A Question of Ethics

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a prosperous village, filled with healthy, happy people. They had only one complaint: the baker. He made terrible bread. Sometimes it was dry, sometimes it was doughy, sometimes it was burned. Even the baker didn’t like his own bread, but he was the only one in town willing to rise at four in the morning to bake it every day. And so the people lived prosperously, but complained all the time about the bread.

One day, one of the villagers grew so angry that he decided to make his own bread. Alas, he was no better at making bread than the first baker, and business was very slow.

He decided that to stay in business, he needed to make his bread cheaper than the other fellow. So he started to make his bread out of dirt and sawdust, held together with a little mud from the local pig styes. It looked and smelled and tasted exactly as you would expect, but it cost him nothing to make, and he did not have to rise at four in the morning. So he wrapped it in colorful wrappings, named it Patriot Bread™, and sold it for a fraction of the price the other fellow charged.

Because of the price, and the colorful wrappings, and the compelling brand name, people bought this awful bread, and ate it. They continued to complain about how bad the original baker’s bread was, how much it cost, and that it wasn’t Patriotic — for they had complained about the baker for so many years that it had become a mindless habit. They convinced themselves that the new bread was actually healthier than the old, because what medicine isn’t unpleasant? Surely, any bread that smelled and tasted this bad must be good for you?

Those who considered themselves fair and balanced above all else said that both bakers certainly produced terrible bread, but neither was really any worse than the other.

The very few willing to say that the new baker was far worse than the old and a danger to the community, were branded “alarmists” and “partisans” and “kooks.” They were even accused of being “Unpatriotic.”

Meanwhile, the original baker stopped getting up at four in the morning, and started to add a little sawdust to his bread. Both bakers began to grow rich.

Eventually, a few people sickened and died from eating the bread made of dirt, sawdust, and baked sewage. Huge arguments arose over bread, fistfights broke out in the pubs. Hostility and suspicion pervaded the town. People stopped talking to each other about bread, and families were sundered. People refused to admit which bread they bought and ate. They quietly slipped their preferred brand of bread into sandwiches intended for others, and added it to recipes that weren’t even supposed to have bread.

Both bakers grew richer still, and began to conspire to make the villagers hate them even more, for it was good for business. They began to accuse each other, publicly, of the vilest of deeds. People took sides, gave both bakers money just to fight the other, and raged at each other.

Eventually, plague swept the sickened village, and everyone died.

So my question is this: who was really at fault? The first baker, for making terrible bread in the first place? The second baker, for poisoning the town? Or the villagers, who were too stubbornly stupid to recognize the difference between bread and pig shit?

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Reflections in a Darkened Mirror

imagesToday is the official date of our modern, abbreviated celebration of the ancient European festival of Samhain, pronounced sow-in — the name being one of those lexicographical oddities where “mh” (as spelled) in Irish is typically pronounced as a “w”.

We call it “Halloween,” which is short for “Hallows’ Even,” which is short for “All Hallows’ Evening.” All Hallows, in turn, is the Medieval Roman Catholic reflection of the more ancient Pagan Samhain, which reduced a week- or fortnight-long festival season to two liturgical feast-days in early November, known as All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). Taken together, these two days were called All Hallows.

In most societies throughout history, the day always ends, and the new one begins, at sunset. Our current practice of starting the new day at midnight is actually only a century or two old: hence, the apparent traditional obsession with “evenings,” such as Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve or the Eve of Departure if you’re going to travel a long distance. In Medieval times, All Saints’ Day would quite naturally have begun at sunset on October 31 — All Hallows’ Evening.

In the modern world, Halloween falls on a single evening, beginning at sunset on October 31 (Gregorian Calendar), and ending — in a bizarre mixture of the old and the new — at the Witching Hour of midnight, when it gives way to All Saints’ Day. Halloween is mostly a sentimental, sometimes spooky, sometimes comical echo of the much larger, more practical, and more serious business of the season all over northern Europe — a final battening of the hatches and inventory of the storehouses before winter set in.

