Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post short entries from the observations, images and thoughts that have come from two back-to-back early September visits to a local walking trail called “the Dodd Creek Trail.”
In a few weeks, you can walk the trail with me and Jane Cundiff by way of a video narrative, filmed on September 8 by Citizens Coop (thank you Hari and Fox) and to become a small part of SustainFloyd’s 2020 Digital EcoFair in mid-November.
The existence of this trail is testimony to the cooperative interaction of local citizens, non-profits and the Town of Floyd. Persistence and hope over several years has culminated in this one mile loop along one of the county’s main tributaries of the Little River.
The trailhead begins adjacent to the ball field (that must have an official name) across from Micky G’s and within a mile of The Light in Floyd proper. There is plenty of parking, and picnic tables in the shade for refreshment before or after your walk.
The elevation change is 100 feet, parking space to creek level and back again. The hike is mostly Easy with maybe 5% Moderate for steepness of descent. Several benches (constructed by the local Boy Scouts of Floyd) offer resting and thinking spots along the way.
Historical images from this area show it to have been in pasture, and later adjacent lands were used as a tree nursery, now abandoned. Save for the few larger trees on the steep bluffs of the creek, the “woods” have ways to go before becoming a fully-elaborated forest.
However, the “old field succession” status makes for a dense and diverse understory competing for the light and attempting to pull nutrients from a soil used and eroded decades ago before it was neglected for pasture and allowed to revert toward a “temperate mixed Hardwood Forest.”
In upcoming posts, I’ll share some of the things you’re likely to see and might want to know as you walk the trail. Below are just a very few of the officially-designated residents along the learning path.
And it won’t be much longer before you’ll get the buzz–the full scope of the Blue Ridge EcoFair. You won’t want to miss it!
I have always been fascinated by weather. The atmosphere we experience brings the physics of the cosmos up close and personal and into our daily lives, for good or ill. And climate is just weather writ large, over more geography and across decades and kiloyears.
But as humans whose experience of climate spans such an eye-blink tiny window into planetary variability, we tend to lose sight of the wild extremes that fall well out of the bounds of extremes, even in our own age’s bizarro fluctuations between hot and cold, wet and dry.
And so I was fascinated to learn of yet another climate debacle to look forward to–if not in our own Boomer lives, within the lives of our grandchildren, or theirs: And that is the MegaFlood inevitably to soak California. It could be worse by far than the “recent” event there called the Great Flood of 1861-1862.
That year it rained every day for more than a month–in ten weeks, a total of 32 inches.
Said superstorm has been given a name by the USGS: The ARKstorm. The name is taken from the Atmospheric River that every 1K years creates an inland sea over the valley system of California.
You might have heard weathermen refer to this river as the regularly-occuring “Pineapple Express.” Moisture from the southern Pacific trains over the state in limited (drought years), moderate (normal years) or excessive (flood years) basis. And as you might have guessed, the warmer the water, the more intense the overhead “rivers” are becoming. Also the mix of this moisture is shifting from mostly snow (slow-release) to mostly rain–with nowhere to go.
We’ve long been aware of the hyperbolic possibility of CA ripping in two and the Left Coast falling into the sea. That Big Quske would be catastrophically expensive–some $200 billion. (Katrina, by comparison costs some $166B.) The ARKflood is projected to cost $725B. Consider:
Today the valley is increasingly given over to intensive almond, pistachio, and grape plantations, representing billions of dollars of investments in crops that take years to establish, are expected to flourish for decades, and could be wiped out by a flood.
Kern county is one of the nation’s most prodigious oil-producing counties. Its vast array of pump jacks, many of them located in farm fields, produce 70 percent of California’s entire oil output. It’s also home to two large oil refineries.
And so put it all together, imagining the valleys of California being under between 10 and 20 feet of water with today’s vastly higher population of people, cattle, fruits and vegetable and toxic chemicals, what a nasty soup that will be.
As if we needed more dread in our lives, we do need to be aware of our own powerlessness to change the weather, having already altered the climate. And at this point, there’s no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again in our brief individual lifetimes.
But maybe future generations will have the courage to trust each other, trust the science of climate, take the long view of the future with regard to The Big One—fire, flood, earthquake, volcano, drought, hurricane, pandemic. These inevitabilities should never be off the planning table, regardless of which party is in office. Our boat is so small, and the planet, the future and nature are so wide!
It had not occurred to him at all that his dozen years in the classroom, he had been, all along, a storyteller. Once upon a time, there was a leaf; a pancreas; a salamander; a mountain bog. Every lecture was a kind of narrative–even Human Anatomy and Physiology–but especially in freshman survey-of-bio classes.
There were characters, settings, plots and outcomes. Not all of them were cliff-hangers, but many–if the listener had any curiosity at all about the living world around them–had a point and a relevance in the real world: Out there where a student would spend their days; their lives.
Perhaps this equivalence between learner and learned would not hold as well in an algebra class, but he was convinced that, where living things (from cells on up) were involved, subjects inhabited and enlivened objects. We are matter that lives, and that matters, he used to say.
