Friday, April 25, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 5-4-08
Jeff Gill

Sometimes You Just Say “I Don’t Know”

We had a power outage at Sycamore Lodge recently, and I was delighted to be able to fall back directly on battery clocks strategically placed, flashlights, ditto, and candles were ready to augment had we gone past sunset.

What I realized we didn’t have in place was a good general purpose radio on battery power. All our battery operated radios right now are little earbud widgets, which you can’t set up on the kitchen counter while figuring out breakfast on an electricity-free morning.

Thanks to Pandora on the internet, my radio habit anymore is in the car or online, and the broadband router needs power, even with the laptop batteries at full charge.

So I thought I knew we were set for a power outage, and having one reminded me of how much I don’t know, but just assume.

Life’s full of stuff like that, and some of it just doesn’t bear looking at – but we should. Peering intently at the limits of our knowledge shouldn’t promote know-nothing-ism, but it does offer a leavening dose of humility.

Electricity, for instance. Ben Franklin started to figure out how this natural phenomenon worked with Leyden jars (a primitive storage battery) and a silken cord on his kite. How does today’s electrical system work, sending the energy from turning turbines out of coal-burning boilers down the high tension wires to the neighborhood grid to my toaster?

Having lots of electrical engineering students on my hallway at Purdue University, I learned the disturbing fact that we don’t actually know how power transmission works. Hey, we know that it does – Charles Steinmetz, a figure from GE’s earliest history worth looking up, did a Ben Franklin II with lightning strikes in his summer cottage – and engineers have carefully mapped and charted what happens, even if we can’t quite explain how it does what we observe it doing.

So we set up a kind of watershed dynamic with powerlines and outlets and inputs, but sometimes it does stuff that we can only guess at for causes and reasons. The power flows, usually, mostly, and for now that’s good enough.

That coal we burn to make much of our power? Thanks to fossils in the coal beds and those adjoining the seams of anthracite and bituminous, geologists have a very good idea how coal is formed from (largely) the pollen of ancient primitive plants, best represented today by horse-tail, also known as pot-scrubber plant to Boy Scouts, in roadside ditches (equisetum to the scientists).

But oil? There are some very interesting theories out there, and which one is correct will help to predict exactly how much more petroleum we can expect to find and recover, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t know what crude oil is made from or how it’s formed. Which hasn’t kept us from building a global economy on the stuff.

Nor has the problem of flight kept us from building an amazing air traffic network and sophisticated baggage retrieval systems (in this usage, retrieval means “Ha!”). Every school child knows that, according to the principles of physics, bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly.

It’s worse than that.

You know the picture you learned in school, of a wing cross-section, with lift and airflow and all that explaining why a plane lifts off the ground in take-off and stays aloft? It’s a useful fiction, but it actually doesn’t work in mathematical models, either. That’s not why planes do, in fact, fly. Aeronautical engineers continue to pursue a theory that will add up to enough lift and momentum for a plane to fly – even as they still do.

Are fundamental bits of reality waves, or particles? It depends, and the answer seems to be both, anyhow. Fine. And while evolution has marvelous explanatory and predictive power in the natural world, allowing us to treat illness and make drugs and breed cute little ponies and make sense of this interconnected world, it doesn’t even touch the question of where organic life came from.

The whole “lightning bolts in organic soup” thing many folks think they know and believe is part of evolutionary theory got tossed long ago, and the question is still very much in play, if you’re thinking of topics for an organic chemistry PhD.

And what came before the Big Bang? Even Steven Hawking doesn’t have a guess. Where do all the batteries disappear to in my house? I haven’t a clue. There’s much we just don’t know.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what you don’t know at

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Faith Works 4-26-08
Jeff Gill

Blossoms Above and Before Open Up Right Now

Eternal springtime may be some people’s idea of heaven, but if your sinuses have strong opinions about pollen, not so much.

The peak of tree pollen, with grass pollen numbers swinging up as the arboreal count eases down, starts a grim season for a few (many?) of us.

Which doesn’t mean that even allergy-prone individuals can’t appreciate the beauty of flowering trees. The good news for my nose is what makes them so remarkable: their brief span of blossoming. Dogwood to redbud to forsythia (ok, the last is a shrub) splash their whites and pinks and yellows, then fade from the scene.

Right now we have lilac trees and crabapples and ornamental pears, plus the frilled luminosity of cherry blossoms. What they don’t bring to our scenery is any sense of permanence, with a carpet of petals around the trunk showing up almost as soon as the flowers appear.

There are magnolias I watch for each spring who seem to have lost over half their petals before I see them opened up the next day, and if a stiff wind or hard rain come at the right moment, the soft color could be a purely ground level phenomenon.

This year has been a good slow steady season for these otherwise shortlived displays. The hillsides and river valleys around central Ohio are fuzzing up with buds and new leaves while the splashes and swaths of blossoming trees are maintaining the contrast over weeks, not just days.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament, the signs of new life are quite sensisbly attached to imagery of spring blossoms, which are often woody plants given the rugged landscape. Olive and almond usher in the spring as Ecclesiastes notes, then the terebinths Abram and Sarai camped under with their turpentine scented flowers – three times in Genesis we read about the terebinth marking a good place to camp for a nomadic family. Figs and pomegranates have tough but bright blossoms, and the blossom of the grapevine is not on a tree, but is as short lived while still a crucial sign of the season’s decisive turn.

