Author Archives: Kimerer

Upset about climate change? Plant a garden

 

Check out my new post on Psychology Today!

The movements we make matter…

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-body-knows/201906/devastated-climate-change-plant-garden

When the ravages of climate change seem heart-breaking; when the parade of plants and animals suffering from the effects of human activity seems endless, what are we to do? How do we resist the paralyzing forces of “ecogrief,” as author Colby Devitt calls it? How do we sustain hope? Better yet, how do we do something concrete and immediate that will make a difference?

One answer: plant a garden. Wherever you live, however much space you have, inside or out, in a backyard, side yard or front yard, get a handful of seeds, put them in dirt in a place where they receive at least some sun. Water. Watch. Wait. Wonder. And eventually, eat.

Why? The obvious answer is that we save fossil fuel pollution when we consume foods that do not require refrigerated transportation, plastic packaging, or processing other than our own cleaning, cooking, and storing. These moves matter.

Yet, I’m a philosopher who looks at how the bodily movements we make open new possibilities of thinking, feeling, and acting. From this perspective, creating a garden, taking care of it, and eating from it can cultivate in us an experience-based mindset that is hopeful, resilient and effective in the face of devastating odds.

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Our vegetable garden this year is about 30 feet by 40 feet. So far, we have planted: green beans, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, Swiss chard, basil, parsley, oregano, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, radishes, mustard greens, bok choy and two kinds of lettuce, as well as strawberries, and in another location, blueberries and raspberries.

Our garden didn’t start out this large. Ten years ago, it was tiny — a few potato plants, tomato plants, and some kale. Yet every year, we have tried to grow more, store more, and shorten the distance between the time we run out of a favorite food, and the time we harvest the next crop.

During the growing season, we spend a bit of time in the garden at the day’s end, and more on the weekends. We weed and water and watch with amazement as tiny bits of matter buried in the earth burst forth into bountiful providers of our health and happiness.

In taking care of this garden, what do we do for the earth?

1. Participate actively.

When we plant a garden, we invest our energy in the very power we want to honor and save from human harm — the earth’s generativity.

Every seed is a movement potential – a part of the earth that wants to keep moving, growing, becoming. By planting a seed, we let that movement happen. We release it. We do what this moment of the earth wants us to do: plant it, so that it can grow and give us more of what we need, so that we in turn want to plant its seeds, and then again.

There is nothing we can do to tell a seed to germinate. We can’t make it grow. All we can do is to entice it to move with sunshine, water and healthy dirt. All we can do is create the conditions in which its movement potential can unfold.

The question emerges, crystal clear: Which seeds do we want to plant? Which will be most effective in relieving the burden of our patterns of consumption? Which will grow in the place that we are, in the soil that we have, with the resources we have to support it?

2. Thin boldly.

Thinning is the process of deciding which plants will grow and which will not. To me, thinning feels like sinning (hence the allusion to Martin Luther’s “Sin boldly”). I have to nip perfectly good plants in the bud — before they have a chance to mature and flower!

I have several strategies for avoiding the pain of this action. First, I start seeds in the green house, in close quarters, and then transplant them all into the garden with the proper spacing. No thinning required. Second, I commit to eating what I thin – or give them, along with the weeds, to the chickens, who turn them into eggs.

This year, three different crops have taught me how to thin boldly. In packed rows of arugula, lettuce, and mustard greens, I thinned some plants — enough needed to eat for a particular meal.  In each case, I returned the next day to find that the remaining plants had grown more than the amount I had taken the day before. It was like a miracle. I had been forgiven. I kept taking and the plants kept giving. I learned to take just enough to always find more.

3. Heed life-enabling rhythms.

Because I have a garden, I am happy when it rains. Short of drowning floods, the garden is getting what it needs to grow. So too when the sun beats down, short of desicating the plants, I am happy for them. They are getting what they need to grow.

More important than the sun or rain, however, is the rhythm between them – the intensity and frequency of their oscillation. The garden trains me to pay attention to how long the sun beats down and how heavily the rain pounds, and to sense and respond in ways that support the earth that is taking shape in my plants.  When the rain is scarce, I water.

Because of the garden, I notice these rhythms; I rejoice in them whichever end is up, and I organize my actions in relationship to them, all the while experiencing the surge and excitement of the growth that is bubbling up around my feet.

It takes the rain and the sun to make a rainbow… and a strawberry.

4. Feel the feeling of abundance.

Abundance is a feeling, not a quantity.

When walking through a garden that you have created, when the plants are springing forth from the earth and offering themselves to you, it is difficult not to feel this feeling of abundance. The earth keeps giving, in many cases despite the extent to which we have otherwise polluted, depleted, and destroyed our natural resources. The earth does not judge. It keeps coming, responding, taking shape in new fruits. And this experience of the earth’s deep generosity breeds hope. It fosters a sense of bounty that overflows in feelings of gratitude, and in the desire to act in ways that will keep that bounty coming.

