Ancient rock art and modern spirituality

December 9, 2016

Hidden Thunder: Rock Art of the Upper Midwest, by Geri Schrab and Robert F. Boszhardt (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2016)

hidden-thunderAmerican religion began long before the Spanish missions in Florida and the Southwest or the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England. As archaeologist Robert F. Boszhardt shows, it can be traced back some 14,000 years in the rock art that can still be seen in the Upper Midwest. Yet, as water color artist Geri Schrab affirms, the Spirit that inspired the ancient ones still “flows through all life’s invisible veins” (90).

The primary focus of the book that scientist and artist have created is the Wisconsin Dells, an unglaciated region in the southeast part of the state and close to glacial Lake Wisconsin. Although the existence of Native American rock art had been known much earlier, serious attention was not given to it  until the early 1980s.

During the relatively short period since then, explorers, scientists, artists, and native peoples have identified nearly 200 sites in the Upper Midwest where ancient rock art exists. Much work has been done to inventory, interpret, portray, and protect this art. Because it is subject to vandalism, the locations of most sites are not reported to the public.

Hidden Thunder is unique in the way it portrays and interprets this art. The coauthors have chosen twelve sites and each writer contributes an essay describing their experiences with these locations and their ancient treasures. Interspersed throughout the volume are viewpoints contributed by members of the nations whose ancestors created the art.

As archaeologist, Boszhardt describes what scientists are learning about these locations, the art, and the peoples who created these paintings and carvings. He also describes how people today are desecrating some of these sites. His photographs appear throughout the book.

In her essays artist Schrab describes the emotional and spiritual dimensions of her experience with these ancient images and the caves and rock walls where they can be viewed. She gives attention to interpretations by social scientists and native peoples, but more important is the time she spends at each site.

As she senses the ambiance of each place, Schrab becomes aware of the spirit that she encounters there. Only then can she withdraw to her studio and create her own artistically enhanced portrayals of this art. Many of her images appear in the book.

Some people today describe themselves as being spiritual but not religious. When asked to say more, however, some of these same people often give only vague comments about experiencing god in nature.

Artist Schrab, however, confesses a deeper sense of communion with Spirit. In her essay on Roche-A-Cri State Park in Adams County, Wisconsin, she describes Spirit as “that tantalizing, sparkly, sticky, divine substance we can’t pin down but that flows through all life’s invisible veins” (90).

Describing her experiences in Tainter Cave in Crawford County, Wisconsin, she reports that here she has “a rare opportunity to immerse myself, sync my heartbeat to that of Mother Earth, and glean information that I hoped would translate to watercolor on paper back at my studio” (171).

Later in this essay she continues: “Entering Tainter Cave, facing my fears and working through them, seems analogous to my entire journey through rock art. I leave the comfort of my middle-class life to venture into the unfamiliar, risking missteps along the way, hoping to bring back spiritual riches” (175).

A few weeks ago, I was reading personal correspondence in which John Muir describes his experiences in nature, in Wisconsin and in Yosemite Valley. Although he says nothing about rock art, he expresses sentiments similar to Schrab’s as he describes the way that divinity seems to infuse the natural world, in the flow of water, the wild power of wind, the womb-like character of mountain glens, and the intricate texture of ferns and lichens.

In his biography of the young John Muir, Steven J. Holmes writes that earlier in his wanderings Muir had described God “as a landscape gardener whose power and love consists in protecting and caring for the things of the world.” Later, however, “Muir understood divine presence as existing in and through the world itself: ‘The warm blood of God through all the geologic days of volcanic fire & through all the glacial winters great & small, flows through these mountain granites, flows through these frozen streams, flows through trees living or fallen, flows through death itself’” (The Young John Muir, 237).

The naturalist long ago and artist in our own time have much to teach all of us we seek to become more spiritual.

Environmental justice and activism in an American city

December 7, 2016

Environmfullerental Justice and Activism in Indianapolis, by Trevor K. Fuller (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).

