Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Love Note to 2014, April 14 - 27

I love skunk cabbage, a warm-blooded plant,
which unfurls to push away the winter,
and the pollen-dusty pompoms of the maple trees.

Porter as Anselmo the muleteer in The Man from La Mancha
I love a good hike sweat,
and the burn of trembling muscles,
and air drawn to inner-most depth of chest, deafeningly,
for a view of hawks or distant islands.

I love to see my boys becoming men
to hear the teachers say,
so comfortable in his skin,
he stands so confidently to speak,
to say his piece,
and the others - they listen.

I love their unabated curiosity -
and how their strong and agile minds
can prise out more and more
from this world
that so many take for granted.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ethnography in California

I was taking a break from interviewing on the streets, sitting in a tiny Burger King in Central Los Angeles, drinking a soda and dribbling ketchup onto hot french fries.  I wasn’t hungry, only thirsty.  

The mentally ill man who rearranged all the chairs warned me that there was a fry at my feet.  He begged pardon before sweeping something only he could see from the aura above my head. 

I sat beside a red-haired dwarf and her friend, a fat man in cut-off sweatpants with a shaved head.  They were talking together sadly in Spanglish, while little Korean girls in sparkly shoes skipped around a father’s legs.

There was something wrong with the handsome man with the billygoat beard, though he looked perfectly normal.  But some human sense is triggered by invisible aberrations.  His short girlfriend could not help herself, but repeatedly reached up to touch and rearrange the heavily greased curls that that he wore.

I recalled how years and years ago in college Felipe and I used to wander out into the human mazes of Philadelphia and find such scenes and such people.  And how exotic and bizarre those nights were, filled with the colorful and the damaged and the mad.  We laughed and marveled and considered ourselves adventurers into the human panoply.

I had been interviewing people around this barrio – and behind the broken English, and dented lives there were passionate people with intelligent and observant things to say and contribute to the discourse I’m researching – about what the point of government is - and what's gone wrong.  

I didn’t feel ashamed of our old adventures, because it didn’t feel like mockery at the time, but something about the recollection made me feel old.  I can follow enough Spanglish to know that the little woman and her friend were discussing an old high school acquaintance who’d been struggling with illness.  The crazy man held the door politely for me as I left.  He had a dusty roll of paper towels under his arm.

Last I heard Felipe was one of the top neurosurgeons in the Southwest.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sans Langue

[I had a request for a post on language, and since birthdays are involved, I thought I'd better deliver.]

In October of 1986 I'd been living and traveling in Europe for over a year.  I was in the final leg of my journey, having said farewell to Munich and hitchhiked my way along the foot of the German Alps to the Rhein.  I was wandering these last weeks in no great hurry, with no urgency to get home, but also without any burning curiosity about the places I was moving through.  The day before I had fallen in love with a German girl who picked me up in her truck - moving her things to university. I was fairly convinced that I could get her to fall in love with me as well.  But some part of me understood I was just drifting unmoored, and I should go on.  (I was also in love with a girl in Rhode Island, though she was months and many miles distant, and not waiting for me.)

At the Rhein the Frenchmen stamped a new visa into my passport - there'd been bombings in Paris during the summer and these visas were a new thing.  I shouldered my backpack and walked across the bridge, departing a land where people spoke a language that I understood and entering one where I spoke a few dozen words.  But one of those words was the word for train station, so if I could make my way to the city of Nancy, I'd be able to find the gare and get a ticket to Brussels and a flight home.

I had traveled without language before this -- Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, northern Finland -- and some things are easy, like hitchhiking or buying dinner or flirting, and some things are hard, like a doctor visit, or a haircut or flirting.  I had no pressing needs in this hilly farming country and people seemed content to help an amiable, language-less American make his way.  I must have left my map in one of those cars, but it didn't particularly bother me.  I couldn't get any more lost than I was.

Perhaps I had muttered an inquiring "kemping?" to someone, because in the early evening I found myself at a farm with a little campground to the side, standing with the old couple who owned it.  I think they tried to explain to me that it was out of season and the little campground was closed, but my mute, unyielding incomprehension finally won out.  Before long I had my tent set up in their meadow and was making a little pot of potato soup on my cookstove.  The old woman came by and I held up my bowl of potato and carrot peelings toward her inquiringly.  She had seemed a little oppressed by my languagelessness, but she brightened up and with a cheerful merci, took my offering of peelings to the sheds to feed the pigs.  I was secretly glad that I hadn't been able to ask where the garbage cans were.

