broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the month “June, 2015”

Sociology of Ferns

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Today I visited the Tettaguche State Park with my friend Adam.  It was my first time visiting the park and part of a larger goal of visiting four new state parks this year.  So, I woke up at 6:30 am and drove us up the north shore of Lake Superior to head to the park.  The goal was to attend a 9 am hike on the topic of ferns.  As it turns out, the hike was guided by a local lichen expert, Joe Walewski.  He has written a book on lichens and is currently finishing up a guide to ferns.  The hike was also joined by Kurt Mead, who wrote a book on dragonflies.  It was fantastic that we were able to share our morning and the hike with these two experts.  As no one else showed up for the hike, we had their full attention for over three hours.

Before the hike began, Joe asked us what we knew about plants or ferns and why we were interested in the hike.  I honestly just love to learn.  Prior to the hike, Adam did not know that there were different kinds of ferns.  There is no shame in this, it is simply that ferns don’t call attention to themselves in the way that trees or flowers do.  To look at this socially, flowers and trees play a larger role in society.  Flowers are given as gifts or planted in gardens.  Trees are used for a variety of useful things (fruit, timber, maple syrup, landscaping, etc.)  In this way, most people can probably identify and name dozens of flowers and trees.  After all, people can be named after flowers (rose, violet, heather, lily, petunia, etc.) and streets are named after trees (elm, oak, birch, maple, elm).  There is a nightmare on Elm Street, but nothing significant ever happened on Ostrich Fern street.   How many ferns can you name?  Prior to the hike, I could name two ferns.   It should be noted that the social importance of ferns is variable.  In Victorian times, there was a fern craze wherein people wanted potted and garden ferns and made use of fern motifs in designs.  However, today most people don’t yearn for ferns.

Because we aren’t naturalists or trained in botany, we entered the hike as blank slates when it comes to ferns.  I have a bit more history in studying plants, so I know that ferns are ancient and reproduce with spores, but I don’t have much knowledge about ferns.  In a way, this made the hike very exciting.  As we hiked, Joe asked us to identify the ferns and make observations about them.  This was difficult because we lacked the cognitive schema to make such observations.  For instance, when looking at a fern, what do you look for?  For most things in life, we have some cognitive schema.  For instance, when looking at a human we classify them according to race, gender, class, ability, etc.  This is because (for better and for worse…and mostly worse) we are socialized to put people into categories.  These categories have power and impact how we relate to these other humans.  When looking at a fern, we have no such cognitive schema.  So, Joe had to prompt us to look at such things as the shape and size of the leaves, which direction they pointed, the color of the spores under the leaves, where the fern was growing, the size of the fern, the shape of the fern, the coil of a fiddlehead, and other details that would otherwise go unnoticed.  We used magnifiers to look at the coloration of teeth along a stalk of horsetails to determine which species we were looking at.  I had to look at several specimens, as it was hard to determine if the teeth were black or if they had a white outline.  There is enough variation within a species that these subtle details may make it hard to identify the plant.  So, in botany, a population is looked at and generalizations are made (ignoring the diversity between specimens).  In this same way, we are trained to “see” race or gender.  We categorize broadly.  The difference is that there is little social power in classifying horsetails.

It was fascinating to be socialized into naturalism.  During the hike, our world view had to change.  We couldn’t simply walk and passively enjoy nature.  We had to actively look at nature.  We were trained how to look at nature in a particular way.  We were given new language and new cognitive schema.  I have never really paid attention to ferns.  They are sort of the background plants of a forest.  During the hike, I saw tiny ferns that depended upon a certain fungus to grow (botrychium).  There were ferns that grew on rocky surfaces (fragile ferns).  There was a fern that looked like a gnome’s beach chair (beech fern).  We were told that we were looking at the fern equivalent of an old growth forest.  Never before had I appreciated the beauty and diversity of ferns.  Of course, like any socialization process, there are also rules, language, and behaviors to learn.  For instance, we learned about lichens and how to classify them based upon their physical characteristics (crustose-crusty flat lichen, foliose-like a leaf, fruticose-like a little tree).  We were taught how to identify major characteristics of plants and use these with a plant field guide.  We were taught only to eat the fiddleheads of ostrich ferns.

I was struck by all of the things that go unnoticed.  We saw a tiny orchid (Rattlesnake Plantain) which was so small and shy it would have easily been overlooked.  A patchwork of lichen-each an entire ecosystem- is tread across without notice.  Reindeer lichen flourished like a foamy green forest.  There are no caribou to eat it.  We searched for some arctic remnants (Hudson Bay Eyebright and butterwort) but didn’t find any.  These plants survived the retreat of last ice age and have been too far south for 10,000 years!  They survive because of the Lake Superior microclimate that is just cool enough to keep them alive.  This is so fragile and precious!  Climate change could so easily destroy this little botanical time capsule from glaciation.

