The Tower Variations

Twenty years ago, after the twin towers were hit, the local Lutheran Campus Minister here in Winona held a candlelight vigil. People came up to the microphone and shared how they felt. I read an early version of this poem–I can still see the crowd of stunned, sad faces flickering in the light of little candles. The poem kept growing as the tragedy kept unfolding. The completed poem was published in Poetry East.


In the most photographed and videotaped day in the history of the world, the images of people jumping were the only images that became, by consensus, taboo — the only images from which Americans were proud to avert their eyes.  

                        –Tom Junod

When tomorrow arrives we will love life
as it is, ordinarily shrewd
gray or colored,
no resurrection in it or end.

                        –Mahmoud Darwish

In the photograph you tumble through empty space
against the backdrop of a building which is falling
more slowly and will be your sarcophagus–
now you turn in the sun like any object,
the wind of your descent rattles your shirt,
and tears at your pant cuffs–
your tie snaps like a failing chute.
I have dreamed it before–you must have dreamed it —
the stayless plummet–the wind in your throat–
only to wake in the darkness clutching your sheet–
now there is no darkness, only the light
of a September morning, clear and pitiless,
and no-one to wake you from your terrified shriek.

Think of the morning before the day it became:
your cup of coffee, a shy animal, trembled
as the subway passed underneath: the usual thunder,
friendly, efficient. Your split bagel seemed
a fragrant allegory of happiness,
the second hand walked round its post
on the wall clock, and the cream cheese slept
in its small museum
and the Times offered its smudged headlines
and opinions, and you shook your head,
at the day’s tragedies, skipping the obits—
let’s be clear about this:
had your name appeared among the missing,
you would have called in, to demand a retraction.

We didn’t see you hit,
the cameras turned shyly away;
which means you’re still falling
whenever we close our eyes: falling still
in the darkened well of the psyche,
small speck downward against the blinding grid
of the towers: without the end
of falling, it’s as if as we could stop time—as if
we might reach from a dream
and end your progress,
and let you live.
But often I think about your final minute:
the terrible compression, and speed, and knowledge,
life summing itself up, as you came down upon it,
the landscape larger and larger until
you were a part of it.

In your apartment, people are quietly talking
as they gather up the important things.
Photographs in their frames sympathize, and are

The phone rings and startles the cat.
By now everyone must know you are dead.
But who’ll tell your shirts?  They wait to embrace you,
swaying slightly when the closet is opened:
arms down at their sides like soldiers at attention,
cool and unused, like a string of coming days,
silent, and lightly starched, in single file.
Each collar swallows the hanger to its shank—
buttons gleam in the collar points,  
like eyes that cannot close.

On the cover of the paper—the enormous wreckage,
twisted I-beams, cladding, ganglia of steel
and in the foreground, Lilliputian
workmen in harness and yellow helmets:
explorers of the lost world.

The President has sent the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Aboard that ship, men and women ready themselves
to follow you into the dark with night-vision goggles
and M4 rifles. Tonight, in their bunks
under the shadowless fluorescents,
they are writing heartfelt banalities with ball-point
pens on lined paper—far beneath them,
the great propellors throb, and churn the salt water:
so many lives in that honeycomb of steel
writing sentences that are irreversible,
set in motion by you, who wanted only
to sit with your coffee a moment, and read the mail.

When the towers fell, there was rejoicing in Nablus,
in Jerusalem, in Hebron, Lebanon;
young men handed out candies and danced in the streets,
glad you were not human; that you were no kin of theirs,
glad you were a man falling in a story,
a stricken devil, plunging into the fiery lake
in your black armor, the righteous arrows
of God whizzing past your feet.
Shall you hate them, or blame them?
When you were alive, you, too,
walked the earth with double vision–
a hell before you,
a paradise you imagined–
of the two, which was easier to believe in?

Thousands of telephones buried under the rubble,
their buttons gone dark,
so many phone books blown across the Hudson
like autumn leaves,
so many messages wandering the earth,
haunting the catenary arc
of the phone lines, lingering under the guy wires
of microwave towers–
or circling the earth like a ghostly shadow,
a dark migration,
that dims the satellites for a moment–
the unspoken sentences
of the rest of your life.

. . . as many as 15 per cent of those innocent victims who died in the attacks were themselves Muslim men and women. . .
                                                            –Asim Ashique
When you fell, there was rejoicing in Nablus,
in Jerusalem, in Lebanon, in the camps,
those old mythological places–
a few men handing out candies, shouting
in the streets, because you had taken their pain, their humiliation
with you as you plunged past the world.
At the crowd’s edge, the bent figure approaching them
with the black cloth of mourning
pulled across her face–her hand extended,
holding a ringing phone.
Who would pick it up? Who could answer it?
The call from New York,
the voice from under the mountain?

Men at Ground Zero work all night
under floodlights, looking for you:
having no body is so lonely.
From the beginning, hungry and on foot
when someone died, we dug doorways into the earth,
folded the loved body in a posture of sleep
adding what we thought it would need:
a pair of sewn shoes, a pouch of corn,
flowers, an obsidian knife.
These we wet with our tears
then piled earth over them.  Our
sorrow is a door that keeps on opening,
an endless limit. Our hands are lifted
in supplication at the lip of the world;
we find a taste there that’s bitter and sweet.
The lid that closes tight, keeps its perfume.

My daughter keeps drawing flags with uneven crayon

and, in the left-handed corner, a jumble of angry stars.
She stands in the back yard and sings America The Beautiful
at the top of her lungs. I want to tell her to be more ironic–
you are past simple piety or revenge,
what you want is simple: not to be dead.
But her country is where she lives–sunflowers by the fence,
the porch, the swing set–it’s a lump in her throat,
like a low-grade fever.  And flags are everywhere–
in store windows, on car aerials, bumpers, tailgates,
jacket lapels.  A manic multiplication.
Never mind that you would have preferred
the flag of the country called “everyday”
whose standard is the tea towel with crossed spoons.
Or the nation called “satisfying labor,”
whose coat of arms is the entrance to the subway.

Early frost killed the basil–and the last of summer’s

and the leaves on the walnut fell with a wet patter,
weighted with silver.
The lake was white with mist, and a single heron
stood hunched in his cloak like a brooding ambassador.
Sunlight struck the earth with an iron ring.
“I stood down by the yellow tape” said the U.N. relief worker
on the radio: “where the I-beams are snarled like tree roots—
there was the smell of hot plastic and rotting flesh
that took me back,” she said, “to the early ‘80s,
the Peshawar valley, after the Red Army
had pounded a village—the women all had the same look,
searching the rubble for pieces of someone they loved.”

An image from CNN:
the Afghan desert,
the small figure of a man
in caftan and turban,
surrounded by white packages,
their banners fluttering
with indecipherable signs.
He does not know if
they are food or bombs,
their number extends to his horizon–
good, or bad, intentions
kicked out of the rear door of an airplane
at an altitude too great
to tell the difference.

After launch, the wings unfold for lift,
the airscoop is exposed and the turbofan engine
is switched on for cruise flight. Over water, the missile
uses inertial guidance or GPS –
once over land, the Tomahawk’s path is aided
by Terrain Contour Matching Terminal guidance, which
is provided by Digital Scene Matching Area Correlation,
and is accurate to ten meters.  It’s the targets that can’t be

               relied on

to be military.  To not be women and children.
“The savages make war upon us without respect to age or sex”
said Thos. Jefferson, detailing the King’s malfeasance–
inciting the Iroquois against the population.
War whoop.  Ambush by night. Ash handle and totem feather.
Men in breechcloths sent by men in uniform.
Slash of a jet trail over the Indian Ocean.

Past my kitchen window now,
every two minutes,
the yellow flicker of a walnut leaf
twirls as it plummets–small
spinnaker of descent.
The place it falls from reveals a little more blue
autumn sky–
in the end, there is only
the temple of blue
and the veins of hard shadow
and the burial mound of leaves.

