Monthly Archives: December 2014

Curious Place for a Wren

imgcoverWhile searching for resources for upcoming novel, Lost Words, I found issues of a periodical called Birds Illustrated by Color Photography, at  -This website is a wonderful source for old manuscripts.

The June, 1898 issue of this magazine has the following story:

It has been said a wren will build in anything from a bootleg to a bomb-shell, and this seems to be so. Many an urchin can testify to having found the neat nest of a wren in his cast-off shoe or a tin can, and nests filled with wren eggs are frequent finds in odd places. The home of a wren a few miles from Petersburg, Virginia furnishes the strangest case in the matter of queer habitations yet discovered. This country is the site of one of the most dramatic epochs of the civil war, and frequently the bones of unburied soldiers are picked up. Recently a rusty old skull was found in which one of these wrens chose a shelter. The skull, when found, was hidden in a patch of shrubbery. The interior of the one-time pate was carefully cleaned out, and nestled in the basin of the bony structure was the birthplace of many a baby wren. The skull made a perfect domicile. A bullet hole in the rear formed a window. An eyeless socket was the exit and entrance to the grim home. It is easy to imagine that many a family feud had its origin in the desire of others to possess so secure a home.

I don’t know how I’ll use this little account in Lost Words yet; at this point I’m only gathering material. I find the juxtaposition interesting – there’s something melancholy and ominous about a human skull, here the nest site for one of the cheeriest songbirds. I’m reminded of Act 5, Scene 1 in Hamlet:

(Hamlet) Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.—Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.


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Do Animals Have Souls?

St FrancisLast week brought an interesting cluster of prompts for this topic.

(1) On Wednesday, in the course of delivering the lecture “Ken of Kin: Aesthetic Experience of the Forest” I said I found reason to agree with Vine Deloria on a wide range of metaphysical issues, but not his view on the inner life of animals. I said Deloria said, “…animals have an intellectual and spiritual life similar to our own,”[1] and went on to disagree with him. After the lecture[2], an Indian friend questioned my reasons for disagreeing with Deloria. I said it is impossible to imagine what it’s like to be a bird, because all we can do is imagine our own consciousness in the bird’s situation, a human mind in a bird’s head. Putting aside any ‘bird-brained’ jibes, it seemed to me the lives of animals are so different from our lives, their conscious experience must be quite different as well. I didn’t (and never) dispute animals have conscious experiences – Descartes got that completely wrong.

(2) The next day, a wide array of news organizations reported gleefully that Pope Francis opined dogs might go to heaven (presumably, if they don’t sin too much). Rick Gladstone, for example, wrote Dogs in Heaven? Pope Francis Leaves Pearly Gates Open for the New York Times, including:

 Pope Francis has given hope to gays, unmarried couples and advocates of the Big Bang theory. Now, he has endeared himself to dog lovers, animal rights activists and vegans.

During a weekly general audience at the Vatican last month, the pope, speaking of the afterlife, appeared to suggest that animals could go to heaven, asserting, “Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.”

The story went through the Internet like corn mush through a goose. Obviously, the liberal media took joy in poking conservatives in the eye – notice the dangling of gays, unmarried couples, and Big Bang advocates in front of their noses. Conservatives, for their part, relished the idea of showing, once again, this liberal pope doesn’t know his Bible from his booty theology-wise. “Did Pope Francis open a doggy door to heaven?” Fox outlets wondered. Then, when the story proved bogus, they relished again showing how the liberal left media once again got it all wrong. Soon, the New York Times and many others corrected this holiday- season story:

Correction: December 16, 2014

An article on Friday about whether Pope Francis believes that animals go to heaven — a longstanding theological question in the church — misstated the pope’s recent remarks and the circumstances in which they were made.

