An interesting article on the importance of native plants for wildlife. The logic is obvious – animals need energy, and they derive it all ultimately from plants, and they have evolved with certain plants and need them – no bamboo, no pandas. No eucalyptus, no koalas. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence as well. It’s hard for me to argue with the “native plants mean a more intact and complex and ultimately richer ecosystem” claim because I spend so much time at Catskill Native Nursery. The owners, Diane Greenberg and Francis Groeters, told me that when they started the business they had various goals, but there was one they felt they completely achieved: they wanted to take their few acres of land in the Rondout Valley and make it into a kind of wildlife preserve. This they have done: in fact, I feel certain that there is not a more biologically rich three acres in all the Catskill region. Their website catalogs some of the wildlife that they have seen in the nursery, and what they have put online is just a tiny fraction of what they have photographed, and what they have photographed is just a tiny fraction of what is there. They have problems selling birdhouses because birds will use almost any nesting site they can get in the nursery – including birdhouses which are for sale. Birds will even use houses right next to the sales area, where people come and go all day long. And there really is no doubt as to why they have these animals and their near neighbors do not: they have the plants. And plants are the key to all life in an ecosystem.
But getting data on this is very difficult. Hence the article notes that scientist Doug Tallamy was trying to find out how many insects it takes to raise a brood of chickadees – 4800 is his conclusion. And he has good data that many of those insects absolutely require certain native plants in order to complete their life cycles. But of course you can’t make people plant native plants by telling them they’ll have more bugs around the house if they do. You have to put it in terms of charismatic megafauna. But we apparently don’t really know what insect species even the common songbirds in our area consume – our knowledge of our own backyards is so scant.
But looking at those pictures from the nursery does give me hope. We really can do something just with our backyards. You don’t have to get elected senator or something impossible like that. You just have to give the animals the plants they need to live.
On my most recent American road trip, to Michigan and back, I heard not once but twice, from different people, about a man who had just given a TED talk about the discovery, throughout America, of eight-foot-tall humanish skeletons with double rows of teeth. The claim sounded bogus, but I had nothing but respect for the people who reported this to me, nor anything bad to say about the intellectual level of most TED talks. I was intrigued and figured I would watch the talk when I had opportunity to get on the internet for an extended period of time.
By chance my entire trip ended up being relevant to this talk, as I will detail shortly. The lecture, delivered by Jim Vieira, did not impress me too much in the end. It is not difficult to sniff out something bogus, once you get into the habit. I used to listen at times to a late-night radio show called “Coast to Coast,” the topic of which was anything paranormal. The show was obviously entertainment and not science, though of course in order to keep it entertaining it had to pretend to be science. It had a host who managed – sort of like the first and third Indiana Jones movies – to be reasonable while talking about what was actually pretty goofy. That host retired and a new one took his place, and the man behind the curtain became a little more evident. Each guest who came on to present his “research” – about aliens, multiple universes, time travel (these some people take quite seriously as science), as well as yeti, the Loch Ness monster, extrasensory perception, ghosts, and all other sorts of things which are unfortunately just bogus – fell into the same pattern. They all leaned heavily on authorities and credentials – it was important to try to quote reseach from “Harvard” or “Cornell” or someone who had “a Ph.D.” The second thing they all did was use the word “documented.” You might not be able to replicate something in a lab, but it had been “documented,” which apparently meant “true.” This kind of reasoning is used, for instance, to support Joseph Smith’s claim to have found golden plates with several hundred pages’ worth of scriptures written in “reformed Egyptian”: he rounded up a group of men, all honorable men, we are told, who swore affidavits that they had seen the plates. It is, hence, documented. How can you not be convinced?
So I was not too impressed when Jim Vieira, giving his TED talk about eight-foot giants with double rows of teeth, after running quickly through several Moundbuilder sites in the United States – which are impressive, by the way, and real, though not technologically very complex – proceeded to provide screen shots of dozens of newspaper articles from the 19th century about the discovery of giants in these mounds – even from The New York Times!!! Needless to say, a million such articles would not make the “discovery” any more true – only more documented. What we require is for Mr. Vieira to follow through on at least one case. Of course what we really want are the bones. He notes that some of the bones were sent to the Smithsonian – well, it is his duty to find them, or find the report on them, or make sense of the institution’s official denial of their existence. And if the military-industrial complex is suppressing the information, then he will have to go outside the system to get his bones. Surely if there were hundreds of such discoveries, not all the bones have been locked away in the secret vault (with the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail and everything else the military-industrial complex has squirreled away). And if hundreds of discoveries have already been made, a talented archaeologist can probably find one more site to excavate.