5. Do our part.

Work in a garden teaches us that humans cannot solve the problems of climate change alone. We need the help of the earth. We need to call upon and harness the earth’s ability to regenerate both itself and the sources of human well being.

When we plant a garden, we learn this fact viscerally. We let the earth help us. We realize that if we do our part, if we take small steps, then the earth will respond – the earth will meet us.  Buoyed by this hope, our steps can grow larger.

The work in the garden is itself a call — a call for the earth to recreate itself through us in line with what it needs to keep sustaining human life. In our gardens, not every plant will flourish. Not every plant will bear fruit. Disease and weeds and bugs and snails all want their share. But some plants will grow and bear fruit, and the cycles continue.

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Some experts lament the end of nature and proclaim the dawn of the Anthropocene, arguing that no part of the natural world remains untouched by human action. While this way of thinking aims to wake humans up to the extent of our responsibility, it also runs the risk of perpetuating an ideological dichotomy between nature and culture that functions to justify violence against nature as an element that is “below” culture in value and importance, and within our control.

The truth of a garden belies this distinction between nature and culture. Any act of human culture is an expression of the earth – a moment in which the earth harnesses and directs its own generative energies through the bodily actions of human beings. There never has been a human culture that did not participate in the development and exploitation of the natural forces that make bodies and minds.

The question, then, is not how to protect nature from human action, but how to be the people through whom the earth can heal itself. Which seeds do you want to plant?

Addressing climate change is not (just) about inventing technological solutions to problems we have created. Nor is it (just) about learning to love the earth in order to act differently. It is also about engaging in small acts that alert us to our own ongoing participation in the earth’s generativity; and that free the earth to rebuild itself through the movements we are making.

For additional posts on gardening, see:

Ten Reasons Why Planting a Tree is an Act of Faith

Want It All? Grow a Garden

The Mind Body Problem That Wasn’t

Posted today in Psychology Today!
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I am going to make a brief comment about a big problem.

The big problem is the “mind-body” problem.

My brief comment is that this “problem” provides ideological cover for violence perpetuated against “the body” – violence that comes to seem inevitable.

How did I get here?

The Big Problem
This mind-body “problem” assumed its modern shape in the seventeenth century in the work of philosophers and theologians who posited a distinction and even opposition between “the mind” and “the body” as difference between consciousness and a material object. Once separated, and ever since, scientists and scholars across fields have wrestled to articulate the nature of this relationship, and address the intellectual, social, personal problems caused by “fact” of this separation.

Such issues include: How does consciousness emerge from matter? What happens when we die? When does life begin or end? How do we heal our bodies? Our minds? How do we make good decisions for ourselves in the realm of health and well being, or love and relationships? How are mind and body related? How should they be related? And how do “we” make it happen?

The Brief Comment
My brief comment is inspired by an article I read about Ibram Kendi’s National Award winning book on racism, Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi argues that racism emerged in the U.S. as an ideology that justified the practice of enslaving black Africans. The economic benefits of slavery came first; the ideological rationale followed. Kendi’s conclusion: no amount of love and education is going to change the ongoing legacy of racism. What is needed are specific policies that eradicate ongoing practices of racial discrimination.

Kendi reminded me of what I know from my study of Marx: an ideology can serve as a cover – not an account of what is true, but a sugarcoating that masks the reality of what is happening and makes the pain of it palatable. Marx, for example, described religious beliefs as an “opium” that deceives laborers into thinking that God is responsible for their sense of alienation, and thus renders them unable to pinpoint the source of their suffering in capitalist relations of production.

It struck me: the mind-body problem itself is an ideology in this sense. It works to convince us that particular kinds of personal and social pain are inevitable; and then diverts our attention away from the sources of our suffering, such we are unable to address them. In this case, at least one source in question is… reading and writing.

My brief comment, then, is this: The mind-body problem provides ideological cover for the violence that practices of reading and writing require – especially in relation to “the body.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing. I love reading. I love words. But I also know that reading and writing alone are not all that humans need in order to make sure that what they do with their words aligns with their ongoing health and well being.

Explanation
The modern manifestation of the mind-body problem owes much to changes in literacy, education, and book use brought about by the invention of the printing press. Ordinary people – not just monks and rulers – began to practice sitting for lengths of time previously unimagined in order to learn to read and write. They learned to think and feel and act as if they were minds living in bodies.

In the past I have written about how the increasing time spent reading and writing created opportunities for (some) people to learn to perceive themselves as agile, mental agents living within still and sitting bodies. The mind-body dichotomy, I have argued, is a concept made possible by the sensory education of reading and writing. In this reading, the negative effects of mind-body separation are simply unintended consequences.

