Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year to Be - Nine Predictions for 2014

Medellin, Colombia
As the physicist once said, prediction is hard, especially about the future.  But as the New Year is about to open, I think I'll try my hand at this fools' game.

In general, I think 2014 will continue a time of great caution and lack of vision among those who hold political and social power.

The status quo has become more brittle due to a bundle of interrelated issues including,

the over-exploitation of the seas, soils and biosphere

the destabilization of the climate

the plateauing of fossil fuel production

the impending cresting of economic growth

the dissatisfaction of global publics who cannot be allowed democracy or democratic discourse

and last but not least, the dishonesty and intellectual bankruptcy of the cult of Progress and infinite growth.

Paradoxically, the very fragility of the status quo, the lack of imaginable alternatives, and the fact that no one wants to overturn the boat, mean that we will muddle along without much in the way of change this year.  Still, things will happen, and here are nine predictions I'm willing to make . . .

Caldas, Colombia

Tokyo, Japan
  • In US politics, Republicans will spend another couple of months convincing people that their greedy insurance companies are actually Obamacare, before they pivot and take credit for all of the things that are popular about the program.   
  • Democrats will get some credit for successfully pushing for minimum wage increases, and Republicans will mostly get out of the way eventually.  Life will improve slightly for millions of people and small businesses.
  • Having disappeared almost entirely from the political and media discourse, climate change will be back in the news as hot weather, drought, and sea level rise continue to intensify.  Notably, it will be treated not as a problem to be solved, but rather as an inevitability that must be adapted to.  The solution that dare not speak its name (i.e. changing our way of living) will continue to be tabu.
Quito, Ecuador
  • Among the Chinese, there will be unrest in 2014 stemming from ecological degradation -- especially pollution in the air, soil and food.  The Chinese government will react by purging some high-profile officials and when that doesn't settle things, it will look for a pretext to stir up the distraction of a nativist backlash against the Japanese, Tibetans or Uighurs. 
  • Energy production will limp along at a plateau, just enough to keep the global economy sputtering, while food prices will be kept just low enough to avoid riots and revolutions.  Predictors of doom and predictors of a new prosperity will both be disappointed.
  • On the tech front, Google Glass and smart watches will fail to extend their reach beyond the chic geek digerati.  But late in the year there will be the first incarnations of true digital assistants - programs that can adapt to individuals and manage their social networking and digital connectivity.  The nimbler of the telecoms will get on board and start working on these new digital PA's.
Quito, Ecuador
  • The Sochi Olympics will be a fiasco impressive even by Russian standards.  The one upside being that few people will go in person so the inadequacies and brutalities of the effort won't become as notorious as they might have.
  • One of the world's great monoculture crops will mostly fail this year.  Although this will be blamed on a new pest or blight, the failure will actually be due to a combination of narrow genetics, unstable climate and the decline in agricultural research.
  • On the global spiritual front, the push by Pope Francis for a more modest, non-consumerist and even ascetic spirituality will be echoed in popular movements within religions around the world, including evangelicals, muslims and others.  Governments will be unsettled and ambivalent about this development.
Rhode Island, US
So, if there is still an internet at the end of 2014, I will revisit these predictions and we can see how prescient I was or wasn't . . .

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas 2013

(click on the pictures for a better view)

The family gathers at my parents' house in Pennsylvania.

Each Christmas eve, Porter and I cut a hemlock that can serve as a Christmas tree.  After years of harvesting the prettier ones, we have to scour the property for the least scraggly.  But in comparison to the famous random-boughs-wired-together Christmas tree of years past, any respectable hemlock crown is welcome.

The decorations are brought down from the attic.  My sister Chris and Nico string the lights, and gradually the decorations fill in.  This year, Bridget (age 5) has mastered the scissors, and she and Porter and Chris added varied attempts at paper snowflakes.

A gingerbread house for Santa
My brother-in-law Eric baked and helped the kids construct the gingerbread house for Santa to enjoy on his visit.  They did the decorating on their own.

My sister Chris took the dough that had been rising by the wood stove and made pizzas for the evening meal.  People would disappear with wrapping paper and scotch tape, and gradually the floor under the tree gathered its burden of presents.

