Luggage people

Chrissy has a theory – more a superstition really and like all superstitions it is right enough of the time that confirmation bias can provide sufficient proof to keep it viable. Her theory is that you can follow people dragging luggage – luggage people – to the train station and alternatively, you can follow them to the center of town.

You can see the flaw in this thinking, since it is confirmed by observation of people going either direction, but it sort of works to make you feel more comfortable. And people dragging luggage indicates that you are probably near a hotel or a train station.

Her other luggage people theory is probably true, although not easily testable. She thinks that the proliferation of wheeled gear and backpacks had cut into the business of taxi drivers. This makes sense.

You can drag wheeled luggage a fairly long way. It can be a little annoying when sidewalks are rough and it is a lot annoying to drag across cobblestone streets, as they have in old town Cordoba, but it works. We dragged our luggage from the train station to our hotel, a walk of about 25 minutes, accompanied by the click-clack of the luggage wheels, and by the sight and sound of others doing the same.

Seems like a lot more old people are travelling these days and walking with wheeled luggage and backpacks. I suppose that they are people like us who learned the travel business as poor college kinds and now return to the habits of youth. Not all the way, of course. Now we stay in actual hotels and can afford to eat in decent restaurants.

I recall first time I travelled overseas, when I went to Germany, I spent a lot of time looking around for a place to sleep and the options included youth hostels or isolated park benches, not nice hotels. I also ate so little that I lost about ten pounds in my month in Germany. Unfortunately, I will not be losing any weight this time. In fact, I expect to come back more “robust,” since eating good food and drinking beer is a bigger part of travel pleasure when you have a little more money.

My picture is my usual drinking picture. I posted Chrissy at the same spot yesterday. Next are luggage people in Granada, followed by olive groves taken from the train between Granada and Cordoba. It can be very arid in this part of Spain. Some of the land looks like Arizona, complete with prickly pear and agave imported from the new world. In places with enough water you find miles and miles of widely spaced olive trees. Next is a picture of the Marisa Hotel, for Marisa Williams. Last is another night street scene. More people pack the streets at 9pm than 9am.

Posted in Our travel | Comments Off on Luggage people

Skeptics & Talking to Strangers

Another of my book pairs is “Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” and “Talking to Strangers,” the latest Malcolm Gladwell book. Of the two, “Skeptic’s” is the better book, but “Talking to Strangers” is maybe more entertaining and will sell more copies. Both contain lots of things that people aware of developments subjects like information flow, persuasion and biases already know, but the books do a service by making these things more easily digestible for a general public.

The scientific method

Skeptics is more wide ranging. It does not have a dominant theme, doesn’t claim to have one, beyond the skeptical method, which is a form of the Western scientific method. Always assume that you do not know everything and work to disconfirm what you think is true. We too often fall victim to confirmation bias. The authors talk a lot about this and other informal logical fallacies.

We live in an uncertain and contingent world, but that does not mean we need to question everything all the time. The authors make a distinction between philosophical skepticism and scientific skepticism.

Scientific v philosophical skepticism

The former is something like Rene Descartes, “cogito ergo sum” – I think therefore I am – you have to derive everything from first principles. As the authors point out, Descartes was living at the very start of the scientific revolution. People commonly believed all sorts of myths and were generally living in error most of the time. Medicine was bloodletting. Chemistry was alchemy. Astronomy was astrology and most lines of true inquiry were forbidden by religion, tradition or generationally developed indifference. In other words, there were few reliable sources. Today we have had science at work for centuries. They have figured out lots of things. Science, of course, continues to develop, but you would be insane to demand a return to first principles for most things. Better to see farther by “standing on the shoulders of giants” who went before.

For all our science, however, people fall for lots of the old superstitions. Some people still believe in ghosts, astrology, alternative medicine, alien encounters and all manner of conspiracy theories. These are not always just harmless story telling. The authors are very tough about this. They think we need to confront these errors all the time. I don’t know about that. You would get pretty tired doing that and your protestations would be unlikely to have the desired outcomes. But I think we have to be vigilant and aware.

Let’s repeat again – scientist agree GMOs are safe

A few places were the errors have serous negative impacts in the triad of truth and consequences – climate change, GMO safety and vaccinations. Scientists are very clear about all three. Climate change is happening with human inputs. GMOs are safe and vaccinations save lives. The interesting thing here is that you get a political division on truth and doubt. People who deny climate change are mostly on the right side of the political spectrum. GMO hysterics tend to be on the left. Anti-vaccination people encompass the cognitively challenged on both ends, but for an unexplained reason attract lots of celebrities, whose physical beauty hides and ugly mind.

Let me talk about the GMOs, since that is the one where scientific opinion most diverges from average man-on-the-street view. Let’s first be clear. Almost everything we eat, or drink is genetically modified. The big ears of corn, large watermelons and fresh carrots do not exist in nature. And the turkeys, cows and chicken we favor would not last a day “out there.” And let’s not even talk about those hairless cats and little dogs that cannot even climb a flight of stairs on their little and barely functioning legs. Pigs would do well if they got out, as evidenced by the fact that they do in real conditions. Most of our crop plants and animals, however, just are not fit enough to survive in the survival of the fittest.

Most scientist think GMOs are safe, at least as safe as plants and animals in general. Most natural and organic plants are full of toxins that the species has been developing over the eons of evolution in a hope to avoid being eaten. We, in turn, have developed ways to tolerate many of them. It is an arms race. In fact, GMOs may be SAFER than organism developed in other ways, since we are reasonably sure of what is in the GMOs. GMOs are heavily regulated. Ordinary plans not.

