Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Sunday, November 29, 2015

We’re All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 3

3: Epidemic

"‘Tis bitter cold. And I am sick at heart"

How yuh doin’?

“I’m doing well,” is the standard answer around here, but this is just a thing we say without meaning it, because no one is, in fact, feeling well.

As a number of the pundits on the left noted in the last Congressional election, though the country is economically on the upswing from “The Great Recession,” the mood of the country remains sour. Unhappy. Cranky.They took it out on the President, who seems nice enough to me, and they elected some more really angry people to Congress. Perhaps it was the way wages for most of us have stagnated, while the wealthy are going back to getting wealthier,  as some pundits have suggested. Perhaps -- but I see signs that it runs deeper than that. I feel like it’s deeper than that. Superficially, I’m doing well, but I don’t feel like all is well and I’m angry, though I’m not quite sure at who.

 To dwell on unwellness, I’ve noticed that we live in the age of “epidemics.” Yes, there was Ebola, the bird flu, and now MERS, throwing everyone – or anyone who is paying attention -- into a panic. But that’s not what I mean: there are other epidemics going on that frighten us much more deeply.

“Epidemic,” in fact, is one of our favorite words for qualifying the things in contemporary life that seem to afflict or worry us the most. The following is a short list of some recently described “epidemics”:

The autism (or autism spectrum) epidemic
The epidemic of police violence against Blacks
The epidemic of violence against police
The ADHD epidemic
The opioid epidemic
The psychiatric drug epidemic
The epidemic of campus rape
The epidemic of victimization
The “trigger warning” epidemic
The depression epidemic
The epidemic of peanut/nut allergies
The anxiety disorder epidemic
The epidemic of gluten intolerance
The teen suicide epidemic
The epidemic of sleep disorders
The chronic fatigue epidemic
The epidemic of lactose intolerance
The epidemic of internet addiction
The epidemic of gun violence
The obesity epidemic
The epidemic of narcissism
The Alzheimers epidemic
The epidemic of abortion
The epidemic of religious fundamentalism
The (breast, prostate, liver, lung, etc.) cancer epidemic

Any number of these have claimed me as a “victim,” and, if I didn’t fight against it, I could easily be convinced that some sinister entity, environmental cataclysm or force out there is out to ruin my life. This is a natural tendency many of us share – trying to understand all the difficulties in our lives discover a simple root cause for all the distempers we feel. The only problem is, there are too many culprits for me to focus on just one…

Everything on this list, however is perceived by a large group of people as a problem that is growing and perhaps even spinning out of control, which makes the “epidemic” in question an issue of great concern – a concern that in general overshadows the affected group’s concern over actual epidemics like flu, Ebola or AIDS.  Unlike an actual epidemic disease, however, each of these epidemics,  whether it is a social or a public worry, is hard to document with actual medical statistics that prove it is spreading and growing like an epidemic: the issue is mainly perceived to be increasing at an alarming rate, and it has advocates who demand that public notice of the problem. None of these issues are really new things (like H5N2 influenza or Ebola), but are issues that have generally been around for a long time (pick holes in this assertion if you like) but now seem to be becoming much more important… at least in our awareness.  The epidemics issues I listed all concern our mental state or our health state or our social state but are not actual contagious diseases – they all concern our state and thus are seen as critical to our well-being. No wonder we are concerned.

But should we be? Each of these “epidemics” also has its critics who insist that either nothing different is going on, or that it is only an “epidemic” because we have decided to notice something that has always been out there in normal life and now we are seeing it everywhere. For most of the items on this list, I tend to fall on the second camp, but I will admit that life is complicated, and some of these things may be increasing in a way we perhaps should be concerned with.

Let me give an example of one item on the list: ADHD. I pick this because I have some personal experience with it and have two members of my family who have been diagnosed with the condition. If you’ve had children (especially boys) in the last 30 years, or are under 35 or so, you are aware of how “epidemic” attention-deficit disorder is – a huge chunk of our children and many adults are now diagnosed with it, and are treated by being given regular, daily or twice-daily doses of something like an amphetamine. The general diagnosis of the “disorder” is that the person with ADHD is unable to focus or even sit still for more than a brief period, which makes it hard for them to stay on task and complete a long or difficult task. In children, this often is first noticed with bad grades and/or complaints of bad behavior at school.

Sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it? One might expect widespread panic when so many of the nation’s children are afflicted with such a serious brain disorder, but the cure is cheap and generally very effective (children -- including my own – have tended to give testimonials, like “wow! I feel so much more awake and able to concentrate
now!”). In fact, it’s so easy and effective that parents whose children are performing only slightly sub-par (or adults who are having a hard time keeping up at work) have been known to take the “afflicted” into the office and demand a diagnosis and a prescription. No one wants to be at a disadvantage because they don’t have the benefit of the drugs.

And yet, a generation before, though similar drugs were already available, no one had heard of this “disorder.” Sure, some kids did not do as well in school, but they were otherwise considered “normal,” and many grew out of their academic difficulties. The drugs, though sometimes prescribed by psychiatrists to improve people’s moods, were generally considered to be strong stimulants or “uppers” that could help you stay awake if you were really tired, like super-strong coffee. Other than as carefully prescribed psychiatric use they were generally seen as powerful drugs that could be abused. In the 60’s (when I grew up) kids  bought them from drug dealers and took them to get high.

What happened was that modern psychology decided that inability to concentrate well was a “disorder,” and probably the result of a mental defect. Actual causes of the disorder were not clear, nor was the permanence of the condition. Once it was defined, we began seeing it everywhere, and the word “epidemic” slowly began to be used. If it really was an epidemic – a sudden, alarming increase in a bad mental condition, what was causing it? A virus? Chemical pollutants? Vaccines? Preservatives in our foods? Bad parenting? Television or video games? Possibly, I guess, for some of these, though nothing like any of that has ever been proved.

What does seem to be a possible cause are changes in the school environment, larger classes and the cutting of break times like recess in order to get more academics into the too-short school day – all really negative effects of underfunding public education. Kids are expected to “focus” for longer periods in more difficult conditions and more and more of them are not up to it. We could notice the environmental problem here and try fixing it by spending more money, but… the pill fix is easier. I first became aware of ADHD 24 years ago when my oldest child was entering kindergarten. The teacher called us in, suggested my daughter had the disorder and wanted us to take her to the doctor to get Ritalin. She was overwhelmed with a large classroom she couldn’t handle and she wanted the children to be docile and easy to handle, which a number of them weren’t. We refused, that daughter never was diagnosed and she did just fine in the rest of her schooling.  To be fair to the teacher though, I’m sure she genuinely thought my daughter had a problem because, as the definition of the disorder had emerged, it seemed to explain the problem she was having with children in the classroom and offer an easy – in fact, miraculous – solution.

Notice that the general story that emerges here is that we have a social problem – large numbers of kids not doing well in school, perhaps an effect of changes in schooling due to other social problems – and we define a semi-legendary medical condition/physical problem that explains it (conveniently denying the existence of another larger problem of our own making) and since the solution (stimulants all around) seems to make the symptom go away, we decide we’ve nailed the problem and move on. We’ve told a story to ourselves that makes the problem go away.

 So this is why I tend to fall into the skeptic camp on any number of our modern “epidemics”: I generally think are either the symptoms of pre-existing social or environmental problems, or predictable effects of large scale social changes. I’m a writer, and I’m well aware of the power of stories to define things and manage the difficulties of cruel reality. This kind of personal problem-explanation has been variously described in our culture as “crafting a personal narrative,” “rationalizing,” or “coming up with a worldview.” It’s telling a story to get a grip on a scary monster we can’t quite see in the dark and to make us feel like we have a plan to confront it.

