Sunday, December 31, 2023

(Can There Be) Too Many Trees?

Note: I wrote most of this a month ago, but got distracted by the holiday season and some dismal weather. It was originally meant to be the first in a two-part series (but don't hold your breath), this one subtitled "A Nostalgic, Mostly Random, Catalogue of a Life's Worth of Trees." It has morphed into a grateful farewell to 2023.

Brief glimpses of the sky in late summer

The most important difference between desert rats, like me and my father, and the rest of humanity, is that we easily become oppressed by voluminous masses of trees.

For the tree-shy among us, vast volumes of sky are preferable to endless forests. It seems somewhat ironic, therefore, that most of my life has been spent in subtropical forests (Taiwan) and blackland prairie (north central Texas) that's been transformed into suburbs with tree-lined boulevards and back yards full of native hackberry, pecan, and burr oak, as well as bird-planted mulberry, chinaberry, catalpa, and privet--in addition to developer-planted Callery and Bradford pears. The gradual overtaking of native grasslands by Eastern red cedar trees is another kind of problem, because these cedars are native to Oklahoma, but are becoming a plague across Nebraska and other prairie states.

Finding open sky over our little half-acre is almost impossible for three quarters of the year. One of the most enjoyable aspects of autumn is the gradual opening of our rather dense canopy (especially after having had the Tree-saver people out for some serious pruning to prevent winter damage due to dropped branches), and the welcome expanses of sun that spill in with the also-welcome cooler weather. 

The back yard is populated by five very large pecans, one of which dropped an enormous branch after a wet spell that had followed a longer dry one. This is what prompted the latest thinning, because our lot also harbors four more pecans, four oak varieties, a sweet gum, and a few stray bird-planted specimens of catalpa, cedar, redbud, and a large tree-bush that looks like a viburnum in bloom but has leathery, serrated leaves like a holly (I've lately found out that it's an English Holly). And then there are the yaupon holly shrubs that hide a good deal of the house from the street, and shade the living room from the eastern morning sun in summer. A ten-year old chinaberry had to be cut down this year (leaving lots of lumber for various uses), as did a Callery pear and a mulberry. I'm hoping to use the newly vacant space to plant a fruit tree near the compost bins, but haven't decided whether battling the pear-eating squirrels would be worth the effort. There are two pears on the southern border of the property, but we haven't had a crop in years because the squirrels denude them almost as soon as they flower. Maybe something pretty, like a vitex chaste tree, which always do well around here, and are natives.

The broken pecan branch before The Beloved Spouse felled it.

The aftermath.

After recently reading Kendra Atleework's moving memoir of growing up in the Owens Valley, Miracle Country, I realized that there is a small connection between there and here: the Liquidambar styraciflua  growing in front of my house, the sweet gum, is the same species as one that grows in Atleework's yard in Bishop. 

When my son was two years old, my father and stepmother visited us on Long Island, where we lived in a lakeside cabin on Long Pond (better known as Lake Panamoka). It was there that I first hear the "too many trees" remark as a reason why my dad hadn't ever been interested in living in the east. After a final Air Force stint in Hawaii, he had retired to an acre or so in Porterville, California (on the other side of the Sierras from where we both were born), which sported a couple of fruit trees and a pollarded mulberry, but not much else. A magnificent oak sheltered grazing cows on the other side of the back fence, but it was far enough away to not count as too many.

I do remember that when I was a small child, visiting my father's parents in the Owens River Valley,  there were a few fruit trees and a gorgeous (and prolific) walnut tree in the back yard of the house provided by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power electrical plant at Cottonwood.  The infamous aqueduct across from the desiccating bed of Owens Lake snaked by the house and the plant, where my grandfather worked until the end of his life. After he died, though, my grandmother moved to town (Lone Pine, where I was born). There her tiny back yard was graced with a honey locust and a catalpa. Her mother had loved the big, fragrant, orchidy flowers of catalpas, which is what prompted me to let one grow next to my driveway in McKinney. It had to be cut down during the recent trimming because it was dying, but its replacement is already about six feet tall, standing in the middle of an iris bed. In the front yard of my grandmother's house  two very large cottonwoods grew, but eventually died as the city of Los Angeles got stingier and stingier with the water it was diverting from the Owens River. 

During the five years my father was stationed in Taiwan, we lived in five different houses, three of which were located on Yang Ming Shan (Grass Mountain), and, if they survived the inexorable and exponential growth  of Taipei city in the '60s and '70s, are now part of the National Park. The first and last houses were in Taipei proper, but I only remember the Jacaranda tree that grew inside the stuccoed brick wall that surrounded the first house. It was huge, and bloomed luxuriantly with purple blossoms the first spring/summer we were there. It was also great for climbing. The Yang Ming Shan houses, however, were mostly nestled into clearings in the jungle, and overlooked terraced rice paddies all the way down into the valley below, or a waterfall into a sulphur river. The last mountain house had a pomelo tree at the top of the entry steps. Although one has to work at it, peeling the one-inch rind off the fruit is well worth the time and effort it takes to reach the slices of mild grape-fruity sweetness. Sadly, the quality of pomelo one can get here in the States doesn't begin to approach that childhood memory. 

It's probably the case that my ambivalent relationship with trees developed only after I'd spent my early adult life in palm tree dominated Southern California, and began to see my home town as my real home--even after I had moved permanently to Texas, finally met a compatible husband, and finished raising my kids. Now when we travel, it's always west, through the deserts and mountains of the Basin and Range. So far we've hauled several dogs and a cat back and forth three different times, pulling a caravan (first an imitation Shasta Airflyte, and then a larger, more animal-compatible retro style canned ham) behind our Jeeps, spending as much time as we can trying to soak up the atmosphere of sand and sky and clear air before we head back to a place we're finding really difficult to imagine leaving permanently.

