This incessant business

John MuirJohn Muir, father of America’s National Park System, wrote:

God has cared for these trees,
Saved them from drought, disease,
and a thousand tempests and floods,
but he cannot save them from fools.
[John Muir, Our National Parks, 1903]

President Donald Trump spoke at the U.S. Department of Interior yesterday and signed an executive order freeing up use of public lands, land “which belongs to the people, which truly belongs to us.”

Henry David ThoreauHenry David Thoreau wrote in 1863:

I think there is nothing, not even crime,
more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.

[Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle, 1863]



The Muir and Thoreau quotes lead the chapters  “A Joyful Resting Place in Time” and “The Bristlecone Pines” of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness. God bless the memory of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. We are increasingly without principle. They’d turn over in their graves. It’s up to us to honor their principles.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, April 27, 2017,


Looking and Seeing – Thoreau








What you see, not what you look at, is what you get. Or is it?

Is something there you don’t see? Is what you see there because you put it there?

The relation between subject and object is an ancient philosophical question that’s not about to go away.

When I saw the Thoreau poster, I saw the darkness behind the words. Then it drew me to the light – the sunrise or sunset. But, which is it: a sunset preceding darkness, or sunrise bringing the light? Or are we seeing cars, pavement, poles, and signs? What would Thoreau see?




The Election: What Now? My Quandry

Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center granted permission to re-publish this morning’s reflection. It begins with a quote from Henry David Thoreau:

“Cast your whole vote,
Not a strip of paper merely.”

Dear friends,

During this week since the election, I have been living in a quandary.

The root of my quandary is my affirmation of these spiritual truths as applied to “political” events:

  • Ecology, the fullest expression of our science, teaches that if any species exerts total control over any eco-system — tries to gobble up all the nourishment in sight — it destroys the eco-system – and itself.
  • Torah teaches that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, and that we must grant the earth its rhythmic rest — or suffer disastrous floods, famines, exile.
    Democracy is an experiment in increasing interhuman compassion, community, and cooperation.
  • Ecologic sanity is an experiment in increasing interspecies compassion, community, and cooperation.

It seems to me that our recent election, dominated by huge gobs of money in the service of generating even huger gobs of money, marginalized both democracy and eco-sanity.

Part of me wants to believe that politics is always a game of waves — –– that a wave of attacks on democracy today will bring a wave of creative affirmations of democracy tomorrow. That the defeat of pro-democracy candidates (even in states where pro-democratic referenda won big) was an accident of abysmally low voter turnout (the lowest percentage since 1942), and that the progressive movement will recover in 2016.

On the other hand, part of me believes that at this moment in US history the whole system is broken, because extreme inequality of wealth and the dominant power of global corporations has smashed all the organs intended to protect and advance democracy.

And this part of me believes that this brokenness is driving not only America but all our planet into an enormous crash – a dead end where we cannot wait for the next wave of the old system, but instead must give birth to something entirely new. Beyond the kinds of elections we have now, beyond the economic structure built on fossil fuels during the past 250 years.

Not backward into feudalism but forward into new forms of eco-democratic community.

From the first perspective, what needs to happens next is more grass-roots organizing of the well-worn style, combined with a much bolder, clearer progressive populist message. The People vs. Wall Street.

From the second perspective, the meaning of this last election was taught 165 years ago in the midst of a growing crisis over slavery: “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” – Henry David Thoreau, “On Civil Disobedience”.

Which answer to my quandary is “right”? To get beyond my quandary – OUR quandary! – let’s start from basics:

Both our spiritual/religious traditions and the findings of modern science teach that community, connection, cooperation – in that dangerous four-letter word, LOVE –- are required for human beings and our planet to be healthy and life-giving.

It’s true that Control — in Buber’s language, I-It as distinct from I-Thou — is a necessary part of life. But when Control becomes so overwhelming that community, compassion, are erased –- disaster follows.

Triumphalism, like the “triumphs” of Pharaoh in enslaving people and the very earth his country lived in, becomes self-destructive.

Mentioning Pharaoh reminds us of an historical as well as moral truth:When Control becomes overwhelming, it self-destructs and a new form of society is born.

  • When the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian Empires over-reached, shattering the societies of early Western Semitic tribes, the new social form we know as Torah was born.
  • When the Roman Empire over-reached, it shattered Biblical Judaism – so that Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism and (a little later) Islam were born.
  • Now the machinery of Modernity has over-reached, and all the classic social forms of the last millennia have been shattered. Something new needs to be born. Is being born.
    For Control and Power to limit themselves so as not to over-reach –- is elementary wisdom, even simple sanity.

But this election was a triumph for the practice of insisting on Total Triumph — Big Money, Big Corporations, choking Earth’s atmosphere, heating Earth’s oceans, depriving the poor, the young, the Black, the Brown of the right to vote while giving the rich millions of extra votes in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars spent on elections.

More important – this election was a defeat for defeatists. Defeat for those who refused to stand up against these policies of Top-Down Power. Defeat for a President and a Party that has practiced preemptive surrender to Big Money since it took office in 2009. Defeat for those “liberals” who whimpered about Obamacare instead of proclaiming its undeniable though limited success.

By their timidity they were thinking to appeal to “moderates” — but instead they convinced these moderates that even the timidly progressive President and Party must be a failure.

Many of these same defeatists will behave as if 2016 can be won by the same defeatism that lost in 2014. They will point to mechanics: more Republicans up for grabs in the Senate, a respected woman candidate for President who is a pro-Wall Street “moderate,” more turn-out in a Presidential year.

But even their best efforts will be given to lessen disaster. The basic structure – enormous inequality in wealth, free use of that wealth in politics, the purchase of the Supreme Court by anti-democratic forces — will remain the same, and because of their own defeatism they will remain defeated, prisoners within it.

Even if they “win” the 2016 election, their “winning” will really conceal a more basic defeat — as it did for Obama in 2012.

Yet — preventing the worst is still desirable. Resistance to the worst attacks on democracy could begin right now: Not waiting for the next election, or even the next Congress to convene in January. What would that take?

(This is the first half of an exploration of the quandaries we face from a spiritually rooted perspective on the last elections. The second half is available at our website at, and will also be in your in-box in the next few days.)


Thank you Rabbi Arthur Waskow for connecting the dots of faith, politics, economics, and the sacredness of the Earth.

Click HERE for the Shalom Center website.