Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Gift of Leaves

Autumn leaves are wonderful things. Their bright and often deep earthy colors evoke a longing for calm and a slower time of year. Even the yellows and oranges have a profundity about them that demands a solemn and joyous attention. They are beautiful and soothing symbols of change.

But they are more than this. They are also gifts of the fertile earth and part of nature's way of nourishment.

A fresh green leaf on a vernal maple tree draws nutrients from a vast storehouse of compounds and minerals that are kept in the trunk and the roots of the tree. Some of these nutrients were taken directly from last year's atmosphere. Others were absorbed by the surface roots that received the decaying products of last year’s fallen leaves. Still other nutrients have come from deeper in the soil where minerals have been slowly prized from the older rocks, gravel and sand.

Through the summer this leaf will gather the energy that comes from the sun and use it to rework the air and the soil into a packaged piece of latent life. In the autumn as it falls to the earth, it carries with it these ingredients of future growth and health.

Sadly, not many of us see these free gifts of the earth for what they are worth. Perhaps we stop at Thanksgiving time and enjoy the beauty of the changing leaves but how often are we thankful for the fallen leaves? Or, more likely, are we bothered by the extra work of raking or blowing them off the lawn?

In our eastern cities where trees grow more plentifully, homeowners often have access to a service of landscape waste removal. All that is required is to have the leaves piled in the street where the city takes care of removing them. In the drier areas of the country, leaves can be piled into dumpsters and removed with the weekly garbage. Either way, the gift of leaves is lost and the natural cycles of regeneration are lost with it. We are left with only the artificial alternatives and superficial gardens that mass marketing enables. In the end we may have green lawns and pretty flowers but never with the sustainable fertility that comes from the gift of leaves. A few plants may thrive but the natural diversity of a vital soil is lost.

Fallen leaves are only gifts if they are worked back in to the soil. Maybe there are too many of them on your lawn and they really have to go. If so, consider yourself lucky. You have an excess of the gift of leaves. Chances are your neighbors do to and just don't know it. You have a great opportunity to gather these gifts and pile them up in your backyard. If you're worried that the wind might blow them around again, sprinkle water on top and cover them with something substantial. Before you do, however, you really should let the kids roll around in them with the dog and smell their autumn richness. It will be an aromatic memory that will stay with them all their life.

Make your pile as big as you can. Gather leaves from those who don't want them. Find leaves that come from different kinds of soil. They will add variety to your pile. In a few weeks you will notice that your pile is smaller. It is already starting to decay. At this point you might want to find some barnyard manure to mix in. If you have a hard time finding some, try looking in the garden section of a hardware store. You can often buy steer manure in a bag for cheap. This manure is a magic ingredient. If you mix it in well with the leaves, or even pile it in layers, and keep it moist, the earthworms will take over with a vengeance. You may not be aware that you have earthworms. You may have even been responsible for killing a lot of them with your commercial monthly landscape routine. But this manured pile of leaves will attract worms if there are any of them around at all.

Then after a few weeks, indulge your curiosity and look under your pile. You will be amazed at the number of small creatures running around. They are all busy changing the gift of leaves into the perfect food for plants. Every few weeks you should turn your pile over. In a few months you will have created a rich humic soil that will be better for your garden than the most expensive fertilizer you can buy. This process may take a little longer if it get's cold over the winter, but don't worry, the leaves will come through. Just be patient.

And while you wait, be thankful. The fallen leaves in your yard are not meant to torment you. They are a gift. And they can make you happy.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Filling the Measure of Creation

I Just learned about a black flightless beetle that lives in a canyon west of Fresno. This canyon is the only place it lives. There are no other isolated remnants or small populations anywhere else in the world. This beetle’s existence is spent rummaging through wild grasses and fallen oak leaves looking for small insects to eat, in a small corner of the world occupying only a few square miles.

As an entomologist, this sort of discovery interests me a great deal. I get excited about finding small creatures in unexpected places. In fact I have spent over three decades doing just that. And one of the things that I have come to appreciate about life on this planet is that it is local. I don’t mean that animals and plants can’t occupy large areas. Of course they can - and they do. But when we find them in their preferred habitat it is in a specific place.

Take mountain lions, for example. They occur throughout Western North America (as well as Florida) and in parts of Central and South America. They have the widest distribution of any wild cat species in the world. Even so, how many wild mountain lions have you seen in your life? Even if you get into the mountains a lot, it is more than likely that you have never seen one. In the many years and countless ventures that I have made into cougar country I have only seen one. It was at tree line in the John Muir Wilderness and the experience was awe-inspiring. I will never forget it.

A fact I wish to consider is a simple one: the species of the Creation have geographical and ecological limits. Scientists may outline detailed distribution maps and theoretical species ranges but if you ever hope to see a specific one, you need to find the right habitat.

Years ago I traveled through most of the Western United States collecting small click beetles that live on the ground between small plants and cobbles near streams and rivers. I got to the point that I could predict, with a high degree of accuracy, which places would harbor these insects and which would not. It all depended on recognizing the type of habitat and understanding the requirements of the insects. Others thought I had a sixth sense about these things but mostly it came from a lot of experience.

The Bible and the Doctrine and Covenants indicate that living things were meant to fill the measure of their creation. What does this mean exactly? Perhaps it means that living things are meant to propagate their own kind. I think it also means that living things are meant to fill a particular niche. This may seem a bit awkward - combining Genesis with ecology. But the truth is that the created order was made with intricate and sophisticated care. And so I think that filling the measure of creation means, in part, that living things enjoy the places they were created to enjoy.

But there is more - something quite significant that we usually fail to consider: we ourselves are products of particular places. This may sound like an evolutionary argument. It is not. It is an argument much older than Darwin that considers humanity and other species to be intricately woven into the very nature of the cosmos. Just as a diamond forms when certain conditions of carbon, heat, pressure and time prevail - so we are inevitable when the proper conditions prevail. The cosmos was created (or has always existed) for us.

This was the thinking of Aristotle and of the Medieval schoolmen who saw nature as a great scale of being, where form and function were all important evidence of this cosmic design. Since Darwin this understanding has been enlarged by D’arcy Wentworth Thompson (in his On Growth and Form first published in 1942) and more recently by Michael Denton (in Nature’s Destiny).

Thompson’s volume runs to over a thousand pages filled with example after example of how growth and form conform to an inevitable nature of life. “Still, all the while, like warp and woof, mechanism and teleology are interwoven together, and we must not cleave to the one nor despise the other; for their union is rooted in the very nature of totality.”

Denton’s insights stem from his research on the formation of red blood cells which he sees as epigenetic products. What he means by this is that the sum total of the genes involved are no where near sufficient, by themselves, to create red blood cells. They do create the required proteins but these proteins are essentially left on their own to continue the cascade of interconnected parts and processes that ultimately lead to a red blood cell. Denton argues that a similar situation exists for most (if not all) of the body’s processes.

“I am now quite convinced,” writes Denton, “that the discovery that protein folds are natural forms is only the beginning of what may turn out to be a major Platonic revision of biology, and an eventual relocation of biological order away from genes and mechanism and back into nature – where it resided before the Darwinian revolution.”

This perspective understands life as a physically necessary outcome of the created order. But if this is so, how do we explain the great diversity among individuals of a given species. Why, for example, do we all look so different?

Here the answer seems to be that we have built in to our genetic make-up an ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. It is a necessary part of inter-generational survival. This is how the Eskimo have become so different from the Kalahari bushmen - even though both are very human.

This is the Darwinian process of natural selection but I believe that it is much more restricted than Darwin (or his modern acolytes have) imagined. This ability to adapt is a process of joining us to a particular place. It is not a process of generating new species.

What I wish to make clear is that we are a part of the eternal order. And we are also part of the places our forefathers lived. We are both eternally intended and locally derived.

This should all be obvious but it seems that the decades of toiling against a materialistic (Darwinian) counter culture has inured many of us to the realities of place. The religious among us have been defining our natures in heavenly terms even as we discount the fallen physical world we now inhabit. This is a mistake. Who we are has much to do with where we live - both now and in the future.

Yet there is more, I think a lot more, to filling the measure of creation. In our fallen world, for example, most living things are kept from growing in to their full potential. We see this when we notice a beautiful maple tree or dogwood in full bloom in our neighbor’s yard. With proper care these impressive trees become fuller, healthier, and much more attractive than the same kinds of trees growing wild in the forest. It is really remarkable what a capable gardener can do. Yet the sad implication is that there is potential in living things that never gets realized because there is no master gardener to bring it out.

How can anything fill the measure of its creation that fails to realize its own potential? I don’t think it can. The sad reality is that in our fallen world, very few opportunities exist for any individual of any species (humans included) to live to its potential. Consider the tangled bank of a stream (to use Darwin’s famous example) containing hundreds of plants all competing with each other for space, for limited nutrients and for light. Most of the individuals in this habitat will be small and undernourished as they get pushed aside by a few dominant individuals.

Our competitive world is much the same. And just as no exceptions are made in a tangled bank for pretty flowers, tasty herbs, or healthy crops - hardly any exceptions are made for us either. Competition and a harsh world are the main things that count - and it’s the weeds that do the best.

Occasionally a seed will land in an opportune spot and develop fully. But this is an exception. For the rest of us there is really only one way to reach our potential: get planted in a garden.

Before there was “nature red in tooth and claw” there was a garden. Before our ancestors had to deal with weeds there was a garden. Before we had to deal with all the burdens of a fallen world there was a garden.

According to sacred literature plants and animals (even humans) once lived in a place of achievable potential. Not only did they live there, but this garden was prior to the world we experience here. Prior, that is, because it represents the true state of things. The Creation, after all, was made to reach the measure of its creation.

