Monday, September 17, 2007

Hello, I must be going

The blog world seems to be falling apart, perhaps devoured by The Nothing from The Neverending Story. I read others repeating this sentiment, and I see it manifest in the storied former Blogs of Note that go without updates for days, sometimes weeks at a time. Alas, the departed will shortly be joined by The Influence Machine.
Sadly, I can nolonger make time for this blog. I’m stretched thin with a renewed job-hunt, grad school, serving on my city’s environmental commission, volunteering for community groups, and come March, raising my first child. I'm "a bit of butter, spread over too much bread," as it were.
To those who have read and especially to those who have commented, you’ve made this experience rewarding. You’ve educated me about a great deal. I hope I’ve done a little of the same for you. I plan to keep reading others' blogs, though I may or may not keep using the name "E.R. Dunhill" when I comment. Perhaps ERD will be back in the future.
I encourage everyone to keep reading, keep writing (whether that's anything to do with blogs, or not), and keep an open mind.

Monday, September 10, 2007

On certainty

Some questions to the reader:
Can science prove human causation of global climate change? If so why are we still arguing about it? If not, is there any scenario in which we can accept some degree of scientific uncertainty? Has the bulk of scientific opinion been wrong before? If so, does this make science unreliable? Is it somehow foolish or ethically wrong to accept benefits from science without question, but shun science’s warnings?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Rudbeckia hirta

Black-eyed Susan (R. hirta)
General Botanical Characteristics: Black-eyed Susan is a native, warm-season, annual, biennial or short-lived perennial forb. It has one to a few stems 12 to 40 inches (0.3-1.0 m) tall, which are erect and sometimes sparingly branched. The lower leaves are 2 to 6 inches (5-15 cm) long, alternate and petioled. The upper leaves are mostly sessile. The inflorescences are few to many flower heads on peduncles 2 to 8 inches (5-20 cm) long. The fruit is an achene 0.06 inches (1.5 mm) long; there is no pappus. Black-eyed Susan has a taproot or a cluster of fibrous roots. It is a mycorrhizal species.
Sometimes flower stalks will appear in the first summer, but typically black-eyed Susan blooms from June to September of the second year. After flowering and seed maturation, the plants die. The seed is very small (1,746,000 per pound) and black, about 2 mm long and 0.5 mm in diameter.
Adaptation and Distribution: Black-eyed Susan is naturalized in most of the states east of Kansas and the bordering areas of Canada. It is adapted throughout the Northeast on soils with a drainage classification range from well-drained to somewhat poorly drained. It will perform acceptably on droughty soils during years with average or above rainfall, but best growth is achieved on sandy, well drained sites. It is winter hardy in areas where low temperatures are between -30 ° and -20 °F.
Uses: Erosion control: Black-eyed Susan is an important component in critical area treatment plantings along with grasses, legumes, and other forbs when used along road cuts, hillsides, and other areas subject to erosion.
Wildlife: This plant offers protection and food to several song and game birds.

Sources and further reading:
USDA Forest Service
University of Maryland, College Park (image source)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

On the value and onus of education

Some questions to the reader:
What is the value of education? Is it economic? Social? Spiritual? Something else? Is there worth in studying something that has no commercial or career value? Do people have a responsibility to be educated? Does the state have a responsibility to ensure that people are educated? Does education have to come from a school?

Thanks to Sociological Stew for a recent post that inspired these questions

Il silenzio

The world has lost an artistic treasure. Luciano Pavarotti, icon of 20th century opera, passed away today at the age of 71.
For my own part (and with Puccini’s dated stereotypes aside), I think Pavarotti’s performances of Turadot with Joan Sutherland are among the greatest music ever recorded. The tenor’s power and grace made the genre of opera once again approachable. He will be missed.

Image source: University of Texas

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


I spent a good bit of my Labor Day weekend walking my dogs around a couple of large parks in suburban Maryland. There, I spotted a small army of flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida), several black walnuts (Juglans nigra), and stand after stand of trees that my untrained eye cannot identify past “oak” (Quercus consult-the-field-guide). I spent time in the butterfly garden above a clear lake that provides drinking water to thousands, and woods that seem too wild to be 10 miles from DC.
In a few weeks, there will be a group of geography students gathered at one of these parks to collect seeds from the places that mowers would otherwise cut them down. Those indigenous seeds will be handed-over to a partnership of nonprofits and state agencies to be sprouted and ultimately planted around the watershed. The new trees will grow to produce clean water, create food and habitat for wildlife, and build the biological bank of indigenous plants.
Collecting seeds will serve as a great opportunity to work directly toward a sustainable community, while providing a venue to address the concept of sustainability more broadly. Students will get their hands dirty and learn something in the process. These opportunities exist in every community, and it’s not necessary to be a scientist, an entrepreneur, or an activist to make lasting, positive changes. Sometimes, all it takes is gathering seeds to plant them where they might grow.

Image: Portrait of Shitao Supervising the Planting of Pine Trees: after Zhu Henian's Copy of Shitao's Self-portrait; Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On carrying capacity

Some questions to the reader:
How many humans do you think the Earth can support? Can the current population size be supported forever, given our current resource demands? Can the current population size be supported forever, if all (or most) humans adopt an industrialized lifestyle? If the population must stop growing or shrink, whose responsibility is it to make sure that happens? Is anyone capable of wielding that authority over someone else? How should they ensure that it happens?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Corylus americana

American hazel (C. americana)
Form: Small shrub, often in clumps reaching 12 feet in height.
Fruit: Edible brown nuts (1/2 inch diameter) enclosed in a hairy, leaf-like husk with ragged edges; initially green, ripening to a brown in late summer.
Leaf: Alternate, simple, with a doubly serrated margin, broadly oval with a heart-shaped or rounded base, dark green above and paler below, 2 1/2 to 5 inches in length, petiole with stiff, glandular hairs.
Flower: Monoecious; males are light brown catkins (1 to 3 inch long) in clusters of two or three near branch tips, opening before leaves; females are inconspicuous with only bright red stigma and styles protruding from the otherwise gray-brown buds, appearing as short, thin, red threads, early spring.
Bark: Light grayish brown and smooth, later develops a mild criss-cross netted pattern.

Sources and further reading:
Virginia Tech dendrology factsheet
Hazelnut recipes
University of Wisconsin plants database (image source)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost

There was a time when parents, aunts, grandfathers, and the occasional sage taught the little ones the names, habits, uses, and character of every discernable living thing. We learned with wide eyes that coyote is unpredictable, a trickster; that the river horse will kill without hesitation when defending her calf; and how much hemlock can safely be given as a sedative. Then, we turned around and handed this knowledge with personal amendment to the next generation. We were nodes in a massively parallel, massively redundant living database.
After a few generations of moving into towns and cities, and a couple of generations of just being too busy, we’ve fractured the system. We no longer recognize that it is a bad sign that Flavoparmelia caperata no longer paints many trees. We are blind to the fact that the Bay once ran clear, because of all of its oysters, and because of stands of chestnuts a hundred miles away. We have done no wrong but have simply lost this understanding.
We have become so ignorant of these things, that we often dismiss them as primitive, trivial, useless. But this intimate knowledge of living things and natural systems is valuable. Many species can serve as the proverbial canary in the coalmine, their ill-health alerting us to potentially serious problems. Others can offer insight into how people live and work. What COO wouldn’t want her company to reuse waste products as effectively as a healthy desert ecosystem? Japanese companies have used process analogies, including natural analogies, to improve manufacturing and R&D efforts for years.
While there’s no substitute for experiencing wildlife firsthand, whether that’s living out of a pack for a few days in a national park, or exploring one’s own neighborhood, there are other ways to start relearning this old knowledge. Field guides* offer answers to the basic “What is that called?” and “How does it live?” questions. Check one out from your local library. The National Museum of Natural History also offers a great website (including a very hip GIS-based tool) that covers many of these questions for North American mammals.
This is the world we live in. Learn it.

