Monthly Archives: December 2016

Radiant Sun – So Long, 2016

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This piece of mine came out on Medium’s Midcentury Modern right after John Glenn passed away in early December, but it seemed a fitting way to send off 2016 as a whole. Not because it was as great as John Glenn, but because we all need a little something to get us through the hard times:

It was 1975 and Nixon had left office the year before. A new, dark cynicism about our system of government had freshly hatched and was flailing around like a hungry mongoose, hissing and snappish. Saturday Night Live started that year, and began by openly mocking then-President Gerald Ford on a regular basis, and if it bothered Ford, the general public never found out. John Glenn, a military man and former astronaut, had just been elected senator for the state of Ohio.

I had just moved back to California to live with my father after a few years of making my mother miserable with her new husband in his home town of Milwaukee. Returning from an orderly suburban life that ticked along like Chinese water torture, I found myself living in a cabin that my father and a bunch of buddies slapped up in a forest clearing. It was a 10’ x 12’ redwood box, tar-papered and shingled, heated with a wood stove, no running water, and it was located around fifty feet from my dad’s own cabin in the middle of a dense bay forest. I couldn’t see his place from mine, and at night, once the sun went down, it was prehistorically unlit by anything but the flame of my small kerosene lamp. I was thirteen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, had flown around the planet a couple of weeks after my birth and now I lived in my own little satellite beneath the stars.

Society was all at sixes and sevens in the Sixties and Seventies, people wandering off in different directions, and I occupied myself with reading a lot of science fiction. Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov. Their casual misogyny and racism was dated, even then, but there was the pull of the great yonder. The film 2001: A Space Odyssey was already seven years old; Apollo 11 had landed on the moon six years earlier.

At the rate we were going, surely space colonies couldn’t be far off, soon enough to beat any population problems, nuclear wars or environmental disasters we might inflict upon ourselves. I wrote what would be my first publication, a letter to Co-Evolution Quarterly, offering to go off-world if it would help save the planet. I got an unexpected check for $25 in return, my first money for words.

My father wrote songs, and some of them came from dreams. He had a tape recorder at the head of his bed, and if a song came to him at night, he’d push the record button and sing,

still mostly asleep, at the machine while the little wheels of the cassette tape turned. We’d listen to the results over breakfast, which was always at his place, just after dawn.

I’d wake up and listen for him to whistle, which meant he was awake and I could come over. Sometimes it took a long time and I sat on my doorstep, looking out through ferns and bay trees and beyond, to Tomales Bay and the hills of Marin County, and thinking how hard it would be to fit that all even into the largest space station. How would we transport all this earthly wealth with us to barren planets? Maybe the moon was close enough. “Zero G, and I feel fine.” That’s what John Glenn said when they reached orbit and he became weightless for the first time. Sounded pretty good to me, I just wanted to take a few trees along.

One morning, the whistle finally came and I made my way up along the narrow path that wound between ferns, carefully using a stick to part the dewed spider webs strung across the way. We sat down in our respective chairs to tea and pancakes, and I reached over and pressed the rewind and play button the tape recorder to see if there was anything there. My dad’s voice sang a groggy ditty that was unintelligible except for a long, four-note “meeeeeee” at the end of two lines. “What the heck is that?”

My dad’s face brightened as the dream returned to him.

I was walking on the surface of Mars with the Colonel. There was nothing, just red wasteland, except for the compound behind us. We came to an enclosure, a fence around waist high.

‘This is where we keep them,’ said the Colonel.

‘Keep what?’

‘The space monkeys.’

I looked down, and there, in a little space suit just like ours, was a chimpanzee. It stood right in front of us, and then it took off its own helmet. And it had the face of John Glenn. Smiling, beatific. It looked at us, and then at the sun, so far away. And John Glenn beamed. He started to sing!

Radiant sun!
Shinin’ on meeeee!
Radiant sun!
Shinin’ on meeeee!

My dad wore the same smile he must have seen on his dream version of John Glenn. The song instantly entered our lives as a way of expressing joy about anything that was really, really terrific, and we’d sing it, or just say that something was a ‘radiant sun’ moment. We were probably what most would have would called radical hippie types at the time, but if there was one thing pretty much everyone could agree on, it was that John Glenn was a good guy who flew higher than Cold War politics or partisan pettiness. You couldn’t not like him.

The song and the dream of John Glenn stayed in my life. I got my first truly soul-killing office job at Equitable Life Insurance in 1981. The supervisor parked me in a cubicle on the seventh floor of a high rise in downtown San Francisco, tasked with the Sisyphean job of transferring all the client paper files to the early mainframe computer system, and even though I knew from the first week that the job and I would never be a good match, I couldn’t quit. I had bills to pay. One day, after a particularly rough week of talking to a lot of very sick, broke people on the phone who hadn’t been paid because their files hadn’t yet been transferred, I arrived at work to find one small addition to the wall of my bleak cubicle: It was a postcard of John Glenn in his space helmet, his confident face radiating its goodness right down on me. It was signed, Courtesy of Your Fellow Inmates. Glenn got me through the next few months, before I quit to pursue another life.

