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November 28, 2009

My Audience & Editorial Policy

Road closed sign 


I got an interesting comment on a post I wrote a year ago.  Goes to show how things live on once posted to the Internet.   The commenter said that I was delusional, full of myself and a con artist.   I admit that I was a little taken aback.  I can understand the delusional and full or myself accusations, but con artist just doesn’t make any sense.  The guy didn’t like what I wrote about nature and how I mange my forest lands.  You can read the original post and his comment at this link.  I admit that I chose a provocative title and I guess it provoked ... eventually.   I invited this guy to write 500 words rebutting me and I promised to post it. I doubt anything will come of it.

People sometimes send comments directly to me, which I don’t publish.  I publish almost anything else anybody sends in, but I don’t get too many complaints or comments in general.  

My Audience & Editorial Policy

The “delusional” comment made me think about my “editorial policy”.  I don’t really have one.  I write the blog mostly for my friends and relatives.  I know I have acquired some “online” friends and I am grateful for their continued support.  The statistics tell me that we get around 600 visitors on a good day, but most are just from search engines hitting on some of the pictures.  I figure only that only a couple of dozen people regularly read what I write.  During my time in Iraq I know that some families of the PRT & USMC colleagues read the blog for general information about the situation their loved ones faced in Anbar.  I am glad that I could provide that service.  I suppose most of them have wandered off now that I am out of Iraq.   Given the personalized, idiosyncratic nature of my interests and all things considered, I don’t have a “general” audience.

But let’s get to the question of editorial policy.  There is a valid question about how comprehensive, balanced or fair any writer should be.  Some people worry about this, but it is not something I struggle with.  I am honest and try to be as accurate as I can.   But I feel absolutely no obligation to be fair, balanced or comprehensive.   Mine is only a miniscule contribution to a very large whole, one piece of a very large puzzle.  Presumably those looking for a variety of views will gather mine along with a lot of others and make up their own minds.   

I think that is a good policy for a blogger who writes for nothing and doesn’t promote his blog.

I believe in pluralism.  We need to have a lot of ideas put forward and tested against each other.  Our goals should NOT be to achieve consensus or hold each other accountable, beyond the basic imperatives to be honest, remain reasonable and stay reasonably civil. We should also not try to clip our ideas to fit the sensibilities of others.  That is the good thing about pluralism.  You don’t have to be inclusive. Those who are offended can go someplace else where they feel appreciated, not merely tolerated.  That is all I can offer.  

Do Not Block the Way to Inquiry

We need to express our idea AND be willing to accept criticism.   Everybody is entitled to his/her opinion but nobody is bound to respect them.   Too much respect won’t help us find useful truth. Conflicts, corrections, experimentation and restatements are how we come closer to truth. We never get to possess THE truth, BTW, but we will get closer to useful knowledge.  (THE truth has no meaning outside religion.) Building knowledge is an iterative process.  We try something, learn something, adjust and try again.  This goes for individuals, organizations and societies.   “Do not block the way to inquiry,” is what the philosopher Charles Saunders Pierce said and he was right.

November 26, 2009

November 2009 Misc

Thanksgiving Turkey

The kids are back for Thanksgiving and it is nice to have them home.  We had the usual turkey dinner, probably for the last time.  I don’t mean this is our last time together (hope not) but we decided that nobody really likes turkey that much.  Next year we will have something else.  My favorite parts of the meal are the potatoes and stuffing with some corn on top. 

We see wild turkeys down at the farm.  I read that they are elusive.  They don’t see very elusive, just dumb.  Sometimes they just wander onto the road.   The return of the wild turkey is one of those unlikely ecological success stories.   They were rare just a generation ago.  Some experts said they could never come back in large numbers because they required larger ranges than they could have in a settled modern countryside.  Turns out that nature is much more adaptive than that and that turkeys can live and prosper in close contact with settled civilization.  


22nd St on way to State Department 

Taking a Different Way

My walk down 23rd St. from Foggy Bottom Metro to the State Department is less pleasant than the trip I used to make along the Smithsonian.  The sidewalks are a little narrow and you have to jostle with lots of other pedestrians.  There also seems a surplus of smokers getting in their last drag on the way to work.  It stinks up the sidewalk, even in the open air.

But it is easy to avoid this.  All I have to do is walk one block down.  It is quiet and uncrowded.  It adds less than five minutes to the trip.  Sometimes solutions are easy.  

But it still isn’t as nice as Smithsonian walk.  One of the little things nice about walking along the Mall is the tactile and auditory pleasure of walking on a firm gravel path.

Nutty as a Fruitcake

I don’t know why so many people make fun of Christmas fruitcakes.  I like them and I am happy to see them on the store shelves this time of year.  They are packed with nuts and packed with calories, so I have to be careful not to eat too much, however.

Japanese maple  

Maple Leaf

The Japanese maple in the front yard turns differently each fall.    The leaves tend to hang on well into the cold weather, but the colors are different.  I suppose it depends on the weather and when the first hard frost comes.  A couple years ago we got an early frost that killed the leaves before they were ready to let go.  The colors weren’t very nice, but some of the leaves persisted until they were pushed off by the new growth in the spring. This year was cool and rainy, but we haven’t had a hard frost yet.   I think that is why the tree is such a bright red this year.

November 25, 2009

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old

monument to children of 1944 Warsaw uprisingIt is great to reach out to adversaries and open a dialogue even with enemies, but in our zeal to make friends of those who have never much liked us, let’s not forget the ones who have stood with us in the past.  Good relationships also require maintenance.  When it is all said and done and when our overtures & concessions to those who don’t like us have produced what results they will, I hope we don’t look around and find we have fewer dependable good friends left.

On the left is a monument to the children of the Warsaw uprising of 1944.  Stalin encouraged the uprising, but then paused to give the Nazis time to destroy the Polish resistance.  The Soviets also interfered with relief efforts mounted by the U.S. and other allies.  As many as 200,000 were killed and 700,000 expelled or escaped, many moving through the sewer system to avoid Nazi patrols. The Nazis systematically destroyed Warsaw in retaliation.

I am upset about a little thing.  I got an email from a Polish friend about an obscure museum in rural Virginia is installing a bust of Joseph Stalin in a place of honor along with those of Churchill & Roosevelt in the D-day Monument.   Friends in Poland have noticed.  It might not matter much ... usually, but it comes on top of some recent events and missteps on our part. 

In September, we announced we were backing out of our agreement on missile defense with Poland and the Czech Republic.   Presumably, this would help with outreach to the always sentimental Vladimir Putin and the decision is justifiable on many grounds.   But we announced it on the very day – the 60th anniversary of the day – when Soviet Armies invaded Poland in 1939.  The next month, it was announced that President Obama would not attend ceremonies marking the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Although that took place in Germany, the fall of the Wall was a big deal for Poland and Poles feel justifiable pride in what they did to hasten the destruction of the Iron Curtain.  The fact that the President travels so frequently to foreign destinations made the absence in Berlin seem more calculated than it was in fact.

Below are pieces of the Berlin Wall.  I got them when I was in Berlin in 1990.  Of course, they could have been any clunks of concrete, but I got them near the Wall and there seem to have been lots of chunks from the Wall available so I figure it was real enough.

Pieces of the Berlin Wall 

Then a couple days before the Obama-free Wall ceremonies, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that Poland would not be eligible for the visa waiver program any time soon.   This is a bigger deal in Poland than it would seem to us. I would hasten to add that Napolitano’s decision is sound by the criteria of the program, but if you are looking at this sequence of events from Warsaw or Krakow, it might seem like your old American friends are turning their backs.

That is why the little Stalin thing is so big.  Stalin was indeed a truly odious man.  He was our ally only because Hitler attacked him – reneging on a deal the two dictators made to jointly rape Eastern Europe. While there can be no doubt that we could not have defeated Hitler w/o the Russians, it is also true that w/o our material aid and the second front, the Nazis could have conquered the Soviet Union.   Stalin gave no more than he had to protect his own power and at the end of the conflict he gobbled up as much as he could and imposed a tyranny on Eastern Europe that long outlived him.  The murderer of tens of millions and the architect of a nefarious system that subjugated almost half the world for almost fifty years is not just another interesting and important historical figure.

This is a case where public diplomacy and the perception of events makes as much differences as the events themselves.  Objectively, our decisions were sound and need not have engendered any practical problems.  The perceptions were different.

I have been Poland-centric in this post, but I have seen similar patterns with other old friends.

“Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold” That is a rhyme I learned in second or third grade.  

It is easy to be beguiled by the possibilities of new relationships.  But dealing with countries is not the same as kids making new friends on the playground.  For one thing, there are no “new kids”.   Every relationship already has a history, usually going back generations.   There may well be a good reason why we don’t get along well.  Sometimes we have conflicting goals.   Often our aspirations do not mesh.   Sometimes it is an identity problem.   There are leaders in the world who derive much of their personality and power from their stance of being opposed to the U.S.   If they couldn’t blame us for their troubles, the blame might fall on them.

King's Palace in Warsaw 

Above is the King's Palace In Warsaw.  The Nazis destroyed it and all of Warsaw in 1944.  The Poles rebuilt.  It was in front of this Palace that President Clinton in 1997 announced our support of Polish NATO membership. Poland formally became a NATO member in 1999.

On the other hand, we have shared interests and shared identities with many countries.   Our allies in Europe, for example, remain our strongest cultural, security, trading and investment partners.   Things generally proceed so smoothly among us that we pay little attention.   Remember our good friends the Japanese and recall when we were not so good friends.   It is a lot better now, isn’t it?  How about our border with Canada?  Good thing on both sides that it is secure and peaceful.  I could make a longer list, but I would inevitably leave somebody out and feel bad about it.  But as I said up top, good relationships do not maintain themselves.  It is a lot less exciting and you cannot do something unprecedented by maintaining the familiar paths, but you often have to pay MORE attention to your friends than your foes. 

It is sort of like the unglamorous job of maintaining underground infrastructure.  It doesn’t seem very important until the water main breaks washing away your car and drowning your cat.

Another childhood story pops to mind.   Remember the Aesop fable about a dog holding a bone in his mouth?  He sees his refection in a pond and thinks there is another dog down there with a bone as big as his own.  He wants that bone too.  So he jumps into the water to take it, only to lose what he had and just come out boneless, frustrated and all wet.

