Saturday, February 23, 2008

Late Winter Gardening

February is about the cruelest month for gardeners in north Texas because the weather is so very tetchy. It's typically coldest around mid-February, and even when it isn't, one daren't plant anything for fear of a late hard freeze. At the same time, we're so incredibly weary of having to go out and cover everything not freeze-hardy we're trying to overwinter (being as we are at the nexus between hardiness zones seven and eight) every time the inconsistent TV weather-predictors threaten freezing temperatures, that we tend to get sloppy. Misjudge once, and there go the gerberas we had hoped would make it until spring. This has happened to me more often than not, and so far this year I've been bloody lucky.

The trick seems to be to keep things sheltered near my east-facing front porch, where the balustrade and the deep eaves of my prairie/bungalow hybrid house offer a bit of protection. We've had frosts most mornings for the past week, but a fair amount of rain before that--so the damage seems to be minimal.

The "puppies" (now four years old) went out to help me reconnoiter in the accidental garden this morning, and I did notice that some stuff had already started peeking through the as-yet unraked leaves. I fished around beneath the rampant henbit and chickweed to discover that much of the Greek oregano I had thought long-dead was still thriving. The fig trees severely beaten back two years ago by drought are now getting ready to sprout heavily, and my chives have also risen from the dead. Not only that, but the Mexican mint marigold is starting to emerge from under last year's twigs, so even though the rosemary and thyme will all have to be replanted (both had been going strong for the eight years we've lived in this house, but died off in last summer's heat), I don't have to start completely from scratch. There also seem to be several herbs surviving in the front garden that will provide cuttings for the new potager outside the kitchen door.

Our canvas/wood/metal "summerhouse" bought on sale from Target several summers ago is now a goner, thanks to a fuzz-tailed tree rat who decided that shreds of it would make nice nesting material. The little beast caught a snagged corner and ripped a three-inch wide strip the full length of one side. But the cheesy wood parts had already started splitting apart, and we'll probably be able to salvage the metal for low garden fences or something, so some of it can be recycled into useful bits. I was going to have to move it anyway, so I guess the squirrel did me a favor. That doesn't make it any less annoying that the snarky little rodent didn't ask my permission first.

I may be seeing signs of spring in the nesting efforts of squirrels and plants' emergence from dormancy, but I don't think planting weather's all that close. The light's just wrong: way too harsh and bright. There's a full month left until the equinox (when the sun will shine through the east window of my dining room for the first time this year), and it's the quality of the light that centers me in the season. With few leaves to filter the sunlight, the dogs and I emerge from our dim house into nature's equivalent of fluorescent-bulb-lit daylight. They even squint when they're out in it, and it takes my progressive-sunglasses several minutes to adjust.

As the ferny little catkins start to emerge from the pecan trees, though, they'll soften the light up considerably, and the planting will begin in earnest. The digging starts next week, and a month from now we'll be leaving for a ten-day streak to California and back for our only "vacation" this year. I need to see spring begin in the desert and what Owens Lake looks like with some water in it before I can get back to learning to love the prairie. But by the time I return, I'll be ready to start another quarter of teaching, and another, more ambitious cycle of planting, growing, and harvesting--and learning to do so more carefully than I have in the past. I won't be able to depend so heavily on accidents as the climate warms, so the next few gardens will have to be much more purposeful and mindfully tended, as I learn how to become a sustainable gardener.

As the dogs and I got ready to go back into the house, I turned to look around and noticed that serendipity isn't completely lost. What started out as a tiny patch of two or three wild gladiolus has now spread, leaping sidewalks and brick patios to sprout up in four or five distinct locations. In a few weeks I'll have at least three dozen plants, all sporting multiple fuchsia-colored blooms on foot-long stalks. I'll have to transplant a few when I dig up the new garden space next weekend, but these are terrifically hardy plants--one of the many accidental gifts I've received over the years here. I think they got mowed the first couple of years, but once I discovered what they were, I let them be, and they start blooming just as the muscari finish. Now, if only the blue-eyed grass would come back, I'd really be content.

