Blog changes

Since I started blogging over at Witches and Pagans, and started my health site where I’ve been posting articles on wellness, I’ve been trying to decide what to do with this space. So this is where I’m going to write about politics. My perspective is mostly Libertarian. Mostly.

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Fermentation (its not just for mead or beer)

Fermentation is defined by Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary as an enzymically controlled transformation of an organic compound. Well, that was helpful. Not. In American culture we most often think of fermentation in relation to alcoholic beverages, but any food can be fermented and there are plenty of reasons why it’s a good idea to include some fermented foods in your diet daily. Fermented foods have many benefits, but the most important, are the addition of enzymes and beneficial bacteria to the digestive tract. Eating only cooked foods, as is common in American culture, deprives the body of both these elements.

Enzymes are complex proteins produced by living cells to carry out specific biochemical reactions. They act like chemical scissors, breaking long chain amino acids into shorter, more digestible ones. The pancreas produces enzymes, but as we age, we produce less and less, so consuming them with our food becomes more important. The presence of these enzymes in food means that the body doesn’t have to secrete more than a minimal amount. Neither humans nor animals can live without enzymes. Rats can’t be maintained on a synthetic diet for their entire life span of 2-4 years without serious health problems, including blindness and urogenetory problems.

Beneficial bacteria have myriad uses in the digestive tract including supporting our immune system. Bacteria occur in air, water, plants, animals and rotting organic material. There are several bacterial families in foods, and while most promote spoilage, some are valuable for our well-being. These are the same bacteria that are responsible for sour dough bread, all fermented milk products, and pickled vegetables.

Fermented foods are valuable in the treatment of stomach and digestive disorders, including constipation. It is well known that infants fed porridges or other fermented products have less severe diarrheal episodes. Even infant formula when fermented will provide this benefit. When fermented milk is added to an antibiotic regimen, it proved more effective than the antibiotics alone. Supplementation with probiotic fermented milk products has been shown to improve height and weight gain in children. This addition to childhood diets has the added benefit of reducing incidence of diarrhea and fever. Malted cereals when sprouted, boiled and dried produce the enzymes amylase, protease and glaucanas, which will break down porridges. This is ideal food for infants and small children, and is a common practice in Africa.

Childhood gastrointestinal disturbances are not the only infections that respond to the probiotic effects of fermented foods. The severity of respiratory infection in the elderly can also be reduced by the inclusion of fermented milk products such as yoghurt into the diet. It is likely that these products provide a boost the immune system since the severity of viral infections can also be reduced. Certain lactic acid bacteria can produce antibiotics and bacteriocins – chemicals that kill other bacteria.

In traditional diets, small amounts of fermented foods were consumed with every meal. While these foods are easy to make, once the techniques are understood, there are also many quality commercial products available. Good examples are yogurt, sour cream, saurkraut, and various pickles. Dairy products should say “live cultures” on the label and organic is ideal. For saurkraut and pickles, look in the refrigerator section. The ingredient list should be short and sweet, listing only the vegetable, salt, water and perhaps some spices. The label should say “not pasteurized”, since pasteurization kills both the healthy bacteria and the enzymes. You can also drink the ‘juice’ in which the vegetable is packed since this will also have the beneficial bacteria and enzymes.

A healthy digestion is necessary both for our physical and emotional well-being. So eat some friendly bacteria and make your intestines happy.

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Pagan Zealots

In her Blog’o Gnosis, Anne Hill writes her Thoughts on Spirituality, Politics and Values. A long-time member of Reclaiming (no longer), she is now having her doubts about the value of combining religion with politics. I share her concerns. She writes:

Zealotry begins with a deep sense of frustration at the slow pace of change. That urgency, combined with strong religious beliefs, means that we turn to a sympathetic deity or presiding force to intercede in human affairs. And of course, because our deity is sympathetic it validates all our extreme views. We have now created a closed loop of influence, within which we feel increasingly justified and self-righteous about our cause.

Can she really mean “extreme?” Yes, indeed. She adds: But the closed loops I experienced encouraged emotionality and discouraged analysis and debate. This has been my experience as well. Pagan religion has been greatly influenced by both the environmental movement and Feminism and this has defined us. But both of these are political movements, and if Paganism is to survive as a religion, we need to move beyond transient and power-focused politics.

