Sunday, December 4, 2016

Winter


It always takes me a couple of weeks after the cold weather sets in to get over my impulse to hibernate and get my ass out of the house. But we don't often reflect on the way life changed in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

I heat my house with wood -- and so far there's been plenty of deadfall in the neighborhood, along with trees felled for other reasons, that I haven't had to kill anything just so I could burn it. It's quite a lot of work but it's good for me -- otherwise I suppose I could join my neighbor's gym in Norwich. But I have a log splitter, two chainsaws, a tractor and a pickup truck. So yeah, there's some fossil fuel in there but there's still a big energy return on investment. However, most people just turn a knob and presto, their house is warm. Of course they send a check every month for the privilege.

Also, I turn a knob and get water. I push a lever and my excrement disappears. I turn another knob and my food cooks. I flip a tiny lever and it's bright as day at night.

None of this was true for even the wealthiest people until a little more than 100 years ago. In winter, you were cold. With immense effort using handsaws and hammering steel wedges and loading horse-drawn wagons vigorous young men could lay in the 8 or 10 cords of wood or more they needed to keep one room of a drafty house reasonably warm all winter. When the sun went down people sat in the dark with maybe a couple of candles. You had to go outside to get water, and to relieve yourself. Alternatively you could use a container and carry it outside later.

This was everybody -- including the most prosperous farmers and merchants. This was how Thomas Jefferson lived. Of course he had slaves to do the firewood, but that didn't mean his bedroom wasn't cold in January. There is a great deal more that was very different. I don't think we allow our imaginations to encompass what an astonishing change in the condition of human existence has happened, certainly in the wealthiest parts of the world.

So now, think about the people who feel deprivation, who feel their life circumstances are bleak and who are deeply disappointed and anxious -- people right here in the U.S. who have jobs, who have average incomes of about $70,000 a year, who live in warm houses with indoor plumbing and electric lights. Those are Trump voters -- yes, they have average incomes higher than Clinton voters, higher than the general population. There were plenty of Trump yard signs out here and they weren't in the trailer parks. They were in front of big houses with expensively landscaped and beautifully kept grounds. Swimming pools. Outbuildings. And they feel oppressed.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Aging


My mother is 85. There's plenty of variation in how vigorous and healthy people are at that age, but she's not at the top of the distribution. She has a problem with feeling unsteady on her feet, that doctors have been unable to diagnose for years. This limits her physical activity and that's bad both physically and psychologically. She also complains of chronic malaise, insomnia, frequent urination. Basically she doesn't do anything. She's also increasingly having difficulty finding words and otherwise showing strange cognitive lapses.

The thing is, I'm the closest child, and I live an hour away. My brother is a 2 1/2 hour drive away and my sister lives in Manhattan and doesn't own a car, meaning she has to rent one to get to deepest Connecticut. My father died about 8 years ago, BTW, but he'd been in a nursing home before then so she's been living alone for quite a while. His terminal illness depleted all of their money so she has nothing but her teacher's pension, which is basically equal to social security.

She also has a reverse mortgage, which means that if we sell the house she won't have enough money to last very many years in assisted living. So she's sitting around in an early 19th Century farmhouse with five bedrooms, just her and the cat.

In the old days, the family would still have been nearby, if not in the same house, and my mother's later years would have been much more manageable and probably far less unhappy. But nowadays a lot of people are in our situation. I only live out here in the last quiet corner because it's the only place that's reasonably accessible to both my mother's house and Providence, which means I'm spending two hours commuting to work and back every day and then doing it in the opposite direction many weekends. It's really bad for my carbon footprint. But I have to keep working or I won't be able to take care of myself, let alone my mother.

A lot of relatively affluent people end up in this sort of quandary. In fact it's a risk factor, I expect. Being really wealthy fixes it, and being low income means your family is probably not so dispersed. Public  policy doesn't work properly here. Medicaid will pay for a nursing home, but not for long-term home care, even though it's cheaper. Here in Connecticut they have a hybrid policy whereby if you first go into a nursing home, you can then be returned to the community and get home based services. But my mother doesn't need institutional care, and in any case she'd have to sell the house meaning she'd wind up in some sort of a senior housing complex, which is not where she wants to be. And it would cost the state more in the long run. It's basically insane.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

I'm back


Not sure why it's been so hard for me to keep up this diary. Of course I have my other two blogs and my gainful employment consists largely of writing, so maybe I just haven't had enough energy to channel into it. But I have decided that the discipline will be good for me.

So here's how things are here. It's been a mild autumn so far. That was supposed to change today with some nasty cold rain and wet snow, but it hasn't happened. It's actually been a very fine fall day, partly sunny, maybe a bit chilly but pretty normal for the time of year. We'll see if they're still wrong later in the day. Anyway, believe it or not, my parsley is still just fine and I'm still cutting fresh parsley for my dinners. Maybe today is the last chance, so I think I'll make some stuffed shells and use up what I can. There's severe drought to the north and west of us, but actually right here we've had a rain deficit over the year but nothing you would notice. The corn crop, which is not irrigated, was excellent.

Now, there are bigger things going on in the world right now than the weather in Windham County. We're all trying to figure out what just happened and what will happen in the coming years. The feeling that we are about to lose a century of progress hangs over many of us. I don't think that will happen. It's one thing to whip up a frenzy at neo-fascist rallies with threats, insults and lies; it's quite another thing to govern. What little in the way of actual policy content there was in the Trump campaign was ridiculous. No, there will not be a twenty foot wall the length of the Mexican border. No, the coal mining jobs will not come back to Appalachia and the factories won't come back to Youngstown. He won't lock Hillary up (not that I understand why his fans wanted that) and as for repealing Obamacare, the Republicans in congress are suddenly realizing that actually being able to do it puts them in a very awkward position. Paul Ryan wants to phase out Medicare but the only constituency for that is a few extremist ideologues and rich people who don't want to pay taxes.

What the Trump presidency will be is a grift. He'll use it to steal everything he can as quickly as he can, and his justice department will step aside. Sooner or later the people will have to notice that whatever he meant by making America great again isn't happening, they're still living on hay, and he's sucking up the gravy. I look forward to that day.

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.