Sunday, June 28, 2020

Life on the Delta

No, I haven't moved to New Orleans, or to the mouth of any river that flows into a sea, or even to an alluvial fan--like the ones that characterize the foothills of the Eastern Sierra.

This delta is, instead, symbolic. Back when I was still a scientist wannabe, I took myriad geology and astronomy courses, and used common note-taking shorthand symbols that included ☉ (the sun), ⊕ (the earth), and a Greek letter delta (Δ) for change. 

This is the delta I'm referring to in the title of this post.  Technically, I suppose, it's used in maths as a symbol for difference, but I just subbed it for the word "change" whenever I was describing the phenomenon of change (usually over time). So no it wasn't used particularly correctly (although my fellow students commonly did the same), and no it doesn't have anything to do with the Christian notion of trinity. The symbol has quite a range of uses and the Wikipedia article covers them in its usual quick and easy fashion, so you can fact-check me if you like. 

But I've been thinking rather a lot lately about change (and difference), as many of us probably have over the last four months or so. We on the Farm are still pretty much locked down, going out only to places that offer geezer hours or that provide curbside pickup. We use Amazon more than we ought to, but try to take advantage of free delivery to order stuff we can't easily get without shopping around. Just this week I ordered oven liners (after trying in vain to keep spills off the floor of my oven), a three-pack of Anti Monkey-Butt Powder (we're doing a lot of outdoor-work in the increasingly hot and humid now-summer in north Texas), and a two-pack of Lady Grey tea not carried by the grocery sources we use. I can also get freeze-dried minnows in six-packs, which makes my cat very happy, and Cutter unscented insect repellent cans by the dozen. My current anti-coagulant regimen includes both warfarin and generic Plavix, the combination of which makes me exceedingly attractive to the local mosquitoes, and an easy mark.

The biggest commercial change in our lives, though, is the now-regular use of a local farmers' co-op, which I'm sure I've mentioned before, and the probability that this will be an ongoing practice. I'm hoping that in the larger picture, this may become an alternative to the old Big Ag food distribution system (the one that includes mammoth farms and enormous meat-packing facilities, along with feed-lot cattle ranches and dairies.  Most of our groceries now come from local farmers (eggs, meat, cheese, produce, fruit, bread, and even some goodies like marinade, salad dressing). They keep adding items to the list through the order-period, and I'm trying something new almost every week. The stuff is delivered to a cooler we leave on the front porch, with notifications of when it's going to arrive (within 30 minutes) and after it's been delivered. 

This model of food distribution seems ripe for widespread adoption. Several online companies have been offering meal kits and meat assortments for some time, but this particular arrangement was developed in response to area restaurant closings as a way for farmers to stay in business and get their products to customers in lockdown. 

The most significant cultural change is, of course, the reaction to the cruel deaths of George Floyd and others, which have collectively ramped up the Black Lives Matter movement and may well have finally effected real change--or at least the promise of it. The large-scale reform of police departments that seemed probable thirty years ago, may finally come to pass. I have long preached to my classes about the fallacy of the idea of race, although I have embarrassingly few black friends (actually, I don't have many white ones either), and haven't marched for equal rights in forty years. But I do vote, and will probably go to the polls in person in November. The Beloved Spouse is under 65, so he can't vote by mail in Texas, so we will vote together, early, and properly attired, in the runoff next week, and will do so again on Election Day, unless the Texas legislature wises up and allows ballots by mail.  

I used to carefully examine each candidate's qualifications and positions and vote accordingly. I can't imagine not voting for a Democrat or a person of color this time, however, for any reason. My days of giving Republicans a fair viewing are over for the time being. None of the ones running even vaguely resemble the people I used to vote for, back when being a conservative (little c) didn't mean being a religious or racial bigot, or a science denier. It will take a different administration to keep the positive changes in motion.

And then there's the climate. We didn't have a winter this last year, and spring was simply more of what we'd had since last fall--except that we couldn't get out and enjoy the milder weather. The good fortune that allowed us our little respite down in Palmetto State Park seems like a lifetime ago. Porco Rosso (our trailer) sits all shiny and clean and ready to travel, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

The stormy season is getting longer, and May and June brought us intermittent week-long thunderstorms. We had the Preservation Tree folks come up and take care of dead branches and dangerous limbs overhanging the house and our power lines. They opened up the canopy nicely and the difference is apparent even in casual photos like these (taken about three weeks apart).


The operation left us with a pile of useful hardwood mulch, which doesn't look like much here, but The Beloved Spouse and I have been at it for over a week, moving a few dumper-wagons full per day to the back, spreading it over the muddy bits in the back quarter-acre, filling in planting beds, and dressing up bare spots (under the picnic table and around the seating area where no one can gather any more in these troubled times).

One of the advantages to anarchic gardening is the gift of occasional wonders, such as this clump of rain lilies. Like the wild gladioli I've featured elsewhere (and which were reduced significantly by some varmint or other last fall), these appeared unplanned and unannounced  several years ago, but they do not bloom predictably. The torrents of rain we got this year, however, made them bloom in abundance; the photos were taken nearly three weeks apart. This time I salvaged some seeds, and will plant them in front, in hopes of propagating them.

And so, for us, life goes on. There's no sign that things are getting or will get better, even though where we live has been little affected by the Plague itself. In-office doctor visits have returned, but about the only place mask-wearers don't get any grief around here is in health care facilities. We even bought cute Porco Rosso and Totoro masks from Redbubble in hopes that they'd publicly affirm our commitment to safety. But Texas is being really stupid about opening up (there were four garage sales on our street last weekend, with nobody wearing masks and certainly not staying two meters apart), so we can only do what we can and be really careful ourselves.

