The Daily Muse

Thoughts from an Austin Garden  -- July 2007


Last update: July 23


Canna lily in morning light.


July 2  - morning


A dry weekend after nearly two weeks of monsoon like weather  and I made the most of it.... now my legs and back are feeling it! I have been telling my friends that I am gardening with a machete, and yesterday I went into psycho-pruner mode in an effort to keep our paths clear and the weeds at bay. Of course, the weeds aren't the only things that are  enjoying all of this rain,  literally everything is growing exponentially - our little Natchez crape myrtle has doubled in size and a newly planted rusty blackhaw viburnum has gone from being just 18 inches tall to over four feet! A few of our herbs are complaining about wet feet, but I think this little respite from the rain may keep their toes from completely curling up. The weather radar is showing a large mass of rain just to our southeast as I write this, so who knows, the deluge may continue later in the day. For those of you not from this region, we have already had a year's worth of rain here in Austin, around 32 inches. In fact, recent  thunderstorms have dropped nearly a year's worth of rain on some areas in just one day! Our reservoirs are full and the ground is saturated. Despite damaging  floods in some areas, most of us are feeling pretty fortunate. However, we are all keeping our fingers crossed that continued rain will not mean flash flooding and our hearts go out to those who have lost their homes and more.


July 6 - evening


Our summer monsoon continues - as I write this cloud banks are building up around us and the sullen heaviness of the air leads me to believe that another round of showers is about to break loose. While at work earlier, I stepped out of the building for a quick break to grab a cup of coffee and the sun was shining, it felt almost strange on my skin – not oppressive in the usual way – much more like April than July.

We invited friends over to the garden to celebrate the Fourth and spent a lovely evening catching up with one another. (I have to say the garden looks great by sparkler light!) I was excitedly sharing the latest news about the new television series that I am trying to develop for PBS on American religious pluralism and practice. There has been quite a bit of movement over the last few weeks as a number of forward thinking organizations and institutions have offered their assistance to my efforts. I am beginning to believe that this enormous project may just take wing after all.

Coincidentally, I have been reading Mary Lee Settle’s book, “I, Roger Williams” which portrays the life of one of the forgotten heroes of early America. Roger Williams was the founder of Providence Colony, which became Rhode Island. A firm believer in the separation of church and state, Williams opened the doors of his little settlement to all including Jews, Catholics, Quakers, and more. He had been one of the first residents of Massachusetts but was driven away by the zealous Puritan over-lords of that colony. He had shared their views, and fled with them to New England to escape what he saw as the decadence and oppression of the Anglican Church of that time, but the more he shared the company of the Puritans, the more he began to see the inherent dangers of any faith that becomes the law of the land. In her book Settle imagines Williams reflecting on the Anglican-Puritan rift, “What grew within me and would not be stopped was that both sides faced each other with an abyss between, in hatred they called Christian love.” And of course, that “Christian love” led to brutal Civil War in England and witch trials and inquisitions in Massachusetts.

Williams believed above all else in “freedom of conscience,” that each of us must be free to pursue the truth whatever we might call that truth, so long as we did no harm to others. Where are our statues to Roger Williams today?

Earlier today, I read an article on about radical Christian “Reconstructionists” who are intent on establishing “Christian Dominion” in our nation. It was truly frightening, but as I have said in the past, we must steel ourselves against that fear. The abyss described by Williams is a disease fed by fear. Read the article on and you will see that the language of fear is also the language of the Dominionists and radical Christianists – whose leaders portray them as a hounded and persecuted minority (much like the Puritans saw themselves.) What is needed to combat this kind of hysteria and fear is not the neo-atheist drum beating of folks like Sam Harris* but a movement of people who believe in freedom of conscience and who “Fear Not” (to quote Jesus.) We need those who are inspired by a radical trust that goes beyond dogma and creeds to raise their voices in a powerful way. And, returning to an old theme, we also need to recognize that some of the fears that are luridly stoked by the Dominionist Preachers are not entirely imagined. Are not all of our children hounded by a crass and soulless commercialized culture? Are we not all held hostage by fear of some sort of persecution whether it be actual violence or the possibility that our livelihoods may be “outsourced” at any moment?

The fear and ignorance in our culture will not be defeated by name-calling – as entertaining as that may be. The virtue that we call progress must be practiced if it is to survive and it is something we can only do together… it is called courage, empathy, and compassion. Without progress, the abyss.

*Regarding Sam Harris, I still recommend his book, The End of Faith,  it is truly alarming and alarmist, but has points which should not be ignored.