And yet here we are - living lives that find us less than we should be - living with other species living less than they can be. And the inevitable question becomes quite simply: how can we learn to garden?

A very big clue from the natural world is that a garden respects the reality of place. The stones, streams, trees, or any number of other native elements are all used. The goal is to keep things real - and remember, a garden is real. In fact our garden is more real than its fallen counterpart. It represents our true potential.

Another important part of a garden is the gardener. But not any hired hand will do. A gardener that knows the potential of his garden is rare indeed. In fact such a person does not exist in a fallen world of limited perspective - at least we can’t see Him. A hired hand may learn useful things. He may learn how to prune roses, or that blueberries prefer pine mulches, or that impatiens want just the right amount of sun. But how does he plan for the unexpected disease, for fires, or for the vagrant rabbit let in through the open gate?

Clearly, no hired hand will do. But all is not lost. We may not live in our garden yet but we can work on it even so. We can learn to love a place and learn the needs of its living things – even discovering that some places are meant for us as a land of our inheritance. This created order was meant to be diverse and sustainable. It is also a place where it is possible for us to thrive if we can learn to live as we were meant to live. And when we get proficient at this we can start to understand ourselves a little better and the true nature of our potential. Of course we may need a little help from somebody who knows more about this than we do. But the inklings are there. And who’s to say that we can’t learn to garden with His help?


Denton, Michael J. 2004. An Anti-Darwinian Intellectual Journey; in, William A. Dembski ed. Uncommon Dissent, Intellectuals who find Darwinism Unconvincing. ISI Books, Wilmington, DE. Denton’s quote is on page 174.

Denton, Michael J. 1998. Nature’s Destiny, How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe. The Free Press.

Thompson, D’Arcy W. 1992. On Growth and Form. Dover Publications Inc., New York. Quotation is from page 7.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cardo and Credo

Have you ever set your heart on something so much that it changed your life? Maybe you learned for the first time that compounding interest can make you money - if you could just control your spending. Maybe you learned that home-grown vegetables taste a lot better than grocery store vegetables. Maybe you discovered that turning off the TV and talking with your family is a great thing to do.

Some ideas come into our heads and make such an impression that we are willing to do something about them. It may be that we start to save money, grow a garden, or communicate better. Or it might be something else entirely. Whatever the impression may be it involves a thought, a heart-felt desire, and a planned effort.

This is nothing new, what might come as a surprise is that the heart-felt desire is just another way of saying something that we have been misunderstanding for years - even centuries. In a religious sense this heartfelt desire is what we used to mean by the word faith.

This is easier to see if you know Latin. Take the word cardiologist, for example. Most of us recognize that this is a scientist or a doctor who works on the heart. Cardo, of course, means heart in Latin. It isn’t hard to see the similarity of this word with the Latin credo, which means faith. Our English word creed is also derived from credo. These two words, cardo and credo (heart and faith) come from the same place.

This is clearly a different understanding of faith than a mere passive belief in something. We may have a lot of ideas or rational beliefs about many things. But faith doesn’t happen until we set our hearts on one of them.

This relationship of faith and heartfelt desire is seen in the Book of Heleman (Chapter 3:34 - in the Book of Mormon):

“Nevertheless they did … [wax]… firmer and firmer in their faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto god.”

This understanding of faith may not be one that you have heard about before - and justifiably so. You won’t find it as a definition in any standard dictionary - at least not directly. But the earlier meaning is still there and occasionally comes through in certain words and phrases.

The most obvious are the words faithful and fidelity. These words convey a sense of being true but we use them about people we love. We are faithful to our spouse because of love. We demonstrate fidelity for the same reason. Simply put, faith is a virtue of the heart - not so much a virtue of the mind. If we have faith in someone, we have heartfelt feelings for them. Similarly, a true faith in Christ is not restricted to a simple rational belief in Him. It means that we love Him.

Consider all the references in the Old Testament to God’s jealousy. They often seem a bit odd. After all, jealousy is not a virtue and admitting that a supreme being could be guilty of this human frailty just doesn’t seem right.

But jealousy exists because love exists and the commandment to love God is the same thing as the commandment to have faith in Him. Unfortunately faith has lost much of this meaning. Today most of us think that faith just means believing - and this is doubly misleading. It’s misleading because the meaning of the word belief has itself changed. It also used to refer to setting one’s heart on something. Belief just like faith was all about the heart and not so much the mind.

This is obvious in German where I love you is expressed as Ich liebe dich. Love is liebe and comes from the same place as the lieve in our believe. The relationship is even more obvious in the old English verb belove.

This is significant. It is certainly more important than a mere academic insight. It changes the way we engage in public discourse about faith.

For example, today we often hear about people lacking faith or who don’t believe in God. Some of these people are professed atheists or hesitant agnostics. Their unbelief is a rational decision. Anciently this sort of thing was unthinkable.

Before modern times, God’s existence wasn’t questioned by anybody. What might be questioned was one’s devotion to Him. The first commandment is not to believe that God exists. It is to put no other gods before Him. In the New Testament, the Apostle James (in James 2:19) admits that it isn’t all that big of a deal to just acknowledge the existence of god. After all, even the devils acknowledge Him and tremble.

One of the most significant effects that atheism has had in recent times is to move the focus of faith from devotion to rational discourse. It has not only clouded our own religious lives, it has compromised our understanding of religious history.

Take the Reformation as an example, and the way we have interpreted it today. Viewed with a cardo and credo perspective, things are not the way we often make them out to be. The Reformation’s interpretation of faith in the New Testament is particularly informative.

Paul clearly taught that we are saved by faith. But he was also keen to point out the importance of living one’s faith. That this faith is grounded in cardo is quite clear in the Gospel of John where the bulk of the references to pisteuo (meaning faith or belief) are found. In fact there are almost as many references to pisteuo in John as in the three synoptic gospels combined.

And the way John uses the word faith is important too. Very often it is used as a verb and is focused on a person. John wanted us to have faith in Jesus Christ. It’s no mere coincidence that John is also the New Testament author keenest on love and the Holy Ghost. It is essentially impossible to read John without capturing a sense that faith in Christ is no faith at all if it excludes a heartfelt determination to follow Him.

Now fast-forward several hundred years to Medieval Europe. Martin Luther insists on sola fide (on faith alone) as the way of salvation. He sees parallels between the hypocrisy of Pharisaic rules and strict Catholicism and sees an unbridgeable gulf between this formalism and simple faith in Christ. But faith in 16th Century Europe is still grounded, at least in part, in cardo. There is an element of credo too and this nuance needs to be appreciated in our histories more than it has been.

Salvation through faith alone is one thing if we mean that salvation comes to those who rationally acknowledge Jesus to have been the Son of God. It is a very different thing altogether when it means that salvation comes to those who love God with all their heart, might, mind and strength. The former can be practically anybody - including insincere speculators. The later are true heirs of salvation. For this group there is no difference between faith and the first commandment.

But now fast-forward to the 21st Century. Our understanding of faith is almost always far removed from any sense of cardo. Those who profess faith very often feel obligated to justify their lack of knowledge in the next breath - as if faith and knowledge were somehow incompatible.

Here it is worth noticing the important distinction between knowing someone (for example the Spanish conocer) and knowing something (Spanish saber). Knowing things is the hallmark of our technological world. It is a world of facts. Ironically it is also a world of constantly changing certainties and perspectives. This is not the kind of knowledge on which one places a foundational faith.

Knowing people and human motivation, however, is different, especially as it involves an understanding of human nature and the reality of good and evil. Such knowledge can be existential. This is the kind of knowledge that one can rely on if, in fact, the person relied upon is faithful - is trustworthy. This is a knowledge that is based in faith.

Suppose, for example, a new corporate executive requires one of her VP’s to close a deal in Las Vegas. She sends the man with the most experience but also realizes that the surroundings may be a problem if he gets distracted. In the end she sends him off with a faith that borders on anxious worry. This is how we understand faith today.

Now consider the woman living several blocks away – the wife of the chosen VP. She has lived with her husband for 30 years. They have experienced the ups and downs of life together. They have raised a family and enjoy nothing more than spending time together with their children and grandchildren. They are very devoted to each other and consistently strengthen their relationship with daily conversations, nightly pillow talk, and weekly dates. This woman sends her husband off to Las Vegas with a kiss and a smile and doesn’t even think to question his loyalty. She has a faith in him that is based on existential knowledge.

Not too many people have this kind of faith in God. This is a great loss. It was the way our forefathers understood faith. This was the “faith of our Fathers.” Today we live in a world where more people believe in the stock market than they do in God. People are willing to gamble on uncertainty while living in a world of trivial facts. This is the farthest thing from a world of faith - a world of cardo and credo.

In the world of long ago many people changed their lives because of Who they believed in - because of faith. It is long past due for us to set our hearts upon Him again. There is nothing more important for us to know.


Smith, Wilford Cantwell. 1979. Faith and Belief. Princeton University Press. 347 pp.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Cost and Irony of Discouragement

You have heard the aphorism that "time is money." And in a highly competitive world that places monetary values on almost everything, this makes a certain amount of sense. It obviously makes sense if you are getting paid by the hour. It also makes sense - although a bit more indirectly - if you don't. Such being our perception of the world, it behooves us to consider one of the major enemies of time management. I refer to the problem of discouragement.

Not every hour of our day is maximally productive. I am best in the morning; and since study is important to me, I like to spend part of each morning studying. I am quite a bit less productive in the evening. This can change, however, if I happen to be discouraged. On really bad days, I might get almost nothing accomplished. The cost of this unproductive discouragement can be significant. But I would like to make the argument that the cost is greater than we might imagine if our calculations are merely monetary calculations. The real cost of discouragement has little to do with money and everything to do with the lack of fulfillment in our lives.

Discouragement can come from many places. Often it comes from the behavior of others. Sometimes it comes from failing to accomplish what we have our heart set on. Sometimes it comes because of poor health. Sometimes we are justified in being disappointed. Other times we are not. Some people are chronically discouraged. Others pass into and out of discouragement. Some people are discouraged so often that they become physically ill. However it is manifest, discouragement is worth reckoning with. It is much too costly to ignore - especially considering the value of the lives that it diminishes.

Several years ago while I was working as a part time Spanish teacher to pay my way through college, I had a chance conversation with my boss. He was also a student and had been studying business management - if my memory serves me correctly. One day he made the comment to me that the major cause of disappointment was unfulfilled expectations. This surprised me for a couple of reasons. The first thing was that I hadn't initially realized this young man was so thoughtful. The second reason was that it shifted the responsibility of discouragement from others to me. Our conversation wasn't really about me - it was about some of our young students. But the simple statement has stayed with me all these years as something that is both obvious and yet often overlooked. We get discouraged because things don't go the way we want them to. This is inevitable. But in the end, we have the ability to find fulfillment.

For Buddhists, all of this is much too obvious. The central tenets of their faith revolve around the unhappiness that comes from wanting things. For them the only relief from this unhappiness is to stop desiring things altogether. I am not in a position to be overly critical of this belief, since I haven't read enough about what they mean by it. I agree with their understanding that desires do cause us grief. I do think, however, that there is a way to find happiness - even enduring happiness - without giving away our desires.

Consider a lonely mother desiring to be reconciled with her wayward son. She may be partly responsible for their estrangement and may or may not be able to make amends. Either way, her desire is not a bad thing. In fact it remains a virtue even if her unhappiness is great and her life would be better if she could just stop worrying about the boy. In fact one can make the argument that a denial of this desire would lessen the mother's humanity. It is not a natural thing for us to not have desires.

And yet it is precisely these desires - or rather the thwarting of these desires - that cause us discouragement. And this discouragement is one of the greatest drags that keep us from becoming what we otherwise have the potential to become.

One of the immediate - and very common - signs of discouragement is to give up. Young people are particularly prone to this mistake. A typical example would be a young man discovering that he has a knack for art. He then spends every one of his high school electives taking art classes. His teachers encourage him because he is their star student. Other teachers, parents and friends also praise his work. Then he enrolls in an art class at college and no longer is the favored student. Other young artists do better work than he does - or so it appears to him. After the first semester, he decides on a different major and never picks up a paintbrush again. He has succumbed to the false notion that if he can't be the best, he might as well be nothing at all.

And so what happens to this young man is that he ends up in a profession that he is only partially interested in. As he gets older he struggles with the tedium of his life and wonders why there is no passion. If he is lucky, he might open a box from the attic one day, discover his painting supplies and try again. Maybe then he can overcome the misconception of his youth.

Is there a way that the grieving mother or the young artist could have prevented - or perhaps overcome - their discouragement? I think the answer is a distinct maybe. The discouragement that comes from a denial of love can be outside of our control. If the son never does make reconciliation, his mother will always grieve. She may apologize for any wrongs she may have done and do everything else to bring him back and yet still fail. For her the best answer may only be patience and to continue in love for others.

For the young artist, his discouragement is self-imposed. He made comparative success the basis for his happiness instead of the artistic involvement with beauty. His discouragement can be overcome by recognizing his mistake and by painting again because he has a gift. In the process, he may find himself again. And in this there is a bit of irony. As he becomes truer to his own nature - overcoming the competitive (even commercial) distraction of his youth - he will inevitably become a better employee. He will in all likelihood make his employer more competitive and more money.

But this misses the point for sure. Failure hurts, just as illness does or loss of friendships does. There is no way to have desires and avoid discouragement. Buddha was right. But desire has another side as well - a human side. It is the side of joy and fulfillment that comes from becoming who we are and who we are meant to be. And the key verb here is "to become". We'll never be the perfect beings we hope to be here in mortality. We will be much less. But failing to pursue the love of others and our own individual gifts - however imperfectly we may succeed - is a sure recipe for inner conflict and even greater discouragement.

A key lesson in all of this is to accept discouragement as we struggle to find the right things to desire. Remarkably as we do this, while being true to God, our desires will become more pure. They will become more capable of an enduring fulfillment. They will also become truer to our own natures - because God rejoices in our individuality and He seeks our happiness. So wherever we may be on this mortal road of discouragement, the best advice is to accept the pain and then move on. We were meant to want things. And we were meant to have joy.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Tree Comes Down

I wonder how it came to be
That sunlight found the forest floor
On this cold place amid the stones
Where there was only shade before

While not so very far away
A thick old tree lay on the earth
Where it had fallen in the storm
That caused my own unbidden dearth

How simple are the ways that turn
The browning litter of decay
Into a golden spectacle
Reflected in the early day

No matter that the seasons had
Continued their eternal round
As if no change would ever come
Upon this shadowed frigid ground

But there it was in front of me
A seedling carpet green and bright
With flower buds just pushing through
This emptiness up into light

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Marijuana is a Killer

Several years ago I took a road trip as an undergraduate student to Humboldt County, California. I was with a small group looking for stoneflies in the northern part of the state. As part of our research, we stopped at several small streams running by the winding mountain roads on which we travelled. I remember one turn-off quite well. It was near a tumbling stream and I was looking at a small brown riparian beetle. Suddenly the sound of a motorcycle caught my attention and I looked up in time to see the driver weaving back and forth down the highway. He then tried to manage a curve in the road where we were parked - some 20 feet off the shoulder. Unfortunately his back wheel got away from him and slid out of control. He pulled the brakes as hard as he could but only managed to slide to a stop - after running into our Suburban. As he slid I watched in horror as his head bounced twice off of the blacktop. Fortunately he was wearing a helmet and managed to survive. But the impact knocked him out. This turned out to be for the best as the pain would have been unbearable otherwise, although at the time we didn't know if he would survive. We also noticed that his bike's kick-stand was rammed deep into his leg.

The reason I tell this story is because of the event that followed the accident. The police officer that arrived on the scene quickly evaluated the situation, called in an ambulance and then began looking for something. By the skid marks near the road he found what he expected - a small plastic bag containing marijuana. "Do you know what this is?" he asked us. Being a bit (maybe a lot) naive, we replied that we didn't. "It's Humboldt Gold," he replied. "Marijuana, and it's being grown all through these mountains. If I were you gentleman, I wouldn't stray too far from the road. You don't want to stumble on to anybody's garden, if you know what I mean." We took his advice.

Right now the issue of legalizing marijuana is on the November ballot (Proposition 19) in California. Advocates for and against the legislation are currently making their best (often heated) arguments one way or the other. I don't claim to be an expert on many of these arguments but I am disappointed by the misrepresentation surrounding the effect of marijuana on drivers. Proponents for legalizing the drug claim that it is no more dangerous than other over-the-counter medications and that users are fully capable of driving under the influence. This is a very poor argument.

It may be true that someone experiencing a marijuana buzz may be able to safely navigate to the grocery store and back home again. This isn't the sort of situation that kills people. It's the sudden need to react that causes the accidents: braking for the stray cat, hydroplaning after a fall rainstorm, swerving from a reckless driver. Users of marijuana are much less likely to manage these sudden emergencies well.

But this isn't the only concern. Arguing that marijuana is not more dangerous than grocery-store medication fails to take into account one very important fact: there is no quality control for marijuana or marijuana products. Drug companies are legally required to make sure every pill they sell meets accepted medical standards. No such laws exist for marijuana nor are they likely to be imminently forthcoming. Plants don't make even quantities of biologically active compounds. There are too many unpredictable variables for this to be possible. One supplier of marijuana is certainly going to have more active material than her competitor in a neighboring county. You may think you know how much you can handle but when you least expect it, you'll find yourself in more trouble than you bargained for - experiencing an overdose at a critical moment.

It simply isn't worth gambling like this with people's lives - and this is certainly an issue that will involve people's lives. How blind are we that we can't see this? How much "fun" do we think we need when the cost of the diversion is calculated in individual lives? Maybe you think that you can handle it. But do you really think that everybody else can? Marijuana is plant-derived, variably active and a mind-altering drug. It may be (or may not be) safe in an isolated campground far away from town, but in the fast-paced urban world most of us live in, it's a killer.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stone Mulching in the Desert

Some years ago in rural Michigan a forested area was cleared and all the trees except three young hemlocks were cut down. These small trees were left to manage for themselves. In the forest where they had been protected from wind and excessive heat, they also had to compete with other trees for basic nutrients. Yet they had managed to do alright.

Left on their own, however, in a bulldozed area, two of the three trees died within a year. The third tree ended up flourishing and became a beautifully shaped and canopied tree - quite different from typical forested hemlocks.

The only difference between the trees was that the surviving tree, quite by chance, happened to have a load of loose rocks dumped right next to it soon after the land was cleared. In the months following, the rocks kept vital moisture from evaporating near the tree and many worms and insects were able to enjoy the clement conditions they provided. These small creatures worked the ground into a nourishing environment for the roots. This couldn’t have happened where the ground was dry.

This is just one example (and there re many) of the value of mulching with stones. Unfortunately these discarded resources are usually considered only in the context of how to get rid of them. This is too bad. Stone mulches offer a lot of benefits. But they are particularly helpful in dry areas.

You have probably learned by experience that the soil under rocks can be moist when everything else is dry. Some people use this fact to calculate watering times for their garden. When it’s dry underneath, it’s time to water. And, in fact, the most important benefit of having stones around plants is that it keeps water from evaporating too quickly.

This can make a very big difference to a plant. In many dry areas, water usually evaporates quicker than roots can grow. Since soil dries out from the top first, plants have an incentive to grow roots as deep and as fast as possible, keeping their feet wet, so to speak. Once the soil is dry around the roots, a plant has very little time left to produce seeds before it dries out. Its entire life cycle is dependent on a few weeks of moisture every year. (This is why many desert plants have thick leaves and roots. It allows them to store more water when the rains do come, and it buys them more time to develop seed and fruits when it becomes dry again.)

But what happens if a non-succulent plant happens to be growing next to a stone in the desert? Initially the amount of rainwater may be the same as before. But because the stone slows down evaporation, it allows the plant’s roots to grow for a longer period – essentially keeping up with the rate of evaporation. Plants with deeper and better developed roots are bigger, healthier, and set more fruit. It’s no surprise that plants growing next to rocks often look so good.

Of course there are other benefits to stone mulches than just water retention. Roots often grow next to stones because it’s a place to leverage growth. It’s also a place where rainwater (or sprinkler water) seeps into the soil first. The small space left from this seepage also allows worms and insects to move easier, creating a vital microclimate for roots.

Of course the use of stone mulches is not the only way to build soil. Other mulches do too. But stone mulches have a bit more value in dry areas than other mulches do. Take, for example the experience of Dorothy Anderson.

Dorothy lived in Wisconsin a couple of generations ago. Now Wisconsin is not the driest place in the world but the summer heat can often dry things out. Dorothy was also an avid gardener and paid attention to how her neighbors did things. When she learned that mulching (with hay, weeds, etc.) was bringing bountiful harvests to others, she was determined to do the same thing herself. But then she ran in to some difficulty.

She didn’t have a lot of leftover plant material to use as mulch and when she put what little she could find in her garden, it just dried up and covered the dry ground. She didn’t get much benefit from it. It took several years and a lot of foraging to get enough weeds and other organic matter to really help her garden.

For those of us living in the dry Southwest, we certainly understand this kind of problem. In fact the problem is a lot worse for us. Not only is it hotter and drier but there’s less plant waste to go around. If we really want to mulch, we often go to the hardware store and just buy it. And if we don’t put out enough, it doesn’t do us any more good than the little Dorothy started with.

The situation changes, though, if we use stones. Place a handful or two of grass (or straw) mulch on the ground here in Fresno and it will quickly dry up and get blown away. But if you put the same handful on the ground and place a stone on top of it, things change. The most obvious thing is that the mulch stays there. It’s also shaded and small insects will crawl under the stone to get out of the sun. If moisture is added it will stay near the soil surface much longer than in surrounding areas.

A study conducted in the 70’s in the desert Southwest showed that moisture evaporates from bare soil at a fairly even rate of about an inch every three days. Under the same conditions, moisture evaporated from a stony area at a rate of about an inch every two weeks. This added moisture is as good as gold to plants in dry areas. It also creates an environment for soil-building organisms such as earthworms, arthropods and even fungi. A flat stone in the desert is a way to build soil if we know how to use it.

One of the interesting histories of the Southwest is the agricultural use of stone mulches by the Anasazi. Dale Lightfoot at Oklahoma State University has evaluated these mulches extensively in dozens of abandoned farming areas near Santa Fe, New Mexico where these mulched areas can still be identified - over 700 years after they were made. The areas show up clearly using aerial infra-red photography because they are greener than surrounding areas. These erstwhile garden sites are noted for their regular arrangements of cobbled stones with borrow pits from which the stones were taken.

Lightfoot concludes that these stone mulches not only increased (and still increase) soil moisture but that they also reduce erosion, extend the growing season and increase crop yields. This is quite a list for a dry country not known for its lush gardens.

The biggest drawback of these stone gardens is that they are not sustainable. Whatever nutrients can be found in the soil are used up by successive crops so that new areas have to be prepared every several years. In China, where stone mulching has been used (as recently as a century ago) this problem was understood to affect the children and grandchildren of farmers who would have to extend significant resources removing stones in order to work nutrients back into the soil.

This problem has not been overcome. It is one of the main reasons that stone mulching is not practiced commercially on large farms. It just isn’t practical to remove several tons of rocks from a field and then to turn around and replace them after working the soil.

But that said, stone mulches still have their place. In fact they should be more widely used in dry areas. We know a few more things about nutrient cycling today than did the Anasazi or Chinese of former times. We know, for example, that stone mulches can be sustainable if organic material (such as cut grasses, straw, fallen leaves, etc.) is placed under stones each year.

Modern gardeners who do this use larger stones than the Anasazi did - since it’s easier to move them. Flat stones are also preferred to round cobbles. Various kinds of composts are placed in a garden spot with rows of flat stones (roughly the size of salad plates) covering the compost. Plants are then allowed to grow between the rows of stones.

For trees, a thick layer of compost with stones placed around the trunk does the same thing. It only takes a little effort to remove the stones once or twice a year and add more compost, and then replace the stones. The total effort is less than that required for weeding - which, of course, is no longer required. And the results have been impressive. Difficult soils are improved with the arrival of worms and insects, moisture is retained; and, most importantly, plants are much happier (if we can use that word) and more productive.

Stone mulching may not be a realistic possibility for farmers whose livelihood depends on their harvest (although creative orchardists could likely make it work). But on a smaller scale, and for those of us who care about sustainability, it makes a lot of sense - especially out here in the desert.


Lightfoot, D.R. 1994. The Agricultural Utility of Lithic-Mulch Gardens: Past and Present. GeoJournal 34(4): 425-437.

Lightfoot, D.R. and F.W. Eddy. 1995. The Construction and Configuration of Anasazi Pebble-Mulch Gardens in the Northern Rio Grande. American Antiquity 60(3): 459-470.

Rodale, J.I. 1949. Stone Mulching in the Garden. Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA.

Rodale, R. et al. 1972. The Organic Way to Mulching. Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Library Insurance

It is a sad time for libraries. Once the pride of our communities (from small towns to large universities) they now struggle to keep patrons. And in order to keep up with the times, they are becoming a lot of things in order to justify their very existence - a lot of things, that is, except libraries in the real sense of that word. Books are being replaced by services and with the loss of these books, we run the risk of losing much of what we have worked so hard to learn.

A library is (and has always been) a place to keep literary and artistic materials. Traditionally, libraries have been comprised of current literature and stacks of older literature. (Many libraries also keep special collections of historic value.) Both were important. They also provided an atmosphere of learning. Libraries that were associated with colleges and universities provided an atmosphere where students could study quietly amid the volumes that they needed as reference materials. They also had access to the latest findings from their chosen fields with resources available to find information on practically any subject.

Today our libraries are mostly empty and students are finding all they think they need via computer. I have no intention of being critical of computers. To the extent that they improve our lives I welcome them. I must insist, however, that the move from the world of the library to the world of the computer is a risky thing. It is a move that threatens to destroy a great deal.

In the world of scholarship, for example, fewer and fewer volumes are being printed of many (perhaps most) important periodicals. Scholars are preferring to access articles on line from their office rather than walk over to the library. This is a convenience (I admit - and indulge in it myself). I certainly see no harm in this especially as it reduces the amount of environmental inputs and required shelf space needed to store books.

Many institutions have been wise enough to keep hard copies of these volumes on hand in case digital resources become temporarily unavailable. Of course it is impossible for any single institution to keep hard copies of everything that gets printed. So as a way around this, academic communities began a number of years ago sharing their holdings through a process of inter-library loan. This has been a real boon to scholars who have gained easier access to more materials. With an ever increasing amount of information getting printed, this service has become indispensible to serious research.

It's worth considering for a moment what shelf space in libraries meant many years ago and how it was managed. I have many fond memories of walking through the stacks of books as a graduate student at BYU in the 1980's and being amazed at the number of books. When I later transferred to The Ohio State University and discovered that its library was several times larger than BYU's I was even more amazed. The stacks of books made up several floors in the main library and space was being made to add more shelves in the mezzanine. Many subject libraries were already being moved to satellite locations to make room for the ever increasing number of volumes.

Some time later when I began studies at Colorado State University, I noticed that space was being handled in a different way. Many of the volumes had been moved to a storage facility - basically an over-sized warehouse. Requests had to be made for these volumes and there was a lapse of a day or two before a runner could find them and make them available. It was fortunate that many of these volumes had been moved because the Cache le Poudre River flooded in the mid-1990's and many of the volumes on the first floor of the library were destroyed.

Meanwhile, many volumes of older literature are now being digitally copied and made available on-line. Cornell University, for example, has made available hundreds of volumes of older agricultural literature that is hard to find elsewhere. This again is a great resource. Every year, more and more volumes become available in all branches of learning. And as a bonus we now have hand-held digital devices that make reading this material much easier and more enjoyable than older technology allowed. It is a great time to be doing research now that many older texts are becoming more readily available at our fingertips.

So doesn't all of this contradict my point? Not in the least. With all the technology (great as it is) our literature is increasingly at risk. Notice the trend. Fewer and fewer hard copies are being printed as more and more people are staying away from libraries (because more and more resources are available on-line). Libraries compensate by reducing shelf space in order to draw in more patrons with services (even coffee shops). It doesn't take much to imagine a scenario of computer collapses where vast amounts of information are irretrievably lost. This sort of collapse doesn't have to be a global melt-down. It could be local, or a series of local disasters.

Let me offer an example. I have in my library several volumes of taxonomic revisions that are very difficult to find. I require them for my research on insect diversity. I have worked at building this collection over 30 years. Much of this work was published when insect taxonomy was of greater interest to the academy than it is today and many more volumes were printed. Now when I say that many volumes were printed, I don't mean to compare this literature to the number of volumes that works of popular fiction generate. But many of these earlier taxonomic works had printing runs of several thousand copies. Even so, they are hard to find today.

If that is true of older literature, what is the situation like today? Important taxonomic research is still being conducted but it is often printed in journals with fewer and fewer hard copies produced. Authors buy fewer and fewer reprints because their work can be accessed on-line. It is very likely that hard copies are missing of these works from entire regions of the US. As a result, hard copies of current taxonomic research will be many times harder to come by in future than the older literature is today. Digital versions of this work are usually located on one server (hopefully backed up). If it gets lost... I think you get the point.

What then can be done? Clearly we should not be limiting computer resources. They are truly valuable - even if, indirectly, they justify the demise of traditional libraries and the loss of books. One thing, however, should be done: you should continue to keep hard copies in your own library.

I’m not suggesting that you accumulate a wall of books of best-selling authors. They will survive the short term disaster without difficulty. And their long-term survival will depend on their usefulness to later generations. I am suggesting that you save less popular works - titles and authors that because of their limited popularity are usually missing from libraries.

My collection of Gerald Durrell books, for example, or my volumes about science and religion. It is rare that I find any of these titles in local libraries. I don’t generally flatter myself about my collection. Mostly it takes up a lot of space – space that my wife would love to have. But it is a bit of security. I’ve been buying books for a few decades and only rarely pick a title because of its monetary value. I buy books that interest me. Even so, many of these volumes are now hard to find. What will they be worth in 50 years or more?

So again I urge you to buy real books. Think of it as insurance for the authors you love – for the books that you love. It may be that you end up saving one for future generations. Stranger things have happened.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Living Beyond Judgment

From the time we are little until the time we die, it seems we are being continually judged. Maybe more of this judgment is imagined than real but certainly not all of it is. We are judged by the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the company we keep. We are judged by our language, our jobs, even our dogs. Each exam we take in school is a kind of judgment, as are hiring decisions, try-outs, and performance evaluations. We are judged a lot and we are used to it - whether we like it or not.

But perhaps the most relentless and misplaced judgments of all are the incorrect kinds we make on ourselves. I say incorrect kinds because some self-judgments are necessary, even critical. A careful self-evaluation can be a prelude to repentance and an important grounding to our lives.

The incorrect kinds of self-judgments, however, are a different sort. They come from using the wrong kind of standards. Unfortunately we tend to spend so much more time on the wrong kinds of judgment than we do on the right kinds. Wise, indeed, is the person that knows when to judge and when not to - or as Jesus said, to “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

The wrong kinds of self-judgments are invariably comparative. You pitted against others or even against yourself. The right kinds of self-judgments measure light instead. Do you like making others happy? Do you rejoice in learning spiritual truths? How positive are you? Do you make sacrifices for principles? How much can you be trusted? How much are you loved? How much do you love? These kinds of questions measure light. They are very different from the kinds of comparisons we’re more familiar with. It is light and truth, in the end, that really matter, not how you look or where you live.

Consider three employees at a local restaurant. Angela I works in the kitchen washing dishes. She is mostly interested in having fun. She likes to talk and tell jokes and tends to take longer at breaks than her employer allows. In her spare time she plays a lot of video games or talks to her friends. She often judges herself harshly for not being more responsible.

Angela II is a waitress and is mostly interested in making money. She is pleasant to her customers and knows how to turn on the charm if she thinks it might yield a bigger tip. She is quite capable and usually responsible. In her spare time she likes to go to the gym or talk to friends. She also judges herself harshly at times for not having moved ahead enough in her career.

Angela III is a cook. She likes making good food, especially if it makes somebody happy. She enjoys visiting customers just to interact with them and make them smile. She is happiest when she makes others happy. In her spare time she enjoys reading or talking to friends. She doesn’t judge herself very often because she is more interested in pursuing those things that bring her joy.

I don’t mean to imply that Angela I and Angela II are bad (or that the things they do are necessarily bad). But I do mean to point out the nature of a person seeking light: Angela III, that is. She may or may not move ahead in the restaurant, but that doesn’t matter. She may fall in or out of health, depending on her genetic heritage and her lifestyle. She may or may not be wealthy depending on her fiscal choices. But one thing is obvious: whatever her circumstances, she will be seeking light.

Another remarkable thing about Angela III is that she is living beyond judgment. I don’t mean that others won’t judge her. They will. Neither do I mean that she always avoids her own self judgment. I do mean that in the things that matter most - in the eternally important things - Angela III is an heir of glory and can never be condemned.

In Doctrine and Covenants Section One (verse 36) the Lord discusses judgments that are to come upon the wicked. But notice the way it is phrased. “And also the Lord shall have power over his saints, and shall reign in their midst, and shall come down in judgment upon Idumea, or the world.” Those, Like Angela III who are full of the light of Christ are beyond this judgment of the world.

I don’t mean to imply that Angela III (or any of us) will not be responsible for her (our) actions. The scriptures are clear that we will be recompensed for our actions. But what exactly is to be the measure of these actions? Again, Section One spells this out (verse 10): ... “the Lord shall come to recompense unto every man according to his work, and measure to every man according to the measure which he has measured to his fellow man.”

Our actions will be measured by the standard of service to others. This is a measure of light, not a mensurable quota. It is also different than the way some Christian denominations understand judgment - especially the final judgment - to be. To them the final judgment cannot be escaped and it is understood to be a forensic event - complete with courtroom, jury and judge. For the faithful the only consolation is that it will be less harsh.

This perspective, however, fails to take in to account many of the key scriptural verses on judgment. The Apostle John in particular was keen on this and spoke often about judgment, or living beyond it. He presents us with the apparent contradiction of living beyond judgment while affirming that Jesus will also be our judge. One has to pay attention to see what he actually means by this.

Most of us are familiar with the Biblical doctrine of the final judgment. It will be the ultimate accounting of who we are and where we will go in the life to come. There are a number of scriptural references that confirm this.

It comes as a bit of a surprise when we read in the third chapter of the Gospel of John (verse 17) that Jesus did not come to earth to judge us at all. Many New Testament versions of this verse use the word condemn, but in the original Greek the word is clearly krinetai - to judge. “For God sent not his son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”

Of course you might point out that John surely can’t mean this since he is the one who clearly taught that Jesus is to be our judge. “For the Father hath committed all judgment to the son …. (John 5: 22). But this isn’t all that John meant. A closer reading suggests that judgment is only to separate those who will rise “unto the resurrection of life” from those who will rise “unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:29). For Christ came to bring everlasting life and not to bring others” into judgment” (John 5:24). Again the word is krinetai – judgment. Judgment is to separate light from darkness.

“[Jesus] said ... I am come a light into the world that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness. And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12: 44-47).

So of course Jesus is our judge in the sense the He is the author of our redemption from sin. But ultimately we will be our own judges as John points out in the following verse: “He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the words that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (John 12: 48).

In a more detailed discussion of how this is to happen, Alma taught that our words and our works will condemn us: “For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; we shall not be found spotless; and our thoughts will also condemn us; and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence” (Alma 12:14).

This relationship with judgment and condemnation appears frequently throughout the scriptures and the message is consistent: judgment is to separate those that will be condemned from those that will inherit more glory - that is from those that will inherit a kingdom of light, whether that be a light similar to the stars (perhaps the brighter stars), the moon, or even the sun (see I Corinthians 15:40-42).

This is consistent with John’s message that Jesus came to save us and not to judge us. This becomes particularly significant in light of Doctrine and Covenants Section 76 where it is indicated that these degrees of glory (telestial, terrestrial, and celestial) will be filled with the vast majority of the human family.

What a sublime truth this is: that Jesus has no interest in judging any of us. He rejoices in our individuality and, by giving us our agency, has allowed each of us to fully develop into the unique person that is our nature. We will not be clones in heaven.

The question we need to be concerned with has little to do with appearing to do the right things. It does, however, have everything to do with being the right kind of person. The popular image of Peter standing at the pearly gates to great us with a checklist in hand is a crude myth at best. Peter may not even be there, but Christ will - for He employs to servant there. And He most certainly will not be holding a checklist. He will be welcoming us, with open arms, to our place of glory - our place of light.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Preparing for Dred Scott

Yesterday's Walker decision against California's Proposition Eight has left many of us in California (supporters of traditional marriage that is) quite frustrated. The 2008 decision (determined from a state-wide election) to confirm the traditional meaning of marriage between a man and a woman has now been over-ruled. Judge Vaughn Walker's decision is based on his claim that denying marriage to gay and lesbian couples violates the 14th Amendment's equal protection and due process clauses. There is no question that this provincial decision by a biased judge will make its way to the Supreme Court. When it does, let's hope that sounder judgment prevails. It is no exaggeration to state that an unwise decision from our highest court may very well makes things worse than the Dred Scott decision did before the Civil War. Let me explain.

I am certainly no legal scholar, but the history of Dred Scott is not so difficult to understand. He was a slave that travelled quite a bit with his master through both free and slave states and free territories. While in free territories, he was recognized as a free man. After his master's death he sought to purchase his freedom with various degrees of success. Some court rulings granted his arguments, others did not. Finally his case came to the Supreme Court where Justice Taney ruled that Negroes were not citizen's of the United States and then reversed the Missouri Compromise (and its exclusion of slavery from northern Louisiana). It has been one of the worst decisions (if not the worst) in American legal history. By reversing the Missouri Compromise, Taney effectively gave expanding powers to the slave states against the northern states. Of course we know the outcome. It took the Civil War to reverse the decision.

Isn't it a bit fantastic, though, to believe that a mere decision about gay rights could be as significant as Dred Scott? Not really. Consider the following scenario:

Judge Walker's decision is upheld by the Supreme Court. Some weeks later a gay couple in a conservative state - say New Hampshire - decides to show up at the State Capitol and get their marriage license. Much to their surprise, the state refuses to grant them one. They might complain that their legal rights have been ignored but the bare reality of an overwhelming conservative majority of irate New Hampshire citizens might very well make it politically unwise for the state officials to acknowledge the Supreme Court's decision.

Then what happens? Uncle Sam might start withholding federal programs. New Hampshire might lose it's representation in Congress. Other forms of pressure would undoubtedly be found and exercised. Soon other states would decide to back New Hampshire and before we know it, there is a national crisis in the making.

Now you might argue that this sort of thing could never happen. Look at the Court's decision, for example, in Roe v. Wade where abortion was legalized. Certainly abortion is as divisive an issue as gay rights and yet nothing so drastic happened in its wake. But here is the main difference: Roe v. Wade was a decision that ultimately became enforceable at the level of an individual woman and her doctor. Even in conservative states, doctors were available to perform abortions when they were requested.

The issue over redefining marriage, on the other hand, will have to be handled at the state level. That's where marriage licenses are issued. It's also a place where tremendous amounts of political pressure can be applied either way. I think it is highly naive to imagine that an issue this divisive would fail to elicit extreme reactions from millions of Americans if this sort of scenario were to be played out.

This is a very serious issue indeed. Let us pray that the Supreme Court is wise enough to understand this. For the rest of us, it might not be a bad idea to rethink how dependant we should be on Washington.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What is a Classic?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s a very good chance that your classical reading is not what you think it is. What I mean is that many of the presumed classics you may have read are really not classics at all.

You might question my right to make such a claim. After all, my training is in the sciences and there is a lot of good literature that I still haven’t read. Even so, I stand behind my claim. The more I stumble through our so-called modern classics and best-sellers the more I realize their fiction: they just aren’t classics.

What my children are reading in their high school and college English classes are award-winning novels. It is a gross misjudgment to call them classics. I don’t mean they are poorly written; they aren’t. Nor do I mean that their stories aren’t interesting or even important; many of them are. I do mean that they usually lack the key ingredient of a classic: a timeless and significant accounting of the great questions.

Now many of our award-winning novels are thought-provoking stories. Many of them also touch on great themes. But the great questions - sometimes called the Terrible Questions - are almost always absent. These are the questions inextricably associated with religion: Why are we here? What does death mean? How is it possible to find meaning in life?

Not all religions answer these questions alike. In a society that allows for differing religious beliefs, it is inevitable that these questions will be answered differently. But the fact remains that the sacred texts of these religious traditions, insofar as they grapple with the great questions, are classics.

Of course, you might not like your children reading my religious books at school. And I might not like my children reading your religious books either. Or maybe were both a bit more enlightened and are OK with this sort of cultural exchange. Either way we both have to acknowledge that some people would be offended by it. In a free society, it makes sense to keep controversial religious opinions out of public schools.

This doesn’t mean, though, that we should keep the great questions out of public schools. In fact one has to wonder how we can claim to be providing any kind of a quality education without them.

In the past we managed nicely with an accepted bundle of classics from Ancient Greece, Rome and pre-modern Europe (sacred Eastern texts were also included at times). And while these texts were mostly products of Western Civilization, they were suitable for a religiously diverse culture to discuss in a public forum.

Yet very often we look in vain to find them. What has happened to them? I think the answer is a combination of things. An important obvious reason is that there isn’t much money any more for the humanities. Another reason is that the remaining classical courses are only electives anymore. Yet another reason is that we’ve started teaching from award-winning novels instead of from the classics.

Now I don’t mean to be disrespectful of Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, or Harper Lee. In fact I like some of their writing a lot. I’m even happy that my children read them (for the most part). But I’m not at all happy that their books are taking the place of the classics. [I group Mark Twain with the award-winning novelists because I think he would have received an award if they would have been available in his day.]

It’s instructive to consider for a moment how literary awards are given. The important ones are chosen from a panel of representatives from prestigious publishers (of books, newspapers and magazines). One is hard pressed to find religious representatives - or from anybody who is particularly interested in the great questions.

This is really very understandable. Publishing houses along with other media sources (what Richard Weaver called the Great Stereopticon) are the great competitors of religion for the minds of citizens in a free society. I’m not suggesting that this competition is necessarily a bad thing. Yet while it may be true that actively religious people get exposure to the great questions through their participation at church, more people never take the chance to do so.

Instead, we force everyone to read whatever award-winning novel their particular English teacher happens to be familiar with. The great questions about what it means to be human are never considered. And we delude ourselves into thinking that our modern world is all that matters and that the solution to any problem, can be solved by popular vote.

Sadly, we now live in a society reaping the rewards of this myopia. Instead of wise leaders with a moral backing in what really matters, we have figureheads making decisions based on opinion polls. Nobody wants to talk about the important questions in public because we’ve thrown their associated texts out of our schools.

The result of all this is a society that has lost its moral grounding. We’ve pulled anchor and don’t know where we’ve drifted. Even worse, we don’t know where we’re going. Many of us are enjoying the scenery at least for the moment. But there’s a word associated with waking up from a dream and not knowing where you are. It’s called fear. And fear can only be the heritage of drifting souls.

One thing, however, is certain. We’ll never learn how to change this without a good deal of thinking about the great questions. It’s certainly time we stop confusing false classics for the real thing.


Weaver, R.M. 1948. Ideas Have Consequences. University of Chicago Press.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Human Nature and Original Sin

Are we by nature good or are we bad? Do we have the capacity for rising above our limitations or are we forever doomed by the biological constraints of our physical bodies? These are the questions thoughtful people ask in every generation and the answers turn out to be fairly consistent: we are both good and bad.

Take Solzhenitsyn, for example, who came to the conclusion while laying in rotting prison straw wishing that evil people could be somehow separated from good people. It isn’t hard to sympathize with him and lament the injustices he endured while in the gulags. But he realized that it wasn’t possible to separate people this way because “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The Psalmist marveled that God had created man just lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor (Psalms 8:5). And yet the wickedness of man has been great and every imagination of his heart evil (Genesis 6:5).

There is nothing very surprising about this. A little honest introspection should be enough to convince each of us of our own dual natures. And yet for all this apparent clarity, we rarely manage to put into practice this truth that seems so obvious. We insist on shaping our societies as if we were just one or the other, as if we could do no good, or as if we could do no evil.

In American history, the Puritans stand out as clear examples of the former. Man inherited their evil natures from Adam and could not be trusted, or so they believed. In Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne was required to wear a prominent letter A throughout her life as a sign of her degenerate - and seemingly incorrigible - nature.

Yet the very same New England that cultivated this 17th Century bigotry, turned completely around and by the mid 19th Century produced the Transcendentalists who believed that man could do no harm. Emerson’s belief in the greatness of man and in his immense potential has convinced (and still convinces) generations of Americans to trust no one more than their individual native geniuses.

Fortunately, the American founders were wiser in this regard than we have been. They established a government with the expectation that evil and designing men would seek public office. Checks and balances were accordingly put in place and with good effect. Today the United States government is the longest-lived constitutional government in the world. Ironically, it is because of this legal restraint that America has become a land of freedom, a land brimming with self confidence, and a land of realized human potential.

But things are not the same as they used to be. Almost all legislation these days ignores this dual nature of man. Committees are formed and budgets are allocated, but who checks-up on the committees or reviews the success of expensive programs? We write laws that are politically expedient (and self-promoting) while hardly worrying about their abuse once they are passed. Large budgets are created without the care needed to avoid the greed of special interests. Corruption abounds.

Of course we have political parties that carefully watch their corrupt competitors (and eagerly advertise what they find). But concern is much greater over deflecting criticism than it is over partisan character. In truth there is a greater moral divide separating individuals in the same political party than there is between the very issues separating these parties.

It becomes worthwhile asking ourselves how all of this came about. How did we start worrying about partisan causes more than about personal character? No doubt there are many reasons. One important reason that deserves special consideration is the unpopular and timeworn concept of original sin.

Original Sin

No one likes to think about their own faults. In fact only a few strong individuals ever attempt to look at their own failings objectively (as a prelude to personal improvement). Being told that we are sinful is almost certain to elicit a negative reaction on our part. Being told that we are sinful just by the fact of being born isn’t likely to be any more popular. Even so, this is one of the messages of original sin that has been accepted by many Christians as doctrine for centuries. Maybe our ancestors didn’t like it, but its truthfulness seemed self-evident. It was a doctrine that informed who they were and what they thought about themselves.

It was a doctrine that required rulers to accept - even plan for - corruption in their subjects. But it worked both ways. For example, when the barons of 12th Century England began exercising their own political rights, it became obvious to them that even rulers were likely to err and needed to be watched. One of the founding documents of Western freedom - Magna Carta - was forged from this realization.

Yet ironically it was the breaking away from the idea of original sin that empowered the Enlightenment, and ushered in the modern world with its confidence in man and its accompanying idea of progress. Clearly there seems to be an historical give and take here between fallen and enlightened man. For those who were taken in by the addictive fiction of an unpolluted human nature, the French Revolution came as a shock. Rousseau’s doctrine of the noble savage soon matured in to the massacres of thousands.

America, by contrast, experienced her own political upheaval at the same time but with very different results. More popularly called a rebellion than a revolution, her government retained traditional institutions, including a belief in a fallen world and of a fallible human nature.

History seems to be telling us something important here if we only had the wisdom to pay attention. It seems to be our inclination to believe in just one or the other of our dual natures, but not both, at any given time. Either we fail to be suspicious of our rulers and end up in bondage, or we fail to see our potential and live enfeebled lives. Today we are obviously making the first mistake, and in so doing are scoffing (or more likely ignoring) the whole idea of original sin.

Given our historical misunderstanding it would serve us well to consider the doctrine in a little more detail: where it came from and what it has come to mean.

The Doctrine of Original Sin

Both Judaism and Christianity agree (as do other religious traditions) that life on earth, as we commonly experience it, is a fallen or a corrupted place. Both traditions also agree that we experienced a better place prior to mortality from which Adam and Eve (our original ancestors) were driven because of sin. There is, however, a big difference between being a descendant of someone who has transgressed and actually carrying part of the burden for that sin oneself. It is something yet again to be guilty of that sin. These distinctions may seem subtle but they have been at the heart of many religious controversies through the years.

Nowhere in the Old Testament is there any suggestion that mankind is guilty of Adam’s transgression. There are places where the challenges of mortality are admitted and traced back to Adam, but these challenges, by themselves, do not constitute sin.

The New Testament is much the same with one primary exception. Paul’s epistle to the Romans (Chapter 5:12-21) recognizes Adam’s sin and then becomes a bit ambiguous (Tennant indicates that this is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible to understand theologically) about human sin. These verses were eventually understood to mean that mankind sinned with Adam’s sin, although originally this was not the case.

The early church fathers have nothing to say about original sin until Origen, who in emphasizing our inherited mortal condition failed to make a clear enough distinction between corruption and sin. To make matters worse, Origen also lived in northern Africa where there had developed the practice of infant baptism. Historians have not been able to show the reasons for this early practice but by the time of Origen, it was widely accepted. It became almost inevitable that the practice assumed a role of mitigating the corruption of the fall, once it was believed that corruption might involve sin.

Sometime later, Tertullian added another piece to the developing doctrine. While rejecting infant baptism, he taught that the spirit offspring of Adam inherited the sin of their ancestor at conception. This complex doctrine (known as traducionism) never became established church doctrine but the belief in an inherited sin did, along with infant baptism and Origen’s corrupted humanity. By the time of Augustine and the important Pelagian controversies, these basic points were fairly well established doctrines.

During the Reformation these doctrines were openly challenged. Some reformers argued that baptism should be done by immersion and not by sprinkling. Others argued that children did not need baptism because they didn’t carry the sin of Adam. An interesting perspective on this that sounds like a wise compromise from the time of Origen is Zwingli’s (16th Century) argument that we are all born with the inborn rapacity of the wolf. This inborn drive often prompts us to tear the sheep. But there is also an implication that we can chose not to act upon these prompting as well.

Latter-day Saint Beliefs

Latter-day Saint beliefs on original sin reject the notion that children can be sinful (either by inheritance or otherwise) before they reach an age of accountability (recognized to be eight years old). Mormon (in the Book of Mormon) writing to his son Moroni taught that, “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefor the curse of Adam is taken from them in me…” (Moroni 8:8).

And yet human beings are clearly prone to mortal corruption. Nephi (also in the Book of Mormon) lamented, “how foolish, and how vain, and how evil, and devilish, and how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men…(Heleman 12:4).

Latter-day Saints do, however, accept an intergenerational responsibility towards sin that is often over-looked. Parents who sin are held responsible for the disadvantages they pass on to their children through generations. In Section 98 of the Doctrine and Covenants, however, it indicates that repentant children can repent and remove this guilt from their parents. This does not mean that children inherit sin, nor does it mean that we are not responsible for our own sins. It does, however, imply that we can inherit disadvantages from our parents. In this sense, Latter-day Saints do believe that we have inherited a fallen world from our first parents, but our agency has not been breached. This is an understanding of human culpability more reminiscent of early Christianity than the normative Christianity of Augustine.

Having this dual understanding of human nature, Latter-day Saints are both suspicious and yet trusting of their leaders. Public figures are known to behave immorally and need to be kept in line. On the other hand, religious leaders are held to a higher standard, and are often revered for having risen above the natural tendencies of fallen man. Nobody is perfect, but for Latter-day Saints, there exists the potential (frequently actualized) of virtuous leadership.


Nobody that has lived more than a few decades can deny that mortality brings with it an ample supply of aches and pains. We don’t need an understanding of the human genome to convince us that our body’s programming isn’t perfect. Some of us believe this is due to our heritage as descendants of Adam. Others argue that our physical imperfections are inevitable artifacts of opportunistic evolutionary change. These opposing perspectives may not agree on the cause of our woes but at least they can agree that we have them.

So why then do we insist on creating our modern societies as if we had no moral limitations? Do we believe that despite our physical imperfections that our mental capabilities are less corruptible? Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe we no longer believe that our moral limitations should color our public policies since we’ve already banished religion from the public square.

Whatever the cause of this moral myopia, it is clearly a dangerous condition to be in. And whether we agree with the Catholic Church or not about the inheritance of Adam’s transgression, we should at least be wise enough to agree that we have inherited an imperfect human nature, subject to the constraints of a fallen world (call it a Darwinian world if you like).

In our pluralistic society, we feel a lot more comfortable talking about criminals in public than we do about sinners. One of the failings of this occurs at election time when we hope to elect public officials that aren’t criminals and yet we have to expect, in all honesty, that they are imperfect (dare we say that they are sinners).

But by abandoning the truth of our dual natures - including the doctrine of original sin - we are leaving public officials free to construct our societies as if they - with their eminent wisdom - were fully capable of the task. Sadly, it is quite apparent that they are not.

If we were smart we would adopt a more realistic perspective. We would start to realize that people (including public people) will fail. In fact they will make the kinds of mistakes that constitute sin. And we should, in spite of our own imperfections, plan accordingly.


Tennant, F.R. 1968. The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin. Schocken Books, New York. 363 pp.

Schaff, P. 2002. History of the Christian Church, Vol. 8. Hendrickson Publishers. 890 pp. (originally published in 1858). Zwingli’s views on original sin are on pages 94-95.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Old Notes

He opened up a book today
He hadn’t held in years
And found a penciled margin there
Intelligent and sure

A young aspiring reader with
A penetrating wit
Had managed with un-tempered lead
A calculating writ

He laughed just then and pursed his lips
An understanding hmm
For the wise author now long dead
Was laughing back at him

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Vital Desert

Abraham lived in Ur of the Chaldees - a productive agricultural land. It was watered by a large river and enjoyed a predictable growing season. Many people lived there and raised families. Paleontologists tell us that it was a lot greener in Abraham’s time than it is now. It’s easy to imagine that it was a nice place to live.

Abraham, however, was not destined to remain there. When his life was threatened by the city’s priests, he fled, leaving the relatively easy life than an arable land makes possible. He wandered a long time before finding the place God had prepared for him. One might be tempted to think that he deserved a nice place after all the trouble he had experienced. Instead he was given a wild and uncultivated land. He was given a desert.

Many years later, Abraham’s descendents (the family of his grandson Israel) were living in another lush agricultural land. This time it was in Egypt along the Nile River. No place in the world enjoyed a better place to grow crops. Each year the riparian land received a flush of fertility during the annual floods. It was the preeminent place for civilization.

But the Children of Israel were not destined to remain in this abundant landscape either. Over the period of generations, they had changed from being honored guests of the Pharaoh, to being his slaves. They too fled from their homes, like Abraham before, and wandered a long way - not to a fruitful land, but back to the desert.

In the early 19th Century, the young and growing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints found itself in the rich deciduous forests of the American Midwest. The handful of early converts had migrated from New York and Pennsylvania to northern Ohio with its rich muck soils. They cleared the land and raised crops. But they were not able to stay. After being forced from their homes they settled again along the fertile lands of the Mississippi River. But they would not remain long there either.

Soon after the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were martyred, the Saints packed up their belongings again and headed west. This time they left their fertile farms behind and pulled their wagons over the Rocky Mountains into the Salt Lake Valley - a high elevation desert.

And so it goes. A Chosen People is forced to flee from their homes. They rely upon the Lord for deliverance and direction, and He leads them to a Promised Land. Only this Promised Land isn’t really all that attractive. At least other people have pretty much left it alone, and for good reason: it doesn’t get much water. The Promised Land, as it turns out, is parched. In a word, it is a desert.

Is this all that a faithful people can hope for - sagebrush and sand? Or maybe this waterless wilderness isn’t meant to be a punishment at all but only the price one pays to be separated from the world. Or maybe - just maybe - there is something more. Maybe the desert is a particularly appropriate place for the People of God.

By definition a desert is a place that doesn’t get very much rain. When rain does fall, it often isn’t very predictable. The driest desert on earth is the Atacama Desert along the Pacific coast of South America. Some weather stations there have never recorded any rain at all. The Sahara and the Arabian Deserts usually get less than 4 inches of rain a year. The Gobi and Thar deserts usually get less than 10 inches. Other deserts get more. The Judean Desert gets less than 4 inches a year, although Jerusalem gets a bit more (averaging 19 inches). The Great Basin averages around 10 inches a year, although Salt Lake City averages around 16 inches.

