Wade Davis Defends the Indigenous

b1ca14e2-5ab5-4999-8ed8-4226ad6b373b

I’m a big fan of history, authentic history that’s unshackled from bias. I like knowing what really happened, when and how, and the lessons we can draw from history, lest we repeat its follies. Sometimes, though, history is like lining up for my morning cod liver oil as a child, good for me, but awful tasting stuff I want desperately to spit out, especially when learning of our continuing abuse of indigenous people, not only in America, but worldwide.

In North America, where I live, our crimes against native peoples comprise an unparalleled holocaust even by WWII’s blood-curdling horror show of 10 million Jews, Slavs, and Roma slaughtered in Nazi death camps. It began even before the notorious Indian Removal Act (1830), ordering Indians east of the Mississippi to move westward. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence decries the Indians as “savages.”

Just how many indigenous people lived in North America, not including Mexico and Central America, prior to 1492, is a calculated estimate at best. The consensus, however, led by scholars Russell Thornton and David Stannard, poses a reasonable estimate of 7 million, with 75 million in the Western Hemisphere at large (see Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987; David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). 

Thornton thinks that of some 5 million indigenous peoples within today’s continental United States, the vast majority were decimated by disease, starvation, forced labor, relocation, alcoholism, declining birthrates, and genocide. By 1900, that number had dwindled to 250,000. Of the 75 million indigenous in the Western Hemisphere, an estimated 70 million have perished consequent with European colonization since 1492.

Anthropologist explorer and advocate of indigenous interests, Wade Davis, wrote a definitive account of their plight, worldwide, in his 2001 book, Light at the Edge of the World: a Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures. It navigates, in particular, the pressures of modern civilization on ancient ways of life, harboring unique wisdom acquired over thousands of years of living in close contact with the natural world.

Wade explores several cultures, among them, Borneo’s Penan, northern Kenya’s pastoral nomads, and, tragically, the fate of Tibet and the coerced extinction of an ancient way of life. His book concludes with a model of hope in Canada’s designated vast homeland for the Inuit, Nunavut.

Passionate and eloquent, Wade delivers a salient polemic for doing everything we can to preserve these ancient cultures with their unique ways of imagining the human experience.

In our ethnocentrism, we may dismiss these cultures devoid of modern amenities as anachronisms, their loss of no consequence, perhaps even desirable: cessation of inter-tribal violence, improved health, social equity, education and employment options, etc.

Wade argues persuasively that when these unique societies fade, their former constituents most frequently find themselves adrift, subject to discrimination and poverty. He gives many examples such as the sad aftermath of the 1956 evangelical missionary intrusion of the Waorani, or Auca, habitat in remote Ecuador, its culture vanquished and displaced tribespeople reduced to menial labor in a modern landscape.

Space is crucial in positing who we are. When lost or compromised, we become adrift, flotsam in a larger current, severed from what conferred identity. This has also been the fate of Native Americans at large.

Spatial encroachment seems everywhere now, accelerated by corporate interests, technology, and human indifference. 98.9% of historical indigenous lands in North America have been lost since 1492 (environment.yale.edu). It continues unabated worldwide: Central America, the Amazon forest, Africa, where logging, mining, dam construction, oil drilling, pipe line installation and agribusiness, the foremost instigator, exact their toll upon historically indigenous land.

An estimated 370 million indigenous live in 90 countries and are notoriously abused. They exist as 5,000 distinct peoples, speaking 4,000 languages. 70% percent of the indigenous live in Asia.

Did you know that indigenous life expectancy is 20 years less than the rest of us? Or that comprising five percent of the world’s population, they’re 15% of the world’s impoverished?

We do a lot of talking about climate change, but how many of us realize the environment’s greatest defenders are the indigenous?

Occupying 25% of the world’s surface, they are guardians of “80% of its remaining biodiversity and 40 per cent of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes” (Amnesty International).

20% of the world’s tropical carbon forest is stored in indigenous lands: the Amazon, Central America, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (worldbank.org).

What’s more, their demise poses a visceral loss to all of us in the forfeiture of a unique diversity, reducing the world to a “monochromatic world of monotony,” Wade writes.

Tragically, in the last fifty years we have witnessed not only the loss of 1 million species of inestimable value to the biosphere upon which our existence depends, but the uniqueness and wisdom of cultures from which we can learn much to ameliorate our own. The parallel fate of these cultures, despite the UN’s passage of the Indigenous Bill of Rights, poses one of the urgent issues of our time.

Worldwide, some 300 million people, roughly 5 per cent of the global population, still retain a strong identity as members of an indigenous culture, rooted in history and language, attached by myth an memory to a particular place on the planet. Though their populations are small, these cultures account for 60 per cent of the world’s languages and collectively represent over half of the intellectual legacy of humanity. Yet, increasingly, their voices are being silenced, their unique visions of life itself lost in a whirlwind of change and conflict.

Wade argues that the loss of language diversity, in particular, underscores the accelerating demise of ethnosphere diversity through loss of habitat, acculturation and assimilation:

Of the more than two thousand languages in New Guinea, five hundred are each spoken by fewer than five hundred people. Of the 175 Native languages still alive in the United States, 55 are spoken by fewer than ten individuals.

