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In This Issue

Goddess "" Earth "" Cosmology "" Women's Health "" Reader Contributions "" Book Reviews "" Editor's Desk

Summer Time, When the Living is Easy

When I was ten years old, I had a dream: I wanted a chipmunk to eat out of my hand. I laid peanuts in a trail that led from 15 feet away to the tip of my toes, with one final nut in my palm. I sat for what seemed like hours before the chipmunk arrived. The small animal scurried around, looked the whole situation over, scampered away, and then quickly returned to pick up the first nut in her mouth. After she tucked it into her pouch, she proceeded to the next, and the next, and then scooted away to hide them in her burrow. Happily for me, she returned, getting bolder and bolder, until she had taken every single nut, every one, that is, except the one in my hand. She was much too scared of me to risk jumping into my palm for that final reward.

As you can imagine, I was greatly disappointed. The most carefully laid plans of mice and men (or in this case chipmunks and girls) had come to naught. Unfortunately, no one told me that I had made a good start in acclimating that chipmunk to my presence, or that it actually takes several desensitization sessions for a wild animal to become comfortable enough to first take a nut from a human hand and then — eventually — to jump into that person's palm for the proffered peanut. I learned that myself last summer when I finally realized my 10-year-old's dream and trained a chipmunk not only to jump into my palms, but from one of my hands to the other and finally into my lap for the nuts I had placed there. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to finally overcome this animal's instinctive fear of me. For as opposed to my 10-year-old self, who wanted a "pet chipmunk," I wanted a relationship with a wild animal.

Wildness, wilderness, Mother Earth in Her most primal state have always been important to me, even as a child. But as I've grown older, I've realized that listening to the purple martins' cheet, cheet, chert as they talk to each other from our purple martin house, or watching the northern orioles flash their orange-and-black plumage as they fly to and from our feeder, or just soaking up the view from our porch over Lake Mendota has an undeniably relaxing and rejuvenating effect. As Nancy Wood says in her poem,

"My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal
The earthly wounds
That people give to me.
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one give me company.
So must I stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.
[WOOD]

I have discovered that in order to enjoy the out-of-doors in such a way, I need time, time for rest and restoration, time to wander in the woods or pick up shells and rocks along a beach. Or time to desensitize a wild animal to my presence.

When I think about the few weeks it took to acclimate a relatively friendly chipmunk to me and my offerings, it pales in comparison with Mark Bittner's experience. Mark is the main character in the documentary film "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill." [BITTNER] After moving to Telegraph Hill in the Bay Area several years ago, Mark became infatuated with a flock of scarlet-headed conyers (a type of African parrot). This bevy of birds lived and bred in the region after escaping from their owners. Once Mark had researched conyer feeding habits, he set out a bowl of seeds for the parrots. When they trusted him sufficiently, he began to stand next to the bowl, his palm filled with the same seeds. Mark's neighbor claims in the movie that he stood with his hand out for a year before the first conyer ate seeds from his palm. Now the birds climb all over his head and shoulders, down to his hands and back again (or at least they did until he had to move...but that's another story).

Most people don't have as much time as Mark Bittner. He was unemployed when he discovered his passion for scarlet-headed conyers. But we all have vacation time, usually during the summer. In fact, for many of us as kids, the two words were synonymous. The beginning of summer vacation was the freest part of the freest season of the year. Those were sun-filled days — on playgrounds, at the beach, in the mountains — when we were finally out of the school buildings that kept us sheltered in the winter, but imprisoned in the spring.

"Summertime, an' the livin' is easy/Fish are jumpin', an' the cotton is high./Oh yo' daddy's rich, an'yo'ma is good-lookin',/ So hush, little baby, don' yo' cry..." [HEYWARD]

Some of you might be wondering, "What's all this fuss about vacation? Why make pronouncements about easy living? Shouldn't you be talking instead about our work ethic, our self-restraint and our diligence, arguably the foundations of our country as a great nation?" There might be some truth to this last idea (although after watching Jared Diamond talk about "Guns, Germs and Steel" on Wisconsin Public Television recently [DIAMOND], Max Weber's thesis about the Protestant Work Ethic seems to be on much less solid ground than formerly). [WEBER] Of course, discipline and wanting to see our projects through to the finish are wonderful qualities, ones that none of us could do without. But I personally think this is only half the story. The U.S. has also flourished because of its ingenuity and creativity, characteristics that may be on the decline as a result of overscheduling our children.

