The Mountains Are Calling and I Must Go

Dear reader –– I am taking a break for a couple of weeks to walk in the mountains, something I have done almost every summer for nearly fifty years. In the last two years, however, my annual wilderness pilgrimage has gone awry. In 2017, an equipment failure derailed my backcountry adventure on the first day. Last year, wildfire smoke from Canada to California eliminated all my best options for an extended outing. But each of those cancelled treks, as it happened, got replaced with a day hike of surpassing beauty. And as John Muir once testified, the blessings of a single mountain day are sufficient for a lifetime.

Some of those riches can be seen in the photos I posted afterward: “Every Common Bush Afire with God,” and “Mountains to Try Our Souls.”

Thwarted plans sometimes turn out to be a gift. In his marvelous book about wilderness hiking and spirituality, Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, Belden C. Lane puts this perfectly:

It can, and often will, happen. You forget to bring the matches. You fail to notice the poison ivy surrounding your chosen tent site. Mosquitoes send you home, or blisters make it impossible to go any further. You spend a night without sleep, seeking warmth in a wet sleeping bag as wind whips through your torn and tangled tent. Every backpacker has a story like this to tell. 

In your wilderness journey, the Desert Christians warned, you will be wounded. The desert will take away everything you hoped to keep––your reputation, your confidence in your ability to achieve, your sense of who you are. You’ll know fear. You’ll fail. You may even have to died to what you counted on most, being dragged out feet first from that wild terrain (at least metaphorically). 

But in the process, you may discover your greatest joy in having survived the night, in finding resources you never knew you had, falling back on a strength that was more than yours. You experience a new identity, a fearlessness in the face of terror. You know a love that would never have been yours without passing through the dark night. From then on, you look back upon every failure as a gift, every mistake as an occasion for the miracle of grace. 

Read the whole book! Each chapter uses one of Lane’s personal wilderness experiences to explore the wisdom of a different saint. I’m putting my hardcover copy in my backpack. It’s well worth the extra weight.

Forty–five years ago this month, I completed a 150-mile trek in California’s Sierra Nevada from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. After twenty days in the wilderness, I returned to civilization the very day President Nixon resigned. Since I had also been backpacking when Vice-President Agnew resigned in the previous year, I began to wonder about cause and effect. I’m only backpacking for a week this time, but the way things are going, who knows what news I may hear upon my return?

 

 

Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, by Belden C. Lane, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015.

 

 

Bushy the Squirrel: A Justice Parable

My father, an Episcopal priest and producer of Christian media, made a series of filmstrips called Parables from Nature in the 1950s. Based on a children’s book by John Calvin Reid, they retold the parables of Jesus using characters from the natural world. One of these was “Bushy the Squirrel,” inspired by Luke 12:13-21 (the Lectionary gospel for Proper 13, 8th Sunday after Pentecost). The illustrations were painted by Hollywood animation artists, and some of them are included here.

Once upon a time there was a squirrel named Bushy. He was a fine little squirrel, but as he grew older everyone began to notice a change in him. All he cared about was gathering nuts. Every day you could hear his voice ringing through the forest: “Gotta get more nuts! Gotta get more nuts!”

As soon as he stored the nuts he had found, he’d run off to find some more. “This is not enough. Gotta get more! Gotta get more!” Bushy was so obsessed with getting more nuts, he drove all his friends away. And when anyone came to his door collecting for the needy, he just said, “Aw, don’t bother me now. I’m too busy getting nuts.”

After a while, he had so many nuts, he needed a bigger place to put them. And one day he saw an old hickory tree with a big hole in it. It was perfect. But some woodpeckers had made their home in that tree. That didn’t stop Bushy. He kicked the woodpeckers out, and filled the tree with nuts.

Bushy’s neighbors had a hard time finding any nuts left for them to eat. But Bushy didn’t care. He had what he needed. The other squirrels were not his problem.

When winter came, Bushy relaxed in his tree, the happy owner of all those nuts. He didn’t have a care in the world.

Then one night, when he was fast asleep, a wind began to blow, and the wind was so powerful, it broke his tree in half and sent Bushy tumbling into the lake.

“Help me! Help me!” Bushy cried. Mr. Bear heard the shouts, and called the other animals of the forest to the rescue. Suddenly Bushy found that he was not the only person in the world – luckily for him! He needed the others and they needed him.

Bushy’s heart was changed by his experience, and he became a new squirrel, sharing everything he had with anyone who needed it.

The story of Bushy is like a parable Jesus told: There was once a rich man who had a problem. He had too much stuff and didn’t know where to put it all. So he built bigger and bigger storage units. But that didn’t solve his problem, because his appetite for acquisition could never be satisfied. “Gotta get more nuts, gotta get more nuts!”

So is Jesus trying to be Marie Kondo here? Is he offering a useful method of self-help so we can reduce our clutter and make our lives more beautiful and satisfying? Is that why he tells this story––to foster self-improvement? Or is he doing something more radical, more demanding?

What if Jesus had said, “This story is not about you––it’s about us. It’s a story about the foolishness of trying to live as though ‘I’ am the only person in the world. It’s a story about the foolishness of being oblivious to community.” Well, he didn’t say those words, of course. He just told the story, trusting us to have ears that hear.

A certain rich man’s lands brought forth bountiful crops. And he deliberated within himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I do not have a place where I may gather my fruit?”

He deliberated within himself” is a telling image of isolation, suggesting a self utterly cut off from other voices, other perspectives. And notice how he seems surprised by the size of the harvest. As a rich man, he would already possess considerable storage space. But this harvest is bigger than he ever expected or imagined. And when the Bible talks about abundance that is excessive and surprising, that usually means one thing: God is involved, showering down blessings.

A first century listener, steeped in the stories of God’s miracles of generosity, would have picked up on this. And they would have noticed that the rich man’s first response is not one of gratitude or wonder. Does the rich man thank the Creator for the miraculous harvest? Does he laugh in wonder at such a gift? No. His first thought is, “I’ve got a problem. Where am I going to put it all?”

Then he gets an idea:

“I will do this: I will tear down my granaries and build larger ones, and I will gather there all my grain and all my goods and I will say to my self, ‘Self, you have many good things stored up for many a year. Eat, drink, and be merry!’”