….each language is, in itself, an entire ecosystem of ideas. and intuitions, a watershed of thought, an old-growth forest of the mind. Each is a window into a world, a monument to the culture that gave it birth, and whose spirit it expresses.

I’m very receptive to Wade. I’ve long been a student of culture. Wade’s book continues that interest and I recommend it, and all his books, as a collective, informed defense of the right of indigenous communities to a way of life, often superior to our own; the interplay of gathered insight through intimacy with Nature in its many vicissitudes.

I believe strongly in the gifts diversity confers, every culture a contributing chapter in the human narrative. Any diminishment of the ethnosphere consequent with cultural leveling alarms me. I believe it constitutes cultural genocide, whether by intent or omission.

Climate change is today’s most ardent threat to indigenous peoples, their ecosystems, upon which they depend for subsistence, vanishing rapidly as increasing temperatures; a greater suspectability to illness via vector borne and water borne diseases; drought; forest fires; and desertification exponentially occur.

In Northern climes, the Inuit, for example, are now facing a potential hunger crisis consequent with melting glaciers, rising seas, and diminished wildlife; on tropical islands, storms of increasing velocity occurrence and rising seas menace as never before.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees informs us that there presently exist 37 million climate refugees, a disproportionate 15% of whom are indigenous peoples.

I find this an unfolding tragedy. Indigenous tribes have been stalwart stewards of the biosphere from whom we can learn, but conversely set upon by agriculture expansion, logging, and mining interests. Activists have been murdered, most recently, journalist Dom Philips and indigenous advocate, Bruno Pereira in Brazil. Pereira had been investigating criminal activity within the Amazonian indigenous reserve of the Javari Valley. Philips was there to document.

In 2020, Frontline Defenders reported that at least 331 human rights activists, mostly in Central and South America were murdered, 69% of whom were defending indigenous lands. Between 2017 and 2020, 25% of those murdered were indigenous, who comprise only 5% of the world’s population. In 2021, a known 33 indigenous people were killed.

As I write, photos of many of indigenous victims lie before me, a good number of them women along with their children. I can give you country by country analysis of the continuing bloodbath, with governments such as Brazil’s Bolsonaro indifferent to the crisis and the perpetrators remaining free.

Unfortunately, the indigenous often live in areas most vulnerable to climate change: the Arctic’s Inuit, Scandinavia’s Swami, the Amazon’s Yanomami, for example. Thus, their ardent defense of their diminishing environment made worse by exploiters.

Their demise poses an incalculable loss for all of us. Wade, with his typical acuity, summarizes its meaning well:

The ultimate tragedy is not that archaic societies are disappearing but rather that vibrant, dynamic, living cultures and languages are being forced out of existence. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written literature composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets and saints. In short, the artistic, intellectual and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human experience.

Indigenous People’s Day will be observed October 10, 2022 in the U.S. in 26 states as part of a growing movement to replace the traditional Columbus Day.  For me, it’s everyday I remember them, Earth’s guardians, beleaguered and increasingly vanishing along with their sacred habitat. They need your help.

—rj

Only the beginning…

Britain is experiencing an unprecedented heat wave today, with temperatures soaring to 104F over much of England. Scientists are apprehensive, their future model scenarios occurring faster than anticipated.

Meanwhile, we continue our dependency on fossil fuels, our president begging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, yes, the same guy our intelligence names as ordering the killing of Washington Post Saudi critic, Jamal Khashoggi, to increase oil output.

Widespread reports have it that Biden is proposing to open up Alaska’s North Slope wilderness to drilling, despite the Interior Department’s initial draft supplemental impact statement, projecting a thirty year time bomb release of 284 metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Under the proposal, ConocoPhillips would obtain drilling rights to five federal land sites, along with a processing facility, pipelines to transport oil, gravel roads, and at least one airstrip and a gravel mine site, according to the draft EIS.

The fallout would be consequential to wildlife as well, threatening caribou, polar bears and migratory birds.

Ominously, the Arctic and Antartica, which help cool the earth by reflecting sunlight back into space, are melting faster than other earth regions. Hence, the heat waves increasingly scorching the Earth. The proposal only increases the speed of melting ice, resulting in rising seas, release of methane, and alteration of sea currents such as the Gulf Stream

As I write, Alaska has been burning faster than in the last 80 years, with 500 fires since April of this year, the consequence of rising temperatures, increased vapor with accompanying lightning strikes, and accumulating kindle. 264 fires are currently burning across the state.

While I’m ashamed of Biden’s betrayal of his campaign pledges, what bothers me most is the public’s myopic indulgence to pursue life in a bubble, ignoring the ominous natural signatures to our coming doom.

Unless we amend our ways, our children will have no meaningful future.
—rj


The 10th Amendment: Roe vs Wade

The 10th Amendment is used by right to life advocates to justify the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning Roe vs Wade. Implying two distinct legislative spheres, it reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

This is the same Amendment that was used by SCOTUS to justfy the infamous Dred Scott decision (1857), defining slave/free state boundaries. Lincoln intuited its liabilities, leading to the Emancipation Proclamation (1863).

Its history is complex, Jefferson supporting it; Hamilton, opposed. It has been cited by local jurisdictions opposing federal Covid mandates.

