Summertime Blues

IMG_20150720_090706_367Late July, and summer turns hotter and drier. The growth of most plants has slowed and their leaves turn a little duller. But it’s peak season for the thin stalks of bright, light blue flowers that grow close along the roads and in sun-hardened patches of earth in the angles of intersections. From a moving car, chicory is a galaxy of sky blue dots and wheels pointed in various directions as they hug the road.

Chicory has been pushing its way into civilization for a long time. Its origin lies 40 million years ago, when it differentiated from the daisies and marigolds in its family. Its medicinal uses date back to Egypt and Rome. Today it is still an effective toxin against parasites in animals. Its roasted root substitutes for and is added to coffee in Europe and the U.S. Chicory’s dandelion-like leaves make good salad; cultivated varieties of chicory include endive and radicchio.

Each flower blooms only for a day or two. Each plant lives for two years, flowering only during its second summer, after which the plant dies at first frost. Forty million years of fleeting life.

It’s the light blue flowers and the affinity for roadsides and compacted dirt that catch my attention. Chicory is apparently drawn to the warmth of the pavement. There is no predicting some compatibilities of life and place.

chicory Asteraceae (

“Asteracea poster 3″ by Alvesgaspar, Tony Wills (10) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

How Language Encourages Belief in an Afterlife

People believe in a life after death for many reasons. But a skill that makes it very easy for us to do so often goes unnoticed, and that is language itself. The nouns and verbs of English and other languages can easily frame the names of the dead as if they were still living and their actions as still taking place.

Through slight differences in sound or spelling, nouns and names show contrasts between, for example, singular or plural. But they don’t change in any way to distinguish between items that exist and those that don’t. We can use nouns and names to refer to objects and people right in front of us (computer) or out of sight (cousin in Chicago) or existing only in our imagination (unicorns) or no longer alive (Abraham Lincoln).

One result is that a sentence such as “Aunt Mary went to college when she was 16” is perfectly acceptable regardless of whether Mary is living or not. When we remember the lives of those who have died, we can speak of them in literally the same way we did when they were alive. In our imagination and conversation, they easily remain alive-in-the-past-tense.

Sentences explicitly about a person’s death have their own peculiarities. “Aunt Mary is dead” would certainly seem definitive. But the verb is is in the present tense, as if, eerily, some part of Aunt Mary still exists despite the fact of her death.

There is also “Aunt Mary died.” Here, Aunt Mary is presented as having done something—she has died—and so, in spite of the meaning of the verb, she may also be presented as going on to do something else. So we can say, with no awkwardness, “Aunt Mary died. She has gone to heaven and continues to watch over us.”

Language is our brilliant tool for speaking and thinking about what may be present or may be absent, may be actual or imaginary. So language serves us handily when it comes to bringing the dead to life.

Pope Francis on the State of the World

Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environmental crisis may be of as much interest to non-theists and naturalists as to Catholics and other theists. Laudato si (“Praise be to you,” a phrase from St. Francis of Assisi) describes interconnections among the problems in our world that I found valuable.

The lengthy document covers many topics, including climate change, biodiversity, the poor, our throwaway culture, and our profit-obsessed economy. But two themes stood out for me.

The first is Francis’ teaching that neglect of the environment and neglect of vulnerable people are essentially the same failing. This perspective is a radical turn; the Church has long taught that humans are separate from the rest of nature.

A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings. It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking. (paragraph 91)

We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. (92)

It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. (139)

I have tended to think about environmental destruction and poverty as problems that, although related, are in different categories. But Francis integrates them, requiring us to raise our standards for our compassion.



A second theme concerns how we have arrived at the dismal state our world is in. We have made the mistake of believing that every new technology is a step in human progress. And we have gone further: We have accepted technological thinking as our way of relating to nature and people. We approach natural and societal problems alike through the scientific method, isolating the problem, solving it rationally and experimentally, taking charge, looking for mastery over it. As a result, our views are narrow.

The technocratic paradigm tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue… that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. [Yet such people show] no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. (109)

The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. (110)

Compelling as the Laudato si is, there are grounds for dissenting from its pessimism. After all, in recent decades the portion of global humanity living in extreme poverty has declined, not risen. The treatment of animals on farms and in labs in the U. S. has been improving. And the rate of human violent deaths has been dropping steadily throughout history. How are we to say whether things are getting better or getting worse for life as a whole on the planet? Would a reasonable answer be, some of both?

In the pope’s eyes, such uncertainty does not let us off the hook.

As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen. (59)

So what should we do? Francis’ recommendations include wider dialogue, the inclusion of a social perspective in every environmental act, and at bottom, a change in our hearts. But I also found good advice in his brief mention of the importance of learning “to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously” (47).