Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Salmon Creation: A Midrash

The following entry was written after spending time on Sitka Island observing the Salmon run on Indian River.  In Tlingit these waters are named Kaasda Heeni, perhaps best translated into English as “Human's River.”  A story is told that the Tlingit once saw a canoe moving upstream, powered by people they did not recognize.  When they investigated, they found a log with frogs perched on it, drifting in the current.

Salmon over a Redd
 I. Salmon Run Reverie

In August the chum, dog salmon, arrive, at first insubstantial, green shadows flickering over green stones, green shadows slipping noiselessly between fingers of light.  But soon the fish thicken in the river, settle in, their great bodies churning the waters, flashes of silver, backbones clothed in gray-green bands bending to the current, yellow dorsal fins, translucent and extended, cutting into the surface of waves.  From time to time a thick ribbon of flesh smothered in scales flashes up from the depths as a salmon turns on its flank and arches sideways toward the heavens.  Females pick out spots in the channels and burrow into the riverbed, beating on the gravel with tails and bellies to hollow out a redd, while two or three males cluster around them, jostling one another, one male sometimes swimming upstream then curving 
Males Fighting for Position
back and descending with the force of the current on the others, teeth sinking into meat, tails thrashing the waters, suitors' jockeying for position.  The fish, both male and female, no longer eat, oils stored in their muscles leaching out to feed the growing genitalia.  Spawning females pump out roe, a thousand or more reddish translucent spheres the size of peas, to be bathed in clouds of milt by the males before burial in the gravel.  Eagles descend on the river, bears too and ravens, all intent on tearing away their daily dole of salmon.  Brown bears biting off with expert precision a chunk of the skull, intent on the protein and fat in the brain, another chunk of the belly in the case of the female, where her ovaries are charged with unfertilized eggs, the eagles dancing around one another on the banks stripping meat off the bones of a landed fish, the ravens crowding in afterward for the scraps.  All of this over and over and over again, for days without end, and then the emaciated bodies of salmon, their flesh growing leprous in ivory splotches, muscles and organs shriveling until all that is left is skin and skeleton, the eyes caved in and glazed over in death, that is, unless they have been picked out already by the beak of a raven.  In the end, for days the entire river stinks of rotting meat.

By the next spring, buried in the gravel the roe hatches, the fry emerge and a new generation begins.

II. Tohu v'Bohu: Dare we Name it?

How is one to understand this moment as a moment in and also of creation?  How exactly has one been called as a creature to make sense of the salmon consumed with their final run and its inevitable culmination in morbidity? What is one to make of this way of life in which life is dispossessed of itself and how this in turn instructs those humans who come eagerly to be witnesses of it, crowding against one another on the bridges overlooking the waters? 
Final Offering
To learn from salmon is to encounter a questioning, a way of thinking that is relevant not only to theodicy, the justification of the ways of the Most High, but also to biodicy, the justification of the ways of life itself.  In carrying out this latter project, as in the former, the temptation is to emphasize the illumination offered by the salmon run, to focus intently upon the very light life sheds upon itself in its renewal from generation to generation.   Those fry emerging from the redd, no matter that most suffocate or are eaten within a few days of their hatching, no matter that their ultimate destination is to return to the very riverbed from which they emerged to culminate their life in exhaustion and death, these fry, indeed the very idea of them, indicate a beneficence, a well-doing, that calls forth life anew even as life dissipates.  And in doing so, doing well is said to transcend incapacity, the failure to do whatsoever.   Rather than on moments of darkness, of form dissipating into the formless, of meaning losing its own hold upon itself, one focuses one’s thinking on the magnificence of the sacrifice of one generation for the sake of the next, on the transcending of one's particular existence for the goodness of those lives who follow.  In doing so, the world comes to be articulated by principles ordering and affirming its persistence in being.  Creation itself in this wise is understood ex nihilo, as arising in an emergence whose very illumination as emergence sustains itself ever after by the power of the inauguration of its very illumination.   This might be one translation of the Hebrew tov, in which the Most High, in the opening accounts of Genesis, recommends creation as being good in its emergence of ordering and purpose, in its rendering of distinction within lawful constraints.  Once the seven days have passed, the reverberations of lawful emergence sustain creation into eternity.  Once the Word has been spoken, there is no taking it back.

