Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • May 31st, 2018

LISTENING TO THE MOCKINGBIRD

By Joel M. Vance

To some it is the song of the angels; to others it is fingernails on the dark blackboard of sleep.

The mockingbird is a master improviser on the melodies of other composers, but he (and it is a he that disturbs the silence of night) can be less than enchanting to the light sleeper when the bird riffs at 2 a.m.

Most of the singing is between midnight and 4 a.m. which should catch any light sleeper with the window open right in the crosshairs of irritation. Mockers in full musical spate love to be illuminated, either by a streetlight or a full moon. Tin Pan Alley songwriters are fond of the moon in June as a romantic hook on which to pin lyrics; mockingbirds equally so.

When we lived in town a mocker used the streetlight pole across the street as its podium and sang incessantly. I would sit on the front stoop late at night and listen and, rather than being irritating, I enjoyed the concert. The neighbor nearest the light pole did not share my enthusiasm. A lineman for the power company he donned his climbers one night and disconnected the street light.

The mockingbird, deprived of a spotlight, found a different theater.

There are other birds that imitate, notably catbirds and brown thrashers. But none is as versatile and untiring as the gray bird with the white wing flashes. In addition to fellow birds, mockers create melodies of their own and also imitate barking dogs, squeaking gates and police sirens.

There may be more than two dozen different imitations in a mocker’s repertoire and ornithologists have catalogued more than 200 different imitated sounds (but brown thrashers claim the record for versatility with a documented 1,100 different song types and an estimated 3,000 songs). The mockingbird’s ardent song most commonly is the love ballad of a bachelor bird, though both sexes sing, including mated males—just not as persistently as the guy without a gal.

The male will mark a territory just as surely as does a dog…only with music instead of the dog’s more elemental tribute. Some lovelorn bachelor birds will sing all night long, which tends to drive insomniac urban dwellers up the bedroom wall. Possibly the ultimate avian nightmare would be a mockingbird and whippoorwill singing all night, then a woodpecker drumming on your metal drainpipe at dawn. Most bosses would not accept this as an excuse for lethargy on the job, no matter how valid it is.

There is method behind the mad frenzy of song—ornithologists have discovered that the more varied a male mocker’s song, the more likely it is to interest a female. Once mockingbirds establish a relationship it generally lasts a long time, often for life. And once a bachelor male finds a sweetheart he doesn’t sing nearly as fervently.

The pair nests in low bushes or trees and a mocker’s nest to it is a sacred trust, to be defended fiercely. A mocker protecting a nest is fearless and will dive bomb a human, cat or dog like an avian character from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. Mockingbirds are prolific, laying between 2-6 eggs which hatch in just under two weeks. Two weeks later the young are ready to leave the nest. Both parents feed the young.

By their nature mockingbirds are combative and often engage in aerial dogfights as frenzied as a scene from a World War One sky battle between the Lafayette Escadrille and Baron Von Richtofen’s Flying Circus. They’ll dominate a feeder (they feed on insects and fruit) and even will attack their image in a mirror, eyes wild and feathers flared in anger. They won’t come to a seed-feeder (although they might guard it against other birds just on general principles), but might snack at a suet feeder or on grapes and berries.

Mockingbirds are most musical during the time of year when people are most likely to hear them—from early spring through late summer. Generally the singing period runs from February through August. The birds often raise their wings in jerky fashion, a trait called “wing flashing.” Some ornithologists believe they do this to scare up insects from the grass, but chances are they do it because they’re so inordinately pleased with themselves.

Catbirds usually sing their different songs once, thrashers twice…but mockingbirds repeat each call three times and switch rapidly from one mimicked bird to the next, four or five in a row. It’s an in-your-face performance and a little wing flashing to cap it off is a curtain call at the end of a masterful performance.

In winter, mockingbirds migrate south from northern states and have another singing period to establish a feeding territory. So, Southern states have a much longer time to enjoy mockingbird music, which perhaps is why five of them have chosen the mocker as the state bird: Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas. According to legend, the Texans chose the mockingbird because it is “a fighter for the protection of his home, falling if need be in its defense, like any true Texan.” Shades of the Alamo!

As a state bird, the mocker ranks third behind the cardinal and the Western meadowlark (seven redbirds, six meadowlarks and five mockingbirds).

But as a song subject it’s well ahead. You won’t see hit parade numbers written for crows or buzzards, although robins and bluebirds have had their day on the Top 40.

No song about birds has endured like “Listen To The Mockingbird,” written by Alice Hawthorne in 1854, and a standard ever since. Hawthorne is as intriguing as the bird he wrote about.

Yes “he.” Alice was a pseudonym for Septimus Winner, whose mother was a Hawthorne (related to writer Nathaniel Hawthorne). He made instruments and taught several, including guitar and banjo and wrote many popular songs of the day, none as enduring as “Listen.” Winner put words to a melody by Richard Milburn, who worked in his music store, and “Mockingbird” was born. For all his business acumen, Winner blew it by selling the publishing rights to the song for $5. It subsequently sold about 20 million sheet music copies.

It really is a weeper about “Hallie” lying in her grave o’er which the mockingbird sings, not about the bird. And it’s not the lyrics that turn people on– more musicians have developed virtuoso instrumentals of the melody than have learned Winner’s sappy words.

Fats Domino found his thrill on Mockingbird Hill. Carly Simon revealed that “he,” whoever that was, intended to buy her a mockingbird, but if it didn’t sing “he’s gonna buy me a diamond ring.” Not much chance for her and that ring—mockingbirds rarely don’t sing. And there is a Rhode Island rock band called the MockingBirds.

The mockingbird also is a symbol for innocence in Harper Lee’s great novel To Kill a Mockingbird. “Shoot all the blue jays you want,” Atticus Finch tells his two kids, Scout and Jem. “But remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Blue jays and their devotees might not agree and it’s a cinch the wildlife officials wouldn’t.

As tempted as the sleepless human might be to go for his gun when beset by a night-singing mocker, shooting is not an option. “It’s enough to raise the dead!” he growls through gritted teeth.

If so maybe there’s hope for poor Hallie yet….
-30-

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  • Blog
  • May 23rd, 2018

PACK UP ALL YOUR KARES AND WOES

By Joel M. Vance

Hell, as visualized by Dante, the Italian poet has a pit of ice at the lowest level, presumably where if you bore a hole and jig a Swedish Pimple tipped with a minnow head you will not be rewarded with a trophy walleye. When you die you don’t go to your dream fishing honey hole, but to the hellhole of Stephen King’s fevered imagination. And, instead of a ice fishing augurs, you will find demons with augurs to bore through you!

The hero of Dante’s epic Inferno, Odysseus, missed one level on his harrowing tour of the underworld. The one where you spend eternity in a commercial campground on a hot summer holiday weekend.

Maybe he couldn’t get a reservation. Those who inhabit this Inferno on Earth don’t realize they’re in Hell! They enjoy it. They are there by choice.

Once I spent time in a Kampground (always spelled with a “K”– in fact they’ll rent you a Kamping Kabin) in northeast Pennsylvania on the Fourth of July weekend. I took notes on the experience because our tattered tent did not have air-conditioning nor satellite television. The summary reads somewhat like Dante’s Inferno updated.

Hot and dusty, no rain, but the humidity for it, dust haze in the air, Tunkhannock Creek low and with a reek of decomposing algae. It was just slightly more agreeable than parking next to a sewage lagoon (something I suffered through once, sleeping in a cab over camper owned by a fellow hunter who was obviously olfactorily impaired). A sleek dude with reflective sunglasses and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth turns Polish sausages on a barbecue grill. He wears no shirt; he is flabby. His mate, inside the screened patio, sets the table, a cigarette dangling from her mouth.

A couple walks ahead of me, about five- five and 250 each. It’s like watching a team of elephants. He is shirtless and she wears a T-shirt big enough to host a Shriner’s barbecue. Their four legs weigh more than my family. Later I see them with their family, a mammoth group except for one cadaverous man whose shoulders hunch as if he were caving in. He is smoking a cigarette.

Some RVs have grown roots: permanent carpeted patios, often screened, one even with a wooden picket fence containing a large, noisy dog. Every patio is festooned with Chinese lanterns–more in this Kampground than there are in all of China. The trailer across from me is hung with decorations intricately constructed of plastic drinking glasses. Dusk comes and the proud owner throws a switch and they become lamps, glittering as a thousand jewels.

Nearly every “yard” (that tiny wasteland of sunblasted grass and dust) sports plywood figures–Woody Woodpecker or a little Dutch boy and girl or a frog on a mushroom saying “Hi!” The plastic daisy is endemic. Several trailers have full-sized refrigerators outside (and probably a deep freeze or walk-in cooler inside). One has two enormous planters tastefully built of discarded automobile tires. The flowers, predictably, are petunias, the wimps of the botanical world. Garfield the Cat clings to many a window in the Kampground. If ever there was a cat that deserves the ultimate fate at the animal shelter, it is Garfield, the surly, arrogant little animal-that-should-be-euthanized.

The Kampground pool is jammed. “Swimming” is a stand-up procedure because no one has enough room to go prone in a swimming position. Everyone is shouting and the din is terrific. It is not, as my friend Marty Malin says, “silent, like the ‘P’ in swimming.” There is the inevitable rec room (not recreation room) with Space Invaders and other games to provide mental stimulus for the Kamp adolescents so they won’t have to torment their unwrinkled brains with books.

This Kampground features a hayride, a rubber-tired wagon pulled by a small tractor. There are about a dozen kids and a very pregnant woman (perhaps she does not know she is pregnant) riding on it. A small boy is throwing the hay out by handsful as they move along. By the fourth circuit of the Kampground the pregnant woman begins to look as if she will deliver. While cab drivers are famous for delivering babies in the back seat of their vehicles, I doubt the driver, a slack- jawed teenager with a thriving case of acne, will be much good in a birthing crisis.

A father and son walk in front of our motorhome, sharing a warm moment together. They have matching sunglasses, so you can tell they are close. Ward Cleaver turns over in his grave. A man is walking a hairy little dog. He is a veteran of the Kampground, for he is wearing a plastic glove on his left hand and when the dog pauses to make a hard little deposit, the man scoops it up like Ozzie Smith fielding a hot one. Give that man a Brown Glove award!

This is not a campground like one where I once camped in northern Minnesota, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, where Big Falls roared just over the bank from the hookups and where a full campground was six vehicles. The roar in this Kamp is from incessant and heavy traffic on the nearby Interstate and is as irritating as the tumbling waters in Minnesota were soothing.

Many years ago when I was a wannabe soldier in ROTC, spending six lovely weeks at Fort. Sill Oklahoma, learning how to be abused and humiliated by superior artillerymen— everybody on that godforsaken military post was superior to Rotsy tourists— we spent several nights under the stars doing something or other military (I conveniently forgot what if I ever knew to begin with).

If there is anything charming about Fort Sill at night it is that the sky is uncluttered by ambient light, and there is none of that annoying civilization to disturb your tranquility. Instead of closing ourselves inside pup tents, several of us spread our shelter halves under the stars and stared into infinity. If ants ever gaze up into the night sky, I know how they must feel–pitifully insignificant. The memory would be more impressive except that all along we had the knowledge that at 5:30 AM a sergeant with the empathy of a prison guard would motivate us by screaming obscenities welcoming us into another day so we could spend many hours under a broiling sun listening to the ear shattering blast of 105 mm howitzers.

