Brodnax visit May 2019

As a gentleman landowner, I am unaccustomed to actual work. Today was a lot of actual work in the forest.

I had some success and some not success. I cleared a couple acres of sweet gum and poplar in order to give oaks a better chance. This took two tanks of gas on my machine, i.e. a little over three hours of cutting and another hours of pilings and pulling. I think it will work.

Next I went after the gum and popular in my 2016 pine plantation. Here I ran into Japanese honeysuckle. This is a beautiful plants with a wonderful fragrance. It is also a horrible invasive. It can overwhelm, cover and kill small trees.My machine did not work well against them – too many stems, too close the ground and the vines move when you cut at them. I worked hard but accomplished little of value.

The only viable option is chemical warfare. I am going to have to spray them or maybe get someone to do it for me with a helicopter. I have around 30 acres of this 2016 pine. Not all is inundated with honeysuckle, but a lot of it is. I am not sure I can take it all on with my backpack sprayer. Actually, I am sure that I cannot. I will need to call in air support.

Also checked out the burning. The winter burn is looking good. I don’t think we lost any pines. We will need to burn a couple more times to establish a nice grass and forbs layer.

The burn from May of last year killed a couple dozen trees. It got too hot. I was very depressed when I saw it, but now with the passage of time it has become a kind of science project. I planted some longleaf under the dead trees and I am using this as one of my oak regeneration experiments.

Biochar is one of the parts of the science experiment. I have long been interested in “terra preta” in the Amazon. This is anthropogenic soil created by the natives by mixing charcoal with soil. It holds water better and produces a lot more plant life. We created some terra preta by accident. When the fire looked like it might escape, DoF pushed a line and trapped lots of wood in with dirt. It burned slowly and turned to charcoal and dirt, i.e. biochar. I will watch how it does.

My first picture shows the honeysuckle. Next shows the dead trees from the May burning, follow by the biochar heap. Picture # 4 shows the winter fire result – live trees and quick recovery. Maybe too quick. It did not burn enough. Last is some of my oak preference. I knocked down the gum, red maple, popular and sycamore anywhere near an oak. All the time I was working out there today, I was thinking of the Aldo Leopold essay “Axe in Hand.” –

“When some remote ancestor of ours invented the shovel, he became a giver; he could plant a tree. And when the axe was invented, he became a taker; he could chop it down. Whoever owns land has thus assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying plants.”

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Freeman May 2019

Feeling overwhelmed today. Visiting the farms. So much to do. I have an idea what I want, but there is so much land and so little me.

I know this happens to me every spring and I will get over it very soon. But just now I am down. I also picked off two ticks. Generally my Repel works to keep those little nasty things off, but it seems a season of numerous ticks. Maybe all the rain.

Some of my wildflower/pollinator flowers are coming up. My plan was/is to plant patches in hopes they will spread. The seeds are very expensive and I could not cover all the territory even if seeds were free. Give it a month.

I am staying down south tonight. Tomorrow I will use my power tool to clear around some white oaks, so that I can help with oak regeneration on the Brodnax place. I identified the places last time and now I have to do the work. I dis like the power tool because it makes so much noise, but it sure is faster. I can clean off several acres with the tool. With my hand tools I can maybe do 10%.

My first picture is one of my “wildflower nodes”. I don’t know what flowers those are, but the are nice. I planted the seeds in handfuls of dirt. It seems to have worked. I have lots of those pods around. Hope they proliferate. Next shows the problem with longleaf. One is a longleaf in the grass stage. The other is actually grass. It is hard to tell the difference visually. If you touch them, they feel very different, but it is hard to find your new longleaf. Picture #4 are the longleaf now in going into their 7th year. The new growth is nice. Last is my prickly pear and rattlesnake master. They are growing.

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Eager beavers

I am not eager about beavers chewing down trees on my farms or flooding, but it depends. This book gave me some better appreciation of beavers as ecological engineers and creators of green infrastructure.

History was interesting. Beavers were exceedingly common in pre-settlement North America. You can still see that in place names. Many of the most fertile fields were former beaver ponds.

Beaver ponds are transient. They silt up, become wetlands, then forests or prairies. Beaver move on. The useful part of their green infrastructure is that the beavers never stop. The challenge of beavers is that they never stop and they can flood lot of other places. Besides that, the beavers never “build to code.” In places with human infrastructure, beavers are less welcome.

Beaver ponds slow water, help with flood control and help recharge aquifers. They provide wetland habitat & fields. On the other hand, they can be a real problem for irrigation systems, culverts, roads and buildings. Are they good or bad? It depends.