We've been here in north Texas together for over thirty-five years, but often muse about moving west for good. At best, however, we'll probably manage at least one more caravan trip back. We've lavished an enormous amount of labor and love on the house, the garden, and--yes--the trees. Whether or not there are too many of them. They do help me mark the seasons, though, and here are some early winter shots of skeletal trees and the surprising skies they occasionally frame (the large magnolia on the left of the first photo belongs to my neighbor):

Moonrise just before the Full Wolf Moon, 25 December.

Facing west this morning, toward the Wolf Moon's waning gibbous remains. 

Sunrise on New Year's Eve.

A bit of year-end sky drama from the north, just after sunrise this morning.

One of the reasons I enjoy Skywatch Friday is that it inspires me focus on what's overhead, which often presents surprisingly beautiful photo opportunities. And the sheer number of possible dramatic meteorological displays available to me serves to remind me of why we continue to live here and why we probably will never leave. The property may measure only a half acre, but it's our little bit of refuge in a world now tormented by yet another war and ever more destruction.

Shalom to all of you who still wander by the Farm, and to all of us inhabitants of a problematic age. I am often quite pessimistic, but I do harbor some hope that the new year will bring us a less bellicose political landscape, climatic news could improve, and that relief from the many economic plagues that ravage the less prosperous who share this amazing planet with us may come about.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Into Autumn

First Overhead Balloon of the Season
Another season turning: better weather, a bit of rain, lingering hot days (but cooler nights). It's a few days past the equinox, a few days short of the full Harvest moon, and I'm getting ready for eye surgery which will put me out of commission for a week or so, but should preserve the sight in my left eye.  In preparation, I've been taking it easy, pottering about the garden, and trying to ignore the news. Molly has taken to spending time with me on the backyard table when I go out to drink my morning tea, so I get a dose of companionship and cuteness before the mozzies figure out that I haven't bathed in repellant. 

Sunday in the Garden with Molly

Nylah is usually over behind the garage, keeping watch for errant dogs or babies who might stroll by. Although basically quite intelligent, her Great Pyrenees genes tend to keep her in "big dumb mop"* mode, more ornamental than useful. She is pretty to watch, but seldom photogenic enough to capture. The last photo I took was in June:

Nylah Lounging in Woody's Garden

In terms of holidays, the Celts celebrated the transition from summer to fall at the equinox, and through to Samhain (which marks the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, and coincides with Halloween)--when cattle were brought down from summer pastures. I'm wondering just how long it will take the current weather patterns to complete the change, given all of the climatic upheavals we seem to be "enjoying." 

One of the seasonal markers that occur fairly regularly here in the northern part of Occupied Mexico is the Plano Balloon Festival, which takes place about ten miles south of here, near where we lived while my kids were growing up. This year it coincided with the equinox (September 21-24), and the opening photo for this post (taken on September 18) probably represents someone practicing before the event. I'm not sure how much ballooning actually got done because of high winds and other kinds of threatening weather, but we haven't attended the event since The Beloved Spouse began tennis coaching, because by then the whole thing had become a circus and the team got wrangled into participating. 

Celebrations of all kinds seem to have run amok in the last few decades, in part because they've become huge cash cows for businesses. The market-capitalism greed machine has overtaken the communitarian aspect of seasonal goings on, and now they all appear to run together, and the hype begins earlier and earlier each year. 

A couple of days ago, while I was looking through old posts for a family recipe, I revisited the first year of this blog. The November 27th, 2007 entry (entitled "Enough") ruminated on greed--so it's clear that things haven't improved much. 

Nevertheless, I keep finding small indications that some shifts might be taking place. An article in the New York Times on young Luddites (from December of 2022) suggests that technology may not have quite the grip that some of us fear, at least among Gen Z. These kids actually remind me a bit of a group of rather pretentious intellectuals from the local boys' Catholic high school and the public school I attended. We all got grounded around graduation time because we stayed out all night at one guy's house reading T. S. Eliot, discussing The Little Prince, and listening to a couple of them playing Chopin etudes--and there weren't even flip phones for us to call home with.

An article in this week's New Yorker, Sam Knight's "A Young Architect's Designs for the Climate Apocalypse"  quoted from an essay by architect Anthony Dunne in the journal, Reading Design: "A Larger Reality," wherein he quotes from Ursula K. Le Guin's acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014, where she enjoined science fiction and fantasy, and other "writers of the imagination" to challenge the profiteers of the written word who dictate what should be written and rewarded:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality. (Copyright © 2014 Ursula K. Le Guin)

With this in mind, I'd like to recommend two small books that provide us with a glimpse of a possible future that avoids Armageddon and turns away from climate apocalypse: Becky Chambers's A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Macmillan 2021 and 2022). For a nice essay that shows why I might be recommending these books, see Molly Templeton's "The Refreshing Hopefulness of Becky Chambers' Monk and Robot Books."

See you on the other side. Or, as Capt. Mal Reynolds would say, "Y'all gonna be here when I wake up?"**

*Not an entirely coincidental reference, because I just finished my second reading of A Prayer for the Crown-Shy last night, I found this passage describing Sibling Dex's family dogs to be a particularly appropriate description of Nylah's lineage and demeanor: "There were three of them, all shaggy herders painted in soft swirls of brown and black, smart as hell when they were at work and big dumb mops every other hour of the day" (113). It's also appropriate that the photo of Nylah I included was taken in the little garden dedicated to one of her two predecessors, Woody--of Woody and Arlo fame. Both were border collie mixes, of which breed Nylah is about half, all of these three also big dumb mops when they're not busy being herders.

