Saturday, May 17, 2014

Midwestern Sojourn

The blog has fallen quiet lately, I know.

For the past week and more I've been traveling on the Great Plains.  I landed in Milwaukee last Friday and circulated down into Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and now back up into Iowa.  Tomorrow is northern Illinois.

Mostly I have been driving the back roads and talking to farmers about sustainability.  The project is for one of the major progressive lobbying groups working to change the food system.  They feel they have pretty good ways of communicating with regular people, but they haven't felt like they communicate as well as they should with farmers and farming communities.

So that's why I'm on the road being an ethnographer of agriculture.

When I manage to track down a farmer - or someone who's mixed up in farming somehow, I tell them the conversation will only take 4 or 5 minutes and occasionally it will, but more often 30 minutes later we are still there, talking about all of the themes that tangle up with agriculture - families, aspirations, compromises, money, the earth, fears, futures and presents and pasts.

Six hours on the roads and I'll have only spoken to eight or ten people, but I've filled many more pages of my notebook.

But back at work, they still need my input on other projects, so in the evenings at whatever hotel I've found - I'm editing video or completing analysis or dealing with logistics for the next research trip or trying to track down my other field workers.

All that's to say, I haven't found time to write in the blog.  I haven't forgotten my Love Note to 2014, and springtime on the plains has certainly inspired me.

But tomorrow night I need to be in Milwaukee again to meet my videographer - because he and I will spend the week talking to Wisconsinites about politics and taxes.  But maybe I'll be able to carve out some blogging time at some point . . . .

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Hiking Ledyard's Morgan Pond Reservoir

The Morgan Pond Reservoir in Ledyard, Connecticut is strictly off-limits to hiking.  Yellow signs every few feet proclaim that that force of law will be brought down upon you should you trespass.  The utility takes its responsibility to protect the water supply very seriously - to the point of paranoia.  And they have the rangers to enforce it.

The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center has permission to lead hikes there, and since it is a rare opportunity for walkers and birders to get back into these pristine woods without risking a $50 fine and a misdemeanor charge - it's a popular outing.

19 people came in total, which could seem like a large herd to move through the woods, but it also means 38 eyes, a few of which are going to spot things that you wouldn't otherwise see.  And Maggie Jones, the director of the DPNC, and the woman leading the hike, is a consummate bird-call identifier.  

And the birds were out.  Yellow throated vireos, scarlet tanagers, orioles.  A yellow-rumped warbler in brilliant breeding plumage, a dapper worm-eating warbler, pine warblers, a common yellow-throat.  

We also saw catbirds and jays and chickadees and titmice, woodpeckers and cardinals - chipping sparrows and red-winged blackbirds, veeries, cowbirds and a great crested flycatcher.

I found a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers putting the finishing touches on their nest, a little cylinder of moss and lichen that looked exactly like the knot of a tree.  The birds would bring some bit of material - sit and squirm in the nest for a moment as though working it in and testing it out and then flit off again.

On the forest floor the wood anemones were in bloom and wild strawberries.  Marsh marigold amid the skunk cabbage.  Bluets and violets were all upon the path.  The white shad was in blossom and the birches were full of catkins. 

A red-tailed hawk screamed above us and the turkey vultures cruised more quietly.  

The land itself is beautiful - a mixed hardwood forest with granite ledges and fields of glacial erratics - mossy boulders the size of small cottages.  The lake today was dark and windswept and wild looking with stands of drowned snags and its rocky shores overhung with pines and birches.  In the water there were cormorants and painted turtles basking on logs, and an occasional tree swallow above.  An osprey on the move.

The whole troupe of hikers passed within twenty-five feet of a canada goose before the last person noticed "a dead goose".  She had stretched herself flat and inconspicuous upon her little island nest of reeds and sticks and down.

A Swainson's thrush posed long enough for us to identify it.  But the ovenbird and the black and white warblers teased us with calls but never appeared.  Maggie identified at least four different vireos by their calls, but to me it was all just pretty song and flashes of feathers high high up among the catkins.

