More Than Old Bones November 18, 2014Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, earth community, Ecozoic, geologian.
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A recent Scientific American article published the remarkable image of a fossil of the early horse species Eurohippus messelensis unearthed from strata at a one-time site of oil-shale mining in Messel, Germany. Though well-known for the remarkable array of Eocene epoch (roughly 48 million years ago) organisms entombed in those strata, the early horse fossil standouts among the others; the fossil preserves the bones of a mare and her unborn foal (circled in the image above) in their correct pre-birth anatomical positions.
The find reminds me that fossils of extinct organisms are the remains of entires species, not just the bones of individuals. Each organism traversed an arc from birth to death and in the process reproduced members of its own species. Darwin helped human beings see this and evolutionary biologists and paleontologists that succeeded him have theorized the mechanisms that allow the reproduction of species. But this fossil makes visible reproductive capabilities of our more distant vertebrate ancestors. What’s more, the fossilization of a pregnant foal calls to mind the reality that, in the Anthropocene epoch marked by the sixth major mass extinction of life on this planet, human beings must admit the questionable ability of organisms living today to reproduce and survive extinction.
One Earth Sangha January 22, 2014Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in 'Eaarth' Day, Anthropocene, Buddhist concepts, earth community.
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I learned of this initiative via a dharma talk podcasted from Spirit Rock. It is right up my alley and probably that of those of you who read this blog. I invite you to sign on.
Vassar College Students Take on Westboro Baptist Church February 15, 2013Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth community, LGBT concerns.
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I’m in the thick of teaching at Vassar College at the moment. I just came off sabbatical and sometimes I feel it’s a hard re-entry. Those of you who read Relax! You’ll Be More Productive in the Sunday New York Times this week will understand that after having had a restful sabbatical–a real sabbath of the mind–I’m back to feeling with some regularity the pressure of juggled responsibilities. This week has been especially trying because my wife has been travelling for her work. I’ve got lab activities to prepare, quizzes to grade, homework assignments to critique, office hours to keep for eager and inquisitive students, discussions to facilitate along with my not insignificant responsibilities at home as a parent of two teenagers! At times it makes me long for the luxurious hours of reading and freewriting with production of the occasional “blessay.”
But this morning all the effort I put in on behalf of my Vassar students seems worth it; this week they’ve made me especially grateful for the gift that it is to teach them. Thank you Vassar students for responding to the hateful call by the Westboro Baptist Church to protest in our school community. Asreported in the Huffington Post, Vassar students responded to a notice from WBC calling attention to its plan to protest on our campus. Students pledged to raise for The Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT youth, $100 for every minute that WBC plans to protest. At this writing, students have far exceeded their goal; they’ve raised 923% of its $4,500 goal. Yes, you read that right—over 1700 donations have raised more than $40,000 and WBC’s protest here is still weeks away.
As a former board member of the Family Equality Council, one of my chief responsibilities was to raise money for that organization which works to advance the rights of children with LBGTQ parents and our families as a whole. I found it daunting but was told that most money is raised as a result of small donations by ordinary people. With fundraising for The Trevor Project as an WBC counter-protest, Vassar students show how true this is.
Most importantly for me, the Vassar students’ efforts on behalf of LGBTQ people fill my heart with hope and fuel my energy to work diligently for their benefit as well. Reader, may you too take heart from the social justice activism of our youth!
Being (noun); Human (adjective) October 25, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, contemplative practice, earth community, geology, mindfulness practice, slow violence.
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Trying out a new set of phrases for focusing my attention while sitting a four-day retreat with colleagues from the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, I sat on a rock ledge at the Garrison Institute, eyes softly resting on the castle rumored to have been the inspiration for the one in The Wizard of Oz.
“Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in; breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.”
The castle has long been owned and occupied by the Osborn clan, whose ancestors are not only railroad tycoons but also some scientists — among them geologist and director of the American Museum of Natural History for a quarter century, Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935) as well as conservationist and president of the New York Zoological Society Henry Fairfiled Osborn, Jr. (1887-1969).