Space colonies didn’t become a reality as quickly as expected. Instead, I left the country for other continents and other countries, and ended up spending most of my life far from my country of birth. John Glenn made his mark as a senator for the state of Ohio. Mostly he did a good job, an advocate for science and, more importantly, for enduring curiosity that lasted a lifetime. He had a knack for looking beyond borders.

So, now he’s left Earth’s orbit for good, and I find myself thinking that we need a John Glenn these days. Someone who inspires everyone, no matter their persuasion, to look beyond their own cynicism. Cynicism was rife under Nixon, and then Ford, and even under the artificial-honey reign of Reagan, but at least we could all agree that astronauts and the science that kept them aloft were objects worthy of admiration.

So farewell, John Glenn, and thanks for getting me through some hard times and inspiring more than just happy songs. It was radiant.

Thanks for visiting Champagnewhisky, and wishing all of you a wonderful 2017.

Sly Fog And Moon

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The Lake Geneva basin is known for its foggy autumns, when weeks can pass beneath a layer of thick brume with little sunshine. And when it breaks, it does so with suddenness. It simply parts like a fragile veil and you realize the sun has been blazing away up there all along.

Our little corner of the region, though, has countless hollows and dips and the fog wanders around as if seeking a new foothold. Even as it retreats, there are unexpected pockets of mist. The first meadow on my running loop is one of fog’s favorite places to play hide-and-seek.

All photos: PKR

Photo: PKR

I know a lot of people here who dread the weeks of gloom. It can be like being lost in an endless down blanket. Sure, you can always drive up a mountain, and literally get your head out of the fog. But who has the time on a daily basis to make the hour long round-trip? Luckily for me, fog is an old friend. Growing up in a foggy region of the California coast, the days and weeks of fog here just make for pleasant nostalgia.

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Moonrise. Photo: PKR

And then there are moments like this one, when the moon rises between cleft in the fog that is still covering Lake Geneva, which lays a bit lower in altitude than our place. It was just a minute or two, a keyhole between sunset and nightfall, but the moon shown brighter than the sun had for many days. It rose into obscurity, but stayed with me for the duration of the run.

What We Do In The Dark

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Almost everything about fossil fuels, by definition, happens in the dark. The organisms that form coal, gas and oil form in the dark; they are extracted from deep dark places that are under water, under mountains, beneath broad plains. From well to tank, most oil never sees the light of day unless there’s a leak, or a spill.

And then, by the time we find it, damage has already been done.

All paintings - oil on canvas Artist: i wayan sudarsana yansen

All paintings – oil on canvas
Artist: i wayan sudarsana yansen

Back in 2013, the one of the largest on-land spills in the United States took place beneath a remote piece of crop land near Tioga, North Dakota. It took several days for the farmer who owned the property to discover the spill and then report it. It took several more days to stop the spill, which was due to a leaking pipe. And it took another week or so for the authorities to report the spill to the press. The spill was estimated at 865,000 gallons (20,000 barrels).

That spill necessitated a clean-up effort that is still ongoing. The most recent cost estimate I could find online put the cost at $42 million – and that was over a year ago, when approximately one-third of the spill had been removed. From the most recent article I could find on the spill, on Oil Price.com: “The 2013 spill contaminated around 15 acres of cropland, but the cleanup site grew to 35 acres to accommodate excavated soil stockpiles from digging 50 feet deep and then baking hydrocarbons out of the soil.” The Oil Price article was actually on another, more recent spill, that of 17,000 gallons (400 barrels) of oil and 120,000 gallons of toxic drilling wastewater near Marmath.

Overall, there have been over 300 oil spills in North Dakota alone in less than two years, most of them unreported. And that doesn’t include the Dec. 5 spill into the Ash Coulee Creek of 176,000 gallons (4100 barrels) approximately 150 miles from where Standing Rock protesters have been demonstrating against an oil pipeline they say will endanger their water source.

North Dakota can stand in here as a microcosm of oil-drilling locations around the world.

In general, oil spills are like the proverbial tree falling in a forest where there’s no one to hear it – if there’s no one around to witness a spill, then as far as authorities and oil companies are concerned, it might as well not have happened. Compiling a global list of incidents in which oil escapes its pipelines, even just the known offshore and onshore spills, would be a virtually impossible task, even if oil companies were ready and willing to expose the underbelly of the business.

This opacity when it comes to the collateral damage of our oil dependency extends to other aspects of the oil industry, from the funding of climate change skeptics through ‘dark money’ to the fighting of environmental regulations around the world.

So, what to make of the nomination of an oil company chief to the United States’ highest diplomatic post, that of Secretary of State, key advisor on foreign policy and fourth in line to the Presidency? Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil (largest U.S. oil company by revenue), is undoubtedly an extremely able individual, manager and businessman. He is also the person who said, just a couple of months before the big spill in North Dakota, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers? (…) My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do (…) The rest is risk management.”

