I had something

I had something–it fell from me
Something strong, like a pounding drum
Like ringing bells, when I was young
I had something, then it was gone

I had something–it made me walk all night
Made me run from home, made me fight
I had something, made me feel alone
Like an orphan waiting for a home

Every footstep that I take
Completes the circle my life makes
Every living thing has ties that bind
What I lost, returns with love in time

I heard something–it called to me
And it told me I was saved
Not by God and not by works
Not by any living thing

It was a voice that I once knew
Of my daughter, or my son
Not yet born, not yet known
Another orphan waiting for a home

Every footstep that I take
Completes the circle my life makes
Every living thing has ties that bind
What I lost, returns with love in time

Lucy Kaplansky, I had something

The puppets heave rocks

A terrific cover, IMO, of this fairly unknown Bob Dylan gem, built around B and E flats, in an alternate tuning; an Alex de Grassi / Windham Hill kind of sound:

Farewell Angelina, the bells of the crown
Are being stolen by bandits, I must follow the sound
The triangle tingles, the trumpets play slow
Farewell Angelina, the sky is on fire, and I must go

There’s no need for anger, there’s no need for blame
There is nothing to prove, everything’s still the same
The table stands empty by the edge of the stream
Farewell Angelina, the sky’s changing colors, and I must leave

The jacks and the queens, they’ve forsaken the courtyard
Fifty-two gypsies now file past the guards
In the space where the deuce and the ace once ran wild
Farewell Angelina, the sky is folding, I’ll see you after a while

See the cross-eyed pirates sittin’, perched in the sun
Shooting tin cans with their sawed-off shotguns
And the corporals and neighbors, they cheer with each blast
Farewell Angelina, the sky is a tremblin’ and I must leave fast

King Kong, little elves, on the rooftops they dance
Valentino-type tangos while the makeup man’s hands
Shut the eyes of the dead, not to embarrass anyone
Farewell Angelina, the sky is embarrassed, and I must be gone

The camouflaged parrot he flutters from fear
When something he doesn’t know about suddenly appears
What cannot be imitated perfect must die
Farewell Angelina, the sky is flooding, I must go where it is dry

Machine guns are roaring, the puppets heave rocks
At misunderstood visions and the faces of clocks
Call me any name you like, I will never deny it
Farewell Angelina, the sky is erupting, I must go where it’s quiet

Bob Dylan, Farewell Angelina

Farmers studying their fields travel at a walk

The following is an essay by Wendell Berry, titled Farmland Without Farmers published recently in The Atlantic. The piece is extracted from the book Our Only World: Ten Essays, published by Counterpoint Press. I reproduce the text of the essay here in full, because, well, because it’s so damn good and important.

The landscapes of our country are now virtually deserted. In the vast, relatively flat acreage of the Midwest now given over exclusively to the production of corn and soybeans, the number of farmers is lower than it has ever been. I don’t know what the average number of acres per farmer now is, but I do know that you often can drive for hours through those corn-and-bean deserts without seeing a human being beyond the road ditches, or any green plant other than corn and soybeans. Any people you may see at work, if you see any at work anywhere, almost certainly will be inside the temperature-controlled cabs of large tractors, the connection between the human organism and the soil organism perfectly interrupted by the machine. Thus we have transposed our culture, our cultural goal, of sedentary, indoor work to the fields. Some of the “field work,” unsurprisingly, is now done by airplanes.

This contact, such as it is, between land and people is now brief and infrequent, occurring mainly at the times of planting and harvest. The speed and scale of this work have increased until it is impossible to give close attention to anything beyond the performance of the equipment. The condition of the crop of course is of concern and is observed, but not the condition of the land. And so the technological focus of industrial agriculture by which species diversity has been reduced to one or two crops is reducing human participation ever nearer to zero. Under the preponderant rule of “labor-saving,” the worker’s attention to the work place has been effectively nullified even when the worker is present. The “farming” of corn-and-bean farmers—and of others as fully industrialized—has been brought down from the complex arts of tending or husbanding the land to the application of purchased inputs according to the instructions conveyed by labels and operators’ manuals.

To make as much sense as I can of our predicament, I turn to Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, and his perception that for any parcel of land in human use there is an “eyes-to-acres ratio” that is right and is necessary to save it from destruction. By “eyes” Wes means a competent watchfulness, aware of the nature and the history of the place, constantly present, always alert for signs of harm and signs of health. The necessary ratio of eyes to acres is not constant from one place to another, nor is it scientifically predictable or computable for any place, because from place to place there are too many natural and human variables. The need for the right eyes-to-acres ratio appears nonetheless to have the force of law.

