James Rebanks explains kittens and biscuits to me…

My friend Toni lent me James Rebanks’ book THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE:  Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape a few weeks ago, saying just “trust me, I think you’ll love it.”  I trust her, but wasn’t quite sure why she thought I’d love a book about shepherds, as I have never expressed any particular interest in them.  Not that I have antipathy towards them either–they just haven’t been on my radar.  The closest I come to shepherd contact is watching the Sheep Dog Demos at the Common Ground Fair each September.  Which, come to think of it, are pretty fun.

But Toni was right; I did love it.  And a huge part of the reason was that I began to understand, through Rebanks descriptions of being of the land, something about Mainers and their attitude towards “people from away” that I had never been able to really grok before.  When we moved here, quite a few people–seriously at least a dozen–recited to us this pithy observation about why we are not and never will be considered true Mainers:  “just because a cat has kittens in the oven don’t make ’em biscuits.”

Ayuh.  Can’t argue with that.  But doesn’t a love of a place, an appreciation of the way of life it allows, count for something?  Doesn’t the commitment to become of a place reveal a respect and love for something that the local was simply lucky enough to be born to?

Sure it does.  But, and this is what I finally get, it’s still not the same.  Rebanks is so deeply of his area in the Lakes District in England that he can see his efforts as a moment in a chain that goes back five thousand years.  Now, since Maine has only been settled by European-descended folks for a few hundred years, my neighbors can’t trace their way of life back quite that far.  But they can trace it pretty far.  One neighbor joked last week that he’s moved four times in his life–twice across the hall and twice across the driveway.  He lives on land that’s been in his family since the 1700s.  He knows the long view of this place.  And other neighbors do something akin to what Rebanks does–join the family business, which is a way of living in tandem with the physical world.  In the case of our town, that means fishing, not shepherding.  But their attention to season and water and weather, to the rhythm of hard work followed by harder work, is very much of a piece with what Rebanks describes.

We people from away may not all be as starry-eyed as the Wordsworth-reciting visitors to the Lake District.  But even if we aren’t, we aren’t “hefted” to the place by somatic memory, social memory, cultural memory.  We are only hefted to it by present appreciation and future hopes.  And that’s dandy, but it ain’t no biscuit.

 

Color(s) of the Year–so, well, yeah…..

So the Pantone colors of the year were announced–TWO of them.  Pink & Blue.  Or, to be more precise, Serenity and Rose Quartz.  Check ’em out:

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The Pantone folks explained that in this year during which gender fluidity has become a significant consideration, it made sense to emphasize these hues.  Plenty of others have pointed out that stereotypical baby colors might not be the most avant-garde way of thinking about this blurring of the gender binary.  I’ll settle for saying woohoo!  Not because of the trenchent critique, but because my predictions were so in the range.  To be sure, I was not exactly right–but my theory was.  Serenity is more subdued than the Peacock Blue I anticipated, but resides in the same area of the color wheel.  And Rose Quartz has more magenta in it than the porpoise I predicted, but the saturation and value are spot on.

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I think it’s great that Pantone is trying to enter the conversation about gender, even in this pastel way.  But equally fascinating is that when you apply *ahem* my theory, you can come up with a range on the color wheel from which you can draw tones that will likely fit whatever cultural conversation you’ve decided to enter.

“Only Connect”

We are driving through the New Mexican desert, occasionally spying a river valley of green to the left, though the rocks and sands to the right are invariably dry—dun, umber, ocher, tan. And as different as this landscape is from that of England, I find myself thinking about the Salisbury Plain, and about driving toward Stonehenge.

I am feeling the same tingle of anticipation that I felt when we made that drive a few years ago, feel alive with the sense that we’re about to behold something incredible. And since I’m not sure how far away it is, I stay alert, imagining it could be around each next curve or rise.

Rob and I have been quiet, each pursuing our own thoughts, for many minutes and miles. I’ve been trying to parse out the connections I am feeling between today’s foray and our visit to Stonehenge when Rob unexpectedly speaks, says “just like Salisbury.” Even after all these years, such moments of being in each other’s head can still startle. This one seems especially wonderful and quirky, for we are traveling toward the Plains of San Agustin to see the Very Large Array.