Mr. Vieira has done none of this, and so I think he has earned himself an appearance on Coast to Coast but not any respect from the truth-seeking empiricists out there. Documents are not data, just as an I.D. doesn’t make you twenty-one.
But as I said before, my road trip, quite coincidentally, brought me to not just one but two sites of importance to Jim Vieira’s talk. My trip was bringing me through the Ohio Valley, which is famed for its Moundbuilder sites, and in particular near Moundsville, West Virginia, which I had wanted to see for years. This was my chance.
One of my first questions with these mounds was how we knew they were artificial as opposed to natural formations, but all doubt on that count is immediately dispelled when you see the mound. It does not look, at all, like a natural earth formation. It looks immediately different. That said, this difference has to be experienced in person, as the photograph I took (and other photos I saw) do not do the mound any justice at all. When you climb to the top it feels much, much larger than it looks in pictures, larger and steeper and more impressive.
There is an interpretive museum next to the mound, with some information on the Native Americans who built it. The museum indicates that skeletons and artifacts, some displayed there, were found on the site, but there is no mention of giants or anything unusual besides a single, tiny (three-inch) piece of pottery with ciphers carved into it, which look like letters. The genuineness of this shard, discovered before systematic archeology, has been called into question. It certainly would not be difficult to fake. It resembles many dozens of other similar finds throughout North America, all of which were discovered about the same time as Joseph Smith’s plates, and all of which found dozens of people willing to translate them. They often were interpreted as testimonies to Jesus. None have been found since the Joseph Smith fad faded out of the American mainstream.
Similarly, no giants have been found since the late 19th century, a curious coincidence. Perhaps the military-industrial complex started getting good at suppression around then, and they just recently started faltering, and that would explain why the Biblical/Mormon Truth about giants has been covered up until now.
TED has of course gotten into some trouble for putting their name on this bunkum, and they have pulled the talk. This has made the conspiracy theorists go wild, of course. The thing that would be of most interest to the crazies – and actually the reason why I think this has emerged as part of the story, though no one has produced a skull as proof – is the double row of dentition. Dentition lasts, so it is especially important in paleontology, and it has proven to be a reliable indicator of species, and so it is a large part of the material evidence for evolution. A race of human beings with duplicated dentition would at least probe the evolutionary theory. And so to suggest such a thing to some religious Americans is like throwing fish to dolphins – they will jump through any number of intellectually degrading hoops to get it.
The fact that the skeletons are of giants, though, is important as well, because of the line in the Bible “there were giants in those days.” Bible-thumpers are always on the lookout for giants. Of course, Vieira (and TED) should know this, and should be looking for very solid evidence when dealing with something that people rather desperately want to believe. Desire is the mother of credulity, and credulity is the ore from which confidence men make gold.
And so it was with some satisfaction that my trip home, by chance, brought me to the area in New York state just south of Syracuse, on US-20, a beautiful old highway, where I passed the very spot, right there on the highway (convenient for visitors), where the Cardiff Giant was discovered. A sign indicated the site of the discovery. This was not a planned part of my itinerary, but it certainly was suggestive.
I had seen the Cardiff Giant as a child, when visiting Cooperstown, where it is now kept. My father knew the story of its discovery well, and regarded it with all the good-natured contempt that a born storyteller feels for some old-fashioned hokum. The hoax had been commissioned by a cynical skeptic, specifically to demonstrate how stupid the American religious mind was on the topic of giants, fossilization, the Bible, and the past. After having the giant carved by a sculptor, he had it buried on his property and then hired two men to dig a well a year later on the precise spot where the giant had been hidden. The discovery caused a sensation. It was documented in newspapers across the country. The owner erected a tent over the giant and charged people a quarter just to see it; the crowds were so vast, however, and the profits so tempting, that he doubled the price the next day. People trekked out to pay the fee for months. One local clergyman, a man of wealth and taste in town, after seeing the Giant, noted how hard-hearted the gentiles must be, to fly in the face of such evident Biblical truth. On the other hand, people with even average intelligence noted that the Giant was nothing but a bad statue and that there was no reason to be digging a well in the spot where it had been found.
