Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Stories of Earth Keeping, Gary Snyder and Ellen Davis

The Sanctified Life
ink, gesso on text, 2000
Dan Callis

Today I listened to a really interesting podcast with Gary Snyder: poet, environmental activist, and Zen Buddhist. Over all the Snyder interview was a good overview of the last 50 years of American Environmentalism punctuated by Snyder's lyrical, free verse poems. I did take issue with one pint Snyder makes which is a small one within his interview but it is a theme that comes up again and again in the Deep Ecology writings.
Snyder talks about how his Buddhist world-view informs his practice as an earth keeper. He states that the first ethical precept of Buddhism is to "cause the least possible harm." He then equates that to the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments: "Thou shall not kill." He then states, "but in the Abrahamic tradition, ie, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, thou shall not kill applies only to human beings and there is absolutely no concern for the rest of life." He strongly implies that these traditions have a deep responsibility for our current environmental problems.
I am mindful of the scholarship of Dr. Ellen Davis, Hebrew scholar and Old Testament professor from Yale, now at Duke Divinity School. She has been writing on this issue for years and more recently she has been collaborating with Wendell Berry on issues of environmental stewardship and earth keeping grounded within faith traditions. She states, "According to the Judeo-Christian scriptures we are part of an intricate web of physical relations that are at the same time moral relations." "We are placed creatures, we are placed within an order." She speaks of the first book of the Hebrew bible, the Tanoak, the book of Genesis. According to Davis the narrative account of the fifth day of creation God offered a blessing to the creatures of the sky and the creatures of the sea. It was the very same blessing God offered the created man of the sixth day: the same. She states, "So we are living amongst creatures that are blessed before we even come into existence." According to the Genesis account, Davis says, "Humans occupy a special place of power, privilege and responsibility in the created world...a condition of "skilled mastery" (the Hebrew interpretation of Gen. 1:26) It is set by the precondition of the blessings of the creatures of the sea and the sky. The human can not undo the prior blessing of the creatures by God." "How we see the world is how we value it", Davis says, "and according to the Hebrew Scriptures, "God saw the world and said it was good." In the Christian New Testament John 3:16 states, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son...God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." The world. All of it.
Let us not so easily place blame based on an impoverished understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures where the care of the land is considered a sacred task. Let us admit more quickly that we have more then likely arrived at our current dilemmas from a post-enlightenment, materialistic form of consumerism then by our religious traditions. If I am honest with myself it is my own selfish appetite that brings me to this place of environmental mourning not some ancient religious narrative. Perhaps it is in these narratives we can find some applicable wisdom for a more sustainable way of living.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In Praise of Burton Blatt

wait, graphite on paper, 1989, D. Callis

I was going through some files and came across a paper I presented on the work of educator and reformer, Dr. Burton Blatt. In 1965 Burton Blatt, then director of the Division of Special Education at Syracuse University and his friend, photographer Fred Kaplan, visited a number of east coast residential facilities for the developmentally disabled and documented the visits with a small camera mounted in Kaplan's belt buckle. the images were first published in Look magazine and later as a book entitled Christmas in Purgatory. As Kaplan's images profoundly disrupted the psyche of the American imagination with visuals that aggressively denied the mid-century believe in the goodness and compassionate care of our medical and education institutions, particularly as it provided for our most vulnerable citizens.

Blatt spent the rest of his professional career reconstructing an American imagination that concerned the developmentally disabled using his skills as an educator, writer, poet and Catholic layman. As an educator he served on several presidential committees on educational reform, he is credited with establishing most of what we now teach in our universities concerning educational mainstreaming. As a Catholic writer and poet he worked from a cosmology that could confront evil and suffering and at the same time locate grace, celebration and profound joy. In his novel, The Revolt of the Idiots, he asks us to imagine a peaceful revolt in which disabled residents shed their label of patient and take on the role of citizen, demanding their civil rights and simply walking out of the institution and into a small town which had realized the value and worth of these odd people. In the story one of the townsman argues with compassion, "each man's life means everything, or it means nothing. He is the only man or no man exists. Each life and each death is a profound event, or no life - not a single life ever - was of any consequence. Everything matters or nothing has mattered.

In another reforming work entitled, Exodus from Pandemonium he recounts his participation on an inspection team. The team has just toured one of the back wards of a state institution for the long term care of the mental retarded. He recounts, "I have seen it all too many times. A gust of fresh, clean air rushed around us as the front door was unlocked, but the relief at regaining my freedom was shattered by a scream from above, "Good-bye, you fuckin doctors!" A shirtless man, his face twisted in anger, was waving his fist from the second-story window. I smiled and waved to him. He waved back and, as anger gave way to a smile, he waved again, this time with open palm. This was Building 8, a "custodial dormitory" for people the institution has labeled "severely mentally retarded" and for people who label their keepers "you funckin doctors."