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Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Kingsolver’

Charles Darwin

In truth, neither of these extreme positions is valid. It makes no sense to reject evolutionary ideas; and it makes no sense to try to use these ideas to justify atheism.

(Page 54: Colin Tudge The Secret Life of Trees) 

Why am I suddenly struggling to understand evolution when it stands in the middle of what is fairly abstruse and alien territory to me? I can do psychobabble till the cows come home, reading and writing it fluently and with relative ease. Wading through texts that use terms like ‘chaperonines,’ ‘transposons,’ ‘epistasis,’ and many others, most of which I have filtered out of this sequence in order to stick with what I feel fairly confident of understanding, is an altogether different and more difficult matter.

Well, I got a nudge from Tudge as the quote at the head of this piece suggests, followed by a hard prod from Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver[1], but the final motivator was the invitation to give a talk to a local humanist society about the Bahá’í Faith.

I will have to mention that a key tenet of the Bahá’í Faith is the essential compatibility of religion and science. I can deal ad nauseam, as readers of this blog will already be aware, with mind, brain, soul and spirit issues, but evolution is quite another matter. I have been quite content to take for granted that lines of thought exist to make evolution and Bahá’í metaphysics comfortable companions: what made me uncomfortable was that I would not be able to marshall them clearly and deeply enough if anyone raised questions about this issue.

So, as luck would have it, there were three books on my shelves, two of them purchased around the year 2000 plus What Darwin Got Wrong bought in 2010. That I had read none of them beyond the first few pages until now indicates the level of my indifference blended with the degree of difficulty I experienced plodding through their opaque arguments whose value I was blind to – till now that is.

I’m going to attempt now to give as clear a presentation of the Bahá’í perspective, derived in the main from Evolution and Bahá’í Belief edited by Keven Brown, mixed with quotes from the other two books, where they help to clarify the points I’m trying to make. I have to confess I didn’t get far with Alas, Poor Darwin edited by Helen and Steven Rose: its relevance to my purpose was too low to motivate me to persist after culling a handful of helpful pointers.

It is worth bearing in mind right from the start the caveats articulated by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini in the introduction to their book, What Darwin Got Wrong.

They honestly admit that (page xvi):

In fact, we don’t know very well how evolution works. Nor did Darwin, and (as far as we can tell) nor does anybody else.

They also criticize neo-Darwinism’s attitude in the face of undermining evidence (ibid) ‘[N]eo Darwinism is taken as axiomatic… a view that looks to contradict it, either directly or by implication, is ipso facto rejected, however plausible it may otherwise seem.…,’ before concluding that ‘we think that . . . Darwin’s theory of natural selection is fatally flawed.’ The position they attack smacks of materialism’s a priori rejection of any evidence that suggests there is some kind of transcendent realm. Needless to say, this is not science but dogma.

The Basic Bahá’í Position

Quotations in this section come mainly from Evolution and Bahá’í Belief except when indicated otherwise. All references from pages up to 133 are from Keven Brown: the references after that are from Eberhard von Kitzing.

Brown draws an important distinction. He states that (page 77), from a Bahá’í point of view, everything in the universe ‘exists by design and has a purpose, . . . whereas ‘evolution’, in the meaning of Darwin, implies the transmutation of species without any underlying goal.’

He confirms that (page 84) ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá does not deny the reality of evolution as a process by which the universe and its creatures change and develop overtime, . . . All created forms are progressive in their planes… under the stimulus of the power or spirit of life’ and explains that ‘this state of motion, which implies transformation, is not a purely random and chaotic motion.’ However, he also emphasises that ‘It does not imply the transmutation of one species into another . . . ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is adamant that physical species evolved purposively within the boundaries of their own essences.’

The term essence is used here somewhat in the sense of a divinely created template which shapes the material forms of all species.

So, (page 86) ‘Creation and evolution, to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, are not contrary, but complementary and mutually necessary processes.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá is prepared to accept, Brown argues, that (page 94) ‘. . . there was a time when the material reflection of the human essence, due to the undeveloped nature of the planet, took on more primitive forms,’ which implies that (page 95: ‘[A species essence] must contain all of its possible evolutionary pathways from the most primitive to the most advanced,’ and that (page 105) ‘. . .  each timeless species essence should begin manifesting its influence as soon as the environmental conditions are prepared to receive it.’

