Archive - March, 2017

Impending Famine

Examination by a community health worker in a Somali clinic.

Examination by a community health worker in a Somali clinic.

I just finished watching We Who Remain, a new virtual reality film from the New York Times about survivors of the Sudan civil war. They are from the Nuba mountain region that was retained by the government in the north when South Sudan was created.

But rebels from the south continued to operate in the Nuba mountains, resulting in ongoing warfare between the northern government and southern combatants.

The immersive film, which is viewed by placing a cellphone into a simple two lens cardboard device, provides a 360° view into the lives of those who remain in the region. It’s also viewable without the 360° viewer.

While they feel trapped by the horrific fighting, this is their home. They have no place to which they can flee, so they remain.

Their stories are touching, engaging and sad. Children have seen bodies dismembered by bombs dropped from the air. They have learned to jump into large holes dug into the earth when the bombs drop or the shooting starts.

This is, unfortunately, not a new story. It’s one of the oldest conflicts in recent history. 

Social Conflict

It’s continued, in part, because the region for many years was not viewed as strategically important to the Cold War powers. After the end of the Cold War, Eritrean separatists fought and won independence from Ethiopia. Somalia came apart and descended into anarchy. And in Sudan rebels in the south took up arms and won independence from the north.

Then the Middle East region became a hotbed of violence. Today the U.S. has a base in Djoubti and China is moving in next door. After displacing its residents and leasing it from the British, the U.S. established a base on the Indian Ocean atoll, Diego Garcia. The area is strategic due to its position between East Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

I’ve traveled in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia several times and the region looks today much as it did when I was there several years ago. Southern Sudan, including the Nuba mountains, is an arid, bare landscape. The people have adapted by learning to live on the edge of survival, primarily by tending cattle.

Many of the children have grown up knowing nothing but social conflict. Many have lost parents, siblings and whole families. The conflict seems intractable and the suffering unending. Only days ago seven humanitarian aid workers were ambushed and killed in South Sudan.

Perhaps this intractability is why it doesn’t attract much attention anymore. But that’s an unsatisfactory reason for not attempting to alleviate the human suffering that is growing by the day.

Impending Famine

The United Nations says it needs $4.4 billion by July to prevent famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria. Famine threatens 20 million people. Some reports claim it could be the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.

In addition, millions of Syrians are displaced and living in temporary conditions that are miserable, or worse. 

While this global crisis develops, the U.S. and some European nations are engaged in interminable debates over national politics to the neglect of a world that is broken and divided. We are preoccupied by a nationalist, nativist ideological dispute that detracts from global perspective.

For people of goodwill, and most especially, for people of Christian faith, this is also a distraction from the historic teachings of the faith. Scripture tells us we are citizens first of the kingdom of God, and that our responsibilities for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, offering water to the thirsty and making peace have no boundaries. It is all God’s world. And we share responsibility for its nurture and care.

A World of Abundance

Thus, despite the false preaching that offers Bible-blessed nationalism, the call to Christians today is to maintain a global view and to act accordingly. This means to provide aid to those who are vulnerable, those who for no reason but birth, find themselves living in life-threatening conditions. It means caring for people within the borders of our own nation and beyond. It means understanding that there’s enough for all. We live in a world of abundance, not one of scarcity.

And it means advocating for funding for humanitarian aid and keeping foreign assistance.  

Among those groups that I support offering direct service and advocacy are the International Rescue Committee and Church World Service. Both organizations help me keep this perspective.

 

A Walk in the Woods

Radnor Lake at sunrise

For the past 2 1/2 years, I have made it a point to walk approximately three miles every day. Most often I walk at a wildlife conservation area with many trails and a lake within the city limits of metropolitan Nashville.

I made a goal to post one photo a day of nature or wildlife on Facebook and other social media.

This has been a remarkably positive experience. A cold morning this week was especially so.

I arrived just after sunrise but before the sun rose above the hills that encircle the lake.

When I started my walk the temperature was 22° but Accuweather said it felt like 17°.

Small birds were prolific, unlike the previous day when the woods seemed unusually quiet.