My camping life has evolved gradually over the years, as has my concept of how best to enjoy being outdoors and living a simple life. I graduated from a pup tent to a family size contraption devised by the Coleman company, to confound incompetent campers like me with yards of material and aluminum poles all cleverly designed to collapse in the middle of the night, in the middle of a windstorm. One night on a Current River gravel bar the tent buckled on top of us and we crawled into the starlit night, counted heads, and realized that Andy, our youngest son, was missing. Ultimately we discovered him under the debris of the tent, still sound asleep and irritable at being disturbed—not by the wind or the tent failure, but by us waking him up.

Another time the entire family camped in that same tent under a looming old tree and, wonder of wonders, the tent did not collapse. The next morning, with the help of family members who understand the complexities of tent construction, we folded up our portable accommodations and hit the road. Later we discovered that a violent storm had blown through the campground after we left and the huge tree broke into pieces and fell exactly where our tent had been. I interpreted this as an omen that perhaps tent camping was not the safest way to ensure family longevity.

I bought a succession of one man tents, none of which provided any more comfort than a bed of nails. All seemed to magnify rocks, roots, and any other tiny profusion beneath the tent floor, no matter how many layers of air mattress or other padding material I lay down. Among those tents was one which trapped the moisture which I apparently exuded copiously during the night and every time I woke and jostled the tent I created a mini monsoon. For a long time, I opted to rough it when I went on the road for the Conservation Department, sleeping in my tiny tents, saving money for the state and feeling grandly charitable, if also grandly uncomfortable. Gradually it dawned on me that I was on an expense account and did not have to sleep on a bed of rocks while gamely gathering material for outdoor articles, but instead could opt for a motel room where I could watch nature in the raw on the National Geographic Channel.

It did not occur to me that this also was a signal that I also was getting older, softer and wimpier.

So when the era of the recreational vehicle came along it was a simple jump from staying in motel rooms to staying in motel rooms that moved from one place to another. However, I soon discovered that Motel Eight does not gulp gasoline at an alarming and expensive rate, and, the first time I was faced with emptying a holding tank, I learned to appreciate the fact that using the facilities in a Motel Eight and pressing the flush lever was infinitely more convenient and infinitely less potentially disgusting than figuring out the complexities of a dump station.

Once, deep in the Ozarks, I stayed in a decrepit motor court, too primitive even to be called a motel. But it had a sagging bed, scarcely more comfortable than sleeping on a river gravel bar, and instead of a flat screen television set with the National Geographic Channel, it had an antique radio which played scratchy low power stations, populated by evangelists and gospel groups. It cost $2.50 for the night which seemed excessive for what I got, but still was far less than the eight dollars a night charged by the original incarnation of Motel Eight.

So, now in my geriatric wimp hood, at the end of a long day of challenging the outdoors, outwitting hungry wolf packs, dropping charging grizzly bears inches from my boot tops, fleeing from cheetahs, and swimming with crocodiles, I slump behind the wheel of my battered road vehicle and wearily look for the ultimate sign of civilization:

ROOM VACANCY! WELCOME!

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  • Blog
  • May 15th, 2018

MOBY DORK

By Joel M. Vance

Think of yourself as a herring. Visualize a crowded city street, thronging with people. Or rush hour on the access ramps. Wall to wall people, all crowded together. Now think of giant alien whales from outer space circling the city, gradually herding you and your fellow human herrings into a tighter, more confused and frightened ball.

And then, Wham! Whale sushi.

I’ve seen it–humpback whales doing what they call “bubble net feeding.” Several whales start circling a school of herring, singing (the guide lowered a microphone and it sounded more like timber wolves howling than Willie Nelson), creating a curtain of bubbles through their blow holes, and gently guiding the by-now baffled herring with gigantic flippers into an ever tighter bunch.

The bubble curtain keeps the herring inside, a sonic corral. The singing confuses them–is this a lullaby or a threat. The flippers indicate which way to go (“right this way to the lunch counter, folks” although the whales don’t add that lunch is not FOR the herring; the herring ARE lunch.)

Then comes the moment when the whales surge through the bunched herring and…well, it got me to thinking, something always dangerous. I had a brilliant idea, an even more perilous situation.

What if I could train my Brittanies to swim in an ever-tightening circle, barking as they do so? Would this confuse fish, like maybe a school of bluegills, and bunch them whereupon I would cast into the middle of the circle and catch fish when no one else can?

Could I train Brittanies to do this? I once had a fishing Brittany who would spend hours swimming in circles, occasionally plunging his head and snapping at the bluegills swimming around him. Once he caught one and surfaced with an astonished look, the fish flapping in his mouth. He spit it out and his lust for fishing diminished after that.

My Brittany bubble net idea evaporated as quickly as it had come when I remembered the most embarrassing incident of my life, one that also involved fish and dogs. I was invited to hear Chuck Yeager speak at a meeting of steelhead anglers. Gen. Yeager is the quintessential American hero, World War Two fighter ace, first man to break the sound barrier and the titular godfather of the astronauts.

We had sold a puppy to a friend who was such a fan of Chuck Yeager’s that she named the puppy Yeager. My brilliant idea bloomed so quickly that I had no second thoughts. If only it were possible to get Gen. Yeager to inscribe will a book which I could give to my friend.

I was at a meeting where general Yeager was to be the featured speaker and I thought to myself what a wonderful opportunity, not only to meet a great American hero, but also to get him to autograph a book for my friend— who also happened to be a magazine editor and thus would be forever obligated to buy anything I wrote and pay me voluminous amounts of money.

I visited a local used bookstore and found a tattered copy of a book which seemed totally appropriate. What a serendipity moment! I would have him inscribe the book “from one Yeager to another” and we would share a comradely laugh.

It didn’t occur to me that Gen. Yeager was promoting his autobiography, curiously titled “Yeager.” No–I was thinking dogs (or like one, more accurately). I bought a copy of a dog training book (which looked as if perhaps the dog it was intended for had been using it as a chew toy) and took it to the meeting where I spied the good general chatting with a few fans. Presently they drifted away and there he was alone for the moment, his back to me.

I walked up and said “Excuse me, general….” and he began to turn and instantly I was aware of the incredible stupidity of my Grand Plan. I knew exactly how a field mouse feels when it becomes aware of a shadow passing overhead and looks up to see a sharp-shinned hawk three feet above, talons extended.

I was going to ask this great American hero to inscribe a book to a dog…and it wasn’t even his book?

The enormous idiocy of my idea finally sank through my thick skull into the tiny part where common sense lurks and even before this famed American military hero turned toward me, one uncomfortable memory from the past flooded my mind like the fabled life-flashing-before-your-eyes an instant before you are hit by the incoming missile.

I was back in the National Guard arriving after a 900 mile 2 ½ day ride in a Jeep at the head of our artillery battalion convoy to camp Ripley Minnesota. I was tired, hot, and in no mood for the flipparies of military courtesy. Oh sure, I would return the halfhearted salutes of my equally weary troopers as they hosed down their dusty vehicles, as eager as I was to see the duty day come to an end.

A Jeep pulled to a stop some yards away from me and I assumed it was yet another stray from the incoming summer campers (this was not Camp Bidawee for adolescents–this was a chance for us to spend a lot of government money shooting howitzer rounds, costing $100 each, at distant targets like empty barrels, isolated pine trees, and the occasional suicidal white tailed deer that had wandered into the impact area).

From the corner of my eye, I saw a couple of guys approaching, but I ignored them, concentrating on the militarily vital task of washing our travel weary vehicles. “Captain!” I turned to behold, like someone standing in the path of the lava flow from a devastating volcanic eruption, a bird colonel and, standing beside him, the diminutive form of a one star general. Even before the colonel, who apparently was the bad cop, spoke in the tone of the judge rendering a death sentence to a serial killer, I realized that I had effed up big time. “Don’t you know you are supposed to report to a commanding officer?” It was not a rhetorical question, politely asking for information. It was the prelude to damnation by hellfire which the colonel proceeded to deal to me like a stoker shoveling coal into a blast furnace.

The general, who looked remarkably like portraits of Napoleon, stood idly by slapping his thigh with a riding crop while the colonel flayed me as if preparing to tan my hide, possibly for use as a chamois for drying the general’s Jeep after I finished washing it. Finally the two high-ranking officers were done with their sadistic fun and left me lying gravely wounded on the battlefield.

So, General Yeager turned to me and I knew exactly the way the pilot of a Messerschmitt ME 109 felt when skewered by twin 40 caliber machine guns manned by a P 38 Lightning pilot, possibly manned by a fellow named Yeager. My idea had been asked him to inscribe the dog training book “from one Yeager to another” and now even years later the enormous foolishness of that idea gives me cold chills.

Instead, looking remarkably like Mortimer Snerd, the half witted Edgar Bergen dummy, I stammered something or other and thrust the book at him and he looked at it as if I were offering him dog droppings, instead of a book about dogs. Brusquely, he signed the book, and turned back toward someone with at least half a brain and instantly dismissed me to the dustbin of history.

That was the worst instance of my inconveniencing celebrities with my oafishness. At a meeting of outdoor writers which included several guest celebrities I went to breakfast with a tall, handsome gentleman and thinking to involve him in my hamfisted version of small talk, I said, “And what do you do?” thinking that he was another outdoor writer– he did look familiar, possibly someone I had hobnobbed with in outdoor writer circles, although he obviously was more successful at it than me–for one thing he wasn’t dressed in tattered blue jeans. To his eternal credit and the fact that he was an authentic gentleman, he did not look at me as one looks at an unusual insect, and merely said, “I’m an actor.”

Not only was Richard Anderson an actor, he was one of the stars of the highly successful Six Million Dollar Man television series, and a veteran of countless movies, but he reportedly also was Debbie Reynolds’ first boyfriend. All this I discovered far too late to apologize. Although I probably would’ve blurted something idiotic like “too bad you have such a forgettable face.”

Another time, at a meeting, I was crossing a room when I encountered a fellow whom I was sure I knew but whose name I could not remember. In the way that us feebleminded folks do, I faked it and said heartily, “Hey, good to see you! How’s it goin’?” He looked at me, obviously trying to place me among his many friends and embarrassed that he could not do it. “Fine!” He said. “And it’s good to see you too!”

Ten feet farther on, I realized that not only did I not know him, but he didn’t know me either. He was Mason Adams, one of the stars of the Lou Grant television show. Now, many years later, he probably still is wondering who the hell that old friend was— although probably not. Only once have I not managed to put my 9 ½ D’s firmly amid my molars. That was when I was at dinner where a fellow chatted amiably with our fellow diners and I gathered from the conversation that he was some sort of hockey player. I know every bit as much about hockey as I know about quantum physics. The only thing I know about hockey is the Rodney Dangerfield joke, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” So I managed for once to keep my mouth shut.

Later at home, when I mentioned his name to my son, Andy, an ardent hockey fan, I found out that Denis Potvin not only was a hockey player, but happens to be in the NHL Hall of Fame, one of the all-time greats– the most prolific scoring defense man of all time. At least I didn’t ask him, “And what is it you do?” only to have him high stick me across my big mouth.

So,on the other hand, I think I’ll just let the Brittanies be dogs and forget whatever fantasies they might have had about being humpback whales. And that goes for me, too.

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  • Blog
  • May 5th, 2018

ONE MAN’S HABITAT IS ANOTHER MAN’S WEEDPATCH

By Joel M. Vance

I knew a man who loved blackberry cobbler above all else. He cleared out a huge patch of wild blackberries…and then planted nursery-raised canes. The irony never occurred to him.

He was symptomatic of landowners who have been conditioned away from the wild bounty of the land and into a manufactured version of it. Another landowner I know is a staunch supporter of wildlife conservation. But he cleared out a long brushy draw and a fallow field and planted alfalfa from which he cuts hay, usually during the nesting season. He wonders where his quail have gone.

Habitat loss has many names: wetland loss, desertification, deforestation, fragmentation are just a few. The result is whatever lived there has lost its home. Some adapt to new conditions; most don’t. Some migrate to suitable habitat; many don’t.

