20 April 2010

Great Basin

Romans 1:20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse . . .

They call it the Great Basin, and after the last two days, I know why. I was sent through here with an oversize load of farm equipment, headed through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada to California’s Central Valley, 2000 miles through springtime in the American West. With a full day and a night in the Great Basin.

It was certainly a full day for me, 500 miles, more or less, although 150 years ago the trip took much longer. I have the advantage of 450 horsepower, ten gear ratios, 18 wheels, and extremely well-built roads. But the one the permit department assigned me was Highway 50. I looked at my maps, and then asked Dawn, my dispatcher, about it.

“My oversize route through Utah and Nevada says Highway 50, not the Interstate.”

“Take whatever they say. You have to follow the permit route.”

“It’s the old two-lane right through the middle. There’s only two towns and no rest areas for 486 miles. Where do I park the truck for the night?”

Eventually I look more critically at my maps and see a few possibilities. And in truth, I know from spending half my life in the west that stopping for the night is actually not that hard. West of the Rockies, I can find places here and there where a 72-foot truck 12 feet wide and 14 feet high might be tucked in without attracting attention. So I agree, and set off.

Driving a truck across the west is easy compared to the old days. I know, because I can read the evidence in the topography. When a modern road crosses the mountains, it cuts across the ins and outs of the necks and draws, smoothly following curve after gentle curve up and down through the road cuts. But if you look, you can often see the traces of the older road, the one that runs the passes farther into the draws, and farther out on the necks, sharper turns, and steeper grades, necessitated by the smaller graders and dozers of the old days. Often the pavement is still there, a reminder of the Ford V-8s and Nashes that once chugged up that slower and more difficult path, boiling their radiators the whole time. And if you know what to look for, you can sometimes see an earlier road still, one diving even higher in and lurching even farther out, criss-crossing all the newer roadbeds, one built by mules, and by men with picks and shovels. I’ve walked those early roads before, and they speak of Spanish missions and pack trains. Sometimes you find old campsites, and once I picked up an ox shoe off the rocky road bed.

I drive a day and a night through mountains, passes, snow capped ranges, perfectly sloped bajadas and alluvial fans. Where my road passes through the dynamited cuts in the country rock, I am treated to endless cross sections of massive lavas, cinders, pyroclastic flows, ash falls weathering to a rainbow of clays. The horizons are composed of lava flows tilted and eroded flat eons ago, buried again by more ancient eruptions and now exposed once more, standing upright like the giant pages of a stony encyclopedia telling a story of cataclysm and quiet. Occasional sandstones and quartzites tell of wetter days, or sandstorms long gone by.

And life abounds, too, in distinct communities that come, go, and come again as I travel up and down through the life zones that radiate from a eutectic of elevation, water, and solar aspect. Ephemeral herbs in the wet springtime playas give way to upland sages and Mormon tea, which then yield to Limber Pines, Pinyons, and Junipers. In the canyons the mule deer look up as I pass, always startled somehow by my noisy arrival, so different from the self-composed bighorn sheep that won’t deign to lift their gaze even when I let the air horns loose to see if they care. Jackrabbits and avocets, vultures, ravens and bluebirds, all ignore me as I pass, but sometimes come close to investigate when I stop to check the chains holding my load. And of course, I know that the real world comes alive at night, when the kangaroo rats dig themselves out of their hidey-holes to look for seeds, and the kit foxes come out of their own holes to look for the kangaroo rats. Three kangaroo rats a night, I remember, and a kit fox never needs to drink liquid water. Bats and bears, pocket mice and wood rats, snakes, lizards, moths and beetles, the Great Basin is an immense and interlocking system of flora, fauna, minerals, and topography, all intricately linked together to maintain a dynamic equilibrium that reflects relationships maintained for millennia. Like a marble rolling to the bottom of a mixing bowl, the different life zones that I pass all hold together in their own way, and adapt to changes in the orientation of the bowl by rolling to a new center, a new balance point, one that automatically shifts to recover stability.