We can suppose that the eyes-to-acres ratio is approximately correct when a place is thriving in human use and care. The sign of its thriving would be the evident good health and diversity, not just of its crops and livestock but also of its population of native and noncommercial creatures, including the community of creatures living in the soil. Equally indicative and necessary would be the signs of a thriving local and locally adapted human economy.

The great and characteristic problem of industrial agriculture is that it does not distinguish one place from another. In effect, it blinds its practitioners to where they are. It cannot, by definition, be adapted to local ecosystems, topographies, soils, economies, problems, and needs.

The sightlessness and thoughtlessness of the imposition of the corn-and-bean industry upon the sloping or rolling countryside hereabouts is made vividly objectionable to me by my memory of the remarkably careful farming that was commonly practiced in these central Kentucky counties in the 1940s and 50s—though, even then, amid much regardlessness and damage. The best farming here was highly diversified in both plants and animals. Its basis was understood to be grass and grazing animals; cattle, sheep, hogs, and, during the 40s, the workstock, all were pastured. Grain crops typically were raised to be fed; the farmers would say, “The grain raised here must walk off.” And so in any year only a small fraction of the land would be plowed. The commercial economy of the farms was augmented and supported by the elaborate subsistence economies of the households. “I may be sold out or run out,” the farmers would say, “but I’ll not be starved out.”

My brother recently reminded me how carefully our father thought about the nature of our home countryside. He had witnessed the ultimate futility—the high costs to both farmer and farm—of raising corn for cash during the hard times of the 1920s and 30s. He concluded, rightly, that the crop that could be raised most profitably in the long run was grass. That was because we did not have large acreages that could safely be used for growing grain, but our land was aboundingly productive of grass, which moreover it produced more cheaply than any other crop. And the grass sod, which was perennial, covered and preserved the soil the year round.

A further indication of the quality of the farming here in the 40s and 50s is that the Soil Conservation Service was more successful during those years than it would or could be again in the promotion of plowing and terracing on the contour to control soil erosion. Those measures at that time were permitted by the right scale of the farming and of the equipment then in use. Anybody familiar with topographic maps will know that contour lines remain strictly horizontal over the irregularities of the land’s surfaces; crop rows cannot be regularly spaced. This variability presents no significant problem to a farmer using one- or two-row equipment in relatively small lands or fields. And so for a while contour farming became an established practice on many farms, and to good effect. It was defeated primarily by the enlargement of fields and the introduction of larger equipment. Eventually, many farmers simply ignored their terraces, plowing over them, the planted rows sometimes running straight downhill. Earlier, a good many farmers had taken readily to the idea of soil conservation. A farmer in a neighboring county said, “I want the water to walk off my land, not run.” But beyond a certain scale, the farming begins to conform to the demands of the machines, not to the nature of the land.

Within three paragraphs I have twice quoted farmers who used “walk” as an approving figure of speech: Grain leaving a farm hereabouts should walk off; and the rainwater fallen upon a farm should walk, not run. This is not merely a coincidence. The gait most congenial to agrarian thought and sensibility is walking. It is the gait best suited to paying attention, most conservative of land and equipment, and most permissive of stopping to look or think. Machines, companies, and politicians “run.” Farmers studying their fields travel at a walk.

Farms that are highly diversified and rightly scaled tend, by their character and structure, toward conservation of the land, the human community, and the local economy. Such farms are both work places and homes to the families who inhabit them and who are intimately involved in the daily life of land and household. Without such involvement, farmers cease to be country people and become in effect city people, industrial workers and consumers, living in the country.

* * *

I have spoken so far of the decline of country work, but the decline of country pleasures is at least equally significant. If the people who live and work in the country don’t also enjoy the country, a valuable and necessary part of life is missing. And for families on farms of a size permitting them to be intimately lived on and from, the economic life of the place is itself the primary country pleasure. As one would expect, not every day or every job can be a pleasure, but for farmers who love their livestock there is pleasure in watching the animals graze and in winter feeding. There is pleasure in the work of maintenance, the redemption of things worn or broken, that must go on almost continuously. There is pleasure in the growing, preserving, cooking, and eating of the good food that the family’s own land provides. But around this core of the life and work of the farm are clustered other pleasures, in their way also life-sustaining, and most of which are cheap or free.

