Sunday, July 5, 2015

Angst, Hope, and Building a Better World

I've run into — and experienced — many flavors of angst over the decades.

Back in my 'good old days,' some folks feared the communist menace, others the population bomb and imminent death of all the ocean's fish. And there's that perennial favorite — the End Times Bible Prophecy. (June 9, 2012; October 3, 2009)

I take the last things — death, judgment, Heaven and Hell — quite seriously. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1021-1022, 1023-1029, 1033-1037, 1681-1683)

But recognizing that there's a really big closing ceremony for Creation 1.0 coming up — the Last Judgment — doesn't mean I think someone knows more than Jesus did. (Mark 13:32-37; 1038-1041)

All we know for sure is that we're two millennia closer to that event than we were when our Lord left. My guess is that we'll still be waiting and working when the 8.2 kiloyear event, Y2K, and Y10K are seen as roughly contemporary. (April 19, 2015; April 5, 2015)

Doomsday Predictions and Fashionable Melancholia

I don't know why so many folks are so pessimistic about so much: particularly since doomsday predictions keep fizzling. (February 25, 2014; June 14, 2011)
" ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish...."
(Paul Ehrlich, on first Earth Day, (1970))

"...By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people...."
(Paul Ehrlich, Speech at British Institute For Biology (September 1971))

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity...."
("The Second Coming," William Butler Yeats (1920))
In fairness, William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939) lived in a particularly unsettled chapter of humanity's story. I've discussed Yeats, Lovecraft, and getting a grip before. (November 21, 2014; October 19, 2014)

I'm pretty sure that gloominess is not next to Godliness. We're supposed to desire happiness, and hope is a virtue. (Catechism, 33, 1718, 1817)

I suspect that some doom and gloom has roots in the fashionable melancholy that's been " indispensable adjunct to all those with artistic or intellectual pretentions..." off and on for the last five centuries.1

Dealing with undiagnosed depression and a few other neurological glitches for decades help keep me from romanticizing despondency, and that's another topic. (October 5, 2014)

Spending my youth in the '60s, hearing radio preachers alternate between warnings against the 'un-American' forces of communism, Catholicism, and rock music; and the latest End Times Bible Prophecy — helped me learn to love rock 'n roll. And that's another topic. (August 26, 2012)

I'm a bit more sympathetic now, toward folks who spat venom and seemed convinced that God ordained that women should never wear trousers. Their world was crumbling around them, which would upset anyone. (March 29, 2010)

We are Free

Quite a few folks are celebrating the United States Independence Day this weekend.

One of my alter egos, the Lemming, pointed out that July fourth is also the anniversary of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland's publication and Pactum Sicardi, Trois-Rivières founding day, and Ashikaga Yoshiakira's birthday. And that's another topic. Topics. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (July 4, 2015)

A few of my online friends and acquaintances are very distressed about current events. I sympathize, to an extent, but I'm also nowhere near as upset.

Others have what I think is a much more reasonable attitude about what some call the 'end of Christendom:'
I was one of 'those crazy kids' in the '60s, who thought America wasn't perfect: and that we could do better. I still do.

Even if it was possible, I would not want to drag America back to the 1950s. I remember the 'good old days:' and they weren't.

I also remember American culture's Calvinist version of being a 'Christian' nation - - - and although reforms since then haven't all gone as I had hoped: I think we may actually be better of with a clean(ish) slate.

Besides, as Brendan Walsh pointed out — we are free, and have been for two millennia.

The current rough patch will pass, our Lord hasn't given up: and for that reason, neither should we.

Now that I think about it, we've always been free. Free will, our power to decide what we do or do not do, is part of human nature. How we use it is up to each of us. (Catechism, 1731-1742)

Then, two millennia back, our Lord came and gave those who would accept it, a more radical freedom: and responsibilities. (Matthew 5:21-28; John 8:31-32; Hebrews 2:14-15; James 2:12)

Love and Responsibilities

Our responsibilities are simple: love God, love our neighbor, see everyone as our neighbor, and treat others as we want them to treat us. (Matthew 5:43-44, 7:12, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31; Luke 6:31 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism, 1789)

I run into Christians who don't always live up to those principles.

