October 17, 2011
This is a new one. Former GOP presidential nomination frontrunner Rick Perry has come under some heat for his unconventional and frankly disturbing religious associations. These go beyond the typical guilt by association that plagues politicians who may have encountered some fringe figures in their spiritual pursuits, like Obama’s close association with the controversial and outspoken (and aptly named) Jeremiah Wright or Michele Bachmann’s with the extremely odious Bradlee Dean. I certainly believe these relationships bear scrutiny, but generally not the clutching-the-chest panic they tend to evoke from partisans. Perry, on the other hand, moved into territory that quite frankly can be described as un-American – and by such I’d mean contrary to broad agreements about American political heritage as represented in discussions and interpretations of the Constitution, and nothing more – with the massive prayer rally called “The Response” held in Texas back in August. I don’t need to belabor the obvious here about an elected representative of the people – a governor, no less – endorsing, planning, and leading an exclusive religious festival not as a private citizen but in his capacity as a public servant.
But this is interesting. Evangelist, and from what I can tell, professional crazy person Cindy Jacobs has claimed that “The Response” has lifted a curse from American soil. Part of the purpose of the “The Response” was to pray away the problems that bedevil the country, and no one could be blamed for thinking back to Perry’s earlier state proclamation to pray away the droughts and wildfires that have made Texas, as least as viewed from afar, seem as if it were a land subject to the wrath of some divine power or another. But Jacobs’s claim is new to me: she claims that the sins of the Native Americans – chiefly their cannibalism – cursed the land and that curse, until recently, was affecting the legacy of the European settlers that displaced the native population. This recalls Pat Robertson’s rather confused and contemptible assertion that it was the Haitian Revolution’s pact with the Devil to overturn the French colonial government there that had cursed the land and resulted in Haiti’s horrific earthquake. Now it’s easy to dismiss Jacobs – she’s the fringe of a rather fringe group, and her major claim to notoriety is that she’s prone to make these crazy claims, like her claim that a massive die-off of birds in Arkansas and Louisiana was due to the end of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, the military’s former policy of the forced exclusion of gays and lesbians from service. But the claim itself, and that it would find itself articulated within a specifically evangelical environment, that fascinates me.
Some ritual cannibalism was indeed practiced by Native American peoples prior to European settlements. And not long ago the anthropology community was embroiled in a rather sensational debate about the extent of the cannibalism practiced by a vanished tribe that preceded the Pueblo in the Southwest. But the weirdness here isn’t the lurid fixation with cannibalism itself, but that the sin or crime tainted not the people that practiced it so much as the land they lived on. And not the land so much as the geopolitical entity that inherits that continent.
Our culture is rife with heavily symbolic accounts of the transfer of authority over the land from Natives to Europeans, beginning with the fiction and poetry of the nineteenth century – especially Cooper’s novels and the narrative poems of Longfellow – and the trope of the Vanishing Indian, the peculiar insistence of nineteenth century Americans, including even otherwise astute and sympathetic observers like Thoreau, to insist that the Indians were already prior to the encounter with the West a dying and vanishing race, whose convenient inability to thrive and prosper allowed for European occupation of otherwise soon-to-be-vacated lands. Stories of the transfer of the land from Natives to Europeans continue through our contemporary popular culture, as in the infamous “crying Indian” ad from the 1970′s Keep America Beautiful campaign. And yet in all of those accounts, the Indian vanishes physically but retains some spiritual claim over the landscape, and either approves and guarantees the moral and inevitable nature of European settlement (as we find in Longfellow), or in the case of the TV ad, admonishes its improper stewardship of the transferred lands. Never does the transfer involve our assumption of a primal crime.
If it weren’t for Jacobs’s ties to Perry’s prayer festival and to a prophetic movement that’s become associated with his candidacy, it would be the odd notion of a negligible lunatic, and maybe it is that. But evangelical Christianity has a long history of obsession with geography and spirituality, primarily with that of the Holy Land, so I can’t discount it entirely. Neither do I know what to make of it. Part of it does seem to be a rebuke against secularism, though. If we’re going to be cursed on account of primitive (meaning first, not crude) practices on this continent, the others must be under similar burdens, unless also relieved of that curse by a specifically Christian ceremony – one that deliberate transgresses the original founding compact of the affected nation-state that distinguishes public duties from private obligations of conscience. I think it’s fairly clear here that the sin that far more concerns Jacobs than cannibalism would be the Jeffersonian separation of church and state. Secularism did not permit a sacralization of the American landscape, except in the revisionist histories that see the Constitution in some sort of pre-Bill of Rights dispensation sanctifying a Christian America before the 20th century judicial pronouncements began to pry religion and governance apart. Without that sacralization, the pagan earth that sustained the primitive inhabitants would be the same that sustains our rather shaky secular government, according to this view.
