Month: September 2019

Talking with Plants

I’ve just returned from Union Theological Seminary in New York, where I was working with Claudio Carvales, a professor of worship, and his students in a course called Creating Rituals in Community: The Work of Mourning The Earth.

Together they design rituals in class, then enact them publicly in James Chapel. Recently, they confessed to plants. A Union Seminary communications officer posted a photo and tweet about the ritual that evoked a Twitterstorm. Many editorials and reports were written, all of them without any firsthand knowledge of the event or from seeing the video of the entire ritual.

In class they were reading an article I wrote, “Performance is Currency in the Deep World’s Gift Economy: An Incantatory Riff for a Global Medicine Show.”

Meanwhile, Claudio has now posted a response with an article in Sojourners on YouTube:

The week after the Twitterstorm about the ritual of talking to plants, there was another ecologically oriented ritual in James Chapel. Participants were invited to plant seeds, actually bulbs, in the quadrangle.

I chose to plant mine in a place where it would have the least chance to grow, “up against the wall” (we used to chant that phrase in the 60s). This was a plywood construction wall, painted green, probably so we’d imagine it as ecological. The wall now protects the new high rise that Union Seminary is building. The building will use half the quadrangle, barely enough room for a small Dutch tulip garden.

Come, crocus, come. Come in the spring, upstage the wall.

I’m still pondering seeds and remember the parable:

Jesus told many stories in the form of parables, such as this one: “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seeds. As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand” (Matthew 13).

Performance is Currency in the Deep World’s Gift Economy Show

An Incantatory Riff for a Global Medicine

Prior to publication, this was a script for oral performance. Publication required the decorum, the civilizing influence, of those speed bumps we call paragraph breaks. Even though the original script was not written as poetry, it looked more or less like poetry on the page. It looked that way to assist the eye in keeping up with a mouth fondling words in an incantatory way. The performance was preceded by the showing of a scene from “The Music Man,” a 1961 film in which Robert Preston plays the huckster, Professor Harold Hill. He conjures up parental fear that the young men of River City, Iowa, are going to hell in a handbasket unless they stop playing pool and join the big brass street band that he proposes to lead despite his abysmal musical ignorance. 


A young woman asks poet, environmentalist, Buddhist Gary Snyder:1 “If we have made such good use of animals, eating them, singing about them, drawing them, riding them, and dreaming about them, what do they get back from us?” 

 “ . . .Excellent question,” replies Snyder, “directly on the point of etiquette and propriety, and putting it from the animals’ side. The Ainu say that the deer, salmon, and bear like our music and are fascinated by our languages. So,” continues Snyder, “we sing to the fish or the game, speak words to them, say grace. Periodically, we dance for them. A song for your supper. Performance is currency in the deep world’s gift economy.”2

This line is the Torah fragment around which I build a fence, the plenary axis I circumambulate. When I first read it, I scribbled questions in the margin: What? Animals care about performances? What kind of performances? Currency? Performance has cash value? Deep world? What’s that—a place below this one? And, what do you mean, gift economy? This is a dog‐eat‐dog, country‐eat‐country global economy. 

Daily newspapers and popular books are riddled with eco‐factoids:  

  1. We are extinguishing ten thousand species each year.3 
  2. We are destroying the rain forests, earth’s most luxuriant life system, at the rate of one acre per second.4 
  3. So few farmers are there now that the U.S. Census Bureau has quit counting them as a category.
  4. Humans have destroyed enough species that it will require a full 10 million years for the planet to recover—twenty times as long as humans have already existed.

Chant a few eco-factoids a sufficient number of times and either you begin to pace, or you become strangely calm. Either you levitate into an apocalyptic frenzy, or you drop down into a surprising stillness. 

A few centuries ago we graduated from homicide, patricide, matricide, and suicide, to genocide. Now, we’re on to bigger deeds: ecocide and biocide. To destroy a life, even a bevy of lives, is one thing; but to destroy entire species, the genetic templates, the utter seeds of life is quite another. This life‐on‐earth arrangement is likely a rare, if not a one‐shot, deal, but we, our very selves, have become the gravest danger to this tumbling, swirling, teeming entanglement we call life. 

Ecocide is slower than homicide but surer, because it is total and irrevocable. War between nations is dramatic and destructive, but industrial waste, lacking the drama, is as deadly. The game of eco‐eightball may look benign (because there’s always some warranty promising to repair any damage with a technocratic fix), but techno‐fixes are patches on a crumbling dam. So we are in dire need of some foolish vision, some brassy, instrument‐free band to keep the old boys club occupied, away from the lakes and bays and nesting grounds. 

 The soiled state of the global nest is just as evident in the fate of ritual as it is in the blitz of eco-factoids. Our choreography, naturally, apes our cosmology. A few years ago, my family and I were invited to an outdoor service. Ecology was in the air and the pastor smelled it. It was time this particular Christian tribe risk a little sunburn on the pale forehead. So the congregation moved all the chairs outdoors, leaving their sacred, suburban canopy empty for that particular Lord’s Day. 

It was an awkward spectacle, clerical robes blowing up thigh high, bulletins flying, chairs tipping this way and that on the uneven slope, adults squinting in the sun, and kids, invited into action by fresh‐cut grass, romping and rolling . . . . 

Despite the claims of the sermon, everything about that performance (except the oatmeal molasses brown bread from the hand of the pastor’s mother) was a testimony to alienation from the environment, to the utter unsuitability of this liturgy to this place. The pastor held an ecologically respectable view of the universe, and she did distribute her mother’s homemade oatmeal molasses brown bread instead of paper-thin wafers, but this liturgical celebration dishonored the dirt upon which it was done. 

The state of the world nest is reflected in the failure of the old “services” to service that nest. Liturgies around the world have been caught in the act of doing disservice to the planet. Ritual disservice to the planet—ponder that. 


You wouldn’t expect it, would you, for performance to be anybody’s answer to the question: How can we save River‐City‐Bay‐Town‐Mountain‐Village from death by conspicuous over‐consumption? Unless, of course, we are required to entrance the plants and animals with our song and dance. 

The question of planetary survival is a conundrum, a koan. A koan is not just a cute riddle, a brainteaser for Buddhists. A koan is a bottleneck‐in‐being, a belly full to meditate upon for the duration. The incantation, “Performance is currency,” implies a koan‐like question: What action, rightly performed, can save the planet? This koan of planetary performance, let us call it, when it is properly contemplated, should burn like a jalapeño in the belly of the soul. 

If you are among the quick‐witted, you may think you already have the answer, and it is: “There is no such action.” But if this is your reply, you are too quick for your own damned good. A koan, it’s true, is an impossible question, but, as a dutiful disciple of the earth, you must answer it, not evade it. In fact, you not only must answer correctly (for your heartbeat and breath cycle depend upon it), you must embody your reply. The reply can’t be evasive or merely verbal. If your reply is that there is no answer at all, or that there is no gesture performative, ritualistic, or otherwise that could possibly save the planet, then the master, the lord of the beasts, sends you back to square one to meditate on the koan of planetary performance. 

As long as performance is confined to performance halls, performance is no answer to the problem of saving the planet from toxicity and species evacuation. The best that aesthetic art can do is to mime the problem. 

The same is true of religious religion and scientistic science. The problem lies in the sectoring and the scissoring. In the sectored‐and scissored‐up world, performance is one thing, religion, another. Performance is entertaining and religion, serious; performance is pretend and religion, real. Performance is fictive and subjunctive, shot through with as‐ifs, while religion is believed—absolutely and without question. 

