Saturday, December 15, 2012

There is still... better Christmas song than "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues.

Addendum: I should qualify this: Christmas song with lyrics. "Linus and Lucy" is pretty awesome.

Monday, December 03, 2012


We knelt together on the cool damp ground as the afternoon sun fell behind the forest, diminishing light slanting long shadows across the garden rows. With fork and hand we delved the dark row, groping blindly through the dirt for the few tubers hiding there un-mole-sted. For every root, a rock; for every rock, a root. And we slowly picked clod-by-clod and morsel-by-morsel, tossing away the weeds, dried stalks and tendrils. By the time we reached the end of the tiny little furrow, we had both a greatly increased pile of freshly liberated rocks and a bucket piled high with potatoes of all sizes and colors. Red, white, blue and green, the size of a pea to the size of an Irishman's clenched fist.

With our early winter prize gathered, we scrubbed the clinging dirt from our hands and from beneath our nails, then returned to the garden table to sit and share perhaps the last glass of wine there for the season. When the sun was gone and the long December twilight was faded, we took our bucket of potatoes and scrubbed them, then sorted the best to keep for later. We supped on a peasant's feast of freshly dug multicolored potatoes, boiled with a little salt and served with simple leftover turkey gravy.

Not bad; not bad at all.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Recipe for Beer—The Infamous Snowpocalypse Porter

Snowpocalypse Porter—February 10, 2010 (Round 2 of the Blizzards of 2010)
2 lbs. Wasmund's smoked malt
2 lbs 120-l malt
2 lbs Chocolate malt
1 lb honey
½ lb Blackstrap molasses
½ lb Molasses
1 tsp gypsum
3 quarts water from melted snow
Step mash
Initial gravity 1.052
Chilled wort in snowbank, which is remarkable inefficient unless you are constantly fiddling with it.


We have two champagne bottles of this stuff left, and we haven't tasted it in well over a year. We will be killing those off sometime over the holidays, so keeping fingers crossed...could be spectacular.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cattle Egret

A few days ago, we were driving through the county to visit our friend's little dairy, when something moving off in the distance caught our attention.

It was a bird, brilliant white in the low-slanting sunlight of the morning, flying gracefully and purposefully towards the northwest. Both its brightness and it's flight pattern were distinctive, but at such a distance we had a difficult time identifying it. As we arrived, it flew behind the crest of the hill and disappeared.

As we went about our business at the dairy, my curiosity got the better of me. After asking permission—of course—I unchained the twin metal gates and quietly as I could, entered the adjoining field. Securing the gate behind me, I walked cross-country slowly and deliberately through the field, among the dozens of cows and calf grazing there, towards the crest, scanning the horizon as I went for any sign of the bird.

As I reached the ridge, there was a flash of white downhill to my left. There the bird stood in all its brilliance. It was tall and elegant, and as best I could see, pure white from wingtip to wingtip and head to tail. It moved with great poise and consideration through the russet grasses, plucking seeds and insects as it went. It studied its surroundings with great care and diligence, and seemed utterly serene.

From time to time, it would take flight for a few yards, moving to a new patch of grass to feed. And when it arrived in a new location, it paid no attention to the residents in place—calf, cow, steer or border collie. It simply went about its business with great focus. At one point, a calf, seemingly annoyed by the bird, charged it and ran after it for a few yards; the bird simply flew just a few feet ahead of the calf until it tired of the effort. It did the same for the border collie, who seemed to feel this avian intruder was not showing the proper respect.

But in a few minutes, the most amazing thing occurred. The same tan calf (or an identical looking one) slowly moved closer to the bird. For a brief moment, the two stood motionless, face-to-face, addressing one another. "There is no veil."

Then they simply went about their respective businesses.

It turns out the bird was a Cattle Egret, not common to this area, but not unknown. We are on the edge of their natural range. They are well known for their commensal relationship with livestock, feeding on insects drawn to and stirred up by the livestock. The livestock neither particularly benefit from, nor are harmed by, their presence. They seem to have no natural distrust for the animals surrounding them that dwarf them, but instead get along with them in an admirable display of neighborliness.

Its graceful flight, brilliant plumage and regal, assured presence made the Cattle Egret one of the most impressive birds I have ever seen in person. I'm very glad I decided to take that little walk into the field to see what I could see.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Road To Kilmarnock

On a cold gray November morning, I am driving to Kilmarnock, a small town at the distal end of Virginia's Northern Neck. The neck is bounded by the Potomac on the north and the Rappahanock on the south; at its tip is the Chesapeake. The land is mostly flat sandy farmland punctuated with rich stands of pine and long walls of grey-brown oaks with their leaves around their ankles. The spine of the Northern Neck is a long, low dwindling ridge breaking the flatness and adding some twistiness to the roads. Soybeans are being harvested today by giant John Deere combines; corn is long gone from the fields, leaving only the rough stubble of its stalks behind.

