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John Roosevelt Boettiger
Mill Valley, CA, Seattle, WA, Phoenix, AZ, Los Angeles, CA, Amherst, MA, Hyde Park, NY, New York City (Manhattan), Dedham, MA, Vikersund, Norway, Paris, France, Sebastopol, CA, Berkeley, CA
Author, writer, editor, psychologist, father, grandfather, great-grandfather
Interests: Writing, reading, conversation, hiking, walking, bicycling, asking and responding to intriguing questions, metta, silence, prayer, meditation, justice (social, economic, judicial, political, familial, personal), the wily craft of coyote politics, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, family trees, redwood trees and live oaks, marsh land, hillsides, mountains, geese in flight, birds of a feather
Recent Activity
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Although it is well known among poets and those who love poetry, I read this truly wonderful, insightful and thoughtful poem by Naomi Shihab Nye for the first time a few days ago, courtesy of a nourishing online journal, BrainPickings, written for many years by Maria Popova. In her preface to Nye's poem, Popova draws upon its spirit in lines of her own: "The measure of true kindness — which is different from nicety, different from politeness — is often revealed in those challenging instances when we must rise above the impulse toward its opposite, ignited by fear and anger and despair." KINDNESS By Naomi Shihab Nye Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever. Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a... Continue reading
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Yesterday, Thursday, June 25th, two columnists for The New York Times, Paul Krugman and David Brooks, trained their minds upon the manifold challenges faced by the United States in the months ahead, with impressive clarity, intelligence and complementarity. I admit to surprise that Brooks does not directly address the climate crisis; so we are left to imagine the likely fate of that crisis in the context of the political, economic and medical crises described below. Krugman has examined climate change earlier this year, and explicitly chose to focus yesterday on the economic and political issues related to COVID-19, so it's understandable that he reserves the climate for other occasions. I'll keep you appraised. Rather than summarize Krugman and Brooks, since their columns are relatively short, I am going to give them to you here, with a short paragraph from The Times about their professional accomplishments. Historically, I have aligned my own views more closely with Krugman as a liberal political economist and a fellow Democrat. That is still my view. Brooks has generally been more conservative, perhaps what we used to call a “liberal Republican,” but that phrase over the past decade and more has become increasingly meaningless. I respect... Continue reading
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Racism, Police Violence, and the Climate Are Not Separate Issues Bill McKibben June 3, 2020 The New Yorker I find that lots of people are surprised to learn that, by overwhelming margins, the two groups of Americans who care most about climate change are Latinx Americans and African-Americans. But, of course, those communities tend to be disproportionately exposed to the effects of global warming: working jobs that keep you outdoors, or on the move, on an increasingly hot planet, and living in densely populated and polluted areas. (For many of the same reasons, these communities have proved disproportionately vulnerable to diseases such as the coronavirus.) One way of saying it is that money buys insulation, and white people, over all, have more of it. Over the years, the environmental movement has morphed into the environmental-justice movement, and it’s been a singularly interesting and useful change. Much of the most dynamic leadership of this fight now comes from Latinx and African-American communities, and from indigenous groups; more to the point, the shift has broadened our understanding of what “environmentalism” is all about. John Muir, who has some claim to being the original modern environmentalist, once explained that “when we try to... Continue reading
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What if there were no George Floyd video? Even when racism doesn't go viral, it's still deadly. Nicholas Kristof There is no video to show that a black boy born today in Washington, D.C., Missouri, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi or a number of other states has a shorter life expectancy than a boy born in Bangladesh or India. There’s no video to show that black children still are often systematically shunted to second-rate schools and futures, just as they were in the Jim Crow era. About 15 percent of black or Hispanic students attend so-called apartheid schools that are less than 1 percent white. There’s no video to show that blacks are dying from the coronavirus at more than twice the rate of whites, or that a result of the recent mass layoffs is that, as of last month, fewer than half of African-American adults now have a job. “There is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night,” Robert F. Kennedy said in 1968 shortly before his assassination. “This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that... Continue reading
