Thursday, October 29, 2009

Graffiti: Rolling Art (#1 of 2)

Continue to next older post for more.

Graffiti: Rolling Art

If Michaelangelo snuck in at night and put the Last Judgement on the Pope’s carriage, would it have been vandalism? The Vatican garbage wagon? Well...yeah...

There are books I borrow from the library or browse in bookstores that reproduce some great vandalism, but most of what I see in the freight yards is pretty lame. Maybe the bosses snag the good ones for their collections. Imagine it: Beautiful kidney-shaped pool, plantings by Helmut Jahn, trophy wife sipping wheat grass on the chaise longue. And changing rooms built into a graffitied boxcar!

I finally noticed something worth noticing. Nice design, good simple colors and execution, sentiment, but not sentimentality. It made the grain car look better than before.

Utah Phillips (b. 1935, d. 2008) was a hobo, storyteller, folksinger, and activist. He rode the rails after coming back from Korea with PTSD, got mixed up with anarchist-Dorothy Day associate Amman Hennacy, and was a personal friend of righteous babe, Ani DeFranco.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Voter's Guide For The Perplexed

67 Minnesota school districts have referendums on their ballots this November, raising money. (Disclaimer: Our son, Sam, went to private grade schools, and spent his high school years self-schooling. I don’t think this disqualifies me for commenting on public education. For quotidian and logistical reasons, and because society needs informed, thoughful citizens, we need to support public education.) The impulse to say no to a referendum in a shrinking economy is strong, but a household’s added expense is marginal, and family wealth stays the same, relative to other residents of the district.

Next Tuesday is Election Day. I live in Minneapolis’ Ninth Ward, and will be choosing the next mayor, Ward 9’s City Councilperson, two at-large members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, three at-large Park Board members and my district’s Park Board Commissioner. Minneapolis is also deciding whether or not to change the Board of Estimate and Taxation so that the Board members are no longer independently elected, but rather members of the City Council, “with the actions of the board subject to the power and duties of the mayor.” Interestingly, this will be Minneapolitans’ first experience of “ranked choice” or instant runoff” voting. Ballots will have us pick and rank our top three choices for an office.

Who and what are on the ballot?

(For non-Minnesotans, DFL=Democrat. The two extra letters stand for “Farmer Labor.” The Farmer Labor Party was a regional socialist-populist party founded in 1918, and merged with Minnesota’s Democratic party in 1944. The significance of Minnesota Democrats’ being called “DFLers” is merely historical. The Republicans used to be called "Independent Republicans," but I haven’t heard that for a while. When I go to my DFL precinct caucus, I peek into the Republican caucuses. There’s never more than a couple of guys, going, “I dunno. Whadda you wanna do, Marty.”)

For mayor, DFL incumbent, R. T. Rybak is running for a third term. You can also bet that he wants to be Minnesota’s next governor. He has brought in balanced budgets in the last four years, and has overseen the development of an office and small-retail mall in an abandoned Sears building. Crime is down in Minneapolis, and we have acquired a light-rail line, with one between Minneapolis and St. Paul in the works. We see him frequently at the Midtown Farmers’ Market. He was also on board for the construction of the new Twins Stadium, built with public funds, in spite of the city’s having voted down the referendum to fund it. Rybak says, “We will make it known that Minneapolis is ‘open for business’ and will do what it takes to put people to work and make businesses succeed.” Rybak will be re-elected. This is a DFL town, and he’s a popular incumbent.

There are two other DFLers running for mayor. Al Flowers is an entrepreneur and activist. He is a member of the NAACP and the Police Community Relations Committee, and organization that tries to mediate between neighborhoods and police. He’s concerned about foreclosures and unemployment and wants to bring small businesses back into troubled neighborhoods. Dick Franson is a retired alderman (council member). He is the most specific of the candidates about what his program will include. He’s also specific that all incumbent council members should be defeated, as should “milquetoast” Mayor Rybak. I like him, but he could use a new webmaster with better proofreading skills.

Rybak’s least mostly-harmless rival is Papa John Kolstad (the “Papa” part of his name is on the ballot.) I once told Papa John Kolstad that he played a mean guitar, and he answered that it was a sweet-tempered guitar. He’s a business owner who has put together an interesting coalition of support that includes the Green, Republican, and Independence parties. He’s running to end wasteful spending, build a better small-business climate, and find alternatives to regressive property taxes.

Christopher Clark is the Libertarian candidate. He wants to restore fiscal discipline. I budgeted five minutes on the web for each candidate, and that’s all I found. Running for office must be a moral dilemma for a libertarian.

John Charles Wilson is the Edgertonite candidate. “The Edgertonite Party exists to secure political independence for the people of the Midwestern United States and a homeland for the Lauraist religion.” “Laurist religion” means, worshiping Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilson wants to encourage the use of public transportation by make public transportation a better experience, lower property taxes by engaging the City in profitable enterprises such as a municipally-owned electrical utility, repeal age-discriminatory ordinances against our young people, such as the curfew, repeal ordinances against things which harm no one, such as drinking in public, sleeping on public benches, or parking in front of your own house longer than 72 hours, defend the independence of the Park Board and the Board of Estimate and Taxation, give the Civilian Review Authority subpoena power and power to fire, require individual liability insurance for police officers, and get code inspectors off homeowners’ backs.

Joey Lombard “Is Awesome.” 22-year old self promoter, with a some good ideas: "Monday evening meetings to chat with Joey about what's important to you; Introduce smaller trash cans to promote bigger recycling; 10-year plan to convert from halogen to LED street lights; Work with the school board to implement community service requirements into the Minneapolis Public School high school diploma requirements; Wild Card! Changes weekly but guaranteed to improve the awesomeness of the city. Email Joey for this week's fifth issue.”

James R. Everett, Social Entrepreneurship. This one timed out, as well.

Bob Carney Jr., Moderate Progressive Censored. I think this one is a technological optimist. You go to his website, and it’s hard to see what he wants to do. He has some transit scheme, called High-Bi, but you have to scroll through a lot of stuff to learn that much, and figuring out how it works didn’t seem worth it. He feuds, too. Proof that Mensa membership doesn’t qualify you to hold office.

Bill Mc Gaughey (pronounced mc goy), New Dignity Party. McGaughey has run for office in Minnesota and Louisiana. He has affiliated with the Independence, Reform, and Green parties, proposing a 32-hour workweek, and “employer-specific tariffs” to keep jobs. The New Dignity Party is real new, July new. It recognizes the dignity of people of all races, but doesn’t talk about inherited economics. It’s the kind of scheme three guys would come up with over beers on Saturday night.

Tom Fiske, SWP. Another candidate timing out. It’s surprising, though. The Socialist Workers Party has a weekly tabloid, so why not take the next step, and buy your guy some bandwidth?

Gary Schiff is the sitting, DFL, Ninth Ward council member. He is very attentive to his constituency, and alert about issues like crime, vandalism, and prostitution. He seems like a genuinely nice guy, too. We have a Gary Schiff sign on our lawn.

Dave Bicking, of the Green Party, may rack up a significant number of votes. Beaucoup lawn signs. He’s an engineer, was active in opposing taxpayer funding for the Twins Stadium, spearheaded the effort that kept a biomass-burning power plant out of the neighborhood, and has a daughter who was preemptively arrested for crimes against the Republican National Convention. He’s also a member of the Police Civilian Review Board. The dillemma for the Green Party is that it needs to be built from the precincts up, but that’s where you’re likely to run up against people who are on your side. (Sports stadiums don’t yield economic benefits; they are transfers of wealth up the food chain; they price fans out of the bleachers. Here’s the pro-subsidy argument. The wood burner was an inside deal, with disagreements about the amount of pollution it would yield, and it was sure to dig into my source of free wood chips. Cops aren’t assholes; some assholes are cops. I’ve driven buses in union shops, and supervised in one: there are rude, dishonest drivers, and they’re hard to get rid of. Same for thug cops. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.)

Todd Eberhardy, Independent. Eberhardy is a business owner whose shop is in a third-ring suburb. He wants to improve Minneapolis’ climate for small business.

Minneapolis needs to elect two at-large members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation. We also need to decide whether we will continue to have a Board of Estimate and Taxation. The BET holds hearings and consults with the mayor and city council to set tax levies. Voter will decide on Charter Amendment number 168, which will make it part of the City Council. The council is unanimously in favor. The proponents say the BET is a dinosaur and not transparent. The real issue is probably the Park Board, because it is separate from the Council, and has a large budget. The Council is paid and full time, while BET members and the Park Board are volunteers, with benefits. If the BET a Council function, they would control the Parks’ budget. Minneapolis’ parks are a system, a whole that’s taught in architecture school. All the Council Members have substantial developer backing. As we move further into a seller’s market fuel economy, the Council’s temptation will be to substitute pieces of Minneapolis’ patrimony for imagination and guts.

