Archive for February, 2007

It’s definitely spring–the owls are mating

February 13, 2007

I think I’ve mentioned the spotted owls singles’ bar above our house before. Well, it’s definitely spring, and the spotted owls are hooting again. We’ve heard them the last few evenings, but tonight they have moved across the road to the neighbors’ stand of trees. However–

I think the reason they moved is a great one. Tonight there is a great horned owl (GHO) calling in the trees not far from our house. As nearly as we can determine, he’s in about the same location as the last place a GHO nested on our property–on the trail to the spring where it could scare the c— out of Ben when he went up to check the water.

These are BIRDS. They’re about two feet tall with a very wide wingspread. They wait in their nests until you’re right under them and then flap out through the forest like a freight train or a bear in the brush. You have to stop and let your heart rate return to something resembling normal before continuing up the trail.

Their call is almost the reverse of the spotted owl’s call. It’s a “hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo” in a sort of baritone. Very lovely. And we’re very glad to have one back. We haven’t heard them for several years now.

The birds are the best music of all. This morning I heard a whole slew of never-heard-before calls. It made my day.

There are pink somethings coming up in my little flower bed. I have no idea what they are. Ben says he thinks they’re blackberries. I hope not, because I actually replanted one I dug up when I was weeding. I think they actually may be something I planted years ago, but I have no idea what. I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out. In the meantime, the first tulips are popping through, and I think the first daffodils will bloom within a week. The hellebores (Lenten roses) are blooming already. Seems very early, but I guess technically Lent is upon us.

I’m getting ready to go cook a risotto. I’ve got a whole bunch of leftovers that need to be used, including some wonderful slices of roast pork with picatta sauce that I think will serve very well. And I can bring the thing to a boil and set it on the living room stove to finish while I toss a salad. Yum-m-m-m.

Now off to dinner and another installment of my geology DVDs. I spent some time today reading about the earth and its beginnings. There is a poem here. I know it. I’ll find it.

One of the remaining great mysteries

February 10, 2007

I am interrupting my weekly reading of The New Yorker to bring you a bulletin. There’s a great profile in this week’s (2/12) issue of two scientist/philosophers, a married couple–Pat and Paul Churchland, professors at UCSD. It’s a really interesting piece that calls out many of the issues associated with one of the great remaining mysteries: what constitutes consciousness?

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I disagree with many of their firmly held beliefs. They are monists; I am firmly in the dualist camp. I don’t deny that many of the elements of what we call “mind” are firmly grounded in the chemistry and biology of the brain. But I’m holding out for something else, something that’s not “physical” as we know it (more about that in a minute), something that for want of a better term I’ll call the “soul.”

My belief is firmly rooted in experience as well. I’ve had at least one out-of-body experience, and on several occasions found myself sharply aware that something in “me” was really not attached to my body. (And, no, I’ve never been diagnosed with any kind of “mental illness” and have somehow managed to function for a remarkable number of decades.)

The Churchlands also don’t believe that non-human animals have language. I have seen much evidence out here in the middle of nowhere that they do. I think it’s easier to see here because I can be more closely attentive. There are fewer distractions. If you’re looking at animals, you’re looking at animals, and that’s it. There have also been quite a number of scientific studies devoted to this topic, and I believe most of them have demonstrated some degree of language in even what we would consider “the lower animals.” (And how humanly arrogant is that?)

George Lakoff did his best to reduce all human thought to biology, but he never managed to convince me. I enjoyed his books, found his work on metaphor (More Than Cool Reason) immensely useful as a poet, but think he really was all wet in  Philosophy in the Flesh.

One of the things that caught my eye in this profile was Paul Churchland’s reference to a book I have loved since I was very young, Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky. Most of my generation is at least minimally familiar with Heinlein because of Stranger in a Strange Land. This was a sort of rallying-cry book in the 1960s.

But Orphans is a totally different animal, a reflection of how little we know and how impossible it is to know it all. I rank it right up there with John Wynham’s novella “Rebirth” for an understanding of the great mysteries and the ability of humans to resist ideas that challenge their current knowledge.

There are other great mysteries, of course, besides consciousness. I keep returning to the questions of dark energy and dark matter. With all of our “vast” knowledge, how can we not identify and understand the composition of more than 75% of the mass and a huge portion of the energy in our universe?