But Gary Snyder, our testy teacher whose aphorism I am shamelessly and publicly milking, assumes no such divisive dualism. He keeps performance together with religion; singing to the fish together with saying grace. In the deep world, ritual enactment and theatrical performance are not enemies; they are cousins, kissin’ cousins. 

So what kind of performance could possibly gain the attention of the creatures and thereby save the world? If you consider the world from the animals’ point of view, the answer is obvious: Performances in which the performers are animals, human and otherwise. Coyotes and baboons are as narcissistic as we are. Why, they’ll trade their skins to witness good singing and dancing. Performances are currency only if they are deep‐world performances, and they are deep‐world performances only if their metaphors are embodied—radically, to the bone, to the quick. 

To dance the peacock or play the snake, you must become the peacock, be the snake. A deep‐world performance is one in which performers are so drastically identified with the objects of their performance that there is no difference, even though everybody knows animals and humans are different. 

Such a world can be frightening. Why, when your very lawn or your beloved garden—object of costly love and chemical affection—rises up against you, subjecting you to tough, inquisitorial questions, well, what can you do but tremble? 

Fearing the magic that always arrives on the heels of drastically embodied metaphors, people are tempted to resist the call to right ritualizing by setting performance and ritual in opposition. 

Ritual is religious, traditional, unchanging, and purged, by god, of magic. Accordingly, performance is irreligious, experimental, theatrical, and, shame upon its head, fad‐driven. 

But the congregation of earth creatures has no use for squeaky‐clean, safe religion and just as little use for aestheticized entertainment purged of harmony, humility, and prayer. Neither earns the applause of butterflies and milkweed.  


Another surprise: Ecology activists, especially poetic Buddhist ones, don’t talk much about money. But consider this: Currency is any medium of exchange, the stuff which, though worthless in itself, we work for, buy with, die for. Currency: paper that stands for gold or silver which in turn stands for food and shelter and air and water. Currency: the symbolic stuff with which we buy our way out (or in). 

When sneaky Snyder teases us into believing that performance is currency, he isn’t talking about box office revenues, or the sort of performance the governments have in mind when they declare that grants to universities will hereinafter be dependent upon multiple performance indicators. He’s saying performances themselves are currency. The performances, not the money, are what earn the attention, the grace, and the forgiveness of the animals and plants and spirits, the council of all beings. 

 The reigning view is that science and technology, allied with industry and commerce, can mint the currency with which to buy our way out of the ecological mess. But, of course, the ecological mess is bigger than science, because scientists (like the rest of us) are smaller than the universe. Earth contains science and scientists, not the other way around. 

The world’s planners and managers like to construe the state of the planet as a problem with a solution. But solutions are discrete and specific, whereas the eco‐crisis is systemic and pervasive; it implicates the whole, not just some part such as the sludge in the Great Lakes, the air over Mexico City, or salmon who refuse to run West Coast streams in British Columbia. So a planet‐saving performance requires the participation of the entire council of creatures, not just some special class like scientists or priests or band leaders or professors or artists or even humans. 

There is no ecological problem—except earthly extinction, which is to say, problem solving is the wrong model. We will never know enough in time to solve the earth’s human “problem.” To echo Yeats, we can embody truth but we cannot know it. A problem assumes a problem solver who stands apart from the problem. A problem concerns some thing in or on the earth. A crisis concerns the fate of the earth. 

The difficulty, then, is not with this trombone or that violin but with the whole damn concert, in fact, with the music that underscores it. There is only one concert playing on stage‐earth, and we have no choice but to play together. So, by all means, let there be scientists and technicians in Mr. Music Man’s big brass save‐the‐planet band, but also call the bricklayers, boom operators, old cranks, young crickets, and master tinkers. 

Some scientists fret that so many non‐scientists are showing up on an already overcrowded stage. Other scientists welcome the tinkers. On the one hand, the talk becomes fuzzier. On the other, the arrival of ritual‐makers and musicians, parading Fundies and be‐caped witches, game animals and domestic vegetables makes the medicine show a lot more entertaining as the music, the squawking, and the metaphors begin to flap and fly. The currency‐confusion is godawful. What’s the medium of exchange—formulas and equations? Or musical scores and incantations? 

When religious people arrive at the ecological market where planetary salvation is up for auction, they usually arrive with a wallet full of moral currency. They typically tender ethics, statements about what ought to be, hoping to stem the tide of what is. The currency of religion, as well as religious studies, is not rules of scientific procedure or musical scales but canons of belief and codes of behavior. 

A series of conferences was held at Harvard. Out of them emerged the Forum on Religion and Ecology 7 and several volumes on the environmental contributions of the multinational religions. A remarkable feature is how much attention the volumes pay to beliefs, myths, ethics, and worldviews and how little they attend to ritual and other kinds of performance. The Forum’s brochure describes its mission as that of “highlighting the important roles religious traditions play in constructing moral frameworks and orienting narratives regarding human interactions with the environment.” Even though the brochure mentions ritual practices, it rapidly drops the topic to return to the theme of a “distinctive ethics of respect for nature.”8

The framers of the Earth Charter are ethically preoccupied too. They speak of their carefully hammered out ethical principles as “soft law.” They hope nations and other human groups will give these principles teeth by transforming them into “hard law,” the kind you are fined for violating. 

For sure, ethical reformulations and new laws are required to protect the planet. And we could do worse than subscribe to the sonorous principles of The Earth Charter:

  1. Do not do to the environment of others what you do not want done to your environment. 
  2. Respect Earth and all life. Earth, each life form, and all living beings possess intrinsic value . . . . 
  3. Share equitably the benefits of natural resources . . . . 
  4. Treat all creatures with compassion . . . . 9

The Earth Charter is a generically religious document. “Earth” is capitalized, and the principles echo those of several faith traditions. Charter principles are lofty and worthy, but can they create the realities they aspire to? Probably not. That’s why the framers of the Charter hope to inspire legislation, “hard law.” 

I’m in concert with the aims of the Forum on Religion and Ecology and of the Earth Charter, but what strikes me about these and other examples of religiously attuned environmental activism is the recurrent, liberal‐Protestant‐sounding assumption that the obvious way to proceed is by formulating ethical principles and then putting them into action by challenging political institutions. 

The strategy is necessary but insufficient, because moral principles and new legislation don’t—by themselves, disembodied—change attitudes. Attitudes and worldviews are related; each conditions the other. Attitudes are not merely emotional, or worldviews merely intellectual. Each conspires with the other in determining how we act, what we perform, and therefore how we behave. 

Deep World 

Performance is currency in the deep world . . . What is this “deep world”? Surely not some place below the ground, or some supernatural envelope surrounding ordinary reality, not even the human unconscious (which we in the psychologized West imagine as deep within the psyche). 

 We in the sectored‐and‐scissored West are habituated to dividing things into warring camps: shallow world/deep world, this world/the other world. The philosophical label for this particular form of deviance is dualism. Our dualistic tendencies lure us into setting part against whole, part against part. Dualism is not the mere making of distinctions but the setting of them in hierarchical and antagonistic relation to one another and then assuming that one of the two parties is not necessary while the other is. 

Dualism lives in the marrow and blood; it’s taken root in languages and brains. But Earth is declaring dualism taboo. Earth people are recognizing that the survival value of a scissored‐and‐sectored cosmology is diminishing at an ever‐increasing rate. We have stumbled over the obvious: The ankle bone is connected to the shinbone is connected to the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone is connected to the planet Jupiter is connected to the crawling things beneath the sod is connected to the price of Canadian lake water exported to Japan. 