Just a week ago Tuesday there was an article in the Wisconsin State Journal about the new generation of college students who are having trouble thinking "outside the box." These young people are high achievers, according to Tim Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University, but they seem to lack the ability to think critically and creatively. What's the reason for this? These kids have been enriched, challenged, stimulated and busy, with no downtime, no vacation, no boredom. It turns out that boredom — or at least unstructured time — is a key part of creative development. Boredom, sometimes called summer vacation, is a time for personal growth, where we can break out of our routines and follow the urges of our own psyche for personal discovery or self-expression. Anna Quindlen describes this kind of summertime ease best:

Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don't believe you can write poetry, or compose music, or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity. [QUINDLEN]

In the U.S. today, downtime is not a major virtue. Instead there's a workaholic ethic that is driving most of our lives right now, one that pushes people to stay in their offices way past quitting time. I have a young friend who just moved to Chicago from NYC, because she would only have to work 60 to 70 hours a week at her law firm instead of 80 to 90. And I had a doctor's appointment with a resident at the UW Clinics this week, who told me he "never stops working," proudly asserting that he had continued rounds as an intern despite an inner ear infection that made him fall-down dizzy.

The American workforce is working harder and harder. According to the National Survey of the Changing Workforce, US employees in 1997 worked 3 1/2 more hours a week than they did 20 years before. Not only that, we are working longer than we're scheduled: We put in more overtime, undertake more business trips and bring more work home. Is this progress? I don't think so, especially in light of the fact that 88% reported working "very hard," even in the summer. [WORKFORCE]

Summer has traditionally been the season of rest and restoration. After our farming ancestors had plowed their fields and sown their grain, they toiled much less at this time of year than we do today. In those parts of the world blessed with a productive climate and a fertile habitat, gatherers and hunters were able to labor even less. The Indians in the Northwest part of North America worked an average of ten hours a week, allowing them a great deal of time for creative pursuits like storytelling and dancing, beading and sculpting.

Other contemporary cultures also do much better than we do when it comes to vacation. While new workers here in the U.S. begin with two days or two weeks off a year (that is, if they're lucky enough to have steady employment), in northern Europe, people who start jobs automatically receive four to six weeks. In fact, in the Netherlands each employee receives an 8% bonus by government decree, in order to make sure that every Dutch worker has enough money to take a proper holiday. In contrast, the US has no official vacation policy whatsoever.

On a daily basis, Europeans have a more laid-back work schedule than ours, with many countries taking two hours off for lunch (whether it's called a siesta or a Mittagspause). Our blue laws used to protect Sundays as a "day of rest," but for many US workers, that's a thing of the past. Even the people who schedule trains — people who in my experience tend to be no-nonsense efficiency experts — have realized that you can't be productive 100% of the time. They created the term "fluff time" for the period during which trains turn around, passengers disembark and others embark, the tracks are cleared and the trains get started again. We, too, need "fluff time," probably a lot more than trains.

Because we have so little time off, Americans tend to see vacations as opportunities to consume. In compensation for our stressful lives, we might shop at an outlet mall or go on a luxury cruise or even travel to a faraway holiday spot. Since we work long hours, we feel entitled to something expensive or something special when we have a little time off. Western Europeans, in contrast, understand that in order to really unwind from the hectic pace of their lives, they need time, not a three-day jaunt to Bermuda or the Virgin Islands. They tend to go camping or hiking, spending time in nature so they can experience what Annie Dillard describes as becoming "petal, feather, stone." [DILLARD] They also tend to live simply on their holidays so they have the opportunity to reflect on their lives. [SCHOR]

Europeans take time to unwind and enjoy some serious relaxing, while we Americans use our economic progress to become consumers, to use up the resources Mother Nature provides. In a sense, we bring our workaholism to bear on the Earth, expecting constant productivity of ourselves and of nature, exploiting both ourselves and Her on the job and off. We work hard and we play hard, and we expect those around us to do the same, including Mother Earth.