I travel Route 3, a state highway that begins in the Piedmont at Culpeper, crosses the Fall line at Fredericksburg before meandering down the coastal plain and ending in Gloucester. It waxes and wanes on its way to the waterside, first four lanes, then two, then four again so many times over that it's hard to keep track. I note that every time it dwindles to two lanes, the driver ahead prefers to drive at least ten miles below the speed limit. This phenomena, and the astonishing length of the Northern Neck—after a short time driving, I reach what I assume to be the midpoint. It is not; I still have almost an hour and a half ahead of me—contributes to my sense of having been driving for ever and that I will never, ever, reach Kilmarnock.

I was wise to leave my arrival time vague.

A few miles shy of Kilmarnock, I crest a gentle rise and see in the distance a figure walking on the shoulder amid the wind-blown leaves. Though he is walking determinedly, with his back to me, I can tell by his posture he is hitchhiking. As if in confirmation, he hears my approach and turns to stick out his thumb. I have already changed lanes and begun to slow down.

He trots along the shoulder to where I have stopped. (I am always glad when hitchhikers do that; there is nothing more infuriating that a dawdling hitchhiker.) The front seat is full of a jumble of things, so I reach back and open the rear door so there will be no confusion. I am slightly embarrassed for making him ride in the back, but there is only so much...

He ducks in gratefully, trailing a nimbus of stale cigarette smoke behind him. He extends a scarred and calloused hand for me to shake, and thanks me profusely for stopping. I run through the obligatory preliminaries—how long you been out there, how far you heading, and so on, and find myself pleased that though my long and arduous trek to Kilmarnock is nearly done, I am still going just far enough to get him to his destination.

He tells me his story.

He is a plasterer. Not a drywall man, but a real plasterer. He was called out to a job first thing this morning and hitched there, but the lead was called off to another site and there was nothing for him to do. So he is heading home late in the morning, not a dime richer and hoping tomorrow will work out better. I surmise a lifetime of working with alkali is responsible for the condition of his hands.

“We're working on an older hoese, maybe from the 1830's. The original lintels over the windows were made of plaster, but they've rotted oat over the years. Instead of rebuilding them with plaster, we're building them up from cement. The final finish we'll do with plaster, so they look right.” 
“The hoese has walls that are two feet thick, ceilings ten, twelve feet high. The lintels themselves are eight feet up, so everything we do, we gotta do from either up on a stepladder or on scaffolding. It's tough. And there are a lot of windows...” he trailed off and gestured out the window. We had arrived. 

He exits the car and thanks me once again. I had spent four, maybe five minutes with him, and it was like stepping back into the 18th century; his trade, his description of his work, his self-reliant demeanor, his generous attitude. But mostly his ancient Virginia accent, with its distinctive bending of vowels that still maintains here and there, mostly in those low places close to the saltwater. It is the still-living language of the English who came here sometime between the founding of the country and the Civil War, and it is beautiful to hear it being spoken in a land where we have lost almost all marks of regional distinction.

Really glad I stopped. No idea why I did.

Also: This timely piece.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Missing Beast

Gaaah. I'm stuck here for the fifth day as a pedestrian in this dystopian stripmall flatscape, with perfect weather and a ragged inability to get a good night's sleep. I really think an hour or so of quality time with Beast would go a long way to smoothing the rough edges of my tired-out brain right now.

If I was gonna be stuck here for very much longer, I'd track down that place I looked up that rents bikes and pay for an afternoon's worth of riding in circles.

And it's weird: even the BMW riders here don't wear helmets and they aren't in Aerostich suits. Go figure.


I'm not sure what brought this to mind recently, but I was reminded of an incident from a long time ago, that seems more remarkable every time I reflect on it.

I was about fourteen or fifteen, my exact age doesn't really matter. I was a member of the Explorers, which I refused to acknowledge was in any was associated with the Boy Scouts. Regardless of its affiliation, the organization presented an opportunity to escape the stifling confines of suburbia one weekend a month and get out into the woods with a small cadre of like-minded miscreants.

In any case. Besides my hanging with a tough crowd of middle class white teenagers, my parents also owned a share of a farmhouse in the shadow of the Blue Ridge in Sperryville, just a couple of miles from the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park.

So I had the bright idea of heading out with the Explorers on a weekend trip to Shenandoah, and using that as a launching point for an epic day hike beginning at Skyline Drive and following the Piney River down Old Hollow to Apple Hill.

In fact, I may have actually, um, you know, helped plan a weekend trip for the Explorers—a circuit hike, you know—for the rest of them. I'm kinda sketchy on those details at this point. So, on a fine spring Saturday, we piled into the van and left Arlington for Shenandoah National Park and Skyline

Drive with a mixed bag of understandings of what was going to transpire. At the trailhead, we parked the Green Monster and saddled up—them with their full packs with tents and sleeping bags, me with my daypack...

We set off down the trail, and as I was kinda fleet of foot, I got out in front of everyone. Of course, I was also not encumbered by a full pack, so had a bit of an advantage. So I hiked like a boy possessed, and within a few short minutes, I was alone in the wilds, making a solid four-plus mile an hour pace. I still can recall how the wind felt and how the air smelled that day.

