“The willow tree overlooks the pond where the water enters from the bog. It leans out over the water and out of the way of the big pecan growing behind it. The hackberries come in from the other side and the possum haw along the fence line. It is a great green cathedral here with the trees fully leafed out: dense green, lighter green, grayish-green, sun speckled green, iridescent green. They all rise up into the sky, a congregation of leaves, and form a copse, the branches connected to the trunk and the trunk firmly established in the earth. It’s a system and a symbol (the ancient people believed that the tree of life stood at the center of the world and connected heaven above with the underworld below and that in between, in the shade of the tree – humans lived), it’s a grotto, like Lourdes with the healing spring flowing inside, it’s an altar to the nature goddess, whatever her name might be: Ishtar or Venus or Gaia or Ninsar, Pachamama or Aphrodite or Asase Ya the earth goddess of the Ashanti people who lived in the big tree rain forest of central Africa. This temple has features that are not lost on me and I worship here daily.”
So goes a recently written passage in the final chapter, the Nature Pool. The book is almost finished, a first draft atleast. I still have 124 pages of field notes to sort through for this chapter and then put it all together, all 18 chapters, see if it flows, see if it rocks and rolls, see if it sparkles and shines see if it works as a book or is still a bunch of random, spontaneous, disparate parts?
‘The Ancient Book of Magic Secrets – Dissertations and Stories about the Meaning of Being Human’ that’s the working title. It’s a hybrid, it has non-fiction essays about stuff like the city and money and how humans learned to talk and it has the story of Han and Hannah, two fragile Adam and Eve type characters living in the modern world.
We never did hear any more about Adam and Eve, how the marriage worked out after they got turned out of the Garden of Eden. You would think there might be some guilt issues and some blame issues and some there is no right and wrong, only consequences type of conversations. I mean did they adapt well to living outside of the garden? What did they do for food and shelter, being practically innocent or atleast ignorant of any survival skills, having lived in the Garden of Eden all their lives up to that point, where everything was pretty much provided and suddenly they’ve got to figure things out for themselves, there had to be some marital stress associated with that but nothing is mentioned. Cain and Abel take over the stage and begin the great march of humanity atleast in the Hebrew version of things.
Anyways, Han and Hannah, with all their imperfections, show up to regale us while we make our way thru the delightful litany of essays: The Little People, Symbiosis, Communicating with the Gods. If it all works it will be a total symbiotic experience! I’m so excited. One of these days it will be finished and released in some form or other and then my quest will be complete. Yes! I did it! Haha haha, I knew I could do it.
Stones are not money. Poems are not money. I’ve tried them both. Pieces of paper are money though. Especially the ones covered with intricate designs and the face of a famous dead person. We have agreed on that, ‘Yes pieces of paper can be money, poetry and stones cannot’ . We have certified and assigned value to the pieces of paper, the poetry not so much.
We have created entire bureaucratic departments for the purpose of investigating what happened to our money in case someone takes it or if we lose it, they’re called police departments. We have entire business corporations dedicated to tracking our money, where it goes and what it buys, they’re called credit card companies. Money is the highest good, valued above all things. We have built temples to it called banks and we spend most of our time pursuing it or worrying about it. It is our religion.
When we speak about the ’economy’ we invoke our most sacred principles because it has to do with how the money flows. “It’s the economy stupid” was Bill Clinton’s rallying cry that won him the presidency in 1992. Having a job and ‘making money’ is tantamount to being a good person. Reference to the ‘Dow’, (which sounds exactly like ‘Tao’, the ancient Chinese philosophy of balance and harmony) is a ritual of the nightly news shows. ‘The economy’ and ‘the Dow’ are terms that have iconic status and stand like the great pillars of the parthenon supporting our societies and our world view. So let’s take a look at money and see what it’s worth.
