Thursday, July 23, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Stormy Summer Sunday

Last Sunday afternoon the sky began to fill up with big billowy clouds, so I got the Nikon out and took advantage of the display. A few hours later, Beloved Spouse and I relaxed in the back yard, around my new-old table, on my grandmother's old metal chairs. Thunder started rumbling in the west, so after picking a few figs, we headed inside. Then the lightning started, so we unplugged the computers from their power sources, which is what we usually do in such circumstances, and I headed to the kitchen to make dinner.

Not ten minutes into the prep, a whacking great thunderbolt hit the tree outside our study. We didn't seem to lose power, but it scared the crap out of me. When we surveyed the damage we saw that chunks of surface bark were missing from the tree and had been blown all over the place (including onto the market umbrella that shades a picnic table near the tree). A neighbor came over to make sure we were okay (he'd seen the flash from the property behind us), and after fixing the one breaker that had been thrown off, we went back about our business.

Until it was time to go watch the news. Then we discovered that the only room affected was the room where we watch television. The brand new LED set and the cable box were no longer "engaged." Fortunately, we keep our feathers numbered for just such an occasion, and brought the other TV and its box in, and will have the Nerd Herd from Buy More in to fix the set in a week or so. But we will also be seriously upgrading our surge protector--and some of the romance has gone out of summer storms, nice as it is to have some rain and cooler temperatures.

I'll probably also not press my luck by sitting on those metal chairs in advance of a storm, either, even if it's still several miles away.

The photos below were all shot with the Nikon D80.

The nasty stuff is starting to move in, above.

Damage to the tree is pretty obvious from this angle.

Bits of blasted tree showing through the umbrella cloth.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Golf, Life, Place, and (of course) Metaphor

It's taking me a while to get used to my summer schedule--one afternoon class on Monday, then two morning and one afternoon gig on Thursday and Friday. Tuesday will be my on-campus day for administrative business, and Wednesday a mid-week buffer on which to prep for the end of the week. So it's not at all bad. No night classes for the first time in years, but two 8 am sections--which I also haven't had in years. I like morning classes, though. As long as I'm out of the door and on the road by 6:30, I don't hit much traffic, I get to see the sun rise, and I have time before class to settle in, have a cuppa, and get my "stuff" together.

All of this means that I'm not writing much. I'm hoping that on Saturdays and Wednesdays I'll have a couple of hours to devote to blogs and novels, but this weekend I've been distracted by lovely weather and, of course, the Open Championship: the best golf tournament there is.

Now, I don't play golf, but I love to watch it. Like baseball, golf is a metaphor for life. As I mentioned in last year's post on the subject, I used to show The Legend of Bagger Vance in my Humanities and Myth classes (it's based, in part, on the Bhagavad Gita), and my students generally loved it. I also used to link an essay about metaphor and designing golf courses to my Humanities resources, until it disappeared into the graveyard of old internet articles. I love the pace of golf, and the concentration and precision the game requires. Short attention spans won't do in golf, and especially not on links courses like Turnberry, where the Open is being played this year.

Like all Scottish links courses, Turnberry's a bear. The coastal weather can turn on a tuppence, and you have to have nerves of steel to play this course. And 59 year-old Tom Watson (although he began the final day with a bogey) is up there, in the final group because he was on top of the leader board when play ended yesterday. The pressure, even on a young guy, would be horrific, but Watson is hanging in there. Geezers rule!

I've often felt guilty for loving golf, because of the resources that go into maintaining them: water, fertilizer, weed killer, and such. But the focus in golf-course design and maintenance over the years has gradually shifted toward sustainability. One reason I prefer Links golf over the standard American groomed-course version is precisely because of the naturalness of the courses, but it does look like an effort is being made to address environmental issues.