November 24, 2009

The Bureaucracy Has No Memory

Dreary day in Washington on Nov24 

A significant part of my pay could be “performance pay” now that I am in the Senior Foreign Service (Senior Executive Service) and don’t get automatic increases.  I didn’t get to compete for performance pay for 2007/8 because of a technicality – Congress acted too late on my class’ promotion and we were not in grade long enough to qualify according to the State Department’s arcane rules.   (Ironically, however, they acted quick enough that I lost my overtime pay in Iraq and ended up taking a pay cut because of my promotion. It won’t be until the middle of next year that I make up the money I lost by being promoted.) This year I just didn’t get performance pay.  I am a little surprised.  

This was the last performance report that included Iraq.  Next year my Iraq experience will be buried under the relative obscurity of this Washington assignment.  If I didn’t deserve performance pay for Iraq, I certainly should not get it for Washington, so my prospects don’t look good. Iraq was about the best I can do.  I am beginning to feel unpopular.

In fairness, my colleagues are doing lots of important things in Embassies overseas and in Washington.  I don’t doubt the merit of those on the list. 

But being a PRT leader in Iraq seemed a bigger deal to the Department when they asked me to take the assignment. They dragged me out of the job I had and made me feel that delay of even a couple of days was disastrous.  It sure seemed important. Of course, the perceived value of a service declines rapidly after that service has been performed and there has, anyway, been a shift in priorities.   You get little advantage being tied to yesterday’s urgency, no matter how important they told you it was at the time.  

I said when I signed on for Iraq that I did NOT do it for career advancement and I was telling the truth.  I remain glad that I volunteered.  I derived immense satisfaction from doing the job there. I worked with great colleagues and I am convinced that there are people alive in Iraq today who would not be had we not done the work we did.   I would not change my decision.

Nevertheless, it bothers me a little to conclude that I would likely have been in a better career position, at least in terms of contacts & assignment prospects, had I not volunteered, had I kept and built on the good job I had in September 2007. Things moved along w/o me while I was literally wandering in the desert.  It is my own fault too. I did a poor job of reconnecting.   I thought I could just pick up where I left off; I was mistaken. 

Chrissy says that I don't get mad enough about these sorts of things and that I need to develop a stronger sense of entitlement. Sometimes the people who make the most noise get the most recognition. I tend to downplay hardships and achievements and I am not prone to anger. I am mad about not being recognized for my Iraq service, but this is about the extent of my rage.

"Do it because it is the right thing to do, but remember that the State Department talks a lot about the importance of the mission and the people who do it, but the bureaucracy has no memory."  That is what I will tell the people who ask my advice on taking on hard assignments.

It is a dreary, depressing day, both in terms of the weather (as you can see from the picture above) and my outlook, but the sky will brighten up and so will my situation.    I plan to wallow in self-pity for a little longer; then I will stop and try to do something useful again.  

November 23, 2009

Meta-Purposes & Why Measurements of Public Diplomacy are Usually Flawed

Teatro Sao Pedro in Porto Alegre 

Something of Lasting Value – A Community

I knew an interesting woman called Eva Sopher who ran the Theatro São Pedro in Porto Alegre.  She helped me understand the meaning of cultural treasures.  The Theatro was being refurbished and put under the direction of a foundation to conserve the building and protect its traditions.  They weren’t doing many plays, so the “output” was low.  If you wanted to put on plays, you could have much more efficiently done so in many other locations or built a new theater.  Donna Eva explained why we should in a different direction.

The plays actually performed, she explained, were just a small part to the output of a cultural institution.   From the cultural point of view, the preparation, rehearsals, production and venue were probably more important.   The Theatro created a cultural community that included not only the theater goers and actors, but also the myriad of others who supported the enterprise.  This was part of a tradition that stretched back centuries and with any luck would continue for centuries into the future. It was a task that was never done and could never be done.  There was no finish line.  She didn’t use the tired cliché, but I will.  The journey was more important than the destination.  In fact the real purpose of the “product” – a successful play - was to support the other parts of the community that made it happen.

Eva Sopher was impressive and it was her force of personality that drove this lesson home to me.  It takes year to develop this kind of personal integrity.  That too is a cultural output.  Her personal story was compelling.  She was born in Germany to a well off Jewish family.  They wisely left Germany and took refuge in Brazil when it became clear that the Nazis were literally out for their blood.   She embraced the country of her choice and enriched its culture.

“Objective” Measures Don’t Capture Unique Value

Imagine trying to measure Eva Sopher’s effectiveness with “objective measures.”  What did she really do that you could capture in numbers?   Twenty-five years ago she spoke to a first-tour American diplomat and convinced him to give her a very small grant and sponsor a musical program that drew less than thirty attendees.  Yet she gave me something I could keep and remember.  Her influence on me was never manifest in any way a bean-counter could capture. My subsequent influence on others is completely out of the picture.  I don’t remember what kind of grant we gave her, but it as within my discretionary money so it could not have been more than a couple hundred dollars and that is all the research would count.

How about from my side? Did I waste my time having tea with this old lady?  I would be hard-pressed to show a concrete public diplomacy outcome from having her as a friend and having the Consulate reach out to her and ensconcing us as an honorary part of her community.


What Good is a Speaker?

I was talking to a researcher about our speaker program.  I was a consumer of speakers when I worked in posts overseas and used to run the speaker program in Washington, so I know something about it.    The idea is the measure the effectiveness of the speakers we send overseas.  It costs a fair amount of money to send someone overseas, so it is good to measure, but the measures are inadequate.

They talked about measuring the number of people who listened to the speaker.  Moving a step up the sophistication pyramid, they also talked about estimating the number of people who may know the direct listeners, a secondary audience.  Of course, they would measure any media that came out.   What is wrong with this? Time.  It doesn’t measure the effects over time.  Refer again to my Eva Sopher example. 

But there is a bigger flaw in this sort of measurement.  It doesn’t account for the meta-purposes.   When I gave the grant to the Theatro São Pedro, I really didn’t care if they did a performance or did anything “useful” with the money at all.  My grant was a kind of an ante-up or earnest money.   I was buying my way – the Consulate’s way – into the game, making us a part of that community. 

This is how good public diplomacy folks use the speaker program.   Bringing a speaker to an event is a way of opening a door to a community.  We cab piggy-back on the speaker’s expertise.  Bringing an expert on architecture, for example, makes us honorary experts too.  It puts the Embassy’s public affairs into the game.  Frankly, the message delivered on any particular occasion is usually the secondary effect.  The primary goal is relationship and community building.   So if you measure effectiveness by number of people who received a message, you have problems.

“Who?” May be More Important than “How Many?”

And that doesn’t even account for the “who” question.  If I shout out my window I may reach 100 people with my message. But if they don’t care or cannot do anything about what I am saying, it is a complete waste.  We often fall into the numbers trap.  It is seductive but pernicious.

Is There a Better Way?

You might be expecting me to say something about what we should do.  After all, I made such a big run up to it.   But I can’t.   I think that we should indeed measure numbers, reach, output etc.  But we have to recognize that there is a very big area of unknown and objectively unknowable stuff out there.   It is like the dark matter of public affairs.   It is the place where we have to apply judgment.  So I have no universal fix.  You have to use judgment in particular cases.

Indispensible Judgment

Judgment – now that is a slippery term and not a very popular one.  We like to get every process down to close detail so that we can be perfectly fair and consistent.   But the world doesn’t work like that.   We can program something only to the extent that we completely understand it and with the expectation that things will happen in the future as they has in the past.  Human affairs don’t work that neatly most of the time. So let’s indeed gather information and analyze it.   But then trust the judgment of the people we have trained and educated to make the right choices.   

Otherwise we will go with today’s tabloids and ignore the Eva Sophers. 

Gated Communities & Defensible Space

crossroads at planned communityWe stopped at the remains of a small artillery fort on the Petersburg battlefield.   These days it is located in the middle of a neat planned community.  As you see in the nearby picture, they don’t have much imagination when it comes to naming streets.  We lived in a nice community in Londonderry, NH.  It was built around a man-made lake and had a lot of green space snaking through.  These were not gated communities, but they are limited access.

I have mixed feelings about gated communities.   Their closed characteristics vaguely offend my egalitarian impulses. I also don’t like the basic layout of the gated communities I have seen.   They are not conducive to walking.  They tend not to have shops or attractions you get to w/o driving a car. 

On the other hand, there are ample recreational opportunities.   Most of these places come with clubhouses and pools and running trails are often usually well laid out. The ones near natural areas tend to have hiking trails connected with the living areas. 

They are also reasonably secure.   The gates keep out troublesome people.  That sounds like a terrible thing to say, but most people really don’t want to open themselves up to all sorts of aberrant behaviors.  A city neighborhood no longer provides “defensible space.”  Everybody has the “right” to come around.   This is a problem.

I admit it.  I don’t like lots of street people around.   For one thing, they compete with me for places to lie around.  I like to run and at the end of a run, or just in the middle of a walk, I like to lie on the grass or on a bench in the sun, look at the clouds and/or take a nap.  This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – unless you have lots of boozers or street people more or less permanently occupying the prime real estate.  They make hanging around a bad practice.   I suppose my specific habits are a little peculiar, but I think most people just don’t want to be bothered by weirdoes.   Beyond that, I don’t want my eccentric habits to be lumped in with theirs. 

Moon over natural area in Marana, Az 

We have be admonished by a generation of after school specials and public service announcements to be accepting of everybody.  This is BS.   A community – any community – is inclusive of members and exclusive to others.   Members must observe some basic rules of behavior and contribute in some way to the community.  We have obligations to our fellow human beings, but these obligations are not open-ended.  We are under no obligation to accept everyone on THEIR terms.  

Williamsburg VA 

That is why we need defensible social space and we need defensible physical space, places where we feel comfortable and secure.   When the greater society cannot or will not provide or even allow such space, people seek it in the form of gated communities.

Diorama of Indian village on the site of Montgomery, Alabama 

If you cannot defend your work and your community, you will build nothing.  That is the whole basis of civilization.  Even if it offends the romantic in us, property, compassion and civilization clearly go together. 

You cannot be generous until you have something of your own to give.  When the kids were little, we didn’t force them to share everything.  After they felt secure in their own stuff, they became generous on their own.   This applies to larger communities too.     

November 20, 2009

Visiting Mr. Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable guy.  The thought deeply about almost everything and made the world a better place.  On his tombstone he wanted to be remembered for founding the University of Virginia and authoring the statutes of religious freedom of Virginia the Declaration of Independence.  Any one of those accomplishments would make him a great man.   He didn’t even mention being president of the United States.