For most of our history there was no money and no accumulation of wealth. Everything you owned you carried with you as you moved thru the landscape of your Paleolithic world. Everything you needed you made from scratch on the spot from materials you found in situ, wood and stone, plant fiber and shells from the rivers, animals from the forest. Nobody was rich and nobody was poor. Wealth was in the information you had gathered about the environment, the jokes you could tell after dinner around the campfire, the wisdom you could share, some insight into how the world worked. That made you famous. It was the currency of the time coded and archived in the form of story and dispensed whenever needed, deposits and withdrawals, the Federal Reserve Bank of the time. Stories are what we used to exchange value and bring meaning into our lives 50,000 years ago.
Of course those early tribal humans did not live in isolation. There were other bands nearby and there was trade between them – barter. I’ll give you this buffalo skin for those obsidian stones, I’ll give you two strong chickens and a rooster for 6 good Hickory branches strong enough to make bows. Agreeing to a price was part of the process and a form of socialization. It was a chance to get to know the neighbors. But the main problem with bartering is that the value of two chickens and a rooster is very much in the mind of the beholder as are the 6 boughs strong enough to make bows, therefore the exchange rate was never guaranteed and neither was the exchange. Nevertheless, barter was our first means of assigning value to objects in order to trade them.
Commodity money, on the other hand, used common essential items such as salt or tobacco or seeds as a unit of exchange. It replaced barter because of the convenience of having an exchange rate that everyone agreed to. One example of commodity money is in prisons where things are bought and sold with cigarettes since currency is not allowed. Curiously, back during the days of the American colonies, tobacco was also used as a currency. This idea came from the Indians, of course, who used not only tobacco but wampum (beadwork) as an exchange medium. Chocolate beans (cacao) were used as money by the Aztecs and the Hudson’s Bay Company, during their economic colonization of the Canadien north, created an exchange rate for trade with the Indians that looked like this:
Coins eventually replaced the commodity because it was much easier to carry around and didn’t smell. It’s value was based on the metal it was made from – silver dollars and gold doubloons. Back in the day, the Romans made coins out of bronze which had a set weight and an intrinsic value – it could be melted down to make tools or weapons.
Then along came representational money. Money that had no value except what you believed it had; just a piece of paper with writing and symbols in some grand fashion and the famous dead person’s face on it. This represented a certain amount of gold or silver which you now owned as attested to by the piece of paper. You were, in fact, entitled to go to Fort Knox and ask for your $20 in gold if you chose to. The US currency was representational money based on the gold standard until 1933 when Congress nullified it
It’s also called fiat money which means it has value simply because the government (and God) says it does. ‘Fiat’ is the Latin word for “let it be done”. There’s no gold or silver backing it up anywhere, it’s value rises and falls based on the confidence people have in their government (and God). Even today, on the American dollar bill, right there in capital letters floating in the sky between the eagle and the all seeing eye; “In God We Trust” it says confidently. Without trust, money as a financial tool doesn’t work so it helps if you can enlist God’s endorsement as well as that of the Federal Reserve Bank. The Federal Reserve figures prominently in the design of the one dollar bill also, appearing overhead on the front side watching over George Washington.
Now we have virtual money, essentially digital data zooming around in the form of numbers inside a computer network connected to other computer networks keeping track of our credits and debits, our stock market purchases and our Amazon orders. You never see anything, only the quiet obsequiousness of the glowing computer screens. That ubiquitous plastic we carry around in our medicine pouch has become money, and with just a touch, in just a flash it’s done, the exchange, the magic has happened.
And the evolution hasn’t stopped there, crypto currency is the latest and most abstract form of money. It has created an entirely new class of currency, a new way of imagining it. By solving a complicated mathematical problem called an algorithm, value is assigned to a person (computer address) that discovered the answer. It’s really hard to do, takes alot of computing power, and the problems get exponentially harder as new crypto coins are mined, so if you can do it, you should get a reward right? That’s called a crypto coin or a bit coin or any one of the many crypto currencies out there. But the point is you can’t just create money willy nilly like the Federal Reserve Bank, it’s got to be difficult in order to have value. The network then records each transaction on an open source block chain which is a piece of encrypted code that is distributed to the millions of people with their millions of computers who are part of that block chain all over the world. No one knows who they are or how to reach them so no one (not even AI) can steal it (theoretically). Got it? It moves seamlessly, effortlessly from one computer to the other anywhere in the world with no bank fee and no oversight and with complete anonymity. The validity of the transaction is maintained by the independent, connected computers all holding the same code. Shared computing, creates the trust for cryptocurrency.
