Sunday, November 25, 2018

Climate, Consumerism, and Immigration

Wow, look at all those refugee....Oh, never mind, it's Black Friday

It has been an eventful Thanksgiving week, but you might not be in the loop if you were properly focused on family, food, and travel. We can be grateful for our American privilege of indulgence in those loves and pursuits, but for how much longer? A government report acknowledging climate change, a scathing indictment of mindless consumerism by a journalist, and the virtual disappearance of the immigrant "caravan" should give us pause.

Released at 4 PM on Black Friday, when the masses were distracted by shopping, comes the Fourth National Climate Assessment, volume II, outlining what we can expect if we stay our present course in, well, pretty much our everyday habits as consumers, producers, drivers....Will the fourth report (time) be the charm, the one that finally elicits action? Don't hold your breath.

The first alarm bells began ringing around a 1965 report issued by President Lyndon Johnson's Science Advisory Committee, its findings echoed in a speech by Frank Ikard, then President of the American Petroleum Institute. Ikard's analysis was published in the journal Nature. Good luck accessing that government report from 1965, despite it being public record. Attempts by Texas Pollinator Powwow, a Facebook group, to provide links in its posts have resulted in not one, but five broken links. Cover-up, much?

The hyperlink above goes on to reveal that physicists and other scientists had their suspicions, and were conducting atmospheric research, back in the mid-1950s to create projections of rising carbon dioxide levels and the implications thereof.

Appropriately for "Black Friday," journalist George Monbiot dropped a bomb of an editorial on what he calls "Pathological Consumerism", condemning the largely American habit of gift-giving for the sake of gift-giving, with little or no thought to the greater ramifications. He argues convincingly that production of many products, including novelty items, consumes so many resources, and takes so much energy, that it is nearly equal to the impact of driving internal combustion engine vehicles in terms of contributing to climate change. Plastics are derived largely from petroleum, electronics depend on the mining of rare metals, etc, etc.

Ok, fine, but what about that parade of immigrants threatening our southern border? Largely dismissed as a political stunt for the midterm election cycle, the deployment of troops to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas seems to have evaporated in its urgency. There are larger than average numbers of asylum-seekers at the California border checkpoints, we are told, but that does not seem to have triggered any alarm or military response.

Here is something to consider: if you think "normal" streams of immigrants are an issue, just wait until catastrophic climate change kicks in. As more of the planet becomes uninhabitable, where do you think those displaced people are going to go? You want to do something about the immigration problem? Then do something to mitigate climate change. Call on our government officials to mandate industry controls, but also think twice about your daily habits, including whether you really need to drive to the store, or if it can wait until you have a greater necessity, or can find a carpool buddy.

I call on my followers to set an example of responsible consumerism, activism, and compassion for all species. No, we are not going to be perfect, and we have to learn to forgive ourselves for that and not let it prevent us from acting anyway. We have to be stern to those in power, and gentle to those struggling to change for the better. We can do this, but we have to start now, no pessimism allowed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Kudzu Ate The Off-ramp: A Brief Visit to Tennessee

View from Roan Mountain

Over the river and through the woods, our Garmin has gone astray....No, seriously, in Roan Mountain State Park, the GPS had us traversing the forest on the other side of the stream instead of the perfectly good road we were actually on. Such is life in east Tennessee, but well worth the effort you put into making it a destination.

My wife and I found ourselves there as a result of a conference she was attending in Knoxville. I had to occupy myself while she was at the gathering, but we took an extra few days together in truly rural east Tennessee afterwards. We can now attest to the legend that is southern hospitality, and are likely to return for further explorations if we can avoid the tourist traps, which are equally legendary, from Gatlinburg to Dollywood.

We arrived by plane on a Sunday, got the rental car, and headed into downtown Knoxville, spending the whole ride trying to find something other than an on-air church service over the radio. Good luck with that. Our trusty GPS guided us to at least two restaurants that were closed, so we finally just parked (for free on weekends) in a big lot and set out on foot. We settled on The Crown & Goose, a well-patronized establishment, practically an institution if you ask around. The hostess greeted us by welcoming us to the restaurant's last day of existence. I wish I were making this up, but it was true. The place was closing to make way for part of some much larger development on the horizon. I think I recall something about a new sports complex and entertainment district, the kind of thing that often signals the death knell for local businesses in favor of chains.

