Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Christmas Truce of WWI—A Moment of Great Disobedience

On Christmas Eve of 1914—a hundred years ago this month and in the midst of brutal trench warfare—a moment of peace broke out on the Western Front. It was a great moment of disobedience.
Cold, weary and homesick Christian soldiers on both sides of the infamous No Man’s Land of the Western Front, recognized their common humanity, dropped their guns and fraternized with their “enemy”. They had all hoped desperately that this miserable trench war would end soon but now knew they would not be home for Christmas like they had naively believed (and had been led to believe by the press). It was a moment of sudden clarity and tender mercy by those who also knew that they would likely never go home.
It was five months after the Great War had broken out; a war fated to last another four brutal years, in which fifteen million civilian and military men and women would be killed. Considered one of the deadliest conflicts in history, WWI had significant global effects, effects that still ripple through it to this day. Consequences include the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, development of the atom bomb, the Cold War and the collapse of European colonialism.  
As many as 100,000 of the million troops (10%), stationed along the 500 mile Western Front in World War I, mutually and spontaneously stopped fighting for at least 24 to 36 hours (from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day). Isolated instances of local truces occurred as early as December 11, and continued sporadically until New Year’s Day and into early January 1915.

As Christmas neared, the soldiers on both sides of the trenches “sensed the stupidity of killing someone that was just like them and who had never done them any harm,” writes Gary G. Kohls of Global Research. “Many of the men that experienced the moment knew that something deeply profound had happened: a spiritual experience of mutual respect and love that epitomized their mutual Christian upbringing – and they refused to fight and kill when the war was ordered to re-start.” They disobeyed their orders that forbade them to lay down their weapons and fraternize with the enemy: an enemy—the soldier in the trench across from them—who in some ways more shared their lot than their own officers and politicians.
On Christmas Eve 1914, German troops ceased fire in the region of Ypres, Belgium and Saint-Yvon. They decorated the area around their trenches, just 30 to 300 yards from the British, French, or Belgian trenches. The Germans decorated Christmas trees and sang Christmas carols. The British responded with carols of their own. The two sides then shouted Christmas greetings to each other. Eventually, soldiers ventured out of their trenches into No Man's Land; they shook hands with their “enemy”, shared smokes, food and wine and sang with each other. Souvenirs such as buttons and hats were exchanged. The artillery in the region fell silent. Joint services were held. In many places along the front, the truce lasted through Christmas night, continuing until New Year’s Day.
Troops from all sides took advantage to bury their dead, lying all over the battlefields; there were even reports of joint burial services and of soccer games played between the Germans and British.
Despite general’s strict orders against any kind of fraternization with the enemy, at least 115 fighting units among British, German, French and Belgian soldiers participated in the spontaneous truce.
Future nature writer Henry Williamson, then a nineteen-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother on Boxing Day:
"Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvelous, isn't it?"
German artillery officer Mr Rickner described celebrating with French soldiers.

“I remember very well Christmas, I remember the Christmas Day when the German and the French soldiers left their trenches, went to the barbed wire between them with champagne and cigarettes in their hands and had feelings of fraternization and shouted they wanted to finish the war …”
The Christmas Truce of 1914 came close to ending the futile and brutal trench war; but it didn’t…
Eco-psychologists and cultural historians argue that human archetypes rooted in mutual respect, empathy, and cooperation are crucial to our species survival and evolution.
Around 5,500 years ago, small Neolithic villages burgeoned into larger urban “civilizations,” and a new organizational idea emerged, says Bruce Wilson of Popular Resistance:
“What cultural historian Lewis Mumford calls a megamachine, comprised totally of human parts forced to work together to perform tasks on a colossal scale never before imagined. Civilization saw the creation of bureaucracies directed by a power complex of an authority figure (a king) with scribes and messengers, which organized labor machines (masses of workers) to construct pyramids, irrigation systems, and huge grain storage systems among other structures, all enforced by a military. Its features were centralization of power, separation of people into classes, lifetime division of forced labor and slavery, arbitrary inequality of wealth and privilege, and military power and war… We have been stuck for three hundred generations in a model requiring massive obedience to large vertical power complexes.”
Etienne de la Boetie (1553), founder of modern philosophy in France, tells us that massive civil obedience is required to enable vertical authority structures to prevail, whether in the form of monarchial succession, dictatorship, or democratic selections. Autonomous freedom once enjoyed by peoples in pre-civilization tribal groups have given way to the controlling ideologies of authority structures. These de la Boetie described as oppressive “domination hierarchies” where private property and male subjugation of women prevail, by force if necessary.
The emergence of vertical authority structures, the rule of kings and nobles, ripped people from historical patterns of living in small tribal groups (Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner, 1995). Along with forced stratification, the separation of people from their intimate connections with the earth produced deep insecurity, fear, and trauma to the psyche. Ecopyschologists suggest that such fragmentation led to an ecological unconscious.
The 1914 Christmas Truce was a heroic act of disobedience by men, who—recognizing a common belief and trust—refused their orders to fight each other on Christmas Eve and laid down their arms to “fraternize” with their enemy.

