Sunday, May 18, 2014

Not dead yet!


Hi, guys.  I haven't forgotten you.  Just busy; and boy is it hard to find non-depressing stuff to write about these days.  Which, since we are bombarded with new depressing stuff daily, I'd rather not add to.

I am still active in various ways, when I see something I can tackle; and I thought you'd be interested in seeing this one.  Which is; actually, about someone special who is NOT not dead yet.

You may remember that I had the top comment on the NYT when Norman Borlaug passed away- another huge scientist just passed, and the NYT gave him top coverage; for hours, he was the top feature on the paper, front page, center, "above the fold", or above the scroll, these days.  But unlike Borlaug, who thousands knew of; almost no one knew of Dr. Snow.  But he was so important; and a shining light for anyone hoping to be a good human being.

Here's my comment.  Read his obit; it's worth it.  And how very odd this post should come right after one about bones.  Ever watch "Bones" on TV?  Or any of the dozen like it- or read any of the novels on forensic anthropologists?  With maybe 2 others, he created the entire field.  And, he was a good man; a good human.  I have vague fantasies that someone might read my comment- and be moved to act on it.  Not impossible, right?

Hang in there.  Keep your sleeves rolled up.



Sunday, March 2, 2014

Burning my old friend's bones.


A year ago, at the end of that exceptionally hot, dry, summer, I lost a very old friend.

This friend was someone I'd watched, walked beside, touched, admired, and cheered for, for decades.

She was a very large, strong, and beautiful red elm.  I say "she", which is not biologically accurate, because she often shed large amounts of seed.  At least twice, I put down tarps beneath her, collected her seed, and planted it.

I'd watched her nearly die, and then fully recover, 20 years ago; so I'd been hoping she'd make it this time.  That year had been hot and dry, too.  This one was apparently too much.

Red elm is one of my favorite trees; I like their attitude and behavior.  They can grow very fast when they're where they belong, tend to make big strong logs that can be used in more ways than oak.  The wood is beautiful; almost as dark as freshly cut black walnut, with lovely grain; the wood is as strong as oak, tougher than oak, very rot resistant, often splits as easily as any wood can; burns hot, makes the best long lasting coals for holding fire overnight - and - it will dry out completely just standing in the woods for a year.  Oak will never- ever- dry out on the stump; not if dead for 2 decades.  Oak requires great foresight, and careful storing to dry for use as fuel.  And a lot of sweat, wrassling all that soaking wet, heavy as pig iron, oak biomass- at least twice.

Elms are more forgiving (our elms, anyway) - if you weren't able to get this winter's wood cut and stacked under a roof two years ago- you can just cut an elm that's been dead for a year- and burn it efficiently today.  (Well, the top.  The butt log will be wet enough it will need drying.)  Red elm is the same as "slippery" elm; humans have used the inner bark for food and medicine for millennia (which is one reason the tree is less common these days), but in addition to food from bark, the red elms in Canada produced such heavy seed crops that Ernest Seton reported the passenger pigeon flocks migrated specifically to gorge on slippery elm seed.

Probably part of why I like red elms is they are ignored, misunderstood, and undervalued.  Underdogs in the canopy.  If you look them up on the internet, you'll find the pharm pages usually calling them by a Latin name the botanists declare obsolete; and both sources say "the wood is of no commercial value" - therefore, it's fine when they die after all their bark is stripped.  No value?  The mind boggles.  Never mind all the creatures dependent on them in the ecosystem, in the early 1980's, many of my neighbors made a lot of money- selling their big red elms- to Italian wood buyers.  True, local loggers didn't want them.  But the Italians paid the same money as for black walnut.  They shipped the logs to Italy.  Where they were veneered, and the veneer used to make very expensive furniture.

And the freshly cut wood is fragrant.  For me, it's a scent associated with childhood- in an unusual way.  When I was 8 years old, or so, my family spent 3 weeks in Japan.  The shops that specialized in wood carvings all had the same strong, pleasing, fragrance as you walked in the door.  I was too young to ask which wood it was, but many of the boxes and figures of dark wood carried it.  I'm pretty sure, now, it was Cryptomeria wood, Japanese cedar.  The smell of red elm is identical, as far as I can tell, and when I split it, or handle it, it brings many bits of those years and that trip back.

