My Forest in Nicaragua

There is a small copse in the highlands of Nicaragua where the sparrows play. “They are still there,” I was told on my last visit, “the trees are.” Granted that was a decade ago now. “They call it Hurricane Forest” my friend said, if I recall correctly.

Hurricane Forest we had planted in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, one of the periodic storms which barrel through the Caribbean and sometimes Central America. That one was particularly bad – too many killed and the destruction still evident in deep jagged scars scratched into mountainsides denuded by cattle and goats and fields of peppers and tomatoes – mountains stripped of their ancient forests by poverty. We planted 100,000. I was a volunteer, making a few hundred dollars a month and living in a little cave under a bar for $1 a night. The saplings were also cheap, pennies or maybe a dollar each, I can’t remember. The whole effort cost probably five or perhaps ten thousand dollars; certainly less than a private jet flight to the Golden Globes. With the cost of that pathetic party I could have planted a jungle.

Trees!!

It should be obvious, to those who love our planet and know her. The roots of the trees hold back the topsoil during the rains – fighting soil erosion. They provide oxygen and are the famous ‘carbon sinks’ about which we no longer hear because that would require giving the United States and Canada credit for its tremendous acts of reforestation. Just as important, they give a place for the sparrows to play and raise their babies. Oh, to be sure, they probably did not all survive – my trees – but if at least 10% did, that’s 10,000 trees.

Have you planted a forest with 10,000 trees?

I read “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss occasionally to my son. It, and “Oh The Places You’ll Go” are my favorites of that great moral philosopher now departed. “I’m the Lorax and I speak for the trees” he says, but nobody is listening. Ever wonder why that is? Is it, perhaps, that the self-appointed Loraxes of our modern world are so horrible, so bitterly partisan, so hopelessly self-involved that they invite only ridicule and rage?

If there is one thing I have learned in my time in the war zones and earthquake centers and flood plains of this planet its that if you want something done you have to do it yourself. Think that war is wrong? Go out and try and stop them. Hate poverty? Make a business which hires people, giving food and health care to families, filling individual lives with joy. Care about the environment? Buy a track of land as big as you can in Arizona or Colorado or Costa Rica and set it aside, pristine and only for the butterflies. Its about initiative and personal sacrifice; working in areas where you have control on issues which you care about, leading by example and tremendous endurance. Oh, I know words like ‘sacrifice’ are not popular these days. Why should you sacrifice, if there are so many who do not? Better lets make them pay!!!! Besides, those things I suggest? They are tedious and slow and probably won’t get your face on the cover of magazines or invited to be feted at gala dinners. Nevertheless it is there where all work that means anything is carried out. For those who today claim to speak for the trees speak only for themselves. And the efforts of planting a forest, though it is so very cheap? They are above such things. 

I planted a forest in Nicaragua. What have you done?

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Decisive Moments in History

The stories that make up the history of mankind are written by people. We are not the playthings of the gods; nor is anything preordained, predestined or inevitable. Every great and wicked advance in our story results from the action or inaction of men and women. Aeneid once wrote “Fortune favors the bold”. Pasteur said “Chance favors only the prepared mind”. It is there, in the intersection of boldness and preparation where great human achievement takes place.

“Decisive Moments in History” by Stefan Zweig is a compendium of these moments. A collection of short histories of people who made extraordinary efforts and – in both success and failure – left their mark upon history. The stories of tremendous risks by fundamentally flawed individuals (as we all are) who nevertheless achieved greatness and immortality through their efforts against all odds. I often wonder about this in our new un-private, socially intrusive, media-obsessed, trigger-happy world – where people are prejudged subjectively and de-platformed or badgered into submission based upon who their ancestors were or what their skin color is, or in response to whatever is the vapid fad of the moment.

