Sunday, April 29, 2012

The bees are here!

Some time in January, last years beekeeping experiment ended in famine and death for the bees.  It happens to even the most experienced beekeepers (especially in a mild winter when the bees don't go as dormant as they should), but I don't think my lot was ever even close to surviving.  The colony never got going after a late start, and the queen never produced enough brood to make a go of it.
This year I ordered 3 packages of bees from the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association, and picked them up on Saturday.

These swarms of bees were formed on Thursday, when bee breeders down in Georgia dumped 3 or 4 pounds of bees into each little screened box, inserted a fertilized queen (she's in a tiny screen and wood "queen cage" with a few attendants), then plugged up the hole with a feeder container filled with sugar water.  The artificial swarms formed around the syrup feeder as they all rode a truck up to Rhode Island.

Once you'v readied your hives, you pry open the lid and remove the feeding canister.  You remove the queen and make sure she is alive and moving around.  By now bees are swarming out of the box, so you need to get them into the hive.  For the first two hives I am using "deep" hive bodies and I could just set the whole open box into the hive alongside 5 (of the ten) frames of honeycomb and comb foundation.  
For the third hive I'm using "mediums" and there is not enough room for the box, so I had to shake out all the bees into a pile in the empty hive and then set the frames in on top of them.  The frames settle down and into place as the bees distribute themselves out from under.

The queen is trapped in her cage by a plug of candy, which is in turn capped with a cork.  Once you remove the cork, the bees begin to eat their way into the queen cage.  The reasoning is that by the time they get through (in a few days) they will all be familiar with one another and these bees will have accepted this new queen as their own.

With a thumb tack I fixed each queen in place between a couple of frames.  Then I placed on the "inner cover", which has a hole in the middle.  I had made sugar feeders out of mason jars, and I inverted one of those over each hole.  
Then the outer lid goes on and you leave them to fuss and fret and figure out where they are.

 Mom and Dad came up from Pennsylvania for Grandparents Day at the boys' school and visited for the weekend.

Bea in the bee yard
And although Dad's still stuck in a wheelchair with his broken leg, they came out for the hiving of the bees.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I had to buy some hive bodies from Arson Alley apiary for the bees I've ordered (last year's colony sadly did not make it through the winter) and while I was up north I stopped at the Good Earth, a little organic nursery that stocks heirloom tomatoes and spices.  The rule of thumb here is to plant after Mother's day and so they hadn't actually set any of their tomatoes up for sale.  But I talked Joyce (one of the owners) into potting a couple of Jaune Flamme starters for me.  When I mentioned that I was going to put them into the ground, she looked appalled and I thought for a moment that she was going to take them back.  But then she just looked sadly at the seedlings that I was obviously going to murder and rang them up with the seed packets I was also buying.  I got the sense it wasn't the first time she's regretfully handed a carefully nurtured plant off to a sad fate, but such are the compromises we make when we set out to earn a living doing something that we're not indifferent to.

But I'm sold on this "season extension" thing.  We're eating mesclun mix that I planted back in March and it is like mainlining spring vitamins.  The sunflowers are eight inches tall and I have to put a riser on the cold frame to give them room.  The slugs are very pleased as well.  So into the ground the tomatoes go.  And maybe they will survive the coming nights in the 30's.

I'll bring Joyce a photograph if they do.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rain falls finally.
And the dust, no longer ascendant, 
cleaves muddily to itself,
and to the swelling roots.
Rain . . . .


Saturday, April 21, 2012

The interlocking of the food year.  Last summer's potatoes and the parsnips that over-wintered in the ground meet this spring's asparagus and morel from the garden.  Last summer's Big Valley pasture translated into beef - (and a few plantains as a nod to globalization).

Oh, it was good.  Very, very good.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Following on Fridays post about corruption, this article lays out a nice example of how things work.  They calculate that 80% of your cell phone bill is a direct result of corruption.  They tell a story of the squelching of a small telecom upstart and how large corporations collude with politicians and regulators to stifle innovation and competition, foster monopolization, and basically vacuum money out of the economy:

Why does the FCC and why does Congress want us to have high cell phone costs?  Well, they don’t, not really.  It’s more accurate to say they don’t particularly care about our problems, but are responding to an entirely different problem that is completely unrelated to cell phones.  The government is responding to the need for campaign contributions for politicians.
. . . politicians make sure that phone companies get to buy up other phone companies, eventually creating a near monopoly situation.  And we all know that monopolies charge more and deliver less to their customers.  As telecom legal expert Marvin Ammori said, “It’s proven cheaper to buy politicians than invest in high speed broadband or to provide good customer service at a fair price. ”
In other words, we are stuck with big bad cell phone companies not because those companies are good at providing cell phone service, but because they are good at corrupting markets through political donations. 
With similar stories playing out in every profitable industry it's no wonder that the US economy we experience feels so sclerotic despite all that money pooling at the top. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Garden Blogging.