As adults, it is hard to find that sense of wonder in nature or in general.  I have found that aging tends to lead me towards more disenchantment with the world and more broken narratives.  I am unable to believe the things I once believed.  But today I felt like a child playing in nature.  I felt wonderfully privileged to learn about nature with the guidance of the naturalists.  This knowledge is invaluable.   It is also humbling.  Ferns have been on earth for 360 million years.  They have silently survived the extinction of dinosaurs, giant amphibians, trilobites, and ammonites.  Maybe they will survive our extinction and the death we spread across the planet.

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Best Man Speech

Here is the speech I did for Mike at his wedding:

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According to scientific estimates, the universe is 13.8 billion years old.  Not only is it unfathomably old, it is incomprehensibly large with a 92 billion light year observable diameter.  It is hard to see our place in such a seemingly infinite expanse of time and space.  To make it easier to understand, scientists have sought to condense this time scale into something familiar, like a yearly calendar.  One method that I’ve seen and liked is condensing this time into the span of a human life.  On average, humans live about 80 years.  That is, we travel around the sun 80 times.  We’re traveling pretty quickly too!  We’re going around the sun at about 18.5 miles per second.  It is kind of crazy to think that by the time I am done with the speech, we will have traveled 5,550 miles.  That means, by the time I am done, we could have traveled between Russia’s easternmost territories in the Kirill Islands near Japan to its western most by in Gdansk by Poland.

Once again, space and time are hard to imagine, but a human life span makes it more understandable. With that said, let’s suppose that the universe is a human.  This human was born and will one day die.  Now, to scale everything to human life, we have to think big.  We count our years in terms of our voyage around the sun, but the sun itself makes a 230 million year revolution around the Milky Way.  This trip is called a galactic year.  So, I am going to count the years in galactic years, which are, well 230 million times greater than our human years.  Okay, so if you are following me, the universe is currently 61 galactic years old.  That is, our sun has revolved around the Milky Way 61 times.  In our 61 galactic years of life, the earth was born when the universe was about 43 years old.  So, the universe was pretty old by the time Earth was born, but hey, people are having children in the 40s much more often now.  At about 46 years old, the first life appeared on earth.  At about 54 years old, multicellular life appeared on earth.  You can see that for much of the universe’s 61 years, Earth and life just weren’t around.  About 12 months ago dinosaurs appeared, but they went extinct about 4 months ago. Humans didn’t even appear on the scene until 8 hours ago.  15 minutes ago writing was invented, which is helpful since I needed to write this speech out.  One minute ago, modern science was invented, which is also pretty useful, since it has given me something to talk about.  A whole human lifespan of about 80 years, is really only 10 seconds in galactic time.  In galactic time, I have known Mike for less than a second and a half.  And, if I was convert this speech from human time of 5 minutes to a galactic time of 5 min, 2000 human years would have passed.  The point is not to remember all of this, but to realize that our lives are very small in the scale of the universe.   We are alone and small in a universe that will one day end in a cataclysm of expansion and cold.

With that said, how do we survive existential depression?  Many people have many ways of dealing with this problem, but something that has sustained humanity for centuries is connection.  When we are barreling around the sun at 1,000 miles per minute, we need something to hold on to.  We need family, friends, partners, comrades, and community.  This is why we are here today.  We are here for Mike and Sonia, to celebrate their commitment to one another and the idea that we should stand with one another.  When we are sick, when society is sick, when we see people in need, we must stand together.  We must stand for love and human connection.  We must see the injuries to others as injuries to ourselves.  We must work together to make our short existence in this world better.  We must elevate each other and elevate this world above the problems that weigh us down and keep us apart.  All we have are connections.  All we have is this brief flash in the pan in a big, old indifferent universe.  We have 10 short seconds to leave the world a better place and to make our mark in the history of time and space!

When I set out to write a speech, I wanted to write about the big picture.  I wanted to write about love, but many kinds of love.  While the wedding celebrates romantic love, it also celebrates the love of friends and family and community.  That is what makes these kinds of events so astonishing.  Never again will you be in this place… at this time…with these people.  This place is alive with the love of the diverse people who have been a part of Mike and Sonia’s lives, many of whom may never meet again.  Our only commonality is shared love and connection.   I am deeply happy to count Mike as a friend.  Friendship is precious.  I hope Mike and Sonia the best in their future.  I hope they are deeply happy.  I hope that their connection and solidarity helps them tackle the challenges they face as individuals, but I also hope energizes them in their work to make the world a better place.  Above all else, I hope they never again feel alone in the universe.

