What About the Pilgrims?

“The Pilgrims? It’s not November—why are we talking about Pilgrims?” 

For one thing, maybe in midsummer we can step back and be a bit—dare I whisper the word?—dispassionate.

Passion rules the day. On every hand, our passions are egged on. “Engage your passion” is almost as frequent a bit of advice as “Follow your dreams.”

Noah Webster pre-1843. By James Herring. Public Domain. 

But has anybody bothered to check what that really means? Perhaps you will indulge me: 

passion . . . n. [[OFr < LL(Ec) passio, a suffering, esp. that of Christ (<L passus, pp. of pati, to endure < IE base *p­­ē-, to harm >  Gr pēma, destruction, L paene, scarcely): transl. of Gr pathos: see pathos]]  1a) [Archaic] suffering or agony, as of a martyr b) [Now Rare] an account of this  [P-a) the sufferings of Jesus, beginning with his agony in the Garden of Gethsmane and continuing to his death on the Cross b) any of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Passion and of accompanying events c) an artistic work, as an oratorio or a play, based on these narratives  3 a) any one of the emotions, as hate, grief, love, fear, joy, etc. b) [pl.] all such emotions collectively  4 extreme, compelling emotion; intense emotional drive or excitement; specif., a) great anger; rage; fury b) enthusiasm or fondness [passion for music] c) strong love or affection d) sexual drive or desire; lust  5 the object of any strong desire or fondness  6 [Obs.] the condition of being acted upon, esp. by outside influences—Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

Webster goes on to comment that “passion usually implies a strong emotion that has an overpowering or compelling effect [his passions overcame his reason] [.]” 

Ignoring all the brackets, parentheses, italics, boldface, numbers, letters, and abbreviations that clutter the lexicography, we can discern that passion comprises suffering, endurance, harm, destruction, pathos, agony, martyrdom, and extremes of compelling or overpowering emotion—to include love, affection, and lust but, more commonly, hate, fear, grief, anger, rage, and fury.

Passion. Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash.

As a novelist and screenwriter, I applaud these outrageous eruptions of emotion. They  make drama.

But in my role as a human being trying to cope with the world, I must take a rather different tack. I believe that reason and objectivity—things that do not easily coexist with passion—are the best survival tools handed down from the philosophers of old.

They allow us to see our world more nearly as it is—less tinted by our fears, resentments, and extravagant dreams.

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“Okay, My New Favorite Writer, but what about the Pilgrims? You were going to say something about Pilgrims.” 

We’ll get to that, Gentle Reader. Don’t give up on me yet.

First, another mild digression.

As a young man, I studied a bit of the History of Science under Prof. David Lindberg at the University of Wisconsin­–Madison. Lindberg’s introductory lecture in the course covered what he called ancestor worship. 

Ancestor worship, in the good professor’s view, was the study of history on the basis that people of old times were either clear-sighted heroes (if we can make out that they pioneered the values we espouse today) or blind and bigoted blackguards (if they violated our current norms). 

This ancestor worship—really more an attitude than a program—leads to outlandish propositions that we often accept without rigorous examination. For instance:

Martin Luther (1483–1546). By Lucas Cranach the Elder. Public Domain.
  • Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in order to champion Freedom, Progress, and Democracy.
  • Christopher Columbus ravaged the American hemisphere and commited genocide because he was a vicious white supremacist.
  • All those who lived before the Renaissance—or the Enlightenment, if you will, or the Summer of Love—were untutored savages who lived lives void of intelligent vision.

Many other, similarly fatuous, statements could be made. What they all have in common is a fatal simplicity.

Real life, Dear Reader, is not all that straightforward.

Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German mathematician, started from the assumption that the planets moved in circular orbits which could be neatly inscribed in a nesting series of perfect Euclidean solids, and ended up proving the planets move in elliptical orbits that could not possibly answer to such imaginary constraints. Furthermore, despite his massive intelligence, it seems he saw no contradication between his two irreconcilable theories. He saw the former as being proved, not disproved, by the latter. Huh? 