As the night deepened we settled in the living room with song sheets and enacted the annual butchering of the carols.  Occasionally, one of the more skilled singers (Fred or Nico or Eric) could keep us more or less in key, but more often things devolved quickly.  We're getting better, I think.

The kids were sent off to bed, and more gifts accumulated.  We've reduced the presents among the adults with a "secret santa" system, but for the kids it's still a free for all.

No one had thought to stock up on wrapping paper, but fortunately my father always saves the Sunday funnies for that purpose.


By tradition, on Christmas morning, the kids can empty the stockings that Santa has filled, but the presents under the tree have to wait until after breakfast.  Usually this results in some aggressive rousting of slugabeds, who may be lacking caffeine or holiday spirit.  But this year, Bridget and Leo were the ones to sleep in - to after 8 a.m.!

Nico and the tree
Porter had brought stacks of Alberto's arepas from California, and they were the basis of the un-rushed breakfast - with eggs and cheese.

Afterward, the gifts were distributed with much ado, and everyone had new toys.

The Christmas hemlock

Santa demolished the gingerbread house, but left a note

Salting the arepa properly

A sharp-shinned hawk got a titmouse from the feeder
Grandpa helping Leo unwrap a toy truck
Gathering for the Christmas feast

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Solstice Fire

Just after noon on December 21st the axial tilt of the planet aligned perfectly away from the sun - creating in the northern hemisphere the longest night of 2013.  The "official" first day of winter actually marks the turning of the year.  The night of the 22nd will be a few minutes shorter, and every day after that shorter still.  Until gradually the long days of summer return.  Still, as the old caveat goes, the days will lengthen and the cold will strengthen.  Winter is not over, but the solar groundwork is being laid.

The pagans seemed to believe that a good party helped encourage the sun to return, so Monica and I invited a couple dozen friends over for a solstice bonfire.  Monica put a few roasts in the big slow cooker, made up black beans and rice, roasted potatoes and vegetables, and we spread out the bread and olives, nuts, cheese and wine.

Five families came with kids and visiting relatives in tow, and everyone was in the mood to enjoy themselves this mid-winter night.  I opened a bottle of the dandelion wine, which was sweet, so we called it dandelion port.  But I think it needs more time in the bottle and we will try it again at the equinox.  The rhubarb wine, on the other hand was surprisingly fine, crisp and clear and refreshing.  One of our friends was transported back to her girlhood in England when her father used to bottle rhubarb wine and store it in the cupboard.

There was a bonfire in the stone circle, and I had told people about the old tradition of throwing in notes or items symbolizing all the things that you wish good riddance! to along with the passing year.  This was embraced by adults and kids alike, and many notes were scrawled and consigned to the fire, along with a shopping bag of reports and a few wooden items.

As the fire blazed and the beer and hot mulled wine was being drunk, I looked around at all of the shifting conversations - intense or banterous - enflickered by the wind-stirred flames, and I felt a great pleasure at having done my part to bring it all together.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Economy Boosting Jobs

I'm a cultural anthropologist.  In particular I study the cognitive and cultural models that people use to think about various public policy issues.

Two years ago, one of the largest non-profit foundations in the country gave our small outfit the task of re-making the public discourse in ways that could promote a broad array of policy initiatives to make things better for working families.

We sifted through and tested all the various frames and ways of talking about the issues of low wage work and the working poor.  And we found and reassembled and streamlined and jettisoned and edited the things that advocates have to say about the topic, and refined it into a story that resonates with the widest possible audience.

It is a story that makes improving the lives of working people seem like the most obvious common sense, and it is summarized in the video  below.

In the intervening months, as this story in its many variations has percolated more consistently through the culture, I have seen people reaching out and picking up on this narrative not as something new and shocking, but as though it were just simple, obvious common sense.  

And that is a kind of change that matters.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Hiking at Pine Swamp Wilderness

Monica was leading a hike for the Nature Center at the Pine Swamp Wilderness area, a 330 acre preserve in Ledyard, CT.  At 9:30 on a Saturday morning it was 18 degrees.  Snow was already falling, and more was in the forecast.  That may have been too much even for the hardy regulars.  

