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threading the needle of curiosity - the natural world in words and images

the blessing of the animals


St. Francis is considered the patron saint of ecologists. This year the 30th anniversary of the Feast of St. Francis and the Blessing of the Animals at St. John the Divine  took place just 13 days after The People's Climate March. With only day-of tickets available, I got up early and felt the first bite of fall in the air as I made my way north of 101st Street to meet a good friend, already in line, waiting for me. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic Revival architecture and has held its ground for over 120 years. In the brisk morning air the surrounding lawn and buildings stood out in stark relief; Greg Wyatt's Peace Fountain cast a cold shadow on those of us waiting in line as the sun strove to break the leaves with light. A quick web search will tell you, at least today, that St. Francis is the most popular of all the Catholic saints – even more so than St. Patrick. Does this mean we love animals more than we love beer? That despite whatever your button says on St. Patrick's Day, I don't have to kiss you because you really aren't Irish? Because if you were, St. Pat would rank #1. Or is it because St. Francis is more than just a Catholic saint because he “transcends the limits of institutional religion,”1 his influence extending beyond a single holiday?

Born in 1181, by the time Francis was a teenager he already had the reputation as a dandy; he loved to party and break curfews. As they say, his daddy was rich and his momma – a beautiful Frenchwoman - good looking. Spoiled, he quit school at 14. Instead of becoming a merchant like his Italian father, Francis dreamed of becoming a knight, and when war broke out between Assisi and Perugia in 1202 he joined the cavalry. Francis was soon captured and ransomed. A year in prison left him physically and emotionally scarred. After his release he met a leper. A changed man, he turned his life to God. In his 20's, Francis heard the voice of God while praying at San Damiano, calling him to a life of poverty. His father took him to court for stealing cloth and a horse to raise money to rebuild the San Damiano church. Francis broke with his family.

The Middle Ages saw the gradual rise of a money based economy. Paternal identity was strongly associated with contemporary ideas of manhood. Rejecting it was unthinkable and a groundbreaking message that carries gravitas today. “The love of Francis is a rejection of property and the psychology of possession based on which men occupy positions of power and privilege.” 2 Francis began to preach to animals and to reject the human barriers between this world and the next. His unconditional love of poverty was revolutionary.

Unsurprising then that many have called St. Francis the most Buddhist of the saints. Duncan Trussel once said that you can be a Buddhist without knowing it. I don't think that anyone can be accidentally Catholic, but can you accidentally be an environmentalist? The labyrinth of lifestyle choices capitalism lays before us gets harder and harder to navigate as our global economy becomes more tightly knit. If you coast along without making conscious changes, then the odds of accidental environmentalism is slim.

After a long wait and much pleasant conversation with our new friends in line, we eventually got our tickets and headed inside. Apart from nativity scenes, set in plastic splendor, I had never seen animals inside a church before and reveled in every paw and claw that hit the flagstones. The echo of dog barks soon gave way to musical performances and the sounds of humpback whales, harp seals, birdsong and the tundra wolf. Xu Bing's two twelve-ton phoenix, Feng and Huang, perfect companions for St. Francis' Canticle of Brother Sun, twinkled above us as the lights were lowered for the silent procession of the animals. A camel, donkey, horse, tortoise, goats, a swan, a pair of exceptionally reluctant, but cute alpacas, an owl, bats and more made their way down the nave of the cathedral. A unforgettable and transcendent experience nestled in one of New York's most captivating spaces.

Prior to the procession, the Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski delivered what some might consider an unusual sermon. I knew that I wasn't the only one now sitting in St. John's that had been out on the streets of NYC just days before participating in The Climate March, and I shouldn't have been surprised that Kowalski's sermon was a celebration of the march and a call to action. To paraphrase Kowalski, we can no longer separate economic and social rights and keep the planet alive – all wish lists get dusted by the fact of climate change. To quote him,“The only solution is a new economy built on human rights and ecological stewardship...success is more than a call to action. We need to focus and put a price on carbon.”

