Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rain, rain, go away

At 9 this morning, I was sitting at a desk in the basement room where I've been staying and killing an hour on the interwebs. At 10, I was going to watch a couple hours of the new National Geographic Wild station--a couple hours based in Yellowstone, one on bison, one on grizzlies. I was idly tapping my feet when I realized they were splashing.

Thus began 12 hours of mopping, water vacuuming, towel sopping and wringing, bucket filling, hauling, and dumping, and moving my boxes of books first to a different spot on the floor and then to piles on the bed and anywhere else I could find room.

This is our second once in a lifetime rainstorm this month sandwiching another pretty good one in between. By several inches, this is the wettest March Boston has ever had, and the second wettest month ever (apparently, the wettest month, an August 55 years ago, had some typhoons or hurricanes or something).

From the first splash, knowing the weather forecast, I knew it was a lost cause but what can you do but hold it off as long as you can. And for a while, we did. It was about 1:00 before it really started to take steady work to hold the water away from the rug in the center of the room. At 2:30 one of the water vacuum motors died in a puff of smoke and the game was over. Even with it, it would only have been a matter of time as more and more water started coming from more and more places. So we kept on for as long as we could, long after the heaviest of the rain had stopped falling from the sky and started moving through the ground. I don't know how many hundreds of gallons of water we dumped down the toilet today, but it seemed like it could have ended a drought somewhere. For most of the day, the water on the floor was less than an inch deep but we eventually gave up the losing battle and I just waded through a couple cold inches after taking a shower. I've moved up a floor for the night and tomorrow professional machinery comes to suck up whatever's there by then.

Oh, my aching back. I hope those Yellowstone shows get repeated again. I had a ride tomorrow to retreat to the monastery for a few hours to take some photos but it seems unlikely I'll be able to take advantage of that now. Too bad, I'm sure there will be some more interesting water flowing there.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pointy Purple Protuberances

Early this morning, I went to worship at the Wetland. There are times in life when it can be hard to find your way.

The world is filled with beauty and trash.

You have to find a place to make your stand.

Make your stand with those you love.

Oh, de skunk was in de air as the congregation danced!

I didn't get a good photo of him, but the Cardinal led us in a chorus of Symplocarpus foetidus while the Woodpecker drummed an accompaniment.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Getting Stranger

It's getting stranger all the time. First we got two months of rain in three days, up to 10 inches in the area. Then we had three days of about 70 degrees, followed by another two inches of rain. Yesterday, I seemed to get hit by a spring allergy while walking in the woods, and later had to pull off a tick. Today, while out walking between some snowflakes, I saw a squirrel eating McDonald's french fries by the side of the road. Those things'll kill ya!

Yesterday's walk was intended as a combination test of the new camera and
the new boots. Unfortunately, getting to the local natural areas requires me to walk about 3 miles on sidewalks first, and while lovely little spots, they're really not spectacular enough to merit the walk. Especially when the world still seems to consist primarily of last year's oak leaves.

Still, I do love water.

It's going to take me a while to get used to the profligacy of digital photography. Rather than trying to zoom in on that tiny white spot at the far end of the pond, and hold my hands steady, and wait for the swan to turn just right, and then frame it just right, I should just change a setting, point in the general direction, and let the thing take ten shots by itself. Then there might have been a better photo than anything I took.

I couldn't find any flowers, but I wanted to try the macro setting so I pointed it here.

I came here looking for turtles, but didn't find any.

I wanted to take some skunk cabbage photos, but by the time I got there I was sneezing a lot and ready to call it a day. And my cabbage patch is in an unusual location. It's a lovely little wetland, but it's not hidden in the woods--it's right in front of the high school! Long-haired greybeards such as myself, when near a school, are often assumed to be eager to sell something or molest someone, and since I've never lived anywhere with as many police cars constantly cruising the streets, it's best to wait til school's not in session. I'll try to get messy this weekend.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Big Dog (And Other Critters)

This is what happens when I get convenient internet and a camera at the same time--three posts in one day. I'll do a hike tomorrow to start really experimenting with the camera but after learning menus and settings and symbols all morning, I had to try a couple shots. This is the Big Dog.

