Intercontinental Earth Hour

Welcome to day 13 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.


Earth Hour in 2016 was on Saturday, 19 March, from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. local time around the world.

Earth Hour — which I had never heard of before 2016 — is a worldwide annual event begun in 2007 and organized by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF — until 1986, it was called the World Wildlife Fund), encouraging individuals, communities, and businesses to “turn off non-essential electric lights for one hour … as a symbol of commitment to the planet.” (There’s an Earth Hour FAQ but most of the links don’t work.)

As it turned out, I (with my spouse) was at the Boston Intercontinental Hotel during that hour in 2016, and they were observing it, serving us a trio of fruit & veggie juices and some lovely snacks in the rather dimly lit but spacious lobby. I don’t know why I didn’t get photos of that event — probably took them with my phone, then accidentally wiped them — but I did get photos of the Boston ICH, really much too highfalutin for us (and too pricey, at $250-300 per night), though very perfectly located next to South Station (and Amtrak).

The hour in the lobby was odd, a sort of social hour in an essentially anonymous space. I’m not sure whether the dim lighting made it better or worse.


From the outside:



In the public spaces:

front entrance and concierge desk
Rum Bar and restaurant (also a wedding planning office)
lobby with comfy seats we enjoyed sitting in


In our room, there was a weird sort of rice-paper screen sliding divider between the room and the bathroom, with its gigantic (and completely neglected by us) tub.

bed and chaise with view into bathroom through open screen
bed and view into bathroom through open screen (and my reflection)
bed and closed screen to bathroom
giant bathroom tub with view into bedroom through open screen
mirrors, sink in bathroom
shower and robe, bathroom
bed, chaise lounge, chair
I imagine we were the only ones in the hotel watching Spongebob (though not during Earth Hour, of course). And when I say we, I mean he. Nice TV, though.
ice bucket, glasses, coffee maker
the desk with a plant, window, and the information about participating in Earth Hour
minibar, which we never touched … who doesn’t bring their own seltzer, soda, wine, and snackage? Oh, wait, Glenlivet?


I should add that this is the place where I took the stairs down instead of the elevator, probably to get ice on another floor or just to see what was what, and then could not get back onto my floor. The door was locked, not only to my floor but every floor. I had to walk all the way down and exit outside, ending up in an area that was a sort of work zone, and from there found my way back around to the front of the hotel, only to find it wasn’t actually the front of the hotel at all but instead the automatic door into some privately owned condos adjoining the hotel. All this exercise and adventure for only $275/night!

But it’s next door to the Amtrak station!


Note the pyramid (the T — metro — entrance):

I always wish the hotels were like they are in movies and TV shows, where if you’re in Paris, right outside your window is the Eiffel Tower. In Egypt, the pyramids are right there. In the movies, every hotel has a monument right outside your window. My hotel rooms overlook the garbage dumpster in the back alley. — Gilbert Gottfried

With the Boston ICH, you can have pyramids and, if you take the stairs, the dumpster.



Tiny Seaport Home

Welcome to day 2 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.


One of my favourite places to stay recently has been The Element Boston Seaport, a Westin Hotel on the outskirts of the seaport area, a part of Boston I especially like. I like the edgy feeling, the sea, the gulls and ducks, the restaurants, the proximity to South Station — the major train and bus hub in Boston — and most of all the industrial, edge-of-the-city, institutional vibe; it’s also near the airport, and the convention center is there. (Map here.)

And the Element hotel is just perfect, so much so that while we (spouse and I) were there in late March, to attend the annual flower and garden show at the convention center, I looked around the hotel room, a sort of studio apartment — with its surprisingly well-equipped galley kitchen, living area with sectional sofa, bookshelves, and king bed, its bathroom, closets and other storage spaces, the windows overlooking concrete and glass buildings — and thought, I could live here. I started to consider whether there was enough room to entertain the way I like to and decided, no, not for more than two or at most four other people (or six who really know each other well), but there are rooms downstairs, off the lobby, to hold parties and dinners.


“Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, large ones weaken it.” — Leonardo da Vinci

Kitchen – obviously, I was enthralled; I mean, a full refrigerator, a dishwasher, and a stovetop!:


The Living Area/Bedroom, with sectional seating for 4 or 5, and including a desk:


A decent closet:




Corridor and part of lobby (breakfast area, also wine and cheese area in the afternoons):



It’s a very appealing thought, to get rid of 90-95% of what I own and move into a 400-500-square-foot home, especially one with such clean lines and efficient use of space, surrounded by a whole vibrant city, on water, almost literally a stone’s throw from Amtrak. Granted, the bed is right there in the living room, but for one person, or for two people in a relationship, would it really be a big inconvenience? I might stretch out and sleep more than usual, but maybe not.

