Friday, December 26, 2008

Back to the Land

During this past Thanksgiving, an aunt told me that there had been a "back to the land" movement in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and that my grandmother, unhappy in her role as a mother and housewife
in the Texas community where my grandfather was teaching, caught the fever and convinced my grandfather to pick up the family, move back to New England and buy a farm.

There was nothing romantic about the reality of farm living for my grandparents or their children. They did not have a lot of money, and the farm was old and needed lots of work. It was drafty and poorly heated in the wintertime, and in the summer, a small pond would form in the back if the stream that runs through the cellar was not kept clear of debris.

Still, preserving the farm and the land around it became my grandmother's passion after my grandfather died. She was a reader and must have been very well-informed about not only the geological history of the land and the non-human life forms that thrive there, but the story of the people and the land, as well.

Products of the Land

William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation, his decades-long account of the Pilgrims in New England, described the land the Pilgrims encountered as "a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men." In fact, however, the Indians of coastal New England, though decimated in population by European diseases by the time the Pilgrims arrived, had built numerous villages surrounded by cultivated fields and had burned the forests and fields elsewhere to make game hunting easier. In addition, "wild strawberries carpeted many of the burned-over glades. In the spring, 'herrings come up in such abundance into their brooks and fords to spawn that it is almost impossible to ride through without treading on them.' Huge turkeys ran in flocks of four and five hundred. Migrating ducks blotted out the sun when they rose from a pond ..."* Recent settlers would have also found abundant wood for construction and heat -- the forests in England, by this time, had been largely felled to build ships (2,500 per vessel) and to turn into charcoal to stoke furnaces.

I have never found wild strawberries growing on the farm, but blueberries, elderberries, and wild grapes are common. My grandmother gathered all of those and turned them into jams, or, in the case of the grapes, wine as well.

Every February, my grandmother also tapped the silver maples on the land for maple syrup -- a tradition that my aunt continues. It's easy to tap maple syrup -- just hammer a nail into the trunk of tree and hang an empty plastic milk carton from the nail. But the process of rendering the thin, clear sap into a dark, viscous, and flavorful syrup is time consuming and requires lots of stove-top space and ongoing heat. Above, you can see a bottle of my aunt's maple syrup (and the winter stockpile of wood in the garage, with a clearing for the trap door to the cellar through which the stream runs).

As to wild game birds, I see few ducks on the farm, but there are plenty of geese. In the photograph to the right, my aunt had wandered off to get a stick for her dog during a walk this past summer. But her dog had his own idea. The second my aunt's back was turned, he stepped right into the water of this artificial pond -- two fields over from the farm -- in hot pursuit of fun. The Canada geese stayed in the water, swimming away from him as much as they could, and then finally took off and flew over to the next pond. In the photograph to the left, you can see a roasted goose. My hosts on December 25, back here in San Francisco, served this goose. Geese were traditionally served for Christmas dinner until replaced in popularity by domesticated turkeys, according to my Joy of Cooking. Presumably my grandfather would have hunted wild geese during his years growing up on a Maine farm and during his years on the Massachusetts farm, but I don't know.

* Everyday Life in Early America, by David Freeman Hawke, 1988, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, p. 13

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Keeping Up With the Car Bailout Talk

Ok, as of today, the 2008 Winter Solstice, the auto industry is still teetering on the brink of insolvency, though lame duck President George W. Bush threw it a lifeline recently. That lifeline is a grant of $13.4 billion now, with another $4 billion to come in February if necessary. Bush is tapping the TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, more colloquially known as the bailout of Wall Street and the financial institutions, which Congress approved in October, to fund the auto industry.

Meantime, Newsweek has done a story on the link between Republican congressmen and women (especially southern ones) and the their resistance to bailing out Detroit-based auto design and manufacturing companies. What's the basis of their resistance? Why, foreign auto companies, especially Toyota, have a number of factories in southern states that employ tens of thousands of workers, NON-UNION workers, mind you ...

And yet, Toyota's sales are also down ...

Folks, are we screwed or what?

Last night I went to a winter solstice celebration (we do that kind of thing in San Francisco, a refuge for the unconventional, the pentagonal pegs among us who just do not fit into round holes and celebrate the holidays the way the rest of the world does). At one point the hostess made sure we all had unlit candles, turned off the lights, and the music, and started a lovely ritual to usher in the increasing daylight in the days, weeks, and months to come. One at a time, she invited us all to say what we wished for in the coming year. She lit her candle first and started, taking my own wish: to be able to travel nearly anywhere in the country via public transportation.

Thanks, Terry!