Alex Matel and Thomas JeffersonWe first visited here in 1985.  Chrissy was pregnant with Mariza and I remember thinking that it would be nice if our expected child could become part of this legacy by going to Thomas Jefferson’s university.  She did.   So besides his contributions to our freedom and prosperity, I have a very personal reason to thank Jefferson.

Monticello is owned and run by a private foundation that makes its money from ticket sales and donations.  The foundation supports historians, archeologists and researchers in addition to maintaining the house and grounds.  

Alex and I talked about the pros and cons of a private foundation.  It seems like a place like Monticello should be government owned, but why?  A private foundation is more flexible and can often do a better job.  Many of our best American universities are private and they are the best in the world. A foundation works out just fine for Mr. Jefferson's home.  

Jefferson always considered himself a farmer.  He grew tobacco and wheat as cash crops and produced vegetables, apples and other fruit for consumption on the farm.  Like other plantations, Monticello was self-sufficient when possible.  They made their own bricks from local clays. Carpenters from the estate made furniture from the wood of the local forests.  Jefferson owned 5000 acres, which gave him a diverse landscape to draw from.  Below is Jefferson's vegetable garden.  It is set up to take advantage of warming winter sun.

Thomas Jefferson's garden 

Jefferson was an active manager of his estate. Washington's Mt Vernon actually turned a profit, not so Jefferson's Monticello.  The difference was top management.  Washington didn't have Jefferson's intellect, but he had practical abilities.  Jefferson was an idea man.   And his house - and our country - is full of his ideas, but he was not a good businessman. He died deep in debt and his heirs had to sell Monticello.

Jefferson's marketOf course, Jefferson didn't do much of the real work. The paradox of Jefferson the hero of freedom is Jefferson the slave owner.  Slavery had existed since the beginning of history, but by Jefferson's time the Western world was beginning to see the moral contradictions of the practice.  Jefferson shared the revulsion of slavery in theory, but couldn't bring himself to take the practical and personal steps against it.  I guess he was just a true intellectual in that respect and unfortunately remained a man of his times. 

In any case, Jefferson's contributions far outweigh the negatives of his personal life. All human being are flawed.  They make their contributions based on what they do best, not what they do poorly.  

We Americans were truly blessed during our founders generation.  Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton & Madison all were greats.  But the remarkable thing is how their skills and even their personalities complemented each other, even when they fought and hated each other. Their differences created harmony and their joint efforts filled in for some serious individual flaws.

The American revolution is one of the few in world history that actually worked (i.e. didn't end in a bloodbath followed by despotism). We can thank good luck & favorable geography.  But the biggest factor was the moral authority, courage and intellect of our first leaders.  We are still living off their legacy. 

Visitors' Center at Monticello 

Above is the visitor's center that opened last year. In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, it takes advantage of natural forces and uses appropriate technology.  This is a green building, earth sheltered, energy efficient and heated & cooled to a large extent by geotheromal energy.  The wood and natural stone construction is simple, but elegant.  I like it.

November 19, 2009

Nobility at Appomattox

We got to Appomattox too late yesterday, so we had to go this morning.  It is not the big tourist season, so we had the place largely to ourselves. 

Alex at crossroads in Appomattox 

I like these kinds of communities, with the old fashioned houses and the open spaces.  Alex thought the houses were “lame.”   But it is interesting to stand at the cross roads of history.   They have done a good job of preserving and restoring the historical area, but I think they should get some animals.   The community of the time would have featured horses, pigs, cows and chickens.  Well … probably not exactly in April 1865, when the starving soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia would have made short work of such rations on the hoof, but in normal times a community like this w/o animals would not be normal.   I bet the Park Service could get some farm hobbyists to do it for nothing. 

Robert E Lee at Appomattox 

I thought back to April 1865 and the starving ragged Confederates up against Union forces that were better off but still not properly rationed.   Both armies were exhausted.   Robert E. Lee made the horrendous decision to surrender and the enlightened decision not to keep the fighting going on by guerilla tactics, as President Jefferson Davis wanted.   The South was finished.  No reason for more men to die and the country to be torn up even more for a lost cause.   Grant and the Union made it as easy as it could be in such circumstances.  

Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox

There was generosity, nobility and honor on both sides.   April 9, 1865 was truly a day when humanity showed its better side amidst terrible suffering and hatred.    As I wrote before, this is a even unique in human history.  

Grant later wrote, "I felt… sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people had ever fought."

There is no such thing as destiny.  People make history. If Grant, Lee or Lincoln had been lesser men - ordinary men - blood would have continued to flow and our great nation may have never recovered.  But it could have been different.

Lincoln was there in spirit and he was a motivating force behind the generosity that Grant was able to give, but within a few days Lincoln would be dead, shot by that cowardly actor John Wilkes Booth. Had Booth struck a week earlier it is not likely that Grant could have offered such terms to Lee.  The conflict might have continued as a desperate war of extermination. 

Grant’s close friend William T Sherman would soon be similarly generous with General Joe Johnston, who would also prove as honorable as Robert E. Lee. 

We all remember Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but the Second Inaugural is my favorite.   It is not very long, so I copied it entire.  I especially like the last paragraph.


T this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.


  On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.


  One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

  With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

November 18, 2009

Powerful English

It is LESS important for a speaker of English to learn another language than it has ever been.  I am aware that this statement will sound backward and xenophobic to many,  but as a person who spoke three languages fluently (Portuguese, Norwegian & Polish), one “enough to get by (German) and two with decent reading ability (Latin & Greek), I feel I have some standing about this subject.

Let me bring up the caveat right at the start.   If you plan to live in a country or stay there a long time so should learn the language.  Learning a second language is also a hallmark of a good education. Not to do so is indeed backward and xenophobic.    What I am talking about here is the usefulness of“general” foreign language ability.   This is the one that pundits fret about and scold Americans for not doing.  Their criticism actually stems from their own ignorance and/or not having thought through the problem.

Which One?

There are hundreds of languages spoken around the world.   Even if you limit yourself to “world languages,” those spoken by lots of people in several countries*, there is too big a choice.   I know from experience that learning a language well is very hard and a monumental commitment of time.  KEEPING a language fluent is perhaps a greater challenge.   You really cannot just collect languages and pull them out when you need them.  So if you don’t have a specific plan to go to a region, which language should you learn?

The question is easy for a non-English speaker.   English is THE world language.  There are You can find English speakers everyplace you go.  No other language is like that.  We Americans think of Spanish as widespread because we see so many Spanish speaking immigrants and live near Mexico.  But try using Spanish anyplace outside the Americas or north of the Pyrenees in Europe.  Even in Spain itself you may have trouble in Catalonia if you learned your Spanish in Latin America. Chinese is spoken more people than any other language, but almost all of them live in one place.  Fluency in Chinese in non-Chinese communities is uncommon. 

BTW - the Chinese are finding their relative lack of English a problem in their international relationships.   Generally Engish is the key to economic success and all over the world people are climbing over each other to learn it.   There is no more useful language.  

The Power of the Network

I could go on.  Suffice to say that if you were to be located in a random inhabited place on the earth and asked find somebody within 10 miles whose language you could understand, ONLY English would give you a significant chance of success. You might not find a native English speaker, but you would almost certainly find an English speaker.

The power of English is kind of an open secret. It seems arrogant for Americans or Brits to talk about it openly.  Language is tied up with culture and identity, so people have strong emotional interests in pushing their favorite languages.  But no matter what people say, the REVEALED preference is clear. And I don't think it will reverse, even if the relative political and economic power of the U.S. and other English speaking countries declines. 

The "network effect" is strong and self reinforcing.  BTW - the network effect refers to the accumulating advantages of adding more people.  If there is only one telephone in the world, it is useless.  The more you add, the better it gets. At some point, it becomes almost impossible to NOT join the network.  This doesn't mean the network is objectively the best.  English is not the "best" language in the world; it is just the most useful.

Switching is Hard

The power of the network is increased when it is difficult to switch and it is very difficult to switch languages.  Most people really do not have the talents to become multi-lingual in any meaningful way.  I know I certainly do not.  And even if you do have the talent for learning languages, if you don't have the opportunity for constant practice, you cannot keep them.

I think many people underestimate the difficulty in REALLY learning a language and/or overestimate their own language skills.  If you studied really hard and took four years of French or Spanish in HS, you have probably NOT learned that language. If you took a summer course in Chinese, you have NOT learned that language.  Being able to ask direction to the train station or ordering dinner is nice, but unless you can have a nuanced discussion about an important subject, you really are not there.

If you want a rough guide to how well you are speaking a second language, see how long it takes for a native speaker to compliment you on how well you speak their language.  Generally, the faster they praise your skills, the worse you are doing.  Think about that.  If you run into a person with a foreign accent who speaks English well, do you feel the need to compliment him on his English?  We only notice if there is a struggle.  I have observed this in my work.  When I first get to a country, everyone tells me how well I speak the language.  I am happy to report that the compliments become less common the longer I am there.

It takes an FSO six months to get to a basic level of an easy language like French or Spanish.  That means six months of full-time (i.e. all day, everyday, all week), small group instruction.  For a harder language like Polish it is almost a year, two years for languages like Chinese or Arabic.  And that gets you only to a MINIMUM professional level.  And then if you don't practice, it goes away.  Really learning a language is essentially a life-long effort.

Since we probably cannot learn more than one second language well enough to call it learned, or we cannot maintain it even if we manage to learn it,  the world is de-facto stuck with choosing one "network language". What will it be?

Much of international English today is exchanged among non-native English speakers.  A group of international business people from from Germany, Japan, Brazil and Egypt will almost certainly have to speak English among themselves. 

This is a great thing for native English speakers.  I remember talking to a Norwegian a long time back.  He spoke what seemed to me perfect English, but he told me that Americans were lucky because they were "never foreigners."  I didn't understand what he meant, so he explained.  Most international conferences featured English, even though most participants were not native speakers. Americans could just jump in.  Others had to do so in a second language.  I felt his pain.  I have spoken other languages fairly well, but it is never the same. 