This was one of the first hotel or motel rooms that actually prompted me to consider what it would be like to call it home, not just a transitionary space for a few days or a week.

View from the window over the desk:


Just a short walk to the Barking Crab, Row 34, Trillium Brewing, City Tap House, and lots of other places to eat and hang out:


City Tap House beer flight, Seaport

Art (maybe) in the Seaport:



“the height of sophistication is simplicity” — Clare Boothe Luce, in Stuffed Shirts

It’s Still the End of the World

I’ve written about this before (Expect the End of the World. Laugh.; Trapped in Hope, Practicing Resurrection) but reading a recent New York Times piece about Paul Kingsnorth and The Dark Mountain Project has reawakened my prevailing sense of cheerful hopelessness about the natural world — which includes pretty much everything we know, including us — and the need to not only engage imagination and faith but to disengage from false hope.

Kingsnorth, responding to Naomi Klein’s comment that grief is important because it can lead to change, agrees “with the need for grief but not with the idea that it must lead to change — at least not the kind of change that mainstream environmental groups pursue”:

“What do you do,’ he asked, ‘when you accept that all of these changes are coming, things that you value are going to be lost, things that make you unhappy are going to happen, things that you wanted to achieve you can’t achieve, but you still have to live with it, and there’s still beauty, and there’s still meaning, and there are still things you can do to make the world less bad? And that’s not a series of questions that have any answers other than people’s personal answers to them. Selfishly it’s just a process I’m going through.’ He laughed. ‘It’s extremely narcissistic of me. Rather than just having a personal crisis, I’ve said: “Hey! Come share my crisis with me!”‘

Maybe others aren’t feeling this sense of crisis, aren’t grieving, really are positive that we can lick this thing. All I can say is, I’m not. And it’s OK. There is much to celebrate and to love every day.

Later, Dougald Hine, a partner in Dark Mountain, is quoted:

People think that abandoning belief in progress, abandoning the belief that if we try hard enough we can fix this mess, is a nihilistic position,” Hine said. “They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’

I love that question: What do we start to notice? That’s an experience I want to have and share and talk about with others. It reminds me of the permaculture principle, Observe and Interact. Unless we notice what’s before us, around us, inside us, then when we act we are like characters in a play, doing what’s scripted, what’s expected, our role, instead of really relating, soul to soul, minds and bodies engaged, with ourselves and all other beings.

Some, like George Monbiot and Naomi Klein, feel that Kingsnorth has given up. I think he is still spending his life being true, doing what matters most to him, preparing for the future in each daily, present moment, and supporting what he loves in his community:

“Last week, he and his wife made a long-planned move to rural Ireland, where they will be growing much of their own food and home schooling their children — a decision, he explained to me, that stemmed in part from a desire to distance himself from technological civilization and in part from wanting to teach his children skills they might need in a hotter future.

“Yet Kingsnorth has never intended to retreat altogether. For the past three years, he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. ‘Why do I do this,’ he wrote to me in an email, anticipating my questions, ‘when I know that in a national context another supermarket will make no difference at all, and when I know that I can’t stop the trend caused by the destruction of the local economy, and when I know we probably won’t win anyway?” He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent. ‘I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough..”

The bolded bit reminds me of Andre Gregory’s reiteration of the Findhorn community’s idea, and Gustav Björnstrand’s idea, in the film My Dinner with Andre (1981), that in a dystopian future there may be pockets of light, or islands of history (like the underground in the Dark Ages), where humans can continue to live and perhaps “preserve the light, life, the culture … to keep things living.”

I’m also reminded of Tolstoy’s short story (or parable, or catechism), “The Three Questions” (1885); the three questions, with their answers, are

  1. When is the best time to do each thing? The most important time is now. The present is the only time over which we have power.
  2. Who are the most important people to work with? The most important person is whoever you are with
  3. What is the most important thing to do at all time? The most important thing is to do good to the person you are with.

With the amendment I would make of “person” to “being,” I think it’s a recipe for right action at all times.

Kingsnorth’s calling also reminds me of Johnette Napolitano’s lyrics in her (Concrete Blonde) song, “True,” a kind of prayer:

One more sunset
Lay my head down – true
One more sunrise
Open my eyes up – true

Expect the End of the World. Laugh.

I’m in a local group reading through Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook together. It posits climate change and peak oil — two separate but intertwined phenomena — and looks for ways local communities can become more resilient and vital in the face of greatly reduced energy resources and a planet where weather, habitat, and even masses like glaciers and seas are more and more in flux. (You can read more about the problem at Why Transition? There is also a 12-page leaflet that summarises the handbook.)

