The Long Nights of Winter: The Earth’s Sleep and Our Own

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Madronna Holden (copyright 2014)

Sleep is essential not only to memory and formation  of new neural connections, but also to our brain’s physiological maintenance.  Thus sleep researchers explain why we evolved this physically dangerous activity—picture humans asleep on our ancestral African savannah with nocturnal predators on the prowl.

The dreams that lace our sleep, in turn, are as crucial to our mental function as our daylight rationality. In laboratory experiments those deprived of REM (rapid eye movement or dreaming) sleep grow increasingly disoriented in their waking lives, finally hallucinating visions they are deprived of in sleep. REM is apparently our most crucial type of sleep, since it the type our bodies make up first after sleep deprivation.

Perhaps we most need dreams to remind us of the connections by which our world operates. Theologian Matthew Fox and biologist Rupert Sheldrake propose that in sleep we fall back into the experience of the primal oneness of life, bridging the boundaries that separate us from one another in the light of day.  There is something to be said for this, since our dreams are associative in nature, exploring connections of every kind, from the fantastic and the visionary to the mundane and spurious.

These nighttime associations alert us to what we might otherwise ignore — as in Gail Tremblay’s poem in Indian Singing in the Twentieth Century, in which the Coyote comes down from museum walls at night to dance with his curators. Like Coyote’s night business, ancient ceremonies honor the earth’s season of sleep in the long nights of winter by increasing awareness of what we may ignore in the light of habit. The early Roman Saturnalia that took place at the time of the winter solstice (the longest night of the year) shifted the ordinary order of things, closing courts and schools, interrupting wars, dismissing old grudges—and reversing social statuses of master and slave.

Unfortunately, under the later Roman Empire, the Saturnalia degenerated into a licentious spree. Likewise, Coyote stories illustrate both the need for creative action and the need for balance in applying it.  Coyote tales in indigenous North American sometimes portray Coyote as a wise transformer and other times as foolishly self-defeating, his escapades destroying himself and those around him.

Thus Coyote tales explore the impulse of experimentation within us– but not everything we think of should be done. In like fashion, indigenous tales from pioneer days on the Olympic Peninsula warn that certain pioneer technologies had their downsides—making humans work harder when they were meant to make things easier.

Doing whatever he thinks of is Coyote’s method, but as his stories show, this is not a wise course of action. Without moral standards and critical assessment, our creative impulses generate unintended consequences—as do too many forms of technology in the modern day.

Our dreams with their associative structures are here to remind us what we might otherwise forget—that we live in an interdependent world. They create awareness as do the salmon-shaped stickers placed on storm drains that announce, “Drains to stream”. Our world is made up of connections—and thus the waste we dispose of goes somewhere to affect other lives.

Traditional winter ceremonies, in turn, make conscious associations like those our dreams make spontaneously.  Ceremonies in the indigenous Pacific Northwest emphasize the connections between the living and dead, for instance, and designate the long nights of winter as the occasion of storytelling, bringing ancestral memory to consciousness.

This parallels the case in old Europe, where the archeology tells us Stonehenge is both a monument to the solstices (especially the winter solstice) and home to the ancestors–  a five mile circuit  there linking the living and the dead.

Vision and memory merge in winter ceremonies as they do in our dreams–and these are linked with healing in its root meaning of “wholeness”.  This shamans know as they travel to the land of the ancestors to access healing power in long winter nights—and Merlin practiced in a folk history of Britain. building Stonehenge from stones with medicinal power.

Winter ceremonies thus honor the similarity between the physiological housekeeping that cleans our brains of waste chemicals in sleep and the winter housekeeping of earth, whose cleansing cold destroys particular viruses, bacteria, and molds— and thus inhibits the spread of certain diseases—a concern if global warming allows these to proliferate instead.  Indeed, the most recent meetings of the American Society for the Advancement of Science included a paper given by Michael Grigg, 0f University of British Columbia and the National Institute of Health, who observed that “ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens”–and thus the current “big thaw” is resulting in the “liberation of pathogens gaining access to vulnerable new hosts and wreaking havoc”.

Fleas and lice are destroyed by a month in a deep freeze—as are the larvae of the wax moth that trouble honeybee frames. Winter cold is necessary to other things as well: without a certain number of hours of winter chill, the apple tree will not bear—nor will other fruit trees that have their own winter chill requirements.

Beneath the snow the soil works transformations that support life, composting waste into fertility. Like the resulting black soil, our deep selves are rendered fertile in what they remake from our psychic wastes—our pain, our confusion, our illness, our weakness, our vulnerability.

Black soil is life-sustaining. Light soil, which has taken on few wastes to transform, is feeble by comparison.

Many of us in the industrialized world live at conscious remove from the earth’s seasonal cycles.  But this winter’s storms have brought us back to that connection in no uncertain terms. For all our technological expertise, we are still embedded in the natural world—and we cannot escape responsibility for carbon pollution and ensuing climate instability.

The vanishing ice that the polar bear would rest on, the melting glaciers that cause sea levels to rise in island nations, and the melting permafrost that makes swamp of former solid ground in the Arctic, are a few of earth’s reminders of the necessity of honoring the balance of seasons.

Such reminders are a grave part of life in the Philippines and the Arctic—and thus their leaders are among the strongest advocates for reduction of the global carbon output.

Seasonal cold even has a role in keeping us warm. Raising temperatures– and thus melting polar ice sheets– may well cause North America and Northern Europe to suffer colder winters due to the influence of melting ice on ocean currents.

