Monday, November 15, 2010

My great uncle Sam died a few days ago at age 85.  He was the last of his siblings; baby brother to my grandmother and her sisters.  Sam Tewksbury was one of the true characters of our childhoods.  A big, shambling man who never had a family of his own, for years he occupied a small room in my grandmother’s house, across the hall from Ya-Ya, the old Danish widow who rented the back apartment.  As a kid, the thing I found most remarkable about him was how he wouldn’t emerge in the morning until after 11.  Then he’d make himself something sweet for breakfast in the dented tin measuring cup that he used for most of his meals (except when he was forced into sitting at the table for one of the big family gatherings).  He was shy and slow with words.  If you asked him how he was, he’d always answer, “Oh, ‘bout the same.” 

I didn’t learn how to hold a conversation with Sam until I was 20 years old.  I must have found some patience by then.  If you’d say something to him, he’d respond with a non-committal “hmmm hmmm”.  But if you waited – I mean really waited while a minute or so of silence trickled by – saying nothing, asking nothing – he would give a real response to what you said.  And then you could respond as quickly or as slowly as you wanted and settle in for another long pause while Sam slowly cogitated and formulated his next statement.

I guess his sisters considered him a bit simple-minded, but he never struck me that way.  He repaired televisions and other electronics in the back room of my grandmother’s store, and tended to the customers a few hours of the day.  He never spent a nickel if he could avoid it and he was frugal to the point of pathology.  He let me drive his old gray station wagon when I was 15 and taught me how to save gas by coasting down hills.  There were people who would let him know when a deer had been killed on the roads, so he could gather a haunch for his dog before the vultures got to it.  Whatever cash money he had he played into the stock market, at least that’s what my parents said, since I never heard him speak of it.   Despite the frugality he finally moved out of my grandmother’s house and into his own place (maybe she pushed him out, but the rent was low because the building was condemned and gradually falling down).  A true child of the Great Depression, he never voluntarily threw anything away, and he filled the dark house to the ceilings and heated it with scrounged scrap lumber and rolled newspaper.  Above his entryway he hung a graceful sign that said “S TEWKSBURY”.  It was an uncharacteristic flourish and I asked him about it.  He told me it was his parents’ “TEWKSBURYS” sign that he’d split and re-arranged.

Maybe his judgment wasn’t always the best, but I’d play Sam’s assistant even when I didn’t understand what we were up to.  I remember hunching behind wooden shields up by the barn while we attempted to break old television tubes by hurtling rocks at them (He vaguely explained about them being toxic and a bit explosive).  I think my sister Chris has a couple of scars on her leg from helping him with soldering television cables.  And I spent at least one afternoon shimmying up trees  with an old car seatbelt to check on cables he had run up over Tyler Hill for some reason.  Other times it was just to drive out to gather beechnuts or pick apples in abandoned fencerows, or to let the dog hunt for groundhogs.  On those outings he kept a small acetylene torch handy for tent caterpillars.  He was a tremendously gentle man, but he bore a strange hatred for tent caterpillars.  It seemed to bring him great satisfaction to watch the silk retreat from the blue flame and the singed caterpillars come tumbling out.

But Sam was always good to me.  On summer afternoons, when we were visiting, he’d gather up his little collection of short, odd-shaped baseball bats and his flat, ancient ball glove and we’d go up to the little league field to hit the ball around for a while.  Even in his 50’s he was pretty good.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Here's Congressman Jim Shimkus of Illinois, who is jockeying to be chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.  He assures us that it's wrong to worry about climate change or human's destroying the Earth, because God, not man, will bring about the End.

Before the next election we will be dunking witches . . . .

Monday, November 8, 2010

Nico, three of his classmates, plus a couple of younger students traveled down to Fairfield county to play chess in the tournament there.  It was first time for all of them, but they dominated among the unrated players, taking 5 out of the 8 top slots and walking away with team honors.

Good for them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Porter was helping me staple up some insulation in the basement, and the neighbor kid, Jake, was hanging out with us.  I'd promised to take them bowling after lunch.

The man who built the house in 1950, Vernon Kendall, hadn't been a stickler for measuring so no two studs are spaced the same.

While I carved pink insulation with a hunting knife Jake and Porter surveyed the ceiling, trying to interpret the overlapping networks of plumbing, electric, heating pipes, phone cable and pvc that 60 years had laid in.

It's not an easy map to read, the circulatory system of an old house.  Conduits are added with none ever taken away.  There's some kind of elaborate alarm system that I still don't understand and a sewer pipe to nowhere.

They searched for treasure atop the beams and on the foundation wall between the joists.  Mostly they found old tubes of sealant or lubricant, decrepit fan belts, tin boxes, pipe connectors, the odd pressure gauge or clamp.  A bumper sticker for a tent revival.  Stuff like that.  I had to explain to them how the blade-butted spout for an old oilcan worked.

