Thursday, June 14, 2018

Getting Political in Response to Wichita's Problems

[This is an expanded and more contextualized version of the editorial which appeared in the Wichita Eagle this morning.]

James Chung is a business analyst and professional number-cruncher, as well as native of Wichita, KS, though he's lived in Cambridge, MA, for many years. Four years ago, the Wichita Community Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by local business leaders and activists who want to see Wichita's cultural diversify and its economy grow, started occasionally bringing Chung to the city to do interviews, analyze data, and draw conclusions based on what he sees. Chung latest visit ended on Monday, and his report then was easily his most important yet.

Why? Because he sees Wichita as facing a catastrophe of its own making.

Specifically, while other mid-sized, traditionally manufacturing-based cities in the Midwest and Great Plains have grown in line with the national economy over the past four years, sometimes outpacing it, Wichita hasn't. There are, as I and others have written about at length, many reasons, grounded in history and economics and demographics, why mid-sized cities have struggled to take advantage of various nationalized and globalized flows of human and financial capital, opening them up to all sorts of debt-driven growth temptations to make up for the productive work which the larger urban agglomerations of America and the world increasingly suck up. But while the details deep in the weeds can always be argued about, Chung seems to have controlled for most of that. Broadly speaking, while huge problems remain, comparable cities like Grand Rapids, Des Moines, Youngstown, Toledo, Muncie, Omaha, Cedar Rapids, and others, have basically done well, from the perspective of a growth-minded business analyst like Chung at least. They have increased their GDP, they have seen their work force expand and diversify, and their home values have gone up. And none of those things are true of Wichita. In fact, every single one of them is the opposite.

Chung brings this together into three mutually re-inforcing and inter-related obstacles, two of them economic, one of them cultural. First, our city fails to hold on to many able workers, particularly single and professional women between 20 and 45, and racial minorities who have earn associate degrees or more. In other words, the pay gap many women experience in Wichita (which is greater than in many of our peer cities), and the lack of inclusion and support which ambitious, college-educated non-whites experience when they attempt to attain jobs and capital in the midst of our old-boys network business climate, leads them to leave the city. Add to that the fact that Wichita State University, as the largest college in the city, exports to other communities and states a far greater percentage of its graduates than any other other state university, and you have a recipe for a city that 1) grows slowly in population, and 2) sees its population gradually become older, even as the percentages of Wichita's overall urban population becomes, like all cities across the country, increasingly diverse. (Hence the tension in the city over higher education; while one must allow for the influence of Republican partisanship, the fact that only a third of Wichitans claimed in a recent poll to believe that higher education served a positive role in our country can't be entirely blamed on Fox News talking points).

The second economic factor is more straightforward: our city’s donor and professional class--again, in comparison to the levels of public and private investment in other comparably sized cities in the Midwest--is terribly cheap, consistently choosing not to invest in local arts and commerce, and often refusing to support even minimal taxation schemes to provide seed money for crucial civic projects. The funds which the Wichita Community Foundation, for example, is able to raise from individuals or corporations, either for entirely privately funded projects or projects which would supplement public expenditures, is not just tens, but sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars less than other equivalent cities have been able to make available. This defensiveness, this stinginess, is related to the former, labor-constraining, anti-education and anti-inclusion attitude, and best encapsulated into Chung's final, broadly cultural conclusion: Wichita's city and corporate leaders too often simply say “no” to any proposal with the aim of making Wichita more cosmopolitan, or to projects which would require significant capital investment. There is, in Chung's view, a "wiring" problem in Wichita which incentivizes close-minded behavior that simply doesn't limit civic options in other similar cities the same way it appears to do so here.

How to respond to these mutually re-enforcing problems? Chung is right that there is no “silver bullet”; re-igniting Wichita’s economy, and re-envisioning its culture, will require doing lots of small things differently, not just one large thing. But that said, there is one large thing which Chung–perhaps wisely–has never mentioned in any of his presentations: that is, politically addressing just who those city and corporate leaders are, and challenging their beliefs when they contribute to the aforementioned obstacles. True, the “wiring” that Chung describes as generating negativity in Wichita can't be entirely reduced the city's often conservative, insular, individualistic political culture–but to be sure, the system-wide incentives which that culture creates certainly are inseparable from it. Addressing these Wichita-specific problems must include at least attempting to make political changes, at the very least.

The Wichita Community Foundation made a set of “Truth and Dare” cards to accompany Chung’s presentation, each one highlighting a challenging fact about Wichita and inviting those reading to respond. The Dares included in these cards are thoughtful, touching on the need to learn more about alternative transportation, to participate in programs aimed at expanding literacy, to contribute time to non-profit organizations, to better appreciate the diversity of worship services in the city, to visit parks and restaurants in parts of the city where you usually don't go, and much more here. But only two of them directly mention politics or government, and those two are pretty mild: attend city council meetings! Remember to vote! And while I say the same thing to my students all the time, I think something being labeled a "catastrophe" deserves a little bit more.

