Sunday, February 15, 2015

Old-school snow shoeing


I'd been tromping some paths down in the snow, but they've all been drifted into oblivion. 

And more snow is coming.

Compared to friends farther north, two feet of snow on the ground isn't so much.  But it's more than we're used to - especially week after week.

I have some old beavertail-style snowshoes my Dad got from L.L. Bean many, many years ago.  

I took them off his hands this winter figuring they were decorative enough to keep on hand somewhere in case I ever needed a pair to get around on.  

Today was the day to try them out - if only to walk down to the beehives to make sure they hadn't been drifted over.

They're more cumbersome then the new-style snowshoes, but they work perfectly fine.  Much better to walk on top of snow than plow through it.  

And now if I ever have to make myself a pair of snowshoes - I know I have a model to work from - the same basic design as the Algonquin, Huron and French trappers used in the northern forests.

Tomorrow  is supposed to be sunny with a wind chill to -20° F  (-29° C), but now I can take a walk if I want to. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Chipping at the foundations of democracy: journalism edition

I haven't really been following the story about Brian Williams and whether he did or didn't embellish his experiences in the field as a reporter. Since I prefer information less corporately masticated,  I don't get my info from the TV.  The cult of on-the-spot tele-anchor reporting is more theater than journalism in any case.  But I do find the high-profile discrediting of a prominent figure of journalism to be a depressing spectacle.

It has little to do with Williams - who is probably a perfectly fine man.

It has little to do with the many bad habits of television and television news.

It has to do with discrediting the institution of journalism, so that its ultimate demise is mourned by no one - right, left or center.

The corporate takeover of the news media has overseen the diminishment of reporting across the country.  The decline in quality and independence and diversity - the decline in staff - the decline of journalism as a profession.  It has been a stunning destruction of the media as the Fourth Estate.

At one level this is part of the larger crisis of democracy as a form of political organization.  If anyone is going to look after the common good, we need sources of information and analysis that go beyond the press releases of the powerful.  (The first amendment of the Constitution acknowledges a "free press" as a bedrock institution of the republic.)

Unfortunately, this pattern of mismanaging, dismantling and discrediting isn't confined to news departments.

Look at the institutions or practices that (when functioning) contribute to actual democracy, and you'll see we're in the end game of a long, concerted effort to destroy and (even more insidiously) to discredit them and make them unusable:  public education, government, labor unions, science (as source of publicly available knowledge), the arts, taxation and so on.

Compare the institutions that lead in the other direction - military, police, the prison-industrial complex, courtier-journalism, science (as source of technologies of control), corporate consolidation, the legalization of political corruption, and so on.  All of these are being actively developed into the foundations of our society.

It is convenient for the powers that be that regular Americans be isolated from their own democratic power, and that institutions which could serve to enable collective self-organization and action be not only broken, but seen as unworthy of repair.

The constructive power of journalism has been to give people a better opportunity to see what is actually happening in the world - as distinct from the proclamations and propagandas of the powerful.      From the muckraking of Upton Sinclair, the bloody imagery of Vietnam, the embarrassment of Watergate or Abu Ghraib, such information can galvanize people to challenge the status quo or insist on something more in tune with the common will.

But when journalists are viewed as nothing more than spin doctors, entertainers, mouthpieces, stenographers, or unreliable celebrities - we lose access to an important source for a shared, credible picture of what is happening.  That's why I find the taking down of Brian Williams to be a sorry spectacle.  Because whatever the merits of the case, it is yet one more reason for people to give up on the idea that news media can be and ought to be a reliable source of information about what is really happening.

I don't think things are a lost cause, but I do think Americans are on the losing side of a intra-societal war that they are only dimly aware of.  And it is one they are very clearly NOT being informed about . . .

(editorial cartoons via

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Winter Views from the kitchen window

Icy rhododendrons

We weathered the storms without particular difficulty.  Nico got a couple of days off school because the roads were bad and the wind chills brutal, but our power stayed on.

The birds and squirrels have eaten their way through the first 50 lb. bag of sunflower seeds and are well into the second.  Shaggy-coated deer and a flock of turkeys come to glean beneath the feeders.

It's a difficult time of year and I don't begrudge any of the creatures their bit of seed.  

A white-tailed deer returns though I yelled at her to leave my cherry tree alone.
A white breasted nuthatch eyes me from the maple tree.
A downy woodpecker pauses at the suet feeder as a Carolina wren works the other side
A young Cooper's hawk hunts songbirds
Flower heads
Turkeys tidy up the birdseed in the cold, early morning gloom.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Preparing for the Blizzard of '15

It's snowing outside.  The forecasters are predicting that 18 to 30 inches will fall in the next day and a half.  Probably we'll never know exactly how much, because they are also expecting wind gusts of 65 mile per hour, which will sweep clear the high spots and bury the low spots.