The trail began along the ridge, then dropped down to follow the stream valley. By noon I was near the park boundary, and by a little after one I had arrived at Apple Hill and had lunch with my family.

But, strangely, I had never thought to mention my plans to Bill, our Explorer post advisor - chaperone -  resident adult. I'm not sure I even explained things to any of my peers in any great detail. In my mind, I wasn't participating in an Explorer outing; I was simply catching a convenient ride out to the mountains with them.

From an adult perspective, I can't imaging what must have gone through Bill's mind that evening when the group assembled at the campsite with one fewer hiker than they began with. I never really did find out, and I don't recall our ever speaking of it later. I know that if some little smart ass pulled a stunt like that on me, I'd make sure we had an understanding once we were both back in the world.

What gets me is recalling exactly how this made perfect sense at the time, though in hindsight it seems the very epitome of obliviousness. As a young teen, I passed through the world like a shade, wrapped in a self-sustaining mantle of invisibility. I left no trace, made no mark, had no impact, made no difference. So I completely believe it—and sympathize—when young people do dazzlingly dumb or inconsiderate or thoughtless or ridiculous things. It's likely they lack any way to gauge,  no way to recognize that they make a mark on the world, however faltering or tentative that mark may be. 

We need to remember that for the first decade or so of our consciousness, we really don't make much impact on the world at large, and perhaps the greatest revelation of growing up is that moment when you reach out and the world resonates beneath your touch. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

XKCD remembers Hurricane Zeta

In regard to this: I present:

Thank you, Randall Munroe for this and all the XKCD awesomeness you have rendered. Original version here

Addison through the Looking Glass

My day began under a tormented gray sky, blowing a thick layer of pine needles from the roof and skylights and flashing and gutters, then policing the odds and ends subject to being wind-tossed from the open spaces, then felling the massive, spectral skeleton of a pine tree which menaced the turkey yard and which nearly menaced me...all while the temperature slowly fell and the winds slowly rose.

But shortly I found myself six miles above some vaguely discernible part of the south in an airplane packed every cubic inch with restive travelers and their Brobdingnagian rolling suitcases and ubiquitous iFarkles. On arrival, despite the boogeyman of checked luggage, my bag reaches the concourse seconds before I. I have arrived in a broad, flat tan landscape strewn with scores of mirror-faced office buildings gleaming like chunks of galena shattering the light of the setting sun. In the east the gibbous moon takes ownership of the sky. I feel like I have been teleported into a terrarium.

I ditch my bags, shuck my travelling clothes and spend my first hour just walking around taking stock of my new neighborhood and getting my bearings. The air cools down quickly with so little humidity to hold the day's warmth, and it is warmer here than at home during the day but colder at night. In Texas. Go figure. On a Sunday night, late to me, the traffic is manic, hostile and unrelenting.

And the birds...there is some kind of dark flocking bird, similar to grackles or starlings, who are all but invisible in the trees and amidst the buildings, but whose cries and calls absolutely fill the air. As I walk, I notice the sidewalks beneath the overhead lines—beneath anything that offers a perch or roost-- are thickly whitewashed with their droppings. Their screeching and calling is otherworldly in this garish landscape.

Back in my room, I roll through the cable channels as quickly as the remote allows. I am concurrently watching a dozen programs, serial snippets in rapid rotation, comprehension uninhibited by the mosaic but assisted by the glacial pace of television storytelling. I am trying to feel like a part of the growing catastrophe that is consuming the eastern seaboard while I am exiled here for the week, a storm for which a new vocabulary must be created.

I look for news of the wind, of the rain, of the coming snows and the loss of power and of the dozen other vectors of misery and suffering and dislocation and loss. I look for news of home, and feel so powerless to be so far away. There is no need for me to be there, nothing I could add or bring to bear, but it is in my blood and soul to wish to experience the darkness of such an event, to be able to say I was there, and came through it unscathed.

I watch long into the night, image after image relentlessly strobing the bland room and its bland furnishings. I am so dislocated; I feel warn and exhausted but not sleepy, so continue to provoke my senses until long past the time I should have given up, given in.

The dawn comes oddly late in my temporary home. A full ten minutes later, by my recollection, than it had come on the last cloudless morning. Timezones are funny things. East and west, north and south; if you notice these things, then you know when they are not right. And though we acknowledge the east and west of things, we rarely comment on the north and south of things, and how changing longitude will affect your sense of time in a different way than simply where you fall in time. Relative differences and absolute differences.

It is cold and clear at dawn, but the air quickly warms with the sun and its fun-house rising. Again I am transfixed by the flashing images, of the process proceeding without me. Back there the cold rains have come, the sideways rains, and in some places things are beginning to fall apart, though not in my places. Things remain mostly routine in my place until some hours after nightfall, when the power finally fails. It will stay failed for just over a day, and then it will return with little fanfare, and as best I can tell, little disruption of the normal routine.

