Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: Celtic Wisdom for Reawakening to What Our Souls Know and Healing the World
J. Philip Newell
HarperOne (July 6, 2021), 285 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $21.28
I can’t think of anyone better qualified to write about Celtic spirituality than J. Philip Newell. He was, after all, once the director of the retreat center on Iona, and continued (in pre-pandemic times at least) to lead pilgrimages there. Newell does an impressive job of discussing several individuals who were instrumental in furthering the cause of Celtic Christianity.
The author begins his survey with Pelagius, who was a contemporary of St. Augustine. Pelagius believed that human nature was not inherently sinful. He also believed in teaching women. For this and other (in the church’s eyes) heresies, the Roman church condemned him more than once. Newell then discusses St. Brigid. Brigid, of course, has pagan routes. Once source said that she was a Druidess. The Celtic Church, however, heartily embraced her.
Newell goes on to discuss John Scotus Eriugena, who lived in the ninth century. Eriugena saw the sacred in all the natural world. The author then gives a treatment of the life of Alexander John Scott, a Scottish minister of the nineteenth century. Scott’s teachings got him into trouble and very little of his writing has come down to us. Newell, however, believed that Scott’s teachings were important and chose to write his doctoral dissertation about him. While his advisers were dubious Newell was able to resurrect enough source material from contemporary sources to resurrect his legacy.
The author discusses both John Muir and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Muir, the son of a Calvinist preacher, had a spiritual side we rarely hear about. Teilhard believed the divine existed in the material. I had often seen him referred to as a paleontologist, but Newell states that the church sent him into the field because of his writing. (Other sources, perhaps closer to Teilhard, say his paleontological work influenced his thought.) The Catholic Church banned his writing, but he signed all of his books over to his literary assistant who was able to publish them after his death. Newell also writes about George MacLeod, who was responsible for the modern incarnation of Iona as a retreat center. Clearly Newell has a great fondness for MacLeod. Finally, Newell devotes a chapter to the poet Kenneth White, who had a Celtic mentality and wrote poems about the sacred journey.
Newell devotes a chapter to the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Celtic poems and songs. A man named Alexander Carmichael, who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gets credit for compiling many of these. These pieces were originally written in Gaelic, and Newell writes that the Gaelic spoken in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland is related to Sanskrit. He says that one can find in these works the same sense of the sacred found in Sanskrit poetry.
Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul is an excellent introduction to or review of Celtic Christianity.
The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas
Crown (February 15, 2022), 447 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $20.99
The subtitle of this book is misleading. The Quiet Before is much more about the variety of ways in which ideas have been communicated than it is about their origins. And certainly not all the ideas Beckerman discusses are radical. Nor are the chapter titles helpful. Given that, I kept my own notes about the means of communication he discusses in each chapter. I also don’t see a “quiet before” in his various narratives. Nonetheless, Beckerman has an intriguing thesis and he delivers some interesting material.
After an introduction in which he makes a cogent argument as to how social media is not conducive to civil and productive discourse, his first chapter discusses the power of the old-fashioned letter. Beckerman describes how Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc used the letter in the seventeenth century to pursue his scientific ends. His goal was to make the measurement of longitude more accurate. To do so he needed multiple people in a variety of locations to take measurements of a lunar eclipse. He wrote letters to encourage various individuals to make those observations, and his efforts did largely make the measurement of longitude far more accurate.
Beckerman goes on to discuss the petition. An activist named Feargus O’Connor in the nineteenth century tried to use petitions, mostly without success, to convince the British Parliament to enact laws to ease the burden on laborers. In the early twentieth century a woman named Mina Loy involved herself with a group of thinkers who called themselves “futurists.” They used the manifesto to express their ideas, and sometimes developed competing manifestos. In West Africa locals opposed to how the British were treating the natives set up newspapers to express their ideas. In the former Soviet Union dissidents employed a methodology known as “samizdat.” Beckerman says that this was a contraction of the words “self” and “publishing.” This was a means of distributing censored material, usually with typewriter and carbon paper. The author then moves on to the late 1980s when young women started creating ‘zines with scissors and glue sticks. They copied them on photocopiers and distributed them by postal mail.