The Internet is full of all kinds of factual, fanciful, creepy, and/or perversely ignorant descriptions of the ancient Samhain festival, of which we know so little and speculate so much. Take your pick: however, one of the more respected sources is Ronald Hutton, a professor of history at the University of Bristol in England and someone who has actually studied the ancient Celts of the British Isles, and he has posted an article for the Guardian that talks a bit about the origins of modern Halloween.

I’m not going to try to further summarize any of that here. I’d like instead to make some more personal observations about our modern celebration of Samhain.

I celebrate Samhain as a modern druid. Our Grove, the Treehenge Druidic Circle in Fort Collins, CO, USA, like our parent organization, OBOD, is of a “revivalist” bent, meaning we’re quite happy to craft new traditions and practices as we go along and still call it “druidic.” The “real” druids don’t have much to say on the matter, since they vanished fifteen centuries ago. Some modern druids do take exception to calling what we do — or anything new, for that matter — druidic. For them, I have the following joke:

Q: How many druids does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Thirty-three — one to change the bulb, twelve to write epic poems about The Changing of the Bulb, and twenty to complain about how much better the old bulb was.

So that is all I will say about the “historical authenticity” of our practice as druids. Moving right along….

Our principal focus for Samhain is simply being aware of the change of seasons. This is more profound than it seems.

Most people reading this live in a heated box, somewhere, with Internet access and pizza delivery: I certainly do, as do all of our Grove members. The closest we come to “seasons” has more to do with whether barbecue grills or artificial evergreens are on sale at the big box stores, or whether to worry about the heating bill versus the air conditioning bill, or maybe needing to scrape ice off the windshield of the car. Beyond that, it’s a matter of which of numerous human-designed obstacles needs to be negotiated at the moment: Christmas shopping, or doing taxes, or gearing up for the annual family vacation, or buying school supplies, or deciding whether to bother with cranberry relish for Thanksgiving. These obstacles fall on certain traditional but arbitrary dates, as do birthdays, anniversaries, and national bank holidays of all sorts, but they could easily be moved six months around and it would make little difference. They have nothing at all to do with the actual turn of seasons.

Yet aware of them or not, the seasons affect us — our moods, our abilities, our thoughts, our hopes, our dreams, our fears — even when we’re packed up inside a heated box with Internet access and a plethora of distractions. So simply being aware of the seasons brings an enhanced self-awareness, which is close to the core of druidic practice.

Or, for that matter, any spiritual practice in any tradition. The goal of any spiritual practice is to replace the conventional with the authentic in our lives. The very definition of that requires that we be aware of what we’ve given uncritical lip-service to after inheriting it from our environment, and what we’ve truly incorporated into our being. That is pretty much the definition of self-awareness.

Because we live in heated boxes with pizza delivery, a lot of the pastoral and agricultural concerns of the ancients no longer apply to us. We’ve even shifted our “year end” from the last harvest to the astronomical solstice, just as we moved the “day end” from sunset to the astronomical midnight. Many of the great celebrations that might have attended the slaughtering of the herds and salting of the meat for the long winter, have likewise moved to the “holiday season” surrounding winter solstice, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.

So although most of us enjoy the Halloween costuming and partying and general Buffy the Vampire Slayer spookiness of Halloween, none of that plays any particular role in our modern druidic practice.

That said, our Grove has a rite — a ritual — that we celebrate together each year, to mark the change of season. It’s one of the eight seasonal rites we do, and one of the important ones, standing directly across the cycle of the seasons from another important one: Beltaine, the fertility rite. Where Beltaine celebrates the beginning of life, Samhain celebrates its ending.

This may sound strange to the modern US American ear, that we might celebrate death, for we live in a deeply thanatophobic (death-fearing) culture. The very idea of celebrating death brings to mind every B-grade movie ever made, of dark rituals in dark places, bent on the destruction of the world.

I can think of very little that could be further from the truth. There is a world of distance between celebrating and worshipping. Nor is celebrating death the same as seeking death, or even desiring death, for ourselves or for anyone else.

Perhaps I can illustrate with an example.