A red-tailed hawk sailed in the cloudless, powder blue sky, and the broad leaves of a tulip poplar rustled among the other leaves in robust autumn color. And the thought once again occurred to me: human being is no compound noun; being is the noun, human is just an adjective.
And then my mind wandered to the beings I find in my backyard most days of the week:
Chicken, white leghorn;
Heron, great blue;
All of them beings, living.
When our group came out of silence, we spent a bit of time talking about how our contemplative practices affect us as teachers. One of the more concrete effects the practice has had on me is that in my geology courses, when talking about organisms, I no longer refer to “living things.” Rather, though sometimes sounding odd to my students, I talk about other organisms as “living beings.”
I owe this shift in perspective to the Metta Sutta (the Buddha’s words on kindness)
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Some years ago after reciting the sutta in the course of metta practice (wishing ease for all beings), I experienced this epiphany. Now, all that lives and has lived on this planet is abeing to me, not a thing. And we share this Earth with multitudes of these beings. We need only be still in one place long enough to notice them. For those interested in such an endeavor, check out The Forest Unseen, biologist David Haskell’s observations over the course of one year of a single square meter of forest in Tennessee.
Have you had this kind of perspective-shifting experience as a result of your sitting practice? I’d love to know. In the meantime, may all beings live with ease.
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Published on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 by Common Dreams and October 25 by Truthout.
Militaries, Mammals and Spiritual Science October 14, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, science, slow violence, Thomas Berry.
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This piece is cross-posted at Truthout.orgThough not as closely related as they are to hippos, whales have much in common with elephants. Speaking scientifically, they belong to different taxonomic orders–whales to the taxonomic order Cetacea and elephants to the order Proboscidea, but they come from a common ancestor with hoofs and are therefore distinct from other orders of mammals such as primates or rodents. Of course, they both are large, intelligent, social mammals and they share a precarious existence.
Therefore, I was glad to read a New York Times op-ed this morning that condemned the plan of the U.S. Navy to carry out tests and exercises using explosives and sonar devices in the Earth’s major oceans during the five-year period 2014-2019. The Navy estimates that this military activity will negatively affect 33 million marine mammals. Reading this caused my mind to wander back to the stories I read in the Times last month about the widespread slaughter of elephants by members of African militias who remove the ivory tusks and sell them to purchase weapons. Though the butchery of elephants by African militaries is bloodier business than effects such as temporary hearing loss and ruptured eardrums of marine mammals that the U.S. Navy deems “negligible,” I can’t help but think that Earth is in the dire shape it is today because of this type of behavior.
Listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with Dr. Katy Payne, an acoustic biologist attributed with discovering that humpback whales compose ever-changing songs to communicate, and understanding that elephants communicate with one another across long distances by infrasound. One can’t help but be heartbroken at the suffering experienced by these sophisticated beings as a result of such unjustifiable military activities–legal and illegal, in the sea or on land, by developed or developing nations. Dr. Payne comments:
“My sense is that community responsibility, when it’s managed well, results in peace. And peace benefits everyone. That taking care of someone or something to which you are not immediately genetically related pays you back in other dimensions, and the payback is part of your well-being. Compassion is useful and beneficial for all.”
In my opinion, human societies must grow a generation of spiritual scientists who, like Katy Payne, respond emotionally to their scientific work and can try to help change the path down which this planet is headed.
I don’t know if he knew her but I bet Thomas Berry (1914-2009) would have loved Katy Payne. Berry, a leading scholar, cultural historian, and Catholic priest who called himself a “geologian”, spent fifty years writing about our relationship with the Earth and urging humanity to save the natural world in order to save itself. In his last book, The Sacred Universe, he wrote that we must respond to its [the Earth’s] deepest spiritual content or else submit to the devastation that is before us. He dreamed of a new geological Era, the Ecozoic, in which “humans will be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner.”
