I keep hearing about wars over religion, get all excited but – alas! – just another boring old war for property or power. Imagine a world where people believed passionately enough about ideas to kill each other over that and nothing else!

What happens in the meantime has nothing to do with us. The wide-eyed stories about angelic visitations are all beside the point, and here’s why. All day Tuesday the tundra swans streamed north, great “V”s each some fifty birds strong, with two, three, sometimes as many as four flocks strung out across the sky at the same time. You hear them first, high notes from a tuneless music of the soul, as if all the klezmer clarinets in the world had decided to start talking at the same time.

Hearing the first few distant notes you scan the sky, clear but for a scrim of cloud along the horizon. There! Bring the binoculars up: my god. Long white tireless wings going wft wft wft, outstretched necks tipped in a black you can’t quite see against the blue, bodies white, so white the contrast with the sky almost hurts the eyes. They’re rowing, you think. They’re singing as they go, like all good boatmen. Flotillas of kayaks in the sky’s unending lake.

They’ve spent the winter in the inland waterways of the mid-Atlantic coast and now the tundra is calling them from two thousand miles away. Get a map and draw a straight line between the huge impoundment at Middle Creek in southeastern Pennsylvania and Lake Erie: it’ll go right over our mountaintop farm. And when the swans go they all go together, lifting off from Middle Creek in a dizzying rush of thousands all at once, I’m told. Some spring I will have to go there with our birder friends who make the pilgrimage every year – not to watch so much as to listen. I want to hear how such liquid fluting gets transformed all of a sudden into a rhythmless symphony for brushes on still air.

I went for a walk in the starlight around 8:00 p.m., stood in the woods for a while and listened as the flocks kept going over, straining my eyes, focusing on one part of the sky to try and catch the blink of stars crossed by wings. A great-horned owl was booming from just over the ridge: odd juxtaposition, but of course in Nature there’s no such thing as dissonance (though no harmony, either, except in retrospect).

Wednesday morning when I sat outside at 5 a.m. the swans were still going over. I thought about the day ahead in which I would go off to a conference held by and for biologists and bureaucrats from the state and federal wildlife agencies. Long talks filled with acronyms and plastic words like develop, manage, enhance. Language like a cold fog. Power that points, projected toward horizons that can by definition never be reached. If we could only leap – just for a moment! – into the unimaginable waters of the mind of a swan! I am reminded of the title of a book I once looked at, on the history of Buddhism in America: How the White Swans Came to the Lake. Does Buddhism tell us anything useful about the minds of animals, I wonder? I think it merely repeats that old rumor, the one so many wildlife managers regard as the most dangerous heresy: that animal minds are no different from ours in their original clarity, their wildness.

So all night while we slept there were swans going over the house, way up over everything. This thought is beyond humbling. I think of some of what they have to cross in the course of their journey and it makes me weep, right there on the porch, clutching my coffee cup.


The evening before, during a lull in the music I had walked on up to the top of the ridge and looked at the lights for a while. It’s a farm valley; the lights are yard lights put up supposedly to discourage burglars and vandals. Over the past 10 years as the Amish have moved in these lights have dwindled, at the same time that the town on the other side of the ridge has installed street lights so bright the whole northern portion of the night sky is lost. The spreading darkness in this valley seems especially friendly to me because we’ve gotten to know these new neighbors better than we ever knew our old ones, whom we never had much reason to know because their only thought is cows. The Amish, by contrast, have dozens of different ventures going on at every farm. The ultimate conservatives, they are, paradoxically, among the most imaginative of farmers.

I can easily picture one of the maiden aunts
at the farm across the valley walking
back to her cottage from the main house
and hearing the swans. She pauses
long enough to wipe the last of the dish soap
from her hands onto her apron, smiling to
herself, not bothering to look up because
what’s to see? And after a moment
goes back to tell the others, who will also
want to come listen.

I will keep their names out of this, but
respect still permits I hope a sketch –
unadorned, of course – employing
only shades of black and navy blue
and saying nothing of the white strands
tucked primly under the bonnet.
The constellations all have names
in German. Venus would’ve already set
behind the horizon, which for them
is this very ridge where I stand, busy
with my embroidering.

This lady I’m telling you about keeps a store
stocked with wholegrains, kitchenware
and quilts, quilts. She and the others
have spent all winter at them: in March
they bulge from the shelves. But
her store has in addition a rack of books;
the books include field guides to the birds.
She knows plenty about swans, I’ll bet –
as much as anyone.