The VLA is a radio telescope. Comprised of 27 big (okay, very large) dish antennae, it is used to explore the galaxy. VLA antenna near railbed And while Jodi Foster used it in the movie Contact to find intelligent life in Vega, in real life SETI has only used it a couple times—in ’95 and ’96—with considerably less luck. Still, the VLA has enabled scientists to discover much, including important things about black holes and the heart of the Milky Way, as well as letting them observe lots of astronomical objects like quasars and pulsars.

On the summer and winter solstices, a significant set of the stones that comprise Stonehenge are aligned with the rising or setting sun—making it, too, an astronomical instrument of sorts (though its overall use remains a subject of some debate). Antenna puffing clouds

I think the real connection goes deeper. Both Stonehenge and the VLA are monumental efforts, technological feats that allow humans a glimpse that exceeds ordinary space-time. And that glimpse is one we yearn for, letting us make contact with something greater than ourselves. Or at least different than ourselves. No, scratch that effort at precision. I do mean greater—greater than our everyday selves, greater than a single self.

Our trip to the VLA was shoe-horned in between a visit to Santa Fe to celebrate the power of art with the fine folks at Radius Press and a visit to see Rob’s sister in Albuquerque. Both were lovely, human-scaled moments of connectedness, of locating ourselves in relation to others, via images and words and shared memories. But Stonehenge and the VLA are sacramental, outward signs that endure, odd, mammoth proof of our inner yearnings to find ourselves at home in the universe.

Internettus-disruptus

We live on the grid, but in ways that emphasize self-sufficiency.  Or so I have fancied.  We grow a lot of food, have solar panels to supply most of our power needs, have a rain catchment system to gather water to for the gardens.  We can mend and fix and make from scratch.  And for a few years, I was an EMT, so I have at least a passing familiarity with what to do in a medical emergency.  All of which made me kind of cocky about my ability to live lightly, to take care of myself.

BUT BUT BUT I have come to doubt whether I really can do this.  Have, moreover, come to wonder how possible it is to be SELF-sufficient in contemporary culture.  For sure, you can live low and light, but I am not sure you can be of the culture–engaged in it broadly–and also be self-sufficient.  At least I can’t.

And rather than simply lapse into some kind of self-recrimination, this realization leads me to wonder about the notion of self-sufficiency now.  As I mentioned in a post a while back about Common Ground Fair, I don’t think of self-sufficiency as literally making homespun and such.  I think about it as having the skills to live well in the world.  And a surprising number of those skills now are about being digitally connected to others.

Here’s what I am stumbling toward.  We lost power for nearly a week after the snow storm on November 2nd.  And while it wasn’t great not to have it, the only thing we really emphatically, impatiently, frustratingly missed was the internet.  Candles and kerosene lamps gave us adequate, if not great, light.  The woodstove served us well.  We had plenty of food and a generator that ensured that we didn’t lose what was in the big freezer.  But without the internet, we couldn’t do our jobs.  And we missed having e-mail.  And the New York Times on-line.  And the ability to google;  it’s grown hard for me to write without being able to look up some little something for the next sentence.

And we are not even particularly connected.  Facebook-less, Twitter-novices, we don’t use the tools that most of our peers rely on.

Is self-sufficiency fundamentally different in its contours in a hyper-connected world?  Is it even possible?  And if it is, what does it look like now?

Are Amateurs “Sufficient”?

This is a slightly different vantage than usual on the question of “what might suffice”?  But it is definitely about sufficiency.

St. George, Maine Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Association sealI spent a good portion of the weekend at a conference for Emergency Medicine Providers (aka EMTs).  In Maine, most EMTs are professional, but quite a few smaller squads also include volunteers.  When I got my license, which was less than two years ago, our entire squad in St. George was comprised of volunteers.  And that’s a big part of why I joined. Plus, the service was free to people who needed to use it.  I loved the idea of neighbors being so fully present for one another in a time of crisis.  I loved that people didn’t have to worry that they couldn’t afford help.  Loved that when help came through the door, it might even have a familiar face.