So we’re pausing to take stock. We’re asking: What’s the cost of stashing science in labs, art in galleries, education in universities, government in parliament buildings, and religion in temples?  

Answer: The cost is the rarification of religion, the preciousness of the arts, the bureaucratization of government, and the reign of technocratic scientism throughout the land. 

If there is to be an enduring deep world, some superseamstress somewhere must find a needle capable of stitching together the swatches. 

The deep world, then, is not the opposite of the shallow, or this, world. Rather, it is—now you may choose your metaphor—the center of the six directions, the kingdom of God which is among you, nirvana which is no place other than samsara. In short, the deep world is the planet, whole cloth, earth’s space and history, all of a piece. The deep world is this very world on occasions performative, when creeping, crawling critters and tenacious, clinging weeds join things vegetative, hopping, and contemplative to sing and talk and dance and eat together with the beclothed, us humans. That’s deep. 

The deep world, because it is an imagined, performed cosmos, is momentary and occasional, but it is also metaphorically and utterly real, as real as anybody’s smokestack or weed whacker. The deep world is fed on things sprouting in the dark root cellar of the human animal’s imagination. 

Participants in international religion and ecology discussions sometimes recognize that more than ethical principles and just laws are needed, that deep‐world transformation is necessary. One religious studies scholar declares, “As a Buddhist, I would emphasize that inner personal transformation is most basic.”10 For her, consciousness is the deepest, or most fundamental, layer. The logic seems to be: A change in consciousness eventuates in an explicit ethic, which in turn inspires ecologically sensitive laws, which in turn bring about collective and institutional compliance, thus transforming the planet into a just and sustainable environment. 

 But spiritual change alone makes no more sense than legal change alone. It is as profoundly counter‐ecological to posit consciousness or spirit as basic as it is to claim that law or matter or production is basic. Neither survives for long without the other. 

 The urgent task, then, is not in deciding which is deepest, spirituality or politics, religion or theater, but learning how to nurture such an attitude of interconnectedness that we are no longer the aliens on the earth. We human creatures have always tended to levitate off the planet. By thinking, emoting, imagining, calculating, and inventing, we rarefy ourselves into the ether, fancying that we are not food. But if we cannot learn to be food, our species will become a dead‐end branch on the evolutionary tree. So the question is how to ground ourselves, admit that we are food, and become the animals we are.  

Gift Economy 

Performance is currency in the gift economy. A gift economy is a ritual economy, a performative means of exchange in a stitched‐together, bricolage world. A gift economy is related to the economy, but it’s not identical with it. A gift economy has a certain holy foolishness to it. In the economy, gifting would seem an unlikely answer to the “problem” of ecological disaster. The economy is supposed to be sufficiently rational that, having conducted a calculation of risks and benefits, one can cash into it. The gift economy, however, originates with a giveaway, a proffering of gratitude magnanimous, of play excessive and impractical. 

To the council of all beings, bodied and disembodied, masked and unmasked, the gift economy makes a certain ridiculous‐hilarious‐utterly-essential sense, and it assumes the necessity of loss, even of deliberate and celebrated loss, of sacrifice, of giving up what you’d rather keep. 

 The economy would never countenance offering African beer to ancestors already in the ground, spilling the blood of perfectly edible Haitian chickens, yielding up only begotten sons, giving away first fruits, or promulgating a jubilee cancellation of third world debt. 

In a gift economy, the animals are willing to trade their very skins and feathers for a song and dance. So the people‐dancers and the people‐singers must condescend to trade their skins and their masks for those of animals or plants or water or clouds. 

What the creatures have to lose in the gift economy is their lives. What the people have to lose is their false sense of themselves as superior. 

 Deep‐world performance transpires any place where a gift economy, even temporarily, undermines–or better, suffuses—“the” economy. But what kind of performance is appropriate to a gift economy? It’s easy enough to say: Do the dog. Wiggle the worm. Howl the jackal. Admit to being fodder or cabbage or bran. 

 Ritually speaking, we are not only what we eat, but also what we sing, proclaim, dance, chant, drum. If I am what I sing, what will singing this song make of me? If I am what I dance, what will doing this dance make of me? These are gift‐economy, ritual, questions. 

The peanuts in the gallery only care if the dancing and eating and singing make of us, plants. The snaky creatures of the orchestra pit only care if the dancing and eating and singing make of us, animals. The earth only cares if the dancing and eating and singing make of us, earthlings. 

If we can’t earn either the respectful silence of carrots or the applause of vultures, we won’t survive the third millennium. Like all performers, we are radically dependent upon our audience. So drastic is our dependence upon the council of creatures that they are the real auditors of earth’s books. They are the true congregation, the real tribe, the original extended family. And the kind of performance they require is ritualistic. The only kind of performance capable of saving the planet is the kind worms applaud with their peculiar sort of silence, the sort to which geese respond with bawdy squawking and clacking (silence and racket being earth’s main gestures of approval). 

Planetarily significant performances transpire in times and places where the deep‐gift economy is actualized, because these are the only spaces where geese and worms and bears and bugs are welcome as congregants. 

Snipes and turtles and other creatures rooted or bipedal are utterly fascinated with human performances in which they themselves appear, and they can only appear when ritualizing humans sacrifice their sniveling little dignities in order to don skins that the creatures sacrifice. 

 Just as the pool‐playing boys of River City, Iowa, need a big brass band to stem their lapse into delinquency, so we ought to dress in the plumage of deforested pines, make offerings of Erie water, and meditate beneath the bridges of the Don Valley Parkway. 

Too grandiose? Too full of bilgewater and balderdash? Well, okay, for the likes of us who’ve made it to the twenty‐first century, it may be that ritual is possible only in a ludic‐ironic‐metaphoric, clowny‐subjunctive‐disjunctive fiddledeedee mode. But embraced‐to‐the‐point‐of‐embodiment, metaphoric‐ironic ritualizing, however perverse and silly, is a way in. 

The deep world is stitched of metaphors, and if you cut them loose from one another and yourself, you skin the world, peel it like an onion. No net of metaphor, no earth. No earth, no place for an audience to stand. No place, no performance. No performance, no performers. No performers, no students of performances entertaining and efficacious. 

 We are engaged in a global conflict over metaphor. The mere‐metaphor school is content, thank you, to leave metaphor a mere turn of phrase; these folks aren’t about to chant their metaphors, much less inhabit them. The deep‐and‐drastic school, on the other hand, insists that metaphor is not empty talk, that world metaphors should be practiced, so convincingly embodied, that even alpha male apes can’t be sure if those strutting on the stage are animals, or men, dressed up like animals, so convincingly performed that even the muses can’t decide whether those are goddesses or women gussied up like birds. 

 Ritual is the predication of identities and differences (metaphors) so profoundly enacted that they suffuse bone and blood, thereby generating a cosmos (an oriented habitat). In rites we enact a momentary cosmos of metaphor. A cosmos is not merely an empty everywhere. It is an everywhere as perceived from somewhere, a universe as construed from a locale. A cosmos is a topocosm, a universe in this place, an oriented, “cosmosized” place, a this‐place which is also an every‐where. 

 Each cosmos has its characteristic lilt: If your universe is a womb, your rites go rotund; they moan, slip, and slide. If your universe is an orderly, law‐abiding, clocklike place looked after by a kindly watchmaker who prefers really, really big grandfather clocks, your rites will run regular as clockwork, be performed as if ritual were, by definition, repetitive, orderly, stately, vertical, and by the book. 

