Monthly Archives: July 2005

Cemetery stories

The cemetery is carved out of acres of cropland in southeastern Wisconsin, and it dates back to the first German settlement in the area. Some of the weathered, leaning stones are as much as 150 years old. They tell of women dying in childbirth, couples growing old together, and a great many children who never grew up. The second incarnation of the church, built in 1880, still stands. When we go inside to escape the heat and look around, it’s shadowy and cool, with plain white plaster walls framed in with lovingly fitted and polished wood.

We stand baking in our funeral clothes under the hot sun, watching as the Lutheran pastor takes a handful of the red-brown earth piled beside the grave and pours it on the gleaming casket. It’s a powerful bit of ritual, that symbolic burial-a little hiccup of indrawn breath runs around the gathered group, as the indisputable facts of death and decay sink home. That some people in the crowd find comfort in the pastor’s words about heaven and eternal life is clear. That I don’t is also clear to me, now.

I find myself liking Pastor Dean-he seems kind and a little gawky, and he obviously knew and liked the lady we’re burying today. He speaks of her with affection and sadness, and he speaks of his god with the same affection. The god he believes in is welcoming and loving, and there’s this sense that his god is the sort who might sit down and have a beer with you.

When my grandfather died, my unchurched grandmother scrambled for an officiant for his funeral, and landed somehow on an evangelical minister out of the phone book. The burial was in an old cemetery on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, full of headstones bearing my own last name. We sat on the edge of our folding chairs, filling with rising anger and astonishment as the minister used the opportunity to exhort us to find Jeezus so that we might have eternal life, and spoke hardly a word about PawPaw. Now there’s a joke in my family that PawPaw’s religion was his tomatoes and the Cardinals, and it’s true that in the summer you could reliably find him either out in the garden cussing at the caterpillars, or sitting at the kitchen table with a cold beer (and a cigarette, before the emphysema that killed him was diagnosed) and the old radio tuned to the game. PawPaw wasn’t a church-going man, and none of us ever knew what his private philosophies were. All his history and his stories-his farmhouse childhood, his service in the war, his years of factory work to support his family, his delight in his grandchildren, his tomatoes-it was all irrelevant to the god-squawker in front of us. I’m still mad thinking about it.

I could never believe in a god as puny and immoral as the god-squawker’s god, and while Pastor Dean’s god seems like a nice fellow, I don’t believe in him either. Or any god, anymore, for that matter, and there are still times when I regret that. I’ve lost my faith, and most of the time I’m ok with it. But atheism is a new pair of shoes for me, and they don’t fit quite perfectly yet. I don’t need religion to feel part of something, because I’m part of the whole of life on this planet. That’s plenty, I think, and if it’s not, well, that’s a big universe out there. There’s wonder and mystery enough in it to satiate the hungriest soul. I don’t need religion to base my ethics in-anyone who does has a screw loose, in my opinion. But sometimes, I admit, I miss the comfort of believing in life after death. How can you tell someone that it’s going to be ok, when the person they loved has dissolved, faded away like melting snow?

Might I humbly suggest,

if you are fond of that art form known as the lefty rant, that you check out this post by Chicago blogger Driftglass, profane patriot and occasional host to the ghost of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson?

Do be warned: he is not particularly nice, and it contains some naughty words. And you might spray coffee on your computer screen-I just did.

I’m off to rural Wisconsin for a funeral. No blogging until tomorrow night, most likely. Don’t burn the place down, or break Chris’ stuff!

Working in the garden

I am working in the garden on a late September Sunday afternoon. Neglected for busy months, it is vastly overgrown. I rip out the mats of sweet alyssum that have buried the sage and feverfew. Chamomile, linaria, violas, bachelor buttons, and prairie fire emerge as I follow tangled stems down to their roots, pull the eager alyssum out of the ground in great swaths.

I am a whirlwind, a giantess, to this small world. Uprooting; tumbling slugs and potato bugs, ants and millipedes out of their dark places; pulling earthworms, grumbling, to the surface with the roots they move among, exposing them all to hot sun, and the watchful eyes and sharp beaks of birds.

How murderous a thing a garden is. Choosing to nurture the one, I must destroy the other. I pull the white clover and alyssum, the golden, sunny dandelions by their roots; and leave them to dry and die in heaps on the grass. With pleasure, I pinch the fat ugly grubs between gloved fingers until they pop. There is something especially hateful about a creature that eats the roots of things.

I cannot kill the slugs, though. They have eaten half the leaves on the purple salvia, but I hold one on the palm of my hand, feel it glide on a slip of its own moisture across my skin, the dark length rippling, the antennae retracting into and emerging from the tiny head as the translucent body lengthens and contracts in movement. It is half comical, half beautiful, wet and vulnerable like a thing newly born.

