Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Legend of Lonely Lee

The trans-Pecos, Judge Roy Bean part of Texas is actually part of New Mexico, but don’t tell the boys in Austin that — they’ll tell you that they own clear to the state line.

It makes a difference who owns what, because in Texas even the dirt roads are paved. And in Texas, it’s almost all private land, filed and deeded down at the county courthouse. The trouble is, nobody could ever find a deed for Lonely Lee. There might be a reason for this, as we shall see:

Down near Valentine, Texas on the eastern fringe of the Chihuahuan Desert there’s a mountain sitting all alone known as Lonely Lee.

Lee, the lady they named the mountain after, lived in Valentine. Her style was unexpected. She had been there already.

Lee’s lover died in an April Apache raid, and she just faded away after that.

By May her shadow was becoming transparent, though nobody noticed. (The people in Valentine either raised cattle, fixed machinery, or serviced the men who raised cattle or fixed machinery, and they never noticed things like the transparency of shadows.)

Lee always called it Lonely Mountain. She liked it a lot. Almost every afternoon in May she’d climb to the top where she’d spend hours slowly scanning the horizon-line. “Lee’s gone to her mountain again,” they’d say.

From her vantage point Lee watched vultures and dust devils and listened to the claws of rock lizards on lava. The mesquite was greening up all around her, but she didn’t much care. Her favorite time was night, alone with the nighthawks. They didn’t make much noise.

In June she entered a subtle resonance pattern with her mountain. She loved it very much. On the night of June Full Moon her shadow was a crystal diffraction pattern behind her as she lightly climbed to the top of the basalt and settled down. Transparent coyotes ringed the cliffs and howled silently up to her.

The next morning they sent out a search party, and they knew exactly where to look — they followed her tracks to the base of the cliffs, but that was the end of the trail. Even the McClintock boys, Abe and Jed, couldn’t find hide nor hair, and they were the best trackers east of El Paso. “She done disappeared,” they said.

No one talked about her much after that. They left that mountain alone. Even goats wouldn’t graze there. Lonely Lee’s deed got lost somehow, though courthouses aren’t supposed to lose deeds. And to this day nobody will bid on that land when it comes up for auction, though nobody can quite tell you why.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Where to Go, Conclusion

Yesterday’s post segued into its ironical ending before I had a chance to complete it. The conclusion goes something like this:

All that searching around was pretty much fantasy on my part. Anybody who’s seen my spot knows how magical it is (except for the flooding and mosquitoes) – mists on the river at dawn, flocks of egrets flying up the river at twilight, sunrise and moonrise down the river... always the river, with its ever-changing moods. And right on the other side of the highway is desert, hundreds of square miles of de facto wilderness. After I moved here in 1973, I thoroughly bonded with this piece of land and the surrounding area – in many ways, I grew up here. In the 70s and 80s I spent thousands of hours hiking the hills and arroyos for miles in all directions, bonding with the land at a cellular level. This area doesn’t have what I would consider a sustainable culture, but Las Cruces has quality people the equal of those found anywhere – it’s just that there aren’t enough of them to overcome the relentlessly mainstream nature of the town I call “Little Albuquerque.”

Laura says we are finally moving – into our Ark. For all these years we’ve been living in a cave – a partly-underground house with small windows looking out into a jungle. The Ark is a sky house, up high, with large windows and views in all directions. “Who’s going to live there?” Laura asks. “Who are we?” It’s a time of change, that’s for sure.

One problem with moving somewhere in anticipation is climate change is, you’ve got to figure out what the climate will be like 50 years from now. And in 50 years you’ll either be old, or dead. There is no individual or culture capable of anticipating so far into the future. But that’s what’s called for. For all we know, Alaska might have the best climate on the planet 50 years from now, but until then, you’ve got to put up with relentless cold, gloomy overcast, endless snow or drizzle, and long dark winters.

The ones who will be able to take advantage of future conditions will be the wealthy. On short notice, they’ll be able to buy as much land as they need to create an Arctic stronghold for themselves, complete with a platoon of Blackwater mercenaries. The rest of us will be stuck with our usual limited options.

I wondered if the Amish would be able to anticipate future conditions and act accordingly, but realized that they are a deeply traditional culture, incapable of changing with the times. They plod along, generation after generation, raising large families, buying new farms for their sons, expanding into new areas when the old areas get crowded. They could, feasibly, start locating in Alaska or northern Canada in anticipation of climate change, but I doubt it. Finding a new farm for son Caleb or welcoming daughter Sarah’s new set of twins into the world is the extent of their future planning.

As for the rest of us, good luck. We’re on our own; always have been. In our culture, or what passes for a culture, “community” really means, “people to have pleasant conversations with.” There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, a life without pleasant conversations is greatly impoverished. But we are incapable of making common cause with each other in a deeply significant way, at least not for long. We’d rather go it alone, especially financially, each of us carefully guarding our little stash of loot. The species gets maximum diversity that way, and perhaps that’s the best survival strategy – whoever happens to be in the right place at the right time gets to survive, and our attempts to stack the odds in our favor are useless.

At least for now, life is still good. The tsunami many of us have been watching for years has finally hit, and the villages below have disappeared under the water. But we, in our mountaintop fastness, will remain safe, snug and secure, right?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Where to Go?

For quite some time, we were seriously considering leaving this area. In 1999 we almost bought two adjoining lots in Crestone, Colorado – an area which intrigued us because of the spiritual and natural building emphasis to be found there. We decided against moving there because of the isolation, the harsh high-altitude climate, and the impossibility of making a living there.

In 2000, after the presidential election, I heard that Mendocino County in northern California had the highest Green voting percentage in the country. This seemed like an intriguing demographic to explore. So I got interested in northern California, and spent a lot of time on the Internet researching real estate, climate, job opportunities, etc. We even subscribed to two Mendocino Country newspapers for awhile.