Watching the championship is like watching Sunrise Earth. The coverage is full of drama and beautiful vistas of sea and sky, and the sand traps that can really be called "bunkers" on this course. There's even a series of commercial messages about the tournament, narrated by "Mother Nature." Few American courses can claim much history, but courses in the UK are rife with it. Turnberry was used as an air base in both world wars, and has the concrete scars to prove it. Still, it's magnificent, and rather amazing to see some of the best players in the world (including Tiger Woods, this year) defeated by combinations of luck, wind, weather, and the draw. This time around the patience and expertise acquired through decades of experience are coming in handy for Watson, but the young punks are beginning to surge, including Ross Fisher, whose wife can go into labor at any moment (in which case he's promised leave the course, no matter what his position), and the 16 year-old Italian amateur, Matteo Manassero.

Watson seems to be channeling the spirit of Old Tom Morris, one of the game's pioneers, who holds the record for the oldest person to win an Open Championship--in 1867, thirty years before my grandmother was born (she later married the grandson of Angus Campbell McDonald, the dour Scotsman who settled part of our family in the Owens River Valley), and I came along about 80 years after Morris's last victory. I make my connections where I can find 'em. Tom Watson won the Old Tom Morris award in 1992 for his contributions to the game. Alas, however, there seems to be no connection with William Morris. That would be way too cool.

It's early hours still, and the weather can come in and change things at any moment. So I probably won't be back at the computer until this afternoon, and then I'll be working on Monday's class. But if anyone wonders why a blog perportedly concerned with philosophical musings about place periodically wanders onto the golf course, it's because golf courses and the game played on them are so rich in a sense of "being there": in the moment, on the fairway, on the green, on the edge of a cliff that looks out on forever. This is how golf was meant to be played, and Scotland is where it came into its own. My ancestors probably played nearby, with old twigs and rubber balls. And with Tom Watson over there showing the young'ns how the game should be played, I don't think life gets a whole lot better than this.

Postscript: In the end, I weenied out, and cleaned the refrigerator instead of watching Tom Watson lose the playoff to Stewart Cink for the Championship. After two holes of teeing off into really bad rough, I didn't have the heart to see it through. But, as one of the commentators mentioned, Tom Watson's performance this week reminds us that golf is a game that can be enjoyed for a lifetime. The full range of ages from 16 to 59 showed us that energy and talent count for something, but so do skill and experience. The fact that Watson's loss was at the expense of Cink's dramatic, come-from-behind first win in a major tournament cushioned the blow. It was a terrific week, and Tom Watson's still one of the best things ever to happen to the game.

Image credits: The photo of the lighthouse at Turnberry is clipped from a picture of Alistair Nicol teeing off--apparently created by Nicol himself; Tom Watson at the 2008 Open Championship by Ian Tilbook; and Old Tom Morris his ownself, uploaded by StefanB. All from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Seeking Viriditas

Yesterday I finally sawed the legs down on an ancient garden table so we could use it with my grandmother's old lawn chairs (the very ones on which she and I used to sit to watch satellites go by in the night sky on her front porch) in a shady portion of the back yard. To celebrate, I took a bottle of San Pellegrino out and a good book--Thomas Cahill's Mysteries of the Middle Ages, which I'm going back over to augment my illuminated manuscript and Romanesque/Gothic lectures--and sat reading under a pecan tree: the one now minus a very large branch.

By early afternoon the sun has risen over the tree so that for the rest of the day there's shade on the "new" table, which is also situated to allow us to hide at night from the gigantic street light in the alley directly behind our property. Next to the table is a large Rose of Sharon bush, and it provides a nice backdrop and a great place for reading in the afternoon--even when the temperature's around 103, which it was yesterday.

Cahill's book may not be your average summer reading choice, but it's the kind of thing I really enjoy because I can read it whilst being distracted by the antics of birds and squirrels and the occasional streaking across the yard that the dogs do once they've rested after the previous squirrel chase. When Beloved Spouse and I went to see Pixar's Up!, you could tell who in the audience had dogs, because we all laughed uncontrollably when the "Squirrel!" prompt led the dogs in the movie to go screaming off after the promised prey.