*E.R. Dunhill is partial to Peterson’s field guides for biological groupings (Fishes, Mammals, &c.) and Audubon’s field guides for geographical groupings (Field Guide to the Mid-Atlantic States, &c.)

Monday, August 20, 2007

On accountability and pollution

Some questions to the reader:
Should individuals and corporations be held accountable for the pollution they produce? Does accountability apply equally to pollution on private and public land? Should polluters be allowed to pay a fee to pollute more? If so, who should be paid? If not, how should pollution be controlled? Who should get to decide what counts as a pollutant, and how much is acceptable?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Echinacea purpurea

Purple Coneflower (E. purpurea)
Height: 2-3 feet
Germination: 15-30 days
Optimum soil temperature for germination: 70F-75F
Sowing depth: 1/8"
Blooming period: June-October
Suggested use: Borders, meadows, mixtures, floral gardens.
Uses, Cautions, and Preparation: The aboveground parts of the plant and roots of echinacea are used fresh or dried to make teas, squeezed (expressed) juice, extracts, or preparations for external use.
Echinacea has traditionally been used to treat or prevent colds, flu, and other infections. Echinacea is believed to stimulate the immune system to help fight infections. Less commonly, echinacea has been used for wounds and skin problems, such as acne or boils.
Studies indicate that echinacea does not appear to prevent colds or other infections. Other studies have shown that echinacea may be beneficial in treating upper respiratory infections.
When taken by mouth, echinacea usually does not cause side effects. However, some people experience allergic reactions, including rashes, increased asthma, and anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction). In clinical trials, gastrointestinal side effects were most common. It is important to consult your health care providers about any herb or dietary you are using, including echinacea. This helps to ensure safe and coordinated care.
Miscellaneous: E. purpurea is indigenous to the SE and Midwestern United States. An excellent variety for cut flower arrangements with a vase life of 5 to 7 days. Propagation from root cuttings is reliable if performed in the fall.

Sources and further reading:
Texas A&M University
National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine
Missouri State University (image source)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I’ve written quite a bit in the last few weeks about waning resources, changing values, and current and potential problems. The common threads among many of these discussions have been ethics, economy, and environment. I see these lines of inquiry as inseparable.
Having devoted much effort to challenges and questions, I’d like to focus briefly on solutions and answers. I believe that the only solution that will address ethics, economy, and environment with due weight is that of sustainability. For readers who are unfamiliar with this concept, sustainability seeks to create systems that can continue ostensibly forever. Such systems find a balance between inputs and outputs, resources and waste. These systems often rely on efficiency and repurposing waste products. This idea is not new; many human cultures have lived in sustainable equilibrium with their surroundings, making use of their environment without disrupting it. Many modern avenues of sustainability advocate lifeways that are far more similar to what you and I understand than to traditional sustainable lifeways.
I should qualify this by making it clear that I see sustainability as an ideal that people should approach through continuous improvement. Anyone, regardless of the magnitude of their ecological footprint, regardless of convictions about ethics or the economy, can move toward a more sustainable lifeway. For many people, such changes will save time and money.
One could write a book on sustainability (and many have), but there are some core concepts that have some hope of fitting in this space. To achieve a sustainable world, I see the central shifts in thinking and practice as awareness, an evolution of values, the realization of common wealth, and mass-localization/community development. There are plenty of outcomes and caveats that are worthy of discussion, but this is a place to start:

Awareness: The first and possibly the most important step is for the public to understand our economy, our lifeway, and how these bear upon the natural world. This does not mean that everyone needs to drop what they’re doing and go earn a PhD in ecology or natural resource economics. Instead, we need to follow in a grand human tradition of genuinely understanding how we make a living, and teaching this knowledge to our children.
The initial pieces of this puzzle, as I see them, are to understand where your food and energy come from; “the grocery store” and “the light switch” are insufficient answers to these questions.
It’s very important to understand your household’s relationship with water. How much do you consume? Where does it come from? Where does it go when it goes down the drain, or runs down the end of the driveway? Who else and what else uses it?
Likewise, it’s important to understand what happens when you throw something away. Where does it go? What happens to it physically?
These pathways of understanding lead to the critical question, “Is there a better way?”

Evolution of values: We must realize the inherent worth of the other members of our human family. We all need to take steps to eliminate poverty and injustice. It is commendable to volunteer one’s time and resources for such causes, but it would be better still if we obviated the need for such reactions by adopting a lifeway that mitigates or eliminates them.
We must also recognize the value of nonhuman species and natural systems. If we choose not to honor these with innate worth, we must at least recognize that they are of enduring value to humans. Natural systems provide water to drink and the air that supports us and the crops we need for food, clothing, shelter, and energy. Disrupting these systems is short-sighted. Similarly, we have no idea what plants and animals may one day be of practical use to us. Preserving biodiversity is a tangible investment in our own future.
Recent research has again demonstrated that money does not buy happiness. Having enough to live comfortably, having friends, family, a community, and a purpose bring happiness.

Realization of common wealth: Many countries (and other political divisions, like states, parishes, provinces, prefectures, counties, cantons, cities, &c.) own useful resources, like forests, minerals, and waterways. These publicly held resources belong to the citizens of those various places, and their use should directly benefit the citizenry. For instance, if a corporation wants to cut timber in a state forest, rather than the process existing as a giveaway of public resources to the timber company, the company would have to compensate the citizens for the right to log. This money could be distributed to the citizens in a model similar to the Alaska Permanent Fund, or could be held in trust and provided to citizens as money for healthcare expenses, college tuition, and other broadly useful endeavors.
With some level of organization, globally held resources, like the atmosphere, or Antarctica’s existing and future resources could provide benefit to some universal human fund. This would realize a democratic stream of wealth for everyone and recognize each person’s ownership of public goods.

Mass-localization and community development: We need to produce energy and goods more efficiently. Rather than mining coal in Ohio, shipping it to a power plant in Maryland, burning it to create heat to generate electricity, transmitting that electricity over miles of cable back in the same direction the coal traveled from, and using that electricity to heat a coil in a hot water heater, we need to focus on generating and managing energy in situ. Energy is used in mining and transporting the coal. Energy is wasted in converting the chemical energy in the coal into heat, into mechanical energy, into electrical energy, and back into heat. Instead we could generate both electricity and heat for hot water on our own roofs. Likewise, office buildings and shopping centers could be covered in photovoltaic cells and produce electricity for a profit. Why shouldn’t a sprawling shopping mall be covered in wind mills?
We must strive to save resources by growing more of our own food, by shopping in local businesses, and using commonly held resources, like libraries and parks.
We need to invest our time and interest in the institutions of community. Participating in local government, engaging in neighborhood and local school/college events, and actively joining a community of faith cultivate values and strengthen your community.

A sustainable lifeway may be a long way off, perhaps generations. Or maybe we can realize such a vision in our own lifetimes. Either way, each person has the potential and the power to begin moving in this direction.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Heavier things

There is a finite amount of petroleum in the world. Much of this oil, possibly half of it, is locked-up in the ground in such a way that there will not be a cheap way to extract it in the foreseeable future. The US Geological Survey and the Energy Information Administration conducted a study, described in a 2004 EIA report, to assess and forecast world petroleum supply and demand. The study found that there is likely something like 3 trillion barrels of recoverable oil in the world. This sounds like a very big number- indeed it is a huge number- except when compared to the rate at which oil is consumed. The study further concluded that global oil production may well peak in 30 years, and fall-off sharply, so that humans are unable to produce petroleum at current levels within about 40 years.
Again, this study predicts that oil production will likely peak around 2037 and then decline, sharply. Obviously, other capacity studies abound. Some of them are more urgent, some of them are less so. The USGS / EIA study purports to be impartial and was completed in consultation with geologists and economists from both the US government and from the petroleum industry. Regardless of when the reader may personally believe oil will run out, the fact remains that there is a limited amount of oil in the world, and humans are using huge quantities every day.