The cold rains fell for many many hours, until over four inches had fallen. In those places where our rains usually came in, this time they did not. The snow did not come, the leveling winds did not come. All appears to be normal, for the most part.

But from my vantage point in this terrarium, I still cannot resist making the ice-blue images march unrelentingly across my eyes. I cannot turn away, and it fills my brain with shrapnel and shards that will not let me sleep. Images of flood and wind, of streets turned inside out, of homes evulsed, of arc flashes bringing day to night, of towers rent asunder, of masks of anguish, of crushing snows and tides of broken pieces and of ravening fires consuming all, unquenchable in the dark heart of a hurricane. In the middle of the night, I admit defeat, acknowledge that sleep is not coming anytime soon, and open the floodgate once again for another bout.

I walk briskly to lunch in my shirtsleeves; were there any humidity, I would probably break a sweat. My glasses darken in an instant from the sunshine, and there is still not a solitary cloud in the sky. I spend the end of the afternoon on the patio, chatting amiably with the other until the sun finally goes down and the chill arises. The bird calls begin to rise as the darkness encroaches. I am here right now and there is no other place I can be for the time being.

I will try to sleep tonight. Happy Samhain.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Time isn't holding us; time isn't after us.


October 6, 2012: Fired up the wood stove for the first time of the season. I love the smell of hot dust.
October 13, 2012: First frost.
October 14, 2012: Cabernet bottled, 25 bottles.
October 15, 2012: Last hen transferred to the winter yard. Summer yard gets a chance to rest.
October 15, 2012: Sauvignon blanc started.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Long Day in the Dairy

Sunday began bright and early with a quick post-coffee cleanup of the kitchen. Without pause or interruption, we proceeded directly into the first of a long series of interwoven projects: I delabeled the last few wine bottles we needed for the oft-postponed bottling of the Cabernet, and Mary brought in three gallons of milk from the outside refrigerator so it could slowly come to room temperature. She then skimmed the many quarts of milk on hand, gathering six pints of cream. As the milk and cream tempered, Mary packaged up an earlier batch of butter.

Then began the making of the new batch of butter. No homely churn for this task; the blender is a fine and expeditious helpmeet. In relatively short order, the butter was churned and the extravagant buttermilk set aside as a treat for the poultry. The scrubbed wine bottles were ready for a thorough washing. On to the next project—about five pounds of pure white fresh cheese, made the previous Sunday, waiting to be salted, divided and improvised upon.

The greatest measure of this cheese was simply salted and frozen as an ingredient for later. For the balance, we decided to take two tacks—Mary would make savory cheeses, I would make sweet. So together we crafted several flavors of soft, spreadable cheeses (including a savory Boursin clone and a brandied five-spice sweet cheese) which joined the butter in the freezer for enjoyment over the long dark winter.

By now the large pot of milk was ready to begin its magical transformation. We spent the bulk of the afternoon and well into the evening transforming three gallons of fresh milk into a small wheel of cheddar cheese through a process of strictly regulated heating, enzymatic action and physical manipulation that made mashing and brewing an all-grain beer look like fixing a glass of lemonade.

I would have to say there are a handful of magical transformations in the realm of the cooking arts. Mashing is one, where suddenly thick, starchy porridge becomes a sea of grains suspended in a clear, golden wort; another is the nixtamal reaction, where thick cooked corn is transformed in a different way, releasing the smell of fresh sweet corn where a moment earlier there was nothing; and cheese making, where in an instant, milk polarizes into clear liquid and a snowstorm of curds.

Did I mention that somewhere in there, we also started roasting one of our turkeys, to have for dinner?

So, by sometime after dinner, the cheddar was ready to be set aside to drain for a bit. But we're not quite done yet—still one more dairy project to take care of.

The three gallons of whey from the cheddar is heated, and to it we add a pint of whole milk. Somehow, from this meager beginning, we manage to produce over a pound of fresh ricotta! That is the most amazing step, because it really gives the appearance of getting something from nothing. (In reality, the cheddar extracts most of the casein protein from the milk with the help of the enzyme action of rennet; ricotta uses a near-boil heat and mild acidity, provided through the addition of a small quantity of cider vinegar, to capture the remaining albumin proteins from the whey). After this final magical transform, the last iteration of whey—stripped of protein but still vitamin and mineral rich—will be fed to the poultry as a supplement.

It is bedtime when we are finally done. The cheddar is undergoing its first pressing; the ricotta and butter are in the refrigerator chilling. The turkey carcass has been picked apart and the leftovers are put away. For all intents and purposes, we have spent the entire day on our feet, in the kitchen, by the stove or around the island, working together on these interwoven projects. It is all we can do to tie up the loose ends of the day, to make sure what needs to be closed up is closed up and what needs to be secured is secured. We are as sore and exhausted as had we been working in the garden or in the woods for as long a day.

And still the cabernet sits, unbottled.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Who Knows Where The Time Goes ?