Worried about getting older and sicker and slowly losing your mind? Here’s a story that may help you get a grasp on your own impermanence: there’s an epidemic of a mysterious new disease – Alzheimer’s, caused by some mysterious environmental, genetic or pathogenic cause. (Never mind that the most obvious cause is human mortality –that story has no possible resolution.) Feeling sick or have children who seem to have frequent physical illnesses? It must be food allergies – let’s pick something common in the diet and scientific sounding (like gluten) – that must be it! (This is not to say that some people do not have serious, life-threatening allergies to some foods, but they always did – just not in the numbers we see now.)

Stories are powerful, and the serious problems of a few can become explanations for the more minor problems of far more of us. Profound autism – a very serious set of mental problems in a very small fraction of the population can be seen as a spectrum of “similar” behaviors in far more of us – which are now seen as “disorders” because of their relationship to the really debilitating conditions. It’s all in how someone tells it and and then in how you choose to see it.

But then, we all tell stories and we all think they make sense out of chaos. I’m telling you one right now.

Why are there currently so many stories about epidemics? Epidemic “disorders” make perfect sense because life feels disordered. We’re telling ourselves that there are disorders and diseases suddenly emerging and we are seeing them everywhere. We sense that there is something(s) wrong in our being – it’s not well. I guess that finding a plausible villain responsible for life’s troubles makes reality easier to handle, to control. As I said in my first essay in this series, I’m all for the illusion of control.

De Nile
On the other hand, de Nile is not just a river in Egypt. Maybe, just maybe, we need to be tackling our problems with modern reality at a more fundamental level…  and find a cure for our epidemic of denial… For now, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

We’re All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 2

2: getoffmylawnyoudamnkids

"Now is the winter of our discontent"
Richard III

I’ve just turned 60 and I’ve found the experience, as they say, to be not entirely a pleasant one, though I do enjoy my Senior Discount. On Thursdays. At the supermarket. Waiting in a long line with the folks using walkers and credit cards they don’t understand how to use in place of the hard currency that they have but can’t count and the checkers can’t either…

As they also say, old age is not for sissies. All the body parts that had slowly been becoming non-functional over the last 20 years now suddenly hurt. And life for people like me, supposedly on the doorstep of my “golden years,” is not growing calm and peaceful, but worrisome and chaotic, just like it is for everyone else in the early 21st Century – no senior pass or exemptions (except in paying the dog license). In “Lethal Weapon,” the Danny Glover character says “I’m getting too old for this shit!” and I totally get him.

Old age also brings, um, anger management issues. #IStandWithClint

I also get misanthropes, from Plautus to Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino”  (which was, by the way, the car I first learned to drive in). Everywhere I look, I see people who really don’t make sense, and when I do think I understand them, I find them shocking and despicable. Without the cute cartoon minions.

Yes, I know, classic grumpy old white guy stuff, and that’s what I’ve long suspected is going on with me, except when you look around you see a lot of people who feel the same way. Women. Minorities. Younger people. Pretty much everyone who has been, as the hippy bumper sticker says, “paying attention.” Je suis Charlie. Yup, we’re all grumpy old men now.

Because when I try to look at it reasonably, beyond the arthritic aches, the poor sleeping habits, the too-close-to-the-surface emotions, there seems to be a lot going on around us that is obviously shocking and despicable.

Politics has become uglier than I remember it ever being before --  at least in my lifetime. Driving, even in smaller cities, has become rules-optional, and you see people on the roads every day driving in an unabashedly lawless way. Many people seem to have also lost the inhibition against doing outrageously wrong things in public, from rap stars to the police to the Hiltons and Kardashians, to certain presidential candidates. We used (back in my Bronze Age youth) to call such people “crazy,” but no more. We all know that these people are just being deliberately awful.

