Saturday, July 31, 2010


I was amused by some of the responses to the Skywatch Friday post, about how easy it is to be distracted by the sky whilst driving. In fact, I almost had two separate accidents on two different days simply because I was overwhelmed by immensely beautiful goings on above me: big billowy cumulus clouds, wispy cirrus feathers, gorgeous colors and rays of sun highlighting brief bits of prairie. All this was almost enough to take me away from the world. In more ways than one. Of course, then I read the newspaper and my euphoria quite quickly evaporated.

Those of us who aren't prayin' folk are sometimes asked how we can keep going on in tough times if things are as bleak as the news makes them seem.

I mean, only this week the Population Reference Bureau forecast 9 billion inhabitants on this small, endangered planet, by 2050 (7 billion by next year). Couple with this the prospect of there being not nearly enough young people to help take care of the old (the birthrate is falling, despite the projected population increase, so that the old will vastly outnumber the young), and the prognosis is grim.

And then there's the Gulf. After 100 days, the Deepwater Horizon well has been capped, and the "kill" is to begin next week. The font of oil has been stanched, at least for the moment, but stay tuned in China, Michigan, the Red Sea--oh, and Louisiana again: Barataria Bay, where a boat hit an oil well and caused a new leak of oil and gas into an extremely sensitive area already compromised by the BP spill. The New York Times recently ran a good slide show on the Environmental Impact of Oil Spills, in case anybody's been hiding in a cave for the last three months. If that makes you want to get out the checkbook and fund something, try Stop the Drill at Oceana.

The "slow" economy figures in all this, of course, but the whole picture presents such a damned if you do, damned if you don't conundrum that I'm not sure how anybody can get out of bed these days.

I mean, think of the pickle: We stop spending ourselves silly, and the economy stops growing fast enough to create jobs, which adds to the recessional outlook. We stop drilling and killing wildlife, and more jobs are lost. The ultimate quandary in the Gulf is instructive: vast numbers of people along the coast make their living from oil (drilling, refining, exploring, supporting)--but they're all now suffering the consequences of the country's insatiable oil-thirst, which threatens the livelihood of other inhabitants, who depend on fishing, shrimping, and tourism.

Sometimes, homo sapiens sapiens seems an absurd name for our species. We're hardly wise. If we were, we'd think things through, not see constant growth and accumulation of "wealth" as worthy goals, and think far enough ahead that we don't arrive at crises of our own making. All those people shouting about the deficit we're leaving our grandchildren would do well to think about how much they've contributed to the real legacy: a crowded, polluted, hot planet--and the consequences thereof. Forget about the money. Think about the quality of life. Forget about satisfying wants, and think about what it will take simply to satisfy basic needs.

As conscious as I am of all this, however, I do not contemplate throwing myself off a cliff in the Grand Canyon or other colorful and poetic means of ending myself. Instead, I get up every morning, have a good cup of coffee, and go about the work of educating young designers--in hopes that they'll somehow, someday figure it all out.

Family members have asked me how I can possibly exist without having faith that some god (well, actually, a particular one) will somehow take things in hand--if only we can believe enough, or pray hard enough, or trust in his wisdom to sort things out (it's always a he). How can I go about my daily tasks with no sense of ultimate purpose?

The simple answer is hope. I hope that we will become smart enough and generous enough over the next few years to see that constant, unrelenting growth does not provide a path toward a sustainable future for our children. I hope that we will become better assessors of new technologies so that we don't keep feeding greedy corporations that exploit poor workers in third-world countries, who mine dangerous minerals to construct the newest, fastest, sexiest digital machines. I hope we slow down, anchor ourselves in our environments, and begin to really see and experience the world we're poised to lose within a couple of generations. I hope we stop playing with our children's education and start teaching them what they need to know in order to survive in a depleted world.

After Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, one of the books that helped to raise our consciousness about what we're doing to the planet, he wrote another, less celebrated work: Hope, Human and Wild, in which he describes several communities that live in ways that offer promise for a different kind of future. He tries to "imagine a future vastly different from the present, one where people consume much less and restrain themselves much more. Where 'public' is no longer a curse word, and 'growth' increasingly is" (1). He contrasts hope with mere "wishing" that things will get better on their own. "Real hope," he says, "implies real willingness to change" (3).

I wrote More News From Nowhere as a descriptive act--a speculation about (as William Morris put it) "how we might live." But McKibben's book focuses on actual communities living actual lives: Curibita in Brazil, and Kerala in India, where people are actually doing, rather than just talking.

To this list, one could add Gaviotas in Colombia, although the population is quite small. But check out the Sustainable Cities website for larger efforts. And for an even bigger lift, search Google for "sustainable cities" and more pages on efforts around the world.

If I have any faith at all, it's that the human brain is wired for survival; that the instincts we've developed over the last couple of hundred thousand years will kick in and we'll realize that if we don't ramp down we're out of the game. To me the ultimate act of despair would be to go on as if nothing has happened.