July 10 - evening



Another happy confluence of ideas, images, and words today... I was exploring images of space on the web and came across the picture above. It is one of hundreds of spectacular images taken by the Hubble space telescope that can be viewed at . It pictures a brilliant archipelago of distant galaxies - a very few of the hundred billion galaxies that lie scattered across our universe, each with hundreds of billions of stars more or less like our sun. As I took my little intergalactic desktop tour I was reminded of the comments made by Barbara Brown Taylor in my recent program, Emerging Voices, Emerging Church. In that program Reverend Taylor talked about living in rural Georgia were she and her husband can drag a mattress out into the front lawn for a front row view of the night-time sky. She talked about the paradox of feeling both annihilated and comforted by the profound mystery of creation. It was my favorite moment in the entire program because it spoke so directly to me of my own experience of the night time sky, or the anatomy of a  hummingbird, or the architecture of the passion flowers that cover our garden arbor, or the  "enormous and complicated eyes" of a grasshopper. (Thank you again, Mary Oliver.) Despite our growing understanding of the how and why of each particular, at some point we must simply celebrate the wow and awe of each of these miracles, these mysteries. Then, just a few minutes ago, I finished reading the first few chapters of Ursula Goodenough's book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, which begins with the most beautiful essay on "mystery" that I think I have ever encountered. Professor Goodenough is one of America's leading cell biologists - a much respected scientific authority. In the opening chapter of her book Professor Goodenough talks about her sense of despair when she first looked up at the night time sky through the eyes of a scientist who understood that each of those countless stars is, "...dying, exploding, accreting, exploding again..." and that, "our sun too will die, frying the Earth to a crisp during its heat-death."


Haven't we all felt that twinge of despair, of wondering what is the point, after all, if our glorious blue marble of a planet is destined to be blasted to cinder? The fact that our date with that particular destiny is billions of years off provides some comfort, but still... that same sense of annihilation awaits us all as individuals, doesn't it? What is the point?


Professor Goodenough continues, "But, since then, I have found a way to defeat the nihilism that lurks in the infinite and the infinitesimal. I have come to understand that I can deflect the apparent pointlessness of it all by realizing that I don't have to see the point. In any of it. Instead I can see it as the locus of Mystery.


*The Mystery of why there is anything at all, rather than nothing.

*The Mystery of where the laws of physics came from.

*The Mystery of why the universe seems so strange.


Mystery. Inherently pointless, inherently shrouded in its own absence of category. The clouds passing across the face of the deity in the stained-glass images of Heaven."


Isn't this at the root of our ultimate despair, that there are things beyond our words and understanding? That escape our categorization?  Don't we long to file everything away to show that we have mastered it? What would our lives be like if we let go of our the need for all of that? To see things anew whether they be stars or galaxies, hummingbird wings or grasshopper eyes?


Dr. Goodenough concludes on an almost celebratory note, "Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate."


Each section of The Sacred Depths of Nature ends with a reflection, and for this opening mediation on mystery Goodenough quotes a lovely old hymn filled with images of a blinding yet comforting light, this is  juxtaposed against the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching:


The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

is not the eternal name.


The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin

of all particular things.


Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only manifestations.


Yet mystery and manifestations

arise from the same source.

This source is called darkness.


Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.


(For an excellent short essay on the Tao Te Ching by the renowned American Poet, Kenneth Rexroth visit this link.)



I feel very fortunate that both Barbara Brown Taylor and Ursula Goodenough are going to be involved in the new series I am developing for PBS, Cultivating the Sacred.


July 12 - morning



Just a short entry to note the passing of Lady Bird Johnson. I had the privilege of doing one of the last television interviews granted by Mrs. Johnson about eight or nine years ago, and over the years, and I also had the good fortune to be with her on several other occasions. One special evening stands out in my memory... Mrs Johnson used to host small dinner parties at the LBJ Presidential Library, I was working on a project with Harry Middleton, then the Executive Director of the Library, and he invited me to one of the dinners. Mrs. Johnson had one rule for these events - there could only be one conversation at the table. For me, this was a bit intimidating because there were several prominent scholars present, as well as civic leaders.  At first I was very quiet, a rare thing for me I am told, but, as the evening progressed I felt bold enough to join the conversation and add my two cents worth. After dinner, Mrs. Johnson took me aside and thanked me for coming, she also expressed her gratitude for my work with Public Television and added how much she depended on PBS as her source of information and entertainment. It was the first time I encountered her famous graciousness, but not the last.


As a region and a nation, we have all been blessed by her sense of duty and her sense of place. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has grown into a magnificent jewel, truly one of the great destinations of Central Texas.  Lady Bird called the Wildflower Center her "forever project." Let us hope that it will continue as she wished - a beautiful source of inspiration and information about our environment and our native plants. Goodbye Lady Bird, you will be remembered and missed.