We cannot “re-beaver” all, most or even much of America, but we probably can benefit from using their never ending passion of making dams.
Check out this great listen on In Eager, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb reveals that our modern idea of what a healthy landscape…


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Not a bad book, but I would not rush out to buy it. His best, IMO, was “Truman”. This is not like that.

It is mostly about the settlement of the area of Ohio around Marietta, told through the stories of a few people. You get a good picture of some of the hardships. These people worked all the time and the work was very hard.

Interesting subjects include the struggle to set up public schools and the fight to keep slavery out of the Northwest Territories (hard to think of Ohio as Northwest).

The slavery issue is featured prominently in many histories today, sometimes inserted awkwardly. In this case, it makes sense. The Ohio River was the border between slave and free. Imagine if slavery had been allowed to infiltrate into places like Ohio. It is likely that the Civil War would not have played out the way it did, or at all. Slavery might have persisted longer. Recall that Brazil did not ban slavery until 1888 and it persisted in much of world until well into the 20th Century. The African nation of Mauritania did not end it officially until 1981. How different world history would have been if the USA had not banned slavery when it did and given a few changes among a few people, because settlers were so few in Ohio in the early years, everything could have been different. History is contingent.
Check out this great listen on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important and dramatic chapter in the American story – the settling of the Northwest Territory by dauntless pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals t…..

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What were you like when you were fifty – story worth

What were you like at 50? Story Worth question.

What was your life like when you were fifty?

The most significant thing that happened in my 50th year was that we bought our first tree farm. I have discussed the details of that purchase elsewhere, so let me talk here about the long thinking that went into that moment of spontaneity.

Forest people versus cabin people

I cannot remember a time when I did not love trees, but I never gave serious thought to owning a forest because it just seemed unrealistic. Who owns a forest? I was a city boy. I knew people who owned maybe a few acres. Chrissy’s parents were farmers and there was a lot of land on her side of the family, but they inherited those places. Just buying rural land was completely outside my experience.

At first, we were thinking “cabin.” Lots of people we knew had second homes in the woods. That seemed doable. We thought of West Virginia. The guy in the office next to me, Jeff, had a place in West Virginia. In fact, he had bought rural land several times. The more I talked to him, however, the more I came to know that that his experience would be more useful as a lesson on what to avoid rather than an example to follow. He had lots of experience buying rural land, but not much success keeping it.

Good neighbors

Jeff had trouble with his neighbors wherever he went. He warned me that rural people were “different.” Jeff was an FS classmate. I knew him well enough to suspect that the constant in all his bad neighborly relationships was him. Another classmate, Mark, had successfully bought – and kept – rural land near Appomattox. He loved his rural neighbors and they were helpful to him. We both knew Jeff and at lunch Mark told me that Jeff’s problem was that he did not meet his neighbors on their ground, figuratively as well at literally.

Jeff’s daughter fervently believed in animal rights. Evidently when Jeff bought land, he succumbed to his daughter’s entreaties and banned hunting on his land. This is not a smart idea in long established rural communities. Worse, he made his feelings clear to his neighbors, and his feelings were that they were not the friends of nature that he and his family were.

Funny, we diplomats know that we should treat foreigners with respect even when they disagree with us, but we often fail to understand we might want to show similar respect to our fellow Americans.

But Jeff’s advice was good in other ways. I don’t think I would have had the gumption to go through with my land purchase w/o Jeff. He did know how to buy land. It was Jeff who made me see that I was not a “cabin person.” I was a forest person. Cabin people like to fix things in the cabin. I do not. I don’t care at all about cabins, only the forest that surround them. I went looking for land where I could grow trees and do some real forestry. That was not West Virginia, BTW. It is too hilly. There are lots of trees in West Virginia, but not that much timber. Southside Virginia was the place to get timber.

Make haste slowly

I would like to claim that I was decisive, but I made haste slowly. The idea of buying land really came to me in earnest when we lived in New Hampshire, and I had been thinking about it years before that. I read about land going cheap after forest fires. So, the forest land purchase gestated for years w/o issue. It just got realistic around 2003.

There were other factors involved. I was a little worried about my career. (ALL foreign service officers worry about their careers all the time. Keeps us on our toes.) I thought that there was a good chance that the FS would kick me out, i.e. not promote me to senior FS. I wanted an alternative, and forest owner/manager seemed like something I could be proud of being.