When it comes to other beings on planet Earth, scientists must do more than articulate their observations of other organisms as if with objectivity. Elephants and whales, along with other marine mammals, are more than “stocks” of resources, as some governments would have us believe. They are living beings with systems of communications and social relations to whom we are connected. Recognition of such connection puts us in touch with the fact that, in Berry’s words, “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Can someone please tell the Navy?
Barry Commoner: A Feminist Environmentalist October 3, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barry Commoner, connectthedotsmovement.org, earth community, environmental justice, environmentalism, feminism, fracking, Precautionary Principle, Sandra Steingraber.
When, as a 21-year-old geology major I chose scientist and activist Barry Commoner as my presidential candidate, I was lambasted by some of my lesbian sisters at Yale for wasting my vote. But upon reading his obituary in the New York Times, I feel proud of the choice I made back then. Barry Commoner, who died September 30, deserves to be remembered as a visionary scientific thinker who advocated for connecting the dots between components in systems of oppression.Barry Commoner, who died on Sunday at the age of 95.
I’d like to remember Commoner as a feminist environmentalist. Why? For one thing, Commoner split with conservation groups like the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation who subscribed to Paul Ehrlich’s theories articulated in The Population Bomb. These organizations, at the time, essentially blamed women for enviromental degradation asserting that it was a byproduct of overpopulation. Commoner was a scientist of the Rachel Carson variety. As the Times put it, his overarching concern was “a radical ideal of social justice in which everything was indeed connected to everything else… He insisted that the planet’s future depended on industry’s learning not to make messes in the first place, rather than on trying to clean them up.”
This line of thinking leads directly to scientists and activists today who insist on seeing the connections between energy, transportation, agricultural and industrial systems that emphasize technological progress and financial profits disregarding consequences such as groundwater contamination, global climate change, and the health of all living beings. Too, Commoner could well be remembered as the direct ancestor of scientists today like Sandra Steingraber, a signatory of the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, a scientist who has devoted her life to explaining the ways that chemical contaminants endanger health, and who currently leads the fight in New York against fracking. For Commoner planted the seed for precaution with his precept that “Preventing a disease is far more efficient than treating it.”
And I don’t know if in his late years Commoner was aware of the work of activist Ashley Maier, cofounder of Connect the Dots, an organization that uses the social-ecological model, that individuals live within multiple spheres of influence, to address connections between environment, human and animal well-being. But I’d like to think that his longevity might have been connected to the hope he could have derived from the work of younger activists like Maier.
Though I never spoke with my graduate school mentor, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, about Commoner, it didn’t surprise me to read his comment in a review of Commoner’s book, Making Peace with the Planet, that it “suffers the commonest of unkind fates: to be so self-evidently true and just that we pass it by as a twice-told tale.” Though he eschewed the politics of science, Steve’s view that Commoner was “right and compassionate on nearly every major issue” rings true as we contemplate as obvious yet imperative Commoner’s prescription of solar energy, electric-powered vehicles, and massive recycling programs, among others, as components of a plan to reverse the formidable, “radically wrong” path of the planet.
Earth, Mars, and Meteorites Inter-Are October 1, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, earth community, geology, Iron Man/Space Buddha, Mars, meteorites, Norman Fischer, science, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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Credit: Dr. Elmar Buchner
While discussing the five skandhas (aspects) that constitute a human being during a dharma talk on The Heart Sutra—a core Buddhist text—renowned Zen teacher Norman Fischer commented that although we don’t need science to confirm the veracity of what we think to be true, it’s nice when it happens that way.
Recently some extraterrestrial data sources corroborated for me what my beginner’s mind thinks The Heart Sutra teaches—that all phenomena are expressions of emptiness. Fischer says this teaching on emptiness is really a teaching about connection. Emptiness, he says, refers to the emptiness of any separation and therefore to the radical connection or interdependence of all things.
Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “interbeing” to express this idea that no thing arises independently. As he described in The Heart of Understanding, there is only the constant arising of the universe (which etymologically means “turned into one”)—each so-called thing enables every other so-called thing. News of the past weeks from both Mars and the asteroid belt confirm such connection between Earth and our neighbors in the solar system.
Ever since it landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in early August I’ve been following the discoveries of NASA’s Curiosity rover (a car-sized, six-wheeled robot), the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory whose mission is to see if the red planet ever could have supported small life forms called microbes. The photos the rover sends back are mesmerizing and the discoveries tremendously exciting for they show that the material substance and processes of Mars are the material substance and processes of Earth.
Curiosity’s discoveries in the past months repeatedly reveal rocks and rock formations that are similar maybe even the same, as what we see on Earth. For example, the first rock analyzed chemically by Curiosity, just for the sake of target practice and dubbed “Coronation,” turns out to be basalt. This is no more spiritually surprising than it is scientifically surprising: this type of volcanic rock is common on Earth and Earth’s moon as well as known from previous missions to Mars to be abundant there.
In at least three sites, visual observations by Curiosity’s high-resolution imager reveal sedimentary conglomerate—a rock composed of compacted and rounded gravels naturally cemented together. We know from geological observations on Earth that water transport is the only process capable of producing the rounded shape of rock fragments this size. Curiosity has found evidence of an ancient Martian streambed!
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI
Listen to Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Space Institute describe these findings. Williams is able to offer her lucid explanation because Curiosity is seeing on Mars the same materials and processes we are accustomed to seeing on Earth.
And as if I were not already convinced of the truth of The Heart Sutra, word arrived that a one thousand year old Buddhist statue taken during a Nazi expedition in 1938 turned up five years ago and was analyzed by planetary scientists in Germany.
Guess what the monument is carved from: iron meteorite, a piece of a meteor from the asteroid belt. Okay, so this piece of iron meteorite has an unusual composition. It’s an especially nickel- and cobalt-rich variety and so is easily traced to the Chinga meteorite that 15,000 years ago smashed into the border area between Mongolia and Siberia. Nonetheless, this “Iron Man” was carved from a piece of space rock whose major elements, iron and nickel, are the very same elements that make up the core of Earth.
Not that we need science to confirm that what we think is true. We’ve also got the wisdom of the ancients. Earth, Mars, and meteorites, for example, inter-are.
After Earth Day, Active Hope April 30, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", book review, Buddhist concepts, climate change, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, geologic time, Joanna Macy, mineral resources, science.
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With its numbered teachings, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (2012), a new book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, pays tribute to its Buddhist roots. However, instead of the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, the five hindrances, and the four brahmaviharas, readers of Active Hope get three stories of our time, five signs of the great unraveling, four stations of the work that reconnects, and three dimensions of the great turning. In their book, Macy and Johnstone update the repertoire of teachings that will enhance our abilities to acknowledge disturbing ecological truths and respond with creativity and resilience.
According to Macy and Johnstone, Active Hope is a practice—we do it rather than have it—with three key steps: obtaining a clear view of reality, identifying the values and directions we hope for, and taking steps to move our situation along that path. In their view, since it requires no optimism, but simply intention, we can apply it even in seemingly hopeless arenas.
Good thing. Macy and Johnstone name resource depletion, mass extinction of species, climate change, economic decline, and social division and war as five signs of the great unraveling, but the signs also bear striking resemblance to the Book of Revelation’s four horsemen of the apocalypse: Famine, Death, Pestilence, and War. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but Macy and Johnstone say it themselves:
“We can no longer take it for granted that the resources we’re dependent on—food, fuel, and drinkable water—will be available. We can no longer take it for granted even that our civilization will survive or that conditions on our planet will remain hospitable for complex forms of life.”
Scientists’ take on Earth’s vital signs suggest such an imminent reality.
The author of numerous books, Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Hers is a deservedly respected voice for peace, justice and the environment, honed over fifty years of activism. In this clear and practical book, physician Chris Johnstone joins her to articulate her approach to activism and empowerment, which she calls The Work That Reconnects.