This was during the lull between the dotcom crash and the real estate bubble. When I saw an ad on the People’s Real Estate website for 40 acres at $30,000, I was sorely tempted. But I wouldn’t buy sight unseen, and didn’t want to drive (or fly) all that way without Laura, who was going to school full-time. So I let the opportunity pass, and land prices quickly went ballistic.

I decided to go global. This was all fantasy, so why not? I was intrigued by the southern hemisphere, since there’s a lot more water than land there. Water heats up more slowly than land, so I figured the southern hemisphere would be a good place to attempt surviving global warming. (The ozone hole is a lot worse in the southern hemisphere, however, so that is a factor to consider. Would you rather fry in the northern hemisphere’s heat, or in the southern hemisphere’s ultraviolet radiation? Your choice!)

When looking at the southern hemisphere, I decided to consider only English-speaking countries. I eliminated South Africa because of its bad karma. That left Australia and New Zealand.

Tasmania was my sentimental choice, because they had the first Green Party in the world, and one of their Senators belonged to the Green Party. (A Green Senator would be an impossibility in the U.S.) Tasmania has a benign climate – much cooler and moister than the rest of Australia. There was a lot of good real estate available at a very reasonable price – due in part to the favorable rate of exchange in the early 00s, when the dollar was still worth something.

The problem with Australia was getting in. Laura and I were too old and too poor to be considered for immigration. New Zealand seemed to have an easier immigration policy, and it’s even further south and therefore cooler, but real estate, for some reason, seemed much scarcer than in Tasmania.

Looking at the northern hemisphere, Canada is an obvious choice. Once again, the problem for older people of modest means is getting in. Alaska, being part of the U.S., doesn’t have this problem. There might even be some liberal enclaves in this conservative state, for all I know. Sarah Palin, here I come!

The strategy for both the northern and southern hemispheres is to get closer to the poles, which will presumably remain cooler than lower latitudes. However, when CO2 and methane levels get high enough, even the polar regions will be much warmer than they are now. But even then, the sunlight will continue to strike at an oblique angle, reducing the solar heat gain, especially during the winter.

A further strategy is to locate close to an ocean, which will remain cooler, at least for a while. The panhandle of Alaska is ideal in this regard. The prevailing winds there come from the Pacific, a huge body of water covering half the planet. Further, the climate tends to be rainy and foggy. In other words, by conventional standards, the climate really sucks. (Today’s forecast for Sitka, AK: high 38, low 36, chance of rain 90%. It will be this way for months on end. Cabin fever, anyone?)

But in the future, what we consider a “good” climate will change. In the future, heat will no longer be our friend. Sunlight will not be our friend. Would-be survivors will seek refuge under persistent cool cloud cover.

That pretty much covers “where,” now let’s consider “what.”

My own lifestyle choice, to paraphrase the poet Gary Snyder, involves living “from the sun and green of one spot.” In other words – hunker down, live simply, and utilize solar energy and photosynthesis to make your living. This “eco-peasant” lifestyle offers the advantage of making it possible to eke out a living when money is scarce or nonexistent. It also makes you a sitting duck for any chaos emanating from the cities.

An alternative is to become a nomad, which gives you the option of moving to an area of greater safety -- assuming you can move quickly enough, far enough, and know what direction to travel in the first place. Modern nomads are totally dependent on money, so if money loses its value, there goes the lifestyle. This will hold true for almost everybody, not just nomads.

It’s possible that people might rise to the occasion, come the crisis. If it’s do or die, at least some people will probably choose to do something creative. (Ours is a singularly uncreative era.) At the present time, Americans remain amazingly passive. You can’t even say they’ve given up, if they’ve never even tried in the first place. The earlier can-do American spirit has given way to an unconscious fatalism. Most Americans aren’t in denial – they’re unconscious. Denial at least admits the possibility of psychological dissonance... which is to say, psychological discomfort. But unconsciousness – ah! Pure, sweet bliss! The elegant zenlike emptiness of the blank slate! My beautiful and empty mind will remain calm and unruffled at all times, come what may! Facts? There are no facts! Everything is opinion! And my opinion is, there’s nothing to worry about. Even a charbroiled planet is divine perfection made manifest.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chakra Bouncing

The human “chakra problem” started when we lost our tails lo those many millions of years ago.

Animals with tails, you see, have chakras all the way to the ends of their tails. The tails serve as “antennas” for the cosmic energies we are immersed in at all times. Animals absorb beneficial energies through their crown chakras at the tops of their heads and release whatever they want through their tails — anger, contentment, indifference, whatever.

When animals sleep, they wrap their tails around their bodies, thereby surrounding themselves with a field of beneficial and protective energy. Humans, having lost this “beneficial tail energy capability,” always feel a need for snuggling and cuddling, because they no longer have tails to cuddle themselves with. For this reason, humans prefer to snuggle and cuddle with each other whenever possible.

One simple and effective way of sharing energy and affection between two human beings is known as “chakra bouncing.”

The two participants in this particular ritual sit facing each other, knees touching, holding hands if desired. Then they simply lean forward, touch the tops of their heads together, and send great fountains and geysers of all colors of light back and forth into, around and through each other. Sometimes people bounce multicolored paisley swirls between themselves. For this reason, it is called “chakra bouncing.”

A few minutes each day of chakra bouncing with your favorite people is great fun, and is a quiet way of enhancing the quantity and quality of one’s overall energy level on many levels at once.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Useless Advice and Other Topics

Before we get to the useless advice, I wanted to answer Jacques Conejo’s questions that he left in yesterday’s comments. We try to run a full-service blog around here.

First, he wants to know where the term “neat as a pin” comes from. This one is easy: from the same person who invented the phrase, “cute as a button.”

Next question: have 77 billion humans indeed lived on this planet since our species became what we could call “human?” I thought this number was way high, so I went to teh googles and found that there are two main reasons for the high number of human predecessors who lie moldering on our planet. One, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of years, so the numbers add up. Two, early humans had very short lifespans – as short as 10-12 years on average -- which necessitated a very high birth rate to maintain human numbers. So... we had a lot of ancestors, but they didn’t live very long.

About Martian methane, I always thought planetary astronomy was a gas. It has been speculated that the methane outbursts observed in the atmosphere of Mars means that there is life under the surface. But this is not necessarily the case. Astronomers will be doing further research to try to pin down the cause.

About useless advice, I’m reminded of a person who used to write for Grassroots Press. She was talking about the collapse of civilization as we know it. One of her recommendations was to save seeds. I just had to laugh. The disconnect between the reality and our response to it is so vast as to be ludicrous. The absurdity level is almost unbearable.

Without further ado, my useless advice is to pay off your mortgage! See why it’s useless? How many Americans can just snap their fingers and pay off their mortgage? Many mortgage-holders might be able to make an extra mortgage payment from time to time, but their mortgage might still take many years to pay off. Our recent era of artificial prosperity would have been the ideal time to pay off your mortgage, but conventional advice encouraged people to make other investments (such as the stock market). In fact, a mortgage has conventionally been considered an asset rather than a liability.

The big disadvantage to my personal lifestyle choice – back-to-the-land homesteading-survivalism-whatnot is that I’m stuck here. I can’t just up and move. Southern New Mexico hardly seems like a logical choice. For many people, nomadism might make more sense.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Committee

This isn’t new information for many of us, but even mainstream psychologists are now coming to the conclusion that the human personality is more like a committee than a unitary structure. It’s more like an “egoic cluster” than an “ego.”

This is of interest to me right now because building my Ark and clearing out the south end of my microfarm is requiring me to be “somebody else.” Not somebody new, because I’ve been in this mode many times before. It’s the “me” that copes with the surfeit of physicality that I’ve managed to create for myself. But this “me” doesn’t write blog posts nearly as easily as, say, “Gordon of November.”

All this is a longwinded way of saying I haven’t been posting as much as I would like, and events I want to comment on have been passing me by. I’ll make a few comments on the fly; many topics of late have deserved blog posts, but I’ll have to be content with a paragraph or two.

I wanted to express my awe of pilot “Sully” Sullenberger, and marvel at the fact that there was no ice in the Hudson that day. As I recall, ice started forming the very next day. Ice would probably have compromised the structural integrity of the plane’s belly, preventing the buoyancy necessary to get everybody off the plane in time. So let’s hear it for no ice. Sullenberger’s amazing piloting feat has already become legendary in the annals of aviation. Not only did he quickly make the correct decisions, he managed, with zen-like intensity and focus, to glide that powerless plane to a perfect water landing – nose up, tail down, and wings perfectly level. And he specifically landed as close as possible to the ferry terminal area, so the rescue vessels wouldn’t have to travel as far. What a pilot! The experienced crew managed to start getting the passengers off the plane within seconds of landing. On the ground and water, everybody was literally on the same wavelength, having learned from the tragic mistakes of 9-11, when the Fire Dept. and Police Dept. couldn’t even communicate with each other via radio. For a change of pace, we got to see civilization at its best. The tragic “victim” myth of 9-11 has now been superceded by a myth of competence and heroism. Which, given our rapidly-declining economy and fast-approaching multi-crisis, is no doubt a good thing.

Turning now to Gaza. I’ve been disgusted with Israel for a couple of decades now. If this makes me anti-Semitic, then so be it.

I have no problem with self-defense – this isn’t la-la land we’re living in. And I can understand why both the Palestinians and Israelis have been driven half-crazy (or totally crazy) during the decades of suffering and hatred on both sides. Crazy Hamas insists on poking sticks into the crazy Israeli lion’s den by firing rockets across the border, but genocide isn’t an acceptable response. The Israeli response was so over-the-top, it’s pitiful.

It’s fascinating how similar to each other the U.S. and Israel have become since World War II. Both countries are bullies. Both countries lay waste to much weaker adversaries. Both countries are hypocritical: if you fire a rocket at me, that’s terrorism; but if I carpetbomb your entire country into bloody rubble, that’s an appropriate response. And the press, which loves war, sucks right up to it and makes it worse. What a fucked up world.

Just like there’s no solution to the human situation on a planetary basis, there’s no solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Pandora is loose, and humans cannot build a box strong enough to hold her.

Next time I want to talk about goats, chickens, winter gardening, and how I’m turning my place into my version of a little Amish farm: spic and span, neat as a pin, and highly productive. It gives me something constructive to do, and gives me something to spend my money on while it still has some value. And that reminds me: I also want to give some useless advice.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lone Jones the Water Rustler and His Daughter Lucy

New Mexico is a desert land. Water is scarce. Scarcity means relative power to whoever gets it, so the ones who got it make sure they continue to get it. This means that every drop in the Rio Ancho is apportioned by historical precedent and force of law.

But there’s always a few who want more than their share. Lone Jones was one. He was a water rustler.

The Rio Ancho has ditchriders who ride up and down the ditches opening and closing sluice gates and generally making sure that everybody gets the share of water they paid for.

So Lone Jones used to irrigate at night by the furtive light of a moon which didn’t much care one way or the other about the water he stole, since half the moon is always looking the other way, after all. Old Lone always wore black so he’d blend in better.