The only one to join us was a steward who lived nearby.  He was an older man in a flannel shirt and gray knit cap, using his walking stick to shift fallen branches out of the trail.  Since Monica and I had never walked there, he guided us down the winding yellow-blaze trail past the frozen ponds and canals that were left behind by old sand and gravel quarrying; through groves of mountain laurel - their leaves folded down umbrella-like in the cold; over the bouldery moraine that cuts angle-wise through the forest.  

We saw no pines near Pine Swamp, but we didn't venture near, and certainly things have changed since the name was given 370 years ago, when it was known also as Mast Swamp by the ship builders.  At that time it also was called Cuppacommock, or Refuge, by the Pequot Indians who would retreat there when they were being persecuted by the colonists or their allies.  Today it is a pathless refuge for wildlife.

On our way back to the trailhead, we passed through cedar woods filled with chickadees and cedar waxwings and scores of noisy, active robins.  The chickadees and waxwings are part of the winter scenery here, but I wondered if the robins were regretting their decision to stick around, now that the ground is frozen solid and the snow is deepening.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Hiking Oswegatchie Hills


 Nico is playing The Mathmagician in his school's musical production of The Phantom Tollbooth, and they had a lengthy rehearsal on Sunday.

After I dropped him off at the school, I drove further into Connecticut to hike along Oswegatchie Hill.  There is a nature reserve with trails and a long stretch of woodland upon a broad ledge between granite outcroppings and the estuary of the Niantic River.

Sunday was cold and overcast and the forest was silent.  During my hike, I neither saw nor heard so much as a titmouse, only the occasional cry of distant gulls.  

 First I walked north through woods of oak, beech and hickory and an understory of evergreen mountain laurel.  The white posts of perc testing reminded me that conservationists have been in a struggle for many years to prevent this bit of coastline from being developed into million dollar homes.

Normally as I hike the gloves and hat soon come off, but the still, damp air was strangely biting.  I hiked up into the preserve to an old rock quarry.  

Water was spreading down the gently sloping rock face, some of it frozen in a thin, translucent icy crust.  Beneath the crust ameboid water bodies meandered down the slope, darkly visible beneath the ice.  Their wobbly forms trailed little tails like tadpoles or spermatozoa or slid down as globules, forming and reforming.  They divided and merged and split along different streams, emerging from under the ice as mere water, before gathering themselves back into new metamorphoses under the next sheath of ice.
laurel leaves

I stood for a long time watching this and other dances of ice and water.

The astrologers say I'm a water creature (Pisces, Scorpio rising).  The idea of celestial bodies influencing our lives strikes me as preposterous, but I'm open to the idea that great wisdom is contained in traditional containers like the Zodiac, the Tarot, the I Ching, the Bible and so on.  In any case, I don't mind being called a water creature.  I identify with the mutability and power of water more than the other elements.

Eventually, I pulled myself away from the water and headed back to the car.  I had 6 dollars remaining on a gift card to the Book Barn in Niantic that my friend Charles had given me two years ago.  That together with the $2.16 cents in the car's change drawer would get me a couple of books to read in case I had to wait for Nico to get out of his rehearsal.

pin oak and lichen

Monday, December 9, 2013


The road claimed our black cat, Leon, a few nights ago.  So I was out in the dreary, drizzly December afternoon digging a pet grave in the clay of our little woodlot.  Water was running off my broad brimmed hat.

Some cats seem to learn how roads work and other cats just run and hope for the best.  Leon was one of the latter, I guess.  He wasn't a smart cat, but he was a good cat.  He was far and away the best mouser we had, and I'm grateful for that.  He had the placid feline patience -- able to sit for hours when he knew a rodent was around.  Fortunately, that patience is no good for stalking birds, and in that he was a harmless incompetent.

Already the mice are moving in and I have to figure out where I stored the traps away.

