Beasts of Burden

When the Afghans went to vote last week I noticed some polling materials contained in large plastic tubs were transported into the more remote areas on the backs of donkeys. It struck me as ironic – Afghanistan holding the first democratic election in the country’s history yet relying on a mode of transportation that hasn’t changed for the past 5,000 years.

Donkeys have small hoofs which allow them to be particularly sure-footed in rough, mountainous terrain. They are also amazingly tough for their small size. In some parts of the world I have seen donkeys transporting enormous loads that look to be about three times their size. On the west coast of Ireland years ago, a donkey that was used for hauling peat cut from the bog was lent to me to ride. The leather collar that formed part of the animal’s harness had worn away the hair and exposed the skin underneath which was cracked and bleeding. Donkeys are not well treated where people rely on them to eke out a subsistence living.

Not only are donkeys mistreated but they are frequently mislabeled. To call someone a donkey or a jackass is to imply the person is stupid. But donkeys are not stupid. Maybe it’s their “hee haw” the sound that donkeys make like a loud wheeze that gives them a reputation for being dull-witted. But these animals are patient, undemanding and able to forage on scant vegetation. Christians celebrate the start of Holy Week with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a pure more white donkey. Not coveting a neighbor’s ass forms part of one of the Ten Commandments as livestock in those ancient days were counted as wealth.

A political association began with Democratic Andrew Jackson’s campaign for the presidency when his political opponents referred to him as a jackass. Jackson capitalized on the slight and began to feature a donkey on his campaign posters. The more famous reprise is a cartoon by Thomas Nash in 1870 which appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. The feisty Democratic donkey is kicking a lion. Nash also created the elephant symbol for the Republicans a few years later.

These days donkeys are little more than pets in the United States. Not so throughout the undeveloped areas of the world where they continue to be overworked, poorly cared for and poorly fed, the butt of countless jokes and derogatory references.

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Small Shifts, Big Changes

Tigris & EuphratesChanges in the weather aren’t just a contemporary phenomenon. Nor are the unintended consequences that small shifts bring. Here in the Northeast we seem to have exchanged a winter of extreme cold  with a chill spring and plenty of rain. Weeds are growing rapidly. Kudzu seems to have taken over every patch of uncultivated ground, its shoots waving around ready to catch onto a nearby tree by which it can haul itself up and take over, creating a green curtain of impenetrable vines and leaves.

I’ve also watched a documentary on the brown bear population on an island off the Alaskan coast gorging on salmon when those fish return to their spawning grounds upstream. As this documentary was being filmed a change of two degree Celsius in the waters of the South Pacific delayed the salmon run for a couple of months. As a result, the bear population here almost starved. Animal ecosystems can inform our human situations. While population conflicts appear to have been largely ideological and political in recent years, underlying stressors have been the scarce resources .

I have not been there but I’ve read that Northern Nigeria is losing arable land to desertification by about fifteen kilometers a year in some places. Nomadic herders who depend on grazing lands for their livelihood are being forced closer to farmed areas. The media reports on armed conflict while drought, job loss and the march of desertification is seldom recognized as an underlying cause. And in many places in the Middle East water is scarcer than oil. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which rise in the Taurus mountains of eastern Turkey flow less rapidly through Iraq and Syria into the Persian Gulf as populations upstream either dam the rivers or divert the flow. I have read, too that the whole central plain of Iran faces an acute water shortage.

History shows us how catastrophe can result from very small shifts in ecosystems on which so many depend. We must all share limited resources if we are to prosper. Armed conflict seems a very short-sighted way to deal with scarcity.

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Love of Daffodils

DaffodilsThe daffodil season on my hillside is just coming to an end. The show has been spectacular this year. I’ve planted at least two new daffodil varieties each fall for several years. The bulbs need to winter over in the soil before coming into bloom the following spring. By now I must have over one hundred clumps of up to 30 or 40 varieties coming into flower in at least three distinct blooming periods between early April and mid-May.

As soon as the snow recedes I watch for the first green leaf tips to appear. The first leaves up are always over the septic tank, slightly warmer I guess than the rest of the hillside. The first daffodil to burst into bloom is a variety called Ice Follies, very prolific around here and quite hardy. With one flower per stem, this daffodil has six white petals around a stubby pale yellow cup. You see it everywhere but it has the distinction of being the first to put on a show.

