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Connections

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2012)

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen

The stock market was way up yesterday on news that Bank of America announced that he (being a gigantic person according to the Supreme Court) plans to cut sixteen thousand jobs by Christmas. How nice. What a fine and humane time to fire sixteen thousand people in order to increase quarterly profits for a quarter or two.

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

So I was in the hardware store buying screws and varnish and masking tape and grout and glue, and having a laugh with the fellow helping me find things (about the trials and tribulations and triumphs and compromises of fixing things), when a couple entered the store and my Super Wealthy People alarm went off. That is to say, having grown up in Atherton, a town that is not really a town but an enclave for super wealthy people and those who serve them, a shiver passes through me when one or more of these folks comes near, and then I try to get away as fast as I can.

The woman was elegant and beautiful and perfectly coiffed and wearing a gray silk dress and a strand of fat white pearls and these amazingly svelte red leather boots, an ensemble that probably cost as much as most people’s cars, and the man was wearing a shirt and trousers I would more likely frame and put on the wall than wear. As is the habit of many super wealthy people, the woman walked up to the fellow helping me find things and began speaking to him as if I did not exist and he and I were not already having a conversation, because as far as this beautiful wealthy woman was concerned I was invisible.

“I know you probably don’t carry the kind of thing we’re looking for,” she said to the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. Then she laughed in a sophisticated sort of way and added, “This being Mendocino and all, but…we’re looking for poison. To kill weeds.”

“Oh, we’ve got poison for killing weeds,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. “What kind of weeds are you wanting to kill?”

“They have it,” she said, turning to her husband who was peering into his phone and frowning gravely. “Tell him what we want it for.”

“We have a place here,” said her husband, flourishing his phone like a baton. “About a mile south of here. We only get up here a few times a year and there are these weeds that grow in the gravel driveway. We have them pulled, but then they come back. We want to kill them for good. Do you have a poison that will do that?”

Another fellow who helps me find things in the hardware store beckoned to me and I moved away from the Super Wealthy people to pay for my purchases and make my escape, but not until I heard the fellow who had previously been helping me say to the super wealthy people, “Well, I don’t know that anything will kill weeds forever. Even the strongest poison eventually dissipates.”

“Oh,” said the woman, pouting in a sophisticated sort of way, “but it’s so annoying to turn into our driveway and find those weeds there again.”

“Well,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me, “you could always pave the driveway. Weeds don’t grow through asphalt.”

“But we like the gravel,” said the woman. “The rustic feeling of the tires crunching on the gravel.”

“How about something that would last five years?” said the man, nodding authoritatively. “Or three? We could have someone apply it every three years.”

“There’s only two things that money can’t buy—that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes.” Guy Clark

I was thinking about those super wealthy people and the poison they wanted to buy as I was reading about the suddenly vanishing Greenland ice sheet, a shocking turn of events that even the most savvy of ice sheet scientists hadn’t expected to happen for some decades, if ever. And now the ice is gone. The ramifications of this astonishing disappearance can hardly be imagined, but oceans rising and catastrophic weather events are certainly to be expected; and there is nothing to be done about this unfolding disaster in the short term except to fasten our seatbelts, so to speak. In the long term, we can stop burning fossil fuels and, it seems to me, stop using poison to kill weeds in gravel driveways.

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m no more environmentally responsible than those weed killing wealthy people. After all, I drive a little truck that runs on gasoline and I turn on myriad electric lights to banish the darkness, and I use a computer and buy clothes made in China. And, in truth, people of all economic classes in America use poison to kill weeds. We all contribute to the sum total synergy wreaking havoc on the natural world, and we all have the opportunity to lessen our contributions, if only we will.

In related news, the net worth of the four hundred richest Americans grew by thirteen percent in the past year to 1.7 trillion dollars, while twenty-eight states report large increases in unemployment. Hmm. The stock market goes up when corporations fire lots of people, and the four hundred richest Americans, philanthropists all, I’m sure, keep getting richer and richer, and at an accelerating pace, just as the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating pace.

“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin

I learned about the phenomenon of ephemeralization from reading Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path, which Bucky defines in his stream-of-consciousness way as “the invisible chemical, metallurgical, and electronic production of ever-more-efficient and satisfyingly effective performance with the investment of ever-less weight and volume of materials per unit function formed or performed.” An illustration of this would be that the first moderately successful computer was the size of a huge office building and nowadays our little personal computers are thousands of times faster and more efficient and sophisticated than that original behemoth.

Bucky believed that ephemeralization would ultimately provide humanity with everything we needed to live successfully on spaceship earth without our needing to keep burning fossil fuels and destroying the environment. He also believed that computers and the worldwide interweb could provide the means for a shift in global awareness that would bring an end to war and overpopulation and the mistreatment of women and children and the needless destruction of the environment. Alas, computers and the worldwide interweb have not saved us, nor have they slowed our ravenous gobbling of the forests and oceans and mountains. Indeed, as our computers have gotten smaller and faster, the poor have gotten more plentiful and the richest four hundred people…

 “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

Many years ago I ran the Creative Writing program at the California State Summer School for the Arts, my students talented teens, one of whom, a sassy eighteen-year-old vixen, presented me with the book of poems Rain by William Carpenter, and said, “I want to have this man’s child.”