The United States seems to be mired in American exceptionalism these days, comfortable in our cocoon of assumptions about who we are and what we're entitled to. I'm not sure how many oil spills or other disasters it'll take before we wake up and notice what we're doing to ourselves--let alone what we're doing to the rest of the world by exporting our excesses.

Still, I hope. I do what I think I can, although certainly not all that I probably could. As long as efforts go on somewhere to address the problems, I'll keep hoping and keep doing--even if, at this point in my life "doing" has more to do with driving a fuel-efficient car and going without air conditioning than with real political action. And if y'all who pray want to go on doing so, I'm pretty sure it's not going to hurt.

Image credit: this today's Wikimedia Commons's "photograph of the day," Hazy Blue Hour in Grand Canyon, by Michael Gäbler (take a look at some of his other contributions at the link). I went to the Commons to find an evocative photo of our home planet, and this came up. I thought it provided a good reason to hope that we manage not to screw it all up.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Skywatch Friday: A Midsummer Sunrise

These are nothing spectacular, but given their source (my antique, first-generation iPhone) I consider myself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.

I took the opening shot as soon as I parked for my morning class last Monday. The sun had risen splendidly during my thirty-minute ride down to Dallas, and I'm somewhat surprised that I didn't wreck poor Vera in my efforts to keep an eye on the drama in her rear-view mirror. At this time of year, the sun rises in the northeast, and I was headed south, so I didn't get to enjoy it much.

The next two photos were taken a few seconds after the first, and do catch some of the changes that happened so rapidly that I'm grateful to have caught anything at all.

Busy-ness has kept me from posting recently, so this may be it for another week if I don't get caught up. I usually use this blog as a means of thinking things through, but there seems to be so much going on that I don't have much time to think, much less write. I haven't had time, either, to check out the wonderful blogs I try to keep track of, and I miss you guys.

Still, the weekend's coming up, and there's Skywatch Friday to meander through, so I'll try to take some time tomorrow morning to see what's up--literally! Happy Skywatch Friday, and thanks once more to the team who keep it going.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Summer Garden Surprises

After staying indoors for most of yesterday morning, I braved the heat and bugs in quest of figs and pears, hoping to rescue both from the barbarian critters (mostly mockingbirds and squirrels) that nibble and run. Don't these guys know you're supposed to finish what you put on your plate?

Anyway, I took a few quick (i.e. not very carefully framed or composed) shots of hot, sultry, summer clouds and of the garden and was rather amazed to find late-blooming wisteria and fairly dangerous-looking mushrooms--as well as a streak of white fungus that, on first glance, looks like old wet loo-paper. I didn't include that one, and I haven't had a chance to identify the 'shrooms. They'll be gone by the time I go out again--but the recent wet weather and abundance of rotting wood around here has turned this place into a mushroom aficionado's dream.

The Rose of Sharon bushes are still in bloom, although the white one's dropped most of its flowers, and the purple one has gone pink. This happened once before; the first round of blooms are followed by smaller, pinker flowers for a second show. It'll stop now, for most of the rest of the summer, and then bud up and bloom again in early fall.

The Chinaberry (opening shot; I know it's cheating, but the sky really is peeking through the leaves) is fruiting, although it'll be a while before they ripen and start attracting grackles. The Cedar Waxwings seem to have left for less balmy climes, but there will be plenty of drunken poopy birds after the berries are fully ripe.

As I sit in my study typing this morning, I'm enjoying a veritable parade of birds taking advantage of the two bathing areas outside my window. The goldfinches are out in posses of three to six, but get out of Dodge as soon as the mourning doves decide to take over. There have been robins, brown thrashers, cardinals, and sparrows as well. I'll have to refill before long, because they've splashed out so much of the water.

Thanks, as always, to the Skywatch Friday team for giving me something to do besides grouse. I wish you all a happy third anniversary, and hope everyone has a great weekend.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

In the Doldrums

Classify this one under meteorological metaphors: a weather-related phenomenon that applies to mood, most commonly in hot, sticky, muggy, calm summer conditions.

Like now.

The "doldrums," or (according to the Glossary of Meteorology) "equatorial calms" refers to very specific conditions occurring in a very specific region of the world: the Intertropical Convergence Zone where the tropical winds from the northern and southern hemisphere meet and generate the trade winds.

I was watching Serenity (yes, again) the other night, and Mal's remark about the albatross sent me back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where we get the sailors' experience of being becalmed in the region when the winds die down (often for significant periods) described for us in grim but painterly detail:

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
’Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Landlocked as we are here in north Texas (and the map that opens the post shows just how far away the Doldrums are), we can nonetheless sympathize at times, especially after a period of relatively cool, rainy days when the temperature starts rising and the humidity with it.

This is the first July I can remember when we haven't had a single day over 100F into mid-month. Because of the humidity, though, the heat index makes it feel much hotter and these conditions persisted well into last evening in some areas. For the last several weeks we've been able to sleep without the air conditioning on, but no longer. And this morning I didn't even shut it down and open up for a few hours. We're only talking two rooms here, but to me that's an extravagance.

