February Reprise

February was mostly reading and writing with a little shoveling thrown in. We finally got a nice dumping of snow in early February—about 10 inches. The book launch party I was planning to attend was canceled, so instead I made a tuna casserole, shoveled, and read.

I read 13 books in February, pretty evenly divided between poetry (5), fiction (4), and nonfiction (4). My favorite book of the month was Iron Hearted Violet, a YA novel by Kelly Barnhill. I loved this book for many reasons and was completely captivated. Without giving anything away, I can tell you that I loved it because it has lots of strong female characters, a mistress of falconry, a princess who isn’t beautiful, a dragon, a runty god, and a dab of physics.

Other than that it was just kind of a blah reading month; nothing else really grabbed me. I think it’s the February blues. Not that it’s been a particularly rough February (on the contrary). But my heart wants to be puttering in the back yard, pulling weeds and harvesting herbs. Two months to go yet.

I continued the GMO postcard project through all of February (a postcard a day to my two senators, with a fact a day about GMOs and what we know and don’t know and asking them to vote against the Dark Act). It was a lot of fun but kind of intense. I really got quite immersed in the GMO world (learned a lot, too) and while the postcards themselves only took about an hour a day, the issue occupied my mind for many more hours. I did give myself Sundays off, but it was still pretty intense.

And I’m still continuing my daily haiku postcard project. From February:

white-breasted nuthatch
calls from the top of the tree
is it springtime yet?

winter storm warning
gleefully anticipate
5 to 9 inches

the perfect snowstorm
not too cold, nowhere to be
Groundhog Day indeed

The final thing that took a good chunk of time in February was politics: It’s been a bit of a wild ride and a lot to follow. From the presidential candidates to the Supreme Court to the many strains of populism being displayed by the citizenry. It’s a fascinating time to be alive.

Again, scary but fun.

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Caucusing

I went to my precinct caucus last night—it was a lot of fun. (Mostly.) In Minnesota, both parties bucked the national trend: Democrats’ choice for president was Sanders (62% vs. 38% for Clinton) while the Republicans’ candidate of choice was Rubio (37%) over Trump (21%). I kind of like that we march to a different drum.

I was at the Democratic caucus. It was held at a nearby high school and each precinct met in a different room. Most people (including us) didn’t know our precinct number so that caused a bit of a jam at the door. Once we got inside, we found our room and took a seat. There were 32 desks and it looked to be maybe a third-grade classroom. We arrived about 15 minutes early and there were plenty of desks available. We were suprised by how uncrowded it was. All we had to do was wait.

It turned out 275 people showed up for our precinct. The first thing you do (after signing in) is vote for your presidential candidate of choice. A lot of people left right after voting, but a good number of us stayed around for the resolution portion and it was standing room only. I was glad we got there early!

I have been to caucuses where the resolutions go on and on (and sometimes verge on the silly) but the ones presented last night were pretty good, and many of them passed unanimously or nearly so: restore voting rights to felons once they’re released from prison; remove the Social Security tax ceiling; support urban agriculture; mandatory GMO labeling; reduce the use of toxic chemicals in our parks; a six-point plan to help struggling pollinator species; invest some of our environmental dollars to buy land preserving wild rice habitat; invest in policies and strategies to reduce homelessness; divest the state pension fund from investments in fossil fuels; and require all Democratic candidates to sign a pledge saying they will not accept campaign contributions from Monsanto (I personally would have added Syngenta and Cargill, but singling out Monsanto is not such a bad idea since they are so very keen on their neonicotinoids).

A not-quite contentious discussion arose around a resolution to increase funding for treatment of ash trees (we’re having emerald ash borer problems here). An amendment to not use systemic insecticides (which make the entire tree poisonous to critters that eat, live in, land on, or otherwise use ash trees) was introduced. I learned quite a bit about ash trees and their future, and also systemic insecticides. Eventually the insecticide amendment was added and the resolution passed.