Kitzing takes the clarification a step further (page 163): ‘Only if evolution can be decomposed into a sufficient number of small gradual progresses does neo-Darwinism become reasonable.’

Progress in Small Steps driven by an Organisng Force:

The relative subtlety of the Bahá’í position now begins to surface (page 167):

The explicit dependence of life on its history makes it impossible to apply the classical concept of essences as it was applied in classical biology, which assumes that the form of a particular cat is defined only by a timeless reality considered to be independent of the details of the particular history of the ancestors of this cat.

Moreover, this gradual but purposive development cannot be automatic (page 174): ‘Only disorder occurs on its own; complex order needs a non-trivial origin.’

The existence of some organising force seems necessary (page 179:

If the form of the laws (of the universe) are not predetermined by any kind of timeless abstract order, one would expect different chemistries in different parts of the universe. . . . Dennett would have to explain why the chemical laws are apparently the same everywhere and all the time in the known universe.

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini locate the limits of their scepticism right from the start of their first chapter (page 1):

[Even though the authors believe that] Natural selection (NS) is irredeemably flawed . . . it is perfectly possible – in fact, entirely likely – that the genealogy of species (GS) is true even if NS is not. [They feel it likely that] most or all species are related by historical descent, perhaps by descent from a common primitive ancestor . . .

This still leaves room for a driving force, albeit subject to constraints from within not just from outside (page 27):

 . . . the whole process of development, from the fertilised egg to the adult, modulates the phenotypic effects of genotypic changes, and thus ‘filters’ the phenotypic options that ecological variables ever have a chance to select from.

Their search for a driving force of course stops short of a Creator (page 30 – my emphases for clarification):

Evo-devo tells us that it’s the other way around: nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of developmental biology.… Researchers have been grappling for some years with the problem of reconstructing the way in which similar genes mastermind the development of wildly different creatures.

‘Mastermind’ is an interesting metaphor in this context.

The process of boundary setting is crucial in their view (page 32):

The old argument in evolutionary biology was about whether internal constraints are the exception or the rule; the present consensus is increasingly that they are the rule.

Scientists are still not clear exactly how this all works. The authors start by quoting from Rob Krumlauf (page 35):

‘A major challenge for the future will be to decipher how the basic gene “tool kit” and common signalling pathways are controlled and integrated in the development and evolution of so many distinct organisms.’ . . .

And then add in other points, for example (ibid.):

The list could be continued with RNAi (i stands for ‘interference’) and various processes of ‘proofreading’. There are also processes of post-transcriptional silencing, adding a further mechanism of regulation.

Their focus is predominantly on the role of DNA variation and its constraints. However, it seems to me they are positing a driving force of some kind none the less, whose existence, given the improbability of life existing at all in terms of the Anthropic Principle, stands in need of explanation.

Just in case there are those unfamiliar with this term, Russell Stannard in his book Science and the Renewal of Belief (pages 132-139) summarises the Anthropic Principle by saying that the preconditions for life provide an infinitesimally narrow window in terms of the constraints around the range of variables permitting an appropriate big bang and the required force of gravity. These, combined with the improbability of carbon, make the odds against the existence of life in any form unbelievably long.

The odds are so daunting Paul Davies, in The Goldilock’s Enigmaalmost threw up his hands in despair (pages 292-93):

So, how come existence? . . . all the approaches seem . . . hopelessly inadequate: a unique universe which just happens to permit life by a fluke; a stupendous number of alternative . . . universes . . .; a pre-existing God . . .; or a self-creating . . . universe with observers. . . Perhaps we have reached a fundamental impasse dictated by the limitations of the human intellect.

So, we reach a point where life seems impossibly improbable, yet it exists. Something seems to be driving it to create increasingly complex forms of life, but we don’t know what. In the next post I’ll come back to the issue of complexity from an atheist’s point of view before looking at the Bahá’í perspective once more.

Footnote:

[1]. It was also a bit strange to find the name Kingsolver embedded in What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. The initial of the writer of a piece they quote on the evolution of insect wings is ‘J’. I can find no internet evidence they are related, but it seems likely they are.

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Reflect upon the inner realities of the universe, the secret wisdoms involved, the enigmas, the interrelationships, the rules that govern all. For every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever . . .

Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá page 157. 

[In the novel, Mary Treat, a 19th Century naturalist and Darwinist, tries to convey to Thatcher Greenwood what sustains her relationship with plants]

‘I become attached, you see. After so many months with these plants, observing them intimately, I begin to feel as if we are of the same world.’