So-called “clean” farming has become the norm. It flowered fully during the unlamented tenure of Earl Butz as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Agriculture. Butz’s mantra was “fencerow to fencerow” farming and he meant it literally—do not ever let a weed, a bush or a tree invade your fencerow, else you be accused of sloppy farming.

Let’s face it, much wildlife habitat is the result of neglect. As much as any factor, it was responsible for the revival of wildlife during and after World War Two. A generation of young farmers went to war and the farms they left behind often were in the draft horse era, small holdings where the concept of megafarms wasn’t even a glimmer.

There were brushy gullies and fencerows, woodlots untouched, fallow fields gone to weeds, no pesticides, no herbicides—in other words a set table for wildlife. Deer, turkeys and other animals thrived under this neglect.

It has been a downhill slide for wildlife habitat since Johnny came marching home. In the 1950s Missouri’s pasture land was more than 90 percent legumes like clover, alfalfa and lespedeza, all beneficial to wildlife. By the end of the century more than 90 percent was fescue, a rank grass that cows don’t even like much but that grows anywhere and is cheap. It’s estimated that five times as much land is in agriculture now compared to when the Pilgrims landed.

Coupled with fescue conversion came the flourish of pesticides and herbicides. Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 Book Silent Spring waked America to the dangers of hard pesticides and put an end to the worst of them barely in time to arrest the skid of the bald eagle toward extinction (hard pesticide residues in eagle prey caused eggshell thinning and a subsequent decline in baby eagles).

Has 70-plus years of sluicing the land with chemicals affected wildlife, especially ground-nesting birds and small animals? It’s not a rhetorical question—there are indications that chemical poisoning causes genetic disruption, ranging from deformities to sex change in male creatures.

No one to my knowledge is investigating whether quail, an indicator species if ever there was one, have been genetically altered over the years by chemical exposure. For argument let’s say that seven decades of chemically treated quail food (seeds and green matter) have resulted in less potency among male quail or perhaps a one-egg decline in the average clutch size among females.

The result obviously would be fewer quail.

Couple that factor with habitat loss, increased predation, even global warming and possibly some other factors we don’t understand and the result is the most widespread poor quail population in the country’s history.

Hitched to changes in agriculture is the proliferation of people. Not only did Johnny come marching home; he came equipped and supercharged to breed. Since 1945 when the war ended, the U.S. population alone has grown to 320 million. The rate of increase has declined since 1990 when it was about 8 million a year added—but it still is well above zero population growth, nevermind a negative figure.

All those people demand space…not just space to live, but space to work and shop. Yesterday’s mom and pop grocery is today’s Wal-Mart parking lot. The solution is at the same time simple and impossible—quit having so many kids. That elementary conclusion rams head on into religious and other considerations which make it impossible to legislate or often even to talk about.

Yet anything else is a Band Aid on a grievous wound. All the programs for wildlife restoration, for habitat improvement, all the incentive payments to protect and enhance habitat don’t mean a thing if the world population continues to constrict what’s available for critters.

Western states with their hefty proportion of public lands (national forests, grasslands and Bureau of Land Management holdings) are better off than their eastern counterparts—fewer people, more untamed acres. But most of the country lives where wildlife habitat is at a premium. Public programs come and go. In the 1950s the Soil Bank retired many row crop acres to fallow fields and pheasant numbers flourished.

But the Soil Bank contracts ran out and farmers plowed up that habitat to take advantage of high grain prices. Same thing is happening with the Conservation Reserve Program as CRP contracts run out. It is a boom and bust cycle for wildlife that depends on old field and early succession acres.

Some landowners simply don’t like wildlife. It’s competitive with them and a nuisance. Even songbirds eat grain that otherwise would generate cash for the farmer. That group never will accept any idea that encourages critters. Another, larger, group can’t afford to idle acreage or share with wildlife. Farming is a crap shoot, subject to fickle weather and market fluctuations.

The smallest group is those who can afford to subsidize wildlife habitat or who, through a form of genius, have figured out how to make money. I know a man who was about to sink as a crop farmer, but converted his farm to a dog training preserve and righted the economic ship.

The late Eugene Poirot, a southwest Missouri farmer, took a worn out acreage and turned it into a money machine with creative ideas like filling ponds through spring rainfall, raising catfish for market in them, then draining the water for irrigation of crops when drought struck. His long out of print book Our Margin of Life details his many ideas for living with wildlife and making money at the same time, but it takes a person of rare vision, even with Poirot’s blueprint, to make it work.

There really is no way to quantify wildlife habitat loss. We know what constitutes good habitat for some animals, less about what others need. Some species have proved more resilient than we thought. When I began working for the Missouri Conservation Department in 1969, our turkey biologist John Lewis felt that Missouri would have open hunting in about half its 114 counties and he thought he was being optimistic.

Now all counties are open and most have the best overall turkey hunting in the country. White-tailed deer have been a similar success. Both animals have adapted to living cheek by beak with humans.

Not so the prairie chicken, once a common citizen of Missouri’s native tallgrass prairie which spanned a third of the state. Prairie chickens fueled wagon trains heading West in the 1800s. Along with the bison, they were meat for land hungry settlers and gold hungry prospectors.

But habitat loss had the grouse teetering on the brink of extinction long before the first chemical spray hit the land. The plow herded the birds into ever decreasing prairie enclaves (today of what once was 15 million tallgrass acres less than 100,000 remains). Hunting stopped more than100 years ago But the population has stumbled down ever since until now the estimate is less than 500 birds statewide.

You can have a prairie without prairie chickens, but you can’t have prairie chickens without a prairie. It all boils down to habitat and no animal is more dependent on the right habitat than the prairie chicken.

But what constitutes a prairie? There are more questions about Missouri’s prairie chickens and their habitat than there are the birds themselves. Despite repeated efforts to stay the trend, the population of the once-common pinnated grouse has declined to the point that they now are facing extirpation.

“Extirpation” means gone from a given territory. “Extinction” means gone from the world. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and a few other states can claim tenuous prairie chicken populations. If there is hope for the rest of the grouse’s historic range, it is that other states have brought the birds back from near-extirpation.

The loss of prairie chicken habitat has been staggering. In Illinois it went from more than 60 percent of the state’s acreage to less than one-one hundredth, hardly enough acreage for a back yard garden. The chicken population, estimated in the early 1960s at 2,000 in two southeastern Illinois counties, Jasper and Marion, fell to 50 birds by the 1990s.

Habitat loss coupled with genetic loss. The birds, confined to fragments of their former range, inbred and hatching success fell from the 90th percentile to under 40 percent. Illinois began restoring habitat and introducing birds from other states, with genetic backgrounds similar to that of the Illinois birds. Starting in 1992 Illinois sweetened its ragtag remnant with 500 prairie chickens from Nebraska, Minnesota and Kansas. After new blood came into the gene pool the hatch rate jumped back to 94 percent.

That is an example of a habitat problem identified by nature writer David Quammen in his book The Song of the Dodo. He calls the concept “island biodiversity” and in essence it means that a given wildlife population in an island of good habitat, surrounded by poor habitat, is doomed to, at best, become what he calls a “museum flock” and probably to longterm extinction.

Is that what’s happening with quail? Certainly where I hunt the habitat is outstanding….but in many cases that’s the only good quail habitat farm in a community of clean farms, fall plowed and devoid of winter cover. Maybe my survivor quail are inbreeding themselves to extinction, even though their home habitat is excellent.

A neighbor is a back-to-the-land advocate—they have a garden, raise about 40 chickens for eggs and meat, have a wood stove. But they live in a house carved as part of a rural housing development from a farm where I used to hunt quail. Six of one, half a dozen of the other…..

I can’t complain about usurping rural land from wildlife. We moved to 40 acres 27 years ago, but I like to think we haven’t disturbed the ecosystem that much. I’ve killed turkeys on the ridge across our small lake, and I photographed a chuck-will’s-widow nest there. We have wood ducks nesting, as well as doves. Two barred owls often chat across the lake and there are numerous box turtles.

But the covey of quail that used to be on the place is gone. Maybe I could blame it on the neighbors but I suspect we all share equally in the guilt.

While trap-and-transplant is essential for the restoration of wildlife species, it is not the most vital element—that remains habitat. “It all comes down to that,” said a member of an eight-person prairie chicken team working for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Habitat—it is as ephemeral a word as the life of a mayfly. It’s where critters live, obviously, but there are so many intangibles that the concept is like a medieval philosophical question about how many angels there are on the head of a pin.

Can prairie chickens survive and thrive on non-native prairie? I once saw chickens booming on plowed ground, stumbling and recovering like a drunk on the street. It was a sad and illuminating sight. I’m not sure if they were thriving or not—I doubt it, but I can’t judge without insinuating myself into the private and continuing life of that bedeviled flock of chickens. Perhaps these were the rarest of rare chickens, those who had discovered the secret of adaptation, like deer or coyotes.

But I doubt it.

I suspect they were symptomatic of a species hanging on. They roosted and presumably nested in a railroad right-of-way that served as a remnant tallgrass prairie. Everything else was corn and soybeans…and plowed ground. Before Audrain County was settled, it was a sweeping tallgrass prairie and pioneers reported big bluestem taller than a horse’s back. Riders would appear to be a dozen feet tall because the horse they sat upon was invisible.

After the disaster of the Dust Bowl, Midwestern farmers planted windbreaks in profusion, usually Osage orange a lush tree whose branches stooped to the ground and offered shelter to small wildlife. But Osage orange has the unfortunate (from the landowner’s standpoint) habit of sucking moisture from its surroundings, meaning a few rows of corn or beans adjacent to a hedgerow would be puny. That proved unacceptable and, beginning in earnest in the 1960s, farmers started jerking those audacious hedgerows and substituting, if anything, a four-strand barbed wire fence.

Missouri’s Conservation Department has taken heat over the years for its sponsorship and endorsement of two plants of great value to wildlife: multiflora rose and autumn olive. Both offer thick cover and bounteous crops of berries beloved by birds. Therein lies the problem—birds eat the berries and digest the good parts….but defecate the seeds indiscriminately. So, today’s carefully planted cover strip becomes tomorrow’s invasive plant.

It’s well known, but not widely appreciated that enormous destruction of Latin American rain forest is shrinking the populations of many migratory songbirds. It’s easier to mourn the decline of bobwhite quail because we hunt them and they are North American cousins. We don’t see the ravaging of the rain forest but its impact ripples like the effect of a rock tossed in a pond.

At the other end of the world, the shrinking polar ice cap is closing in on polar bears, like the walls in a Poe horror story. On the Great Plains, the rapacious oil and gas industries are squeezing out the sage grouse and other grassland grouse with their drilling sites, all for the benefit of more oil and gas production so consumers can buy SUVs and other gas hogs and so they can ship their oil across the country through pipelines which inevitably will rupture and destroy even more habitat. Windfarms, supposedly beneficial, often are deadly to birds up to and including eagles, killed by the gigantic whirling blades of the turbines. Hydroelectric dams have caused massive fish kills, and the flooding of countless acres of what once was wildlife habitat. The drawbacks to solar energy may well cancel out the benefits of this so-called free energy. Nothing comes without its price— except to wildlife which always seems to be on the debit side of the ledger.

The destruction of pioneer forest land by loggers was horrific enough in its time, but nothing compared to the wholesale rape of the land today . Scottish poet Alexander Smith said, “A man doesn’t plant a tree for himself. He plants it for posterity” I don’t know of any poets who have written odes of praise for those who cut that tree down.