Now I want to take the argument a step further. The idea of mind and body as two separate and separable entities serves to justify discrimination against “the body.” In this view, the mind is the seat of the human soul/self/spirit; the body exists to serve the mind. Thus, whatever must be done to “the body” in order fully to lift and liberate the mind is worthwhile, even desirable – including learning to ignore and override one’s own sensory and kinetic awareness. We come to believe that we have to control our bodies so that they conform to our expectations; we lose touch with what our bodies know. We believe that pain involved is inevitable, and that the results are worth it. The shift from books to screens amplifies the problem, in so far as our range of motion shrinks, even as the possibility for mental stimulation via moving image and sound as well as word increases.

This shift in argument makes a difference. Why?

For one, it makes it clear, as Kendi says of racism, that love and education are not enough to heal the wound between mind and body. It is not enough to “love” our bodies. It is not enough to engage in mind-driven practices that aim to unify “mind” with “body.”  Nor is it enough to study how the evolution of modern culture requires and perpetuates an ongoing repression of bodily agency.

Our ignored and neglected bodies are a mess. They are craving, addicted, overstimulated and undernourished, over-worked and under-exercised. Our minds are anxious, addicted, and depressed. Our actions and activities have made them that way. And our solutions, so much of the time, perpetuate the problem by focusing either on mind or body to the exclusion of the other, and in particular, by ignoring the self-creating agency of a bodily self.

The practices  we need, then, are ones that gradually restore a sense of agency to our bodily selves. “We” need to recover the wisdom that resides in our capacity to move.

We don’t need to stop reading and writing all together, only sometimes – enough to engage in actions that educate our sensory awareness in complementary directions.

Seeing the mind-body problem as an oppression-enabling ideology also illuminates why dancing, as a practice and as a source of ideas is so important to us in this historical moment. To dance is a radical act. It is radical, as I describe in my book Why We Dance, because it exposes the mind-body problem as ideology. The mind-body paradigm cannot explain the persistence and prevalence of dancing. This dancing cannot be explained as a matter of a mind’s choosing to act, or a body’s submitting to communal example. The world presence of dancing can only be explained as a sign of what the mind-body problem exists to ignore: that the source of human life lies in its own relational bodily movement. 

From such practices, then, ideas will emerge that do not discriminate between mind and body when discussing knowledge, truth, wisdom, justice, goodness, health, and beauty – or gender and race.

There is no mind-body problem. There are only bodily selves, creating themselves, creating their minds, with every bodily movement that they make.

Love Your Body? The Dance of Martha Graham

Describing her “way of doing things,” American modern dancer Martha Graham (1894-1991) wrote: “It is a freedom of the body and a love of the body.” “Love” may not be the first word that comes to mind to describe the work of an artist whose early dances were so angular and austere that a critic professed she’d give birth to a cube. Yet Graham’s love of the body was fierce and full-throttle – radical for what it loves and how it loves, and for what it reveals love—and a body—to be.

In the 1920s and 30s, when Graham was developing her “way of doing things,” she rejected the word “technique.” Her approach to dance had nothing to do, she insisted, with imposing arbitrary forms onto a body and demanding its obedience to them. Instead, the “freedom” and “love” to which she aspired involved a different approach: a dancer must learn to pay attention to her bodily self; train her bodily self to move in line with its own elemental rhythms, and in time, trust her bodily self as a source of guidance and inspiration. This “way of doing things” is love.

Paying attention. Graham wanted to discover movement that was strong and significant—“fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.” She did not want her movement to “leak out” (Lloyd 1949). So day after day in the studio, Graham urged the young women of her fledgling dance company to pay attention to the fundamental, life-enabling bodily movements they were making in their ordinary lives: walking and running, laughing and crying, breathing, falling and rising again.

For Graham, paying attention to one’s movement is, like listening, “a complete focus upon a given instant.” Like listening it involves tuning in to waves—not of sound but of feeling—sensory swells arising and passing in every moment, across every surface and segment of bodily being. Dancers strive to cultivate a sensory awareness so intense it “animates” their “whole being” (1941), and can mobilize that whole being—mind, heart, and body—in space. No part is left out or forgotten. This attention is love.

Training. For Graham, paying attention yielded a pair of movement patterns—contraction and release—that would become the core of her every exercise, every gesture, and every choreography. She discovered these patterns by noticing how the alternating vectors of breathing—inhaling and exhaling—rearrange a body into complementary shapes.

Graham distilled these movements into kinetic images: an exhale became the “contraction” and an inhale became the “release.” As “images” of breathing, a dancer can feel, study, and recreate the contraction and release independent of actual breathing. As “kinetic,” the contraction and release exist only in movement, as movement. When repeated, they function as an energy pump, developing within a dancer a source of movement motivation – a muscular force field in the lower abdomen – that she can use to direct and deliver her sensorily animated, whole bodily self into a wide range of desired movements with power and precision. By basing her approach to dance on an elemental rhythm without which humans cannot live for more than four minutes, Graham sought to discover movements that would “do no violence, anatomically or emotionally” (1941).