Now the down-side. This book is terribly over-written. The excessive use of metaphors and similes and adjectives, the anthropomorphizing of everything, the attempts to create suspense and intrigue and empathy in the short pages of each history make the book grating and at the end almost unreadable. The whip-lashing points-of-view careening wildly as each new character emerges, even including inanimate objects which are given their own feelings and motivations, is jarring. Zweig would have done better to write more simply – for the stories in their power speak for themselves. Instead the resulting product is amateurish; which is a shame, for the point of the book – BE BOLD!! – is certainly a lesson worth delivering.

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“The Ghost of Freedom” – A Book Review

The stories that shaped the Caucasus are as ancient as language; water flowing evenly over mountains jagged and dangerous home to highland people who are as enigmatic as they are enthralling, their history deposited as olden pebbles in a river that continues to flow. To understand this land is to reach down into the basement of time; to try to grasp the full breadth and depth of the story of humanity itself. For this reason, it is a feat best accomplished in bite-sized chunks.

“The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus” is just such an effort. This book is a glance at the history of the ‘nations’ of the Caucasus (that is before they became nations, and some of which still are not), those peoples nestled between the Black and Caspian seas in the highlands on either side of the most imposing mountain range in Europe. The Alps of the East; long after those central European peaks became tamed. King’s history is one of the ‘modern’ Caucasus, that is to say from roughly the beginning of Russian imperialism until the fall of the Soviet Union. It is the story of the Caucasus defined by the giant to the north; as the histories of these countries have been for the last two-hundred years.

It is a story of the search for security, for legitimacy, for nationhood; for peace juxtaposed against the desire to be free and the natural tensions that come from this paradox. The book is well researched, and well written; an excellent introduction to the struggles of the modern nation-states who are in search of their role in the future, their place in history’s past already being as firmly established as the snows upon Mount Ararat. For those who seek to understand the Caucasus, much reading, study, thought and reflection is required. “The Ghost of Freedom” should be part of this project.

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“Two Popes”

Once when I was a little boy, growing up in the highlands of northwestern Argentina my little town received a visitor: a pope. The military junta was in its final tragic burst of power before sputtering out, pinning its hopes for survival upon an ill-fated and foolhardy war with England. A war the pope wanted to end. But I didn’t understand any of that; the pope was coming to Salta!

It was not a visit for us, nor did we participate; my parents, evangelical missionaries in a catholic country, were not there to give obeisance to the Bishop of Rome. But neither was there the noxious dispersions of now; every idiot with an ill-formed opinion and a free Facebook account demanding to be heard. We knew that, despite the differences, John Paul II was a great man. He had after all sparked the Solidarity Movement in Poland only a few years before; he was a voice of freedom and peace in a world of brutal Godless communism. He was part of the “Genius Cluster” of then, which included Reagan and Thatcher and Mandela and De Klerk and Arias and Mother Teresa – a group that demanded respect.

I remember watching his 747 land. “He will sleep on a golden bed,” one child told to another. “They have made for him a golden throne on the lookout at the top of the hill.” Children will be children, fancy and wonder without the cynicism product of narcissism and envy. The pope had come to see us in Salta.

I rarely do reviews of movies; there is hardly ever anything to say. Quoting Ricky Gervais, “Seriously, most films are awful. Lazy. Remakes, sequels.” And he goes on, yes I’m going to quote it because it was priceless, “(…) if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent, and your God and f*** off, OK?” Because it was this crowd who dared to broach the subject of that ancient universal church, of which they “know nothing”.

For that reason, I decided to do a review of “Two Popes”. Not because it was particularly well done, because it wasn’t. Nor because it was saved by Anthony Hopkins, though it was (not to diss Jonathan Pryce, he’s been a favorite of mine since he rescued Evita from Madonna). No, I wanted to review this movie because the Roman Catholic Church is dying – and I wonder if these “Two Popes” are not in fact her undertakers. And this, for a man who was a little boy who remembers a great pope who stood up against tremendous evil – is a tragedy. The film, as best I can tell, is an attempt to whitewash Bergoglio’s past juxtaposed against an even-more-unsympathetic Ratzinger. The reason (for Hollywood, I’m sure) is the new Pope’s less-than-orthodox and more-progressive view on issues related to the culture war; a war which Hollywood “know-nothings” are prosecuting as energetically as they can; and who believe they have found an ally in Bergoglio.

