Sunday, September 26, 2010

More On Javelinas

Here's a wonderful video Mark Gridley took in his back yard. It reminds me of one time when we had some adolescent kittens at our house. The back of the breezeway between my cabin and Kat's was open at the top and had a small opening at the bottom, large enough for a kitten to go through. The javelinas were milling around behind the house, and one young javelina had his nose right down by the opening when one of the kittens scampered through. When the kitten and javelina laid eyes on each other, they both started and jumped back. It was quite funny, as the javelina was about 20 times the size of the kitten.

This shows the good side of javelinas. Their bad side, for me, was that they could completely destroy a garden if they got in; they were not a all scared of people and would come right into the house if they could (you can see this in Mark's video -- the javelinas are coming right up onto his patio) -- no amount of yelling would persuade them to leave (the only thing we found that would discourage them was Kat's French horn); they killed my chickens and tore open my dogs. Other than that, they were delightful little creatures. I actually miss them, sort of,  now that I'm living in a less wild area where they don't hang out.

Mark mentions walking with the herd. Maybe that afternoon when I found myself surrounded by them, they were just curious. Still, I'd have been afraid to mingle with them. If a mother thought I meant harm to her baby, the whole herd could attack in a heartbeat.

An Explanation After Many Years

Many years ago, when my daughter Kat and I were living at Altamira, we were walking in the woods at night. I don't remember why. There must have been some good reason, because usually we stayed inside the fenced area around the house at night. There were two types of mainly nocturnal animals I especially wanted to avoid: pumas and javenlinas. Pumas typically avoid humans. I was aware of at least one puma who lived on our land, or at least passed through from time to time, and she always kept her distance. On the other hand, the javelinas were not in the least afraid of humans. When I was first building the house,  before I'd put on the doors, the creatures would come right into the house. This is why a fenced yard around the house and outbuildings was one of my highest priorities.

Photo from Carnivora website

Javelinas are omnivorous. They eat lots of nuts and roots, but I have personally seen them break into a chicken pen to kill and eat the chickens. I've also seen them tear a large dog to shreds, and they have been known to seriously injure or kill people. One evening, a couple of years prior to the evening my daughter were walking in the woods at night, I was walking in the woods with my dogs late in the afternoon (although javenlinas are mostly nocturnal, expecially when the weather is hot, they seem to start foraging shortly before sundown and continue until shortly after sunrise) and found myself surrounded by javelinas. They usually make quite a bit of noise as they go through the woods, digging around for food and grunting to each other. But that evening, they were very quiet. I did not notice them until they had surrounded me, nor did my dogs notice them at first. They must have kept downwind from us, so we didn't smell them (they have a fairly strong, distinctive odor). It's possible they were just curious about me (they are highly intelligent, curious animals), but I got the distinct impression that I was prey, that I was to feature as the main course for their dinner that night. I went up the nearest tree, and the dogs ran off in the opposite direction. I stayed in the tree until I was sure the javelinas had gone.

Anyhow, this one night Kat and I were walking in the woods well after dark, and we heard a pack of javelinas approaching. Javelinas can run surprisingly fast (the Carnivora website says they have been clocked at up to 21 mph); there was no way we could be sure of  outrunning them for long in the woods. It was dark and cloudy, so there was little light from moon or stars. We would likely have tripped over a vine or run into a branch. However, there was a fenced enclosure not too far from where we were. "Go over the fence!" I said to Kat, and ran to the fence and leaped over, putting a hand on the top wire and vaulting over, something I never could have done if I hadn't been pumped up with fear. Once I got over myself, I helped Kat over.

This incident has always disturbed me, because I believed my first thought should have been to save my child. I don't know whether or not the javelinas would have hurt us. But at the time, I certainly believed that we were in great danger.  How could I jump over the fence and leave my child on the other side, even for a few seconds?  When I talked about it with friends later, they all said they thought I did the right thing. They said it was like putting on one's oxygen mask first before helping one's child, in the even of cabin depressurization in an airliner. This makes sense. If the javelinas had gotten me, they probably would have gotten Kat as well, because she would have had trouble jumping the fence herself, and there was not enough time to climb through the wires. But I didn't stop and think this all through at the time. I just leaped the fence and only thought about Kat once I was safely on the other side.

I'm reading a book by Jeff Wise, Extreme Fear. It says that when one is in an immediate life-or-death situation (or believes one is in such a situation), the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex stops working. We don't think. There isn't time to think. If there's an escape route, one flees; if not, one stands and fights. So it would have been my amygdala that induced me to leap over the fence and my prefrontal cortex kicking in after I was safe, directing me to rescue my child.