The author then inserts a section entitled “Interlude” in which he discusses Stewart Brand’s creation of the WELL: the Whole Earth ‘lectronic Link, one of the first computer bulletin boards. Those were the days in which you had to own a modem and dial in to the WELL’s servers.
From here Beckerman moves into the computer age, discussing how protesters created Facebook pages to promote their movement and how members of the alt-right used chat rooms on various platforms to further their agenda. He describes how a virologist named Eva Lee was at the center of an ongoing discussion made up of doctors, scientists, and healthcare professionals during the early days of the COVID pandemic. They continued their conversions via email and a Twitter Direct Message (DM) group while the occupant of the White House at the time downplayed the whole matter. Finally, Beckerman discusses how activists use hashtags to promote social causes.
The tale does not promise us a happy ending. As Beckerman told us from the start, social media is not conducive to productive discussion or lasting change. But perhaps in knowing that we can find workable solutions.
Around the World in 80 Books
Penguin Press (November 16, 2021), 432 pages
Kindle edition $15.99, Amazon hardcover $21.78
David Damrosch had big plans for this book. In the tradition of Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s fictional hero in the novel Around the World in 80 Days, Damrosch planned to make a world tour, giving lectures and meeting people, basing the trip on eighty books. Then the pandemic hit. Conferences were canceled and travel was restricted. So instead he set up a web site where he discussed a different book each day, five days a week. The web site became this book.
To Damrosch’s credit he does not purport to be offering any sort of canon. He makes clear that the selections are his own, and that someone else would have made a different set of choices.
Like Phileas Fogg, Damrosch starts in London, and like Fogg he travels east to west. In London he discusses Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Interestingly, his selection for Doyle is The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I still have the copy of that two-volume set that I got when I was a youngster.
From London he travels, as it were, to Paris and then to Kraków, Poland. From there he visits Venice, where he offers an interesting selection: the writing of Marco Polo, Dante with his Divine Comedy, and Boccaccio’s Decameron (a book that has resonance for today with its tales told in a plague world). He also writes about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but before that discusses By Its Cover written by contemporary expatriate mystery writer Donna Leon.
I won’t mention all of his other stops, but Damrosch covers the Middle East, Africa, China, and Japan. From Japan he moves on to South America, where he interestingly writes about Candide by Voltaire and Utopia by Thomas More, two European authors. His rationale is that the action in these two books took place in South America. In his discussion of Candide, Damrosch oddly fails to mention Dr. Pangloss, whose optimistic philosophy is central to the book’s theme. At the book’s end, where the characters choose to settle down in their own corner of the world, they say, you will recall, “We must cultivate our garden.” Damrosch italicizes “our,” saying “Our life’s path… is a social rather than an individualistic imperative.” I haven’t read Candide since high school, but I have always clearly taken that phrase to say that we should stop trying to fix the larger world and do what we can with our own small space. It is an individual, nuclear family, or small group endeavor, not a social expectation.
Damrosch then goes on to Mexico and the Antilles in the Caribbean. From there he makes a big jump to Bar Harbor, Maine where he spent his earliest years and then to New York City where his family moved while he was still in elementary school.
In the New York chapter he writes about one of my favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Damrosch describes how L’Engle was living in New York at the time and he not only met her, but she personally gave him a copy of the book. Damrosch and I are the same age and I admit to being jealous.
Although he includes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the New York section, Damrosch writes, “Our own imagined journey reaches its end, as we return to England with our eightieth book.” A good place to finish the journey, indeed.
There are omissions in Damrosch’s list from my perspective. He completely ignores California, the Midwest, and the American South. There are certainly many West Coast authors he could have included, and what about Mark Twain in the Midwest (I still have The Complete Novels of Mark Twain from my childhood) and Faulkner for the South?
Still, Damrosch delivers an engaging survey and many of his eighty books are no doubt well worth reading or re-reading.
