- Editor Brian K. Mahoney.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the lever. As we continue our headlong sprint through post-modernity, our technologies emerging and then cycling into obsolescence at an ever faster pace—our old cell phones and VCRs and cassette tapes collecting dust in the attic or covered in the plastic shroud of forever in the landfill—I find comfort in simple machines. The lever is the distilled essence of mechanical advantage: Apply a small amount of force at one end, and if you have a proper fulcrum, force is multiplied by dint of only a rigid object. The Greek philosopher Archimedes figured all this out in the 3rd century BCE, working with the lever, pulley, and screw. (When I dug a garden in the side yard of my house and discovered a 150-pound medicine ball of cement, stones, and rebar that the previous owner buried a foot below the turf, no amount of Googling was going to help me move it. But a six-foot long pry bar did. ) To Archimedes’s list of simple machines, Renaissance scientists added the wheel and axle, inclined plane, and the wedge. Around that same time, Gallileo worked out that these machines do not create energy, only transform it.
This month, somewhat unintentionally, we’ve put together what I’m calling our “Throwback” edition. While we view the notion of Human Progress—the march of technology unconstrained by the larger contexts of ethics and ecology—with a gimlet eye here at Chronogram, it became quite clear while looking over the proofs of the July issue that many of the ideas presented in these pages suggest a return to old ways, a restatement of first principles—transformation rather than creation.
In his interview this month with Carl Frankel, Martin Ping, executive director of the Hawthorne Valley Association, notes a transformative power at work on his daily walk across the farm that instructs him in how to act: cows. Cows take energy from sunlight and rain (via the grass), subtract what they need for nutrition, and then return to the soil what will make it better for future generations of cows.
Ping also tells of a simple machine older than even those articulated by Archimedes, and twice as transformative. “I’ve learned there’s one all-purpose tool you can always reach for: love,” says Ping. “If you can love what you’re doing, love the person you’re with, and love the world you’re a part of, that goes a long way toward overcoming the areas where you may feel deficient.” (“The Way of the Cow,” page 66.)
In Lagrangeville, another transformative power is put to delicious work: bacteria. At Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery, Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette has been making artisanal vinegar since moving to the Hudson Valley 40 years ago, employing a “mother” (an amalgam of bacteria) that he brought from his hometown in France, and following 12th-century recipes. The bacteria are not the only ones laboring away, of course, Brother Victor-Antoine, a Benedictine monk, adheres to the edict of his order: pray and work. For the last few years, Brother Victor-Antoine has been the sole monk at the monastery, and performs almost all the tasks required of monastic life himself. He counsels patience in the practice of making vinegar—“You can’t rush it,” Brother Victor-Antoine says, “when it’s ready, it’s ready”—and I suspect that advice might be put to good use in other areas of our lives as well. (“Labor of Love,” page 70.)
Josh Fox is also a proponent of patience. When he was approached by an energy company to lease the 20 acres surrounding his Pennsylvania home for natural gas drilling through the hydraulic fracturing in 2009, Fox set out to find just what was entailed in this new drilling process. What Fox found—water contamination, environmental degradation, industry deception—is the basis of his documentary, Gasland. The Woodstock Film Festival is sponsoring a screening of the film on July 17 at Onteroa High School. Fox and Rep. Maurice Hichey will lead a question-and-answer session after the showing. I chatted with Fox about what might happen if the energy industry drills for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, part of which runs through the New York City watershed in Ulster County. (“What the Frack?” page 24.)
The old ways—the very old ways—are what maverick Egyptologist John Anthony West has been investigating for the past 40 years. Recently, West traveled to an archeological dig in Turkey, Goebekli Tepe, to research his contention that civilization, as we understand it, is much older than the societies that developed in Egypt and China around 3,000 BCE. Looking backward, West sees societies that valued the development of the soul, something he believes sorely lacking on the contemporary scene, a condition he refers to as “civilized barbarism.” “We have a job to do,” West tells Jason Stern, “and that involves us acquiring a level of consciousness we’re not born with.” (“The Sacred Science of the Ancients,” page 30.)
Of course, as Larry Beinhart reminds us, we forget the even the not-so-old ways all the time as well. Just as the widening spill in the Gulf has triggered a call for cleaner energy from Obama, every president since Richard Nixon has also urged the US to “end our dependence on foreign oil.” And yet we are no closer to energy independence—and the reduction of consumption doesn’t seem to be on the table—than we were in 1970. (“The Paralysis of Sanity,” page 28.)
Which brings me back to the lever. Complex machines run our world, but complex machines can develop complex problems. (See oil rigs, Deepwater Horizon.) I’m not advocating for a return to the 18th century. I like my iPhone and the technology behind the titanium plate that helped knit my arm back together. But the refuge of simplicity, of transformation, has a practical dimension. My garden, which began with a shovel and a lever, is now a five-year-old transformation machine. It converts sunlight, rain, and natural material into food. No gas was extracted or Google search engine was consulted to achieve it—just the old ways at work, the ones that continue to sustain all life.