Wise writes: "Unfortunately, most of us have a hard time appreciating before the fact how nonnegotiable this [amygdala driven] effect will be. We get so used to making our way through the wold under the stewardship of our complex and sophisticated C-system (prefrontal cortex) that we tend to assume that we will always have it at our disposal When we suddenly find ourselves drowning in a flood of noradrenaline, it can be shocking how little brainpower we have at our disposal."

The more you practice facing certain kinds of danger, the less likely you are to end up running on fear's autopilot. With events that are relatively likely to happen, you can think ahead before you're in a desperate situation. For example, when I was a teenager learning how to fly a single-engine Cessna 182, my instructor taught me to always be on the lookout for a place I could land if the engine quit. I got into the habit of doing this sort of thing when driving as well. So, for example, if I'm approaching a truck or car, I think of where I'll go if the other vehicle suddenly veers into my lane (or if I noticed that there's no escape route, I'll usually slow down). When I'm listening to an audio book or talking on the phone while driving, I'm not as likely to be scanning ahead like this, so I'm more likely to crash the car.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Yes's or No's?

A young person (I assume) writes on a Chris McCandless blog:
Imagine, opening your eyes to discover the vas[t], unseen wilderness. Waking up in a place without any yes’s or no’s, only you and your surroundings, hearing nothing but the sweet sound of Mother Nature.

--Lance Wood

Maybe Mr. Wood means no arbitrary yes's or no's, but I suspect he has a naive view of the wilderness as something like a vacation resort, with regular meals, no mosquitoes, and an infirmary stocked with antibiotics. The wilderness is one place where there are absolute yes's and no's. If you disobey them, you get hurt or die.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Living in the Wilderness

The first definition that pops up on Google under the search term "wilderness" is: "Wilderness or wildland is a natural environment on Earth that has not been significantly modified by human activity."

By this definition, the part of the central Texas sand hills where I built a house for my daughter and me qualifies as wilderness, even though the closest neighbor was only a mile and a quarter away. Our land is at the top of the Carrizo sandstone ridge that runs from south Texas through Louisiana and Arkansas, roughly parallel to the coast line of the Gulf of Mexico. The darker colored strip in the image below, labeled "outcrop" is known locally as the "sand hills" throughout most of its range (click on image to see the website from which I took it). 

The soil of Altamira consists of medium-coarse sand overlying red sandstone and clay. As the red color suggests, the iron content of the soil is high; there are other minerals, including uranium, lead, and silver. It's said that in colonial days, the Spanish dug several silver mines in the area. There are remnants of what appears to have been an adobe house with a sandstone fireplace and chimney next to a trail that is said to have been a portion of El Camino Real, that went from East Texas down into the main part of Mexico (I have no idea whether this story about the trail is true -- in maps I've seen of El Camino Real, the road looks as though it may have run through our land, but I would have expected the road to run along creek bottom land, not right up over the top of the ridge). Next to the path are the remnants of what appear to have been a small adobe house with a sandstone fireplace and chimney (evidence of the old house include a pile of stones and a large amount of clay on the surface of the sand, bits of pottery and china table wear, as well as stuff I found with a metal detector: part of a cast iron stove, a barrel hoop, odd bits of metal). The ruins of the old house, occasional stone spear heads, and an oil pipeline running through the center of the property, roughly parallel to the trail but a bit north of it, were the only signs that people had been on the land. 

According to a (very non-technical) book I have called Roadside Geology of Texas, the Carrizo outcrop was caused by sedimentary layer laid down in the Eocene period when the Gulf Coast was a couple hundred miles inland from its current location. A paper presented at the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Annual Convention, New Orleans, Louisiana, April 11-14, 2010, says: "Sandstone modal compositions and detrital zircon U‐Pb analyses of the Paleocene‐Eocene Wilcox Group of the southern Gulf Coast of Texas indicate long‐distance sediment transport from primarily volcanic and basement sources to the west, northwest, and southwest. ... This study indicates that the drainage area for the Gulf of Mexico during the Paleocene‐Eocene was larger than previously thought, encompassing not only the Laramide basement uplifts, but the volcanic province of northern Mexico and possibly Cordilleran tectonic regions along the westernmost North America." [U-Pb is shorthand for uranium and lead, as I recall from my university chemistry classes]

The red color would indicate that lighter minerals have washed out of the soil, leaving mostly iron. In fact, old timers have told me that the Caldwell County sand hills used to be known locally as the "Iron Mountains."

I have seen multiple flocks of wild geese circling Altamira in stacked layers, like a huge traffic jam at a major airport. it's one of the weirdest things I've ever seen -- I wondered if their navigation system was somehow messed up by a magnetic field created by all the iron in the soil. Would love to know if anyone else has observed this sort of behavior in migrating geese.

