Tolkien and Trees

cypress-trees

The cypresses of Point Lobos

I love trees. Some of my earliest memories are of trees, and my passion for them and fascination with them only deepens with time. In addition to being a literal tree-hugger, I’m also a bit of a geek (no, tree huggers are not geeks–technically they are eccentrics) so you can imagine how delighted I was when I discovered that the Godfather of Fantasy, J.R.R.. Tolkien, was an unabashed partisan of trees.

A couple of quotes from him regarding trees are making the rounds on the internet, but I’ve learned to distrust popular quotations. They are often misattributed or downright made up. So I searched his edited letters for references to trees.

There are many–he always mentions trees when he describes places, has funny things to say about artists who can’t draw trees, and has many trees of significance in his books, which he mentions in passing, but the following are the more direct defenses of trees:

#165 To the Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1955 :

I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.

#83 From a letter to Christopher Tolkien, 6 October 1944:

It is not the not-man (e.g. weather) nor man, (even at a bad level), but the man-made that is ultimately daunting and insupportable. If a ragnarök would bum all the slums and gas-works, and shabby garages, and long arc-lit suburbs, it cd. for me bum all the works of art – and I’d go back to trees.

#339 To the Editor of the Daily Telegraph

[In a leader in the Daily Telegraph of 29 June 1972, entitled ‘Forestry and Us’, there occurred this passage: ‘Sheepwalks where you could once ramble for miles are transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings…’ Tolkien’s letter was published, with a slight alteration to the opening sentence, in the issue of 4 July.]

30 June 1972
Merton College, Oxford

Dear Sir,

With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, page 18, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

Yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

I say amen to that last paragraph!

And finally, as an interesting aside which may be of more interest to fantasy geeks than straight-up tree lovers, here he is on the Ents:

#163 To W. H. Auden, 7 June 1955

…Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading some one else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing  but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connection with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war…

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Lost in Light: A Short Film on Light Pollution

Via BoingBoing, a beautifully shot video by Sriram Murali showing the damage done by city lights.

Shot mostly in California, the movie shows how the view gets progressively better as you move away from the lights. Finding locations to shoot at every level of light pollution was a challenge and getting to the darkest skies with no light pollution was a journey in itself. Here’s why I think we should care more. The night skies remind us of our place in the Universe. Imagine if we lived under skies full of stars. That reminder we are a tiny part of this cosmos, the awe and a special connection with this remarkable world would make us much better beings – more thoughtful, inquisitive, empathetic, kind and caring. Imagine kids growing up passionate about astronomy looking for answers and how advanced humankind would be, how connected and caring we’d feel with one another, how noble and adventurous we’d be. How compassionate with fellow species on Earth and how one with Nature we’d feel.

This is an easy problem to fix. On the political front we could start by getting rid of billboards like the mayor of São Paulo did. On the technological front, there are a lot of lessons to learn from the lighting designers of the High Line in New York.

Stellarium: A Handy Desktop Planetarium

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Let’s say you want to plan a camping trip to coincide with an auspicious time to view a meteor shower (like the Persead shower that reached its peak last week). You’ll want to pick a time when the moon is not up. Or let’s say you want to have some friends over for some planetary viewing and a glass of bourbon (as happened last night at the Root Simple compound). In that case you might want to pick a time when you can also take a look at the moon.

In the pre-personal computer era I used to use a planisphere. I still have my 1980s era plastic planisphere. But the planisphere does not show the planets or moon. You’ve got to hunt down that info elsewhere. And my planisphere is so small that it’s hard to use.

Thankfully, there’s a powerful, free open-source solution: Stellarium. Stellarium is a computer based planetarium that comes in OS X, Windows, Linux and Ubuntu versions. You can dial in any place and time. It comes with a catalog of 600,000 stars, eclipse simulation, meteor shower information, telescope control and much more.

How can you use Stellarium with a telescope or binoculars? I face major challenges using my fully manual Dobsonian telescope in light-polluted Los Angeles. It’s very hard to find “deep sky” objects such as nebulae and star clusters when you can, literally, count the number of stars in the sky. Last night I used my old star maps and regretted not loading Stellarium on Kelly’s laptop.

