Friday, April 22, 2022

Earth Day 2022: Avoiding Apocalypse

Swallowtail on Honeysuckle

It's getting so much more difficult not to submit to pessimism that writing my annual celebratory post for Earth Day is turning into a chore. And even though spring is burgeoning beautifully around the Accidental Garden, other stuff keeps impinging on my optimism--and my enjoyment. 

In fact, the impending arrival of family from Idaho and Baja has boosted my morale somewhat, and hastened aspects of Swedish Death Cleaning that I've been avoiding. Calling it "spring cleaning" is probably less morbid, but it's all part of the same process. If it weren't for concurrent Old House Plumbing Problems, things would be relatively peachy. In fact, though, we're getting some practice with off-grid living, what with using Porco's loo as an outhouse, and disposing of dishwater on the north lawny bit of the garden. 

Having pretty much abandoned dreams of moving to somewhere more amenable, we've chosen to treat the property as an oasis from Texas nincompoopery. Re-wilding proceeds apace, with only a few domesticated areas, and the perennials are beginning to bloom. I'm promised an amazing show of Byzantine gladioli this year, since they've spread into odd corners of the garden, and the newcomers are actually blooming first--peeking out from spots far away from the original patch. I keep thinking that I should transplant more purposefully, but never seem to get around to it. So these lovely flowers (which began as a single plant under the nandina shrubs that came with the house) are doing it all themselves. A few have even made it around to the front border via the iris bed. This is what they looked like last year at about this time (in the right foreground):

However, everything's late this year. The wisteria bloomed about a week late, but now the vines and blooms have filled out and the amazing scent is already depleted. The Chinaberry tree suffered much from last year's bad freeze, and never did recover. It's leafed out in straggly bits, but there haven't been any blooms and there's just too much dead wood for safety. So it will have to be cut down when the arborists come to do their every-so-often pruning next month. 

But now, by Earth Day, the yard is teeming with wildlife. There have been some gratifying butterfly visits, including the swallowtail in the opening photo, and even an orgy of monarchs: three, all having at each other. The honeysuckle has grown to welcoming proportions for pollinators, and we get to enjoy them over a nice tipple in the evening. Two resident toads have appeared, as well as numerous anoles. Unfortunately for them, Molly is an expert lizard hunter, and we've had to rescue two, sans tails. But they love the greenhouse, which is being transformed into a wunderkammer*  (housing my collection of oddments as well as gardening tools). I have no way of heating it yet, so it's useless for starting plants. Better as an inviting outbuilding for gathering old nests, owl pellets, bones, skeletons, fossils, and little treasures picked up in our travels. Plus the abandoned egg cases Shelob left when she departed last fall. The anoles can easily escape through the vent when it gets too warm, so I don't have to worry about broiling them alive when I close the door.

Baby birds and animals have been abundant. Bunnies and squirrels mainly, and myriad wrens. We did have a bit of drama when Molly caught one little wren and injured it slightly. I managed to help it recover, and left it where the parents could do their work. I last saw it hopping down the alley with mom and dad in attendance, after a couple of days' recovery.

The occupant of a knothole in the pecan outside our study.

Baby wren recovering in a cushy nest of rabbit fur.

Even though she's done some damage to the wildlife population, Molly has become such an obedient and charming cat that if there is mayhem, it's almost entirely our fault for not keeping an eye on her. So when there's real work to do, we have to take turns cat-watching, or confine her to the house until we can be more responsible cat wranglers.

In 1970, when I celebrated the first Earth Day in Philadelphia, I was owned by another tabby--a manx born with spina bifida, and as a result couldn't wreak much havoc on local wildlife. At the time I had no idea of what my life would be like over fifty years later. We were all so sanguine then, sure that in the next half century we'd have addressed the problems that were becoming so apparent then. 

But we haven't. Things are much worse, and peril confronts us at every turn. I keep trying to find sources of hope, like Barack Obama's new Netflix series on the world's national parks and the possibilities they embody, and these serve as anodynes to help salve the anxiety of living in this moment. The best way to get through all of this, though, seems to be to keep the garden going and to enjoy the companionship of our two rescue beasts. And to enjoy their enjoyment of their own little peaceable kingdom.

Happy Earth Day, people. May next year bring better news, and renewed hope.