When I first got here, in SE Minnesota, our farm woods had 3 (at least) species of elm; American elm (Ulmus americana) predominated, then red elm (U. rubra), then rock elm (U. thomasii), which I confused with American for years.  We had huge American elms; but 90% of them died in my first 10 years here, from Dutch Elm Disease (DED).  American elm trees are lovely to look at- but of very little use to humans otherwise.  The wood rots immediately; making it dangerous to fell a big tree dead more than a few months- they call them "widow-makers", because huge portions of the top can crack off in felling- and fall the opposite way.  On you.  The wood is pretty, distinctive, but very little used because it tends to crack as it dries, and warps like crazy. And when the wood burns- it stinks; the farmers in most of the midwest called it "piss-elm".  Dry American elm does make a hot fire, though, if stinky; apparently unlike English elm.  Most versions of the firewood rhyme from England say "Elmwood burns like churchyard mould; even the very flames are cold."  Ew.

Red and rock elm are just a little resistant to the DED fungus.  Part of the picture is that American elm is a tetraploid species- it has 4 copies of the chromosomes, which often makes a plant more vigorous.  And it was faster growing, and often bigger than red or rock- but they are diploids; and sometimes slower growing means tougher.  Sometimes, the diploids can get DED - and get over it.  My old friend did; in that previous hot dry year; I watched, afraid I was going to lose her.  The stress of the drought brought on a serious attack of DED- I watched the leaves in the crown wither and die.  And rejoiced, in the literal meaning of that word, when she recovered over the next few years.  I admire survivors.  That was when I started gathering and planting her seeds.

No, I never named her.  Though I knew her intimately.  She stood just beside the tractor road I made into our woods, which we immediately also used for walking and skiing.  There were very few times when I traveled that road, in any mode, when I did not pause and look up at her crown, to see how she was doing.  I watched hard in the spring of 2013.  But she was gone.

She was big.  By anyone's standards.  I felled her yesterday, and the stump where I cut is about 30 inches in diameter.  Very large, for this area; our Minnesota hardwoods are lovely- but smaller than those East and South.  The wood from the crown, fully dry after one year, will heat two households for several weeks.  Her crown was unusual.  Very broad; branching, rising, and spreading with curves that I can only describe as Art Nouveau.   And each branch sensible, individual, and functional.

The big trunk is blocking the road now- and will likely block it for a couple weeks, until we can get in through the deep snow and haul the log out with the tractor.  I have fantasies of getting one or two of the logs cut for boards.  We can use them.  And I'll try to get some of the top turned into a bowl or two; red elm is a favorite of wood turners, too.

How does it feel, to burn my old friend's bones?

Warm.  Decades of warm.

Long years of memory; long years of companionship.  She was my companion.

I don't know if she knew; the gulf between our species is very large; but I knew.  And it wouldn't surprise me at all, as either human or scientist, if she knew.  Most tree species are tens of millions of years older than our paltry 2 and half or so.  They are very sophisticated creatures- and survivors.  Their life-pulse is so slow, few humans can sense it; they live in an utterly different way, and time.  Right beside us.

She is my companion still.  With every chunk of her I put into the stove, I remember our lives.  I think she's glad.  Now she's warming two houses, full of my family.  Her stump is 4 feet tall, and will last for at least 20 years.  Big enough to sit children up on; big enough to host hundreds of smaller creatures yet, in that time.

She's taking care of my babies.  I'll take care of hers.  Some 20 or so of her seedlings are growing; I'll see to it they get a chance.

There is no goodbye here.  I looked at her crown so many thousands of times, I'll always see it when I look at her children.  Clear as clear.


Monday, February 3, 2014

Fukushima- soon dumping in the ocean.

I haven't been posting all the stuff on Fukushima for a good while- it's mostly just too depressing, and there's nothing we can do about it in any case.

But today they're getting ready to cross a new line- and no, it's not in the news.  Unless you're a Japanese fisherman in the area.  The "government" (no longer "Tepco", since they've gotten nothing done) is asking local fishermen to agree to them - dumping radioactive groundwater, directly in the ocean.  They just can't handle the 400 tons a day, in any other way.  Here's the entire story, from NHK, Japan National TV English news feed.  Note that for PR purposes, this is a "bypass plan" - not "ocean dumping".  As always, their PR advisors are earning their keep, bigtime.


