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."