Misinformed not just ignorant

The public is more misinformed about GMOs than about any other field of science. Worse, the general public is seriously Misinformed not merely uniformed, an important distinction. The public is misinformed because well funding campaigns by various interest groups and professional luddites. More’s the pity, since GMOs can mean LESS not more pesticide and herbicide use. The big and glaring exception to this is round-up ready crops and that is the one anti-science crusaders focus on, with some justification, BTW.

Yes, I take this personally. These science-phobes harm the forest and trees I love.

It leads them and the public to oppose very useful research into oranges that resist “greening,” a disease the is an existential threat to citrus, hemlocks or ash trees that can resist their respective bugs, and my personal favorite American chestnuts that are not killed by the blight. We could be planting those chestnuts today – now – if not for the luddites, but I have written elsewhere about that.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

Some of this is related to the “naturalistic fallacy.” Simply stated, it holds that what is natural is good. There is some kind of plan that we can understand. It is often associated in the popular mind with a concept of sin, and a strong nature philosophy can have aspects of the old fire-and-brimstone religion. Whenever you hear someone imply that humanity will be punished for violating nature, you know you have run into this idea big time.

Yes, I love nature and sometimes fall for the naturalistic fallacy. Then I recall that nature does not love me. Many of the thing, even in “my” own forest are trying to kill me or would do under many circumstances. None of the foods we commonly eat are natural. A possible exception are raspberries and blackberries. I find them wild on the farm and they seem pretty much the same as the ones in Harris Teeter.

The great David Hume identified a version of this, assuming what IS is what OUGHT to be, but you can find antecedents. You can take it all the way back to Lucretius “De Rerum Natura.” Things emerge; they are no ordained. It is very appealing to think we live in a basically friendly world if only us humans would let it be what it should. This just is not true and none of you reading this believe it really. Who would let their toddler wander alone in the woods to do as she pleased and eat what she found? BUT we feel we believe it and it affects our thought.

I could go on about “Skeptics,” but maybe you should just read it. It is worth the time.

Talking to Strangers

Malcolm Gladwell is both admirable and annoying. I eagerly read his first book – “Tipping Point.” It was very familiar, however, since what he wrote about influence in his book was much how we practiced public diplomacy. The ideas and techniques were well known among those who worked on such things, but Gladwell stated it better and simpler and kind of made is sound like he made it up himself.
Format of many voices

This book is a different. It is very different in format in that he narrates and then has audio recordings of speeches and statements sprinkled in. It makes it seem more like their own words, because it is, but you can tell that there is significant selection bias.

We cannot tell when people are lying, but most of us think we can
Gladwell’s main theme is that we are too can be fooled when we are talking to strangers because we pick up on non-verbal ques that sometimes are inappropriate. This can be dangerous when we are dealing with cross-cultural encounters and it is disastrous when someone is actually lying or maybe believes something that is objectively false.

Most of us think that face-to-face encounters are better. If we look the person in the eyes, we think we can determine honesty. This just is not true. Some people can lie better than others can tell the truth; others convince themselves something is true when it is not. In both cases, they are very credible and most of us are fooled.

Trust is an advantage to you and society

Much of our credulity comes from a perfectly reasonable prejudice. We like to believe that telling the truth is a default option and most of the time it is, at least reasonably so. The clerk at McDonald’s will usually not try to steal your money, and despite the stereotype most people in the professions are honest. This is not to say they are always right or even always honest, but you are probably better off in life if you give the benefit of the doubt, since you will get ripped off less often if you have the better attitude than you will lose friends and annoy people so much that they don’t want to help you. Nobody likes distrustful people. Surly or nasty are the words that comes to mind.

Talking face-to-face does not work better and sometimes it is worse

Because we want to believe people, and because most of the time people are being reasonably honest, we fall prey to those who are not. It is a reasonable trade. Gladwell doesn’t offer any real alternatives beyond the usual checks. He does say, however, that in cases where people are trying to deceive us, we may be better off NOT talking to them face-to-face. Machines using algorithms can often make better judgements by using just the facts of a case.

I have long believed this about of consular visa appointments. This would also go for things like loan applicants, credit checks etc. Applicants need to meet the vice-consul, who talks to the person for a few minutes, often in a language they have trouble understanding and makes a judgment. The judgement is often good. Okay. But it may be that the judgement is not improved and may be harmed by the face-to-face meeting. We love and trust the contact, however.

The Hitler example makes sense this time

Gladwell goes right to the top with the Hitler example. The British signing a “peace for our time” with Hitler is often consider the biggest single prewar mistake. Historians have parsed that over and over. Gladwell brings the trust perspective. Hitler was very charismatic in person. Chamberlin was just fooled by that. Guys who met Hitler face-to-face tended to know him LESS well than those who just read what he wrote and said. Hitler was very clear in writing his goals. People just did not want to believe what he wrote and people who saw him in person were most beguiled.

Gladwell really cannot stick to a theme. This is mostly a good thing. His tangents and stories are fun and often as enlightening as the main them.
You cannot kill yourself by breathing natural gas

In one of them he talks about suicide, taking the famous Sylvia Plath – “The Bell Jar” as an example. Plath was mentally unstable and talked of suicide a lot, so many people assume that her death by her own hands was inevitable. She carefully sealed up her room, put on some nice clothes and turned on the gas. She was dead not long after, and she left a nice-looking corpse. Would she really have killed herself if that method was unavailable? It was important to her that her suicide be painless and “beautiful”. She did not want to be disfigured or humiliated even in death. Gas was an easy choice.