So if I may, allow me to take Chung’s conclusions directly into the realm of political action, and suggest a few, more demanding, Truth and Dare cards of my own, for the benefit of any Wichita resident who might happen to be reading this:

There are city and county leaders in Wichita and Sedgwick County who consistently oppose resolutions and projects which would demonstrate greater openness to the concerns of non-whites, non-home-owners, immigrants, and LGBT individuals in our city. Often these issues aren't even expressed in terms of immediate, costly achievements; they just reflect a demand to be heard. This sets a tone which discourages many workers (particularly young ones) from remaining in our city, and discourages many college graduates (particularly of minority populations) from taking jobs here. So find out who these leaders are, contact them, attend meetings with them, push them to change their positions--and if they won’t, run against them in the next election, or support someone who will.

There are city and county leaders who consistently support developments which, however attractive they may seem on paper and however seriously they appear to take environmental or entertainment concerns, ultimately will only expand the city’s suburban footprint, stretching out and disconnecting our human and financial resources into an often alienating--even if nicely designed!--sprawl. This, in turn, discourages many donors from attempting to address Wichita’s needs in a comprehensive, unifying way, to say nothing empowering those interests who think getting money into building roads is the only thing that matters (Wichita's current, unsupplemented sales tax is required by law to be spent on bridges and streets) in their quest to push available charitable funds outside the city, or into suburban projects not at all tied to the cities core civic needs. So fight those developments, protest them, and run against those who support them, or get involved in electing someone who will.

Finally, and most importantly, there are people serving as our representatives on the state and national level who pay no attention whatsoever to the fact that there are Wichitans, like other urban populations across the country, who are organizing to affect change in this city, regarding wages, police policies, civil rights, environmental sustainability, and more. Instead, these (admittedly, almost entirely Republican) leaders lean on the same national talking points, the same partisan tropes, all under the assumption that Wichita’s voters always have been and will always remain a defensive, unimaginative bunch, and thus will re-elect them. My challenge? Exactly what you can expect by now: get informed, organize, volunteer, door knock, make phone calls, donate, and prove our current political class wrong.

No, I am not saying that a political upheaval among our leadership class will automatically fix the bad, systemic economic and cultural habits which Chung has laid before us. But if we refuse to challenge reigning political assumptions entirely, if we refuse to allow for the possibility of actually electing someone other than business-minded, developer-friendly, civically disconnected conservatives (hence the need for parties!)--or even, given the hold which partisan perspectives have on both leaders and voters, if we refuse to contemplate forcing a different kind of conservatism into the local Republican mix--then the incentives those habits reward will only continue to make Wichita’s tendency to say “no” seem reasonable, and nothing besides small, symbolic changes will ever be possible. True, a “yes” mentality probably won’t emerge with any one election. But we here in Wichita will never know unless we try.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Songs of '78: "Hot Child in the City"

Forty years ago today "Hot Child in the City," the first and only single off Nick Gilder's album City Nights, was released. Three quick points: 1) Don't even pretend to deny it: it's a sultry, catchy, utterly stereotypical and therefore sleazily awesome 1970s-summertime rock song. (Diesel's "Sausalito Summernight" rivals it, but Gilder's is better.) 2) Besides being a great slice of 70s pop-rock, this song is about as perfect an example of One-Hit-Wonderism that you can imagine. True, Gilder had other hits in his native Canada, but you know, Canada. 3) Even after I learned the name of the singer, even after I saw him on television, I though he was a woman. Shut up; so did you.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Songs of '78: "Far Awar Eyes" and "Just My Imagination"

I said the Rolling Stones' Some Girls was the big one, as far as my memories of 1978 are concerned, and I wasn't kidding. "Miss You" was just the beginning; there was song after song after song on this album that made it onto the radio and into my head, and has stayed there, on and off, for 40 years. The album itself was released in the U.S. four decades ago today, and I don't know when I first listened to the whole thing all the way through. I know it was one of the first tape cassettes I ever bought (not the very first, by any means, but it definite among that first wave of youthful purchases), and I'm amazed the tape lasted as long as it has, considering how often I've listened to it. There are at least a couple of other singles off Some Girls that I'll have to highlight in the coming months, as they were eventually released by the studio, but today, let me mention a couple of other notable songs on the album which I heard plenty of, even if they never made it onto the charts.

"Far Away Eyes" was the B-side of "Miss You," and I have occasionally wondered what might have become of the song if the Stones had arranged to release it secretly, under a different name, to country-western stations in the U.S. I mean, the lyrics are obviously a parody of a certain kind of California-style redneck and/or African-American pentecostal sensibility, and the music (with Ronnie Wood plucking away at a steel-pedal guitar and Mick Jagger hamming it up on the piano) is just stereotypical of that lazy country style to the max. And yet...there's not really an inauthentic moment in it. The Stones are totally owning this parody of low-brow, hillbilly, radio-station Christianity, enough to make you realize they really dig this kind of music. And that makes me kind of dig it too.