Given that petroleum is the basis of our present economy, and perhaps more so the basis of an American lifeway, this resource-sunset is a mandate for deep change. The current administration previously asserted "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."
It's time to move beyond myopathy and greed and step into reality. This generation faces a problem, and like it or not, it's ours to fix. Many will ignore the problem. However, the rational solution- the one that will work in the real world- is to work toward sustainable lifeways and a sustainable economy. This means understanding where our energy, food, and other resources come from, and recognizing that financial costs are not the only costs we need to consider. This means making better choices, starting today.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Room for squares

The Congress is moving ahead with a federal budget that would reverse the Bush administration's recent history of cutting funding for research in science and engineering. This money will ensure a place for many scientists and engineers in both the federal government and academia, and provide them with the resources they need to work.
The sciences should not be treated as extraneous trivia. They improve human health, investigate the causes and implications of climate change, and create new sources of energy, while extending those we already have. The application of science into various technologies forms the basis for much of our modern economy. Moreover, these disciplines are uniquely suited to exploring a sustainable way of life.
As the President threatens to veto any spending bill that exceeds his request, make your voice heard: Learn more and blog. Talk to friends and family. Contact your Representative and your Senators and let them know that you value this investment.

Monday, August 06, 2007

On finite resources and poverty

Over the last couple of weeks, as I was plowing through journal articles, CRS reports, and endless data from the EIA and others, I started asking readers to share their thoughts on ethics, the environment, and the war in Iraq. Readers posted many thoughtful comments, and the lurkers (who are always welcome to comment) were out in force to follow these discussions. There was such a positive reaction, that I thought I'd bring up a few more points for discussion, and may begin to include such questions as a regular feature on The Influence Machine. I'll be more timely and thorough in my responses.

Can an economy (the global economy, regional economies, local economies) grow forever? Can infinite value be derived from finite resources? Does one country's (or individual’s, or group’s) increasing wealth necessarily mean that another becomes poorer? Can existing markets or regulatory environments (global, national, regional, &c) solve the problem of poverty? If so, should they? What would an end to poverty look like?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

An inconvenient truth about biofuels

In 2005, the US consumed about 140,407,470,000 gallons of gasoline. On average, that’s around 1.25 gallons of gasoline per day, for each man, woman, and child in the country. We use it without realizing it: the oranges we buy in February traveled a very long distance; all of those cheap clothes are only inexpensive because they were produced somewhere far enough away to have a tiny cost of labor; and of course we love to drive ourselves to work, dash to the supermarket to grab this, then later to the hardware store for that, all the while complaining about traffic and gas prices.
W has laudably suggested reducing gasoline consumption by 20% by 2017. Business interests are encouraging people to "Go Yellow". And Chevrolet is greenwashing a fleet of gas-guzzlers under the pretense that buying a flex-fuel car is in and of itself good for the environment.
Unfortunately, domestic corn-based ethanol and soybean or WVO biodiesel do not now offer, nor are they likely to offer in the foreseeable future, a tenable solution to the problem of transportation fuels. While it's true that production of biofuels has accelerated rapidly in recent years, there simply isn't enough feedstock to replace a meaningful fraction of petrofuels. Replacing the rough equivalent of 2% of the gasoline we use currently requires about 20% of our corn crop. If we stopped eating corn and feeding it to livestock- mildly absurd hypothetical actions- we'd still only cover about 10% of our current gasoline demand. Cellulosic ethanol fuel does nothing for us now, and there's no telling how long it will be until economically feasible methods of production are available. Moreover, there are a host of concerns over the cultivation of large amounts of switchgrass and genetically-modified fast-growing trees.
Research remains important; horizon technologies have a way of becoming household words in the blink of an eye. Likewise, incrementally greater production of biofuels does achieve some benefit, although it would make more sense to exploit some of the other benefits of biofuels. Rather than spreading a very thin mix of blended fuels around a large region, we should use high biofuel blends for special applications: biofuels for school buses to reduce the exposure of children to particulate pollution; biofuels for government fleet-vehicles and buses in Clean Air Act nonattainment areas; biofuels for watercraft to minimize sulfur, particulate, and synthetic-volatile pollution in waterways.
Given the finite lifespan of oil and the lack of a meaningful or reliable supply of a direct replacement, we have to consider conservation in a new way. We need to rethink communities, values, and lifeways. We need to act on this new thinking.
It grows dim in our national memory, but a little over six decades ago, a generation of Americans fought and won a massive war, and in so doing reinvented their economy and that of the world. Why can't ending a myopic addiction to oil and creating a sustainable economy be this generation's legacy?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Blog-o-mat: Continuing continuing service

To the reader,
I'm pleased and impressed by the responses I've read to previous questions. I'm glad to see such heart-felt and articulate comments. Since I'm still up to my eyeballs in journal articles and CRS reports, I'll throw out a few more questions on ethics and environment:

Do we have any responsibility for the well-being of future generations of humans? Is such a responsibility dependent upon whether or not we have children of our own? Do we have any responsibility for the well-being of non-human species? Does the aesthetic quality of nature have any tangible value? Does the spiritual or metaphysical quality of nature have such value? Who or what should get to determine what those values are?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Blog-o-mat: Continuing service

Another series of questions to the reader:

Does religion (or a particular religion, perhaps your own) mandate service to other people? How about people outside the faith? Does protecting or improving the natural environment honor such an ethic? Does knowingly harming the environment violate that ethic?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Introducing the Blog-o-mat: Some questions for the reader

As I near the end of an engaging but tough course on environmental law and policy, I’ve regrettably let the weeds grow up around The Influence Machine. Rather than yet another post of accidental art or what amounts to a "Will return in…" sign, I’ll turn intellectual control of the blog over to the reader for a while. I am well-aware that this is analogous to when banks got rid of most of their tellers, installed ATMs, but still charged everyone the same fees (or more) for self-service. To the reader, whether well-read and opinionated or casual and curious, I pose these questions and ask for comment:

Can the United States win the war in Iraq? If so, how do you define victory? How do you think the US can achieve that? What happens to the Iraqis and the region if the US withraws in the immediate future?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Term-paper cynicism, or a Thoreauvian aside

As I dig through Congressional Research Service briefs, I hear Thoreau in the back of my mind:
"No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufactures and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations. For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds on the science of legislation."

Friday, July 13, 2007

All this useless beauty

Prague is not so much a city full of art as one expansive, living work. Cobbled streets wind through a thicket of old shops and homes with terra cotta roofs, and places of worship so ancient that they almost defy understanding- here a synagogue from the 12th century, there a basilica from the 10th. Tycho Brahe lies interred in one grand church, Wenceslas in another. Art has so long been the way of life in this city in Bohemia, that it becomes immediately obvious why the word "bohemian" has come to be affixed to creative types. It's hard to return from my week there without some remnant of that gothic and baroque drama.
A former student of astronomy and a former professional cartographer, I was most enamored of the Pražský Orloj, the Prague Astronomical Clock, in the Old Town plaza. This device measures time of day, the positions of the sun and moon, dawn and dusk, time of year, and other quantities useful to astronomy and astrology, all using clockwork and kindred technologies characteristic of the middle of the last millennium. It displays several pieces of moving sculpture that ring bells and deliver blessings on the hour. The clock embodies Pirsig's ideas of both classical and romantic beauty.
Praguers seem to appreciate all of this art and its (and their own) relationship with the natural world. So far north, the city enjoys and suffers the fickle economy of long summer days and unrelenting winter nights. Tucked so far from the sea and so close to mountains and hills, weather is even more protean. Owing to this physiography, Praguers seem to understand the value of every moment of sun and warm air; as soon as the clouds part, they are reading in public greens or having coffee or pilsner at sidewalk cafes. Conversely, clouds and rain mandate trips to museums and galleries and seem to tap the kegs that serve friends philosophizing in cellar pubs.
"What shall we do, what shall we do..."