I believe it needs revision, our founding Fathers not foreseeing the complexities of our present times. The Constitution must always give precedence to public welfare, not factional interest, whether left or right. How else could the government have rescinded segregation in the Little Rock school integration crisis of 1957, ending with Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s employment of federal troops?

I vigorously support John Stuart Mill’s principle of “disinterested benevolence,” i.e., the right of government to advocate policy conducive to society’s welfare, not factional interest: its right to impose environmental laws, construct highways, mandate taxes, allow unions, sanction military drafts, regulate commerce, provide medical access, govern immigration, ensure the liberties of marginalized entities, etc. The list is long.

Government’s true role is to ensure not only traditional freedoms, but to promote progressive policy implementation enhancing the citizenry’s collective well-being.

Simplistic, the 10th Amendment has historically proven an impediment across many fronts, seen again in the abrogation of a woman’s right to sovereignty over her own body. Contraception access may be next.

—rj

One Mistake at a Time: Our War on Nature

The  only biodiversity we’re going to have left is Coke versus Pepsi. We’re landscaping the whole world one stupid mistake at a time. —Chuck Palahnuk, Lullaby

The year is 2060. You are gone, but your grandchild reads to her children from a book filled with drawings of creatures once abundant and a source of wonder, now the stuff of children’s story books, only not of some fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex, Megalodon, or Woolly Mammoth, but of elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, rhinos, whales and monarch butterflies, now vanquished, never to grace our earth again.

Distressingly, largely due to the exponential increase in the human footprint, this is our grandchildren’s bleak future. No more condors, manatees; no more of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, orangutans, and mountain gorillas, natural selection’s vast repertoire of unique, splendid entities reaching back several million years, thoughtlessly extinguished by Homo sapiens.

Apart from the scientific community, the public appears largely unaware, perhaps even indifferent, to this unprecedented threat to species loss and the risks it imposes for its own welfare. This extends to climate change, largely human induced. A current PEW poll reveals only 41% of Americans regard it as a priority issue.

As to how many species exist, whether flora or fauna, we don’t really know. New species are continually being discovered, while others have recently become extinct or face extinction. What we do know is that many species have gone extinct even before their discovery. An estimated million others are likely to go extinct in the next several decades.

This leaves us in a quandary: do we attempt to preserve existing species for future generations or do we simply resort to preserving those serving immediate human interests? Unfortunately, our present trending indicates the latter with species everywhere in free fall.

A useful acronym for the specifics governing this decline is HIPPO: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, over exploitation:

Habitat: Three quarters of the earth’s terrestrial environment has been altered by human activity; 66% of the marine environment.

Invasive species: Since 1970, invasive, alien species have increased 70% across 21 countries.

Pollution: 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge among other wastes from industrial facilities have been dumped into the world’s waters.

Population growth: The world’s population averaged an annual 1.7 increase between 1950 (2.5 billion) and 2010 (6.9 billion). In 2022, world population has reached 7. 6 billion. (Pew Research). While the growth rate has generally been plummeting, not so in Africa, averaging an annual 2.54 increase. By 2050, Nigeria will overtake the U.S. in population (The Economist); 800 million by 2300 (qz.com).

Over-exploitation: In 1930, an estimated 10 million elephants roamed Africa. Currently, that number has dwindled to 416,000, largely due to poaching and conflict (World Wildlife Federation). On the high seas, factory ships are removing fish faster than they can be replenished. Japan continues to hunt whales. Sharks are killed in the thousands for their fins (fin soup a Chinese delicacy), their carcasses thrown into the sea. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, hunted for meat and increasingly suffering habitat loss, are now a threatened species.

Climate change needs to be added, giving us HIPPCO. It ranks second to habitat loss in imperiling biodiversity. Largely due to climate change, we are losing our polar bears, just 31,000 remaining; coral reefs with their independent ecosystem, nourishing myriad aquatic life, are dying as the sea warms and storm intensity and frequency increase. The speed of heat increase due to reliance on fossil fuels over the last 100 years now exceeds that of the previous 10,000 years.

Extinction isn’t new to earth’s history. Geologists have noted five principal occurrences, the most famous that of 65 million years ago, when a 12 kilometer wide asteroid crashed into the Yucatan, leaving a crater 10 kilometers deep and 180 kilometers wide, killing 70% of the earth species, including the dinosaurs, ending the Mesozoic Era, or Age of Reptiles, and ushering in the Cenozoic Era and the rise of mammals after 10 million years of evolution.

Humans came late on the scene. In the 1980s, aquatic biologist Eugene Stoermer coined the term Anthropocene to depict a new epoch, human dominated. In this epoch, the Earth faces a new menace, wrought not by an asteroid, but by Man. The massive extinction of this human-centered epoch has been popularized as the Sixth Extinction.

The fundamental source of our dilemma is our disconnect from nature. We have fostered Nature as something apart from ourselves. It exists, but it’s outside ourselves, an entity to be exploited for human needs.

The truth is we exist as constituents of a vast biosphere complex of interrelated life forms dependent on one another for well-being. Remove an element of this web and you potentially unleash a house of cards scenario of collapse.