It might seem heartless to have outdoor cats in our woods of foxes, fishers, and feral cats, coyotes, cars, and owls, but Monica and I have no regrets about Leon's short, rich life.  He lived as much in his two and a half years as many indoor pets do in ten.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

December bees

It was a drizzly 54 degrees this afternoon and the bees were flying despite the damp.  All three hives seemed pretty active, which was good to see.  Last year, two of my colonies had already vanished by this point.  I didn't crack open any of the hives, but left them well enough alone.  Here's hoping they get themselves comfortably back into their clusters for the next wave of cold weather.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hitchhiking to Stockholm

In August of 1986 I was hitchhiking from Munich to Stockholm with my friend Kate.  Without particular difficulty we'd traveled past Hamburg, but had stalled upon some forsaken northern German plain.  We were stranded at a bleak rest stop along the highway reading bleak graffiti -- testimony scrawled upon the concrete by other hitchhikers who bemoaned the hours and days it had taken them to extricate themselves.

The shadows began to lengthen and we walked away from the highway to seek a place to pitch my tent for the night.  We hadn't walked far when a man pulled his car alongside and asked us if we needed help.  When we told him that we were looking for a place to camp, he offered to let us use his land.  I have no recollection of climbing into his car, but soon enough the three of us were wending down a long country road as houses became more scattered and rare.  Finally, we reached the end, in a forest, where the public road became a thin track into a nature reserve.

The house was large and set above an expansive lawn.  Our host, a neatly dressed middle aged man, offered to bring us some tea, but apologized for not having us into the house. His wife was shy of visitors, he said with a touch of nervous embarrassment, but we were welcome to pitch our tent.  Which we did along the edge of the property.

When he'd gone into the house (there was no sign of a wife) we quickly put up the tent and spread out the sleeping bags.  But evenings are long in August in northern Germany and the isolated manse was a bit spooky.  Kate and I decided to hike to a small festival that we'd passed only a mile or so back down the road.  It was easy enough to find - following the sound of vigorous oompapa music and the sweet smell of gebratene mandeln.  It was good to be around people and bustle and elderly Germans with bright red faces galloping to brassy music.  I bought myself a paper bag of hot candied almonds.

When we finally returned back down to the end of the road we were in good spirits (the bleak rest   stop was long forgotten), but we were brought up short at our tent.  Our host, who was nowhere in sight, had set a little tray in front of it with candy and snacks and beverages all arrayed tidily upon it.

Now we had to decide.  We debated, only half-jokingly about whether this man was just preternaturally nice and given to caring for strangers and foreign vagabonds - or whether he was some necktie wearing psychopath who lured hapless young wanderers to his lair along the "nature reserve" and plied them with sweets and poisoned draughts.  Would we ever wake up if we crawled into our sleeping bags here along the forest edge?

It was getting late, and in the end Kate and I chose to believe that he was nice, and we went to sleep.  And I think we slept very well.  But the sun rises early in August in northern Germany, and the friendly, middle-aged man with the invisible wife brought us juice and breakfast in the morning, and he drove us to the highway once we had re-packed our backpacks, and he set us upon our way toward Denmark and Sweden.

I was recently thinking about this old memory of mine -- recalling why it is so important to maintain faith in human beings.  I know that much of the freedom and adventure that I've had in my life came precisely because I chose not to distrust strangers without good cause.  And that lack of mistrust has been so often rewarded.

In fact, it was only a few days later that Kate and I were on the receiving end of such trust.  Between Malmö and Stockholm, where the road runs right along the Baltic Sea, a man who'd given us a ride brought us to the hostel where we'd intended to stay.  I don't remember exactly why, whether it was full or closed, but we weren't able to find a bed.  He drove us somewhere else, where we failed again.  In the end, he and his wife were leaving town to go to a cabin inland among the lakes, so they left us their apartment for the night -- their lovely, airy apartment, full of beautiful things and with a balcony that overlooked the blue harbor.  Just put the keys back through the mail slot when you leave, they asked us - and give the plants a last drink of water.

So, when they'd gone, we walked to the store and bought a feast to cook in their kitchen.  We watched a Finnish movie with Swedish subtitles, and slept in the luxury of their couches.  We ate breakfast upon that balcony, and when we left we gave the plants a last drink and put the keys back through the mail slot.

And we hitchhiked to Stockholm to meet Kate's friend Kendra.

Monday, December 2, 2013

50 years of marriage

On November 28th, 1963 my parents were married in Galilee, Pennsylvania.  On November 30th, 2013, people gathered in Mount Gretna, PA to celebrate 50 years of that marriage.

