Thursday, December 31, 2015

Old Year Passing

It’s New Year’s Eve and once again the annual madness is about to begin. Strange how we do this. What we’ve actually got is a celebration of something that happens regularly, due to the orbiting of our planet around our life-giving star, the Sun. What we call a “year” is the time it takes for that circumambulation to happen. Trouble is, at least as far as I know, there is no marker by which we measure when, exactly, the circuit is completed. We accept the doctrine that it happens at midnight on December 31, though since the advent of television, we’ve become aware that the magic moment happens successively in different time zones. So we witness visually that there’s no one New Year moment around the globe. That in itself ought to make us pause, and wonder why whoever started this tradition picked the middle of winter for the alleged “beginning” of the New Year. Why not the start of Spring? (Actually, it turns out that the earliest recorded celebrations for New Year go back 4,000 years to ancient Babylon, where the first new moon following the vernal equinox—it’s a day in late March where sunlight and darkness are more or less equal—marked the New Year and the celebrations for it. The Romans used to celebrate the New Year on the vernal equinox as well, until a king, Numa Pompilius, added January and February to the calendar, and then, in 46 B.C., Julius Caesar instituted his Julian calendar and made January 1 the date of the New Year. So what we have now is essentially a Caesarian (pun intended) holiday. see That should confirm the point: what we celebrate is essentially a construct, which itself tends to make more sense of our trying to construct and hype up the evening with joy and hopes for some positive (for us) changes. But why we think the new year, starting on this wholly artificial date, should be any better than the old, is again something to give us pause.
            All that aside, though, and putting aside for a moment the fact that I can't really remember a New Year’s Eve that amounted to much (save for a few years in the 1970s-80s when my neighbor in Berkeley, Peter Engelhart, used to have a New Year’s Eve party that stands as the best I’ve ever been part of. Peter’s house was roomy and filled with musicians and friends young and old making music and conversation and feasting on Peter’s wife Locha’s great pot of Posole with chicken, a Mexican tradition. Then just before midnight, Locha would hand out bunches of twelve grapes, which each person was supposed to eat and wish on as the clock struck the magic hour. Sadly, that party and its house are long gone, but it still stands out for me as one true New Year’s Eve celebration), a typical one would be the year my best high school friend and I decided to try to join the festivities in Times Square. We took the train from Bridgeport CT into the City and hiked towards the zero point, but as it was already late, we couldn’t even get within shouting distance: all the roads were blocked and/or jammed with partiers who’d been there since 8 AM or earlier; so we gave up and spent New Year’s Eve in some nondescript bar on 48th Street, watching Times Square on TV as usual—making that New Year’s eve one of the most disappointing ever.
            But I digress. What I really meant to write about was my morning walk. The day in Bolinas dawned sunny and crisp—cold, really, for California at 40 degrees or so—but after yesterday’s rain, clear as glass. The ocean’s horizon edge was razor sharp, with only a couple of container ships breaking the line. Then, as I approached the top of a hill near the end of my walk, I got a huge western view of the Pacific in all its glory, fronted by the newly-washed road heading down to the tide pools, with pine trees and woods and plants in the foreground, and at the blue horizon line this time a puffy layer of dainty clouds looking like a lace ruffle. But the clouds weren’t just white, they were tinged with pink from the sun in the east. As I took all this in, and remembered it was New Year’s Eve when I wouldn’t be doing anything at all but staying home to watch the stupid ball drop to hysterical shouting, I suddenly had this feeling of all-rightness. This would definitely do, I thought. I don’t have to go anywhere. I don’t have to try to hype up a good time or shout or drink or enthuse over anything. I am here, and this place, this coast, this moment of achingly pure air and blue sky/ocean and unfettered landscape are quite good enough. More than good enough. Because I know that though there are countless young people (and a good many older ones) who still feel the need to travel and see what’s left of the world before it’s too late, I no longer do. It’s not that I’ve seen everything—which of course, no one ever does. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have been born at a time when the earth could still afford us the kind of view I’m now witnessing. And even before that, when I was growing up in urban Connecticut, the earth still afforded us room: room to roam, room to explore nearby woods, or the golf course a few blocks away, or vacant lots—there were still vacant lots—that could quickly be converted to a baseball diamond or a field for mock battles with leftover construction materials. In winter we could skate on a pond at the golf course for free; or after a snowstorm, build caves in the snowdrifts formed against sand traps. I and all who grew up with me could look forward to a world that held promise—mainly the promise that it would still be here by the time we grew up, would still be hospitable to humans in the way it always (at least as far as we knew) had been.
            No doubt some of that world still remains for some people in some countries. No doubt there is still time to explore and travel and hope and dream of better days. But increasingly, at least in these United States and in the West in general, the gardens that once seemed so promising have begun to close. The assurance that allowed my parents and even me as a parent to allow children to play on their own in the streets and alleys and woods and vacant lots, has now, as far as I can tell, vanished. Fear stalks the streets, even though it is surely exaggerated. Activities must be planned down to the letter. And that, to me, is a terrible loss—for the great thing about roaming is that you never know quite what will turn up. One day it might be a plan to have a circus. The next it might be enough kids gathered to have a football or stickball game. The next it might be simply a game of ring-a-levio. Or climbing a tree. Or running by mistake into a hornet’s nest. Or smoking in the woods behind the school. We never knew. And therein lay the glory.
            So that’s my hope for this New Year’s Eve. I hope that more kids, more people in general, can somehow conjure up more random roaming for themselves. I hope that more people can find, completely unexpectedly, something like the joyful vision I had this morning. It doesn’t require a view of the Pacific Ocean; it doesn’t require vacant lots even; but it does require some opening of the mind and heart to what is right in front of us. That is, more than anything, what is missing from our lives these days. And the great thing, the miraculous thing, is that we never know when the world will open and give us its magic, its mystery. We never know.
            So even knowing it’s a construct, may your New Year be a happy and roaming one.
Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Reality Check