It's possible the power will stay on, but I'm not counting on it.  

We heat with a wood stove, and I've laid in a few days of fuel, so as long as the roof is intact we'll be comfortable.  

Our cook stove is electric, but there is much we can cook on the wood stove.  In fact, a pot roast is out thawing and beans are soaking.

Rye bread is baking, and we have candles and oil lamps for light.

The main problem with a power outage is water.  The pump won't draw from the well without electricity.  But I always have 40 gallons of potable water (alongside plenty of food) in the "hurricane pantry," as well as a 25 gallon barrel of non-potable water in the basement.  The rain barrel was brought in for the winter, so I filled it with another 55 gallons of water - for flushing the toilet or washing.

I've put heavy stones on top of the beehives, fetched the snow shovel from the shed, and filled the bird feeders.

And we have nowhere else we have to be.

If you are in the path of this, be safe.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January Gardening

  A half-dozen nights of single-digit cold should have done in the last of the greens, but they look discouraged, not dead.  My cold frames are nothing but a box with an old window set on top, but that's been enough to protect the hardier mustards, chards and greens.

Granted, they are not exactly luxuriating under our stingy winter sunlight, and they only exist because I haven't been harvesting them.  But still they are edible - and in their small doses they pack infinitely more flavor and vitality than the supermarket greens that one can buy.  

I'm definitely motivated to make the autumn garden a priority in the future and see if I can generate more of a winter harvest.

The window-lids don't just allow in winter sunlight and protect against the cold.  
They also give some protection from four-legged marauders.

Into a teapot I crushed mint 
that I had picked and dried for just such January days,
 and drizzled in the honey from the backyard hives,
and settled down with a hot and steaming tea that tasted like August.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Marking the Civil Rights Movement: Racial disparities as justification for racism

Ferguson protest at U Penn, by SOUL
(UPDATED, Jan 20)

One of the things that makes US racism so powerful and durable is that the more destructive and awful we make the misery, disparities and injustices of race, the more natural and right the system seems to people.  The outcomes of racism are held up as proof that our racism is right and just.

This was driven home to me a number of years ago when I directed a research project to help advocates and public health officials communicate about racial disparities in health.

One of the clearest findings is that whenever you speak about racial disparities in health outcomes (like rates of diabetes or heart disease or life expectancy) people assume that Black people just can't make smart decisions about their health.  Sharing information on disparities just serves to confirm long-standing racist assumptions about Black or Hispanic people.

Strike one.

If you try to show that Blacks and Hispanics are growing up in neighborhoods and settings that are disadvantaged and destructive, it just confirms in people's minds that this isn't just a sum of individual failings, but a collective failure of an entire race or people.

Strike two.

Complain that it's unfair or problematic that we have too many Black families in poverty, ill-health or being torn apart by the criminal justice system, and the best you can hope for is that people bite their tongues because they know it's impolite to voice what they really think of all that.

If you demonstrate that Black families and Black communities have had the deck stacked against them structurally and historically, people will shrug and shake their heads, because winners are those that overcome their obstacles and losers are those who fail to overcome their obstacles and who then blame others and whine about the unfairness of it all.

Strike three.

In our research, the only way we found around this was to talk exclusively about inputs rather than outcomes.  If you can show that a Black man who goes to the doctor for hypertension is much less likely to be given a prescription than a white man, then that is something everyone can agree ought to be corrected.  If you can show that we spend on average $700 less per year on a Black student compared to a White student - and that such disparities persist even within the same school district - this is something people agree ought to be corrected.

But these kind of "smoking gun" statistics can only address a small part of the picture.  Even more problematic is that such facts are not only harder to come by, but people dislike them, try to evade, sideline and find flaws with them.  Ultimately - they forget and discard them.  It is too hard and too troublesome to keep this kind of information in mind when the prisons, ghettos and news reports are full of Black people who prove that this whole societal disaster is their fault - not ours.  With such a lens firmly in place human psychology makes it fairly easy to sort everyday interactions in a way that confirms one's prejudices.

Social scientists have ample proof that the US enacts and enforces a race-based caste system.  An integral building block in this has been attitudes about the moral inferiority of Black character and behavior,  a portrait which remains relatively constant, whether articulated via the Bible, biology, social darwinism, or flawed culture.