I am not such a daffodil devotee that I know the names of all the varieties I’ve planted but I do have my favorites. Among the first arrivals is Mount Hood which is all white but it doesn’t start out that way. The cups turn from pale yellow to white once the flowers are in bloom. By mid-season the doubles seem to take over. Tahiti has a complex double center cup surrounded by double petals of bright yellow interspersed with bright orange. Similar complexity follows in daffodils that are yellow and white, or pink and white. As to the pink cup varieties, beware of the catalogues. They show pages of daffodils with bright baby pink centers. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. My pink daffodils have cups that are a subtle peach, interesting in their own way but definitely not pink. My preference for blooms in this high season is for the daffodil varieties with brilliant orange cups of varying beauty and intensity.

Towards the end of the daffodil season I welcome the varieties sometimes known as jonquils. These have several blooms on one stem, so the flowers are rather small but have great personality. My favorite is Yellow Cheerfulness, a pale primrose yellow with multiple petals. I’ve also been captivated by the daffodil variety called Geranium because of the fragrance and by Thalia blooming now at the end of the season though again, when the catalogues refer to it as the orchid daffodil, that’s a bit of a stretch. For a grand finale, the Poet’s Daffodil , delicate in white with a tiny deep orange cup and green throat is the last to bloom on my hillside.

Now that the show is almost over, I’ve been round dead-heading the plants, that is, snipping off the seed heads so that the plant’s energy goes downwards into the bulbs, setting them up for next spring. Some will produce daughter bulbs as they are called, building out the clumps of blooms that can get to be fifty flowers strong. I also need to let the daffodil leaves die off, turning ugly shades of yellow and brown before I weedwack them down with the rest of the growing vegetation. I like to think of the bulbs buried in the brown earth under my feet getting ready for another spectacular show next spring.

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Beasts of Burden

Democratic Donkey

When the Afghans went to vote last week I noticed some polling materials contained in large plastic tubs were transported into the more remote areas on the backs of donkeys. It struck me as ironic – Afghanistan holding the first democratic election in the country’s history yet relying on a mode of transportation that hasn’t changed for the past 5,000 years.

Donkeys have small hoofs which allow them to be particularly sure-footed in rough, mountainous terrain. They are also amazingly tough for their small size. In some parts of the world I have seen donkeys transporting enormous loads that look to be about three times their size. On the west coast of Ireland years ago, a donkey that was used for hauling peat cut from the bog was lent to me to ride. The leather collar that formed part of the animal’s harness had worn away the hair and exposed the skin underneath which was cracked and bleeding. Donkeys are not well treated where people rely on them to eke out a subsistence living.

Not only are donkeys mistreated but they are frequently mislabeled. To call someone a donkey or a jackass is to imply the person is stupid. But donkeys are not stupid. Maybe it’s their “hee haw” the sound that donkeys make like a loud wheeze that gives them a reputation for being dull-witted. But these animals are patient, undemanding and able to forage on scant vegetation. Christians celebrate the start of Holy Week with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, a young donkey.  Not coveting a neighbor’s ass forms part of one of the Ten Commandments as livestock in those ancient days were counted as wealth.

A political association began with Democratic Andrew Jackson’s campaign for the presidency when his political opponents referred to him as a jackass.  Jackson capitalized on the slight and began to feature a donkey on his campaign posters. The more famous reprise is a cartoon by Thomas Nash in 1870 which appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. The feisty Democratic donkey is kicking a lion. Nash also created the elephant symbol for the Republicans a few years later.

These days donkeys are little more than pets in the United States. Not so throughout the undeveloped areas of the world where they continue to be overworked, poorly cared for and poorly fed, the butt of countless jokes and derogatory references.

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Drones

QuadcopterAs I looked out of my kitchen window early one morning last week two young deer looked back at me with that particularly brazen look reserved for animals that are unafraid. I waved my arms and rapped on the window before their two white tails went up as warning flags or signs of indignation. They trotted to a stone wall and leapt over it disappearing into the woods. Probably yearlings, they were in good condition for having come through a very hard winter.

I wondered what happens if, in place of deer I find a small drone hovering outside my window some morning soon. Jeff Bezos tells us that Amazon plans to deliver packages by drone in the very near future. Though drones about 24 inches in diameter and weighing 3.5 pounds are already for sale elsewhere, the FAA bans such drones for commercial use in the U.S. But how long will it take to reverse that? It seems only a matter of time.

Which leads me to wonder how wild life will adapt. From what I know of remote controlled model airplanes of about the same size, they are noisy. Even now, commuter traffic about six miles away across the lake sets up a distinct hum around 7 a.m. A couple of hours later, the intrusion stops and the world is returned to the birds singing their hearts out at the approach of spring.