But for the Rabbis the significance of Creation is not exhausted by its goodness, its capacity to illuminate and be illuminated.  Surprisingly the attribution of purpose as the overriding significance of Creation is resisted by at least some of the rabbis as they focus on the opening lines of B'reshit, the Hebraic name for the biblical text named Genesis by Christians.  Something darker, they intimate, is afoot, something devastating, afflicting, that merely focusing on principles, upon the emergence of a lawful edifice by which creation is to be governed, fully evades.  This is not to say the discussion of the issue proceeds without ambivalence. In MIdrash B’reshit, the opening line of the creation story, "In the beginning the Most High created," is interpreted by Rav Oshaya and Rav Hanina  in a doubled movement.  On the one hand, Rav Oshaya argues the Most High is to be understood even before the beginning to have created Torah, learning or wisdom personified, by which the very manner in which Creation is then to proceed is already laid out.  In this wise, the Most High is even pictured as consulting Torah, as a king might consult an architect in building a palace, in order to proceed in an orderly manner with the doing of creation, with the construction of its many chambers.  But on the other hand, right after this discussion Rav Hanina raises the possibility of understanding Creation as the work of a monarch who "builds a palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage," a translation into parable of what is to be understood by "tohu v'bohu," the "formless and the void," over which the Most High hovers, in the picturing of the act of creation in B’reshit.  R. Huna adds, "If the matter were not written [that creation begins in an acknowledgement of tohu v'bohu] it would be impossible to say."

In fact Rav Huna argues one should not say it at all, this scandalous blasphemy inflected from within the very work of the Most High, the ambivalent not-so-well-doing of Creation, even if it has been written into the Torah itself, that one is better off if one's lips were "bound, made dumb, and silenced."  Involved here are matters "withheld from His [Elohim's] creatures."   Yet the story that is not to pass one's lips is recounted just a few sections later when "a certain philosopher" approaches and interrogates Rav Gamliel about "the good materials" the Most High called upon in order to create the earth.  "Tohu, Bohu, Choshech, Mayim, Ruach, v'Tehom" - "the void, the formless, darkness, the waters, wind and the deep" - is Rav Gamliel's reply. In justifying his remarks concerning Tohu, Bohu, and Choshech, the Rav calls upon Isaiah, where it is written "I make peace and create evil.  I form the light and create darkness."  To this the philosopher replies: "Woe to that man," meaning, to Gamliel who has just affirmed chaos in the midst of principle, who has built a house of law upon a primordial sewer, or in the case of salmon, a river stinking of rotting meat. 

Bog Waters
III.  Darkness has its Day,

Taking seriously the train of thought developed above concerning tohu v'bohu, Catherine Challier in her Talmudic study, Le nuit, le jour au diapason de la creation (“Night, Day in accord with Creation"), speaks on behalf of Creation characterized as de novo rather than ex nihilo.  Further, she understand the former differently than in Maimonides, for whom Creation de novo was a manner of scrupulously acknowledging the priority of the Most High in regard to what is created, Creation de novo indicating that there is particularity in the creature's beginning, that the mundane cannot be dependent upon the most high as emerging ex nihilo but nevertheless eternally so. Rather for Maimonides Creation de novo emerges as a specific event with a specific beginning.  For Chalier, on the other hand, Creation de novo indicates a Creation ever in crisis, a Creation that perhaps has not yet actually begun, at least in its fullness, a Creation whose instantiation is not in "an act situated in a past of long ago" but one which "occurs here and now." This view fits, she notes, in a tradition of prayer inaugurated by the Rabbis, who each morning address a Creator "renewing without ceasing the work of creation."