We cannot escape the necessity of seasonal balance any more than we can escape our daily patterns of sleep and waking. Just as the earth’s rhythms remind of the necessity of her seasons, our bodies alert us to our own cycles of light and dark.  Should we neglect either of these, we suffer reminders such as the wild weather this winter in North America—and the upsurge of breast cancer among shift workers.

Like the transformation of wastes into fertile soil, the caterpillar wrapped in its cocoon reminds us that that which is sleeping is also being remade.  Admittedly, it may be inconvenient to experience such melt—and the dissolution of all boundaries as the caterpillar must before it can realize its future as a butterfly.

But it is a wise society whose stories allow us to see beyond the boundaries habit and convenience describe. With their good work of exposing the results of our choices such stories release our creative vision as they allow us to remember our past and avoid its mistakes.

We could use a few such stories to shift the habitual order of things, giving us an occasion to loosen old grudges, stop wars—or reverse the roles of factory workers and CEOs.

We could use ceremonies that bring to awareness those ideas—or people—our society excludes, like the homeless who filled “warming centers” during this past December’s unprecedented cold (ten below zero) in my home of Eugene, Oregon.  Those tending these shelters re-gather into community men and women more easily ignored in fair weather when they are not so likely to die on our streets, as did the man for whom Eugene’s shelters are named, Thomas Egan.

We cannot escape the fact that these homeless are members—and results– of our society any more than we can escape the seasons.

As the earth’s ancient ceremonies indicate, the long nights of winter are put to good use in psychological and social cleansing cold.

Winter is a perfect time to remember we are creatures of vision as well as daily habit– to re-gather our memories, extend our community, and dream our future well.

Science is Never Certain (and Lichens Don’t Cure Cancer Either)

By Madronna Holden

updated 12.11.2013

Lichens don’t cure cancer, or rather, we don’t know whether they do — in spite of the article accepted for publication by over one hundred scientific journals touting the lichen cure.  The article  is a fake created by the journal Science, and it has some large bloopers, including the assertion of findings not related to its research, and promises to forge ahead with human testing without any safety protocols.

This bogus study is meant to demonstrate the importance of peer review and prestigious “first tier” journals as against “open access” journals. But not all “first tier” journals like Science caught the problems in the fake, whereas the open access journal PLoS ONE did. According to an analysis published on October 19, 2013, contemporary scientific work in general is riddled with errors.

Indeed, the larger issue in need of discussion here is the intersection of science and culture—and science and profit.

Science itself recently published a research paper that has since been widely discredited– and it is not the only prestigious scientific journal with such problems.  Of 73 articles recently published by the New England Journal of Medicine, 50 were co-authored by drug company ghostwriters. 

Rather than tightening their peer review process in light of this, the Journal decided to de-emphasize the critical assessment of industry funding   Lest we think industry funding has little impact on research results, we should note that research sponsored by drug companies portrays drugs as positive 3.6 times more than the same research funded by government or non-profits.

Notably, certain journals have taken a more proactive stand in this respect.  The British Medical Journal  (as they write in an editorial just this month) have joined PLoS Medicine, PLos One, PloS Biology, The Journal of Health Psychology, as well as journals published by the American Thoracic Society, in the refusal to publish research funded in whole or part by the tobacco industry.

Such a stand acknowledges the ways that industry shapes knowledge to amplify profit as in the cases of those  who hid health effects of lead on children,  of plastics manufacture on workers—and of heart irregularities in those taking Vioxx and Avandia–and the company who launched a secret research program to vindicate asbestos.

By burying and tinkering with scientific data, companies postponed the loss of profit resulting from making good data public.

The profit motive calls into question the work of the American Council on Science and Health, an advocacy group that is a self-proclaimed attacker of “junk science” — going after environmental and health legislation and defending the likes of fracking, BPA, and pesticides.  Secret documents recently made public indicate that that group is directly funded by industries selling the products it defends.

Gilbert Ross, the research group’s director, previously had his medical license pulled while he served time in prison for defrauding the New York State Medicaid program to the tune of 8 million dollars.

And even if we take the profit motive out of the equation, cultural values play a large part in scientific findings.   Peer reviewers for instance, may unwittingly add to social prejudice.  Social psychologist Laura Purdy makes a case for hiring seemingly less qualified women in order to give women an equal chance, since not only do scientific discoveries take longer to be accepted if made by women, but both men and women in the contemporary US evaluate the very same resumes and articles as “better” if attributed to a man rather than a woman.

Respected scientist Shirley Strum relates how her own groundbreaking research on baboons was at first locked out of regular academic and publishing channels. The “old boy” scholars did not want to give up their position on innate baboon aggressiveness and male dominance in spite of Strum’s research, which was more meticulous than their own.  She was the first to actually follow baboons on their daily rounds in the field, as well as to record  social interactions of particular troops and individual baboons.

Geneticist Barbara McClintock was forced to finance her own work when universities and research institutions refused to hire her.  Her breakthroughs eventually won her the Nobel Prize, but in the context of Western science, her method of “listening to the corn” traveled a hard road to acceptance.

Eileen Pollock’s recent New York Times essay outlines the ongoing problems of gender prejudice in evaluating scientific work—as well as in assessing potentials of students going into science.

Such prejudice effects acceptance of knowledge from non-mainstream cultures as well.  I am old enough to remember the dismissal of indigenous ecological knowledge by mainstream peer reviewers. Today the burgeoning of ecological science and the number of indigenous individuals earning advanced degrees has created a social context in which such knowledge can take its rightful place in scientific understanding.

Predisposition shades our scientific observations in purely physical ways as well. Purdy also cites an experiment in which observers recorded the performance of one group of rats in a maze as better than another—even though the groups were in fact entirely equal.  The difference?  The observers were told beforehand that one group was smarter.