When she committed suicide, they used town gas in UK, where she was living. Town gas is made from coal. It is impure and full of carbon monoxide, which is what did her in. Gassing oneself was a popular way of suicide for women, probably for reasons similar to Plath’s. A few years after Plath’s unfortunate incident, UK switched over the natural gas. Natural gas is much cleaner. It is mostly pure methane, which will not kill you. That is one reason why it burns with almost no soot or carbon monoxide. Of course, it produces carbon dioxide CO2 as a byproduct of combustion, but CO2 is not toxic. If you are in a room with nothing but CO2, you will suffocate, not because the CO2 is killing you, but from lack of oxygen. However, the room must be sealed tighter than most rooms can be sealed by ordinary people. Had she used natural gas as her method, she would have woken up with a headache, but still be alive.

Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse

I didn’t know this about gas, and I didn’t believe it, so I checked. It is true. Of course, it is still a good idea not to leave the gas on and carbon monoxide is produced by incomplete combustion, so you still need good ventilation in your house. And don’t bring the that charcoal grill inside. The incomplete combustion does create carbon monoxide.

So, what happened to the suicide rate? Presumably, if young women were going to kill themselves anyway, they would find ways to do it, even if messier. Well … no. Suicide rates dropped by about 1/3. W/o the convenience and neatness of gas, lots of people just couldn’t be bothered to kill themselves. It is not always futile to take away options. People calculate costs, even in very serious matters and even when they do not know they are doing it.

This goes for crime too. Contrary to popular myth about super criminals, most criminals are stupid, at least dumber than the average guy. Crime really doesn’t pay for most people and stupid people are less likely to figure that out as readily. They are so stupid, however, that they cannot do some figuring, and when it is harder to do a crime, people do less crime.

We sometimes here people questioning simple expedients like locking doors. “If they really want to get in, they will find a way,” they say, and they are right. But the simple precaution deters lots of people. They just don’t bother being crooks if being a crook is too hard. Criminals are lazy too, or at least lazier than the average guy.

I can recommend both books. They are interesting, informative and entertaining. What more can you want in a book?

Posted in Book Reviews | Comments Off on Skeptics & Talking to Strangers

Marshall & Mattis

I tend to finish books in related pairs. This is because of Amazon/Audible marketing, and it works. When you buy one, you get the ad, “Customers who viewed this item also viewed.” Often there is a related book that looks similarly interesting.

My pair this time was a biography of the great George C Marshall – “George Marshall Defender of the Republic” – and an autobiography of James Mattis – “Call Sign Chaos.” The two generals are similar in their integrity and the fact that both needed special Congressional permission to become Secretary of Defense.

George C Marshall, one of the greatest men

I visited his home in Leesburg and my kids HS was named for him. He was almost a local guy around here. And I read a lot about him, recently including “China Mission” about his time in China and “The Marshall Plan,” but this was the first time I read a full-length biography. This one is good. The author frequently references other biographies, so you get the feeling of the scholarship. Marshall himself refused to write his on memoirs. He didn’t want to cash in on his fame. Marshall was a truly honorable man.

He came from a relatively humble background, not poor and he was related to John Marshall but not rich. He studied at VMI, not West Point. He was a guy with great potential from an early age. His big break came in World War I when he told the truth to power in the form of General John Pershing. He was a relatively junior officer and people thought it a career risking thing to do, but Pershing was impressed and became Marshall’s mentor.

Getting a mentor and being one

There are details of Marshall’s personal life. They are interesting, but it was not of great interest. His personal life was remarkable for being so unremarkable. He was just a steady guy who always did his duty. It was tough going in the years between the wars for career officers. Marshall just stuck to it, exhibiting exceptional organizational aptitude and superb ability to spot and develop talent.

He became chief of staff of the Army in 1939. FDR tried his trademark charm on Marshall, calling him George. This is was the only time. After that he called him General Marshall. Marshall always gave good and honest advice and – like Pershing – Roosevelt wanted and needed that.

Not political leadership

I was rather more interesting in Marshall’s time as Secretary of State, but I learned a bit more about his time during the war and as Secretary of Defense. And I learned a lot about the inside game in Washington. Marshall was above politics and that sometimes got him in trouble with politicians, but his integrity was such that he could play a unique role. He disagreed with political leaders on occasions, but he soldiered on. For example, Marshall opposed the use of atomic bombs, but never made a public case after the decision was made. He deferred to political leadership. Marshall, famously, never voted so that he would not be on a political side.

The book was inspiring. It is refreshing to read about a man so honorable, competent and – let’s use the word – great.

Jame Mattis

James Mattis did not have the deep impact of George Marshall. It is a little unfair to juxtapose them. Mattis is truly exceptional and in almost. any comparison except with Marshall, he would come out on top.

In many ways, I got more from the Mattis book. I “knew” Marshall well before I started the book, but this was the first time I got to know Mattis. Not the first time I met him. I met him in Iraq. I knew he was a great leader, but I didn’t appreciate at the time how great. We ate with him at the chow hall. I squandered my opportunity and asked him nothing that I can recall.

Mattis is more a self-made man. He came from a humble background, like Marshall, but maybe more so. In his early life, he got in trouble with the law, but always worked to learn from experience and books. He was/is a self-taught scholar. I like the about him.