In this work she includes the Creator's breaking into speech, affirming logos, in the proximity of tohu v'bohu, the latter of which is not simply to be characterized as "nothing" but rather as "a shadowy power of dislocation and confusion, that is to say, of decreation." This power of decreation does not predate Creation but is itself inflected from within the very drama of Creation de novo.  She notes: "If speech is an illumination for us, this is precisely because speech gives being to differentiated creatures and that it does so from out of unformed magma." In Creation discourse comes to itself not from out of a pure nothing, crystalline and transparent in its emptiness, but in the face of the deep, a "shadowy disorder and incessant troubling."

In Creation de novo understood in this manner, the emergence of creatures as beings is not assured ever.  In a sense the beginning has never occurred sufficiently to be a beginning.  As a result, Creation de novo as understood by Chalier requires that one receives in humility and poverty the thought of how all one's theories about Creation, all one's stories of Creation, are themselves already conditioned in a manner beyond one's own capacity to reason out or to tell, to specify or to locate. Her approach cultivates discernment concerning the profound even abysmal inability of the creaturely to account for itself in its own terms, and cultivates sensitivity to how unendingly vigilant one must be in regard to respecting, attending to, this impoverishment in one's reasoning. The first thought of Creation then is cultivating patience in the proximity of shadows.  In this wise, the very theorem of causation, that Creation is the outcome of the Most High's capacity to be a cause, is to be attended to as yet another mode of idolatry, as yet another manner in which the creature would presumptuously fix the reality of Creator in creaturely terms.

IV. Naming Muddam Naming Salmon Naming The Most High

Immediately following upon the account of Creation beginning B'reshit, a second story is offered, both resonating with and differing from the first.  The most important difference lies perhaps in how the Most High cries out to the heavenly court "lo tov!," "not good!," upon witnessing the first human, standing singular and alone on the face of the earth.  A crisis is brewing in spite of all the "tovs," all the proclamations of the good that had ensued heretofore in Creation's first account.  In the second account, the collapsing of tov into its negation moves the Creator to unusual measures. 

To understand these one needs first to consider how in creating the human consumed in loneliness characteristic of the second account, the very dust of the ground must be gathered, formed, shaped into the facsimile of a living entity, before breath can be instilled in it by the inbreathing of the Most High who hovers above the inert form.  As if to underline this fact, in the human's very being named as "Adam," better translated as “Muddam” or “Dustam” or "Eartham,” if you will, the very matter of the human creature's being of matter, that is of "earth/adamah" is given expression. This matter in turn is worked upon, animated, by the breath of the Most High, in the case of Muddam, and by the breath of Muddam in the case of the remaining living creatures.  In the latter case, with the Most High standing behind Muddam, Muddam is brought before the newly-formed creatures to name each of them in its own kind through the power, the tov, the goodness of his human breath, namely, his speech.  Only in this gesture can the creation of the animals, which began with the Most High fashioning them from out of the dust of the earth, be accomplished in its fullness. The verb here is i'caro, “to call,” which suggests the naming is not pronouncement, objective, named from afar, but a bringing near, a cultivation of proximity.  The Most High started it, but Muddam finishes it.  In this way, among others, the Most High provides consolation, provides reassurance, for the perilous state of Muddam's having been created. In all of this are refractions of the first story of creation, the one in which the Most High hovers above tohu v'bohu/.

In the Current
Even now the dog salmon of Kaasde Heeni, witnessed last August in their run on rainy days of diminishing sun in the northern reaches of the planet, even now these salmon are decaying in these words, even now eagles are ripping these words apart, rendering them unruly, a descent into shadows and confusion.  This is to say, these words name salmon, even as the salmon insist on the impoverishment of all naming, on rendering these very words here and now creaturely in their attunement, words in search of company, of creaturely others to share the burden of creation, its inevitable lo tov, its affliction. 

Here is encountered a naming that perhaps for a moment attends to the grandiose theorem of evolution as teleological development, of the unfolding of the manifold niches of creation as if it were a palace plotted out by an architect, even if the project is continually and currently under renovation.  But troubling this teleology from within its very movement is mutation and inexactitude, morbidity and extinction, instability and loss.  And did I mention everything creaturely is eating everything else that is creaturely in the process?