Hopkins’ suggestions and examples are meant to be hopeful, positive, creative, proactive, community-building. Ideas include generating fuel, food and housing locally, developing local currencies, sharing tools and skills, etc.  His vision is of an evolution in our vision and our systems that helps us to weather a low-carbon, End-of-the-Oil-Age future. It’s certainly worth reading.

I’ve also been reading some articles lately that have a different perspective from The Transition Handbook. The point of view of both of these — Quote Of The Year. And The Next. at The Automatic Earth and The Road Down From Empire at Resilience — seems to be more an expectation of adaptation or collapse — rather than the evolution Hopkins envisions and hopes for. These writers seem to expect that we’ll deal with it when it happens (adaptation) or we won’t (collapse).

And that feels most likely to me. I think we humans respond to what feels urgent, in our hearts, to our senses — and not what we are told or even what we consciously think and intellectually agree is urgent. And climate change and the waning of liquid fuel don’t feel urgent to most Americans, including me. If one year is 1 degree warmer than other years, it doesn’t feel like anything. And, as most of us have experienced, sometimes what does feel urgent in life isn’t nearly as important or critical in the long run as it feels in the moment, and I think this tempers our response to complex crises, as does hearing, year after year, that something is a crisis. We get weary of responding, even if we respond only in our imaginations.

I really gravitate to the acceptance that disaster will happen, whether environmental or otherwise. For me, expecting that we won’t avert disaster doesn’t change at all my desire to do more with less; to be continually less involved with a consumerist/capitalist/growth-focused culture; to want and to work for a strong community where I (and others) have strong connections with neighbours, acquaintances and friends; to be in physical touch with the Earth around me and the other animals and plants living here; and to live a creative, centered  and connected life.  Accepting that we humans will probably fail to make needed changes  — if we even really knew what they were, the system being so complex and dynamic naturally without even accounting for political, financial and economic, and technological complexity — feels freeing to me.

When I started making changes, years ago, to align my actions more with my values (still very much a work in progress), it wasn’t because I was afraid we were going to run out of oil, though I knew even then that we probably would if we kept doing what we were doing, because it is a finite resource, or and it wasn’t because I thought my actions would have any significant impact on the course of events beyond my life, and maybe not even in my own life. It was only because these actions brought me joy and made me feel whole(r), because they felt right (true, real, alive) to me. And that’s the only way I really want to speak about or “do” resiliency with other people, from the place of “what actions align most fully with what we/you value?”

I guess in perhaps a perverse way, I value relaxing and letting go of expectations in the face of probable impending doom. One of my favourite poems (The Dakini Speaks, by Jennifer Welwood), about personal loss, is applicable for me here:

Look: Everything that can be lost, will be lost.
It’s simple – how could we have missed it for so long?
Let’s grieve our losses fully, like human ripe beings.
But please, let’s not be so shocked by them.
Let’s not act so betrayed,
As though life had broken her secret promise to us.

Impermanence is life’s only promise to us,
And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability. …

For me, this isn’t a call to be passive, to do nothing, to roll over. Far from it. It’s a call to dance. We still act, every day, and it’s good to be aware of the stakes of our actions (for every being, insofar as we can know them) and to think about how to act well, and to do it. I’m an utter (yet subtle) evangelist for what I care about, but I harbor no notion that most of us will change our minds or our actions until it feels urgent to do so. And being told that a situation is urgent — in the words of TV infomercials, “You must act now!” — sometimes just increases the listener’s resistance to any message that follows (it does so for me, anyway).

For me, the poem I quoted is a reminder that no matter what we do, life (and “lifestyles”) will always always change, and everything will end, we will all end, in some way, even if we then begin again (or not). For me, it all starts with that in mind.

When people talk about hope, or try to find hope in situations or imagined situations, I can’t join in. I’m just not hoping for outcomes. More and more (though not fully) in the last 15 years or so, my practice goes another direction. It seems to be the direction of no-hope, at least when it comes to wanting or hoping for a specific outcome.

I’ve written about this quite a lot before. I wrote in April about environmentalists giving up. One, Paul Kingsnorth, says we need to replace “hope” with “imagination:” “I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out.”

Imagination is, I think, the basis of The Transition Handbook: communities envisioning their own rebirth and resiliency. But if we are envisioning the world we want for the future, if we are trying to find a way to make it less disastrous, isn’t that also keeping control? On the other hand, what else can we do? I do have a vision, of sorts, which I’ve written about before, of the completely gratuitous, prodigal embrace of the loving, forgiving victim. Of the joyous revelation of love. Of grace.

