Hooray for the shortest day!

Just like our ancestors, we’ve been watching the sun get weaker and lower in the sky. Today, just like our ancestors, we hope to see the sun rise a little farther north and the days start to get a little longer.  It’s been almost in the 60s so we aren’t looking forward to a stronger, hotter sun.  But our ancestors lived in a colder, more northern climate had lots of reason to celebrate this time of year.

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The Blue Hole, our favorite swimming hold at Meadowcreek, is still cold since our narrow valley doesn’t get much sun in winter. It doesn’t even get over the tops of the trees at 3 pm.  Then it slides behind Angora Mountain at 4.  It’s still light till 5:30 or so, so work continues in our greenhouses.

But now we have hit the winter solstice and days are geting longer!

The solstice is an astronomic event on December 21, but it takes a few days to really notice the days get longer.  About December 25 is when it really sinks in.  Great coincidence that that is Christmas.

I guess it makes sense to celebrate the stolstice if you are a real Naturfreunde, but I think Christmas will do.  After all, most of the traditions of Christmas were taken from pagan celebrations of the solstice.

It’s undeniable that the date of Christmas was chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the December solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere.

Christmas is also referred to as Yule, which is derived from the Norse word jól, referring to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival.The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor.
We love to have fires this time of year. The wood is often wet from the rains this time of year, but we get the fire roaring, grilled steaks and warm everyone up. Guess these fires will have to be the Juul fires to celebrate the Solstice. 
The pagans knew the value of charcoal/biochar and Christians continued the tradition but in a watered down version.  In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine.
In Ancient Rome the Winter Solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days.

Saturnalian banquets were held from as far back as around 217 BCE. The festival was held to honor Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters. Masquerades often occurred during this time.

It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end.

I don’t think we’ll reinstitute that tradition at Meadowcreek.  The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the tern saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.  Not exactly what we want at Meadowcreek.

In Poland the ancient December solstice observance prior to Christianity involved people showing forgiveness and sharing food. It was a tradition that can still be seen in what is known as Gody.

In the northwestern corner of Pakistan, a festival called Chaomos, takes place among the Kalasha or Kalash Kafir people. It lasts for at least seven days, including the day of the December solstice. It involves ritual baths as part of a purification process, as well as singing and chanting, a torchlight procession, dancing, bonfires and festive eating.

Many Christians celebrate St Thomas’ Day in honor of St Thomas the Apostle on December 21. In Guatemala on this day, Mayan Indians honor the sun god they worshipped long before they became Christians with a dangerous ritual known as the polo voladore, or “flying pole dance”. Three men climb on top of a 50-foot pole. As one of them beats a drum and plays a flute, the other two men wind a rope attached to the pole around one foot and jump. If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and that the days will start getting longer.

The ancient Incas celebrated a special festival to honor the sun god at the time of the December solstice. In the 16th century ceremonies were banned by the Roman Catholics in their bid to convert the Inca people to Christianity. A local group of Quechua in Cusco, Peru, revived the festival in the 1950s. It is now a major festival that begins in Cusco and proceeds to an ancient amphitheater a few miles away.

Yule is also known as Alban Arthan and was one of the “Lesser Sabbats” of the Wiccan year in a time when ancient believers celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and days with more light. This took place annually around the time of the December solstice and lasted for 12 days. The Lesser Sabbats fall on the solstices and equinoxes.

The idea of Santa Claus may have come from the story of the first shamans who were said to climb high into the upper worlds and return with gifts of wisdom and prophecies.

No matter where the traditions came from, we will have fun celebrating Christ’s birthday, seeing long lost relatives, and burning some logs in the fire place.

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Santa lovers might read about Tony Van Renterghem’s research in When Santa Was a Shaman.  You might also like Phyllis Siefker’s Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years

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Helping people: health and well-being versus income

Hearing stories of homeless families will break your heart. At our house, its happened so many times that we get bombarded by letters this time of year.  Every charity in the country seems to have our address and is intent on filling up our mailbox. Even though the best research says most charities do not help move people out of poverty.  They just make poverty more comfortable.