Alan, what a pleasure to hear from you, and to learn about your encounter with Randall Jarrell. I never saw him personally, but I became familiar with the wonderful diversity of his writing while I was under the tutelage of a memorable Amherst College professor, William Pritchard, who wrote Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life. In that book, Pritchard said that "Jarrell will be remembered as one of the best American lyric poets “for his brilliantly engaging and dazzling criticism, and for his passionate defense… of writing and reading poems and fiction.” I also recall, at the time of Jarrell's death, The New York Times covering the memorial service held in his honor, quoting Robert Lowell crediting Jarrell with writing “the best poetry in English about the Second World War,” and describing his friend as “the most heartbreaking poet of our time.” I think the most anthologized of Jarrell's poems has been "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner": From my mother's sleep I fell into the State, And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose. Warmly, as ever, John
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[Preface by John R. Boettiger: I've loved the company of trees all my life, their singularity and community, their slow growth and decay, their extraordinary diversity of lifespans, their changing seasonal colors of leaves and intertwined rootedness, their hospitality to other lives, their responsiveness to breeze and wind. As a child I loved to climb them, swing from their sturdy branches, find nooks in which to contemplate, read, find refuge, soften my soul, allow my imagination to wander. [I wanted to be a forest ranger, living atop a tower in a room of, say, 200+ square feet, with a 360-degree view, caring for the forest that surrounded me on all sides, forest trails open for exploration, resupply and companionship. Hiking forest paths is still my favorite form of recreation. I was born and spent my earliest childhood years in the Pacific Northwest, and came especially - virtually lifelong - to admire the wonderful tangle of California live oaks and to stand in awe of redwoods and giant sequoia, of which the oldest recorded lifespan was an astonishing 3,200 years. Now in my later adulthood, after too many and too stumbling - but also nourishing - moves, I am settled again... Continue reading
A poem about finding life while we shelter in place Jane Hirshfield March 23, 2020 Award-winning poet, essayist and translator Jane Hirshfield lives in Mill Valley. Editor’s note: In the days following the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order, The San Francisco Chronicle contacted poet Jane Hirshfield, asking if she would write about this rare and unsettling experience. The celebrated Mill Valley writer replied by offering a poem she’d already written, that morning, reminding us that sometimes poetry can summarize a moment with great poignancy. Today, When I Could Do Nothing Today, when I could do nothing, I saved an ant. It must have come in with the morning paper, still being delivered to those who shelter in place. A morning paper is still an essential service. I am not an essential service. I have coffee and books, time, a garden, silence enough to fill cisterns. It must have first walked the morning paper, as if loosened ink taking the shape of an ant. Then across the laptop computer — warm — then onto the back of a cushion. Small black ant, alone, crossing a navy cushion, moving steadily because that is what it could do. Set outside in the sun, it... Continue reading
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[Preface by John R. Boettiger: Rebecca Solnit is a freelance writer who has composed more than 20 books on subjects including hope, feminism, the environment, politics, place, art and human rights. Among her awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a National Book Critics Award in criticism. [Readers will see that my postings on the climate crisis often in these last months have come to focus as well – almost inevitably – on the coronavirus crisis as well. Together they are the two preeminent challenges of our times.] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/14/mutual-aid-coronavirus-pandemic-rebecca-solnit The Way We Get Through This Is Together The way we get through this is together: the rise of mutual aid under coronavirus. Amid this unfolding disaster, we have seen countless acts of kindness and solidarity. It’s this spirit of generosity that will help guide us out of this crisis and into a better future. Rebecca Solnit Thu 14 May 2020 The Guardian People behaving badly is a staple of the news, and the pandemic has given us plenty of lurid snapshots. In the US alone, we have seen protesters with guns in Michigan’s capital demanding an end to lockdown, anti-vaxxer women in a frenzy at California’s capitol,... Continue reading