In a world full of hungry people, here’s a man who has more than he knows what to do with, and it never occurs to him that he could feed all those hungry people.

As hunger experts point out, hunger is not a problem of supply; it’s a problem of distribution. But distribution is the last thing on this man’s mind. He isn’t just ignoring other people. He seems oblivious to their existence. He is the perfect expression of rampant individualism – untroubled by any sense of interdependent community.

The story makes fun of his isolationism, by having him talk only to himself.

“I will say to myself, ‘Self, you have many good things…”

A narrator would say something like: “Then the man said to himself, ‘Self, you have many good things…’” Instead, the rich man takes over his own narration: “I will say to myself, ‘Self …” and so on. Do you see the difference? This guy doesn’t need anyone, even a narrator. He takes over the telling of his own story. He’s in control, totally self-sufficient.

Whatever the future may bring, he can deal with it, no problem. Just kick back and “eat, drink, and be merry.”

Isn’t this the ideal to which consumerism aspires? Those of us with enough money can acquire everything we need to be self-sufficient. The fundamental unit of our culture is not the tribe or the village, but the single family home. We each have our own rooms, our own food supply, our own car, our own entertainment center, our own set of tools and appliances, our own insurance policies.

The only reason we need to leave the house is to earn the cash in order to maintain the autonomy of our domestic units. If we get rich enough, we don’t even have to do that.

The whole trajectory of the consumerist dream is to declare our independence from the traditional supportive networks of extended family and neighborhood community.

Vincent Miller, a Catholic ethicist, points out that the cash demands of the single family home encourage people to act selfishly:

“Social isolation and the burdens of maintaining a family in this system make it unlikely that other people’s needs will ever present themselves. If and when we do encounter them, we are likely to be so preoccupied with the tasks of maintaining our immediate families that we will have little time and resources to offer. The geography of the single-family home makes it very likely that we will care more about the feeding of our pets that about the millions of children who go to bed hungry around us.” [i]

When we live in isolation from one another, when we fail to nurture the vital aspects of interdependent community, we minimize the ways in which we can either offer help or receive it. Even if we have all the goodwill in the world, we remain trapped within the cash-intensive demands of the consumerist dream. “Gotta get more nuts!”

Ideally, a local church can function as a support system for its members. If someone gets sick or has a family emergency, others in the community step up to provide meals and other forms of assistance. But this kind of support system is exceptional in a society based largely upon isolated autonomous households.

If you don’t have the cash to keep a roof over your head, there is no village to take you in. Maybe you have some relatives somewhere, but they’re probably scattered around the country. And they’re probably running on a tight budget themselves, and don’t have any spare rooms. We’re a long way from the traditional support systems of former times and simpler cultures. Just ask the homeless to tell you their stories.

In American mythology, this is the country of the Lone Ranger, the self-made entrepreneur, the hard-boiled detective with no attachments, or the trucker rolling down that endless highway, free as a bird––and lonesome as hell.

When vast numbers of Vietnamese refugees settled in southern California in the 1970s, they found American culture to be fatal for something they had always taken for granted: the supportive network of extended family. They had to learn, as one writer puts it, that the land of the free means “the perfect freedom of strangers.” [ii]

So Bushy the Squirrel, and the rich man with the storage problem, might be seen as the products of a consumer culture. They don’t need neighbors. They don’t need community. They’ve got everything they need close at hand. There’s nothing for them to do but eat, drink and be merry.

But then what happens? Just when Bushy settles in for a long sleep, a storm breaks open his tree and casts him into the raging waters. In the Bible, whenever something breaks open your neat little world, you can be pretty sure that God is in that storm.

But in Jesus’ parable of the rich man, God intervenes even more explicitly, not with a storm but with words. God speaks to the rich man. In fact, this is the only one of Jesus’ stories where God appears as a character within the story.

And what does God say to the rich man? “Fool!” God says. “Fool!” Now that’s something to wake up your prayer life––to hear God calling you a fool.

Do you remember the most famous use of the word “fool” in the Bible? It’s in the first verse of Psalm 14: The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  The fool is the one who denies God’s presence, who thinks he or she can grab the gift without acknowledging the Giver––or the Giver’s way, which is not the self-possession of me/myself/and I, but rather a ceaseless pouring out of self.

“Fool, on this night they will demand your life from you.
And all the stuff you have stored up, to whom will it belong?”

In an instant––“this very night”––the rich fool discovers that his autonomous life is not only unstable––it is unsustainable.

He had thought that life was a commodity that could be owned and held onto. But he discovers that God operates a very different kind of economy. God’s economy, which we call the Kingdom of God, is a gift economy, where everything is received and nothing can be held onto.

Everything is like the air we breathe. We take it in, we receive the life it gives us, and then we give it back again. Breathe in, breathe out; receive, give back.

A commodity-based economy is an attempt to hold your breath. You take possession of God’s gifts, you take them out of circulation, you lock them away where others can’t use them.

Whereas a gift always keeps moving from hand to hand, a commodity is grasped and hoarded. And to grasp and to hoard is to live outside of God’s economy, where the gifts are always in circulation, always being given away as fast as they are received. If you reject God’s gift economy, and try to live apart from the interdependent circulation of life’s gifts, you are in effect denying the Trinitarian reality––the eternal self-offering, the ceaseless circulation of gifts, that comprises the heart of God.

That is why the Bible insists that if you try to live as though you were the only person in the room, if you try to exempt yourself from interconnectedness and interdependence, from the need to both give and receive, then you are indeed a fool, trying to live against the way we are made to be as images of the divine reality.

The divine reality is a circulation of gifts. When you are oblivious to the presence of your neighbor, you are oblivious to God as well. When you deny communion, you deny God.

On this night they will demand your life from you.

Most translations use the passive voice: “your life will be demanded of you.” But the original Greek verb is in the active third person plural: “They will demand your life from you.” So who might “they” be? The plural language could be a remnant of archaic mythological imagery, a way of speaking about death as the operation of avenging spiritual powers. But this is not really that kind of story. It’s not steeped in old-fashioned apocalyptic imagery like the Book of Revelation. For all we know the rich man dies in his sleep, without any thunder from heaven.

