Category: "Control Series"

Control in Nature

January 11th, 2013

Calendars. They always get a lot of attention this time of year, and 2012 was exceptionally ripe for observation thanks to the end of the Mayas' version. And speaking of endings, this is the last post in my series that looks at the human need to be in control, how it gets the best of us, how it can feed selfishness and greed. Crazy as it may seem, I'm going to use the calendar as an example to show how we've come to believe Nature should abide by our control.

Our old Gregorian calendar has been taken for granted for a long, long time. It was designed by an astronomer(s); named for the pope who adopted it; and featured in a story filled with controversy and conferences and lots of ancient names that end in "us." Regardless, its origin is based purely on Nature. It marks the phases of earth's loyal companion, the moon, and tracks the activity of our nearest star, the sun.

An August moon in the daytime sky.

And thanks to a minor, February, leaping reset needed in the years divisible by four, the calculations remain accurate, even after all these centuries. It's so accurate, in fact, we now expect Nature to abide by our man-made dates. The labels we follow (seasons, years, months, days) have become crucial to our society's ability to communicate and plan. It's as if we cannot live without them.

Still, I dare you to gaze at the night sky without retreating to a state of wonderment. Furthermore, try to imagine the experience if such technology didn't exist. Without a calendar, how would we know what's going on? One hour it's light, and then it's dark. One day it's freezing cold; a bunch of days later it's blazing hot. Sometimes an orange orb rises in the darkness, sometimes just a white sliver of light. Were we to try to measure the patterns, we'd first have to realize that a pattern existed at all.

A frozen marigold.

But in today's reality, we don't need to look up. We follow a document to tell us when to celebrate a holiday, plant corn, and bring the lawn chairs in for storage. We have become a synchronized machine, counting the years of our natural lives by the timekeeping of a human device.

All runs smoothly ... until Nature doesn't conform. A heavy snow comes early in the fall, a dry period in the spring, a persistent rain midsummer; before we know it, there is talk of the end of the world.

Fall or winter? Photo taken after a strange October snow.

It's just one more sign that we have evolved into a species with a backwards perception of control. Why does this matter? Because it makes us inflexible, ignorant to truths around us, and reliant on a mankind tainted with nonsensical motives. When we turn our eyes from the sky to look at our clocks, we break a connection. We retreat to a man-made world defined by a man-made system of economics, where the only people who know what time it is are the ones who can afford to buy a watch.

It's a humbling experience to watch other living things survive without such "crucial" implements. Take the monarch butterfly. Multiple generations are born each year; development from egg to flight takes only 30 days. You can see a monarch fluttering around all summer where I live, but it may not be the one that migrates.

Monarch adult

On the eastern side of the United States and Canada, only the ones born after September will fly south to breed in Mexico. With delicate wings, they battle storms and windshields to keep the Danaus plexippus species alive. It's just one in a million miraculous stories found in Nature, and not a single subject will ever know we've given it a birth date. In the absence of a calendar, the butterfly doesn't know it's September. Its itinerary is guided by something more pure.

Yes, our story is equally amazing, filled with examples of unbelievable progress (and lots of names which end in "us"). Sadly, our knowledge is too entangled with economics, and we cannot seem to unbind the two. Overly popular is the perception that Nature is either a thing to contend with, a thing to be conquered, or a thing to be sold. Man sees a tree and thinks of the wonderful telephone pole it would make. And even in absence of money, we plow, prune, and harvest based on an Almanac the garden does not read. And when Nature slips up and strays from her pattern, she is scolded for being fickle and undependable.

It is said that the Mayan people (whose calendar has been the subject of the latest end-of-the-world hubbub) were/are a highly intelligent society, their calendar is/was very complex. Still, as an imperial society, they fell. They did survive extinction, though; those in Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico amazingly follow a culture fairly unchanged. Their story fascinates many intellectuals who are driven to learn why such a booming civilization busted so quickly. And many speculate that the empire simply could not survive a changing planet.

To that I say, "hmm."