For the most part, though, I spent a peaceful afternoon reading about Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century nun, mystic, artist, natural historian, composer, and (eventually) saint, who was my real prey. And I was rewarded for my efforts by Cahill's discussion of what Hildegard called viriditas. He describes it as "greenness or greening or springtime" and notes that she saw it as a mark of good people. The source of her fondness for the notion stems, according to Cahill, from her own experience of the natural world:

There can be no question that from childhood viriditas had poured from the forested ridges and clear waterways of the wild Rhineland, impressing itself on the sensorium of a lonely child. Her scientific works are replete with what can only be personal observations of local animals, fish, and plants. For the local rivers--the Glan, the Nahe, and the Rhine--she catalogues thirty-seven species of fish, giving us evidence that, if she didn't do a lot of fishing herself, this nominally cloistered nun must have talked at length to an awful lot of fishermen. (85)

Notice, please, how I'm resisting the cheap joke about soon-to-be-former Alaska governors. Anyway, Cahill goes on to discuss the fact that Hildegard further associates viriditas with women, particularly her fellow nuns, in charge of running the cloister gardens, themselves "flowering virgins."

Nature and springtime have long been associated with the female--Gaia, Mother Earth, Primavera (the personification of Spring)--but I hadn't run into this particular term before I read Cahill's book. Hildegard's characterization of an essentially feminine virtue provides a rather lovely way of thinking about things green, and about the idea that sustainability is actually grounded in a virtue that could easily be called Viriditas--as a companion concept to Veritas, or Truth, herself the mother of Virtue in Roman myth. I had notions of truth stamped on my blossoming brain early on (I was taught by Dominican nuns, who are not cloistered, but whose motto is "Veritas"), but Veriditas was taught me by nature herself, in the hills behind our house in Taiwan, in the landscape of Japan, in the deserts of California, and here on the prairie in Texas.

It would be good, I think, to balance ideas of what is right with ideas of what is good in nature; if love of nature were taught as a companion virtue to truth (in whatever philosophical guise one understands it), imagine how much easier it would be to think of living well on the earth as the right thing to do.

Alas, interest in language and linguistics diminishes daily, in part because our public priorities lie not so much in the words we use to describe what's going on in the world, but in trying to figure out what to do about it. So finding a good word to describe a laudable virtue isn't likely to attract much attention. But it's a good word to have, and in Hildegard's sense, not a bad virtue to possess either.

Image: The new old table with the old old chairs in their new location.
Reference: Cahill, Thomas. Mysteries of the Middle Ages and the Beginning of the Modern World. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Well, Well, Well

I thought I'd offer an antidote to my last cranky post, discouraged as I was by the enormity of the task that will, largely, fall on the shoulders of our offspring: the "welling" of the earth, if you'll pardon the neologism. I'm usually highly critical of messing with language, but this strikes me as being somewhat apt.

"Well" is what we want to be, both as individuals, and as inhabitants of the planet. It's also what we want the planet and its other occupants (animal, vegetable, mineral) to be. Wellness is an appropriate state toward which to strive, even though it's become something of a new-agey cliche in recent years. Thinking about it spawned a lengthy consultation with my favorite font (an intentional pun) of linguistic wisdom, The Oxford English Dictionary. (Not the Oxford Junior Dictionary--which has apparently obliterated most of the natural world.)

As an aside, I thought it worth mentioning that although its name is based on an acronym (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), one of the first virtual communities ever to grace the digital universe (and ancestor to blogs like this) was The Well, begun in 1985 by Stuart Brand and others who saw the connective potential of the internet.

At any rate, as a noun, a well can be just such a source or a point of origin; we speak as someone's being a wellspring of knowledge or wisdom. The French word for both spring and well is source, which captures the sense rather elegantly.

