Christmas and Grand Canyon—It’s All About Time

GC Meteor

Thanks to Jane Berg for sharing the Grand Canyon NP Fb “Timeline” link. The image of the meteor over Grand Canyon conjured up the image of “The Star of Bethlehem.”  Pre-scientific elders, astrologers and shamans viewed cosmic events like these as omens or cryptic messages from The Great Spirit. Many people today are far too sophisticated to believe this, but I am not convinced that the ancients were wrong. After all, every branch of science begins with an unfathomable mystery. It is as if we have entered a theater which has been playing a movie for 15 billion years. We have no idea of how, when, where or why it started and no clue where we are going. We do know that we are an insignificantly (?) teeny speck of matter floating in an incomprehensibly vast universe.   Little wonder there is a chronic feud between “pure scientists” and theologians. Thankfully, we have guides like Newton, Galileo, Einstein, Muir, Thoreau and Eiseley who can see the wisdom and beauty of the yin-yang relationship. 

Astronomers are adept at juggling boggling numbers of stars, planets, galaxies, light years, novae and black holes. Even so, none of them can wrap his/her limited mind around terms like infinity and eternity.

One of my favorite quotes is, “words have no meaning,” which simply means that they only have the meaning two people agree to give them. Scientists are prone to chide religious folks for believing in myths and unproven assumptions, however, when asked to define infinity and eternity, they must defer to equally inadequate, unproven mythologies and assumptions. They glibly agree that the universe began from “nothing” in an event called “The big Bang.” If this is so, however, perhaps infinity and eternity are not “givens” and we may undergo a “Big Gnab” event (Big Bang in reverse) and the universe will suddenly disappear.  

The story of the “Star of Bethlehem” was recorded by astrologers from several diverse cultures. There are several theories as to its cosmic origin, however, what is not debatable is that “something” extraordinary happened.

As far as we know, man is the only animal who can comprehend time (or at least he thinks so). Any parent of a 5-year-old child knows the difficulty of communicating how long a week is before a birthday or Christmas. Most adults are not much better off. I am in awe of scientists who can juggle billions of years of geologic time with terms like epoch, era and eon. This difficulty can be greatly magnified at the Grand Canyon. While most tourists are properly impressed with the grandeur and geologic history, no small number leave utterly bewildered by both. This feeling can actually be amplified by walking along the canyon bottom. Most of us need an alternate “time stick” to go by. Analogues can be helpful.

If we compress the 1.8 billion-year-history of the rocks at the bottom into one calendar year:

Each day would equal 5,000,000 years.

Each hour would equal 225, 000 years.

Each minute would equal 3,000 years.

Each second would equal 60 years.

 This means that Jesus would be born on Dec. 31, at 11:59:20 PM.

Most people living today would be born at, 11:59:59 PM.

 In the US, we are living in a time of unprecedented intellectual freedom. We are free to express our opinion on any subject, however, it is not our prerogative to rewrite history to accommodate our limited mental capacity. Maya Angelou warned us that generally, Americans think that they are liberated thinkers, but often they are not. One of Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite lines was, “Let freedom ring!” He was referring to spiritual, quite as much as sociological, freedom.

People are free to draw their own conclusions about the importance of the Biblical accounts that led up to the Christmas celebration, however, it is philosophically irresponsible  to ignore New Testament authors thus obfuscating the truth that their writings have had a profound  effect on the evolution of western civilization.

St. Paul described love as the greatest human quality. Psychologist Erich Fromm agreed and added that without love, the human experience makes no sense.

Like all human rituals and ceremonies, Christmas has pluses and minuses, however, the pure essence of the holiday is unconditional love and “peace on Earth, good will toward men.”


Merry Christmas

Winter Solstice and Christmas

Milky Way Scientists





Image: Milky Way scientists—Dulce Hidgar, Rebekah Riley, Emmanuel Rodriquez, Jose Miguel Rodriquez Ortiz and Deborah Baker.

“We are now in a position to see the wonder and terror of the human predicament.”

                                    The Immense Journey, Loren Eiseley

Today, 12-12-13, marks the winter solstice for us. Although the official solstice isn’t until Dec. 21, tomorrow evening the sun will set one minute later for us in the Napa Valley.  For over 100,000 years “modern” man has been watching the sun, moon and stars for physical, mental and spiritual guidance. Many cultures were polytheistic and designated gods and goddesses for many purposes. Many decided that it was important to offer various gifts to these gods.