Mid-April plantings of a reckless optimist --
  Smack me down New England spring.

I put pole beans in a patch of ground where I planted red potatoes last year.  (It was my low-till experiment.  I piled leaves on a patch to kill (or at least demoralize) the grass and then just broke the sod.  I got out more potato than I put in, but not by much.  Porter and I built a teepee out of maple boughs from a tree I dropped.   I gouged out a handful of dirt for each bean, tossed in some screened compost, and covered it back up.

The lettuce and sunflowers seem to be doing fine in the cold frames.  I set the boxes aside for today's mild weather, but replaced them for the evening.  

The weather reports have been predicting 40's every night and every night it's been down to near freezing.  The beets are up and I've been mostly leaving those fend for themselves.

And I'm not sure how much to expect from the "hugel."  I'm sure it would be better if it had had a few months to settle, but seeds are cheap, so I've started to plant it.  Starting on the north end of it I've put in cucumber seeds, a few nasturtiums and two rows of Jacob Cattle beans.

The peach tree has been in bloom for a few days, and the apple trees are about to break into leaf -- the rhubarb and mint and asparagus are all coming up.  And morels!

So. Spring.  Smack me down.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The troops are home from school,

and thank God it's effin Friday.

Ed, over at Gin and Tacos, blogs eloquently about politics and culture, but last week he was foundering, because he'd set himself the task of thinking about solutions rather than critiques.
It was jarring to realize that for all the time spent pointing out what's wrong with the political process, economic system, and society as a whole, I have next to nothing to offer as a solution. I don't even know where we could plausibly start fixing this mess . . . Maybe being forced to admit that we don't have any answers makes us feel like the designated mourners for a society that kills another piece of itself every day.

I know that feeling.  I don't know how to go about solving what's ailing the US, but I do have some opinions on what the prerequisites for change are.  There are two political-cultural dynamics that cripple this country's ability to meet its growing challenges (including climate change, energy decline, end of empire, an unsustainable food system, economic contraction, loss of community, etc).  The first dynamic is political corruption and the second is the destruction of civilian policing carried through by the "wars" on drugs and terrorism.

The pre-eminent obstacle to solving anything is political corruption.  In a functional democracy, officials are elected or hired to work for the public good as that is understood by some subsection of the electorate.   It used to be that special interests had to co-exist with (or parasitize) the public interest, but that is no longer the case.  Instead we have a thoroughly corrupted system where the electorate has been sidelined and excluded from the true political economy of the country -- where the public good and public opinion figures little, if at all, in the decision-making and priority-setting of government. 

Because the wealthy individuals, corporations and industries that vie for control over government are nearly all heavily invested in the status quo, they ensure that we cannot aggressively undertake any of the changes of direction that our country needs in order to survive, much less thrive.  

What seems to set this era apart is that all the usual levers for reform have been removed.  The problem can't be tackled through the law, because all the important corruption today is perfectly legal. It cannot be about shaming officials or policing ethics, since the culture of government accepts this corruption as perfectly normal and inevitable and ethical. In fact, the courts propound the idea that using wealth to influence politics is "free speech", a right protected by the Constitution. The traditional watchdog, the media, has not only been domesticated through corporate ownership and consolidation, but is one of the main beneficiaries of the vast sums of money coursing through the political system.  (TV alone will soak up $2.5 billion dollars this election.)  And not coincidentally, even as public education has been gradually starved of funding and morale,  scientists, critics, and public intellectuals have been systematically rendered invisible and irrelevant to what passes for public culture and discourse.  Even if the mass media weren't busy confusing and misleading people, the problem wouldn't be remedied by normal elections, because corruption has become thoroughly bi-partisan (even if partisans in either camp view the other side as (even more) corrupt than their own).

In effect, only when political influence resides in the votes of citizens rather than the dollars of wealthy donors will we have any hope of returning to a democratic system.  (While it's true that a democratic system is no guarantee that we will turn to solving our problems, it gives us a better chance than the current destructive stranglehold.)

There is another relevant collection of levers that can be used for reform, of course, and these include dissent, civil disobedience, popular discontent and unrest.  That brings me directly to the second obstacle for true change -- the destruction of civilian policing, and its dramatic replacement with militarized security institutions armed and empowered by the war on drugs and fear-mongering about terrorism. 

I'll outline what I mean by that in a subsequent post.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

I hung laundry on the line to dry and went in to Providence for work.  Not only did a series of downpours soak my clothing, but they were hailed on.  Twice.  My clothes look very, very wet and discouraged.  Maybe they will dry tomorrow.