“The Office of Homeland Security”

The asters are secure in their radiant faces
The walnut leaves are secure in their vagrant piles
The crows are secure in their ragged squadrons
The moon is secure in the arms of the white pine

I wish you were here to see my daughters dance
to the Goldberg variations.
They make such lumbering, graceful gestures
in their dress-up tutus.  When they jump
the record skips, a turntable is as antiquated
as the clavichord Goldberg played
(according to these liner notes)
to help a Russian nobleman sleep.
Out the window, the dusk is violet,
a string of colored Christmas lights
decorate the house across the street.
You are somewhere –under a Himalaya of concrete
and aluminum flashing, and asbestos insulation
crushed to eerie ash—all lying under
hard autumn stars that once,
like your days, seemed bright and endless:
and now are all named and ancient.
The thought of which can make it hard to sleep.

As darkness falls, it’s mirrored in the window
like a star map, or night traffic. From the branches
dangle an odd assortment of ornaments–
collected in our short family life:
a Swedish mitten, a Pooh bear, a knitted bird,
a mirrored ball, a reindeer made of Popsicle sticks
with glued-on eyes, a blown-glass angel,
a candy cane still in its crinkled wrapper—
things so giddy and random,
as if tossed by a whirlwind
then frozen mid-descent,
caught in the arms of this tree –
living and fragrant, and commemorative.

Yesterday New York’s Mayor claimed the fires were out
under the debris-mountain, the parking garage of fragments.
Meanwhile the men who lit them were hiding in caves
issuing proclamations in scratchy videos.  
Didn’t we begin in caves?  Tracing images with our fingers,
in ochre and charcoal, and animal tallow,
watching what we depicted become more beautiful
than experience, so we might surmount death, so we might affirm
what comes in at the eye belongs to the soul,
to kindle desire, and deepen the logic of dreams.
Even now, telling the story, writing this poem
to you, I hold up the things I lack,
giving shape to the paradise that torments me.

“… the World Trade Center should become a representation of man’s ability to find greatness.” Minoru Yamasaki, chief architect of the World Trade Center
At sunset they were rich with the sun’s gilding,
at night, they rose like converging ladders of light;
and people loved them. “I feel this way about it, “
said the architect; “World trade means world peace,”
his optimism rose thirteen hundred feet.
But most of the time they were dull as children’s blocks,
two anodized Tylenol, white grocery lists,  
twin exclamation marks at the end of a century
of excess. “Filing cabinets,” Mumford called them.
Two candle pins at Broadway’s lower reach.  
Yet on the day they were hit, they burned like torches.  
When they went down, they went down like ships,
leaving in their absence sudden vistas
through which we glimpsed—not peace—but its opposite.

The poster on the wall, a crummy Xerox,
holds the features of someone who’s missing–
the weather has faded it; the features are receding
into the paper. The simple message
soon will be illegible—along with the number
we could call to report, should the unlikely happen,
should someone pass us in the street who was standing
on the eightieth floor, waiting to go to a meeting,
before the roar of angels and the flame.

Into the Woods

My friend Kurt Cobb’s recent essay, found here, posits an epistemological divide between”two main ways of knowing in our modern culture: 1) the rational, reductionist way and 2) the holistic, relational, intuitive way.”  The first way is dominant in Modernity–in fact defines it.  Our “institutions, scientific, economic, financial and organizational” are organized by this mode of thinking, says Cobb.  But that dominance is increasingly challenged by the inherent limitations of the reductionist approach.  Cobb says:

For the reductionist thinker, everything in the universe is made up of parts. If we can understand the parts, we can understand the whole. Depending on the field, the physical world is nothing but atoms and molecules and the social world is nothing but self-maximizing, rational actors. The reductionist view is very powerful and filled with “nothing but” statements. It never occurs to the thoroughgoing reductionist that the idea of “parts” is merely a mental construct.

The latter statement is crucial.  A “part” is a consequence of thinking, not an actuality.  Just as a “thing” is a product of perception (see my previous post, “The Loyal Hand”).  We see parts as a result of our way of making use of the world.  But it is equally valid to see the world as a whole, as a network of relationships in which no “thing” exists in isolation, no “part” exists without the interchanges of matter and energy that create and maintain it.  This means that the clarity of thinking we associate with reductionism–the simplification which results from ignoring almost everything but the part we are interested in–is instrumental.  It is applicable in a local way, to effect certain particular changes.  But we can’t predict with certainty how our actions will ramify through the whole system we are interacting with.

This is what makes our present predicament so “wicked,” to use a term from social planning.  A “wicked problem” is one that is “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize,” according to Wikipedia.  We see this kind of problem cropping up everywhere now.  As Cobb says,

We may wish fervently to address income inequality or hunger or climate change. But the complex interactions and power arrangements in our global society make it difficult to do anything but make a small dent. Even our personal destinies seem to be caught up in a flow of events which we cannot control, but rather must react to.

A world of intractable, ramifying difficulties  is a far cry from the technical Utopia that we were promised as recently as the 1960s, when it was thought that most of the world’s ills would be solved by reason and technology.  It is the abiding thesis of this blog that we do not know where we are.  We Moderns think we live in a “clean, well-lighted place,” to crib a line from Hemingway.  In reality we live in a dark thicket, a Gordian knot of forces interacting at a level of complexity which renders vain any hope of total comprehension, any dream of total control.

Modernity begins with the belief that humans are constrained, but could be free.  By hacking away at the choking weeds of superstition, religious dogma, and social cant, humans could stand in the sunlight of an open field.  Armed with the scientific knowledge of nature we could remake the world as a human paradise.  But the world is not dead, or passive, or simple.  It is alive, active, and infinitely complex.  Any clearing we make will soon be challenged by all the agencies we share the earth with.  That is an insight that comes from the other way of thinking Cobb describes.  As he puts it, holistic thinking “tries to see the entire picture including all the messy consequences. Knowing that those consequences ramify infinitely, it can only intuit the extent and significance of any pattern. The holistic way knows ahead of time that it will never see the whole, only ‘feel’ its meaning.”

The main critique of Modernity has come from the arts, which champion holistic thinking.  The trajectory of experience in any of the arts is toward “feeling” a meaning rather than merely engineering an effect or presenting an argument in a didactic fashion.  To immerse oneself in an artistic practice is to open oneself up not to mastering the materials (although there is a component of mastery in learning the techniques required) but to being mastered by them.  At a certain threshold of proficiency one glimpses a complexity one can never exhaust–it is that exhilarating sense of constant discovery of new meanings that makes art so exciting.  But this also makes art a spiritual venture.  If Modernity reduces to control, art reduces to complicate.  A drawing may reduce the world to a few lines, but those lines gesture toward a world that will never be exhausted, or controlled, by a few lines.

I am including here two drawings I made this summer, camping in northern Minnesota.  The first is of a forest path in Bear Head Lake State Park.  The second is on the Tamarac River at Big Bog State Recreation Area.  These drawings are attempts at expressing the feeling I get when confronting the dense complexity of the world.

bear head lake path


big bog river



The Loyal Hand

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A not particularly good but somehow compelling drawing, done on the back of an envelope.

Why am I obsessed with this drawing?  It was just a throw-away sketch, something I did on scratch paper while sitting at the dining table.  But I find myself looking at it often.  I am not a very observant person, for the most part.  I am in my head a lot of the time.  This drawing forces me to see my own hand.  See it as my hand.

How often do we actually look at our hands?  It is a peculiar facet of consciousness that we are only aware of that which we are attentive to.  Consciousness is pragmatic: it is employed for specific tasks.  We are aware of what we intend to do, or of what might threaten or aid us in our purpose.  If we had to be aware of everything in our environment we would be completely overwhelmed.  Thus we live with our bodies every minute of every day but are only aware of them when they are causing us specific sensations of pleasure or pain, or when we are having to use them for unfamiliar or especially difficult tasks. The rest of the time our relationship to the body is subconscious and automatic.

One powerful effect of sketching from life is that the focused attention required in order to render the world on paper in two dimensions causes us to experience with awe a world we usually ignore.  Background suddenly becomes foreground.  In this respect, sketching is a religious act, or at least akin to altered states of consciousness which are often called religious.  To draw your own hand is to have it suddenly, uncannily, present in a manner similar to certain drug experiences: everyone knows the cliché of the stoner gazing in wonder at his own hand.

