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Posts Tagged ‘nature’

We are on the front side of a cold snap, up here in the interior of Alaska. It’s just starting to get cold, with temperatures this morning in downtown Fairbanks hovering right around 30 below Fahrenheit.

The weather forecasters are threatening us with an extended cold spell, indicating temperatures should drop into the negative 40’s in the days ahead, with no break to the cold in the foreseeable future.  But what do they know?

I like the cold.

More honestly, I like extreme weather.

I find that it is nature’s way of reminding us who is in charge, of the limits to our own knowledge, technology, and power.

The wilderness, or natural world, restores my spirit. Whenever I can, I like to go to the mountains, the forests, or sea to do just that.  I don’t get there as often as Id like.

So when the weather turns inclement, it’s like a house call from God.

It redeems me, renews my understanding of my place in the world, and the universe. Despite all our folly, our destruction of ecosystems and life (possibly even our own), weather reassures me the natural world will persevere.

We may not recognize the outcome, or be able to exist in it, but nature and all its intricacies will remain.

And that comforts me.

So today when I come in from the cold, fingers swollen, icicles and frost on my beard, don’t pity me.

Celebrate with me.

For I’ve been dancing with the gods.

In the oh so, glorious cold.

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I’ve been walking to and from work downtown recently, depending on when I go relative to kids going to school or my wife going to work.

Today I rolled out of bed while everybody else was sleeping in, taking off to work in one of those beautiful mid-winter mornings in Fairbanks. New snow had blanketed the town during the late morning, and was still drifting down.

Snow in Fairbanks is unique to any place I’ve lived. It falls silently, rarely accompanied by any wind, and stacks quietly on any limbs, wires, or even twigs; forming an intricately woven organic lace of white on every tree, willow, or blade of grass long enough to still emerge from earlier snows.

It was a beautiful day for a walk, even if just to work.

After work, I headed home via the post office. It gave me an opportunity to cross the Cushman Street Bridge and pass by the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, as opposed to the pedestrian bridge where I usually cross the river.

I grew up Catholic, and although my views on religion stray far from the church these days, I still long for the spirituality and mysticism that can envelop a traditional mass. So much so, as I passed their front door, that I eyed the times for mass and even considered recruiting, or drafting, my family for a Christmas service.

I continued down the path, freshly cleaned of snow (the only disturbance during my early morning walk was the snow blower running over the church’s walks); to the little altar of stone for the Virgin Mary built in the Church’s front yard. The snow had been carefully brushed away from the altar. Within the apse, a statue of the virgin mother stands, surrounded by pots of brightly colored plastic flowers.

The irony of this little scene didn’t escape me.

So I stood there, in the low winter light of the Alaska midday sun, rays filtering through the branches of the snow covered birch trees, snow still softly falling upon me, surrounded by divinity as it was meant to be, in front of a poorly crafted altar to the mother of a god made in mankind’s own image.

I walked on, struck by the folly of man.

Of religion.

Of the obscenity of plastic flowers replacing real ones made by god.

Man does do it better, after all.

Meanwhile the pope is in Rome, railing against the evils of homosexuality, proclaiming how it will be the downfall of humanity.

Not overpopulation.

Not the disease, starvation, war, torture, abuse, injury, rape, environmental ruin or death brought on by overpopulation.

Just homosexuality.

Homosexuality?

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One of the interesting things I find about attending a Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship is that it is a wonderfully undefined entity. By self-definition, it is a group that avoids adherence to any creed. As a result, we have a wide variety of faiths, traditions, and beliefs melding under one roof. In short, unorganized religion.

In contrast, organized religions exist under a very strict structure, a result of adherence to tradition and scripture. It is a system that relies onunquestioned belief and faith. By default, dogma rules the day and diversity of beliefs do not exist.

Unlike organized religion, unorganized religion (as I like to call UU) operates under a big umbrella. There are no creeds or dogma to guide the process, or to answer our questions. Our closest attempt at creating structure are the seven principles.

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

One can question how these differ from the dogma, or creeds, of organized religion. The difference, which I feel is significant, is that the principles are rules of conscience, and require the person to use thought and reason to arrive at the proper action in concurrence with the principles. People followtheir own course of action, given it concurs with the principles.