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  • Blog
  • April 27th, 2018

A LOVE STORY

By Joel M. Vance

I was rummaging around in my computer the other day, a place as cluttered as an old maid’s attic, when I ran across a partial short story that I wrote quite a few years ago. Apparently, I ran out of inspiration short of a conclusion and there I left it to gather pixel dust.

So, I finished it and you’ll find it below. It’s based on an actual incident which occurred when I was riding my bicycle home from work one day, grimly peddling up a too steep hill wishing that Jefferson City were as flat as Western Kansas. The story is fiction— a might have been. Somewhere out there is a beautiful blonde, now at least in her late middle age, possibly still the owner of a spectacular classic blue Mercedes convertible.

I figure the way the short fiction market is these days (and has been for a long time) no one would buy this story anyway so here it is for your entertainment and then it goes back into the electronic file cabinet of what once was.

THE STORY

I was pulling hard up Sugg’s hill on my Trek bicycle, in granny low gear, wishing I had a couple more below granny, listening to “The Lady in the Blue Mercedes” from the Greatest Hits of Johnny Duncan.

Probably not smart to plug my ears with headphones, but I’m a great believer in fate, always have been. If it’s my time to be centered by a semi, driven by the automotive counterpart of Charles Manson, so be it.

At least I’ll go out listening to a great country song…and think of the wonderful shape I’ll be in from riding the bicycle to and from work. Still–my calves throbbed and threatened to cramp and I glanced up from my crouched-over-the-handlebars posture to see how close I was to the top of the hill and there she was, just passing me. I was high enough to see into the front seat of the car and everything registered like a photograph taken by a high-speed camera.

The lady in the blue Mercedes convertible. It was robin’s egg blue and she was as blonde as a golden sunset. She wore a white dress and her hair streamed in the breeze of her passing. I only caught a glimpse of her profile, but it was classic, a small, straight nose, flawless skin. I would have bet her eyes were blue, slightly darker than the elegant old Mercedes convertible.

I’m no expert on cars, being partial to rusty pickups and bicycles, but this one was vintage, maybe even a classic from the 1950s. It bespoke its classic heritage, making the pretenders from other manufacturers look tacky by comparison. As did the lady at the wheel. So stunned was I by this manifestation of the music I was hearing that I actually cried out and nearly ran into the curb.
It was an instant frozen in time, an eyeblink of eternity, but as meaningful as a lifetime of passion. “Wait!” I shouted…but the Mercedes already was turning the corner at the top of the hill and the blonde head did not turn toward me. And then she was gone.

Yes, I know it was like the scene from the movie “American Graffiti” where Curt sees the girl in the white Thunderbird who mouths “I love you” to him. Truth is stranger than fiction, except that she didn’t mime “I love you” to me. She didn’t even look at me– just passed like a lightning strike and was gone, leaving not even a whiff of ozone.

I pulled to the curb and leaned on the handlebars, as stunned as if I had been clipped by that semi. Ever the believer in fate, whether semis or romance, I knew this was not accidental. Fate had sent me a vision and it now was up to me to realize it.

Somewhere was the girl for me, the Grail of Girls–if only I could find her. It shouldn’t be difficult. The town isn’t that big. I’d track her down, lay siege to her affections, and we would ride off to some Nirvana of eternal love…in a vintage blue Mercedes convertible.

I looked for her every time I left the house for weeks. I would travel different streets to work and home in the hope that I would see the blue Mercedes and the lovely blonde within. On weekends I rode around town, aimlessly, checking driveways, finding streets I’d never been on. But nowhere was a blue Mercedes and, most important, the lovely woman within.

I listened to the Johnny Duncan song until it started to sound stupid. That was a song–the girl in the car was reality, or at least I thought she was. Maybe I had been suffering from hypoxia or a fleeting aneurism and only thought I had seen a beautiful girl in a blue Mercedes.

I decided to play detective, something that I quickly found I’m not suited for (I’m a junior partner in a law firm, specializing in insurance claims–hardly the stuff of noir novels). I visited the local police station with a story that sounded phony when I thought it up and got increasingly more so when I put it to the test.

“Ah, I need a little information, “ I told the desk sergeant, a grizzled veteran with a boozer’s nose and cop eyes. Suddenly I realized how stupid I was being. “I think I left a scratch on a person’s car,” I mumbled. “And if I could find out who owns it, I could make restitution.”

“You vandalized somebody’s car?” the cop asked, scowling. I could feel cold sweat puddling under my armpits.

“No!” I exclaimed. “It was an accident. On my bicycle. I didn’t realize until I got home that I had paint on the handlebar. Parked car. You know….” I trailed off, looking as guilty as a member of the Manson Gang.

“License number?” he asked.

“I have to go look at my car,” I said.

“Not yours. The one you damaged.”

“Oh, I didn’t get it. Don’t know. But it’s an old blue Mercedes convertible. Probably the only one in town. Probably easy to find. Probably. Can you tell me who owns it?”

He looked at me with deep suspicion, as if he knew I were toying with him and with the majesty of the law. “No,” he said. “I can’t, even if I knew. We’ll let you know if we run across it.”

And I knew that he would not run across it, that he would forget about me as soon as I walked out the door, except maybe to tell his cop buddies what massive dumbasses he has to put up with.
I was glad to escape without charges being filed on a non-existent vandalism case although a good one could have been made against me for filing a false police report. This would not have been good for my law career. I realized that I was bordering on nuts.

My friend Paul is a practicing psychiatrist and I unloaded on him over a beer. “My office hours are posted on the door,” he said, without pity. “But here’s a quickie diagnosis. Have you ever heard the word ‘obsession’?”

“If I could just find her,” I said. “Maybe she’s as ugly as 40 miles of snot, face on, but I have to know.”

“That’s 40 miles of bad road,” Paul said. “And we psychiatrists have a phrase to describe your behavior. It’s called ‘going crazy.’”

“Yeah, whatever,” I muttered.

“For what it’s worth,” he said, “You’ll appear in my next psychiatric conference presentation under the title, ‘Crazy Friends I Have Refused to Treat.’”

\ “Think of it as a quest,” I said.

“Yeah, whatever,” he muttered.

And then I found her, at an estate auction. It had advertised books among the items for auction and I’m a bookaholic. I parked a block away–it was a well-attended sale–and walked toward the old house. The place was bordering on a true estate, so I figured perhaps the late owner had some collectible books. Most sales feature the very best in Reader’s Digest, Book-of-the-Month and Grosset & Dunlap reprints of Zane Grey westerns but every so often someone dies who actually had read or at least acquired valuable books.

Once again I was head-down, concentrating on not stepping on any sidewalk cracks. It had been drilled into me as a little kid: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back!” My mother had been dead for many years, but why tempt fate?

And then I stopped short, inhaling a quick, startled breath. There it was, unmistakably, the blue Mercedes. I approached it as if approaching a lovely but wild horse that might bolt and never be seen again. I ran my hand over the fender, along the side and the door frame where her hand must have rested. It felt warm as if she were part of the car, but maybe it was from the spring sunshine.

Still–the old car seemed to breath as if infused by the life force of the lovely blonde who owned it. This was not a car; it was a familiar, a good witch’s talisman.

I looked quickly around to see if anyone was watching, then put my hand on the driver’s seat, leaning into the car and inhaling the sweet scent of old leather and young girl. The seat felt warm, but maybe it was from the sun.

She must be inside the big house where I could hear the bray of the auctioneer as he disposed of someone’s life for pennies on the dollar. I took a deep breath and went up the steps and into the house, following the bellow of the auctioneer’s amplified spiel.

There was the usual assortment of farmers in overalls and implement dealer caps, old people accumulating items for their own estate sale, young marrieds hoping for a bargain to equip a starter home and…just glimpsed through the crowd, a blonde as bright as a spring sunrise.

The auctioneer was deep into selling a Mixmaster, circa 1947, that looked as if it had been used to mix plaster. He sweated and mopped at his brow. “Do I hear five? Let me hear five!” he implored, but he heard massive silence. “Who’s got three? Let me hear two?” Someone scratched his nose and the spotter perked up, then subsided.

“Mark it to me,” said the auctioneer and moved to the next item. The blonde (or, as I now thought of her The Blonde) was across the crowded room and I immediately heard in my mind Ezio Pinza singing “Some Enchanted Evening.” (“…across a crowded room”) My mouth was dry; my breath shallow and quick. My palms sweated and it wasn’t the heat in the room; it was the heat in my loins.

I slithered through the crowd, excusing myself as I edged between people until I was directly behind the blonde. She wore a crisp khaki blouse and matching shorts. Her legs were flawless, long, slender but not model skinny. Moving up, I gazed upon a world class back end, a taut Valentine that rounded to a slim waist, then ascended to square shoulders, partially covered by that golden cascade of hair. One pert ear peeked through the shimmering locks and I nearly drooled with the need to nibble on it, like a sexual hors d’oeuvre.

I tried to speak and it came out as a raven’s croak. It’s a wonder I didn’t squawk, “Nevermore! Nevermore!” like Poe’s bird.

She turned as it was as if someone had turned on a million watt searchlight. There have been times when I have lusted after a receding shape only to have this rear vision turn and show me the face of something that should be on Mt. Rushmore.

This was not one of those times. She was as lovely as puppies at play, as prairie wildflowers swaying in a spring breeze. I cleared my throat of Poe, sounding like a load of gravel dropped down a metal chute, and said, “Some sale, eh?” As suave as facial blemishes.

She smiled and dimples appeared where dimples are supposed to. Her eyes were what they always call “cornflower blue,” although I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cornflower to know. But they were blue, so blue I could have gone skinny-dipping in them forever.

“Yes,” she said, her voice rippling like a mountain stream over lovely rounded rocks. She looked at me with what I hoped was frank appraisal and I was glad I had shaved and put on underarm deodorant (because my pits were gushing flop sweat).

“Ah, I couldn’t help but notice your car, the Mercedes,” I said. “What a beautiful car!” She brightened even more, if that was possible, and said, “It’s a 1958 220SE. Kind of a classic so they tell me.”

“Where did you ever find a beauty like that?” I asked.

“A friend bought it for me,” she said and my heart sank because the kind of friends that buy Mercedes for beautiful women are the kind of friends that also dangle those same beautiful women like charms on a massive bracelet that is inscribed: “My Conquests.”

Those friends are male, rich, handsome, suave, and they leave me standing by the roadside, squinting into the dust cloud they and the beautiful girl leave behind as they speed off in the Mercedes.

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” I asked, hoping she would reply, “Yes–you, all my life!”

“Oh…something nice for a friend,” she said. Probably the friend who gave her the car. I’d like to give him a gift, too–a sputtering hand grenade. “Here, asshole.” She had a fleeting expression of hurt and I intuited that there was more than casual giving involved.

“Special friend?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. She paused. “Very special.” She hesitated, looked at me as if judging whether to add anything and I let my face sag in what I hoped was sympathetic, but possibly looked more like I’d suffered a minor brain fart.

She sighed. “It’s sort of a farewell gift, I guess.”

“Your friend is leaving?” I’m as quick on the uptake as the vintage Laurel and Hardy.
“No. We’re sort of…splitting up,” she said. “I guess you don’t want to hear about things like this….”

“Au contraire!” I exclaimed, dredging up an artifact from my college French. In fact it is exactly what I wanted to hear–that she was splitting from what I assumed was her rich asshole squeeze (“Never mind the hand grenade, jerko! You’re history.”) and was, therefore, free, marginally over 21 and certainly over the age of consent, and stunningly lovely. “I don’t mean to pry but…this is someone you care…cared about?”

She nodded and pressed her full lips together, lips that I yearned to treat like a ripe mango. She hunched her shoulders and looked so sad that I felt a surge of emotion unlike anything since Lassie saved Timmy and licked his ear. I wanted to lick her ear and whine.

