Conserving our self-image

I like birds, as you may notice if you read much around here. I find them fascinating. I’m alternately amazed by and fearful for the complexity of habitats and migratory patterns; I worry about the impact on them of things like wind farms and urban lighting and even overzealous tree-pruning. The brown-headed nuthatch may not be most people’s idea of charismatic megafauna, but I like them.

brown-headed nuthatch
Photo by Anne Davis licensed Creative Commons.

So, not surprisingly, among the many other emails I get from the many other subscriptions I’ve long since come to regret, I get emails now and then about bird science and bird conservation.

This morning I got an email from the Audubon Society with the subject “Preserving America’s Conservation Legacy.” Note the wording: not “conserving America’s natural places” or its natural beauty or natural heritage or even preserving conservation itself but preserving our conservation legacy. Not about protecting birds, but about our proud history of protecting birds, which is not quite the same thing. Continue reading

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29. Silence (the paradox)

Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” —John 8:31

The truth will not arrive by mail
but echoes with the unread
catalogs in the recycling bin.

The truth will not be printed in the news
but waits in the clean uncolored corners
where the child has lifted his painting.

The truth is not revealed by conversation
but in the uncomfortable pauses
while questions lie unanswered.

The truth will not be found in books
but in the settling of the mind
after the lights are out.

The truth that sets you free
can be heard only in freedom.

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Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina

The following is slightly adapted from a talk I gave at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, in June 2012. I have not included citations as there would be quite a few and they likely aren’t desirable in this context, but if you’re looking for a reference, please contact me.

herb garden
The herb garden at the George Washington Birthplace. Photograph by Virginia Travis licensed Creative Commons.

Few Americans today venture much deeper into herbal medicine than the occasional cup of chamomile tea or bar of oatmeal soap. We don’t even cook with herbs nearly as much as we once did, unless we’re cooking Mediterranean, and hardly anybody has an herb garden. But a hundred fifty years ago or more in North Carolina, you’d have used herbs for food, for medicine, for aromatics, and for dyes. And many herbs had multiple uses. You’d have used thyme to flavor a stew or enhance a salad, but you might also have used it to (as the great herbalist Nicholas Culpeper said) “purge the body of phlegm” or eliminate intestinal parasites. You might have used bloodroot, a local wildflower, to make a red dye for clothing, but it could also be used as a mouthwash. Roses smelled sweet, as Shakespeare famously said, but they could also flavor cakes or cure a headache. From the common pine to the lovely rose, from wild lettuce to English thyme, almost every plant North Carolinians have known has found a use at the table or in the medicine chest — and sometimes both, because food and medicine were often one and the same. Continue reading

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28. A worm and no man

He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above; you are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” —John 8:23–24

Underground is safer. Cozy. Bedded
in our own cool litter, undetected.
Rising our vibrations may be heard
by devils, robins’ ears bent to the ground.
Exposed we may be shriven in the sun.
Many are called to light, but few are chosen.
Underground is safer.

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27. In the alley

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” —John 8:12

High walls eclipse the winter sun
but are greedy of the wind.
A stiff hand tugs a watch cap,
cups a flame before a shadowed face.
He breathes to nurse the glow, and hands the light
to his friend. There is no need to speak.

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25. On the doorstep

But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?”… Some of them wanted to arrest him… Nicodemus… said to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee.” —John 7:41–42, 44, 50–52

The young man straightens
the knot in his tie. Takes three
steps back from the door.
Puts on his winsome face
and waits
listening for footsteps or a barking dog.
He does not belong in this neighborhood.

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Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work

The stuffed wingback chair in my office puts me at eye level with my woodworking books, which was not deliberate but maybe not entirely accidental either. Last week I noticed a book I’d forgotten I’d bought: The Village Carpenter, written by Walter Rose in 1937, a memoir of life as a carpenter in an English village in the late nineteenth century. There’s a great deal here that interested me, both as a woodworker and as a rural historian, and I may have more to say about it later, but what struck me most was the relationship Rose describes between the workers, their methods of work, and their tools—the ecosystem of the craft, you might say.

Several years ago, as I tried to get back into serious woodworking, I realized that if I was going to continue I was going to need to sharpen my saws, which were a decade or more old and growing too dull to use effectively. But I couldn’t find anyone who could sharpen a handsaw for me, and I knew I wasn’t going to figure out how to do it from books and videos alone. So I took a class on sharpening hand saws, and I dutifully took along my old, dulled crosscut saw for practice.