Many years ago, my father-in-law died. I don’t recall if there was a funeral — if there was, it was a stilted affair in a church or funeral home. What I remember clearly is scattering his ashes, high in the mountains, on a bright Fall day with hot sunlight and gentle but chill breezes. His children were consumed with grief at his passing, and wept as they let fall a bit of ash here, a bit there, reluctant to lose the final touch with his last earthly remains.

But there was a paradox in this, for he had not been a good father to his children, nor in his later years, a good husband to his wife.

His own father had believed him another man’s son, the product of an affair that his mother denied, and had been cold, critical, distant, and harsh. The son’s childhood had been hard, and miserable. He left home and studied music as a violinist, and was talented and very dedicated — he even met his wife over violins in an orchestra, for she was also a talented and dedicated violinist. They fell in love and married.

Then, like Beethoven, he’d been struck with progressive deafness. He’d turned to teaching music in the public schools, and as his hearing got worse, to teaching mathematics. Long before retirement age, his deafness grew so profound that he could no longer manage his classrooms, and was forced to retire on disability pay. He took to drinking, and spent the next twenty years trying to drink himself to death. He’d hurt his children as they grew up, emotionally and physically. My own son, his grandchild, called him “Grumpa.” He was as unhappy a man as I’d ever met, perpetually drunk, maudlin, bitter, and sometimes cruel.

As his son-in-law, I’d received my own handful of his ashes to scatter, and after some thought, I found a spot overlooking a beautiful sunlit valley. I took a deep breath, then threw all of the ashes as high into the air as I could, so that the wind could catch them. As they drifted away, I smiled, and said in my mind as a final prayer, “There, you miserable old coot! Go! You’re free! At last you’re free! And now that you have your ears back, spend the next year, or fifty, and listen to the late Beethoven quartets the way they were supposed to be heard!”

That is celebrating death.

It isn’t always possible. It wasn’t possible for his own children to celebrate his death as we scattered ashes. It was impossible for me to celebrate my daughter’s death for over two decades, and it is still painful after three. There is no fault or shame in this: it is part of death to create mourners, and they must mourn. But others can celebrate the passing, and even the deepest mourning eventually comes to an end, at our own death if not sooner.

So in our Samhain rite, we face the West — the place of the setting sun, and of endings — and we gaze through a window, or into a darkened mirror, and we call to the Ancestors, and we remember them: we celebrate their births, their lives, and their deaths.

Sometimes, they come to us.

I was touched in a Samhain rite, a few years ago, by the spirit of my fifth-grade teacher. In my six years of elementary school — seven, if you count Kindergarten — she was the only one who actually seemed to take any real, positive interest in me: so much so that she made a special trip to attend my college graduation, her eyes shining with congratulation. I had not thought about her much after the end of the fifth grade, and though I was surprised and deeply touched by her presence, we did not maintain contact after that.

Then suddenly, there she stood again in my mind and heart as I faced the darkened mirror, her flame of carrot-red hair and her big pale eyes and her kindly smile, surprising me as much as she had at my college graduation. She didn’t whisper to me any winning lottery numbers from beyond the grave, or deliver a dire warning about the end of days, or expound on the metaphysics of the afterlife. She just smiled and said, “I believe in you. I’ve always believed in you.”

Others in our Grove have had their own visitations during our rite. And if no one comes, that is also as it should be. We aren’t so arrogant as to think that we can command the spirits, or that they don’t have better things to do. But we welcome them if they come in peace and good will.

Nor does it much matter whether this is an exercise of memory, or of imagination, or some kind of metaphysical lifting of the curtain between life and death. It could be any of those things, or all of them, or something else entirely. Whatever its nature, it is an experience to be approached with respect and humility: in that light, we might as well treat it as real.

So we have adopted a practical Grove tradition of holding our Samhain rite open only to Grove members and guests, where all our other rites are open to the public — we do this, not because Samhain is secret, but because it is intimate.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow evening’s rite.

I wish for you all a blessed Samhain, and the gentle touch of the ancestors — or former teachers — who believe in you, and have always believed in you.