The only resolution that I can remember not passing was for legalizing marijuana for recreational use and allowing people to grow their own. I am heartily in favor of this, as marijuana has great medicinal properties as an herb. A lot of people in the room were in favor of legalizing pot, but the rub was the method: an amendment to our state constitution. I asked if there wasn’t a better route (I hate amending the constitution willy nilly, and a few others had a similar concern). I think I voted for it, even with the constitutional amendment aspect, but I was a little relieved when it didn’t pass (it was close though).

We wrapped up a little after 9:00. It was a good way to spend an evening: I learned a lot, met some of my near neighbors, and got to see which issues we are pretty unanimous about and which are a little more contested. I forget how invigorating it can be to hear different viewpoints and sides. I signed up to be an alternate delegate (I did this once before, and it was a little bit scary and a little bit fun). We’ll see where it goes this time. I’m good with scary but fun.

 

January Reprise

How did it get to be February already? January sped by, possibly because I spent much of it with my nose in a book. The January reading theme was day/month/year (any book with one of those words in the title, or if you want to get a little stretchy, akin to one of the words; I read a couple of morning books, for example, and almost read a book with September in the title, but ran out of time). I finished 16 books in January, almost equally divided between fiction (5), poetry (5), and nonfiction (6).

In a rare occurrence, I had three 2-star books in January. (My rating system: Most books don’t get anything; if I like a book a lot it gets 1 star; if I love it, it gets 2 stars; and if I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, it gets 3 stars.) A Sense of the Morning, by David Brendan Hopes was a wonderful book about the natural world, and more specifically, Hopes’s observations of and interactions within the natural world. Beautiful writing, and a good reminder that if we don’t look, we won’t see anything.

Another nature-related book that got two stars was The Years of the Forest, by Helen Hoover. For many years Hoover and her spouse lived year round in a cabin in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. No electricity, no running water, and for a good part of the book, no car or telephone. They, too, were finely attuned to nature, most especially the animals (deer, birds, groundhogs, mice, spiders, pretty much the entire animal kingdom as they encountered it).

The third 2-star book was A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr. A short novel, the story of a man recently back from serving in World War 1 and his time in a small village restoring a mural in a church. I know, it really doesn’t sound that interesting, but it took me quite by surprise. It is very quietly powerful, and I appreciated it even more after discussing it with a friend.

January also brought some mighty cold weather (a few days where the temp didn’t go above zero) but a lot more mild days and very little snow. So far, for a winter, I am finding it a bit disappointing (I do like a good snowstorm) but there’s still plenty of time for snow.

In the cooking world, I braised a pork shoulder in apple cider and fresh-squeezed orange juice (also with celery, onion, garlic, and orange slices) and it was wonderful—my best success with braising yet. I also made a kind of cheesy wild rice casserole which turned out pretty good, and was even better reheated and topped with beans (a type I had never heard of before, called Jacob’s Cattle; who could resist getting a bean called Jacob’s Cattle? Not me!) and more cheese.

Also some typical winter fodder: chili, meatloaf, roasted vegetables, vegetable soup with lentils, spaghetti, etc.

I also started my new annual bird list, and so far I’ve seen 22 different kinds of birds (12 in my backyard) including one lifebird—the ivory gull up in the Duluth harbor.

I have continued my haiku postcard project (a haiku a day, which gets mailed on a postcard to a friend in Montana)—it’s been more than two years now! I think I’ve only missed a day or two, and those at the beginning. It’s a very good way of staying grounded and it also makes me aware of how much I have to be grateful for. Here are a couple from January:

afternoon bookclub
Bully Pulpit and a beer
the magic of Skype

my car didn’t start
but four cardinals visited
balancing the scales

And I’ve started a new postcard project: I am sending both of my U.S. senators (Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar) daily postcards, urging them to vote against the Dark Act (which would make it illegal for states to require labeling of GMO foods). I am hugely against this dark act. Poll after poll has found that upwards of 90 percent of the population supports the labeling of GMO foods. To pass an act that would deny people the right to know what’s in their food, when there is such overwhelming support for labeling, is a stupifying example of the power corporations have in our government. On this both Republicans and Democrats agree—that GMOs should be labeled and that corporations have far too much power in Washington.