Sometimes he’d send his daughter Lucy downstream to waylay the ditchrider while he stole a big old slug of water, sometimes several acre-feet or more, so he could irrigate hundreds of pecan trees, each of which would yield 100 pounds of pecans in the fall... not a bad trade at all, and Lucy didn’t mind one little bit. In fact, it was her idea to begin with — one evening she announced, “I’m going down to talk to Mr. Gomez while you steal you a big old slug of water, papa,” and every dark of the moon since then, she maintained her end of the family tradition.

Meanwhile, back at the orchard, Lone and his shovel would be working overtime. Building dikes and breaking dikes. Flooding thirsty dirt by sense of touch.

Lone Jones had it all figured out. Even if the ditchrider could escape from Lucy, all he’d see would be a black reflection in midnight ripples. And there was nothing to hear—just the sound of a spade slipping against adobe mud and the quiet slapping of stolen water against the ditch bank.

Which was a good thing. Lone knew the score, alright: If they caught him, he’d forfeit his irrigation rights for life, not to mention his heirs. But he knew the score, alright: Five more years of irrigating in the dark and he could retire to Santa Fe as a gentleman.

Of course his ace in the hole was Lucy. Good old Lucy. They should write a story about her some day.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Litmus Test

The Obama Era is going to be a humdinger. There will be such a plethora of sound and fury, smoke and mirrors, dogs and ponies, all spinning around in such a crazy cacophony, it will be hard to keep track of what’s really going on. Is fundamental change really happening, or are we being blinded by rhetorical bullshit as usual? (Obama can do a lot of good while leaving the fundamentals unchanged.)

To find our way through this morass, I suggest a simple litmus test: Are taxes for the wealthy going up? If so, then fundamental change is really a possibility. If not, then the parasites are still in control.

There’s already talk about “reassessing entitlements” – Medicare, Social Security, etc. But I haven’t noticed anything about “reassessing tax cuts for the wealthy.” In other words, what about raising taxes on the wealthy rather than making everybody else suffer benefit cuts? Why is this simple concept apparently off the table? Could it be that the wealthy own the entire American political process?

Personally, I would tax the parasites till they bleed, till they turn a whiter shade of pale. Let them pay their fair share for a change. It would be a fair turnaround. They created the mess, now let them pay for it, and pay dearly. But making them pay would be tantamount to revolution, and the aristocracy simply won’t allow revolution to happen. It would have to be imposed upon them. Frankly, I don’t think the American people are capable of such bold action, which is one reason I'm an Obama skeptic at this point. But like I say, I’m always eager to be pleasantly surprised. So c’mon, Obama and the Dems, surprise me!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama’s Real Strategy: We’ll Find Out Soon Enough

This is my Feb-March Grassroots Press column:

As I pointed out a couple of issues ago, Obama is an agent of the Empire; otherwise he would never have gotten this far. He's a realist, a player, a serious politician. Which means: he’ll be bold, but only up to a point. We don’t know yet what his limits really are. As events unfold, his parameters will become obvious. We’re about to finally get some hard data to work with.

The Empire is a wonderful place for the well-connected. The military and the Lords of Finance always get unlimited money with no questions asked, but Obama’s proposed bailout will receive ruthless scrutiny and obstruction at every turn. We’ll be hearing a lot about "difficult choices." After trillions of dollars in bailouts for the Lords of Finance, there will be, all of a sudden, not enough money to go around. We will have to make "difficult choices" about critical issues like health care and climate change. This attitude is summed up perfectly by a Yahoo News headline: "Lawmakers worry stimulus too costly and rushed." Worried that non-aristocrats will get too much of a bailout, is more like it.

I’m always eager to be pleasantly surprised, but my hypothesis at this point is that the Empire is terminally corrupt, and will be unable to adequately address the multitude of problems that confront us. "Take the money and run" is the only strategy the ruling class is capable of. The aristocracy has way too much power, and the brainwashed rabble remain pitifully disorganized. Obama’s "bipartisan" strategy is guaranteed to limit meaningful change, the Dems seem to have spinelessness embedded into their DNA, and the Republicans are always master obstructionists. It will be a fascinating spectacle to watch, that’s for sure.

As I write this, Obama hasn’t taken power yet. All this talk is just speculation. I have a pretty good idea of what’s going to come down, but at this point everybody’s just blowing smoke. We never had to speculate with the Bush regime – their strategy was obvious from Day One. When Bush was in power, I considered it my civic duty to keep the whine level as shrill as possible. But for right now, I’m taking a skeptical wait-and-see attitude. We’ll have plenty of hard facts to deal with soon enough.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Story of a Love Affair

Lorn, lost,
Double crossed.
Forgive, forgave,
Latched on, gone.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mrs. Garcia’s Surprise

Mrs. Garcia was a nice old lady. She was the baker for the little town of Dos Garcias, New Mexico. Sometimes she would bake more pretzels and pies than Dos Garcias could buy, so she’d have to eat them herself. Needless to say, her body was covered with rolls of bakery fat, and she had big tits that hung down like jello watermelons.

She had a big horno in her backyard—a large beehive-shaped oven made of adobe dirt. She’d fire up that mother every Tuesday morning, and every Tuesday afternoon, people would saunter over “to see Mrs. Garcia” and buy some baked goods. They’d gather around the oven and admire the aroma while she removed piles of pies, cookies, soda crackers, and rich loaves of whole-wheat bread with crackly butter crust.

But Mrs. Garcia was most famous for her surprise rolls. Every roll had a surprise in the center. During cherry season, you might find a cherry inside, or maybe a cherry pit. Come fall, maybe you’d find a pecan... shelled or unshelled, depending on her whim. Other rolls might contain pebbles or pennies or snail shells or tiny bones. You could never tell what Mrs. Garcia might put inside.

It got to be the custom that people who got married or decided to live together would buy one of Mrs. Garcia’s rolls and split it open to see what it had inside — like Chinese fortune cookies but more cryptic.

