Friday, April 21, 2017

Earth Day 2017: And So It Goes

This blog will celebrate its tenth anniversary on June 22, and from year two on, the one consistent activity has been an annual Earth Day message. This year's opening illustration is of one of our resident green anoles, posing nattily within a wisteria wreath.

I'm of two minds about this year's post, because on the one hand the State of the Earth (or at least of the Nation, which is inordinately responsible for the planet's health) is about as dismal as it's been in some time; on the other hand, however, my garden is (because of the changing climate and its consequent early spring) presently lusher and much more promising than usual.

Oddly enough, according to an article yesterday in the Daily Poop, "Earth day Texas drew a record attendance of more than 130,000 last year and boasts of being the world's largest Earth Day Celebration." Texas. Really. The Texas part will be dropped next year, however, to become EARTHx and more global. Pardon me while I put on my skeptic's hat and spend the day in my verdant back yard.

At the moment, the wild gladiolus volunteers, which have proliferated far beyond expectations, are already past full bloom, the air is redolent of honeysuckle, catalpa, and the last of the Chinaberry blossoms--along with the musty scent of privet flowers. I have my first poppy ever (I purchased two plants this year and tucked them into the pepper/parsley raised bed. Bergamot and salvia are blooming in the potager, and the garlic chives I tried to hack off a few weeks ago are resurrecting themselves. The veg in "Woody"s Garden" (aka Stump Henge) are coming along; tomatoes are blooming--though whether or not they set fruit before the heat hits is yet to be seen. We're holding a convivium for a philosophy conference here in a week, and my job between now and then will be to tidy it all up and make it look at least slightly civilized. Not that I really want to. Although I do enjoy how orderly everything looks after I mow, I appreciate even more the shaggy growth of a few days later, when the clover is back in bloom after having been lopped off by a low setting on our environmentally correct electric mower. I do let things go in the North Meadow, the small strip of self-sown "weeds" (mallows mostly) and the perennial ajuga that came with the house, along with another variety I planted a few years ago. Ajuga likes the shade, and sends up pretty purpley spikes that make glancing out the dining room window a pleasure.

Of late I've been recording life both tame and wild in the garden. The cat frequently poses for amusing shots, but I've also been filming lizards (geckos and green anoles) and squirrels and butterflies and fireflies. I have some notion of putting together a "Slow Backyard Video" page on YouTube to house them. It will undoubtedly be private, though, and available to a select few who will promise not to say nasty things about why I would even bother to "film" ten minutes of a lizard climbing along a tomato frame. Or fifteen minutes of my cat at dusk, watching fireflies. A couple of days ago I was so intent on recording a squirrel's antics that without noticing, I stepped in an ant pile and was subsequently bitten so aggressively that my profane comments are clearly heard on the video. But when I'm not busy swearing, I often manage to catch a butterfly enjoying one of the gladioli, or bees buzzing around the blossoms that have been planted on their behalf. The idea is that they will all find the blooms and pesticide-free ambience attractive enough that they'll hang around and help pollinate the tomatoes and peppers and squash.

It occurs to me that in times of strife and stress such as ours, finding sanctuary in one's home and garden is for some of us about the only way to practice a life worth living. I'm just too old and too tired to march in the streets, and too busy home-keeping to join the festivities at Fair Park--as glad as I am that Dallas is at least paying lip service to sustainability--especially when they can attract loads of visitors and cash in on potential revenue.

So, to those who've visited this blog over the years, I hope you'll enjoy the day/week that's become much more widely celebrated than I'd ever have imagined back in 1970 when I did join the crowds in Philadelphia for my very first Earth Day. Tiny houses, electric cars, greener energy sources, backyard chickens, and myriad other signs that the apocalypse may not actually be upon us (at least not yet) give me some small hope that next year's post will be a little more sanguine.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring's Dubious Promise

For some odd reason I was under the impression that I faithfully posted every year on the first day of spring. But, looking back at the roll, I noticed that although I have been a devoted noticer of Earth Day, I seldom post on the vernal Equinox.

That will probably change as of now, because my blogging efforts may slow down even more than they already have as I shift into household management mode.  What writing I will be doing in the future may be of the fiction variety (despite my recent First Official Reject Notice). But I think it would be useful for my own memory to post at least seasonally--although I probably will keep up the Earth Day tradition as well.

So, in honor of the day, the image at left is of the House Clock--the appearance of sunrise in my dining room window on the first day of spring. [For the curious, a search for "house clock" on the blog will locate posts and photos about equinoxes both Vernal and Autumnal, with occasional photos.]

