Of Presidents and Mastodons

President Thomas Jefferson stared at the large, fossilized tooth, length of tusk, and bone fragments in front of him.  Less complete a collection of disarticulated specimens than he had hoped for, they were gifts from Clark, a trusted explorer who had picked them up near the Ohio River bend in north Ken-tah-ten or Kentucky, the westernmost part of his home state of Virginia.

The impressive section of five-inch diameter ivory tusk and large broken vertebrae suggested the remains of a huge elephant-type of creature.  While elephants were common in far off Africa and East Asia, their presence in the cold northern hemisphere in the New World was little expected.  Sketchy reports had come from Russia of a well-preserved “mammoth” elephantine beasts thawing from the permafrost.  Large teeth of elephants had been reportedly found in New York and other places, recognized by African slaves.  Likewise, the teeth of the Russian mammoth were supposedly akin to elephants.  It was all confusing.

Tooth of American incognitum –named as Mammut americanium.

But this tooth, apparently some type of molar, was different than the flat grass-grinder tooth of an elephant.  Unlike an elephant, this tooth had a suite of pairs of conical points with indentions on the tips of each.  This grinder must be from a massive animal – a yet unrecognized American mammoth. 

Jefferson’s mind raced.  But this molar was from no docile hay-eating elephant – it was determined to be a giant carnivore.  In his imagination and according to his friend Stiles, the wonder of the American incognitum surpassed the meager African elephant and Russian mammoth.  Perhaps this beast stood upright; 50 to 60 ft. tall.  Such pointed teeth would make the incognitum a ferocious carnivore with huge tusks like the great walrus of the north.  He pondered the teeth he’d seen from the African hippopotamus or water-horse.  These surpassed their size by tenfold.  Jefferson trembled at the thought of such creature. 

North America was a huge expansive continent, not yet fully explored.  With the acquisition of the large Louisiana Purchase from France and excursions into Spain’s unsettled northern territory, Tejas, Jefferson felt that he needed to fully understand the landscape and resources of the West.  Sea to sea, or Manifest Destiny, was already brewing as a driving philosophy for the young American Nation.

Jefferson’s incognitum might still exist not yet encountered or recorded by Europeans.  Huge beasts lived in native folklore, but the Great Spirit had graciously annihilated such predators.  However, the continent is so big that surely such an amazing animal still roamed free.  Years away from naturalists’ and scientists’ adoption of the concepts of progressive evolution and extinction, Jefferson thought of creation as static and unchanging.  Providence would not allow the extermination of such magnificent beast.  Unthinkable, extinction would create chaos in Jefferson’s Natural Order.  Therefore, his explorers, Lewis and Clark, would be charged to look for more than rivers, mountains, and plains.

Around this time, Georges Cuvier ended up with an incognitum tooth from Kentucky.  Like a good Frenchman, he saw the rows of paired conical teeth as breasts, with each indented tip as a nipple.  Thus, the distinction “masto-don” was made to differentiate this animal from the elephant-like mammoth, the teeth, tusks, jaws, femurs, skulls, and vertebrae of which were now being found at the Kentucky site along with horses, sloths, bears, and incognitum (now called the mastodon).

Size comparison: Mastodon vs. Mammoth

More and more bones from Kentucky were being studied and assembled.  The form of the mastodon (Mammut americanium) was determined to be more of an elephant than a bear, but distinctive from the mammoths found in Europe and America.  Mammut americanium was completely an American species and found nowhere in the Old World.   Cuvier further suggested that the conical teeth of the mastodon were likely developed for chewing coarse branches and woody material like a goat, but not meat.  Alas, Jefferson’s ferocious beast was an herbivorous forager, akin to and historically alongside, (but not the same as) the grass-eating mammoth and elephant.  More complete skeletons suggested that the stature of the mastodon was slightly more compact than mammoths but still very large.  Its tusks much shorter and straighter. 

Thomas Jefferson, the author of American Liberty, philosopher, and naturalist, was fascinated by the tooth of the American incognitum.  Wrong on most of his early assumptions, including the idea of extinction, Jefferson came around on his beliefs as more fossils were exhumed and studied.

In this story, there is more reason to admire Thomas Jefferson as a fellow American and Naturalist – Lover of Freedom. Admirer of Nature.  Inquisitor. Dreamer. Lifetime Learner.

Randy Bissell, Texas Master Naturalist, July 4, 2021

Greater Love?

“Greater Love has no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends.”

The Derek Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd and a recent hate incident in New York have darkened the news in the last few days and raised my own internal questioning about the risks and roles of action when intervention may seem necessary.

In the case of George Floyd, witnesses have testified that they tried to intervene by yelling, pleading, cursing, and moving against the officers slowly killing George Floyd.  A Minneapolis firefighter was rebuffed and told she “knew better” than to interfere.  Their best attempts at distanced intervention failed as George Floyd appeared to be murdered feet from them.  What else could they do?  Who, in courage or foolishness, would throw themselves against four police officers to distract or disrupt their heinous act?  The result would certainly have been physically harsh and, in fact, criminal.  Arrest and perhaps, injury or death, would seem the likely outcome.

