Archive for April, 2017

My Grandmothers

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Goody, Red, and William

Goody with Bill and Red 

Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

 Whilst thoroughly cleaning my office, something I do every five years whether the office needs cleaning or not, I came upon a small cache of letters from my maternal and paternal grandmothers. Neither of my grandfathers ever wrote to me. Why I saved these letters—the most recent dated 1981—I do not know, having thrown out hundreds of other family letters over the years, but I’m glad I saved these because I had a fascinating time reading them and appreciating the influence of these two very different women on their progeny and grand progeny.

My father’s parents were white Anglo Saxon Protestants, intelligent, humorless, and proud members of the John Birch Society. They disowned my father when he was twenty-one because he married my Jewish mother. However, some years later when they needed financial help and eventually became economically dependent on my father, they re-owned him, and by association us, their half-breed grandchildren.

My mother’s parents were born in Michigan to Jewish parents who came to America from Poland in the late 1800’s. Goody and Casey (Gertrude and Myron) changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression so they could get housing and jobs in that time of extreme anti-Semitism. Goody was brilliant and multi-talented and largely self-educated; and she loved to mix Yiddish with her English when she told jokes and stories.

Here is a birthday letter my paternal grandmother Helen wrote to me shortly before I dropped out of college in 1969.

Dear Todd,

This is to wish you a very happy 19th birthday. It was good to be able to spend some time with you on the trip over the hill to Santa Cruz. It seems like I’ve never had time to sit down and really talk with my grandchildren, so I hardly know any of you. I’m sorry for that.

This book [unknown] I am sending you I ran onto a number of years ago. It fascinated me, being, as I am, a frustrated archaeologist. I had borrowed the book and later, when I tried to buy a copy, I learned it was out of print. Then David [my uncle] picked up a used copy at a second hand bookstall in Athens, of all places, and when he had read it he sent it to me. Now, I discover, it is back in print and I want to share it with you.

History, archaeology and anthropology go hand in hand. The more we know about them the more we know about ourselves. Our genes carry the history of the world and mankind. In them are our roots and our roots tell us who we are. If we don’t know who we are, we are nobody.  

Therein lies the tragedy of the dissolution of the family. The family is the closest touch with our roots. Today the world is full of wandering youth who have repudiated family and have, thus, cut their roots. They say they are “trying to find themselves”, and no wonder. Their road is the wrong turning. They are the modern version of the ‘lost souls’ that Milton and other poets and philosophers have written about. The allegories written about the ‘search for happiness’ are myriad, and all end much the same way. Just for fun read the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Well, anyway, I hope you enjoy this book. When we begin to realize that our civilization, so called, as we know it, limited as we may be, is just a speck in the history of civilizations that have occupied this planet, we should be somewhat humble. Our roots started way back someplace in antiquity, and it does seem that we should make them bear good fruits in us. Have a happy birthday. Love, Grammy

And here is an excerpt from a letter penned in 1970 by my maternal grandmother Goody. To best appreciate Goody’s tone, try reading this in the manner of a Jewish comedian.

I have two good stories. First: The aged Jewish wise man was dying. All of his disciples gathered at his side for a final profound idea. He declaimed, “Life is like a river.”

Down the long line went the word, beginning with the Number One follower down to the end where stood the dolt of the group who asked, “What does he mean that life is like a river?”

Up the line came the question until it reached the Number One follower who asked his mentor to explain the statement. The savant answered, “So, it’s not like a river.”

My dear grandson, can you appreciate that story as can your grandmother who lived in an Isaac Bashevis Singer atmosphere all her formative years with a father who was rabbinical in his parables?

The other story comes from another part of the forest. Lillian Hellman tells the anecdote in her An Unfinished Woman about her great friend Dorothy Parker.

Dorothy’s husband Alan Campbell had just died, probably a suicide though no charge was ever made. Among the friends who stood with Dotty on the California steps when the coroner’s car came for him was Mrs. Jones, a woman who had liked Alan, had pretended to like Dotty, and who had always loved all forms of meddling in other people’s troubles.

Mrs. Jones said, “Dotty, tell me dear, what can I do for you?”

Dotty said, “Get me a new husband.”

Mrs. Jones said, “I think that is the most callous and disgusting remark I ever heard in my life.”

Dotty turned to look at her, sighed, and said gently, “So sorry. Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye, and tell them to hold the mayo.”

Margaret Mead said her grandmother told her to learn to nest in the gale. What should I tell you, our dear grandson, except to say that we love you and miss you and we pray that you will find fulfillment. Love and kisses.

Huckleberries

Monday, April 10th, 2017

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Turn Left At the Moon painting by Nolan Winkler

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

If even half the blossoms on the huckleberry bushes in the Mendocino area this year become fruit, then the huckleberry harvest will be by far the greatest since I moved here eleven years ago. Bushes on our property and in the surrounding woods that previously sported no blossoms or only a few are now white with hundreds and thousands of the lovely little bell-shaped flowers. And friends in nearby Albion report the huckleberry bushes thereabouts are also heavily freighted with flowers.

My guess is that the great rains of this seemingly interminable winter following four years of drought inspired the huckleberries to such prolificacy, though we must be careful not to celebrate too soon. Those myriad flowers must be pollinated, and the primary pollinators of huckleberry bushes are bumblebees; and the bumblebee population has been in decline due to the use of pesticides that should never have been invented, let alone deployed.

Alas, even if you and I and our close neighbors don’t use those ghastly poisons, it only takes a few shortsighted fools in the watershed spraying their shrubbery with bad stuff to decimate the bumblebees and honeybees in our area. Thus the fate of those blossoms is, literally, in the hands of fools and which way the winds blow.