Language Does Not Mean Identity

I understand that some people reading this might take some offense at what I say about English and the others. This is illogical and based on the idea that languages define or "belong" to particular groups and deserve respect or deference as a part of identity.  (None of my ancestry is from English speaking countries. Should I have learned Polish or German before English?) That makes language choice a value judgment.  It need not be that.  You can still study languages and cultures for their intrinsic value (defined as you like).  I studied Greek and Latin and feel I benefited greatly from getting to know the the cultures and traditions of the past.  But for as a practical matter, we are much better served by English, because that is the one we will have to use now and in the future.

So which language should an American learn if he has no plans to live or work in a particular part of the world?  It would be good to get those math skills in order.  

*    World languages would include Arabic, Chinese, English French, Portuguese & Spanish.  We used to include Russian and German too.

November 17, 2009

Trench Warfare & Ending a Great Hatred

Alex and I visited the battlefields associated with the Petersburg Campaign and Robert E. Lee’s final retreat.   Petersburg gave the world a taste of what trench warfare would be like.  You go from Federal earthworks to Confederate earthworks.   As in the World War I, the armies were racing around the flanks.  It soon became a grim slog, a war of attrition.  The South could not win this kind of war. They just didn't have enough men or materiel. 

Alex at earthworks in Petersburg 

Above is Alex in front of some of the earthworks.  Below is a reconstruction. 

Fortification reconstruction at Petersburg 

Lee was trying to escape to the west, where he could hook up with General Joe Johnston, while Union forces tried to bottle them up.   Lincoln’s fear was that the war would go on and maybe turn into a guerrilla war.  The Petersburg campaign has that endless war feeling anyway.  They were regularly taking thousands of casualties each DAY.  The soldiers were becoming more accustomed to war and much more cynical. They came to understand that the war in Virginia was ending and nobody wanted to be the last man killed.  There is a good novel about this period called "Last Full Measure" that captures some of the feeling.

Soliders' house at Petersburg 

Above is a soldiers' house.  It looks like a playhouse, but it held four men.   Below is what is left of the crater. Union miners from Pennsylvania made a tunnel under the Rebel positions and blew up Confederate fortifications.  Unfortunately, the attack didn't go well.  Union troops poured into the crater and many were trapped there. It looks bigger in real life.  You also need to remember that there has been almost 150 years of erosion and filling in.

Crater at Petersburg VA 

America’s Civil War was remarkable in its ending.   In France, terror followed revolution.  The Russians and Chinese murdered millions of people in similar situations.  In fact, protracted Civil Wars almost NEVER end without significant retribution and bloodletting.   I think that I can safely say that the ending of the American Civil War was unique in human history.   The victors were generous and the vanquished honorable.  Because it happened as it did, we think of it as inevitable, but the decisions made in April 1865 were not foreordained.

Sailor Creek battlefield 

Grant allowed Lee’s soldiers to keep their side arms and their horses.  Robert E. Lee instructed his men to go home and become good citizens.  Most did.   

Fighting at Petersburg 

I know that some scholars talk about the “myth” of reconciliation and point to the problems that persisted. Some people still hold a grudge for Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas. You have to ask the “compared to what?” question.  In most countries, more people die violently AFTER the wars.  Not in America.  Rebel leaders are usually executed.  The lucky ones are only imprisoned or exiled.  Not here. Can you imagine Cuba exiled welcomes back by the regime?  Russian exiles lured back were usually murdered.  

The Civil War was the worst war in American history.  The destruction was horrendous.  Yet after it ended … it ended.  April 1865 was probably the most remarkable month in world history.  This just doesn’t happen very often – or at all.   I think we should take time to think about this.  If others had learned from the Federal-Confederate example, we might have avoided most of the carnage of the 20th Century.   

Five Forks battlefield 

Above is a battlefield at Five Forks.  When the fight turned into a battle of attrition, most of the engagements were small, but this was a key turning point. Phil Sheridan defeated troops under the unlucky George Pickett, who was off having a fish dinner and didn't return until it was too late. The collapse of the Confederate position at Five Forks led directly to Lee's decision to abandon Richmond & Petersburg.  It was the beginning of the end for the Army of Northern Virginia and for the Southern Confederacy, and so Five Forks is sometimes called the Confederate Waterloo.  There is nothing much to see here today.  The trees and fields have grown back.  It is hard to believe that war was ever close to this peaceful, bucolic place.

November 16, 2009


Espen playing gamesWe have been admonished to make sure our public diplomacy products appeal to a broad gender audience (i.e. also are relevant to women, for as long as I have been in the public diplomacy business.  Our plans always include a section about reaching out to women, as they should.   But our stuff appeals less to another key demographic – boys and young men. 

If you consider who does what to whom, young men are certainly the key.   But the more “inclusive” we make the material, the less it is likely to appeal to young men.  This is not only a gender issue.  It impacts anything where people are different and that means that it impacts everything we do.

I was thinking about this during a presentation on video games and persuasion.   The most popular games – and this cuts right across cultural divides – involve something blowing up.  The only things that come close are car races and sports, and even in these games something often tends to blow up or at least give that sort of visual impression.   Somebody asked if the games could emphasize peaceful cooperation and inclusiveness.   You could do that, but then the game would appeal to a different demographic.  The general rule seems to be if a mixed gender group of bureaucrats likes it, young men won’t. 

All good marketing features segmentation, since no product appeals to everyone equally.    The more something is loved by one group, the more it will probably be disliked by others.  This statement approaches a tautology.  As you specialize and tailor to a particular set of needs or preferences you by necessity remove or modify the traits that appeal to other needs and preferences.    That is why a product that appeals to very large and diverse groups is usually bland.   It can survive and prosper as long as there are no easily obtained alternatives, but given different choices people will make … different choices.

Public diplomacy does a poor job of segmentation.    In fact, there is a significant disincentive to segmentation.   We are asked to be inclusive.   We often get the question, “Sure, this appeals to people in this particular group/region/circumstance/age/gender/income but how does it address the needs of that particular group/region/circumstance/age/gender/income.”   The proper answer is “It doesn’t.”   The things I mentioned above are ways to segment a market.    You cannot design a product for everybody.  Let me modify that.  You cannot design a SUCCESSFUL product for everybody.

If I could point to one impediment that causes us the most problem in public diplomacy, I would say that it is the lack of ability to differentiate our products to appeal to different market segments. We often got around it in a de-facto way at overseas posts, but it is not a new problem and since it has persisted for at least a quarter century, through a wide variety of different challenges and political masters, I have to conclude that the problem is systemic.   It is just very hard to be against something that is inclusive, fair, and comprehensive with a world-wide appeal.  The trouble is that no such thing exists and the search for this chimera not only distracts but actually impedes development of appeals and products that appeal to discrete segments of the audience. 

You just cannot have a club worth being a if anyone can join.

November 15, 2009


I went down to the farm to check for flood damage.  The farm got more than five inches of rain in a couple days, which is about double the usual monthly average for November.  Larry Walker told me that the road flooded and the Meherrin River was seven feet above flood stage. 

flooded forest 

The water was lower by the time I got there, although the creeks are clearly higher than usual.  The forest near the river was still flooded but this is not uncommon even in more “normal” wet weather. There was no serious damage, however. It doesn’t hurt the trees if the water doesn’t stand too long and the sediment deposits are good soil builders.  That is why forestry is so good for watershed protection.  Judging from the sediment deposits, the water spread at least 100 yards from Genito Creek and up the road.  My guess is that it must have been at least eight feet higher than usual.  I have never seen it do that. 

fall colors 

It was lucky that I went down. I got a last look at the fall colors (see above) & I fixed my bald cypress.  The flooding had undercut it. I am very fond of that tree and it is the only one I have on the farm.  I built up the base with rocks and put in some dirt.   That should hold it.  Maybe it will be better rooted by the next time we get such a big flood.

I also had the chance to meet with Larry Walker’s boss to talk about thinning schedules.  He is going to take a look at the Freeman place to see if it makes sense to thin the 86 acres of 1996 pine this year.  It is an exceptionally good stand of trees.  I think that early thinning might be a good idea, even if the pulp prices are low.  Some of the inside trees are already dying back.  You have to balance the benefits with the risks.   Ice storms become a danger the years after thinning, but that will be a problem no matter when you do it.

2006 view of 623 

Above & below is the CP forest from 623 today and three years ago.  The trees did well this year. Notice the cedar tree more or less in the middle. It stands out in the field in the top picture,  You have to look hard in the bottom one, as the pines are now almost as big or bigger. In fact, you can hardly see the pines at all in the top picture.  Of course, seasons are different.


November 14, 2009

Baked Potato Season

You can just about live off potatoes.  I mostly did that during my years in graduate school.   A baked potato topped with a little butter and green beans or sauerkraut is a good meal and really requires nothing else. Potatoes have an unjustly bad reputation. 

Mounument to victims of Irish Potato Famine in Boston 

They got a bad rep from the Irish Potato famine (the monuments above commemorate the refugees who fled Potato Famine and became fine citizens of Massachusetts) but more recently they have been attacked for being a high carbohydrate, high calories food.   A potato has no more calories than an apple of around the same size (potatoes tend to be bigger). The calories come from all the crap we pile on them; it’s the butter, bacon bits, sour cream, cheese and all the other things that add that fat and calories.

Despite their ubiquity central and northern European diets, Potatoes are a native American food.   It took a long time to get Europeans to eat them. Like most “ancient traditions” it is not really very old.  Many people thought they were poison.  The green tubers and sprout are indeed poisonous.   Potatoes and tomatoes are members of the nightshade family and most of the siblings are as dangerous as the ominous family name implies.  But the bigger reason was just habit.   Potatoes are strange.  They are not like other root crops such as carrots or turnips.  In fact, they are a lot more like an apple.  The French even call them pomme de terre or ground apples.

Potatoes baking 

The French Revolution and the generation of violence it provoked across Europe was the catalyst that thrust potatoes firmly into European cuisine.  The edible part of the potato plant grows below ground and so is less at risk when marauding armies trample or burn the crops.   Of course, potatoes were not as good back then.  The potatoes most of us love were developed by Luther Burbank in 1872.  Like the corn & tomatoes, potatoes as we know them are largely a man-made modern creation.   

I still eat baked potatoes seasonally.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First is that potatoes are available and cheap in the fall.   You can get a ten pound bag of potatoes for a few dollars in November or December.  That is why I ate them as a poor graduate student.  (You can get a week’s worth of meals for around $10 even at today’s prices.)  Beyond that, I don’t like to bake during the warm weather months, but it is nice to let the oven warm up the house when the weather turns cold.   I learned to be a cheapskate long ago and I see no reason to change now, especially when my potato habits make sense and potatoes are so good.