This book is a short, technical study of two neighborhoods near downtown Indianapolis. Each community has about 10,000 residents, mostly African American in one and mostly Caucasian in the other. Both neighborhoods have a long history of heavy industry and high levels of land, water, and atmospheric pollution. Since the 1980s efforts to remediate these parts of the city have taken place, but with different degrees of success.

The author, a professor of geography at State University of New York at Oneonta, is interested in several aspects of his topic, including: the spatial distribution of hazards, the impact of social movements, environmental activism, attachment of residents to their space, social capital (networks that work for mutual benefit), the influence of the socio-ecological environment, and race.

Four of my long-time interests come into focus in this carefully drawn study: environmentalism, the role of churches in urban life; political activism, and cycling as a way of wandering around to experience the character of a place.

During my first period of life in Indianapolis (1961–1995), I was vaguely aware of the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood located on the near east side of the city. What I had heard of the community was that it was largely African American, low income, and struggling to improve the well-being of the people who lived there.

Ten years ago one of my daughters bought a house a little west of the neighborhood, and on family visits I frequently drove and bicycled through M-B on East 25th Street and saw a wide range of its positive and negative aspects. Since reestablishing my home in Indianapolis, I’ve cycled along its perimeter and am even more aware of the industries and brownfields that are part of its environmental history.

As Fuller tells the story, M-B has a record of community action since the 1980s, often in close association with community development agencies and the City of Indianapolis. One of the churches is cited as having had an important role in energizing efforts to deal with brownfields. Bicycling around M-B, I see some church buildings that are large, well-tended, and related to historically black denominations. They stand in sharp contrast to small store front churches described as a problem to the community (109).

There has been a continuing effort to rebuild the housing stock and upgrade the neighborhood with sustainability as a goal. The intention is that M-B be a good place to live, both for the people who are there now and those who will follow them in the next generation. To the dismay of many, however, sustainability leads to gentrification, so that many of the current residents find it difficult to remain.

Liberals are gored either way. When they live in the white suburbs and send their money down to MB, they are profiteering. When they choose to come back to the city, they are taking advantage of poor folk who can no longer afford to live there (104).

West Indianapolis, on the city’s near south side, has long been an industrial center. Heavy industry, such as a General Motors’ engine block foundry, have been there for a century and longer. Residents have made efforts to organize in order to get rid of pollution, but with limited success. Since I have no personal history with this neighborhood, I intend to begin bicycling around to experience it first hand.

The evidence seems strong that various entities, including city agencies and representatives of industries in the neighborhood such as Eli Lilly, discourage active efforts to remake West Indianapolis. Their goal would seem to be that the neighborhood should continue to be a base for industrial activity with residents continuing to get along as best they can in isolated pockets. Fuller uses the phrase “Cooptation by Corporation” (113).  Churches are referred to as community assets “because they are attractive and add charm” (110). It is clear, however, that the City has no interest in making West Indianapolis a sustainable community (117).

Fuller concludes that the “current spatial distribution of environmental hazards is predominantly based on class and income differences across the city” and that “the explicit racist policies and actions of the state over many decades. . .produced and re-produced the uneven environments across the City of Indianapolis” (119–20). The subtitle of Fuller’s concluding chapter is “Co-opting Environmental Justice.” Fuller writes that “government and non-government institutions, and public and private entities, exert influence on the perceptions and responses of residents within the two study areas” (119).

One reason why Martindale-Brightwood has been more effective than West Indianapolis is that “it appears to hold a higher amount of the institutional form of social capital which revolves around churches and formal organizations” (121). One conclusion that I, a life-long church goer, draw is this: by continuing to be what they already are, churches are assets to their community.


Bicycling into winter

December 3, 2016


After living in mild climates for twenty-one years, I moved back to Indianapolis where real winter comes every year. In my former life as a Hoosier, I was able to make the seasonal shift, cycling to my teaching job all year ‘round, even on days when the morning temperatures were ten below zero. The guideline for recreational rides was twenty-five and sunny.