Speaking as a social scientist, it is depressing that a half-century of research has given unprecedented insight into our racist system, and this has not only failed to alter that system, but in effect has served to bulwark its solidity instead.


I feel like this blog post comes across as hopeless and I don't mean for it to be so.  I am discouraged that the kind of strategic framing that we specialize in seems inadequate to the task of countering racism.  I am even more discouraged that the facts that social science has uncovered have been inadequate to the task of countering racism, and have often instead been folded into racism.

I put my hope in desegregation.  By that I don't mean busing or affirmative action - though I support both.  I mean breaking down the two-worlds experience that divides African-Americans from so many of the rest of us.

And that is something that we can all play a role in from our varied positions in this riven society.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Feeding birds in the winter's deep.

I'm inconsistent about feeding the birds - except in these deep winter weeks, when creatures can quickly freeze to death if they fall short of food.  

I had a bucket of black oil sunflower seed left over from last year and put some out a few days ago when temperatures were languishing near zero and the wind chills were well below.  

A couple of hours later the first juncos and white throated sparrows had discovered the seed.  A Carolina wren joined them, followed by the chickadees and titmice.   Soon came downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, cardinals, and song sparrows.  Goldfinches, mourning doves and house finches arrived the next day.  Even a small, un-spotted thrush arrived to see what the fuss was.

Robins and bluebirds, brown creepers and kinglets have been around, but they have no interest in sunflower seeds.

The species have their different dining styles.  Juncos, cardinals and sparrows are scratchers and won't perch on the feeder.  They'll take seed that I've put on top of branches or scattered on the ground.  The doves stroll around on the ground with them.

The chickadees and titmice on the other hand, grab a seed and fly up to a branch, where they hold the seed between their feet to peck open.  

The finches and wrens are happy to perch on the feeder as long as they can get away with it, cracking the seeds in their beaks one after another.  The downy woodpeckers will do the same, but they get restless and go foraging among the lichen.

The red-bellied woodpecker, on the other hand, will snatch a seed, fly to the trunk of a tree, wedge the seed into a crevice where it can be pecked apart.  The nuthatches are also fond of that strategy.

Jays arrive in a  noisy troop - some on the ground, some in the tree, some fluttering clumsily on the feeder.  They make a ruckus and don't stay long.

The air has been thick with the criss-crossing flight paths of scores of birds.

My stash of sunflower seed is gone.  These flocks made short work of it.  Tomorrow I will buy a bag to get through the rest of this cold snap . . .

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Love Note to 2014

For the first four months of 2014 I tried to jot down some thing that I loved - each day.  It developed into a sort of rambling poem of pleasures.  It lapsed at the beginning of May, but I came across some lines among my drafts, so here's the last installment of the Love Note to 2014 . . .

I love to be pushed by the wind.
I love clouds, and I love that the sky is blue - ricochets of light fragmented.
I love a lightning-shattered cobalt sky

I love walking an old downtown, with a history built of brick and stone, paint upon paint.
What of ours will stand a century from today?

I love the songs of the meadowlark,
the way that sandhill cranes travel in pairs,
the silhouettes of herons
and the avarice of gulls

I love a night woods echoing with the sonnets of cicadas and the ghazals of frogs.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Nine predictions for the year 2015

Street mural, Denver, Colorado
My over-arching prediction for 2014 turned out to be accurate.  We mostly muddled along with the status quo and we neither made progress on solving our problems nor did we bring our civilization finally crashing down upon our collective heads.

Of the more specific predictions that I made - I could only give myself credit for 2 of 9.  Not a very good showing - except perhaps by the standards of those who predict specifics about the future.

Nonetheless, it is entertaining to make a few more predictions just to see.  In that spirit here are my 9 predictions for 2015:
  • It will be one of the three hottest years ever recorded globally.
  • Obama attempts to put ending mass incarceration onto the public agenda.  In particular, the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders.  The possibility of blanket pardons cause the Republicans to go ballistic and half of the Democratic party runs for cover.
  • Ebola flares up in Asia.  These several thousand deaths rattle the global economy much more than the African outbreak did.
  • Americans are shocked when police officers in a major metropolitan area are found to have intentionally singled out and assassinated several critics of police brutality.
  • Globally, disgust with their political elites continues to bolster support for radical, anti-establishment parties, and in more than one European country they win power, if not for long.
  • Occupy re-emerges as a political force among the younger generation - organized around its "debt jubilee" and other efforts to disentangle young people from participation in an economic and political system that is rigged against them.  The Establishment derides them as naive and disengaged.
  • (Carried over from last year) One of the world's great monoculture crops will mostly fail this year.  Although this will be blamed on a new pest or blight, the failure will actually be due to a combination of narrow genetics, unstable climate and the decline in agricultural research.
  • Kitchen gardens, backyard chickens and other small animal husbandry continue to increase dramatically in popularity and practice in the US.  Grassroots pressure to change zoning and regulatory restrictions continue to find success.
  • Oil stays below $70 per barrel.  Low gas and oil prices drive several mid-sized energy companies in the US to loan defaults and bankruptcy.  The government organizes a multi-billion dollar bailout of loan guarantees and subsidies to keep drilling operations going, and to keep dreams of Saudi America alive.
So, I'll revisit these at the end of the year and see if I can top my 2 for 9 mark!