Looking at the recent video of the hate-crime against the elderly Asian woman in New York is sickening as a man kicks her in the stomach and then continues kicking her in the head.  This video recorded from inside an apartment building shows two men inside – watching the carnage but never stepping out to intervene.  One man closes the glass door, leaving the woman alone and outside just a few steps away to await more potential harm.  The attacker, now in custody, is reportedly on lifetime parole for the killing of his own mother.  The men in the doorway who failed to act are now under society’s scrutiny – what else could they have done?  Were they expected to throw themselves into the mayhem?  To put their bodies between the violent man and his victim would seem to guarantee another injury from his wrath.

Here’s the point.  We are told by our modern culture that religion is just about feelings and they are all the same.  Sunday School lessons and sermons are a waste of time.  Religious people are ignorant or hypocritical.  What good is it all? 

One lesson we can all learn – Jesus said, “Greater Love has no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends.”

Do we have the courage (or foolishness) enough to live in Greater Love?  Can we accept that no intervention is safe or risk-free?  Might our calling be to step into a moment to change an outcome?  Wow, that is a powerful responsibility.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said “we have a method as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mohandas K. Gandhi…we can stand up before our most violent opponent and say: We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.”

Dr. King was willing to endure suffering to secure rights. 

Do we have his same calling to Greater Love?

Upsetting Science – When the Answer makes you feel bad.

This is not my idea.  I recently read an article by David Abbot* about scientific ethics that laid out this reality of Upsetting Science.  But as I read his article, the concepts, experiences, and dilemmas seemed familiar.  Sometimes science bursts a bubble.  Sometimes the “scientific” opinion or answer can make folks feel bad. 

Al Gore coined a great phrase when he lectured and released his film, An Inconvenient Truth.  And while folks debate the full truthiness of his lectures, books, and films, I think we scientists can all agree that some of our well-intended and honest explanations are inconvenient to the listener. 

Free and “green” energy or visual pollution?

This takes us back to an oft-referenced story amongst scientific ethicists, Henrik Ebsen’s 1882 “An Enemy of the People.”  In the film, Steve McQueen stars in a dramatic role as a doctor who must inform the people of a small resort town that their water is poison.  The drama is in the conflict between the inconvenient truth and the vested town folk.  They accuse the doctor of endangering their town – threatening their livelihood.  As if he created the problem.  Well, if knowledge is the problem, then I suppose he is to blame.  But the irony is that their reaction and suppression of the upsetting science – the inconvenient truth – will not save them!  It will, in the end, propel them towards calamity.

As a petroleum geologist turned naturalist, I’ve been let out of my cubicle to interact more with the public and other naturalists along our coastal region.  In my new role, I get asked questions that seem to have upsetting answers.  Some examples:  What do you think about climate change?  What about sea level rise?  How about building on Padre Island?  What’s your opinion on North Beach development?  And so on…

What a storm does to a barrier island.  Any questions? (Photo from Alabama Dept. of Nat. Resources).

These last 40 years, my specialty is reservoir prediction from data – old wells and seismic images.  My job is to predict the specific amount and type of sandstone that is expected to be found in a well.  This requires that I consider the past geologic events that resulted in the deposit we expect to find.  Was it an ancient river, beach, lagoon, or another environment in the past world that resulted in our “target” reservoir of oil or gas?  Often economic success will be dependent upon the accuracy of my answer.  It is not a guess; it is an interpretation – and often “being right” is the most satisfying part of my job.

Unfortunately for everyone but the investors in my wells, the data analysis and rigorous criticism of a statement or theory about such an interpretation is brutal.  As a scientist, I have learned that the harshest critic must be me – that the quality of an idea or concept is forged in the fires of inspection and review. 

An idea, worth pursuing, must survive the debate.

I was recently asked about what I thought of Padre Island Development.  Oh, Lordy!  “What do you think?”  In this modern age of silencing one’s critics, I have learned that this phrase is the wide gate into a dangerous minefield.  But I haplessly stroll through, thinking that my opinion wanted – or better yet, valued.  “Well,” I start, “I think the only new structure on any barrier island needs to have wheels on it.”  My answer is based in reasoning and some sensitivity that we are all facing sea-level rise and a growing scarcity of natural wilderness areas.  When the storm comes, and it will come, people and their valuables need to move to higher ground.  In my mind, my answer seems protective of humans…I try to be gentle and thoughtful.

Aftermath of the 1919 Hurricane on North Beach in Corpus Christi.  The danger of living too close to the coast and too low in elevation. (Photo courtesy of Jim Moloney, CC Library).

But too often, and in this case, the questioner is disappointed in my answer.  You see, they live or own property on the island.  Continued economic and infrastructure development benefits them financially.  It affirms their good decision to live there.  Because my answer is against development, it is against them!  It criticizes them.  Too often, the conversation evolves into mild confrontation.  Through trial and error, I have learned to concede – to fold – to retreat.  Retrace my steps out of the mine field.  I’m so sorry.

Oil and gas companies don’t want to blame their product for climate change.  Real estate developers don’t want to acknowledge the jeopardy of building neighborhoods at low elevations.  Resort interests and island dwellers don’t want to hear about barrier island risks, resilience, and sustainability.  People who buy plastic items don’t like being associated with plastic pollution.  Green energy promoters reject issues related to the impact of wind and solar farms on habitats and animal populations.  Many religious don’t want an old earth.  Nobody really appreciates an “honest” answer if their advocacy, personal convenience, worldview, or financial interest seem accused or threatened.