The Timbers
They had rented a hall at the Timbers, a nearby restaurant and dinner theater, and about 90 friends and family came together on a cold and cloudy Saturday afternoon to eat and drink and talk.  A buffet steamed.  A slideshow scrolled through the photos and snapshots of a life together.  Their favorite music played in the background.

My sisters had ganged up on me, so when the last of those to get to the buffet were well into their meals, I stood up to say some words about love over the long haul and what I had learned from my parents and their marriage.  And we toasted them heartily with cider and champagne.

Evelyn and Bea
My mother, Bea, stood up to say a few words of thanks - and to make sure that people didn't let our talking keep them from eating or getting seconds.  She also deflected some of the attention to other couples in the hall whose 50th wedding anniversaries had come and gone.

My father, Dick, stood to speak.  To general laughter, he told how the night before he'd been desperately spinning out contingency plans for feeding 90 people, because the Timbers was surrounded by a dozen fire trucks from all around the county.  (The chimney had caught fire, though no real harm was done except to my parents' peace of mind.)

When he'd finished, I stood again to encourage people to write their thoughts or stories or wishes in the leather-bound book by the door - but also to encourage them to feel free to stand up and say a few words.

And Eric, my brother-in-law, who I'd enlisted as a ringer, rose and spoke of his admiration for this family, and he got a good laugh with a mischievous quotation of Montaigne's about how the perfect marriage required a deaf husband and blind wife.

Then something important happened.  Pennsylvanians can be very shy about toasts and public speechifying, and I had expected that few, if any, would speak up so publicly.  But one after another, people stood up and spoke - telling a story or sharing their feelings about the couple.

One of his cousins told of how my father was a pioneer and a role model for his set - one of the first to leave the valley and go off to college.  Another told of how their teacher, Mrs. Cogan, used his departure to tell them all about what college was and what it meant.  It was the first he'd every really heard of this idea of leaving the farms and going to university.

Locals stood up to talk about both Mom and Dad as pillars of that community - involved in politics and environmental conservation and charity work.  A former colleague of my father's from down in Lancaster county recalled the respect that Dad had had for the students he taught and what that meant as an inspiration.  People recounted their generosity and openness, or told funny stories of mishaps and misunderstandings.

Christine and Elaine

People who knew them in one setting got to hear how they have existed in these other settings and touched other people in other ways, and I think they were fascinated to hear of it - to see the horizons of these lives extended beyond the part that they had already known and admired.

The dessert was nearly done when the last person had spoken, and we all began to rise and mill about in the smaller-scale visiting of conversation and leave-taking.  Nico said to me that the little speeches were by far his favorite part of the day.

Bea and Dick

Friday, November 29, 2013

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What Humans are Capable of

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the great museums of the world.  What is astounding about the place is not only the expanse of its "encyclopedic"collection, but the quality of the objects there.  You really are walking among the masterworks of the species.

Last weekend I spent three days as an ethnographer at the Museum.  This entailed wandering the museum observing people and striking up conversations with them about their experience of the museum.  It's all part of a larger project by the Met's to understand their visitors better.

The first day I spoke to about 30 people in conversations that ran from 3 minutes to 40.  At the beginning you are gathering the "top of mind" stuff - the stuff that is easy for people to articulate - for example, how they learn so much about history and other cultures or how inspiring they find the beautiful things in this beautiful place, or how we can't understand ourselves without understanding these roots and these capacities on display here.  How the place is a refuge.

By the second day, you've heard that, and you are paying attention to the moments when their articulateness breaks down, or where the eyes widen slightly and the hand gestures intensify.  You are on the hunt for the deeper moments that bind people to this place.  When a person got so absorbed in an object's craftsmanship - in the hours and days of labor and attention that must have gone into it - that they passed through that object to a connection to a real person who lived in another time and place.  Or when a person viscerally felt that they were not looking at a carving in a museum, but standing in ancient Egypt, seeing the chiselers hand, and hearing the flakes fly.  When they felt themselves torn from their normal now-ness and pinned down as just another pinpoint in the human panoply.  Or when a person driven to the breaking point by the mundane injustices of daily living came away from the Museum cleansed and re-calibrated with their sanity preserved.