And, along these lines, let’s consider everyone’s personal frame-of-reference, guiding principles, ideology, “personal code” – what we used to call “philosophy of life.” In a normal, sane world, this should reflect “the times” and be colored somewhat by the surrounding culture, the extent of human experience and the current state of human knowledge. An illiterate serf, living a nasty, cold hungry life on the manor of his 13th Century overlord, should have a somewhat different idea of the nature of “reality and truth” than a 21st Century office worker with at least 12 years of education, a smart phone, and access to television and the internet. Should have. I say that because if you were to draw a Venn Diagram with two circles representing the general worldviews of these two hypothetical groups of people, I’m really not convinced that the two circles wouldn’t overlap considerably.  Here’s my guess of the overlap between our modern and medieval  views of the world:

OK, it’s purely my own grumpy observation, but I don’t see that a whole lot has changed in say, 1000 years. The late great Carl Sagan noted that we still live in a “demon-haunted world.” But let me go on a bit about this topic:

When I was young, I read George Orwell’s futuristic novel “1984” (1984 was still the future then), which was science fiction with a shockingly absurd premise.  In Orwell’s novel, the future was a totalitarian society where people’s rights had been taken away by their powerful leaders, and they had lost much of the hard-won sensibility of modern man through sophisticated brainwashing.  In the opening pages of the novel, you are told that these horribly oppressed and changed people hold these new “truths” to be self evident:


In the 1960’s (and the 1950’s, when the novel was new), this was a horrifying vision, but, thankfully, pretty easy to detach yourself from emotionally, since the premise was so absurdly science-fictiony. It was pretty hard to believe that people would ever reject the basic understanding that modern human have gained through history and accept as true things that are obviously, at face-value, false. No one is really that stupid, right? And a whole culture wouldn’t allow itself to be “brain-washed” into believing things like that…

The Culture Curmudgeon stands on his front porch now and snarls at you: “Oh, really? Yuh think so?”

Consider some of these “truths” floating around in our current culture:

-- GMO’s are dangerous for your health…. because they contain human-manipulated DNA, like every other modern crop or meat
-- Global warming is a hoax… despite the known physics of gasses, a massive amount of climate data, and the judgment of 98% of climatologists
-- Vaccines cause autism… though the one study claiming that has been proven to be fraudulent and totally discredited by other studies
-- Evolution is a lie… despite the fossil record, modern biology/medicine and nearly two centuries of biological evidence supporting it
-- President Obama was born in Kenya… despite official birth records in Hawaii and a birth announcement in the newspaper
-- Eating organic food is healthier for you… despite the total lack of any science to support that assertion
-- Gayness is a learned behavioral choice and can be “untaught” … despite, well, reality and the experience to the contrary of millions of gay people throughout history
-- The Founding Fathers were fundamentalist Christians and their goal was to found a Christian Nation... despite all historical records of their religious beliefs, many of which could barely be described as Christian, and despite the explicit wording of the First Amendment
-- The Earth is the center of the universe and was created out of nothing 6,000 years ago (i.e. after the documented record of the first human civilizations in Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley)… despite all the knowledge of modern astronomy, geology, archaeology, biology, etc. etc.

I realize that I am picking heavily (though not exclusively) on the dogma of the political right, but really you can find numerous blatant examples of cognitive dissonance and anti-factual and even nonsensical contradiction (“war is peace”) buried in the belief systems of most of us, if you dig a bit. The way we have always dealt with this personal crazy is that we always called this stuff “belief,” which acknowledged the fact that some of our core principles came from things like religious beliefs (where faith proudly tells us things that deliberately contradict our basic understanding of physical reality) and family traditions, which can be sentimental and silly but are, well, traditions that we feel some loyalty to anyway. By calling these codes our “belief systems,” we acknowledged that they were personal to us and we didn’t expect everyone else to live by them.

The thing is, we have subtly changed our rhetoric, and where we used to say “this I believe,” we now say “this is truth” (as the bumper sticker equates the Christian fish with ‘Truth”) or “this is knowledge” (as we use the word “knowledge” in a phrase like “low-knowledge voters”).  This tends to give the opinions we want to express the air of being factually correct, provable with evidence and inarguably right, even when, in fact, we know that they are not actually so absolute.

