Thursday, January 19, 2017

Sunrise, Sunset

Although I'm not terribly happy about this photo (I generally avoid power lines and try to frame photographs without stray house bits, like the corner of the gable on the upper right), it and its companion below represent this post rather nicely, and were taken on the same day about a week ago. The "Sunrise" shot (above) was taken from the front porch with my new iPhone 7.

The "sunset" shot, taken in the back yard, also includes power lines, so there's an additional aspect of symmetry; I usually stand atop chairs and other furniture to try and avoid them. However, I wanted to submit something to Skywatch Friday for the first time in ages [as usual, thanks to the crew--and do go see what folks from all over have posted], so here we are; what you see is what I got, and I'm making do.

As I am with all manner of things these days. I will not be viewing any of the inaugural festivities tomorrow, and since the weather should be warmer, will instead be doing some early garden prep, reading some Wendell Berry and Joseph Wood Krutch, and watching a couple of episodes of Netflix's wonderful adaptation of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. I can't imagine anything more appropriate, given the state of the Union. Thus, the photos seem to hold out a little promise for a not completely bleak future, but I won't be holding my breath.

Despite my usual less-than-optimistic view of things, I've decided to find ways to muddle through the next four years. I'll be rethinking and redesigning my website (and changing the name from Owldroppings to Owl's Farm; this blog will be linked to it), clearing out the detritus in the garage and attic (in case we decide we just can't abide Texas any longer), and finding more ways to live more sustainable lives.

Inspiration for all this has come from several places, including my new subscription to Australia's Slow magazine, ecopoets like Krutch and Berry, and even the latest issue of American Craft. The editor, Monica Moses, has written a wonderful little essay on the role of craft in keeping one's sanity in uncertain times: "The Tough Make Art," in which she describes her own plan:
Like a lot of us, I’m looking for ways to cope with the discord, to feel hopeful again. I’m returning to the basics: eating well, exercising, trying to sleep, spending time with loved ones. But I’m also doubling down (as the pundits would say) on art. (American Craft, Feb/Mar 17, p. 10)

My own map of the next few months includes efforts to accomplish much the same sorts of things, including the art part. Her sentiments are in tune with much of what I read among the thoughtful writers whose works I frequent, now that I find myself sticking to the Arts & Life section and the funnies in the Daily Poop,  and the Books and Trilobites sections of the New York Times. Never have I felt more grateful for the library we've amassed, because it should prove most valuable over the next four years, reminding me that sanity might well prevail.

So, for what it's worth, here's what I have in mind:

Eat Real Food. I stole this designation from my Whole Foods Market newsletter, which offered its customers meal plans in several categories. But it's really what I've been trying to do for years, with the help of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and others. I've become rather more serious about it since my retirement awarded me with more time for contemplating and planning. We also recently invested in a smaller refrigerator, which facilitates consciousness of how much we buy and where we have to store it. It's also a terrific deterrent to food waste. The Beloved Spouse gave me Lidia Bastianich's new book, Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine, and The Big Book of Kombucha for the holidays (plus Cooking With Loula, a lovely Greek cookbook I noticed while shopping for other people's gifts). I have always loved cookbooks that are more about history, philosophy, and culture than technique, and these are all inspirational additions to the "food" segment of our aforementioned library. Over the last two weeks I've spent more time planning meals and enjoying the process than I'd been able to do for several years.

Get Real Exercise. The realization that the new, pricey drug I'm taking is likely to prolong my life significantly (and my favorite cardiologist's reminding me that exercise won't do squat for my cholesterol but will do massive amounts of good for my brain and overall well being) has made me more conscious than ever of movement. What finally got me perambulating the neighborhood was the death of our sweet dog Woody last summer. His brother Arlo no longer had a reliable source of exercise, so I started walking him, dropping him off at the house when he got tired, and then continued on my own several times a week. TBS would join me on weekends and holidays, and we've gotten to know the topography of the neighborhood better than we had in the previous sixteen years. Over his winter break from teaching we kept up the dog walking, but neighborhood exploration slacked off due to weather and family obligations.  But a movement-tracking app on my phone has helped keep me from being completely sedentary, and as the weather warms up and I get into the garden more (as I plan to this afternoon), I should hit the "active" category much more frequently (now "lightly active" rescues me from couch potatohood). The goal is to use my body better, get stronger, and get out much more.