As for the Stones' jangly, R&B version of "Just My Imagination," let this simply stand as yet another example of how ill-informed and limited by pop music sensibilities were during my formative years, even as I drank from the fire hose of pop and rock radio: when I first heard it, and for years afterwards, I didn't know "Just My Imagination" was a cover. (Didn't I wonder who "Whitfield/Strong" were on the album credits? Nope.) It was a Stones tune as far as I was concerned, and I loved it. Thus, inevitably, while I was at BYU, and The Temptations came and did a tremendous show (I think during my sophomore year), and a couple of friends of mine--who happened to start a great a cappella group which later went on to some significant local fame--finagled a chance to talk with some of the members after the show, and I tagged along, I congratulated them on their superb Rolling Stones cover. Um...yeah. Ah well. The music endures.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Songs of '78: "Copacabana"

Yes, there were the Cars, and the Rolling Stones, and Joe Walsh, and Van Halen, and Cheap Trick, and Eric Clapton, and more. But it was still, you know, the Seventies. And that means we had Barry Manilow on the radio; deal with it.

I have on very clear memory of this song, from the summer of 1978. We were building a new home on my grandfather's property; I would end up living there until I left home for college nine years later. My father was intensely involved in the construction (how much of it he did himself I'm not sure, but he brought all us young kids to the site at many points along the way, and were recruited to haul bricks and stones, help drywall and paint, and hunt down the many insects that kept infiltrating the construction project when no one was looking (I can remember the discovery of a huge wasps nest that had been built above one of the ceiling tiles). Anyway, at some point, I think fairly early in the process, we were there, doing I don't know what (helping sand window shelving, maybe?), and this song came on the old, paint-splattered transistor radio which Dad had set up. I'd heard it before that day; why did that listening stick in my mind? Because I became obsessed with wondering whether Rico "called her over" (why would that be a problem?, thought not-quite-10-year-old me) or "called her Rover" (that makes more sense; he insulted Lola, calling her a dog! He even whistled at her! No wonder Tony took such great offense). I suspect I must have bugged my Dad to get his opinion; I don't remember if he had an answer. Yes, kids, this is what listening to the radio was like before the internet.

Oh well. A goofy fun song, released in June of 1978. Enjoy, everyone.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Mid-Sized Meditations #15: Naftzger Park, Planning, and the Problem of "Growth"

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Naftzger Memorial Park was a small, pleasantly run-down city block of trees, grass, and benches, near the center of downtown Wichita, KS, just a block north of Intrust Bank Arena, recently of much-heralded (in the local media, anyway) NCAA March Madness fame. The park had a gazebo for wedding photos and a decorative waterfall that flowed into a pond that was often (though not always) kept clean of trash. It wasn't anyone's example of a perfect civic space--can there be such a thing?--but it had its historic place along the Douglas Avenue, one of the main drives through Wichita's downtown. Built on land that the city acquired in 1980, with money donated by the Naftzger family, it was a place where idiosyncratic lovers of urban landscapes, offbeat photographers, causal walkers with their brown bag lunches, and, yes, many of the city's homeless used to gather, rest on the grass, and lean against the Carrie Nation memorial, spring and summer and fall and winter alike.

I put everything in that paragraph in the past tense, because beginning last week, following months of meetings, where proposals were put forward and audience input requested--but never, and this is crucial, truly and fully assessed--Naftzger Park is being torn apart and rebuilt. Supposedly, in a year's time or so, it will look more or less like this:

That's not a bad result, I suppose, all things considered. The new development right to its east will have an attractive (and presumably, though almost no one will say so directly, at least slightly less homeless friendly) and cleaned-up greenspace at its doorstep, the park will have a stage to host mid-sized events and a dog run for local dog-walkers and owners, and the old decorative iron fencing around it will be removed, opening it up to the "eyes on the street," in the classic Jane Jacobs sense. Considering the sort of boondoggles that some cities have committed significant expense to in the name of enlivening their downtowns, this could have been much worse.

Unfortunately, "could have been much worse" is about the best I can say about this redesign, for reasons that go far beyond any number of specific arguments that attended the long process through which the city of Wichita--or at least, those of us who got out to the meetings and attended the various advisory board meetings--has arrived at this point. (For example: wasn't this just a sweetheart arrangement between downtown urban boosters and local property-owners looking to attract buyers to and offset the costs of developing a not-terribly-in-demand Douglas Avenue location? Or: is there any solid reason to believe that the area's TIF district--which was extended to incorporate the property in question--will generate sufficient revenue to pay off the $1.5 million bond the city floated to begin construction, much less generate the additional money later to complete it? And, of particular interest to students of politics like myself: was there really any genuine interest in trying to measure citizen input about the park, or were all those public discussions only cosmetically relevant, with the real decisions having been pre-determined by the hiring of an NYC-based urban park design team to draft various options for the space?)

But no, beyond all those questions, I have a more basic one: why do some of us have problems with an old park? A "worn and outdated" park, in the words or some, that was a "destination for only neighborhood residents" only? An "underutilized" greenspace, in the words of others, that was lacking in "flexibility"? I don't deny at all that public spaces, and their design, matter; we are, after all, embodied and spatial creatures, and become who we are in part through our interactions with the buildings and streets and fields and parks which make up our lived environments. But just what is this frequently felt imperative that such environments be updated, programmed, and "activated"? That's my most fundamental question here. And the answer, I think, revolves around how so many people in cities (which means, allowing for some definitional slippage, more than three-quarters of us) fine ourselves necessarily thinking about growth.

