Your proprietor is a political progressive and a strategic pragmatist. When not bending the ear of those bending an elbow, he pursues a lively suite of interests including European and American history, historical costuming and living history, archaeology, physical cosmology, art, music from Palestrina to Portishead, and NBA basketball.

Oct 292014

Autumn on the North Coast of California is an odd time.

Our climate is a Mediterranean-style cycle of winter rains and a completely dry summer, and the transitional seasons are subtle in character. In fall, we experience the hottest period of the year, as while summer mornings are characterized by ocean fog that cools most days to temperate comfort, the weaker sun of September and October cannot drive the fog system so effectively. As a result, these months bring lengthy stretches of days in the nineties, parching lands which haven’t seen rain in months to what feels an aching dryness, as empty creek beds and golden-brown hills attest.

We do have oaks and other deciduous trees whose leaves turn colors in the crisp nights, and the harvesting of wine grapes and apples and pumpkins reminds us with certainty that this isn’t really summer. But as we put up apple butter and wait impatiently behind the trucks carrying tons of grapes to be crushed, the hot, arid air combines with wan light and shortening days to make for an uneasy, strange-feeling time. Insects and birds have largely finished their reproductive cycles and the nights are eerily silent, while sunsets are dramatically bloody.

That very eeriness fits well with the season’s observances I practice. Autumn is a Big Deal time of year for Pagans of pretty much any stripe, and an Atheopagan is no different. Between the bounty of Harvest and the reflection, remembrance, spooky playfulness and real grief of Hallows, there are plenty of ritual practices to be attended to and events to share with friends, if we so choose.

Here are a few of the things I like to do for those two Sabbaths. They remind me of the metaphorical meanings of this time of year, and give me a sense—however imaginary—of participation in the season’s change, of being a part of the great turning wheel of the year.

Harvest (the autumnal equinox) is easy: we invite a gathering of friends for a collective feast. A sort of pre-Thanksgiving, with emphasis on locally produced foods, of which we are fortunate to have many. We say the things we are grateful for harvesting before we dig in.

I have many ritual observances, large and small, for Hallows. I’ve been observing Samhain/Hallows rituals with the same group of friends every year since 1991. But rather than go into our traditions, I’d rather talk about the smaller celebrations.

Every year, I go to a local cemetery on Halloween, around sundown. I wander through the old part of the graveyard, appreciating the old monuments and Victorian iron grave-fences and contemplating the segregated Japanese part of the cemetery, which is still in use by the local Japanese community. I leave a small offering at one particular grave which has a beautiful monument in the form of a statue of a weeping angel. And then I go to an enormous yew tree (it must be at least 100 years old), and use my ritual knife to cut a small sprig of yew.

That yew sits on the “Underworld” section of my Focus (altar) throughout the year, where it dries. On the night of the Hallows ritual I share with my friends, I use the dried piece of yew from the previous year to light the fire, closing the circle of another year.

This is the time of year, also, that I pour rainwater saved from the previous winter into a dry creekbed. If I believed in magic, I’d say I was calling the rain back, but I don’t. I view this act as a symbolic expression of my wish that it would rain: a concretization of my hope that California’s drought will break this winter.

It’s small, ongoing observances like these that I most enjoy about my practice: regular reminders to stop and reflect that it is a magnificent world, and I am a part of its cycles and changes.

Originally posted at Humanistic Paganism

Oct 152014

Let me start here: it really is a dangerous old world out there. The United States does have legitimate strategic and economic interests around the globe; there are those who would very much like for us not to have them. And the biggest military power in the world does bear some responsibility to weigh in when something ghastly is going on, like chemical warfare against civilians or genocide.

So I am not going to argue here that the U.S. is always the Black Hat, or that we are a maniacal imperialist juggernaut, or any of the other standard left castigation of American usages of power. I have done so about specific instances of such usage, such as the disastrous Bush Iraq con job/fiasco. Nearly every American use of military force during my lifetime has been a tragic mistake, in my opinion. But I’m not going to argue–nor do I believe–that the United States is overall or in every instance a force for evil in the world, nor that any use of military might is wrong. I believe such a position to be uninformed and naive.

If I lost you there, you should probably stop reading this now.

However, it is starting to look to me as though there is less and less of a point to such extensions of military power, because they don’t work.

It is remarkable how few wars in recent decades have been “won” by anyone but the home team. During the era of empire, it was routine for European powers–and later, the U.S.–to march into any backwater it pleased, fling about a bunch of bullets and shells, and then run up the flag. Whatever local resistance was proffered never amounted to much to worry about, which had the deleterious effect of encouraging more of this behavior.