Maintaining that “objective” science circumvents social and personal values only makes such values unconscious. Goethe once observed, “all fact is really theory”.  A presumed “fact”, that is, exists in the context of a particular worldview  which is itself a theory of the world entailing assumptions, perceptions, and choices. As Thomas Kuhn’s history of Western science details, science has persistently ignored data that does not fit the worldview of its time—only accepting such data after a shift in worldview.

This history provides a solid case for the critical assessment of scientific values. What we are conscious of, we can compensate for.  What we don’t recognize, on the other hand, we can’t fix—as in the tragic medical errors that kill at least 98,000 annually in the context of a culture within medical schools that encourages doctors to ignore mistakes—since it teaches that doctors don’t make them.

It is this same culture that causes scientific errors in general to be denied-– and problems of data fraud to be passed on to “others”.  A compilation of twenty-one surveys of researchers in various scientific disciplines shows that whereas only 2 per cent admitted fudging their data, 28 per cent claimed to know colleagues who did.

Science will never live up to its claims of being self-correcting until scientists are able to admit their mistakes:  as Bruce Alberts, then editor of Science, recently testified before Congress, scientists  “need to develop a value system where simply moving on from one’s mistakes without publicly acknowledging them severely damages, rather than protects, a scientific reputation.”

But the idea that scientists don’t make mistakes is part of the arrogance endemic to the Western worldview– expressed by DNA co-discoverer James Watson’s question, “If we do not play God, who will?” This question has nothing to do with science and everything to do with cultural values that cast humans as dominators of the natural world—a trend in Western thought longstanding as it is unfortunate.  Ancient Greeks termed unwarranted human arrogance hubris –and their literature is full of examples in which hubris fated human downfall.

“Playing God” with the natural world has brought us to our current condition—in which every natural system on earth is in decline. It is neither science nor wisdom to cling to a worldview with such results.

Other values inherited from our current culture contribute to the ineffectiveness of science’s self-correcting mechanisms.   Studies replicating previous work are rarely funded. Researchers generally assume that replication is done with those with a “bone to pick”– the characteristic interpretation in a culture based on the value of competition rather than cooperation.

Paul Woodruff’s Reverence offers an alternative to the arrogance that closes scientific minds– and the competitive stance that stops scientists from admitting and learning from their own mistakes.  He details how wise historical traditions have cultivated reverence toward other lives as a means of combating  tyranny and authoritarianism.  Reverence facilitates the opening to the world essential to good science expressed by McClintock’s “listening to the corn” and Strum’s getting to know baboons as individuals making their own choices.

The indigenous value of acknowledgement discussed by Oneida elder Joanne Shenandoah, also pays homage to the value of other lives:  “We acknowledge their worth, acknowledge that we are equal with the woodland, the trees, the berries, the two-legged and the four-legged. We share the same air, space, and water.”

I can only imagine how our science might evolve if it held such acknowledgement of the world it hopes to know.

This would certainly prompt us to replace human arrogance with an appropriate dose of humility—and to make self-reflection an essential part of good science. After all, if science is based on observation, shouldn’t we know as much as possible about the observer?  Indeed, Nobel Prize winning physicist Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, indicates that a physicist’s expectations change the physical outcome of an experiment.

Heisenberg ‘s observations were focused on the arena of quantum dynamics, but philosopher David Hume, termed by the Stanford philosophy site “the most important philosopher ever to write in English”,  argues that there is no such thing as scientific certainty period.

Hume notes that scientific methodology develops its theories from observed experience.  Such theories can only be only our best guess at the way the world works—that is, they are hypotheses that give us probability rather than certainty. As in a coin toss, we can predict the chance that heads rather than tails will come up. We can elaborate the things impinging on the outcome.  We can even assign a statistic to that outcome.

But no matter how many times we toss the coin, we cannot say for certain that heads will be our next result. The issue of significance in scientific research is intimately intertwined with judging probability.

Unfortunately, this is not something with which enough scientists are familiar.  In 2005 John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist from Stanford University showed why, as a matter of statistical analysis, “most published research findings are probably false.”

In other ways, as well, science is constitutionally incapable of knowing everything about our world.  But if we base our science on careful observation, along with a critical assessment of our perceptions and values and an understanding of the limits of our knowledge, we can do good science.

However, if we skip such critical self-assessment, we have the type of Monsanto-science that asserts that its genetic engineering is necessary to feed the world. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, genetically engineered soy seed actually produces less than its traditional counterpart.  The Monsanto claim also ignores the key issue of food distribution.  Indeed, Monsanto’s activities occasion the consolidation of small farms taken out of the hands of the hungry.

In general cultivation techniques in industrial agriculture that many term “progress” without evaluating what progress actually is– lead to the deterioration of global farmland in escalating use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and water.

In assessing the scientific claims for such agriculture, we might well consider Mark Twain’s caution:  “It’s not what he doesn’t know that worries me. It’s what he knows for certain that just ain’t so.”

Keeping our minds open to what we don’t “know for certain” helps compensate for our selective perception– illustrated by a video in which a group of students play basketball while a man in a gorilla suit walks through the scene. Viewers told beforehand to count the number of times the basketball bounces miss the presence of the gorilla entirely– as I myself did the first time I saw the film.

Distraction works.

Enough of the TV audience viewing drug ads fix their attention on people depicted in healthy poses to miss the voice-over rattling off a drug’s sometimes fatal side effects. And thus drug ads are commercially profitable despite the side effect listing.