This Christmas season I’m essentially at a loss as to what to write. And it may be that the underlying cause for my blank slate is the blank state of the world, of our country, of Christmas itself. To begin with, Christmas, the birth celebration of the man-god called Christ on December 25, is essentially a concoction. Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t really born in December (Clement of Alexandria in about 200 C.E. actually chose May 20 or April 20-21 as Jesus’ actual birth date, while the New Testament stories don’t give an actual date). According to Andrew McGowan, dean of the Divinity School at Yale, two different theories still exist about December 25, a date not actually mentioned until centuries after Jesus lived. The first theory claims that December 25 was chosen to coincide with the midwinter Saturnalia festival of the Romans. The Romans celebrated an actual birth festival on December 25, that of the Sun God, Sol Invictus, and the theory is that early Christians thought to hitch a ride (and gather more Romans to their faith) on this celebration. The second theory, and the one McGowan seems to prefer, is that which links Jesus’ birth (date unknown) to his crucifixion date, which was more or less known—being linked to Passover. So, if Jesus was crucified on the Jewish 14th of Nisan (March 25 in the Roman calendar), then thirty-three years earlier, he should have been conceived on the same day (this linking of conception and death derived from Jewish belief), which, adding nine months to March 25, would make December 25 his birth date.  According to McGowan, Tertullian of Carthage mentions this very calculation in about 200 CE. The point is, that however you calculate it, December 25 is a wholly made-up date for Christmas, derived from quite other (including pagan) beliefs and considerations. (To read McGowan’s whole discussion, see