The owner, having had about enough of the hoax, sold it to a group of entrepreneurs for $25,000, who immediately took the Giant on the road, heading south towards the Big Apple where they expected to mint a fortune. P.T. Barnum, coming a bit late to the party, offered to buy it off the entrepreneurs for $50,000, which they refused. ($50,000 at the time was 2500 ounces of gold, about $4 million today). Barnum having been frustrated came up with a scheme which revealed that as much as he was a scoundrel so much was he a genius: he sent a minion to get measurements of the Giant, then had a copy made of plaster, which he had aged appropriately and began showing in New York before the original fraud made it to town. When the owners of the Giant remonstrated, Barnum brazenly declared their Giant was a fraud and he had the real Giant. The reply of Barnum’s opponents (“there’s a sucker born every minute”) has gone down in history as a bit of American wisdom native-grown and ever-green. They sued, but since their Giant was a fraud, they lost the case in court, a hoax of a hoax being before the law as genuine as any other hoax, an undoubtedly important legal principle not satisfactorily appreciated today. This is Mark Twain material, and sure enough, he did not disappoint, writing a story about the ghost of the Cardiff Giant, who got a bit turned around in all the travelling and started haunting Barnum’s copy, and had to be told that he was haunting the wrong remains:
We talked along for half an hour, and then I noticed that he looked tired, and spoke of it. “Tired?” he said. “Well, I should think so. And now I will tell you all about it, since you have treated me so well. I am the spirit of the Petrified Man that lies across the street there in the Museum. I am the ghost of the Cardiff Giant. I can have no rest, no peace, till they have given that poor body burial again. Now what was the most natural thing for me to do, to make men satisfy this wish? Terrify them into it! — haunt the place where the body lay! So I haunted the museum night after night. I even got other spirits to help me. But it did no good, for nobody ever came to the museum at midnight. Then it occurred to me to come over the way and haunt this place a little. I felt that if I ever got a hearing I must succeed, for I had the most efficient company that perdition could furnish. Night after night we have shivered around through these mildewed halls, dragging chains, groaning, whispering, tramping up and down stairs, till, to tell you the truth, I am almost worn out. But when I saw a light in your room to-night I roused my energies again and went at it with a deal of the old freshness. But I am tired out — entirely fagged out. Give me, I beseech you, give me some hope!”
I lit off my perch in a burst of excitement, and exclaimed:
“This transcends everything — everything that ever did occur! Why you poor blundering old fossil, you have had all your trouble for nothing — you have been haunting a PLASTER CAST of your- self — the real Cardiff Giant is in Albany! Confound it, don’t you know your own remains?”
Since the business of giants was so good, the Cardiff Giant soon had other imitators besides Barnum. One, the Solid Muldoon, was apparently a more artful effort, involving real bones and flesh and dirt and plaster and sand and wax and other ingredients to create something that really looked like a petrified giant. (This is the proper context for the pictures Vieira shows). But of course the Cardiff Giant had proven that you didn’t need to go to great lengths to turn a profit in this business (for all its fame, it is nevertheless a ridiculous-looking, patent fraud). And newspaper editors could be counted on to document the whole thing, because stories like this got readers and weren’t bad for business in town either.
Mr. Vieira has yet to prove that he is talking about anything other than this massive 19th century humbug, and I’m not expecting anything scientifically promising to come out of his quarter. Because of the pertinacity of the printed and Biblical word (which, as the Scripture tells us, kills), people are still looking for precisely the same bunkum they were looking for a hundred fifty years ago, and they are still willing to pay cash. It is a curious religion, that insists that the only proof of God is to be had from the Bible; hence these people will trample on the goldenrods and fireflies of the field – which are great miracles of the Maker but unfortunately not the subject of any Bible-verses – to get a glimpse of a Biblically predicted fraud.