We learned of this by striking up a conversation with another couple, their son and ("hopefully") soon-to-be daughter-in-law. We were all enjoying the warm sun outside while waiting for seating inside because despite the sun it was pretty chilly. You cannot say that about the people, though, as everyone is warm and friendly and will talk to you like they have known you all their lives. This stereotypical aspect of the south is most welcome, and something other regions should strive for. Sure, it was a Sunday, and just about anyone is more laid back on the weekend, but still.

Volunteer Landing, downtown Knoxville

Downtown Knoxville is perhaps not quite as vibrant as some city centers, but you will not go hungry or lack for entertainment, or visual stimulation thanks to the mix of history and architecture and public art. Nothing is overwhelming, and it says great things about the city that they are not prone to overstatement....except for the University of Tennessee. Lots of orange, lots of orange, but I digress. I thought my hometown of Portland, Oregon was clean, but Knoxville, and for that matter every other place we went, may get polished daily. I remember maybe one piece of litter in over a week, and given my tendency to spy trash while looking for birds and other wildlife, that is saying something. Other cities bent on beautification projects should put Knoxville on the "must visit" list.

U.S. Courthouse, downtown Knoxville

It is virtually impossible to find fault with anything in east Tennessee. I mean, I got nothin'. Seriously. You have to have been a long-term resident to have complaints, and they do have complaints, mostly about traffic and construction, and sometimes disrespecting human and natural history in their haste to put up a new housing development or something. Gentrification is an issue everywhere, and apparently the Knoxville area is not immune. Ok, we were there during an election cycle, and politics are ugly there, too, judging from the campaign advertisements.

Farther afield, toward Johnson City and more rural hamlets, you might not be able to get a quorum to reach a consensus of complaints. Unless and until you stop in at a diner, it is easy to imagine that everyone is on their own up in the hills and hollers. Abandoned houses, barns, and outbuildings are quickly overwhelmed by kudzu, and I can only wonder what would happen if you didn't leave your home for a couple of days. Would you still be able to open the front door? No matter, the locals no doubt turn every obstacle and negative event into a running joke. You just get that vibe that there is nothing that can't be overcome with a little ingenuity and a lot of laughter.

Blackberry Blossom Inn, Unicoi

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Book Review: The Humane Gardener Offers Lawn Alternatives

Nancy Lawson was not always one to garden beyond her self-interests, but The Humane Gardener (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017) represents her own horticultural metamorphosis through careful research and the experiences and results of others. She deftly avoids sermons and diatribes, instead letting common sense and examples speak to her points. The result is a thoughtful, captivating, and motivational book.

Do not let the cover, which brings to mind the Old Farmer's Almanac, fool you. This is not an old-fashioned throwback to romanticized rural life and how to achieve it. The book is well-illustrated and well-organized. Chapter breaks are punctuated with real people experiences of gardening with native plants, coping with sometimes unwelcome wildlife, and successfully enhancing or restoring natural landscapes. Lawson is unwavering in her focus on the whole, yet still paints vivid portraits of the people behind the process of converting desolate deserts of lawns and exotic botanicals into something not only sustainable and more diverse biologically, but that ironically often takes less work to manage.

The text is gentle, rarely admonishing any reader who may be practicing the "normal" style of manicured turf and media-dictating plantings of the latest and greatest cultivar of this or that. Lawson herself describes once shopping for various varieties of commercial roses, for example. She readily admits her failures and what she learned from them, as well as demonstrating how others have overcome obstacles to reinstating a more natural look to their properties.

I fully expected a much more forceful....activist....voice, with one-sided arguments, and was pleasantly surprised by the fairness of Lawson's approach. When I was certain that she was going to give only one side of an incident involving dead bumble bees and linden trees, she came through with further explanation. Notes in the back of the book cite the sources for her assertions of statistics and academic studies. Nowhere does she claim to have all the answers, nor advocate a one-size-fits all mentality.

