Rather fuzzy materialism

Helgoland, Carlo Rovelli, Allen Lane.

I have read a few books about quantum physics, and they sort-of make sense at the time, but afterwards, I always feel some key element has slipped my grasp, and I find it hard to explain just how quantum physics works, even to myself. Physicist (and wag) Richard Feynman famously said that that’s natural, as ‘nobody understands quantum physics’, which is usually taken to mean that if it makes sense, we haven’t really grasped how fundamentally counter-intuitive quantum physics is. (And this is part of the fun of reading about quantum physics.)

Carlo Rovelli’s book is about when one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, Werner Heisenberg, needed some quiet time on the remote Atlantic island of Helgoland (sometimes ‘Heligoland’) to think through the bizarre nature of the quantum world just discovered and come up with some calculations that never-the-less made some sense of it.

Actually, the book is not largely about that moment, but that is its jumping off point, and the reason for the book’s (unusual) title. The book is yet another that attempts to explain the weirdness of quantum physics, and, in Rovelli’s particular formulation of the weirdness, how relationships rather than isolated things – and by ‘things’, I mean subatomic particles – sit at the basis of the material world. (In Rovelli’s schema an isolated particle is an oxymoron.)

To illustrate the counter-intuitive way this works, at the start of the book Rovelli describes Heisenberg’s initial calculations, which involved measuring the position and velocity of particles. Famously, in quantum physics one can’t know both of these definitively. Heisenberg’s calculations (as far as I understand it, and past experience indicates I might not) involved replacing numbers with a table of possibilities, which made the maths work, but didn’t seem entirely logical. Rovelli says about Heisenberg’s theory, ‘is that clear? It is not.’ (He says trying to understand the implications of what Heisenberg was working on is ‘an almost psychedelic experience’.)

It is often said that the observer affects calculations in quantum physics (and this turns up as weird results in tests), but it is truer to say that any interactions affect the results – one can’t isolate the particles. This is because the world is a web of interactions at base, not objects. (Rovelli goes into the quantum concepts of entanglement and information, further manifestations of this interconnectedness.)

After writing about Heisenberg, Rovelli goes on to wider issues. He discusses and dismisses the currently fashionable ‘Many Worlds’ (actually almost infinite worlds) theory, which extrapolates from the idea of the uncertainty of pinning down subatomic particles that there must be myriad universes all containing the various possibilities of position of every subatomic particle. (Is that clear? Probably not.) He then tackles, in more speculative fashion, the topic of philosophy of mind, and why bodies (physical things) give rise to minds (non-physical things), suggesting that focusing on the quantum reality of interactions rather than objects helps. He’s a materialist who thinks the world should be explainable by science, and talk of minds should be just another way of talking about the material. There’s an irony, though, in how what he is writing about makes the very notion of the ‘material’ rather fuzzy.

Because he’s a materialist, he’s dismissive of metaphysical questions. (I think his dismissiveness is a deficiency. Assuming a self-generating and self-perpetuating universe plays down profound mysteries.) He thinks that quantum physics should not be used to explain spirituality (and some theologians gleefully co-opt quantum physics to argue for God-given free will or whatever), although he does think quantum physics has affinities with the Buddhist concept of the universe having ‘emptiness’ as its foundation. In line with this, I’d like to think that there are implications in an analogical sense. In theology, traditionally God is defined fundamentally by relationships – to the world, to the persons of the Trinity. (‘God is love.’) And the identity of the biblical Hebrews was about relationships rather than individualism.

Rovelli writes that the notion of basing theories of quantum physics on observation is anti-metaphysical, but this perhaps is a misreading of what the metaphysical is, or an example of philosophically begging the question, and mysteries remain. Quantum physics necessarily takes us to the gates of metaphysics. Quantum physics shows that the unexpected and the paradoxical can’t be ruled out. Metaphysical questions might seem a long way from Helgoland, but then again, maybe not.

Pigs with spirits jumping off cliffs

The Summer Isles, Philip Marsden, Granta.

Hollow Places, Christopher Hadley, William Collins.

The land collects stories. Some of these are history, but as you go further back, history merges with legend. Or perhaps the other way around; legend can be traced back to some now obscure historical moment. We peer through cloudy legend in the hope of seeing something clearer. But what are we looking for?

