Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Plague of Our Own Making

Yes, sorry for the carbon footprint, I sort of got stuck into this situation, but I drive into Providence most workdays on Route 6. The road passes through woods in Foster and Scituate. The last couple of days I said to myself, "Holy shit, the trees are all dead!" I thought it was a sign of the apocalypse -- I'm talking miles of leafless oaks and maples.

It turns out they aren't dead, they've been defoliated by the gypsy moth caterpillar. I didn't grok it at first because my part of Windham County has been spared. The trees can come back, although a second defoliation can do them in. So the woods aren't doomed, but this is a really disgusting situation for homeowners. Caterpillar shit literally falls like rain.

The gypsy moth was introduced to North America by a clown who thought he could start a silk industry with them. He claimed some sort of affiliation with Tufts University, actually, which is shameful to me since I have studied and taught there. Anyway, they're on a level with kudzu as noxious invasive species go. Here's a fun portfolio of houses that have been completely devoured by the weed from hell. 

Of course, Europeans are a noxious invasive -- well, not species, but culture -- here in the Americas. Just by way of analogy.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Nature red in tooth and claw

I was outside this morning cutting up brush for kindling. Not the most interesting task, but now is the time to get ready for the fall.

The woods are full of bird calls right now, but suddenly a new sound took the foreground, a repeated sort of shriek -- chee, chee, chee, chee . . . I was puzzled for a few moments, then a hawk flew across my clearing with a smaller bird in its talons. The victim was doing the squealing. The hawk flew into the woods uphill from me and after another 30 seconds or so, the sound stopped.

This shouldn't be disturbing. It's how the world works. If finches were never breakfast, there would be no hawks -- and there would be too many finches, until the population crashed. Still, we humans have an overdeveloped empathic capacity. That often distorts our thinking. The moral realm of human relations is not the moral realm of an ecosystem. On the other hand we are part of ecosystems, although most of us usually forget that.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Couldn't go to work today . . .

. . . and waste the perfect weekend for getting my springtime chores done. This morning I sunk the fenceposts for my vegetable garden, which is actually a fairly substantial bit of earthwork. I have to fence to keep the deer out, and they'll knock over T-post if it isn't set deep. I'll get the fencing up on Sunday, probably, I still need to get equipment in there easily. I'm also going to plant some flats this weekend -- peppers, tomatoes, the usual. And yeah, lay in firewood for next fall. Now is the time.

I can hear a tractor working the cornfield down the street, I assume spreading manure  at this date. The meadow is full of wildflowers -- blue, white and yellow. The birds are positively symphonic. After a mild winter, the squirrels are positively obese. It's disgusting. Some of the birches are starting to leaf out, as are my fruit trees.

The downer is, we don't know what changes are going to come. Will the birds move north? Will the forest regime change? What will happen to the rain, and the winter snow cover? (There was none this winter, just a few days with a few inches on the ground, that just melted away. Last winter, we had record snowfall. Who knows what to expect?)

We had a single, three day cold snap, with two nights in February that were cold enough to set back the woolly adelgids, or so I am hoping. So far the hemlocks look okay but we'll see. Anyway, it's getting warmer.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Growing Season Officially Begins

Actually it could have started a bit sooner but I didn't get a chance. This morning I planted onion sets, and peas go in this afternoon.

I dug in a lot of loam to get a good soil for root crops, and I have room left for carrots. (My garlic, of course, was already in last fall.) There is actually no frost in the forecast, but it would be foolish to set out any non-hardy plants for at least a couple of weeks. I will however get my tomatoes and peppers going in the greenhouse. This definitely feels good.

If I wanted to clear some land, I could potentially cultivate 8 or 9 acres here, which is enough for a high intensity organic farmer to make a living -- if you really know what you're doing and are willing to bust your ass 7 days a week. My friends who I'll call Festus and Rosita have been doing it for 15 years on less land than that. They plot out every move -- intercropping and succession and fallowing -- to keep the pests at bay and get the most out of every square foot. They have year-round yield with greens under glass and they have mushroom logs in the woods. Not to mention fruit trees, beehives. Then there's processing and marketing.

Festus told me once that he suddenly realized he hadn't left the property for a month. (His father does most of the trucking and selling.) Oh yeah -- he built the house and outbuildings with his own hands. He spends hours every week maintaining equipment. They weed by hand. It's as hard a job as there could possibly be. But that's what they want to do.

The resemblance to what they call the "farms" that put most of the food into your supermarket is pretty much non-existent.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Family Values

I don't exactly know the explanation for some of the differences in regional cultural tendencies. But even the churches are different, at least here in the northeast. When I lived in Boston, and when I was a community organizer in Philadelphia, preachers generally were on the progressive side of politics. Of course some of the Black churches were socially conservative, but the big ones were generally progressive, and I think that has generally changed anyway. A lot of church basements housed the offices of progressive organizations, and churches provided the meeting space for anti-war and social justice movement events. I realize this is a regional reality, those southern and Midwestern megachurches are a different story.