My questioning  spring's promise this year has to do with a couple of issues. For one thing, I don't find much of anything "promising" these days, as I wait for the other shoe to drop in D. C. It really does seem only a matter of time before something really scary or really stupid (or both) happens in the White House. Then there's the weather. It's hard to welcome spring when we've had no winter to speak of--although I realize that those in the northeast have had their share. But in Texas, no appreciable winter is usually followed by bloody hot summer, and what we saved on heating bills will be made up (and then some) by A/C bills beginning, probably, sometime in April. It's actually been warm enough lately (87F expected today) that our neighbors' heat pumps are already switching into cooling mode.

For the past couple of days I've been running around taking advantage of sun and breeze to dig up some garlic chives for transplanting, and getting some veg into the new Stump Henge garden (which is situated in the sunniest part of the yard). It was once a fire pit, but last fall we filled it up with soil and compost and started calling it Woody's Garden. Here's our sweet, now departed pup relaxing next to the Henge on the first day of spring last year:

The wisteria was in bloom then, as it is this year, although not as leafed-out as it is now (the blossoms will be gone within a week or so). A few days ago it had taken over the trees on the west side of the yard and looked quite lovely on a misty morning:

Another reason I'm somewhat doubtful about spring's promise this year stems from not remembering quite how much sun the Henge garden will get--and whether what does fall on it will be enough to provide at least a few tomatoes.  I haven't quite filled it in yet, but here's the preliminary view, taken last evening (Mrs. Peel appears in the center of the photo, lounging on a bit of stump):

The umbrella frame will support Anasazi beans (if they come up), and the two wire cages are for tomatoes. But there are sage  plants, thyme, rosemary, stevia, an eggplant and some butternut squash.  Not terribly ambitious, yet, but I'll go out to see what's available this week and let serendipity prevail. What I really need are nasturtiums, which always brighten up the garden and the landscape in general.

As I come to realize that our exile is probably permanent, I've been trying to "settle" here and acknowledge the enormous good fortune we actually enjoy. But if the summer turns out to be as brutal as the early spring weather portends, I may start spending more time watching "Escape To The Country" on Netflix, and pining for England's green and pleasant land--or at least for Owens Valley's granite-scented, clear, dry heat.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The View From Serendip

The importance of coincidence has always played a role in how I approach this blog. One newspaper item connects with a book or a film—or some other conjunction of media and/or events—and leads to musings that make their way into an essay that falls under the overall concerns of The Farm.

Serendipity is a kind of coincidence, but one with generally favorable connotations. The term comes from the old name for Ceylon (the colonial name for today’s Sri Lanka), and was (according to the OED) coined by Horace Walpole based on a fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip.” According to Walpole, the heroes “were always making discoveries by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Hence, its definition as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” The title of the post is stolen brazenly from Arthur C. Clarke, who lived in Sri Lanka for most of his life (from 1956 until he died in 2008). He published The View From Serendip in 1977, in which he collected assorted essays, memoirs, and speculations.

As recently as 2014, an essay from the book was quoted by Michael Belfiore in his opinion piece for The Guardian, “When robots take our jobs, humans will be the new 1%. Here’s how to fight back.” But even though I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the jobs our current president wants to “bring back” (like coal mining) and why it doesn’t make any sense to do so (in light of what the future probably holds, and the fact that a lot of these jobs kill people—especially when that same president wants to get rid of as much regulation as possible)—this doesn’t even count as one of the occasions that prompted this post. Nevertheless, I should note that Clarke’s predictions often turned out to come true, and the book is well worth reading.

The real impetus for writing came from two directions.  The first arrived in one of my feeds (Medium), and I sent it to my Pocket list for future reference: How to Turn Wikipedia Into a Bottomless Pit of Story Ideas. What intrigued me about the article is that it advocates using Wikipedia the way I used to use library reference indices, by looking “around” various topics, noticing adjacent topics that frequently led to unexpected enrichment of potential source material. As research became more and more focused on digital sources (especially search engines), I often reflected on the loss of that kind of serendipitous encounter, until I realized that Google often afforded similar opportunities. The author of the article (“Moonlighting Writer” for Student Voices) provides a number of tips for using Wikipedia's features for more than just a quick look-up.

This might be a good place to point out that Wikipedia's description of "The Three Princes of Serendip" (linked above) focuses on the princes' education in the arts and sciences, and how they use that education in their adventures.