It is possible that the most important factors leading to the greatness of the United States are rooted in biology. The dual phenomena of biological diversity and hybrid vigor have contributed to a highly successful blend of genes. Adding diverse cultural, ethnic, religious and language elements has created a nation unlike any other on the planet.

I suspect that no other American holiday represents such a broad mélange of blended rituals, beliefs and customs. For many Latin and European immigrants, Christmas Day is still a holy day and gifts are exchanged on “Epiphany,” the day that commemorates the arrival of the Three Kings. Others put up evergreen trees with lights that symbolize the hope of surviving a cold winter season, burn a Yule log on Christmas Eve and wait for Santa Claus. Exchanging gifts, roasting chestnuts, building gingerbread houses, sipping eggnog, decking the halls and singing carols may be part of each family’s tradition. All in all, the holiday can be a multifaceted blend of religious, secular, and mythological components that have evolved throughout 2013 years. One of the most unusual, perhaps bizarre customs, involves kissing under a sprig of mistletoe.

Most of us are living in the very comfortable “now” and neither willing nor likely to consider our animal origins and the evolution of the latest manifestation of Christmas. One noteworthy example is a Druid tradition that involved mistletoe. The idea of beauty pageants did not begin with the “Miss America” contest. Many cultures had various versions of harvest festivals as did the Druids. It was common to make some kind of offering to the gods/goddesses of the harvest as an act of thanksgiving. In one version of the Druid celebration, the most beautiful virgin female was selected as the offering. She stood under a sprig of mistletoe growing on an oak tree. All the men lined up and gave her a kiss before she was wrapped in linen and placed on a fire as an offering to the god of harvest.

While some people have marginalized the importance of the Ten Commandments, it is inconceivable to imagine living in a world before they became widely accepted guidelines.


 Little wonder we can joyfully say, Merry Christmas.

A Christmas Card From Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela





Each new year, the first paper assigned to Biodesign students was simply titled, “Who am I.?”  I stated, “In order to know the difference between you and me, I need to know a lot about you and a lot about me.” The only guidelines offered were to be as honest and sincere as possible. One of my female students beautifully and profoundly answered the question and included a Nelson Mandela essay as a model for what she hoped to become.

John Muir was treated cruelly by his fanatical, Scottish Presbyterian father. Daniel Muir must have believed, “spare the rod and spoil the child,” and, “pride goeth before a fall.” Miraculously, Yosemite healed John’s emotional scars and greatly contributed to his ascendancy of becoming a beacon of light to guide millions of pilgrims on a spiritual quest.

Nelson Mandela had his own hell to survive. He was condemned to 27 years in prison for courageously confronting the cruelty of racial injustice. Out of this crucible, however, he too became a beacon of light and wrote one of the most brilliant essays on human spirituality.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking

so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.

It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,

we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,

our presence automatically liberates others.”

Nelson Mandela and the “God particle.”

Nelson Mandela





Where the Higgs — or 'God particle' — was found –

Excerpt: The Star Thrower, Loren Eiseley

“There were just two men under a lamp, and around them a great waiting silence. Out to the ends of the universe, I thought fleetingly, that’s the way with man and his lamps. One has to huddle in, there’s so little light and so much space.”

Last year scientists, at the CERN supercollider in Switzerland, announced the discovery of the “God Particle.” The world mostly welcomed the news with a yawn. The San Francisco Chronicle buried the article on the 4th page. CNN did justice to the discovery:


“Adding to the mystique for the public — but to the horror of scientists — the Higgs boson took on the nickname “God particle” because of an eponymous book title (the author, physicist Leon Lederman, wrote that “Goddamn Particle” might have been more appropriate, but the publisher wouldn’t allow it).

South Africa is hosting a public memorial service for Nelson Mandela today. Four American presidents, hundreds of world dignitaries and hundreds of thousands of black and white South Africans will gather to celebrate his life. WOW!

 Henry Thoreau felt that the only hope for the world was for everyone to have a “born again experience” in nature. John Muir agreed and while I agree with them, not everyone is destined to have a wilderness experience. I would suggest that the only hope for the world lies in leaders like Nelson Mandela. After an injury, John Muir quipped, “Sometimes God has to nearly kill us to get us headed in the right direction.” Mandela would probably agree. When he was in prison he realized that unless he changed his attitude, he could not expect others to change theirs. He also wrote:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew

if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Einstein wrote:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Although I never harbored any delusions of grandeur, I did encounter some somewhat violent opposition from people who thought that my attempt to encourage young minds to explore their own sense of spirituality was evil.

