Monday, November 20, 2017

"Happy New Year" in Elkin NC

Every time I go to town (which includes West Point GA and Lanett and Valley AL combined) I drive past the remains of what was once one of the largest textile mills in the world. And I'm reminded of this poem, written a few years ago by Patrick Allen, who at that time lived in another of the South's many historic mill towns, Elkin NC.

“Happy New Year” in Elkin NC

I reached for the doorbell, careful
not to drop the wine
or to crush my wife's warm bread
and watched the steam rise from my
nostrils in the sparkling glass storm door
as the chime seeped from the house

“Read the news in the paper today,
about the factory closing
what was it, four hundred?
Just wanted to say we're here
we're neighbors
and if you need anything
we're next door
and maybe some wine
and bread would make us closer”
but it didn't come out like that
It just came out as,
“Happy New Year”
and it struck you cold and mute

“You know, I've noticed the buzzards
didn't come back this year
the way they do
and roost in that dead tree
around back

made it look like
Satan's Christmas tree”

“They move on when the meat's
picked clean” you said

“You know, I remember coming up on one
nesting in a cave just off the trail
I walked on my way to Pete's
when I was a kid.”

I could look you in the eye now
“It hissed, sounded like some demon
with emphysema
pathetic bird
desperate to survive in
the land of the dead

it flew off, though, when I pinged it
with a stone I carried in my pocket
for just this sort of thing”

Your head sagged, but
you managed to chuckle
in nearly a whisper
“Happy New Year”

If you're interested in the sad backstory, the story of globalization and financialization of American industry repeated over again across the country, here's a link to an online article, "The Fabric of Elkin: The Chatham Manufacturing Company"

“In 1988, after more than 100 years of local ownership, members of the Chatham family lost control of the plant to a Danish textile maker, which outbid them in a sale. But four years later, that business went bankrupt. The cavernous and mostly hollow factory buildings are now owned by True Textiles, which has roughly 100 on-site employees who make fabric for home furnishings and wall coverings. Even with this cadre of workers, most of the plant stands eerily silent and forlorn — a “ghost town,” as Couch describes it. The parking lots are weedy and cracked. The interior is dark and cobwebbed. Glass is broken.”

Sunday, August 6, 2017

August 6

Since the building is still standing, this scene – a child jumping rope – had to have been miles from the epicenter of the Hiroshima bomb. Yet the intensity of the blast radiation permanently etched her shadow on the wall.
It's August 6 again, what can be said?  I want to say again what I said last year on August 6, about the madness of a Department of Energy program that would spend $4 million per hour for 30 years on nuclear weapons.  

That was an Obama program, and of course subject to budget cuts or elimination by the Trump administration. But so far I haven't seen any sign that this particular madness is being slowed or stopped. Vanity Fair has just run a long and compelling article titled "Why the scariest nuclear threat may be coming from the White House," including a summary of the recently announced Trump budget for DOE, calling for deep cuts in basic science research at the national science labs, zeroing all research on climate change, and cutting in half all funding for work to safeguard the national electrical grid. No cuts on spending for nuclear weapons. 

The article also documents the Trump administration's failure to staff DOE with scientifically and technically competent people, putting ideologues, not experts, in key positions. Since DOE is responsible for safeguarding our entire nuclear arsenal, as well as dealing with nuclear waste and cleaning up the mess made by nuclear weapons production, not having competent people to do the jobs needed increases the probability of accidents. That, for the Vanity Fair writer, is the scariest nuclear threat. 

Under Trump's misrule,  on this August 6 we have even more reasons to fear the worst.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Fourth of July Report

Via a  recent Common Dreams email we saw a Bill Moyers report recommending a new Alfre Woodard video rendition of this Langston Hughes poem (see the February 5 "guest post"). Seems an appropriate Fourth of July send-up in lieu of fireworks! Here's the link:

I also want to recommend, if you're interested, the essay I published as the very first post on this blog, on the Fourth of July, 2013 – sub-titled "Was this nation founded on Christian principles?" Which still seems to me to provide an importantly relevant context for any thinking about The Fourth.

For the rest of this post, I'm sticking in a bunch of photos taken recently here at the Vine & Fig Tree, evidencing our fondness for the founding principles – and our attempts to live simply and nonviolently below taxable income, not paying for "bombs bursting in air" and contributing as little as possible to global harming.

Item in evidence – the Declaration hanging above Judy's piano; and above the Laughing Buddha waving a red white & blue peace symbol. 