I'm much more aware of how much I fail to live as love of God, neighbors, and self were all properly balanced. That's understandable, since I live with the consequences of our first parents' regrettable decision. (Catechism, 396-412)

I'm responsible for my decisions and actions — but the Church doesn't expect the impossible. Utter perfection isn't required: using my brain is. And that's another topic. (Catechism, 1734-1736)

Part of our job is building a better world. (Catechism, 1928-1942, 2419-2442)

If I thought we had a perfect society in 1950s 1860s America, or 11th century Europe, I'd demand the suppression of comics, a return to bustles, or the re-union of England, Daneland, Norge, and part of today's Sweden.

But we are not futilely trying to drag humanity back to an imaginary 'golden age.' We can't bring back the past: which is just as well. (October 12, 2014; August 29, 2014; July 13, 2014)

Looking Ahead

("Summer Walk," MeganeRid, used w/o permission.)

Imagining a beautiful, livable, city takes effort — if you're going to show others what your mind's eye sees, anyway. Making it happen is, I think, much harder.

Bringing the world up to standards set by places like Vienna, Tokyo — that's a huge job.

But part of our mandate is building a better world, one with a greater degree of justice and charity: and respect for "the transcendent dignity of man." (Catechism, 1928-1942, 2419-2442)

That includes freedom to worship: for everyone. I can hardly expect others to respect my right to worship, if I try forcing them to agree with me: or heap abuse on those who are not just like me. (Catechism, 1738, 2104-2109, 2357-2359)

If we help others keep what is good and just in our society, change what is not, and act as if we really believe that loving our neighbors makes sense: we can make a difference.

We must be patient, though. Folks can't be forced to embrace truth: particularly when it means giving up some cherished injustice, or long-established privileges.

But truth wins — eventually. Slavery, for example, has been a way of life for millennia. Laws regarding slaves show up in the law codes of Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi, and Roman law.

But acting as if a human is property is wrong. So is genocide and torture. Invoking God as an excuse makes the offense worse. Lots worse. (Catechism, 2148, 2297-2298, 2313, 2414)

After two millennia of passing along principles like "love God, love your neighbor, everybody's our neighbor," slavery became illegal in several countries. More remarkably, I think, it became unpopular — or at least unfashionable. A few generations later, the United Nations made genocide illegal.

Some Christians behaved abhorrently, and some folks who aren't Christians are helping end slavery and genocide. The point is that after two millennia, we're making real progress toward ending two ancient social evils.

Maybe, if we keep working with all people of good will, some time around the 42nd century we'll have an "international authority with the necessary competence and power" to resolve conflicts without war. (Catechism, 2307-2317; "Gaudium et Spes," 79 § 4)

And we'll still have work to do. Humanity has a huge backlog of unresolved issues.

Looking back, and looking ahead with hope:

1 "The Elizabethan Malady: Melancholy in Elizabeth and Jacobean portraiture," Roy Strong, Apollo LXXIX (1964); quoted in Melancholy Cult, Wikipedia.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Climate Change Talks, and Remembering King Cnut

Golda Meir,1 Henry Kissinger,2 or someone else, said "even a paranoid can have enemies."

I do not think humanity is doomed to extinction, or that life on Earth will end because we built factories. I do, however, think we need to use our brains: and take care of the planet we live on.
  1. China's Air Cleanup Plan
  2. EPA and Toxic Emissions: Law, Preference, and Ethics
  3. European Union Climate Position Statement: The Lords of Creation Speak?
I also think remembering who we are — and what we've been learning about Earth — is important.

Learning, Sometimes From Our Mistakes

(From Hansueli Krapf/Simisa, via Wikimedia, used w/o permission.)
(Pārśa, some two dozen centuries after the Achaemenid Empire's heyday. (November 24, 2009))

It's easier to spot our cities from space now, compared to the days when Dārayava(h)uš helped bankroll the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Kūruš, another Achaemenid ruler, had okayed that project. Those names came to my language by way of Latin, so they're called Darius and Cyrus in my Bible's translation of Ezra 5:7 and 14: and that's another topic.