I live in a country that would be accurately described as small-featured. There are no monumental land forms, no peaks or cliffs or high waterfalls, no wide or distant vistas. Though it is by nature a land of considerable beauty, there is little here that would attract vacationing wilderness lovers. It is blessed by a shortage of picturesque scenery and mineable minerals. The topography, except in the valley bottoms, is rolling or sloping. Along the sides of the valleys, the slopes are steep. It is divided by many hollows and streams, and it has always been at least partially wooded.

Because of the brokenness and diversity of the landscape, there was never until lately a clean separation here between the pursuits of farming and those of hunting and gathering. On many farms the agricultural income, including the homegrown and homemade subsistence of the households, would be supplemented by hunting or fishing or trapping or gathering provender from the woods and berry patches—perhaps by all of these. And beyond their economic contribution, these activities were forms of pleasure. Many farmers kept hounds or bird dogs. The gear and skills of hunting and fishing belonged to ordinary daily and seasonal life. More ordinary was the walking (or riding or driving) and looking that kept people aware of the condition of the ground, the crops, the pastures, and the livestock, of the state of things in the house yard and the garden, in the woods, and along the sides of the streams.

My own community, centered upon the small village of Port Royal, is along the Kentucky River and in the watersheds of local tributaries. Its old life, before the industrialization of much of the farmland and the urbanization of the people, was under the influence of the river, as other country communities of that time were under the influence of the railroads. In the neighborhood of Port Royal practically every man and boy, some girls and women too, fished from time to time in the Kentucky River. Some of the men fished “all the time” or “way too much.” Until about a generation ago, there was some commercial fishing. And I can remember when hardly a summer day would pass when from the house where eventually I would live you could not hear the shouts of boys swimming in the river, often flying out into the water from the end of a swinging rope. I remember when I was one of them. My mother, whose native place this was, loved her girlhood memories of swimming parties and picnics at the river. In hot weather she and her friends would walk the mile from Port Royal down to the river for a cooling swim, and then would make the hot walk back up the hill to town.

Now the last of the habituated fishermen of the local waters are now dead. They have been replaced by fishermen using expensive “bassboats,” almost as fast as automobiles, whose sport is less describable as fishing than as using equipment. In the last year only one man, comparatively a newcomer, has come to the old landing where I live to fish with trotlines—and, because of the lack of competition, he has caught several outsize catfish. Some local people, and a good many outsiders, hunt turkeys and deer. There is still a fair amount of squirrel hunting. The bobwhite, the legendary gamebird of this region, is almost extinct here, and the bird hunters with them. A rare few still hunt with hounds.

Most remarkable is the disappearance of nearly all children and teenagers, from the countryside, and in general from the out-of-doors. The technologies of large-scale industrial agriculture are too complicated and too dangerous to allow the participation of children. For most families around here, the time is long gone when children learned to do farmwork by playing at it, and then taking part in it, in the company of their parents. It seems that most children now don’t play much in their house yards, let alone in the woods and along the creeks. Many now descend from their school buses at the ends of lanes and driveways to be carried the rest of the way to their houses in parental automobiles. Most teenagers apparently divide their out-of-school time between indoor entertainment and travel in motor vehicles. The big boys no longer fish or swim or hunt or camp out. Or work. The town boys, who used to hire themselves out for seasonal or part-time work on the farms, no longer find such work available, or they don’t wish to do the work that is available.

Local people who regularly hunted or fished or foraged or walked or played in the local countryside served the local economy and stewardship as inspectors, rememberers, and storytellers. They gave their own kind of service to the eyes-to-acres ratio. Now most of those people are gone or absent, along with most of the farming people who used to be at work here.

With them have gone the local stories and songs. When people begin to replace stories from local memory with stories from television screens, another vital part of life is lost. I have my own memories of the survival in a small rural community of its own stories. By telling and retelling those stories, people told themselves who they were, where they were, and what they had done. They thus maintained in ordinary conversation their own living history. And I have from my neighbor, John Harrod, a thorough student of Kentucky’s traditional fiddle music, his testimony that every rural community once heard, sang, and danced to at least a few tunes that were uniquely its own. What is the economic value of stories and songs? What is the economic value of the lived and living life of a community? My argument here is directed by my belief that the art and the life of settled rural communities are critical to our life-supporting economy. But their value is incalculable. It can only be acknowledged and respected, and our present economy is incapable, and cannot on its own terms be made capable, of such acknowledgement and respect.

