Greening of the Desert


In this dust-choked region, long seen as an increasingly barren wasteland decaying into desert, millions of trees are flourishing, thanks in part to poor farmers whose simple methods cost little or nothing at all.

Better conservation and improved rainfall have led to at least 7.4 million newly tree-covered acres in Niger, researchers have found, achieved largely without relying on the large-scale planting of trees or other expensive methods often advocated by African politicians and aid groups for halting desertification, the process by which soil loses its fertility.

Recent studies of vegetation patterns, based on detailed satellite images and on-the-ground inventories of trees, have found that Niger, a place of persistent hunger and deprivation, has recently added millions of new trees and is now far greener than it was 30 years ago.

Read the rest: In Niger, Trees and Crops Turn Back the Desert 

This is an encouraging and enlightening story in a number of ways: it’s an example of poverty alleviation through local initiative and local control. Local farmers recognized serious problems with their land (because, surprise! they live their lives there) and set to solving them (again, surprise, because they depend upon the land for their livelihood). The importance of genuine capitalism, in which real people own real property, is also very evident in this story: particularly in relation to the change in attitudes towards trees:

Another change was the way trees were regarded by law. From colonial times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them. Trees were chopped for firewood or construction without regard to the environmental costs. Government foresters were supposed to make sure the trees were properly managed, but there were not enough of them to police a country nearly twice the size of Texas.

But over time, farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property, and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of that outlook by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money from the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because those sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the tree for firewood, the farmers preserve them.

This change could take place because real people in a real local community now owned the trees and could sell them within a local economy. I doubt whether this would be as effective, or effective at all, if they were tied into a globalized market, which would not accomodate the relatively small-yield most of these farmers acquire from their trees. At any rate, the importance of property-rights is clearly evident: state ownership- even if in the name of ‘the people’- generally means no one owns anything, which means a divestment of concern.  

The Essential Christian Witness

The less sure we are of the truth of our religious convictions, the more we consider them immune from public scrutiny. But in the process we lose what seems essential to their being true, namely that we be willing to commend them to others. For the necessity of witness is not accidental to Christian convictions; it is at the heart of the Christian life. Those convictions cannot be learned except as they are attested to and exemplified by others. The essential Christian witness is neither to personal experience, nor to what Christianity means to “me,” but to the truth that this world is the creation of a good God who is known through the people of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Without such a witness we only abandon the world to the violence derived from the lies that devour our lives. There is, therefore, an inherent relation between truthfulness and peacefulness because peace comes only as we are transformed by a truth that gives us the confidence to rely on nothing else than its witness. A “truth” that must use violence to secure its existence cannot be truth. Rather the truth that moves the sun and the stars is that which is so sure in its power that it refuses to compel compliance or agreement by force. Rather it relies on the slow, hard, and seemingly unrewarding work of witness, a witness which it trusts to prevail even in a fragmented and violent world.

Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom

Each Time You Fall

The Lord says to you what He said to Matthew: ‘Follow Me.’ But when you follow the Lord with burning love, it may happen that on the road of life you strike your foot against the stone of some passion and fall unexpectedly into sin; or else, finding yourself in a muddy place, you may slip involuntarily and fall headlong. Each time you fall and in this way injure your body, you should get up again with the same eagerness as before, and continue to follow after your Lord until you reach Him. ‘Thus have I appeared before Thee in the sanctuary’- the sanctuary of my thoughts- ‘that I might behold Thy power and glory,’ for they are my salvation. ‘In Thy name will I lift up my hands,’ and I shall be heard; I shall think myself ‘filled with marrow and fatness,’ and my lips will rejoice as they sing Thy praise. It is a great thing for me to be called a Christian, as the Lord tells me through Isaiah: ‘It is no light thing for you to be called My servant.’

