Thursday, August 20, 2020

Here There Be Dragons

 

 
When I took this photo a couple of weeks ago, I was in the midst of my morning-in-the-garden-with-Molly Qigong practice, so the actual pareidolic "moment" got a bit fuzzy. It was somewhat more solid and dragony before I got the phone out of my pocket, got the photo app up, and actually shot it. But I think it's still pretty suggestive of the hot, fire-breathing critters that have found their way into so many human fantasies.
 
In fact, I had been considering a post on heat, in order to pull away for a bit from my rantings on things political and pandemical, but a front stormed through last Sunday night. Since then, the 100F temperatures have scooted down to the low nineties, the humidity has dropped, and we haven't even had the air con on for the last three days. Mind you, we're not your typical denizens of north Texas, since we only have four window units (there are thirty windows), and keep the thermostats at around 75F. At this very moment (1:15 pm CDT) it's only 89F and the ceiling fans (and one of two attic fans) are doing their jobs quite nicely for us all. Large Hairy Dog included.

So, I can't bitch too much about the heat. I've even been doing some put-off cooking projects (making ricotta and moussaka from stuff the co-op delivered last week--fresh cream-on-top milk and "exotic" eggplants). Last night I made a very nice pasta dish that was linked to Melissa Clark's New York Times recipe for fresh ricotta, and tomorrow will use up the rest to make a berry tart. Tonight we get leftovers from last night and a use-up-the-lettuces salad, because tomorrow is also delivery day from the co-op.
The same "farmlet" that provided the eggplants is now making baba ghanoush, which I ordered, so we'll be snacking on that for a bit, too. It's probably time to make some pita out of the Barton Springs Mill flour I've been squirreling away.

What I didn't realize about the consequences of buying from seasonal producers is the pressure to get it all used up before it spoils. Hence the cooking frenzy. But as I get used to the regularity of the delivery, the reduced need to hit Costco for anything but wine and San Pelligrino, and the occasional order to Whole Foods, my creative juices have been flowing (ahem), and my Culinaria board on Pinterest is getting a lot more use. 

Anyway. Back to the dragons.

Just the other day we had another visit from our friendly neighborhood Neon Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula croceipennis), an annual occurrence, at what seems to be mating time. The piece of rebar stuck in next to Molly's pond is really there to support a bit of Astilbe that comes up in the spring and needs support.

But it also seems to provide a nice resting spot for the male, who seems to spend most of his time trying to get the female (who's usually hanging about in the Inland Sea Oats patch next to the former fire pit/now watering hole) to pay attention. The image below was taken just about a year ago, when I did manage to get a closer-up image.

I suppose I should include the dragonfly sightings in my Phenology 101 collections from now on. It might help make up for some of the phenomena that aren't showing up.


It is rather reassuring that some of our wildlife is doing well enough to come back for a visit. The scarcity of bats and fireflies is troubling, but we've actually benefited from some of the environmental incursions occurring just to our south. A new housing/retail complex next to the highway "necessitated" the cutting down of a rather nice little suburban forest, which, in turn, de-homed several hawk families.  So, of late we're being treated to hawk vs. crow skirmishes and wonderful aerial ballets whenever the thermals provide the opportunity for raptor frolics. 

Sunday's storm inflicted some serious damage to the scraggly old elm tree growing on the property line with our next-door neighbor. A huge limb broke off on her side of her fence, and proceeded to bounce off her garage roof into our yard, where it took out a large swath of sea oats and knocked off some of the Virginia creeper that helps to mask the offensive fence.

But things could have been worse. The patch hit hardest was where we should someday have a greenhouse; had it actually been in place, there would have been serious damage--although since it won't be a glass house (due to the abundance of aging pecan trees nearby) at least it wouldn't have shattered spectacularly and rendered the whole place unusable. Sometimes procrastination (this time brought on by our reluctance to visit the retailer who handles the greenhouse we want during the Plague) has its benefits.

The Beloved Spouse was able to take care of our side of the fence and the limb is now in bits on one of the strategically located woodpiles, ready to house whatever critters decide to use it for living space.

The weather and the somewhat hopeful DNC broadcasts have lightened our moods a bit, although I'm sure the next atrocity and/or heat wave is just around the corner. Nonetheless, I thought it prudent to take this opportunity to post something appropriate for Skywatch Friday and spend the next couple of days seeing what other folk looking skyward are finding. 

Stay safe and be well. And happy Skywatch Friday.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Ways to Build Back Better

I've been so distracted by the sturm und drang of the current situation(s) here in the US that it didn't occur to me to check my gmail account to see if anyone had responded to my last post. I don't usually expect anyone to comment, but I'll try to do better in future.

So, for the two folks who wondered about how the wren drama turned out, the news is good. In mid-July it was cool enough in the mornings for us to read the paper in the living room with the French doors to the screened-in porch at the side of the house open. When I heard one of the parent wrens chirping away, I looked out to see Molly perched on the back of the sofa on the other side of the screen from the nesting box. So for the next couple of days, we closed the porch off to avoid upsetting the family. [In the photo, the bird box is to Molly's right, on the other side of the screen.]