Cosmologies are as important for what they tell ritualists not to perform as for what they tell them to perform. In the middle‐of‐the‐road world many of us inhabit, we are not ritually supposed to sweat, stay up all night, sleep in the sanctum, enter trance, or let wild sounds escape the throat. 

Otherwise, the critters might arrive in droves, and mama earth might heave her big buttocks smack into the middle of our decorous assemblies. In the middle‐of‐the‐road world, entranced, drum‐driven bouncing, and trembling buttocks are out. So is just sitting, eyes down as if quieted belly buttons and round cushions matter. 

All rites, even the holiest of liturgies, express time‐bound values and space‐bound peculiarities. They are suffused by the same spiritual and intellectual pollution that we all breathe in order to stay alive. Even so, ritual systems are not free of the obligation to serve the ground we walk on, the water we drink, the air we breathe. 

With rites we have served gods; now, with rites let us serve the ground, the air and water, the frogs and rutabaga, even our cranky ancestors buried book‐in‐hand in six feet of clay. 

What might it look like to turn book‐serving liturgies into earth‐serving ones? In Thailand, where the rate of deforestation is exceptionally high, monks have begun ordaining trees. By ordaining these upstanding ones, the monks inspire bulldozer drivers to stop, chainsaw cutters to balk, and developers to reconsider. Thai “ecology monks” are crossing the line that has traditionally kept them from political involvement. Would you cut down a seventy‐year‐old, fifty‐foot tree‐priest in his prime? 

Clear-cutting in Thailand had become so extensive that monks began preaching about the suffering of trees and land. In order to sanctify forests so wildlife and plant life would be protected, the monks began hammering old Buddhist rites into new activist ceremonies. 

 In the 1970s, after his ordination, Phrakhru Pitak began to notice the deforestation around his home and the consequent damage to watersheds and local economies. He began to preach against the destruction but found that the villagers, even those who believed him, went home from temple services only to continue clearing the land. Moral admonition was not enough. So in 1991 he ordained a tree, wrapping it in monk’s robes. To down an ordained tree would be to kill a sentient being and incur religious demerit. 

At first, the monk led people in sprinkling holy water on the trees. Later, he upped the ante by requiring village leaders to drink holy water in front of a statue of Buddha by a tree. This way, community leaders ritually enacted their identification with the tree, and thereby pledged themselves to its protection. Sometimes, posted on an ordained tree would be a sign saying, “To destroy the forest is to destroy life, one’s rebirth, or the nation.”11 Sincere Buddhists don’t want to tamper with their rebirth. 

This improvised ritualizing is now attracting upstanding citizens. As a result, the Thai debate is no longer purely political but also moral and religious. The metaphoric act of ordaining trees has made it so. If trees have Buddha nature, to saw one down is to slice yourself in half. Now, it costs moral and religious capital to lay low the ancestor‐teacher trees. 

The so‐called world religions claim to have a repository of wisdom that can help save the planet from ecological destruction. But the large‐scale, multinational faiths have been slow to mobilize, and they are typically saddled with environmentally hostile or indifferent myths, ethics, and rites. 

 Religious leaders are now scouring the scriptures in search of images capable of inspiring ecologically responsible behavior. The big religions are defending their traditions against attacks that blame them for the sorry state of the environment. In self-defense, they launch criticisms of economic greed and human failure to exercise stewardship of the land. 

The monotheistic traditions bear a large share of the blame, because of their entanglement in Western ideologies of natural domination and dualistic separation. The truth is that none of the large‐scale religions has resources adequate to the crisis. None of the “world” religions is an earth religion. The non‐local religions are in no better shape than the multinational corporations. Because so much pollutes the spiritual environment, cleaning it up is every bit as urgent and challenging as cleaning up the physical environment. 

The ecological question can be posed politically, biologically, economically, legally. I have put it ritually by asking, What gesture can save the planet? You, of course, know this is a silly question, a trap. You’re educated, smart enough to know that by calling the question a koan, I’m either sidestepping or teasing you. I am trading on what I surmise about readers, that you are devotees of the well‐posed question. There is nothing finer in the reading‐and‐writing life than a question that requires a koanic response, a disciplined, passionate identification with the question. 

So again I put it to you: What gesture, rightly performed, might be so compelling that the creatures would be entertained and thus, the planet saved? We can put it in other, more local ways: What does the south shore of Lake Erie ask of men on Tuesdays? Women on Thursdays? Why is the Rio Grande weeping? Where on Highway 7 should the northbound tundra swans land during rush hour? 

I’m sure you have your own environmental koans, conundrums in need of direct action but also of divination and contemplation. Just remember that the point is not to turn cute phrases or to moralize but to identify yourself bodily and attitudinally with the questions. Otherwise, the grackles and sparrows won’t give a rip about our celebrations, liturgies, meditations, and performances. 

A koanic attitude practiced ritually helps participants divine a way of acting that resonates with the world. Ritually, people don’t dance merely to exercise limbs, impress ticket‐buying audiences, or even to illustrate sacredly held beliefs. People who dance in a sacred manner do so to discover ways of inhabiting a place. (This is what we call the noetic power of a rite.) If we ritualize only to confirm what we already know, our ritualizing is in a state of decay. 

So here’s the pitch. Here’s what I’m trying to sell you on instead of a brass band: Just as there is an emerging global culture over-top local cultures, and civil religion alongside denominational religion, so there are emerging global ritual gestures boiling up under the liturgies of specific religious traditions. The Olympic Games are the grandest example. So a global earth rite parallel to a global ethic in the Earth Charter is not an impossibility (even though the notion is as ridiculous as that of a salvific street band whose leader is a musical ignoramus). 

A few decades ago we’d have thought it ridiculous to consider drafting universal, ethical declarations. We’d read enough history and anthropology to know that different societies have different values and differing ways of doing things. We’d have said that only a powerful act of coercion could bring about a global ethic. But a global ethic is now on the horizon. Maybe it will require another millennium for every nation to sign on, and such an ethic will not be framed without compromise, but there is a surprising consensus in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, why not an earth‐embracing, earth‐encircling rite?  

If that’s too grandiose and you worry about a globalized rite for the same reasons you’ve become suspicious about globalization and multinational corporations, then ritualize in your own back yard. Literally. Physically. Bodily. 

For now, imagine just a single gesture or posture that might become the seed of a rite. Make it one worth doing, or holding, over and over. This is ritual, so again, again, and again. Even when no one is watching: again. 

What is the shape and duration of your gesture? What’s the basis of your posture? Sacred texts are too tendentious a basis, so what else might a gesture to the creatures be based on? In what posture would we not scare them away, would they not fear to creep up on us?  

The universe is curved, they say, just closed enough to maintain cohesion, just open enough for transformation and creativity. So why not a curvaceous gesture based on the shape you imagine the universe to have? 

Now, this brass‐band‐foolish gesture not only has to make the monkeys laugh loud enough that the hyenas and dingos come to see what’s up, it must be a practice that helps people root themselves in the planet like old trees worthy of ordination. It should be a gesture so simple and profound that, even if it doesn’t attract the hordes or save the planet, you’d keep doing it anyway, hoping to hear cabbage heads chuckle and frogs titter, because performance is currency in the deep world’s gift economy. 

So . . . What are you imagining? Bowing like a Muslim at prayer (but sneaking in a ground kiss)? Standing, Navajo‐like, thrusting your child high so the rising sun can see? Circumambulating a tree in your back yard until a circular path is worn deeply into the ground? Washing each of your neighbors’ feet each time they enter your front door? Maybe you are curled up, your head in Big Mama’s lap. Or maybe you are handing a clear glass of water, without spilling a drop, hand over hand over hand down the serpentine miles of a river’s course. Perhaps you are prone, lying on the warm desert sand, your arms spreadeagled so that from on high, a god’s eye or cloud would spy only a tiny swatch on the landscape. 