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Agriculture, Industry, and Nationality

I was at lunch with my son this afternoon — something I’m going to miss, since he is taking a new job and moving to California with his girlfriend — and I mentioned something he had never thought about before, and he had to stop and take it in. It was something I thought everyone knew, so his reaction surprised me.

Apropos of the midterm elections coming up, we were talking about voting, and the difference between a democracy and a republic, and what appears to be the ever-increasing ignorance, apathy, and bad faith of political actors and voters alike in the US, and I made a comment about the American Civil War.

Now, I’m hardly a Civil War buff — what I know is mostly just a jumble of bits and pieces I’ve picked up over the years. We all know, of course, that the Civil War was about ending American slavery. Some people (particularly modern residents of the Old South) like to say it was more about States’ Rights.

But from what I’ve read, the war was primarily about neither of these things: it was mostly about a major sea-change taking place throughout Western Civilization at that time, from agriculture to industry. Specifically, it was a war between the industrialized North, and the agricultural South.

Unknown-1Since the development of a particular kind of farming some 10,000 years ago in the fertile crescent — something anthropologists call the Agricultural Revolution — agriculture has been king. It allowed fortified cities and large armies to be formed and fed. It allowed independent nomadic tribes to be driven back into the hills, starved out, and eventually assimilated. It allowed people who did not comply with the will of the leaders to be starved as a way of compelling them to obey.

Wars were fought mostly over land ownership, and one of the most fundamental strategies of war was to burn the fields and villages, so that the opposing armies would be deprived of the food surplus they needed to make war. If you wanted to destroy your enemies, rather than simply defeat them, you would burn and salt their fields, sterilizing the soil so that nothing could be grown there for years to come: the people would be forced to move elsewhere, effectively ending them as a nation.

Things started to shift sometime in the early centuries of the second millennium, as the so-called “feudal era” of Europe disintegrated. Driven along by the Black Death, which caused major labor shortages in the late 1300’s and a shift from serfdom to hired farmhands, the implosion of the landed gentry, the rise of the merchant class, and the start of large-scale machine-based manufacturing, the Industrial Revolution came into its own and began to eclipse the Agricultural Revolution.

UnknownBy the 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Luddites protested the textile machines in England. Colleges like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were founded throughout the US. The John Henry legend was born, of man pitted against the steam engine.

The US North embraced the Industrial Revolution. The US South remained agricultural. They had very different economic priorities, slavery being merely one of many.

What passed without much notice was a more fundamental change.

Land has been the basis of any city, state, or nation for roughly ten thousand years. You can’t “outsource” the land or the food it produces. Furthermore, if the land is used for agriculture, you have to protect and conserve the productive capacity of the land: the land is your income and lifeline. If someone salts your fields, or if you inadvertently salt your own fields, you are well and truly screwed. Without land, you are out of a job, out of income, out of food, out of options.

One of the reasons the vote in the US was originally restricted to land-owners was based on this ten-thousand-year-old truth. The land is the nation, but was also the wealth of its owners, so if the land-owners vote, they will presumably vote according to their own self-interest and will seek to conserve their land for their well-being, and will thus — overall — promote the well-being of the nation.

In other words, in an agricultural society, private ownership (of land) and the public commonwealth are generally pretty closely aligned.

After the Civil War, this ten-thousand-year-old truth was no longer true, at least in the US. The victory of the North ensured that the newly-federalized Union of States would be partial to the industrial concerns of the North, and indifferent if not hostile to the agricultural concerns of the South. Agriculture was no longer king. Industry was the new king.

Industry is very different from agriculture.

Most obviously, industry is portable. Anyone who has had his or her manufacturing job outsourced to new facilities in Malaysia or Mexico knows how that works. It isn’t tied to any particular place.