‘But you are of the same world, of course.’ 

(Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver – page 83):

Denialism

At the end of the last post we left this question hanging in there air: why are we still not doing enough?

To go some way towards answering that, we need to factor in the force that Keith Kahn-Harris points towards in his book Denial: The Unspeakable Truth (page 15 – my emphasis): ‘[The] desire, for something not to be true, is the driver of denialism.’

Both Naomi Klein (page 168) and Kahn-Harris (page 17) agree this involves both ‘knowing and not knowing.’ This makes it at some level motivated, not simply the result of primitive wiring or lazy default modes. Keith Kahn-Harris (page 25) pins it down as follows: ‘denialism can usually be traced back to a kind of founding trauma, a shocking explosion of knowledge that directly threatens something fundamental to oneself or to a group of which one is a part,’ and later adds (page 73: ‘Humans still do the same short-sighted things [as the Easter Islanders did]: they just can’t avoid the burden of knowledge of the consequences.’

I can’t resist sharing his quotation (page 72) from Jared Diamond’s classic book on the extinction of civilisations, Collapse (page 114):

I have often asked myself, ‘What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?’ Like modern loggers, did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!”? Or: ‘Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood’? Or: ‘We don’t have proof that there aren’t palm trees somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering’?  

In a similar way, Jeremy Rifkin brings the Roman Empire into the frame in his The Empathic Civilisation (pages 249-50):

The popular conception is that Rome collapsed because of the decadence of its ruling class, the corruption of its leaders, exploitation of its servants and slaves, and the superior military tactics of invading barbarian hordes. While there is merit in this argument, the deeper cause of Rome’s collapse lies in the declining fertility of its soil and the decrease in agricultural yields. Its agricultural production could not provide sufficient energy to maintain Rome’s infrastructure and the welfare of its citizens. The exhaustion of Rome’s only available energy regime is a cautionary tale for our own civilisation as we begin to exhaust the cheap available fossil fuels that have kept our industrial society afloat.

Cognitive Dissonance

How plain has this pikestaff got to be before we take action?

This is where some psychobabble has to creep in. I think we’re dealing with our old enemy, dissonance reduction, here. We’ve met that already on this blog in terms of the slave trade and colonisation. John Fitzgerald Medina explains in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, by degrading the status of both populations to the somehow subhuman. 

Keith Kahn-Harris states (page 80: ‘As ecological destruction became unspeakable, global warming denialism emerged.’ A conscious recognition that we were destroying the planet would require us to revise our prevailing exploitative model of so-called civilisation and take action, or else label ourselves as revolting vandals on a global scale. Reducing this cognitive dissonance makes the temptation to deny the reality of manmade climate change irresistible, especially in the minds of those profiting most from the destruction who, incidentally, wield the most power in our society. 

There are vested and powerful interests capable of both insidiously manipulating our perspective and abusing power to block the implementation of effective remedies. Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything (page 151) describes the situation in America but it clearly applies more widely, though in slightly different ways in different places: 

All these attempts to fix glaring and fundamental flaws in the system have failed because large corporations wield far too much political power – a power exerted through corporate campaign contributions, many of them secret; through almost unfettered access to regulators via their lobbyists; through the notorious revolving door between business and government…’

She later explains (page 178): ‘Post-Enlightenment Western culture does not offer a roadmap for how to live that is not based on an extractivist, nonreciprocal relationship with nature.’

Too many of us have bought into this materialist myth, making it easy for those who benefit most from untrammelled growth to carry on unhindered.

Doughnut Economics (For Source of Image see link)

Signs of Hope?

There are signs that younger economists are beginning to question the values of unrestrained neo-liberalism and its emphasis on growth and profit. Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics is one example. She writes (page 74-75): 

We live now, says Daly, in Full World, with an economy that exceeds Earth’s regenerative and absorptive capacity by over-harvesting sources such as fish, and forests, and over-filling sinks such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Her book puts forward an alternative approach in detail. Her website contains this useful summary:

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.

Another book, The Econocracy, speaking on behalf of young economists, seeks to redress the balance by dethroning the neo-liberal orthodoxy and democratising it (page 5): 

We are also trying to democratise economics because we believe that at its core economics should be a public discussion about how we organise society. There is an important role for experts here, but this role is as a humble advisor not a detached authority figure.