“The 1914 Christmas Truce of one hundred years ago was an extraordinary example of how wars can only continue if soldiers agree to fight,” says Bruce Wilson of Popular Resistance:
“It needs to be honored and celebrated, even if it was only a flash of a moment in time. It represents the potential of human disobedience to insane policies. As German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht proclaimed, General, your tank is a powerful vehicle. It smashes down forests, and crushes a Hundred men. But it has one defect: it needs a driver. If commoners refused en masse to drive the tank of war, the leaders would be left to fight their own battles. They would be brief.”
Lewis Mumford, Lewis. 1967. Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 186.
de la Boetie, Etienne. 1553. The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, trans. Harry Kurz (ca. 1553; Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1997), 46, 58–60; Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 45–58, 104–6.

Roszak, Theodore, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner, (eds.). 1995. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Friday, December 19, 2014

10 Things A Planet Needs to Make it Habitable

artist rendition of Kepler 186f
Using the latest Kepler telescope, scientists have recently discovered close to 140 Earth-like planets among thousands of exotic exoplanets in the galaxy. They claim that many more could harbor the right conditions for life. Astrophysicist Natalie Batalha, mission scientist for the Kepplar Space telescope (NASA Ames Research Centre as part of the NASA Discovery Program): “to determine the fraction of stars in our galaxy that harbor potentially habitable Earth-size planets.”… The one common ingredient that makes a planet habitable, Batalha tells us, is the need for liquid water. They are looking for planets “with rocky services where water could pool, that are receiving the right amount of energy from the star where the water wouldn’t be locked up in a frozen state because the planet is too cold, nor would it be evaporated away because it’s too hot. We call it the Goldilocks Zone where liquid water can exist.”

Exoplanet Kepler 186f, located 490 light-years from Earth and nicknamed Earth’s cousin was discovered by the Kepler telescope earlier this year. Orbiting star Kepler 186, it is the first validated Earth-like planet to orbit a distant star in its habitable zone. It could support oceans and alien life. 
I’m an ecologist and, like my mother who is a master baker, I love to create ecosystems from scratch. So the research to world-build has been a fun part of writing my science fiction novels to date.

  • The duology Darwin’s Paradox and Angel of Chaos, are set on Earth in 2095 in a climate-changed Greater Toronto Area (now called Icaria-5); Icaria-5 is an enclosed community, nested in a wild heathland, abandoned by a fearful society governed by a Technocratic government of ecologists. 

  • The Splintered Universe Trilogy explores several potentially habitable worlds that I researched through NASA files.  Each world portrayed in the three books is a realizable and habitable world—OK, in some cases with the help of a little bio-geo alteration by the Eosian race…
Most of the places I researched and used for our intrepid hero, galactic detective Rhea Hawke of the Splintered Universe Trilogy, appeared on NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder top 100 list:
Iota Horologii: Neon City is Rhea Hawke’s hometown and where the main precinct of the Galactic Guardian force, for which she works, is headquartered. It’s on Iota Hor-2, which orbits Iota Horologii b (a Jupitor-like gas giant) in the Iota Horologii system (a Class G0Vp, yellow-orange main sequence dwarf star. The moon was tidally influenced by the jovian giant: it had an atmosphere in danger of being periodically sucked away, and an eccentric orbit that swung from a tropical summer to a Siberian winter. That was bio-geo altered by the Eosians. The Horologium Constellation is located near Taurus and Orion. Iota Horologii became one of the top 100 target stars for NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF). 
70 Virginis: Rhea visits Virgil City on the moon Virgil 9, orbiting 70 Virginis b (Goldilocks), a jovian planet. The star is a G4V class yellow-orange main sequence dwarf. Virgil city suffers from periodic intense heat and drought to long nights of intense flooding. The natives, an amoeba-like colony have adapted to these severe conditions. 
47 Ursae Majoris: Rhea first visits Pyramid City on 47 Ursae Majoris b (47 Uma b), a volcanic  planet called Horus by its bird-like inhabitants. She then visits Paradise City on Uma 1, an icy moon that orbits the planet and used as a spiritual retreat by the Schiss, a Gnostic religious sect. 47 Ursae Majoris is a solar analog, yellow dwarf star that is listed as one of the top 100 target stars in NASA’s TPF. 
Pleiades Nabula: this open star cluster in the Taurus Constellation is the home for the planet Eos, where the Eosians, who run the Galactic Guardian force come from.
Other systems Rhea visits include: HD 177830, HD 168443, HD 70642, HD 222582, HD 28185, 55 Cancri, Gliese 876, Fomalhaut, and the M103 star cluster.