The movie is a series of fake dialogues between Ratzinger and Bergoglio, where Ratzinger tells Bergoglio he is unorthodox and Bergoglio tells Ratzinger he’s done his penance for supporting the junta back in the day (incidentally during the time when I was in Argentina and John Paul came to visit us and tried to stop the violence); setting him up for his ‘conversion’ event when he found liberation theology (this is the way it is presented in the movie, of course, it would be interesting for the pope himself to correct the record if it needs so-correcting. Though given the lectures on capitalism I doubt it). For those who don’t know, liberation theology is Marxist Catholicism, the whole “Christ came to set the captives free” argument and “Jesus’s preferential option for the poor” put into partisan politics; turning our ancient Bible into nothing more than a red rag to be discussed at the meetings of union workers and collectivities in the slums and parlor houses of the world. The movie is a puff piece for a pope who is losing steam – as the scandals which have sucked the church dry of faith ravage that ancient institution.

My heart aches for the church, though I am not a catholic. I have communed with Spanish nuns on the island of Idjwi in Lake Kivu, sitting upon a poor veranda brushed and sparkling drinking tea overlooking the freshly dug graves of sisters who lost their lives to hemorrhagic malaria; I have toured facilities in Barquisimeto Venezuela where Don Bosco Priests fight not only the terrible frustration of caring for the severely mentally disabled but also at the same time the new poverty into which Bergoglio’s “Liberation Theology” has plunged that country. (I even wrote a cover article for the Jesuit Order’s print mag “America Magazine” about the amazing priests and their epic fight against the evils of socialism – I wonder if Bergoglio read it?) I have known extraordinary Catholics, who are ill-served by the horrible mess into which the church has plunged; the politicization, power politics lacquering over sexual abuse of the highest order.

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Oh, I know, that does not make a very interesting movie. And Hollywood sure does like their heroes – though their judgement is often found wanting. It is the church, however, that here suffers. Because it has existed and will continue to exist for the sole purpose that Jesus commanded to Simon Peter, the first pope: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” That is it, that is all. No culture wars, no Marxist politics, no liberation theology – no abuse of the most vulnerable. Just good people loving their God through their service to those around them. I have known so many amazing, sacrificial Catholics like that. They might not make as interesting a movie, for they have no power. But they are the beating heart of faith; and when the Sistine Chapel peels and all the gold flakes away, God’s church will abide, found in Idjwi and Barquisimeto and – yes – in Salta as well.

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“Ordeal – 1918” by Alexei Tolstoy, a Book Review

Americans are not very much acquainted with Russia’s Civil War. When we study communism we often think there was a clean break; Tzar Nicholas abdicates, Lenin takes over, USSR is born. Truth of the matter is the process was much longer and more violent than that. There was the February Revolution, the October Revolution, the Constituent Assembly, the Red and White Armies (and the Greens sniping at both); the great struggle for control of a dying empire about which much has been written and deserves to be read, especially these days. In point of fact the Russian Civil War did not end until 1922 (and in Central Asia until the 1930s) and was much more bloody than even our own.

As the war was prosecuted, the takeover of Russia by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (aka Lenin) was not at all sure, and the war could have gone either way. Both sides suffered advances and reverses; and outside forces (the Austrians, the Germans, the Czechs) also played a significant role in the outcomes.

Alexei Tolstoy’s three-part epic “Ordeal” is about the Russian Civil War; a historical fiction from the perspective of two sisters (introduced in part one of the saga “The Sisters”, and whose husbands come to fight for opposite sides of the conflict). “The Year 1918” is the second in the series, a “blow-by-blow” of that pivotal year when either outcome, Bolshevik Russia or a return of the Tzar (or something else entirely) were all equally possible. As in all good historical fiction, Tolstoy’s characters and their tales of love and woe are nestled neatly in the historical account of the epic struggles to control and shape the result of the shattering of empire.