We see what we expect to see. We also see what we are rewarded for seeing.  If we keep our eyes on the ball of career success, on corporate profits, on the prestige of science—or simply on the habits of our modern lifestyle—we easily miss the side effects of our choices.

Just as we need humility that honors the limits of our knowledge, we need a perspective that takes our whole interdependent world into account.

Assessing our values is the first step in doing good science.

Choosing our values is the next one.

We have considerable historical precedent to help us in making such choices. We can choose values that have accompanied human survival over thousands of years:  values such as humility, care, reverence, and thanksgiving– and get to know our world as a friend rather than a dominator.


See also

Why Science will Never Know Everything.


And for a profile of scientists who have done the right thing, working to share accurate information, see these personal profiles of of science “champions”.

This essay is copyright, 2013 by Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link to share. These are important issues to discuss.

Honey in the making: a photo essay

By Madronna Holden

spring 2013 053Bee covered in dandelion pollen

spring 2013 014         Bee busy on butterfly lavender. They appreciate regular lavender too– and Russian sage

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bee on bluebell

Bee sipping nectar from a bluebell: note the pollen packet on her leg.

013Continuing a partnership began over a hundred million years ago

Bees on mountain blue and other asters.

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Bees are working everywhere.  Please don’t spray!  Especially when a plant is blooming. And don’t use insidious granules or injections of products containing “neonics” on trees. These will continue to poison pollinators for years. 

Did you know spraying a blooming honey plant is also against the law?  Help protect the pollinators that are essential to the majority of human food crops– not to mention the health of our ecosystems.

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Bee sipping from an English ivy bloom: photo taken in November when other nectar crops are sparse

bee on the way to pollinate clematis

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Bee heading for a clematis flower and working it

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Bees on mint blooms: one of their favorites

native bee posing for the camera?

stuffing pollen baskete

             bee on fennel                                                 Fennel is another favorite

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Bee on rosemary: herb nectar helps keeps bees healthy

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Love that rosemary!

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Bee on boxwood:  bees work tiny closed buds to get them to open. Research shows that the presence of bees stimulates blooms on other plants as well.

006And where you find honeybees, you find native pollinators as well

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Is it just me or does this bee look a bit giddy?  When the blackberry bloom is on in May and early June, the honey flow is abundant!

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Lunara blooms in early spring to bring in the bees

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And bees don’t forget the forget-me-nots

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I can’t say it too often!  Don’t poison bees that do so much for us–and don’t poison other wildlife, pets and children!

These photos represent only a very small portion of the diversity of honey plants utilized by bees. For instance, there are our fruit and nut trees.   I didn’t get any pictures of bees working twenty or thirty feet in the air, but my burgeoning backyard fruit crop indicates their presence. There are also our ornamentals:  such as linden, locust, maple and poplar utliized for nectar, pollen, and propolis (the bee “antibiotic”).  They will also work single-petaled roses such as Nootka and Darwin’s Enigma and join native pollinators on mock orange and ceanothus.  Bees could compose their own plant encyclopedia– likely far more extensive than the ones humans put together!

Visit Oregon Sustainable Beekeepers  for more  information on protecting our honeybees and native pollinators.


These photos are protected by copyright Madronna Holden 2013, but feel free to link here and use these pictures (with credit)  in any way that supports the protection of our honeybee and native bee populations.

Beauty May Save Us: The Power of Nature’s Beauty

sky color

By Madronna Holden

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, a young Appalachian woman’s longing for something different—something just for herself—pulls her toward disaster in her susceptibility to sexual manipulation.

But on her way to an illicit rendezvous, her course of self-destruction is interrupted by a natural wonder.  She see the woods full of what seems to be a mysterious orange fire that she later learns it is a gathering of monarch butterflies.  This experience tells her that the passion she seeks is not about giving herself away.  It is erotic in an entirely different way:  a way that turns her onto a path of care for herself, her children– and the miracle of nature endangered by climate change.

As this novel indicates, our response to beauty can be centrally implicated in our personal choices.  It is also implicated in our cultural story.

That story prompted pioneers to ravage the beauty of the Pacific Northwest in their attempt to tame the land.  Some felt a fear bordering on panic of the grandeur of the old growth forests –a fear of the beauty that not only set humans in their humble place in the nature of things but was simply too much for them—too overwhelming. The self-styled heroes of Manifest Destiny hardly sought to be overcome by wonder.

We can only imagine how different our history might be had pioneers instead told a story that honored the beauty of the world that bestowed them with life, as did the Seri of the Baja Peninsula. Seri tradition has it that inside each of us is a flower and inside that flower is a word– the seed of language. To lose the beauty of such words is to lose the world they belong to.

Indeed, words of this kind have the power to revitalize our lives.  Poet, initiated Seneca medicine person, and translator of world poetry Jerome Rothenberg tells us that poets today inhabit a “Neolithic subculture” in which nouns become verbs and the leaden surety of ownership, hierarchy and control become vision, vitality—and life.

This reverses the dynamic in advertising that moves in the direction of life to death– as it downplays natural beauty in favor of consumer icons.  The feminine bodies such ads sell us are flawless –in a mortuary version of beauty possible only in the death of the actual body.

The intrusion of death into so-called beauty products is reflected by their ingredients—which include lead and other toxins.

Unfortunately, ads that link eroticism and death reflect a cultural truism.  The majority of women murdered in the US are murdered by lovers or ex-lovers.

Eroticism is connected with violence in another way observed by Maria Mies in her essay, “White Man’s Dilemma”. She observes how those responsible for destruction of the environment and its indigenous lives tour “exotic” places and partake in “sex tourism” in the attempt to regain the mystery and excitement of what they have destroyed—to recover the vitality of their own lives.