And a hundred years later, we can go through the same nonsense, but all from the comfort of our homes, on our computers, powered by fossil fuels. We don’t even have to visit the fields to show our stupidity. We can trample on the fireflies from afar: I mention this because the area around the Cardiff Giant is underlain by the famed Marcellus shale. People might be digging a large number of new wells in the area quite soon, in pursuit of more profitable hokum. It takes a lot of fossil fuels to power all our electric gew-gaws.
I stopped by the bald eagle nest on the Rondout a few days ago – a bald eagle male has been nesting just north of Grahamsville on the reservoir every year for over a decade now – and there were some big chicks in the nest. For a sense of what they look like, see Jeff Crawn’s photos of the same nesting site last year.
Driving in to work Sunday morning I passed four police cars, lights blazing, parked outside a house which is far from any town, in the woods. In the driveway three police officers were apparently making small talk with a long-haired man, laughing and apparently feeling quite relaxed. The long-haired man was in handcuffs, hands behind his back, talking with the officers. A fifth police car was arriving just as I passed. Such law-enforcement muscle, flexed to relieve us of so trifling a threat.
A friend recently lent me a book and I repaid him by reading it. The book, The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant, is about an unusual Sitka spruce, several hundred years old, which had golden needles in place of the usual green ones. Golden foliage is an odd but regularly occurring plant mutation, highly prized by horticulturalists and hence to be found in every nursery and garden center in the United States in at least a few dozen plants. But I have neither seen nor even heard of a tree thus mutated flourishing in the wild; and John Vaillant, who wrote the book, does not mention any other naturally occurring golden trees, and it is possible that this was the only one on earth that was to be found thriving, and over a hundred feet tall, in the wild.
I wish we would hear more in our culture about great trees, and would make them places of pilgrimage and adoration; I have made special trips to see the Angel Oak and the Lone Oak and the sequoias, but I’m sure there are many more great trees I have never heard of. It is said that man is made in the image of God, but this does not rule out that trees (and mountains and stars and lakes and nature in general) are made in God’s image as well. Those who can feel reverence – not a majority, for sure, but the quality is not entirely absent in humans – will surely feel it for great trees. And not surprisingly, the golden spruce was regarded as sacred by the indigenous people where it grew: the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, along the Inside Passage between Seattle and Alaska.
The tree no longer exists; it was cut down in 1997 by a somewhat mad logger from Vancouver named Grant Hadwin. He was an outdoorsman and loved the woods; and he found that the world would pay, and pay handsomely, for him to destroy them. It turns out that cutting down forests is one of the few jobs available for people who love to spend time in them. (Vaillant records a conversation between two loggers, one of whom picks a rare orchid in the woods; the other tells him he shouldn’t do that, but then yields when he is told that they are about to cut down the entire forest anyway, and orchids will not grow there for another hundred years or more). And so that was how Hadwin made his living, scouting out routes into remote areas of the woods of British Columbia and overseeing road-building and timber removal.
The tension between his love of life in the woods and his living destroying them eventually undid him: after quitting his job, he bounced around for several years, penning an environmental manifesto and in general getting nothing done whatsoever, until he decided to swim a river in the middle of a January night and work until dawn cutting down the Golden Spruce. In a psychic twist familiar to anyone who observes human behavior long enough, he cut the tree down to protest environmental destruction in the area. He called it the logging company’s “pet tree.” Vaillant imagines Hadwin’s feelings about the tree to be like a man who had seen the prairie full of buffalo being told how wonderful the lone pet buffalo grazing on the mini-golf course was. Hadwin had been felling ten- and fifteen-foot diameter trees which would be used to make skids – a much greater waste because it is so routine. Only some kind of symbolic destruction could move human beings, who did not care about the actual destruction of the woods. They would care less for the forest than for one tree.
There is human reason to this approach. If an American drone operator grew to hate America’s drone program, he could probably do more to stop it by using it against some symbolic target than by resigning, or going to the press, or writing a tell-all book. If a drone destroyed the Kaaba (for instance) more Muslims would be upset than if drones merely continued killing Muslims; and the outrage might stop the use of drones. A drone attack on the Statue of Liberty might work fairly well also. In Hadwin’s case the approach apparently worked, stirring up environmentalist feeling in the local press – for about two weeks. Then everybody resumed their normal lives. Hadwin decided to kayak across almost a hundred miles of open sea to get to the Queen Charlotte Islands for trial, and he was lost at sea and his wrecked kayak recovered. Some said he had merely vanished into the woods, but he has not turned up in the fifteen years since, and since the internet has not lured this manifesto-writer out of hiding I presume he is indeed dead.