St. John of Karpathos, Text for the Monks in India

Occasional Remarks on Technology and Teenagers

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to supervise- if that’s the correct word- a group of seventh and eighth graders at a youth retreat at a rural (but increasingly suburban) church outside of Jackson, MS. I was recruited by a recently graduated friend with connections to said church; I am not particularly adept with teenagers, but tend to accede to requests for my service nonetheless, and did so this time. Fortunately the kids- five boys actually- were very well-behaved and listened attentively and followed instructions, didn’t fight or use abusive language, got along with each other wonderfully, and in general made for a good weekend (though with little sleep).

I fear, however, that some of their good and manageable behavior was attributable, not to their upbringing and resulting good manners, though these kids obviously possessed it, but to the fact that they had two Play Station IIs to entertain themselves while we were at the host family’s house. In retrospect I rather wish I had proscribed the things except for a very limited time, but, well, frankly, I enjoyed not having to supervise anyone after having engaged in various activities and such all day. So I played on my computer or read a book while the kids played video games.

But these kids- all of whom, I should make clear, are very much from rural backgrounds, though suburbia is fast encroaching on the area- not only engaged in video games, but also used their cell phones continually. This was true primarily of the older, high school kids, but both the eighth graders in my group had expensive looking cell phones which they used to send text messages continually- including while playing video games- or at least attempting to do both. When done with video games and ready for bed, the seventh graders more or less drifted off to bed, but the two eighth grade boys spent at least an hour or two on the internet, primarily engaged with their Myspace pages. The next day cell phones were again an ever-present reality, again, primarily among the older kids, but even with the junior high kids. This included text messaging friends who were in the same room. 

All of this is, I am sure, no surprise to any reader who hasn’t been living in a cabin in the woods for the past few years. However, the full extent to which technology has penetrated the lives of even junior high kids had not been so evident to me before- I’m simply not around teenagers that often (I might note that most of what I’ve said applies pretty well to many college students). Many of these teenagers were employing or anticipating employing some form of electronic media all day: media which involves basically indirect communication, communication by rudimentary language, without the full array of sensory expression and reception, communication divested of its, well, human contexts. And the electronic entertainment likewise only employs limited aspects of sensory involvement and participation. The full range of human imagination and physical apparatus is simply not involved, nor can it be. The dangers of such integration of pervasive technology into teenagers’s- and increasingly, younger children’s- lives should be obvious enough. I wonder whether in the future people will be able to communicate and express themselves without a massive array of electronic media and devices. These technologies fundamentally disbar whole ranges of the human experience, which are lost out in the constant background roar of technology begging for attention and use. They are also calculated towards profit for a limited number of entities, whether through ongoing use or through the continual development and trotting out of new and improved gadgets for purchase. With every increase in gadgetry, other forms of life are creepingly excluded. As I mentioned earlier, the kids in my group were all rural, and fortunately still engaged in distinctively rural forms of childhood like hunting, camping, and such. The electronic gadgetry has no connection with such things, but rather is exclusionary, offering brighter and flashier things in competition, things with no intrinsic connection to any place, but especially inimical to rural communities based on outdoor activity and local participation and family involvement. It is also dangerous in relation to Christianity- extensive electronic entertainment serves as a massive enticement, obviously, but perhaps more fundamentally the breakdown in communication means that conveying the Gospel- which involves the totality of one’s humanity- becomes yet more difficult. And all of this is true without even considering the content of the entertainment or what is being communicated- that would be a whole separate issue (happily, the boys in my group seemed to be fairly judicious in their choices, no doubt reflective of the strength of their families, all of which were- remarkably- as yet unfragmented by divorce).

And in discussing this, I cannot exclude myself: I use the internet extensively, and enjoy my generic mp3 player. I really don’t like cell phones, but that has more to do with my dislike of talking on the phone than any ethical or otherwise standards (I also don’t have text messaging, which still surprises some of my friends).  Still, I spend a great deal of time using technology that is in many ways fragmentary of human interaction and culture.