Somehow, Orwell’s book has gone from being the fantastical fiction that we once thought it was to being an accurate prediction. A “brainwashed” slogan that many people around us could plausibly be heard chanting is “SCIENCE IS FALSE,” though this is as nonsensical as “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” since the word “science” actually means “knowledge.” This is almost a synonym for  “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

But I need to correct my own rhetoric a bit here – large chunks of the people who forcefully defend the accuracy of these counter-factual beliefs are not actually “brainwashed” into believing their own words, nor are they ignorant of the knowledge and information that contradicts them, as many of us would like to believe they are. They are simply insisting on believing in a different set of “information” than previously rational people would have agreed exists – and they do this by equating their belief with reality, arguing that the information that others call “reality” is suspect because it supports the interpretations of “the other side.” As the comedian Stephen Colbert quips, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Or, as a conservative acquaintance of mine once told me, “I read different history books.” In a story I heard on NPR about the re-writing of school textbooks in Texas, a woman being interviewed was challenged by the reporter about her assertion that it was a “fact” that Moses was a Founding Father of the United States. She defended her somewhat indefensible position by saying, “I guess I think everything is relative to a person’s belief system.” Bingo. Game, set, match. At least as far as anyone who holds such conservative truths to be self-evident.

And so it goes. But, again, I don’t mean to pick just on conservatives, because this kind of thinking goes on across the political spectrum. I’ve heard similar arguments with people who insist that Ebola can be cured by gargling with lemon juice. Organic lemon juice, of course. Or by sticking to a diet of “Paleolithic” fruits and meats (whatever that means).

How do we live with this, or, more relevantly, how do we live together when people act like this? We tell stories about the other people that we think explain why they don’t accept our belief system, our set of “facts.” Most commonly, we believe that the others are ignorant (as in “low-knowledge voter”), which allows us both to dismiss their beliefs and to see a simple cause – bad education, stupidity, stubborn failure to learn, etc. – for why they are living their lives by a strange, “untrue” code.

I’m a professional science writer, a kind of journalist who tries to explain the “news” of current science to the public, partially as a kind of educational service, partially because it is significant new information -- “news.” For decades, one piece of public polling intelligence has greatly disturbed me and my science writer colleagues: about one third of the American public think that the theory of evolution – a powerful scientific argument for how life develops that has been massively supported by nearly 200 years of scientific observations and that is the cornerstone for all of modern biology and most of modern medicine – is simply false. Instead, these people insist that the “biblical account of creation” is accurate – that God created humans and all living things (in their modern form) out of nothingness in a single week about 6,000 years ago. This contradicts all the knowledge of modern geology (or, as we now call it, “earth science”), biology, archaeology, astronomy… basically all of the natural sciences. And it’s not just the thirty percent with strong religious beliefs that reject the basic modern understanding of life – more than half of all Americans are at least “not sure” that they “believe” in evolution. For most of my professional life, the only way we could explain this piece of knowledge dissonance was to say that the public was profoundly ignorant of a foundational piece of modern knowledge.

But that’s not true, and we science writers have actually known that, but were in denial. Creationism -- the political movement that religious fundamentalists began about a hundred years ago to fight the teaching of evolution in the public schools – morphed (one is tempted to say evolved ) a couple of decades ago into another anti-evolution argument known as “Intelligent Design.” This argument doesn’t simply assert the “truth” of the biblical account (old fundamentalist bumper sticker: “The Bible said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”) but tries to “refute” the theory of evolution by quibbling with it, finding “holes” in it, generally trying to find excuses for rejecting it.

The “evidence” that Intelligent Design proponents argue is generally so weak that no one would be convinced by it unless they had decided in advance that they want to be convinced that “evolution is wrong.” This, really is the point – these people have learned all about evolution (in order to “refute” it) and they have surely seen a significant amount of the massive amount of evidence – it is obvious that they are not ignorant. Proponents of Intelligent Design (and the half of all Americans who appear to be inclined towards their argument…?) are simply choosing to reject the “truth” of something they actually know modern knowledge massively supports. They have their own “truth” and no amount of education or evidence-based argument is going to change that.  I don’t know about you, but I found it a lot more comforting when I believed that they were simply ignorant.