I put a hand on her arm, meant to be reassuring and empathetic, not a bum’s rough paw. She took it as such and smiled at me and I felt I had taken a giant leap for Mankind, or at least this man.

Incongruously the words to “My Blue Heaven” leaped into my mind. The old song implied an eerie prophesy: “Just Molly and me/and baby makes three.” The blue heaven, of course, was the car (our car as I quickly came to think of it) and the mention of a baby suggested an intimacy that took my breath away. “Your name isn’t Molly, by any chance, is it?”

She frowned. “No–it’s Alice. Why do you ask?” I shrugged, thinking now of “Alice Blue Gown,” although I couldn’t remember the words.

“No reason,” I said. “You just look like a Molly.” I almost said that once I had a dog named Molly who was wonderfully cute, but managed to bite my lip and hold it back. She possibly would not have seen that as a compliment.

She looked around the room shrugged and said, “Well, I don’t think there is anything here for me.” And she turned and headed for the door. I wanted to scream after her “I’m here for you! Forever and always! Forget what’s his name and you and I will ride into the sunset in your lovely blue Mercedes convertible!”

Instead, I just stood there like the world’s thickest dolt, my throat locked as if I had swallowed a golf ball, and watched her walk out of the door and out of my life forever.

Oh, sure I looked for her and for the blue convertible for weeks after that, peddling glumly through the empty streets, going to yard sales, often allowing her memory to glide through my daydreams like a shaft of sunlight. But gradually, as time tends to heal all wounds (or wounds all heels) she faded from my memory and a girl came along who became my everything, including my wife. We made it past first a decade then another decade then a 25 year anniversary and she still is my reality, not a long faded dream.

But if we make it to a diamond anniversary, I will never totally forget the blonde vision in the blue Mercedes. As dear as my wife is to me and always will be, my wife, the girl of my reality, was driving a beat up 10-year-old Oldsmobile with dents and rust when we met.

Real life rarely involves visions in blue Mercedes convertibles and more often is composed of dents and rust.

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  • Blog
  • April 21st, 2018

CHILDREN OF THE DUST BOWL

By Joel M. Vance

There are 20 of them, scattered across the Great Plains, children of the worst natural disaster in American history, nevermind Katrina. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the Dirty Thirties, devastated 100 million acres in states from Texas to the Dakotas and killed countless people from dust pneumonia and just general debilitation and woe.

The 20 National Grasslands are because the country awoke to the fact that grasslands never were meant for plowing and cropping. The 600,000-acre Comanche in Colorado, 108,175-acre Cimarron in Kansas and the 230,000 Rita-Blanca in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, all are Dust Bowl children, all born in the heart of the near-decade-long misery.

There never has been a natural disaster as prolonged and as widespread as the Dust Bowl but as usual American memories are short-term and many of the lessons we learned the hard way haven’t stuck. Still some legacy remains from that grim time.

Today the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which until a few years ago was the Soil Conservation Service, owes its origin to the Dust Bowl. It began as a federal agency to work with landowners to stop the dusters, those almost daily blizzards of dirt that ruined crops, killed livestock and sickened people during the 1930s.

The SCS should have begun in the 1920s or even before–when the first plow bit the prairie, but it’s the American way to react to disaster, not to act to forestall it. A few farsighted folks had realized that the virgin prairie was not meant for cropping, that inevitably the wet years of the 1920s would give way to drought and that the ever-present prairie wind then would whisk away unprotected topsoil. But they were voices lost in that prairie wind, swept away on a misguided tide of optimism.

Everybody was going to get rich on wheat and other crops. Folk legend maintained that rain followed the plow. Plow up your ground and somehow that disturbance would incite moisture. People believe any nonsense if you tell them it will make them money.

There was some federal planning for what to do to protect the Great Plains as early as 1929 but it wasn’t until 1934 and 1935 that there actually was any action and by then it was too late—the prairie topsoil was airborne and the land was ruined.

Cautionary voices had been shouted down by exploiters, including honest, hard-working farmers who descended on the Plains states like a horde of locusts (which also would devastate the land late in the Dust Bowl days), intent on making a fortune with wheat and corn.

It worked…for a while. And then came the Dirty Thirties. The Dust Bowl states never have fully recovered. Today more than 80 percent of the farmers who once staked claims and their dreams in the Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas and the rest of the Plains have given it up. The ones that remain are banking on water from deep wells, tapping into the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer, a once-huge subterranean lake that lies beneath most of the Plains states—an estimated 174,000 square miles of hidden lake.

This massive puddle is estimated originally to have been the size of Lake Huron, making it the true sixth Great Lake. It’s from long-ago drainage from the Rocky Mountains.

Irrigation farmers are sucking the Ogallala dry at the rate of 1.1 million acre feet a day! As vast as the aquifer is, it can’t forever withstand that rate of depletion. The Ogallala has a shelf life estimated from 25 to 250 years depending on location. Even if dryland irrigation were stopped right now it would take 100 years for the aquifer to recharge…assuming it could (in western Kansas, for example, more than 90 percent of rainfall evaporates rather than seeping into the ground, meaning virtually none would help to recharge the Ogallala)

Young landowners on the dry end of that statistic can expect to see their water source evaporate in their lifetime. The rest can pass the problem on to their kids and grandkids. Planners today are concentrating on extending the life of the aquifer—not of restoring it. It’s quickly apparent, reading through existing studies, that there’s far more hydrologists don’t know about the Ogallala than what they do—but they do agree that the aquifer is threatened and what happens down there dramatically will affect what happens up here.

We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. Timothy Egan’s best-selling book The Worst Hard Time (Houghton Mifflin 2006) won the National Book Award for non-fiction and should be required reading for every dry land farmer in the Great Plains. It illustrates modern economics in a paragraph: “….cotton growers, siphoning from the Ogallala, get three billion dollars a year in taxpayer money for fiber that is shipped to China, where it is used to make cheap clothing sold back to American chain retail stores like Wal-Mart.”

How’s that make you feel, Wal-Mart shoppers?

Egan’s book is not a diatribe against disastrous land and water use in the Plains. It is a haunting report on the worst natural disaster in American history. And the old saw that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it inevitably springs to mind.

It wasn’t until 1960 that various federal purchases from the 1930s and beyond came to be known as the National Grasslands. The Grasslands encompass just over four million acres. Total federal purchases after the Dust Bowl top just over 11 million acres, far short of the proposed 75 million suggested in the immediate wake of the Dust Bowl. The Grasslands do serve as graphic examples of how careful prairie management can restore some of what once existed before the first plow bit the sod.

I’ve hunted on two of the National Grasslands, the Cimarron and the Ft. Pierre in South Dakota. Once you cross the first rolling hill and can’t see the parking lot, you’re struck by awe, akin to being adrift in a small boat in the middle of the ocean. The grass ripples like waves to the horizon and beyond and one feels vulnerably small clutched by nature’s enormous, impersonal fist.

Yet the fence between the federal and private land is a stark contrast between today and yesterday. The grass on the private land is cropped almost to the thin soil, while the federal land, operated under a grazing permit system, is comparatively lush.

Today the Grasslands are part of the National Forest system, administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Ironically, part of the original restoration plan was to plant trees to act as windbreaks and hold the soil. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted 220 million trees and only a scattering remain, testimony to the fact that the early soil conservationists largely were operating by guess and by God. The Plains never were meant for trees, but at least efforts to restore grass paid off on the federally-owned land.

Corporate America and farm landowners across the country would fight it to the death, but a proposal by some scientists, first floated in 2005, would return much of the Great Plains to the Pleistocene Era of 13,000 years ago—reintroducing animal species that lived 13,000 years ago in the 10 states involved (Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas).

It would take 50 years, the scientists estimate, but we’d have bison which already are established in some areas (an estimated 300,000 in North America)…and such veldt critters as lions and elephants. That’s a fairly nutty and unlikely proposal. More specific to reality is the Buffalo Commons proposal.

Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper wrote in 1987 that dry, sparsely-populated parts of the Great Plains (10 to 20 million acres) should be restored to the historic shortgrass prairie and repopulated with bison through a system of incentive payments to volunteer landowners who would, at the end of the contract, sell out to the Forest Service.

The Poppers had several strikes against them from the get-go. They were from New Jersey which, to a Westerner is like being from Soviet Russia. And they were academics, not hard rock farmers. And they were proposing something that smacked of government interference which always is anathema to Western landowners, even when it’s for their benefit.

Still there is some regional sympathy for the idea. Tourism almost certainly would benefit and the land almost certainly also would. Ideas this revolutionary gain ground slowly. The original proposal would have retired 130,000 square miles—roughly an area the size of Montana but it has been scaled back to what is possible, no matter how remotely.

If the Buffalo Commons ever becomes reality it will take a long time and leaders not only of vision, but of enough charisma to lead the reluctant and the apathetic. President Franklin Roosevelt and the first head of the SCS, Hugh Bennett, were men for their time when the Dirty Thirties threatened to ruin the nation’s farm economy. They fought through apathy and overcame the dreary inertia of the Dust Bowl and brought some measure of restoration to the Great Plains. Nature helped by mellowing its savage dry and hot assault of the Dirty Thirties to more normal weather in the 1940s. World War Two helped by taking a generation of young men off the land, thus letting it rest. Modern land use practices, experimental at the time, helped by proving themselves so that people could see the results.

The federal government helped by stepping in to make the worst acreage of the Dust Bowl public land, without the perceived necessity to beat it to death with crops. Landowners hated it when they had to give up their land heritage to the feds…but they had no choice. It was leave or die.

The Plains have been in population decline ever since, not as dramatically as they were in the Dirty Thirties, but steadily. Even the dramatic growth of cities like Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth hasn’t offset the overall exodus of people from the rural parts of the Plains states

Woody Guthrie, who knew the Dust Bowl intimately because he grew up in the heart of it, Okemah, Oklahoma, recorded an album called “Dust Bowl Ballads.” “It’s a mighty hard road that my poor hands have hoed…” he sang and as an expatriate from the ever-present dusters himself, wryly sang, “So long, it’s been good to know ya.”

The United States bred at an unprecedented rate between 1990 and 2000—we added 32.7 million people, the most ever in a decade. The baby boom right after World War Two produced only 28 million and it is considered the most fecund orgy since the days of hedonistic Rome.

But even as the rest of the country has piled people on people, the roughly 450 Dust Bowl counties mostly have lost population. The exodus from farm to city has mirrored what happened in the Thirties—can’t make it down on the farm, head for the big town.

Then it was economic and natural disaster; now it is economic. The natural disaster part is yet to come. But inevitably the well will run dry and what happens to irrigated wheat and cotton?

In 1937, as the Dust Bowl neared its bitter end, there still were 134 dust storms, most of any year in the 1930s, though none that approached the Black Sunday in April, 1935, when a wall of dirt, estimated at 200 miles wide and 2,000 feet high swept from the Dakotas south to Texas with winds of 60 miles per hour, choking people and livestock in state after state. Many thought it was the end of the world. The day turned as dark as the blackest night and dirt piled in drifts like snow eight or nine feet high. Woody Guthrie sang, “Buried head over heels in the black old dust, I had to pack up and go.”

Could there be another Dust Bowl? Don’t count nature out. No one aside from the doomsayers warned that New Orleans could be devastated by a hurricane. But it was. The unthinkable happened. It could happen again next year or next century or never. The unthinkable always is just over the horizon, like the hurricane that hit New Orleans or the tidal wave that washed over Galveston or the earthquakes that shook San Francisco and earlier the New Madrid fault where John James Audubon’s horse braced its legs and “commenced to groaning” just before the quake began.