It turned out that my old, dulled crosscut saw could not be sharpened. “Modern” saws of the sort sold by big box home centers are made of steel tempered too hard to be sharpened with a steel file. They’re designed to stay usably sharp for a long time… and then to be thrown away and replaced.

Most of us, in other words, aren’t even used to the idea that tools have to be maintained. Continue reading

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26. Even the ‘e’ is silent

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” …Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” —John 8:3–7

Lurid yellow spray paint on the overpass,
a childish scrawl:
A girl who keeps a corn snake, or a lizard,
maybe a terrarium for tadpoles—
who knows the songs of tree frogs,
tessellations of a turtle shell,
patterns of a python’s skin—
who spots a toad in a pile of molded leaves
all brown on brown, and knows its name—
who loves so well the least-loved
of her fellow vertebrates?
I like this girl already.

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Smart tools, dumb craft

I have a new microwave, or rather I have an old microwave that is new to me. I don’t like it. It is bigger and more powerful than my old microwave. I didn’t need a bigger and more powerful microwave, but I don’t object to the size or the power. Actually I wasn’t entirely convinced I needed a microwave at all; I use it for very few things. Mainly I defrost meat, because I am good at putting together dinner on the fly but bad about planning ahead; and soften butter, because my daughter likes to bake, but, well, ditto.

I don’t like this microwave because it has too many single-use buttons and multi-step programmed procedures and not enough basic flexible options. I don’t mean that it is too complicated as such, because some tools have a lot of functions and thus need complicated means of interaction. The problem is that its interface is far more complicated than it needs to be, and sufficiently complicated that its design actually interferes with intelligent use.

Here’s an example. If I wanted, with my old microwave, to soften a stick of butter to cool room temperature, I could simply “defrost” it for about 20 seconds. I had only to lower the power and set a time. On the new one, there isn’t a simple way to lower the power; there are only options for various specific foods and purposes. So I have to press “soften/melt,” then watch a scrolling digital readout asking me to press a number for whether I’m softening or melting, and then another number for what sort of food item I have, and then a third for how many sticks of butter. The old process required me to press four easily readable buttons (defrost, 2, 0, start) and worked perfectly, because I’d experimented a bit to see how long it took to soften a stick of butter. The new process takes a good ten seconds to get started and halfway melts the butter, so that I have to stand and watch it through the (typically streaked and greasy) glass. And if I want to soften half a stick, I’m out of luck. Same for defrosting less than a pound of meat. It simply isn’t an option. And while there may be some way to make the machine do what I want, I’ll have to find a manual somewhere online to figure out how, because the “custom” settings aren’t.

I was thinking, yesterday, about how I would solve this problem. One way would be to plan ahead and/or just use the gas stove, but that’s not really in keeping with the spirit of the age, so take it as a design problem. Here are some observations: Continue reading

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2. The jay

He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said. —John 1:23

Perched in a crooked notch, the Cooper’s hawk,
glass-eyed, staticky, reptilian,
politely dismembers his breakfast.
From a windy branch, the jay’s shrill scream
shatters the frozen morning.
Sparrows scatter.

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Current Projects

  • Historical Gastronomy

    Explorations in cooking with recipes, ingredients, flavors, and techniques from before 1900.

  • Graces and Laments dawn on snow

    A series of short poems written in response to passages of the Gospel of John. It's a work in progress, and it's as much a discipline as a project meant to be completed.

Featured Posts

  • Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina herb garden

    An adapted version of a talk I gave at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, in June 2012.

  • The mad farmer, after the election the mad farmer plows the parking lot

    Practice resurrection, friends.

  • Raising backyard ducks: Final thoughts (for now)

    Much has changed since I first started raising ducks and chronicled my experiences here in 2002. To close it out — for now, at least — I stage a brief interview with myself about the experience of raising ducks. There’s also a movie.

  • Boycotts, action, and penance

    What I would suggest, therefore, is this: Whenever you sign a boycott or a petition, any time you email a corporation or a Congressperson to ask that they change their own behavior or force a change in someone else’s, first think of five things that you could have done, relative to the same issue or a closely related one, in the past month, but did not do. Then think of one thing that you could do, and do it. The five things ensure that you don’t get to feel self-righteous about your action; the one ensures that you take personal responsibility for the issue.

The illustration is adapted from Military Signaling (U.S. Infantry Association, 1920). I will leave its significance as a puzzle, but you can use the source volume to figure it out.