Her wish will not be the answer to all our economic and environmental woes. But it will certainly be a beginning.

I'm thinking now of two major, 20th century public works projects in the so-called free world that supposedly began the process of lifting nations out of periods of economic malaise -- the New Deal and the Marshall Plan. I know that president-elect Barack Obama is thinking along the lines of the New Deal now, thinking really big. But as he moves forward, I hope he brings back that campaign word of his -- change -- and starts getting the nation ready for huge changes, necessary changes in the way we live. That's because change is going to be necessary if we're going to save the planet and the principals so vital to democratic society -- transparent government, and political and artistic freedom of expression. In fact, a December 21, 2008 editorial in The Huffington Post suggests that Obama may in fact be contemplating change, planning to commit "industrial policy," though schizophrenically at best.

Coming soon: Steven Chu and Ray LaHood ...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Beavers Return

1) The Big Pond
2) The beaver home
3) A beaver dam
4) The beaver "kitchen"
5) A paw print

Years ago the big pond in the woods was shallow and nearly dry. But that began to change in the 1980s and 1990s when beavers returned and successfully reestablished themselves, building homes and dams, and restoring the pond. Their return has been centuries in the making.

According to William Cronon, in his study of colonial New England land use practices, Changes in the Land, Native American practice, prior to the arrival of Europeans, had been to trap only as many beavers as were needed for personal use and for trade with tribes that lived south of the southern-most area of beaver habitation. But that changed when Europeans arrived. Early towns that were established along rivers such as the Connecticut (Hartford and Springfield) and Merrimack (Chelmsford) had originally been trading posts where Europeans transacted with Indian trappers – now in possession of firearms – for beaver pelts to feed the European continent where beaver caps had become a fad. Within a few decades of the founding of these trading posts, by the mid-1600s, the beaver population had been so severely decimated that the trade in beaver pelts dropped considerably. Other animals, such as turkeys, deer, elk, and bears, were also overhunted and went into decline. The drop in the deer population was so precipitous, in fact, that in 1694, Massachusetts enforced its first closed hunting season, and in 1718 it banned deer hunting for three years.

Now, however, with the current increase in the depth of the water, other wildlife has come. For a few years during the 1990s, Great Blue Herons built huge nests in the branches of dead trees that stuck out of the pond, and when I was wandering through the woods this past summer, a White-Tailed Deer and I encountered each other, not 30 feet apart. The deer, a doe, was still as a statue for a moment, and then she turned in a flash and bounded through the trees, to where I don’t know. These woods are small, just a few acres, but I suspect that deer, coyotes, mink, fisher cats, weasels, and other creatures are right around me every time I walk through them.

In fact, I have heard coyotes at night, my aunt has seen fisher cats, and my uncle stumbled upon a nesting mother turkey and her newly hatched young when he was out haying this past summer. I also took a photograph of my foot next to a large paw print in the woods, not far from where the deer and I had an encountered each other. Perhaps a black bear print – as a mother bear and her two cubs had been sited near these woods not too long ago.

Cronon discusses the decline in numbers of animals in a chapter called “Commodities of the Hunt.” It’s in the middle of his book. In other chapters, he goes on to discuss the felling of the forests and fencing of the land. His last chapter is called “The Wilderness Should Turn a Mart.” In this chapter, he starts to confront the contradiction in sustainable living and capitalism, and concludes that “the colonists’ economic relations of production were ecologically self-destructive.”

Our current relations to production are probably also self-destructive – but humankind has been able to artificially extend the human population carrying capacity of the planet, probably temporarily, through fossil fuel inputs into the soil, among other means. It's nice to imagine that the farm that my aunt and uncle are now working can become a role model for more sustainable living, but I'm not sure that's possible unless massive numbers of people voluntarily agree to change the way they are living on the planet -- and to accept declines in their standards of living.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Ongoing Saga of the Auto Bailout

Yesterday the House of Representatives approved a $14 billion bailout of the domestic auto industry, largely along party lines. The original bill had some good stuff in it, especially a provision that would prevent the auto makers from suing states that have passed laws to limit greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. It also had some kind of unrelated rider that had to do with the original $700 billion bank bailout that was passed earlier in the fall ("As an amendment to the auto rescue plan, the House approved a measure that would require banks receiving assistance from the Treasury’s $700 billion economic stabilization program to detail new lending activity each quarter." -- The New York Times. See story here.)

But the part about the lawsuits got struck as a part of a compromise, and then the whole thing got trounced today by Senate Republicans.