Two things stand out in this book for me. The first is his general management philosophy. He believes in boots-on-the-ground knowledge and in pushing responsibility to the lowest competent level. He believes that leaders’ job is to prepare subordinates. In this, he is much like Marshall. Prepare people for all they need to know and then let them decide within their competence. We used to call it “train and trust.” I do not recall Mattis using that precise term, but that is that it was.


The other great part was his assessment of our policy in Iraq from 2006 until around 2012. He talked about the Surge, of which I was a small part, and about our victory in Iraq. Yes – victory. We had the capacity to change the whole region. The future did not need to resemble the horrible past. We blew it in 2011. We paid a high price and those who had trusted us paid a bigger one, sometimes with their lives.

I am not haunted by many things in my life. Among the things that still bother profoundly me is my behavior in Iraq. I think I acted honorable and did my duty to the United States, and I thought it was in the interest of Iraq too. I told our friends what I believed, that the USA would be there for them until the situation stabilized. I was mistaken and it cost our country and theirs, and them.

Young men die

I also think of Aaron Ward. He was killed in Hit in 2008. I did not know him well, but I came to think of him until now. Hit was mostly peaceful. Ward came out of his vehicle and reached to his toes to stretch. He was killed when a bullet went through his helmet. We do not think that the shooter intended to kill him. Our belief was that they wanted to injure to show that we still needed to invest money in Hit. Colonel Malay made it a priority to investigate the issue, but we never found the truth and had only our suspicions. Aaron Ward joined up in a time of war and went as a volunteer into a war zone. I think his sacrifice affects me more because I think of Alex. Aaron liked to lift weights and saw the Army (he was military police) as a way to get some good training. He died a young man with his potential wasted, his beautiful songs unsung.

Heavy burdens of command

I respect men like Mattis and Marshall who send men into battle knowing that some will not make it. It is a horrible choice. Mattis wrote that he feels as if each Gold Star Marine is his son or daughter. George Marshall lost his stepson Alan Brown in the fighting in Italy. Theirs is an unbelievable burden. Better to read about it than have to live it.

Posted in Book Reviews | Comments Off on Marshall & Mattis

Tree farming in Highland County, Virginia

Just getting there

Getting to the Moyers Tree Farm means driving for miles along twisty mountain roads, probably the most convoluted major roads in the Commonwealth of Virginia. They named it Highland County for good reason. If fact, Highland County has the highest average elevation of any county east of the Mississippi. This gives it a New England feel. If you were just set down here w/o orientation, you might think you were in New Hampshire, not Virginia, but Moyers were Virginia Tree Farmers of the year and they hosted their first Virginia Tree Farm landowner dinner at their place. It was worth the drive along those convoluted roads.

Virginia Tree Farmers of the year

The Moyers are superb stewards of their land, as I have written elsewhere. All our tree farm members are good stewards. That is the ticket in. Moyers are a step beyond because of their exceptional commitment and outreach to the community. Ronnie Moyers and his daughter Missy displayed this during the program for about 30 landowners.

Caring for your land is part science, part art & part experience, but all these parts are united by passion. We learn from books. We learn from courses (lots of good and almost free ones offered by Virginia Tech, DoF etc.) and we learn from experience. Most of all, however, we learn from the interaction of all these things with the land we love – think, do, reflect and do something better. There is no shortcut this understanding, but there are ways to get a head start. We can learn from the informed experience of others, and a good way to do this is to at landowner dinners. This one was especially useful.

Maple sugar

We started out at the Moyers’ sugar bush. They have 35 acres of maple trees tapped for maple sugar. Ronnie rigged up a system of tubes that brings the sugar water to the sugar shack, where they boil it down to syrup. The Moyers use traditional methods, i.e. heat, and a traditional fuel source, i.e. wood. Wood is in local surplus these days because of the high ash mortality. Ash makes very good firewood and it is available to anybody willing to get it. Missy emphasized how much wood it takes to do the job. You have to boil 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. They have a lot of it stockpiled, as you can see in the picture.

Ways to make syrup

I was unaware that there were other ways to make maple syrup out of maple sap. The new was is by reverse osmosis. Who knew? Missy explained that it is important to them to make it in traditional ways for cultural and aesthetic reasons. How you make something can be as important as what you make. The traditions are important to the community. Virginia is not a big producer of maple syrup. We have plenty of red maples, not as many sugar maples and outside Highland County almost none of them are tapped for sugar. ¬¬little Highland County produces more than half of all Virginia’s maple syrup, but even here it is not major production for supermarkets. Rather, it is more related to what we might call agro-tourism. Missy said that during the maple syrup festival last year, around 4000 visitors came to the Moyers’ sugar shack.

Oak regeneration & Microbiomes

The Moyers farm features several different micro-ecologies short distances up or down the hills. The maples near the top of the hill quickly gives way to oaks a little down. As in many places in Virginia, there is concern about oak regeneration. We are worried about our oaks, and they suffer from oak decline. This is a non-specific ailment. It might be caused by stress of drought, soil compression, or maybe just old age. Trees live a long time, but they do not live forever and as they get older, their resistance to disease and bugs declines.

There was a lot of disturbance and regrowth in Virginia forests 80-150 years ago and a lot of our oaks were born in those times. An oak might live hundreds of years, but just like humans, not all of them make it close to their maximum life spans. You have to know something about the history of the land to understand the current biotic communities.
The oaks moved in as farms were abandoned, but one of the biggest changes came when the chestnut blight wiped out the American chestnut. Chestnuts were a dominant – predominant – species in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge, making up as much as 25% of the total canopy cover. The bight was first detected in North America in 1904. It reached Virginia about ten years later and a little more than ten years after that had killed most of Virginia’s chestnuts. It was a disaster ecologically and economically.

