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.

video

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

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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