Make Stuff.  Some time ago I bought a lovely journal with a William Morris design on it (actually, a sketch for a wallpaper design) in which I've been writing down and sketching out ideas for art books and other little projects. I'll try to get some of these done--including the redesign of my web pages. But I've been wanting to go back to painting and "making" things,  which I haven't done since my children were small. This includes working on the house and garden--painting and plastering and staining and the like, along with general homekeeping, mending, knitting, and quilting. Using one's creative juices seems to be a particularly satisfying way to make it through trying times.

Write More. Having received my first rejection slip (for a story in a science fiction anthology), you'd think I'd have sworn off any desire to publish more than for myself  (and my one or two faithful readers). But I've decided to do what I used to urge my students to do: take the criticism to heart, and use it well. I'm not sure I agree with all of the comments, but I'll have them in mind when I revise the story and submit it somewhere else. I also need to work on More News From Nowhere, and to go back to the old-bats-in-space novel I started working on a couple of years ago. I actually posted on the Cabinet recently, and have lots of ideas for more entries. Letters to friends are on the list, too.

Read Even More. I probably read more than I do anything else, but now that I've made it through the entire run of Midsomer Murders twice on Netflix, I've got no afternoon distractions from the telly. TBS and I have stuff we watch when he gets home (because he's too brain dead after teaching to accomplish anything more ambitions), but when I'm not out moving and growing things, I have a huge stack of books to begin or to finish. And then there's always Cat-watching time in the garden, which will need to be extended as the weather improves. Emma likes company when she's out, and I can't leave her entirely unsupervised. In  addition, there's nothing quite as peaceful as watching a cat and a dog snoozing away in the afternoon sun.

This is all very ambitious, I know. But since I'm too old and tired to be politically active any more, if I get even a little of it done, I'll have accomplished something. And so, Dear Reader(s), may the future be better than we have any right, at this moment, to expect.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

It's The Oikonomos, Stupid!

Organic harvest sample, 2016

Although I’ve already addressed this issue at least once previously, I’m getting really tired of seeing organic farming practices and preferences for organic food beaten up as misguided or even as a kind of pseudoscience.

A question on Quora, for example, that showed up on my feed recently, asks “What are some examples of pseudoscience in day to day life that even educated people aren’t aware of?” One of the two answers includes a list of “all kinds of nonsense that highly educated people believe,” the first of which is “Organic food is healthier.” The question is an old one, I think, and the answer was updated a year ago, so (admittedly) this isn’t exactly news. I pretty much agree with most of the other examples (claims that gluten is bad, vaccines are bad, etc.), but this and the “GMOs are bad” example are based on a shallow understanding of both the principles of organic farming and the nature of objections about GMOs (see the above-linked essay, "It's Not the Science, It's the Ethics").

Then, from the normally quite sane New Scientist  comes a snarky article by Michael  Le Page, “Care about Earth? Ditch Organic Food”  (Dec. 3, p. 21). In fact, the article is about the idea of labeling food for climate impact (like carbon footprint), which doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me, nor would it to most organic “foodies.” But Le Page’s complaint is about how organic farming doesn’t help wildlife, because of lower yields which require more land to produce—and in the tropics this means cutting down more rain forests. He also states that “organic food also results in higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional farming.” Boy would I like to see the evidence for this, considering the fact that conventional farming relies on petrochemicals for fertilizers, and organic farming uses existing manures (green and animal-based) rather than manufactured ones. But the premise that in the tropics, organic farming is less productive than conventional can be argued against (see the results of a long-term study by the Swiss research institute FiBL) and my primary objection is that he just doesn’t "get" the basic reasons for organic practices in the first place.

Even if organic food were “healthier” (whatever that entails; he seems to think that it isn’t, but the jury seems still to be out on the general question ), that’s not even the main point. The real reasons for choosing organic foods over conventionally grown, or organic milk over conventionally processed milk (etc.) lie in an ethical concern for the basic economics of human life. In order to support my own claim, however, I have to provide a bit of an etymology lesson.

The word, “economics” comes from the Greek oikos (home) and nomos (usage, custom). The old high school course for girls, “home economics,” is thus something of a pleonasm, but never mind. Economy is fundamentally about much more than finances, hedge funds, and the GDP; it’s about how we live in the world. Eco-poets like Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Wood Krutch, William Morris, and Wendell Berry have all written about the relationship between human beings and the planet, and their influence can be seen in the growing interest in living in such a way as to ensure a viable future for our descendants.