Scared the shit out of me. Buying the forest was our biggest investment besides our house, and a foray into a lot less familiar territory. I figured the numbers. I did the due diligence. I went down and checked the land records. I looked at the soils and the trees, walked the boundaries. I checked the location of the mills. And after all that logic, I made an emotional decision and bought 178 acres of cut over land in Brunswick County because I really wanted to.

One of the things that made me more confident in the purchase was that the sellers didn’t seem to care about selling. When we looked at cabins in West Virginia, sellers wanted us to make a decision that same minute. Some even offered to take credit card for the down payment. Not so with this land purchase. When I called the guy in Brunswick to make an offer, he said that was good and that he would forward the paper work next week, since he was going fishing.

The dog that finally catches the car

I couldn’t believe I really had the land, and so much of it, too much to handle with my machete and shovel I took the kids down to see “their” new land. It was a very hot day and they were not as enthusiastic as I was to walk the length & breadth of the place, but they did it. I was lucky to have a hunt club using the land. Their “rent” pays the property taxes, but more importantly they provide a local connection. I got lots of good advice from hunt club members. They knew lots of things I wanted to know. Unlike Jeff’s experience, I found my neighbors exceedingly friendly and helpful.

Besides marrying Chrissy & having the kids, buying the forest land was absolutely, positively the best life decision I ever made.

Fulfilling the life’s dream

Becoming a forest landowner was the culmination of a life’s dream that I was not fully-aware I had. Forestry defines my values. I am never sure how much I am reading the past into the present. For example, did I “rediscover” my values in Aldo Leopold, or did I just think I did. I can look back at my life through the lens of conservation, but is this just hindsight bias? Since I know then end, am I recalling the events that “led up to it”?

I don’t know and never will know for sure. What I know for sure is that interacting with my land changed me. I feel responsible and connected nature in way I never did when before and it has given me a much deeper feeling for communities of all kinds, how they exist in both time and space. In the Aldo Leopold method, I can think, do, reflect and do something new based on what I learned. I have feeling of being of nature, not just a sojourner in it. Maybe I am fooling myself, but I feel it. I am reading all sorts of books and articles about land ethics, but I am also learning and connecting with the land itself and the biotic communities on it. It is a consuming passion in a good way.

Lots of things to do, even more to learn

We bought our first forest land in 2005. Got more in 2008, and more still in 2012. I have managed four harvests, planted more than 40,000 trees, got NRCS grants to plant pollinator habitat, contracted with hunt clubs, applied biosolids, thinned, burned, sprayed and protected stream management zones. People ask me if forest land is a good investment. It depends. All the things I did above, the actual work and the general contracting, I have wanted to do and enjoyed doing. Forest investment pays dividends in the joy of doing those things and being part of the land ethic. If you do not want to do that, it is not a good idea to own forests. It is like being a “cabin person” who doesn’t like to do fix-it. The payoff in joy is amazing but the payoff in money is paltry. I figure that I will “break even” about ten years after I am dead, but all that forestry has meant to me sure it worth a lot more. It connects me to the past and the future in a way I can more easily feel than explain. Best investment ever.

Had I never “invested” in forest land I sure would have more disposable income. Instead of tossing rocks, chopping vines and planting trees, I could be laying on a beach at some expensive resort, drinking margaritas and eating the best steaks. What a wasteful and boring life that would be.

Pictures are from the early years of our forest adventure. First is Espen Matel on the back of the truck on the way to throw rip-rap. Next is our first forest when we got it. Cut over. Picture #3 shows Espen and Alex Matel after spraying vines. Next is our beech woods. I think they are very beautiful. Last is completely different. He is an indigenous forester from the Amazon. We talked to him about planting trees. We were so separated in space and culture, but our feelings about trees and forests were remarkably similar.

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Stoicism and Seneca

Rode down to a presentation at Smithsonian about stoicism and got a practical  lesson in stoicism on the way down. I used the hourly weather prediction to get plan to ride my bike when it was not raining. About 15 minutes into my ride, it started to rain, really hard.

Stoics do not seek suffering, contrary to popular perception, but neither do they avoid it if it stands in they way of what they want. Once you get really soaked, you cannot get any wetter, so it does not matter.

The lecture at Smithsonian was about Seneca. He was an interesting case. He wrote beautifully about Stoicism, but he was one of the richest men in Rome and he worked for the very immoral Emperor Nero. It is not necessary for the person to be personally virtuous in order to preach virtue.

