Saturday, December 21, 2013

Not what I'd planned

After an early season cold snap, our solstice is unusually warm, with fog forming over the snow cover so dense I can't see my barn from the living room window. I was planning on getting a lot of routine chores done today, but it seems I need to go look after my mother who's had a bit of a setback. Yeah, it's tough being a dutiful son.

Anyway . . . It's time to renew my insurance and my agent found a much cheaper carrier. The new policy came in the mail and it's got the usual -- won't pay for floods or earthquakes, not a big problem where I am. But it also has a lot of exclusions of liability coverage. Now, understand, this is paying when people sue me for stuff that I do, e.g. if I assault somebody or run over them with my boat of more than 50 horsepower. Okay, not a problem. Also, any liability (on my part), "caused directly or indirectly by war . . . Discharge of a nuclear weapon shall be deemed a warlike act even if accidental."

In other words, if I discharge a nuclear weapon, even by accident, they won't pay for the damages. Now I'm pissed.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Changes in the land

Our town historical society owns an 18th Century farmhouse, full of furniture and artifacts dating from its early years through the early 20th Century, when one of the sons went off to World War I. It's only open to the public by scheduled tour (unadvertised -- you have to know who to ask) and on special event days twice a year.

The curator, a descendant of the builders, is my neighbor. Out here, that means his house is about a mile from mine, although our driveways are much closer. Knowing that I'm deft with a chainsaw and happy to be paid in firewood, he asked me to take down a sickly maple tree on the property. When I met him there, he pointed out a huge tree near the house which the Hysterical Society proudly claims to be the oldest English walnut in the Americas. I couldn't tell you how they know this, or whether we should believe it.

The black walnut is native to North America, but the commonly available nutmeat comes from a species native to Persia which is called the English walnut. Yes, it's complicated. Henry called the tree an "English black walnut" but I think he's just confused. The black walnut does produce edible nuts but it is not commonly cultivated.

Anyway, the English walnut is not a problematic invasive species, but its presence there does remind us of the total transformation of the ecology caused by the English invasion. They didn't just dispossess the original human inhabitants, they radically changed the floral and faunal regime. In fact, much of what we now treasure as endangered nature is actually artifact of the changes wrought since the 1600s. Most notably, these include species that favor the border between forest and open space, of which there is far more today than there was before the coming of the Europeans, but less than there was 50 years ago as pasture has been overtaken by second growth forest.

And yes, that includes your friend Peter Cottontail. The eastern cottontail rabbit benefited greatly from land clearance and of course Peter was famous for raiding the farmer's vegetables. Whether it's regrettable that there are fewer of them now is hard to say. We can't go back to 1500 either. The warming climate is letting the wooly adelgids kills the hemlocks and eventually, the pine bark beetles will get here too. We'll just have to see what happens.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The idiocy of rural life

So, I had one main project on my punch list for yesterday, which was to replace the battery in my tractor. Nothing is easy, of course. The nuts on the cable ends were rusted and one of the terminal clamps just broke in half when I tried to turn the nut. I somehow cut the back of my thumb and you would not believe how much blood came out of that tiny slice. I found  I couldn't cut off the old cable end with my lineman's pliers so I had to walk down to the barn for the bolt cutters. The new cable end had too big a clamp for the cable so I had to find a piece of copper to shim it with. The dealer didn't have the right battery in stock so we had to figure out a way to get the one he did have to fit in the hold-down bracket.

I could go on but you get the idea. It's always like that. Hofstadter's law: Everything takes longer than you expect, even after taking into account Hofstadter's law. This creates an infinite regress and proves that you can never accomplish anything, but as it turns out I did finally get the battery installed and the tractor started right up. This shows that what is logically impossible can happen anyway.

 But the background to this silly story is that on Wednesday, my mother fell in her bathroom and wound up with a compressed fracture of the L5 vertebra, along with awful looking bruises. This is the second time in about 18 months she's had a disastrous fall.  She lives about an hour away -- my sister is there now but she's going back home tomorrow morning. I'll go tomorrow and look in on her, but of course I have to go back to work on Monday. So, it's coming to some sort of a decision point. I don't know what we're going to do but whatever it is, she won't like it. I'll probably come to that point myself in 20 or 30 years. I may have to stop supplying myself with firewood and repairing my own tractor some time before that. Our reward for self-knowledge and intelligent understanding of the world is that we know the bad news about the human condition.

So be it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

About those white tails . . .

When I got home on Friday a doe was standing in the corner of my yard, by the edge of the woods. I've said before that they're getting much too tame. She just stood and looked at my car, and didn't move for a few seconds even after I got out. She finally bolted and to my astonishment six more patches of white exploded in the woods as her companions took off in various directions. I hadn't noticed any of them until they turned tail.

A couple of minutes later, they had reconvened and I saw them walking single file through the woods as they often do. So, I got to thinking. Why is a creature which is only prey and a threat to nothing but vegetation, which is otherwise well camouflaged, equipped with a conspicuous advertisement of its presence? For you city slickers, the white-tailed deer has a brown coat that fades into the background of fallen leaves and shrubbery. When there's a group of deer in the grove below my living room window, it can take several minutes before I manage to count them all, assuming I ever do.

