VISITATION UNDER THE ARBOR
HOW THIS BOOK BEGAN
VISITATION UNDER THE ARBOR?
HOW THIS BOOK BEGAN
It was a perfect summer evening in Seattle. There was a full moon. That was the pretext for inviting friends over for dinner. We ate on the back deck, under the grape arbor. We looked at the moon, low in the southeast, a few clouds slowly passing in front of it. “That is really a big moon!” we kept saying. As host I raised my glass and gave the toast: “People talk about the good old days. Well, I’m here to tell you that we are living the good old days right now.” There was applause. We ate more. We talked. More friends arrived. As I reflect back on it now, I have to say everything about it had a dreamlike quality.
I like to eat. I was a bachelor back then. So I learned how to cook. It is empowering for a bachelor to know how to cook for himself. That day I cooked up my favorite recipes. A lot of the food I served was food I grew in my gardens, front and back. At the time I was growing mustard, collard, kale, cabbage, onions, leeks, garlic, chives, mint, evening primrose, nasturtium, borage, asparagus, parsley, stinging nettle, bok choy, fava beans, peas, pole beans, new potatoes, and fennel. I was also growing fruit: raspberry, fig, prune plum, mulberry, apple, kiwi, peach, pear, and many grape varieties. I get a lot of pleasure from my garden. I find it amazing that most people grow nothing edible in their yards, that most people think of food only as something that comes from a grocery store. My guests must have liked my food because they ate a lot of it.
Since 1981 I have been a vegan vegetarian, which means I eat no meat, no milk, and no eggs. I eat what I call a “green diet” of raw and cooked greens, sprouted and cooked grains, sprouted bread, fruit, nuts, wild growing greens such as dandelion flowers, and flax. Flax is very important if you eat a green diet. It is one of the few plants rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids.
Health was my first reason to adopt this strange diet and “eat green.” My father had heart trouble beginning in his 40s. I had been a distance runner in high school, a swimmer in college, and a duffer-and-hacker tennis player all along, but at age 29 I began feeling angina pains in my left shoulder. I had blood pressure of 130/90. I was worried. My mind opened to other dietary possibilities. I cut down on animal fat. I learned how to cook plant-based food and found it tasty and satisfying.
That night on the back deck we ate green.
This is a good place to interject that when it gets to be summer here in Seattle, it’s a summer you can enjoy. A Mediterranean temperature inversion sets in. For four months it’s like the Riviera, with temperatures getting up into the 70s, edging into the 80s sometimes, and with very little rain—too little to suit me and my garden. It is far different from the bottom lands of the Mississippi River delta where I grew up, near Promised Land, Mississippi County, Arkansas, a crossroads on US Route 61. Promised Land had a general store, a gas station, a cotton gin, and several fundamentalist churches. People back there are friendly, but the physical environment is not: You bake in summer and freeze in winter. The insects will eat you alive if you don’t keep moving. And to understand the place you have to remember that only 140 years ago the county was a quarter slave, and the other three-quarters thought that was the way god meant things to be.
Highway 61 was the music road—from New Orleans to Memphis to St. Louis to Chicago. My dad played big band and Dixieland music up and down Highway 61 during the Depression. He was drummer, singer, and song writer. I always have a melody going through my head, and I thank Dad for that. Maybe the South is so rich in musical creativity because it is so rich in songbirds. They sing a concerto each morning. Some sing all through the night. The mockingbird is phenomenal; it sings a dozen other species’ songs, one right after another.
I moved west in the 1970s, first to British Columbia and then to Washington. I love the mild, rainy winters and the temperate summers, so temperate that homes are not air conditioned. I enjoy sleeping with my windows open, breathing the delicious air.
It’s time to get back to my tale of what happened that summer night: A tall, slim woman arrived. Deborah was her name. “Are you hungry?” I asked. She nodded vigorously. I gave her a bowl of my lentil soup. She slurped as we talked. I assumed she was a friend of a friend.
She looked like the woman on the cover of this book, except her face wasn’t abstract and distorted. The different expressions you see in the face on the cover are a collage of different expressions Deborah displayed at various times as we talked. Well, we talked and talked—just the two of us.
We talked about all the things that were getting worse: The sea level rising three feet by the end of the century. The population rising a billion per decade. Crime on the rise. Road rage. Weapons getting more computerized and deadly. Wars going on somewhere all the time. Monopolization in business and the media. A third of all people going hungry and living without safe drinking water and good sewers. A third of all people infected with TB. An economic system that enriches the few, works the middle class overtime, and leaves the rest impoverished, with women and children suffering most.
“And the amazing thing about all of this is that most people consider this to be normal!” she exclaimed. “Why, the rich think it’s the best it’s ever been!”