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[Preface by John R. Boettiger: This is not the first time that my son Joshua has contributed to Reckonings, as you will see if you seek his name in "Search Reckonings" on the lower right of this page. I have plucked the following poem by William Stafford and Joshua's commentary from the website of his current congregation, Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, Oregon (https://emekshalom.org/). What Joshua writes below, though written seven years ago on December 1, 2015, and in a different season, seems deeply appropriate to the time of crisis we are now experiencing. I also realize that today is the day of shabat in the Jewish weekly calendar, so I will close this preface with a longstanding prayer addressed to readers: Shabat Shalom. The traditional translation is “Good Sabbath.” This is a decent translation, but the phrase is very nuanced. ... So when someone wishes you Shabat Shalom, they are saying to you “May you dwell in completeness on this seventh day."] It Could Happen Any Time Rabbi Joshua Boettiger 12-1-15 It could happen any time, tornado, earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen. Or sunshine, love, salvation. It could, you know. That’s why we wake and look out — no... Continue reading
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[Prefatory note from John R. Boettiger: Bill McKibben wrote recently: “If there is one essay from the weeks of pandemic I wish I could make everyone read, it would be Kim Stanley Robinson’s offering on The New Yorker’s Web site. No novelist has engaged as long or as successfully with the climate crisis.” Robinson’s essay is reprinted below.] What felt impossible has become thinkable. The spring of 2020 is suggestive of how much, and how quickly, we can change as a civilization. By Kim Stanley Robinson New Yorker May 1, 2020 The critic Raymond Williams once wrote that every historical period has its own “structure of feeling.” How everything seemed in the nineteen-sixties, the way the Victorians understood one another, the chivalry of the Middle Ages, the world view of Tang-dynasty China: each period, Williams thought, had a distinct way of organizing basic human emotions into an overarching cultural system. Each had its own way of experiencing being alive. In mid-March, in a prior age, I spent a week rafting down the Grand Canyon. When I left for the trip, the United States was still beginning to grapple with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was suffering; the N.B.A.... Continue reading
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One of the communities that continues to nourish me in the virtual world that accompanies the coronavirus epidemic is the Community Congregational Church (CCC) at the top of Rock Hill Road in Tiburon, California. In this instance, I am thinking of a weekly meeting called Stone Soup that normally meets in the church's Seminar Room but has adapted to meet during these times through the medium of Zoom. Imagine 25 to 30 of us, focusing our discussion on the readings that accompany the previous and prospective Sunday services (also Zoom facilitated). Typically, one of the two readings is a biblical passage, the other often a story or poem from a more contemporary writer. In the most recent Stone Soup of which I am thinking, the second reading is a poem by the 20th-century Lebanese-American artist Kahlil Gibran. Born in 1883 of a poor Maronite Christian family in the village of Bsharri in what was then the Ottoman Empire and is now Lebanon, Gibran had very little formal schooling before being taken by his mother to the United States in 1895. The family settled in Boston's South End. Although attracted to the Western aesthetic culture of the day, his mother and... Continue reading
Tuesday, March 17, 2020, CommonDreams Love and Nonviolence in the Time of Coronavirus By Ken Butigan The COVID-19 pandemic has ground the world to a halt. While Hubei province in China has begun to recover, it has done so by locking down sixty-million people and severely disrupting the patterns of life and work there. The rest of the world is generally behind the curve in its response, with the number of cases skyrocketing and a few countries courageously taking the same drastic measures that the Chinese did toward containment and mitigation. The United States has declared a national emergency, but the pivotal strategy of testing is severely lagging. Quite likely, the next weeks will see a dramatic increase in cases and deaths. How, then, does this crisis sharpen our choice for a culture of active and life-giving nonviolence? Doesn’t it, instead, point to a future of epidemics, social disruption, economic chaos, and an increase in the politics of fear? There is no question that the current catastrophe could worsen an already grim trajectory of climate change, poverty, racial injustice and militarism. It could feed the flames of authoritarianism and regimes of surveillance, even as it could drive long-term economic dislocation,... Continue reading
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Rebecca Solnit describes her vision as a writer like this: “to describe nuances and shades of meaning, to celebrate public life and solitary life, to find another way of telling.” She is a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine and the author of profound books that defy category. She’s emerged as one of our great chroniclers of untold histories of redemptive change in places like post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. She writes that, so often, “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brother’s keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.” Continue reading
