Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Pressure Valve

I was sitting at the library reading The Story of B by Daniel Quinn, a second reading for me on that particular book. There is one lecture given by the character B, where he goes through the doubling of population through the ages. He details how the problems facing complex societies, from the instituting of kings and rulers as war chiefs, to crime, corruption, plague, famine, and the like, get worse as populations grow more crowded. Reading the section, now I forget the exact years, but it was something like 1500-1700, as he's talking about how as the population has doubled yet again the issues have gotten worse, he mentions in passing something about the New World.

It occurred to me that the New World was sort of a pressure valve for the Old World, Europe especially. Just as Europe was starting to really rub up against its geographical limits, and therefore whatever limits the land's carrying capacity entails, just as any possible agricultural land had been put to the plow, just as the rivers and nearby seas were about fished out, just as the socio-political pressures were building to really dangerous levels, an avenue of release was found.

Now Europe could continue expansion without the dangerous conflagrations of peasant revolts and uprisings, or at least with somewhat less of them. They could grab the riches of the new lands, the timber, furs, gold, and silver, and thus have the material with which to continue the project of civilization. They could reap the fish, the new crop-foods, could colonize and farm the new lands, and so feed their hungry masses. They could shunt off the agitating lower classes and religious sects to the New World, far from the political power, thus weakening their complaints further. They could ship criminals off, could sell the street urchins, beggars, and poor into indentured servitude, a fate often worse than actual slavery.

Just as Europe was reaching a crisis point, it almost seems, it found a backdoor for a brief respite. Much like the development of the North Sea Oil Field put off Peak Oil for a couple decades. Because this backdoor into the Americas was only a prolonging of things. Now the Americas are in many ways filled up and used up. Most agricultural land is in service (there are exceptions, like land the government pays to keep fallow, for price controls, for example). Most of the old forests are gone, most of the major gold deposits have been mined. We were again saved by the Green Revolution, which increased crop yields, but in a way it was a Trojan Horse: we grew the population while destroying the soil's ability to produce, and created superweeds and superpests, each with a growing resistance to our pesticides. Sometimes the soil just washed or blew clean away.

We're living on the dregs, just as Europe was around the time the New World was discovered. They were certainly growing close, at least. And so are we. We're tearing down the Amazon to grow beef and soy, but each acre only lasts in this way for a few years, before it is an exhausted wasteland. We are tearing apart Alberta for the last dregs of any sort of petroleum, like a junkie selling off the furniture and appliances for just a little more smack. We've pushed things longer with our technology, but that only means we'll have even less left when all is said and done than otherwise might have been.

The collapse that is 4 centuries in the making is looming again, and this time there's no escape. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Sort of Optimism

I've been thinking lately that one of the main reasons that nothing is done on climate change, Peak Oil, and cultural collapse is because we Americans are too optimistic. Our thinking is constantly castrated with notions of "technology will save us," "the free market will save us," "the scientists will find a new energy source," "America is blessed by Gawd," and the like. We always want to feel that everything will be okay, the universe will provide, or Providence, or the market, or the engineers... something will come along. It is best expressed by a friend of mine, noting that money was getting tight here at the end of the month, when he said something to the effect that "I'm not worried, though; it'll all work out, always does."

I admit part of me agrees heartily. I've learned and viscerally experienced the wisdom of being patient, of being open to things, and have noticed that things you need really do seem to come along, just like the Rolling Stones famously sang. But  The Universe Shall Provide is not a rule of the universe. Or maybe it is, but there is a correlative: Shit Happens. We all die, many of us horrifically. Poverty happens even to the most positively thinking create-your-own-reality believers; events like war, famine, and natural catastrophe can sweep down and devastate all and sundry, with total indifference to prayers or optimism. 

Yet, though we all know that truth, we still refuse to confront it in policy making. Seems to me that the real theater of our political system is the fact that the power brokers fight for control of the ship, trying to steer it this way and that, while the ship itself is sinking, and needs no help from them in finding its way to the bottom.