As I discovered when I went to wash up for the night, the campground's bathroom was filled with a huge pile of ear corn.  It was simple enough to climb over but the sinks were at the far end and the frugal farmers had set the lights on a 3 minute timer - so precisely every 180 seconds I'd have to scramble back over the pile of corn (this time in total darkness), find the light switch, flip it and make my way back across the corn for whatever was left of my 180 seconds.  Questioning the farmers about this set-up is one of those things that would have been hard without language.  They'd apparently already gone to bed, so I left them in peace.

I distinctly recall standing beside the burly old man early the next morning.  He was wearing his Sunday best and was anxious to head out for the day's errands.  I handed him the few francs or deutschmarks we'd agreed upon for the night's stay.  It was here at this moment that the impersonal exchange of cash for hospitality ought to be domesticated by an exchange of pleasantries - a remark about the weather, an inquiry about how I'd slept, a comment about the condition of the roads toward Nancy, or a belated acknowledgement of the pile of corn.  But farmers, even ones with language can be taciturn.  We stood for a long quiet couple of minutes companionably looking off into the cool, foggy morning while he finished his cigarette.  Then he turned, shook my hand and left me alone in the meadow to break camp.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Midges are the most insubstantial things - just sunlight and dust with wings.  

They have been everywhere lately - swarming in the sun, filling every breeze, congregating on the side of the house.

I remember summers in the Poconos when the midges would come to the windows at night, attracted by the lights.

In the morning their piled bodies would be snowdrifts upon the windowsills.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Love Note to 2014, March 31 - April 13


I love the thawed earth - 
to rake the naked garden a darker shade,
and crumble clods between my fingers;
to find the dirt no longer dormant,
full of creatures.

I love to see music being made,
Nico at the keyboard, his fingers certain
with some secret understanding that I don't share,
Porter's baritone that swells the harmonies he builds with his companions,
Monica hums a snatch of song as her coffee cools.

I love the poets whose songs have been such fearsome company:
Uncompromising Dylan,
Pink Floyd along the precipice of sanity,
Johnny Cash enrapturing on redemption,
Joan Armatrading, Tom Waits, Van Morrison,
and all the others who companied my own triumphs and turmoils.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Rocky Neck State Park


Bride Brook marsh
We hiked at Rocky Neck State Park on Saturday.  The still ungreen marshes were alive with egrets and herons, green-winged teal and black ducks, and double-crested cormorants.  A pair of ospreys fussed with sticks in their nest upon a platform.  A flock of glossy ibis moved systematically through the reeds, poking their long curved bills into the roots and stems.

We looked for terrapin, but saw only minnows.  The breeze, for the first time since October, had no bite to it, but was soft and warm.

The campground, which is still closed this time of year, is on the east side of the marsh.  On the west side is a rocky spine of land that runs between the brook and Four Mile river. We hiked up along it watching the birds - more egrets, a great blue heron and a pair of hooded mergansers in their spring finery.

Nico and his friend Sam climbed some rocks and trees as we went northward up the spine and then back southward toward the beach.  We had a picnic in the sun on the rocks below the enormous stone pavilion.  As the afternoon came on more people arrived, walking, picnicking, clambering out the long stony jetty, or flirting with the cold ocean on the white sandy beach itself.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Grills Preserves in the wet season

The Westerly and Hopkinton Land Trusts got together to build a 75-foot steel hikers' bridge across the Pawcatuck river, linking the 500+ acres on the Westerly side with nearly 700 acres on the Hopkinton side.  This winter they added a causeway and bridge across Tomaquag creek to make hiking this thousand acre preserve even more accessible.

And in these days of the spring floods, it is wonderful to be able to walk these woods without hip waders.  The swale of the Tomaquag is drowned entirely, but the bridge and causeway take you across to the granite hills on the northwest side.  Every little spring and brook is burbling and there are frogs eggs in the vernal pools.

The flooded swale of Tomaquag Creek
 We hiked from the Chase Hill road trailhead on the Hopkinton side, crossed the Tomaquag, walked over the Polly Coon bridge, waded through the remaining eight inches or so of the Pawcatuck that had overflowed the banks, and made our way along the river back to the Bowling Lane trailhead on the Westerly side (where we'd left our other car.)  It took about 90 minutes to cross at an easy pace.

Looking back at Polly Coon bridge, spanning (most of) the Pawcatuck river
Though we didn't manage the hike with dry feet, the new construction meant the woods were passable even at this time of year.  So kudos to the people who made all this happen!

Is it a trail or a creek?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Garden Ho!

In most of the northeastern US, the earth is finally ready for gardening.  Here in Rhode Island, March is normally an alternation of warm days (that tempt the gardeners) and hard freezes (that remind them it's too soon).  But this year the ground has mostly stayed frozen and dormant, and even on the rare warmish day there has been no deluding oneself that winter had departed.