He didn't seem too excited about having his picture taken and started barking at me moments after that shot. So I waited until he was far away before I tried again.

Here's a lovely quote from a developer upset that trespassing neighbors delayed his plans by finding a protected salamander on his property. “If you trespass on my property to do harm, that’s no different than if you trespass on someone’s property to rape them.’’ Yep, same thing, alright--interfering with profit, and rape.

Here are some other critters who interfered with developers.



Today's Boston Globe has a few vegan related articles and recipes, including a review of The Pulse Cafe where I'll head for lunch (barbecued seitan with mashed sweet potatoes and garlic collards sounds tempting) the next time I'm in the city. There's also an article about how macho men can be vegans too; it's not just for "yuppie, tree-hugging, emaciated weaklings" like me anymore.

Today's Quote: Economic Development

"... in many small towns, economic-development planning means laying some sewer in an empty field at the edge of town, putting up a sign along the highway that says Mudville: A Friendly Place To Grow, and sending off one of the old boys to a nearby city to look for a manufacturer thinking about expansion--if it can get twenty years of tax breaks, subsidized utility rates, maybe a free building, and a ready supply of workers who would rather die than join a union and who are hungry enough to work at subsistence wages."

Paul Gruchow, Grass Roots

Saturday, March 20, 2010

12 x 12 > 350

You math majors out there can relax; the title reflects my preference between two forthcoming books: Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream by William Powers and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. The 350 figure comes from McKibben's book and refers to parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--350 being what's now considered the maximum safe level for life as we've known it. Historically, the average was 275; the current number is 390.

Although I’m in complete agreement with Bill McKibben that we are at the end of our old way of life and find the future he imagines in his new book appealing (a chosen and planned gradual change in our way of life to smaller, more local, more people working on farms, and he's keeping the internet in part because of the negative aspects of small town life), I believe that future is a fairy tale and that his book is of little value.

The first half of the book amounts to this percent, that fraction, some year, some place, another measurement of volume, height, area, money, population. Meant to incite to action, I found it tedious but then, I’ve never been interested in this kind of homocentric environmentalism. The self-centered world view it demonstrates is the exact cause of the problems it worries about. What interested me in this part of the book were the brief mentions of ecological changes occurring due to rising temperatures—trees dying because of insects surviving warmer winters, mosquitoes spreading dengue fever farther and more frequently as the incubation period of the virus decreases, etc.

Frankly, those of us who’ve benefited from industrialism deserve whatever fate befalls us. It’s a shame that we’re going to make the have-not humans of the world suffer even more, but their deprivation has always been a consequence of our greed and few of us have given up our toys or offered to change places with them for a few years in the name of fairness. The human populations of both the haves and the have-nots must decline; my sympathy lies with the non-humans we're driving to extinction.

McKibben’s analysis of the Carter--Reagan election and its effects is good but although he writes of Reagan’s optimism as being the problem, he commits the same error in this book. He writes off those predicting collapse, not because he thinks they’re wrong or because collapse is impossible (in fact he provides several reasons that it’s likely), but because he sees them as being unwilling to accept other possibilities. To me, the problem is just the opposite—folks like McKibben aren’t willing to face the facts.

History is filled with civilizations which disappeared but McKibben prefers to imagine that we will voluntarily choose to make a gradual change to a simpler way of life. Are there any examples of a civilization doing that in history? If there were, I'd think they'd be mentioned in this book. This is not to say that some of us aren’t already living a very different way of life or that the examples he gives aren’t admirable, but to imagine that U.S. society as a whole is going to turn smoothly and peacefully away from consumerism and economic growth and urban life is simply ludicrous.

Perhaps the author has spent so much time with people who share his concerns, he’s forgotten the half of the country who don’t believe climate change even exists, much less be willing to change their lives to limit it. In a Gallup poll this month, 50% believe that global warming is occurring and is due to human activity but 48% think its seriousness is exaggerated and 67% don’t think it will cause a serious threat to them or their way of life. When the results are compared to Gallup's previous polls, all percentages are trending away from a concern with the issue. Denial is much easier than change, or maybe they know something Nobel winner Steven Chu didn’t know when he suggested last year that the end of the Sierra snowpack could wipe out not only California agriculture but cities as well.