Browse the previous posts in this series if you'd like. Next week I will offer an official close with a summarization and thoughts on where we could go from here.

Series post list:

Series Introduction
Control in Democracy
Control in Advertising
Control in Relationships

Control in Communication
Control in Weather
Premise to Control in Existence of Life

Control in Existence of Life

Control in the Existence of Life

December 14th, 2012

With my back to the tree, I never sensed the hawk's presence. I could not immediately comprehend the ruckus going on behind me; it sounded as if the flock of robins had begun wrestling over the berries on which they had been peacefully feeding. By the time I turned around to investigate, chaotic fluttering turned into a clear picture of a red-tailed hawk leaving the sharp holly tree, a robin dangling in its grip.

As the hawk worked to carry its load into the air, the sound of its heavy wing beats was drowned out by shrieks from the robin. Scream. Scream. Scream. Scream. Then silence. The songbird either died or gave up as the hawk circled the yard and flew out of sight.

A bird killing a bird is not an easy thing to watch. In witness, I became keenly aware that life and death is not up to me. In reflection, I sensed why it should not be. I came face-to-face with an emotional struggle of compassion: to be able to allow life to exist and end without intervention, to hold back the need to make corrections based on my emotions, to prevent myself from extending control. Had I been able to act on my initial, involuntary response, I’d have saved the robin. But in doing so I would have robbed the hawk, thrusting me into the realm of greed, taking on that very quality I point to as the root of society’s problems.

Hawk lifting squirrel

Via, Paul Marotta has shared this image of a red-tailed hawk carrying away a squirrel, a similar scene to the one I saw.

It’s funny, too, how we suddenly favor the underdog when we see one. I would usually treasure the sight of a hawk more so than a robin. A hawk is less common and more majestic. I always stop to watch when I spot one patrolling the open sky far above me. The raptor is so synonymous with freedom and wildness, its piercing call can be heard in the background of many a western movie or song. Meanwhile, there are so many robins around they are the first bird a school child learns to identify. It’s a wonder any worms survive, they the underdogs when a robin's around.

But now, I hated the hawk, and I pitied the robin. I had lost an old, taken-for-granted friend who once told me it was spring and often sang long after sunset in summer. I wished I hadn't seen the killing. I wished I hadn't heard it. I wished I didn't know about it. I felt helpless; it was out of my control.

I discussed the eternal how-was-life-created question in the premise to this post. I received a few, very thoughtful comments. Two of them were made public; you can read them by clicking here. A private one pointed to the mathematical equation of the number of years humans have asked the life-source question versus the number of years any one human lives. Each perspective was worthy of consideration, if for no other reason than to show how we each approach the subject differently -- how no one really knows -- leaving me to focus on this post's primary intent: Given the certainty of uncertainty, who are we to dictate life or death?

We instinctively favor life in the same way we root for the underdog. For if we didn't cherish life, why would we struggle to survive? The robin's screams proved to me that it wanted to live, and that sound was the most “tragic” part of the experience.

But what about the hawk's life?

I’m thankful that humans, like robins, do not get to choose. If we did, every seed would become a child and every grave an empty hole. Unintentionally, as a result, our population would quickly consume every ounce of Nature; life’s miraculous beauty would disappear.

A cemetery adornment in Jim Thorpe, PA

In the midst of this reality we've reached the age of artificial life. Our medications and our systems keep us ticking long after Nature would have planned. No couple need be denied a family as long as they've got enough cash. Any animal that hunts a human is eradicated after its first kill, every threat met with full arsenal. As we each try to find our own way through this life, surrounded by advancements and interventions, we cannot pretend to be above the system in which life comes one day and leaves the next. As society progresses, we are increasingly faced with choices, choices that maybe we weren't intended to make, choices that are as individual as our thoughts about God(s).

Of course, it's not wrong to want to thrive or to be compassionate, kind, or caring. And we can continue to choose ways that limit death and preserve life.

A sign seen on vacation to the Gulf Coast of Florida.

But we must be mindful about over applying our compassion in the same way others must reign in their desire for money. We must let life -- and death -- go.