            Of course, Christmas in the modern world has little to do with the birth of Jesus in any case. It is a mostly commercial holiday, meant to enrich merchants who exploit what was once, presumably, a celebration of something holy. This reality might easily seem unsettling to some. I mean, if billions of Christians around the world celebrate the birth of their savior on a day that has nothing to do with reality, then what is the reality of their god in the first place? And equally important, what is the point of the horrific series of wars and crusades meant to establish this man-god as the one true god if we can’t even get his birthday right? And on the other side, what is the point of the horrors even now being committed in the name of other proselytizing religions—to wit, the beheadings and exterminations that have always been carried out in the name of Judaism or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism? In the name of ‘our God is the only God and anyone who disagrees deserves to die’? Where do these certainties unto death come from? What is the point of making up some version of reality, insisting that it is the only reality, and slaughtering hordes of unbelievers to defend it?
            I don’t know. People like to be right. People are desperate to confirm their ways and beliefs, their versions of reality. Our current political scene dramatizes this in the most nauseating way. Ted Cruz is a fundamentalist Christian and he has recently said he would, if elected president, “carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion.” Later, at a Tea Party rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he is reported to have added: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” Though the NY Times claimed it didn’t know what his words meant, Robert Parry of had no doubt that it was a clear reference to Cruz’s readiness to use nuclear weapons. The fact that neither carpet bombing nor nuclear weapons have any way to limit their destruction to combatants, and that an immense number of innocent civilians would be killed via “collateral damage,” doesn’t seem to faze either Cruz or his fellow aspirant for the nuclear trigger, old “bomb-the-shit-out-of-them” Trump. In short, both Cruz and Trump (and essentially all of the other Republican aspirants) are quite certain, or project that they are, that they know not only what’s right, but what’s real (i.e. what they say it is). They have no doubts about what they would do with the unrivalled capacity of the United States military to inflict death on whatever desert infidels seek to challenge them. Doubt is for sissies. Doubt is for the “politically correct.” Uncertainty is for the “others,” including scientists and academics who worry about such ‘nonsense’ as global warming and the unprecedented die-off of species, about whether the United States should help developing nations get beyond carbon-based power. To them it’s all bleeding heart liberalism, which is to say, wasting time worrying about losers and unbelievers.
            The trouble is, this sort of certitude plays well with far too many voters. Most people want their leaders to project confidence. To project doubt, to express uncertainty about how to solve a problem or even acknowledge that a problem has several aspects and no simple solutions (as scientists and those well-versed in a subject almost always do), is a sure-fire way to be left at the starting post. To be an also-ran, a has-been. And yet, most of the science of the last century has been in the nature of casting doubt on previous certainties. There’s even a principle with that name, the Uncertainty Principle, and it is almost as if uncertainty has become the bedrock principle behind virtually everything we thought we once knew. Including reality. What is the nature of reality, anyway? Time was when you could say, “I know what I saw” or “I’m dead certain because I saw.” That would hold up in conversations with friends, or in a court of law where eyewitness proof was a kind of gold standard. But more and more we see studies showing that eyewitness testimony is commonly tainted with opinion. With uncertainty. Though we think ‘seeing is believing’, most people can be totally fooled by experiments showing that even eyewitnesses paying attention can miss a gorilla walking by in the background. It depends what you’re paying attention to. If you’re closely watching something in the foreground, you can completely miss something as startling as a gorilla in the background. So what is reality?
            Nor does it stop there. Even what we are certain we see, and see objectively, turns out to be shaped and controlled by our presuppositions, by the visual system we have as humans, by our evolutionarily-shaped need to see only those objects or events crucial to our well-being, our search for food, our need for security. Thomas Metzinger is a philosopher of neuroscience who makes this rather unsettling point of view quite clear. In a recent blog, he wrote this:

…being conscious means literally creating models—both of what is “out there,” and what is “in here.” We have brain-generated images of what the world “is” and what we “are”, and they work quite well in most cases; but they are not “real” in the sense we think they are—i.e. that “we” are in direct contact with what “is”. They are “virtual,” models that create a center for us, a center we experience as ourselves, as our first person perspective, and which we use to great advantage to do everything needed to survive.

In short, we as humans call “real” that which we as humans have evolved to see or feel, that which accords with the models (both of the outside world, and of ourselves) we create. It is not an objective view of ‘the world’ nor is it the same as what other beings will ‘see’ or ‘hear’ or, in the case of dogs, ‘smell.’ It is not even what scientists, using instruments, assure us is really real. For example, in a later phrase, Metzinger clarifies again that what we see as a pink sky is not really what exists:

There are no colors out there in front of your eyes. The apricot-pink of the setting sun is not a property of the evening sky; it is a property of the internal model of the evening sky, a model created by your brain. The evening sky is colorless. The world is not inhabited by colored objects at all…out there, in front of your eyes, there is just an ocean of electro-magnetic radiation, a wild and raging mixture of different wavelengths….

It is our human brains and their visual and perceptive and interpretive systems that create an order—a model—out of the wild mix of nature. And that Metzinger is not just conveying his opinion about this is indicated by his citing of the brain injury called “apperceptive agnosia.”  As he points out, the “injury prevents the brain from forming a coherent visual model of the outside world, even though the patient’s visual apparatus is intact.” So though such patients can technically “see,” they cannot recognize what they are looking at. In Metzinger’s terms, their brain’s modeling capacity is disabled. And without that modeling capacity, they cannot see or recognize “the world” that we all take for granted.
            Evan Thompson in a recent book, Waking, Dreaming, Being (Columbia U Press: 2015), delves even deeper into this uncertainty. Thompson is a philosophy professor who writes about the mind, employing information from both neuroscience and phenomenology (phenomenology here means personal accounts of consciousness events, often derived from ancient spiritual practices, but increasingly buttressed by the neuroscientific studies). His unique perspective comes from his willingness to take dreams and dream states seriously, particularly as Indo-Tibetan practitioners have long taken them. Starting with ancient vedic practices as evidenced in Vedanta philosophy, Thompson valorizes dreams as both informative in themselves, but also as occasions that lead practitioners of “dream yoga” to be able to have “lucid” dreams (where the dreamer awakes within the dream to realize he or she is dreaming), and thereby to draw conclusions on waking reality itself. Briefly, the appearances in a dream (where the dream events seem perfectly real and convincing to the dreamer) are seen as metaphors for the similarly mind-influenced appearances in real life. Indeed, so deeply are our perceptions of reality influenced by our minds that, in the extreme case, it is difficult to tell—from experience alone—whether waking life is not also a “dream,” as in Shakespeare’s phrase in the Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” It is a commonplace these days (especially after the film, The Matrix) to say that we do not know, and cannot prove, whether what we experience is ‘real,’ or whether what we take as ‘reality’ is projected by an outside ‘computer program’ shaping virtually the experiences all us earthlings seem to have (see  Thompson puts it like this:

 In an ordinary dream, we identify with our dream ego [the “I” that has the dream] and take what we experience to be real…Whatever we see or feel seems to exist apart from us with its own being or intrinsic nature. This confused state of mind serves as a model for our waking ignorance of the nature of reality. We think our waking ego exists with its own separate and essential nature, but this belief is delusional, for our waking ego is no less an imaginative construction than our dream ego, formed by imaginatively projecting ourselves into the past in memory and into the future in anticipation (Thompson, 173; emphasis mine).

So if, as Thompson suggests, both the dream world and the waking world are constructed of appearances, then both worlds are made of “mind stuff”—which means they cannot be separated from the mind that makes them. And that mind, in its usual, un-awakened state, is essentially dreaming. This is why, for both Thompson and for those engaging in Indo-Tibetan “dream yoga”, having lucid dreams is heuristic. It is a kind of “waking up” in the midst of a dream. The lucid dreamer “wakes up” and realizes that he or she is dreaming, and therefore that the dream is a construction of the mind that has no substantial reality. The lucid dreamer, in fact, in some instances can help shape the dream itself, and take it in a more positive or less threatening direction. In the same way, Thompson points out, traditions like Buddhism that counsel “awakening” offer a more heuristic way to view fears and apparent dangers in real life. It is not that awakening gets rid of reality; rather “It aims…to effect a fundamental shift in our understanding of what it means for something to be real” (173). What this leads to, in turn, is waking up to the deep involvement that our minds—our thoughts, our projections, our emotions—have on what we take to be ‘real.’ We realize the extent to which what we take to be the “real world” depends on our own minds. Again, as Thompson puts it, “waking up to our participation in the creation of our world—resembles becoming lucid in a dream.” We begin to see, not that the world “out there” doesn’t exist, nor that it is separate from us and our mental experience of it, but that the physical world and the mental world are entwined and mutually dependent.
            What then, does this mean about ‘reality?’ Hard to say. But in some sense, it means that reality is an entity not objectively “out there,” but rather something more subjective, something we have a rather bigger hand in producing than we might have thought. It’s a little like Christmas as God’s birthday: it’s not that Christmas doesn’t exist, nor that it hasn’t existed for a thousand or more years. It’s that humans, Christians (and for reasons not always clear, but certainly reasons less than ‘objective’ or even ‘spiritual’), have had a rather larger hand in its construction than at first meets the eye. And that most “truths” or “certitudes” would partake of this same behind-the-scenes machinery if we were to look hard enough—if we were, in short, to wake up. Or, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, see behind the wizard’s (who might just turn out to be ‘us’) curtain.
Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, December 11, 2015