On the third day, you continue with this, another 30 or so conversations, but also observing the visitors - watching to see what hints there are of the experiences and discombobulations that people confide.  It's fascinating, tiring work, and my little notebook was filled with jottings by the end.  

Now the challenge is to make sense of it all.  Or enough of it, at least.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The other day, I had to make a long trip in the car with my 11-year old son, Nico.  The radio was broken, and for 3 hours we sang in the car.  (He knows about ten times more songs that I do.)  I taught him most of Poe's Raven, and Jabberwocky and he told me jokes.

Then in the course of the weekend, a mechanic inadvertently fixed the radio (whose wires had been fried when I'd had the starter replaced in the spring).  On the return trip, we sang a bit, and chatted, but mostly listened to the radio - with its recurrent barrages of yammering commercials.

If I'm thinking the glass is half empty, I can lament how easy it is to let opportunities to live more richly slip away every time we fall for the lazy conveniences of our consumer culture.  If I'm thinking the glass is half full, I can marvel at the resources that exist in every kid's brain just waiting to be needed and valued.

Mostly I follow the old physicist's observation that the glass is always full.  It is what it is.  Enjoy the music.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hiking as Church

walking the Coogan Farm
I've slowly come to realize that for me the most important spiritual practice of all is to walk in nature. 

I can live fine without congregations and rituals and deep spiritual contemplations, but if I don't take myself away from the clangor of humans and their internal combustion engines - I wither spiritually. 

After our banquet of California hiking this summer, I resolved to let no week pass without getting out into the woods, and I've been mostly successful at it.

On Tuesday I tagged along with the Nature Center staff.  They were learning the new trails being blazed on a 45-acre tract of land they had acquired (at great effort and expense) to expand the Center's reach nearly all the way to the Mystic river.  

Stillman mansion
It's hardly pristine wilderness, and the land bears plenty of evidence of 370 years of use by the Europeans, (and less evidence of the thousands of years Native Americans lived along the river and its estuary).

Today much of it is forest - though there was no forest here during most of Mystic's heyday of sea-faring and ship-building.  More recent pastures and orchards are being reclaimed by shrubs and vines and young trees.  

Some of the encroaching vegetation are natives like greenbriar, winterberry, blackberry, and sweet pepperbush.  Other invaders, like autumn olive, phragmites, asian bittersweet and honeysuckle, have hitchhiked with us from other countries and continents.
greenbriar berries are winter forage for the birds

There are quarries and stone walls, old wells and foundations, and even the brick and stone cellar of a 49-room mansion that was never finished - only ever roofed by ash and willow boughs.

We stripped an apple tree of all the tart-sweet fruit we could reach - like the ranging troop of primates we were.

The whole place is a rich and far-reaching conversation between humans and nature.  

And that is nourishing food for the mind and soul.

pokeweed, burned by frost

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Cold of November

The basil and pepper plants were already done in by earlier frosts, but a hard freeze tonight will probably do for the rest.  I pulled the parsley, and cut some white sage and mint for drying.  I considered taking some oregano, but we rarely use it, and it seems to bear the cold just fine if I want to steal a winter leaf or two.  This year we planted rosemary and thyme in a pot.  I brought it in and set it before one of the windows.

There was a row of potatoes that I'd never dug, so I harvested those last few pounds.  The stalks had died back in July, so not only were the potatoes mostly smallish, but I had to guess at where the row was.  That meant the more than usual fell victim to the spade.  I won't have to worry about the potatoes lasting the whole winter this year.  We'll eat them up by New Years.

As the temperature dropped today the bees finally stopped flying.  I fitted in mouse guards at the lower entrances of each hive to make sure that none invade as the bees form their clusters.  I've also realized that only one of the hives has an upper exit.  If the warm, damp air that rises from the bees can't escape, it hits the cold cover, condenses and can rain cold water back down upon bees.  So next week on the warmest day I'll have to remove the inner covers and cut a 3/4 inch slot in each.  

I feel like I'm finally battening down the hatches for winter's approach.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Warmth of November

In a few days, it will drop down to the mid 20's here, but today the breeze is warm the the door is open.  We've already had a few hard frosts, but still, a lone dragonfly patrols the yard, and frogs are still on the move.  The compost heap is busily being converted directly into fruit flies.  