So, a postcard a day—each with a new fact that my good senators might not be aware of; on an entertaining postcard (I have quite a large variety now) that postal workers and clerks can read as well. I hope they vote on the Dark Act before I run out of facts (but not before I convince them to question it!). It’s an uphill fight in this neck of the woods because we have both Cargill and General Mills (not to mention Land O’Lakes and Hormel).

This may not be your issue, but whatever your issue is, let your representatives know! Corporations are very vocal about what they want, and have millions of dollars to spend getting it. Most of us don’t have millions of dollars, but we do have phones and pens. Pick one issue. Just one.

Okay, off my soapbox. Time to sign off and go read a book.

The Mighty Middle

I just got back from a three-hour breakfast with a friend from graduate school. She’s lived out of state for most of her working life but we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Christmas cards. A few years ago, though, the friendship deepened and we’ve been writing frequently (it’s so fun to get real mail) and seeing each other on the occasions she comes back to Minnesota to visit family.

She’s one of the smartest people I know, and I never tire of talking with her. We have much in common (as well as many differences) and range all over the conversational landscape (in three hours we didn’t even get around to books!). Towards the end of this marathon breakfast we discovered a shared passion that surprised both of us: We want to bridge the partisan political divide.

It sounds so dry, doesn’t it? Hardly a passion.

It seems the parties work so hard to convince us how different they are, and thus how different we elephants and donkeys are. Government has become frightfully partisan, to the point where it has shut down more than once and shut-down threats have become the currency of the day. These are the people we have hired to run our government. Compromise is considered treason.  A lot of people on the left and the right are increasingly frustrated with this dysfunction.

On the other hand, according to numerous polls, Democrats and Republicans as people (as opposed to elected officials) agree on quite a large number of things, though you would hardly know it from reading the newspaper or talking to your friends. I have friends who demonize Republicans as evil incarnate. I’m serious. I used to stay silent, but the last time one friend pinned all the economic woes of this country on Ronald Reagan, I reminded her that it was Bill Clinton who signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which contributed greatly to the 2007 meltdown.

A scad of polls has found large majorities of the population favor labeling of genetically modified foods. An Associated Press poll reported in January 2015 that 64% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats support GMO labeling. That’s a lot of agreement.

Gun control is usually considered a very partisan issue, and in ways it is, in that Republicans are more likely to oppose stricter gun laws (79%) and Democrats are more likely to support them (77%). On the surface that seems pretty cut and dried, but if you go just a tiny bit below the surface you find that 87% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats would support a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online. Maybe not so polar after all. (Quinnipiac University, December 2015)

Even abortion is not as polarized as it is positioned in the political arena. Yes, Democrats generally defend and Republicans generally oppose it, but let’s face it: Nobody really likes abortion. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that fewer abortions is better and perhaps they would agree that none is ideal but not realisitc. I do know that even my most radical liberal friend who demonizes Republicans (“Can you tell them by the way they walk?”) is opposed to abortion as birth control. And nearly every Republican I know is in favor of the option for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Again, we enter shades of gray.

Economic reform is another issue on which huge numbers of Democratic and Republican people (if not politicians) agree. Big money controlling politics is a huge concern for the vast majority of the people, in stark contrast to elected officials who—of course—embrace big money because that’s how they get elected. More than three-quarters (80%) of Republicans and 90% of Democrats believe money has too much influence in political campaigns. (NYTimes/CBS News poll)

There is also huge bipartisan support for overturning the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United. A Bloomberg poll in September 2015 found 80% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats opposing the Citizens United Ruling.

You still think we have nothing in common?

I’m just scratching the surface here.

GMOs: Things I didn’t know

Upwards of 90% of people think GMOs (genetically modified foods) should be labeled. Big Ag (including our own Cargill and General Mills) is strongly pushing back, insisting GMOs are safe, and have been found to be safe by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and pretty much everyone who counts.

FC9780802123466Now I have been skeptical of GMOs all along, but I did believe that the government had probably tested and approved them. But I found out while reading World Hunger: 10 Myths by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins, that that may not be true.