It will obviously be some time yet before such proposals have a major impact on how our society approaches these issues. 

In the meantime, things don’t look good.

Most of the attempts in the recent past to mobilise resistance to global-warming have been seriously flawed, as Klein explains (page 212-13):  

In addition to not doing much to actually lower emissions, these various approaches also served to reinforce the very ‘extrinsic’ values that we now know are greatest psychological barriers to climate action – from the worship of wealth and fame for their own sakes to the idea that change is something that is handed down from above by our betters, rather than something we demand for ourselves… Because the ‘solutions’ to climate change proposed by many green groups in this period were so borderline frivolous, many people concluded that the groups must have been exaggerating the scale of the problem. After all, if climate change really was as dire as Al Gore argued… Wouldn’t they be trying to shut down the fossil fuel companies?

How far from a tipping point?

Jeremy Rikin introduces evidence to illustrate his thesis that we are close to self-destruction (The Empathic Civilisation – page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

We are establishing ever wider links with others (page 26) ‘yet the early light of global empathic consciousness is dimmed by the growing recognition it may come too late to address the spectre of climate change and the possible extinction of the human species.’

He then spells out what that means (ibid):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

Much later he introduces a concrete example from ancient history of this problematic interaction (page 222-23):

The same hydraulic technology that unleashed a vast increase in water energy flow, allowing the Sumerian people to build the world’s first great urban civilisation, extend the empathic bond, and advance human consciousness, led to an equally significant entropic impact on the surrounding environment that, in the end, cancelled out much of the gains, leaving both the civilisation and the environment impoverished.

There is obviously a major problem here. 

The window of opportunity to turn things round is now very narrow and the deadline very tight, but the blockages to progress are massive and are likely to take more time than we have got to remove them. 

Katherine Hayhoe points to one key issue:

We haven’t yet reached the tipping point to motivate sufficient action. But there has been a change. Ten years ago, few people felt personally affected by climate change. It seemed very distant. Today, most people can point to a specific way climate affects their daily lives. This is important because the three key steps to action are accepting that climate change is real, recognising it affects us, and being motivated to do something to fix it. Opinion polls in the US show 70% of people agree the climate is changing, but a majority still say it won’t affect them. 

While she sees some hope of progress she’s not optimistic that it will be enough:

I’d put my money on a gradual bend away from a higher scenario, which is where we are now, until accumulating and worsening climate disasters eventually lead to a collective “oh shit!” moment, when people finally realise climate impacts do pose a far greater threat than the solutions. At that point, I would hope the world would suddenly ramp up its carbon reduction to the scale of a Manhattan Project or a moon race and we would finally be able to make serious progress. The multitrillion-dollar question is simply when that tipping point in opinion will come, and whether it will be too late for civilisation as we know it. 

Even so, recent comparisons with how we tackled the hole in the ozone layer highlight the scale of the problem:

The reality is that environmental action was easier then because the world had more ecological breathing room, capitalism was less dominant and the corporate push-back – and control over politics – was weaker. The ozone layer was a relatively simple fix compared with the climate, which is the biggest, most complex, multidimensional challenge humanity has ever faced. It is one thing confronting a handful of chemical firms, quite another to take on the world’s fossil fuel companies, car manufacturers, cement-makers and agribusiness conglomerates, representing hundreds of millions of jobs, trillions of dollars and 200-odd years of industrial development.

So what exactly can and should we do right now?

More of that next time.

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Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 1933)

I was definitely beginning to think there was a difficult problem here.

Until The Overstory cropped up, that is. I needed something to fill the gap left by Unsheltered. I scanned my crowded shelves. After a frustrating few minutes, I spotted something.

I had bought Richard Powers’ book in June this year, and made a definite attempt to read it after I came back from the cruise with a strong sense that I needed to build on my connection with nature. It didn’t click at that point and I gave up the attempt after only a few pages. It was far easier to immerse myself in Braggini’s How the World Thinks and McGregor’s Living with the Gods along with Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment.

However, after reading Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, I was strongly drawn to The Overstory. I went back to it again.

Patricia’s Story

I still struggled a bit with the rather disjointed opening sections. It seemed to be failing to meet the criteria I mentioned at the start of the previous post. I explained there that for me a novel should ideally combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative. The story skipped from character to character too swiftly for me to easily engage, at first, disrupting any sense of both narrative and consciousness.