One dark morning this week, with a temperature in the twenties, however,  was unnerving. I have clothes that can keep me warm and OK routes on which to ride. What’s missing is the habit, the firmly implanted custom of not asking if it’s too cold to ride and, instead, checking the temperature only to decide how much to bundle up before heading out.

These days in Indianapolis, commuting is well under way an hour before glimmers of daylight brighten the dark sky. From my writing desk, I see them on the street five stories below my window: strong beams of light, some steady, some blinking, as people bicycle to work some place downtown. Not as many as on a summer day, but enough to prove that some riders keep going even as a warm fall morphs into a cold winter.

During the day as I wander around town—sometimes on foot and sometimes by bike—I see other cyclists who are riding, seemingly oblivious to forty degrees and twenty-mph northwest gusts. One day last week, when there were glints of sunshine in the sky, I was doing an errand on my bike. At a traffic signal, a man twenty-five years my junior was on his much-used bike next to me. ”It’s the only way to get around town!” he declared through the scarf that covered his face. And I agreed.

On another day, when my errands were easier on foot than on my bike, I realized that many of the cyclists I saw right then looked like bike messengers. Mostly young men, dressed in black, tight jeans or shorts, on simplified bikes with single gears and some with no brakes, they rode hard and fast; mostly on the street, but sometimes on sidewalks, darting through parking lots, little daunted by red lights or the niceties of urban traffic.

One of them showed up to make a delivery at my apartment tower just as I came home. “How many of you guys are there?” I asked, to which he responded: “Fifteen of us work for Jimmy John’s Sandwiches, and I have no idea how many more there are.”

A quick check on the internet suggests that the number is large, and it certainly must be the case that they’ll be out all winter, doing twenty to sixty miles a day, delivering goods and communications as fast as they can go. Blizzards in the air and thick ice on the streets, I suppose, will keep them in, but then the whole city will likely shut down for a few hours or days.

Since I’m a retired, self-directed writer, there’s no place where I have to go. My church, grocery store, and coffee shop are close enough to walk, and family members can come to dear old dad’s rescue when winter gets him down. But it irks me to let a mere contingency like winter keep me off my bike.

On a cold New Year’s Day in 2011, with temperature in the thirties and a cold east wind blowing down the Columbia River Gorge, I chickened out by driving ten miles to my Friday morning breakfast with the Friendly Old Fellows from my church and coffee with the New York Times at Peets Coffee and Tea. Usually I cycled down but on this morning it seemed too cold.

There at her usual table at Peets was one of the regulars, knitting while she sipped her tea. In a little while, she told me, she would suit up and join friends for a fifty-mile ride including hard climbing in Portland’s west hills.

Shamed and inspired by her example, I changed into cycling clothes as soon as I got home and out I went. Although the route I chose was only forty-seven miles long, that was close enough. The new year started with my sense of self restored.  Later that day I posted a blog entitled “Character vs. the East Wind.”

Today, however, I won’t be heading out into the coldest day of the year so far. I’ll take a nap, write this blog, and wait for the winter storm that’s coming our way. There’ll be plenty of time next week, after the first snow fall of the season, to work on character.

The science and politics of global warming

November 14, 2016

Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming by Joshua P. Howe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014)

howeEveryone knows that the climate is changing and that the effects upon the world we know are unnerving. Sea ice is melting, ocean levels are rising, deserts are increasing in size, plants and animals are finding it difficult to survive in their traditional locations. Long-term effects upon human populations are unsettling.