Here in Wichita, the obsession of many is with the same problem which bedevils a great many mid-sized cities in America and around the world: we're not growing, either in population (20-year projections suggest that Wichita will grow at an average of .8% a year) or in economic heft (recent employment numbers suggest only around a 1% average increase in available jobs each year)--or if we are growing, we're still not growing at a rate sufficient to generate the increased revenue necessary to the match the obligations of our existing infrastructure. (Those same 20-year projections suggest that the city of Wichita will have $9-10 billion in repair and maintenance costs over that time period which it won't be able to pay.) As I and others have discussed at length, the current stage of economic globalization is one which has overwhelmingly concentrated financial resources, and hence human and cultural incentives, in large (if not always solely the world's largest) urban agglomerations. Wichita, the 50th-largest city in the U.S., is a good-sized city, but not big enough to generate the sort of gravity which would pull in those capital and creativity flows.

So do we content ourselves with holding on to what we have? Ideally, yes, we would address ourselves to pioneering some kind of urban conservation or contraction, pursing a "steady-state" or "strong towns" model. Unfortunately, figuring out how to do so, when faced with the economic and political realities which characterize cities in an era of finance capitalism, is a puzzle.

In any community that reaches a certain size (and leave off for now figuring out exactly what that size is or how it gets there; suffice to say that there are towns, and there are cities, and the differences between them can be persuasively articulated, even if not exactly innumerated), various cultural and economic factions will emerge. Achieving urban political power in the midst of those factions--for whatever purpose, however high-minded or venal--will almost inevitably involve building something, whether a highway or a museum or a program. Cities in the United States do not have the taxing and regulatory authority made legitimate by being handed down via constitutional channels; on the contrary, cities emerge organically through history, and are legitimated through governmental fiat (though much democratic agitation may precede that). Consequently, the policy tools available to them (especially if the city in question is not just a major urban metropolis as to be able to harness the political and economic power to make demands on the states they exist within, or the federal government itself) are generally pretty circumscribed. As a result, with broad issues of social import mostly off their table, and extensive funding mechanisms usually forbidden them as well, crudely relying upon, and then satisfying in turn, the aforementioned local factions, through the sort of construction enabled by sales taxes and subsidies and CIDs, usually becomes almost inseparable from the ordinary business of a city.

The above is, reductively speaking, the story of what multiple scholars have called the "growth machine" of American urbanism. Interestingly, you don't actually have to have real growth for that logic to take hold. Here in Wichita, Chase Billingham, a sociologist at Wichita State University, has argued that city leaders in small and mid-sized cities will feel impelled to discover growth wherever they can, so as to be able to justify, to themselves and others, the belief (or presumption) that they are actually responding to the needs of the city--which, in the end, generally means building things. So they will, for example, invest urban guerilla pop-up parks or resurgent local symbols with sufficient meaning as to make them count as signs of growth. Which, in turn, justifies more growth, and the cycle of promotion and promises continue.

To be sure, not all schemes of transformation and growth are equal; if a combination of urban factions in my city--downtown boosters looking to engage in "placemaking," city workers enamored of the prospect of addressing what some residents consider an eyesore, restaurant and club owners that want to increase foot traffic between the Arena and Douglas Avenue, ambivalent developers and business owners that would be happy for an upgrade to their property if some of the costs could be shared--come together with an idea to remake a rundown but still perfectly adequate local space, and the alternative to such is to see that invariably generated reconstructive energy invested in adding to our already far-overbuilt highway infrastructure, spreading suburbanization ever further out along the east-west corridor, believe me, I'll choose the park. After all, it's not like any urban development will ever truly be a simply matter of black and white; there really were downtown residents who wanted the Naftzger Park opened up, with better lighting and more amenities. And of course, those two options weren't placed in opposition to each other on the table; the former, for all the questions attached to it, is driven at least in part by genuine civic concerns, not pure capitalist expansion. For that reason, while I stood with a lot of doubters through the long meetings over Naftzger, I never quite thought the "leave it alone!" voices had a fair take on what the options for Naftzger really were. (To his credit, Chase's defense of the park's history likely moderated some of the architect's original plans, saving at least a couple of the park's historical features.)

Still, recognizing the way communities change and grow (if they do), in their organic, push-and-pull way, with government in the mix with all the other constituencies of the city, doesn't mean that the very idea of a "programmed" and "activated" public space should escape critique. Because, frankly, even if the idea fits seamlessly into the reigning logic of built-on-credit American cities of today (and, for that matter, of the past couple of generations), it's still pretty questionable as a human matter. Remember that urban communities have, most essentially, a kind of anarchist quality to them; Jane Jacobs observed that, as have many other urban scholars and activists. Planning events is one thing, but planning spaces themselves around the presumed gathering of people in coordination with planned events is, perhaps, something else entirely.