Jake dismantled my broken telescope.  Then they found real treasure, my uncle George's old archery gear from the sixties.  They quietly put the stuff away, but I know that unless I remember to forbid it, it will all eventually disappear into the woods, like the last generation of arrows and bows, just like my ducktape, nails, bungee cords, tarps . . . .

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fred Clark at Slackivist makes an good point about why the barkers for climate change denial have had such blazing success and why the scientific facts about global warming have failed to sway the public:
[One] framework that I'm convinced plays a large role in American climate-change denialism is the quasi-religious desire to believe that harmful consequences can only result from deliberately malicious actions. If climate change were shown to be the work of a clearly identifiable villain -- something more along the lines of the pollution narratives of A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich -- then [people] might be more receptive to the idea. But they cannot accommodate facts that suggest the possibility of calamity due to the aggregate effects of billions of mostly innocent decisions. This particular delusional framework defends itself aggressively because a great deal is at stake for those who subscribe to it.
Clark's main interest is in the religious imprimatur on this, but I think he's exactly right that climate destabilization conveys a narrative that simply violates peoples expectations of justice and sense -- and at a deep cognitive-emotional level, people don't like that.  And as we know, people are motivated to not hear things they don't like.

Climate change denialists have worked to widen the chasm between climate scientists and the lay public when it comes to their understandings of what is going on.  Physical scientists (at least the good ones) really don't expect the natural laws they study to adhere to our arbitrary expectations of justice or right or narrative tidiness.  But because regular people DO have those expectations about the world they live in, the scientists seem to be offering a world that is not only physically in dire straits, but also a world that seems devoid of moral sense.  They tell a story where living a normal, even virtuous, life is going to destroy the planet.  The denialists, on the other hand, offer a world that not only is in no physical peril, but where vice and virtue are more sensible and human-scaled.

Advocates have been struggling to accommodate people's desire for this moral sense.  Sometimes they stress the virtuousness of individuals changing their lightbulbs or driving less, or they invoke moral ideas of stewardship.  But so far that's been a rickety foundation for a re-making of the global energy and economic systems.  Alternately, (and this is what we have mostly worked on) we can try keep the moral issues to the side at least long enough to enable people to understand climate change as a straightforward, technical problem.  Too much CO2 in the atmosphere is thickening a heat-trapping blanket - so we need to either reduce our carbon emissions or get the carbon out of the air.  That's the technical challenge.  It won't be easy, but that's what we have to do, and no amount of denial or procrastination is going to change that.  As far as moral narratives go, once this technical groundwork has been laid out, there is room for plenty of moralizing about what it means to make the hard changes as opposed to continuing with business as usual.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Nature Center has a "spooky nature trail" winding through the woods on the nights before Halloween.  The path is poorly lit with a hundred jack-o-lanterns flickering.   Because most people find a nighttime walk through the dark, windy woods scary enough, they were going with a fairytale theme this year.  Monica had volunteered us all to play our roles.  Porter, in my old gray Swiss army cape, was off in the Peter Pan area as one of the Lost Boys.  Monica was roaming the trail as Tiger Lily, relighting candles that had guttered out.  Nico, undaunted by any gender-bent nonsense, was Little Red Riding Hood.  And I found myself encased in a wolf costume.

Nico would skip up the trail in his red hood and cape.  Then as people passed me, I'd shamble out of the darkness and ask in my gravelly wolf-voice, "Have you seen a small child . . . in a . . . red riding hood?"  Often, I would add, "She smells delicious," and sometimes, "and you smell delicious."  And people would laugh.  In the darkness it was hard to see out of the mask, but as far as I could tell, some kids would hide behind their parents, some would lecture me about not eating small children; a few would merrily betray Riding Hoods whereabouts, though there were more who would misdirect me.  One growled me back into the shadows, another threatened me with her glowstick whip and two sisters demanded hugs that I couldn't refuse.

Toward the end the barred owls were hooting excitedly and Nico skipped away to explore the trail himself - eventually returning with reinforcements.  So he and his fearless friends piled onto to me and ground the big bad wolf down onto the leaves of the forest.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010


 I quit work early yesterday to go for a hike over the stone wall – to trade the madding crowd’s ignoble strife for the smell of leaf-mould and the jab of the greenbriar.