But at page 119 I was hooked. It was Patricia’s story that did it. Whereas before I was just getting glimpses of interest in each short section of narrative, here I found a sustained and deepening exploration. Through the eyes of this character Powers made the existence of trees not only come alive: he made it magical. For example, she and her father had been running an experiment with a newly planted tree and its soil, which they had carefully weighed at the start. A few years later, and two years after his unexpected death, she remembers the experiment they started. She regrets the delay but immediately begins to check out the results. She wants to find out how much soil a tree consumes in growing:

. . . the soil weighs just what it did, minus an ounce or two. There is no other explanation: almost all the tree’s mass has come from the very air. Her father knew this. Now she does, too.

The book drew me deeper and deeper into the life of trees. Something important was going on here. I was resonating unexpectedly strongly.

There was the issue of interconnectedness, which helped (page 142):

Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavours of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree.

And the experience of writing (page 221):

The slow push of graphite across paper reminds [Patricia] of the steady evaporation that lifts hundreds of gallons of water up hundreds of feet into a giant Douglas-fir trunk everyday. The solitary act of sitting over the page and waiting for her hand to move may be as close as she’ll ever get to the enlightenment of plants.

And much more of course, with many other characters, now more fully developed. But I sensed that at some level there was even more than that.

Passages like the ones quoted above moved me to tears. What was going on, I wondered.

Reconnecting

It felt as though I was reconnecting with something whose importance I had kept discounting. My poems have always been wiser than me, and the ones I’ve written about trees should have been enough to bring the full depth of my feelings into awareness, but somehow they never did.

My Entishness has always been a hint, as was my Hearth dream. But it was the intensity of my feelings in response to the book that took me by surprise. As other posts have explored on this blog, I’ve never managed to link my pool of pain to anything specific. Some of it clearly relates to the atmosphere of grief in my childhood home, but that never seemed an explanation for the whole of it.

I found myself wondering whether this could account for the residue. Just as when I went into hospital as a child that second time and leapt to the conclusion that I had only myself to rely on, which had the effect of distancing me from my parents, especially my mother, was it possible that the grief I felt at the cutting down of the companionable tree of my childhood caused me to pull back from nature in the same way, and with equally enduring and destructive patterns of feeling and behaviour that I have not revoked as yet.

On top of that there were further parallels. I was not simply grieving for the tree: I was identifying with it. I knew what it was like to be alone and held down by power against my will, to be anaesthetised and then cut in my case: to be simply held and cut in the case of the tree. I’d learnt that to connect with any other living being risks harm or the pain of loss or both. Connecting so closely is not safe. And yet I knew we cannot live without connections.

It took me decades to rebuild a trust in and connection with people, which even now can be easily damaged in terms of any particular relationship. I have never worked anywhere near as hard to do the same with trees and nature, except for a brief period in Hendon when I took pains to at least identify most of the neighbouring trees by name. Otherwise it has been token gestures such as high-speed walks up hills or in woodlands, more in the interests of fitness than the exploration of nature at close hand and with affection.

It might not therefore be that my idea of hearticulture’s calling is incorrect, but rather that it is seriously incomplete if I do not bring nature deeply into the mix. My emphasis has been on being of use to people rather than trees, intense involvement with which I have probably dismissed as a rather flaky tendency captured by the dismissive phrase ‘tree hugger.’

I was still not sure how this would play out. It was not clear how I could balance my need to respond to people with my need to connect with trees.

The Overstory made it clear that trees stand in need of my protection, and that by protecting them I would be protecting humanity as well from the consequences of an aspect of our folly. It felt as though I might be on the right track.

Then came the final insight triggered when I read on page 321:

‘Is the house on fire?’

A shrug [from Adam]. A sideways pull of the lips. ‘Yes.’

‘And you want to observe the handful of people who’re screaming, Put it out, when everyone else is happy watching things burn.’

Adam is the psychologist visiting the protesters to research, as he puts it later, ‘What keeps people from seeing the obvious?[1]’ He then mentions the bystander effect and I burst into floods of tears.

I spoke to the tree that was cut down in my childhood.

‘I was not there when they cut you down, my friend. I let you down. I knew the pain of being cut and did nothing. I’m so sorry.’

I clutched the book tight as I cried.

The depth and complexity of my largely discounted sense of connectedness with trees was beginning to reveal itself.