According to Lappé and Collins (in discussing Myth 3—“Only industrial agriculture and GMOs can feed a hungry world”), the FDA has not formally approved a single genetically modified crop as safe for human consumption. The review process for new GMO plants in voluntary. The FDA relies on the producers to do their own safety and nutritional assessments. In addition, no long-term studies are required for approval. Hmm.

Two decades ago, “the FDA acceded to the industry’s requests and declared GMOs ‘substantially equivalent’ to non-GM-bred crops. . . ignoring the strong doubts of some of its own scientists.” Wow. I had no idea.

Nor is there a scientific consensus that GMOs are safe (note lack of long-term studies, above). Lappé and Collins report on numerous studies (with detailed endnotes and references) and statements that are cause for caution if not concern.

  • One study found pigs on a GMO diet were 2.6 times more likely to get severe stomach inflammation than control pigs.
  • Another found evidence of kidney and liver damage, hormone disruption, and more and earlier tumors on rats fed a GMO diet.
  • Nearly 300 scientists and academics signed a statement emphasizing the lack of scientific consensus on GMOs and called for long-term independent research.

And let’s face it. Big Ag is a powerful industry. Consider this:

A review of ninety-four published studies on the effects of GM food or feed products found that of the studies in which an author is affiliated with the biotech industry, none revealed either health-related risks or lower nutrient values associated with consuming GM food or feed. By contrast, almost a quarter of the studies with no author affiliation with the biotech industry did find problems associated with consumption of GMO products.”

Another supposed advantage of GMOs is that they produce higher crop yields and with fewer pesticides. But in 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that after 15 years, GMO seeds have NOT been shown to increase yield potentials and pesticide use has remained steady (one study) or increased slightly (a different study). Huh.

I have also heard on occasion that farmers are choosing GM seeds over non-GM, suggesting they prefer them. Maybe, maybe not. I have also read stories of farmers looking for non-GM seeds but unable to find them. Some farmers have faced a problem with exports as many countries ban certain GMO foods/commodities, and 64 countries require GMO labeling.

You don’t have to think they’re bad to support GMO labeling. A lot of people aren’t sure. (Of course, a lot of scientists aren’t sure either.) I like to know the ingredients in my food. I like to know how many calories, how much vitamin C, and if there are trans fats. I’d also like to know if it’s genetically modified.

Talking about a Revolution

Bernie Sanders was in Minneapolis today, with bagels at 9:30 a.m. and a town hall meeting at 10. We planned to arrive around 9:15 (more to secure a chair than a bagel). I’m familiar with the neighborhood and figured I could find us a parking spot within a couple blocks of the venue. But we hit a snag when we saw cars circling around several blocks from the venue, quickly took the next spot we could find, and walked the seven blocks.

Oh my. Oh my oh my. People on people, far more than we expected. It was a line. A very long line. We walked to the end of the line—about three blocks long and not single file. Standing. Waiting. It was the most wonderful atmosphere. Casual chitchat, people listening to other comments and chiming in, mostly about how excited we were to see so many people out at a town hall meeting on a Sunday morning.

The line actually did start moving, and unbelievably we made it into the building. Lots of people got in line behind us—at least another three blocks worth. I would estimate the crowd at 5,000, and my spouse estimated same. It was standing room only by the time we got inside (there were no bagels to be seen, though I did see one person eating one, so I believe they brought some, though probably not 5,000).

We found a small staircase so we could see him above the crowd. It was exciting. It was exciting to be in the crowd, watching Bernie Sanders, listening to him affirm almost everything I believe in.

  • We need to act on climate change
  • Universal health care (like pretty much every other developed nation has)
  • Citizens United is a go-card for billionaires
  • Reducing the negative impact of free trade
  • Increasing the minimum wage
  • Addressing the growing wealth gap
  • Campaign finance reform
  • Tax rates on the wealthy that are higher than the tax rates paid by their minions

A political revolution. Making the people at least as important as the corporations. Imagine that.