Maybe I'll cheat and plant some, just to make sure.

Photos: Top, Arlo and Woody, looking elegant; middle, oregano revealed; bottom, wild gladiolus.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

New Perspectives on Community

One of the “moments” that led me down philosophical paths in my youth was a course at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, called “Philosophical Perspectives.” I was at the time great with child and looking for something to distract me from the upcoming event. The course prospectus said something about reading Plato and Aristotle, so I signed up. As it turned out, however, the particular perspective being explored that semester was community—in its many forms, as manifested in recent history. No Plato or Aristotle, but we would be reading Martin Buber (among others, including some contemporary thinkers whose names I’ve since forgotten), whose I and Thou I had read at UC Riverside as a sophomore in college. His Paths in Utopia was on the reading list, and the study questions the instructor (whose name I do remember, Pat Hill, now at Evergreen State) posed were thoughtful, and guided the reading carefully toward helping us understand the communitarian impulse that led to the idea of the kibbutz in Israel.

Now, what exactly (you might wonder) does this have to do with silly-ass pictures of Star Trek phasers? Funny you should ask. Several events this week got me to thinking about what binds people together in the modern world. One precipitated the photo I’ve used to introduce the post; the other has to do with family and friends.

A new colleague of mine, who teaches oral communication, is a particularly welcome addition to our little “family” of general studies instructors. We all share very tight quarters (proprietary schools, by nature, are far more interested in profits than they are in making their faculties comfortable), and it’s always nice to have amiable people around, especially those who share one’s interests. So I now have a fellow Star Trek fan (although he’s much more of a fan even than I) to work with, and when he noticed my toy “phaser” on my bookcase, he confessed to having a few of his own. So last week, for grins, we decided to mount an exhibition, and he brought in what turned out to be a collection of just about every version of the “phaser” used on every Star Trek iteration up to Enterprise. We had a considerable amount of fun doing this, and were only a little embarrassed by our obvious geekdom.

But we also had a few conversations about fan conventions, the folks who attend them, and the nature of “fandom” itself. Since I participate in a fan forum associated with the short-lived television series Firefly and the feature film Serenity, it occurred to me that these particular affiliations provide a sort of postmodern community, bringing together people who may have little in common but their particular fandom, but who go on to discover other commonalities and to forge bonds that transcend the original point of contact. “My” forum, for example, hosts a number of sub-forums for people interested in everything from booze to Jane Austen. I belong to one composed of like-minded folk interested in the fate of the world and in civil conversation (not always available on the main forum), and we’ve managed to become a fairly tightly knit little group that cares about one another and what’s going on in each of our lives. We’re scattered all over the world (Britain, Australia, Canada, all over the US), but we’ve grown close enough over the last three or so years that some of us now contact one another outside of the forum, and meet up when the occasion arises.

What really prompted this post, however, was my daughter’s emergency appendectomy Thursday night. A series of unfortunate events (exacerbated by my reluctance to own a cellular telephone) found me sitting in the outpatient surgery waiting room with a group of my daughter’s friends during her operation (modern surgical techniques make it possible to remove an appendix in about an hour, using a laparoscope and only three incisions). Nobody was particularly anxious, and conversation centered primarily on whether to vote for Hillary or Barack in the upcoming Texas primary. While we waited, another friend walked in with a card, and several called one or another of the four people in the waiting room, enquiring about my daughter’s progress. When she was wheeled out of Recovery on the way to her room (to be kept overnight), we all trooped after her and waited in the hallway until she was tucked into bed, and then we all crowded into the little room, surrounding her with an almost palpable wall of affection. The Recovery nurse remarked to her that she had more people in the waiting room for her appendectomy than most people do when they have a baby.

The gang of friends was, in fact, mostly from work (a large homebuilding conglomerate), and the friendships had been forged over a number of years. In addition, she raises funds for the Leukemia Lymphoma society by riding her bicycle long distances (for information on how to support her Tahoe Century ride, go to her Team in Training fund-raising website), and many of her work-mates are affiliated with the same group. These people have supported one another through all manner of celebrations and traumas, and it was exhilarating to realize that such communities can still flourish in this plugged-in, fast-paced, world in which people seem so completely isolated at times that the connections are difficult to see.