Meanwhile, the farmlands and woodlands of this neighborhood are being hurt worse and faster by bad farming and bad logging than at any other time in my memory. The signs of this abuse are often visible even from the roads, but nobody is looking. Or to people who are looking, but seeing from no perspective of memory or knowledge, the country simply looks “normal.” Outsiders who come visiting almost always speak of it as “beautiful.” But along this river, the Kentucky, which I have known all my life, and have lived beside for half a century, there is a large and regrettable recent change, clearly apparent to me, and to me indicative of changes in water quality, but perfectly invisible to nearly everybody else.

* * *

I don’t remember what year it was when I first noticed the disappearance of the native black willows from the low-water line of this river. Their absence was sufficiently noticeable, for the willows were both visually prominent and vital to the good health of the river. Wherever the banks were broken by “slips” or the uprooting of large trees, and so exposed to sunlight, the willows would come in quickly to stabilize the banks. Their bushy growth and pretty foliage gave the shores of the river a distinctive grace, now gone and much missed by the few who remember. Like most people, I don’t welcome bad news, and so I said to myself that perhaps the willows were absent only from the stretch of the river that I see from my house and work places. But in 2002 for the first time in many years I had the use of a motor boat, and I examined carefully the shores of the twenty-seven-mile pool between locks one and two. I saw a few old willows at the tops of the high banks, but none at or near the low-water line, and no young ones anywhere.

The willows still live as usual along other streams in the area, and they thrive along the shore of the Ohio River just above the mouth of the Kentucky at Carrollton. The necessary conclusion is that their absence from the Kentucky River must be attributable to something seriously wrong with the water. And so, since 2002, I have asked everybody I met who might be supposed to know: “Why have the black willows disappeared from the Kentucky River?” I have put this question to conservationists, to conservation organizations specifically concerned with the Kentucky River, to water-quality officials and to university biologists. And I have found nobody who could tell me why. Except for a few old fishermen, I have found nobody who knew they were gone.

This may seem astonishing. At least, for a while, it astonished me. I thought that in a state in which water pollution is a permanent issue, people interested in water quality surely would be alert to the disappearance of a prominent member of the riparian community of a major river. But finally I saw that such ignorance is more understandable than I had thought. A generation or so ago, when fishing and the condition of the river were primary topics of conversation in Port Royal, the disappearance of the willows certainly would have been noticed. Fishermen used to tie their trotlines to the willows.

That time is past, and I was seeking local knowledge from conservationists and experts and expert conservationists. But most conservationists, like most people now, are city people. They “escape” their urban circumstances and preoccupations by going on vacations. They thus go into the countryside only occasionally, and their vacations are unlikely to take them into the economic landscapes. They want to go to parks, wilderness areas, or other famous “destinations.” Government and university scientists often have economic concerns or responsibilities, and some of them do venture into farmland or working forests or onto streams and rivers that are not “wild.” But it seems they are not likely to have a particular or personal or long-term interest in such places, or to go back to them repeatedly and often over a long time, or to maintain an economic or recreational connection to them. Such scientists affect the eyes-to-acres ratio probably less than the industrial farmers.

Among the many conservationists I have encountered in my home state, the most competent witness by far is Barth Johnson, a retired game warden who is a dedicated trapper, hunter, and fisherman, as he has been all his life. Barth has devoted much of his life to conservation. Like most conservationists, he is informed about issues and problems. Unlike most, he is exceptionally alert to what is happening in the actual countryside that needs to be conserved. This is because he is connected to the fields and woods and waters he knows by bonds of economy and pleasure, both at once. Moreover, he has lived for thirty years in the same place at the lower end of the Licking River. This greatly increases the value of his knowledge, for he can speak of changes over time. People who stay put and remain attentive know that the countryside changes, as it must, and for better or worse.

He tells a story about Harris Creek, a small stream along which he had trapped for many years. It was richly productive, and Barth was careful never to ask too much of it. But in 2007, confident that it would be as it always had been, he went there with his traps and discovered that the stream was dead. He could not find a live minnow or crawfish. There were no animal tracks. So far as he could tell, there could be only one reason for this: In the spring of that year, the bottomland along the creek had been herbicided to kill the grass in preparation for a seeding of alfalfa. In 2008, the stream was still dead. In 2009, there was “a little coon activity.” Finally, in 2013, the stream was “close to normal.”

I have also learned from Barth that upstream as far as he has looked, to a point two and a half miles above the small town of Boston, the black willows are gone from the Licking River. And in October 2013, he wrote me that the river had turned a brownish “brine” color that he had never seen before.