Photo notes: The leafing-out of trees has reduced available sky considerably. But if you look closely at the butterfly picture, you'll see some blue peeking through. So happy Skywatch Friday, too.
*Turning the greenhouse-that-isn't-really-a-greenhouse into a Cabinet of Curiosities is a new project whose progress will be documented on Owl's Cabinet of Wonders.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Spring in War Time

Mammatus-ish clouds after this week's storm

Seasonal changes always cause mischief around north Texas. This year's wind- and hail-storms and wildfires on the cusp of spring seem more frequent and more intense than usual, although I'm too lazy to look up the stats. Counties to the east are burning, and under emergency evacuation notices. We've had two thunderstorms (with golfball to baseball sized hailstones in some areas) in the last two weeks, resulting in swarms of roofing companies in local neighborhoods with offers to repair roof damage that's "visible from the street" (it is not, in most cases). Our big cable-spool picnic table out back has been artfully polka-dotted, but we've avoided any major damage--although in a previous windstorm a very large elm branch broke off and knocked things about, fortunately missing the greenhouse. 

But today is lovely. Daffodils are fully in bloom, and the grape hyacinths are popping up all over. Both have been naturalizing over the property during the last twenty years, and their numbers have increased significantly. It's as if our old house is gussying herself up to celebrate her centennial this year. Our "house clock" seems to be off by a day this year (the first sunrise appeared through the window yesterday), probably because of precessing equinoxes, but the shift to Daylight Saving Time has meant extra time in the evening to potter around and get things done in the garden. 

Clocks have been on many minds these days, especially since there may be a significant change in the works. For many, many years now I've been seasonally annoyed by the spring and fall changing of our clocks to and from "Central Standard Time" to "Central Daylight Time." I get so discombobulated by the shift that I've often grumbled about why we still do it at all. This week, however, the United States Senate agreed with me and voted unanimously to make Daylight Saving Time year-round. I like having more sun in the evening to enhance Animal Companionship Time when the weather's fine, so I'd rather this be the choice--even though sleep experts seem to think that standard time is preferable. And if we want the entire country and its territories to be uniform, we should adopt uniform standard time, so that those who don't ever follow daylight time won't still be different from everybody else. I don't really care; I just want to stop switching back and forth. Every year it seems to take me longer to adjust, although that seems a trivial complaint these days.

The usual celebrations of spring around this house have been severely muted by the war in Ukraine. We've stayed up later at night watching commentary from Hungary and elsewhere about the plight of the Ukrainian people, and feel no real impulse to celebrate anything (even though Purim, St. Patrick's Day, and Holi were all on the menu). We're sending money that would otherwise go to frivolities (like more books) to charities we regularly support that are also aiding the relief effort in Ukraine, as well as to international animal welfare groups trying to rescue lost and abandoned pets. There's not much more we can do, except perhaps share our concern with fellow bloggers and readers, and urge people to rely on news organizations that report factually and avoid the ones that don't. Newspeople are risking their own lives to get the story out, and I'm particularly sympathetic to what their families must be going through. My own mother was a foreign correspondent during the aftermath of the second of the Taiwan Strait Crises (1958-59), and my father had been deployed to Taiwan at the last minute (we were scheduled to go to the Philippines) because of the threat of war. I'm not sure why the whole family was allowed to go, but I grew up with photos of the damage done by the shellings and a political climate colored by the possibility of nuclear war. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is currently being compared to that of the recurring China-Taiwan issues, so it all seems uncomfortably familiar.

In addition, recent events keep reminding me of my maternal grandfather, who served as a medic toward the end of WWI in France. I've finished transcribing his letters to my grandmother, and have lately remembered a poem Sara Teasdale published in 1917 in response to reports of casualties in Europe. I stole the title, "Spring in Wartime," for this post.

I feel the spring far off, far off,

    The faint, far scent of bud and leaf—

Oh, how can spring take heart to come

    To a world in grief,

    Deep grief?

The sun turns north, the days grow long,

    Later the evening star grows bright—

How can the daylight linger on

    For men to fight,

    Still fight?

The grass is waking in the ground,

    Soon it will rise and blow in waves—

How can it have the heart to sway

    Over the graves,

    New graves?

Under the boughs where lovers walked

    The apple-blooms will shed their breath—

But what of all the lovers now

    Parted by Death,

    Grey Death?

I hope fervently that by the time the autumnal equinox rolls around (and preferably much sooner) there will be cause to celebrate, and that the wanton killing will have ended, and the Ukrainian people will no longer be threatened by autocratic ambition and hunger for power. The fortitude and resilience of Ukraine's president and citizens is profoundly inspiring. May it be rewarded with peace and freedom.