Psalm 8 is one of 73 that folks say King David composed: which would make it about three millennia old.

Back then, cuneiform was the latest thing in data storage and retrieval tech, and the crane and lewis irons were five centuries in the future. But folks realized that humans weren't ordinary critters:
"4 What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?

"5 Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor."
(Psalms 8:6)
We've learned quite a bit since then: sometimes from our mistakes.

Hydraulic Mining

(from the United States Library of Congress, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission)
" 'The Monitor.' Print shows hydraulic mining for gold in California. Published in The Century illustrated monthly magazine; 1883 Jan., p. 325" (Detail of a Library of Congress print, via Wikipedia)

(Paul Telford, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission)
("Malakoff Diggins hydraulic mine. In Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park: An open air mining museum in the Sierra Nevada, in Nevada County, eastern California." Photo by Paul Telford.)

Roman engineers removed overburden with water, exposing gold-bearing strata, two millennia back. Pliny the Elder called the technique ruina montium, wrecking mountains. Las Médulas, a World Heritage Site, is what's left of a Roman-era mining operation.

My Spanish is quite rusty, but I think las médulas means something like "the piths:" which would be a rather poetic way of describing the cored landscape left by runia montium.

Today's hydraulic mining tech started in 1853, during the California Gold Rush. Sluicing the landscape downstream gave California tax revenue by the millions — and major flooding in the Sacramento Valley.

Farmers sued miners when mining debris buried croplands, and eventually the Supreme Court got involved. That lot called hydraulic mining "a public and private nuisance;" Congress passed the Caminetti Act of 1893,3 and today we're a whole lot more careful.

I'll skip the usual moralizing about wealth being evil. It's greed and a love of money that gets us in trouble. (1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2536)

Badlands - - -

Badlands National Park looks a bit like Las Médulas, but its rugged terrain isn't the result of mining. The oldest exposed rocks are about 75,000,000 years old, formed when the Western Interior Seaway covered that part of North America.

At least one asteroid hit Earth, most of the dinosaurs died — we call the survivors "birds" — and life went on. So did the Laramide Orogeny. We got the Rocky Mountains and Black Hills out of that, which brings me back to the Badlands.

Central North America was well above sea level some 56,000,000 years back, and Earth was enjoying a nice warm spell. That peaked out after a few million years, followed by a cooling trend that lasted until another asteroid hit where Chesapeake Bay is now. (May 8, 2015; September 27, 2013)

Back then, lush subtropical forests covered much of North America: including palm trees in what's now Wyoming. Oxygen levels were high, on average — around 130 percent what we're used to now.

But like I said, things were already cooling off when an asteroid hit. Glaciers spread over Antarctica's pine forests, primates were getting less squirrel-like, and more like the assorted lorises and lemurs, tarsiers, monkeys and apes we've got now.

We didn't show up until the latest big freeze, about two and a half million years back, maybe longer: and that's another topic. Topics. (January 16, 2015; July 11, 2014; August 30, 2013)


- - - And the Current Ice Age

Earth cooled slowly for the next 10 million years. Central North America was dryer, but still warmer than today's climate. Eight million years ago Antarctica's glaciers were almost as thick as they are today, and Earth's temperature plummeted.

Geologists put the official start of the current ice age at 2,580,000 years before this year's big United Nations climate meeting: or the Italian Renaissance. On this scale, a few centuries don't amount to much.

The last time I checked, scientists figure that the last glacial period, the "Ice Age" you hear and read about, isn't the last one in the current ice age. We may or may not be able to stave off the next glacial period.