I was distracted, though.  We’ve been doing work lately on environmental issues and I’d been reading the doomer blogs again.  So I took the ignoble strife in with me.  One prominent doomer, Guy McPherson, blogs that the speedy collapse of the industrial era is the only thing that can save the world from utter catastrophe.  The sooner the better if we want to preserve a viable biosphere.   A few days ago, he was writing about the myths that sustain our complacency in the face of global warming and the end of cheap oil, and there was one myth that I would have added:  the myth that we’ve progressed beyond the possibility of famine.  I spent half of September as an ethnographer among CAFOs, traveling through New Mexico, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and could see the way our food system is growing more and more monolithic and fragile.  It’s not just that we are shifting our food production to a CAFO system utterly dependent on a small class of operators, requiring huge inputs of grain, water, and fossil fuel – it’s that we are dismantling our back up systems precisely at the time when climate instability and fossil fuel shocks may completely change the rules of the game.  To say the family farms are disappearing is cliché, but what once seemed unfortunate, now seems potentially suicidal.  It's disheartening to see that broad base of expertise, commitment and attention to the food system, being systematically dismantled and tossed into the ashbin of history – all so that we can concentrate our food production into an ever more unstable edifice.

So it was that the normal grounding therapy of a walk in the woods, wasn’t having its effect.  I looked at the bounty of acorns under the scarlet oaks and found myself wondering how much nutritional value was there and how exactly did the Native Americans get the tannins out.  Staring up at the empty cones of the pitch pine, I tried to reckon what time of year you'd need to steal pine nuts away from the red squirrels.  Though there seemed to be no squirrels around.  Maybe they could sense my mood. 

There is a spit of high ground that juts out toward the Pawcatuck river with swampland on either side.  At some point in the past someone had homesteaded it, and in a clearing there is an old stone foundation built into the side of a hillock, a few dead apple trees and one lilac being slowly smothered by old-man’s-beard.  I found a place where beaver had been girdling some cherry trees and I pushed through stands of arrow wood and out onto the swamp.  The oaks have all gone red, the pines green and yellow and the lily pads were dying back into the black water.  I stood on the hummocks made by the small cedars and noticed that the sphagnum moss under my boots was taking on its own fall colors.  A flock of ducks circled, their wings whistling.   The jays, who had been offering noisy commentary ever since I left the path, grew quiet.  A light mist was falling on the back of my neck, a cool arpeggio from the darkening storm-sky.

And as I looked up the swamp toward open water and the colorful line of trees beyond, I found that my anxiety and depression had lifted.   I didn’t care what happened to humans.  We were the species that were supposed to have vision but if we were going envision ourselves to extinction, I just didn’t care.  The rain continued to fall onto my bare neck.  Cedar Waxwings flitted overhead, linking themselves together with their calls, their thin, barely audible thwees.   I found that I stopped worrying about what the damned species was doing.  At least we couldn’t destroy the swamp.  Oh, we could destroy this swamp, and we might take the red cedar and the tawny cotton grass with us into oblivion, but we couldn’t destroy the swamp – the wet confluence of rot and growth and slimy adaptation that meant swamp.  The sphagnum moss had outlived the dinosaurs and it would outlive us.

A flock of Canada geese splash-landed noisily on the water and I withdrew back into the woods to leave them in possession of the place.  I began my hike back on the path of pine needles and oak leaves, and gradually back into caring – about humans and what we are doing.  The fog of depression had cleared a bit.  I was ready to get back to work in the salt mines of public communications.  On the way home I stopped at an apple tree in the woods and knocked down a half-dozen small apples to take home to the boys.  And I would still look up how you eat acorns, just in case.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In the woods behind my house a thousand hickory nuts are going to fall. No one but the squirrels will pick them up. The nutmeat of the hickory is actually delicious, especially for baking, but it is locked in hard convolutions in the shell. I think you need the slow time of winter in order to eat hickory nuts. To sit with a vise and a bucket for the shells and a bowl for the nutmeats and chat and think and pick the bits of nut from the convolutions. I think sometimes that I won't really have tried out slow time until I've gathered a barrel of hickory nuts and then emptied in over the course of a winter.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Anatomy of a pretty good day (and Monica's 45 birthday).
Everyone was up early for a Saturday morning. So there was mango smoothie and expresso of freshly-ground Costa Rican coffee.

A little after 8:30 Nico and I drove toward Mystic to his friend Trey's house, where a half dozen kids were gathering around their chess teacher.  The forest of Eastern Connecticut is right now endlessly yellow, spattered with orange and broken by hayfields that are shorn and spring-like green.  The gaudy scarlet of the maples has been mostly stolen by the wind, but the oaks are bleeding out new red to the hills and roadsides.  We found Trey's house down a gravelly cul de sac above Cove Road and I left Nico there to test his skills against the teacher.

I drove down onto Route One, and in the inlets there were cormorants drying their wings out upon each white-stained rock.  I wound my way out onto Stonington borough for the farmers market.  It was cold enough to see your breath if you were in shade.  I bought a cabbage and some big white radishes to make kimchi; some Sweet Tolman apples for applesauce; cauliflower and broccoli; leeks for a soup;  late, strong-flavored arugula; a small bag of Copra onions; some stone ground flint corn - and got an old man's phone number for buying seed this winter if I decide to plant.

After more coffee at the Mystic Market, I rejoined the chess players.  Nico was playing black and fighting a determined defense, but couldn't salvage a draw in the end.  "Chess is tiring!" he said to me as he collapsed onto my shoulder for a moment.  A couple of the other parents had arrived as well.  Penny, Trey's mother, was cleaning out the kitchen junk drawer and told us a story of how she'd been traumatized by finishing 7th in the state tournament when she was nine years old . . .

We got back to the house where Monica was eating vanilla ice cream from a teacup and taking birthday wishes from her family on the phone.  We had a lunch of bread and butter and honey, and tested out the quince jam I made the other day . . .

And drove to Charles and Patti's to gather them and their girls for a hike.  Waiting for Patti to return with Anya from a violin lesson, Charles and Monica had a beer and we sat on the floor catching up and complaining about the toll that busy-ness takes on everything we try to do.  Patti and the girls showed up, and Patti was looking drawn from her two-weeks business trek in China and Japan.  We loaded up on water-bottles, got the kids shoed and jacketed, and piled all eight of us into the school's suburban.  Then, with the Talking Heads playing on the speakers, we drove again through the beautiful, autumn landscape.

We strolled the trails of Teftweald.  The kids ran on ahead.  The laurel and the youngest of the beech trees are still green leaved - and of course, the hemlock, as always seemed darkly indifferent to the season.  There's a cleft in the woods where the stream gathers into a pool that is black, but also golden with floating leaves of beech and hickory.  On the shelf of rock that Monica calls the poet's bench we played predator-and-prey.  The predator counts to 30 while the others go into hiding.  The predator scans from the rock and the prey have to keep their eyes on the predator from cover without being sighted themselves.

When we dragged the kids from the woods, it wasn't even 5 yet, but everyone was hungry.  So we splurged for dinner at the Pita Spot, a Lebanese restaurant in Mystic. While they got the kids settled in, I went across the street to buy a couple of bottles of wine -- a St. Francis cab to start with and a Gnarley Head old vine zin to coast on through.  The waitress tied bangled sashes around the girls waists and brought us appetizers.

There was hummus and tabouli, baba ghannouj, moudardara and loubieh.  And Monica and I split a lamb kabob that was just too good to drizzle the garlicky sauces on . . .

Saturday, October 23, 2010

‘I’ve also studied deeply
 in the philosophies and religions, 
but cheerfulness kept breaking through . . . 
There ain’t no cure for love.’ 
                                                 -- Leonard Cohen.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


The quince have fallen.  

Time to make some jelly.

And after homework's done,

carve some jack-o-lanterns.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Some days, I wonder how John Cole has such a heavily trafficked blog.  (Though I read it devotedly, skipping past most of the pet-posts.)  Then he says something like this:
The problem, as far as I see it, is that too many privileged people can’t get it through their damned heads that most poor people aren’t lazy, drunk, or just living large on the welfare, but were born into far shittier situations than most of the wealthy people in America. I’m willing to agree that most rich and poor people work really hard for what they have. Just the rich have it a helluva lot better and their concept of “hard” is a little different.
It's possibly the clearest and most succinct explanation I've ever heard of the matters of "structural inequality" and "privilege" that social scientists have been trying (and mostly failing) to articulate to the lay public for the past 40 years.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I like this story from the blog Slacktivist:

In the 1950s, an old hillbilly preacher invited Clarence Jordan (the late founder of Koinonia Farmthe community that gave us Habitat for Humanity), to come and speak at his church in rural South Carolina. Jordan arrived to find, to his surprise, a large, thriving and racially integrated congregation -- a remarkable thing in that time and place. (Sadly, it's actually a remarkable thing in any time or place.) So Clarence asked the man how this came about.
When he first got there as a substitute preacher, the old man said, it was a small, all-white congregation of a few dozen families. So he gave a sermon on the bit from Galatians where Paul writes: "You are all children of God ... There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
"When the service was over, the deacons took me in the back room and they told me they didn't want to hear that kind of preaching no more."
Clarence asked, "What did you do then?"
The old preacher answered, "I fired them deacons!"
"How come they didn't fire you?" asked Clarence.
"Well, they never hired me," the old preacher responded. ... "Once I found out what bothered them people, I preached the same message every Sunday. It didn't take much time before I had that church preached down to four."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Is there a term for that particular racket where you offer a "solution" that helps to intensify and perpetuate the problem you are (dishonestly) claiming to solve?  Medical quackery has a long history, but isn't usually sophisticated enough to actively support and prolong a malady.  (Update: though maybe medicine is growing more sophisticated after all.) Glenn Greenwald complains that the war on drugs and the war on terror are mirror images of one another in that they are not so much incompetent so much as dexterously designed to NOT solve their respective "problems".  On the contrary, it suits the architects of both drug and national security policies to have those wars ever worsening and never ending.  For them peace (or even amelioration) would be an unwelcome turn.  As Greenwald puts it:

These two intrinsically unwinnable wars -- unwinnable by design -- seem destined to endure forever, or at least until some sort of major financial collapse simply permits them no longer.