This is changing quickly.  Partly, it is that folks want a paramedic on call 24/7, and it’s hard to do that for free.  Partly, though, and this is the crux of what I want to explore here, it’s that it is getting harder to get and maintain a license.  My course was 130 hours, plus two final exams.  Apparently, it used to be about half that long.  And to remain licensed, I need to get continuing ed units, which is a big part of why I spent my weekend at the conference.  I can get a bunch of them here on topics that are relevant.  And since our squad is a volunteer squad, getting them in clusters like this is a real help–as we don’t have many opportunities for continuing ed credits at “work.”  Sure, we can go to other people’s events, but part of the issue here in Maine is that we are a geographically widely dispersed population.  It takes a lot of time to get to, participate in, and get home from training at other stations.

And here’s the thing:  of course we should be well trained.  But I feel compelled to point out that this increased emphasis on professionalization is happening AT EXACTLY THE SAME TIME that healthcare in the US is in a horrible spending spiral, and is wildly unaffordable, and is spotty in the service it can provide in rural areas.  I have to wonder why the group that licenses EMTs is making it harder to get and maintain a license in such a moment.

I don’t think it’s a conspiracy or evil intention.  My best guess is it’s a fundamental lack of forethought.  While the notion of professionalizing such service is laudable, the down-sides are potentially dire for the very folks who are meant to be served by increasingly well-trained medical folk.  Which is where the whole issue of sufficiency comes in.  The pretty-darn well trained amateur model was working.  A model with well-paid and well-trained professionals can also certainly work.  But is it necessary?  Was the other truly insufficient?  And on what grounds?   That’s the heart of it:  what are the criteria that are being brought to bear that make a system that celebrated community caring for each other suddenly deeply inadequate?

The old model was very much about good will, about neighbors helping each other for free.  And as the fine folks at Freakonomics have amply demonstrated, paying someone just a little to do something that they used to do for free (plus the satisfaction of a deed well done) does not work.  Just as paying people to donate blood actually leads to a decline in the number of donors, paying a token to folks to be on the EMT roll does not work very well.  When people lose the ‘feel good’ factor, they either want to be paid well or to not do it.  And going from an all or mostly volunteer squad to a mostly paid squad significantly increases costs.  Which then get passed on to patients, who have to pay for the service.  And what was once an inspiring instance of community self-sufficiency becomes a commodified service within a capitalist framework.

For now, I’ll keep up my license, as I wait to see if the local efforts to develop a Community Health Program take off, but I can already read the writing on the wall.  Even if my town cherishes volunteers, at the state level, they’re just not that into us.

Back in Maine / Back in the Ether

If you’ve checked in lately, you know I was gone for a while.  Early in 2011, I became the Interim Director of the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.  (yep, a mouthful)  We say “IDSVA” and save our breath. And by the time I headed for Spannocchia Castle (about which I wrote the last entry, more than a year ago!), I was totally immersed in all things IDSVA, which meant thinking about art all the time, but the environment considerably less often than I had been.

We’ve hired a fabulous new Director, and so my stint as the Interim is over. I am hoping to spend some of my free time writing and making art and reconnecting with some of the people and organizations I had to kind of snub while I was scrambling to learn to do that job well. But I’m not complaining: IDSVA is full of amazing people doing really remarkable work.

I am determined to re-start this blog and use it to chronicle not only other people’s forays into art and environment, but also a few of my own. Thanks for your patience, and please do come visit soon.

Systems Theory, in Surround-Sound

My afternoon was book-ended by watching the healthcare summit streamed onto the home page of the New York Times (thank you, NYT!).  In the middle, though, I was having a great conversation with a friend and colleague who is currently working on building an environmental art program at Unity College in Maine.

One of things we were puzzling through was how to help people learn about systems theory.  Not necessarily in a formal sense (although that would certainly be great), but at least in a way that helps them to appreciate the intricate interconnections among species or actions or bodies of thought, as well as the relationship between those entities and the environments in which they arise.  Systems theory is integral to environmental education, and is increasingly important for understanding the fine arts and for arts education.