Cody in a landslide

The results are in. After two weeks of campaigning, a last-minute GOTV campaign in the Cody camp swung the margin solidly in favor of the “Golden Achiever.” The final tally:

Zeke 14
Cody 21

The amount pledged by supporters of each candidate is much closer, with Zeke raising $76 and Cody $81. That’s $157 bucks going to the Kootenai Pets for Life. You puppies done good.

Hank Fox and the McCabes have sent in their pledges already. The rest of you, send it in to me:

Chris Clarke
Earth Island Institute
300 Broadway, Suite 28
San Francisco CA 94133,

or directly to

Kootenai Pets For Life
P.O. Box 1454
Libby, Montana 59923

and let me know you did so I can keep track.

In the meantime, it looks like my doppelganger Stephaniequinox has things well in hand, so I’m out of here. I’m putting her in charge: do what she says, and don’t give her any lip. She’s going to be reporting back to me, so I’ll know if you misbehave.

And no parties!

I’ve always been terrible at titles

Hi there. I’m Stephanie (occasionally known as Equinox in Chris’ comments section.) For some reason I still don’t quite understand, Chris has handed me the keys to this lovely shiny blog of his. I’ve promised to attempt not to break it as I try out this guest-blogging thing this weekend, while he’s visiting his poor burned Joshua trees in the Mojave.

Me? I’m a Midwestern girl, living in a suburb of a very large city. One old, rather messy house, one husband, two elderly cats, one garden. Lots of books. I cook, garden, knit, make soap, walk in the woods, read, write sometimes, and rescue blameless insects who’ve blundered into our house from my husband, who thinks they’re icky. I don’t. I like bugs. A lot. Probably more than is quite normal. I’m a secretary currently, but I just started college again, with the eventual intention of going into some flavor of biology (I think that if I try to decide now-bugs? plants? bones?-I’ll just end up wandering down some seductive intellectual side-path that wasn’t at all what I planned anyway.)

I was born in Hawaii, where my Naval officer Dad was stationed. We left for flatter, colder parts when Dad quit the military-sadly, not before my one-and-a-half year old self decided that palmetto bugs and dead geckos were tasty. My childhood was just a bit odd (how many kids get taken on trilobite hunting trips by their parents? How many parents make their kids do research projects to prepare for family vacations?), but rather idyllic, looking back. I’ve spent most of the rest of my life here in the Midwest, except for summers spent at the family cottage in Ontario, and an ill-advised but educational two years in Texas.

Enough about me. One of the big draws of this blog for me is its commenters. After I first followed a link here to the Stephen Peter Morin piece, I was struck not only by Chris’ writing, but by the diverse and thoughtful voices in the comment section. You all amaze me-and make me think-on a regular basis. So, commenters, will you do me a favor? I’m kind of nervous about this whole writing-in-Chris-Clarke’s-blog gig. Please help get me off to a good start by telling me a story in the comments. It can be a dog story (or a shaggy dog story), a story about the most wondrous walk you’ve ever taken, a story about a revelation, a story about the first time you really saw an object that you thought you’d seen before, a story about evolution, or a story about bugs (spiders are fine too). I hope that one of you will inspire me. Thanks!

Herbs and insults

So yeah, as expected, every time someone looks seriously at echinacea’s efficacy in boosting the immune system, it turns out not to. And too bad for the wild populations of that plant pushed to extinction by demand for something that doesn’t really work.

The same went for ginkgo a few years back, but at least ginkgo is already extinct in the wild, and all of it on the market is thus harvested sustainably from cultivated plants. No real environmental harm done there.

And a lot of echinacea tea is harvested sustainably too. I like the way the stuff tastes, so I’m not going to begrudge anyone who continues to drink it. The placebo effect is powerful, and drinking hot water is a good idea when you’ve got a cold, so like Bubbeh said about the chicken soup, it couldn’t hoit. Rant over: enjoy your coneflower tea.

But the above-linked story brought to mind another pet peeve, this one more or less specific to the internets. The typical exchange goes like this:

A: “These studies are only part of the big conspiracy against herbal medicine by the American Medical Association to keep their profits up.”

B: “You, sir, are a moron.”

A: “Oh! Now we see the violence inherent in the system! You can’t counter my devastating argument, so you resort to ad hominems!

I hate that for two reasons.

1) Argumentum ad hominem does not mean “insult.”

2) Ad hominem arguments might be against the law in a debating society, but they are utterly necessary in real life.

An ad hom consists of pointing out the character, standing, or previous statements or actions of the person making the statement being countered.

In other words, it’s A using the ad hominem argument in the above exchange, not B.

In the ideal world of the debate team, this is rightly regarded as a fallacy, if for no other reason than that the practice of formal debate includes regularly arguing positions you do not personally agree with.