Streetscape, Denver, Colorado

Looking back at my predictions for 2014.

Driving into Denver
I don't always have my fingers on the pulse of popular culture, but I get the sense that for most people 2014 didn't feel like a rosy year.  In fact, it seems like it was a year that people are anxious to put behind them.

Interestingly, I can't see any particular reason why 2014 was any worse that any of the years preceding it.  The big, dramatic media stories - the Ebola outbreak, Asian plane crashes, civil war in the Levant, police homicides, political gridlock, etc. - were nothing out of the ordinary.

If I were to project my own experience, I would guess that for more and more people it wasn't so much the bad news that was the issue - it was the dearth of good news.  As I framed my predictions from a year ago, we are facing multiple, overlapping, civilization-threatening challenges and it is becoming harder and harder to pretend that we have any kind of feasible plan to meet them.

To the extent that a person looks up from personal efforts to secure a portion of bread and circus and tries to grasp the bigger picture, the credibility of the cheerleaders of progress and happy trends seems to be failing.  Instead we have climate change, fossil fuel dependency, economic stagnation, a malaise in democratic governance, an unraveling of Pax Americanaand the general unsustainability of our way of life.

I short, I think 2014 sucked mostly because the nature of our predicaments became just that much harder to ignore.

From this perspective, my over-arching prediction that we would limp along upon a slowly crumbling status quo seems to have borne out.  But that was hardly an ambitious effort at prescience, and so I also made 9 more specific predictions.  Grading myself on a curve, and giving some partial credit, I'd have to give myself a 2 out of 9.

Here's how I grade myself:
  • In US politics, Republicans will spend another couple of months convincing people that their greedy insurance companies are actually Obamacare, before they pivot and take credit for all of the things that are popular about the program.   
0 for 1.  As far as I can tell, the Republicans never did pivot, but continued to demonize their caricature of health insurance reform - with a healthy majority of legislators still paying lip service to repeal.  So, no credit for that one.  I'd drop this one for 2015.
  • Democrats will get some credit for successfully pushing for minimum wage increases, and Republicans will mostly get out of the way eventually.  Life will improve slightly for millions of people and small businesses.
1 out of 2. I'll give myself credit for that one.  Every minimum wage referenda on the state ballots passed, even if the Democratic party wasn't as aggressive at leading and claiming credit as it might have been.  Momentum seems to be there for more.
  • Having disappeared almost entirely from the political and media discourse, climate change will be back in the news as hot weather, drought, and sea level rise continue to intensify.  Notably, it will be treated not as a problem to be solved, but rather as an inevitability that must be adapted to.  The solution that dare not speak its name (i.e. changing our way of living) will continue to be tabu.
1 for 3. Not strikingly right nor strikingly wrong.  Climate change discourse remains a muddle.  Notably, the idea that fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground has been emerging occasionally into the public discourse.  But no credit for this one.
  • Among the Chinese, there will be unrest in 2014 stemming from ecological degradation -- especially pollution in the air, soil and food.  The Chinese government will react by purging some high-profile officials and when that doesn't settle things, it will look for a pretext to stir up the distraction of a nativist backlash against the Japanese, Tibetans or Uighurs. 
1 for 4.  China more or less stays the course.  But this is a prediction I'd renew for 2015.
  • Energy production will limp along at a plateau, just enough to keep the global economy sputtering, while food prices will be kept just low enough to avoid riots and revolutions.  Predictors of doom and predictors of a new prosperity will both be disappointed.
1 for 5. Can't really give myself credit here. The US's shale and fracking boomlet continued, despite indications that energy companies have been losing money.  This enabled an increase in energy production, which, in the context of an global economic slowdown, created something like a glut.  Now oil prices have collapsed, which will stimulate many economies, even as it bankrupts energy companies that have been investing in the new frontiers of hard-to-get fossil fuels.
  • On the tech front, Google Glass and smart watches will fail to extend their reach beyond the chic geek digerati.  But late in the year there will be the first incarnations of true digital assistants - programs that can adapt to individuals and manage their social networking and digital connectivity.  The nimbler of the telecoms will get on board and start working on these new digital PA's.
1.25 for 6. Well the easy prediction that these iterations of glasses and watches were duds was kind of a no-brainer.  The digital personal assistant, however, didn't materialize.  In fact, there was nothing at all exciting on the tech front - unless you buy into the chimera of driverless cars . . . 
  • The Sochi Olympics will be a fiasco impressive even by Russian standards.  The one upside being that few people will go in person so the inadequacies and brutalities of the effort won't become as notorious as they might have.
1.75 for 7. Half credit.  The destructive grandiosity of Sochi looks paltry next to the annexation of Crimea a few months later.
  • One of the world's great monoculture crops will mostly fail this year.  Although this will be blamed on a new pest or blight, the failure will actually be due to a combination of narrow genetics, unstable climate and the decline in agricultural research.
1.75 for 8.  Cocoa is faltering under a blight, and candy makers are running out of reserves, but it's not a failure.  No credit, yet.  The prediction is one I'd renew for 2015.
  • On the global spiritual front, the push by Pope Francis for a more modest, non-consumerist and even ascetic spirituality will be echoed in popular movements within religions around the world, including evangelicals, muslims and others.  Governments will be unsettled and ambivalent about this development.
He's been busy, but no signs of a Franciscan revitalization movement, yet.