Oyster Wars

When I first saw the title of Summer Brennan’s book (The Oyster War, Counterpoint: 2015) about the conflict in the Point Reyes area over the fate of the commercial oyster company in Drake’s Estero, I thought it was a bit of hyperbole. Yes, I knew there was controversy over whether to allow the relatively new Drake’s Bay Oyster Company (its owners, the Lunnys, bought the business from the older Johnson’s Oyster Company in 2004) to continue raising oysters in the Point Reyes National Seashore, or enforce the agreement Johnson had signed years earlier to stop operations in 2012 and allow the area to revert to the wilderness status demanded by the Wilderness Act. I had seen the hand-painted blue and white signs urging locals to “Save Our Drake’s Bay Oyster Company” displayed in front of dozens of homes and along highways near my home town of Bolinas. My neighbor Walter, an avowed conservationist, had talked to me often about how this exhortation should not be followed, and that the Lunnys should be forced to close the business to preserve the wilderness of one of the great stretches of wild seashore still left in America. But I had never been involved in any real discussions of the pros and cons, nor had I read all that much about it either. I just knew that in years past, no family gathering at my brother’s place was complete without a trip to Johnson’s to get a carton of oysters for barbecuing. And I really liked having barbecued oysters available locally—as many West Marinites clearly did. They were standard fare at local restaurants and at street celebrations. Almost an emblem of the place. So I was initially inclined to support the continued raising of the oysters, though I knew little about them or the cost they might present to the environment and nearby wildlife.
            Once I read Brennan’s in-depth account, though, detailing the history of oyster growing in the larger Bay Area, and outlining the reasons and rationales and strategies of the embattled sides, I was pretty convinced that right had prevailed. In 2014, as I finally learned in the last pages of Brennan’s book, the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company was forced to shut down its operations, and clean up after itself. By the November 2012 order of the Interior Department, the term of lease for the Oyster company was allowed to expire, with no new lease forthcoming, and the whole place was bulldozed, the waters cleansed of all detritus—mostly plastic bits from the oyster racks upon which local oysters must be cultivated—and all signs of the operation disappeared. Drake’s Estero—the small estuary at the head of which Johnson’s and then Lunny’s operations had been located—was returned to its “natural” state as a federally-designated wilderness area, as provided for in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and all subsequent rulings.
            The problem, of course, was that the order by Interior Secretary Salazar, like all previous orders to suspend operations in 2012, was not obeyed without a fight. The war and the oyster operation would continue, because the Lunnys and their supporters decided to exhaust their last option and take their cause to court. Though in the end this proved futile when the courts yet again ruled against them, this last development typified the case: it was not just a struggle by a commercial oyster grower to continue operations in a National Park, but a much larger ‘war’ symbolic of both the business vs. government battle that has come to signify our era, and as a more local contest between usually allied neighbors in the entire area around Point Reyes. In other words, as I would come to discover, the title of Summer Brennan’s book was no hyperbole: this was a real war and its effects are still being felt in bruised and broken relationships throughout West Marin and beyond.
            What Summer Brennan does in her book is provide the background for the “war” that is still ongoing. She informs us that oysters have been ‘grown’ in Drake’s Estero mostly since 1957, when Charlie Johnson started his operation (a small oyster ‘farming’ operation had been there since 1925). More importantly, she points out clearly that, unlike the insistence of Lunny supporters that Drake’s Bay Oyster Co. was reviving the “natural” oyster habitat that had existed at Point Reyes since Indian times, oysters have never grown naturally in or around Point Reyes: not in Drake’s Estero, not in nearby Tomales Bay where two more oyster operations still exist, not even in San Francisco Bay where John Stillwell Morgan had a large oyster operation in the 19th century. All these operations had been forced, like the Johnsons, to import the “spat” or seed, and hang them on wire or plastic “strings” hanging from wooden platforms so they can feed on nutrients in the waters. The reason stems from the sandy conditions of the shorelines in and around San Francisco Bay and Point Reyes. To establish themselves naturally, oysters require a rocky substrate on which to fasten their shells—like the ones that exist in New York Harbor and the surrounding rivers that, before industrialization polluted them, spawned a cornucopia of oysters. Thus unable to get oysters to grow naturally, Johnson imported his oyster spat from Japan, and with tutelage from his Japanese wife, used the platform-and-string technique Japanese oyster growers had long used. Morgan, despite determined efforts to grow oysters in San Francisco Bay, had done something similar: he imported young oysters from Washington state and the East where they grow naturally, and raised them to maturity here. One more important fact: the Wilderness Act of 1964, and the Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976, had mandated that the National Park Service implement “wilderness” within its borders—and Drake’s Estero had been designated as “potential wilderness.” In other words, it was to be restored to actual wilderness status whenever possible—by eliminating the oyster farm. Don Neubacher, superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore, decided that the forty-year lease that in 1972 had granted the Johnsons their right to grow oysters should not be extended. He re-emphasized that the termination date was still 2012, and notified Johson’s heirs. Johnson’s son Tom, who’d been having trouble with pollution from an inadequate septic system, soon thereafter sold his oyster operation to Kevin Lunny, a longtime rancher on Point Reyes. Though Lunny knew of the plan to terminate the RUO (Reservation of Use and Occupancy) in 2012, he bought the oyster operation anyway, positive that by solving the environmental problems he could persuade the Park Service to renew the lease.