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

If you've never stared off in the distance

The hounds and I hike five miles and in this travel run across a fawn, hiding among the ferns. We find a good quarter-acre of wild blueberry, though there is not a ripe berry to be found.
The mountain is a living thing, its trees, its lichens, its millipedes breathing in and out. Loose stones and water relaxing toward the Potomac speak on its behalf. The sound of my own voice, reciting Flavoparmelia caperata and Punctelia rudecta for the benefit of the dogs’ education, seems trivial for a moment, but in the end I see is no less a part of the mountain. I consider for a moment that both "psyche" and "chi" come from words that mean breath.
I ruminate on Emerson:
"These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most requests is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs."
In the next few days, make some time for walking, for woodland pools, spring holes and ditches, for the solace of open spaces.

Monday, July 02, 2007


It's been overcast the last couple of nights, a fact that has me thinking about the night sky, rather than looking at it. The people have been on my mind more than the numbers, the tall-tale factoids, and the Weird Terrain.
I recall those who set about modeling the sky: Newton with his audacious claim and his big letter G; Einstein with his hip trick for the orbit of Mercury; Kepler and all of those ellipses, spheres, and cubes. I remember my freshman year heroes: Oort, Kuiper, Carolyn Shoemaker, and Hyakutake (that lucky cat).
This lineage of thinkers finally drifts past Copernicus and pauses at Galileo. I see in the life and legacy of Galileo Galilei a parallel with present debates about the origins of the world we know. Galileo was branded a heretic for his assertion that the Earth orbits the Sun, a fact that the Church disputed based solely upon their interpretation of religious writings.
People should believe as they will- many traditions of belief hold insight. (For my own part, I find Christianity, Western science, and Taoism to be particularly apt.) Moreover, we should engage in a meaningful dialogue over differences in our paradigms and should avoid mindless dogma. Belief should remain sincere.
I see an unfortunate trend among my friends and family who choose a literal interpretation of the creation story in the Abrahamic faiths. There is a pattern of extrapolating pararational dissent over the sciences that speak of evolution to those sciences that discuss climate change. Indeed there are relationships between these trains of thought, though there are similar linkages to the sciences that find fossil fuels and the sciences that develop new drugs and biologics. Leading a selective theological assault only against those scientific conclusions that are socially or politically unpalatable lacks sincerity in practice.
Perhaps more theologically important, I fear this debate undermines the core values of some of the world’s most populous and influential religions. Just as a literal interpretation of biblical cosmology against Galileo’s (and Copernicus’) conclusions continues to detract from the relevance of Christian thought, so too does the debate over origins, and more urgently, the antagonism toward climate science. This hostility erodes an opportunity to improve peoples' lives.
More than three centuries after the Church condemned Galileo for suggesting that the Earth did indeed orbit the Sun, and more than two decades after humans walked on the surface of the Moon and saw this with their own eyes, Pope John Paul II, speaking for the Roman Catholic Church, observed:
"In the last century and at the beginning of our own, advances in the historical sciences made it possible to acquire a new understanding of the Bible and of the biblical world. The rationalist context in which these data were most often presented seemed to make them dangerous to the Christian faith. Certain people, in their concern to defend the faith, thought it necessary to reject firmly-based historical conclusions. That was a hasty and unhappy decision...It is a duty for theologians to keep themselves regularly informed of scientific advances in order to examine if such be necessary, whether or not there are reasons for taking them into account in their reflection or for introducing changes in their teaching.
"The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture..."
(A full transcript of the English translation of the Pope’s remarks is available here.)
Religion and the sciences are not inherently mutually antagonistic. Moreover, these two wisdom traditions complement one another: The scientific method does not explicitly contain an ethical framework. It asks questions like "can we do this?" but often fails to ask, "should we do this?" Contrarily, religion generally lacks systematic natural inquiry and technique. It handily foments discussion over the ethics of creating a vaccine, but offers little or no insight on how one might accomplish this.
The turf war solves no problems and succeeds only in creating hostility and dividing people. It also ignores what each of these systems of belief actually want: understanding and a better world.

Friday, June 29, 2007

"Each time, in the telling"

Some school of cavefish follows a current
Winding through pools not black
But void
Water carrying chalk
Water mingled with roots long lost.
We are those swimmers
Insofar as cavefish have schools.

We are the crooked ten-minute colt
Shivering on darting knees
Treading grass
Treading loess
Falling among the steppe-seeking herd
Somewhere after they’d forgotten the way.

We are the builders of boxes
The binders of books
Erecting a spider web fortress
To cloister the thinking I
In the sober comedy that
is tame.

Deluded that other is other
That other might be expelled
We shoo it, shrieking
Sweep it away.
But we were lassooed before words
By a pair of snares
Wound around one another
And repeated a trillion times.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

It's not academic

I’ve heard a great deal of "so what?" about climate change, lately. Many people hear terms like "general circulation model", "albedo", and "aeronomy", and shrug their shoulders. Even as physical sciences go, these concepts can be fairly abstract. Moreover, we all remember hot days and cold days, and we’re fairly hard-pressed to remember how many of each we had last year. The reader can’t look out the window and "see" climate change.
Or can we? Climate drives a dizzying array of physical and biological processes. It’s impossible to overstate the relationship between climate, ecology, and adaptation. I’ll spare the reader my normal purple prose, and instead focus on this image.
This MODIS image published by NASA shows African dust blowing across the Atlantic Ocean, to be deposited in the Caribbean Sea. Higher temperatures yield more airborne African dust, and more energetic winds to carry it. This dust clouds the clear Caribbean waters, interferes with algae and coral, and has been linked to coral reef die-offs. The reef die-offs directly impact the livelihood of local fishermen.
I urge the reader to look past the sometimes confusing details of mathematics and science for a moment and focus on what scientists are actually concerned about: quality of life and livelihood across our human family. Is this not worth our time and consideration?

Monday, June 25, 2007

To lie down beneath this bowl of stars

I begin clearing the dust from the barrel and start tracking-down where all of the eye-pieces and filters have landed since I moved. It’s the wrong time of year to be getting to it, what with the thick, damp air and the long days crowding the dark of night, but now is when I have time to work.

