Thursday, July 29, 2010

James Howard Kunstler doesn't think we're being well-served by the people who claim to explain the economy.
[Economists] will go down in history as the greatest convocation of clowns ever assembled, surpassing all the collected alchemists, priests, and vizeers employed in the 1500 years following the fall of Rome.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Reading data today from our interviews with people about pollution.  Here's a guy from New York state responding:
I agree 
that we need to take steps 
to care for this planet 
as it currently is 
the only one we have. 
I am not too over the top about it though.
It's poetry really.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Family Reunion
Airydale, PA

photos by Kim Brown

Camping and Decamping, July 17 to 23

If we'd been feeling a bit more prosperous we probably would have rented a bigger car for our vacation.  We won't get the Suburban back from the school until it's time for Monica to start driving the students again, so we're down to our 97 Saturn station wagon.  That may be an environmental virtue on our part (the thing gets 34 miles to the gallon still), but it meant packing five of us, all our normal gear, plus camping gear into a little car.  Fortunately I'm very good at packing.

So Saturday noon we swung by Jiri and Sharka's, where the boys had slept overnight, paused for some iced expresso from Jiri, stopped again in New London at the Latin grocery for Alberto's bunuelo quesito - and by 1:30 were in the plaquey arteries of the interstate highway system.  Across Connecticut, up through the state to Danbury, then across New York, sweeping upwards toward the Catskills.  We stopped in Hancock for beer and dropped down into the Pennsylvania Poconos.

Lake Como was as usual except for the old white pine along the road, snapped off by a storm.  It crushed the old arbor vitae in its fall.  The ruin of a tree lay on its side, a russet-colored heap clashing with all the summer green.  The cottage was warm and dry, with the lake low and stagnant, as though it were the end of August rather than the middle of July.  The phoebes were nesting under the eaves and the beaver was active along the lake.  The blueberry bush in the font yard was laden despite constant depredation by the catbird and wrens.  A deer walked up the dirt road.

Sunday was a beautiful, cool morning in the 50's.  We fired up the toastolator and coffee was soon burbling in the antique percolator.  Monica tore out the fading daisies on the flagstone patio.  A hummingbird came to investigate.  We drove over to Scott Center to pick blueberries and raspberries, but the maples are shading out the bushes and picking by the handful is a thing of the past.  The boys and I hiked toward the hilltop, beyond George's fallen-down hunting cabin and up past the flagstone quarry.  Years ago the gypsy moths thinned the canopy and this time of year the trail is lost in thickets of goldenrod and briars.  As we blundered around growing lost and hot and weary, we ate all our berries for sustenance and had none to bring back to Monica and Alberto, who'd grown impatient and hungry waiting for us in the shade.

In the evening, back at Como we took the canoe to the Upper Lake.  The little vessel is still a bit flattened from last summer's Delaware River fiasco and for a little while a little fountain was jetting up from a hole in the bottom.  Nico plugged it with some grass and pine needles.  The shallow, swampy lake is rimmed by dead trees, a sign that the beavers must have been left to perfect their dam under the bridge that connect the lakes.  But now the water level is down and cool, green grass grows all around among the decaying roots.  Phoebes and waxwings hopped at the shallows; a kingfisher complained; a great blue heron watched us as Canada geese retreated.  As night fell, below the cottage, we built a fire in the fire circle and toasted marshmallows.  But the bats have died out and the mosquitos were voracious.

In the morning, Nico and I took a circuit of the lower lake.  The white water lilies that Dad planted years ago have spread all the way to Gene's Camp.  Below the lower bridge, there didn't seem to be any water at all going over the concrete dam.  Beavers were doing some work there, but to no purpose until there's more rain.  We locked the canoe, packed up, closed up the house and departed southwards.  Arrived at Mom and Dad's in the afternoon.  Dad was hobbling and grimacing from last week's surgery, when he'd had his left knee replaced.  The boys were soon into the pool, and Monica and I followed.  Scores of butterflies and hovering hawkmoths flickered in his plantation of bergamot, bee balm and ox-eye sunflowers.

On Tuesday we left Alberto and his gear in Mt. Gretna and departed for the Seven Mountains, the convoluted, corrugated heart of central Pennsylvania.  Chris was waiting for us there at Penn-Roosevelt State Park scoping out the sites.  We settled on #12 a walk-in back among the hemlocks and along a gurgling, mossy stream.  In the ridges and canyons of the 7 mountains, there is woods and water, streams and hidden springs, hemlock 500 years old, grouse and bear, and a million billion blueberries, with trails through it all.