George P. Hansen in his book The Trickster and the Paranormal calls St. Francis a liminal figure because of his communion with nature, his use of parable and levitation during prayer; that as a mystic Francis disrupted social order.3 In the The Wreath of Wild Olive: Play, Liminality, and the Study of Literature, Mihai Spariosu points to Francis' marriage to Lady Poverty as a move to the fringes of society “a symbolic area where the forms of the world lose whatever fixed and stable sense convention has imposed on them... a scandalous utopia which is disengaged from history." By disengaging from history St. Francis creates a radical new “historicity because it provides the perspective which makes possible a fresh and renewed apprehension of the structures of the world.”4

If ever there was a time for “ a renewed apprehension of the structures of the world” now is the time. There is so much about our world we have yet to learn as we reach beyond the confines of combustion based and thus, carbon based energy ideas. Occupy WallStreet brought attention to income equality and a PEW research poll indicted “61 percent believed that the U.S. economic system was unfair and favored the wealthy,” even though the Occupy Movement only had a 44% approval rating at the time. Pope Francis's popularity is on the rise as he criticizes the global economic system and encourages us to love the poor.5

Despite the popularity of St. Francis he remains a liminal figure. Society tends to scorn chaotic mystics. As the frankincense filled the pews and candlelight flickered in the eyes of the animals around us, the feeling at St. John the Divine was intense and inspirational. For a moment we broke our conventional relationship to the natural world through ritual and prayer and listened to a message calling out for transformation. It is a month since The Climate March. If you do nothing, nothing changes.

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1. Prakash Kona, "Love and Saint Francis of Assisi: A Mass Performer in the Middle Ages," liminalities.net.,1 Sept. 2012. Web. 1: 6, accessed Oct. 2014. http://liminalities.net/8-4/francis.pdf.

2. Kona, "Love and Saint Francis of Assisi: A Mass Performer in the Middle Ages," 9.

3. George P. Hansen, The Trickster and the Paranormal (Xlibris, 2001) chap 5, Kindle.

4. Mihai Spariosu, The Wreath of Wild Olive: Play, Liminality, and the Study of Literature. (SUNY, 1997.), 47.

5. Mat Berman,"How Pope Francis Can Finish What Occupy Wall Street Started," nationaljournal.com ( Dec. 2013) accessed Oct 22, 2014, http://www.nationaljournal.com/economy/how-pope-francis-can-finish-what-occupy-wall-street-started-20131212

invitation to a party

the very place of ghost stories

I want to throw you a party, a Halloween party. I'd have you over, but there is no place to sit; I've just moved in. I really don't have enough chairs for everyone, or silverware for that matter. But Halloween encroaches and with it one of my favorite autumn tales, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” comes to mind. The author, Washington Irving, was an adept satirist; the tale a humorous one. But the horseman, conjured from the 'dreamy influence,' the bewitched atmosphere of the glen and the offspring of the very glen itself, has long surpassed the rest of the tale in popular imagination. So I invite you to sit amongst the words, as the party I want to invite you to is in the landscape that exists in these brief paragraphs, a party in a grove with deep shadows and night noises that become a “dreaming sound in the ear.” The perfect place for a picnic.

Born April 3, 1783 in Manhattan, New York City, Washington Irving is considered the creator of the American short story. He traveled in Europe, lived in England and Spain, and the influence of European Romanticism on his work has been widely acknowledged. Friends with Sir Walter Scott, Irving also had an affinity for collecting folktales that he would later use in his works. The ghoul in “Legend,” the horseman, is, in fact, taken from a tale collected by German Folklorist Johann Karl August Musäus.

The following is an excerpt from Musäus:

“The headless horseman was often seen here. An old man who did not believe in ghosts told of meeting the headless horseman coming from his trip into the Hollow. The horseman made him climb up behind. They rode over bushes, hills and swamps. When they reached the bridge, the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton. He threw the old man into the brook and sprang away over the treetops with a clap of thunder.”

Karl Musäus predates the Grimms and is seen by many to be a careless and satiric folklorist, a moniker that Irving has also been painted with. When pressed by critics to reveal the source of the horseman in his story, Irving finally threw up his hands and declared that he had indeed read Musäus' tale in at least three different volumes.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” takes place in Tarrytown, NY close to the Tappan Zee, a natural lake on the Hudson River. Born to the first generation knowing from birth they were not British subjects, Irving is also the first American writer to include descriptions of the American landscape in his work. Irving's emphasis on nature and supernatural superstitions gave the conflicted past a local habitation. I grew up in Vermont, in an area that resembles its neighboring New York, but missing the grand depth of the Hudson and the power of place such body of water can imbue. Yet still I feel his descriptions are accurate of many a remembered glen illuminated from within by some natural mystery. Irving's landscapes are perpetual and deep and reflect the mysterious effect that occurs when old-world folklore is measured on a new land.

