Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Living sustainably?

Let's face it, unless you are willing to make what are today some very radical, and difficult choices, if you're worried about your carbon footprint and other environmental impacts, you should live in the city, and the bigger the city the better. For 20 years, I got to work and back on the MBTA, and I walked to the hardware store, pharmacy, restaurants, and even the grocery store except for the weekly big haul, which required a 1 mile drive. The impecunious could walk to the laundromat.

Out here, downtown, which is 2 miles away, consists of a quasi-old-fashioned country general store where you can get soda, sandwiches, auto fuses, and fishing gear among other odds and ends, a 1-woman post office, and 2 churches. It's 8 miles to an even half-decent grocery store and I don't even know about a decent restaurant. The commute to my job is 45 miles, and any jobs that are closer aren't going to pay for this house, unless WalMart has changed its pay structure.

This is a farm town and we obviously need farms and farmers, but of the 1,500 or so people who live here I doubt more than 100 are farmers or their dependents. Mostly it's a bedroom community for retirees or professionals who just like being here. So I ain't lying. It's an indulgence that I happen to be able to afford.

To my credit, I invested considerable money, as part of this deal, in preserving wilderness including stopping development of 35 acres which is now state forest. I am also doing some hobby farming which I hope to gradually develop into something more real, and making sustainable use of my abundant biomass for space heat. Nevertheless, since I've been spending time here I've been doing a lot more driving, and that's got to cancel out the good stuff.

What do people think about the ethics of my choices? How can I do better?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Antlered Rats

As I was heading down my driveway to go to work yesterday a big buck ran across right in front of my vehicle. If I had been going 2 miles an hour faster I would be buying new headlights and my friend Festus would be feasting on venison. I don't know how many deer cross my driveway every morning but this one managed to find the single moment when it stood a chance of ending up in the stew pot.

I read somewhere that there are more deer in New England today than before the Europeans came. It's certainly plausible. With such abundance, the Indians would have been fat and sassy. Not only are there a lot of them, they seem to have a proclivity for hurling themselves in front of motor vehicles.

For the Indians, they meant food, clothing and shelter, but for European settlers in the 21st Century, they are mostly just a nuisance. In addition to trashing cars, they eat fruit trees, corn and other crops (including mine) and ornamental shrubs, can prevent reforestation, and along with mice and voles, are hosts to the deer tick, the vector of Lime disease.

Unfortunately, in Connecticut, deer hunting culture is dying out. The few beer-fueled louts stumbling around the woods in Windham County with rusty rifles don't do much to limit the population. If the cougars were to return, as soon as somebody's Dandy Dinmont got eaten the people would take to the streets demanding that the state exterminate them. The flatlanders who move out to the country just think the deer are adorable and some fools even feed them. Some towns have hired hunters to cull the herd but there are always fools who think they're being all progressive and environmentalist by opposing hunting. If you really think nature is so beautiful, you should advocate stocking the woods with Puma concolor.

The fact is there are too many deer. It seems to me somebody could develop a contraceptive bait, but I've never heard of such a strategy. Anybody got a better idea?

Friday, December 17, 2010


My mother still lives in the house I mostly grew up in, a farmhouse in a town west of here built in 1835. My parents bought it from a descendant of the original homesteader, honored in town records as Captain William Dudley. He was not a sea captain, but the leader of the local militia, which they still had in those days.

The Dudleys never installed central heating. There were big fireplaces in the dining room/kitchen and the living room, both served by a single central chimney and both with ovens attached to the side (you put hot coals in the bottom compartment and baked in the top); and a stove in the master bedroom upstairs, feeding into the same flu. A livestock barn was attached to the south side of the house, curiously -- they didn't seem to understand about solar gain -- where the prized horses would spend the winter. They had boxes built up on the exterior to a height of about 6 feet, which they would fill with compost in the late fall. There was no insulation: between the clapboard and plaster on lath was just air. They lived that way until 1965, when they sold the house, whereupon my parents installed insulation and oil-fueled hot water heat.

The Dudleys, and all of their compatriots in the 1830s and for a long time after that, spent winters huddled in the parlor until they retired to their bedrooms and crawled under heaps of quilts. In the mornings they would break the ice in their washbowls.

With what seem like modest technological innovations, I can heat my new house in Windham County very effectively with a single wood burning stove, albeit probably a bigger and better one than the Dudleys had. Fiberglass insulation and double glazed windows are all it takes. Well, that's more than modest. Putting two sheets of glass in an airtight frame with xenon in between is pretty futuristic by 19th Century standards.

Nevertheless, if I go away for a while, the house gets damn cold. It's a passive solar design, but that's a relative term. Around the solstice, the sun rises at about 7:00 and sets at about 4:15, but it's only above the trees for about 6 hours. Even so, it makes a big difference for that time, and the house can hold on to a bit of the warmth even overnight. But if it's a cloudy day, I get bupkis.

I have to leave some baseboards on when I'm away so the pipes won't freeze, but I do the minimum, because I am a) socially responsible and b) cheap. The house is pretty cold when I first arrive, maybe 45 degrees. It takes a good 20 minutes for the stove to get hot, and another half hour for it really to start pushing up the temperature even in the living room. Getting heat spread around the whole house takes hours.

Still, compared to the way the Dudleys lived, this is incredibly luxurious. But how many Americans nowadays would put up with it? You turn the dial, and the heat comes up, instantly. That's the only acceptable way to live.

Monday, December 13, 2010

This might surprise you . . .

but I've had to get used to not having any TV while I'm out here in the woods. Yep, I've grown accustomed to it as a means of destroying unwanted hours of consciousness. It turns out the service I ordered can't get an installer out here before January 7, so I'm forced to find a new way of living.

The result is I'm reading a lot of weird stuff. Brian Martin's The Bias of Science (which I may discuss at Stayin' Alive); War and Peace -- really! Never read it before. So far it's boring; The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems -- the original, by Galileo, and holy shit was that guy ever ahead of his time; and Human Knowledge, by Bertrand Russell, which is interesting because by now, we know more than he did. But it's surprising what we did know in the 1940s.

I will become an insufferable bore. And I won't have anything to say about last night's Celtic's game. Is this a good thing?

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I shot this guy, or gal, through my living room window, using maximum zoom. It was difficult to hold the camera still enough to get a decent image, but this seems good enough to share. The owl sat in that hemlock, staring directly at my house, and seemingly at me, for several minutes. It does indeed have a wise, contemplative look. It seems to want to tell me something, but I don't speak its language.

I suppose owls are a symbol of wisdom because of this appearance -- the big eyes and steady gaze are the key. What this one says to me is that there are still wild places, but we are in the midst of the greatest mass extinction since that asteroid hit off of Yucutan and wiped out the dinosaurs, with the happy exception of the owl's ancestors. Dozens of species of plants and metazoans are disappearing from the planet every day, due to climate change, pollution, interactions with alien species, and most of all destruction of habitat.

At some point, will the web of life become so unraveled that biological productivity crashes and along with it the basis of human life? E.O. Wilson, in The Diversity of Life, tells us that it has taken millions of years following earlier mass extinctions for diversity, and productivity, to return to previous levels.

The expansion of the human population, from a few million to more than 6 billion and rising, was fed entirely by fossil fuels. One way or another, that will stop, and it will reverse. If we had any wisdom, we would find a path to fewer people on a still fecund planet that doesn't take us through a vale of horror and inhumanity. But right now, we haven't found any of that wisdom. We still pursue only our greed, for the next day or season.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Quote of the Day

What is urgently needed is knowledge and a practical ethic based on a time scale longer than we are accustomed to apply. An ideal ethic is a set of rules invented to address problems so complex or stretching so far into the future as to place their solution beyond ordinary discourse. Environmental problems are innately ethical. They require vision simultaneously into the short and long reaches of time. What is good for individuals and societies at this moment might easily sour ten years hence, and what seems ideal over the next several decades could ruin future generations. To choose what is best for both the near and distant futures is a hard task, often seemingly contradictory and requiring knowledge and ethical codes which for the most part are still unwritten.