During my little, but fearful, battles, it was comforting to know that courageous men like Mandela were facing similar battles on a global scale.

My wife and close friends know that I struggled for months with whether to include chapters 28 and 29 in BOFAW. I knew that they would likely be misunderstood and I did not want them to detract from the 29 other chapters. In the end, even friends who are agnostic were adamant that the chapters be included.

While reflecting on Mandela’s life, even though I suspected that including those chapters would mean that the book will be banned from all public schools, I am at peace that I made the right decision.

Thank you Mr.Mandela. Your thoughts and deeds have inspired and encouraged millions of people and made the world a better place.

Mandela—Dickens—St. Paul—Albert Einstein & Christmas






Excerpt: BOFAW, Chap. 9, Gratefulness.

“A hundred times every day I remind myself that my

inner and outer life depend on the labors of other

men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in

order to give in the same measure as I have received

and am still receiving.”     Albert Einstein

It has been written that heroes carry torches to light a pathway for others; saints are living torches that blaze trails for others to follow.

Nelson Mandela’s body died last week, but his spirit will shine throughout the world until the end of humanity. I quickly added him to my book of saints. By dying he has joined an elite pantheon which includes Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa and Dr. Martin Luther King who dedicated their lives trying to emulate Jesus Christ. Although, in our increasingly secularized society, it is becoming less and less important to celebrate the lives of saints, the Advent Season encourages people of all walks of life to do just that. Saint Paul deserves some consideration. He is credited with writing over one half of the New Testament. The Bible is regarded by many scholars, authors, poets, sociologists, and anthropologists as the world’s greatest book. Charles Dickens agreed with this assessment and added that it is the greatest book that will ever be written. Annual sales exceed 100 million copies. A study done in 2008 estimated that over 4 billion copies have been published in thousands of languages. If this is so, is not even arguable that St. Paul is the greatest author who has lived on Earth.

While I strongly support the US Constitutional law of separation of church and state, I find it ironic that, in a nation whose laws are based on the Ten Commandments, that the Bible has been banned in nearly all public schools. It is sobering to recall that when the USSR was at its peak of power, a primary goal of the KGB was to seek out and destroy all Bibles. People were so desperate to get a copy that they would pay a month’s salary for a tattered copy of the banned book.

Paul’s famous passage describing love, in a letter to the Corinthians, is probably the most widely used passage in weddings around the world. The passage summarizes all of his writing by suggesting that the three greatest spiritual gifts are faith, hope and love, with love being the greatest.

Although the physical, mental and spiritual evolution of man seems to have taken a circuitous, even convoluted path, it is sobering to wonder where we would be without the guidance of the saints.

I have hundreds of major and minor saints in my “Book of Saints,” a few of them are Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Newton, Galileo, Mendel, Wallace, Darwin, Einstein, George Washington Carver, Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, Eiseley, Lincoln, Dr. King, and most recently Nelson Mandela. All of these men were men of great faith whose visions greatly exceeded their own egos as they generated light in an often darkened world.

Sadly, in a terrible twist of irony, wars often provide the opportunity for heroes and saints to rise to great heights while overcoming evil. And, while many may become super-heroes, the acts of “the little people” are important also.

Many years ago I read an account of scores of such nameless little people. The German army was marching through France on their way to conquer Paris. The clergy in charge of the world-famous cathedral of Notre Dame were deeply concerned about the probability of being bombed by Nazi airplanes. They quickly organized a team of workers who built scaffolding up to the Great Rose window. The window is considered one of the world’s finest examples of stained glass. Workers painstakingly removed each piece and applied a label and number. All of the pieces were buried in a 30 foot deep hole. After the war ended each piece was unearthed and returned to its proper place. I doubt that anyone of the names of the workers is remembered, however, they all contributed to a work of art that has inspired millions of people for nearly 70 years.


The opening quote from Albert Einstein is an excellent description of the purpose of the Advent Season. Combining it with St. Paul’s challenge to extend our appreciation and practice of faith, hope and love, just might be what Christmas is really all about.

Merry Christmas. LY


Excerpt: BOFAW, Chap. 19, Carnival.


carnival, n: an organized program of entertainment.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Although, for some people, Christmas is a Holy event, for most it includes some aspect of the spirit of “carnival.”