And thus nothing has changed. The issue remains one of Democrats versus Republicans and some other stuff, or something like this: Democrats support maintaining a suicidal way of life/industry, but they disguise the issue as one about jobs; Republicans support union busting disguised as industry restructuring.

In the meantime, the sales of hybrid vehicles are plunging along with gasoline prices, and that is not good for the planet or any of the life on the planet.

People do need jobs and people also need benefits. But the kinds of jobs we have and the way we become entitled to benefits need to change.

Tim Redmond, the editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, suggests that now is the moment for a public works project on the lines of the New Deal, except MUCH bigger. The New Deal, was a drop in the bucket compared to what was needed during the Depression -- we all learned that in history classes when we got to World War II and realized how absolutely effective our collective efforts (in the form of government) could be at pulling the nation out of economic malaise. This current nationwide, from-coast-to-coast, public works project needs to start with a comprehensive study to determine the best ways to produce and distribute healthy food, create truly livable communities, and transport people and goods -- with less energy. And if it is determined that certain sectors of our economy need to be bailed out -- for example, our public transportation sectors -- then by all means, let's bail them out.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Changes in the Land

My grandparents left Texas in 1950 and bought a farm in New England where both of them had centuries old roots. We know that the farmhouse and barn, built in a marshy wetland, were started before the American Revolution and completed afterwards.

My grandfather died in 1978. At that time, other farm families that had been in the area for generations could no longer farm profitably or chose to sell out and make what money they could by selling to developers. My grandmother, however, a biologist by training and naturalist by practice, decided to take advantage of state law and turn her land into a conservation trust. She did this in cooperation with other local farmers, and by the time she passed away in 1997, she had put the land into a conservation easement that would exist in perpetuity.

The photograph on the left is of one nearby subdivision within walking distance of the farm. The photograph on the right is of the path through the woods that Eagle Scouts created sometime in the 1990s after the conservation trust had been created.

According to the peak oil documentary, The End of Suburbia, subdivisions such as the one on the left are going to be the slums of the future as they are energy intensive and unsustainable. However, my uncle, a retired biologist who now works the farm with one of my mother's sisters, is the first to admit that the farm, as it is currently run, is not sustainable either.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Do I Detect Collusion?

We all know about the CEOs of the Big Three auto companies flying on their corporate jets to Washington, DC to beg Congress for a bailout of $25 billion. Congress sent them back empty-handed. So what did they do next? They came back (driving hybrid cars) with a plan and asked for more -- now they want $34 billion!

I object. For one thing, it seems to me that the three companies are colluding, which strikes me as bordering on a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890) and other laws that outlaw conspiracies in restraint of trade. Second, they messed up.

Here's a link to a New York Times editorial with a list of recommendations:

... For starters, [Congress] must demand that the three companies’ top executives resign. Only new management can enforce the deep cultural change needed to overhaul the industry. And, it must impose real, enforceable environmental rules. The European Union is aiming for a fleetwide fuel-economy of 50 miles per gallon in 2015. In the United States, Congress last year enacted a target of 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

Experts say that Detroit’s automakers could achieve 43 m.p.g. by then even without technological breakthroughs. If the companies were willing to make smaller cars, they could achieve 50 m.p.g. Congress could consider demanding that Detroit simply phase out S.U.V.’s and vans by a certain date. ...

But I hardly think this New York Times editorial is going far enough. The auto companies have failed to adjust to realities of peak oil, global climate change, war for oil, and habitat destruction. They have failed to start producing more environmentally sound products (like buses and bikes). Any "bailout" plan should actually be part of a much larger plan -- a New Deal for Economic Recovery and the Environmental Health of the Planet -- that addresses the destructiveness of our current way of life. Such a plan would include revenue for the construction of affordable and appealing housing in whole, livable communities near transit, complete with parks, schools, retail, services, community gardens, and jobs. It would also include funds for nearby farmers to cultivate homegrown healthy produce. (Sorry, small farmers just can't do this on their own right now -- the competition from big agribusiness is too fierce.)

And the term "bailout"? Personally, I agree with the calls for the nationalization of the transportation industry at the same time that we nationalize the health care industry and move to a single payer system (hey, if you want to maintain your own, private health insurance, no one will stop you).

Here's Democracy Now! coverage of the bailout matter from December 5, 2008.

Here's a Common Dreams story on bailing out of the fossil fuel economy from December 3, 2008.

How do we give people incentives to stop driving and get on board with the changes that are necessary? Here's an idea from a Sierra Club activist: tax everyone at the gas pump steeply (like 10 percent for starters and then go up) and then give everyone (even people who do not have cars) something like a $600 annual rebate. This rewards people for not driving.