I see the handiwork of Creation in this stability, in these various self-correcting systems that characterize the world, and not just here in the Great Basin. To me, they are sufficient evidence of a Creator. But then, I’m easily convinced. It’s just as easy to look at them and deny the role of conscious creation in their patterns of balance and complexity. Various non-theist Friends tell me in conversation that nothing is demonstrated by nature’s balances that can’t be easily explained without the imposition of a conscious hand at work behind them. Nature needs no explanation other than nature, they say, and the complexities are of no more consequence than the complex shape of a puddle of water that just happens to fit its depression in the ground with molecular accuracy.

And of course, they have an excellent point. If you start with their assumptions, then this view of the universe makes perfect sense. There’s nothing wrong with its logic. Now, understand me when I say that non-theist Friends are a diverse and complex bunch, and some will also explain that non-theism doesn’t discount the possibility of a creator, it just doesn’t require one. But others will sometimes say that they won’t believe in something that can’t be proven, and isn’t necessary to explain the data. In that respect they have some affinities with the first generations of Friends, who also refused to integrate discoveries that were not personal, but sought their own visions like the Paiutes and Shoshone that occupied the valleys I drive through now. But these first Friends also credited the experiences of others as starting points of their own spiritual journeys, and then chose to investigate them themselves, ultimately to possess what they said they professed, to credit the discoveries of others when they were convinced in their own lives. I don’t always see this receptivity among non-theists, this willingness to be convinced.

I once asked a non-theist what physical evidence could convince him of the existence of God. He answered, “Nothing.” And of course, with that attitude, nothing ever could.

Part of the reason may be that many non-theists are strong logical positivists, believers in a philosophy that assumes that the world must be explainable in terms of empirical phenomena, “natural” things that can be tested and verified, at least theoretically. I’ve heard a non-theist explain his beliefs in those terms, and I was surprised. Logical positivism has faded in philosophy in recent decades, but some non-theists will roll it out and dust it off as if it made sense. Among others, Karl Popper punctured the idea that only seeing is believing in the 1930s with his publication of The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Popper showed that in the end, nothing can ever be proven—only disproven, and disproving falsifiable hypotheses is how modern science works. This subtlety escapes a lot of people who claim to believe only in things that can be verified. When I ask them to verify their hypothesis in the non-existence of God, they have asked me if they should believe in any old stupid thing that can’t be disproven, neglecting to notice that their own belief system is one of them.

But as a Christian unprogrammed Quaker, I’m not the person to adequately defend empiricism, or logical positivism, or the various other –isms of the Enlightenment. Although I’m a hard-core defender of a mechanistic universe of orderly laws and principles, I see no conflict with a theistic interpretation, nor do I see any need to assert the old deist argument, the hand that winds the clock, sets it down, and wanders off to other celestial interests and pastimes. To me, the difference is in the assumptions.

Old Thomas Kelly once wrote, “Logic finds, beneath every system of thought, some basic assumptions or postulates from which all other items of belief are derived.” In many ways, my own assumptions are those of a simpleton—I don’t require the world to make sense to me, no matter how much I know about it. I’m willing to believe in things even when they’re metaphysical and just can’t be proven at all. I assume that the ultimate engines of the universe might operate under different laws than those which turn its proximate wheels. When asked the question, “What happened the day before the Big Bang?” one non-theist I know answers by stating “I don’t know, but I’m confident my system of belief will someday have the answer.” I’m a bit different, there. I don’t assume that the world has to cater to my understanding in order to be credible.

This is in sharp contrast to folks who see no need for a Creator. Sometimes when I ask about their assumptions, they tell me that they don’t have any. I once asked an atheist physicist if he could explain his world view to me. He told me, “I don’t have a world view. I merely believe in what nature demonstrates to be true.” He was a tough nut to crack, because somebody who doesn’t even recognize the underpinnings of his own understanding is walking the world in a blindfold.