But this sketch I’m posting is not fascinating solely because it drags into consciousness something usually ignored.  The human hand really is something special.  Lately I have been studying the work of George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), one of the founders of American sociology.  In the posthumously-published Mind, Self and Society, Mead considers the evolutionary origins of consciousness, and claims the hand plays an enormous role in the development of the mind–specifically it enables humans to conceptualize the world as made up of separate things.  “The hand is responsible for what I term physical things,” Mead writes.  Because we “handle” the world, the world is experienced as made up of parts.  By way of example, Mead says “If we took our food as dogs do by the very organs by which we masticate it, we should not have any ground for distinguishing the food as a physical thing from the actual consummation of the act, the consumption of the food.”   Because humans grasp their food; they are “manipulating a physical thing,” which is a “universal” because it is distinct from the act.  Thus the hand creates the thing: “We thus break up our world into physical objects, into an environment of things that we can manipulate for our final ends and purposes.”

It is in this sense, says Mead, that we always live in a manufactured world.  But there is a catch to this: if our most basic manufactured product is perception itself, we are liable to being fooled by our hand-made perceptions; we mistake them for reality.  In this sense, the act of sketching gets us close to the world-making our minds are always engaging in.  M.C. Escher depicted this long ago in his famous 1948 lithograph “Drawing Hands.”  Following Mead’s line of reasoning, this becomes more than just a paradox.  It becomes a vivid depiction of the way perception works.escher

The trouble is that our pleasure in the order and comprehensibility of our manufactured version of reality can distract us from the denser and more chaotic environment we actually live in, whose complexity must always elude our grasp.  In many ways the crisis we currently face as a species is a result of this refusal to come out of the closed circle of our world-making.  We are more clever at manipulating our environment than we are at understanding the effects such manipulations are having on our own future viability.

The hand has always stood in for creativity–think of God’s hand, gesturing toward Adam in Michelangelo’s great depiction of the creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  But the hand has always also stood in for culpability: we speak of being caught “red-handed,” we accuse accomplices of “having a hand in it.”   Think of Lady Macbeth, obsessively washing her stained hands.  The word “sinister” literally means “left-handed”–as using the opposite hand was considered sneaky, suspicious.  The actions of our hands betray us.

And that is the problem.  The Latin phrase animating Michelangelo and other great artists of the Renaissance was Homo faber suae quisque fortunae (“Every man is the maker of his destiny”).  Yet–in a manner the classical world would have understood very well–we don’t know what our destiny is except in retrospect.  We look upon our works and then see who we are.  As Robert Lowell says, in the conclusion of his poem “The Dolphin,” “My eyes have seen what my hand did.”

Yet I don’t want to end on that note.  There are ways for the hand to proceed through the world which do not assume mastery of it.  The hand might approach the world in friendship, for example.  Here is William Stafford’s poem “Witness”:

This is the hand I dipped in the Missouri

above Council Bluffs and found the springs.

All through the days of my life I escort

this hand.  Where would the Missouri

meet a kinder friend?


On top of Fort Rock in the sun I spread

these fingers to hold the world in the wind;

along that cliff, in that old cave

where men used to live, I grubbed in the dirt

for those cool springs again.


Summits in the Rockies received this diplomat.

Brush that concealed the lost children yielded

them to this hand.  Even on the last morning

when we all tremble and lose, I will reach

carefully, eagerly through that rain, at the end–


Toward whatever is there, with this loyal hand.


What we humans grasp is always a fraction of what is there.  The open hand must always be reaching for what it can never grasp.  We are feeling our way along through the dark for the shape of an unknowable yet tangible world.  We must be loyal to it, though it can never be loyal to us.


Scan 14
My notebook sketch of a scholar reading a paper at the American Literature Association’s annual conference.

In his poem “The Scholars,” W.B. Yeats describes academics thus:

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

That’s funny, but it is also a cheap shot.  We often deride the ridiculous aspects of the scholarly life without acknowledging the essential connection between scholarship and literature.  Poetry, for example, begins in the journals and little magazines of the contemporary publishing scene, but it continues in anthologies and class syllabi, in books of literary history and criticism.  Without scholars to curate their work, poets often fall into oblivion.    Think of your own relationship to poetry: chances are you were first exposed to poems in high school and college English classes.  For most of us, this exposure formed the foundation of our understanding of what poetry does or aspires to do in the world.  Even if we discover poetry independent of school, we do so through books or anthologies which have been prepared and edited by scholars.  And scholars not only preserve poets for posterity–they can pluck them from obscurity.  Many poets we now consider essential were not so in their day and only rose to prominence thanks to the work of academics who championed them and taught their poems in classes.  Emily Dickinson, for example, went from complete obscurity to the center of the American canon in part because she was championed by critics.  More recently, scholars have worked hard to rescue writers whom they feel were overlooked because of race or gender.  It’s fun to laugh at nerds: it is harder to recognize their essential value.

Thinkers like Bruno Latour have taught us that knowledge does not exist in some Platonic realm, hovering above the world.  It is brought into being and nourished by networks of people who work in consort, alternately encouraging and critiquing each other.  I often tell my students that the internet is nothing new: it is essentially a speedier and more connective version of what scholarship has always been, a web of bibliographies, footnotes, and quotations which links readers and thinkers across the world and helps them to painstakingly construct the collaborative structure of knowledge.  But we should not let the ease of access the internet affords obscure the labor that lies behind the result.  Just as we ignore the fossil-fuel gobbling servers that keep the internet going, we ignore the real work that puts knowledge together and tries to keep it accurate and current.  Scholarly networks are very material and localized, they must enlist the aid of physical agents like printing presses, reams of paper, hotel meeting rooms, microphones, laptop computers, cups of coffee, university buildings, airplanes and trains, etc.  Above all, they require living and breathing human beings, doing real work in real time.

Any poem or novel is a collaborative effort of writer, agent, editor, designer, marketer, and bookstore owner–not to mention faceless Amazon warehouse employees.  We should stop seeing writers as existing in heroic isolation.  And we should recognize that the work of the writer is not secure until some scholar takes on the task of curating it, putting it into stable form and passing it on to another generation.

I am posting below some sketches from the recent annual conference of the American Literature Association (ALA).  The purpose of the ALA is to gather together the many societies dedicated to the scholarly preservation and study of the work of American writers.  The annual conference features a smorgasbord of panels from groups like the James Fenimore Cooper Society, the Marilynne Robinson Society, or the Langston Hughes Society.  We are used to reading such images as boring–just people standing behind lecterns, delivering papers.  But perhaps we should rethink that.  These are curates, devoting their lives to keeping the flame of some particular writer burning on against the background of universal oblivion.

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If you follow Highway 3 north out of Enterprise, Oregon, you first meet a sign that says “no gas for the next 72 miles.”  The road rises through the empty brown hills of the Oregon shortgrass prairie and sage steppe, passing the entrance roads to vast ranches.  Gradually you reach the Ponderosa pines of the Wallowa-Whitman Forest.  About 40 minutes in, the land on the right suddenly drops away and you are on the edge of a stunning canyon of intricately folded mountains.  The Nez Perce called this area saqánma, which means “long, rough canyon.” At the bottom runs Joseph Creek, on its way to meet the Grande Ronde River, where the families of the Wallowa Band made their winter camp.  Deep in the canyons they were protected from the harsh winds and snow and they survived on cached food–dried meat and salmon, dried berries, biscuitroot and camas bulbs.  They spent their days listening to “myths and stories which were inhabited by a cast of characters that included animals, plants, rocks, rivers, celestial bodies, and other figures who behaved like humans in a pre-cultural era before humans were created” (American Indians of the Pacific Northwest digital project).