A sustainable gesture to the creatures is possible only by a dialectical dance. So grab your partner and all go round. Leap locally to the left. Leap globally to the right, all at the very same, very curvaceous time. This is a riprap romp, a locally global medicine show. 

If exercising your imagination this way makes you feel foolish, a little like you’re pretending to be the leader of the band when you never went to music school, a little suspicious that ritual gestures and postures are as useless as, what? a roll of waxed toilet paper, well, you can relieve yourself of this self‐conscious foolishness by chanting. 

By now, surely, you know the words . . . 


Originally published in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 9.1: 149-164.



  1. My thanks to Gary Snyder for his generous encouragement and support and for not wincing at being riprapped off. This presentation was performed several times: first at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada; then at “Between Nature,” a conference on ecology and performance at Lancaster University in England; and at an annual meeting of the Eastern International Region of the American Academy of Religion at Ithaca College in New York. Financial support for this research included a grant from Wilfrid Laurier University and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 
  2. Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point, 1990), 75. 
  3. Paul Erlich cited in Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story from the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, 247. 
  4. Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story from the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, 246. 
  5. Wes Jackson, ʺBecoming Native to This Place,ʺ in People, Land, and Community: Collected E. F. Schumacher Society Lectures, ed. Hildegarde Hannum (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 158. 
  6. Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Study Jolts Views on Recovery from Extinctions, 2000. Available at‐environ‐wildlife.html. 
  7. Forum on Religion and Ecology Web site: 
  8. Harvard’s Center for the Study of Values in Public Life sponsors an environmental ethics and public policy program. Like the Forum, the Center places its emphasis almost exclusively on ethics, policy, and justice issues.  The Boston Research Center for the 1st Century sponsors consultations on the Earth Charter and publishes a series of books on war, peace, and the earth. In a presentation entitled “The Earth Charter and the Culture of Peace,” sociologist Elise Boulding, one of the key participant, offers a formal definition of “peace culture,” which she takes to be essential for generating a transformation of consciousness that will permit planetary survival. “Peace culture,” she says, “is a mosaic of identities, attitudes, values, beliefs, and institutional patterns that lead people to live nurturantly with one another and with the earth itself without the aid of structured power differentials. That mosaic,” she says, “enables humans to deal creatively with their differences and to share their resources.” From Elise Boulding, ʺThe Earth Charter and the Culture of Peace,ʺ in Womenʹs Views on the Earth Charter, ed. Helen Casey and Amy Morgante (Boston: Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, 1997), 32. 
  9. Earth Charter Web site: 
  10. Rita Gross, ʺPersonal Transformation and the Earth Charter,ʺ in Buddhist Perspectives on the Earth Charter (Boston: Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, 1977), 54. 
  11. Darlington, ʺThe Ordination of a Tree: The Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand.ʺ 

Disarming Boys

Originally published in The Canopy Review 01 (2019): 10-26. Excerpts read at the Langston Hughes House, Harlem, September 23, 2019.

World War II rages as my parents rivet B-24 bombers at Consolidated Aircraft. Home from the graveyard shift, Dad’s teaching me to box. Knees knocked, I’m punching back.

Later, he’s equipped me with a toy pistol, its holster drooping to my knee.

Home from her swing-shift, Mom models my friend Nancy and me into permed and lipsticked girls, then poses me on my trike. Nancy and I whirl in newspaper hula skirts. Our bodies soar, down to the San Diego beach. Then, half way to Japan, we’re in Hawaii, where kids in grass skirts hula to ukulele music.

Each night we Americans pull the shades so Japanese bomber pilots can’t see our lights and drop bombs through our windows.


I’m eight. The war is history. Our family has returned home from “Egypt,” California, where people lose their souls. Mom says people are friendlier here in the Southwest. We’re dirt farmers, losing our land to the drought that’s scorching the high plains of eastern New Mexico.

Man-making is now a joint parental project. They pose me in patched blue jeans and deck me out in a black denim jacket and a felt cowboy hat. I drip with sweat. The stampede string cinches so tightly under my chin that the black hat twists right. Later, when I understand color-coding, I switch to white. I’m posing heroic in front of the Kodak Brownie in Mom’s hands, ready to whisper in a low cowboy voice, “Gotchya.” The right pistol drills a hole through your gut. The other one veers left, mortally wounding a buddy or a girlfriend. The kid is still learning to shoot straight.

Below the picture, Mom pens, “Wild Bill Hickok.” In movies, Wild Bill turns his pearl pistol butts forward towards you, the enemy. When he draws, his hands slice a dramatic X across his belt buckle, then “bang-bang.” Two bullets and you bite the dust.

Even without guns, belts and buckles are badges of authority. Mom says Dad’s dad used to beat him with a chain. My dad’s a notch gentler. He whips me with a belt. After a severe beating, I lie bawling across the bed. When I peek up, guilt is spreading like measles across his face. He’s gone too far and knows it.

Decades before The Christmas Story becomes a classic seasonal movie, I ask Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun. Dear Santa, I want a rapid lever action. No single shot. No reaching into your pocket for a single BB. And, Dear Santa, I want loads of BBs in cardboard tubes. I love the clickety-click sound they make as they trickle down the tube.

Santa delivered—not quite a Daisy lever action, but a pump, where BBs line up in a row like grade school kids. If you live in a drought, you learn to weather short pay.


I’m twelve. Dad and I are strolling down Main Street after a buzz cut at Wood’s barbershop. Before he dusts the back of my scalped neck with talc, Mr. Woods presses a dime into my palm. I can put it in the bank across the street, but there’s a cowboy movie down Main. Strolling toward the Lyceum, Dad shows me circular chunks blown out of the wall of the old Citizens Bank, “They used to have gun fights here on Clovis streets.”

“You could carry a gun on the street like Roy Rogers?” I ask.

“Yeah, still can, as long as people can see it.”

The answer surprises me, “Wouldn’t that scare people?”

“Sure, that’s the point.”

“You mean, scare people off so there won’t be a gun fight?”


The rationale makes perfect Christian kid sense: use weapons to keep the peace.

“What if you hide your gun?”

“If you don’t have permit, you’ll be arrested.”

“You need a permit to hide a gun?”


“Why? Isn’t that cowardly? Wouldn’t that make you slow on the draw?”

I pepper my parents with questions.


Little boys long for real guns. Longing for the real is just the beginning. Real guns kill cottontails and sparrows. Asked, why kill, I retort a grown-up answer, “Sport.” Even your gentle mom or sucky little brother, who refuses to shoot sparrows or bunnies, buys into the sporting explanation.

Like water pistols, BB guns are for kids. When I come of age—for a boy in New Mexico that’s twelve or thirteen—I am ravenous for arms: a .22 rifle for sport, a shotgun for quail, a 30-30 for deer. Three guns and you are a proper man, poor maybe, but still a man. If you can show off more firearms of a higher caliber behind the glass doors of an oak cabinet, you are indeed a wealthy white man.

In junior high, I add a fourth to my list: a .45 Colt Peacemaker. I have not outgrown the eight-year-old fantasy of owning a cowboy gun. I want to draw faster than Dee Woolem, the national fast-draw champion. If I can beat his time, I’d be a real cowboy, not the kind who sweats and swats flies while driving cattle up the Goodnight Trail, but the bigger-than-life kind in movies. The kind that never draws first but always wins.