What the heck? Seattle protesters in plastic kayaks protesting Shell Oil’s drilling in Alaska. (Canadian Press).

I have come to realize that my opinion isn’t really what is wanted here – my professional affirmation of the questioner’s stance is what is probably sought.  My first reply is now, “Well, what do you think?”  What do you think about causes of sea level rise?  What do you think about North Beach development?  What about those plastics?  What do you think about more infrastructure and people on Padre Island?   I request that the questioner inform me of their preconceptions.  Disclose any conflicts of interest!  Such allows me to decide on my reply if any at all.

As a scientist, it saddens me that my answers to your questions can offend you.  My statements of opinion when framed in a scientific understanding may hurt your feelings. 

I am so sorry when I upset you.

But please, ask.

Randy Bissell, Certified Petroleum Geologist & Texas Master Naturalist™

*Reference, David M. Abbot, “Professional Ethics and Practices,” Column 166 reprinted in the Bulletin of the Corpus Christi Geological Society, January 2021.

How Science Looks at Religion – And Itself. Two Fair Questions.

chimp

Photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ucumari/7319932060

After a recent conversation, I was left with two questions that were both fair to address.  My notes revealed that the first was, “(How is) Science like the Tower of Babel, trying to reach God?” and the second question is “What about when Science is wrong?”

Science is like the Tower of Babel in the sense that it metaphorically rises on a base and upwards.  Science is often illustrated this way.  Science is accumulative and yes, it does grow.  It could also easily be metaphorized as a fat baby, or a blob, or a tree, or roots reaching downward and not upward.  So, we control how we look at science…and likewise religion.

As a practicing scientist, who has read about 3000 articles across disciplines, I have never read a peer-reviewed technical paper that states an intent to reach God.  So, science is different from the Genesis story in the stated intent of the activity.  Good science, which is a method and not morality, has no regard for achievement.  The best science is NOT in the headlines – it is found in the small successes in the laboratory or the field.   Science, as a movement, is unified only in methodology – not intent.

Christianity, as a movement, IS unified in intent but not methodology…hummmmm?…  Should the church assert that there is a single unifying method to becoming a Christian?  Many have — we call that Legalism.  My point is that religion and science are not common in primary intention.  That is where these kinds of questions falter.  I shine the religious flashlight on science and repaint it in my frame of reference.  Or if I shine the science flashlight on faith…I do not think that is productive.

On the second question.

All science IS wrongWhat?  I will say it again, all science IS wrong.  President Obama said that climate science was settled.  No science is settled.  Settled science is neither!!!  I teach on the Scientific Method and have altered my slides to deride the concept of scientific fact.  I tell youngsters that if science has a bunch of facts, science is over, and they need to change their majors.

Science scrutinizes to the atomic detail.  Today, as I write this, foundations of science are under attack!!!  My response?  Great!!!  Gravity varies…time bends…space expands…matter collapses…  These “knowns” become unknowns.  That is necessary.  Remember, science is accumulative.  Entire branches may collapse – great!

For example, Creationists love to talk about Darwin.  Today, most geologists who study fossils, like me, would say that Darwin was wrong.  What – Ham (Answers in Genesis) didn’t get that news?  Yep, Darwin described evolution as a gradual process of transition.  He was wrong.  Transitional forms do not exist in evolution.  A modern view of evolution is more like continual creation.  Think about the evolution of your mobile phone.  Brick phones, flip phones, then iPhones…on the horizon flexible folding phones.  Each innovation “explodes” because of its advantages.  The fossils of the old generation are thrown in the dump for archaeologists to find en masse in thousands of years.  But even this concept of Punctuated Equilibria should be scrutinized.  It is an answer – not the answer.

All science is wrong.  There is no scientific fact.  It’s all up for grabs.  All the time.  What happens when science is wrong? – it actually progresses, it grows, it improves.

Religion HATES such inquisition and scrutiny.

Most faiths avoid and reject attacks on the core pillars of their construct.  When I inquire into the biochemistry of the Incarnation or the inconsistencies between Genesis 1 and 2 accounts, I am regarded as a heretic.  For even asking the question…and I am OK with being a heretic.  Because the best of our Christian Faith journey, including our Savior, have been accused of the same crime.   https://midlyfe.wordpress.com/2017/08/13/heresy-count-me-in/

A better question is what does a religious construct do when it is wrong?  For example?  We could go with the Earth-centric universe, but let’s get closer to home.  Institutional racism.  Legalism, with regard to our ordinances.  Predatory behaviors. Financial malfeasance.  Theft.  Hyper-literal interpretation. Bullying.

No pastor has ever really liked me telling them they are wrong.  But plenty are wrong! Many are wrong. Most are wrong on something.

So, in summary, Science does not seek as a common conscience equality with God.  Nor, does Science accept infallibility as an attribute.

We are all just a bunch of primates with sticks…and the best scientists know that…if only the church did…

John 18 – What is Truth?

“What is truth?”dIMG_E8926

Even with “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” handed over to him in the flesh, Pilate would not accept the Absolute Truth that the Son of God stood before him — This Jesus would save the world.