It's the perfect deceit.  These wars, in an endless loop, sustain and strengthen the very menaces which, in turn, justify their continuous escalation.  These wars manufacture the very dangers they are ostensibly designed to combat.  Meanwhile, the industries which fight them become richer and richer.  The political officials those industries own become more and more powerful.  Brutal drug cartels monopolize an unimaginably profitable, no-competition industry, while Terrorists are continuously supplied the perfect rationale for persauding huge numbers of otherwise unsympathetic people to join them or support them.  Everyone wins -- except for ordinary citizens, who become poorer and poorer, more and more imprisoned, meeker and meeker, and less and less free.

Some observers are hoping that once power is regained by the motley coalition of crazies and opportunists that inhabit the corpse of the Republican party, the exposure of their internal inconsistencies will tear it apart.  But I think the Republican Party, like the wars on drugs and terror, is not a real instrument for accomplishing anything constructive.  It has morphed into a whirling dervish of political nonsense that serves only to perpetuate itself, serve as covering fire for plutocratic looting, and to ensure that political democracy cannot function.

Is there actually a "problem" purportedly dear to the hearts of the party that Republican policies would actually solve rather than worsen?  On the contrary, except for oppressing gays and keeping Joe Public armed, I can't think of any policy in the platform that isn't exactly the kind of malignly counter-productive smokescreen quackery that Greenwald is talking about.  Immigration?  check.  Deficit spending?  check.  Abortion?  check.  Energy independence?  check.  Corruption?  checkity-check-check.

Though the Democratic Party is too conservative, too wealthy, too corrupt, too gerontocratic, and too pleased with its own timidity, it is at least still a potential instrument of administration and even sometimes, can be a reluctant servant of the public good.  The Republican Party is nothing more than a zombie institution animated by billionaire mischief-makers and their mercenary symbiotes.

Monday, October 11, 2010

There are times when life skates upon ice that is thick and textured and three feet thick like a deep-winter Pocono lake.  You can look down into it and chart its depth and seriousness in the bubbles and fractures and scars of its own self-creation.  Lately I'm a dabbler-duck in life that is more like frozen apple sauce, which is delicious and truly one of my favorite things, but the thready little ice crystals are not exactly serious or skateable.  No, life's been a bit crunchy and fragmentary and not lending itself to long or consistent campaigns at any one thing.

At work it's been four projects about public communications (privatization, deficit spending, nitrogen pollution, farm policy) all handed around and assembled by committee.  But too many deadlines all falling together and all the back-burner matters going undone and hardening on my computer desktop like so much neglected oatmeal.  Porter is busy at school and with his burden of homework and other educational rigamarole; Nico has a lighter load, but the teachers are tempted to push him for his brightness.  Monica has been sucked deeper into the Pine Point school, her responsibilities coagulating into two half-time jobs -- one as teacher the other as driver.  At least for her second shift she can seat-belt them all in and cruise I-95 in a sound-cloud of David Byrne or Julieta Venegas.

Monica's mother Esperanza is visiting along with her aunt, Hilma.  Then quickly, the three of them headed off to Vermont on to see the fall colors - leaving me in single-parentage, neck deep in writing up our dairy ethnography research while also running some experiments on (the uphill battle of) how to educate the public on the virtues deficit spending.  Then they were back and Porter was off to the White mountains on a class camping trip all week.  And so it continues.

Meanwhile, as part of the sputtering re-boot of my personal philosophy into some hybridized blogostani bourgeoise-pagan-doomerism, I had signed up for a "food preservation" course with Sharon Astyk, but have pretty much been failing at it.  Heading off to Minnesota in the middle didn't help.  I did manage to jar 5 pints of applesauce and I've set sauerkraut into motion. (Kimchi will be next, but I thought I'd start simple.)  I'm eyeing the quince for jelly.  Tiling the bathroom, painting the bulkhead, washing the windows, framing out a root cellar, stacking the two cords of firewood in the driveway, and so on have been gently and futiley fluttering mothlike against the window of my inattention.