Chris and I both have strong memories of going along with our grandfather in his cattle truck on Wednesday mornings to pick up livestock for transport to the Belleville sale. We'd stop at a farm and load up a dairy cow, then to the next for a half dozen pigs or a couple of sheep, and so on.  We'd unload the animals into the maze of stalls and passages at the sale barn.  Then linger as Grandpa talked farming and Valley gossip with other men in overalls and caps.

So there was some nostalgia in it for us on Wednesday as we pulled in along the line of tethered buggies to the hot, dusty parking lot of the Sale.  Flea market, baked goods stands, produce sellers, tool makers all in full swing.  Amish, Mennonite, English all mixed together, the gamut from browsing tourist to Anabaptists in dusty straw hats chatting in Dutch.  Mom had given the boys $20 each and they were intent on buying weaponry with it.  Porter a sword and Nico a survival knife (with fishing tackle, compass, matches and so on in the hollow metal handle).  And we bought pastries and little yellow plums.  They were auctioning off eggs inside: "For a white dozen, 55 cents - do I hear 65?"  Monica went searching for food and found a turkey dinner somewhere.  The boys and I ate fried food out in the heat.

At the livestock auction they were bidding on horses.  Just like I remembered, the auctioneer seemed to be telepathically able to read the twitches and tics of the audience enough to tell who was bidding against who.  There was a  9-year old Morgan that would need to be re-taught to pull a buggy.  A pair of half-sister mares that had never been asked to work.  A wild-eyed speckled gelding that fought the tight bridle-grip of the the beefy Amish youth who led him.  (That one went for $165 and probably condemned himself to a journey to a Mexican slaughterhouse.)  Nico was appalled at the switches they used on the piglets and he gasped and covered his face with his hat when a sluggish one was picked up by the hind leg.  We left before the dairy cattle came up for bidding.

After the heat of the Valley, we climbed up and over Stone Mountain to cool off at Greenwood Furnace State Park with a swim in the old reservoir.  A couple of weeks of heat and slow water means the lake is just cold rather than being the brutal springwater that I remembered.  We weren't the only ones splashing in.  Even an Amish family parked its buggy in the shade and took to the water -- a mother and eight kids -- from teenage girl down through toddler in a straw hat.  The straw hats and shoes came off, but otherwise the kids went in fully clothed, suspenders, bonnets and all.  On the other side of all the exposed American flesh, a Chinese family, presumably, by the look of their hosts, on some sort of mission exchange, also went in fully clothed.

On Thursday we climbed up the trail along Detweiler's Creek, then picnicked and gathered blueberries along Bear Meadow, but the trail there wound back into the woods rather than wending along the swamp itself so we didn't hike far.  I showed Monica and the boys a dead rattlesnake I found, which was probably a mistake.  The greenbottle flies were working away on it.  We left the Seven Mountains for the afternoon to drive into State College for ice cream.  Porter was smitten with the huge buildings and sprawling campus and declared confidently that this was where he was going to come to school to study either engineering or biology.  No quaint Colby College campus or UCC for him.  He's been asking questions about college ever since.

Back at camp the others slept off their ice cream and I went for a hike up Thickhead Mountain.

On our way out on Friday, we came across a timber rattler crossing the road. He was fat and sullen and yellow with dark markings.  He shook his thin black tail at us as he slunk through the undergrowth.  This was a hundred yards from where we'd been berry picking two days before.   Monica swore she'd not wade into these huckleberries and laurel again until she'd gotten herself some heavy boots.  In retrospect, I'd guess the Amish berry-pickers in their waders weren't just wearing them for the swamp water.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Last week's Daily Show with Jon Stewart, had Marilynne Robinson on it talking about how we need the best insights from both science and religion.  And that scientists make a mistake when they set themselves up in opposition to religion.  As I thought about global warming and resource depletion and US jingo-militarism,  I felt myself reflexively bridling at the idea that science should defer to religion in some way.  After all, religions and the anti-science they accompany seem like primary stumbling blocks in our efforts to solve our most pressing problems.  Religious conservatives (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu) have an affinity with the various tribes of denialism (whether concerning evolution, climate change, human sexuality or whatever).  They share a penchant for willful ignorance and an unwillingness to place faith (so to speak) in empirical evidence or scientific consensus.