In the early years of her career, as her dancers recount, Graham did not care what a movement looked like. She cared where in a body it began, how it passed through, and where it went. What mattered was whether a movement strengthened a bodily self along paths of potent action opened up by honoring and practicing its own elemental rhythms. This practice is love.

Trusting. For Graham, in dance as in life, the movements that we make us: from “the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual…comes a shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit” (1991). Human actions not only give rise to an understanding of who we are and what we can do, they do so by organizing our nervous system, influencing what we perceive and how we respond. The movements we make don’t just make us, they become us (LaMothe 2015).

And when a person’s movements train and tune his sensory awareness to the rhythms of breathing – as in Graham’s way of doing things – his experience of his own body changes. “It” is no longer a thing or material object. It is him. He becomes someone who trusts his bodily self to discern how to make a movement in ways that do no violence. He becomes a dancer whose every movement can express the care and attention that he has practiced in order to be able to make that move. This trust is love.

Performing. Love of the body is why Graham danced; it is what she nurtured in her dancers, and it was also what she wanted audiences to receive when watching her dance performances. Graham choreographed nearly 200 dances over a period of 70 years. From the most abstract to those peopled with named characters, Graham intention was the same: “to communicate participation to the nerves, the skin, the structure of the spectator” (Armitage 1978).

Graham was not concerned with whether audience members understood what she was doing; she wanted them to feel it. She wanted her dances to wake people up viscerally – to give them an experience of themselves as moved, as moving, and so stir to life in them a sensory awareness of their own movement-making, of their own capacity for freedom and love of the body.

Even when Graham danced a murderer as in Clytemnestra or in Cave of the Heart (as Medea), or when she danced a victim, unjustly accused, as in Seraphic Dialogue (about Joan of Arc) or Rite of Spring, Graham wanted her audience members to identify viscerally with the force of creativity thrumming through every movement that she or her dancers were making – to feel that pulse even in the most extreme moments of human experience – and so emerge affirmed in their own search for movements that do no violence, anatomically or emotionally. This affirmation is love.

To dance, for Graham, is to love the body, where what “love” and “the body” mean are defined by her dancing. Love is not a feeling of abstract or unconditional affection directed towards some thing; it is a way of being a bodily self, open to and oriented by what a trained, trusted sensory awareness helps you perceive. It is a radical love that plumbs to the roots of human experience, willing to welcome all bodily experiences – comedies, tragedies, and everything in between – as occasions to dance. As Graham was fond of saying, “you stand or fall on the vulnerability of yourself to life” (1952). This dance is love.

This post is a continuation and elaboration of reflections begun in an earlier post on Friedrich Nietzsche and Martha Graham: “Radical Love: A Message for Our Time.” For more, see “Winter’s Life-Affirming Extremes—and Martha Graham.”

References

Armitage, Merle, ed. 1978 (1937). Martha Graham: The Early Years. NY: de Capo Press.

Graham, Martha. 1991. Blood Memory. NY: Doubleday.

———-. 1952. “The Medium of Dance.” Lecture. Audiotape, Dance Collection, New York Public Library.

———-. 1941. “A Modern Dancer’s Primer for Action,” in Rogers (1941), pp. 178-187.

LaMothe, Kimerer. 2015. Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. NY: Columbia University Press.

———-. 2006. Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lloyd, Margaret. 1949. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. New York.

Rogers, Frederick R., ed. Dance: A Basic Educational Technique. NY: MacMillan, 1941.

How Living with an Ox Changed My Life

IMG_6089Thursday, February 14 — The door flung open, and my son Jordan (23) rushed into the kitchen. “Where are my spikes?”

“What happened?” I asked. Twenty minutes earlier, Jordan had left the house to yoke up Bright and Blaze, his pair of oxen, and retrieve a load of cut elm logs from the fields that he had felled the day before.

“Bright slipped on some ice and can’t get up!” Jordan was gone.

Bright is big. He weighs 2,000 pounds and stands nearly 6 feet tall at the highest point on his back. He had to get up.

“C’mon Leif! Let’s go.”

I loaded my youngest (age 9) into the car, and we drove a quarter mile to the access road that leads to our back fields. Thirty feet off the paved road, down a steep, snowy bank, Jordan’s one-ton ox was lying on his belly with his hind legs spread, one sticking straight out to either side, his head surrounded by the branches of a prickly hawthorn tree. I left the car with its hazard lights flashing and slid down to where Jordan was standing.