In The Summer Isles Philip Marsden evocatively describes a trip around the west coast of Ireland and up to the west coast of Scotland (two countries linked not only by geology but also by DNA and culture) by wooden sailboat, navigating by the profuse collection of legends that have accumulated like barnacles on the points of land that he passes, anchors near, alights on. ‘Places are never just places,’ he says. He writes about one man who collected 8000 pieces of Irish lore just from his local region, and of stories of islands (improbably) under the sea, drifting, disappearing, on the back of a fish, of ships sailing in the sky, of places where one doesn’t grow old, where women’s feet don’t touch the ground.

Marsden writes about a cave adapted as a church, built upon an older, pagan shrine, indicative of a wider process. In Ireland Christianity has built on local legends, and although Christianity’s sacredness manifests in love of God and neighbour, rather than sacred power being invested in particular spots of land, as in other religions, in the areas Marsden visits biblical stories metamorphosise into local ones – pigs with spirits jumping off cliffs, improbable meetings with biblical characters. It’s as if the biblical stories have to be grounded locally to make sense.

Marsden doesn’t believe the tales he is told, but he doesn’t quite not believe them either. He says we need imagination to help with our understanding of place and our sense of belonging, and he notes that far-fetched stories often contain hints and kernels of history.

Hollow Places is about one particular location in Herefordshire, also rich in history and lore and with connections between Christianity and older tales, and although the book has a tight geographical focus, it has as wide a vision as that of The Summer Isles. This curious book covers the legend of a dragonslayer buried in a tomb in a church wall, but also explores the way dragons and angels were envisaged and illustrated, how tombs were decorated, the art of stone carving, moat building, archery, yew trees, mapmaking, book decoration and Reformation iconoclasm. It too is about the slow creep of folktales, how they accumulate detail, how symbolism is remembered as fact.

Piers Shonks, a giant, apparently killed a dragon living under a yew tree in a field. Though the story was changed and disputed, it seems the existence of dragons was ‘taken for granted’. Local belief persisted that while illustrations of dragons varied, they related to the ‘last dragon drawn from life’. (Since dragons also occur in Asian myth, questions remain about what prompted this widespread belief.) But could the story of Shonks being a dragonslayer have been prompted and developed simply from the symbols used on his tomb?

Christopher Hadley also has the opinion that the more fantastical stories may hide more down-to-earth political and social origins, just like how, say, the fantastical imagery of the Book of Revelation masks a critique of worldly authority. But in following every thread and unravelling just what this local story might mean, Hadley similarly opines that it would be a lesser world without such stories, and, he says, if doing his job here as a historian – scrutinising the past and figuring out what the facts were – lessens the story’s power, this is ‘not what I intended’. A fact is one thing, but a story is easier to remember and sometimes has a richer ‘wisdom’.

How could an animal be turned to stone?!

Dragons’ Teeth and Thunderstones, Ken McNamara, Reaktion Books.

Dragons’ Teeth and Thunderstones is a book about fossils. But it is an unusual one. There are many books about paleontology – the science of fossil hunting – and there are works about the history of science that outline how, in the eighteenth century and since, fossils pointed to a longer history of the world, and a menagerie of extinct creatures. This book, however, looks at the ways people, way back to prehistoric peoples including the Neanderthals, thought about fossils, and how they used them, before this era, and it is astonishingly revealing.

Unlike modern humans, especially city-dwellers, our early ancestors spent a lot of time amongst rocks, Ken McNamara explains. They would have been familiar with fossils, especially those of sea creatures such as sea urchins, which were widespread and plentiful. Tens of thousands of years ago people used fossils as tools, and there is evidence from stone axes that have fossils embedded in them that they appreciated the form of fossils (and maybe thought they had particular powers). Graves were decorated with fossils. Grave sites in Britain indicate that the spirals and lines of prehistoric art may have been inspired by patterns on fossils (much like the way,  I might suggest, plant forms inspired the Art Nouveau movement). Fossils may have even inspired the shape of megalithic earthworks.

Some fossils were worn as jewelry and may have been identifiers of various tribes. Bronze age women wore necklaces of small, globular fossil sponges. These were used as talismans into the twentieth century.

For centuries in China fossil teeth, thought to be from dragons, were used in traditional medicine. Some of these teeth were sent to pioneering paleontologist Richard Owen, who identified them not as from dragons but as the teeth of extinct Chinese hyenas, rhinos and stegodons (relatives of the elephant). As in medieval Europe, in China there were some odd ideas about the use of fossils, including that the colour of fossils corresponded to various organs in the human body. Taking ground fossil animal teeth would, amongst other things, stop your soul flying off while you slept. In medieval European thinking, shapes were important for classifying together things we would think of as disparate. So, fossil crinoids, with their star shapes, were associated with celestial power.