Since the second World War, however, that kind of outcome has become increasingly rare. More often, guerrilla insurgencies and indigenous resistance have made “winning” impossible, and holding areas in dispute debilitatingly expensive in both lives and treasure.  If you don’t think things have changed, consider Belgium’s savage and near-instantaneous conquest of the region now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo and compare it to the mess the United States finds itself mired in in Afghanistan.

You can draw a line from Korea through Southeast Asia and into Central America, Afghanistan (twice), Iran and Iraq, and Ukraine, and the common denominator is that militarily superior invaders and proxy armies have simply been unable to hold territory they think they have won. The moment–sometimes within minutes–they turn their backs, that territory is back in the hands of popularly supported insurgencies.

As I see it, there are two major drivers of this. One has been with us forever, but the second is brand-new to the latter half of the 20th, and now the 21st century.

PROXY GAMES. The first is the principle of a proxy war, in which Greater Powers battle using smaller ones as proxy armies. The Korean War was a fine example: the US and its allies were fighting the Chinese in that war, yet we still don’t really talk about it in those terms. Today, Ukraine is shaping up as a fine opportunity for a proxy war, though the fact that it is so close on the doorstep of Russia means Western powers may decline to play.

WEAPONS, WEAPONS EVERYWHERE. This is the more important point, and one I don’t hear anyone else talking about. Empires used to win their colonial wars of conquering because they had better arms and training. That is still, by and large, true, but there is a matter of diminishing returns. If everyone in a country you are trying to invade has an AK-47 and one in every 25 has a rocket-fired grenade launcher, it doesn’t matter how superior your weapons are: you still can’t hold a hostile population that is armed to the teeth. It’s impossible. You would need a 1-to-1 soldier to inhabitant ratio even to attempt it, and you’d have to commit massive civilian slaughter in the process.

Since the second World War, the United States and its allies (like the UK, France, Sweden and Israel) have been the arms merchants to the greater world, and China and the USSR/Russia have done their best to follow suit. World arms trade is staggering in scope, and is the lion’s share of so-called “foreign aid” provided around the world.

The result has been a world awash in weapons. So many, in fact, that even though the “good stuff” is carefully guarded, it simply doesn’t matter. Unless you have the hearts and minds of most of the population of the area you are trying to occupy–in which case, you probably don’t need to be fighting a war in the first place–you cannot possibly hold and stabilize a significant region of the modern world, because pretty much every native population of areas under conflict is thoroughly armed with weapons of enough sophistication and enough deadliness to make it impossible.

Yes, we make lots of money selling death technology. So do our friends, and so do our enemies.

But when it comes to war, the outcome of this tidy business is that we are hoist on our own petard.

At publication, the Dragon was IRONIC

Oct 142014

I’m happy to announce that I have been asked to write a monthly column for the blog Humanistic PaganismMy column will be entitled An Atheopagan Life: Musings and Observances of an Earth-honoring Atheist.

I’ll link new columns here so the Green Dragon crowd is aware of them.

An Atheist’s Prayer

 Posted by at 10:15 am  Atheopaganism
Oct 122014

Pleased to report that my poem An Atheist’s Prayer ran today on the Humanistic Paganism blog:

Praise to the wide spinning world
Unfolding each of all the destined tales compressed
In the moment of your catastrophic birth
Wide to the fluid expanse, blowing outward
Kindling in stars and galaxies, in bright pools
Of Christmas-colored gas; cohering in marbles hot
And cold, ringed, round, gray and red and gold and dun

And blue, pure blue, the eye of a child, spinning in a veil of air,
Warm island, home to us, kind beyond measure: the stones
And trees, the round river flowing sky to deepest chasm,
Salt and sweet.

Praise to Time, enormous and precious,
And we with so little, seeing our world go as it will
Ruing, cheering, the treasured fading, precious arriving,
Fear and wonder,
Fear and wonder always.

Praise O black expanse of mostly nothing
Though you do not hear, you have no ear nor mind to hear
Praise O inevitable, O mysterious, praise

Praise and thanks be a wave
Expanding from this tiny temporary mouth
This tiny dot of world a bubble

A bubble going out forever

Meeting everything as it goes:

All the great and infinitesimal
Gracious and terrible

All the works of blessed Being.

May it be so.

May it be so.

May our hearts sing to say it is so.