**False alarm. My retina surgery has been postponed. But thanks for any concern.


Monday, September 4, 2023

How Much Is Enough?

Note: This post was actually written about a week ago, but life got in the way, the weather's since been up and down, and we're at the beginning of another heat wave. The musings, however, still hold.

Late August morning in McKinney; First clouds in weeks!

The Beloved Spouse and I were enjoying the cool, breezy morning--after weeks of blistering temperatures with only one, short, previous break. This is beginning to look like a harbinger of Fall, but we're not celebrating extended good fortune quite yet. Still, even a short-lived respite is welcome, and recognizing good fortune often results in good conversation.

As often happens among the philosophically inclined, we were discussing the conditions that have created the current socio-political situation: climate change, energy consumption, consumption in general, the kind of materialism that convinces people that they need more and more stuff (instead of the kind of materialism that focuses on what exists rather than what people imagine might be out there), greed, The Future. In other words, Life, the Universe, and Everything. As we often do.

After we had mused about what we could do to ameliorate things (acquire an electric car, increase our solar production/battery capabilities), I wondered out loud about how much of what we already do makes even a dent in the overall condition of the planet: cut unnecessary consumption of consumer goods rather drastically, eliminate food waste, conserve power, reduce reliance on natural gas, minimize water use, eliminate single-use plastics, rely as much as possible on locally sourced food (sustainably grown and humanely raised),  minimize car use--all of which we're already pretty good at.

But to what end? If as few people actually make these efforts as seems to be the case, are we really accomplishing anything? 

We also live in an area of the country that's experiencing monstrous growth with the accompanying environmental degradation, increased pollution, massive addition of concrete and other problematic infrastructure materials, and demand for (and ultimate shortage of) water resources. The influx of population is bringing with it not only more people, more jobs, increasing property values, and a larger tax base (which are all considered Good Things in Texas), but is also exacerbating all of the problems conscientious people are trying to deal with.

A few signs of hope occasionally appear, like the increasing presence of local farms practicing regenerative agriculture (even as land gets snatched up by developers), urban farmlets cropping (sorry) up in South Dallas's food desert, cooperative enterprises that involve farmers, artisans, restaurateurs, food purveyors, and other socially and environmentally responsible entrepreneurs. But can they keep up with the "progress as growth" ethos built into the kind of consumer capitalism that dominates the current economy?

Another hopeful sign is the increasing number of "slow" movements sneaking into the existing economic forecast. Backlashes against destructive consumerism, especially in food and fashion, are appearing in the news, online, and in shelter magazines. The permaculture movement, most visibly evident in Australia, but catching on in Great Britain, the US, and Canada fairly conspicuously, is becoming a "thing." I've become an avid reader of Tom Hodgkinson's The Idler, which advocates slowing down and smelling flowers, but also a slower, more engaged, less frenetic economy. I only subscribed after it became available digitally because of my problematic relationship with print publications. (Digital subscriptions are also less expensive.) It is, however, highly entertaining, and often quite instructive.

Oddly enough, given my technologically skeptical bent, social media platforms like Pinterest and YouTube are helpful in promulgating practices that lead to slowing down and less active forms of consumption. For example, TBS and I have become followers of a few travel vlogs that allow us to enjoy activities out of our financial reach (such as sailing, or wandering around Scotland, or boating on the British canal system, or living in a Japanese satoyama and restoring a rice farm) vicariously. Every day we can learn something about the latest astrophysics news, watch Italian nonnas make pasta, or clever chefs show us how to make dishes from recipes published in the New York Times food section. Pinterest allows me to collect and curate inspiring photos and articles like those I used to cut out of the shelter magazines I subscribed to and save in notebooks. Now I can do much more with the interesting ideas I come across. At least until the EMP comes and fries the Cloud.

And so, while we still have pipe dreams about buying an electric truck and pulling an electric caravan, it's more likely that we'll keep plugging away at doing what we can to lower our planetary impact. I may not be able to maintain a completely waste-free household (the kind of effort that frequently appears in the newspaper and magazine articles I consume), over the last decade we have managed to reduce our trash output to a single green bin per month (stuff headed for the tip), and our recycle bin goes out every month or so. New clothing purchases are primarily confined to tennis shoes (TBS's avocation requires properly supportive foot ware) and underwear, neither of which are suitably acquired at charity shops.  I'm also hoping to solve some of our energy-consumption challenges by creating insulated portieres to help us isolate single rooms when we need an air conditioner to escape the heat, or a heated room to withstand the cold. We're currently recycling old woven serapes, but they're not as efficient as they could be. Over the years, however, I've collected large bins of fabrics--from worn clothing, bed linens, remnants from old projects, and thrift-store finds, all of which will allow me to make use of my antique-looking sewing machine or (if I'm feeling especially frugal) my grandmother's treadle machine, on which I learned to sew in the first place.

In fact, ruminating on the conditions in which my grandmother grew up (isolated Nevada ranch with no running water, indoor plumbing, nor electricity), and remembering the little two-room cottage with a single water spigot in the kitchen and outdoor toilet where my family spent a year in Japan, provides a reality check when I feel a bit picked on by the cosmos.

All of this navel gazing has come about in part because of the 100-degree (F) exterior heat that's characterized the last two months, and that seeps into a wood-frame house with brick cladding and little insulation (and not much we can really do about it). Upgrading heating and cooling sources, and otherwise improving a century-old house built to withstand nineteenth-century temperatures, requires more money (and in some cases, physical effort) than we can expend. So we make do, as inventively as we can, because we chose this house, and love it enough to keep living in it. 