I wonder what the end result of a society that is every day plunged deeper and deeper into dependancy upon electronic media, and upon the latest gadgetry, no matter what its impact upon our humanity. And likewise I wonder what can be done to break this dependancy. At the least, things like reading books, talking to people- face to face no less!- discouraging endless use of electronic media, recognizing that, like so many things, technology must be employed in moderation, and must be subordinate to man, and not the other way around. The Gospel injunction against endless accumulation and unabrogated investment in possessions is a strong corrective; we must have the willingess to take it seriously and apply it in our own lives, and encourage teenagers and children to do the same. And there must be a willingness to say no to technology sometimes- whether in regards to ourselves, or parents with their children. Even from my limited experience with kids, this isn’t easy- I’ve pacified my little brother more than a few times with the internet or television- but surely the sacrifice of temporary comfort and ease is preferable to raising another generation addled by fragmenting technology and obscenely pervasive electronic media.

Monastery and City

My school operates on a trimester system, which is generally a nusiance, as it means an aceleration of classes so that the last few weeks are often ridiculously rushed. This can be a good thing for dreadful classes, but is otherwise a pain. It also means the division of our breaks into smaller units dispersed through the school year, including a ‘winter break,’ distinct from the more common Christmas and Spring breaks. This week has been our winter break; (new) classes resume Monday.

Taking advantage of our brief hiatus from university life, a friend of mine and I made the short journey to Convington, LA, to visit St. Joseph’s Abbey (Benedictine), located north of town in pine and live oak woods, which was quite peaceful except for the water-well driller at the abbey’s entrance. Water-well driller aside, we passed the time in much-needed prayer and contemplation; I’ve found that there are few places like a monastery for really focused prayer and general detoxification. Computers, radios, iPods, noise, etc etc, are ever-present hindrances to attempts at finding lack of distraction and peace; I find that when I set out to deliberately avoid such distractions, they find a way of intruding after a while. The monastery provides an atmosphere oriented around remembrance of God and a reduction of distractions and simplification.

St. Joseph’s had a further attraction for me, as it is the burial place of novelist Walker Percy, and was a favorite retreat of his (he spent much of his life and writing career in Covington). The brothers at St. Joseph’s were quite hospitable, and dinner was excellent. We were invited to join the evening services with the brothers in the choir stalls; after Compline we walked back to the abbey and passed one of the brothers walking by chanting one of the hymns to himself out under the crepe myrtles and the gathering clouds in the Louisiana sky. Sublime.

Tuesday morning we arose early- to rain, thunder, and lightning- to drive to New Orleans to work with Habitat for Humanity in one of the east side neighborhoods. Since we had to leave before breakfast, the Guestmaster told us to stop by the dining hall and help ourselves. We did so, as the rain poured down outside; we considered briefly remaining there as the weather was incliment in the extreme. However, after eating breakfast in the truly magnificent dining hall, which was painted by Dom Gregory de Witt; my favorite portion is the painting of St. Benedict presiding over the dining hall’s main doors.

We decided to make the journey across the Causeway to New Orleans, and fortunately the rain ceased. By the time we arrived at the job site the sky was blue- despite the fact the night before had seen a tornado in Chalmette, a few scant miles east of where we were working. Habitat for Humanity has at present some eighty houses under construction in New Orleans, mostly in the eastern part of town, where the flood waters hit hardest. I’ve been to New Orleans numerous times since the storm, but had not really driven through the ‘devastated’ parts of time, other than going to Jazz Fest, which involved navigating partially deserted neighborhoods looking for parking, which was quite an adventure in itself. However, the neighborhood we worked in was far worse; on a given block perhaps two or three houses had inhabitants; whole streets are collections of empty, gutted houses, churches, and schools. On many houses you can make out the water line, five, six feet up. All the houses are marked with spray-painted symbols indicating the day they were searched and what was or wasn’t found.