But the connections are there. New communities are made up of people who—despite the so-called breakdown of the nuclear family—have forged new families, tied together not by blood, but by genuine affection and friendship, and by their concern for big issues like curing cancer, electing a decent president, and small issues like favorite television shows. It’s not exactly utopia, but after this week I’m slightly more sanguine about the future than I had been.

Not a bad start to a new year.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Things Are Looking Up in the Year of the Rat

My students often accuse me of being “cynical” (which most of them think means “negative” or “pessimistic”) in my outlook on the world. I somehow doubt, however, that a person with a fundamentally negative or pessimistic world view would spend ten years writing about how it could be better. Anyway, cynical literally means “dog-like”–essentially suspicious, rather than merely “negative.” I will admit to focusing very often on what’s going wrong, if only to articulate my own perceptions about the modern (or post-modern) world and provide suggestions for improvement. A blog about how happy and cute the world is (like the rather precious lai shi, or red packets in the photo) would not only be out of character, but probably really boring as well.

Nonetheless, in honor of the Lunar New Year, I thought I’d point out a couple of heartening events brought to my attention by the local news-rag, The Dallas Morning News. Both involve religion (an appropriate focus for an essentially religious holiday), a topic I tend to avoid because it has a tendency to raise my blood pressure to dangerous levels; but both offer me some hope that all is not lost and we’re not all going to eventually fall into tiger-traps dug by well-meaning but narrow-minded folk who think their way is the only way.

It's not that I have anything against religion as a human cultural phenomenon. In fact, I have participated happily in two ancient religious traditions (pre-Vatican II Catholicism and Conservative Judaism) and also admire many aspects of Eastern faiths and Islam. I am grateful for what they all have taught me. I have lots of very religious Christian relatives and Jewish and Muslim friends who are very reasonable people. But modern evangelical Christianity, extreme militant Orthodox Judaism, and radical Islam have all contributed to my current anxiety about the future of the planet. So when I read these two articles this weekend, my Doomsday Blood Pressure Monitor was set back to healthier levels, at least for a while.

The first is local commentator Steve Blow’s column for today’s edition, “Finding room for evolution in the pulpit.” Now, I have never understood why archly conservative Christians and Jews have a problem with Darwin’s description of natural selection and species-change. I have always seen the evolutionary process as a grandly beautiful scheme, profound in its efficiency and complexity. If ever anything were to convince me of the existence of a Supreme Being, in fact, evolution would be a considerable factor. So my consternation about “Creationism” and “Creation Science” has stemmed from a view that their proponents simply lack interpretive skills. It’s okay, it seems, to see the sexual innuendo in the “Song of Songs” as metaphor, but creation itself had to take place in exactly seven days in 4004 BC(E). Not only that, but God planted fake fossils in the layers of the earth to fool us and/or test our faith.

Coincidentally enough, the same edition of the paper, in the main section, carried an Associated Press story, “Anti-evolutionists target Europe,” about how those godless Europeans are now the focus of a campaign by “Answers in Genesis”—a group out of Kentucky that wants to inflict its particular brand of biblical interpretation on folks in England and on the Continent. My hope, of course, is that reason (given to us by God, right?) prevails, as it seems to be among local Methodists, at least those under the guidance of Senior Pastor Timothy McLemore in Kessler Park (in Oak Cliff, an old southern suburb of Dallas). Dr. McLemore is participating today in Evolution Sunday, according to Steve Blow’s column, because he’s concerned about the injection of religion into the teaching of science: “‘I think the Bible gives us a great creation account, and I think it's profoundly true,’ he said. ‘I just don't think it was ever intended to be scientifically true or even historically true.’” Blow notes that Evolution Sunday emerged from The Clergy Letter Project, which is designed “to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible and to elevate the quality of the debate of this issue,” according to its website.