Just as love is at odds with control, beauty is at odds with ownership– whether that beauty be in other humans or the natural world.

Expanses of monochrome lawns exhibit an aesthetic akin to the airbrushed complexion of women in ads—and with as much hazard to the vitality of each.  Such lawns showcase the control of nature reliant on the death of unwanted  insects and “weeds” —and of lives shortened by exposure to pesticides.

Expanses of unremitting sameness are not an element of natural beauty.  Indeed, as educator Jean Kilbourne points out, they are not an aspect of life.

By contrast, our affinity with the natural world—our perception of loveliness based on diversity and vitality—results from the hundred thousand years in which we became human in concert with the natural world.

In that history, our sensual alertness developed as a survivor’s trait.

To deaden this sensual alertness takes considerable denial—and can result in considerable destruction. Nazi doctors interviewed by Robert Lifton cut off their own sensual awareness to facilitate their terrible acts– since if they had been fully present to those acts, they knew they would have been incapable of going through with them.

I heard a member of the Allied Liberation Forces in World War II make a similar point.  For him, the horror of the camps was encompassed in their smell:  the smell of dead and decaying human bodies.  He washed his clothes for a month after returning home in the attempt to get the stench of death out of them.  Yet when he asked inhabitants of a village near the camps how they stood the smell, they replied, “We smelled nothing”.

Today we numb ourselves to the ugliness of bulldozer- scraped land, ignoring its ruin for the sake of “development”.  But we do so at our peril. The same peril that follows our ignoring climate change in spite of the droughts and storms currently escalating in our weather patterns.

Indeed, it is only at our peril that we ignore the results of any of our actions.

Natural beauty may save us from such peril by calling us back to the world– re-awakening us to our sensual presence in the world– and our conscience in the process.

According to Navajo tradition, the harmony of the natural world expresses a model of harmony  in human life.  To “walk in beauty” is to be blessed with goodness.

Artist Lily Yeh would agree.  Her work  illustrates the potential for healing that exists in beauty.

In 1986 Yeh began an eighteen year campaign to bring beauty to impoverished neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.  She involved  local children in painting murals and constructing mosaics, creating oases of beauty in abandoned lots.  Eventually community adults joined her, including former drug lords who gave up their addictions to do so–and together they reclaimed large swathes of formerly devastated neighborhoods.

Yeh sees her creation of jewel-like mosaics as a powerful symbol, since we are all broken in some place–and mosaics use this brokenness as material with which to create beauty.

Yeh didn’t stop with the Village of the Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia.  She next set out to bring beauty to the survivors of a massacre in Rwanda living beside the unburied bones of 10,000 victims of genocide. These survivors wanted most of all to give their dead a reverential burial– but did not have the resources or the heart to do it.

Yeh worked with them to construct an expansive mosaic monument to protect the bones of the dead. The ceremonial burial that followed caused many to collapse in reliving their grief years after the massacre.

But after this burial, the community continued working with Yeh with new energy, turning children’s drawings into community murals that expressed their dreams for the future.

The revitalized local spirit drew help from outside even as it sparked energy within.  By the time Yeh left Rwanda, the survivors’ village  had  recovered weaving, planting and harvesting traditions; they had goats and cows and a clean reliable water supply from harvested rainwater, and they had built  solar arrays to power the sewing machines in a business operated by orphans of genocide.

“We celebrate life in beauty”,  to use Yeh’s guiding words.

But we can only do so if we have the courage, as Yeh did, to face the consequences of our human actions.  In going to Rwanda, Yeh was terrified–yet beauty led her on, since she believes that in the heart of the worst tragedy is a point of light waiting to be brought out.  It is our task to find and ignite the beauty waiting there.

Such beauty may yet heal us:  yet show us the way to repair our world.

Thus we must guard this beauty in one another along with our own creative impulses and the natural beauty that reminds us of our place and responsibilities in life.

Such beauty cannot be controlled or purchased–nor can we guarantee its permanence.

We can only nurture it– and make ourselves available to wonder.


This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  However, feel free to link to it or reproduce it with attribution.

Senator Frank Lautenberg: A Tribute

We mourn the recent death even as we celebrate the legacy of New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg. While too many  in Congress support corporate interests over the public good  and engage in petty in-fighting,  Lautenberg took a different course– the one for which he was elected.

He served US citizens.

I can only imagine how our society might change for the better if all current Congresspersons followed his model.

Early on in his career he stood down pressure from the alcohol and tobacco industries to  spearhead anti-smoking legislation and legislation that raised the legal age of drinking to 21–and specified legal blood alcohol levels for drivers.

Moving against big oil, he inserted legislation into the Coast Guard law to triple federal liability limits for oil spills, authored legislation supporting public transportation (especially Amtrak), and fostered a program to cut back energy use in federal buildings.

He also initiated legislation that protected open spaces (especially in coastal lands), legislation to monitor and respond to ocean acidification, and legislation to protect water quality and prohibit ocean dumping.

He helped shift financial responsibility for brownfield clean up from the public coffers to the corporate polluters who created these disasters.

In the face of unrelenting pressure from chemical industry lobbyists, he re-introduced the much-needed update of the  Toxics Substances Control Act year after year. One final legacy he has left us is a bipartisan breakthrough in support of this bill this year.

And while the updated TOSCA was stalled, he created the Toxics Release Inventory as well as other right to know legislation that allows local communities to assess and respond to pollution to which they are subject.

He was a primary author of the “21st Century GI Bill” and he worked to maintain affordable housing and health care access  in the US–as well as human rights standards in the global arena.