What happened to the willows? Two young biologists at Northern Kentucky University are now at work on the question, and perhaps they will find the answer. But other scientists have led me to consider the possibility that such questions will not be answered. It may be extremely difficult or impossible to attach a specific effect to a specific cause in a large volume of flowing water.

What killed Harris Creek? Barth’s evidence is “anecdotal,” without scientifically respectable proof. I have read scientific papers establishing that the herbicide glyphosate and its “degradation products” are present in high concentrations in some Mississippi River tributaries, but the papers say nothing about the effects. I have called up scientists working on water quality, including one of the authors of one of the papers on glyphosate. What about the effects? Good question. Nobody knows the answer. It seems that the research projects and the researchers are widely scattered, making such work somewhat incoherent. And besides, there is always the difficulty of pinning a specific cause to a specific effect. To two of these completely friendly and obliging people I told Barth’s story of Harris Creek: Does that surprise you? One said it did not surprise him. The other said it was possible but unlikely that the stream was killed by an herbicide. Was an insecticide also involved?

What caused the strange discoloration of the Licking River? Since the discoloration was visible until obscured by mud in the water when the river rose, I suppose that, if it happens again, the odd color could be traced upstream to a source. Will somebody do that? I don’t know. Is any scientist from any official body monitoring the chemical runoff from croplands and other likely sources? I have been asking that question too, and so far I have asked nobody who could answer.

In my search for answers, it may be that I have been making a characteristic modern mistake of relying on experts, which has revealed a characteristic modern failure: Experts often don’t know and sometimes can never know. Beneficiaries of higher education, of whom I am one, often give too much credit to credentials.

Confronting industrial agriculture, we are requiring ourselves to substitute science for citizenship, community membership, and land stewardship. But science fails at all of these. Science as it now predominantly is, by definition and on its own terms, does not make itself accountable for unintended effects. The intended effect of chemical nitrogen fertilizer, for example, is to grow corn, whereas its known effect on the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico is a catastrophic accident. Moreover, science of this kind is invariably limited and controlled by the corporations that pay for it.

We have an ancient and long-enduring cultural imperative of neighborly love and work. This becomes ever more important as hardly imaginable suffering is imposed upon all creatures by industrial tools and industrial weapons. If we are to continue, in our only world, with any hope of thriving in it, we will have to expect neighborly behavior of sciences, of industries, and of governments, just as we expect it of our citizens in their neighborhoods.

Wounded Knee, 1890

Yesterday I found myself discussing the Fancher emigrant party massacre, by Mormons at Mountain Meadows Utah, truly one of the worst events in American history. This got me thinking about massacres, for better or worse. Well, 125 years ago (yesterday) there was a famous, and even worse, one. It’s astounding to me that such a thing could occur in this country, and by the military no less, at such a late date.
Bury My Heart cover

Various historical writings on the incident, besides Dee Brown’s account in his classic book, are here, here and here. More recent commentaries here and here

That must be tough

Christmas Bells

christmas

Christmas Bells, John Gorka

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of “Peace on earth, goodwill to men”
“Peace on earth, goodwill to men”

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Peace on earth, good-will to men.

Abridged, Henry W. Longfellow, 1864

Memories of Marshall

From Memories of Marshall by Bro. J.R. Smith
The Grizzly Bear (1908) Vol. 4, no. 2, p. 4
grizzlybear4190851909nati_0046

While as Native Sons and Daughters we are very proud to respect and revere and ever keep in memory the good deeds of General John A. Sutter, I sometimes feel that we forget one who performed a most prominent part in the history of this great California — and that one was James W. Marshall — when on the 24th day of January, 1848, he picked up a nugget of gold in the millrace at Coloma, El Dorado County, California. This act is one that can never be repeated, for it opened to the world the greatest gold fields ever known … I sometimes think we as Native Sons and Daughters fail to return our gratefulness to him who first discovered gold in California…

Marshall was an eccentric sort of a man and he often drank to excess, and when under the influence of liquor was considerable of a bore, but when sober was a man of few words and one that read a great deal. He was continually chewing tobacco and when he would get a stranger in the corner, he began to so spray him with tobacco juice the fellow would have paid almost any price for an umbrella. He was a great believer in spiritualism and when he got the spirits out of the bottle mixed with the other ones he was a source of amusement for us boys, who all were his friends.