So “no-hope” doesn’t mean that I am in despair, though I may be grieving losses. It doesn’t mean I’m passive, though I may think that no action (or no speaking) is the best action to take. It doesn’t mean — in the context of transition, climate change and peak oil — that I’m not interested in being part of a vital community, in resiliency (personal and communal), in gardening, public transportation, being outdoors more, doing what benefits the web of all life, reducing and reusing, lightening my footprint on the earth, and so on. I’m excited about all those things.

It just means that I’m not looking for anything to give me hope. To the extent I have hope, or faith, or joy, it’s not related to outcomes, to a vision, to what might or might not happen in the future. I feel willing to receive what arises, and to the extent that I’m not willing, this is my practise, to open my arms wide.

It’s like Wendell Berry says, in his “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

So, you know, I’m FINE (Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical). And I have no hope that I will be much else, but I am opening my arms to receive what arises.

As I wrote several years ago, part of a longer poem:

When nothing is sure, everything is possible.
(Margaret Drabble)

No hope.
No hope for the planet, for creation,
for my own violent nature,
for human progress,
for better living through science,
for community through technology,
for peace through meditation and prayer.

I pray, meditate, participate
virtually, locally.
When I notice, barely, my own violence
I offer it solace and wait in it, fidget,
pray for sustainable peace.
I am learning non-violence.
I am getting to know the Earth.

But: no hope.

Faith that love will always embrace,
disarm, and absorb the power of hate.

What that looks like,
is looking like,
will look like,
is beyond me. Or perhaps within me.

Whatever it is,
I rejoice with the stars
to flicker for a moment.

Living in Transition

I could have sworn I had posted something about the idea of “home” in all the years I’ve been blogging, but if I have, I can’t find it now.

deer were here, 28 Jan 2012I was prompted to think about it again this time by my friend Lynn’s class this fall on “a sense of place,” and by another friend, Caroline’s, post recently titled Staying Put, in which she writes, inspired by Wendell Berry: “We can’t love a place until we know it, and we can’t know a place until we are willing to open ourselves to its mystery, its intricacies and complexities, its willingness to invite us into conversation.”

Like Caroline, who calls herself a “former nomad,” I have never stayed put. Many of my friends (including Lynn) have lived in the same house or the same town for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. I think my imagination is pretty well-developed, but I have trouble envisioning what this would be like: to not consider every box that comes into the my piece of sky, 22 July 2012house for its packing potential, to not browse house listings (daily), to know how to get places, to not need to find new grocery stores and hair stylists, to never walk into a new library or church for the first time. To never have to make a complete set of new, local friends. To not feel the delicious, displaced, lonely, and anticipatory burden and freedom of living in someone else’s house and tending someone else’s garden.

I’ve lived in 24 places in 50 years, in 18 towns, in 6 states. I’ve spent another combined (estimated) two years in one- and two-week vacations across the U.S. (focus on Jekyll Island, Rehoboth and Myrtle beaches, New York City), and in the UK, Spain, the Caribbean; and another year or so of summers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, most summer weekends for six years on a lake in central Virginia, a cumulative month in San Francisco with a friend’s dying sister; and another 6 months perhaps on the train, travelling coast to coast several times, to New Orleans 5 or 6 times. I’ve spent some time in every U.S. state except Hawaii, Alaska, South and North Dakota, and Michigan.

I’ve lived in my latest state, town, neighbourhood, house and yard for exactly three years now. For the first two-and-a-half years, I felt like a tourist in this town. In fact, the Marti Jones song, “Tourist Town,” came to mind often as I walked and drove through town: “I’m tempted to hide away / I’m tempted to hide in a tourist town.” I felt hidden in plain view, recogising almost no one and unrecognised by almost all.

hummingbird in penstemon, 23 June 2012And I realised that I liked it, most of the time. A few palm trees, sand, the sound of seagulls, and some ocean would have improved the experience, but on the whole, I appreciated feeling anonymous, invisible, unknown by my fellow townmates. I also appreciate being known (or at least recognised) now. Both states feel deeply healing, in their owns ways.

The social theorist Michel Foucault’s idea of a heterotopia is extremely appealing to me; he speaks of heterotopias as “‘counter-sites,’ places positioned on the … outside of all places … irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life.” They might be reserved for “people undergoing transitional crises: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the dying.”  They can also be places of deviation, where “individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed”:  prisons, retirement homes (idleness is a deviation in our society), psychiatric hospitals.