New life is fragile, and trusting the steady progression of the seasons is both certain and terrifying – if you are feeding your family with the bounty of the earth, you learn that summer surely follows spring, but nothing says there won’t be snows after the almond flowers (like our forsythia myths in the New World).

Ask a farmer about how planting’s gone this year . . . never mind, because you won’t find them unless you go out into the field and flag their tractor down. And they may not slow down for you, because they’ve been wanting to get out into the fields for weeks and couldn’t.

So certainly and insecurity, fragility and the foundation of life itself, all resting in the heart of a flower. Georgia O’Keefe spent the latter half of her career painting larger and larger versions of smaller and smaller flowers, like the spring beautys that pop up now on any older, established lawn before the mowers and sprayers do their busy work. The desert flower paintings looked into the hidden secrets on full display if you would stop and look, which O’Keefe tried to help you do by blowing them up to the size of a wall.

Midwestern flowering trees do much the same for us if we let them. The last major florescence around here is that of the tulip poplar, a few weeks from now. 80, 90, over 100 feet above our heads, atop the branchless trunks in their spreading canopies, green spikes are slowly opening up.

Occasionally a squirrel will knock down one of these half-opened orange and yellow flowers, and you kick it idly aside on the path thinking, as you look around on the ground, where are those growing?

In their full glory, pretty much no one sees them, open to the sky above and the bees and butterflies and birds skipping along the upper reaches of the forest. A steady rain follows of petals and a faint scent of cucumber, scattering across the forest as they fall from the heights where they grew.

Some of the greatest beauties of this world appear just beyond our sight, and we can only pick up the hints by watching the ground for what is happening above.

Sounds like something out of the Psalms, doesn’t it?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he hopes to see you all under the tall trees of the Great Circle next Saturday for the new museum dedication at 6:00 pm on May 3 – see for info under “agenda.”

Monday, April 21, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 4-27-08
Jeff Gill

Layered History, Lightly Worn

If you make it out to the Great Circle earthwork on Saturday, May 3, make sure to check out the trees.

Jim Kingery is proud of those trees, almost none of which he’s planted and a number he’s had to gently take down, like the blue ash that crumpled near the Great Gateway a few months back in a windstorm.

With years of experience as a forester and with the Ohio Historical Society, he’s gotten to know all the vast, ancient trees within and without the enclosure and more recent plantings that go back to Idlewild Park before the 1920s and the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and then the period of OHS stewardship.

Some ask whether we should cut down all the trees to recover a bit of the sense of what was there in a “pocket prairie” 2,000 years ago when the Newark Earthworks were laid out, but that neglects the fact that they buffer the sound of Rt. 79 and Mathews Ford and 21st St., not to mention the visual buffer as well.

And a recent lecture at OSU-N by Lindsay Jones on the “revalorization” of Mexican ancient sites reminded many of us here in Licking County that many years pull many layers of meaning and use and purpose across a landscape, and to decide which layer or approach is “the” right one is tricky, and unlikely to work for the stakeholders however defined for today. “Revalorization” is a handy academic word for reuse, with a twist.

If subjects like that, or how even older sites like England’s Stonehenge has weathered multiple uses and interpretations and abuses, are of interest to you, then the day of May 3 is filled with speakers in the Reese Center on the OSU-N campus – check for details under “agenda.”

Jim is likely to miss most of our speakers, because he and Susan Fryer, director of the Licking County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, will be getting ready to greet us along with the Aztec Dancers of Queretaro, Mexico for the 6:00 pm dedication ceremonies for the newly refurbished museum for the Newark Earthworks.

And one of those layers for the Great Circle portion of the Newark Earthworks State Memorial is the fact that the best cluster of truly old trees in the county, maybe even the state, is in and around this spot, which was set aside for our county fairground, as a Civil War training camp, and for the myriad peculiar uses of the 20th century to follow. It became an ad hoc preserve, so 300-plus year old trees were left to stand, likely more for shade over the buggies and applecarts than for any sense at the time of conservationism.

The owls of the neighborhood are the direct result of these aged, ancient trees, which naturally have some hollow cavities set large and high up, some from lightning strikes and others from long-ago fungus that wormed its way within and then fell away, leaving some prime real estate for nocturnal hunters of the air.

There are red oaks and white oaks that are older than Ohio, older than this nation, some that may have been a newly sprouting acorn when the Jamestown settlers first stumbled ashore in Virginia or Juan de Onate planted a cross in New Mexico.

Then on Sunday, May 4, you have a chance to roam the Octagon portion of the Newark Earthworks up off of 33rd St. and Parkview west of Cherry Valley School that was and is. The beech trees on the southern third of that site are broader at the base, but as Jim has taught me, younger, and doomed to an earlier death, both by their shorter lifespan, softer wood, and the general stress on trees today that’s more than it was in 1708.

Whether you have an interest in heritage and history, sacred sites or archaeological study, native dancers or academic lecturers, make sure to look into and around and up through the trees of these parks, and let them anchor a bit of your imaginings. They’re not as old as the mounds, but they’re older than you! Show a little respect, and feel a little awe in return.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he is delighted to moderate some of the sessions at Newark Earthworks Day on May 3 (see Tell him a story at