But what if the “they” who demand his life refers to everyone else in the world, all those neighbors whose existence has been ignored by the rich fool? Other people didn’t exist for him. He took what belonged to his fellow beings and kept it for himself. Now they want it back. As the story puts it, they “demand” his life. Is this punishment, or just a realistic understanding of how God’s universe works?

The story does not have God say, “I will demand your life…” The man’s fate is not an apocalyptic intervention from heaven. It’s simply the way things are in an interdependent reality.

The rich man tried to live outside the way of things, outside the economy of God, and in the end it all caught up with him. In the gift economy in which we live and move and have our being, he discovered that you have to keep the gift moving. You have to give everything away, even your very life.

The parable ends with a question:

What will become of everything that you have stored up?
To whom will it belong?

The question is being posed to the rich man in the parable. But it is also being posed to us. To whom does our wealth belong? Not just our money and our stuff, but every good gift we have been given since God put us on this earth, including our souls and bodies, and every breath we take––to whom does all this belong?

In a country plagued with obscene economic inequality, where the rich and powerful will even take food from the mouths of children to gather more wealth for themselves, how shall we respond to this parable? How do we answer its disturbing question?

Maybe greed is normal now. Maybe selfishness is normal now. Maybe crushing the poor and killing the planet for profit are normal now. But Jesus came to tell us that such things are decidedly not normal––not in God’s world. And we would be fools to think otherwise.

In my father’s filmstrip, Bushy learns his lesson and repents of his selfish ways. Its happy ending was meant to encourage the children who watched it in Sunday School. But Jesus concludes the original parable more ambiguously. He leaves us hanging, without knowing the ultimate fate of the rich man.

I suspect that Jesus is inviting us to finish the story ourselves, to construct a happy ending out of our own actions, as we work together to create a world whose blessings are not hoarded, but freely shared; a world where no need goes unmet, and all God’s children can flourish and thrive.

God, bring that day closer!

 

 

 

[i] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture(New York, Continuum, 2004), 50.

[ii] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World(New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 88.

This homily for Proper 13, Year C, will be preached August 4, 2019, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington.

May my heart’s truth still be sung

Seattle Times, July 16, 1995 (50th anniversary of the first atomic bomb).

Strange things happen in life––a ticket here, a ticket there, and twenty, thirty, forty years later the destination.

–– William McPherson, Testing the Current

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

–– W. H. Auden, For the Time Being

Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection.

––– Collect for the first Sunday in July, Book of Common Prayer

 

Today I turned 75. I’ve seen it coming for a long time, but I’m still surprised! I took my first breath early in the evening of July 16, 1944, at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles. Twenty-two years later, four days before my birthday, my father would take his last breath in the same place.

Every birth date collects an assortment of associations and memories. My favorite film noir, Double Indemnity, begins with a doomed Fred MacMurray speaking into a Dictaphone, beginning with the date: “July 16, 1938” (the film was released in 1944, and co-star Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday was July 16). On my 7th birthday, Catcher in the Rye was published. I saw Paris for the first time when I turned 17. On my 29th  birthday, Alexander Butterfield revealed to the Senate Watergate Committee the existence of the Nixon tapes.

My hometown paper on my 25th birthday.

When I turned one year old, the first atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico. On my 25th birthday, Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon. And on my 50th, a comet crashed into Jupiter, creating the largest explosion ever witnessed in the solar system.

If those explosive bursts of heat and light were some kind of sequence (1…25…50…), what was in store for 75? Apocalypse? Thankfully, on this 50th anniversary of the moon launch, the iconic phenomenon proved both gentle and fitting. No great event, no big bang. But not a whimper either. What happened tonight was this: a full moon rose in silence over a collapsed volcano (whose supposed similarity to the moon’s surface had provided a valuable training ground for the lunar astronauts). The tranquil orb shed its luminous blessing, the close of a perfect day. O gracious Light!

Rising moon above Newberry Crater, Oregon, July 16, 2019.

From 1956 to 1962, I attended an Episcopal boys’ school in Los Angeles. In my class of sixty-five, three of my best friends had, like me, been born in July of 1944. After sharing a formative passage through adolescence and being collectively imprinted––or cursed––with the high expectations fostered by a privileged education, we maintained our bonds into adulthood. In the month of our thirtieth birthdays, we gathered at a California beach house for a weekend of celebration and memory. Toward the end, there was a midnight toast. “Hey Jude” came on the stereo as we lifted our glasses to past and future selves. Take a sad song and make it better. We were not yet where we wanted to be, but we still feasted on dreams and a sense of promise. In ten years, we pledged, our forty-year-old selves would gather again to trade stories of the journey.

O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

Dylan Thomas wrote these hopeful words when he turned thirty. But it doesn’t always work that way. A year after our glad toasts by the sea, on the last day before our birthday month, one of the four committed suicide. We three who remained gathered to sing him home in our old school chapel. We could only guess at the pain that took him from us.

When Jon died, I was deep in the mountain wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Just before sunrise he came to me in a dream, assuring me that he was all right. I awoke and looked at my watch––6:00 am. It was, I learned later, the hour of his death.

A week after his funeral, on the day of my 31birthday, I rose early to take a long walk in the hills above Los Angeles, where pockets of wildness and quiet still thrive in the heart of the teeming metropolis. Jon and I had both been runners in high school, and we loved training together in these hills. Our school was situated along their lower slope, so it only took a few minutes of running to leave the cityscape behind.

As I walked these same hills so soon after his death, Jon was very much in my thoughts, and one particular workout came to mind. Just behind the school chapel, a 150-yard stretch of road climbed steeply to a crest. During our senior year, in a pouring rain, Jon and I challenged each other to run a series of all-out sprints up this grade, one after another, until we both collapsed, utterly exhausted and sick to our stomachs.

We made it back to the gym to recover. Jon stretched out on a bench and closed his eyes. He lay there a long time, not saying a word. When he finally spoke, he said he’d had it with running. He was going to quit the team. The feeling soon passed, and he would go on to win the southern California half-mile championship in a time of 1:53.1. But I remember feeling genuine alarm in the presence of his momentary despair. It was like a black hole, sucking up all the light around it. Jon was made for running, and his powerful spirit made the rest of us faster. To see that spirit falter, if only for a moment, was unsettling, like witnessing a saint’s crisis of faith and wondering about the fragile poise of your own soul.