But about some things she knows a bit less,
and at times I suspect she feels that lack
as a sadness, maybe a hurt. Think of it:
even a radio is off-limits. Spring
comes unheralded except by signs
like this. What has she heard
in the course of her fifty years?
Her faith forbids all music made
by the too-clever hand of man.
Teenaged boys can run wild until
they get married and baptized – thus
some of the men may once
have corrupted their hearing
with instruments beyond the plain voice.

But for an Amish woman, standing outside
in early evening with her tired eyes
grateful for the darkness, pausing
for a long moment to be
alone with it, this
swan music must sound
like the purest praise.

Poor Mr. Gray. There’s nothing more to say.
Who will recite the monologue of your final act?
Dragged from the East River, two months gone,
they knew you only by your teeth.

On the radio that evening I heard someone
discussing your WASP heritage in the same breath
as your mother’s suicide and the devastating accident
two years ago in Ireland. It all added up, Spalding:

you were the victim of your own WASPy introversion.
Things might’ve been different if you’d just been
a little less you. Next time, see
if you can work on that, O.K.?

Revised March 11. This ain’t my favoritest poem by a long shot but it’s gonna stay up, just because I don’t want to leave readers with the impression (after Tuesday’s blog) that I meant in any way to blame the victim for his suicide.

Tom at The Middlewesterner has an occasional feature he calls “I may not be very political, but…” which has inspired me to add this, similarly occasional, brief and anti-political (not apolitical!) feature to an otherwise non-political blog. Yesterday, Tom wrote “If I hear too many more people say ‘we have to preserve the sanctity of marriage,’ I just might have to start agitating for a ‘No Divorce’ Amendment.”

Well, don’t think that ain’t what’s in the backs of some folks’ minds. Zealots like Delay and Santorum will tell you, if you ask, that adultery should be punishable by law, for instance. Some members of Congress, I’ve heard, don’t believe any sex outside of procreation should be permitted.

It’s just like murder: the only reason governments don’t like people killing other people is it threatens their monopoly on killing, right? Ditto with screwing.

This entry honors the memory of Spalding Gray, whose body was just pulled from the East River. I saw him perform once about ten years ago, thanks to my friend Crazy Dave who had won an extra ticket from the local NPR station.

For a couple hours last night I was plagued by the demon Anxiety. I call it a demon because it exists solely to torment, it can’t be reasoned with or bought off. The only way to neutralize its attacks is to give in, to laugh at its antics until it gets disgusted and goes away. So that’s what I did, and I was dreaming for quite some time before this imaginary being – whose name is oddly identical with my own – caught on and woke me up again.

But by then my sleeping self had gained the upper hand. This “real me” is far more familiar to my readers, I’m sure, than I am in my guise as the self-conscious author. That’s because (I’m guessing) your own “real me” is much the same: an androgynous shapeshifter who can be visible or invisible, single or multiple, who can fly, swim, leap tall buildings at a single bound, even occupy two places at the same time. Best of all, it can disappear. Here’s St. Emily (#255 in the R.F. Franklin edition – the new standard, because it preserves the orthography, spelling etc. favored by the poet herself):

The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –
Forgets her own locality
As I, in Thee –

She knows herself an incense small –
Yet small, she sighs, if all, is all,
How larger – be?

The Ocean, smiles at her conceit –
But she, forgetting Amphitrite –
Pleads “Me”?

I had to resort to the Encyclopedia Mythica for Amphitrite: in Greek mythology, the queen of the sea. When Poseidon wanted to take her for a wife, she hid from him in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, until betrayed by a dolphin. (Now the poem makes sense!)

I find it oddly comforting that sleep psychologists fail to agree on even the most basic premises: why we dream, why we even need to sleep. Actually, as a semi-professional bullshit artist and the proprietor of this perhaps ironically named weblog, gaps in official knowledge are, for me, something positive: resources to be exploited. Like a Daoist, I believe fervently in the necessity of the not-there, and I place great trust in the usefulness of the useless. Our second text this morning is from A.C. Graham’s translation of Chuang-Tzu, once again.