Even though these changes are widely recognized, many people deny the scientific consensus and even more people resist efforts to counteract climate change? This is the state of affairs in the United States that Joshua P. Howe discusses in his book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming. His purpose is to answer the question: “How can our science be so good and our policy response so incommensurate to the scale of the climate threats that scientists have identified?” (ix)

Howe’s purpose is to describe the complex array of political, environmental, and economic powers that are intertwined with scientific knowledge and guidelines concerning environmental pollution, its causes, impacts, and solutions. When we understand these varied, competing forces, we may be able to develop effective programs to save the planet.

The curve in in the book’s title refers to a graphic display of CO2 measurements that Charles David Keeling made at Mauna Loa from 1958­–1971. These measurements show a steady, smooth rise in the amount of this odorless, tasteless gas in the atmosphere. The steady rise showed that an earlier scientific consensus concerning CO2 was incorrect. The oceans and other natural features did not reabsorb this gas, and instead the negative effects were increasing.

Interest in atmospheric conditions became more important with the detonation of atomic weapons and in the complex political tensions of the Cold War. Howe describes these interactions both in the United States and on the international scene. He devotes a chapter to the rise and fall of the SST, the supersonic airliner that finally was set aside both because of its negative effects on the atmosphere and its great cost.

He explains how traditional environmentalists resisted the politicizing of these issues, thus creating a rift with the scientific community. He provides a detailed accounting of international conferences, agreements, and treaties aimed at curbing pollution. He describes the shifting political currents within the United States that have made it difficult for U.S. political leaders to embrace the more demanding international agreements.

Throughout the book, Howe often refers to “the forcing function of knowledge,” which holds that “a better scientific understanding of the problem of climate change would force appropriate political action” (9). Howe characterizes this “overweening faith in the power of science to inspire political action” as a top-down approach to establishing new policies.

It is difficult to believe that more science can force environmentally sensitive policy. Howe convincingly shows that with respect to climate change and everything related to it, the top-down approach has and will continue to fail. The reason? Because “the science-first approach has at times actually undermined the kinds of moral and political discussions that many global warming advocates, ironically have relied on science to foster” (203).

At book’s end, however, Howe does offer a glimmer of hope, a bottoms-up approach to solving the climatic challenges facing us. He bases this hope on the “real desire to build better, healthier, and more responsible communities.” He refers to climate action plans that are beginning “to use the mechanisms of municipal, county, and state government to shoot for the middle.” Local initiatives “give communities a chance to reorganize themselves as if the abstract global climatic good mattered to everyone, every day. This is something new” (206).

I wish that Howe had given us one more chapter with representative examples of this bottoms-up approach in action. He could have included examples from his own city (Howe teaches at Reed College in Portland, Oregon), with its emphasis upon public transportation and discouragement of private automobiles in the central city, and with the serious efforts to infill the old city and resist urban sprawl.

Even more important, especially in light of the 2016 presidential election, would be suggestions on how the bottoms up approach could work in regions of the United States, such as the coal mining states, whose way of life is in the cross hairs of the conflict between the science and politics of global warming.

The muscle, mind, and heart of a long bicycle ride

November 10, 2016
Sheridan Terminus of the Monon Trail

Sheridan Terminus of the Monon Trail

A custom practiced by many open road cyclists is to do a birthday ride: a mile for every year of life. I’ve kept the practice many of my cycling years, but for some reason it keeps getting harder. “Of course, it will,” some would say. “More years of life, more miles to ride, and fewer muscles!”

Twice in recent years, I met the challenge by signing up for sponsored rides. The loneliness of the road was dispelled by hundreds of other cyclists so that at no point was I out of sight of others who were wending their way over the beautiful terrain of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

This year, however, I would be doing it on my own. No century ride to join and no cycling buddy to keep me company. Even so, I was determined to devote my birthday to this purpose. The simplest way would be to take Lafayette Road to the 30-mile mark at Lebanon, continue on this same road until my bike computer read 42.5 miles, and then reverse course to come back home.

The night before, however, I didn’t sleep well, and the weather forecast was unfavorable. At breakfast, I knew that the birthday ride was dead, for that day, anyway. The next day’s forecast was better, but I had appointments scheduled. The next day had an even better forecast and I decided that I would do my ride that day. Even so, I worried. The muscles of my aging body could probably power me that many miles, but motivation had withered away.

