On not being plant blind

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Natalie Angier praised plants in an elegant piece in the International Herald Tribune (17 Apr 07).

Show somebody a painting of a verdant, botanically explicit forest with three elk grazing in the middle and ask what the picture is about, and the average viewer will answer, “Three elk grazing.” … What you’re unlikely to hear is anything akin to, “It’s a classic temperate mix of maple, birch and beech trees, and here’s a spectacular basswood and, whoa, an American elm that shows no sign of fungal infestation and, oh yeah, three elk and a blue jay.”

According to Peter H. Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, many of us suffer from an insidious condition called “plant blindness.” We barely notice plants, can rarely identify them and find them incomparably inert. Do you think that you will ever see a coma as vegetative as a tree? “Animals are much more vivid to the average person than plants are,” Raven said, “and some people aren’t even sure that plants are alive.”

In the northern Spring, the article urges us to “venture outside and check out the world through nature’s rose-colored glasses-and the daffodil, cherry blossom, dogwood and lupine ones, too. If this view doesn’t move you, you’re pushing up daisies. Angier goes on to describe how plants are the basis of “virtually all life on earth”. “The most important chemical reaction on earth is photosynthesis,”

You don’t need much encouragement to notice plants from where I sit. Our courtyard, tended by James, is crammed full of roses, as well as camellias, gardenias, and other things. There are two parks just a few metres from our apartment and our street is lined with tall oaks and other trees. Maples are slowly growing outside my study window and I can see Black Mountain in the distance, covered with native bushland-we are fortunate to live where we do. The Australian National Botanic Gardens are not far away.

I notice plants, a lot; I’m frustrated by knowing the names of so few of them. Inner Canberra is a good place for plant lovers to live. We thoroughly enjoyed all manner of plants on our recent American journey.  But we were glad to see elk, as well.

Howard’s dog whistle

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Howard’s dog whistle is still being heavily used by Tony Abbott.

johnhowarddogwhistle(Image from: 101 uses for a John Howard.com)

“Howard is whistling in wind”, by Paul Syvret The Courier-Mail 17 April 07

Dog whistles are clever devices. They emit a high-pitched tone beyond the range of human hearing, but one that dogs’ more sensitive ears can easily detect. In short, they send a message only to those pre-programmed to receive and respond.

Prime Minister John Howard has quite a collection of these whistles—finely tuned instruments designed to bore into the brains of certain sections of the Australian voting public. If you listen hard right now you can just hear them—a discordant tweeting noise at the very fringe of the political spectrum. There’s a special whistle for whipping up fear of trade unions, another for multiculturalism, one for “the Aboriginal industry” and an orchestra of whistles for summoning forth fear and votes over national security and immigration.

They are Howard’s alarm and divide tools. The latest inharmonious tune coming from the wind section in Howard’s Government is an oldie but a goodie-a classic hit from the past decade of our discontent.

Immigration is always a favourite, with the fear and unease used to justify humanitarian abominations such as children locked behind razor wire and asylum seekers processed at God-forsaken gulags such as the detention centre on Nauru. We’ve already heard the number about the nasty illegal immigrants who toss children overboard, we’ve played the tune about the armada of asylum seekers sailing through our northern waters, and we’ve sung the song about the ingrate “towel-heads” who refuse to assimilate into our culture.

Now the variant is the faceless hordes of disease-ridden dispossessed who want to come here and spread their sickness. It is only Howard and our brave Immigration and Customs officials standing between Australia and the Grim Reaper. We’re talking AIDS here—or more specifically those people living with the human immune-deficiency virus, or HIV. Last week, Howard argued that HIV-positive people should be banned from migrating to Australia in all but the most exceptional of circumstances. “My initial reaction is no (they should not be allowed in),” he said. “There may be some humanitarian considerations that could temper that in certain cases but prima facie, no.” …

It’s the dog whistle, you see.

Captain Phillips

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Captain PhillipsIn Santa Barbara, nearing the end of our American sojourn, we saw Captain Philips, with Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi — both of them fine actors.

The film offers much to ponder. Stephanie Paulsell writes in Christian Century (14 Nov 13):

I was reminded of the ancient desire for an encompassing view of the world while watching Paul Greengrass’s film Captain Phillips. Based on the hijacking of an American container ship by young Somali pirates and their kidnapping of the ship’s captain, the film is marked by frequent shifts of perspective. We move back and forth between the bridge of a massive container ship afloat in the Indian Ocean and the hull of the pirates’ tiny skiff as it is battered by the waves. One moment we are in the captain’s SUV, listening to his worried conversation with his wife about their children’s futures; in the next we are in a camp where Somalis live in inhuman conditions, the monotony of their days broken only by the appearance of armed men who take the young men out to sea to rob passing ships.
By insisting that we regard the events of the film from the perspective of every character, the film reaches for an encompassing view of the world’s "mad labyrinths." [Goethe] From a distance the defining image of the story is clear: a very small boat gaining on a very large one. We look down on the two boats from the sky; we see them locked in relationship on the ship’s radar screen. We realize that, long before they ever meet, the lives of the pirates and the captain were already bound together through globalized systems of power and trade.
No matter how involved we get in the particulars of this tale—wanting the captain to return safely to his family or hoping that the pirates will take the cash from the safe and leave the ship without hurting anyone—the view from above reminds us that we are watching this larger story. What we can see as we look down from the sky is that something is amiss in the way the world works. How desperate do four young men have to be to try to board a 17,000-ton ship while torrents of water rain down on them from the ship’s hoses? Why can’t they make a living as fishermen? Where are all the fish? What are the environmental effects of global trade on life along the Horn of Africa?
And where are we in this story? When the camera pulls back, giving us a view from above, we realize that the story includes us all. […]
Captain Phillips is a devastating film because the possibility of turning everything upside down seems so remote. All the characters appear trapped in their roles by forces larger than they are, and everyone moves toward a conclusion that, even though it feels inevitable, is nevertheless shocking. The larger story that the view from above accentuates—of the interdependence of power and desperation, wealth and poverty, globalization and despair—is so powerful that it feels as if no other ending could be written.

But, as Paulsell concludes, that’s not the only story.

Allelulia! Humbug!

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boxOn NPR’s All Things Considered, 2 December 2004 (broadcast in Australia on ABC Newsradio), John Boykin asked, “Can the ‘Christ’ Be Kept in Christmas?” For years, the retail aspects of Christmas have overwhelmed its religious significance. Boykin shares this frustration and proposes a radical solution. He proposes making Christmas into a gift-giving secular holiday, and moving what little of Christ is left over to Easter.

I agree with his purpose, especially if all Christmas did was to mark the birth of Jesus. But it also celebrates the idea of ‘incarnation’, God come to us in human flesh—Imanuel, ‘God with us’. And for this, I would still like to be able to sing the Christmas songs and go to midnight Eucharist on Christmas eve. I’m never quite sure whether Christmas is “Allelulia!’ or ‘Bah, humbug!

Do the Canadian Mennonites have the right idea with their Buy Nothing at Christmas campaign?