It seems so civilized, seen with the aid of those carefully aligned parabolic mirrors and various lenses. So much of what we know about it began not so long ago, when a few curious and intuitive souls began to use new mathematics to overturn centuries of Church rhetoric and eons of pagan tradition. What all of this number-crunching succeeded in doing, though, was to reveal that we had been right all along- we exist in the midst of a vast wilderness, a desert of absurd extremes that we now refer to as space.
When I watch for a few minutes the sky turning about Polaris, I am reminded of the fire drill I used a few weeks ago. I muse for a moment that perhaps the enterprising soul who first made the leap from fire plough to the more sophisticated and economical fire drill might have been inspired by that little light at the center of the spinning night sky. In this scenario, as in so many others involved with the lights overhead, understanding and a technology that is almost synonymous with civilization comes directly from a wild place.
What’s curious is that we increasingly build walls between the wild and the civil. We regard evidence of wildness in our surroundings and in ourselves as vulgar. Some of us have begun to notice the places where these walls are ragged and thin, and some of us are so appalled by what this means for the delusion of immaculate civilization, that we pretend not to see them.
The interfaces between the two are constantly moving and evolving, and though they are obscure and elusive, they are real: The civilized world runs on agriculture, a practice that exploits the wild light of our nearest star. Meanwhile, we industrious agrarians pick up certain plants and animals and diffuse them throughout most of the places people live, pushing out the uncivilized plants and animals.
To move ahead in the long-term, to achieve sustainability, we must understand and accept the relationship between the civil and the wild. As long as both exist, they impact, influence, and drive one another. I encourage the reader to create or find an opportunity to experience the wild, or to watch the interface of wild things and the civilized world: Leave the trail. Go fishing. Bake your own bread. Or, enjoy the plain and savage beauty of the stars.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Where the heart is

When friends and family visit for the first time, the words "cute", "cozy", and "darling" are bandied about. They ultimately recall that the townhouse my wife and I sold in November had one more half-bathroom and a little more floor space. This creates a logical paradox and begs the question, "So why did you move?"
It's a blow against living to consume. I've watched friends and coworkers move further and further away from where they spend most of their time, because "Out there, you can afford more house." I find this equation faulty, as its only parameters are dollars and square feet. Moreover, this calculus is predicated on the conclusion that a bigger house is always a better house.
I first began to dissect the equation long before moving, using that management-student logic that so often gets lodged in my head. In developing cost estimates, time=money. Though, absent from the $/sq foot equation for choosing where to live were the hours spent in rush hour traffic. For my friends who didn't mind an hour and a half each way stuck in a slow-moving car, I stepped through some simplified arithmetic: 3 hrs/day * 5 days/week * 50 weeks/year * 1 day/24 hours = 31.25 days/year. Commuters who enjoy half that daily ride- not at all a bad commute in the DC area- spend two full weeks in their cars every year. I understand that gas is fairly expensive, too. Mrs. and I resigned ourselves to our fairly average DC-area commutes, but resolved that we couldn't move further away.
This back-of-the-envelope finance led me to think about opportunity costs: what do we pass-up with all of this A-to-B? This begged the question of efficiency: If the commuting is wasting certain resources (i.e., my life), is it possible that it is inherently wasteful? Are there other aspects of my life that are wasteful? Some of these questions emerged before the move, some after.
The dominoes fell down in lovely little rows and started to yield answers: If I live close enough to the train to walk to it each day, I won't need to waste time, money, and fuel driving to it, nor driving to the gym to run in place. If I live near the town center, I can walk there, too- there is poetic logic in walking to and from the places where I dine. If I replace my vintage windows with high-efficiency windows and insulate my hot-water pipes and ducts, I won’t have to spend so much to heat and cool my house and heat my water. If I replace some of my lawn with a vegetable garden, I won't have to mow it, and I'll save money on produce in the summer. If I use a rotary mower, I'll never have to buy gas or change oil. If I install a rain-barrel on my downspout, I won't spend as much money to water my garden, and I'll be a better neighbor by reducing my impact on storm water. It became clear that I needed to stop working against myself and my surroundings.
My little house also started to give me answers to questions I hadn't known to ask. For instance, the wisdom of building a little Cape Cod and planting a couple of maple trees in front of it has become apparent. The maples, like the house are more than half a century old now, and regulate both water and insolation. I haven't paid to heat or cool my home since April.
The collective lesson for me has been (and continues to be) learning to understand what I really want, and how to get it without wasting resources on things I don't. Finding a little house that has space to suit my current and anticipated needs without extraneous space for extraneous things has made a huge difference.

Thanks to Charise for getting me thinking about this again.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

It passes for a tribe

As it turns out, people who are in the habit of chipping spearheads from flint and building fires with fire ploughs are somewhat difficult to reach by way of email. Who knew?
However, in response to one reader’s curiosity, and to make good on a pledge I made to some folks at this year’s MAPS Meet, I’ve followed some leads I heard about last week.
As one might imagine, there is considerable variation in the focus of primitive skills events. The spectrum of skills to be learned range from some of the earliest human technologies, to "frontier" craft. Some instructors even teach "re-technology", the practice of using found objects to craft simple tools (for instance, using some steel salvaged from the body of an old car to forge a knife or a hoe). While I’m certain that there are many other events like these, some formal, some informal, these are a few that I have recently heard mentioned. If readers know of others, I invite them to share them.

MAPS Rendezvous: Alas, you’ve missed it. The good news is that it has been held annually for several years, so you can mark your calendar for next year. The MAPS Rendezvous is typically in early June and has been held in Virginia and in Maryland, near the Pennsylvania border. The Rendezvous generally runs midweek through Sunday for about $200. The fee covers breakfast and dinner each day, campsite (or one of a limited number of bunkhouse beds) with bathhouse, and instruction; certain courses also have a small materials fee, generally not more than $5 (a couple of classes do have higher fees).
MAPS offers other events throughout the year, throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

Rabbitstick: At the risk of looking like a geographically illiterate Easterner*, this one is as close as I’ve been able to get to the Pacific Northwest (all apologies to Kiki and Cristi). This is a late summer/early fall event in Idaho and costs $245 (early registration). Fee covers campsite, instruction, 2 simple meals a day and all campground services (including sanitary services, firewood, potable water and parking). The site makes reference to some materials fees up to $100.

Wintercount: This event is run by the same outfit that offers Rabbitstick (above). Wintercount is a late winter event near Phoenix, AZ. At first glance, the other details seem to be the same as the other event.

National Rendezvous and Living History Foundation: This organization runs several events throughout the year in the Eastern and Midwestern US. These events run $55 each (for non-members), plus some additional fees for those who plan to sell things.

NMLRA Old Northwest Territory Primitive Rendezvous
June 22 to June 30, 2007
10712 Chatham Road Spencer, Ohio

NMLRA Northeastern Primitive Rendezvous
July 13 to July 20, 2007
Near Naples, New York

NMLRA Midwest Primitive Rendezvous
July 20 to July 28, 2007
Black Hawk Memorial Park, Woodford, Wisconsin

NMLRA Eastern Primitive Rendezvous
September 22 to September 30, 2007
Muddy Run Park, Holtwood, PA

It’s worth mentioning the Burning Man events, as well. These are not primitive skills events, per se, but I’ve observed some overlap in those who participate in these events.

*Author’s note: E.R. Dunhill is well aware of how far the Snake River is from the readers in question; E.R. Dunhill used to be a professional cartographer.