Anyway, potatoes are easy to cook, cheap and basically good for you when you add some vegetables and not too much butter or sour cream.  I suppose that is the reason why they are an integral part of a hardy meal.

November 13, 2009

The Desert Speaks

Sonora desert landscape at Bryce Thompson arborteum near Phoenix 

We spent our last day in Arizona at the Bryce Thompson arboretum, where you can see trees and plants native to the desert southwest, the Sonora and Chihuahua regions, as well as those from deserts in South America, Africa and Australia.

Cactus flowers 

Desert landscapes are strange for someone who grew up in Eastern North America, although the Sonora vegetation is vicariously familiar because of all the cowboy movies.   Almost everything has thick skin and thorns and takes a long time to grow. 

Cactus fruit 

The exception is the gum tree or eucalyptus. It is a type of miracle tree from Australia.  It can grow very fast in dry harsh conditions.  This wonderful capacity for growth and adaption has made eucalyptus an invasive species.  It can often out-compete the native desert flora, but it provides little for wildlife to eat.  

Grove of gum trees 

Kuala bears eat the leaves, but most other animal avoid them. I suppose this is because they smell like Halls Mentholypus cough drops and probably taste like them too.  It is an acquired taste.  Like everything else, its value can be judged only in context.  Eucalyptus are great trees to provide shade, cover and erosion control.  They get big. The one pictured below was planted in 1926.  And they are attractive individually and in clumps.

Big eucalyptus tree 

Date palms were familiar from Iraq. Dates are a very productive desert tree.  I have written about them before. I cannot tell them apart, but I understand that there are dozens of varieties.

Date palms 

An arboretum is not only a pretty place. It is also a place to learn about natural communities. They say the desert speaks, but I like to have someone put up a few signs to interpret it for me.  The biggest surprise was an Australian she-oak.  It is not related to our oaks (quercus).  I had absolutely no idea what it was.  Below are Maleah, Diane & Christiana in the date palm grove.

Maleah, Dianne and Christiana 


November 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Ma

My mother was born on this day in 1923.  I never got to know my mother after I was an adult.  She died when I was seventeen.  So my memories are seen through the eyes of a child or at best a teenager.  The one thing that I remember very clearly was that I was always sure that she loved me. Everything else is less important after that and I know that she shaped a lot of my character.

Virginia HaaseOur house was the center of family activity while my mother was there.  She had three sisters (Mabel, Florence & Lorraine) and two brothers (Harold & Hermann) and we had much of the extended family, minus Harold, who I don’t remember ever meeting.  The family didn't get along with his wife, Sophie.  I don't know why.  All the other aunts and cousins would come over to play cards. Usually the cousin would come too, so while I had only one sister, I feel like I had lots of siblings. I really don’t know what card games they played.  I just recall the constant chatter of a kind of mixed German-English.  “What’s spielt is spielt” and “now who’s the high hund?”   

As I wrote above, I didn’t get to know my mother as much as I would have liked to and I am astonished at how much I don’t remember or maybe never knew. Kids are rarely interested in their parents’ life stories until they get older, maybe because they just cannot believe their parents were ever young enough to have anything to say. Besides, kids in my generation spent most of their time outside and away from the house.  Parents and children have much more intense relationships these days, if for no other reason than that they are together when parents drive the kids everywhere and arrange various teams, trainings and activities.  We didn't have a car and we didn't belong to any organized activities. I spent most of my days hanging around outside with my friends who lived nearby and I didn’t ask much.

I know she was born Virginia Johanna Haase (Mariza has her middle name). Her father was Emil and her mother was Anna (Grosskreutz).  She grew up on the South Side of Milwaukee and married my father after the war. Of her childhood, I know little. Her father was an engineer who remained employed throughout the Great Depression, which was evidently a rare achievement. She was an unenthusiastic student in HS and dropped out in the tenth grade, but she always encouraged education for my sister and me.  She worked at Allen Bradley during WWII but not long enough to get Social Security benefits.  After she married my father, she no longer did any paying work, besides occasionally free-lance catering with her sisters.  My mother made really good German potato salad, which was always in demand at family gatherings.

Virginia Haase1Ma was phenomenally good natured and I remember her always being cheerful.  My father told me that he was lucky to get my mother to marry him, since she was extremely popular because of her open personality.  She later became a woman of substance, as you can see in the bottom picture.  My father was fond of big women, so I guess they had a good thing going.  

My father enjoyed beer, but Ma drank only a little.  She had one bottle of Gordon's Gin in the downstairs refrigerator. She had a drink at Christmas and that bottle was down there as long as I remember, only gradually emptying.  It was still half full when she died.

Sad to say that my most vivid memories are from the end of my mother's life.  I was riding my bike up to the Kettle Moraine State forest when my mother went into the hospital for the last time.  It was a big trip that I had planned for some time.  My parents kept my mother’s urgent condition from me so as not to ruin it.  When I called from the pay phone at the lake, my father told me that ma was sleeping.  I thought that was odd, but didn’t think that much about it. When I got home she had gone to the hospital.  I never saw her again.

We talked on the phone, but my mother didn’t want us to visit her in the hospital during the last days. I feel a little guilty about that, but it was a good decision. She wanted us to remember her from better times and I do indeed remember her healthy and happy instead of what I imagine it must have been after the chemotherapy and ravages of cancer.

My father got a call from the hospital about dawn on the day before she died. I heard him talking on the phone and infered what was happening, but didn’t come out of my room when he went to the hospital.  We didn’t handle the whole thing very well, but in retrospect I am not sure how it would have worked out any better if we did things differently. I lived in dread the whole day, but she didn’t die that day. I know it is illogical but I convinced myself that she would be out of the woods if she only survived the day.  

But miracle recoveries happen only on television & in the movies.  

They cut down the last of the big elm trees soon after Ma died. I thought it was symbolic and I paid special attention. She loved those trees and felt bad as they succumbed, one-by-one, to the Dutch elm disease.  The tree by the alley was the last survivor near the house, and Ma was happy to have at least one left.  It was in its yellow fall colors as I watched it fall to the ground.  It was a pleasant fall day with wispy clouds.

Virginia MatelI don’t want to end on this sorrowful note because that is not the end of the story. Among many other things, my mother left me a special legacy. Ma followed my various interests and encouraged them. All I needed to do was mention an interest in something, and soon a book appeared about it.

I have to thank my mother for all the books on dinosaurs, ecology and history. Even more important, she gave me the gift of reading itself. A well organized or impressive child I was not, but my mother had confidence in me anyway in a way that only a loving mother can. My first grade teacher put me into the slow reading group and I lived up to the low expectations. My mother complained to the school, essentially arguing that I was not as dumb as I seemed and my problem was not that the reading challenge was too great, but that it was not great enough to hold my interest. She convinced my teacher to put me into a higher reading group. Although I couldn’t meet the lower standards, I could exceed the higher ones with Ma’s help. This kind of paradox is not uncommon.  I wonder how many kids w/o mothers as good as mine were/are trapped by the gentle cruelty of low expectations. Ma saved me from all that. She just expected me to succeed. I did, by my standards at least.

Thanks Ma. I wish you could have met the grandchildren.  They would have loved you.  

Please check out what I wrote for my father's birthday at this link

November 11, 2009

Grateful Remembrance

Most of the fathers in my neighborhood were veterans of World War II or Korea. I remember them mostly as middle aged guys with short haircuts, strong forearms and thick necks. They were like everybody else in our working-class neighborhood because they were the neighborhood. 

Non-veterans were rare.  We kids just assumedVeteran's Day at Navy Memorial we would go into the military when we reached manhood.  But I grew up just at a turning point.  They stopped drafting young men the year before I turned 18.  The new volunteer military meant that fewer and fewer Americans had any experience with the military.  Many young people today don’t have any close friends or relatives with military experience.  They take their impressions from Hollywood, which exhibits a systemic negative bias toward the military these days. 

That is too bad.  Today’s military is extraordinarily impressive, but many of those who haven’t seen it up close lately are stuck in the old stereotypes. You hear the prejudice when people say that the military is full of poor people w/o other choices. In fact, the opposite is true.  75% of today’s young people are not qualified for military service because they are too fat, too weak, druggies, crooks or dropouts and studies show that the average soldiers or Marines are better in terms of education, health and general attitude than the average civilian Americans of their age.

Until not long ago when I thought of veterans, I still saw those old WWII guys I knew as a kid. There service was twenty years in the past by the time I knew them.  It was distant, almost legendary. Their sacrifices and those of their comrades were equally remote. The Vietnam vets were only a little older than I was, but that war got compartmentalized, with student protesters and hippies taking the starring roles leaving the military as supporting characters, portrayed as victims, villains or psychos.   (BTW – I think that is one reason why movies like “The Men Who Stare at Goats” or “Brothers” infuriate me so much.  I fear that Hollywood is doing to the heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan what they did to those of Vietnam.)  In both cases, they were isolated from my reality.

But on this Veterans’ Day I realize that my views of veterans have undergone a significant change.  It is not only because of my Iraq experience.  Some of it is generational.   I am now older than most veterans and many of the older veterans are nearly my contemporaries.   I am now seeing veterans not as fathers, but as sons.   That has made it more poignant and I have seen it closer.

The death that affected me most was that of PFC Aaron Ward. He was only nineteen and had been in Iraq less than two months when he was shot and killed on May 6, 2008 as he stretched his legs outside his vehicle in Hit (that is the city name).  I knew the place but I didn’t know him or anything about him until I attended the memorial service. His friends described him as a friendly guy who liked to lift weights and joke with friends. Like everyone in Iraq, he was a volunteer who had chosen to serve his country knowing that he would be deployed to a war zone.  He seems a great guy and at the same time an average guy who did the things nineteen year old guys do.  I thought of Espen and Alex and I thought of Ward’s parents. And so this Veteran’s Day and every Veterans Day until the day I die I will pause to remember Aaron Ward.

Brave men and women put their own lives on hold and their own lives at risk to protect ours.  We mourn the fallen, but we should think of our military as heroes, not victims. Most come back healthy and alive.  They bring with them the skills, discipline, maturity and experience from their service to our country defending our freedom. They serve in the military for some years. Then they serve as good citizens for the rest of their lives.  Like those veterans I remember from my Milwaukee childhood, first they defend the country and then they come back to build it and keep it healthy. They deserves the honor and respect we give them on Veterans’ Day and every day.