Organized religious dogma, on the other hand, gives you no such liberty to use internal reason. “Thou shalt keep the Sabbath Day holy” is pretty straightforward. It externalizes personal responsibility and eliminates conscience . You simply do as told. If a person runs upon a problem where the proper course of action is not delineated like the 10 Commandments, they are suddenly placed in a position where they must think for themselves, or allow a minister to do it for them.

While unorganized religion has its benefits, it also has its challenges. I suspect the only thing we might agree upon is that we should have service on Sunday. Anything other issue is likely subject to more opinions than congregation members. God settles that dispute for the faithful, and if he doesn’t, his mouthpiece theminister does. We have no such authority in unorganized religion, and it leaves us with a challenge, getting organized.

Which isn’t to say we are ineffective. Our fellowship, the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Fairbanks (UUFF), has succeeded in building a new sanctuary, growing membership, and provided a rich variety of lay led sermons. But it isn’t easy.

Another challenge with unorganized religion is how to invite people into the membership. People who have stepped off of the path of traditional religion are notoriously independent. And private. And a little bit defensive, having been beaten about the head with those same traditional religions for a lifetime. Likewise, those of us who are members don’t want to impose ourselves or our beliefs on anyone, anymore than any one of us would want to be imposed upon.

Which leaves us in a difficult position in engaging new people without overstepping the boundaries of telling them what they should believe. That is the tactic of organized religion, and they employ it effectively. It is important that we remain true to our principles, and don’t adopt those practices that run counter to our principles.

Due to our unorganized nature there is a strong chance we will hit a limit in growth, a capacity of disorder, where ability to function as a group becomes impossible without finding some unifying element to organize around. A minister is a possibility, their leadership may bridge the gap between organized and unorganized, allowing for continued growth among the interested.

As it is, unorganized religion has much to offer. Freedom to explore the spiritual, without judgement, and encouragement to ask, and to seek out answers to, the hard questions. Unlike organized religion, we won’t pretend to have all the answers, just a community within which to ask the questions, where we can share the struggle in seeking answers.

Many of those questions, despite our quest, will remain unanswered in this lifetime. It is their nature, as it is human nature to attempt to organize the unorganizable, to plant trees in rows when they are meant to be scattered randomly, to build square houses on round hills.

It is important to remember the beauty and organic nature of an unorganized, or human, fellowship.

In closing, I remind myself; What is more divine, and which is more human? The heights of a gothic cathedral, a metal warehouse turned mega-church, the rigid construct of organized religion? Or the sublime beauty and randomness of a summer thunderstorm, of Nature, of unorganized religion?

Will we find god in chaos, or in order?

In organized religion, you’ll find an answer.

In unorganized religion, you’ll find the question.

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Every spring and sometimes fall, on the fringes of the tourist season, the National Park Service opens the road into Denali Park as far as Teklanika Campground, some thirty miles into the park. During the tourist season one can only drive fifteen miles in, if you want to go further you have to make a reservation to ride one of the buses that cruise the road from late May to early September each summer. Each spring and fall you will find Alaskans populating the open section of road, sometimes bicycling, always watching for wildlife.

So last May when Jane was out of town for a weekend, the two girls and I opted to take advantage of a beautiful spring day to drive down to Denali Park, some 120 miles south-southwest of Fairbanks. Here in Fairbanks it was a sunny day, few clouds in the sky, warm and in the process of what Alaskans call green-up (the 3-4 day period when the birch trees go from brown to green).

We had just gotten on the Parks Highway, headed for Ester, when we arrived along a stretch of road that recently had a swath of trees hydro-axed along one side of the roads. For those unfamiliar with it, a hydro-axe is a huge grinder that attaches to the front of a tractor, and grinds, rather chews up, anything it comes in contact with including trees. It was clear from the width of the swath that the clearing was likely making way for a wider road and bike path- both things needed for this section of road.

Typically, I would accept this wanton destruction of our boreal forest as sad but necessary, but the recent development of Fanchorage on Fairbank’s east side has left me with little tolerance for this practice. This new development resulted in a section of the Steese Expressway, once pleasantly lined by spruce trees on both sides, naked and barren. Now, we have poorly designed vinyl sided (toxic by nature if not appearance) duplexes on the east, poorly designed or not designed at all office buildings and box stores to the west, and very few spruce trees. A consequence that could have been avoided with careful and considerate planning and construction practices.