But in real life, refusing to measure statements against the person making them can lead to fatal errors. Example: the Bush administration argues a case against Iran, or Syria, or wherever it is we invade next.  We counter: “Bush says Iran is actively supporting extremism, but he lied about Hussein and 9/11, and about WMDs, and about this and that, so how can we believe him now?”

That’s an ad hominem argument. It’s also entirely correct. The ad hominem argument, in fact, is the basis of all critical thinking.

In the echinacea story linked above, the study was criticized by industry reps Mark Blumenthal of the American Botanical Council and Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association. Among McGuffin’s statements:

“It may be that the only fair and useful conclusion from this study is that consumers choose a reputable brand of Echinacea and use it at the right dose.”

One would be a fool to discount the jobs these men hold when analyzing the veracity of their claims. They represent an industry that stands to lose millions of dollars if the study’s results are generally accepted.

Handy reminder: Calling Blumenthal and McGuffin “industry flaks” is not an ad hominem: it’s an insult. Saying that they’re not worthy of our trust because they’re industry flaks is an ad hominem.

And in this case, both the insult and the ad hominem are completely justified.

Remember that old saw

Michael B. relates a saw-based story that reminded me of one of my Contra Costa Times columns. This one ran in June 2001. The yard described was at our last house in Richmond. (Still is, in fact.)

Faithful Old Tool on Cutting Edge

Forty or 50 years ago, someone planted a handful of Hollywood junipers in my neighborhood. A few are still there, waving ungainly limbs in the constant breeze.

One is in my yard.

I have had mixed feelings about this fact since we moved in to this place. On the one hand, the tree feeds and houses birds. It blunts the constant wind off the Bay, and it provides shade on the five or six afternoons a year when the wind stops and the sun beats down.

On the other hand, it’s a 50-year-old Hollywood juniper. This is a plant best suited to regular, severe pruning — a picturesque specimen at an entryway, not allowed the slightest latitude. If you prune plants the way Barbara Woodhouse trained dogs, you can keep a Hollywood juniper in line. But if you slack off on that metaphorical choke chain, this tree goes bad fast. Left alone for a few years, it becomes a bizarre, sprawling thing, a trunk like a convention of anacondas, twisted branches heading in all directions, a profusion of points running on forever and heading nowhere, not unlike this sentence. Tim Burton might use old Hollywood junipers as movie set landscaping if he did yet another remake of Psycho.

Still, I didn’t mind the ominous look of the thing, not even when I’d wake at 3:00 am and see it backlit against the gray fog through the bedroom window. What bothered me was the lowest branch, 5 1/2 feet above the patio: too low for a tire swing, yet too high to keep from hitting my head. One summer week, the branch must have clonked me on the head 15 times as I mowed the lawn, moved potted herbs back and forth, tended the barbecue grill. The 16th time, something snapped. Not the branch: that was as sturdy as ever. Something in me. Before I knew it, I was bathed in sweat and sawdust, and there was more than 15 feet of juniper limb on the ground.

The limb stayed there for a while. The little hand saw I’d amputated it with was fine for one cut, but this was a six-inch-thick branch: cutting it into 18-inch sections with a saw designed for pruning dwarf fruit trees would have been both difficult and tedious. I started shopping for chainsaws.

I’ll confess I don’t like chainsaws. As a former professional gardener, I’ve taken apart more than my share of trees, but I’d always been able to use one of my collection of exotic Japanese pruning saws. It was rather a point of pride. With my 14 inch Silky saw, I could take a quarter cord of wood off a plum tree before a chainsaw user could start his machine. And I did so without ear-splitting noise, choking fumes, or gouged epidermis.

Lest you think I’m bragging, I’ll confess the tools get all the credit. There’s just something about a Japanese pruning saw. Or several things. For instance, the saws cut on the pull stroke, rather than the push stroke. This is an important difference when you’re pruning a tree from the inside, 20 feet up, precariously balanced as the wind picks up; pulling allows you to maintain your center of gravity. A pruning sensei might put it this way:

balance and power come from drawing inward.
Pushing outward is weakness;
a fall onto the agave follows.

There were benefits other than efficiency to my trusty Silky. Never mind that its wooden scabbard, hanging from my belt loop, made me feel slightly like an extra in an early Kurosawa film. Just using the saw, feeling its sharp teeth cut smoothly into the wood, seeing clean cuts and smelling sap as the hidden potential shape of the tree emerged, was what is commonly called a “centering experience.” It was the one thing I regretted leaving behind when I quit my gardening business, and the Silky saw stayed in my truck. In 1997, as I drove a twisty mud road between Coalinga and Parkfield, I came upon a downed oak blocking the road and smiled. Out came the saw, and I was on my way again in five minutes.