“He can’t get up.” Jordan and I looked at one another, wanting beyond anything to pick up Bright’s massive frame and set him soundly on his feet. Had he broken a knee? Dislocated a hip? Should we call the vet?

“What can the vet do?” Jordan asked. As our thoughts churned, Bright lay there calmly. He did not thrash or bellow. His left leg was trembling. From time to time, he moaned softly.

Having an ox slip happens from time to time on mud or snow or ice. But usually they scramble to their feet and are fine. Bright was now 10, larger and less limber than he had ever been. We cleared the hawthorn branches from around his head and cut down a sumac sapling that seemed to be stopping his left hind leg from moving forward. We had to do something.

Without warning, Bright lurched upward. His front legs and right hind leg powered forward, while his left leg swung out to the side, straight and not bending beneath him. He stumbled a few yards and crashed down again, farther from the access road, deeper into the bushes. This time, however, he fell with his right leg tucked neatly under him, and only the left one stuck out to the side. We could at least see it. I stroked the injured leg. He lay there calmly, looking at me as I circled him, cutting away branches that poked his face.

We called Geoff. We called Jessica (in her second year at vet school). We called the vet. We talked to a neighbor. Geoff and Kai (13) arrived on the scene. We debated our options. The sun was setting. The temperature was falling. Bright was starting to shiver. The distance home felt immense, and we were face to face with a fierce and unforgiving fact: We had no way to help Bright stand up. A tractor, even if large enough, couldn’t get down the snow bank to where he was. Still, we didn’t want to leave him there on the cold snow over night. If he couldn’t stand, we should probably put him down. The thought socked me in the stomach. My heart ached. For Bright. For Jordan. For me.

We left Bright and drove back to the house. I called our neighbors. Would they be willing to lend us a gun? The firearm they owned wasn’t large enough. Jordan and Geoff drove to two other neighbors. No one was home. On the way back to our house, they drove by Bright again. By some miracle of his own making, he was standing. He was standing! If only he could stand…

Jessica, on the phone, explained, “Leaving him alone may have been a good thing. Bright is a herd animal. Lying down in the dark, unable to move, defenseless, all alone, away from home — that is his worst nightmare!”

We went into action. If Bright was going to stand, then we were going to do all we could to help him. We decided to dig him a path to the road, bank him with hay, make sure he’d be comfortable overnight, and see what happened. We stuffed our station wagon full of hay and tossed in a couple of metal shovels for chipping away the ice. I got in to drive back to Bright. The car wouldn’t start. Parking for hours with the hazard lights on had killed the battery. We jump-started the station wagon with our Prius and drove both cars back to the access road. By then, Bright had managed to turn himself around and was facing uphill and the road home.

We started cutting a path through the frozen snow bank. Kai and I ran back to the house for more shovels; we kept digging. Bright stood there, placid and patient, watching our flurry of furious activity. Then suddenly, without even registering a movement, Bright had moved. Sideways. Closer.

It was as if Bright knew exactly what he had to do — wait for the pain to subside and his will to crest into a blast of effort that would launch his 2,000 pounds a few feet forward. Each time, we cheered and kept digging. We made sure we were not in his way. We let him choose when to move, where to move, and how.

We finished clearing a path down to the grass, and spread it with hay. We stood in a semicircle, watching Bright watching us, all of us wanting the same thing. It was dark. The moon was beaming and nearly full. I sent everyone home to eat dinner while I waited for Bright’s next eruption.

The stars were sparkling. The night was brilliantly clear. Though the air was cold, I was not. I wrapped myself in deep silence. From time to time, I talked to Bright and encouraged him. I stroked his injured leg. I sat nearby. I got up and danced. He watched. I could hear Jordan down the road, shoveling out a path to the stall in our barn where Bright would hopefully soon be. After another half hour, Bright had scuttled another 6 feet. He was 3 feet from the road. I was ecstatic. If he could make it to the road, all that awaited was gently sloped pavement leading back home. I knew he wanted it.

He made it to the road. Thirty feet in three-and-a-half hours.

At this point, it made sense to call the vet. Fifteen minutes later, she came. Bright’s left hind leg was not obviously broken or dislocated. Jordan took his halter rope, and we nudged and pushed Bright down the road to the stall. With each step, he lurched, swinging his left hind leg in a circle, putting as little weight on it as possible. The vet gave Bright a steroid painkiller and told us he had to stand up at least three times a day, otherwise his right hind leg would go numb and start to atrophy. If it did, Bright would be unable to stand, and would go downhill quickly. “Give him three days; you’ll know.”

That night, we were hopeful. Bright had been with us for over 10 years — a long life relative to most male bovine — but we still were not ready for this arc of our lives to end.