Or maybe my joke about 'Save the Mammoth' and 'Dino Power' activists will resemble political wrangles in the not-too-distant future — a thousand or so years from now. (February 20, 2015)

I think it's prudent to remember just how old Earth is. I don't see a problem with knowing that the "ancient mountains" mentioned in Psalms 76, 5 are comparatively new. (July 11, 2014)

Being a Catholic, I recognize discoveries as opportunities for "greater admiration" of God's work. (Catechism, 283)

A thirst for truth and God is buried in each of us: deeply, in some cases, I'll grant. We're made from the stuff of this world, "in the image of God:" creatures of matter and spirit, with senses and reason, able to observe the world's order and beauty. (Genesis 1:26, 2:7; Catechism, 27, 31-35, 282-289, 355-361)

Using our brains is optional, and I've talked about free will before. (July 27, 2014)

Nitrogen Dioxide, Industry, Being Human (and More than you Need to Know about the Congo River Basin)

(From the European Space Agency, used w/o permission.)
(Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in Earth's troposphere, between January 2003 and June 2004.)

Folks at the University of Heidelberg's Institute for Environmental Physics prepared that map, using data from the SCIAMACHY instrument on ESA's Envisat.

SCIAMACHY stands for SCanning Imaging Absorption SpectroMeter for Atmospheric CHartographY, and isn't the most-pronounceable — or memorable — acronym I've seen.

Nitrogen dioxide is one of many ways nitrogen and oxygen combine. There's nitric oxide (NO); nitrous oxide, laughing gas (N 2O); and dinitrogen trioxide, tetroxide, and pentoxide (N2O3, N2O4, and N2O5). They've got various uses, nitric oxide shows up in our biochemistry, and I'm drifting off-topic.

Where was I? Earth's lower atmosphere, acronyms, nitrogen and oxygen. Right.

Nitrogen dioxide comes from internal combustion engines, and thermal power stations; plus a bit from pulp mills, butane gas heaters, and electrical storms.

Electrical storms might account for the slightly-above-average levels of nitrogen dioxide over the Congo River basin. Oddly, there isn't nearly as much over the Amazon basin.

Europeans ran the Congo Free State from 1877 to 1908, and the Belgian Congo from 1908 to 1960. That's when European colonial empires finally went out of fashion.

The place was called République du Congo/Republic of Congo for a few years. Folks running the former French colony of Moyen Congo/Middle Congo called their turf Republic of Congo, too. Folks called the territories Congo-Léopoldville and Congo-Brazzaville.

The name Republic of Zaïre lasted long enough for to get now-obsolete maps printed. I think the territory got its current name, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1997. The place is still a violent mess.

Mining is a big part of the regional economy, but that's mainly in the eastern part of the Congo River's drainage. Maybe someday, when folks living near the Congo River find decent leaders, and start rebuilding their homelands, they'll have industrial pollution as a crisis.

Right now, survival is looking pretty good. My opinion.

That brings me to nitrogen dioxide, and why there's a glob of it over my country's rust belt, Flanders, and a disturbingly large fraction of China. That's a problem, since NO2 is a toxic gas. Concentrations found in and downwind of industrial areas won't necessarily kill you: but it's not healthy.

That, finally, brings me to a cluster of recent news items. I expect to read the usual 'and we're all gonna die!' op-eds, as a series of international environment and global climate meetings approach. Chicken Little's ardent disciples may be sincere: but sky is not, in my considered opinion, falling.

However, getting back to Psalms 8:6, we really are "little less than a god," with the power and responsibilities that go with our nature.

One of our jobs is taking care of Earth's resources: for our reasoned use, and for all future generations. The natural world got along without us, but now that we're here — we're responsible for its maintenance. (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:7; Catechism, 339, 952, 339, 952, 2402-2405, 2415, 2456)

1. China's Air Cleanup Plan

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"China climate change plan unveiled"
Helen Briggs, BBC News (June 30, 2015)

"China - the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases - has announced details of its climate action plan.

"The office of Prime Minister Li Kegiang said that emissions 'will peak by around 2030' and China would work hard to achieve the target even earlier.

"The statement echoes China's declaration last November following a US-China summit.

"China's pledge comes ahead of talks late this year in Paris to seek a new global deal on climate change...."
Reading this makes it easier for me to take this year's international 'climate change' meetings seriously. There wouldn't, I think, be much point in discussing North American landfills or Germany's Autobahn, if the diplomats were going to politely ignore China's industrial boom.