It was pretty heartening to discover that the Clergy Letter Project has over 11,000 signatories, all of whom believe that “the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist” and that “that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator.” Were I a believin’ man, and a clergyperson, I’d sign it, too.

In Saturday’s Religion section—a shadow, I regret to say, of its former award-winning self (it used to be an entirely separate section, but has dwindled to a single page), special contributor Mary Jacobs interviewed Brian McLaren on the occasion of a conference he’ll be holding in Dallas on February 22 and 23. McLaren is touted everywhere he’s mentioned these days as having been designated by Time Magazine (in 2005) as one of “25 Most Influential Evangelists”—right up there with Rick (Purpose Driven Life) Warren and Douglas (Fellowship Foundation) Coe.

That’s some pretty scary company in my book, but I found myself intrigued by much of what McLaren says in his interview and after having looked through his website and blog posts. His message describes a Christianity much closer to that I was introduced to by Franciscan and Benedictine friends of my mother in Taiwan, and much more closely attuned to contemporary environmental and social realities than that professed by most highly vocal evangelicals. He seems to have little patience for what he calls “fans of Jesus . . . who seek to be adherents to the Christian religion, believers in certain doctrines, consumers of religious products and services, and attenders of religious meetings without being radical disciples of Jesus in their daily lives” (from his Faith and Action outline). He puts an entirely new spin on the what would Jesus do? conundrum.

What I find most interesting about McLaren’s message as it’s being presented in conjunction with his new book, Everything Must Change and its associated conferences, is that many of his points coincide with aspects of the “conversations” that I work through in More News From Nowhere. Descriptions of the “prosperity” crisis and the “equity” crisis (both of which I’ve talked about in a couple of blogs on being poor and being wealthy) resonate with many of the issues I’m concerned about. He also recommends real-world solutions, such as buying, eating, working, and investing ethically (with practical suggestions on how to go about doing so). If you can get around his somewhat inflammatory buzzwords (“suicide machine” and “covert curriculum” are especially irritating) and suppress suspicion regarding the conferences (they cost $109 to attend, $79 for students, so one can only hope that the proceeds are supporting the mission rather than the missionary), I think much of what he has to say is important to hear, especially for Christians. The fact that he mentions the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam (earth-healing, world-transformation) is also appealing, because it ties his mission in with a longstanding movement among Jews (best articulated in Tikkun magazine).

Maybe all this is a sign of better things to come: a more reasonable, sustainable, year of the Rat. Gonxi facai, everyone—the Chinese equivalent of “Live long, and prosper” (ethically, of course).

Photo credit: “New Year's items being sold at Dihua Market, Taipei, Taiwan” by BCody80, Wikimedia Commons. Note the infiltration of Disney into the traditional “red packets” for sale.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Prairie Wind

I always seem to find myself living in places where, at times, the wind blows ferociously, as it has been around here this last week.

For example, in the Owens River Valley in California, where I was born, northerlies blow down between the Sierras and the Inyos, stirring up granite dust from the alluvial plains and laying a quarter-inch of residue on every existing interior or exterior horizontal surface by the time they blow themselves out. At the southern end of the valley, Owens Lake used to contribute to LA’s pollution during these winds (it’s their own damned fault—if they hadn’t started syphoning off the water from the river, the lake wouldn’t have dried up in the first place), but the powers that be finally realized that some water let into the lake would solve the problem.

Both Taiwan and Japan, where I spent most of my early life, sit in typhoon territory, and I remember several fierce storms that took place in the sixties. One blew off part of our roof and soaked the ceiling of the living room so that great chunks of it landed on the floor. One flooded Taipei, and only the fact that the house we then lived in had been built by the Japanese during the war and was thus raised on piers a couple of feet off the ground saved us from a good floor-soaking. We never did evacuate (I have no idea where we could have gone), and after we moved out of the city, the aftermaths were always interesting because of the length of time it would take to clean up. Trees fell onto roads, isolating communities for days, and electricity was often off for even longer. We didn’t miss television, because there wasn’t any then, and even telephones were seldom used (ours had a crank, and our number was “Yangmingshan 13”). Eventually everything went back to normal, just in time for the next big blow.

