Elemental Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving! Now that’s an elemental innovation. And it can be as elemental as we care to make it. I give thanks for the bacterial cellular life that makes up about 90% of the material of ‘my’ body. I give thanks for the house plants that refresh and recycle my spent breath. And, while I am thanking the green lung of the planet with my red ones, I give thanks to the fish who so long ago gave me lungs, to the Neanderthals whose genes I’ve always felt sure I carried, for the music I am sure they made (read Stephen Mithen’s Singing Neanderthals), and for my new little piano, Magic, who is well named. I give thanks for my own elemental role in the macrocosmic real.

I give thanks for the wood of the desk on which I write, wood that goes on being ‘alive’ for me so many years after it ceased to be a living tree. This is something I noticed in so many real forests, way up in the high country of the Sierra Nevada mountains last summer, real forests that don’t lend themselves to much human tending, being far from roads and at very high elevations. In these forests, the ancestral nature of the trees was so visible, these fallen trees, dead yet teeming with audible insect life, and housing so many other lives, especially squirrels and birds. Dead trees providing for crossings, and fuel, and shelter. I aspire to be that kind of ancestor, someone whose body is still supporting the life of generations that never knew it alive. I would hope to become good elemental stuff for the future; and, since I have no children, it will not be by way of genes.

Elemental innovations. Making new things from old parts. That’s what I mean by the catchy phrase that illustrates my web page. But before you can make new things, you have to see the ‘parts’ of the old things. There are so many tired old conflicts that still use up vast amounts of our energy and air space. Oh, let’s name a few! Liberal vs. conservative, science vs. religion, capitalist vs. socialist. Protestant vs. Catholic, Muslim vs. Christian, pro-life vs. pro-choice. These words whose tread has worn so thin that they can barely roll down the road. Need I confess to being all of the above? Dare I, since just such a confession may provoke the ire of almost everyone? It seems to me that when a problem has become so intractable that people can only line up across from each other and scream the same phrases over and over, a changed perspective is called for—unless of course, it's really the emotional release we crave. But to claim that is a changed perspective, and probably a very valuable one!

So I try to go bigger, to see it as if through a telescope, or to go smaller, to see it as if through a microscope, or to turn the dial on the kaleidoscope and see how else the pieces might create a pattern. This is what I mean by elemental innovations.

I’ve been teaching something educators call critical thinking for many years now, and one of the things I’ve learned from it is that ‘critical’ is only a fraction of the whole enchilada of good thinking. If we think the same old thoughts over and over, even if we turn them this way and that, critically analyzing their structure, the best we can get is a sense of superiority over whomsoever thunk that half-baked thought for the first time. Really good thinking requires appreciation of the minds that have handed thoughts on to us: not just critical appraisal of their work, but appreciation for the work they did. This is why I don’t let students argue in my classes. Argumentation is largely the art of blowing hot air in some logical progression; but logic is only as good as the assumptions that underlie it, and therein lies a whole host of problems! If we don’t appreciate the work given us by our ancestors, as in really understand and value it, we won’t know how to use it elementally to make of it something new for our new needs, and something alive for future generations. We’ll hand on tired old thoughts with no life in them, a leaden legacy that can only weigh down those who receive it. One example of this that comes to mind is the ready-made critique of Karl Marx, "evil communist," maker of falsehoods and failed systems. Have you read Marx? Go see what he says about the fisherman’s boat and think about what it means for you on your morning commute!

Better than a resounding critique would be to understand what Marx says that might be useful or inspiring. Then you have the capacity to take bits of genius from this ancestor and that one, and weave them into something new. That is what I hope for, a kind of cultural elemental innovation pattern. Because really valuable thought requires creativity. There may or may not be God, but surely none of us is She, and so our creations can only come from the parts of someone else’s creations. I wish to never hear those tired pro and anti statements and platforms again. I wish to hear some new ideas, some suggestions about how to proceed, some ideas for assessing our efforts, even some wild scramble poetry and art that just serves to break up the nonsense into usable chunks. How about some new arrangements just because they are beautiful?

Most recently I have been tinkering with the “science vs. religion” issues because, to be honest, I was both disdainful of religion, especially defensive irrational religion, and at the same time spiritually very hungry. Life seems to call to and for something spiritual in us. “Man, the rational animal” is false, boring, and profoundly insufficient for understanding a human, much less a group of humans. Asserting ideas in the form of religious beliefs that may well be irrational does not seem a better alternative. So I have been fooling at the telescope, and the microscope, turning the kaleidoscope to see what else I can get out of these culture remnants. I came to see religion, broadly and globally, as the Land of Peril and Promise, and so I wanted to poke around in it to see if I could distinguish between the peril and the promise.

My current fascination is with the relationship of neural processes in the brain and religious behavior; I think I have found a fresh perspective, neither pro- nor anti-religious, but something that helps me respond to the question, “Why hasn’t religion died out?” as many hope it will, and many fear it will. From the fresh perspective I think I’ve found, I want to strongly suggest that it is self-evident that there is good religion and bad religion and that we can, in fact, tell the difference between the two. Ah, the stuff of a future post!

But before that, I need to revisit the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Mountains. Looking back on a rich year, I was most blessed there in the stunningly beautiful wilds, wind in my hair, dirt under my fingernails, stars over my head, water music in my ears! All in the spiritual company of the Piute and Mono people whose ancestral summer home I shared for a season. I give thanks for the amazing natural water systems that underlie the everyday life of millions of Californians. You would not believe the vast beauty of the waters, especially last summer. When you turn on your tap, imagine Fish Creek, tons of whitewater pounding down over granite courses, to meet with the San Joaquin River. I thank you God for most this amazing sip of water.