We can see a connection with the winter traditions of Northern Europeans, traditions which have engrossed many Americans in the past months: huddled in our houses with our decorated trees, we too have been retelling our myths and thinking about spiritual things.  In the Germanic tribes of the north, winter was a time when people survived on preserved foods–Hallowe’en, in fact, marked the time when herd animals were slaughtered and processed as hams and sausages, and when fall vegetables were pickled or dried (hence our predilection for fruitcake!) to stave off starvation in the harsh winters.  With the coming of Christianity, Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth, was moved to December by the early Church in order to take advantage of the Roman Feast of Saturnalia, a Mediterranean version of the same kind of holiday.  Saturnalia was marked by a sacrifice at the temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, followed by feasting and merrymaking.  The Roman Saturn was the agricultural god of the Golden Age, when Romans believed their ancestors gathered the bounty of the earth without strife or want.  Saturn organized the fauns and nymphs–the local deities of animal and plant life, as well as of rivers–and gave them laws.  Thus Saturn was the original founder of Roman prosperity, and his temple was the site of the Roman treasury.

Everything comes back to the bounty of the earth, which ancient peoples knew had to be respected and venerated.  For the Nez Perce people, this connection was still direct. Their relationship to the world around them blended the practical necessities of hunting and gathering with the spiritual connection to those sources.  Like the Plains Indians, the Nez Perce believed in tutelary spirits which individuals either inherited from an ancestor or encountered during a vision quest.  These spirits were usually spirits of animals who interested themselves in human affairs: “The Nez Perce believe that although the animals became mute after humans arrived, they could still reveal their full power to humans in visions and dreams” (American Indians of the Pacific Northwest).

Something of this survives in the Christmas story of the animals in the stable: on Christmas Eve, it was said, animals could talk.  The donkey and the ox bowed their heads to venerate the Christ Child.  The old carol, “The Friendly Beasts,” had the donkey singing “I carried His mother up hill and down,” and the cow sang “I gave Him my manger for his bed.”  Supposedly this song originated from a French feast day in honor of Mary’s burro, the Fete de L’Ane (props to for this information).

But Christianity came late in human history, when the connections to hunting and gathering, and to the wilds, were attenuated.  The success of Roman factory farming (using slaves and conquered land) had distanced urban Europeans from the realities of the biosphere.  The history of Moderns, funded as it is by fossil fuels, has only exacerbated that alienation from both the practical and the spiritual connection to the landscape.  Thus, here we are, in 2019, on the brink of ecological collapse because we are incapable of seeing our vulnerability.  Our detritivorous habit of living off dead plant and animal matter from the Mesozoic and Paleozoic has blinded us to our dependance on living beings. It has also made us spiritually alienated from everything around us.

The Nez Perce could not understand why white settlers built permanent settlements on the uplands and suffered through the harsh winters of the exposed high plains.  They scratched their heads at the arrogance of a people who thought they could subdue the environment by force of will.  Their close attention to the realities of their world taught them that such lonely arrogance was maladaptive.

It is not very likely that we Moderns will survive by doubling down on our current strategy of denial.  We are being forced to attend to the voices of the biosphere, which are speaking louder every minute.  As we exit from our holiday revelry into this Roman month of January, we need to listen.  Winter dreams are not just pleasant wish-fulfillments.  They also bring prophecies.



Independence Rock

independence rock
Independence Rock, midway point on the Oregon Trail.

On my journey across the West this autumn I spent some time following the Oregon Trail, the name most people use when referring to a network of old wagon routes heading west from the Missouri River.  The trail is really many trails with three main destinations: the Oregon Territories, the California gold fields, and the Mormon settlement in Utah.  These destinations represent the diverse desires of those who followed the call of the West: the hunger for free acreage, the hunger for quick profits from mining, the hunger for freedom from the violent enforcement of religious and social conformity in the East.  All of these hungers were grouped under the collective Western ideal of “freedom.”  The West meant freedom because the West was vast, and the people that lived on it prior to the pioneers–the Indians and Mexicans–were numerically few, were not well armed, and were not politically important.

We now know that “Manifest Destiny,” the feeling of righteousness that accompanied American expansionism in the 19th century, was a suspect brew whose intoxicating spirit masked more insalubrious ingredients: greed, racism and violence. (It is a pertinent question to ask any American who talks about freedom: “Who had it before you seized it?”) But even now, the fizzy excitement of the narrative is hard to resist: the Oregon Trail has become a kind of pilgrimage road which American tourists follow, hoping to recapitulate the heroism and idealism of pioneering, the feeling that Americans had in the mid-19th century that they could once again rise to the challenge, could master the wilderness and make it a fruitful cradle for democracy and independence.  Like the Stations of the Cross in a cathedral, the Oregon Trail its marked stages–Chimney Rock and Scott’s Bluff, Fort Laramie, Register Cliff and the wagon wheel ruts at Guernsey, Three Island Crossing and Old Fort Boise–each with its RV-accommodating parking lots and informative signage.  As is true of the Stations of the Cross, the Oregon Trail narrative is about suffering and apotheosis: the shared hardships of the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trail provided 19th-century Americans with a religious trial that welded the expanding nation to a common sense of purpose.  The Oregon Trail both facilitated and justified the nation’s new imperium, which by the 1860s extended from sea to shining sea.

Independence Rock, seen above, was significant to the wagon trains crossing the Wyoming plateau because it was the half-way point of the trip for many of them.  Pioneers sought to reach it by July 4 because if they arrived much later than that they risked being cut off by early snows in the mountains–the fate suffered by the Donner party.  Travelers who camped at Independence Rock often carved or painted their names on its smooth granite flanks–soon there were hundreds of names, so many that Jesuit father Pierre Jean de Smet christened it the “Great Register of the Desert.”

But the emigrant trails followed previous trails–valleys cut by rivers winding their way across the arid land; paths made by the buffalo, and by the Indian following the buffalo.  The landmarks were old landmarks, had stood in human memory for thousands of years.  If they became, for the westward emigrants, icons of a Western “Exodus” narrative, that was only their most recent significance.  Humans have probably been carving symbols on the rock for millennia.  There are many petroglyphs found across the West; they are usually images of deities, and are thought to be connected to the Indian practice of the vision quest.  By contrast, Americans thought it was important to leave their individual names–a reflection of the value they placed on the individual and also evidence of the impoverished egotism of that belief.  Topographical engineer Capt. Howard Stansbury said at the time that emigrants must have felt, “judging from the size of their inscriptions, that they would go down to posterity in all their fair proportions.”  The one example of someone carving something more significant than an individual name was the cross  John Frémont cut into the rock while passing by on his famous 1842 surveying expedition.  But subsequent pioneers blasted the cross off the cliff face, mistakenly believing it to be the work of a Catholic.

At any rate, the names are temporary–the rock is continually sandblasted by the wind and lichen also works to erase the Register.  A millennium from now, Independence Rock will again be a nameless whaleback of archean granite. And what of our nation, and its love of freedom and individualism?  Will we have learned to overcome our youthful boastfulness, our possessiveness, our violent egoism?  The dangerous years ahead will require a degree of sacrifice and cooperation Americans are not at all used to.  Will we have managed to pass through the bottleneck of climate change with a new understanding of what it takes to survive on this earth?  Will we have learned that freedom is attached by the hip to social solidarity?  Or will we be a vanished people, leaving behind a few stainless steel machine parts and windrows of plastic trash, while, as the poet Shelley put it in his poem “Ozymandias,”

. . .boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Buffalo Jesus

An American Bison blocking traffic on the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway outside of Yellowstone National Park.

Buried in the torrent of election news this past week was the World Wildlife Fund’s report that between 1970 and 2014, the world’s population of vertebrate animals has declined on average by 60%.  Ed Yong, at the Atlantic’s website, makes this a bit more visualizable:

Since the 1980s, the giraffe population has fallen by up to 40 percent, from at least 152,000 animals to just 98,000 in 2015. In the last decade, savanna elephant numbers have fallen by 30 percent, and 80 percent of forest elephants were slaughtered in a national park that was one of their last strongholds. Cheetahs are down to their last 7,000 individuals, and orangutans to their last 5,000.

