Saturday, November 17, 2007


Today when I walked up to the post office my mailbox held an assortment of alumni mags from the University of Chicago. I’m probably the only M/L alumn in the state but there are maybe a few dozen U of C students. I don’t know them -- I’m just aware they exist. The mags are meant to stimulate me to send money to the schools. Right. My SSI check no longer covers my essentials the way it did when I moved back here. The magazines tell about hundred million dollar bequests. Anonymous, of course. Very nice.

I’m interested in the “U of Chicago Magazine” stories about endocrine research, specifically the reciprocal relationship between blood glucose and insulin, the importance of receptors on the cells as well as producers of the metabolizing molecule. The difference between a kind of diabetes that is caused by a shortage of insulin has not been sorted out properly from the kind that is caused by a refusal of the cell to accept the insulin, thereby accepting so much glucose as to do itself damage. Doctors only see DIABETES -- run finger over to treatment column: drugs. Med schools are not teaching critical thinking or logical deduction. I take a personal, bodily you might say, interest in this.

At that level I love this school so obsessed with thinking. I care less about the “girl rock bands” that are supposed to be pulling kids back into education and achievement. I mean, that’s fine but it’s not my thing. Maybe it’s because I see these efforts over and over and over -- not in the black context, which is what U of C can never avoid because of being located in the black part of Chicago -- but in the reservation context. (Yeah -- I said reservation rather than Indian on purpose. I’m beginning to see that part of the problem is saying Indian kids are different and any other kind of kid on a rez doesn’t have the same issues.)

Criterion, A Publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School” is much less slick and rah-rah in its approach to alumni. The articles tend to be transcripts of addresses given at Div School events by the faculty and better students. Anyway, Div School people don’t necessarily make money or even value money all that much, though they are pretty competitive in many ways. The currency here, as Carl Sandburg put it, is “Do you love me, kid?” It’s all about parenting, nurturing, being grateful, mentioning God now and then. This slips into pandering among those of less stature and discipline.

A long piece delivered at a lunch talk is by J. Ronald Engel. “Making the Earth Covenant at Chicago.” In the Seventies tipping to Eighties, a very risky time in the history of Meadville/Lombard, Ron was the only faculty member of a staff of four at the seminary that the students would tolerate. He badly wanted to be recognized as a major scholar, which one does in this world by writing, but suffered from writer’s block. One summer I was his graduate assistant which meant that he gave me a long list of books about the Indiana Dunes to read and report on.

One result was that my right shoulder and knee became eroded from packing books back and forth to the massive Regenstein library. I feel those joints rather keenly some days now. (I was forty, about the same age as Ron.) The other result was that I began to know a great deal about the Indiana Dunes and how places become sacralized until they amount to pilgrimage destinations and natural cathedrals. I was already vulnerable to that idea through the “Limberlost” books of Gene Stratton-Porter, although she was kind of literal about it. (Freckles plants a clearing in the tall timber so it’s like a chapel, etc.) Sandburg lived at the Dunes.

Engel had such a close relationship with his originally-classmate and then colleague, Shadle, that we took to calling them “Shengel.” One did not make a move without the other, though they were rather different. Shadle would invite you to his apartment -- Engel never would. We realized why when someone was in a building adjacent-to but higher-than Engel’s and looked into his apartment. “It’s ALL WHITE,” he gasped, "Even the carpet!" In more ways than one, despite many accounts of going to the South with James Reeb who was martyred there in a march for integration.

In many ways I was much too tough for this little seminary, too ascetic, too scornful of middle-class tweed prestige and luxury. (I’m even too scornful of Valier merchant/rancher-class velour-sweats-clad luxury.) And I remain that way reading Engel’s version of an “Earth Covenant.” It personifies, it sentimentalizes, it deifies, and it moralizes. Oh, oh, oh -- how beautiful nature is! Quite ignoring drought, famine, flood, fire and all manner of unkindness from Mother Nature.

Sure, say I, the Deep Ecologist, we’d better shape up and reform our ways because we go down with the ship! Pray to the storm all you want -- if you don’t bail, row and admit you’re but a cockleshell with the hubris to put out to sea -- you go down with the ship. In fact, even if you DO all the right things and think carefully, you might still go down with the ship. Worrying about global warming are you? Try making an “earth covenant” with a viral plague. Whether as all-creatures or as just-ourselves, we all die, pretty words or not. God or Dog -- neither has anything to do with it.

Engel quotes Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Advice to a Prophet,” which is a blast against the hubris of thinking we know what will happen or what we should do about it, but Ron shows no real understanding of it, or he would end up as some of our tough outdoorsmen environmental writers have: slipping off their chairs to weep on the floor. Instead, back goes Engel to speak of “mystical naturalism” and “realities of faith” and all his wonderful friends and mentors and sponsors and students. It’s a nice polite Div School lunch, after all.

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