So I wonder if the rise in fundamentalism throughout the world, and namely in the Arab/Islamic world and in America, is in some way a form of blind optimism. Europe, I'll add, doesn't seem to experience this optimism. I may be talking out of my ass here, but the Europeans, they seem far less optimistic than we do. They lived through two world wars, right there in their own front yards. Bombs destroyed whole towns, millions of men bled to death on their soils. They have seen the devastation, they know what a disaster looks like; anyways, they have been slaughtering each other, back and forth, since time immemorial. They seem to be more willing to engage in both social programs and alternative solutions, and protest much more enthusiastically over such things. 

Meanwhile, we Americans have only our 9-11, which, though horrific, was very limited in size and scope, if not in sheer psychological impact. We've been insulated, by our oceans and by our imperialist strength, so it seemed all the worse. We have only had two wars on our own soil in the last 225 years, since the Revolution-- and one of them was a civil war (the other being the War of 1812). The Mexican American war was fought largely in Mexico, so it doesn't really count, and all the Indian wars were far removed from the main population centers, on the fronteirs.

So, optimism, but with a dark shadow. An optimism more like whistling past a graveyard, or having your head in the sand; a refusal or inabillity to see the real issue. A response to cognitive dissonance, that is, "the discomfort felt by a person seeking to hold two or more conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously." 

You can look at the crazed fundamentalism in the Middle East and North Africa as the reaction to the unacknowledged but subconsciously understood fact that their lands are horribly overpopulated and that the oil isn't going to last. Some of those areas can sustain higher levels of civilization, like the Nile River, the Fertile Crescent, and some of the oases. But mostly it was always a land of nomadic herders. Certainly it took the Oil Age to create a Dubai. The old curse about American energy independance that goes, "let the Arabs eat their oil, for all I care," basically tells the tale. There isn't much else there. 

In Saudi Arabia there is a saying that goes, "My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode in a limo, I ride a private jet, and my son will ride a camel." At some level they understand their predicament, and are in a sort of collective despair over it, and can cling only to their religion for comfort as they wait for their world to crumble around them, literally and figuratively. We think of collapse maybe as a sort of Dark Age, a fall to simpler times, more hard labor and some suffering; but for them, it's going to be a horrendous die off, massive migrations and thus massive conflict. And I think they know it. 

Here in America, we have our own fundamentalisms. The obvious one is the Christian Evangelicals, who consider America a blessed land, God's country, and cannot believe anything bad could ever really happen here. Obviously bad things happen, like hurricanes and earthquakes and even housing bubbles, but it's always blamed on the homosexuals, the atheists, the blacks, the Mexicans, abortion doctors, and so on. Still, I doubt they would accept a fundamental end to all Western Civilization as we know it. Maybe for those secular, atheist Europeans, but certainly not to America.

Likewise the free marketeers, the engineers, the technophiles. Nothing bad will happen, they say, because the market will supply what is demanded, the scientists will develop new technologies to solve all our problems. This is a fundamentailst faith in reason, in science. It is, much as it may pain rational people to hear such a thing as "faith in science" uttered (or written, as it were). 

My belabored point is this: it's going to take the shit really hitting the fan before we really come around to facing the looming disaster coming straight for us. It will take something bad for us to not only wake up, but come together, energized and with a renewed community ethic. Europeans suffered through the travails of the 20th century together, the wars, the economic struggles... so it is no wonder that they have more social programs and a more progressive mindset. They don't want to go through that again. We haven't dealt with it at home, not really, so it may take something like a serious, prolonged oil shock or an actual famine to help us get the idea. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Another Way Of Outrage

Let my body go to dust
and the iron in my blood lay down 
into rust on your sweeping modern vision.
The bright steel slowly 
pitting like the sockets of my eyes
and like all that dies. 
Let me rot
in the fungal alchemy, among the soil and leaves, 
what few are left 
among these thwarted plans 
of the forest. Stand,
I will not; I will rust and rot
while the concrete structures rise,
false canyons echoing the traffic
of souls and pain, the Earth made rigid 
and ready for crumbling ruin 
beneath the reaping waste I will become.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Kayaking the Canals