I wonder, then, if we could tie Jacobs’s claim here to the motivation behind Glenn Beck’s rather odd and uncomfortable rally in Jerusalem. The Holy Land has long functioned for evangelical Christians as an historical anchor for what they view as the inevitable and necessary transformation of the created world. It was where Jews were historically supplanted in ecclesiastical importance with Christ himself, and while it is necessary for many Christians that Jerusalem remain Jewish so that historical continuity from Jew to Christian remain forever imminent. But they’re still Jews, and the primal crimes of the land must remain still remain, in this view.
January 14, 2010
So there was this big snow right before Christmas. December 19. It was lovely. Well over a foot fell in this part of New Jersey, and apparently much, much deeper over at the shore. The last storm this big was already now, what, three years ago? It’s been my impression that New Jersey winters are much less snowy than when I first moved up here. With climate change very much a concern for those who accumulate weather data, you would think that changes in annual snowfall would be something to keep track of – certainly it leaves a major impression on us laypeople. So I thought I’d take a look and see if there was data in easy reach about changes in snowfall over the past few decades. And while a warming global climate might lead one to expect that there will be less snow, certain areas, of which the Northeast is one, are predicted to see an increase in precipitation, which could mean more snow, right?
No. It’s less snow. Although the mean temperature increase for the area over the past century has been 1.8° F, which I believe is pretty much on track with global mean increases, the winter season in the Northeast saw an increase of 2.8°. More precipitation isn’t going to mean more snow if it’s not cold enough. I wasn’t able to get much specific data on New Jersey, but the Climate Change New England people include New Jersey in their regional studies, and those roughly indicate a loss here of around 5″ annual snowfall from the 1970s, when annual snowfall totals began to be recorded on a systematic basis. The loss in New Jersey is not as marked as areas such as the Adirondacks that are getting 40″ to 60″ less snow now. The Northeast region overall is experiencing 16 days fewer of snow on the ground over the winter since 1970, lake ice is melting a week earlier than a century ago, and our beloved lilacs are blooming four days earlier than in 1965.
So we enjoy it when we got it right? Well, it’s not going away anytime soon, if it ever disappears at all, but it seems likely that there’ll be a telling difference in how much of our winters remain snow-covered as the years roll by. It was not so much the loss of snow on my mind the day after the snow fell, though, but the pending loss of some of the remnants of the farm’s glory days. As part of the condition of the sale of the undeveloped land and the fields to the open space consortium, the property manager’s cottage and the tractor shed and bullpen near it were to be torn down. I grabbed a camera, stuffed my jeans into my boot-tops, and headed out.
October 26, 2009
It’s been a few weeks now since we took the hike I wanted to write about. The grading and lesson plans have completely taken over my life, and the guitar is going unplayed, the dishes are piling up, and the writing’s not getting done. Mid-semester fall is about the worst time of year work-wise for an academic, and it’s a pity, as it’s definitely my favorite time to be walking about with no definite purpose other than to absorb the what’s there to see. I had wanted to talk about falls colors, since for us ruralists – well, us arboreal mid-Atlantic and New England state ruralists – the fall transformation that so many city-dwellers and suburbanites seek out as car-touring eye-candy is no less a spectacle and a prompt to reflections on beauty, mortality, and the value of the natural world, even if it does fall somewhat into the rhythms of the typical. Then the colors were only starting to change, and that change was mostly to the deep reds or pure yellows of shrubs and vines, with additional notes of yellows and purples provided by late-blooming wildflowers. Now the maples with their monochromatic but grandiose show have gone fire-orange and nearly done, with the top half of the trees fairly much blown out by now. Even the massive maple in our backyard, which is for us fall’s biggest diva, going dramatically yellow before gracing us with two days of a constant rain of color as the leaves drop, has this year shed all its leaves without our noticing.