In every instance, his stories of living things from organelles to biomes consisted of two intersecting and complementary storylines: the truth; and the consequences. Someone had once said that, in establishing the validity of any story there are two important elements: Oh Yeah? and So What? What are the facts? And why does it matter–what is the moral of the story?
The matter of the story is that a pancreas and a salamander do what WE do: they live and they die. And they are made out of the very same matter and energy on the very same Spaceship Earth. They breathe the same air, swim in the same water our cells swim in, and partake of the state of incredible order we call LIFE. Such stories were easy for him to teach with enthusiasm and joy because being alive was eternally and bewilderingly wonder-ful. And his enviable job was to tell others.
It is a shared and eternal epic, a grand tale that we live in together with all these groups of creatures he covered so briefly in a survey class–creatures by the millions with their own personalities, strangeness and superpowers. How could a student NOT be drawn into such a story? And yet, of course, most are not.
Maybe his failures to engage so many freshmen desk-occupants stemmed from the fact that he was providing answers to questions they had not yet asked. There was not much perceived “need to know” the world beyond the weekend party details. He once said of the frustration of his obligatory faculty advising that “you can’t steer a parked car.” A discouraging number of students came to college with no forward motion to shepherd and direct.
And it was also true that, in a freshman-level course, there could be an awful lot of “oh yeah” jargon and facts that would be on the test. You have to be able to handle brick by brick of fact if you are, some day, to assemble an edifice of knowledge. And bricks aren’t sexy.
But the end point of a practical and aesthetic comprehension of the ways the living world works–in an organ system, a broad-leaved forest, or the human brain–certainly makes it worth the learning of some terminology. The so-what is to have become an informed inhabitant and steward of one’s own body, of their water and soil and forest; of the planet–but also it is worth the work to not be blind every day of their young lives to the fragile beauty and poetry of the whole of life on the Blue Marble where their futures would unfold.
The end point of a full education–and especially for him, a biology education–had always been more about gaining wisdom–the Great So-What–than about accumulating more and more facts. There would always be a bigger, more universal, not-quite-graspable “so what” just beyond the edge of his comprehension, earnestly if imperfectly pieced together year by year from all the bricks he handled over a lifetime of biology watching.
Out of the incremental bricks of biological process (a realm mostly still not fully grasped even as we do the biosphere potentially terminal harm) has emerged over the millennia the unfolding Grand Ecology of a working Earth. From those building blocks of atoms and organelles arises an elegance of form fashioned from living tissue, a “poem in protoplasm” he once called the living world–the ultimate PLACE whose goodness and beauty of form and function he sought each day to more fully know.
The quest would last until the end for him, he knew, and this was perhaps one of the most satisfying assurances in an uncertain lifetime. The ring would always be just beyond reach. The mountains and their creatures were more than enough to keep him curious, eager and immersed in wonder, even when his students were not.
But there came a time when it became too painful any longer to be immersed in the realities of a beleaguered world become mere economic engine. And so in 1987 he left teaching. He left biology watching. He buried his head in the sand–for 17 years. But he never –at least in the closed room of his own mind–stopped being a storyteller.
So there was this email thread a week or so ago with a friend. I keep coming back to it as a non-trivial exchange that could lead off in all sorts of interesting directions to dig deeper into the prompts within. Pertinent bits extracted below, plus some of the backgrounding for the morbidly curious.
Going back to your Bus Ticket article (ff: see annotations and link below) again today. I think this year is … this year. Sounds like fun. Thanks for instilling Bus Ticket values in me — not that they’ve immediately stuck, what with my high lonesome restless vocational heart.
I’ve always liked * Hamming’s famous double-barrelled question: what are the most important problems in your field, and why aren’t you working on one of them? It’s a great way to shake yourself up. But it may be overfitting a bit. It might be at least as useful to ask yourself: if you could take a year off to work on something that probably wouldn’t be important but would be really interesting, what would it be?” * ff: See links below.
What you’re working on — this is me again — is obviously actually important stuff. If you were just pursuing idle curiosity (I’m not actually convinced that’s a thing), what would you spend a year studying? What if you had to pick something that, sure, is important to the grant web of existence somehow, but you’d have to do some fancy work to explain how?
I think I’ll ask me too.
Re the big question: that is fraught with all sorts of real-world constraints. Being 71 and living in the Outback are just two of them. Another is how likely would it be– my reaching master status in any one domain of thought — to make one butterfly flap its wings harder to ripple across the actual world of ideas and things, principalities and powers? I guess I see myself in a rarified bubble, doing my own study for my own AHA moments. Sometimes I share. Often when I do I hear yawns and farts. Intentional farts. True!
So the most important problem in my world (since I don’t have a field other than our pasture) might include grappling (successfully, not likely) with these Gordion Knots.