More evidence – If you could zoom into the Blue Planet, you would see lots of American flags, way too many not even on American soil, but flying above our over 700 US military bases sited in over 70 of the 94 countries belonging to the United Nations. Not healthy for our only home, the Earth. You may not be able to make out the wording on the plaque below the file, it's "The Vine & Fig Tree,"proclaiming the hope that "every one 'neath their vine and fig tree, shall live in peace and unafraid." Beating their swords into plowshares, etc. It's in Micah 4.  And in Isaiah. (Plaque lovingly hand-crafted by Jim's son Andy!)

A recent morning harvest from the garden. The pink plastic pail at top right is for putting vegetable scraps in to go to the compost pile in the garden. 
Our squash plants, now expired, gave us bountiful harvests up until last week. This is the second batch of our Vine & Fig Tree squash pickles. 
Six quarts and one pint of spaghetti sauce made from our tomatoes. 
This was our first garlic harvest, a bit more to come. 
Blueberries! We put them (without any processing) into the freezer like this overnight, then scoop them out into freezer bags for keepoing. We're getting enough also for breakfast most mornings. 
Amaranth is a prolific edible week in the garden. Here you might be able to see it's shading our okra. A pioneer and native American staple food, it's a highly nutritions green. 
Lamb's Quarter is our favorite edible weed, another highly nutritious green. 
Little green apples coming along. This is the only one of our (surviving) apple trees currently bearing. That spell of Arctic weather we had back in March after a summery winter killed too many blooms. (Or was it lack of bees?)
Our "Illinois ever-bearing mulberry" tree beginning to bear fruit. 
Like the apple trees, our figs were hurt by that killer frost. And this on top of last winter's hard freeze that almost did them in entirely. But now some of the fig trees have started fruiting again. 
Who needs fireworks when you have "canna-fire?" (NOT cannon-fire.)
We don't use it often enough. But the solar oven is a wonderful invention. This one was cooking black beans for us day before yesterday. 
Not quite 2 kilowatts of solar electric power. 
Solar inverter and charge controller take PV from the panels, routing through the battery bank (in box) to power two house branch circuits, feeding a chest freezer, lights and outlets on the carport, the kitchen over head light & fan, and the west bathreoom, master bedroom, and north side of living room lighting and outlets. 
We just recently bought new batteries for the solar system. We had started back in 2008(?) with 16 batteries, but decided to downgrade a bit. The system still provides one or two days when the sun doesn't shine, and provides on average three to four kilowatt-hours of power every day. Which saves us about $15 per month on the utility bill. And keeps at least that much electric power from being produced on the grid by burning coal.  
This is what we mean when we say we are "getting clothes online."
And on rainy days, this is the alternative to coal-burning clothes drying. 
If you have followed this blog at all you will know we heat with firewood. Well, day before yesterday we woke up to "a surprise gift of excellent pecan firewood!" Of course we would have preferred getting it without having the big limb smash the 10 ft x 20 ft equipment shelter in front of our tool shed. Luckily with little to no damage to the equipment. 

We look forward later today to swimming, picknicking, pickin' and communing with Locavore and UU friends at Green Bowery. A happy Interdependence Day to you and yours (human and otherwise).

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Our "beautiful moment in time"

Credit: Tom Toro, The New Yorker Collection/The Cartoon Bank

I came across this cartoon on the website in an article on "the money power" published by the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice. And couldn't resist.

The past and future time-scale the cartoon invokes inevitably brings up for me that "Carbon Pulse" graphic in the Nate Hagens presentation I featured in my last post (May 24). That thin vertical spike representing only a few hundred years in the 16,000-year timeline is our "beautiful moment in time."

When and while we have access to those vast amounts of ancient sunlight energy embodied in the fossil fuels.

And yes, there is a seriously un-beautiful downside on that spike. But we humans have created a lot of really beautiful things other than "value for shareholders." Let's not forget. And let's be somehow inspired to work together to keep that cartoon scenario from happening. Here's the most beautifully inspiring thing I've seen lately:

Click on the picture to see the YouTube video introduction to a remarkable documentary-in-progress. The website ( says:

This is an experiment in using documentary and poetry to reveal the threads that tie us together—as people, as states, and as a nation. For two years, filmmaker Jennifer Crandall has crisscrossed this deep Southern state, inviting people to look into a camera and share a part of themselves through the words of Walt Whitman. The 19th century poet’s “Song of Myself” is a quintessential reflection of our American identities. Who is America? The question will always be a difficult one. But if you listen to Alabama’s many voices, you may hear some of the answer. "For," as Whitman says, “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

Here's a link to an article telling you more about the project:


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"Reality 101"

Many students who recently completed a course at the University of Minnesota reportedly made very positive comments about that experience. Two examples:

Amazingly, I haven’t become depressed by this information, but rather am enthralled at my new understanding of the role I can have in the world that we all live in.