Marshall was never married and usually did his own cooking. I never knew of him preparing a banquet, but some of the dishes he cooked would have puzzled a chemist. He usually had an old butcher knife which he preferred to use at home or abroad and which he carried in a scabbard in his belt. I have known him to boil a salted codfish and take about the same amount of cheese and put into a crock, mix in some onions and cover the whole mess with wine, and after it got to thoroughly working it would make a tannery blush with shame. I have seen him, when drinking, dip his hands into this crock and put a handful of the mixture on some bread, and he seemed to enjoy it as he would a week-cooked meal…

Although Marshall was the first person to pick up gold, he never did but very little, if any mining. At his death he owned some mining property which he claimed the spirits said was very rich, and after his death the parties that purchased it took from it quite an amount of gold. He was a wheelwright by trade and often in his latter years did odd jobs at carpenter work. At his death he was penniless, having a little property, but no money. On one or two occasions the boys gave a benefit dance to keep the old fellow from suffering. The last two or three years of his life he drank very little and I often think that sometimes he suffered for the necessities of life, for he was a man of very proud nature — rather give than receive. He was kind hearted to a fault and believed that right never wronged any one. His word was as good as gold and if any one failed to keep a promise with him that would put an end to his friendship forever.

For a couple of years the State gave him $200 per month; then the next Legislature cut it to $100, and the next discontinued it entirely, the report going abroad that he squandered it all for liquor, which was not true, for he loaned considerable money, some he spent in writing a book of his life, that proved a failure, and some he spent in hiring men to prospect for him. In his later years he applied to the Legislature by petition for a smalt amount, but a representative from his own county fought the measure and it was defeated. When Marshall was told that such was the case, he said: “I have asked for bread and they gave me stone.” After his death the State erected a monument at Coloma costing several thousand dollars, and ever since they have kept a man at a cost of $50 per month to care for it.

If we are to believe…

…the contents of a manuscript found in 1879 in a tree on the Middle Fork of the Feather River, the first persons of Caucasian blood to penetrate the Butte County area were two soldiers who had wandered from the army of Cortez while the latter was in Mexico, in 1519. The story of the finding of this manuscript is a most interesting one. In the month of April, in the year 1879, a tree was cut down by two miners on the Middle Fork of the Feather. The outside appearance of the tree indicated that it was solid throughout. The tree however, proved to be hollow inside, and in this hollow a roll of manuscript was found, written in Spanish and wrapped in such a manner that the writing was preserved. The hole in the tree had grown over with the lapse of years. The manuscript purported to give an account of two men who had strayed from the army of Cortez and who had made their way north as far as the place where the manuscript was deposited. The date of the deposit was not given, the two soldiers apparently having lost track of time. The manuscript was written in old Spanish, and was finally sent to Madrid for interpretation.

Mansfield, G.C. 1918. History of Butte County, California, p.36. Historic Record Company, Los Angeles CA.

Cover it

One of the really interesting things about music, IMO, is in how different musicians will cover an existing piece. This can take an infinite variety of forms, reflecting the intention and style of the covering artist(s). Some try hard to render a nearly exact reproduction, perhaps using it as a skill advancement technique, while at the other extreme only the broadest structure of a piece might be recognizable. And there is every conceivable outcome in between those endpoints.

It seems that almost any good or popular piece of music will be covered by many others, including by really famous artists. Indeed, the history of music is seemingly nothing if not an endless borrowing of styles and sounds from other artists and/or other genres/styles of music entirely. There are countless examples of this, sometimes reaching what might be called a craze. Back in the 1960s and 70s for example, a bunch of electrified British groups somehow got themselves infatuated with the acoustic music of the black Mississippi Delta bluesmen from several decades earlier. All manner of covers resulted from this, ranging from the great to the awful to the bizarre and misplaced, mostly the latter IMO.
Continue reading

The Indian system

Just about as prescient, and early, of a description of the California wildland fire and forest development problem as you will find:

As regards the growth of young timber—save only among the heavy redwood forests—the number of young trees which within the last decade or two has sprung up, is very great. All the open pine forests, back of the coast, are becoming rapidly stocked with young trees, and much of the open grazing land is rapidly being converted into brush or becoming covered with young saplings—generally Douglas spruce [Douglas-fir] or yellow [ponderosa] pine.