So that’s the history of money. We are really into money, and always have been ever since we invented it 12,000 years ago back in the Fertile Crescent to keep track of the grain coming and going from the royal granaries. It has fascinated and enchanted us as if it were imbued with magical powers. In 1519 Cortez landed on the shores of Mexico with 400 men, 6 ships and 88 horses. Within two years he had defeated the mighty Aztec empire, captured its emperor, Cuauhtemoc, and availed himself of all it’s riches. That story is well told elsewhere and it’s a fantastic one, but at some point in the saga one of the conquered nobles, probably just before he was about to get his head cut off, asked Cortez a question, “What is it that motivates you Spaniards?”. Cortez is said to have replied, “Spaniards have a disease and it is only cured by gold.” The disease has not been cured, however, instead it has become a world-wide pandemic.
“Money, it’s a gas, grab that cash with both hands and make a stash”, said Pink Floyd in their 1973 classic ’Money’. And even though it’s value as an exchange medium is unquestioned, money has one serious liability – you can never have enough of it. It’s very existence implies imbalance and in that way it has affected and infected our civilizations since the time of the Romans and before. Wars were fought for it (and still are). People get divorced, discarded and commit suicide for the lack of it. We build monuments to it: glorious business towers in the middle of our most prestigious cities and two blocks away the street people are living on park benches, discarded by society, demented. Wall Street, the IMF, the Council of Economic Advisers, the World Economic Forum are all top level organizations, they direct the economic currents of out time, they hold together the very fabric of our societies, they see everything in terms of money.
Money has its benefits. It’s a useful servant and has allowed us to grow rich and build empires but it also has a corrosive effect. While we exchange our money for goods and services we also codify our darker urges to control and dominate and accumulate as much money as we can. Not that many people even think about that when they’re shopping at the mall. It’s an enjoyable experience, seeing the shops, deciding on what to buy, making the currency exchange and thank you and walking out with a bag on your arm. But if you follow the flow of money all the way back thru the wholesalers and the dealers and the transporters and the original producers and everybody else who had a part to play in the manufacture of that item, it will end up somewhere that mother nature got robbed and everyone else got paid for robbing her.
Maybe we should re-evaluate our current from of currencies. Are there better ways of doing this? Are there, in fact, other forms of currency that can be used, in reality, not like some wacky urban bohemian poet trying to get a free latte for a poem at the cafe? It seems to me that ‘currency’ is something we imagine. We imagine it to be real, so it is real. What else could we imagine that’s not so prone to engendering greed? Are we afraid to imagine something like that? That might be the first question. I can imagine it and it’s a world very much like the one in which our Paleolithic ancestors lived. I can imagine a world where wisdom and stories are considered treasures and can be traded for goods and services in kind – usually other stories probably, but practical things too. What is a potlatch if not a great helluva party where you give things away to your friends to celebrate how rich you are?
Without money there would be no economy and no means of becoming wealthy and that is the point of it, isn’t it? To better oneself and prosper and isn’t that measured by money? ‘Economy’, is derived from two Greek words that translate as ’household’ and ‘manage’. We use the word economy to describe the production, distribution and consumption of goods as expressed in a currency, the ‘dollar value’. But the economy also implies the individuals, businesses, organizations and government agencies that maintain and guide the process. It also includes the raw materials we take from the earth (called resources in the Economics textbooks) to create the products that we buy and sell. Economy is also work, the work that people do (and horses and cows) and the money invested in those people, horses, cows, robots, what have you. These days machines do most of the work and we just manage them – in the advanced countries anyway. The dividing line between who lives in a first world country and who lives in a third world country is just that. How much labor is being done by human beings laboring away and how much is done by machines. This division of labor is the new caste system. By this standard are ye judged oh nations of the world. If you’ve got robots building electric cars you are first world, if you’re farming rice by hand or maybe with one buffalo in the Mekong delta then you are third world and poor.