Less obviously, the relationship of industry to land is inherently toxic. Industry takes “raw materials” from the land, and renders back “waste.” Most of the raw materials that industry uses are non-renewable: metal, stone, oil, rare hardwoods. The waste produced by any industrial process is something industry has no profitable use for — it’s too finely ground, too impure, or damaged in some way — and it typically ends up being dumped someplace in an ever-increasing pile of waste. In some cases, like gold or uranium tailings, fracking fluid, or spent plutonium rods, it’s truly (and highly) toxic, and extremely long-lived as waste. Industrial end-products that become broken or worn also end up in a trash-heap, somewhere, so that industry can sell the previous owner a new product.

This is hardly restricted to modern industry. Archaeologists look for “tells” associated with ancient civilizations, which are typically local waste-dumps, filled with the cast-off remains of whatever industries the city or village supported, be it flint arrowheads or clay pots or automobiles. It is the nature of industry to use up non-renewable raw materials, produce long-lifetime waste, and move on: it may even be that this is a reasonable definition of industry.

Least obviously, perhaps, the industrial owners — the capitalists or cartel members who own the “means of production” — have virtually no long-term economic interest in the land. Land represents a source of raw materials to be exploited, dead space to dispose of waste, or “real estate” with speculative value. Once the mine is played out, the landfill is full, the malls are built and sold, the relationship with that land is over. It’s a “wham, bam, thank-you ma’am” sort of relationship: a trick with a twenty-dollar whore, to be walked away from the instant the business is done.

“Industrial agriculture” in particular plows the earth like it is a baby-making prostitute in a vending machine. Yes, that’s a grotesque and offensive simile, and it’s intended to be grotesque and offensive: that is precisely the nature of the relationship in this oxymoronic term, “industrial agriculture.” The long-term consequences to the land are the opposite of permaculture: it’s well-known that much of the agricultural soil in the US is by now, under the gentle ministrations of the “green revolution,” effectively dead — it has to be constantly replenished with nitrogen fertilizer (synthesized from natural gas) and phosphates (mined) just to produce a crop.

We’ve salted our own fields, and use technological necromancy to raise zombie crops from dead soil. Gods help us if the magic falters.

As it is with the industrial owners, so it is with the population at large. Very few people are tied to the land by any kind of economic incentive or true self-interest. The land is not their income. The land is not a source of support. The land is not security, prosperity, or legacy to descendants.

For most people, the land is a piece of dead earth supporting the apartment complex they live in, and something on which to anchor the pavement by which they commute to work. They may be lightly tied to place by friendship, perhaps family, but not because that place feeds them: working a job within industrial society feeds them. They follow the work, and abandon old friends with little notice and make new ones wherever they land.

In short, the idea of the nation as a place became archaic after the American Civil War.

The Civil War did not cause this shift. It merely marked a watershed in the concept of “the nation,” not just for the US, but throughout the world.

With that change came a radical change in the vision of government.

In an agricultural society, government is primarily about protecting the rights of landowners within the nation, which is a place. So the government merely needs to support national defense, civil order (which could be largely delegated to state and local government), general trade agreements between states, and the like. It’s a simple, hands-off, protective role. If all goes well, it has nothing to do other than referee disputes over property lines and prosecute cattle thieves. It is entirely up to landowners to find prosperity for themselves and their descendants. The key is that, in an agricultural society, the landowners have everything they need — the land itself — to provide themselves with that prosperity.

In an industrial society, government is the nation, or conversely, the nation is its government. Just as industry is process, government is process. It must have a positive function — we’re paying for it, after all — and we evaluate that function on the basis of the efficiency with which it performs, assuming we know what it’s supposed to be doing. If it performs that function poorly, or performs no positive function at all, we can consider replacing it or getting rid of it entirely. Since the government is the nation, that calls nationality itself into question.

Another, pithier, way to look at it is this. It is possible to be a great agricultural nation with a corrupt government and bad laws: there is no contradiction in that idea, because the nation is a place, filled with people — government is another thing entirely. If an industrial nation has a corrupt government with bad laws, then it is a corrupt nation, because the nation is the government.

In an industrial society, there is a lot of confusion about government. We have the “limited government” folks who are still living in a pre-Civil War mindset. People who live with a post-Civil War mindset have a lot of different ideas about what positive functions government should be providing, and whether that function can be replaced by non-governmental alternatives, or even dispensed with entirely.