Most of the brown-eyed Susans wither by the end of summer, but there's a strain in our herb garden that puts out late blooms every year, even against the hard frosts. 

A couple of weeks ago, a woman who blogs in Rhode Island was sad to see a handful of swallowtail caterpillars in among her carrots, because they were too small to pupate and the first hard freeze was closing in.  Whatever butterfly had laid in this brood had done it too late to outrun the season.

I was more intrigued than saddened, however.  One of the remarkable things about evolution and adaptation is the way they usually rely on "mistakes" like these.  In New England, Black Swallowtails raise two broods.  The first pupate in a bright green chrysalis and grow to adulthood in the summer.  The larvae of the second brood each form a brown chrysalis (to camouflage with the winter), and they spend the winter as pupae, to emerge in the spring as butterflies.

In the southern US, Black Swallowtails raise three broods, only the last of which overwinters.  As climate change makes the Rhode Island winters more and more like the winters of Virginia, these butterflies, who seem to brood so foolishly and futilely late, will turn out to be the pioneers that exploit a new November.  As long as mistakes like this are being made, there will be individuals to thrive in new conditions and new environments - even changes that race forward as quickly climate breakdown is going to.

It's a lesson humans might do well to learn.  Every time we choose efficiency, optimization,  and an insistence on a single path, instead of diversity and dissensus, we drain a little bit of resilience and adaptability out of our systems.  Resilient systems - and Life is nothing if not a resilient system - are ones that have generous room for mistakes and failures and hopeless experiments.

UPDATE:  And because the food system is a prime example of a system we've made less and less resilient, here's a nice example of what I'm talking about over at Grist: Why more biodiversity means more food security.

Someone wasted no time raiding the undefended hornets nest.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Universe Man


Nico decided to be the Universe for Halloween.

So, the night before, he and his friend Anya are painting comets and galaxies and nebulae all over an old jacket of mine.

Universe man.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Brooklyn Sojourn

Monica and I have both been under-employed and money, as they say, has been tight.  But life has to be lived and so last Friday we headed into New York on the train.  Nico mostly idled the trip away on a little game player, Monica dozed and thumbed through National Geographic.  I read through Scientific American and stared out the window as autumnal, coastal Connecticut clicked and rattled by.

At 6 on a Friday evening Grand Central Station was an anthill that'd been poked with a stick, and the subway was over-heated and dense with commuters.  Nico wilted and went pale.

But in Brooklyn old friends waited, and our Poet, Denver, was preparing dinner -- soft red beans and noodles upon kale. And the Actress, Rhonda who's been swallowed by the PTA, together with the Girl, who's eight, set the table while we chatted, and made room for fresh bread torn into chunks and a platter of tomatoes, herbs and fresh mozzarella.  When the beans were ready we gathered at the table, made the Girl and Nico put down their books, and we ate.  And when it was down to crumbs and we refilled our wine and ale and water we told jokes and riddles and funny stories - on and on. Nico was on a roll,

from the idiotic . . .
Knock, knock
Who's th-
Mooo!  Interrupting Cow! 
to the cruel . . .
Where do you find a dog with no legs?
Right where you left it.
to the obscure . . . 
What does the 'B' in Benoit B. Mandlebrot stand for?
Benoit B. Mandlebrot.
It's one of the things people did before the entertainment industry colonized the home, and it felt good to laugh and strain our brains.  But eventually we'd exhausted our collective supply of jokes and riddles and so the Girl and Nico returned to their books.   (Occasionally, I would hear them quietly harmonizing some pop song together, each of them with their nose in their book.)  The rest of us talked into the night of family and politics and art and people and ideas.  And I switched from ale to water and eventually to sleep.

I woke early, but Denver had woken even earlier and fetched bread.  There was steel-cut oatmeal on the stove and smooth, black coffee.  After breakfast, he and Monica and I walked the two miles from Carroll Gardens to Prospect Park - along the streets of brownstones, and across the opalescent green scar of the Gowanus Canal by the South Brooklyn Casket factory.  The Park Slope brownstones were decorated for Halloween and little children in helmets rode on zippy three-wheeled scooters.  At the farmer's market he talked with his favorite farmers and bought duck eggs, obscure radishes, greens and apples.  We carried chocolate croissants home.