But, the underside of their tails, which they usually carry raised so as to show it off, is a big patch of almost incandescent white. Now, this evolved before people were shooting at them with firearms, but as many a tragic story shows, hunters will fire when they see something white in the woods. I don't expect that people were shooting at them with arrows long enough to affect the evolution of their wardrobe either.

So, this signal evolved while they were being hunted by cougars and wolves. I suppose they were perfectly capable of spotting their prey even without the illuminated posterior, but still, what good does it do them? My guess is that the white tail helps them spot each other. It keeps the group together, helps the fawns and mothers keep track of each other, helps the followers stay behind the leader. The value of maintaining social cohesion outweighs a slightly greater chance of winding up as lunch.

Does anyone have a better idea?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Duh Sawx

You may be surprised to find me writing about sports but . . .

The news media around here lean toward New York, and yeah, I grew up with the Mets, but I lived in Boston for more than 20 years and was compelled to become a Sox fan. (Resistance is futile.) If there are any life lessons to be drawn from professional sports, well, this Red Sox season offers some. Last year was a disaster, with a self-adoring fool and mindless motormouth as manager, and a bunch of underachieving egomaniacal whiners conspiring to drive the team straight into the cellar.

So, management somehow hypnotized the Dodgers into taking the egomaniacal whiners and even paying their salaries; replaced them with some hardworking, underappreciated journeymen who were grateful for the chance (even as the sportswriters were skeptical of the signings); hired a grownup to be the manager; and kept all the good guys.

At least as far as anyone could tell from the public view, they all put the team first and worried only about winning. Nobody got busted for DUI, or domestic violence, or discharging a firearm in a nightclub, or performance enhancing drugs, or any of the typical sins of professional athletes. Away from the game, they just visited sick kids in the hospital and organized charity golf tournaments.

When the marathon bombing struck at the very heart of the city, they took it as their responsibility to rally the community, starting with David Ortiz's famous speech in which he used the famous expletive that the FCC allowed this time. And they played beautifully. Two gold gloves; a silver slugger for el Papi Enorme, el Papi Tremendo, el Papi de Máximo Tamaño, el Papi Largo y Anchoso, el Papi que Ocupe Mucho Espacio, el Papi Grande, Big Papi David Ortiz; Jacoby Ellsbury stole bases at will, they got key hits when they needed them up and down the lineup; they had the best starting rotation and the best bullpen in baseball. And of course they won the championship.

At the conclusion of the victory parade, they put the World Series trophy on the finish line of the marathon. It really meant a lot to the city and I think they accepted the responsibility with sincerity. So it probably does inspire kids and help produce civic unity and strengthen community and all that good stuff that sports are supposed to do but usually don't really. Oh yeah. They paid for their own stadium. 100 years ago.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Today I finished taking apart my garden. A series of hard freezes this week finally ended everything, although I was still harvesting broccoli and lima beans last weekend. Actually I left the broccoli, it's semi-hardy and there's still some action there, plus I'm going to try to harvest seed, just for the heck of it.

But otherwise, I spent the morning rolling up the fencing, pulling up the stakes, and putting everything away. Then I ran the mower over the garden to chop up the crop waste. This would be a sad time, and it is somewhat. I'm not looking forward to winter this year. But it's also the time I plant garlic, so I get to look past the winter. I dug much of what had been the tomato patch -- you always want to rotate your crops. This is land I've been cultivating for years, but I still came up with a pile of rocks big enough to crush a mule.

It's unbelievable, they never stop coming. It seems as though the reproduce but what actually happens is that the freeze and thaw cycle keeps pushing them up from deeper down. It's a simple process. When the ice thaws, the water runs down and tends to accumulate under the rocks. When it freezes, it expands, and they work their way up. So every year there are more.

Will it ever stop? Yes, when there are no more rocks above the frost line, I'll be done. The frost line here officially is four feet down, but with the milder climate, it really isn't any more. Maybe next year, I'll be done pulling out rocks. But then of course if I decide to expand my agricultural endeavors . . .

Anybody need any rocks? I've got some.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bird brains

There's a gang of four turkeys that's been hanging around my place lately. They always stick together, and they are disturbingly unperturbed by my proximity. They just stroll around the place lazily, going nowhere in particular. I seldom see them feeding. They're just out enjoying the weather.

Turkey social life is mysterious. You tend to see them much more in autumn than summer or winter. In the spring, you'll say hens with their young. (I don't think you call them chicks. What then?) Sometimes the hens go around in pairs, so the kids have an auntie. In autumn, you can see groups of any size, from a solitary individual to a field full of dozens or a hundred. I think the latter are special events, basically like mixer parties. The toms will be puffing themselves up and fanning their tails, hoping to get lucky. But the rest of the time, why they form the groups they do, how stable they are, and where they go in the winter and summer, I don't have a clue.

For you city slickers, these are nothing like the domesticated dolts. They're obviously smart enough to stay alive out here in the deep dark woods, and they can fly just fine. They don't go long distances, but they can get up in the air in a hurry when they need to.

It's well known that Ben Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national symbol instead of the eagle. If he'd had his way, we might have a whole different attitude about ourselves.