But as powerful a tool as systems thinking is, it can be surprisingly difficult to teach.  At first glance, this makes no sense.  We live in a world of natural and social systems.  And we humans have evolved to be remarkably adept at reading the world in order to survive.  Yet, we are apparently not always particularly adroit at appreciating the relationships between elements at two or more remove from one another, or at understanding the ways that feedback loops build upon one another, or the role of sensitive dependence in a system, or the importance of emergent phenomena.

I suppose it could be that we are still very short term thinkers—great at sussing out immediate danger or pleasure, but not so great at discerning the larger picture.  That approach certainly affords immediate survival advantages, and those are, well, essential.  But if one looks at the parallels between systems theory and a range of indigenous belief systems, it’s clear that plenty of other systems also emphasize holistic approaches, emergence, and profound interconnectivity.  In a paper on systems theory that they delivered in 1999, James J. Kay and Jason A. Foster, both then at the University of Waterloo, argued for an explanation that resonates with my colleague’s observation that her (predominantly American) students struggle with these concepts.  They proposed that students have such a hard time with systems theory because it runs counter to the implicit and explicit beliefs that undergird Western science.  “Generally,” they wrote, “these behaviours [emergence, self-organization, etc.] are not intuitive to students, as they do not conform to the Newtonian linear causality mode of reasoning that is a cornerstone of our culture” (5).  And, they point out, even students who are not well-versed in the sciences have absorbed the beliefs about cause and effect that shaped Western science for the first few hundred years.

Which brings me to the health care debate part of my afternoon.  As you likely know, there are a host of disagreements between Democrats and Republicans about health care reform.  One that was stressed this afternoon was between incremental versus comprehensive reform.  Basically, the Democratic position was that the ills of our current health care system are so intertwined that to effect change requires tackling everything at once.  And the Republican position was that such an approach is foolhardy and that we’d be fiscally and socially wiser to move in a step-by-step fashion.  This one sentence summary ignores some important ideological differences, but it highlights a difference that isn’t getting any coverage in the traditional media, and that I bet isn’t going to get any attention:  if we set aside the specific content of the argument for a moment (hard as that may be) this is, in part, a conflict between a Newtonian vision and a Systems theory view.  The Republicans proffer a Newtonian view, one that emphasizes straightforward cause and effect links and linear relationships.  The Democrats present a systems view that acknowledges feedback loops and complexity.

I have opinions about which position is wiser in this case.  But much more important than what I might think is whether or not the people who are living inside the U.S. health care system, and who are ostensibly voting for the kind of system we should adopt, have the tools to understand both positions.  If, as Kay and Foster claim, it is hard for people to learn systems thinking, then that implies many, many people don’t have the tools to evaluate the two positions on their own merits.  Without an understanding of feedback loops, the Democrats’ insistence on insuring more people as a means of reducing individual insurance costs very likely won’t make sense.

As a citizen, this realization frightened me.

But as a thinker, I found this moment of crystallization kind of amazing.   Naturally, that made me want to share this sense that systems theory itself was the thread that bound my superficially discrete afternoon experiences (because that’s kinda cool), and that divergent ideas about systems theory are part—quite possibly a rather large part—of the health care impasse (because who knew!?).  Yet I could not help but wonder:  does the health care summit really belong on this blog?  If I write about it, am I being political instead of artistic and environmental?  Asking the questions in that way forced me to realize that excluding these observations would deny the importance of systems thinking.  I would be creating artificial barriers between one arena of thinking and living and another.  It might be convenient, but it would force me to disregard a host of subtle interpenetrations that shape not simply an afternoon but a life.

Or, as I not-so-secretly believe, not a life, but life.

