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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Holy Ground

In the short, cold, dismal gray days of winter, I can drive to work before the sun comes up, drive home after it goes down, and never see it or feel its radiation for weeks at a time. So Friday night I strapped the canoe to the top of the truck and headed out to Smith and Bybee lakes before sunrise.

At the east edge of Smith Lake, I pushed the canoe off the ice rimmed shoreline into the cold dark water and headed west. An icy whisper of wind stirred up a train of wavelets that gently splashed against the bow and retarded my progress, but the paddling kept me warm. In those moments of transition, as the sky lightened, and the trees began to murmur, I recalled the words from the creation myth that my particular culture endorses.

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light””

I turned the canoe around and stopped paddling. I floated in the middle of the lake and watched the sunrise. I thought I could hear the earth turning.

The wind scribbles patterns in the lake as if it were a finger-painting. In the space of minutes, the water’s character goes from spastic to languid. I wonder if the author of the creation myth ever had a canoe.

Turning back around, I see the sun has painted the barren trees with fire. As I draw closer, I am reminded of yet another mythic story.

“And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.”

I know about myths and metaphors. I marvel at the complexity of life as accomplished by the cumulative effects of natural selection. I am sensitive to the beauty of patterns elicited by speeding photons striking the back of my eyes. I even convince myself that I recognize the difference between fiction and truth, that I know the difference between narrative stories and objective news. Yet some stubborn superstitious, story-telling part of me wants to tell you that in the magic hours of Saturday morning, I saw a bush that burned without being consumed.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Snow Day

Portland typically doesn’t get more than one or two big snow events per year. When the snow does come, it only loiters for a day or two. This puts snow in the novelty category for most of us who live in the Willamette Valley. When weather forecasters begin to insinuate that snow may reach the valley floor, it is not only the children who run shouting to the windows to verify the first snowflake sighting, the ranks are swollen also by every adult who never grew up in Minnesota or some other reasonable facsimile.

Early Tuesday morning, in what seemed like a sneak attack, the streets began disappearing under inches of snow that readily packed into an ice-like coating. The public school system authorities, still smarting from criticism for having closed down the schools on a day when no snow really materialized, almost erred in the other direction by refusing to call off school until almost seven o’clock. By that time, traffic had already pretty much ground to a halt and any place with elevation had turned into winter recreation areas.

While watching or reading the news coming out of the Middle East, it is easy to grow pessimistic about human nature. It seems obvious that we can’t get along with each other. It seems we are inclined to or destined to kill each other.

But snow days reveal that we like and need each other too. In many cases, just a few hours of freedom from work and the consequential forced isolation in a house or apartment results in the rare release of our inner children. Wide eyed and innocent again, kids of all ages bundle up and join together to play like dogs or otters in what seems to be a pure white blanket of redemption.

This is a gentle slope above reservoir 5 on the west side of Mt. Tabor. Tuesday it became an impromptu ski-slope, and those who didn’t manage to acquire a make-shift sled of inner-tube, cardboard, or plastic, at least lined the edges of the hills and waited for spectacles as impressive as the ski-jumper who used to crash every weekend on the Wide World of Sports.

There seems to be a sense of fellowship that results from shared common experiences, from remembering back to the olden days when we were raised in families and growing up and seeing the world with new eyes. Maybe we remember our familial relationships with each other when we all stand in awe before the tricks nature can do.

I was reminded of another winter storm, this one on the Oregon coast, when hurricane force winds buffeted the beaches for two straight days. When it was over, all the people came out, warily at first. They surveyed all the damage, tallied the number of dead sea-birds, marveled at the evidence of hydraulic power and fixed windows if necessary. Then, spontaneously, they began to group together on the beaches to share their stories, to stand together and rejoice in the feeble sunlight.

There is something wonderful yet paradoxical about human individuality and human culture. I could literally see the individual response to snow in all the creative solutions devised for sliding on it. People chose skis, snowboards, shovels, discs, inflatable boats, butts, cafeteria trays, and even a plastic twister game to take advantage of various kinds of slippery surfaces. Meanwhile, you could also see our culture - our rules and ethics spring into action. People stood in line, watched out for each other, collaborated on jump-building projects, administered first aid, anticipated conflicts and danger and took steps to minimize them. They shared. They compromised.

They had fun.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Invasion of the Alien Pods

They looked harmless. They looked like decorative flowers. But hidden among the wilting blooms and walls of sword shaped leaves, the plants were diverting their energy into the production of survival pods, packing them with DNA instructions and the resources necessary to execute the campaign to propagate the species – seeds.