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it's time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know it's time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
I do not count the time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

And I am not alone while my love is near me
I know it will be so until it's time to go
So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again
I have no fear of time
For who knows how my love grows?
And who knows where the time goes?

I'm not sure how I got to my advanced age without hearing this song (ca. 1967), but it has stuck with me since I first heard it a few days ago.

It's so beautiful it makes my teeth hurt; it brings tears to my eyes. Part of it is the incredible voice of the late Sandy Denny; part of it is Richard Thompson's lyric, languid understated filigree of guitar work embellishing that voice. Part of it is the ethereal power of the imagery. I think a large part of it is that maybe you can't really appreciate a song like this until you are middle aged, and yes, you do begin to wonder...who knows where the time goes?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Buttoned suits, white shirts, receding hairlines, horn-rimmed glasses...the epitome of cool.

Paul Desmond's will passed his royalties from his compositions to the American Red Cross...which still receives about $100,000 annually from his music.

Dave Brubeck, piano; Paul Desmond, saxophone; Eugene Wright, bass; Joe Morello, drums.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Stone Cold Bitch

The last weekend was vintage Virginia August.

Hot, muggy, but with a persistent breeze that tousled the trees and kept things from getting too miserable. By mid-day Sunday, the haze had thickened and the skies to the west were darkening. Around three, the first rumbles of thunder came from far off.
By four, the air quieted and stilled; the proverbial calm before the storm. A few drops of rain fell here and there, then the wind began to pick up as did the rain, in unison. The rain began to spray, sudden intense sheet of fine droplets that sounded like sand scouring the windows and skylights.

The group of us sat nearly mute in the dim greatroom—not quite cowering, listening intently to the rising storm. A bright flash of lightning, immediate smash of thunder, wind tosses the lawn furniture across the grass, and a loud thud, as of something hitting the house.

Then the wind diminishes as quickly as it arose, the rain becomes more gentle and steady, and the sky slowly lightens. I venture outside to inspect the aftermath, and am relieved to see no apparent damage to the house or any of the buildings.
But my goodness there is a lot of cleanup to be done.

The major limb of a wild cherry sprawls across the fence line of the summer chicken yard, mercifully falling where the fence was already damaged. A tall pine leans lazily across the driveway into the embrace of one of its comrades. The crown of a massive tree snapped off, taking two other trees with it into a tangled mess of oak, cedar and ash that thoroughly blocked the lane.

But the best is yet to come.

In the back yard, it is hard to count the number of trees downed or damaged, but I will try. Live pines, felled or mortally damaged: five; dead pines downed or broken, three; deciduous trees broken: one, a poplar missing half a stem; collateral damage: the large apple tree, struck by a fallen short-needle pine—the pine is still there, so we cannot assess the damage; numerous other trees still concealed amidst the wreckage of their comrades; at least two massive snags still suspended in the air menacingly.

The first order of business is to remove the upper half of the pine that snapped and smashed the west gate to splinters, coming to rest on House #2. Amazingly, though it bent the fence and pulled the fence posts askew, it appears to have done no harm to the chicken house, not even budging it from its cinderblock foundation.  The birds are all safe.

There is more rough weather anticipated for the days to come. It will take weeks—probably months—to clean up wood that fell in those fifteen seconds.  Some of it will be gathered and tossed on the pile waiting to be bucked to firewood. Some will be chipped for mulch or cut to lengths to be used as borders. Some will be burned, neither fit for any other purposes nor worth the trouble. Some will be left to rot where it fell, to return to the meager skin of soil stretched across these rock ribs.

This is not what we had planned to do this weekend. But you know, sometimes Mother Nature can just be a stone cold bitch.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

On This Occasion, Let Us Remember Those Who Have Fought, Sacrificed and Died For Our Freedoms:

A. Philip Randolph; Alex Odeh; Alice Paul; Amelia Boynton Robinson; Andrew Young Jr.; Barnett Slepian; Bayard Rustin; Bernard Lafayette; Betty Friedan; C.T. Vivian; Cesar Chavez; Charles Evers; Charles Morgan Jr.; Charles Sherrod; Clara Luper; Claude Black; Claudette Colvin; Coretta Scott King; Crystal Eastman; Daisy Bates; David Gunn; Diane Nash; Dolores Huerta; Don Bolles; Dorothy Cotton; Edgar Nixon; Eizabeth Peratrovich; Elijah P. Lovejoy; Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Ella Baker; Eugene Debs; Fannie Lou Hamer; Franklin Kameny; Fred Shuttlesworth; George Moscone; George Tiller; Gloria Steinem; Gordon Hirabayashi; Harvey Milk; Hosea Williams; Humberto Noe Corona; Ida B. Wells; Jack Herer; James Bevel; James Farmer; James Forman; James Lawson; James Orange; James T Meredith; Jo Ann Robinson; John Britton; John L. Lewis; Joseph Lowery; Judy Shepard; Julian Bond; Julius Wilson Hobson; June Jordan; Lola Hendricks; Lucy Burns; Lucy Stone; Madalyn Murray O'Hair; Malcolm X; Mamie Till Bradley Mobley; Marie Foster; Martin Luther King Jr.; Marvel Cooke; Medgar Evers; Myles Horton; Nellie Stone Johnson; Prathia Hall; Ralph Abernathy; Robert F. Williams; Robert Hill; Robert Moses; Roger Baldwin; Rosa Parks; Roy Wilkins; Ruby Hurley; Samuel Gompers; Susan B.Anthony; T.R.M. Howard; Thomas C. Wales; W. E. B. Du Bois; Walter Francis White; Walter Nelles; William S. McIntosh; Wyatt Tee Walker.

This is a brief and cursory list of those brave individuals, who without color of uniform, power of authority or compulsion of force, have placed themselves in harm's way to expand the promise contained in our founding documents—The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.

It always has been, and always will be, individuals who risk everything to expand the scope of rights we enjoy. Civil Rights are not zero-sum; rights expanded for one are rights expanded for all.

We need to take a moment and think with awe, respect and gratitude about those brave people who stopped and turned among the teeming mob and said "Enough. This cannot stand; We must change."

And while many are renowned for their efforts on behalf of a single cause, it is heartening to see how many worked across boundaries to expand the rights of all. Apparently "A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats" does not simply apply to 'supply-side economics.' This is how it should be.

We will remember what you have done and what you have sacrificed, with gratitude.

Friday, June 08, 2012

An Interesting Juncture

We have reached an interesting—and not insignificant—juncture. With the recent assistance of our local electric utility, we have essentially gotten control of a broad band of our little hilltop from its northern boundary to its southern boundary.

Last month, the power company spent a few weeks clearing trees and brush from the power line rights-of-way in our area. As our property is criss-crossed by a number of different power line, this meant that a number of broad swaths were cleared first, by crews with chainsaws, then second, by an armored bush-hog.This was a super-duper bonus for us, because first of all, we had long planned to remove many of the trees that were dropped anyway (we have a long-standing no-spray preference for the rights-of-way, which imposes a reciprocal obligation to provide a modicum of maintenance) and had that done for us.

The bush-hogging was great, because it replaced a lot of messy undergrowth with a thick layer of coarse mulch that will help keep the open spaces open and temporarily suppress regrowth. Finally, we appear to have gotten a decent amount of firewood on the ground for the gathering, and have already made an effort at harvesting that for eventual bucking and splitting.

So, beginning at the northern property line, we have a cleared swath beneath the power line. This abuts the open pines, then the summer chicken yard, then the main garden. The significant part of this is that we have finally cleared and tilled the last major portion of the garden around the old maple stump, so for all intents and purposes, everything within the fenced area is productive garden or flock space. To the east and west flanks lie broad bands of forest which we at least have a basic understanding of, and plans to one degree or another. Along the garden and summer chicken area, we can see clearly how we have pushed the forest back by several ranks of trees, to provide more open space and more unobstructed sunlight for the growing spaces.

Continuing along the hilltop, in the back (south) yard, we will be fencing a garden area in short order, producing a fenced-area-within-a-fenced area to grow veggies safe from the marauding poultry. In the winter, this will give us another secure area for the turkeys to occupy, netted over and protected from the harshest winter winds.

It has only taken us to our seventh growing season here to reach this point, and without the little boost we got, I wouldn't feel quite the same sense of completeness. We still have a lo-o-o-o-ng way to go, but it makes me feel like we've made some kind of breakthrough, some kind of milestone. It feels good.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

One of those people...

...Who divides the world into two categories: Things that might be green, things that are kinda heavy, things that  could get hot, and horses.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Technologies, appropriate and not

I work in I.T., and spend a fair amount of time considering the intersection between technology and those who use it. Generally, this is a barren, ugly, benighted no-man's land of frustration and wasted time. So my mind keeps going back to Schumacher's concept of "appropriate technology"—which seems to have almost no relationship to information technology, as far as I can tell, with its obsession with smart phones, busy farkles, angry birds and augmented realities.

But it's a good jumping off point for considering my personal relationship with technologies, and those devices that strike me as 'appropriate technologies.' Many years ago, I considered 'technology' to equal 'tools,' and tools to represent the intersection or interface between the human body and a problem needing solving.

In that spirit, I would like to give credit to those tools which, in my mind, represent the most perfect solutions to the problems they are designed to address. These are the few devices which I have selected carefully, have owned for many years, and which in general, always make me happy when I use them. They are:
  • Stihl Chainsaw. The most amazing force-multiplier I've ever used.
  • 2003 BMW R1100s (and, by extension 1983 BMW R80ST)
  • Troy-bilt rototiller, ca. 1974
  • Skil worm-drive circular saw.
  • Craftsman wood chisels. Even after the kids sculpted stone with them.
  • Buck Multi-tool. For some reason, I've never seen a Leatherman I liked nearly as much or that did such a fine job, even though the Buck tool is a little...sui generis.
There may be others I have overlooked, but this little group is very special in how well they do what they are meant to do. They represent the perfect intersection of the human experience and a specific problem in need of solving. I have others that might eventually merit inclusion on this list, but we do not yet have the accreted personal history to justify their inclusion with this rarefied and select cohort.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Sense of Foreboding

I cannot help but feel an inescapable sense of foreboding. I cannot recall a time when it has been this hot, this dry, so early in the season. We have come through a winter without snow, without rain, without any real cold to speak of.