Actuality just wants to escape any convenient mental box we try to cram it into.

Portrait of a man, said to be Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piombo. Public Domain.
  • Luther lived in a time when Progress was not a recognized value. Democracy was unthinkable, except as a curious aberration of the Athenians in remote antiquity. And if Luther valued Freedom, it would have been the freedom of the believer to realize salvation in Christ. His whole concern was that the institutional Church was stifling the ordinary person’s hope of receiving the Grace which the Scriptures revealed. If Luther was a hero, he was a hero of Faith, not of Modernity.
  • Columbus seems to have been actuated by the hope of Glory, Fame, and Wealth on Earth—and, perhaps, Eternal Life in Heaven. That he pursued these goals by enslaving the inhabitants of Hispaniola shows that he did not value their lives as much as white European lives; not that he held a Hitler-style ideology of race. He trampled on the Arawaks just as any supreme egotist tramples anyone in his path. It was made easy by the fact that they could not post eloquent written protests in Spanish or Latin. His genocide was casual, not programmatic。
  • And as for the belief that those who lived in days of yore were simply not bright enough to understand the world’s complexities as we do—Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Augustine of Hippo would like to have a word with you.

The real history of the world is not a relentless March of Progress nor a sinister Parade of Criminality, but an ongoing Stumble of Perplexity.

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“But what about the Pilgims? Are we there yet?”

Here are the bare facts, as widely acknowledged:

A group of Puritan Separatists—people who wanted to leave the state-mandated Church of England—fled to Holland after persecution by British monarchs. A few years later, disillusioned with life among the Dutch, they sailed for America. They arrived off Cape Cod in December 1620. Half of them died of disease and hunger during the first winter. Friendly Indians named Squanto and Samoset introduced themselves the following spring and taught our Separatist Pilgrims how to grow corn. In the autumn of 1621, Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a harvest feast that we now call the First Thanksgiving. 

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850-1936). Public Domain.

Because the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony established by other Puritans ten years later, became materially successful over the ensuing decades, they came to be celebrated by their 19th-century descendants as precursors of all that was good in American life. They were seen as model saints, who were sometimes victimized by their Native American neighbors but had never done anything to provoke such treatment. They were energetic and intelligent colonists, whose prosperity owed all to hard work and intelligence. Indeed, in the Mayflower Compact they had drawn up the very blueprint of American Freedom, Constitutionalism, and Democracy.

Does anything about this seem familiar to you? That’s right—Ancestor Worship! 

Because the view of the Pilgrims developed by 19th-century Congregationalists was slanted, 20th-century historians began to debunk many parts of it, in the interest of correcting the record. The 1960s and 70s also saw the rise of a corps of self-consciously subjective historians motivated by Marxist ideology. Their view was that there is no such thing as objective historiography; that history is always a political act. To them, the Massachusetts Pilgrims’ and Puritans’ checkered relationship with the Native Americans of the region was an opportunity to denounce capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

Besides this, Native Americans in the second half of the 20th century gained ground in their quest to be heard. And the Wampanoags, today’s descendants of the Patuxets and other early Massachusetts tribes, had some long-neglected bones to pick.

Thus, although the 19th century’s triumphalist view of the Pilgrims held sway well into the 1950s—when Your New Favorite Writer and many other old people were school children—the “oppressor Pilgrims” narrative, fed by leftist historians and supported by well-documented assertions of the Wampanoag people, has gained ground since the 1960s.

There are still plenty of pro-Pilgrim apologists out there. But they must increasingly feel like yesterday’s children, shouting down a dry rain barrel.

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In the interest of sanity, not to mention conciliation in a divisive era, let me point out a few truths that are sometimes overlooked.

1. Before the arrival of white Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries, North America was never what we would consider densely populated. Nobody knows how many Native Americans there were in pre-Columbian days, but recent estimates range from eight million to 112 million for the entire Western Hemisphere. The North American part of that would be less. If we average the two figures and assign half of the result to North America, we get 30 million. While this is a much larger population of American Indians than existed subsequently—after the effects of virgin-soil epidemics, outright wars, and a long period of genocidal practices—North America would still have seemed sparsely populated to Europeans of that era.