Pilate’s rhetorical and derisive response to Jesus indicates he, like most Romans, saw truth as relative.

Relativism prevailed in the ancient world, just as it does in our society today.  The idea that “man is the measure of all things” is not new.  The Jews that brought Jesus to Pilate exercised a similar relativism, justified by the expedience of quieting a troublemaker.  To them, the murder of an innocent man was justified to preserve the corrupt way of life of the privileged.

But we earnestly declare that we believe that our truth is Absolute when embodied in Jesus, and that God is the measure of all things.

We are not at all like Pilate, are we?

In actuality, many Christians end up compromising their absolutist ideals to ego and we surrender the righteous highroad to relativist pressures and influences.

Many of us say, “Yes, truth is absolute, but I’ll remain the measure of all things.”

We will all, at some point, find ourselves torn by guilt, caught between what we know is the path of righteousness and what we feel we have to do in self-approved circumstance.

Take heart, though, the conviction of sin and that prick of conscience is strong evidence of the Holy Spirit in your life.  Guilt is to the heart what pain is to the flesh.  When I was a child, I sometimes needed a good spanking.  More so, I need the Lord’s correction today.

We study the Word in order to ascertain the Absolute Truth about God.  Not just to know what truth is, but how to apply God’s Truths to every circumstance we face – as citizens, parents, employees, spouses, friends…

And when the end of this life comes, may we be most reassured by knowing that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and our personal relationship with Him is a relationship with the Absolute Truth.

All of us need to live and grow in Absolute Truth about Jesus Christ and realize the liberty and abundant life found in that truth.

Or as Jesus said to those who had believed in him:

John 8   31…If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

 

So How Can We Know The Way? – Thoughts on John 14

jesusJohn 14:5-6 NIV   5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. no one comes to the Father except through me.”

This is a great verse.  How many sermons have been based upon this passage?

How does someone get to heaven?  And who goes to heaven?  This verse sums it up…or does it?  Since we find ourselves in John 14 this week, I believe this verse deserves a little closer attention.

First, (and just in case you’re wondering) I am a Biblical “literalist” when it comes to interpretations of the Scriptures.  I ascribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible within three simple conditions:

The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and then it was translated into Latin, then into English.  English, as a non-romantic language, doesn’t fully handle some of the best Hebrew and Greek words.

Any passage, such as the one above, is constrained by the historical and situational context.  I generally follow the twenty-verse rule.  When Scripture is used to make any point, simply read 10 verses before and 10 verses following.  It will put the passage in better context.

The Greater “Thematic” or Orthodoxy. The Bible has certain themes, such as the redemption of mankind…or the boundless Love of God…or Grace…all of these grand overarching themes tie Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21.  Scriptures should clearly fit into a proper Thematic – understanding the Theme is the first step towards a proper application.

So, in such context, I have scrutinized John 14:6 very heavily over the years, as I have heard it used in several sermons and lessons — I have studied it myself.

What was Jesus saying to his disciples?

Perhaps he was saying that He is the prescription for eternal life.  How do I get to heaven?  Jesus is the key.  What about everyone else?  Doesn’t it say, No one comes to the Father except through me?”  SO…there is the plain answer.  To use His parable, Jesus is the gate.  We must go through Him to get to the Father.  Everyone else is left in the cold (…or maybe…heat, that is!).

Perhaps he is saying that He is the authority over eternal life.  How do I get to heaven? Jesus is the lock, the key, the door, and he’s the doorman…He is the gate and the gatekeeper.  He is “the way and the truth and the life.”  In full context, Thomas and the disciples (his friends) are worried about how to follow Jesus to where he is going.  His response is as if to say, “Hey guys, don’t worry, I am in charge of everything.

Frankly, I believe the weight of evidence in context and the thematic of Jesus’ divinity and authority support the latter interpretation of this verse.  His role is not one of being a key, a talisman, a token, or a password to get us into heaven.  Jesus is simultaneously and perfectly the way and the truth and the life.

“Ego sum via et veritas et vita.”  And He is the authority.

Don’t worry…our friend Jesus IS in charge of everything.

Jesus Wept. Thoughts on John 11.

35Jesus wept.

sadness
People grieve over the tragic loss of life.  Jesus wept.

The shortest verse in the English Bible occurs in John Chapter 11, the account of Jesus raising his friend, Lazarus, from the dead.

 But why did he weep?

At this point, it is all speculative.  No one knows exactly what moved Jesus to tears.  John 11:35 might be clearer if it said “Jesus wept because __________.”  But it doesn’t.  It is left to the readers to determine why he wept.  The answers from the Ages (and trust me, we’re not the first to think about this) vary.  But the accumulation of thinking can be boiled down to about four basic reasons.

  • Jesus wept because he was a real, flesh and blood, man. He sweated, he bled, he laughed, he cried.  He lived an emotive life, not above us, but among us.  He was not just a vision or spirit.
  • Jesus wept because his friend, Lazarus, had genuinely died. The pending resurrection of  Lazarus was not a contrived show or a fraud.
  • Jesus wept in empathy and compassion for his friends. He was expressing his human and divine empathy at the existence and necessity of death.  He wept in compassion alongside creation.
  • Jesus wept in anticipation. The reality of his coming crucifixion, the suffering, and the darkness of his own pending death overwhelmed him to tears.