We are rapidly approaching a future where most of the wild animals you and I grew up reading about will be found only in zoos.  And the cause?  I think we all know.  The question is, why don’t we feel, in our hearts, that this is real?  I don’t mean why can’t we acknowledge the facts–if you are reading this, you are probably aware of climate change and habitat loss and you probably want to do something to “save the planet.”  But still . . . a recent poll found that while 70% of Americans think climate change is happening and will endanger future generations, only 40% think it will harm them personally. We discount future harm at a furious rate.  And when the average American looks around, he or she sees a lot of deer (in fact this time of year in Minnesota they are a menace on the roads), and there are plenty of raccoons, possums and coyote.  It is hard to believe we are in a crisis when it is not happening in your backyard.

But we also are Moderns.  The foundational assumption of Modernity is that our rational understanding of Nature will enable us to control it.  Since that is a core article of faith, somewhere in the back of our minds we believe that we are heirs to a future paradise of managed plenty–the future our tech companies keep promising us.  And perhaps we feel that if we lose a few animal species in the process, well, that is sad, but animals are not on the same level as humans.

This is abetted by Judeo-Christian tradition.  The two stories in Genesis which narrate God’s creation of the world both make it clear that Man is on top.  In the first story, God makes humans on the sixth day of creation, and it is clear that they are to rule:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

In the second account, Adam is made before plants and animals–so he is even more important.  Animals are created in an attempt to provide humans with help and companionship: “The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”  This is the story of Eden, the garden where Adam named the animals and lived with them in peace.  Until that incident with the apple, of course.

Both accounts are stories told by an agricultural people.  Religious stories always reflect the world as it is experienced by the people that tell them: it is not surprising that ancient Hebrews–farmers and herdsmen–would think of the world in these terms.  Life is a garden, watered and controlled by a Master Gardener.  Sin is a result of violating farm rules.  Nor is it surprising that those stories have made sense to our forefathers and mothers–human history over the past 11,000 years has been one of ever-increasing agricultural success.  We have asserted our dominion over the plants and animals.  We have hijacked the productivity of the biosphere and used it to expand our human footprint until we have become the most powerful biological–and even geological–force on the planet.

But our garden metaphor is getting us into trouble now.  A garden is inherently a place of exclusion and simplification: whatever isn’t useful to us is exterminated.  But a garden is only successful because it exists in the larger fabric of the biological world.  Gardens always fall victim to entropy: they are short-term schemes. Their exclusiveness is not sustainable.  The secret to success in nature is diversity because the random forces that threaten life are relentless.  No one species has the key to survival, and no one member of a species does either.  We can’t actually say what is useful to us, in the long run.  Moreover, life creates its own luck through interdependence: the rise of flowering plants, for example, was coeval with the rise of pollinating insects.  Each made the other possible.  As is true in human economies, natural economies thrive by creating new niches through constant innovation and diversification.  Propped up by fossil fuels and addled by a simplistic model of the world, we are simplifying ourselves toward extinction–and taking everything with us.

We need a religious metaphor that expresses our reliance on the success–and resilience–of other species.  Fortunately such metaphors are available: humans have only been farmers for a tiny fraction of their time on earth, and there remain many traces of the spiritual beliefs of hunters and gatherers. I have commented elsewhere on the insights pre-agricultural people had about the genetic unity of life–insights that resurfaced with Darwin (  In America we are lucky to have, close at hand, the spiritual beliefs of Native Americans to help us get beyond our garden story.  As Joseph Epes Brown puts it in The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indians,

In the multiple expressions of Native American lore, in myths and folktales, in rites, ceremonies, art forms, music, and dances, there is the constant implication of, indeed direct references to, the understanding that animal beings are not lower, that is, inferior to humans, but rather, because they were here first in the order of creation, and with the respect always due to age in these cultures, the animal beings are looked to as guides and teachers of human beings–indeed, in a sense their superiors.

Moreover, animals are seen as co-creators of the world.  Brown points to a particular example of this in the widespread Algonquin tale of the Earth Diver.  In this story, Earth Maker Nanabozo enlists the help of the aquatic animals to help bring dry land into being.  Each animal in turn dives down, trying to find a grain of earth from which new land will be made.  Usually it is the muskrat that succeeds, surfacing with mud in his paws.  This story, says Brown, “shifts the orientation away from creation understood as a single event of time past, to the reality of those immediately experienced processes of creation ever happening and observable through all the multiple forms and forces of creation.”  This is much more consistent with our biological stories of origin and change.

Brown goes on to say that “In the people’s intense and frequent contact with the powers and qualities of the animals including birds and eventually all forms of life, humankind is awakened to, and thus may realize, all that an individual potentially is as a human person.”  If this is so, it is not just our biological safety we are putting at risk when we drive the world’s animals to extinction; we are also becoming less human.

But we don’t necessarily have to leave Genesis behind.  We can use this perspective to see in the biblical account echoes of the older, pre-agricultural beliefs.  For example, God makes animals so that Adam will have helpers, and so he will not be lonely.  That implies a deeper connection than simple domination.  We can also see the remnants of an animal creation story in the character of the snake who talks Eve into trying the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  According to some Christian theologians, this act, while letting in sin, also allowed humans a chance to become something better.  Known as the doctrine of felix culpa, the fortunate fall, this interpretation claims that, in the words of Saint Ambrose, Adam’s sin “brought more good to humanity than if he had stayed perfectly innocent.”  That would actually put the snake in the role of Trickster Hero, would it not?

To bring animals back into our religious faith would be consonant with the Christian effort to sacralize the physical world.  If the great opposing heresies–or competitors–to the early church were the gnostics and neoplatonists, for whom the physical world was either evil or unreal, Christianity sought to cling to the physical importance of creation.  This is reflected in the central Christian rite, the mass of holy communion.  To anyone outside the faith, it is a grisly-sounding practice, flirting with cannibalism, as Christians are exhorted to eat the body and blood of Christ.  But the idea of the sacrificial feast is old, and is directly linked to the central mystery and agony of life: to exist, we must die, and from our death others are nourished.  This is the only condition under which life is possible.  We have become immune to the central paganness of the mass, because the church has long veered away from biology and into abstraction (perhaps the subtle triumph of neoplatonism, as some have suggested).  But any Plains Indian would understand, looking at Jesus on the Cross, that the Sun Dance is being reenacted there: “Only in sacrifice is sacredness accomplished; only in sacrifice is identity found.”  He would also trace a connection between the Christian mass and the feast of the sacred buffalo, whose sacrificial death gave life to the Indian people.

I write this the day before the election.  Some of you will read this before you vote, many others will read it after the event.  It is an indication of the turbulence of our current situation that the difference between those two moments will be like the difference between being on one side of a mountain and another.  Timescapes can be radically different–some eras are level plains, on which the transition between one hour and another is hardly noticeable.  Others are like the highly eroded landscapes I witnessed out West: complexly folded, containing drastic variations: high plateaus, deep, sunless declivities; sudden drop-offs, knife-edged ridges.  It is clear that we currently live in the badlands of the nonlinear, and any trust in the gentle unfolding of the next moment is ill founded.  Whatever happens, however, is part of the biological (and sacred) story of this thin earth we share.  Make sure you are trying to find your place and a place for your community in that story, if you want it and you to survive.


True West

I just got back from a trip out west–a four thousand mile journey that took me across northern Nebraska, through Wyoming and Idaho and up through Oregon.  I discovered two things apropos capturing images: 1) it is impossible to sketch while driving, or even when you stop to rest–that is, if you are on a tight schedule.  Drawing takes time, even fast sketching.  2) it is possible to photograph, even while driving, the landscape–but a photograph is completely inadequate to render the vast spaces of the West.  I took a lot of snapshots, and almost always they look pathetic compared to the intense emotional experience of landscapes so overpowering.   But I did manage to sketch a couple of times, when it seemed spiritually important to take the time.  I attach a sketch made at Wounded Knee Massacre Site, and another at the Little Bighorn Battle Monument.  In the first sketch I tried to capture, not the cemetery at the top of the hill, but the declivity at the bottom where the massacre actually happened.  It is a perfectly innocent little ravine, unless you know what happened.

