Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Commerce and the human condition

Today is the annual Coming of the Seed Catalogs, which reliably arrive in my PO box in late December. This is commonly an inspirational moment for writers -- it manifests the essential symbolism of the solstice, the newly lengthening days initiating the gestation of reborn nature in the coming spring and all that.

But I'm too cynical for all that. The merchants know that seed catalogs will be a lot of fun to look at this time of year, so we'll do it. They hope that by getting in at the beginning of our spring fever, we'll turn to them instead of the competition. And they hope our fantasies of abundance will exceed the size of our garden plots and our endurance for sweaty brows and we'll end up buying mass quantities.

They're probably right. But this time, by golly, I really am going to assiduously cultivate 800 square feet and grow enough onions and carrots, and bottle enough tomato sauce, to last me all winter. Just you wait.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Firewood Business

I haven't bought any firewood for at least 15 years, when I lived in the city. I can get all I need from deadfall on my own and my neighbor's property. He has a lot of acreage on which, for some reason, the trees tend to fall down more than they do on mine, and (he claims) he can't use a chainsaw because his ex-wife made him promise he wouldn't, even though he now has no positive regard for her. Whatever. There are other opportunities to scrounge. For example my brother and I recently dealt with overgrown vegetation at my mother's place and I got a good truckload of firewood out of  the deal.  In fact my only problem right now is that I don't have enough space to shed everything.

But that's not the point of this post, except to demonstrate that I know the time, effort and investment in equipment required to shed a cord of firewood. Around here, it sells for about $200, and believe me, if you're making $20 an hour you are Hercules.  It's really hard work, you have to constantly maintain the equipment, which means spending money on chains, fuel mix and oil, and small engine repair, not to mention the investment in your truck and tractor (which is pretty much necessary if you're dealing with big trunks and needing to pull stuff out of the woods and load heavy pieces). Also, before you can sell it, you have to shed it for a year.

Unfortunately for Karl Marx, this pretty much shoots down the labor theory of value. There just aren't enough people who want to buy it in bulk to soak up the supply, and the market has a lot of friction. It's too bulky and heavy to be worth moving long distances, for the most part, so you have to find your buyers nearby. I understand there are people who will haul firewood to Manhattan and get a better price, and then there are those ridiculous little bundles of six logs sitting outside the supermarket in plastic wrap with a $6.95 price tag or whatever it is. But that's a very narrow channel.

 I have a probably impractical idea of making a deal with Home Depot, and setting up an operation on the edge of the parking lot -- there's a lot of open space at the Windham location -- with a truck scale, a lot of shed space, and log splitters. Guys can bring in their green, unprocessed material and we'll pay them for it on the spot -- much less than final retail but they won't have to go through all the hassles. We'd do it by weight, not by volume, but whatever the weight equivalent is of a typical cord of green hardwood we'd buy for say, $100. Then we'd section it, split it and shed it, and sell it a year later for $225 or something. (Convenient location, trusted business, top quality guaranteed.) We'd also sell odd sizes for less, and kindling. And we could dicker up and down with people who brought in stuff already processed, or lower quality. Then you'd have a much better functioning market.

Of course, I wouldn't want to encourage people to start clearing land for fuel, but I don't think much of that would happen. It just isn't worth it. We'd be getting material from people cutting roads and clearing house sites, cleaning up deadfall and tree work, and we'd be preventing it from going to waste. If it decomposes, it's going to put it's carbon back into the atmosphere anyway, so you might as well extract the heat on the way, I figure. Not going to happen though.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


As usually happens when it's unusually warm here in winter, we have a dense fog. Actually it has never been this warm in Connecticut on December 24, since people here had thermometers. Today is just the culmination of the warmest December in general. It's certainly let me conserve my wood pile and it's made life generally easier. The squirrels are literally swarming in the woods, and looking fat. Life is easy for most of the critters, but not the ones who normally hide from raptors under the snow.