David Wheeler is a former Duluth City Council member. He will vote against CA#168, but doesn’t believe the world will end if it passes. He says, “More important is that the city's governing bodies work together and figure out a solution to getting through the recession. It's concerning how much property taxes have continued to go up,

R. Michael Martens has been an auditor, and believes that citizens deserve a return on investment, and deserve to know what it is. He’s very plausible, but his website is all You Tube interviews with him, one of which happened at a Ron Paul-Michelle Bachman rally. Bachman is Minnesota’s Sixth District Congressional Representative, and a key player in the lunatic fringe.

Phil Wilkie is a community activist, working with charities. He’s been a campaign staffer and vice-chair of the Hennepin Conservation District. He believes the BET is essential.

DeWayne Townsend is a PhD in biochemistry, but has a financial background with civic organizations. He wants to keep the current board structure.

Carol Becker is the finance director for the Humphrey Institute, an instructor at Hamline and St. Thomas Universities. She’s the only incumbent running and a “tax geek.” She wants to keep the board as it is.

James Elliot Smartwood is one of the founders of the New Dignity Party (see mayoral candidate, Bill McGaughey). He publishes a free newspaper called the Watchdog, and would try to keep property taxes low.

I live in Park Board District 6. I choose between two candidates to be my representative on the Board.

Scott Vreeland is the incumbent. He’s an activist and environmentalist who serves as a commissioner of the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, Co-chair of the Minneapolis Riverfront Corporation, and serves on the Neighborhood Revitalization Board. I talked to him when he was canvassing people leaving the grocery store. He’s a nice guy, and gave me an intelligent response to my question about the BET.

Mike Wendorf is vice president of the Sherman Group, which renovates historic downtown buildings. Fox in the sugarbowl, baby.

I also need to choose three at-large commissioners from a field of eight.

Tom Nordyke is an incumbent and current Board president. He makes his living as a real estate consultant for non-profits, and wants to make the Board financially solvent and repair relationships with the Council. Hmmm. I haven’t been reading the newspaper.

Mary Merrill Anderson is also incumbent, with park-staff experience going back to 1972. She’s been energetic in the movement to make the Board independent. She’s current vice president.

Annie Young is also incumbent, having served five terms on the Board. Annie is a local activism celebrity. She founded the Green Institute, which was an ingenious solution to a local instance of environmental racism. The city wanted to add a garbage-transfer station to an already polluted and burdened neighborhood. Annie followed Buckminster Fuller’s injunction to make an objectionable thing obsolete rather fight it. She proposed and built a business incubator in a state-of-the-art green building where the transfer station would have been.

Bob Fine is currently commissioner from District 6. He is running for an at-large seat because the Board’s independence is a citywide issue. He’s a lawyer who has served three terms on the Board, once as an at-large commissioner.

Nancy Bernard is a challenger. She’s an Alzheimer’s nurse with the mission of getting people to use the parks more.

John Butler, a challenger, is a 68-year old roller-blading Guardian Angel. He enjoys the parks and wants more programs for seniors, presumably the kind of seniors who don’t own roller blades or go crime busting in red berets.

John Erwin teaches horticulture, and wants to improve relations with the Council. He’s a former, but not incumbent, at-large commissioner, who’d like to expand park services and plant trees. He has endorsements from the mayor and several Council members.

David Wahlstedt, another challenger, is an engineer who owns a bed and breakfast. He wants to finance the parks from revenue, and to generate a lot of ideas, out of which will come a few gems. He’s opposed to changing the BET.

You know, you could get addicted to watching politics. Here we have this little odd-year municipal election, using a quirky experimental ballot, in an ostensibly one-party town. There’s a cast of characters that includes geniuses, nuts, cranks, well-meaning bumblers, activists at the extreme ends of the right-left spectrum, hard working people you agree with and ones you wish would find some other occupation, and nice folks who look like they stepped into the wrong conversation and got interested. They’re all orbiting this obscure puzzle about financing part of the city’s operation. What’s just? What’s effective? How do you work with people you’re sure are thieves or suckers? We don’t know what the world is going to look like in three years, but we know it won’t look the way it does now.

Here are some ideas you can take to the bank. Capital is less than a zero-sum game. Organisms, including people, plant themselves where the nutrients, including dollars, are. That’s what government has done. Fuel will keep costing more. Foreign lenders and owners of concners here will be less indulgent of our follies. Extinctions happen because organisms adapt to things’ being a certain way, and can’t survive when they change. That’s about to happen to us, but we’re humans. We can adapt to the change.

My plan? An emphatic “No” on 168. Vreeland for District 3 Park Board Commissioner. Nordyke, Anderson, and Fine for the at-large seats. Becker, Townsend, and Wheeler, in that order, for Board of Estimate and Taxation (there are only two seats, but I get to vote for three). Ranked voting gets interesting in the City Council and Mayoral races. I’m content with Schiff and Rybak, although Rybak’s gubernatorial ambition pisses me off (he’s got history sussed wrong, so what business does he have expanding his reach). On the other hand, they’re dinosaurs munching the wrong grass. They’re not seriously threatened by the dumber dinosaurs; they’re going to win. So why not shake them up a little. Make them second choices (the theory is that the first choice is your throw-away vote). Bicking then Schiff for Council, with no third choice. Kolstad, Rybak, then Lombard for mayor. Why not give the 22-year old a thrill.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Artists Talking About Art

The best drawing teacher I ever had -- and he wasn’t the best of a bad lot, he was good -- said that you can’t talk and draw at the same time. Decades of drawing co-ops later, I have to say he was mistaken. Artists gab.

We were listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band while I did this drawing of Harold B. Stone, a. k. a. “Stony.” Stony is a Texan in his middle fifties, a garrulous and opinionated teacher and computer programmer who probably knows how marijuana tastes, but isn’t the type to have indulged in much psychomodification. He’s more cowboy than space cowboy, and was wearing a pair of very fine, very pointy dress boots, which my poor planning put just beyond the paper's margins. Stony said that he knew people who listened to Sgt, Pepper’s for weeks on end. “It’s impressionistic. You can’t say what the lyrics are about, but you’re sure you know what they mean.”

Somebody mentioned that Paul McCartney had finally admitted “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was about LSD, and our co-op got some mileage out of that. Somebody else said that there was a real “Lucy,” Lucy Vodden a school friend that Julian Lennon included in a drawing, and that she had died recently. Then we talked about Spiro Agnew’s making political hay over drug references in rock music. I didn’t recall any debates about “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” when it was current. I took the drug reference for granted; Beatle protests of mere coincidence were done on advice of counsel. Newspaper taxis appear on the shore, baby.

Stony wondered how the Beatles got so smart. They were young men, making a rough living dragging an American R&B show around Europe and sleeping in their clothes. They were working-class lads from a grimy northern industrial city, in a time that wouldn’t make me want to write poetry. Post-war Liverpool and Depression-era Birmingham, Alabama, could tell each other stories. Besides their unlikely backgrounds, these were four characters who scored big playing Little Richard covers and charming teenage-crush pop. Four of them -- and their handlers -- had to agree to let go of that, and start playing four-track Magritte with sitars.

I proposed that johnpaulgeorge&ringo would come up with fragments from their acid afternoons, and producer Geroge Martin would make collages of them. “A Day in the Life” illustrates how this might have worked. It's really two songs. First there's a “John,” accompanied in 2/4 time by quiet rhythm guitar, piano, maraca, and discreet bass and drums:

“I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh.
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn’t noticed that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
Nobody was really sure
If he was from the House of Lords.”

Is this the description of a traffic accident, or is it about change underlining the absurdity of power? Suicide, or astonishment? Distancing yourself from other people’s pain, or the banality of voyeurism? There are two more verses like this, vague or ambiguous, but their sense is one of fate, of the world as a cage. At the end of the second verse, John sings, “I’d love to turn you on,” and an ensemble of strings and horns begins a long, thrashing build to a crescendo and Paul’s song.

“Paul” is breezier and more accessible, sung against the same spare accompaniment. There’s humor here; "Paul" uses sound effects including stylized huffing and puffing. Still, its story is one of a man escaping the stress of hum drum obligations:

“Woke up
Got out of bed
Dragged a comb
Across my head
Found my way downstairs
And drank a cup
And looking up
I noticed I was late
Found my coat
And grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs
And had a smoke
And somebody spoke
And I went into a dream”

“Paul” acts as a bridge between John’s second and third verses. When Paul sings the word “dream,” John croons a floating, ecstatic ah that dominates for more than a dozen measures. Almost unnoticeably at first, the horns back John’s crooning. They become louder, until John's ah is lost in a comically portentious fanfare that announces his third verse.

This last verse bursts into an orchestral build that’s even longer and more wildly entropic than the first. (I remember reading that George Harrison had to circulate among the orchestra, to keep the musicians from trying to introduce order to what they were playing. Maybe, though, that was the Beatles’ writing their own legend.) A single trumpet note chokes the orchestra to silence, and the song resolves with a lingering tonic chord on the piano.