One woman nearly stepped on a rust-colored snake, which turned out to be a garter snake that must have stained itself in the rust-colored streamlet that emerges from the body of the great dam nearby.  And somehow a gray tree frog, invisible on the stony path was noticed rather than stepped on.

A mourning cloak butterfly circled around us a few times while we passed through his territory.

The vernal pools were filled with the egg masses of frogs and spotted salamanders.  In a couple of larger pools you could see the lily pad leaves a few feet below the surface beginning to unfurl and rise from the mud.

We circumnavigated the entire reservoir and didn't make it back to the cars until well after 1 o'clock, (which put a much bigger hole in my work day than I'd planned, but with no regrets on that score).  When we parted, Maggie gave me her trail map, in case I were going to lead the next one of these hikes for the nature center.  They certainly won't have to twist my arm . . . 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Early May Garden Blogging


I'm not a big fan of daffodils, but this time of year I can see why all the old ladies planted them.

Today's lunch was the year's first foraged from the yard -- curly dock, wild scallion, sunchoke, sheep sorrel and asparagus.  Sautéed in a pan it felt infused with health, but I'd resisted harvesting the morels (until Monica gets back tomorrow night) and it sorely lacked for that.  Or  maybe I should have followed my instincts and finished it with a handful of violets.

I only have a week to get most of my May gardening in, since I'll be leaving Friday and traveling for two and a half weeks.  The greens I planted a few weeks ago have sprouted - mustard, mixed greens, spinach, tat soi, and chard.  Maybe Monica will be eating them by the time I return. 

A small toad was patrolling the tat soi.  May it feast well upon the slugs.

I have a fair patch of garden with fine soil, but the best expanse of ground - where the previous owners, Vernon and Edith, had set their garden - was spoiled when we put in the drainage field for the septic system.  Only the asparagus and rhubarb were spared.  I've compensated by creating a couple of mounds on that spot in the hügelkultur model - a traditional German technique adopted by permaculturalists.  You build a heap of rotting wood (of which we have plenty!) and cover it with earth.  As the wood decays it forms a rich sponge of humus to hold water and supply nutrients.

Two hügel
The first, smaller hügel is starting to mature into a useful bed, and I'll be using it for herbs, greens, hot peppers and perhaps try a tomato plant or two on it.  

But the other more ambitious one is still pretty much a brush and log pile covered with last year's weeds.  I put compost and dirt on the very top and planted snow peas, cilantro and some chard on it to get the ball rolling.  I don't have high hopes, but I also don't have time or soil right now to cover it properly.  I planted some climbing peas at the base of it as well, and if all else fails they can clamber upon it.

Last year's soil was as dry as dust, but right now all is nice and damp.  Damp enough that the sump pump in the cellar has been running - so I've hosed it out to the garden to give the soil an extra soaking for good measure.

Tomorrow I'll stop soaking the garden, put in a row or two of yellow carola potatoes (alongside the two rows I've already planted of fingerlings and reds), and get the bed ready for the parsnips and beets.  Maybe plant some more basil somewhere.  The rest will have to wait until I get back.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Consuming our Problems

I've written before that our current civilization has the familiar reek of a speculative bubble whose days are numbered.  Whenever any of our leaders talk about our future, the combination of bad math, delusional happy talk, and faith that this time it's different just confirms the conclusion.

As far as John Michael Greer is concerned, the decline of cheap energy, combined with our unwillingness to change course until it is far too late, have doomed our civilization to join the many, many others that have fallen hard and left their people to find a way through the hard times and dark ages that can follow.  The destruction of a civilization can take centuries, but in fact it is already under way and has been for decades - a lived experience that more people are starting to intuit.

I have tremendous faith in humans' ability to muddle through, (which is why I gravitate toward Greer rather than many other doomsayers who envision a universally sudden, catastrophic and even extinctive collapse).  But there are reasons to think that our current crop of Americans are exquisitely ill-prepared to deal with the twin calamities of an end of the American Empire and the decline of Industrial Civilization.