Political movements address particular issues that exist in a given society. They do not address the nature of human existence. This is the job of religion, and by focusing on what amounts to transient issues, we have not yet created the depth of meaning that would make our religion viable for the long-term. A fellow student of mine at Cherry Hill Seminary recently left because he was in crisis, and felt that Paganism had failed to support him in his time of need. This is sad and distressing. While the seminary has used this event to spur the addition of student support systems, this does not change the fact that we need to be thinking deeper about our religion than the current political issue.

I my twenties, I read Starhawk’s Dreaming the Dark. It was inspiring and magical, but twenty years later it now seems shallow. Not because of lack of passion, but because the issues are far more complex than she presented them. Political action thrives on polarization and its partner, dumming down. Simplifying any issue can create a moral clarity that is a mirage. Voting one way or another is easy if you are sure that you are RIGHT. This sort of moral clarity has historically led to people being killed for the “greater good.”

But life (and politics) is far more nuanced. I find myself deeply frustrated at the assumption that one must be of a particular political opinion to be a Pagan, or that I will vote in lock-step with a particular group because of my religious views. Starhawk writes about the recent recall election in Wisconson: For today is vote on the recall of Scott Walker, the union-busting governor who was the focus of protests and a sit-in in the Capitol in January of 2011

This is not only a far reach from Paganism’s focus on environmental and feminist issues, but because she fails to examine both sides of the argument, she (and Selena Fox as well) runs the risk of zealotry. I do not like seeing this in my religion. It feels ugly to me, but I will not ignore it. In good conscience, I can’t.

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Eating Ethics

This was an essay written for a New York Times Essay contest, the question being, “Why is eating meat ethical?”

Not eating meat is a denial of death. Death is a part of life. It is the cycle that is important, and where humans break Nature’s cycles, we pay the price. Eating meat is a part of that cycle. There is a degree of hubris in the idea that if one stops eating meat, that somehow this balances the scales. This only pushes death away, making it less personal. To refuse to eat anything with a face ignores both the vitality of plants, and the myriad small birds and mammals that are killed in farm equipment. These lives are not less valuable than that of a domesticated cow or pig.

Everything dies, and to live is to create a devastation. Every minute, microorganisms are killed in our digestive tract. Building and heating our homes kills trees. Feeding our beloved carnivorous pets kills other animals. This is a tide we cannot sweep back. Life feeds on life. There are, in the animal kingdom, both predators and prey, and prey does not die of old age. Our prohibitions, inhibitions and regulations around the killing of animals have disrupted the natural balance, and while it is stupid to embrace an ethic of rejoicing in death, it is appropriate and healthy to embrace an ethic of cyclical living.

To ask the question “Is it ethical to eat meat?” is to imply that eating meat is an option. Humans are the animals that need ethics purely because we have the capacity to choose our behavior. But despite this capacity, we are still animals, tied to our biology and our body’s needs. No matter how much we might desire to eschew consuming our fellow beings, denial of our needs comes at a cost. We evolved eating meat. We evolved because we ate meat. Digestion and assimilation is an expensive process. Plant eaters have to spend far more time eating and digesting than do omnivores or carnivores, and human omnivores get many nutritional needs met by eating our fellow beings. It is indeed the case that some humans are better adapted to maintain health without meat, but this is not true for all, and we simply do not know enough about nutritional science to make a judgment about percentages. To deny these costs is to devalue our selves.

Humans have valuable contributions to the planet. In the Americas before Columbus, humans were stewards of the land. Indigenous people burned trees every single year for thousands of years, which returned nutrients to the soil and made the forests open and easy to navigate. They cut back forests to make room for wildlife that they could then hunt. They created lively, vibrant eco systems.

It is true that overusing land results in it degradation. It is also true that ignoring it causes degradation. In the western US, lay a number of “exclosures,” areas that were overgrazed in the 40s and have been set aside to recover. They are not recovering. Without human intervention, they look like parking lots; flat, dry expanses with only a few scraggly trees. Standing in stark contrast are the managed lands of U Bar Ranch in Southwestern New Mexico. The ranch hosts the largest population of three endangered species, including 30 to 40 percent of Willow Flycatchers. This spectacularly successful management is done with beef cattle. Humans are not separate from Nature, nor do we have be an anathema. Eating meat is not a question of ethics, it is a matter of humans being willing to play their role in a very complex ecosystem.