Government explains groundwater bypass plan

"The Japanese government has sought the understanding from the nation's fisheries industry to release groundwater into the sea at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

"The government presented measures under a new policy to fisheries industry representatives on Monday.

"At the Fukushima plant, groundwater flowing into reactor buildings coming into contact with water used to cool nuclear fuel continues to increase the amount of contaminated water.

"The central government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, which operates the plant want to introduce a bypass plan for the groundwater.
The measure is aimed at reducing the amount of water flowing into the reactor buildings by altering the flow of groundwater.

"The groundwater will be pumped up at the mountain side of the compound before it reaches the reactor buildings, where radioactive water has been accumulating, to reduce the amount that flows in. Then, the groundwater will be discharged into the sea. (italics mine)

"But the government and TEPCO have yet to obtain consent from local fishermen following a string of leaks into the sea of contaminated water, which has raised concerns over harmful rumors.

"Senior vice economy and industry minister Kazuyoshi Akaba met Chairman Hiroshi Kishi of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations on Monday.

"Akaba explained the measures to reduce the amount of contaminated water and new policies the government has been studying since last fall. Akaba reportedly told Kishi the radioactive levels of the water in the bypass plan will be set lower than the standard set by the state for releasing water into the sea. He also said the government will release information to the public to prevent harmful rumors.

"After the meeting, Kishi said he acknowledges the need for the bypass plan, but it can't move ahead without the understanding of local fishermen. He also said he plans to make a final decision after carefully examining how the bypass process will be monitored, and measures to prevent harmful rumors.

"Currently, 400 tons of groundwater is flowing into reactor buildings every day. The groundwater bypass plan is expected to reduce the amount by about 100 tons.
Feb. 3, 2014 - Updated 11:58 UTC"

http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/english/news/20140203_29.html

So - they're asking the local fishermen for permission.  Not you, nor I, nor the world community- nor the Pacific Islanders...  And, what do you suppose they'll do if the local fishermen say "no"?  That's right- they'll dump it anyway.

This story avoids addressing what's in that "groundwater" - that "has been in contact" with water leaking directly from the reactor cores - but it's the bad stuff; radio-strontium and tritium along with the normal cesium stuff.  Might even be some radio-iodine, depending on how long it's been "in the ground"- that's short lived, but the reactor cores are making new, all the time.

Troll in the dungeon.  Thought you ought to know.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"All circuits are busy."

Hi.  Haven't forgotten you.  Delighted so many are still here.

My repeated attempts to blog more frequently have not succeeded, as we all know.  Many, many reasons; one of them possibly being a "natural lifecycle" for bloggers and blogs.  I take some comfort from the fact that both Sharon Astyk, who was a hyper-maxi-turbo blogger for years, and Crunchy Chicken, likewise, both of whom became my good friends as we all blogged- have gone through this exact process- Crunch first, then me, then Sharon.

We're not any of us dead yet- but no question we've slowed down.  Have we run out of things to say?

I don't think so; I think it's more a matter of "iceberg fatigue" with the blogs.  I think the blogs make a difference- and help us all - but eventually it starts to feel like "this isn't enough"... and the energy necessary to keep going flags.

I am, of course, still pushing on icebergs; as are Sharon and Crunch.  That's part of the problem; for me and I know for them- the other icebergs have loomed up on us, and are taking more of our available time and energy.  My "other life" has gotten really busy, in my case.

And, as we accumulate a body of writing here, there's a desire to not repeat ourselves.  And, in my 350 posts here, I did talk about a bunch of different stuff.  Lots of it could use updating, etc.; but the fact is that kind of writing is just not as much fun for us writers; it's careful work; instead just ripping off a good rant.

But!  Still here. Still interested in Life, the Universe, and Everything (which hopefully won't just all vanish on us too soon).  And still cruising the internet sometimes, trying to track down things that interest me.

I found one, recently; which I can share with you.  A blogger much younger in the lifecycle, so hopefully she won't disappear on us soon.  She has two blogs; one is simply her dream journal (she has incredibly lucid and detailed dreams) which you can find at Dreampan (she works in the movie business; pretty sure that's a camera pan reference.)

And the other is her photographic journal of Life- and she has a wonderful eye, a good camera- and a genius for whimsy.  That would be at Thistrinket; and here is the specific post which cracked me up so thoroughly that I wanted to share her with you:

Not everyone who headed out West made it.