Modern human beings don’t have a great track record for home-keeping (hence my skepticism about our ability to safely modify genes). We’ve plundered the planet seeking metals and fossil fuels to create the industrial societies that have radically changed our impact on climate, land use, and water in the geological microsecond of the last two hundred years.  It shouldn’t be surprising that an increasing number of thoughtful people (especially those with children and grandchildren) are trying to find ways to create a sustainable future against mounting odds (and obstructionist politics).

So, when folks suggest caution in adopting genetically modified organisms, asking that products containing them be labeled, they’re not necessarily tossing science out the window in favor of scary predictions by Luddites and Saboteurs. Some GMO seeds, like Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant corn, allow more significant use of pesticides on corn crops, and I would genuinely like to know if a corn product I’m buying has had a close encounter with glyphosate pesticides like Roundup. Of course, I think there are other reasons to be suspicious about our ability to safely and effectively mess with plant and animal genes in the first place, so I’d just as soon know. All labeling does is to alert me as to whether or not a product has been modified, and if so to allow me to decide whether or not to buy it. I’d be even happier if labels could tell me why the company thought genetic manipulation was necessary in the first place: higher crop yields, higher nutrient values? Maybe. Better pesticide resistance? No.

Calling this kind of suspicion (or skepticism, actually) “pseudoscience” suggests that all GMOs are fine, pose no potential threat, and that we should just sit back and let Monsanto do what it wants. Associating people who choose organically produced food with people who believe that psychic powers exist or that Intelligent Design is actual science tars legitimate researchers in food ecology  with the brush of the anti-intellectual fringe that’s already gaining more and more political power.

I’m painfully aware that there does exist a kind of war on science being promulgated by those with religious and political beliefs that enable them to ignore the data and the evidence for evolution, climate change, vaccine safety, and other such issues. The anti-intellectual climate in this country is what made me retire when I did, and what makes me so pessimistic about our future. But those who pooh-pooh organic practices or GMO skepticism, dismissing those who question received doctrine as “anti-science,” are committing the same logical errors as the climate change deniers. All we ask is that people look at the evidence. In many cases (as with the FiBL study named above), legitimate scientific data are out there. The notion that we should “ditch organic food” if we “care about the planet” is both smug and ludicrous.

Being pro-science would seem to require an open-minded approach to explanation and experiment. Unless there are substantial data to suggest that organic practices are harmful to the well-being of the planet (to the planetary oikonomos), we should probably embrace anything that feeds us without destroying the ecosystems that provide our sustenance. The kinds of farming and gardening invented in the neolithic (and are thus thousands of years old) may not be able to efficiently feed vast urban populations—but the principles that are embodied in organic food production and other sustainable agricultural systems may help us to avoid the collateral damage inflicted by fossil fuel-based industrial agriculture (and unthinking use of chemicals in home gardens)—some of which (such as endocrine disruption in children) is only now being discovered and studied. Lowering our carbon footprint (both individual and cultural) is an important part of the equation, but so are reducing our reliance on chemicals that kill pollinators and may have long-term, as-yet-undiscovered health consequences.

I'm not asking for political correctness or for tiptoeing around the tender feelings of tree huggers like myself. Tell it like it is, by all means; but be willing to accept the healthy skepticism embodied in sustainability movements so that the damage done by the real anti-science goblins likely to exert their influence in the next four years won’t be irreparable.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"I'd like to eat with you and gaze into your eyes while we talk of UFOs"

As anyone who reads this blog already knows, it doesn't take much for me to make obscure connections and go off on a tangent. This week it's the juxtaposition of my reading Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto while re-reading Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" after having seen Denis Villeneuve's film, Arrival (based on Chiang's short story).

Iyer and Chiang are often mentioned by the same people (mainly writers), although I've been I've only recently managed to remember to look for Iyer during my forays into Half Price Books. I came across The Lady and the Monk twice, as it happens, not remembering the second time that I already owned an unread copy. The second was, fortunately, a nice hardcover edition and thus much easier to read out of doors, in the garden, during cat-watching time.