But they don’t have to be places of abnormal deviation and crisis. They can be cemeteries, gardens, theatres, cinemas, museums, libraries, fairgrounds, festivals, ships … In fact, they can be tourist towns, which remove people from their normal daily lives and which usually exist outside of time and flourish for only for part of the year and then close down.

Some places — gardens, museums, cinemas and theatres, e.g. — juxtapose many shade garden etc, 2 July 2012places or scenes in one place. They may even contain mini-heterotopias and places of transition within them, like a bridge, an archway, movement from a sunlit meadow to a dark forest or from a gallery to an open rotunda. Some, like museums and libraries, constitute “a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages,” while others (fairgrounds, vacation villages) are “absolutely temporal.”

As described by John Doyle at Ktismatics:  “Heterotopias open onto heterochronies —  disjunctures from the evenly spaced and empty continuum of time. Theater time passes differently from the time that surrounds the theater. The cemetery is a juxtaposition of the end of time and eternity. Museums and libraries accumulate past time in a place outside of time. Resort towns exist only at certain times of the year. Entering into a heterotopia often requires a rite of passage: enlistment in the army, arrest and conviction, death, travel. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence” because it is “a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.”

monarch caterpillar on asclepias, 6 Aug 2012I’m starting to wonder whether my true “home” isn’t perhaps a heterotopia, or some sort of liminal space* I am continually passing through. A wholly unnecessary space, “irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life.”

A tourist town, a dis-placed place. No-home. A place removed from ordinary time. A kind of folly.

It’s where I, perversely perhaps, seem to feel most at home. Not “home” in the sense of feeling rooted and attached but rather in the sense of feeling relaxed, satisfyingly connected, most myself, engaged in discovering and exploring the new and mysterious (as Caroline put it, “willing to open ourselves to its mystery, its intricacies and complexities”). I feel paradoxically at home as an unrooted, uprooted stranger passing through a strange and passing land.

I seem to prefer being neither here nor there. Even as I mhosta shoots, 3 May 2012ake each new place “my own” — no matter the USDA hardiness zone, no matter which birds sing in the trees, no matter whether I am in the midst of the most-craved ocean and marsh, or of mountains, lakes, rivers, swamps, meadows, prairie, forests, desert, or tundra — I am aware of the illusion of terra firma, of an everlasting place, this eden.

I think, through practice and perhaps by nature, I have become skilled at inhabiting places in such a way that they feel real to me — real like the smell of fried food and popcorn on the boardwalk, the shriek of gulls fighting over a clam shell, the glare of the high summer sun beating on sand, the warm taste of coconut and pineapple in pretty drinks with umbrellas, the overlay of pop music and oldies coming from every other beach blanket — even as I know that this place too will shutter up when the season is over (though the gulls will remain).

Rehoboth boardwalk at night, 12 Aug 2011

* From Wikipedia: In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning ‘a threshold’) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.”

The Bog

We like to visit the Philbrick-Cricenti Bog (PDF of trail guide) in New London, NH, when we can. So far, that was last October (twice) and this June and mid-July. We hope to get there again in August and September this year and earlier in the spring next year. (Skip to slideshow below if you like)

The Philbrick-Cricenti bog is a kettle hole bog, created when stranded chunks of glacier melted, leaving ponds in holes in the ground. A bog has no inlets or outlets; this distinguishes it from a fen, which is also a peatland but which is fed by groundwater, so its acidity is lower than a bog.  A bog’s acidity is around 4.0 pH.

There are several excellent resources online about this bog in particular:

  • Jack Share’s blog, Written in Stone, offers two excellent postings of his visit to the Philbrick-Cricenti Bog in May 2011 (Part I, Part II). If you’re thinking of visiting, check out these postings first. The first one provides a wealth of information about bogs, followed by extremely well-captioned photos of his visit, focusing on ferns, the sphagnum moss, the bog boardwalk, and the depth of the bog. The second one continues the visit, with pictures of pitcher plants, sundew, rhodora, cotton grass, etc.
  • The New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands also has a good page on this bog: Visiting New Hampshire’s Biodiversity: Philbrick-Cricenti Bog . At least in my browser, hovering the mouse over the images doesn’t pop up a caption, but you can see what the pictures are by right-clicking your mouse on top of each photo, then clicking View Image Info. The “Associated Text” identifies the subject matter of the photo. It’s cumbersome, but I’ve used this method to identify plants in my photos.
  • The New London Conservation Commission offers several pages of captioned photos:

The slideshow is arranged from October (9 Oct. and 16 Oct, 2011) to June (10 June 2012) to July (19 July 2012, when we went with a group and a white-throated sparrow sang the whole time). When we visit again, I’ll add more pics to round out the year.