Mom and Dad made a sudden road trip and campered in the driveway for a couple of days.  We planted some native plants Dad'd brought for me, and went hiking at Ninigret Pond, talked about the sorry state of politics, and Mom helped me hang pictures around the house that had been languishing in corners and atop the armoire since the summer wall-painting project.  We were all glad to have them for their short visit, though the date of my eventually getting back upon thick ice was knocked further down the paths.

Friday, September 10, 2010

One of the things I've always loved about Germans (even when I don't) is that earnestness that so often manifests as bluntness.  A lot of Germans have great difficulty in understanding why they should dissemble in social situations, or why the circumlocutions of politesse should take any precedence over the clarity of an undecorated statement of accurate fact.

So I just want to hug the Germans this week for knocking the first real cracks in the conspiracy of silence that reigns among the world's leading nations, when it comes to both climate change and the end of cheap oil.  First was the leaked military report that demonstrated that, public rhetoric aside, the German government is drawing up contingency plans for the end of the cheap oil era.  It forecasts nothing short of the end of the global capitalist system.  And now Deutsche Bank releases an assessment of it's thinking on investments that is equally blunt about the head-in-the-sand attitude that the US government epitomizes about the changes coming down the pipeline.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


I'm no militant when it comes to native plants versus exotics, but here's my take on it. 
Most garden shops stock all sorts of exotics, because the exotics tend to remain unblemished and un-gnawed upon. But they remain untouched precisely because they're not part of the local ecosystem. Nothing eats them and nothing uses them. I've know I've adjusted my own aesthetics to see beauty not in the plant that stands pristinely aloof, but in the one that shows all the scars of actually being part of it all.
A case in point: I have a small, but slowly growing patch of a fuzzy little native plant, pussytoe, growing in the yard. I've stopped mowing that part of the property so it's been able to flower and go to seed in peace the last couple of years. Well this summer, the most common butterfly around the garden has been a gorgeous little thing I managed to identify as a Pecks Skipper. And according to the field guide the larval foodplants for this skipper are everlastings and pussytoes. So for a few square feet of unmown lawn I get a vigorous population of beautiful and energetic pollinators. Those kinds of inter-relationships are happening invisibly all around, but most intensely with the native plants and their co-evolved creatures.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Welcome to the world, Leonardo.
You've got a big sister,
and even bigger cousins.
That'll help.

Monica headed off yesterday morning toward Pennsylvania to fetch the boys back for Tuesday's start of school.  She left in the morning before any breath of Hurricane Earl had reached this far north.  It was supposed to be my task this week, but there are suddenly 5 research projects all in play at work, or maybe 6.  We had a last torrent of research on nitrogen pollution, but also getting rolling on an ethnographic project in New Mexico and Wisconsin on the dairy industry and a couple of message testing projects for Ford Foundation that we're going to fall behind on, and one we've already fallen behind on for a California policy institute.  And a bunch of other stuff I haven't have time to be in the loop for.  So I couldn't get away, despite the impending arrivals of Earl (the hurricane) - and Leo (the new nephew).

Mom was already in Kutztown helping out with Cathie's new baby, so the boys were with my Dad.  So Monica headed out before the storm, and drove the empty highways along the coast.

It began raining around 11 a.m. on Friday.  But the north Atlantic sucked the life out of Earl, and while he brought a few downpours, there was no real wind.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Marking 5 years since Hurricane Katrina, Ed at Ginandtacos writes about the stages of "issue attention cycles."  From the pre-crisis stage, where, "All of the conditions exist for a crisis, but no one is interested. No attention is paid to the underlying, obvious, and persistent problems that will eventually become the crisis. "  Through alarmed discovery of the crisis and euphoric enthusiasm for solving it, on to realizing the true costs, followed by declining interest and the post crisis stage.  The last, according to Ed, "is misleading because nothing about the crisis has been resolved, but in the public mind it is history. We all did our part by pledging $25 to the Red Cross, and since the stories are disappearing from the TV and newspapers we can only assume that the problem has gone away."

It's a depressing cycle in which nothing is learned about the underlying causes to our crises, and the stage is simply re-set for the next one.

From the comments:

Ladiesbane: Do you think Thomas S. Kuhn read this, prior to writing The Structure of Scientific Revolutions chapter on paradigm shift in 1962? Or that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross read either prior to her model of the stages of grief in 1969? Each might have been formulated each separately, but all seem to touch on the same stages of "Doobie-doobie-doo…what?-No!-Damn.-I guess so.–Doobie-doobie-doo…."