2. The incursions of Spanish colonists in the West and Southwest, and Englishmen on the East Coast, started a catastrophic decline in the fortunes and the populations of Native American tribes. Of this there can be no doubt. As the Pilgrims constituted an early successful experiment in colonization, they were part of the problem, from the Native American point of view.

3. The frequent forays of English fishermen, explorers, and adventurers into North America in the arly 1600s caused one or more serious virgin soil epidemics in New England. Such epidemics happen when a group of people bring new disease organisms into a population not previously exposed to them. Since no resistance has been previously acquired, the disease spreads swiftly, with extreme virulence. One such epidemic depopulated the Massachusetts shoreline just before the Pilgrims arrived. Finding evidence of a recently vanished native civilization, the religious Pilgrims saw in that circumstance the special providence of God—the Hand of the Almighty had cleared a place for them to live. 

4. In the first weeks of their sojourn on the new shore, the Pilgrims uncovered a bushel of corn left by the former inhabitants as grave goods. They understood something of the spititual significance of this corn to the people who had left it there. But those people were nowhere to be seen, and the Pilgrims were in danger of starving. They took the corn and resolved to make restitution if they ever got the chance—a pledge they made good on, by the way.

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Rodney King, April 2012. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Now it is 2021. We live thirty years after Rodney King famously asked, “Can we all get along?” We seem to be having some trouble doing so.

If we are to make progress towards getting along, we must start by acknowledging the scope and pain of the real losses suffered by those cast aside in America’s rush to power and wealth. Where feasible, we should try to make amends.

To shed light on the past may help us do better in the future. But ferreting out the sins of our ancestors to use as cudgels against one another in the present is worse than useless. 

Our common history is no less complicated for its being troubled, and the search for Good Guys and Bad Guys is more futile the farther we are removed from the facts.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

2020 Vision

Since March 11, we have lived in a hodgepodge of COVID precautions, COVID hysteria, COVID counter-reactions, and COVID exhaustion. 

The coronavirus got upstaged, but did not go away, when the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis touched off a new round of racial justice riots. 

Absorbed as we have been in feeding these sorrows into our national appetite for angst, we gave scant notice to a new light in the heavens.

Comet NEOWISE near its closest approach to Earth. Photographed from Joshua Tree National Park, California, 21 July 2020 by Kalpa Semasinghe. Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The comet popped out of the void on March 27. Since then, it has waxed through almost four months of dawns. Now, in July, after sunset, it is on the wane. 

Soon, it will return whence it came, leaving us . . . here.

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash.

Oh, C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, what tidings do you bring? 

Optics

Last Monday I bought a pair of Nikon 8×30 binoculars. I wanted something my wife, daughter, grandchildren, and I could use in the future. Comets come and go, but birds are perennial. Still, it was the comet that spurred my purchase. 

I wanted to see NEOWISE. 

What if it was a harbinger?

Back in 1961, the Wilson-Hubbard Comet appeared for a few days in late July. 

As I trekked through a cattail marsh to my sleeping cabin at Scout camp, its pale cone of light hung in the sky over my right shoulder. The haunting evanescence, seen by naked eye, has dwelt with me near sixty years.

Night Sky

Even longer ago than that, we lived in a small town in Illinois. We were many miles from Chicago, or even Peoria; light pollution was unknown. Every cloudless night, the black empyrean glinted with a billion gems.  

You could—and I did—lie on the grass and stare at Orion, the Dippers, Cassiopeia, the Seven Sisters, and the teeming brilliance of the Milky Way. 

One summer night I lay on the lawn for hours and saw with my own eyes—as if it had not already been taught in school—that our Earth rotates beneath not only the sun and the moon, but beneath the whole firmament. One by one the constellations sink beyond the west while others creep out from under the east.

Beyond that simple truth, I had no grasp of the thing. Intuition failed me as a natural philosopher.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
—Walt Whitman

Astronomy

In days of yore, the farmers, shepherds, and sailors kept company with the night sky. They looked up to fathom its meaning. They gave its regions fanciful names out of folklore and national myths. 