Ultimately, I suppose the answer lies in whether we require our assumptions to be proven. I don’t require very much proof to be convinced of things, so in many ways I’m a pretty sloppy thinker. But what I do believe, I believe in a positive way, in that I believe in things. When asked what Quakerism meant to him, one non-theist Friend I know of replied: “The rejection of sacraments, the rejection of clergy, the rejection of steeple-houses, the unprogrammed nature of worship, the lack of dogma or doctrine, the lack of an infallible scripture, the Quaker business method, and the commitment to live life through the testimonies and the Quaker community . . .” His view of what he called his religion was essentially negative, a list of things he didn’t believe in. After you took those away, there was actually little left except practice, devoid of underlying meaning, to my way of thinking (not his). Now, this is not bad. Jesus himself had little good to say for belief that didn’t result in practice: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” But inherent in my world view is that why you practice something is ultimately significant, sooner or later. I might row a boat across a river in the company of a cheerful and hardworking companion at the oars. But when I reach the other bank and discover that he is a cannibal conducting me to his family’s dinner, you can see that practice is sometimes only equivalent at the surface, and underneath things are not so congruent after all. But of course, a non-theist might reject the existence of an underneath in the first place, or of the other river bank. Again, a difference in assumptions.

And so it is with the Great Basin. As I write, I have left the deserts behind, and a cool night has covered the western end of the valley where I have parked for the night. The air is wet with the smell of irrigated alfalfa, and the evening sounds of a small Nevada town fill the background, passing pickup trucks and clear but distant voices, rather than the quiet heartbeat of a wilderness devoid of human beings. The Great Basin has reminded me of why I believe in the things I do. In my own experience, I find the answers to questions of existence best provided by the metaphysical view of a conscious creator. My assumptions are different from those of my non-theist Friends and acquaintances. And in truth, I find my assumptions supported regularly, when answers come to questions in the form of omens, impossible coincidences, visions, auditions, and the discoveries of others that are coincident with my own. Many non-theists aren’t satisfied with that level of verification, and continue on looking for sharper answers to the hard questions, or give up asking.

But I’m content with my own solution. Like I said, I’m easy to please.

19 April 2010

A Sense of Place

I slowly climb the steep slope through the chaparral, picking my way carefully between the wait-a-bit thorns of the catclaw and the black spines of the agave, both tenaciously gripping the sparse and shallow soil in the open areas between the trunks of the Ponderosa pines. My boots are no match for them anymore, the heavy soles worn paper-thin and tied crudely to the tattered uppers with scraps of parachute cord. The thin air on the Mogollon is already warm in the late morning, the sun bright, high, and hot, reflecting off the south-facing outcrop back into my face like a heat lamp.

And then I notice something out of place. Uphill and 30 feet ahead of me on the sandstone lies a small piece of chert, its snowy whiteness a geologic error against the green and brown pine needles and the buff slickrock. The thick limestone a few hundred feet below me is full of chert nodules and lenses, but uphill from this sandstone is nothing but basalt and the clear blue sky. The chert is unnatural in this Place. There is no reason for it to be here.

I walk over to the chert and pick it up. And then I understand. It’s not a nodule after all. In my hand is a stone knife, a Neolithic scraper with a flaked edge the radius of an old silver dollar, and a carefully napped hilt. As I turn it in my hand, my thumb slides naturally into a larger percussion hollow, and then the knife slips into place, a perfect fit between my fingers, the first hand to hold it for centuries.

He was right-handed, too, I think to myself.

And I look up from the knife, and then the shapes shift, the light changes, and present time melts away in anticipation of the Visitor. I am in the same Place, but a different Time, one no longer bound by the small cutpoints marking the beginning and end of my own life. I share a moment out-of-time with a man dead for a thousand years, and see the world simultaneously through both his eyes and my own. The Ponderosas we stand under are the same, the clean brown sandstone and the Manzanita chaparral are the same, the view of sixty miles of open country to the south is the same. But it is a sameness shared across a gap of many lifetimes. The sameness attests to a shared experience of this Place, this little clearing, unchanged between the moment one passed by and misplaced a tool, and a different moment another passed by and picked it up.