With modern farming methods the worst of the Dust Bowl isn’t likely to recur, but when nature shuts the water tap above ground and the aquifer runs dry below ground and there is a hot weather cycle (think global warming) and the wind blows incessantly, as it does even in wet times…the stage is set for another down time on the Great Plains.

Remember the woman on television who posed as Mother Nature and warned, “Don’t mess with Mother Nature!” as she summoned lightning and thunder. It was hokey and was designed to sell faux butter…but it inadvertently was words to the wise.

Nature always rules in the long run and those who ignore that do so at their peril.
Where are the wise when you need them?
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FOR MORE INFORMATION

By all means read Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time. It, in turn, has a long list of sources that amplify his history of the Dust Bowl.

. The National Grasslands by Francis Moul (University of Nebraska Press) is a comprehensive look at those prairie gems. Individual Grasslands have web sites with information and maps—Google “national grasslands” for specifics.

For information on the Buffalo Commons proposal, check http://www.gprc.org/buffalo_commons_popper.html . A Google query on “Ogallala aquifer will give you hours of background reading.
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  • Blog
  • April 14th, 2018

READIN’, RITIN’ AND RUIN

By Joel M. Vance

In a recent blog I listed four of the most odious women in the public eye today: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Laura Ingraham, Roseanne Barr and Kellyanne Conway. I was tempted to add Betsy DeVos to the list, but she deserves a spot all her own. The others can be dismissed as individually reprehensible, but Ms. DeVos is not only responsible for herself and her conduct, but also for the future of the nation’s educational system— something that she seems determined to dismantle and destroy.

Her appointment as a cabinet secretary, responsible for education in the United States, was controversial and had to be decided by a tie breaking vote by vice president Mike Pence. Of particular concern was the fact that DeVos has had absolutely no contact with public school education throughout her life. She is a product from grade school through college of private schools and is a strong advocate for offering vouchers so that kids can be shoveled into private institutions, rather than attending public schools. A charter school is not a public school, is not run like one, does not offer the same benefits as public education, and is not subject to the same oversight of school boards, of public input, and of professional educators as are our public schools, funded by taxpayer dollars.

The DeVos family association with education is a checkered one. Her husband has advocated the teaching of creationism in schools, a subject which I thought had been pretty well dismissed by the 1925 Scopes monkey trial. DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, was the founder of the fundamentalist Family Research Council which is anti-LGBT, and her mother similarly is an outspoken fundamentalist. The FRC has been termed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It may be a stretch to call FRC a hate group, but it does have a somewhat cloudy history: one founding member hired a male prostitute as a traveling companion and subsequently resigned from the board while Josh Duggar executive director of the group’s nonprofit legislative arm (a lobbyist) resigned after it became public that he had molested five underage girls, including some of his sisters.

None of this has anything directly to do with Betsy DeVos, of course, but it’s only human nature to judge people by the company they keep. We might also consider her brother, Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater, USA, a private security company long associated with troublesome allegations over its conduct in Iraq, and more recently his involvement in a clandestine meeting in the Seychelles with a representative of the Russian government, tied to Vladimir Putin.

It is not just public school teachers or people like me, graduates of the public school system, who oppose Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Some 2700 students and alumni of Calvin College from which she graduated and to which her family has given enough money to have two buildings named after them, wrote a letter of protest insisting that Ms. DeVos is unqualified for the cabinet job and should not have it.

She is married to Dick DeVos who once ran for governor of Michigan (he lost). He is the son of the founder of Amway products, and a multimillionaire. One possible reason for him losing his run for governor is that Amway cut 1400 jobs in Michigan and sent them to China.

Education in the United States is in turmoil with teachers in several states walking out to protest both low pay and inadequate working conditions, and students in many high schools are walking out of class to call for stricter gun regulations in the aftermath of far too many school shootings.

Among the most notable teacher walkouts is one in Oklahoma which, at this writing, was in its second week (it ended after nine days). In response to the ardent requests of the striking teachers is a comment by Gary Richardson, a Republican candidate for Oklahoma governor, quoted as saying: “in politics as in life, no one gets everything they want.” Richardson says “Union tactics are less about education and more about pushing a liberal agenda demanding higher taxes and increased government spending”

Read that any way you want, but it appears to me that Oklahoma, which has the second lowest teacher pay in the nation, and where a fifth of the schools in the state are closed one school day a week to save money, has more of a problem with “a conservative agenda” than it does a liberal one—and anyone who cares about public education can only hope that Richardson as in life is one who does not get everything he wants.

Oklahoma, of course, is one of several states where public school teachers are walking out to protest against low pay, poor classroom conditions, and overall lackluster support of public education. West Virginia began the parade of educators quitting the classroom in protest against educational indifference. Since, teachers in both Kentucky and Oklahoma have joined the movement. Arizona is teetering on the edge of a similar walkout. Much of the teacher anger has been fueled by two situations— the appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary and the Parkland school shooting in Florida.

DeVos’s solution to education problem seems to be to get rid of those pesky public schools and replace them with for-profit charter schools, presumably staffed with teachers who adhew to the conservative mindset—which I suspect would include prayer in schools, barring teaching or discussion of evolution, denial of global warming, decrease in emphasis on science, and generally a return to the Dick and Jane mentality of teaching in the 19th century.

DeVos flatly asserts that in her words “public schools are a dead end.” She and her husband would much rather see tax money diverted to private schools. In other words public education would become private education, supported by taxpayers.

Puerto Rico, the US territory, which already has been devastated by a hurricane, has appointed a Philadelphia native as its education secretary (a business consultant) to the consternation and disapproval of the island’s teachers. Julia Keleher is a Betsy DeVos clone who is being paid a quarter of a million dollars a year—roughly 10 times what the average teacher in Puerto Rico makes— and who has closed 179 schools and cut $7 million from an already inadequate budget, and who would like to close another 300 schools and convert them to charter schools. There would be no elected school board, no public meetings to get parent input and no guaranteed school for any student— charter schools would be able to pick and choose the students and disallow any they don’t want.

If there is a living example of what Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration would like to see in public education, Puerto Rico is it. Is this the future of education for our children and their children in the United States of America?

As to Ditsy Betsy’s views on school shootings, refer only to her confirmation hearing where she said that in Wyoming “I would imagine there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.” If there ever has been a more ridiculous and ignorant answer to a confirmation hearing question, I can’t imagine what it would be. She held up black colleges and universities as examples of “pioneers of school choice,” ignoring the fact that those schools began because black students had no choice, being barred from attending white colleges and universities.

And, amid a spate of scandals involving sexual assault on campuses, DeVos said that too many men were falsely accused and set new rules making it more difficult for accusers to prove their accusations. I’ll bet Donald Trump had orgasmic jubilation over that endorsement. DeVos also has said that under her private school system, discrimination by the schools should be left up to the states. You can imagine how that would play, especially in some southern states.

Under the DeVos concept of education schools would become franchise operations, a sort of McDonald’s of education mostly suited to creating a worker bee society to serve the needs of the monied class. Her elitist “let them eat cake” philosophy cuts close to home for me. Our oldest daughter, Carrie, now retired after more than 30 years as a high school English teacher, began her career practice teaching in a Minnesota school on an Indian reservation where there were signs in the hallways warning students not to set fires.

This was precisely the kind of underachieving school that Betsy DeVos never has visited and never will. It didn’t need fewer fires; it needed more funding and more dedicated teachers like Carrie. Later on, she spent a number of years teaching “last chance” kids (called sweat hogs in the old television series) in a Minneapolis suburban high school where she was underfunded and overworked. The school system was symptomatic, not of the failure of public education, but of the failure of the public to adequately support that system— precisely the reason that teachers now are beginning to awaken the public to what really is needed by going on strike. Not charter schools, not vouchers, not private schools for the privileged few, but schools open to all and funded adequately so men and women dedicated to teaching will have the means to do so.

Carrie says: “I walked a picket line for six weeks in Chaska in 1983, striking for adequate pay. The district chose to hire substitutes (scabs) from all over the Midwest for ridiculous pay, put them up in hotels, and bus them to the schools, marching them through our picket lines in a morale-destroying display. We did gain some concessions in the contract, but most didn’t recoup their losses. But the fact remains that teachers should be able to join unions to fight for their professional rights and dignity along with adequate pay, resources, and representation.”

This was not a failure of public education—it was a failure of the public education system to support the system. Now, Carrie’s youngest son, Martin, and his wife both are teaching in a Colorado elementary school. Their pupils are troubled youngsters, sometimes violent, sometimes seemingly impossible to teach–but both of the young teachers have aimed their entire career training toward giving severely handicapped youngsters a chance at a normal life. No DeVos school would accept kids like the ones Martin and Alex offer love, understanding, and education.

With billionaires dictating education policy and cabinet members throwing money around as if it had been printed just for their benefit, it’s worthwhile to note that spending on education is nearly what it was a decade ago and in more than half the states spending per student is less than it was 10 years ago. The entire profligate administration which seems dedicated to running the country into the ground must quickly be relegated to the dusty, dirty ashpit of history, and their selfish ambitions booted into the trash heap of failed policies.

There’s an election coming up in November, folks, and we all have a choice— bring sanity to government and get teachers off the picket line and back into public classrooms where they belong. It’s a solution to only one of the many problems created by the disastrous Trump regime, but it’s a start.

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  • Blog
  • April 6th, 2018

THE FOUR HORSEWOMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE

If you can find a four sided coin, it will have tails on all four faces. If you call heads to win you invariably will lose because all four tails are losers. Think of those four faces as representing possibly the four most odious women in the public eye today. In no particular order (since there is nothing about them that is orderly) they are Roseanne Barr, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Laura Ingraham.

I am reluctant to criticize women because I find women overwhelmingly superior to men in virtually every aspect of life. They are more intelligent, more compassionate, more creative, and more admirable as examples of the human species. As a generality, it is women who teach the young, and women as mothers who guide their children into life. And, generally again, they do a pretty damn good job of it.

It is man, as the self-styled dominant gender, who overwhelmingly creates chaos, death, destruction, and pretty much all the woes that beset the world we’re stuck with. But even among women you run into the occasional one who has the overall charm of a defective septic system. However, that damn snake in the Garden of Eden almost certainly was a male serpent. After 250 years, we still are waiting for the first woman president of the United States. Women still don’t get paid as much as men for doing the same job— only better.

So, while I am reluctant to drop the hammer on any woman, there comes occasionally one who defies the reality and who should have been born a man so she could flourish as an example of incompetence and obnoxiousness

Such a one is Roseanne Barr who has the dubious distinction of having been insufferable not once but twice— the first time with her original television series, the second time with the current reboot. A fawning devotee of Donald J Trump the pretend president of the country, she is the living definition of not just annoying, but downright disgusting.

One time I was riding my bicycle home from work, peacefully peddling along, when a woman in a passing car spit at me. She was holding a baby in her flabby arms. This woman represented the Roseanne Barr school of charm. She epitomized the blowsy spitefulness that is the Barr trademark. Why? I posed no threat either to her or her baby. She just wanted to be nasty for the sake of being nasty. And I was obviously one of those hippie, liberal, commies so despised by the extreme right. I couldn’t see the guy in the car with her but assuming it was her husband and again assuming someone would be stupid enough to marry a woman like that it must have been like living with a bear newly emerging from hibernation plagued by an impacted fecal plug.

If there is any incident that epitomizes the sorry state of the union today it is that Trump took time out from his overwhelmingly busy schedule to tweet praise for Barr’s high ratings on her debut reboot. Yes, Middle East in crisis, China, North Korea, and virtually the entire world seething with Trump created turmoil, our so-called president found it imperative to praise Roseanne Barr for her rating success. It’s good to know Trump has a handle on what really counts in today’s society. Or what counts for him. In Trump world you get high ratings by being outrageous, by saying stupid, hateful things, by being the fomenting leader of a lynch mob. That’s not leadership; it is demagoguery and it was despicable when Hitler did it and it is despicable today, whether it is Donald Trump or Roseanne Barr who does it.