The last few weeks of the semester I’ve been the most consistently and profoundly happy I have ever been, while simultaneously being barraged with the most depressing possible information. Thank you – this class changed my life.

Sounds good, eh? Worth looking into? Well, a very condensed version of the course – it’s called Reality 101  – is available online in the form of an Earth Day presentation by the teacher, Dr. Nate Hagens, given this last Earth Day in Rochester, Minnesota:

Highly recommended. Nate is the best Big Picture presenter I know of. Having achieved an honors Masters degree in finance at the University of Chicago, he became a successful Wall Street trader. However, finding that merely making (and spending) money was not making him happy, he left the Street, spent a few years in travel and independent study, then got a PhD in Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, “where he studied the relationship between debt and energy on the supply side and the evolutionary underpinnings of behavioral obstacles to changing our consumption patterns on the demand side.” He now lives on a small farm in Wisconsin.  His personal website:

Looking back at my last slowdown post, in February, I note having said about “reality:” In general the way we see and understand any given situation will be conditioned by what we bring to the situation. Reality is filtered through the lenses of our fears, hopes and previous life experiences.

So here is a test of your perception of reality (or of one small piece of it):

Of course, smart people like you, when presented with such a “test,” will smell a trick being played, so instead of immediately answering the question, you held up a card or maybe even a ruler to measure and compare the horizontal and vertical lines, finding that they are exactly the same length.

Still, I’ll bet that the vertical line still looks  longer to you. As it does to me. It looks really significantly longer. That’s because we are WEIRD.  

That’s WEIRD in the sense of our having grown up in a Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic country. The illusion is a cultural effect. Studies have shown that the eyes of people from some non-Western cultures are much less susceptible to the illusion, much more likely to immediately perceive the reality to be equal line length.  See:

So, I don’t know how well Nate’s students would handle the horizontal-vertical illusion test; but it seems their perception of reality (“the world that we all live in”) has been radically transformed. Here is one of Nate’s graphic representations of reality, which when I first looked at it reminded me of the horizontal-vertical illusion graphic, having pretty much the same shape.

The graphic is a graph, a timeline representing amounts of fossil (carbon) energy available to humans over a span of sixteen thousand years. For various reasons, including the vastness of the time scale, it is hard to know exactly where we are on that vertical pulse. In his presentation, Nate has attached two red stars, saying We might be here, We might be there.  I’ve taken those stars away just to give you a reality-check puzzle. Go see the presentation to see if your perception of that reality is close to his: It comes fairly early in the show.

Note: One of the research teams investigating cross-cultural differences in visual perception had this to say: “We predicted that people in different cultures would be differentially susceptible to geometric illusions because they have learned different, but always ecologically valid, visual inference habits.” I predict that if you go through Nate's entire presentation – it’s too short and too long, go slow to take it all in – and then go back to the energy timeline graph, your perception of the reality it depicts will have changed. (Quote from

Monday, February 13, 2017

On Reading "Fire: The Morning Ritual"

If you just wandered in and are puzzled, what I'm getting at here is the poem I put up as the previous post on February 7. 

In general the way we see and understand any given situation will be conditioned by what we bring to the situation. Reality is filtered through the lenses of our fears, hopes and previous life experiences. So with poetry, each of us will have at least slightly different takes on what a poem is about or means. And that’s fine.

Actually, although I often like to play the game of explaining what a poem is “about” or what it “means,” the experience a poem invites a reader to participate in seems to me a more useful thing to talk about. I notice about this poem that it does not make a declaratory statement of meaning, instead offering a string of “-ing” verbals – actions, happenings (or experiences). However, the poem includes declaratory elements, in the title and in two “like the . . . ” similes, that stand out as important clues to “meaning.” (More on those elements later.)

So you see my life experience as a college English teacher makes me likely to take an interest in technical details that most readers would have no conscious awareness of or interest in. Does this mean that I was consciously employing such methods as I wrote the poem? Not at all. I remarked to Judy one morning after building the morning fire, “ I think I saw a poem lurking in the firewood this morning.” And the next morning I got up before daybreak, built the fire, sat down at my fireside computer, and sketched out the previous morning's fire-building experience. Looking at the poem later as a reader, I see here and there elements having significances I had no conscious intention of putting into the poem. So much for “author intention,” eh?

Of course those things I “discover” there are concerns I bring to the writing and the reading, whether consciously or unconsciously – concern and frustration about humankind’s collective failure to grasp the consequences of the physical laws of thermodynamics or the mathematical truth of the exponential function. Knowledge that our entire civilization, built on a one-time gift of fossil fuel energy, is unsustainable and about to come crashing down around us – unless we can, collectively, slow down and scale back to a much simpler and less energy-dependent way of living.