When it comes to fixing dinner, I am the primary cook. There is no good reason for that other than that I had that role when Terry was working as a permit runner and that division of labor has continued after her job ended due to the pandemic.
Still, Terry is a great cook, and I’m always happy to have her fix dinner. There is one instance in particular when I am pleased to be her sous-chef. That is on our surf and turf Saturday nights. On surf and turf Saturday Terry has steak and I have halibut. Our nephew Eric says we should call it his and hers, as the phrase surf and turf implies both the seafood and the beef on the same plate. Nonetheless we persist with our terminology.
On these nights I take responsibility for the side dish: either baked potatoes or potatoes au gratin (from a package, not from scratch). I also prepare the baste mixture for my halibut, set out the grill pan and other necessary utensils, and then step away from the kitchen. I leave it to Terry to take over. She grills her steak the way she wants it and always does a superb job with my halibut.
Those are some of my favorite Saturday evenings.
Jackson Crawford offers an interesting and in-depth discussion of Norse mythology in this twenty-four lecture course. He discusses the sources we have and explains how, although they were written down after Scandinavia became Christian, the stories are pagan in their origin. He primarily draws from two sources: the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. Both were originally written in the 1200s.
Crawford discusses the two main families of gods, which he refers to as the gods and the anti-gods. The latter group is often translated as giants, but Crawford states that is somewhat misleading as they were for the most part equal, it simply being that one group was “good” and another “bad.” Even that is not clear cut, as amongst the gods many of them had one parent who was an anti-god.
He discusses Odin vs. Thor and explains that even though Odin was the head of the gods, Thor was by far more popular. This is because Thor was representative of the common person while Odin represented the aristocracy. Crawford is careful to point out how popular culture has embellished and altered the original myths. For example, sources such as the Marvel Universe have shaped Loki into a devious trickster. While Loki did in fact cause a good deal of chaos and disruption, he wasn’t especially devious. It was just that in the “dream logic” of myth, as Crawford calls it, people just go off and do things without thinking them through.
In addition to discussing the gods, Crawford spends a lot of time describing the legends of human heroes, some of which were very detailed and complicated, with lots of murder and betrayal. Of course, the gods involve themselves with the humans. Odin was said to have given up one eye in order to obtain wisdom, so when an old man with one eye shows up in a story we know who that is.
Crawford clarifies just who the Valkyries were, Richard Wagner having greatly distorted the original story. They were human women who were given supernatural powers, including the ability to fly. Their sole role was to carry fallen warriors to Valhalla for Odin. If one got married or otherwise gave up her role, she lost her powers. Though the Valkyries were human, their leader was the goddess Freyja. Crawford notes women played a much more active role in Norse mythology than they did in other medieval literature, such as the Arthurian cycle. There are even legends of shieldmaidens, human women who became warriors. We have no evidence for such women in Viking history, but they show up in legend.
There is a strong sense in Norse mythology that both gods and humans are subject to fate. Early in the cycle a seer tells Odin how the world will end, in a battle called Ragnarok, essentially meaning “the fates of the gods.” In fact, Valhalla was not some glorious paradise, but where fallen warriors prepared for that last, hopeless, preordained battle. This is why characters in these stories routinely walked into futile situations. They knew it was fate and they had no ability to avoid it.
As grim as much of it is, there is some fascinating stuff here and Jackson Crawford maintains a high standard of scholarship in presenting this material.
Terry and I have had a specific kind of breakfast routine during the cooler months of the year. On Mondays we have blueberry pancakes and on Tuesdays we have oatmeal. Wednesdays through Fridays we eat cold cereal. For oatmeal days, Terry starts the oatmeal in the slow cooker on Monday night so it’s ready when we get up on Tuesday.
Terry was reading the Hints From Heloise column in the newspaper one day recently and came across a submission from a woman who frequently hosts overnight guests, for whom she wants to provide breakfast on their own schedule. She calls it her Crockpot Breakfast Apple Cobbler. Heloise reproduced the recipe as follows:
4 tart apples, peeled and chopped
¼ cup brown sugar
1 cup granola cereal
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter
Dash of cinnamon
Combine all ingredients in crockpot and cook on low overnight. Serve with a little milk.