The Rabbis speculate: Because Muddam has named the animals, he is now capable of naming himself as Muddam.  And because he now recognizes the humility of humus involved in his own naming, the Most HIgh feels free to ask him as well:  "What is MY name."  To which Muddam replies with the four-lettered-one, the four-spelled, the name not named, the name immediately translated in the mouth of the text's reader as "Adonai," as Lord.   Rashi adds, in the naming of this name the quality of mercy is engaged. And in the naming of this name, it might be added, the salmon too are making their run.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Tending one's Garden: Intimations of Hope in the Anthropocene

"We can see the country...we can see how the beautiness is still in the country...we can still see the spirit of the land glistening."  From Iwenhe Terrette - what it means to be an aboriginal person, Margaret Kemarre Turner.

Dispiriting.  Inspiring.  Between these two words lies a garden, one that I have attended to for the last decade.  Sixty years ago when a lot was developed and the house in which I live was built, a thick layer of dredged sand was trucked in to level out the yard.  This left a good-sized area to the side of the garage not suitable for growing much of anything.  When I arrived in 2000, this space was desolate, a wasteland thoroughly colonized by wire grass with a generous sprinkling of nut sedge.  Walking across the area barefoot, or even just bare ankled, was pure torture.  It turns out that the delightful name "nut sedge" hides the thorny nature of the so-called nut, a spike of sharpened needles more shrapnel than fruit that pierces effortlessly and stays painfully embedded in any flesh brushing against it.  The sand fill in which these plants were rooted was so compressed that not even scrub trees had a found a way in.  And cars speeding down the alley were increasingly encroaching on the land, their tires grinding into the earth what little diversity remained at large.

Catalpa Growing on the Berm with Jerusalem Artichokes to the right.
I took measures.  Over time nearby remnants of old telephone poles and fallen tree trunks were gathered to craft a low berm along the alley to discourage wayward drivers.   And then a surprise: taking advantage of the nooks and crannies found there, several trees, including some black locusts, a black cherry and even a catalpa, took root and are now thriving.  They are being pruned to grow laterally in hopes of an improvised hedgerow.  And surprise upon surprise: Last year catbirds built a nest in the black cherry, and this year robins.  Rhizomes of Jerusalem artichokes, dug up from a garden bed to make way for blueberry bushes, were also discarded on the berm.  They took root too, a thick stand staining the air with rambunctious yellow flower heads at the height of summer.  A lovely thought - the very wall built to keep automobiles out of the garden is becoming a garden in its own right.

Psychedelic Milkweed
But the larger garden on the side of the berm away from the alley is where most of my efforts have been focused.  Rather than importing top soil to simply throw over what was already land paved over with sand fill, I took to the earth with a shovel and compost.  Year by year new sections were dug out out, amended and planted.  At first the emphasis was upon natives that could make themselves at home without too much fuss - phlox and columbine, bee balm and beardstongue, Joe pye weed and yarrow, false indigo and echinacea, blanket flower and trumpet vine. Eventually a strip of plots dedicated to fruits - particularly blueberries and raspberries were added, along with an apple tree. Milkweed was given the run of a part of the yard, in hopes that monarch butterflies would show up (which they do only occasionally).  An area with marsh loving-plants took shape - including iris and marsh hibiscus, nettle and swamp milkweed, lobelia and cardinal flower. Finally several intensively cultivated beds of vegetables were shoehorned into the space.  Currently, tomatoes and chard, tomatillos and peppers, beans and okra with a smattering of onions and leeks are thriving there.  So too is a tower of scarlet runner, a bean originally cultivated by the Incas, that is actively adored by hummingbirds.

Once seemingly wasteland, the spirit of this little patch of earth is again, as Margaret Kemarre Turner would put it, "gllistening."  People walking by stop to admire and say thank you.  Even better, lots of critters, happy at a newfound habitat, are showing up and making themselves at home. While the voles and rabbits, along with Japanese beetles and stinkbugs, are irritating in this regard, so many others, including those hummingbirds, are positively inspiring.