Ours is a very small patch of wilderness that supports this wild life. We can actually see the stars at night because light pollution does not obscure them. I do not see road kill around here because cars are driving slowly enough to avoid hitting the creatures that co-habit with us. But I wonder if birds will go silent at the angry buzzing of drones, or adapt as the deer have done so far. Adult deer, not yearlings, will hesitate before crossing a road as they listen for the sound of approaching cars. Danger for them will now come in three dimensions – right, left and from above.

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Early Birds

American RobinIn early January a robin landed on the railing around my deck and looked at me quizzically through the glass. His feathers were fluffed out against the cold and he eyed me with a look that was almost accusatory, as if I was personally responsible for the temperature hovering around 15 degrees. As he flew off I saw several robins together and later when I ventured out into the snow I heard the signature tap-tap-tap of a red-headed woodpecker. Why are these birds turning up in mid-winter when I usually don’t see or hear of them until April, I wondered.

A newspaper article referred to snowy owls alighting around Logan Airport in Boston, dangerous for owls and dangerous for airplanes. 53 snowy owls have been removed from the runways so far this winter. Snowy owls spend most of their lives north of the Arctic Circle so why are they coming south in such numbers?

Trying to learn more I visited www.ebird.com, a wonderful resource for anything to do with birds launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Amateur bird watchers log on from across the U.S. to report on when and where they’ve seen various species. It was through this website that I learned the sighting of a robin and woodpecker at this time of year is not so unusual. Someone else in my neighborhood had seen both species at a backyard birdfeeder in early January. What is unusual is for Artic residents such as the snowy owl to come so far south at this time of year. According to eBird, the weather has been so cold that these species have been literally frozen out of their northern habitat.

So this leaves me asking if the robins and woodpeckers ever migrated at all. Have milder winters in recent years so lulled the birds into staying rather than migrating southwards? From what I can tell, migratory patterns for both species are complicated by the availability of the food supply as well as the climate. A robin’s diet of choice is worms but the birds will adapt to eat other things during the winter. Red-headed woodpeckers will make caches of acorns of which there are plenty around here. It’s just that the available food supply cannot support the entire bird population which is perhaps why I see only a few of these welcoming harbingers of spring at this time of year. There must be little to eat with the ground covered by a foot of snow. Maybe the accusatory look I got from the visiting robin was because I offered no birdseed on a backyard birdfeeder.

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Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright

Tiger HuntWhen preparing one of my animal drawings the hardest part comes in the beginning when I research my subject. Images of animals are sometimes hard to find and sometimes easy. We have our favorites. Then as I look for context for one of my more whimsical ideas I can either hit on a treasure trove of memorabilia or nothing at all.

Recently I put a new spin on a familiar theme with the subject of a tiger hunt. It is the tiger who is the conquering hero with one boot on the slain animal. The more I researched photos of tigers – and there are plenty! – the more enamored I became of their exquisite markings. I looked closely at how the black stripes sculpted the noble head and how each tawny body faded to white in certain parts. I have seen tigers, of course, in the zoo. But it has always made me uncomfortable to see such magnificent animals padding back and forth obsessively just inside the bars of the cage.

Then, to capture the flavor of tiger hunting I researched old photos of the British in India where tiger hunting was popular among the colonial aristocracy. To my amusement these men went tiger hunting in stiff collars and neckties. In the earlier days of the Raj men entered the forest in search of tigers on the backs of elephants.  Then stood inside the protection of a howdah strapped to the elephant’s back much like the wicker basket on a hot air balloon. Other men with long poles known as beaters traversed the forest on foot driving the tigers towards the waiting hunters, a dangerous occupation. Sometimes in their fury the tigers would attack the elephants or the beaters but they were no match for firearms. At the kill, the hunters would line up for a commemorative group photograph with the lifeless body of the tiger at their feet. Some photographs show a real slaughter of five or ten dead tigers at one time.

Tiger hunting has been the sport of kings for many hundreds of years but the kills recorded by these fading images speak of a carnage in the pursuit of manliness that is over the top. And now the sad fact is that these magnificent creatures have all but disappeared from the wild. There are complex problems that do the tigers no favors: loss of habitat, loss of food sources, poaching, and sale of every part of the dead tiger in the pursuit of medical cures. A sad fact is that there are now more tigers in zoos around the world than there are patrolling their territories in their natural habitat.