But I think it might go deeper than that. None of the ancient philosophers can really play in the big leagues today. They simply did not have the intellectual resources we enjoy, since they were the ones building the intellectual resources we enjoy. Ancient Stoicism did not have the moral structure that we need to go with the methods they used. It is great to practice self-control and reason, but modern readers are also looking for a moral structure. Reason is not sufficient. It must be right reason. At least that is the way I feel about it.

The lecture was good. I learned a little about the life and times of Seneca. I like him less than I did before the lecture.

My pictures show the rain on the way. It stopped when I was about a 30 minutes out, but I did not dry out. Next to the bike trail if Four Mile Creek. I took the picture at the underpass at Wilson Blvd. The creek floods there. It was filling up as I watched. I enjoyed the lecture a little less being soaked and itchy. Last picture is the lecture.

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Describe the worst part of your life

Leaving out periods of sickness or bereavement, two periods of my life compete for “the worst.”

Crashing at the takeoff

It was the worst job year since the Great Depression. Unemployment in 1982 hit post World War II highs (think of it like the Great Recession, only worse) and I was not among those employers most wanted.  Sure, I could read Greek & Latin; employers were unimpressed. Who knew?  I thought I might never find a job outside the fast-food or hospitality industries.

I needed a change, a jump start.  Maybe I thought maybe I could join the Air Force, get some practical experience and maybe get them to pay for some practical education.  I was physically fit, college educated with no criminal history & I did well on standardized tests, so the recruiter saw me as a good prospect.  I got excited about officer training.  I saw “Officer & Gentleman” with Richard Gere.  I figured that I could do that. My plan was to marry Chrissy, go into the Airforce to become and officer and a gentleman.  The marriage was wonderful; the rest, not so much.

The shock came out of nowhere.  As I went through the steps, my blood pressure was excellent, my heart strong and everything was good.  I felt sorry for some of the guys around of me – the one with such high blood pressure that he had to lay down to lower it, the one with only one testicle (Evidently the rule was that you need two); the one humps on his back, kind of like an ankylosaurus. They all passed. Not me.

The doctor told me that I had some earwax and that I was not capable of military service.  Earwax? Turns out my “ulcer” from 11th Grade made me ineligible.  I protested that it – whatever it was – went away.  I was spectacularly healthy, as the tests showed.  I lifted weight, ran long distances and I ate and drank whatever I wanted w/o problems.  It didn’t have an ulcer. It didn’t matter. I was out.

It was like bouncing on the diving board and then seeing the pool was empty.  There was no plan B and no prospects.  I was an “employment refugee,” a ragged man wandering through a ragged landscape.  I worked episodically at “Flexi-Force,” doing things like stuffing newspapers on the night shift and sweeping floors. The idea was to get experience and maybe work into a steady job.  My MA in history meant less than nothing. My less educated co-workers were eager to tell me that we were in the same boat.  The difference was that I had spent years to get there and I had thousands in student loans. My best prospect for continued employment was selling phone service for MCI. I made a good impression on the boss, at least he said so, but I was gone after the temp period.

A good thing about being loosely connected to the job market is that you have time.  I studied for the GMAT and learned some of the math I needed for an MBA, and I took the Foreign Service written test.  The FS test was free and the study books for the GMAT did not cost much.  Things got better in the economy and for me.  I passed the FS written test and started an accelerated MBA program at University of Minnesota in the summer of 1983. They gave me a job as a TA, not sure why, sweet serendipity.

Management is a kind of applied history & even the math was sometimes fun, once I figured out the patterns.  When I took the FS oral exam soon after starting my MBA, I was completely relaxed. I had the MBA thing going for me, so the orals were just exercise.  That is probably how I passed.  Fortunately, the security background check took a long time and I finished my MBA before I got a call for FS. By then I was “director” of Marketing Research at Microdatabase Systems (MDBS). I put “director” in quotes, since I was the only one in the department.

MDBS made a wonderful data base software that was nearly impossible for non-experts. I learned the system with the help of the engineers and after a couple weeks the founders-owners called me. Nice guys. They asked me how I liked the product.  I told them truthfully that it was great but added that it was too hard to use.

The founders were taken-aback.  “If people are too stupid to use our product,” one explained, “perhaps they shouldn’t buy it.”  I figured I ought to flee that scene before it all fell down. I accepted the FS offer the next day. I had worked at MDBS for all of three weeks. Oddly, they asked me to stay on until I needed to leave for Washington, so I worked a couple more weeks, then set off for my new career.