The book itself is a long-form magazine article puffed up to 300 pages by the usual clunky machinery of nonfiction: when the indigenous people come up there is a long irrelevant digression on Haida culture; when logging comes up there are a lot of irrelevant gruesome logging stories; when discussions of restoring the spruce arise there is a digression on asexual reproduction in plants. Some people like this (“local color”) but to me it is just digression from the story, which is that people with consciences cannot bear to live in close proximity to the extraction industries on which our modern civilization depends, and yet modern civilization continues, not only unchanged but more wasteful by the year. I know of no solution but the one suggested by Voltaire, which is to participate less in the grand charades that cause great harm, and to cultivate the life that is in one’s own garden. It is probably not enough.
I will let Hadwin speak a bit for himself. He certainly had an unusual love of the comma, and his hatred of “university-trained professionals” probably stems from his apparently continually offering suggestions to spare certain trees and places in his logging work, places he felt were really worth keeping, and being continually overruled by his superiors. It certainly is true that our forests, which are now almost all managed to some extent by “university-trained professionals,” are as a rule managed very badly. Cornell recently did a study which indicated that 72% of New York’s state forests – this is about half the ground in the entire state – are not regenerating. They are terminal forests. Besides the fact that these are the cradles of almost all the indigenous life in the entire region, forests are also chemically speaking a layer of carbon extracted from the atmosphere. When they are gone, that carbon will all be in the air, which is not where we want it. The problem is not better in other areas of Eastern North America. The cause is mostly deer, which could be solved overnight if government stopped protecting these animals. If deer meat was allowed to be commercialized, the deer population would be decimated by capitalists in a year or so. It’s that simple.
Now for some Hadwin:
I didn’t enjoy butchering, this magnificent old plant, but you apparently need a message and wake-up call, that even a university-trained professional, should be able to understand. … I mean this action to be an expression, of my rage and hatred, towards university trained professionals and their extremist supporters, whose ideas, ethics, denials, part truths, attitudes, etc. appear to be responsible, for most of the abominations, towards “amateur” life on this planet.
If you had the power, to create all matter, including life, and you could synchronize, those creations perfectly, what would you do, if one life form, was apparently abusing, all other life, including themselves?
If the original “intent” of your creation had apprently been twisted, from respect, to hatred, from compassion, to oppression, form generosity, to greed, and from dignity, to defilement, what would you do?
How would you convince, people, that material temptations, social status, and education institutions, are used, to preserve and perpetuate, the status quo, with very little real consideration, for the future, of life, on earth?
Work has started at the nursery, and between manual labor there and manual labor at the cabin I’ve had a very full and generally lovely past week. Down in the Hudson Valley and in New York it has gotten quite warm, while here spring is just finally arriving. The snow almost all melted today: the rain that is coming in the next few days should finish it off. When the next dry spell comes I’ll be able to drive to my cabin again, unload the extra weight the truck’s been carrying for snow traction, and it will officially be mid-spring.
Every day of good weather when I can work outdoors is precious now. The plants are still all a bit stunned by the good weather, and it is easy to pull them up if you want to – they haven’t quite gotten themselves together enough to resist. It’s a great time for weeding, and once I’m done with a bed I “bark” the results – meaning I put bark down around the desirable plants. All winter I’ve been stripping firewood of its bark, both when I cut it and when it goes into the fire, and now I get to use it all. It makes great mulch, and lasts for years. It saves almost an infinite amount of later labor in weeding, and makes it possible to have a garden without supplemental water. I can never quite get to all the weeding and barking that could be done, but knowing how efficient and effective it is makes me very happy to do whatever I can.
At this time of year the birds are the most noticeable feature of the forest. Dozens of little passeriforms wander about all day, either in flocks or in pairs, pecking away at whatever small things they see on the ground. They sing in the morning and browse away the remainder of the day. My garden has been territory for a robin for the past few years, and his song charms me anew every spring evening. And a pair of barred owls have been speaking to each other during the night, whether of love or war or both I know not.