We are deeply aware that there are unimaginable numbers of people in this world, and even in this very state, who are far worse off than we are. And if our meager efforts to make a difference aren't any where near enough, at least they're not nothing.

And maybe, at least for now, that has to be enough.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Summer, Do Your Worst!

These wee wispy things pass for clouds these days

Happy Lammas Day, everyone! 

Although the first of August here in north Texas is only partly about harvesting (I'll have some peppers from the garden, and the last of the tomatoes, tonight in celebration), the need to find something to celebrate rises with the temperature. My antipathy toward Texas is always at its height in summer, and more so this one, during which it looks like we could have weeks of 100ish days before we get a break. 

Lammas Day pretty much marks the true Midsummer, occurring as it does about halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. In Medieval times in Scotland it was called the Gule of August, perhaps from the Latin gule, for throat or gullet, and hence "opening"--but perhaps also, or instead, from associations with gluttony or feasting. My Latin dictionaries don't provide any direct origins, but either might work. In Ireland, it's called Lughnasad, and established by the Celtic god Lugh in honor of his foster mother Tailtiu, who died on August 1. (See the article on for a more complete account.) Robert Burns had his way with Annie on Lammas night (The Rigs O' Barley), so there's that aspect as well. I'm thinking that The Beloved Spouse and I can forgo the French murder mysteries we've become addicted to and instead opt tonight to revisit the 1998 film, Dancing At Lugnasa, which I remember enjoying, and which we have on DVD.

As I write this, I sit at my desk drenched in perspiration. It's "only" 98 outside (on its way to 105), but the humidity (40%) and the dew point (70 F) make it feel like 104 already.  The window air con is set at 78, but there's no real insulation in the walls, so even having all the shades and curtains drawn doesn't help all that much. 

In fact, however, the temperatures here haven't hit much higher than 100 most days, and if I get out in the morning, it can be quite pleasant if there's a breeze. The snug is kept cooled for the Very Large and Very Hairy Dog, and even the heat-tolerant cat has been kipping upstairs where we also keep a unit on all day. She and I spend time up there in the early afternoon, where I read or nap, and she sploots like a squirrel. Except upside down, belly bared. We have another week of this before there's a chance of cooler temperatures and even a bit of rain. I'll believe it when I see it--and may go out and dance a bit to celebrate that.

For anyone who's been wondering about my attempts to save the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies, I've had one success out of two. The first one pupated, but never hatched. The second pupated much later, and hatched after only about 10 days. I was so anxious to free it from the hatchery that I didn't get a photo. Its egg was laid in a pot of parsley, so I was able to keep it fed and sheltered until it created its chrysalis, and then transferred it to the net cage for metamorphosing. Fewer than two weeks later I was checking on the other one when I noticed a fully transformed male butterfly and promptly let him out.  

While all this was going on I was reading Becky Chambers's compelling novella about space travel (To Be Taught if Fortunate) in which she describes the metamorphosis of a moth. Here's a snippet:

It walks and eats and walks and eats and walks and eats, until one day, it stops. It finds a branch or a leaf. It wraps itself in a protective net of protein. And then, improbably: it dissolves. 

The rest is science poetry, and I urge you to read the book.

Caterpiller #2, walking and eating

Our red neon skimmer dragonflies are back, and one is very fond of a long piece of rebar in our raised bed. I got a nice closeup, and now have a five-year collection of portraits. Every year we also harbor a couple of dagger moths (American?) who blend in beautifully with our big pecan trees. It's common for us to walk by without seeing them, and then they flit off to another tree.

Red neon skimmer dragonfly

Some sort of dagger moth

Making sure that there are enough pollen sources, watering holes, and other amenities is a major preoccupation at the Farm during inclement weather of all sorts. Fortunately, there are enough perennials to provide nectar and other food for birds and bugs passing through. I do like how the trumpet vine looks on its trellis, because it provides nutrition for hummingbirds--and ants (which probably get sucked in with nectar by the birds). 

The one disappointment this time of year is ho-hum skies. For days we'll see no clouds at all, which means that sunrises and sunsets don't offer much excitement. But tonight we'll get to enjoy the Full Sturgeon Moon--with a blue supermoon at the end of the month. I probably won't try to get a shot of the Sturgeon moon because it rises rather late for us, and heat-wise it's still in the 90s when we head upstairs. But by the time I'm ready for sleep it should be up, so I should be able to spend a little time gazing at it before I call it quits for Lammas night. 

By the way, the title of this post comes from Dorothy Parker's almost metamorphic (as well as metaphoric) poem, August, with which many of us who get ourselves mixed up with plants can empathize.

Be (and stay) cool, and dance for rain.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

June Daze: Sumer Is Icumin in*

Morning sky, last day of Spring 2023

'Tis really only the last day of spring, and although it's in my nature to celebrate seasonal changes--like tomorrow's solstice--most of what's worth anticipating is a (probably short) respite from the week's long Excessive Heat Warnings we've been living through for much of the month. That and quarter-sized hail and a scary, noisy night last week.

In fact, it hasn't really been all that bad; we've managed to avoid turning on an air conditioner until about 10 am each morning, and we have time to spend out of doors before shutting all the windows and drawing all the blinds and curtains. Even this morning, which required air-con to dispel the absurd humidity in the house at 6 am, gave us cool enough outdoor temperatures to get a few garden chores done. The Beloved Spouse mowed the back green patch, and I got a bit of bronze fennel transplanted into a pot to help keep our one black swallowtail caterpillar alive until he's ready to build his chrysalis. More on that in a bit.