Ten Criteria for Habitable Worlds
Here are ten criteria identified by NASA scientists for a habitable planet:
1. Habitable Goldilocks Neighbourhood
The habitable zone (HZ) is the distance from a star where an Earth-like planet can maintain liquid water on its surface and Earth-like life. The habitable zone is not the same as “planetary habitability”. While planetary habitability describes the planetary conditions needed to maintain carbon-based life, the habitable zone describes the stellar conditions required to maintain carbon-based life.
A ” Goldilocks planet ” is a planet that falls within a star’s habitable zone, and the name is often specifically used for planets close to the size of Earth. The name comes from the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in which the little girl, Goldilocks, rules out extreme choices (large or small, hot or cold, etc.), In the same way, a planet following the Goldilocks Principle is one that is neither too close nor too far from a star to rule out liquid water on its surface and life (as humans understand it).
Scientists describe areas they think are less suited to life than others:
  • globular cluster in the midst of immense star densities with excessive radiation and gravitational disturbance.
  • near an active gamma ray source.
  • near the galactic center where a supermassive black hole is believed to lie (e.g., Gargantua in Interstellar)

2. Less Alterations in Luminosity of its Star

Changes in luminosity are common to all stars, but the severity of the fluctuations ranges broadly. A small number of variable stars experience sudden and intense increases in luminosity, making them poor candidates for hosting life-bearing planets. Life adapted to a specific temperature range would likely not survive great and variable temperature fluctuations. Upswings in luminosity create massive doses of gamma ray and X-ray radiation. Atmospheres mitigate such effects; however, planets orbiting variables may be periodically stripped of their atmosphere by the high-frequency energy buffeting them.

3. High Metallicity of its Star

A star’s metallicity results from the proportion of its matter made up of chemical elements other than hydrogen and helium. Since stars that make up most of the visible matter in the universe, are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, astronomers use the blanket term “metal” to describe all other elements collectively. A low amount of metal hugely decreases the probability that planets of sufficient mass favorable for life would have formed.
4. Good Jupiters
These are gas giant planets, like our Jupiter, that orbit their stars in circular orbits far enough away from the habitable zone to not disturb it but close enough to “protect” terrestrial planets in closer orbit in two critical ways:
  • they help stabilize the orbits, and climates, of the inner planets.
  • they keep the inner solar system relatively free of comets and asteroids that could cause devastating impacts. Jupiter orbits the Sun at about five times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This is the rough distance we should expect to find good Jupiters elsewhere. Jupiter’s “caretaker” role was illustrated in 1994 when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted the giant; had Jovian gravity not captured the comet, it could have entered the inner solar system.
5. More Mass
Low-mass planets are poor candidates for life for two reasons:
  • lesser gravity makes atmosphere retention difficult. Molecules are more likely to reach escape velocity and be lost to space when buffeted by solar wind or stirred by collision.
  • smaller planets have smaller diameters and higher surface-to-volume ratios than  larger planets. They will lose the energy left over from their formation too quickly, lacking the volcanoes, earthquakes and tectonic activity that supplies the surface with life-sustaining material and the atmosphere with temperature moderators like carbon dioxide. Plate tectonics recycle important chemicals and minerals; they also foster bio-diversity through continent creation and increased environmental complexity and help create the convective cells necessary to generate a magnetic field.