Moving against the tide of gun manufacturer lobbyists and in line with the tide of US public opinion, he authored a bill to prohibit gun possession by those convicted of domestic violence offenses.  He continued to work for over a decade to try to close the “gun show loophole” allowing guns to be sold without background checks at gun shows.

After a spate of school fires, he drew up fire safety standards for schools that were  included in the congressional higher education legislation in 2008.

Frank Lautenberg’s record  not only models the standards to which we might hold our politicians– but with which each of us might act on our values.

There is a good deal we can learn from him.

–When one avenue was blocked, he found another.

–He never stopped at a single roadbloack but persisted, gathering allies as he went.

–He took many small steps to reach larger goals.

–He did not let his ego get in the way.

Thus this “quiet man”, as so many of his colleagues characterized him, amassed such a solid record of success in his five terms in Congress.

Frank Lautenberg has left us not only a more vibrant environment and a more just and safer society– but something to live up to.

Here is an appreciation with some personal touches written by Andy Igrejas of the Safer Chemicals/Healthy families campaign.

Wolves and the Wild: Expanding the Human Household

By Madronna Holden

“‘We are waiting for the wolves to answer. We want a healing, a cure for             anguish, a remedy that will heal the wound between us and the world that contains our broken histories.”

—  Linda Hogan,  “Deify the Wolf”


Pioneers in the Willamette Valley gathered in the so-called Wolf Meetings” to establish a territorial government.  Why this label?  Given their personal disagreements, the pioneers  failed to create a common government.  But the one thing they did agree on was the extermination of local wolves.

In those days, in the words of PBS’s “The Wolf that Changed America”, wolves “were the very embodiment of America’s vanishing wilderness”.  That wilderness was vanishing according to the rubric of Manifest Destiny, which saw both wild creatures and indigenous peoples fated to fade away before the onslaught of ” civilization”.

The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, reflects this view in children’s terms.  Here the wolf represents the savage wilderness, and Red Riding Hood the naïve girl-child delighted by birdsong and flowers, who puts herself in mortal danger because she has not yet learned to fear the land and its creatures– and must thus be saved by the huntsman. This fairytale dates from Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries —the heyday of the colonial takeover of the Americas.

But there are notable exceptions to the image of the wolf as mythical evil: as the in case of wolf hunter Ernest Seton turned environmentalist explored in the PBS documentary above.  The intelligence of a particular wolf, his communications with the wolf hunter, his self-possession and dignity—and finally, his dying loyalty to his mate—all moved the wolf hunter to see the world entirely differently.  Indeed, we might say this wolf domesticated Seton—if, tragically, at the cost of his own life.

Seton spent the remainder of his life fighting to save habitat where wild creatures might have a natural home.  He helped persuade Theodore Roosevelt to preserve US wilderness and founded the Boy Scouts—in line with his belief that humans needed intimacy with the wild.

Willamette Valley Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman relates how wolf skins brought in for bounty to the trading post at Scottsburg, Oregon, were stacked in shoulder high piles before being pushed into the Umpqua River to dispose of them. We can only imagine what this meant for those whose origin story told how First Woman entrusted her children to the care of Mother Wolf when she went out to discover her land.  First Woman found her children well cared for on her return.

Mother Wolf thus gave human children an experience of the natural world as family. We might well follow this model of learning from the natural world that succors us.  And we might hope to do so in a way that does not require the death of other natural creatures as happened with Seton’s wolf-hunting.

Mary Tallmountain spoke a telling poetic acknowledgement to the “last wolf”who made its way through the  “ruined city” to lay its muzzle on the hospital bed where she battled cancer. “Yes”, she told the wolf, “I know what they have done”.

What they had done was wage a war of extermination on wolves and their wild kin. Shortly after the “Wolf Meetings”, wolves were largely gone from Willamette Valley– though there were a few hold-outs in wilderness areas until the last wolf in Oregon was killed for bounty in 1947.

But the wolf gone from official records was not gone from sight.  There were mysterious wolf sightings long after this, as in the gray wolf sighted in the Opal Creek Wilderness half a century later.  As wolves will do, this creature would stand and look back at a human for a moment before it turned to vanish.

I don’t know anything more about the wolf at Opal Creek. Young wolves generally disperse about 40-80 miles, but they have gone as far as 500 miles to find a new family.  Until they find their family, in turn, they cannot realize their nature as a wolf.  It was a wolf’s fierce loyalty to his  mate that caused Seton to write WHY? in his journal with respect to his own actions —and to turn from wolf killer to wolf protector.

He is not alone in this change.  According to a recent US survey 74 per cent of US citizens now agree that the wolf should have a place in natural ecosystems. The Nez Perce did not need a survey to determine their own opinions on this: they offered their land as a site for wolf reintroduction– and then held a ceremony to welcome the wolves back.

Among the 26 per cent who do not favor the wolf’s comeback are ranchers who see their livestock at risk with that return. Tactics to support both the ranchers and the wolves are being worked out in the wake of Oregon’s “no kill” court ruling. One side effect of this process is that humans are spending more time with the domesticated animals they raise for meat– since the primary method to inhibit wolf killings of this type is human presence.

Now we are also learning more about wolves–and thus how to treat them according to their own nature.  A recent editorial in the Oregonian concurred with the Fish and Wildlife’s decision to kill two yearling lamb-killing wolves that refused to be relocated and were roaming without a pack.  That editorial also argued we should not be killing wolves in the wilderness who are doing what wolves naturally do.