Perhaps lame thought for the morning: What if dark matter is really consciousness afloat in the universe, some sort of mass/energy that infuses biologically living beings and returns to the universe after the biological death? What do you think?

Odds and ends, how I spent the day, some pictures

February 10, 2007

I occasionally indulge in a rant. I’m sure this will surprise (not) those of you who know me and have listened to me carrying on about something or other. My rants are generally caused by something minor. I deal much more easily with the big things like what is going on with my brother now. Those things I assess and, if I can’t change them, I do my best to ignore them and immerse myself in things I can affect.

Earlier this week, I’m afraid I disintegrated into the ranting stage. I had two leaf rakes and couldn’t find either of them when I was trying to clear a flower bed and a hillside. When I asked Ben, he said that Ralph had broken the handle of one and had the other down at his house. I generated a pretty fair tirade about how tired I was of not having my tools available when I wanted them and blah, blah, blah. I said, “I am going to go buy a rake and paint the handle pink so none of you macho guys will touch it.” You probably should know that this was a serious threat. I have a toolbox full of MY garden tools and another full of MY household tools, and woe unto the person who touches one of them without explicit permission and a substantial deposit.

My rant must have been relayed. Ralph and Brenda came by a couple of evenings later, and here’s what I found on my kitchen table (click on the thumbnail to see the bigger picture):


I’ve used it several times, left it in odd places, and no one has touched it.

Spring is definitely on the way. A few days ago, my favorite minister of propaganda posted pictures of snowdrops in the U.K. They were well ahead of mine. But here’s what mine looked like this afternoon:


Today has been a pretty good day. I spent the whole day either cooking or gardening. I started the kitchen fire early this morning. Brenda came down to help me make fresh scones for breakfast. She’s just learning about baking. They must have worked, because we made 16 scones for the four of us and here’s what was left at 1 p.m.:


Actually, they were pretty tasty–dried apricot with white chocolate. This was a new scone batter recipe. (I keep searching for the perfect one.) I really liked it, and now I can hardly wait for blueberry season.

Then I set some French bread to rise to go with tonight’s pot roast and went out to try to reclaim my lost flower bed. My whole body hurts, but the flower bed looks better than it has in years and dinner was yummy.

I talked to my brother tonight, and things are looking OK so far for him to get the treatment he needs. At least the hospital hasn’t said “no,” even though there are a few hoops to jump through. I may be off to Boston with him shortly.

All in all, not a bad day.

Something else I would rather not be writing about

February 9, 2007

I’ve been avoiding this space, I guess, because what’s on my mind is something I really don’t want to think about. But there’s no help for it. Perhaps if I write about it, it will help.

I went to Salem yesterday to do some banking, and I stopped by to see my youngest brother. We are the two oddballs in the family, the Aquarians, out of step most of the time with the rest of the world.

He’s quite a bit younger than I am, and one of my favorite people in the whole world. But for 20 years he’s been busy making medical history, and not in a good way. Nearly two decades ago, he had some problems with the vision in one eye, and his doctors discovered a tumor behind the eye. They operated an removed the tumor. But it just keeps coming back.

It is, they keep telling him, not cancerous. I’m not sure I understand this. According to my reading, the definition of cancerous cells is “cells that don’t know when to stop growing,” and his tumor certainly fits that description. It’s been treated by various surgeries, intense radiation therapy, and assorted means. It just keeps coming back. Now it’s growing into his brain, causing intense headaches and other dreadful experiences. They’ve removed what of it that they can remove surgically. It’s growing back.

Any more traditional radiation carries with it a strong risk of total blindness. He’s not willing to gamble on that, because the previous radiation had little impact. But there’s a new type of laser photon radiation. It’s done in only three hospitals in the U.S. (the machine apparently costs about $200 million). We’re waiting to hear if one of them will accept him for treatment.

He’s been treated to date at Oregon’s premiere research hospital. His doctors there tell him they’ve never seen tumors like the ones he has. He now has two different types of “non-cancerous” unidentified tumors. It’s frankly just crap.

So that’s what’s on my mind at the moment, and if I haven’t rushed to write in my blog, the truth is I just haven’t felt like it.