Monday, June 11, 2007


I’ve never been so happy to have blistered hands. I’ve caused myself such irritating injuries more times than I can recall, between a childhood of gardening and putting myself through school by working as a groundskeeper. But Friday, I earned this pain building a fire from scratch- no matches or lighter, no gun cotton, no 9-volt + steel wool, no lens aimed at the sun. Rather, at this year’s MAPS Meet, like in years past, we used scavenged hand drills, bow drills, and fire ploughs.
For the reader who has never tried this, I fear that while the "how" will be perfectly comprehensible, the genuine "what" will remain a mystery. I’ll leave those details of the experience in the shadows until a later time (although, this may remain one of those mysteries that forever confounds my pen).
Instead, I’ll focus on what emerged. Making tools and building fires, one of which handily survived a raging downpour, wove a community. I was a stranger to most of the other students and teachers at the event when I arrived. But, in a few days, and in many cases, in only a few hours, these became my little brothers and sisters, my aunts, my uncles. Each personal strand became part of a greater fabric.
The event underscored again some of those fleeting human qualities and pursuits that many of us don’t realize are gone, because we’ve never seen them. Knowledge, like how to speak Yucatec or Gaelic, how to fashion tools from simple materials, and how to predict weather, are vanishing; those skills don’t buy anything. The awareness of where water comes from and where it goes, or why we grow certain plants for food is already lost on many of us. Many of us assume that because these ways of thinking, observing, and interacting are dissolving into history that they must not be of value. Though most of us make this judgment without any firsthand knowledge of what we are losing.
The truth is that these thin streams of knowledge bear directly on many pressing problems. These pursuits encourage understanding of other people, other cultures. They promote an understanding of the fundamental connection between ecology and economy. And they teach people to recognize the difference between the illusion of abundance and the joy of genuinely having what we want and need.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Opiate of the masses

This morning, I overheard a young woman on the train- a college student, perhaps- telling someone on the other end of a phone call that she was planning to get the new iPhone as soon as they are available. Apparently, her current iPod is "just so big", and her phone is nearly 2 years old, so she was going to throw it away, anyway. The fact that they both seemed to be in working order didn’t appear to be a consideration. This ordinary exercise in consumerism got me thinking about for a moment about cost, before raising the broader questions of value, values, and self.
It’s no surprise to the reader that people, especially Westerners, increasingly define themselves by what they own. I don’t need to dwell long on the ubiquity of advertising, nor on the shift of "music lover" from meaning one who has studied and practiced music (even if informally), to one who spends a great deal of money on MP3s.
I’m not suggesting that humans have not long been technologists. Our modern understanding of the history of humans is based substantially on what we have made, whether that be fluted stone spearheads, constitutions, or rifled muskets. Nor am I suggesting that humans have not equally long spent much of their time and energy learning technology.
A key difference I see is that people are increasingly losing the knowledge of how to provide for themselves, even in the most rudimentary ways. A century ago, even many city-dwellers kept garden plots that helped to fill their tables. Fifty years ago, a person able to afford a pickup truck likely knew something about how to maintain it beyond taking it to the dealer when the light comes on. The practical appreciation for how technologies like agriculture and automobiles work increased their perceived value.
I find myself again looking at the question that Pirsig raised, that of "what’s new" versus "what’s best". Perhaps if we could move toward this mindset, we could pursue genuine happiness and community, rather than drugging ourselves with new diversions and creating ever-larger piles of trash.

Friday, June 01, 2007

"There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands."

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The importance of being earnest

The talking heads have been all over the airwaves with renewed zeal since Hollywood decided it’s getting warmer. (Never mind that those who actually understand and advance the natural sciences have been talking about this for years.) Now that the issue of climate change has once again entered the public awareness, the media have facilitated a wave of debate, primarily among people who are not scientists.
I’ve heard those who believe the weight of current scientific opinion declare victory and describe any further discussion as "beating a dead horse." I’ve heard those antagonistic to the research on climate say, "this is just what I believe and nothing you say can change my mind." There remain other skeptics, as there should in our system of science, who tout a litany of statistics and factoids, which range from flat-Earth science to perfectly valid concerns.
To address the argumentative skeptic, New Scientist published a special report, Climate change: A guide for the perplexed. The report, arranged into 26 sections dealing with popular climate science myths, is on the whole well researched and well written. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the climate debate, regardless of your opinion on the subject. However, among my favorite bones of contention, I ran across this in the page on modeling:

Finally, the claim is sometimes made that if computer models were any good, people would be using them to predict the stock market. Well, they are!
A lot of trading in the financial markets is already carried out by computers. Many base their decisions on fairly simple algorithms designed to exploit tiny profit margins, but others rely on more sophisticated long-term models.
Major financial institutions are investing huge amounts in automated trading systems, the proportion of trading carried out by computers is growing rapidly and some individuals have made a fortune from them. The smart money is being bet on computer models.

This statement is misleading. While government and industry do use increasingly robust computational tools to model markets and economies, New Scientist fails to make that connection. Electronic trading systems are not analogous to climate models, rather they process transactions in a similar fashion to the checkout system at an online retailer. Simple algorithms that make trades based upon small price fluctuations are also cool, but they do not attempt to model or predict anything, any more than a mousetrap predicts the number and frequency of mice attracted to bait. This evasive language on the subject of models may lead readers to question the veracity of other statements made throughout the site.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that many people don’t understand how professional science works. Many recall having solved for velocity in high school physics, or followed that epic poem that ends in "to make ATP" in college biology. At the professional level science does not fit neatly into half-page problems and essay questions, and requires judgment, years of hard work, and collaboration to reach meaningful conclusions. Many confuse debate over technique or corollary details as an attack on broad conclusions.
The contention of so many fields of science that humans are changing the global climate is a grave concern. The general public only now seems to be waking up to what scientists have been cautioning for years. And, as with any contentious debate in the United States, there are many who are digging their heels in because their party or their community leaders say so.
In a culture that lives on opposing dogmas and often struggles with developments in science, we can’t afford to confuse matters. As we work toward parlaying a hard-won mass-realization into changes in mindset and behavior, we must be honest.

Friday, May 25, 2007

It was a very good year

I deviate today from my normal train of thought to observe a small anniversary. The Influence Machine has now been delivering its signature brand of analysis, polemics, and looted-art for a year. Beginning under the name "Phrenology" with the idea of exploring perceptions and the connection between people and ideas, this blog has kept me busy writing about our world, politics, and art.
I’d like to express my gratitude to all of those readers who have taken the time to visit and read what I have to say. For those who add their own insights and questions, this little anniversary is as much yours as it is mine.
I’d especially like to thank the blogger formerly known as Revolutionary Poetics for that last nudge out of the nest on the subject of poetry. Charise, Jez, and the vanished Windwhisperer, it’s always great to read what you think.
I think that’s quite enough self-congratulation for one year. Now back to our erratically scheduled blog, already in progress.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Don't act so surprised

There's quite a brouhaha about the Bush administration and the National Museum of Natural History’s exhibit on climate change. Several news sources are reporting that the Whitehouse and the then-Republican Congress pressured the museum to dilute the science presented in its exhibit, Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely. Critics and former Institution staff, as well as consulting scientists, allege that there was a threat to the museum’s funding if the exhibit diverged too much from the party-line.
"I remember them telling me there was an attempt to make sure there was nothing in there that would be upsetting to any politicians," said John Calder, a lead climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who consulted on the project. "They're not stupid. They don't want to upset the people who pay them."
Of course there was pressure. It is a hard and regrettable truth of science in the US government that political pressure will affect research and educational priorities and the manner in which conclusions are presented.

A quick primer in how it works: Each agency or sub agency in the executive branch (of which all of those departments and independent agencies, like the Smithsonian are a part) requests a certain amount of money to run its programs for a fiscal year. The Office of Management and Budget, part of the Whitehouse reviews these budgets, throws out some fluff, throws out some very important stuff, adds-in some politically-motivated dollars, and pitches a giant budget for the entire executive branch to Congress. Congress takes it all in committees, argues, throws out more fluff, throws out more very important stuff, adds-in more politically-motivated dollars, and sets the operating budget. The end-product is a fiscal Frankenstein’s monster that has a great deal to do with lobbyists and the personal feelings of politicians.