There is no leaf cover yet, so there is no shade from the harsh sun. The early plants that were lured out by the preternatural warmth are already sun scalded and bleaching. The spring earth is light and dusty with no moisture to bind it. In contrast to many Aprils past, when we wait for the damp earth to dry and warm before planting it, now we worry if what we have already planted can survive this harsh trial—a concern more common to June and July.

The trees have not come on yet. When they begin their colossal transpiration, what little moisture remains will be sucked from the ground and given to the sky, draining that reservoir to its limits. We can only hope for a change that would be both unlikely and unrealistic. Once the dry season sets in, it creates its own paradigm and relinquishes its hold only in the face of great perturbations, changes that carry their own hazards—hurricanes and tropical storms that burst themselves against the ramparts of the mountains. And the streams already run low, in April.

What we are experiencing now foreshadows a summer of heat and drought. The wider risk is of fire, both in the present and well off into the future. With some effort, we can capture the few small rains and shunt that water towards our most critical needs: the vegetable gardens, the young, unestablished trees and shrubs. But drought means that there is no rain; the small storms become smaller, fewer and farther between. We watch them anxiously on the radar, popping up nearby only to fade and dissipate before quenching our desperate thirst.

We can care for the few and the dear, but each summer of drought—and we have seen more of them than we would like to acknowledge—pushes the forest closer to the edge, to a point where something will happen that cannot be undone. Call it a tipping point, call it anything at all. But what we will see is a slow diminution, a gentle reduction in the health of the forest canopy and understory, until one day a wind comes and takes it all down in a final act of loss and destruction.

It is not hard to stand on this rocky hill with its thin mantle of dry soil, and envision the steps to a dry and wide-open future—slow decline, death, sweeping fire, rain, erosion—and what was once the great eastern climax forest of mixed hardwoods, home to deer and black bear and wild turkey and bobcat, to raccoon and possum and pileated woodpecker and ruffed grouse and green heron and box turtle has become the great eastern savannah, home to whomever is left.

In lieu of the great cool forests that greeted the Europeans, where it was said that a squirrel could traverse the forest canopy from the Chesapeake to the Mississippi without touching the earth, we will bequeath to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren a vast, open grassland, a prairie spreading from the Atlantic to the Continental Divide.

I am at once glad that I will not be here to see it, and moved to grief for what we will leave behind for those who follow. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Trees

Not long after we got here, I noticed something about our forest. Most of the trees, regardless of species or stature, seemed to be doing poorly. Some, like the eastern dogwood, were affected by anthracnose; the pines were suffering with bark beetles; the few hemlocks had wooly adelgids, and the oaks were suffering from something, maybe Sudden Oak death—a disease related phytologically to the Irish potato famine, but symptomatically to Dutch Elm Disease and the Chestnut blight.

These diseases have wreaked havoc with the great Eastern forests over the last century. Chestnut blight removed fully a quarter of the eastern forest canopy in the blink of an eye; the tannic-acid rich skeletons of the ancient chestnuts can still be found in some places, resisting decay to the very end. Likewise the dutch elm disease, though it more specifically targeted the massive urban planting of stately elm trees. Cities still bear the scars left from the death of these giants of the shaded boulevard. In my own lifetime, I have seen the deep green ravines of the Blue Ridge, once lined with timeless hemlocks, bleached of the deep cool green to a lifeless pale grey, sunlight streaming through their barren and denuded cathedrals to bake the earth and streams below.

But locally, on our little hilltop, some species fare better than others: the prolific, though prosaic and not particularly useful maples and poplars. Quick growing and producing plentiful airborne seeds, these species provide less mast and forage than the oaks and hickories, and their wood burns fast and clean in the stove. But it is light wood, and a cord of maple and poplar has a fraction of the heat value of a cord of hickory or oak, for about the same amount of bother in bucking, splitting and stacking. (Actually, poplar and maple are joys to split compared to oak and hickory; it makes one feel powerful to go through a stack of poplar in no time flat, a great heap of neat, nearly geometric cleavages).

Recently, we have come to understand the geology underlying our hilltop a little better, and this led me to a better appreciation of our poor little forest. They are doing the best they can. Because if you scratch the surface here, quite literally you will find rock. Lots of it. Wide spread and not too far beneath the thin dirt surface, in long ribs and ridges, blades running north-south parallel to the greater ridge and ravine formations.