Take, for example, the chestnut tree dominating the forests of Eastern North America before European settlement. Tall, fast growing, numbering an estimated four billion, their canopy housed millions of birds and their nuts provided food for many birds, insects and mammals. Then came the Asian pathogen fungus Cryphonectria parasitica of the early 20th century. With the loss of these magnificent trees came the demise of caterpillars metamorphosing into moth pollinators, along with the plunge into oblivion of the once prodigious passenger pigeon.

116D5F72-3B99-4C13-B7D8-FA23C1DD77E8

In our earth’s nearly 4 billion year history, we estimate that of the 4 billion species evolved by nature, 99% are extinct. But such extinctions resulted from natural antecedents apart from human causation. Increasingly, Man has become the arbiter of species decline, not evolution or cyclic climate change, or asteroid collision. In the last 500 years, 900 species have gone extinct and the pace quickens.

Currently, 35,000 species face extinction risk, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species:

Among these, 1 in 7 bird species.

A quarter of the world’s mammals

40% of amphibians

34% of conifers

37% of sharks and rays

21% of reptiles

33% of reef corals

It gets worse than that. The latest UN IPBES Global Assessment report (2019) forecasts more than a million species are likely to go extinct in coming decades.

The biosphere, which includes ourselves, is Nature’s survival gift, complex and delicate, requiring balance of its constituents.  Safe-guarding it is crucial and its benefits not to be taken for granted. Healthy Plants convert the sun’s energy, making it available for other life forms. Bacteria and other living organisms convert organic matter into nutrients enriching the soil. Pollinators are essential to food production. Plants and oceans act as major carbon sinks.  Did you know that of the 50,000 known medicinal plants, up to a fifth face extinction from deforestation? Or that approximately 120 drugs derived from rainforest plants are used to treat cancer, leukaemia malaria, heart diseases, bronchitis, rheumatism, diabetes, arthritis or tuberculosis? 

As the late eminent biologist E. O. Wilson pleads in his compelling Half Earth,

The biosphere does not belong to us; we belong to it. The organisms that surround us in such beautiful profusion are the product of 3.8 billion years of evolution by natural selection. We are one of its present-day products, having arrived as a fortunate species of Old World primates. And it happened only a geological eyeblink ago. Our physiology and our minds are adapted for life in the biosphere, which we have only begun to understand. We are now able to protect the rest of life, but instead we remain recklessly prone to destroy and replace a large part of it.

Our Earth has taken ill and we are its cause. Paradoxically, we must be its healer.

—rj

 

 

 

A Reading of Jennifer Rahim’s Poem, “Wherever I go…”

Thomas Wolfe famously wrote “You can’t go home again.” On the flip side, we never leave. The latter defines the theme of Trinidad poet Jennifer Rahim’s “Wherever I go….”

I have a liking for poetry of surface simplicity, yet iceberg subtlety offering multiple nuance.

A good poem is when everything functions: structure, rhythm, diction, imagery, etc. In this sense, all worthy poetry is ecological, each element an integral contributor to the welfare of the whole.

Good poems suggest, lending them universality.

When done well, their texts rewrite themselves, speaking to us continually in varied ways beyond spatial and temporal boundaries.

In all these aspects, Rahim’s poem does not disappoint.

Wherever I go…

there will be an island,
and an ocean will be
what rings me.

We are to the very end
a naming not our own,
though we leave to find

what is left behind
and that holds us,
more than we know,

like a small beach
has the ear of the great sea

and a trillion ebbs
are never without returns.

This flow is the staying,
though we depart.

An oyster takes a single grain
and stores it in her heart’s muscle

like a lover’s memento;
she never lets us go …

I like the unusual way Rahim integrates the title, an adverbial clause, flowing like the poem’s ocean ambience, into the lines that follow, setting up the poem’s structural elements.

That this clause ends in ellipsis, is significant, suggesting still more to be said. Reflection lies at its core.

While not specified, this is a poem about leaving home and its consequences.
That Rahim is from Trinidad may lead readers to impose boundaries on its meaning, i.e., the diaspora. Yes, emigration has been a norm for Trinidadians, 400,000 of them living in the USA; another 80,000 in Canada and 23,000 in the UK. Trinidad’s most renowned writer, the late V.S. Naipaul, resided in the UK.

Two notable novels of our time depicting the immigrant mood superbly are Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah and India’s Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad.

But the poem transcends restriction to migrants in its nuance.  A well made poem coalesces its formal elements into meaning.  It is its own text.

Read this way,  “Wherever I go…”  becomes universal, topophilia, or love of place, its theme.  As Alastair Bonnett comments in his Unruly Places, “Place is a protean and fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. We are a place-making and place-loving species.”

The poem’s structural elements are binary in their conception,
three introductory tercets, followed by couplets offering amplification through simile and metaphor. In both sections, sea referents prevail, unifying the poem.

Irony pervades the structural prelude: “we leave to find”

what is left behind
and that holds us,
more than we know.

“Ring” in l. 3 suggests encirclement or entrapment. We cannot elude our origins that birthed our identity.

The amplifying examples defining this sense of dislocation are embedded in specific sea imagery in the subsequent couplets, suggesting the tidal flow of remembrance: “This flow is the staying,/though we depart.”

The small beach and echoing of sea landscape hint at constancy and safety.