This morning I came out and after investigating all the progress in my garden, I paused and saw all the little birds, dozens of them, and the chipmunks, four or five, all scouring the ground for little seeds and treats, and I was amazed at it all, taking place in something that felt like endlessness here on Wildcat Mountain. It was a “peaceable kingdom” moment – we few, at least, could live together in some peace.
I set out my lettuce today – it has been incubating for the past few weeks in a seed flat – and I seeded some more directly into the bed. It will have some frosts to deal with, but I have given it an opportunity. And I feel about the same about myself.
On my trip out to Michigan, I had some worries about my pickup truck. I typically get around 25 miles per gallon on good highway driving across the Midwest – flat, fast-driving country. On this trip however I was heading in to the gas station for another 17 gallons when my trip odometer read 260 rather than 400. The odometer passed 240,000 miles on the trip, and I’m always afraid the next problem will be the last problem for this poor truck.
So I brought the truck in to the very honest Dorgler’s in Richmond Hill, Queens. They were mystified. ”That kind of loss of mileage typically goes with a change in performance – but you say there’s no difference in performance?” ”No – the truck is normal, but I just don’t get the same number of miles for a tank of gas.” I had them change the sparkplugs, though they said they really weren’t too bad. I had them change the air filter, but they said that shouldn’t have caused this problem either. They looked over everything in the truck. There didn’t seem to be any obvious problem. The fuel filter was new and should have been fine. The fuel sensor seemed fine. They suggested that maybe the winter fuel mixture was causing the mileage to be a bit lower – but other than that there was nothing they could find to cause such a problem.
But there was a problem, no doubt, and I found it. Driving from the city upstate, I stopped in Jersey to get some gas. I then reset the trip odometer. Two hours of highway driving later at 65 miles per hour, my odometer read 60 miles. The reason my mileage was so bad was that the odometer is broken!
From a friend who refuses to get a blog:
New York City tells it like it is. While walking out of Grand Central I saw a large woman fall in the middle of the road. One of her shoes (possibly the cause of her fall) was a few feet away. A man rushed to her aid. I heard him say as he was returning her shoe and helping her to her feet- mind you it was said with sincere tenderness: “You have to get better shoes and you have to exercise.” “I know, I know, thank you,” she responded.
I went to Easter Mass at the church of Saint Francis Xavier in Brooklyn, a pretty church in Park Slope which does not, despite its name, appear to have any formal connection with the Jesuits. Some years ago it might have been difficult for me to feel the joy the holiday seemingly required – often our emotions do not correspond with the liturgical calendar. But in the past years – I think since I have been more honest – I have found that I experience the large holidays quite sincerely. In part this is because I am continually responsive – I wanted, for instance, to go to the Easter Vigil Saturday night, but I was at a seder and I found the conversations so interesting I decided to stay there with my friends rather than go to a church service alone. The next day I wanted to go to mass, but I first met with a pair of friends who wanted to discuss Darwin’s Descent of Man. By the time I got out it was noon on Easter and custom is for all Easter masses to be during the morning, but I walked to the nearest church and sure enough there was a 12:15 mass. I had planned nothing but been responsive at each moment to what seemed most loving to me, and it had all worked out. (Of course it is a pleasure on a great holiday to be in a great city where there are so many church celebrations going on all around you).
Similarly in church it is my custom now to make no attempt to think “church thoughts,” but instead to honestly feel, and intensely feel, whatever I am feeling at the time. If I am angry with God, or the Church, or the hierarchy, or someone else, or myself, I simply sit in the pew and feel angry. If I feel sad or depressed or lustful or self-absorbed or whatever it is, I simply let myself feel that way in front of God’s altar. I think that this technique works much better than anything I ever tried before. I feel myself transformed more by attempting nothing and simply sitting there honestly than by any act of will. Despite the fact that it would seem that this approach would not allow for much harmony with the liturgical calendar, I often find that it does.
This Easter it was not too difficult to think Easter thoughts. In part this is because it was precisely at this time of the year, five years ago, that my life changed and I was meaningfully reborn through divorce. I have lived the past five years in poverty, living mostly by the work of my hands and close to nature, and with the help of Christian teaching I have felt it as redemptive and renewing.