I may be more sensitive than some to this kind of weather because of the time I spent in the tropics, where spells of 90 degree temperatures accompanied by 90 percent humidity characterized our summers. We had no air conditioners in those days, and running through a sprinkler offered no respite. A few hours at a spring-fed swimming pool or a trip to the beach or a local lake offered our only relief before I moved back to the States.

Years ago, when I lived in Philadelphia, I remember a particular summer during which a tropical depression hung over the city for the better part of a week. My memories of the time run in slow motion, and are so palpable that I can remember being conscious of my blood flowing through my veins (back when it could do so without the aid of anticoagulant drugs!):

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion . . .

Things aren't much different now, although the present moment lacks the kind of intensity twenty-somethings can feel. Still, the weight of the air will make it hard to do anything today that doesn't take place in the air-conditioned study. As inviting as the back yard looks, with its shady areas and comfy chairs, the air will be too thick with moisture and mosquitoes for me to accept. I'll have to brave it all for a few minutes if I want to snag a few figs before the mockingbirds take their daily toll, but that'll be the extent of out-of-doors activity this morning.

Perhaps the only good thing I can imagine about climate change and its local effects is the element of surprise: who knows what will happen next? The usual patterns are changing so rapidly that the next two months might not turn out as expected. The albatross may yet show up to bring us luck--unless, of course, it's befouled by the mess in the Gulf.

I find myself checking in at least once a day on the hurricane watch app I've installed on the iPad; except for Alex (and the tropical depression called "'Two"), there hasn't been much activity so far, but he season promises to be "interesting" according to the forecasters. One can only hope that we don't get another big storm until the leak gets capped and they've had a chance to do some more cleanup down there.

As I was moderating comments this morning I noticed that this is my 200th post on the Farm, a couple of weeks past my third anniversary on Blogger. Although I don't get around to posting as often as I'd like these days, I did want to let anyone reading know that I have appreciated all the comments and input over the last three years.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Ride on the Cat Bus

The news is not good. Yesterday, tar balls showed up in Galveston, and today insult is added to injury on Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans: oil from the BP spill has breached all barriers. I don't live anywhere near the Gulf, but the pain of the residents is leaking northward, and the sadness and sense of helplessness has penetrated deeply into the prairie. If I didn't have to go back to work on Friday, I'd be down drinking on Bourbon Street or hanging out on a pier in Galveston with old neighbors, just to show support.

Sometimes what one needs is a good dose of Hayao Miyazaki, and the evocation of childhood innocence that always shows up in his films. Tonight we watched My Neighbor Totoro again, just because we needed a fix of humor and sweetness in an otherwise dismal world.

One reason I've always found Miyazaki's films both entertaining and psychically energizing is that I can actually understand some of what goes on. I've never watched any of them in English, but baby Japanese is pretty hard to lose, and even without subtitles I can usually follow along. Although I only spent a couple of years in Japan (from ages 5 to 7 ish), the smidgen of the language I learned from living in a tiny shack in Kunitachi while my dad was stationed at Tachikawa Air Base not long after the end of WWII has stayed with me for more than a half a century. Both "towns" are now huge, thriving cities; but in the early '50s, they were villages with few amenities and a very traditional way of life.

Our "house" (before we moved to the military housing at "Green Park"--the link has some photos that look vaguely familiar) consisted of three rooms: a living room with a pot-bellied stove, a bedroom where my brother and I slept in bunk beds, and a kitchen. My parents slept in a bed in the corner of the living room, and that's also where we ate (on a table in another corner). The "bathroom" was out back somewhere, consisting (no doubt) of a "benjo" (toilet) and possibly a "furo" (bath)--but I seem to remember bathing at a public bath nearby. The scenes in the furo in Totoro always remind me of time spent in those baths as a family.

We lived next door to a dancing school, and my ever-enterprising mother talked the headmistress into exchanging dancing lessons (for me) for English lessons. So I was taught the ancient Kabuki dance, "Fuji Musume" (Wisteria Maiden), and came home to the States with a lovely kimono and all the accouterments: fan, geta, and a bow with cranes perched on it. I hope the dancing teacher got her money's worth in English. A few years ago I found some negatives from the period in question, and I think the photo at left is of my dancing teacher and her husband.

The Japanese I learned as a five year-old comes in handy when watching Miyazaki's films, because he understands kids better than anyone. The children in his films are just like those I learned to dance with: happy (giddy, almost), innocent, energetic, and open to almost anything. The children I knew then were the original "free range" kids, who played all over the place and didn't seem to be afraid of anything.

Watching Totoro tonight brought all of that back to me, and made me long for a cat bus to ride to get where folks could fix things. But because I don't have Totoro for a neighbor, I'll just have to rely on conversations with some of my anime-enchanted students to get a small sense of the delectable silliness that inevitably results from watching anything that comes out of Studio Ghibli.

I know it's not doing Louisiana or South Texas any good, but if more people understood the world the way Miyazaki does, I think there would be a whole lot fewer catastrophes occurring anywhere.

Image credit: I stole the poster from Wikipedia's page on Totoro.