There is a place in Sung, Ching-shih, where catalpas, cypresses and mulberries thrive. But a tree an arm-length or two around will be chopped down by someone who wants a post to tether his monkey, a tree of three or four spans by someone seeking a ridge-pole for an imposing roof, a tree of seven or eight spans by the family of a noble or rich merchant looking for a sideplank for his coffin. So they do not last out the years Heaven has assigned them, but die in mid-journey under the axe. This is the trouble with being stuff which is good for something. Similarly in the sacrifice to the god of the river it is forbidden to cast into the waters an ox with a white forehead, a pig with a turned-up snout or a man with piles. These are all known to be exempt by shamans and priests, being things they deem bearers of ill-luck. They are the very things which the daemonic man will deem supremely lucky.

Graham uses this archaic word “daemonic” to translate shen, one of the prime attributes of the sage. He points out in the introduction that “Although Chuang-Tzu shares the general tendency of Confucians and Taoists to think of Heaven as an impersonal power rather than as an emperor issuing his decrees up in the sky, his attitude has a strong element of numinous awe . . . It is clear that Chuang-Tzu does not in any simple sense believe in a personal God, but he does think of Heaven and the Way as transcending the distinction between personal and impersonal (which would be as unreal to him as any other dichotomies), and of awe as though for a person as an appropriate attitude to the inscrutable forces wiser than ourselves, throughout the cosmos and in the depths of our own hearts, which he calls ‘daemonic.'”

So this daemon of Graham/Chuang-tzu is quite unlike the demon I was talking about a moment ago. Or so I would like to think. In Spalding Gray fashion I am looking back over my life, particularly the uncomfortable, shameful, and humiliating parts that I would like very much to forget. I am remembering the six years of purgatory beginning with my entry into the seventh grade, in which I suddenly found myself a social outcast. I say purgatory rather than hell because in fact outright tormentors were few, especially after my brother Steve, who was two years ahead of me, beat the shit out of a kid who had been reputed to be tough. Throughout junior and senior high school I was able to maintain a strictly pacifist, turn-the-other-cheek policy, safe under the nuclear umbrella of a big brother who could kick ass.

Well, I shouldn’t say strictly pacifist. I did drum on a mushhead one time, but that almost doesn’t count. Or at least it didn’t seem to at the time.

The mushheads came from a family of highly inbred, semi-retarded, grotesquely misshapen people who were as mean as they were ugly. They had heads shaped like toadstools (hence the moniker) and names out of Snow White: Skippy, Pappy, Happy and a couple younger ones whose handles I forget. When I was in the 11th grade and had long since stopped riding the school bus, one of them – I think it was Happy – took to following me through the town portion of my three-mile route home, heckling all the way. This took the somewhat surreal form of yelling “Heckle! Heckle!” and when he tired of that, “Heckle-Jeckle! Heckle-Jeckle!”

This was almost tolerable and indeed somewhat amusing – or it might’ve been if I hadn’t taken myself so doggone seriously. I would ignore the heckling until stones started to fly. Due to the fact that he and his brothers were born without wingbones (so their pediatrician told my mother one time), Happy couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, much less the rail-thin frame of a bucktoothed wierdo bookworm who preferred walking to riding the bus. (Each of the mushheads had been barred from the bus for life, I think.) But when the stones started coming uncomfortably close I’d turn around and make like I was going to go after him, which was usually all it took to produce panic and an inglorious retreat.

I’m ashamed to admit that one time, in a vain attempt to drive him away for good, I ran back, grabbed him and shoved him to the ground. He lay in the middle of the street groveling and gabbling and thrashing about: think Gollum on a bad hair day. I’d be lying if I told you I felt any pity then. As best I can recall, I felt disgust bordering on active loathing. What a loathsome, self-centered creature I was! No wonder I didn’t have any friends.

To his credit, Happy remained undeterred in his heckling of the Dr. Jeckle Who Could Not Hyde. The daemonic was strong in him. I don’t know where he and his brothers are today, but I doubt they’re off getting mangled or blown up in Iraq. In fact, I’d be surprised if they aren’t living in reasonable comfort on S.S.I. Chuang-tzu again:

Cripple Shu – his chin is buried down in his navel, his shoulders are higher than his crown, the knobbly bone at the base of his neck points toward the sky, the five pipes to the spine are right up on top, his two thighbones make another pair of ribs. By plying the needle and doing laundry he makes enough to feed himself, and when he rattles the sticks telling fortunes for a handful of grain he is making enough to feed ten. If the authorities are press-ganging soldiers the cripple strolls in the middle of them flipping back his sleeves; if they are conscripting work parties he is excused as a chronic invalid; if they are doling out grain to the sick he gets three measures, and ten bundles of firewood besides. Even someone crippled in body manages to support himself and last out the years assigned him by Heaven. If you make a cripple of the Power in you, you can do better still!