If we were ‘managing our household’ in the original Greek meaning of it then that would be really good but in reality we are operating an economic system that is based on continuous growth (capitalism) while we live on a planet that has limited resources. The consequences of that situation are only now coming to bear. We’re going to have to find another planet to exploit or learn how to live sustainably on this one, otherwise the consequences are going to be catastrophic – extinction. That’s what happens when a biosphere is no longer able to sustain a species. It has happened over and over again in the history of the earth and it is happening right now for many species from frogs to insects to birds. And that’s just the animals, who knows what plants are disappearing. For sure the diversity of the biosphere is being reduced, genomes are being erased. Our safety net, our life line, the biosphere that supports us with its complex interaction of all the different organisms is being weakened, by us the humans. Man we are something else, up here on top of the food chain, looking out over everything. What we don’t realize is that we are dependent on all the organisms beneath us on the food chain to stay alive on top of the food chain. We’re not managing this well.
Inventing an economy that doesn’t depend on raping the planet is a project ripe for somebody to take on. Maybe someone like William Kamkwamba, a teenager from Malawi, who built a wind powered generator out of bicycle parts to provide electricity for his village and then got a scholarship to finish his education so he could return home one day and help bring electricity to all of Malawi. Or someone like Muhammad Yunus the Pulitzer Prize winning economist from Bangladesh who came up with the idea of micro-lending to empower people who couldn’t qualify for bank loans. With fifteen or twenty dollars they were able to start up their own businesses whether it was selling their garden produce in the market or weaving on their home loom or some other good idea. They just needed a little boost and the Grameen Bank, which he founded, has issued millions of loans to people (mostly women) to help them get started. Now they have enough money to raise their standard of living: send their kids to school or repair the leaky roof, hook up electricity and have a light and a blender. And not only in Bangladesh but in other countries as well, this system is working.
Just like electric cars and alternative energy took off slowly and built momentum, the benefits of the new economy will gradually become obvious to all. Even the rich capitalists need a stable world to operate in. Nobody wins if everybody loses. More and more people will experience the benefits of a new economy and like it. The great shutdown of 2020 brought more people out into the streets of my neighborhood with their kids and their dogs than I have ever seen before in my life. People were HAPPY. It was weird. One of my neighbors began putting their lawn chairs out by the street in the evening around 4 or 5 o’clock to watch their kids riding their bikes and to visit with their neighbors across the street who were also in their front yard sitting in their lawn chairs watching their kids playing in the street.
The way I was raised, nature was something to look at, not necessarily something to interact with. It was there but it had no bearing on our lives unless there was a storm or a tornado, then it was something to be feared.
About the closest we ever came to interacting with nature was our annual excursion into the countryside to see how the corn was doing. Up to your knees by the 4th of July was considered an acceptable height and indicative of a good crop in southern Michigan. I also remember my mother’s lone fashion advice as a kid – never wear green with blue. I accepted it as some kind of an absolute as I did all else at that age – the plan of salvation as described by the Baptist church, public school education with its heroic stories: Christopher Columbus discovering the New World, the taming of the American west, manifest destiny; and a code of ethics that forbade drinking, smoking, playing cards, going to the movies or dancing. My father was the minister of the small Baptist church in the small village where we lived and it was important to bear a witness to the community and a standard for the congregation which was also small.