The sense of timelessness passes on, and once again I am left alone in my own Place, in my own Time. I slip the stone knife into my frayed canvas belt pouch and continue uphill towards the basalt flows. Hours later I will discover that my rock hammer is missing, the steel ring in my belt empty. Instead, in my pouch is a stone knife, a trade I have made with the guardians of Time, a piece of his Place exchanged for a piece of mine, two hands reaching through the portal in opposite directions, making contact.

I’m occasionally granted a sense of place in this way, a privilege to see things, or at least to suddenly understand them in a way that is so clear that it becomes sensory. Usually the moments arrive in the form of a recognition, a sudden sense of the world that has always existed just beyond my understanding, just beyond a curtain. The Visits are usually in the form of a consciousness of a larger cosmos, the awareness of an actor observing himself on the stage, of footfalls fording a braided stream of places, events, lives, and deaths.

I think that the key isn’t so much in any particular knowledge as it is in a receptivity, a readiness to step out of one’s own time and see with different eyes, to hear with different ears. It can happen to anyone, and I read of the same experience that I have in the lives of others. The universe tells its stories to anyone who will take the time and trouble to listen. But so often we just don’t take that time and trouble, we’re just never ready, or we’re too busy to notice the Visitor.

In another Place, at another Time, I sit down on the dry grasses atop a little hill overlooking the creek bed and pull out my lunch of oaten cakes and cheese. My hands are still oily from the tetracycline patties I have just rolled into two truckloads of beehives, sitting in 30 neat clumps of four down in the tarweed and bluecurls below me, tiny children’s blocks from this elevation. The thinly-grassed hills to either side descend smoothly into the flat valley floor and disappear sleepily beneath the sediment, but the stream bed cuts a vertical-sided arroyo that wrenches from side to side, gouging a trench across the valley floor steep enough to break a cow’s leg. It’s not stable, I think, it doesn’t fit here. This topography is depositional, but the stream erodes. There’s no reason for this little prairie to be like this, I think to myself, not for the first time.

And then the shapes shift, the light changes, and again, present time melts away, and the Visitor returns. I look down the valley and see the same Place, but in a different Time. As I watch, the bright yellow tarweeds transform into thick grasses, and clumps of cattails appear. Water appears, the dry arroyo narrows to a clean and flowing rivulet, following a meandering course through the valley, overgrown to the sides with overhanging vegetation. The bare hillsides to either side suddenly sprout young pines, which rise to become forests. I no longer view a dry valley from the 20th century, but instead see an Ice Age landscape from a hilltop of another Time.

It was a cienega, I think to myself. Of course.

The secret of the valley is clear to me now. In the presence of the Visitor, the eroded and gullied valley now tells a story of deposition, of clear-flowing creeks bringing rich soils and minerals from the glaucophane hills above down into the floor with every rain, slowly burying the ever-rising marsh, home of sloths and elk, voles and jumping mice, food for the foxes, wolves, and bear.

Again, I am granted a vision of continuity, a sense of Place and of Time, of my own role as a player in a small scene within an eternally unrolling tapestry, a piece of an immense canvas, one much older, but much younger than myself. I see my own story of wintering my bees here in the tarweed as one chapter of many taking place in this valley, not the first, and not to be the last. The lush Pleistocene valley is written in the meandering stream course, in the thick alluvium, while the hot and dry desert of present time is disclosed by the dry hills, by the vertical stream banks, and the excavation of the rich sediment from another Time, in this same Place. For a little while I see both lifetimes of this Place, and then, as always, the sense of timelessness recedes into shadows again. After a little while, I stand to finish my work among the bees.