Image note: Almost-mammatus clouds after last week's hailstorm. Mammatus clouds are often a tornado omen, but these are rather less threatening. They provided for a gorgeous sunset, and folks to the north were treated to a huge double rainbow. But we had better clouds.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Trying to Think Little in Big Scary Times

A murder of crows, lurking

In the midst of global uncertainty, the only wise thing to do, it seems, is to construct bulwarks against approaching darkness:  war, disaster, disease, or whatever else draws near. In my case, the protective bastion is built of people. Writers, to be exact: William Morris, George Eliot, Pearl Buck, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jamaica Kincaid, Kim Stanley Robinson. Wendell Berry, Margaret Renkl. 

There are many others, of course, but these are the ones whose wisdom, perspectives, words, and examples provide me with protection against the weight of this particular moment. They all offer insights that furnish mortar for shoring up my sense of hope that things will, some day, change--in some more positive direction. 

Margaret Renkl writes for the New York Times, and two collections of her essays have been published by Milkweed Editions: Late Migrations (2019) and Graceland, At Last (2021). The latter has recently won multiple literary awards, including the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her most recent essay for the Times, "What to Do With Spring's Wild Joy in a Burning World," quite literally brought me to tears, when I had been wondering about how one even begins to enjoy the early spring practice of phenology when Ukraine's life and landscape are being obliterated by an unjust, undeserved war, and climate change is reaching multiple tipping points. Renkl's thoughtful, lyrical essay, however, reminds us to recognize and enjoy the non-human beauty of the world if only for a moment:

The world is burning, and there is no time to put down the water buckets. 
For just an hour, put down the water buckets anyway.
Take your cue from the bluebirds, who have no faith in the future 
but who build the future nevertheless, leaf by leaf and straw by straw,
shaping them and turning them into a sheltering roundness
fitted to the contours of the future they are making.

I don't have to feel too self-indulgent, however, because there are few signs of spring so far in north Texas, where our not really being southern (Renkl lives in Nashville) means that we enjoy several warm days, and then succumb to more winter weather. But the anoles are beginning to sneak out from their hiding places, and the Byzantine gladioli are beginning to poke up. And I've plucked my first daffodils--just in time for them to get frozen down again at the weekend.

Wendell Berry, who has been shaping my thought for the last fifty years or so, was recently featured in a New Yorker profile by Dorothy Wickenden: "Wendell Berry's Advice for a Cataclysmic Age." The news that he's got a new book coming out, The Need To Be Whole, couldn't have come at a better time, and the essay reminded me of the manifold contributions Barry has made to raising my consciousness (and those of myriad "boomers" like me) over the years.

In an effort to re-inject my psyche with Berry's ability to imagine a life richer and more environmentally fulfilling than the current norm, I ordered the first volume of the Library of America edition of his Port William novels and stories. I've been reading his essays several times a year for decades, but have never read any of the novels. Now is probably the perfect time to start. And just this morning, while following Molly about the garden as she probes the mulched leaf litter for emerging wildlife, I carried about my old copy of A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & Agricultural, in which appears one of my favorite essays: "Think Little." A particularly pertinent observation (among many others) provides an idea of why Berry's thinking might have touched a chord in my growing awareness about the consequences of what was going on in 1970:

Odd as I am sure it will appear to some,
I can think of no better form of personal involvement
in the cure of the environment than that of gardening.
A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it
is improving the world.

Berry reminds us, throughout his life and work, that by living on this planet, we must own our part in its destruction. Each one of us really has to do what we can--even if it's only cultivating a little garden--to stave off destruction. And there is always more we can do.

Perhaps the fact that the folks I'm turning to now aren't all old dead white guys (though some are guys, and some are dead, and most are white), indicates that none of them have been fads left over from particular moments of angst in the past or simply bits of canon that stuck around on my bookshelves over the years. Some, like George Eliot (a concurrent project to reading Berry's novels is re-reading Middlemarch), I'll write about later. Some I've written about recently. All have contributed to my abiding love for the environment and have fostered my sense of place. And it's because of them that I still find  some good reasons for soldiering on in these very bleak times.

Image note: an iPhone shot of a noisy gathering of doom-omens in the as-yet not-budding pecans overhead. 
Editorial note: I wrote on Margaret Renkl in March of 2020 here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Fragile Paths to Better Times

Update: The Endangered Alphabets Kickstarter campaign, The Right To Speak, The Right to Read, The Right to Write has been funded. Happy International Mother Language Day, and a gazillion thanks to anyone who supported the project!

The sparkly aftermath of the last ice storm

After a balmy last few days, it's again cold, windy, and rather bleak this morning, so I'm finding it a little difficult to get up the steam to begin an effort to look at the world more optimistically. But we made it through last night's massive hail storm with nothing obviously damaged (TBS had wisely parked the truck under cover), so maybe that's enough. People on the next-door neighborhood site have started praying for snow tonight (instead of ice and sleet). But it looks like cold weather will rule over the next week before it starts feeling like Texas again.