We must step aside from our super human intelligence and accept that the design is right just the way it is, no matter how it came to be, no matter how painful it seems, and regardless of how much we want to beautify every ugliness.

Until we do, we will forever be in despair, unhappy with the ways things are either in our own lives or in judgment of the actions of those around us. But when we do, we will gain the freedom to simply live the life designed for us, as best we can, during the short time we've got.

A happier "sign" found on the same vacation.

This is a challenge, my friends. It is human restraint in its greatest form. I must let the predator kill the prey. And I have to accept that THAT is ok.

A Premise to Control in the Existence of Life

November 30th, 2012

Last week I took a break from my Control series in order to publish a story that was time sensitive. It was longer than my typical post. This week I am due to write the next series installment "Control in the Existence of Life," a heavy topic to say the least.

To avoid subjecting you to another lengthy piece today, I scrapped three, too-long, previous drafts. Then, I read Marcel Gleiser's post on NPR's 13.7 Cosmo and Culture Blog, "Astrotheology: Do Gods Need To Be Supernatural?" It stirred up even more emotions, adding to my brevity challenge. As I read Gleiser's post I thought, "I wonder what my readers would think of this." Thus, consider this a brief premise...a request for your perspective should you decide to share.

NPR's photo Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

If you have the time and interest, read the Astrotheology piece (via the blue link above). If not, know that in it he asks a lot of questions about life. He points to advancements in modern science over the last 400 years and wonders where we'll go in the next 1,000, proposing that we might someday be able to create life. Then he questions if other intelligent creatures in the universe (aliens?) already can...and did, asking us to consider the possibility that they created us?

Even though the piece is about a God or a creator, I have no desire to start a debate on who is God or if there even is one, which is precisely why I'm having so much trouble writing my next post. Gleiser wonders if God is just a super intelligence "man." I wonder what happens when we have the audacity to start thinking that.

I write about what I see with my eyes, feel in my heart, and know by my instinct. No matter who or what designed it, we are all surrounded by an intricacy so intense, we will never fully understand it, like a puzzle that can't be solved. That is beautiful to some (such as me) and ugly to others (such as those who demand control).

Now, I must admit that when it comes to living, I too am greedy. I don't want to give it up. However, if I acted as if I had control over the existence of others, I'd be ignoring the fact that there is much I do not know, like a petty teenager demanding an increase in weekly allowance, unaware of the family's inability to pay the mortgage. Society has already moved toward Gleiser's wonderment (contraception, fertilization, doctor-assisted suicide, death-prevention healthcare). I'm not the first to wonder about the consequences, the infinite string of reactions to such actions. In fulfilling our selfish desires to control life, are we ruining the beauty of life for all?

In the face of such eternal conflict, tell me how Gleiser's ideas make you feel. Can we -- should we -- continue to live with humility or is that becoming a bunch of foolish nonsense?

Comment below or contact me privately (or just send me a telepathic message [insert smiley face here].) By sharing what you see, feel, and believe, you will help me write my next post. Remember, I don't write this to pass judgment but to encourage discernment, for continually asking questions is our best defense against greed's control, even when the greed is our own.

Control In Energy

November 10th, 2012

Can you imagine where we'd be today had we invested as much in American, energy-supply ingenuity as we did in change resistance over the last 40 years? We sure have put a lot of effort into standing still. The disasters, the destruction, the fights, the pollution, and the controversy that surrounds the large-scale energy industry has long reached the point of ridiculousness.

What for? If you've been reading this series, you already know my answer: control.

What better way to control the population of an entire country than to control its power supply?

When I was young, I dreamed of having a windmill.

Growing up in the foothills of coal country, I could see the beautiful advantages of wind (and solar) power at a very early age. In the nearly 40 years since then, the idea that a home could be powered in such a way has been considered possible but unreachable, encouraged but resisted, and logical but silly. We were told the technology wasn't there, when in fact it was; that it wouldn't work, when in fact it did. Because we couldn't depend on the wind to blow, it was explained, there would be no sense in relying on it for power.