I think there are numerous reasons for our terrifying inability to grapple with our upcoming problems.  One ingredient of our current recipe for incompetence is what (in our research work) we call the consumer stance.  The consumer stance stands as an antithesis to the engaged citizen or practical problem-solver and shows up regularly as a obstacle for advocates who are engaged with various public issues.  The consumer creates nothing - neither the end product nor the underlying conditions, but instead chooses among options that are presented to them.  However, in an ironic twist, consumer choice is mythologized as the proper expression of power and individuality.  Wherever you may be in the hierarchies of life, when you are the customer you are the one who holds the cards and the one who has to be catered to.  This delusion of power (trumpeted in each of the thousands of advertisements we face every day) can hide people's actual powerlessness.

In fact, most people don't get much practice anymore in creating their own things and social spaces.  Our tastes, our hobbies, our ways of defining ourselves may seem like they come from a kind of infinite buffet, but they are increasingly commodified and pre-packaged for us in ways we don't even perceive.  From the playground, to the workplace, to leisure, to the community organizations that used to be so central to daily life, most people have been maneuvered into being passive recipients rather than active producers and organizers.  

When it comes to politics, we don't get much practice in being producers of power, compromise, and collective problem-solving.  The problem of the consumer stance has been at the forefront of my mind in recent weeks, as I was researching in California, interviewing chance-met people about their thoughts on government.

There are all sorts of themes that come up, which I won't go into here, but one of the most unsurprising findings is that people do not participate in a democracy as creative, constructive citizens.  Instead they are classic consumers, forever electing between Brand X and Brand Y, and if one brand is mostly useless and the other poison, they don't see what they can do about that.  Vote against the poison or protest their lousy options by not voting at all.  Rather than considering their potential to meet challenges collectively through public, collective institutions, the average American is a dissatisfied customer increasingly giving up on democracy and its unreliable barkers.

In another project we research into how to communicate to farmers and their allies about sustainability.  Normally farmers are an unreceptive audience when it comes to progressive policies, since they skew heavily conservative and tend to regard government with scorn.  But interestingly, when it comes to sustainability they are much more "progressive" than regular people.  

Farmers have been producers and they are much more clued into how and whether systems can be sustained over a year, a lifetime, or through the generations.  They have some inkling about what is involved in protecting or maintaining the generative foundations that we all rely on.  Although they are trapped in an increasingly unsustainable food system and being sidelined themselves, unlike regular people they understand enough to be seeking for a way to keep things going over the long haul.

When I look around at the so-called solutions to climate change, fossil fuel depletion, unsustainability, and economic contraction, I see marketers hawking various bottles of snake oil (e.g. fracking our way to energy independence, SUVs driving on windmill electricity, productivity apps for our phones), but only in those cases where someone sees a way to turn a profit on us consumers.  Otherwise there is a deafening silence, and a population that doesn't fully grasp how and why it isn't being served.

A common thread among the problems we aren't solving - is that we need to consume less and do more for ourselves. We need to use less energy, consume fewer goods, participate in democracy and community (rather than delegating it to others).  We need to wind down the consumer-capitalist juggernaut that is quickly destroying its own foundations.  As long as Americans remain habituated to their consumer stance, and fail to become active agents, we're doomed to the sad spectacle of our current lemming-march toward multiple fiascos.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Consuming Essays

John Michael Greer, who posts a weekly essay on his Archdruid Report announced that he is going on hiatus for a while.  In response, I quipped that I'd come to really rely on his weekly post about the potential winding down of industrial civilization, and now I'd be forced to make the transition from consumer to producer.
I suppose I’ll have to get my weekly dose by writing my own version of the report on my own blog.  After all, one of the more promising avenues of adaptation (in addition to gardening, appropriate tech, etc.) has to be making the mental and material transformations from consumer to producer. And with that I have my first topic to explore . 
But now I have to gather my thoughts and muster my arguments if I'm going to attempt the kind of weekly manifesto that JMG manages to produce.  My recent research travels have given me grist for the mill . . .