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The problem is how we look at poverty.  Emotion and politics have defined poverty in useless ways. Poverty is defined by most people as lack of income.  You are above or below the poverty line depending on how much income you have.  From this perspective, the goal must be to get more income into the hands of poor people. This has generated a huge federal and state bureaucracy which lobbies to keep their jobs.  More income may help in the short term, but supplying people with income does not get at the root causes of poverty.

Maybe some day those who run charities will actually read a little of the research on the causes of poverty.  Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize for pointing out that personal well being is not determined by income.  Lots of sick and unhappy people have plenty of money.  Instead Sen proposed that well being is determined by the capabilities a person or family or community has.  Instead of defining poverty as the lack of something, Sen says we need to look at the capabilities which enable people to have happy, healthy, productive lives.  At best, income is one of many results of having these capabilities.

Sen anticipated more recent resilience work. Many of the qualities of resilient systems are the same as the capabilities of Sen.  Resilient systems accumulate reserves and infrastructure. People escaping from poverty accumulate savings and property.  Resilient systems maintain themselves.  Non-impoverished people maintain their houses and families.   Resilient systems are networked but independent. People with rising income have  strong networks, but maintain their independence.

Resilient systems are self-organized.  People rising from poverty organize themselves for productive activities.  They don’t wait for government or charities to intervene.  Resilient systems have a capacity for transformation.  People with rising incomes adapt to changing conditions and even totally transform their careers when needed.

Resilience research offers much needed insight into poverty.  We cannot continue to define poverty by what is not.  We must understand the attitudes and personal qualities which help people have healthy, happy lives.  All the while realizing that increased income is at best only one result of people having these qualities.

Most of those who run charities are very intent on raising money and giving things to the poor.  It makes us feel good because we think we are helping people.  Nothing wrong with that.

However, if we can help people to become resilient, they will be less likely to suffer when troubles arise.  They’ll be able to adapt and, if necessary, transform their lives.  They’ll know how to cope themselves.  And the charities won’t be needed any more.

And we’ll have less mail to go through at Christmas time.

The Earth becomes Hell?

Resilient people usually object when pessimists say things such as: the Earth is going to hell.   When I encounter people talking about how the world is bad and becoming worse, I try to show them how they are mistaken. Even if they are right about the trends, we don’t reverse those trends by accepting it as fact.  But Stephen Hawking recently made a very logical argument with the conclusion that Earth will soon become a living Hell.

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During a video clip aired at a recent Peking conference, Hawking said that humanity would have to deal with massive population growth in the centuries ahead. He noted that the world’s population has been doubling every 40 years.

“This exponential growth cannot continue into the next millennium,” Hawking opined. “By the year 2600, the world’s population would be standing shoulder to shoulder, and the electricity consumption would make the Earth glow red-hot.

His logic is pretty impeccable.  If population doubles every 40 years, every inch of the planet will be covered by people in 583 years.

There’s lots of evidence we are going in that direction.  Witness the massive cities and pollution of Asia and the destruction of African landscapes in the past 30 years

However, Hawking’s logic is built on the assumption that people won’t work to control population growth.  And that war won’t destroy the population.  Nuclear bombs or biological weapons could do the job.

Hawking’s new prediction is also contradicted by his 2014 prediction.  “I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking said in a 2014 BBC interview.  “Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate,” “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

So war could decrease human population and AI systems, having superseded man, could implement procedures to insure human populations decline.

And Hawking’s 40-year doubling rule won’t necessarily hold true for the next five centuries. Middle-of-the-road projections suggest that population growth will level off sometime after 2100, well before we’re standing shoulder to shoulder.

Even if he’s wrong, Hawking’s video of the earth becoming a living hell could wake some people up.  Maybe a modern day Jeremiah is just what the world needs.

Though we dislike doomsayers, the facts are that human population is growing too fast, destroying natural systems right and left and using way too much energy.  If  you are sticking your head in the sand and denying these facts, you are part of the problem.