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Where is the Leisure?

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article recently (18 June 2012) titled In Praise of Leisure, by father and son duo Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, emeritus professor of political economy and lecturer on political philosophy, respectively, which asks: “”Let us imagine that everyone has enough to lead a good life. What is the good life? And what is it not? And what changes in our moral and economic system are needed to realise it?”

Their main thrust is that

Making money cannot be an end in itself — at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying that my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter. And what is true of individuals is also true of societies. Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity, for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money except spend it. And we cannot just go on spending.

Their secondary point is that leisure — that “good life” we’d have more time for if we weren’t working for money all the time — is not the same as idleness; in fact, it’s quite the opposite, as Bertrand Russell delineates:

It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the 24. Insofar as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for lightheartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. … The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.”

The Skidelskys take as a model the economist John Maynard Keynes’ vision, c. 1930, of a society that no longer needs much in the way of work or growth:

Imagine a world in which most people worked only 15 hours a week. They would be paid as much as, or even more than, they now are, because the fruits of their labor would be distributed more evenly across society. Leisure would occupy far more of their waking hours than work. It was exactly this prospect that John Maynard Keynes conjured up in a little essay published in 1930 called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.”

They note that,

despite the surprising accuracy of his growth forecasts … most of us, almost 100 years on, [are] still working about as hard as we were when he wrote his futuristic essay. The answer is that a free-market economy both gives employers the power to dictate hours and terms of work and inflames our innate tendency toward competitive, status-driven consumption.

In short, “the material conditions of the good life already exist, at least in the affluent parts of the world, but the blind pursuit of growth puts the good life continually out of reach.”

I’m reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, and though the phrase “the good life” might not show up in a digital search of it (or it might! I don’t have a Kindle), it’s woven throughout the narrative of how Lucretius’s poem, On the Nature of Things, which is full of Epicurus’s ideas about many things but significantly his proposal that the pursuit of happiness is the highest good in life, was rediscovered in 1417, centuries after it was written. For Epicurus, Lucretius and many other ancients and moderns, a life devoted to the pleasures of discovery, curiosity, wonder, learning, friendships, the arts, and sensual goods like sex, food and wine (in moderation) was obviously better than a life driven by fear — whether it was fear of being condemned to a horrible afterlife, or, as we moderns seem to have, a fear of scarcity …. or perhaps a fear of leisure?

So Pedestrian

Morning Edition ran a story this morning, Americans Do Not Walk The Walk, And That’s A Growing Problem. 

Sort of a fluff piece, since it’s not news to anyone that Americans don’t walk much. But some of the comments were (sadly) amusing:

“We’ve engineered walking out of our existence and everyday life,” Vanderbilt says. “I even tried to examine the word ‘pedestrian,’ and it’s always had sort of this negative connotation — that it was always better to be on a horse or something, if you could manage it.”

… and true:

“[T]he core problem — of too many people living too far away from the things they need.”

… and point to a systemic and literal devaluing of walking and bike-riding as means of transportation:

“As a Federal Highway Administration study noted, ‘In 2009, about 2.0 percent of federal-aid surface transportation funds were used for pedestrian and bicycle programs and projects. However, those two modes are estimated to account for almost 12 percent of all trips and represent more than 13 percent of all traffic fatalities.’

(Though maybe state and local funds pick up the slack?)

Coincidentally, last night I dreamed I was on one of those Segways instead of walking and while it was fun, I was thinking as I was using it that I really should, and could, be walking instead.

I do walk a lot, for recreation and also for practical reasons, to get to the library, stores, coffee shop, post office, an adult ed class, etc. Lately, I’ve been taking 3-4-mile walks alone, with spouse or with a group of older women (almost all in their 70s) who like to walk and bike several times per week. I’m glad to live in a town that’s walkable and to know people who enjoy walking.

Trapped in Hope, Practicing Resurrection

I read this essay, Confessions of the Recovering Environmentalist, by Paul Kingsnorth, a while ago and have been wondering how or whether to respond.

I responded privately, in my soul, as I read it, with a big “Yes!” to Kingsnorth’s “No More.” But some of my closest, most respected and loved, friends are environmentalists, activists, humans whose hearts overflow with love and fierce compassion for the planet, for other people, for the natural world, and who willingly pour their energy into doing what they can to nurture and, yes, save our world by being environmental and community activists in their work and non-paid vocations, as well as in more private ways in their households and families, their transportation and food choices, their gardening and hobbies, and so on.