The end of the chestnuts and the start of a novel ecology

It also created an essentially new ecosystem in the span of about two decades. Oaks, hickories and poplars filled in the gaps left by the chestnuts. This is the Virginia forest our generation knew. Maybe this is not equilibrium that will be established. Maybe the oaks are part of transition that, at least in wetter forests will be dominated by red maples, beech and poplar. These kinds of thing play out over decades or even centuries, and it will all be complicated by climate change.

Speaking of chestnuts, they did not die out completely. The blight comes in through cracks in the bark and then kills the tree only to the ground. The roots survive and produce new sprouts, that can grow until they get old enough to get cracks in their bark and they die back. Ronnie found a sprout about 30 feet high. Who knows how long it will persist? The roots are at least a century old.

A new hope for the American chestnut

The blight is always present. It survives in beech and oak trees. It infects but does not kill them or cause them any significant harm in general. Beech, oak and chestnut are related species. Scientists have isolated the gene that allows for survival and researchers at State University of New York, Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) have developed a trans genetic chestnut that has all the characteristics of the American chestnut with the one difference in the gene that protects it from the blight. This gene will not encourage successful mutation of the blight, since it does not kill the blight, but allows the tree to survive. In some ways, it is arguably a “win” for the blight, since it can continue to survive in chestnut trees w/o killing them – the dream job for a blight.

Golden wing warbler

Our last stop before the tree farm dinner was to look at what the Moyers have done to reestablish habitat for the golden winged warbler. This once-common but now threatened species requires a mixture of openings and old-growth forest. Moyers got a grant from NRCS to harvest a stand of generally less productive chestnut oak and to allow for root sprouts and forbs. Ronnie said the he had hunted in that woods as a boy, decades ago. The trees were mature then and were not much bigger when they were harvested. NRCS grants allow for the harvesting of this sort of timber, which would be marginally profitable or not profitable at all.

The unfortunate part of this initiative is that it may not work because Virginia is only part of the puzzle. The Virginia birds migrate to Columbia & Venezuela in the winter. The population of golden wing warblers in the Great Lakes is a little better off. They winter in the Yucatan. These two populations used to be mixed in North America, but now they are largely separated. How this will affect their genetics and survival is not known. On the plus side, these openings are generally good for wildlife and for regeneration of desirable species like white and red oak. While we hope, and scientists believe, that the initiative will help the golden winged warbler, it has all sorts of collateral benefits.

Good food

After the field day portion of the program, my colleague Glenn Worrell gave a presentation about tree farm and we had a wonderful dinner. Pulled pork is the standard fare at most tree farm and outreach dinners, and I am very fond of pulled pork. At this dinner, however, we had a catered dinner featuring a nice beef with mushrooms, green beans and potatoes, with a cherry cheesecake desert.

People don’t appreciate free

interesting permutation is that these dinners used to be free. We decided to charge $10 as an incentive to get people to come. $10 is not much, but when it was free, we got lots of no-shows. Now most people come. Human nature is funny. Sometime you can get more customers by charging more. People really don’t appreciate free.

I had to get on the road before it got too dark. I failed. It was like playing a video game with the twists and turns illuminated only by the reflectors on the road. Unlike in the video game, however, I would not just come back if I drove off the edge.

My first picture is the sugar bush, followed by the sugar shed with its wood supply. Picture #3 shows Ronnie and daughter Missy at the event. Ronnie’s love of forestry is inspiring. Missy did most of the organizing. Picture #4 shows the lecture on the golden warbler with the golden warbler habitat in the background. Last is a market tree, as least that is what we think it is. We estimate that tree is more than 200 years old. Native Americans used to mark trails and significant places, but bending trees to the ground. Sometimes they would continue to grow even in the supine position.

Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Tree farming in Highland County, Virginia

Baraboo to Indiana

It is a lot farther from Baraboo Wisconsin to the Hoosier National Forest than I thought. Most of yesterday on the road. On the plus side, I got a lot of audio book done. On the down side, it was a long and not so interesting drive.

I went down to Madison to meet with Paul DeLong, senior VP at American Forest Foundation and the one who does Tree Farm. We met for lunch at the Tipsy Cow, on just off the Capitol Square. We had a great talk about landscape management plans and ecological restoration.

Paul was the Wisconsin State Forester, and so his ideas are interesting and informed by experience. I have a lot to think about from talking to Paul, the guys at Aldo Leopold and Chrissy’s uncle Jerry Apps, who I also talked to. Jerry’s most recent book is on the CCC in Wisconsin. Got a lot of impression and information to make sense.

I walked around Madison, went down to the old lake trail where I used to run and walked up and down State Street. It was more than a mere walk down memory lane. Walking around these places stimulated a lot of thought. Wisconsin has great traditions in conservation & education.

One of the better things about Wisconsin was/is “The Wisconsin Idea”, a philosophy of the University of Wisconsin System that the university programs should be applied to solve problems and improve health, quality of life, the environment, and agriculture for all citizens of the state. This is in line with what Aldo Leopold did in Coon Valley and what Jerry Apps did during his career in UW extension. It was a boots-on-the-ground partnership of the people and the professors. I thought about that in its original context and how it works and might work now. Such a great tradition. It made such a difference, but it is not well known.