Around this town, a well is a water-source, and those who draw their water from wells are better off in drought conditions because they don't have to deal with city water restrictions, so a well is also a powerful political symbol here in the sanctified land of property rights. People can tap willy nilly into the aquifer and extract as much water as they want, without penalty--except to the rest of us, in the very long run, since the aquifers are increasingly being exploited by the same industries I was complaining about the other day.

The verb, to well, comes from an Old English stem that means to boil or bubble up, whence the archaic meaning of the noun as "a spring of water rising to the surface of the earth and forming a small pool or flowing in a stream" (OED). In fact, in my compact edition, "well" takes up twenty-eight columns (about ten full pages in the standard version). In most cases both nouns and verbs relate to the "source" meaning. Since there's also an implicit overflowing, one might easily say "my cup welleth over" and translate the biblical passage more poetically. Alas for my neologistic efforts, the verbal uses of "well" all have to do with analogies to the bubbling up: such as boil (as in heating water to 100 degrees C), and related notions about heat--from where we get the word weld.

The image that opens this post is of a mineral well/spring known as "Dirty Sock," on the southern tip of Owens Lake, near Olancha, California. In my youth it was a favorite swimming hole, having been enhanced with a concrete lining and a central fountain by my step-grandfather, Fred Saner, who ran a nearby motel. In fact, the water did indeed "boil" up from underground geothermal sources, and really did smell like Beloved Spouse's tennis socks after a few sets in the hot sun. Over the years it suffered from ill repute, as a haven for teenage drinking parties and biker gangs. I'm not sure what it looks like now, because the last time I was home we couldn't get onto the site due to "official" activities having to do with getting more water into the lake and re-establishing wetlands habitat.

The adverb, well, on the other hand, comes from an entirely different root: weal, related to the notion of well-being. It has a related noun once used in opposition to woe. From thence we get the affirmative connotations (well built, well met) and moral implications of "doing well" and the like.

I often think of springs as wells of well-being, because of the connections they inspire. Wells, in fact, connect the surface to subterranean water, the life source hidden in the body of Mother Earth. I haven't read much Gaian philosophy, but I can imagine that it's full of analogies to blood-flow and bodily fluids. Springs that bubble up from mountainsides and turn into little streams are sources of joy to hikers, because they're less likely to contain contaminants than surface water. It's no wonder that springs and wells figure so prominently in stories about journeys of renewal (such as William Morris's The Well at the World's End).

My attachment to such things stems undoubtedly from fishing trips with my father in the Sierras, where he was always quick to point out where springs emerged. Water preoccupied my family because of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (living on the edge of it as my grandparents did), and even as I child I noticed the comings and goings of water. In Taiwan our second house was on the edge of a small gorge, down which a waterfall tumbled into the river below. Most of our baths in various houses were fed by sulfur or other mineral waters, flowing in through bamboo pipes leading directly from the volcanically warmed "wells" that bubbled out of the mountain.

This is also probably why I long for some kind of a water feature in my garden--even a small artificial recycling fountain that makes the noise of moving water. At the moment, the little sprinkler is going in the potager (probably illegally, since our official water days are Friday and Monday--but it's a food garden, so I allow myself liberties), and the birds are enjoying themselves immensely. I've even thought of buying an inflatable pool, just so I can sit in water out of doors, in the shade, when it's really hot.

There's something primal about water, especially in summer, when folks around here head for the nearest lake. Of course, they go to ride noisy watercraft (which is why I haven't been near a Texas lake in years) and get drunk on bad beer. I do understand the attraction, because I fondly remember trips to Green Lake in Taiwan, where we'd rent a canopied boat and an oarsman, take a cooler of food, American beer, and Chinese soda pop, and spend the day diving and swimming, albeit without benefit of motors.

Thirty four years ago today, I visited the late Daniel O'Kane and his wife at their camp on Lake Placid. He was my boss at Penn (Dean of the Graduate School) and had become my environmental mentor. Dan O'Kane died on my birthay a few years ago, and I didn't find out until this year because we'd lost touch. Much of my appreciation of things wild and natural results from his tutelage, and I miss him enormously. I do, however, have several fond memories on which to draw, including this one. We spent the holiday canoing, swimming, hiking around relics of the 1932 Olympics (building for the 1980 games hadn't yet begun), and enjoying good company.

