Archive for August, 2011

Barefoot in a war-zone

Early last month, I heard a story on NPR about the US Army taking a stance on so-called ‘minimalist shoes’.  Basically, the top brass decided to crack down on these alternative shoes and that servicemen and women must now wear standard footwear.  When the story came on the radio, I thought, “Well, duh.”  I can’t say I was really surprised that the Army made this ruling and prohibited the use of minimalist shoes by its personnel: they claim these types of shoes “detract from a professional military image”, and I’m sure they do – the whole point of a uniformed standing army is that you’re all supposed to look the same.

Apparently, the Army isn’t having a problem with grunts wearing these shoes while out on missions (which would be absolutely silly, but not for the reasons you’d expect), but instead when they’re out doing PT (physical training).  This is where I have to disagree with the ruling.  If you want your personnel to be in top physical condition, minimalist shoes —since there is no way on Earth the Army would let people train while actually barefoot (like hippies!)— are the way to go.  The benefits of this type of running have been espoused byplenty so I won’t bore you with a retread of the topic.  I usually run barefoot and I’ve seen the advantages, but I hate pushy folks who try to convert others to their way of thinking, so if somebody wants to give barefoot running a try, it’s up to them.

Actually, I kind of wish some Army guys had been running missions while wearing these kind of shoes before this ruling went out, so that I could point and laugh.

Honestly, wouldn't you?

Not because of how silly a decked-out-in-full-battle-rattle grunt would look while wearing colorful rubber gorilla feet but because of how incompatible the conflicting ideologies are.

Your average Army man—wearing combat boots and body armor, carrying an 80 or 100-pound ruck and some kinda black rifle—is a product of the ‘civilized’ world’s military-industrial complex.  He carries everything he needs on his back.  He’s big, loud, and heavy, and you can be sure his feet strike heel-first when he runs.

Compare him to your barefoot Bushman.  This fast and light fellow carries little more than a bow and a handful of arrows, because as a hunter in his natural habitat, he is in his element.  Everything he needs, Nature provides.  He’s ‘uncivilized’, but he’s healthier and happier than you or I.  Emulate him.

It’s time to talk about Time.

Although we don’t often think about it, our perception of time plays a huge role in the modern disconnect from Nature.  Most of the West uses the Gregorian calendar to mark the passage of time: about 30 days per month, arranged in rows of seven-day weeks, four weeks per month, 12 months per year.  All of it expressed using that most loathsome of shapes, the square.  Has there ever been a polygon more indicative of the root problems facing our world than the square?  It is the antithesis of the counterculture’s circles or triangles or what-have-you. If our vernacular language is any indication, we seem to be aware of this, at least subconsciously : we say someone is ‘square’ if they aren’t with-it-and-hip, and that someone who is A Square is part of the establishment.

The problem with the square is that it doesn’t really exist in Nature. Circles and hexagons in Nature? Tons of ‘em. Squares? Not so much. The natural world is, by its very nature, organic, irregular, chaotic, while the square—by its nature—is linear, efficient, unnatural…which is to say, civilized.

Now, how does the lack of squares in nature relate to time?  Let us remember that uncivilized Paleo-man saw time pass in the natural cycles of the square-free world that surrounded him: the 13 months of the lunar year, the four seasons of the solar year, etc.  While man lived in an unconquered world, he understood that the forces governing time were the same ones that governed the rest of his world: organic, cyclical powers.  He could see Time flowing all around him, just as could see Nature change from season to season.  Enter civilized man, who attempted to control time the same way he attempted to control everything else he knew: by putting it in a box.  The idea of the linear calendar is an invention unique to civilized people: Paleo-man understood that time flows organically, like everything else in Nature, and cannot be contained in a box.

So what can we do to overcome this Western obsession with controlling Time?
Get a new calendar.  Feel free to design your own, but here’s a cyclical year-at-a-glance calendar I put together, combining Gregorian, Solar (the Equinoxes and Solstices), and Celtic (still used archaically when we refer to ‘Midwinter’ or ‘Midsummer’s Day’) calendars to mark the seasons.