The cause of this increase is unquestionably the cessation of the old Indian practice (formerly general) of running fires through the country to keep it open to facilitate hunting, or in driving game before the flames into enclosures set with snares. Under this system about half the ground was burned over each year, in alternate halves; thereby the open lands were kept free of brush and all growth of young trees was checked in the forests. The older, well matured trees, however, suffered very little, as so little undergrowth could mature between one fire and another, that sufficient heat was not developed to hurt older trees, fairly covered with bark and with limbs some distance above the ground. In fact, the Indian system became in some sense a method of forest preservation, and to it we undoubtedly owe the noble forests which were transmitted to our hands.

We may acknowledge this debt to the red man, although his methods may no longer be available in a growing country studded if only sparsely with improvements. The Indian’s method may not have been an ideal one, but it was a better one in his day and generation than our lack of all method is in ours.

The very growth of young trees, left uncared for as at present, must be to those with the good of the forest at heart, a source of concern rather than of satisfaction. With forest fires running—often twenty in a county at one time—and public sentiment dormant to the extent that, save where individual property is at stake, few take the trouble to put out even such incipient fires as might be killed with little effort, there can be no question but that in the growth of young trees lies the certain guarantee of total extermination of much of our best forest land, within a few years, unless some effectual methods of protection are inaugurated.

Thirty years ago fires ran yearly through the woods, but forest conflagrations were unknown; the large trees standing sparsely scattered, say five to ten to the acre, were unable to transmit fire, and there was little on the ground to burn. Now thousands of young trees fill the open spaces, and a fire started not only destroys the young trees but the patriarchs of the forest also.

As yet the evil has attained no very serious proportions; but so surely as the young growth is permitted and fires not kept out entirely (which will be found a simply impossible matter) fires will occur, which will sweep everything in their path out of existence.

The longer the matter is left to find its own solution the more difficult and expensive of application remedial measures will become. As a means of protection against fires, one effectual method, and only one, suggests itself—the isolation of such forests as it may be deemed essential to preserve, into blocks of moderate area, separated by strips of waste land, wide enough to insure no spread of fire from one belt to another. This done, the forests may be left to grow up densely, if desired, without fear of extensive damage.

Topographical conditions would generally suggest the location of these waste strips. Ridge summits and canon bottoms (especially the former) are natural barriers to fire, being only crossed with difficulty by flames, when free of brush and litter. The lines of watershed on spurs are generally sparsely timbered, and could be easily maintained free of undergrowth, even if not denuded of their trees. As regards the strips which have been designated as waste, they might in many cases be capable of sodding or being maintained in grass, producing range and pasture, and for the rest, the authorized use of fire by duly commissioned persons, duly provided with adequate means of checking the spread of flames, might suggest itself as the simplest, cheapest, and most efficient method.

Of course these proposals only have reference to the public lands, private holdings must remain subject to private management, and such forests as now are held in private hands must survive or perish, as the owner elects. In any event, private holdings, when lying within the lines of districts which it might be wished to treat on the basis proposed, will always cause complication. If anything is to be done at all, it is time to do it now, while the Government owns whole districts free from settlers, and consequently, in this respect, at least, need have nothing but the public interest to consider.

First Biennial Report of the California State Board of Forestry, 1886-1888

“A systematic record of great biological value”

Paul Sears was an early plant ecologist who did a lot of good work at the University of Nebraska and previously at Ohio State, Nebraska being the nexus of American plant ecology in the early 20th century. He was I believe, the first president of the Ecological Society of America. He was also one of the very first ecologists–of what is now a legion–to estimate landscape scale forest taxonomic composition at pre-settlement time, using the bearing/witness tree record contained within the early federal land survey. Here he takes a humorous swipe at the geometric wisdom inherent in the survey design. Ya can’t put a rectangular grid on a round planet fer cryin’ out loud, but hey, thanks for recording all those trees! :)

Surveying of Ohio was begun in July, 1786, under The Geographer of the United States, Thomas Hutchins, employing for the first time his device of sections one mile square. This empirical device was hailed as a great American invention, although the State of Ohio has since been found to possess a curved surface in common with the rest of the earth. All corners which lay within the forest were located with reference to nearby trees, the species of which were noted. These corners becoming permanent, the net result of Hutchins’ plan has been the preservation of a systematic record of such great biological value as to redeem its geometrical shortcomings.

A little background might be useful. Ohio was the first state surveyed under the federal land survey, all previous states being surveyed in all manner of ways by various entities under various authorities and quality control procedures, i.e. without a comprehensive and systematic plan. By law enacted in 1785–the very first congress–a hugely important law affecting how the public domain would be disposed of, all states added to the country from that point forward were to be surveyed under a systematic, regular survey design with very specific instructions regarding how to proceed (Thomas Jefferson being a driving force behind this). Ohio, being the first such state added, in 1803, also served as the test state, where various survey designs were tried out before deciding on the one that, with minor modifications, has been followed the last 200 years in the 30 federal land survey states.