Once Buff bit into a roll that had a rimfire cartridge inside. “It’s a wonder it didn’t go off in the oven!” he said.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cutting Cane



I call the little mountain across the river North Hill because it’s exactly north of our house. Laura modestly calls it Solberg Mountain. Those are saltcedar trees immediately behind Laura. At the extreme left edge of the picture are some coyote willows, whose twigs are a vivid orange during the winter.

Our home is only 50 feet from the river, except when the river flows through it. But that’s another story; watch for it on a blog near you.

The Rio Grande in our area is a huge irrigation ditch. The Irrigation Authorities turn it on in the summer and off in the winter. One winter in the early 90s after they turned the river off, there was a sandbar right in front of our house. Some fishermen discovered this sandbar and started fishing there at night, building bonfires and talking loudly until 10 PM or so. This irritated me, so I decided to create some privacy.

Not one for half measures, I planted a row of coyote willows next to the river, planting small branches every four feet, and encircling them with wire cages to keep the beavers at bay. Then, in a flamboyant exercise in overkill, I planted a row of cane roots on the landward side of the willow. This was a lot of trouble, digging the holes, planting the plants, and irrigating them with buckets from the river every few days through the first couple of summers.

Cane is like bermudagrass – it spreads. What I didn’t realize, when I planted it, was that there was nothing to prevent it from spreading indefinitely once the roots tapped into the unlimited groundwater a couple of feet below. And spread it did. I had created a monster. My neat row of cane turned into a tangled thicket of dead and live canes at every crazy angle, ten to fifteen feet wide and expanding a foot or so every year.

When I started building my Ark within 20 feet of the cane, I knew I would have to cut it all down unless I wanted my Ark to burn down in the event of a bosque fire. So, after we got the holidays out of the way, we put a little ad in the American Classifieds – "Laborer wanted for clearing brush, etc. 526-1853." We got about 30 replies, and are still getting them.

I have an unbelievably casual attitude about such things. I figure the Universe will send me whoever, or whatever. So the first guy who called, he offered to come right out to meet us, so we said, "Sure, why not?" Same with the second guy.

The first guy turned out to be two guys, but the second guy turned out to be just one. So I ended up with 3 guys, named – I kid you not – Jesus, Angel, and Francisco. I couldn’t make this up. (Even though, come to think of it, I guess I could.) But these are, in fact, their real names. I have always said that the Universe has a sense of humor, when it’s not eating you for lunch.

Jesus and Francisco (nicknamed Pancho, as is usually the case with Franciscos) started work on Monday, and Angel joined us on Tuesday. Jesus is the standout – reliable, hardworking, outgoing, positive energy... he’s my man, my go-to guy. I’ve already made him foreman of the crew. Angel is stolid and taciturn, not as hard a worker, but digs in there and gets the job done in his slow but relentless way. Pancho doesn’t speak English, and doesn’t like to engage in any way, such as speaking to you or looking at you, but gets the job done, which is really all that matters.

Cutting cane means cutting the live canes off at ground level with loppers, and pulling the dead canes out whenever you encounter them, which is very frequently, like several per square foot. Then the canes are stacked in piles which quickly reach a height of nearly 6 feet, and are as bad a fire hazard as the original vertical configuration, only now they’re even closer to the Ark. The cane is interspersed with coyote willow, which must be cut down with a chainsaw, and stacked as well.

All this cane and willow stacked 8 feet from the Ark made me very nervous, so yesterday morning I had the crew come out at 7 AM and we had ourselves a bonfire. Not right next to the Ark, of course, so he had to drag bundles of cane and willow about 50 feet to a clearing big enough to prevent setting the bosque on fire. It was a perfect day for a fire – not a breath of wind.

First we made a fire with dead limbs from a Russian Olive hedge we were also clearing out, and then we started piling on the cane. Cane is a relative of bamboo, but not as hard. It’s hollow inside, with internal joints every 6 inches or so. When heated, the air inside expands, and pops when the wall of the cane gives way. A bundle of cane thrown onto a bonfire sounds like firecrackers or very loud popcorn. We had several hours of that to listen to.

(I felt solidarity with peasants everywhere who, when clearing their land for crops, are faced with the universal conundrum: what to do with all that damned brush. The solution: utilize the miracle of rapid oxidation, otherwise known as fire, and transform all that pesky solid carbon into an invisible gas. Burn it, and it disappears! It goes away! Except, of course, there is no "away." We’re all riding Spaceship Earth together, and, like it or not, I eat your shit for breakfast, and you eat mine. So I felt a deep sense of oneness with the 10,000 other bonfires burning around the globe that morning, peasants and other humans furiously burning what’s left of the rainforest, pumping CO2 into the atmosphere by the gigaton.)

We still have a lot of cane to cut, but I feel a lot safer now. A side benefit is the opening up of our view, which we haven’t had for nearly 20 years. Our house is more like a cave, half dug into the bank overlooking the river. This is fine by me, since to enjoy the view I have merely to step outside and take a pleasant short walk to wherever the view is visible. If only I had built my house 6 feet higher in 1973. Oh well, live and learn, so they say.

The Ark is more on the beach cabana model, without the surf. The river side of the Ark is literally solid windows, with more windows on the south side, one on the north, and one on the west. We will finally have enough windows to handle all our houseplants, which I’ll repot into bigger pots so they can fulfill their mission of turning our home into a jungle. The Ark will ultimately have a porch 8 feet off the ground overlooking the river, where we plan to spend many evening hours out with the bats and nighthawks when the mosquitoes aren’t too bad.