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“The world is always going to be dangerous, and people get badly banged up, but how can there be more meaning than helping one another stand up in a wind and stay warm?” By Maria Popova We live in a culture of dividedness and fragmentation of the self. When we contemplate what it takes to live a full life, we extol mindfulness and wholeheartedness. But being wholehearted is only sufficient if your heart is your whole self; being mindful is only sufficient if your mind is all you are. We are, of course, so much more expansive than our hearts and our minds and our perfect abs, or whatever fragment we choose to fixate on. But we compartmentalize our experience in this way, divide it into fragments, as if to divide and conquer it. I’ve written before about our resistance to speaking of the soul, of which those of us who uphold secular ideals of rationalism are especially culpable. And yet I find, over and over, that the fullest people — the people most whole and most alive — are those unafraid and unashamed of the soul. The soul has had no greater champion in this age of fragments than... Continue reading
What comes after fossil fuels? By Bill McKibben, in The New Yorker, March 11, 2020 The fossil-fuel industry is slowly dying. It’s not just because of the transitory effect of the coronavirus, which has temporarily cut demand; it’s secular, as the economists say. Just last week, Bloomberg reported that even natural-gas utilities are feeling the scorn of investors, who want to put their money in renewable electricity. The key question, of course, is how slowly the industry is dying—we badly need to speed up the current trajectory to catch up with the physics of climate change. But it’s not too early to start asking what the industry will leave behind, beyond a badly overheated planet. And one answer, apparently, is a huge number of holes in the ground, not to mention a huge number of holes in government budgets. It turns out that, in jurisdictions around the planet, oil and gas companies have been failing to reclaim, or even plug, old wells that are no longer producing in commercial quantities. These unfunded liabilities are truly enormous. Take Alberta, Canada, for example: the Alberta Energy Regulator has publicly estimated that the province faces $18.5 billion in costs for oil and gas... Continue reading
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I don't think there are writers on public affairs I admire more than Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker. He has been writing for that magazine since 1986. Among his work is a just-completed book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism. The following account is a retrospective appraisal of Trump's impeachment and acquittal. THIRTEEN (WELL, TEN) WAYS OF LOOKING AT AN IMPEACHMENT AND ACQUITTAL By Adam Gopnik February 8, 2020, The New Yorker (With apologies to Wallace Stevens, and in descending order of despair—though, perhaps, ascending order of importance.) Impeachment was, despite it all, essential. The purpose of impeachment was never political. It was never meant to be undertaken, and never should have been undertaken, with an eye to the Democrats being in a better political position after it was over. On those grounds it was, as Nancy Pelosi clearly felt, up to the very brink, a gamble not worth taking. The reasonable argument for why it had to be attempted was that to not impeach Donald Trump was not, well, reasonable. To allow obvious heedlessness to pass unchallenged was to collaborate in it. Impeachment was undertaken out of principle—the principle that the rule of law matters,... Continue reading
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"On Being" is a weekly podcast available at https://onbeing.org. It consists of a leisurely conversation of the inimitable Krista Tippett with one of a wonderfully diverse collection of fascinating people from many realms of accomplishment: "Pursuing deep thinking, social courage, moral imagination and joy, to renew inner life, outer life, and life together." For more information look for https://onbeing.org. Here is a short description; "The On Being show and podcast was created by Krista Tippett inside a legacy media organization (American Public Media) in 2003. "It began with a controversial idea for a public radio conversation, Speaking of Faith, that would treat the religious and spiritual aspects of life as seriously as we treat politics and economics. On Being, as it has evolved, takes up the great questions of meaning in 21st-century lives and at the intersection of spiritual inquiry, science, social healing, and the arts. What does it mean to be human, how do we want to live, and who will we be to each other? "The show launched on two public radio stations. Even as it grew year over year, it remained fairly hidden on the dial, consigned, as The New York Times wrote, to the 'God ghetto'... Continue reading
Many thanks, Alan. I hope you are well, and send my warmest wishes. John