I read the book that night and found his poems as exciting as great short stories. I then wrote to Bill Carpenter and he and I eventually became pen pals. I told him that I was using his poems to inspire my young charges, and that certain of his poems seemed to help unlock their creative flow. Here is one of those poems that came to mind as I was writing this essay.

THE ECUADORIAN SAILORS

The Ecuadorian sailors arrive in Bucksport.

They stare at the American girls who stand

on the oil wharf in shorts and halters, eating

pistachio ice cream in the long Maine afternoons

as the sun drops behind the refinery. Evenings,

the Ecuadorians gather on deck. From the town hall

you can hear their slow, passionate music

as one of the officers, immaculately dressed,

sings something about love, about a man murdered,

a woman stolen in the night. The Bucksport girls

throw daisies to the Ecuadorians, who place them

behind their ears, and the officer sings about

a flower blooming in a forgotten place. The next

morning, the girls wear yellow flowers between

their breasts, but the sailors do not see them.

They want to shop in the American stores. They move

through Bucksport talking rapidly. Soon they find

Laverdiere’s Discount Drug Store, where you can buy

anything. A line of Ecuadorian sailors streams

from the ship down Main Street to Laverdiere’s.

Another line returns, carrying brown paper bags.

Where the two meet, they talk and touch fingers

like ants describing the source of food and pleasure.

Some have small bags with radios and calculators,

others have large mysterious bags. Two of them

carry a color television while a third holds the

rabbit-ear antenna and tells them where not to step.

One solitary man carries a red snow shovel, as if,

when he brings the shovel home to Ecuador, it

will snow in his village for the first time since

the Pleistocene. When Laverdiere’s closes, girls

come to the ship with long dresses and daisies

plaited in their hair. The air fills with music

from guitars, with emotions like red and blue rain-

forest parrots that no one in Bucksport has ever seen.

Each Ecuadorian sailor invites a girl to dance

and speaks to her in Spanish, which she understands

fluently, like a lost native language, like words

uttered by eloquent red parrots in a country where

it is always afternoon. At night, among the oil tanks,

the girls all become women. They go to their houses

before dawn, but they are not the same, they have

new languages, new bodies, they have grown darker

and will wear flowers forever between their breasts,

even when the sailors have returned to Ecuador, even

when they marry and take their clothes off for the

first time in a lighted room, the flowers will be there

like indelible tattoos. Their husbands will grow silent

as winter, but it will not matter, they will teach

their children three or four words of Spanish, a song

about red parrots crying in a place of sunlight where

it never snows, and where the heart is everything.

William Carpenter

 

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No Honeybees

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2012)

“The busy bee has no time for sorrow.” William Blake

I am not a master gardener. I’ve been growing vegetables and flowers and herbs for fifty years, and at various times I’ve made my living as a landscaper, gardener, and pruner of fruit trees. A renter for most of my life, I have moved many times and had many gardens ranging in size from quite large to very small. I have gardened in cool climates and moderate climates and hot climates, in sandy loam and rich black earth and barely arable pygmy; and I’ve made a habit of picking the brains of other gardeners about the how’s and why’s and do’s and don’ts of growing things. Which is all to say, I know something about gardening, but would not describe myself as an expert.

People exploring my gardens used to ask, “How do you attract so many honeybees?”

And I used to reply, “Borage and white clover.”

I was twenty-one and the proud creator of a big vegetable garden in Santa Cruz when I discovered how incredibly attractive borage is to bees, and I have known about the bee-seducing power of white clover since I was a boy and had the arduous task of mowing a large lawn of white clover with an old dull steel push mower, a weekly chore that gave me bigger muscles than most of my friends and made me the dreaded enemy of hundreds of happily grazing honeybees.

However, as of early June in my Mendocino garden of 2012, I have yet to see a single honeybee visiting the big beautiful borage plants with their myriad blue flowers, nor have I seen any honeybees delighting in the robust white clover growing between two of my vegetable beds. Bumblebees abound, thank goodness, as do various other pollinating insects, but honeybees are notably and sadly missing from my garden this year. How come?

“What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee.” Marcus Aurelius

For several years now I have been reading articles about the ongoing and accelerating collapse of honeybee colonies in the United States and Canada and around the world, resulting in the shocking disappearance of honeybees. I have counted myself extremely lucky to have plenty of honeybees in my garden here in Mendocino given the dire state of honeybee populations elsewhere; but right now there are no honeybees in my garden, and I think I know why. Someone around here is using neonicotinoids.               

Neonicotinoids, as with previous generations of insecticides, kill insects by attacking their central nervous systems. But unlike these predecessor poisons that killed bugs during and shortly after spraying, neonicotinoids are absorbed into the tissues of plants and remain there, fully toxic, through an entire growing season (or seasons) which, of course, includes those weeks and months when the poisoned plants are flowering and being visited by unsuspecting honeybees, who then return to their hives coated with poisonous pollen and poison the entire hive.

The science confirming the direct causal link between neonicintoids and honeybee colony collapse is indisputable, so much so that France, Germany and Italy, among other nations, have wisely banned the use of neonicotinoids. However, the giant pharmaceutical/pesticide companies, including Bayer (of Bayer aspirin fame) that produce and sell neonicotinoids, are spending many millions to dispute the science so they can continue making billions selling this latest greatest poison, of which jillions of gallons are sold and deployed in the good old U.S.A.

“Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.” Friedrich Schiller

Can we agree that manufacturing and knowingly employing a chemical that is the proven cause of honeybee annihilation is stupid and shortsighted? Good. Yet isn’t it interesting that people acting in such stupid and shortsighted ways are frequently (as in most of the time) the captains of industry and the rulers of nations? Why would this be? Darwin suggested that Nature selects for traits that aid in the continuation of a species. If that is true, then stupidity must contribute (or have contributed) greatly to the survival of the human species, for why else would stupidity of such epic proportions be so prevalent in so many human societies and a dominant trait of leaders in those societies?

I realize that traits often come in bunches, and that avarice and greed and cruelty and narcissism might be bundled with stupidity to give certain individuals a survival edge over others. But it still seems odd to me that people who knowingly extinct honeybees should have any advantage over those who dedicate themselves to making the world a wonderful place to be a bee.

If you suppress grief too much, it can well redouble.” Moliere

I am very sad about the disappearing honeybees and our collective unwillingness to put an end to the cause of their disappearance. I am also very sad about the broken down nuclear power plants at Fukushima continuing to radiate the earth and the ocean (speaking of incredible shortsightedness and stupidity) and our collective unwillingness to shut down all the nuclear power plants in the world. Then, too, I am sad about our collective unwillingness to address the gigantic problem of human overpopulation. I am also sad that…well, the list is long and I will only add that for the first time in forty years of growing garlic, I am losing a sizeable portion of my crop to root maggots. And though there is no obvious causal connection between the absence of honeybees in my garden this year and this onslaught of root maggots, I cannot help feeling the two phenomena are related.

I have no doubt that a pharmaceutical agribusiness consultant would tell me, “Now see, if you had drenched your young garlic plants in neonicotinoids, or better yet planted garlic cloves soaked in neonicotinoids, you wouldn’t have a root maggot problem. No sir, because neonicotinoids kill bugs dead and keep on killing.”

“Insects are born from the sun. They are the sun’s kisses.” Alexander Scriabin

When I was ten and eleven, I was an avid collector of butterflies and insects. I had several cigar boxes filled with specimens of dragonflies and bumblebees and beetles and wasps. Each specimen was carefully skewered on a long pin that passed through the insect body at a perfect balancing point and then stuck firmly in the bottom of the cigar box. A small square of paper identifying the bug—both the common name and the Latin name—was skewered on that same pin beneath the specimen. My butterflies were displayed in black-framed cases of glass pressing down on specimens arrayed against a background of white cotton, an ensemble suitable for hanging on the wall.

I had an excellent butterfly net and a glass jar half-filled with solidified gypsum plaster soaked in formaldehyde. Most bugs dropped into this jar with the cover quickly affixed would die in a matter of seconds, though there were some beetles and larger butterflies that lived on for several terrible minutes before dying. I did not like killing things, but I loved hunting for butterflies and bugs, and I wanted to have fine specimens of every insect in my domain. I remember it took me dozens of attempts before I successfully skewered a mosquito so it appeared to be a mosquito rather than a squished blob of protoplasm.

One day while roaming the fields, I caught sight of a Black Swallowtail butterfly, a species rarely seen in our watershed, and I was desperate to catch her, for then my collection would be second to none in the neighborhood. I chased that big beautiful butterfly over hill and dale, and though she eluded me for a good long time, she eventually alighted on a bush of bright red flowers and I netted her and killed her in a tizzy of triumph.

But when I added her beautiful black-winged body to the case in which I displayed my most spectacular butterflies, I suddenly felt stupid and mean; and I never hunted butterflies again and nevermore showed off my insect collection to admiring friends. Not that I think there is anything wrong with a child collecting insects. I learned a great deal by doing so, and I had many wonderful adventures while questing for those marvelous beings. But ultimately I realized that I was trying to catch happiness and keep it in a box, which turns out to be impossible. Better to leave the bugs to live their lives as they leave us to live ours, with the exception of ticks and mosquitoes. I do try to kill those little buggers when they come to bite me.