My several news sources (in particular The New York Times and the Washington Post, but even The New Yorkerf) seem compelled to offer up "good news" with nearly every issue. The WaPo's "The Optimist" generally gets tossed in the trash bin automatically because I'm almost never in the mood for cheeriness first thing in the morning. Occasionally I'll be tempted to take a peek, but I really just want to see what's going on so I can bitch about it for the rest of the day. TNYT and TNY are more subtle, and thus more successful at luring me in. 

It's not that I relish being a pessimist, but as I often remind people who question my lack of sanguinity, "pessimists are seldom disappointed; and when they are, it's a good thing." I'm also not fond of the pabulum some folks seem to think of as good news (no, winning umpteen gold medals in the Olympics is not the most important thing in our collective public life and is not a measure of our national wellbeing). Although I do relish watching Nathan Chen demonstrating his prowess on ice, was not glued to the set for things I don't understand: "big air" and "half pipe," for example. And in order to keep my blood pressure at a reasonable level, I'm avoiding most television in general so as not to be exposed to the idiocy going on at the northern border.

Still, I do not want to spend the rest of my life being pissed off at everything, and so consumed with negativity that I can't hope that things could change.

I'm helped in this regard by a few writers I admire, especially Kim Stanley Robinson. Since Ursula K. Le Guin's death, he's taken up the top slot in my SF pantheon, because he's by far the best writer and the most thoughtful prognosticator of the future available--at least that I know of. After I finished The Ministry For The Future, I went back to his earlier book, Aurora, which I'd abandoned for some reason, and have just completed that as well. What I especially admire about his work, besides his fidelity to science, his depth of research, and his enormous imagination, is his ability to cast a reasonably optimistic eye toward the possibility that human beings can stop being stupid.

So, even though a large part of Aurora is about human arrogance and the failure of big, ill-conceived dreams about space travel, generation ships, and colonization of earth-like planets, its ultimate message is that we can learn to be better people. We can, instead of looking for other places to live by terraforming them, spend our intellectual and economic resources on terraforming earth instead. And although Ministry For The Future begins with a terrifying event (a monster heat wave in India), described so compellingly that it haunts my dreams to this day, it's also about how people can learn to begin to fix what we've screwed up so far.

Le Guin's oeuvre is steeped in similar considerations, both philosophical and environmental, and I'm thus happy to find someone whose work carries on some of her major themes. But it's especially gratifying to see that Robinson (like Le Guin) doesn't just talk about the future, he actively participates in its making.

Now, I'm not easily inspired to do anything. All of my endeavors, however minute, require long-term thinking through, much dawdling, lots of second-guessing, and increasingly small amounts of available energy. But in acknowledgement of the Year of the Tiger I've decided to dedicate an occasional essay on The Farm to locating resources that can help us forge a path, even a narrow one, toward something better than what we've got now.

One paving stone on that path for me is the ability to use wisely technologies with potential to do harm. The obvious culprits are social media of all sorts, but particularly the easiest ones to abuse: Facebook and Twitter, plus platforms like Reddit and Quora. I'll talk about these in more depth at some point, but for now it helps just to be selective about how we use them, and to be aware of the extent to which they dominate our lives. For some insights, see Jaron Lanier's Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, and Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.

We should already be able to recognize the technologies we've been depending on long enough to bring us to critical masses and tipping points in the near future: nukes, fossil fuels, internal combustion. But the danger list also includes our dependence on processes that have driven us to unprecedented amounts of consumption and waste and the economic habits that foster it all. 

The rest of the path can be built with much larger amounts of effort of kinds that are already going on. One exemplar is the rise of "Slow" movements: food, fashion, design--and even slow philosophy (as an antidote to fast politics), which arise from notions of sustainability and associated ideas about permaculture and regenerative farming and ranching practices. These are all ideas I'd like to explore in future on this blog, but for the moment I urge anyone who's interested to begin by looking through the interwebs (making good use of this problematic technology) for more information and to see what's being talked about. Another good source is the realm of digital publications and zines that focus on these issues. My last post on Owl's Cabinet featured little reviews of some of my favorites, and I've since located more. I'll be listing all of them on the sidebar of this blog (under "Media"), along with the sources already there under "Education of Desire."