In the midst of all this cane activity, we put the roof on the Ark this week, with key help from Neil and Jesus. I spent all last week getting the rafters put up, a job best done alone, since it’s so tedious and slow. My left leg muscle, the front thigh muscle that lifts the leg, painfully seized up on me, thanks to climbing up and down ladders literally hundreds of time per day. So I was semi-crippled for a couple of days there until Laura’s healing balms took effect, but fortunately I was able to hobble around well enough on my right leg to get my work done.

Monday, Neil and Jesus hefted the plywood onto the rafters and I nailed it down... a fun job, since I’m hammering straight down and gravity is actually helping the process, which is usually not the case in carpentry. On Tuesday, Jesus and I put on the flashing and drip edge around the perimeter of the roof. Then Neil came out and we put all the metal roofing on in one burst. I was impressed how easy this job was when young immortals were doing all the heavy lifting. By the way, I use only metal roofing these days, because ordinary shingles don’t stand up to hail.

Jesus is a real blessing. Laura and I weren’t relishing caulking and painting while clinging to a wobbly extension ladder 16 feet off the ground, but it turns out (thank you, Universe!) that Jesus is a painter by trade. He’s worked on extension ladders as high as 34 feet off the ground. (If I did that, I fear the bottom of the ladder would slip from all the vomit falling on it.) So I’ve hired him to caulk and paint the entire top half of the Ark (I’ll do the more easily accessible bottom half). My problems are disappearing all over the place if I’m willing to throw enough money at them.

Speaking of money, I’m paying these guys $8.00 per hour, which is a good wage by local standards for this kind of work. And work of any kind is hard to find these days for workmen in the physical realm. This is costing me. Their average workday is 6½ hours, so they’re getting $52 dollars a day each. Times 3 is $156 a day for the crew. Times 5 is $780 a week. I figure it will take a good two weeks to do everything I want done, but this part of my microfarm will be utterly transformed by the time they’re finished. And I plan to hire Jesus one day a week for as long as I can find work for him, since he’s the most cost-effective of the lot.

This concludes my report for today. The windows and glass door (the Cyclists will be pleased) will be delivered Monday, and I hope to get them installed next week. Then the Ark will be a true shelter, invulnerable to wind and horizontal rain.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Light Posting Lately
The Ark has been sucking out all of my physical and creative energy lately, hence not much posting. But this too shall pass. We’re putting on the roof this week, which is a major milestone for any structure. The next milestone will be putting on the rest of the siding, caulking/painting the sides, and installing the windows. Then the Ark will be a true shelter – invulnerable from rain falling straight down or sideways.

More Oldies
I’ve been running one of my stories every Saturday. During this time of slow posting, I’ll be posting another oldie during the week. This will be anything from a nine-word poem to an essay about "Niceness." Keep on the alert for this... see if you can tell the old from the new.

Las Cruces Skidmark
I just ran across a copy of the Las Cruces Skidmark at the Co-op. I started out liking "The Onion of Las Cruces," which skewers various aspects of our smug little McCity. But then, upon closer inspection, I noticed that they skewer only safe topics: drunk driving, farmer’s market, the animal shelter, the crosses lawsuit, bicyclists, obesity, Californication. What about all the heavy-duty stuff that fairly begs to be lampooned? Off the top of my head, what about Aggie football, the Spaceport, all the new government mega-buildings, NMSU, the Sun-McNews, and the LC McBulletin? It looks like the Skidmark folks don’t want to rile up anybody in power. So I’ve got to give them a thumbs down unless they show some courage; too bad, since it's a promising concept.

Las Cruces McBulletin
Some day I want to write a proper review of our local McWeekly, but for right now, I want to talk about Babbitt. Every time I pick up a copy of the McBulletin, I’m reminded about Babbitt. This term comes from Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel, Babbitt, about an utterly conventional Midwestern businessman, totally obsessed with making money. The term "Babbitt" is no longer in our everyday lexicon, which is a shame, because it’s a very useful word for describing the American business community.

Here’s one definition of Babbitt: "A narrow-minded, self-satisfied person with an unthinking attachment to middle-class values and materialism."

Here’s another: "A smugly narrow and conventional person interested chiefly in business and social success."

Read any editorial in the McBulletin and you’ll see what I mean.

This is the coldest morning of the winter so far in our frost pocket -- 10º. This is pretty typical for this time of year, actually. We usually get into the singles digits at least once every winter. So rather than working on the Ark, I’m sitting inside at the keyboard until it warms up a bit outside.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Gift Comes Full Circle (a true story)

1. The Gift Goes Out

One cold January evening (Jan. 13, 1988 to be exact), my neighbor Bob Clark and I were up in the Truth or Consequences area moving some beehives. It’s lonely in the desert at night. You can freeze to death out there if you’re dumb enough. The winter stars are so close, they glue themselves to your eyelids. Coyotes cry inside your skin and won’t let you go. Our bodies picked up on these subliminal vibrations as we loaded the hives into the truck during the last fading rays of twilight, and now even the lull of the truck and the warmth of the heater weren’t enough to overcome the message the penetrating stillness had programmed into those hungry centers at the centers of us which cried, “Fill me! And only a burrito will do! Hot! And with fries!” (Or in my case, onion rings.) So we decided to stop at Ray’s Drive-In on our way home for a couple of burritos to fill our guts with something thick and hot to drive away the chill from our souls.

There we were, sitting in Ray’s parking lot, chomping down on our burritos and talking about typical, or in Bob’s case, not-so-typical topics like God and prayer and prayers being answered when all of a sudden, with impeccably melodramatic timing, came a rap rap rapping on the window beside me. I turned, rolled down the window, and looked into the tired blue eyes of a man not too old but already gray by now, a man accustomed to the down side of life, a man just getting through his life the best way he knew how. I instantly knew that he was going to hit me up for money.