So, the contemporary world is full of intellectual dissonance and we even have to employ cognitive dissonance in order to deal with it: People aren’t stubbornly insisting on things that they really know are wrong, they are “stupid.” Well, as Forrest Gump says, “stupid is as stupid does.” If we think that other people are denying reality because they are “stupid” aren’t we being, well… stupid? We are all living, I guess, in our own bubbles.

And all this head-banging with other people makes me, well, grumpy.

Everyone's favorite cat.

Grumpiness is apparently a natural enough state for old people like myself, but, as I said before, it’s not just old people who are feeling it today. We’re all detached from each other, we’re all turned inward towards our own personal reality, we all think everyone else (to varying degrees) is “crazy” (or “stupid,” if we want to be charitable towards others, bless their hearts). It’s a lonely place we’re in right now – we’re all not in it together anymore.


And stay off, dammit.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

We’re All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America

1: Entering the Garden

I like gardening. I’m sitting here on an unusually cool and rainy summer morning, having returned from a walk where I had an epiphany: I like gardening. It makes me feel good. In this time when so much seems to be spinning out of control and going wildly, horribly wrong, seeing things I have planned and planted and cared for survive and grow and even thrive makes me feel better.

Garden at Versailles.

So I like gardening because it makes me feel like I’m in control. Everything else may be going to hell-in-a-handbasket, but I have made a garden and, in a season, it has grown and it is good.

Of course “control” is a relative term. As any gardener knows, and especially as novice gardeners know -- seeing a six pack of pansies looking pretty at the discount store and thinking they might look great in that dry, rocky spot where the grass has all died -- no gardener is really in control. You have to have the right plants. You have to have the right soil and the right location. You have to know how to plant and how to water. You have to take care of the plants. You have to know the difference between a plant and a weed. You have to weed. You have to deal with bugs and poor nutrient levels. You may have to apply pesticides and fertilizer, and if you do it wrong, you may kill the plants and sterilize the ground for generations to come. If you have never learned how to garden, it’s too complicated a proposition for most people. It’s also too complicated a proposition really for even experienced gardeners – it’s managing chaos, always on the edge of ruin.

And even for experienced gardeners, things beyond your control can go wrong: The weather may decide to turn as hot as it normally is 500 miles south and it may not rain for months. Or June may turn into March and it may rain solidly for a month, turning the soil green with unhealthy-looking moss and algae and encouraging plant-blackening fungus to thrive. Deer. Squirrels. Rabbits. The kids’ basketball game.  The drunken neighbor’s soil-plowing pickup truck. Gardeners know that you are at the mercy of nature, climate and the fickle finger of fate. C’est la vie, as the fatalistic French say. Forget control.

But when you’re a gardener, you know that there are odds you can play, and that there are rules that matter. You plant the right plants for your area, you put them in a place where they have the conditions they need to grow – the right soil, the right amount of light. You may like palm trees, but you don’t try to grow them in the winter wonderland of Maine and you don’t plant shade-loving caladium in the open spot by the driveway. Peonies will not make it in the desert Southwest. You plant things that go with what you’ve got, and you try to adjust conditions so that they will do even better, but you know that you can only adjust so much. You follow the rules of what we used to call “nature” and many of us now prefer to call ecology. These are real rules, no matter how much you want to deny them and if you break them there are going to be consequences.

But a garden is not nature and people tend to like a garden more than nature. The Judeo-Christian bible imagines the perfect environment for humans as the Garden of Eden, not the Jungle of Eden or the Wilderness of Eden. Agriculture – a selected, tended, modified, “unnatural” form of ecosystem that tries to emphasize what we like best in nature and eliminate what we like least – is really at the heart of human culture. Though modern city dwellers think they have left their “farm roots,” agriculture – farming, gardening – is still at the heart of our existence, a defining characteristic of our species and its modern, planet-dominating form. We’re Homo agriculturalus, not Homo sapiens – those guys lived in damp caves and ate mainly rotting, fly-covered meat that they could steal from the jaguars and hyenas. We plant fields and eat fattened animal products and live in big colonies and comfortable houses, all made possible by the planting of the fields.