All of which put me into a funk as we headed out of town. I’ve always enjoyed that section of the Parks Highway, immediately outside of town, that delineated the separation between Fairbanks and Ester. Ester has always felt like a wide spot in the road, a small outpost down the road, rural and inviting. I fear that it may start taking on a suburban feel, connected to Fairbanks by a major road with possibly, god forbid, future development along it. I fear you’ll have to drive for 15 minutes outside west Fairbanks before you feel like you’ve left town, that Ester will become like North Pole to Fairbanks east.

As we got closer to the park, hitting the customary frost heaves in the highway just north of Healy, the weather began to go from sunny to grey.  This isn’t uncommon; as the Alaska Range rises up from the Tanana Valley it quite often seems to conceal itself in the grey underbelly of the sky. This day was no different.

As we moved up into the mountains, the sky came down, until we were almost within reach of the lowered ceiling. The landscape took on a mystical quality, mists moving about the peaks and rocky crags, revealing them one second only to hide them an instant later. Not the best day to see wildlife, but priceless none the less.

Once we got into the park, Jolie almost immediately spotted a moose, one of several she would spot that day. At eight years old, she is developing her eyesight and skill at picking out wildlife, particularly moose. She is a joy to have along, keeping her head up and eyes open, hoping to see something before Dad. Ali still has trouble seeing, but given how she models herself after her big sister, will be out dueling me soon as well.

Ptarmigan were out on the road in mass, likely picking up gravel for their gizzards. They are a striking bird, with their white winter plumage and red headdress. And like all birds, they can be more than a little quirky. At one point, a rooster sat in the road by the front of the car and produced his mating call. He would run ahead a little ways, and then call again. We would follow, allowing Ali to get a good look out of the car window while trying to get by the rooster to continue on our drive.

Denali ptarmigan

All of a sudden, a SUV cruised by doing 40 to 50 mph. Fortunately, the rooster had moved in front of our car and avoided being road kill, so much for being protected in a national park. The funk with modern society I had been feeling earlier in the day briefly resurfaced, once again I drove it down with the beauty and freshness of the park, the optimism and joy of the girls.

Around that time it started to snow, great big wet clumps that quickly turned any exposed ground white, stuck to our windshield and hands when we hung them out the windows, that reasserted winter’s supremacy in these mountains.

We drove perhaps another 5 miles, and then turned around at Teklanika, 30 miles into the park and the end of the open road. By the time we returned to where we had watched the rooster, there were a couple inches of new snow on the ground.

Not much further down the road, we spotted a herd of caribou gathered upon the ice of the Teklanika River. We sat, parked along the edge of the road, watching the caribou circle around. It was hard to tell what they were up too, but it was pleasant watching them mill about. Our day in the park was rapidly coming to an end, the girls were tired and the snow was coming down at such a rate that I wanted to get going. Still, we sat, watching them through the falling snow, attempting to show Ali each one, catching a last breath of snow filtered air before dashing back to Fairbanks and the sun.

Denali caribou

On our way out it was quiet. The kids were napping or resting quietly in their seats. The quiet has allowed the gloom to resurface, and I had finally succumbed to spending some time with it, unchallenged by the children in the back seat, when we came upon the section of the road with Denali Park that was paved, the first 15 miles near the entrance.

The road was in marginal condition, the winter had clearly taken a toll on the pavement. The edges were crumbling, beaten back by the tag team of frost and vegetation.  Next to crumbling mountains the blacktop was nothing, and would be gone in blink of an eye without the continual maintenance of the Park Service.

Suddenly, I was comforted by the power and timelessness of nature. We would kill, destroy habitat and life, but nature would persevere. We may not recognize it in today’s form when it returns, we may lose countless beautiful and meaningful species and places, but nature will remain. Nature doesn’t need mankind, despite our arrogance otherwise.

As we continued on towards Fairbanks, the frost heaves north of Healy took on new meaning, each bump clearing any vestige of funk that was left from earlier that day. Every pothole, willow bush, and crack in the pavement a document of our insignificance, a salve to my fears of consequences poorly planned and equally misunderstood.

As we emerged into the sun on our way north, I knew I was returning home with a better perception of my place in the world, of humanity’s, and more optimism about what the future might bring.

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