Falling from the heights

The second dip was not existentially as bad.  I still had a good job. I was just worried that there was no future. I feel into the career pit right after the summit of my best of times in Krakow (discussed earlier).

The bureaucracy has no memory

Past accomplishments are no guarantee of future good treatment. The late 1990s were a time of cuts in the FS, especially in public diplomacy.  Lots of good officers were pushed out and those of us left had fewer opportunities.  I got a job at the Operations Center. This sounds exciting, but it was not, at least not for me.

Ops Center is 24-hour shift work. I never adapted.  I was sluggish most of the time, ate too much junk food, & gained weight. My blood pressure went up to “pre hyper tension.  My joints hurt. It was not only the shift work.  I thought my career was finished. I had done my best and ended up on the night shift – better than 1982 but similar time zone.  Our political leaders seemed uninterested in our work. Our USIA director at the time did not like people like me.  He thought the FS was too pale, too male and too Yale, and said so openly.  I had two of those three attributes. His team also emphasized youth. The under 30 crowd had some special attributes, they thought.  So, at 42 ½ I was too old, too pale, too male and maybe not Yale enough, since graduates of Midwestern state schools were lumped in but with none of the privilege or prestige of the Ivy League.

After he found he could not mess with the test to change his “elitist” workforce.  He did the next best thing – shrunk our numbers.  We hired almost nobody and promotions trickled down to almost none. We lost about 1/3 of our public diplomacy officers in those years.  I am convinced that one reason we were unprepared diplomatically after 9/11 was that we just did not have enough experienced boots on the ground, but that is another story.

I hated the Ops Center.  It was the only time in my FS life that I looked for another job.  Fortunately, I got another opportunity before I got too far in to the job search.  They needed someone in Poland to honcho public affairs for Poland’s perspective NATO membership.  I volunteered.  Fluent Polish speakers are not that common and/or not available in mid-year, so I was probably the only one available.  This shows the value of networking, BTW.  I spent a lot of time just talking to people.  I got the job because of my qualifications, but I knew about the job only because of my networking.

They sent me to Warsaw for three months with the mission to care for American academic & media delegations studying NATO. I believed then – and do today – in NATO.  I believed Poland would be a great addition and I worked to convince others to believe it too.  I took visiting delegations to Poland’s great universities and introduce them to Poland’s intellectuals and leaders – living treasures of Poland.  It worked. In a verified example, an editorial writer for the “Chicago Tribune” wrote me that his visit had changed his mind and his paper’s editorials.  I still have the letter.  All I did was make the truth available.  I believed in what I was doing, and I could devote a lot of time to my work, since I had nothing else to do. You can be very effective working full out, but probably cannot keep it up.

I had to go back to the Ops Center. Nothing changed and sill hated it. My work in Poland gave me visibility to get a job as desk officer for Russia and then press attaché for Poland.  You can tolerate almost anything if you can see the finish.  I spent just nine months in the Ops Center, closer to six months if you subtract my sojourn in Poland.

It reads better than it was lived

Looking back, my worst of times were not very bad, but they read better than they were lived. In the 1982 episode, I almost lost hope.  In 1997, I thought that the career that I had learned and loved had hit a brick wall.  In both cases, the despair was fueled by outside issues.  In 1982, it was the economy – stupid, but after that we enjoyed a quarter century of good times, which encompassed much of my working and investing life.  1997 was a more nuanced. We were being cut and the powers that be made it clear that they did not like people like me.  In both cases, the remedy was to adapt and overcome, but in both cases I was saved more by changes in climate than by my own actions. What I did to adapt was necessary to success, but not sufficient.

In the 1997 case, there is an interesting coda.  The 1990s were plague years for the FS.  Lots of good colleagues were pushed out of their jobs, especially at the 01 level.  As I wrote, we lost about 1/3 of our public affairs officers, and the carnage hit hardest at the FS-01 level.  After the end of the plague years, Colin Powell rightfully saw that we needed to rebuild.  His diplomatic readiness initiative brought in hundreds of new people above the attrition rate. They came in as junior officers. The plague opened the way for middle ranked (at the time) people like me.  As after a medieval plague, there were lots of empty spots to fill.  The hard times of the 1990s almost certainly delayed my promotion to FS-01, but likely created opportunities after that, so on balance the hard times were good.

For better and worse

The most important factor through these hard times was Chrissy.  I try not to comment too much about family, since I don’t think it is fair for me to tell their stories, but w/o her love and support I well might have got stuck in the swamp of despair.  Studies show that people with stable relationships are happier, healthier & wealthier.  I can well understand that. I talk a lot about sweet serendipity, but nothing is sweeter than that relationship.  It takes a lot of effort to be spontaneously lucky.