Terry thought that might be a nice alternative to oatmeal on a Tuesday. We rarely have granola on hand so we picked some up from the bulk bins at Sprouts, along with a couple of Granny Smith apples. She put everything together on a recent Monday night, leaving out the brown sugar as she felt the granola was sweet enough.
We were both delighted. We liked it so much that this Tuesday we used a different variety of granola and frozen peaches. Excellent as well.
A really nice breakfast-time change.
I am delighted that the baseball impasse is behind us. I wasn’t sure what I would have done for diversion and escape from all the ills of the world after the NCAA Women’s tournament had ended. Go Stanford women! (Who are the #1 seed in the Spokane region.) But we will have baseball after all. That is a Good Thing.
Some of the coming changes, however, I am not sure that I like. Bob Nightingale, who writes about baseball for USA Today, wrote on Twitter:
Traditional baseball is also back:
No more ghost runners in extra innings.
No more 7-inning doubleheaders
He’s right about the two specifics, but I’m not sure that I agree with him that traditional baseball is back.
First, we now have the designated hitter in the National League. Please, no. Say it ain’t so, Joe. But there it is. The DH makes the game simpler and eliminates a lot of the strategy that has long made the National League game more interesting than its American League counterpart. But then it also provides employment for aging hitters who are no longer as agile on defense as they once were.
There will now be twelve teams in the playoffs. I’m indifferent to that.
Ads are allowed on jerseys and helmets. Not a good thing.
One more rule change: A player can be optioned to the minors only five times during the season. Beyond that they would have to clear waivers. That makes sense. Last year the Dodgers made so many roster moves that they could have set up a regularly scheduled shuttle back and forth to their Triple A affiliate in Oklahoma City.
Bigger changes are possible for 2023. A committee made up of four active players, six members appointed by MLB, and one umpire will consider several changes. (Which means, effectively, that MLB can impose any of the changes since they have a majority on the committee.) Changes under consideration include:
- Larger base size. I don’t believe I like that. It will probably mean more runs in a game and fewer outs on close plays. But then again, it could increase stolen base attempts, which would be fun.
- A pitch clock. I definitely don’t like that. I have seen it in women’s college softball and I find it distracting.
- Eliminating the shift. Having the third baseman on the grass between first and second base just isn’t right. So yeah, I think I like that change.
- An electronic balls and strikes system. Are you kidding me?
Of course, there has always been change in baseball. The designated hitter was not instituted until 1973. The late, superb Oakland Athletics broadcaster Bill King once mentioned that there was a time in the late 1800s when the third base coach could tackle a runner to get him to hold at third.
What’s important, details aside, is that baseball is back. That means a lot.
Life Between the Tides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 22, 2022), 373 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $27.00
I have known about tide pools since I was in elementary school. They showed up in films we watched in class, in books, and probably on television. But growing up in Southern California there are few places where a youngster can experience a tide pool. It was only as an adult that I got to see tide pools up close when I visited Anchor Bay on the Northern California coast. I loved having the opportunity to wander among the tide pools and observe the sea creatures. (And I did bring home a starfish on more than one occasion.)
Loren Eiseley wrote about life in nature and about starfish. I suppose I was looking for a Loren Eiseley-esque experience in reading this book, and I suppose I should have read the description of the book more carefully. Though there were some Eiseley moments, that really isn’t what the book is about.
Nicolson, who is known more for writing about human history than about natural history, owns property on the coast of Scotland and got permission from the appropriate authorities to dig tide pools where none were before. He writes about the prawns he found in his tide pool and discusses how prawns cope with threats. He then discusses the crabs he found and delves in detail into the mating habits of crabs. There’s some real crab porn here.
From here he reviews the work of a naturalist named Robert Treat Paine III. This is of interest because Robert Paine is a descendant of Thomas Paine of Revolutionary War fame. Another scientist, Thomas O. Paine was also a descendant of the original Thomas Paine and was administrator of NASA when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. I mention this because I shared an apartment with his son George during my Claremont cockroach days after graduating from Pitzer College. But I digress.