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The Earth and DDT

I drive quite a bit and find that non-fiction audio books keep me alert better than coffee or music. My latest listen is The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Don’t Want You to Know About–Because They Helped Cause Them. And why would a dedicated Pagan be listening to such things? Because if you do not know what your opponent is thinking, then there is no possibility of refuting them. And if they make a good point, then I have learned something new. The problem with “new” becomes, sometimes it challenges a dearly held belief.

The title of this book is provocative, and I am certain it will be a popular read for conservatives. It catalogues hypocrisies in the environmental movement. The subject matter includes Al Gore, Rachel Carson, ethanol, synthetic estrogens in our water, environmentalism as a religion, and that is just half the book (I always get the unabridged version). The author, Iain Murray, is a prolific author, primarily of biographies and history. The actual religion of Paganism does not seem to be on his radar, for which I was grateful, as I was interested in what he might have to say about science, not theology. His writing has provided fruit for future blog posts. (Which is amusing, since he specifically targets the blogosphere).

Mr. Murray puts forth the perfectly valid critique that environmentalists often frame things as if death and destruction will happen if we do not do [insert political action here]. He complains that many of these events are framed in a way that is inaccurate, leading, or downright untrue, and I agreed with many of his points (did I mention future blog posts?) Of course while he complains about this, he does exactly what he complains about. He does not consider context, he holds the staunch view that pesticides are of no danger to humans at all, and GMOs are a good thing, and ignores any possible information to the contrary.

Still, he makes good points. I was raised as an environmentalist. I quoted Rachel Carson in my Master’s thesis. There was nothing good about DDT. Ever. Then I read (listened to) 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles Mann. One of the many things he covers in this fine book is the depredations of malaria in the New World. After listening to his descriptions of the disease, and how it affected those that survived the journey, I began to understand that killing off those disease-carrying mosquitoes could be worth spreading around some poison. The realization was rather like kicking myself in the gut.

But DDT is a poison! It kills people and animals! (I said to myself)

And dying of malaria, as do millions of young Africans every year, is not better than maybe dying of cancer. Malaria is a nasty death and afflicts mostly children. And if you survive it, it can come back to haunt you in repeated episodes. While DDT is legal in most African countries, foreign aid is tied to restrictions on its use. Because malaria incidence negatively affects GDP, it prevents Africans from competing in the global market place, an activity that would allow them to forgo foreign aid. Make no mistake, it is the poor that carry the malarial burden. For me to believe that these people can not make their own choices about how they handle disease outbreaks is a bad case of unearned moral superiority.

So where does that leave me, as a Pagan, who believes the Earth is sacred? First, is the recognition that we are her children too, and human life is as valuable as any other. Second, how is the toxin being used? Spraying to protect against disease is a far different matter from generalized agricultural use (which does create resistance). Far smaller amounts are placed on interior walls once or twice a year, in amounts that are negligible by comparison.

Theologically, if I believe that the Earth would punish us for using DDT to support our own survival, after giving us both the drive to do so and the cleverness to succeed, I am putting myself in the same theological trap that I escaped when I left Christianity. No thanks. I believe she loves all her children, not just the furred, scaled and feathered ones.

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Limits, Limitlessness, and More Limits

Another friend asked the question What have your religions taught you about balance, limits, or limitlessness, in terms of expenditure of resources, and support of one another and the systems that we live in?

My first religion was Christianity, in the particularly literal form taught by the Anabaptists. My baby sitter was a Mennonite and I spent 9 hours a day at her house, as well as attending her church on Sundays and Tuesday evenings. She was my surrogate mother from 6 months old up until 4th grade when I became a typical latchkey child. The Anabaptists are big on limits and structure. I knew the rules for behavior because when I crossed them, I got spanked. With a wooden spoon. In contrast, my (single) mom was all about reasoning with me. She was not good at setting clear boundaries, so I hedged when possible.

Now I’m Pagan, and find myself tripping over concepts of structure, hierarchy, and limits. The Anabaptists – and many other Christianities – have a Dominionist view of the planet. It is put here for human use, so anything we do must be just fine. To be fair, the Mennonites I knew were often farmers, and none of them that attended the little church in my babysitter’s basement were captains of industry with the power to affect thousands of live. Like the Amish, the Mennonites are pretty much humble people, just going about their business and trying to stay right with their god. They set limits on their own behavior because it was the moral choice, the one that kept their community intact. The separation of the god and the Earthly realm was not a license to mess up the neighbor’s property for personal gain.