Later, I was in the park with Nico and the Girl.  A troop of brown-skinned boys ranging from about 8 to 13 were doing parkour on a boulder and the remains of a fallen tree - standing back flips, runs and twisting jumps.  They were free-range (no parents), charismatic and two were richly foul-mouthed.  The Girl and Nico sat rapt, partly in admiration of the skill and partly in fear that they were going to see someone die or break a bone.

More of our visit below the fold . . . .

Monday, October 21, 2013

Obamacare Simply

I'm always bemused by the polling that purports to gauge how popular these Democratic health reforms are, when pretty much none of the people being polled have the vaguest understanding of what those reforms actually are.

The conservatives have been blasting away with the Right Wing Wurlitzer sowing confusion, fear, and misunderstanding. But the liberal "Nuh Uh!"s haven't exactly clarified things with a clear and straightforward explanation. And I think that is mostly because putting Obama's "signature legislative achievement" in simplified terms doesn't make it sound very grand or heroic:
  1. We're going to require everyone to buy an insurance policy. 
  2. We're going to require the insurance companies to sell everyone an insurance policy.
  3. We're going to chip in some tax dollars for people who can't afford to buy an insurance policy.
It ain't tyranny.  It ain't exactly transformative health care policy either. It is what it is.  And I doubt 5 per cent of the population grasps the basics.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Honeyguide Bird

image by Colin Beale
There is a species of bird in Africa called the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator), which likes to eat beeswax, the only vertebrate to do so.  It will also eat bees, bee larvae, and wax moths if it can get access to an open hive.  But it's a small bird and beehives are notoriously well-defended, so the species has a unique adaptation.  It knows every hive in a 200 mile radius.  If it finds humans within a few kilometers of a hive it will fly up to them, calling and flitting back and forth, flashing its tail.  If the humans are willing to grab an ax and follow the bird, it will lead them to the colony.  (Some traditional African honey-hunters blow a loud whistle, called a fuulido before they set out in search of honey in order to solicit a honeyguide.)  Once the humans have broken into the hive (usually a hollow tree) the bird can feast on the wax and the grubs.

The behavior is innate rather than learned - an evolved behavior.  By analyzing the difference between subspecies scientists calculate that the behavior is at least 3 million years old.

There are two theories about how it came about.  The first is that it co-evolved with the honey badger, who will use their claws to tear open a hive if they can find one.  But in 30 years of trying scientists have never been able to observe the birds interacting with a badger, so they remain skeptical.  A honeyguide was once observed to solicit baboons, but the baboons weren't interested.

The other theory is put forth by the anthropologist and primatologist Richard Wrangham.  He believes that the behavior evolved with human ancestors.  Wrangham's primary interest is in human evolution, and in particular he believes that the most important innovation which enabled the development of Homo sapiens was the mastery of fire.  He studied chimpanzees and noted that they spend fully half of their waking hours chewing.  He himself tried and failed to subsist on their raw diet.   The ability to cook food frees up nutrients that are otherwise inaccessible and this increase in the amount and quality of nutrients allowed human evolution to take it's unique path -- a shrinking digestive tract and a shrinking jaw, but most importantly that large, extremely energy-intensive brain.  

Cooking food is what enabled our human ancestors to support and feed those ever larger brains, and gave them the time and energy to be human.

But hominid brains have been growing for over two million years and there is no archeological evidence of fire use back that far - so Wrangham isn't able prove that cooking had anything to do with kicking off brain growth.  

This is where the greater honeyguide comes in.  Wrangham observed that chimpanzees love honey, but can't get it.  Humans love honey, and they can get it.  The difference?  Fire.  The use of fire and smoke is universal among honey hunters to confuse the bees and derail their defensive behaviors.  If honeyguide birds have been bringing humans to beehives for three million years, then it stands to reason that humans and their ancestors have probably had fire for the past three million years to help them despoil the hives.

It's not an air-tight case by any means, but I love this story of a magical partnership between a meddlesome wax-eating bird and these honey-loving, torch-wielding hominids - a partnership that has stood the test of a whirlwind millions-years ride from ape to human.