Some thought coiled ammonites were snakes turned (miraculously) to stone. Others thought this was mad. Fossil resemblances to living creatures must surely be only coincidental – after all, how could an animal be turned to stone?!

Fossil sea urchins were known across Europe as thunderstones. It was thought they fell during thunderstorms. (There is a certain logic to this if you think about a cannon being fired.) In Jutland they were known as Zebedee stones because the disciples James and John, whose father was Zebedee, were known as the Sons of Thunder. Thunderstones were used as talismans against being struck by lightning. In Britain well into the twentieth century, ‘fairies’ loaves’ – small fossil sea urchins that looked like cob loaves – were exhibited in bakery windows to ensure the baker’s trade was not compromised.

In the Middle Ages fossilized sharks’ teeth were thought to be snake tongues, with the power to cure snakebite. A toadstone (a fossil fish tooth) was just the thing for stopping potential enchantment by witches, as well as poisoning. (Elizabeth I had one set in a ring.)

It was not just the Chinese who used ground fossils for medicines. In South America ground fossil turtle shells were thought to calm manic children, presumably, McNamara drolly notes, because of ‘the life habits of the fossils’ terrestrial counterparts’ (tortoises). Sailors took ground sea urchin fossils to cure seasickness. Fossilized sea urchin spines were good for breaking up kidney stones. And lest you scoff, recent studies have suggested that, because of the chemical components of the fossils, this just might work.

Mass plantings

My Garden World, Monty Don, John Murray.

Around the World in 80 Plants, Jonathan Drori, Laurence King.

TV gardener Monty Don says he is not a ‘plantsman’, though there is lots about individual species of plants, as well as animals, in My Garden World, his diary of a year in his garden and farm. It’s not a guidebook, but from the first entry you are learning, even if the book is Brit-centric – that ‘magpie’ is a contraction of ‘Margaret Pie’, that the name ‘robin’ was not used until the twentieth century. In this he is not so much didactic as simply gently enthusiastic. He has that calm satisfaction of the keen gardener.

Don is known for his garden writing (and TV presentation), but he says he loves the wild countryside too, and he is a keen observer of its plants and animals and is careful of what he does in the garden to avoid disturbing its inhabitants. He is happy for some untidiness in the garden, if it helps the likes of hibernating frogs. Paul Bangay he is not. Neither is he a garden snob – he delights in the rare, but also likes the effect of mass plantings of common species such as the snowdrop.

On their own, the entries are like snapshots, but over-all they make a mosaic covering every corner of garden and field. And, he suggests, the act of noticing, in field and garden, helps us encourage and nurture wildlife, ultimately making the world a better place.

Writing last year about Jonathan Drori’s previous book, Around the World in 80 Trees, I suggested there were trees he could’ve included (coconut? Ginkgo?) but didn’t and that perhaps he was working on a follow-up. Sure enough, here is Around the World in 80 Plants, and the brief is a little widened but with the same one- or two-page descriptions, and with intricate, delicate illustrations by Lucille Clerc.

As with 80 Trees, there are again plants he probably wishes he could’ve included (wheat, rice, mint?), and he says that if we are to manage to feed the world’s population we need biodiversity and must look beyond the 80 here. As it is, many of the plants that do make it into the 80 are significant for their use by humans, and some, such as the saffron crocus, now solely rely on propagation by humans to survive. It works both ways.

Unsurprisingly, the book is full of intriguing facts and etymologies. Nettles, which sting but also make good soup, like phosphate and so thrive where there is human waste and remains. Clover, in use as a rotational crop, drove European population increases in the 1750s. The name of the vegetable squash comes from a Native American word (not from their squishy properties). Nicotine takes its name from the Frenchman who introduced tobacco into France.

A surprising amount of the plants here are drugs – medicinal or so-called recreational – kava, cannabis, tobacco, poppies. Mexican yams are used to make asthma-controlling drugs. Mandrake roots, which have been historically associated with witches, contain a psychoactive substance and may be the reason witches were once associated with flying.

Other plants here are toxic, at least to humans, and, as with arums, often warn-off humans with a stench that is otherwise irresistible to insects. Licorice, which seems to attract extremes of affection and disgust, also has levels of toxicity, and if eaten every day for long periods can produce all manner of serious health problems.