Brilliant, Shandra.  :-)  Thanks.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Shut Down- from Antares...

As old readers here know, I have a team of visiting anthropologists - from Antares - camping out in my attic.  Periodically they offer insights into human behavior, from their very uninvolved perspective.  A bit baffling sometimes, but sometimes, perhaps, useful.  When I can understand them, through their guffaws and giggles.  Just the word "economics" for example, tends to make them start choking on their own tentacles.

The USA is currently "shut down", as virtually every human on the planet is sharply aware.  In remote villages in India, the community hunkers in front of their one satellite TV, and watches the latest noise from our politicians, who have locked antlers.

Rm-elk-locking-antlers

Looks exciting, of course, but when the antlers actually lock (which does happen) the inevitable result is death, for both combatants.  Either via predators, or starvation.  And we are, currently - locked.

One of the primary results of this political deadlock is a vast irruption of "explanations", via all media.  A veritable pundit super-volcano has appeared, drowning the media in lucid, logical lists - of each pundit's pre-existing beliefs.  My Antarean friends have actually reached saturation in their normally insatiable sense of humor- they're getting tired of it.  And not that this will make any difference to H. sap, of course, (since we never listen), but they decided to take pity on me, at least, and explain it all.

So here it is; in case you want to understand.  Warning: the outlook isn't good.

"History!!" the Antarean leader chortles.  "Humans are almost the only species in the known Universe that keeps track of their past; and then not only ignores it- but constantly talks about ignoring it!  You even have a running contest in smart sayings by smart thinkers on how humans ignore it!"

The Antareans, however, dissect human history, constantly.  You have a breakdown in "democratic government"?  Maybe- it would be good to look at the entire history of "democracy" - how it came about, how it has failed before- and what preceded it, in human history.

Any good academic could turn this discussion into a 5,000 page tome.  None of us really have time for that, though; so I'm going to cut to the chase.

The Antarean anthropologists point out that before "democracy", there were two competitive forms of human government; monarchy or some authoritarian variant; and tribal councils.  Authoritarian governments quickly began to dominate the world stage, since it's quite easy for a King to say "Your sons will fight in my army; now." and enforce that; but it's rather difficult for tribal council governments to sustain armies and wars.

Tribes often require that large decisions be made by - unanimous consent.  They talk; until all tribe members publicly agree- "Ok; we'll do that."  It's understood that some members do not like this action, spoke against it, and still think it's a bad idea- but nonetheless, agree that the tribe will take this action- because no decision, and no action, and deadlock; would all be far more destructive.  If the disagreement is too deep- the safety valve is understood to be that the tribe will split.  You're free to go do it your way- on the other side of the mountains.

Authoritarian governments forbid splitting, and punish it with death.  No, you may not leave; we're all in this together.  Great way to keep your army working.

As the human population increased, however, the tribal groups simply ran out of places to go to; nearly all government by unanimous consent was replaced by authoritarian governments- which became intolerably abusive.  Power corrupts, etc.  So "democracy" was born- able to make decisions by "majority" vote, with modest variations on how you define majority.

Now, all you have to do to get a workable decision is convince a majority.  49% don't agree this is a good idea?  Tough.  We're doing it anyway.  So very much faster than weeks of discussion.   When true democracy became too slow, "representative republics" were developed; a kind of hybrid authoritarian-democracy; still involving a periodic vote.

Segue to "the tyranny of the majority"; followed by "checks and balances" as in the USA Constitution, designed to ensure "minority rights".

It's taken a while for the revised system to hit the wall - but that's what it's done.  Because in all cases, "majority rule" requires that the minority acquiesce to decisions they disagree with.  For 200 years; that was our tradition; you lost the election?  Win the next one; meanwhile, we're one country.

But what we stopped doing was the long tribal councils- where all voices were truly listened to, and respected- and the acquiescence of the minority was formally sought, and acknowledged.  Little by little, the resentment has built- until we now have a minority that refuses to be governed; and also refuses to even listen to the majority's arguments- truly; locked antlers.

All governments require the consent of the governed.  That is what we have lost.

And what sobers my Antarean friends up is, they don't see how we're going to get it back.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Autumn Fires

I lit the fire in the wood cookstove today.  Almost certainly, it will stay lit, until some time next May.