But then, a few days later, I just happened to see our local stray cat on the front porch, sneaking on her/his belly toward the nest, and immediately chased it off. In doing so, I most likely saved the baby's life, and while this was all playing out, Mom and Dad were very vocal and solicitous. I suspect that this was the last (or only) baby to get ready to fly, and by afternoon they were all gone. Parent-feeding was apparently still going on in the backyard area (the babies like to hang out on the garage roof and have food brought to them there), so the outcome seems to have been favorable overall.

Which is especially good, since (once again) my Black Swallowtail butterfly hopes were dashed. I had only seen two caterpillars this year, and one disappeared just after I noticed it. We have a large fennel plant, which is apparently the preferred nursery for these critters, and I often notice various stages of butterflyhood playing out on it. I've written about them before (here, on the Cabinet, and also on the Farm), noting that those outcomes are seldom favorable. This was no different, despite the fact that this one caterpillar got big enough and fat enough that I thought it would survive. In the end, though the cardinals or the anoles won out and once again I'm bereft of reward for keeping that scraggly old fennel plant supported and watered through the long, long, hot summer.

 Unfortunately, fortune failed us again while The Beloved Spouse was clearing overhanging greenery in the alley behind our property. After he had pruned problematic branches and piled them in our yard, he set about cutting it all up for hauling to the tip. Which is when he discovered this little nest (sparrows?). Ants had already gotten to one of the eggs, but I put it aside to see if anyone would claim it. After awhile, though, it was clear that these would never hatch, and these parents would never get to teach these babies to fly. 

Trying to foster wildlife in suburbia is very often a thankless job. Only a few of my neighbors abstain from chemicalizing their lawns, which accounts for the low firefly and butterfly population. And even though we keep a close eye on Molly and limit her backyard activities severely, there are several strays in the area, like the one I thwarted on my front porch.

I wrote some time ago about a writer I'd discovered at the New York Times, Margaret Renkl, the title of whose essay I brazenly paraphrased/plagiarized for my last post.  In a more recent piece, "The Death of a Cat," she eulogizes a feral cat for whom she harbored no love, but whose own predatory habits were caused by human neglect. She writes beautifully, and I urge you to read her stuff--if for no other reason than that she is far more successful at maintaining a suburban wildlife habitat than I am and is a much better model. I'm quite sure that many of the caterpillars whose mothers find their way to her yard actually survive.

And finally, this leads me to my actual topic for this post. 

If we do manage, eighty some-odd days from now, to elect a real president (whose choice as a running mate I heartily applaud), who will establish a genuine administration staffed with appropriately credentialed people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience, all of whom will help us rebuild this beleaguered nation, these are some of the ways I hope will be entertained in the discussion about how to accomplish the goals embodied in the somewhat stiffly-articulated campaign slogan, "Build Back Better."

Rethink national food production and distribution priorities. Early on in the lockdown, I connected with a local food hub: a distribution co-op of local farmers and other purveyors of home-grown products delivered directly to homes in our area. Not only do I now have a weekly source of humanely raised meat and dairy products, but I also have access to seasonal produce, fruit, and vegetables. I pay more for it, but am happy to do so because I have always maintained that family budgets should prioritize food in order to foster local farms that raise food sustainably. The national habit of looking for the cheapest food fosters inhumane animal production, industrial farming, habitat destruction, and the continued use of environmentally problematic pesticides and other chemicals. Farmers in the United States should be encouraged (with subsidies removed from industrial farms and redistributed to small-scale and family farms) to use regenerative grazing, permaculture, and other sustainable methods to ensure food diversity, availability, and adequate nutrition. 

Make rebuilding habitats a national priority. Victory gardens are back in vogue, as locked-down families have begun to use gardens as food sources and home-schooling tools. This is a beginning, but we should also, as a nation, begin to discourage the wholesale obliteration of pollinators, backyard wildlife, and endangered--but ecologically necessary--predators. Community design needs to abandon the suburban-sprawl model and focus on walkability, renewable resources, and small, local grids.

Progress does not necessarily require growth. The political economy of the United States needs radical rethinking. For way too long the measures of economic "success" have been based on how many billionaires there are, how big an industry can get, and gross national products based on how much stuff a country can produce--whether or not it's necessary or truly desirable. Some very serious thinking about building a sustainable economy needs to happen, immediately. 

Assess the differences between what we truly need and what we merely want. Readers of my stuff probably get tired of hearing my rant on about what William Morris called "the education of desire." But my brief stint in the "ad biz" made me realize early on that human beings are easily persuaded to want stuff they don't really need, even when it's bad for them, and when it's bad for everyone else. So supporting industries like fast fashion and industrial agriculture is most often founded on misconceptions about what people really do need. Yes we need clothes. But do we need clothes that require intensive overuse of land, severely underpaid and exploited workers, and a preposterous amount of waste? Yes we need food. But do we really need to be able to obtain perfectly formed, uniformly sized, out-of-season tomatoes shipped thousands of miles for our immediate satisfaction--or could we learn to eat vegetables and fruits in season and that need only be distributed to local markets? At best, luxury foods should cost far more than what's locally obtained, and the farmers who produce locally should be fairly compensated.