Stonehenge, Part One

Just got back from a very quick and yet pleasantly full trip to England.  Among the highlights was heading out toward Salisbury so that we could visit Stonehenge.  Lots of people had sort of discouraged us from going, saying that they’d gone and been disappointed because you can’t get close to the monument anymore–which is true, in a sense.  There’s a cordon at knee height that encircles the stones, twenty or so yards away from them.  Still, since we were there in April, mid-week, the crowd was small and we were able to amble around the perimeter at a slow pace, taking it in.  In some ways, the most exciting view came not there, but in the car when we had almost arrived; we crested the last hill on our way there and suddenly, there it was.  We were all struck by this shock of beholding.

I am really glad we didn’t succumb to other folks’ recommendations that we skip this visit.  Being present in this place mattered to me in ways that I can’t yet put clearly.  While we were there, I couldn’t help wondering about the other people who had also made a point of coming to this place.  What were they encountering?  Could any of them put it into words?  And if they could, would their words help me find mine?

I’ll never know, of course.  Those are not the questions one can ask of strangers.

While I don’t know what they might have put into words, I do know what they put into pictures.  We saw folks making lots and lots of pictures–with everything from a tiny cell phone to a pair of digital SLR cameras carefully calibrated to create a stereoscopic image.  And as we picnicked, I paid attention to their act of paying attention.  Throughout our lunch, I photographed everyone who paused nearby to take a picture, made a record of their effort to record.  For some reason, several folks asked Rob to take their pictures during that interval, so I recorded that as well.

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This set of pictures tickles me.  But here’s the thing; I made them partly to protect myself, to avoid the hardest part of being there.  Because places like Stonehenge risk paralyzing me, at the same time that they strike me as one of humanity’s few sources of hope.  More, perhaps, about this terrifying paradox some other day.  Far sooner, I’ll try to put into words something more manageable about Stonehenge and the other celestial sighting site we visited during the trip–The Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

Bird Doors, Garden Questions

I ordered my seeds last week.  Shout out to Comstock Ferre for sending the ones I ordered from them so quickly.  It warms a heart to imagine what will be, and the effort of imagining is somehow easier with the bumpy packets of potential in one’s hot little hands.

No doubt such fantasizing about the coming season infused my thoughts about “he-of-the-bird-doors.” If you’ve read a few of these posts, you may remember that Barbara and I are undertaking a supremely fun art-science exploration of a meadow in Carlisle, MA.  And in the middle of that meadow sits a very old home.  And in one of the outbuildings adjoining that home are a set of doors that used to be in the house.  I think there are eleven of them.  The doors are covered with lists of birds–the first arrivals each year for all the species the writer spotted.  Spring and fall, he noted the various birds.  The two doors below show a small sample from the decades-long record he created.

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It seems no outside concerns intruded on this naturalist’s life, for the lists are as long during war years as during calmer times.  Or perhaps such careful attention was a balm for him.  At any rate, the chronicling of the birds clearly dominated his life;  the list claims the middle of each door, with any other information relegated to the margins, quite literally.  Even at this scale, you can see that those peripheral notes compose a far smaller set.  An occasional snow storm is recorded, a particularly momentous family event, a cause for sorrow.  And also, with the same faithfulness that he gave to the birds, he recorded the arrival each spring of the first asparagus.

I get that.  Asparagus is not my bellwether.  If I had to choose, I guess I’d say that rhubarb is.  Though now we’ve a witch hazel, so perhaps that will be the assuring sign.  Nonetheless, I can certainly see why asparagus would be someone’s.  And so, with a tip of the hat to he-of-the-bird-doors, I offer this promise that spring will, in fact, eventually arrive:

“First asparagus”

Amid the litany of birds,
a single garden note each year,
tucked between his penciled chronicles
of avian attention:
“asparagus, Apr. 28″
or “1st asparagus, May 3rd.”

I picture him peering at
the unkempt bed, brushing away
errant strands of moldering hay
hoping to find dogged, knobbed tips
puckering the untilled loam.
A day hence, or two at most,

faintly purpled stalks will follow,
erect despite the chilly nights.
He well knows how quickly they thicken
to record-worthy readiness,
into the notes of his mellow-
throated rhapsody to spring.