I used to argue with teachers about meaning: “Form doesn’t mean anything. You need words or narrative for meaning.” These guys, the Beatles, were in their middle twenties, and they made a single piano chord tell me that the world that baffled, terrified, and thwarted me is beautiful, poignant, and profound.

Stony said that there were plenty of bands that tried to spin collages of psychedelic fragments, but it didn’t usually come to much. You know, I own a couple artsy rock albums I’d be embarrassed to mention -- you know the kind, the ones with Roger Dean jackets -- and Stony’s probably right. The Beatles didn’t work that way.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterbacking

Wasted. It’s Sunday, and I’m still feeling loopy after my Wednesday dental hoedown. I’m getting better, but I still feel like a good cigar and a fifty-yard dash would kill me. Usually the cigar would do me in by itself, but the run would only cripple me. Today, though, I’m coming, Elizabeth.

I don’t know what did the most damage. Was it the trauma, from the dentist’s going into my sinus through my gums, gouging out a bigger cave with a melon baller, and filling it up with corpse bone and John-the-conqueror root? Or was it the oxycodone-killer acetomenophin mix that I gobbled because I’m such a chicken about pain. I took one five mg/325 mg tab around nineteen hundred, Wednesday, before the local wore off, and half of a 7.5/750 tab when I woke up around oh-four hundred Thursday? (I keep left over prescriptions for painal emergencies). Gotta get my beauty rest. Eighty-four hours later, I’m still paying. In my youth I had friends who enjoyed shit like this, but you’d think somebody could come up with a nice buzz that takes away the pain, and doesn’t leave that unsightly ring around the inside of my goddam skull.

Meanwhile I’ve been sipping a cocktail compounded of economic terrror (the bottom line for the whole rigamarole -- for one stupid tooth -- is over three grand), and of a sixty-year old member of the youth generation’s sense of mortality. I managed yoga Monday Tuesday and Wednesday, with a weight session on Monday, but that’s it since then. No way am I exerting myself. I can feel myself going to seed, or whatever it’s called when you’re not so seedy anymore. Projecting this into the future, I can only see more and tougher medical attention to my body, and...more...missed...workouts. This is turning me into an old man.

So I missed the Bioneers Conference. I haven't made it yet, always thought it was for rich ninnies whose lifestyles were fouling the nest, but wanted green cred. Since I started writing this blog, though, I've thought maybe that was my beat, and I should go. Maybe next year.

There’s an article about topical humor in the November Smithsonian Magazine. The author was wondering what poor Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were going to do now that the White House’s politics are more to their liking. You gotta cut the Smith some slack for being a year behind in noticing that satirists are gonna have to work harder during a Democratic administration. They’re a museum, fer petessake. They’re part of the government, too, so they’re going out on a limb even admitting that anybody ever laughed at Geor...snrrk...G...mmmpf...sorry...the forty-thir...oh my God...haha...oh, no...I can’t even say the venal, authoritarian boob’s name.

I held my nose and pulled the lever for Obama last November, but I think I would have been disappointed even if I hadn’t voted for a corporate flack. Even Ralph Nader would been out-pissed by the obstructionist rabble in and out of government that a more enlightened system would have mining for mastodon above the Arctic Circle. I don’t watch television. I hit my lifetime quota back when it was in black and white. Four PM to ten PM, 1958 to 1967, plus Saturday mornings, that’s where I vegetated. I’m saturated, so I don’t know what particular strategies the writers at the Daily Show have for dealing with the perceived “irony shortage.” But if somebody wanted to give Barack Obama and his investment-banker economic advisors a break, they could start picking on characters like Bo Pilgrim.

Pilgrim is a Texan billionaire, founder of Pilgrim Chicken, who bankrupted the company in a failed takeover of Tyson foods. The company went broke, attempting a repeal of the Thirteenth Amendment in its factories, selling out to a foreign company, and compromising municipal services in the communities around them. Workers put in rainmaker hours for chicken-plucker wages. Factories closed. Tax bills went unpaid. City utility bills trebled and services failed. When a twenty-seven year-old man wrote his hit list and took his rifle for a joy ride last March, the strapped Samson, Alabama police asked nearby Army Fort Rucker for troops (in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, a law that helped end Reconstruction).
Maybe there’s no irony shortage, just irony fatigue.

A few weeks ago, in a mealy-mouthed way, I called the Republicans running for governor of Minnesota “pussies.” I still haven’t come up with another word that, in common use, is as confrontational, as contemptuous of someone’s physical, moral, and intellectual cowardice. I still think those dozen or so global warming deniers are stupid, know-nothing babies, but I’m not going to compare them to half humanity’s sex organs. Like my friend Lisa says, “It’s too good a word for them.”

Infants of the world, I say, like you, are capable of growth. I’ll work on my contempt.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Desire And My Harper's Subscription

I bailed on my blog yesterday. Lethargy. Wednesday night I had dental surgery, which was painless but creepy. I took -- what else -- oxycodone for pain, but my reaction wasn’t as bad as it was when I cut my finger. I managed to draw the illustration for Wednesday’s trophic pyramid/food-web piece Thursday morning. I’d been planning it, so it fell into place, but that shot my bolt for the day.

The scan which sits in place of today’s illustration is from an article, “Final Edition: Twilight of the American Newspaper” by Richard Rodriguez in the November Harper’s Magazine. Rodrigues chronicles the rise and fall of his hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, and relates the decline in papers in general to a modern indifference to place.

Harper’s is a guilty pleasure for me, and I’m letting my subscription lapse. It’s a magazine whose writers seem to understand what’s ailing nation and world in the early twenty-first century, but I don’t think they know what to do, and I have an inkling. I’d rather spend my Harper’s time nursing that inkling, building a society and economy which will last the generations.

This paragraph from Rodriguez’s article is properly bitter. It says that we are encouraged to recognize the impracticality, the inappropriateness, of our desires by people who hope to realize the same desires. It makes me think of medieval bishops who scolded serfs about the sin of envy while making token comment to their patrons about the sin of greed.

I’m fairly indifferent to television-advertising scenes in vineyards and shopping on the Avenue Victor Hugo. But I do desire. Some of my desires are cupidinous. (Is that a word? I’m trying to form an adjective from the noun “cupidity.”) Some of my desires are noble, but desires nonetheless.

The Buddha wouldn’t make a distinction between desires for wealth and pleasure, and desires for relief for the starving and oppressed, or even a desire to personally live in harmony with my world. It’s the mere desire that’s the problem: If I want something, even some virtuous goal, not realizing that desire would be the source of my misery, and maybe someone else’s. But I’m not evolved enough to commit to that kind of detachment.

I have things to do. Desire is my goad, and pleasure rewards me for doing what the world wants. Human beings need to bring our endeavors into harmony with the web of life. Anger at being thwarted in my attempts at harmony, or at being contravened by superior inharmony are other motivators.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Searching For The Existentially Correct Diet

I became a vegetarian in 1976. I was going with friends to visit one friend's father’s fish farm near Niota. We were going to ramble around in the woods, then clean some fish, and fry them. My dirty secret is that I stopped eating flesh because I didn’t want to kill the fish.

It’s a dirty secret because I’ve always said it was Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet that converted me. “I’m not unsympathetic to the animals,” I would say, “but it’s really starving people that keep me vegetarian.” Diet promotes the idea that a gram of meat protein represents several grams of grain and legume protein; if we all ate the livestock’s diet, there would be plenty for everybody. Lappe provided tables and recipes that combined different grains and beans to make sure the reader got each of the necessary amino acids. Beef, I think, came in at 21 grams of protein from livestock feed. Other meats, eggs, and milk were more efficient, but each required several times the protein it yielded to grow. I never quit eating eggs and milk.

Mollison has a flesh-versus-vegetable section in the difficult Chapter Two. He discusses the trophic pyramid, the idea that plants use energy from the sun to turn carbon and other elements into food, prey eats the plants, and predators eat the prey. Lower levels are much more massive than higher levels, with seas of grass, lots of bunnies, and very few wolves. This is a simplistic device, he says, except in lab or feedlot. Natural food webs are complex, with animals converting plants we can’t eat into food we can, and feeding those same plants with their manure and shed hair, feathers, or skin. We likewise feed the plants (or should) with our urine, feces, and corpses.

Getting our protein from vegetable sources takes a lot of fossil fuel, erodes soil (which contributes to global warming), simplifies the natural ecology, uses poison, and distorts economies (all soybeans are patented, concentrating wealth). Barbara keeps talking about growing grain and beans, and neither of us has done the arithmetic, but I’m guessing we don’t have room, and that’s probably typical for most gardeners. Mollison says that a lot of grains and beans are grown for export from places like India and Ethiopia where people starve. He says that traditional western farmers only sold animals or animal products. “...if the farm was to survive without massive energy inputs, animals were the only traditional recycling strategy for a sustainable export market.” He stipulates several practices necessary to “efficient” vegetarian diets:

* Crops must be easily grown and processed;

* Crops must be grown in home gardens;

* “Wastes, especially body wastes” must be returned to the garden;

* We must not exploit other people or move food long distances.