Laughing Buddha, Grinning Jesus

At the Resilience outposts, we like to laugh.  We laugh together , we laugh at silliness; we laugh at ourselves. Laughter cures disease, some believe.  Certainly laughter is good for the soul.  We all need a good laugh every day.  People who laugh are more likely to be resilient, to overcome challenges. Most religious texts are short on laughter, though.

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The shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” I sometimes wish there were a verse like Jesus grinned.  Jesus certainly had a sense of humor.  It’s hard to think of a camel squeezing through the eyes of a needle without thinking someone is pulling your leg.  The bible never says Jesus laughed or Jesus grinned, but it does say that joy is one of the fruits of the spirit.  According to Galatians 5, you can spot a Christian because they are joyful (also peaceful, loving, patient, kind, gentle, faithful, good and have self-control

I don’t cotton to the idea that Christians should be serious and dour. One fruit of having the Spirit in you is joy.  So cultivate joyfulness.  Enjoy life.  When you goof up, laugh about it and do it right next time.  Be silly now and then.  Help others see the joy in life.

While we’re on the topic of joy, the Buddhists tell us the roly-poly laughing statue you see in some Chinese restaurants is not really a buddha.  Instead the statue is of a traveling monk in China who loved to laugh.  Chinese restaurants have adopted him because he is good for business.  People think they get luck by rubbing his belly.

Maybe that traveling monk was really a Galatian Christian.  That could explain why he loved to laugh.  He had the joy, joy, joy deep in his heart, as the old hymn goes.  Instead of rubbing the statue’s belly, a more lasting fix would be to get the Spirit.  Then you’ll know the joy and peace we all love to know this time of year.

Go to the wilderness

Those of us who live next to wild areas are living as everyone did when the world’s major religions were established.  Wilderness was right outside the door for most people in those days.  Jesus, for instance, needed and loved the wilderness.

He frequently withdrew to the wilderness to pray, according to the physician Luke. Matthew also tells us: After He had sent them away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone.  Other accounts tell us: Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and He spent the night in prayer to God. He took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray.

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Jesus was lucky, he had wilderness right outside his door.  By the time of Jesus, people had already spread over the entire Earth, but wilderness was still accessible to nearly everyone.

And Jesus needed it.  Often the crowds of people became too much and he sought the wild places.  Or he just needed to climb a mountain and pray.

Some of us are lucky like Jesus, but most of us aren’t. I can go a few feet outside my door and be in wilderness.     Bear and coyotes, skunks and armadillos, deer and raccoons are regular visitors to our land.  There are no close mountains to climb for prayer, but plenty of wild places nearby.

There was no need to preserve wilderness in Jesus’ time.  There weren’t enough people to overwhelm the wild places.

Today, with the Earth’s population doubling every 40 years, wilderness is being destroyed, or is already gone, in many countries.  Thanks to our ancestors, our country has preserved at least some wilderness.  Appreciate it.  Get out in it.  Go see it.  If you get the chance, live next to it.

Be like Jesus.  Go into the wilderness and pray.

Armenia, Iran, Turkey and freedom

The sun is rising here in Armenia and it looks like another beautiful day.  Armenia gets 300 days of sun a year.  Much like Southern California, where there are so many Armenians that the street signs in some neighborhoods are written in Armenian.  Armenians came to live there because the Turks had taken over part of Armenia and the Christian Armenians had run for their lives.  Even today the border is highly fortified and no one can travel between Armenia and Turkey. America’s famous Armenians, the Kardashians, recently came back to Armenia to commemorate the destruction of Western Armenia by Turkey.

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From much of Armenia, you can look out on Mount Ararat which was historically Armenian and is now a part of Turkey and can’t even be visited by Armenians.  Armenia was the first Christian country–with monasteries and churches almost 2000 years old.  Later, enemies overran Armenia and all the countries around it, but somehow the Armenians survived and reestablished their country though almost surrounded by Moslem countries.  In addition to Turkey, Armenia also has closed borders with its Moslem neighber Azerbaijan, due to a war after the Soviet Union broke up.

But Armenia is good friends with many Moslem nations today.  Many Americans are surprised to learn that Iran and Armenia share an open border.  I traveled the road to Iran and saw mileage markers written in Iranian numerals.