It's our third cookstove; I'm getting around to writing a review about it; soon; now that we've lived with if for 2 full winters and all the rest of the seasons.

This has been a very strange weather year.  Cold, dry, then floods, then over-hot and drought- now we've shifted into- normal weather for the Autumnal Equinox; cool, windy, cloudy- rainy.  Looks consistent enough to move the propane stove out, and we need the heat for comfort, when each night is dropping into the 40s°F.

I found poetry running through my brain, as it tends to when seasons shift.  In this case, a bit that used to be part of all children's education in the English speaking world: Sing a song of seasons! Something bright in all!  Flowers in the summer, Fires in the fall!

Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child's Garden of Verses.  I looked it up, thinking to comment on how spectacularly short he'd made that lovely poem; and discovered- it wasn't quite that short.  Of course.  At least one of my poetry professors would have railed at RLS for not chopping everything but that last bit; it works on its own.  Here in its entirety:

     Autumn Fires


   In the other gardens
   And all up the vale,
   From the autumn bonfires
   See the smoke trail!

   Pleasant summer over
   And all the summer flowers,
   The red fire blazes,
   The grey smoke towers.

   Sing a song of seasons!
   Something bright in all!
   Flowers in the summer,
   Fires in the fall!

It still made sense when I was a kid- we raked up the leaves, and everyone on the block burned them, in the street.  Not exactly bonfires- but still community- the fires were tended carefully; children watched; parents watched, talked; a marshmallow or two would get toasted.

Now of course leaf burning is banned- everywhere I know of.  Yes, it made a lot of smoke.  But.  Something else now gone.  And for me, the "fires in the fall" now are in the stove.  Still a rite of passage; but changed.

Changes.  We've lost two very dear people this past week; both unexpected; both far too soon.

Here's one of my own- for them.


     Forty eight  9/28/96

   Walking my paths
   alone

   There was one last
   blueberry

   dangling
   ready to drop

   fat and sweet
   as any blueberry ever

   simple to pick it
   simple to savor

   rain cleared blue sky above
   wind, bright leaves

   so why was it so painful
   just knowing
   that you love blueberries

   can you comprehend
   the pleasure it would have been

   for me to share
   one blueberry
   with you?






Thursday, August 15, 2013

A small lesson from the climate change front.

My tongue hurts.

Because?  Well, because blackberries (the berry kind) don't grow in Minnesota; it's too cold.  We have black raspberries, red raspberries, lotsa other berries, but the true blackberry- nope.  They're all over Wisconsin (the southern half) and Iowa (the southern half) - but - none of my neighbors know what a blackberry is.

Which I've usually been very thankful for.  Raspberry vines/canes are thorny- but blackberry vines will tear your shirt, your jeans, and your skin, bigtime.  I've fought through blackberry tangles enough in other places that I'd rather not have them around.

But.  Now- they're here.  Seed dropped by birds, most likely- and they've been getting established near the Little House for a couple of years.  Almost fruited last year- but the drought really kept anything from happening.  This year is wet- and so-

Looks yummy, huh?  And there are tons of them.  Could be making two pies a day.


They're wild- but they're big.  Like 3 times as big as our wild black raspberries ever get- so; very tempting.  My hand, which takes an XL glove.

I've been feeling fatalistic about it- if the birds are dropping seed- they'll drop more next year.  If the plants are surviving - then, they'll survive.  So.  Might as well enjoy this luscious free wild fruit, right?  Of course!  Going to lose the fight to keep them out anyway.  I go out in the morning, pick 5 or 6 handfuls and inhale them for breakfast.  And lunch.  And dinner.  Why wouldn't you?

Now it's been years since I've eaten many blackberries.  They are a bit seedy- but you just crunch up the seeds, and it becomes part of the whole "sweet/sour/juicy/crunchy/wild berry" mouth experience.

And, I'm sure I knew this as a kid, in Indiana and Ohio- but I'd forgotten.

If you eat fast- NOT ALL THE CRUNCHY BITS ARE SEEDS.

I know this for a fact; because- one of the crunchies got to me before I crunched it- and bit me on the tip of my tongue- hard.

I spit him out- but not fast enough, and my tongue still hurts.

I'm still shoveling them in.  But I do now, usually, give the various critters also enjoying the berries just a little time to scurry out and away, before inhaling.