A little more about my greatest fears–the blessing and scourge of technology

February 5, 2007

Almost every Sunday, one (or more) of us drive to town to get the Sunday NY Times. Ben likes the news recap and business stuff; I am hooked on their puzzles and feature stories. I always begin with the magazine (that’s where the puzzles are, after all), and it’s a rare week that something in it doesn’t really grab my attention.

 Lately they’ve been running a lot of articles that make me think the editor is sharing some of my deepest, darkest concerns. I mentioned the piece on “nutritionism” in an earlier post. Yesterday’s lead feature is about the spring fashion collections. This is not the sort of thing you would expect to find me particularly interested in. Those who know me personally will attest to the fact that developing a strong fashion sense has never been a high priority. And in my current life, clean jeans and a clean shirt are fancy enough for most things.

But the photo extravaganza was followed by a thoughtful essay that asks the question: “Are we losing our sense of ‘now’ in a combination of a reverance for a dreamy past or anticipation of a flashy future?” The author thinks we are. I would agree.

Technology is a terrific thing. It allows me to stay in touch with folks in whose lives I would otherwise just have been a quick blip on the radar. But the virtual world is no substitute for the real one, and I have a sense that at least for many people, the virtual world is where they find most of their excitement.

So while I consider technology a blessing in many respects, I think it has the potential to be truly isolating in the manner of 1984 or Brave New World. And I think this risks making it a scourge as well. It’s like almost anything else–not bad in and of itself, but dangerous in the uses to which it can be put.

It’s a gorgeous sunny day here, and I’m pretty sure the ealiest of the flowers are blooming, with the next round behind them budded out. I’m going to go check.

Molly Ivins’s death makes me sad

February 5, 2007

This is so hard to write. First of all, don’t get me wrong. The times that Molly Ivins and I agreed on anything could probably be counted on the fingers and thumb of one hand. But her death is something I’m not ready to really deal with, because it seems a bit untimely.

Molly Ivins died this week after a long and very public struggle with breast cancer. It was public because she made it so. She was a gutsy woman who didn’t shrink from anything, and I suspect she was a thorn in the side of those who see things in black and white. Ivins seemed to see things in a peculiar shade of glowing.

But when she died this week, she was 62 years old. Today is my 62nd birthday, a milestone that makes me eligible for social security and that affirms my position in the “older generation.” But it’s too young to die, particularly when you are infused, as Ivins was, with passion and conscience and a need to tell the world what’s what.

I almost never agreed with her, but I admired her tremendously. And now she is gone.

I’ve had a very nice day, but I know that what’s coming is coming. I also know that it’s not the end of the world.

I stepped outside a few minutes ago. I had shut everything down and was ready to turn the generator off. Then I heard a spotted owl calling for a mate, and Molly Ivins suddenly came to mind.

We are not strangers to the spotted owl here. Until we started running the generator in the evenings, in the days when we dealt with propane lanterns, candles, and kerosene, the spotted owls kept us awake at night.

They have a peculiar mating ritual. The males call out, “Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo,” until a female responds–“Hee, hee, hee, hee-hee-hee.”  Then there is a sort of breathless time, and the males start calling and calling and calling, and the female responds as she wishes, then she picks one out and flies toward him. Every other owl shuts up as these two explore their mutual attraction.

Before we got the generator, the trees above our house were like a singles’ bar for spotted owls. One night we heard a pair of them calling as they got closer and closer together. Then the entire forest was silent. Then the other males started up again.

So tonight, when I stepped outside and hear the male hooting, it was a big long punctuation mark. Molly Ivins died this week, but the owls are still mating. I crossed a boundary today, but the owls are still mating.

I hope the lonely little guy I heard a few minutes ago finds a love.

Now it can be revealed: My greatest fears, part 1

February 3, 2007

The copy editor in me never shuts up. I will probably dither as I write this about whether the “m” in “My” should be capitalized in this post title. The realist in me asks, “Who cares?” But it’s like so many of those little things–someone must.

I go to great lengths to keep this blog non-political. My reasons are many. First among them is that I think there are enough things that connect us that it is worth while to avoid the things that tend to spark acrimony. I like exploring the connections rather than the divisions. But perhaps more important is the fact that I have a very low opinion of things political. My friends are all over the map ideologically. I like this. It sparks some spirited debates from time to time.