Elsewhere, in another Place, at another Time, I lie on my back on the weathered clay and gravel, gazing into the scattered blue light of the sky, the familiar tiny flecks of light wiggling across my field of vision, the countless scintilla that no ophthalmologist has ever been able to explain. Beyond this small mystery in my vision ride the greater mysteries above me, the moon one day past new, a narrow white smile pasted high into the sky, and the sun setting yellow and cheerfully over the mountains in the cool spring evening. I lie on the clay, oriented north and south, and visualize the arc of the sun’s path as it rises on my right and curves to the left, followed a few hours later by the waxing moon. The bodies are unmysterious, as well known to me as the robin that sings in the nearby junipers, amiable companions on my journey through this life, often present, but seldom consciously observed or even thought about.

And then the shapes shift, the light changes, and again, present time melts away in anticipation of the Visitor. The ground heaves under the great circle beneath my back, rotates through a quarter, and reappears as an immense planetary body in a strange and unfamiliar form. I adhere to the vertical side of a slowly spinning sphere, an immeasurably small mote clinging to a colossal ball of heavy metals, aluminosilicates, and gases, itself only transiently held together by the same forces that pin me to its surface. My point of view wheels up and through the atmosphere, and the blue sky fades to the deep black of hard light in the airlessness above.

The flat crescent moon grows in my vision and fills out into another sphere, the reflected light from behind me resolving the complete body in shades of cratered brown and black, illuminated harshly sunward and dimly by earth and starlight on its other half, clearly visible to me now. Against the darkness, the sun hangs in flames at the center of the enormous cosmic dance, tiny balls of heavy elements like the one clutching at my back whirling in huge ellipses around its vastly greater center of mass. Without pause, my vision races farther out still, until the sun and its system of satellites shrink to a miniscule orrery within a seemingly limitless universe composed of countless other systems, some smaller, some larger, but adding up by the thousands, by millions, of suns, and planets, and then of galaxies. And close at hand the stars hang in the Heavens, their fusion furnaces blazing in ecstasy. I see the candles of the Lord sing together, the sons of God shout for joy, in celebration of the beauty and wonder of Creation, the messengers hurtling outwards at immense speed with the good news.

And as quickly as I ascended, I am thrown back to the surface of the earth, the gravel again sharp against my back as the blue curtain of the sky is drawn over the black and infinite Heavens. The stars recede into the distance, and the song of the robin returns. Above me the smiling moon still serenely trails the sun towards the sunset, drawing the terminator ever closer, the edge of darkness that trails the Light.

A sense of Place is a humbling thing, but not humbling in any way that implies diminution, of a loss of value or purpose. The Visits come and go at their own schedule and their own purposes, but are always meaningful, always instructive. For me, the visitations provide a context, a view of who and what I am that enables me to become more fully attuned to my own role in the cosmic dance, a more sensitive participant, one more deeply aware of my assigned steps. And one day, of course, the Visitor will return, and take me away with it when it goes. I have no fear of that day, for nothing in its arrivals or departures hints of animosity or indifference. Instead, the lessons are personal gifts—generous and welcoming previews of a greater and deeper sense of place that one day won’t fade and retreat, but will remain with me forever.

03 April 2010

Cleansing the Temple

And the Iewes Passeouer was at hand, & Iesus went vp to Hierusalem. And found in the Temple those that sold oxen, and sheepe, and doues, and the changers of money, sitting. And when he had made a scourge of small cordes, he droue them all out of the Temple, and the sheepe & the oxen, and powred out the changers money, and ouerthrew the tables, And said vnto them that sold doues Take these things hence, make not my fathers house an house of merchandize. And his disciples remembred that it was written, The zeale of thine house hath eaten me vp -- John 2:13-17 --1611 Authorized Edition

You get to meet really interesting people when you drive a truck. Yesterday I was up in a steel mill in Wisconsin, where I’d loaded eleven slinkies onto the trailer to deliver to a wire works in Pennsylvania, the day after Ishtar. A slinkie is more or less just what you might expect it to be, a tightly coiled up roll of wire just like that ancient children’s toy, the one that rings in your hands when you juggle it, and topples down staircases so gracefully. But mine are much bigger and heavier. The ones on the back right now are all 5/16-inch unpickled steel, and each four-foot coil weigh about 4000 pounds. To hold them onto the bed, you have to lace them down with the four-inch nylon straps, weaving the straps in and out and down to the winches so all the slinkies are held tightly to the trailer bed and to each other. When they get unloaded, they’ll turn into log chain, or nuts and bolts, or threaded rod, or fencing wire, or who knows what. It’s raw material for the factories of America, and what I haul by the ton will someday end up cluttering that drawer in your kitchen along with the string, the miscellaneous nails, and the broken screwdrivers.