The question is, where does the management begin, and where does it end? How much of this management will truly be brought to light?

Hoarfrost Quietude

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Throughout winter, our little village can often be found directly on the fog line of the milky blanket that covers the Geneva basin for weeks at a time. We are just high enough in altitude (490 m/1600 ft) to catch a glimpse of blue above, not quiet high enough to see out over the fog itself.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

The freezing temperatures and lack of sunlight coat most surfaces with an ever-thickening layer of ice – hoarfrost – as the fog lingers and becomes solid. The garden, the roads, are obscured by a moving veil, with visibility down to a dozen yards or so, and then suddenly, like the revelation of a hidden truth, the fields and mountains and tree-tops reappear.

When the sun bursts through, there’s a brief, wonderful space of time when the hoarfrost falls from the trees and bushes in chiming shards. And the birds, mostly silent in the fog as it’s an eternal evening, suddenly begin to sing again.

I went for a run today at just the right moment. The fog broke, and though I could see the borders of the fog bank just below our own property, above was all soft light. I could hear raucous birdsong, and the gentle tinkling of frost rain.

A Different Hourglass

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I’ve been looking at images of Aboriginal Australian artists from Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Museum exhibition called Marking the Infinite, portraits of a sense of time and space outside our second and minute-marked world – and then I found this post in my drafts from a few weeks ago, the small echo of a sunny day.
“I went out to work in the garden for half an hour, planning to put in a row of spinach. Almost three hours later, I came back inside, unaware of how much time had passed as the warm autumn wind blew, birds called each to each, and clouds chased above.
How can time fly so unremarked?

Bush Plum (2013) Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

Bush Plum (2013)
Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

I cleared a small bed of rose bushes that I’ve neglected for too long, freeing them from weeds growing fat on my inattention, eager brambles that disguise their thorns among those of the roses, sly grass encroaching from the lawn.

That done, I cut back the tall perennials, neglected for weeks with a distracted gardener. It’s an exercise in immediate gratification – I can liberate the plants and myself of past laziness, with visible results. Maybe that’s why the afternoon disappeared like the space between fingers tightening together around a narrow green stalk.

How often does life offer us such easy rewards?”
Syaw (Fishnet) (2015) Artist: Regina Pilawuk Wilson via hyperallergenic

Syaw (Fishnet) (2015)
Artist: Regina Pilawuk Wilson via hyperallergenic

Well, that spinach I planted got eaten by a roaming animal who refused to be put off by various barriers until I finally gave up, but whatever is was that liked the spinach didn’t care for lettuce, so I have a small crop of late salad greens.
This week, the garden will be put to bed for the winter. The fragile trees are already under wraps, the last herbs will be harvested for drying.
As the snow blankets the small patch of green, I’ll need to remind myself regularly of the weightless time of working in the garden.

Detail: Bush Plum (2013) Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

Detail: Bush Plum (2013)
Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

Treehugger

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I spent a large portion of my youth in an untamed forest on the California coast–it was the 1970s, we lived off-grid, and our wood cabins were built in small clearings amidst bay trees, madrone, manzanita, and coast live oak. A fragrant forest of graceful limbs that rustled in gentle breezes and sang sharply during storms.

I was an avid reader of Greek mythology, of fairy tales, of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – all stories in which forests and trees play a major role, either as protagonists or settings. It was easy to believe in magic in a place like that.

It followed that I was obsessed with stories of wood creatures and trees that could communicate, and much like young readers of more recent generations waited for their letter from Hogwart’s, I waited for the trees to come to life and reveal themselves in a more human form, or at least to speak to me in a language I could understand.

Illustration for The Old Woman In The Wood, from Little brother & little sister and other tales by the Brothers Grimm (1917), by one of my favorite illustrators. Artist: Arthur Rackham

Illustration for The Old Woman In The Wood, from Little brother & little sister and other tales by the Brothers Grimm (1917), by one of my favorite illustrators. This tale is about a forest that saves a young woman from certain death–she in turn saves the trees by releasing them from long enchantment.
Artist: Arthur Rackham

That they never did start talking to me is probably for the best, and it didn’t diminish my affection. It’s long been accepted that they have their own way of communicating, even if it’s not in ways we can always interpret into human terms. I haven’t always been able to explain my deep affinity for forests, and even for specific trees, in a way that doesn’t sound a bit unbalanced, so it’s a joy to see a book like the one Peter Wohlleben wrote become so popular.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World has been on the bestseller lists for months in a variety of countries, including its native highly urbanized and industrialized Germany.

From a review in the New York Times: “Presenting scientific research and his own observations in highly anthropomorphic terms, the matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”

With a training in forestry, which taught Mr. Wohlleben how to think of trees as machines and natural resources, years of close observation taught him something else: How to see trees as fellow travelers.

Maybe his ideas make sense to me because he and I are of the same age, or because we both grew up in forests and in a similar era of environmental thought. Whatever the reason, it does me good to see someone articulate what I suspected all along, back when I was just a sapling of a treehugger: There’s more to trees than meets the eye.