I can only hope that real change comes about sooner rather than later: that people stop being stupid about the virus, start listening to smart people (doctors, nurses, scientists, and responsible adults); that people begin to realize (again by listening to smart people who know about these things) that race is an artificial social construct initiated millennia ago by people seeking power, but that has no scientific basis; and that we learn to temper our desires for unnecessary commodities with restraint and wisdom so that we don't destroy the planet before today's grandchildren get a chance to enjoy what it has to offer its stewards.

That's for the next post, though. The newest round of thunderstorms has arrived, and I should probably get off the computer.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Not With A Bang

This is not the first time in my life when the tone for the Zeitgeist was set by Nevil Shute's novel, On The Beach.

There were moments in the '60s and '70s (think Cuban Missile Crisis and Peak Oil) when the final scenes of the novel (spoiler alert: everybody dies) drifted in and unsettled my consciousness. Even though the book's disaster involved nuclear radiation (rather than pestilence), my having spent a few formative years in Japan not long after the end of the second world war (and having visited what little remained of Hiroshima at the tender age of seven) managed to paint all forms of doom with a single brush.

So I wasn't surprised when, as the new virus grew into a pandemic, I remembered that palpable sense of foreboding--not dissimilar to the air raid-like sirens used to call the Eloi to Morlock dinner-time in the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. I still get creeped out every first Saturday of the month at noon, when the local tornado sirens get tested and remind me of our weekly air-raid drills on my dad's base in Japan.

But a lot of bad news has emerged since the seventies, and since I read a great deal of speculative fiction, other literary metaphor-mines have made their ways into my library. The usual suspects come to mind: Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam books (as well as A Handmaid's Tale), Octavia Butler's Parable and Xenogenesis series--to note only a few. Some are more optimistic than others, but all deal with some aspect of post-apocalyptic angst. Much more recently, although written much earlier, I came upon George Stewart's Earth Abides, which I picked up at a used bookshop and squirreled away on my Utopia/Dystopia shelves (yes, plural). I started reading it about a decade ago, but--because I was still teaching--got distracted by grading or some such time sucker and put it back on the shelf.

About that same time, I bought Alan Weisman's compelling description of what the earth would come to look like if human beings simply vanished, The World Without Us.  But I only got about a hundred pages into that before it landed on the "Crap We're Doing to the Planet" shelves (again, plural; I have a whole bookcase on the topic). I used to have an app (for my old iPhone Silverback), but it's long gone. There is, however, a short video that shows what would happen to your house in about a hundred years. In the end, we might deserve this if we keep ignoring the other inhabitants of the planet, but (as Weisman himself puts it in the preface to his book), "Since we're imagining, why not also dream of a way for nature to prosper that doesn't depend on our demise?" I should point out here that I've left out the whole category of zombie-punk, which I find totally devoid of philosophical import and therefore not worth my time. Nor do I read stuff on AI-focused alternatives because I'm pretty sure that stuff's not going to happen. Viruses and nuclear holocaust are scarier because they're so much more possible--and likely.

The coincidence of the new Plague and the release of the Michael Moore/Jeff Gibbs  documentary, Planet of the Humans (you can add Planet of the Apes to the above list, but I only saw the one film and never read the book) sent me on a recovery hunt, and I added both Earth Abides and The World Without Us to the "to read" pile next to my living-room comfy chair.

George Stewart's prescience is almost spooky. Although his book unfolds in the wake of a pandemic that kills off a substantial portion of the human population, and the story follows the protagonist's geographical wanderings in the aftermath, the narrative is interposed with descriptions of what actually happens as infrastructure breaks down and non-human life begins to take over the landscape,  which is what Weisman's book does in much more detail.

This is obviously a pretty depressing exercise, and I try to intersperse my readings with work on revising More News From Nowhere (which is essentially an optimistic view of the future--but only for a few thousand folks who manage to slip out a back door) and reading about other possibilities. For example, the Earth Day issue of Nautilus includes Kevin Berger's thoughtful essay, "The Ecological Vision That Will Save Us" (subtitled "To avoid the next pandemic, we need a reckoning with out place in nature"). Someone suggested that I ought to read Steven Pinker as well, because he's generally more optimistic about the future of capitalism, but I can't get past his position that nukes are necessary to prevent the collapse of civilization as we know it. If I'm going to acquire a view more rosy than the one I hold at the moment, somebody's going to have to sell the public at large on slower growth, fewer people, and a whole lot less stuff. In the end, I'm a closet barbarian, and am not all that happy with civilization as we know it. Contemplating Armageddon is less depressing when your gene pool has already been depleted (we will have no grandchildren), and you're already into your threescore years and ten. And if you stay home.

At any rate, I'm certainly not bored or so depressed I can't bring myself to do anything moderately creative. Our household has managed to do what shopping we need thanks to the care the people at Trader Joe's and Costco are taking to protect old folk, and have been ordering goodies (like pastured pork, free-range eggs, great bread, good veg--although so far only baby turnips and baby carrots--from the farm co-op that delivers to our area, Profound Foods). The focus in the news on meat processing plants and the very large problem they present to the economy as a whole, and especially to the people who work for them under horrific conditions, has completely divorced TBS and me from the US industrial meat complex. If we can't buy humanely raised animals locally, we just won't eat meat. Period. If anyone reading this finds my position problematic, I invite them to read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906). I read it in the '80s for my master's thesis on American literary naturalism, before the expansion of the meat-packing industry to present levels, and it turns out that things haven't changed much since Sinclair exposed what the industry was doing at the turn of the twentieth century.

In some ways, Michael Moore has been a modern-day muckraker in the Sinclair mold; what he and his fellow troublemakers have done this time is to put so-called green energy producers under a microscope and call some of them out for some serious hypocrisy. But his footage and information about solar technology is out of date and inaccurate (according to this house's resident solar aficionado, The Beloved Spouse, who spends as much time researching ways to get us off the grid as I do grousing about modernity on my various outlets). Moore's not great on providing solutions, either, but there are good conversations going on about how things can change. These (like Kevin Berger's Nautilus article) tackle different aspects of the problem(s), and I do harbor some hope that things can get better, that we can become better humans, and can find sustainable solutions to the problems we've helped create.