At any rate, it's 90 F ("feels like" 100) now at noon, and we may actually be heading out of the worst of the heat. At least until the week-end, when we'll probably hit a genuine 100-102. So I plan to get out and frolic tomorrow morning when it's only 77; or maybe wait a day until it's down to 73.

So far, for most of the week, I've managed to get out with animals at breakfast and do the crossword, TBS has had some tennis practice, and my one wee beastie of a caterpillar has managed to fatten up on my now-depleted fennel plant without having been lunched upon by cardinals or anoles. This morning I managed to move him onto the newly potted fennel now housed in the butterfly haven I bought a few years ago but haven't yet used. A couple of days previously I had enveloped him in a mesh bag, but his new quarters are portable and there's much more food:

Black Swallowtail caterpillar in mesh bag shelter

New digs; note eggs above stick

Stick on left, caterpillar on right; not sure where the eggs are

What I didn't know until a few minutes ago, was that before I'd made off with the bronze fennel planted in another part of the garden, eggs had been laid on it! They look like more black swallowtail ova, and as a species they are fond of fennel, so we'll see. This does mean that if they hatch, I'll need to find some more fennel. 

The Canadian wildfire haze did get down to us, but blew away quickly. Still, those ominous photos of orange skies in New York City were rather too close to those depicted in the Apple+ series I mentioned last month (Extrapolations). An article in the New York Times this morning by Paul Bogard, "We're Watching the Sky as We Know It Disappear," noted the recent wildfire smoke in the Minnesota Lake Country, lamented the changes we're all beginning to notice. Bogart edited Solastalgia: An Anthology of Emotion in a Disappearing World, which is high on my reading list. I first learned the term, "solastalgia" from an entry in Climate Words. Coined by Aussie philosopher Glenn Albrecht, it's used "to describe the feelings of anxiety and sorrow that follow immediate impacts to our environments." "Algia" comes from the Greek for "pain" (algos). Although we use it today mostly to refer to body-related pain (e. g. neuralgia), to Homer it was more akin to suffering, as in grief. The "solas" part is from Latin: solacium (comfort, as in solace). The etymology of most neologisms can be problematic, but this one seems to offer hope in context. But the notion of being unsettled, sad, even angry about climate change--especially if we're aware of it and seem to be pretty powerless to stem the rate of change or to mitigate it, is hard to live with.

Maybe that's why I derive such satisfaction from figuring out how to save a (potential) butterfly, or re-wild some of my little yard. The bunnies and the 'possums may not all make it, but maybe some of them will. And even though the cardinals and anoles may be deprived of a fat larval form of butterfly (or more!), there are plenty of mosquitoes and other varieties of bird and reptile noshes available.

And maybe that's why I've been so heartened in the last couple of days to see articles in the Daily Poop* about regenerative farming and family farms in general. Today's front page featured an article on agritourism and soil replenishment: "Farmers market of agritourism? One is 'like buying local on steroids,' farmer says; reducing tillage and increasing soil organic matter are part of regenerative agriculture." On Friday, along with my delivery from Profound Foods, I found the latest issue of Edible: Dallas Fort Worth. In addition to its usual fare (ahem), there is a lovely article about Sister Grove Farm. The owners, Sarah and Rodney Macias, bought a plot of historic Texas farmland in 2016 and have turned it into a working farm and a retreat that fosters responsible living on the land. She quotes people I already love (Robin Wall Kimmerer and Wendell Berry), and the way of life they've made for themselves near Van Alstyne is truly inspiring. 

It does seem that every time I get all grumpy and pessimistic, a few items pop up here and there that lift me up a little, and give me time to reflect on the fact that 1) I'm not dead yet (again; I'll write about that later) and 2) I have a pretty damned good life, all things considered.

Like nostalgia--the combination of sweetness and sadness about home enmeshed in memory--perhaps learning to understand how solastalgia fits into this new world can help us negotiate new ways of approaching modern problems that promise some hope for what comes next.

Happy summer, People. Lhude sing cuccu!***


*On the Canon quoted in my title (Sumer is icumen in): this is a lovely Medieval English song for several voices to be sung in a round. The author(s) are unknown, but may be either W. de Wycombe or John of Fornsete. For an image of the manuscript, its history, the words (both original Middle English and in translation), see the Wikipedia page linked. This is a wonderful poem to read, or song to listen to, on the Summer solstice.

**My irreverent nickname for The Dallas Morning News, to which we subscribe and which we read daily.

***"Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu! (Summer has come in, Loudly sing, Cuckoo!)

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Earth Day 2023: Being In Time

Our resident anole, Harry, and friend celebrating Earth Day
Ever since the first April of this blog (which began in June of 2007, so my first Earth Day post didn't happen until the following year), I've made sure to acknowledge the only holiday I'm particularly religious about. I'm tardy getting at it this year, having been distracted by all manner of converging events, so I don't have anything prepared, mused over, and edited in advance. Given the longish passage of time, I though it might be interesting to look back at some of my older posts to see what I've managed so far.

My very first actual Earth Day post in 2008 focused on an increasingly worrying aspect of US political economy: Plutocracy, or rule by and for the wealthy--and the dystopian effects that stem from it. The post was called "Surviving Plutopia," and touches on a topic near and dear to those of us who survived "Snowmageddon" in 2021:

Only by adjusting our own perceptions of "need" vs. "want" can we begin to understand the true nature of poverty. And I am getting sick to death of pundits who describe anyone who lacks electricity as "living in abject poverty." (For my perspective on the larger questions, see "Rethinking What it Means to be Wealthy" and "Rethinking What It Means to be Poor.") The line usually runs something like "They're so poor they don't even have electricity"--as if this particular technology is necessary to the very notion of civilization. But it's not. It's perfectly possible for people to work the land, provide sufficient food and clothing for themselves, and dwell in thriving communities without ever having seen a light bulb!