But assuming we do have a bumper huckleberry crop, a few days of picking will fill our freezer with the dark little orbs for smoothies and pancakes and crisps throughout our next winter. And if the harvest is truly epic, we will make great quantities of jam and not have to wonder what to give our friends for Christmas this year.

Whenever I see huckleberries on their bushes, and especially when I am standing by a goodly bush grazing on the delicious fruit, I think of two novels by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife. These marvelous books are about a small population of hunter-gatherers living in Siberia 20,000 years ago, when wooly mammoths still roamed the earth and wolves were yet to be domesticated. And in each of these books there are vivid scenes in which bushes of wild berries are all that save the people from starvation and dehydration.

We think of the wild huckleberries hereabouts as delicious additions to our store-bought main courses, but twenty thousand years ago, such berries might have been the only thing we could find to eat for days on end, and we would have been gleeful to see the bushes as laden with blossoms as they are in Mendocino these thousands of years after the last wooly mammoth succumbed to human hunger.

I am currently reading a collection of intoxicating essays entitled Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a Scottish poet with a most intriguing way of writing about birds and stones and landscapes and the ocean. Published in 2012, two of the longer essays in this volume are about remote islands—St. Kilda and Rona—off the coast of Scotland. Jamie writes with exquisite sensitivity about the birds and plants and seals that live on these islands, and the killer whales patrolling those seas. Inhabited by humans for hundreds of years, these islands are no longer home to any people, with only the decaying ruins of the old colonies remaining.

For me, Jamie’s collection of essays composes a deep meditation on the interaction of humans with the natural world, and how that interaction has evolved into estrangement for most of us, though we need not be estranged. Jamie is obviously enmeshed with the natural world, and her essays show us how we might experience ourselves as integral parts of the fantastical whole of life on earth.

I’m hoping the local huckleberries will set in profusion and turn darkly purple and come to taste of divine earthly sugars, so I may stand in the dappled forest light and eat my fill as I give thanks to the nature spirits for bringing me the boon of life.

Mutant Ideologies

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

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Something Greater We Could Be painting by Nolan Winkler

“Do not blame others for things that you have brought upon yourself.” Alexander McCall Smith

In 1968, when I was nineteen, I read The Population Bomb by Paul and Ann Ehrlich. That book and several others I read over the next few years, along with a life-changing journey through Mexico and Central America as a translator for a marine biologist, turned me into a zealous proponent of zero population growth, mass transit, organic gardening, and material minimalism.

That was fifty years ago. Since 1968, the world’s human population has more than doubled to over seven billion, the world’s automobile population (non-electric) has more than doubled to 1.2 billion, and organically grown food accounts for less than five per cent of the food grown in America. The earth’s fisheries are depleted, carbon emissions are increasing rather than decreasing, and we have an American government dedicated to undoing what little good our government did for the environment over the last forty years.

When I find myself in conversation with people who are just now becoming alarmed about climate change and the unfolding economic and environmental disasters engulfing us, I am reminded of the anger and disinterest and disingenuous lip service that greeted me for most of the last fifty years whenever I wrote about or discussed these issues and suggested ways to avoid much of what has now befallen the world. And though I am sad and disheartened about the unfolding disasters decimating human societies and life on our precious planet, I am not surprised by these disasters or the lack of substantive response to them.

My more cynical friends explain the collapse of our environment as a result of human nature. But even a cursory study of the myriad indigenous societies that existed prior to their annihilation by the forces of capitalism and overpopulation, reveals that human nature created thousands of societal systems that depended on sustaining the optimal health of the environment. And at the heart of those sustainable practices were minimal population growth and zero net pollution of the environment.

Thus I would argue that human nature is not the cause of the various crises threatening us today. I would suggest that the great threat to the continuation of life on earth was caused by mutant ideologies—capitalism and patriarchal monotheism—that destroyed those thousands of indigenous societies forming the fabric of humanity for tens of thousands of years—societies that evolved to harmonize with nature, not in opposition to it.

One of the books I’m currently reading is the beautifully written Wisdom from a Rainforest by Stuart Schlegel, a recollection of his two years of living among the Teduray of Mindanao in the 1960s.

“They had lived for untold generations in the forest—since ‘the beginning of time’ they believed—without its becoming destroyed and replaced by grassland. They carefully protected certain forest trees, which they valued for fruit or other potential gifts. They avoided overcutting bamboo stands that they considered particularly useful. Hunting, fishing, gathering were all carried out with care not to overexploit the natural resources on which human life depended. Their lives were simple, but not poor, and life was a journey, not a battle.”

Yes, Schlegel is describing a pre-industrial society, a system of living that evolved without money or cars or telephones or machines of any kind. And it is possible, I suppose, that money and machines and the changes they bring to society inevitably elicit a self-destructive response from our human natures. Maybe my cynical friends are correct, and human nature, when exposed to all the modern inconveniences, becomes a globally destructive force impossible to curtail.

I met Stuart Schlegel when I was nineteen, the same year I read The Population Bomb. He was my Anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz, and I took two courses from him. When I was trying to decide whether to stay in college or drop out, I went to him for advice, and he was the only adult of those I consulted who suggested that a break from academia might be just the thing for me.

Reading Schlegel’s bittersweet memoir, I now understand why he gave me such counsel. He clearly felt that Western Civilization was a plague upon the earth, and he saw American academia as an extension of that same male-dominated hierarchal system that is the antithesis (and ultimately the killer) of the Teduray manifestation of human nature—egalitarian, non-competitive, regenerative, and highly cooperative.

As Schlegel writes in Wisdom from a Rainforest, “Teduray children were taught from an early age to scan their social world for what they could do to encourage and assist all other people, and they were taught most certainly never to inflict physical or spiritual injury on anyone. This commitment to mutual aid, support, and respect gave these people a quality that is almost impossible to describe, a sort of peace combined with a palpable graciousness.”