Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you have not read it and don’t want the outcome to be revealed.

This was my first conventional novel by Neil Gaiman. I had read The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a graphic novel. Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quick read and hard to put down. The themes of identity, loneliness, and alienation are fairly easy to pick up. The narrator’s being saved from death by another character who dies in the attempt is unexpected and strikes me as being close to Christian in form. In that sense Lettie is a Christ figure, although I’m not sure that’s what the author intended.

What strikes me also is a similarity between this story and the story told in Madeline L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time. In both stories we have benevolent female figures who come to the aid of a child or children in a battle between good and evil. I’d be curious to learn if anyone else reading this review might have drawn the same connection.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Cultivating Reality, by Ragan Sutterfield

Cultivating RealityCultivating Reality by Ragan Sutterfield

From the subtitle of this book, “How the Soil Might Save Us,” one might think this is a book about soil ecology and biology told from a Christian perspective. It is not. Rather, it is an apologetic for agrarianism as a biblically based response to environmental degradation, cultural ills, and the unraveling of our social fabric.

Ragan Sutterfield is a prophet in the tradition of Wendell Berry, whom Sutterfield cites more frequently than any other writer. One sixth of the entries in the bibliography are works by Wendell Berry. The other sources listed in the bibliography range from Bernard of Clairvaux to Richard Dawkins to Melissa Block of NPR to Bill McKibben to Michael Pollan to Jack Kerouac to Dallas Willard, to name a few. I was also expecting to see Ellen Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible in the list but it is absent.

One of the foundation stones of Sutterfield’s agrarianism is commonwealth. Others include humility, the sacredness of our physical beings, and a sense of place. Regarding commonwealth, or community, Sutterfield starts by introducing John Locke and his concept of property. Locke maintained that our bodies are property that can be rented or sold as we labor to accumulate more property, some of it in the form of consumer goods. In contrast Sutterfield argues that “The agrarian response is that we are members. . . . [W]e are part of a larger whole and it is through working well within that whole that we attain our own good, which is always in harmony with the good of the whole.” I was recalling Ephesians 4:15 & 16 as I was reading the chapter on commonwealth: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Reading this book, and reading Wendell Berry, I am tempted to dismiss their prophecies as arising out of an agrarian elitism. Wendell Berry lives on a farm in Kentucky. Ragan Sutterfield lives in Arkansas and his writing suggests that he has acreage at his disposal where he can practice his agrarianism. How is someone living in a suburban subdivision, or in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, or in New Delhi or Kampala supposed to practice agrarian living? But to make that argument is to miss the point. Sutterfield is calling us to cultivate a different reality regardless of our personal circumstances, a reality in which we live humbly in community, giving ourselves as a gift to others, regarding the physical creation as something that has been made sacred by God’s choosing to inhabit it with us.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Fireflies on the Basil

On a recent morning I was picking some fresh basil to make pesto sauce. I found two fireflies hanging out on the basil plants. By the time I got my camera to try to get a photo they were gone, so I’m substituting a Wikimedia photo of fireflies.

Fireflies, Georgia, US, April 20, 2017
Fireflies, Georgia. By Jud McCranie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
I checked each basil leaf as I washed them and I’m confident that the fireflies didn’t get into  the pesto (unlike the bug that survived three washings of the lettuce and found its way into a salad).

Two years ago, during our first year in our current home, we hardly saw any fireflies in our yard. Even now the air is not filled with them in the evening, but there are many more than that first summer. I should have suspected that we might not get many fireflies when I was contacted by a lawn care company that first spring. They wanted to have a technician come and spray the yard with pesticide. The previous homeowner had a contract with this company, and I think they also sprayed the lawn with fertilizer and weed killer. I declined the offer.

The decision to spray for pests is a difficult one, especially for families with small children. We want our families to be able to enjoy the great outdoors, but the great outdoors is filled with health hazards. Deer wander through suburban neighborhoods less than two miles from our home. They spread ticks that carry Lyme Disease. Recently lone star ticks have made their way to the northeast. In the southeast they carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but in some colder locales they are believed responsible for a potentially life-threatening allergy to meat. Mosquitoes can carry West Nile virus and the Zika virus. Pesticides and repellents can help us keep these risks at bay. Even something as simple as wanting to keep ants from invading our homes sends us to the store for some Raid®.