Andy Brown: So, we have two obvious choices, join the mealy-minded masses in (to paraphrase ladiesbane), the cycles of doobie-doobie doo interruptus, or sit in our theater chairs like Alex de Large with his eyelids pried open, witnessing, but ultimately helpless to change the spectacle no matter what we do. And Beethoven gets ruined. Where's our third choice?

jazzbumpa:  As ladiesbane rather obliquely points out, this is just human nature.  We are fallible creatures, ruled more by emotion than logic, with short attention spans and no coherent understanding about what is actually good or bad for us over any time span longer than what's-for-dinner.  I'm not at all sure coming down from the trees was a good idea.

Andy Brown: JzB, [regarding coming down from the trees]  It wasn't our idea. The trees died out and left us ground-bound on the savannah, blinking in the sun. So at least we're consistent.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I remember when I first saw the Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense.  I was in Munich so it must have been the winter of 1985-86.  I don't recall so much the film, as walking the city afterwards with my friends and feeling unutterably happy.  I was in love, I was abroad, I was young and infinite, and David Byrne was brilliant.  It was good to be human.

This week some friends had given Monica some garden loot, and so I made tzatziki with yogurt and garlic and cucumber.  And Monica made spicy kebobs from Scott's beef, and a salad of tomatoes, olives, feta, cucumber, red onions and vinegar.  We put pitas in the toaster until they swelled into steam-ful spheres.  And though I failed to find retsina, the Toasted Head Chardonnay rose to the occasion.

And we watched the movie and god-dammit, it was still good to be human.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

After a long, wearying week of trying (with only mixed success) to plant the cognitive terrain of Americans with new information about nitrogen pollution, I was happy that Monica's colleagues at the nature center were pot-lucking the end of summer out on Mason's Island.  The long chain of weekly summer camps had finally played out -- though weeks too soon for the disgustingly tanned and fit Monica, who's not looking forward to trading her khaki shorts and water bottle for the slacks and lesson-plans of Señora Gallego, Spanish teacher and van-driver.  

People gathered at the old family house of the director -- if you can call a house old that's been erased by hurricanes in 1938 and then again in 1954.  The foundations at least have stood along the water for over a hundred years.  The weather was beautiful after four dreary days of rain and the sun set gaudily out over the water.  Herons and gulls and osprey cruised.  Kids pattered up and down the dock and I was glad I had none of my own there -- if kids fell in, got pinched by crabs or stung by jellyfish, well the kids weren't mine.  Steve set a couple of the older ones up with rods and they landed good-sized sand sharks.

The food was fantastic - much of it fresh from gardens - like edible works of art that filled one's veins with vitality and will to live.

Friday, August 27, 2010

John Holdren, via Climate Progress sums up the situation when it comes to the global experiment in heat-trapping:
We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.
What's terrifying all the climate scientists now is that we seemed to have ruled out mitigation altogether -- that is, we are going to do nothing to try to reduce the intensity of global climate change.  (Changing lightbulbs, adjusting mpg requirements, and building every 10th building "green" doesn't count.)   If worst case scenarios don't get realized, it will not be because humans suddenly decided that future generations deserved a habitable world, it will only be because the experiment in endless growth and triumphal materialism crashed to the ground prematurely.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ed over at Gin and Tacos is collecting tales of travel woe, so I didn't resist adding one, vintage 1986.

If it's a question of helpless travel suffering . . . I remember my friend and I were on an overnight train through Yugoslavia (back when there was such a place) and 5 local workmen piled into the compartment made for 6. And settled in, kicking off their shoes, the fumes from which immediately drove all oxygen from the train, or would have if the window had opened, so maybe the oxygen just died. Even the cheap Russian cigarettes that someone was always smoking, couldn't compete. Propped by the entryway door we at least got the occasional welcome whiff of diesel exhaust, but couldn't even pass into unconsciousness, because the 5 guys only had 4 tickets between them, so somebody had to climb over us and go hide in the bathroom whenever the clairvoyant one thought the ticket taker might be coming.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

People are strange creatures.  They talk a lot.  Not just to exchange information, though they do.  Not just to posture and jockey for regard or status, though they do.  Not just to craft a persona or witness a crafting, though they do.  Nor just to form a connection, to entertain and be surprised with laughter or pique, to learn about another's limits or the histories they traverse, nor just to elicit a reaction, to make the empty air something human, to make or tell a story.

Wednesday Monica had spent the day with her young campers in the mossy brooks, and I'd spent mine prospecting in the internet for memes and analogies and arguments and rhetorical constructions about government privatization, and Iuri had turned mice marrow green for tracking proteins through the brain/blood barrier, and Sarka had dwelt on her new unemployment and her children away off on another continent.  We gathered at the Dog Watch Cafe and we talked.  We talked through the beers and bouillabaisse at the restaurant, and  dockside we talked through more beers as the sun set like molten gold behind the still masts of Stonington Harbor.  We talked under the stars and satellites, and around the kitchen island that Sarka cluttered with foods and sauces from the refrigerator.  We talked until it was the next day and it was too late to go home, what with another workday stalking up, and so they went up to their bed and we went below to the guest bed and we all stopped talking for a few quiet hours.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My sources with televisions tell me there is much debate among the stupid about whether Muslims ought to be shamed or intimidated into not worshiping (or playing basketball) too close to the 9-11 site.  Punditiots, politicians and their lazy media barkers making people stupider and stupider.

