guest post by Alec Crisman
Experiments in Faith
It’s very odd timing.
In the final month of the shittiest calendar year in my memory, after the worst run of romantic luck in my life, after getting sick and losing my job due to it, after dropping my medication and the return of the mood swings, and smack-dab in the middle of my recent irreligious awakening….
…Amuma dies. Early morning on the 3rd.
For those of you who haven’t heard my stories, my Amuma (grandmother in Euskadi) was my first best friend. Now, you could have said that about her by any standard of a true friendship, but she excelled in the category by which I judge the term; she was the first person in the world to whom I could tell absolutely anything. The summers we spent together could be argued to be the best moments of my life, and certainly feel that way now, bathed as they are in the golden glow of nostalgia. She saw me in my worst moments too, my playground scuffles and my childish tirades. When my grandfather died, and I realized death was real, she was the one who talked me through my first existential crisis as I lay, aged seven, curled up sobbing on the floor of the room we shared. She helped me with my first feelings of suicide, taught me the virtue of living without gods, and maintained through a love for me so luminous that I… well, I took it for granted.
Losing her has felt like losing a limb. Not seeing her before she left is like having it torn off. And I would give most anything to have her back. Which brings me (as with so many others) back to faith.
Those reading may or may not know that I am a fairly proficient lucid dreamer. I have an inter-brain adventure about once or twice a week, so I’m extremely comfortable with navigating the corridors of my subconscious. But I’ve also talked with many people recently who believed that dreams can be a glimpse into another realm, where the numinous can contact and connect with us. Over my studies this year I’ve read up on dream experiences and NDE’s and every supposed form of communication with the unknown I can think of. My logical mind dominates the conclusions I draw from these studies, but I have always (now more so than ever) wanted to believe.
These are the thoughts that were on my mind when I talked to Amuma the night of the 6th.
To see someone that’s been on your mind in a dream isn’t incredibly odd, I grant you. What made this time different from most, however, is that, midway through the conversation we were having, the dream became lucid (realizing the person you’re chatting with is dead can do that for you). Suddenly, all my research about dream visits comes flowing back to me. This phenomenon has been reported. People do think their loved ones talk to them in their sleep from beyond the grave.
And then… I can’t say if it was the dream-state I was in or just a wave of hope and need, but I began to believe it. Suddenly, before I realized it, I had actually taken the leap of faith so many of the faithful had advised for me. I was in with both feet. My entire mind said “This isn’t just a self-generated image; this IS my Amuma. I’ve read that she might come, and she’s here, and I finally get to say the things I missed out on saying.” In that moment Iknew this to be true, more firmly than I’d known most anything. It was a dizzying feeling, and as it was so contrary to my worldview we can upgrade dizzying to terrifying, but buoyed by it I decided to ask her a real question.
”Amuma”, I said “I know how you’re doing, but how are you?”
The words froze her, and dream-time (a malleable construct if there ever were one) seemed to stop. Suddenly her manifold creases and wrinkles were thrown into stark relief, and I was struck then as during her last week with how skeletal she looked, how her skin hung off her bones like an ill-fitting suit. But what arrested me most were her eyes; the look in them after my question was one of sheer animal terror, as if I’d reminded her of something she’d wanted, no, needed to forget. That look is in my mind’s eye right now, and I don’t think it’ll ever go away.
Especially since, a microsecond after all this registered, the color bled out of her skin and she crumpled sickeningly to the ground, cold and lifeless. Her fetal position on the imaginary floor mirrored her pose in the hospital bed she died in. Hard reality had re-asserted itself with a vengeance. I awoke screaming.
Now what do I take from this? The answer was clear from the moment my eyes shot open that night; false consolation isn’t for me. I may study it, I may pine for it, and I may even need it, but it isn’t forthcoming. This model brain can’t run that software. However I cope with the death of my best friend, I must do so in MY world. I cannot borrow the hopes and dreams of others to soothe the pain; I must celebrate her life as opposed to trying to deny her death.
So please; I know most of you disagree with me on these matters, and I know you wish to ease the ache, but please don’t tell me Amuma’s “in a better place”, or that she’s looking down on me (as several well-meaning people have done). After my metaphysical misadventure those words ring cruelly hollow, and overall I’d be better off without them.
Because now I know better.
guest post by Alec Crisman
Near my father’s house, where this one is currently located, there is a small Catholic prayer garden, a beautiful, hexagonal affair wreathed in trees and centered upon an alabaster Virgin Mary. The Holy Mother looks up towards the sky with that look (perfected through centuries of sculpture) of divine bliss and tranquility, her serenity still palpable though bits of her have begun to chip off. The branches from the nearby foliage bend low over her, shading her during the hot summer days. Indeed, the whole garden is quite overgrown at this point in summer (it’s attached to a church that serves as a school), with the approach through the brick archway at its entrance now requiring a deep stoop under cascading greenery. Entering this sanctuary almost gives one the sense of going through C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe, and as such the air hums with an almost permanent sense of peace.