The whole point of the book appears to be that our spectrum of urban to rural landscapes are works in progress, usually resilient, with a memory for what they once were. Still, each location has its own peculiarities and deserves a reverence for its history as a precursor for whatever comes next. Changes do not happen overnight, but your efforts are often, if not usually, rewarded more quickly than you would imagine. Patience and forgiveness are recurring themes in the book. No one in the selected examples between the chapters is raised to sainthood, and each readily admits their shortcomings.

While there are numerous photos throughout the book, most are exceptionally dark, and the matte finish of the paper makes it difficult to discern the subjects of the images in many cases. That matters little, as the prose paint their own imagery. I found only one error in the entirety of the 204 pages of text. There are no "Grey herons" in North America, let alone my home state of Colorado. I am rather certain she meant "Great Blue Heron." Zero spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors did I detect.

Lawson's previous work at the Humane Society of the U.S. prepared her well for writing and marketing this book. She recognizes that the shift toward more wildlife-friendly gardens is in its infancy and that a book is only a snapshot on a timeline. To that end she has erected a website, The Humane Garderner, to continue the conversation and explore specific topics more in depth. The website also lists author appearances and other events, provides an opportunity to sign up for her e-mail newsletter, and gives readers a portal for feedback. Lawson is also aware of the mobile digital age and so the book itself is available in e-reader formats as well as the hardbound copy that I have.

The Humane Gardener is an ideal introduction to gardening with natural history in mind, and I look forward to a sequel or two that might give more tips applicable to those of us in townhouses, home owners associations, apartments, and similar residential situations. The same might go for office and industrial parks. We all need to get on the same page, though how we get there could be a radically different journey.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Time to Phase Out the Wildland-Urban Interface

The Waldo Canyon Fire from our east side Colorado Springs neighborhood in 2012.

The almost non-stop catastrophic conflagrations in California, and continuing wildlife conflicts in many areas around the United States are two reasons to re-think what has become known as the wildland-urban interface. The desire of some people to live in wild areas without assuming any of the risks inherent in such locations is going to bankrupt many jurisdictions if trends continue.

Furthermore, entire ecosystems could be permanently compromised as fires, mudslides, and other natural disasters leave few if any pockets of intact forest as refugia for wildlife. Healthy forests are a spectrum of habitats from meadows with a few seedling trees to old growth stands of ancient conifers. Forests periodically change through low grade fires that burn out understory vegetation without becoming crown fires that devastate mature trees. Browsing by deer and the herbivorous activities of insects also affect the structure of forests. Changes in ecosystems from meadows to mature forests represent the phenomenon of "succession," but it is very much a non-linear process. It is cyclical, and interruptions can happen at any stage.

Construction of human habitations fragments forests, taking parcels out of succession entirely, and permanently. Even after horrendous wildfires, we vow to rebuild. We are told to mitigate future fires by de-vegetating wide swaths around buildings. Sure, this protects our private property, but the public domain surrounding you is also compromised by having a reduction in the geographic continuity forest ecosystems. The result is islands of natural forest in a sea real estate managed for human habitation, logging, and recreation.

Risks of land ownership in forests, especially in mountainous regions, abound. They are only going to increase with climate change, and every event is likely to be more severe than the last. Not long ago, the City of Colorado Springs faced demands from private landowners in the foothills for compensation due to severe erosion. Foundations were slipping and cracking, and homes were potentially going to slide off the hillsides. This should be the kind of risk assumed solely by those landowners. If you cannot afford to personally cope with potential catastrophe, then you have no business living there.

During my time living in Tucson, Arizona, we endured an enormous blaze (two fires that fused) that burned most of the back side (north side) of the Santa Catalina mountains north of town. I could see flames coming down the south slope from the balcony of my apartment. Once the fire was extinguished, foothills residents soon began experiencing an influx of wildlife including bears and cougars that were deprived of food and habitat by the fire. Mountain lions in particular posed a threat to pets, and to hikers in the heavily-used Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. Arizona Game & Fish announced they would be closing the area and using lethal force on the cats. This raised such strenuous objections from citizens that they ultimately tranquilized two animals and turn them over to a sanctuary facility in another town.

This is the kind of corner we have painted ourselves into by insisting on the continued existence of the wildland-urban interface: Everyone wanting to live there, no one willing to assume the risks. All the risks are borne by the public at large, regardless of their personal level of affluence, through increased taxes. Valuable resources are used to combat natural disasters, the lives of first responders put at undo risk, and the fabric of natural ecosystems shredded, all because there are people who don't want to live in the city.