This list is not complete.

Perhaps the best way to think about it is to consider the passage within the account of John.  Maybe we should ask, “Why is John telling us that Jesus wept?”  We can always find the most satisfying interpretation and realize the full authority of the Scripture in its proper context.

John is demonstrating the complexity of this Jesus, the Messiah.  A helpless, sobbing, friend to Lazarus is about to call directly to the Father of Creation and demonstrate an authority never before seen.  John’s Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  This Jesus is extraordinary!

Pope Leo I (440-461) referred to this passage when he discussed the two natures of Jesus: “In his humanity, Jesus wept for Lazarus; in his divinity, he raised him from the dead.”

Thanks, Leo! 

Am I Becoming an Environmental Wacko? The Texas Plastic Pollution Symposium: Report & Review

macroplastic
Trash on the Beach at Mustang Island State Park

The 1st ever Texas Plastic Pollution Symposium was held in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Tuesday, October 30, 2018.  This conference brought together scientists and advocates to present and discuss topics related to plastic in the environment.  The day-long seminar was held at the Del Mar Center for Economic Development on Staples Street, near Del Mar College.  In the evening, the Surf Museum hosted a get-together for participants to socialize and discuss their day.

 

The Texas Plastic Pollution Symposium was sponsored and underwritten by:

  • The University of Texas Marine Science Institute
  • Mission Aransas National Estuarine Research Institute
  • Texas Parks & Wildlife
  • Sea Grant Texas at Texas A & M University
  • Surfrider Foundation

Registration was required for the participants, but the seminar was free.  Lunch and refreshments were provided and the talks were strictly 15-minute each.  Looking across the 130 or so attendees, there was quite a bit of diversity in the crowd with surfers, scientists, community activists, and many others.  However, there was one common theme that was palpable in the crowd – the love and respect for the coastline habitat and concern for the quantity of plastic in our marine environment.

Now, I think I was the only member of the Corpus Christi Geological Society in attendance.  It also seemed that I was one of very few geologists there. But most certainly it felt as if I was the only oil & gas guy within 1000 yards.  Priceless was the face of one participant who asked if I had a business card to share and was then aghast at seeing “Headington Energy.”  Thank goodness we recently rebranded from Headington Oil!  I softly and reassuringly told her that our company only focuses on “natural gas,” plentiful from the earth.  “It’s 100% natural for your home.”  She seemed satisfied but cautious.

Why I Went

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, Dawn and I had been discussing how to get more out of living in deep South Texas.  I led the Geomorphology Field Trip in the spring and through scoping out those sites, I grew to really love beaches from the Packery Channel to Newport Cut and Mustang Island State Park.  Our almost weekly Sunday afternoon trips have involved picking up seashells and beach trash.  Over the past 18 months, we’ve developed our habit (or ritual) to cover about two miles of beach mostly on or near the State Park.  Anyone who spends time on our South Texas beaches has encountered our overwhelming and shaming litter issue.  We do have a problem.  But instead of casting blame, or just accepting being demoralized and disgusted, I have resolved that we can simply help one pickle bucket at a time.

As a citizen, a naturalist, and a scientist, the symposium seemed a great opportunity to learn more about what’s being done, what are the long-term consequences of the problem, and the perceived solutions.

Politics & Perceptions

As I encountered with my moment of business card exchange, there are politics and perceptions at the core of any emotional issue.  There is an obvious tension between “us” and “them.”  I tried to disarm suspicions of my participation by mentioning my personal litter campaign, then my adjunct teaching at the University, and finally my membership in the Geological Society.  Being civil, gentle, and showing compassion evoked responses in kind and I had several good conversations with folks that I expected to hate-me-to-my-core for being a petroleum geologist.  I left the symposium encouraged by the civility and earnestness of our local beach advocates.

The Plastic Problem

Like many pro-industrialists, business owners, political conservatives and social libertarians, I bristle at the thought of more regulation to address a problem as simple as littering.  Besides, littering in Texas is illegal and already carries a hefty fine.  Only stupid and inconsiderate people litter.  I mean, “Don’t mess with Texas!”

Because of my worldview, it would seem that laws such as plastic bag bans are silly and useless.  Most friends sharing my political and world views would agree that the real problem is personal responsibility.  Why punish everyone because of the habits of the few?  Why should law-abiding and responsible people have to give up anything, including plastic bags?  Do I need to feel bad about using a plastic fork to eat my kale salad?

What is still humorous to me is the quasi-religious piety of many “environmentalists.”  Atonement is expressed and achieved by self-denial of otherwise useful plastic items like bottles, straws, and cutlery.  Bans seem the attempt to regulate and enforce an atoning “self-denial of plastic.”   Is this an admission that many people (or most people/some people) have so little self-control that access to the things they wantonly discard must be prohibited?  So there is this strong “feel-good-environmentalism” movement to self-deny and prohibit the use of plastic tableware, straws, cups, bags, bottles, plates – and Styrofoam.  Good Lord, Styrofoam is the worst!

