Sunday, September 30, 2012

I've often compared humankind's collective intelligence to that of a plague of toxic lichen -- mindless, yet effectively destructive.  Brian Kaller's girl takes a more constructive view: 
As we talked we decided that the rivers were the blood, the rocks were the bones, soil the flesh, and animals were the nerves.

“What kind of germs are we?”

It depends what kind of person you are, I said. Some people have been like the bad germs, making the world sicker.

“Can we be like the white blood cells?” she asked, knowing that they patrol the body and heal it. 
. . . “I’d like to be a white blood cell when I grow up,” she said.
I have to think Gaia's immune system would welcome such allies.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

I'm a scientist by profession.  I make hypotheses and we prove or disprove them as best we can with experiments and with other forms of empirical testing.  The essential action is to give reality a fair shot at proving you wrong.  And to accept being proven wrong, with grace and curiosity and without denial and defensiveness.  It's one of humankind's ancient and great inventions.  But it is one that sometimes goes into eclipse.  Because we have an equally ancient and great invention, which is to create our own fantasy worlds that resist any disprovement that reality can throw at them.

Generally our empiricism and our delusions coexist in a typically human muddle.  Sometimes they inflate all out of proportion and collide with public violence -- as when Galileo and other observers challenged the delusions of the Catholic Church, or when the fantasies of the Soviet state became too embarrassingly unreal even for Russians.

I suspect that we're approaching such a collision in the US.  Over the course of the last 40 years trust in science has plummeted in our society -- but only for that third of the population that identifies itself as conservative.  Much of this would be familiar to Galileo, not so much for the religious contrariness (though that is there, of course), but because of the way that temporal powers choose to perpetuate the convenient fantasies that support them, even if it means denying the realities that science is exposing and the authority it is building, and even if it means walling oneself off from reality-testing in self-defeating ways.  In 17th century Europe the antagonist was the Church hierarchy, in 20th century America, this was a business class hostile to the growing power of science to regulate private enterprise and influence policy formation.  

In the 1970's, trust in science wasn't particularly politicized.  But 40 years of hostility from conservative leaders and an increasingly vast and sophisticated media empire has changed that.   There are multiple avenues for this: political attacks on science-based institutions like the EPA; the effort to bring scientific research back under the control of private enterprise by de-funding universities and other forms of publicly supported science in favor of privatized, industry-funded research (and then hindering scientific exchange with patents and gag restrictions); support for pseudoscience like "creation science" and the concoction of conspiracy theories like "climategate" and "liberal media bias" in order to undermine any reality-based consensus.

But mass willful delusion in the service of the status quo is something that this country won't be able to afford for long.  3 problems are converging on us at the same time -- global climate instability; the declining accessibility of cheap oil; and the fragility of our unsustainable food systems.  These challenges might be addressed, even solved, but without science and a clear-headed, reality-based understanding of things, we are looking like nothing more than the apocryphal lemmings scampering toward the cliff.

Monday, September 24, 2012

My sisters and I descended on my Mom to celebrate her 70th birthday.  She had long since convinced us not to throw a big party like we did for Dad's 70th.  So we left the grandkids looking after each other and went out to John J. Jeffries, a Lancaster PA restaurant where they turn sustainably raised, locally sourced seasonal foods into phenomenal cuisine.  We shared around the food - among the seven of us we managed to cover a good portion of the menu - and the wine and champagne flowed.

We each toasted her, and she was a good sport, though she's always avoided being the center of attention whenever she could.  I suspect that if my Dad hadn't bragged about it that she never would have mentioned that she was being honored with the 2012 Jefferson Award for Lebanon County.  Each county in the area singles out a volunteer to be recognized for their public service.  Mom has kept the county's VITA program going for years now.  It's a volunteer service that organizes free tax preparation for low income people, to make sure they take full advantage of their deductions, the EIC and so on.  She's a little perplexed as to why she was selected for the award, since she thinks it should go to one of the super-volunteers who devote more hours than she does.  Running VITA may be less glamorous than some volunteerism, but this year her work helped keep nearly a million dollars in the community that otherwise would have gone away.  And it put that money right where it can do the most good -- into working people's pockets -- to be spent locally and ripple out through a community that will take all the stimulus it can get.  So I'm thrilled that both she and that program are getting some well-deserved recognition.

When we'd eaten all we could, we headed back along the windy country roads to home, where the kids hadn't burned the house down, but were settled quietly in front of their various screens . . . .

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I went to church today for the first time in too long a while.  My church is never indoors.  Today it was a beach with waves breaking upon it.  Clouds overhead shimmered in the sinking sunlight - herringbone, mare's tails, ragged contrails smudged by smoke from distant fires.  Porter, Nico, Jose and Anna Carla played with a football in the avenue of sand between the dune grasses and the crashing water.  Thousands of monarch butterflies fluttered in the wind, hewing to this coastline of goldenrod and dune rose on their impossible migration toward Mexico.

I was immersed in patterns.  The ripples colliding in pools spilt into by the waves; the sloshing of the eternal ocean; the sinking sun; the summoning of the butterflies southwards.