Strictly speaking, based on the distance between trees that make up the climax canopy, the land is savannah -- post-oak savannah, to give its "official" name. It is a 3 million hectare (7.4 m acre) borderland between the deciduous forests of the eastern U.S. and the prairie grasslands to the west. Annual rainfall averages 45 inches in the eastern-most parts to 35 in the west, where my land is located. According to climatic change research being done at Texas A&M University, 'Oak savannas contain the dominant life forms of both adjacent biomes to form a “tension” zone between grasslands and forests which may increase their responsiveness to global change drivers. Global change scenarios can be envisioned where either the tree or grass life forms would gain an advantage and encroach upon the adjacent biome. It is within this context, that tension zones provide a valuable opportunity to explore the responsiveness of these life forms to various global change drivers.' More on this later, for sure, but for now, back to the concept of wilderness.

One of the main reasons I bought the Berry Farm is that it transitions from post oak savannah soil to blackland prarie soil, to creek bottom, all within its 1/4 mile (about 400 meters) length. The native flora have been removed from the eastern, sandy part of the land. Unlike Altamira, with its coarser sand, the Berry Farm has loamy sand on its eastern side and was useful for growing crops. So settlers in the 1800's cleared the land and grew cotton here. Therefore, the Berry Farm does not qualify as wilderness, nor does it feel in the least like wilderness, as there are neighbors living within a few hundred feet.

Altamira felt like wilderness. It was far enough away from neighbors that one could yell and scream, and no one would hear. I liked this aspect of it when I was angry or frustrated and wanted to shout obscenities at high volume. The downside was that my daughter and I were on our on. We were on our own in other ways as well. The place was pretty much inaccessible from the county road, except on foot or by horse or the most rugged off-highway types of vehicles. I could get my old Datsun pickup in, but only because I knew exactly where to drive and when I needed to speed up to skitter across areas of deep sand. When people came to visit, I had to meet them at the county road and give them a ride in my truck, or walk with them up to the house. It was not feasible to call someone to come out and repair my washing machine, say, or get the truck running when it wouldn't start, or set up a water purification plant to clean up the silty water from the pond for household use. I had to learn how to do everything myself.

In many respects, it was like wilderness, but it was not truly wilderness. It was only 4.5 miles from the village of McMahan, where one could buy gasoline and barbecue. Only 16.5 miles from Lockhart, where one could buy almost any sort of supplies one could possibly need. So in that respect, it was very much a part of civilization. One of the first things I did was to find an old water heater in someone's trash and rig it up so I could build a fire under it and take a warm bath (in a little tub I got from an old travel trailer).

One reason I moved to the "wilderness" was so I could live cheaply. I found being a single mother very difficult. I wanted to spend time with my daughter as she grew up, and it was literally almost the death of me. Working full time, and also trying to do volunteer work at my daughter's school, participate in Girl Scouts, etc. wore me down. In ... I think it was 1990 ... I got bilateral pneumonia and came close enough to death to know what it's like to die (it's not bad -- once you accept that you're probably going to die and give up fighting it, there is no more pain). I could see that I needed to change the way I was living, if I wanted to see my daughter grow up. So there was that -- the need to work fewer hours and get more rest (it never occurred to me to work the same number of hours and reduce the amount of time I spent with my daughter).

Besides convincing me that I needed to figure out a way to live on almost no money, the close-to-death experience changed my thinking in some fundamental ways. My post-1990 life was like a bonus, a chance to do all the things I'd regret not doing, next time I was lying on my death bed.

Ever since I was a 4-year-old child, I had longed to live in a small village or on a farm. My great-grandmother, Annette Lamar, taught me to read from a book she'd used for her students when she was a school teacher in the 1930's. The main characters in the book were Alice and Jerry, two children who lived in a place called Friendly Village. At the time, I lived in a sterile suburban neighborhood in Houston, where the land was flat, all the houses were pretty much alike, and kids played in fenced back yards. I had such a longing to live in a place like Friendly Village! There was a picture I especially remember, a view of the village from the top of a grassy hill.

A village like that was really what I'd longed for all those years, but I didn't know of any such place in real life, certainly not in central Texas. I wanted to stay in central Texas so my daughter could maintain an on-going personal relationship with her father, who lived in Austin. Lockhart would be a lot like that, if there were no cars. I think cars have been the main source of destruction for U.S. cities and villages. I don't want to get started talking about Robert Moses right now. What's done is done, and one has to start where one is.

The views from both Altamira and the Berry Farm are somewhat like the view of Friendly Village from the grassy hilltop -- minus the village ... well, and without quite so many hills [Altamira is actually quite high up -- from the northwestern edge of the land, we could see across the valley all the way to San Marcos and the "hill country," 32 miles away]. 