To my knowledge no other branch of ecology has the quality of historic data sets dating to +/- pre-settlement times, i.e. before all the heavy impacts occurred, and most certainly not over such an enormous geographic extent. In fact, I don’t think it’s even close. We’re very lucky in that regard, and we have people like Thomas Jefferson, with his sense of mathematical order and intense interest in all things natural and landscape, for it.

Sears, Paul B. 1925. The Natural Vegetation of Ohio: I, A Map of the Virgin Forest

‘Twas the Witch of November, come stealin’

It was forty years ago, November 10, 1975.

Captain McSorley lived right over on Bancroft Street just a few miles from us, near the university, but we had no idea until the newspaper told us. He was apparently intending to retire at the end of the season, just one month away, and was thus on one of his last trips. It turned out to be his very last.

I hadn’t even heard about the incident until I opened the paper the following day: there was the full story on the front page, with photographs of the seven guys from the area, about 25% of the crew of 29, including the Captain, who were now all missing and presumed dead. You can’t last long in 50 degree (F) water, that much less with hurricane strength winds raging around you in the middle of a black night in November, far from the shore.

The whole thing struck me as rather unbelievable. I mean, I can remember going out the few miles to one of the Lake Erie Islands as a Boy Scout when a kid. Somehow the trip had been scheduled at night, on a ferry with big open sides, and sure enough, there was a fierce wind that night. The boat was constantly plunging up and down with the waves that have made the lake a bit notorious and sent many a boat to the bottom, back in the day. Big washes of water and spray would come in through the holes, some kids were getting seasick and throwing up, and it was pitch dark. We were probably in no real danger but as a kid you don’t know that, and it may have been the first time I was actually scared for my life.

But this was a 700 foot ship, and it was 1975, not 1875.

The Edmund Fitzgerald unloading iron ore in Toledo Ohio.  Image courtesy http://www.mhsd.org/fleet/O/ON-columbia/fitz/default.htm

The Edmund Fitzgerald unloading iron ore in Toledo Ohio. Image courtesy http://www.mhsd.org/fleet/O/ON-columbia/fitz/default.htm


Nine years ago, Hultquist et al published an interesting study in which they ran a weather and wave model over the general area, driven by recorded observations during the event, for the 36 hours leading up to it. What they basically found was that the ship could not possibly have chosen a worse path across the lake than they did that day. They made a 90 degree right turn that put the ship partially broadside to maximum sustained winds from the west to northwest, of 65 knots (~ 75 mph, the lower edge of hurricane force, and gusting higher), and to significant waves of 7.5 m (~25 ft), potentially reaching as high as 14 m (46 ft). Another wave height model indicates such heights and directions were likely extremely rare historically.

Significantly, the weather/wave model indicated that the worst 1-hr conditions occurred exactly when the ship when down–between 7:00 and 8:00 PM, EST. At about 7:15 PM, the Fitzgerald simply disappeared from the radar screen of the Arthur M. Anderson, which had been trailing it by 10 miles, and guiding it by radio ever since the Fitzgerald’s radar went down. [The interesting back and forth between the Anderson‘s Captain and the Coast Guard, requesting him to go back out to search the area during the height of the storm, which he did, is here.]
Fitzgerald
Exactly what caused the Fitzgerald to go down so quickly is still a matter of some contention. It had to be immediate, since the ship had just been in radio contact with the Anderson but no SOS or distress call was ever issued. The leading theory seems to be that a particularly extreme wave lifted the stern, forcing down the bow. The ship was already listing and had lost buoyancy via large volumes of water taken into its cargo holds, full of iron ore, very possibly from ripping a hole in the hull by bottoming out on a shoal a few hours previously. This would have rocketed the ship to the bottom of the lake, which, being shallower than the ship was long, would have snapped it in two (as it was found), with the stern above the water.

Captain Cooper of the Anderson, describes his radio interactions with McSorley before the incident and his views of what happened. He says that as much as 12 feet of water were on their deck at times:

Tribute video based on Gordon Lightfoot’s famous ballad is here
NTSB official report of the incident is here
And another very interesting interview here

And all that remain, are the faces and the names
Of the wives, and the sons, and the daughters

Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald