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.