In a gamble typical of nature, the seeds were cast onto this hillside that three generations ago was probably open pastureland. It is clearly second-, third-, or fourth-growth forest. The axe has been known here for a very long time, and the plow, and the fence row, and the hoof. These trees took their gamble and are making the best of it they can given the thin poor soil and the unremitting porpyhry underlying it.

I feel like we have taken the same gamble. We cast our lot onto this thin, poor hilltop, and are making the best of it. We have good days and we have bad days. We will go on growing here, to what end we do not know. We will give it our best, as we have done for these six years so far, and hope that the fates will look kindly on our little venture.

I feel a little better about the trees now that I understand better exactly what may be keeping them back. I feel a little bit of kinship, I guess, understanding now the sere cloak of earth that covers the ancient bones beneath.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

An odd snapshot

A quiet Sunday morning.
A lone turkey hen stands in the living room, staring intently at the stereo and singing along with Yo-Yo Ma.
Over her intense protestations, I must physically carry her out of the house and return her to the flock in the yard.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Perfect Day for Some Trail Work

Last Sunday was cold, dawning in the teens and barely topping out at freezing. But it was clear, with few high clouds, and the harsh bitter winds had calmed down. So early in the afternoon, we set out to do some long-postponed trail work along the stream near the northern property line.

The first order of business was a recent deadfall across the trail at the big pool. We had been watching the tree’s increasingly perilous posture for some time, and finally, a month or two ago, it let loose. It crashed into the fork of a nearby oak, briefly wedging itself high across the trail before gravity finally broke its back and settled it to earth. With a few quick cuts, we cleared the way and set the cut section alongside the trail.

Our big task was clearing a good-sized dam the recent heavy rains had formed just above the second stream crossing. A stately sycamore, rooted in the bank of the stream with water rushing over its roots, had caught several sections of massive logs, which formed the armature of a dam of brush and debris. The dam funneled the rushing water hard against the western bank, eroding and flooding the stream crossing, and eating away the bank and trail immediately downstream. The vast slack water it created upstream has also allowed the streambed to fill with sand and silt, obscuring the rocks we had so diligently placed as stepping stones in the warmth of summertime.

We paused at the upper crossing and changed from our trail shoes to high muck boots. And what an outfit: Woolen cap, ear protectors with face shield, thick layers of warm fleece, chainsaw chaps tucked into/over knee-high rubber boots, and idling chainsaw. I crossed the upper crossing, walked down the bank, and waded into the icy rushing waters. The waters swirled around my calves and undermined the sand on which I stood.

Mary began tearing the dam apart from the western bank, using the larger pieces to shore up the eroded trail edge. While she did that, I started attacking the middle of the dam, grabbing handsful of leaves and muck with one hand while holding the growling saw in the other.

With the loose debris gone, the spine of the dam was laid bare. A tree trunk maybe six or eight inches in diameter that spanned from well onto the east bank to the roots of the sycamore. I was able to easily saw chunks from the center and pass them end-over-end to Mary, who placed the chunks strategically along the stream bank where they would do the most good. The heart wood was a beautiful deep rusty color like cedar, but without any noticeable odor and much denser than cedar would have been.

We cleared more of the loose debris from amongst the logs, tossing the mouldering leaves and twigs into the swirling waters downstream to disappear. Bit by bit, we picked that dam apart, and as we did, the slackwater energized, resuming its temporarily impeded drive towards the river. As it accelerated, it slowly and deliberately scoured away the accumulated sand and silt, reclaiming its deeper channel and gnawing away at the impudent banks.

The heart of the dam was a stout section of tree trunk, maybe ten feet long and fourteen inches in diameter. It appeared scoured and beaten, as though the stream had brought it to this place from some distance, or perhaps has relentlessly scoured it here once it lodged in place. This wood resisted the saw, and I had to work with some effort to free sections from it. Somehow, sand from the stream had found the saw chain and wreaked havoc with its edge, forcing me to push the saw harder than I would have liked, driving the acrid smell of hot wood from kerf, and reducing the ejecta to a dusty rain rather than the confetti-like curls that are the mark of a keen blade.

Once freed, the four-foot long sections were massive and unwieldy, and it was all both of us could do to roll them awkwardly into place downstream, filling a hollow the waters had carved where the trail had so recently passed.

With the heart gone, the remnants of the dam slowly dissipated with the fast-flowing waters, leaving just the worn root ball, stranded high and dry nestled against the sycamore. Together Mary and I wrestled it loose and sent it over the edge into the stream below, to dam or be damned once more. When we were done, we were both feeling the day’s cold in the bottom of the narrow stream valley, with the sun already disappearing behind the grey trees and high flanks of the rocky hills. We abandoned our ambitions for any further trail work for the moment, succumbing instead to the lure of a warm fire where we could dry out and warm our extremities once again.

We have yet to go back and see how matters have settled out since our reengineering efforts. Maybe this weekend: it promises to be cold once again, but this time with rain, sleet and snow as well. Perfect weather for getting outside and doing some trail work, I say.