Wounded knee

The Little Bighorn sketch was made from the vantage point of the new Indian memorial, an earth and stone structure that frames the “Custer Monument” which has lorded over the site for far too long.  What was interesting about the Indian monument was that it was purposely open to the white monument: the purpose was to invite the dead cavalrymen to join the circle, in keeping with Indian philosophy.  It is a gesture of honor and reconciliation, but also one of control.  We enter their circle, if we want to heal.

little bighorn site

This last sketch is taken from a snapshot which I perilously grabbed through the windshield while driving in the early evening as I left Fort Laramie.  The mountain in the background is Laramie Peak,  the first real view travelers on the Oregon Trail had of the Rockies.  In the photo it is almost invisible, because of the smoke from the fires in California.  The sketch is more intense than the photo because you can feel the mountain.  I am thinking I may go back and work from my bad photos to render the more important images as drawings–to remember how much I was moved by these Western vistas.

laramie peak

Wallace Stegner says, of the Western artist,  “Perceptions trained in another climate and another landscape have had to be modified.  That means we have had to learn to quit depending on perceptual habit.  Our first and hardest adaptation was to learn all over again how to see.  Our second was to learn to like the new forms and colors and light and scale when we had learned to see them.  Our third was to develop new techniques, a new palette, to communicate them.”  This is my third time in the West–I went once as an adolescent, once as a young man.  Now I am an old man, and I finally see.

Drawing with Sticks: What Sketching Shows Us About How We Experience the World

My wife and I spent a week in a cabin on Lake Superior, as we do every year.  We divide our days between hiking and reading–or reading and sketching, in my case.  This time I took along a book about drawing with pencil and charcoal, so I was reading about sketching part of the time.  I also brought along some new drawing tools–in particular vine charcoal, which is just what the name implies: charcoal made from twigs.  I found that using it was exhilarating–the broad, soft tip made it responsive to the slightest movement of my hand, and encouraged me to work swiftly and to capture the mass of what I was drawing in a single gesture.  I am used to rather slowly building an image from innumerable lines, but this was more like using a paintbrush.  By employing an artist’s stump I could smear the charcoal to get different tones, almost like I was using ink wash or watercolors.

2 morning birchThe sense of immediacy in my resulting sketches seemed palpable.  But how to explain this?  What did speed have to do with it?  And was the crudeness of the medium–I was literally drawing with a burnt stick–an asset?

I stumbled upon one explanation in a fascinating book by the pencil and watercolor artist David Rankin.  In Fast Sketching Techniques, Rankin tells how he had to learn the difference between a sketch and a drawing late in his career.  He was used to working from photographs, building meticulous works that earned him a great deal of acclaim.  But he began to spend summers in Kashmir, and found his studio skills were inadequate for capturing the new, strange country he was in: “I had the desire to sketch or paint some of the wonderful things I saw and experienced, but was shocked to realize that my existing skills, though substantial, were simply not the right ones for the job.”  In short, he was too slow.  Rankin concludes that the difference between a sketch and a drawing is the “speed at which they were drawn.”  This seems obvious, but  Here are his examples of a drawing, and of a sketch:

Rankin Deanna


Clearly one image is much more refined and detailed–the drawing is an impressive bit of realism.  But the sketch is also impressive, for different reasons.  Rankin goes into this in more detail:

The whole purpose of sketching is different from drawing.  When you sketch from life, you’re simply trying to capture visual and emotional impressions of subjects.  You’re working fast.  Study the movements, the form,the postures and the intrinsic characteristics of a subject moment by moment.  You’re only trying to capture something of its essence in your sketch. . . . Sketches are the fastest and most creative thinking that you do with a subject.  They are intense, loose, rapid and spontaneous.  They don’t look like a slower, more deliberate drawing.

Rankin claims that this way of working exploits the difference between recognition and seeing:

. . . seeing isn’t enough.  In order to draw better, you have to be able to not just see an object, but to recognize its essential characteristics well enough to re-create its likeness on paper with only a pencil.  To sketch better you have to see and quickly recognize shapes, contours, basic features, details and relative values.  The amount of visual information we recognize in a mere glance is phenomenal.  The more alert and aware we are of these subtle momentary impressions in our minds the more we have to focus as we sketch. . . Recognition is more complex than seeing.  Recognition is a higher brain function that involves many other features of consciousness in fractions of a second.

This gets at a paradox that is at the core of what makes art work:  we never see the world, really.  We recognize it.  That is, any object we see is infinitely detailed and could be seen in an infinite number of ways.  Yet objects are recognizable.  There is a certain gestalt to them.  This is what makes it possible to “chunk” the complex stream of sense data into simplified but discrete images of what we call objects.  And it is only by using images that we can think about objects.  We never get the world as it is—we get sketches of it—vastly simplified diagrams.  As Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset put it,

. . . there is nothing we can make an object of cognition, nothing can exist for us unless it becomes an image, a concept, an idea–unless, that is, it stops being what it is in order to become a shadow or an outline of itself.

This gives us a hint as to why sketches can be so compelling.  Rankin’s work provides an example: a complex drawing that took him many hours is an impressive representation; it is a much better description of the object.  But that faithful detail takes us away from recognition and attempts to convince us we are seeing the object.  What was present in the sketch was the moment of contact, which is diluted in the more elaborately worked drawing.  In fact, much of the “work” of a drawing is ridding the image of the traces of contact precisely by adding details which recognition would have overlooked.  The more detailed a drawing becomes, the more it tries to become a substitute for the object itself, which is of course impossible.  But detailed representations can be compelling–they provide a simulacrum which is in itself a stimulating object.  When we view, say, the Mona Lisa, we view a powerful object in its own right, not a representation of a Renaissance woman.  The woman is dead, or may never have existed, and this does not diminish our experience.  Nor do we imagine we are present at the moment of contact between da Vinci and some real person.  The painting has completely replaced its original referent.

What does a sketch give that a detailed rendering cannot—or, to put it another way, why are even crude sketches often more compelling than photographs?  The answer is that the sketch tells us openly that its depiction does not “describe” but rather invokes the object.  It respects the object’s autonomy by not attempting to replace it.  The sketch’s reduced information stands in for the irreducibility of objects.  Their sovereignty.   First the sketch causes us to recognize what is being observed, then it warns us away from any attempt at replacing the object with a simulacrum.

Furthermore, the sketch flatters the viewer because the viewer has more to infer—recognizing the content of a sketch often takes more work than seeing an elaborate drawing or photograph.  The viewer must both identify the subject and be willing to intuit the missing detail, or trust that there is more to be known than can be known.  This is why many amateur photographs are utterly lifeless–they seem to exhaust us with detail, yet there is no sense of depth in the representation.  We do recognize the objects in the photograph but we do not sense that there is complexity beneath them–the image gives us nothing to do.   Of course, this is true of bad sketches as well.  But in that case we are sure that the fault is in the rendering–the objects themselves are not tedious or awkward.   A sketch preserves the basic reality that any perception of an object creates a new hybrid object, composed of the perceiver and the perceived.  We never forget that the subject of a sketch is present to the artist, and vice-versa.

Here are some pages from my sketchbook, most of them focused on an old birch tree which stood outside the window of our cabin.  What I like about them is they seem to preserve the intensity of my encounters.

2 harbors old birch

Scan 1

2 harb old birch 2

Here are a couple of “seascapes”:

2 harb cloud and moon

th2 harb cloudline

I feel happy with these, because they remind me of the power of Lake Superior’s North Shore.  My sketches are not substitutes for the landscape, but they express the recognition I felt when I was in them.  I also remember how pleasurable these drawings were to make.  They seemed quick and effortless.


I spent Earth Day playing folk music and manning a booth at our local celebration, which was held in conjunction with the Saturday farmer’s market.  Despite the unseasonable cold, it was a jolly gathering of mostly the same people I see at all liberal-leaning events in our small Minnesota city.  People were buying organic vegetables and picking up fliers about solar power, climate change, and pollinator-friendly gardening.  There were booths selling hand-made jewelry and the like.  One organization was giving out free tree saplings, another was handing out free starter plants for vegetable gardens.  There was a sense of loose social unity, but in the Age of Trump it seemed hard to believe that wearing a hemp necklace and planting a choke cherry tree would move the needle much.  We seemed stuck in two worlds: one that believes we need to radically change, to move away from the corrupt, self-destructive fossil-fuel-guzzling status quo, and one that wants to double down on the that same system, seeing it as the source of prosperity.  This had me thinking about the Protestant Reformation.