As we’ve observed in our yard, the use of pesticides can have unintended consequences. Protecting fireflies is not sufficient reason not to treat a yard to keep out or destroy harmful creatures. But maybe protecting other species that play a more active role in our well being, such as pollinators, is. Beyond consideration for individual species such as honeybees, protecting biodiversity is essential, including biodiversity in the soil, which can be greatly affected by the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Whatever your summer plans are, dear reader, I hope they include plenty of time out where the bugs live: in your yard or garden, at the neighborhood park, or on a hiking trail or bike path. Do your homework and take precautions to guard your health and safety, as we will. Then when evening falls, look for the fireflies. Let them light your way toward a thoughtful, environmentally responsible plan for pest control.

Now, in honor of poet and friend Sandra Duguid Gerstman, a firefly haiku:

Firefly on leaf,
Do you light up in the day,
When I cannot see?

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Review: The Shadow of the Sun

The Shadow of the SunThe Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The writing style of Shadow of the Sun is lyrical and even poetic in places, and not what one expects from a book that covers such challenging subjects. Does that reflect the style of Ryszard Kapuściński or of his translator, Klara Glowczewska? In any case, the style alone makes reading the book enjoyable. Some of the personal accounts are harrowing, others charming. But to focus on the style is, of course, to miss the point.

Kapuściński asserts early on that to use the word “African” to speak in generalities about the inhabitants of the continent is a gross oversimplification (p. 15). With that understanding in mind he proceeds to pack into this book many vivid descriptions of African economic, social, spiritual, political, and physical life. These descriptions, coming from a white European, speak of an admirable acculturation and respect for the people in those descriptions. Statements such as “The kinds of borders for which blood is shed were yet to come into being.” speak also of a deep understanding of the history of Africa and of the lingering effects of the slave trade and colonialism that linger into the twenty-first century.

That history has more than its share of enormous tragedies. Reading the chapters on Uganda, Rwanda, and Liberia is like coming upon a bad motor vehicle accident on the highway. Damage has been done. People have been injured, lives lost. Lives have been disrupted and altered in ways that may take months or years to unfold and then restore if that is even possible. There is nothing we could have done to prevent the accident. Little we can do to bring about any restoration except to pray for the victims and their families, but we may gape and gasp at the damage anyway. What created the havoc that we see? Fog, whiteout conditions, slippery road surfaces? A distracted driver? An impaired driver? An angry driver?

Consider what Kapuściński says about the fall of Samuel Doe of Liberia on Page 252:

“History is so often the product of thoughtlessness; it is the offspring of human stupidity, the fruit of benightedness, idiocy, and folly. In such instances, it is enacted by people who do not know what they are doing—more, who do not want to know, who reject the possibility with disgust and anger. We see them hastening toward their own destruction, forging their own fetters, tying the noose, diligently and repeatedly checking whether the fetters and the noose are strong, whether they will hold and be effective.”

This book was recommended to a small book group of which I am a member. Like me, almost all of the other members are white of European descent. Speaking strictly for myself, my grasp of European culture and history is insufficient to enable me to understand current tensions on that continent. How can I expect to understand the whole of Africa or even a small part of it? Yet this book has added to that understanding significantly.

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Thanks as always for stopping by.

Lessons Learned, or Not

During my first season of volunteering at City Green, I learned that having too much wood-chip mulch in the soil can retard the grown of plants. The organization had received a load of what was supposed to be horse manure and wood chips that turned out to be mostly wood chips. It was spread on part of one field and tilled into the soil as fertilizer. Soon afterward seedlings were planted in that part of the field; after a few weeks many were stunted and discolored.

The decomposition of wood chips removes nitrogen from the soil. Remove too much nitrogen, and the plants in that soil won’t grow properly or at all. I noted this in a guest blog post for City Green near the end of that season.

Spinach seedlings.
Spinach seedlings that should have been mature plants by the time this photo was taken. Note the wood chips visible in the cells with the seedlings.

This season, for our garden, I decided to start seeds for spinach, lettuce, and cilantro in some used potting soil from last season. I knew there were some wood chips mixed in with the soil; we had mulched our flower containers with cedar chips last season. But I worked to eliminate the larger chips and went ahead with my plan. Bad move. As can be seen in the photo, seeds planted in this soil mixture in late March had barely germinated and were nowhere near where I expected them to be by early May. In contrast, some seeds sown directly into the garden in subsequent weeks have grown into plants that will be ready to harvest soon.