But it occurred to me that, of course, Robinson is right (at least as I imagined her argument from a 5 minute interview).  Religion and Science are both central to any solution of the big problems.  In many ways Science is letting us down.  It is not solving the problems.  Its collective communication skills are weak, its political power is under-developed.  It has been timid and complicit and un-compelling.  So too is Religion letting us down.  It is not now directing the moral, cultural and spiritual power that it can marshal toward a positive stewardship of our earth or of our children's future.  But this can't be a blanket condemnation of either one.  We need both science and spirituality on board -- and in their best qualities.

As mentioned before, in my summer of blossoming pessimism, I've been reading the doomer blogs.  The Peak Oil analysts and the Climate Scientists, the Collapse Preppers and the Permacultists, and myself, we all throw our hands up in frustration that so many people are in denial about the ways our actions as a species are wantonly and stupidly destructive and unsustainable and simply unsatisfying.  Especially, now that science has marshaled so much evidence that things are going in all the wrong directions.

A few days ago, after reading a moving, elegiacal post by John Rember, I had to respond

It's hard to know what's coming -- and what we should have in our pockets.  Scarcity and loss doesn't bring out the best in people -- though neither does our current spectacle of conspicuous materialism cross-hatched by inequality.  If and when collapse (or terminal decline) reaches our various redoubts, luck and nimbleness will probably count for much -- and whatever preparations there are that can contribute to either.
I think I most dread a lingering, half-assed decline that leaves the assholes in state capitals and corporate boardrooms with enough residual power to grind it all out into a banal and stupid archipelago of podunk tyrannies.  (Sort of like what began happening in the rural areas of the former Soviet Union in the mid 1990's.)  And that it will turn out that our people's preference for being led by fools and charlatans is deepset and fatal.
What I most hope for is an awakening of the good in people.  Or not quite that, because I think most people are good, or would prefer to be, but rather a world (or tribe or community) where the good and joyful in people had more place and more scope.  And I think it is even possible (however unlikely) that a collapse of our System could make a space for that.
And the choice between such trajectories is, after all, as much a religious question as anything.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Chronicle of a summer visit:

We had a wonderfully full house this weekend.  It's not like the house had been lacking in life, with the four of us and Alberto, not to mention two cats, a guinea pig and a cornsnake, but my sister Cathie (8 months pregnant) and Eric and 2-year old Bridget, with their little dachshund, Portia arrived on Thursday.

We gave them cold beer and juice and ice water, but piled them back into their car for an outdoor concert at the Jonathan Edwards winery.  The good-natured crowds with their kids and their picnics were beginning to fill the lawns in front of the players.  We laid our quilts down on the grass, and opened Spanish olives and a cold bottle of Pinot Grigio.  The breeze across the vines was breaking the heat and the music was good and chilled wine even better.  We'd moved on to the winery's chaotic Stone Table Red before Jiri and Sharka showed up with Jacob and Filip.  Now the four boys disappeared and Bridget, drawn by the triple energies of music and air and other children, began to roam and find friends and dance to the music.  There was another bottle of wine.  We stayed into the dark.

On Friday, Monica and Nico headed off to camp early in the morning.  Nico was going to hunt mud puppies at Avery Preserve and Monica was taking her lot to the Beardsley zoo.  I was working at home, doing phone interviews with people around the country on agricultural nitrogen pollution -- trying to get at the conceptual models people are using to understand what the heck I am talking about.  Alberto was looking after the house.  Porter opted to skip camp and play guide for our visitors at the Mystic Seaport.  The snake slept quietly, forgotten behind the Zane Grey novels on the bookshelf.

In the evening, Monica and the boys went off to the movies with Patty and her girls -- to see The Last Airbender.  Cathie, having toured all day with a 2-year old, napped.  And I made margaritas for Eric and myself.  We talked and read and played with Bridget.  Portia and the black cat, Wilbur, negotiated a co-existence.

