Tuesday 11 October 2016

Only in Ireland

Sign along the canal in Doolin, County Kerry.

Thursday 6 October 2016

Human Time and God's Time

One of the many reasons I enjoy John Michael Greer's blog is that his posts, and the comments, spur me to write about things I find fascinating but might ordinarily let pass, and inspire me to make time to post something new. Today he wrote about the term "Anthropocene," newly popular among the ecologically-minded. 

The term is meant to reflect the fact that humans are transforming the face of the planet as deeply as the asteroid did at the end of the dinosaur era, or as deeply as the Earth ripping open at the end of the Permian. Therefore, they argue, we can't call this era by the old biological or geological classifications; it is an era in which the chemistry of the air, the acidity of the seas, the temperature, the albedo, the animal and plant species, are all defined by humans. It is, they say, the Anthropocene. 

Greer is not fond of the new term, and gives a good argument as to why, which I won't sum up here. I did, however, contribute my own thoughts: 

You make an interesting point, JMG. 

A bit of rumination on your theme: I’m not personally bothered by the term “Anthropocene,” simply because all these divisions are, to a point, imperfect teaching tools created by and for humans. Our divisions reflect a physical reality, of course – there really is a K-T boundary about 65 million years down through the rock, for example – but as you mention, they represent modern scientists building on and adapting the terms handed down to them from their predecessors, who did the same, back to the beginnings of science. 

Someone doing the whole thing over from scratch might make the major division the Great Oxygenation Event – or the Iron Rain, as I call it when teaching my daughter – when the seas and sky became saturated with oxygen. It would be about halfway through the Earth’s history, and it changed the planet in what, for us and most living things, are the most tangible ways – the seas and sky turned blue, the iron rained out of the sea, and most life was wiped out. Or before and after eukaryotic cells, or Hox genes, or land vertebrates, or any number of other game-changing developments. 

Our divisions tend to be biased towards what we can see, because we can see it, and biased toward animals rather than plants, because we’re animals; the spread of mammals also coincided with the spread of flowers, fruits and grasses, which changed the world more than mammals did, yet we think of the Age of Dinosaurs and the Age of Mammals. We divide eras or divisions into single-digit groups of three or seven, rather than thirty-three or five thousand and seven, partly because that’s what human brains can remember. 

I mentioned in a comment some weeks ago the difference between fact and truth; facts are data, but how we put them together reflects the truths we believe in. It doesn’t mean we’re not describing reality – we are, and can back it up with evidence. But we can describe the same reality in a number of different ways. 

In other words, it’s like the debate over whether Pluto is a planet – no one can deny that there are several large bodies and many small ones orbiting the sun, but the inner rocky planets are small, solid spheres, asteroids are smaller, solid potato-shapes, gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn are stillborn stars, and Pluto and the comets are dirty snowballs with weird orbits. 

We group the four rocky spheres and the four gas giants together and call them “planets,” and possibly Pluto if we feel like it, but not the asteroids or comets. The planets and their orbits are proven facts; how we group them with our human language reflects our human truths. We group them into eight or nine partly because we remember that a lot more easily than the several million smaller bodies. 

We called Pluto a planet when we discovered it in the 1930s, partly because society believed in progress and wanted to celebrate new discoveries, partly because the growing power of the USA in the 1930s wanted to claim its own astronomical discoveries, and partly because Percival Lowell (whose initials, supposedly, were part of the reason it was called Pluto) had long predicted there would be another planet out there, and people thought Pluto was it. 

What I’m getting to here is, if referring to the current ecological disruption as an era helps us take it more seriously, call it an era – it is from our human perspective. It won’t be an era to God, who -- as Aquinas pointed out -- exists outside of time, but we can’t second-guess Him anyway.


Monday 3 October 2016

Chatting with neighbours

When I lived in a regular American suburb, we would be surprised to see a tractor rolling up our driveway, but here it’s a normal thing. Today, it was our neighbour’s farmhand carrying a giant round hay bale for us, a gift from our neighbour.

My neighbour – we’ll call him Liam – has raised cows down the road for 75 years, and whenever I drive, jog or bicycle down the canal road, we stop and chat. I mentioned to him my daughter does archery, and uses bales as targets; he had bales that had sprouted grass and were no good anymore. Thus, we get a free archery target sitting in our driveway, and this week we’ll roll it to some suitable location behind the house.

Liam also passes on news about all our neighbours – not idle or intrusive gossip, but information you’re thankful to have. He tells me that his farmhand’s trailer was robbed recently; they suspect a few shady local kids rumoured to use drugs. Ireland has far less crime than the USA – one-fourth the number of homicides, for example – but we still have drugs and petty theft, and every area has its share of ne’er-do-wells and troubled souls.

The difference is that in more traditional communities, everyone knows who they are, and you can’t get away with much. It’s not that there’s no privacy – not like living in an internet culture, where people’s browsing history and bathroom photographs can be displayed for everyone to see. Rather, most people out here keep to themselves, and don’t nose into each other’s lives – but what you do in public matters. 

Everyone here knows the “boy racers” that drive too fast along narrow roads where children play, and some neighbours, I’m told, run to stretch spike-chains across the road when they hear the racers coming. Everyone knows to dogs are blind, and to slow down when they pass that stretch of road. If there's waste clogging up the canal or a bad smell coming from the mushroom factory, someone will complain; these things affect everyone, so everyone has a right to know.

Today I ran past my neighbour’s field --- we’ll call him Padraig – as he was picking his potatoes, and asked if he wanted help. He’s 86, and still sows and harvests his own crops by hand. He refused the help, but chatted amiably for a while.

Your potatoes look good, I said – ours got the blight.

“When did you plant them?” he asked.

I believe it was around St. Patrick’s Day, I said.

“You shouldn’t get the blight like that,” he said “We planted the same time, and we had a crop by July. Did you buy the seed?”

We chitted our potatoes, and then planted them from ones we bought, I said.

“Ah, those are bag potatoes,” he said. “Try certified seed next time, and if they don’t get the blight, use the eyes of those to make the next year’s crop. Do you have any sallies around?”

When I first got to Ireland, that sentence would have made no sense, but I knew he meant willow trees. Quite a few nearby, I said.

“You don’t want sallies too close to potatoes,” he said – “They encourage the blight. They attract the things from the air that cause the blight, and if potato fields are nearby, you’re more likely to get it.”

I haven’t looked into whether this has any scientific basis, but I like that people here carry that kind of local lore. We talked about the blackberries growing all along the hedgerows, distracting me from my morning jog, and he said they weren’t as tasty as last year’s, but were larger – he put it down to when the summer rains came. “That makes all the difference,” he said, and he might be right.

In fact, the hedgerows that line each field are positively sagging with berries of all kinds -- poisonous yew; lovely blackberries; the rose-hips that are so good for jam, and the sloes that grow on the blackthorn trees, so good for making into gin. We also see a profusion of haws on hawthorn trees and elderberries on the elders – the first is too bland to eat raw and the latter too tart, but both make a nice wine. Most years we’d be spending our spare time gathering them, but this year we’ve been busy with other things.

Right now, it’s merely cool and dry, a high wind is whistling across the bog, all our neighbours’ gardens swell with crops ready to be picked, and the leaves are changing rapidly. Everyone – people, animals, plants – seem to be in a hurry, doing their duty before the wheel turns and we plunge into the long and rainy darkness of the Irish winter.