A doe watched as I stood nearby

A doe watched as I stood nearby

A family group of does watched me as I approached, lifting their heads and turning as I walked along.

The younger ones were playful and scampered back and forth into the woods. The older ones kept their eyes on me until I stopped and lowered myself to appear smaller. They eventually returned to their grazing.

I walked on and saw several yellow-rumped warblers and eastern phoebes feeding on trees at the edge of the lake. More of these birds are showing up now than were here over the winter.

Tree swallows in sunrise fog

Tree swallows in sunrise fog

A flock of tree swallows flew by. Fog was rising from the water. As the sun crept above the hills, the swallows flew into the orange haze. I fired a couple of clicks of the shutter.

A horned grebe swam away from the bank below me, the sole grebe on the lake.

A green-winged teal circled and landed toward the middle of the lake behind a group of ring-necked ducks bobbing for food.

As I walked along the paved pedestrian road a hermit thrush froze in place on a tree within a few feet of me. Then a golden-crowned kinglet busily worked the next tree and I stopped to watch and attempt a photograph.

Eastern phoebes flew ahead of me along the bank. They didn’t seem panicked or afraid.They were casual, staying ahead of me as they searched the trees for insects.

A great blue heron sunning in early morning light

A great blue heron sunning in early morning light

A great blue heron flew from its resting place on a log near the shore as I passed by. I found another sunning itself on a log jutting from the bank. I stopped and took a picture. It stood there, aware of my presence but unperturbed.

The horned grebe muddled along the bank.

I walked to the road that runs atop the dam where I discovered another hermit thrush. It was not concerned about me. I walked within a few feet and it continued to hop along the ground searching for insects.

The thrush perched, raising and lowering its tail as it observed the ground for moving insects.

 

Hermit thrush seemed unconcerned that I was nearby

A hermit thrush seemed unconcerned that I was nearbyThe barred owl was unperturbed by my presence

I worked to get a photo clear of foreground brush. I stalked the bird for 20 minutes, taking several photos while it was on the ground and perched in small trees on the bank.

Two rusty blackbirds drink at lake cove

Two rusty blackbirds drinking at a lake cove

I continued along the lake trail to a cove where I saw a large flock of rusty blackbirds drinking at the edge of the lake.

 

 

I’ve been looking for this species for three years to no avail. Now, here they are with the sun shining on them and no obstructions to block my view. I knelt down to become smaller and started taking pictures. They remained at this drinking spot for ten minutes before flying away.

I was thinking, “This may the best day I’ve had in the woods since I started coming here over two years ago.” I might even work up to a whistling mood.

I walked the rest of the trail, my feet crunching the frozen ground. I was alone on the trail. That’s quite unusual. I had the place to myself.

Barred owl on street sign

Barred owl on street sign

I went to my pickup truck and had a snack before starting home. As I was leaving the entrance to the wildlife area, I spotted a barred owl sitting on a street sign near the gate. I stopped and took a photo through the open window.

I edged the truck forward and took a second photo. The owl sat there looking at me.

 

The barred owl was unperturbed by my presence

The barred owl was unperturbed by my presence

I moved even with the owl, expecting it to fly. It sat looking at me. I snapped a closeup photo and drove away, chuckling.

Today was typical only in that I walked the trail observing the wildlife and enjoyed being outdoors. It was atypical in that I was alone for most of the time and the wildlife unperturbed allowed me to get close, unusually close.

It was a great day.

On Reading Again–and a tongue in cheek thank you

I suppose I should thank Donald Trump because in a roundabout way he has caused me to become a reader again. I got so frustrated during the campaign that I stopped watching network television news. I also turned off NPR.
 
This was a major change for me. I was an information junkie. I was always tuned in to some form of electronic information source.
 
I weaned myself from these media for three reasons. The false equivalence of the journalistic method. The imbalance in airtime given to Mrs. Clinton vs. Donald Trump. (Ratings, ratings, ratings.) The unwillingness early on to call out falsehoods.
 
These led me to say, “enough!”
 