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I read the “sequel” – “1493” a couple years ago, so I was looking forward to this book. I was disappointed at first. The book drags in the first parts. There was too much detail of history that was precise beyond the available data and too much personalized accounts of the authors explorations.

His strength is ecological history and the author does well in the last chapters talking about anthropomorphic landscapes. For example, he talks about the terra preta land in the Amazon, which human created soil.

The big idea is that landscapes in the Americas were not untouched by humans, but rather the creation of humans over the centuries. This includes the wild Amazon. It was a different sort of agriculture, sort of a natural gardening with many species of trees and roots.

Where no man had gone before

When Europeans arrived, they thought they found a virgin landscape. They were mistaken. Native Americans had altered the landscape for thousands of year though their hunting and especially the use of fire.

European  settlers also came upon a “widowed” landscape, not a virgin one.  Disease killed the native population often before the arrival of Europeans.  Natives had burned and used the forests, hunted and controlled game.  When large numbers of natives were eliminated by disease, the forests grew thicker and animals proliferated. Large herds of bison, elk, deer, thick forests and flocks of passenger pigeons that Europeans found represented rebounding populations, not the previous situation.

Meaning for the land ethic

This is a sign of hope and helps in the understanding of a regenerative land ethic. Following a land ethic, we seek to live in harmony with nature.  Harmony specifically does NOT mean apart or not interacting.  In our context, it means means neither dominating nature nor mimicking it nor setting it apart to “save” it, but rather trying to understand and use natural principles.  Similarly, we should not try to mimic the techniques of the past nor try to restore what was. We can use these methods & principles of the past and make a once and future way to manage our land.

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Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement

“And I am not throwing away my shot; I am not throwing away my shot; Hey yo, I’m just like my country; I’m young, scrappy and hungry; And I’m not throwing away my shot”

We worry that if we miss the on-ramp to the success highway, we will be forever stuck on the bumpy little roads to nowhere. Our culture is full of references to getting that big break, and we emphasize youth and energy, as the words above from “Hamilton” epitomize.

But it is not a true story for most people. Worse, if we believe in the story, it leads to misery & failure.

“Late Bloomers” is a book I could have written, if I had more literary talent. As I read it, I saw myself in many of the anecdotes, especially now that I have become a gentleman of leisure.

Many opportunities beat equal opportunity

America does not need to be the land of equal opportunity, since none of us want the same thing. Equal opportunity implies the one highway in the metaphor above. We should be – and we are – the land of many opportunities. The one shot, the one on-ramp is not how life works and not how it should work. We have diverse desires and diverse skills. A good life is one that finds purpose and a good society is one that enables most people to look for the good life.

Scientific management

The author talks about how we got into this one-way highway mind-set. In many ways, it was a bargain we made to create the fantastic prosperity we now enjoy. It has to do with the needs of an industrial society, the progressive “science” of management and even with different life expectancy of the past. There is better detail in the book, but we need to consider Fredrick Taylor’s scientific management and the way our school systems responded to needs of an industrial society.

I have written about Taylor before and will not go into detail now. Most of us recognize his methods, even if we have never heard of him. This is the idea of making work-processes most efficient, sometimes called time and motion studies. Taylor and his students would observe work environments and optimize everything. Good as far as it went. The cost was that it made people into exchangeable parts. They all needed to do the same sort of things. A craftsman, who customized and thought about his work was unwelcome on the assembly line. These kinds of ideas so permeated American, and in fact world society that we sometimes forget that it is not natural. Our school systems were also designed with these sorts of ideas in mind. The schools we grew up in were designed to the industrial model. The kids come in a group. They do the assigned stuff. There are even bells to tell them when to move.

Thanks to people like Taylor, we no longer need to behave in the ways he advocated. We needed the industrial process to break the poverty trap. Now our society has built enough wealth and prosperity that we can more freely indulge our individual humanity. And that is what we should do.

Not everything you can measure is important and not all that is important can be measured

The author talks about late blooming, which he defines as not doing things on schedule. People develop differently. Most young men are not mature at 18 years old. Their brains are literally not physically mature, and they are not ready to get onto that success ramp. Maybe time off doing something else would be useful, give them time to develop. Do not expect instant success.

I have seen this in boys I know and in myself. At around 21-years old, they just kind of click into place. Tasks that were impossible for their immature selves become easy. Girls develop faster, which likely accounts for much of their success in college earlier on. It may also explain why the boys catch up after graduation.