            Lunny was wrong. There had been continuing complaints about the environmental mess (the pollution from the septic system, running motor boats in the Estero, plastic detritus) created by the Johnsons’ oyster operation, including the problem of disturbing the harbor seals that traditionally use Drake’s Estero as a resting and spawning spot. The National Park Service wanted to make Point Reyes as “natural” as possible for visitors, though it concluded that the ranching/dairying operations that had long thrived there could continue within limits. The problem, of course, arose with the notion of restoring any environment to its “natural” state. The concept was commonly understood but plagued by problems of interpretation, and into that dubious area sprang Lunny supporters, especially a nearby resident and prominent neuroscientist named Corey Goodman. Goodman inundated newspapers and government officials with reports questioning the Park Service data about harm to harbor seals and government misuse of what he called “false science”. Beyond that, the Lunny camp recruited local Supervisor Steve Kinsey to its ranks, and managed to get U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein to lobby on behalf of extending the lease of the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company. Feinstein managed to push a Special Use Permit through the Congress, stipulating measures the oyster farm was to take to not disturb either seals or eelgrass, and the Lunnys signed it in April 2008. But the fight was far from over. Lunny and his supporters rallied everyone they could, as did the opposing side—so that by now the local community was split into such fiercely opposed factions that neighbors and even families split over their differences. On the one side were those officials and scientists from the Park Service, many local residents among them, who saw the dispute as putting all national parks at risk. As one resident wrote, the dispute was simply a “shell game” carried on by a local business enlisting major politicians to allow it to do what the lease termination and a respect for wilderness forbid it to do. If an exception was made for Drake’s Bay, he wrote, all national parks would henceforth be in greater danger from commercial operations seeking to take private advantage of land set aside for the public. On the other side were many local residents and some national organizations who viewed the dispute as an emblem of a larger conflict, pitting excessive government authority against private enterprise. On this side were not only local residents who saw the oyster farm as promoting a local business (good) over mass chains (bad), and as promoting good local jobs for oyster farm workers, but also national conservative organizations. A Washington, DC group named Cause of Action entered the fray, with its executive director, Dan Epstein, drawing the connection between the heavy-handed National Park Service lease denial and the plight of small businesses everywhere harassed by environmental regulations. But when it turned out that Epstein had once worked for one of the infamous Koch Brothers, and that Koch Brothers money was financing Cause of Action, many local supporters expressed dismay and disavowed their support.
            What I did not understand until recently, however, was how such a dispute could rip chasms in local communities that would linger even after the dispute was finally settled, and the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company was closed. In recent weeks, after having read Brennan’s book and been impressed by it, I thought to mention the book to a friend I knew who lived in Inverness (the tiny community adjacent to Point Reyes National Seashore), and who I was sure would favor the closure and want to read it. I mentioned the book, and walked into a mini-volcano of vituperation. ‘The book is totally biased,’ she began; and then proceeded to attack the author as having been ‘hired by the Sierra Club to do a hatchet job,’ and as a ‘blonde chippy with her New York hairdo.’ I was stunned. My friend then insisted that the oyster farm had been there for over 100 years (she was close, if we count from the first operation in 1925), and that there was tons of evidence that Native Americans had eaten oysters, thus proving they had grown in the area all along (Brennan actually does concede that a very few oyster shells have been found in middens, but reasons that they were probably traded from groups farther north where they do grow.) I dropped the subject, not wanting to initiate a new war over something I didn’t truly have a stake in, but the incident puzzled me. When I asked my local librarian, who lives in Point Reyes Station, what could prompt people to defend a business that violated the clear law about not extending the permit, she indicated several reasons: people favoring a local business growing local food (but the oysters are NOT local; they have to be imported from Japan or Washington or elsewhere), people upset at the loss of so many jobs by mostly Hispanic workers, many of whom lived on the site, and friends who had known the Lunnys for years.
            These are all sound reasons, I suppose. But still, it is fascinating to me—again with no dog in this fight; I haven’t eaten oysters in years—that such a dispute could cause so much passion and anger that my librarian actually said she can’t even mention the word “oyster” in public any more. After all, the end result is that Drake’s Estero is now as clean and pristine as the rest of the National Seashore and can be enjoyed by millions. Is that not what most people out here want? Apparently not when it conflicts with their version of what’s right. Indeed, the same is true of disputes that have arisen among locals over what to do with the fallow and axis deer that have, since their introduction years ago, begun to overrun the native herds on Point Reyes. When the Park Service decided that it had to cull the herds by shooting some of them, residents went crazy. Killing those sweet deer. But the deer, without any natural predators, have spread like the European grasses they feed on. They menace any local garden not fenced in. They overrun their natural habitat to the point that they can begin to starve (as they did recently on Angel Island) for lack of food. What is one to do? Brennan has a chapter on this problem in her book—the problem of invasives such as grasses and eucalyptus trees and flowering plants and many types of fish and rodents and other mammals. What is to be done? Without natural predators, and with invasives from all over the globe having been moved randomly with our ships and goods, we are drastically altering environments everywhere by upsetting the balance between predator and prey built up over millennia. What is to be done?
            But of course, this is a related but fairly separate matter. With respect to the oyster farm in Drake’s Estero, the Interior Department and the National Park Service have made their decision. Oyster farming on Point Reyes no longer exists, and I, for one, think the decision made was a good one—one that benefits far more people (and the local ecology) than it hurts. But clearly, many many others disagree and given the signs will likely nurse their grievance for years. And this makes me wonder: when it comes to the far more disruptive measures needed to mitigate runaway climate change, can we ever get agreement on what to do? Can we ever get over the battles that will ensue? Once I might have said that rational humans could agree, especially in a crisis as potentially catastrophic as global warming and sea-level rise. After the oyster wars, though, I’m not so sure.