These are the concerns that preoccupy me on almost a daily basis. They're only a few of the many points that need to be covered in any kind of a national conversation about how to be better than we currently are. I've left out a great deal, including the vastly important questions of social justice and equality embodied in the Black Lives Matter movement, universal health care, and other manifestly critical issues. I will, no doubt, address these in later posts.

I am fully aware that at my advanced age, my relatively secure economic condition, and my lack of breeding progeny, I don't have much of a stake in the future.  But every time I go into the back yard, even during the blazingly hot, humid days of a north Texas summer, I'm filled with wonder and appreciation for this little spot on this huge planet--and hope sneaks in. 

In-person early voting in Texas begins on October 13.

 



Saturday, July 11, 2020

Occasional Small, Beautiful Things

Texas is one of the states in which the Plague is increasing its toll, so we've had to focus inward, to the spaces on our half acre that harbor lives floral and faunal. We've been out to vote (early, in a runoff) and the Beloved Spouse to gather supplies for some work on the property, but life is pretty much lived here, within the property line.

Every morning Molly starts mewling to be taken out to the back yard for her early perambulation, so I usually take the opportunity to inventory phenological signs of summer's progression, and to address pressing issues. Like wilting basil. I've also been doing a fifteen-minute Qigong practice most mornings, and sometimes another during the evening sojourn before suppertime. But it really is nice to move through the Eight Brocades or the eighteen forms of Shibashi out under the trees--especially if there's a bit of breeze.

Molly at her "pond"

 At any rate, by the time I've finished, Molly has usually decided that it's time to go in for "cookies"  (the announcement of which usually brings her out from under the shrubbery where she's been watching me), and happily follows or precedes me into the house for her promised bit of freeze-dried salmon. Now that she's settled into this pattern I can relax and not worry about her trying to escape, and she often follows me around as I check to see how many figs are ripe (only one so far, and it was luscious, right off the tree), how many new varieties of fungus have sprung up, what plants may be budding or blooming.

Occasionally we'll discover the aftermath of predatory violence, like yesterday when we found the feathers of a small, newly fledged mockingbird scattered about. Barred owls, sharp-shinned hawks, and other large raptors frequent the property, and although I admire them immensely, I'm ambivalent about their presence after the demise of Molly's predecessor, Emma.

Emma is not the only animal missing these days. There are exactly two pair of fireflies evident in our back yard. And I've only seen one bat this year. I imagine that the only reason we've got any fireflies at all is because we don't use any chemicals anywhere, and only BT bits in water dishes and bird baths (to keep the mozzie population down). But it's hard not to suspect that dire happenings are afoot. A heat dome is settling on most of the US over the next couple of weeks, drying things up while holding in the humidity, evaporating what's left of the recent rains from out of the soil. Cracks are appearing in the bits of the yard not covered by the recent mulch distribution. I haven't yet watered anything but the fig tree and the lone tomato plant with a little old-fashioned two-hole sprinkler. Everything else gets doused with water from a jug or a hand-held spray attachment. Humanity is dealing with its pandemic, but we seem to have inflicted apocalypse on the rest of the natural world.

Still, not everything seems quite lost--yet. Occasionally I encounter small, beautiful things that renew my natural optimism. Now that the local Carolina Wrens have hatched and raised their first crop of babies, they seem to be nesting again. It got quite noisy out back while the last birdlets were being weaned, but now it's quiet again. Just yesterday, I noticed that a wren had been nosing around a little bird house on our front porch, and I peeped in one of the two "apartments" to see three tiny eggs. A little while later I went back to take another look, and this time disturbed the mom, who flittered out--but was back soon after I left. So I put a couple of rocks into a metal bowl of water to give her a spot nearby to drink, and have been staying away from the nest.

 
After she's dealt with this batch, I'll move the box up to the top of a porch pedestal to lessen the chance of predator attack, and so I'll have a clearer view from inside the screened porch. Unexpected events like these come about infrequently, but they do provide a bit of cheer in increasingly dreary times.

As the numbers of Covid-stricken humans go up in Texas I keep hoping that the cost of running around "free" from restrictions will finally become apparent to the deniers. But watching the health care workers pleading for sanity on nightly newscasts is heart-breaking and doesn't do much to raise my regard for the willfully ignorant.

So much of what's happening is evidence of a massive, complex, problem that involves ignorance and anthropocentricity on a scale that might not be remediable. What our species has been doing to the natural world is a big part of what got us into this pickle and when I think of the future that awaits the children of former students and my own children's friends' kids, there doesn't seem to be much room for hope. If the world manages to pull through this latest test of our collective wisdom and ingenuity, we'll have earned another chance. But in this particular socio-political moment, the if seems awfully tenuous.

Right now, my focus on the future involves seeing whether or not those baby wrens hatch.

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 and 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 owlfarmer.com 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.
Indeed.

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.