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The Pure Spirit of Greta Thunberg By Carolyn Kormann The New Yorker December 13, 2019 The teen-age activist Greta Thunberg is pure spirit, committed to the foremost emergency of our time and to the science behind it. On December 3rd, Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate activist from Sweden, completed her second transatlantic voyage, by almost entirely emissions-free sailboats, in the span of four months. Her small figure, dressed in black, stood, waving, on the bow of a catamaran, as it approached the port of Lisbon. Hundreds of people, standing onshore, cheered, welcoming her back to Europe. “I’m not travelling like this because I want everyone to do so,” she told reporters after walking off the boat onto dry land. “I’m doing this to send a message that it is impossible to live sustainably today, and that needs to change.” The scene felt both ancient and precisely of this moment, like Thunberg herself, who writes regularly in a paper journal but has mastered social-media virality, who can seem ageless and androgynous (the fierce stare) while also strikingly young and girlish (the braids), who acts with an otherworldly grace while delivering an outraged message grounded in the latest, best climate science. Her... Continue reading
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Vulnerability David Whyte December 12, 2016 Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity. To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath. The only choice we have as we mature is how we... Continue reading
John, I vividly remember your mother Marian (though I don't recall calling her Nana), as well as Henry Hazen who was one of the Secret Service agents keeping our family company. I'm not in a position to read a large manuscript at this time, but if you send me the draft of the chapter to which you refer, I'd enjoy reading it and, as able, happy also to offer feedback. My most likely email address is john@reckonings.net. Thanks for being in touch. John
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You are very welcome, Alan. What a pleasure to be in touch again. I hope you both are well. Yes, I just re-read my Reckonings entry on "Loving a Vanishing World," and yes, those famous words of Rilke fit perfectly. Many thanks. I've become deeply engaged in climate issues of late, and want to return to Reckonings.John
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You are very welcome, Alan. What a pleasure to be in touch again. I hope you both are well. Yes, I just re-read my Reckonings entry on "Loving a Vanishing World," and yes, those famous words of Rilke fit perfectly. Many thanks, John
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Yesterday I encountered the work of Emily Johnston, poet, powerful writer, climate activist, runner, builder. She contributes to the work of Resilience, "a program of Post Carbon Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the world transition away from fossil fuels and build sustainable, resilient communities." Her first book of poems and prose poems, Her Animals, was published in 2015 by Hummingbird Press. I want to share with readers of Reckonings the gist of her recent essay, "Loving a Vanishing World," recently published in Medium at https://medium.com/@enjohnston/loving-a-vanishing-world-ace33c11fe0. Johnston's essay strikes a deep personal chord for me, but I hope will intrigue you as well. I'll offer you enough of her essay (the whole is perhaps a 20-minute read) to give you a sense of its—and her—character. The waters to which Johnston is drawn, among British Columbia's Gulf Islands, were among those into which I was first immersed as a young child, in a kind of deep, unknowing baptism, waters my family explored from our home on Mercer Island in Lake Washington. At that age and in that time I had no access to Johnston's contemporary consciousness, but I can imagine that then some seeds were set and nourished that are... Continue reading
Martin Buber in the “He-Atid” bookstore in Jerusalem, 1946 (Martin Buber Archives). Dear John Boettiger, While reviewing early Schumacher Center newsletters, we found this April 1985 reminder of Martin Buber’s contribution to new economic/social thinking. Buber On The Social Future We came to trust Martin Buber for his careful record of the human spirit in its process of observing itself in relation to the universe. In his book I And Thou, Buber was able to sustain and explore the simultaneous experiences of observer and observed. Commenting on the languages of “primitive” peoples in which the separation of the “I” and the “thou” was not yet as sharpened, Buber writes: “The Feugian (language) surpasses our analytical wisdom with a sentence-word of seven syllables that literally means: ‘they look at each other, each waiting for the other to offer to do that which both desire but neither wishes to do.'”* We came to love Martin Buber for his wonderful retellings of old Hasidic tales, the world of sense perception and the world of imagination blending, separating and then coloring each other again. Only recently did we discover Buber’s social writings. His Paths in Utopia is a concise history of decentralist-cooperative thinking. He... Continue reading