Various Wichita boosters have lately gone all-in on the vital need for "placemaking" in the city, and I know and like and respect a lot of these folks. When they talk about "underused spaces" being "activated with...a touch of theater," I'm sympathetic--I like public art and creative pathfinding and all the other stuff employed to generate a desire to walk or bike around a community and look at it (and, therefore, at the people who inhabit it alongside oneself), rather than one's phone. But there has to be a fine line walked here, I think. The goal of "programming" said places easily can (and, unfortunately, frequently does) take over, becoming an end to itself, bypassing the people that presumably would actually gather in any of those places in favor of those connected enough to the aforementioned factions to get their preferences written into the imposed programming in the first place. (When one of these well-intentioned factional leaders in Wichita defensively says, in regards to criticism of the above-mentioned bit of pop-up urban programming, that all is well from "the public standpoint," you may be forgiven for feeling some sympathy for the article's final quote, from a downtown resident: "I’m their biggest advocate...but it’s like they almost forget that we’re here once they have you.")

The world has become thoroughly urbanized, and will only become more so, so long a resource extraction and finance capitalism continues to reign. We can work to change that, and in the meantime struggle to find different, more sustainable and local and democratic, trajectories for our lives and communities. But while engaged in all those important tasks, and while responsibly accepting the compromises they will have to entail, let's hold in front of our eyes the simple fact that, whatever imperatives seem to rise up in our communities, nailing down, specifying, programming, and "activating" the public spaces in our midst needn't be one of them. People can, in fact, gather on their own. Maybe, in such unstructured environments, the people that will gather won't always be of the sort which will most effectively contribute to one possible economic consequence of the space in question. But we don't live in communities to be cogs in a process of producing economic consequences--or at least we shouldn't. We live where we do, and we become what we are through that lived environment, organically. If there is a consequence to it, it might be best, at the very least, that it not be one already determined by a planning board, because however well-meaning, their logic is likely not to be wholly their own.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Songs of '78: "Just What I Needed"

Forty years ago today, "Just What I Needed," the first single off of the Cars's first album (also titled The Cars), hit the airwaves. What were the Cars? Punk? The pounding, minimalist guitar work might make you think so, but no. New wave? Greg Hawkes's spacey keyboards sometimes sound like a preview of the synth-pop of the 1980s, but also no. Power pop? Rick Ocasek's songs didn't waste any time getting us into the music, but there was usually a coolness and reserve to them that prevent them from sounding like a proper post-Beatles rock and roll band. Ultimately, you just have to say that they were a great garage band, a bunch of musicians who knocked around, touring with different bands and one another, until the time came when they all fell together and started recording Ocasek's songs with all the aforementioned (and other) influences bouncing around inside their head. With all that, plus two great vocalists (bassist Benjamin Orr along with Ocasek), maybe it was inevitable they'd hit it big.

Or maybe not. Who knows? In any case, the Cars were part of that wonderful 1978 cohort, and they had a solid radio run for the next ten years, breaking up (and, unlike so many other bands, never really, truly re-uniting, despite a couple of half-hearted efforts) in 1988. They're not the greatest band ever, but they were solid and made great music; it's nice to be able to file them away as part of an era, one whose sound I can remember from the start.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Nature, Wisdom, Spirit, Mother

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This is an expanded and re-written version of a Mother's Day sermon I gave in church last week, on May 13, 2018. Please see the note attached at the conclusion of the post.

I'm pretty certain that ever since I became old enough to wonder about matters theological, I hadn't been all that enthused by the Mormon idea of Mother in Heaven. The Christian message which consistently spoke (and still speaks) most strongly to me was Pauline, Augustinian, and Lutheran; I took (and still take) seriously the omniscience and omnipresence of God presented through the Biblical tradition, and saw His relationship with us as profoundly grace-centered and not at all humanist. This left little room in my thinking for the discourse about Heavenly Mother that I was most familiar with, which seemed rooted in deeply literal and humanist presumptions about God's identity, sexuality, and relationships. "In the heav’ns are parents single?/ No, the thought makes reason stare! / Truth is reason; truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a mother there"--to a great many of my fellow Mormons, for many years, the claim made in this old hymn seems both persuasive and obvious. But it wasn't for me.

I write all that in the past tense, though, because not too long ago I read an essay which made me realize that maybe, just maybe, I've actually been thinking about, and perhaps even worshiping, Mother in Heaven all along. But let me work around to that.

Over the past two years, a large number of the trees which once lined the run-off beside the street in front of our home were affected by a blight, and were removed by the city. Last summer, they were replaced with saplings--many of which, I noticed over our long dry winter, got snapped off. Maybe the wind did it, but more likely it was stupid kids wandering along the street. And yet today all of them, even those that were left stubby and close to the ground, are growing. Rain finally came to this part of Kansas, and growth has too.