For many reasons, I have rarely been an activist, about any issue. I have seldom  protested, marched, made signs, written letters, tried to persuade.

beetle in soil, 11 April 2012
At most, this is what I have done regularly for the last 20 or so years:

  • Tried to loved the patches of land I’ve found myself living on in a very imperfect and often careless way, and in fact often selfishly arranged them to meet my desires for food, beauty, and orderliness above all else
  • Spent a portion of most days outdoors, exploring, learning the names of things and something of their thingness … and then often forgetting most of it
  • Prayed, meditated, poemed and blogged with the intention of benefiting all beings and the connection among beings
  • Exercised curiosity, wonder, observation, attentiveness and appreciation about and to all of life, though I do show favouritism
  • Nurtured silence, leisure and going slowly in a loud, busy and speedy world, feeling that it somehow matters

In this very small way, I’ve worked (or played) to be the change I want to see in the world, intentionally and very privately, feeling at my core that the quality of openness, attentiveness and cultivated compassion that we bring to the world — whether at home all day with the dog, walking in the woods, on a crowded train or bus, at dinner with friends, in the grocery store, at work, participating in a peace march or a church service, or any place with or without anyone else — changes the world.

Monarch on Joe-Pye Weed, 14 Sept 2011(Pretty sure I originally or most firmly got that idea from Madeleine L’Engle … Perhaps from A Wrinkle in Time, ironically in the context of talking about environmentalism, because the idea there is that every action we do matters, because even the smallest actions reverberate through the universe, because macrocosm and microcosm are completely interconnected. )

Not that I have succeeded in becoming especially compassionate, open, and attentive. I can say only that I’m aware of that most of the time.

Of course, other actions change the world, too, and maybe what I’m doing, or learning to do, really doesn’t. If our actions are aligned with what we feel really matters, then I don’t know what else we should, can, or would do, whether we seem to be effective or not, except perhaps to also be open always to learning what really matters.

I’m a far cry from Kingsnorth, or from Dave Pollard (who comments on Kingsnorth’s essay, and its follow-ups in his Giving Up on Environmentalism, also worth reading), who have been serious and committed community activists and environmental campaigners for 20 and 40 years, respectively.

So it’s easy and self-serving for me to admire their decisions now to hang up their environmental activist hats and join me here on the sidelines.

And maybe it’s self-serving, or simply selfish, as others have suggested, for them to give up. Or, maybe they’re not so much giving up as simply relaxing, loosening their grip on the shore and floating on some beautiful, jagged flotsam in the midst of a maelstrom. Or maybe they are actually jetsam, bits tossed overboard in desperation to lighten a distressed ship’s load; maybe what they’re doing is a loving, enlivening and imaginative thing to do, just as what others are doing in desperation may also be, because the desperation springs from an aching tenderness and grief for what is being lost.

Either way, I think Pollard may have hit on something when he says:

When Paul [Kingsnorth] says that his answer to ‘what would you have us do?’ is ‘do what you want; do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right’, the only thing I think he is missing is: We need to be talking with each other (openly, honestly and often) about what each of us has decided is what we want to do, need to do, have to do, and feel is right, and, more importantly, why we have decided this. Not in the effort to self-justify or to recruit followers or criticize others’ choices, but to raise other possibilities, and to show other ways of responding to the crises we are now facing.

In fact, he and Wen Stephenson engaged in a lively and civil debate (links below) following publication of Kingsworth’s essay. I imagine most people will find their points of view, beliefs, griefs, frustrations and doubts somewhere in the exchange between these two articulate and thoughtful men.

Kennedy Park Trail, Lenox MA, May 2010

In the original essay, Kingsnorth says that he became an environmentalist “because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places and the other-than-human world. … From that reaction came a feeling, which became a series of thoughts: that such things are precious for their own sake, that they are food for the human soul, and that they need people to speak for them to, and defend them from, other people, because they cannot speak our language and we have forgotten how to speak theirs.”

And he decided to give it up because, partly, environmentalism now promotes “something called ‘sustainability,'” which “means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so. It is, in other words, an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet.’ In a very short time — just over a decade — this worldview has become all-pervasive.”

Much of what he says resonates in me:

Now it seemed that environmentalism was not about wildness or ecocentrism or the other-than-human world and our relationship to it. Instead it was about (human) social justice and (human) equality and (human) progress and ensuring that all these things could be realized without degrading the (human) resource base … The ‘real issue,’ it seemed, was not the human relationship with the nonhuman world; it was fat cats and bankers and cap’lism. These things must be destroyed ….