Words to live by? Hell no. According to his friend Hui-tzu, these stories of Chuang-tzu’s are nothing but “useless words.” (Ah, to blog as uselessly as that!)

When I was a teenager I tried earnestly to take the words of Jesus to heart: “Turn the other cheek.” I’m afraid I succeeded only in becoming a hypocrite – a creature worthy of exorcism, as my would-be guru Happy undoubtedly perceived. In my twenties I added a corollary: “Turn the other cheek. It’s the best way to piss someone off.” Thus I was able to deform an idealistic piece of advice into something truly useful, the ultimate move in the game of social ju-jitsu. And in middle age I have deformed it still further, so that this once sublime dictum has turned into “Turn the other butt-cheek!” But that’s the best way I’ve found to deal with my inner demons.

Here at Via Negativa, especially, the joke is always on me, folks: drink up! Take yourself too seriously, and the next thing you know you’ll be feeding the fishes. Stay twisted and you won’t be in danger of Poseidon eyeing you up, and the priests at the temple to the river god will turn away in disgust. Even if Heaven ain’t happenin’, God don’t make no junk.

Democracy in action
This just in: the awful truth about NYC traffic buttons, via my bro’ Mark, who observes “This is like, a giant metaphor for something, or something.” Indeed. (See heading.)

Of course, the same is true of those “close door” buttons in elevators. It’s not true to say they serve no purpose. They provide a sense of empowerment. And that’s important.

The Brutal Lovers (Los Amantes Brutales)
translated from the Spanish of Roberto Sosa

strangers came
from other worlds
to this ground that saw our birth.
We are the light they said without mincing words.

They came calculating
body count times betrayal, saying our friends.
They came to eat, ate everything and wouldn’t leave
this ground that saw our birth, men
of metal, of straight edges, they
the brutal lovers of Death.

to that Death!

(El llanto de las cosas, Editorial Guaymantes, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 1995)


Prompted by an article in The New Yorker called The Casualty I take my cheap edition of The Works of Wilfred Owen off the shelf and begin to read. My god, what a poet! Contemporary of Rilke and Yeats and every bit their equal, killed in 1918 at the age of 25, one week before the Armistice.

The last poem in the book, “Strange Meeting,” describes a Ulysses-like journey to the underworld. No doubt the editors, by placing it there, had the same banal reaction as I did: this could have been a foreshadowing. It’s all here, the feyness of the poet who accepted his own death as the price for understanding “the pity of war.” Who knew his own poems to be beautiful, bearers of “truths that lie too deep for taint.” One does not dare to speak of sacrifice, but certainly Owen knew better than anyone what was at stake when he re-enlisted in August 1918, leaving the hospital where he had been recovering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Almost all his poems, including I presume “Strange Meeting,” had been written during his year-long convalescence. The slant rhymed AA’BB’ scheme is particularly effective in this context, like the shell and its aftershock, forcing a doubletake. Not quite the rhyme one had expected.

Strange Meeting
by Wilfred Owen

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now….’


Anon. 14th century

Erþe toc of erþe, erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh –
þo heuede ere of erþe erþe ynoh.

Earth took of earth, earth with woe,
Earth other earth to the earth drew;
Earth laid earth in earthen trough,
Then had earth of earth enough.

(Additional notes, including a possible interpretation, here.)

I strongly suspect that a contemporary art of living can be recovered. I believe in the art of suffering, in the art of dying, in the art of living, and, so long as it is in an austere and clearsighted way, in the art of enjoyment, of living it up.
Ivan Illich, Ivan Illich in Conversation (David Calley, House of Anansi Press, 1992)

People of faith can stand to learn a lot from environmentalism and conservation biology: few would dispute this proposition. But is the opposite also true? Can environmentalists and conservation biologists learn from religious and humanistic traditions? In the past year, the flagship magazines of several large conservation organizations have argued that such a cross-fertilization can and must take place. Articles have referenced the increasing efforts of clerics from many faiths to convince their followers that care for the environment/Creation is a sacred duty, and quoted testimonies from environmental activists for whom some form of spiritual awareness and/or practice is an important motivator.

