Pimping for hawks

This morning a Cooper’s hawk picked off a mourning dove from underneath the bird feeder in the front yard, then perched on a pile of leaves in the woods to eat it methodically over the course of an hour, tearing off bits of flesh, tossing them back, discarding the feathers, ignoring the freezing rain that dripped on her shoulders. I’d filled the feeder last night in anticipation of the snow, and the squirrels being squirrels dumped a third of its contents onto the ground, which bounty lured the dove to the raptor’s waiting embrace. I’m reduced to pimping for hawks. Not to mention the leaves I’d raked into a pile last month for Ivy to jump in now gave the hawk vantage for glancing round, after every mouthful, to check that no one was scoping her lunch. No one was. The feeder had cleared, the finches scattered. The neighbor’s miniature dachshund was safely inside. And all this went on twenty feet from the window where I watched, looking up at intervals from my work, writing documentation for a web application, which seemed, in context, thoroughly pointless.

Of scientific misconceptions

I was looking today through the National Science Digital Library’s “science literacy maps,” which are a sort of graphic organizer for science concepts, showing what concepts are related to what other concepts. A valuable resource for teachers, certainly. Even more valuable, I thought, at first glance, are the lists of student misconceptions: the things students think they know about science and have trouble unlearning. But then I started wondering about the wisdom of framing that as “misconceptions” and, in fact, about the value of this idea of science “literacy” itself.

The benefits of sloth to one’s fellow creatures

This Earth Day post on a New York Times blog, about why dandelions are ok and “Wimbeldonlike” lawns maintained in their sterile protection by a chemical arsenal are bad, left me nonplussed — not because I disagree; I’ve written before about my natural lawn care, my preference for wildflowers over grass and my thorough distaste for gas-powered lawn mowers. I was happy to see somebody in so mainstream a publication taking a stand, even a modest and polite one, against chemically-maintained lawns.

Just wait ’til you have teenagers.

One evening a few weeks ago I filled the front-yard birdfeeder, which had sat empty several days while I didn’t quite get around to fixing it. I put the feed scoop away in the shed, and by the time I had walked the hundred yards there and back to the front porch, a female cardinal had found the fresh seed. After eating a few morsels she sat and chirped — crowing over her prize? But the chirping was short and came at intervals, and in half a minute another cardinal arrived, and the first flew off into a bush at the side of the house. This second cardinal was a juvenile, its feathers gray but tinged with red and a bit rough as they are when they molt their first summer, halfway from fledgling camouflage to male plumage. While he ate, the first bird, perched in the bush a few yards from me, continued her rhythmic chirping another minute before she flew into the woods. Then a second juvenile male, who had been perched near the feeder, took his turn, and the first flew away.

There is so much chaos and competition at the birdfeeder that it took me a few minutes to recognize what was going on. The first bird was the mother, chirping to alert her fledged but still not-quite independent boys that the feeder had been filled — and then continuing the alarm to remind them to get to the safety of the woods when they were finished eating. Time for dinner, finish your homework, and don’t forget to buckle up. I’m not sure I would have expected cardinals to parent that actively for that long, but then I’m not sure I’d thought about it. The orderly taking of turns, too, surprised me — if they were going to cooperate, there are two sides to the feeder; why not each one take a side? Is sibling rivalry a dry run for competition over mates and territory?

While I was contemplating all this, a neighbor started shooting off his gun, and that was the end of Happy Front Yard Nature Time. But consider the silver lining: if my hominid neighbors were more impressive, I might not feel the need to make the yard a wildlife habitat. It’s all in how you look at things.

The lap of luxury

Before Christmas I received an email from someone who seemed to be quite angry with my whole “new agrarian” idea. I won’t embarrass him by quoting extensively (it wasn’t a particularly nice email), but he made this point:

All the agrarians I know… became agrarian so that they could get away from “luxuries”.

Apparently he believes, based on various things I’ve said around here, that I indulge in too many luxuries and am therefore not worthy of the term “agrarian.”

Wednesday night a windstorm knocked our power out, and I got to thinking: What’s a luxury?