Meanwhile, people across the country gathered at town meetings to speak out against proposed gas power plants, high-voltage power lines, coal-power mines, and oil-power moguls. While standing up for the beauty and health of their neighborhoods, they were called hypocrites, reminded that their homes consumed power, and the ugly truth was, if they wanted to keep the lights on, they'd have to accept the development. They were enticed to cooperate with words like jobs and opportunity. Any cry for solar and wind and freedom from oil dependence was met with staunch opposition, like a parent correcting an illiterate child.

Flash forward to 2012 where much has changed while everything has stayed the same. The power moguls now sell us on their new idea, citing a need for independence from oil as if they were the ones to figure that out. They now blaze through our mountaintop forests to build roads to the summit, wide enough to carry equipment and manpower, all to install...windmills.

The dreamers' solution has been turned against them. Industrial windmills are nothing of what was envisioned. The 400-foot tall monsters have blades so huge, power is required to get them spinning.

lakewinds billboard

A single 1.8 megawatt turbine blade in transport.

Instead of one built here and there, near where the power is consumed, thousand-acre wind fields are planted in our most pristine landscapes. The enormous rotating blades cause the air pressure around them to drop to a level where a red bat flying into the field will hemorrhage internally, like a deep-water diver coming to the surface too quickly. Where citizens wanted fewer right-of-ways through woodlands (keeping trees on the ridge lines was a key component to their conservation pleas), more carving was needed to connect these monstrosities to the grid.

And then, to add insult to the injury, when forced to chose between a living tree and the need to keep the grid free from outages, the tree lost every time.

Threatened by the potential for million dollar fines should an outage occur, a rural power company played it safe and shredded any living growth under its 1,300 miles of electric right-of-ways, this spot once a suspected nesting sight for rare Golden Winged Warbler.

Now the townspeople gather to speak out against the windmill.

The idea that man or woman grows filthy rich from this impact – the idea that money is contributed to their cause each time an energy bill is paid – is disgusting beyond words. This is the effect of control in its ugliest, most obvious form.

After all this time waiting and hoping for alternatives to come, it's easy to feel browbeaten and discouraged. But I can't, you shouldn't, and we mustn't.

Do not believe the alternatives aren't already here. And do not be fooled into thinking the windmill is the culprit. There has been investment in ingenuity, yielding products and technology to make the dreamers' vision a reality, their picture as beautiful as the image of my childhood.

Snowshoeing in the Catskills of New York on my 40th birthday

A windmill need not kill. Biologists are learning how to prevent bat deaths with simple engineering corrections. Ornithologists can recommend low-growing vegetation suitable for nesting underneath the lines. In the large-scale world, these solutions are profit risks. But in the community-minded world, these solutions can be carried out with ease.

We can be free of the profit-at-any-cost model. A house or a community need not be connected to a greed-controlled grid for it to receive power. Our choices are growing, too, extending beyond wind and solar. We have the ability to generate power diversity. Not a one-size-fits-and-controls-all supply, but a host of different sizes, each matched to the environment in which it is placed. With each home, each business, and each community that does so, a message is sent to the top that says "we can take care of ourselves, thanks, and we'll do it without ruining the Earth."

The environmental impact of us powering our lifestyle is always going to be somewhat harmful. New technology always has a few kinks to work out, but none so large that it would crudely snuff out a fisherman's entire livelihood or a species' entire existence.

A single small-scale wind turbine at Tuscarora State Park (PA) spins almost silently, approximately 120 feet in the air, just outside the park office. A nearby sign indicated that a small-scale turbine can supply enough electricity for the average American household, each year.

I live on the hated grid as I write this. I still haven't gotten that windmill. The fact remains that my proposition takes dedication, teamwork, money, and sacrifice. However, all that pails in comparison to the disasters, destruction, fights, pollution, and controversy we've endured for too long. I haven't given up. I won't give up. And I sure hope you don't either.