Thus, two important messages have emerged: 1) an awareness of ecological realities and environmental crises should become a focus for faith-based activities; and 2) environmentalists and conservation organizations can improve their outreach efforts if they take the spiritual dimension into account. I’d like to take a small step further and suggest that if environmentalists really want to learn how to unite individual action with social movements and cultural transformation, they should look South, where the situation is the most desperate – and where some of the most creative solutions are beginning to emerge.

The steel drum culture of Trinidad was cited by the late social philosopher Ivan Illich as a model and an archetype for a new approach to cultural production now widely encountered in the global South. Half a century ago, musicians with welding torches discovered that 55-gallon drums discarded by the petrochemical industry could be drums indeed, and a whole new music was born. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And when this conversion takes place under the sign of a new melange of cultures – call it creolism, call it mestizaje – it can come to possess revelatory, even incarnational power.

By contrast, here in the North we are exhorted to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” This mantra of the waste manager trumpets a reductionist bias in its very first term. Human beings are nothing more than consumers, nodes in an endless cycle of resources. But as the old Anglo-German proverb “waste not, want not” implicitly recognizes, we cannot want without wasting. We cannot waste without wanting. To really understand pollution, we have to understand desire. For that, I believe, we must have recourse to religious and humanistic traditions.

But isn’t economics the true science of human desires? Potentially, yes. But in its most prevalent form, neo-classical and liberal economic theories are burdened by fallacious assumptions that impede a broader understanding. I speak not merely of the habitual externalization of social and environmental costs with which most conservationists are already familiar. According to the usual analysis, this blindness derives from a kind of over-enthusiasm – the cornucopian premise. I would argue (influenced by Illich) that this predilection has deeper roots: in the very notion of environment as Cartesian space through which commodities can circulate with no essential change in quality. The model for this kind of circulation is money – pure medium, with no real content. To reduce the world to commodities or resources is to literally devalue it – ultimately, to equate it with zero.

Recycling is widely viewed as an alternative to waste. But Nature neither wastes nor recycles: she transforms. I believe that humans can and must follow Nature if we are truly to “conserve” our “environment” – inadequate terms that may well be unequal to the task ahead. We need to reinvent the language of use and waste, to begin thinking instead of care and healing. For illustrations of the sorts of directions in which this could lead, I’ll cite just two examples, both from Africa.

“Art from Africa’s junkyards,” an article by Gloria Goodale in the March 21, 2003 Christian Science Monitor, described an exhibition of Senegalese Sufi art that had just opened in Los Angeles.

“Lilting dance music fills the rooms in the first US display of Senegalese Sufi art. But it is not just another piece of radio noise.

“The song, ‘Do You Hear Me, Father Bamba?’ is by the well-known Sufi singer, Youssou N’Dour, singing to his faithful and exhorting them to show their faith in everyday life.

“Indeed, showing the faith might be a good way to describe the intention of ‘A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal,’ at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles, through July 27.

“Through various art forms, including murals, glass paintings, and fragile historical documents, the show depicts a community-building vision of Islam that stands in stark contrast to Islamist radicals. ‘This is another, and very important face of Islam,’ says co-curator Allen Roberts, UCLA professor of World Arts and Culture.

“The exhibition, which Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight dubbed as one of L.A.’s top nine art events for 2003, ‘actually began in the junkyards of Senegal,’ says Mary Nooter Roberts, chief curator of the Fowler Museum.

“She and her husband, co- curator Allen Roberts, were in the country nearly 10 years ago and noticed that discarded motor parts were being hammered into sieves. The exhibition explores the impact of one of the most important Sufi movements in the sub-Saharan African nation, known as Mouridism.

“‘There is this thing called the mystique du travail,’ she says, referring to the French phrase ‘the mystique of work,’ that surrounds the Mouridians. ‘They take this dedication to work as a means to salvation to something far beyond even the Protestant work ethic.’

“The Mouridism movement was founded by the Sufi poet and mystic, Sheikh Amadou Bamba (1853-1927), the spiritual leader of some 4 million Senegalese Muslims, including the country’s current president. The most important tenets of the religion are pacifism and hard work, says Ms. Roberts.

“Mouridians, she says, are known for transforming derelict areas of a community into vibrant, livable centers for commerce and political life, through their devotion to labor. Images of the detritus of industrial life being turned into useful objects abound. One photo shows vast piles of oil barrels that will be flattened into trunks.”