There was a channel in the sand where water returned to the surf, and I digged in that - sculpting the ripples and currents into new forms - however brief and ephemeral they might be - until another churning wave erased my interferences.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Though I'd tallied nine stings, more welts continued to materialize here and there, until there were twenty or so. That takes a toll on a body and I was pretty reluctant to go out and get stung some more.  It's no good for the bees either.  With a knife I scraped 40 or so stingers out of the apron Monica had lent me, and another 20 from the pants.  My socks were so hopelessly tangled with barbs that I just threw them away.  And for every stinger, a dead bee somewhere.  

Saturday evening, I looked at Youtube videos -- disregarding the elderly beekeepers, gloveless and in shirtsleeves with their placid hives, and gravitated toward the suited-up folks youngsters diligently jetting smoke between each frame; re-learned the technique of striking the full frames hard on a stone to dislodge the bees onto the ground (rather than using the bee brush to turn them into an airborne cloud of stingy anger).  I learned the importance of having a container at hand to stash the frames, so the bees aren't swarming around the combs to steal back the honey.   I talked to an old beekeeper and learned that bees do indeed get irascible before a storm.  In short, I did what I should have done Saturday morning. 

I suited up with boots and winter gaiters and flannel-lined pants, two shirts, a veil and gloves.  I practiced with the smoker until I could keep it going.  I took out the old Coleman ice chest we keep "forgetting" to give back to my parents.  And then, diligently jetting smoke between every hive body and every frame, I took out 17 frames of capped honey to go along with the four I'd taken yesterday.  There was more in the boxes, but not all fully capped with wax, and I didn't want to strip the colonies bare and have to feed them sugar.  Most importantly, there were no stings and not a barb to be found upon my armor.

Porter and Jake were fascinated with the extractor, and the heavy frames of honeycomb, and they were a huge help with the process of spinning and draining off the honey.  I had a big glass jar, about a gallon and a half or two gallons, that I thought I would use and see if I could get it close to full.  But the first six frames filled it. We ended up pulling over 5 gallons of honey (about 55 pounds) by the end.  It's a pretty good haul from 3 first-year colonies.  

I sent Jake home with a couple of pints of honey, for his help,

and I think I know what I'm giving people for Christmas this year. . . 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The bees seem to have been filling up the honey supers, so I've borrowed a honey extractor -- a kind of centrifuge -- and made my first attempt to steal honey.  It was utter fiasco.  I started with the most cantankerous hive, couldn't get the smoker to work, but pushed on foolishly nevertheless.  On tope of it all a storm was moving in, so the bees were extra irritable. 

By the end of the process - after armoring up three times - I was in winter boots, gaiters, and flannel lined pants -- and covered in pissed off bees.  In exchange for 9 stings I got four frames of honey.  

Only two more hives to go.

In lieu of angry bees, here's a picture of Haru.

Click to embiggen


Thursday, September 6, 2012

photo by Al Brown
Monica at the nature center with E.T., a great horned owl.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

And so the summer got away from me . . . in July we burrowed back into our homelives after the 3 weeks in Colombia -- Monica working the Nature Center camps -- catching frogs and snakes and vying with the kids in games like predator or sharks and minnows -- bruised and scuffed and turning browner despite her best efforts with the sun screen.  Me at the computer doing my bit to reform the US public policy discourse -- on social security, jobs quality, unionization.  Dabbling in the garden as growth stalled in the rainless heat.  Adding a honey super to the hives and letting the bees do their thing with whatever flowers they could find.  At the end of July was the family reunion in Pennsylvania, where 200 members of the scattered clans gather at the farms in the home valley and eat and gossip and dance at my cousin's barn.  And there we handed the boys off to the grandparents for a few weeks.  I tore out the rotten bathroom wall and slowly learned the art of tiling.  Prepared for the return of our boys and got the guest room ready for a third, temporary son joining us from Mexico for the year.  Monica painted over the wallpaper -- fuschia flowers never to be seen again.

And I didn't blog as weeks and weeks piled up and fell back down, and the world didn't seem to move any closer to solving problems: careening climate, the exhaustion of representative democracy and senescence of civil society, encroaching energy decline and economic contraction, the increasing brittleness of the food system . . .

But it is time for school to start, and José is here.  Homework and shooting hoops and lunches to be packed.  Kimchi is nearly ready, beets are pickling (except those that Monica turned into borscht), and while some tomatoes are finishing a few are just getting started.  And there is much data to be crunched at work, which is at least a solvable challenge.  Nine tenths of the potatoes haven't been dug and firewood needs to be cut and stacked.

So it is time to re-boot this blog.  As long as I can remember, I have kept journals as a way of leaving a trail of bread crumbs behind me in the continuum of time.  Without fixed points of text and language, life takes on too much of a hue of unreality, as though we could edit the past as haphazardly as we re-write the present and the future.  And in a society that seems to have unreality braided into every fiber, I don't think I can afford to lose what tenuous track I have.