His spiel was straight and direct. He told me that he needed a couple of dollars to buy a little bottle of whiskey to get him through the night and would I be interested in buying a can of tuna and a can of vienna sausage from him for two dollars.

I was impressed by his honesty and directness. And yeah, I could relate to where he was coming from, having been in my version of the similar predicament earlier in my life: sometimes life seems very, very hard and sometimes only the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness will do. So I instantly seized my opportunity to bestow a little blessing upon him. Not just any blessing, mind you, but that one special blessing which would send him onward along life’s highway with a smile in his heart and whiskey breath on his lips.

“Tell ya what I’m gonna do, brother,” I told him theatrically. I’m gonna give you two dollars! What do you think about that?” Let me tell ya, his mind just blew as I pressed two dollar bills into his palm!

You could sure tell that he wasn’t used to having his prayers answered so directly like that! You readers out there would have laughed and laughed if you had seen the expression on that poor old boy’s face! His jaw dropped and he just couldn’t get it back up! He was a sight to see.

Then he started talking about the Baptists. (This being a Wednesday night, they were having their prayer meeting right across the street at that very moment.) “I just came from there,” he said, gesturing to the church. “The Baptists are always saying, ‘Jesus did this, Jesus did that, Jesus said this, Jesus said that.’”

“Yeah, but how about now?” I said, completing his thought for him.

“Yeah, how about now!” he agreed. Then he said, “The people in heaven must be like you.”

“Yep!” I agreed, having learned years ago to instantly accept all honest compliments.

After attempting to get me to at least take the can of tuna, he thanked me one last time and went on his merry-enough way, heading for the nearest liquor store at full warp speed.

Bob and I looked at each other with amazement. “Wow, we were just talking about prayers being answered and stuff like that, and look at what just happened: I answered this guy’s prayer,” I observed with evident amazement.

“I think you just passed a test,” Bob said.

It sure seemed that way. There was a particular vibration in the air.

2. The Gift Returns

After finishing our burritos, we drove six blocks to the Marshall Bath House to deliver 36 quarts of honey to a man who had called me unexpectedly several days before. Belching occasional burrito belches, Bob and I continued to discuss the “answered prayer” incident, bringing in related topics like gifts and blessings and good karma. We pulled up at the bath house and this bright-eyed old coot opened the door and stepped outside almost before I got the truck stopped.

Bob and I got out, introduced ourselves, and loaded the honey into the man’s truck. “I’m giving all this honey to the Indians,” the old man said.

GIVING all this honey to the Indians? Well, you could have knocked us down with a feather! Because Bob and I had just been talking, not only about gifts and blessings and good karma, but about how God can tailor-make any conceivable situation right there on the spot to teach us just the exact right lesson that we need to learn at that exact precise point in our lives. It’s downright uncanny, is what it is, and now here was a blatant example of just such a lesson being played out before our very eyes in “real time mode,” and we knew it while it was happening!

Then the old man and I went inside, leaving Bob alone with a cigarette.

“It’s good that there are people like you doing things like giving honey to the Indians,” I gushed, reinforcing him to the max. Being a capitalist, I hastened to continue, “It works out to $108, but you can have it for a flat $100.” Such a deal! Not only was I giving him a good karma discount, but I wasn’t charging him for delivery! Lucky for him I had been needing to come to T or C anyway to move those hives! (Yes, even angels of mercy have to pay sometimes, especially if they can afford it.)

Then the old codger and I flowed in deep tandem powerglide together for a few minutes as he waxed philosophical about love and marriage, and made some interesting but not necessarily accurate observations about my second ex-wife, who was quite a personage in T or C, being town librarian and all. But then the conversation quickly waned as he crashed into the shallows of superficiality and convention, and I lost interest.

“It’s a long drive back,” I said.

“It sure is,” he agreed.

Bob and I got back in the truck and started to leave. When we were already well-nigh underway, the old geezer yelled out the door for me to stop, so I aborted my motion initiation sequence and switched to “standby” mode as he came out the door with a bag in his hand.

“Would you like some walnuts?” he asked.

“You bet!” I replied, and at that moment I realized that my $2 gift to the wino at Ray’s Drive-In had already come full circle.

P.S. It was a lot more than $2 worth of walnuts.

Moral: God doesn’t keep count.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Tao of Chainsawing

I live in the middle of a riparian forest, consisting of mostly saltcedar and coyote willow trees, right next to the Rio Grande. Since the water table is so high here, the trees can tap into unlimited moisture, and grow rapidly. During the summer, when the trees are in rampant growth mode, this spot is literally a jungle. After a few years of unchecked growth, the vegetation becomes so thick it’s impossible to walk through it. It would probably take a person an hour to crawl 100 feet through this impenetrable tangle.

I have always used these plentiful trees for firewood. Saltcedar is a heavy, dense wood that burns well and leaves long-lasting coals. I like to use this at night, for an all-night fire. It’s nice to wake up in the morning to a nice bed of coals that have been keeping the house warm all night. Willow burns fast and hot, and is best for a daytime fire when I can add wood more frequently.

In addition to cutting specifically for firewood, I have to cut back the native trees that are constantly encroaching on the perimeter of my ½ acre orchard.

I also have to cut down trees to reduce the fire hazard in selected locations. If I don’t pay attention, the biomass can reach dangerous levels within a few years.

I started out using a gasoline-powered chainsaw, but became allergic to the noxious exhaust fumes. (As usual, my body is smarter than I am.) So now I use an electric chainsaw, which is quieter, and releases its toxic fumes wherever the power plant is located. Out of sight, out of mind... it’s the American Way.

The first thing to remember about “clearin’ brush,” as our soon-to-be-ex-preznit likes to call it, is that cutting down a tree is only the beginning of a long process. The initial cutting down of a tree merely changes the configuration from vertical to horizontal. Most of the work still remains to be done, but at least the tree is a lot closer to the ground and more accessible to the ministrations of the chainsawer.