Last November my wife and I went to see the Minnesota Orchestra perform a series of works in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Protestant rebellion against the Catholic Church.  The evening started out with Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite, featuring Adam Kuenzel playing the intricate the intricate twiddles of a fugue.  As always, I was left imagining a formidable and impassioned candy box.


Bach’s music is the essence of the 18th century Protestant world-view, one that embraced middle class order and decency, empowered by a newly rationalized view of nature and society.  With the collapse of Christendom’s central authority, the Papacy, the new nation-states of Europe had to find other sources of political unity.  Perhaps for the first time since the Roman Empire, Europeans turned their idealism to this world, rather than living in anticipation of the next one.  Luther removed celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood and dissolved the monastic orders: as a result Christians could suddenly embrace procreation and the family in a way that was only provisionally possible in Medieval times.  The emphasis on scripture as the sole authority in spiritual affairs (sola scriptura) made reading the Bible central to religious life and therefore encouraged ordinary people to become literate and to explore their individual faith.  The Reformation made the church local and participatory again: church music of the early 15th Century was “sung in Latin by the clergy in the church choir stalls. The reformers aimed at giving music back to the people – to all worshipers, including the women,” according to the Virtual Museum of Protestantism (which is a trip in itself, if you want to wander the dreams of the Reformation, French-style).  The result was an explosion of music composed in the vernacular, performed and sung by the community it was written for.  Bach is the high end of the movement, as he was subsidized by the aristocracy (and was criticized for being too intricate).  But the blending of the music of the court with the music of the people is still part of his legacy, as every child who has had to play Bach on a rented instrument in a local school concert can attest.

Here is the opening of the Second Orchestral Suite in Bach’s own hand, so you can hum along (this is from the Bach Digital website):

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 5.54.00 AM

Of course, this cheerful narrative elides the chaos of the Wars of Religion (of which there were nine in France alone).  In the next 150 years, 10 to 20 percent of the population of Europe would die in sectarian violence.  Much blood flowed before the calm notes of Bach.

We might see the obsession with order that is so noticeable in Bach’s music as a reaction to the extreme disorder that preceded it.  In fact, the entire Enlightenment might be seen as a response to Christendom’s great civil war.  This is the subject of a fascinating book, Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  Toulmin argues pretty convincingly that Modernity’s insistence that nature is rationally structured and that society should follow suit is a result of trauma experienced by the generation that had suffered through religious war.  Nature became “Nature,” a supreme authority that could be invoked without dissent.  As Nature was God’s creation, it was religious, but not theological: the “book of Nature” could be read by science instead of by religious partisans.  It was the great unifying concept that helped patch together Europe by making Europeans Moderns.  Although this concept would drive the movement toward secularism, it was not secular at the outset.  Thus, I hear in Bach’s music the sublime reassurance of the clockwork universe, complex and various but always moving toward a predetermined unity.

Which brings us to the second work performed by the Minnesota Orchestra that November night–Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” symphony, which was written in 1830 to commemorate the tercentenary of the Augsburg Confession.   Which is what? you may ask if you are not a Lutheran.  The Augsburg Confession was a response by Martin Luther and his associates to a demand from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that the breakaway Princes and Free Cities of the new Lutheran movement explain their new belief to him.   Which they did in the city hall of Augsburg.  Charles V was hoping to resolve doctrinal differences in order to unite Europe against the Ottoman Empire.  His tactic didn’t work, and instead the Lutheran “confession” became the central document unifying the Lutheran faith– the wars of religion would soon follow. 

Why would Mendelssohn write a symphony about Luther’s confession three hundred years later?  The conflicts fueling the Reformation kept rumbling underneath the peace of Westphalia, which ostensibly put an end to the religious wars in 1648.  King Wilhelm Friedrich III of Prussia was planning to throw a big celebration in Berlin.  Wilhelm was ambitious to make Berlin a center of European culture, and he was also hoping “to unify Calvinists and Lutherans into a single Protestant liturgy, thereby strengthening its political influence against the Catholic church,” according to conductor Michael Lewanski’s helpful notes on the Reformation symphony.  Prussia had emerged as a political power capable of unifying the German people, and Friedrich was hoping to use religious unity to help solidify that power.  Mendelssohn was the scion of a prominent Jewish family that had converted to Protestantism; he was also an ambitious composer.  The symphony would serve to both further his musical career and affirm his commitment to the Lutheran ethos. 

The party in Berlin never happened, and Mendelssohn’s composition would not be played until 1832.  At the time it was not well liked; a premier in Paris was cancelled because, according to the Chicago Symphony’s program notes, “the musicians found the score unplayable (‘much too learned, too much fugato, too little melody,’ was one verdict).”  But it has become popular in the ensuing years, especially with Lutherans.  The composition features two popular melodies, well-known to church going audiences: the “Dresden Amen,” a series of six ascending notes popular with liturgical choirs, and Martin Luther’s famous composition, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

The symphony enacts, one might say, the struggle of the Reformation: Lewanski refers to the development mode as “a crisis and out-pouring” of “deep and conflicting emotions” that are resolved by Luther’s melody “as if to suggest that not only faith, but the power of music as an expression thereof, is a savior.”  The symphony ends with, Lewanski says,

a full-throated, almost too insistent chorus of the entire orchestra declaiming the hymn at first in unison, then in a traditional harmonization.  It is a striking claim — rather than music as an agent of transcendence, here it seeks to affirm and unify the social order with the religious in [a] way that only a composer like Mendelssohn, born and raised a member of the only recently emerged bourgeoisie, whose family were Lutheran converts from Judaism, was in a unique position to have imagined.

This expression of social solidarity was very apparent in the audience that night, as a great many middle- and upper-class Minnesotan Lutherans (the whole night had been partially underwritten by a Lutheran arts organization) were palpably aroused by the symphonic affirmation.  Conductor Osmo Vänskä caught the fervor of the moment.   Always an emotional conductor, he seemed a whirlwind of passion on his little platform:

venska, violin

The musicians, too, played with Romantic fervor.


bass bowed

The audience at the finale roared its approval.  Doubtless many of the Lutherans in attendance were only Lutheran by family tradition, the winds of secularization having swept them clean of their faith.  Others may have been descendants of various flavors of the Reformation–Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist–and many were doubtless Catholic, either confessionally or culturally.  But for a moment the hall was united by the dream of einheit that Mendelssohn was orchestrating.  That is one of the supreme effects of music.

After the intermission came the much-anticipated premier of RE-FORMATION, a choral symphony specially commissioned by the Orchestra for the anniversary of the Lutheran revolution.  Composed by Sebastian Currier, RE-FORMATION is described in the program notes as a work which “recalls the past—incorporating fragments of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony—while also looking forward, ending with a choral hymn that encourages us to protect our natural environment for future generations.”  This of course attracted my interest, and was the main reason for my being there.  I am always on the hunt for art that attempts to address our looming environmental predicament.  In descriptions of the work, Currier is explicit about his intention to do just that.  As the program notes say:

Currier was particularly struck by the connection between Psalm 46—the basis for Luther’s Ein’ feste Burg text—to modern environmentalism. “In the Psalm’s first stanza, God’s strength is depicted by his ability to save us from the ravages of a destructive natural world, from apocalypse,” he notes. “Considering the world today, this viewpoint is reversed. We cannot stand by idly and permit our actions to destroy the planet. We need to take action.”

Wow.  Okay.  Would this be the kind of clarion call we needed?  Would it help mobilize our energies in the direction of change?

Unfortunately, no.  And the reasons for its failure are worth considering, as they arise from the limitations of Modernity itself.