Finally, (3) when collecting materials for upcoming novel Lost Words, I searched Amazon for books about birdsong, and found Born to Sing, by Charles Hartshorne. Hartshorne was professor of philosophy at the University of Texas when I studied there. I ordered it at once. Turns out, Hartshorne makes the case that some birds sing because they enjoy the beautiful songs. I don’t know if he goes further than that, only read the first chapters so far, but it’s an easy logical toe-dance from some birds aesthetically appreciate birdsong, to some birds appreciate beauty, and from there, who knows? A consciousness capable of aesthetic appreciation might be capable of other conscious feats thought by many to be exclusively human. In fact, there might be sufficient consciousness there to posit post-mortem perpetuation.

So, where do these three prompts lead? Obviously, I’ll finish Hartshorne’s book to see how far he takes the idea of aesthetically appreciative birds. He was a panpsychist (he preferred psychicalist , so it seems likely we’ll go there. Pope Francis appears to have been the object, not the instigator, of the recent fracas around animal heaven. We are all better served considering how we treat animals in this world and stop worrying about the next. Saint Francis, patron saint of ecology, (is saint higher rank than pope?) in legend said, “…wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds.” Back to the first prompter – I’m often struck by correlations between Pragmatism (of the Peirce, James, Dewey sort) and Deloria, or generally many of the views I hear expressed by Indian friends, especially since reading Scott Pratt’s marvelous book, Native Pragmatism: Rethinking the Roots of American Philosophy. In particular, my friend’s suggestion I observe birds more carefully to see what that tells me is an example of the radical empiricism Deloria (and many Indian philosophers before him) and the Pragmatists endorsed. So, I’ll try that.

Another argument occurs to me, though. Consider consciousness. We are never simply conscious; we are always conscious of something. Clearly, animals, even plants, are conscious of their surroundings. Maybe aware is a better word in the case of plants. Does this show that when a bird (for example) is conscious of a tree, her consciousness is similar (perspective notwithstanding) to my consciousness of the same tree? Humans have more going on in their heads, including some language-dependent stuff (internal monolog, and so on), but it seems this sort of consciousness is quite similar, human and bird, because it is mainly defined by its content, not its source. The same might be said for remembering and imagining, when derived from this sort of consciousness. It seems my friend is right – I need to watch the birds more carefully.

[1] He actually said, “Increasingly, studies show them to have as complete an emotional/intellectual life as we do.” – Vine Deloria, Power and Place Equal Personality (coauthored with Daniel Wildcat), p.

[2] which was well attended by an engaged audience with interesting comments and questions, a terrific time. Thanks to the College of Menominee Nation for sponsoring.

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Ken of Kin

Last spring I spent a couple of days at the Sustainable Development Institute ( helping plant their turtle garden. They invited faculty from the College to work together to figure out ways to strengthen the role of place in our courses and to bring students outside. I promised to fit outdoor class work into Introduction to the Humanities (HUM100), and Creative Writing (ENG211).

When late summer arrived and I prepared syllabi for fall sessions of these courses this chicken came home to roost. The creative writing connection was straightforward – we spent one class working on writing outdoor settings. The humanities connection turned out to be more complex, and more fruitful. HUM100 is a survey course, a whirlwind review of the various disciplines in the humanities. I always commit one week to philosophy (where most of my academic training falls) and touch on whatever I think students will find interesting. In the past, they’ve read the usual Platonic openers (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito), or essays by Vine Deloria and Daniel Wildcat from Power and Place: Indian Education in America. This fall I assigned chapter III from John Dewey’s Art as Experience, and we worked in aesthetics for our philosophy touch-base.

Dewey’s wonderful book came out in the early 1930’s, created a stir, but is largely ignored now. His driving insight was that it’s the nature of the experience, not the object experienced, that makes and experience aesthetic. This opened the door to a much broader conception of aesthetic experience, and pushed so-called high-art off the pedestal to make room for aesthetic enjoyment of a campfire, a starry night, a forest.