Before I cut down a tree, I cut off any branches within reach. I start by trimming off all the twigs along each branch. Next I cut off the brushy stems at the end of the branch. Finally, I saw the branch into firewood lengths. There is a logic at work here; I call it “Tao” in this article as a little wink to the Taoists in the audience.

After all the accessible branches are cut off, it’s time to cut down the tree. With most trees, it makes no difference where they land. But occasionally a tree will be leaning the wrong way, or needs to be pulled away from a shed or other improvement. In this case, I use an extension ladder and climb as high in the tree as possible, where I tie a rope. Then the rope technician (Laura) pulls the tree in the desired direction while I cut. This usually works quite well, but not always – trees are surprisingly heavy, and once gravity takes over, the momentum can be unstoppable. It’s important to pull as hard as possible during that critical moment when the tree is teetering. Once it starts to fall, its trajectory is set – much like the U.S. economy.

After the tree is cut down, I cut in the same sequence as before – twigs along the trunk first, then the brushy ends, then the cutting of the branches and trunk into firewood. I utilize any branch over 1” in diameter as firewood. Small firewood is useful as firestarter, and reduces the amount of brush to be hauled away. I cut the firewood about 16” long, which fits easily into my wood stove. All this firewood needs to be put into a wheelbarrow and trundled to its final destination, where it dries during the following summer. The remainder, the twiggy branch ends, is the true brush that must be disposed of somehow – we either burn it (which deserves its own article – “The Tao of Burning”) or pack it along the riverbank as “bank control” to reduce erosion. Ideally, the brush would be chipped into mulch by a wood chipper, but this is way too time-consuming when so many other jobs are always waiting.

Laura and I make a great team – I do the sawing, and she hauls the brush away. When I work alone, the brush quickly accumulates around me, and I have stop periodically and drag it out of the way. When Laura hauls the brush, I can cut uninterrupted, and can saw an impressive amount of wood in an hour. Once we get into our rhythm, we kick some serious ass.

There are a few things the chainsawer wants to avoid whenever possible:

* Hitting rocks, gravel, fence wire, steel fence posts, and other hard objects which will instantly dull the blade. It takes a full four seconds for the chain to stop moving after you remove your finger from the switch. During this time, the chain makes many revolutions, compounding the damage. So the chainsawer needs to be alert at all times. (One also wants to avoid soft objects, such as one’s leg.)

* Avoid situations that make the chain come off. Cutting through too many small twigs at once is a problematical situation, and the advice here is to cut slowly rather than fast.

* Avoid pinching the blade, which will trap the chainsaw. The leverage can amount to tons per square inch, I’m sure. I’ve had chainsaws trapped for the better part of an hour while I cut on either side with a bowsaw.

After a tree is cut down, cutting it up is a logical process, always keeping those three factors in mind. The easiest branches are the ones sticking out into the air. In this situation, gravity is our friend, and the chain will not bind. Cut them off first, and save the most difficult cuts till last. Often, after everything else is cut off, the heavy trunk will be lying on the ground at such an angle that the blade can easily become trapped with every cut. In this situation, I’ll make a series of cuts halfway through, then turn the trunk over and finish cutting from the other side. This prevents unnecessary binding.

Cutting firewood is a very satisfying activity. Laura and I accomplish several jobs at once: we provide for next winter’s firewood at very low cost, reduce the immediate fire hazard, open up land for other uses, and get beneficial exercise (as if we needed more). We enjoy our team effort, as long as we don’t overdo it ( a couple of hours at a time is plenty). And the trees grow back from the roots – within 10 to 20 years, they are ready to harvest again. Sustainable firewood has got to be the ultimate renewable resource, and we’re grateful to be part of the process.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Adventures of Little Right Livelihood

One fine autumn day, Little Right Livelihood came flouncing down the road, petticoats crackling crisply along her thighs and hair billowing behind her like fiberglass insulation in the cool desert breeze.

She topped a rise and who did she see lounging against a saguaro stump? None other than her old arch enemy, Big Bad Wolf!

“Hiya baby,” he drawled, picking his teeth with a laminated credit card.

“You beast!” sputtered Little Right Livelihood. “I warned you once already! I said if I ever laid eyes on you again I’d smear your depraved carcass down Route 666 clear to Safford and back! Now get the hell outta here before I do something drastic!”

“Aw, c’mon baby, it’s not like that, I mean...”

“Not like that you mean!” Little Right Livelihood was getting pissed. Laser beams shot through her half-lidded eyes and raised little dust tracks along her scan lines. All the insect noises stopped and ants dropped their burdens and scurried underground. Up the road a dark cloud began to form, muttering to itself as it gathered air. She removed her Buster Brown shoes for better traction and started a little shuffle dance, causing small sections of the horizon arc to separate and disappear.

But Big Bad Wolf wasn’t scared one little bit. After all, he was one big bad mufucker and all he needed to do was put on his clogging shoes (which didn’t take long) and then he stood there facing Little Right Livelihood with his legs planted slightly apart, hands on hips, tail twitching behind him. “I’ll huff and I’ll puff!” he cried.

“Oh no you won’t!” cried Little Right Livelihood, reaching into her stash bag. She removed a jar and deftly flicked it open, releasing billions of special spores which floated over and popped moistly onto his skin like tiny soap bubbles.

Big Bad Wolf looked down at himself with silent horror. “Look at what you went and blew it for me!” he slobbered through toothless fangs as fur turned to fleece.

Soon the lamb was grazing peacefully alongside the other lambs, but Little Right Livelihood didn’t even notice, since she was busy rubbing the rust specks off her flute and shining it until it sparkled.