I felt I had just reconnected with something of immense importance, far greater than I had so far realised. I’m still not sure how far it extends exactly. It will take time for me to understand this properly. I just knew at that moment how intensely I love, and always have loved trees.

The loss of the tree, my Entishly slow ways of processing experience and reacting to it genuinely (I can fake normal, react faster and betray myself all too easily), my love of clothes with an earth colour, my dream that powerfully linked my heart with the earth, and the way my name echoes peat for me, have always been strong hints.

I never realised until now though just how powerfully certain feelings were running under the surface, generating irresistible currents that carried me away from the fertile ground of this insight. I never recognised they were almost certainly part of the river of pain within, flooding into the cellar of my mind from interrelated experiences of grief – my parents torn apart by my twelve-year old sister’s agonising death, my pre-school self feeling abandoned in hospital a second time, my defenceless tree cut down in minutes by my own family.

I now need to learn how to integrate this insight into my hearticulture calling. I need to learn how to express my love of trees. Ideally I’d like to save a rainforest, but I guess I’ll have to find something closer to home to act on.

Hopefully in the future I’ll at least be able to deal more calmly under pressure of time with a frustrating queue. An Ent would be more patient after all.

Coda

I’ve finished The Overstory now. It was a sandwich. The best flavour was in the middle, but it was well worth reading, even if towards the end it had lost most of its power to move me. It has shifted my consciousness, lifted it –  decisively I think. What more can I fairly expect of a book?

What next?

I was thinking I might buy Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, until I suddenly remembered that I’d already got a book of almost the same title, The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge. I started to read that one but got derailed by Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.

More of that soon.

Footnote

[1]. The answer he gives is ‘Mostly other people.’ While this wasn’t a key insight for me right then, it resonates with the Bahá’í emphasis on the imperative need for all of us to independently investigate the truth.

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Question: What do you say regarding the theory of the evolution of beings to which certain European philosophers subscribe?

Answer. . . . Briefly, this question comes down to the originality or non-originality of the species, that is, whether the essence of the human species was fixed from the very origin or whether it subsequently came from the animals.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá Some Answered Questions – 2014 edition – page 220,  quoted from the earlier edition in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief edited by Keven Brown – page 45)

A friend recommended I read Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver.

‘If you only read one book in the next 12 months, let it be this one,’ he insisted.

To be honest, of late I’ve not taken much pleasure in novels. I’m a bit stuck in the past. Apart from Nakhjavani’s The Woman Who Read Too Much,in recent days I’ve usually drawn a blank with anything later than Virginia Woolf.

Not so this time though.

I recently battled to define the balance successful novels need to strike if they are to hold the reader’s attention. For me, they should ideally combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in the memory. If authors stray too far from some form of narrative it is possible they might diminish the long-term impact of their books on the reader. From the reviews I skimmed Unsheltered looked like it would manage to avoid that trap.

I checked that my local Waterstones had a copy and dashed down there to get it. I hadn’t much time before I was due to meet my wife in town. I scanned all the shelves and was frustrated not to be able to find it anywhere.

There was an irritating queue at the counter. I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes to go. I slotted in at the back of the queue.

‘Thank you for your help,’ the woman at the front enthused, as she struggled with her bags, purse and cards.

‘I’m really looking forward to reading this,’ she droned on as she was forcing the book into a spare corner of her M&S bag, dropping her points card on the floor as she did so.

With relief I saw her pick up her card, stuff it back into her wallet and stagger out of the shop with her bags.

The person in front handed over his paperback and was gone in seconds, thank God.

‘Can I help?’ the familiar face behind the till enquired, her hand poised over the keyboard as I approached with my notebook in hand. She knew me well enough to realise she might have an online search on her hands.

‘I hope so,’ I smiled. ‘I’m looking for Kingsolver’s Unsheltered,’ I explained. ‘It says on your website you’ve got it here but I couldn’t find it anywhere. It’s not on the new stack or the main novels section.’

I took a quick look behind me to see if anyone was waiting. Thankfully no one was. I’d’ve been as irritating as the bag lady if there had been, blethering as I was.

‘I’ll just check for you. I won’t be a moment.’

She headed straight for the new stack I’d just searched carefully through.

She found it within seconds.

‘So it wasn’t stored in alphabetical order,’ I said, feeling slightly embarrassed as it had obviously been in plain sight.

‘No, we stack them in order of priority. We put the best ones near the top.’

‘Ah! I’ll try and remember that next time.’