After my birthday walk, I put this recollection in a letter to an east coast friend. But I prefaced it with a report of what I had seen around me on that particular day––not darkness and death, but the beauty of a summer morning in the hills of home:

“The intensely blue panicles of a ceanothus shrub arched across the path like an enchanted boundary, a gate back to Eden. Near a jocular little stream, a California thrasher poked its long, curved bill into the debris beneath an oak tree. A solitary yellow leaf, suspended by a long spider’s thread against a background of dark mist, spun ecstatically in a ray of sunlight. The path unfolded before me like a narrative––meandering through the hush of sheltering thickets, emerging onto a golden slope of drying grasses, climbing upward into the enfolding blankness of a beclouded ridge, dipping downward to become a gentle country lane, purple-strewn with eucalyptus leaves, and finally spilling out into the alluvial plain of houses, lawns and swimming pools.”

It was as if an essential part of my response to loss and grief was to pay close attention to the gifts of one summer day, offered so generously to my receptive heart. To pay attention as if my own life depended on it.

“How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?” asked the poet Stanley Kunitz, who lived to an even 100 years. The longer you live, the more the losses mount up––but also the beauties, the graces, the affectionate motions of the heart. I like what another poet, Vera Pavlova, says about this:

If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
there will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.[i]

In one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, the boy gets a letter from his past self. It reads: “Dear future Calvin, I wrote this several days before you will receive it. You’ve done things I haven’t done. You’ve seen things I haven’t seen. You know things I don’t know. You lucky dog! Your pal, Calvin.”

Calvin sniffles a bit and says, “I feel so sorry for myself two days ago.” To which his tiger friend, Hobbes, responds, “Poor him. He wasn’t you.”

Stanley Kunitz could sympathize. “I have walked through many lives,” he wrote, “some of them my own, / and I am not who I was . . .” So who am I now? Hmm. But ever since my baptism in November of 1944, the more critical question has always been, Whose am I?. As we say at the end of every mortal life, “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.” Is it possible to live in the light of that truth, come what may?

After my mother died in 2010, I found a prayer she had written on the flyleaf of her Daily Office book. It’s something she would have said almost every day: “God, whatever . . . Thanks.”

On my twenty-first birthday, my father, a priest, celebrated eucharist in our living room with my mother and me. Afterward, he presented me with a letter he had composed for the occasion. “Happiness is not found in security,” he reminded me, “nor can it be bought with money, but it is a holy mystery that is a gift from God, found only in serving Him.”

When I turned 40, my sister Marilyn sent me a list of questions.

What would you like to accomplish in your work? In your personal life?
How long do you think you will live?
What would you like to begin?
What would you like to end?
Name a physical risk you’d like to take.
Name an emotional risk you’d like to take.
Of what might you be afraid?
What do you want to mend?
What song describes your life at 40?
What writer touches you deeply at 40?
What would you like to create for yourself? For the world?
What are 3 things you are most satisfied with so far in your life?

These remain searching questions for me today, despite the somewhat eroded sense of future produced by thirty-five additional birthdays. I’ll start to ponder my answers tomorrow (God willing). Meanwhile, what Stanley Kunitz says, that is what I say:

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.[ii]

Twenty-five years ago, on my 50th birthday, I made a 9-mile pilgrimage through English countryside to an old church cemetery in the Lake District. Arriving just after sunset, I laid a pair of California wildflowers on the grave of William Wordsworth. A waxing crescent moon hung suspended over a nearby hill. Shining very close to it was Jupiter, where the comet was making its cosmic crash. But here on earth, in this quiet churchyard, nothing but peace. I had pressed the two flowers––California poppy and Farewell-to-Spring––in my copy of Wordsworth’s Prelude, whose buoyant embrace of the human journey––rejecting the melancholy “wandering steps and slow” at the end of Paradise Lost––I claimed for myself at the beginning of my sixth decade. In these latter days, I do so again:

The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!

Laying wildflowers on Wordsworth’s grave on my 50th birthday.

 

 

Related post: Grace Me Guide

[i] Vera Pavlova, “Four Poems,” translated from the Russian by Steven Seymour, The New Yorker, July 30, 2007, 37.

[ii] Stanley Kunitz excerpts are from “The Layers,” The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz(New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002). Poetry Foundation link: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54897/the-layers

 

“Your celebration is a sham”––Independence Day in an Age of Cruelty

Standing room only at McAllen, TX, detention center, June 10, 2019 (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

––– The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

“If you want water, drink from the toilet.”

 ––– U.S. Border Patrol agent to a thirsty immigrant, July 1, 2019

 

John Adams, our second President, predicted a Fourth of July “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival” and “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forth for evermore.”[i] It would be a time to remember our origins, honor our ideals, and pledge ourselves to nurture and preserve the noblest portions of our national life.

In the nineteenth century, the vision of Independence Day as a national covenant of memory and renewal found exuberant expression in the verbal fireworks of grand orations. These long-winded blasts of rhetorical excess came to be known as “making the eagle scream,” but their homiletic intention was serious: to summon the people to “effusions of gratitude” for America’s sacred origins, and to encourage “a faithful and undeviating adherence” to the principles of liberty, equality and the common good. [ii]

But what about those who are excluded from the blessings of liberty? By the 1820s, some Independence Day orators began to call out the inconsistency of celebrating freedom while so many still wore the chains of slavery. “We ought to remember that the happiness we enjoy is not universal,” Giles B. Kellogg told an audience at Williams College on July 4, 1829. “This will temper our exultation and render more heart-felt our tribute of gratitude . . . There are those among us who are shut out from the light of freedom, chained down in the prison house of bondage . . . those of common origins with ourselves, inheritors of the same great blessings, heirs to the same immortality.” [iii]

The most famous of these abolitionist orations was delivered on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, to the Rochestery Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. As an escaped slave himself, he gave voice to the voiceless with fiery eloquence:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy––a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” [iv]

Irony and guilt continue to haunt our national celebrations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Racism is alive and well, along with other long-standing national sins. And the concentration camps on our southern border, where federal agents put children in cages and subject countless refugees to conditions of torture, certainly make the rhetoric of freedom an unholy sham in our own day.