Over a decade in, persistent efforts have transformed this little patch of earth and, as well, its gardener.  Margert Kemarre Turner would likely argue that the transformation was most assuredly not of the land, whose spirit, in its beautiness and glistening, was already waiting for me, but only of my own capacity to see again what had been hidden from untutored eyes. The land already knew what it was capable of.  Its gardener on the other hand, needed to figure this out.  In the process, he has found new hope to stave off a growing sense of dread that comes from living in a time of immense loss of habitat for an immense array of living kinds, a time that is being named the Anthropocene.

As a human of the Anthropocene, I take welcomed comfort in these endeavors to restore to the living kinds a small bit of country.  Certainly this alone will not be enough. Certainly systemic efforts are called for as well.  But loving the earth requires more than acting systemically.  It requires the touch of one's hands, close up and personal.

Fly Sunning herself on a Lily. 
Wasp Searching for Nectar on Echinacea
Sweat Bee Searching for Nectar on Flea Bane

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Black Eyed Susan: A World of Green for All Comers.

Arid Summer on the High Plains where Black Eyed Susans Thrive
Under a cloudless sky, the already arid earth of the high plains bakes even drier.  Grasses, briefly green in June,  now turn to a dusky patchworks of yellow and brown in August.  As if the symptoms of widespread desiccation were not emphatic enough, the air fills with smoke from forest fires rampaging up and down the not too distant spines of the Rocky Mountains.  But precisely at this moment under an implacable even if hazy sun, congregations of Black Eyed Susans - where there is one there are always many - unfurl their great yellow blossoms and thrive.  I spent considerable time in their company recently at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park and was reminded yet again of my love for this common plant, ordinary in its demeanor but preternatural in its capacities.

Bee Fly (Bombylius major) and Spidfer Wasp (Pompilidae)
Sharing a Blossom
The black eyed susan is a member of the genus Rudbeckia, named and classified as Rudbeckia hirta by the celebrated Carl Linnaeus only two centuries ago.  This occurred in Sweden, a place far, far away from the plant's native environs of North America.  For that reason among others I prefer the common name which at least suggests how much at home this living kind and its charismatic cousins - sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes - are in North American soils.   My earliest memories of childhood are teeming with black eyed susans that filled the vacant lots and sprouted in every other crack in the cement sidewalks lining the streets of my neighborhood.  Perched on wiry green stems swarming with hairy filaments, their composite flowers, composed of deliriously yellow petals, arranged in lazy circles around brown-domed centers, entranced me.  Checking in regularly on each blossom's daily tracking of the sun across the sky punctuated my mornings and afternoons of outdoor play.  And picking a few to bring home in the evening was not an uncommon event, although tearing away the sticky, fibrous stems from their mother plants took some effort.  In all of this, I was offered an enthusiastic introduction into that sort of flora inhabiting my place under the sun that did not need to be planted in carefully-troweled beds around a house and assiduously watered and weeded from then on.  In the wayward places beyond the confines of a well-groomed yard I encountered the joy of things that grow effortlessly, that know how to look out for themselves and then some.

At the jump, those memories of black eyed susans welled up as I encountered their kind anew.  On the other hand, after a bit of reading that evening, I learned that these stands were in truth only what biologists term "naturalized" citizens of this particular area, emigrating here in the last century or two from the midwest, where they were originally at home.  Indeed, they arrived just, it appears, as the buffalo who were endemic to the short grass prairies of the high plains were in the process of being wiped out by European settlement.  But settlement seems far too kind a word for the practices of mass slaughter and habitat destruction that were involved in that terrible moment of species extirpation.

Dingy Cutworm Moth (Felita jaculifera) Resting.
Those who write about black eyed susans universally observe that pollinators are fond of them.   This turned out to be exactly the case with the plants lining the road along the boundary of the First People's Buffalo Jump State Park.  Taking a break from my assigned task of removing the lowest strand from a barb-wired fence (so antelope could scooch under the barrier safely), I took picture after picture as I discovered species after species making its way about the various contours of the plant. Some were interested in the nectar, particularly the bee flies with an occasional honey bee and orange belted bumble bee showing up to join in the feast.   Other species meandered about the stems of the plants - yellow jackets and blue spider wasps for the most part - intent, it seemed to me, on licking up the sticky residue exuded there.  A dingy cutworm moth, nocturnally active but diurnally recumbent, lounged for the day on the seed head of one blossom, wrapped in its shade.  The moth was not inclined to move.  And of course ants, western thatching ants in this case, were tracking all over the plant, looking for whatever meal might show up as they tended aphids, which in turn exuded their own sugary treat of honeydew, as they grazed in clutches under the flower heads and on the bottom sides of leaves.