Ordeal book 2

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Building On Our Amazing 2010s – A New Decade’s Resolution

I have written too often about ruin. About an anarchy just over the horizon. We are all flowers grown from the soil in which we were planted and found nourishment. Our lives, our moments of significance juxtaposed against the boredom oh so profound and the desperation of people in war; at least for me. And war is the one changeless pattern of human existence, something from which we will never escape. We the peacemakers are haunted by our wars; for there is rarely a respite and, unlike for those who prosecute the madness, there is little cushion found in the quiet upon which to recede into ourselves and the memories of best expended efforts and the futility of plowing the sea. Perhaps a word of thanks, a nod, a wink perchance, though rarely even that; a little award signed by somebody unimportant to frame and hang upon the wall, memento for so great an effort. I have worked on six wars, maybe seven depending on how you count them. I even ended two of them, though nobody noticed. They were sad little wars, after all – and who really cares, apart from those living in the camps? And when was the last time they were considered? I have written too much about suicide as well, because I have known suicide. Not self-mollification, an act desperate and stupid but instead national suicide, the same but infinitely more sad; the lights of civilization slowly going out after the bonfires of envy and redistribution fade for wont of fuel. I often have an argument with my wife; about which is the wickedest of all passions. To her, it is rage – but I’ve always found good use for rage, for it can be channeled into strength for a just fight. For me, it’s envy. Jealousy, and its nasty cousin greed. That metastasizing cancer that finds a place inside the healthy; that Kafkaesque metamorphosis of man into cockroach feeding upon the refuse of society after it has perished. Transforming the twisted wicked souls, death-eaters looking only to devour others, a meal which does not satisfy leaving the banqueter somehow both obese and yet more ravenous than before.

We all spend our time in echo chambers; and it is they who realize it that are today’s wise. In my wars fought in places desiccated and abandoned I have perhaps failed to perceive that mine was not the norm; that in fact the things which I lived might be actually the exception to a common rule, that of humanity’s improving lot. I am remedying that here, though with the fear even as I write that to speak of the bettering of our condition is hubris and punishable, for we are all superstitious, and apprehensive lest even a nod to our abounding prosperity somehow summon the miscreation awaiting unseen just over the next turn of the calendar page and I will have precipitated a tremendous evil. Nevertheless, and be that as it may, there are some things that – caveated with all the stipulations you might summon – are incontrovertible. One of these things is that humanity as a species has just finished its best decade in the history of histories. No need for me to repeat the statistics, Matt Ridley has done a brilliant job here; however suffice it to say we live better than the kings of old through whose palaces we who would be peasants now stroll in swelling numbers. We have turned the corner on our exploding populations, and the management of declining and aging citizenry is now the order of the day (and to wit, we did not starve; in point of fact our bounty has grown as never before). Our war on terror is over, “The emergence of ISIS and the horrors it wrought will likely spell the end of ideologically driven political Islamist movements in the Middle East…” as Kareem Shaheen writes. The third great totalitarian wave to challenge our modernity has crashed upon our shores and is now receding, Islam is secularizing after their dark night of the soul, as writes Mustafa Akyol – leaving the black flag buried beside the swastika and the hammer and cycle in the dustbin of time. And the nonsense of irrationalism? The soothsayers’ words no longer inspire and the dark red printed across manifestos is now unread and fades in the afternoon sun of plenty, abandoned by a people wiser and less inclined to Gramscian Fabianism.

Given so great a cellar (into which, to be sure, the finishings will still require some time and effort) to build upon, what does our so-great prosperity augur for the next year, the next decade? It would appear, especially given our ‘strategic reset’ (and God bless the electorate), that we are on the verge of great things indeed. We are soon to see the end of something old and transformational; for the internal combustion engine will this decade pass (mostly) into the past. Genetics is going to end common diseases. Prosperity is set to become mainstream, with opportunity for the majority. And in geopolitics? China, our superannuated nemesis newly discovered is even now falling victim to the great aging for which our century will be known. The great kingdom of the center will see its population half in my lifetime; what remains – will be old. And countries seeking to care for their elderly have no time for the adventurism nor the Sisyphean ambition of empire. In point of fact a China that shuns the stranger (immigrants being the reason U.S. will remain strong and headed to meet the Chinese population, assuming we can get the laws right) is no more a threat than the old-folks-home down the street from my sun-valley home.

