And all watched over . . .

I like to think (and / the sooner the better!) / of a cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers / live together in mutually / programming harmony / like pure water / touching clear sky.

I’m afraid I can’t reproduce the layout of the stanza—the damn slash marks are the best I can do—but that’s a bit of Richard Brautigan. I first encountered his work in high school and it was this very poem that I read. In college I picked up a copy (which I still have) of his “novel” Trout Fishing in America. That book is prose, but reads like poetry. I’m not sure Brautigan was capable of ordinary prose, a linear narrative, or even plotting. But it’s great read: sad and lonely, but funny and warm, and filled with memorable images and metaphors, and other nutty stuff that’s hard to explain.

I like to think / (right now, please!) / of a cybernetic forest / filled with pines and electronics / where deer stroll peacefully / past computers / as if they were flowers / with spinning blossoms.

Many of the locales in Trout Fishing are here in Siskiyou County. He mentions the Klamath River several times, as well as Steelhead Lodge, Grider Creek, Tom Martin Creek, and the Marble Mountains. Brautigan was a product of the Pacific Northwest and found his literary voice in the San Francisco counter-culture scene. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Bolinas in 1984 when he was only 49. Trout Fishing brought him fame and some money, but after the 1960s he was mostly a forgotten figure.

I like to think / (it has to be!) / of a cybernetic ecology / where we are free of our labors / and joined back to nature / returned to our mammal / brothers and sisters, / and all watched over / by machines of loving grace.

I like to think of a cybernetic ecology, too. I think he’s on to something here. Could be ironic, or perhaps it’s a warning, but I like to take it literally. Brautigan’s work has an innocence to it, like he was seeing the world from the naive perspective of a child, or maybe he just didn’t like to think too hard about things. There’s a simple, seemingly effortless flow to the words. That’s high art in my mind, making it seem like the writing just happened and wasn’t labored over.

But that’s where we are headed, are we not? Does the wilderness exist? Sure, we draw the lines on the map and officially designate it as “wilderness” but that doesn’t make it so. It may be remote, or harsh country, and it may take “wilderness skills” to survive in it, but the planes are flying overhead and the GPS satellites are beaming their locations and the cars and parking lots are just over the mountain. We’ve parceled out the wilderness and designated where it begins and ends, taming it for our modern sensibilities. What we’ve learned however is that these wild lands still have to be managed. They don’t simply exist on their own. They are now part of our entire ecology, like highways and shopping malls and apartment complexes. Everything else in the human sphere requires upkeep and maintenance, is it so hard to imagine that wild lands will require the same?

And what of us? Will we be better off surrendering the quotidian and mundane to our marvelous new artificial intelligences? Will that, perhaps, return us to Eden? Seems like a long shot. People have a knack for pettiness, venality, and cruelty. Will our technologies be just like us, mean and selfish? Seems like that’s the real risk, that our machines will be all too human! Either way, I dig the notion of a cybernetic ecology, and I think we are living it right now with our smartphones and self-driving cars and automated factories. In fact, we are so immersed in our technological sea that we don’t know if we are swimming or drowning. I’m keeping my snorkel just in case.

 

. . . by machines of loving grace.

I eat farmed fish

Yeah, I know. I’m supposed to eat the wild kind. And I do. But sometimes I’ll order a fish dish when I’m out that I know ain’t no Alaskan King. Long live The King, I say, all hail the hook-nose. The Chinook is a lovely beast and makes great eating, just ask the bears. And Alaska has the last of the truly great wild fisheries remaining in the West, we are lucky to be reasonably close to the source, not to mention having some reasonably healthy remnant salmon runs of our own. But they ARE remnants. Alas, human population growth and large-scale industrialization has turned many once-thriving natural systems into islands clinging for life among rising seas. I meant that figuratively, but it works as well in a literal sense. If the rising temperatures continue as predicted even pristine places like wild Alaska and their magnificent salmon runs will be endangered.

But they keep telling us to eat salmon. It’s good for us! It’s better than red meat! It’s better than other meat! It’s got omega-something fatty acids, the new go-to ingredient! And we keep hearing about the perils of farmed fish, especially farmed salmon (which is mostly Atlantic salmon, genus Salmo; the Pacific varieties are genus Oncorhynchus), which can be a messy business. Runoffs of feed and waste, pest control issues, and habitat loss are obvious problems much like those associated with terrestrial farming.