Here's Altamira, looking north from (this is a mile and a quarter from our house, looking out over the neighbors' land, into civililzation):

and the Berry Farm, looking east from:

If I'd been more of a sociable person, an organizer, I might have found a bunch of like-minded people to create a new village. But the people I knew who would be interested in such a thing were not the sort of people who would be competent to actually go out and create a village. So I decided, what the hell, I'll do the best I can on my own.

In the course of building a house and growing my own food, I discovered that, even in a gentle land like central Texas,  it's pretty nearly impossible for one person to be self-sufficient. There's a reason humans are called "social animals."  If we had been completely on our own, my daughter an I would almost surely have died. It was easy, easy, easy to grow, or find, fruits and vegetables. We never would have had to worry about scurvy or folic acid deficiency. It was pretty easy to get protein as well. The really difficult thing was getting enough calories. It's so much the opposite of what one is used to dealing with in our culture, that I think it's probably hard for people to believe, if they haven't actually tried to live off the land for an extended period of time. Back in the time when there were ways of making a living in the U.S. that involved being away from civilization for a while -- trapping or prospecting, for example, there was a nutritional disease called "rabbit fever." I'm not sure where I first heard this -- maybe from Wild Horse Havard, who grew up in the piney woods of Liberty County, Texas. When you google on "rabbit fever," you get mostly websites about sick rabbits, but the pre-1900 meaning was a sickness resulting from getting too many of one's calories from protien. It is also sometimes referred to as "rabbit starvation." 

Rabbit starvation, also referred to as protein poisoning or mal de caribou, is a form of acute malnutrition caused by excess consumption of any lean meat (e.g., rabbitt) coupled with a lack of other sources of nutrients usually in combination with other stressors, such as severe cold or dry environment. Symptoms include diarrhea, headache, fatigue, low blood pressure and heart rate, and a vague discomfort and hunger that can only be satisfied by consumption of at or carbohydrates." 

I recently watched a documentary about the adventures of Chris McCandless (The Call of the Wild by Ron Lamothe). I was not unfamiliar with McCandless's story, having seen the Sean Penn movie and read Into the Wild by John Karkauer (which somewhat glorified McCandless), and several essays by Alaskans most of whom think of McCandless as a dumbass who went out into the wilderness deliberately unprepared. Lamothe's view of McCandless is the most similar to my own -- McCandless did some really stupid things, but don't we all, when we're young and adventurous? Remembering my self in my early 20's, recalling some of the close calls I had, I don't feel scornful of McCandless. I feel sorry that he didn't make it, because I'll bet he would have turned out to be a very interesting person if he had lived to be a mature man. 

Anyhow, based on the diet described by Krakauer, who said he got it from McCandless's jounal, once his 10 pound bag of rice was gone, McCandless was living almost entirely on lean meat. So I suspect that he suffered from "rabbit fever." Even if he'd been able to preserve the caribou he shot, he'd have been in trouble.

Dick Proenneke, who lived in a log cabin in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years, routinely had supplies brought in from the outside. Even though he was alone in the wilderness most of the time, he had a constant lifeline from civilization.

When my daughter and I lived at Altamira, we made regular trips to town for supplies. I kept many pounds of staples, such as wheat and corn seeds, sugar, and salt on hand at all times. In 1997 (or was it 1998?) a flood washed out the bridge on the only road that connected us to the rest of the world. I went down and saw that the usually peaceful little creek had become a raging torrent 15 feet deep, and I would no sooner have tried to cross it than to jump from a 10-story building. But life went on as usual at Altamira. My daughter didn't want to miss school, so we hiked out the back way, and she stayed with friends until the flood subsided and the bridge was re-built. 

Reading about Chris McCandless, knowing that there was a "back way" out for him too, I have to wonder why he didn't follow the Teklanika River, when it blocked his path, until it intersected a road. Maybe he thought he'd be OK living on wild game. Maybe he didn't know about rabbit fever.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Something to Ponder

David Rowan (Wired) writes in his article about why not to post Facebook profiles

2) They make it harder to reinvent yourself
“When you’re young, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff,” President Obama warned high-school students in Virginia last September. “Be careful about what you post on Facebook, because in the YouTube age whatever you do will be pulled up later somewhere in your life.” He’s right: anything posted online might come to haunt you permanently, yet all of us need space to grow. As the writer Jaron Lanier said in a recent lecture, if Robert Zimmerman, of small-town Hibbing, Minnesota, had had a Facebook profile, could he really have re-created himself as the New York beatnik Bob Dylan
Hmmm ... I wonder how often people are embarrassed by things they've posted online. I can imagine Facebook having a negative impact on one's career -- for example, if someone were trying to get a job as a teacher in a conservative private school, and their Facebook page had photos of them posing nude to show off their tats. I myself have two separate personas -- the tax lawyer and the farmer. I'm not ashamed of either, but they're each very different from the other.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How Did This Happen?