Then comes the poem’s magnificent concluding oyster analogy defining the enduring strength of remembrance:

An oyster takes a single grain
and stores it in her heart’s muscle
like a lover’s memento;
she never lets us go …

Intriguingly, ellipsis concludes the poem, mirroring the ellipsis of the opening and its thematic, “Wherever I go…”

A unified poem in all its informants, we now understand more fully the persona’s opening musing:

Wherever I go…
there will be an island,
and an ocean will be
what rings me.

Archetype abounds.  Islands often represent sanctuary; the sea, the timeless and maternal. Rahim’s poem is from her new poetry collection, Sanctuaries of Invention.

The oyster has a maternal aspect, pregnant as it were with a grain (seed) becoming a pearl.

The pearl referent, however, is double-edged. In mythology, looking back imperils. Memory can embellish, recalling Proust’s sober observation, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

And yet as Homer underscores in his epic saga of the archetypal migrant, each of us requires his Ithaca.

–rj

RJ’s Morning Musings

Mornings are best for me, sun filling every recess, my thoughts teeming into overflow. I am one with the universe and find peace in the stillness it confers. And so let me share with you my morning musings:


Good writing doesn’t come easily, but not daring it stifles who we are and wish to be, for it’s with words we share ourselves, inspire others, find ourselves, and discover we’re not alone.

Ancestral, marauding voices of nurturing hover like ghosts in the thoroughfares of the present, haunting our happiness. Only when we rebel and cease our clinging can we be free, and discovering freedom, make friends with ourselves.

Good poetry observes Dickinson’s dictum to “tell the truth, but tell it slant,” for artifice sows the sensory and when we show and do not tell, we plough the soul.

Think of good poetry as a bouquet and you’ll not go wrong, a unity of balance, imagery and shape, coalescing into what pleases and is, therefore, beautiful.

Good poetry mines deeply, unafraid to tap crevices in obdurate darkness, cutting away the unessential, with right tools pursuing every line, digging earnestly, buoyed by passion and not a little of intelligence.

I am in love with the stillness of every sunrise, elbowing the darkness and wakening the earth; its gift of new beginning, putting away yesterday’s might-have beens; the grace of another day to forgive and to love and be thankful.

A good poem likes to think, but avoiding prose, sings its truth with beauty dressed in feeling.

—+

Why is it I must pass things by without seeing a thing once? This sky, for instance, pageantry of mercurial mood, of cloud, wind, storm and calm, pink dawns and flaming sunsets, pitch fork lightning and rolling thunder, starry nights and lunar mystery—the majesty of it—our imperial dome, to which we owe the breath of life.



If that lunar beacon we call the moon borrows its silvery brilliance from reflected light, so on earth we’d do well to debit blessings often owed to others.

Poetry has an uncanny way of happening, reviving the sensory, meant for survival, not truth dulled by habit, thriving on vagary. Through metaphor, our exile ends, we find connection, and receive benediction.

In every dawn I am like a newly lit candle, my thoughts spilling everywhere. I rejoice in the cardinal’s song, emissary of a new day redolent with promise, the chance to meet up with blessings I had overlooked yesterday.

I admit to being passionate, sometimes to excess, sensitive to the disenfranchised, the voiceless, whether human or animal, strident in contesting a world that often plays unfairly and mutilates the Earth. I do not repent!

May I cherish each day’s renewed grace and seek virtue only, knowing I cannot own what was never mine to keep, and that what matters lies in the present, for the past I can remember, but not retrieve and tomorrow I may not wake to see.

Nothing wise hasn’t been said before, but the doing is hard, making it necessary to repeat.

Good writers, like all artists, celebrate their audience, and not themselves, recreating the human stream that succeeds when readers exclaim, “I’ve been there!“ All else is but an unlit candle.

Every quest begins with desire, but when desire lusts for possession, it commences our journey into sorrow.

I knew age had caught up with me when, yesterday, my doctor said, “Now if you were my father, I’d advise….”

As humans, we often filter what we perceive, influenced by our wishes and fears, born of past experience and, yes, the weight of culture and even our friends, fostering expectations as false as they are limiting. May I learn not always to believe what I sometimes think.

It’s how I draw the bow and not the target. It’s the journey, not the goal.

We are all story makers, each day our thoughts composing new chapters in life’s journey; but as in reading books, discerning between fantasy and truth, fiction and non-fiction, is essential to getting the story right and space for choosing action over inertia.

Yes, I admit to following a daily regimen that some may call being in a rut; but I much prefer its discipline, the empowerment it confers over my many infirmities, and the peace it affords in keeping chaos at bay and getting things done. I believe the passions must be made obedient to the mind. Or as Epictetus put it, “One person likes tending to his farm, another to his horse; I like to daily monitor my self-improvement.” Virtue doesn’t fall upon us out of the blue. We must toil at it.

I stumble in the darkness, the stars invisible, the earth’s silence my companion, but I do not tremble, for I know all things pass and the sun will surely rise and morning’s birds sing earth’s song.

Letting go yesterday to indulge today and sow tomorrow.

A good poem is its own immensity, tributaries of nuance coalescing into unity. It is neither more nor less. It is itself.