Since I can’t afford an ivory-handled six-shooter, I buy a sleek .22 Ruger semi-automatic pistol and learn to fast-draw, hitting tin cans tossed in the air. But fast-drawing with an automatic resembling a German Luger fails to make me into a righteous cowboy with his left hand flying over the hammer. Instead, I’m a German soldier, on the wrong side. Within a year I sell the pistol.


Dad teaches safety. Although he’s on the other side now, his voice whispers in my ear. A day before deer season, I slip my rifle out of the closet, wipe it down, point it toward the curbside mailbox perched like a hawk on a post. I click off the safety and smoothly squeeze the trigger. Instead of a click, there is a deafening roar.

From Hillcrest Park across the street play-noises pierce the air. What if I killed someone?

Murder. Jail. I’m only fifteen.

I can’t stand. I lie on the floor panting and sweating. The screaming of playing kids thickens the air.

Unable to stand and witness the damage, I keep listening. After what seems like an hour, probably five minutes, I go check. There is a 30-30 hole in the screen. I wait a few minutes before opening it. Knees wobbling, I tiptoe to the mailbox. There’s a bullet hole in the back side, one in the front too. Dad will notice. Maybe there’s another in the park, a hole in a body. Blood. I stare across Sycamore Street. No dead bodies. No police cars. No ambulances. Not yet.

I go back inside, lie on the floor again. Dad will soon walk through the door. My belly is tumbling, about to toss its cookies, when he walks through the door, “Dad . . .”

After I tell the story, he looks me hard in the face, man to man. I’m shaking. To my utter surprise, he thanks me for speaking the truth and refrains from telling me what I already know: guns are always loaded.


Despite my lapse in judgment, Dad lets me join him and the uncles. We wagon-train to Corona in pick-ups stacked high with homemade campers. Once ours was red, but the sun has bleached it bloomer pink. These bedroom-rigs tower above the cab, bucking air, transforming gas-guzzlers into gas-hogs.

At night we perch on logs around juniper campfires, gobbling down bologna sandwiches, pork ‘n beans, Fritos, Dr. Peppers, and vieenees (Mom’s name for canned Vienna sausages). The men smoke and urge us kids not to. A couple of uncles sneak into the woods for a beer. Meanwhile, Dad is complaining about idiots who stay up all night drinking, “When deer season opens tomorrow, those morons will crawl out of their tents, shooting at every sound. The problem is, the deer know. They hear the first shot of the season and begin racing. Watch which way their noses are pointing, toward the game reserve—no guns there. The deer know.”

It’s ritual preparation: showing off firearms, eating bad food, boasting about deer killed, sneaking off into the bushes to “deposit wolf bait” (dump a load).

A handsome Marine uncle, newly married into the family, arrives in a convertible. His wife is my favorite aunt, so instantly he’s my favorite uncle.  I ask, “Can I hunt with Buddy, huh? He’s just back from Korea.” Dad nods, he knows. I keep nagging, “He has an M1 rifle and knows what he’s doing. Dad?”

Less than sure, Dad agrees to let me hunt with Uncle Buddy. Deep into the woods, he teaches me a song that dads shouldn’t hear, “This is my rifle [he points at the M1 on his shoulder], this is my gun [points at his dick]. This is for fighting; this is for fun.”

He and I have been barging through the bushes for a few hours when shots ring out. Wood chips are flying around us. Buddy grabs me, shoves my head down behind a log. The firing continues for a few seconds, then a faint click in the distance. Empty. The racket stops and Buddy, head still tucked, rolls onto his back and shouts furiously, “Hey, you dumb shits, we’re people down here, not deer. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” All we hear is the retreating sound of crunching twigs.

Up and hunting again, Buddy and I rehearse the story to tell at camp. We have the tale down pat as the sun begins to set. Then Buddy confesses, “I think we’re lost.”

I don’t say aloud what I learned in Scouts, “He couldn’t find his ass with both hands in the dark.”

Blackness is creeping in when we hear horns and gunshots in the distance. Dad and the uncles are searching. We fire into the air, then bushwhack toward the sounds. There they are. Dad hugs me off my feet, then steps back, glares at Buddy, sizing him up and down.

Buddy coaxes me to save our other story for the next night.


Another year, another hunting trip. It’s noon. We’re gathered into an arroyo, gobbling mayo-slathered white-bread sandwiches. Sprawled between my cousin and me are two dozing uncles. An octagon-barrel Winchester lies across my lap as I gaze into the woods. A half-hidden doe is studying us. I glance at my drowsy cousin. So as not to alert him or the deer, I slowly raise my rifle and fire.

My cousin jumps, grabs his rifle, and fires too. “I got it, I got it,” he yells.

“Nope,” Dad says, “she was already down.” Buddy agrees.

The other uncles hatch a compromise: “They both got it.”

Furiously, I whirl around to glare at stupid adult faces.

Back home, the aunts hear, “Together, both cousins got their first deer.”

Dad tells Mom what actually happened. Her smile cheers me up, but I remain pissed at my Texas cousin. One Christmas, when we were kids, he got two pistols with white handles. I got only one and had to wait until next Christmas for a second, with dirty brown handles. Poor me, I’m the poor New Mexico cousin.

But I shot the damned deer.


The next hunting season I carry a .35 Remington and am about to ask if I can hunt with Uncle Bill. I admire his expensive rifles topped with scopes. Imagine your big buck under a magnifying glass.

But Dad asks, “Hunt with me today?”

As we hike away from camp, he mutters, “Bill walks like a maniac. He’s noisy, strides fast, twenty miles a day, and returns to camp without a deer.” Then Dad pauses and says, “Let’s try something.”

We find a tree. “Stand by it and be quiet. I’ll head out, then circle back toward you. Maybe I’ll drive a big buck right past you.”

I squat in the bushes that huddle around a thick pine tree. I wait and wait. Half an hour, still nothing. Then a faint sound. Twigs snapping. Dad’s coming back?

I’ve had been taught religiously, “See what you shoot.” I click off the safety but don’t let my finger stray to the trigger. I point the rifle toward the sound.

Don’t shoot your dad.

I wait. More silence.

Again, twigs are breaking.

A buck is weaving through the scrub oak. He ambles, stops, looks, then repeats the pattern. I’m waiting for the next pause when he begins to run. I swing the sight just past his nose and squeeze. He falls. I wait, then fire another round. No chasing after blood trails.

I sneak toward the downed deer, keeping my distance until I’m certain he’s dead. I stare at the crumpled body in the grass, find a long stick to poke him. Dead. I count the points, eight. One brown eye is still open asking why. No dad, no uncles, just this deer and I, alone in the woods, contemplating life and death.

Now what? I pull the Old Timer hunting knife out of its sheath. Dad taught me to cut off the musk bags quickly so the meat wouldn’t taste wild. The bags aren’t really bags, more like fuzzy shaving brushes. I use a leaf to grab the patches on the rear legs and slice around them. Foul-smelling buck scent floods my nostrils, so I bury the stinky stuff under rocks.

I cut the deer’s throat. Blood spills onto the ground. I open the deer’s rear legs, slit him full-length. Guts spill onto the ground.

Then, more twigs. A human gait?

Dad lopes in yelling, “I heard a shot. Wow, you got him! He ran right by you, huh? Don’t cut those guts. That’s shit in there, you know.”

“Dad, I’m seventeen. I know where shit comes from.” He pauses. I say, “I have some rope but no pulley.”

“Me neither,” he says.

We’re gutting on the horizontal when an uncle arrives carrying block and tackle. Up goes the deer, head down so the blood can drain.