As a matter of fact my uncle was an Episcopal pastor. We attended his church, and my mother taught Sunday school. I even got a bunch of Sunday school perfect attendance pins, which were pretty nice, with gold plating and blue enamel. (Wish I still had them.) My uncle denounced the Vietnam war from the pulpit. So even though atheism hit me like a diamond bullet right between the eyes when I was 14, my impression of Christianity was that it had something to do with the Jesus of the Gospels, until the Christian right emerged on the scene in the 1980s. What woodwork did those people come out of, I wondered?

Well, the rural churches in the northeast, it turns out, are more like churches in the south and midwest. I don't know the explanation for the rural vs. urban cultural divide either, but out here it's Glenn Beckistan. Fortunately there isn't much population so their votes don't add up to much, but still.

So I read with considerable interest Josh Marshall's recollection of how Dennis Hastert became Speaker of the House. As you may be old enough to remember, in 1998 the Republicans impeached president Clinton, though the Senate failed to remove him from office, over a consensual adulterous affair with an adult. Yeah, she was a White House intern, so it was fairly skeevy, but on the other hand she initiated it.

The story Marshall tells is actually kind of incredible. I've never seen anybody put it together the way he does. Remember that Speaker Gingrich thought the threatened impeachment would be popular with voters, but in fact Democrats picked up seats in the mid-term, leading to Gingrich's resignation. But it turned out later that while Gingrich was moving to impeach the president, he was carrying on an adulterous affair with a staffer in his office, some 20 years his junior.

So the House Republican Conference nominated Bob Livingston to succeed Gingrich. But then Larry Flynt, the porno magnate, announced he was working on a story about Livingston's adulterous affairs So Livingston Livingston resigned from the House and David Vitter took his seat. In 2007, we found out that the whole time, Vitter was a regular customer of a prostitution ring.

Hastert became Speaker as a colorless, non-controversial compromise candidate. But now we learn that he had a very dark secret in his past, as a serial sexual abuser of boys in his charge as a teacher and wrestling coach. Remember Sen. Larry Craig? And so many others?

Whenever a sex scandal breaks about a politician, you can make money betting that it's a "family values" "Christian" "conservative" before you even learn the name. Yeah, there was Clinton (who we really knew about all along) and Elliot Spitzer, but you would win by far the majority of your bets.

Now that they are busy passing bills allowing discrimination against gay and transgendered people, you have to wonder about the people who are sponsoring and voting for those bills. Just sayin'.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Ravages of age?

Hopefully not. Yesterday I went through the annual wrestling match with my loader, getting it back on the tractor. I left the snowplow on until then in order to prevent it from snowing, successfully. According to the manual, attaching the loader is easy, but they are of course lying.

Anyway, the project involves a lot of heavy lifting and today, I am as stiff and sore as I used to be after the first day of wrestling practice. My problem is that I'm trying to hold down a desk job, with a long commute attached, while being a farmer and a lumberjack on the weekend. The human body is meant to be in one mode or the other, I think.

The 21st Century has achieved a milestone. The majority of humans now live in cities. I just supervised an MPH thesis by an immigrant from west Africa who did a health needs assessment of the African immigrant community in her city. It included a survey. It shouldn't surprise you that most of her respondents said that it was harder to get exercise here than it was in the old country, where exercising was just part of everyday life. Now they have to go out of your way, and probably spend money, in order to be physically active.

There is a lot about city life that I miss, but let's face it. City life ain't natural. It's astonishing how adaptable we humans are, but maybe we need to find a way to live in the post-industrial age that's more like what we're built for.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Welcome to the tropics

On Tuesday, the high temperature at Bradley International Airport was 81 degrees F. That broke the previous high temperature record for the date by 9 degrees. It was the earliest 80+ degree reading there ever, and is the normal high temperature for June 21. It is also 36 degrees above the normal high temperature for the date. The following day also set a high temperature record.

If the temperature on June 21 this year is 36 degrees above normal, it will be 117 degrees. I'm not expecting that, just sayin'. Since Wednesday, the temperatures have remained well above normal. It's been shirtsleeve weather, although it is still officially winter. I even thought about planting onion sets this weekend, then I had to get a grip. There's no reason not to wait until April, and the weather might turn normal before then. I'm also contemplating whether to take the snowplow off my tractor, because I could certainly use the loader. But I decided to leave it on in order to prevent any substantial snowfall.

What this means for the future I'm not sure, but for the present it's a real pain. If my fruit trees flower they are likely to get frosted and I'll lose my crop. That happened a few years ago. If it becomes a common occurrence there's a whole New England industry in big trouble. There's no telling when to plant cool weather crops like lettuce and peas. Until things settle down to some sort of predictability it's going to be at best highly disconcerting.