And what else? It is undeniable that the next decade will be the decade of the cities and towns. Not as a weapon against our valleys and hills, in which we will always shelter our ideas of home. Cities need not be sanctuaries of stupidity, as Dubai and the return of our City States has shown us; safe-havens of corruption and depravity held against the pristine purity of familiarity and community suspended in gentle accountability. No, in point of fact our cities and towns are increasingly returning to their Tocquevillian condition as a laboratory for the pragmatic solutions which we require, and increasingly demand. As our global ‘institutions’ fail (not that they ever really worked), we return humbled to our home-owner-associations and our neighborhood councils which eschew the pristine creeds of now in favor of answers products of the rational mind. No longer do the diluted definitions of gender inspire ire or the oh-so-timorous philosophies of victimization occupy our energy, too busy are we with our prosperous lives and the problems so great a wealth has brought. Yes, just as Trump, BoJo, and Bolsonaro were the reaction against Ban Ki Moon and Kofi Annan; so too are they to be undone by Jenn Daniels and Sylvester Turner and in the end people like you and me, powerless in our wealth – and it is good. The return of the city state is the big story of the next decade; older and friendlier and more conservative (in the way that reads Tolkien and returns to church as the aged are forced to consider the end and realize that the God they defied in their youth and strength is still there when their bones begin to ache and their bowels cease to function efficiently). This of course will change everything; a world population that is no longer growing, concentrated in cities, coupled with ever-more elderly who do not spend, who consolidate their goods, switching to safeguarded investments (and planning to meet their God) as they downsize their houses and their lifestyles will put an existential challenge to capitalism – an economic model predicated upon growth. Oh sure America will be fine, we will keep absorbing the world’s most productive long after Japan and Europe and China turn to the shuffle-board table; but the empty towns around the old continent? They are here to stay.

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Yes, we will have to adjust, but that too is good. Because the greatest of all our challenges in the next decade is to at long last turn our gaze to our tired old planet that we so love, which has hosted us and nurtured us and given to us so freely of her bounty. To care for the tiny turtles as they claw their way to the oceans; the bears in their shrinking habitats; the weeping thirsty koalas in their burned-out forests. The animals which make our lives worth living – these must be the focus of our next decade. I’m not talking here about ‘climate change’, that supra-national bait and switch in which the nouveau Marxists get power and prestige and the animals get nothing. It’s not about that for the Paris Accord crowd and their globalist ‘NGOs’; for they are part of that privileged tribe which flies private-jetted around the world eager to protect their climate privilege, eating fine caviar as they revel in the power. Though I’m not a huge fan of Greta, a scoldy tool of the totalitarian greens – dark forces the market does not control (and totalitarianism always seeks its own power and knows no debate and therefore no reason or accountability) – she does have a bit of a point, and who wasn’t at least a little satisfied to watch her lecture the fat socialists who have overseen the rape of the planet. Not that it is their fault, they never had the right tools even if they had the will; as I’ve said before the era of the supra-national is over. And good riddance. This decade we will be called to solve the problems ourselves. We who live in the cities; with our mayors and our governors. We, in America, who have reforested more than 18,000,000 acres of land in the last 20 years (not by signing a convention but by each and all of us planting trees and pushing for green spaces), will again lead the way; regrowing our old forests and reseeding them with life more abundant. Our companies, technologies and empowered citizens firmly in command – for it is not the American way to outsource our problems to third-world committees – we will help our own reversal go global. Indira Gandhi once said “Poverty is the greatest polluter”. On this, at least, she was right. But prosperity, that is the greatest friend of nature. So what will we do with our new-found prosperity? Just you watch, for it is already happening. We will plug it back into our rivers and lakes; solve our plastic problems (like we did our ozone, our deforestation, and every other problem); break our reliance on harmful fuels and return the balance to our world, a balance missing since the industrial revolution but a balance which is now in our grasp. This is the great challenge of 2020, and one in which we are all well equipped to participate. I know, I have droned on – but I am excited; there are many things that will happen over the next ten years and I feel privileged to live now in this age and to be strong for the fight. As Ray Bradbury once said “Stuff your eyes with wonder”, and in the 2020’s I intend to do just that.