We enjoy eating produce from our garden. Thankfully we don’t depend on it for survival. If we did we might be in serious trouble.

Some mistakes and errors, such as this one, are the result of foolishness. The Apostle Paul tells us in the seventh chapter of Romans that some of the poor choices we make come about because of the persistence of evil in human nature: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (verse 19)

I just finished reading The Shadow of the Sun, written by Ryszard Kapuściński and translated by Klara Glowczewska. It is a memoir that includes stories of the author’s travels in Africa from the 1950s to the 1990s, along with brief histories of some of Africa’s most tragic episodes from that period. I will post a more detailed review here and on Goodreads but here is a striking passage from the chapter on Liberia about the fall of Samuel Doe.

History is so often the product of thoughtlessness; it is the offspring of human stupidity, the fruit of benightedness, idiocy, and folly. In such instances, it is enacted by people who do not know what they are doing—more, who do not want to know, who reject the possibility with disgust and anger. We see them hastening toward their own destruction, forging their own fetters, tying the noose, diligently and repeatedly checking whether the fetters and the noose are strong, whether they will hold and be effective. (p. 252)

Sowing vegetables in wood chips doesn’t fall to this level of benightedness, but history and personal experience teach all of us to think carefully about what we do and to seek wise counsel before we do something big and important. City Green’s field recovered and has yielded produce in abundance in the years since the wood chip debacle. Thankfully the more recent history of Liberia in particular also teaches us that, by God’s grace, healing and restoration are sometimes possible even when terrible mistakes are made.

Thank you as always for stopping by. Keep the conversation going.

Eating the Seder, Singing Gospel

Two opinion pieces appeared this Lenten season in the on-line version of Christianity Today. The first, written by two Rabbis, argues that Christians should not eat a Seder meal as a commemoration of the Last Supper. The second, written by two Evangelical Christians, gives counterarguments to the first.

Both sets of arguments have merit. I’m not qualified to contradict either, but I am more inclined to agree with the two Rabbis.

I’m a Gentile. Specifically a Christian, born and raised in the Roman Catholic church, who later embraced Protestant traditions. My mother’s parents were born in Hungary. My father’s family came from Ireland. Maybe if I took a test to have my DNA analyzed for ancestral traits I might learn that I have Tatars, Kalanguya, or Ethiopian Jews among my forebears, but for now I self-identify as a White Gentile of European descent.

That argues against the adopting of Jewish traditions such as the Seder meal as a part of my Christian practice. The Seder, a remembrance of the deliverance of the Jews from slavery, draws on a heritage that I can’t claim. It’s possible instead that someone in my family’s past was active in persecuting Jews. The links to that past are weak or nonexistent, so I’ll likely never know.

Sheet music for the Gospel Service

I struggle with similar misgivings when it comes to singing Gospel music. On Sunday 23 April the Gospel Choir of the Grace Presbyterian Church of Montclair will present its eleventh annual Gospel Celebration. Gospel music is powerful in its message and in its composition. And it is great fun to sing. Our rendition of “John the Revelator” alone is worth the price of admission. But Gospel music draws on the experiences of the African-American community, which has endured slavery, oppression, disenfranchisement, and denial of opportunity that I cannot comprehend.

What right do I have to sing such words of suffering, pain, and loss?

The controversy over the inclusion in the Whitney Biennial exhibit of a painting of Emmett Till comes to mind in this context. What right does a White artist have to adopt for her own practice a tragedy of such magnitude, one that played out in a community not her own? Strong arguments in support of and against the artist and curators continue to be made.

My reactions to the two activities, eating the Passover Seder and singing Gospel music, may also arise out of some unrecognized prejudices. After all, Motown was part of the soundtrack of my youth, and lately I’ve been listening to WBGO more frequently. But would I want to be a musician of color? Maybe not.

Nonetheless, if we are to bridge the gaps with people who are different from us, most importantly so that we can work together to address the ills that affect our world, we need to know and understand what brought those people to the place where they are now. Participating in a Seder meal as a Seder meal and not as a Christian practice might help. And I will overlook my misgivings and participate joyfully in Grace’s Gospel Celebration in the hopes that it will let me me understand the heritage of  my African-American friends in the choir a bit better.