Fill it in with your own holidays.*  Feel free to keep using a civilized square calendar, but keep this one next to it. Want to combine Western and Eastern views of time? Print out a few, cut them out, and tape ‘em together in a spiral of years:

“You of the West…think of time moving in a straight line, from past to present to future.  Your eastern brothers regard time as a circle, returning endlessly in a cycle of decay and rebirth.  Both ideas have a dimension of the truth.  If you were to combine geometrically the movement of the circle with the movement of the line, what would you have?” In a helical model, “time moves on, but history repeats itself.”

*While I’m on the subject of Nature and Time, let’s have a few words on Tolkien and dates. Next time you read The Lord of the Rings, take note of on what days important things happen. Significant occasions match up within a few days of solar dates and/or Celtic holidays: the Fellowship sets out 25 December (shortly after the Winter Solstice), the Ring is destroyed 25 March (shortly after the Vernal Equinox), Aragorn is crowned 1 May (the Celtic fire-festival of Beltane, the first day of Summer), is wed on ‘Midyear’s Day’ (21 June, the Summer Solstice, although calendar errors usually report this as 1 July), and Bilbo and Frodo Baggins celebrate their birthday on the Autumnal Equinox, 22 September.

By using these specific dates, the Professor helps connect his heroes and their deeds quite firmly to the underlying powers of the Natural world which they struggle to uphold.

WALL-E and the myth of Progress

For the record, I liked WALL-E.  Really, I did.  A Buster Keaton robot love story with an eco-message, what’s not to love?  But something about the end credits always felt weird to me.

If you don’t remember, the credits depict the robots and humans returning to earth to rebuild their world together, depicted in a beautiful series of artistic styles, starting with cave-paintings and followed by Egyptian relief, Greek black-figure, Roman mosaics, Asian sketches, Impressionism, pointillism, and finally some Van Gough-esque oils.

This works on two levels.  First, the artistic style reminds us of the sum of our human history, which in the world of the film, has finally caught up with us, resulting in the human abandonment of a used-up, dustball Earth.  Second, the scenes presented in these artistic styles are (I think) supposed to show some kind of real sustainable future to which we should be attaining (or something).
But it doesn’t really work.

Here’s how it goes: the space-people and robots come back, live communally, start planting and irrigating crops, catch fish, and suddenly they’re rebuilding a pretty standard-looking city.  What’s wrong with this?  These artistic vignettes depict—in a stylized manner, of course—the process of ‘progress’ that terminates in our modern, unsustainable world—the same world the characters in the film left behind in the first place.  (On a technicality, I’d like to know where all the sea turtles and birds and fish came from in the first place, as the used-up Earth we see in the first half of the film is only home to a cockroach, and there didn’t seem to be much wildlife on the Axiom.)

My problem with the whole thing?  You really cannot expect a spaceship full of Wal-Mart-born-and-raised human jellybeans to suddenly care about Nature despite having never known of it, yet the film (and its credits) seem to suggest that simply by being exposed to a solitary live plant in a boot, humans’ latent biophilia will magically reemerge, stronger than ever, and give their society the strength to suddenly change course, overcome its Nature-deficit disorder and build a brighter, truly sustainable future.  Unfortunately, the problem is inertial: the longer a Nature-deprived lifestyle is allowed to continue, the harder it becomes to heal the gap.  And what’s even more troubling is that while the scenario presented by WALL-E may be science fiction, we as a society are heading down the same track.  It’s easy to look at the infantile human characters and think, ‘Oh, that could never happen to us.’  But, it could.  And, it is.

Since WALL-E’s success at the Academy Awards, the film’s writer and director Andrew Stanton has since explained how the even bigger woe of society isn’t just disconnection from Nature, but from each other as well:

“I think a lot of people attach a little too specifically to the ecological aspect or the complacency aspect of humanity. But I use those as devices to focus on the biggest issue, which is people caring about one another. People connecting with one another.” “Whether that’s literally love between two characters like robots or just you acknowledging that your neighbors (are) right next to you as opposed to being blocked between a cell phone or something. I felt that disconnection is going to be the cause, indirectly, of anything that happens in life that’s bad for humanity of the planet, so to me, my focus was connectivity.”

Mr. Stanton is absolutely right, and since our current system doesn’t seem to be designed with human connections in mind, it might be time for a new one…