Yes, these materials are found in my informal survey of the trash I collect on the beach.  But also in there are plastic toys, toothbrushes, buckets, and every other conceivable plastic thing scattered across our beaches.  The problem is not plastic, it is people.  And the problem is not a specific item, although some items, like straws, bags, and 6-pack holders, have direct consequences on some wildlife.  The greater problem is simply quantities of plastic in the ecosystem.  So, the problem with bags is not bags.  The problem with water bottles is not water bottles.  The problem with plastic is not plastic.  I can go on.  The problem is people who throw stuff out the window or discard their trash haphazardly.

Volumetrically, my informal survey of materials indicates that plastic containers, including bottles and their caps, are the most common component of the trash.  Secondly, clear sheet plastic and bags are pretty common.  The prevalence of plastic trash matches well with the 95% number reported by many presenters in the Symposium.  However, drinking straws are relatively rare on our beaches and often surpassed by toothbrushes and sandals (go figure?) in their frequency.

The Real Plastic Problem    

Beyond the visual nuisance, granular plastic is a growing component of the sedimentary system.  The breakdown of plastics by constant UV bombardment and wave energy results in “micro-plastic” and “nano-plastic” particulates and fibers.  Herein is a legitimate concern for all of us.

microplastic
Micro-plastics in sediments on Mustang Island

An inspection of almost any swash zone on Padre Island will often reveal the presence of granule and smaller sized grains of plastic as detritus amongst the mineral and organic material.  Because of the low density and irregular shape of the plastic grains, they mimic natural organic material and micaceous minerals.  Given the breakdown rates of plastic, months to several years, granular plastic is an end product of most all plastic washed into the system.  It has become a sedimentological component.  Perhaps more alarming is that finer grained and fibrous plastic mimic organic material.  Thusly, organisms that harvest in the pelagic realm and graze the littoral and sublittoral environs ingest this material along with organic nutrients.  This begins the process of concentration in fish and wildlife…affecting the things that we hunt, harvest, and eat.

It is this incorporation of plastic as a counterfeit component of the ecosystem that deserves more legitimate research and understanding.  Plastic is not really an inert material, so there is some reasonable concern for the release of toxic or biochemically reactive components as it is entrained into the geological and biological system.

The Solution

It is an obvious conclusion that there need to be reductions in the volume of plastics introduced to the natural environment – especially from an emotional perspective of fear, alarm, nuisance, or disgust.  But it is equally apparent that plastic usage will rise as the more nations emerge in a standard of living and realization of the convenience and utility of plastic materials.

This author finds “selective self-denial” and regulatory bans on specific products limited in effect towards a world-scale volumetrically significant reduction of plastic in our environment.  On a positive note, communities that have implemented bag bans with an awareness campaign document a visible reduction in offensive plastic trash.  There may be logical places to ban certain products.  For example, not giving away plastic straws at establishments located on or near beaches.  In contrast, the demonizing of plastic straws (or bags or spoons) in all contexts is purposeless and only serves to foment the “us” versus “them” condescension which is, unfortunately, the stereotypical characterization of so many proclaimed environmentalists.

My Solution

From the evocative film, “STRAWS,” the author of BLUE MIND made an excellent point worth quoting.   Wallace Nichols asked, “What’s your water?”  His point is that each of us has a “water” that is important to us as a part of our memory and experience.   That water, our water, is an engine for our happiness.  “Water quiets all the noise, all the distractions, and connects (us) to our own thoughts.”

For each of us, our water is worth fighting for.  A reasonable solution is to make the focus the water, not the plastic.   The prevalence of plastic in the environment is a social and behavioral problem, not a material problem.  Admittedly, it is a cultural characteristic coincident with poverty.  Quite simply, people who are living in poverty seem to think little about the consequences of their pollution (or their population, for that matter).  Yes, some pollution along the Texas Coast results from our cultural acceptance of littering within our population – but, as well documented, the overwhelming cultural acceptance of pollution from our upstream (relative to the longshore currents) neighbor to the south, Mexico.  Thinking over the magnitude of our Texas Coastal problem puts “selective self-denial” of a plastic fork or straw in real context.  The key to real reduction in ocean plastics is the consequential awareness within 2nd and 3rd World cultures and communities.

I know “my water.”  Thankfully it surrounds me.  So my commitment and solution is to protect my water – to be the guy who, by all means necessary, addresses the issues I can.  Picking up trash at the beach or in the bay is an active strategy.  Reducing personal consumption of problem products is a component of my personal plan, too.  And finally, assisting, respecting, and affirming those individuals and organizations working towards the same broad goal of protecting “my water” get my loving tolerance and support.

Plastics are not the enemy.  Plastic manufacturers are not the enemy.  Oil Companies are not the enemy.  Although historically useful to incite action, actually there is no enemy in pollution, but there are consequences and victims.  Plastic or any pollutant in our environment is a barometer of our collective sense of responsibility and stewardship of our planet.  Each of us can decide how we’re doing and if we want a role in improving humanity’s failing scorecard.

My role involves a bucket.

 

My Eclipse – A Transcending Experience

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A moment before totality

What did I expect to experience in the 2017 Eclipse?  I had no idea what it would be like to be in the zone of “totality,” but I knew that it was something to do — if it was easy and cheap.  Dawn had been talking about the 2017 Eclipse for about 10 months.  She genuinely is an inspiring science-lover having provoked me to see Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy), the Marfa Lights, and now the Eclipse.  All were glorious experiences.