BTW - Please see my note from last Veterans' Day at this link. 

November 10, 2009

Take it Easy

Lighten up while you still can

Winslow, AZ 

We finally got down to Winslow, Az.  Winslow is world famous among fans of the 1970s pop group “The Eagles,” since one of their hits “Take it Easy” features a hitchhiking vignette when the singer is “…standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.”   We didn’t actually see the corner, although I looked for it and evidently drove past it on the way to Highway 87.

Burning Brush

Smoke from controlled burn near Grand Canyon 

The geography changed as we climbed from the semi-arid grasslands through juniper and back up to beautiful ponderosa pine forests. I regret that it was getting a little late and we were losing the light so I couldn’t tarry longer.  This is part of the Coconino National Forest and the Forest Service was busy burning the brush.  We saw a lot of smoke and even some flames.  You can see the smoke in the distance in the picture above. I am encouraged to see the proactive use of fire to restore the landscapes.  The park-like ponderosa forest, with its interspersed meadows, is one of nature’s most beautiful communities.  Below is a well-managed ponderosa forest.  The ones with the red bark are at least 100 years old.  Younger ones have black bark.

Ponderosa pine woodland along Highway 87 south of Winslow, AZ 

Cool Air and Cooler Sunsets

Although Arizona was experiencing a heat wave, and temperatures in Phoenix were reaching into the nineties, the air in the piney woods was cool.   The thermometer in the car registered 59.  You might think you were driving through upper Michigan.  As I wrote above, we were losing the light and I didn’t want to drive the narrow, curvy roads in the dark, so we cut sideways to catch I-17.  We saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen with red clouds turning purple before going dark.  I think the smoke from the prescribed fires contributed to the color.  I didn’t even bother trying to get a picture.  Beautiful sunset pictures are cliché.   Part of the beauty of a sunset lies in its ethereal & ephemeral elements.  Taking a picture is like trying to grab a handful of air.  

Meadow and forest along Hwy 87  

The picture above is taken near a gas station in Happy Jack, AZ.  Interesting name for a town.  We didn't see the actual town. 

We lost altitude as we approached I-17 and the temperature rose to 81 degrees, in spite of the coming of evening.   It was 86 by the time we got to Phoenix.  Back in the desert.  It is interesting that you can get such changes in such a short time and distance.

November 09, 2009

Navajo & Hopi Nations

Anybody can eat when he is hungry but it takes a real man to eat when he’s full.

CJ at restaurant in Cameron, AZ We went east away from the Grand Canyon into the Painted Desert and the Navajo and Hopi nations.  We stopped at a “trading post” in Cameron. 

Information about our trip through the Navajo nation in 2003 are at this link, BTW. 

They had a nice restaurant with very friendly staff and an old fashioned ambiance.  I had Navajo stew, which tasted a lot like traditional beef stew.  It came with fry bread, which is excellent, and the portions were generous.  Chrissy just had the cheese burger and fries. Usually I help Chrissy finish her lunch.  This time I failed. The fry bread is very filling.

That fry bread is really good. I enjoyed it just by itself and I tried a little with butter and honey. Then I got the great idea that it might be even better if it had some tomato sauce, melted cheese and maybe some sausages and mushrooms.  Maybe I should check to see if anybody else has had a similar idea before I open my restaurant.

Trading post restaurant in Cameron, AZ 

Space & the Eternity Highway

Arizona Open Road 

There is a lot of space out here.  Chrissy joked about those signs you sometimes see on developments, “If you lived here, you would be home already.”  These roads are near nothing. We saw a few lonely cows and horses, but not much else. Sometimes I wondered if we were really moving.  Although we were going 65, the horizon didn’t seem to change. This is the kind of landscape featured on SciFi.   The aliens could abduct you out here and nobody would see.

Proper Picture Protocols

Gas station in Arizona 

We stopped at the Hopi Museum.  I cannot show you pictures from the actual museum. (The best I can do is the cool looking gas station above, which I assume is culturally appropriate.)  A sign at the museum admonished visitors not even to take notes.  The $3 you pay for admission only goes for you.  Other signs warned that you would have your camera confiscated if you took pictures of various villages or activities. So I don’t have pictures of the Hopi stuff.  I have some Painted Desert pictures below.  There was nobody out there or much sign of life in general.

Painted Desert 

I have a good memory and could probably tell you about the things I read and saw at the museum, but they seemed unenthusiastic about this sort of sharing, so better not.   Suffice to say that there were some excellent black and white photos from around a century ago of people and places as well as a display of Kachina dolls with narratives complaining about Kachina doll knockoffs and/or imitations based on the concept. 

There was also a lot of information about a boundary dispute between the Hopi and the much larger and faster growing Navajo Nation. As per instructions, I didn't take notes, but seems that things were not going well. The Navajos and Apache arrived in the area a few hundred years ago and this is only the latest round.  According to the last census, there are almost 300,000 Navajos and fewer than 7,000 Hopi.  The numbers explain a lot.

Painted desert 

I framed an excellent picture in my mind.  Outside the museum there were a bunch of guys selling things like firewood, rugs and Kachina dolls from little stands or the backs of pickup trucks.  In the background were spaced pinon pine trees.  Very picturesque.  But business didn’t seem too good and I was intimidated by the picture prohibition.  I didn’t know if I could take a picture or not, but why chance it?  You can find out all you need to know from “National Geographic” and they have better photographers who know the proper picture protocols. I hope I didn't anger the Kachinas.

November 08, 2009

Teddy Roosevelt & the Lodges

El Tovar Lodge

Above is the hotel were we stayed. The El Tovar lodge has that rustic elegance characteristic of the early 20th Century.  It was built in 1905, financed by the Santa Fe railroad as a sort of rail destination. President Theodore Roosevelt took the first steps to preserve the canyon about that time and the lodges here reflect that muscular personality of Roosevelt and America of that era. The Canyon was declared a national monument in 1908 and a national park in 1919.

moose head 

The dark log walls are studded with actual heads of moose, deer, mountain goats and even bison.  I always wanted a moose head for my wall, but I have never had enough walls to handle something as big as a moose head.   You need a really big room with really high walls.  Actually, you probably need something a lot like the room in a big lodge. Moose are not native to Arizona, BTW, so the head came from somewhere else.

Below is Bright Angel Lodge. 

Bright Angel Lodge 

Movies Not to See

George Clooney is charming; Kevin Spacey is villainous and Jeff Bridges is funny. But don't go to "Men Who Stare at Goats".  You saw all the funny parts already if you saw more than one commercial for the film, so let me spoil the ending.  The "good guys" put LSD into the water and chow of American troops in Iraq and release a bunch of terrorists from jail to the happy sounds of 1960s style music.  Then the two main characters steal a helicopter and fly off. 

At the cinema, they also featured the trailer for another movie to avoid.  It featured Natalie Portman as the wife of a soldier who disappears in Afghanistan. She proceeds to sleep with his brother. The guy is found alive and comes back home and goes crazy.  It seems to me to be part of the usual crazy veteran movie.  Don't go.

So far, Hollywood has produced a steady stream of bad movies related to Iraq and Afghanistan. They don't make money, but they keep on making them.  "Men Who Stare at Goats" is a kind of stealth trashing.  You might not recognize it as such from the trailers or the television commercials.  I liked all the actors.  The idea of the movie is interesting and amusing. They could have just made a funny movie, but they chose to go with the tired old political crap. It sucks. Don't go.

November 07, 2009

Feeble Imitations

Grand Canyon 

The pictures I took of the canyon do not do it justice.  It is hard to get my camera to adjust properly to the combination of bright light and dark shadows.   Even when the light works, the colors don’t show exactly right and it is impossible to convey the depth.  But this is the best I can do.  You will have to come here yourself.

Light spilling into the Grand Canyon 

The light seems to spill into the canyon when the sun is just over the rim.  There is still a little haze in the air.  I think it is left over from prescribed burns to manage the neighborhood forests, as described in earlier posts.

Grand Canyon panorama AM 

Above & below are canyon panoramas.  The bottom one was taken just at dusk, so there are not the shadows.   When you see the canyon in person, the shadows make it much more beautiful as you eyes can move and adjust.  But the pictures come out better w/o the sunlight.  I bet the nicest photos could be made when high clouds blocked some of the direct light. 

Grand Canyon panorama PM 

View Master

The best pictures of the Grand Canyon were the old View Masters I had as a kid.  The canyon seems very familiar to me today because of the many visits I made via View Master.  The simple technology worked great and the fact that we didn't have very many options gave me the exposure I still remember more than forty years later.  

Mules in Grand CanyonThe Real Thing Requires a Little Pain

Everything goes in and out of the Canyon on mules or people.  They don't bring machines, which makes the trails and facilities more primitive and much nicer. 

I hope it never changes. IMO, views and experiences are better when you have to earn them.  Some day I will be too old to make the journey and then I will have only memories and pictures. So sad, but so right.

I don't want it to be made easily accessible for me or anybody else. Not only would that impact nature adversely, the experience of the Canyon would be different and much shallower if you could just drive down in air conditioned comfort or take an elevator.

It is that way with most things.  A rest you earn with good hard work is different and better than when you just get to lay around.  Achievement easily given is not achievement you value. 

Most people stay on top and marvel at the beauty in a more detached way.  Good. Keep it that way. The more spiritual experience requires a little more skin in the game. The sweat and exertion are part of it.  An erzatz version would be worse than nothing, or at best a feeble imitation.  We already have too much of that in today's world. 

Grand Canyon trails 


Four Legs Good; Two Legs Bad

john matel using walking sticks at Grand Canyon 

Chrissy and I went down as far as Indian Gardens.  This is an oasis on the Bright Angel trail and it is the logical terminus of a day hike for a person in average condition.  It took us around three hours to get down but only around two and a half hours to get back up.  It doesn’t make intuitive sense.  I think it is because of all the rocks.  I walk gingerly among them going downhill.  We also had to get to the side of the path to let hikers pass who were coming up or mule trains coming down. There was less oncoming traffic on the return trip and no mule trains came past. 