I'll throw in a quarter point for not being embarrassingly wrong on anything - just to round it up to a tidy 2 for 9.   When it comes to the details, my original prediction - that predicting is hard - turns out to be my main point of prescience.

I'll leave this post with a reminder that despite my doomerly tendencies, I remain optimistic.  Here's a picture of the boys climbing the wracked body of a great cedar tree on the Olympic Peninsula.

Porter and Nico

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Brown family Christmas, 2014

The family was gathering at my parents' log and stone house in central Pennsylvania.  My cousin, Fred, has been marooned there since April, recovering from a back injury, but now waiting to rejoin his life on tour as one of the dancers in Sesame Street Live.  He's been baking Christmas cookies.  Monica, Porter (16), Nico (13) and I drive across from Rhode Island - with The Amber Spyglass playing on the tape deck to speed up the five hour drive.  My sister Cathie arrives with Eric, Bridget (6), Leo (4) and their dog, Bella (that I always call Rosie).  They have swung through Berks county to pick up a mountain of tamales for our dinner.

My sister Chris would come up from Baltimore to complete this year's cast of an even dozen.

The morning of Christmas eve: on the 24th there is generally a fair amount of sitting around and chatting.  There is some last minute Christmas shopping.  It was a drab and drizzly morning, but Dad's bird feeders were active -- nuthatches, titmice, woodpeckers, finches and sparrows.  And squirrels, of course.

In our family there is a strong slugabed contingent - (small, early-rising children are the cross that Cathie and Eric bear).  The two teenagers might never rise voluntarily.

Mom and Monica went off to the farmer's market for supplies and to pick up the turkey.  I scouted the property's six acres for a suitable Christmas tree.  The bar isn't particularly high.  My father planted hemlock trees years ago, and though they are more spindly than the classic Christmas spruce, spindly hemlocks have become traditional in our family.  Last year, we took down what looked like the last passable top, but 2014 must have been a good year for growth.  I rousted Porter from his bed and he helped me saw the top eight feet from a good looking tree.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice marks the turning of the year.  Days that have been growing shorter and shorter, finally reach a nadir, and will begin to grow longer.  The sun will arc higher in the sky. The cold will deepen, more snow will fall, the ground will become iron-hard and the ponds will freeze solid.  But the sun is coming back - and today begins the long process of re-warming these northern woods - of waking things from yearly dormancy and dearth.

It's an event that humans in the north have marked for tens of thousands of years - taking reassurance that spring will return and life will re-emerge.

We marked it in our own little way.  Friends came over to eat and drink and converse around a bonfire, which the kids fed with pine boughs until the flames reached above their heads.