Of course it was naive (and actually rather cruel) of me to negate the necessity of something so foundational to our concept of civilization, and this became painfully apparent when we found ourselves bundling into the upstairs bedroom where we had access to a gas heater, and a portable power station to which we could hook up a fan to blow the heat in. The fireplace worked well enough downstairs, but after the disaster was over, we had it cleaned out (it was probably on the verge of burning the place down) and replaced by a log-burner that's far more efficient and uses up the voluminous trimmings from our many trees. What I began to understand then was that if you think it's possible to live without electricity, you have to design an economy that can function without it. If everything depends on it, no one can afford to lose it. This has led to a radical re-thinking of More News From Nowhere (which is being revised and is no longer linked). But, my concept of utopia starts with leaving the electricity out--not cutting it off because of bad design and corporate greed.

From "Nature Red In Beak and Claw" (2010): 

Over the next decade, and ten more Earth Days, we'll inevitably be visited with typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis, tornadoes, volcanoes--everything Mom can throw at us while her internal processes are at work. How these "disasters" affect the denizens of this planet will increasingly depend on how human beings manage what's actually within our power.

Thirteen years later, we've been visited by more, and more lethal natural phenomena--most of which Kim Stanley Robinson has dealt with so eloquently in his The Ministry For The Future (2020). The first chapter haunted me for weeks--especially during the reportage about atmospheric rivers along the west coast of the United States, and heat waves on the Indian subcontinent. More recently, we've been watching Apple+ TV's streaming series, Extrapolations. It's terribly sad, in many ways--and we won't be watching the final episode until tonight--but just as Robinson's book offers a slightly optimistic prospect, each of the episodes so far has ended with a tiny hint that something better might happen. Someday.

In 2013 we had begun rehabbing the house, taking stock, and making plans. I didn't know it then, but retirement (for me) wasn't that far off; even then, though, we were already resigning ourselves to staying put, and taking "Small Steps."

If I've learned anything over the years, it's that we can't really afford to lose our focus on what needs to be done, and I'm occasionally heartened by the fact that [Earth Day] celebrants are no longer just cranky old folks like myself, but a include a much broader spectrum of citizens.  I don't actually go out and march or dance in the street anymore, but I do spend time out on the property, taking inventory, and reflecting over the past year.  This time, the view from the back yard toward the house is far more pleasant than it used to be, thanks to some major renovations last summer.  New paint, a new bathroom and work on the old one (including new, very low-flow toilets), R50 cotton insulation in the attic, and solar screening will make the coming summer more livable.  Plans for a geothermal heating and cooling system had to be abandoned because the cost would have made the rest impossible. But our energy bills are fairly low anyway, and we bought a portable air conditioner that works more efficiently than our old window unit. The attic fans have been repaired, which will double the air flow through the house, so our bills will probably be even lower, and our power use reduced even more.

The following decade has seen us weaning ourselves away from the academic life, becoming occasional caravaners to the west (first in our little imitation Shasta Airflyte, Lola, and later in our more substantial Whitewater Retro, Porco Rosso), and downsizing our load of life's detritus. We've established habits much more in tune with lowering impact--such buying only what new stuff we need to further our transition toward far less dependency on fossil fuels. A newer, bigger Bluetti power station enhances what we already had, and will get us through the next stupid Texas power grid failure--as well as make it possible to camp off grid on our trips west, as well as to the few remote public campsites available in Texas. In 2018 I posted on "Doing More, And Less":

Our best effort this year has been to eliminate food waste. The smaller fridge has been wonderful for keeping us both aware of what needs using up, and we've had little except pits, skins, seeds, and coffee grounds to pitch into the compost bin. Even the skins and coffee grounds we often use for augmenting garden plantings. In the last year, only one or two things in the fridge have gone off before they were eaten, and at some point I'm wondering where our compost is going to come from, since we mulch our grass and rake leaves into litter piles to make soil.

On March 13, 2020, the world closed down for COVID, just as I was having one of my original bypasses (from the CABG I had in 1995) stented. On that Friday the 13th I had the procedure, and I was back in the blogosphere reflecting on a recent camping trip and musing about the future a week later in "A Different World": 

Celebrating Earth Day this year is fraught with all of the political, economic, and cultural ramifications of a pandemic that few people seem to understand fully, and too many seem to be unable to accept as real and really problematic. We've only been hunkered down for about six weeks, the total number of infected people is largely unknown, the means to combat the virus itself are not imminent, and this country is flying blind into the future. 

Oddly enough, the environment is faring better as we become sicker. Air pollution is down, water is cleaner in some areas, and fewer animals are dying on highways. Not coincidentally, fewer humans are being maimed and killed in automobile accidents. I'm hesitant to call this a "silver lining" because so very many people are suffering so badly. But as I think through the possibilities of long-term effects, I can't help but wonder how our modern, technological, "efficient," wasteful, cruel (to the animals whose "products" we consume, and all too often to other people), growth-obsessed, and greedy culture might change as a result of being locked down.
Might we learn to do with less stuff, eat more nutritious food from more local sources, live more kindly, drive less, find ways to live without fossil fuels, and take better care of ourselves, our children, and our neighbors?

I almost have to laugh in retrospect, at further evidence of my naivete. Since that post, way too many people have become crazier, stupider, and meaner. Who among us relatively sane people could have imagined the bizarre backlash against life-saving vaccines? Small signs of normality seem to emerge occasionally, but not nearly as many as we need. Because of this, our little farm has become more and more of a sanctuary.