Many chances mitigate the problem of the quick start, lets lots of people flower in their own way and helps society in general. Unfortunately, we are sorting people at younger and younger ages. Parents are training their kids to get into the “right” kindergarten, so they eventually get into the right college and achieve the big success. This is pernicious.

It is impossible to measure the potential merit of young people with any precision. Yet we apply increasingly precise measures. Most of these are just bull shit, but they are much loved by bureaucrats seeking to justify their choices and protect their phony-baloney jobs. We could eliminate most of the workers in college admissions, for example, w/o harming – maybe helping – the composition of classes. The process is much less precise that we admit. Admit it and design from there.

The crab pot syndrome

Later in the book he talked about the need for “re-potting.” Sometimes you just have to move to find your place. Community is a great thing, but it can also be limiting. People you know well don’t help you change. They know what you were, not what you are or what you aspire to become. This applies to people who love you too. (One of the best things I did for my son Alex was to go to Iraq for a year. W/o m to “help and advise” him, he was able to develop in his own way.) And of course, not everybody even wants you to succeed. Communities after have a “crab pot syndrome,” where others pull down any individual who tries to climb higher. (I checked, BTW. Crabs trapped in a pot actually do pull down any of their number that tries to climb out.)

Of course, there is a lot more to the book than I can summarize. It is worth reading. I won’t claim that it gave me great insights that nobody has though of before, but it did remind me of things I have observed over my life and made me think of others in new ways.

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Preservation & Conservation

Preservation &  Conservation

Not everybody makes the distinction between conservation & preservation, but some do and whole books have been written on it, usually discussing the differences between Gifford Pinchot and John Muir.

I won’t tell that story here.  Suffice it to say that despite sometimes serious ideological disputes, conservationists and preservationists overlap in their big goals, and in many, in most cases a conservationist and a preservationist behave in very similar ways. Conservation is the one with the Teddy Roosevelt tradition, and I would argue Aldo Leopold. Conservationists indeed aim to preserve nature, but also recognize the special role humans have played will always play as long as humans are on earth.

Land empty of people is sad and incomplete

A land full of people who overreach and destroy nature is a horror. A land empty of people is sad and incomplete. Walking gently on the earth is essential, but that implies humans are indeed walking on the earth. Harmony, not exclusion, is the valuable and achievable goal. Humans living in harmony with nature is joyful and helps us find meaning in life.

People who use the land and the biotic communities can be great stewards of nature. Hunters are often great conservationists, so are foresters and loggers. These guys are rarely welcome at a meeting of “true” preservationists. Preservationists count among their ranks deep environmentalists, who sometimes believe that earth would be better off w/o humans, and some animal rights activists, who sometimes put the “rights” of the beasts above the needs of humans.

You will note that I have been modifying with “some” or “many” when talking about adherents to the two strains of environmentalism. The debate is significant, but there is no dogma as you might have in a religion. You can get some of the taste of the differences in E.O. Wilson’s “Half Earth.” My interpretation is included at this link.  Wilson is in the  preservation camp, but he is not a deep environmentalist.

Deep environmentalism has all the attractions of a religion. Its strongest acolytes resemble puritans in many ways, but there is no redemption in their philosophy for them or for humanity. Of course, this is an extreme view held by fringe people, but the pure preservationist ideal infects many in the environmental movement & even more casual adherents often see preservation as the true religion, even if they cannot achieve it.

Ecological footprints

A preservationist mind-set is on display in the common concept of “ecological footprints.” It is often formulated as the damage you do, and the best you can hope for is to limit the damage. It is a narrative of loss or even original sin. As with medieval concepts of sin, it is a game you are bound to lose. Conservationists can accept the footprint idea, but they recognize that the footprint can be positive. We can take steps that improve at least parts of the natural environment.

Humans in nature, nature in humans

Some places are so unique that we should do our best to preserve them in “natural”  state that we found them. Some places must be used very intensively leaving little room for nature. In most places, nature and humanity can exist together, often in symbiotic ways.  In these places we can aspire to regeneration.

I am agnostic about restoring nature and I do not believe in natural intelligent design. There is no way that it “should” be. There is no pristine natural state to be recovered. That means that there is nothing humans can do that will “destroy” nature because “nature” is a human concept, beyond our capacity to destroy. In the billions of years of earth history before human consciousness developed, plants and animals lived, reproduced, evolved and died w/o notice or consequence. When MOST of the world’s species died out at the end of the Paleozoic era, it didn’t make a bit of difference to nature. The disappearance of the dinosaurs was mourned by nobody until the modern kids found out about the great extinction, shed a few childish tears and called it a tragedy.