A larger mass will more likely retain a molten core as a heat engine, driving the diverse geology of the surface. A larger planet is also more likely to have a large iron core with a magnetic field to protect the planet from stellar wind and cosmic radiation.
6. Less Eccentric Orbit
Orbital eccentricity is the difference between a planet’s farthest and closest approach to its parent star divided by the sum of that distances. This ratio describes the shape of the elliptical orbit. The greater the eccentricity, the greater the temperature fluctuation on a planet’s surface. When the fluctuations overlap both the freezing point and boiling point of the planet’s main biotic solvent (e.g., water on Earth), life is severely compromised. The more complex the organism, the greater the temperature sensitivity. The Earth’s orbit is almost wholly circular, with an eccentricity of less than 0.02.
7. Axial Tilt
A planet’s movement around its rotational axis must also meet certain criteria for life to evolve. If little or no axial tilt (or obliquity) exists relative to the perpendicular of the ecliptic, seasons will not occur and a main stimulant to biospheric dynamism will disappear. Alternatively, if a planet is radically tilted, seasons will be extreme and make it more difficult for a biosphere to achieve homeostasis.
8. Biomass & Long-Term Orbiting Bodies
The four elements most vital for life on Earth—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen—are also the most common chemically reactive elements in the universe. Simple biogenic compounds, such as amino acids, were found in meteorites and in the interstellar medium. These four elements together comprise over 96% of Earth’s collective biomass. Carbon has an unparalleled ability to bond with itself and to form a massive array of intricate and varied structures, making it an ideal material for the complex mechanisms that form living cells. Hydrogen and oxygen (in the form of water) are the solvent in which biological processes take place and where the first reactions occurred that led to life’s emergence on Earth. The energy released in the formation of powerful covalent bonds between carbon and oxygen, available through oxidizing organic compounds, is the fuel of all complex life-forms on Earth. Although these four “life elements” appear to be readily available elsewhere, a habitable system likely also requires a supply of long-term orbiting bodies to seed inner planets. Without comets there is a possibility that life as we know it would not exist on Earth.
9. Microenvironment
Only a tiny portion of a planet needs to support life to make it habitable. The discovery of life in extreme conditions has complicated definitions of habitability, but also generated a lot of excitement in greatly broadening the known range of conditions under which life can persist. For example, a planet whose solar conditions would generally prohibit an atmosphere from forming, might nurture one within a deep shadowed rift or volcanic cave. Similarly, craterous terrain might offer a refuge for primitive life.
10. Different Metabolism Mechanism
Some scientists hypothesize that lifeforms evolving around a different metabolic mechanism may have arisen. In Evolving the Alien, biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart suggest that Earth-like planets may be very rare, but that non-carbon-based complex life could emerge in other environments. The most frequently mentioned alternative to carbon is silicon-based life, while ammonia is sometimes suggested as an alternative solvent to water.

An April 17th article on identifies 10 exoplanets that could host alien life. They include:
  • Kepler 186f
  • Gliese 581g
  • Gliese 667Cc
  • Kepler 22b
  • HD 40307g
  • HD 85512b
  • Tau Ceti e
  • Gliese 163c
  • Gliese 581d
  • Tau Ceti f

None were planets that I’d chosen. But that’s just 10 so far in a host of many more to come; it’s only a matter of time.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit for more about her writing.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Saint Lucia’s Day Blessed Me with Light

I paint not by sight but by faith. Faith gives you sight—Amos Ferguson

Saint Lucia
Do you believe in miracles?

On this day, some twenty-odd years ago, after over 12 hours of hard labour, I rejoiced in God’s miracle of creation.  I gave birth to a beautiful son. A soul of brilliant light. My son was born on Saint Lucia’s Day, named after St. Lucy of Syracuse—the saint of light. A day celebrated as a National Day on the tiny island of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, named after its patron saint, St. Lucy. While I was laboring all night in a Vancouver hospital, the island of Saint Lucia gleamed in the brilliance of the National Festival of Lights and Renewal.

Saint Lucia is one of the earliest Christian martyrs. She was brutally killed by the Romans in 304 AD because of her religious beliefs, refusing to consecrate her marriage to a pagan. Lucia (which literally means light; lux, lucis) secretly brought food to the persecuted Catholics in Rome, who lived in hiding in the catacombs under the city. She wore candles on her head to liberate both hands so she could carry more. You can read more about the story here.

St. Lucia’s Day is a festival of lights primarily celebrated in Sweden, Norway and the Swedish-speaking areas of Finland on December 13th in honour of St. Lucia. The day is celebrated by choosing a girl to dress in a white dress with a crown of candles on her head as part of a carol-singing procession. The girl’s crown is made of Lingonberry branches, which are evergreen and symbolize new life in winter.

The festival marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Scandinavia and brings hope and light during the darkest time of the years. Scandinavian families celebrate the day with coffee and baked goods such as saffron bread (lussekatter) and ginger biscuits (pepparkakor).

In earlier times, when this festivity coincided with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, huge bonfires were constructed to scare off evil spirits and alter the course of the sun. Since the calendar reforms, her feast day became a festival of light. Celebrated most commonly in Scandinavia (with its long dark winters), Saint Lucia’s Day is a major feast day. The Italians also ostensibly celebrate this day, but emphasize a different aspect of her story. The devotions to light predate Christian times with pagan midwinter elements, centered on the annual struggle between light and darkness.

