All the Light We Cannot See is an easy read, and it is not an easy read. The narrative moves quickly and pulls the reader along, but the details of the depravity that characters face because of Nazi madness will haunt the reader’s dreams. The characters are well developed, and we see their doubts and convictions, fear and courage, humor and anger throughout. We wonder, as Werner does of one of his comrades, what they could have become if not for the madness they endure.
Also impressive is the descriptive detail. When Etienne is obliged to surrender his collection of radios, Doerr takes pains to identify each radio. We see the streets of Saint Malo through Marie’s sightless understanding of it. How many storm drains to the corner? What creatures inhabit the grotto where Marie wades in the sea?
The nonlinear narrative requires some mental energy. We read about a circumstance or event at the chronological end of the story and we can infer from that circumstance or event the outcome of a crisis that is earlier chronologically but comes later in the text.
Some years ago I read The Sojourn, a novel set in Austria-Hungary and Italy during the first World War. I still have mental images from some of the scenes and events in that book. The same will no doubt be the case with All the Light We Cannot See.
Labor Day 2017 was an ideal day to spend out of doors in New Jersey. We chose to spend part of the morning at Richard W. DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. The park features several trails that wind their ways through and around tidal enclosures fed and drained by Kingsland Creek and the Hackensack River. It’s a great place to see migrating birds and year-round resident wildlife. (For great information on events at DeKorte Park and other New Jersey Meadowlands sites, visit The Meadowlands Nature Blog.)
When we arrived the tide was in, so few wading birds aside from great egrets were visible. Soon after we arrived we met two photographers whose camera lenses were longer than my forearm. One of them graciously directed our view to a nearby opening in the phragmites at the water line and said that there were several least bitterns hiding there. I caught a quick glimpse of the head of one and another flew past moments later.
We were then treated to a display by a Forster’s tern. He hovered briefly a few yards above the water, then dove in, presumably in hopes of catching a fish. I wasn’t able to photograph the acrobatics, but I did manage to photograph him while he was resting on a metal railing. Please excuse the quality of the photographs. At maximum optical zoom my camera lens is the 35-mm equivalent of about 70 mm in focal length.
We heard but did not see several other small birds hiding in the phragmites. Two pairs of medium- to large-size wading birds (dowitchers?) flew by while we were watching the tern. We also got to see several swans, an American black duck, several goldfinches, a ruby-throated hummingbird that was being harassed by a small brown bird that we could not identify, and a couple of turtles.
The walkways and other fixtures in DeKorte Park were heavily damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. They have since been repaired or replaced and, in some cases, enhanced. Sadly, invasive phragmites have replaced much of the native flora and this undoubtedly affects the well-being of the wildlife that makes its home in the park or passes through on its migratory journey. The park staff work to keep key viewing areas clear so that folks like us can spot birds and other creatures.
The Environmental Center also has an observatory that is open to the public on Wednesday evenings from 8:00 p.m. until 10:30 p.m., weather permitting. We went one Wednesday evening in 2016 and saw Saturn, rings clearly visible, through the telescope.
DeKorte Park is adjacent to the offices of the Meadowlands Environmental Center and the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority. It’s located at the southeastern end of Valley Brook Avenue in Lyndhurst, NJ. Valley Brook Avenue turns to the right and becomes Disposal Road just before the park entrance.
The name “Disposal Road” is fitting because the offices and park are located at the southeastern edge of a large landfill that is now closed. In our less enlightened past we viewed the Meadowlands region as someplace to dump our garbage. Thankfully our governments and businesses now recognize that wetlands such as the New Jersey Meadowlands need to be preserved and protected. It’s worth a visit to understand why. Also, check out this interesting article on how wetlands mitigate damage from severe stormssuch as Superstorm Sandy.
Rod Dreher paints a dark picture of the state and status of American Christianity in the 21st century. It is hard to argue with his assessment. The decline and marginalization of the Church are evident, as is the secularization of American culture, even if one doesn’t accept the argument that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
Dreher’s answer to the crisis is for orthodox Christians to focus on maintaining and building up what remains through communities that focus attention inward. This is a simplification, but his answer conjures another picture, that of driving through a questionable neighborhood in the family car. Our orders are to roll up the windows and lock the doors. Don’t make eye contact with the shabby person carrying a paper cup and a hand-lettered “Homeless, Please Help” sign. Don’t look at the women in short skirts and halter tops. Don’t stare at the drunk lying on the sidewalk in a pool of his own urine.
How does an insular community deal with social justice concerns or creation care? How do we reach people who are marginalized by or excluded from the community, but who nonetheless are people for whom Christ died? What are Christians who can afford classical education or home schooling supposed to do? Where do civic engagement and involvement take place?
Honestly, these allusions to social justice issues are little more than lip service on my part. And The Benedict Option provides much to think about for someone who has drifted somewhat from the orthodox Christianity of his younger life. I would welcome a recommendation for a left-of-center approach to the decline and marginalization of Christianity that Rod Dreher so thoughtfully addresses.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!