Like many, my first introduction to “Legend” was Disney's 1949 adaptation. Surprisingly true to the original, Disney's sense of the satirical was a perfect match for Irving's tale. Just as today the Haunted Mansion, opened in 1968, is filled with puns and a sense of the ridiculous put forth by character - for example, the hitchhiking ghosts - there lingers a sense of the eerie, the mysterious that emanates from the décor, an allusion to something very real and haunting. The Disney adaptation of “Legend” keeps the reverence for the landscape, the source material for the haunt, that without the humor would lack punch.

Both Disney and Tim Burton, in his 1999 movie, retain the depth of Irving's landscape. It is the one character that is interpreted according to the text. Both movies retain the blasted tulip tree and elude to the tree as being the source from which the horseman springs, as if the land itself carries within it something far older and far more sinister. The 1999 Deluxe Horseman toy by McFarlane would echo this with both horse and rider set upon a supporting tree of skulls. But best not to look too close and sing a psalm instead.

Irving's lead, Ichabod Crane, is himself a teller of tales, and this teller is nested within the papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker, a tale-within-a-tale trope that Irving uses in numerous stories. Through Crane, Irving also introduces New England Witchcraft into American literature for the first time. Crane had garnered the material with which he would entertain the Tarrytown townsfolk from the sole book in his library: Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft. James C. Clark Jr. in his essay “Washington Irving and New England Witchlore” points out that this book doesn't actually exist. For me, this easily adds “Legend” to a long list of frightful stories about false tomes.

Blending elements of European tales, the story from Musäus, the superstitions of the Pennsylvanian Dutch, plus the erroneous and mocked ideas of Mather's, with the dark suggestions of the hollow itself, Irving has created a heady mix delightfully drunk on a “fine late day in autumn.”

“Legend” isn't the only Irving text that uses the landscape to conjure spirits. Rip Van Winkle is another tale that blends a humorous character with a suggestive and numinous landscape – “the small hollow, like an amphitheater, surrounded by perpendicular precipices over the brinks of which, impending trees shot their branches.” From this split in the mountain, within this grove, a group of mysterious strangers appear. But as author of the tale, Irving escapes even himself in properly identifying their source. The silent strangers in the mountain play at bowling.

Now there have been lots of interesting theories on exactly who these men are, perhaps the most titillating one is that Rip Van Winkle is an early tale of alien abduction. Rip eventually identifies them as Hendrick Hudson and his crew, but is never sure. Irving's manner of introduction is suggestive of Charlemagne and his men, and reminiscent of tales of the sleeping king in the mountain, even the exploits of King Herla when you add Rip's enchanted nap to the mix. But I feel that Philip Young's essay, “Fallen from Time: The Mythic Rip Van Winkle,” best elucidates who it is Rip meets in the hollow.

“The bowlers of the Catskills are impersonating a disguised Thor, in a figurative or symbolic way, in his principal role as God of Thunder, and the actions of these resurrected men are the means of their worship. The solemnity Rip and Peter felt, in the presence of a mystery, is entirely appropriate to so sacred and secret an occasion. “Rip Van Winkle” then is our version of a myth that survives as a description of a nearly forgotten ceremony in the worship of Thor for the production of rain.”

After 20 years sleep, Rip is reborn from the grove, just as the horseman is reborn from the tulip tree, but Rip's is the experience of a living man, occurs once and has positive overtones. Young also goes on to suggest that Rip's experience in the mountain glen was an initiatory one. Yet, Rip's initiatory experience might be interpreted as a failure, for Rip gains nothing but the loss of his manhood and an eternal timeless living sleep that is his life even as he... “sits on the bench at the inn door.” While Rip tries to tell the tale of what has happened to him, he doesn't ever really know. “He was observed, at first, to vary on some points every time he told it, which was doubtless owing to his having so recently awaked.” Even though most readers are sympathetically endeared to Rip's childlike innocence, a failed initiation still makes for one hell of a scary bedtime story.