Consider Barr, a the so-called exemplar of working class normality. If she represents the typical hard working blue collar mother, we are doomed. This is a woman that couldn’t even sing the Star-Spangled Banner without screwing it up deliberately grabbing her crotch and spitting. She called Muslims Nazis and once, dressed as Hitler and simulated oven-baking cookies shaped like little people. That’s our laugh a minute Rosie.

Enough of Roseanne Barr. Like Ex-Lax a little goes a long way. Let us turn to Laura Ingraham, star of radio and Fox News. She turned her often noxious media guns on David Hogg, a high school senior and a survivor of the Parkland high school shooting in Florida which left 17 of his classmates dead.

Hogg, incredibly articulate for any age, has been a spokesman for the young people of America in a crusade to get sensible gun laws. Ingraham felt it imperative to mock Hogg because he had been turned down by four colleges (a fact which he admitted without regret) and accuse him of whining about it. Hogg, in response, suggested that people boycott Ingraham’s sponsors and he helpfully listed them. As a result at least 18 of her money sources immediately dried up and one would hope the rest would follow. The ball being back in her court, Abraham announced that she would be going on vacation which somehow seems like a surprised rat scurrying for cover.

Bill O’Reilly who competes with Rush Limbaugh in a lumbering race toward first place for Slimeball of the Year, took a similar quick vacation after it came to light that he had settled harassment allegations from five women for at least $13 million. He was fired and one can only hope that Ingraham follows him quickly out the door into obscurity, although so far Fox News is sticking by their bimbo in residence.

Ingraham arguably is the most intelligent and articulate of the quartet of unlikable ladies and often gets grudging respect, even from the liberal side of the media. Once, having no idea who Laura Ingraham was, I stumbled into her radio show and listened with mounting outrage as she trashed listener after listener for whining about the troubles they had called about for her advice. Mostly, she seemed to mock them for whining, and berated them for not getting over their, what to her, were petty troubles. She got no grudging respect from this liberal— I quickly switched to another station.

When Lebron James, the world’s best basketball player, expressed a political opinion, she told him to “shut up and dribble”. Nothing racist about it of course but then how could a black basketball player possibly know anything about politics or have the right to express an opinion.

Then there is Kellyanne Conway, the wicked witch of the west wing, who isn’t as visible anymore as she once was but who still can be seen lurking in the bushes around the White House from time to time, waiting for her chance to step in and spout something really despicable. Now that Hope Hicks has fled the sinking ship of state, Kellyanne inhabits the role of resident bimbo.

In early March, Conway was accused of two Hatch act violations— the law which prohibits federal employees from endorsing specific political candidates. The candidate whom Conway was endorsing was Roy Moore, the Alabama pedophile.

Conway forever will be remembered as the person who defined lies as “alternative facts”. To which Chuck Todd replied “alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.” During Donald Trump’s campaign, Conway claimed that “Trump “doesn’t hurl personal insults.” A statement that, by itself, should be enough to discredit her forever more. Both Conway and Trump created massacres that didn’t happen— Trump referring to one in Denmark that mystified, most of all, the Danes, and Conway freaked out over a massacre in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that also didn’t occur. It hurt Kellyanne that, according to her, the story didn’t get covered by that awful media. What the heck, Fox News, covers stories all the time that have no basis in fact, apparently preferring to cover stories in the fairytale world of alternative facts.

And if nothing else, Conway has furnished Saturday Night Live with a bounty of comedy material. Kate McKinnon must have squealed like a kid discovering an Easter egg when the wicked witch hove into view. When McKinnon became Pennywise the frightening clown from Stephen King’s novel “It” somehow it didn’t seem to be that much of a stretch. After all, given the frightening quality of the toxic flow of misinformation flowing from the White House every day, a Stephen King novel seems like a fuzzy children’s tale featuring cuddly bunnies.

If Funk ‘n Wagnalls ever revises their standard dictionary, under the word hypocrisy will be the definition: “Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a living ventriloquist dummy created for the purpose of echoing any ludicrous statement made by the disgraced 45th president of the United States, whatever his name was.”

Sanders daily boggles the collective mind of the White House press corps when she stands at the spokesperson’s rostrum and dribbles preposterous, purporting to be real (as opposed to fake) news. It boggles the mind, not to mention overloading the believability synapses of any analytical mind, how this aggressively religious person can so transcend the limits of Christian morality, so aggressively defend the most unChristian president in the history of the country, and apparently sleep at night and then get up and do the same thing all over again.

Any normal person, faced with the same job situation, should be sleeping on a pillow soggy with tears of shame. Sometimes I think I see fleeting expressions of inner turmoil on Sander’s face, although that’s probably wishful thinking. Anyone with a morsel of morality would not have taken the job in the first place. She is merely the latest in a procession of circus clowns exiting a jampacked Volkswagen Beetle. And they said the circus was dead.

She became the White House Press Secretary when Sean Spicer faded into the bushes. She has been politically involved almost since birth, with her father Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas. In a situation rife with irony, both Huckabees hail from Hope, Arkansas, which also happens to be the home town of Bill Clinton, also a former governor of Arkansas (and also a former president of the United States whose wife ran against Sarah Sander’s current boss). You don’t have to be a student of history to have become aware of the many tensions between the Clinton and Huckabee families. If ever there was a political Hatfields and McCoys feud, it would be between these two families— the only difference possibly is that no bullets have yet been exchanged.

If Sanders has a favorite phrase uttered from the podium it is, “We’ll have to get back to you on that.” But anyone holding his or her breath, is likely to die of asphyxia before that happens. Presumably, she shares the views of her father who, when he was unsuccessfully running for president equated environmentalists with pornographers and homosexuality with pedophilia and necrophilia. He also has said that anyone without Christian faith poses a direct and immediate threat to the nation. Pretty grim view of anyone who is not like him.

To paraphrase Shakespeare and a number of references in the Bible, the sins of the father tend to follow the children. The Bard and the Bible refer to sons, not daughters, so maybe Sanders gets a pass. Mike Huckabee took campaign contributions from R.J. Reynolds tobacco company, and was accused of pressuring a parole panel to release confessed and convicted rapist Wayne Dumond, who, after release, moved to my home state of Missouri and raped and killed at least one woman and possibly two and later died in prison.

I admit it’s not fair to blame the child for the sins of the father (although there is a long list of ethical and other questionable actions Huckabee took while he was governor and as a candidate for various offices), still you have to question the character of a person who associates herself— either by birth or by choice— with men who don’t exactly stand out as role models.

The bottom line for me is how in the hell can Sarah Huckabee Sanders stand in front of the world and echo the outrageous lies that spew daily from the mouth of Donald J Trump? One can only hope that someday that echo will come back to haunt her. If it were a soap opera she and daddy and Bill Clinton would go somewhere Hopeful and live unhappily forevermore.

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  • Blog
  • April 2nd, 2018

STICK IT TO ‘EM

By Joel M. Vance

I have to confess that the first time I picked up a pair chopsticks, it was every bit as daunting as if I were picking up a stick of dynamite with a sputtering fuse. The two wooden sticks were fused together so tightly that with my spindly arms straining, grunting like a rooting hog, I feared that this initial excursion into exotic culinary territory was doomed. The sticks snapped apart with a percussive crack that caused several diners to consider diving under their tables, sure that an mob hit was in progress.

The only assault was on my sushi rolls and for a while I looked like someone trying to pick up marbles with a pair of wet noodles. Since, I have become reasonably adept at the use of chopsticks, although if I still were in the dating game I wouldn’t dare take a date to an Asian restaurant, much less try to impress her with my savoir-faire. I have enough trouble with knife and fork without tempting fate by using a pair of flimsy sticks to fling food into my mouth. Chopsticks can be downright scary.

While it’s perfectly acceptable in an Asian restaurant to pick up your miso soup and slurp from it, if you tried the same thing at a White House dinner you’d probably languish in Fort Knox under armed guard for the rest of your natural life. In an Asian restaurant, the waitstaff would merely hide smirks and continue to serve you with scrupulous politeness— they are used to show off Yankees making fools of themselves. Oddly, our local Chinese restaurant does not even offer chopsticks as an option—perhaps they saw me coming.

Asian eating culture is often vastly different than that of us white bread Americans. It’s all very well for Andrew Zimmern to pluck parboiled sheep’s eyeballs from a bowl of some exotic dish with a pair of chopsticks because after all he’s Andrew Zimmern and expected to do things like that. But for the rest of us wielding a pair of chopsticks is every bit as exotic as watching cricket and understanding what’s going on.

I once read a hilarious essay in the Chicago Tribune about how to use chopsticks and used it for years as a perfect example of the best how-to article when I was teaching writing classes. The author, Charles Leroux, invented a klutz named Marvin who was hopeless with chopsticks but ultimately became an expert using a pair of ivory chopsticks like a pool shark equipped with a custom cue stick.

Marvin could’ve been me at the time a fork wielding Midwestern white guy with no more idea of how to use chopsticks than I had of how to twirl spaghetti onto a fork in the Italian style. I couldn’t even eat food off the back of the fork as the English do. The idea of plucking tiny morsels of food with a pair of oversized toothpicks seemed as impossible as using a forklift to pick up pebbles.

Leonardo da Vinci does not show us what eating implements the disciples and Jesus were using at the Last Supper. But it’s interesting if not blasphemous to speculate that some if not all were using chopsticks, for after all, chopsticks were invented long before the birth of Christ. The odds are against it for several reasons. First of all chopsticks historically were Asian in both origin and use. Secondly most Asians have no problem scooping noodles into their mouths with ease. Try picking up one grain of rice with chopsticks and you will spend all day scooting it around on the plate, but the Chinese have solved that problem by creating sticky rice which clumps in convenient bite -sized chunks, easy to capture with a pair of chopsticks. The Bible doesn’t say but probably Jesus didn’t have sticky rice.

Rice is the almost inevitable companion of all Asian dishes and there is a reason for that. Aside from being nutritionally beneficial, rice is there for a reason. It is said and probably true that to stave off the legendary “hungry an hour after” effect of eating Asian food you should pack in the rice. By itself, sticky rice is pretty bland fare, but spiced with invariably spicy Asian entrées it makes for an eminently satisfying meal.

I’m willing to bet that the reason behind Asian cuisine being legendarily spicy is that the incendiary aspect of most Asian dishes is to offset the blandness of the rice. I eat at a local Thai restaurant which offers a heat scale of one to five. I’ve never dared to go beyond two and I have a feeling that five would have me emulating Puff the Magic Dragon. I once was a queasy witness in college to what passes for high-class humor in a dormitory. A friend lit the gaseous nether region effusion of another fun lover and a bright blue flame appeared. Try the same thing in the wake, so to speak, of a number five Thai dish and the result likely would be a mini version of Mount Saint Helens.

Chopstick etiquette varies from country to country but it is widely accepted that one does not spear morsels of food with a single chopstick like a torero sticking a fighting bull with a banderillo. Likewise you don’t lay down your chopsticks so they point at a dinner companion while you slurp down a mouth full of Sapporo Beer— that’s like laying a loaded revolver beside your plate pointed at your companion. Instead you lay your chopsticks in a rest, an accessory item. If you don’t have a rest you can fold up the paper envelope in which the chopsticks came and make one. And the sticks should point out and never be planted in the mound of rice like someone sticking a spade in the ground.