I have a friend who is an avowed atheist. He regards believers as religious nutcases, but that does not interfere with our friendship. Recently we were spiritually sparring and he laughed and said, “Our problem as atheists is that we have no ‘architecture’ that is inspiring.” We both enjoyed a hearty laugh. [“Theology should be fun!” (Robert Capon)] I didn’t think to ask him if atheists also lacked music that inspired them. While I find the tinny Christmas tunes, blaring out at malls and stores often before Thanksgiving, irritating, there is a plethora of beautiful music available. Handel’s “Messiah” might be on one end of the spectrum and “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas” on the other. The last count I saw showed that over 1400 different Christmas albums, ranging from sacred to secular to silly, are available from a wide range of groups and soloists. Although I suspect that most modern naturalists find shopping malls abhorrent, most would not be above appreciating the “carnival” event staged by the American Festival Chorus.

Thanks to Kristal Leonard Photography for the beautiful photo.

Yosemite chapel








 Although many Christians celebrate “Epiphany” on Jan.6th people can and do experience epiphanies any time of year. They are related to “eureka” and “a-ha” moments of revelation. They can be small and playful or an overwhelming explosion of physical, mental and spiritual synergism. For many mysterious reasons, John Muir and Moses etal knew that they are more common on mountain tops. Henry Thoreau regarded “sauntering” as nothing less than a walk to “The Holy Land,” which is the emotion Jennifer Schooley shared with me.  John Muir stood at that very spot in Yosemite Valley and called it a “cathedral;” it is little wonder Jennifer was “driven to her knees.” However, her revelation is as powerful as her precious photo.  

Thanks Jennifer for the early Epiphany gift. LY

Christmas—Scrooge—Scientists—The Grinch







 Contrary to what some uppity, even proprietary Christians may proclaim, the ritual of giving gifts did not begin 2013 years ago in Bethlehem. The essence, which is steeped in human spirituality, began to emerge out of the darkness of purely instinctive behavior about 100,000 years ago. It is intriguing to wonder who the first “caveman” or “cave woman” was who crafted something out of wood or stone, or perhaps found a rare gemstone, and offered it to a “loved one” as a gift. The practice has improved as human culture and creativity have improved, but the urge to share gifts is as ancient and universal as a motherly love. Paraphrasing John Woolman; “It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion, nor excluded from any.”

It is because of the universality of giving that all of humanity can celebrate the essence, if not the religious aspect, of Christmas. I have Jewish, Buddhist and Native American friends who exchange gifts at Christmastime. There are many non-believers and agnostics who experience the joy of giving and receiving gifts.

On the other hand, there are few stories, like the 2,000 mile round-trip that three “astrologers” took to offer their most precious gifts to the Christ-child, that help illuminate spirituality.  Or who could read Charles Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol” and conclude that Ebenezer Scrooge, not Tiny Tim, was the hero of the story. Using his signature tool of irony in, “Gift of the Magi,” O.Henry poignantly tells the story of the deep love that a young married couple shared at Christmas.

In all of stories, the gifts were merely symbols of a deeper human calling.

I strongly suspect that with 10 children, Charles Darwin celebrated the Christmas Holiday, even though his theory had no explanation for the emergence of spirituality. Sharks have been cruising through the oceans for over 450 million years; birds have been flying the skies for over 100 million years; the survival of all of these animals is heavily, if not totally, dependent on instinctive behavior. In other words, they have little need for values, consciousness and free will.

 This is what Loren Eiseley was referring to when he wrote:

“I have been accused of wooly-mindedness for entertaining

even hope for man. I can only respond that

in the dim morning shadows of humanity, the inarticulate

creature who first hesitantly formed the words

for pity and love must have received similar guffaws

around a fire. Yet some men listened, for the words

survive.”     The Immense Journey


There is no scientific theory or utilitarian philosophy that can explain the mystery, magic, wonder and joy that many (especially children) experience at Christmastime. For scientists who have put all of their trust and faith in science, Christmas must be like one of Scrooge’s nightmares. We can only hope that they will have a “Grinchian” epiphany and discover: “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store, maybe Christmas—perhaps, means a little bit more.” Dr. Seuss

Thanksgiving In Napa Valley






 For many mysterious (and some might claim unjust) reasons, the Thanksgiving Day challenge for an overwhelming number of American families, will not be of starvation or a meager food supply; the challenge will be how to limit the menu while ensuring that each attending guest gets to enjoy his/her favorite dish. For many St. Helenans, wine is an important accent for the dinner table, however, selection can be overwhelming. There are currently 3,754 California wineries, 8,806 wineries in the US and many high-quality imported wines are available from France, Germany, Italy and Australia. There are over 300 varieties of red grapes and 150 varieties of white grapes and it is estimated that there are over 75,000 types of wine being produced worldwide.