Being the Best Man

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Some women dream of their wedding day.  One of my fantasies was being the best man.  I like the idea.  Firstly because I want to be the best at something.  Secondly, I like the idea of being an honorary man for a day.  In society, I present my outward appearance in a feminine way.  I wear makeup and have long hair.  I don’t mind this feminine presentation of self.  However, my inner self is more androgynous.  My inner self dislikes being female.  It doesn’t like to be pigeon holed into a biological sex and all the terrible things (things I find terrible) that come along with being biologically female (more body fat, breasts, periods, hips, etc.) and the social roles, expectations, oppressions, of femininity ( being emotional, being paid less, being taken less seriously, motherhood, etc.)  Don’t get me wrong…I don’t want to be a man.  I just want to be less of a woman.  Less curvy, no breasts, narrow hips, more logical (this is socially constructed because women can certainly be logical!), more scientific (again socially constructed as women can certainly be scientific), less gender conforming, and so on.  There is nothing inherently bad about the traits that are considered feminine and female nor are these traits the end all and be all of gender expression.  There are heterosexual mothers who love their curves and emotions but also love mud bogging, kick boxing, hunting, etc.  They are both more women and more man than most men and most women and yet they would never consider themselves gender queer.  A great accomplishment of the feminist and LGBT movements is greater space for women to express their gender.  While 100 years ago or 50 years ago, women couldn’t play basketball, wear pants, go hunting, choose not to have children, choose not to get married, travel independently, and many other things without strong social sanctions…today there is a great deal more gender freedom (for women).  So much so that most people (I don’t want to overstate this) don’t think it too strange if women enjoy contact sports or independent adventures.  Granted, I don’t think that society is some utopia for women.  I do recall being told that only lesbians play soccer (by a professor no less) when I joined a soccer team.  I was also told by a professor that women can’t go into politics because we are too emotional to make the hard decisions (I guess women can’t make choices beyond the grocery store and shoe aisle.  Everything else is too much for our PMS addled brains).   There is still room to grow and for all of us to experience life more fully.  And while there is more room to express femininity more broadly, the masculine experience is quite narrow and very policed.  Men police each other through homophobia and still must prove each day that they are not gay and not female.  Why?  Masculinity and heterosexuality are still the cornerstone of patriarchy, which has not been overthrown.  The perpetuation of  male power demands defining and defending masculinity.  So while to some degree women can play sports, have careers, choose not to be mothers, and so on…men are not able to dabble in femininity the same way (showing emotion, being stay at home fathers, enjoying clothes shopping, etc.)    Again, I don’t want to paint the female experience as dreamland (as there is still domestic violence, rape culture, slut shaming, wage gap, etc.)   I simply believe that one accomplishment of the social movements of the last century was an expanded role of women and expansion of how women experience gender.

With that said, I am glad to live in a time where I can express femaleness differently.  I am glad to live in a time where I can question gender.  Even if my gender queerness never leaks out of my inner world and fantasies, I am glad that I can …at least to some degree…even entertain these thoughts.  I thank feminism and the LGBT movement for that.

Getting back to being the best man, it was meaningful for me as it was a day to enter male space.  For instance, I was assigned the male restroom to change in.  So, I changed into my clothes in a male space and among men.  Although I wore a dress and even overdid the feminine presentation of self, I liked that I had a traditionally male role.  I gave the best man’s speech, stood by my friend Mike during the ceremony, and brought a gift to the female dressing room.  The female dressing room became foreign.  It was full of tears and hairspray.  The male dressing area and the guys weren’t weepy.  They actually seemed more befuddled and awkward.  No one understood how to pin on the buttonaires.  The main concern seemed to be how to appear competent (i.e. standing in the right place, following the ceremony correctly, wearing the dress clothes properly).     My backstage peek into masculinity mostly taught me that men like to appear competent and do not feel competent at weddings.  Adam and I (and Luca) were probably the only dry eyed people through the ceremony.  The public presentation of the masculine self requires self control and emotional restraint.  Not that I felt inclined to cry.  Why cry?  It is a nice time.  Everyone is there.  It was pretty and the ceremony was nice.  The decorations were creative.  The theme was cool.  I felt happy for Mike.  Still, it would have been odd to cry.  I wonder if the women felt that they had to cry…since it would suck to be the only woman in the bride’s party who didn’t cry.  Maybe guys can avoid crying and still be  seen as caring.  Maybe no one cares if they care.   I don’t think that anyone thought Adam, Luca, and I were jerks because we didn’t cry.  However, maybe a bridesmaid who didn’t cry would be seen as bitchy.  I am not sure.

Anyway, I am thankful that I got to play a role in Mike’s big day!  I am thankful that I was treated like one of the guys…and for a day…felt like one.  I like that I can be a best man, but still wear makeup and a short dress.  I can be as emotionally sterile as man, but still connected to a friend and in solidarity with his decisions and struggles.  I felt like an equal.  I felt like one of the guys.   I think it makes me more human to have a wider set of gender experiences.   I think it makes me a better person, if not the best man.

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