Bearing this system in mind, every agency head and budget official must keep an eye on the politics of both the Whitehouse and Congress. They all know that next year may be a year to “make some tough choices”, if the agency makes statements that are politically harmful to those who control the purse strings.
That said, voters must be cognizant of this sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit pressure from elected officials. American science runs the risk of becoming an international laughing-stock if we allow the fossil fuel lobby and Biblical literalists to assert equal weight against the best science available. Science is not exclusively the stuff of academics and school children. Science forms the basis of many sectors of the US economy. It extends and improves life and informs the way we live. Moreover, it is a fundamental avenue of human inquiry, like religion and art. Science is far too important to ignore.
Politicians must allow scientists the academic freedom to be scientists and should be held accountable to having a working grasp of trends in medicine, the environment, energy, and engineering. They must recognize that they, most of whom have a background in law, politics, or business, should be asking questions of those who have dedicated their careers to the sciences. Voters must be willing to deny continued public employment to those politicians who either cannot or will not do this.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A to B

In my brief respite between classes, I’ve been taking the train with Carl Sandburg and Gary Snyder. I am reading Turtle Island for the first time and am finding again in Snyder a kindred spirit. I was particularly struck this morning by Tomorrow’s Song.
Bearing in mind that in the company of the rest of Turtle Island, Tomorrow’s Song won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1975, I find the poem to be remarkably prescient. It is perhaps more resonant with the casual reader now than when it was first published more than three decades ago. It reads in part (forgive my cheats in trying to quickly emulate the original typeset):

The USA slowly lost its mandate
in the middle and later twentieth century
it never gave the mountains and rivers,
___trees and animals,
______a vote.
all the people turned away from it
___myths die; even continents are impermanent

We look to the future with pleasure
we need no fossil fuel
get power within
grow strong on less.

I find parallels here with Peter Barnes' idea of legal standing for common wealth. Barnes advocates the broad use of trusts to manage and to give persona to commodities and resources, like publicly-owned forests and the atmosphere. In the world that Barnes envisions, "the mountains and rivers, / trees and animals" have, if not a vote, a voice.
Skirting the Buddhist underpinnings of the second excerpt in favor of a pragmatic interpretation, I see a connection with the writings of McDonough and Braungart. These authors champion a sea change in how goods (and the built environment) are both designed and consumed. McDonough and Braungart seek to overturn the concept of waste by regarding the output of any technological process as an input for another.
In this scenario, efficient use is not an inhibitor of economic growth, but a catalyst for economic growth. The entrepreneur and the consumer both stand to "grow strong on less".
Moreover, McDonough, an architect, consistently pays heed to the aesthetic. He regards the enjoyment of the manufactured environment as a nonnegotiable requirement of proper design. Snyder seems to have foreseen so much with so few words.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


By now you’ve read about it. In fact, you may well have read about it every year for the better part of a decade. “The Great Gas-Out”, wherein by avoiding purchasing fuel on a single day, you will at once thrash the high price of fuel and end the war for oil and hubris.
Unfortunately, this action is not based on an understanding of finance, economics, or the environment. Given that most versions of the propaganda surrounding this futile exercise simply enjoin the reader to buy before or after this single day, there will be no effect. If consumers purchase the same amount of goods during the same accounting cycle, they accomplish nothing more than an oddity in the books. At the end of the month, the fuel retailers have earned exactly the same amount of money. Moreover, the refiners and extraction companies, insulated by layers of supply chain, never see any difference.
In truth, the equation for spending less on gas is simple. Many would call it painfully simple: to save on fuel, save on fuel. By combining and otherwise minimizing trips, using public transportation when feasible, walking or cycling, favoring locally-produced goods, and driving a fuel-efficient vehicle, anyone can reduce the amount of money they spend on fuel. Moreover, if consumers would adopt these practices en masse, they would actually impact the price of fuel.
To again quote Tolstoy, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” This token protest will accomplish nothing, because it is an empty effort that expects someone else to make the real changes. Changing the world starts with changing oneself.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Drawing on

Monday afternoon, I skipped lunch in favor of browsing a new exhibition at the National Gallery. This collection of prints and sketches, Fabulous Journeys and Faraway Places: Travels on Paper 1450–1700, explores the ideas of landscape and time.
The collection brings to light an earlier concept of geography that predates our contemporary idea of literalism. The maps here display information synoptically (as do modern maps), but do so in a humanistic fashion that may seem strange to the reader accustomed to charts designed to display all features within x meters of their true horizontal location, with 95% confidence. In the exhibit, place, space, and time are in the mind of the beholder.
These depictions embody an aesthetic sensibility and a willingness to combine the observable and the metaphysical that have become lost. Images of pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem contain biblical imagery, recognizing that travel to these places is as much a spiritual as physical journey. Prints of folktales recognize that traveling is more about movement of the individual’s mind than of the body.
The observer is left with the realization that geography has paradoxically become increasingly collectivist in an increasingly individualistic world. We delude ourselves into believing that there is nothing left to explore, because satellites above, and geographers, anthropologists, ecologists, and geologists among us have left no blank spots on the map.

Each of us is an individual, and the atlas behind our eyes is unique. Each of us is filled with mostly blank pages. The apparent completeness of the atlases at the bookstore and the library becomes liberating in this scenario. None of us is compelled to explore a new place on behalf of everyone. Instead we are free to follow the physical paths that will expand the landscapes of mind, spirit, and relationship. Moreover, the more we open our eyes, the more we discover that the published maps are missing details, and sometimes get it all wrong.
Explore, understand, interact.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A work in progress, likely to be titled Transit of Vulcan or Syzygy

Whispering clouds follow where I tread
betraying these hermetic tracks
sculpted by raggedy books purchased as a student
as they defeat exhaling valley after parchy hill

Eager summer sun scrambles
after worm that is already mine
this bipedal racing-snail
rising 20 minutes behind the day
lingering at not quite half of 2,175 miles