But aquaculture isn’t going away. And it’s not just because I like a Cajun catfish filet (a lot of commercial catfish are from farms), which I surely do. It’s because it is big business. The demand for high-quality protein is going up. People expect to be fed and they want to have good, healthy fish. It’s going to take fish farming—hey, why isn’t it fish ranching?—to meet those demands. And I have this terrible sinking feeling that Wild Alaskan Salmon will succumb to the demand and become, eventually, so expensive that only the wealthy will be able to buy it. It will become a boutique food, like caviar. The rest of the schmucks on the planet will get soy paste, chickpeas, and farmed fish. Not that there’s anything wrong with chickpeas and soy paste!

I don’t like to be cynical, dystopian, or pessimistic. But I can’t see the demand for salmon decreasing. Try as a I might, I can’t. And that means the resource will be stressed. So, I expect it will be harder to get. Harder in the sense that it will become prohibitive in cost or that the stocks will actually go down and there will actually be less available. Or both. Seems like a law of nature, not anything people can do, other than quit wanting the stuff. And I don’t see that, like I said. Perhaps we’ll develop taste for jellyfish. Maybe we can grow ’em in tanks and bio-engineer them to be more palatable and nutritious. What do you think? I would have thought that was a nutty notion not too long ago. But we have GMO salmon coming on-line soon and like so many other things science fiction is now science fact.

But I’ll eat a farmed fish. Hell, I was raised a Catholic. We have to eat fish. It’s like an executive order or something. “Mackerel-snappers” was a derisive term in 19th-century America for the Papist immigrant hordes. Maybe I’ve just eaten so much damn fish that I can’t live without it, like an addiction. And when you are a junkie you’ll take a chance on some dodgy shit. I’ll eat a GMO salmon. I will. I don’t think they are that dodgy, really. DNA is organic, man. Totally natural. I’m cool with that. I have to say I like what they are trying to do. I know GMO food scares a lot of people, but not me. It’s not a panacea, no technology ever is, and a lot of technology is way oversold. But that does not mean it can’t be useful. Seems to me that big problems need lots of possible solutions. If I have to eat franken-fish out of a tank, so be it. Plank-grilled, please, with saffron risotto, endive salad, and a nice rosé.

 

 

Are firelogs organic?

This weekend we burned, for the first time, “firelogs” in the wood stove instead of “real” logs. They worked great. Burned hot and clean. These particular firelogs are from Cottonwood, CA and are made from cedar and redwood. I can’t find much information about Sis-Q-Logs but they are most likely pressed together from mill waste. Now I have a hard time with the notion of waste, and any outfit that sees a resource instead of a throwaway has already got me on their side. A lot of these wood products are actually superior to “natural” logs in terms of emissions and sometimes even heat output. Some have waxes added to bind the sawdust and chips together and to make them easier to light, but the ones we used appeared to have no such extra material and left little or no ash.

It got me thinking about our whole notion of “natural”, “synthetic”, and “organic” when describing everything from fabrics to foodstuffs. Rayon is made from cellulose, so it is a “natural” fiber in origin, but a “synthetic” one due to the chemical treatment required to make a finished product. Nylon is “synthetic” because it comes from petroleum. That seems a little weird, doesn’t it? Petroleum products are something you study in a course called Organic Chemistry*. Why do chemists call it “organic” chemistry? Because it was originally about chemicals that occurred in living or once-living things. As opposed to chemicals that occur in, for example, rocks. Ocean salts are “inorganic” but oil deposits are “organic” because they were once—mostly—vast swarms of phytoplankton. (Coal is mostly terrestrial, oil mostly marine.) The key is carbon. Another way to say organic chemistry is carbon chemistry and to avoid confusion that terminology is gaining more acceptance. If your chemical has a carbon backbone, it is organic as far as a chemist is concerned. That means petroleum products are organic. Yes, that includes plastics, pesticides, and polyesters.

But these days we have organic farming. This kind of farming is no more carbon-based than any other kind of farming but the unfortunate naming confusion exists. To the ordinary person, organic means closer to Nature and less dependent on synthetic chemicals. That’s all fine. I’m big believer in sustainability and will support any scheme that seeks to improve our methods of production. Certainly industrial agriculture is too dependent on non-renewable fuels (even though those “fossil” fuels are “organic”!) and relies too much on short-term soil treatment. And pest control has to be more integrative, we can’t just keep poisoning these things and inventing more poisons when the old ones fail. Organic farming employs ecological principles, or at least attempts to, and that’s good. We could use more ecological principles in all our industries.

But I hate the fuzziness of the words. Why is a synthetic chemical bad? A natural, plant-based or animal-based poison can kill you just as readily as a factory-made one. A human being is part of Nature, so aren’t the products of human ingenuity equally natural? And I don’t, for the life of me, grasp this fear of chemicals. I hear it all the time: “we don’t want chemicals in our food!” What? EVERYTHING IS MADE FROM CHEMICALS. Water is a chemical. Air is composed of chemicals. Foods are heaping piles of chemicals. Hell, DNA is a chemical! No DNA, no life. If you want to wear wool because it is an animal product instead of polypropylene because it is a petroleum product, fine. (I love wool long johns, by the way.)  But they are ALL chemicals. And they are ALL organic. And they are ALL natural. Wool is renewable—that’s good. Focus on that.