Now, here in southern New England we expect a lot of variation in the weather. It's not at all unusual to have warm spells during the winter, and some winters are milder than others in general.  As you know, last winter turned extremely cold and snowy in January and stayed that way through March. The prognosticators say we should expect more precipitation in winter here in the coming decades; the question is whether it gets warm enough for much of it to be rain, or for the snow to melt quickly. Until then, more snow will make winters seem harsh, even if the temperatures are tending to rise.

Whatever humanity manages to do about burning fossil fuel, the climate will continue to change, so we need to accept the consequences. One of the worst things for this neck of the woods will be if the hemlocks all die. When I bought this property the forester I hired to do prep work told me they were doomed because of the woolly adelgids. But we had some winter mornings that were cold enough (-6 F.) to kill the insects. If that stops happening, they'll come back, and the hemlock groves will turn into ghostly gray monuments to our folly. I can't bear to think about it.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Mysterious semiotics

I know I'm supposed to do some sort of philosophical musing on the solstice, but I'll pass. It happens every year and now the days start getting longer, yea!

However, I do want to talk about a puzzle. Tuckie road is a town road in Windham, basically a country lane with a cornfield at one end and a trailer park on the other, with modest houses on 1 or 2 acre lots in between. Also a new regional magnet school. It carries a lot of traffic, however, because it links Windham Center and points south and west with a commercial stretch of Rte 6 with big box stores, and headed in the other direction UCONN and Hartford.

So one of the local yokels has a yard filled with dozens of junk trucks and heavy equipment. A weird thing to collect. He has also hung two enormous confederate battle flags from trees in his front yard. It is highly unlikely he is celebrating his southern heritage, as I will be very surprised if this guy (and the junk does say guy) has ever set foot south of the Mason-Dixon line. It is not in fact that unusual to see confederate flags, as for example substituting for the front license plate of a town fire captain in Canterbury, or as decals on the back window of a truck just above the gun rack.

So what are these people intending to proclaim to the world? They must think they are saying something meaningful. What might that be?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Communing with nature

My university basically closes down between Christmas and January 2. I could go in -- my access card would let me into the building -- and I have work to do, but I don't know how productive I would be sitting in the building by myself. So I'll probably hang out here in the woods all week.

That's actually something I have never done before. I'm hoping I can maybe work on that book I've been wanting to write, get my chops back on the saxophone. If the weather stays mild I can work on some landscaping. I still have a big pile of dirt that came from where my basement used to be and I'm using it to build up some low spots. With my little tractor that's a slow process. I might also finally get around to setting up my workshop, or at least starting to.

Let's hope I get something accomplished.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sandy Hook

Yesterday was the third anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school. It's across the state from me, but being within the political boundaries still made it feel close to home. Also, my brother-in-law grew up nearby and I've driven through the area.

Millions of people produced various musings on the event yesterday, so I'm not going to bother with the politics or the moral meaning, or the grotesque phenomenon of denialism. What I will remark on is the way in which memory is physically embodied. The damage to the school building could have been repaired for no more than a few thousand dollars; but instead, in a referendum, the townspeople voted overwhelmingly to tear it down and build a new school for some $57 million, of which the state contributed the bulk of the money. The town also acquired the perpetrator's house, which his family lawyer arranged through a series of transactions so they would not acquire it directly from the estate; and demolished it, leaving the land permanently open.

So the house was unsaleable and uninhabitable, and the school unusable, because they were marked with the memory of horror. There was no alternative but to eradicate them, at whatever cost it required. Sometimes, we take the opposite view, and insist on reclaiming morally tainted spaces. Think of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater, which ultimately reopened in what was widely seen as a positive gesture of defiance; or for that matter the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts that was attacked by John Salvi, which also reopened.. It will be interesting to see what happens with the civic building in San Bernardino.

I wonder what makes the difference?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Indian Summer

The unusually mild autumn is happening in most of the country -- the scientists are saying something about el niƱo, maybe they're right. While I could say we deserve it after the past hellish winter I'm still hoping we get some deep cold in January because without it, pests from the south will continue to invade.

That said, it's been a great luxury. My parsley, believe it or not, is still growing. We've had some hard freezes, but it turns out parsley can take it, as long as the afternoons warm up. I even have  a bit of fresh mint that came back after the freeze. And my garlic is looking like it's May already. Of course it will have to go to sleep again soon.