Lately most of the nights have stayed above freezing.  The robins have left the woods and are to be seen again on the lawns and fields hunting for the rising earthworms.  The phoebe has returned to her perches. A long, steady soaking rain filled the streams and rivers to bursting and now the sun has come out.  Anyone with a drop of gardening blood  was out yesterday, clearing away the winter's detritus.  I raked my little raised beds in preparation for planting spring greens and pulled the weeds from the hugel.

The oregano and sage are putting out a few new leaves, and the first little fists of rhubarb are pushing through.

I dug up a handful of the jerusalem artichokes - each plant seems to have a tuber about the size of a chicken egg.  I ate one that I split with a pitchfork.  It tasted like a carrot, though with neither the sweetness nor the bitterness of a garden carrot.  (And since I gave up trying to coax a carrot from my garden, I'll take that as a win.)

I've been ridiculously late in ordering my seeds, but I took some of last year's leftovers and got them into the ground: mustard greens, mesclun mix, spinach, and chard.  Some I planted on the hugel, and others under cold frames in the raised beds.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Diatribe on the News

I'm fascinated by world events.  At times I'm a voracious news-consumer, at other times I turn away in disgust, boredom or despair.  I don't have a television, so most of my news comes from the on-line versions of newspapers.  My morning set of bookmarks go in order: New York Times, Talking Points Memo, The Guardian, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Irish Examiner, Караван, and El Colombiano.   The New York and Munich papers have the best grasp on world events, and the Guardian has the best commentary about North America.  TPM's obsession with US politics at every level gives a hint of what may be bubbling up in the next news cycle, if I care to know - which lately I mostly don't.  Караван ("Caravan") and the Irish Examiner are ways to check in on places I have lived and maintain an affection for: Almaty and Cork.  The Medellin paper, El Colombiano I occasionally read in order to learn some Spanish.

My RSS feed brings me articles from a handful of more specialized sources - on climate change, energy, and cultural politics.

I skim, which is why I can no longer watch television news at all.   In reading I can ignore all the groundless speculation about the Malaysian airliner (of course it fell into the ocean!) or the politics of Obamacare (of course the Republicans are going to lambast it!).  The specialized blogs hammer away at their familiar obsessions.  So, even in my queue of newspapers and blogs I read only a smattering.

Lately, day to day reporting has interested me less and less.  Crimea is a case in point.  I can empathize with Crimean friends without needing to master the minutiae of the situation.   Putin has it, isn't going to give it back, it's neither very surprising nor outrageous, and it's not really our problem - at least in the ways that the media discuss it. (That is, the idea that the US and Obama have to - but can't - project their power abroad, that they have to hold the line on sovereignty, that sanctions need to be imposed, etc. is all entirely predictable and pointless.)  I might be interested in a discussion about the global collapse of liberal democracy and our conservatives' unabashed admiration for Putin, or how fossil fuel constraints underly Russia's assertiveness and Europe's passivity - but I'm not interested enough to wade through all the other nonsense, since the best case scenario is usually to hear something I've already worked out in my own analysis.

When Egypt (or the rest of north Africa) lurches toward anarchy, it will be because they have too many young men and not enough wealth, and the geopolitical influence (and oil money) that allowed them to navigate into that cul de sac - are gone.  Who has the megaphones and who is suffering and dying at the ends of the truncheons will not be the crux of the matter, though the stories will all be about that.  If people come up with a different way out - then that would be news!

When India starves it will be because they put their economic faith in globalization instead of building a country that could look after itself - not because of the political clowns who organize the pogroms.  When Japan retreats to isolationism and China re-orients its empire away from supporting the global economy - not only will none of this surprise me, but the undercurrents of culture, economics and energy, which make it all seem so likely (if not inevitable) will remain outside of the stories that the media are willing to tell.  In the US, the combination of a destroyed and eviscerated public political practice, combined with economic decline and elite predation makes the rise of our own Vladimir Putin seem probable, and I'm interested in analyses that speak to that - but for that you have to wade into the blogs.

On the other hand, something that caused my ears to prick up was that the mainstream media actually conveyed the IPCC's assertion that the food system is at risk from climate change.  Here is one of those basic underlying dynamics that we have to understand if we are going to make sense of what happens in Egypt or Syria or California.  Agriculture (and thus civilization) relies on a climate that is predictable enough to raise enormous quantities of food.  We're getting the first impacts of destabilization, and the scientists (who understand the scale of the future impacts which are already built into the system) are beginning to panic.  The stakes are being raised.  Responses, political and material, are being called for with a new urgency, even as the fundamental rigidity of the status quo remains in place.

But that's news!