Not being Native Americans, we have neither a dance of celebration nor a prayer of apology, so we indulge in poor white Protestant back-slapping.

The next day we tie the buck to the fender of our pickup, stopping at way too many gas stations on the way to Clovis. I’m happy to have Dad brag for me, but I’m eager for Mom to marvel at the antlers and admire our meat-getting prowess.


Pappy, Mom’s dad, owns a semi-automatic shotgun in the days when the rest of us could afford only single-shots or double-barrels. When he clicks the trigger rapidly, you might think he’s shooting an automatic. But who brings home the quail? Not me, for sure, but not Pappy either. The boom-click-boom excites him, us too, but the bobwhites keep flying through the hail of shot. Some of the uncles, equipped with simpler shotguns, are more effective at toting home a canvas bag full of fowl, feathers, and lead.

Occasionally, we’d encounter a brood on the ground, the chicks clustered around the mother. Once I was about to blast them to kingdom come, but I was stopped. A shotgun, the men said, would hammer blood-soaked meat and feathers into the dirt. The birds would be torn to shreds, and the chicks would be unrecognizable. Nobody thought such shooting was sportsmanlike, so this scene was unanimously censored. Real men don’t kill families.

Even as a teen I thought automatics were a cheat. When I earned my first and only NRA marksmanship medal at Scout camp, we were taught that one bullet does it. Today’s NRA, in servitude to gun companies, wants you to collect assault weapons. A single click and you hose the enemy with a wash of bullets.

I didn’t think of hunting as murder, but twice I murdered animals.

Bow and arrow in hand, I stroll through Hillcrest Park toward the archery range at the back of the lion’s cage at the Clovis zoo. A crow is cawing from the top of a scraggly elm. Knowing I’ll miss, I whip up my bow and let the arrow fly. The crow, pierced through its breast, bounces from branch to branch to the ground. I’m shocked, guilty. You can’t eat crow.

Before deer season, I carry a refurbished .30 caliber Springfield to Running Water Draw. A rabbit waddles across the path. I don’t think. Instead, I aim and fire. The rabbit collapses. As I get closer, I see it’s a jenny, not a jack. I’m shooting hollow-points. When they hit, they spread rather than pierce. Dead baby rabbits are writhing in the dirt. Shamefaced, I resolve never to shoot females, only males. Real men don’t kill girls, much less pregnant ones.


Drained by drought, our family loses the farm and is forced to move to town, where I become fair game for bullies. In the sixth grade, pummeled and crying, I retreat home. I’m telling Mom what just happened when the neighborhood band of bad boys strides down the middle of Sycamore Street.

Sounding too much like Dad, Mom insists, “You have to fight, Ronnie, or this will go on forever.” She pushes me out the door and locks it behind me.

Under the brutal weight of a dual parental commission, I fight. I’m about to lose when Mom, her kindness having caught up with her, storms out the front door crying to stop the fight.

One bully, now shuffling away, mutters, “Ah, Little Suck gets his ass saved by Mommie. How cute.”

I’d never live it down.


Having just returned from church camp, dating a new girl, we stroll hand-in-hand across the Clovis High campus.

A loud male voice shatters our enamored gaze, “Hey, asshole!”

It’s Bart. He’d beaten my nether regions to a pulp when I entered high school last September. “Initiation,” he sneers, as he and half a dozen others line up to see if they can break oak paddles over my buddy and me.

I ignore his taunts.

“Hey, Greasy Grimes, motherfucker, I am talking to you.” I start to turn in Bart’s direction, but Marlene tugs at my elbow and we turn a corner around the library.

That afternoon Dad arms me with a lead-filled rubber hose, then sends me to consult with Ozzie Fulgham, chief of police. He recommends that I carry a shotgun in the car. His only caution, “Let Bart open the door first, then pull the trigger. I’ll come pick up his remains off the street.”

I spend the night in fear and shame, praying, swearing, crying.

By the next morning I have a plan.

Bart is surrounded by shit stompers and football players. His sneers are louder and more aggressive than last time. He reissues his unholy invitation, “Hey, you miserable son of a bitch, why don’t you come over here and let me shove this fist up your ass? Motherfucker!”

I’ve coached Marlene. She lets go of my hand and heads to the dining hall. I turn and stride toward Bart.

David and Goliath. High Noon.

“What did you just say?” I ask with uncharacteristic bravado. The group tightens around us.

This is a huddle. I am a football.

“You heard me, shithead,” he says.

“Yeah, I guess I did.” He outweighs me by sixty pounds. He’s six-two; I’m five-six. He’s a tanned country boy; I’m now a pale townie. He loads hay; I toss newspapers into people’s yards.

I reach into my back pocket and pull out a Gideon New Testament. “See this?” I say. Someone gasps. “This is a Bible. You ought to read it.” I shove it toward the horns on his belt buckle.

He leaps back. The Word of God is radioactive.

“You goddamned son of a bitch,” he screams, his voice rising to girlish heights. “I ought to kill you!”

“Love your neighbor,” I retort, my confidence soaring. “Read the Good Book; it’ll save your soul.”

I have his balls in a vice.

Bart’s eyes are wide, streaked red. As I turn to walk away, an astonished hubbub arises among the guys. Bart’s venomous stream pelts my back.

Later, when I retell the story, I’ll spice it with a verse from St. Paul, “For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee.”


A year passes. Bart avoids me.

Late one afternoon I return from quail hunting with Pappy’s semi-automatic shotgun. It’s propped up—where else—against the shotgun seat, its barrel aimed at the floor. I decide to drag Main. After a loop, Bart pulls his pickup beside me, gunning its eight cylinders so the dual-chrome-stacks howl. I’m driving Dad’s turquoise station wagon, a suburban embarrassment with a quiet muffler. We stop at a red light. Bart opens his door, starts to get out. I push the shotgun barrel out the window toward his face. He gets back in, slams the door, shouting fucker as he drives away.

The borrowed shotgun was happenstance, not a plan. But suppose I’d followed Chief Fulgham’s advice. I’d have gotten off with a self-defense plea, but who would I be now? A righteous killer.

After this encounter I felt like a coward, so as a graduate student, I start martial arts training. For years, when I returned to Clovis, I hoped Bart would find me, alone, without Pappy’s shotgun.


I inherited Dad’s deer rifle, a .300 Savage, but I leave it in the care of a Texas-dwelling brother. Thirty years later I’ve not reclaimed it.

Before moving to Canada in 1974, I sell my treasured .22 Browning. Its receiver is etched; every curve is right. I touch this object of beauty gently, as if it were a new car worthy of hand-waxing. I can dismantle it into two pieces and stash them in my suitcase, but it would feel like a breach of decorum to carry a gun-infested suitcase into my new country.

The .22 is an icon, with a history, so getting rid of it is a sacrifice. I was a senior in high school when I saw an ad for a coyote call. When it arrived in the mail, I ripped open the package, stuck the thing in my mouth and blew. The sound surprised me—didn’t sound like a coyote, so I read the instructions. This thing makes the sound of a rabbit in distress, not a coyote. Dumbass.

One morning I grab the .22 and head for the sandhills beyond Portales. By the time I wiggle through barbed wire, it’s almost noon. I’m hungry, so I settle into the shady, soft side of a dune. Unbeliever, I half-heartedly blow the coyote call, then stuff my mouth with a big bite of fried bologna sandwich. I’m almost asleep when I hear a sound at the top of the hill behind me. I’m twisting toward it as a coyote leaps over me, landing just below my feet, too close to shoot. He’s as scared as I am, so he turns on me. I smash the wooden stock of the Browning across his back. He limps off into the sagebrush while I check to see if I’ve pissed myself.

