified that approach in such a way that is better for the environment, for the local community, or for your family or neighbors, please share what you’ve done and how you will carry that practice forward when the pandemic ends. May you and those close to you stay well and may you have peace in these trying circumstances.
Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, when Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples and instituted the sacrament of communion. Thursday, April 9, 2020, is Maundy Thursday. Grace Church customarily observes the day with an evening service in the Fellowship Hall, and this is the only time during Lent that we observe the Lord’s Supper and take communion.
What does “Maundy” mean? Scholars believe the word ultimately comes from Latin noun mandatum, which is the root of the English word “mandate.” It is also related to “commandment,” which is where we get the connection to the Thursday before Easter and the Last Supper. Jesus interrupted the supper by getting up, getting a towel and a basin full of water, and washing the disciples’ feet (John 13: 2–20). Note that he apparently washed the feet of Judas Iscariot before Judas left on his Satan-inspired mission of betrayal. Jesus then made the statement that changed forever the way believers are to live.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 13:35–35, NRSV
The Latin version of the Bible has “mandatum” where the English word “commandment” appears in verse 34, and over time the word “Maundy” was used for the church’s commemoration of the Last Supper.
Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and other Christian traditions practice foot-washing as part of their Maundy Thursday services. Pope Francis has departed with tradition in his practice of foot washing. The Pope has customarily washed the feet of clerics in the Vatican, but Francis has visited a local prison on Maundy Thursday and washed the feet of inmates. Some Protestant denominations and fellowships include foot washing in their communion practices at other times of the year.
So why don’t Presbyterians and other Protestants practice foot washing? In many ways we do, at least symbolically. Foot washing in Jesus’ time was a menial task, delegated to the lowest servant in the household.* Jesus uses foot washing to tell His disciples, and us by extension, that there is no task too menial for those who name Jesus as Lord and Savior. When we interact with the poor, the homeless, and others in deep need, when we provide for those needs, and when we do so with no regard for how that act makes us look or feel, we are in a sense washing feet.
Thanks for stopping by. May God bless and encourage you as you observe Holy Week and the Easter season!
*Foot washing was ordinarily done as the guests arrived, not in the middle of the meal, so it’s possible that Jesus instructed the owner of the house where the Last Supper was held not to have a servant provide that small bit of refreshment.