At this turning of the year, if a person likes, they bring a symbol of something they want to leave behind - something to burn away in the solstice fire.  Or something they wish for the coming year.  Into the fire goes a scrap of paper, an icon, a thought.  Monica saved a pile of birch bark for people to write their notes upon.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Rocky Mountain National Park in December

Rocky Mountain National Park
I met Sarah when I lived in Kazakhstan in the mid-1990s.  She was fresh out of college with a degree in Russian studies and had taken some job down in Almaty.  Like every one of our good friends there – local or expat – she was in love with the mountains.  Almaty sits in the foothills of the Tien Shan range, which rises above the steppe to heights of 12,000 feet.  The range marks the southern border, the boundary with Kirghizstan.
Mills Lake

Almarasan, Medeu, Chimbulak, Talgar, Aksu – we did our best to explore.

Now, a couple of decades later, she's in different mountains.  Her husband is a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park, and for her children, elk are are more common than pigeons.  

A research trip brought me to Colorado and I took the opportunity to pay them a visit in Estes Park.  

On Tuesday, while the kids were in school we snowshoed up from Bear Lake – to Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and finally to Emerald Lake, which nestles in its little, snowy cirque 10,000 feet above sea level. 

Short cut across Dream Lake
The next day Sarah and I hiked to Mills Lake up in Glacier Gorge.  The snow was marked with tracks of rabbits and hares and squirrels.

No one was at the frozen lake but the two of us, and the valley was silent.  You could almost hear the snow gently falling.  We drank hot cider from a thermos and were happy.

Glacier Gorge

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Fear and foreboding

Ruminating on the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, Brian Kaller poses the serious question of why Americans are so afraid.

We're grappling with homicides committed by policemen too frightened to serve the communities they are meant to protect - in Cleveland, St. Louis, and New York City, and communities that are themselves frightened and angry.  But as Kaller notes, fear, paranoia and divisiveness thrive like viruses throughout our society.

What Kaller sees at the root is the breakdown of social and community ties and interactions that used to enmesh people in a skein of fellow human beings.  These lent not only security, but a framework of action and understanding, which individuals and families could navigate with some competence and confidence.  Gradually, that "quilt of community" has been replaced by an anxious dependency on "strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions".

As America's Age of Prosperity breaks down under the twin stresses of an empire in decline and the end of cheap oil, individuals who have little in the way of real social networks are increasingly adrift and worried about being failed by the institutions that have served to take their place.

I think Kaller is exactly right, but like most major trends this one is overdetermined.  There are other forces pushing Americans toward fear and paranoia and away from confident and courageous engagement with the challenges that beset us.

For one, consumer capitalism requires a dissatisfied customer to work upon - an insecure subject who can be bullied into buying things they don't need.  In Kaller's richly interconnected human world entertainment was a thing of human interactions and creativity, where art, gossip, confession, handiwork, story telling and just visiting filled those hours that are now filled by the passive reception of products from a corporate-owned, corporate-sponsored media - an enormous industry whose income devolves almost entirely from marketing and advertising for ever more passive consumption.  As a sideline, its "news" departments spew out an incessant flood of fear-mongering and disconcerting stories that seem custom-designed to erode even further whatever faith and respect we still retain for our fellows or our institutions.

There are other forces at play.  Fear has always been a tool of statecraft, and mature states want docile subjects. Likewise, the corporations who have aligned with the state want a docile workforce.  Up to now, instilling a fear of naked, physical violence has mostly been directed at the marginalized - minorities, immigrants, the poor, vulnerable dissidents - and women.  But fear is also wielded upon everyone else through convenient bugaboos like ISIS, surgent China, Black rioters and Mexican drug lords, which are paraded in front of us on the one hand - and shadowy billionaires, militarized cops, Vladimir Putin and the NSA on the other.  Fear is used to divide us against ourselves as hostile caricatures of race, class, region, faith and politics replace first-hand experience.

In the closing years of the Cold War it was said that the West had been better at leading people around by their appetites than the East had been at pushing people around by their fears.  Today people are not being led anywhere by their appetites, except perhaps in circles.  The aspirations of consumerism are weighted down by busy-ness, anxiousness and clutter.

The Archdruid,  John Michael Greer, maintains that people are, or will be, adapting to the end of material progress for all but a tiny minority, to the reversal of US political ascendancy, and to the broken promises of science and technology.  The resultant breakdown of our guiding religion of Progress is throwing people into spiritual and existential crisis.