The crowd was vast, and I was glad to see lots of young people there, as well as parents with young—and also teenage—children. A lot of people wore political T-shirts, and I sure as shit wish I had a Wellstone T-shirt I could wear but I don’t, so I wore my University of Minnesota sweatshirt (which was probably better since it was in the 40s this morning). I saw someone sporting a Mondale-Ferraro button. A classic Greenpeace sweatshirt. It had a bit of the feeling of a festival.

As we left, we were walking down the street and started talking to a woman walking beside us. She had told some friends she was coming to see Bernie Sanders today, and they asked, “Who is he?” She bemoaned the fact that they know practically every major league football player, but have never heard of Bernie Sanders.

I think most people know more football players than politicians, and this has suddenly struck me as wrong. What are we doing? Why aren’t we paying attention?

They were sold out of T-shirts by the time we got there, but I got a button and a bumper sticker. And a lot of hope.

Hero: Terry Tempest Williams

BeautyI’ve just finished Finding Beauty in a Broken World, by Terry Tempest Williams. Not her most recent book, but one of the few that I hadn’t read. At times I struggled with this book. It covers three distinct (sort of) topics: making mosaics (she actually goes to Italy and learns this ancient art); prairie dogs; and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

The book itself is a mosaic: Snippets of this and that, observations, occasional quotations, sometimes it flows smoothly and other times it’s bumpy and discrete. I decided early on to write about this book. But then I got bogged down in the prairie dogs and decided not to write, since Rwanda was still coming up and I was looking forward to that a bit less than the prairie dogs.

But like a mosaic, the whole of Finding Beauty in a Broken World is much more than the sum of its parts. When I finished it this morning, I realized it is one of her best books yet. (Although it’s possible I say that about all her books.)

I most love her writing and her love of nature. She spends a couple of weeks in Bryce Canyon observing prairie dogs as part of a research study. We get 110 pages of her observations (this is where I got bogged down a bit), much of it about prairie dogs but also the surrounding environment.

Cloud ships are sailing across the plateau once again. . . . Two pronghorn antelope passing through. Elegance on four legs.

More than merely beautiful, her writing is meaningful at the soul level. Terry Tempest Williams makes my soul cry, because she doesn’t hide from the broken parts of our world. Terry Tempest Williams also makes my soul sing, because she doesn’t ignore it, she takes it on, she raises her voice. At first bored with hours and days of nothing but observing prairie dogs and making notes, “slowly, hour by hour, panic and boredom became awe and wonder. I grew quiet.” She writes,

The degree of our awareness is the degree of our aliveness. . . . Much of our world now is a fabrication, a fiction, a manufactured and manipulated time-lapsed piece of filmmaking where a rose no longer unfolds but bursts. Speed is the buzz, the blur, the drug. Life out of focus becomes our way of seeing. We no longer expect clarity. The lenses of perception and perspective have been replaced by speed, motion. We don’t know how to stop. The information we value is retrieved, rarely internalized.”

And I learned a lot about prairie dogs. They are endangered but poorly protected. They are a keystone species because they have a major effect on biological diversity in prairie ecosystems. They have a significant language, including different calls for different species of predators. They can convey descriptive information about a predator, including size, color, and how fast it’s traveling. Their language includes nouns, modifiers, and the ability to develop new words. Seriously.

I also learned a lot about Rwanda (though I knew a bit more about Rwanda going in than I did about prairie dogs). Like the section on prairie dogs, there was some grisly, difficult reading. But again, she also finds beauty and hope.

TTW

Terry Tempest Williams

Should you start with this book if you haven’t read any Williams? I don’t know that I’d recommend it. If you are intrigued, I would start with Refuge, perhaps her most famous book, and then follow it up with When Women Were Birds. Published 21 years apart, both of these books involve Williams’s mother—her death from cancer in the first book, and the journals she leaves behind in the second. Both are extremely powerful and moving.

Terry Tempest Williams is my hero because of her words as well as her actions. She tells it as she sees it, doesn’t hesitate to jump deep into the experience, and then goes to work to see what she can do to help fix it. Finding beauty in a broken world.