That is my New Decade’s Resolution. Won’t you join me??

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Merry Christmas From Another Lost Place: This One Ancient and Cold

A while ago I wrote about a Christmas in the Sahara; a lost place far from the hubbub of the holidays in places cold and clean. A Muslim place which did not consider Jesus or His condescension to meet us where He had to, where we were to be found and to journey with us for a season in an effort to show us the way, to save us from ourselves – though the paths are hard and we are certainly a stubborn lot. But time flies: and I realize it must have been seven years ago as I now write this, another Christmas entry, having moved on leaving behind a nostalgia gently cradling my little boy and a frail peace dangling upon a strained hope as I find myself again on a Wednesday Christmas in another lost place, though this one steeped in the gospel – entrenched in the traditions quickened with suffering even before Justinian, before Constantine and the epic organization of our great faith. Cold and kind and at peace with itself, a peace product only of looking our God in the face in gratitude for the little we have and eschewing the envy which is so often used to advance wickedness – inequality they like to call it, those who think not of God and His great gift but instead of what they might successfully take from others.

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The animals here are different too – not the donkeys and the camels of the sands but instead the sheep herds, reminding me of a different part of the Christ story; the shepherds. The angels appearing to them and telling them of the arrival of the salvation of mankind, lodged not in a castle or fortress locked away safe and protected but in a drafty manger attended by only an unlikely couple. An inauspicious beginning, to be sure…

The other day I was driving along a crumbling road to an ancient monastery, where the monks still worship God and celebrate Christmas – though time passes and their calling is ridiculed, called foolish as are their vows in an age which thinks only of itself. Along my trek I slowed to drive carefully through a herd of sheep that seemed endless, watched over by the shepherds and their dogs as people have done in this part of the world since long before even Jesus walked the earth. Traditions that don’t die out, though our world has become mechanized and modern and cynical. As the snowflakes came down, the cold wind whipping the storms and the shepherds snuggling deeper into their coats, I imagined what those men – boys probably – must have thought of their nighttime angelic visitors. Why were they chosen to be a part of this greatest of all stories? Hard men, cold and gruff who suffered no foolishness and tolerated not luxury. Why would God have had these men, who talk to nobody, be the witness to the miracle?

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Today we speak breathlessly of influencers; meaningless though they are in their banality and oh-so empty of mind. But influence… influential? That is the joyous irony of the Christ story: the people, all the people of the greatest story ever were anti-influencers – as if God was challenging humanity, “You, who dream of virality? Tsk tsk, watch now what I am going to do.” A young woman, her carpenter boyfriend, a group of gruff and silent shepherds all gathered together in a drafty barn. That story went viral – and as I watch the Christmas movies that overtake the airwaves; as the entire American economy in all its might powers itself to deliver upon the promise of magic and mystery; as people who thumb their nose at God return – if only for one night – to render homage to that tiny baby I can only chuckle with some satisfaction. And as I sit here in this most lost place of all, rarely considered, I marvel at that unbroken thread fine as a spiderweb that holds suspended the connection with the ancient stories that endure despite the rising and falling of empire, smug and self-assured and so very brittle. And there is peace in that, for those who know how to look for it.

So Merry Christmas, you who read this – and thank you. Because these are times to be grateful indeed for our prosperity and our freedom to live in faith and write about our Jesus who came so long ago and yet still endures today.

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