I think we have reached a very dangerous point in our society–I’m talking about the U.S. here, but I suspect that this applies on a wider world stage as well. Our leaders are now more concerned with the “politics” of the situation than with the exigencies of the moment. (Aside: Have you discovered “The Free Dictionary“? This is one of my favorite sites. The home page has wonderful puzzles and feature articles; the dictionary and thesaurus are always interesting.)

I am fortunate to have lived for more than a quarter of a century with Ben. We agree less and less on things as time goes by, but our shared experiences seem to have engendered a certain respect that lets us have some of those question-asking discussions without rancor or emnity. The most recent was last evening.

We sat and watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I had seen it before; Ben had not. It was “the director’s cut” edition, and it included some scenes that I don’t remember from the earlier version. Afterward, we engaged in a rather spirited discussion. Ben was right in observing that one rather oddball gratuitous scene contributed nothing to the movie and in fact weakened it. But then he said that Spielberg seemed to have “a rather Berkeley frame of reference.” I knew that he wasn’t referring to the Englilsh philosopher but rather to what those of us who lived in the Bay Area as semi-normal people called “the Berkeley effect.” He was talking about a particular attitude toward government and the role of government.

Ben thought the film portrayed government and particularly the military as inept. He was offended by this. I agreed with his perceptions, but I felt compelled to add that I thought the portrayal was accurate. The discussion continued for some time. Perhaps as a result, Ben dreamed of Vietnam again last night for the first time in a long time. So our discussion continued even longer as we talked about his dreams and memories with a full moon shining through our bedroom picture window.

Lord, this has gone far afield from what I intended to write about. . .But maybe there’s a reason.

My irritation with politics is that I think it gets in the way of people living sane lives. Our founding fathers never envisioned a world in which our leaders would be more concerned with self-image and personal aggrandizement than they are with the question of what is best for the country, the society. But that is the peculiar circumstance in which we find ourselves.

My previous post about loving the landscape generated a large amount of interest, including some thoughtful comments from Heath and Phil about things that really bug them. Those things bug me, too.

But I’m convinced that these issues will never be resolved while we are raising generations of children who think that milk, eggs, meat, and produce come from grocery stores, that the figures in a cartoon or video game series are more compelling than the children across the street (or across the world, for that matter), and that instant gratification of a perceived desire is the highest form of pleasure known to humans.

One of the things that I’m enjoying the most in my current lifestyle is the reality of it all. I burned the beejasus out of one of my fingers this morning on the living room stove. I suspect it’s a third-degree burn nearly to the bone. I’d post a picture here, but for me to display my would properly would look like an obscene gesture, which doesn’t seem appropriate to my audience. So you can imagine for yourself.

But I am having to relearn about heat and cold, want and satiety, how important a particular need is: Is it worth a half-day on the road, three gallons of gasoline, etc., etc., etc.?

Now I must abandon this rambling to go fix dinner, food that my great-grandmother would have recognized. I’m going to do my best not to add a cut finger to my burn.

Loving the landscape

February 1, 2007

Phil writes below of not understanding the logic in changing features that have been part of the landscape for hundreds of years. I suppose in principle I agree, but in the actual practice, I’m not so sure. It might depend on what we’re really talking about here.

My hesitation, I’m sure, is also partly a factor of western Oregon being very different from Wales–not in climate, or even topography, perhaps, but certainly in human historic age. We don’t have much in the way of 400-year old growing things here. At one point there were large forests that were that old, I’m told, but they burned in a gigantic fire. Because the trees were cedar, snags the size of small buildings are still around to give evidence to the burn. 

But even in the last century there have been great changes to the flora covering the ground in my part of the world. We have pictures of our place (which is now heavily forested) totally covered in grass. The previous tenants raised goats, and where goats grow, very little else does. A couple of years ago, the owner logged the hill across the county road from us. “You must be devastated!” a friend said. The truth was just the opposite. We have so many trees here that they had begun to feel a little oppressive, and I wanted to see the shape of the land, something you can’t see where conifer forest grows. And now my garden gets two more hours of sun each day for ripening the heat loving plants.

Besides, I’ve been in this valley long enough to know that timber really is renewable if the land is treated with love. Most of the property for ten or so miles has been logged during my tenure here. And most of it looks like forest again, although very young forest.