While our current concerns focus on fossil fuel energy, I can’t see or hear the word “fire” in any context without at least some dim awareness that control of fire was the first advance in humankind’s long march to total domination of Earth. Instead of being part of nature, we would become its lord and master. Control of fire provided protection from predators and warmth enabling humans to spread into inhospitably cold climates; made us smarter (too smart for our own good) because the ability to cook food freed evolution to put more energy into brain development than into our jaws and chewing muscles; and enabled us to clear land for slash and burn agriculture, feeding population growth. 

Getting to the reading:

The title. We’re invited to think of a general subject, fire, and about the particular instance, a morning ritual, the word “ritual” suggesting that what’s going on is somehow important, that heating our home with firewood is an experience that imparts or embodies meaningfulness in our lives.

So I’m primed for a poem-story describing, celebrating, and being thankful for this one aspect of The Simple Life: warming ourselves with natural, locally-sourced, organic, sustainable and free-range firewood! This is the aspect of the poem that most readers so far have reported seeing, understanding and liking. I like it too.

But for my reader, that’s not all. I see that our Fire-Builder is aware that the beings making up his “firewood” might have purposes of their own beyond serving his needs: “dry buds that will blossom only to start my fire.” I’m inclined to see in this a tinge of grief or guilt. He really appreciates those twigs and is “sorry ‘bout that?” But when he gets to his favorite piece of firewood he makes it a willing volunteer, a “compliant sacrificial victim.” And I suddenly realize that there are people “Out There” who believe literally that all of nature is out there, was maybe put there by God, to be sacrificed in service to our needs. And our appetites. (See post The Oil We Eat, December 11, 2016.)

Is our supplicant Fire-Builder one of Them? I hope not. But it seems somewhat ominous that the supplication is expressed not as the simple, limited and immediately physical “keep me warm,” but the more abstract and unqualified “serve my need.” I note also that there is tension between those two “like the . . .” similes I mentioned. “Like the supplicant I am” says I see myself as an humble petitioner seeking a gift of warmth from Nature (that particular tree, but also with help from the newspaper, the woodstove, the chain saw, the matches, etc.). In a sacrificial ritual, the victim is offered to the deity, or to whatever source of good stuff we hope will provide. The “compliant sacrificial victim,” however, is not a gift to the Nature deity, but a gift from Nature. A sacrifice to serve the need of the Fire-Builder.  

One more point – The Fire-Builder makes an emphatic point of dividing Out There, with its Ugliness, from (by implication) the warm and fuzzy simple-living In Here. Okay, we have in here a little model of the Better Way, as far as possible uncontaminated by the ugliness Out There. That’s good. But it occurs to my reader that the In Here of the poem also portrays, without explicitly acknowledging it, an inside/outside divide. That particular tree is out there, the chain saw being the tool to bring it in here to the hearth and the woodstove.  Can we be sure, then, that our warm and fuzzy simple-living here is not also modeling the divide we know is part of the Ugliness outside: the delusion that we in our built environment are privileged to treat everything else outside as at least potential “natural resources” to serve our needs. The delusion that we are not part of nature, but lord and master of all.

Your reader may by now have thrown up his or her hands, saying something like “This poem is a mess, can’t make up its mind, pieces thrown together that don’t fit together, just doesn’t make any clear sense I can make out.” That’s a reasonable assessment, I think. To me, though, the disconnects, the tensions and even contradictions simply (or complexly) convey the two-sided experience of our Fire-Builder. Happy with his simple lifestyle, but aware that even his lowest-impact, back-to-basics home heating is supported by the ugliness he opposes, aware of his dependence on that beloved but fossil-fueled chain saw. So “compliant sacrificial victim” is bitterly ironic, he knows it isn’t true, knows that feeling that way is a temptation of the Ugliness. And he hurries away from it with “Then quickly finding the other right size . . . .”  and insisting on his self-justifying thankfulness for everything that serves . . . .

Back to the title. The “General: Specific” formula suggests there might be others to come in the Fire series. One might be “Fire: The Internal Combustion Engine.” I bring that in because this morning I read an article on the internet that said:

The World-Ending Fire is the title of Wendell Berry’s forthcoming collection of essays, and in shockingly frank, dark, and prescient imagery, he said, “if you want to be desperate about it, you can say that the World-Ending Fire is burning in every internal combustion engine every day.” As someone reliant on an inefficient old pickup, he noted that this implicated him as well. “We’ve been burning the world up, literally, since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Coal is the earth. Petroleum is the earth.”

I’ll have more to say about that. Google willing, of course.