My first picture is the State Capitol and the statue of Hans Christian Heg. He was born in Norway, but when the Civil War broke out he joined up to fight for his adopted country and to set other men free. He led Wisconsin 15th, a Scandinavian regiment. He was killed in 1863 at Chickamauga, GA. One of Chrissy’s ancestors fought with the Wisconsin regiments in the Civil War. He survived the war, but his wife died while he was gone.

Next is Bascom Hall and Bascom Hill. It doesn’t look that steep, but it is hard to walk up that hill when the path is icy. I did it hundreds of times. Studying at University of Wisconsin was great. Being born in Wisconsin was a great move on my part.

Picture # 3 is shows food trucks in front of Memorial Library. After my drunken student stage, I moved into the nerdy scholar stage. I spent many – many hours at that library, actually liked it. They did not have those trucks there in the old days. There was wagon where some hippies sold very good cookies, but that was about it.

The lake trail is picture #4. For a couple years, my life was studying at the library and running on that lake trail. Sometimes they were mixed. My method for writing papers was to read all the sources and then go run. I thought about it as I ran. It brewed. When I got back, I wrote everything in one sitting and then filled in footnotes and cleaned up the prose. I found it much better flow. The flow of the run complemented the flow of ideas.

Last is Geko Arts. The only reason I include that is because Cousin Elise Hankwitz has her jewelry line with the same name.

Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Baraboo to Indiana

Hoosier oak forest

If we don’t plan now for the restoration of oak forests, our children and grandchildren will not have them. It takes 40-60 years to grow and oak tree and they are not regenerating fast enough.

It is easy to overlook this problem. Oaks are common trees. There are lots of oaks … now. But if you look under the big oak trees, you find very few little oak trees. Little oak trees don’t like to grow in the shade of big oak trees. That means that oaks need disturbance. Fire was much more common in oak forests in the past. We need it again.

I stopped off at Hoosier National Forests to talk to Travis Swaim, who is managing for oak regeneration. They recently burned 750 acres and I wanted to see what it looked like. I am doing oak regeneration on parts of my land, on a smaller scale of course.

Southern Indiana is an interesting ecology. It is hilly. Looks like western Virginia, not the Indiana we see in the flat north.

Travis talked about the differences on the Hoosier National Forest. They have relatively dry south facing slopes, where oaks can compete well and wetter northern slopes with deeper soils where the poplars and maples dominate. They also have karst landscapes, i.e. very permeable limestone soils.

These were and will be again hardwood forests. In fact, this is the heart of the hardwood. Settlers cleared these forests and much of what is the Hoosier National Forests was exhausted when the government acquired the land in the 1930s. CCC and others planted pine, longleaf and white pine. These are now mature and foresters want to transition back to hardwoods, including oak.

My pictures are from my walk in the woods to see the burn. They also thinned, leaving high quality oaks for regeneration. Travis says they may have to burn again, but maybe not. They will have to monitor and see how it goes. It is an art.

My pictures show the open oak forest. My second picture is rattlesnake master. I was glad to see this in the burned zone, since I extrapolate that my own rattlesnake master will survive the fires we plan to set in December. Last picture is deeper woods with beech trees. I was glad to see the beech survived. I like beech. These were near the road, where they first set the fire, so it was not that hot.

Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Hoosier oak forest

Aldo Leopold visit

Went up to Aldo Leopold Center to talk to director Buddy Huffaker and Curt Meine, author of Aldo Leopold’s biography. I wanted to talk to them to get general insights about land ethics and Aldo Leopold.

I started Mr. Meine’s book a couple of years back and the upcoming visit gave me the incentive I needed to finish it. It was well worth it. I have been much influenced by Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac.” It was useful to read the biography and get more insight into the origins of his ideas. Much of Leopold’s life is braided with Wisconsin conservation. In that sense, we walked the same territory, literally.

We talked about many things, among them conservation. We agreed with the Leopold principle that you need to act within a land ethic, but then apply specific actions to specific goals. There is never an end to it; we are always learning, trying and adapting.

Mr. Huffaker shared some projects that Aldo Leopold Center was doing involving other landowners along the Wisconsin River to improve the larger ecosystem, something like the Landscape Management Plans being developed by Tree Farm.

Healing the Muir-Pinchot split

We talked a little about the difference between conservation and preservation, the old Muir- Pinchot split. Meine thought that Aldo Leopold had done a good job of melding those two disparate thoughts and that there need be no conflict, at least on almost all conservation issues. Unfortunately, lots of people have not yet got that word. We need to be careful with our language, since the wrong word might set off the more enthusiastic proponents on either side.

New Portuguese translation

A new Portuguese translation of “Sand County Almanac” just became available. Buddy Huffaker shared a copy with me, along with a new compilation of Aldo Leopold’s writing specifically on forestry.

I will incorporate these ideas and impressions into my thinking and my own land management. It is good to talk to people who know so much, that helps me know a little more.

My first picture shows the three of us outside the Aldo Leopold Center. Next is part of the center and last is a poster show about Aldo Leopold’s essay “Axe in Hand.” I am not sure if that was the essay the affected most my thinking, but it is the one I think of most often when I am out in my forest, thinking, doing, observing, reflecting and thinking again.

Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on Aldo Leopold visit

Stevens Point, Lizard Mound, Hero Poles and good beer

Not ready for college

I was not ready to go to college when I went to college. My father was very supportive, but he had no experience with higher education. I didn’t have any close friends or older siblings who went to college. I was a stranger in a strange land with only a vague notion, not even a formed idea, about what I should do.