One of the most common themes in our sacrament meetings is "gratitude," and this is something I'm grateful for: the abundance of the natural world all around us, the rhythm of growth that returns, again and again, even in the face of all the harm we do to creation. It's an abundance we are invited, despite all our environmental crimes, to contribute to and benefit from, and by so doing learn from as well. That's something else to be grateful for: the satisfaction--and the often humbling learning which precedes that feeling of satisfaction--of being a part of nature's cycle of renewal and bounty. I grew up working in gardens, bailing hay, tromping through alfalfa fields, milking cows by hand, and the productive interplay of us human beings with the growing, gracious things that fill our stomachs with food and our minds with beauty is something that, even as an academic, attends much of my thinking. If you're looking for a romantic agrarian, someone who enjoys weeding the tomato plants and contemplating the meaning of the soil as I turn it over with a spade, you've got one right here. 

The week before I was assigned to speak, we sang in church one of my favorite hymns: "All Creatures of our God and King." The fourth verse, in particular, caught by eye:

Dear Mother Earth, who day by day
Unfoldest blessings on our way,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
Let them His glory also show.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Alleluia! O praise Him! Alleluia!

The lyrics of this hymn are a slightly changed version of those composed by William H. Draper, who in the early 1900s translated St. Francis of Assisi’s poem "Canticle of the Sun," which was written around 1224, and inspired by the 148th Psalm. Here's a translation of the relevant passage from the poem:

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Draper was inspired to see in that poem a hymn something he wanted to his congregation to be able to hear and sing for a Whitsunday service--Whitsunday being an old English liturgical term for the Day of Pentecost, the day, seven weeks after Easter, that the Christian world celebrates the blessing of Holy Ghost which comes to surround and sustain Jesus's disciples and all who come into His community. There is a reason, I think, why this particular work by St. Francis spoke to Draper as he made plans for this holy day--specifically, the association between the manifold gifts of the spirit, and the diverse fecundity of the natural world, which Francis placed all together in his poem as a family: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire. Note, though, that his "Nature" is not only a sibling; she is also a "Mother," by which and through which the governing, productive rule of life--the fruit and herbs we consume from the world, and the flowers by which it is decorated--is sustained.

Where did this idea come from, that the natural world, the world we work in and are sustained and enlightened by, is both feminine and maternal? If you turn to non-Christian history and mythology, there are plenty of ancient examples: Durga in Hinduism, Gaia from the Greeks. But these deities often are understood as embodying the wildness of the natural world, and are indifferent to, or often hostile towards, actual human beings. What of the image of nature as something which mothers us, feeds and teaches and overseas and loves us, and to which we owe the respect that we do to a mother?

The earliest example of a "Mother Nature" that I know of came from the pen of the French cleric Alain de Lille, who wrote, perhaps 60 years before St. Francis's "Canticle," a Latin work of theology titled (in translation) The Plaint of Nature. There is much in this work of prose and verse which audiences today might find strange or offensive--but it also gave the Christian world, for the first time we have record of, the idea of Nature as a ruling, feminine figure:

O child of God, the mother of Creation, bond of the universe and its stable, who by your reins guide the universe, unite all things in a stable and harmonious bond and wed heaven to earth in a union of peace; who, working on the pure idea of Divine Wisdom, mold the species of all created things...

In the words of James Sheridan, translator of The Plaint, Nature comes to declare that "it was God's will that by a mutually related circle of birth and death, transitory things should be given stability by instability, endlessness by endings, eternity by temporariness, and that the series of things should ever be knit by successive renewals of birth." The idea of an immanent order, always linked, always disciplining, always rewarding.

I learned about Alain de Lille's Plaint from a long essay by Wendell Berry, the poet, novelist, critic, farmer, and agrarian, who once famously declared “I’d rather rely on Mother Nature’s wisdom than man’s cleverness.” Contained in his latest collection, The Art of Loading Brush, "The Presence of Nature in the Natural World" is a deep dive into the depictions of nature in the history of English literature, and its influence on consequent writings about conservation and farming. His study is often a tendentious one (he doesn't like industrial agriculture, or tractors, for that matter), but it is revealing nonetheless. His aim to remind his readers that observers of the natural world have consistently recognized that there is an order to it, a miraculous rhythm that follows a mysterious logic which we can learn from, but never master.

Berry is a Christian, a man who knows the Bible very well, but who sometimes has a problem with the conventionality of Christianity in America. He is drawn to those who seem to him to respect the mystery, the glory, the stern wonder of creation, rather than those who want to explain it all in some tidy ideological or theological package. Thomas Merton, a French Catholic who settled in a monastery in Kentucky, where Berry also lives, wrote a prose poem about the “Hagia Sophia” or “divine wisdom,” an ancient Christian idea found in 1 Corinthians 2:7 ( “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory”) which Alain de Lille associated with the "mother of Creation," and Francis of Assisi with "Sister Mother Earth": "There is," Merton wrote, "in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans."

In the centuries between Alain de Lille of the 12th century and Berry and Merton of the 20th, many other authors strove to capture the order, surprise, and wisdom of nature--and again and again, their intuition of such took feminine and maternal forms. Geoffrey Chaucer's poem The Parlement of Foules presents Mother Nature as the "vicar of the almighty Lord" who "hot, cold, heavy, light, moist, and dry / Hath knit by even numbers of accord," bringing a wise balance to the renewing, reproducing processes of of nature. Edmund Spenser's Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, which were appended to The Faerie Queene, also gives us the "great dame Nature / With goodly Port and gracious Majesty / Being far greater and more tall of Stature / Than any of the Gods or Powers on high," who, when confronted with the challenge of Mutability, imposes a larger, deeper, unseeable order upon the changeableness of creation. John Milton’s allegorical poem Comus presents us with Nature ("the Lady") wisely resisting those that would indulge in nature’s bounty, instead insisting on "Temperance" so that "Nature’s full blessings would be well dispensed in...even proportion."