Is burning wood better than burning natural gas? Probably not. Natural gas burns cleaner and puts our more heat per unit. But wood stoves are very popular in the high country because we have access to wood. They would not be practical in cities due to the smoke problem, and in fact many rural areas have wood-burning restrictions for that reason. When we get inversions here in our little valley, which can be frequent in the winter, we can get a smog that rivals Beijing. But it’s OK, right? Wood smoke is natural and can’t hurt me, because, you know, Nature. Tobacco smoke is natural, too. God created tobacco plants, not Man. So smoke eagerly, my friends, and hold it in to get the full effect!

I’m sold on my new synthetic logs made from natural materials. I suppose they qualify as organic, too, as I’m assuming the original logs came from forests. Forests are pretty damn natural, right? I also burn fuel oil in a heater. We have a big house and the front half does not get sufficiently heated by the wood stove. Not to mention the fuel oil heater comes on automatically and requires almost no attention. That fuel oil is organic, I hate to say. Not as groovy as wood fuel but certainly as earthy. Those hydrocarbons come from Nature. I’ll spare you my rant on inorganic-but-still-natural things, that’s for another time. But the silicon and germanium and arsenic and gallium and whatnot in the chips my computer runs on are also products of Nature. And let’s not forget the miles of copper that link us all together!

 

 

*In 1828 an extraordinary chemist by the name of Freidrich Wöhler accidentally synthesized urea (a component of animal urine) from inorganic (not extracted from living things) materials. Soon other scientists realized that chemicals once thought to be exclusive to living organisms could in fact be created in a lab.

 

 

 

2017: WET

They are measuring the rain and snowfall across the West in feet, not inches. Here in our little nook on the eastern terminus of the Klamaths we have switched from snow to rain and the foot-and-a-half of fluff in my backyard is now half a foot of glop. Puddles abound in the open spots and sheets of rainwater are racing each other down the street. We’ve not reached the forecasted highs either of the last two days and the snow is melting grudgingly. That’s probably a good thing—there’s enough chance of flooding already and sun and warmth will only add to the mess.

And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered. (Genesis 7:19)

I normally love the winter. It’s hot and dry most of the time here and I welcome the cold, rain, and snow. But this storm is an atmospheric river, the so-called Pineapple Express, and it is wreaking havoc all across the land. Both local ski areas have had to close their doors more than once due to extreme conditions. Skiers like me want there to be piles and piles of fresh snow with more on the way, but sometimes the storms are too much and the hazards too great even for the powderhounds. But that’s a small thing, important to me, but it pales in the face of flooded homes, power outages, and highway accidents. Some folks have taken a real beating from Mother Nature this time around and it’s going to be a few more days yet. Thursday we are supposed to get sunshine here but temperatures will remain just a hair above freezing.

So, here I sit in the midst of The Deluge trying to keep my spirits up. I desperately need to go for a nice long walk. It’s one of the things I love no matter the season but particularly on a crisp winter morning. The streets are a mess however, and walkers have to share the semi-plowed roadway with the vehicles as most of the sidewalks are still slush heaps. The cars are going too fast and spraying icy crud all about. Hard to get into a good rhythm when it is slick and variable underfoot and the drivers are too stressed to pay attention to pedestrians. Not to mention that I torqued my knee on my last ski trip and I’m hobbled. I can move around like an 80-year old (and I mean no offense to my elders by that) but that won’t get my blood flowing. I spend half the day with my bum leg elevated anyway, so it’s not like I’m getting in any other exercise. Unless you count going outside to get more firewood from the rack—that’s about all I can get done right now.

This New Year is trying my patience. I’m not the gloomy type, really. I can be a bit of cynic, but I’m generally upbeat, or try to be, but this last week has been hard. I keep finding myself staring out the window, awed by the storm, longing for a break. Like I said I normally dig winter storms, but this one is a doozy. I’m upset about hurting myself, even if it seems to be merely a minor setback, not very serious, but irritating and discouraging nonetheless. I hope I can walk downtown this Friday for a pint or two, a meal, and the new show at Liberty Arts. We’ll see. The aches will have to subside a bit and the sidewalks will have to be cleared. (I feel bad about failing to shovel in front of my property, I normally do and take pride in it, but my knee won’t take it.) But that’s the plan. Only thinking a day or two ahead at this point, with the weather the way it is that’s about all I can do.

Stay warm and dry, my friends.