For those who are more offended by the words “concentration camp” and “torture” than by the realities they describe, let me point out that while these are certainly loaded terms, they are technically accurate. A concentration camp is defined as “a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities.”[v] While the most notorious examples are Nazi death camps and Soviet labor camps, the term itself has a broader application. As for torture, a physician who witnessed the appalling conditions of the camps––“extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food”––concluded that “the conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.” [vi]

Detention Center, Weslaco, Texas (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

How shall we respond to such evil? Let Douglass be our teacher:

“O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

 

Detention Center, McAllen, Texas, June 10, 2019 (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

The Fourth of July should be a day of atonement not only for the cruel barbarity of the Trump administration––which would indeed “disgrace a nation of savages”––but also for our collective impotence to make it stop. Instead, the president is stealing millions of dollars from our National Parks to stage a military spectacle in his honor, and to desecrate the Lincoln Memorial with hate speech to his adoring mob (Trump opponents will be kept at a distance to silence the voice of protest). And to such shameless and pitiful parody of Independence Day, the words of Douglass make perfect reply:

“Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of [the people] crush and destroy it forever!”

 

 

Related post: July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

[i] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 203.

[ii] Phrases taken from the July 4, 1821 oration of John Quincy Adams in Washington, D.C., when he was Secretary of State. This and many other Independence Day orations may be found at https://classicapologetics.com/special/4th.html

[iii] https://classicapologetics.com/special/4th/Kellogg.Oration.1829.pdf

[iv] Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852). https://www.thenation.com/article/what-slave-fourth-july-frederick-douglass/

[v] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/concentration_camp Some might argue for the term “refugee detention center,” where people may indeed suffer from logistical overload. But the deliberate and intentional infliction of suffering by the Border Patrol and its white supremacist enablers in the Administration justifies, in my view, the more damning term.

[vi] Matt Stieb, “Everything We Know About the Inhumane Conditions at Migrant Detention Camps,”New York Magazine (July 2019). The physician quoted is Dolly Lucio Sevier: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/07/the-inhumane-conditions-at-migrant-detention-camps.html

“Oh sacrament of summer days”

The author at Midsummer on the Mississippi River’s Lake Pepin, Wacouta, Minnesota.

A something in a summer’s day,
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer’s noon –
A depth – an Azure – a perfume –
Transcending ecstasy.

–– Emily Dickinson

Then summer came, announced by June,
With beauty, miracle and mirth.
She hung aloft the rounding moon,
She poured her sunshine on the earth,
She drove the sap and broke the bud,
She set the crimson rose afire.

–– Leslie Pinckney Hill [i]

 

Summer arrived this morning in Puget Sound at 8:54 a.m., Pacific Daylight Time. The sun rose hours ago (5:12) and won’t set until 9:12 tonight––16 hours of sunshine! But with only 103 minutes of complete celestial darkness separating dusk and dawn, the June Solstice feels almost like the Bible’s eternal Day: Your sun shall no more go down (Isaiah 60:30).

Charles E. Burchfield, Summer Solstice (In Memory of the American Chestnut Tree), 1961-66

In Charles Burchfield’s painting, Summer Solstice (1961-66), we see such a world, impossibly radiant. Of the daisies and buttercups in the foreground, the painter said “they could not have even the slightest dark accent, but must be swimming in a glare of sunlight from the zenith sun, and therefore all but obliterated.”[ii]

With such amplitude of light, time seems almost at a standstill. We enjoy the absence of hurry, and bask in the “Credences of Summer” celebrated by Wallace Stevens: “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change still possible.”[iii] If Spring is analogous to resurrection, summer is a type of heaven: plenitude of being, perpetual noon, luminous serenity, joyful play, cessation of care.

In high summer there is time for everything––swimming, hiking, reading, talking, tasting, singing, wandering, discovering, escaping, appreciating, savoring, loving, renewing. Time to follow a stream to its source, listen to the whisper of an aspen grove, count the falling stars, dive into a crashing wave, dance to the rising moon. Time for hammocks and porch swings as well. As my Minnesota relatives remind me, “Doing nothing is always an option!”

“Oh sacrament of summer days,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “Thy sacred emblems to partake – / Thy consecrated bread to take / And thine immortal wine!” [iv]

This image of summer as sacrament seems perfectly true when the season is at the full. But any hope for perpetual communion is illusory, the poet insisted. Change is inescapable. The fraudulent “sophistries of June” will too soon begin to fade, “Till Summer folds her miracle – / As Women  do – their Gown – / Or Priests – adjust the Symbols – / When Sacrament – is done.” [v]

In some of her poetry, Dickinson’s contemplation of the natural cycle of growth and decay––“that pathetic pendulum”–– produced a mournful catalog of loss. Flowers are “beheaded” by frost. Night’s shadow sweeps over “the startled grass.” The green world and azure sky are swept away in time’s “departing tide.” For most religious minds of the nineteenth century, the year’s fall into wintry death was prelude to spring’s rebirth and summer’s eternity. But Dickinson reversed the order, judging winter’s lifeless silence to be the culminating metaphor of human fate. As Cynthia Griffin Wolff has summarized this poetic trajectory of decay and dissolution, “Sunset’s unvarying bloodbath is the model: all life leads but to death.”[vi]

Dickinson was just being an honest observer. She watched her garden fade, the leaves fall, the birds fly south, the summer depart. She saw friends and family die. Gazing “perplexedly” on so much change and loss, with the old vocabularies of Christian hope worn thin in a century of doubt, she nevertheless yearned for a transcendence which might harmonize the paradoxical pattern of creation and destruction. She kept trying to get to heaven before they close the door. But the riddles of time and destiny could not be solved by mortal mind.

She was tempted to give up the search. “How good to be safe in tombs, / Where nature’s temper cannot reach / Nor vengeance ever comes.”[vii] But late in her life (she died at 55), she came to terms with the unknowability of the larger pattern, allowing herself a degree of trust in a larger Providence, bewildering though it may be. In a letter to a friend a few years before her death, she echoed Job’s leap of faith: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15).[viii]

A century later, another American poet, Thomas Merton, would tell himself, “Dance in the sun, you tepid idiot. Wake up and dance in the clarity of perfect contradiction.” [ix] Dickinson knew that same dance when she wrote:

The Opening and the Close
Of Being, are alike
Or differ, if they do,
As Bloom upon a Stalk ––

That from an equal Seed
Unto an equal Bud
Go parallel, perfected
In that they have decayed ––

But Summer’s first morning is no time to ponder the riddles of temporality, or fret the far-off winter night. “Quick, now, here, now, always,”[x] open your door and lean into the freshness of the world. Run barefoot across the lawns of summer. Thank the generous sun. Breathe the golden air. Find the hidden treasure. Don’t come home till dark.