The endless possibilities for an hors d’oeuvre array are only limited by the host’s imagination. There are at least 20 varieties of dinner rolls available. The Food Network lists 48 traditional thanksgiving salads. Should the main course be the traditional roast turkey, or beef tri-tip, ham, pork crown-roast or fresh salmon or Dungeness Crab?  Better Homes offers a magazine with over 200 traditional holiday recipes. The Cooking Channel offers a list of 70 traditional Thanksgiving dinner side dishes. There are endless vegetable dishes featuring Brussels sprouts, various mushrooms, green and yellow beans, corn, peas, spinach, cabbage, bok choy, celery, chard, carrots, yams, roasted garlic, several squash varieties, broccoli, beets, and sweet potatoes. There are at least 20 traditional Thanksgiving desserts, but chefs are, of course, free to substitute non-traditional, family favorites. With such an overflowing cornucopia, it is little wonder that Brother David Steindl-Rast wrote his wonderful book, Gratefulness The Heart of Prayer.


Acorns—“Indians” and Wendell Berry






Excerpt: BOFAW, Chap. 29, Wayne.

 Every time I find an arrowhead on our property, I pause to pay

homage to the people who lived here 12,000 years before me. They

lived at peace with nature and left no scars or evidence of their

existence except for a few arrowheads and an occasional mortar

and/or pestle.  

 The pageant of human evolution is a drama on a grand scale. Shakespeare called the world a stage and all of us players. Even though we are theoretically capable of comprehending the past, most of us struggle with internalizing what life must have been like for a typical Native American family living here in the Napa Valley 12,000 years ago.

These people were primarily hunter/gatherers who were intimately connected to the land on a daily basis. They had great knowledge of the native plants and animals and used them for every facet of their culture. Obviously, there were no cars, hardware stores, lumber yards, grocery stores, pharmacies or doctor’s offices. A food “crisis” for most US teens occurs when the “fridge” is empty and mom or dad needs to go grocery shopping.

We are richly blessed to have a home on nearly 2 acres that have many oak trees representing four species: Quercus lobata (valley oak), Quercus douglasii (blue oak), Quercus wislizenii (Interior live oak), and Quercus garryana (White or Oregon oak).

Acorns were an extremely important part of the Indian diet and the quality of the annual crop played an important role in tribal survival. To complicate matters, many oaks typically bear acorns on a biennial basis.

Each fall we watch the acorns drop on the ground and imagine families eagerly gathering them to add to their cache of vitally essential provisions. This year was a bumper crop and we can imagine children with tummies filled with the various acorn concoctions. Other years however, there are practically no acorns and we wonder if children went to bed hungry.

Exact population numbers of California Indians are uncertain, but scholars generally agree that at one time at least 700,000 people were distributed around the state in about 50 tribes. That meant that the population density maxed out at about 4 people per square mile. California’s current population of 38 million people is nearly 60 times greater or 242 people per square mile.

 I recently had the privilege of watching Wendell Berry interviewed on PBS. He is a master story teller who weaves pastoral tapestries of people interrelating with their natural world.  Throughout the interview his eyes sparkled and danced, especially when he arrived at one of many poignant moments. There was, however, something deeply troubling about his message. He opined that the only hope for America is that of people returning to the land and leading more simplistic, economical lives.

 The recent trend of small farms adopting “organic” practices is encouraging, however, their production costs are typically higher resulting in more expensive food. About 100 years ago, 95% of Americans lived on farms or rural areas and 5% lived in urban areas. Those numbers have reversed which means that 95% of Americans are city/town-dwellers with little interest or ability to provide food.

 The tragic reality is that 350 million Americans can not return to agrarian living. There is not enough arable land and costs would be prohibitive. Circa 1995, UC Davis’ college of agriculture estimated that the startup cost for a small family-owned and operated California farm would be a minimum of $1,000,000.

 Environmentalists like Berry deplore many of the practices of the mega-agribusiness, however, they have been highly successful at keeping the cost of food down so millions of Americans can afford to eat.

 Anthropologist Loren Eiseley warned us in, The Immense Journey:

 “… but just as instinct may fail an animal under some shift of

environmental conditions, so man’s cultural beliefs may prove

inadequate to meet a new situation…

 In this case, the “cultural beliefs” that Eiseley was referring to involve “agriculture” and, the harsh reality is that less than 5% of the American people are capable of surviving like the First-Nation people.