—rj





What Camus’ “The Plague” Teaches Us

There are times when we’re not ready for a book, especially when young. So it was when I first read Albert Camus’ The Stranger, lacking the maturation to comprehend its resonance that only experience can fully render. Since those early years, better equipped from life’s lessons, I’ve gone on to other Camus works such as The Myth of Sisyphus, which critics seem to have omitted as a fitting introduction to his sequel, The Plague.

I’ve been wanting to catch-up on classics I’ve missed over the years, despite being an omnivorous reader of humanity’s most accomplished writers, whether of fiction or non-fiction. The Plague is one of them.

I had especially wanted to read it because of its topical relevance to COVID-19. I was curious. Readers will discover, however, that the book isn’t confined to detailing a deadly pandemic. The Plague, in short, is metaphor for what ails us beyond disease. As with his The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus posits an absurd universe of randomness, annulling meaning. How then are we to live our lives? The Plague is Camus’ answer.

Plagues, or pandemics, have been intrinsic to the human experience and, despite modern medicine’s vast repertoire of advanced treatment, remain with us. Ironically, The Plague surprised me, nonetheless, with its plethora of protocol that has varied little: vaccines, boosters, masks, quarantine and, in extreme cases, geographical isolation as in China’s Wuhan City and Shanghai.

More striking to me still is The Plague’s ominous depiction of a virus’ ability to mutate and thus pose continuing menace, even when apparently subsiding, lying dormant and ready to strike again.

America’s last great bout with a pandemic came with the 1918-19 epidemic that infected a third of the human population and killed an estimated 50 million; in the U.S., 675,000 (CDC). It killed a woman my father loved. As I write, the worldwide death toll of our current pandemic is a staggering 6,309,976 (worldmeters/info.com). In the U.S., we just recently recorded 1 million deaths. With new, more resistant variants and lessened protocols, the numbers are surging again.

Camus presumably employed the Oran (Algeria) cholera outbreak of 1849 shortly after French colonization as its backdrop. (Camus was Algerian born and had lived in Oran for eighteen months, subsequently revisiting it several times.) The novel, however, is set in the 1940s, suggesting he may have had the Nazi tyranny in mind as the ultimate scourge historically confronting humanity: “Calmly they denied, in the teeth of the evidence, that we had ever known a crazy world in which men were killed off like flies…. In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn.”

It takes courage, if not resolve, to continue reading its 226 pages of grinding suffering and loss. And yet not to read it is to miss out on one of the supreme narratives of the human condition in a cosmos where mortality hovers over everything, even what we love most.

There are no saviors to deliver us, no gods descending to the earth with quixotic formulae of a compensatory afterlife of eternal bliss. Ours is an irrational, or absurd, cosmos. We have only each other and, as such, we must create our own meaning, regardless of our temporality, if we are to achieve rapport with the dissonance that confronts us.

On another level, Camus, an atheist, decries the irrelevance of traditional Christianity through the ineffectual priest, Father Paneloux, with his platitudes of resignation to divine providence, reiterating a central complaint in his The Myth of Sisyphus.

This theme of revealed religion’s impotency and irrelevance in the context of pandemic isn’t new; for example, there is Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous The Decameron where religion is mocked. Subsequently, there is Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in which Fermina Daza, lover of the story’s protagonist, comes to loathe her religion.

Despite The Plague’s seeming morbidity, the book’s ultimate affirmation is that crisis bequeaths solidarity. Empathy is suffering’s gift in a world depicted in Auden’s memorable “Musee des Beaux Arts” indifferently pursuing its mundane interests. Camus’ “The Rebel” makes clear his resistance to nihilism amidst absurdity, setting him apart from his contemporary, Sartre. Empathy inspires collective resistance to abate a sea of troubles; namely, the myriad horrors of unleashed human tyranny not confined to temporal-spatial parameters.

An unknown editor assembles the plague’s details, gathered largely from the notebook diaries of Jean Tarrou and other documents. The principal character is Dr. Rieux, saintly in depiction, compassionately persevering in treating victims, keen in observation.

Camus hated despotism in all its myriad guises, joining the French Resistance, ultimately rejecting Soviet communism, opposing the Russian repression of the East German uprising (1953) and of Hungary (1956). As a pacifist working for human rights, he fervently sought abolition of capital punishment. The Plague’s Raymond Rambert is spokesperson for his view. In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his anti-capital punishment essay, “Réflexions sur la Guillotine.” Camus died in January, 1960, in a car accident. He was 46.

The characters in The Plague are few, but memorable. They include:

Dr. Bernard Rieux, dedicated healer and inveterate observer.
Jean Tarrou, Rieux’ close friend, whose notebooks detail much of the pandemic’s course.
Joseph Grand, the underpaid, dutiful city prefect, who takes the pandemic seriously in the context of ineffectual government.
Raymond Rambert, who foregoes escape for commitment and joins Rieux and Tarrou in their efforts to stem the disease.
M. Cottard, self-centered opportunist alienated from his fellows.
Othon, police magistrate.
Father Paneloux, Jesuit priest, representative of ineffectual Christian response.
The Plague’s unidentified editor.