Iranians love to come to Armenia because they can take off the headscarves and long robes, drink, eat pork and see recent movies–all prohibited in Iran. Armenians like all the money Iranians spend and welcome their visits.

Many Americans believe Iran is our enemy and Armenia is our friend, yet Iran is Armenia’s friend. Many forget Iran used to be our friend and for centuries invaded, destroyed and fought Armenians. Things get confusing in the real world.

Iran decided in the 1930s that people shouldn’t call it Persia.  Until then, the West had always known it as the Persian empire.  This empire swept through Armenia, destroying monasteries, universities and libraries.  The ones which survived were in remote mountainous regions.  I’ve visited many of them and they are hard to get to even today.

The Persian Empire included territories from Greece to China and was the largest empire the world had ever known. The religion of Persia in those days was Zoroastrianism–the first widespread monotheistic religion.  Zoroastrianism was severely repressed when the Moslems took over Iran.  Nearly all Zoroastrians fled to India and the US.

The lack of freedom in Iran is such a severe contrast to the freedom of Armenia. You might wonder why the Iranian government doesn’t close the border with Christian, freedom-loving Armenia.  The answer seems to be that the yearning for freedom is so great in Iran that the government must leave some outlet.  So it leaves the border with tiny Armenia open so those who need a taste of freedom can come and enjoy it.

I’ve traveled all over Armenia and everyone has been gracious and helpful.  I’ve yet to hear a harsh word from anyone–except for the lady who reminded me I was walking by without paying at Geghard Church.  I was glad to pay about 50 cents for the privilege of seeing a church carved into stone with a sacred spring arising in its middle.

Peaceful, hard-working, freedom-loving Armenia has managed to keep its Christian traditions while trapped between hostile Moslem countries. What a contrast to the US, where Christianity is declining with no Moslem countries within thousands of miles. Americans have a lot to learn from Armenia.

Loving your country: Armenia, US, and Neshoba County

In the US, it is fashionable in some circles to disparage the country and blame all the ills of the world on America.  If an Armenian did that in Armenia, he is the one who would be disparaged.  I asked a group of Armenians why Armenians are so much more patriotic than Americans.  They said it’s explained by 1500 years of fighting for your existence among hostile enemies, a genocide at the hands of your neighbor, and being under the thumb of other counties for hundreds of years.armenia US flagsSo maybe Americans will be patriotic in 1500 years if we become surrounded by enemies.  It certainly helps to have an enemy to gin up patriotism.  In recent times, Americans were most proud of their country right after the attacks of 9/11.  Polling today records the lowest numbers ever of Americans saying they are proud to be an American.  Over the years, Republicans have maintained the same level of high pride in America.  Those calling themselves Democrats are the least patriotic.  Less than half say they are extremely proud to be Americans in the latest poll.  This is the lowest level ever.  The second lowest for Democrats was during the Bush administration.  Some Americans’ patriotism appears to be determined by whether they control the White House.

Armenian patriotism has nothing to do with who is in power.  True patriotism never does. Armenians judge their politicians by whether they help the country.  Some in US judge the country by whether it helps their politicians.

Another perspective on patriotism is expressed in a 1926 article called “Patriotism and the Soil.” The author contends that true patriotism is expressed in how much we care for the soil and forests and other renewable resources of our country.  He says, the true patriot builds up his country by literally building up the soil of his country.  Maybe we should judge our politicians and ourselves by how much we care for nature in our country.  Maybe the Democrat who builds up the soil in his garden and supports sustainable agriculture in the US is more patriotic than those say they love America yet destroy our soil and forests and air.

Maybe a more lasting sort of patriotism is built on first loving the actual soil and forests and landscape where you live. In studying US counties where sustainability and resilience are highest (such as Neshoba County, Mississippi), we’ve found that people really love their counties. They don’t want to leave.  If they do leave they want to come back. They care for the place they live and its resources.  When trouble hits, they help each other and bounce back.

Maybe this attitude is the strongest root for enduring patriotism.  And for a patriotism which really improves your country instead of just being flag waving.