If Japanese pruning saws have a drawback, it is that their creators sensibly make the things only as sturdily as they need to be if used properly. Try to cut on the push stroke, and the blade will bend. In 1999, I cut down a tree in a friend’s back yard, then rested as she cut the trunk to fireplace length with my beloved saw. “I am too cutting on the pull stroke” she told me, a second before the blade snapped in two.

That’s not the reason she and I aren’t still friends, but it didn’t help.

For some months, my smaller Japanese saws had sufficed, but this was too big a job. Looking through the chainsaw catalogs, I had trouble making a decision. Do I go with an 18-inch bar, too short for wood more than about 10 inches thick, or a 24, which means more chain to sharpen, not to mention the extra hundred simoleons? What kind of power source? Electric is quieter, but I might want to saw something more than a 100 feet from an outlet someday. Gas-powered saws do have the advantage of portability, but do I really want to burn gasoline so that I can burn wood later? Which power source do I want my saw hooked up to; an oil refinery or a nuclear power plant? I should get earplugs, and those Kevlar chaps look like a good idea. Maybe I could have my Kaiser number engraved on the saw, to save time.

Eventually I decided and bought the saw I’d chosen, and the branch became a neat stack of cordwood. It took hardly any time at all, and I cut up a few other things when I was done. It’s a Silky Masaru 360, the best that Japanese handsaw technology has to offer. It’s a bit longer than my old Silky was, with a plastic scabbard instead of a wood one. It feels good in my hand, and it cut through that juniper like a knife through angel food cake. And it possesses a feature the old saw lacked: you can replace the blade if it breaks. Why go through heartache if you can’t learn from it?

So help me

The next time someone submits an article to the Earth Island Journal that claims that some established part of science is wrong wrong wrongitty worng because “establishment scientists” “refuse to accept the teachings of quantum mechanics,” I am going to ask the author to identify this:

They won’t need to identify the variables. They won’t need to explain why it’s important to the study of quantum physics. I won’t insist that they come up with a convincing and persuasive argument as to how the equation indicates there’s validity to Kirlian photography or the existence of the soul. I won’t even ask for a counter-argument to the idea that far from calling what we know about the gross, experiential physical world into question, quantum physics actually explains some of it. None of that will be necessary.

Just tell me what it’s called. Just prove to me, oh author, that you have a vague familiarity with the basic mathematical underpinnings of the branch of physics which you claim validates homeopathy, or chemtrails, or ESP, or past life regression. Otherwise, don’t waste my time.


Becky greeted me at the door with a chore to do. The men are coming tomorrow to deliver the new cabinets for the kitchen remodel, and I needed to clear a path along the side of the house so that they’ll be able to fit the big boxes down the path and into the shed for storage until the contractors start next week.

So I moved a few armfuls of firewood, some bought and some scavenged from various pruning jobs, back to the compost area. Found a couple shovels underneath it all: so that’s where they went! And with each load, I took care not to disturb the beautiful girl who’d built her web just above where I was stacking cordwood.

Again, in the slight dark under the live oak and with a breeze ruffling the web, I had to use a shorter shutter speed than I would have liked. I will get the hang of this depth of field thing yet. Some day, I hope, my photos will be one tenth as good as Annie’s. If I’m lucky.

Tomorrow the oil gets changed in the truck. Thursday I have coffee with Roxanne, if luck breaks my way. Friday I head for the Mojave to look at the Hackberry fire complex. I’ll be back Monday, unless I’m not.

In the meantime, this blog will be left under the loving care of a frequent commenter. This guest blogger will be identified as soon as she decides for sure whether she’s going to be pseudonymous or not. Stephanie.

You know, because it’d be a shame if there wasn’t enough to read on the Internet while I’m away.

I may poke my head in if Matthew and I retreat from the triple-digit temperatures into a wi-fi cafe. It hit 124 degrees in Needles last week. Ahhhh. Sweet, sweet hyponatremia.

Wagging the doggerel

I just remembered this, which I posted last year as a comment on the old version of Cassandra Pages. And I thought I’d dust it off and set it before a larger readership than it will get stuck in the bowels of haloscan.

I love my country. But what country is it?
The one that sold its soul for world dominion,
Or the one with all those National Parks I visit?
I don’t know if I have just one opinion.

To love a Constitution seems, well, garish
Law reified, six steps removed from nature
Do we love Vermont’s snow parking laws, or cherish
Nebraska’s unicameral legislature?

Government is ugly at its best,
And ours was never best from what I hear.
The pretty words with which our myth is blest
Ring false in one’s malnourished, napalmed ear.

Perhaps “country’s” too large. Montana’s nice:
New Mexico’s about the perfect size.
I’d love Manhattan were it sanely priced.
But “country?” That’s an empire in disguise.