The plot is readily available from many sources. I do want to comment on one scene, archetypal, that critics miss. Toward the book’s end, Rieux and his close friend, Tarrou, decide on a night swim: “Rieux turned and swam level with his friend, timing his stroke to Tarrou’s. But Tarrou was the stronger swimmer and Rieux had to put on speed to keep up with him. For some minutes they swam side by side, with the same zest, in the same rhythm, isolated from the world, at last free of the town and of the plague.”

As in baptism, they have been immersed into rebirth, and, for all the town’s woes, informed by experience, they discover mutuality and the contentment human fellowship confers. Isolation is one of the supreme agonies of the pestilence. In connection, we find meaning.

The Plague isn’t really a message of doom. Even in an irrational cosmos, humanity can find purpose. As such, the book offers respite in a collective citizenry awakened from apathy, resistant to the sources of suffering. It ends in the plague’s demise, the opening of the city’s gates, Oran’s streets filled with crowds jubilant in their reclaimed freedom, made possible, of course, through the daily, concerted efforts of organized health squads, quiet, uncelebrated stalwarts, transcending self-interest for the welfare of others. As Dr. Rieux exclaims, “…there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency.”

The Plague also offers two admonitions: firstly, the forfeiture of freedom in resuming previous habits of material solicitude. In this sense, even before the plague’s intrusion, Oran’s populace wasn’t really free: “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, “doing business.”

Secondly, we must always be awake to the lurking dangers of tyranny to mankind’s freedom. Were Camus still with us, he would decry Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and China’s growing aggression in the Pacific; and perhaps as a committed socialist, corporate hegemony and nativism as seedbeds of inequity and discrimination, marginalizing access to human fulfillment:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Along with Orwell’s 1984, The Plague ranks among the most essential reads of modern times.

–rj

Books That Stay With Us: Amy Bloom’s In Love

Amy Bloom

There are some books that stay with you after you’ve read them. Amy Bloom’s In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss, is one of them.

“‘Please write about this,’ my husband said.” He thought it might help others. Bloom, an accomplished writer (eight novels) did so, keeping a meticulous notebook of her husband’s Alzheimer’s journey and its ending. The right choice, Bloom is renowned for her inveterate focus in her writings on the human need to connect and capacity to meet life’s vicissitudes with honesty and acceptance.

A happy couple who met each other in their early fifties, they had walked away from existing marriages, finding affinity in the maturity time often yields. She brought three children into the marriage. Brian, who didn’t have any, became the children’s beloved Babu:

“Brian and I fell in love the way some middle-aged people in unhappy partnerships and in small towns do…. ‘I know who you should be with. You should be with a guy who doesn’t mind that you’re smarter than he is, who doesn’t mind that most of the time, you’ll be the main event. You need to be with a guy who supports how hard you work and who’ll bring you a cup of coffee late at night. I don’t know if I can be that guy,’ he said, tears in his eyes, ‘but I’d like a shot.’ We married.”

At first glance, you might wager odds it wouldn’t last, a man from a devout Catholic family wedded to a divorced Jew with three children. But for fourteen fulfilling years, it did.

They had their quarrels, but being opposites gave balance. What they shared—politics, a love for the arts, traveling, good dining, and the children—was compensation overflowing. Both were keen on helping others: Amy, also a licensed social worker; Brian, an architect with sensitivity to the needs of others, active in Planned Parenthood and with a football frame, providing escort for women past jeering protestors. They shared a commitment to humanity, not religion.

Brian was 67 in 2019 when Alzheimer’s dropped like the sword of Damocles upon their happiness. Less than a week after the neurological findings, he decided “that the ‘long goodbye’ of Alzheimer’s was not for him and less than a week for me to find Dignitas, at the end of several long Google paths.” Dignitas, a private Swiss right-to-die entity, doesn’t impose a six month terminal illness mandate or residency requirement as in right-to-die states in America. It does, however, charge a $10,000 fee, with personal responsibility for travel and accommodation expenses.

Some might think Bloom a willing accomplice. Not so, as the memoir makes abundantly clear: “Brian knew what to expect. I talked to him about living with the illness until the end—that, of course, I would love and take care of him. He was very kind and very clear. He just said, ‘That’s not for me.'”

In often alternating chapters contrasting past and present, Amy faithfully narrates the perambulations of Brian’s final journey. While an individual’s story, it’s also a genre, the stories of this dread disease’s malice retold numerous times, replayed orally in YouTube and the film Still Alice (2014), for example.

What distinguishes Bloom’s memoir from other renditions is the mastery of an astute writer and eye witness. We are present with every detail right up to the final holding of hands and last words in the austere Dignitas apartment in the Zurich suburb of Pfaffikon. It is told with blows landed, fools not suffered gladly, yet punctuated with cathartic humor.

Why read a book like this? Because in doing so, as Brian intended, it may help others know their options:

“‘Please write about this.’ He wanted people to know that they have far less choice in America about their end of life than they may think. Some of us can’t bear to think about it at all, but Brian felt strongly that people should have conversations and do more planning,” Bloom shared with a People interviewer.

Though not explicitly said, In Love implies our need to implement a new strategy of pervasive compassion over religion’s bias and even medical opposition against assisted suicide. It’s highly informative as well for Alzheimer’s co-victims who live with their afflicted loved ones, suffering daily anguish and disruption of routines and options once taken for granted.