The best thing about Lake Placid was that no motorcraft were allowed, and the only boats were powered by sails or oars. I was newly pregnant with my son, but didn't yet know it, so in retrospect I connect the lake with new life and possibility.

At the opposite extreme, in terrains and climates where water is scarce, wells well up only when dug into, and become treasured sources of not-always-potable water. Wellness here depends on reliable access to uncontaminated water, or to small-scale technologies for water purification. When I was looking for pictures of wells and springs on Wikimedia Commons, I came across the image below from a series by Dr. Bob Metcalf on solar pasturization of water supplies. Once again I am reminded that simple solutions to important problems frequently exist--and just don't make the news because they're not sexy enough. But being able to easily purify water can offer hope to marginal populations when their traditional wells have been compromised.

Perhaps that's what both senses of "well" do: hope "springs" eternal, allowing for the possibility of wellness. They meld into a notion of well-being, bubbling up from untapped sources. I could probably get really silly with this, but I think I'll just leave it as it is and go spend a few minutes watching birds frolic before I have to turn off the sprinkler.

Happy Fourth of July, Folks. As grumpy as I get, I'm still mindful of what it means.

Image credits: The picture of Dirty Sock is from the Wikimapia article on the site; Gann Matsuda took the picture of an unlined section of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, just south of Manzanar, near US Highway 395. I got it from the Wikipedia article on the Aqueduct.Mwamanongu Village water source, Tanzania, by Bob Metcalf via Wikimedia Commons. His article on water purification is linked above.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who Can Really Save the World?

I've decided not to post a Skywatch Friday photo this week, not just because I don't have one (the summer sky has been relentlessly blue this week), but because like many aspects of the new web technologies, it's become oppressive. Of course, this isn't the fault of the Skywatch crew, for whom I'm eternally grateful; they created a wonderful meme that's brought me new, like-minded readers, introduced me to some terrific blogs, and made me smile more times than I can count.

But as Thursday approaches each week, I find myself becoming increasingly anxious. What will I post? Is there anything in my photo library I can use? Since I tend to post thematically, what kinds of connections can I make? And then, except for the handful of genuinely interested folks, most of the comments aren't even as long as a text message, and I remember that the main reason for activities like these in the blog-o-sphere are to attract visitors (as well, of course, as to share lovely pictures of beautiful skies). If one is not that "into" jacking up one's web presence or dealing with gazillions of comments, the added attention isn't always welcome. I'll still post a shot or two occasionally, but I can't let skywatching become The Farm's raison d'etre.

That's not to say that I don't appreciate the thoughtful responses I've received--the ones that get the reasons, and hold similar views about life and the universe. I do. They've broadened my perspective and introduced me to some lovely people. And their dogs and mogs.

This morning, as I sat in my garden and opened my new issue of Orion magazine (which I received a week ago and haven't made time to read; there are always excuses, even when one is technically on holiday), I realized that I've strayed from my original path (topophilia, utopia, and dystopia), and have been plagued by twinges of guilt for several weeks.

I am not, however, free of guilt as a result of not being preoccupied by pretty pictures of the heavens. Instead, I'm more aware than ever of human frailty and the inefficacy of small measures in addressing the real problems that plague this planet. Derrick Jensen drives this home forcefully in his essay for the "Upping the Stakes" segment of the July/August issue of Orion: "Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change." If we are counting on doing this all by ourselves, he contends, we might as well give up now.

He's done it before. His masterful critique of the "simple living" movement in the May/June issue, "The World at Gunpoint" demolishes the individualist response to making change happen:

A few months ago at a gathering of activist friends someone asked, “If our world is really looking down the barrel of environmental catastrophe, how do I live my life right now?” The question stuck with me for a few reasons. The first is that it’s the world, not our world. The notion that the world belongs to us—instead of us belonging to the world—is a good part of the problem.