It's not easy to combat the naysayers, or to avoid getting caught up in the deep negativity that's been engendered by the events of the last couple of years. I can't say that my assessment of our ability to work things out for the better is any more firmly grounded than it was in January of 2017 (or January of 2021, for that matter). But hope abides. Especially when the sun's out and the weather is fine. Or even when the ice-clad trees sparkle after a February snow storm that doesn't cause widespread power failures and frozen pipes. Or when bunnies leave their footprints behind in the snowy garden, with polka dots of melting ice as a backdrop.

And then there's the promise of the new year. I've been fond of the lunar new year since I was a child. In both Japan and Taiwan, it was celebrated with delicious sweets, colorful ceremonies and dancing, fireworks, puppetry, and (even for children) introspection. I returned to the United States in 1962, another Year of the Tiger, and my Chinese and Taiwanese friends thought that it was an auspicious time to do so, assuring my mother that the courage and bravery associated with tigers would help me make the necessary adjustments. I'm not sure how brave I was (I ended up staying in the States instead of joining my father in England), but maybe that's what was involved in my choice to remain with my grandmother, in my home town, for the next year. I certainly developed a strong attachment to place during that time, and it took hold fiercely. Much as it has here, in my little hundred year-old bungalow on its little half acre of small-scale utopia.

The future seems more uncertain to me now than it ever has--even after having lived through some major crises in the past. With another Russian conflict building in Ukraine, things don't seem particularly promising. But I do like to think that there's always hope, and so will be spending more my time learning from those who are practicing ways to build it.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Dodging Dystopia

As I was thinking about how to put together a post about Tim Brookes's new Endangered Alphabets-related Kickstarter campaign (The Right to Speak, The Right to Read, The Right to Write), I was in the middle of pondering current efforts in Texas and elsewhere in the US to (once again) to ban books that certain factions don't like. This happens all too often, so much so that the American Library Association sponsors a website called Banned and Challenged Books and promotes an annual Banned Books Week to celebrate the freedom to read.

Still, English- (and other first-world language) speakers largely take reading, writing, and speaking for granted so much that our collective knickers get all knotted up when those rights are threatened (even if we don't quite understand what the Freedom of Speech amendment to the Constitution really means). But as contentious as things tend to get, nobody is threatening to ban our alphabet or eradicate our language. Here, at least.

Elsewhere, however, these irreplaceable components of culture are so threatened that for many years now, Tim Brookes has been working to save as many endangered alphabets (the graphic representation of languages) as possible possible. (See a list of posts on the Farm about the Kickstarter campaigns and my efforts to support his various campaigns here.) The success of these projects has resulted in a wide variety of resources from The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets to the recent launching of Ulus: Legends of the Nomads, a tabletop game designed to foster the imperiled Mongolian language, writing system, and culture.

The newest project involves a large-scale carving in three scripts: 

Osage, from the Great Plains of North America

Bamun, from Cameroon

Meitei Mayek, from Manipur, northwest India

These will be inscribed, by Brookes himself, using his remarkable skill (with which I'm familiar first-hand, because I own several that were obtained as rewards for previous project backings) on a large, spectacular piece of wood that emphasizes both the beauty of the scripts and their importance to the cultures that use them.

All three of these scripts have been rescued from total loss by community efforts to revive them. Two of them, Bamum and Osage, had to be invented in order to help preserve the languages because of political efforts to obliterate the cultures that spoke them. We may not think that this sort of thing can happen to us, but I spent a good deal of time today thinking about how much simpler it is to assimilate and repress indigenous cultures if you make it impossible for them to maintain their historical identity and memory.

Please take a little time to check out the links I've included above, and to imagine how much poorer our own lives would be without the written records we've inherited from our ancestors. Without writing and the documents they produce, rights as we understand them would not exist.

If you've ever wondered why dystopias and post-apocalyptic scenarios are so popular in today's literature and films, think about how much political and cultural angst lies at the heart of stories like Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, Fahrenheit 451, The Man in the High Castle, or A Canticle for Liebowitz. And think about how the abridgment of fundamental rights like reading, writing, and speaking would impact people who've never really had them threatened before.

Only two years ago, pandemics were the stuff of bad dreams and old SF stories like The Andromeda Strain or Earth Abides.  But impossibly large numbers of people have become ill and died from COVID-19. So, if, on top of the disruption of day-to-day life and public health, the destruction of cultural and historical memory is even imaginable to us-- perhaps it's worth contributing to the celebration of fundamental rights to remind us of how fragile they really are--in an increasingly uncertain world. 

I keep trying to find ways to stay positive these days, and this campaign has come along at just the right time. A few bucks toward supporting such an important vision seems like a pretty simple way to lift one's spirits.