I was happy to read in the Nature Conservancy Magazine. In an article entitled, “Beyond Man vs. Nature”, the Conservancy’s chief scientist explained that biodiversity for itself and/or simple preservation should not be top goals. “The ultimate goal,” he said, “is better management of nature for human benefit.”

Nothing untouched

Of course, there are places we choose to preserve mostly untouched – mostly. I have visited the Grand Canyon five times. Each time I find more to love and each time the Grand Canyon fills me with wonder & awe. We should preserve awesome places like the Grand Canyon for ourselves & future generations. Let me modify that. We should conserve places like this. The Grand Canyon that so struck awe into my soul was not natural. I enjoyed the Canyon by walking to the bottom and back up on trails carved by human hands. I drove up there on roads build by men and machines. W/o those human improvements, the Canyon would be as inaccessible to me as the mountains of the moon and as meaningless as some great canyon that might exist on Venus or Mars. The universe really is a big place and we are small. It sounds arrogant to say so, but it is humanity that makes this wonder of nature a wonder at all.

We are humans. We can pretend to take the point of view of animals, plants or even geographical features. We can imagine seeing through the “eye of the tiger” or “thinking like a mountain.” This is useful. It helps us understand, but for us it is an exercise. We cannot hear, speak or feel for plants, animals or natural systems.  It is literally like talking to a rock and expecting an answer. We can understand the world only with our human intelligence and perceptions, since we have never read or heard anything understood or explained by any but humans.

If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

What gives nature meaning and what allows us to get meaning from nature is the interaction of us with it. An old epistemological conundrum asks, “If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?” It is an insoluble problem unless you add detail. If you are talking about the waves that our human ears interpret as sound, a tree falling in the woods certainly does this. But a sound also requires interpretation. If nobody is there to hear it, all we have is physical phenomenon.

My guess is that preservationists would generally say it makes a sound, even if no human hears it. A conservationist like me might be a little more human-centrist and say that it falls silently. Add a time component and it becomes even more interesting. Sound travels at 331.2 metres per second – fast, but not instantaneous. It takes almost five seconds for sound to travel a mile. If you are a mile away from a tree when it falls in the woods, WHEN does it make a sound? For me, sixty million years of dinosaur history had no meaning until it was discovered by human consciousness.

Don’t mimic nature; work to understand & use natural principles

You cannot step twice into the same forest. The forest you fondly remember from childhood is gone, even if you can go to the same place and see trees and flowers that look just like you remember them.

I have written on many occasions that sustainable and natural are overlapping contexts, but they are not the same and that sustainable, in both natural and human influenced system doesn’t mean something that last forever. Nothing lasts forever. Sustainable just means a system that persists a long time adapting continually to continuous change. There are ecosystems that would be recognizable 5000 or 10,000 years ago, but none that have been unchanged during all that time. Most of the relationships among members of the biotic community are much younger. A good conservation strategy strives for a healthy human population interacting with a healthy environment. We don’t have to keep our human hands off, in fact, while we should work and interact with natural processes, we probably should not leave very much untouched. Human interaction does not necessarily profane nature; the interaction – done right, done thoughtfully & managed adaptively – ennobles both.  We need to understand and use natural principles, but we cannot and should not just mimic nature.

We can’t solve environmental problems without addressing human problems

All human endeavors need to satisfy the triple bottom line. They must be sustainable economically (profit), ecologically (planet) and good for the community (people). Sometimes there are trade-offs between them, but we must succeed in all three to call it a success.

Conservation is a higher order activity compared with mere preservation, which is may be an abdication of responsibility in the guise of wisdom. We can’t solve environmental problems without addressing human problems.

A sustainable environment demands that we apply intelligence, innovation and constant learning to ecological factors to sustain systems that works for humans and the beasts. We humans live in this world and ever since we evolved into humans we have altered the environment. If/when there is a world w/o us, it really doesn’t matter anymore. So long as we are here, however, it is our job – our responsibility – to act in the world and strive to do the right things and do things right.

Some additional reading

Conservation in the Anthropocene

Myth-busting Scientist Pushes Greens Past Reliance on “Horror Stories.”

We Aren’t Destroying the Earth

We Couldn’t Save Cecil the Lion, but Can We Save the Planet

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