So I wasn’t surprised when, in the course of an evening walk, I see a young girl stooping under those same branches, using her cell-phone as a light. I opt to leave her the illusion of privacy, moving to the outside of the fence gingerly and softly, intending to skirt by unnoticed and take in the faux-Tudor architecture in the rich neighborhood across the way. But before I can go I’m arrested by a heaving sob (clearly held in during her midnight trek) and a primal, heart-rending plea to the Madonna.
”Please help!” she gasps simply, overwhelmed by the sudden flood of her barely-contained pain. She looks down at her cell phone, and types with the speed and ferocity that clearly (for our generation at least) bespeaks of an argument. More deep sobs escape her, the kind only shed in private and that I, now, am suddenly privy to. It strikes me that most of us have shed these same brutal tears, but most all of us prefer to pretend they don’t exist. It strikes me that this is an incredibly stupid state of affairs.
As her fingers fly across the keys and the tears stream down her face I suddenly know this conflict is with a loved one, quite possibly a first boyfriend judging by the garish pink of her sweater. In between texts she looks up at the same sky the Madonna does, and the contrast between the faces couldn’t be more pronounced. The girl’s eyes scan the heavens beseechingly, begging begging begging but for what, I do not know. I only know the feeling. Her phone glows and hums, and she lunges for it eagerly, but the screen doesn’t tell her what she wants to hear, and more uncontrolled sobs leap out of her chest. Her head swings back haphazardly, and as her body continues to shake she glares at blurry stars, and a familiar phrase exits her lips
”Why isn’t it working?” she moans softly, her voice getting weak with her despair. “Why won’t you help me?”
Yeah, hon. I know that feeling too.
“When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate.”
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 29
Guest post by Curt Ries
Modern day US agriculture, which is at base an industrial enterprise, is fundamentally broken. It has been found to be an overtly destructive, corrosive force when brought before nearly any standard of analysis save for those narrowly defined values of industrial capitalism, of efficiency, productivity, and profitability, values that have no explicit correlation to moral goods of well-being or health and which implicitly run counter to such goods. Certain standards of particular importance are attended to below and should give evidence to the above claim.
Ecologically, industrial agriculture has resulted in an astronomical and largely irreversible loss of soil fertility and biodiversity as tractors and heavy equipment erode and compact soils while the chemical pesticides and fertilizers they apply destroy the microorganisms, insects, invertebrates, and fungi that compose a healthy, living soil. Artificial selection and use of genetically modified crops have resulted in a biological monopolization of agriculturally utilized plant species, making crops less resilient to diseases, pests, droughts, frosts, and other stressors. The frequency and impact of diseases and pests are further encouraged by the depletion of our soils brought about by mechanically and chemically farmed monocultures, thus “requiring” more fertilizer to replace fertility and more pesticides to kill pests and combat disease. This cycle of applying remedies to problems that those remedies primarily cause continues until the land is exhausted. Additionally, the CO₂ emissions from tractors and other farming and processing machinery, as well as the fleet of transport vehicles that distribute produce across the country and US corn and soy around the globe contribute significantly to global warming, as do the abundant methane emissions released through cow belches and manure, thanks to our beef and dairy industries.
Nutritionally, industrial agriculture and its close and indispensable ally, “food science,” have provided consumers with relatively nutrient-poor food products, replacing fresh produce with chemically preserved, genetically modified “food”, the health effects of which are largely unknown and potentially dangerous. Chemical pesticide residues, found on most all (even washed) conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and present in the meat of animals fattened on chemically-sprayed feed crops as well as in many rural areas’ water supplies are toxic and strongly linked with an array of serious health problems including: “early-onset Parkinson’s disease, shortened attention span, memory disorders, and reduced coordination; reproductive problems including miscarriages; reduced infant development; birth defects; depression; and cancer.” Scientists at the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Environmental Health Science found that their “studies show that chronic low-level pesticide exposure is associated with a broad range of nervous system symptoms: headache, fatigue, dizziness, tension, anger, depression, and impaired memory, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease” and that in regards to “the cancers non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and prostate cancer”, they conclude that there is “a link between pesticide use and cancer.”