What we cannot forget, though, as states like Texas begin to "open up" and try to re-establish some semblance of normality, is that so very many people have died, and many more will die. Over a million people in this country have already contracted some level of the virus--and the number keeps climbing. The heartbreaking stories I watch or read every day about people who've died helping the sick makes me want to shake the idiots who go out and endanger others' lives because they've got cabin fever and want to get their hair colored or their nails done. I'm not talking about those who are forced to work in meat-packing plants that are forced to stay open (because they're "vital to the health of the economy;" although it's pretty clear that a vegetarian diet is probably better for us than what most folks consume). But those who think that their inconvenience is more important than the lives of health care professionals and first responders and their families don't present a good argument for maintaining our species in its present configuration.

On December 22, 1947, the day after I was born, William Meredith Stanley, who had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1946, wrote the following in Chemical and Engineering News. It was used as the epigram for the first chapter of Earth Abides, "World Without End."
If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation . . . it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people.
The pandemic George Stewart described in 1949 was far more virulent than we all hope the COVID-19 virus will turn out to be. But one has to emphasize the notion of hope. I don't think I'm simply being pessimistic when I find the views of epidemiologists and other scientists more compelling than the views of the current administration in Washington D.C. The prospect of at least one treatment is encouraging, but the reality of the vaccine-development process is much less so. In the absence of well-coordinated, science-based, nation-wide planning, all most of us can do is sit back and wait. I just hope the experience doesn't end up like it did for those folks in Melbourne at the end of On The Beach.

Note: I had trouble coming up with a title for this screed, but the final lines of T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" ("This is the way the world ends . . . not with a bang but a whimper") were featured on the title page of the first edition of On The Beach, and kept coming to mind.

Human beings make a lot of noise. The relative quiet we all experienced, especially at the beginning of the lockdowns when motor traffic came to an almost literal halt, is what originally reminded me of the final pages of On The Beach. The quiet in Stewart's novel is so omnipresent that it becomes almost a character. Of course this is most likely not the end of the world, but the sense of doom that pervaded the early weeks of the pandemic still hasn't completely subsided. Especially among the families of those who are dead or dying, the sick, the unemployed, the inmates of nursing homes and prisons, and others still suffering around the world--while scoffers in Florida go out to the beach to party.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Earth Day 2020: A Different World

Not long before the Plague descended and changed all of our lives, perhaps forever, The Beloved Spouse and I decided to take our travel trailer, Porco Rosso, out for a dry run--training for our planned trip west in early May. We trussed up Nylah and Molly in their harness and carrier, loaded up the bed of the truck with whatever gear we hadn't already stowed in the trailer, and headed south.

The original plan was to camp at Padre Island National Seashore, stopping at a state park about halfway there, and spending two or three days on the beach. We located a park that sounded interesting and was about the right distance away; we didn't want to travel for more than three or four hours because of the beasts. But when we chose the time slot, we discovered that the National Park Service would be doing a controlled burn at the seashore for part of the time we wanted to be there, so we decided just to stay for a few days at the "interim" location: Palmetto State Park near Gonzalez--in the Austin/San Antonio area.

We dutifully applied for season park passes, made reservations (getting the last available spot in the small RV campground), and planned for three nights.  It turned out to be a terrific choice, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. What's really wonderful about the Texas parks (as opposed to the national ones) is that we could take Nylah with us on trails, which she (of course) loved.  It was early enough in the year (the end of January) that our fellow campers were mostly geezers like us, or European tourists. Things were quiet at night, and we mostly had the trails to ourselves when we went out three or four times a day for long walks.

Porco is a "bunkhouse" trailer (20 ft.) with two sleeping areas designed for kids, but which serve as play/sleep areas for Molly, and under which her own personal loo is located. We cut a cat flap that leads into a storage area where her extra-large corner litter box could be housed and where she could get away from any commotion Nylah might cause. The plan was to begin her Adventure Cat training with her new harness and leash, but we could only get her onto the steps, so that was postponed. She spent the time enjoying the view from the two bunk windows, the window over the dinette, and the one by our bed. The bed is what the RV industry calls a "queen," but which is really more like a normal full, and is a bit of a squeeze for two adults and a Very Large Dog.

Molly and Nylah waiting patiently as we pack up for home.

The weather was quite fine when we arrived at around three in the afternoon, and we took a walk as soon as we'd settled ourselves. The next day was somewhat misty and gloomy, which provided us with a more complex perspective than if it had been fair the whole time. Palmetto is almost primeval in many spots, with swamps and bogs, palmetto palms, and with Spanish moss hanging from trees in many of the microclimes. The San Marcos River winds through the park, and periodically floods the area, which is why it's a good idea not to go without checking long-term weather forecasts in advance. When we were walking along one trail, we noticed an eerie change in color on the trees at a uniform height, and then realized that it marked a fairly recent flood.

Although the flora and terrain in places suggest that dinosaurs wouldn't be inappropriate, the indigenous fauna include the usual suspects: armadillos, deer, raccoon, rabbits, and snakes. Attentive twitchers can feast their field glasses on some 240 species of birds. At one point we came upon a pair of prehistoric-looking vultures nesting in a tree next to a river path. We made it a point to take a dogless walk every evening so that we could see the deer meandering through the meadows and swampy areas without their being frightened away by our often overly enthusiastic pooch.

Pond next to the CCC water tower.

San Marcos River low-water crossing

The trip provided us with an unexpected and refreshing look at a part of Texas we hadn't visited together, even though TBS had grown up in the region and I used to backpack nearby. As a result of this experience, we immediately started making plans to visit parks a little closer to home, even after our trek west.

And then the world changed.

Celebrating Earth Day this year is fraught with all of the political, economic, and cultural ramifications of a pandemic that few people seem to understand fully, and too many seem to be unable to accept as real and really problematic. We've only been hunkered down for about six weeks, the total number of infected people is largely unknown, the means to combat the virus itself are not imminent, and this country is flying blind into the future. 