I never know her name

I am a half-hearted border collie pilgrim
she the hyena ascetic

We wag salutory tails
as duty concatenates words like
~~~snow fed
~~~~~~sandy bottom
~~~~~~~~~rock tripe
before she recalls forty cabbage whites
who settled on her bag at Big Meadows
and her tongue knits a slithy yarn on copperheads

Mercury shields my left eye from the sun
casts a shadow on the right side of her face

The holy here at last draws a secret X at our feet:
Wrought with archers' potence
limbs engage as much as resist
strain and stretch
until finally I seize
upon mulberry's most enticing branch

Indian pipe-stems evolve from slight wrists
place pinched fruit
first in their owners' maw
then on my palate

Coarse juice reacts with feral sweat
to render some berserk drug in my brain
that courses to a stone-tool drumbeat
in the periphery of the firelight of my mind

I see polychrome horizons
emerge from the battle of rain against phyllite
to bear annelids who play chess
or backgammon or go with amino acids

A third arm joins mine as Puck
adds her sinewy weight in pursuit of
always more We're
dazed and knotted among wet blades
bough having failed
in the wandering instant of distracted neurons
that disorganized bark, shins, leaves, elbows

She howls out hysterical mulberry pulp
my own laughter preemted by the impact of face against skull
a collision that strips away plaid bandana
which had since some clear old deep
conceiled peach-fuzz backpacker hair

Ropey knees and jabbing palms
climb my scattered frame
as she regains her bearing and her bearings

My inibriated form follows
like a johnboat with 1 oar
to find (we'll call her Urania)
feeding bag to devouring bag

Their combined burden embraces red raptor shoulders
and clutches hornbeam hips

A hundred domesticated pleas sling slack lariats
fail to trip right nanny goat feet
as they mete out

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
I've seen this sentiment written a hundred times, usually attributed to Leo Tolstoy. It struck me on the train this morning that this has been the central environmental problem of the United States, and possibly of the world.
I know, as likely does the reader, scores of people who lament the problems of the world in a class or over drinks, but never make the connection of actually doing something. Maybe they feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, and maybe they feel alienated by activists and zealots who feel comfortable sitting in judgment. Perhaps they are simply confused by outlandishly complicated subjects like geophysics and materials engineering. And, I was reminded this weekend, while volunteering for a local environmental group, that some people are simply red-faced cranks who prefer to complain than to act.
The time for enviro-cliques, good-guys, bad-guys, apathy, and loud-mouthed crankery are at an end. I’ll leave the lid on the climate can of worms. Instead, I’ll assert that everyone can agree that there are environmental problems, whether that’s unsafe chemicals leaching into an aquifer, or a dearth of rainbow trout to catch and eat with capers, sage, and lemon.

The first step in overturning Tolstoy’s conundrum is to stop thinking of oneself as a closed system. This is a sometimes-useful, though not altogether accurate, intellectual construct.
Every living thing we know to exist or to have existed has relied upon a roughly fixed set of resources we share. Each living thing (and a host of physical processes) enacts changes on those resources, sometimes making them appear new. However, with only tiny additions and subtractions, the amounts remain the same.

In this sense, changing the world and changing oneself are the same thing. Drawing from the same collective of inputs and outputting into the same commons means that every action one takes affects others and is at the same time influenced by others. By reducing the impact of these inputs and outputs the individual changes self and world at once.

Monday, April 23, 2007

It’s easy being green

Pick one, pick five, or try them all.

Read Walden
Eat local produce
Plant a local breed of tree
Go meat-free at least one day per week
Use compact fluorescent light bulbs
Read Silent Spring
Take chemistry
Walk in a local park
Ride the train instead of driving
Go fishing
Insulate your hot-water pipes
Eat fair-trade chocolate
Plant a vegetable garden
Combine trips
Use your local library
Swim in the ocean
Vacation in your region instead of flying
Drive a hybrid car
Take geology
Use local heirloom seed
Install a rain barrel on your gutter/downspout
Smell the flowers
Take agronomy
Read Cradle-to-Cradle
Go running

Friday, April 20, 2007


One hundred-five years ago today, Marie and Pierre Curie isolated the element radium. Their Nobel Prize-winning research and that of many others would pave the way for all manner of applications of nuclear science, from weapons, to medicine, to energy.
As we grapple with the accelerating human demand for energy, we must do so with an open mind. Burning things long-buried carries a host of problems. So too do wind, solar, nuclear, biomass, and any other method of generating energy. Each has advantages and disadvantages that may suit it to one application, but make it unacceptable for another. For this reason, environmentalists and industrialists cannot afford to indulge in mindless dogmatism.
Conservation remains a curiously under-used strategy. The consumer can, through simple choices, choose to use less energy without detracting from his or her quality of life. Using compact fluorescent light bulbs, reducing the amount of meat consumed each week, and combining local trips are painless.
The mass-localization of power generation also holds great potential. In many parts of the world, natural conditions support residential electric power generation. In some places this means photovoltaic shingles on the roof, in others this means a few windmills in the back pasture. This puts an important source of capital in the hands of the property-owner, and obviates the need for many long distance power lines, in which large amounts of energy are wasted in transmission.
We must also recognize that there are demands for power that cannot presently be met with the combination of efficient use and mass-localization. Many industrial and transportation power users legitimately need very large amounts of power on an uninterrupted basis. Given increasing concerns over atmospheric carbon and climate, fossil fuels seem a poor solution.
Nuclear energy offers a strong alternative for many applications. Like fossil fuels, like solar power, like wind, like biomass, it is an imperfect solution. For every complex problem, there exists a huge spectrum of solutions, many entirely bad, few (if any) entirely good. The expansion of nuclear energy is, however, worth serious consideration.
Nuclear energy offers a number of compelling advantages. It does not directly produce carbon pollution. Estimates of usable nuclear material suggest that nuclear fuel could last for thousands, if not millions of years. Moreover, the distribution of usable fuels offers the promise of energy independence for many countries.
While efficient use and mass localization remain critically important, we must recognize that there is no magic bullet. Each need for energy is a discrete problem that may require a discrete solution. We must remain creative, open-minded, and we must keep talking.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I'm bringing stupid back

My regular readers know that I am not given to flogging the current administration. Partisan Politics will be riding the jackass and the elephant, alongside Pestilence and Famine, at the apocalypse. However, the EPA's recent statement on greenhouse gases borders on farce. The EPA press release accompanying their Greenhouse Gas Inventory Reports reads in part:

"The Bush Administration's unparalleled financial, international and domestic commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is delivering real results," said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson.

The release glosses-over the fact that carbon emissions increased during the period in question. "It's a sad state of affairs when global warming emissions go up, yet the Bush administration tries to spin it as a victory," responded Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Watch.
This administration refused to put into practice the Kyoto Protocol, because it "would have wrecked our economy". Bush claimed that ratifying the agreement would cost America jobs. I must ask the question again: How many American jobs has purchasing foreign oil produced? In truth, the answer is many: Haliburton, Bechtel, and Kellogg, Brown, & Root have all boasted growth, fighting a war for oil. Has pouring money into war been good for the US economy?
Perhaps my reader believes humans are warming the climate, and perhaps the reader does not. Regardless of your feelings on this point or your personal politics, the Bush administration’s spin is simply insulting.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Monday, April 16, 2007

Fix his earth-bound root

Saturday morning, we put two hundred-fifty trees in the ground. Waterford Park in Frederick, MD now boasts the beginnings of new native forest cover. Little more than green twigs, these red oaks, black walnuts, white pines, and sycamores will grow to ultimately regulate storm-water and provide habitat for wildlife.
This forest-to-be is the product of an ersatz tribe of retirees, teachers, students, greens, and local nonprofit-folk. Some of them see the park from their bedroom windows, others drove the better part of an hour to help out. What is significant is that so many otherwise strangers worked together in stewardship of a shared place.
The collective benefits of this park and others like it are manifest in perhaps as many ways as there were people at the planting. Some enjoy watching a Cooper’s hawk patrolling the park. Some want a better place for members of the community to gather. Others see the maxim of Yu the Great, “To protect your rivers, protect your mountains”, played out in the hills around Carroll Creek, wending its way toward the Chesapeake Bay.
For those of my readers who are in earshot of DC, Baltimore, or Frederick, the Potomac Conservancy has more events related to urban forestry and their Growing Native program. For more far-flung readers, I encourage you to find and invest in the common wealth in your own back yard. Like cash in the bank, parks, rivers, streams, and beaches are wealth that can be increased through investment.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights

Busy with work and school, I appropriate some words of Emerson that have been on my mind for the past few days. These, from one of his essays on nature, speak further on the immediacy of nature in the mind.
“There are days which occur in this climate, at almost any season of the year, wherein the world reaches its perfection, when the air, the heavenly bodies, and the earth, make a harmony, as if nature would indulge her offspring; when, in these bleak upper sides of the planet, nothing is to desire that we have heard of the happiest latitudes, and we bask in the shining hours of Florida and Cuba; when everything that has life gives sign of satisfaction, and the cattle that lie on the ground seem to have great and tranquil thoughts. These halcyons may be looked for with a little more assurance in that pure October weather, which we distinguish by the name of Indian Summer. The day, immeasurably long, sleeps over the broad hills and warm wide fields. To have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough. The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her. We have crept out of our close and crowded houses into the night and morning, and we see what majestic beauties daily wrap us in their bosom. How willingly we would escape the barriers which render them comparatively impotent, escape the sophistication and second thought, and suffer nature to entrance us. The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently reported spells of these places creep on us. The stems of pines, hemlocks, and oaks, almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles. Here no history, or church, or state, is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year. How easily we might walk onward into opening landscape, absorbed by new pictures, and by thoughts fast succeeding each other, until by degrees the recollection of home was crowded out of the mind, all memory obliterated by the tyranny of the present, and we were led in triumph by nature.”