Although this article is no longer available for free on the Internet, another, much longer and more scholarly article is. A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal was authored by the exhibition’s curators, Allen F. and Mary Nooter Roberts, and appeared in African Arts magazine (Winter 2002). Roberts and Roberts identify the Muslim concept of baraka, or blessing, as the catalyst for the Mouride synthesis of life and art. Though others have translated this blessing power as “charisma,” they feel the word “aura” does more justice to its popular Senegalese usage. I like the way they put some fairly abstruse theory into play here:

“‘Aura,’ from the Greek, literally means a ‘breeze’ or ‘breath’ (OED 1982:565), and is extended to refer to the inherence of power and presence within a work of art (Freedberg 1989). ‘In the auratic experience the object becomes human, as it were’ (Foster 1988:197), and possesses the capacity to produce a response, bestow well-being, and protect its viewers. Through the theorizing of Walter Benjamin and the debates his work has engendered, ‘aura’ has also come to be associated with the ‘authenticity of a thing … [and] the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced’ (1988:221). When Benjamin wrote that ‘to perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return’ (1988:188), he might have been speaking of a Mouride sense of how their icons possess baraka. That an image with aura has ‘weight, opacity and substance’ and ‘never quite reveals its secret[s]’ (Baudrillard 1983:22-23) also echoes Mouride sentiments. Above all else, Mourides feel that baraka does things: it works, changes, and helps.”

And as the Monitor passage indicates, this is no fringe movement. In the 1980s, Roberts and Roberts note, “At a moment of dire tensions between urban youth and the Senegalese government over a lack of jobs and the collapse of basic city services, young people took to the streets–not to riot, as had been feared, but to refabulate their neighborhoods. That is, they cleaned, reclaimed, repainted, and renamed alienated spaces by endowing them with icons of their own imaginary [sic]. Instead of reminding people of colonial humiliations, new monuments and murals celebrated soccer stars, musicians, politicians, human-rights heroes, and above all, the saints of Senegalese Sufism. Portraits of Amadou Bamba figured importantly in this vibrant collage, and the Saint emerged as an ‘alternative figure in nationalist memory’ standing for and promoting both ‘a rupture in postcolonial memory’ and a ‘new modernity’ (Mamadou Diouf, personal communication, 1995).”

Given that one out of every three sub-Saharan Africans is a Muslim, and considering the instrumental role of Sufi brotherhoods in spreading this more tolerant form of African Islam from the 18th century onwards, we are not grasping at straws here to glimpse in Mouridism the shape of a new and more civilized future. But the inspiration need not be Muslim – or even explicitly religious. From the other end of the continent, Steve Biko delineated “Some African Cultural Concepts” in an essay later selected for The African Philosophy Reader, edited by P.H. Coetzee and A.P.J. Roux and published by Routledge in 1998.

Biko describes African society as fundamentally humanistic and communalistic. He contrasts this with Europeans, among whom “a visitor to someone’s house, with the exception of friends, is always met with the question ‘What can I do for you?'” Seeing people as instruments, as “agents for some particular function” is foreign to the Bantu worldview, he maintains. “We believe in the inherent goodness of man. We enjoy man for himself. We regard our living together not as an unfortunate mishap warranting endless competition among us but a deliberate act of God to make us a community of brothers and sisters jointly involved in the quest for a composite answer to the varied problems of life.”

While these views may be anathema to those who buy into the cant about an ineluctable conflict between “anthropocentrism” and “biocentrism,” I would merely point out that it is precisely our distaste for each others’ company here in the U.S. that fuels the on-going orgy of road building, SUV manufacturing and suburban and exurban sprawl. If Americans were more like Africans, there’d be a hell of a lot more unfragmented wild habitat left, and the air would be a lot cleaner, too.

This humanistic philosophy is on display in another, more recent article from the Christian Science Monitor (they specialize in this kind of hopeful stuff): “From Rubble to Revival,” by Megan Lindow (Feb. 26, 2004). It details the successful struggle of a South African artist, Mandla Mentoor, to galvanize his neighbors and turn their Soweto neighborhood around. Mentoor began as a local activist focused on unemployment, crime, and environmental degradation. He traces his inspiration to the student protest movement of the 1976, in which Steve Biko had played a leading role.