“I simultaneously felt a very small part of the magnanimous universe, but infinitely large in the centrality of my self-awareness and consciousness.”– on the 2017 Eclipse, Randy Bissell

The story:  We had discussed the logistics of finding the “right place” to see the eclipse and found several great resources online.  Nashville seemed a logical launching point, with family in the region and the advantages of a multi-purpose trip.  As we looked at all the options, Paducah, Kentucky, caught my eye but even a few months beforehand all the rooms were booked.

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The Cabin at Cedar Run Farms – Franklin, TN

Having traveled to Nashville numerous times to visit family, one of our favorite places to stay is the “Cabin at Cedar Run Farms.”  This early-1800’s log cabin was rebuilt as a guest house styled B&B.  When we found out that it was available for the eclipse, we booked it immediately.  The question now was if 99.7% totality was total enough?

In the days before the event, having studied the maps, it seemed fairly straightforward to travel north into the shadow of the moon.  Actually, totality was only about 15 miles north of the cabin.

The small hamlet of Ashland City was offering free Moon Pies at their city park on the Cumberland River and was scheduled to experience almost 2 minutes of totality.  But between the cabin and Ashland City, there were a string of Tennessee State Parks along the Harpeth River.  The limestone cliffs along the river showed promise for a spectacular place to view the eclipse.  After some driving around, we settled on the “Narrows of Harpeth” as the right place.

The Narrows is a tight bend on the Harpeth River where an late 1800’s entrepreneur cut a channel through the Chattanooga Shale to create a waterfall mill.  In the park, the soft Devonian Chattanooga Shale underlies a cliff forming, Mississippian Fort Payne Limestone.  In Texas, the same section is called the Woodford Shale and the Mississippi Lime.  The cliff is about 100-200 ft. of escarpment overlooking the river valley and the Harpeth Indian Mounds on the floodplain below.

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Overlook Fort Payne (Mississippian) Limestone at Narrows of Harpeth

Climbing to the top of the ridge, we experienced the start of the eclipse with as group of exuberant young locals.  As the eclipse progressed towards 50%, we came off the cliff to explore other potential vantage points for totality.  Hunger drove us back to the car, where we set up our recently purchased lawn chairs and enjoyed our pecan chicken salad sandwiches and cold Yuengling beers from the Shell in Pegram.

As the eclipse progressed towards 60%, the shadow effect began to be seen along the roadway where light was filtered through the foliage.  Each ray of sunlight became a pinhole telescope for observing the progression towards totality.

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Shadow Effect

What happened towards totality was particularly amazing. When he exact time of the anticipated eclipse was 4 minutes ahead, things began to get pretty amazing.  As the sun was obscured, the afternoonish light was enchanting.  The cicadas began their evening musical ritual as the light dimmed.  The serenity of this momentary sunset upon us, the landscape went dark.  In that last moment, I raised my camera to snap my photo.  But then I stared heavenwards, no camera, no funny glasses, to see the black disc of the moon blocking the full glare of the sun.  Around the moon, the corona of the sun shown hazily into the inky blackness of the sky.

The physical experiences of other senses was magical.  The calm air cooled in the shadow of the moon crossing the warm August countryside. With no exaggeration, there was a peace – a feeling of spiritual integration between my physical existence and nature below and above me.  I simultaneously felt a very small part of the magnanimous universe, but infinitely large in the centrality of my self-awareness and consciousness.  Others who experienced the eclipse speak to its deep affect on them.  It is a difficult articulation but I hear and relate to the common thread of self-awareness.

Twenty seconds of transcendence and the sun peaked again from the edge of the moon.  The eclipse was in recession…and the earth woke up to its mid day morning.  The anticlimactic seemed to accelerate back to normalcy.  People came down from the cliffs.  Families loaded up and drove away.  We sat in our lawn chairs and watched.

So, was it worth it?  The flight, the car rental, the travel stresses?  Absolutely and completely.  As a friend expressed…I think we are now “eclipse chasers!”  The next event is on April 8, 2024, and Dawn is making her plans for her 65th Birthday.  The 2024 eclipse will sweep across Texas, from Del Rio to Texarkana.  We are hooked and excited at the prospect of repeating an “experience of a lifetime.”

From the eclipse we went to a local distillery in Franklin, to reconsider the surreality over samples of some really fine Tennessee whiskey.  Just a few days later, the wonder of nature was upon us again as we rode out Hurricane Harvey…but that is the content for another blog.

Heresy? Count me in!

Sweet Jesus

 

I am weighing the possibility of the impossible – that I, in status and regard by others, am considered a “heretic.” 

Bu…but…I thought I was a Baptist?!?    