I turned to print publications and online news sources I trust.
 
I also returned to reading books. Not books about politics. Books about everything I’m interested in, which is almost everything.
 
I had become concerned about my inability to read long form journalism anyway. I noticed I was having trouble staying with longer pieces. I’d gotten accustomed to 500 word posts online. And I had acclimated to the ridiculous sound bite journalism of electronic media.
 
I committed to giving 15 minutes a day to reading and sticking with it. I turned off the radio, TV, cellphone, and put away all the devices.
 
The joy of reading began to return. Before long I found myself reading beyond my 15-minute limit.
 
Then I discovered I was becoming engrossed in books and articles. I was moving beyond my self-defined short-term attention deficit disorder.
 
Since the election, here’s what I’ve been reading:
 
The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr. Franciscan Father Rohr is attempting to “rebuild Christian teaching from the bottom up.” A formidable task, but well worth the effort. In this book he reframes teaching about the trinity in Christian religion. Rohr is providing hope-filled teaching. In this time of declining interest in a judgmental, punitive, exclusive faith, that’s wonderful.
 
A Christian Justice for the Common Good by Dr. Tex Sample. Dr. Sample provides a theological rationale for a justice for the common good. And he discusses how to apply it in today’s social environment.
 
Deep South by Paul Theroux. The veteran travel writer turns his attention to people of the U.S. South whose stories are rarely told. It’s an insightful reporting of conversations and attitudes about the South. It’s a reminder that as Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
 
Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams by Mark Ribowsky. A detailed look into the tragic life of country music’s most iconic star. It’s amazing that Hank accomplished so much in so short a time, and his life was such a tragic mess.
 
The Air Castle of the South: WSM and the making of Music City by Craig Havighurst. This is a well-written history of radio station WSM. The station made a contribution to the city of Nashville, the national culture, and to radio. I saw a small part of that history many years ago. As part of a training event run by Dennis Benson, I got permission to sit in on the all-night show of DJ Ralph Emery. He interviewed country singers after they had played sets in downtown honky tonks. The night I was there he interviewed a young blonde woman named Dolly. We all know the rest of that story.
 
A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life by Pat Conroy. This is a collection of papers, blog posts, and letters by this wonderful southern writer. He died in 2016. The papers reveal his affecting human qualities.
 
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. From 1854 to 1929, the Children’s Aid Society gathered an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children from the streets of New York City. They were put on “orphan trains” bound for families in midwestern states. Some found loving homes, but many did not. They became indentured servants, often facing cruel abuse and hardship beyond words. This novel captures their grim existence. It also tells of their strength of spirit, and the occasional goodwill of adults around them. Baker Kline uses a storytelling device that’s compelling in its own right. I won’t give it away.
 
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. I grew up hearing about the Dust Bowl from my grandparents in Oklahoma. They lived east of the land affected by the great blows. But they experienced the Great Depression. Like many in the western part of the state, they also experienced displacement. Both of my grandfathers had to abandon farming and move their families to town. It was heart-wrenching. Egan captures the pathos of this hardship using the stories of survivors.
 
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. I decided to re-read McCourt’s memoir about his childhood in New York and Ireland. I wanted to refresh my understanding of memoir. This story is as powerfully moving as it gets.
 
Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall. Oh, if I only had a mind for understanding physics, cosmology, and quantum mechanics. I don’t. But that doesn’t make reading Randall less interesting. Her explanations are helping me to grasp an elementary understanding of these things. What is dark matter and what does it do? What’s the difference between asteroids, meteoroids, and comets? What does this have to do with the dinosaurs?
 
As you can see, it’s an eclectic mix, offering disparate views of the world. Always an intriguing world. I’d recommend each of them without reserve.
 
Oh, and I’m still getting news. I’m reading the NY Times, Washington Post, the Guardian, and VOX, online or in hard copy. I also turn to the BBC, Reuters and other sources for both video and narrative reporting.
 
Life is more interesting when I manage media more purposefully. I probably wouldn’t have done it without Donald. So, thanks, I guess.
 
But, to be clear. Still, I resist.