It was not until many years later that I questioned my mom’s fashion advice. I noticed, in fact, that blue and green were everywhere – the trees against the sky for example as they are in my backyard and how beautiful that is. I discovered movies and marijuana and ecstatic disco dancing. I never did learn how to play cards but blue and green became my favorite color combination. I also discovered that nature is alive and interacting with us all the time. It has a presence that is both wonderful and uncompromising. It has wisdom and can teach us things. It’s not the brute force that needs to be tamed and manipulated like my puritan forbears believed. It is inside of us, it is part of us and we are part of it.
When I started this book I wanted to talk about ‘what is human’ and approach it from as many perspectives as I felt I was capable of. From whatever source I could wring some insight and bring it to bear was fair game. It’s Spring, once again, where I started this essay. I look over the past year and feel my own humanity as a timeline. The years pass slowly but the days pass more quickly and minutes slip by almost unnoticed and the seconds – well they become a moment where this lifetime is happening, where I can view the timeline from. This view is also a function of humanity, the most intimate one. To notice that I have a lifetime – that is to say both life and time – is the beginning and the end of the story. I don’t think anything can be added to that, maybe decorated just for fun, edited a little for the telling of the story, learned from and accepted with gratitude but there it is – a lifetime. How human is that?
The bog filter flows into the pool. The watercress is going to seed. The water runs over the gravel bed and through the roots of the water plants. It rises up from the bottom where I have laid the plastic pipes with holes drilled in them. It flows from the main pipe that reaches all the way back underwater to the pump at the other end of the pool. The pump receives water from the current at the surface spiraling down to meet it, flowing from the waterfall at the end of the bog filter. Two turtles and 10,000 fish are sustained here, the swamp plants, the pickerelweed, occasional frogs singing, the croaking toads; as to the microbial life in the water I can only guess, the algae in abundance and the waterfowl that come to fish, the raccoons. The doves that flutter down to drink here and to bathe should also be included and the wind that ministers to the broad leafed elephant ear and the trees above and the sunlight emitted from our nearby star 93 million miles away and the sky itself which is reflected in the pool as if it loves to gaze at itself and every ripple and every shimmer of light cast by those ripples belongs to the nature pool. And I belong to it too because I have loved it. I have jumped in it, I have consorted with it and taken its coolness into my bones. I have felt relief and pleasure and now that this story is done I feel gratitude for the gift it has been – my little backyard suburban nature pool.
Everything will change, as night becomes day and becomes night again. The stars will burn out and the universe itself will disappear one day, I suppose. But I do believe that true pleasure and appreciation does not disappear but endures forever somehow, somewhere in a nature pool of its own making and there I will dwell, quite at ease, quite comfortable, quite familiar.
The Aborigines of Australia make their environment into a brain that remembers by imbuing it with the spirit of their heroic ancestors and their adventures. This billabong is where Rainbow Serpent went into the ground, this pile of rocks is where Kangaroo and Dingo danced, this cliff is where Blue-tongue Lizard bit off a leaf from the Boab tree, chewed it up and spit it into the air where it became the stars could have been some of their myths and in this way they remember and know where to go and what to do. They call it the dreamtime. How else could you live in a huge desert, hundreds of square miles, with an average rainfall of 8″ a year and remember all the details of where water could be found and where the animals might be. They had no writing, only memory and art: rock paintings, body tattoos, the carved stick, stories, dance.
Nowadays we have iphones and convenience stores and roadways and airports but we rarely notice our surroundings. It’s just a set where the action happens, not even a place. It doesn’t even have a story it’s just something we arrange. We dream at night of strange things, unbelievable events, impossible connections, maybe beautiful maybe weird and then wake up to daytime and routine and some old same old.
The book I’m writing, the Ancient Book of Magic Secrets, is about what is human. Since we are one we would be the ones to know right? And we have been for 300,000 years or so, most of that time living more like the Australian Aborigines than modern day urban cave dwellers, I mean apartment dwellers. What a range of experiences, what a palette of colors we have to express ourselves with. Whatever it is to be human, it is certainly some sort of celebration. The cuisine, my god, the gods, my lord, the art, the poetry, the architecture, wow. It all falls down but what a building process. We have machines that look like the mythic dragons of old harnessed to our will and made to dig up the earth and pile up stones and structural steel as high as the sky.