The good news, from my viewpoint, is that China is finally recovering from the Qing dynasty's meltdown. Folks there have a long, hard, road ahead: but it looks like the country's current leadership is starting to realize that what looks good on paper isn't necessarily practical.

I think it helps that tech like ESA's Envisat lets us see what's really happening.

There was a day when reading official reports from bureaucrats and political appointees, and occasionally getting permission to collect on-site samples, was the best — or only — way to collect environmental information. I'm glad those days are over.

Being Reasonable — and Having Hope

This BBC News piece included an op-ed/analysis:
"...Analysis by the BBC's science editor, David Shukman

"This is a significant moment in international climate negotiations. For years China argued that it was too poor and underdeveloped to even consider accepting any obligations to curb its greenhouse gases.

"Now we're witnessing the world's largest emitter playing by the UN's rules and promising even deeper cuts that those suggested some months back. For diplomats and ministers hoping to see a meaningful deal at the climate summit in Paris at the end of the year, this will be a welcome step.

"The size of cuts, and the timescale, will of course be judged by many as too little and too late. But for anyone who endured the collapse of talks at the Copenhagen summit six years ago, China is playing a very different and far more constructive game. Will it actually make any difference to global warming?

"Scientists always say it does not matter to the atmosphere where the emissions come from and China's will continue to rise for the next 15 years or so, and on their already gargantuan scale.

"And today's announcement does not mean that Chinese use of fossil fuels is coming to an end any time soon. On the same day that China has announced this climate plan it also began construction of a massive pipeline that will bring it a lot of gas from Russia...."
(BBC News)
About "the size of cuts, and the timescale," I emphatically don't think it's "too little and too late."

Sure, it'd be nice if everybody everywhere could agree to never produce anything harmful — starting tomorrow.

But it took centuries of steam engines, powered vehicles — mostly burning fossil fuels — and industrial-scale chemical production, to get where we are today.

China's leaders started developing industry in their territory in the 1950s: but in the 1960s, 60 percent of China's workforce was still agricultural. The idea had been to build an industrial worker's paradise by 1961. Droughts and famine didn't help that plan succeed, and that's another topic.

Not even wildly-optimistic futuristic visions, like Menzies and Korda's "Things to Come" imagined that Utopia could be created overnight.

I think planning to get emissions of an emerging industrial civilization under control in only 15 years, just eight decades after industrialization began, is optimistic. But I also think it may be an achievable goal.

For me, the comparatively modest French-Chinese statement of intent is much more reassuring than a rehash of the Great Leap Forward (大跃进). It sounds like the People's Republic of China's Premier of the State Council, Li Kegiang (李克强) is ready to let his country get back on its feet:
"...China will work with the international community to seek a 'fair, reasonable, win-win' global climate governance system, Li said."
(BBC News)

2. EPA and Toxic Emissions: Law, Preference, and Ethics

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"US Supreme Court blocks new toxic pollution changes"
BBC News (June 29, 2015)

"The US Supreme Court has blocked a key government attempt to limit pollution from the country's power plants.

"In a 5-4 split, the court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency failed to factor in the full financial cost to industry of the changes.

"The government introduced new rules to restrict emissions of toxins, including mercury, three years ago...."
I've long since stopped trying to figure out why or how folks on the Supreme Court come up with their opinions. Whatever their idealistic or Constitutional role should be — the practical reality is that they don't like the EPA's proposal, so it can't be used. End of story. This chapter, anyway.

My guess is that the EPA will try again, and see if the Court likes the new version.

Interestingly, the Court's claim that EPA regs should take cost into account makes sense.

The Decalog says theft is wrong. It's even in the short list our Lord recited for a wealthy young man. (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19; Matthew 19:18)

Since loving our neighbor should be a very high priority, we're not even allowed to steal if we're powerful and it's technically-legal to take what's not rightfully ours. That includes any sort of "excessive expenses and waste." Top priority is loving God, of course. (Catechism, 2083, 2196, 2409)

Getting back to the EPA emissions proposal, it'd be nice if government agencies had to think about how much their regulations will cost the rest of us — and explain why we'd lose more without them.