Nicholson discusses Robert Paine’s work in demonstrating the huge effect removing a single species has on the ecology of a tidal environment. From here Nicholson goes on to discuss geology, then folklore, then philosophy. He ends the book by describing digging a final tidepool.
There were some interesting passages in Life Between the Tides, but it was not the book I was hoping to read.
Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas
by Jennifer Raff
Twelve (February 8, 2022), 369 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $14.99
In Origin Jennifer Raff sets out to dispel some of the misconceptions about the origins of humans in the Americas and to describe some of the results of the most recent genetic research on the subject.
A central component of the study of humans in the Americas is the Clovis people, named for the town in New Mexico near which their arrowheads were found. They were believed to be in the Americas around eleven thousand years ago. Some old-school archaeologists and anthropologists insist that these were the earliest peoples in the Americas and that sites believed to be earlier are not to be trusted. Raff disagrees, and her irritation with this approach shows. She tells us that humans were in the Americas fourteen to fifteen thousand years ago by the most conservative estimates, and perhaps as much as thirty thousand years ago, depending on the evidence you accept.
Raff is a geneticist and her work along with that of her colleagues takes a much more nuanced view than that of some traditional archaeologists. Their work shows at least four distinct genetic groups who migrated to the Americas at different times.
The author also uses the latest research to debunk other preconceived notions. Disputing the long-held belief that there was a Bering land bridge over which people migrated from Siberia to the Americas, she shows how more recent research suggests that there was a land mass called Beringia in the region where people lived, hunted, fished, and had families for many centuries. It was only later that they moved on to the Americas. She makes the case that some could have made the trip by sea rather than by land.
Although a geneticist, Raff has the utmost respect for her archaeologist colleagues and spends a lot of time discussing the archaeological evidence. She visits one archaeological site, a cave in South America, to see the first-hand the work her colleagues were doing. She understands the criticality of preserving the integrity of such sites. She writes:
Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time. (And vandals, some of my father’s friends added, darkly—the gallows humor of long-suffering veterans of cave conservation.)
She discusses her work at a site in Alaska as a consulting geneticist, removing genetic material for study from ancient people whose remains were being moved to safer ground in advance of rising sea levels.
Raff describes in detail the methodology she and her colleagues use to extract ancient genetic material in order to prevent contamination. There are several layers and levels of safety and decontamination she must go through before starting work on a sample. It made me think of the decontamination scene in the movie version of The Andromeda Strain. Such precautions are well-justified, however. Another book I read describes how the first scientist who attempted to sequence a Neanderthal genome ended up with results that were mostly his own genes.
The author is adamant on one issue: respecting the wishes of Indigenous people. She firmly believes that scientists should not study the genes of the remains of Indigenous people without the consent of present-day descendants. While she describes incidents of cooperation between scientists and Native Americans, she also pointedly recounts those times when science did not respect the wishes of the people and engendered their mistrust.
If you are interested in the latest work on human migration to the Americas, Origin is a great place to start.
Terry bought a bottle of port early in the winter for us to enjoy on a cold, wet Saturday evening, but we didn’t have one of those until last Saturday. I had been tasked with getting chocolate at the grocery store on Thursday, but I failed at that task: it wasn’t on my shopping list. Terry said that she would head over to RiteAid to get our chocolate, but I suggested it would be just as easy for her to go to See’s Candy. She did and brought home a marvelous box.
So on Saturday we had a marvelous port and See’s chocolate candy while we sat in front of our artificial electric fireplace. It made us think of all the evenings we spent in the Hummingbird Room at the late, lamented Goose & Turrets bed and breakfast in Montara, California, north of Half Moon Bay and south of Pacifica. We would sip our port and eat the chocolate truffles that the proprietor Emily made for us while sitting in front of the gas fireplace, listening to the sound of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. We knew that we would have a superb breakfast in the morning that Emily and her husband Raymond would make for us and the other guests.
Those were wonderful days. We miss them.