I am not a music critic, and I am pretty much your standard oaf when it comes to classical music.  Perhaps, had my ear been more refined, I would have been able to, as the New York Times critic did, experience Currier’s work as “harrowingly effective.”  But instead I found it a dissonant, self-mocking morass.   Moreover, I was conscious that this effect was by design.  The composer’s own notes (from his publisher’s website) indicate his intention: “As RE-FORMATION begins, we hear fragments from Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony ring out amidst a more obscure sound world, like decaying structures in a ruined landscape.”  The “ruined landscape” is not expressly defined, but we can pretty much assume that Currier is critiquing the bourgeois affirmations that Mendelssohn forged out of his first and second movements.  That is, Currier is to some extent dissing the very feeling of social union that moved the audience to thunderous applause before the intermission.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century it has become axiomatic that high art must be suspicious of those grand gestures which unified Europe in the previous century.  The crisis of faith in Western Civilization began in the late 19th century as the internal contradictions of Modernity began to emerge: first, the rise of scientific challenges to Biblical narratives (and especially Darwin’s new mechanism for creation) began to erode the faith in, well, faith.  Moderns discovered that, having installed Nature as an inarguable authority, they didn’t particularly need the authority of scripture, or even the idea of God, to wield that authority.  Moderns believed themselves to possess, for the first time, objective knowledge of Nature, which they felt distinguished them from all other societies; Modern political and moral life would be based on sound reasoning and objective facts, not superstition or blind tradition.  This new belief empowered a growing secularity which ate away at religion and traditions alike.

However, for a long stretch of the 19th Century Christians and secularists alike  were committed to a belief in Progress.  The great imperial projects of globalization and industrialization, combined with the rise of technical expertise and the bureaucratic state needed to enact it, seemed to promise the “heaven on earth” that in some ways Luther was enabling when he married Katrina von Bora, an ex- nun, in 1525.  Bourgeios business in this world could be a noble calling, and could be part of God’s plan for universal uplift.   However, by the end of the 19th century, intellectuals came to the  realization that the West represented not just enlightenment, freedom and democracy but also imperialism, exploitation and fratricide.  The “civilizing mission” that had been seen as The White Man’s Burden looked, when stripped of its veneer, a lot like the rapine of global capitalism.  You can see this revelation at work in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to name a prominent example.  Kurtz’s final words, “The horror!  The horror!” are expressive of how a lot of intellectuals felt about newspaper accounts of European atrocities in the Belgian Congo and, by extension, about injustices occurring throughout the entire project of the European imperium.  Finally, when Europeans turned on each other with machine guns and mustard gas in 1914, that was the end of any optimism about civilization’s grand march forward.

The resulting intellectual suspicion of grand narrative and of bourgeois demands for cultural solidarity is thus understandable, even morally laudable.  But it tends to create a major problem when an art form is asked to perform the old task of unifying, rather than critiquing, the audience.  Modern art and literature have been especially skilled at skewering, lampooning, deconstructing bourgeois society.  The prevailing methods have been fragmentation, bricolage, and pastiche: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as Eliot says in The Waste Land.  The main point has been to present a broken mirror to society, so that it might awaken from its dream of unity and take up the burden of self-knowledge.  We might say that the prevailing mode is tragedy, rather than comedy or heroism.  But in the Greek usage, the tragic mode was supposed to remind audiences of the transcendent power of the gods and the limits of human power.  The secularism of late Modernity meant that tragedy now presented the audience with an anagnorisis but no higher dimension to appeal to.

According to the program information, RE-FORMATION is a fairly standard modern product:

In RE-FORMATION composer Sebastian Currier and writer Sarah Manguso continue this process of using material from the past and reconfiguring it to suit contemporary needs. In 1517 Luther’s predominate concerns were the corruption of the papacy and an individual’s relationship to God. In 2017 Currier and Manguso recast Luther’s concerns from the sacred to the secular: to the environment and the urgent need for humans to take responsibility for the safety of the planet. As the piece unfolds, this lineage becomes apparent. We first hear a fragment from Psalm 46 sung in the original Hebrew, then the same fragment in a Latin translation from Roman times. Following this is the first phrase of the Martin Luther in German, and then a translation of the Luther, from the time period, into English.

This does make a kind of sense.  Environmentalism is seen by most people as a reform issue: Modernity must be adjusted so that our industrial civilization can come to “care for Mother Earth.”  The problem with this comparison is that Luther was reforming the Church by pushing it back to what he considered to be its original purpose.  He believed that the Church of his day was corrupt, and needed to be put back on course.  This sense of returning to original purpose is antithetical to Modernity, which does not seek to return to an original state but attempts to assert a radical break from the past.  “Reform” for Moderns can only mean doubling down on a belief in objectivity and rationality–a belief which, increasingly, seems to be a source of new conflicts rather than a solution.  But for a secular society to admit the limitations of human reason and will is to, in a sense, enter a cul de sac where neither Nature nor God are helpful.  As Nietzsche realized, the result is nihilism.

It is in this sense that the language of environmental politics is so fraught.  Are we fighting for Nature?  Nature is everywhere and everything, so why does it need a savior?  Are we then fighting for human survival?  Darwin told us that already, and what does that have to do with protecting species?  Moreover, some wish to cling to the older, more theistic Modernity in which science was the handmaiden of the Church (for example, most Fundamentalists are of this persuasion–stuck in ideas about God and Nature that animated Descartes and Newton but fell away after Darwin.  This explains the seeming contradiction of their embrace of modern technology and their hatred of evolution).  Everywhere the contradictions are growing more pronounced.  The “Radical Right” is correct that there is a lot of strange religion in environmentalism: most environmentalist are animated by some notion of the sacredness of creation which is hard to explain scientifically.  And of course, people on the Right don’t admit there is a lot of strange religion in their camp as well–an irrational hybridization of Ayn Rand, Leo Strauss and American evangelicalism, to be exact).  With this fraught background in mind let us examine the words Sarah Manguso penned for Currier’s choral section of RE-FORMATION:

Black sky, forgive us.
Black sea, forgive us.
Black earth, forgive us.
Orb rushing dead through the silent night,
all cinder,
forgive us.

First of all, we can see how Nature has revealed itself to be just another name for God, who is being asked, in the guise of sky, sea, and earth, to forgive us for our transgressions.  You can see how this might be confusing to Christians and scientists alike.  Second of all, a dead orb is not a likely rallying point for consolidating political action.  Manguso is seemingly describing Mars, rather than Earth.  Contrary to her vision, the earth is not a “cinder”–not yet–and the geosciences all tell us that the planet is a very robust agent with a long history of spectacular comebacks, so it is extremely likely to outlive our current troubles.  Moreover, if it is dead, we are surely dead–unless we are somehow in heaven looking down?  The confusion compounds.

Passing over our objections to the talk of a “dead orb,” the next stanza is much more dynamic and seems to presage a bio-resurrection:

Deep in the ash of the grave of the world
Where nothing is,
We pray for the sound of new being to sound.
For one bright drop to swell—
For life to seethe, green-blue,
flowering endlessly.

Which might be something we could get behind.  But notice the next move Manguso makes:

We will unfoul the waters,
the sky, the terrestrial marrow.
We will unpoison the heart of everything that is.

The poem has moved from utter helplessness and a cry for forgiveness to a kind of human triumphalism, almost a paeon to geo-engineering.  Here is the modern problem: Nature is sometimes all-powerful, invoked as the final authority, as the source of “laws” that govern us, and sometimes utterly passive, tractable, random, and meaningless.  It is both the source of all value and the negation of all value–often at the same time!  RE-FORMATION concludes its choral section with an attempt to weld this great contradiction together, asking first that Nature wake up (implying it is passive and inactive) and then that it “have mercy” on us, implying we are the helpless ones who need it to save us.  What a weird contradiction!  The last lines sound as if Joseph Priestly had rewritten the Catholic mass as some sort of deist rite:

Light, decorate the heavens.
Benevolent system, awaken.
Have mercy. Have mercy.

This is not so weird really, if you see it as revealing the contradiction at the very heart of Modernity and therefore exposing the source of our feckless inability to deal with the existential threat of climate change.  No wonder, then, that at the conclusion of RE-FORMATION, members of the audience were noticeably unenthused.  After being reassured by Bach and brought to their feet by Mendelssohn, they were both confused and somewhat affronted by the message of the composer.  And I don’t blame them!

We desperately need a new Reformation–our current one is on its last legs and cannot address the dangers we face.  We need a new unifying vision, but it won’t be found in Modernism, or Post-modernism.