Economically, the agricultural system is immensely wasteful in its resource use and unjust in its distribution of profits. Factory farms systematically fail to utilize manure as fertilizer, thus transforming a potentially valuable resource into a sanitation hazard. Livestock is regularly lost to disease and brought to slaughtering weight only with the aid of antibiotics made necessary by an unnatural grain—rather than grass—diet. Urban areas fail to utilize unnumbered tons of compostable organic material now being treated as waste. Large-scale monoculture operations depend entirely upon petroleum for fuel, chemicals, and product transport, thus rendering it vulnerable to unstable global oil prices that will, in the long-run will only increase due to peak-oil (the leveling off and eventual decline of global oil extraction; global discoveries of petroleum peaked decades ago) related scarcities. Multinational machine, seed, and chemical corporations and their sponsored experts reap huge profits while farmers are kept in continual debt and dependence as they are pressured to outgrow and out-compete their neighbors with more expensive, “laboring-saving” technologies.
Politically, global exports of corn and soy help perpetuate the myth of American international benevolence (our military interventions in the Philippines, Haiti, Guatemala, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iran, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan being but a few choice examples from this century to the contrary), increase the dependence of developing nations on foreign aid, give the US undue leverage to influence policy abroad, and incentivize farmers to contribute to the already irrational surplus of corn and soy with government subsidies, without which most could not keep up with their debts. These subsidies also force small farmers in developing nations to lower the prices of their products so that they may compete with US monocultures, driving millions from the countryside to the world’s cities as local food economies are forcibly replaced by a glut of cheap foreign commodity crops. Industrial monocultures replace sustenance-farming communities, substituting the great multitudes of traditionally planted seed varieties with genetically-modified seeds that are patented as the intellectual property of US-based multinational seed and chemical corporations such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow, making it illegal for farmers to save their seed from year to year and therefore mandating that they annually repurchase the GMO seed from those above mentioned companies, as well as the chemical herbicides that GMO seeds are most typically modified to resist. This situation gives profit driven and politically connected corporations an unprecedented amount of control over the global food supply, while leaving local farmers and communities utterly incapable of acquiring food security.
Ethically, industrial agriculture has abolished the well-being of conscious, sentient (i.e., being capable of suffering) and thus morally-relevant animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens. These animals have been itemized and made mechanical; this view has resulted in the hellish phenomenon that is the modern day factory farm or “concentrated animal feeding operation”, where animals live to be fed and medicated only enough to be slaughtered and sold at a profit and eaten by a consumer populace that is predominantly ignorant of what it is supporting when it consumes conventionally “raised” animal products. These animals live virtually without space, in unsanitary environments, eating foods their bodies have not evolved to break down and utilize well.
Culturally, industrial agriculture has brought about a profoundly damaging disconnect between consumers and producers, people and the land, rural and urban realities, as well as between eating food and understanding where it came from and what it took to grow, process, and transport. This disconnect has promoted and exacerbated the aforementioned problems, allowing the destructive industrial model to develop as rampantly as it has. Values once widely—though far from uniformly—maintained and cultivated on family farms and within rural communities of responsible and skillful land stewardship, humility before nature and neighbor, and economic thrift and independence have been lost, as has their ability to check the contemporary evils of ecological degradation and human and animal exploitation.
This is not an exhaustive account of grievances but rather one representative of the profound scale of failure that the industrial approach to farming embodies. The land and the incredibly complex biota that it supports and is composed of, including human beings cannot be understood nor interacted with through the narrow lenses of economics and industry. To attempt to do so is folly.
What is needed is both a methodology and a culture of farming that sees the land as an ecological system, organized by natural principles of life, death, decay, and renewal in which the farmer is a participant, student and caretaker. Many forms of farming already take this ecological approach, trading in the industrial metaphor of the machine for the biological metaphor of the organism to guide and describe their efforts as “organic”. Many do so in name more than in practice. Yet it is this collective body of alternative farming that is demonstrating the immense capacities of well-cared-for land to provide an abundance of healthy, nutritious food, to improve community sustainability and independence, improve the lives of farmers and farmhands while respecting those of other animals, all while reconnecting untold numbers of individuals with the natural world of which they are part and on which they depend. Developing and popularizing these alternative forms of agriculture is of the greatest importance, for in doing so we work towards broadly securing those self-evident moral goods of health and well-being in a way that strives for harmony with—rather than dominance over—nature.
Berry, Wendell. (1977, 1996). The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Engdahl, F. William. (2007). Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation. Montreal: Global Research
Howard, Sir Albert. (1947, 2007). The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture. University Press of Kentucky.
Jeavons, John. (2012). How to Grow more Vegetables*. Ecology Action GROW BIOINTENSIVE Publications. Ten Speed Press.
Leapold, Aldo. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press.
Poland, Michael. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press.
Singer, Peter. (2001). Writings on the Ethical Life. New York: Harper Perennial.
Zinn, Howard. (2003). A People’s History of the United States. New York: Perennial Classics.