3. European Union Climate Position Statement: The Lords of Creation Speak?

(From Regis Duvignau, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
("An aerial view shows sea walls on the beach that protect sand dunes from erosion along the Atlantic Ocean coast in Anglet, southwestern France, June 20, 2015."
"EU ministers seek ambitious, binding deal at Paris climate talks: draft"
Barbara Lewis, Reuters (June 25, 2015)

"European Union ministers are seeking an ambitious, durable and legally binding deal to curb global warming, enforced through five-yearly reviews, a draft of their position statement for U.N. climate talks shows.

"EU environment ministers meet on Sept. 18 in Brussels to iron out their joint position ahead of the U.N. talks in Paris in December. Diplomats have already drawn up a draft text.

"The Paris climate agreement must be 'legally binding in order to enshrine the strongest expression of political will and provide predictability and durability', says the EU ministers' draft seen by Reuters.

"It calls for five-yearly reviews to ensure temperature rises are capped at 2 degrees Celsius, the necessary limit according to scientists to prevent the most devastating climate change...."
I'm — impressed — that the European Union apparently has decided that Earth's average temperature will rise no more than two degrees Celsius, presumably over a five-year period. I've discussed King Cnut and the limits of executive authority before. (September 21, 2014)

Somewhat more realistically, they also seem to realize that dealing with "the impact of changing weather" is a good idea: and will cost money.

It's also a tad reassuring to read that Europe's leaders say they'll cut emissions by 40 percent — at least — compared to 1990 levels. Their target date is 2030. I'm pretty sure that some folks won't like that because it's too much change, and others because it's too little.

The good news is that European industry's contribution to Earth's atmospheric fug peaked in 1979. European emissions, according to the Reuters article, amount to about 10 percent of the world's industrial effluvia. China is the current world's champ in that area, at 25 percent.

But, like I said before, that may be changing in the next few decades.

Decreeing that Earth's climate shall obey the dictates of the European Union seems to involve some whopping great assumptions.

The biggest of the lot, I think, is that everything on this planet happens because humans are here: or at least everything that's changing. That smacks of the old 'lords of creation' attitude that got us into this mess to begin with.

We're pretty hot stuff: but we're not that powerful. (March 29, 2015; June 15, 2014)

And that isn't another topic.

More of what I think about life, the universe, and being human:

1 "Even a paranoid can have enemies." Attributed to Golda Meir by Daniel Freeman, in "Overcoming Paranoid and Suspicious Thoughts." (2012)

2 "Even a paranoid can have enemies." Attributed by others to Golda Meir, during the 1973 Sinai talks, after he accused her of being paranoid for refusing to grant the Palestinians additional concessions: and to Henry Kissinger by a whole bunch of folks who don't say where they got their information.

3 "...The Caminetti Act of 1893 was benchmark legislation for later state-federal cooperation in altering the delta landscape." ("Land and Water Policies in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta," Martin D. Mitchell, Geographical Review, pp. 411-423 (October 1994))

The U. S. Congress gets something right now and then.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Saint Francis of Assisi and Brother Wolf

"...'Brother Wolf, you have killed and pillaged like a wanton criminal, and for that you deserve punishment! But accept instead the forgiveness of all the men you have wronged. Come now, here is my hand. In the name of the Holy One, come to me, and pledge that from this day on you will live at peace with men. Come!'...

"...He was only in time to see the berserker-wolf take the last hesitant step of its advance. To see it raise one metal paw — and with its steel claw-fingers gently touch the kneeling friar's extended hand...."

That's from Fred Saberhagen's "Brother Berserker." The "berserker-wolf" part of Saberhagen's tale is based on a legend in "Fioretti di San Francesco," written a century and a half after Francis of Assisi died.

"Firoetti" is probably the most popular collection of stories about Saint Francis: but "Scripta Leonis, Rufini et Angeli Sociorum S. Francisci," compiled by Brother Leo and other companions, comes from folks who actually knew and worked with him.