The struggle for the right to die has been a slow, arduous one, but not unhopeful. Just a few decades ago, passive suicide, i.e., removing a terminal patient from life support, wasn’t allowed under any circumstance.

Ten U.S. states now allow for physician administered suicide, but this is a misnomer. It’s for state residents only. The patient must have a maximum life expectancy of six months. Two physicians must give approval some time apart. While a physician can prescribe the sodium pentobarbital drink, neither the physician nor anyone else, can hand it to the client. In short, the recipient is fully in charge and must be aware.

This means an early Alzheimer’s diagnosis entails racing against the clock. Bloom quips, “Right to die in America is about as meaningful as the right to eat or the right to decent housing; you’ve got the right, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the goods.”

Should early diagnosis indicate any semblance of depression, you are excluded. This is true of Dignitas as well, although it does allow for advanced age or interminable, unbearable pain, as long as you are fully aware and make your decision without coercion. In such circumstances, no terminal diagnosis is needed.

At present, nearly six million Americans struggle with the illness, its occurrence doubling among those over 65 every five years. Although you can acquire the illness at younger ages, when finally diagnosed, its onset may have begun a decade earlier, or even more. By the 2060s, it’s projected the number will triple. Two-thirds of victims are female, perhaps because of their longevity. With Alzheimer’s, one loses not only memory, but control over body functions. One may even forget how to swallow.

Bloom had noticed changes in Brian’s behavior. Normally laid back, he had become quarrelsome and withdrawn, forgetful of appointments, unable to remember names and faces, spatially disoriented, and inability to focus, culminating in his dismissal from his employer for being too slow.

Brian would tell Dignitas, “I don’t want to end my life, but I’d rather end it while I am still myself, rather than become less and less of a person.”

As is, it took five months of liaison with Dignitas before they gave him the coveted green light. Seventy percent opt out. There followed the flight to Zurich and a physician’s repeated interview to affirm that he hadn’t changed his mind and was consciously able to make the decision for himself.

In Love isn’t simply a memoir of dying, but a testimony that lends joy to life and transcends mortality:

“I take both of his hands and he lets me. IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou, I say. I love you so much. I love you, too, he says, and he drinks the sodium pentobarbital. I kiss him, all over his handsome, weary face, and he lets me.

“Middle-aged women are supposed to look for the safe harbor, for the port in the storm of life. We are supposed to look for the calm and the comfortable. You are the port in the storm. And you are the storm. And you are the sea. You are the rocks and the beach and the waves. You are the sunrise and the sunset and all of the light in between.

“I whisper to him, Every day of my life, and he whispers to me, Every day of my life.”

–rj





Space as Identity: The Plight of Bedouins in Israel

Gretel Ehrlich, in her splendid The Solace of Open Spaces, writes that “a person’s life is not a series of dramatic events for which he or she is applauded or exiled but a slow accumulation of days, seasons, years, fleshed out by the generational weight of one’s family and anchored by a land-bound sense of place.”

This brings to mind Israel’s Bedouins, a traditionally nomadic people once populating a vast desert terrain, whom T. E. Lawrence understood and celebrated. And they reciprocated.

In his own time, Lawrence lamented the increasing fate of urbanized Bedouins, their loss of place and a way of life: “The perfectly hopeless vulgarity of the half-Europeanised Arab is appalling. Better a thousand times the Arab untouched.”

Much of that traditional way of life is but memory, especially in Israel, where Jewish settlers in the Negev have frequently seized Bedouin lands and driven out their people.

A vivid example is Twayil Abu Jarwal, one of forty unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. Lying north of Beersheba and off the beaten track, you’ll not find it on any map.

It has no permanent structures for its 450 inhabitants, housed in tents, and clinging stubbornly to place and a way of life.

The village and its fields have been bulldozed so many times that no definitive account exists, perhaps between 25-50 times.

Still they cling to what’s long been theirs for two millennia or more.

After each razing, they re-assess, restore their sheltering tents, and plant anew.

Ilan Yeshurun, who directs the local Israel Land Authority, interviewed in the Jerusalem Report, defends these demolitions: “This is not a village. It doesn’t exist on any map or in any legal registration. It’s only a village in the eyes of the Bedouin.”

Critics call it “urbicide,” an Israeli attempt to destroy perceived communities of potential Palestinian resistance. I think it more than that—a quest for expanding settler homesteads, akin to America’s violent history of seizure of Native American lands.

Meanwhile, some fifty illegal settler farms have sprung up and, politics as usual, nothing is done.

There are now just six Israeli authorized Bedouin villages. Presently, an extended Highway 6 thrusts its way into their traditional landscape, with Israeli plans to continue their policy of demolition and resettlement.

Understandably, Trayil Abu Jarwal villagers fear not only a loss of their land, but a way of life.

Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that “you can’t go home again,” meaning that time brings evolution and experience changes us, uprooting past constituents of our nurturing tied to place.

On the other hand, his dictum locates the modern tragedy of living in a mobile society. Home is an extension of ourselves, evoking sanctuary and fostering identity..

T. E. Lawrence had promised the Bedouins emancipation from the Ottomans Turks. But with takeover of Ottoman land by a modern Israel, they languish still, their cries unheard.

–rj

%d bloggers like this: