Saturday, December 24, 2011

Growing Tomatoes on Cinderblocks

I kept a couple of tomato plants in an unusual way this year. Instead of bracing them with the usual wire frames or wooden trellises I used cinderblocks. That’s right, I borrowed a few of those weathered gray cement blocks from other places in the yard (bought a few extras) and piled them loosely around the plants.

There was a reason for this. I wanted to see if they would work as a stone mulch while at the same time provide support for the notoriously recumbent plants. They weren’t the most beautiful of gardening props early in the season (later in the year they were completely covered), but the overall experience was such a success that I am certainly going to repeat the experiment this next year.

I started by shoveling a nice layer of homemade compost around the young transplants and then placed 4-inch thick cinderblocks – flat side down – around the plants and over the compost. This was basically a stone mulch except that the “stones” where extra thick and had a big opening between the bottom and the top. By placing them this way, I was hoping to retain ground moisture around the plants, but I didn’t want to restrict air movement. The blocks were perfect for this.

As the plants grew, I started placing other cinderblocks on top of the first ones. These I placed with the open side down in order to make the wall higher. This worked well for a few weeks but then the plants began growing more rapidly than expected. In order to keep the leaves off of the ground, I was forced to both raise the block layer (by adding more blocks) and add another wall of bricks adjacent to the first wall. As the season progressed, even this outer wall was completely over-grown.

The result of all of this exceeded my expectations. Because I didn’t use any artificial fertilizers (just my compost layer) the plants produced both an abundance of vegetative growth as well as a good fruit set. The two plants that I kept ended up covering about 100 square feet and reaching five feet high. I had a veritable thicket of tomato plants and yet almost none of the leaves were touching the ground. As a result, there was virtually no disease on any of the leaves the entire season. When I finally took out the plants (a week before the first frost in November) there were still hundreds of blossoms and developing fruit on the vines.

What surprised me most as I cleaned up the blocks was how dry it was around the base of the plants. This in spite of the fact that the area had received regular water (via the sprinklers) all season, and the canopy was lush and very full. It seems that the blocks had indeed kept the area well aerated even as they supported the plants. But they also kept the ground around the tomatoes from getting hot and the soil, just below the surface, was moist. Earthworms and other soil creatures were abundant.

I should also mention that the stems were thicker than I remember tomato stems to be. Normally when the branches are left to tumble to the ground, they tend to grow roots where they come in contact with the soil. My tomatoes were not allowed to do this. As a result, their stems were as thick as a silver dollar (thicker actually) like tomato plants that are grown in production greenhouses. I have no doubt that if there were to be no killing frosts, these tomatoes would have kept producing for months to come.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Meaning of Faith in the Gospel of John

Some time ago I decided to look into what the Apostle John had to say about faith. I turned to the Topical Guide, found the appropriate page and discovered that there was nothing there. There were references to faith in each of the other gospels, and in many of Paul’s epistles, but not a single entry for the fourth gospel.

This surprised me and disappointed me at the same time. Faith is a doctrine I often ponder. And the Gospel of John is one of my favorite places to find answers. How could this very insightful man have nothing to say about the first principle of the gospel? It bothered me.

Then I decided to look under the heading for belief. And again I was surprised. Just like before, I found several references in the synoptic gospels and in the epistles. But there was a difference when I looked at the listings for John. Instead of nothing, or just a few, there were dozens, and they took up well over an entire column. In fact there were more references than for all of the other gospels combined.

This relieved me but it also puzzled me. What was the reason for this change? Was there a big difference between these two principles (of faith and belief) of the gospel that John had recorded? If so, it seemed to me that the frequency of the listings would have been the other way around. Why did John have more to say about belief than he did about faith?

I was about to learn that he didn’t. As I looked deeper into the subject, I was to discover that John had very much to say about faith. In fact his gospel and epistles are among the greatest records we have in all of World literature on this pivotal doctrine of Christ. But you have to read his writings in Greek to understand this.

The important Greek word is pisteuw which is a verb referring to faith. The trouble that translators have is that the word faith in English is a noun. A rare verbal form of faith does exist but it is awkward. To translate pisteuw more literally requires adding an auxiliary verb, something like exercising faith. But this can also be cumbersome. What is not apparent in most languages is that John does not refer to faith as a noun. He only uses it as a verb, but the verb is not translated as faith. It is translated as to believe.

Very often this word (to believe) worked well. At other times, though, it introduced a subtle change of doctrine that plagues us to this day. The long process of diluting faith from a profoundly life focusing first principle of the gospel to the passive or indifferent nod of today largely begins with this early awkward translation of pisteuw.

Consider, for example, the beloved verse in Chapter 3 (verse 16): “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoseover believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. Now this verse is one of the great treasures of the English language. To change it would seem profane. But it has clearly been misunderstood through the centuries.

It strains the imagination to think that Christ is here admitting the uninterested sluggard, who guesses that he believes in God, into His kingdom. But if this is not what John is telling us, what are we to understand from this verse? What does this pisteuw mean that rewards its possessor with everlasting life?

To answer this question requires that we look at how John uses pisteuw. And a good place to start is in the first chapter of his gospel. This is where he presents the panoramic view of Christ that begins with the unremembered past and the Creation of life. It identifies Christ (the Word) with the cosmic order as the great bearer of light.

“In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (Verse 4). “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (Verse 5). And then note Verse 7. “This same [John] came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all men through him might believe”.

This is the light that is given to “every man that cometh into the world” (Verse 9). And yet not all men continue in this God-given light. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of god, even to them that believe [pisteuosin] on his name” (Verse 12).

So here we have a vital clue as to what John means by pisteuw. It means comprehending the light of Christ, continuing in it, receiving Him.

Another important element of John’s faith is that the Holy Ghost will be manifest by those who have this faith. In Chapter 7 we learn that living water will flow from those that believe, and this living water is the Holy Ghost. In contrast, those without this belief (pisteuosin) deny that the holy spirit can quicken our understanding and give life (6:64).

These are two powerful images of pistis - manifestly more profound in a hot sunny Mediterranean climate like Palestine. Life giving light and rivers of water cut to the heart of mankind’s vital needs. If we translate pistis either as faith or as believing without this vital dependence, we have missed the core of what John wants us to understand.

But there is more in this remarkable book. One of the important doctrinal contributions that John makes regarding pistis is that it is not to be understood as something different than knowledge. One can have both faith and knowledge at the same time. In fact we should aspire to this dual understanding of God.

In the great High Priestly prayer Christ thanks the Father that his disciples have received his “word and known them and have believed [episteusan] that thou hast sent me” (17:8).

In Chapter 6 (verse 69) Peter indicates that he and the other apostles “have believed and have known that thou art the Christ”. And again in Chapter 10 (verse 38) Jesus tells the Jews that they should at least believe His works, “that ye may know and believe”.

In a scientific age where knowledge is so valued and so little understood and where the expert and the specialist are more honored than an experienced farmer or a devoted mother, this may be hard to comprehend. We have come to believe, somehow, that faith and knowledge are either opposites or at least mutually exclusive values. How can someone have both faith and knowledge at the same time?

John would have thought the question ridiculous. For him, faith is its own form of knowledge. Faith is not a tentative belief system that comes from wishful thinking. It is a motivating inner light that comes from experiencing the power of God in one’s life. Faith is the basic element in the Redeemer’s Plan of Happiness.

Which brings me to one more insight from John: his understanding that faith is the path to truth. Truth is not a single “a ha” moment of discovery that acknowledges a new insight and is never doubted again. The way to truth is rather a continuous path of following the Light of Christ.

“Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, if ye continue in my word,” that is, continue in pistis, “then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Chapter 8:31-32 ). Here, indeed, is a view of truth very different from the one used in our empirical world. It is also a perspective that helps us understand Christ’s silence before Pilate.

Remember that the Roman ruler asked Christ, “what is truth,” and that the question went unanswered. Pilate wanted a definition that he could spell out. He wanted a logical construct. But Christ’s truth is not so easily defined. It comes from faith. It comes from pistis. And this faith is based on an understanding of light and the Holy Ghost. Truth for John is knowledge that comes from the experienced journey of this faith.

For Pilate, who lacked this experience and lacked the light of truth, a short dictionary definition would not do. He was not capable of understanding. It would be like describing the taste of chocolate to a child that had never eaten it.

The greatest truths in life are like this. They involve the deep yearnings of the soul and the profound joy of finding divine truth. Religious ritual is an acknowledgment of this important silence. And this is also the lesson that John wants us to learn.

He couldn’t bring himself to tell us about faith as a static noun - as a mere mental place-holder of beliefs. To John, faith (pistis) is a silent active taxis towards truth. It is the cardinal response to light. It is the first principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Sierra Juniper

The Sierra juniper (Juniperus occidentalis, also known as the Western juniper) is the most impressive tree of its kind. It grows up to 60 feet tall in cold and wind-swept austerity high among the boulders of alpine forests. In the northern part of its range (throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Northern California) it manages nicely at mid-elevations. But in the Central Sierra it is primarily a tree of the high country, preferring elevations from 7,000 feet right up to the thin air where trees no longer grow.

Sixty feet may not seem all that noteworthy in a land where other trees regularly grow over 200 feet. But this is a perspective of arm-chair naturalists. The giant conifers of the West, for all their magnificence, are trees that grow at lower elevations. The record-setting redwoods of California and Oregon are coastal species that drink in the mist of a vaporous sea. Even the mid-level species above the Central Valley enjoy plenty of water and a moderate clime.

The land of the Sierra juniper, however, is no such place. Most of the year freezing temperatures are typical, at least at night. And when a storm blows in, it often comes with blasts of wind and water. The life-giving snowstorms in this country not only leave a blanket of crystalline white on the forest floor but also a residual reminder plastered to the sides of trees. In such an environment it seems counter-intuitive that stately and long-lived beings ever thrive. But thrive they do, and often in grand style.

Perhaps the most famous Sierra juniper is the Bennett Juniper of Deadman Creek. It is 2,000 to 3,000 years old and its crown, over 85 feet above ground, is aging but strong. At its base, the tree is almost 13 feet wide. It is old and wise - most of its relatives are much younger - only several hundreds of years old. But these passing seasons should not be minimized. Survivors up here are not coddled into longevity, they earn it.

These trees have stories to tell of week-long winds and deep winter snows. They have learned how to capture the life source of the sun while enduring the pinioning of heavy winter ice - sometimes doing both at the same time. Theirs is a story of growth in spite of storms and their gnarled frames are grim reminders of the price that comes from living above the world.

On some of their branches - sometimes hidden and sometimes extending out in obvious proffer - are small round juniper berries. These are not soft sweet fruits that you might expect from a typical berry. In fact they are not true berries at all, but rather the tart woodsy cones of wild conifers. And they are small (about the size of small peas) and look nothing at all like pine cones. Unofficially they are called berry cones. In most kinds of junipers they are light blue or reddish brown. In the Sierra juniper, however, they are dark bluish gray with a soft waxy patina. But their pungency is just as distinct as their more famous relatives.

Crushed just lightly, juniper berry cones are loved by Northern Europeans as a wild-land spice for pork, beef or game birds. The flavoring is also used in gin and others blend it with garlic or rosemary. Yet most English-speaking countries are not familiar with this taste, which is too bad. A few crushed berry cones blended with olive oil and a touch of honey give a purposeful delectation to a Sunday roast.

At 9,000 feet, however, Sierra junipers feed very few of us. Their primary patrons are the alpine corvids that caw their defiant plaints from tree to tree. Watch closely as a Clark’s nutcracker plucks a berry cone with its beak and rolls it deftly back and forth. Then, if it is deemed acceptable, it tips its head back and gulps it down.

The High Sierra is a land of blizzards and lightning storms, and junipers bear the scars of both. Young resilient branches are often bent for months under snow or away from relentless winds. But as trees get older the suppleness ends and new growth becomes rigid. The contortions of wind and snow are locked in place leaving a record of battles endured.

Because of this old Sierra junipers do not flex rhythmically to Aeolian harps like timber lower down. Over a century ago, John Muir would write euphorically of his experience climbing a lower-elevation conifer in a gusty wind storm. He held to the upper canopy for hours as the tree swayed back and forth, breathing the sea and coastal air that had come from so many miles away. He was not in a juniper.

In fact Muir notes in the same essay that “There are two trees in the Sierra forests that are never blown down, so long as they continue in sound health. These are the Juniper and the Dwarf Pine of summit peaks… The burly juniper, whose girth sometimes more than equals its height, is about as rigid as the rocks on which it grows.” The roots, clinging immovably to granite boulders; the trunk, hard and thick, and the branches, reaching out for light are all staid, severe and secure. They endure by finding their place and staying there.

Sometimes the high country is pelted with bolts of electricity and junipers, like so many lightning rods, attract the searing brands with troubled equipoise. They carry the record of forgotten storms as cortical scars etched into their boles. Sometimes these wounds fester and trees die. At other times trees survive the strikes only to succumb to fire. Juniper bark, after all, is ideal tinder. As it ages, it peels free in places from the trunk and dries, leaving woody threads that are easily enflamed.

But if a tree is burned to death, the rich soil built from years of decaying scaly leaves will nourish new seedlings. But this takes time. Junipers do not thrive where there are frequent fires. Fortunately large fires are not as common at higher elevations as they are at lower ones. The air is thinner - with less oxygen - and fuel is not piled so high. There are places at lower elevations where junipers are expanding their range but these are usually places that have been managed free of fires.

In its high southern home, the Sierra juniper survives in spite of storms, fires and punishing air. Or maybe it is more appropriate to say that it survives because of them. At 9,000 feet it’s hard to know exactly what adversity really means. The wind that scours is a thrill to breathe and the wisdom surrounding these twisted trees can tempt the grateful visitor to never leave.


The John Muir quote comes from his essay A Wind-Storm in the Forests. A bit on juniper spices can be found in Jill Norman’s, The Complete Book of Spices.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Organic Farming and the Sanity of Common Sense

At the very beginning of her monumental book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson acknowledged the many people who were trying to stop the irresponsible poisoning of the world. She then wrote that it would require many small battles to ultimately bring "sanity and common sense" to the world.

That was written back in 1962 when much of the agricultural community was intent on using a handful of very effective (and very toxic) molecules to bring the myriad insect pests, weeds and pathogens under control. This was a great period of change in America and the rest of the developed world. Previous generations had always assumed that the natural world (which they loved and which they relied upon for their lives) was a challenge to be overcome with hard work and intelligence. These new chemicals were just the newest advances in the on-going quest to bring nature to order. And, as it turned out, they worked very well.

We now know that these early successes came with a price and Rachel Carson's book was a large reason why things are so different now. In the half century that now separates us from Silent Spring we have a much larger variety of pesticides. These products are many times safer (both to people and to other living things) than the chemicals we were using 50 years ago. Our agricultural colleges now teach a wide variety of agricultural techniques that were unheard of back then. And the banner of Organic Farming is now being waved all across the country. Pesticide-free produce is becoming a big business and consumers now demand that growers measure pesticide residues in parts-per-billion, whereas their parents could hardly measure chemicals a thousand times more concentrated. We are much safer and much more concerned about anything on our food these days than our parents ever were.

And yet things continue to change. The rising generation is no longer as worried about pesticides as it is about global warming, water conservation and soil loss. This doesn't mean that nobody is worrying about weed killers. A lot of us do. But frankly, regulatory agencies and chemical manufacturers have been dealing with these issues so long now that an overall consensus has been reached. The rules are clear: you can't sell nasty chemicals anymore. Of course there are still people who ignore the labeled instructions that come with agricultural chemicals and sometimes accidents do happen. But people also drive cars even though they continue to kill so many of us. We have just come to a better understanding of the risks and the alternatives involved.

And so you'll have to forgive me for being so bold as to say that Organic Farming is failing to address the full needs of our new reality. This is a little sad for me to say. I started my career over 20 years ago developing a botanical insecticide derived from the neem tree of Asia. My job was to measure the activity of this natural product against a wide array of pests. My co-workers and I were convinced that the world would soon recognize how important this was and that we would soon replace most of the nasty synthetic chemicals then in use.

Well that isn't exactly what happened. We did sell some of our product, but in the end, the company was bought by another environmentally conscious company, which then filed for bankruptcy only a couple of years later. And this is the story of most Ag biotech startup companies. They somehow get some funding, tell a great story about the rising business of organic agriculture, and then proceed to flounder. Only a handful of well-managed exceptions are still in business.

Which brings me back to Rachel Carson's plea for common sense. We have much bigger issues to deal with than pesticide abuse right now. Our parents were right - as was Silent Spring - that there existed a toxicological crisis in the world that needed immediate attention. But it's time today to take a look back, another look forward and yet another look around us. Songbirds are singing again in rural America.

Now I am not suggesting that we eliminate our watchdog groups. They are important. I am saying that the volumes of dire toxicological angst that the environmental movement continues to bless us with should target a more worthy opponent. We need to take better care of the land. This is our new crisis. And until we consensually recognize this problem, there is no guarantee that it will ever get resolved.

An example of what I mean by misplaced advocacy is the state of organic farming in California right now. There are well over 1,000 growers managing nearly 200,000 acres of organic farmland in the state. On average organic farmers are working a bit over 100 acres of land each. This may not sound like much in today’s world of mega-farms but the size is important. Managing 100 acres effectively requires that an organic farmer use fully modern equipment. And in order to justify the use of this expensive equipment, large markets in far-off places have to be found. What this means is that organic farmers are using just as much fuel both in production and shipping activities as their traditional neighbors - all in the effort to tap into a niche market or to satisfy an antiquated ideology.

These old-school soldiers should be commended for their hard work. But we no longer need all of their services. What we need now are a few more farmers determined to build up organic soils and use less water. Some of us are, in fact, doing just this. But we need a much larger cultural recognition of these efforts. We need consumers to pay for this larger conservation. We need a larger motivation for farmers to participate in saving the land. We also need more of us to start putting our small plots of land into production and start caring for the little spaces we do have responsibility for. We can either do so now voluntarily or at some future time when soaring food prices leave us no other choice.

It's time for a new generation to take the organic movement in a different direction. If Rachel Carson's generation was threatened with poisons, our children are more likely to be threatened with hunger and malnutrition. We need to take better care of the places that feed us and the places we live. Much depend on it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Arise From the Dust and Be Men

People hardly know what a man is anymore. I don’t mean that we don’t know the difference between men and women generally (although sadly this isn’t always true). I do mean that the traditional man, as seen as a role model for youth, is becoming an endangered species. Not only are we incapable of defining what he is, it’s not even politically correct to talk about it.

There are exceptions, of course. And one of the better ones of late is a book by Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield entitled Manliness. Mansfield argues that the most noticeable trait of manliness is assertiveness. Men are not only opinionated (so are women) but they are often assertive in their opinions. In some cases they’re even willing to come to blows over these opinions - which tendency they almost certainly didn’t get from their mothers.

And this is a big part of the problem. Those who insist on pushing for a gender-neutral society can’t tolerate this assertion. It can’t be trusted, they claim, and very often it leads to violence. We would be much better off getting rid of it altogether, or so they say.

And who can blame them? Any major city in the world (with few exceptions) is swarming with gangbangers and violent young men. Steven Pinker may be right that violence is declining in the world historically, but today it isn’t safe to be outside after dark in many places of the world. And the reason is because of big violent boys.

But let’s stop for a minute to consider what this means. If assertion is a defining characteristic of manliness, then there’s a pretty strong argument that it is part of human nature - at least that part of human nature carrying Y chromosomes. And attempting to change human nature is not a very good idea. Not only does it not work, it also causes a great deal of trouble.

In traditional Western society, improperly assertive men (as well as other delinquents) were dealt with in a way that was both appropriate and often successful. Manly men were put in charge of keeping them under control or of putting them in jail. Men-controlling-men was even more effective when an acceptable code of conduct was understood - as it clearly was in the age of chivalry.

The main problem with trying to do away with manliness is that it only succeeds in creating more delinquent boys, and immature men. For despite what modern feminists claim about raising boys in man-free environments, fatherless boys aren’t more caring and responsible than their peers. They are, in fact, much more likely to land in prison.

I am reminded of the story related by James Dobson a number of years ago about a greeting card company that decided to give free Mother’s Day cards to any inmate in a local prison wishing to remember his mother. The line for the cards was long and the kind gesture was seen as a great success. Everyone wanted to send a card to his mother. Then it was decided that a similar opportunity should be made for Father’s Day. This time, however, the result was much different. Not a single inmate showed up for a free card.

The truth is that our prisons are filled primarily with men, and over 90% of these men either hate their fathers or have no idea who their father is. This glaring reality begs for a better understanding than the broad anti-masculine brush stroke that is currently so popular. Clearly, boys that don’t connect with men – failing to become responsible men themselves – very often cost society a great deal. The push for a gender-neutral society is missing the point and it is costing us a great deal.

And I think that we need to pay more attention to what Mansfield has to say. Nonetheless, I don’t think that assertiveness is enough of a defining trait by itself. It serves to delineate a certain boundary in an academic fashion but it isn’t up to the task of dealing with the higher and lower expressions of manhood. This is something required of a higher value system. It is something that is required of revealed religion.

One of the best references I know of defining manhood is in Second Nephi (Chapter 1:21, in The Book of Mormon): “ …arise from the dust, my sons, and be men and be determined in one mind and in one heart, united in all things, that ye may not come down into captivity…”.

First of all, I am impressed with Lehi’s use of the word dust. This is a word with a fairly consistent meaning in sacred literature. We don’t see references of cleaning dust off the kitchen cabinet, or even from moldering scrolls. Dust is normally used as a contrast to the divine. It is used to describe that part of the world that decays – not just dry particulates. The Psalmist, for example, in describing the creatures of the sea (even Leviathan) says they will “die, and return to the dust” (Psalms 104:29).

Dust also has a very strong tie to the Creation. It is dust into which God breathes the breath of life and creates man. And it is in the Creation story that the contrast between the very finite (dust) and the very eternal (breath of God) are juxtaposed.

So when Lehi tells his sons to “arise from the dust and be men” he very likely has these images in mind. He is telling his sons that manhood requires moving beyond the mundane and mortal parts of their nature. It is a repudiation of the fallen world and a call to follow their divine natures.

Now in our post-Darwin world this has a lot more meaning. The reality of a mortal (dust) aspect of Creation now implies an animal nature as well. Survival of the fittest (to use Herbert Spencer’s summary phrase of Darwin’s insight) is something that might easily include an alpha-male hierarchy. It is also a neat explanation for male promiscuity (females, it is argued, would tend to evolve more caution in reproductive matters) and deception.

In short, Darwinian logic subsumes just about every form of human selfishness imaginable. For us today, considering Lehi’s plea, there is thus a higher sense of what a divine manhood should include. To “arise from the dust and be men” means to overcome the fallen world. It means to rise above the natural inclinations of selfishness and to shoulder responsibility. It means stepping outside the boundaries of natural selection into a higher order of divine potential.

This is a far different understanding of manhood than the one being pushed upon us by postmodern society, which sees only a continuum between healthy rough and tumble play in the nursery to the predatory male behind bars.

Which brings me to the second part of Lehi’s plea: “be men … that ye may not come down into captivity”. I think that Lehi is here recognizing that true manhood – the kind that has arisen above mortal selfishness – is the kind required to fight for liberty. This distinction seems to recognize the differences between true liberty and mere license (that ersatz liberty of libertines). And it is a task required of men.

In contrast, God has never expected his daughters to fight for freedom on the battlefield, although many of them have through the centuries. The womanly nature of nurturing cannot be asked to engage in a potential violence of freedom. This is a requirement of men. It is in men’s nature to fight for a cause – whether that fight be physical or otherwise.

Lehi’s manhood is thus a call to all the noble qualities that men are capable of. If we were destined to live our lives entirely under the constraints of Darwinian selfishness, then none of these higher aspirations would make any sense. And society would have every right to control the male social dysfunction any way it could. But we are not merely mortals, and we desperately need a manhood that will confront this reality.

Who could live in such a fallen world anyway – a world that denies our dual nature? We are so much more than just physical beings – so much more than mere animals. Our fights are not all against “nature red in tooth and claw.” Some of them are within - between a divinely inspired male and his Darwinian nature. But this is a battle that men have been fighting and winning for a very long time. And it is a battle that is meant to continue.

In the end we have to decide which kind of world we want to have. Our current postmodern and post-Darwin social constructs are experiments that cannot endure. They are neither grounded in the fallen real world or in the higher eternal one. And they have done enough harm already.

Our only real option is to stop stirring up so much dirt and sand, and let our higher natures lead us out of this storm. In the meantime we can let this dust devil die and look to stand a little taller. We will need some of Lehi’s men to do it.

Harvey Mansfield’s Manliness was published by Yale University Press in 2006. See also James Dobson’s Bringing up Boys (Tyndale Press, 2001).

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ecology and Dominion

Are Christians really responsible for our current neglect of the natural world? Many environmentalists think we are. Some even go so far as to blame Christians for the entirety of the environmental crisis. Controlling a river, mining a mountain, or felling a forest, they say, are just so many ways of “filling the measure of” – or exercising “dominion” over – the Creation, or so it is claimed.

Much of this thinking stems from a 1967 article written by medieval historian Lynn White entitled The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis. White's article was published in the premier American science journal Science and received a great deal of sustained attention. My teachers were still making me read it in graduate school in the 1980's. White's claim is that the many scientific and technological advances in Europe over many centuries owe more to the ideology of Christianity than they do to the more recognized events of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In particular, White claims that the Christian belief in an inanimate world enabled it to break free of disabling pagan fears of the supernatural and to "exploit nature for [God's] proper ends".

This has been fairly convincing in many quarters, especially to that academic species that claims to be so disinterestedly critical of Christianity. One of the problems with all this is that White pays little regard to Christian theology. In fact he uses the wrong word. Maybe he does so intentionally, then again, maybe not. The correct word is dominion not exploitation - two words I might add that are a long way from being synonyms.

The King James Bible tells us that on the Sixth Day of Creation “God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth…” Now at first glance, this “dominion” might seem to carry a sense of arbitrary power, or a call to coercion. But this is a biased view and one that, perhaps unavoidably, is constrained by linguistic history.

If someone is a lord or a master today, he might be able (given enough power) to destroy a hillside, a forest, or even a country. In ancient times, this was not the case. A master of a nomadic tribe might be able to control his extended family and perhaps a herd of cows but not much else. Having dominion over the earth couldn't mean much more than the burning of a few roods or the partial diversion of a local stream.

"Well," you might say, "the Bible was written for our time as well as for previous times and God must have known about the power we would have today." Maybe so, but consider where the word dominion actually comes from and what it used to mean. Its root is the Latin dominus meaning lord or master of a household. In fact the word dominus itself comes from the simpler domus which literally means house, or home.

Isn't it interesting (and not a little ironic) that this same regard for the hearth was the intent of early ecologists when they coined the word for their own science (using Greek instead of Latin). They joined the words oecos (meaning house or home) and the traditional logos (referring to words or study) into our English ecology, or the study of the household. Only in this case the "household" was understood to be the environment.

Without realizing it, both environmentalists and Christian traditionalists are fighting over the same household. Or at least they should be. Both the provenance and the importance of these diagnostic words are much more similar than we are recognizing them to be. If we could see this and stop fighting each other we might be able to start fixing some of our failing landscapes.

Christians might start by thinking more seriously about the Biblical meaning of dominion; which as we have seen, is much more about taking care of where we live than it is about arbitrary and extractive rule. This Biblical sense is one of stewardship and the Christian conception of the Creation is one of sustainability, much like the agrarian ideal of today's resurfacing nostalgia. It is also a practical sustainability.

Consider how it is used in the creation story. God has just intended to make mankind in His own image. Then (in the same verse) mankind is told to have dominion over the earth. It should seem obvious that reading a destructive form of dominion into this verse is forced. In fact such a reading implies that the Creator is Himself an exploiter of His own creation – like a French chef preparing dinner for the pigs. Clearly the Creation means more to Him than that. It was an act of beauty and of love.

And this brings me to another complaint I have with White’s essay. White (correctly) pointed out that the Latins (read early Christians) found salvation in doing things rather than just dreaming about them. This he contrasts with the Eastern theological preference for merely contemplating religion. But White should have known that the reality is much more nuanced than this.

For starters, Christianity was originally given to both orthodoxy (emphasizing correct doctrine) and orthopraxy (given to correct works). It did inherit from Judaism a strong sense of practical religious involvement in one's own salvation. And White is right that "Western theology has been voluntarist". But Christianity was also preoccupied with correct doctrine. Religions that do so (emphasizing doctrine) tend to evolve several splinter groups - call them heresies if you will. Anybody even faintly familiar with early Christianity can see that this was an oft-occurring reality.

And later, following the Reformation, Protestant groups strongly favored orthodoxy. They still do. And it is this branch of the Christian family, more so than the others, that is driving the capitalist exploitation of the environment. So for White to claim that our ecological woes are being foisted on us by the purveyors of Latin works-centered religion leaves one embarrassed by his history and perplexed by his logic.

What this means for environmentalists is that they should stop blaming Christians for our many environmental problems. Of course there are guilty Christians. There are also many guilty corporations but this doesn't make all Christians and all corporations unilaterally evil. Christian doctrine has always been environmentally responsible even if individual Christians have not been. And if you happen to be watching, there is a growing drive in the business community to make earth-friendly products. In fact some of our biggest retailers are requiring their suppliers to prove a level of ecological regard if they plan to continue doing business. It is very likely that the biggest contributors to a sustainable future will come from the corporate sector.

So let me end by giving a bit of advice to all you belligerent environmentalists who take such joy in brow-beating your Christian neighbors. Many of us are just as concerned as you are about the fate of our planet. After all, we are in this “home” together and it’s time to stop living like a dysfunctional family. Dominion, after all, is ecology – only with a bit more responsibility thrown in for good measure.


White's infamous article The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis was published in the March 1967 issue of Science (Volume 155: 203-207). For a discussion on orthodoxy and orthopraxy see Daniel Peterson's Abraham Divided.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Compost Pile

A hidden lap of earth
Behind the garden blind
Where fallen leaves and even
Kitchen scraps combine

What time transfigures with
A fungus, worm and spade
Into a hill of humic
Soil in earthy shade

And here a hideaway
That no one seems to see
Anticipating need

Of little miracles
That take from wasted things
And give them to a seed

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A New Book Barn in Clovis

There is a certain gravitas about a bookstore going out of business. Never mind the ones that are mismanaged. In Fresno we have other things to worry about. You see, a few years ago our humble town was ranked as the dumbest city in America. Several criteria were used to determine this ranking such as the number of college graduates, advanced degrees, graduate programs, etc. But one of the criteria was the number of bookstores and the number of books purchased.

So when Border’s (in Fresno) announced recently that it was going out of business, some of us took the news with a wince. I do admit that it was nice buying books at the going-out-of-business sale that lasted several weeks. I picked up John Farrell’s recent biography of Clarence Darrow for a song and a few other titles for even less. This week, however, the sale is over and the old store is dark and empty.

Of course we still have places to buy books. Barnes & Noble Booksellers across the street has always been a better bookstore anyway. It’s just that I keep thinking to myself that this will only confirm, at least in the minds of some, Fresno’s position at the bottom of the list – or shall we say at the top of the list – of the dumbest places to live.

So it was with a real sense of relief and pleasure that I discovered the opening of a new bookstore, not in Fresno this time but on the other side of town, in Clovis actually.

You may remember A Book Barn located on 5th Street. It was a small used bookstore with about 1,200 square feet of floor space and with between 22,000 and 25,000 volumes for sale. Well, the owners (Dan and Peggy Dunklee) have moved around the block to 640 Clovis Ave. They now have 8,000 square feet of floor space (on 2 floors) and have over 80,000 volumes for sale, with room for another 70,000.

Last week I drove to the old store (which I visit every few months) along 5th Street and couldn’t figure out why I was so disoriented. The “bookstore” sign was gone and so I had to park my truck and walk the storefronts looking for the old volumes in the window. Sadly there weren’t any. All I found was a poster-board sign and I feared that we were losing yet another bookstore. Thankfully I was wrong. There was nothing there about going out of business, only directions to the new place.

And when I walked into the new building I knew that something good had just happened to Clovis. Besides the space, there is much more lighting than in the old store and one can’t help but look up and about at all the books. And there is even a reading corner with comfortable furnishings on the second floor. There is now enough room for stacking shelves with the non-obvious volumes that make treasure seeking plausible – volumes that otherwise molder in backroom boxes and storage sheds.

I chatted with one young man who was busy stacking shelves and complimented him on the store. I didn’t have to convince him that he was doing a good thing. And I didn’t have to tell him that a good used bookstore is so much more fun than the purveyors of recently published vulgarities.

I don't mean to downplay the big book dealers. I buy their books – probably more than I should. But I never get as excited about one of their debuts as I am about our own new used bookstore. I know it isn’t easy to make a living in used books – no matter how big the business. And these are difficult economic times. But here is a new opportunity for Fresno. All it takes to thrive is for a few more of us to stop by and patronize this worthy cause on a regular basis. It means that we need to improve our reading habits.

But Dan and Peggy are making it easy. They have extended store hours (9-7, Monday -Saturday; 11-5, Sunday) and Dan told me that he plans on having community events like poetry readings and book clubs. With luck they may even help us claw our way out of the rankings we’ve fallen into. Or better yet, they may help you find the perfect book to read. I found several.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Cities are Vulnerable

Sometime around three years ago an important shift occurred on planet Earth. It was an almost imperceptible shift. Even so, there is much to this shift that thoughtful people should consider. It affects a whole lot of us and it will certainly affect our children and grandchildren. Since 2008, there are now more people living in cities than live in rural areas. We are now an urban species with a rural past instead of a rural species with a few urban tendencies.

This month's Scientific American is dedicated to this new reality - to cities and all of their presumed virtues. And make no mistake, there are quite a few urban virtues. Some of the most notable ones include innovation and the wise use of resources. It might not come as a surprise that proximity helps generate ideas. but it comes as a surprise to some of us that proximity also means more energy efficiency. People living in big cities often use less energy than their rural relatives - or so it is claimed.

One of the urban virtues that stands out in my mind is the existence of world class museums and venues for the arts. Rural areas usually don't have enough resources to promote such cultural opportunities. I suppose that one can make the same argument for athletic teams. It is the big city that is able to pay for the big events.

Of course there is a flip-side to these arguments. Crime is perhaps the most obvious. But cities are also the primary place of declining traditional values. And one has to point out that the so-called energy efficiency of cities is only possible because rural people produce what cities consume. The carbon footprint is not just about urban cleanliness. It is more about a division of labor. And, in fact, the innovation card itself is becoming less and less convincing as advances in communication make it possible for rural and urban people alike to interface - obviating many difficulties of distance.

But there is another urban cost that is almost never mentioned in these discussions - and one barely even implied in this month's Scientific American. It is a cost that we seem willing to pay at the moment but a cost, nonetheless, that we may not be up to paying in the future. This cost is vulnerability. And cities are vulnerable in several different ways.

The most obvious recent example is the September 11 attacks in New York City and Washington DC. But this is clearly no isolated case. History is full of these kinds of focused attacks on populated areas. Troy fell because of a well-placed "gift horse". Pharaoh's metropolis was leveled by Biblical plagues. World War II finally ended after the ruin of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cities will always be the focus of terrorists and warmongers who seek to do the most harm with limited resources.

Mother Nature is another source of urban vulnerability. In Northeastern Colorado where I used to live, tornadoes were the main natural cause of concern. I remember one trip I made out to the small agricultural community of Akron (near the Kansas and Nebraska borders). There was a tornado in the area that particular day and many of the citizens were in their cars and trucks looking to get a good picture of it. I have no memory of any damage done. Perhaps there was. But the overall attitude was noticeably free of worry.

In contrast, the town of Windsor, Colorado where we lived experienced a tornado some years later (after we had moved away) that was experienced very differently. The tornado itself was not any bigger, as I recall, than the Akron tornado but it bounced around town and caused a great deal of damage. The house we had previously owned was hit directly and the garage was ruined. Two of the trees I planted years before were snapped in two. People were worried and afraid - and understandably so. A tornado in a city is a very dangerous thing.

Or consider the current situation of the Northwest Coast of the United States. Recent findings are showing a great deal more geological stress building up along the Cascadia Fault than was previously expected. This stress involves a stretch of coast running from northern California north past Vancouver in an area that used to be considered fairly stable. Now it is known to be a fault similar to the ones that caused the recent Sri Lanka and Japanese tsunamis. The worry (and it is a real one) is that this fault may rupture at any time. It is now known to have a periodicity of around 300 years with the last one having occurred about 300 years ago. It goes without saying that there are several cities along this coast that are vulnerable. Unfortunately, not all of them have made sufficient preparations.

Civil unrest is yet another vulnerability of cities. Drug deals and their associated gang violence are only a modern variation on a theme that is as old as Sodom and Gomorrah. In some instances all it takes is a traffic jam to start a riot. But consider the situation of impending weather. How many times have store shelves been emptied because of a looming blizzard. When these sorts of things happen for more than just a day or two, it invariably happens that stores are broken into and crime escalates.

Then there is the long history of inflation and hyperinflation where the purchasing power of money becomes difficult or even impossible. In such cases trade networks begin to be controlled by gangs and city life becomes a jungle. In the West we hardly think of this eventuality anymore because of the many fortunate decades we have enjoyed living with relative economic security. We should be wise enough to take a longer historical perspective.

How close we were a couple of years ago to a major shut-down may never be known. But consider the facts. Financial institutions were going bankrupt on a weekly (even on a daily) basis. Many businesses were unable to get credit. Grocery stores and transport companies were feeling the heat as gas prices began to skyrocket. A chain of events starting with limited food could have easily lead to mob rule. Fortunately this didn't happen. But I know that several people were buying (or otherwise dusting off) guns just in case.

This was not the case among self-sufficient folks living in rural areas, many of whom have their own storage room of canned goods and other necessities. Of course many of us living in urban and suburban areas are also prepared in this way to one degree or another. But this doesn't change my overall argument: cities are more vulnerable than rural areas.

Now I suspect that this isn't going to change much of anything, at least for most of us. Cities are going to continue to get bigger and most of us are going to have to live with the vulnerability. But let's not be so naive as to think that nothing could be better than living the busy city life of technology and innovation. There are reasons to get out of town that transcend the rat-race. And if this isn't possible for your particular situation, then hopefully you will at least get ready for coming troubles.

Whether you live in Seattle and need to move to higher ground or in Los Angeles and need to buy heavier doors, it might pay to postpone the purchase of your next electronic toy and stock your pantry with a few more cans of stew. Much might depend on such simple precautions.


This month’s Scientific American is Volume 305 (number 3). For the imminent Northwest tsunami see Cascadia’s Fault by Jerry Thompson (published this year by Harper Collins).

Saturday, August 27, 2011


There are some words that carry such a rich and nuanced meaning that it is virtually impossible to translate them adequately. When they are translated, meaning is inevitably lost. Some of the world’s great insights have been overlooked (and even lost) because of this unfortunate reality.

One such word is the Greek sophrosune. The dictionary indicates that it means: mental soundness, moderation, good sense and self-control. Its cognates also mean: sensible, sober, serious, discrete, prudent and chaste.

This is a lot for a word to mean. Try putting yourself in the situation of a translator who, upon finding sophrosune in a text, had to pick and choose among the many possible meanings. Such a task becomes exasperatingly futile when one realizes that the author did not have in mind just one of these definitions. When ancient authors used sophrosune they most certainly had in mind more than one. In some cases they may have intended all of them.

Take for example Paul’s use of the word in the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus. These letters were written towards the end of Paul’s life, after he had spent a good amount of time away from Judea. I expect that his time away included a more thorough understanding of both the Greek and Latin languages. Perhaps he had learned to appreciate the significance of the word sophrosune to a greater degree than he had before. It certainly shows up in his later writings more frequently than in his earlier work.

For example, in his letter to Titus (first chapter and eighth verse) Paul says that a bishop must be a “lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate”. This is the King James translation, which translates sophrona as “sober”. The New International Version translates the verse such that a bishop must be “hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” Here the translated word is “self-controlled.” The Revised Standard Version indicates that a bishop must be “hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled.” Here it is translated as “master of himself.”

These translations do the best they can but there is obviously a real loss here. Of course a bishop should be a sober man, but this hardly describes everything Paul meant to say. In this loss of understanding, we have also lost sight of the kind of person that such a word implies. For sophrosune describes a person of great character. It describes a person that has control of his/her inner life.

This kind of self-mastery is at the heart of the Christian message. David O. McKay said that “An upright character is the result only of continued effort and right thinking, the effect of long-cherished associations with Godlike thoughts. He approaches nearest the Christ spirit who makes God the center of his thoughts; and he who can say in his heart, “Not my will, but thine be done” approaches most nearly the Christ ideal.”

For Saint Augustine there was a great difference between those with this inner control and those without it. “For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed… so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked.”

Sophrosune was understood as the antithesis of hubris – that sin of selfish and destructive pride that afflicted many of the ancient world; and sadly, perfectly describes all too many of our own. And I think it is significant that we have retained the word hubris, while forgetting sophrosune. It is human nature to bristle at the arrogant upstart that we recognize in hubris. But we seem to find it altogether inconvenient to gain the mastery of our inner selves that sophrosune requires of us.

And why should we? Nobody seems to care anyway. Not too many generations ago, our ancestors learned about Washington and Lincoln not only as American presidents but as men who had cultivated a noble character. Today they are only considered historical figures. Instead of reading their staid and inspiring words, we learn only of the role they played in the formative events of our country. The strength of their inner selves is never considered.

Our youth grow up wondering what great things they might achieve in their lives, focusing on careers, wealth, beauty and influence. Their heroes are persons that have achieved some level of outer visibility and excellence. We look almost in vain to find the hero that inspires us with inner excellence.

No other writer in modern times has focused more meaningfully on this problem than has Irving Babbitt. He did not use the word sophrosune (I’m not sure if he knew Greek) but it is the major theme of his life’s work. He found it to be a major theme of the Judeo-Christian heritage as well as other Eastern religions and philosophies. He also saw its eclipse starting with Rousseau and Romanticism and growing in our modern world into our love of democratic superficiality.

Recognizing the lack of character in our modern academics, he paraphrases Emerson and Goethe approvingly: “The intellect is fatal to earnestness, says Emerson; Goethe has said it still more wisely that everything that emancipates the intellect without giving us a corresponding self-mastery is pernicious.”

And in his essay on Matthew Arnold he criticizes the inability of our democracy to ennoble anybody. “A glance at a current display of our newspapers and popular magazines suggests that, though we are not fools, we are reading just the things that fools would read.”

Yet for all the insight of Babbitt’s diagnosis – and it often seems right on the mark – he refrains from describing in any detail how this inner check might be developed. He talks about it as though it were self-evident. But it isn’t. Self-mastery, after all, is not only unpopular it is hard to develop. It isn’t something that is rationally acquired or decided upon and then experienced the next day. There is an element of uncertainty involved and it takes time. It requires directing one’s life according to principles that are not always well defined. In a word, it requires faith.

Hugh B. Brown said that “Man cannot live without faith, because in life’s adventure the central problem is character-building – which is not a product of logic, but of faith in ideals and sacrificial devotion to them.”

This is a very important insight – this relationship between character and faith. In fact I cannot think of another time in the history of the world when it takes so much faith to develop self-mastery. There are virtually no societal rewards anymore to someone deciding to gain mastery over their lives. It is a quiet quest of anonymity.

But there has never been a time in the history of the world when it was more needed. David O. McKay once made the contrast between two inebriated men. The first man lived over a hundred years ago and the worst that came of his condition was that he might have run his horse or chariot off the road into a ditch. The second man today may end up rolling his car off of the highway. If he is lucky he will only end up in the hospital form a short period. If less lucky he might lose his life or the lives of others.

In important personal ways there really isn’t much difference between these two men other than the technologies they use and the times in which they live. And yet the differences are very real indeed.

Or consider the inclination to view pornography. A century ago someone with a strong inclination might live his life and never suffer because of this weakness. Because a century ago there weren’t many opportunities to indulge in the practice. Today, though, things are very different. A man with only a slight inclination can end up hurting himself and his family a great deal. He may even be the cause of breaking up his home, or worse. And all of this because of the technology that makes it so easy to get caught up in it all.

Our times are not times to be morally indifferent. We really can’t afford to be. Yet sadly these very same times see so many of us so little interested in being masters of our inner selves. It used to be that a business owner in a small town might establish his character and benefit from it financially. A researcher might insist on high standards and be recognized for it. An athlete might be more concerned about sportsmanship than about winning a game. But these virtues are becoming rarer all the time. And sophrosune has little chance of making a comeback in such a cultural mess. Our democracy has given us all the chance to excel but instead of taking advantage of this opportunity most of us have merely become numbed into apathy. Character to us is something possessed by a novel or an abrasive personality – a character. Moral strength has nothing to do with it.

The small chance that true character has left is if visionary men and women, with enough faith in higher standards, will live a life of unrecognized nobility in order to become a person that few will ever understand. It will require them to rise above our culture and live with an eternal perspective because in our world, sophrosune requires faith.


For the David O. McKay quote see Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, David O. McKay, pg. 218. His example of the two drunk men are on page 160 of his recent biography (by G. Prince and R. Wright) David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Augustine’s quote is from The City of God, Book I, Chapter 8. Two of Babbitt’s most important books on the inner check are Democracy and Leadership and Character and Culture. The reference to Goethe is in his essay Are the English Critical in Character and Culture. Hugh B. Brown’s statement is from a talk given by Richard G. Scott in the October, 2010 General Conference, The Transforming Power of Faith and Character.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

An Everlasting Dominion

Five days ago I sat in the Salt Lake Temple (in downtown Salt Lake City) and watched, in the official capacity of a witness, as my son was married to a remarkable young lady. The ceremony was simple but the profound promises and the sense of eternal significance perfused the whole event. Mothers, fathers, and many others wept. Even brothers sniffled. The bride and groom were overcome by it all. And as I sat just a few feet from the altar trying to control my own emotions, I began to sense an importance of the event that I could not readily place my finger on.

I was (and continue to be) very well aware of the binding nature of temple covenants. But this was the first time in my life that I began to catch a glimpse, at a deeper personal level, of something more. Over the next few days I came to appreciate that I was sensing the expansion of my dominion.

This may sound a bit egotistical. Dominion, after all, is a word that we normally associate with power and wealth. I was not experiencing these things in the least. (Quite the contrary, in fact, as I was in one sense losing an immediate member of the household, and it was costing me quite a bit of money!) But then the inspiring passages in the 121st Section of the Doctrine and Covenants came into my mind:

“Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” (The italics are mine.)

Now the first definition of the Oxford English Dictionary under dominion refers to a piece of land, a domain. A king’s dominion included the territory he ruled. It also meant the things that occupied that land, often including the possessions of people and even individual persons themselves.

But at its root, dominion refers to something that seems much simpler and more humble. It refers to a household, the Latin domus. And it is this meaning that worked its way into my understanding and clarified my joy. My household was growing, and I had (and still have) all the confidence in the world that the two lovely young people in front of me would be instruments in that expansion. They were part of my eternal dominion and I couldn’t help but love them for that.

Now what stands out so obviously to me about this scriptural dominion is its basis in individual agency. There is no element here of tyrannical rule or of an enforced sovereignty. This is a dominion that comes without “compulsory means”.

Now I am no legal scholar but as I understand real estate agreements, our land is owned and ultimately protected by compulsion, or at least the threat of compulsion. If I trespass on someone’s land, or fail to make payments on my own, I can be compelled to make recompense or face punishment.

On the other hand, everlasting dominion (in its scriptural sense) is not based on this use of force. It comes on its own. Or maybe it would be better to say that it comes as a natural (even inevitable) part of living virtuously and charitably.

This was all a surprise to me. I have often been saddened by my lack of an immediate inheritance of land. My brother and sisters all live in the same town I grew up in. I am the only member of the family that has moved around a great deal. And I have often longed for a place – transcending generations – of fruitful land that would partly define me and my descendants. This is the kind of dominion I have often thought about. I still do, in fact.

But I learned something new last Tuesday that I wasn’t expecting, when I entered the temple. You see I have attended other wedding ceremonies – wonderful ceremonies. They reminded me of my own marriage and of the wonderful woman that is my own eternal companion. But this was the first time I really sensed the bigger picture. I became more than just a husband and father. Or maybe I should say that I sensed more truly what it means to be an eternal husband and father. It isn’t something that I can easily put into words.

After all the promise accompanying this dominion is that it comes with the companionship of the Holy Ghost. It truly is something that must be experienced in order to appreciate. It is part of gaining an eternal perspective.

Maybe at some time in the future these two kinds of dominion will dovetail into a fuller eternal dominion full of family, faith and landscape. In the meantime I think I’ll just enjoy this part of getting older, and watch my family grow.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Royalty (for Kathy)

Two lessons in a lilac bush
One just for sunny days
The other for an afternoon
Left dripping from the rain

A gentle blush upon your cheek
Is honey to the bee
But there is more than nectar in
The other part I see

Although it seems unusual
That lavender in sun
Can change the color of its robe
And wear a purple one

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Believing Thomas

Consider a young man in school who has spent long hours preparing for a final exam. It is an important exam. If he does well he can expect to receive a hefty scholarship. If he does poorly he may not get the educational experience he really wants. On the evening following the test he has a sudden misgiving about the last big essay question and fears that he misread it. Several days pass - each one filled with anxiety. When he finally gets the score he is greatly relieved. His teacher gave him high marks.

Now consider a woman who has just met an attractive man and wants to get to know him better. He appears to be a responsible and capable person but as she gets to know him she begins to have doubts. Some of the things he does aren’t consistent with the things he says. Eventually she learns that he is often dishonest and not morally trustworthy.

Both of these examples deal with doubt. In the case of the student, the doubt was misplaced. In the case of the dating woman it was not. Now let me give another example that is meant to contrast to these two.

Suppose a young man, raised in a caring home, comes of age and begins spending time with a crowd of delinquent youth. They poison his thinking about the way he was raised. After a time he begins fighting with his parents over simple family rules. He says he doesn’t believe them anymore. After several weeks of this he moves away from home and eventually ends up in jail.

In this story we notice the rebellion of the young man first and only secondly do we see his doubt. In fact doubt may not even be an issue, it’s hard to say for sure. Yet as vague as this may seem it is more the scriptural sense of doubt than the first two examples.

This kind of doubt, as a disbelief and a turning away from truth, is the kind of doubt that has serious spiritual consequences. The doubts of the young student and the dating woman are different. They are part of a healthy human approach to the world. They represent a kind of doubt that makes us credible instead of credulous. Yet sadly we often fail to appreciate these different kinds of doubt. Even worse, we sometimes confuse a virtue for a weakness. When we do this we limit our own personal growth and understanding.

The story of Thomas the disciple of Christ is the saddest example of this that I know. His universally recognized nickname “Doubting Thomas” is one of history’s least merited attributions. It is true that he was uncertain about the risen Lord (see Luke 24) but there was never any rebellion involved and he never turned away from the truth. In fact, what we know of Thomas is the opposite of this.

At a time when Jesus’ popularity had grown to a degree that He was in mortal danger from the rulers of Jerusalem, Thomas was willing to give his life for the Master. Jesus had learned of Lazarus’s recent death and told His disciples that He would need to return to Judea, were recently he had nearly been stoned to death. Thomas, upon learning of Jesus’ dangerous trip said to the other disciples, “Let us also go that we may die with him” (John 11).

I don’t mean to imply that Thomas didn’t have doubts (meaning that he was uncertain) about the miracle of Christ’s resurrection. He did. What I want to show is that the kind of doubt he experienced is not necessarily an evil thing. It can be overcome with faithful effort. Many great men and women of faith experience much more doubt than did Thomas and yet we never think to accuse them of lacking faith.

Peter, for example, after walking briefly on the sea became troubled upon seeing the wind and the waves and sank. Jesus asked him why he doubted. Yet we don’t hold this against Peter. In fact we are amazed at the faith he must have had to walk the few steps he did take. Is Thomas’s doubt so much greater than Peter’s? I doubt it.

In a world of so many competing doctrines and philosophies - some that are clearly wrong and even harmful - we do well to be guarded about many of the claims of others. It serves us well to doubt - that is to acknowledge our uncertainty. And yet the command of Christ is to “doubt not.”

Perhaps there seems to be a contradiction. We are endowed with the tendency to doubt and then commanded not to. This is the same sort of thing we face with selfishness. It clearly helps us to survive, and yet spiritual growth requires that we overcome it (at least some of it). Some aspects of selfishness, like pulling your hand away from a hot stove or coming inside from a storm, are never considered spiritually bad. The selfishness that harms another or tarnishes our spirits, is.

Similarly, doubts about used cars will serve us well throughout our lives. Doubts about saving truths can harm us a great deal. Yet given these obvious differences, religious doubt has been seen to be a universal evil in ways that it shouldn’t have.

According to traditional Christian doctrine, religious truths are to be accepted on authority. Very often this leaves little room for anything between acceptance of a truth and its outright rejection. Similarly Latter-day Saints have often been taught that religious doubt is generally an evil thing (even of the devil). And while this is expected to refer to the doubt that rejects saving truths, other distinctions are often overlooked.

In contrast to this dubious absolutism, the prophet Alma (in Chapter 32 of the Book of Alma in The Book of Mormon) taught about experimenting on the words of life, growing from truth to truth. Then as we grow in our understanding and experience with truth we are lead to other truths and in the process come face to face with other unknown propositions. We then are faced with the option, yet again, of either faith or doubt. It seems that while struggling here in mortality we will ever be experimenting this way, and growing.

And yet it is possible to remove doubt, at least in part, if we find Someone who is completely trustworthy. And as we gain experience with this Someone, our doubt - even of things that seem miraculous - will disappear. Clearly this is a lifelong process even for the spiritually great souls among us - great souls such as Thomas.

Perhaps I am being a little bold in giving Thomas so much credit. But let me point out one of the greatest scriptural chapters we have about doubt, in the 9th chapter of Mormon (in The Book of Mormon). Here Moroni pleads with his readers repeatedly to believe in Christ, doubting nothing. Such an immense belief really makes no sense if all we understood by belief is a simple mental agreement. Such a belief is little more than gullibility.

The immense belief described by Moroni is the kind of belief our ancestors meant by the word be-love. Only a few centuries ago these two words (be-lief and be-love) were used interchangeably. Our misunderstanding of this earlier scriptural sense has led many to think that all we need to do in order to gain salvation is to acknowledge the reality of Christ, regardless of the behavior of our lives. This is a mistake. The scriptural significance of be-lief implies a life-directing commitment to the One that we love above all else.

A belief in Christ that comes from the center of our being, from experience with the divine, is a kind of belief that truly does eliminate doubt. And when we grow towards this kind of belief - this kind of experience with truth - to the point that we love its author enough, we approach the point where doubt no longer exists, and our faith in Him is complete.

I believe that Thomas was well along this path. We know he loved Jesus and was willing to experiment further with His truth - even traveling to the ends of the earth to teach it. I expect that his doubt was much less than ours is. We need to judge him less severely. Thomas was a believer.


The Catholic Encyclopedia under doubt gives a detailed evaluation of the word’s meaning from a religious and historical perspective. The Mormon reference to doubt in Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, though not official church doctrine (despite the title), is somewhat ambiguous in its reference to doubt being of the devil. For an important discussion of be-lief and be-love see Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s Faith and Belief.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Revelation and the Sense of Awe

Revelation is a basic principle of many religions. It is generally understood to be some kind of communication between God and man. In some traditions a sacred book is the primary form of this communication. In others it might be a mystical experience or a dream. Still others rely on holy men and women to interpret the portents of nature. In short, there are numerous ways that we understand revelation.

That said, one aspect of revelation that often gets overlooked is the experience of awe. This may sound like a strange juxtaposition – revelation and awe – but in some traditions they are pretty much the same thing. Or maybe more accurately: awe is the expected form (or an expected experience) of divine communication.

For many of us, in contrast, revelation comes with a rational handle that we can mull over and try to understand logically. Perhaps the original divine communication was a mystical experience - like Moses on Mount Sinai or Abraham before the altar - but the transmission of these experiences has become codified in a way that may require no sense of the divine presence at all.

Sadly this is becoming less and less apparent. In a time when the word revelation is being used more and more commonly, the experience of awe is getting overlooked and even forgotten. When this happens we run the risk of misunderstanding a very significant part of revelation: the actuality of being in the presence of the Divine.

I don’t mean to downplay the informational content of revelation. After all one can make the argument that it is the informational content that justifies the revelation in the first place. The Ten Commandments, for example, have held significance across millennia and in the lives of billions of people. Certainly this has been more important than the awe-inspiring moments on Sinai, experienced by one man, when the words were first received.

But let me ask a more difficult question. How valuable would those ten commandments be if nobody took the existence or the power of God seriously? Remember that Moses’s experience of God’s presence was not a trivial thing - not just an inspired thought or a clarifying insight. After removing his shoes and seeing in vision the immensity of God’s Creation he was left with the stunning realization that “man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10).

One might argue that this experience of revelatory awe is of little significance today. Such experiences were for prophets who lived and wrote in the past. Maybe we can occasionally wonder at the marvels of creation - perhaps being in awe of pounding surf or the strength of a summer storm. But this is not the same. Our world is different we say.

This is where I disagree. If we have lost this wonder - this Biblical “fear of the Lord” - it can only be because we have failed to approach Him in a credible way or with an understanding of His handiwork.

The most obvious example of this myopia is our modern view of the Creation, and our disregard for the myths of other more “primitive” cultures. Anthropologists have accumulated a vast literature - now over a century old and building - of these stories relating how divine beings exist in or somehow manipulate the forces of nature for their own ends. Sometimes humans themselves persuaded divine beings to affect natural changes on their behalf. James Frazer’s The Golden Bough is full of these kinds of examples.

One taken almost at random is of the Waganda of Central Africa that believed in a lake deity that would take up his abode in a man or a woman and change the weather. In other cultures the sun is revered as a deity and at times fires are highly regarded as charms from the sun. The Yakut, Omaha and other peoples believed that they could influence the spirits that cause the wind to blow. In the Hebrides (on the altar of Fladda’s Chapel, on the island of Fladdahuan) a moist black stone was used to summon favorable winds. And of course there are numerous examples of rain dances from culture around the world, as well as examples of ways to make the sun shine. Year-end rites are similarly ubiquitous as formal ways to start the cycles of life anew.

One of the most awe-inspiring rituals that I know of from earlier times was the Incan transport of purified victims (if I may use that term) to the top of mountains for sacrifice. These rituals were solemn events conducted amid the perennial snow and lightning storms of the highest peaks in the Americas.

Yet we tend to smile knowingly and roll our eyes at such stories, glad to be so much more enlightened than people who believe (or have believed) them. It would probably surprise many of us if we knew just how recently our own ancestors believed such things. It was only yesterday, for example, that crop-destroying weather was seen as a punishment from God. And the rainbow, so easily understood today in Newtonian terms, was for thousands of years a sign of God’s promises. When we insist on seeing the world only through the single-lens optics of science, we miss most of the beauty in the world and a great deal of awe-inspiring revelation.

It seems strange to us today that so many Victorians were fascinated with natural history. On weekends - especially on the Sabbath - the English countryside was filled with formally-clothed ladies and gentlemen out looking for natural objects of interest. Some collected shells or other marine remnants that had been washed ashore. Others gathered ferns or pressed flowers. Many people put up easels and painted landscapes or birds. Still others became experts in aquariums or terrariums - collecting fish, beetles, or other creatures that captured their imaginations. Interest in the natural order was many times greater than it is today.

The reason for this interest is a little surprising to us today at a time when natural history is primarily taught on televised programs and in museums, and capture only a fraction of its former audience. During the Heyday of Natural History Victorians believed they could better understand the Creator if they went outside and studied the Creation. Millions of them did so. This was a time when a clergyman could be a recognized authority on nature just as easily (and more likely) than anybody else. There are historians that find it odd that Darwin (the epitome of Victorian science) could have contemplated wearing the “cloth” as a youth. But such were the times, and Darwin’s interest was typical, not unusual, for his time.

That this natural history was meant to inspire awe is readily seen in much of the period’s poetry and painting. For example, William Wordsworth (a Romantic and a Victorian) in On Her First Ascent of Helvellyn wrote of the third highest peak in the UK:

Inmate of a mountain dwelling
Thou hast clomb aloft, and gazed
From the watch-towers of Helvellyn
Awed, delighted, and amazed ….

In America, The Hudson River School of landscape painting was also inspired by Romantic artists though prominent during the late 19th Century. Most of these works are depictions of majestic nature scenes. My favorites were painted by Albert Bierstadt, especially his Sunrise, Yosemite Valley and Sunset in the Yosemite Valley.

But times change. The fascination with nature began to wane, and it is tempting to see this as just part of history’s ineluctable march. Europe was changing as was America and people had to adapt. But in at least one way this change was different. It came with a diminishing of the sense of divine awe. It’s true that the Heyday of Natural History occurred in a particular place at a particular time and can be roughly discerned as an historic period. But the habit of finding God in the manifestations of nature was always a part of human nature. It is only recently that we have wrung the divine out of the natural world. Is it any wonder that we are suffering so many ecological maladies as a consequence?

And yet if the toll has been great ecologically, what has been the spiritual cost? Are we expected to find spiritual satisfaction alone in texts? Is it right that we leave all discussion of nature to vivisectionists?

Medieval Catholics built immense cathedrals to lift the eyes and the minds of worshippers to God to inspire awe. Today most Catholics have little access to these historic remnants. Modern places of worship are often little more than meeting houses. In Europe most of these impressive churches have been converted to museums with fancy alarm systems and barred windows. Burglars are effectively kept out. Unfortunately so is Christ.

Latter-day Saints, by contrast, have never attempted to create buildings as magnificent as Notre Dame in Paris or the Dom in Cologne. Early buildings were often tasteful testaments of faith but the Mormon architectural preference (even in most temples) is for functionality. I know that there will be those who disagree with this, feeling that temples are beautiful structures (and I agree that they are). But Mormon buildings are really not created to inspire awe.

And in fact buildings were not the first place early Christians went to be elevated spiritually. Christ Himself went often to the wilderness – even into the mountains.

Latter-day Saint scriptures give other examples of finding God in nature. To the unbelieving Korihor, the prophet Alma (in The Book of Mormon) testified that the earth and all living things, as well as the planets and the laws that govern their regular form “do witness that there is a supreme creator” (see Alma 30:44).

Enoch (as recorded in The Pearl of Great Price) upon seeing a vision of God and His tears falling as rain upon the mountains was filled with wonder that such a being could weep. And as he looked upon the wickedness of man he “wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (see Moses 7:28-41).

Again in The Book of Mormon (as recorded in the 9th chapter of 3 Nephi) following the many devastating events at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, the voice of the Lord was heard declaring that He had been the cause of the many natural disasters that had recently occurred. He had caused great fires. He had caused cities to be swallowed up by the sea. The cities of Gadiandi, Gadiomnah, Jacob and Gimgimno He “caused to be sunk, and made hills and valleys in the place thereof.”

This is a part of our Christian faith that gets conveniently forgotten – primarily because it doesn’t easily fit into our modern understanding of the natural world. It needs to be considered more seriously. When we lose sight of the majesty of the Creator in His Creation we are left with the second-hand interpretations of fallible men to guide us. And this is hardly a recipe for spiritual understanding.

That awe was a very real and important part of the faith of our ancestors is certain. Perhaps they were more simple-minded than we are. So be it. This hardly serves as a justification for letting reason rob us of our need to find God, as if only the simple might have faith.

In fact many of our wisest thinkers have never lost their sense of wonder in spite of their grounding in science. Galileo, Newton, Einstein were filled with wonder. A more recent example is Loren Eiseley who was willing to grapple with the mysterious universe even while holding prestigious professorships in Anthropology and the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

His description of the surgical precision of a wasp that provisions its nest with cicadas is compelling. The insect prey is carefully paralyzed and buried in such a way that seems to transcend the possibility of its development by means of natural selection. Yet Eiseley concedes:

“I am an evolutionist”. but there seems to be “Nothing to explain the necessity of life, nothing to explain the hunger of the elements to become life, nothing to explain why the stolid realm of rock and roil and mineral should diversify itself into beauty, terror, and uncertainty.”

Why are we so hesitant to acknowledge the divine majesty of the unknown? Why is the word awful (literally, being filled with awe) used so negatively most of the time when it can mean great as well as terrible? Why have we forgotten that the powerful sense of awe can be a revelatory experience?

I don’t profess to have all the answers. But I do believe that a big part of the blame lies with our inability to negotiate the world of sophisticated technical knowledge with the divine reality of our true nature.

Irving Babbitt noticed this many years ago when he pointed out the natural tendency of wonder to lead to awe, if the beholder only seeks for a broad and meaningful understanding. “As a man grows religious, awe comes more and more to take the place in him of wonder.”

Babbitt then proceeds to show, however, that wonder does not always lead to a religious awe. In fact the beginning of the modern world contains many examples of the harm that can come from an apotheosis of wonder by itself, without God. For as Samuel Johnson pointed out wonder is merely the effect of novelty upon ignorance. And in a time such as ours with so many discoveries claiming our attention, one can’t help but be confronted with wonder - even on a regular basis.

But there is a big difference between this quotidian wonder and a profound encounter with the Divine. If our searching in the world of nature only surprises us with novelty even as it cures us of our physical ailments we will only manage to prolong our lives even as the spiritual vacuum that fills our lives remains intact.

The world and the cosmos are so much more than just interesting things - in spite of our many clever discoveries. They are not just items to wonder about. They are majestic, unfathomable and awful. They are also the workmanship, and home, of God. And they should help us get to know Him better.


My copy of The Golden Bough is a 1981 reprint from Avenal Books, New York. See Johan Reinhardt’s The Ice Maiden (National Geographic) for an adventurer’s account of the Inca mummies. The Hudson River School, American Landscape Artists by Bert Yaeger (Smithmark) has the Bierstadt paintings I mention. On Latter-day Saint architectural history see People of Paradox by Terry Givens (Oxford University Press). For Babbitt’s discussion on wonder and awe, see Chapter II in Rousseau & Romanticism (Transaction Publishers). My Eiseley quote is taken from Chapter 23, The Coming of the Giant Wasps, in All the Strange Hours, the Excavation of a Life (Scribners).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Onion Thrips Don't Like Mulch

Onion thrips don't like mulch. I know this because of a little experiment I conducted just recently. You see I live in an area of California were onions are regularly stripped of their chlorophyl by this little creature (that is smaller than an aphid and quite thin) and a lot of money is spent every year trying to keep it under control. So late last year as I was considering this sad state of affairs, I thought of a solution that might just be helpful to small farmers.

The whole idea centers around the fact that part of the thrips' life cycle is exposed and might be vulnerable to predators. In both the nymph and adult stages, thrips are fairly well protected deep within the closely spaced onion leaves where it is difficult for any kind or predator to go. Occasionally a small pirate bug manages to find a thrips (yes the singular of thrips is also thrips in case you were wondering) but for the most part, the thrips are able to freely feed on the onions without being molested.

One stage, however, is not so hidden. It is the pupal stage. When the nymphs have eaten and grown about all they can, they leave the protection of the leaves and drop to the soil where they change into an adult. In most agricultural situations, the thrips can find a small crack in the ground to hide without being bothered. If, however, an environment could be created (say a mulch covering of sorts) to bring in more predators, the thrips population might be reduced. The predators could eat the pupae and break the thrips life cycle.

With that thought in mind, I found a nice section of young onions last fall and built a bit of compost around a few dozen plants. It consisted of only a long board with a bit of grass clippings beneath - not much - but it was what I had available. I anchored these boards around the onions using thin wood stakes and left the plants pretty much alone. I kept the mulched onions and a couple of rows of adjacent (un-mulched) onions fairly free of weeds and adequately watered through the winter and spring. Then last week I decided to go out and see what the thrips populations were like.

What I found was what I had expected. The onions growing by the mulch had on average about 2 thrips per plant. The plants growing without a mulch had on average about 13 thrips per plant. As this was not a completely randomized and replicated trial I didn't run a statistical evaluation but I expect that the differences were real (the numbers were pretty tight). Somebody with more land and more time might want to do a more complete study but I think my hunch will bear itself out: thrips don't do as well when mulches are present because more predators exist to break their life cycle.

And in fact I took a look under my improvised mulch (the boards) and discovered several predators. There were small ground beetles and a couple of species of rove beetles. I don't know if they actually ate any of the thrips pupae (I didn't make any observations) but I suspect that some of them did.

Of course a conventional farmer, with acres of onions, will not have the wherewithal to mulch everything. They will need to continue using conventional methods to control the thrips. But there are better ways for the small farmer. Grass or stones might work well, as might other kinds of mulch. Try some out and let me know what you find. Your onions will be happy you did.