I first learned of Macy in 2007 when I googled “deep time” and “Buddhism” in a search for a meditation teacher who might help me integrate my preoccupation with contemplative practice and geologic time. Reading Active Hope gave me a window into Macy’s Work that Reconnects and fueled my inclination towards it. Here’s why.
Other recent books on global change focus on dire, dispiriting problems and offer sweeping seeming-solutions. Macy and Johnstone’s manual strives to equip us with a “transformational mindset.” Conceptualized as a journey, the book takes readers along a stream of thinking that, in the authors’ words, flows toward a way of life that enriches rather than depletes the Earth. Chapters in the book guided me through the four stages of the spiral of the Work that Reconnects: Coming from Gratitude, Honoring our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes, and Going Forth. I could tell you more but I’d rather you read the book.
What I will say is that this book offers poetically scientific and accurate renderings of feedback loops and geologic time that will, I think, be helpful as we work little by little toward radically reconfiguring life on Earth. I love that Macy and Johnstone devote a chapter to helping readers develop that critical “larger view of time.” I think the book will refresh environmentally-minded Buddhists who suffer from what I’ve come unfortunately to think of as environmental change fatigue. In Active Hope, Macy and Johnstone teach us how to focus on our intention and strengthen our ability to respond happily to the vexing global crisis in which we live.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.
Recently, when I opened my copy of Offerings: Buddhist Wisdom for Every Day for a bit of early morning inspiration, as has become my habit, I found the following insight from Pema Chödrön:
Not causing harm requires staying awake. Part of being awake is slowing down enough to notice what we say and do. The more we witness our emotional chain reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to refrain. It becomes a way of life to stay awake, slow down, and notice.
Reading it, I couldn’t help but think how relevant her comment is to the situation of North America in March of this year, a month that has felt downright summery. On the college campus where I teach, students have been gallivanting about in shorts, t-shirts and sandals, basking in the warm sunshine, and asking me to hold class outdoors.
It was unseasonably warm around the Ides of March 2012 and I’ve had an appropriate sense of foreboding. On that day The Washington Post reported that hundreds of temperature records had been broken; and the pattern continued for days with unprecedented record heat spanning much of the continental U.S. and Canada. In some places, temperatures were more than 30-40 degrees above normal — breathtaking.
The extent and intensity of the heat wave can be seen on the diagram below, courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory, a map that shows just how out of the ordinary these temperatures have been. It shows temperatures of the land surface compared to the same eight-day period of March since the millennium turned. The red color represents areas with warmer than average temperatures while the blue reflects areas that were cooler than usual.
During this balmy spell, I’ve been teaching a course on so-called “natural” hazards. Pema Chödrön’s comment helps me realize how important it is that I enable students and other fellow beings to awaken to the seriousness of this unseasonal surprise. Though in my class I’ve concentrated so far on the more dramatic disasters — earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions — the truth is that more human beings died from exposure to heat and drought in the period 1986 to 2008 than from any other type of hazard including floods and tornadoes, among the others I’ve already mentioned. Not far behind heat and drought in the list of leading causes of hazard-related fatalities is winter weather.
Weather-related disasters are unspectacular and slow-moving so they are easy to not notice. We can get caught up in the elation of a summer day seemingly gifted to us ahead of schedule or an October storm that causes celebratory whoops among school children who are seeing their first snow day of the season.
But if we slow down and take notice we learn from studies such as one completed by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research that daily record high temperatures occurred twice as often as record lows over the last ten years across the continental United States. This shows that climate is shifting for if the planet was not warming, there would be roughly equal numbers of record high temperatures and record lows over the last few decades.
Despite the fact that teaching about such hazards can sometimes erode hope, I’m motivated by the desire to do no harm. I realized the other day that there is virtue in paying attention to not only the wrenching disasters but the slow-moving, potentially catastrophic ones. Doing so provides the opportunity to integrate mind and heart, understanding and behavior.