Forget the USDA

I try to avoid politics on this website, but there has been so much hand-wringing this week in the sustainable agriculture community about Barack Obama’s agriculture choice for Secretary of Agriculture that I feel compelled to respond. I can’t find much good to say about Tom Vilsack, but I have low expectations for the job he’s filling, and I would have been surprised had Obama picked somebody I really liked.

Maybe it is magic after all

When I was learning to cook I liked to watch Jacques Pépin. In the early 1990s he recorded a series of short videos on basic cooking techniques that the local PBS station aired every year during its pledge drive. Poaching an egg, for example, or making mayonnaise, or trimming an artichoke, or making tomato flowers. When demonstrating a technique that required learned skill he slowed it down and patiently explained it so that the viewer could see and understand what he was doing. Then — and this was the part I especially liked — he would speed it back up so that you could see what the technique looked like in the hands of a professional. “In cooking school you would do it three, four hundred times,” he would say with a shrug, “and then it will look like this.” This looked like magic, but because I’d seen it step by step, his expectation that I would emulate him at home seemed perfectly reasonable.

We Dare Defend Our Rights

Read enough history and you find yourself crowded by the dead. They mill about as palpable as the living, and more numerous. Stoop to retrieve a slobbery tennis ball and assailed by the recollection that your yard was once a great plantation you may rise to find yourself surrounded by toiling slaves whose worksongs are insufficiently energetic for their driver. Hiking past a grave you may see a dead woman seated on her grave, her face like a hologram appearing old or young depending on the angle, and her legs accordingly decrepit or dangling childishly. Mention this to others and you will be regarded as the boy in the movie who claims to see ghosts or hear poltergeists, and to be fair, there may be only the finest line between historical awareness and otherworldly madness: either way, you see things that aren’t there.

New Year’s wishes

So I wrote this and published this, and then, defying the traditional New Year’s resolution to be more organized, forgot to publish it. But now it’s relevant again, so with a little updating, here it is with best wishes for 2007.

Darrin McMahon writes in today’s the 12.29.2005 New York Times that you can’t just decide to be happy. He notes that happiness as a commendable and morally acceptable end in itself is a concept invented only in the past few centuries and cites the 19th-century philosophers Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill on the subject — now there’s research to back them up, but really, Mill’s common sense could be more common without the blessing of social science:

Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.

In the spirit of Mill and the ever-cranky Carlyle (and with an eye toward looking back fondly on the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin, whose memory moves me to one-liner homilies), I will not tell you to have a happy 2006 2007 but instead offer the following wishes.

No such thing as a free lunch (literal edition)

It never ceases to amaze me that people are surprised by things like this: Kids in England don’t like the healthy lunches the schools are serving them. Why are they surprised that kids will happily accept a change in their routine that is shoved down their throats. (Of course, the same people who pushed for these changes are equally happy to shove things down the throats of adults they disagree with, so I don’t know why I’m surprised by any of it.)

As I see it, there are four major variables that contribute to the quality and desirability of food:

  • taste
  • healthfulness
  • ease of preparation
  • cost

The contribution of each variable to a food’s desirability is dependent on the individual in question, obviously, but as a first approximation, desirability is directly proportional to taste, healthfulness, and ease of preparation, and it is inversely proportional to cost. In other words, people tend to want food that tastes good, is good for them, is easy to prepare, and is cheap.

The problem is that these are not independent variables. Ease of preparation requires preprocessing that degrades healthfulness (unless you want to eat all raw foods). Cheap ingredients don’t taste as good and aren’t as good for you as expensive ones; as a rule, you get what you pay for. The cheapest and easiest way to take cheap ingredients of poor quality and make them taste good is to add fat and sugar — both of which our biology attracts us to, because humans evolved in times of scarcity not abundance — and salt, which enhances whatever flavor is present. All three in too great a quantity are bad for you.

To make everyone happy in the school lunch wars, we’d have to serve lunches that meet all four criteria. Activists and most parents want food that’s healthy; kids want it to taste good; schools need to keep the preparation as simple as possible; and schools and most parents want to keep costs down. But there simply isn’t much food that is tasty, healthy, cheap, and easy. I agree that schools ought not be serving junk and calling it dinner, but anyone who wants to improve the overall quality of school lunches needs to start from a realistic assessment of what’s possible and be prepared to work within those constraints.