So I drank beer and “partied.” It is hard for me today to understand the young man I was. I had no real concept of my future, or even that there was a future that would include me. The odd thing is not that I felt like that, but that I don’t recall that it even bothered me. I guess I kind of lived in the present and had confidence that the future would sort itself.

I think today the school would have wanted to do some sort of intervention and sort me out. My 1.6 GPA would have been one indicator of trouble. But I am glad that I got to sort it out myself and with the help of friends. I don’t trust professionals on this sort of thing.

I stopped off at Stevens Point today and walked around on the campus and in the woods. They have done a good job managing the woods and wildlife. The forests and fields north of campus are the laboratory for the students. There were bunches of kids looking for bugs. They were assigned to find and study the diversity.

Lizard mound and ancient Native Americans

Some things we will never know in detail and maybe there is not all that much to know. We don’t know who build the lizard mounds. We can speculate about why, but we really don’t know. Some things are lost to history, or in this case prehistory.

Lizard Mound park doesn’t get many visitors, although it looks like they bring school groups here. There was one guy sitting at the picnic table. He was making art out of pieces of birch bark. Seemed a pleasant enough guy. He said that he had previously lived in his vehicle, but now had a place to live. He said that he works enough to make money when he needs money, but does not need to work that much. I asked him if he needed anything, but he said no. Maybe he is just content. He gave me a flower made of birch bark and I gave him one of my tree farm mugs.

The park includes mounds shaped like animals. What significance these had we can never know.

Never know. That is an interesting concept. We like to think that in the fullness of time, with new technology etc, but absent the invention of a time machine, we will never know. And maybe it does not matter. It is nice to have a feeling of mystery.

We know that these mounds were built between AD 500 and 1000. No mounds were build here in the last 1000 years. What happened to the people is unknowable. Well, we might be able to speculate if we took DNA. I walked around the mounds. There are few markers. If you didn’t know they were mounds you would not think much about them. It was very quiet, however.

The birch bark guy told me that I was lucky to come this week, since until a couple weeks ago the black flies and mosquitoes made a comfortable walk impossible.

My walk was pleasant. Pictures are from around the walk. I like the old fashioned pump. You don’t see them around very much anymore.

For your freedom and ours

On the way into Stevens Point is a monument to Casimir Pulaski, hero of Poland and America. For those unfamiliar, Pulaski came to America to help us during the revolution and was killed by British grapeshot while rallying troops in Savannah. He volunteered to fight for America and died in our cause.

I stopped off for a closer look. It is mostly about Polish-Americans who found for Poland during WWI. About 300 from Northern Wisconsin and Michigan went to fight for the old country. My old colleagues Iwona Sadecka, Elżbieta Konarska & Janina Galas might be interested.

Point Special Beer

A visit to Stevens Point would not be complete w/o a visit to Point Brewery. I drank a lot of that beer when I was at UWSP. I did not much like it, but it was cheap and available. It is not great beer, but it is one of my traditions. I have some rituals.

They do make a decent IPA. I bought a twelve pack of Point Special (tradition) and a six pack of IPA (actually good).

Good fast food

Speaking of actually good, I went to Rocky Roccoco and A&W. They share the same building, so I can have Rocky’s pizza and A&W Root beer. I like Rocky’s pizza a lot and I would go there even if it was not a tradition.

I am staying at Comfort Inn on County Trunk V near Baraboo. Tomorrow I will meet people at Aldo Leopold. The exit at County Trunk V has the Rocky’s, A&W and a Culver’s. A little bit of heaven.

My pictures show the Pulaski monument. Next is the Point Brewery and then Rocky’s and A&W. Last picture is a pine and a birch. This is relevant because Aldo Leopold’s essay “Axe in Hand” talks about birch and pine.

WPA builds parks

Just a few more pictures.

I visited Iverson Park in Stevens Point. It was created during the 1930s and the structures were build by the WPA. Very attractive.

The first three pictures show Iverson Park. When I first went to UWSP, we had a party there and I swam in the Little Plover River. I was so surprised that you could swim in a river. At that time swimming in the Milwaukee rivers would have been unthinkable.

Penultimate picture is the College of Natural Resources at UWSP. Last is a white ash tree beginning to turn. As I mentioned in previous posts re ash trees, the green ash and allied tend to turn brilliant gold. The white ash turns more purple.

Posted in My life | Comments Off on Stevens Point, Lizard Mound, Hero Poles and good beer

From death comes new life

From death comes new life. I know that is true and amply demonstrated on the ecology of the land, but I am still upset by the near total death of the ash trees (Fraxinus).

Ash trees

The ash were among my favorite trees, with their glad grace, dark green leaves and fast growth. Ash quickly formed groves. They were among the first to leaf out in spring and in fall turned a beautiful golden, not yellow but really more golden color. Except the white ash. They could turn a beautiful maroon. Beyond those things, I liked ash because they seemed almost impervious to disease. You could plant ash, or more commonly just let ash plant themselves, with reasonable certainty that they would cover the area w/o problems. This last part proved not to be true.

Ash were very common in southeastern Wisconsin. That and their tendency to form groves of almost purely ash has made their rapid demise because of the emerald ash borer more painful. You can see the destruction easily just driving down the roads. That was exacerbated by another of the ash characteristics. They were a pioneer species, quickly filling in disturbed areas, like areas near roads.