Although the book is organized around individual species, Drori writes about connections, not just with humans, but also to each other, different species and to fungi, microorganisms and animals, highlighting the remarkable complexity of the plant world.

Not Jimmy Carter’s type of movie

Reaganland, Rick Perlstein, Simon and Schuster

You want to write about the resurgence of American political conservatism in the 1960s and 70s, that led to Reagan’s ascendancy in the 1980s (especially after, with the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, they said conservatism was dead, and Republicans were written off as dinosaurs). You want to explain how after the bell-bottomed 60s and the wide-lapelled 70s, the (no longer silent) ‘majority’ bounced back.

You write four books – four long books – about Barry Goldwater (on the surface a failure, but conservatism’s foot in the door), Nixon, Reagan, and, er, Reagan. In this latest book you write about Jimmy Carter – and his malaise – and how his popularity plummeted, how his honesty backfired, in fact how his schoolmasterly demeanour simply allowed Reagan to gain ground with his dishonesty veiled in folksy forthrightness and fantasy-fuelled optimism. (Reagan’s disregard for facts rivalled Trump’s, and you note how he always seemed to say things in ways people related to, that he could turn any nasty prejudiced notion into what sounded like common sense.) You take the name of your third book The Invisible Bridge from something Khrushchev said – effectively, that if people make up a problem that doesn’t exist, you don’t tell them it doesn’t exist, you come up with a (fake) solution.

You write as if you were there – as if you H G Wells’d it, as if you hopped in your DeLorean. You don’t just write about what the players said; you scan the newspapers, including the cartoons, you write about what was on TV, what books people were reading, what was topping the charts. You note that Hollywood was making dark, apocalyptic films. Then you remind us that those supposed classics – Rocky, Star Wars – were about dumbing things down into good and evil. Lucas called Star Wars a ‘Disney’ movie. It wasn’t Jimmy Carter’s type of movie, you say. Carter could see the complications, the nuances, the difficulties. He was a fan of Reinhold Niebuhr, who saw ethical issues, especially in global politics as complicated. That was Carter’s undoing, you suggest.

Reagan, on the other hand, could turn anything into a simple issue of cowboys and Indians. His genius too was in dumbing things down. To Carter, the world wasn’t always black and white. To Reagan, it was, and furthermore he saw that stories had more power than facts. And while Carter said that sacrifice was needed – a good Christian notion from someone who took his faith seriously – Reagan promised a bright future, which sounded ‘pretty darned good’ after Carter, especially when Carter and his eggheads couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the economy. And Reagan delivered – for the already rich. You note the irony in Carter, the supposed liberal, seeming starched and, well, conservative. Reagan, the conservative, seemed sensible, easy-going.

You write about conferences and conventions as if you were commentating a football match. Or like a Franzen novel. You have an eye for the absurd, you have a sense of humour. You note how serious it all is, but also how mad the people are, how corny, hysterical, unfounded the rhetoric. Even if we might agree with your wife that you go on a bit. (Your proof-reader seems to glaze over at times, but you don’t deserve this.) Do you read Garry Wills? Of course you do, you have a twinkle in the eye, like Wills. (His book on Nixon is a classic. Yours are too.) You love the silly details that make a panorama. Or a circus.

You say the media never noticed at the time, but you notice. You find the hidden history, of angry housewives, of Nixon’s silent majority. You contrast the prominence in the media of women’s rights rallies with the (little noted at the time) anti-abortion rallies. The media wondered where the heck it came from, but you notice what Phyllis Schafly does, that politics is an iceberg. You note that judges are paid to attend luxury events where they are indoctrinated in conservative economics. You note the grassroots campaigns that spread like mycorrhizal fungi. (Or grassroots, I guess.)

You note that Reagan was once a liberal, saying big business was the problem, but then big business got a hold of him, and he said government was the problem. You write at the end of Nixonland that Americans still live in Nixonland, and I guess they still live in Reaganland too, where they are both proud of and suspicious of America and Americans.

Climb the rock

Return to Uluru, Mark McKenna, Black Inc.

Mark McKenna’s new book Return to Uluru is an example of truth-telling regarding the particulars of our history. The book, besides being a surprisingly handsome hardcover edition, draws you in by starting with an overview of the continent, talking about the vast, almost waterless centre that so bedevilled European explorers (but which, McKenna notes, some explorers arrogantly thought they could claim in a James Cook-like act of flag-planting), then concentrates on one (forgotten) instance of white crime against Aboriginal people. (In this way it’s a little bit like Ted Strehlow’s Journey to Horseshoe Bend in that it mixes observations of beautiful countryside and Aboriginal legend with remembering a tragic death.)

