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 . . . .

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Election Day 2014

I cast my votes today in the gymnasium of the local elementary school.  One of the women with the registration lists reminded me that I'd known her back when I was a cub scout leader and our sons were in the troop.  I'm sure she's right.  We chatted as the others got my ballot ready.

Southern Rhode Island is a conservative part of the state, most of which is more or less reliably Democratic.  In fact, at the state level Republicans are mostly a rump party without much influence or appeal except as a way to punish the occasional politician.

I voted on the offices being contested - and a few that were uncontested.  Voted no on a casino, abstained from one on bonds for higher education facilities (how about for faculty instead?), voted yes on some other bonds for conservation and cultural events.  It took two or three minutes to complete and I slipped the paper ballot into a machine that digested it with a whirr and a beep.

I don't have a TV, don't read a printed newspaper these days, and the only radio I hear is when I'm taking Nico to school in the morning.  So I've been spared the campaigning and the stupefying effects of most of the corporate-owned, corporate sponsored media.  I understand it's been the usual misinformative mudslinging.  In any case, there was nothing that the moneyed players and professional pundits were going to say to change my vote.

Unlike other elections I'm not paying close attention to the minutiae of it all.  The Democrats have had a majority in the US Senate, which they are expected to lose. But they never seemed motivated to do anything with that majority.  For the past 4 years the Democrats have claimed to be unable to do anything without 60 votes - allowing the Republican minority veto power over every action.  I fear the Republicans will be less passive with their majority.  Perhaps Obama will have to find satisfaction in vetoing conservative lunacy for his final two years.  It may well be what he deserves.

As I've interviewed people these past months, I find myself speaking with thoughtful, politically-aware people.  People who value diversity and democracy, who hold progressive ideas about our collective responsibilities and our ability to solve problems through collective action, community and government.  People who would readily acknowledge the importance of collecting taxes and using them to make a better, more prosperous and more civilized place for us, our neighbors and our children to live.

And at some point I would ask them whether they hear anyone out there in public life who is advocating for this point of view they were articulating.  Anyone speaking to that familiar, if old-fashioned, American quality of civic responsibility and government problem-solving?  And they would wrinkle their brow, and try to think, but almost never could they recall hearing anyone talking about these things, much less fighting for them.

That's why the Democrats lost the House of Representatives and why they are going to lose the Senate.

The Democratic party is unable or unwilling to push forth an unapologetic progressive or populist or even liberal vision for governance.  Instead they settle for being less bad than Republicans.  Less crazy, less intolerant, less extreme, less partisan.  Rather than staking out liberal positions, they take conservative positions and try to moderate them.  Tame Republicanism.  We'll cut taxes and reign in spending (but not as recklessly as conservatives); we'll be tough on crime and secure the border (but not be as racist as Republicans); we'll shrink government (but won't drown it in a bathtub).  They convince no one that they have a plan to end the unpopular wars, the surveillance state, or the corruption of politics.  Not to mention reversing the destruction of the labor movement, halting the erosion of women's reproductive rights, or putting an end to the shame and racism of our prison-industrial complex.

Outside the elementary school I chatted with a woman running for the school board.  She was smart, progressive, articulate, and running as an independent.  I felt a twinge of guilt that I haven't taken part in any of this local politics.  My activism, such as it is, has been much more diffuse and aimed at changing the discourse in other states and at the national level.

I'm going to get back to reading transcripts today.  My job - one of my jobs - is to help to construct a progressive discourse that politicians would be willing and able to articulate, and which would resonate with regular citizens.  Give them an alternative plan - something with which to build democracy and good governance - rather than tearing it down.  I'm glad I don't have a TV.

UPDATE: Dean Baker pretty much comes to the same conclusion.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Autumn days like this one call

The back field at Pine Point school
After we drop Nico off at school, Monica has been walking to get some exercise.  I'll either go to the gym or join her.

Behind the school, the trails for the cross-country runs go along fields and down into the woods.

On the morning of the first real frost the hedgerows were alive with sparrows, towhees, thrushes and jays all in an uproar about the sudden freeze.

Icy grass hunkered in every tree-shadow, but turned to dew in minutes as the sun would strike.

Phoebes fluttered - a migrating flock - picking off any cold-sluggish insects that might take flight or climb a blade of grass.

There'll be enough days to go to the gym as the weather turns foul.  Autumn days like this one call.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Eating grasshoppers

I'm making an effort at an autumn garden this year - spinach, chard and greens mostly.  Our only frost so far did no damage, though I have cold frames standing by.

The more immediate problem is that the grasshoppers are relentlessly gnawing on my greens and turning them to lacework.

A few years ago at this time of year a coyote visited the yard - and I wondered what brought him out in broad daylight.  A few days later I found his scat and saw it was composed entirely of grasshopper and cricket exoskeletons.

I'm taking the coyote's cue and experimenting with eating these greedy critters.  The sustainability folks (including those at the UN) insist that humans' living lightly (or living at all) on the earth is going to involve eating more insects.  As an anthropologist I know that our own culture is pretty odd in its aversion to making use of this otherwise ubiquitous food source.

I had a small butterfly net, and I quickly jerry-rigged a foraging container.  I had an old water-cooler jug sitting around, so I cut the top off at the shoulder, inverted it and duct-taped it in place to make a kind of fish-trap style grasshopper container.  A lacrosse ball settles into the opening perfectly as a handy lid.

I gathered a few dozen in and around the garden - hopefully enough to put a dent in their depredations.  I let them sit for a day, so they could pass whatever greens were in their system.  (Real aficionados give them some hominy or some other starchy grain to eat, I think.)  I dumped them into a plastic bag and put them into the freezer to expire.