McKibben uses, as he has before, part of a frightening old quote from Obama’s chief economic advisor Larry Summers: “The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error, and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.” It seems to me there have been some staggering social costs to not recognizing limits, but I don’t think Summers needs to worry that those in power will ever advocate limiting “growth”. They will instead try (and in fact already are trying) to cling as long as possible to attempts to revive the old way of life, ignoring the social, financial, and ecological costs of their desperate attempts.

William Powers is a fan of Bill McKibben's books and his book is certainly in line with the future McKibben proposed--smaller, slower, local, etc. But Powers writes in a more personal, psychological, and philosophical style which made his ideas more interesting to me. The title and subtitle of his book might be considered misleading by some readers. Put the emphasis on the "Beyond the American Dream" phrase because the book is less about the specifics of the author's forty days in a small cabin than it is an examination of how one chooses to live.

The repeated question we're asked to consider is "What is the shape of the world?". Is it a flat uniform world of humans, money, and possessions, or a round world which includes a richer, varied life beyond and within us? Is it hard and rushed, or soft and idle? How does one want to live, and how does one do it within a culture which is the very antithesis of that way of life?

More anecdotal than linear, the book includes stories from the lives of many people who live near the cabin (I wished there had been more about the woman who actually lived there and was allowing the author to stay there while she was away), as well as stories from other times and places in the author's life. The appendix includes some suggestions for further exploration; most interesting to me were websites providing opportunities for couch-surfing or to work on organic farms.

There were times when I completely loved this book, sharing the author's alienation from mainstream U.S. life; at other times, I felt annoyed by his choices including an inconsistent attitude toward animals, and a New Agish spirituality which at one point he acknowledges is difficult to explain. Most annoying is that we never learn what results from the appearance of a bulldozer late in the book.

Given that names of people and places have been changed, and that some supposed events seem more-than-a-little too pat metaphors (watch for cocoons, for example), I admit to wondering if all this actually happened or if it's fiction. Hey, Carlos Castaneda even gets mentioned. Regardless of that and my occasional irritation, my copy is heavily marked and I believe I'll reread it, because I found it much more thought-provoking than most books.

Reading these books in succession, a couple things stood out to me. Both of these advocates for small and local write about their experiences around the world. Powers at least refers to it as a catch-22; McKibben doesn't address the dichotomy between his theory and practice.

And both make passing reference to vegetarianism: McKibben--"It takes eleven times as much fossil fuel to raise a pound of animal protein as a pound of plant protein, which means we'd be wise either to turn vegetarian or to take a Chinese cooking lesson." No sign of compassion there, but at least he's an environmentalist who doesn't hide the fact. Powers--"And if I couldn't kill a chicken, perhaps the only honest response was to become a vegetarian." There's the acknowledgment of the morality involved, but unfortunately he doesn't become honest.

But later, there's this from Powers, and how can I resist? "My time in the 12 x 12 was like an internship with Thoreau. . . . I Felt the presence of Aldo Leopold, John Muir, John James Audubon, Loren Eiseley, and Ed Abbey, all earth mentors. Imagining those mentors by our side improves the quality of our connection with nature."

So to sum up, if you're looking for a recap of currently occurring changes and a feel-good vision of the future, Eaarth might be for you; if you want to be provoked into thinking about your own life, step into the Twelve by Twelve. There's nothing gross about it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Just Saying Hello

I'm busy with lots of necessary and costly preparations for the big change coming in a couple months and not really doing much day to day nature hiking. I did take my usual notice of skunk cabbage this morning, but I'm occupied mostly with technology--trying to figure out my first laptop and just ordered my first digital camera to go with it--and shopping, which is one of the activities I most loathe in life, and trying to get various body parts in better health before I leave modern medicine behind. I still have never used a cell phone however, and haven't driven a car in 25 years or so, and assure you that I'm still a simple Luddite (in the generally misunderstood sense) at heart.