Oddly enough, the environment is faring better as we become sicker. Air pollution is down, water is cleaner in some areas, and fewer animals are dying on highways. Not coincidentally, fewer humans are being maimed and killed in automobile accidents. I'm hesitant to call this a "silver lining" because so very many people are suffering so badly. But as I think through the possibilities of long-term effects, I can't help but wonder how our modern, technological, "efficient," wasteful, cruel (to the animals whose "products" we consume, and all too often to other people), growth-obsessed, and greedy culture might change as a result of being locked down.

Might we learn to do with less stuff, eat more nutritious food from more local sources, live more kindly, drive less, find ways to live without fossil fuels, and take better care of ourselves, our children, and our neighbors?

I do not expect these questions to be answered easily or simply. But I do know that changes in our own lives, in this house, over the last three years, have made the impact of social distancing much less trying than it might have been. In the near future I'll be using this experience in my revision of More News From Nowhere, and will probably harness my website to explore some of the questions and possible answers, and collect the wisdom of others--past and present--as inspiration.

In the meantime, please wear your masks in public, go out only when necessary, live as lightly on the Earth as possible, and try to effect meaningful, long-term economic change by reflecting on the impact your actions will have on the future of your children. And please remember the health-care workers and first-responders who stand to suffer for the actions of people who really do think their haircut is more important than somebody else's life.

We would love to go back to Palmetto, but even though Texas governor Greg Abbott has reopened the parks (for day use, anyway), we won't. If one single person who maintains the trails, cleans the restrooms, or manages the headquarters contracts this virus and dies, it's our fault for not believing the science.

I wish I could wish everyone a happy Earth Day, but I'll settle for wishing you all a thoughtful one. May we all be in a better place in a year's time.

Addendum: On second thought, watch this, all the way through. If we truly are all in this together, we just need to change. Radically. Now.

Image notes: These were all taken with my antique iPhone 7.  Although there are few real "sky shots" included, do please link over to Skywatch Friday for photos from all around the Earth.

Monday, April 13, 2020

A Hard Way To Go

John Prine at Yellowstone National Park in 2016

Just give me one thing
that I can hold on to
To believe in this livin'
is just a hard way to go
--John Prine
Angel From Montgomery

These days, as advancing decrepitude has begun to affect my hearing, I don't listen to much music any more. I also get "ear worms" that keep me awake at night, so try not to listen to anything with a lingering chorus, or a tune that won't go away. But the other day I started thinking about some of the folks who informed my youth--Steve Goodman, Joan Baez, Neil Young, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, and John Prine. 

Some of their songs came wafting back into my consciousness, especially as the consequences of our current government's lack of scientific understanding has cost thousands of lives. I often wonder how the many folks who aren't as well insulated or comfortably ensconced as we are can even get by, and last week while this stuff was going through my mind, something else drifted in: John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery", and its haunting chorus. [Note: The Washington Post's article on this song includes Prine's performance for Austin City Limits.]

I had just read about his death from the COVID19 virus, and had spent most of the day teary-eyed and submerged in memories of my twenties and thirties and all the music that provided a score for my life at the time. And even though "Angel" was really about an old woman in a bad marriage, I had seen it as a sort of anthem for young women who wanted to avoid ending up like that. But this week the lines quoted above seem to resonate with different circumstances in these times.

While I was reading the Times obit, I found Margaret Renkl's opinion piece, "John Prine: American Oracle", written 1918, just after she had attended a concert in Nashville. She closes the essay with this recognition:
At the Ryman on Oct. 5, the night when Mitch McConnell announced he had the votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, the songwriter who once called the United States on its dirty little war in Vietnam made an allusion to the controversy when he introduced “Angel From Montgomery.” Dedicating the song to all the women in the audience, he said, “It’s a sad, sad day when women can’t be believed.” This country has never needed John Prine more.

I have spent the better part of half my life in Texas, which can't make up its mind whether to be a part of the south, or a part of the midwest. Or even the southwest. Its politics are problematic at best, unless one lives in the few (but growing in influence) enclaves where being a Democrat doesn't mark one with some sort of devilry. Most of my remaining friends live in the true south: Asheville, North Carolina; Nashville; Floyd, Virginia--and what we have in common is our left-leaning politics and hot, humid, tornado-prone weather. We're all hunkered down in our living spaces in areas ambivalent about the pandemic and thus likely to jump on the chance to "reopen the economy" long before it's really safe to do so. So it's hard to know how we'll fare in the end. We're all about John Prine's age (73), so we fall into the high-risk category, like he did.

In the decade or so I've been writing this blog, I've tried to be as politically neutral as I could--especially since many of my early readers were students with ambivalent politics and whom I didn't want to chase away before they had a chance to learn how to think critically about issues that were only just becoming important to them. But now these former students are out in the real world, trying to negotiate their young careers in perilous times. So I think it's important to remind them of what they stand to lose if politics-as-usual (or at least as "usual" since 2016) continues to mix with the realities of plague and pestilence.

In hopes of raising some consciousnesses, I'm closing this post with a link from a Medium article by Julio Vincent Gambuto, "Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting."* This is the most articulate description of our present situation I've come across, and the most convincingly dire warning I've seen on the alternatives that await us. It's a reminder that while I can spend time on my half acre enjoying the clean air and reduced noise, our relentlessly greed- and comfort-oriented political economy in the U.S. can easily resurge with a vengeance. As Gambuto points out, we have a chance to rethink our collective future once the worst is really over. But as rationally challenged as our current president is, as problematic as his presidency has been, and as increasingly malevolent as he seems to be, he could still be re-elected.

And then we'd have little at all to hold onto, and no John Prine to chronicle our despair.