‘Do you want to buy it?’

Usually I would scan a £20 book before risking a purchase, but there was no time for that.

‘I do,’ I said at the same time as wondering whether this might be a big mistake.

‘Do you need a bag?’

‘No, I’ve got one here.’

I had my points card and my cash in hand, paid for the book, picked it up, shoving my receipt hastily inside, fumbled it into the Waterstones bag I always carried with me and hurried to the exit. Time was running out, and so should I.

. . . .

I couldn’t wait to get home. I didn’t contradict my wife when she supposed I had work to do. There was work, it was true, but I wanted to squeeze in an extra few moments to taste the opening pages.

At first I thought I might have made a mistake. The opening didn’t grip me as I’d hoped. Dialogues about the state of a building aren’t my cup of tea. I had to get on with my work at this point and found it hard to stop beating myself up for wasting my money again by buying in haste a book I didn’t like.

As soon as I could, I beat a retreat to an armchair with a coffee and the book. I needed to find out if I’d thrown my money away.

Within 13 pages I was hooked. A death is almost bound to get my attention. I could barely put it down. Every spare moment after that I stepped back into the double worlds of this enthralling novel. The stepping between the past and present reminded me of A S Byatt’s Possession, though the themes are different. Kingsolver is more concerned with how the two periods in history echo each other: bigotry, inequality, denialism and so on.

In terms of the nineteenth century story line, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the passionate resistance to it are a main thread. In terms of the twentieth century it’s our similar and far more potentially threatening commitment to unsustainable economic growth.

Either way it matches my current preoccupations since the cruise by emphasising from early on our connection with nature. Mary Treat tries to convey to Thatcher Greenwood what sustains her relationship with plants (page 83):

‘I become attached, you see. After so many months with these plants, observing them intimately, I begin to feel as if we are of the same world.’

‘But you are of the same world, of course.’

Within four days of buying it I had finished it. I was scribbling in my diary quotes from the closing chapters, so I wouldn’t forget them.

The moment, for example, when Thatcher, the main character from the nineteenth century, an invention of the author, refrains from telling Mary Treat, a real-life courageous female pioneering scientist of the time and respected correspondent of Darwin’s, that ‘he could see her soul. It was a giant redwood.’

This had not been the first such quote. Willa, the main contemporary character, ‘looked at the oak over their heads. Its trunk was a monument to resilience and its branches to tenderness.’ That resonates with the part of me that wrote the poem Oak in Winter.

Also in September I published on this blog a sequence about becoming an Ent. I wrote:

I came to feel a powerful affinity with trees. It was as though at some deep level I feel as though I am a tree, an image of myself I need to hold onto. It represents patiently and resiliently operating in a long time scale, rooted in the earth but reaching after the sun – in effect constituting a kind of bridge between earth and heaven, something we all have the potential to be.

What makes the book so marvellous for me is that it brings together both that aspect of my inner life and my reactions to the society we live in. For example, towards the end of the book, Tig, Willa’s daughter declares vehemently, ‘The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell.’

Now that I have finished the book, and am experiencing that strangely bereft feeling that comes when you can’t step back into the fascinating world of a superb fiction, I find myself taking stock.

I thought I had made it clear to myself that from now hearticulture is my calling. I thought that would make it easy to decide what I needed to do and what would be a waste of time.

‘Was reading novels like this a waste of time?’ I found myself thinking. ‘You told yourself you’d focus on poetry.’

‘Well, yes,’ I replied to myself. ‘But compared to this most of the poetry I’ve got on my shelves is boring. I only really like about half a dozen poets and the rest I rarely look at.’

‘And anyway,’ another part of my head chipped in, ‘Wading through too much poetry wouldn’t be much better than drowning yourself in novels.’

The words of Unsheltered came back to me again, ones I’d resonated to almost in tears as I read them the first time: ‘Mary had lived with her discipline. Both of them had, she and Thatcher, with an integrity that led them to give up, practically speaking, their lives. . . Willa ached for a devotion like that, something to move her beyond herself.’

I began to wonder whether all this might be a sign that I wasn’t completely on board with my hearticulture plan in the context of my Bahá’í convictions, as I’d fooled myself into believing I had. Was I now calling my calling into question? Perhaps I still haven’t found out what, given my current levels of energy, I should be focusing my time on for the rest of my life, over and above the obvious commitments I have.

Where was all this taking me?

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