Pagans believe not in the ownership, but in the sacredness of Nature. What a joy it was to find that there was a whole group of people who talked to trees and animals, and unseen beings of all kinds. Like many Pagans who fled Christianity, the limitlessness was heady. I was the arbiter of my experiences, and my experiences were a valid way of interacting with deity. Being in this space has been incredibly valuable. I’ve found my way from damaged to well-being, from pain to joy, and I could only have done that by feeling completely in control of my choices. I was also completely responsible for them. The Law of three-fold return gave me cause to consider my actions in light of how they would affect others in my life.

The concept of “harm none, do as thou wilt” was a license to explore and experiment with all manner of relationships, exploding all the boundaries of conventional life. And in college I had learned how to deconstruct ideas, taking them down to the bare elements from which they had arisen. All this was fun, and it allowed me to tear loose the hangups that had kept me from pursuing healthy relationships. Ritual was an effective tool for transformation. What it did not give me was the tools of creation.

Limits constrict, driving into contact those things that would not otherwise connect. And from this caldron emerges creativity. Limits can force growth if there is a place in which to grow. If the Mennonites had too many limits to allow growth and change, Paganism seemed to lack any such limits, and nothing got done. So my question became, how much limitation and how much freedom?

It was studying marital arts that allowed me to step out of my deconstructionist ethic and decide that there was indeed “right” and “wrong.” The fighting arts are all about setting boundaries. My failure to do so before was not only a function of my desire to explore, it was also a function of my inability to set boundaries on the behavior of the people around me. And in determining those boundaries I came back to Paganism. At Cherry Hill Seminary I took Boundaries and Ethics, and as a class we examined how our behaviors affected others both human and non-human.

What I learned is that in order for me to make a choice about right and wrong behavior, it is to my benefit to get as much information on a given subject as I can in the time frame available. This does not always lead me to the same conclusions as those held by the most vocal members of my Pagan community, but this can be said of any religious group. But what is a Truth for me is that if I have studied my subject matter, then I have the peace of mind that comes from knowing I have done the best I can to make a good decision.

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Stay if You Will

How do we interact with the gods? I have been putting together a ritual based on Plato’s cosmology. It is a sequential honoring of the energetic beings that we know as spirits, ancestors, and gods. My friend was disturbed by the lack of closure at the end. Yes the ritual needs work to be sure. But I’m not sure that the intent of having deity depart is what I want.

My experience with deity is deeply personal. A presence, always there. Guiding and protecting even when I was in despair. I did get angry that bad stuff happened, but at one point I realized that I must still believe that God/dess was present because I persisted in talking – or yelling – to her.

There is a concept of deity that says the gods are huge and scary and powerful and we need to be careful to politely invite them to leave when we finish our veneration. If they stay, their energies might wreak havoc. But what does that mean? It means something will change. If we ask the gods to stay they will change us. Whether that change means transition or havoc depends on who is being asked and how intense one wants the experience to be.

At a blot I attended some years ago, one of the participants invited Odin to “lay it on him.” The general consensus was that the guy had enough problems, and what was he thinking by asking for such drama? Odin is not known for his gentleness. Nor is Hel. Inviting some deities into our space, lacking clear concepts about what we need from them may make for a rough ride. Invoking the trickster god of the North is grounds for ejection in many kindred’s, largely because that particular god doesn’t much care about clarity or boundaries.

But sometimes, this sort of dramatic disruption is for the best. A speeding ticket when you can least afford it, might make you slow down enough to save your life at a later date. And not everyone learns quickly. Another friend of mine used to say the when the Goddess didn’t like what he was doing, she would take a 2×4, pound a spike into it, and swing it at him while saying, “Be one with the nail!” And I suppose that if one finds life rather dull without regular chaotic drama, then a trickster deity is just the ticket.

All experiences offer the opportunity for learning and change if we bother to take responsibility for not just our current actions, but what got us to this place. Taking responsibility is being in integrity with deity. I want my gods and ancestors close. They help me (at times forcefully) to be a better person, to do the right thing. They help me figure what the right thing is when the path is obscured. And they love me.

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