*Medium has graciously made this article available without charge to non-subscribers.
Image Credit: Prine was a headliner at Yellowstone National Park's celebration "Evening at the Arch" on August 25, 2015. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

How to Cook a Wolf

Our current cultural pool of metaphor is dominated by references to war and apocalypse, so I should probably note up front that this post is not about actually cooking threatened species. The wolf in question is the proverbial one, who shows up at one's door symbolizing poverty, starvation, or other calamity. I've shamelessly stolen the title of the post from M. F. K. Fisher, whose book of this name was published in 1942, and of which I acquired a worn, stained copy in 1972, most likely at the used bookstore where I was a volunteer in Philadelphia. I didn't get paid, but workers got books of their choosing for 3/4 off the published price (everyone else got half off), unless the book was marked otherwise, so I must have actually paid about 50 cents, even though it was marked 75.

But I was transfixed by Fisher's prose, and she's influenced my attitude toward food and life in general for the last nearly fifty years. I keep recommending this particular book on Quora to those who ask how to get by on small rations (metaphorically speaking; although rationing is not too much of a far-fetched idea these days). And as we've descended into a morass of uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus and our own futures, I find myself going back to her chapters: "How to be a Sage Without Hemlock," "How to Greet the Spring," "How to Rise Up Like New Bread," and "How to Have a Sleek Pelt" (about keeping pets in dire times).

As I began to reread this book for the umpteenth time, I found a certain prescience in her opening words:
In spite of all the talk and study about our next years, and all the silent ponderings about what lies within them for our sons, it seems plain to us that many things are wrong in the present ones which can be, must be changed. Our texture of belief has great holes in it. Our pattern lacks pieces. (3)
This is, of course, a reflection on wartime, but it does make one stop and ponder our own possible futures. What she's really talking about in this chapter, though, is the equivalent of fad diets and the then-current nutritional guidelines and the notion of "balanced meals," quarreling with the idea that every meal must contain all the necessary nutrients. Her advice is indeed sage: make sure that as much as possible you get a decent balance over the course of the day. Instead of providing everything needed for survival in each meal, just make sure that you hit most of them overall.

It's actually rather amusing to look back at her accounts of the substitutions that food-manufacturers came up with for eggs and custard sauce in hopes of providing desserts and puddings for the evening meal. In her chapter, "How to Comfort Sorrow," Fisher suggests that the best "dessert" is nothing at all.
If the food has been simple, plentiful, and well prepared; if there has been time to eat it quietly, with a friend or two; if the wine or beer or water has been good: then, more often than not, most people will choose to leave it so, with perhaps a little cup of coffee for their souls' sake. (191)
She goes on to recommend "another fine thing for the soul . . . . is one of those herbal teas which French people used to call tisanes."
They are simply hot water poured over a few dried leaves of mint or verbena or lime flowers or camomile. They can be drunk with or without sugar, and a twist of lemon can be added. They smooth out wrinkles in your mind miraculously, and make you sleep, with sweet dreams, too. (191)
Having only recently undergone a cardiac procedure (a stent, after which I went home the same day), and being under the mistaken impression that I would have to abstain from alcohol for the next year while I was on an anti-platelet drug, I had started concocting my own tisanes out of various fruit- and herb-based teas I keep on hand. They're quite refreshing and good substitutes for a glass of wine in the evening, and I'll be drinking them regularly even though my cardiologist has given me permission for a glass of wine with dinner if I so desire. After only a couple of weeks off the sauce, I've discovered that I actually can live without it, and there are other ways to forget who is running the country at the moment.

It's actually a bit ironical that "social distancing" is depriving us of our most traditional means of providing comfort: going out for a drink, taking meals together, celebrating holidays and anniversaries, marking important cultural moments. Only a couple of hours ago I sent my daughter an article from today's New York Times about distance-celebrating the upcoming holidays, only to find out that her father's family (in Minneapolis, where she usually goes for Passover) is already planning a Zoom Seder.

I'm somewhat reluctant to note too enthusiastically the possible bright side of the current situation, because so very many people are suffering so terribly. The clearing of the air and water, the re-connection of families as they're quarantined in their homes, the slight lowering of decibel levels as traffic on the nearby highways. Our exceptionally rainy March has meant that the ground may not dry out as quickly as usual, and the "lakes" may be higher; if folks can't go out and stinkpot or jetski, they may be cleaner as well. There should be scads of wildflowers, but it's harder to get to see them.

I'm also somewhat heartened by the number of "getting through this together" articles focus on cooking, and on involving children in meal preparation. Granted, lots of these  seem to prioritize cookies and other sweets (like this chocolate layer cake from WaPo, from an article on "7 layer cake recipes to help you bake your way through whatever life piles on"), which may not be the best thing for confined folks to be eating, unless they're also following exercise classes on YouTube. But at least there's a concentration on this most important aspect of human survival. We can make it without clothing or shelter (except in extreme circumstances), but we can't make it without food.

So here's something to try. Fisher says that she remembers liking it so much that she dreamed about it at night, and it does sound both simple and good, as long as your supermarket hasn't run out of whole wheat flour. This is my slightly modified (and commented upon) version.
War Cake

1/2 cup shortening (you can use avocado or coconut oil, but butter is really nice)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp other spices (cloves, mace, ginger, etc.)
1 cup chopped raisins or other dried fruits (prunes, figs, etc.)
1 cup sugar, brown or white (I suspect that you could get by with 3/4 c without consequence)
1 cup water
2 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 tsp soda
2 tsp baking powder

Sift flour, soda, and baking powder.
Put all other ingredients in a pan and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes, then cool thoroughly.
Add the sifted dry ingredients and mix well.
Bake 45 minutes (test for doneness) in a greased or parchmented loaf pan at 325-350F
Fisher calls this "an honest cake" and "one loved by hungry children"--although she didn't miss it after the war and when she was all grown up. (194)  It's reminiscent of my grandmother's applesauce cake, which was probably pretty fundamental at first, but got richer--and chocolaty-er as the economy improved.  And if you want to form memories with your children during this fraught moment in our history, getting them to help you make an "honest cake" (as opposed to a pretty, rich, and frivolous cake like the one I linked earlier) might offer you one such opportunity.