Most of the people I know work very hard, but I'm pretty sure most of them love their lives. When I get into a pensive mood, as during the past week, I sometimes wonder if my own life is tragic or glorious. There have definitely been tragic moments, such as when my cousin Liz died at the age of 46. She'd been one of my closest friends since we were babies just learning to walk. We talked on the phone every day, saw each other often. I was the one the cops came to with the news that she'd crashed her car. I think she herself (or some aspect of her) came to me as well, that same day. I was working in the garden and suddenly saw a vision of a bloody face. My first terrified thought was that something had happened to my daughter, and I ran to the house to make sure she was OK. I learned later, that the vision came at the same moment Liz died.

My father, whom I adored, died five years after Liz. 

I've also been, at various times, financially destitute, divorced, near death from pneumonia. When I was a young person first trying to make it on my own, I sometimes didn't have much money for food and had to subsist on beans, brewer's yeast, vitamin C pills, and food people left on their plates at the restaurant where I worked as a waitress (I would encourage customers to order meals I especially liked, hoping they'd leave some for me). 

Even during the times when I had very little money, I never felt poor. I always considered it a temporary condition. And yet, I've also had, from as far back as I can remember, a sense that things can change in an instant. I lost two childhood friends, one when I was two, to pneumonia, another when I was 5, to leukemia. Maybe that's one reason ... maybe too because the threat of nuclear war was a constant ... our neighbors had a bomb shelter that doubled as a pool room, and in school we had to do drills where we cowered in the hallways with our arms covering our heads. I can remember, even as a young person, thinking at a birthday celebration where a decadent chocolate cake was served after a rich meal: "I must remember every detail of this, in case some day I am starving and have only my memories as comfort." 

I have never even come close to starving. Even when I was eating the leftovers off customers' plates in the restaurant, the worst thing I suffered was a boring cuisine. I never actually went hungry, nor was I even undernourished. In fact, I usually felt really good. I think the beans and brewer's yeast were a pretty healthy diet, or would have been if I'd thrown in some fresh fruits and veggies (at the restaurant I tended to love such treats as cheese blintzes rather than fruits and veggies). 

I eat very well now, my main problem being self-restraint. In fact, my life is close to everything I every dreamed of having when I was young and poor: a loving, highly intelligent husband; work I enjoy; pleasant places to live; occasional travel, but not too much travel; a beautiful, intelligent, sweet daughter. Almost every day is a joy to live. Of course I know it can't last forever. I'm already getting old. But, as someone called Mary Butts once said, I "build a little fence of trust around today."

One of the most wonderful things about my life is that I can walk to work, and it is a lovely walk. I've always arranged my life so that I could either walk or ride my bicycle to work, but some walks or rides have been better than others. My present walk between home and work in San Antonio is one of my favorites.
Below are some photos of what I get to look at when I walk to work. From late spring to late fall, the sun is so bright, and the shade so deep!

A couple of days ago, I took a short break from working on tax returns. A couple of blocks from my office, there is a Methodist church. From the sidewalk, I could hear the sounds of an organist practicing. I followed the sound; the front doors of the church were locked, so I sat on the steps and listened. Here is my view west from where I sat on the steps:

And here are some photos I took with my phone as I walked between the office and home:

Thursday, September 16, 2010

High Cost of Housing

I have been disappointed not to find any new insights into the reasons for high housing costs in Jane Jacob's book; however, I'm grateful for the motivation to think about it. Jacobs mentions the following reasons:

  • supply and demand
  • low-density of housing in suburbs
  • greedy landlords in urban areas
The first seem obvious. The third is not as obvious to me. I'm not sure I agree with it, except in special cases where landlords are given special deals by local, state, or federal governments, or where they are backed by organized crime. 

No doubt, some landlords are greedy. Some waiters are greedy too, and some engineers, and some senators, and some students. It's true that some lines of work might appeal to people who are less greedy than average -- Peace Corps volunteers, for example. But in the 23+ years I've been working with small business owners, I have not noticed that landlords are any more or less likely to be greedy than most other groups of people. So OK, some landlords are greedy, some are not.

Given that the group of people who are landlords contains some greedy members, is it reasonable to conclude that those members who are greedy can cause an overall increase in the cost of housing? The only way this could be true would be if the greedy landlords had a disproportionate influence on the price of real estate. Otherwise, if the greedy landlords raised their prices, people would rent or buy from the non-greedy members of the group, and the greedy landlords would either have to lower their rents, or go out of business.