I've been in the garden more regularly, and since Spring hasn't managed to morph into summer as quickly as it has in the last couple of years, there are tomatoes (large Costco transplants, not from seed) getting ready to ripen, peppers flowering, and herbs abundantly proliferating. I've been rooting ends of celery and lettuce, planting sprouted onions, and pulling wild onion/garlic scapes from the iris bed to put into salsa and salads. One of the most impactful consequences of the Plague is that we've been getting a good portion of our food delivered from a co-op that either grows its own or obtains its products from local farms and ranches. The upshot is that we're able to eat much more sustainably, and even though we're eating much less meat, we're getting it from humanely raised animals. We've cut our deliveries down to every two weeks, but still buy about as much food and have the opportunity to donate to a project for single mothers and their kids, and to support our local farms--many of which are starting to use permaculture and regenerative grazing. 

In the past couple of years we've also managed to build up a wildlife habitat behind the garage, where we hope bunnies and such can find refuge. They'll need it, because a fox has moved into a vacant lot across the back alley, and has already reduced the rabbit population by at least one. We've seen a mother 'possum carrying joeys across the front yard, so the wee beasties seem to be finding some places to shelter themselves. 

The weather's still cool, we've been spared most of the nasty storms that have moved east to demolish parts of Arkansas and Alabama, and it's rained enough so that the drought has been staved off for a bit. And so, it seems, we actually have an Earth Day to celebrate. We'll be watching the last episode of Extrapolations, having not been put off by critics who call it "ponderous" and "slow" and whatever adjectives folks are using these days to describe anything that's not mindless, action-packed and involving car chases. I'm waiting for that little hint of hope that occasionally shows up in stories that project our future, however long that turns out to be. Time is the medium in which we live, and it frames everything. The projections of the not-too-distant future that Scott Z. Burns shows us are not inevitable. "Spending" the time we have more wisely could offer at least some of the possibilities Kim Stanley Robinson imagines for us.

And yes, I fervently hope that Ukraine survives, that ways to solve problems amicably emerge, and that we figure out how not to destroy this rather lovely and possibly truly unique spot in the vastness of the universe. In my lifetime? Maybe by next year? 


Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Attending to the Garden: Musings on the Coming of Spring

Yesterday morning I spent rather a long time doing something I had wanted to get at for years: transplanting a clump of wild gladiolus--the scions of a single plant I found under the nandina shrubs on the north side of the property in the first spring after we moved into the house.

I don't think I actually planted them in this spot, but thanks to our furry denizens (some of whom later nearly destroyed the entire patch after developing a taste for the bulbs) some ended up next to the sidewalk that extends from our back door to form a large square area within which a brick patio and our greenhouse have been erected. After said near-extinction, I thought I'd lost them again after the deep freeze in February of 2021, but they're incredibly hardy and keep coming back no matter what happens.

The wild gladioli in May of 2021(lower right)--after Snowmageddon 

Unfortunately, their growth had been so exuberant that they had obscured a large part of the sidewalk. I had thought for several years that they needed to be dug up and transplanted, and some lower-growing replacement needed to be found.

On a whim, I got out my garden/archaeology tools (my old Marshalltown mason's trowel and a soil screener), as well as my spading fork, a couple of nippers, a large rusty iron nail, a little Japanese twig saw, and a foam pad for kneeling), and went to work. This was probably not a great idea, given my current age-related joint problems, but the weather is warming up and I wanted to take advantage of the temperatures (in the high 60s yesterday, and 80s today). Indeed, I was rather sore by the time I had enough of the job done to quit for the day, but enjoyed the work--even though it turned out to be more arduous than I had expected. And I broke my spading fork. After that, I had to use a regular spade--pictured below, along with some of the other tools and my assistant, Molly.

It turns out that the bulbs had multiplied and bunched up right next to the concrete sidewalk, some even burrowing a bit under the three-inch slabs. I ended up using the trowel not so much as a digging tool, but as an excavator--taking me back to my days in the Long Island Pine Barrens, working on a site where some "Pineys" (itinerant travelers) had camped. A paint brush would have helped, but I was down on all fours and I was saving the effort of getting up until I was finished. In the end, some three hours after I'd started, I had unearthed the clump's components, laid them in the soil screen, piled leaves on top of them, and dowsed them with water to keep them from drying out overnight.This morning I performed bulb-triage, and divided the crop into bulbs-only, bulbs-with-short-leaves, large-bulbs-with-long-leaves, and little-tiny-bulbs-with-iffy-stems-and-leaves, and bits to be composted. I found places to plant all but the LBWLL group, and they'll have to be protected again tonight. They'll go into the front border and a little swath of border next to the porte-cochere, where a few canna lilies and volunteer wild onions have found a home. But that's for tomorrow.

The weather, after some very cold spurts, quite a bit of rain, an ice storm (which affected us very little), is now tempering out. The skies have been lovely, with evidence of the winds that we have grown to expect as we head to spring (now only a month away).

These days, when not scruffing about in the clay, I spend time musing on mortality, as one does when confronted with the brevity of existence. We've lost two close friends within the last couple of months, and I came into the house yesterday to the news of President Carter's entering into hospice, and President Biden's trip to Kiev on the first anniversary of that needless, wasteful war in Ukraine. The recent earthquake in Turkey brings back memories of much less violent events in my childhood, but stories that have emerged from that catastrophe are both horrifying and heartening.

I'm especially moved by Jimmy Carter's choice to forego further hospitalization and to end his long and inspiring life at home. This was a choice my own father made, when his thyroid cancer could no longer be treated effectively. I have been grateful ever since that my children and I got to see him in his own den, next to his ham radio setup, surrounded by books he loved and the family that cherished him. I wish everyone could come to the end of their lives in peace and relative comfort. For those who face war and disaster, there's little any of us can do but to support efforts to relieve some of the anguish. It feels incredibly inadequate, but it is something. And so is remembering them, and finding ways to end political violence and to mitigate natural disasters by building better and safer places to live.