Kettle Moraine again

I drove up to Kettle Moraine State Forest (Northern Unit) along Highways 41 and 43 and the Götterdämmerung of the ash as particularly noticeable. By the time I arrived at Mauthe Lake I was in a profoundly sad mood and I was uncharacteristically pessimistic. The weather conspired in this. It was overcasts and gray. I thought for sure it would rain, but I needed to do my walk around the lake, as I have been doing for than fifty years.

Mauthe Lake is a gift of the glaciers. It is pretty, but not remarkable. The lake is much more prominent in my personal landscape of memory than on the ground. It was carved out during the most recent ice age and is the headwater of the Milwaukee River.  The Milwaukee River does not start here, but flows through early on. Mauthe Lake is important to me because it was where I first learned about conservation, where I came to appreciate the Ice Age and where I saw how landforms interact with biotic communities. I took part in a nature camp there when I was in 5th Grade. It made a lasting impression. In HS, I rode to Mauthe Lake on my bike. In college, I hitchhiked down. I have driven up here dozens of times. The visits bring back memories and I can see the changes that have been taking place over the decades. I expected the dead ash. I had approached the visit with trepidation last year. They were mostly dead by then.

The old trail

The walk around the lake is two miles. As usual, parts of the trail were flooded. This is not a problem. Once your feet get wet, they cannot get any wetter, so you just trudge on. You start off in a cedar swamp, with white cedar, tamarack and – until recently – lots of ash. It was on this leg that I felt the deepest discontent and rehearsed the narrative of loss. As I walked, however, I got more cheerful. Maybe it is the stages of grief. I was moving on to acceptance. More likely it was a prosaic combination of seeing more of nature and an improvement in the weather. The sun started to come out and that makes your disposition sunnier.

The turning point came as I crossed the Milwaukee River and started into the mixed and pine forest on the other side. There are a lot of big oak trees there, mostly bur oak. We had the big old oaks surrounded by lot of small and newly deceased ash trees. This reminded me of the impermanence of … it all. At some time in the not very distant past, this ground was probably sedge savanna, with a few big oak trees, some still extant. The oak savanna was almost certainly the result of fires set by Native Americans. I speculate that settlers grazed cattle there. After that, when the land because State Forest, the ash moved in. In other words, the ash were part of the cycle, not the beginning nor the end. This does not take the sting out of their loss, but it does put it into perspective.

You come into a red pine forest as you gain a few feet of elevation. These pines were planted in 1941 and thinned four times. This forest now looks a lot like an open southern pine forests, with a lot of sunlight hitting the ground allowing for diversity. My loblolly on Brodnax look very similar. The red pines are a little bigger than mine, but surprisingly not that much. The Wisconsin trees are nearly 80 years old; mine are just over 30. Trees grow faster in Virginia. Of course, all trees grow faster in their exuberant youth and then plateau. My loblolly will not end up bigger.

I remember the changes in this forest, as least I think I do. I remember my childhood hike in these woods and how I was impressed with hot deep and dark it was. The pine needles formed a thick carpet and there was not much growing under the trees. This was how they did forestry in those days. These days, they like to let in more light. It sacrifices some timber value, but creates a lot more wildlife habitat and species diversity.

What next?

All of this made me ask the “what’s next?” questions. The ash trees are gone. We shall not soon see their like again. What is going to come up instead. Something will benefit from this. I observed tamarack, black willow, alder, maples, birch and – surprising to me on the damp land, bur oak. In some places the cattails had become more profuse. Maybe the treed swamp will in some places become a marsh or a sedge meadow. The trees suck up water. Absent the ash, maybe more water will stand.

I observed last time and still now that in some isolated places the ash were still standing and healthy. Sometimes dead ash were standing next to lives ones. What happened? I understand that ash trees in Asia resist the ash borers. Ash borers in Asia are endemic, but not as decisive. Some American ash likely also do not taste as good to the borers or maybe have some characteristic making the less attractive. In this maybe we have the seeds of recovery. I have a picture of the live ash near the dead one with the backdrop of a beautiful sedge meadow. The future?

We think the environment we first saw is THE proper environment, that the forests and fields of our youth was the way it was supposed to be. Nature, in fact, is dynamic and impermanent. Our nature was just one short and changing scene in the endless drama. As I described with the big oaks, it was not what had been or what had to be.

Along the trail, I passed some kids with their parents and a group of what looked like high school kids. They were looking at each other, the boys paying attention to the girls and the reverse. They were not paying particular attention to the forests around them, but they were drinking it in unawares. This is their baseline. Maybe the next generation will think that the cattail marsh next to the river is the way it is “supposed to be.” If sometime the ash recover and recolonize the fenland, these old people of the future will decry that mess and invasion, the trees sucking up water and shading out the cattails.

I know I should more joyfully embrace impermance. I know that intellectually. I know that future generations will not feel that way and maybe even I will not long into the future.

From death comes new life. The environment endures and adapts. But I still miss my ash trees.


Posted in Conservation & Environment | Comments Off on From death comes new life

Chicago 2

Wandered Chicago a little and met Michael W. Fox for a few beers and pizza.

We passed the statue of a giant Boomer, so Marisa Williams can see in the first picture.

Christine Johnson will be pleased to know that we went to the original Pizza Uno, as you can see in the second picture.

Picture #3 shows the Trump building. He insists on putting his name on the side. Bad form.

I took the Metro into town from my hotel near O’Hare. I like to take the train better than driving. Driving in the cities makes me nervous. Last picture is from the Metro window.

Posted in My life, Our travel | Comments Off on Chicago 2