I wanted to point you to the March issue of National Geographic which has a cover story on wolves expanding their ranges from their Yellowstone reintroduction sites. It includes a map of pack locations so I'll know who I'm looking at. There are some great photos and one quite sad one, as well as artwork showing the positive ecological effects of wolf reintroduction. (And on the wolf subject, this season's Isle Royale wolf study just ended so go over there and read about Romeo's adventures.) NG also has some enticing photos of carniverous plants--if they were big enough, I'd probably be digested by now.

I've also been seeing lots of articles about Eastern Coyotes (the result of breeding between wolves and those little Western Coyotes) which some folks want to rename as a new kind of critter. I got a brief glimpse of one running on the other side of the railroad tracks at Walden Pond this fall (part of that long post which the evil technology lords destroyed before you saw it) and was mightily impressed.

And finally, for some new Yellowstone winter photos including the falls I'll be hearing in my room, be sure to check out the latest from Robyn in Yellowstone. I can't begin to express how much I'd love to be there amid all that winter snow, but with luck I'll get the chance in a future winter before the area becomes tropical.

At some point soon, a commentary on the latest books from Bill McKibben and William Powers. Enjoy the rest of your winter, if you have any.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Marching in, like, a line, you know?

Yesterday I tossed a handful of bread and hundreds of gulls appeared, some hovering around me, others on the ground looking up at me; I tossed more manna into the air, lost in a white whirlwind. I felt happier and more connected than when in the company of the driving rats.

I watched a perched red-tailed hawk being harassed by a blue jay until she became sick of it, and my presence as well, I suppose, and flew to the other side of the river. The bikeway I walk is a rare above-water land beside the wider faster river, with water now on both sides, tall trees rooted in a couple feet of water, a side trail which led to land now disappears in water, raging white where humans tried to control it, channel it. I sat on a bench eating my lunch, watching geese and ducks fly just above the surface, a watery side street become an interstate, ever more geese, always more ducks, fly faster, faster, get in formation.

A couple days of nonstop rain flooded the area of the monastery land I had expected would flood, and more as well. One trail was a dead end, taken out by water, deep and wide. I looked in vain for skunk cabbage poking through. I've seen a couple chipmunks in recent days, a respite from the grey squirrels, tinier tracks in the morning snow, following a rabbit down the hole.

Today, or soon, will be my last day of the monastic life. I've been living in my grandfather's increasingly empty house for the three weeks since his death, through the repaintings and the disposals, shifting from room to room, bunking in chairs, on floors, sometimes both in the same night. Having shared the last six weeks of his life in that house, the end of almost sixty years there for him, it has felt like a quick destruction of his life to me. All those items precious to us don't long outlast us. It's now time for me to move out, meaning I won't be able to explore those two nature areas as much as I'd hoped.

Time to start preparing for my next stage. My first laptop will ship this week, I'll be seeking camera recommendations to go along with Consumer Reports ratings, looking for required work shoes and new hiking boots in case Allan honors me with 1 of his 365. Time to update the eyes and mouth before heading into the hills. Big hills, a mile and a half high. I'll have to make an altitude adjustment, something many "normal" people have long said I needed. Oh, wait, that was attitude. Well, kiss my Alps.

It's been a good month for me in the free Amazon Vine books aspect of life. I just finished an advance copy of Twelve by Twelve by William Powers which at times I loved, and at times felt annoyed by. It's less about actually living in a 12" X 12" cabin (where he's just a summer subletter, not the more interesting actual resident) than about the shape of the world we want to live in--flat or round. I still have to write a review so perhaps I'll have more to say another time. And Bill McKibben's newest, the similarly themed Eaarth:Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, is on the way to me, along with Cha Dao: The Way of Tea.

I've done some spring cleaning on the blog, separating the blogs from the websites and the blogs which don't feed my roll correctly. All of the animal sanctuary and wildlife rehab sites are still there, but are spread out now. Some of the new additions include the Duluth Canal Cam for another Superior sunrise, a few sites of opportunities to work on organic farms for room, board, and or cash (perhaps my next adventure), and a couple more on the collapsing industrialism theme. How high's the water, Mama?