We also talked about the positive signs: The Cold War over and the growing likelihood that we might not blow ourselves up after all. Slavery—although alive under other names—illegal everywhere. Racism—although common in private—now repudiated officially. Women recovering their rights after 6,000 years of suppression. Child labor banned in most countries. The spread of electoral democracy. The number of enlightened and peace loving people greater than ever before. It was a heavy discussion.
“Can I have more? she asked.
“How about some stir fry with spicy peanut sauce?”
“Good.” Vegans enjoy food more, partly because they can eat more. When meat eaters finish eating, they seem to lose all interest in food, even to be disgusted by food. Vegans can always eat a little more. I came back with a plate for each of us.
We talked with our mouths full. I not only tolerate, I encourage people to talk with their mouths full—especially when it’s my food. Deborah was wearing baggy, men’s corduroy pants with pleats, and a vest over a plaid work shirt. She wasn’t wearing any makeup. She was tall, skinny, and flat-chested.
I became absorbed in our conversation and pretty much oblivious of others. As we talked I sat back in my chair and took it all in. I let her talk. She apparently felt she had found a kindred spirit, because she expressed her feelings freely. “Who,” I wondered to myself, “is this outspoken and self-confident woman?”
At times she showed disappointment, like a mother who is unhappy that her children have grown up to be criminals. At other times she was defiantly confident. She made me think of the Australian pediatrician, Helen Caldicott, the founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Helen believes that the only thing preventing us from civilizing the world is our lack of faith in our ability to do so.
“We have been deceived,” Deborah said. “We take the credit card offers and get sucked into debt, and then we have to work non-stop. We have no time for politics.”
“And no time to pay attention to what the big corporations are doing,” I added.
“And not enough time for the people we love.”
“Then why are you optimistic?” I asked. “Are you are optimistic?”
“In the long term, yes, I am optimistic, because there are more people than ever working for peace.”
“Maybe we should be out organizing all the time—instead of having a party,” I suggested.
“No, we have to know happiness to spread happiness. We have to rely on good people in other time zones to carry out our calling while we rest.”
Calling! I liked her use of the word.
“If I hear you right, I think you’re saying things are getting better and worse at the same time.”
“Well, how is it going to turn out?”
She took a deep breath. “They have all the money, but we have all the good ideas. Of course we are going to win. Calculate the odds: Love and peace are just more attractive than violence. Even a villain had a mother who loved him.”
“But why is it taking so long?” I asked.
She took a deep breath. “Because violence is hard to stop once it gets started. Father beats son. Son beats up other kids in the neighborhood. They all grow up to beat their sons and wives. We breed dictators who have a crazy need to beat up the world. Plus, we are addicted to growth. There’s a fortune to be made building weapons. We need a war every few years to test the weapons and use up the old inventory. Then we have to restock the inventory with new and better weapons. Sons need to prove to the dads who beat them that they are ‘tough,’ so off they go to war.”
“Almost demonic,” I said.
“It is demonic. We are descended from a long line of victims. We store the violence down in our reptilian cortex. There it lies quietly within us until something sets off the demon within.”
“Everyone has an anger management problem to some extent,” I added. “How do you undo something like that?”
“Moral education. People are much more likely to behave ethically if they study ethics.”
“How do you teach ethics?” I asked.
“You are a lawyer, right?” I nodded. “You are obligated to do pro bono work, right?” I nodded. “Okay, I’ll give you an assignment, Mr. Lawyer. Start with one very basic ethical point and build on it. Start a movement to teach people not to hit each other.”
“Tell me more.”
“Go into schools and talk to kids, teachers, parents. Your main theme is ‘NO HITTING.’ Put it on the Internet. Put it on bumper stickers and buttons. “Nobody hits anybody” is the basic principle. Adults don’t hit adults. Adults don’t hit kids. Kids don’t hit kids. Recruit other attorneys to do the same thing.”
“What do you do if someone is actually hitting someone?” I asked.
“Teach the kids and teach everyone: If you feel like hitting someone, shut up and leave the room. Leave the house. If someone is getting angry or hitting you, back away. If they are dangerous, leave the room or leave the house. Call 9-1-1. Don’t put up with it.”
“Teach kids that when someone is hitting someone, and if you are bigger than he is, or if you have him outnumbered, then hold him. Don’t hit him; just hold him. Tell him ‘No hitting.’ Hold him and tell him to calm down. If kids are fighting, grab them both and stop the fight.”
“Teach kids that law applies to them. Teach kids to speak up for the other kids who are being beaten and demand that it stop. Teach them to be little lawyers for each other. Teach them to appeal to higher authority until the violence stops. Teach them to file suit. Teach them that the rule against “ratting” is the devil talking. If someone is beating on someone, you have to stop him, and you must report him. Adults are asleep on this point. We enforce laws against adults hitting adults and laws against adults hitting kids, but we accept it as a given that kids will beat up other kids.” There was a little anger in her voice.
“Once I wanted to be a law professor in college. Instead, I could be a law professor in grade school.”
“You might do more good that way.” We both laughed.
“The right not to be assaulted is the most important law,” I said. “Kids assault kids on a regular basis. If adults did to adults the things kids do to kids, they would go to jail.”
“We are all damaged goods,” she said.
“Sort of like original sin?”
“That’s a good analogy.”
“I’m a part-time theologian,” I said. “There’s a longstanding debate in Christianity: Does the sin of Adam adheres to us as an inevitable taint or did Adam merely introduced a highly contagious sickness which pretty much everyone catches, but which is not necessarily impossible to cure. Tell me, do you believe in original sin?”
“Yes, I think that would be a correct metaphor for our defects as a species.”
“Are we a defective species? What is our original sin?”
“It’s not so much an original sin as an original defect. We have these huge brains, but they’re mostly blank computing space badly programmed. We’re not inherently evil. We’re just inherently gullible. We are conformists. We are willing to be led astray, especially when there is money in it for us. We fall for the big lies.”
“Lies such as?”
“Violence is one. Growth is the other. We say, ‘Growth is good,’ but that’s a lie. Capitalism likes growth. Growth means more consumers, which means more sales, and more workers, which keeps the cost of labor down.”
“How are we ever going to stop growing?” I asked.
“It’s going to be hard. We think growth is okay if it’s slow growth, but it’s still growth.” The problem is that time extends infinitely into the future. It takes longer to reach the result, but it’s the same result: no stability.”
“I’ve read the party platforms from start to finish, Democan and Republicrat. When it comes to population explosion, there’s not a word in either one. But both of them say ‘grow the economy’ in every other paragraph.”
“We set up corporations. Their job is to increase profits constantly. There is never enough. They hire platoons of lawyers and accountants and marketing experts. They go on auto-pilot, doing things we wouldn’t do as individuals.”
“But laws limit what corporations do,” I said.
“Come on, get serious, James. Laws just nip around the margins. Democracy is a weak force. Political parties have to keep the economy cranked up or they’ll get voted out. So it’s grow, grow, grow. It’s one of the problems with the way the world is set up. We need another force, a moral force, to give democracy more backbone.”
“Religion could do it, but religions only deal with the next world.”
“Are you saying religions should deal with this world?”
“Now you are getting my point,” she said with enthusiasm. “To change the subject slightly, have you heard there is an Eleventh Commandment?”
“You mean, after the Ten Commandments, there is an Eleventh Commandment?”
“Yes, well it’s a rumor I heard. I may have started it myself.” She smiled.
“Now wait. I went half way through seminary, but I never heard of any Eleventh Commandment. What is the Eleventh Commandment?”
The Eleventh Commandment is: “Do unto other species as you would have them do unto your own.”
“Hey, I like that. It’s an environmental commandment: Don’t wipe out other species.’”
“That’s part of it. We kill off species faster than we can name them. We take away the places where animals can live—so we can cut down trees and grow more beef.”
“We’re natural born killers,” I said.
“Like in the Oliver Stone movie.”
“Yea, I hear Woody Harrelson is a vegetarian.”
“And we don’t just kill them; we torture them first. We torture them their entire lives. And people don’t even think about it.”
“What do you think I could do about it?”
“People generally respect lawyers. You could teach people that animals are conscious beings which should be treated with a certain level of dignity. This is relevant to your profession. We can’t be vicious to animals without damaging our legal structure.”
“With the grade school kids, I could illustrate the point with one of my science fiction stories.”
“Excuse me?” I was beginning to lose her.
“Okay, here’s the plot: Extraterrestrials come to earth. They check us out. They see how bad we treat other species here on earth. They abduct people to try to figure out what is wrong with us. They decide we are morally defective, and they just leave. They are afraid if they get to know us we will have a bad influence on them.”
“Sounds like a plausible plot to me.”
“Or maybe they leave because they are afraid we might get around to eating them.”
“May I give you my legal opinion?” I asked.
“The punishment does not fit the crime. Actually there is no crime. It’s not like these are evil animals that have committed crimes against us and we have tried them and put them in prison for it. They are totally innocent.”
She interrupted, “We treat them as if they have committed the worst crimes imaginable.”
“Another human defect?” I asked.
“No, it’s the same defect. Bad programming. We are programmed for violence. We are programmed for growth. When it comes to the animals, it’s both our defects working together. Mistreating animals is profitable.