What has brought people with whom I differ in other ways to the place where they are now? What opportunities exist for me to learn about them without pretending to be something that I am not or asking them to pretend to be something that they are not?

I hope you have and take opportunities to sit with those who are different from you and offer each other glimpses into your heritages and passions. What can you accomplish together once you get to know one another better?

I want to thank Krista Tippett of On Being for airing a conversation that provided some inspiration for this post.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Hats Off to Career Federal Employees

It can’t be easy to be a career U.S. federal employee these days. Many federal agencies are facing budget cuts, and they are being led by political appointees whose goals might include altering the missions of their respective agencies or eliminating the agencies altogether.

Two recent personal events demonstrate that, despite uncertainty and related stressors, federal employees are still hard at work, doing their best to respond to the requests of the people who pay their salaries.

Last month we applied to renew our passports. The opportunity to renew them by mail would end soon, so we completed the forms, got the requisite mug-shot photographs, paid the fees, and sent off our applications. We did not request expedited service, as we do not have any specific plans for international travel in the near future. To our surprise, the applications were processed and the new passports arrived in less than three weeks. Hats off to the passport office staff!

More recently we witnessed a citizenship ceremony at the Peter Rodino Federal Building in Newark, NJ. 102 people, representing 33 different countries of birth, took the oath of U.S. citizenship in the first of at least two ceremonies that day in that office. The staff of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices located in the Rodino building went about the tasks associated with this ceremony, which were many, with professionalism, courtesy, and respect. It would be easy for these staffers to be perfunctory and even cynical in the performance of their duties, but they displayed a genuine enthusiasm for their part in what for many immigrants may be a dream come true. Hats off to them as well!

Judy, a brand new U.S. citizen, and her son Matt.

There may not be much I can do to express appreciation for the work that career federal employees do every day. I do like the approach that some U.S. citizens at large are taking to the plight of career staff at the EPA. They are baking and sending them cookies with personal messages of appreciation.

What other tangible things can we do to show our appreciation to the career federal employees with whom we interact?

Thanks as always for stopping by!

The Dirt on Soil

Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon CountryGrass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country by Courtney White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a pleasure to read. The title suggests that the material might be dry, but Courtney White’s writing keeps the reader engaged. The journey metaphor, though hard to follow at some points, manages to create a usable framework for the several stories.

The central conceit, and not to be overlooked as the reader takes the journey, is that building, restoring, and maintaining healthy soil is an essential component of global ecology. A two percent increase in soil carbon could offset “a large percentage of greenhouse-gas emissions going into the atmosphere.”

The journey itself takes the reader through Marin County and The San Joaquin river delta in California. The reader visits an organic farm in New Hampshire and an urban backyard in Holyoke, Massachusetts. On to Logan, Utah, Emporia, Kansas, New Orleans, and a rooftop farm in Brooklyn, New York. The author also spends time close to home in New Mexico, while planning a visit to a sheep farm in Australia.

Grass is the title floral character. Fauna include beavers, sheep, spiders, cattle, bees, chickens, and of course soil microorganisms. All of them are partners in the work of soil building.

Michael Pollan wrote the foreword. Courtney White’s other inspirations are Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, and Wendell Berry. Like them, she approaches her topic with a mixture of scientific and philosophical analyses.

Two other titles on the subject are waiting on my to-read list: The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet and Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us. The author of the former, Kristin Ohlson, also has also had an article published in the April/May 2017 issue of National Wildlife magazine:….

Keep the conversation going.

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Book Review: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

The Moral Case for Fossil FuelsThe Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex J. Epstein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m writing this because I want to allow myself some credit for having read this book. It is my sincere hope that no one reading this review will believe that I endorse the arguments in it. It will take some time to more fully understand them and work through a response to them, but this may suffice for now.

Alex Epstein is certainly an intelligent, articulate writer. He makes what appears to be a compelling case for continued use of fossil fuels to allow humanity to thrive and prosper. However, even at a quick glance it also appears that he is minimizing, or even completely ignoring the costs of that continued use.

“Human ingenuity can dramatically increase the amount of coal, oil, or gas that is available” (p. 18). Yet we need to drill in permafrost regions or deep ocean waters, blast the tops of mountains away and dump the poison-laced rubble in nearby streams, or inject brine deep into the ground and trigger nontrivial seismic events in order to do so.