Mollison closes the section by saying that the trophic pyramid is valid in showing how poisons concentrate at the top -- a word to the wise -- and that an omnivore is “buffered” from famine by eating from a variety of sources.

Interestingly, there is an article, in the September/October issue of Ode Magazine, which quotes theologian Karen Armstrong as saying that the cave paintings of places like Lascaux were our ancient ancestors’ way of assuage their discomfort at killing their prey. I had always read that the paintings of animals deep inside the Earth were a shamanic means to create abundance. None of us were there 17,000 years ago, and the artists didn’t leave statements, but I like Armstrong’s idea. I can see myself beginning to eat meat again, for reasons similar to my alleged ones for giving it up, but it'll take some doing to wring my first neck.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Open Letter To The Hennepin County Library

To Whom It May Concern:

I know I owe the Hennepin County Library System $2.90 for forgetting to return L’Avventura on time last month, and I will pay it just as soon as I am in the library with three bucks in my pocket. Somehow I just can’t bring myself to use my cash card for purchases less than ten. Anyway, I’ve been doing business with the Minneapolis System since I came to town almost thirty years ago, and they know I’m good for it.

There’s something you can do for me, and come to think of it, I think it’s a good idea for you.

There’s a book I’m returning today (on time), Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. I haven’t finished it. It’s a good book, but kind of slow reading, being sort of a textbook. Somebody has a hold on it, so I can’t renew it. I had a hold on it, too. It’s one of five in your/our collection, and I requested it in the late spring. I’m going to request it again, when I return it later this afternoon. But don’t you think you/we should own more copies of a book this popular?

Let me tell you why I think Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual is always in circulation. Permaculture is a neologism -- being a librarian I’m sure you have an interest in examples of language’s evolution, and here's a fresh one -- a hybrid, of “permanent” and “culture,” particularly “agriculture.” The idea is that human enterprise should mimic and integrate with the natural local ecosystem. Since this is most easily done in growing food, fiber, and fuel, the book is (mostly) about designing farms and gardens with ecological sensitivity. An idea which is growing, but not widely articulated these days, is that, despite various proximate causes, much violence and many economic crises could be avoided, were we to live more harmoniously with the non-human world, mimic and integrate with its ecosystem. This is a plan for doing just that.

There are dozens or scores of Hennepin County permaculturists. They are the reason that Minneapolis now allows beekeeping. There is a vigorous membership organization, called “Permaculture Research Institute: Cold Climate.” A group called “Midwest Permaculture” holds week-long seminars for which twenty people at a time travel hundreds of miles and pay twelve hundred bucks a pop. You can best see that there is a market for a manual like this in your circulation records, though. If you were renting books to library patrons, the five copies of Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual would be subsidizing a lot of more widely-popular stuff. I have read Frank Miller’s Sin City comic book series courtesy of the Hosmer Branch, pretty sensational stuff, but I often notice them languishing on the shelves.

Post-Peak Oil, recessions will be more frequent and deeper, while recoveries will take longer and seem less like recovery, until we find true wealth by taking our place in the web of life, or until closing time. The Library can help us make the right choice by making more copies of Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual available.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Transition Town Weekend

I read a short piece in the Corcoran Neighborhood News: “Mutual Self-Reliance Group Begins.” There was a subhead about being handy and wanting to share my skills. My skills are such a grab bag of personal fads that I didn’t read the piece first time through. Who cares if you can juggle four balls or double-clutch a bus. Barbara asked me if I read it, and I went, “Huh?” Then she told me I probably should.

The magic words were “transition town stuff.” Transition towns were an idea cooked up in Ireland for adapting to a world with expensive fuel and unpredictable climate. It came out of the permaculture movement, and the idea is to reduce oil use and implement strategies for local self reliance.

The get-together was at the Midtown Farmers’ Market Saturday. Midtown won fourth place in the Care2/Local Harvest “Love Your Farmers’ Market” contest, and claimed a thousand dollars.

It was a cool, sunny day. The sun felt good, but I drank too much coffee keeping warm. There may have been as many as fifteen people there, but several of them just checked in and moved on. Kim and Tom from across the street were there, as was Anne from down the alley. The core group (the ones who sat down and stayed) were about ten. Joe Hesla, who put the note in the paper facilitated, and we went around the circle quickly three times, coming up with a list of interesting projects.

We thought of organizing the following:

Canning parties, probably at a church kitchen;

Neighborhood weatherization projects (we insulated our walls in the early nineties, but I’d be interested in seeing an infrared photo);

Get togethers with musical instruments;

Tool sharing (Later I thought of a neighborhood permaculture library);

Raingarden building;

Outreach to minorities (Everybody was white and grown up, with mean and median ages both around forty-five, but this is probably a noblesse oblige kind of enterprise);

A Facebook page.

We will be meeting again in pot luck, at the quarterly Corcoran Neighborhood meeting on November 9.

I staffed Barsy’s booth for a while, giving Jason a bathroom-and-cigarette break. He said he felt sheepish taking off for a smoke because so many people who shop at farmers’ markets are non-smokers. When he got back, I took the train up to Franklin and hoofed it the mile or so to the Seward Co-op for a mushroom-cultivating class.

The Seward moved last winter, to a remodeled former supermarket. They have meeting rooms upstairs, with kitchens and big flat-screen AV systems.

The presenters, Ron Spinoza and Ty Allchin ran through a brief history of mushroom cultivation -- which has a recent history that reminded me of what Sam’s told me about home brewing -- and a survey of commonly eaten edible and medicinal mushrooms. This included an injunction not to grow psilcybe cubensis because it’s illegal. Then we got down to business: how to grow oyster mushrooms on toilet paper, the entry-level mushroom project. I left with a healthy lid of oyster-inoculated grain, and a petri dish with an oyster-mushroom culture. Sunday, I cleared a set of plastic shelves and wiped them down with chlorine bleach. Now there are two plastic bags there, each containing a soggy roll of toilet paper and spawn, with more to come.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Take Chapter Two...Please

Chapter Two of Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual is hanging me up. The title is “Concepts and Themes in Design." The problem is I can't say what it's about in a sentence.

There’s a joke about speed reading: “I took the Evelyn Wood Speed reading course, and read War and Peace in three minutes. It’s about Russia.” Or, “A lady went to see Hamlet. They asked her if she liked it, and she said, ‘Not really. It was just a bunch of quotes’.”

I might say that Chapter Two is about yield. This is the chapter that introduces the idea that the more you can cycle energy within your system, the more you can increase your yield. For instance, composting your kitchen scraps returns energy to your soil and to your vegetables. Add bees, and increase pollination, then harvest honey. Mollison says that yield is only limited by our knowledge and imagination (and I infer from this how little knowledge -- and maybe imagination -- I have).

The permaculture strategy increases the number of niches in which we can get a yield, because it increases a place’s surface area: Instead of thinking about a place like a map, a flat area, we think of it as something in three dimensions, and realize that there are niches above the ground. We can trellis grapes on trees, and grow shrubs, herbs, mushrooms, and animals under the canopy. Mark Shepard says that we can get twenty-five percent more ethanol from apples than we can from corn, and we can pasture cattle in the orchard, because we aren’t worried about fecal coliform bacteria’s contaminating a non-food crop. Permaculture also increases the number of cycles. Mollison says a cycle is a “niche in time,” because one critter is at one place all the time, but never over there. This critter is everywhere in the spring, another is everywhere in the summer, and so on. So the designer needs to recognize -- and create -- niches and cycles, and fill them.

But it takes five sections before we get to that discussion, and there's a lot more after. The introductory section is very abstract, too. Mollison speaks here regretfully about the absence of taboo and myth in western society. He says, “ never having the time or common sense to evolve new or current guiding directives, we have forgotten how to evolve self-regulating systems.” He again mentions Lovelock and the Gaia Hypothesis, reminding us that Life maintains equilibrium, and if we threaten equilibrium, we’d better stand back. He outlines aboriginal myth as traditional "guiding directive": Willful act, Transmutation (Lot’s wife), Invocation of elemental force (the Flood), Atonement. Mollison says that we have replaced this with “fixed prohibitions” that are entirely about how we treat other people, never referring to our natural context. “Immutable rules” don’t apply in life or permaculture design. This isn’t license; what we have now is license, and it doesn’t work. We need “flexible principles and directives.” We need to pay attention.

There is a lot more to this chapter. It’s rich in anecdote and aphorism. The point is to increase yield within the context of a planet that “less and less appears to behave like a material assembly, and more and more appears to act as a thought process."

