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.