Ten years. Jordan was 13 when he told us he wanted a pair of bull calves to train as oxen. I bought him a book. We already had three Jersey cows, a quarter horse named Marvin, a flock of hens, and a clowder of cats. Oxen? But Jordan wanted a source of farm power — something we could use to haul firewood, and maybe mow hay or plow. He was so sure. When a friend of his from 4H called to say she had a pair of Milking Shorthorn bulls born a week apart, there was no good reason to say no. Jordan named them Bright and Blaze. Geoff and Jordan drove them home in the back of the same station wagon we had filled with hay. The bulls were 4 and 5 weeks old, still drinking milk. The kids fed them with half-gallon baby bottles.

Soon after the bull calves arrived, Jordan began their training. To train a pair of oxen, you need a yoke. To get a yoke, you need to make one. To make a yoke, you need to bend hickory into U-shaped bows. To get hickory, you need to fell a hickory tree, cut long rounded pieces from the trunk, and then set up a steaming device — which we did — with a pasta pot and PVC tubing on top of our wood stove. Every day after school, Jordan would place his yoke on the necks of his baby bulls, tie a small sled to the yoke — sometimes with 4-year-old Kai aboard — and drive his team around the yard, teaching them their commands: Giddap! Gee! Haw! Whoa! Back! Step in! Step out! Head up! Stand.

As the bulls grew, they needed a new yoke, and the new yoke needed metal hardware. Jordan asked for a blacksmith shop so he could make the hardware himself. At 6 months, our vet steered the bulls, and Jordan began using his team to haul logs from the woods to burn for fuel.

With the simple act of pulling dead trees from our forests, Bright and Blaze changed our lives: how we lived and what we wanted; how we related to each another and to our land; what we could imagine possible all evolved.

Rather than burning fuel oil to heat our house, we started burning wood. We exchanged our decorative wood stove for an efficient re-gasifer (with a window!), and sliced our oil bill by two-thirds. We redesigned our living area so that we as a family could all gather round the wood stove — the heating heart of our home. And we do. All winter long.

By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us outside to find it and fell it — to walk the property, keen on discovering which trees were dead or dying or overcrowded. We learned to see the trees — to identify the types, knowing which would burn well and which would not. We learned to fell them safely, process them efficiently, and load them onto the oxen’s sled. The oxen gave us reasons to spend time together outside as a family on our land, engaged in meaningful work, and ever admiring of the strength, the beauty, and sometimes stubborn will of such formidable creatures.

By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us to a place of wanting to do more — more of what is possible to do every day of our lives to protect the well-being of the natural world. We wanted to use their manure to grow more of our own food; we wanted to take care of our pastures, so they would have good grass and hay to eat. We wanted to clean out and shore up our barns, so they would have places to find shelter. We wanted to create a world in which they could be safe and healthy. Bright and Blaze encouraged us to engage directly with the workings of the natural world — not as sightseers, but as participants locked in a life-enabling reciprocity. They depended on us. We depended on them.

Friday, February 15 — Jordan went out to check on Bright the next morning, found him lying down, and got him to stand up. Around lunch time, Jordan checked again. Bright was down again, and this time would not stand. “We need to get him up,” Jordan said. He tried. I joined him in the barn. We tried. Bright stuck out his neck and refused to move. I suggested we give him his dose of steroid and try an hour later. It worked. Jordan got him to stand. Bright was up. Again, I felt euphoric. If we could just keep him up.

Saturday/Sunday, February 16/7 — After standing all day Friday, Bright stood all day Saturday and all day Sunday. My daughters, Jessica and Kyra, came home. We could tell from the patterns of hay on the floor that Bright was dragging his leg around his stall. When he stood, he would rock from side to side, shifting his weight onto the injured leg and then back. It’s what a body knows. He otherwise seemed fine, eating and drinking and pooping. All good. On Sunday morning, feeling optimistic, Jordan and Jessica tried to take him for a short walk. Bright was still not bending his left hind leg.

Monday, February 18 — Bright was lying down again. Jordan tried to get him up. Jordan and I tried to get him up. We called in Geoffrey, Jessica, Kai, and Leif to help get him up. With all of us together pushing, we could not even roll Bright from one side of his body to the other. I suggested calling the vet.

“Steroids and painkillers are not a long-term solution,” said Jordan. It was his decision. The very tissues in Bright’s leg that needed to heal were the ones Bright needed to use to keep the rest of himself alive.

We called a man who would come to the farm, shoot Bright, end his life instantly and painlessly, and then process the meat for us. The butcher rearranged his schedule to accommodate us. He’d come at noon the next day.

Tuesday, February 19 — I went into Bright’s stall to sit with him for a while. Large patches of fur were missing from each knee, scraped off by the concrete floor. He had obviously been trying to crawl his way to standing and couldn’t. His back left leg was stuck out and so stiff I could not bend it. He looked at me, rolled onto his right side, and lifted his straight left hind leg up into the air, as if to say, “See this? It hurts! It won’t work. Can you do something please?”