I have not only conserved firewood -- even went out of town twice without even having to turn on any heat, came back to a moderately cool house that warmed right up once I fired up the stove. I build a fire when I get home from work, then just let it burn out overnight and wait till the next evening to start another. No problem. I also picked up some stuff from an old pile of my neighbors that he neglected. It's a few years old and it's over the hill, but the main problem is just that it's wet. I've gotten it shedded and with this weather, it's drying out nicely and I'll be able to use it right away.

On top of that the ground isn't frozen so I'm still working on landscaping. It's all supposed to come to and end in about a week with some real winter cold -- as if they know. I'm selfish enough to wish it wouldn't, on one level, but on another I know it's for the best. 

What it will be like here in December 10 years from now, however, I do wonder about.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Huskies

This may seem an unusual topic for me, but I get to write about whatever matters to folks around here. Connecticut doesn't have any major league sports teams, except for the WNBA Suns, and so far women's professional basketball doesn't get a huge audience. People in the east of the state lean toward the Red Sox and Patriots, and in the west they lean toward the New York Teams.

We do, however, have UConn basketball.  The state fathers (and I do mean fathers) decided a few years back that UConn really needs a powerhouse division 1 football program, but so far that has been a debacle. (I am happy to say, and I hope it stays that way.) Both the men's and women's basketball programs, however, have brought home championships -- in fact they've both done it in the same year, twice. Basketball costs much less money than football, and doesn't cause brain damage, which seems like two big advantages.

What really stands out about UConn however is the women's program, which has been dominating the sport for a couple of decades under the leadership of coach Geno Auriemma. They've made it to the NCAA tournament every year since 1989, first won the championship in 1995, and have won
it 9 times since, including the past 3 years in a row, and they are heavy favorites to win again this year. They are the most popular team in the state, every game is on TV and they have rabid fans of both genders.

The women's game had to learn from men when it was first getting started, which is why you still see a lot of male head coaches in the women's game. You don't see female head coaches in the men's game, which obviously needs to change. However, Auriemma has done his part, mentoring many women who have gone on to be head coaches elsewhere.

The problem right now is that they are too dominant. Most of their games are ridiculous blowouts; there are maybe two or three teams in the country that can even give them a game, but probably nobody who can beat them. The reason is that so far, there aren't enough elite players to go around. The best all want to come to UConn because they want to win championships, obviously, so Geno has his pick of the two or three he wants. Then the rest just can't populate enough other teams to create competition.

This is like the UCLA dynasty under John Wooden. I don't know if it's good for women's basketball in the long run -- it's probably a phase they have to go through, and it does create fans at least in one state, and motivates people elsewhere to beat them. But as people, the women already beat the men. The players are humble, work hard, don't act like jerks on or off the court, and aren't expecting to get rich after they graduate either. They just do it because they love it. So I watch.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

How the woods grew back

As I've mentioned before, I think, in the 19th century most of the New England woods were cleared -- not so much for farmland or pasture, but for charcoal. Itinerant charcoal burners would pay the local landowners for the privilege of clearing a tract of land and making charcoal from the wood. The farmers would then often do a desultory job of removing the worst of the rocks and use the land for pasture, but much of it wasn't really good farmland and there wasn't that much demand for more farmland in New England back then anyway.

So the woods actually started to grow back in the 20th Century as petroleum took the place of charcoal in smelters and forges. The so-called stone walls that run through the woods today are evidence of the clearing, but they aren't really walls. They're just where the farmers dumped the rocks. Sometimes they mark an old property boundary but more often not, and there is no art to their construction, they're just piles.

Of course the new woods aren't like the old ones. For on thing there aren't any chestnuts or elms. But I suspect the large tracts of oak and pine are also less diverse than the old growth forest. What I observe is that beeches tends to fill in first on the edges of clearings, while the oaks and hemlocks fill in behind. Occasionally you'll come across a solitary giant beech in the midst of the oak forest, but at this point in my neck of the woods these are likely to be dead, remnants of the first stage of regrowth.