I suspect that here is another primary cause of the great American fearfulness and one which serves to give it its particular odd flavor.  Fear can be a helpful and adaptive response when a lion stalks you or an avalanche threatens you.  But the fear among Americans doesn't seem like that sort of response.  We don't seem afraid of any of the things that actually do threaten us.  It is more akin to a neurosis.  The anxieties that accompany neuroses are not constructive, well-directed fears that motivate us to avoid dangers or find solutions.  On the contrary, neurotic fears are promiscuous, misplaced anxieties that come from an unwillingness to confront a reality that we fear and want to reject.

And what we fear is the failure of - for lack of a better word - Progress.  But Progress is a thing so engrained in the American sense of ourselves and our futures that we cannot confront such an idea openly or honestly.  We pretend that our fears apply to other things - like, for example, lazy crazy Blacks or vicious homicidal cops, Islamic terrorists, Frankenfoods or black helicopters.

As yet, people are not being given any vision or any project of future-building that they could embrace in an honest and clear-headed way.  So legitimate fear and neurotic anxieties both build.  Anyone who's ever tried to handle a terrified animal can understand the dangers inherent in such a moment.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Winter moths

On my recent hike I'd noticed the yellow-rumped warblers were acting like flycatchers and I wondered what they could be preying on after the recent hard frosts.  Lately the temperatures have been milder and in the past few days I've noticed dozens of small, drab brown moths gathering at the windows and at the porch light.

a male winter moth
It turns out that this is the aptly named "winter moth."  Around Thanksgiving, in mild weather the adults emerge to fly and mate - gathering at trees that the females (who are effectively wingless) clamber up.

Unfortunately, they are an invasive species from Europe that has established itself in New England.  Without the predators that control them in Europe they have become a significant pest - able to defoliate trees - including oaks, maples, apples, crabapples and blueberries.

I was already familiar with gypsy moths and tent caterpillars, both of whom I've seen strip entire hillsides, but the winter moth is a new one for me.

The larvae's most nefarious habit is to creep into buds as they swell in the spring - and if the budding process is delayed by cool or wet weather, the caterpillars can kill off a plant's flowers and leaves before they even have a chance to unfurl.  (For this reason they are especially detested by blueberry cultivators.)

So - something else to pay attention to in the spring.  I wonder what predators I can encourage to come discourage them.  Where are those yellow-rumped warblers when you need them?

winter moths at night

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Hiking Ninigret NWR

bittersweet berries

Yesterday in the yard a woodcock flew up from the leaves at my feet.  Switching from invisible to visible in a sudden whirring of wings.

It reminded me that I need to go hiking in the woods.

Auntie Beak, a prolific local hike-blogger posted recently on the nearby Wahaneeta Preserve and Woody Hill Wildlife Management Area, and I thought about going up there.

But it's late November and my instinct is that even decked out in orange blaze it's the wrong time of year to walk the gamelands of the WMA's.

Instead I opted for a National Wildlife Refuge down on the coast, where I was unlikely to run across any hunters.  The central parcel of Ninigret NWR is a complex of old WWII airstrips.  Most of these were stripped of their paving decades ago and are slowly being overgrown with laurel, grasses and birch.

birch catkins
Along, around and between the scars of the airstrips, several miles of trail roam through salt marsh, woodland, kettle ponds and by the shores of Foster Cove and Ninigret Pond.

I walked the western half of the Foster Cove loop, the fishing access trail, the cross refuge trail, and returned along the runway trail that marks the northeastern border of the refuge.  Some of the paths are grassy and mossy, some paved and some gravel.

rose hips
Much of the landscape is enough to break a botanist's heart - overrun by a rouge's gallery of invasive plants:  great swaths of trees decked with Oriental bittersweet, beneath which sprawl tangles of honeysuckle, autumn olive, and mulitflora rose.  Phragmites abound, but haven't driven all the cattails from the lilypad pools.

But it's a wonderful place for birdwatching even in the winter.  (There's a reason many of those plants are so successfully invasive - they create seeds and berries that birds and other wildlife eat and disperse.)

White throated sparrows scratched noisily in the dry leaves below the brambles.  Jays and gulls called. A pair of hairy woodpeckers pounded on a resonant maple and yellow shafted flickers swooped by high overhead.

a chickadee in the brambles
Gold finches flitted in their demure winter plumage.  Yellow-rumped warblers were rising up like flycatchers, though I never saw any insects active down at ground level.

a northern harrier
A cottontail rabbit disappeared into the rose thickets.  And plenty of deer tracks marked the trail.
in flight

 On Ninigret Pond out past the resting gulls, a raft of restless hooded mergansers paddled and dived.

I spied a moth's cocoon, birch leaves wrapping silk and dangling from a twig.  Is it next spring's Luna moth?  or a Polyphemus - oak silk moth?