In some cases, greedy landlords do have a disproportionate influence on real estate prices, such as when a developer gets special privileges from a city government (tax breaks, use of the government's eminent domain powers, free or low-cost infrastructure, etc.). My grandmother Lois Lamar was ripped off by greedy developers who had friends in the City of Austin planning department back in the late 1960's. She owned an entire block of land between San Pedro and Salado Streets near the University of Texas. My great grandfather Arthur Lamar had bought the land and built three houses on it with his own hands. He and my great grandmother rented out two of the houses and lived in one. My father's parents lived in one of the houses from the time my father was born until he was 6 or 7 years old. [Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson lived across the street for a while, back when Mr. Johnson was a teacher] 

The developer's friends in the City of Austin sent my grandmother a notice that San Pedro Street was going to be widened, and she would lose more than half her front yard and would have to pay for all sorts of remedial plumbing work. If I received such a notice from the city, I'd check it out, but my grandmother was an old woman and not in the best of health. I don't know why my father didn't step in. Maybe he didn't know any better either. 

When the developers showed up and said they were willing to buy the land (at a ridiculously low price, to be sure, but after all, the street was going to be widened and chop off a huge chunk of the land), my grandmother agreed to sell it to them. I have always been a somewhat cynical, suspicious person, but I was just a kid at the time. I urged my grandmother not to sell, to fight it. But no one would listen to me. So the greedy developers pretty much stole the land from my grandmother, put up a hideous apartment complex, and rented out the apartments for the highest price they could get. One of the most infuriating things to me about the whole affair was that the apartment owners mentioned in their advertising that the land had once been owned by a descendant of Mirabeau B. Lamar, second president of the Republic of Texas. This was not strictly true, as my great grandfather was the descendant of Mirabeau B. Lamar's brother. But this particular land owner had already demonstrated that he was not an honest man. [San Pedro Street has never been widened, to this day]

To the extent this sort of thing has happened and continues to happen, greedy landlords are part of the cause of high housing costs, but only to the extent that they can work in partnership with groups of people with coercive power, such as local, state, and federal governments, and in some cases, organized crime. The entire west campus area of UT is now masses of large apartment complexes. There are very few of the small houses, duplexes, and four-plexes left. My daughter lived in one of the very last ones when she was a student at UT. She had to move when the owner sold it to make way for another large apartment building. One might imagine that, with the higher density, it would now be cheaper to live in the west campus area, but the new apartments rent for more per unit than the old houses did. 

Why is this, I wonder? When you replace, say, 32 units with 70 units, why don't the new units rent for something in the neighborhood of 1/2 the cost of the old units? One reason is that the new units are, well, new. Shiny and clean and new. But, based on my observation of both the old and the new, the new units are not as well built as the old ones; the finishes and fixtures are usually not especially nice. One cannot get any cross ventilation, so one is forced to use electric or gas heating and cooling, all year round in order to be comfortable. There are no private outdoor areas. One reason new units cost more than old is that building materials cost more now. But given this fact, isn't is insanely wasteful to just tear down the old buildings and cart away the lumber to landfills? So I suppose one needs to add profligate waste to the equation. This still doesn't explain what motivates the owners to waste materials -- perhaps the cost of labor makes it more expensive to remodel than to tear down and rebuild? I don't think this is the answer, at least not the whole answer. [This is something to think about and return to later]

Also, city codes now require more expensive building methods. People have so many electrical gadgets that many electrical outlets are required in each room. Since the structure allows for only limited (sometimes no) ventilation from the outside, air conditioning is mandatory. People also demand more bathrooms per household. One bathroom is no longer adequate for a two or three bedroom unit. I can't think of anyone but tenants and home buyers to blame for this situation. Sure, I guess you could blame advertisers, movies, TV shows for giving people the idea that they must own 150 electric gadgets per household and have one bathroom for every 1.5 occupants, or whatever. 

But people don't have to do what the advertisers suggest. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Philosophical Moment

A few years ago, I decided to find out what career coaches do, so I signed up for a few hours of coaching. One of the things the coach did was administer some aptitude tests. I was relieved to find that both law and accounting were on my list of good career choices, since I earn a substantial part of my living from the joint practice of law and accounting (I am a tax lawyer). I was also very surprised to find library science as a top career choice. It's true that many of the people I know have lots of books, and my husband and I together probably own 7,000 volumes, maybe more. We've never actually counted, but they take up a huge amount of shelf space. But library science had never, ever occurred to me as a possible career choice.

Wiki says, "Library science (or Library and Information science) is an interdisciplinary field that applies the practices, perspectives, and tools ofmanagementinformation technologyeducation, and other areas to libraries; the collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information resources; and the political economy of information." 