Framing the Carbon Question

I just got back from a work trip to NYC, during which I spent time with some amazing graduate students.  They are all working on projects that involve regarding art in the context of contemporary philosophy.  Heady stuff, and heartening to attend to the ways they struggle to precisely frame their concerns.

Perhaps because we turned, again and again, to the question of how to “frame” their various topics, that heuristic also affected how I responded to the city.  Put simply, I started wondering how to frame a city when measuring its carbon footprint.  How do analysts decide what to include and what to exclude?

In Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, he identifies the burgeoning mega-cities in the developing world as auspicious, in environmental terms, and suggests that they may well be more sustainable than rural communities.  Probably he is right.  He has spent a whole lot of time thinking carefully about just such issues.  Certainly he is right that it’s more efficient to run the electricity and water to a million people in an itty-bitty area than it is to run it all over the countryside.  And far more people live in co-housing situations in cities, which are typically smaller as well as denser than rural homes.  Plus, if one needs to truck in food, then it makes sense to truck a lot to a few places than a little to a lot of places.  And city folk have fewer children than country folk, which is environmentally beneficial, since the planet is already straining under the demand of humans for meals, especially for meaty meals.  These are familiar claims, and they all generate data that is captured in typical models for measuring carbon footprint.

But one morning, as my taxi crept along Madison Avenue in rush-hour traffic, I heard a radio announcer say that New York had been the number #1 tourist destination in the US in 2010—with a whopping 45.25 million visitors.  Of those, he boasted, 8.6 million came from abroad.  And that got me wondering about how visitors, and the things that compel them to visit, get factored into the measurement of a city’s carbon footprint.

In calculating the carbon footprint of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, an assessment would typically include the hours that the building is open, the amount of floor space, the energy used for heating/cooling/lighting, the water used, the paper used.  But how to calculate the amount of energy used by the patrons to visit, the amount used by the artists in generating the work on display, the amount used in transporting that work safely?  If a visitor to the city came specifically to see the John Baldessari show, for example, should the entire carbon footprint of that visitor’s trip be amended to that of the Met?  Or a portion, perhaps based on the amount of time she actually spent at the museum?   Right now, it gets measured as part of her personal carbon footprint—but that seems a bit inegalitarian.  Like what insurance companies call an “attractive nuisance,” the Met and other delightful places draw us, and thus we expend more CO2 than we would if those attractions were not there.   Even if all of the carbon footprint is not reallocated to those institutions, it seems that the burden ought, somehow, to be jointly acknowledged.

And what of those shops on Madison Avenue?  Many visitors come to New York expressly for the couture.  The high-end retailers create (or cause to be created) both the goods to temporarily satisfy those cravings, and also the deep desire for such goods that (psycho-ideological engine that it is) can never be satisfied.  Where to circumscribe Hermes’ or Chanel’s carbon footprint? Does it include the years of effort and energy that go into becoming a designer?  Does it cover the energy output for creating samples?  How about for the production costs of actual goods?  Does it include the extra cost of the checked luggage full of new purchases carried home by the happy consumer?  The midnight oil burned by whomever alters said new purchases so they’ll fit a non-model’s body?  What of the energy expended by shoppers to get there, or to visit the satellites such stores have opened all over the country?

Trying to define this framing line reminds me of the scene from The Devil Wears Prada when Miranda schools Andy about the extent to which “high fashion” apparently pervades all sartorial options, no matter how remote they may seem from that category .  If the aesthetic reach of Madison Avenue extends to outlet malls, general stores, and sidewalk carts, then does that mean its carbon footprint does too?

Flip as these questions may sound, I mean them mostly sincerely.  The individual’s carbon footprint in industrializing nations is increasing rapidly.  Why?  Because folks are acquiring the financial capacity to eat more meat and buy more consumer goods.  And even though the new sprawling mega-cities in those nations offer more efficient infrastructures than do rural areas, they also depend upon generating cycles of desire and innovation that make yesterday’s goods seem so, well, yesterday.  As such cities outstrip the dominant cities of today, New York among them, one can only assume that analogous spheres of influence will extend outward, pulling visitors into their urban orbits, and increasing the carbon dioxide output in ways we can’t yet measure.

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