They want to flaunt their wealth, and have that stunning view. Maybe they want to be seen, be an example of what we are all supposed to aspire to: the dream home, with neighbors miles away, the ultimate in seclusion and privacy. Those of us in the city are supposed to have a view of their homes interrupting the majestic mountain skyline.

Did I go over the top there? Perhaps, but what we need is to reach consensus on what we will tolerate in terms of what is best for the common good. Right now we assign vastly higher values to private property than public good, and it is costing us dearly every time we respond to a fire, landslide, or wildlife encounter that ends badly. The time to re-assess was yesterday.

Smoke from the Black Forest Fire looming north of our Colorado Springs neighborhood in 2013.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Pulling the Lever, Filling the Oval


Watching the news coverage of the election returns Tuesday night, and the aftermath on social media, one thing struck me above all talk of a "blue wave" and the advancement of women and minorities in politics. What was graphically exposed once again were the shortcomings of the election process, from redistricting to faulty voting machines, to long lines, severe or substantially inclement weather, and inaccessibility of polling locations. All of this is inexcusable for a country that purports to be a democracy.

Interestingly, if not ironically, many states took steps to improve the election system, through measures that were on their ballots. Florida granted former felons the right to vote, unless they committed a sex crime or murdered someone. Here in Colorado, we overwhelmingly approved Amendments Y and Z to the state constitution, creating unbiased citizen committees to draw the districting maps in a fashion that does not favor one political party over another. We did that via mail-in or drop-off ballot voting. Wow, what a concept, to dispense with the archaic polling locations, at a time of year when we could have a Rocky Mountain blizzard on election day.

Back in the day (whenever "the day" was, it is all relative I suppose), there may have been good reasons for each state, or even county, to set up its own election day procedures, draw district maps the way they did, register voters, and otherwise service a largely sedentary, if not rural, population of the electorate. There are some aspects of our culture that do well to recognize and follow history, however ancient, but voting should not be one of them. Today, with our mobile society, we desperately need standardization of election rules. You should be able to arrive in your new state and county of residence and know exactly how to register yourself to vote, including exactly what pieces of identification are required, on the first try, minimal hoops to jump through.

Once you are registered, you should not have to worry about where to report to exercise your right to vote. Mail-in ballots should be the norm. Why? You have plenty of time to go over your ballot, and do your due diligence in researching the candidates and issues. You need not concern yourself with the weather on election day. You do not need to fear that you will show up at the wrong polling place, or that it will be closed, or there will be long lines....I understand the appeal of exercising your civic duty socially, in public, but this method is now being exploited by nefarious parties to advance agendas not endorsed by the electorate. Time to rectify that.

No voting system is going to be foolproof, nor impervious to hackers nor immune to other glitches of technology and human error, but evidence and repeated experience suggests that voting machines cannot be trusted, especially when their manufacturers are in bed with one political party.

Then there is enduring hostile poll workers who take it upon themselves to harass voters, if not outright evict them from polling locations. Frankly, there should be minimal requirements for identification, and of course mail-in ballots again dispense with this kind of confrontation. Voting should not be stressful, let alone embarrassing or demeaning. All of that can take place on Facebook or Twitter. I'm kidding, there is no place for that kind of....attitude.

It should not be obvious that your particular voting district(s) lean toward one party or another, and your suspicions should be aroused if the district has a long history of domination by either Republicans or Democrats. I'm not even sure why we need so many districts, or why they are independent of, say, school districts. The geography of politics these days amounts to urban versus rural, and that divide needs to heal as quickly as possible, too. Our collective dialogue, when it comes to candidates and governing policy, needs to refrain from legislating morality and concentrate instead on addressing needs common to all citizens regardless of whether they live in a suburb or on a farm.

Gerry needs to stop mandering, and realize that democratic elections cannot take place when you rig the system. "But we've always done it this way" is now a euphemism for racism, bigotry, voter suppression, and a last gasp at preserving a status quo that is circumventing the will of the People. Yes, it is that plain and simple, like how voting should be.