Various careers in library science include librarian, metadata librarian, legal research, general research ...

I find legal and general research very appealing. I have a compelling need to learn new things, every day, and delight in integrating new pieces of information into my whole concept of The Way Things Work. By compelling, I mean utterly necessary for my mental and emotional well-being. I become very unhappy if I am not able to spend at least an hour or two a day learning new things. 
Which explains why I am spending time reading *Dark Age Ahead* by Jane Jacobs on the morning of a tax return deadline. This is not mere frivolous dawdling. I am getting my fix of new knowledge, so I can go forth and review tax returns for the rest of the day.

Writing in the early 2000's Jacobs focused on the breakdown of 5 pillars of cuture in the U.S. and Canada:

  • community and family
  • higher education
  • effective practice of science and science based technology
  • taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities
  • self-policing by the learned professions
Just before I began writing this blog entry, I was reading Jacobs' analysis of the availability of housing to people, and how the cost of housing relative to earnings has risen during the latter half of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st. I had to stop at that point, to check Jacobs' statements against my own observations and other things I've read or heard about. She's definitely right about the cost of housing, but why has this happened? I'm sure Jacobs goes on to discuss the reasons, but I want to think about it myself first, before I read what she says (an aside: Jacobs died in 2004, yet I am writing of her as though she is speaking right now, today -- what a marvelous thing writing is, to allow the dead to speak to the living)

Because of recent experiences I have had with tenants who told me, in all earnestness, that they had no money to pay their rent, while at their sides was the fresh, new box that had contained the 42 inch TV they had just purchased, my thoughts naturally turned toward blaming tenants and homeowners. 

Far as I can tell, the particular tenants who are living in my house, rent-free, even as I write this, used to have more money for their household. The husband had a well-paying job in Michigan, while the wife shopped and minded the home. The husband lost the job in Michigan, took a lower-paying job in Texas; but the wife still spends as though the household had its old, higher income. 

That leads to a further question, because I don't think "my" tenants are unique. Considering the huge amount of credit card debt that USians have collectively run up, millions of USians have kept on spending based on income levels they no longer have. Likewise, our Congress continues to spend money it does not have. What is the cultural root of this tendency to be out of touch with reality? The answer is definitely not "capitalism." I think it's something more deeply rooted in human biology. Perhaps the same root that causes people to keep eating, even after they have already eaten enough to satisfy their energy needs. I say this, not as an aloof observer, but as a human who constantly struggles with my weight and budget.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tortilla Soup

Corn tortilla Chips (made from non-GM corn -- see Seeds of Deception)
Olive Oil
Diced tomatoes to taste
Shallots or onions to taste
Garlic to taste
Chile (poblano, jalapeno, etc) to taste
Cooked chicken and broth
Sliced avocado
Cretan oregano
Salt to taste

Ideally, cilantro should be used for flavor, but the summer heat has killed mine, and I have not gotten around to planting more. I used some cretan oregano to give the soup more flavor; common oregano would also be good.

  1. Make chicken broth; remove bones and cut meat into small pieces
  2. Add diced tomatoes (I prefer my tortilla soup not to be overpowered by the tomatoes, so I only use one or two; other people prefer to use lots of tomato)
  3. Chop challot and garlic and cook in olive oil until tender; add to soup
  4. When the soup is hot and ready to serve, put tortilla chips in a bowl, and pour the soup over them. Garnish with avocado slices.
  5. Squeeze lime juice into the soup just before eating it.

With a piece of cheese on the side, this makes a complete meal.




Saturday, September 11, 2010

Feeling Sad

I have seven too many roosters in my small flock. They have reached the age where they're making life miserable for the hens, so the time has come to begin eating them. I killed the first one this evening -- he is becoming tortilla soup.

It's been a while since I killed an animal. I feel sad about ending the rooster's young life, even though the soup smells delicious. Eating meat is something one has to accept if one raises chickens for eggs, or cows (or goats) for milk. There are always too many males, and you can't just turn them out into the streets.

When I lived at Altamira, I used an ax to kill chickens -- chop off the head in one swift blow. I used the "broomstick" method this evening, because I left the ax in San Antonio and don't trust my skills with a knife. The broomstick method (I actually used a wrecking bar) seems quite gentle, compared with the ax. The bird relaxed for a moment, then went into the usual death spasms. One can never say for sure, but I got the impression that it was a painless death. I've noticed, when I've been in accidents, I don't usually feel pain as the injury is taking place, only later. I would guess that death by guillotine or neck snapping is painless.

At least when I kill chickens myself, I know they had a very happy life up until the last moment, and that their deaths are quick. If I were to buy chicken meat from a store, I could be pretty sure that the bird had an unhappy life, and the last moments could have been really horrible.

