Friday, June 29, 2012

Honest labor

I'm harvesting romaine, broccoli and basil. Even though they aren't quite mature, when I need an onion or a bulb of garlic I pull one. Michelle Obama is right to encourage more people to do this. It doesn't necessarily represent much of a monetary gain, unless you get really ambitious. But it does encourage you to make fresh vegetables the centerpiece of your meals. And, once my Brandywine tomatoes start to ripen, it will give me something that is impossible to buy in the grocery store. As the summer matures, I'll be bringing in unlimited quantities of peas, lima beans and sweet corn.

It's also a bit of physical work, which most people don't do any more, which is a major reason we are dying of fatness. I also spent a bit of time today digging out rocks, which I must do to expand the extent of lawnmower friendly regime and ultimately create the orchards and gardens of my dreams.

If you pay attention to the world around you, it will become apparent, without the effort of getting a geology degree, that creationists are nuts. The story the geologists tell is that the formation to my south and east once called the Outer Lands -- Long Island, Block Island, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod, along with the smaller island and shallow seas around them, is the terminal moraine of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Here in my little part of the Shetucket River valley, on the steep hillsides including right behind my house, are exposures of the bedrock, which is a beautiful shale filled with mica, gray with ruddy stripes. It spalls apart over the centuries into flat and square pieces.

I have the notoriously rocky New England soil. Anywhere I put down a shovel, I hit rock. A lot of it is that local bedrock, but a lot of it is not -- there are chunks of granite, quartz cobbles, all sorts of stuff I can't name offhand. But it all obviously came from somewhere else, and got dumped here in a big pile that eventually got covered over with soil and silt and clay washed down the hill and vegetation grew and died. I can easily uncover that story with a few swings of the pick.

True enough, I need somebody to explain to me that this was all scraped out of New Hampshire and Massachusetts by a glacier that flowed through this valley until 14,000 years ago. But that makes sense. It is consistent with what I see. That a supernatural being put it there for no apparent reason is not an explanation.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Location, Location, Location!

My property here is about 18 acres, with a nice two bedroom house with an attached green house, a 1,200 square foot barn, a super-luxe fancy woodshed, and other cool stuff. It's appraised value is about half the value of the 1,200 square foot condo in Boston that I recently sold, which was half of a two-family house that sat on about 2,000 square feet of land.

But, my property taxes here are about twice what I paid in Boston. As you can see, I don't get a whole lot for it. In Boston, I got free trash pick up every week. Here I have to pay a fee in order to drive my own trash to the dump, which is actually in a neighboring town. In Boston -- specifically Jamaica Plain -- there would likely be a cop within eyesight whenever I walked down Centre St. Here, we do not have a police department at all. Last year, we had exactly one snowstorm that merited plowing the streets. They didn't. Of course everybody has four wheel drive so who cares? And, as you can see, they don't maintain the streets in the summer either. (That's okay, I think it's kind of charming and the bunny rabbits love to hang out in the roadside shrubbery.)

The reason for this is easy to explain. This town has no industry except for farming, and farmland is for all practical purposes untaxed. The only commerce is a general store, a chainsaw shop, an auto repair business, and a campground. Boston has skyscrapers and $400 a night hotels. But we still have to educate the kids. The only place to get the money is from residential property taxes, and that's where it goes.

I'm all for educating kids, and I can afford it, so I'm not complaining. Much. However, the property tax as the basic source of funding for public education makes no sense. It's just not proportionate to people's means. There are folks whose families have lived here for 300 years, who own charming old houses that are worth at least as much as mine, who are lucky to make a modest living. Residential property taxes hurt retired folks, even though they get a break, and can drive people out of their homes if they lose their job or suffer a setback of any kind, even if they don't have a mortgage. And, it means the schools are much better funded where the property is worth more, which ipso facto means the people are richer.

Not that it's gonna happen, but the right way to do this is a progressive, statewide income tax big enough to pay for public education everywhere in the state, that gets distributed back to the local school districts. Dream on.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Well, mine at least, but come to think of it they probably get a federal grant for all the military-type gear . . . What I'm talking about: I hired the kid next door to help me paint my house, he's like 13. So last Sunday I'm up on a ladder and the pot chopper flies right over us. It seemed like it was about eight feet above my head. We heard a nasty snarl coming at us, louder and louder, until right as it passed over the sound nearly blew out my ear drums. "Whoa," said the kid, "That helicopter had a gun." Yep, they had a 50 caliber machine gun sticking out the door. I explained to him that it was the state police and they were looking for marijuana farms in the state forest. "Why don't they just walk around?" said the kid. "I know where there are two of them." The reason is, obviously, that state police don't like to stumble around in the woods getting lost and mosquito-bitten. They like to fly around in military helicopters with machine guns. A couple of years ago they did manage to spot some plants. I wasn't around that day but the neighbors tell me they set up a military style encampment in a cornfield and headed up into the woods wearing black Nazi storm-trooper style uniforms with body armor and their pants tucked into their boots. They came back down with six little plants. Let's get clear about something. Anybody growing pot in the woods around here is not the Zeta cartel and they aren't up there defending their operation with automatic weapons. They're local teenagers and underemployed roofers who are hoping to get a few ounces of bud for the lonely winter and maybe make a few hundred bucks. Now I realize it's conservation land and it's supposed to be left to its natural devices and all that except for hunters, and they probably can't just say what the heck, you wanna grow weed up there knock yourself out. But this is ridiculous.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Man vs. Nature

Yesterday I did what I call a Big Mow, which means riding around on the tractor for a good 2 1/2 hours, followed by cleaning up with the push mower and the weed whacker to whatever extent I feel up for. This happens maybe four or five times a year, with more frequent maintenance of my front lawn and orchard. The jungle strives relentlessly to reclaim what I have won at great expense and labor, but I am always working not just to hold the line, but to push it outward.