Anyway, I’d arrived at the mill at midday with just enough legal hours left to load, strap, and tarp the trailer, but not enough to go anywhere else, so I’d resolved to spend the night there and clean up in the morning in Chicago. I can spend the night most anywhere, as I live in my truck and don’t need anything else except a bathroom. And so to pass the afternoon, I walked around helping other drivers strap and tarp their own loads of slinkies. This sort of help is welcomed among flatbedders, especially when the wind is blowing hard and the tarps flop around like angry pterodactyls while you try to hook up the bungees. I get to talk to lots of different people, and they all have stories to tell.

One of them was Robert, a young driver with a delightful enthusiasm for hermeneutics, and a command of Biblical chapter and verse that eventually left me hopping from foot to foot trying to listen and avoid permanent paralysis at the same time. (I sprained my ankle on a load of aluminum extrusions about ten days ago in Michigan, and can’t stand for long. But Robert was too interesting to leave). Robert's Bible was the 1611 Authorized Version, an unusual choice for a trucker. Amid rapid fire excursions into Exodus, Proverbs, Acts, and the Gospels, Robert focused on the New Testament account of the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem.

“You ever think about what that means, spiritually, I mean?” he asked, spitting tobacco juice onto the asphalt from his perch on the bed of his truck.


“No, no, I mean in the context of the temple of your body. What did Paul say about your body?”

“He said that our bodies were the temple, that they made it up. The Body of Christ.”

“Exactly! And what did Jesus do in the Temple in Jerusalem? When he went in there?”

“Well, he tossed out the money changers, let all the animals loose, and generally upset things.”

“Yes! Now, what does the Holy Spirit do in your own body, in the temple of the Body of Christ? It cleans out your misplaced passions, it drives out the evil, it sweeps it clean. See? The same things. And what did Jesus do after all that?”

“He wouldn’t let anybody else come into the temple while he was in there, taking shortcuts or setting up the tables again.”

“Yes! Remember what he said about the wicked spirits in Matthew 12:44? About how if they come back and find it cleaned up, but empty, they just move back in and you’re worse off? That’s what Jesus does—he comes into the Temple, into your own heart, he cleans it up, he throws out the dirt, and then if you let him, he lives in there, and keeps it occupied, and keeps the wicked spirits from returning.”

“You got it, Robert.”

Robert pauses again to spit more tobacco.

“See? The whole story was set up so Jesus could explain in the Bible what he was going to be doing inside the hearts of people, if they would let him in. He would clean them up, keep them clean, and make them into what they were supposed to be. That day he planned a lesson for us right now”

As the shadows lengthened and the light grew yellow, Robert and I talked about other discoveries he had made in Scripture, among the parables, and within symbolic narratives. Actually, Robert talked, and I listened, and tried to remember as much as I could. Robert was an inspiring evangelist, a man whose enthusiasm for God was boundless, and only matched by his amazing happiness in the discoveries he lived. He told of problems he had, too little money and too many bills. Also, he said, “I’m not very prompt.” Not a good trait for a truck driver. But after he became a Christian, he said, he looked up and visited every person from his past he could find that he had ever wronged, and apologized to them, face to face.

And he was happy. His face literally shone with it in the golden light in the evening. He was an inspiring visitation, an example of one who had welcomed God into his own heart, and had had the money changers thrown out, and the Light take residence inside him. So it should be for us all.
 I go back to this mill regularly, and I’ll see Robert again. I have more questions to ask, and I know he’ll have answers to some of them.

But next time, I’ll be ready with a pen and paper.