In the 1930s Bill McKinnon, remembered in white society as a pioneering, no-nonsense bush policeman and ‘protector’ of Aborigines in Alice Springs, shot and killed an unarmed Aboriginal murder suspect in one of the caves at Uluru. At the subsequent trial, there were issues raised over McKinnon’s violent treatment of prisoners and an enquiry was called by Canberra, though McKinnon was let off. While McKenna tells this true-crime story he raises wider issues – the level of understanding (or not) of British and Australian law by Aboriginal people, the disparity between the harsh treatment of Aboriginal people and the leniency or even immunity given to whites, the imposition of an outsider, white cultural and legal view on the country’s original inhabitants, the cover-up and historical amnesia, or simply indifference, and the way white settlers have claimed the countryside, including sites such as Uluru, as if it had been virgin territory.

McKenna writes about the ‘closing’ of Uluru – the recent restriction on climbers, in the light of the inequalities in central Australia, and without analysing it much, he manages to show what the rush to climb the rock before people weren’t allowed to says about lingering attitudes to Aboriginal land ownership, about an irreverence, almost a nastiness, on the part of some of us who remain sceptical about issues that concern Aboriginal people – the darker side of a national reluctance to think about deeper things, and a recurring sense that the land must be claimed in some physical way for it to mean something, that it must be not just appreciated but conquered, scaled, by hiking boot or four-wheel drive.

The issues McKenna raises are difficult. Reputations are injured, Australian mythology is questioned. But the book’s story is also an example of how the past can be revisited, the truth patiently drawn-out and reconciliation begun.

Compensation in an afterlife

Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, Bart Ehrman, Oneworld.

In the 1980s Australian pop band Eurogliders had a hit with their song ‘Heaven’ – ‘heaven… must be there.’ Although more worldly in focus, the song expressed the hopeful sentiment that living in a place beset by troubles ‘must’ be balanced by a future place of comfort and security. In his history of the afterlife (primarily in Judaism and Christianity), Bart Ehrman suggests the idea of life after death develops in scripture, and that a desire for justice or recompense for trouble often informs attitudes to the afterlife, even if some ideas about the afterlife accepted widely in Christianity simply aren’t found in scripture.

In the USA, Ehrman informs us, 72% of people believe in heaven, and 58% in hell (variations on this statistic can be found elsewhere), suggesting that the idea of an afterlife retains a hold on Americans, but I also think the difference shows the idea of hell, and of fire and brimstone, is somewhat out of fashion, and that even the nonreligious think of the afterlife as reward but not punishment. Even an orthodox theologian such as David Bentley Hart has written about how an eternal hell just doesn’t fit with a loving God and teachings of grace. Yet, says Hart, it is an issue for which he has received much criticism. Many Christians, it seems, (over half) are fiercely certain that the wicked should be punished. (And in centuries gone, it was as much a fear of hell, as the promise of heaven, that kept churchgoers in their pews.)

Ehrman, a former evangelical scholar now trending firmly towards skepticism, says Jesus’ view was that there is an afterlife of sorts, but that the wicked would be annihilated, and reading an eternal hell into Jesus’ talk of Gehenna is a misunderstanding. (Hart says the same.) Similarly, Ehrman says when Jesus speaks of ‘darkness’ we should read this as unenlightenment, a figuratively destructive situation. (This does, though, create some problems with how to interpret the story of Lazarus and the rich man.) The Dantean picture of hell is just not there in the Bible. (Unsurprisingly, Ehrman reads the Book of Revelation as ‘obviously’ a commentary on contemporary Rome, in code, rather than a prophecy about the End of Days. Many Americans don’t agree on that.)

The early Old Testament view of the afterlife is probably that all were simply annihilated, that death was the end, or, as the Greeks thought, that the soul – a pale imitation of a person (not their true self) – floated down to a shady underworld. Then again, ‘Sheol’ may have been, Ehrman says, just a metaphorical way of talking of the finality of death (or perhaps of the uncertainty of knowing).

Some Old Testament writers hint at death being final, but then, as in the odd story of Saul consulting an occultist, there is contact with the dead, a variation on simply belief in an afterlife. Later Judaism became ‘muddier’, with emphasis on resurrection of the body, especially in apocalyptic literature (including some non-canonical books, which Ehrman explores). Famously, the Pharisees believed in resurrection, the Sadducees didn’t, being more aligned with worldly power and in no need of compensation in an afterlife (a recurring theme).