I've thrown some grass seed around my front lawn, but otherwise I just mow whatever wants to be there. Oh yeah, I did seed some white dutch clover when I first cleared the land, on the advice of a farmer friend, because it fixes nitrogen and will help build up the soil over the years. It's established itself pretty well in some places.

Mowing promotes a grassy regime, even without further intervention. But the native grasses of New England have been competing with introduced European turf grasses and hay now for 500 years. The native grass that wants to grow here is nimblewill. Some hayseed has blown in from nearby fields, and other grasses form sod patches here and there. The dandelions and plantain weeds, by the way, are also European imports.

No doubt there are among you some who, like Ted Kaczynski, would object to my endless battle to subdue nature -- with the use of fossil fuel, no less. (I could get some sheep or goats if I wanted to be a bit less offensive.) But it turns out to be more complicated than that.

The southern New England landscape was dominated by meadows, with only remnant forest, for hundreds of years, after the Europeans had cleared it for pasture and fuel. And the faunal regime adapted. Many of our most charismatic species are actually in decline as the woods have reconquered the landscape, including the eastern cottontail rabbit and many species of birds. I posted a picture of a barred owl a couple of years ago. In fact we have at least two of them, that we sometimes hear yelling at each other, presumably over territorial boundaries. They profit from the voles that depend on the grassland I maintain.

The same goes for my grass snakes, toads, and who knows what else. The fringe of the woods is full of raspberries that I'm sure are helping to support songbirds. In short, the diversity of ecological niches created by human intervention is essential to the New England we have come to know and consider "natural." There was nothing "wrong" with the vast, unbroken forest of the Indians, but that wasn't exactly natural either. They kept the understory thin by lighting fires, so they could travel and hunt more easily; and they created small, temporary clearings by girdling trees, for gardening.

Take away the people, whatever their form of society and technological regime, and you have a different nature. Every creature modifies its environment. Can you truly say we have more impact than the oak trees, or the deer, or the earthworm?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Amateur Natural History

I'm in Miami right now, and what with traveling yesterday didn't take the time to tell this little story so here goes. I was in my field yesterday morning when I heard a sound down in the bushes that sounded sort of, but not quite, like a dog barking, with commotion of a large animal.

Then a deer came shooting out of the woods, bounding at warp speed from some unseen menace, and it was the deer that was making the barking noise. I went on-line to check out audio of white tailed deer vocalizations, and I didn't find anything like it. More of an "oof oof off" than a dog's bark maybe. Presumably it's an alarm call, so hunters wouldn't want to imitate it, which would explain why I couldn't find a sample.

Oh yeah, in case you didn't know, deer make a lot of vocalizations, connected with mating, buck fighting over mates, mothers calling children, and calling together herds. But they're mostly rather quiet, more like clicks and rumbles than yelps.

For unknown reasons, I'll see deer in groups of any size from solitary animals, to pairs, to herds of a dozen or more. Why they form these fluid groups at times, and at times are alone, I have no idea. Turkeys are the same way, except that the possible size of a turkey flock is unlimited, as far as I know. Once I went down to the field and there were a hundred of them there, wall to wall over a good half an acre. Other times you'll see two or three. Of course you'll see a mother with chicks, and sometimes the mothers pair up so you'll see two of them with all their chicks together. Why? Beats me.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Yesterday it rained all day, and I went a little stir crazy. Would have been a good time to do a post, actually, not sure why I waited till now.

Anyway, I shouldn't complain. It was a timely rain -- a couple of recent storms have mostly missed us to the north and west. We're lucky to have plenty of water here. None of the local corn fields are irrigated, but I have never known the crop to fail.

One of humanity's many great follies has been to establish vast agricultural regimes in arid places, fed by "fossil water." That's water trapped deep underground since ancient times, which is not being replenished, or replenishes very slowly. A recent study, in fact, <a href="">claimed that 42% of the rise in sea level since the beginning of the last century resulted from people pumping out fossil water</a>, which of course eventually makes its way to the sea. This seemed incredible to most experts, and the linked post largely debunks it. Still, the only reason it's maybe bunk is because we partly counteract the effect by trapping a lot of water in reservoirs.

I speak of folly because, obviously, you can't keep doing this forever. <a href="">Twenty seven percent of the irrigated farmland in the U.S. depends on the Ogallala Aquifer</a>, which at the present rate, will be pumped dry in about 25 years, according to best estimates. And then what happens to Kansas? According to most Kansans, God put that water there 6,000 years ago, and now in a couple of hundred years, it's gone. Scientists think it's been there since at least before the last glaciation, in other words more than 20,000 years and probably longer. Either way, it's folly.