“At first, he says, he recruited young people and unemployed women to salvage paper, cans, and other waste materials to sell, but he quickly realized this was not the best way to make money. So he developed Amandla Waste Creations and began teaching people to use these materials to make low-cost building materials and crafts such as papier-mí¢ché and wire sculptures to sell to tourists. . . . The organization’s first real grant money came when Mentoor won the World Wilderness Forum’s Green Trust Award in 2002. Mentoor’s group voted to use the prize money ($1,500) to buy rakes and masks needed to clean up ‘the mountain.'”

The neighborhood’s visual focal point, a little hillock topped by a water tower, had been strewn with garbage – the legacy of over a decade of local tax revolts against the Apartheid regime, which led to the cessation of all garbage pick-up services. “Criminals frequented the area, women were raped, and local people sometimes found abandoned babies and dead bodies in the rubble, Mentoor recalls. He had the vision to look past all that: to see, instead of wasted space, a unique and powerful place, the neighborhood’s true heart.

“Today . . . the trash is gone, and patches of dusty hillside have been planted with trees and vegetable gardens. Residents have built makeshift theaters and cooking huts, and walls of rock have been piled up to form ‘dialogue circles’ – spaces for meetings, parties, and performances.

“Projects like this reflect a ‘greening’ movement that is slowly spreading in neglected urban townships and degraded rural settlements, where most South Africans live,” the article continues. Part of Mentoor’s genius was to recognize the importance of creating ties to place through community gardening, art, even renaming: “We call this place Somoho, the Soweto Mountain of Hope.” And though the article focuses largely on his vision, it’s clear that hundreds of people are now involved and employed in enterprises ranging from bakeries and sewing shops to film and recording studios.

“Sydney Cindi, who runs the waste-art section of the program, says he’s trying to get young people involved so they won’t make the mistakes he did. He learned to work with clay in prison, where he served four years for robbery. ‘To me, Somoho is not just a project, it’s a school of learning,’ he says. ‘When we started on the mountain it was a dumping place. Now it’s a place where people sit under the trees.'”

“We reject the power-based society of the Westerner that seems to be ever concerned with perfecting their technological know-how while losing out on their spiritual dimension,” Steve Biko declared. “We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationships. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face.” God grant that it be so!

Some came for the pageantry, some for the throat singing, some just to show their support for a Free Tibet. But for me, the whole reason to see the itinerant troupe of Tibetan monks a second time was to watch a three-minute debate in a language that I cannot understand.

Repeat viewers who, like my friend Jo, had been attracted to the interpreter the first time around must’ve been disappointed. In place of the charismatic, 50-something pony-tailed Anglo here was a native Tibetan woodenly reciting his memorized lines, like one of those awful teenage tour guides you get when visiting a local cave during the summer months. “Up-ahead-on-the-left-you-can-see-the-head-of-Abraham-Lincoln-and-right-below-him-is-Pocahontas-both-were-formed-by-natural-geologic-processes-to-resemble-these-symbols-of-our-nation. Now-we-approach-the-most-beautiful-formation-in-the-cave-which-is-the-Potala-Palace.”

What a difference a good interpreter can make, especially with stuff so far outside the normal scope of Middle American life. The pony-tailed dude knew exactly what reactions to anticipate, spoke spontaneously and with charm, and got most everyone enthused about what they were watching. He gave a five-minute tutorial on throat singing, with audience participation, so we could “all go home and practice in the shower.” When it came time for the one unrehearsed item on the program, the demonstration of an Actual Monastic Debate, he set it up in such a fashion that we were all on the edge of our seats.

Debate, in the Gelug order especially, is a spectator sport. The umpire sits on the floor, facing the audience, behind the two debaters. One pitches, the other bats. The batter sits to the umpire’s left (if memory serves) and the pitcher stands to his right. I can’t remember all the details, but I retain a strong impression of total focus and earnest vehemence. The one I call the pitcher makes his points not just with his mouth and hands, but with his whole body. The dance is elemental: little more than an abbreviated version of the Texas two-step. The pitcher’s words are expelled with great force and a kind of throwing-down-the-gauntlet gesture, his pitching arm winding back, swinging around and coming down with emphatic suddenness as he lunges toward his opponent, open hand face-up going THWACK against the palm of his other hand.

The batter is almost unmoved. Cross-legged, hands on his knees, he appears to rock backward just a hair – or is that an illusion, a trick on our suggestible vision, analogous to the overtones that emerge from the weird mingling of voices during throat singing? The batter’s reply is no less vehement but it appears to come straight from the belly – or some other place of great stillness. Hardly a moment elapses before his opponent fires back, and he responds with the same immediacy.