I've spent a great deal of time over the last couple of months transcribing the letters my maternal grandfather wrote to his young wife while he was stationed in France at the end of the Great War. And I'm about to start doing the same thing with letters my father sent to my grandmother while he was serving in the South Pacific during WWII. Reading their words and understanding their hardships makes it fairly simple to be grateful for my own current sheltered existence. The larder is full, the freezer(s) are well-packed, and we only have to go out every couple of weeks for a top-up of fresh fruit, veg, and milk. Folks at the turn of the twentieth century, and in the 1940s experienced as little certainty as we do now, and still faced it with ingenuity and resourcefulness. There are flashes of those same qualities in some of the stories I'm reading in the papers and that come over the interwebs. I just hope that we don't get so scared or--even worse--so complacent that the virus gets the best of us.

As the caption on the political cartoon I opened this post with says, "One of you pesky critters comes around here about every twenty years; but this is the gun that gits you!" This time, the gun will have to be a syringe with a vaccine in it, or some sort of effective treatment for those already infected. But I'm not so much of a curmudgeon or a pessimist that I can't hope that, as a species, we'll prevail once again.

Meanwhile, it's time for a tisane, and perhaps to bake a loaf of War Cake. Be safe, People, and take care.

Image credit: The chromolithograph, Uncle Sam (to the Wolf at the Door)  is from Puck, v. 35, no. 892 (April 11, 1894). The image was obtained, initially through Wikimedia Commons, from the Library of Congress collections. The original copyright was held by Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1894, but the LoC is aware of no publishing restrictions, so I felt free to use it. The linked page includes this information: Print shows a wolf wearing a red cape labeled "Hard Times 1893", standing on a rock outside a gate labeled "U.S." with Uncle Sam standing inside the gate and pointing a rifle labeled "Business Revival" at the wolf; hanging on the wall of a building in the background are hides labeled "Hard Times 1819, Hard Times 1837, Hard Times 1857, [and] Hard Times 1873". Columbia, carrying a rifle labeled "Prosperity", is rushing to aid Uncle Sam.

    Thursday, March 19, 2020

    Finding Things to Celebrate: The Vernal Equinox

    It's a bit early (the 19th rather than the 20th or 21st), but Spring has arrived, and even in soggy, potentially plaguey, North Texas, there are signs of its presence--despite the absence of any real winter weather during December, January, and February.

    I went out a couple of days ago looking for phenomena (from the Greek phaino, to appear), the subjects of phenology: the study of things that appear (in this sense, as signs of biological change according to climate). Having already been sequestered indoors by the extended period of rain we've endured in north Texas, I was happy to get out for the few minutes during which the sun managed to make its appearance. It was encouraging to see how many members of my garden community were getting ready to burst forth with flower and fruit.

    The holly next to our front porch was headily fragrant and abuzz with bees. Our backyard fig is leafing out nicely (with this weather we should get two crops this year), and our scraggly little redbud tree is putting forth valiantly. It gets smaller every year, but I keep hoping that its prolific seed pods will allow one or two more to spring up elsewhere. 

    The wisteria that we let grow wild on the property was only beginning to bud then, but today, as if to herald Spring, it was blooming well and had begun to perfume the yard behind our garage.

    This isn't much, I know, for a Skywatch Friday post, but it's part of my effort to find the small, beautiful things that I wrote about yesterday. Although the rain is due back this evening, next week promises several clear days in a row. Conducting local phenological research is balm for the spirit in these fraught times, so I thought I'd offer these examples up, despite their scanty views of skies, in celebration of the equinox and a new season. Be well, be careful, and enjoy what you can. And Happy Skywatch Friday.

    Image notes: I hope to start using the Canon Eos again soon; I used my aging iPhone 7 for these, hence the scruffy quality. But I was anxious to get a few shots before the rains returned, so settled for what I got.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2020

    Hope, Springing

    This post was begun about three weeks ago, before I knew that I'd be undergoing yet another invasive coronary procedure (an angiogram) that turned even more invasive when the doc found the expected occlusion of one of my old bypasses (now 25 years old) and transformed the scan into an angioplasty. The catheterization team inserted a shiny new Onyx drug-eluting stent into the offending vessel, and all the while I was wide awake with only mild sedation. As uncomfortable as it was, it sure beat the hell out of having my chest cracked yet again. I had four bypasses in 1995, and my aortic valve was replaced by a mechanical one in 2009. This time I left for home only a few hours after the cath, and got to sleep in my own bed. The only really negative aspect of the whole experience is that, for the next year, I'll be a teetotaler because of the anti-platelet therapy being added to my current drug mix. 

    If you add the mechanical valve to the two artificial corneas received in cataract surgery a couple of years ago, this new stent ramps up my membership in the Borg club bigtime. So far, though, nothing shows except under appropriate scanning technology, so I'm no Seven of Nine in that regard. Well, in most ways I'm no Seven of Nine.

    Anyway, I'm feeling fine and it should be a spell before I have to undergo another of these little encounters, even though it seems inevitable that I will. I'm certainly not getting any younger, and my genes aren't getting any better.

    All this drama began just about the same time the bad news about COVID-19 was coming down the pike. In fact, the day of the procedure was the last day before the hospital (which I came to call the Baylor Heart Hospital, Hotel, and Spa after the valve job) began to institute new protocols for both patients and staff.

    We've managed to do most of our home-prepping (and no, we didn't buy toilet paper) which has consisted of stocking up on a few things, but mostly just doing our weekly shopping. This week we're also getting most of our doctor visits (including the vet) taken care of, so that we won't have to do much getting out and about over the next month. We're looking into a local farm supplier for later needs, and once the food panic has subsided it may be possible to pop into Trader Joe's or Whole Foods for what we can't easily get online, or maybe get it delivered.