That was the connection I sought – at the College of Menominee Nation, the Sustainable Development Institute, and within Menominee culture generally, sustainable forest management is a vital concern. The Menominee forest is visible from space and has been managed since the treaty era to provide for a wide range of needs sustainably. What about the forest as an aesthetic object? HUM100 students spent an hour walking in the woods adjacent to campus, experiencing the forest aesthetically (guided by their reading of Dewey), and taking field notes. These experiences and notes form the core of an upcoming academic paper, Ken of Kin: Aesthetic Experience of the Forest. I’ll present a community lecture (part of the faculty lecture series) on this paper next week.

Shawano 001

The paper begins provocatively:

In 2012, Qatar’s royal family bought one of five Paul Cezanne paintings titled The Card Players for approximately 250 million dollars. By way of contrast, a 160-acre plot of hardwood forest in Forest County Wisconsin is now for sale for approximately 250 thousand dollars. The painting is roughly 1 meter high by 1.3 meter wide. The 160-acre forest is a little over 400 meters square, or roughly 2.5 times the size of the area around Walden Pond that so inspired Henry David Thoreau. The painting sold for a price 1,000-times that of the forest. The forest is approximately 125,000 times larger than the painting. Many factors other than aesthetic ones affect the price of both paintings and forests; nonetheless, the difference is startling when you consider the variety, quantity, and quality of aesthetic experience the forest is capable of providing compared to the painting[i]. Putting aside considerations other than aesthetic ones, is Cezanne’s Card Players 1,000-times more valuable than the 160-acre forest in Forest County? How can we go about answering this question?

[i] Ironically, Paul Cézanne wrote to his son shortly before his death, “As a painter I am beginning to see more clearly how to work from Nature.. .But I still can’t do justice to the intensity unfolding before my eyes.” –  Roe Sue. The Private Lives of the Impressionists (New York. Harper Collins Publishers, 2006), 268.

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When is a Click a Tic?

As technology extends our voices, our thoughts, our fingers, the next generation of mental illnesses will surely cross the biological/electronic border and reside partly in cyberspace. I mention this because I’ve been having some trouble controlling the touchpad on my laptop…


Charles Hartshorne

Yes, I searched the internet for remedies, eventually contacted the manufacturer (Dell), but those paths back to computer health played out and the symptoms remain. The symptoms? The cursor jumps to a place of its choosing on the screen and either triggers whatever is supposed to happen for so-called ‘mouse-over’ or actually initiates — it clicks, though there is never an actual click, only a ghostly chuckle as I’m launched off to some destination unknown and unwanted.

I bring all this up because yesterday I announced to the world my purchase of a wonderful little book, Born to Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song by Charles Hartshorne. I’m interested in birdsong as part of my research for an upcoming novel, tentatively Lost Words, whose theme is human communications and related difficulties We are never able to say what we mean, but no matter, our listeners never understand what we say as we do in any case. Communication is a crapshoot. Something like that. Birdsong comes into the story. Also a parrot taught to say, “Witch! She turned me into a bird!”

I studied philosophy under Hartshorne at U Texas back in the ‘70s, and so when his name popped up in my search for birdsong resources I followed, I clicked, I bought. Charles died more than a decade ago, though he lived to be 103. He was mainly interested in Theology – developed Whitehead’s ontology of becoming into Process Theology. If change is the fundamental reality (as a line of philosophers from Heraclitus to Whitehead surmised) then God must be temporal, mutable, etc. His books not about birdsong include titles like Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God, and many such. Our paths crossed in Austin years ago but didn’t overlap much as I wasn’t interested much in theology.

Back to the topic here…immediately as I sealed the deal with Amazon to send the birdsong book my way, the cursor on my Dell leaped delighted to an icon on the screen labeled something like ‘Tell the World You Bought This Book’, and clicked there. Who knows, is this a problem of electronics, unsolved despite my diligent efforts, or is this (as I now suspect) Tourette’s Syndrome 2.0? According to my friend, Wiki, “Tourette’s is defined as part of a spectrum of tic disorders, which includes provisional, transient, and persistent (chronic) tics.” When is a click a tic I wonder?

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