Throughout the book his only reference to greenhouse gasses is to carbon dioxide. This ignores other carbon compounds such as methane that are many times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

On page 27 he compares the warnings of climate scientists to financial/investment advice given in the years leading up to the 2007–2008 financial crisis: take on more debt, riskier debt, because the things securing that debt are going to increase in value indefinitely. Doesn’t his own philosophy and advice compare more favorably with that advice, and aren’t the predictions and advice of climate scientists urging us to err on the side of caution, if anything?

He states on page 24 that the number of deaths related to climate is fifty times lower now than it was 80 years ago, even though CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have risen dramatically in that time. On page 62, in arguing in favor of nuclear energy, he observes that there have been zero deaths related to nuclear energy in the free world. That is true, but Chernobyl must be considered when evaluating the safety of nuclear energy.

I couldn’t help but think of the principle that it is possible to make statistics say anything one wants them to.

Fossil fuels allow us to pursue personal happiness (pages 84–85). This is central to his argument. Moreover, he affirms that his moral philosophy is based in the philosophy of Ayn Rand (pages 138, 213).

Mr. Epstein repeatedly claims that the greatest good is human flourishing. The resources we find around us are to be used in pursuing that aim. Their value is only seen in light of that aim. As a Christian I would argue that the created world, the environment from which we extract resources, is good in and of itself (Genesis 1:25) and deserves our protection even if we need to deprive ourselves of some physical pleasures. Yes, we need to use the resources we have to provide reliable medical care to people in The Gambia (pages 38 and 39) or clean drinking water to people in many developing nations. We don’t need to use the resources we have to indulge our passion for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (p. 85) if it means that we despoil the planet in the process.

Full disclosure: I enjoy a standard of living—yes, thanks in part to fossil fuels—that is obscenely high by global standards. If you’ve read this book and find yourself in a similar frame of mind, I’d welcome your thoughts.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

In Memory of Dominick Ferrara III

Dominick Ferrara III passed away on Monday, 13 February, 2017. He was director emeritus of the Bloomfield Civic Band, having served as its director for forty-three years until his retirement in 2013. The generosity of someone who would devote so much of his life to a volunteer community band can’t be overstated.

Over twenty years ago an article in the New York Times featured Dominick and the band. The writer did not call the band an anachronism but clearly and respectfully placed community bands and their repertoire in some romantic yesteryear.

Dominick and the band’s current director, Frank Ortega, have championed the kind of repertoire that transcends time, pleases diverse audiences, keeps the band members engaged and sharp, and showcases the talents of individuals in the band. Classical transcriptions, marches, show tunes, big band  and jazz arrangements, pops favorites, and rock and roll transcriptions fill our programs. Dominick even arranged at least part of a Mozart symphony for performance by the Civic Band and the Garden State Concert Band, of which Dominick was also the director.

Dominick was generous with the time that he spent curating music for the band’s programs and conducting the rehearsals and concerts, but he was also generous in supporting and encouraging members of the band. Learning to play a band instrument was my answer to midlife angst. Before 2004 I barely knew what a baritone horn or euphonium was, let alone picking one up and attempting to play it. After only about seven months of lessons my teacher contacted Dominick and asked if he had a seat in the band for a new player. Of course Dominick said “Yes,” so on a Monday evening in September 2004 I gathered my instrument and my courage and attended my first Civic Band rehearsal.

I’m probably still inflating my achievement to say that I could play only about twenty percent of what was in the folder, but I had the good fortune to sit between two very skilled and experienced players. Weeks later Dominick insisted that I play in that season’s holiday concert. I had not experienced such stage fright in many years, if ever. To this day, over twelve years later, I still play like a middle school kid who never practices. I am still grateful beyond words for the chance to play in the band, and for Dominick’s and now Frank’s patience with the less proficient members of the band like me.

Through leading the Bloomfield Civic Band and through the Bloomfield Federation of Music Dominick helped keep alive the institution and tradition of community music making. When the Bloomfield Civic Band meets for rehearsal we leave at the door the concerns and categories and predispositions that otherwise distract and keep us apart in our daily lives. We spend a couple of hours trying to make sense of a lot of dots and squiggles. Magic happens. We make music. Periodically we get to share that music with an people who, we hope, have also left concerns and categories somewhere else and who, we hope, will be lifted and cheered by the magic of a community band.

That is my memory of Dominick Ferrara III. I am privileged to have sat and played under his baton.