There are other markers of human intervention, such as the white pine plantation that runs along the road at a depth of about 200 feet. That I'm told was planted about 70 years ago, and the original plantings are starting to die. The understory is mixed with a lot of hardwood moving in, but for whatever reason the hemlocks haven't been able to get started among the pine trees.

Since the largest top predators are gone, the fauna would be different anyway. But the wildlife is still moving in. Black bears have been spreading east and south and there are now a few in Connecticut. This is just in the past few years. You'd see the occasional fox even when I was a kid, but now there are bobcats, quite a new development. Turkeys were scarce until maybe 20 years ago, now they are common. We're also seeing more fishers and smaller ferrets. Raccoons are largely nocturnal -- I only see them as roadkill, but they're here obviously, along with skunks and possums. I won't even start on the birds, voles, and snakes. So there's plenty to see. These creatures have moved in from smaller refuges; it's impossible to say how the mixture is different from what was here before.

So the situation is still evolving quickly. People feared the invasive woolly adelgid would kill off the hemlocks, but fortunately we had a couple of cold winters that set them back. If that doesn't keep happening, however, which it probably won't, they'll return.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

I'm back

After a long hiatus that I can't really explain, except to say that I didn't play the saxophone either during the interval, Windham County is back in business. We've had quite a mild autumn, which we deserve after the hellish winter of 2014-2015. Except that it really only lasted from mid-January to March. So this is not necessarily a sign of anything.

It has meant that I've been very easy on the woodpile, and I might even manage to get a year or more ahead. That's not bad for an old guy. To otherwise bring you up to date ecologically, the deer herd is wildly out of control. I see them every day, they're a constant hazard on the roads, and the woods have almost no understory. This is a real problem. People do hunt, but not nearly enough.

It's really impossible to escape the problems we humans have caused for the planet. No matter how deep in the woods you are, our impact is immense. In this case, it happened long ago when we removed the wolves, panthers, and native humans, and then in the past 50 years let the woods grow back.  Once the deer population exploded, the woods changed, and aren't regenerating properly.  So I don't know where it goes from here.

I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


The common view seems to be that the meteorological haruspexes are guilty of overhype and unnecessarily fomenting mass hysteria because the recent storm turned out to be no big deal in New York City. I wish you all to know that there is life outside of Manhattan. When I went to bed Monday night there was  coating of snow. When I woke up, there was two feet. I struggled all morning to get the driveway open with my little tractor but it was impossible. And it kept snowing. All day. We wound up with more than 30 inches.

That is a huge amount of snow in one dump. I wound up hiring a guy with a honking F-150 who managed to open a road to my house. But before the days of F-150s, country folk who got hit with snow had to wade through it to the stable and hitch up the sleigh if they wanted to go anywhere. No fun for the horses, I expect. The Indians had snowshoes but it must have been a hard time for them. According to William Cronon (Changes in the Land), they just took it as normal to be hungry all winter.

So that's two days I couldn't get to work. Not the end of the world but still a disruptive event. I am now frustrated, tired and grumpy.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Athletic non-competition

Here in the otherwise great state of Connecticut, the only major league professional sports team we have is the WNBA Mohegan Suns, and let's face it, professional women's basketball is not that impactful.

So, it's out UConn basketball teams that get all the attention, and the women's team even more so because they win all the time. The problem is that there isn't enough talent to go around in NCAA women's basketball, so there are only four teams in the country that are competitive. We already know who the Final Four will be. Meanwhile, in conference play, the Huskies smash everybody, ending games with two or three times as many points. The whole season is just cupcake after cupcake.

Whether this will be good for the team's popularity in the long run is hard to say. It's fun  to win but watching these games just makes you cringe. You would think the success of the team would encourage high school girl's basketball in the state but in fact the only Connecticut natives on the roster are two walk-ons who only play in garbage time. Well, the entire last 30 minutes of every game are garbage time but what I really mean is the last 3 or 4 minutes. They could be regulars, of course, on any of the opposing teams.

How long can this go on?