 

 

 

Related posts:

Merry it is while summer lasts

Sacraments of Summer

Summer Reading

 

[i] From “Summer Magic” by Leslie Pinckney Hill (1880-1960), an African-American educator and writer. Q. in Gary Schmidt & Susan M. Felch, Summer: A Spiritual Biography of the Season (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2005), 229.

[ii] Charles Burchfield, Journal for July 10, 1964, in Guy Davenport, Charles Burchfield’s Seasons (San Francisco, CA: Pomegranate Communications, 2004), Plate 35.

[iii] Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer,” Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: Library of America, 1997), 323.

[iv] “These are the days when birds come back” is really about “Indian summer,” but the sacramental image refers to the authentic, if fleeting, heart of summer, or at least the act of remembering it.

[v] “Sophistries of June” is from “These are the days,” while “Till Summer folds her miracle” is from “It will be Summer––eventually.”

[vi] Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 297.

[vii] “The Clouds their Backs together laid.”

[viii] Letter to Mrs. Holland, March 1883, in Wolff, 514.

[ix] Thomas Merton, “Atlas and the Fat Man,” q. in Kathleen Deignan, ed., Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007), 141.

[x] T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets. This is followed by Julian of Norwich’s “all shall be well,” as perfect a summer text as any.

“Could I but find the words”–– Art vs. the Barbarians

The dictator and his holocaust in “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians.”

If a nation’s sins go unconfessed, can it ever be free of them? Or will they continue to flare up, resistant to every cure? If measles can make a comeback, why not fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, or even Nazism? Radu Jude, a Romanian director, explores the persistence of evil in his demanding new film, “I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (2018). The title is from a 1941 speech by the Romanian dictator, Ion Antonescu, calling for the eliminationof the Jewish population of Odessa. After the Ukrainian city was taken by Romanian forces in alliance with the Nazis, Antonescu’s soldiers murdered some 30,000 Jews. Before Romania switched sides to the Allies in 1944, Antonescu would preside over the slaughter of 400,000 Jews and other minorities.

The dictator was executed for war crimes in 1946, but most Romanians repressed their guilty memory. The Romanian government would not make an official admission of complicity with the Nazis until 2000––54 years later!––in order to gain admission to the European Union. But the subject remains largely taboo in that country. Who can break the contagion of silence? And who will listen?

Jude’s film proposes art as a remedy. When an idealistic director, Mariana Marin (the riveting Ioana Iacob), is hired by a municipal government to stage a sanitized account of the Odessa occupation as a public spectacle, she decides to tell the truth of the massacre instead. To rip away the mask of denial might be the beginning of repentance and healing.

Mariana’s ambitious production is hampered from the start. Many of her non-professional reenactors resent its critical stance on Romanian history. Some are uncomfortable playing the part of the hated Russians, while others seem a little too willing to put on the uniforms––and the swagger––of the Nazis. Others refuse to play Roma gypsies, the untouchables of eastern Europe. Old bigotries remain alive and well in the twenty-first century.

And Mariana’s production staff, for all their shared idealism, are not exempt from anxiety and discomfort. They too are Romanians, shaped by a culture of denial. When they gather to view historical footage and photographs of naked brutality, their conversation is laced with crude jokes and trivial asides, as though only laughter and silliness can lighten the oppressive weight of horror.

But Mariana’s greatest challenge is Movilă (Alexander Dabija), a city official who pressures her to tone down the truth-telling, so the public will not be offended. His extended debates with Marin, unlike conventional movie dialogue, are fraught with critical theory and intellectual fireworks. Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Elie Wiesel are all invoked. The didactic talkiness, showing the influence of Brecht and Godard, subverts the insulating escapism of commercial cinema.

Movilă is witty and charming, and the chemistry between him and Mariana generates a palpable charge. But his “whataboutism,” downplaying the significance of any particular atrocity by citing examples of even greater evils, is insidious. Sure, Odessa was bad, but not as bad as some other massacres. Why single it out? Do you want have a competitive massacre Olympics, or award an Oscar for the worst atrocity? It’s a human problem, not a Romanian problem. And what good does it do to beat ourselves up for something that is past and gone? Negativity can’t bring a people together.

Mariana agrees to make changes in order to maintain her funding, but it’s a promise she doesn’t intend to keep. On the night of the public performance in the city square, what the crowd sees is a horrifying representation of the massacre. The actors playing Romanian soldiers round up the actors playing Odessa Jews, locking them inside a wooden barracks. The building is set on fire, making a great holocaust in the middle of the square (the actors having slipped out through a hidden exit).

Mariana had hoped that this alarming spectacle of national evil would shock the audience into an awakened conscience, producing a collective cry of “never again!” Instead, the spectators seemed to enjoy the whole thing. It was not only hugely entertaining, it mirrored their own prejudices and resentments. Instead of being an indictment, it was celebrated as a festival of tribalism. The people’s eyes glowed as they gazed upon the flames. Many nodded and smiled. Some even cheered.

Mariana had failed to make a difference with her art. But what about the filmmaker? What were his expectations? Can his story about the failure of art to change us become itself an example of art that does transform? I don’t know how Romanians have responded to this film, but when I saw it recently at this year’s Seattle Film Festival, I came away wondering about the transformative role of art in my own country.

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream (1899)

On a recent visit to New York City, I saw several works which strive to make our darkness visible and bring the repressed or forgotten to light. In the Metropolitan Museum, Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream (1899) shows a black man adrift without mast or rudder in a stormy sea. The high horizon accentuates the enclosing mass of water. A sea spout looms dangerously near. Sharks prowl hungrily, while patches of red paint suggest blood already spilled. Homer never explained the painting. Some have interpreted the man’s calm in the face of peril as an image of hope. Others, finding suggestions of a tomb in the cabin’s dark opening, see a man resigned to death.