There are more questions here to be tackled. Why do both “Legend” and “Rip” allude to supernatural characters associated with thunder? How is landscape and sound used to create trance states to evoke spirits? And why do so many authors feel the need to nest narratives inside narratives and create false tomes to lend legitimacy and divert the possibly potency of their own beliefs onto an un-criticizable source? But we often tell tales not knowing exactly why they are scary, or captivating. The audience responds to the suggestions in the shadows and this is enough. Boo!

I am happy to be back on the East Coast. The red flame of the maple tree in autumn is within my grasp. I return to walk forests where dissolute farm roads, trees growing in the tracks, are far older than the first families of the Pacific Northwest. Grassy knolls of moss appear in the birch woods, and the moon lights down on mill ponds eddying with the decay of past ambitions and family fortunes. Deep quarries suggest unknown monsters just beneath the toes of those who swim there, breaking the skin of fallen leaves with every stroke. The barn owls screech and friends jest the horseman rides out when the jack-o-lanterns go missing, even though the theft is possibly just a prank.

Long after the joke has floated away an enchanting unease remains. Happy Halloween.


“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” www.princeton.edu.

James W. Clark, Jr. Washington Irving and New England Witchlore. New York Folklore Quarterly Volume and Issue No.: XXIX, No. 4: pp. 304-313. New York Folklore Society

Phlip Young. “Fallen from Time: The Mythic Rip Van Winkle.” The Kenyon Review Vol. 22, No. 4, Autumn, 1960: pp. 547-573. Kenyon College. www.jstor.org.

as the days grow short, a blog begins

The Living River

Everything has a beginning. I'm not saying The Climate March was my beginning; it wasn't my first step on NYC asphalt, nor was it my first civic action, but as beginnings seem to require some location in time, it is the beginning of this blog. Beginnings can also be late. I always feel late. I think a lot of us feel late as the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere skyrockets to 400 parts per million (ppm). I've just moved to NYC. On September 21, 2014, the day before solstice, I felt no fear launching myself into NYC's concrete and congested arms along with an estimated 400,000 total strangers. THAT might be a beginning. I felt located. I knew my way around. Honestly, my first few weeks in NYC I wasn't sure. I desperately clung to Coney Island, one of my mind's eternal landscapes, and a long-time, historical-poetic inspiration to get me through the transition that I hoped I would spontaneously one day wake up to. That the New York Aquarium is located in the realm (the site of the original Dreamland) of that mental refuge plays a part at where I am today. Fortunately, I had the chance to march with people that believe that “one of the world’s most famous cities is also home to one of its great seascapes.” Philip Hoare's history lesson in The Whale will convince you of that, if the multitude of birds that consider NYC a vital migratory stop didn't already clue you in that something special is going on here.

I care about the natural world. Some might think I only care about sea otters (oh what you have yet to learn), but the evolution of the natural world and mankind's inapposite dance as part of it is fascinating. I'm a sucker for a well written tragedy. That which looms outstrips any narrative I can conjure. I do like to think about the good, some of the interesting and unexplained, but regrettably I have to think about the bad – like how the human population is contributing to climate change and that it doesn't only affect animals, it affects human health, human rights and the future ability of us to live in peace with each other. As resources grow scarce we see the worst in each other and ourselves. At The People's Climate March there was a huge sense that all of our personal, held-to-heart issues were funneling into one giant black cloud – a cloud of carbon highlighted with eternal, thousand-year, white wisps of plastic bags. A great deal has been written about this already: perspectives and stories from The Climate Train, The Climate Ribbon, coverage from unique events around the world and a multitude of interviews. For a while, I marched behind a woman wearing a DAPNet (draftanimalpower.org) shirt. I had never heard of this organization. There were hundreds of organizations I had never heard of as we swelled to take up over 80 city blocks. So maybe, if anyone saw my Sea Otter Conservation shirt, maybe they'd see one more vital piece of the puzzle as they all are and they all will be.

Founded by climate writer Bill McKibben, The Climate March was organized by 350.org. Are marches and protests the rain dances of our age, or is this the start of change? Change is where we live and have lived since our stardust left the ocean for the land. Humans effecting an anti-evolutionary change for the worst? That may have begun not too long ago. But I'm looking to share the exciting parts, the thrilling parts, the curious parts. It's a beautiful world, yesterday, today and tomorrow. I belive rain dances can work. Did I mention I'm a photographer? Yeah you're going to have to look at some photos too.