Christine Johnson on Bright Angel trail 

Of course I am not counting the leisurely lunch-break we spent at Indian Gardens.  The cottonwoods and willow make very pleasant surroundings.  Both are fast-growing adaptive trees but are often unloved because of their weak wood, short lives and susceptibility to wind damage.   Of course, it depends on where they are.  As long as they are not near houses or roads, they do just fine.  Except that they grow in generations, i.e. a lot of them come up the same time and whole clumps grow, live and die together.  This is not a problem except during generational change, when the whole clump of cottonwoods begins to die back about the same time.

cottonwoods at Indian Gardens 


john Matel at top of Grand CanyonThe morning later I my complaining muscles reminded me that I am no longer in the top condition I used to imagine.   The pattern of pain was interesting, more characteristic of overdoing cross country skiing than overdoing ordinary hiking.  I suppose it is because of the poles. 

My legs hurt a lot less than I would have guessed, but my arms, chest and lats are screaming. 

I used to cross country ski a lot when we lived in Norway.  I am sure I used the poles the way the Norwegians taught me, which is to push off in back of your body instead of leaning forward on the sticks. I recognize the feelings.   The good news is the pain confirms that the poles worked.  I pulled myself out of the canyon w/o overstraining my legs or knees.  

As they say (for different reasons) in "Animal Farm", "Four legs good; too legs bad."


The link to my earlier trip down the canyon is at this link.  That time we did it in 117 degree heat and went all the way to the river and back.  That was stupid.  The bottoms of my shoes melted off on the hot rocks. Really. 

This time we had perfect weather. Cool at the top and only warm near Indian Gardens. AND we didn't go all the way down.

November 06, 2009

Route 66 & Moutain Men

Classic Cars at Route 66 Grill on the way to Williams, Az

Route 66 has been replaced by I-40 through Arizona, but the legend remains.  Among the places showing homage to the “mother road” is the Route 66 Grill.  My guess is that the clientele includes a lot of bikers and truckers. You get to (have to) grill your own lunch. I chose bratwurst, since I was reasonably sure that I couldn’t mess up with a pre-cooked sausage. I just had to blacken the outside.

Chrissy grilling at Route 66 Grill 

William Williams of Williams, AzFarther down the road is Williams.  We visited here in 2003 and you can read about that at this link.  Williams has a superb natural location with a nice cool climate in the middle of the ponderosa pine forests on the way to the Grand Canyon, but it is just a little too far out of the way.  It has always been thus.  The town is named for the mountain man (and son of plainly unimaginative parents) William Williams.  According to the plaque at the monument, Williams organized the regional mountain man rendezvous at the site of the current down and generally “did a heap of living.” 

Those rendezvous must have been something to experience, with the grizzly men coming out of the woods once a year to trade their pelts for the goods they needed, including whiskey, women & weapons.  Merchants came from all over to trade and probably rip them off.  Of course, it was dangerous to cross a man who lived by himself most of the time and whose daily life required him to kill animals & fight Indians.  Fuel that guy with rye whiskey and you had murder and mayhem waiting to happen.

Mountain men like Jeddiah Smith, Jim Bridger and William Williams went up to the mountains to get away from civilization, but their activities opened up the wilderness and allowed in what they were trying to escape. 

The mountain man epoch lasted less than a generation.  A lot of their activity was based on chasing beavers to satisfy the vagaries of fashion. The pelts were used for felt hats worn by gentlemen in Europe and the Eastern U.S. The bottom fell out of the market when fashions changed and silk hats became all the rage. Anyway, by that time settlers were moving in and the railroads were binding the nation together. There was no longer any room for the mountain men.  Their legend has endured longer than their moment in history.

The story of our 2003 trip to Williams is here.

Montezuma's Castle & Red Rocks

Montezuma's Castle 

We headed up to the Grand Canyon via Sedona, which took us through the red rock country along Oak Creek.  Our first stop was Montezuma’s Castle, misnamed after the legendary King of the Aztecs, whose people never got this far north.   Castle is also a bit of a misnomer.  It is essentially a lightly fortified cliff dwelling and it was a Pueblo type people who made the structure as a refuge against enemies.  Archeologists call them Sinaqua people.

Looking at the extent that people lived in fortified villages reminds us how precarious life was in the past.   Violent marauders or dangerous animals could appear at any time and the lookouts could only detect as far as their naked eyes could see.   Since old guys, less useful working in the fields, evidently often got the lookout job, sighting distances were cut even further by failing eyesight.

Fall colors near Montezuma's Castle 

However, as far as stone-age communities go, this was a top of the line location. It was defensible, as mentioned above. Oak Creek provides a steady supply of water, important to human life and attractive to game animals and the loose soils near the creek were easily worked with simple tools available. 

The community thrived for centuries and then just disappeared around 600 years ago. Nobody is sure what happened.  There was significant climate change at the time, with the area becoming drier. This might have changed availability of game species.  That cannot be the only explanation; since the creek did not dry up and no matter how tough conditions were near the creek, they must have been worse away from it. Below is Oak Creek near Sedona.

Oak Creek near Sedona 

I blame Rousseau and his "noble savage" myth for giving us the misconception that life before civilization was good. In fact, life for most was violent, unpredictable, generally brief and often unpleasant. A better question to ask is how people persisted for so long rather than why they disappeared. It was probably a combination of war and changing ecological conditions that drove the people away from this area. Of course, sometimes things just happen. Only around fifty people lived in this village. With a small, preliterate culture a few bad decisions, a couple of nasty neighbors or just a run of bad luck can doom a community. I suppose a bigger question is why they didn’t come back.

Red rocks near Oak Creek, Az 

I didn’t think of Arizona as a beautiful autumn location, but the sycamore trees along creek were showing off a rich golden color.  It was a beautiful fall day at Montezuma’s castle, as you can see from the nearby pictures. We moved up the road and upstream to the town of Oak Creek and the Sedona area. We stayed at the Best Western in Sedona.  Below is the view from the balcony.

View from Balcony of Best Western in Sedona 

This is the red rock canyons area with natural beauty all around.  It reminded both Chrissy and me of the Petra area of Jordan.   Sedona was a cowboy movie location during the 1940s and 1950s and there were markers with handprints of famous actors who played in the movies.  The only ones I recognized were Gene Autry and Ernest Borgnine.  More recently, it has become a center of arts and crafts and a kind of aging hippie hangout.  There is supposed to be some kind of vortex that connects to other dimensions or releases psychic energy or something like that.  This and the lyrically beautiful scenery attract various sorts of people.  There are also plenty of trails for outdoor activity.  It is a nice place generally.

Switchbacks on road from Sedona to Flagstaff 

Past Sedona you climb the mountain in a series of switchbacks.  You are still following Oak Creek, more or less.  That little creek is responsible for most of the beautiful topography.  The natural communities change as you climb with scrub, juniper and pinion pines giving way to open ponderosa forests.

Prescribed burn on ponderosa pine 

The forest service has been managing these piney woods well, at least near the roads where I could see it.  I noticed the results of prescribed burning programs and the trees were often in clumps, as they would be in healthy ponderosa forests of the past.   I saw lots of evidence of fire along the road.  I took a picture of an area that was still warm from the recent burn to show what is supposed to look like.  We saw smoke in the distance the day before, which may account for some of the haze we noticed in Sedona. 


November 05, 2009

Watering Tucson

University of Arizon 

They have been planting trees at the University of Arizona for a long time, so it is not only a pleasant place but also a place where you can see a great variety of plants from around the world.  The climate in Tucson is almost tropical, but the soils and moisture levels are very different, so it makes for some interesting combinations. 

I came here to talk to some University of Arizona professors at the agriculture and soils department.  They were courteous and hospitable.  I can always find good people willing to tell me about the place they live and what they do and I enjoy getting the local angle wherever I go. Their ideas are reflected in the post on Mt Lemon.  They told me about the environment there and suggested that I make the trip up the hill, so I thank them for that piece of local intelligence too. 

Palms at University of Arizona 

My hosts were proud of their town and happy to live in Tucson.  It is not hard to see why.  Tucson has a lot to like.  But the recent rapid growth has presented challenges to the local ecosystems.  The extension services at the University of Arizona and the county extension are actively involved in their communities, helping local authorities, landowners and developers do the right thing to maintain a sustainable environment. 

As with all cities in arid environments, water is a problem.   Tucson depended on ground water and is one of the largest cities in the world to do that.   The ground water renews itself (it is not like the Ogallala aquifer) but not at the rates now required.  They now have a water plan that uses a water allotment from the Colorado River. Importing water creates its own challenges.

Minerals and salts can poison soils.  This is what happened in large parts of Mesopotamia and it is an ancient lesson that we have to be careful when irrigating dry fields. The water itself brings with it minerals and salts and water sitting on irrigated fields can bring salts and minerals to the surface. In either case or in combination, the result is the same. The general idea is that you need enough fresh water dilution to wash out the salts and minerals.  Rainwater is pure except for the small amount it might pick up from things like dust or smoke, but once on the ground it begins to pick up minerals and salts.  When water evaporates, it leaves the minerals and salts it brought along.  Most arid irrigated regions have a positive salt balance, i.e. more come in than goes out.  Over time this buildup is a problem.

Old Main at University of Arizona 

There is a lot you can do to conserve water, but conservation is not w/o its own problems.  There really is no such thing as a decision w/o some negative consequences.  All life involves trade-offs. Conservation means you use less, but using less concentrates the minerals and salts in smaller volumes of water, which may be worse for the soils.  That is one reason there is a limit to the amount of gray water (semi-treated) that you can apply to irrigation. The water is reused and recycled … and the salts and minerals are concentrated.   If you live in a place where it rains a lot, you don’t think about these problems very much, but you have to if you live in a arid place like Arizona, with rapidly expanding populations.

On the plus side, the growth of urban populations might REDUCE water demand.  That is because no matter how much water an urban population reasonably uses, it is often less than irrigated agriculture had used with the methods employed in the past.   Ranchers can convert their irrigated agriculture to dry land production and sell the water saved to the growing urban regions.   Production declines, but it might be more profitable.  Municipalities also buy up land, along with the water rights.  This has the double benefit of providing water and open lands for parks and nature reserves.

Rocks on the way to Mt Lemon 

We learn from experience how to maintain a sustainable environment.  As I often say, yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems, but that does not mean we made stupid mistakes in those solutions of the past.  As conditions change, often BECAUSE of our solutions, our responses must also change.  That simple knowledge should make us less critical of the “mistakes” of our ancestors and less arrogant in our out decision. There is no end to this game, just one move after another. The good player just get to keep playing. Some people think this is depressing (These are often the same ones who were upset when they discovered the principle of entropy.) I find this exhilarating.  It is almost the very definition of being alive.