Today's illustration is the right-hand side of a page of notes I took at a Permaculture Design seminar in 2007. Just to the left of the browsers was a hard-to-see drawing of a woolly mammoth. One way to design is to find analogies for what would have been on a site way back.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New Alchemy Strategy

Two pages from a comic I drew in 1986. It was based on an ecological design swiped from the New Alchemists. Back then midwestern places like my home town were hurting. (I think they still are, but the pain is even further removed from the decision makers.) I hoped that I was spreading the word that strategies existed for real and permanent revitalization. Everybody I knew, and a lot I didn't, got a photocopy. I never built one of these either.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

John Todd: Making The World Safe For Itself

John Todd came to me via the Whole Earth Catalog, and its subsequent incarnations. In 1969, Todd, his wife Nancy Jack, and other colleagues like Bill McLarney founded the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, and that organization catalyzed my hippie fantasies.

I believed that madness like segregation and the war in Viet Nam happened because we lived wrong, and what we needed was experiments in how we might live so as to avoid war and oppression. These people were living my dream! They were collaborating with like-minded people to turn waste into food. They had gardens, wind turbines, passive solar heat, methane generators, and they were recycling garden wastes through these big, interesting-looking fiberglass tanks full of fish. They were ending the war by creating wealth.

Like a lot of hippies, I was wondering, “Why aren’t we doing something like that here.” I wasted a lot of time waiting for New Alchemy-Midwest to materialize.

Todd went on to design systems for cleaning polluted bodies of water, living machines which turned the sewerage in small towns and ski resorts into salable bait fish and decorative plants, and an Ocean-Going Pickup, an inexpensively manufactured small sailboat for third world fishermen. Todd won the 2008 Buckminster Fuller Challenge grant for his proposal, “Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World: The Challenge of Appalachia.”

Challenge of Appalachia is a plan for repairing existing damage from coal mining, managing ecological succession to reforest the area, and building ecologically sensitive industries and other institutions to afford citizens comfortable and self-reliant livelihoods for generations to come. The idea is that this would spread, and in his proposal, Todd says they have a similar project in operation in Cost Rica.

I was at a permaculture discussion once, in which somebody said, “If John Todd doesn’t get a Nobel Peace Prize, there’s something wrong.” You can quibble about theories and strategies, but peace prosperity and stability are only going to come to stay where people have learned to live as part of the planetary ecosystem. John Todd is somebody who has spent forty years building reproducible examples of how that can be done.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dune And Permaculture

First: This book is a turkey. A very long turkey. This is a story -- with appendices and a glossary -- which takes place against the background of an alien ecology. The ecology is practically a character, and yet it’s on a planet with a few scattered faunal and floral odds and ends, and zillions of predatory worms big enough to eat battle ships. Dune turns the trophic pyramid on its pointed little annelid head. Written in 1965, the characters -- the entire universe, in fact -- are addicted to a drug, maybe a stand-in for LSD, that makes them live for centuries and see the future. At a critical moment, Jessica, who gave birth to a son despite a promise to bear daughters, proclaims her word, straight-faced, as unfailing. Dune relies on inheritance of acquired characteristics (ancestral memories) as a plot device, in spite of its scientific pretensions. It’s primary theme, I think, is the unreliability of prescience. Anybody who needs that advice didn’t need to read it in sensational novels. Another theme is that heroes are bad news. They embody out-of-control history, and the Dune characters go jihadding around the universe beheading bad guys after securing their planet. Author Frank Herbert lets us know, by-the-way, that the chief female characters get a bad deal, then finishes the book with a grand summing up by one of them, telling us that even though they were only mistresses history will remember them as their men’s great loves.

Dune is probably Moammer Khaddafi’s favorite book.

And yet Dune featured ecology at a time when neither word nor concept were well known. Even if it appeared now, flawed as it is, Dune would be ahead of the curve! There is a chapter in which Liet Kynes, the Imperial Planetologist (see, I told you it was goofy!) is dying. As he waits for the ecological coup de grace, he hears his father’s voice lecturing him about -- what else? -- ecology. I’ve selected passages from Dune and from Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, which echo each other.

Liet thinks, “The real wealth of a planet is in its landscape, how we take part in that basic source of civilization, agriculture.”

Bill Mollison: “Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity stability and resillience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of stable social order.”

Liet’s father, speaking out of Liet’s delerium: “The more life there is within a system, the more niches there are for life.”

Bill Mollison: “ itself cycles nutrients, giving opportunities for yield, and thus opportunities for species to occupy...niches.”

Mr. Kynes: “Life improves the capacity of the environment to sustain life.”

Mollison (referring to James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis): “(Lovelock) sees the earth, and the universe, as a thought process, or as a self-regulating, self-constructed and reactive system, creating and preserving the conditions that make life possible, and and actively adjusting to regulate disturbances.”

Mr. Kynes: “You can’t draw neat lines around planet-wide problems. Ecology is a cut-and-fit science.”

Mollison: “In life and in design, we must accept that immutable rules will not apply, and instead be prepared to be guided on our continuing exploration byt flexible principles and directives.”

Mr. Kynes: “(An ecologist’s) most important tool is human beings. You must cultivate ecological literacy among the people.”

Mollison: “The only limit on the number of uses of a resource possible within a system is in the limit of information and imagination of the designer.”

Dune would make a Tralfamadorian blush, but this chapter is a gem.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Weekend Gossip

I’m typing with a bulky bandage on the tip of my left forefinger. I cut it pretty badly, slicing a tomato yesterday. It hurt a lot, it was getting close to bedtime, and I had some Oxycodone left over from dental surgery (just like Rush Limbaugh).

The interesting thing was that the drug didn’t make much difference to my finger, and it upset my stomach. What made a difference was ice. We have three gadgets that you keep in the freezer for applying to injuries, one of them pretty massive, and long enough to wrap around my knee. Barbara got the inspiration about ten, and brought me one of the smaller ones. It took all three to buy me a night’s sleep, the big one taking the longest shift. I woke up hungover from the Oxycodone, the hangover’s worst feature being nausea. Another epiphany is that peppermint tea helps the tummy. I still feel like a kid after his first drunk, but I used to be pretty cavalier about dismissing home remedies. You can’t learn less.

Sam and I drove to Red Wing, Saturday. It’s about an hour south of here, on the Mississippi. We went to do some sampling for Barsy’s Almonds at Kiki’s Simple Abundance, a health food store. It reminded me of my time running a similar store, Middle Earth, back home in Macomb. Simple Abundance seems more comfortable with the intersection of nutrition and therapy than I was, which is probably more appropriate in a town of sixteen thousand. Sam is good at telling strangers about the product, charmingly explaining each flavor as completely and forthrightly as good catalog copy. On the trip home, Sam, who has built his personal computer, and designs websites professionally, told me that he believes that there will still be computers in a few years, but not as many. We were talking about energy and economics, and Sam was saying that a time will come soon when computers such as the one at which I write, and the one at which you read will be out of reach to most of us. Keep the libraries and post offices open. Red Wing is the home of Red Wing Shoes, but I could not find a brag on either company or city website, “Made in America,” or “Made right here in Red Wing.” My Red Wing boots say that they are made in the US, the UK, and Europe. Could we re-establish a shoe industry here if we had to?

We have a very efficient furnace. One way that it gets more heat to us from the gas we burn is by reclaiming the latent heat of evaporation. Water takes on heat as it evaporates, and releases it as it condenses. Our furnace condenses water from the exhaust to add heat to the house. The water has to go somewhere, and usually it drains out a plastic tube and into the drain in the basement floor. Our house was built without that drain. To compensate, and prevent puddles, our furnace installers bolted a small pump onto the furnace, and ran a tube from it to the laundry tub. The problem is that the pumps only last a season or two. Yesterday I noticed that the penultimate one had failed, temporarily putting the furnace out of business. Today, a tech put in a replacement for $272.00. Less gas, smaller carbon footprint (maybe: gotta think about manufacturing and shipping), but pump replacement adds $136.00 or more to the annual heating cost. Barbara suggested a tank on the floor, and a pump that would very occasionally distribute the water to the garden. The tech thought that would kill the plants. I knew the condensate was acidic, but figured I could buffer it with limestone gravel. The tech said there was other “gunk” in it. Any ideas?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Open Arms: T Minus 612 Months

Bill Rowe liked to cook, and in 1986, began feeding five or six friends with AIDS from his kitchen. Rowe, born around 1930, taught Anthropology at the University of Minnesota -- including a course in the “Anthropology of AIDS” -- was a leftist before a leftist was anybody more progressive than Orrin Hatch, served seven years in an antecedent to the Peace Corps, and once drove from London to Mumbai.

Demand expanded Rowe’s mission at the height of Reagan and company’s supply-side festivities. An informal act of charity became Open Arms of Minnesota, dedicated to feeding people too weak to feed themselves. Kitchen table became church basement, became stand-alone kitchen. Clients continue to include people with HIV/AIDS, but Open Arms also embraces anyone coping with a chronic, progressive illness -- MS, ALS, breast cancer -- and reaches out to people with AIDS in South Africa’s Guguletu township.

In 2008, Open Arms’ kitchen provided a quarter of a million meals. Cooks and volunteers play a game of musical work-surface to make that happen, and Open Arms is building a new, larger facility half a dozen blocks from the current shop.