So I mentioned in my last post that I moved in with a coworker of mine. In addition to being in a better location for getting anywhere, centrally located in "the Cape," the house is right on a lake. Man made and pond-sized, but it connects to part of the 400 miles of canals and other lakes in the city of Cape Coral ("home of the newly wed and nearly dead"). Most connect to the Caloosahatchee estuary and are thus saltwater, but in my case all are freshwater, which works best for me; no ocean access but it feels more like home for someone from the Great Lakes State, where "the beach" always meant a lakeshore. For being in the middle of suburban sprawl, it feels remarkably like living in the country. We get sunsets over our unnamed lake most nights, there's tons of fish (though I have yet to throw a line in), and best of all, my roommate has two kayaks, and keeps urging me to use them.

Last friday I had a short day at work when my 4 hour day turned out to be only 1 hour. The paycheck will be smaller, but life isn't about money anyways. Rather than sell my life for money, turns out I had a chance to throw a kayak in the water and earn much more than cash. At first I cruised along, heading south, just trying to get a feel for this stubby river kayak. Perviously, the only ones I'd ever used were my uncle Mike's long-bodied sea kayaks, which are easier to keep straight (though less manouverable). Every stroke made the prow of the kayak waggle one way, then the other way when I'd paddle the other side. I never really got the hang of this, truth be told. A work in progress.

Digging down, I moved rapidly through the water, not really with any aim or goal, but enjoying the late morning sunshine and the water's peace. The banks are lined mostly with Australian Pines, a non-native, terribly invasive species which nonetheless is a beautiful, graceful tree. I think they were put in to stabilize the man made banks,or perhaps colonized them themselves. They do provide long strips of cover for wildlife, here in the midst of this city of houses or undeveloped lawns/fields (formerly rich forest habitat). Probably they serve a function much like the hedgerows in England do, in those otherwise heavily farmed and changed lands.

There were some storm cells moving in from the west, and though they stayed north of me, I decided to begin to return. All along I'd been looking into the trees, hoping to see some raccoons curled up in the crotch of a tree, though with no luck. But I went much slower on the way back, much to my bird-watching benefit. Now I started seeing some signs of life, starting with some strange heron-looking bird. It later turned out to be a Green Heron, a bird I've already added to my life list some years ago, not that I'm merely interested in cataloging the biggest list. Though the first one flew off after a few moments, I'd shortly get a good chance to watch one feed, down a side canal.

I was ghosting along, hardly more than drifting with the wind (there's no current in the canals), prowling up the weedy banks looking for wildlife, and spooked one out. He flew off to a dock, where I got a good look at it, finally IDing it for what it truly was (I'd been hoping it was a tricolored heron, which I have yet to see). Beautiful bird; I love the sharpness in a heron's eye, from the little Green on up to the Great Blue. He flew off then to the other bank, and I floated along, watching it creep through the weeds. It was beautiful, the way he would extend his bright yellow log forward, place it gently on the grasses, then shift gracefully forward, the perfect stalking step, like an Indian hunting deer, this bird was silent death to the minnows and snails, and I watched him catch two from less than ten meters away. He knew I was there, of course-- he looked right at me several times-- but he probably isn't used to danger from the water (though there are gators out there aplenty). I suppose I looked like a big green log. Certainly not like a human, which, the heron would have learned by now, are land creatures. Being in a kayak gets under their radar, in much the same way horseback riders have an easier time seeing birds, because they are accepted as horses, not humans.

Back out in the main canal, I watched a Red-winged Blackbird harassing a Great Egret. The blackbird (just to the left of the egret in the first photo) had fledglings nearby-- I watched them being fed for some minutes, again from very close-- and was clearly not pleased at this large bird being near his young. Just as I was taking photos, the blackbird dive-bombed the much larger bird's head and drove it sprawling ungracefully into the water, leaving a visibly pissed off egret fuming silently in the weeds, before flying off in irritation.

I followed the egret, hoping to get a better close up shot. He hadn't flown far, and was just down the canal on someone's lawn. Using the "flashburst" feature on my camera, which takes pic after pic as you hold the shutter button, I was able to catch it taking off in flight when I got too close. Here are two from the series:

About this time I realized that I'd neglected to take any photos of that Green Heron, much to my disgust. Idiot! So I returned to that side canal, ghosting again up the bank where I saw the bird last. I know most birds have deceptively small territories or home-ranges, especially in productive habitats, as these seem to be. So I figured the heron was still in the area. After about twenty minutes of sitting nearly motionless in the boat, I finally found him (could have been female, adults look alike). I had a harder time getting close this time, but was able to get a few shots from the increasingly wary bird. Eventually he flew away, when finally I got too close. 

The photos could be better, I know. It's hard taking pics from a kayak, when the wind keeps turning you around to face the wrong way, and out of prime position to somewhere with weeds blocking your view of the little bird, which keeps moving himself. And the zoom on this camera isn't ideal for wildlife photography, should have sprung for a camera where you can attach different lenses, namely, telephoto lenses. Maybe next time...

Friday, August 17, 2012

Walking II

I was thinking more about walking the other day as I walked up to the grocery store. Partly I was reflecting a bit further on the article that inspired the previous post, which I forgot to mention and link to. It was a feature Slate did called "The Crisis In American Walking," a four part series, and worth the read.

 One thing I realized is that when we think about it, we often say to ourselves that walking to the store or work is wasting time, given that we have a car and can get there that much faster; with the time we save, we can sleep later, or catch a little more of the game, or whatever. Yet while actually on the walk, it never feels like wasted time. The sun is shining on your back, there is the primal comfort in the repetitive sound of your footsteps, the birds going about their birdly business all around you, etc. Yes, it takes twenty five minutes, rather than the five minutes driving, but only the most unconscious mind could call it wasted. Indeed, the time is much improved.

And all that brings me to an interesting website mentioned in the Slate series, in the third article. It is the Walk Score, sort of a real estate tool (be prepared for a lot of ads on that site), where you can put in your city, zip code, or neighborhood and get a walkability score for it. I recently moved to Cape Coral (yes, that crappy giant subdivision of a city I've mentioned on here before), renting a room from one of my crew-mates. Looking at the zip code I'm in, I see that my new neighborhood rates a 38. Pretty poor.

Of course, if you looked only at the immediate area in which I live, it would show better. The colors on the map bear that out, showing a bit of yellow (though no green) just around here. Most of the Cape is totally unwalkable (red), but this house happens to be quite near a crossroads where there's a decent collection of retail, grocery, and restaurants. Mostly big box stores and strip mall stuff, but I can easily walk to all of them, which is nice, considering that the house I just moved out of, where one only walked to exercise the dog, scored a 3. Yeah, a 3.

So this new place, it's no Greenwich Village, but it's a good step. Now, keep in mind, you have to be careful with the scores. They aren't perfected yet, and here's an example why. I checked a few places in Detroit, and while some of them, like the Wayne State neighborhood, and the enclave city of Hamtramck (yes, that's how they spell it) score pretty high, they are NOT anywhere you want to be walking. At least not at night, alone.

Cape Coral isn't really anywhere you want to be walking either, for different reasons than crime. Mainly it's just boring and too spread out, and so you almost never see anyone walking. Still, I'm going to be walking or riding my bike for shopping, and with bus stops nearby, may take the bus to school (I start back this fall). It would save me the 2 dollar toll on the bridge, plus with a student ID it's less expensive than gas. There's also a bike trail (a glorified sidewalk, but here in sprawl-ville Florida, it gets the designation of "trail) that I may try riding. It runs right along a busy road, though, so the noise is rather obtrusive. But at least it's a safe place to ride, away from the crazy bad driving of the old and the indigenous rednecks...

Thursday, August 9, 2012


You know, I really like walking.