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Dark Things

On my walk yesterday morning, I was feeling something I rarely feel: that the weather, a thick blanket of Pacific fog after some rain, felt “heavy.” I’ve often heard people use this term, but this was the first time I truly felt it. At this point I’m not sure what it signifies (except that we are approaching the darkest night of the year, in response to which many cultures have long celebrated a ‘festivals of light’ to counteract the dead feeling; and, in addition, that there may well be a residue of darkness in me after the mass murders in San Bernardino and Paris), but it has stimulated some thoughts about darkness, how most of us resist it, and how, nonetheless, it is a necessary and unsung part of existence.

            We humans are all geared to the light, specifically sunlight. We feel more lively when the sun is out, and more gloomy during winter months when, even if the sun shines, it shines for several fewer hours than in summer. When clouds and storms roll in, it gets even darker. Our language reflects this: “I saw the light,” to indicate comprehension or spiritual awakening; “I’m still in the dark,” to indicate bafflement, or “I’m in a dark place” to indicate depression. The sun itself has long been venerated as a kind of god, pouring its beneficence on earthly creatures, its photosynthetic energy into miraculous organs of growth. And sunrise has long signified relief, renewal, a reprieve from the dark of earthly trouble, or even the spiritual trouble signified by the phrase “dark night of the soul.” In a cosmic sense, we respond with joy and hope to the “light” of stars, as opposed to the barrenness of dark and cold and empty outer space. We even measure distance in “light years”—the time it takes, presumably, for light photons from distant stars to reach us, and thus serving as a measure of how far in miles/kilometers from us that star or galaxy is.
            And yet, the sun can be a problem and too much sunlight and heat can lead to all kinds of ailments such as droughts, sunburn, heat stroke, and the drying up of fertility or fecundity. It is when we begin to dwell on this, this diurnal and annual balance here on earth, that we begin to alter our perception and feeling about light and dark. Our internal mechanisms, most obviously our sleep patterns, depend on the alternation of light and dark in regular rhythm. If that balance is upset, as it is when humans decide that people can work at any time in the 24 hours that make up a day, bad things happen. People who work the “graveyard shift” are subject to strange ailments and delusions. Drivers and airline pilots who do this are far more prone to accidents than others working a more “normal” cycle. Travelers who shift time zones often notice that the interruption of their diurnal rhythms can lead to lower performance and even illness. So we humans need the dark, apparently as much as we need light. We need the respite from light; we need the cooling down that darkness brings; we need the dark side of the earth as much as we need the dark side of the moon. We also need the dark activity that night brings; the replenishment that night brings; the dreams and deep revival that sleep brings. This doesn’t even get to the penchant of some artists to find their creativity (a kind of dark dreaming?) much more active at night than in the daytime. Of some hunting animals to find far more prey at night, to only find their prey at night.
            But these are more or less surface matters. At a deeper level, we most of us may be astonished to learn that, though we thought we knew (or physicists did) what the vast stretches of space consisted of, it now turns out that adding up all of the known ‘matter’ in the universe as indicated by the light from stars simply is not enough to account for the accelerated expansion of the universe that seems to be happening. In fact, the known ‘matter’ that we’ve always observed (all the billions of stars and galaxies and planets) accounts for a mere five percent of what must be out there! Incredible. Where is the rest? What is the rest? We cover our ignorance by calling it “dark matter” (now calculated at 27% of the known universe) and its related “dark energy” (68% of the known universe). But what is it? Where is it? It, and we, are in the dark. So all our calculations about the content of the universe and its evolution, starting with the presumed Big Bang (of which we have evidence), may be totally off. Everything we know or think we know is now under review (see
            My point is not that we should all try to discover what’s “out there,” but rather that in some basic way, dark is an absolute necessity. Dark Matter. Dark Energy. Without such concepts, even though we don’t know what they signify, everything we seem to be observing makes no sense. The Universe is expanding when it should be contracting due to gravity. And not only is it expanding, that expansion is accelerating at a rate that suggests there is this enormous reserve of matter/energy out there causing it. And what we have always considered ‘empty space’ seems to be charged full of some sort of matter and energy we can’t detect but which seems to just pop up out of nothing. Though we really don’t know. We are in the dark.