Tucson is a pleasant place and a lot of people want to live here.  With good management and some foresight, they can accommodate more while keeping it a place people want to come.

November 04, 2009

Retire Smokey the Bear

Cactus forest on the slopes of Mt Lemon 

I know it is ecology101, but I had never actually done the road trip version of driving from the Sonora desert biome into the alpine/Canadian biome in around an hour.  To get the same sorts of changes you see as you climb Mt Lemon from the roughly 2500 ft near Tucson to around 9000 ft at the peak,  you would have to drive from southern Arizona up to just south of Hudson Bay.

Scrub forest on Mt Lemon 

You start in the scrub and cactus forest on the lower slopes.  Next is semi-arid grassland. Soon you get into junipers, some cottonwoods and oak woodland, followed by montane ponderosa pine and then the spruce of the boreal forests. The biomes mix and match in ways they would not if spread over a larger area, as subtle changes in elevation and topography create micro-climates.

Mixed forest and cactus in a draw on Mt Lemon 

It was more than twenty degrees cooler on the top than on the bottom the day I went up.

Ponderosa pine forests on Mt Lemon 

They call these “sky islands” because boreal and montane forests are islands of this sort of vegetation in a sea of desert.   As with all islands, the environments on them are fragile because of its isolation.   If species are eliminated from a relatively small area, there may be no nearby seed stocks to bring them back.   These communities have been in place since then end of the last ice age, when the cool weather systems were present all around.  We can think of the deserts like rising water as the earth warmed 10,000 year ago. 

Spruce forests on Mt Lemon 

It is important to manage these islands carefully, but sometimes good management seems counter intuitive. It seems to make sense to protect the ecosystems from destructive forces such as fire, but years of fire protection have endangered them.  Fire is a natural part of the ecology.   When it is artificially excluded by human efforts, the ecological communities change and large amounts of fuel are left standing in the forests or lying on the ground.   Instead of being a useful and healthy clearing process, fires under the man-made conditions become major disasters.  

Burned out forest on Mt Lemon 

When people see these fires they often demand even greater “protection” making things worse and worse. Above you can see the results of a fire made too big by years of fire suppression.  If we continue to "protect" this land from regular fires, the forest will grow back - again too thickly - until the next big fire.  Below is one of the reasons we exclude and fight fires.  The new cabins are named "Adam," "Hoss" & "Little Joe" after the characters on Bonanza.  Hoss is the biggest.

Village at the top of Mt Lemon 

Fire is a natural and necessary part of a healthy ecological process.  If we exclude fire, we change the environment in undesirable ways and make it less robust.  Smokey the Bear should probably be put on pension or at least modify his pitch.  He has done too good a job.  Smokey is cute, but when he hired on we didn’t understand as much about the environment. 

PS an interesting article I read after writing is a this link.

November 03, 2009

Fixing Things

I went up to Mt Lemon yesterday and have some pictures, but I cannot currently post them since I am lacking a connection.  But I have a picture and some general thoughts from the day before.

Marana Arizona from Carl and Elise''s yard 

Above is another view from Carl and Elise's yard, this time during the daylight.  It is amazingly green, although you see that the ground itself is bare.  There were all sorts of birds flying around.  Especially common were desert quail.  They walk around most of the time and only fly when flushed out.  Their calls were very nice to hear. 

I was comparing this desert land to Iraq. I think the land in Iraq is just misused for millennia. The challenge of the desert is that it is unforgiving.  You can get away with a lot more in a wetter place, where grass and trees will quickly grow back after a disturbance. In the desert your mistakes are written on the land for many years or centuries.  I bet that much of Iraq could be as rich in natural diversity as Arizona, but there are too many goats and the country has been too abused for many centuries.  Plants in the desert grow slowly and they depend on the other plants in the natural community.  The brush you cut down or let your goats eat might have taken decades to get that big.  And once taken out, it is hard for it to come back. 

John Matel with Iraqi friends in Anna Iraq in August 2008 

The picture above is me talking with some Iraqis who want to restore their land.  I think it can be done and so do they.  We are standing in the middle of one of their projects.  It is a good start. It just takes work and long-term - multi-generational commitment. 

We have learned many good lessons in land management.  If we just follow our own best management practices and strive to continue to learn, we won't suffer the fate of the ancient lands of the Middle East.  And maybe if we all learn the right lessons, we can help them return to a better place.  That is a truly worthy enterprise.

November 02, 2009

Communities in the Desert

Marana vista 

Maybe it is just that Carl knows them. (Carl is a connector. He knows lots of people and is genuinely interested in their activities.)  Maybe a place like this is just particularly attractive to people associated with the aviation and travel industries.  Maybe something draws them here.  The nearby University of Arizona evidently gets a lot of grants to do aviation related research or it could be just a case of random clustering.  Whatever the reason, there seem to be are a lot of pilots and airline employees around here.  Many are retired but others own homes here sort of as a base.  I suppose they are like FSO in that respect.  They travel around so much that they really are no longer tied to a particular place, so they choose a nice place like Marana, with its sunny climate and ample amenities.

Below is a view from a bedroom in one of the model homes,

View from model home 

Below is an "outdoor room" at the development.  The doors open completely making the living room and the patio one space.

Outdoor room 

Carl showed me around his community, which is still an expanding work in progress.   It was started around 1990 and spreads up the canyons.  The growth is extensive, but well-planned.  Distances are significant and it is a long way to grocery stores or services. In other words, it is not a place to walk, except as exercise along the trails or on the golf courses.

Home in Marana 

You could not call it a retirement community, even though many of the residents are retired or semi retired.   Carl and Elise seem to be typical of the community in that I don’t know think you could say that they are retired.  They no longer work where they did during the bulk of their working lives, but they are active in their community and pursuing a bevy of business ventures.  I mentioned Elise’s Jewelry business.   Carl works on a variety of computer related projects and produces things like custom greeting cards.   A friend of his take pictures of the local wildlife – and sometimes not local as in Australia or the Galapagos – that they use for the cards.    If this is retirement, it is the kind of active and actualized life most of us say we want in both work and leisure.

Putting on the Ritz


There is some income diversity in the community, but the scale runs from well-off to rich.   You have to pay to live in a nice place like this.  Ritz-Carlton is developing the community up the canyon.   The big resort will open in December and the residences around can take advantage of the facilities there.   The Ritz will also manage the community in terms of trash pickup and maintenance.  This is a step above the average home-owners association, however.  The residents have a concierge service. You can call and have service worker sent to your house or if you are waiting for a service worker, they can send down someone to wait for you.  No more hanging around the house all day waiting for the cable guy.

When I think of putting on the Ritz, the scene from "Young Frankenstein" comes to mind, BTW.

The climate here is hot in the summer, but very nice most of the year.  The higher elevation makes it more pleasant even in the hot months and it is around 5 degrees cooler than Phoenix.   If the mountains seem familiar it is because those of us who watched TV during the 1960s saw them a lot.  Many of the westerns were filmed around here.   Even though Bonanza was set in Nevada, much of Virginia City and the Ponderosa were actually filmed here, for example.  The diversity of scenery and almost perpetual good weather made it good for filming.

golf course in Marana 

The community builders are doing an excellent job of conserving nature.  I wrote in an earlier post how some people seem to be offended by golf courses, which they claim are ecologically wasteful. Those with that affliction probably should not come here.  But Carl pointed out how the golf courses are built around the natural drainage patterns and are irrigated only with gray water.   As a conservationist, I believe that we should use resources wisely and that is what they are doing here.  

Saguaro preservation 

Ample areas are left wild and they make a extraordinary effort to preserve the saguaro cactus. Above is a cactus nursery, where the saguaro wait for a new location.   Below is a cactus forest.

cactus forest 

CrownAreas of the cactus forests are put off limits to development and care is taken to move the safely saguaro in places where development must occur.  These symbols of the Sonora desert take many years to grow, but they have small root systems which makes them very easy to transplant.  The apparent anomaly of a shallow root system in a place w/o much water is explained by the hard-pan nature of the soils and the ability of the cactus to suck up and store immense amounts of water during the short times it is available. below and along side is a saguaro crown.  This is not something you see every day. It can take many years for a cactus to grow even one arm. This one is certainly more than a century old.

Saguaro crown 


November 01, 2009

Marana, Arizona

Moon rises in Marana, Az 

The development where Carl and Elise live in Marana near Tucson is very pleasant.  The developers were careful to leave nature intact whenever possible, so the houses blend in with their surroundings.    The area in back of their house is devoted to natural desert landscape and will not be developed.  Elise and Carl told me that they have seen or seen the signs of many sorts of animals, including bobcats, coyotes, lots of snakes, hawks and even cougars.  In fact, they worry that some of the local wildlife might make a meal of their little dog.   


Elise makes custom Jewelry, concentrating on unique styles and colors.  Some are very attractive as you can see in the nearby picture.  I got Chrissy a nice bracelet with a colorful interplay of silver and copper.  I am not a big fan of jewelry in general, but I do like it when it is unique and/or has some significant back story.   The bracelet met both of these criteria.

Elise jewelry 

Carl has a passion for genealogy and was interesting in hearing whatever I knew about my family history.  Much of it overlaps with Elise’s family, but he was also interested in my father’s side of the family.  He quickly found a record that recorded my grandfather’s arrival from Russian Poland, via the Port of Hamburg, on March 19, 1899.   He arrived with his brother, Felix.   Interestingly, the record records Matel spelled with a double l on the end – Matell.   It appears like that again in census records and then we lost the extra l sometime after 1910.  It lists his residence in Sakolle in Russia and lists his nationality as Russian.  Of course most of Poland was under Russian control in those days.

Carl working on geneology 

Elise and Carl were verMexican cokey hospitable.  Among the rare and wonderful things they had around the house was Mexican Coca-Cola.  It is evidently made with sugar-cane instead of the corn fructose we use in ours and it tastes subtly different.  My pallet for “real” coke has atrophied since I started to drink mostly Coke-Zero, but I can still taste the difference.

Carl took me around to look at the whole development.  The Ritz-Carlton is developing a whole complex.  Even though it is only a couple hours difference, I am feeling a little tired from travel and jet-lag, so I will write about that and show some pictures next time. 

BTW - the picture up top is the view from Elise and Carl's back yard.  You see Elise in the next picture and some of her creations below that.  Caril is working on his genealogy in the next picture and at the bottom is Mexican Coke.  Maybe I should restate that, Mexican Coca-Cola.

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