When I lived in Southern California, the Santa Ana winds blew dryly and predictably in the fall, often fanning wildfires the way they did this past year.

Hurricanes produced the major wind-related weather when I lived in the eastern United States. Both Philadelphia and Long Island lay in predictable hurricane pathways. One summer in the early seventies, a tropical depression lay over Philly, making everyone cranky and overheated. We all ran around with fans, wearing as little clothing as we could get away with, because air conditioning was far from ubiquitous then, even in some of the wealthier sections of town. My office at Penn had it, so grad students would wander in to visit and cool off. I remember not getting much work done for several days. I think we’d have been happy for a hurricane by the time the depression moved on—just to stir things up a bit.

Long Island is really just a terminal moraine, which sticks out from the “mainland” like a hurricane trap. I only lived there for a couple of years, but often visited during the summer when hurricanes were always a possibility. I don’t ever remember evacuating then, either, even though the in-laws lived less than half a mile from the water—but that was probably because Blue Point was protected by a barrier beach and a segment of the Pine Barrens. Even so, there was serious window-taping and battening down going on days before a potential hit was even confirmed.

By now I’ve officially spent most of my life on the prairie, and the wind that blows here is often relentless. When my children were growing up, we lived on the only bit of relief in the area, a small hill above a creek. When we had a fence built, I insisted on spaced pickets, even though the prevailing fashion was six- to eight-foot solid “privacy” fences: stockades to keep out the barbarians, I suppose. But I did have the last laugh several times when neighbors’ fences were blown down; those same winds blew right through my pickets. Even they didn’t resist one big storm, though; it moved the back gate open just enough for our twenty one year-old dog to escape. We never did see him again.

During the last week, the prairie winds have been tearing through town, knocking limbs off our pecan trees, toppling outdoor furniture, stirring up brush fires in the few areas that aren’t filled with houses. So I slipped Neil Young’s Prairie Wind album into the car CD, and started thinking about the elemental aspects of wind—and about George Stewart, whose novel, Storm (1941) is still one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s not only a great read (it’s protagonist is a windstorm) but it begat the naming of hurricanes, and inspired the Lerner and Loewe song (from Paint Your Wagon), “They Call the Wind Maria.”

While googling around on wind and fire as I thought about writing this post, I came across a wonderful article by Jan Null called “Winds of the World” (2000). In the essay, Null notes that winds have frequently been named by the people they affect. I discovered, for example, that what blows down the Owens Valley is a probably a manifestation of winds that can cause a great deal of trouble elsewhere:

“Californians refer to their great katabatic wind as the Mono wind. It originates from the cold air over the Great Basin, particularly in Mono County, that spills out of high mountain valleys at over 9,000 feet and streams down the canyons on the west slopes of the rugged Sierra Nevada. Mono winds have knocked down 100-foot trees and have been clocked at 100 m.p.h. in Yosemite Valley.”

Katabatic winds, Null explains, are downslope, fall winds—such as the Mistral that blew the bejeezis out of Peter Mayle—the experience of which he recounted in A Year in Provence.

The article also contains juicy bits of etymology and local color, such as the fact that the word “monsoon” comes from the Arabic “mausim,” which means “season,” and that a common name for a twisting storm in Australia is a “cock-eyed Bob.” Rather more interesting a moniker, perhaps, than “blue norther,” or even “typhoon” (which simply means “big wind” in Chinese).

In the end, however, I’m not sure that it was such a great idea to give big storms people names—especially since the names themselves seem so random (“Well, we need a K this year, so it’ll be Katrina’”). We should spend more time thinking up impressive names, especially now that the potential exists for more and more destructive storms. If a hurricane is going to go down in history and folklore, and cause major political and cultural upheaval, it would seem to command a more important-sounding name than, say, “Hurricane Tom.”

That said, I would like to mention that today would have been my father’s 87th birthday, and his name was Tom. He also used to fly weather reconnaissance into hurricanes, so maybe it would be fitting, some day, to have one with his name on it.