            And this is the other part of the mystery. We really don’t know how the world works, how life works, how existence works. We want it to be apparent. We want things to work logically, causally, in the bright light of our brains, our consciousness, our reason, our mathematics, our machines, but they don’t. Rather, they work in a way that is only partially explained by our science and technology. Whenever we think we have some organizing function solved, we are stumped to learn that exceptions always appear. The dark side emerges. Uncertainty reigns. Some strange eruption blows all our predictions and calculations. This pertains in our social organizations in a way that gets more prominent as time goes on. Democracy was supposed to be the perfect system, giving each member of a society his vote and thereby a share in its success or failure. But democracy in the United States these days has been ‘hijacked’ by moneyed interests. Perhaps it has been from the beginning, but it seemed to work fairly well for a century or two, and to most people’s contentment. Not anymore. Rather than a society of equals, the United States has become a society of haves—the 1% or the 0.1% who control the vast majority of the wealth, and thereby the politicians who depend on that wealth—and have nots—the mass of people who vote in elections which seem more and more rigged to elect representatives who ignore the people’s will in favor of the will of corporations and the wealthy few. There’s even a term for this: “dark money.” And in this sense, the undue influence of those with money and power can be seen as the eruption of the dark side. So can the eruption of imperialism. Rome taught us that democracies can be easily replaced by empires and dictatorial emperors (the Greeks posited this transition as a natural, inevitable progression). The same thing has happened in the United States. From a nation of mostly independent farmers served by leaders who discouraged “entangling alliances” with foreign adventures, we have become the most powerful empire in history, with nearly a thousand military bases to govern our ‘soft’ empire, and nations everywhere quaking at our approach to “help them.” And some, as in San Bernardino recently, attempting to kill as many of us as possible. Again, the eruption of the dark side.
            So our enlightened penchant for equality, for fairness in sharing that finds its apotheosis in socialism or communism or democracy, tends in practice to have to pay its dues to the dark side. Russian communism demonstrated this clearly: instead of leaders and bureaucrats who were motivated by the good and equal sharing of a new kind of human, the Soviet Union degenerated into a cult of brutal megalomania in which the most necessary organization was the secret police—making sure that no one deviated from prescribed dogma. Instead of a government devoted to raising the level of existence for the masses, the Soviet government became, like its American twin, an instrument of empire. It gobbled up just-liberated nation-states with as eager an appetite as any empire of old. The dark side had eventually become dominant. No matter how glorious and efficient our dream of equality and cooperation has been, in short, all our utopias have sooner or later descended into the “some are more equal than others” mode immortalized by George Orwell.
            Perhaps this should not surprise us. Ancient religions have always felt the need to pay homage to this dark side—seeing, probably more clearly than we moderns, that the dark side will always emerge and demand its due. They perhaps saw that nothing that is all light can exist. It cannot exist in nature. It cannot exist in human groups or societies or religions. So in Hinduism, there are “dark” gods and goddesses: Shiva the Destroyer, Kali the Dark Mother adorned with skulls, the womb and tomb of the earth (related in this sense to Coatlicue of the Aztecs, whose name means “serpent skirt”).  Shiva is “responsible for change both in the form of death and destruction and in the positive sense of destroying the ego.” This latter capacity makes Shiva the god special to the Indian practice of meditation where the mind is stopped and everything associated with individuality and the world is dropped. So the dark side of the Hindu pantheon is ultimately seen as necessary to the most pure and aimed at the most good.
            We can see how this might have occurred to Indian philosophers and sages. They could see, as we can when we focus on it, that the world and existence could not survive if there were only creation and fecundity inspired by light. Most animals—as we are demonstrating ourselves today—have been given far too much reproductive power. If any animal or even plant were left to survive with no predators or diseases thinning it, it would soon overrun its nutritive zone and cause famine and chaos. Insects without birds to eat them would become destructive hordes, as locusts sometimes do. Rodents without larger animals to prey on them would overrun the world with disease and death. Humans with too much ability to counter diseases and floods and other natural disasters like the toll insects take on our food plants, would do precisely what we are doing now: increase far beyond the carrying capacity of the territories we inhabit, and force countless other species into a mass extinction without parallel. The destroyer in its many forms maintains the balance. Without destruction, without death, life cannot continue.
            Thus, from a larger point of view, we can all see that the dark side of death and destruction—no matter what form they take—are and must be part of the cycle of existence. Much as we as individuals would like to (for ourselves at least), we cannot eliminate them from our experience, cannot ignore or alter for long the fundamental centrality of darkness in the way the world functions. And it may well be that we are about to learn—especially we in the United States of America, who have always been nurtured on the myth that we are the special creation, the special light-bringing nation—that our mania to purify existence so that it can be palatable to our massive egos can only end in deep, deep oblivion. And that the regulating balance mechanism that has brought the earth to this pass must, in the end, rule as it always has—with us, or without us.

Lawrence DiStasi