We are mesmerized. It’s like watching the ocean. The waves come in, smash against the rocks, withdraw. What in God’s name makes this so damned interesting?

Then suddenly it’s over. The umpire does something with his eyebrows, murmurs something and they stop. All three laugh, relaxed. The audience laughs, then applauds uproariously.

Who won? Who cares! What were they arguing about? The first time I saw them the interpreter did try and summarize it, but his explanation made little sense – how could it? They might as well have been arguing about how many buddhas can dance on the head of a vajra. Actually, I’m sure it was some matter of life-and-death importance, but the terms used, even if translated into the most vernacular English, would only be comprehensible to those who have spent their lives in that particular garden of the text, the Tibetan Buddhist canon. And perhaps because we didn’t understand them, we are left feeling as if we have witnessed something timeless and universal: a scene from the ancient Athenian agora, the Babylonian Talmud in the making, Chuang-Tzu sparring with the logician Hui Shih. Something almost forgotten in the Christian West since the days of Peter Abelard, who turned public debate into something vicious. In place of the more gentlemanly, ritualized style then in fashion, Abelard – the leading light of the new University of Paris – sought nothing less than to emasculate his opponent as he in turn was emasculated.

Watching the Tibetans reminded us that the exercise of reason need not be a fight to the finish. It can take the form of a kung fu display rather than a boxing match, and at times it can resemble t’ai ch’i more closely than kung fu. Buddhist mediation techniques can train us in the art of detachment, transform us into removed observers of the play of ideas arising spontaneously within our own minds. But what about passion? We live our lives in dialogue, and dialogue – very broadly defined! – is the source of our truest joy. “Humans live in Dao like fish live in water,” says the ancient Chinese text Chuang-Tzu (Zhuangzi).

Chuang-Tzu and Hui Shih were strolling on the bridge above the Hao river.

‘Out swim the minnows, so easy and free,’ said Chuang-tzu. ‘That’s how fish are happy.’

‘You are not a fish. Whence do you know the fish are happy?’

‘You aren’t me, whence do you know that I don’t know the fish are happy?’

‘We’ll grant that not being you I don’t know about you. You’ll grant that you are not a fish, and that completes the case that you don’t know the fish are happy.’

‘Let’s go back to where we started. When you said “Whence do you know the fish are happy?” you asked me the question already knowing that I knew. I knew it from above the Hao.’

– A. C. Graham, trans., Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters (Hackett, 2001)

A page later in the Graham translation (which rearranges the original text according to subject matter) comes Chuang-Tzu’s touching tribute to his friend:

Chuang-Tzu, among the mourners in a funeral procession, was passing by the grave of Hui Shih. He turned round and said to the attendants,

‘There was a man of Ying who, when he got a smear of plaster no thicker than a fly’s wing on the tip of his nose, would make Carpenter Shih slice it off. Carpenter Shih would raise the wind whirling his hatchet, wait for the moment, and slice it; every speck of plaster would be gone without hurt to the nose, while the man of Ying stood there perfectly composed.

‘Lord Yüan of Sung heard about it, summoned Carpenter Shih and said “Let me see you do it.” “As for my side of the act,” said Carpenter Shih, “I did use to be able to slice it off. However, my partner has been dead for a long time.”

‘Since the Master died, I have had no one to use as a partner, no one with whom to talk about things.’

What about women, then? See Feminist aggadah (and the two posts following/above it) for one answer.

On three sides of my cottage
the creek roars HUSH.
Inside, nothing but this
damn computer!


Out on the porch at 4:00 a.m.
to watch the snow melt.
You laugh, but listen:
the fog came and went.
returned. You
can ask the moon.


A raccoon thought it was
the only one awake.
The two of us can’t be alone
on one porch.


Before the snow came
to stay, I had visitors.


I still remember the hound dog look
on that hound dog’s face
when he squatted to take a shit.


When the snow finally recedes, I find
the meadow voles have made off
with half my lawn.


Every spring, bigger holes
show a little more of the spring
that runs
under the lawn.
To ease confusion, let’s call the season


Instant poems for immediate post.
My letter to the world, Emily.
A weblog instead of a steamer trunk.


Read ’em while they’re fresh.
I’ll make more.