Like economy class passengers stuffed onto an international flight, the seeds are packed into the pods – the fuselages of clever and efficient dispersal devices.

The sun’s deliberate retreat to the South brings an end to the season of excess solar energy. The handwriting is on the wall. The plant must look forward to decline and perhaps death. The signal to activate the pods is sent.

Since not even a plant can predict the future, there is some uncertainty about what the optimal conditions for dispersal will be. Therefore the plant is forced to hedge its bets and adopt a strategy that will take advantage of the changing conditions of the autumn season and winter. Some of the pods are quick to respond. Some procrastinate. The precious cargo is jettisoned over time.

On Sunday, I arrive at Smith and Bybee lakes to see the broadcasting of seeds literally frozen in time. The beaver manufactured reservoir I explore is shaded by a grove of future dam candidates and remains locked in ice. Evidence of the tail end of a massive amphibious campaign is everywhere preserved in sheets of solid water.

Generally, when one’s mental functioning is compared to the mental functioning of a vegetable, it is usually not something to brag about, but the propagation of seeds is a masterful feat of logistics that utilizes wind, water and weather to send seeds successfully into an unimaginable future.

Iris Survival gambit

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Reservoir of Memory

Say a chimpanzee knuckle walks into a cathedral.
Does it stand in awe before the ornate alter or are its predominating thoughts more like, “I don’t see any bananas - Where can I find some bananas?”

Much is being discovered about how similar the genetic code is for chimps and humans, yet the dissimilarities seem fairly significant. So far as I know, chimps don’t build churches, worship before icons, or go on crusades, at least not for purposes of evangelism. The question that goes begging is whether or not chimps neglect their religious duties because of superior intelligence or not.

Frans De Waal has assembled a remarkable book called My Family Album: Thirty Years of Primate Photography. The photographs document the social behavior of monkeys and apes and effectively argue that the difference between a man and a chimp is a small matter of degree on a broad continuum.

Obviously not a chimp.

Chimps use tools, communicate in rich social environments, and recognize themselves in mirrors. That means the only really unique thing that differentiates us from other apes and the rest of the animal kingdom is our propensity to use (or care about) calendars, appointment books and journals. These skills, coupled with our freakishly large heads allow us to remember the past, to plan ahead, but also to imagine the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be. Evidently, once we begin monitoring the way things work, it isn’t long before we come up with ideas like justice and begin looking for ways to lobby the universe for favor – to influence how our lives unfold.

The reason I mention all this is because I was trying to figure out what it is about people that compels them to make shrines. I accidentally found a shrine on Saturday as I walked around the perimeter of Reservoir One, high on the south side of Mt. Tabor. The shrine-maker utilized a small concrete fountain built into a small arched alcove in the retaining wall at the end of the reservoir opposite the gatehouse.

Some ancient civilizations, like Egyptians, went to extremes to construct timeless memorials, and if you happen to be an Egyptian walking around in Egypt, you can pass by ruins and artifacts that stretch thousands of years into the past.

Here on the west end of our continent, Oregonians must make do with architecture that is considerably less historical. Reservoir One was made by ancient Oregonians when Portland was a town of about 3000 people. The reservoirs on Mt. Tabor and in Washington Park made today’s Portland possible.

Symbolically, a life-giving fountain is a pretty great location for a shrine. Of course, I can really only assume that what I found was a shrine. The ample use of fir tree boughs and an illustration of a Christmas tree hinted that the ‘shrine’ might be decorations linked to the holiday season. The variety of objects and their purposeful arrangement suggested meaning to me though it was hard to determine if the references were pagan or Christian. I couldn’t be sure of the meaning of many of the artifacts. I wanted to pick some of them up and study them more carefully. I wondered if there was a note written somewhere on the paper. I wondered if the quarter would reveal additional clues if I could see what state it represented. I wondered who made the shrine and if the author meant to leave an optimistic message about life, or one of those sad memorials like those crosses you see alongside the highway. But mostly, I felt like I was invading a private space, like approaching an altar in a strange church. So I kept a respectful distance and thought about these things.

Incidentally, try as I might, I couldn't find any bananas.

For in-depth information about the reservoirs at Mt. Tabor, visit the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association web pages. Here's a link that will take you to some very detailed PDF files.

To find out more about ape and human evolution, consider visiting Living Links, Yerkes National Primate Research Center Web pages (Frans De Waal is the director).

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