Today, Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron Saint of ecologists and animal welfare/rights workers, and may be as popular as garden gnomes and plastic flamingos in my country's yards.

"Animal rights?" I'd better explain that. Imagining that gerbils are people is, in my considered opinion, daft. However, respect for the integrity of creation — and the Creator — demands that we take proper care of critters. (Deuteronomy 25:4; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2415-2418)

Daniel 2:79-81 Reminds me of Laudes Creaturarum/Canticle of the Creatures/Canticle of the Sun, and that's another topic.

Asisium, Assisi, and a Rich Kid's Impulsive Charity

About three millennia back, Umbri moved into the upper Tiber valley. Etruscans were taking over Umbrian territory around the time Artaxerxes I issued the decree quoted in Ezra 7:13-26.

The Etruscan — or Italic — city called Rome started adding other cities to its growing kingdom within a century or so of Egypt's 25th Dynasty.

Romans built Asisium on Monte Subasio while Bindusara ruled the Maurya Empire, Ostrogoths leveled the place when Wen ruled the Western Wei, but business was pretty good when the Jin and Song dynasties were running north and south China.

Folks were calling Asisium Assisi by that time.

That was about eight and a third centuries ago, and brings me to a young dropout named Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. He was the son of a wealthy silk merchant living in Assisi, Pietro di Bernardone; and Pica de Bourlemont, a noblewoman originally from Provence.

Pietro nicknamed his young son Francesco, there's a story behind that. Pietro probably didn't worry much about the lad's enthusiasm for troubadours — medieval rock stars, sort of — and loud clothing. Boys will be boys, after all.

The good times didn't last. Arguments over Francesco's impulsive charity escalated into legal action. Francesco eventually dropped out of the family business, and the family; and become a beggar.

The rich-kid-turned-beggar later founded a monastic order, wrote "Laudes Creaturarum," and may have negotiated a pact between a town and a wolf.

Francis of Assisi died in 1226, and was declared a saint by Pope Gregory IX in 1228.

The Wolf of Gubbio

Umbri called their town Ikuvium, Romans called it Iguvium, the Iguvine Tablets are still there, these days it's called Gubbio, and that's yet another topic.

The point is that Gubbio is several mountains north of Assisi, and folks there had wolf problems about eight centuries back.

It was bad enough when the wolf attacked livestock, and stubbornly refused to be killed. Then it developed a taste for humans, and pretty soon was hanging around the city gates, waiting for its next meal.

That's when Francis of Assisi said he'd go have a talk with the wolf. Folks tried talking him out of becoming the wolf's next dinner-to-go, but Francis went anyway.

A crowd followed him — at what they judged a safe distance — to watch the carnage.

Maybe you've read the story before. In case you haven't: Francis made the sign of the Cross, walked out of Gubbio, and made the sign of the Cross again when the wolf rushed at him.

Francis told the wolf to stop — which, surprisingly, it did. He then explained the flawed ethics, and consequences, of eating people:
"...'Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer.

" 'All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, is so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more.'..."
("Fioretti di San Francesco," trans. by Hudleston, Roger, ed. (Burns Oats (1926)); via Heritage Press and EWTN)
A great acreage of verbiage later, folks living in Gubbio learned that the wolf had been desperately hungry. They agree to feed it daily, it stopped attacking them, and quite a few folks in Gubbio started taking God a great deal more seriously.

Eventually the wolf died. Local tradition has it that Gubbio gave the wolf an honorable burial: later building the Church of Saint Francis of the Peace at the site. I'm pretty sure that's the San Francesco della Pace (Chiesa dei Muratori) in Gubbio.

Renovation work in 1872 required moving a slab near the church wall. A large wolf's skeleton, apparently several centuries old, was underneath. It's been reburied inside the church.1

More about humans, wolves, and all that:

1 "Francis of Assisi," Adrian House, Paulist Press. p. 181. (2003); ISBN 978-1587680274; via Wikipedia.)

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