How do we balance the scales so that those who understand how the world works (biological and economic and human worlds) and those who also really have the common good as their focus are the people in power?
which is to say: how do we overcome evil with good?
How do we shine light into the dark places—the willful arrogant lustful fearful angry dark places? What light is powerful enough to penetrate such depravity and how to reach those hearts and minds in time. We have so little time. I have even less.
It is human agency at root cause of global harm. A change of heart must precede a change of mind and then of values and actions.
What stories can we tell to make people of good will and evil lean forward and listen?
The power of language. The pen vs the sword. Write as if your life depended on it. And your children’s. And theirs.
Of course my “cultivated interest” has long been to know my place in The Web of Life, and our place as a species, and the so-what.
I would become wise after The Year at Task–at least for some one thing, and I would tell that story by way of every digital, civic and literary pulpit I could. Becoming smart is easier.
So that’s my short answer.
The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius : Paul Graham (annotations, emphasis mine fbf)
If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters. http://paulgraham.com/genius.html
An obsessive interest in a topic is both a proxy for ability and a substitute for determination.
An obsessive interest will even bring you luck, to the extent anything can. Chance, as Pasteur said, favors the prepared mind, and if there’s one thing an obsessed mind is, it’s prepared.
The bus ticket theory is similar to Carlyle’s famous definition of genius as an infinite capacity for taking pains. But there are two differences. The bus ticket theory makes it clear that the source of this infinite capacity for taking pains is not infinite diligence, as Carlyle seems to have meant, but the sort of infinite interest that collectors have. It also adds an important qualification: an infinite capacity for taking pains about something that matters.
It’s not merely that the returns from following a path are hard to predict. They change dramatically over time. 1830 was a really good time to be obsessively interested in natural history. If Darwin had been born in 1709 instead of 1809, we might never have heard of him.
The other solution is to let yourself be interested in lots of different things. You don’t decrease your upside if you switch between equally genuine interests based on which seems to be working so far. But there is a danger here too: if you work on too many different projects, you might not get deeply enough into any of them.
One interesting thing about the bus ticket theory is that it may help explain why different types of people excel at different kinds of work. Interest is much more unevenly distributed than ability. If natural ability is all you need to do great work, and natural ability is evenly distributed, you have to invent elaborate theories to explain the skewed distributions we see among those who actually do great work in various fields. But it may be that much of the skew has a simpler explanation: different people are interested in different things.
If the recipe for genius is simply natural ability plus hard work, all we can do is hope we have a lot of ability, and work as hard as we can. But if interest is a critical ingredient in genius, we may be able, by cultivating interest, to cultivate genius.
There is, and has been, a subterranean invasion going on beneath our feet here in the American Northeast; and the invaders are worming their way across the rest of the continent with nothing to stop them.
Most folks are not aware that, where the glaciers prevailed long ago, the land was scoured to bedrock, and the native earthworms were wiped out. The ones that replaced them are European imports. Chief among them, night crawlers and Jumping Worms.
The latter were “Originally from Korea and Japan, they are also known as Alabama worms, snake worms, or crazy worms. And they have the potential to remake the once wormless forests of North America.”
While we have been brought to understand that the more worms in our gardens, yards and woodlands, the better, it ain’t necessarily so:
“The earthworms are in the soil because the soil is healthy,” one authority says. “They are not necessarily doing anything for it.”
“Their burrows create channels that allow nutrients and pesticides to leak from fields into nearby waterways, and carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide to escape into the atmosphere. In fact, a 2013 review of recent research found that worms likely increase greenhouse-gas emissions.”
Leaf fall that builds up under a forest of hardwood trees deposits a wealth of soil-creating minerals and organic matter.
“But when (jumping) worms show up, they devour the litter within the space of a few years. All the nutrients that have been stored up over time are released in one giant burst, too quickly for most plants to capture. And without cover, the invertebrate population in the soil collapses.
As the surface of the forest goes, so goes the neighborhood.
“With their food and shelter gone, salamanders suffer and nesting birds find themselves dangerously exposed. Plants like trillium, lady’s slipper, and Canada mayflower vanish, too. This may be because the worms disrupt the networks of symbiotic fungus that many native plants depend on, or because worms directly consume the plants’ seeds.”
“Jumping worms take out all the understory plants, leaving nothing for deer to chew on but the young trees. And that could spell trouble for the region’s prized maple syrup industry. “In 100 years’ time, maybe it’s going to be Aunt Jemima,” he says. “That’s a real bad horror story for people in Vermont.”
The take-home: there is little to be done. Experts recommend you purchse “only mulch and compost that have been treated to kill stowaways, and to avoid city compost made of leaves collected from sites all over town. He urges them to inspect potted plants for jumping worms and to buy bare-root varieties whenever possible.”
NEWS FLASH: We have just learned that all chickens over three months of age will be drafted into the newly-formed National Poultry Patrol. Hundreds of thousands will soon be airdropped into at-risk national forests and private woodlots in an attempt to control the spread of Jumping Worms. You heard it here first.