E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life. 1992. (And yes, he was fully cognizant of global warming, among other problems, at that time.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Then, now and yet to come

I took the day off from my gainful employment to come out here and get some essential chores done. Seeing this landscape of two hundred year old farms and long abandoned pastures naturally makes me think of how people lived not very long ago. I'm not sure when electricity and central heating made it out here but I would imagine that even in 1910 this was not a fossil-fueled community, although of course people had manufactured goods made and transported from far away with coal-fired steam. No more than 100 years ago the farmers used horses for transportation and traction. They had replaced whale oil with kerosene in their lamps, no doubt, but the effect would have been about the same.

My wood stove heats the whole house pretty well, even if the back bedroom is a bit chilly. But I have six inches of fiberglass wool in the walls, and double glazed windows. I know from the state of my parents' house when they first bought it -- a farmhouse built in 1835 and still largely in its original condition -- that you just can't make a house of that era warm in the winter no matter what you do.

The European settlers cut down the trees here, not so much for timber or to clear pasture, as for charcoal. When the age of petroleum arrived, the trees grew back. Old stone walls run everywhere through the forest as testimony. (They aren't really walls, they're just where the people piled up rocks to get them out of the pastures. As long as the land was cleared, they might as well let the cattle graze. But nowadays, they can grow so much corn on 40 acres they don't need the uplands any more.)

I have little trouble laying in a supply of firewood, but that's because I use a chain saw, a diesel tractor, and a hydraulic log splitter. In my barn, descending to me from my grandfather's barn in Pennsylvania, is a collection of axes, splitting malls, and crosscut bucksaws. Strong young men must have spent weeks in late winter and spring preparing for the next November, just so they could huddle in the parlor while the frigid wind filtered through the walls.

My neighbor is a writer. He has been commissioned by a magazine, as I understand it, to discuss the global environmental crisis in terms of eschatology. He wants me to concede that metaphorically, we are living in the End Times. I do not agree. On the other side of the looming radical discontinuity there will still be a planet, and people. If there were just nothing on the other side, that would abolish all responsibility. It isn't like that.

The civilization of 1860 is gone, as ours will be soon, but we're still here. Ethically and ontologically, what lies ahead is nothing like the eschatological delusions of the religious fanatics who have, bizarrely, seized a big chunk of state power in this once promising country. Exactly what it will be like, no-one knows.

There will be strife and woe, and there will certainly be many fewer people than there are now. How we get there matters. We can't just sit back and watch and mourn. We must navigate these hard times, these rough times, these stormy straits. But they won't be the End Times.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Winter in America

Except for a brief interlude, I have lived in the city my entire adult life, but a few years ago, I bought some raw land in Windham County and built, largely with my own hands, a house and barn. It's in a farm town. The town center has a general store, a post office, two churches, and a combination auto repair/tractor repair/general tinkering business. Yes, there is a cannon and a gazebo on the green. It's an 8 mile drive to anything resembling a supermarket, and that barely qualifies.

I'm finally moving in, but only part time, because I still have a job in the big city -- 45 miles away. I've been writing a blog called Stayin' Alive for many years now, which focuses on my professional interests in public health and medicine. Now, I've found myself thinking (and feeling) more and more about the new, rural world I'm just getting to know, and wanting to write more personal material. Getting out of the city somehow makes me more reflective, or reflective in a different way, but I don't want to derail Stayin' Alive. And so this new platform.

From my lonely outpost in the woods, our national experiment, which looked hopeful when I was young, seems exhausted, running down into failure. If there is hope for us, I believe we will only find it with the help of deep introspection and the courage to confront all the painful truths that surround us. So I hope we can do some of that here.

How and when people will find this I don't know. People found Stayin' Alive, one by one, over the years, so perhaps that will happen here as well. I do not expect to write every day, maybe only once or twice a week, and I'm told that discourages traffic. Not a concern. I'll write anyway, when I have something to say.