Then came an idea. At Lebanon I would abandon Lafayette Road and improvise a new route: northeast a few miles to State Road 47 and then east on that rural highway to the town of Sheridan. There I would travel southeasterly on State Road 38 until I stumbled onto the northern terminus of the Monon Trail.

Built on the abandoned route of an abandoned railroad, the trail’s southern terminus is on 10th Street, only a few blocks from my downtown Indianapolis home. The sections I’ve already traveled are wide and nicely paved, and cut a straight line through long established neighborhoods of Broad Ripple and Nora. In recent times it has been pushed further north through Carmel and on to 191st Street in Westfield.

On previous visits to Indianapolis, I have cycled as far north as Carmel, and my birthday ride would give me the chance to explore the northernmost section and ride the trail from top to bottom. My online searches, however, provided ambiguous or conflicting information about the upper segments of the trail. Clearly the physical challenge would be overshadowed by the intellectual excitement of actually finding the elusive trail and keeping on it.

Wednesday morning was beautiful, the best day of the week. The ride to Lebanon was fine. Drying corn that had been twelve feet tall when I went this way a month earlier had been harvested and the stalks cut down and removed.

At Lebanon I snacked a little and continued on my newly devised route. Now beyond the immediate signs of urban sprawl, I was riding through what looked like an updated version of traditional Indiana farm country, quiet and peaceful. At Sheridan, with my odometer reading forty-nine miles, I took a lunch break at a Dairy Queen at the junction with State Road 38 where I would back toward the city.

The high school girl who took my order told me that I didn’t have to ride to 191st Street because the Monon started right there in Sheridan, but her instructions on finding it were vague.

A couple who looked past retirement age sitting at another table came to my rescue. He had been the project manager for building the short section of the trail that travels through Sheridan. He described his work on the project and told me how to find the trailhead, which was less than a quarter of a mile from where we were sitting.

He too was vague in describing the trail south of Sheridan, and I soon discovered that it exists in disconnected segments, with virtually no signage to tell trail users how to move from one section to they next. A farmer standing near his shed and staff at a city park in Westfield filled in the missing information and I kept moving south, but this stopping and starting ate up time. At Broad Ripple, I left the trail to find supper, but daylight was fading and instead of eating I scurried south on familiar city streets to get home before dark.

Between the Dairy Queen and the trail head, my bike computer disappeared. Using Google maps for the computer less section, my estimate is that I fell short of my 85-mile goal by 5 or 6 miles. Close enough! At home, feasting on a Subway sandwich, I massaged sore muscles with my heart rejoicing.

The Warm Blood of God: John Muir’s Reflections on God and Nature

November 7, 2016

A review of The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography by Steven J. Holmes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999)

holmesMy interest in John Muir began in 1953, soon after we moved to California, when I read his book, My First Summer in the Sierra. One reason why the book interested me was that some of Muir’s sensations during his early months in that state were echoed in my own experience eighty-five years later. I became aware of a second crossing of my life with Muir’s in the 1980s when I had been living in Indianapolis for nearly two decades. Reading his book, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, I learned that he was living in Indianapolis in 1867 when he began the itinerary that was the turning point in his life.

In 2009 I discovered a third crossing point. Donald Worster’s 2008 biography of John Muir filled in much of the detail of the explicitly religious aspects of Muir’s early life. Although other writers had explored Muir’s religious pilgrimage, Worster’s book was where I learned that during his first two decades of life, Muir was identified with the same religious tradition as I, the Disciples of Christ, an American denomination that looks to Alexander Campbell as one of its spiritual founders.