Individuals, according to the new article, can't do jack squat to "save the world." But we're Americans, steeped in our radically individualistic ethos, and thus have, collectively, come to the decision (those of us who see the problem, that is; there are many who don't acknowledge any difficulties at all; America, they imply, is utopia as long as we've got our property and our guns) that recycling plastic bags and water bottles, taking shorter showers, and driving less will do the trick.

I think it's telling that so many of my students and colleagues, and so many in the various news media use "individual" as a synonym for "person." "Individuals" don't disconnect from one another, they exhibit "a disconnect" in the ways they respond to the world. Jensen himself uses this new noun in "Forget Shorter Showers":

We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect?

He goes on to point out that "actual living breathing individual humans" use less than a tenth of the water used by human beings in general--the rest is divided between industry and agriculture (Orion July/August 2009, 18). So much for my various water-saving strategies of shallow dishes in the garden to gauge the sprinkler, washing dishes without running water, and taking showers only when I go out in public.

Because I'm something of a hermit when not "on stage" in front of a class, I'm probably even more guilty of this blindness than the people who shop at the Container Store for storage but at least participate in municipal policy-making. I spend much of my time thinking about how I can lower my own impact on the environment, but my participation in anything political is limited to buying my electricity from Green Mountain or using Credo wireless service for my husband's cell phone. (I'm still a slave to ATT because of my iPhone choice, even though I held out against owning a mobile phone for years longer than most people I know.)

Now that I'm into my seventh decade on this planet, and beholden to economically and environmentally expensive technologies for my very existence (not to mention my never-ending dependence on the pharmaceutical industry to keep my arteries unclogged and my blood flowing properly), I am deeply troubled by the fact that I like my life inside the old wire fence of our little compound; I like my job, even though I've sold out to America's odd notion of corporate-based, for-profit education. But the idea of spending my limited free time in further activism (beyond my considerable involvement when I was younger) is nearly unthinkable. I'm just tired. Jensen himself wrote a rather eloquent essay on activism in Orion a few years ago (May/June 2006) called "Beyond Hope," which I highly recommend if you're young enough to get out there and do something about your own future.

As it turns out, what I "do" about all this stuff is to write. And I guess I even, perhaps naively, write about hope. Besides More News From Nowhere, I write other stories and am working on a science fiction novel about people who live differently than we do, in a universe where capitalism doesn't really exist, and people (not individuals) refuse to act precipitously. They think things through. They possess sophisticated technologies, but they don't use them to despoil planets. They don't sit around watching TV or playing video games all day; they interact with one another, they do useful work, they create, and they enjoy and explore the worlds they inhabit without screwing them up.

I'm now thinking of publishing this latest book (at least when I've decided on a name) in numbers, much like Charles Dickens did in the nineteenth century on the More News website. If I don't have the time and energy to join those in the trenches, perhaps the best I can do is to suggest alternatives, or at least discuss what others are suggesting, both on this blog and in my imaginary future universe.

Of course, my low-level sense of urgency may lie in the fact that I'm not exactly passing my bad genes (or the good ones, for that matter) on to a future generation. I have no grandchildren, and may never have them. That's okay with me, since a vast majority of the people who do have them don't seem to be all that concerned with anything but the financial condition of generations to come. They're worried about the deficit, but they're not all that worried, it seems, about what the planet will look like, or what kind of air these generations will breathe.

Okay; I'm through. For now. If you've managed to slog through this post and need some cheering up, check out Skywatch Friday. These folks are always good for a smile.

Photo credit: View of contour buffer strips on farm land in the United States, a conservation practice to reduce erosion and water pollution. From the USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service page on the practice, via Wikimedia Commons. The future of water resources will depend on integrated water management practices in agriculture, and among other industries responsible for 90% of the water used in the world.