The docent giving a talk when I entered the gallery acknowledged the generalizing views of the painting as a metaphor for the universal human condition, but she also suggested that Homer may have had a more specific subject in mind. Whatever rights and freedoms had come for ex-slaves at the end of the Civil War, they were soon eroded by legalized segregation, which became firmly established in the South over the last 15 years of the nineteenth century.

Could this 1899 painting have been for Homer an image of African-Americans in a racist country, not just set adrift without the power to control their fate, but actively threatened by hostile forces? When some of his contemporaries complained about the apparent hopelessness of the picture, Homer added a distant schooner on the horizon. But as a type of vessel more common to the slave trade era than the new century, perhaps it signified not the hope of rescue but the lingering ghost of slavery, refusing to vanish.

At the New York Historical Society (where I had gone to hear Cole Porter tunes played live on his 1907 Steinway), I discovered an exhibition of works by Betye Saar, best known for her washboard assemblages––adapting a common tool of laundresses and maids to address “enslavement, segregation, and servitude.” In Liberation, for example, Saar recycles a demeaning stereotype into an image of defiant strength.

Betye Saar, Liberation (2014)

Among Saar’s washboards was posted a poem by Langston Hughes, “A Song to a Negro Wash-Woman” (1925):

Oh, wash-woman
Arms elbow-deep in white suds,
Soul washed clean,
Clothes washed clean,––
I have many songs to sing you
Could I but find the words. . .

And for you,
O singing wash-woman
For you, singing little brown woman,
Singing strong black woman,
Singing tall yellow woman,
Arms deep in white suds,
Soul clean,
Clothes clean,––
For you I have many songs to make
Could I but find the words.

Betye Saar, (I’ll Bend, But I Will Not Break (1998)

I was particularly taken by Saar’s installation piece, I’ll Bend, But I Will Not Break (1998). The ironing board is printed with a famous icon of human evil: the cruelly impersonal graphic of black bodies crammed into the British slave ship Brookes. The original 18th-century engraving was widely disseminated by the abolitionist movement, making it “perhaps the most politically influential picture ever made.”[i]

Over one end of this diagram is superimposed a photographic image of a female house slave, bent over as she irons. An actual iron, signifying both female labor and the branding of slaves, is attached to the board with a chain, another symbol of bondage. The neatly ironed sheet hung on the wall bears the initials “KKK.” Saar has commented on the weird paradox of this image:

“In order for a klansman to go out, he had to have a clean sheet, and a black woman—an Aunt Jemima type—had to wash that sheet. It was about keeping something clean to do a dirty deed. It’s just an ironing board and a wash line, but the political implications are strong.”[ii]

Nichola Galanin, White Noise: American Prayer Rug (2018)

The recurring Biennial at the Whitney Museum is dedicated to what’s going on now in American art, and this year’s exhibition, where half the artists are women, half are people of color, and 75 percent are under 40, features many subjects and perspectives intended to open our eyes to what may be hidden, unnoticed, or even uncomfortable for many.

One of my favorite works was White Noise: American Prayer Rug (2018) by Nicholas Galanin, an Alaskan of Tlingit/Unangax descent. Made of wool and cotton, it suggests a television screen filled with electronic noise or “snow”––the flickering dots of static picked up by an antenna in the absence of a transmission signal. But “white noise” is a specifically acoustic term, referring to a mix of all the sound frequencies audible to the human ear, suppressing unwanted sounds so we might more easily fall into sleep.

White Noise vibrates with a rich play of differences: soft fabric representing the hardness of glass, the freezing of restless static into a static image, the correlations and disparities between visual and acoustic “noise.” But the sharpest contrast is between the devotional context of a prayer rug and the idolatrous worship offered to our screens. Prayer is the practice of deepest attention, but the all-knowing, all-seeing screen which devours our time is a poor substitute for true divinity.

Galanin describes his work as a protest against such idolatry. “The American Prayer rug is hung on a wall in place of flat screen televisions, as the image accompanying droning sound we use to distract us from our own suffering, from love, from land, from water, from connection; there is no space for prayer, only noise.”

But the spirituality of White Noise is firmly intertwined with timely political critique:

“The work points to whiteness as a construct used throughout the world to obliterate voices and rights of cultures regardless of complexion. Calling attention to white noise as a source of increasing intolerance and hate in the United States as politicians, media, and citizens attempt to mask and obliterate the reality of America’s genocidal past and racist present.”[iii]

It should be noted that the old-fashioned analog television screen is a relic of the past. Can we say the same about white supremacy?

I Do Not Care, The Gulf StreamI’ll Bend But I Will Not Break, and White Noise all bring what is hidden or repressed into public visibility. God only knows what difference any work of art (or liturgy or sermon) makes in either individual or social consciousness, but let us be grateful for the prophets and visionaries among us. Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).

And for those who don’t frequent traditional art venues, many artists are taking their work into the streets, where their prophetic message is impossible to ignore. Just the other day (June 12), twenty-four guerilla installations appeared overnight at public sites around New York City. At tourist sites like museums and Rockefeller Center, and outside media outlets from the New York Times to Fox News, a small cage was set up. Inside was the sculpted image of a child under a foil blanket. Continuous audio of crying children played for everyone to hear. A sign on each cage read: #NoKidsInCages.

attribution: Matthew Earle Scott/Twitter

As I have written in previous posts on art activism, Beautiful Trouble and Insurrectionary Imagination, “making the invisible visible is one of the key principles of art activism. Bring an issue home, tell its story, put a face on it.” The placing of those cages, like Mariana’s reenactment of the Odessa massacre, made the public look evil in the face. Of course, the authorities soon covered the cages with blankets and disabled the audio, restoring the invisibility of this shameful American sin.

The Republicans who are abusing those children
do not care if they go down in history as barbarians.

What about the rest of us?