You can’t open a newspaper now or visit a corporate website or listen to a politician or read the label on a packet of biscuits without being bombarded with propaganda about the importance of ‘saving the planet.’ But there is a terrible hollowness to it all, a sense that society is going through the motions without understanding why.

Kingsnorth writes a second essay to respond to Wen Stephenson’s response to Kingsnorth’s original posts. From it, these thoughts particularly strike me:

My worldview has always been, for want of a less clunky word, ecocentric. What I care passionately about is nature in the round: all living things, life as a phenomenon. That’s not an anti-human position – it would be impossible for it to be so, because humans are as natural as anything else. But my view is that humans are no more or less important than anything else that lives. We certainly have no right to denude the Earth of life for our own ends. That is a moral position, for me, not a pragmatic one. Whether or not our current (temporary and hugely destructive) way of life is ‘sustainable’ is not of great concern to me, except insofar as it impacts on life as a whole.”


I don’t think any ‘climate movement’ is going to reverse the tide of history, for one reason: we are all climate change. It is not the evil ‘1%’ destroying the planet. We are all of us part of that destruction. This is the great, conflicted, complex situation we find ourselves in. … I believe that the climate will continue to change as long as we are able to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, because I believe that most human beings want the fruits of that burning more than they want to save the natural world which is destroyed by it.

Kingsnorth and Stephenson engage for a last time here, with Stephenson asking, finally, “So my question is, what would you have us do?”

Sunapee River Trail, Oct 2011

Kingsnorth’s suggests that imagination, not hope, is what we might cultivate:

I find that a lot of campaigners are trapped in hope. I used to be. They believe — they feel pressured to believe, from within or without — that they must continue working to achieve goals which are plainly impossible, because not to do so would be to ‘give up hope’. What they are hoping for is never quite defined, but it’s clear that giving it up would lead to a very personal kind of collapse.

I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out.

He responds to Stephenson’s question about what to do this way:

[D]o what you want. Do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right. I’m not an evangelist; that’s one of the things I have walked away from. I can’t give myself to this supposed movement because it is not sustaining anything that I think is worth keeping. … But I don’t expect anyone to follow me. I don’t want anyone to follow me. Who wants to be followed when they go out walking?

At the same time, it can be nice to walk together and imagine, together, what life can be, and in fact, what it is.

Two other essays I come back to, related somehow to giving up hope, expectation, the need to do SOMEthing, and opening up to what feels most real (whatever that looks like for you, for me, and it may look very different) are Why Lying Broken in a Pile on Your Bedroom Floor is a Good Idea by Julie Peters at Elephant Journal (June 2011) and How To Drop Out by Ran Prieur.

The first (a short piece) says that we are all “already never not broken,” that is, we never know how to go forward, and our “stories about the past do not apply.” We are always putting ourselves back together again, though we don’t always realise it when we’re feeling whole and solid. But no matter how we feel: “You are in flux, you are changing, you are flowing in a new way, and this is an incredibly powerful opportunity to become new again: to choose how you want to put yourself back together. Confusion can be an incredible teacher -— how could you ever learn if you already had it all figured out?”

The second, which is a practical guide to living on less and not being “held over a barrel by a system that gives you no participation in power,” also says that in our culture, “The most fundamental freedom is the freedom to do nothing,” to say “No.” As Dave Pollard paraphrased: “When you have, at last, the time and opportunity and freedom to do nothing, nothing is all you will want to do, and you may then remain depressed for a long time before you finally discover and realize what you, alone, unpressed by others, really want to do with your life.”

For me, it’s been (and is) a process of cultivating awareness, and of sensing calling, sensing what to say “Yes!” to and what to say “No” to, each moment. Some people will do this and be activists, I think, and some won’t.

Wendell Berry, in his “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” said well what we can all do, including this:

 Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

21 March 2011 + 2012: A Comparison

Poplar and front side yard, with snow - 21 March 2011
Poplar and front side yard - 21 March 2011
Poplar and front side yard, without snow - 21 March 2012
Poplar and front side yard, no snow - 21 March 2012
Side yard with honeysuckle, with snow - 21 March 2011
Side yard with honeysuckle, with snow - 21 March 2011
Side yard with honeysuckle, without snow - 21 March 2012
Side yard with honeysuckle, no snow - 21 March 2012
Front border with snow -  21 March 2011
Front border with snow - 21 March 2011
Front border without snow -  21 March 2012
Front border without snow - 21 March 2012
Front yard and walkway with snow - 21 March 2011
Front yard and walkway with snow - 21 March 2011
Front yard and walkway with snow - 21 March 2011
Front yard and walkway with snow - 21 March 2011