Okay, big surprise, right? I did, after all, thru-hike the AT and attempt the PCT, and loved every minute of both. But even when we're not talking about hiking or backpacking, walking is great. Even in relatively boring places, there's something to be said for it. I used to walk miles and miles, often at night, around my hometown back when I was a moody teenager. Somehow it seemed to help. I've always loved going out walking the dog, or wandering a bit in the woods, the train tracks, or just cruising the neighborhoods. I used to walk to work, back when I lived where it was feasible.

I walk a lot less these days, unfortunately. Laziness, depression, and being tired from work, all conspire to keep me sitting on my duff, reading or watching TV. But a couple months ago, I took a walk while my truck was being worked on. It wasn't an interesting route, less than a mile each way, past a couple car dealerships and strip malls, then some empty lots, one being an abandoned trailer park, with nothing but concrete slabs and electric and water hookups scattered throughout the grassy field. Finally, there was the library, where I dropped off a book and loitered around killing time.

Like I said, pretty boring, bland scenery. But though I'd driven that route a ton of times, it was like experiencing an entirely new place...which I was. Driving, you zip by at 40 miles an hour, speeds unheard of until, what, 170 years ago? Maybe less. And not counting race horses. Until passenger rail got going, almost no one had any experience of speed past their own fastest run, and most of the time they walked. Now it's backwards, where we are so much behind the wheel that our own cities at walking speed are totally strange to us.

So while I didn't have any great experience on this short jaunt, I did reflect a bit on how enjoyable it was, even in the chafing humidity. It's a good way to see the world, and commonplace though it was, I enjoyed what I saw. It reminded me again of that Thoreau quote, mentioned in my post Lines of Travel, about how "There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the three-score-years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you." There's always something fresh.

And I can't imagine a better way to see the world. This is a scale and tempo that fits perfectly. And it's nice to dream, of a future where people walk a lot, and they have shaped their cities to be human. No more walking the mean streets past blank brick walls, endless strip malls and dealerships on cracked and broken sidewalks, where sidewalks even exist. These are low things, and I think this is part of why people don't walk much anymore. We got so used to the convenience of driving, that everything began to be built at car scale and car speed. Blocks got longer, signs got bigger, there was less need for detail or interesting things to look at because at 40 mph, it's sort of a blur. So we end up with cities that are ugly and repellent to walk in, further strengthening the vicious cycle of more driving.

These guys all know what I'm talkin' 'bout.
And it's a shame. We lose our health, we lose our cities, we lose meeting random people. We also miss our thoughts. For walking is, I think, the movement-aspect of thought. You start walking, and before you know it, your thoughts are flowing just the same way as your body is. The only other time I get such thought-flow is when I'm three cups of coffee deep. Not that they're always important thoughts. Walking, though, is unique in this (save perhaps for running, but given my limitations, running is so demanding that I am rarely able to get past the effort and pain so I can zone out into free-thought). I never get thought-flow from bicycling, for example, not even on my bicycle tour. After a week, I was so in shape and comfortable on the bike I had to sing aloud to keep from falling asleep while I pedaled (!), but though my mind drifted, it had a different quality: moreso regular internal-monologue stuff.

I used to reflect on my AT hike that what I was doing was the most natural thing for a human to do: I was walking. I was also thinking. Are these two traits not among the most important when it comes to discerning humans from other animals? Walking erect on two legs, and complex thought. Since I was hiking in a group and meeting people all the time, you can throw in talking/language too. I think this is part of the allure to a long hike. It's literally back to basics: just the act of walking brings you back to yourself, to your basic nature.

Yet this is attainable on any neighborhood jaunt. A thru-hike is a special case (in all senses of the word), but just walking down to the grocery store gets you there. It may take a mile or so to get into the rhythm, but it's always there. I begin to wonder about the "science" of reflexology, whether they are on to something, whether the stimulation of your stepping feet sends energy running like jolts of electricity up the legs all the way to the brain, inspiring thought, and energizing the body along the way.