I have felt uncomfortable poking fun at the tiger hunt when the butt of such humor is a dangerous but noble creature about to disappear from the natural world. I am reminded of William Blake’s poem. The tiger he describes was never conceived of as captive or dead. His words portray only the deepest respect for something that can never be tamed even if it endures.

“Tiger! Tiger! burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

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Bonfires

The ancients had it right when they celebrated the sun around the darkest day of the year — December 21st in the northern hemisphere. The winter solstice is still traditionally a time for merry-making throughout Europe. Norsemen in particular celebrate the New Year with bonfires as a way to encourage the sun to return, beginning the long, slow return to longer days and shorter nights. These pagan rituals probably go back to the Bronze Age.

Not to be outdone in the twenty-first century, I have recently installed a wood-burning stove. Not quite a pagan bonfire, but a good enough approximation. The reason was quite practical as a hedge against a power failure when I determined I could do without water, hot food, and light but not without heat. On this hillside, I really don’t have a suitable place for a generator. But I can find a ledge to stack a cord of wood.

My stove is made in Vermont of cast iron and soapstone. As the winter afternoons draw in to gray overcast then darkness, there is something intrinsically cheerful about putting a match to kindling in the firebox and watching it. Feeding several logs at a time into the glowing embers I can eventually build a fire that throws enough heat to warm the entire house. And watching the flames dance and flicker through the glass door one of my guests referred to the new stove as “better than television.”

I understand how primitive peoples gathered round giant bonfires in the darkest days of the year. The leaping flames whisper promises to us that are no longer fully understood. Though some ancient memories that are present in each of us probably since birth are ignited as we stare into the flames and imagine – who knows what? –bathed in vestiges of light and warmth like a winter sun.

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Clipper Ship

viagra online cheap Clipper Ship

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Time Capsule

On Columbus Day weekend I followed signs to an art show and discovered a time capsule, a railroad hotel built beside a single track between Bridgeport, CT and Pittsfield, MA, the dream of one man, Sylvanus Merwin. The settlement which grew up to include a ticket office, store and school was known as Merwinsville. A canny business man, Merwin cut a deal with the Housatonic Railroad in 1843 to make sure every train that passed through stopped at Merwinsville where the passengers left the train for a 20-minute lunch in the hotel at a cost of 50 cents a head. The bonanza did not last long for Merwin, only, in fact, until parlor cars were added to the trains. Probably someone figured out that to have the steam engine sitting with a full head of steam for 20 minutes in Merwinsville while the engineer ate in the hotel dining room was not the most efficient was to run a railroad. The building is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, we often think the speed of our technological advances is unprecedented. But this is not so. Invention took place at breakneck speed in the mid-nineteenth century only to be quickly overtaken by yet faster, cheaper and more efficient means. Take clipper ships, for example. With their three masts and acres of canvass sail, they were designed for speed almost like racing boats carrying luxury merchandise such as tea from China to San Francisco or around the Horn to Europe. It took the fastest clipper ship anywhere from 92 to 105 days. Ship owners believed there was nothing faster than wind until primitive steam ships built capacity and sheared weeks off the sea route when the Suez Canal opened in 1869. Suddenly, the days of the clipper ships were over. None of them have survived.

Evidence of another quaint technology can be found in Morse Code. I am particularly fond of Morse Code because it was something I learned as a Girl Scout though it had no conceivable use at the time. It is, of course, a series of dots and dashes representing the letters of the alphabet which can be sent over long distances using copper wires and then printed out on paper strips and transcribed back into letters of the alphabet. Invented by Samuel Morse, the code enabled the http://gulfcoastretirement.org/admin/generic/ fastest known communications at the time, displacing the pony express and mail coach. The wires strung on poles sprouted along railroad rights of way. It took Congress five years to decide Samuel Morse’s invention was a good idea. They voted to fund a telegraph line between New York and Washington, DC in 1844. Western Union completed the first transcontinental line a few years later and through continuous invention has found new uses for the telegraph ever since.

So many of these retired technologies are bathed in romance. From this distance, elegant clipper ships appear as grand dames of the seas, not death traps for the sailors who must climb into the rigging to release snarled lines in heavy swells and icy weather conditions. Against this back drop, the Merwinsville hotel paints a gentler picture of travelers dressed in hats and long skirts sweeping into the dining room for lunch. Or maybe stopping off overnight in one of the second floor bedrooms. Or yet again dancing under the three chandeliers in the third floor ballroom that stretches the length of the hotel with neighbors from the surrounding farms. As the floorboards creak beneath my feet as I explore the old hotel, I can almost hear them laughing and talking in the next room (www.merwinsvillehotel.org )

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