Lovely and benign we appear, diminutive among the beasts of the earth and yet we seem intent on expressing something unique, something that has never been done before. And after that, something else that has never been done before either. Let’s go and walk on the Moon for it says in the scriptures that Earth is given to man but the Heavens belong only to God. Hell let’s go to Mars. The first one to get there will be famous. Like Lindbergh, like Armstrong, like Babe Ruth, like our heroic ancestors who walked all the way from Siberia across the Bering Straits and found a new land, a new continent actually that had been separated from the rest of the world since Pangea broke up a xillion years ago.
We are the brave hearts. Or this is what we tell ourselves in our stories. The animals have no need for bravery, they live with courage everyday facing the uncertainty and danger of the food chain. We need reminders. Maybe that’s who we are, those who remind. Hey, look at this oh humans! Strip away everything except for what can’t be removed. Find the core, find the undeniable essence, feel being alive. Maybe that’s human.
Let me say a few words about cell biology. We have trillions of these little buggers in our body, each one about 5 times smaller than the smallest point you could make on a piece of paper with a sharp pencil. They are all talking to each other and they are all sharing a common purpose, homeostasis, and at any given moment any one of those human cells are perfectly capable of performing 2-3,000 different chemical reactions within the jelly-like cytoplasm of its interior and in the organelles floating around in there and in the nucleus inside its permeable sheath.
A cell functions much like a tiny nation or maybe it’s our nations that function like a living cell – having replicated that template in the world we live in. It has a cell membrane with molecular gates that permit passage of certain molecules in and out but don’t allow the passage of others – analogous to borders and immigration control. The nucleus is the capital, it houses the genetic code, the rules of the land, written on ribbons of nucleic acid and sends them out to the rest of the cell to tell them how things are to be done. It also functions as a maternity ward where new cells are born. In there the double helix spirals of DNA unfurl and unzip and create two separate but identical copies of itself rails of the DNA ladder. Proteins then zip them back together and voila a new DNA molecule, spell checked and fact checked by other mechanisms to make sure it’s accurate, but not too accurate, a certain amount of digression is needed for mutations and evolutionary change. That’s how the citizens adapt and evolve. Then there’s the mitochondria – they are like tiny power plants that manufacture energy for the cell to use. The energy comes in the form of a molecule called ATP which is distributed throughout the cell so it can do whatever it has to do and to cells nearby through the blood supply so they can do whatever they have to do -= somewhat like the electrical lines that criss cross our cities and give us the energy we need to run the blender and watch TV. Ribosomes float around in the cytoplasm and operate like factories translating the genetic information of the DNA into useful protein molecules. The proteins are responsible for much of the work that’s done in a cell like replicating DNA. Golgi bodies put the finishing touches on the proteins and lipids, customize them to suit their end purpose and package them up for delivery to their destination. The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is like a interstate highway system that delivers them and vesicles are like the cars that drive on it transporting the manufactured products. They even deliver overseas. Inside the ER, ribosomes match up with amino acids that they need to build the proteins, kind of like a shopping mall. Then there’s lysosomes, an organelle that functions like the city garbage truck driving up and down the alleyways picking the detritus of our urban lifestyle; they grab worn out pieces of cell structure and dispose of them. Some cells have antenna-like objects on their surface to pick up chemical messages from other cells like the cell phone towers that dot our landscape.
All this is going on continuously and automatically, driven by the intelligence inside the cell. We are a collection of cells living a cellular life style within a larger cell – the planetary biosphere called planet earth which is itself part of the ‘solar system’ which itself is part of a spiraling galactic formation, which is itself one tiny cell in something we call the universe. That puts a human being somewhere in the middle of the scale between the universe and the atomic world that makes up the molecules of our cells. An interesting place to be. A room with a view and what a view.