 

To be a Baptist is to hold some specific viewpoints on religious beliefs and practices, namely:

  1. One God
  2. Trinitarian View (Father, Son, Holy Spirit are distinct and One)
  3. No Magisterial Creeds, only the Bible
  4. Individual Accountability
  5. Personal Priesthood
  6. Interpretive Authority when it comes to Scripture and its application
  7. Baptism by immersion and choice
  8. Symbolic, not miraculous, ordinances
  9. Voluntary democratic governance of the local body
  10. Separation of Church and State

In the view of several Christian faiths, Baptists start out as heretics.  The historical root of the Baptist Movement is not found in Roman or Eastern Catholicism, neither in Coptic Christianity.  Historically and culturally, “Baptists” have always been on the outside of the mainline Church movement.  Over and over, crazy bunches of malcontents try to re-establish the simple principles of the 1st Century Church along with a potluck lunch.

We reject the importance of infant baptism.  We deny miraculous transubstantiation of the bread and wine in the Eucharist. We object to the notion of human Authority over the church.  We have no official creed or fixed set of beliefs to responsively read.  We hold that the Church is constructed of people, not rules, materials, and hierarchy.  Thusly, the Church is bottom up, not top down.  The lunatics run the asylum.  Any one of these ideals could get you in trouble – all together they make you a Baptist.

Three of the things on my list are a particularly troublesome combo and provoke strife inside the church.  Aside from our Baptist propensity to try to tell each other what to do, or to define each other’s’ individual righteousness, these cause more trouble than adultery with a fellow congregant.

Individual Accountability – or in Baptist speak, Soul Competency.  Basically, each one of us is responsible for maintaining a relationship with God.  No one is “saved” because of family heritage, ethnicity, or religious affiliation.  Each person is solely and completely charged to establish and maintain their relationship with God, who will assure their personal salvation.  In this view, such relationship cannot be severed or threatened by excommunication or disaffiliation.  We directly seek the counsel and guidance of God through the Bible, teachers, preachers, spouses, friends, and other sources of balanced Biblical wisdom.

Personal Priesthood – When the American pioneers traipsed off into the wilderness with a Bible in one hand, musket in the other, and a family in tow, they often lost their connection with their traditional Church.  Because of the principle of personal priesthood, they were fully ordained to conduct the Christian faith, including the ordinances of baptism and communion, with their family and like-minded acquaintances.  In this regard they were free to establish their own worship practices, insomuch as they were consistent with the 1st Century church.  Baptists are not Protestants.  Our theology and worship is not rooted in any protest of any other Christian tradition.  We are not about reforming or restoring or correcting anybody else’s religion.  We have one High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is the sole authority and head of the Church.  You do what you do…and we will do what is right (or at least what we tell you is right)!

Interpretive Authority in Scripture – For the longest time, people were told that the Bible was too complicated and nuanced for the common man to interpret and apply.  This, of course, was convenient to maintain priestly control of the masses.  With the advent of the printed Bible and multiple efforts to translate the Bible into common languages, today we benefit from the accessible Word of God.  Study Bibles are annotated with footnotes, explanations, cross-references, etc.  Baptists tote their well-worn Bibles from place to place.  They mark them with underscores, arrows, and exclamation points.  We hold the Bible as our principle guide and charge – No Apostle’s Creed, No 5 Points, No Pillars of Faith, thus only God’s Word.  A pastor, priest, bishop or even the Pope’s opinion on the meaning and application of a Biblical Passage is informative – but not authoritative.  This is why we study the Bible!  Group study illuminates Biblical passages with multiple perspectives and context and opinion.  Each participant can find the nuggets they adopt or reject the ridiculous.  The meaning and application can be explored.   All viewpoints are equally respected, but not necessarily accepted.  That is called discernment.  Baptists believe that the truth of the Bible is ultimately discerned by the Spirit of God in each of us.

What a dangerous combination!  This is why Baptists don’t always get along.  We fire our pastors.  We split congregations.  We leave in a huff.  Somebody made us mad or said something wrong about the end times, or baptism, or the color of the carpet.  Do you hold a view on textural criticism or literal interpretation of the Bible?  What does God like, old hymns versus new praise songs?  How old is the Earth? Hey, somebody is in my seat.  She stole my pie recipe…or he diddled my wife!  On and on and on, we are a herd of goats.

Can you handle the truth?  Baptists are all heretics.  Every last one of us is condemned.  Having rejected the authority of the Mother Church, her Apostolic Succession, rites, rituals, teachings, structure, interpretations, orthodoxy, miracles, sainthoods, and liturgy, we are all damned.

But no, we’re Baptists, we’ll be fine.

“Heresy” puts in fine company.  Jesus, Galileo, Luther, Tyndale, Wycliffe…what a collection.  If we assert that we have soul competence, personal priesthood, and interpretive authority, the charge of “heresy,” is almost impossible to apply to a Baptist.  Since we lack a written creed, code, or magisterial document, there is no universal standard to compare our beliefs to.  To say (or think) that a fellow Baptist is a “heretic” is to place your own views as authoritative or particularly ordained.  So, who made you Pope?  We’re all Popes!

Like I said, all Baptists are heretics (or none of us are).  Our differences in viewpoints and interpretations make us stronger – challenges should only strengthen our convictions.  I would hold that aside from the right regard for God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, the term “Christian Orthodoxy” doesn’t even apply to Baptists.  We should be unorthodox in our approach to the Bible, our regard for each other, and in our kinship with God.

When one Baptist suggests another is guilty of “heresy,” it is kind of laughable in light of our tradition’s history and belief.

Me?  Heretic?  Thank you.