There is much to learn about wolves’ essential roles in ecosystems:  observations of reintroduced wolves in the Yellowstone indicate their presence fosters the return of aspen groves, changing the way elk graze—higher up on the branches, so they can keep a lookout.  Wolf kills also feed at least twelve other species—not counting insects.

Even in the Red Riding Hood story, there is embedded an older memory of wolf as kin—indicated by his dressing in the clothes of the young girl’s beloved grandmother.  Though the moral of this fairy tale is the foolishness of such a guise, there are those who find a different moral—and a different possibility—in our relationship with wolves.

As Chickasaw Linda Hogan sees it, the wolf is “a relative inside our own blood, an animal so equal to us that it reflects back what we hate and love about ourselves.”

Indigenous peoples are not alone in this view.  In a much older European story than that of Red Riding Hood, twins suckled by a wolf founded Rome.

Here we find two contrasting stories of domestication. In the one humans domesticate the wild by setting it under human control—and in the other humans and wild creatures share the common household of earth. In this latter view wild  creatures domesticate us as much as we domesticate them.

Paul Shepard’s thesis is that the latter has been the predominant type of domestication– whether humans realize it or not.   He argues that though humans assume they are domesticating animals and plants, the latter are really domesticating humans, since they have changed our humanity over time so we might accommodate them in our lives.

We are all too familiar with the contrasting idea of  domestication as control, which affects both what industrial societies consider wild and what they consider feminine.  In this framework, both women and wolves according to Clarrisa Estes, “have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious.”

We presume to own what we thus domesticate even as we presume to control it:  thus genetically engineered lives are patented by their designers.

But in the older view of domestication, both the wolf and the feminine are empowered by their wildness: by their intuition, their attention to detail—and most of all, their loyalty to family (a family that extends to all natural lives)—and their protection of their children with a singular fierceness.

In this view, humans are familial partners with the wild world, as illustrated by the case of lions who shared their kill with certain indigenous peoples of South Africa, and the dolphins who fished with the indigenous peoples of Australia– a practice initiated by the dolphins.

This view of domestication is not about taming the wild, but in the apt terms of ethnobotanist M. Kat Anderson, about tending the wild.  Rather than shrinking the lives of other species into an arena controlled by humans, this type of domestication seeks to extend human consciousness to embrace the whole of the natural world as family.

There were the wild hedgerows in indigenous farms in Peru, and peasant farms in England and Eastern Europe—where hedgerows both fed and provided habitat to other species and provided a reservoir of learning for the farmers.  They obtained many seed varieties from them, for instance.

Here there is no line drawn between the “weeds” that are not under human control and a single plant chosen by humans. Indeed, research published this month supports Vandana Shiva’s observation that the plants declared “weeds” in agribusiness monocultures constitute essential nutritional, medicinal, and material (e.g. housing and basket making) resources for indigenous farmers.

Instead of attacking biodiversity to bolster the one seed or one animal—or part of an animal as in the case of genetic engineering—humans favor at the moment, the Kalapuya who sustained themselves for at least six thousand years in place, fostered an abundant diversity of local animals and crops–such that their valley was known as the “gourmand’s paradise” by early European explorers for its abundance of available food.

Kalapuya also echoed the practice of the wolf in their hunting:  early pioneers near Albany witnessed native hunters surround a herd and conscientiously let its strongest animals go before their took their own kill.

Wherever humans have lived they have interacted with and thus changed the natural world.  They have taken what they need for survival, as do all natural creatures.  But there is more than one way than one way to do this.  We can attempt to bring other lives under our control, making monocultures of our favorites—and declaring war on all other natural lives as we erase natural habitats.

Or we can embrace other natural lives as our kin—expanding our sense of family to all natural life.  Creatures that share our gardens, our farms, our cities, and our houses—as well as the habitats we dedicate to them—take us, in Hogan’s words, “across the boundaries of ourselves,”  teaching us the language of life which may yet sustain us.

We Are Not Our Guns: We Must Stop Identifying People with Weapons

By Madronna Holden

Updated 3.8.13

The most recent issue of the  American Legion magazine features a full page ad for a working submachine gun which can be had by filling out a mail order coupon and supplying a credit card number. The absence of any reference to background checks in this ad is troubling enough—a recent survey indicated 85 per cent of the US public wants stronger background checks for gun sales.

But there is also cause for concern in the depiction of this gun decorated with gold braid and medals. We should be decorating a person rather than a gun in such ways.  The glittering display is meant to convey that the owner of the gun will share a heroic identity by association with his machine gun.

Linking guns with the identity of those who own them is a ploy used by gun manufacturers to sell their stock – and the vast majority of their profit is gained through selling assault weapons.  These manufacturers would have us believe that challenging the individual’s right to own assault rifles is tantamount to challenging who they are as persons.

Unfortunately, some US citizens seem to have bought this line.  A recent demonstration of gun owners had them displaying their guns as if to challenge their right to carry these would challenge who they are.

Certainly we should think of ourselves–and ways of meeting our needs for safety and security– in more expansive and creative ways than the firepower we are able to amass. At the very least, we need to take the profit motive out of the discussion of gun ownership.   In the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook, which killed “fellow educators and the children we cherish”, the 800,000 strong California Teacher’s Union has done just that by divesting  their pension fund of stock in companies that make assault weapons.

The association between a product and its buyer’s identity is business as usual for ad makers, who would persuade us that who we are is wrapped up in the cars we drive and the clothes we wear.  But if it is buyer beware concerning such products, guns ought not to be on that advertising list at all.  There is no reason to allow the advertising of products whose only purpose is to kill other humans.