    The truth is that as someone who reads and writes about depletion and abundance, and about non-capitalist political economies, I've been something of a prepper for a long time. We've also been revising our various impacts on the environment and economics in general by buying little and living as lightly as we can. So doing without has become a way of life with us, and except for an odd obsession with high-resolution television, we're not as technologically plugged in as our children are, and as long as the electricity stays on and the water keeps flowing, we'll be about as comfortable as we need to be. We can muddle through, abide in place, and (mostly because we're essentially hermits anyway) be able to handle social distancing quite well.

    This is where the post I was originally preparing comes in.

    Every now and then I get inspired by something that sets me off in a different direction. Sometimes that something is so transformative that it makes me rethink my current trajectory, shift gears, re-focus, and move on.

    Such an event occurred when I read Margaret Renkl's lovely article in the New York Times last month (Feb. 23, "One Tiny Beautiful Thing") about surviving a bleak, soggy winter in the South. One particular paragraph struck home with a force I seldom experience in editorial writing. She is, of course, talking about politics, but her essay also resonates with the current, even more problematic situation.
    Paying attention to what is happening in Washington is a form of self-torment so reality altering that it should be regulated as a Schedule IV drug. I pay attention because that’s what responsible people do, but I sometimes wonder how much longer I can continue to follow the national news and not descend into a kind of despair that might as well be called madness. Already there are days when I’m one click away from becoming Lear on the heath, raging into the storm. There are days when it feels like the apocalypse is already here.
    But on a walk through a park, she noticed a small green sign of spring in a knot hole in a tree that completely changed her perspective. In order to survive the political (and climatic) moment, and instead of giving up watching the news for Lent,  she's going to be looking for more tiny beautiful things.

    Now, as anybody who comes by The Farm even once in a while knows, I am not by nature an optimistic person, and by no means any kind of believer. But Renkl's column stirred my philosophical juices to such an extent that she provided a kind of intellectual epiphany, and made me wonder why it is that I can let the political climate, with its egregious absence of reason, drive me into the particular kind of malaise to which I seemed, when I read her piece, to have fallen victim.

    Just yesterday I read another of Renkl's essays and sent it on to my children. It's about comfort food and making it through dark times: "Cornbread. Now, More Than Ever--Comfort foods, and the old ways of making them, bring solace when you really need it." Once again her logic and philosophical clarity reached into the darkness and offered a glimmer of light.

    Please know that I fully realize that many, many people in this country and around the world are in no condition to be hunkering down and making cornbread. Even retired old codgers like me and my Beloved Spouse, who are insulated by a fixed income, an owned house, and some small financial security (that isn't attached to the stock markets), are only "safe" for as long as our health holds out and the city keeps the basics running. But, at the risk of sounding much more sanguine than I actually am, this experience for many of us can be a lesson in true economy: oikonomia, in the Greek sense, and the relationship between ends and means. This notion is also tied into William Morris's description of economics as grounded in the education of desire. Since I'm in the process of rewriting my own thought experiment based on Morris's utopian vision in News From Nowhere, I'll be doing a great deal of thinking along these very lines.

    And so, as I try not to despair of our national (or global) fate, and as I hope that science, if allowed to do what it does best, manages to accomplish what actually needs to be done, I'm going to use this blog to work through some possibilities.

    I'll be looking in the knotholes of trees (in my case for baby squirrels), spotting the phenological evidence of Spring (which begins tomorrow), wading through my soggy garden to think about where we might be able to grow more food, and baking cornbread.

    Be well, everyone, and may the Spring bring about Tikkun Olam, a healing of the world.

    Image credit: This photo, Single blossom and leaves growing out of knot hole in old log originated on Pixio, the public domain image website. I obbtained it via Wikimedia Commons. I thought the image did a nice job of mingling the notion of something inserted into a cavity, with a sweet illustration of Renkl's first essay.

    Wednesday, January 1, 2020

    (Yet Another) Meditation on Time and Memory

    Time is relentless, the tide which measures
    the perturbations of the cosmos.

    Once again I've come upon a story, serendipitously, just when I was musing about just how quickly things seem to be happening these days. The link is to a short story written in 2010 by SF and fantasy writer Jay Lake, who died in 2014. In it he considers the probability that if "human thoughts moved with the pace of bristlecone pines, we would never have invented the waterwheel, because rivers flash like steam in that frame of reference. Likewise if we were mayflies—flowing water would be glacial." The slow pace of geological time, we are reminded by Carl Sagan and others, renders the whole of human existence but a mote in time. The Bristlecone pines, I should note, grow not far up the White/Inyo Mountains from Uhlmeyer Spring, where my banner shot was taken. They are about 5000 years old.

    A good friend and former colleague came to town a few days ago, and we got together for the first time in a year to catch up and to celebrate each others' birthdays and the holidays. We usually manage to do this twice a year, but he's been busy with his new life in his home town, and The Beloved Spouse and I have been preoccupied with dog-rearing and a bit of house renovation, so this was the first chance we'd had to reconnect since last December.

    The time issue came up in conversation first in regard to retirement life, when neither TBS nor I could remember how long we'd been voluntarily out of work. Later, when I was trying to remember what had been occupying me during the last three years of not being a wage slave to a proprietary educational institution, I came to marvel at the number of things I used to accomplish while I was teaching five four-hour classes per week, eleven weeks per quarter, four quarters per year. 

    Not only was I wrangling the class load (with its incessant grading, prep, faculty development, course and syllabus updating and the hour or so drive to and from campus), but I was maintaining a massive course website (Owldroppings, now retired) with extensive original content for each of my courses (Art History I and II, Writing I or II, Intro to Humanities, and an upper level elective), and at one time maintaining four blogs--including this one. Only one of the others is still more or less active (Owl's Cabinet of Wonders), but for a year or two I really was trying to post on the others as well, and on all much more regularly than I do this one. I was also pretty active on a fanboy website devoted to Joss Whedon's film Serenity (and indirectly to the TV series it was based on, Firefly), which meant several hours of online conversations per week. During some of that time, I was still writing letters home to my Dad, for which I'm glad I found the time, because, thanks to e-mail, I still have most of that correspondence.