I couldn’t. I wished that I could. I scratched him under his huge chin, the way he likes. He stretched his neck long, so I could reach its full length. I massaged the muscles in his hurt leg. His whole body was trembling, as if in pain. I talked to him. I thanked him. I cried.

The rest of the family gathered in Bright’s stall. The butcher came. Pop. It was over.

Death, even for a creature as massive and seemingly unstoppable as an ox, is so close, separated from life by the thinnest of membranes. The light on the side of the living is just bright enough that we usually cannot see through.

Jordan asked the butcher for Bright’s heart. It was as large as a soccer ball, and looked like burgundy fudge. That night, Geoffrey cooked part of Bright’s heart on the grill, and the omnivores in our family ate it. In a couple of weeks, we will have hundreds of pounds of meat. We will not let Bright go to waste. He taught us that.

Now, I can’t help but remember Bright . . . watching me intently, as I open a new pasture, and being the first in. Tossing a 300-pound hay bale with his horns and galloping after it as it unrolled down a hill. Wrestling my newly planted fruit trees and hemlocks to the ground, and winning. Breaking through the fence at 3 a.m., and prowling in the yard under Geoff and my bedroom window. Running our herd of cows down the middle of the road — the middle of the road! — in search of greener pastures. Reaching his large head into the calf stall to check out newborn arrivals. Standing, when I wanted him to move. Listening, as Jordan guided him where to pull. Gentle with the smallest children. Working hard. Grazing peacefully outside my window, as I went about my work inside. Always present. Fully embodied. There.

I miss him — knowing too that he lives on in all he has enabled.

Thank you, Bright.

Tired of Research Studies That Tell You to Exercise?

Are you tired of reading about scientific studies that say you should exercise?

One article came across my science feed this morning, reporting on yet another research study that proves with statistical significance that exercise is good for me. By now the drumbeat is numbingly repetitive: Exercise or else!

In the last year I have read research studies asserting that exercise can reduce or alleviate dementia, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, addictions, and cancer; it can boost the immune system, improve balance and agility, and bolster mental, emotional, physical and, as this study claims, cognitive health. While many of these studies focus on older adults, this one extends its reach to younger adults as well: You too should exercise and here is why. OK! Got it!

Yet, the CDC reports that only 23% of adult Americans achieve the federal recommendations for physical activity. And I can imagine a typical reader’s response to the study: “I know I know [nods head and rolls eyes] [swipes to next article]. I’ll start next week.” So why do we keep hitting ourselves over the head with stories about what we already know we should do – and aren’t doing? Does it really help?

There is another way to read this article and others like it.

The point to take away is not that we should exercise.

The point is that we are not who we think we are.

This study – without reflecting upon it – advances a radical idea: the movements that we make as bodily selves influence how we think, how well we think, even what we think. Researchers found that aerobic activity not only improved participants’ ability to complete thinking tests, it actually built up grey matter in the left frontal cortex, a “control center” responsible for a dizzying range of cognitive, emotional, motor, social and sexual behaviors.

Taking these conclusions one step further, we may go so far as to say that our capacity to think is not only influenced by our bodily movements, it is dependent upon the movements we make – and I would add, not just the amount of movement (how many minute per day), or the kind of movement (aerobic versus stretching), but the patterns of movement and how those patterns educate our sensory awareness. How we move effects what we sense; what we sense impacts how we feel; how we feel influences what we can think. And all the way back in reverse.

The implication of this article, then, is not: go exercise, or else! The implication is that saying “go exercise” is not actually going to help. We need to think differently about our bodily selves.

Said otherwise, thinking about ourselves as bodily organisms who can choose to exercise is part of the reason why we are not exercising. “Exercise” appears as an add-on. It is extra. It is optional. It is a matter of will power. It is something “we” tell “our bodies” to do for a good reason. And there are many. But good reasons are never enough. Because we are not just our thoughts. We are much more.

As the article implies, we humans are movement. We are the bodily movements we can make, have made, and will make, whether consciously or unconsciously, by choice or under duress. And we are these movements in mutual exchange with a wealth of movements made by other creatures and elements around us and within us who are also moving in relation to us.

At the same time, given the findings of the article, it will not be enough to think differently about ourselves, we also need to move in ways that help us think differently. In other words, we need to do what we can to cultivate a sensory awareness of the movements we are already making, so we can learn to pay attention in any given moment to what the moving, relational matrix of our bodily selves knows.

Further, the “exercise” that the subjects in this study were doing, at least in my mind, is not all that inspiring: it is not the kind of movement that many people are going to be able sustain over the long run – because we are not just our thoughts. Sure, there may a few people who can run on a treadmill, or stationary cycle day in and day out for years; but even for those who do so, there is usually some sort of pleasure or emotional charge involved.