But it was not just me: in the church too I sensed the stirrings of some kind of good news. It was beautiful to feel. The priest gave an excellent homily, linking the Easter readings to the current state of things in the Catholic world: “For many years now,” he said, “whether we have admitted it or not, we Catholics have been mourning. There have been many reasons to mourn, many failures of our church, but in particular I will say that I believe that the sex-abuse scandals, and the way those cases were handled, from the bottom to the top, made us all mourn, and if I may speak for us all, I think it has been many years now since we have had any – any – good news in our church that we really felt we could celebrate.
“But I see a glimmer of hope. I see a glimmer of hope. Now I don’t think that Pope Francis will make any radical changes in doctrine. But I see a man who has come to bring good news, to the poor, to the suffering, a man who does not hide behind fine clothes and big words. And now that I see it, I realize that we have been in mourning, longing for it for many years.”
I picked up a copy of the Tablet on the way out, and there was a story from the Catholic News Service about Francis causing some concern for his Swiss guards, due to the security difficulties of a Pope who is not keeping his distance from crowds. “We are worried if there is more contact with people,” an officer of the guard said, “because that means there’s a greater possibility something can happen.”
Of course, that is precisely what we Catholics are hoping for – that something will happen, not in a violent sense, but simply that in actual encounter the power of Christ’s example be proven more important than security concerns. There is a story that the pope stopped his popemobile and got out and blessed a disabled man on his route through the city. This actually sounds like something from the Gospels. And there are people complaining about it too – which also sounds like something from the Gospels. The complaint is that disabled people don’t want any special treatment or to be singled out – which is to me an impossible hope, like pretending that the President of the United States could walk into your room and you wouldn’t act differently. The Christian teaching is that all forms of weakness, powerlessness, and imperfection serve as the conduit for God’s blessing, which works in a mysterious way. I read an article by a woman who said that having herpes was good for her love life – when she told men about it she necessarily drove away the selfish ones who felt no love for her. Similarly I have felt that my own divorce, which the Catholic church senselessly prohibits, has served, the way failure and powerlessness do, as a hole in my armor through which God’s grace has poured. Andrew Sullivan spoke about HIV doing the same thing for him. Christianity teaches us to see God precisely in these wounds – and most emphatically not to desperately insist they were never wounds in the first place, never things that needed no healing and needed no redemption and needed no God.
This is something a world relentlessly bent on chimerical perfection needs to see. “When I am made weak, then I am strong,” said Paul. And this is certainly what the world needs from the Pope. All I want to hear from the Pope is that he sees the poor before the rich, that he blesses the weak before the strong, that he speaks with the people who have never heard of Christ and not with the theologians, that he loves crowds and blesses them out of deep love and not that he is sequestered in some palace with his gorgeous valets. I don’t want to hear that he has written another book or censured another theologian. I want to hear that something is happening in the world that sounds like it could have happened in the Gospels, not something that sounds like a wet dream of a liturgy fanatic or vestment fashion designer or stay-at-home who does nothing but read tractates.
This is only the beginning, and there is plenty of room for disappointment. But I will say that I am glad that Francis is at least aware that poverty, simplicity, and blessing are integral to Christianity, and I am glad that the cardinals were at least somewhat aware of it as well, and they chose him rather than a “normal guy” like “our own” Cardinal Dolan. The life of Christ is not pomp, but it is not normal either. Just because it is in exile in a palace does not mean it is at home with the bourgeois either. In the press coverage of the papal election we heard everything through the lens of the concerns of secular culture: the qualities looked for were diplomatic savvy, competent governance, a spotless resume, public support of the party platform, identity politics, and telegenic charisma. No one in the press who assessed the possible candidates looked to such things as “who can best bear witness to the life and teaching of Christ in the world?” And as soon as you see it you remember what you were missing. It looks from a distance that maybe Francis has started on this road, and it is my belief that once you start on it you never really leave it. If you fall in this kind of love, you never fall out. And that gives me great hope. Such a love can bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and hundredfold. We shall see.
[A very similar piece by Scott Moringiello is found in Commonweal. The comments also show optimism, but terribly guarded, I am afraid.]