 

 

Related posts:

Beautiful Trouble: A How-to Book for Creative Resistance

Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance

Temporary Resurrection Zones

 

[i] https://unframed.lacma.org/2018/04/23/new-acquisition-betye-saars-ill-bend-i-will-not-break

[ii] New York Historical Society: “Women, Work, Washboards: Betye Saar in her own words” (https://unframed.lacma.org/2018/04/23/new-acquisition-betye-saars-ill-bend-i-will-not-break)

[iii] Nicholas Galanin: https://www.flickr.com/photos/galanin/31102635898

The Gathering Storm

Jerome B. Thompson, The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain (1858), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

The painter gazes with speechless, loving wonder, and I whisper to myself: This is the pathway home to an immortality of bliss and beauty.

–– The Rev. Louis L. Noble (1859)

Do you observe how [God] intended that there should be moral meaning in the face of Nature, and that we should derive instruction therefrom? . . . And as I sat and looked today at the meadows and the trees, I thought within myself, “What message have they for me of my God, and from my God?”

–– The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1860)

 

Nature has always exerted a powerful influence upon the American imagination, whether it was seen as a howling wilderness to be tamed, a vast resource to be exploited, or a sacred gift to be treasured. Before much of this country was settled and cultivated, its unspoiled landscape was deemed a new Eden. But by the mid-nineteenth century, primeval landscapes were already in retreat, and many feared America was becoming Paradise Lost.

Landscape painting offered a powerful response to this anxiety, fostering and preserving a sense of Nature as a divine Scripture, “opening a thousand windows to show us God.”[1] Even as rapacious expansionists were subduing the continent “with the plough and the railroad,”[2] artists were giving a kind of prayerful attention to what Nature, undefiled by human interference, was showing and saying to the receptive mind and heart. As one art historian noted in 1849, “numerous modern painters are distinguished by a feeling for nature which has made landscape, instead of mere imitation, a vehicle of great moral impression.”[3] And the impression registered by painters like Albert Bierstadt or the Hudson River School was a sense of Creation as a shower of blessings suffused with divine presence, requiring of humanity both reverence and care.

Albert Bierstadt, Merced River, Yosemite Valley (1866), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But in the 1850s, darker elements began to disturb the blissful images of America’s Eden. A beautiful landscape might include the forlorn stumps of a logged forest; the distant smoke of a steam engine would register the intrusion of human technology. But westward expansion wasn’t the only trouble in Paradise. In his study of Hudson River painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Franklin Kelly writes that “no other period in the nineteenth century was so indelibly marked by complex national issues, mounting turmoil, and increasing doubt about the destiny of the American nation.”[4] The turmoil and the doubt began to find expression in the representations and intuitions of both literature and painting. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick (1851):

“Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No More. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise!” [5]

In a similar vein, the newly invented pigment of cadmium red, so dramatically applied by Frederic Church in Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), did more than document a sunset’s color with greater accuracy. To a country on the eve of war, it also conveyed a warning: There will be blood. Damned in the midst of Paradise indeed.

Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), Cleveland Museum of Art.

Church’s crepuscular scene has been called “a stained glass window burning with the intense power of divine light.”[6] But when the very future of the country was most in doubt, this silent moment just after sunset became an icon of a nation in crisis: in a time of passing away and growing darkness, could we still hope for a bright new morning? Louis Noble, Church’s Episcopal rector and close friend, saw in Twilight “that narrow, lonesome, neutral ground, where gloom and splendor interlock and struggle.” Darkness and light, like Jacob and the angel, “now meet and wrestle for mastery.”[7]

In the previous year, another Episcopalian, Martin Johnson Heade, painted an even more foreboding image of imminent calamity in Approaching Thunder Storm (1859). Over the next decade of Civil War and its aftermath, stormy weather would be a common theme not only in American landscape painting, but in political and religious rhetoric as well.

In 1863, the aptly named Noah Hunt Schenck, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, lamented that the “thousand miseries of our fraternal strife . . . so charge the air with gloom and roll their black clouds overhead, as to leave us bowed with sorrow and groping in the dark.”[8] As the original owner of Heade’s painting, Schenk must have looked upon it the day he wrote those words.

Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Thunder Storm (1859), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I recently visited Heade’s painting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and spent a long time peering into the ominous blackness of clouds and water. The warm tonality of the foreground shore and the jutting pair of grassy spits, glowing with an eerie intensity at odds with the surrounding gloom, only increased the unsettling sense of unreality. The extreme contrasts of dark and light, hot and cool, suggest tension and instability verging on the apocalyptic. And yet the human presences––the rower on the water, the watcher on the shore––seem strangely calm. Do they not see what the painter sees––an imminent doom?

Although the preeminent role of landscape painting in the production of national identity and spiritual meaning has long since declined amid vast changes in art, culture and religiosity, Approaching Thunder Storm seemed to me as relevant to our current situation as any of the edgy political works I had seen at the Whitney Biennial a few days earlier. In fact, as the climate crisis deepens, the symbolic trope of catastrophic weather is being strangely literalized. Climate is no longer just a vivid metaphor for the threats on our horizon. It is itself becoming as grave a danger as any other.

The crisis of these times may prove to be as devastating in its way as the events of the 1860s. But whether our storm clouds be the madness of presidents, the rise of fascism, or nature gone off the rails, the American body politic continues to sit passively on that broken plank––whether by ignorance, complicity, or despair, it matters little––inexplicably unable to rise, with whatever courage and hope we possess, to shout our protest to the gathering darkness:

“No more! Be still.”[9]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1869, rev. 1911). Long after American landscape painters had abandoned the confident spirituality of the mid-nineteenth century, Muir translated the vision of an Edenic wilderness into political action, becoming a major voice in the movement for national parks.

[2] James Russell Lowell (1849), q. in Franklin Kelly, Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 55.

[3] Henry T. Tuckerman, Sketches of Eminent American Painters (1849), q. in Kelly, 22.

[4] Kelly, 116.

[5] Ibid., 102.

[6] Ibid., 120.

[7] Louis L. Noble, After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Newfoundland (1861), q. in Kelly, 119. 108.

[8] Noah Hunt Schenck, in “Songs in the Night,” a sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day, 1863, q. in Sarah Cash, Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade (Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 1994), 44. Schenck’s Baltimore parishioners were divided in their political sympathies. When prayers were said for President Lincoln, supporters of the Confederacy refused to kneel. After the war, he was glad to take a parish in New York.

[9] Cf. Mark 4:39, where Jesus rebukes the storm, and the wild sea grows calm. Weathering our own gathering storm may indeed require divine aid.