Stellarium comes with a bunch of scripts that function like planetarium shows. You can watch an eclipse or take a tour of suggested celestial objects. Two inventive teachers went so far as to make their own planetarium with cardboard and use Stellarium with a video projector and mirrored dome. This is just about the best school science project ever:

There’s a beneficial feedback loop here. Kids and adults interested in the night sky will advocate for less or better artificial lighting in the future. Dark skies are essential for the health of both wildlife and us humans. Just ponder the conclusive evidence that links artificial light to breast cancer. But there’s also the beauty of a sky full of stars. While computer based, Stellarium might just get more of us outside at night to look up and ponder our place in this amazing universe.

The Practical Side of Philosophy

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How did I get through my entire education without studying so much as a page of philosophy? It is, after all, the foundation of all human knowledge. In desperate act of catch-up, I’ve attempted in the past few years an often difficult program of philosophical and theological self-study.

Now, before you think I’ve gone way off topic on a homesteading blog, let me counter with a few examples of how philosophy can help navigate thorny DIY questions:

  1. How should one evaluate arguments for or against compost tea, organic gardening, or Hugelkultur beds?
  2. Is it ethical to drive/fly/buy stuff in plastic bottles given our ongoing ecological crisis?
  3. Do the humanities or arts have anything meaningful to contribute to our understanding of nature or is the whole shebang covered under the sciences?

In one of the Republican debates last year Marco Rubio quipped that America needs more welders and fewer philosophers. It’s true that much of academic philosophy has devolved into either arcane navel gazing or a dogmatic neuroscience-based materialist orthodoxy. And good luck getting a job with a philosophy degree. But it’s my hope that the practical side of philosophy can be reclaimed, though that might have to happen outside of the context of the university. As an example the creative folks at the Idler Academy in London offer both beekeeping and philosophy classes. To Rubio’s assertion I would counter that we need people who can both weld and understand a logical or ethical argument.

Attempting my own self-study program hasn’t been easy. There’s been a whole bunch of $50 words to learn and I can’t say that I’m anywhere near the point where I can explain key concepts. It would have been better to have started this program earlier in my life and integrated with all the other things I had to study in school.

But as to how to get that self-study program going, I recently found a book that covers the history of philosophy in a clear and entertaining format: Oxford professor Anthony Kenny’s A Brief History of Western Philosophy. I also struggled through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, a difficult but worthwhile tome that completely changed my view of history. You can listen to a five part interview with Taylor via the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Ideas show (this, by the way, shows the cultural superiority of Canadians–I doubt our NPR would do a five hour interview with a philosopher!). But I’d recommend starting with Kenny’s book. Even a cursory study of Aristotle and Plato unlocks a lot of the key issues and debates in Western culture.

In a few more years I hope to know the difference between my epistomologies and phenomenologies. Then I can move on to welding!

Plenty of choices

watershelfOur market-driven economy enshrines consumer choice as one of its highest virtues. The other day I was standing in line at the grocery store, looking at the bottled water, and I just had to take a snapshot of what I was seeing. This is only a portion of the water case.

I can buy water from Italy or France or Fiji or Hawaii or Iceland. I can buy water with odd molecular super powers: it’s oxygenated or alkaline or…something? Buying a bottle of water in certain stores in Los Angeles in the year 2016 can be as exquisitely nuanced a process as buying a bottle of wine.

When it comes to buying water, I have tons of choices–as long as I have no problem with generating utterly unnecessary plastic waste, or with flying my drinking water across the world (a gesture that even Marie Antoinette may have found excessive), or with paying exorbitant sums for this folly.

In other words, I am perfectly free to buy into this group psychosis which is our contemporary culture.

What I cannot have is a free sip of water from a functioning water fountain. They are as rare as hen’s teeth in these parts-or perhaps I should say, rare as pay phones.

What I cannot have is tap water in my home which I can drink without filtering it.

What I cannot have is clean water running in my streams and rivers, or even an ocean clean enough to forage from. Sometimes, it’s not even clean enough to swim in it.

But oh yes, I have plenty of choice.

mtwilsonfountain

A beautiful fountain at Mt. Wilson Observatory. Like most beautiful old drinking fountains in public places, it is no longer functioning.

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