What this means is that farming in these regions requires a lot of work. Wells have to be dug, or diversion canals have to be made. Yet even this does not guarantee a harvest. Fields have to be graded and then it still takes work to get water to the end of the row. Getting enough to eat is very much a dual effort. It requires a lot of physical work and it requires the bounties of the Creator. Because of this duality, the desert produces eminently practical and hardworking people with faith. And one can begin to see that living in a desert is less chastisement than a merciful gift. It is an opportunity to exchange a relatively carefree life for wisdom.

In its austerity, the desert is a great discounter of luxury and wealth. What matters more is sound judgment - and consistency. The desert may not give you a second chance.

Jacob Hamblin, one of the early settlers of the Mojave Desert, learned this the hard way. He lived along the Santa Clara River in Washington County, Utah during the late 19th Century. He was known for his wisdom in dealing with the Native Americans and learned a great deal from them. He knew, for example, that you could get water from the succulent leaves of a prickly pear cactus. You just had to get rid of the spines.

But one time Jacob found himself on the far end of the Mojave where there were plants he wasn’t familiar with. When he found himself without water he cut open the local variety of prickly pear - one that was colored a little different than he was familiar with - and quenched his thirst. A few hours later he was so sick he didn’t think he would survive. Fortunately for his family, he did, but not everybody is so fortunate.

Living in a desert says something about who you are. It’s like meeting someone at the top of a road-less mountain. You know they didn’t just get there by chance. No-one just happens upon the top of a mountain. You have to want to be there. So it is with the desert.

Even today with the luxuries of air conditioning, electricity and plenty of well water this continues to be true. But if most people are not cut out to live in the dessert, those that are will not be likely to leave it.

Perhaps it’s the magnificent sunsets, the wide open spaces, and the clear air that makes it so vital. Maybe it’s the magnificent carpets of wildflowers that bloom altogether after the rain. Or maybe it’s because of the loneliness or the austerity that broods there. Maybe it’s because the desert, like a mountain, is favored of God.

You might argue differently. After all, a moist forest enjoys a much greater abundance of living things. Clearly the Creator is partial to so much life. No doubt He is. But it is because of its abundance that it is so prone to human impiety. Human beings, after all, can live easily in a botanical paradise. And when things are easy, there is little reason to consider the divine.
The desert is different. Its very austerity is a repudiation of urban greed. There’s a reason the desert has been home for so many centuries to seekers of holiness. It offers itself as a holy place to those willing to work and do without the finer things in life. And in the absence of vainglory we can shed our shells of sufficiency. Then, as dependant sojourners in a harsh land, we find it is more natural to yield ourselves to God. Standing under a desert sky at night it becomes very apparent the He is not so very far away after all.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Adjectives I Have Kown and Loved (Aa-Am)

Abdominous (ab DOM in us) means potbellied, which (for personal reasons) I interpret to be something more than just hefty. This is one of those diplomatic words that you might use in describing a long and difficult flight - sitting next to the abdominous gentleman in coach class.

Abstruse (ab STROOS) means difficult to understand. It’s a valuable word for those situations when somebody’s lecture went over your head and you’re looking for consolation without feeling stupid. “Boy that was a boring class,” you might say, “and it was so abstruse.”

Abyssal (a BIS ul) refers to the deep parts of the ocean. It can also mean unfathomably extreme. Because it is so clearly related to the word “abyss” it can also imply a bottomless pit. Perhaps your boss is making decisions that will have dire - even abyssal - consequences.

Accelerative (ak SELL ur a tiv) is an interesting word that has nothing at all to do with relatives that look like celery. It means speeding things up. It is possible, though, that your Great Uncle Ebenezer is suffering from an accelerative senility.

Acerbic (a SURB ik) means sour, acidic or sharp. Biting into a lemon can cause an acerbic sensation. Biting into your mother-in-law might cause one too.

Achromic (ay CROW mik) means having no color. January near the coast can make for foggy and achromic days. I imagine that spelunking can too.

Aculeate (a KYOO li it) refers to stingers - especially those of bees and wasps. But there is ample etymological (as well as entomological) precedent to use the word in other ways. Maybe you know someone who constantly engages in aculeate conversation.

Adipose (AD i poze) refers to fatty tissue and certainly lends itself to diplomatic descriptions. You might, for instance, describe a guest as a kind and adipose acquaintance. Or then again, you might not.

Adrenal (a DREE nul) refers to the kidneys and is usually restricted to medical usage. One can easily see other opportunities for it however. “I have to go take a wiz,” might be more politely expressed as, “excuse me, there’s been a bit of an adrenal development that I must attend to”.

Adumbral (ad UM brul) refers to shadows or being in a shadow. A forest is an adumbral place. A miser has an adumbral face. A bride can hide in adumbral lace.

Aestival (ES tu vul) refers to the summer, or to passing the hot (and possibly dry) summer in a state of dormancy. Why not take an aestival afternoon nap when its hot?

Affable (AF a bul) means approachable or easy to talk to. Not everyone has the gift of the affable salesman. But we all might become an affable friend.

Affined (a FIND) is an old word not much used anymore referring to an affinity between people or objects. Sometimes the affinity is one of kinship but it doesn’t have to be. It is a useful word that allows for meanings hard to describe in other ways. A good friend, for example, can be an affined brother or sister - implying a sentiment approaching kinship.

Agminate (AG min it) means gathered into clusters. Most people have agminate preferences. We do live in neighborhoods and cities after all. Unfortunately, traffic problems (and accidents) are often agminate too.

Agonistic (ag u NIST ik) means competitive or argumentative. Lawyers have a reputation for being agonistic. Too bad for you if your office-mate is too.

Agrarian (a GRAIR y un) is a rustic word referring to the land and agriculture. An agrarian life is a life of healthy work and simple pleasures. Those of us frustrated by urban frenzy spend the week planning our agrarian escapes.

Agrestal (a GRES tul) means growing wild like weeds. If you like planting things more than weeding, you undoubtedly have an agrestal garden. On the other hand, your teenage son, who may not like gardening at all, may very well have an agrestal bedroom.

Akimbo (a KIM bo) means having the hands on the hips with the elbows turned outward. An akimbo glare from your mother would be imposing, even to the point of being a threat. But if your mother put on a cowboy hat, went out back and stared akimbo at the evening sky you might say she was a romantic.

Alary (AY lu ree) might sound like a sickness of sorts. But in fact it refers to wings. I guess if you’re afraid of heights you might also suffer from an alary ailment of sorts.

Aleatory (AY lee a tor ee) is another audibly confusing adjective. It has nothing to do with wings. It instead refers to luck or gambling. It’s the blackjack dealer and not the stewardess that has an aleatory employment. Maybe you do too and just didn’t know it.

Algological (al gah LOJ i kul) refers to algae, or the study off algae. I admit that this is a technical term used almost exclusively by biologists but it sounds so gutturally pleasing that we must find other uses for it. Say you forget to clean the swimming pool, for example. Why not ascribe your delinquency to algological preferences. Or, next time you go to a Korean restaurant you might impress your date. Instead of asking for roasted laver flakes, ask instead for the algological appetizers. Maybe you like earth tones. You could decorate your room in an algological theme.

Alible (AL a bul) refers to something that is nourishing or full of nutrients. but the ending also gives it a sense of something edible (at least it does to me). You might very appropriately compliment the cook on her alible dinner.

Alliterative (a LIT ur a tiv) refers to words that have the same initial sound. One has to have a certain literary bent to appreciate alliterative phrases. In fact reading these definitions may strike one as being altogether alarmingly alliterative. But what can one do?

Alluvial (a LOO vee ul) refers to the sediment left by flowing water. It’s also an appropriate word for such places. A park by a river is an alluvial park. Make sure you have flood insurance if you buy a house in an alluvial development.

Alpine (AL pine) refers to high mountains. Watch out for the last syllable, though. Alpine environments are above timberline and don’t refer to pine trees (although pines are often nearby). Alpine flowers, however, do have their high altitude charm. And those of us who love mountains and their brilliant night skies are convinced of their alpine inspiration.

Altruistic (al tru IS tik) refers to a concern for the welfare of others. It can also mean valuing the needs of others above your own. Watch out for specious claims of altruistic behavior. People who advertise their so-called philanthropy are not altruistic at all.

Amandine (a man DEEN) refers to almonds. You might see it on the menu of a fancy restaurant (swordfish amandine, for example) and think it is a foreign word. Not so. Chances are you enjoy a crunchy amandine cereal for breakfast, or an amandine granola bar for lunch.

Ambient (AM bee unt) means surrounding. It is a useful word that needs to escape from the rut of always describing conditions. My office, for example, used to overlook a lake and ambient forest. What’s nice about this use is the sense of ambience that comes with it.

Ambrosial (am BRO zhul) refers to a fragrance or taste that is worthy of the gods. Perhaps your mother’s cooking is truly ambrosial. Maybe your boyfriend has an ambrosial preference in perfume.

Ambulatory (AM byu la tor ee) has nothing to do with ambulances or the transportation of the injured. It refers to walking. You might prefer a refreshing ambulatory evening in the park instead of a mindless evening in front of the TV. Maybe you should think about getting a dog if you want an ambulatory friend.

Amenable (a MEE nub ul) means willing to follow advice or accept authority. It can also refer to someone who is open to criticism. It seems like the only place I see this word is in reference to negotiations of one kind or another. But it is possible to have an amenable personality. Believe it or not, it is even possible to be an amenable leader.

Amorphous (a MORE fus) refers to a lack of form or shape. It can also refer to a lack of character. A formless fog might be an amorphous morning mist. Unfortunately it might also be the basis of your favorite senator’s foreign policy.