A little historical digression: Contrary to popular conception, when Europeans invaded the Western Hemisphere about 500 years ago, conquering the land was not quite as easy as you may think it was.

True, they were able eliminate the potential competition of the previous human inhabitants thanks to their superior weapons technology and, even more, thanks to their superior endemic pathogens (smallpox, etc.), but even with those powerful tools, making it here was not a given. As you may remember from our Thanksgiving story about the pilgrims and the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, the earliest European settlers on the shores of this green and verdant Eden all nearly starved to death before they figured things out.

These guys were used to making a living through European agriculture, based on the growing of Eurasian grains and vegetables and the raising of Eurasian livestock. They naturally brought these things with them, but when they tried to garden in the Americas, they found that much of their normal agriculture simply didn’t work here. While North America is in the same temperate belt as Europe, many of the winters were much colder and many of the summers were much hotter. Wheat and barley seeds planted in American soils often wouldn’t grow, rotting in the ground because of the different soil funguses and microbes. These were people dependent on agriculture and they couldn’t survive on wild game alone, a lot of which was strange and seemed inedible to them, as were the vegetables the Native Americans grew.

Eventually, as we all know, they figured out how to survive, and transformed most of North and South America into their own gardens, but a lot of work and a lot of compromise was involved. They learned to eat and like American plants and animals. They found that some Eurasian plants and animals – not necessarily their favorites, but ones that would suffice – were tough enough to invade with them. They learned what they needed to learn to transform the landscape into an agricultural one. When I look out my window now into the cutured woodland that comprises my backyard,  I see crape myrtle (native to China and Japan) ivy (native to Europe) and various species of oak, hickory, sweet gum and ash, all of which are native to North America, but not to this particular part of North America, which was mainly upland pine forest. There are a lot of wild plants (“weeds”) growing under the trees, but they are a mixture of invasive imports and natives, though probably not the natives that were here 500 years ago, as we have introduced in earthworms and other soil-changing organisms that have changed the soils and modified the ecologies that were here. 100 years ago, you might have looked out on this piece of land and found it covered with a deciduous forest that prominently featured the American chestnut tree, but those are gone now, thanks to a fungus we introduced.

All this may lead you to believe that we gardened and “controlled” the landscape to make it how we wanted it, but that isn’t quite right. We changed things, but we had to work with what the land, the climate and the ecology of the place was willing to give us, and we couldn’t even keep all the native things – like the chestnut trees – that we wanted to keep. We tried things out, we influenced things, but we were not in control. The ecosystem adjusted to us and we adjusted to it. We were not in control because there were rules that needed to be followed and they were not our rules.

So this, at long last, is the point that I am getting at – I like control in a garden, the reasoned manipulation of the world to make it turn out better, but I’m not really in control – I just work with the world as it is to try to find a way of being that makes me happier.

I'm SO in control.
It’s working with what you’ve got, it’s going with the flow, it’s negotiating an existence, it’s finding modest happiness. It’s not control. Forget control. And, sadly, while I may be able to manage life in the garden, in other realms I exist in – and that you exist in -- things do not seem to be going as well. Why things are not going so well, I’m not completely sure, but I have a suspicion that it has something to do with the fact that we have convinced ourselves that we are in control and we have forgotten that there are rules we do not get to make – rules that need to be followed if we are going to successfully work with the world, the universe, and negotiate an existence we can live with.

This is the opening gambit, the first in a series of essays I hope to write around and about this elusive topic. You may find that ecology – nature, if you prefer – will come up fairly often in these meditations, as I am finding that ecological thinking and principles seem to apply to almost everything I’m concerned with. It’s not that ecology impacts everything, but ecological principles and patterns – natural rules – do. It’s a metaphor I like because it captures something that’s just a little beyond our human will, the larger complexity that we are just tiny parts of.

So, morning has slid by, the rain has stopped and it’s nearly noon. I think I’ll go out on the deck and look at the garden. I’ll try to control my own happiness, but good luck with that.