So, on this day, twelve days before Christmas and eight days before the shortest day of the year (the Winter Solstice), I celebrate my miracle.  The miracle of light, but also of chiaroscuro, where light and dark play to create enlightenment. Because, just as you cannot have “up” without “down”, you cannot have light without dark.

“At the place of darkest dark, the light in contrast is the most noticeable,” Marianne Hieb, author of Inner Journeying Through Art-Journaling (2005) tells us. She tells us that it is in the places of greatest contrast … “grace is waiting there for you.”

When my son was born, I was born too. So was my art. I was already creating. I had written some   
My little boy...
short stories and had published a few articles. But it wasn’t until my son was born that my creativity exploded. Became galvanized. Achieved meaning. Just as light helps define texture and form, my son helped me define my balance, movement, rhythm, contrast, emphasis, pattern and unity.

Marianne Hieb tells us that these are the very principles of design. Like the fabric of a fine tapestry, they hold aspects of creativity together and define our art.  Just as they define us.

...grows up
Balance: you find balance when you first walk, ride a bike, skate and ski. In art, balance refers to the distribution of visual weights. It is the visual equilibrium of the elements that comprise the entire image. Symmetrical balance is achieved when elements or sections of equal quality mirror each other. An example of asymmetrical balance with unequal elements would be a painting where one small intense color can balance a grouping of less intense and larger things. This provides excellent metaphor in journal representations and life-journeys. Think of the balances between irregular and simple shapes, intense and subdued colors. Think color, shape, size, texture, value when creating balance or showing the opposite. Balance can indicate movement and can also radiate out from a single point of focus.

Movement: A balance of movement and stillness exists in all works of art, in dance, in music, in painting, sculpture and literature. Says Hieb, “Shapes and colors move the eye most easily through the work. Lines provide visual passage or linkage. Your eyes follow the edges of darkness or edges of light. Visual movement leads your seeing through the work, to a point of focus.” Horizontal, vertical and diagonal are the three main types of visual movement. Horizontal movement usually conveys a calm or restful sense. If you use vertical movement, you may be expressing a feeling of firmness or stability or even growing. Diagonal movement often reflects action and swiftness.

Rhythm: Rhythm is the repetition of visual movement of color, shapes, lines, values, forms, spaces and textures. Movement and rhythm work together, says Hieb. Rhythms are present in all natural things and can be regular, irregular, staccato and progressive. Rhythm has the power of uniting and energizing images and themes, through implied connection and relationship.

Contrast: contrast is delivered through color, texture, and shape. Contrast creates visual excitement, drama. Says Hieb, “at the place of darkest dark, the light in contrast is the most noticeable … [in] the places of greatest contrast … grace is waiting there for you.” Contrast can exist in many forms: smooth vs. rough; light vs. dark; dry vs. wet; playful vs. dour; anger vs. forgiveness — just to name a few. Contrast is drama. It is a place of potential conflict, tension, and great enlightenment.

Emphasis:  Emphasis creates focus. You can emphasize color, shapes, direction or other art elements to achieve dominance, says Hieb. Given that each of these elements is significance with the psyche, what elements you chose to emphasize in your drawing or selection of art can give you additional insight to what was important to you or affecting you at the time. For instance, colors can reflect mood: red emphasizes and reflects passion or danger; green reflects nature and healing; orange is fun and warm; blue is cool and calming, etc. Shapes can be very symbolic. Researchers have shown that angular shapes are less apt to elevate feelings of comfort and well being then circular shapes, which engender feelings of safety, unity and harmony. Squares can reflect conformity and equality; triangles can suggest self-discovery and revelation; spirals can express creativity, and so on.

Pattern: A pattern is basically a recognizable series of elements. For instance, you experience patterns of activities and behavior. Patterns are the planned or random repetitions that occur in nature and in your life. They increase visual excitement. Patterns that occur in nature exhibit unique and exquisite beauty. Pattern — in shape, color, texture — can relate to one’s history, personal experiences, and choices. They can similarly reveal our reactions, reflections and feelings.

Proud Mom...
Unity: the use of a dominant color scheme or overall surface treatment creates a strong sense of unity. Unity provides the cohesive quality that makes an artwork feel complete and finished, says Hieb. “A subjective sense of oneness is the felt experience of the principle of unity,” she adds. Unity is achieved through the harmonious integration of the previous elements I named. What unity looks like will be unique to each individual and to their stage in their life journey.

Happy Birthday, Son. You are my light. 

My miracle.


Hieb, Marianne. 2005. Inner Journeying Through Art-Journaling. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London. 176pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice. Pixl Press, Vancouver, British Columbia. 172pp.