We stuff them into small cages to cut down on the rent. We spread out over the face of the planet to grow feed for them and graze cattle. It’s not original sin so much as original ignorance. Whenever there is a buck to be made, we are blind to moral considerations.”
“And most people don’t even see it as an issue.”
“That’s the defect: That we don’t even think about it.”
“We go to church and pray for forgiveness for all our sins except the ones that really matter. Are we hopelessly flawed?
“That’s what the Christian religion says. But I don’t believe it. I just think humans are just morally asleep. We need to wake them up. Our goal should be the moral perfection of our species.”
“That’s a tall order. Why such optimism?”
“Because I choose to be optimistic. We have to civilize the world before we destroy it. It’s one or the other.”
“It’s like “White Hat to the rescue.” I hummed the tune to her. (do-do-la-so-do-mi.) “He’s running to untie Pearl Pure Heart from the tracks before the train gets there and runs her over.”
She laughed. “You really are a cornball! Where are you from anyway?”
“I fell to earth in the northeast corner of Arkansas, a few miles from the Mississippi River and a few miles from the Bootheel of Missouri.”
“You don’t have much of a Southern accent.”
“It comes back after two beers.”
I got another laugh out of her. Then we were silent. I sat there feeling a little overwhelmed. I don’t very often meet someone who is so unashamed to speak her mind. But I didn’t look down on her for being bold. Life is short. We should come to the point and say what’s on our minds while we can.
One of my younger guests needed some help. I roused myself from my trance. “Will you please excuse me?”
I returned in five minutes, but she was gone. I looked around, but she was nowhere to be found. “Tom, where is the woman I was talking with?”
What woman?” he asked.
“Deborah. She is wearing pants and a vest. She’s about 45, brown hair with a little gray in it, intelligent looking, tall, quite attractive.”
“I haven’t been paying much attention,” Tom said. “There’ve been a lot of people here, but I think I would have noticed.”
The party wound down. A few friends hung around and helped me clean up. That night I dreamed about Deborah. In my dream she took on mythic proportions. She sat with her legs crossed, meditating, wearing a karate ghi with a black belt. She was even wiser, even more profoundly disappointed with what has become of her world, even more defiant and confident that she would win in the end.
In my dream I asked myself why enlightened messengers from god have to be male? I dreamed of the female prophets of the past who were not given the same standing as the male prophets—because there was a long period when only men wrote history. I dreamed of a new environmental prophet, this time a woman with a message of how to bring peace. I often dream theological dreams.
I asked myself: “If a prophet or an angel came for dinner, what would I serve her? What if Jesus showed up? Would I serve him the flesh of an animal that had been tortured? As in the Cain and Abel story, would god or the goddess be pleased with my offering?”
I slowly awoke. The entire thing had been a dream—the dinner with friends, Deborah’s visit, our complex conversation, and the dream within the dream. Her face came from the watercolor Patti had sold me years before, the one on the cover of this book.
It was almost sunrise. The window was wide open. The full moon was low in the west, shining into my bedroom. The twilight was full of bird songs. There was rustling in the back yard. I snuck out of bed and peeked over the window ledge. There was a big mother raccoon with her two kits, checking out the garden. “Nothing yet, Mrs. Raccoon,” I whispered. “The grapes are not ripe.” I returned to bed and sat with a comforter around myself. I crossed my legs and meditated.
I thought about my calling as a teenager. It happened on a warm summer night at church camp. I was walking back to my cabin from evening chapel.
I was born Catholic but my parents raised me in a protestant sect where we studied the Bible rigorously. The fact that my parents changed religions several times opened my mind to the idea that truth was not as black and white as the pastor said. I took my religion seriously, but I also took my science seriously. The teachings of my church conflicted with my academic studies.
I was alone that night. As I walked across the ball field I stopped and looked up at the stars. “How Great Thou Art” was one of the songs we sang, and I pondered the lyrics. It was at a time when I was trying to decide what to believe and what profession to take up. I remember the moment very clearly. I uttered a prayer in my thoughts: “How can I know which way to go?”
In a split second an answer came back to me in my mind: “Search for truth and follow it wherever it leads you. And don’t fear the truth you will find. Truth is the one thing not to fear.” I became physically dizzy and sat down in the dewy grass. Later I learned the term “peak experience.” That was a peak experience.
Sitting in bed, I thought back on my teenage calling, “This is a truth I should follow.” I resolved then and there: “I will treat this as a special moment. I will focus on what’s really important. Everyone dies, but before I die, I will come to the point and say what’s on my mind: How can we expect to stop the violence among humans and the violence against the environment if we don’t stop the violence against the animals?” I turned on the light and started writing this book.