Ptolemy scans the heavens, guided by Urania, the muse of astronomy. 1508 engraving by Gregor Reisch. Pubic Domain.

They relied on heavenly bodies to guide their ways on Earth.

They saw that the stars hold fixed relations with one another, all but a recalcitrant few that wander as if by whimsy through the celestial field. These few they called “planets”—a name that means “wanderer.”

Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-170) worked out a math to map the planets’ paths. This was a feat. 

The challenge was that the planets, as viewed from Earth, seem to halt and go backwards from time to time, apparently at irregular intervals. Unavoidably, Ptolemy’s geometry to account for this oddity was complicated.

In the Middle Ages, Ptolemy’s complex model of planetary motion coexisted with Aristotle’s simple construct of the sky as a sphere of crystal in which the stars were embedded. Aristotle’s notion addressed the changeless reaches of space, while Ptolemy’s pinned down the meanderings of the planets against that space.

Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, 1873, by Jan Matejko. Public Domain.

Come the Renaissance: The sky, like all things else, got re-examined. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) wrote a book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium—On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. He hesitated to publish his theory, so controversial was it. When, on his deathbed, he set loose his manuscript, it knocked over Ptolemy’s applecart, placing the sun at the center of the universe and making of Earth a mere planet—just like the tiny ones that blundered about the nocturnal sky, only closer.

Kepler in 1610. Unknown artist. Public Domain.

The Copernican view—which took almost a century to become accepted science—required a new model for the motions of planets. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a human calculating machine, figured the true orbits of the planets, which turned out to be elliptical, not circular as had always been assumed.

Comets

The permanent stars were fixed in crystal and the desultory planets ranged along an elliptical racetrack. 

Comets were something else again.

Noble stargazer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) observed the Great Comet of 1577 and recorded thousands of position fixes as it passed by. The comet’s trajectory did not fit his system, nor Kepler’s, nor Copernicus’s, nor Ptolemy’s. 

It turns out that comets are adventitious travelers from the far reaches of our solar system.

They arrive all of a sudden and make a big splash. Then they depart, leaving us none the wiser.

Still, they have been taken as portents. 

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”

Mark Twain, 1909

Harbinger

On Wednesday, with my new binoculars, I drove west out of Madison. On a curve of County Highway F between Mount Horeb and Blue Mounds, parked cars lined the road. People sat on the roadside bank in lawn chairs, facing northwest, waiting for the show. 

I tucked my Toyota into the parking lot of Brigham County Park and walked back down the hill to the curve where the comet-seekers sat. Without a lawn chair, I lowered myself heavily to the grassy slope and gazed northwest. 

As the sunset faded, the stars came out. Once the sky darkened enough, it was easy to find the comet at some distance below the Big Dipper.

Looking for a reprise of Comet 1961 V (Wilson-Hubbard), I was disappointed. NEOWISE, even through binoculars, was only a vague streak rising from a pinpoint of light. Once my field glasses had found it, I could also see it without magnification, a mere smudge.

Muttering, I walked back to my car. 

And as I trudged uphill to the parking lot, the whole panoply of Heaven arched above me—millions of stars, diamonds on a black velvet sky. It took my breath away. Or maybe it was the hill.

The panoply of Heaven. “Night Sky” by adrianmichaelphotography is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Reaching the parking lot at the top of the hill, I let my breath catch up with me as I scanned the whole sky. Jupiter gleamed above the southern horizon. The binoculars gave me two of its moons, standing off from the planet’s blue-white orb. 

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Dear Reader, we have imprisoned ourselves in city lights. Away from our industrial glow, the cosmos burns as it always did. But it’s over our heads; we must look up. 

By what lights do we steer? The halogen vapor haze of shopping malls, or the shy twinkles of the universe? 

Back home, I stood in my yard. To the northwest, beyond the man-made glow, hung the same comet we had seen in the country. 

You just had to know where to look.             

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author