This only scratches the surface of this one linguistic, poetic tradition (Berry goes on to consider the realization of Nature, and its wise discipline, in the works of Pope, Wordsworth, and Ezra Pound as well), but the themes, I think, are clear. For many Christian artists and thinkers, to take seriously God's creation is to take seriously the idea that some part of God, or something suitably God-like, overseas it, blesses it, makes it meaningful and a source of bounty and wisdom to those who tend to it, and issues a reproach to those who do not. Is this Mormon doctrine, or even Christian, for that matter? Not directly. But the more that I think about it, the less I can read any of revelations of Joseph Smith dealing with the natural world, with their insistence upon bounty, respect, patience, and humble and equitable use--see Doctrine and Covenants 49:18-21, D&C 59:15-21, or D&C 104:14-18--without imaging a distinctly maternal, a loving but also wise and watchful, eye behind them. It is the same loving (but unsentimental) eye I think sometimes I can see through, when I look upon our often frustrating, but just as often rewarding, front yard flower and strawberry patch, when it is weeded and well-watered and flourishing. In it, I sometimes see something more than my work--I see labor in the soil made meaningful. Guided, one might say, to becoming a part of the abiding spiritual rhythms of the natural world.

I realize that if this is an argument for Mother in Heaven, it is a distinctly panentheistic one, with some feminine element of the divine being made manifest through (though not necessarily being identical to) God's creation. I'm happy with that accusation, though. I think it is necessary, if one insists upon doing theology, to be willing to consider such categories, or else one is going to be stuck with a terribly reductive literalism (case in point: the plain comment by Mormon apostle Erastus Snow in March 1878 that "I must believe that deity consists of man and woman" and that we Mormons worship a "Godhead composing two parts, male and female" causing a minor hermaphroditic freak-out in the footnotes to the BYU Studies article cited above).

In the same way that we Christian believers need to be willing to think expansively about we mean when we talk about the Holy Ghost in the connection with Pentecost--remember that in the Fifth of Smith's early Lectures on Faith the Holy Spirit, which in Biblical history begins with the idea of the ruach Elohim or the Breath of God, was identified with the mind of God the Father--we similarly need to think expansively about Heavenly Mother. Might She be that title which we could give (and maybe, through Mother Nature, always have given) to that part of God which is invested in creation, in the wise, tutelary, fecund impulse which governs nature and those of use who live off of and through its creative rewards? No scriptural account that I consider at all inspired says so, in so many words. But lately, I find I'm persuaded that it makes sense.

In the Mother's Day service where I gave the original version of this sermon, the Primary children sang two songs: "Mother Dear" and "My Heavenly Father Loves Me." Both wonderful, sweet songs. And yet, the association they make together--one song about the love one has for mothers, the other about an appreciation for creation--can be achieved much more directly, I thought, by just one song, one of the wisest Primary tunes of all:

I often go walking in meadows of clover,
And I gather armfuls of blossoms of blue.
I gather the blossoms the whole meadow over;
Dear mother, all flowers remind me of you.

O mother, I give you my love with each flower
To give forth sweet fragrance a whole lifetime through;

[And this, right here, I think, is the key verse, the one that really brings it all home:]

For if I love blossoms and meadows and walking,
I learned how to love them, dear mother, from you.

Blossoms and meadows and walking. Which mother did that teaching, do you suppose? The child's, presumably. But also...maybe, another One as well? Some patient mothering spirit or thought, some sehnsucht that calls to us, without us knowing why or how, helping us see something meaningful, something orderly, in every spring surprise, in every growing and good thing. In the Book of Mormon, Alma claimed that "the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it...denote there is a God." He didn't know the half of it, perhaps. Paying attention to, and learning to be properly grateful for the other Half, the Half that we've always known, and named Mother Nature, and yet not always fully seen, may be one of our tasks today. It is one that I long thought I'd dismissed--but yet, I think now that I've been looking for Her all along.