Thursday night, with less than half a million to go in its eight million dollar building-fund drive, Open Arms toasted its volunteers, and unveiled its new, non-AIDS-specific logo. Executive Director Kevin Winge, usually comfortable in jacket and tie, appeared in a tee shirt to reveal the logo tattooed on his right deltoid, just above a bandaid covering his flu vaccination. He remarked that he had never had a tattoo before, but that his first demonstrates confidence that Open Arms will endure.

I was gratified. Illness is a commons, just as surely as the air, and you and I own pieces of every sufferer’s struggle.

Guests wrote comments on a roll of paper for inclusion in a time capsule aimed at 2060. Free associating, I drew a picture of Michigan J. Frog, later regretting it. After all, who’s going to recognize a poorly drawn character from a hundred-and-five-year-old cartoon, and it’s kind of a wet-blanket image. All I was trying to say was “Frog in a time capsule, nyuk nyuk.” Michigan’s joke, though, is that he sings and dances for his discoverer, but remains stolidly amphibian before the talent scout.

I read fear into it, as I recalled my drawing, fear that new facilities signal the senescences of organizations. Volunteering in the kitchen, I know there’s a dilemma. On one side there are people too incapacitated or impoverished by disease to cook, and Open Arms needs more parking, storage, and work space. On the other, Bill Rowe had the historical advantage over Kevin Winge. Rowe began feeding people on the buyer’s-market side of peak oil. Winge will have to do the job on the seller’s market side, and supporting the new building could become an embarrassment.

Open Arms has the support of umpty-ump volunteers, who put in the equivalent of seventeen staff people. Squeezing more time or effort from them would work against the mission. Chances are Open Arms has identified and recruited all its major donors, and philanthropists give from income -- slow for the foreseeable future -- not capital, and return to the community will never match extraction. Many small donors might do the trick, but KFAI’s fall pledge drive looks like a serious bust, in spite of the station’s new third-ring-suburban reach, and repeated encouragements to listeners to pledge any amount.

The permaculture take is that yield increases the more cycles the energy goes through. Relationships, meaning ways that elements relate, rather than number of elements, are critical. There are no easy answers, but Open Arms could find a clue in the Minnesota Public Radio business model. MPR, a nonprofit owns several for-profit businesses, and has owned others. Open Arms imports handmade tchotchkes from South Africa, but food is its strength, and one leg of the existential tripod of food, shelter, and meaning. Open Arms has existing relationships with organic, community-supported agriculture. Its future may lie in cycling energy through those relationships.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

60 Thousand Mile Checkup

I spent the morning doctoring. It had been three years since my last physical, and I have a slight cough that won’t go away. Dr. Kelly is a Black-Irishman: fair skinned with black hair and that blue-black shadow that begins about three minutes after he’s shaved. He’s also about my age, and has been active in the anti-war movement, trying to persuade local defense contractor Alliant Tech Systems to stop making cluster bombs, missiles, and depleted uranium household products. He listens.

I’m sixty, and I’m pretty good at basic arithmetic. My father, who was a boy of twenty-nine when I was born, died in 2008. His sister Martha is a strong ninety-four-or-five (and it does not worry me that she drives), but even so, I’m feeling mortal. I’ve kind of poked around all my life, trying this and that, making compromises between what made sense to me and what the real world and circumstances demanded.

And what made sense to me was pretty goofy. I’ve known about last year’s economic meltdown ever since I read Deliverance in the third grade. Sorry. I’m being hyperbolic; it was really the Fatima Letter, and I didn’t actually read it. Civil Rights, Viet Nam, and the Whole Earth Catalog made me realize that society could do better. Buckminster Fuller, Frances Moore Lappe, and my artist-builder friends gave me an idea about how. My first real work was managing a bulk natural food store, in which a wall of vitamins struggled to subsidize the healthy food. While I was selling beans and whole wheat, post-Viet Nam inflation hit, and staid midwestern Calvinists hurried downtown to sell their dimes to the headshop guy. A natural food store was an interesting intersection of solutions to America’s challenges. Somebody, who not long before had read Carlos Castaneda on acid, talked back-to-the-land with other high-IQ juvenile delinquents, and rubbed shoulders on the picket line with campus black militants, now got to read Howard Ruff’s Ruff Times, shoot machine guns in the middle of the night, and read -- for free, and as a courtesy -- white supremacist tabloids like the Spotlight and the Thunderbolt. I was tribal, convinced about the trophic pyramid, eager for economic democracy, and absolutely sold on radical energy conservation: goofy. And correct.

Personally I was kind of vague, but everything has its own gestation period, and in some quasi-teleological sense, I was aiming for the final third of my life.

Now that my final third has come, or is very near, the stakes are high. I’m fit, happy, and jealous. I don’t want to lose those years and the chance to leave something lasting. I have long-lived antecedants, but also some who crapped out early. Average life expectancy for American males is just eighteen years from now, and me with eight pack years on the odometer, and two melanomas. You used to burn the white out of your skin at the first sign of spring, and suntan lotion was about SPF 0.2. At the same time, the chickens have come home to roost, and their economic eggs have hit the fan. The mess that my parents left me has only gotten worse, and I’d like to tidy up a little before I pass the world on to my son. It looks like the economists and politicians are hankering to inflate another bubble, and maybe we need them to do that: provide a little cover, while you and I build a stable, healthy, eco-conscious way of life.

Dr. Kelly just called to tell me that my chest x-ray was clean. I’m still in business.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

End of Summer

Summer lingered through September, a sensual pleasure but odd enough here on the forty-fifth parallel that I shivered at what it might mean. We bumped into Annie, Monday night, and she pointed out that the trees are still green. She’s a transplant here, as are we, but we’ve all been in the north country long enough to expect autumn a month earlier. The last week has been cool and rainy, but still without frost. The Arboretum included advice in its newsletter that we should have our grass short when the snow sticks, so as to deny cover to the tree-girdling mice. After losing two trees last winter, and fearing for the rest, I’m on it. It’s sunny today, and that should dry the grass, making it mowable.

Old hippie-friend KatieMae recommended Waltz with Bashir, which I rented and watched, and Barbara left alone. It’s an animated documentary about post-traumatic shock among middle-aged Israeli men who were young soldiers during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Kate is a Viet Nam vet who is wrestling with war demons she managed to keep waiting for forty years. Waltz is visually striking, and I found myself feeling protective toward its various protagonists. In one of the special features, director Ari Folman says that war is a useless horror caused by evil, charismatic men. (Bashir was Bashir Gemayel, leader of a right-wing, largely Christian party, assassinated in a bombing. Paramilitary followers avenged his death by the massacre of civilians in two refugee camps, while Israeli forces enclosed the camps.) My own take is that the egomaniacs steer and shape war, to a small extent, but war is a golem, set in motion by society’s thoughtless choices. The traumatized veterans of the Lebanon invasion were merely bystanders to the massacre that scarred them; what demons will haunt the veterans of last year’s Gaza adventure. Or haunt America’s Imperial legions.

Tuesday night was drawing group, thinly attended because of the loss of one parent, the infirmity of another, a long weekend at the cabin for two, and unknown. I liked what I did, drawing Liz, using a Sharpie in a five-and-a-half by eight-and-a-half notebook, staying loose, and getting decent proportion and foreshortening. A lot of the conversation was about the economy, and justifiably worried. People’s livelihoods seem precarious, and that's perverse. If society is in trouble, you’d think we’d want all minds on deck and ready for assignment. If you can’t afford to have them there, you’re doing the wrong thing. The economy doesn’t stop on a dime and make change, but full, meaningful employment should be part of the design program.

I continue my slog through the permaculture Designer’s Manual. It’s not a kind of reading I enjoy or do well, but despite that, I feel I have found my path with a heart. Mollison’s program for H. sapiens has ultimate potential for soothing our hurts and the ending the hurt we cause the planet, yet we’re so far from following it -- there’s so much to learn and it's so different from what we know -- that the odds seem long indeed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Oyster Mushrooms And A New Book

Across-the-street neighbors, Kim and Tom are campers. They came back from their latest foray with a bag of hen of the woods for us. We fried them with onions and garlic, and ate them on toast. They were good. (Hen of the woods is a mushroom that pops out in clusters from the roots of deciduous trees. It appears in autumn, between the east slopes of the Rockies and the Atlantic.)

Tom and Kim had bought a mushroom guide in a state park gift shop, Start Mushrooming: The Easiest Way to Start Collecting 6 Edible Mushrooms, by Stan Tekiela and Karen Shanberg (Adventure Publications, Cambridge, MN, 1993, ten bucks). Kim loaned it to us, and I’ve ordered a copy of our own.