    In addition to all that, I successfully completed several online courses through Coursera and other venues, during a fit of MOOC-ing: Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets (Brown U); Ancient Egypt: A History in Six Objects (University of Manchester); Japanese Culture Through Rare Books (Keio U); Live! A History of Art for Artists, Animators, and Gamers (Cal Arts); Philosophy and the Sciences (Edinburgh); Photography: A Victorian Sensation (Edinburgh); Sagas and Space (Zurich); Ideas from the History of Graphic Design (Cal Arts). I didn't quite make it through Imagining Other Earths (Princeton) or Introduction to Sustainability (UIUC) or the image-making course from Cal Arts. Not completing these latter three indicates that I might have run into time constraints along the way.

    Somehow, during the more-than-fifteen years we were both teaching after we moved into our labor-intensive house, we also managed to keep a garden, herd several cats and a couple of dogs, make an occasional trip out to visit the Auld Sod in California, and do things to keep the house livable.

    Nowadays it seems impossible to me that I could have done all that. The only online activity I've got going on at the moment is Quora, and I'm writing less and reading more on that. I no longer think that there's a whole lot more I can offer to the body of Quora information on breast-feeding, child-rearing, Star Trek, science fiction, nineteenth-century American literature, and cookery after mouthing off on all of this since 2011. I'm pretty sure that very few people really care what I have to say about any of it, although I do get occasional upvotes. But the most "popular" answer I've ever written was on whether or not Sam Clemens could really have met up with the Enterprise crew as depicted in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "Time's Arrow," and seldom do I get many comments--so for me it's more of a means to keep my brain working and a platform for food philosophy than anything really interactive.

    As those few who still come by The Farm these days know, I don't show up often, although I frequently think of stuff that might make good content. I'm now thinking of retiring Owl's Cabinet, since much of what I write there would work quite well here, and I'm even more neglectful that blog than I am of this one.

    Things could change a bit here, though. The Beloved Spouse and I are currently engaged in a bit of kitchen renovation that might provide good blog fodder, and my latest archival project will almost certainly find its way onto these pages. I'm transcribing nearly two years' worth of letters my (maternal) grandfather wrote to my grandmother from France during WWI. Not only that, but we're planning a sort of fact-finding, visit-neglected-family visit out west as early in the spring as we can make it. The noisier this little "farm" gets (from increasing local highway racket and neighborhood construction), the more we long for acreage and quietude, so our trip west this year will wind northerly so we can visit Oregon and Washington to see my son and his wife and my father's brother and his family. Likely new home venues will be part of the itinerary. After that, we'll wander south to try to catch up with my late brother's kids in Nevada before heading to the Owens Valley for some boondocking in Porco Rosso (now to be towed by Totoro the Gladiator) and dog/cat adventuring. 

    Other plans for the new year include a quick trip down to Padre Island to see how Porco does on the road behind the new truck, and to re-acclimate the animals to RV life before the longer trip. I've also got ideas for transforming Owl's Farm: The Website (formerly known as Owldroppings) into a sort of lifelong-learning resource. One possibility is a sort of Eltern-garten (Old Folks' equivalent of a kindergarten), or a modification of the old course site with updates in the fields I covered. A good deal of research and archaeological discovery has taken place in the last five years or so that might make it worth while to revisit some of my old fields of expertise.

    In the last couple of years I've also been fairly faithful at keeping a reading journal, and a little less faithful at a design/sketchbook.

    Which brings me to the topic of memory. As we all know, our memories begin to transmogrify as we age, and mine is doing so somewhat predictably. I don't have too much trouble with the big events, but short term is pretty iffy, and that's one reason for my fidelity to the reading journal. This is, of course, a familiar pattern to many folks my age--as is my preoccupation with firming up family history and uncovering mysteries that no one has yet solved. So I'll continue trying to complete family trees and compile historical events drawn from old letters and documents left to me by my grandmother(s). I'm calling this latter effort "epistolary archaeology," and I think that my grandfather would be especially happy with what I'm doing, since his expressed wish in his letters was to use them in lieu of keeping a diary, so that he (and presumably his offspring) would have access to his war memories. I expect that these will also someday find their way into the appropriate archive.

    Is it really 2020? I can remember when 2000 still sounded like a science fiction date, and I wasn't sure (in 1995) I'd make it that far into the future. My grandfather's letters were written in 1918 and 1919 (I was reading them a century after they were written!). He didn't die until 1973, and I do wish I had known about the letters earlier, so I could have asked for more of his story. But they were in my mother's keeping, and she didn't die until 1999, and I didn't even see them until 2000.

    I can't say that I'm terribly sanguine about our collective future, but I do hold out some hope that during the next decade we become smarter, more thoughtful, and kinder. As Virgil noted rather famously in his Third Georgic, "Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus." What we most often see shortened to "tempus fugit" ("time flies") more accurately points out that it's also irretrievable--not unlike the tides of time Jay Lake so aptly notes in his story, where he also observes that "we are all time travelers, moving forward at a speed of one second per second. The secret to time travel was that everyone already does it."

    The pace suits me. It gives me time to think, to imagine alternatives, to read what others have imagined, and to be grateful that we don't yet have household robots or flying cars. For some reason I always enjoy looking toward the future, appreciating the past, and being happy about whatever time I have left. There always is, it seems, hope.

    Happy new year, Folks. Live long and prosper.

    Image credit: Graham, Joseph, Newman, William, and Stacy, John, 2008, The geologic time spiral—A path to the past (ver. 1.1): U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 58, poster, 1 sheet. Available online at via Wikimedia Commons.