Whatever it is, I wish it luck evading the squirrels and the birds through the long winter.



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A climate of collective idiocy

Today the Senate debates the merits of an oil pipeline disastrous to the common good.  The Keystone pipeline and its cousins will enable the development of Canadian tar sands, helping to make catastrophic climate change inevitable and irreversible.  Except for the momentary fever dream of an ephemeral energy boom, it offers Americans nothing but the prospect of oil spills and higher energy prices.  But the fossil fuel companies invested  hundreds of millions of dollars in this legislature, and so we get fossilized fuel public policy.

Last week's hallucinatory agreement between the US and China to start considering getting semi-serious about fossil fuel emissions is already receding into the carbon dioxide haze.  

For those of us who have hoped that humans might act to ensure our grandchildren's well being, it's enervating stuff.  We almost certainly doom our civilization if we don't start moving it away from fossil fuels starting . . .  well, starting years ago, actually.

I am no longer surprised.  We have a bad habit of assuming that since individual humans are capable of intelligence, forethought and planning - that this means we should be equally capable of intentional collective action. Unfortunately, collectively our species demonstrates the cognitive abilities of a toxic lichen. Civilizations, perhaps achieve the blind tropisms of a nematode or a pea plant - sometimes able to evade a fatal obstacle. A nation or a government can often lurch around with the spastic enthusiasms of a poorly coordinated toddler . . . 

I don't place much hope in the plans of our leaders or their critics, but hey, sometimes yelling at toddlers helps - if only as a personal tonic.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

November greens

I've mentioned that it wasn't a banner year for growing vegetables, but I did make some effort at an autumn garden.  We've had a couple of nights down in the twenties and this afternoon I went to have a look at the state of things, and to gather some salad for dinner.  

The greens don't seem to mind the chill.  There was a patch of mustard and mesclun mix that went to seed and since I had no particular need of those few square feet, I never pulled it out.  The lettuce, once it had bolted got intensely bitter, but the mustard greens just got more mustardy and other greens also deepened into interesting flavors.

Quite a number of the plants in that tangle seem to have caught a second wind and are still putting out leaves.  They are much more vigorous actually than the greens that I planted in August for the autumn.  Better established with some reserves to spend on foliage even in November's declining sun.

I assumed these would be tough, but not at all - they're substantial, but not stringy.  And no need for salad dressing with these.  I believe I'm going to make the bed of gone-to-seed greens a staple of the autumn garden.

Monica went off the Nature Center's yearly fundraising gala, to offer moral - if not financial - support and to grace the happening with her presence.  Nico was lobbying for a box of "Annie's Organic Mac  & Cheese" for supper.  I can sympathize with some mid-November comfort food.  Most of these greens were chopped up and folded into my portion of the Mac & Cheese, transforming it from typical kids' fare into something more pungent and interesting and satisfying.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bad Gardening, a post-mortem

This was not a good year in the garden.  Or, more accurately, not a good year for human gardening.  I suppose it was a good year if you were a deer, slug, grasshopper, blister beetle, squash bug, vole or caterpillar.  And a great year if you were crown vetch, lambs quarter, sedge or wood sorrel.

mustard in flower
I spent too much time traveling and when I was home didn't make time for the garden.

The parsnips mostly didn't germinate (my fault for not soaking the seeds this time).
The weeds took over, the pests chomped unmolested.  The tomatoes vined upon the ground for the slugs.

Deer ate the beet tops and the tomatoes, blister beetles ate the potatoes - or vetch roots speared them - and everything ate the snow peas.

I did get a nice crop of peppermint and spicy Thai peppers.  And there were plenty of mustard and salad greens when I was around to enjoy them.  A Black Prince tomato plant that the deer had trimmed off exploded into some late productivity in the early autumn before the frosts took it.

This morning, I made Monica and myself a delicious goat cheese omelet with spinach and mustard greens from the fall garden.  In September, grasshoppers ate most of the mesclun mix before I ate them, but the spinach and argenta chard has been in pretty good shape.  This morning was 29 degrees, but that doesn't seem to bother the greens.  I have some cold frames out there, though I haven't made any effort to make them less drafty.

The garlic patch, mulched with leaves
For the first time, I put in a patch of garlic - Spanish Roja, German Extra Hardneck, and Czechoslovakian.

One project for the winter is to figure out and construct a deer fence.  Or get a dog that wouldn't mind sleeping outdoors.  Or learn how to use a crossbow and turn the problem into venison.  The fence seems the most practical at the moment.  More on this later . . . .