Series post list:

Series Introduction
Control in Democracy
Control in Advertising
Control in Relationships
Control in Weather
Control in Existence of Life (to come)
Control in Nature (to come)

Control in Weather

November 2nd, 2012

We had plenty of warning about the storm. We were told to prepare for days without electricity. We expected nine inches of rain to flood our streams and rivers, and there was little question the monster was headed straight at us.

Warned as we were, Hurricane Sandy didn't exist when I planned this post back in September, the fifth in a series written to help kindhearted people cope with so much bad news, empowering us to maintain hope through the challenges we face. However, ironically, she made landfall during the same week I planned to write about "Control in Weather."

This image from the NASA/NOAA Suomi NPP satellite's VIIRS instrument shows Hurricane Sandy strengthening in the Gulf Stream as it makes its way to landfall in New Jersey. The image shown here was taken during the satellite pass around 1735Z on October 29, 2012.

I began the project because I knew I wasn't alone in my struggle to remain positive. I wanted to share what I had found, during quiet reflection, to be at the bottom of my despair, because I also believe the best way to solve a problem is to identify its source. I've long thought that greed was the culprit underneath our biggest issues. But that summation only left me feeling more helpless. How are any of us to eliminate greed? Since we can't, I had to look deeper than that.

And it's obvious that greed isn't at the bottom of the destruction America is contending with right now. Yet circumstances are worsened by the same factor that grants greed so much leeway: a human desire for control. Outside of self-control, letting go is our best hope for improving our long-term condition.

And nothing makes that point better than a giant storm:

•We cannot control the rain water with our gutters.

•We cannot control the open wind with our bricks.

•We cannot control the jet stream with our forecast.

•We cannot control the ocean boundary with our dunes.

A dune reconstruction project in North Wildwood, New Jersey during the summer of 2010.

For a long time I've overheard the observation that we build in places we shouldn't. And for a long time I've overheard the observation that our air and water – precious to life – is polluted by the burning of fossil fuels. Yet the uniformed mistakes of the 1800s remain rampant in the new, educated millennium. We build and we burn seemingly at will. This is not due to a lack of scientific knowledge or public education; this is due to a false sense of control.

Somehow we think we can stop the waves from reaching our cliff dwellings or we can remove the pollutants from the fire. Instead of adapting, we defend our lifestyle. Pressure builds and builds and builds until things go wrong. Then we lose hope for life.

We forget that Nature has given every single cellular being an amazing ability to adapt, because our Earth home is a forever-changing place.

Geological evidence shows that the continents were once slammed together, Europe fitted to the North American coast like pieces in an enormous puzzle. Meanwhile, I remember the legend of an American Indian tribe I once heard which explained their unwavering gratitude for light. It described their ancestors living underground during a time when the outer world was uninhabitable. "Impossible," we'd say. Yet when we dig our toes into the East Coast sand and gaze out over the rolling waves, can we ever imagine taking a step forward into Spain?

Will our wonderful days of picture-perfect weather diminish? Will Iceland's island melt into the sea? Will our soils turn to rocks, our valleys to swamps, or our trees to stumps? Maybe. My life is short; the change I witness is measured in weather, not climate. Still, I have a choice during the few years I have. I can force the conditions to adjust to me, breaking rock into soil, pumping water to find land, or roping trees so they will not fall. Or I can adjust "me" to the conditions, finding new places to plant and inhabit, watching great oaks emerge from acorns. The odds which are against me in the first option shift toward my favor in the second, impacting generations, like gratitude for the sun.

For a long time I've overheard the observation that life is appreciated most after surviving disaster, for disaster forces us to accept that we are not in control. Hurricane Sandy may have been inconvenient, but it came at a perfect time for this blog project.

Important footnote: It is not my intent to use suffering as an example. My compassionate thoughts are with all the storm victims and their families. Other than a day's pay and a few snapped trees, my experience in the Philadelphia suburbs has been that of minor inconvenience. I thought about postponing this post because I could not have written a piece on the weather without writing about Sandy. However, I decided to stay the course to remind us that we can come back stronger than before. This post (as in all posts here) is written not in judgment of the past, but in hope for the future.