I think we lose on at least three counts with this attitude: we lose the time we might otherwise have to be "bored"— unstructured time that could lead to creativity and self-reflection. And we lose, because we contribute to the degradation of the earth, leading ultimately to a decline in our own health and happiness. And finally, we lose, because as Chief Seattle (supposedly) said, "we are of the Earth. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls [us]. Whatever [we do] to the web, [we do to ourselves.]"

Perhaps it's time to return to the Old Testament concept of the "sabbatical." Not only were people to rest on the seventh day in ancient Israel, but during the seventh year, they were supposed to abstain from all agricultural labor. The Jews realized that the Earth needed to rest for one year in seven, with no seeds sown and no crops harvested. We need to restore the balance in our lives and in relationship to the earth. Instead of expecting constant productivity of ourselves, we need to stop and ... feed a chipmunk or a parrot? ...spend time in the woods? ...watch a bluegill in the water? And instead of expecting constant productivity of the Earth — of Her land, Her minerals, Her oil, Her animals, Her waters, Her air — we need to allow Her some R and R as well.

There are many ways that we can combine rest for ourselves and sustainability for the Earth. Here are a few suggestions that come from the "July Green Steps" outlined in the National Green Pages [GREEN]. First and foremost, we can select eco-friendly getaways or socially responsible vacation tours that feature first-hand cultural exchange. The easiest way to do this is to employ a travel agency that specializes in "green vacations." When we arrive at our destination, we can use public transportation instead of renting a car. Not only is this simple to do, it usually saves money as well. And if we need a car, we can contact businesses like EV-Rental that rent hybrid or electric vehicles.

Another possibility is to frequent locally-owned hotels, stores and restaurants, so that our dollars stimulate the local economy rather than national mega-chains. Among these, we can seek out the hotels and restaurants that are green, and let the management know that we don't need clean sheets and towels everyday. And finally, we can consider local relaxation options that save time and save on non-renewable resources that would otherwise be consumed by remote vacations. The Madison area has wonderful lakes and forests, museums and historical sites as well as spas and restaurants that cater to our more decadent desires.

While you savor your time off, I have three wishes for you: First, may the respite you plan lead to greater sustainability for the Earth and all Her inhabitants. Secondly, may you enjoy a very "boring" vacation, one that allows you to tap into creative desires and joys that you barely know exist. And finally, instead of a plan for every day, may you have the freedom to follow your "instincts" and your urges, the nudgings of some only partially understood part of yourself for discovery or self-expression. Who knows, maybe then you'll find a chipmunk in your lap or a bird in your hand.

Bibliography

  • [BITTNER]
    "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," documentary film, 2004, based on memoir of the same name by Mark Bittner.
  • [DIAMOND]
    Diamond, Jared, quoted in "Guns, Germs and Steel," National Geographic Special, broadcast July 2005.
  • [DILLARD]
    Dillard, Annie, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, HarperCollins, 1974, p. 203.
  • [GREEN]
    "July Green Steps," Co-op America web site, available July 29, 2005 at http://www.coopamerica.org/pubs/greenpages/greensteps/July.cfm
  • [HEYWARD]
    Heyward, DuBose and George Gershwin, "Summertime," Porgy and Bess, 1935.
  • [QUINDLEN]
    Quindlen, Anna, Newsweek essay quoted by James A. Fussell in "Embracing Boredom," Wisconsin State Journal, "July 19, 2005.
  • [SCHOR]
    Schor, Juliet, "Real Vacations for All," Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, Spring 2001, p. 17.
  • [WEBER]
    Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in German 1904; in English, 1930.
  • [WOOD]
    Wood, Nancy, "My help is in the Mountain," Earth Prayers from Around the World, Harper, San Francisco, 1991, ed. Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, p.97.
  • [WORKFORCE]
    "The 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce," Families and Work Institute, New York, NY, 1998.

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