Monday, April 9, 2012

In defense of placebos


I'm pretty much a non-interventionist when it comes to health and healing.  Whether that's a luxury I enjoy because I'm usually in good health -- or whether I'm usually in good health because I stay away from the meddling of healers -- I can't say.  I hit up my doctor for doxycycline when I get the tell-tales for Lyme disease, I had surgery when a salivary gland went bad, but otherwise I mostly rely on my body to heal itself.  I listen to my body when it has something to say to me, and eat plenty of multi-grain bread with butter and Monica's fantastic cooking.

As an anthropologist and sometimes pagan, I'm sympathetic to the theatrics of "alternative healing" even if I'm fairly skeptical of the mechanics.  But when Brian Kaller, of Restoring Mayberry, of one of my favorite blogs, laid out a more consistently skeptical takedown of alternative medicine it struck a chord.  An excerpt:
Most people I know, in one way or another, yearn for a simpler and more natural way of life, a way to get around big government and big corporations and deal with authentic people, to buy products whose ingredients they can pronounce. And so markets and movements have arisen to meet that demand, and give people the illusion of doing that . . .
Some of the ways people try to live a more natural life, however, just do harm. Refusing vaccinations does not restore the collapsing plankton levels in the ocean, it just makes your children more vulnerable to disease. Buying “herbal” medicines sends money to corporations – just corporations that can work outside of mainstream medicine’s public rules, and so get to sell things that don’t work. 
I'm neither a doctor nor a politician, but I can think of a number of ways people can improve their and their neighbours' health. They could persuade many people to garden, getting excercise and fresh vegetables. They could persuade lawmakers to force herbal companies to abide by the same standards as pharmaceutical companies . . . Americans could also persuade lawmakers to change health-care laws, imitating what seems to work best in other parts of the world.
If more people feel sick, stressed and helpless in years to come, however, the danger is that, instead of doing any of these real things, they will be a prime target for hucksters selling placebos – things that only make them think they are fighting the good fight. 

With slightly tipsy ambivalence, I tried to think through the redeeming features of quackery:

(more below the fold)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Garden Blogging:

In the cold frames --
(like miniature greenhouses)
I've got lettuce and sunflowers coming up.
Beets, too.

And another summer experiment:
-- a mound built of logs and sticks
overlaid with mulch
(from 5 years worth of firewood) --

And then overlaid again
with undercooked compost from the heap
and a couple of inches of dirt.

I'm a gonna plant some beans 
and nasturtiums on it.
Maybe a squash too.

Can you spot the asparagus spears
poking out below?

Friday, April 6, 2012

OK, for those who are interested, 
here is a link to a slideshow of our 


Thursday, April 5, 2012

We watched as a sea turtle swam among the mangroves along the Galapagos' Isabella island.

the hawksbill turtle in flight

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Writing is a way to bring unruly thoughts (for better or worse) into an order.  Sometimes - though not often enough - I achieve a kind of thinking that is like one of the oaks that grow over the back wall.  Not the perfect iconic tree-shape, but a recognizable tree-shape and built out of a fractalization of honest branchings.  Other times - like now - my thinking is like the raspberry patch behind the beehive.  The berries give the patch their nominal identity, but they struggle for sunshine with the common milkweed and burdock and goldenrod and maybe some rarer milkweeds I've planted.  And it's being invaded by crown vetch and by the peppermint I introduced, and the burning bush that the boys hacked out with hatchets has never really given up.  Now, if I can disentangle myself from that metaphor - which isn't easy given the thorns - I'm not sure how to write myself back out into the garden.

Would it help to write down a list of some of the shoots and vines and weeds in my metaphorical mental thicket?  Let's see, there is still the desire to engage with the Galapagos Islands and the car wreck that led up to it . . . there's the ongoing decline of our political culture and our communities and the desire to do something more than just serve as a witness . . . there's the vacillating springtime with lettuce and sunflower coming up in the cold frames and birds breaking out into song, beanpoles and beehives . . . there's eight-hour days as research director with their own complex braids of thinking and writing and planning - oil depletion, social security reform, unionization, jobs quality . . . there's the crisis of sustainability all around our unsustainable lifestyles . . . there are Porter, Nico, Monica, three cats and this anthropologist getting older and acting out our dramas and non-dramas within the walls of our little peeling yellow cottage.

It's going to take a while, so bear with me.  For now, here's a little bit of clarity from the Galapagos.  A hawk has killed and will eat a young iguana.  The adult iguanas, too big to trouble about hawks, too reptilian to trouble about young iguanas, bask.

Galapagos hawk and marine iguana, photo A. Brown