Start limits you to a manageable six common and easily recognized ‘shrooms. They are morels, hen of the woods, sulfur shelfs (aka chicken of the woods), oysters, giant puffballs, and shaggy manes. I’ve eaten four of them. Only one was less than great -- chicken of the woods, which had a fibrous texture that made me think I knew what eating punk wood would be like. Having read Takiela and Shanberg’s discussion of chicken of the woods, I’d be inclined to give it a second try, on the chance that the mushroom I ate was too old when it was harvested.

Each mushroom gets several pen-and-ink illustrations, with circles and arrows, pointing out the pertinent identifying features, with six or seven hundred words of discussion. There are color photographs, and the feature of the book, a “check-off guide” for each species, listing season when you can expect to find it, its habitat, overall appearance, and the appearance of cap, gills, and stem. There’s also a chapter on what to avoid.

We don’t get out to the sticks much anymore, and we’re trying to work some kind of mushroom operation into our urban permaculture plantation, but this book may lead us into the wilderness.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Is South Minneapolis Burning?

We knew the Nazis would be there Saturday because Barbara’s farmers’ market is across the street from the YWCA, and Sam and Marissa called, offering to be bodyguards. The Nazis were four sad sacks from Austin, Minnesota, birthplace of Spam, and home to several of those trailers where they turn stolen Sudafed and lighter fluid into methedrine. Which is not to say that Nazis are meth-heads -- I’d guess they’re temperate -- just that both have sucked from the same breast.

Two women were presenting an anti-racism workshop at the Y. The Nazis had gotten wind of that, and Minneapolis’ current crop of hippie radicals had gotten wind of the Nazi’s plans. Reservations were for ten.

The workshop presenters were Susan Raffo, “a writer, community organizer and craniosacral therapist currently studying with Suzanne River in Global Somatics,” and Heather Hackman who “teaches courses in social justice and multicultural education, heterosexism and homophobia in the US, race and racism in the US, and oppression and social change.” The workshop was for “white people who already have an understanding of white privilege and white supremacy (WP/WS) and want to learn more about how to dismantle WP/WS through embodiment work, education, visioning and practical action.”

I’m sorry. After Friday’s blog, I promised myself I’d tell the story instead of pulling quotes from somebody else, but I wanted to use the presenters’ own words to make sure it was absolutely clear what the White Privilege workshop was about.

Our little permaculture patch is four blocks due south of the farmers’ market, so let me tell you about our neighborhood. Tom, who made the pergola with the peace sign, is a retired university professor, Margaret used to work at the same energy conservation organization as I did, Bood is refugee Laotian military, the East African guy and the American blond own a duplex, their renters are Latino, this guy’s gay, she’s a lesbian firefighter, he’s got a “Flat Broke Indian” bumper sticker, our congressman is a Muslim, our city councilman is gay and he’s worried about the Green candidate. Not a one would hurt a fly, but we’re not exactly the cast of Triumph of the Will.

I walked up to the demonstration in a light drizzle, a little before ten, carrying a small sketchbook, with a camera in my pocket. Police cruisers blocked the twenty-one hundred block of East 31st at both ends. A couple hundred neighbors stood on the north side of the street. The Nazis faced them from the south, dressed in black, arms folded or in Hitler salutes. They had two American flags, a megaphone, and a cardboard banner saying, “Help the White race.” I appreciated the offer. I’m of a certain age, and my game knee knows when it’s raining, but I’d managed to hobble up on my own.

There were a bunch of equally bald-pated young men, a little more tattered, a little more colorful, with spikes coming out of their shoulders, and slogans lettered on their jackets. They were on the Nazi side of the street, chanting, “No hate, out of state.”

I started drawing quickly, frustrated by the rain on my page, and sensing somehow that this wasn’t going to last long. It registered with me that a cop was talking to the Nazis, and I drew faster. Then the color guard rolled up the colors that don’t run, and the jack-booted thugs just walked away, one giving us a last sieg heil. The crowd escorted them to their car, and I went to the farmers’ market, which was practically rained out, and where Barbara was shivering and trying to stay dry under her tent. It still wasn’t ten.

After a while, Sam and Marissa showed up, and I walked with them to meet a friend of Marissa’s, Eric, a skinhead who bemoaned the fact that one of the Nazis was, as is Eric, an Irishman. And we all know how tolerant the Irish are. Eric said he had spoken with one of the Nazis who was only eighteen, and told him he had his whole life ahead of him, and he didn’t have to do what he was doing. I met Aaron, another skinhead, who was two-point-ninety-nine sheets to the wind, and said he was a Jew who beat up Nazis, as he crushed a Budweiser can for the recycling into his jacket pocket. Eric and Aaron bantered with Vic, a towering guy with nary a hair on his head, save for eyebrows and two huge mutton chops. I liked it that Vic had pointed out to the cops that the Nazis were terrorists according to some provision or other of the Homeland Security Act. The difference between Nazis and anti-racist skinheads is that Vic has a sense of irony.

On our walk, I had told Sam and Marissa that I’d like to tie one on with a Nazi, and do a little anthropological interviewing. Marissa lived in Germany, and had tried that very experiment, herself, once upon a time. He threw a beer bottle at her. Among the anti-racist skinheads, I knew I couldn’t expect to learn how Nazis think, but I still wanted to know why what looked like a peaceful confrontation had broken up before it was supposed to start. I asked questions.

Eric said that there had been a scuffle before I arrived. “There was some shouting, and somebody shoved somebody else. I guess the cops told them it would be better if they left.”

Later Marissa said, “I know Vic, and he started it.”

You know, everybody -- except maybe the cops, who were at work -- had a good time. The Nazis got to show off in front of us deluded traitors to white supremacy, and they got a nice drive, maybe stopped for breakfast in Owatonna on the way up, and at the outlet mall or Cabella’s on the way back. The local skinheads managed to clean up the town, and show that a shaved head doth not a racist make. The South Minneapolis neighbors also rejected the racist contagion. The workshoppers got to do whatever the heck they were doing, and probably bowed their heads silently for a minute, wishing for the conversion of the deluded. I got a drawing, such as it is, and this post.

Barbara even got something out of it. It was a nothin’ day at the market, until the demonstration broke up. That boosted her sales into the respectable range, and she got to give samples to people who had never heard of Barsy’s Almonds.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Notes On Permaculture: A Designer's Manual: Intro

This is a book that will become more dear as we scoot the post-peak downslope. Not only will anybody who bought it want to hang onto it and sensible people want to get it, it’s the equivalent of a college textbook with similar prices ($94.28 new at Alibris, $98.00 at Seeds of Change, and $104.99 at Amazon, with used copies ranging from an even seventy-nine bucks up to more than two ninety), getting spendier as prices in general go up and discretionary cash goes down. When I got my copy from the Hennepin County Library, it owned five copies, there were holds on all, and I had to wait more than two months for my turn.

I’m reading the first four chapters of Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Designer’s Manual (Tagari Press, Tyalgum, NSW, Australia, 1988). This post will be an outline of Chapter One, the introduction.

Mollison argues from general to specific in three sections: Philosophy, Ethics, and “Permaculture in Landscape and Society.” That’s consistent with permaculture practice in which we patiently watch places and systems, relationships behaviors and patterns, then act respectfully to provide for ourselves. Mollison begins with the most general, with the result of his observation, and derives his action from that in stages.

Mollison is unequivocal in revealing his design philosophy. He says, “We are in danger of perishing through our own stupidity.” He is concerned with extinction and human appropriation of wilderness, and says that taking responsibility is “the only” ethical decision. Reductionism, the approach to understanding in which we isolate parts from systems, then study the parts of parts to understand what they are, has kept the western, dominant culture from being able to foresee results or to design integrated systems. Life, he says, is cooperative, we are not, and cooperation is the key to our future.

As an example of cooperation, Mollison mentions the relationship between mycorhiza and trees. This went over my head the first time I read it, but since then I’ve read Paul StametsMycellium Running, and found a pretty interesting anecdote. There are three basic ways fungus make a living. They scavenge dead things; they parasitize living things; and they cooperate with living things. Mycorhiza work the third way, penetrating trees’ roots and extending them. Researchers shielded some trees in a grove, and were able to trace the transfer of nutrients from trees in sun to trees in shade, via the fungi in the ground.

We are in transition, from what Mollison would probably say is a philosophy of soulless accountancy to one in which we can engage with the world honestly and down through millennia. It’s a meeting of science and mysticism. He quotes James Lovelock, author of the Gaia Hypothesis, as saying that life conditions the world for life, it is a “self-regulating system.” We may be the only exception, and maybe the Earth can’t accept that. He quotes native peoples as believing that the ideal way to spend life is to “lead the most evolved life possible and to assist and celebrate other life forms.” Life is trying for perfection and maybe transcendance. Native people understood this and suffered from contact with our technological materialism. Mollison believes that heaven and hell are here and now, and we choose between them.

Ethically, Mollison bases permaculture on three principles: Care of the Earth and preserving life systems; Care of People, in which everybody gets necessary resources; and Setting Limits to Population and Consumption.

He qualifies the third principle by saying, “By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles,” and says we must be self reliant as individuals and cooperate as groups. Cooperation observed in nature becomes and ethical basis. He says he has evolved a philosophy that’s close to Taoism: “Work with rather than against nature. Observe thoughtfully for a long time. Look at systems and people in all their functions. Let systems demonstrate their own evolutions.”

Questions are more important to Mollison than answers. He says we should refuse or reframe mistaken questions. For instance, “What can I get from this land or person?” becomes, “What does this person or land have to give if I cooperate with them?”

Human beings can learn what’s appropriate, and stop doing harmful things. Conservative behaviors evolve this way, and this is the source of tribal taboos. He articulates two rules: “The Rule of Necessitous Use,” in which we leave natural systems alone until we need them, and “The Rule of Conservative Use,” in which we reduce waste, replace lost minerals, and assess long-term harms to life and society and buffer them.

Observing these rules, we may realize that we are connected to the rest of life, maybe by noticing help we receive from species that we did not extinguish. Mollison mentions the mycorhiza, and says we may learn the value of community from examples like this. He hopes that this awareness will expand from family and friends to the entire human species. According to Mollison, the Permaculture Designer’s Manual is about “mechanisms of mature ethical behavior.” Unequivocal. He mentions a global nation of people who share this ethic.

If industrialism is ephemeral, permaculture is permanent. Mollison mentions three approaches to permanence, the peasant or “feudal” approach, the modern or “baronial” approach, and the forest or “communal” approach. In the first, peasants gather and haul manure and other nutrients to fertilize grain. The second uses the most land, few people, machinery, and single species. He says this is the least productive use of land we can devise, destroys landscapes and soil life, and makes “agricultural deserts.” The forest approach needs generations of care, and reverence. This is the permaculture approach. The further you get from this, says Mollison, the greater the risk of “tyranny, feudalism, revolution, toil.” Modern agriculture is unstable and vulnerable to natural disaster or economic attack, it needs energy from outside the system, and it subordinates the needs of people to the needs of commerce.

Mollison has a two-page illustration at this point. The left side pictures three stages of transition from “Contemporary Western Agriculture” in year 1, through “Transitional and Conservation Farming” in year four, to “Permaculture; 70% of Cropland Devoted to Forage Farming” in year eight. The right side has bar graphs for each of the three stages showing improvement from year one to year eight in fifteen areas:

Total Cash Income (+ over time)
Total Cash Cost (- over time)
Oil or Calories Used for Fuel, Fertilizer, Biocides (- over time)
Energy Produced (+ over time)
Soil Loss (- over time)
Efficiency of Water Use and Soil Water Storage (+ over time)
Pollution (- over time)
Genetic Richness of Crops and Livestock (+ over time)
Soil Life (+ over time)
Forest Biomass (+ over time)
Loss to Pests (- over time)
Farm Employment (+ over time)
Food Quality (+ over time)
Human and Environmental Health (+ over time)
Life Quality as “Right Livelihood” (+ over time)
Caption: “Selected forests not only yield more than annual crops, but provide a diverse nutrient and fuel resource for such crops.”

Permanent agriculture is necessary for stable social order. Going from permanent agriculture to commercial, annual agriculture takes our society from low-energy to high-energy consumption, and leads us to exploit the third world. Mollison says he tells people to “go home and garden and not try to improve mechanized agriculture.” He sees a new ecological synthesis using whole-system energy flows as described by Howard Odum. (Howard Odum was an American ecologist, of the World War II generation. He was interested in general systems theory, and developed the concept of embodied energy, or “emergy,” which is commonly used by permaculturists to mean things which can be harnessed or harvested to promote yield. Examples are sun, rain, wind, and soil fertility. Embodied energy might also be the leaves that get caught in a fence or hedge. Odum used electrical circuits as analogies in discussing the flow of chemicals like carbon in natural systems. Larger ecosystems are more stable, with the world itself being most stable. I think Mollison would say that people should take advantage of this by integrating our systems with the largest and most stable.)

Permaculture designers should concentrate on rehabbing and rethinking already settled areas. This amounts to designing ecosystems. Focusing on food, fuel, and water supply will free most of the world’s natural systems and let wilderness come back, so designers will select species for yields that benefit humans. In natural ecosystems, organisms digest the native dead plant and animal matter. In designed ecosystems, humans have the responsibility of selecting and arranging it for the organisms to recycle. There would be cycles in which garden waste, kitchen scraps, graywater, and manure would become soils, along with occasional imports. Talking with Sam about brewing, and the effect yeast selection has on flavor makes me wonder if, someday, gardeners would select the organisms that live in the compost pile, designing compost to encourage some species or enhance the flavor of another.

Mollison reminds us that we can catch rainwater, and build soils to hold water longer, but we still need forests to feed clouds and rivers and “lock up gaseous pollutants.” Our survival demands conservation. He says, “We have abused land and laid waste to systems we need never have disturbed had we attended to our home gardens and settlements,” and stipulates four “Natural Systems Ethics: Implacable and uncompromising opposition to further disturbance of remaining forests; rehabilitation of damaged systems to steady states; establishment of our plant systems on the least amount of land; and establishment of refuges for threatened species.

Mollison says permaculture is most interested in establishing plant systems on the least amount of land. He insists that “all people who act responsibly” subscribe to these statements:
“Implacable and uncompromising opposition to further disturbance of any remaining natural forests where most species are still in balance,” and “vigorous rehabilitation of degraded and damaged natural systems to stable states.”

That said, he goes on to say that we should use all species that would be useful to our settlement designs, “provided they are not locally rampant and invasive.” This is probably the source for criticisms that permaculture promotes importing invasive species (despite Mollison’s disclaimer). How do you know what a foreign species will do in a new location? Due diligence would seem to require a survey of a species’ relationships in its native range before importing it, but someone like me would find that beyond practicality, and might be tempted to just go ahead and introduce “that Caucasian perennial spinach that’s been in all the permaculture magazines.”

Mollison says that the world changes naturally -- glaciation, continental drift, wind, birds, rafting on bodies of water -- the implication that we wouldn’t be doing anything that nature doesn’t do itself, just doing it a little faster. What he’s suggesting is that we mimic the natural, larger ecosystem, and integrate with it locally, but can we trust ourelves to do that, taking species for our purposes from foreign contexts? “Can you hunt the prey for the lions or satisfy the appetite of the young lions?”

In a period of deforestation and extinction, Mollison says there are “three parallel and concurrent responses to the environment: “Care for surviving natural assemblies to leave the wilderness to heal itself;” “Rehabilitate degraded or eroded land, using complex pioneer species (what is a complex species?) and long-term plant assemblies” (meaning trees, shrubs, and companion ground covers); and “Create our own complex living environment with as many species as we can save, or have need for from wherever on Earth they come.”

Mollison is talking about building useful, designed ecosystems. I’m all for that, but can we know enough about an exotic species and its relationships to add it to the backyard. There are at least two large operations within a half day’s drive from Minneapolis where the owners began by planting several varieties of apple, and selecting the varieties that did best on their sites. Without spraying, both these permaculture orchards yield tasty, unblemished fruit. How could the growers have anticipated whatever it was that made the varieties that succeeded thrive? Eathworms aren’t native to Minnesota. They are good for garden soil, but make forest soils hard, endangering the trees. Who knew?

Mollison says we need refuges for all global life forms. We should try to observe systems that remain and build “new or recombinant ecologies” to stabilize degraded ones.

The chemistry of the air, soil, and water is in flux because of human-invented materials.

The first thing Mollison says we need to do is to get our house (and garden) in order so that we can count on it to support us and not feed the poisons we have made back to us. The second one is to limit our population. These are “intimately connected duties,” and if we don’t perform them, we are a “plague.”

Unequivocal and implacable again, Mollison insists that “responsible conservationists” support themselves with gardens, and work to reduce their energy needs to what can be supplied locally and harmlessly. Mollison is not shy about saying that it’s hypocritical to call for conservation on one hand and live on mass-produced products on the other. Nor is he shy about implying that religion shares in this hypocrisy. Wonder and feeling for the environment are necessary, and religions need to cultivate an “live by” that wonder. My guess is that Mollison came out of a non-sacramental kind of Protestantism, but would he approve of a new religion that made compost as a sign of grace?

Or to sacramentally create and support wilderness? He believes permaculturists should support wilderness-conserving organizations, and maintain some wilderness on the land for which we are responsible, be it a butterfly garden in a backyard, or a forest preserve on larger property.

Mollison finishes the chapter by saying, “Design is the keyword of this book: design in landscape, social and conceptual systems, and design in space and time. I have attempted a treatment of the difficult subject of paterning, and have tried to order some complex subjects so as to make them accessible. The text is positivistic without either the pretended innocence or the belief that everything will turn out right. Only if we make it so will this happen.

“Adoption of permaculture strategies will reduce land needed to support us and release land for wildlife and wild systems. Respect for all life forms is a basic, and in fact essential ethic for all people.”