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.