Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Date with Some Turtles

Engraving by Karl Bodmer, 1865
On Saturday it dawned sunny and not raining, for once, in a season in which rain has been a major feature of life. In mid-afternoon, right in the middle of weekend chores, I realized I had an appointment with some turtles in Thatcher Woods, so biked the two and a half miles, locked up at Trailside Nature Museum and walked down to the pond.

The pond is on bottomland adjacent to the Des Plaines River, and every time there’s a flood, which is to say every spring, and most falls, too, it is connected to the river. All kinds of fish live in that pond, and frequently people catch dinner there. Today, however, despite the warm sun and balmy air, despite the traffic on the nearby road, despite the fact that plenty of folks were visiting Trailside, and despite the fact that Thatcher Woods is across the street from a densely populated area—the area around the pond was as still and unpeopled as a lake in the Boundary Waters.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ecological Reality Is Not What You Hypothesize

A Review of The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered

Today, the main content of politics is economics, and the main content of economics is technology. If politics cannot be left to the experts, neither can economics and technology. --E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

It’s important to get out of doors
In the early 2000’s, English plant biologist Nicholas Harberd, who had been conducting lab research on thale cress, a common weed, decided to spend a year observing and writing about a specimen growing wild in a churchyard near his home. This resulted in a book, Seed to Seed: The Secret life of Plants, which, while including the scientific disciplines of biology and genetics, recounts how this experience—in variable weather, dependent on chance and uncontrolled conditions—leads him to many other observations and considerations. Remarkably, Harberd developed a profound, intuitive sense of the interconnectedness of all things within the ecosystem. These insights and his new, holistic grounding for his discipline, he could not have found in the lab where everything was limited by the tightly focused goals of research and the necessity for controlling all conditions.

This year, in The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered (New Society 2011), John Michael Greer, his own understanding of the interconnectedness of all things within the earth ecosystem firmly in place, asks mainstream, neo-classical economists to take the same journey—to get out in the real world and base their economic theories on what they find, rather than on what the mathematics say they ought to find. In particular, he points out that current economic theory and policy is only exacerbating our headlong trajectory into “Nature’s brick wall.”

Calling E. F. Schumacher the "Copernicus of economic theory," Greer bases his new work on Schumacher's path breaking book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Citing Schumacher's ideas about "intermediate," or "appropriate" technology, which the respected economist developed as a way to help the people of third world countries achieve employment and a reasonably comfortable standard of living, Greer says that using these same ideas might be a sensible approach for Americans in an age of scarcity. He provides an intellectual framework for how to think about economics and brings Schumacher’s groundbreaking work into focus, while clearly explaining what is wrong with neoclassical economic assumptions. Greer also shows how reality-based assumptions--beginning with the acknowledgement that all wealth and life itself depends on earth systems--combined with a study of Schumacher, who based his work on this fact, could lead to more realistic policies and a more comfortable descent down the post-peak slope. The sooner we start transitioning, the better our relationship with the earth economy and the easier our descent will be.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How Gardening Is Not Writing

Monarda bradburiana
You know how it is in June, if you have a couple of days off work. You look out the window during breakfast and the sun is shining and you can't help yourself, you take your coffee and walk out of doors into the garden and you watch the birds and notice that the peonies will definitely open this day; you don't intend to do much, just a brief look about before heading in to write. After all, somewhere W. H. Auden mentions a walk around the garden before setting to work--and then you notice some weeds that need pulling, so you do that, and might be on the way indoors when you realize the tomatoes you'd started but hadn't planted out because of all the rain are still sitting in their cellpacks, so you put them in, and along the way you see that the bumblebees prefer the Monarda bradburiana, while the honeybees are busy at the nepeta--but the carpenter bees seem to like everything, and meanwhile, you put in the columbine and prairie dropseed starts and pull up some coreopsis that's crowding the Monarda, and then you look across the yard, past where the bees are working the clover, and decide you may as well start setting the bricks where you're making an edge for the newly-wider flowerbed around the viburnum. Several hours go by, with stops for water, and suddenly it's time to make supper. But then later that evening you can't stay inside, so you trim the yews, and that night fall in bed exhausted.

 Spring Azure (Celastrina argiolus)
And next day, the same thing happens, except this time the hummingbird shows up, a female, which means there's a nest somewhere nearby and you've achieved your goal of attracting breeding as well as migrating hummers. You remember that Auden wasn't the gardener in the house, and while thinking this you somehow end up by the compost heap, which needs turning, so you get the fork and your favorite short-handled shovel and start in, it's practically a bog at the bottom there's been so much rain, but look, there's some good compost, so you get the sifter and the wheelbarrow and set to work and pretty soon there's a barrow full of clean compost, no bindweed roots at all, so what to do? Plant the two baby oaks with a good helping of compost and dig some in where the old Norway maple had depleted the soil, and plant the little spicebushes--and a spring azure flashes by, right down the line, past the willow amsonia, the columbines and over the now-blooming peonies; then you transplant the parsley, plant the cilantro seeds, lightly cultivate around the chard and the leeks need thinning, so you do that and go put the thinnings in the bag you keep in the freezer for stock-making vegetables, and head right back out, you've succumbed, and by this time you aren't even thinking in words, just colors, shapes, relationships and movements…

Related Posts:
A Question of Trees
Hummingbird Sightings
Compost By Any Other Name
I've Been Away
The Ugly Garden Kerfluffle