Michael Meade, who has worked with young men in prison for violent crimes, quoted the African saying, “Never give a gun to a man who can’t dance” as he used the sharing of personal stories to dissociate these men from their weapons.

Recently, Meade is working on a welcome home project for veterans, using their stories as a way of re-integrating them into our communities.  Making a purposeful place for all is not only the least we owe those who risked their lives on our behalf– but an anecdote to violence everywhere.

Palestinian bishop Elias Chacour relates how responsibility for the care of olive trees is passed down in traditional Palestinian communities.  When, however, centuries-old olive trees are uprooted by the development of settlements on Palestinian land (settlements the UN has declared illegal), the purposeful identity of young men is uprooted with them.

The loss of place in community, of personal purpose—and the anger of that loss — opens the way for the manipulation of certain alienated adolescents to literally turn themselves into weapons as suicide bombers.

By turn,  we see the identification of Israeli soldiers with their guns as they face off against Palestinian farmers in the documentary, “Five Broken Cameras”.  The guns in their hands lead to atrocities  in the heat of the moment– atrocities that escalate the grief in Palestinian communities—and insecurity for Israeli society.

This documentary also shows the fragility of human life too often overlooked by those who identify themselves with their weapons. This is a fragility we share with all natural life, as expressed when Israeli settlers burn a Palestinian olive orchard and a weeping Palestinian asks, “Why burn the trees that pray to God? What have they done?”

Altogether, life is too fragile to carry out our negotiations with any living being with rifles in hand.

As an alternative, Daniel Goleman taught “emotional intelligence” skills to those in impoverished communities at risk for violence resulting from what he terms an “amygdala highjack”– the amygdala is a part of our brain which takes over in such situations. All of us have experienced this phenomenon at the point we are “seeing red” and our “flight or fight” response kicks in.  Emotional intelligence entails skills in recognizing this “highjack” in ourselves—and disengaging from others until it recedes.

In the heat of such a “highjack”, each of us has done or said something we wish we could take back. But if we have a gun in our hands at that moment we may not be able to rescind our actions.  It only took seconds to kill 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook elementary school with the aid of a rapid fire weapon.  That same day, an  attack in a school in China perpetrated by a man with a knife wounded 22 children and an elderly woman– some seriously.  But he killed no one before he was stopped.

The wounded children, unlike those at Sandy Hook, all recovered to go  home to their families.

Given that anger is part of our humanity—and sometimes a necessary component in protecting ourselves—some wise cultures design rituals that limit the effects of the weaponry used to express their anger. Gabriel Franchere, visiting the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811, described such a custom there.  First a person feeling offended would sent a notice to the offender, opening the way to resolution by apology and mutual gift-giving.  If this process did not resolve things, a ritual “battle” ensued, in which two combatants shot at each other with arrows that would not penetrate the armor they wore.

Among Plains Indians warriors who counted coup for honor, it was more honorable to touch another than to harm him, and more honorable to wound him than to kill him. To kill an enemy was the least honorable of all.

What these instances also illustrate is that bringing the results of violence closer to us ameliorates it— we are less likely to use violence the more intimately we face its consequences.  This is the opposite of what happens when we avenge our wrongs with modern weapons that distance us from their results.  A tragic example of such distanced violence is that of drive-by shootings.

A powerful and effective remedy is that of elder vets who volunteered to stand on dangerous street corners that children in Chicago have to pass through to get to school.  They don’t have guns.  Instead their very presence makes a profound difference to the security of their communities.

I once overheard two young men speaking about enlisting in the first Gulf War.  “Boom!”  One of them said, “It is just like a video game.  You are up above a village in a helicopter and you just push a button to destroy it.” This indicates the problem with drone technology: it is all too easy to overlook the person at the other end of such the weapon.

If we need more evidence of the consequences of living amidst guns, we can look at the case of Switzerland, which has both a prevalence of guns and strict gun regulations.  After their term of service in the citizen militia—which Switzerland has in place of a professional army–  those who wish to keep their guns in their homes can do so only through documentation of necessity—and after they submit their weapon to a process that changes it from an automatic to a semi-automatic weapon.

That machine gun advertised in the Legionnaire would be illegal to sell  in Switzerland. So would non-military personnel’s transporting a weapon on a public street without a permit. Further, in Switzerland all gun sales, including private ones, must be fully documented—and every gun in this country has a unique registration number.

In spite of such strict regulation, however, the presence of so many guns provides an occasion for gun violence in Switzerland, which is second in the developed world for gun murders with four times the average of other developed nations.

This statistic would actually be an improvement for the US, which has double the per capita number of guns among its citizens as does Switzerland–and leads the developed world with ten times the average gun murders among its citizens.

The framers of the Second Amendment of our Constitution could not foresee the right to bear arms as entailing the right to bear every technologically advanced gun available today.  It is certainly in keeping with their intent to protect the freedom of our communities as a whole by drawing the line as to the types of weapons we allow individuals to purchase and carry.

As the overwhelming majority of US citizens agree, we need stricter registration and background checks.  We would also do well to disallow gun manufacturer’s advertising of assault weapons.

On a cultural level, it is important to disengage ideas of strength and security from any self-destructive association with greater firepower.  We must work to foster a sense of purpose and inclusion for all our citizens– to foster a sense of self in one another that is larger than any weapon in our hand.


Here is an action you can take to protest the corporate sponsorship of the National Rifle Association and help break the inappropriate links between guns and profit.

Here is a link to “Mayors against Illegal Guns” who share ways to make their cities and the US as a whole safer from gun violence.  Here you can join over 1.2 million others to demand a plan to end gun violence and view an interactive map that will tell you whether your state is doing what it can.