It's not so much that they have murdered democracy, it's more that they have tortured it into imbecility, let it befoul itself with its own feces, then put a funny hat and clown shoes on it. You can't help but turn away.

Monday, August 16, 2010

I am not really interested in spending a fortune on a Prius or one of the industry's new coal-powered cars like the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf.  So it warmed my environmentalist heart to see the New York Times talking up the movement toward updating the 4 cylinder engine.  Our 1997 Saturn station wagon, may be lacking in glamour (and missing some paint), but it still gets 34-35 mpg.  New smaller, lighter, non-sci-fi cars, likewise might not be a glamorous solution to our ecological problems, but in the short-term it's certainly likely to be a bigger help then Chevy's $40,000 bauble.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Buckwheat Zydeco were playing a free concert along the Thames in New London, so I  went down to Bank Street with friends (who're also momentarily kid-free) to holler and take in the cajun music.  Monica joined us later looking good in an orange and black dress that got compliments from drunks and sober alike.  After, as we had beers along the bustling street we felt that we had discovered an oasis of urban life.  

Friday, August 13, 2010

I've been research director on some communications projects focused on sustainability -- trying to get the public to understand the concept. It's easy to get fooled into believing that people understand what you're talking about, only to discover later that their perceptions were quite different from what you thought. There are certain parts of the sustainability story that are easy to tell -- resource depletion or economic viability, for example -- and then there are parts of the story that are nearly impossible to tell. One of these is the relationship between diversity and resilience (especially when it comes to sub-optimal, even maladaptive, traits and forms).  Across the long term a diversity of imperfections makes whatever system more resilient and ready for changes.   

Evolutionary biologists have the best grasp on it, since non-optimal forms are the stuff that evolutionary change is built of.  People who take the long view, ecologists like Wendell Berry or meta-farmers like Sharon Astyk, understand that this applies to our food system as well.  At the moment our tendency toward monoculture, genetically narrow breeds, and our one-size-fits-all approaches make us vulnerable to any kind of change (whether it’s a new pest, climate weirding or the declining availability of cheap fossil fuel).  Things always change eventually, and when change comes we'll want more rather than fewer varieties to choose from.

But Americans tend to believe there is always a "best" variety, and it is very, very hard for most people to really see the value in having a system full of waste and noise and inefficiencies (that is, diversity).  

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Backyard Blogging

Bergamot brings the bees.

A Pearl Crescent butterfly in the shadows of the
Brown-Eyed Susans.

Friday, August 6, 2010

I remember the month that I first started eating raw tomatoes and olives.  Traveling in Greece in March 1986.  I could subsist on a fair amount of souvlaki, fries and Amstel, and I'd discovered moussaka.   But a body also needs to eat a little lighter sometimes, and there wasn't much fresh to eat at that time of year.  But there was the salad -- always fresh tomatoes, red onion, olives, some fresh herbs and a dash of olive oil.  Some bread and tzatziki on the side.  If I ever start growing tomatoes it'll be a result of those Greek salads.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Every morning lately there's been a brisk traffic of small yellowjackets passing in and out from under a decorative chunk of wood a few feet away from the side door.  I'd been meaning to massacre them at some point.  (I like wasps.  If I were an entomologist I would study wasps.  But some of us are territorial.)  I wanted the massacre to happen after dark, when they were all back in the nest, but I kept forgetting.

Finally, yesterday one of them gave me a remarkably painful sting on my temple, and that settled it.  (I would still have forgotten, but I went out one last time before bed to see if there were any signs of the aurora borealis lingering from the recent sunburst.  And sitting there in the night I remembered them.)

We have a can of ant poison -- probably left here by the previous owners 5 years ago -- but I figured that most deadly consumer products have a good shelf life and one insecticidal toxin is a good as another.  If it didn't work the screen door was only six feet away.

I'd confronted yellowjackets before -- spraying insecticide as best I could down into the burrow they dig.  I figured I'd tip over the wood, find the hole, spray into it, cover it with a rock and hope that discouraged enough of them.  

Well, when I tipped over the wood, up came the whole volley-ball sized hive, swarming with black and yellow wasps.  It's a good thing I waited until night because they were just surprised enough and sluggish enough to enable me give the whole thing a fatal soaking of ant poison.

There must have been 5 or 6  hundred larva on the way.  They were clearly planning on conquest.