As we move from one season to another, my natural pessimism fades a bit. Things really could be worse, and attending to the accidental garden provides some equilibrium, at least for a time. But now I think I'll go and enjoy the company of The Beloved Spouse and our "daemons" (in Philip Pullman's usage). The rest of the transplanting can wait until tomorrow. 

End note: The Marshalltown trowel link included above is to a post on Owl's Cabinet of Wonders, from my MOOC period of existence, nearly a decade ago. I truly enjoyed the online courses offered through Coursera and other venues, and am glad I had the foresight to include some of the materials in the blogs. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Welcome, Year of the Bunny!

One might have expected, given this sunrise on the last day of the Gregorian year 2022, that the new year might bring dramatic events. And in view of current news, it seems already to have done so. But since many of my formative years were spent in Asia, I developed a particular fondness for the Lunar New Year as celebrated in Taiwan and Japan. I tend to save any resolutions and reflections involving new beginnings until Chinese New Year, and this one has brought my favorite: the Year of the Rabbit, beginning on January 22. 

What I hope for in this new year might better be suggested by this view:

Or this:

When I was ten, we lived in Taipei, and I was pretty much a free-range child--allowed to go about the city with my friends, walking or using public transport and pedicabs to get around. We lived on Chung Shan Pei Lu, one of the main drags then, not far from a club frequented by GIs from various US services.  I passed it with a friend on my way home, just as a young serviceman and his pal came out. At the same time, a local fellow selling pets from a bicycle stopped to let us admire his wares. One of these was a small white rabbit, and I asked to hold it. The GI, who was maybe eighteen, said I reminded him of his sister, and asked if he could buy the rabbit for me. Being a trusting sort of person, and inordinately fond of small, furry creatures, I let him. My friend and I took the rabbit home, where he was promptly accepted by my family and named "Harry"--after the rabbit in Jerry Lewis's best film ever, Geisha Boy.

Rabbits, in the Chinese Zodiac, symbolize many traits I admire: peace, tranquility, empathy, rest, intellect, reserve. This year's element is water, which lends a Taoist/Heraclitian sense of process, flow, and reflection. The last Water Rabbit year I actually celebrated, 1963, occurred during my first full year back in the US, and was spent mostly with my Grandmother, who was the calmest, wisest woman I have ever known. But because I was fifteen, the year was characterized more by self-absorption than self-reflection; still, it was also a watershed year for a newly repatriated child on a new path toward womanhood.

In the sixty years between then and now, I've grown up, raised two children, outlived almost everyone in my immediate genetic family, survived numerous life-threatening events, and have finally learned to appreciate rest.

Several years ago, I discovered the quirky, smart, amusing, and informative British journal, The Idler. I subscribed for a while, but only resumed regular readership after I retired. Editor Tom Hodgkinson and his gang espouse a life of enjoyable work tempered by repose. The bi-monthly journal promotes philosophical thinking, artful leisure, and eschews soul-destroying capitalist ideas like constant, unrelenting work. Meaningful work, like husbandry, craft, writing, learning, teaching, music-making, and the like lie at the core of genuine idleness. Resting because you're exhausted by 9 to 5 life is not being idle--it's trying to stay alive.

I suppose that one reason I originally wanted to become a teacher was that it would allow me to read and write, with time off to pursue interesting projects. And so it did, to some extent. But it was still exhausting and, in the end, much less satisfying than it had been in the beginning. When the opportunity came to retire with a nice severance package and a bonus, I took it. Within a couple of years The Beloved Spouse followed me out into the Happy Land of Idleness, where we (mostly) toil not, but reap peace and quiet. We made it through the Plague without catching it, and have kept enjoying our hermetic existence ever since.

As read through the New York Times these days, I notice articles focused on "laziness." The most beautiful of these is Elliot Kukla's "The Most Valuable Thing I Can Teach My Child is How to be Lazy" (Jan. 2022), a paean to quietude, warmth, and parental love. But the numbers of essays on "quiet quitting," resignation, laziness, work as a false idol, four-day (and fewer) work weeks, and the existential price of the American "work ethic" are piling up. They're also pretty compelling, after three years of hearing how well some people adapted to working at home, at their own pace, and accomplishing more.

This certainly hasn't happened for everyone, but I do hear frequently about people who, after the lockdown experience, have learned that they can make do on much less income, have become better, more frugal cooks because of inflation, and don't feel the need to go out to dinner, visit bars, go to theaters, or take expensive vacations. 

I've argued for many years, here and in other venues, that in order to save our planet for future generations, we really must learn to do with much less. My own life has become a long-term experiment in frugality, wastelessness, energy management, and designing a revised vision of political economy, and we have both been thriving in the effort.

Despite all of the bad news that has occurred in the first month of the Gregorian year, my only resolution stems from the character of "rabbitness" that flows out of the notion of the water rabbit.  If we could only slow down, stop striving for monetary wealth, become more empathic and tolerant, learn to want less and to place need before desire, perhaps we can effect more positive changes. I'm not convinced that doing so will change anybody's mind that's already mired in modernity, but becoming more bunny-esque seems a laudable--and attainable--goal for a newly-minted seventy-five year-old. 

I haven't seen our own resident rabbits this year, but expect to come upon them, emerging from the habitats we've been fostering for them. If we get the real snow (not just sleet) the weather-folk keep promising us, I expect to see a few bunny tracks when next I venture out into the Accidental Garden.

Happy New Year(s) everyone!