We ended up working on a partially completed house just east of Almonaster Boulevard. Neither of us are particularly proficient builders, but we can swing a hammer alright. Most of the people who had signed up to work Tuesday were discouraged by the weather and didn’t show up, so we actually had a decent amount of work to do. During lunch we braved the traffic on North Claiborne- including a major intersection with a still non-functioning stop light- and found a fairly new taco shop- all the taco combinations you could want. Discovered that the quesadilla option on the menu meant ‘taco with cheese.’ Place was hopping, with clients that pretty well reflected New Orleans’s new demographics: a larger Latino population, and a huge swell of demolition and construction workers. We returned and worked until about three or so; during our last hour at the job site we were joined by an improbably large contingent of Canadian college students on break who had journeyed down to volunteer. After finishing up work we drove over to downtown and wandered around the French Quarter, which was considerably crowded for a Tuesday afternoon- in anticipation of Mardis Gras next week, I suppose. Went by Faulkner House Books, an incredible little bookstore in the alley between St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo; I made mental notes of books I should like to add to my collection one of these days. Fortunately for my rather limited finances I had left my checkbook at home.  

Traditional Afghan Music

Here are a couple of nice sites pertaining to different aspects of traditional music from Afghanistan, which, before its descent into mass chaos and warfare in the waning days of the Cold War, was home to vibrant traditions of music reflecting the nation’s ethnic and cultural diversity.

The Afghan Music Project is the result of efforts by two Berkeley students to collect recording of traditional musicians in the post-Taliban Afghanistan; their site includes a nice video detailing their project.

Music in the Afghan North is a collection of material collected before the Soviet invasion and subsequent destruction of much traditional culture- first by the Soviets (folk ballads and such can be quite subversive of international socialism) and later by the Taliban. The music quality here is naturally somewhat lo-fi, but some of the pieces are quite enjoyable and accessible, besides their cultural and historical significance.

Mere Training or Indulgence

“The problems of education are merely reflections of the deepest problems of our age. They cannot be solved by organisation, administration, or the expenditure of money, even though the importance of all these is not denied. We are suffering from a metaphysical disease, and the cure must therefore be metaphysical. Education which fails to clarify our central convictions is mere training or indulgence. For it is our central convictions that are in disorder, and, as long as the present anti-metaphysical temper persists, the disorder will grow worse. Education, far from ranking as man’s greatest resource, will then be an agent of destruction, in accordance with the principle corruptio optimi pessima.”

E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful 

Theodore Dalrymple on Speech and Freedom

La Rochefoucauld said that love of justice in most men is only fear of suffering injustice. By analogy, love of free speech in most men is only fear of being shut up. If they were a bit stronger than they are, they would just have monologues, the most pleasurable of all speech forms. Who among us has not taken part in a conversation in which his principal concern was with what he was going to say next, hardly bothering in the meantime to listen to the others, except to await a pause into which he may interject his wonderful words?

Freedom and Its Discontents

As Dalrymple goes on to affirm- and the teaching of Scripture and Tradition affirms- the rooted danger to conversation- whether person to person or in the context of broader society and culture- is found in our own hearts, in our own- sinful!- inclinations. We are, in our fallen condition, egotistical creatures, and for creatures that express themselves principally through speech, that means guarding our ‘right’ to speak. The fragmentation that occurs afflicts every aspect of our lives, as we retreat from the other into the self-sure domains of our own reasoning and understanding.

The insertion of the Word Incarnate is ultimately an act of interjection into our closed-off conversations: Christ is ‘the Word spoken in silence,’ Who does not trumpet Himself, does not go on television and scream over a panel, does not order His disciples to put up propaganda boards all over Palestine, or form pressure groups to shout down the opposition. Instead, His enemies seek to silence His life-giving Word, and work together- their desire to stiffle the discourse of the Other united in one target- to crucify Him and put His words in the grace. Yet He is resurrected and sends His disciples out into the world, without gold and silver to act as lobbyists, still speaking the truth and trying to listen- to God and to the other.

On Reading

The role of literature is to mess with time, to establish its own time, its own rhythm. A new agenda for literary studies should open up the time of reading, just as it opens up how the writer establishes his or her rhythm. Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words.

What I am asking myself to do is to step out of the grid of time, to experience works of literature anew. What I am asking you to do is to slow reading down, to preserve and expand the experience of reading — at any level, be it in elementary schools, high schools, colleges, or graduate seminars. What I am asking for is a revolution in reading.

Time for Reading