July 13 - morning


Our Lady of the Labyrinth (Guadalupe.)


A few days ago I was writing about the passion flowers blooming on our arbor. Well, yesterday evening, as I was working in the garden the light turned golden and I had to snap a few pictures of those amazing blooms. This is a cold-hardy (perennial) variety known as "Incense" that is our favorite.


Our Lady (with the labyrinth) and the passion flowered arbor.



The fragrance is very sweet, like a tropical fruit.



When I mentioned their "architecture" a few days ago - this is what I had in mind!



A little wider view.



A little closer.



More architecture.

July 14 - evening


Hummingbird visiting a salvia in our garden.


A quiet day in the garden... I spent quite a bit of time stalking our resident hummingbirds who seem to be growing more relaxed about my presence on their turf. Its a good practice - standing still for long periods of time helps you to see all sorts of things you might otherwise miss. I hope to get better shots in the coming days. Another shower passed through in the afternoon keeping our temperatures down and making for a pleasant evening. This past week was our first truly hot week, so it was nice to have this little respite. Here are some of the other denizens of our garden...



Resting on the top of our bird feeding station and checking me out.






Hey baby, check this out!







Guardian of the pond.




Our 'Natchez' crape myrtle.



A little wider... it was just three sticks a few months ago.


July 23 - evening


Still stalking those poor hummers!


Still more rain... nearly six inches has fallen in the past four days! Many of our herbs have rotted, and one of my most beautiful agaves, but I still find it hard not cheer when I scan the weather radar and see yet another line of storms approaching. In my entire history of gardening in Austin I can only remember one year as generous as this when it comes to rain. Yesterday was one of our rare sunny, hot days and I made the most of it weeding and pruning back the extravagant growth. I have been chatting with my sister in North Dakota where it has been over 100 degrees the past few days - we haven't even gotten close to that here. Who'd of thunk it?




Meanwhile, a chance conversation earlier today caused me to spend some time reflecting on the topic of hope. In my entry to this journal on July 6, I was talking about the dangerous uses of "fear" in our politics and culture. I have often thought that the best antidote to fear was hope. The conversation I was alluding to made me feel hopeful about the future of the new television series that I have been planning,  but it also reminded me of a powerful sermon by the great Theologian, Paul Tillich, titled, "The Right to Hope." I had read Tillich's sermon, one of his last, years ago and it made a profound impact on me. Today, it reappeared in my imagination and I had to search it out once again. Early in the sermon Tillich talks about the theology of hope in the New and Old Testaments and distinguishes the difference between genuine hope and self-delusion. And then, about a third of the way through the sermon, comes this paragraph...


"...there are many things and events in which we can see a reason for genuine hope, namely, the seed-like presence of that which is hoped for. In the seed of a tree, stem and leaves are already present, and this gives us the right to sow the seed in hope for the fruit. We have no assurance that it will develop. But our hope is genuine. There is a presence, a beginning of what is hoped for. And so it is with the child and our hope for his maturing; we hope, because maturing has already begun, but we don't know how far it will go. We hope for the fulfillment of our work, often against hope, because it is already in us as vision and driving force. We hope for a lasting love, because we feel the power of this love present. But it is hope, not certainty."


And then this beautiful sentence...


"Out of what we truly are, the hope for what we may become must grow."


Tillich's sermon ends almost rapturously:


"...every victory, every particular progress from injustice to more justice, from suffering to more happiness, from hostility to more peace, from separation to more unity anywhere in mankind, is a manifestation of the eternal in time and space. It is, in the language of the men of the Old and the New Testaments, the coming of the Kingdom of God. For the Kingdom of God does not come in one dramatic event sometime in the future. It is coming here and now in every act of love, in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of joy, in every experience of the holy. The hope of the Kingdom of God is not the expectation of a perfect stage at the end of history... No! The hope of mankind lies in the here and now, whenever the eternal appears in time and history. This hope is justified; for there is always a presence and a beginning of what is seriously hoped for."


A beginning that is always here and now. A seed within our hearts and in our lives that is filled with a promise, a genuine promise that we can move from injustice to justice, from separation to unity. Yes, here is the antidote to the fear and nihilism that threatens to tear us apart and that paralyzes our good will.


The question we must ask ourselves is, "What are we, truly?" Are we a nation of closed minds and closed doors? A nation fearful of our own freedom?  Have we become a nation that longs for, even prays for endings, and end times, not beginnings? A place where oft and well-told lies are as good as eternal truths?


I refuse to believe that we have succumbed to that shriveled and bitter fate - that is not who or what we truly are. However, we cannot wait for our leaders to nurture "the seeds of hope," it is up to us here and now. As Tillich might say, "Begin."


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