The next event arrived completely out of left field when my phone lit up with the name of a former student, one of whom I’d been thinking recently but hadn’t heard from for some time. I’d forgotten that she’s on my phone's contact list, else I’d probably have texted her before now. But she was driving through the neighborhood and decided to call me. Since we’d last spoken, she’d gone to grad school to earn a master’s in art education after discovering that working in the gaming industry wasn’t really what she wanted to do. And now she’s teaching high school, thinking about getting a PhD and also about starting a family—at just about the same age I was when I started out on similar path(s).

At the very moment I received her call, I had been wondering what to do with several years’ worth of Archaeology magazines, and realizing that if I wanted to donate them to a school, I’d have to sort through and arrange them by year, and bundle them accordingly—at least a day’s worth of slog.  But as my student and I were talking I connected “art teacher” and “archaeology magazines” and popped the question: Do you have any use for these? And indeed she did. So we got to enjoy a nice catch-up conversation, and I got to unload a slew of old periodicals and art-related stuff I’d been saving for who knows what. And I didn't have to sort through them because they'll be used for mixed media art projects.

In the end, it was particularly rewarding to realize that I don’t really need to abandon hope just because we’ve got an anti-intellectual in the White House, who has no regard for the arts or the sciences. There are young folk out there who have learned to love learning, and have decided to act on their curiosity and creativity and share it with yet another generation or two. One can only imagine what one of her students might do when he or she connects one event with another in the history of archaeology, or juxtaposes one culture’s artistic input with that of another. The possibilities are limited only by their imaginations, which I hope haven't been too stunted by the current cultural climate.

Image note: Mrs. Peel during one of her evening sojourns in the back yard, with serendipitous sunset back-lighting.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

100 Words for a Children's Endangered-Language Dictionary

Once again I’d like to remind readers that language and education have both long been preoccupations here on the Farm. In an era of political unrest brought on in part by cultural differences intensified by lack of understanding one another’ languages, it seems particularly important to endorse projects designed to demonstrate the power of language as a vehicle for identity and knowledge.

To this end, I’d like to draw your attention to another Kickstarter campaign to create a 100-word illustrated children’s dictionary in the endangered languages of the Chittagong Hills Tracts of Bangladesh. The goal is relatively modest (10,000 USD), and the funds will go toward the design, illustration, and publication of a dictionary of one hundred basic, important words in four indigenous  languages (Mro, Marma, Chakma, Tripura) as well as the official national language of Bangladesh (Bangla) and English.

I’ll let Tim Brookes (creator of the Endangered Alphabets and related campaigns) tell the basic story:
As you probably know, in countries all over the world members of indigenous cultures have their own spoken and written languages—languages they have developed to express their own beliefs, their own experiences, their understanding of their world. What they have collectively written in those languages is the record of their cultural identity: spiritual texts, historical documents, letters between family members, knowledge about medicinal plants, poems.  
In scores of countries, though, even in the West, those minority languages are unofficial, suppressed, ignored, even illegal. Children sit through classes listening to teachers they can barely understand; adults have to speak a second or even a third language to get social services or deal with the law.  
Denying members of a minority culture the right to read, write and speak in their mother tongue defines them as inferior and unimportant, and leaves them vulnerable, marginalized, and open to abuse. The extent and quality of education go down, while levels of homelessness and incarceration, and even suicide go up. 
On the far side of the world from me is the nation of Bangladesh, and in the southeast of Bangladesh is a region called the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This upland, forested area is home to 13 different indigenous peoples, each of which has its own genetic identity, its history and cultural traditions, and its own language. Some even have their own alphabets.  
All these languages and scripts are endangered. Government schools mandate the use of Bangla, the official national language, so entire generations are growing up without any sense of their own cultural history and identity—very much the kind of situation that has led to the endangerment or eradication of hundreds of Aboriginal languages in Australia and Native American languages in the U.S.  
We want to give those kids their own dictionary, in their own languages. Decades of research show that children learn best when they start in the language they speak at home.
I urge you to go to the Kickstarter page for a complete description and for a list of nifty rewards for various levels of pledges. Since its launch on January 27, the project has raised 2,758 USD, but there’s still a long way to go to ensure success (the deadline is February 26). If you’re looking for something to help you feel a little better about this world, the 100 Word Dictionary might help.

For a list of previous posts on related topics, use the "Search This Blog" feature at the top of the side bar, using "endangered alphabets" as key terms. As you'll be able to tell, I think that preventing the demise of the world's endangered languages and alphabets is vitally important to the survival of human knowledge.

Image credit: this is the sample page from the Kickstarter site; the actual dictionary will feature six languages rather than the three depicted.

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 impressive), 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.