There is a certain logic in resurrection of the body (rather than transmigration of the soul), which, incidentally, is part of the creeds, even if some Christians think that after you die, your soul goes up to heaven. The church fathers seemed to dismiss this vague idea of souls floating off, but the high-minded Greeks scoffed at resurrection of the (impure) body, something Paul combatted in his letters, where he argued emphatically for resurrection, though of a transformed and perfected body. In the era of the early church there was all manner of speculation on what resurrection would involve, including one bizarre riddle about cannibalism. (Paul, you may recall, dismissed such silly speculation.) At least one church father found it all too hard and reverted to the Greek version.

Resurrection of the body fits with a modern idea that identity is tied to the body. It also fits with theodicy – that at some point God will correct injustices in what Jesus termed the Kingdom of God, the exalting of the humble and the humbling of the mighty, and the world restored. Somewhere this developed into the idea of eternal bliss or punishment, which is not quite what Jesus argued. Ehrman is also of the opinion that Jesus was more worldly-focused, that he equated spiritual badness with the selfishness of the rich and powerful and that the Gospel writers turned Jesus’ teaching about following his example into a faith purely centred on the rewards of the afterlife.

What is intriguing about Jesus is that, as Paul and the early church recognized, and the church has generally taught, he seemed to think the division was less about life and death, but instead thought the transition point centred on his ministry, where death and the darkness of the world were already defeated, the world transformed, and the poor and forgotten resurrected, reborn, something replayed in the early church’s emphasis on being filled with the Spirit and transformed, in order to follow Jesus’ example. So, for these followers of Jesus, the afterlife had already begun.

Bit of bad weather

Tornado God, Peter Thuesen, Oxford University Press.

Tornadoes have the fastest winds on Earth, and while hurricanes/cyclones have wider impact, tornadoes are the most destructive. They are formed when cold and hot air mixes in a deadly waltz and although they occur worldwide, the US has the most, and the fiercest, due to its geography. The deadliest was in 1925 – over 700 people – but in 2011 there were over 500 deaths. While forecasting has improved, tornadoes’ destructive power is exacerbated by their individual unpredictability, and population increases put more people in harm’s way.

Tornado Alley, in the middle of America’s Great Plains, is tornadoes’ ballroom, and it happens to be the place where Christian belief is also particularly prevalent, a combination that means there has been a lot of theological speculation over the years on the phenomena, something explored in Peter Thuesen’s book, which is as much theology as meteorology.

Tornadoes, as with other natural disasters, are a particular challenge for the idea of providence, that God intends things to work out for the best, or even that God provides disproportionately for the faithful (a contradiction to Matthew 5:45 – God ‘sends rain on the just and the unjust’). Since the European settlement of America, tornadoes have been a spectacular provocation for asking why one person is killed, or their house destroyed, while another is spared. Why does God permit, or even intend this to happen? (Thuesen tends to play up the exceptionalism of Americans dealing with this issue, but bushfires or floods may prompt the same question for Australians.)

The English colonists, says Thuesen, used the weather to describe God, echoing Old Testament language, where God is in the whirlwind, but they also saw God’s hand in the weather, reading into natural disasters God’s intention, and especially God’s concern for the faithful when they survived them. Whereas these days we might question God when natural disasters happen, or dismiss entirely the notion of a providential God as old-fashioned nonsense, New Englanders were likely to flock to churches after storms, fearful that God was punishing them and calling them to repentance. One minister, preaching on the Lisbon earthquake, which the likes of Voltaire thought proved there was no God, said that it was a sure sign of God’s punishment of those idol-worshipping Catholics. But there were also those who questioned this theology, especially when the faithful conveniently saw storms as a test of faith for themselves but punishment for their neighbours.

The historian of folk beliefs Keith Thomas wrote that once providence gets a hold intellectually, it is all-powerful and hard to dislodge (like, I presume, the ideas of American exceptionalism or that the US election was rigged). The arguments of the Enlightenment philosophers didn’t really shake (in the US) the idea of God being behind tornadoes and destructive storms, but there were arguments over how much people could read into the weather. One clergyman said that if every bit of bad weather was a sign from God then God must be worryingly chaotic in his ways. Randomness in nature is just part of God’s plan. Others thought this argument was on the slippery slope to the disengaged ‘Watchmaker God’ of Enlightenment deists.