I don’t pretend to be an expert at eating with chopsticks. There always is a moment of fumbling with the two wooden sticks before I get them situated in my hand, ready for combat. And every now and then I have to adjust my grip, like a baseball player choking up to bunt.

I am overly fond of a local Japanese restaurant that features sushi rolls to which I am as addicted as a meth head is with his fix. Sushi rolls are ideally constructed to facilitate being picked up by chopsticks. Even a beginner usually can grasp a sushi roll with the sticks and convey it to his or her mouth. Dipping it in a sauce is a bit more daunting, but not impossible— and I usually do dip, either into a sort of thousand Island concoction, or soy sauce spiced with wasabi.

You have to be careful using wasabi, an atomic substance which assaults your sinuses as if you had stuffed a hand grenade up your nostrils. Wasabi is related to horseradish and mustard, but to those condiments it is like a lady cracker compared to a stick of dynamite. It supposedly hammers the bacteria that causes food poisoning and I can visualize some poor microbe screaming in agony as it succumbs to a wasabi attack.

Most people—me included— confuse sushi and sashimi. According to Japanese custom sashimi, raw fish sliced thinly, is eaten with the hands, while sushi, fish rolled with rice, is eaten with chopsticks. And a sushi chef will dab the roll with wasabi in preparation. In case you’re wondering what the orange sweet vegetable next to the wasabi is, it’s pickled ginger, used to cleanse the palate between bites of sushi. There is a daunting list of ritual connected with how to eat sashimi and sushi, including how to show your appreciation to the sushi chef if you are eating in front of him. For example, never rub the sticks together— it is considered terribly impolite and you’re not trying to start a campfire.

The essential question of course, in case you don’t want to look as if you’re practicing for a knife fight, is how to hold chopsticks. Pick one up as if you were picking up a pencil between your thumb and index finger. The other stick should fall naturally beneath the first one manipulated by your ring and middle fingers (the middle is the one that you use to salute Donald Trump when his image appears on your television set). The little finger is a spare in case you have some sort of industrial accident and lose your ring finger. You can reach down with the two sticks and squeeze a morsel of food between them with a sort of pinching motion.

It’s considered bad form to dip into a communal bowl of food with your sticks. Instead, there should be serving chopsticks available to transfer food from the main bowl to your plate or bowl. Soup? The Chinese long ago caved in to necessity and use spoons for marvelous miso soup (I could drink that stuff all day long). There is no social disgrace in picking up the bowl and drinking from it. When it comes to noodles, or other slippery food, it is accepted to bring the bowl close your face and use the chopsticks as a sort of shovel to scoop with.

Chopsticks even have made their way into popular culture with a song, if you can call it that, by a rap group and with lyrics that are obscene and repulsive. At the other end of the spectrum, chopsticks are the subject of a Sesame Street session, illustrating in music how tiny tots can solve the mystery of those funny wooden sticks. “Two little sticks and they’re made out of wood/and they help you to pick up your lunch/and if you practice then you’ll get good/and you’ll find that you can pick up a bunch to munch”

Every budding concert pianist, of course, starts his or her musical career by learning to play “Chopsticks”. The original name of the piece was “the Celebrated Chop Waltz”. It dates to 1877 and was written by Euphemia Allen. The piece has been used many times in movies, including one of my favorite films “The Seven Year Itch” where Tom Ewell played a duet with Marilyn Monroe and tried fruitlessly to kiss her. His romantic haplessness was the parallel personification of someone in the initial throes of learning to eat with chopsticks. That movie spawned the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt being blown up around her hips, a cinematic moment certainly more memorable than Tom Ewell’s fumbling attempt to play chopsticks on the piano.

Meanwhile, chopsticks will continue to flourish in countries where they have flourished for centuries, and will appear sporadically in the Western world— but don’t expect when you pull into your local McDonald’s and order a burger and fries to have the pimply faced, minimum wage waiter ask “Y’all want chopsticks with that?”

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  • Blog
  • March 26th, 2018

A GREAT FUTURE?

By Joel M. Vance

“I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics. There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?” That’s ranked number 42 among the 100 most famous movie quotes of all time. From the 1967 movie, The Graduate. More prophetic words never were spoken, although not in the context meant by the speaker, who was giving career advice to young and confused Benjamin.

Fast forward to 2018 and the news that in the Los Angeles area alone, ten metric tons of plastic fragments—like grocery bags, straws soda bottles— are carried into the Pacific ocean every day. I recently saw a video of a person underwater in the ocean swimming through what looked like a blizzard. The water was virtually opaque with bits of white material. Snow? No, it was particles of plastic clogging the ocean with a frightening curtain of a substance which will still be there decades if not hundreds of years in the future. Plastic does not deteriorate. It just endures, an everlasting example of man’s inhumanity to his environment. Mother birds collect the droppings, eliminated by their babies and carry them from the nest for disposal elsewhere. Man, unlike so-called lesser creatures, routinely shits in his own nest. Where is man’s mother bird when we need her so desperately?

I am the scourge of grocery clerks from Hawaii to Maine. When they see me coming they hide under the checkout counter because they know if they even reach a hand toward a plastic bag I am going to jump down their throats, snarling and growling and roaring, “I don’t want your rotten plastic bags! Don’t even think about putting my groceries in one!”

And I slam a recyclable grocery bag on the counter, two or three if necessary, and fix the innocent clerk with a misguided glare. It’s not the clerk’s fault— it is the fault of the management that trains clerks to stuff all groceries in plastic bags regardless of the lack of need to do so. Somewhere in the manual of grocery store management is a clause which reads, “It is a firing offense to fail to diligently put all groceries in plastic bags, and contribute to the defiling of the environment.” That clause must be in the manual, because they all do it and they do it because they are stupid, careless, ignorant, and uncaring about the world we have to live in.

Or, more likely, the world our descendants will have to live in, contaminated by plastic debris so thick that it will be difficult to find what little soil is left to raise the food that today we are so dedicated to stuffing in plastic bags. If you want to be bumfuzzled by statistics: about 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide every year more than one million plastic bags are used every minute of that year.

I hate statistics because they depersonalize the human element in a crisis. But the figures are undeniable—we are drowning in a sea of plastics. More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans every year and more than 100 billion plastic beverage bottles are sold in the US every year. The estimate is that about 50 per cent of all plastic used in various ways is just used once and then is thrown away.

Once, I was canoeing down an Ozark stream when I saw a great blue heron in distress. It had gotten tangled in the plastic holder of a sixpack, legacy of some previous and obviously uncaring boater. I managed to free the bird, wary of its stiletto beak and we went our separate ways— perhaps the bird to become further tangled in a snarl of monofilament fishing line discarded by yet another careless river user, or maybe in another sixpack snare.

In 1952, the year I remember buying a cup of coffee for the first time— I decided to pull an all nighter study session at the University of Missouri, thinking that was what college students had to do to pass tests. I was a freshman from a literal backwater town (it once bordered the Missouri River, but the capricious River went away).

The coffee cost me a nickel. And there probably were free refills, although this being University coffee it probably was so bad I didn’t want any. After a cup or two, I decided I knew the subject of the test well enough that I didn’t have to stay up all night drinking coffee to get ready for it and I never again pulled an all night marathon. I passed the test. I could have bought two glasses (in a glass) of beer at The Shack for the price of the two cups of coffee, although I might not have passed the test the next day.

Now, Starbucks, the business most associated with a cup of coffee, will stick you more than two dollars and up to almost five dollars for various coffee concoctions. And they will throw in a nonrecyclable plastic-lined cup which you can pitch (and most drinkers probably will) when you are finished, and thus contribute your own little bit to the deterioration of the environment. In 2008, Starbucks promised to cut its plastic waste by switching to recyclable cups, but in spite of that promise they continue to litter the landscape with about 4 billion of those cups annually.

To be fair,in a classic case of better late than never, Starbucks has announced a $10 million challenge, offering grants to anyone who can come up with a disposable cup. Starbucks does add a surcharge in England to penalize those who use throwaway cups.

Other companies are joining the effort to limit trash, including McDonald’s which hopes to reach 100% recyclable packaging within 10 years. Dunkin’ Donuts is getting rid of all its polystyrene cups by 2020, Evian Water promises to make all its plastic bottles from 100% recycled plastic within 10 years and both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have similar plans. All these are optimistic and encouraging signs, but the uncomfortable truth is that 1000 years from now what’s already in the environment will still be there.

Roadside trash not only is endemic, but it also is mostly plastic—what is not aluminum beer cans pitched there by the local redneckery. Some years back, Texas instituted the nation’s first Adopt a Highway program where volunteers would clean up sections of the roadway. Good for Texas. But I also once was in a car driving around San Antonio and the roadways were absolutely the most littered of any I have ever seen anywhere. Missouri, my home, was the second state to institute an Adopt a Highway cleanup program, but it has languished for lack of promotion and now we can stack our strewn highways up against Texas or anybody else. Not exactly an inducement to enjoy a Sunday drive. New Hampshire has the cleanest highways I have ever driven on and the state could serve as an example to the other 49 sloppy ones.

Theoretically, most plastic could be recycled if people would take the trouble to gather it and do it. It can be melted down and be used to make useful items, such as chairs and tables. However, the problems of such recycling are many— expensive and complicated. The bottom line is that wholesale recycling is likely never to happen.

Plastic dates to 1907 when, through the miracle of chemistry, a combination of polymers and other elements that I don’t know and don’t care to, became what today is plastic in an almost infinite variety. But the history of plastic as we know it now has happened in my lifetime. Once, grocery bags were paper, bottles were made of glass and handguns were metal. Given time virtually all trash was biodegradable or reusable. Now even your baby’s sippy cup is plastic as is his bottle and even his clothing, which contains plastic and, can generate tiny plastic microparticles that break off in the washing machine, go down the drain, and ultimately find their way into the nation’s waterways and into the oceans. And expensive 3-D printers actually can manufacture a plastic handgun, undetectable by security scanners. I suspect well-funded terrorists organizations already are excited by that advance in the world of plastic.

Oceans constitute most of the mass of the world and without them we’re goners. There now is what scientists call “a garbage patch” in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii that is three times the size of France and is composed mostly of plastic debris. It is 79,000 tons of plastic crap composed of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. And that doesn’t count what has sunk to the ocean floor. Much of the debris is cast-off from fishing, like nets, and you can imagine the potential effect that could have on marine life. We are strangling our oceans. Simply enough, the death of the oceans, would mean the death of us all.

In simpler terms, if the proliferation of plastic doesn’t scare the crap out of you it should. So-called bio plastics offer some hope against our reliance on and use of non-biodegradable plastic, but they rely at least partly on oil. And oil is not exactly an environmentally friendly substance either. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

If it will make you feel better, insist on reusable fabric grocery bags, recycle waste material in the hope that it won’t wind up in a landfill, freeze water in used milk jugs for your cooler, fill your empty water bottles with tap water (which probably is just as pure as the expensive and highly touted “spring” water which originally came in the empty bottle) and don’t do what we always seem to do— leave the problem for a future generation to solve. In other words leaving it for your grandchildren who will either sink or swim, leaving you hoping that they won’t be sinking or swimming in a sea of plastic particles.

Badger your local government into banning plastic bags or instituting a surcharge on their use. And if you don’t have a local recycling center, start one, as did my late dear friends, Chuck and Sharon Tryon in their hometown, Rolla, Missouri, years before recycling became a common word in the language.

In the meantime I will continue to terrorize poor innocent grocery clerks for trying to give me plastic bags in which to carry my groceries immediately after I plunk a reusable bag in front of them and before I can say “no plastic!” Let’s all try to stick up for truth, justice, and not the American way (the American way all too often is to throw everything out the window and look steadfastly aside as we pass the local recycling center).

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