Photo: What the prairie wind did in my back yard.

Rethinking What It Means to be Wealthy

My faithful reader, GEM, pointed out that my last post on the Nano car left out a critical component of the equation, and asked the especially pertinent question, “If we ourselves cannot see past the setting in stone of attitudes toward what constitutes the ‘good life’ that the communications media and economic philosophy makes possible and inescapable (almost) how can we expect sensible response from another culture which strives to emulate our ‘success’?”

The short answer is, of course, that a thoughtful person can’t expect the ‘sensible’ response, because awareness that the pot is calling the kettle black is part of the critique. That’s why the positions of people like Vandana Shiva are so welcome and so reassuring. Shiva, an Indian woman who understands the culture and economics of India far better than the most erudite Westerner could, observes in her 2005 article, “How To End Poverty: Making Poverty History And The History Of Poverty” that “it is useful to separate a cultural conception of simple, sustainable living as poverty from the material experience of poverty that is a result of dispossession and deprivation.” She distinguishes what I have come to think of as true poverty—that which derives from cultural and material deprivation and produces misery—from what Westerners mistake for poverty: small-scale sustainable communities that do not participate in the drive toward what we in the West perceive of as wealth: more and more material goods produced less and less sustainably.

The poor who live in the West, as a matter of fact, may even look wealthy; they may sport designer clothes or be obese, but suffer from a cultural poverty that seems to be little recognized on this side of the world. The children of culturally impoverished communities often grow up ill-nourished, badly schooled, and essentially futureless, only to repeat the cycle as adults.

But, since I’m in the business of imagining alternative futures, I thought it might be useful to start thinking about what real wealth might look like. I’ve actually done a great deal of this in More News From Nowhere, but here are some basic themes:

Physical well-being: rather than being a population of people who are too fat or too thin, or suffering from chronic, culturally-imposed illnesses, truly wealthy citizens would be fundamentally healthy. They would get enough exercise walking and working that they don’t need gymnasiums or “health clubs.” They would be engaged in useful work like agriculture or house-husbandry, would eat well and be protected from the elements, and live in an un-polluted world—thus escaping most of the environmentally engendered diseases that plague us in the “real” world.

Material sufficiency: as Goldilocks reminds us, there is something called “just right.” The Greeks called it “nothing to excess,” and we talk about the “happy medium.” The plague of the West and of the developing world is trash, the ultimate symbol of excess. If we only made what we really need (not what we are taught to want), we would have no use for landfills and the landscape would not be littered with the detritus of “too much”: plastic bags, Styrofoam cups, aluminum cans, broken bottles, etc. Nobody would be in debt, because the economy wouldn’t depend on selling people things they don’t actually need. Wealthy people would have enough; they would not suffer from deprivation, nor would they possess excessive material goods.

Intellectual engagement: instead of a plugged-in, tuned-out culture of techno-addicts, a truly wealthy people would be engaged in their communities, aware of the past, and invested in the future; at the same time, they would be able to live in the moment, “tuned in” to their immediate environments. There would be a place for some of our more sophisticated technologies (such as the internet, because of its potential for binding communities) and exploratory sciences, but education would be a life-long endeavor, and teaching and learning would take place at home, in the workplace, and in the world at large, rather than in specialized institutions divorced from the everyday lives of citizens. Science and technology would focus on well-being and sustainability rather than on “progress” or creating more and more stuff. The arts and humanities would provide opportunities for creative expression, and would be married to science and technology instead of being seen as separate and/or subordinate. Art and music would be practiced by all, all the time, and not relegated to separate venues (“arts districts”) or reserved for an elite few.

I could go on. And on. And I probably will, later. But I wanted to take GEM’s response as a starting point for talking about a world in which being rich doesn’t mean having an enormous amount of money, living in a too-big house, driving a fuel-needy car. Wealth should not exist at the expense of the poor—and too often, these days, one man’s wealth depends on an entire population’s poverty. Only if we seriously reconsider what constitutes the “good life” will we be in any position to admonish the developing world about what its quest for wealth means to the future of the planet.