In the early twentieth century there were debates about whether prayer can change the weather. Some said, of course, some, of course not. (And yet our churches continue to ring with prayers for rain, etc.) Thuesen notes that this was a change from the certainty of the colonial era, where praying for storms against the enemy was commonplace.

In these debates, many have returned to the Book of Job, and to its ‘non-answer’ to the question of why bad things happen. But today many evangelicals (many of whom live in Tornado Alley) persist in seeing disasters as signs from God, and Calvinist theologians tend to be strong on providence, and baulk at mention of a chance-filled universe. However, the random path of a tornado is not easily explained theologically, and trying to see some purpose behind the death of a child, say, can compound grief. Yet Thuesen writes of one example of a father driven to, rather than away from, faith because of the inexplicable death of a child.

Thuesen suggests that chaos theory upsets providential theology but that unpredictability also upsets the progressive notion that science can explain all. There are too many variables in tornado prediction to be able to confidently predict their paths. This doesn’t make them automatically a supernatural phenomenon, but some humility is helpful, and in the end, uncertainty might be good for faith. Many tornado watchers speak of tornadoes in terms of inspiring awe, and there are parallels with religious awe, in being humbled before something unpredictable and more powerful than ourselves.

Legal tradition regarding land

Truth-telling, Henry Reynolds, Newsouth.

Recently we had our annual debate over Australia Day, which in some ways is a debate about whether we recognize the uncomfortable truth of our past or persist in celebrating the myth of a non-violent European settlement. The philosopher Plato said that nations are built on myth, in order to hide the violence that often accompanies nation-building, so Australia’s mythologising is nothing out of the ordinary. At the same time, we recognise the need to tell the truth, and just in the past week we have had some movement from state governments towards ‘truth-telling’, so it is timely that Henry Reynolds’ new book is on this topic. Reynolds, the so-called black armband historian, in his latest book, looks again at this uncomfortable history, and in particular at the (controversial for some) 2017 Uluru statement and its contention that Aboriginal (First Nations) people owned the land and never gave up that ownership. He asks whether this is true, in the light of British legal history, and wonders then about the implications for how we think of ourselves as Australians.

After travelling up the east coast of Australia, James Cook, under orders, claimed half the continent for Britain, but the act of stepping onto an isolated beach and claiming to own thousands of square kilometres from that point on was as dubious legally then as it seems today, because British law stated that land must be unoccupied by others and possessed by the claimants (neither of which was the case, obviously). (There is evidence that later Cook himself had doubts of the legitimacy of such colonial endeavours). Reynolds suggests Cook and his crew conveniently decided the continent was more-or-less uninhabited, which created a problem when Arthur Phillip arrived and found that this was decidedly not so. Phillip and his colleagues also recognized that Aboriginal people around Sydney were not nomadic, but resisted encroachments on their land, though Phillip later claimed half the continent anyway.

Curiously, in claiming the continent for Britain, the British made Aboriginal people, theoretically, British citizens, but as frontier clashes escalated, settlers and government alike spoke in terms of war, as if Aboriginal people were foreigners. Phillip decided ‘war’ was an option because he recognized that Aboriginal people could not compete with British military might. Otherwise, previously, he had been careful to talk of co-habitation. By the mid-1800s British authorities, spurred into action by appalled humanitarians and clergy, returned to talking of Aboriginal people being citizens and requiring protection, but they could do little about it. Many Australian settlers were keen to be rid of Aboriginal people, and the fluctuating legal status of Aborigines was just a convenience. In the case of Queensland in particular, in order to ‘solve’ the problem of frontier violence notorious native police simply shot Aboriginal men, women and children and burned their bodies. (Compare this with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comment that ‘some mistakes’ were made.)

In the 1970s the High Court argued, somewhat understandably, that they could hardly recognize Aboriginal sovereignty if that eroded the basis of their own authority to rule on the status of the land. But in the Mabo decision the court finally recognized that the Mabo family owned the land they had cultivated for generations, restating, not subverting, the long-held British legal tradition regarding land, and that Aboriginal people occupied the land, and so owned it.

The question, and the point of all this, of course, is, why is this version of Australian history so untold and controversial? The answer, of course, is that it is troubling and embarrassing for our (white) leaders, especially when we pride ourselves on our fair and easy-going ways. But the past, and whether the story is rightly told, is important to the identity of those in the present. Reynolds writes that at Anzac Day we say, ‘Lest we forget’, and it is equally important – perhaps more so – to remember how the country was taken. The Frontier Wars were as important as the wars fought overseas, and recognition is the first step to reconciliation.