Cathie, Eric and Bridget are not early risers, but we got them rousted in time to cook up some French toast and still make it to Stonington Borough's Saturday morning farmers' market.  Peaches and raspberries, blueberries and little red plums.  Lemon Italian ice.  And vegetables to last the week.  I tucked it all away into a cooler in the car and we walked the old sea-town out past the stone lighthouse to the jetty.  Bridget was in the backpack and Eric's shirt was soon translucent with sweat.  In the seaweedy water, pebbles clicked as ten thousand little crabs shifted them around in their incessant foraging.  Cormorants flew by and a lone Herring Gull sat watchfully upon a barnacle-encrusted boulder.  Napatree beach was golden in the clear light.  We ate lunch at Milagro - cactus salad, shrimp, carne asada, complex salsas.  I took Bridget on a walk to the green while the others finished up.  She held my hand and took a moment to sit on every bench and ledge.

I had to return the Mystic Seaport pass to the library in Westerly, and Eric, Nico and I took the opportunity to go for a walk around the town.  The library, park, bookstore, merchant strip and so on.  Westerly manages to convey a civic vitality -- staid and traditional maybe, but so unlike most old towns (if they have neither a college nor tourists) who have lost their hearts.  We got home in time to watch the Germany Uruguay consolation match -- possibly the best game of the 2010 World Cup.

At 4:30 Monica, Eric, Cathie, Bridget and I headed down to East Beach, three miles of pines and dunes.  The sun had lost some of its brutality by then, but the ocean was stirred up and the tide coming in.  Bridget didn't like the rough, pounding surf, though Eric and I both braved it.  As I swam, shredded seaweed tickled and clung and I felt like I should look like Swamp Thing when I skipped back up out of the turgid waves onto the beach.

We'd thought of going to Wakefield for Greek food, but instead Monica made us a dish of onions, green beans, tomatoes and finger potatoes for dinner -- from the farmers' market, of course.  And we moved deeper into the fridge's beer supply.

Chloe, the gray cat had greeted Cathie and Eric when they arrived, but after noting the dog and the toddler she then disappeared, not to be seen again.  Porter had followed suit, heading off with Jake off into the woods with hatchets, hammocks, a skillet and a day's supply of hot dogs, bacon and s'mores makings.  He'd return the next morning with tales of angry nocturnal deer and meddlesome raccoons.

Late Sunday morning Alberto went to mass and Cathie and Monica went off to Watch Hill to stroll the town and beach and have lunch at the Olympia Tea Room.  Eric, Nico and I looked after Bridget and fed on fruits and rice and beans.  He did some desultory packing and worked at a book review in opportunistic snatches.  Nico mostly read the book that Eric had bought him at the Other Tiger in Westerly.  In the afternoon, before they left for Pennsylvania, most of us gathered for the World Cup final between Holland and Spain.  We had to watch it on Unavision's slightly jerky webcast, since ABC was broadcasting it on TV and for some reason doesn't want a web audience.  (Why?)  On the bright side, I could more easily tune out the blather of the announcers since it was all in Spanish.  Nico and I were the only ones rooting for the Dutch, (though by the end I was rooting for neither team).

And then it was time for the Pennsylvanians to head off into the setting sun.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I think I need to take a break from reading the news.
Thank god at least I don't have a TV.

From Mark Twain:

The most interesting information 
comes from children, 
for they tell all they know  
and then stop.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Guy McPherson writes a thought-provoking doomer blog, whose subheading reads, "Humans have tinkered with the natural world since we appeared on the evolutionary stage.  Our days may be numbered.  As the home team, Nature bats last."

The collapse of the age of oil, and our utter inability to prepare for the approaching calamity sets the stage for a new ascendancy of nature and for the exit of humans from center stage and perhaps an exit from the stage altogether.  In offering an alternative to Guy's baseball metaphors, I wrote in the comments:

"Here’s an alternative metaphor if only loosely sports related: The Donner Party combination pie and hotdog eating contest. Had to be called off with a few contestants still eating because the food was sadly all gone. But no worries, the weather’s changing and it looks like there’ll be plenty of snow to eat."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Porter's back from a week in Bimini in the Bahamas, where he was there studying marine life with the Dolphin Communications Project.  He came back confident and happy, with a few more freckles and without much in the way of peeling skin.

It was pretty much hands-on marine biology.  His parents shelling out some money to see if Porter's fascination for dolphins and sharks translates to science research.   Says he wants to be an electrical engineer and a marine biologist.  So we'll see.  He's twelve years old.