The motivating charge that sustains a movement practice can come from vanity, a competitive spirit, or peer pressure; it can come from a need to relieve pain or illness, from the fear of being injured, or from a desire to accomplish a certain physical feat. In the most sustainable situations, the motivating charge comes from a desire to feel good. To feel the pleasure of breathing, reaching, releasing, and being drawn into the vibrant present. To feel the transformation that movement so often yields, from dullness or discomfort to the joy of being a moving bodily self.

In these instances, the movements that a person is making will enable her to feel these feelings – to open to her sensory self – and thus become more vulnerable, will power or not, to the desire and the need to move some more.

This is not just “exercise.” It is about finding ways of moving that sustain our ongoing bodily becoming over a lifetime. And there are many ways to do so.

Sooner or later, if you engage in patterns of movement that only support your sense of yourself as a thinking mind, your bodily self will start telling you that you need to move differently. If you are moving in ways that limit and deplete your flexibility, stretch, and stamina, your bodily self will resist. Your bodily self will find some way of communicating with you that grabs your attention — most likely with one of those conditions above that “exercise” alleviates.  At that point, it is your choice whether to mask the symptoms, or listen to the causes.

Here then, is where such studies have value – not as props for your will power, but as encouragement to listen to what your bodily self already knows, to look for your life, and to move accordingly.

This New Year, Be Surprised!

December 31 — at midnight — is a moment when many of us celebrate the ending of one year and the beginning of another.

This celebration is arbitrary. We could theoretically celebrate the new year on any day or moment of our orbit around the sun. Throughout human history, there have been many systems for tracking this path. Our pattern of days, months, and years is only one of them. In fact, it is one so precariously layered over our planetary course that it requires a full-day adjustment every four years in order to fit.

Realizing the arbitrary nature of this celebration’s timing doesn’t bother me in the slightest. It prompts me to remember why the celebration is important. How we measure time shapes our experience of reality. It structures our sense of rhythm, plots patterns of crescendo and decrescendo and so too, creates moments of heightened intensity – thresholds – where we tap and exercise this human power to make time itself. We look backward and reflect; we look forward and predict; we look around and resolve to do better.

New Year’s Eve is one of these moments – a point of passing through that gives us access, not to the new year, but to our own participation in the course of our lives. It is a time to pivot, past and future, inward and outward, left and right, and all around; a time to celebrate the Best of 2018 and What to See 2019. It is a time of making resolutions for when to begin, how to pay attention, and what to do with ourselves.

This crossing into a new year creates another opportunity as well – to open to surprise.

Every year, our family has a tradition that I have written about before. As part of this ritual, we write letters to ourselves that we intend to read on the final day of the following year. After having engaged in this exercise for several years, I realize that so often, the moments that gave a year its magic and meaning were happenings I could never have imagined when I had written my letter a year before.

Every year is full of surprises. People appear and events occur that change the course of your life – cracking you open to thoughts, feelings, and sensations you did not know were possible, propelling you head-long into new directions of inquiry, investment, and activity.

New Year’s Eve is a time to remember the wonder, the mystery, the deep creativity of a universe that is constantly tossing itself together in new patterns of possible movements.

It may provoke fear to think about the possibility of surprise. Some surprises are unwelcome — injury, illness, heartache, disappointment, and death. In the course of a year, no human can escape the hurt that comes with being a bodily self who lives in relationship with other bodily selves, sustained in every moment by an earth whose matrix of swirling forces we cannot control. In this sense, such unwelcome events are not surprises. They are inevitable.

What is not inevitable, however, are surprises that burst your heart open to love life more than you ever have or ever thought possible. What is not inevitable is whether you sense and respond.

New Year’s Eve is a time to remember to stay alert to the possibility of surprises that will astound you with their grace and goodness.

It is a time to empty your sensory self, breathe your feet down to the ground, lift your heart, and walk forward, attuned to what may appear around the next bend to nourish the best in you, and bring it forth in actions of genuine connection with yourself and others.

It is a time is to realize that your greatest accomplishments in the coming year may come not from what you resolve to do, but from what you welcome into your life, even when it seems unlikely, implausible or impractical.

These kinds of surprises come in all shapes and sizes – a new person or animal; a natural vista or adventure; a new job, idea, or skill; a theater performance, musical, movie, concert or book. These surprises come in moments so inspiring that they bend your thoughts, hold your heart, and trouble your peace for longer than you imagined they would. They come in moments when the sensation of living strikes deep enough that you find your course turning, your horizons shifting, as you welcome more of who you are into your life.

So this New Year’s Eve, as you chart a path, plot your projects, and resolve to move with fervor and intention, remember too to stay open to the mystery beyond the time you can measure and mark – beyond what you can see and imagine. Be surprised!