Many of us SF fans have only recently discovered Ted Chiang, most likely because he publishes so seldom, and because he doesn't write blockbuster trilogies that run to thousands of pages. Rather, he pens carefully crafted short works. When I found out that his story was the inspiration for Arrival (with its haunting and intriguing trailer), I looked him up online and found a rather wonderful story that reminded me of something out of Arabian Nights, called "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," which I read while I awaited the copy of his collection, Stories of Your Life and Others.

I'm not sure I'd have thought of recommending "Story of Your Life" to my daughter, despite resonances with our life together that emerged after I'd seen the film with her and re-read the story, but she saw the film before I did and "got" it before I did.  I was more intrigued by the connections between linguistics and physics explored in the story, and actually missed the "twist" that everyone's making a fuss about. Now that I do "get" it, however, and because I'm also reading Iyer's book, I'm somewhat overwhelmed with notions about language and time.

Many years ago, when I was wallowing in what was then a hotbed of controversy over Whorfian linguistics at Penn, I attended a small conference, the focus of which I can't even remember. Since it was job-related, it might have had to do with computers in university administration, but I'm not really sure. At any rate, during a break, after I'd given a short presentation on something or other, a fellow came up to me and asked me, "How old were you when you learned Japanese?" Now, truth be told, I never learned anything more than "baby" Japanese, the language of children I picked up during my year at a classical Japanese dancing school next door to our little shack in Kunitachi--when I was five or six years old. But apparently the combination of having been introduced to basic Japanese language structure along with the pattern-recognition inherent in the dance moves did something to my brain that caused me to bring unlikely topics into odd juxtapositions.

This is apparently what happened at the conference that made that guy ask me that question.  I guess I did tell him a brief history of my acquisition of what little Japanese I had, and would imagine that the dance training may have enhanced what ever brain changing that went on.  My use of the language actually got a boost in Taiwan when I was about ten and could use what I had to get around because all the old guys who drove pedicabs, sold noodles on the street, or conducted buses spoke leftover wartime Japanese. I could well have been a walking advertisement for linguistic relativity and the idea that language (at least in part) structures our cognitive engines.

In "Story of Your Life," the linguist learns the aliens' language, which in turn restructures her experience of time.  And while I'm not sure my baby Japanese has influenced my concept of temporal movement, it most certainly has provided me some insight into how Japanese translate English, especially as Pico Iyer has recorded it in his book--as well as some understanding of why that guy made the connection between quirky associations or metaphors and early experience with Japanese language.

So when I announce (as I often do after watching a Miyazaki film) that the Japanese are quite simply nuts, I mean it lovingly.  They well and truly are--but only if one sees the particular brand of "sanity" that comes out of America as the norm. The title of this post comes from a passage in the "Spring" section of Iyer's book; it's a sign in the window of a coffee shop where he goes to enjoy some melon sorbet. The book, which is an account of four seasons spent in Kyoto where he went to learn about Zen Buddhism (among other things), is stuffed to the covers with the peculiar admixture of East and West he experienced.

As a student of intellectual history and the role language plays in telling the human story, I often find the unexpected in books.  And because my own rather peculiar understanding of time seems to require that I layer my reading so that anywhere from two to ten books overlap at any given moment, I shouldn't be too awfully surprised that the connections between books frequently burrow through those layers.

Although I do think that Denis Villeneuve made a bit of a hash of Chiang's story--especially with all the military bullshit that seems to be part of the Language Of Science Fiction according to movie makers--it's still moving and beautiful and innovative and may do a lot to stir interest in linguistics and (to a much lesser extent) physics. In a nation where citizens seem to be getting less and less knowledgeable about maths, science, and even language, it really is a pleasure to see a smart movie about smart people who solve problems without blowing stuff up.

Perhaps the fact that WWII did so much mutual damage to both countries is both the cause and the effect of the oddity we perceive about their understanding of the world. Anybody who wonders at the mania for anime and manga and Hello Kitty over here should read Pico Iyer's book for a thoughtful account of the Japanese fascination for Western--and particularly American--culture. Ambitious Japanese children learn English almost as a matter of course. If American kids who are learning Japanese today manage to reshape their brains as a result of their engagement with a radically different world view, I can only see the result as positive.

Image credit: A 1930s-era travel poster, "Come to Tokyo," from the Library of Congress's Online Prints and Photographs collection, via Wikimedia Commons.