During his brief time in Indianapolis, the congregation with which Muir was associated was located at the corner of Ohio and Delaware Streets near the city’s center and carried the name Christian Chapel. When the building was constructed (in 1857, a decade prior to Muir’s arrival) it was reported to be the largest church house in the city. The congregation changed its name to Central Christian Church in 1879 and four years later moved to a new building, which it still occupies, a few blocks to the north at Delaware and Walnut Streets. Muir’s name does not appear in church records, but Levi and Susan N. Sutherland, with whom he lived during his time in Indianapolis, are listed in the membership roll. Their address at 59 East McCarty Street was just a mile south of the church’s location.

My interest in the religious aspects of Muir’s early life is heightened and informed by Steven J. Holmes’ 1999 book, The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography, which I recently found at the Indianapolis Public Library. The book began as a dissertation at Harvard University where Holmes had studied in programs (at the university and at the divinity school) in American Civilization and History and Literature. Read more . . . holmes-the-young-john-muir


Dancing in the winds of change: a meditation on turning 85

October 31, 2016

old-man-writing-1On Halloween 2016, I turn 85, overwhelmed with gratitude. Virtually every step of the way I have been supported and surrounded by love and friendship. I enjoy good health, a place to lay my head, food every day, and work that is satisfying and useful. My beloved wife Billie, with whom I shared most of those years and who did much to fill them with good things, has been singing alto in the choir of angels for two years. Even so my life continues with a loving family and circles of friends across the country. Thanks be to God.

Some of the people I have known over the years have died and others suffer from diminishments of body, mind, and spirit. I too feel the years in creaking joints, lessened acuity of vision and hearing, and easily managed hypertension. What I find in my bicycling is a good example of what I experience in other ways: I ride as hard as I ever did, but with less to show for it. I can’t go as fast or as far.

My doctor has a simple explanation: “As you grow older your heart and other bodily systems slow down and there’s nothing you can do about it. Compare yourself with other people your age and not with yourself twenty years ago.” I am trying to live lightheartedly with the limitations that are settling into place and to adjust my activities accordingly. For a functioning mind and body and doctors to help me stay that way, Thanks be to God.

There’s good reason to believe that life will continue a little longer. Life expectancy tables indicate that there may be six more years; for a few 85-year-olds, 10 years. For any one of us, however, there is no telling how many hours or years of life remain. So the question is this: what guidelines should we use to shape the time that remains, whether short or long?

Earlier in the summer, a friend gave me a little book that proposes a model to consider: The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life. The author, William Martin, presents a new interpretation of eighty-one poetic verses written 2,500 years ago by Lao Tzu, Confucious’ contemporary and teacher. Although many of the verses leave me perplexed, the central theme as Martin adapts these ancient verses to life in our time is that in their later years people can become sages.

The challenge is stated in the heading for Verse 1, “Older or Wiser,” and is drawn out in the verse itself. “If you are becoming a sage you will grow in trust and contentment. You will discover the light of life’s deepest truths. If you are merely growing older, you will become trapped by fears and frustrations. You will see only the darkness of infirmity and death. The great task of the sage is learning to see in the darkness and not be afraid.

At this stage of life, we face a choice, which Martin presents in the final stanza of Verse 1. “There is one primary choice facing every aging person. Will we become sages, harvesting the spiritual essence of our lives and blessing all future generations? Or will we just grow older, withdrawing, circling the wagons, and waiting for the end?”

In Verse 2, Martin continues to describe the sage. “In the sage, youth and age are married. Wisdom and folly have been lived fully. Innocence and experience now support one another. Action and rest follow each other easily. Life and death have become inseparable.”

As my life continues, I intend to maintain the way of life that I have followed for many years: writing in the mornings, cycling and ordinary activities in the afternoons, enjoying coffee shop culture, participating in the full life of a well-ordered church, and living with and for my family and friends. The details will remain much the same, but  instead of doing these things with the shortening perspective of becoming an old man I hope to do them with the lengthening vision of a sage, “a calm and supple person, dancing in the winds of change” (Martin, Verse 68).