Herbicide Resistant Pigweed - jobs for people on farms

Summary of news story: An ABC news story from the cotton fields of Arkansas:at least one strain of pig weed (amaranth family) has developed a tolerance for herbicides, and can no longer be controlled by chemical spray. Like the giant ragweed that's currently growing in abundance on my land, pig weed grows large, fibrous stems within a few weeks. The stems "stop a combine in its tracks" (according to a farmer who was interviewed), preventing harvest by machine. Some farmers are paying laborers to chop out the pig weed; others will have to hire labor to harvest the cotton by hand. The chemical companies say they're working on the problem but do not expect marketable results for 6 to 8 years.

My comments: I do not know of any herbicide-resistant GM crops in the amaranth family. It looks as though pig weed probably developed the herbicide resistance on its own, in the same general way that certain bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics. Researchers have observed cross-species and even cross-family sharing of nutrients and genes. I recently read an article about the danger that antibiotic-resistant strains of staphylococcus will pass their resistance to other kinds of bacteria.  If cross-family sharing of genes is possible, then it's possible that pig weed could have "picked up" genes for herbicide resistance from GM crops, but far as I know, it's not likely.

It's interesting to consider the affects that herbicide resistant weeds and insecticide resistant insects could have on the economy. One possibility is that unemployed people could find work on farms chopping weeds and harvesting cotton. I would not expect many U.S. residents to take this sort of work, and the general mood in the U.S. seems to be against allowing in immigrants. More intelligent farm machines could be be very useful for chopping out weeds before they get large, but it will be several (many?) years before machines of this sort are available commerically. Most of the focus right now seems to be on robots for harvesting, because until recently, the least expensive means of controlling weeds has been chemical sprays. Another possibility would be a move toward more elegant farm management, using permaculture techniques. I would like to see a combination of intelligent machines and elegant management techniques.

See: Precision Ag Works (progress on crop machinery robotics) and Vision Robotics


Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Wonderful Mesquite

I've written about the mesquite before ( February, 2009, when I wrote about germinating mesquite seeds was before I bought the Berry Farm. I no longer need to germinate seeds, unless I want to introduce genes from mesquite trees in San Antonio (which is where I picked the seed pods).

Soon after posting the 2009 blog entry on the mesquite tree, I was delighted to get an email from a fellow mesquite-lover, Peter Felker. He studied mesquite trees when he was at Texas A&M University, Kingsville, and sent me several articles that confirmed my own observations that mesquite trees fix nitrogen, making it available to neighboring plants, as well as helping neighboring plants withstand droughts. Many people around here believe that mesquite trees suck water away from other plants, but the evidence I've seen is all to the contrary. My guess is that mesquite "pump" water from deep down (I've read that their roots can go up to 100 feet deep; don't know whether this is true, but I know they're very deep-rooted trees) and release it through their leaves.

Here is a photo I took yesterday of a stand of giant ragweed near a group of mesquite trees. The ragweed only grows around the mesquite trees. Outside a radius of 20 or 30  feet from the edge of the canopy, there is no more ragweed.

Ragweed has a shallow, fibrous root system, so is unable to tap deep into the soil for nutrients. Since nutrients tend to wash easily down through East Berry Farm's sandy soil, it's very likely that the mesquite trees are providing both food and water for the giant ragweed, which explains why they grow only in the vicinity of the mesquite trees.

A study done in Virginia showed that common ragweed (closely related to giant ragweed) contains more digestible dry matter than alfalfa and is almost as high in crude protein.

[See The Nutritive Value of Common Pasture Weeds and Their Relation to Livestock Nutrient Requirements
A. Ozzie Abaye, Associate Professor, Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech; Guillermo Scaglia, Assistant Professor, Iberia Research Center, Louisiana State University; Chris Teutsch, Associate Professor, Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center; Pepper Raines, Montgomery County Public Schools]

The giant ragweed produces a tremendous amount of biomass, and with its high protein (~ nitrogen) content, makes excellent mulch for the garden.

Native grasses, Coastal Bermudagrass, day lilies, canna lily, strawberries, and olive trees all grow better at the Berry Farm than similar plants not planted near mesquite trees.

Besides improving the garden soil and providing light shade, mesquite trees provide a more direct source of human food. Dr. Felker also mentioned that he had helped to set up a business in Argentina that sells flour made from mesquite pods. At the time, I had to hunt it down in a store (I found some at Central Market in San Antonio), but it can now be purchased online: Casa de Fruta. It is a delicious addition to many breads and pastries, including pancakes, bread, and pie crust.

Mesquite also provides a beautiful hard wood for furniture and building (I've seen incredibly gorgeous mesquite floors (See Texas Mesquite Wood Flooring).