A lot of the apparent bad faith of politicians and voters can be chalked up to fundamental disagreements about what positive function the government is supposed to be providing.

We are now taking matters a step further into the void, just within the last decade. Work is becoming virtualized, and our lives as well.

Even within classical industrial society, we had co-workers and neighbors, and a lot of maintaining civil order has had to do with enforcing a large number of basic rules of civil behavior within increasingly crowded conditions among astonishingly clueless people. Yes, corporations with white owners must hire black people. Yes, you can call the police to shut down a loud party still going at three in the morning. No, you cannot be legitimately fired because you refused to perform oral sex on the boss. Yes, a company that forced you to work in unsafe conditions where you lost a hand in the machinery owes you compensation. The list is nearly endless.

But then I look at my situation. I work from home: all I need is an Internet connection and the stuff I have in my head. I could move to Spain, a country where people are leaving in droves because of the economic troubles, and be back at work in a matter of days. Apart from the change in my daytime schedule, no one at work would even know.

I know more intimate details about the lives of virtual friends on the East Coast, than I do about my next-door-neighbors.

I’m not passing judgment on this, merely noting that it’s the case. But it does raise the question: what does “nationality” even mean in such a virtual context? I work on a consistent basis with people in Australia, England, and India. My oldest son works closely with Ukrainians, so the recent events in the Ukraine affected him far more personally than the police brutality in Chicago, where he lives.

In the context of such a virtual life, which is where my real economic prosperity lies, what does nationality even mean? Do I even care whether Hillary or Mitt is the next President of the US? If the US government grows too corrupt, should I march on Washington (and risk being shot down in the street by a cop who will claim I pulled a gun on him), or just move to Spain? Or, for that matter, just pay my taxes, keep my head down, and ignore the government altogether?

When we take the leap into fully-virtualized environments, how much will people care if their body is sick and starving, so long as their in-game avatar is totally badass?

I have my own opinions on where this is all headed, of course, but I’ll save that for a later post.

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Save Me Cabernet

This beast went straight down the sink.

The “Save Me San Francisco Wine Company” was a funky name, and their Cabernet got a good review at Wilbur’s, so I gave it a shot.

Not expensive by any means, but definitely not worth the price. Puckery-tart presentation, with a bitter finish. Any Cabernet depth was lost in the overlap between eyes watering and searching for the mouthwash.

Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad….

Then again, maybe it was. I’m stubborn and always look for the best in a wine. Marta laughs at that: she says I’ll drink anything.

I poured my first glass, and it went into the sink after the third sip. Marta would have stopped after the first, and sworn off wines for a year. I waited a day for the wine to “breathe,” and then the second glass went into the sink. The rest of the bottle followed immediately.

Not a winner.

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A Fine Merlot

I think I have a new favorite wine, at least for a while: Grayson Cellars’ small-batch Merlot.

The first wine I ever bought in a full case was a Merlot. I’ve heard that a Merlot is an “entry level” red wine for people who don’t drink reds. That may be. I think they went through a phase where they suffered from their own popularity — for a while, Merlots seemed to get into the “my Merlot is oakier than your Merlot” competition, and they got so tannic that they’d pucker you up faster than a lemon-flavored antihistamine.

“Oak” refers, of course, to aging the wine in oaken barrels, and oak is well-known for its tannins. One way to tan leather is to use a hatchet to make a bowl in an old oak tree stump, then soak the animal hide in rainwater collected in the stump. Or so I’ve been told. I’ve never tried it, myself.

Wine stored in oak casks will also leach tannins out of the wood into the wine. The result is the “tannic” taste you get with a strong black tea (which is also chock full of tannins), which leaves your mouth feeling dry and puckered — “leathery” you might even say.

Like hops in beer, a little bit goes a long way.

I haven’t had a Merlot in years. Then I tried this one, and I was delighted! It isn’t very tannic at all — just a nice, full, mellow grape nose and flavor. It’s a wine you sip, and then nod with a smile and take another sip. And then another. It’s a dangerous wine, but an entirely pleasant danger.

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