Concreted wastelands

Killing Sydney, Elizabeth Farrelly, Picador.

English Pastoral, James Rebanks, Allen Lane/Penguin.

These two books may be about two very different locations – Sydney city and a Lake District farm – but they are similar in their concern over the modernization process and how that has impoverished our lives and the places we live and work in.

Killing Sydney, from architect, columnist and former city councilor Elizabeth Farrelly, is an angry book but it is anger born from seeing the destruction of the Sydney she and many of us love. Part of Sydney’s charm is its patina, its layered history and trees and sandstone, its surprises and eclecticism. Farrelly lived in (inner city) Redfern, from where she could see the Centrepoint tower at the end of her street, in the ‘heart of things’, but this heart is increasingly expensive, competitive and compromised by uninspired development. Redfern, which is not alone, is being turned from a haven for Aboriginal people into a suburb of bland high-rise.

Farrelly describes terraces replaced by soulless apartment buildings or taken over by the ‘barrister classes’, the poor being turfed out of the inner city, public parks ‘activated’ by being built over, heritage listings ignored by councils and a (conservative) NSW government hell-bent on selling off public assets to developers, usually with the excuse that more housing is needed but, says Farrelly, really just for developer profit.

The public gets cronyism, concreted wastelands, destruction of century-old trees and heritage buildings for no good reason, not to mention an old-fashioned focus on roads rather than public transport that, she says, threatens to turn Sydney into – God help us – Canberra (a city she suggests is designed for cars, not people). And this is not just inner Sydney – Parramatta is an epicentre of developer philistinism.

Farrelly gets quite philosophical at times, even suggesting that city design can have feminine elements – inviting, surprising, nurturing – but that many cities suffer from an excess of macho bravado – all surface and competition (Sydney’s new casino being a prime example). She overstates the self-centredness of the suburbs. They can be places of community-building too, with sports clubs, churches and the like. And she overstates at times the communal aspects of parks and cinemas – I think it’s a stretch to say going to see a movie fosters community spirit. But she is rightly concerned that a focus on homes as self-sufficient fortresses doesn’t help, and Sydney planning and NSW government decisions disastrously echo, perhaps unsurprisingly, the dominant neoliberal ideology that says selfishness (rather than community) is the driving force of society.

Both books reference Jane Jacobs, the American critic of twentieth century city planning, who argued for, among other things, variety in helping make cities livable. James Rebanks, author of the best-selling The Shepherd’s Life, argues in English Pastoral that this equally applies to farming, and he spruiks a return to a more traditional, rotational style of farming. Farrelly makes the point that the city is unnatural but that it can interact with nature in good and bad ways; Rebanks similarly argues that farming will always involve modification, and he is not against innovation, but he likewise thinks deeper about the long-term and the healthier. This has added weight because Rebanks is a farmer who writes, not just a writer who writes on farming.

If Canberra is Farrelly’s example of getting it wrong, the American Midwest is Rebanks’ – he laments the industrial scale, the monocropping, the reliance on fossil fuel and chemicals, the loss of tradition and wildlife, the money pouring into the pockets of corporations. He describes growing up on his family farm with the looming threat of American-style farming, how his grandfather disdained the ‘modern’, how his father tired to keep up with their modernizing neighbours and how the industrialization and monoculture wrecked the soil and pride of farmers, not to mention the wildlife that contribute to the health of the land. An evocative illustration of this is his remembering that when he was a child, flocks of birds would follow the plough; by the time he inherited the farm, the birds were gone and the soil was lifeless. With a renewed sensitivity to what the land needs, his farm now is not the most profitable, but it is healthy.

Farrelly mentions how Tony Abbott once lectured a group of businesspeople that a Christian’s job is to ‘subdue’ the earth (read: let development rip) and how megachurch prosperity theology encourages greed, but it would be a shame if this bad theology was the last word. Rebanks quotes Leviticus’ requirement that part of the harvest should be shared with the vulnerable, and he takes that to mean wildlife and future generations as well, a nicely holistic and caring take. And Farrelly, in offering a way forward for revitalizing urban communities, speaks in terms no less than those of Christian love – concern for others, living humbly. Christian values probably don’t come up that often in urban planning sessions, but our cities and countryside can be more community-oriented places if we challenge the modern selfish paradigm and are more attuned to communal gain, preservation and a long-term outlook.