Josh suggested nuking the blackberries. I suspect that wouldn’t work. They’d just mutate into some tougher strain. Many out here, including the county, have tried to control them with chemicals. The berries just laugh at chemicals, so the net result is that you’ve still got berries but much of the healthy vegetation of other types is killed off. The best way to deal with berries is to starve them to death. You mow or clip them to the ground, denying them the nourishment their leaves would provide, and eventually the roots die.

We don’t use chemicals on our land, with this exception: Our soil is very acid, so certain parts of the garden get a good application of lime periodically. And for my heavy feeders like corn and the brassicas, a little sterilized steer manure makes for lovelier produce. But many of my favorites, like the blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and roses (they have to be in the garden because they’re a favorite of the deer also) love a highly acid soil. So I leave those alone and let the water and debris from the woods keep them healthy.

Blackberries, bread, the joy of science, and other randomata

February 1, 2007

This post will probably make my friend Phil unhappy again, but I hope he’ll forgive me.

It’s been a busy two days. Yesterday I spent all day going down to Waldport for my writers’ group meeting. That was fun. Tuesday is my day for me. The weather was gorgeous, the beaches lovely, and all in all it left me feeling rested and refreshed. Today was a different matter.

I started bread mid-morning, and things didn’t go right from the start. I know where I fouled it up. I proofed the yeast in water that was just too warm. When I looked at it, I knew that, but I used it anyway. And it worked, sort of, but it’s not up to the standard I’m used to. I’m sitting here waiting for the timer bell to see how dreadful it really is. If it’s too bad, I’ll go bonk moles on the head with it.

But while the bread was rising (or in this case not rising very well) I went out and worked on the area behind the house that’s been so neglected. That’s where the blackberries come in, and the part that will probably upset Phil.

As I may have mentioned, we have three separate and distinct forms of blackberries here: mountain berries, Himalayas, and ground berries. I love the taste of blackberries. I buy blackberry yogurt, blackberry scones, make blackberry pies and cobblers, and so on.

But I think how you feel about blackberry bushes is really dependent on where you live. I live on a hundred acres of subtropical rain forest. We had just an inch shy of 100 inches of rain last year. I have seen blackberry bushes put on as much as 6 feet of new growth on a single runner in a day. Keeping them under control is a major problem. If you don’t keep them under control, they quickly take over and suffocate everything else.

A friend of mine who lives in eastern Oregon (where they get about one-tenth the rain we do) once wrote me proudly that he had trellised the blackberries in his yard. After I picked myself up off the floor from laughing so hard, I wrote him back a sort of smart-aleck note that I suspect insulted him. But the truth of the matter is that here the only way you can really pick berries in quantity is to throw a piece of plywood across the front of the mound of bushes and walk up on it to get to where the really good berries are. The blackberry bushes suffer from this for at least an hour and half. Then they grow another six feet.

But the worst are the ground berries. They crawl along the ground taking root every few inches, or send a runner root snaking out 4-5 feet with a bud every few inches that will grow into a new plant. So I spent most of the afternoon pulling these plants and roots out of the duff in my little garden area behind the house. I killed a lot of blackberries today, or at least I will have if we actually get them hauled away before the root at the edge of the golf course/meadow.

I sat up late last night to hear the last of my “Joy of Science” lectures and discovered another reason that SETI research my not succeed that’s sort of related to the one Brent pointed out. Any intelligent life able to communicate would quickly become bored with radio technology and switch to something more advanced. So there might be a very narrow window in time for all of those radio signals to succeed.

I don’t know if you’ve ever even heard of The Teaching Company, but they’re willing to teach you something on almost any topic you want to know about. These are individual courses offered on CD or DVD or both, depending on the importance of visuals to the course. The courses rang in length from 12 half-hour lectures to 84 half-hour lectures. I’ve done several of their courses, the latest being the 60-lecture “Joy of Science.” I think what I like best is that they help me put a lot of the miscellaneous information I’ve accumulated in a lifetime into a greater context.

Ben just interrupted me to come hear a tape of him playing the guitar and singing a little more than 38 years ago. It was about the time I met him. He’s had these reel-to-reel tapes all this time and no way to play them. But that’s story for another time. Remind me to tell you about music and Guild guitars if I forget.

Now, my dinger just went off and I need to go see how bad the damage really is.