Our grasshoppers are fairly petite, so pulling off legs and wings was a niggling and tedious process, toward the end of which I had no interest in eating grasshoppers.  (The next time I won't bother with that labor, since wings and legs come off much easier once they've been cooked.)

We rubbed them with olive oil,  sprinkled on some cajun spices and popped them into the oven at 250 degrees until they turned a crispy magenta (the lone katydid turned golden instead).

I won't lie and say that I took to it right away.  They sure look like bugs, and their texture is fairly . . . um . . . complex, especially if the wings and any legs are included.  But the flavor is actually pretty good.  Eventually, I got into a rhythm - like eating pistachios, but instead of shelling each nut, you  pull off the papery wings, roll any remaining legs off with the side of your thumb and pop it into your mouth.  And I have to say - as far a garden pest measures go - it's a pretty good solution.

I may have another go at it this weekend.  There is still no shortage of grasshoppers.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Eulogy for a Farmhouse

Fred W. Brown
Margaret Metz Brown
There's a valley in central Pennsylvania named the Kishacoquillas.  But that's far too long a name for a landscape of farmers and so it's simply called Big Valley.  It's a broad vale of limestone farmland between two forested ridges of sandstone and shale - Jacks and Stone mountains.

At the Reedsville end you can fit a dozen large farms between the ridges, but Big Valley narrows like a funnel and by the time you get to Airydale, the valley is a single farm wide.

Porter with his parents and older sisters
By 1909 my great, great grandfather, Cyrus Brown, had acquired a couple of these farms for his sons, and Fred W., being the elder, was given first choice.  His wife Margaret, my great grandmother, considered the two farm houses.  One was built of brick and one was built of wood.  But from the brick house she looked down upon the 110 steps to the spring, and at the wooden house she admired a springhouse that stood right alongside the stone foundation.

And so it was there, in the wooden house, that my grandfather, Porter Brown was born a few years later in September of 1913.

Porter and Fred W.
No one is quite sure when the house was built, though best guess is in the 1850's or 1860's.   The springhouse, with its icy reservoir of clear water, was convenient in the days before refrigerators, but a house built on a spring means a cellar that is never dry, and living a hundred yards from the valley's watercourse means that heavy rains and winter floods fill the basement right up.  A surveyor measured from the bank of Saddler's Run to the threshold of the cellar door and found an elevation of a mere six inches across marshy pasture.

The Brown Farm

The house itself was dry and stayed mostly solid.  In 1939 Porter spirited Marian Metz away from her resistant father.  Though she lived only a couple of miles away, in order to marry her he'd had to drive down to Florida to where she was traveling with her sister and they'd turned that into an elopement.

By the summer of 1940 they were moved into the farmhouse and had a new baby, Richard, who would grow up to be my father.  Brothers Bob, Fred and Tom would follow.  To make way, Fred W. and Margaret removed up the lane and across the road to a hewn-log house at the foot of stone mountain - still in view of the farm.   Their move set a pattern that is still holding after three generations.

Dick Brown and his brother Bob
In the late 1950's, my father had left the farmhouse behind to go to Penn State, where he studied science.  He would go on to became a teacher and settle in Lancaster county.  For me, growing up in Lititz in the 1960's and 1970's, the old house was Grandpa and Grandma's.  It was a place of summertimes and holidays and visitings, and of course the Reunion in July, which anchored the summer-half of the year just as Christmastime anchored the winter.

More of my own memories are of the barn and the fields and the creek and the mountain - and fewer of the house itself - probably because that was a place where Grandma would put you to work if you lingered too long - shelling peas on the back porch or sent off to pick blackberries for a pie.  I do well remember the oval, oaken table of the dining room, creaking under the weight of enormous family dinners.

In the 70's, Porter and Marian made the move up above the road, and my uncle Fred and aunt Vicki took the farmhouse as their home.  There they raised their three children, patched up what needed to be patched and put up with the crooked walls and the little, cramped kitchen.  They accepted the now decades-deep responsibility of hosting July's Metz family reunion, when two hundred relatives gather at the farm.

I returned for a couple of summers when I was a teenager - working for my room and board (and a couple of pigs to show and sell at the Huntington County fair).  My cousin Scott was 8 years younger, and he would soon be the one to grow into a farmer.

The front porch: Porter the elder holding his great grandson Porter, 1998
Grandma Vicki
When Fred and Vicki had had their share of the decades, they in turn took the old hewn-log house (now significantly expanded), and the farm passed to my cousin Scott and his wife Emily.  And there they raised their own children, and made their own changes and their own repairs and renovations.

But the crooked floors, the flood-prone basement, the entire old, creaky building has had its day.  This autumn it is coming down.  Scott and Emily have built a new house - higher up, farther from the creek - and plumb.

After Reunion this summer the descendants of Porter and Marian gathered one last time there in the front room and we shared our stories about the house - experiences we'd had there or lore we'd been taught.

Dad and his brothers reminisced about squirming into the furnace housing after the coins that would fall from their father's pockets when he dozed above the grate.  They related much and more of the history that I've just summarized.  Floods were recounted; renovations and rearrangements; tearing out the horsehair plaster; the mysterious extra front door that was paneled over; the clearing of the attic; the party telephone line that was conduit and source of gossip.

I think Scott and Emily might have feared - when the extended family conspired to descend upon them on a Sunday evening and reminisce within the doomed farmhouse - that there might be ill-feelings about their decision to raze it.  But on the contrary, the togetherness served to prove that all these memories and the continuity and strength of family don't adhere to the boards and beams of this structure - but to the people and the connections between them.  And the ability to get together and share stories that murmur down the generations.

It was a good house.  It did what it was meant to.  It sheltered, and in its shelter were created such families and memories and stories.