Western Thatching Ants (Formica obscuripes) on the way to and from
 an Aphid Clutch.
The black eyed suzan, it turns out, names not only a living kind but also a world.  After an hour or so spent up close to a single plant, the latter truth comes into focus.  Providing shade, moisture, food, more or less steady perches in gusting wind, and a multitude of hiding places, the plant's very anatomy carves out a green oasis in the midst of an arid, daunting landscape.  Within its ambit, a variety of living kinds gather to find themselves more or less at home.  As insect after insect sees it, these stems are great limbs, with a girth equal to or exceeding one's own.   Western yellow jackets curl about them, fluently in tune with their contours, while the blue spider wasp paces up and down them, as well as over and under every leaf, continually on the move with only a pause here and there. To the bee fly, a lightweight continually at odds with the prairie winds permeating its surroundings, the composite infloresences' great brown domes, speckled with a multitude of disk flower heads, provide opportunity after opportunity for a drink of nectar without the need to battle again into flight.  And for creatures in search of moisture in a dry land in a dry time, the black eyed susan is also hospitable.  All plants are chemical factories, armed with a variety of defenses that deter almost every creature under the sun from helping themselves to a bite.  Inevitably an arms race ensues with only a few species specialized enough to overcome each respective plant's defenses and make a meal of it.  The black eyed susan goes another way.  Whatever defenses it has mounted, they are not directed to the swath of living kinds one finds thriving on plant after plant under a late summer sun.

Two Bee Flies Working the Nectar
What is there not to love about the generosity of this remarkable even if fully ordinary living kind?  Surely this is a rhetorical question.  But leaving off my remarks on this deservedly appreciative note would not be responsible without also observing how unsettling, literally and metaphorically unsettling, the presence of the black eyed suzan in this particular country turns out to be.  For its appearance, as noted above, is historically recent and inextricably tied to the disappearance of a rich prairie ecosystem that was sustained by great herds of buffalo once flowing over this land.  One should not forget that every step upon the site of the First Peoples Buffalo Jump commemorates those herds and the rich legacy they continue to hold for more than a dozen tribes who remember this animal's presence and mourn its loss.

Thinking about the past in this way inevitably leads my mind to tread in strange directions.  Following out one bearing, I remember how the black eyed susans I encountered lined one side of the road - the side bordered by the state park - but were absent from the other side, which abutted a farmer's field of wheat assiduously cultivated to the road's very edge.  Any black eyed susan that dared spring up there had quickly withered and died.  Surely herbicides were involved.  In a detail, then, is illuminated the history, my history, of European occupation of this place.  Our settlement of the west left in its wake a landscape capable of feeding many human mouths but extremely stingy in regard to the desires of other than domestic animals and agricultural crops to find their own patch of earth under the sun.   Even a hardy and relatively new arrival like the black eyed susan, generously offering a full range of ecological services to a landscape callously depleted of its capacity to sustain living kinds, is fought with tooth and nail, or plow and sprayer as the case may be.

But following out another bearing I find myself imagining what it must have been for those tribal peoples to love a creature as magnificent and ecologically significant as the buffalo.  I grew up consorting with black eyed susans.  What would have it been like, I wonder, to have had the same opportunity to be instructed in the ways of the living world in the shadow of a buffalo?  This question remains a significant one and is the inspiration for a variety of ongoing projects in Montana to return buffalo to some approximation of an open range.  Perhaps the black eyed susan will find its place under the sun there too.

Great Golden Digger Wasp 
(Sphex ichneumoneus)

Big Wasp Meets Little Wasp in Uncertain Circumstances

Yellow Jacket Patrolling her Particular Spot in the Shade