PLEASE NOTE: It has been pointed out to me that the initial premise behind this whole post--seeing Heavenly Mother in and through the concept of Mother Nature--was originally suggested to me by another Mormon blogger, Cynthia Lee, and in writing it, I had completely forgotten her contribution. For that I want to apologize, fully and sincerely. Moreover, the fact that I did that, and probably have done so many times before, particularly in regards to matters involving women in the church, is not only a terrible--and likely much too frequent--mark on my character, but it is reflective of so much casual, oblivious sexism in the way both theological speculation and ordinary practice is performed in the Mormon church. I first thought to take the whole post down, but other female bloggers I know have suggested leaving it up, as an opportunity for conversation and learning. I am one of the first in need of that, and I am grateful for their understanding.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Songs of '78: "Sultans of Swing"

Dire Straits is one of those bands that crept into my consciousness, with me only realizing years afterward that I'd been listening to them for a long time. "Sultans of Swing" is a great example of this. ("Brothers in Arms" is another.) It's a fine, sharp, groovy song, almost as much jazz-fusion as rock and roll, which is characteristic of so much of Mark Knopfler remarkable guitar playing; it's the sort of intricate, unfolding, clever composition which rewards re-listening. Maybe that's why it took it so long after its release as a single on May 19, 1978--the first release off their first album, Dire Straits, which didn't appear until October of that year, and didn't make it to the United States until "Sultans" caught on and started getting radio play later in 1979--to finally get some recognition. But that's been Knopfler's fate from the beginning, hasn't it? He's the pop musician's pop musician: playing with everyone, adding his quiet, unexpected turns of phrasing and layers of sound to recordings across a dozen genres (I didn't truly and fully become of Knopfler fanatic until I heard his magisterial recording of the old folk broadside "Lily of the West" with The Chieftains), doing lovely, incredible work in his own unobtrusive way. Somebody should have seen it coming right from the start of his cool playing, with his smart lyrics floating above the chords. Well, lots of people probably did; I had to figure it out later. But that's the thing about 1978; there was so much more going on than most of us could have realized at the time. "Sultans" was a part of that, for certain.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Songs of '78:"Life's Been Good"

I've never smoked, never consumed any kind of alcoholic beverage, never taken any drug that wasn't an over-the-counter painkiller or something prescribed by a doctor. I've been married to the same woman for 25 years this August, and I was a virgin when she and I married. The only time I've ever been arrested was when I participated in a political at an old nuclear weapons testing site on Native American land. My preferred way of staying up late is binging stuff on Netflix. Plus, I'm a Mormon. So, in other words, I really can't relate whatsoever to the whole romantic rock and roll lifestyle. Some people for whom all of the above applies can perhaps can pull it off nonetheless, but not me, and I certainly couldn't as a kid just beginning to absorb these rock and roll legends in the late 1970s. But that doesn't matter, not for me, not for anyone--because we can just listen to Joe Walsh's ridiculous, wonderful, "Life's Been Good," and we can understand the whole thing just fine.

He first contributed the song to a film soundtrack that disappeared almost as soon as it was released, then stuck it on his album But Seriously, Folks, which hit the shelves 40 years ago today. The version on the album was over 8 minutes in length; it was cut to 4 1/2 minutes for single release release, but this rambling, self-referential rock and roll anthem--maybe the greatest of all time, though later this year there will be at least one more serious contender--deserves to be heard in all its stoned glory. Like right here.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Songs from '78: "Miss You"

This is the big one, folks--or at least, the beginning of the biggest, the first single from the band and the album that looms larger in my mind than almost anything else I associate with listening to rock music on AM radio as prepubescent kid in 1978. It's not hard to find praise for Some Girls; it is often labeled the final great Rolling Stones album, and maybe even their greatest ever (an opinion I concur with). And "Miss You" is a terrific song, making use of Jagger's preternaturally tired and lecherous vocals, Ron Wood's guitar meshing with Keith Richards, and Bill Wyman and Charlie Watt's providing an almost-but-not-quite disco beat. After "Miss You" came a host of other great songs, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to avoid talking about how they hit me, and continue to hit me, over four decades of time. Thus far I've only highlighted one single by each artist, and I'd like to stick with that--but I don't think I can with the Stones.

Why? Why wasn't I, the good Mormon boy, as freaked out by music from the Rolling Stones as I was by Van Halen or Rush (don't worry; we'll be getting to them later)? I suppose it was pretty simple: there was no easy or obvious hook upon which a Christian kid like me, taught to be suspicious of possible Satanism, could have hung this iteration of the Rolling Stones when I first heard them (yes, I hear you all shouting about Their Satanic Majesties Request and "Sympathy for the Devil," but I didn't connect those with the Stones until sometime later), and anyway, I was just too young to appreciate how creepy the Stones's lyrics here and elsewhere really were. At the same time, their melodies, their riffs, their energy (even when it was coiled and louche like it is here) was able to capture my still-forming pop music sensibilities. These guys have something going on, is what I suppose I thought about at the time. I knew little about the history of rock and roll, and I probably didn't start to piece together the story of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and all the rest for quite a while. Still, there I was, listening to KJRB 790 and getting my kicks from these songs that had such--though I wouldn't have used these terms back then even if I'd known them--bluesy, sexual, and ass-kicking power to them. And that power endures. I like the early Stones, sure, and I actually have a lot of fondness for some of their early 90s work, like Voodoo Lounge, which was the point, nearly 25 years ago, when I suppose you could say that Jagger and Richards came to an agreement that they were just going to consistently play the best damn Rolling Stones Tribute Show imaginable for the rest of their lives, and you have to admit: its worked really well for them so far. But 40 years ago, the power of the Stones was still fresh enough, and challenging enough, I think, to set a kid's mind on fire with their tunes. They did me, that's for certain.