Years later, I repair the Browning .22 as you would a child’s beloved rag doll, then sell it before crossing the northern border.


As a kid, I associated guns with courage because brave cowboys deployed them against Indians who threatened to rape your wife or burn your kids. I was in my twenties before it dawned on me that cowboys armed with rifles, peeking through the spokes of wagon wheels, seemed cowardly. Those Indians on the screen, they’re going to count coup on you or die. Almost naked, they’re coming at you bareback. Closer by the second, they’re letting arrows fly off charging horses.

After the movie, as you stumble, from the cinematic cavern, into the bright light of a New Mexico day, ask yourself: In this scene, who is brave? who is skilled? who is riddled with fear?

We white boys are.

At thirty-five, I did what Dad did, taught my son, no taller than my belt, to shoot. At twelve he died of a rare bone-marrow disease. Well-armed, he journeyed to the Great Beyond.

Guns rarely protect you from the forces that will actually take your life.

Today most of my Texas Panhandle relatives are licensed for concealed-carry. Stats don’t matter. It’s the American way; gun-toting is an article of faith. Dad armed my sister soon after she graduated from New Mexico State. She was a traveling court reporter. He bought her a pistol for the glove compartment. When I asked him why, he said, “She’s my only daughter, and she’s traveling up there.”

“Up where?” I asked.

“Taos, Raton, Mora County, places with lots of . . . you know, violence.”

Dad is speaking in code. He means places with a high proportion of Hispanics. Around Clovis, when whites killed whites, the news died out quickly. When Hispanics or blacks killed whites or each other, laws and assumptions were endlessly debated. The key assumption: their killings are worse than ours.


After the massacres at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopan Church, then at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I ask my brothers about their experience with guns. One brother, four years younger, says he’d been deer hunting twice. One year he missed a standing deer three times. Later Dad and he discovered that the front sight had slid almost out of its groove. The next year he got a deer. Today he punches holes in paper human silhouettes at a firing range and carries a gun in the glove compartment, but his favorite story is about refusing to use his pistol by talking down two gun-toters instead.

My other brother, eight years younger than I, says his experience with guns was short. “I shot a rabbit. Our cousins said it wasn’t dead, so I had to shoot it again, close up. That was the end of my hunting career—no desire to shoot bunnies or Bambi.” He too fires at paper, for sport.

Since the election of Trump, my sister and I can only make peace by walking circles around religion, politics, race and guns.

I ask my youngest brother if he was jealous of my hunting trips.

“Are you kidding,” he says, “I was relieved.”

Both brothers talk about “hunting” trips with Dad and his friend Gibb after they retired. The brothers wouldn’t buy a license or carry a rifle. The old guys would ritualistically buy licenses and carry rifles, but Dad said he didn’t care whether he got a deer. By then he was middle-class and didn’t need the meat, so the pressure to hunt and shoot eased up through the birth-order and slackened with Dad’s increased age.

“What’s the point?” I ask.

One brother says, “Nature hike.”

The other says, “Fellowship.”

I tease him about giving a Baptist answer.

“No, I actually heard him use that word.”

“Male bonding,” my other brother says.

“So,” I ask, “guns don’t really matter for male bonding?”

“No,” we all agree.


As a kid I didn’t think of guns as weapons. They were farmers’ tools for killing rattlesnakes and rabid dogs, a hunter’s way of feeding the family. If you are poor and your family in need of food, killing deer isn’t sport; it’s survival. Growing up though, I learned that guns can become weapons. Weapons imply enemies. In old cowboy movies the enemy is scruffy and ugly, wears a black hat. In old war movies, the enemy speaks another language, doesn’t look like you, lives overseas. Today, movies, TV and computer games wrap their tentacles around our imaginations, teaching us that the enemy is across a border, desperate to breech our walls. You need an arsenal for self-defense. Worse still, the enemy is an internal scapegoat to whom we assign the tasks of stealing our white male identities, raping our women, abusing our kids. Ours, it’s all ours. You need spies.

Some families hope to make homes, churches, schools and cars safe by stashing pistols in nightstands, purses and glove compartments. If Americans decide to take the further step of arming teachers and wearing pistols to churches, surely, we should tell parents and kids the truth: This is a war in which we shoot ourselves.

For me, disarming has been a long process, beginning with a bullet hole in a mailbox and a shotgun aimed through a car window at a bully’s face. The Kennedy and King assassinations, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and moving to Canada prompted me to put down arms. Now the election of Trump, NRA money-bullying, the murders of native and black people, white domestic terrorism, gang-shootings on streets, the killings of worshippers, concert-goers, feminists, gays, and kids—all reinforce my commitment to end a love affair with guns.

Gun violence bedevils our friends and relatives to the south. Now, homing north of the world’s longest border, my Canadian family feels safer; comparative statistics comfort us. But, like every plague, this one leaps national boundaries. In 2018 the rate of gun violence in Toronto jumped 200%. Shootouts are happening in safe neighborhoods where our kids live, on streets we stroll as a family.

Our adult-kids grew up disarmed and multicultural. When I tell them coming-of-age-with-guns stories, my son Bryn teases me with a question, “And replace that bad gun habit with what good habit?” He whips out a harmonica, “How about a 10-holer (or should I say, 10-gauge)?”

He gives me a quick lesson at the end of Canadian winter. We muse and laugh at our grand revelation: Men can bond while playing out their manhood on 10-holers and bicycles.

Old dogs can learn new tricks, but only if the young teach us to play. And we can learn to play only by disarming.

Reading Gestures

From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. raise their hands to answer a question Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

If you read gestures, as ritual studies folks tend to do, this is a provocative photo.

In reading sacred texts a religious studies scholar wants to be doing exegesis and avoiding eisegesis. “Exegesis” means “to read out of.” “Eisegesis” means “to read into.” A believer, unlike the scholar, is engaged in eisegesis.

To read the political gestures in the photo is eisegetical:

Bernie: Damn it, listen to me. I reach forward, not backward. I’m balding from wisdom.

Joe: Before God in heaven, I tell you. I am an upright man. My hand is desk-steady.

Elizabeth: My hand and my brain are connected. Shorter than a man but brighter. Please, teacher, my turn.

It’s fun to play the game. Get 3 friends. Ask each to write down 3 meanings for each candidate’s gestures and postures. Compare. Argue. Vote, not on the basis of each candidate’s explicit ideology but on the basis of your gut, gesture-informed feeling.

The internet is full of guides for reading and using what we used to call “body language.” Here’s an example from MindTools and another from VeryWellMind.

I’m not a believer in the “this gesture means that” school of thought. For one thing, too much depends on context. For another, gestures are easily taught, learned, then performed.

When I watched this debate, I quickly tuned out hair (dyed, permed), clothing (chosen to send a message), arms (too choreographed) and eyes (too busy reading teleprompters and pretending to “see” the audience) and went for mouths as the most revealing: how they twisted and turned, whether sound came from the middle or sides, how they opened and closed.

As the debate wore on, I lost focus. I was watching everything, which, of course, is more than humans can do. By end I had “a feel” for ways to cast my vote.

Eisegetical? Sure.

A Big Question for voters: Should I vote on the basis of (1) Ideology: explicit, verbally articulated policy? (2) Identity: female/male, black/white, gay/straight, old/young, rich/poor? (3) Intuition: a “feel” informed by postures, gestures, and tones of voice? (4) Strategy: I feel this way, but will vote that way?